Just a little 'thank you' from me to you, to show my appreciation for all the prayers said on behalf of my dad these last couple of months...
...a free copy of Midnight Frolic to celebrate my dad's homecoming.
Hope you enjoy it!
by Loree Lough
Midnight Frolic is dedicated to all those who refuse to let 'Progress' taint the beauty and dignity of the past.
At last count, Loree had 75 books, 63 short stories, and nearly 2,500 articles in print. A published author for 15 years, Loree gave up writing for newspapers and magazines to devote herself to what her husband refers to as her 'fiction addiction'. A seasoned writing instructor, Loree is proud of her 500+ former students who are now, themselves, published authors. She lives in
with that same (mostly) understanding guy and a rescue dog named Cash. Maryland
When Emily Alden moved to historic Main Street in “Old Ellicott City”, the last thing she expected was for neighboring shopkeeper Cory Russell to judge her ‘guilty’ based on the inaccurate quotes of a smarmy reporter.
In Emily’s mind, old-fashioned Cory should have been born to another era, and he blames women like her—who put work and self ahead of all else—are what’s wrong with this country! Like oil and water, it seems they’ll always go in opposite directions.
Will they heed God’s lessons of compromise…or hold fast to their stubborn ways…and remain alone?
by Loree Lough
"Great," Cory muttered, "just what we need on
Main Street...another hot-headed female, shooting off her big mou--"
"Uh-oh, did Suzi set somebody's hair on fire again?"
Cory looked up from the article he'd been reading and grinned despite its content. "Hi, Mom. Didn't hear you come in." He grabbed a white ceramic cup, filled it with hot water, and went back to frowning. "If only it was a disgruntled Curl 'N' Go customer who's got my goat." Handing his mother a tea bag, he slid the mug across the red-marbled Formica. "It's that...that woman who opened the dress shop next doo--."
Realizing what he must have sounded like, Cory clamped his lips together and leaned both palms flat on the counter. "So what's got you out and about so early?" he asked, hoping to improve his mood by changing the subject.
Sliding onto a red-cushioned swivel stool on the customer's side of the coffee shop's snack bar, Rose stirred a packet of sugar into her cup. "Not 'up and about early'. More like, 'didn't sleep at all.'" She added a dollop of milk to her tea. "Decisions, decisions, decisions, you know?"
Cory plopped a blueberry Danish onto a plate. "Bah humbug," he teased, handing the pastry her. "You're too young and vital to retire and you know it. That’s why you're having trouble making the decision."
She waved the comment away like a pesky housefly. "I'll be sixty-two in September, need I remind you, and that's only four months away. It's time to think about retiring, at least." She sighed. "Duke and I will be celebrating our fifth anniversary soon. He's worked hard all his life, and deserves a little R & R."
Patting her son's hand, Rose said, "So tell me, hon, what has you so riled up already this morning?"
He jerked a thumb in the direction of the street. "That new gal...the one who bought Marcy's shop?"
“Somehow, she wrangled a feature article about herself out of the Howard County Times."
Clucking her tongue, Rose said, "Well, that's unusual, but it's hardly a reason to get so fired up."
Using his chin as a pointer, he indicated the article. "She's been in town less than a month, and already she's knocking our traditions." Crossing both arms over his chest, he shook his head. "Women."
"Now, Cory," Rose said, giving his hand another affectionate pat, "don't you think it's high time you put the Simone fiasco behind you? How will you ever meet a nice girl if you judge all women by what she did?"
It had been nearly two years since the breakup, yet he couldn't seem to reconcile himself with an ordeal that seemed to turn his whole life upside down. But he wasn't about to get into that with his mother again.
Rose finished skimming the newspaper story. "Seems pretty harmless to me, hon.."
"Harmless!" He pointed at a particular line in the article. "You call that malarkey 'harmless'?"
Rose picked up the paper again and read Emily Alden's quote aloud: "'Change is a good thing, and I have a few ideas that will fine-tune Midnight Frolic.'" She gasped. "'Fine-tune' it? But we've been holding that midnight sidewalk sale every summer for decades. It hasn't needed any fine tuning up 'til now."
Rose continued reading. "'Ms. Alden doesn't see much reason to go on with the main event, especially considering it doesn't fulfill certain aspects of its original purpose. Calling the mock wedding 'quaint', Ms. Alden seemed to feel some of the Midnight Frolic ideas are a bit stale.'"
He gave a firm nod of his head, his silent 'I told you so'.
Shaking her head, Cory's mother sighed. "And she seemed like such a nice girl...."
That surprised him, and he said so. "When did you meet her?"
"A piece of her mail got delivered to my shop by mistake. But we didn't have time for more than a quickie introduction when I brought it to her." She shook her head again. "Still...I'm not usually such a poor judge of character." Shrugging, she added, "Oh, well, guess that's just one more thing that 'goes' when you get old."
Cory didn't seem to have heard her. "I'm gonna write a letter to the editor."
Rose put the newspaper back onto the counter none too gently and took a sip of her tea. "I don't like tradition-bashing, either," she said. "Why, that wedding ceremony has been part of Midnight Frolic from the get-go." Brow furrowed slightly, she added, "On the other hand, Miss Alden does make one valid criticism."
Cory's eyes widened. "You're kiddin', right?"
"The wedding doesn't generate the donations it once did."
He stuffed the newspaper onto the shelf below the counter. Out of sight, out of mind? he asked himself. "That isn't the point."
She met his eyes. "Then what is?"
"The point is...any amount we raise for Home Sweet Home is better than none."
Rose gave his statement a moment's thought. "I suppose you're right." Looking left, then right, she leaned forward and whispered. "I think you should write that letter." Sitting back, she wiggled her eyebrows. "And if it nets a little free publicity for The Cup Runneth Over...." Hands extended palms up, she glanced around his coffee shop and shrugged, as if to say 'why not?'
The bell above the door tinkled, announcing the entrance of three laughing, chattering women. "I might just do that," he said, winking as he headed for their table.
The article had no doubt given Mister Cory Russell the impression that Emily was opposed to marriage, and the proof was his scathing letter to the editor. Not that she could blame him. The way that reporter had twisted her quotes, anyone reading the article would have gotten the impression that Emily was poking fun of the mock wedding ceremony. Not only that, but he'd made it sound as though she was opposed to all traditions.
Heaving a deep sigh, Emily shrugged. If one of her neighboring shop-keepers had gotten angry enough about the article to put his feelings down on paper, surely others who hadn't taken the time to write a letter to the editor felt the same way.
Emily ran a hand through her dark curls. Well, there isn’t anything you can do about it now.
Or was there?
She re-read the paragraph where Russell had explained that the wedding was just one of the ways merchants raised money for Home Sweet Home, the organization founded by
Main Street merchants to help put troubled teens back on the right path. Their latest project was the rehabbing of a house in Ellicott City's historic district, donated by a retired judge. When renovations were complete, the property would be auctioned off, and the proceeds contributed to the youth shelter. "Why not join us at 456 Court House Drive," Mr. Russell's letter challenged, "where we're teaching kids about choices and consequences by helping them see they have a future that doesn't have to involve drugs or booze. We might not change your mind about the institution of marriage, Ms. Alden, but you're sure to find a reason to support Home Sweet Home...."
It’s a wonder you haven’t burned your fingers, holding this thing! she mused. She'd never been officially introduced to Cory Russell, but Emily didn't need to know him to read the anger in his words. She'd seen him from a distance--feeding parking meters for his customers, waving to Zeke at the pharmacy across the street, passing the time of day with Bubba the mailman or Suzi the hairdresser. She could more or less tell by the way he carried himself that Cory Russell believed he was a man to be reckoned with. Well, she thought, re-writing the age-old adage, he may think he’s the baddest dude in the joint, but ‘never underestimate the power of a woman whose nose is outta joint!
She'd never backed away from a challenge before, and didn't intend to start now. Chin up and shoulders back, she dumped the newspaper unceremoniously into the trash can and headed for her loft apartment above the boutique. If he thought his invitation to help out with the Home Sweet Home project would embarrass her, he had another think coming! Handy with a screwdriver and a hammer, she marched determinedly upstairs, thinking, You’ve got yourself a date, Mr. Russell!
Maybe, if first she earned his respect by volunteering to work on the mansion, she could convince Russell there hadn't been a shred of truth to what that smarmy Times reporter had said. If not...well, at least she'd be able to look him in the eye when they ran into one another at Business Association meetings....
Pulling jeans and a T-shirt from her dresser drawer, she shrugged. It was worth a try, because after saving for five long years to open the boutique, she sure didn't need neighbor troubles. And from the tone of that letter, Cory Russell might be trouble. Big trouble, with a capital T.
In the year since Jonathan asked her to return the engagement ring, Emily had gotten pretty good at avoiding trouble. At first, focusing her energies into working toward buying her own business had been the distracter that kept her from wallowing in self-pity. But soon, hard work was a habit, one Emily didn't know if she could--or wanted--to break. The silver lining to that humiliating cloud had been obvious, almost from the beginning: If she'd married Jonathan, Emily would more than likely have repeated her mother's marital mistakes. Thanks, Jon, she said to herself, for sparing me that agony!
She stuck the 'Closed' sign in the front window of Be Yourself, locked up the shop and, tool belt slung over one shoulder, headed out.
In the month before she opened the doors of her boutique, she'd made a point of learning about the area, and could spout the city's rich history like a
Maryland native, could give directions like a map maker. Home Sweet Home's project was three blocks from her store; it would take longer to maneuver her sports utility vehicle out of the parking lot than to walk the distance. Besides, there were precious few opportunities to visit with other Howard County Main Street merchants, and Emily fully intended to take advantage of this one.
Donning her new
Hollywood style sunglasses, she sauntered down the street, sneakers quietly padding along the cobbled walkway. The steady chirp of crickets harmonized with the peeping of cardinals, perched in the canopy of towering oaks overhead. A gentle breeze riffled her hair, stirred puffy white clouds in the deep blue sky, and awakened the sweet scent of the last lilac blooms clinging stubbornly to the ancient hedgerow.
She stopped to chat with Zeke and Suzi, waved to Bubba across the street, then rounded the corner and started up the steep hill toward Court House Drive. The whine and whir of power saws and electric drills greeted her long before Emily passed through the newly-painted wrought iron gates. A skinny kid of perhaps sixteen greeted her on the flagstone path. Thumbing his yellow hard hat to the back of his head, he squinted into the bright sunlight. "'Morning, ma'am. How can I help you?"
Smiling, Emily said, "I'm looking for Cory Russell?"
"He's inside. You want I should get him?"
"No, thanks, I'll find him." She started up the walk, then stopped. "Did you build this walkway?"
Pride puffed his chest. "Yes'm, I did."
"Well, you do beautiful work."
The boy shrugged one bony shoulder. "Thanks," he said, beaming, "but I can't take all the credit, since Cory taught me everything I know. He's one real cool dude."
"I'm sure he is." She stuck out her hand. "My name is Emily Alden."
"Pete Maxon," he said, shaking it. "You from around here?"
"Yes, but I've only been in
Ellicott City a little over a month. I bought the--"
"Oh, yeah," Pete said, "that's why you look so familiar. You bought Marcy's place. My girlfriend is nuts about a dress in your window. I'd buy it for her birthday, but it's way out of my price."
Emily pulled open the screen door. "Stop by any time. We'll see what we can do to make it more affordable." She stepped into the foyer of the mansion.
"You sure you don't want me to get Cory for you?"
With a hand beside her mouth, she said under her breath, "Looking for him will be a great excuse to snoop around this neat old place, wouldn't you say?"
Grinning, Pete nodded, then went back to work.
While she waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim light, she overheard several boys whispering near the staircase: "Hey," one asked, "who's that?"
"I dunno," said the other, "but she's a knock-out!"
It wasn't until Emily drew closer that they realized she had a few years on them. "Hey, she ain't no girl," said the first. "She's old enough to be--"
"Your older sister," Emily interrupted, grinning good-naturedly. "Do either of you have any idea where I might find Mr. Russell?"
The boys exchanged sheepish glances before the second one said, "Cory? Yeah. Last I saw him, he was in the kitchen, showing Dave how to install a dishwasher." He pointed. "Last door on your right."
"Thanks," Emily said. And hitching her tool belt higher on her shoulder, she headed down the hall.
"Didn't know old guys were interested in babes," the first boy whispered.
Old? Cory Russell could be a hundred and fifty--or twenty-one--for all she knew.
The moment she entered the kitchen, Emily heard a deep, soft voice, echoing in the cavernous, unfurnished room. "Easy does it. That's the way. You're doin' great, Dave." The voice belonged to a cowboy-booted, blue-jeaned man wearing a snug white T-shirt. He was on his hands and knees, half in, half out of the cabinet beside the sink, patiently doling out instructions to the teenaged boy beside him. This was Cory Russell?
Not wanting to startle him or the boy, she cleared her throat. "Um, Mr. Russell?"
Despite her good intentions, he thumped his head on the underside of the cabinet. "What," he hissed through clenched teeth.
The kid beside him continued working as if nothing had happened, grunting now and again as he attempted to attach black rubber hoses to the water supply.
"I'm Emily Alden?"
Russell pressed a palm to the bump, causing a blond curl to fall across his forehead. Sitting back on his heels, he said, "You sure about that?"
She smiled nervously. "Sure I'm sure."
Frowning slightly, he inspected his fingertips for blood. "Then why put a question mark at the end of it?"
He'd already given her a dressing down in The Howard County Times. She'd had no control over that, but Emily wasn't about to let him give her what-for again. "I didn't come here for a grammar lesson, Mr. Rus--"
"Then why are you here, Miz Alden?"
From the way he'd berated her in the editorial, she'd expected him to be a grouch, and so far, he hadn't disappointed her. His letter made her picture a giant...a thick-necked, beady-eyed, ugly old man. But Cory Russell was none of those things. Surprisingly, she wasn't disappointed by that, either....
She met his eyes...eyes as blue as her mother's topaz ring.
"You were saying...?"
Emily blinked, distracted by fast-swelling bump on the side of his head. In a few hours, she knew, it would be the size of a hen's egg. "You should probably put some ice on that lump."
Instinct drew his fingertips back to the injury. "I think I'll live," he said dryly.
A Styrofoam cooler stood a few feet away. "To answer your earlier question, I'm here at your invitation," she said, lifting its lid.
The bandanna she'd worn as a hairband now became an ice pack as she filled it with crescent-shaped cubes. She watched his eyes darken and narrow as one brow lifted high on his forehead. Was he trying to figure out what she aimed to do with the makeshift ice pack?
The right side of his mouth lifted in a wry smile as she stepped up and gently held the ice in place. "That'll keep the swelling down, but you'll probably have a bad bruise in a few hours."
When he took hold of the ice pack, their hands touched. It was an instant, a tick in time, and yet Emily was fully aware of the power and warmth of his fingers. She quickly drew her hand away, stuffed it into her jeans pocket.
"Thanks," he muttered.
He seemed to have more to say. A whole lot more. But he only aimed a thumb toward the door behind her. "If you're serious about helping," he said, facing the sink again, "there's plenty to do in the cellar."
He didn't say what, exactly, needed to be done. Didn't ask if she might prefer another job, upstairs, where it was brighter, and more populated. Russell tossed the bandanna into the sink, got back onto his hands and knees and in that same gentle voice, picked up the installation instructions where he'd left off.
Of all the thick-headed, know-it-all, male chauvinist-- Emily fumed for a full ten seconds before thinking, I know what you're up to, cowboy; there are probably a couple of wooly spiders down there, and you think the minute I see one, I'll take off like a prissy school girl who's afraid of the dark and bugs and a little hard work.
Well, she'd show him a thing or two. If he was one of those guys who thought all women were sissies, he'd learn to sing a different tune today!
Emily spun on her heel, flung open the basement door, and flipped on the light switch. One dim bulb cast an ominous, dingy glow over grey stone walls and a red-clay dirt floor.
She was halfway down the gritty wood steps before she realized what she'd gotten herself into.
Spiders, she could handle, one at a time. But it was like an arachnid factory down there. Emily couldn't help but wonder as she tip-toed over the spongy dirt floors if the huge and elaborate webs were held together by the support beams, or the other way around.
Squinting into the dark, low-ceilinged space, Emily shivered involuntarily. Something told her Cory Russell had sent her into this pit as a test, and that he expected her to fail it.
Clamping her jaws together with stubborn determination, she took a deep breath. You will not go back up those stairs until this place is ship-shape!
Another glance around deflated her resolve a bit, because she had no idea where to begin. Grandma Alden would say 'start at the beginning'. The cliché had been the motivator that inspired people to get to the point in recalling an event, but Emily supposed it could be just as effective as a work stimulant.
A moment ago, she'd nearly tripped over a tray of cleaning supplies and old rags. In it, she found a can of insecticide, and proceeded to cloud the room with bug eradicator. Next, Emily grabbed the straw-bristled broom that leaned near the stairway and started whacking the cobwebs.
The long-handled rake helped her shove newspapers, cardboard boxes, and Styrofoam cups into a pile. Climbing a set of squatty, rough-hewn steps, she shoved open the slanting cellar doors that led to the back yard, where two rusting, battered trash cans stood beside a nearby outbuilding. Dragging them behind her, she clanged back down the stairs. Three trips later, she had finally disposed of the mess.
While searching for a shovel to help scoop up the rocky debris, she'd discovered three cans of white enamel, a jar of turpentine, and one large paintbrush in a hand-made wooden cabinet. Using the broom as a scrubber, she dusted the stone walls clean, then gave them a coat of paint.
Last but not least, she stacked several wooden crates under the basement's only window, and polished the glass 'til it seemed to disappear. Looking up, Emily rubbed her forehead. She'd been squinting into the dark for so long, her head ached. "No wonder you can't see," she whispered; "that light bulb is almost as dim-watted as you are dim-witted."
As she climbed the stairs to find a brighter one, Emily peeked at her wristwatch, and stared with disbelief at the time. Had she really been alone down there for six straight hours? Either that, or you need a new battery in your watch.
It surprised her that Cory Russell hadn't checked on her in all that time. Yes, he'd seemed gruff and grumpy, but what if something had happened to her down there? You'd have lain there, unconscious, that's what, for all he cares--
And why should he care? she asked herself. He barely knows you.
"I was beginning to think we might have to start charging you rent."
Leaning against the doorframe that way, with one boot crossed over the other and walking a toothpick from the left side of his mouth to the right, he reminded her of James Dean, right down to the smug expression on his handsome face. "How long have you been standing there?" she demanded.
Grinning, he gave an indifferent shrug.
"Would you like to see what I accomplished?"
He straightened, pocketed one hand. "No need for that. I--"
"'No need'?" Hands on her hips, she leaned forward slightly. "'No need'?" She pointed down the stairs. "I just spent six hours in that filthy dungeon, sweeping and painting and--"
He pocketed the other hand, too. "I know," he said softly, "and it looks great." Winking, he added, "You do a good day's work, Ms. Alden."
Until that moment, Emily had never understood those scenes in old black-and-white movies, where the heroine hauled off and slapped the hero a good one. She'd never been able to identify with a woman who'd let her frustrations get to her that way.
Eyes and lips narrowed, she stared him down.
But wait just a minute, why would he have said 'I know' and 'It looks great' if he hadn't seen it? And how could he have seen it unless....
"I came down there a couple of times," he said, as if in answer to her unasked question, "to see if you'd like a soda or something." He crossed both arms over his chest. "You must be just like me when you work--"
Just like you? I'm nothing like you, she thought, frowning, so don't add insult to injury!
"--I get crabby when people interrupt me, too."
Crabby? 'Too?' She hadn't had a bite to eat since breakfast, and had just finished a long, back-breaking day. Emily had neither the energy nor the patience to play word games with this man, no matter how good-looking he was. And she was just about to tell him so when he said,
"You totally ignored me, both times." He shrugged again. "So I figured, hey, Ms. Alden is a grown-up; she can take care of herself. If she’s hungry or thirsty ."
Why did he insist upon calling her Miz Alden? she wondered, distractedly running a hand through her hair. "You were, um, you went down there?"
"To bring me something cold to drink."
He was smiling when he said, "Um-hmm."
She swallowed, licked her parched lips.
The smile grew. "You looked through me like I was made of glass." He laughed. "I guess when you're that busy creating a bug-killing fog, you have to concentrate, or be asphyxiated yourself."
His mood was contagious, and despite being tired and dirty, and thirsty, Emily returned his grin. "Well, if there's anything left to drink, I wouldn't mind a soda or--"
He held a hand up to silence her. Before she knew what was happening, he'd wrapped a muscular arm around her waist and pulled her close, close enough so that she could inhale the clean, sweet scent of sawdust clinging to his white T-shirt, close enough to feel his heart, pounding against her chest.
"Mister Russell," she sputtered, "what on earth do you think you're--"
Suddenly, his fingers were combing gently through her hair, and she grabbed his thick wrist to stop him. She may as well have been a weak little child, for all the good it did.
"Gotcha!" he whispered, then immediately unhanded her and stepped back, a black spider, dangling by one hairy leg between his thumb and forefinger. "Didn't want him building a nest in your curls." His smile became a mischievous grin. "Not that I blame him for trying."
He dropped the spider, made a move as if to mash it flat with the heel of his boot, but Emily grabbed his wrist again. "Don't."
One eyebrow rose. "Okay...."
Smiling sheepishly, she glanced toward the basement door. "I probably wiped out its entire family down there--either with the broom or the insecticide--one of them ought to get out alive, don't you think?"
Chuckling, he picked the spider up again and carried it to the back door, and placed it on the porch. A grudging admiration for him began bubbling inside her. His letter had made him sound gruff, a little mean, even. But he'd been so patient with the kid in the kitchen. He'd gone into the basement to check on her well-being. And though he likely thought her a silly, soft-hearted female, he'd set the spider free. "Thank you, Mr. Russell."
He winced. "'Mr. Russell' was my dad's name. It's just plain 'Cory', okay?"
Nothing plain about you, she thought, grinning. Emily held out her hand. "Okay, but only if you'll call me Emily."
He gave her grimy hand a cursory glance, as if contemplating whether or not taking it might contaminate him, then burst into a round of hearty laughter and sandwiched her hand between his own. "I'm kidding, Miz, ah, Emily."
Cory spent the next few seconds raising and lowering her arm like a tire jack. Suddenly, his smile diminished, faded. What awful thing was he planning to say, she wondered, to make his expression go from silly to sober so quickly? A dozen possibilities flit through her mind as he shuffled from one foot to the other, cleared his throat, stared out the window, at anything but her.
Finally, he looked straight into her eyes and, shaking his head, said, "You, uh, you wouldn't want to have dinner with me, would you."
Emily didn't understand why he'd stated the question rather than asking it. Didn't understand why he'd invite her to dinner in the first place, covered with grit and grime as she was. You probably smell like that musty old basement, too, she thought, sighing inwardly. "Why me?"
"Well, if you clean your plate as well as you cleaned that basement, I'm sure to get my money's worth."
She considered the invitation a moment more, and didn't know which of them was more surprised when she smiled and said, "I'd love to."
His Centennial High sweetheart dumped him when the school's star quarterback invited her to the senior prom.
In college, he'd been left behind by a girl with a crush on their Literature professor.
As a partner in the prestigious Hardwick law firm, Cory started dating a judge's secretary. If he hadn't arrived early one day for a lunch date and overheard her jokingly referring to the way she'd planned to earn her MRS degree, she may well have become Mrs. Cory Russell.
He swore off women after that. "Who needs 'em?" he'd told well-meaning friends, of whom tried their level best to change his mind. Cory resolved never to marry. Ever. End of discussion.
And then along came Simone.
Big and blonde and beautiful, one look into those cool green eyes was enough to reverse his decision.
How long ago had he left Hardwick to open his own firm? she'd wanted to know. How long had he owned the historic Victorian on
? Had he decorated it himself, or hired a designer? How many woman had he known, and which might he have married, they hadn't been so heartless and cruel? When Cory told Simone how he'd been hurt by love, her tears of pity had moved him. Deeply. Cory never considered it might be part of an elaborate act, choreographed and performed to ensure she'd play the part of Mrs. Russell, for life. If she had loved him--even a little--he could have forgiven the pretense. St. Paul Street
It had been painful, walking in on that spectacle at Rosie's wedding reception, especially considering he'd planned to pop the question once his mom and new step-father headed off for their honeymoon.
Simone had come up for air at precisely the moment Cory decided to walk away--instead of pounding the guy into the ground. It hadn't been a difficult decision. Not once her frosty green gaze locked on him: She didn't love him. Had never loved him.
Next morning, after she’d returned the engagement ring, he wrote himself a new life motto. He put a twist on the old familiar cliché, No Pain, No Gain: No dame, no pain was now his mantra, and he hadn't been tempted to violate it…
...until he walked down those basement steps and saw Emily Alden, whacking spiderwebs with a long-handled broom.
Emily couldn't remember the last time she'd put this much effort into getting ready for a date. He hadn't said where they'd be having dinner, so should she get dressed up or 'go' casual?
She'd tried on nearly every outfit in her closet before deciding on the calf-length dress of white crushed silk. After tying strappy Roman sandals around her ankles and sliding several gold bangle bracelets over her wrists, she gave herself a quick once-over in the full length mirror behind her bedroom door. "What do you think, Dietr? Should I wear my hair up or down?"
The gray tabby yawned, then aimed a bored gaze in his mistress's direction, as if to say 'You've obviously mistaken me for someone who cares.'
The doorbell rang, scaring the cat and sending it under the bed. "Well, I guess that answers my question." Heading for the front door, she fluffed her bangs, then peered through the peep hole.
She could barely see him behind the huge bouquet he held. He's brought you flowers, she thought, smiling. How sweet and old-fashioned. Emily opened the door wide.
"Hey," he said, handing her the gift, "you clean up real good."
Stuffy as his letter had made him sound, she'd half expected him to arrive wearing a three piece suit. Instead, in his blue jeans, short-sleeved red shirt, and sneakers, he looked even more handsome than she remembered. "You don't look half bad yourself." Stepping aside, she invited him in. "Care for a glass of lemonade while I put these in water? They're beautiful, by the way," she added, inhaling their aromatic blooms. "Thank you."
He shrugged, then slid a gold watch from his pocket, popped its lid. "We have time for one glass, I guess," he said, putting it back. The soles of his shoes squeaked quietly across the hardwood as he followed her into the kitchen.
"The apartment looks good. You've done a lot with it."
She raised an eyebrow, then grabbed two tumblers from the cabinet above the sink.
He took a seat at the table. "I was friends with the woman you bought the place from," he said, answering her unasked question. "I probably spent as much time up here as I did at my house."
There was no earthly reason why a statement like that should make her jealous. But it did. As she stood at the counter, pouring lemonade, Emily did her best to mask it. "Oh?"
She handed him a glass, and he nodded his thanks as Emily unwrapped the bouquet.
"Yeah. After Marcy's husband split, her kids went bonkers. Totally out of control. I came over once a day to give 'em each a good whack."
She stopped arranging flowers to meet his eyes. After reading the teasing glint there, Emily grinned. "Kids need a strong male role model. What happened to their father?"
He shrugged. "Just up and left."
"Yeah, the lout." Cory shook his head. "I sure do miss them."
Who do you miss, she wondered, the kids, or Marcy? "How many children did Marcy have?"
"Two boys and a girl."
"I've always wanted four kids. Two of each, God willing. Shut up, Em, she scolded silently. Just shut up.
"Jason just turned sixteen--I taught him to drive so he could get his license--Jared will be thirteen or fourteen, soon, I think, and Missy is ten."
Emily leaned her elbows on the table. "For years, I taught Sunday school to seventh and eighth graders." Propping her chin in an upturned palm, she sighed. "Such an interesting age, old enough to have developed some very strong opinions about this old world, yet young enough to be--"
Suddenly, she noticed Cory's intense scrutiny, and it silenced her. "What, do I have spinach on my teeth or something?"
"No." His cheeks reddened at having been caught staring. "Nothing like that."
Then what? she wondered. "How long had they lived here?"
"Sixteen, seventeen years, give or take."
"So you knew those kids from birth? No wonder you miss them!" And he did, as evidenced by the sadness that darkened his blue eyes. Envy turned to compassion, and she wanted to give his hand a comforting pat. Instead, she said, "Where'd they go?"
. Marcy's going to help her mom run a B and B in the New York Adirondack Mountains."
Because she'd moved to
Maryland from , Emily's realtor had been her proxy at the settlement table. Marcy. She'd never met the woman. So what reason did she have to dislike her? None, she told herself, other than that Cory seems so fond of her. Illinois
Cory. It was odd, calling him that. Ever since his letter the editor, she'd been referring to him as The Old Grouch. But if he could grow that fond of three children who weren't his own. He stood, pocketed both hands. "So what do you say? Should we head out?"
"Sure." She put the vase of flowers in the middle of the table. "They're just beautiful," she said again.
"Not nearly as--"
Closing her eyes, Emily shook her head. She'd hoped Cory wouldn't be one of those men who'd ply her with trite compliments the way scientists send up trial balloons to test what might come next. The exasperation must have been visible on her face, for he stopped speaking mid-sentence. Well, she thought, sighing inwardly, maybe there's hope for him after all.
"--beautiful as the weather outside," he finished.
She met his bright blue eyes, watched as his lips curved upward in a mischievous grin. When he wiggled his eyebrows, she understood that he'd read her face, and interpreted the expression for what it was: Disappointment.
Either that, she told herself, or he's simply determined not to give you the satisfaction of being right.
Emily had no idea where Cory would take her for dinner, or if they'd get there by way of his pickup or the Harley he so padlocked in front of his shop.
Offering her his arm, he opened the door. "Your chariot awaits, m'lady," he said, bowing low.
Why hadn't she noticed the low-slung convertible when he'd arrived earlier? Emily wondered.
Smiling, she took his arm, let him lock her front door and lead her toward the low-slung silvery sportscar.
Tonight promised to be many things, but boring certainly wouldn't be one of them.
Cory tossed and turned for hours before falling into a fitful sleep. The last time he'd looked, the glowing red numbers of his clock said three-forty-seven. When the alarm sounded at five-thirty, he groaned into his pillow and, without opening his eyes, reached blindly for the night stand. "Shut up," he told it, feeling his way across the cluttered table top. A paperback novel fell to the floor and the lamp teetered before he managed to find the snooze button.
Rolling over, he jerked the covers up over his head in a feeble attempt to block the early-morning light. But something told him he wouldn't be getting any more sleep in the next nine minutes than he'd gotten during the night.
He could blame the heat, but the air conditioner was humming efficiently below his window. It wasn't the rising sun that prevented peaceful slumber; his bedroom overlooked the west side of the house. Robins and blue jays chirping in the pine tree outside his window weren't to blame for his agitation, nor the light breeze that pressed its needly branches against the glass.
Much as he hated to admit it, Emily Alden was the reason he hadn't slept that he couldn't sleep now. Much to his dismay, he'd let her get under his skin, and like an itch he couldn't reach, he couldn't scratch her from his memory.
The way she'd looked, sitting there across the table from him at the restaurant--smiling, laughing, big brown eyes flashing--seemed etched on the insides of his eyelids. A pleasant surprise, but a surprise nonetheless, because after reading that article about her, he'd anticipated meeting a spoiled-rotten, prissy little snob who considered herself too good to get her hands dirty, even for a cause like the Home Sweet Home project. Far cry from the bubbleheaded bimbo I figured she'd be, he thought. He'd expected her to be a self-centered brat who walked through life with her nose in the air, making sure everyone knew she could quote the great poets, dropping the names of elite
shops where she purchased her matronly pumps, pointing out that her exclusive all-girls college had begged her to sit on their Board of Directors. New York
Emily had been a lot of things, but pretentious certainly hadn't been one of them. He never would have predicted that she'd stop by the project at all, let alone show up outfitted like a construction worker. After assigning her the dreaded basement duty, Cory had stood in the kitchen, imagining the feeble female excuses she'd cook up for her hasty departure.
He'd stood there five minutes before he acknowledged she wouldn't be coming up. "I give her a half hour," he'd told Dave.
Ninety minutes later, she still hadn't materialized.
Hours had passed before she finally returned to the kitchen, covered with grease, remnants of cobwebs streaking her dark hair, a smudge of soot on the tip of her upturned nose. Cory prepared himself to hear her recite a list of things she'd accomplished, and got a polite compliment ready for when she concluded it.
"What's next?" she'd said instead, smiling brightly as she dusted her hands together.
If he hadn't teased her, she probably never would have insisted that he head down to see for himself what she'd accomplished. Once down there, he discovered that not only had she single-handedly completed the job he planned to assign to a three-boy crew, she'd done a decidedly better job--in less time--than they would have.
She's some woman, all right, he thought, grinning to himself as he recalled the way she'd looked when he'd gone down to check on her. Closing his eyes, Cory invited her image into his mind, exotic high-cheeked face streaked with dirt as perspiration-matted dark curls stuck to her forehead and cheeks, furrow creasing her lovely brow as she destroyed spider webs with the straw-bristled broom. Her curvy little body gave the false impression that she was delicate, fragile. The proof that she was anything but could be found in the way she'd tackled that task.
Cory couldn't think of a woman he found more attractive, not on the covers of fashion magazines, not on a Broadway stage or the silver screen, not in the form of ex-girlfriends. Past encounters with females had taught him that, more often than not, the packaging was an illusion; gals who looked great on the outside seldom had anything on the inside to back it up.
Emily was different, from the earrings jangling in her earlobes to the wispy material of her ankle-length dress, to the strappy white sandals on her feet. She hadn't talked about the things other women he'd known had been interested in, hadn't fussed when her hair got mussed in the convertible, hadn't whimpered when she broke a fingernail unsnapping her purse. She'd aimed her full focus on him, something Cory had no idea how to cope with. Other women he'd dated had been so easy to entertain. Make 'em the center of attention, and they'll have a grand old time had been the private joke that kept him smiling through all their self-centered conversations.
Cory didn't for the life of him understand how she'd gotten him to talk about himself all evening. Somehow, the tables had been turned, and by the time he dropped her off, she'd knew more about him than Simone did after two years of dating. He'd hardly known the information was being taken. Her method was so slow, so easy, like coaxing honey from a pot.
How Emily had managed it was just one of the things puzzling him. How she'd done it during a two-hour restaurant dinner was another. She was about as close to him as any woman had ever gotten.
Already! With a guttural sigh, he tossed back the sheet and threw his legs over the edge of the bed, both bare feet hitting the carpet with one dull thud.
So much for your oath to keep your distance from women.
Easing off the mattress, he stood and stretched. As he tramped toward the bathroom, scratching his head and yawning, Cory had a clear picture of her in his mind, pretty and petite, warm and witty, enchanting and entertaining….
...such a clear picture that he crashed into the bathroom doorframe.
"Yee-ouch!" he yelped.
Peering into the mirror above the sink, he rubbed the throbbing knot already glowing on his forehead. Grinning sardonically, Cory shook his head. "You've known her less than twenty-four hours," he told his reflection, "and already she's got you walking into walls."
One of the few things Emily had said about herself at dinner was that she still hadn't gotten around to fixing the bell above the door to her boutique. The comment stood out, partly because it had been the only thing akin to a complaint she'd uttered, partly because she'd said it with conviction: "I like knowing when a customer comes in, so I can greet them personally, make them feel welcome."
He shoved open the silent door now. Grinning, Cory fought the urge to call out "Ding, dong!"
He saw her almost immediately, stooping to make herself child-sized on behalf of a teary-eyed boy of five or six.
She hadn't said anything about her personal life last night, and now, Cory regretted not having asked. One of the first things he'd noticed about her was that she wore no rings on the third finger of her left hand. Obviously, he'd been wrong to assume she'd never been married; what more proof did he need than the scene unfolding before him now:
The boy's eyes were considerably darker than Emily's, as was his hair and complexion, traits he'd likely inherited from his father. Cory thought about the warning he'd given himself last night, about finding a way to keep a safe distance from her. If she goes for the tall, dark, and handsome type, he thought, frowning inwardly, she may have solved your problem for you.
Questions pinged in his mind: Was this cute kid Emily's only child? And what had become of her husband? Had she divorced him, or had he passed away?
Cory had dated a divorcee. A widow, too. Carlie had been tall and blonde, Marie a petite red-head. Carlie sold ad space for the yellow pages, Marie seemed content to putter in her rose gardens. They had very little in common, save that they were unmarried. One thing was similar about them, however. Carlie's conversations could all be summed up with one phrase: "My ex-husband, the sewer rat." Marie, on the other hand, had put her deceased spouse on a pedestal, and gave every indication she intended to keep him there, indefinitely.
Though he'd enjoyed their company, Cory had been grateful that he'd already made the decision to protect his bachelor status, because being involved with another woman who was still emotionally attached to another man was an invitation to another mugging to his already bruised ego.
So why didn't he feel the same relief concerning Emily's background?
As if she'd read his mind, she chose that exact moment to laugh at something the child had said, and as the musical notes danced into his ears, Cory couldn't help but smile. And when she wrapped the boy in a warm and affectionate hug, he knew the answer to his question:
You're falling for her, Russell, he admitted, falling and fast, and if you don't watch your Ps and Qs, you're in for a hard landing.
Cory took a step closer, and heard her say, "What's your mother's favorite color, Tim?"
His mother? Cory repeated. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he realized she wasn't the boy's mother. Maybe tall, dark, and handsome isn't her type; maybe there's hope for you, after all.
"Red," Tim said. "I want that one," he added, pointing to the display in the front window.
Cory watched her stand, smoothing the gauzy material of her ankle-length skirt as she stepped daintily across the hardwood floor. Several bangle bracelets chimed as she grabbed the scarf the boy had indicated. They jingled again when she flapped it open for his inspection. "This one?"
Tim's dark eyes widened, and so did his smile. "Yeah," was his whispery reply. "She's gonna love it."
He proceeded to empty the contents of his pockets onto the counter, creating a heap of rocks, cellophane-wrapped hard candy, green plastic army men, assorted coins, and two very rumpled one-dollar bills. "I don't care if it costs every penny of my allowance," he announced. "I want that scarf for my mom's birthday!"
From where he stood, Cory could clearly see the sign above the scarf display. "Italian Silk," said the fanciful hand-lettered placard, "$59.95."
A myriad of expressions flit across Emily's lovely face, from sad to distressed to joyous as Tim nodded and re-pocketed his treasures. "Do you have a card I could buy that says 'I love you'?"
Winking, she smiled at the boy, a smile that--though Cory stood clear on the other side of the shop--warmed him all the way to the soles of his feet. "I think we can rustle up something."
Rustle, he echoed. He'd never had occasion to compare it to his last name before. Mrs. Russell. Mrs. Cory Russell. Emily Russell. Has a nice ring to it. A real nice ring.
It was rather like watching TV from across the room, he thought, taking care to stay in the shadows. Crossing both arms over his chest, Cory continued observing Emily and her young customer. It's gonna be interesting to see how she breaks the news to the kid that he can't afford the scarf. Maybe she'd set up a payment plan, or suggest a more affordable birthday present.
"Don't go anywhere," she said, one finger in the air as she headed for the back room. "I'll be back quick as you can say 'Happy Birthday, Mom'!"
It was safe now, Cory decided, to make his presence known. He stepped into the aisle and pretended the rack of colorful beaded necklaces had caught his eye. Walking around to the other side of the rack, he could see Emily back there, grinning as she lay a box no bigger than a paperback novel on the table. His mouth dropped open when she lay the red scarf on a bed of white tissue paper. Cory glanced at the boy, who stood at the counter, chin resting on his stacked hands. You won't be smiling that way when she drops that price tag into your chubby li'l palm, kiddo.
Emily breezed into the shop carrying the box. She'd tied it up with a huge white satin bow and secured a red-foil, heart-shaped card to the ribbon. It wasn't until she'd lain the gift on the counter that she noticed Cory, standing across the way.
His heartbeat doubled and his ears grew hot in response to the smile that twinkled in her eyes. That look is for you, he told himself.
"Well, hello, Mr. Rus...I mean Cory," she said, her smile broadening, "what brings you here?"
Until she'd mentioned it, he'd almost forgotten the junk mail that had provided his flimsy excuse to drop by. He held out the envelopes. "Buddy put some of your mail in my box by mistake."
Tilting her head a bit, she took it from him. "Thank you."
She blinked and licked her lips and took a shallow breath. It seemed to Cory she had more to say. Instead, she faced Tim. "Here's your mom's present," she said, sliding the box nearer him.
"It's real pretty, Miss Em," he gushed, touching a finger to the puffy white bow. "I can't wait for Mom to open it!" He scratched his head and winced. "Do I have enough money?"
Emily picked up one of the wrinkled dollars, two quarters, a nickel, and a dime. "You had more than enough. Now, put your change back in your pocket," she said, shoving the coins closer to the edge of the counter, "so it won't get lost." She tapped the heart-shaped card. "Don't forget to sign your name, okay?"
Hugging the package to him, Tim nodded. "I won't." Heading for the door, he said over his shoulder, "Thanks, Miss Em."
"Come visit me soon," she called after him, "let me know how your mom liked the scarf."
"What woman wouldn't love a sixty dollar scarf?" Cory asked as the door hissed shut. "You'll never get rich cutting deals like that."
She shrugged. "You're probably right. But I couldn't let him leave here without that scarf. He had his heart set on it."
Chuckling, Cory said, "I'm surprised you didn't just give it to him."
She gasped. "I couldn't have done that! Didn't you see his little face? He was really looking forward to giving his mother something he'd bought with his own, hard-earned money."
Gently, he chucked her chin. "Softie."
Blushing, Emily tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, then pretended to be engrossed in sifting through the stack of mail he'd brought her. "This is just terrible," she said, frowning.
"That so many trees are sacrificed every day so companies can sell their products."
He met her eyes. She's serious, he realized. Emily honestly believes living trees are more important than sales brochures. A bolt of guilt surged through him as he noticed his own sales flyer in the pile.
"There must be a better way."
"Better than paper ad campaigns?" Cory asked.
"Radio and TV ads are expensive."
She sent him a shy smile that made her look sixteen. Cory stood up straighter. Lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. But the posture adjustment didn't break the magnetic pull that was drawing him to her.
"It's just that trees are so beautiful." She sighed softly, then pressed the fingertips of one hand to her lips, as if to prevent another from escaping. "I know it must seem silly, but I have so many terrific childhood memories involving the tree near my grandma's lily pond."
"Why would I think it's silly?"
Another shrug. "Well," she said, averting her gaze, "you being such a hot-shot businessman and all, I just figured you'd have a natural aversion to Tree Hugger types."
Laughing, Cory said, "'Tree huggers'?"
She met his eyes. "You know, people who believe all of God's creations deserve respect, people, animals, and plants, too."
She was right. He had said--more than once--that folks like that were a bunch of short-sighted milksops whose tenderhearted tendencies blinded them to the cold hard fact that trees were a resource to be managed like any other.
But suddenly, for a reason he couldn't explain, Cory didn't want her thinking of him as a Tree Hater for allowing the destruction of White Oaks and Sugar Maples and Weeping Willows just so he could sell a few more cups of cappuccino. If she saw that flyer.
"Where'd you get the idea I was a hot-shot businessman?" he asked, hoping to divert her attention from it.
A mischievous grin brightened her face. "People talk."
"And what do 'people' say?"
She began counting on her fingers: "That before you opened the coffee shop, you were a high-powered attorney, a savvy investor, a no-nonsense cut-throat."
"Why did you give it all up, if you don't mind my asking?"
Cory ran a hand through his hair. "I looked around at everything money had bought me, and realized that despite it all, something important was missing."
Tilting her head, she said, "What?"
Truth was, until that moment, he hadn't known what had been lacking in his life. He'd thought it might be an elegant house in an upscale neighborhood. When that didn't fill the emptiness, he bought a racy sports car. Trips to
Europe and the islands hadn't make him feel whole, nor had expensive clothes. Restless, frustrated, he'd shut down the law firm and opened up the coffee shop, better, but still.
Now, standing there looking into her innocent, wide-eyed face, basking in the warmth of that sweet smile, he knew exactly what had been missing in his life...
...the love of a good woman.
Gently, Cory wrapped a hand around her wrist and relieved her of the stack of mail. "Stop by the coffee shop later," he said, slipping his ad from the stack, "maybe 'scarf' down a cup of cappuccino."
Two elderly ladies entered the shop, followed by a teenaged girl. "Make yourselves at home," Emily told them. "I'll be right with you." Facing Cory, added, "Sometime after lunch, maybe?"
"'Morning, ladies," he said as he walked toward the door. And to Emily, "See you later."
He stopped, turned.
"Should I bring the coupon?"
Brow furrowed with confusion, he said, "What coupon?"
Grinning mischievously, Emily pointed. "The one in your flyer, there."
Shaking his head, he couldn't help but grin. Despite his best efforts to keep her from seeing it, she'd spotted the advertisement after all. Never underestimate the power of a Tree Hugger. Chuckling, he opened the door. "See you later, Em."
"Oh, you have to 'leaf'?"
He chuckled. She was different, all right.
Different enough to make him change his mind about remaining single?
Cory chanced a peek back into the shop, where Emily was busily fussing with a rack of dangly earrings. He liked everything about her, from her bouncy auburn curls to her size five sandals. And if that scene with Tim was any indicator, she has a heart as big as her head.
Dumping the junk mail into the trash bin, he pocketed both hands and headed for his own shop, two storefronts down. In an hour or so, she'd be perched on one of the stools at the Our Cups Runneth Over counter. Something told him that hour was going to seem more like ten.
If he hoped to keep a firm grip on his bachelorhood, should he be upset about how much he was looking to seeing her?
Cory pictured her again.
Oh, yeah, he thought, she's different enough.
Emily had agreed to meet Cory at his coffee shop at noon. A quick check of her watch told her she had five minutes until it was time to leave. Leaning into the mirror, she pursed her lips. You could use a touch-up, she thought. And frowning slightly, she added, You could use an overhaul! After reapplying her lipstick, she fluffed her hair.
Emily had never paid much mind to the attentions of male admirers. If they liked the way she dressed, that was fine with her. But if they didn't--and a lot of them didn't--that was okay, too. She was the first to admit that her style was eclectic. In her long-flowing skirts, gauzy shirts, and colorful beads, she looked like a throw-back to Victorian days. You were born into the wrong era, she thought, adjusting the collar of her pirate-sleeved blouse.
Jonathan hadn't liked the way she dressed. Hadn't liked her chin-length, curly hair, either. Right up until the day he called off the engagement, he'd tried to change her. For awhile, she'd actually tried to become the woman he said he wanted, wearing sensible pumps and tiny pearl earrings instead of sandals and hand-crafted jewelry.
After the breakup, she'd made up her mind to be herself, no matter what. As long as God approves of me, what difference does it make what anyone else thinks? It had been her mindset for nearly two years now, so it surprised her that Cory's approval meant so much.
He'd complimented her apartment, her outfit, her sense of humor. The comments seemed sincere, rather than gratuitous. Could there really be so many things about her worthy of praise?
When he'd gently touched her chin and called her a softie, she'd blushed like a schoolgirl. And his invitation to coffee had made her heart beat doubletime.
Emily took a deep breath and smoothed her skirt, and started for the door. After turning the Closed sign around, she locked up and headed for Cory's coffee shop.
Rosie, who owned the shop next door, was out front, watering the petunias in her window boxes. "Hey, Em," she said, grinning, "how's business?"
Emily smiled. "Not bad, considering I've only been open two weeks."
"Don't you worry, kiddo." Winking, Rosie patted Emily's shoulder. "Only two more weeks 'til Midnight Frolic. It brings folks to town from all over the east coast. Once they get a load of your terrific stock, they'll keep coming back." Another wink. "That's what helped me turn the corner when I started out."
Emily nodded enthusiastically. "From what I hear, if it's even half the success it was last year, we'll make out like a bandits!"
Rosie plucked a spent blossom from a hanging basket and pocketed it. "You look pretty today, but then, you always look pretty. Where are you headed?"
"Your son invited me for a cup of--"
"Praise God, my prayers have been answered!"
One brow rose on Emily's forehead. Your prayers? she repeated mentally.
Plunking the watering can on the cobbled sidewalk, Rosie clamped her hands together. "You know, I've been meaning to try that new-fangled stuff he's selling these days, lah-tay, I think it's called. " She linked her arm with Emily's. "Mind if I join you?"
Smiling, she patted Rosie's hand. "I'd love it."
Side by side, they entered Our Cups Runneth Over. Rosie chose a table near the window and flopped unceremoniously onto the caned seat of a ladderbacked chair, leaving Emily the one facing the snack bar, and Cory.
He was on his hands and knees, oohing and ahhing and making goofy faces at a baby in a stroller. The child gurgled and giggled and grabbed a handful of his hair.
Laughing and shaking his head, he freed himself of the youngster's grasp. "With a grip like that," he told the baby's mother, "he might just be a professional golfer when he grows up."
If Cory was aware he'd attracted the attention of every woman in the place, he gave no sign of it. He seemed so intent on entertaining the baby that he hadn't even noticed Emily and his mother. "How old is he?" Cory asked the woman.
"Six months," she said.
He wiggled his eyebrows. "Big boy like that, only six months old? Maybe he'll be a football player, instead!" Like a professional comedian, Cory did everything in his power to make that baby laugh, from silly expressions to comical sound effects. Emily had never seen a more touching sight. She'd always wanted children. Lots of them. Trouble was, a girl needed a husband for that.
"Isn't he the cutest thing?" Rosie asked, giggling.
"Yes, he is."
Leaning forward, Cory's mom followed Emily's gaze. "Not Cory, you nut, the baby!"
Heat crept in to her cheeks, a sure sign that Emily was blushing, deeply. "Oh. Of course. The baby." She grinned nervously. "Yes, he's adorable, all right."
Rosie laughed. "Hon, you have made my day."
The women's gazes locked. "Excuse me?"
"Just imagine what beautiful grandchildren the two of you will give me!"
Emily's jaw dropped as a gasp escaped her lips. Grandchildren! But we've only just met!
But the length of their acquaintanceship had nothing to do with the uncomfortable feeling bubbling in the pit of her stomach, and Emily knew it.
Jonathan had been the last straw on a mound of man-troubles too high to measure. Her father had changed her mother, and Jonathan had tried to change Emily. If that's what marriage is all about, she thought, I don't want any part of it! A woman should feel free to express herself, to be herself. And if her man wouldn't allow that, then--
Cory's deep baritone interrupted her reverie. "Hey, Mom." He kissed his mother's cheek. "It's not like you to leave your shop unattended; what brings you out and about?"
Rosie gave a slight nod of her head, indicating the menu board above the counter. "Oh, I don't know," she said, shrugging daintily. "I just had a hankering for a cup of that new-fangled stuff you're selling these days." She looked at Emily. "What's it called again, hon?"
The moment Cory's blue gaze fused to hers, Emily froze. Heart pounding and pulse racing, she stammered, "I, uh, I'm not sure."
Cory glanced from Emily to his mother, and back again. "So tell me," he began, a rakish grin lifting one corner of his mouth, "are you two becoming friends?"
"You bet we are!" Rosie answered. She slipped an arm around Emily's shoulders, gave her a sideways hug. "Isn't she just the sweetest, most adorable li'l thing you ever did see?"
His expression changed, from teasing to thoughtful. Nodding slowly, Cory said, "Yeah, she's a cutie, all right." He held Emily's gaze for a moment, then frowned slightly, cleared his throat, and took a deep breath. "Well, now," he said, clapping his hands together once, "what-say I bring you both a cup of cappuccino, on the house?"
"I say that's a great idea! Make mine mocha." Rosie turned to Emily. "How 'bout you, hon? Do you like chocolate?"
Nodding, Emily felt like one of those doggies that ride above the back seats of cars. "Yes. Chocolate. It's one of my favorite flavors."
Cory hurried behind the counter, and Emily turned her chair so that she wouldn't have to look at him. Because if you're facing forward, you'll get caught staring again for sure.
"You make a handsome couple," Rosie said. "Very handsome."
Lord, she prayed silently, help me keep a civil tongue in my head; don't let me tell Rosie how ridiculous she sounds.
"How old are you, hon?"
She had to grin a bit, despite the tension Rosie's comments had created, because although she'd been in Maryland area for awhile now, Emily didn't think she'd ever get used to the way Baltimoreans called everyone--old, young, male or female--'hon'. "Twenty-eight," she said.
"Perfect! Cory is thirty-two." Leaning forward, she cupped a hand beside her mouth and whispered conspiratorially, "But you two had better shake a leg. You're not getting any younger, y'know, and I know from personal experience how hard it is to have a baby in your thirties."
If there was a polite way to do it, Emily would dash out the door and hide in her shop for the rest of her life, praying for all she was worth that the subject of her and Cory as a couple would never come up again. You're not the marrying type, she admitted (though somewhat regretfully), and the sooner you make that clear to Rosie, the happier we'll all be.
"Rosie," she began, laying a gentle hand on the woman's forearm, "do you mind if I speak frankly with you?"
Rosie's blue eyes twinkled with delight. "Of course not! I've been praying since Cory was twenty-one that he'd marry a girl I could love, too." Giggling girlishly, she added, "It'd be like getting a daughter--finally--without any of the fuss and bother!"
Emily took a deep breath, and folded both hands on the table top. Where to begin? she wondered. Just spit it out. Get it over with, once and for all: "I have to be perfectly honest with you, I'm not interested in--"
"Here you go, ladies," Cory sing-songed. He put two steaming mugs of frothy coffee on the table, then turned one of the cane-backed chairs around and straddled its seat. "So," he said, staring into Emily's eyes, "what's the serious face all about?"
She blinked once, twice, three times as she considered her options. If she told Cory what he'd interrupted, he might get the wrong idea. Might think she was interested in pursuing a relationship with him, and the denial was merely camouflage.
Sighing, Emily said, "I was about to tell your mom that I'm a little unsure how I'll fit into Midnight Frolic."
He winked. "Is that all?" Reaching out to tuck a curl behind her hear, he smiled. "You'll do fine." There was a considerable pause before he said, "Let me take you to dinner tonight. I've been on the Frolic board of directors for the past couple of years; I can fill you in on the details, maybe give you a few pointers that'll help you make it work to your advantage."
Rosie stood so fast, her chair nearly toppled over behind her. "Good grief, will you look at the time!" She tapped the face of her watch. "I'm supposed to be across the street in five minutes, at Caplan's," she said, "inspecting their latest auction buys."
Cory pointed to her mug. "You want me to put it in a to-go cup?"
She was halfway to the door when she said, "Nah, you drink it." And with a mischievous grin, she was gone.
Chuckling under his breath, Cory shook his head. "She's a piece of work, that mother of mine."
Emily nodded her agreement. "You're so lucky, having a mom like that."
He studied her face for a long, intense moment. "What do you mean?"
She thought of all the changes her own mother had made to accommodate her father's demands, and how those changes turned her mother from a happy-go-lucky young woman into a bitter old crone. If she'd only been like Rosie, Emily told herself; if only she'd been stronger, more independent, she wouldn't be dead now, and she--
"When did you lose her?"
His question startled her. "How...how did you kno--?"
His soft smile silenced her. Pressing her hands between his own, he said, "It's written all over your face." He paused. "Your beautiful face." Then, "You want to talk about it?"
Odd, she'd never wanted to talk about it before. Odder still, she'd never felt like crying when she thought about the circumstances that had ended her mother's life.
Emily swallowed the lump in her throat and sighed heavily. "She committed suicide when my father left her." Staring hard at the big, strong hands that held her own, she frowned. She'd never spoken those words aloud, except to God.
"The day she found out about the other woman, Mom, she--" A sob stopped her.
Cory pressed a palm to her cheek, thumb cradling her jaw. "Shhh," he whispered. He turned his hand so that the pad of his thumb could wipe away an errant tear. "Your cappuccino’s getting cold."
His touch warmed yet unnerved her. She sat back to escape it, and wrapping her hands around the bright red ceramic mug, Emily shook her head. "Sorry," she said, her voice wavering. "I'm not usually such a whiny baby."
Resting both arms on the chair back, he sat, quietly regarding her. "That little bit of dampness doesn't make you a whiny baby."
Tears had been proof of her mother's weakness, a trait Emily's father had used against his wife, too many times to count. Though he'd never physically assaulted his wife or daughter, he seemed to enjoy flexing his 'emotional control' muscles.
Her mother explained his tirades away, blaming his terrible childhood, alcohol, unemployment, anything and everything but the man himself. Even as a small child, Emily knew better than to let him see that he had the power to make her cry; by now, holding her emotions in check had become a habit, one she didn't think she could--or should--break.
Having given in to her feelings just now was nothing to be proud of. "I'd better get back," she said, standing. "I have a shipment of perfumed candles to unpa--"
Cory stood, too. "I'll pick you up at six," he said, changing the subject. "Have you been to
She shook her head.
He grinned. "They make a mean crab cake."
Emily headed for the door.
"See you at six, then, okay?" he called after her.
She turned in the doorway to tell him that no, it was not okay. "I'll be ready," she said instead.
When the door hissed shut behind her, Cory felt a tug of regret. A glance at the black-cat clock on the wall told him he had five and a half hours to kill before he'd see her again. For a reason he couldn't explain, he missed her already.
The best way to forget things like that, he'd learned, was hard work. But not waiting on customers, nor stacking dirty dishes in the dishwasher, nor organizing the back room took his mind off Emily.
He didn't think he'd ever seen sadder--or more beautiful--eyes. Though Emily smiled freely and frequently, somehow, the joy never quite made it to her eyes. When she'd made her one-sentence confession about her mother's suicide, it had taken every ounce of self-control to keep from wrapping Emily in a comforting hug. Something told him that pity was the last thing a woman like her wanted.
A woman like her.
He had a feeling her wacky wardrobe was a cover-up; a disguise to hide the woman beneath, whose life had made her old before her time and wise beyond her years.
The eyes of the cat clock ticked right, left, right, counting the seconds as its tail tocked left, right, left.
One hour to closing time; two 'til he'd see her again.
Cory's heart thumped against his ribcage as her lovely, sad-eyed face materialized in his mind's eye. He had a feeling she hadn't leaned on anyone in a long, long time. He wanted to change that, to be her rock, her port in life's storm. And, truthfully, he wanted a taste the sweetness she'd doled out to Timmy.
People had hurt her, badly. Had disappointed her, too. How else was he to explain the defeated expression that crossed her face when he'd said it was okay to cry?
A powerful rage surged in him, a need to settle old scores on her behalf, to balance the scales of justice in her favor. She deserved happiness and serenity, enough that they'd both glow in her pale brown eyes.
The gentle aplomb that inspired her to all but give that scarf to the bright-eyed boy was proof she was the kind of woman he wanted to spend the rest of his days with. Now, if it was what God wanted for him, too.
The clockface on the cat's stomach said four forty-five.
Just an hour and fifteen minutes.
So why did it seem like an eternity?
Emily sat across the table from him, chin resting on folded hands, smiling in that warm and womanly way that was distinctly hers. You're lucky we're in a crowded restaurant, he told her mentally, or I'd have no choice but to kiss you, right here, right--
"How did your mom meet Duke?"
Cory swallowed, hoping his expression hadn't given him away. "They met ‘cause of me."
"You played Cupid?" She giggled softly. "That's hard to picture."
Cory chuckled. But his laughter quickly subside. "I was something of a juvenile delinquent when I was young. Duke stepped in and straightened me out." He shrugged. "He spent a lot of time comforting and consoling my mom. Guess they figured since they were together so much, they may as well make it legal."
Emily giggled. "Straight-arrow-do-the-right-thing Cory Russell, a bad boy? I don't believe it."
She was silent a long moment. "How did Duke turn you around?"
Sooner or later, she'd hear the story from Rosie, who'd relate the details in Cory's favor. At least this way, he thought, Em will get the whole, unvarnished truth. She deserved that, didn't she, if their relationship was to continue.
And he wanted that more than anything right now.
"It started when my dad closed up his hardware store and headed for the night depository," he began. "I'll never forget it: It was a Tuesday night, August the eighteenth, eleven o'clock." He clamped his jaws together and took a deep breath. "Guy with a gun tried to grab the money sack. Witnesses said Dad refused to turn it loose. Last words he spoke were, 'It's all we've got; you can't have it.'" Cory scraped his thumbnail over a nub in the white linen tablecloth. "And I wasn't even there to hear them."
She blanketed his hand with hers. "How old were you?"
"Way too young to be out that late," Emily said softly, giving his hand a gentle pat. "I'm sure you've heard this before, dozens of times no doubt, but you really shouldn't blame yourself for not being there."
Cory shrugged, met her eyes. "And it isn't your fault that your mom committed suicide, either."
Folding both hands on the table, she sat back. "Believe it or not, I've never felt responsible for that, though I have to admit it wasn't hard, putting the blame where it belonged."
A flash of anger brightened her eyes as she summoned self-control. You gotta give it to her, he told himself, she's one tough cookie. He wondered who Emily did blame for the suicide, if not herself. Her father? Her mom? Both parents?
"I fixated on what the pastor said at her memorial service," she continued. "'Lay your cares and woes at the foot of the Cross, and Christ will carry your burdens.'"
So, he told himself, she is a Believer. He'd wondered about that, hoped she'd be a Christian. It was something he'd been meaning to ask her. In fact, he'd said as much Sunday, as he and his mom and Duke were leaving church after the service. "Trust the Lord," his step-dad had said.
"He's never let you down before; no reason to expect He'll start now."
What would Emily think, he wondered, if she knew he'd about the years of doubt and anger and rebellion that had separated him from his God, if she knew about the years of doing everything a fatherless boy could do to prove just how bad he could be.
There's only one way to find out.
He started at the beginning, and didn't leave out a single detail, starting with the way he'd left the friends and relatives who'd gathered at the house after the funeral, walking aimlessly until the sun came up, seeking an answer to one question: Why?
No answer came that night, and so he refused to attend Sunday services, skipped school, started up around with The Rough Crowd--his mother's name for her son's new friends--and generally made a complete nuisance of himself.
"I came home in the middle of the night once, and found her at the kitchen table. I could see that she'd been crying."
Cory inhaled and shook his head. "She demanded to know why the only thing I worked at those days was being as bad as bad could be."
Emily inclined her head. "And what did you tell her?"
"That my dad had lived an upright life, always doing the right thing without complaint, and look what it got him!"
Before she could put voice to the sympathetic expression on her face, he rambled on, relating the way Duke once talked the cops out of arresting him when he spray painted a giant football helmet on the high school wall by saying "the boy just lost his dad; doesn't know what he's doing." Three years later, Duke bailed him out of jail for punching out the sheriff's deputy who'd stopped Cory for speeding.
"He put it to me plain that morning," Cory recalled. "He told me I was driving Mom crazy, and gave me two choices: Join the Army--so she wouldn't have to watch as I slowly destroyed myself--or help out at Home Sweet Home."
"So that's how you got involved; you chose the project over the Army."
"Actually, I chose the project and the Army." He grinned. "Did a three year stint in uniform."
She smiled. "And came back a whole, healed man."
Chuckling, he tugged at the Windsor knot of his tie, admitting what he'd been forced to acknowledge that first day at Home Sweet Home: Things were rarely what they appeared to be.
He was no more whole or healed than Emily was the flighty female her attire made her appear to be. Likewise, the young men and women Duke continually funneled into the project weren't the troublemakers and losers he'd thought they'd be. Like himself, they were confused, lost, looking for gratification in all the wrong places. Duke set them straight--Cory included--with nothing more than stubbornness and a no-nonsense approach to prayer.
"Hard not to like a man like that."
"Yeah, Duke's an okay guy, all right."
She lifted one eyebrow. "I was talking about you. Lots of boys take the wrong path; only the special ones find their way back."
Cory ran a hand through his hair. "Enough about me." He waved the waitress over, asked to see the dessert menu. When the woman went to get one, he said, "Why did you leave
, Em?" Illinois
She shrugged one shoulder. "When my father had a heart attack and passed aw--"
"A heart attack? I thought he left you?"
"He did. When I was fourteen. But he came back." A brief, bitter laugh escaped her lips. "What choice did he have when my mother, when she--"
? Chicago ? Joliet ?" he interrupted. "What part of Cairo are you from?" Illinois
Emily's smile that told him she understood and appreciated why he'd changed the subject. "I was born in
Peoria, raised in ." Springfield
"It's a long way from the
Illinois capitol to . What brought you here?" Maryland
She had barely opened her mouth to answer when the waitress rolled the dessert cart up to their table and began describing every delicious-looking concoction on the white-doilied silver tray.
"I'll have the key lime pie," Cory said, smacking his lips. "What about you, Em?"
"Maybe I could have a bite of yours?" She hesitated a moment before adding, "I hate to waste food, and I'm full as a tick from the crab cakes."
Smiling, he told the waitress, "One slice of key lime, and coffees, please."
When they were alone again, he said, "So how is it a smart, good-looking, generous woman like you is still single?"
Emily bit her lower lip and frowned. "I was engaged once."
He made a rolling motion with his hand, coaxing her to continue. "And you dumped him beca-a-a-ause."
She looked deep into his eyes. "Jonathan broke up with me."
Cory sat back and shook his head. "No way."
Another shrug. "I was never his type."
He couldn't help but laugh at that. "Then you're well rid of him. No woman should be yoked for life to a fool."
A moment of silence passed before she said, "He wanted a wife whose only interest was 'Jonathaneeds'. A woman with long straight blonde hair who'd make him look good in front of his corporate cronies, who'd rather iron his shirts than earn her own share of the family funds." Eyes narrowing slightly, she added, "I'm not the stay-at-home type."
"But, but didn't you say you wanted kids? Lots of 'em?"
"I do." She fidgeted with the corner of her napkin, as if the quickness of her reply unnerved her. Lifting her chin a bit, she corrected herself: "I did." After a long sip of water, Emily added, "I used to want the whole picket fence scene, right down to the rose garden." Staring into her glass, she said quietly, "But that was a long, long time ago. A lifetime ago."
He'd wanted those things, too. But his experiences with women left him disillusioned. Donna Reed and June Cleaver types lived in 1950s TV re-runs, period; no such woman existed in real life. Admitting that made it easier to set his dream aside. But what had made Emily change her mind?
Yet again, Cory found himself wanting to right the wrongs that had been done to her, heal the hurts she'd suffered. But weakness and self-centeredness had ended her parents' lives; who would he punish?
The waitress delivered their coffee and pie. "Well," he said, grabbing a fork, "this oughta sweeten the mood a bit." He sliced off the pie's point, held it near her face.
The pink tip of her tongue painted her upper lip just before she opened her mouth. A bit of meringue clung to her lower lip as he withdrew the fork, and he instinctively wiped it away with the pad of his thumb. "Good?" he asked as she chewed.
Smiling, Emily nodded. "Mmm-hmm."
Man-oh-man, he thought, mesmerized by her long-lashed brown eyes, she's a livin' doll. He didn't know how much time had passed as he stared into her lovely face, wasn't aware he'd been staring at all until she quietly pointed out that his coffee was getting cold.
He wanted this woman. Lord, if she's in Your Will for me, show me a sign.
"I think we'd better go," Emily said. "I'm expecting an early shipment in the morning."
Cory did his best to hide his disappointment. Well, Lord, that's not exactly what I had in mind.
"Dietr," Emily said, nuzzling her loudly purring pet, "you're the only man for me."
The cat yawned and stretched in the cradle of his mistress's arms, then leaped to the floor and swaggered toward the patio doors to watch the chickadees and finches fluttering around the bird feeder.
Emily locked the door behind her and headed downstairs to unpack the shipment of scented soaps, sachets, and perfumes that had been delivered that morning. "If only I could be so easily distracted," she muttered.
She'd been up all night, replaying the dinner with Cory.
He was everything she'd ever wanted in a man, from his wonderful sense of humor, to his big-hearted nature, to his Nordic good looks. Why, near as she could tell, he was even a Believer!
Not that it mattered. 'Emily' and 'marriage' went together about as well as ice cream and cabbage. That being the case, it would be cruel to lead Cory on. And if you continue seeing him, she thought, stacking soaps on a beveled-glass shelf, that's exactly what you'll be doing.
There hadn't exactly been a parade of men in her past, but she'd gotten close enough to some to know the difference between a passing interest and something more. Cory wants more; it's written all over his face.
Smiling, she remembered the time he'd said those same words to her. He'd known, merely by looking into her eyes, that she'd lost her mother, and that she hadn't totally accepted it, even after all these years.
She couldn't very well tell Cory that her mother had been miserable long before the overdose. Couldn't say if it hadn't been for her--the ball and chain that kept her mother bound to a domineering, demanding man--her mother might have fulfilled her dreams of pursuing her singing career. Emily believed she was at the root of her mother's increasing emotional weakness: Day by day, year after year, devotion to her only child kept her bound to a man who couldn't love. Spending herself this way sapped her strength, so that gradually, she became less the gifted creature God intended her to be, and more the woman her father said he wanted.
She'd been so sure of her decision to stay single, before Cory. But it had been hours since he'd given her that soft, sweet kiss outside her apartment door. If remaining unmarried was a good thing, would she miss him so much, so soon after saying goodbye?
Two out of three marriages end in divorce, she reminded herself, piling sachets on the floor beside the box they'd been delivered in. And no child of mine will be exposed to the emotional burdens I carried as a girl!
Still, the way Cory behaved with that baby in his coffee shop, the tender and affectionate way he treated his mother, the respect and admiration he showed Duke made her wonder: Could work and marriage mix, with a man like Cory?
For a moment, she allowed herself to picture life with him, a cozy Victorian filled with plump sofas and man-sized armchairs; a sultry summer breeze whispering through the willow leaves as she and Cory, seated on a creaking porch swing, clinked tumblers of lemonade to toast undying love as their children snoozed contentedly upstairs.
No! she thought, angrily pulling the sealing tape from the lid of another box. Surely that's the story Mom told herself when Dad came into her life. For as long as she could remember, people had been comparing her to her mother. They had the same hair, the same eyes, the same smile, folks said. Everyone said they shared the same sweet disposition, the same drive to help those less fortunate; what if Emily had inherited her mother's negative traits as well, such as the weakness that had made her believe suicide was the only resolution to an unhappy marriage!
Emily had felt something for Jonathan, but she doubted it had been love. If she'd loved him, truly loved him, would she have gotten over him so quickly after he left her? Not likely, she thought.
And therein lies the rub, she thought, misquoting Shakespeare. The real trouble is, you've never had your feet held to the fire; you don't know how you might react if you had to live a life like Mom's.
Sitting back on her heels, Emily clasped her hands and bowed her head. "Lord," she whispered, closing her eyes, "please help me keep a safe distance from Cory."
She had to put space--a lot of it--between her and this charming, handsome man, because if she didn't, she might just be tempted to change herself for him.
"And you can't let that happen. You just can't!"
Because like it or not, your life might just depend on it.
Cory sat on the front porch swing, looking out over the expanse of deep green lawn, sipping a tall glass of iced tea.
Moonlight shimmered through the trees, dappling the winding brick path with thousands of silvery, coin-shaped spots that danced and swayed like miniature tutu-ed ballerinas. A soft breeze riffled the stately pines that lined his lot, causing their needly boughs to bounce, like the arms of a conductor leading the well-harmonized songs of tree frogs, crickets, and cicadas.
It was a beautiful night, the kind that ought to be shared with a woman who'd appreciate it. A woman like Emily.
There were so many things he wanted to know about her: Which of the four seasons did she like best? What color did she prefer? Who was her favorite author? Had she dreamed of becoming a teacher, or a movie star, or maybe an opera singer? Or had those self-centered, immature parents she'd gotten stuck with robbed her of little girl wishes?
He hadn't yet had an opportunity to discuss her likes and dislikes. "But I will," he told a brightly-blinking star.
Standing, he rested his glass on the railing and leaned both forearms beside it. Pink and yellow roses, planted by the former owner of the stately Victorian, glowed like frosty pearls in the bright white light of the night. Emily would love them, he thought. He could almost see her, wearing one of her floating, filmy dresses and a wide-brimmed straw hat, as delicate gloved hands cradled the velvety blooms.
Was it his hard-beating heart or his pounding pulse that made him acknowledge the width of his smile?
Cory didn't know, but he knew this: You're falling for her, big time.
That should have seemed ludicrous, ridiculous to this feet-on-the-ground ex-attorney-turned-shopkeeper. Crazy or not, he admitted, it's true. And there isn't a blessed thing you can do about it. Wasn't a thing he wanted to do about it.
Cory's smile dimmed a bit as his next thought took shape: You'd better hope and pray that Emily is in God's plan for you, 'cause if she isn't, you're in for the biggest let-down of your life.
Straightening, Cory yawned and stretched, then glanced at his wristwatch. Fifteen minutes past midnight. God willing, he might sleep dream-free tonight.
But Emily had occupied his thoughts--waking and sleeping--nearly every moment since she'd first walked into that
Main Street mansion and volunteered to help with the Home Sweet Home rehab project. Why should tonight be any different!
Heading inside, Cory locked up and climbed the curved staircase. As he reached the landing that led to the second floor bedrooms, he got another image of her--this time in a full-skirted white gown and a long, flowing veil--descending the stairs. In a flash, he saw himself, too, standing near the bottom step, bow-tied and tuxedoed, right hand extended to welcome his beautiful bride.
He shook his head, as if that alone would clear the vision from his brain. When it didn't, he continued up the stairs, stopping when he reached his bedroom door.
The high four-poster still wore the crocheted canopy put their by the former lady of the house. She'd sold him everything, from the elegant mahogany dining room suite to the plant stands on the screened-in back porch. It was a grand old place, with tall, narrow windows, wide-planked floors, and a stone fireplace in every room. There were oil paintings on the walls, candlesticks on the mantles, knick-knacks on the end tables, and yet, every room cried out for something.
No. For someone....
That was only half true; he needed her! She would complete him, make him whole, fill all the empty spaces in his life, the gaping, lonely hole in his heart. Cory didn't know how he knew it, but he'd never been more certain of anything in his life:
He wanted to make Emily Alden his wife.
Wanted to make it up to her for all the unfairness of her life. To prove to her that, despite immature, self-centered parents and the oafishness of that clod, Jonathan What's-His-Name, the future could be everything that her past had not been. What she'd experienced at their hands had toughened her--as evidenced by her determination to keep the details of her past to herself. Ironically, it was her resolve to protect and preserve her parents' memory that pointed out just how soft-hearted and caring she truly was!
He'd seen proof of her tenderness that day in her shop, when she'd all but given that silk scarf to little Timmy. The way Emily treated Rosie and Duke--and everyone else she met during her day--confirmed it: She had a heart of gold, pure gold.
When he'd taken her in his arms outside the door to her apartment, he'd felt the gentleness of her nature when she melted against him like butter on a hot biscuit. Best of all, the soft murmur that sighed from her lips told him she treasured their moment of innocent intimacy as much as he had.
It had moved him deeply when Emily lovingly combed her fingers through his hair. That seemingly small gesture had awakened emotions in him that no woman before her had, and there had been quite a few.
As he stood there, staring into the semi-dark room he hoped they'd share someday, Cory relived the moment. It seemed absurd that something as simple as a kiss change a man's entire perspective.
But it had.
Completely and permanently.
Tossing shoes and socks, shirt and jeans hither and yon, he flopped onto the bed like a gaffed tuna and stared at the night-blackened ceiling. He recalled the prayer he'd said earlier at the restaurant, when he'd asked the Almighty's guidance about a future with Emily. "Lord," he prayed now, "if this feeling I've got is Your answer to that question, I know what I have to do. And unless I hear differently before morning, I'll do it first thing."
Her pretty, smiling face was the last thing Cory saw before slipping into a deep and contented slumber.
Emily felt the heat creep into her cheeks as she stammered and stuttered, sounding even to her own ears like a tongue-tied simpleton stuck on a vibrating treadmill. She looked helplessly around the cluttered back room of her boutique, hoping to find the solution to this problem stashed among colorful scarves and bangle bracelets.
Is he asking what I think he's asking? But how could that be? They'd only met a few weeks ago! "I-I, uh, Cory, I'm, um, I-I don't know what to say."
He stood there staring at the pointy toes of his cowboy boots, thumbs linked in the belt loops of his jeans, leaning first on one foot and then the other. "Say 'yes'," was his simple, sincere reply.
Emily heard the heartfelt plea in his voice, saw it in the expectant gleam emanating from his clear blue eyes. He drove a hand through his hair, leaving finger-wide tracks in the blond waves. When he brought it down again, she noticed that it trembled slightly. Unable to meet his hopeful azure gaze a moment longer, she pretended to busy herself with the tidying of the display of belts on the rack between them. "I hope you didn't leave your car windows open." She could only hope the tremor in her voice wasn't as apparent to him as it was to her. "Because they're calling for an early-afternoon thunderstorm, and you know how--"
"Em," he said, side-stepping the rack and placing a finger over her lips to silence her, "I know it's kind of out of the blue, but--"
"'Kind of' out of the blue?" she echoed. "Why, it's--"
"It's sensible, that's what it is."
If he hadn't looked so serious, she might have laughed. But nothing, not even the absurdity of his question, could have made her hurt or humiliate him that way. "But Cory," she pointed out, "we barely know one another." Someone has to be the voice of reason here.
Gently, he took her hands in his and forced her to face him. "We know enough. At least, I know enough. We get along great, we have a lot in common, we're the right age, what more do we need to know?"
"'The right age'?" she quoted, heart thumping wildly. "The right age for what?"
Cory's cheeks flushed as he tucked in one corner of his mouth. "For, you know. " He shrugged. "For marriage, a home, kids."
Gasping involuntarily, she hid behind her hands. "Cory, please; don't make me do this."
"Don't make you do what?"
She came out of hiding, took a deep breath. "I like you, I like you a lot, but--"
"Shhh." Like a traffic cop, he held up a hand. "Don't answer me right now. Give it a day or two. Pray on it awhile." His somber expression brightened as he added, "If you don't feel differently at the end of the week, I'll--"
"I don't need time, and praying about it won't change my mind, either."
He frowned. "You sound awfully sure of yourself."
She lifted her chin. "I am sure, about this, anyway."
"'This'?" He crossed both arms over his chest. "What's 'this'?"
Emily couldn't meet his eyes. Well, what did you think was going to happen if you saw him socially? she asked herself. Even his mother made it clear where 'this' was going.
She heaved a deep sigh, then perched on the corner of her desk. Crossing one knee over the other, she folded her hands in her lap. "I can't marry you, Cory. I can't marry anyone."
The silence was deafening in the moments that passed before he said, "Why not?"
He might as well have been six years old, like little Timmy, the way he was looking at her. "Because," she began, "I wouldn't make a very good wife."
Cory's low, grating chuckle escalated until it became a full-blown belly laugh. "Where did you get a hair-brained notion like that?" he asked. Then, completely straight-faced, he added, "I've never known a woman more suited for the job."
"'Job'?" Suddenly, an idea began bubbling in her head. Maybe, she hoped, if you pick a fight, he'll see how silly this whole thing is. "You actually see the role of 'wife' as a job?"
All ten fingers combed through his hair as he exhaled a breath of frustration. "That isn't the way I meant it, and you know it."
One brow high on her forehead, Emily said, "Oh? And how would I know that? I only met you--"
"I know, I know," he interrupted, "a few weeks ago."
Cory's pacing reminded her of a caged tiger. But she couldn't let herself be swayed by pity. "It's like this," she began, "my father did everything in his power to mold my mother into the woman he wanted her to be. She had the voice of an angel, and could have realized her dream of singing professionally, if she hadn't completely re-made herself for him. And what did he do once he'd turned her into a dutiful little housewife? Left her for a fashion model, that's what!"
"Em," he said softly, "is that what you think? That I'd try to change you?"
Of all the men she'd known, Cory was the only one who hadn't thought it necessary to suggest changes in her attire, her business style, her life. She knew the answer to that even before he said, "I don't want to change you. I love you, just the way you are."
Sweet as they were, she'd heard those words before. "Jonathan said the same thing," she said, "but the moment he realized I had no intention of walking in my mother's footsteps, that I wouldn't give up the dress shop I'd scrimped and saved to buy so he'd have a full-time waitress, nurse, and handmaid--he lay a huge guilt trip on me. 'What about the children and the home you promised to give me?' he said."
On her feet now, Emily started pacing where Cory left off. "Of course I wanted kids, but not until I'd established myself in business, not until I was doing well enough to hire someone to run the shop, so I could stay at home with them full time. 'Give me two years,' I said; 'if I haven't made a go of it by then, I'll sell the shop and become a full-time wife and mother.'
"He said that was a fair compromise, but he lied." She stopped her pacing long enough to stand in front of Cory and say, "Do you know what he did?"
Cory shook his head.
She'd never told anyone about the details of the breakup with Jonathan, and though Emily knew full well she was ranting and raving like a certifiable lunatic, she felt powerless to stanch the angry words now that they'd begun to flow.
"I'll tell you what he did," she continued. "He went looking for a woman who'd be at his beck and call, night and day, and when he found her, then he broke off our engagement. He married her a month later." A bitter laugh punctuated her story. "Last I heard, they'd bought a house in the suburbs, and his malleable little bride was expecting twins."
Cory stepped into her path and placed both hands on her shoulders. "I'm sorry he hurt you, Em. Honest. But wasn't it better to find out what a jerk he was before the 'I do's were exchanged'?"
Tenderly, he tucked a curl behind her ear. "I had a similar experience." Smiling wryly, he said in an exaggerated voice, "Her name was Simone." Gazing at some unknown spot across the room, he continued: "She said all the right things. Said them so well, she actually had me convinced she wanted to be my wife, that she wanted to be the mother of my children."
He exhaled deeply. "I was all set to ask her to marry me as soon as Mom and Duke left on their honeymoon. But I'd made the mistake of telling her, during the reception, that I was thinking of shutting down my law firm to open up a coffee shop on
Main Street." A bitter snicker escaped his lips. "I hadn't made any decisions, mind you; but suddenly, being my faithful wife seemed very unappealing to her."
He chuckled quietly and shrugged, then met Emily's eyes. "I waved goodbye to the newlyweds, then went looking for Simone. I'd practiced my 'marry me' speech over and over the night before the wedding." His chuckle became a grating snicker when he said, "Imagine my surprise when I caught her kissing the guy who owned the reception hall."
Emily gasped. "That's disgusting! Why, she ought to be--"
He shook his head. "It wasn't Simone's fault."
"Not her fault? Then whose?"
"Mine. One hundred per cent. I never took the time to ask the Good Lord's advice about my future." Another shrug, and a gentle smile. "I didn't make that mistake this time."
He couldn't have said it any more clearly: Cory believed she was the answer to his prayers! It took all the willpower Emily could muster not to throw her arms around him and give him a big, warm hug. You can't, she warned herself. It just wouldn't be fair!
"I didn't think I'd ever trust a woman again, Em," Cory said, kissing her temple, "but God brought you into my life, and taught me how wrong I'd been." Bracketing her face with both palms, he looked deep into her eyes and smiled softly. "He showed me that I could trust, and...."
She read the yearning in his eyes, and it told her what his words hadn't: He loved her.
He loved her!
The knowledge thrilled and terrified her, and forced her to admit what she hadn't, what she couldn't admit, until now: She loved him, too.
It was because she loved him that she had to do what was in Cory's best interests.
Emily buried her face in the crook of his neck, and for the moment, allowed herself to drink in the sweetness of this new, unbridled love. Hidden there in the shelter of his arms, she prayed for the strength to do the right thing...
...and let him go.
"I don't think I've seen you smile in two weeks," Rosie said, reaching up to ruffle her son's hair. "What's wrong, hon?"
He shook his head, finger-combed blond locks back into place and silently admitted that he hadn't felt much like smiling lately, because not only had Emily turned down his marriage proposal, she'd been steadfastly avoiding him. Cory sighed. "It's nothing, Mom; at least, nothing you can fix."
She went him a wistful grin. "Sometimes, I wish you were a boy again, so I could fix whatever's wrong."
"Then you must be a glutton for punishment, 'cause I wasn't exactly the best-behaved kid on the block."
"Awww," she said, winking, "you weren't so bad."
He gave her a 'yeah, right' look that made her giggle.
"Well, the worst of it only lasted a couple of years, anyway."
"Thanks to Duke."
"Yes." She sighed. "Duke, and the Good Lord."
It embarrassed him, that she'd had to point out something so obvious, and Cory said so.
If Rosie heard his apology, she made no comment on it. Instead, she said, "Funny, but Emily looks as down-in-the-mouth these days as you do. Did you two have a fight?"
His heartbeat doubled at the mere mention of her name. "Not exactly."
"'Not exactly'? What kind of answer is that?"
Knowing Rosie would keep at him until he 'fessed up, Cory launched into a blow-by-blow description of that night, nearly three weeks ago, when he'd popped the question. No one was more surprised than he when tears filled Rosie's eyes.
"Aw, sweetie," she said, hugging him tight, "I'm so sorry." Then, holding him at arm's length, she sniffled. "You're not gonna give up, just 'cause she said 'no', are you? 'Cause I like that girl, and quite frankly, I think she likes you, too. You'd make such a handsome couple!" Winking mischievously, she blotted her eyes with a tissue she'd pulled from her pocket. "And can you picture the gorgeous grandchildren the two of you would give me?"
Yes, he could. Not only had he pictured children, he'd been envisioning Emily in every room of his house, arranging flowers, feather-dusting knick-knacks, reading Dr. Seuss to their kids. Keep it up, and you're sure to win the Buffoon of the Year contest, he chided himself, 'cause she made it clear that she wants no part of marriage. "I'm not going to put my neck on the chopping block a second time, Mom." He winced involuntarily. "One rejection was tough enough."
"What makes you so sure Emily would say 'no' if you asked her again?"
He cleared his throat. "Seems Em has this whole long list of reasons why she's not the marrying type."
The tilt of her head and the slant of her grin told him he'd best fill her in, and fast, or he'd never hear the end of it. So Cory spelled it out in painful detail, from the things Emily's father had done to her mother, to the ultimatums her ex-fiance had given Emily. When he finished, Cory felt like he'd run a marathon.
"Okay, you've tried doing it your way; now, why not give God a try?"
He chuckled under his breath. "I wish I were wearing shorts…."
She frowned. "What!"
"...so you could see the calluses I've earned, down on my knees asking for His help in getting me through this mess."
Propping one hand on her hip, she aimed a maternal digit in his direction. "There's your problem, right there: You give up too easily!"
She had a point, because while he'd never been one to wallow in self-pity, hanging tough hadn't exactly been his style, either. Cory preferred to chalk up his disappointments as life lessons, then get right on to the business of living.
Maybe he did have a tendency to quit too soon, but Rosie didn't know the meaning of the word:
"Do you love her?" she asked.
His heart pounded. "More than life itself."
"Maybe you're secretly glad that she said 'no'; maybe you weren't really ready for marriage after all."
"Are you kidding?" Exasperated, he threw both hands into the air above his head. "I've worked it all out in my head, how we'd blend our businesses, how we'd fit her clothes into my closet, how--"
"Okay, okay. I get the picture. You aren't glad she said 'no.'" Another giggle. "Now, let me get this straight." Rosie tapped a fingertip against her chin. "Emily refused to marry you because she's afraid you'll try to change her?"
Narrowing her eyes, she asked, "You don't secretly want to change her, though, right?"
"Of course not! She's perfect, just the way she is, and I told her so, the night I asked her to be my wife."
Rosie nodded, too, then patted Cory's cheek. "You want some motherly advice, then?"
He kissed her forehead. "Would it do me any good to say 'no'?"
She shook her head. "Be patient, Cory, and give her some time. Words are cheap, as the sages say; so show her you meant what you said about loving her, just as she is. Meanwhile," she concluded, heading for the coffee shop entrance, "keep praying, 'cause if God wants Emily to be my daughter-in-law half as much as I do, He'll change the one thing that needs changing in her."
He smiled, knowing that even if he hadn't asked, Rosie would have told him anyway. "And what would that be?"
"Her mind, that's what!"
Every time she ducked into a doorway or crossed the street to avoid him, Emily felt a twinge of guilt. It tugged at her heartstrings now as she watched him from behind a rack piled high with sweaters.
"You could set your watch by him," Rosie said. "He's out there, first thing every morning, and he's right back at it again, minutes after closing time."
"Good grief," Emily said, laughing and clutching at the collar of her blouse, "you scared me to death!"
"Sorry," said Cory's mom. She pointed to her sneakers. "Guess they're aptly named, eh?" Immediately, her attention returned to her son. "Lucky for me, he's always been a bit hyperactive, 'cause sure as shootin', when he finishes his walk, he'll sweep mine!" She giggled merrily. "Isn't he something?"
Yes, Emily agreed mentally, he's something, all right. She watched as the muscles of his forearms flexed with every whisk-whisk of the broom, as his big hands clamped tightly around its handle.
"Did you know he can rip a
phone book in half?" Rosie pointed out. Baltimore
"Is that a fact?" she asked distractedly.
"Yes, indeedie. He's a regular powerhouse, that son of mine."
But Emily barely heard her, for she was far too engrossed in watching those Herculean hands bend a steel pipe that some litterbug had discarded in the gutter until it fit into the trash can. Ah, but he knows how to be gentle with those hands, too, she told herself, remembering the tender way he'd wiped the tears from her cheeks when he learned about her mother's death. And what about the way he held you--as if you were made of spun glass--the night he asked you to--
"Earth to Emily, Earth to Emily...."
Emily looked up in time to see Rosie, pinching her nose between thumb and forefinger.
"Goodness gracious sakes alive," the older woman said, "when you ride off into la-la land, you go for the horizon, don't you?"
She could feel a blush coming on. "Sorry, guess I was daydreaming a bit."
Laughing, Rosie shook her head. "If you call that 'a bit', I'd hate to see what 'a lot' looks like!"
It was time to change the subject, because one thing Emily didn't need right now was Rosie, trying to play match-maker! "I just made a pot of coffee. Can I pour you a cup?"
"Sure. And while we're sipping, maybe you'll tell me why you won't marry that terrific kid of mine!"
The merchants on both sides of
Main Street had done a stellar job of decorating for the weekend-long sidewalk sale. Midnight Frolic had been the hit of the summer every year for nearly two decades, and this year's event promised to be the best yet.
Banners and streamers brightened the storefronts. Potted plants decorated the cobbled walkways. Hand-made 'for sale' cards marked the items on display in front of each shop. And everyone--from Buddy the mail man to the policemen on patrol--dressed in 1800's clothing.
Tonight, just before the big sale kicked off, shoppers and merchants alike would cast their ballots for the best-dressed man and woman. Each vote cost one dollar, and the proceeds would be donated to the Home Sweet Home project. The winners of the contest would don period wedding costumes and participate in the highlight of the extravaganza: the mock wedding ceremony.
Cory had found his suit in a quaint Amish shop in
last winter. There were only two other men in the running; Pete had donned overalls and a straw hat, and Matthew's narrow-lapelled suit could just as easily have been worn in the 1920s. It was more than an educated guess that he'd win the Best Dressed Man part of the contest. Lancaster, Pennsylvania
He intended to see that Emily won Best Dressed Woman, and started by going to the bank and withdrawing one hundred, one-dollar bills, which he added to the twenty-five already in his pocket, and stuffed into Emily's ballot jar. He'd been praying about this for nearly three weeks now; of everything went according to his plan.
Even if he hadn't stuffed her jar with all that money, she would have won the Best Dressed Woman contest, hands down.
Talk among bystanders was that Emily had designed and sewn her gown of dusty pink satin. White lace trimmed the ruffled, off-the-shoulder collar and elbow-length sleeves of the dress, and she'd fashioned a wide belt from the material as well. There were pink slipper-shoes on her tiny feet, and white gloves on her delicate hands. Around her neck, a choker of white satin, and dangling from it, a cameo pendant.
Cory didn't think he'd ever seen a woman more lovely.
At last, Pastor Miller took the stage and tapped on the microphone. "Testing," he said, his booming baritone bouncing from every storefront, "testing...."
Satisfied that he could be heard, the preacher raised his hands to command silence. "We've collected a tidy sum for Home Sweet Home this year, thanks to the generosity of everyone here. And, thanks to Barney Nobel over at the travel agency, we're adding a little something special to the festivities this year."
The din of quiet questions floated up to the bandstand, and the parson's raised hand once again requested quiet. "The winners will each receive an all-expense-paid weekend for two in
!" Williamsburg, Virginia
Applause and whistles echoed up and down
Main Street as the crowd voiced their approval.
"And now, as we find out who the lucky people are, may we have a drum roll, please."
marching band's kettle drummer rolled a long, loud introduction that ebbed as the pastor opened the first envelope. "For Best Dressed Man," the white-haired gentleman said, drawing the announcement out, "Coo-o-ory Ru-u-s-sell-l-l-l." Centennial High School
No fewer than a hundred pairs of hands clapped as lips pursed to toot and tweet. He joined Pastor Miller onstage, willing his heart to beat normally as he fixed his gaze to Emily's. She smiled up at him, telling him with her eyes how pleased she was that he'd won.
Her sweet expression turned to shock when the pastor added, "And this year's Best Dressed Woman is none other than our newest citizen, Em-m-m-ily-y-y-y A-a-a-alde-n-n-n."
It took Rosie, who whispered something in Emily's ear and gave her shoulder a gentle nudge, to wake her from her trance. Lifting her skirts, she daintily climbed the steps leading to the stage, and stood between the pastor and Cory.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the pastor said, "you have just enough time to find yourselves something that'll make a lot of noise; join us back here in exactly one-half hour from now for the wedding ceremony of the year!"
The crowd dispersed as Cory and Emily were ushered backstage, where they were sequestered in separate booths as The Ladies' Auxiliary dressed them in hundred-year-old wedding garb. The pants of Cory's suit were a full two inches too short, the jacket straining across his broad shoulders. He'd have to be careful, or the next 'groom' wouldn't know the front from the back on the suit coat!
Half an hour later, he was tugging at the too-short sleeves when Emily stepped out of the dressing booth. An involuntary gasp escaped his lips. "You're...you're beautiful, Em."
She blushed crimson and smiled shyly, smoothing the satiny skirt of her wedding gown. "And you cut quite a dashing figure, yourself," she said.
"Well, you two," the pastor spouted, "let's get a-move on. We've never had a better turn-out. There must be three hundred people out there, waiting to see you two get hitched!"
He instructed them to wait just off-stage as he made the introductions. "Come on out when I give you the high-sign."
Every one of his heavy bootfalls echoed as he thudded across the wooden stage floor. The mike squealed as he stepped up and cleared his throat into it. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, extending an inviting arm in the couple's direction, "on behalf of the Main Street Merchants' Association, I give you Mr. and Mrs. Midnight Frolic!"
The lights dimmed as the band began playing The Wedding March, drowning out the crowd's hearty applause. Then, reading from The Good Book, the pastor went through the motions of making them man and wife.
There was nothing 'mock' about the kiss Cory gave her when Miller said, "You may now kiss the bride." It might have gone on indefinitely, if someone in the back of the horde hadn't shouted, "Atta boy, Cory!"
When the mock ceremony concluded, the group followed Cory and Emily as they marched behind the band down the middle of
Main Street, where they were sequestered inside the ancient library. The building was to serve as their honeymoon hotel as, outside, shoppers and merchants alike gladly play-acted 'townsfolk', and performed the historically accurate pot-banging, whistle-blowing taunts that were intended to disturb the 'newlyweds'.
As if oblivious to the racket, Cory took a seat on one of the benches against the wall and patted the empty space beside him. Once she was seated, he said, "I guess you know by now that I'm nuts about you."
"I like you, too," was her soft reply.
Chuckling, he said, "Why do I hear a 'but' in that sentence?"
"I'm living proof that marriage contracts aren't worth the paper they're printed on. I was the product of one failed marriage, and I nearly made the mistake of becoming a partner in another." She stared at her hands. "I won't become a statistic, Cory, because I can't subject my children to--"
"I know you didn't have the best childhood in the world," he began, choosing his words carefully, "but marriage isn't a no-win proposition. If it's rooted in love, if God is at the heart of the relationship, there's always room for compromise."
Slipping an arm around her, Cory added, "I know you think you've heard this before, but that Jonathan jerk didn't mean it when he said he didn't want to change you; I do mean it."
Emily wanted to believe him, wanted it more than anything. But how could she know for certain that his promise was more than idle words?
Suddenly, she had an idea, and it gave her such hope that she smiled happily. If he truly meant it when he said he'd never change her, she'd know by morning.
When he arrived at her place for dinner, Emily was wearing a coiffed hairdo. Pearl earrings. A prim-and-proper pink shirtdress with matching pumps. And a ruffly apron.
Rather than the avant guard menu she usually served him, she prepared an old-fashioned meat and potatoes meal. And instead of funky, mis-matched dinnerware, the linen-clothed table looks as though Martha Stewart had set it.
He knew the moment he crossed the threshold this was a test. But he didn't mind. It was one he'd pass with flying colors, no studying required.
Without a word of warning, Cory pulled her to him. "Listen, lady," he said, grinning mischievously, "it doesn't matter one whit to me whether you drape your adorable little body in silks and suedes or cotton and linen. I don't care if you pile your pretty hair on your head or let it fly wild and free." One hand on either side of her face, he gently tilted her face until her gaze met his. "I love you! Can't you get that through your head?"
Yes, she could see it. She'd have to be blind not to read the sincerity in his blue eyes.
And there was more proof, too.
Dinner at his apartment several weeks ago had shown her that Cory was an amazing mix of opposites. In his choice of clothing, he was practical and reserved, yet his home was filled with sentimental souvenirs. At work, he tried hard to give the impression that he was 'all business', yet he'd played the comic for that baby as though it had been second nature to him. And it had been Cory's suggestion that ended the Renovations War between
Main Street store owners: Fix up the downtown area, but do it with historic authenticity.
He slid a thick envelope from his pocket and handed it to her.
"What's this?" It took no more than a moment of skimming to get her answer: He'd sold the coffee shop! "Cory, why? What will you do now that--"
"You know that Mom and Duke are retiring and moving to
, right?" Florida
"Well, I figured maybe I could move into her place, and since it shares a wall with your boutique, we could--"
Cupping her chin, he tilted her face up for a kiss. "We'll combine our lives. Nobody has to change, not even one iota. And when the kids start coming along, we'll be right there, both of us, whenever they need us."
"Oh, Cory," she began, tears filling her eyes, "I don't know what to say."
"Say 'yes', and you'll make me the happiest man on earth."
Unable to speak, Emily wrapped her arms around him and kissed him, hoping that the gesture would tell him what words had not: "Yes!"
There was a light rapping on the library window. "Hey, you two," Duke teased through the glass, "it's supposed to be a fake honeymoon; you're not supposed to frolic for real, y'know."
"What time is it?" Emily asked.
Cory peeked at his watch. "Midnight, why?"
She crooked her finger, coaxing him closer. "I know just what we'll call our place."
He held her closer. "What?"