Authors: Laura Strickland
Tags: #Holiday,Contemporary,Humorous/Romantic Comedy
Hope surged through him with terrifying intensity. Would she refuse to let him go?
He leaned forward and kissed the tattoo on her cheek, just for the sheer pleasure of it. “No?”
She scrabbled around in the tangled sheets. “We never had dinner.”
He fumbled for his glasses before squinting at her clock. “Three a.m. Too late for dinner?”
“It’s probably ruined by now.”
“I’ll bet it isn’t.”
“Come on, then.” She caught his hand, and once again he succumbed to her enthusiasm.
He asked only, “Will you let me get dressed first?”
She slid into her robe, the one with the trailing ruffles. Watching her, Leo’s heart did a funny little somersault in his chest. He’d never been with a woman who made him feel like this—and he feared he could easily become addicted to the feeling.
Maybe he already had.
She went to her closet, rooted around for a moment, and produced an incredible garment—a man’s robe of flocked velvet in deep, emerald green. “Here, wear this.”
And to whom had that belonged? He scowled at the garment, and she tipped her head.
As if she could read his mind, she explained, “I make a lot of my clothes from things I buy at the thrift store. I picked this up but haven’t got round to using it. I think it will fit you.”
He laughed uncertainly before crawling across the bed to reach her. She helped him don the incredible garment, tied the belt, and bestowed a kiss on the skin at his throat.
“Green’s your color. You look magnificent. Like a naval hero on furlough for a little pampering.”
All the candles on the table had gutted out. Gerri turned on a single lamp before hurrying off to the kitchen.
Leo pondered the meaning of this early morning supper. Did she truly rue the loss of a meal, or did this just make an excuse for him to stay longer?
Either way, he figured he had whatever time eating the meal might take to convince her they belonged in one another’s world and to elicit a promise to see him again.
“Just a bit dried out,” she informed him as she ferried in the food.
“I don’t mind,” he said truthfully. “This is fun.” How could he hope to tell her she brought something into his life he’d never even thought to miss? Something so vital and real he couldn’t now imagine surviving without it.
They ate in near silence, taking careful looks at one another. When she went off to get the dessert—a syllabub—he ducked back into the bedroom for the bag of candy hearts.
She froze when she saw it on the table. “What’s that for?”
“I want to ask you something, and I know they all say ‘Ask Me.’ ”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I dumped them all out at my place and checked. Then I bought a package and replaced the ones that didn’t say that.”
She smiled. “I should feel manipulated, but I don’t.”
Deliberately, he pulled a heart from the bag and placed it on her dessert plate.
“Ask Me,” she read obediently.
“Okay, I will.” He drew a breath, suddenly certain his next words would be some of the most important he ever spoke.
“Gerri Webb, will you see me again? Will you promise to give this thing between us a fair chance, agree to suspend disbelief the way we do when we read, and accept the possibility a relationship can work?”
She went very still, only her eyes moving to examine his face. “That’s a lot to ask.”
“I know.” He upended the bag on the table cloth; candy hearts tumbled everywhere. “That’s why I’m willing to spend all my ‘asks.’ That’s how important I think we are.”
“I’m also willing to listen to all your objections. Just so long as you don’t say ‘no.’ ”
She laughed in surprise. “My objections?” She rested her chin on one hand, still studying him. “You want to hear my objections? I’d start with the fact that I make disastrous choices in love. And I’m not afraid to use that word because ‘love’ is what I would ultimately require. I know that much about myself. I also know
is better than the wrong thing. I’d determined to thrive on my own, concentrate on my career, and be fulfilled in it, which was why I was in the library on Valentine’s Day.”
“Where you met me.”
“Where I met you.” She made a helpless gesture with one graceful hand. “I’m not saying we don’t get along in the bedroom. No one could say that. It’s been—well, amazing. And yes, we’ve proved we can fulfill one another’s fantasies. But that’s not real life.”
“True,” Leo said. “Who’s to say, though, it couldn’t translate?” He captured her hand. “Give me the chance, Gerri.”
“Tempting. And the chemistry between us makes it even more so. But I’m afraid that with you, Leo Rankin, the price would be far too high. I suspect, this time, it could involve my heart.”
“Isn’t that all the more reason to try?”
The sapphire on her breast gleamed as she sucked in a breath. “All the more reason to protect myself. I’ve thought about it, Leo—of course I have! I think that’s why I called and asked you here. I hoped to prove to myself we
fit, so I could put you out of my mind and be done with you. The only thing last night proved is how dangerous you are to me.”
“Life is dangerous,” he told her earnestly. “What would the stories we read be worth if the characters didn’t take wild chances? You want to live your life safe? I always thought I did. Meeting you has taught me differently. I’ll make whatever changes and take whatever chances I have to, Gerri Webb, in order to have you in my life.”
She shook her head. “You say that now, when this is all new and vital. But I’ve seen what relationships can become.”
“Trust me,” he implored. “You were able to trust me when I snapped those cuffs on your wrists. Why not going forward?”
Disconcertingly, her eyes filled with tears. “That was fantasy. I don’t want you to make changes in order to fit into my life, Leo. It would never work. Anyway, you’re perfect the way you are. I think—I think we should chalk this up as a fabulous interval and call it quits.”
Protest clawed up from Leo’s chest and desperation nearly choked him. “You’re wrong.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Can you really turn your back on what we have?”
“Leo, life isn’t lived between the sheets, and we don’t exist between the pages of some adventure novel. You asked me; I’ve given you my answer.”
He got to his feet, anger and dismay filling him. A reasoned man, he rarely raised his voice and refused to do so now. He held Gerri’s gaze and said, “Try to protect yourself as you will—you’ll regret this. Because, Gerri Webb, you can’t deny love.”
No flowers arrived in the ensuing days, no fantastical gifts of any kind. Leo Rankin never called Gerri’s number, never attempted to seek her out. She’d asked to break things off, and he’d accommodated her request to the letter.
That didn’t keep Gerri from looking at the door every time the bell jangled. Nor did it keep her heart from leaping whenever her phone rang. She relentlessly reexamined the wisdom of what she’d done. The hurt would grow less, she reasoned. Anyway, hurting a little now had to be better than hurting a lot later.
Trouble was she didn’t just hurt a little. Life became a desert of tasks to be accomplished during joyless hours. Leo Rankin haunted her—the scent of him in her bed that made her launder her sheets in a frenzy. The bag of candy hearts, each of which she’d picked up carefully off the tablecloth and saved. The memory of a smile in chocolate-brown eyes.
Her colleagues at the parlor eyed her uneasily but asked no questions. A few of them had been around long enough to watch her weather past disastrous relationships.
She immersed herself in her work, trying to forget everything else, but couldn’t lose the heartache.
Finally, during a lull in customers when just the two of them occupied the shop, Max approached her, his handsome face creased with concern.
“Hey, Gerri, girl,” he began. “What ever happened to the guy who sent the flowers? He seemed pretty interested there for a while.”
Gerri quickly dropped her gaze. “He was interested. Maybe a bit too interested. I thought it better to break things off.”
“Really?” Max raised his eyebrows and tipped his head. “Well, how’s that working for you? I haven’t seen you this miserable since your last break-up. Why don’t you call him?”
Gerri gave Max a quick look and said, “I don’t want to call him.”
“Liar. I know better than to butt into your business, and I’m not about to tell you how to lead your love life—”
,” Gerri interrupted, stating what she’d already repeated a dozen times. It couldn’t be. She barely knew Leo Rankin and, anyway, he was utterly wrong for her.
Despite all the signs. And despite what he’d said the night he walked out her door:
You can’t deny love.
She’d pondered those words over and over, wondering just what he meant by them. Had he been implying he loved her? But that couldn’t be. Love came over time, rooted deep, and grew slowly. What they shared went by the name of attraction.
“Well”—Max studied her with fond eyes—“you could have fooled me. I thought things were hot and heavy between you and—?” He paused suggestively, asking for a name.
“He showed signs of being a real suitor, someone willing to give you the kind of attention you deserve. Why not give it a shot?”
“We just didn’t fit.” Except when he slid into her, or when their imaginations meshed, and when they laughed together.
Max looked dubious. “Gerri, honey, I’ve seen the losers you chose in the past—bad boys all with attitude up the wazoo. How’d they fit?”
“Not so good, which is why I’ve decided I’m better off alone. My life’s full enough without a man.”
“Sure. You’ve got your art and friends who care about you. But there can be lonely times. Look at me.”
Gerri lifted her gaze to study him. He’d been in a good relationship for the last five years and had a baby on the way. “You and Roberta are perfect for each other.”
“I didn’t think so at first. Told myself I didn’t want to be tied down with one woman. Wanted no part of some tame family life. But when it came down to it, I knew life was better with her than without her, whatever the cost. I’d live in a dungeon with that woman rather than a palace with anyone else.”
Foolish tears sprang to Gerri’s eyes. She hadn’t shed any since sending Leo away. Now she wanted to sob in Max’s arms.
Instead she told him, “That’s your path, Max, not mine. I guess I’ve decided I’d rather shut myself in that dungeon, away from the sunlight, than let myself be hurt again.”
“Honey, life’s all about getting hurt. There’s no safe place.”
“That’s what Leo said. But you don’t understand, Max. With Leo, it feels like I’m standing on a precipice. I know if I fall this time, it could finish me.”
Max leaned closer and whispered, “Or you two could fly. Why not jump
Yet another stuffy reception. Leo glared at the cup of tea in his hand and wondered what had happened to his life. The last time he’d attended one of these things, he’d been with Gerri Webb. She still accompanied him, but only in thought—haunting and relentless.
This reception, held to welcome a new department member, differed little from others in the past. Leo sipped his tea while despair rose and threatened to choke him, a familiar enough sensation lately.
Last night he’d barely resisted driving by the library on Waterbury and then on to Gerri’s house. However desperate he might be, he wouldn’t stoop to stalking.
Gerri had made her wishes clear. He could only abide by them.
“So what do you think of her?”
Leo started and looked into the face of his colleague, Tom Packard. Did Tom mean Gerri, whom Leo thought breathtaking, incomparable—impossible to match? “Eh?”
“Our new colleague,” Tom said. “Pretty, isn’t she?”
Leo glanced at the young woman in question. She wore her fair hair in a sophisticated twist and her conservative suit clothed a willowy figure. When she caught his eye she cast him a smile.
“She’s barely stopped looking at you,” Tom observed. “That’s an invitation if ever I saw one.”
Leo scrutinized her more closely. She epitomized the sort of woman he usually dated, right down to her glasses, which mirrored his own.
Was it time for him to surrender his hopeless cause and move on? Everything within rebelled at the thought. Leo Rankin, rebellious? Never. Well—maybe.
“Not interested,” he told Tom.
“Really? ’Cause I was thinking of striking up a conversation.”
“Go for it,” Leo urged.
Tom grinned, straightened his suit coat, and sallied forth. Leo figured their new colleague didn’t stand a chance.
Two weeks dragged by, and then a third, limping. The first day of spring drew near, but Gerri could find little happiness in her heart.
It will get easier
, she repeated over and over. How long could she miss a guy she barely knew? But she couldn’t deny that along with Leo a spark had gone from her life.
The beautiful bouquet of flowers long gone and the chocolates eaten, she had only the necklace as a tactile reminder. And the memories associated with that—far too vivid—possessed the power to wound. Unable to relive that magical night, when Leo had stripped everything but the necklace from her body and loved her as she’d never been loved before, she put the exquisite piece away and tried not to imagine what might have been.
During a cleaning frenzy, she attempted to toss out his card, as well, but couldn’t quite. No matter; his number still lingered in her phone, and she hadn’t been able to delete that, either.
She hoped that didn’t say something significant about her, hoped she didn’t still hold out a hope for them. Parting ways had been the right thing to do, from a practical standpoint. Trouble was, she now began to realize that while her head might be practical, her heart still longed for the impossible.