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His long awaited bride, p.14

His Long-Awaited Bride, page 14

 

His Long-Awaited Bride
 


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  “I understand, but she likes those things, so I’d keep doing them if I were you.”

  “I still want to give her something more meaningful, more special than a movie rental or a carton of ice cream,” he insisted.

  “Our time is more valuable than anything we could purchase.”

  “I’m already spending nearly every waking minute with her.” In fact, he wanted the non-waking moments, too. If only he could convince her to agree.

  “Hmm. I shall have to think on this. Don’t worry. Between the two of us, we’ll think of the perfect way to knock her socks off.”

  Her socks weren’t the only thing he wanted off! Pulling his mind back on track, he said, “Thanks. I owe you one. In the meantime, get a good night’s rest so you can go home.”

  “I will.”

  He turned to leave, satisfied to have an ally working on his dilemma of finding the perfect gift for Marissa.

  “Wait,” Lucy called as he reached the doorway. “I have an idea. Two, in fact.”

  “Fast work. What have you got?”

  “How good are you with your hands?”

  He grinned. “Depends on what you want me to do with them.” He could think of several things, but none of them were appropriate to share. “Brain surgery is out, but everything else I can manage.”

  “Excellent. There are two things she’s wanted for a long time.”

  Justin listened. The one suggestion wouldn’t pose a problem, but the other? It would be tough, but he’d find a way if it was the last thing he ever did.

  “Wow, Justin. I’m so impressed with how well this turned out.”

  Justin couldn’t argue. The chocolate brown leather sofa and matching side chair she’d chosen were made for the room and complemented the wall color and tan-flecked carpeting that she’d also selected. The blue, green and burgundy throw pillows as well as the burgundy drapery scarves gave the room plenty of color. Not a ruffle or a flower in sight.

  “It’s beautiful and so welcoming. Don’t you agree?” she asked.

  While the room was awesome in comparison to its previous appearance, he only had eyes for Marissa. “Absolutely.”

  “Come on. I want another look at your bedroom.” She grabbed his hand and led him down the hall to the first door on the right. “Isn’t this so much better?” she asked as she twirled around.

  He grinned at her delight. “I have to hand it to you, Mari. You did a fantastic job.”

  “Thanks.” She grinned impishly at him. “I never thought your four-poster bed would fit, but it did.”

  “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said. The truth was, he couldn’t have passed up the purchase, no matter what the cost. As soon as he’d seen the bedframe in the store, he’d imagined Mari’s lacy unmentionables hanging from the posts as if tossed in reckless abandon.

  He was ready for reckless abandon.

  Now, watching her smooth the dark green coverlet with gentle, caressing movements was nearly his undoing. Although the air-conditioning had cooled the house, his internal temperature had risen about ten degrees. If he didn’t withdraw to a less provocative environment, Marissa would find herself flat on her back, minus her red T-shirt and denim shorts.

  And Toby would spend the next several hours in Justin’s backyard, barking at birds and chasing squirrels without any human supervision.

  “Are you ready to go now?” he asked, his discomfort lending a gruff edge to his voice.

  “Yes, but it’s a shame we won’t stay here and enjoy your new furniture.”

  God help him, but the desire to make love to her on his leather sofa was becoming downright painful.

  “Another night.” He ushered her into the hallway, hoping that particular pleasure wouldn’t be too long in coming. “I have my mouth set for a French vanilla cappuccino and one of their famous club sandwiches.”

  “It sounds wonderful” she said. “Do you want to follow me home so I can drop Toby off, or…?”

  “Leave him here,” he said. “The local cat and squirrel population need the exercise.”

  “Okay.”

  Marissa noticed how Justin guided her out to his car, one hand at the small of her back. Funny thing, but he hadn’t done that before, had he? No, she decided. If he had, she would have felt those delicious tingles up her spine before now.

  Or was she simply seeing him in a new light?

  Don’t overanalyze this, she cautioned herself. Enjoy the moment.

  She did.

  While parts of their outing took on a more date-like quality, even if Justin denied it, other parts felt familiar. Out of habit, they shared their sandwiches and Justin swapped his dill pickle spear for her serving of potato salad.

  “According to the scuttlebutt, Travis Pendleton has taken a lot of heat ever since the article came out in the newspaper,” he said as he sipped his cappuccino.

  “Really?”

  “Yeah. He’s not the only one, either. All the city council members have been hearing from their constituents. Unless they change their tunes, I wouldn’t be surprised to see all new faces after the next election.”

  “Rightly so. Maybe they’ll think twice before they cut public health programs.”

  “Something tells me they will.” He set his empty cup onto the table. “Shall we go?”

  She didn’t want to, but they couldn’t sit in the coffee shop all night. Neither could they leave Toby outside for hours, causing havoc with the wildlife. “We should,” she said, rising. “I’m sure Toby’s driven your neighbors crazy with his barking.”

  He grabbed the ticket, then reached into his back pocket. A sheepish grin appeared on his face. “Um, Mari?”

  “Forgot your wallet again?”

  He nodded. “You know me too well,” he said weakly. “Sorry about that.”

  She reached into her purse and pulled out several greenbacks. “How can you forget it? What would happen if the cops stopped you and demanded to see your driver’s license?”

  “The joys of small-town living. They all know who I am. They aren’t going to pull me over without a reason and I don’t intend to give them one.”

  “Hmm. Someday, I’m going to forget my purse so you’ll be stuck with the bill,” she threatened without heat as she slung the strap over her shoulder.

  “You won’t,” he said confidently. “Look at it this way. If this had been a date, you wouldn’t have come. Right?”

  Her face warmed. “Probably.”

  “On a real date, the man pays for dinner. Because I didn’t, that proves this wasn’t a date.”

  She laughed. “If you say so.”

  Real date or not, she couldn’t deny that he’d added a few extra touches, like opening the car door for her and walking with his arm around her waist. She would have commented on those things to prove her point, but she enjoyed them far too much to risk having him stop.

  At Justin’s house, they found an alert but quiet Toby lying in the grass, vigilantly watching the yard for the first sign of an intruder.

  “He’s content,” Justin remarked.

  “Of course. He’s in his element, but he’s due for a bath.”

  “There’s always tomorrow. I doubt if one more day will make a difference to him.”

  “Maybe not to him, but if he was sleeping with you, you’d change your tune.”

  “I stand corrected.”

  A few minutes later, Marissa stood at the front door with Toby’s leash in hand. “I had a nice time, even if I had to pay for it,” she teased.

  “You’re welcome.” He grinned. “Annie Tremaine is going to play her bagpipes at the fire station tomorrow night, provided she hasn’t been called for an ambulance run. Want to go?”

  “Sure, why not?” She hesitated. “Is this a date?”

  “Do you want it to be?”

  “No,” she answered promptly.

  “Then it isn’t. I’ll pick you up at eight-thirty.”

  She turned to go, wanting a kiss but afraid she
d get one. In the end, she didn’t have a choice. He pulled her close and then, without any hesitation or resistance on her part, her lips met his.

  The kiss started out slow and gentle, almost as if he was only testing her for a response. Within seconds the feather-light contact had powered up to hard and fast and something that went beyond the boundaries of friendship. All manner of sensations swept over her, as well as an overwhelming urge to feel every inch of him plastered against her body.

  Her mind silently begged him to ask her to stay, but her good sense screamed it was too soon. Sleeping with him would only muddy the already murky waters of their quasi-relationship.

  Deep down, though, she wanted him inside her as much as she needed air.

  Toby’s grumble was as effective at interrupting them as a code blue announcement. As they broke apart, Marissa’s only consolation came from seeing how Justin’s disappointment mirrored her own. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, making a hasty exit before she did something she’d later regret.

  However, if Justin harbored any of those same regrets, he hid them well. Not only did he arrive on time the next evening, but he arrived bearing gifts.

  “A chrysanthemum!” she exclaimed. “How did you know I wanted one?”

  “You mentioned last week that you had a bare spot in your flower bed. I assumed you and Toby would appreciate it more than cut flowers.”

  “Really? Why?”

  “You’ll enjoy planting it and Toby will knock himself out trying to dig it up.” He grinned.

  While not many men would appear on a girl’s doorstep and try to impress her with a potted plant, the chrysanthemum couldn’t have been more appropriate. The fact that he’d also chosen one with blooms in her favorite color—yellow—only impressed her more.

  “Thank you. This is lovely.”

  “Glad you like it.” He set the pot on the table and dusted off his hands. “We’d better get going or else we won’t get within two blocks of the fire station.”

  As he’d predicted, the crowds had already gathered around the opened ambulance bay doors. Annie Tremaine, her husband, Jared, and the rest of her crew milled around the growing group of spectators.

  Justin spread his blanket under a tree on the edge of the property and sat down with his back resting against the trunk. “Have a seat,” he invited, patting the ground beside him.

  Marissa sat.

  Promptly at nine, as the sun fell behind the treeline, Annie’s concert began. Marissa closed her eyes and let the music wash over her, conscious of the man sitting next to her. His clean soap scent mingled with the summer odors of freshly cut grass and burning charcoal briquets. As dusk fell and the temperature dropped several degrees, she instinctively leaned closer to absorb some of his heat.

  Before she could object—and she didn’t want to—he’d hauled her between his outstretched legs, wrapped his arms around her and held her, spoon fashion.

  Perhaps she should have cared about the picture they presented to the world, but she didn’t. She was too caught up by his presence, the music and one thought.

  If their non-dates all went like this one, she’d be a happy woman.

  CHAPTER NINE

  ON SUNDAY afternoon, Toby went crazy at the sound of a pickup pulling into the driveway. Marissa didn’t recognize the battered vehicle, only the man who’d slid out of the driver’s seat wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a gray T-shirt sporting more holes than Swiss cheese.

  “New wheels?” she teased Justin.

  “I borrowed Jared and Annie’s truck for the day.”

  “Why?” she asked, curious.

  His grin stretched from ear to ear. “Come and see.”

  She followed him barefoot down the driveway to the rear end and stared with delight at the truckbed’s contents. “A tree? Is it for your office?”

  “Most certainly not. It’s yours.”

  “Mine?” She couldn’t wrap her brain around the idea.

  “As gifts go, I’ll admit it’s unorthodox, but you’ve been saying how your backyard doesn’t have enough shade. I thought this would solve the problem.”

  “Yes, but—”

  “Now you’ll have plenty. According to the guy at the greenhouse, this is supposedly the fastest-growing shade tree available. Royal Empress, I believe it’s called.”

  “I’ve heard of those. When they bloom in the spring, they have lavender flowers, don’t they?”

  “So I’ve been told. They’re also supposed to grow up to twelve feet during their first season. I figure Toby’ll be sitting under shade before the summer’s over.” He grinned. “Think of all the birds and squirrels he can bark at.”

  “Now I’ll have to invest in a bark collar.”

  “He’s a dog and dogs bark. Plus, it will give him something to lift a leg to. Did you know he squats like a girl dog?”

  She ignored his observation. She was still too awed by his gift. “This is so overwhelming. No one’s given me a tree before.”

  “First time for everything,” he said cheerfully.

  “I don’t know what to say.”

  “Thank you works for me.”

  “You shouldn’t have.”

  “Why not? You helped with my house. I’m only returning the favor.”

  “But…”

  His satisfied expression changed to one of uncertainty. “You don’t like it.”

  “I do,” she insisted. “It’s just that—”

  “If you don’t want the tree, just say so,” he interrupted gruffly. “I can handle it.”

  “I want the tree.”

  “The nursery will take it back,” he continued. “It isn’t a problem.”

  “I want the tree.”

  “You’re certain?” He met her gaze. “You don’t have to feel obligated.”

  “Justin. Read my lips. I want the tree. If I gave you the impression that I didn’t, I’m sorry. I’m just so surprised. Of all the things you could have brought me…”

  A lump formed in her throat. This was something so unique, so thoughtful, so Justin, that her emotions threatened to get the better of her.

  He eyed her suspiciously. “You’re not going to cry, are you?”

  She shook her head, swallowed hard and smiled. “It’s perfect. Honest. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer surprise.” Call her crazy, but fresh flowers and roses were overrated. While they were beautiful and romantic, they simply didn’t hold a candle to her Royal Empress tree. The roses would only last for a week, but a tree would serve as a daily reminder of Justin’s regard for years. What could be more romantic than that?

  “Good.” Relief flashed across his face and his satisfied smile returned. In fact, she could almost see his chest swell with pride.

  “Do we need to pick out a spot, or did you have one in mind?” he asked.

  “I know exactly where it belongs.” She slid the shovel off the truckbed while he carried the three-foot tree into the backyard. “Here,” she said, thrusting the spade into the ground to mark the spot.

  He started to work. Sweat glistened on his arms and face as he created the proper-sized hole for the tree’s root ball. The urge to offer her help burned inside her, but his fierce concentration stopped her. He wouldn’t appreciate her mother-hen treatment when he was obviously determined to do this by himself, for her.

  For her.

  Only a man who knew her better than she knew herself would have thought of such a gift, or been willing to provide it. If she wasn’t careful, she’d fall in love with him all over again.

  Oh, who was she trying to kid? She already had.

  In fact, she wondered if she’d ever truly stopped, or if she’d only been fooling herself.

  The truth flashed in front of her. All his accusations about settling for second-best, being afraid and too stubborn to see reason had described her perfectly. No wonder he’d been so exasperated with her and had refused to listen to her excuses.

  Now she could hardly wait for him to ask her
on a date. When he did, she intended to say yes without any hesitation or second thoughts.

  Certain his invitation wouldn’t come until they’d finished their chore, she wanted to hurry the process along.

  “You don’t need to dig all the way to China,” she told him.

  “I’m following the instructions. I have to break up the soil so air and the fertilizer can get to the roots,” he huffed as he dumped another spadeful of dirt on top of the growing pile.

  Toby barked as he danced around them, clearly excited by this new activity.

  “Is this where I make jokes about you becoming a tree surgeon?” she teased.

  “Very funny.”

  Conscious of his weaker arm, she tried to spell him. “I’ll take a turn.”

  “No, you won’t. I’m almost done.”

  “This can’t be the physical therapy your doctor had in mind,” she pointed out.

  “Maybe not, but it’s just as effective. If you want to do something useful, you can keep Toby out from underfoot.”

  The terrier was either growling at the shovel and trying to bite it, or pawing at the fresh earth as if attempting to help. Either way, he was being a royal nuisance.

  Marissa picked up her dog. “Come on, Tobe. Let’s make a pitcher of lemonade.”

  By the time she returned, Justin had lowered the tree into the hole and was starting to pack the dirt around its roots. For the next several minutes they worked in silence until the tree stood firmly in its new home. After soaking the ground with the garden hose, he pronounced his job done.

  Because it was a warm, humid day, he drained his glass of lemonade in one fell swoop. As she poured another, she waited impatiently for his next invitation.

  Instead, he wiped away the beads of sweat on his face and said, “It really is hot.”

  Perhaps if she coaxed him a bit… “Stay for dinner?”

  He crinkled his face apologetically. “I can’t. I’m going back to Jared’s to help him with a few things. I’ll take a rain check, though.”

  She couldn’t deny her disappointment, but chose to hide it. “Okay.”

  Although he hadn’t said he’d drop back by, she’d fully expected him to do so. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Yet, as she prepared for bed that evening, she consoled herself with the prospect of seeing him the next day.

 
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