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His long awaited bride, p.8

His Long-Awaited Bride, page 8


His Long-Awaited Bride

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  “Okay, okay.” His teasing smile disappeared. “What do you suggest?”

  “Dark, masculine colors,” she decided as she pivoted slowly. “Maroon, navy blue, moss green. A solid cherrywood dresser and nightstand. Maybe even a four-poster bed….”

  “Hmm A four-poster bed?” He idly stroked his chin. “Interesting. I wonder if a scalpel is strong enough to carve notches in wood.”

  She paused as she crossed her arms and tapped one foot. Once again, his irreverence reminded her of their late-night college library conversations. “If you’re going to make inappropriate remarks…”

  “I won’t. Please, go on.”

  “The point is, if you ever invite a woman to share your space, the room needs to project the image that she’s the only one who’s ever been invited into your purely masculine domain. Rose petals and candles aren’t necessary, but she needs to feel that she connects with you on more than a purely physical level. That she’s the one who’s finally entered your most private domain, that she and not some other woman will be the one who’ll make the evening memorable to you. That’s what I would—”

  She stopped herself before she could say “want.” Yes, that was what she would want if she were ever to be invited into Justin’s bedroom for more than decorating tips.

  Her unfinished sentence, uttered with such passion and a dreamy wistfulness, echoed in the silence. Suddenly afraid that she’d revealed more about her innermost thoughts than she should have, she pointedly checked her wristwatch.

  “Look at the time!” she exclaimed. “If we don’t get to the store soon, it will close before we can pick out paint chips.”

  Yet, as he accompanied her to his car, she couldn’t deny the one hard truth that Justin had already pointed out.

  If she loved someone enough to sleep with him, she wouldn’t notice the decor at all.


  MARISSA’S Conversational slip-up hadn’t escaped Justin’s notice. Nor had the way she’d rattled off her ideas for the living room as if she’d been afraid to let him get a word in edgewise. Sidetracking him she was, all the way to the hardware store, but rather than put her on the spot by asking questions that she clearly didn’t want to answer, he simply smiled and nodded at appropriate intervals. Little did she know that while he physically sat in the driver’s seat of his car, he mentally remained at his house.

  He’d heard the longing note in her voice as she’d described what she wanted in a man’s bedroom, which only led him to believe one of two things—either she’d never seen Pendleton’s private domain as she’d called it, or, if she had, he hadn’t delivered her specific fantasy.

  Which only made him suspect that if she could create the atmosphere she wanted in his bedroom in comparison, then it might cause her to look at Pendleton through less awestruck eyes.

  To that end, no matter what she suggested—paintings, drapes, a four-poster bed—he would approve. Not at first, of course, because he didn’t want to raise her suspicions if he suddenly or enthusiastically agreed to every idea. He’d allow her to convince him, because her gorgeous smile, when she thought she’d won an argument, was worth the small drain on his checking account.

  But what if she really loved this guy?

  She couldn’t, he decided. She’d only known Pendleton a few weeks. Love didn’t sprout overnight, at least not the abiding sort that lasted through thick and thin and was worth fighting for when times got tough. Although…if by some fluke of nature she loved Travis wholeheartedly after only a short time, did he have any right to interfere, even under the guise of trying to save her grief? Was that why his friends had kept silent about Chandra? Would he have listened, or would their warnings have only driven a wedge between them?

  “What’s wrong with this color?” Marissa asked.


  “You were frowning. What don’t you like about this shade of yellow?”

  He glanced at the paint chip. “It’s fine. I was just thinking of something else. A patient,” he improvised rapidly.

  “Oh.” She turned back to her paint chips and his attention switched back to his thoughts.

  Okay, he told himself. Maybe his friends hadn’t felt that it was their place to interfere, but he’d known Marissa for a very long time. What sort of friend would he be if he didn’t warn her of potential danger? If she loved the guy, nothing he did would change the way she felt. If she didn’t, then it would be far better if she discovered that now rather than later.

  Aren’t you being devious…and selfish?

  Maybe he was. He would certainly lose a lot if Pendleton and Marissa had a long-term relationship, but the point was, he was doing this for Marissa’s own good. If Travis wasn’t the right man for her—and he wasn’t—then she needed to know that before he broke her heart.

  By mid-afternoon on Sunday, Marissa almost regretted her decision to tackle so much of Justin’s home improvement project at once. Painting three rooms and a hallway hadn’t seemed like a monumental task at first, but after working until midnight on Friday and from sunup to sundown on Saturday, she had revised her opinion. Her arms and shoulders ached from wielding screwdrivers, paintbrushes and caulking guns, and her legs quivered like gelatin after climbing up and down ladders for hours.

  Although Justin didn’t complain, she’d caught him flexing his muscles from time to time, too. She’d also noticed the way he’d favored his weaker right hand and arm during their lunch break, and she knew she had to call a halt for his sake as much as her own. She would have to be creative about it, though, because if he suspected that she was catering to his weakness, he’d balk like a Missouri mule.

  “I don’t know about you, but parts of me that I didn’t know I had are aching,” she remarked as she rubbed the back of her neck. “Would you be offended if we call it a day after we finish the living room?”

  He laid the paint roller in the tray and flexed his fingers. “I thought you wanted to do all of the painting this weekend.”

  “I did, but I’m beat. Even if we stop now, we’ve still made good progress. It shouldn’t take more than an evening or two to slap the second coat on your bedroom and kitchen. Then, next weekend, we can add the borders.”

  He dipped his roller in the paint tray. “Planning to soak in the tub tonight?”

  “I wish,” she said fervently, “but Lucy’s weeds are waiting for me and Toby desperately needs another bath.”

  At the mention of his name, Toby lifted his head from his place on the sheet-covered sofa. His normally dark beard appeared gray and his fur sported several yellow and green splotches.

  “He does look the worse for wear. Silly mutt,” he said fondly, as he shifted the roller from his right hand to his left and flexed his fingers.

  “Nosy mutt,” she corrected, casting a benevolent glance at her pet. “Paint-stained paws aside, he could use a good run in Lucy’s backyard. And I could use some fresh air.”

  “You’ve convinced me. We’ll wrap this up and call it a day.”

  A few minutes later, Marissa stepped back to survey their efforts with a critical eye. Satisfied, she smiled. “Nice job, St. James.”

  Justin paused to swipe his forehead with his forearm. “Good, because it’s going to be a very long time before I do this again,” he grumbled as he dipped his roller in the paint pan again.

  “If that’s the case, maybe we should repaint the other two bedrooms while we’re going to all the trouble.” Toby uttered a single woof. “Even Toby agrees.”

  “Not a chance. He’s just pushing us to finish so he can play outside.”

  “Could be,” she admitted. Then, because Justin’s arm movements seemed stiff, she volunteered, “I can work on that wall if you like.”

  “I’ll do it,” he said firmly as he transferred the roller to his less dominant left hand and attacked the wall with more enthusiasm than skill, which explained why paint spatters covered him from head to toe and why Toby had taken up residence on the sofa in the middle of t
he room.

  “I’m impressed. You’re becoming quite ambidextrous.”

  He shot her a glare. “I wouldn’t go that far, but at least with painting I get by. Why don’t you rinse out the brushes while I take care of this last section?”

  “Good idea. But before I go, you missed a spot.”

  “Impossible. I’m using enough paint to cover a city block.”

  “That might be, but that spot…” she pointed “…needs another swipe.”

  He peered at it. “Looks fine to me.”

  “Trust me. It needs another swipe.”

  “All right, all right. Slavedriver,” he mumbled.

  “And don’t you forget it.” Smiling broadly at him, she sailed into the kitchen with her brushes.

  Humming a happy tune as she rinsed the bristles under the kitchen spigot, she couldn’t deny the sense of accomplishment resting within her. Her vision for his house was slowly taking shape. Before long, Justin’s place would be as homey and welcoming as hers.

  He probably didn’t realize it—there wasn’t any way that he could—but it was important for her to do this for him. If things worked out between her and Travis, she didn’t want Justin to lose the haven he’d found in her little house. She wanted his own home to be a place where he’d want to relax and unwind, to entertain friends and create happy memories, not merely be a place to crash when he had no place else to go. Whether he realized it or not, this would be her final gift to him.

  The thought should have left her with that warm, fuzzy feeling of contentment, but it didn’t. Instead, an ache shot through her chest—a bittersweet ache of things lost.

  Not lost, she told herself firmly, falling back into her old habit of using logic to counteract her secret desires. One couldn’t lose what one had never had. Justin saw her only as a friend, nothing more, and bemoaning that he never had was counterproductive. Just as she had found someone special in her life, Justin would someday do the same, and she would do well to remember that.

  In the meantime, she had a dog who needed to stretch his legs and weeds calling her name.

  She shut off the water and dried her hands on a paper towel. “How are you coming in there?” she called out.

  A crash was her reply, followed by a hearty bark and an even louder human expletive. Marissa rushed to the doorway and held back a giggle.

  The overturned paint can told the tale. A puddle was growing in an ever-widening circle underneath it while Justin stood nearby, liberally covered in tan paint, with a few blotches on his face for good measure. Rivers of tan ran down the walls to pool on the woodwork and drop-cloths. The sheets protecting the furniture were also lavishly sprinkled, with some areas saturated enough for paint to drip onto the floor. Toby stood on the sofa, his tail in the air and his eyes wide, looking as surprised as Justin.

  “What happened?” she asked, afraid he’d tripped over something she’d left behind.

  “I dropped the damned can,” he ground out.

  His disgust with himself was painfully obvious. “Accidents happen,” she said lightly. Then, because he’d hate it if she made a fuss, she didn’t. “I’ll help you clean up the mess.”

  “I made it, I’ll clean it up,” he snapped. “Go back to whatever you were doing.”

  “I was almost finished anyway,” she began.

  “I’ll take care of it.”

  The finality in his voice told her that he wouldn’t appreciate her assistance. Reluctantly, she nodded. “Okay, but I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

  He righted the can and nodded. Marissa hated leaving him alone to silently stew about his shortcomings, as she knew he would. Ever since the accident, he’d taken his perceived imperfections completely to heart when as far as she was concerned, they weren’t worth the mental anguish. Today’s mishap could have happened to anyone, including someone without a hand weakness. Yet she had no choice but to honor his request.

  She left without a word and returned to the kitchen where she blotted the brushes dry. When she couldn’t stand the silence emanating from the other room any longer, she returned.

  Justin didn’t acknowledge her presence because he was too busy staring at the huge stain on the carpeting that the overlapping plastic sheets hadn’t been able to prevent. Wordlessly, she carried out the offending paint bucket, as well as the roller and tray. As soon as those items were stowed away for short-term storage, she found Justin sitting next to Toby on the sofa, his face drawn.

  Marissa snapped her fingers and Toby jumped to the floor so she could take his place. As soon as she sat down, she reached for Justin’s right hand and began her gentle massage.

  His muscles felt stiff under her fingers and she silently berated herself for being responsible. “I should have taken this project more slowly,” she apologized softly, “but you know me. I don’t do anything in half-measures.”

  A half-smile tugged at his mouth. “It isn’t your fault. I didn’t do anything that I didn’t want to do.”

  She wasn’t willing to let herself off the hook. “I pushed too hard.”

  “Believe it or not,” he said wryly, “I know my limitations.” This time a faint but distinct smile appeared. “Even if I don’t always act like it. God, that feels good.” He leaned back and closed his eyes.

  She massaged his wrist and forearm. “I’m glad.” She continued to rub at the tension knots, enjoying the feel of his skin beneath her fingers before she moved down to his hand again.

  “I’m going to beat this.”

  She wasn’t certain if he’d commented for his own benefit or hers. While the orthopedist had agreed that Justin had progressed far better than he’d initially hoped, any further gains couldn’t be predicted. She didn’t want Justin to harbor false hope, but she didn’t want him to give up, either.

  “I know,” she said softly, easing up on the pressure she’d been applying.

  “I hate this.”

  “I know,” she repeated. Justin had never been the sort to pander to his own weaknesses, although he didn’t judge those who did. He simply held himself to a higher standard. A guy thing, she’d always assumed. Unfortunately, while that attitude might work for minor aches and pains and sprains, some things fell outside the realm of possibility.

  “You could have died,” she continued practically. “A weak wrist seems a small thing in comparison to losing your life.”

  “Yes, but—”

  “While you’re waiting and working toward a full recovery, don’t undo all the progress you’ve already made. I won’t think any less of you if you have to take a break every now and then. Neither will anyone else.”

  At his nod, she added, “If you look at the bright side, a couple of good things came out of this.”

  His eyes popped open. “Oh?”

  She concentrated her healing touch on his palm. “I now have an official gofer.”

  He chuckled. “Says who?”

  “Says me. Someone has to ‘gofer’ things like soda and snacks and more paint.”

  “More paint?”

  She giggled at his horrified expression. “Relax. I was only giving an example. We shouldn’t need any more paint, unless you decide to spill a full can instead of a nearly empty one.”

  “Not if I can help it,” he said fervently. “So what’s the other good thing?”

  “From the size of that stain, I foresee new carpeting in your future.”

  He sighed. “I was afraid of that.”

  “The sofa, too.”

  He groaned. “Not my sofa. It may be the ugliest thing known to man, but it’s comfy.”

  “Only to you,” she corrected. “The fabric is rough and scratchy and feels like my grandpa’s Second World War green army blanket.”

  “Maybe we could just rearrange the room.”

  The hope in his voice made her smile as she shook her head. “If we set it so the splotchy side faces the wall, we’ll ruin the traffic flow. Feng shui and all that.”

  “Who cares about feng shui?

  “You’d also have to move the television out of the corner where the cable hook-up is,” she pointed out.


  “Because you can’t see the screen if the sofa is over there. Not a good idea.”

  “No problem. I’ll run a long cable.”

  “People will trip over the cord.”

  “Then I’ll ask the cable company—”

  She cut him off. “Buy a new sofa, Justin. It will be so much easier all round.”

  “Don’t sound so happy.”

  “I’m not.” She grinned. “Not much, anyway.”

  “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’d planned this whole thing.”

  “Caught me red-handed.” She inched her way up his arm once again. “How’s that?”

  “Perfect. Better than perfect. If you ever become a massage therapist, schedule me for a weekly appointment. You can work absolute magic.”

  Somehow she didn’t think she’d survive rubbing her hands all over his body. Her professionalism would only stretch so far.

  “Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I’ll leave that field to someone else.” She reluctantly drew her hands off his arm. “There. You’re good as new.”

  “Think so?”

  She smiled. “Other than the paint blobs here and here.” She touched his right cheekbone and felt the stubble on his face. Impulsively, she trailed her finger down to his mouth.

  His utterly kissable mouth.

  “I’ll take care of those later.” He grabbed her hand. “Thanks, Mari. For everything.”

  Before she could guess at his next move, he tugged until she leaned forward and rested her palm against his chest. His lips brushed against hers in a featherlight caress before the light pressure gave way to a deepening, demanding kiss that required a response.

  Without thinking of the consequences—she’d dreamed of this moment for years and, as with all forbidden fruit, she couldn’t resist the taste—she gave it willingly, surrendering to the moment, completely in awe of the power that this innocent, unplanned action had generated. His kiss—no, The Kiss—was everything she’d ever imagined. It reminded her of the electrical charge in the air right before a thunderstorm, when anticipation of the coming fury sent one’s heart into overdrive and heightened every sense.

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