Bed of roses, p.18

Bed of Roses, page 18

 part  #2 of  Bride Quartet Series

 

Bed of Roses


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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  "I TOLD HIM I COULD PACK IN TEN SECONDS. I'M SUCH A LIAR. " With the workday scrubbed off and every inch of her creamed and scented, Emma folded a shirt into her overnight case.

  "Obviously the coming home clothes aren't a real issue, but . . . "

  She turned, held up a silky white gown for Parker's opinion. "What do you think?"

  "It's gorgeous. " Stepping forward, Parker brushed a finger over the delicate lace that framed the bodice.

  "When did you get this?"

  "Last winter. I couldn't resist it, and I told myself I'd wear it just for me, whenever. Of course, I didn't. Haven't. It has this little matching robe. I love lush hotel robes, but this is romantic. I feel like I want to have something romantic to put on after dinner. "

  "Then it's perfect. "

  "I don't even know where we're going, where we're staying. I love that. Love the feeling of being whisked away. " She did a quick spin then laid the peignoir in her bag. "I want champagne and candlelight, and some ridiculously indulgent dessert. And I want him to look at me in the candlelight and tell me he loves me. I can't help it. "

  "Why should you?"

  "Because it should be enough to be whisked away, to be with a man who'd plan a night like this. He makes me happy. That should be enough. "

  As Emma continued to pack, Parker stepped forward to rub her shoulders. "It's not as if you're setting limits for yourself, Emma. If you feel you have to. "

  "I'm not doing that. I don't think I'm doing that. I know I've had some ups and downs about this, so I'm trying to adjust my expectations. And do what I said I'd do when we started. " Reaching back, she laid her hand on Parker's, squeezed. "Just enjoy and take things as they come. I've been in love with him for so long, but that's my deal. In reality we've only been together a couple of months. There's no rush. "

  "Emma, as long as I've known you - which is forever - you've never been afraid to say how you feel. Why are you afraid to tell Jack?"

  Emma closed her case. "If he's not ready, and telling him made him feel obliged to step back, to just be friends again? I don't think I could stand it, Parker. " She turned, faced her friend. "I guess I'm not ready to risk what we have. Not yet. So I'm going to enjoy our night away, and not put any added weight on it.

  "God, I've got to get dressed. Okay, I'll be back by eight, eight thirty at the latest. But if for some reason we get stuck in traffic - "

  "I'll call Tink, force her to get out of bed. I know how. She'll take the morning delivery and start processing. "

  "Good. " Confident in Parker's abilities, Emma wiggled into the dress. "But I'll be back. " She turned so Parker could do up the zipper.

  "I love this color. Citrine. It's annoying to know it would make me sallow. It just makes you glow. " She met Emma's eyes in the mirror, then wrapped her arm around her friend's waist and hugged. "Have a great time. "

  "Can't miss. "

  Twenty minutes later when she opened the door, Jack took one look and grinned. "This is an excellent idea. I should've had this idea long before. You look absolutely stunning. "

  "Snobby waiter and overpriced-food worthy?"

  "More than. " He took her hand, kissed her wrist where the bracelet he'd given her sparkled. Even the drive into New York struck her as perfect, whether they whizzed along or crept through a snarl of traffic. The light softening toward balmy evening, she thought, and the whole night ahead.

  "I always think I'm going to get into the city more often," she told him. "To play or to shop, to check out the florists and markets. But I don't nearly as much as I'd like. So every trip in is exciting. "

  "You haven't even asked where we're going. "

  "It doesn't matter. I love the surprise, the spontaneity. So much of what I do - you, too, actually - has to run on a schedule. So this? This is like a magic minivacation. If you promise to buy me champagne, I'll have it all. "

  "All you want. "

  When he pulled up in front of the Waldorf, she lifted her eyebrows. "And the excellent ideas keep coming. "

  "I thought you'd like the traditional. "

  "You thought right. "

  She waited on the sidewalk while the doorman took their bags, then she reached for Jack's hand.

  "Thank you, in advance, for a lovely evening. "

  "You're welcome, in advance. I'm just going to check in, have them take the bags up. The restaurant's about three blocks from here. "

  "Can we walk? It's beautiful out. "

  "Sure. Give me five minutes. "

  She wandered the lobby, entertaining herself with the shop windows, the lavish flower displays, the people swarming in, swarming out, until he joined her. He skimmed a hand down her back.

  "Ready?"

  "Absolutely. " She put her hand in his again to walk out on Park Avenue. "I had a cousin who got married at the Waldorf - before Vows, of course. Huge, ultrafancy formal affair as many of the Grants' affairs are prone to be. I was fourteen, and very impressed. I still remember the flowers. Acres of flowers. Yellow roses the feature. Her bridesmaids were in yellow, too, and looked like sticks of butter, but oh, the flowers. They'd done this elaborate arbor of yellow roses and wisteria right there in the ballroom. It must have taken an army of florists. But it's what I remember best, so it must've been worth it. "

  She smiled at him. "What struck you most about a building that left that kind of impression on you?"

  "There've been a few. " He turned east at the corner, strolling while New York rushed around them. "But honestly? One of my strongest impressions was the first time I saw the Brown Estate. "

  "Really?"

  "Plenty of mansions where I grew up in Newport, and some incredible architecture. But there was something - is something - about the estate that stands out. Its balance and lines, its understated grandeur, the confidence that combines dignity with touches of fanciful. "

  "That's it exactly," she agreed. "Fanciful dignity. "

  "When you walk in the main house, there's an immediate impression that people live there. Really live, and more, the people who live there love the house, and the land. All of it. It remains one of my favorite places in Greenwich. "

  "It's certainly one of mine. "

  He turned again, to open the door of the restaurant. The minute she stepped inside, Emma felt the pace, the rush drop away. Even the air seemed to hush.

  "Nice job, Mr. Cooke," she said quietly.

  The maitre d' inclined his elegant head. "Bonjour, mademoiselle, monsieur. "

  "Cooke," Jack said in a James Brown deadpan that had Emma biting the inside of her cheek to smother a laugh. "Jackson Cooke. "

  "Mr. Cooke, bien sur , right this way. "

  He led them through elaborate flower displays and flickering candles, around the gleam of silver and glint of crystal on snowy white linen. They were seated with all expected pomp and offered a cocktail.

  "The lady prefers champagne. "

  "Very good. I'll inform your sommelier. Enjoy your evening. "

  "I already am. " Emma leaned toward Jack. "Very much. "

  "Heads turned when you walked through. "

  She sent him that smile - that sexy, sultry smile. "We're a very attractive couple. "

  "And now, every man in this place envies me. "

  "I'm enjoying the evening even more. Don't let me interrupt. "

  He glanced over at the approach of the sommelier. "Let me get back to you. "

  When he'd ordered a bottle that met with the wine steward's lofty approval, Jack laid his hand over Emma's. "Now, where was I?"

  "Making me feel incredibly special. "

  "An easy job considering what I've got to work with. "

  "Now you're turning my head. Do go on. "

  He laughed, kissed her hand. "I love being with you. You're a lift to the day, Emma. "

  What did it say about her, she wondered, that "love being with you" made her heart jump? "Why don't y
ou tell me about the rest of your day?"

  "Well, I solved the mystery of Carter. "

  "There was a mystery?"

  "Where does he go, what does he do?" Jack began, and told her the studio routine he'd observed. "I'm only around for short periods," he continued, "but those short periods range from morning to late afternoon, so my canny observations have taken in a variety of slices of the pie of their day. "

  "And what were your conclusions?"

  "No conclusions, but many theories. Was he slinking off to have a torrid affair with Mrs. Grady, or indulging in a desperate and downward cycle of online gambling on his laptop?"

  "He could do both. "

  "He could; he's an efficient sort. " Jack paused to approve the label on the bottle presented to him. "The lady will taste. "

  As the uncorking ritual began, Jack leaned closer to Emma. "And there, our beloved Mackensie, unaware, trusting, slaving away. Could the seemingly innocent and affable Carter Maguire have these shameful secrets? I had to know. "

  "You put on a disguise and followed him to the house?"

  "Considered and rejected. " He waited while the sommelier poured a taste of the champagne into Emma's flute. She sipped, paused, then sent the man a smile that melted the dignified ice. "It's wonderful. Thank you. "

  "A pleasure, mademoiselle . " He poured the rest expertly. "I hope you'll enjoy every sip. Monsieur . " He replaced the bottle in its bucket, bowed away.

  "All right, how did you solve the mystery of Carter?"

  "Give me a minute, I lost my train with the spillover dazzle. Oh yeah, my method was ingenious. I asked him. "

  "Diabolical. "

  "He's writing a book. Which, you already knew," Jack concluded.

  "I see them every day, or nearly. Mac told me, but your method was a lot more fun. He's been writing it on and off for years, when he can squeeze in the time. Mac gave him a nudge to work on it this summer instead of teaching summer classes. I think he's good. "

  "You've read it?"

  "Not what he's working on, but he's had some short stories and essays published. "

  "He has? He's never mentioned it. Another mystery of Carter. "

  "I don't think you ever learn everything about anyone, no matter how long you know them, or how well. There's always another pocket somewhere. "

  "I guess we're proof of that. "

  Her eyes smiled and warmed as she took another sip of champagne. "I guess we are. "

  "T HE WAITERS AREN'T SNOOTY ENOUGH. YOU'VE CHARMED THEM so they want to please you. "

  Emma took a scant spoonful of the chocolate souffle she'd asked to share. "I believe they achieved the perfect level of snoot. " She slipped the souffle between her lips. Her quiet moan spoke volumes. "This is every bit as good as Laurel's, and hers is the best I've ever tasted. "

  "Tasted is the operative word. Why don't you actually eat it?"

  "I'm savoring. " She scooped up another smidgen. "We did have five courses. " She sighed over her coffee. "I feel like I've had a little trip to Paris. "

  He traced his finger over the back of her hand. She never wore rings, he thought. Because of her work, and because she didn't want to draw attention to her hands.

  Odd he felt they were one of the most compelling aspects of her.

  "Have you been?"

  "To Paris?" She savored another stingy bite of souffle. "Once when I was too young to remember, but there's a picture of Mama pushing me in my stroller down the Champs-elysees. I went again when I was thirteen, with Parker and her parents, Laurel and Mac and Del. At the last minute Linda said Mac couldn't go, over some slight or infraction. It was awful. But Parker's mom went over and fixed it. She'd never say how. We had the best time. A few days in Paris then two amazing weeks in Provence. "

  She allowed herself another spoonful. "Have you?"

  "A couple times. Del and I did the backpack through Europe thing the summer of our junior year in college. That was an experience. "

  "Oh, I remember. All the postcards and pictures, the funny e-mails from cyber cafes. We were going to do it, the four of us. But when the Browns died . . . It was too much, and so many things to deal with. And Parker channeled everything into putting together a business model for Vows. We just never got around to it. "

  She sat back. "I really can't eat another bite. "

  He signaled for the check. "Show me one of your pockets. "

  "My pockets?"

  "One of those things I don't know about you. "

  "Oh. " Laughing, she sipped her coffee. "Hmm, let's see. I know. You may not be aware that I was the Fairfield County Spelling Bee Champion. "

  "Get out. Really?"

  "Yes, I was. In fact, I went all the way to the state competition, where I was this close . . . " She held up her thumb and finger, a fraction apart. "This close to winning, when I was eliminated. "

  "What was the word?"

  "Autocephalous. "

  His eyes slitted. "Is that a real word?"

  "From the Greek, meaning being independent of external authority, particularly patriarchal. " She spelled it out. "Except under pressure, I spelled it with an e for the second a , and that was that. I remain, however, a killer at Scrabble. "

  "I'm better at math," he told her.

  She leaned forward. "Now, let me see one of yours. "

  "It's pretty good. " He tucked his credit card in the leather folder discreetly placed at his elbow. "Nearly up there with spelling bee champion. "

  "I'll be the judge. "

  "I was Curly in my high school's production of Oklahoma! "

  "Seriously?" She pointed at him. "I've heard you sing. You're good. But I didn't know you had any interest in acting. "

  "None. I was interested in Zoe Malloy, who was up for the part of Laurey. Crazy about her. So I put it all out there for 'Surrey with the Fringe on Top,' and got the part. "

  "Did you get Zoe?"

  "I did. For a few shining weeks. Then, unlike Curly and Laurey, we parted. And that was the end of my acting career. "

  "I bet you made a great cowboy. "

  He sent her a quick, teasing grin. "Well, Zoe certainly thought so. "

  With the bill addressed, he rose, held out a hand for hers.

  "Let's walk the long way around. " She laced her fingers with his. "I bet it's a beautiful night. "

  It was. Warm and sparkling so even the traffic jamming the streets glittered and gleamed. They strolled, winding their way around the blocks and back to the grand front entrance of the hotel. People swept in and out, in business suits, in jeans, in evening clothes. "Always busy," she said. "Like a movie where no one ever says 'cut. ' "

  "Do you want a drink before we go up?"

  "Mmm, no. " She tipped her head toward his shoulder as they walked to the elevators. "I've got everything I want. "

  In the elevator she turned into his arms, tipped her face up to his. Her pulse rate climbed as the car did, up and up, level by level.

  When he opened the door, she stepped into candlelight. On the white-draped table a silver bucket held a bottle of champagne. A single red rose speared from a slim vase while around the room tea lights flickered in clear glass. Music drifted, whisper soft.

  "Oh, Jack. "

  "How did this get here?"

  Laughing, she took his face in her hands. "You've just bumped this up from great date to dream date. This is amazing. How did you manage it?"

  "I arranged for the maitre d' to alert the hotel when they brought the check. Planning isn't just your business. "

  "Well, I like your plan. " She kissed him, lingered for another. "A lot. "

  "I had a feeling. Should I open the bottle?"

  "Absolutely. " She wandered to the window. "Look at the view. Everything's still so bright and busy, and here we are. "

  The bottle opened with a sophisticated pop! When he'd poured the glasses and joined her, she tapped hers to his. "To excellent p
lanning. "

  "Tell me something else. " He touched her hair, just a skim of the fingers. "Something new. "

  "Another pocket?"

  "I've discovered the spelling bee champ, the ace soccer player. These are interesting facets. "

  "I think we've covered all my hidden skills. " She reached out, trailed a fingertip down his tie. "I wonder if you can handle the dark side. "

  "Try me. "

  "Sometimes when I'm alone at night, after a long day . . . especially if I'm feeling unsettled. Or on edge - " She broke off, lifted her glass for a sip. "I'm not sure if I should confess this one. "

  "You're among friends. "

  "True. Still, not many men really understand some of a woman's needs. And some just can't deal with the fact that there are certain needs they can't meet. "

  He took a long drink. "Okay, I don't know whether to be scared or fascinated. "

  "I once asked a man I was seeing to join me one evening for this particular activity. He wasn't ready for it. I've never asked another. "

  "Does it involve tools? I'm good with tools. "

  She shook her head and strolled over to top off her glass, then held up the bottle in invitation.

  "What I do is . . . " She poured bubbling wine into his glass. "First, I'll take a big glass of wine up to my bedroom, then I'll light candles. I'll put on something soft and comfortable, something that makes me feel relaxed. Feel . . . female. Then I get into bed with all the pillows arranged just so, because I'm about to take a journey just for myself. And when I'm ready . . . When I'm just sinking in . . . I watch my DVD of Truly, Madly, Deeply . "

  "You watch porn?"

  "It's not porn. " Laughing, she gave his arm a quick slap. "It's an amazing love story. Juliet Stevenson is devastated when the man she loves, Alan Rickman, dies. She's overwhelmed with grief. Oh, it's painful to watch. " Eyes radiating emotion, she laid a hand just under her throat. "I cry buckets. Then he comes back as a ghost. He loves her so much. It rips your heart out, and it makes you laugh. "

  "Rips out your heart and makes you laugh?"

  "Yes. Men never get that. I'm not going to tell you the whole thing, just that it's wrenching and charming and sad and affirming. It's unspeakably romantic. "

  "And that's what you do, secretly, in your bed at night, when you're alone. "

  "It is. Hundreds of times. I've had to replace the DVD twice. "

  Obviously baffled, he studied her as he drank champagne. "A dead guy's romantic?"

  "Hello? Alan Rickman. And yes, in this case, it's wonderfully romantic. After I watch it - and finish crying - I sleep like a baby. "

  "What about Die Hard ? He's in Die Hard . Now that's a movie you can watch a hundred times. Maybe we should do a double feature some time. If you can handle that. "

  "Yippee-ki-yay. "

  He grinned at her. "Pick a night next week, and you're on. But there has to be popcorn. You can't watch Die Hard without popcorn. "

  "Fair enough. Then we'll see what you're made of. " She brushed her lips to his. "I'm going to change. It won't take me long. Maybe you should bring the champagne into the bedroom. "

  "Maybe I should. "

  In the bedroom he took off his jacket and tie, and thought about her. Thought about the surprises and facets and layers of her.

  It was odd, really, to think you knew someone inside and out, and discover there was more to learn. And the more you learned the more you wanted to know.

  On impulse, he took the rose from the vase and laid it on a pillow. When she stepped out into the candlelight, he lost his breath. Black hair tumbling over white silk, smooth skin gold against white lace. And those eyes, he thought, deep and dark, looking into his.

  "You said something about dream date," he managed.

  "I wanted to do my part. "

  The silk flowed over her curves as she walked to him, and as she lifted her arms to wind them around his neck in a way that was so essentially Emma, her scent shimmered in the air like the candlelight.

  "Did I thank you for dinner?"

  "You did. "

  "Well . . . " She scraped her teeth over his bottom lip - lightly, lightly - before the kiss. "Thanks again. And the champagne? Did I thank you for that?"

  "As I recall. "

  "Just in case. " On a sigh her mouth met his. "And the candlelight, the rose, the long walk, the view. " Her body moved against his, leading him into a slow, circling dance.

  "You're welcome. "

  He drew her in, closer still, so her body pressed to his. Time spun out as they circled, as mouth clung to mouth, as heart beat to heart.

  She drew in his scent, his flavor. So familiar and still so new. Her fingers trailed up into hair bronzed and gilded by the sun, then curled, tugged to bring him just a little closer. They slid down together onto smooth white sheets, and into the perfume of a single red rose. More sighs now, more dreamy movements. A caress, a tender touch, shimmered over her skin. She stroked his face, opened - body and heart - as she found, with him, passion wrapped in the shimmer of romance. Here was all she wanted, had ever wished for. The sweetness and the heat. And as she gave, more and more, she filled until she was dizzy with love.

  His flesh to her flesh, so warm, brought her a quiet joy even as pulses spiked. His lips pressed to her heart as it beat for him.

  Did he know it? Couldn't he feel it?

  And when he took her up, slowly up, his name - just his name - bloomed in that heart. She clouded his mind like a silver mist, sparkled in his blood like champagne. Every languorous move, every whisper, every touch seduced, entranced.

  When she broke for him, rising up like a wave, she breathed his name. And she smiled. Something inside him stumbled.

  "You're so beautiful," he murmured. "Impossibly beautiful. "

  "I feel beautiful when you look at me. "

  He skimmed his fingers over her breast, watched her eyes glow with fresh pleasure. He lowered his mouth, a gentle taste with teeth and tongue, and felt her body quiver with fresh need.

  "I want you. " Her breath caught as she arched under him. "You're what I want, Jack. "

  She surrounded him, taking him in, moving with him in slow, savoring beats. Surrounded, he lost himself in her.

  S ATED, HE RESTED HIS CHEEK ON HER BREAST, LET HIS MIND drift.

  "No chance of playing hooky tomorrow and staying right here?"

  "Mmm. " Her fingers threaded through his hair. "Not this time. But what a nice thought. "

  "The way things stand we'll have to get up at dawn. "

  "I find I often do better on no sleep than with a few stingy hours. "

  He lifted his head, smiled at her. "That's funny. I was thinking the same thing. "

  "It would be a shame to waste the rest of that champagne, and those lovely chocolate-covered strawberries. "

  "Criminal. Stay right here. Don't move. I'll get them. "

  She stretched, sighed. "I'm not going anywhere. "

 
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