Authors: Cathy Maxwell,Tracy Anne Warren,Jeaniene Frost,Sophia Nash,Elaine Fox
Tags: #American Light Romantic Fiction, #Anthologies, #Fiction - Romance, #Vampires, #Anthologies (multiple authors), #Romance: Modern, #Short stories, #General, #Romance, #American, #Romance - General, #Aristocracy (Social class), #Romance & Sagas, #Fiction, #Romance - Anthologies, #Dogs, #Nobility, #Love Stories
People were awfully blunt here. Must be a northern thing, she guessed, and chalked it up as something else she needed to try. Bluntness.
“I suppose I do,” she said, her tone emerging primly.
She picked up her wineglass. The beverage was more like grape brine than wine, but for Gray it beat cheap beer.
“But it’s fun. You know, kind of.” She looked uncertainly around again. “Is it always so empty? I thought there’d be more people here.”
“It’s early.” He placed his beer on the bar next to him. “This place doesn’t really get going until after ten or so.”
He didn’t have the same hard edges as the rest of the patrons, and from what she could tell from their brief exchange, he seemed educated. She wondered if he was a tourist or a resident.
“So what are you doing here, if you think it’s a dump?”
He grinned, and Gray was struck by the thought that he was nice-looking. Strange thing not to notice right off. The smile did it, though. Deep dimples and appealing crow’s-feet made him distinctly handsome.
“I like dumps.” He tilted his head. “But I don’t think that’s true of you. Which leaves only one conclusion.”
She eyed him while sipping her wine again. “Which is?”
“Slumming?” Gray tried unsuccessfully to look surprised. It was exactly how she felt. Still, she didn’t need to admit it to this guy. Something told her he’d hold it against her. Heck, everybody in the room would hold it against her, but she got the feeling this guy was testing her. And she’d never failed a test in her life.
He cocked a grin at her. “Aren’t you?”
“Are you judging me, Mr….?” She knew calling him “Mister” anything was ridiculous, but it was the closest she could come to his cheeky banter.
He laughed, and she thought again that he was nice-looking. In a Jekyll-Hyde kind of way. “Sam. My name is Sam. And I am being something of a jackass. I apologize. It’s just that I’ve never seen a woman who looked like you in this place.”
She looked at her drink, unwilling to be flattered, if that was indeed what he meant. It was hard to tell. “So you were judging me.”
“Aren’t you judging me? Aren’t we all judging each other?” He flagged the bartender.
“Sounds like barroom philosophizing to me.” She took another sip of her wine, which she was pleased to note had become almost palatable. It meant she could finish it and leave. She’d gotten out of her comfort zone, been gutsy for one full drink; maybe she could give herself a break and have a nice dinner at Aesop’s Tables.
“Sometimes that’s the only kind of philosophizing that makes sense,” Sam said.
She picked up her purse to retrieve her wallet when the bartender placed another drink in front of her and one in front of Sam.
“Oh, I didn’t order that,” she protested.
“I know.” The sumo wrestler pointed to Sam. “He did.”
Sam picked up his beer and saluted her. “Cheers,” he said. “Ms….?”
She gave him a brief, undecided look, then picked up the glass. What the heck, she thought. It beat going back to her haunted home. Besides, if she couldn’t be gutsy with this brazen fellow, who could she be gusty with?
“My name is Gray,” she said with a smile.
” He started to chuckle.
She shot him a warning look that had no effect on him whatsoever. Oddly, this made her feel better about his teasing.
“I’d’ve pegged you for more of a Saffron. Maybe even a Magenta. But Gray?” He shook his head, smiling. “No way.”
“It’s a family name.”
“The Crayola family?”
“My first name is Cynthia,” she explained, trying to clarify—what? That she was not in fact a crayon? He was
for pity’s sake, and she was acting like the schoolmarm she was.
“Ah.” He nodded, picked up his beer, and took a long pull from it.
She was boring him. She was a humorless snob. He was thinking her name suited her perfectly.
“So what’s a nice guy like you doing in a dump like this?” She straightened her shoulders and tried to look confident.
He smiled slyly, looking at her from the corners of his eyes. “Slumming. What else?”
see? I get jokes
—and her glance grazed him from tee shirt to sneakers. “You don’t look like you are.”
He burst out laughing, and she blushed. She hadn’t meant to insult him, but of course she had. Lord, she couldn’t play this game. She had no idea how to flirt. When she’d met Lawrence, she’d been set up by friends. At a wine tasting. At the National Gallery. All she’d had to do was talk coherently about the Impressionists, and that was easy.
“Touché, Gray. You’re tougher than you look. So, are you here on vacation?”
“I’m summering here.” She twisted her glass in the condensation on the bar. The bartender had forgone the formality of a cocktail napkin with drink number two. “What about you?”
His smile curled ironically.
She shook her head, sighing. “What did I say this time?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re looking rather…condescending again.”
One long-fingered hand touched his own chest. “Me? Condescending? I promise you, Gray, I didn’t mean to…” His words petered out, and he laughed at her skeptical look. “Oh okay. It was ‘summering.’ That word. Nobody but debutantes and doctors’ wives use seasons as verbs.”
“And nobody but reverse snobs throw ‘debutante’ around as an insult.” She socked away another gulp of wine and felt proud of herself. It was an awkward parry, but still. She wasn’t taking any of this guy’s guff. “Not to mention that you were wrong. I was neither a debutante nor am I a doctor’s wife.”
The look he gave her kicked up a surprising team of butterflies in her stomach. Appreciation and amusement. It made her feel that not only was he looking at her, but he was really
“I’m very glad to hear that.”
The words made her feel hot. She took a calming breath. “Okay, so, what does one typically do in a place like this?”
Sam gave her a conspiratorial smile. “I’ll tell you what ‘one’ does,” he said, “in a place like this.”
She looked up quickly to find him laughing at her again, but this time it was overt, not smug. She chuckled.
“One does clams.” He motioned for the bartender again.
“Clams? What do you mean?”
“I mean fried clams. The Den may not do much right in the way of food, but they have some of the best fried clams on the Cape. And the onion rings are first-rate.” He put one foot up on the lower rail of her stool. “Besides, it is what one does here. Can I order you some?” She hesitated, and he took the opportunity to flag the bartender. “Two clam plates with onion rings. And put it on my tab.”
Gray smiled. It was chivalrous, in a way. And because she didn’t want to drink two glasses of wine on an empty stomach, she was grateful. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Don’t want you leaving the Cape without trying all the delicacies.”
“You’re actually a nice guy, aren’t you?” She looked at him quizzically.
He laughed. “Was there ever any doubt?”
am looked at that perfect porcelain-doll face, smiling up at him with lips that cried out to be kissed and eyes that challenged, despite something naked in their depths, and felt a tightening in the pit of his stomach. This girl was uncomfortably beautiful. And she was a helluva lot sharper than he’d given her credit for, even if he was still certain she was former debutante material.
But hey, she wanted slumming, he could give her slumming. And maybe be entertained in return. After all, any woman who would be in a position to have her dress stolen by a dog had to have some wildness in her.
The clams arrived, and they feasted, then had another round of drinks. She was looking just the slightest bit tipsy when she held up a hand, and said, “Enough. I can’t consume another bite or take another sip of anything. Except maybe some water.”
Sam ordered a couple of waters.
“So what do you do up here?” Gray asked him, her eyes glowing in the dim bar light. “If you’re not just ‘summering.’”
She gave him a saucy look, and he marveled at the flawless ness of her features. Strands of hair had come loose from her ponytail and trailed next to her face, framing it as if planned for a photo shoot. One of the longer tendrils caressed the slender column of her neck, and he reached a finger up to touch it, felt the softness of her skin. A corresponding heat filled his core.
“I’ll tell you what I’d like to do,” he said. “I’d like to take your picture. Right here, right now, just the way you are.”
Unplanned perfection, that was what she radiated.
He was unprepared for her burst of laughter. “Oh my, that’s almost as good a line as your first one!”
He took back his hand and put it in his pocket. “My first—?”
“‘What’s a nice girl like you…?’” She dissolved into laughter.
He couldn’t help smiling with her. She was tipsy, no doubt about it. “Now who’s judging whom?”
She reached a hand up to touch his cheek and sobered, looking deeply into his eyes. Sam swallowed as the blood stalled in his veins.
In a low, fake accent, she asked, “Would you care to look at my etchings?” She fell into laughter again.
This time he couldn’t stop himself. He took her hand from his face, held it tightly in his, and leaned toward her, his lips capturing hers.
In the time they had eaten, the bar had filled with people, and the music had grown correspondingly louder as the night had worn on. But Sam hadn’t noticed. And now, as Gray’s lips opened under his, the whole place could have blown away around them, and he wouldn’t have known the difference.
She leaned toward him, which surprised him, and one hand grasped the front of his tee shirt. He stepped into her, the barstool hitting him in the thighs, and ran a hand around her back. His fingers felt the trim curve of her waist and tightened around it.
After a second he pulled back and looked into her pale blue eyes, pupils huge in the dim bar. “Want to get out of here?”
For a moment she appeared suspended in time. Her lips glistened from his kiss, and she gazed up at him as if momentarily stunned. Then the corners of her mouth curved, and she dropped her head. A second later she put a hand to her mouth, and he realized she was laughing.
“Sorry! Sorry!” She looked up through her lashes at him, eyes alive with mirth.
“Let me guess. Another cliché you’ve heard a thousand times.” He tilted his head and looked at her, at once amused and mildly embarrassed.
“‘Want to get out of here?’” she repeated. “‘What do you say we get some air?’ ‘How about we go someplace more comfortable?’ ‘Did I tell you I have all of Sinatra’s albums on vinyl?’” She giggled again.
“Okay. How about, Let’s blow this pop stand. Whaddya say, Gidge?”
“Much better!” She beamed and stood up, her body lengthening along his in the crowded space. Her barstool tipped over behind her but was righted by someone who immediately occupied it. She fumbled on the bar for her little purse and grabbed his arm hard enough to make him totter. “Okay, Moondoggie, let’s go.”
They went up the stairs and out into the star-flung night. It was so much darker there than at home, Gray noticed, and the air smelled heavily of sea salt, tinged faintly with decaying fish. She breathed deeply as the breeze lifted the hair from her neck.
She felt good, she realized. More relaxed than she’d been in years. Of course, she’d had a little more to drink than she’d intended, but so what. She was of age.
I’m just mad about Saffron,
’” Sam sang under his breath, “‘
Saffron’s mad about me
Gray laughed and looked up at her companion as they headed toward the harbor. Sam’s long-legged steps were easy beside hers, and she envied the way he seemed so at home in his own skin. Casual, yet in control at the same time.
Interesting, she thought. And interesting that she was there beside him. She, Gray Gilliam, who never went out on a date without first getting a résumé and references on whoever the lucky man happened to be, was walking beside some guy named Sam she had met in a bar.
On the heels of that thought she realized that she had done it. She had done the gutsy thing. She had come to a place that was outside her comfort zone, met a guy who was totally not her type, and had managed to come out of it feeling more like herself than ever before.
She tucked her purse under her arm and pushed her hands into her pockets, glancing at Sam again from the corner of her eyes. He was definitely not the type of guy she would fall for. He was challenging and lively and a little bit unkempt. She’d had to be tough and on her toes as never before just to talk to him. But she’d done it! She’d verbally sparred with him, and she had not come out feeling like a ninny. Instead, she felt triumphant.
She inhaled deeply again and turned slowly around in a circle as she walked, looking up at the stars. From the harbor came the clink of riggings against masts and the soft splash of water on rocking hulls.
“Oh I could just drink this air in forever. Isn’t it wonderful?” She beamed up at him.
He looked down at her, his eyes crinkling with his smile, and she thought what a pity it was he wasn’t her type.
“It’s damn near perfect,” he agreed, but his grin was ironic.
She shook her head. “Too bad you don’t really appreciate it.”
“What do you mean? I’m the one who may actually end up drinking this air forever.” He half faced her as they walked. “You’re only drinking it for the summer, remember?”
She liked the way he did that, the way his shoulders angled toward her as he talked. He really did have an innate kind of polish, perhaps even some chivalry. He had, after all, bought her dinner and ordered water after they’d had those drinks. She caught herself staring at him a moment too long and looked down the street.
“That’s true,” she said, opting not to tell him of her tentative plans to stay. “So maybe you just take it for granted.” She shrugged, fearing she was losing the energy to keep up with his banter. She was, after all, a beginner.
A corner of his mouth lifted. “That’s a little presumptuous, don’t you think?”
“According to you, that’s what we do, isn’t it? Judge each other all the time?” She lifted a brow in his direction and was gratified to hear him laugh.
He had a terrific laugh.
She could notice things like that, she reasoned, despite the fact that she would never fall for him. She could appreciate his appeal. His gait, for instance. It was agile and aloof, like a Thoroughbred that could take off at any moment with great speed, even though at the moment he was simply walking along beside her. She wouldn’t want to be the one with her hands constantly on the reins, however. She had the feeling she’d end up with leather burn.
“It must be wonderful living here all the time.” She sighed, impulsively linking her arm through his. “It’s so…free.”
She heard him chuckle and turned to look up at him.
“That might be the person, more than the place.” Sam squeezed her arm gently with his own. “You seem to be getting into the swing of your summer vacation pretty well.”
Gray shook her head. “No, it’s the place. I’ve taken vacations at other places and never felt like this. Like I’ve shed something heavy I’ve been carrying for a long time.”
A broken heart, for example, she thought. She could just imagine what Lawrence would say about her walking along so chummily with a guy she’d just met. A guy wearing un-pressed khaki shorts and running shoes that had obviously seen many miles.
Though it was more than that. It was something heavy within
that she’d lost. Inhibition, maybe. A claustrophobic sense of self.
you do? For a living, I mean,” she asked, kicking a rock ahead of them and watching it bounce into the scrub grass by the side of the road.
He paused and looked down. Gray stopped walking before her arm slipped out of his.
“I have the feeling what you would consider a living and what I would are considerably different.” He reached out a hand to her other arm and drew her toward him.
“I don’t know about that.” Gray let him link his hands behind the small of her back. “If you’re eating and have a roof over your head, I’d consider that a living. And we know you’re drinking.”
She placed a hand on his tee-shirted chest and was surprised by the solid feel of the muscle beneath. She was also surprised at how comfortable she felt in his arms, despite knowing that he wasn’t her type, that this wasn’t a romantic evening, that he surely didn’t think she was the right woman for him either.
“I—” he began.
“That you, Sam?” The gruff voice came out of the darkness and startled them both.
Sam exhaled slowly a moment, then said, “Yeah. Covington?”
Gray’s head whipped around in the darkness at the name.
Hadn’t Rachel said that was someone to look out for?
A small man, with wild white hair and glasses on a cord around his neck, stepped from the shadows. He wore baggy dungarees and rubber boots, with a thick, nubby sweater.
“What ah you doin’ out heah?” The old man’s voice, in addition to being laced with a strong New England accent, was distinctly annoyed.
“I could ask you the same thing.” Sam stepped back, ending the embrace but sliding one hand down Gray’s arm to catch her hand in his.
“Me! I live here, dammit, that’s my house right there as you well know.”
Sam chuckled. “Yes I do. I’m wondering what you’re doing out here in the middle of the night.”
“Seeing what all the ruckus is about, obviously.” One gnarled hand clutched the glasses at his chest and put them to his face. “Who’s that with you? I don’t know this person. Who ah you, young lady?”
Sam looked down at Gray, and she could see the light of amusement glittering in his eyes. “This is Gray…uh…”
Embarrassment flooded her. She’d been caught canoodling with a guy who didn’t even know her last name, and it couldn’t be more obvious to the little man standing in front of them. She dropped Sam’s hand and stepped toward Covington Burgess, extending her right hand to shake.
“Gray Gilliam, Mr. Burgess,” she said, perhaps a bit too forcefully. She’d been in too many moods this night. “I’m house-sitting for Robert and Rachel Kinnestan. At Gull Cottage—”
“I know the house,” he grumbled, looking suspiciously at her hand. Or at least it seemed suspicious to Gray, the way shadows fell over his grizzled eyebrows to mask his eyes. He took her hand and shook it once in a warm grip. “Place is a terror, you ask me. They oughta do somethin’. Thought they had it up for sale.”
She straightened. “They do. And I don’t know what you mean, the house is perfectly lovely.”
“Hmph. You ain’t heard it yet, I gather.” Covington turned to Sam. “You two should go home. It’s the middle of the night. Guess I’ll have to drive you, young lady, seein’s how you both been drinking.”
“What? No, I have my car.” Gray shook her head. “I can give Sam a ride.”
“Uh, Gray,” Sam said, “I live right there.” With a motion of his head he indicated the building behind them, directly across the street from Covington Burgess’s.
Gray looked at the frame clapboard house with the little front porch. Behind it lay the water, calm and gleaming in the moonlight like a spirit.
“You live there?” She turned fully to take the place in.
“I drink it in day and night.” His voice was tinged with humor.
For some reason, seeing his house made him seem more like a real person and less like someone useful on her road to personal change.
“It’s lovely,” she said wonderingly, gazing at the wraparound porch. Beyond it, marsh grass dark as pen-and-ink slashes stood against the canvas of water. A silent black pier stretched out from the shore.
As she stared, a white dog appeared from behind Sam’s house and trotted up the street, away from them.
“Hey!” she said, recognizing the plumed tail from the morning’s clothes-robber. She started to point, then thought better of it.
“What?” Sam turned just as the dog disappeared around the bend.
She shook her head. “Uh, nothing. I just thought I saw something. Never mind.”
The last thing she wanted to do was explain to these two what had happened that morning. With a start, she realized she had ridden past this very spot, past both Sam’s and Covington Burgess’s houses, stark naked.
Glad of the darkness, she pressed a hand to one scalding cheek.
“Gray, I think you should take Covington up on the ride. We have had kind of a lot to drink.”
She turned to him, panicked at having to ride with the strange little man. “I know but…
” she finished, her voice urgent.
How could she say she didn’t want to get into a car with the man when he was standing right there?
Sam gave her a reassuring look. “I’ll come with you. Just to be sure you get home all right.”
“Oh yes,” she breathed. “That would be nice.”
“I’m gettin’ the keys.” Covington turned and shuffled off toward his darkened house, looking for all the world like a Hobbit heading back to his Hobbit-hole.