Heartstrings and Diamond Rings (22 page)

BOOK: Heartstrings and Diamond Rings
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“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Heather muttered.
“You.”

Alison stopped short.
“Me?”

“Yep.”

Alison felt a surge of hope, but she refused to allow herself to believe it.

“No,” she said. “We’ve been around each other a lot lately. If he wanted to ask me out, he’d have done it before now.”

“Maybe it’s that you’re a client, so he doesn’t feel as if he can.”

Which was exactly what Alison had told her father, but she hadn’t actually believed it herself. If Brandon thought he was the best match for her, why wasn’t he stepping up?

“So do you have feelings for him?” Heather asked.

Feelings? Oh,
hell
, yes. Her attraction to Brandon had taken a whole new turn since he’d given her the kiss that wasn’t real, bubbling up inside her like a volcano ready to blow. Every minute she’d spent with him lately made her feel weak and breathless and mushy inside. She’d watched him off and on all day long as they worked on his house, and the more he sweated, the hotter
she
got.

But she wasn’t about to tell anyone that. Not even Heather. And she sure didn’t want to admit that he’d kissed her, because it had meant nothing. And she’d also have to admit why he’d done it, and she’d been humiliated enough already.

“Feelings?” Alison said. “You mean, like, romantic feelings?”

“No. Like feelings of seething hatred. Of
course
I mean romantic feelings.”


Hmm.
Not exactly.”

“Not exactly? What does that mean?”

“It means I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Haven’t
thought
about it? Alison, I’ve known you a long time. I can tell when you’re thinking about eating a Mallorific bar, much less thinking about a man. Do you like him, or not?”

“Of course I like him,” she said carefully. “But I’m not sure I like him like
that
.”

“Like what?”

“Like more than just, you know. Liking him.”

“Oh, please! You sound like you did in junior high when you had a crush on Bobby Wentworth. I’m talking about big-girl feelings, Alison. Got any of those lying around?”

“Oh, all right!” She let out a breath of frustration, grabbing Heather and pulling her aside at the same time she kept one eye on Brandon. “I can’t stop thinking about him. I count the minutes until I can see him again. Every time he smiles at me, I feel like I’m melting from the inside out. There. Are you happy?”

Heather smiled. “Are you?”

“No,” Alison said. “I’m miserable. You try having a conversation with a man when you can’t stop looking at his lips. I feel like a deaf person.”

“I’m glad you finally admitted it.”

“But he doesn’t feel the same way about me.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”

“No. Don’t do this. Don’t you
dare
do this.”

“Do what?”

“Get my hopes up. I don’t like getting my hopes up. The fall from there isn’t fun.”

Heather sighed. “Okay. I hear you. Maybe I’m wrong.”

“Well, don’t tell me
that
, either. Give me…I don’t know. About a twenty‑five percent chance? That way I can still hope, but if nothing happens, I’ll feel as if I haven’t lost much.”

Heather rolled her eyes. “Okay. You have a twenty-five percent chance that Brandon has the hots for you. Now, come on. Let’s eat.”

A
lison had eaten at McCaffrey’s approximately a thousand times, but not one of those meals had tasted anywhere nearly as good as this one. But it wasn’t really the food that was so wonderful.

It was the company.

With the six of them stuffed into the round booth, she was squashed right next to Brandon, the length of his thigh pressed against hers. It felt heavenly. He swore he didn’t like having a lot of people around, but he sure seemed comfortable there tonight, talking and laughing and in general having a good time. Every time his arm brushed against hers or he turned to talk to her and their eyes met, a shiver of excitement rushed through her. He suggested a trade—two of his buffalo wings for one of her quesadillas. She detested buffalo wings, but she ate them anyway, smiling as if the spicy heat wasn’t blowing the top of her head off. The music gradually grew louder as the place filled up, the rhythm of it pulsing through her body in a most pleasant way. And when she pretended to occasionally have a hard time hearing what Brandon was saying to her, which caused him to lean that much closer to her when he spoke—well, that was just icing on the cake.

“We’ve had a very productive day, everyone,” Alison said, speaking up so everyone at the table could hear her. “Brandon’s house looks great.” She held up her drink. “Here’s to us.”

They all clinked glasses and then drank.

“And here’s to Brandon,” Heather said, “for letting us use his house. Without it, the home tour would have been a disaster.”

More clinking and drinking.

Brandon leaned in and whispered to Alison. “Heather was just nice. Does this mean she doesn’t hate me?”

Alison whispered back. “I think it means she doesn’t hate you,” and felt a tremor of delight when he seemed pleased by that.

Brandon picked up his glass. “And here’s to Tony and Heather for a wonderful dinner.”

Everybody clinked. Except Charlie.

“Hey, Dad,” Alison said. “We’re toasting.”

“Not me,” he said, staring down at the remnants of his turkey burger. “Dinner sucked.”

Bea held up her glass. “Here’s to the loving daughter of a hardheaded man, who cares enough about her father to make sure he eats right at dinner after consuming four pieces of pizza at lunch.”

Clinking. Drinking.

“Oh!” Alison said to Bea and Heather. “I meant to tell you guys. After you left today, Brandon and I found some vintage clothes in one of his closets. There was a dress that was probably his great-grandmother’s. He said I could wear it on the day of the home tour.”

“Oooh, that’ll be good,” Bea said.

“And Brandon is going to wear one of his great-grandfather’s suits.”

Brandon turned to Alison. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t I already say no to that? Twice?”

“Did you?” Alison said, blinking innocently. “I must have heard you wrong.”

“Well, maybe you’ll hear me this time.” He leaned toward her and enunciated carefully.
“No.”
Then he turned to Tony. “Back me up on this later, will you? When she tries to bring it up again?”

“Will do,” Tony said. “Guys gotta stick together.” He drained his beer and set the bottle down.

“It’s getting busy in here,” Heather said. “Tony and I probably need to get back to work. You guys enjoy the rest of the evening, okay?”

As they slid out of the booth, Charlie turned to Bea, nodding toward the dartboard on the far wall. “So are you as bad at darts as you are at painting?”

“Bad? Try again, buster.”

“So show me. Ladies first.”

She slid out of the booth, and Charlie followed. Now that there was extra space in the booth, she waited for Brandon to scoot over, giving each of them more room. Instead he stayed right next to her, his thigh still pressed against hers, and for the first time she allowed herself to think that maybe Heather was right.

They watched as Bea and Charlie grabbed darts and headed to the throw line to start playing. But then her father said something to Bea, and she turned around and put her fist on her hip and said something back. When he responded, she rolled her eyes and shooed him away so she could start the game.


Aaargh
,” Alison said, dropping her head to her hands.

“What?” Brandon asked.

She looked up again. “My father is being just awful.”

“Awful?”

“Yes. I was hoping he would straighten up his act just a little bit today. But he’s been saying rude things to Bea, and she’s been forced to come right back at him. He’s my father and I love him, but she must think he’s just horrible.”

Brandon stared at Alison dumbly, then started to laugh. “You’re kidding, right?”

She blinked. “Kidding?”

“That’s not what’s going on.”

“What do you mean?”

He made a scoffing noise. “And I thought women were supposed to be the intuitive ones.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Alison. They’re flirting.”

Alison drew back. “That’s
flirting
? My father being crabby, and then Bea snapping back at him?”

“Yep.”

Alison turned to watch them again. Bea threw her third dart, and it hit the bull’s-eye. But Charlie wasn’t watching the dartboard. He was watching Bea.

And he was smiling.

In that moment, Alison had the most startling revelation.
He used to look at Mom like that.

“I don’t believe it,” she said, her voice hushed with amazement. Tears welled up in her eyes. She blinked quickly, but not quickly enough. She turned away from Brandon and wiped them away with her fingertips.

“Alison?” Brandon said, sounding worried. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” she said, turning back. “Nothing at all.”

“You don’t seem happy about your father and Bea.”

“Oh, no. I am. Trust me. This is good. He’s barely talked to another woman since my mother died.”

“When was that?”

“About fifteen years ago.”

“That’s a long time. So this is a big thing for him?”

“Very big. I want so much for him to be happy, and he hasn’t been. Not completely. Maybe this will change things. I don’t want him to be alone for the rest of his life.”

She’d told the truth. She could see her father heading down the path of solitude, and she wanted so much more for him than that. But she wanted more for herself, too. What if she were the one who ended up alone from now on?

“I’m sorry I haven’t found you another match yet,” Brandon said.

It was as if he was reading her thoughts. He’d done that from the first day she’d walked into his office—read her as clearly as the average man reads a newspaper. It had unnerved her at first. It was strangely comforting now.

She forced a smile. “Hey, when you take away the drug dealers and the ex-wife addicts and the sexually conflicted, who’s left?”

“Nobody who’s good enough for you.”

His voice was strangely serious, and his eyes never left hers as he spoke. The strangest tremor of awareness shot right up her spine.

“I don’t know whom to fix you up with anymore,” he told her. “I go through the files, and I seem to find something wrong with every one of them.”

“You’re just afraid of making a mistake again.”

“What if none of those guys are right for you? What do I do then?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’m back to square one. But, hey. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?”

“You deserve better than that.”

Yes, I do. How about the matchmaker himself?

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve been so busy. I don’t know if I would have had time to go on another date, anyway.”

“No time? You’re here with me now.”

“Yeah, but this isn’t a date.”

“Maybe not. But is it what a date with you is like?”

Her heart stuttered, not so much because of his words, but because of the sound of his voice—soft and low and suggestive. Or was she hearing things that weren’t there?

“Yeah,” she said. “You get to watch me play a lousy game of pool and listen to my father flirt with women. How exciting is that?”

“Sounds like good times to me.”

Oddly enough, he seemed to mean that, and Alison decided she could move that twenty-five percent up a little. Say, to twenty-six.

 

As Brandon sat at that table with Alison, listening to the music and watching Bea and Charlie play darts and argue, he ticked off in his mind the dumb things he’d done recently, one by one.

He shouldn’t have kissed Alison that day she came to his house to apologize.

He shouldn’t have come here tonight, where there was too damned much temptation in the form of the woman sitting next to him.

He shouldn’t have had that second beer, which made him all the more willing to give in to that temptation.

And he shouldn’t be sitting so close to Alison that he could feel her warmth and see her smile and think about that kiss all over again.

It was an endless cycle that he really needed to find a way out of. But there was something about this night, this place, and this woman that gave him a sense of well‑being he’d never felt before. For once in his life, he was more than just a face in the crowd. He felt as if he belonged there, and he wanted to enjoy it as long as he could. And as long as he kept things on friendly terms, a little casual flirting with Alison wouldn’t do any harm, would it?

No. It wouldn’t. Then next week he’d get serious and double down on finding her another match, and everybody would be happy.

“Funny thing,” Alison said. “Did I tell you that one of the Preservation League board members knew your grandmother?”

Brandon was startled by the question. “No. You didn’t tell me that.”

“She went to the First Baptist Church with her. And she remembers you when you were a teenager.”

Brandon had no idea where this was going, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. And she said you didn’t just visit your grandmother. You actually lived with her for a couple of years.”

All at once, Brandon’s mind was spinning, trying to remember what he’d told Alison. Had he ever said he just visited? He wasn’t sure.

“Yeah,” he said finally. “I did live with her. Didn’t I tell you that?”

“No, I don’t think so. So where were your parents?”

“It was just my father. My mother was dead.”

“Oh. I’m so sorry! How old were you when she died?”

“I was only four. I don’t remember much about her.”

“Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“No. It was just me.”

“So why did you go to live with your grandmother?”

“My father traveled a lot with his job.”

“What did he do?”

Damn it.
The last thing he wanted to do was talk about his father, or anything else about his past. He wasn’t proud of the fact that his old man was a pool hustler who’d dragged him all over the country with zero regard for his own son’s well being. So Brandon ended up stretching the truth so hard it almost snapped.

“He was a professional pool player.”

Alison sat back with a smile. “Ah, so that’s why you’re such a good player. You learned from your father.”

“Oh, yeah. He taught me everything he knew.”

Yep. When it came to hustling, his father was the best teacher on the planet.

“Judith told me you gave your grandmother a pretty hard time,” Alison said. “Now, understand that she’s a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. To her, a hard time could mean that you didn’t say ‘Yes, ma’am’ at the appropriate time.”

It had been more than a lack of polite behavior. Way more. By the time he went to live with his grandmother, he’d had a chip on his shoulder so big that nobody could knock it off, even the one person on earth who tried so desperately to give him his first taste of the normal life his father had always denied him.

“I was a teenage boy,” he said with an offhand shrug, even as the memory of those days still ate away at him. “They can be real pains in the ass, and I was no exception. Sometimes my mouth got the better of me.”

“But I thought you had a good relationship with your grandmother. You told me you used to sit on the stairs and listen to her with her clients, and—”

“I listened to a lot of things. But admit I listened? Hell, no. Again. Teenage boy.” He forced a smile. “It’s all about the attitude.”

“Let’s see…” Alison went on. “What else did Judith say? Oh, yeah. You were once…arrested.”

He didn’t know who the hell this woman was, but he sincerely wished she didn’t have quite so good a memory.
Just downplay it. It’s all you can do.

“A friend and I were arrested for vandalism,” he said. “Which only proves exactly how stupid teenage boys can be. It was kid stuff, Alison. I wasn’t a saint.” He paused. “I’m still not.”

Given the lies he’d told her, that was the understatement of the year.

“But at least you don’t vandalize things anymore, do you?” she said with a smile.

“No,” he said. “I did outgrow that.”

“Oh,” she said. “One more Judith thing. She said you don’t actually own your grandmother’s house. That if you move out, it goes to her church?”

Good God. Was there anything this woman didn’t know?

“That’s true,” he said. “It was the only asset my grandmother had of any real value, and she wanted the church to have it. But she also made the provision that I can live there as long as I want to before that happens. So if I never move out, I guess I have a house forever, don’t I?”

Alison smiled. “Yeah. I guess you do.”

He smiled back, but it was the last thing he felt like doing. He’d told her the truth—if he stayed there forever, he had a house forever.

But he wasn’t staying forever. Not even close.

Suddenly every bit of the euphoria he’d felt earlier had seeped right out of him, leaving him feeling like crap. He’d done nothing but lie to Alison since the day he’d met her, making her believe he was somebody he wasn’t. And she believed every word of it.

That was the hardest part for him. That she believed every word.

If he’d never gotten to know her, it wouldn’t have mattered. If he’d just kept things professional, he wouldn’t be sitting there trying to put a spin on his past that wouldn’t have her questioning the things he’d already told her. This conversation was proof positive that he was in too deep with Alison and he needed to get out
now
.

BOOK: Heartstrings and Diamond Rings
7.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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