Authors: Marie Ferrarella
James nodded at the man.
“Here, let me get the elevator for you.” For a heavy-set man, the doorman moved with surprising agility. He jabbed the button, then touched the brim of his hat. “Have a nice night, sir.”
Seeing as how he was putting himself out on a skinny limb, James didn't see how a “nice night” was possible.
The ride up was even faster than he remembered, pitching his stomach against his ribs. He got off, juggling the coffee containers so that he could ring her doorbell. Mentally, he began counting. If she wasn't here by
he was leaving.
She was there by
The sleep that hovered around her eyes seemed to
vanish instantly the second she realized who had rung her doorbell.
“James, you did come.” She threw the door open wider. “I'd given up hope.”
Hoping. She'd been hoping he would come. This wasn't good. He made no move to enter, frozen there by her declaration.
“Look, if it's too lateâ”
“It's Friday night. That means it's not really a school night.” She winked as she took his arm and coaxed him into the apartment like a newborn colt who was unsteady on his legs and wasn't quite sure what to do with them yet. “I can stay up.”
The second he was inside the penthouse, he heard the sound of tiny nails pounding against the tile in a quick, staccato motion. The next moment, Felicia was there, barking, leaping and looking as if she were going to take him and his containers of coffee down.
“I think you'd better give me those.” Constance laughed as she took the coffee containers.
His hands free, James stooped down and picked up the eager animal. Felicia appeared as if she were in seventh heaven, trying to lick every part of his face at once. It took effort not to laugh. The dog was a furry bundle of pure love.
He looked at Constance over Felicia's head. “How's the dog coming along?”
Constance gestured around the apartment with one container. “She has complete run of the place, so she's thrilled.”
That wasn't what he meant. But a sniff of the air told him there'd been no telltale accidents. Either that, or Constance had a staff of maids who took care of that kind of thing instantly. “How's the training going?”
“Fine.” She paused to grin at her pet. The dog seemed oblivious to her now that James was here.
I know where you're coming from, honey,
Constance thought. “She has me eating out of her paw.”
Felicia was still licking his face a mile a minute, like a long-lost friend who had given up all hope of ever being reunited with him. The little pink tongue felt rough. He shifted the dog to his other side as he looked at Constance. “I don't exactly see you as being a pushover.”
She liked the compliment. A good many people equated her soft Southern lilt to her being fairly brainless and easily manipulated. She was anything but. If she had a fault, though, it was that she was too ready to trust. To believe the best of everyone. She'd gotten a little wiser since Josh, but then, she hadn't truly been tested up to this point.
It made her a little uneasy.
“I'm afraid I am.” Her eyes held his for a moment. “When it comes to a great many things. But I did manage to housebreak her before she broke the house,” she added with a smile.
Walking into the spacious living room, she placed the two containers on the coffee table and sat down on the light blue sofa. The Manhattan skyline, available directly behind her thanks to the bay window, completed the picture. A complement of stars shone above her.
After a beat, he took the other end of the sofa, releasing Felicia to fend for herself. She raced around the sofa once, then sank down at his feet.
“You surprised me, showing up at this hour,” Constance told him.
“Yeah, well, I guess I kind of surprised myself, too,” he admitted and shrugged. “I get too wound up in a case, I can't sleep. I took a chance that you might still be up.”
She held the container with both hands and drank deeply before answering. “Grading papers always takes a lot of time. Especially compositions.”
“Always hated compositions,” he remarked.
Her eyes crinkled into a grin. “These are about you. Career Day,” she reminded him. “You made a very good impression on the class. We now have ten potential police detectives.”
“Hey, it's early yet. Some of them might change their minds.”
He took a long sip of his coffee, enjoying the banter. Unable to look anywhere but at her. She was wearing those white shorts again. The ones that had been produced by a manufacturer who obviously believed in economizing by husbanding his material.
He felt warm just looking at them. It was the last thing he needed. Shifting farther into his end of the sofa, he finally asked, “You got any other shorts you can wear?”
She looked down at the ones she had on. “Is there something wrong with these?”
“Yeah.” He took another sip before adding, “There's not enough material.”
He didn't like the way her laugh wrapped itself around him.
With a nod of her head, Constance stood up. “I see.” Leaning over, she placed her container of coffee back on the table and looked as if she were about to go into the bedroom.
He was a grown man, James chided himself. He should be able to rein himself in no matter what kind of thoughts were going on in his head. Shaking his head, he stopped her before she could leave the room. “No, never mind. You don't have to change. I'll just have to deal with it.”
She wondered if he realized that he'd complimented her. “You find this distracting?”
Her grin was huge. “Good, I was hoping you would.” Tucking one leg under her, she sank back down onto the sofa and reached for her coffee. James obviously needed to talk. She decided to prod him a little. “So, how's the case coming along? Or am I not supposed to ask?”
“It's an ongoing investigation.”
“In other words, you're not supposed to talk about it.”
He considered her carefully. “I don't figure you're going to leak anything to the press.”
She pretended to zip her lips. “Anything you say here isn't going anywhere. Unless Felicia has a byline at the
I don't know about.” She cocked her
head. “Might do you good to use me as a sounding board, bounce off any theories you might have.” When he looked at her in surprise, she added, “Sometimes I'd stand outside the room and listen when Uncle Bob talked to Mama about a case.”
Humor curved his mouth for the first time that day. “You might have gotten more than you bargained for, doing that.”
She shook her head. “Wouldn't happen. Mama was completely dedicated to Daddy's memory. Which was too bad in a way. I really thought Uncle Bob would have made a great father. But the women in my mother's family are very steadfast. One-man women to the grave.”
James noticed that she was fingering the cameo as she said that.
he clock on the fireplace mantel chimed the half hour. Twelve-thirty. In the morning.
He'd stayed a lot longer than he had intended, held hostage by her soft voice, the tilt of her body as she listened intently to every syllable he uttered. Seductively pulling words out of him when he'd had no real intention of talking.
It was getting late, really late, and he had no business staying. No business being here in the first place.
Sure, he was attracted to her, but it couldn't lead anywhere. He didn't
it to lead anywhere. The fact that he was attracted to her, well, his parents must have been attracted to each other at one point or they
wouldn't have gotten married. But they had wound up at each other's throats almost constantly and the attraction had eventually vanished.
Fighting and bitterness was all he'd seen when he was growing up. He hadn't fared much better when he'd married Janice. It wasn't the kind of thing he wanted to risk inflicting on Constance. But since he'd never experienced anything else, there was little doubt in his mind that he was capable of sustaining any positive relationship.
Which meant that he had no right to be taking up space here, space that could be used by someone else. Someone who would matter in her life.
The pinprick of jealousy unsettled him. He didn't like it. Uncertain how to deal with the emotion, he did the only thing he could. He squelched it.
“Look,” he said suddenly, without preamble, “I don't know what I'm doing here.”
Her smile held him in place, even as he wanted to gain his feet and leave. “Sitting. Talking. Being human.” She cocked her head a little, her hair spilling down her bare shoulder. “Want me to go on?”
It was too easy to get lost in her rhetoric. In her eyes. He stayed strong. “No, you know what I mean. I don't do this kind of thing.”
“Which?” she asked guilelessly. “Sitting? Talking? Or being human?”
This truth-telling was hard on him. He wasn't accustomed to explaining himself and he didn't much like it. Ordinarily, he'd just walk out. But she deserved more.
Why she deserved more was not something he was willing to delve into right now. “I don't do relationships.”
She nodded, accepting his explanation. And finding a way around it. “Fine. Do one day at a time. One hour at a time. Better yet, one word at a time.” She wasn't after anything beyond the moment. And helping him to connect to the world. “Not everyone has a long-range planâ”
He glanced at her and silently resisted what she was trying to do. To give him an excuse to be with her. “I do.”
She raised her brow. “Oh?”
“It's to do my job and go home at the end of the day, preferably without a gunshot wound.”
“And do you always want that home to be empty?”
His reply rose to his lips before he could prevent it. “It wasn't always empty.” He wasn't sure what he expected or wanted to find in her eyes. Pity would have made him instantly shut down. He wasn't all that certain about his reaction to sympathy or compassion, either. “I was married once.”
The revelation surprised her. Not that he had been married, but that he'd told her without being restlessly prodded. She took that as an encouraging sign that perhaps he was willing to join the real world after all. “Go on.”
He didn't want to. He wanted to close the door on the subject. But he had been the one to open it in the first place, so he gave her a little more, tearing it from his soul.
“I thought I could make a go of it. I was wrong.” It
hurt his pride to say that, but he told the truth. “
was wrong from the start.”
A host of questions filled her head, but this wasn't the time to ask anything deep. “How long have you been divorced?”
“Five years.” It seemed longer than that. So long that at times, it was as if that portion of his life hadn't happened at all. But it had, because he had Dana. In spirit if not in fact. “I have a daughter. Dana. She's seven, no, eight,” he corrected himself. God, had it really been that long since he'd held her, barely two years old and squirming in his arms?
There was something distant in his voice. “Do you get to see her?”
He shook his head, a little surprised that he was letting Constance in this far, telling her things he didn't ordinarily talk to Santini about and the man could be relentless in his questions. “Just a couple of times a year. Janice moved to the West Coast. She says too much contact confuses Dana.”
Janice. That had to be his ex-wife. “And you miss her?”
Caught up in the web of feelings the subject evoked, he didn't immediately follow her. “Janice?” It had been a while now since he even missed the idea of Janice, of a home and family. “No.”
“Yeah. I miss her.” Which surprised him because he'd never seen himself bonding with someone a generation removed. Until he'd held his daughter for the first time.
As she'd begun to grow up, she'd reminded him a
great deal of the way Tommy had been when he was her age. Open, laughing. Tommy had been sensitive. He was the one who'd suffered every time their parents had fought. As a little boy, he'd hidden in the closet, putting his hands over his ears and crying.
Unable to stand the yelling and screaming as he'd grow older, Tommy had always searched for a path to peace. He'd thought he'd found it by using drugs. Eventually they did bring him peace. Everlasting peace.
“But she's better off over there,” he added before Constance could offer any sympathy. “I can't take care of a kid.” An almost wistful expression passed over his face. “I hear her stepfather's a stand-up guy.”
And then he stood up abruptly, blowing out a breath. Constance rose to her feet beside him. The dog, who'd dozed off at his feet, scrambled up, all paws and ears, eager to be part of whatever was happening.
James looked at Constance sternly. “Look, I told you this for a reason. I can't get involved with you.”
She expected him to be direct, but this was a little too straightforward. It took her a second to collect herself. Her eyes swept over him, searching for the best way to proceed. She didn't want him against his will.
She took a deep breath, then smiled. “All right.”
He'd thought she was going to argue him out of this. This approach was worse. “Stop being so agreeable. It makes me feel guilty.”
She laughed, doubling up her hands. She held them up for his inspection. “I could start beating you with my fists, would that make you feel better?”
He snorted, eyeing at her hands disparagingly. “It would be a waste of energy. I wouldn't feel it.”
“Don't be too sure of that, James.” She lifted her chin, her eyes teasing him. “We Beaulieu women are stronger than we look.”
She didn't look strong, she looked delicious. Like sin liberally spread on a cracker.
Now he was convinced that he had to be leaving.
Even so, he couldn't resist. Feathering his fingers along her throat and face, James tilted her head up just a touch more and gently kissed her.
The kiss still had the kick of a mule and went right to his gut. Each time he kissed her, it just got that much worse because it got that much more pleasurable. Reminding him just how long it had been since he'd begun his self-imposed hermitage. And just how badly he wanted to end it.
“If I don't get going now, I don't think I'll be going.”
She raised her eyes to his face. She wanted to reach out, to touch his soul and help him heal. She wanted to be with him. She embraced the thought, grateful that her experience with Josh hadn't paralyzed her the way she'd feared. “Would that be so bad?”
The moment hung suspended between them.
“Yeah, it would be. For you,” he added when he saw a spark of hurt entering the blue eyes. He didn't want to hurt her, he wanted to spare her.
“Thanks for the coffee,” she murmured at the door. “And the conversation.”
He'd spent the time talking about the facts of the var
ious cases that had already hit the newspaper. But even that had felt somehow too intimate. Reading the phone book with her would have seemed intimate, he couldn't help thinking, given her cadence and the way Constance leaned in her body when she listened to him speak.
Her smile was teasing as she added, “Although I have to admit, you didn't give me all that much to work with. I've run into chattier squirrels during gathering season.”
He noticed that she twanged a little when she said things like that, quaint sayings probably from wherever she was from. All he knew was that her voice as well as the look in her eyes pulled him in so deep, he was beginning to worry that he might not be able to come up for air.
His lips quirked into a faint smile. “Maybe I should have brought one of those squirrels along.”
She inclined her head. “Next time.”
There wasn't going to be a “next time,” he thought. There shouldn't have been a “this time.”
She could see it in his eyes. He was going to say he wouldn't be coming back. Her shoulders rose and fell in a small, dismissive shrug, sending one of her straps falling from her shoulder.
For a second, it looked as if her breast was going to be exposed. James felt as if he were about to swallow his own tongue. Very gently, he eased the strap back into place.
Something hot swelled inside of her, even as she
was seized by a feeling of incredible tenderness. Some other man would have tangled his fingers in the strap and pulled it down instead. She didn't think she would have stopped him if he had. God knew there was enough sexual tension dancing between them to fill a small convention hall.
Looking back later, Constance realized that it was at this precise moment that her feelings for him began to turn serious. She wasn't a pushy person by nature. Just determined. Her mind scrambled for a way to see him again.
“There's a carnival coming up.”
James felt as if he were in the middle of a meltdown. The sound of her voice dragged him back. And yet he didn't comprehend what she was saying. “What?”
“A carnival,” she repeated. And it was up to her to pull it all together. “John Jay is holding its annual carnival next Saturdayâ”
“And you want me to come?”
“I want you to help put it together. We're looking for parents to volunteerâ”
“I'm not a parent,” he reminded her, then thought of Dana. “At least not to any of the kids going to that school.”
She had a way around his defenses. “A policeman is a figure of authority, just like a parent. More at times.”
He shook his head, a tinge of admiration filtering through him. “Do you ever take no for an answer?”
When she smiled like that, all he could think about was kissing her. This had to stop. “What's the fun in that?”
“I don't know about fun, but it's a lot less compli
cated.” And from where he stood, simplicity was pretty damn appealing.
“No, being alone is complicated,” she insisted softly. “It allows your mind to work overtime, filling your head with all sorts of things that wind up haunting you. Keeping busy is better.” She was speaking from firsthand experience. “Trust me.”
That was just the trouble. He didn't trust, not anymore. Perhaps not ever. He'd trusted that his heart couldn't be broken, and yet it had been. By his parents who'd been too focused on hurting each other to notice their sons. By his brother who had given up his hold on life without so much as a decent fight. And finally by Janice, whom he could have really loved if she had only helped him find his way.
Janice leaving had been the third strike in his life. He didn't have anymore time at the plate, yet here was this woman, with eyes that seemed to look right through him, pushing a bat into his hands and telling him to take another swing.
Making him want to swing again.
“Saturday,” he repeated. She nodded her head, confirming the date. Because he was tempted to say yes, he shook his head. “I'm going to be busy. The case,” he explained, hoping that would be the end of it.
She knew he was hiding behind his work and could understand his motives. But as afraid as she was of being hurt, she was even more afraid of never feeling again. Never experiencing the wonderful high that came from falling in love.
The high that flirted with her now.
“We'll be there in case you change your mind,” she told him. “Come early if you do. We have to build all our own stands before we can set up.”
For both their sakes, he knew he had to remain firm. “Sorry.”
“That's okay. Drop by later thenâif you can,” she added, beating him to his protest. “The kids'll love to see you again.”
He hardly heard what she was saying. He was too busy watching the way her mouth moved as she spoke. Unless it had to do with a case, he was a man of very little imagination. Yet, he could almost swear he could feel those same lips against his skin with each word she formed.
Damn, but he needed a vacation. A long one. It didn't matter where, he just needed to get away. But he had a feeling even that might not help. Because anywhere he went, he'd be taking himself. And it was his thoughts that were the root of his problem here.
His thoughts and Constance.
He had to get away from her. At least physically. He'd work on the other part.
“I'll see what I can do,” he murmured as he left.
As he got into the elevator and watched the doors close, he congratulated himself for leaving without kissing her the way he was so sorely tempted to do.
It was a hollow triumph.
She'd been there since seven, bringing with her gallons of lemonade, soda and tons of cookies for everyone
who was going to show up and share their time for a good cause. Because it was early and the school was in a rough neighborhood, Alphonso Ho, the assistant principal, a man who had gotten his college degree on a football scholarship and whose body resembled an oncoming freight train, insisted on being with her to offer his protection. This was his neighborhood. He'd been born and raised here and everyone knew not to mess with him. She thought of him as her Hawaiian guardian angel.