Authors: Dallas Schulze
"Did you? Make it a habit to pick up women in bars and sleep with them, I mean?" Her tone echoed his sharp civility.
"Touche." Nick's smile held a rueful edge. She was right. He had no business casting stones in her direction—not about that night or anything else, for that matter. He rubbed his fingers against his aching forehead. He had to be out of his mind to react like this. Maybe the flu had affected his brain. He straightened away from the doorjamb and took a half step toward her, his expression softening with regret.
"Somebody lost some paperwork." Gareth's voice preceded him by an instant. Afraid of what her expression might reveal, Kate turned away from the door. She pulled a hand towel off the rack near the sink and began to needlessly refold it.
"No lost car keys?" Nick asked as Gareth entered the kitchen.
"Not this time."
Kate felt her fiance glance at her as she picked up a sponge and began to wipe down the counters. She felt grateful when Nick spoke again, drawing Gareth's attention away from her, giving her a moment to regain her balance. Not that he was doing it deliberately, she thought bitterly. Their conversation had been brief, but it had been long enough to make his opinion of her abundantly clear. He'd practically called her a slut. Talk about your double standards.
She listened with half an ear to the conversation going on behind her—something about someone they'd both known when they were growing up. Scraping a comer of the sponge down a line of perfectly clean grout, Kate told herself she didn't care what Nick thought of her, as long as he didn't tell anyone about that night.
Nick chuckled at something Gareth said and Kate found herself remembering that they'd laughed together five years ago. It was one of the things that had made everything seem so special. She'd been so alone and lonely. Finding someone to laugh with had felt like magic. Magic. It was as good an explanation as any for the way she'd abandoned her common sense along with her morals and invited him into her bed.
"It's been a long day," she heard Nick say behind her. ^'I'm going to crash."
Knowing it would look strange if she didn't say goodbye, Kate turned away from the counter. She focused on a point just past his shoulder and forced a thin smile. "Good night."
"Good night, Kate." But he didn't leave, and the knot in Kate's stomach tightened a notch.
What if he'd changed his mind about saying something to Gareth? Fear brought her eyes to his face. She couldn't read his expression, couldn't guess at his thoughts. When he turned and left the kitchen without saying anything more, she felt her knees go momentarily weak with relief.
"He looks tired," Gareth commented, frowning as he looked after his brother.
"Traveling across country is tiring," Kate said, and was pleased by the evenness of her voice. She turned and dropped the damp sponge on the counter. "I think I'll head home."
Gareth slid his arms around her waist and drew her back against his chest. "Why don't you come home with me tonight?" he murmured against her hair.
She almost said yes. It would be so nice to go home with him, let him hold her. Kate closed her eyes and leaned against him, feeling the strength of his arms around her. She always felt safe with Gareth. But not tonight. She couldn't go home with him, sleep with him tonight. Not when five-year-old memories were tugging at her. Not when, no matter how ridiculous it was, she felt as if she'd been unfaithful to him.
"I really am beat," she said, pulling away from his hold and turning to give him a genuinely apologetic smile.
"You do look a little tired." He brushed a loose tendril of hair from her forehead, his smile so gentle that Kate felt tears sting her eyes.
"We've been really busy at work."
"I didn't realize Brenda was such a slave driver."
Kate smiled, as he'd intended. He knew that her only complaint about her friend as an employer was that Brenda didn't take enough of an interest in the business.
"She hasn't exactly been cracking the whip," she said dryly. "But we've had a lot of new stock arrive for spring, and it seems like half the town decided that this was the week to plant acres of flowers. We've been pretty busy. I think I'm going to go home and take a long, hot shower and then fall into bed."
"I'm good with a washcloth," he said, half joking, half serious.
Kate shook her head, feeling as if the word "guilty" was tattooed in neon across her forehead. "I wouldn't be good company."
He didn't push any further, which only added to her guilt. He was too good for her, she thought as she slid her arms around his waist and pressed her face against his broad chest.
It was late the next morning when Nick came downstairs. The big old house was quiet around him. It had been fifteen years since he'd lived here, but he was willing to bet that the old patterns hadn't changed. His mother would have been at her office for an hour or more. His father spent mornings in his office at the church, working on Sunday's sermon and making himself available to his parishioners. When he was younger, he'd found that predictability maddening, incomprehensible. Now, he found the familiarity comforting.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he followed the scent of coffee toward the kitchen, his mouth curving in a delighted grin when he saw the tiny woman standing in front of the sink.
Startled, she turned, her narrow features lighting in a smile of welcome when she saw him. "Nick!"
He crossed the kitchen in two long strides and caught her around the waist, lifting her off her feet and swinging her around. She squeaked in protest.
"Put me down! I'm not a sack of potatoes for you to be slinging around any way you please."
"You're much too pretty to be a sack of potatoes," he said, ignoring her demands long enough to plant a kiss on her thin cheek.
"Ha! Flattery doesn't change the fact that you're a hooligan, Nick Blackthorne." But her cheeks were flushed with pleasure. She smoothed her hands over her iron gray hair and straightened her crisp white apron before fixing him with a stem look. "I can see five years in New York City hasn't done a thing to improve your manners."
"Did you expect it to?" he asked, smiling at her.
"I suppose not. You've been beyond redemption since you were a boy." Her eyes went over him in a quick, searching look. "You've lost weight. I suppose you've been eating a lot of that nouvelle cuisine." She packed a world of contempt into the words.
"I think nouvelle cuisine is out of fashion. Now, they're calling it American light," Nick told her.
"Same difference. An ounce of chicken, two green beans and a pea pod served with a teaspoon of raspberry sauce and decorated with goat cheese." She sniffed. "Not my idea of a decent meal."
"It wouldn't be fair to hold New York cuisine to your standards, Dilly. The truth is, I haven't had a decent meal since the last time I ate here."
"You're a shameless flatterer," she scolded, but she looked pleased. "Sit down and I'll fix you some breakfast."
"I can do it myself," Nick protested, but she shooed him out of her way. Knowing that this was her way of welcoming him home, he dragged a stool up to the butcher-block work island and sat down.
His hands around the cup of coffee she set in front of him, Nick felt as if he'd finally come home. Last night, he'd been too conscious of the undercurrents running between him and his family to feel any sense of homecoming. And meeting his brother's fiancee hadn't helped matters any.
But sitting here, in the sunlit kitchen, seeing the familiar efficiency of Dilly's breakfast preparations, he felt at home for the first time. There were never any undercurrents with Dilly. He was willing to bet that if one dared to appear in her kitchen, she'd smack it with a spoon and send it on its way.
He had been four when Annie Pickle came to work for his parents. With the wit possible only in four-year-olds, he and his twin brother had promptly nicknamed her Dilly. Gareth had been ten, old enough to sneer at childish nicknames, but he and Brian had always called her Dilly. Sometimes, he almost forgot she had another name.
She was family, in the same way his parents and his brother were. Well, not exactly the same way, he thought ruefully. In some ways, he was closer to Dilly than he was to the rest of the family. He was certainly more comfortable with her.
"I've missed you, Dilly."
"I've been here right along," she said calmly. "You could have seen me any time you cared to come looking."
"I've been pretty busy." He knew, even as he said it, that it was a thin excuse, and the look she sent him said she felt the same. His smile twisted ruefully. "Cut me some slack, Dilly. It's not as if I didn't keep in touch. I wrote."
"Three letters in five years—not exactly a lengthy correspondence," she said acerbically.
"I sent you Christmas and birthday presents," he offered weakly.
"Ha! Extravagant nonsense. Cashmere scarves and fancy jewelry."
"The scarf was the same blue as your eyes. I thought of you as soon as I saw it."
"Ridiculous," she muttered, but she couldn't prevent the comers of her mouth from curling upward. "Where did you think I'd wear such a thing?"
"Mom told me you wore the scarf and the pin to church several times this past winter," Nick said smugly.
There was a brief silence. She jabbed a piece of bacon with a fork and set it on a folded paper towel to drain. "You'd think she'd have more important things to write about than my wardrobe."
"She knew I'd like to hear that you were wearing my gifts," Nick said, his smile coaxing.
"Well, of course I wore them." She broke two eggs into a pan. "They were ridiculously extravagant but they were much too pretty to leave lying in a drawer." She picked up a spatula and waved it at him. "But pretty gifts aren't the same as a letter or a phone call. It would have been nice to hear from you more often." She turned to the stove and flipped the eggs. "It wouldn't have killed you to take time out from your busy schedule to call now and again."
"Your parents worried about you." She set the bacon on a plate and buttered toast with brisk efficiency, turning to the stove in time to slide the eggs out at exactly the right moment. "As little as we heard from you, you'd think that you were in Outer Mongolia or someplace where they'd never heard of a telephone or decent mail service."
She set the plate in front of him with a thump and fixed him with a stem look. "Don't 'ma'am' me, Nicholas James Blackthorne. You deserve a good scold and you know it."
"Yes, Dilly." He spoiled the meekness of his response by sliding one arm around her waist and pulling her close enough for him to kiss her cheek again. "I've missed you like hell."
For just an instant, her thin arms hugged him fiercely tight. Then she pulled away, smoothing her hands over her apron. "Don't curse," she told him briskly. "And eat your breakfast before it gets cold."
"Wretched boy." The tenderness in her voice made the words a compliment, and she couldn't resist brushing a thick lock of dark hair from his forehead. She returned Nick's smile and then turned away before he could see the foolish brightness in her eyes. "I've got some fresh orange juice."
When she came to work for the Blackthornes, she'd been newly widowed and childless. Gareth had been ten, past the age where he could simply open his heart to every newcomer. But Nick and Brian had been perfectly willing to accept her as one of the family, welcoming her with the easy affection of the very young. She'd loved them both but, in her secret heart, she admitted to loving Nick best.
She'd spent the last thirty years watching him grow from boy to man. She'd watched him lose his brother and a part of himself at the same time. She'd seen him deal with the changes that had come into his life after Brian's death, had worried when he fell in love with a woman as fragile as fine crystal and had grieved for him when he lost both wife and child. She'd understood, better dian anyone else, his need to get away. But she'd never thought he'd stay away so long, and she hadn't expected him to come back with the emptiness still in his eyes.
"Your mother said you got home in the middle of dinner last night," she said as she set a glass of orange juice in front of him.
"I planned on being here earlier but I got distracted in Vegas."
"Gambling, I suppose." She tried to look disapproving but then spoiled it by asking if he'd won.
"A bit," he admitted. "But I got back on the road later than I'd intended."
What he didn't mention was that the closer he'd come to the California state line, the more doubts he'd had about coming back here. But then, he wouldn't be surprised if she'd already guessed as much. Dilly had always known him much too well.
"I don't think anyone minded having their dinner interrupted," she said as she poured herself a cup of coffee—her fourth of the day—and added a generous splash of cream. "Your parents were delighted to have you home."
"They said as much." Their open pleasure had made him painfully conscious of his ambivalence. "It was good to see them. And Gareth. I met his fiancee.