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Authors: Teresa Carpenter

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Not wanting to be rude by eating and running, she promised herself she'd leave in twenty minutes.

Ford, the youngest Sullivan, teased Samantha about falling asleep in church, and Dani soon found the Sullivans, both men and women, lived up to Samantha's hype of them. Laughter flowed as easy as the conversation and much to Dani's personal joy none of it focused around the sports complex or museum/garden proposals.

When she glanced at her watch again, the better part of an hour had slipped past.

“I should go,” she told the table at large. “It's way past Faith's nap time.”

“No,” Samantha protested. “It's early yet. We're going to play a game and we need you for the numbers. Besides, Gram probably already has the kids settled down.”

Now she mentioned it, there was an absence of shrill squeals, toys pounding, and shared giggles. “Oh, but—”

Gram stuck her head in from the living room. “I put Faith down with the boys for their naps. Just checked on them a few minutes ago and they're like candles, all light and bright one moment and out the next.”

“Oh, well.” Dani pondered the moment. Her plan to leave revolved more around getting away from Cole than anything else. She stole a glance his way. More than once she'd felt him watching her, the awareness of him a low-level buzz to her system.

But mostly he'd been behaving himself and she did enjoy spending time with these sharp and funny adults. It felt like forever since she had spent more than a few minutes in mixed company. Even at events like today, she usually visited with the women and then took her leave.

“Stay,” Samantha entreated. “Play with us.”

“Okay, I guess it'll be fun. I haven't played a game since you left Phoenix.”

“Oh, yeah,” Cole's older brother Brock said. “Samantha's the one that brought a whole new meaning to the words
game day
for the Sullivans. Used to be these afternoons were lazy days to watch whatever sports were playing. Now once a month we sit down and play a game.”

“Yeah, I miss the good old days.” Cole sighed.

“Shut it, you slug.” Ford kicked out at Cole's chair, already tipped back on two legs. “Nobody's holding your feet to the flame to be here.”

Cole had to grab the table to keep from going over backward. “Rachel, are you going to let him get away with that?”

“Of course not.” Rachel swept platinum-blond bangs out of her eyes, leaned over the corner of the table to reach her husband and, pulling him close, kissed him with heated intent. After a minute, she let him go and licked her lips. “Sweetie, you don't have to play if you don't want to.”

“Oh, I want to play,” Ford responded, a flush in his cheeks and a huskiness to his voice.

“I thought so. Now leave Cole alone.”

Dani must have looked slightly bug-eyed, because Jesse explained, “It's not as bad as they're making it sound. Once a month the guys give up whatever sporting event is on for the day and we play a game. Trivial Pursuit, poker, whatever. But the guys get to pick the week, and they get to have one game on TV—on mute.” She nodded to the big-screen set in the corner of the family room. Dani had seen
all of the men sneak a peak at the set during their conversation.

“And—” Samantha picked up the explanation with a wry glance at each of the men “—if one of them gets a text from one of their contacts that there's a particularly good game going, we all quit and watch.”

“We have a lot of fun,” Rachel said. “And we all get to keep in touch with each other. Even getting together for Sunday dinners, it's easy to miss connecting with everyone every week.”

“Mattie usually takes off Sundays so she can participate.” Alex set a Trivial Pursuit box in the middle of the table. “But the diner has been packed this week.”

“Yeah, I was talking to her yesterday.” Ford opened the box and began sorting out the pieces. “She said it was like half the town went on strike and refused to cook.”

Across the table, Cole went still then slowly lifted his gaze. His blue eyes narrowed on Dani. “Interesting phenomenon.”

For a moment it was as if they were the only two in the room. Dani smiled, showing all her teeth. “Why yes. How odd.”

“It almost sounds like something someone planned.”

She lifted her brows. “Now why would anyone have cause to do that?”

“No politics at the game table.” Samantha laid down the law.

Dani had no problem with that, especially as Jesse announced from the other end of the table that because there were so many of them, they played in pairs. Dani had the bad feeling that as odd man and woman out she and Cole would be coupled together.

She sighed in relief to learn they drew names to make up the pairs. It was the women's turn to draw names and she was thrilled when she got Alex. Of all the men, she knew him best.

Turned out they were good partners and, with much laughter, some debate and a few lucky rolls of the dice, they took an early lead.

The group took a break about halfway through the game because the guys wanted dessert. Ford and Brock volunteered to dish up, keeping with the women's-day-off theme, but Rachel and Jesse joined them in the kitchen to supervise.

Seeing Samantha yawn, Dani nudged her partner. “Alex, I think you need to take your wife away for a weekend of rest and relaxation.”

Samantha perked up. Alex looked at his wife with a gleam in his eyes and said, “There's an idea.”

Cole nudged Samantha a couple of times and wiggled his eyebrows. “Sami, you should take Alex away for a weekend of hot passion.”

Samantha flushed pink and she looked at Alex with longing. “That sounds wonderful.”

“I do have the conference in New Orleans in mid-November,” Alex said. “You could fly over and join me for the weekend.”

Excitement lit Samantha up, but the glow quickly faded as resignation claimed her momentary radiance. “I can't. The kids.”

“Oh, please,” Dani huffed. “That better not be your excuse. I can watch the kids.”

Samantha shook her head. “I can't ask you to do that. With the three boys and Faith, it would be too much.”

“You didn't ask, I offered. I'm sure I can handle it for a few days.”

“No, they come with too much stuff, and the baby has a cold—”

“So I'll go to your house.” Samantha did so much for Dani that she really wanted to help her friend out. “And I'm sure Jake will be feeling better by mid-November. Come on, Faith practically lives at your place. Let me do this for you.”

Still Samantha hesitated. “You don't know how much trouble three boys can be twenty-four/seven.”

“I'll help her,” Cole chimed in. “Between the two of us we should be fine.”

“Oh, but—” Dani protested, horrified by the idea. But Samantha talked right over her.

“That would be great.” Samantha jumped up and threw her arms around Cole, giving him a big kiss on the cheek.

“Hey, I'm the one supposed to get the passion.”
Alex pulled his wife away from his brother and swung her into a steamy clinch.

Glancing away from the embracing couple, Dani caught a look of acute envy on Cole's face as he watched his brother and Samantha. For a moment he appeared the picture of loneliness. She turned away, giving him privacy, understanding only too well how being alone ate at the soul.

Laughing softly, the couple broke apart, flushed and pleased with themselves. A few minutes later the others returned to the table with plates of chocolate cake, and the game resumed.

That night doing laundry, Dani admitted she had enjoyed taking the win from Cole and Jesse. She'd had a good time today. And so had Faith. Several times Dani saw her dancing around Cole, climbing into his lap, giggling as she whispered in his ear. Her affection for him was totally on her sleeve, as was his for her.

But Dani also saw how he gave Faith a couple of minutes of his attention, and then sent her back to play with the other kids, more than once with a slightly wistful expression.

Dani sighed. He really was a decent guy.

CHAPTER FIVE

S
HORTLY AFTER SHE PUT
Faith down to sleep, a knock sounded at Dani's door. By the height and profile visible through the half medallion of smoky glass in her door, her visitor must be a man. One tall, lean, frustrating male by her guess, a hunch confirmed when she spied Cole through the peephole.

The man was a relentless pest, which didn't stop her from licking her lips and fluffing her hair before opening the door a scant three inches.

“Cole,” she acknowledged, trying for cold and forbidding but achieving breathy. “What do you want? Here to steal another kiss?”

Was she crazy? Why had she brought that up? Ignoring the felonious smooch would be far smarter.

“Sure, if you're offering.” The door proved no barrier when he leaned down and snagged her mouth with his.

Dani moaned under the soft ravishment of his lips. No simple peck like in church, this kiss pulled a re
sponse from her. He didn't press but finessed, sipping, teasing, drawing her latent passion to the surface.

Oh, yeah, this was crazy good.

They touched only where her mouth clung to his, the door still mostly between them. And she wanted more, wanted his arms around her, his body next to hers.

Sweet sugar cookies, she longed to get her hands on him.

So, of course, she pushed him away. Okay, he had already started lifting his head, but she preferred to stick with her version and retain a little self-respect.

Her breathing fogged the cool night air between them as she tried to calm her wildly beating heart.

He made no attempt to enter the house, simply leaned against the doorjamb, far too close and far too happy with himself.

She scowled. “So why are you here again?”

He lifted a dark eyebrow, and the porch light caught the leap of passion in his eyes as he inched closer.

“Do you want me to show you again?”

She planted a hand in the center of his chest, holding him at a distance even as she thrilled to feel his heart thundering under her fingers.

“Speak or leave.”

“So cold. You're not going to invite me in?”

“I'm glad we're both clear on that.”

He blinked, refocused, and then flashed his pearly whites at her. “You could come out here with me.”

“I guess you're leaving, then. Good night.”

“Wait.” His warm grip settled over hers on the door, not pushing, just touching. “I came to confirm I was right. The museum group is playing some kind of game by not cooking. Tell me I'm wrong.”

“You're the enemy. I'm not telling you anything, except the supporters of the museum and garden proposal genuinely care about the outcome of this vote. It's not a game to them, and it would be a mistake not to take them seriously.”

Solemn, he nodded. But of course he didn't mean it. “I knew it. Whose wild idea was this? Seems a little desperate to me.”

“Underdogs need to be inventive.” Why was she allowing this conversation to continue? Probably because her senses were still spinning from his kiss. The thought of spending a whole weekend in his combustible company shook her to the core. She should call him on his offer, let him know she didn't want or need his help, but she didn't have the energy. Didn't have the guts.

“If that's all, I'm getting cold.”

“No, you aren't.” He feathered the back of a finger along her cheekbone, caught a loose tendril and tucked it behind her ear. “You're feeling the heat. Just like me.”

“Cole—”

“You don't have to be afraid of me.” His voice
was soft; his eyes told her she could trust him. But even his cousin said he was full of sweet talk and hot air.

“Haven't you guessed, everything scares me these days?” Pulling her hand free of his, she slowly closed and locked the door.

 

“I don't know why those women are against the sports complex, 'cause they're not opposed to playing games,” Doc Wilcox groused. He and Palmer and the two other members of Cole's campaign committee were packed into the mayor's office.

Cole controlled the urge to snap that the endowment issue wasn't a game and that the opposing camp was entitled to their own opinions and the corresponding strategies to bring about the vote they were looking for. It didn't matter that he'd said nearly the same thing to Dani on Sunday. That conversation had just been between the two of them. And truthfully the topic was more an excuse than a reason for stopping at her place.

He'd told her she wasn't his type, which couldn't be more true. He was loose and easy and she was tightly wound and overcommitted. But Lord, he did enjoy pushing her buttons.

Sunday night he'd wanted to push a few buttons free on her pale blue blouse, reveal her creamy loveliness, touch her baby-soft skin.

She tried so hard to fight him, and then she'd stop
and call his bluff. He loved it when she stood up to him.

Whoa, wait.
He shifted restlessly in his chair. Love had nothing to do with his feelings for Dani. She was fun, that was all.

So he enjoyed having her at Gram's for Sunday dinner. He could admire a pretty woman sitting in the shade of an umbrella on a hot afternoon simply for the beauty of the moment. It didn't mean he was ready to pick out china patterns with her.

And so what if he'd blown the winning question of the trivia game because he was distracted by the way her teeth bit into her plump bottom lip while she anxiously awaited the answer. There was no harm in looking.

“I didn't even notice my wife had stopped cleaning.” Palmer adjusted his tie. “I was just glad not to have the vacuum running during the game.”

“What about the no cooking?” Julie Barnes, his office manager, asked. “You didn't notice that?”

“Sure.” Palmer shrugged. “But I didn't marry her for her cooking, if you know what I mean.”

Cole blocked out the debate. Man, he should never have kissed Dani. Not even a little peck on the lips. Because now he knew how sweet she tasted, and he wanted more.

He'd been insane to kiss her in church. That was too close to the altar for comfort.

Not to mention Gram had seen the whole thing, leaving him wide open for a lecture about the
inappropriateness of his actions during their weekly stroll around the garden. Church was not the place to make a move on a woman. And what were his intentions anyway?

Good question. Or not. He liked Dani, enjoyed her company. Neither required a commitment on his part. Or hers. A good thing, because from the way she had closed the door on him last Sunday, clearly she wasn't going to give him a chance.

He liked being his own boss, thrived on being a free agent, on not answering to anyone. Sure he loved his family and he considered them a close bunch, but he made his own decisions and his relationships were his own business.

Cole was a puzzle enthusiast; he thrived on the challenge of finding pieces to form the big picture, which was why he loved landscaping. And was probably what made him so good at playing the stock market, and had helped him warn the family when the economy crashed. More his obsession of puzzles fed his other great passion.

He loved women, always had, always would. From little beauties like Faith to his grandmother's oldest friend, Miss Betty, he found women enchanting and mysterious, an ever-present puzzle wrapped in lovely packaging. They were such a contradiction of traits, soft yet fierce, strong and resilient, prone to laughter and tears, often at the same time. In any given moment you never knew what you were going to get from them.

Women were the ultimate puzzle.

Yeah, he loved them. In the plural. He enjoyed their company, some more intimately than others, their intense emotions, their hare-brained reasoning, and all varieties in between. But he didn't get serious with any of them.

And he didn't bring women home to Gram.

He made no apologies because he liked to keep it casual. So what if he occasionally longed for what his brothers had found with their wives. Or if he experienced a twinge of loneliness every now and again. He preferred to keep it simple until the right woman came along.

Which was no reason for the memory of Dani in her sleeveless blue blouse and white miniskirt sitting at his grandmother's table to pop into his mind.

“So Cole,” Wilcox said, pulling Cole's attention back to the conversation. “What are we going to do to combat this no-cooking, no-cleaning campaign of theirs?”

“Nothing.” Annoyed with the topic, Cole tapped the end of his pen against his blotter.

“We have to do something,” Palmer protested.

“They just want to be heard, to have their opinions validated,” Cole stated.

“Right,” Julie agreed. “It's a personal issue for many of them. If we make it a public issue, it gives weight to their argument.” She waved a hand, indicating Palmer. “And if the men aren't even noticing, then their plan is failing anyway.”

“They want a museum and botanical garden,” Wilcox argued. “If we ignore their efforts, they may gain momentum, especially if their strategy begins to work.”

“We could invite them to participate in a public debate. Give them the sense of being heard,” Julie mused. “Ours is the stronger position. Letting them speak would show them up as the weaker choice.”

“Who's going to pay for this debate?” Cole's accounting manager asked. “Public meetings are expensive.”

“We can add it to an already scheduled city event. That'll bring the expenses down and guarantee an audience.”

“I still say you're making too big an issue of this. We need to stay focused on our own agenda.” The last thing Cole wanted was a public showdown with Dani.

“A debate is inevitable.” Doc Wilcox threw in his approval of the public meeting. “It may as well be now when it's to our advantage. But let's keep it small, control the venue.”

“We need to get our plans out there.” Cole tried a new argument. “Let the people of Paradise Pines see the beautiful facility we have drafted. That's what's going to win us this election.”

“You're right, and the debate will be the perfect place to hand out flyers. Great, we're decided.” Palmer rubbed his hands together. “Julie, you start looking for an event we can piggyback on. I'll make
up the flyers. Cole, you issue an official invitation to the Wilder woman. She ought to be thrilled to participate.”

With a sigh of resignation, Cole settled back in his chair. Thrilled? He didn't think so.

 

“Can we get a really big pumpkin, Mommy? One this big?” Faith held her little arms above her head.

Dani tickled her daughter's ribs as she pulled a pink sweater into place over the upraised arms. She laughed along with Faith, loving the sound of her giggles.

“I don't know. That's an awfully big pumpkin. Mommy's got to be able to carry it to the car.”

“You can do it, Mommy. You're strong.”

If only that were true. But it thrilled her that Faith thought so. “We'll see.”

“Weelll…”

Dani waited, knowing the drawn-out word meant her precocious daughter's active mind was at work.

“If you can't carry the big pumpkin, maybe you can get the man with the nice butt to help you.”

“Faith Marie,” Dani exclaimed, shocked. “You do not say
butt
.”

“I didn't say it Mommy, you did. The last time we went to the nursery. You said the man in the hat had a really nice—”

“Stop,” Dani demanded. “You don't get to say it again.” Her little girl loved to learn new words and repeat the forbidden; she'd wrap this conversation
back on itself several times if Dani let her, sneaking the bad word in a couple of more times with creative flair.

Dani knew exactly when she had made the fatal slip. In late summer they'd been at Sullivan's Garden and Landscaping to pick up some potting soil and a few fall blooms. The place was huge, not only rows of plants, but fields, including a hillside of budding pumpkins and a pine forest of Christmas trees. Sullivan's catered to both the home gardener and professionals.

It had been hot that day and in the distance a man in a wide-brimmed hat had worked the pumpkin patch. He wore a sleeveless white tank, low-riding jeans and gardening gloves. Tanned and fit, his arms flexed with muscles as he labored. Her gaze had been drawn to him again and again. She especially enjoyed the back view when he bent or squatted to work the field.

She didn't remember admiring his backside out loud, but evidently she had. She did remember lingering over her choice of plants longer than necessary hoping to catch a glimpse of his face, but he'd stayed on the hillside.

Lord save her, she now knew she'd been ogling Cole Sullivan, which twisted her up in so many knots. How much easier her life had been when he was simply a fantasy in a pumpkin patch.

His kiss haunted her. In those few minutes she'd felt alive again, as if life had meaning and purpose,
as if she were young with a promising future. She'd longed to leap through the door and grab a hold of him with both arms.

At the same time everything in her wanted to cling to the past, to the memory of the husband she'd loved and lost too soon. She couldn't let him go, who else would keep him alive for Faith?

With that thought she turned her attention back to her baby and tried to regain control of the situation.

“Mommy shouldn't have said that word either. Especially not when big ears could hear.” She tugged on tiny earlobes.

Faith giggled and covered her ears. “I don't have big ears.” She grinned at Dani. “You didn't think I was hearing, but I was.”

“Listening,” Dani automatically corrected her. “You were listening.”

“What does
lissening
mean?”

“Listening—” Dani emphasized the pronunciation— “means when you hear something, you're paying attention.”

“Yep, I was lissening,” she confirmed, plopping on her rear end to put on her shoes, pink Mary Janes with princess tiaras on the heels.

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