Excerpts for Warm Hearts


1


Caroline Cooper untied the wilting bow at the neck of her blouse, released its top button and peeled the damp fabric from her sweaty neck.
Beep. "You're working too late, Caroline. It's eight o'clock your time now, and Lord knows when you'll be hearing this message.… I'm worried about your father. The X rays of the leg look good, but he's in terrible pain. I'm beginning to wonder if he'll ever walk right, let alone play golf, and so help me, if he doesn't we'll sue. Maybe we'll sue anyway. The doctor who set his leg wrong last fall shouldn't be practicing medicine." Sigh. "Call me when you get a chance, sweetheart. We need to talk."Click.
Freeing the last of the buttons, Caroline carefully separated the blouse from her shoulders and arms.
Beep. "Ahh, Caroline, still out on the town. How I envy you your energy. Can you loan me a little?" Groan. "The baby's getting bigger. I'm getting bigger. Where I get the strength to keep going I'll never know. I think it's defiance. The men in the firm are worried that I'll give birth in the office. What sissies they are. Of course, they've never been pregnant. For that matter, neither have you, but I need a pep talk. Call whenever."Click.
Caroline breathed a sigh of relief when she stepped out of her skirt and an even greater one when she rolled the nylons from her legs.
Beep. "Would you like to know what your good friend did today? She demanded--not asked but demanded--to keep the lake house. It's not enough that she has the Colonial, the Camaro and Amy. She's a greedy bitch. I don't know what you ever saw in her as a friend." Grunt. "I don't know what I ever saw in her as a wife." Pause. "Catch you another time, Sis."Click.
Clad in panties and bra, Caroline padded wearily to the bathroom. The light there was oppressive after the dimness of the larger room and, if anything, exaggerated the heat. Wetting a cool cloth, she pressed it to her face.
Flowers. That was what she wanted to come home to after a long day's work. A bouquet of fresh, sweet-smelling flowers. Not an answering machine spouting complaints.
With a sigh, she dragged the cloth down over her neck and held it to her pulse. A bouquet of flowers … or a bunch of brightly colored balloons … or a gorgeous guy with a sympathetic smile and a frozen daiquiri in his outstretched hand. She moved the cloth around to her nape and realized that just then she'd take the daiquiri over the guy.
With a wistful sigh this time, she unsnapped her bra and let it fall to the commode before rewetting the cloth and dragging it slowly over those parts of her that hadn't breathed all day--the insides of her elbows, the curve of her waistline, beneath and between her breasts. The relief was wonderful, if short-lived. She debated taking a cool shower, decided it was too great an effort. She felt drained. What she wanted--given no bouquet of flowers, no bunch of balloons, no gorgeous guy, no frozen daiquiri--was to wipe her mind clear of all thought and relax.
Dropping the cloth in the sink, she flipped off the light and returned to the large single room she called home. It was a loft apartment, the third and top floor of a Georgetown town house. She'd been working in Washington for three years before she'd found it. Miracle of miracles, she'd been able to afford the rent, so the last thing she'd begrudged was the lack of air conditioning.
Until tonight. The dog days of summer had arrived suddenly and with a vengeance, but it wasn't even summer. It was the sixth of June. She shuddered to think what July and August would be like.
Her movements were sluggish, legs seeming to lack the strength to cut through the opaque heat. The Casablanca fan on the ceiling stirred the air some, but because the only air in the room was sweltering, the improvement was negligible. Her feet made a sticky sound on the large adobe tiles as she crossed to the closet. Even the thin batiste shift she slipped on felt heavy.
Opening the broad French windows as far as they'd go, she put one knee on the window seat, gathered the mass of her thick hair in her hands and held it off her neck. The courtyard seemed devoid of air this night. Still, it was peaceful--another plus for the loft. Cars were parked around the cobblestone drive; at its center was a small cluster of trees and shrubs, a patch of grass and a modest wrought-iron bench. Sharing the courtyard on its far side were town houses just like hers. All in all, the effect was charming.
Or claustrophobic. She'd begun thinking of open spaces, of fields filled with wheat that swayed in the wind or meadows dotted with willows and irrigated with bubbling brooks, when the sound of the telephone rent the still night air. She closed her eyes for a minute, took a long, deep breath and pushed away from the seat. Her hand hovered over the phone in a moment's indecision before it finally lowered.
"Hello?"
"Hello, yourself," came a pleasant male voice. "Just get in?"
She didn't know whether to be relieved or annoyed. Though she'd been dating Elliot for several months, she wasn't in the mood for him just then. She was hot and tired. After a long day of talk, she craved silence. Still, she supposed Elliot was better than her family.
"A few minutes ago. What's up?"
"It's been a hell of a day, but I'm in heaven now. No more than two hours ago, we signed the contract on the shopping mall, but you wouldn't have believed the last-minute glitches. It was touch and go for so long I thought the whole thing was going down the tubes. But we did it, we actually did it. Do you realize what a coup this is?"
Caroline gave a weak smile as she daubed her beading forehead with the back of her hand. Predictably, Elliot babbled on.
"My firm is about to build the classiest mall Arlington's ever seen. For a young firm, that's not bad. The developer may be a tough nut to crack, but the architectural plans are great, and our reputation's bound to soar. So--" he paused and spoke with an audible smile "--how about you and I go out for some champagne and caviar?"
The frozen daiquiri still sounded better. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back, bracing the lax muscles of her neck with her hand. "I'm really exhausted, Elliot."
"But there's cause for celebration. It's not every day I land a deal like this."
"Shouldn't you be celebrating with your partners?"
"Spent the last hour doing that. The next couple of hours are for us."
She stifled a moan and worked at summoning compassion. "I'd really love to, but it's been a hell of a day for me, too, and I don't have a contract to show for it."
"Come out with me and I'll share the excitement."
"Nah. I'd only drag you down."
"Sweetheart," he drawled, "that would be impossible. Nothing's about to drag me down tonight. I'm on a first-class high. Join me and you'll see."
She rubbed an incipient tension from the bridge of her nose. "Thanks, but I'd better take a rain check."
"Rain checks aren't offered on bright nights like this. Who knows how long the high will last? Once the reality of the job sets in, I'll be a nervous wreck. Now's the time to celebrate."
She sighed. "Elliot, I don't think I could hold my head up for long in a restaurant."
"Then take a cab over here and we'll do it big with take-out or something."
"I'm not dressed."
"So much the better," he said in a tone that immediately told her she'd said the wrong thing. He'd been making suggestive noises for the past few weeks, and she'd held him off with one gentle quip after another. It wasn't that she didn't like him; she did. He was a good conversationalist and he was polite. He enjoyed concerts, lectures, fine restaurants. She could forgive him his self-centeredness, because she understood that it came from insecurity. But she felt little for him beyond friendship. He didn't turn her on.
"We'll have dinner another night," she said.
"I'd offer to bring food over there, but your place is probably hot as hell. What if I come rescue you, myself? You must be dying."
"I'm fine, just very tired."
He was quiet for a moment. By the time he spoke again, he'd apparently acclimated himself to Caroline's refusal, because there was a jauntiness in his voice. "You're missing out on a good thing."
"I know. Forgive me?"
"Don't I always?" he countered with such flippancy that she wanted to scream. But she didn't have the strength. Or the heart.
"Yes, Elliot."
"We're on for Saturday, aren't we?"
"Uh-huh."
"Okay, sweetheart. I'll talk with you later, then."
"Right."
"Think of me tonight?"
She left that one alone. "I'm really glad you got the project, Elliot."
"So am I. Bye-bye."
Replacing the receiver in its cradle, she stood for a minute with her head bowed, rubbing the throbbing spot between her eyes. It occurred to her that with increasing frequency Elliot made her throb that way. Too bad the spot was wrong.
Rolling her eyes at the twist of her thoughts, she made for the refrigerator and a pitcher of iced tea. She'd no sooner grasped the handle, though, when there was a knock at her door. Reluctantly closing the refrigerator, she shuffled across the room and put her eye to the peephole. The cone-shaped face with an absurdly large nose in the lead was that of her downstairs neighbor.
She opened the door with a smile. "Hi, Connie." Her eyes widened. "You look super." Freed from the distortion of the peephole lens, Connie Halpern's face was exceptionally pretty, but Caroline had already known that. What impressed her now was the chic and daringly cut lounging outfit Connie wore. But then, Caroline shouldn't have been surprised. Connie was forty-two and divorced. A small designer boutique in Georgetown Park kept her busy by day. A congressman from Idaho kept her busy by night. "Big date?"
"Mmm. And I promised him caf kirsch," Connie answered with a grimace, "but I'm out of eggs. You don't … by chance…" Her eyes finished the sentence by wandering toward the wall that was Caroline's kitchen.
"Sure do," Caroline said. "How many?" she called over her shoulder as she returned to the refrigerator.
Connie was right behind her. "Two, if you have them. Whew, is it hot up here! What's wrong with the air conditioning?"
"There isn't any."
"Why not?" Connie asked with endearing indignance.
"Ask Nestor Realty."
"The creeps. My place is delightfully cool." She took the eggs from Caroline. "I'd invite you down, but…"
"You have a special guest and I look like something the cat dragged home."
"Actually," Connie said, tipping her head and giving Caroline a good once-over, "you look kind of sexy. Where's Elliot?"
"Home."
"Oh."
Caroline smiled again and gave her friend a nudge. "Go on. He's waiting."
But Connie just stood. "I feel guilty as hell leaving you up here alone and sweltering."
"Alone I don't mind, and as for sweltering, it's really not that bad. I was just about to help myself to a tall glass of iced tea when you knocked."
That was enough to let Connie off the hook. "Go to it, then, girl," she said, heading for the door. "And thanks for the eggs. You're a lifesaver." With a wave, she was gone.
Closing the door behind her, Caroline promptly poured the drink she'd promised herself. No sooner had she replaced the pitcher in the refrigerator, though, when the phone rang. She stared at it, wishing she had the nerve to either ignore it or unplug it. But the caller could be her mother again, this time in a real panic. Or her sister, Karen, saying that she'd gone into premature labor. Or there might be an emergency involving one of her clients.
"Hello?"
"Caroline?"
Her pulse faltered at the familiarity of the voice. It had been six months since she'd last heard it, but when one had been intimately involved with a man for over a year, there were certain things one didn't forget. Like his voice. And the promises he'd made … and those he'd broken.
"Ben."
"How are you?"
"Just fine," she said. Actually, she was trying to figure that one out. The initial sound of his voice had touched off a reaction, but it seemed to have been more one of surprise than anything else.
"I'm back in town."
"Oh?"
"Uh-huh. I finished up in Madrid."
Benjamin Howe was a floating member of the diplomatic corps. Only after the fact had Caroline realized that he manipulated his assignments to coincide with his love life. Or vice versa.
"How was it?" she asked, plucking uncomfortably at those parts of her shift that were clinging to her skin.
"Interesting. But it's good to be home. Tell me about you. What have you been up to?"
She shrugged. "Same old thing, Ben."
"Still counseling?"
"It's my field."
He paused as though trying to think of something else to say. Or waiting for her to pick up the ball. Eventually he asked, "Have you had any interesting cases lately?"
"They're all interesting."
"I mean, anything out of the ordinary?"
"Unfortunately, broken homes aren't out of the ordinary nowadays. Neither are disturbed children, unfortunately."
"Fortunately for you, or you'd be out of business."
She tried to take his words for the humor she knew he'd intended, but still they sounded crass. She was beginning to feel uncomfortable in ways that had nothing to do with her stifling apartment. Ben, who'd once fascinated her with his good looks and exciting position, no longer did. She wasn't sure why he'd called.
"I'd be very happy to be out of business," she said, "if it meant there was less unhappiness in the world, just as I'm sure an oncologist would be thrilled by a cure for cancer."
"Ah, so lofty."
"No. But I do mean what I say."
There was a long pause, then a quiet "Touch."
Caroline's lips formed the reluctant beginnings of a smile. Ben had always been astute to the nuances of words. It was necessary in his work. Apparently he hadn't lost his touch while he'd been in Spain.
"You're still angry at me," he decided. If his perceptiveness was off just a hair, it was because he couldn't see her indulgent expression.
"No." She'd grown a lot since she and Ben had broken up. "I'm not angry."
"But you haven't forgotten."
"No woman forgets promises of undying love. That doesn't mean she has to wither and die when the promises are broken."
"So you've moved on? That has to say something about the love you felt for me."
"I never said that I loved you. Not once."
In the lengthy silence that followed, Caroline tugged open a kitchen drawer, took out an elastic band and, balancing the phone between jaw and shoulder, scooped her hair into a high, makeshift ponytail. The ends were wet. Her neck was even wetter. She wanted that iced tea. She wanted the window seat. She wanted peace and quiet.
"No, you never did say that, did you?" Ben asked, then went on before she could agree. "But, look, I didn't call to rehash the past. I just thought it'd be fun to get together. How about a drink? For old times' sake, if nothing else."
"Tonight?"
"Sure."
"Uh, thanks, Ben, but I'm beat. Maybe another time."
"How about tomorrow?"
She shook her head. "Late meetings."
"Then Friday. I could meet you after work."
"I'm sorry, but I have other plans." Opening the freezer, she dropped several ice cubes in her drink, holding one out to rub on her neck.
"You really are seeing someone else?"
"You could say that," she said with a touch of humor. The ice felt good, though it was melting on contact.
"Anyone I know?"
"I hope not. That'd be pretty uncomfortable, comparing notes and all."
"Is he good?"
"At what?"
"You know."
She hesitated for only the short amount of time it took to straighten her spine. "And you don't. Why don't we leave it at that?"
"You're trying to make me jealous. It won't work, Caroline. I know what we had, and it'd be pretty hard to beat."
Caroline heard his defensiveness and surprised herself by feeling remorse. Then again, she should have expected it. She was a softy at heart. Ben had always prided himself on his sexual prowess. Teasing him about finding a replacement was hitting below the belt in more ways than one.
"I'm not denying what we had," she conceded. "It was good while it lasted. But it's over."
"So what's the harm in going out for a drink?"
"Maybe another time. Listen, I'm really glad you're back. I hope things go well."
"What's his name?"
"Who?"
"Whoever you're seeing."
She debated telling him to mind his own business, but she knew Ben too well for that. He was persistent. When he set his mind to something, he usually got it. He'd wanted her and he'd gotten her. He'd wanted out and he'd gotten out. If he wanted back in now, for whatever his reasons, she was going to have to close the door in his face.
The problem was that she wasn't naturally cruel or vengeful. She didn't want to hurt him; she simply wanted to be free of him. And the best way to do that, she realized, was to paint herself as being unavailable.
She could lie and say that she was wildly in love with another man, even engaged to be married, but she'd never been good at lying. On the other hand, she wasn't opposed to presenting the facts and letting him jump to conclusions.
"His name is Elliot Markham. He's a builder. We've been seeing each other for nearly four months."
"Is it serious?"
Certainly not, she reflected. But if Elliot was to serve as a buffer, she couldn't be that blunt. So she said, "Give me a few more months, then ask me again. I'm being cautious this time around."
"I see. Well--" he sighed "--maybe I'll call you another time and we'll have that drink."
Persistence. There it was again. Or maybe it was pride. Ben didn't like being refused. Of course, chances were that before "another time" rolled around, he'd find another woman. Knowing Ben, she mused wryly, he'd invite her for the drink anyway and then have his new lady friend pick him up afterward.
"We'll see. Take care, Ben."
"You, too, Caroline."
This time when she hung up the phone, she did switch on the answering machine. There was something deceitful about doing that, but she was just hot and tired enough to stoop to deceit. She'd about had it with phone calls.
Ben. Of all people, she'd never expected to hear from him. Six months before, he'd made his plans without telling her, then hadn't looked back when he'd left. She'd been stunned and deeply hurt. Anger had eventually set in, but relief had followed. Ben wasn't right for her. She'd been too involved in the relationship to see it at the time, but it never would have worked. His phone call proved how thoroughly she was over him. And Elliot … well, she was grateful to have had him in the wings.
The ice cube she'd held was nothing more than lingering streaks of wetness on her neck, forehead and cheeks. Taking the glass of tea from the counter, she settled on the window seat with her shoulder and head braced against the wooden jamb. She tried to concentrate on the small stirrings of air, but there were few. The night was a thick blanket of heat. Little moved or breathed.
Unable to draw her mind into a total blank, she found herself thinking of life's little complications. There was her work, for one thing. On the plus side was her love of it. She was in partnership with three other therapists; their offices were in newly renovated and comfortable quarters within walking distance of her apartment. When she'd first joined the practice, she'd assumed that her work would consist of references from her partners, who'd already established themselves in the area. And indeed, that was how she'd started. But one client had led to another, and to a consulting position at a local prep school, and to leadership of a group session, and to more clients. Her practice was full, evenly split between children and adults. She found it incredibly rewarding.
There were days like today, though, when things just hadn't worked. Her eight-o'clock appointment, a troubled high-school junior, had stood her up. Her eleven-o'clock appointment, a woman struggling to make her marriage work, had spent the hour evading issues of dependency by asking how Caroline could possibly understand what she was going through if she'd never been married herself. Her three-o'clock appointment, a ten-year-old girl, refused to talk. And her four-o'clock appointment, a divorced pair whose two children she was also counseling, skirted every pertinent issue by accusing her of a conflict of interest in working with the whole family. It didn't matter that they'd been the ones to initially request it; when the therapist herself became a negative factor in the proceedings, the prognosis was poor. Though Caroline had promptly referred the parents to one of her partners, she'd been saddened by the loss of therapy time and effort.
After swirling the ice cubes around in her glass, she took several sips of tea. The drink soothed her throat but did little to cool her thoughts. Frustration at work was part of the job. Even on the best of days, the intense concentration she gave her patients was draining. Still, when four setbacks occurred in an eight-hour span, she was discouraged.
A trickle of sweat crept into the hollow between her breasts. She dabbed at it lightly with her shift, then, prying the undersides of her thighs from the seat, drew up her knees into a more comfortable pose.
It was the responsibility that was so awesome, she decided. Clients came to her with issues of mental health. When she let them down, she felt let down herself. Which was pretty much why, she mused as she cast a glance at the telephone, she felt guilty about the answering machine. She had a responsibility toward her family, too.
Wishing she could be a little more selfish, she set down her tea, went to turn off the machine, then returned to her perch. How could she say no when they wanted to talk? She might not be the alarmist her mother was, but if her mother felt in a panic, then the panic was real. Likewise, she could remind her sister that no one had forced her to juggle a marriage, a law career, and a pregnancy, but still she was proud of Karen and had encouraged her from the start. And as for her brother, Carl, her sadness over his pending divorce was made all the worse by her fondness for his wife, Diane, and the knowledge that she'd been the one to originally bring the two together.
Little complications? She supposed. But they weighed her down. From the time she'd reached her teens, she'd been the Dear Abby of the family. Just as she couldn't heal her father's leg, erase her mother's worries, ease the burden of pregnancy for Karen, or miraculously mend Carl's marital wounds, she couldn't turn a deaf ear to their pleas.
She gave a great sigh, then a tiny moan. Her shift was quickly growing damp from perspiration. Leaning forward, she peeled the light fabric from her back, gave a lethargic twist, then returned to her position against the window frame. She straightened each leg in turn to wipe moisture from the creases behind her knees. Then, planting her feet flat and apart, she gathered the short hem of her shift and tucked it with some decorum between her legs.
One part of her wished she'd taken Elliot up on his offer of air-conditioned solace, but the greater, saner part knew she'd made the right decision. She and Elliot were on their last leg as a couple. He wanted sex; she didn't. If that little complication hadn't cropped up, they might have continued a while longer in a pleasant relationship. But it was only a matter of time before he pushed the issue too far. She would be as tactful as possible, but there was no way she'd go to bed with him out of pity.
Breaking off was going to be awkward. Elliot happened to be the brother of one of her partners. Another little complication. And now Ben had popped back into the Washington scene, apparently willing to pick up where he'd left off. So she needed Elliot a while longer. But she hated to use him that way. She hated it.
With another soft moan, she shifted languidly on the window seat. Sweat trickled down her neck. She pushed it back up with a finger that tangled in loose tendrils of hair fallen from her ponytail. When the wisps fell right back down and clung damply to her nape, she left them alone. Closing her eyes, she tipped her head toward the night and raised the glass of tea to her neck in the hope that the condensation would cool her heated skin.
Then she opened her eyes and saw him--a stranger, far across the courtyard. He was sprawled on the tiny fire escape just beyond his own third-floor window. The night was dark, but the pale golden glow from his apartment outlined his shape, and she couldn't look away.
His hair was thick, spiked damply on his brow. His legs were long, lean and firm, bent at the knees and spread much like hers. He had large shoulders, one slightly lower than the other as he propped his weight on a hand. The other hand dangled over his knee, fingers circling what she assumed to be a beer can. Other than a pair of brief shorts, his body was bare.
Caroline had no idea who he was or where he'd come from. Though she knew her immediate neighbors, his row of town houses faced a different street. She wouldn't have passed him coming or going, and since she didn't own a car, she wouldn't have bumped into him in the courtyard.
She'd never seen anyone on the fire escape before, not that she'd done a lot of looking. Only the heat had brought her to her window tonight; she wondered if it had been the same for him.
With fifty feet of night separating them, she couldn't see his face. But she wanted to. She wanted to see his eyes, or at least his expression, which would be telling. She imagined that he was every bit as hot as she was, and every bit as tired. Was he as frustrated with the little complications in life? Was he feeling the brunt of a million demands? Was he, too, wishing he could escape from it all for a time?
There were no answers to her questions, of course. He was an unknown, a man she had little likelihood of actually meeting. The pace of life in the capital kept people on the move and wasn't at all conducive to leisurely run-ins.
But he was at the right place at the right time. She needed an escape, an outlet for secret thoughts. Features softening in a shy and feminine way, she tipped her head a bit more and gave vent to her fantasies.
He'd be tall. At five-seven, she needed a man who topped six feet. She liked feeling petite and protected, though she hadn't had much experience in being either. She'd always been the protector, it seemed. Granted, it was a psychological distinction, but it wouldn't hurt to set the stage right.
He'd be dark. She fancied that their coloring would be similar. She rather liked the idea that people might take them for brother and sister, while they shared secret smiles at the truth. Her own hair was dark brown, often mistaken for black. His would be the same. And it would be on the long side. There was something rakish about a man with long hair. She could see that it was thick, because it capped his head well, but the shadows on his neck hid its length. Which was okay, because she was only dreaming.
He'd be handsome. His features would be well-defined and boldly cut, giving him a distinctly aristocratic look. Mmm. An aristocratic look. She liked that. She'd never mingled with the aristocracy. Her parents were solidly upper middle-class, but aristocratic? Not quite. Not that she had aspirations of running with the hounds or boogying with the jet set. She'd be bored to death--not to mention the fact that she thought the hunt was cruel and discos gave her a headache. Still, it'd be nice to know that he could have had that and had opted out.
But she was getting away from looks, and she hadn't finished with handsome. His nose would be straight, his cheeks lean, his jaw firm and his lips expressive. She could read a lot in people's lips--relaxed or tight set, chewed or sucked or pursed, curved up or down or drawn into straight lines. Not that she'd have to rely on his mouth to convey his feelings, because he'd have the deepest, most inviting and eloquent brown eyes.
The last thought surprised her. She had brown eyes. She'd never thought them particularly gorgeous. But his would be, she knew, because of all that went along with them.
Oh, and he'd have a heavy five-o'clock shadow. That was because he'd just come in from work or from running. She pictured him a runner. Of course, if he were coming to pick her up, he'd shower and shave first. He'd want to look his best for her. She'd have to tell him that he looked fantastic all grubby and sweaty.
She brought the glass of tea to her cheek and rubbed wet against wet. Tall, dark and handsome. That was what he'd be. People would look at them when they passed, thinking what a stunning couple they made.
She smiled in self-mockery. She wasn't stunning. Attractive, yes. But with him, she'd be stunning. Or she'd feel it, and that would be all that mattered.
Having dispensed with physical attributes, she moved on to other vital statistics. He'd be in his late thirties, just about right for her thirty-one years. She wanted someone older than she was, someone more experienced. If he was in his late thirties, even early forties, he'd be well established in his chosen field. He'd be successful, of course, but more important than that, he'd be confident. She needed a confident man, because she was, overall, a confident woman. She was also introspective and insightful, qualities that intimidated a man who was less sure of himself.
She intimidated Elliot, who compensated by artificially inflating his strengths and successes. To some extent she'd intimidated Ben. At least, she'd assumed that was what she'd done, because she couldn't find any other reason why he'd always felt the need to come on so forcefully. She was by nature a watcher and a listener; when she spoke, she had something pertinent to say. Some men found that to be a threat.
He wouldn't. He'd be a strong man but one who welcomed her opinions. He'd appreciate the fact that she thought about things, that she was fascinated by her own motives and those of others. He'd be able to listen without getting defensive. At the same time, he'd be able to offer his own opinions without insisting that they were law.
Open-minded. She figured that summed it up. He'd be open-minded, thoughtful and intelligent. His career? She straightened one leg on the seat and flexed her toes while she thought about that for a minute. He'd have to be in a caring profession. A doctor? Perhaps. Maybe a psychiatrist. That way they'd be able to bounce cases off each other. Then again, many of the psychiatrists she knew were weird. Chalk psychiatrist and put in teacher. Mmm, that idea appealed to her. He'd be involved with kids. Maybe college kids. She had her share of clients from local colleges and found her work with them to be particularly rewarding. They wanted help. They could respond.
She brushed her arm over her forehead, pushing back damp strands of hair. The stranger didn't move, other than to occasionally take a drink from the can he held. It was a light beer, she decided. He wasn't really a drinker, but he needed something to quench his thirst and beer was the best. Light beer, because he didn't want to develop a beer belly, though he was more health-conscious than vain.
Health-conscious was a good thing to be at his age. It was a good thing to be at any age, but if he was approaching his forties, it was all the more important.
She paused for an instant as a new thought struck. If he was nearly forty, tall, dark, handsome, self-confident, successful and caring, there had to be a good reason why he wasn't married. Because he wasn't. She didn't fool with married men. Besides, if his apartment mirrored hers, it wasn't suitable for two.
Perhaps he was divorced. He may have married young and none too wisely--she'd forgive him that early innocence--then redeemed himself by ending the union before two lives, or more, were ruined.
Maybe he'd never married at all. He'd been too involved in his career. Or--she rather liked this idea--he'd been waiting for the right woman to come along.
Well, Tall-Dark-and-Handsome, here I am. But she didn't have to tell him that. He'd know. One glance and he'd know. She wasn't looking her best just then, but that wouldn't matter to him. He'd want her for better or for worse. And worse wasn't all that bad. Hadn't Connie said she looked sexy?
Well, Caroline decided with a fanciful sigh, so did he. There he was on his fire escape, tired and sweaty and, really, when she came right down to it, not much more than a full-bodied shadow. Still, she imagined that he was sexy as hell. True, her opinion was tinged by everything else she'd conjured up, but since she was into the fantasy, she'd do it right.
He'd be the epitome of raw masculinity. One look at him close up and she'd feel those awakening tingles deep inside. She tried to remember when she'd felt them last. It might have been with Ben, at the beginning, when she'd been snowed by his style. Or it might have been with Jonathan Carey, her first and only other lover, but she suspected that what she'd felt then had had more to do with the excitement of being a freshman in college and finally "doing it." Then again, the last time she'd felt those tingles, really felt them, might have been when she was seventeen and necking in Greg O'Malley's Mustang. When Greg had grazed her breasts, her insides had come to life. It had all been so new then--new and mysterious and forbidden.
It would be new with Tall-Dark-and-Handsome, too. New as in mind-boggling, heart stopping and soul reaching. He would be a stupendous lover. Caroline could see it in the way he held himself. His body was well tuned and coordinated. Ropy shoulders, tight hips, long, lean legs … sexy … oh, Lord …
She clamped her thighs together and took a shaky breath, a little shocked by her physical reaction to thoughts alone. And just then, in that moment of reality's intrusion, she noticed something. The profile of the dark stranger across the courtyard had changed. He'd turned his head. He was looking at her.
Her heartbeat tripped. A flush spread over her cheeks, deepening that already created by the heat. For a split second she feared that he knew all she'd been thinking. She wondered how long he'd been looking at her and wondered why she hadn't noticed sooner. Perhaps because it was normal for a man to look at a woman when they were making love?
But the fantasy was over and still he looked. She averted her gaze for a minute, then looked right back. Her embarrassment eased. Her chin came up a notch. She knew that he couldn't possibly know her thoughts. And if he did, what of it? She was an adult. She was free to dream as she saw fit.
That brought her to the fantasy's bottom line. She would be swept off her feet by Tall-Dark-and-Handsome, swept up, up and away from the hassles of her life, but there would be no strings attached. She could come and go as she pleased. She would feel neither responsibility nor guilt. No restrictions. No little complications.
It sounded divine.
But there was another sound just then. She swung her head around. Her telephone. She glanced back at the stranger. He didn't move. The phone rang again. She wasn't sure whether he could hear the ring, but on the chance that he could, she had to answer it. Pushing herself up, she crossed the floor in resignation.
"Hello?"
"Gladys?" asked an elderly male voice.
"Excuse me?"
"Is this Gladys?"
She couldn't believe it. "You must have the wrong number."
"Oh," said the man, "I'm sorry."
No problem, she thought with a sigh as she hung up the phone. Her hand remained on the receiver for a minute, thumb rubbing across its smooth grip. Then, straightening her shoulders, she crossed to the side of the room where she would be out of sight. She ran her tongue over her bottom lip. She curved one hand around her neck. Then, trying to be--feel--nonchalant, she worked her way back to the window. When she reached it, she stopped. She took one baby step, then another. With her hand still on her neck in a thoughtful pose, she turned her head and peeked out.
He was gone.



Copyright © 1984, 1987 by Barbara Delinsky



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