Page 21

“What are we doing today, boss?”

Ignore his now-familiar husky morning voice.

We’re in the master bathroom, in blatant noncompliance of Rule Four. I hear other people in the hal way, but we’re definitely alone. “Um, I think you’re working with Frank today.” My eyes slide away from his.

“Mmm. Okay. See you at lunch, then?” He leaves the room, sipping his coffee, not waiting for an answer.

If I didn’t know him, I’d think he’s fol owing Rule One.

What if he is fol owing Rule One? That makes everything easier for me, right?

In theory, if Reid pretends we never kissed, it’s easier for me to pretend we never kissed.

This is what people mean when they use the term in theory.

Chapter 26


I’m not surprised that Dori’s strategy is to act like nothing happened between us yesterday. Avoidance is a clever method for getting past any type of emotional eruption.

John and I would never have sustained a friendship this long without turning the occasional blind eye to each other’s assholian outbursts. Dori responded to that kiss with uninhibited abandon, after which the logical part of her brain began screaming for a do-over back to the moment she could have kept it from occurring at al .

That is not going to happen.

She wants to pretend I never kissed her. I want a repeat performance. Those goals stand on starkly opposite ends of the spectrum. The first step to pul ing her to my way of thinking is to meet in the middle. I just have to figure out where the hel the middle is.

The Habitat project is winding to a close. The house is almost finished, and no one is immune to the building anticipation of that completion, which won’t occur until after Dori has departed for Ecuador and I’ve served out my sentence. I have to admit, I sort of want to see it done, see sentence. I have to admit, I sort of want to see it done, see them get the keys. Gabriel e’s parents have been working some hours here and there, so I’ve seen them around, though we haven’t crossed paths while working—I’m sure Roberta made sure of that. So I’m kind of stunned when Mrs. Diego appears next to me before lunch, as I’m emptying a bag of mulch into the shrub and flower borders across the backyard.

“Mr. Alexander,” she says, her accent thick, meester alisander.

Since no one was injured when my car plowed through the front of their house, and since the house was a rental and therefore not their property, it wasn’t necessary for the Diegos to be present at court. Regardless, I recognize her immediately from the news reports that surrounded my accident. She’s petite, more so than she looked on TV, standing next to her husband as they were interviewed by multiple news stations, gesturing to the gaping hole in the house behind them and praising God and a shitload of saints that none of their children were injured.

Her rounded face is weathered, lined more heavily than Mom’s, though I suspect she’s years younger than my mother. This is a woman who’s worked hard al of her adult life, and probably long before that. Her caramel eyes are warm and spirited, though.

I nod, tossing the empty mulch bag with the others. “Mrs.


She glances over the flower beds, the pile of mulch I’ve yet to spread around the new plants. “You are doing a good job. Thank you for helping to build our new home.” For a split second, I’m struck with a sense of self-satisfaction I have no right to feel. But I’m legal y obligated to be here, which of course she knows, so I’m not certain how to respond. “You’re welcome,” is al I can think to say.

She inclines her head, accepting this trivial reply, al owing the two of us to pretend that I’m another philanthropic, Dori-like person, volunteering my hands and muscles to assist in providing a house for a deserving family.


Lowering myself to the concrete ledge where Dori balances her lunch on her lap and unscrews the lid on a bottle of water, I say quietly, “So about that kiss…” Inhaling sharply, she turns to me, eyes wide, hands frozen midair with the bottle in one hand and the cap in the other.

So much for meeting in the middle.

I wait while she glances around the yard to make sure we can’t be overheard. “That was a momentary lapse of…

o f reason,” she hisses. I smile and she glances around again. If anyone is paying attention, the look on her face would convince them we were plotting a break-in at Fort Knox. Luckily, Dori and I sitting next to each other talking isn’t news, and the back of my head is blocking any head-on paparazzi shots of her expression before she pul s it under control.

“Last time I checked, kissing wasn’t found on the reason scale,” I say.

Her lips compress into a hard line, which is a damned shame. I try not to stare at them. Or think about how they felt when I kissed her, which makes me want to stare at them. I concentrate on the faint dusting of freckles across her cheekbones and nose instead, but strangely this only magnifies my craving to kiss her.

“Look.” Her jaw clenches. “That shouldn’t have happened. We need to pretend that never happened.” I can’t help grinning. “You mean you need to pretend it never happened.” My gaze slips to her lips, back to her eyes. “I, however, want to try it again."

“Wel , I don’t.” The words are snapped off like she’s flicking them at me. She’s got the aloof demeanor down pat

—eyes narrowed and chin elevated, but the quick pulse beating visibly at the base of her throat gives her away.

“I think you do.”

“Dori?” Our heads snap up simultaneously, guiltily, as though we’ve been discovered making out in the middle of lunch. Roberta stands over us, her gaze shifting back and forth between us.

Dori scrambles up. “Yes?” I want to grab her hand, tel her to take a breath and chil , but that would probably have the opposite effect. I can’t hear what Roberta asks, and Dori doesn’t look back as they move towards the back door. I’m nonexistent, or forgotten.

But no. I know where to look to see if she’s affected. Her ears don’t lie, even if the rest of her is trying its damnedest to.

*** *** ***


“Are you al right?” Roberta peers at me through her owl glasses once we’re inside, but her question doesn’t make me uneasy because I’m so relieved to escape Reid’s assertion. I wish I could say it was utterly false, but it isn’t: I think you do. My chest goes tight with the accuracy of it.

“Sure. What do you mean?” My objective is to sound casual, which works right up until mean comes out as more of a squeak than a word. I clear my throat and repeat, “Uh, what do you mean?”

A mosquito buzzes in front of her face and she swats at it while I try to compose myself. “Nothing—” she swats again. “It just seemed—” swatting with both hands “—like the two of you were having a disagreement.” The mosquito buzzes towards me and I clap my hands together, catching it dead center and then running my palms down my denim shorts. Eww, eww, eww. “Is that why you cal ed me inside?” I hedge, turning to grab a disinfecting wipe and scrubbing my hands with it.

“Er, no.” She walks towards the bedroom serving as her office, tossing back, “I just wanted to double check which day next week is your last. Someone asked me yesterday and I said Tuesday, but it occurred to me that I’m not exactly sure.”

Could Reid have posed that inquiry? “Tuesday is the plan. I leave early Thursday morning, and I thought I should have a day to pack and make sure I’ve got everything in order.”

“Wel ,” she smiles, “Everyone wil certainly miss you.” Everyone?

At 2:45, I volunteer to go with Gene, who has to make a run to the garden center where we get trees and shrubs.

Reid wil be gone by the time we return. Not that this fact has anything to do with my offer to tag along.

Coward, my body says.

One day down, three to go, my brain says.

Chapter 27


“So you’re out of here after Tuesday, right?” Dori straightens from rows of plantation blind parts spread across the recently carpeted floor of the living room

—slats, cords, hardware and tools separated and organized. “Correct,” she answers, hesitant. She takes her latte from my hand with both of hers, one over the top, one under the bottom, making sure we don’t touch, heedless of what she’s revealing. If she was unaffected when I touch her, she wouldn’t need to avoid the physical contact. I stuff my free hand in my pocket, because that wayward little strand of hair hangs over one of her dark eyes, taunting me with what I did the last time it fel there.

I decided after her disappearing act yesterday afternoon that I might as wel pul out the big guns, because God knows I’ve got nothing to lose. Four days from now wil be the last I see of her; I can’t imagine our paths ever intersecting again. “Since you’l be busy then with packing and last-minute stuff, let me take you to dinner tonight instead. To thank you for being such a patient overseer.” Dori is one of the smartest girls I’ve ever met, so I know she’l see through the fact that I’m acting as if we’ve already got a date for next week and I’m just repositioning it to be more convenient. She’s not going to fal for it, but I’m not sure if she’l cal me on it.

She hides behind her hand momentarily, closing her eyes to draw that too-short strand of hair off of her face and tuck it behind her ear. She takes a soft breath before speaking. “I can’t go to dinner with you.” Ah—the simple, no-explanation approach.

Nope. She’s not getting off that easily.

“Why not?”

“My VBS kids have a rehearsal tonight.”

“Tomorrow, then.”

She fidgets with her cup lid. “The program is tomorrow night.”

I take a sip of coffee, stal ing. These are legitimate excuses. Does she expect me to continue asking? I never ask twice, let alone three times.

“Sunday night?”


Strike three. I can’t help it—I start laughing and she purses her lips and frowns stonily. I tap my chin. “Let me guess. Monday night your friends are seeing you off, and Tuesday, your family has something planned.” She scrapes the cup lid, not meeting my amused gaze.

Which is just as wel , because I’m feeling as frustrated as I am amused, and I’m not sure how wel my blasé guise is holding up. “Wednesday,” she says, glancing up. “The family thing is on Wednesday.”

Some teasing comment is at the tip of my tongue, but that’s not what emerges. “So you’re free Tuesday.” She sucks a little air through parted lips. Probably expecting the teasing comment. “Theoretical y.”

“Is that a yes?”

Her chest is rising and fal ing shal owly, because she’s al owed me to work her right into a corner and we both know it. She’s going to bolt anyway. I see it in her eyes as her brain casts around for a way out of it.

“Dori,” my voice is low, calming, “it’s just dinner, and then you’re off to your life and I’m soon off to mine. Unless you want me to believe that teaching me to paint wal s and instal shelves was oh-so-easy on you.” I smile my most disarming, innocuous smile. “I’ve been a splinter in your pinky for three weeks. C’mon. Make me pay for it.” I want to touch her, my fingers curling inside the pocket of my jeans, but I don’t dare.