Flame-haired Brooke was his boss as well as his goddess–would she be forever out of reach?
It was just as well that Nick was resigned to his fate of loving Brooke from afar; her manner toward him when the new work week began on Monday was as brisk and matter of fact as it had always been. Oh, well, he thought, unlucky in love, lucky at cards.
Only it wasn’t cards in his case, it was investments. Cybergeld continued to rise and Nick began to dream more daringly of his house. He spent his spare time looking at houses in the neighborhoods that interested him. I’m just getting a feeling for prices, he thought. I’m very far from being able to buy anything yet.
During office hours, however, the pace of work picked up again. The “Daffodil” commercial went live on all the social media.
The next commercial showed almost the same scenario, with the same couple eating hamburgers in a restaurant. This time, however, the young woman was wearing the Daffodil suit. When the young man sneezed and asked her if she had a tissue, she shook her head. When he looked helplessly at his greasy fingers and asked her for a wet wipe, she also shook her head. Finally he looked at his hands and asked her if she had nail clippers. “No, do you?” she said. The young man assumed the pouting expression of a spoiled baby: eyes squeezed shut, lips compressed and downturned. The final scene showed the couple striding along, the young woman’s arms and hands—unburdened—swinging by her side as freely as the young man’s.
The last commercial in the set of three showed a scene at the makeup counter of a drugstore. The camera panned the legs revealed by the owner’s skirts, then focused on a skinny youth crawling along the floor on his belly, snapping pictures of the views under the skirts with his phone. Then he came to a pair of legs clad in green trousers. Startled, he looked up to see the grim gaze of the young woman wearing “Daffodil.” She promptly covered the phone with her shoe while two other women, also wearing trousers in different shades of green, seized the young man. Daffodil pressed “9-1-1” on the phone, after which the camera showed all three—Daffodil, Cyclamen, and Hydrangea—striding down the street, smiling in satisfaction at having thwarted the pervert’s plans.
“Sales are on the rise,” Mo’Nisha reported a month after the third commercial started appearing on social media.
“Yes, but we have a problem,” Nick said. He looked at Brooke, Mo’Nisha, and Renata. “On the company website, women are sending messages complaining that the suit pockets aren’t big enough for their makeup and hairbrushes and so on.”
“Of course they aren’t,” Renata said. “If they were big enough to contain hairbrushes or tubes of foundation cream, it would spoil the line of the suit.”
“But they feel they must carry those things,” Nick said, “and we’re telling them they don’t need to be weighed down by huge handbags.”
Brooke thought for a minute. “All right. Here’s what we’ll do. Nick, start a blog on our website. Call yourself “Tamara” or some such glamorous-sounding name. Deal with their objections. For example, why do they need to carry makeup to a business lunch?”
“Because they eat off their lipstick during lunch and during the walk back the wind disarranges their hair,” Mo’Nisha said.
“And why are they expected to look perfect at all times? Do men look perfect at all times?”
No one answered.
“Nick, do some fake questions and answers along those lines, okay? Ask a rhetorical question such as, ‘Why can’t you keep your makeup in your desk?’ Are there any other concerns?”
“Not so far,” Nick said. “All right, I’ll draft some questions and replies and run them by you later today.”
“Thanks. All right, Renata, how’s production going?”
“Orders are coming in every day, Brooke. It’s as much as the factory can do to keep up with them.”
The rest of the meeting dealt with supplies, orders, and sales figures. Nick, listening, felt gratified that his work was helping to increase sales.
He created the blog and posted it on the website. In the days that followed the mythical Tamara was consulted on every aspect of office dress. There were a few negative comments from some customers. “Everyone will make fun of me if I come back to the office looking windblown and with colorless lips,” one woman wrote. “Not carrying a handbag really doesn’t work for me.”
Tamara replied, “If the people you’re with can’t accept that you’re a human being rather than a mannequin, you should associate with better people.”
This caused even more comment on the website and resulted in Brooke’s coming to the conference room to ask Nick to go out for coffee with her. They had to drive to a shopping mall as Freedom Fashions headquarters was in a strictly industrial area.
After they received their coffee from the barista, Brooke led Nick to a quiet corner of the coffee house.
“Look,” she said, “the blog is getting attention, the website is getting a lot of hits, and orders are up again. But we need to, ah, tamp down the blog a bit. Even though I completely agree with the “mannequin” remark your alter ego made, we can’t afford to annoy customers.”
“Sorry,” Nick said meekly. “I’ll tone it down. I guess I—well, Tamara, that is—got a little hot under the collar.”
“Sometimes that happens,” Brooke said. “Don’t look so downcast, there’s no great harm done. You’re a good kid and you’re doing great work.”
Stunned, furious, Nick stared at her. “Brooke, look at me. Really look at me! I am not a kid!” He stood up. “I am a man!”
It was Brooke’s turned to stare. After a minute or two, she nodded. “Yes,” she said slowly, “you are. Please sit down again. We’re going to hire a college student part-time to write the blog, because you’re going to have more important things to do than pretend to be Tamara. I’m promoting you to the new position of Director of Social Media at Freedom Fashions.”
Nick sank back into his seat, stunned again but for a different reason. “Thank you,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting this! That’s really awesome!”
“There will be a raise with the new position,” Brooke said. “I want you to keep coming up with these clever ideas. I’m told a lot of people are talking about our commercials and orders are coming in from all over the country.”
“I’ll do my best,” Nick said. “Ah—with regard to Tamara’s unfortunate remark, are we being too uptight about this handbag business? Isn’t Freedom Fashions supposed to be about freedom? What if women actually want the freedom to carry a large handbag with tons of stuff in it?”
Brooke looked slightly taken aback. “That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’m trying to promote the point of view that freedom from skirts and high heels and huge handbags might save a woman’s life. Every day we’re bombarded with news about women being abducted, raped, and murdered. It’s got to the point that I refuse to watch the TV news or read the newspapers! I contend that a woman who’s unhampered by her clothes can run away from a possible assailant. But I can see your point of view and it’s valid. Women should have the freedom to choose.”
She looked at her watch. “We need to get back to the office, I have a conference call coming up and I know you have a deadline by the end of the day.”
So he was now the Director of Social Marketing: well, that was definitely an improvement. He almost forgave Brooke for calling him a kid. He wished he could show her that he was anything but a kid, but how?
After thinking about it, he decided to start patronizing the gym of the community college he’d attended. As an alumnus he was entitled to use the gym’s facilities for a very low cost. Although normally he spent his evenings and weekends riding a bike for exercise, he thought developing more impressive muscles would make him look more manly in Brooke’s eyes. However, after a few weeks he discovered that he needed new shirts and jackets owing to his changed physique. With an inward groan he shopped carefully, adding enough new clothes to his wardrobe to accommodate his new shape.
Between work and working out, the summer raced by for Nick. The company was even profiled in a segment on the local television news as reporters with cameras roamed the streets of urban areas searching for women wearing Freedom Fashions. Women wearing Daffodil, Cyclamen, Hydrangea, Poppy, and Iris were seen emerging from subway stations, office buildings, and coffee shops, looking not only colorful but carefree. With his office hours so full, he was thankful that a college student named Jennifer was writing Tamara’s question-and-answer columns on Saturday mornings when she had no classes to attend.
“The handbag manufacturers are thirsting for your blood, Nick,” Mo’Nisha remarked one Friday morning at the weekly meeting. “Yours and Brooke’s. In fact, I’ve even tried going out without a bag myself, but I can’t do it when I’m with my grandchildren. They depend on me for everything.”
Brooke sighed. “That seems to be women’s lot in life. Well, we can’t change the culture for everyone, but if we can change it for some, that’s progress.”
“I wonder if we should tackle high heels next,” Renata said thoughtfully. “They’re ruinous to the feet. Women can barely walk in them, let alone run.”
“Well, that’s kind of a moot point, right? With our suits high heels would look ridiculous. It’s skirts that make legs in high heels look enticing.”
“True,” Renata said. “What if I designed shoes to go with our suits? Really comfortable shoes that wouldn’t kill a person’s feet and yet would look attractive.”
“Go ahead,” Brooke said, smiling. “I can see you’ve got your heart set on a new product line and Nick will be able to think of some killer commercials.”
She directed her smile at Nick, who nodded dumbly and looked at his hands. Sometimes her presence filled him with such awe he could hardly look her in the eye. Fortunately, Mo’Nisha saved him.
“And how are we going to finance this? You sold the diamonds, you sold the pearls, what’s next?”
“The rubies,” Brooke said. “They never suited me anyway. All right, team, let’s get on it!”
Nick came away from the meeting thoroughly confused. If Brooke needed to finance the company’s product development, why didn’t she ask the venture capitalists for money? Wasn’t that why she’d asked him to escort her to the dinner dance earlier in the summer, to keep her hand in with them? Why was it necessary to sell her jewelry?
His curiosity finally having got the better of him, he asked Mo’Nisha about it when he caught her alone in her office one day. Somewhat to his surprise, instead of brushing him off, she answered him.
“As a member of the senior staff, you’re entitled to know a few things. Brooke has to sell her personal jewelry to make money to show the venture capitalists. They’d rather lend money to people who already have it. Weird, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Nick said frankly. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“However, Brooke isn’t going to sell her rubies any time soon. She’ll wait for the market survey and cost estimates.”
And in fact at the last weekly meeting in August when Renata presented the market research and cost estimates to Brooke, she nixed the idea. “With all due respect, Renata, we couldn’t make a product that would be different enough to capture the market share we’d need to recoup our investment. It was an interesting idea, and you deserve credit for the work you’ve done in developing it, but we just can’t do it at this time.”
Renata took the news so calmly that Nick wondered whether she had already reached the same conclusion. “Fair enough. We’ll keep on doing what we’re doing, then.”
Brooke nodded. “At the rate we’re going we’ll be filling orders until the end of the year.”
But none of the four people at the meeting had any idea how very wrong that prediction would prove to be.
It was the Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend. Nick had decided against driving down to North Carolina to visit his family. His parents, finding life in the Washington, DC suburbs to be oppressively expensive, had pulled up stakes several years ago and moved to a small town where the cost of living was much less. With the proceeds from the sale of their house and new jobs that were adequately paid, they were living quite well.
Instead, Nick thought he’d call a few realtors and ask to see some houses. Cybergeld was rising every week, enough that he thought he might begin to make plans or at least find out what kind of house he would qualify for. The rise in salary would also help.
It happened that he and Brooke were among the last to leave the office that afternoon. Brooke had come in to discuss the details of a new social media campaign they were planning.
“Sounds good,” Brooke said. “Wow, look at the time! I need to leave and so do you.”
“Oh, right,” Nick said. When she was in the room he was unaware of time because he was aware only of her. This afternoon she looked a little tired, although in his mind she was always perfect.
“Are you doing anything exciting this weekend?” he asked, more to keep her there for a minute or two longer than because he really wanted to know.
“Exciting enough,” she said. “I’m going to stay at a horse farm in Warrenton. My friend has a bed-and-breakfast place there and she keeps horses for her guests to ride. One of them is my favorite. She’s a bay mare, sixteen and a half hands, and the most beautiful runner—you should see her!”
Nick sighed. “I wish I could! I’ve always wanted to learn to ride a horse but I’ve never had the opportunity.”
“Really? Do you know anything about horses?”
“No,” he said honestly. “I don’t know anything, really, but to me they’re the most beautiful animals on earth.”
Brooke smiled. “Well, I’ll tell you what. Do you have fixed plans for the weekend? If not, I could call Andrea and see if she has room for you, and you could take a lesson or two on one of the mounts.”
Filled with delight, Nick said, “I’d love that! And no, I don’t have any firm plans.”
Well, you did have plans, his inner voice reminded him. And how much is all this going to cost?
“I can look at houses any time,” he told the voice in his head. “And as for costs—if I have to eat peanut butter sandwiches for the next three months, so be it! This is a chance to be with her, to breathe the same air she breathes, to drink in the sound of her voice, find out what she thinks about when she’s away from the office.”
Brooke meanwhile had stepped out of the conference room into Mo’Nisha’s office to call her friend. In a few minutes she returned.
“Andrea has room for you and she has a mount,” she announced. “So, can you pack a small bag with everything you need until we come back on Monday afternoon? No need for fancy clothes, there won’t be any special occasions. Just be sure to pack sturdy jeans and decent shoes for riding. Andrea will have headgear for you. You’ll have to wear it as protection, you know.”
“Thank you.” Nick was barely able to speak for excitement. “What time should I be at your house?”
“It’s four o’clock now. If we leave my house at five we can be there in time for dinner.”
Never in his life had he packed so hastily. He shoved his shaving gear, toiletries, underwear, and clothes into a duffel bag, adding a light jacket in case the weather turned cooler. It seemed hardly likely when the temperature in town was 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but one could never be sure what Virginia weather was going to do.
It was ten minutes to five when he parked along the front curb of Brooke’s townhouse, hoisted his duffle bag over his shoulder, and went up to knock on her front door.
She opened it immediately. “Good timing! I’d ask you in for a drink but we really ought to be on our way. We’ll take my car.”
She lifted out her small wheelie suitcase, locked her front door, and led the way to her car.
Brooke turned on the radio as they drove away but turned it off after they had listened long enough to be sure that there were no traffic delays. As he had the last time he’d been alone with her, Nick decided to follow her conversational lead. If she wanted to think her own thoughts, he’d be silent; if she wanted to talk, he would respond. In the car’s enclosed space he could smell the scent she was wearing, a delicate fragrance that made him think of a flower garden early in the morning before the sun rose. If he weren’t so in awe of her, he’d ask her the name of it.
For a while they drove in silence but as the built-up areas receded and they were driving along less trafficked roads, Brooke said, “I love coming out this way. The countryside soothes me.”
“Do you go horseback riding a lot, Brooke?”
She laughed. “I grew up riding horses on my family’s ranch in the Texas hill country, but since starting the business a couple of years ago I’ve had very little time to ride.” She sighed.
She was silent again so Nick looked out the window. He could see why she found the scenery soothing. The roll of the hills, some of them crowned with woods, the glimpses of creeks and old drystone walls, the occasional small town that retained the flavor of its eighteenth-century origins, were beginning to cast a spell on him. I’d like to live out here one day, he thought suddenly, surprising himself. At this stage of his life it was the stimulation of the city he craved.
When they arrived at Orchard View Farm and Stables Nick gazed around, enthralled. They drove down a road lined on either side with oaks, coming suddenly on a sprawling two-story house set on a slight rise. To one side of the house were orchards with tidy rows of fruit trees; on the other side were paddocks and barns. He could see horses standing under a copse of trees in a distant field.
“Here we are,” Brooke said, driving up to a wide swath of pavement on one side of the house. She backed the car in and parked. “Okay, let’s go in so you can meet Andrea and Zack.”
“Our names are so easy to remember,” Andrea said a few minutes later, indicating the tall man standing next to her. “Just think, A to Z, and that’s us.”
Nick smiled as he shook her hand. She was very pretty, he thought, although he preferred Brooke’s coloring to Andrea’s brunette beauty. Zack was blond, bearded, and somewhat taciturn: after shaking hands politely, he muttered something about seeing to the livestock and went out of the room.
Brooke and Andrea in the meantime were discussing details. “You’ve got a saddle for Nick, right, and is Blaze available? I thought Blaze would be the best choice for a beginner.”
“Yes to both,” Andrea said. “Let me show you to your rooms so you can settle in. We’ll have drinks in fifteen minutes and dinner at seven-thirty.”
Dinner went more easily than Nick had expected. To his surprise, he and Brooke were the only guests. “This is the last weekend of summer and it’s a fine one,” Andrea explained as she served everyone with cold chicken and salad. “Everyone’s gone to the beach. But we’ll be busy next weekend and every weekend after that until Christmas.”
After a while Nick relaxed to the point that he forgot to be nervous in Brooke’s company. Although there were moments when he was so overcome by the idea that he was actually spending the evening with her and her friends that he momentarily lost the power of speech, he felt he was acquitting himself well enough. Fortunately, Brooke and Andrea talked so much that Nick and Zack hardly needed to do more than murmur assent, and after a couple of glasses of wine Zack even became affable.
“Let’s take our coffee out to the screened porch,” Andrea said after they finished the fruit cobbler, made with plums from the orchard and served with thick, rich cream.
Outside they admired the stars through the screen and listened to the buzz of cicadas. “I heard crickets this morning,” Andrea said, sounding sleepy. “It won’t be long until we’ll have cold nights and fires in the wood stove.”
“How’s business, Brooke?” Zack asked. “Doing all right?”
“Oh, yes, thanks, we’re doing fine. It’s been a really busy year.”
“Good. Nick, are you ready for a riding lesson tomorrow?”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Nick assured Zack, although in truth he was a little nervous. “Bear with me, though, I’m an absolute neophyte.”
“That’s no problem. I’ll be with you and Blaze is a steady, reliable horse. He’s twelve years old and very good with novice riders.”
“Breakfast at seven tomorrow, people,” Andrea announced, “and the horses will be ready at eight. Zack and I are off to bed. You guys can watch TV if you like, it won’t bother us. Our room is at the back of the house.”
“Thanks, but I think I’ll turn in too,” Brooke said. “Nick, do you want to stay down here for a while and watch TV?”
“Yes, I think I will for a while. Thanks.”
He watched the three of them go upstairs, then sat back, flipping channels on the remote. In truth, he didn’t want to watch TV, read, or do anything else. He wanted to think about the miraculous fact that he was here in the country with the goddess who haunted his dreams. He could hardly believe it. Why had she brought him here? Was it really just a casual impulse on her part? What was going on in her mind?
How did she feel about him, really? Did she like him a lot or only a little? He wished he knew. It was hard to discern from her manner how she really felt.
And what about yourself, his obnoxious inner voice asked. Do you think she knows how you feel about her? Have you given yourself away?
He didn’t think he had. He was careful not to let his gaze follow her when she moved around the room, careful to look at her only when she spoke and not at other times. He had no desire to appear to be a lovestruck puppy, especially since until recently she’d appeared to think of him as a kid.
If only you knew, Brooke, he thought. If only you knew how I adore every line of you, how I live to hear you speak, how I crave your smile. If you only knew how I worship you.
Tonight they would sleep under the same roof. Although his room was down the hall from hers, it was still only twenty or so feet away. He pictured how she must look lying in bed with her flame-colored hair spreading across the pillow, how her slim body would look in a satin nightgown. This led to other thoughts, to the point where he was obliged to turn off the TV and the living room light and go up the stairs as silently as possible.
I’m too young for her, too shy, he thought. I’m too unimportant to win a woman like her. She’d need a powerful man, someone like herself—the president or CEO of a thriving company, or a world-famous doctor or scientist. She’d need a man who was equal to her in importance.
No, he couldn’t control his external circumstances, he thought as he sank into bed after his evening ablutions. The only thing he could control was his dreams.
“He’s fifteen hands and his mouth is as gentle as a baby’s,” Zack announced the next morning. “He’s what we call a cob—a good, stout workaday horse. He’ll see you right.”
Nick felt thankful Blaze was not so large as to be intimidating. He was a nice-looking horse, with a white star on his forehead and three white feet. Blaze whickered, nudging his shoulder gently. “I’ve never heard of that breed.”
“It’s a type of horse, actually, not a breed. Give him an apple,” Zack said. “He’ll be your friend for life.
He handed Nick an apple, which Nick offered to Blaze. The horse grabbed it with long, strong teeth, crunching it noisily, and whinnied. Was that a whinny of satisfaction? Nick wondered as Zack handed him a black hat that looked like a cross between a baseball cap and a bike helmet.
“This is the type most commonly used for beginners.” Zack said. He had already instructed Nick in the basics of saddling the horse, tightening the girth, and holding the reins. Now he helped Nick mount from the block in the stable yard.
Just then Brooke trotted out of the stable on the bay mare, Epona. The glance she gave Nick made his stomach contract with pleasurable nervousness: before he met Brooke, he’d sometimes looked at attractive girls the way Brooke had just looked at him. Translated into words, it would have been, “Hot damn!”
But the glance lasted only for seconds because Brooke had to control Epona, who was dancing with impatience. “We’re off!” She turned the mare’s head, gave a light kick to her side, and trotted away: soon Nick saw the the horse break into a canter, then into a gallop.
“Now I’m going to ride beside you on Gracie so you won’t be nervous,” Zack said. “People who aren’t used to riding often worry that they’re going to fall off, or that the horse will suddenly run away. That’s not going to happen. Blaze and Gracie are good friends and often go out together.”
As the horses set off, Nick grew used to the movement, listened to Zack’s voice, and began to enjoy himself. It was a fine morning with a light summer haze on the hills. “We won’t stay out for more than half an hour,” Zack said. “It’s going to be really hot today so we want to take the mounts out while the weather is still cool enough. Also, you’re not saddle-hardened yet.”
Nick discovered the truth of this when the session was over and he limped upstairs to his room. He hoped Brooke wouldn’t ask him how he’d liked it. He thought he probably would like it if he could ride often enough to become good at it, but at the moment his derrière was sore as hell. He took a shower and lay face-down on his bed, staring at his phone until lunchtime.
“Guess what we’re going to do after lunch,” Andrea said as she set down a plateful of the sliced watermelon that would finish the meal.
Brooke laughed. “Don’t tell me, let me guess. Tomorrow is September first so we’re going to pick apples this afternoon.”
Nick raised his eyebrows. “Why September first?”
“The early apples are ripe,” Zack said. “Today we’ll be picking the Ginger Golds and the early variety Fujis.”
Nick found apple-picking very much to his taste. The perfume of the apples, the breeze carrying the scent of cut grass, the clear sky overhead, and most of all, the presence of Brooke in her straw hat, flapping shirt, and ratty old jeans, combined to give him an extraordinary sense of well-being.
There’s nowhere else I’d rather be than right here, he thought, and nothing else I’d rather be doing. He was happy.
After they finished work, they all helped load the bins of apples into the pickup truck to be taken to the sorting facility down the road.
“Apples have to be treated gently,” Zack told Nick as they walked back through the orchards to the house. “They slide down a water chute into the scanner that looks them over for bruises and so on.”
“The good ones go to market,” Andrea said, “and the bruised ones get made into apple butter or applesauce.”
“Do you still make cider with the windfalls?” Brooke asked.
“On a very small scale,” Andrea said. “It’s a lot of work. We produce it only for ourselves.”
Dinner that night was a quiet affair, followed by coffee and conversation in the living room. Zack engaged Nick in a talk about sports while Andrea and Brooke talked about the farm.
Sunday morning was the same as Saturday—early breakfast followed by an eight o’clock ride.
“Can’t we go faster, Zack?” Nick asked after Brooke had once more galloped off on Epona.
Zack grinned. “Best to walk for now. You’ve probably already got a sore bum—”
Nick nodded, grimacing.
“—and we don’t want you and Blaze doing a rising trot just yet.”
“You’d wind up with sore testicles,” Zack said. “That would be very unfortunate.”
Startled, Nick glanced at him, then glanced away, feeling hot blood rising to his cheeks. Was Zack implying that—no, he couldn’t really think that he, Nick, was Brooke’s lover!
Still, there was the look Brooke had given him yesterday. He’d mulled over the memory until he fell asleep last night, but in the end concluded it meant nothing. Her manner toward him the rest of the day had been as offhand as ever, so the incident was probably due to his imagination.
That evening, however, he was to discover that it wasn’t his imagination at all.
“We’re going to the harvest supper tonight at the town hall,” Andrea announced after lunch. “The farmers get together and throw this party every year. We all have a good time and it’s nice to see everyone again—people are so busy over the summer. I’ve baked some pies to take with us.”
“There’ll be dancing afterwards,” Zack said. “Ever done contra dancing, Nick?”
“No, never. What is it, exactly?”
“It’s like a cousin of square dancing,” Brooke said. “Very simple. The organizers give a short lesson before the dancing begins so everyone will know what to do. It’s a lot of fun.”
The four left for the harvest celebration late in the afternoon. Zack drove the SUV to the village hall downtown where the harvest supper and dance were to be held. Nick, beside him in the front seat, made small talk in response to Zack’s comments but part of his mind was busy with the fragrance that was tickling his nostrils. Was it Andrea who was wearing it or was it Brooke?
After Zack parked the car and they began to the walk up to the building, Nick fell into step with Brooke. “Are you wearing perfume?”
“Yes,” Brooke said, giving him a sidelong glance. “Do you like it?”
“I do, but I thought you didn’t like fragrance. The company handbook said—“
“Oh, that section about no scent or aftershave in the office was just to accommodate people’s allergies. Mo’Nisha and I aren’t particularly allergic but we often have vendors and cleaning people coming in, so I decided to avoid controversy by banning it during working hours. In my private life I do wear it.”
Nick sniffed cautiously. “It’s different from the one you wore the other day.”
“Yes, that was lily of the valley. This one is rose. I like pure floral scents. In fact, one day,” Brooke continued as they went up the steps to the front door, “I plan to have a whole garden of flowers. After horses, they’re my passion.”
So that was another interesting little fact about her to tuck away in his mind. She was wearing a full skirt with a pattern of oranges, greens, and blues that stopped slightly above her knees and a clingy white crop top with cap sleeves. On her feet were sandals with a modest wedge heel and laces that went around her ankles.
When she turned to speak to him, he smiled. “I like your dancing clothes.”
“Thank you. It’s a good thing you’re wearing Bermudas. It can get steamy when the dancing begins.”
He was glad he’d packed the shorts at the last minute. This evening was much too warm for jeans.
The attendees were invited to sit at tables that seated six persons each. Andrea and Zack made for a table in the middle of the room, where a man and a woman, already seated, were waving at them.
“Brooke, you remember Karen and Jay, right?”
Brooke nodded. Andrea turned to Nick. “Nick, Karen and Jay have the farm down the road from us. We go way back. Karen and Jay, this is Brooke’s friend, Nick.”
Karen and Jay acknowledged the introduction with a smile. They were about Andrea’s and Zack’s ages, which Nick guessed to be thirty-something. Karen had long blonde hair and a vivacious expression; Jay, a pleasant-looking man with intelligent eyes behind his dark-rimmed glasses, invited Nick to sit down. After ascertaining what everyone wanted, Zack and Nick went to get drinks.
“Here we go,” Zack said when they returned, as he and Nick set down the bottles on the table. “Beer for Jay and me, iced tea for Karen and Andrea, cider for Brooke and Nick.”
“Our table number has just been called,” Andrea said, rising. “Come on, people, let’s eat!”
Although Nick filled his plate, he was barely able to eat the ham with scalloped potatoes and green beans. Somehow, he just wasn’t hungry. Glancing surreptitiously at Brooke’s plate, he could see that she wasn’t eating much either. Nick took another drink of the hard cider: ice-cold and tasty, it was going down much more easily than the food.
“What about dessert, Nick?” Andrea said. “Are you going to try my apple pie?”
“Later, thanks,” Nick said. “I don’t want to eat so much that I can’t dance.”
The musicians began playing, and even though the music wasn’t the kind he preferred he found himself tapping his foot on the floor in time with the beat. “Come on, Nick, they’re about to start the lesson,” Brooke said. She led the way to the front of the room up to the stage where the musicians were playing.
Nick found the steps easy enough. His heart was beating fast as he and Brooke joined hands and began to follow the others in the line. Her hand was soft, with nails painted a delicate shade of pink. He could hardly believe it: he, Nick, Brooke’s abject slave if she only knew it, was actually holding hands with her. And it was completely within the bounds of decorum because they were in a public place and dancing mostly apart from each other.
The next dance had a faster tempo, which made some of the dancers groan as they tried to keep up. At one point the women stepped away to whirl around in circles: Nick, always keeping his eyes on Brooke, was amazed when her skirt whirled so high that he could see she was wearing briefs made of the same patterned material as the skirt. Her long, tanned legs were innocent of stockings—well, naturally, as the temperature outside was scorching on this late-summer day.
When Brooke whirled back toward him, he forgot to guard his expression. He gave her the same look she’d given him yesterday morning, but Brooke appeared to be unaware of the effect she was having on him.
When the musicians stopped for a break after half an hour of playing, the dancers went back to their tables and collapsed thankfully into their seats.
“Oh, wow, I need something to drink,” Brooke said.
Nick rose instantly. “What would you like?”
“More cider, please. Make sure it’s ice cold, okay?”
After Nick returned with cider for Brooke and himself, Andrea turned from her conversation with Brooke and said, “Nick, Zack and I will be leaving soon. We have to get up early for the livestock, you know. Karen and Jay will be glad to drive you home when you’re ready to go.”
Nick nodded. “Thank you for bringing us. It’s quite an event!”
The next set of dances was equally strenuous but after the music stopped again, Brooke looked up at Nick. “Are you ready to leave? I know Jay and Karen have chores tomorrow as well, so I don’t want to keep them out too late.”
“That’s fine,” Nick said. “Would you like anything else to drink?”
“No, thank you,” Brooke said. “And if you don’t mind my saying so, you don’t need any more cider either. If we had any more we would want to die tomorrow morning from the hangover. That stuff goes down easily but it really packs a wallop.”
In truth, Nick was feeling a buzz. He knew he wasn’t drunk, he’d had enough experience to know what that was like, but he was glad he wasn’t driving.
“I’m the designated driver,” Karen announced when they reached the table. “I’ve stuck to iced tea all evening, so I’ll get us home safely.”
“Just don’t brake for chickens,” Jay said.
“I’ll brake for skunks and nothing else,” Karen said. “You ready? Let’s go.”
The drive home through a moonlit landscape made Nick wish the evening weren’t ending so soon. He wanted it to last forever. When in his life would he ever again have the chance to spend so much time with Brooke? She’d looked as though she was enjoying herself when they were dancing: he guessed she was five-seven to his six-two, so in the rare moments when the dance formation brought them close, he felt they were just right together.
After thanking Karen and Jay, Nick and Brooke walked up the path to the front door.
“Our hosts will have already gone to bed,” Brooke said. “Horses and other animals don’t want to hear any excuses from humans about too much partying the night before.”
“I’ve never lived on a farm,” Nick said. “It’s a really different life from the way I grew up.”
“Actually, for me this is feels like home. Our ranch was bigger than this, but we had stables and orchards too.”
Her voice trailed away as they began to go up the stairs. He supposed he’d go to his room and read for a while until he fell asleep. At the top of the stairs the hallway was dimly lit from the wall sconces at either end. Brooke’s room was the nearest.
“Well,” he said as they paused outside her door, “it was a lot of fun this evening! Thanks for everything.”
“Yes, I enjoyed it too,” Brooke said. She paused. “What’s the matter Nick? You suddenly look—” she appeared to search for a word—“sad. Or thoughtful. What are you thinking?”
Nick sighed, looked away, then looked back at her. “I was wishing I could kiss you goodnight.”
She appeared to consider this for a few seconds. “Well, why not?”
He stepped forward as she lifted her face to his, and as his arms went around her and his lips came down on hers, the world ceased to exist. The house, the farm, the land fell away and there were only the two of them in a magic otherworld of warmth, soft lips, and hard muscle, straining against each other as if they wanted to blend into one being. She was wrapping her arms around him as tightly as he was holding her delectable body close to his.
When at last they broke apart, the only sound was their ragged breathing. Then Brooke opened the door and pulled him into her bedroom.
She did not turn on the light.
From Turnabout, now available at Amazon.com, Nook, Books,and Kobo