Eric paused on his threshold, anticipation and excitement surging through his veins. On the other side of the door Brenda waited, but in what mood? What would happen when he stepped over the threshold? Would she smile and welcome him with a hot meal? Would he find her feeding his dinner to the dog?
It seemed entirely possible that she’d spent the afternoon playing her cello and had forgotten all about him. Eric scowled at the thought. Prepared to do battle—and in the right frame of mind to deal with Brenda—he threw the door open.
“Surprise!” his mother cried.
He was surprised. So surprised, in fact, that he almost had a heart attack. As the spots swirled in front of his eyes his father loomed large in the hall—and he had a firm grip on Brenda.
“We’re flying to Hong Kong for a business trip,” his mother said rapidly. “When our plane was diverted to Anchorage—someone got sick—we took a cab here to try and surprise you.”
“And imagine our surprise,” his father said, “when your door opened and we saw this little lady.”
“Now, Walter,” his own wife said soothingly, “Brenda’s explained everything to us.”
“She has?” Eric’s wild eyes darted between his parents and Brenda so fast that the spots reappeared. “What, exactly, did you say, Brenda?”
She edged toward him, wringing her hands. “You have to understand,” she begged. “They caught me by surprise.”
She nodded, miserable. “That’s right. I told them the truth.”
“Are you crazy?!” he yelled. “What in the world possessed you to do that?”
“Honey,” his mother said, “don’t be embarrassed. Your father and I may not exactly approve of what you’re doing, but we want you to know that we support you one hundred percent. We love you.”
His father cleared his throat. “Your mother’s right, son,” he said. “Although we wish that you’d do things the conventional way for once.”
Eric felt as if he’d been sucked into an alternate universe.
She must have seen something in his face, he thought, because Brenda stepped forward. “Eh, Monica? Walter? Let’s go sit down in the living room, okay?”
“Good idea,” his mother said, ushering her forward. Brenda cast a despairing glance at him as she went.
It was too late for despair, he thought. Drooping, he followed his parents and his fake wife into the living room and slumped down on the sofa next to his mother.
His mother clasped his hand in hers and rubbed briskly. “There, there, Eric. I told you that you don’t have to be embarrassed. And your father and I had mostly gotten over the shock by the time you’d walk in the door.” She smiled at Brenda over Eric’s prone form. “Brenda had already done the hard part.”
Walter studied his son. “Why can’t you do things the normal way?” he asked. “Your brother got married to a very nice girl. She’s pregnant again, you know.”
Closing his eyes, Eric groaned and used his free hand to pinch the bridge of his nose.
“Now, Walter.” He could hear the frown in his mother’s voice. “I think it’s very brave of Eric to go this route. And I think it would be a good idea if we thought about buying a house here in Anchorage so we can be nearby to help him.”
This was like something out of The Twilight Zone. He opened his eyes. “What?” he croaked. “Why?”
“You’ll need a lot of help, honey, when the baby comes.”
Eric’s brain sloshed loosely in his head as he whipped it around to find Brenda. What “truth” had she told his parents?
Her face pale and strained, Brenda leaped to her feet. “Let’s see what we have in the kitchen, Eric,” she said, her voice shrill.
Slowly, wearily, and not at all sure that he wanted to know what was really going on, he climbed to his feet and followed her to the kitchen. She opened and closed cabinets in rapid succession, pulling things out apparently at random.
Eric leaned against the counter. “Would you like to tell me what the hell is going on?” he asked politely.
Wild-eyed she turned to face him. “I’m so sorry! You can’t imagine how shocked I was to open the door and find your parents standing on the
doorstep! I thought I was going to pass out!”
“What, precisely, did you tell them?”
She waved her hands in the air. “I couldn’t tell them the truth, could I?”
“I’m beginning to suspect that the truth would have been preferable to whatever you did tell them.”
“You may be right.” She hung her head. “I told them ….” Her voice trailed off into an unintelligible murmur.
“You’re killing me, Brenda,” he said. “Just tell me.”
Her head shot up and her eyes shone with defiance. “I told them that you’d hired me to be the surrogate mother of your child.”
“No, really. What did you tell them?”
“That’s what I told them.”
“I told them—”
“I heard you the first time! Why would you say something like that?”
“You were so proud of the fact that you could think on your feet!” He flapped his arms in an ineffectual gesture. “One little surprise and you fall apart!”
“One little surprise?!”
“Oh, never mind.” He subsided. “This is all my fault.”
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “I thought so, too, but I couldn’t quite see how to blame you.”
“I knew that you were crazy when I met you,” he said. “How can I blame you for acting like a lunatic when you are one?”
“Well, since you’re the logical one around here,” she hissed, thrusting a bowl of chips at him, “you can go back into the living room and deal with your parents.”
He quavered, grasping the bowl as if it were a life preserver. “I don’t know if I can,” he admitted.
“Then let me do it.”
He straightened. “I think you’ve done quite enough, thank you,” he said firmly. “In fact, I think it’s going to take years of therapy to undo all you’ve done today.”
After another half-hour of awkward, stilted conversation, Monica and Walter left for the airport. It was only eight o’clock but Eric dragged himself up the stairs and flopped down on his bed.
“Well,” Brenda said from the door, “I think that went well, don’t you?”
He groaned and pulled a pillow over his face.
She perched on the edge of the bed. “There are easier ways to commit suicide,” she said, her voice gentle.
He rolled away from her and curled himself into a ball. “Haven’t you done enough for today? Go away.”
“Are you hungry? I could make you something to eat.”
She ran her hand over his hunched shoulders. “It’s no wonder you’re tired. You can’t be getting much sleep.”
“I’ve only ever needed four or five hours of sleep a night.”
“I suppose that a workaholic would think that that was a good thing.”
“It is a good thing.”
Brenda let her fingers wander through his hair. The poor man had been very stressed this evening. She eased herself down and spooned up behind him, gingerly draping her arm around his waist.
“Go away.” His voice was strained.
“It’s okay. Just relax. I’m not going to attack you, for pity’s sake.”
Slowly he relaxed. When the gentle rhythm of his breath told her that he was asleep she slipped out of the bed. He rolled over abruptly, flinging his arm over the spot she’d just left. She wondered if he missed her.
His long, dark lashes rested gently on his cheeks, softening but not diminishing the strength of his features. For a long moment she stood and watched him, surprised again by the tenderness she felt for him.
He was sweet and funny and sexy; he was fair, honorable, and hadn’t tossed her out on her tush (yet), and she was tremendously attracted to him.
Suddenly she wished that she didn’t have to leave. Did he want her to go? What would happen if she stayed?
She tore her eyes away from his sleeping form and wandered down the hall to her own door. Her cello lay on its side in the corner, waiting for her. As she had for as long as she could remember, she heeded the summons.
The sweet, soothing music drifted easily through the house, filling the nooks and crannies and easing the tightness around her heart. Brenda had given up more than one man to follow her dream, and that dream led to New York.
In his room, the music embraced Eric and swept him into a sleep too deep for any dream to reach.
He slept better than he had in years. Bright and early Saturday morning he awoke with a ravenous hunger and a single clear thought. Brenda had slipped into his bed. Throwing caution to the wind he flung back the covers, fully expecting to surprise her. With luck, he’d catch her half-asleep and—
She wasn’t there.
Swearing nastily he slouched into the bathroom for a long, cold shower. The stinging pellets drummed over his skin, reminding him how dangerous she could be to him. Falling for her now would be the worst thing he could do.
Unless, of course, he could convince her to stay.
He turned off the water and reached for a towel. Why not convince her to stay? This could heal the rift in his family and would end his troubles with Daniel’s damn family-friendly policies. Which, damn it again, didn’t seem to apply to That Rat Bastard, Paul. Eric shoved those murderous thoughts aside. He could redeem himself with his mother and even have the baby she was always bugging him about. To his surprise he abruptly found the idea of a family very appealing.
Brenda was smart, pretty, talented, and obviously attracted to him. He tossed the towel aside and faced himself in the mirror. The cold shower hadn’t done its work and he was confronted, literally, with the fact that he was attracted to her, too.
And so, he decided, she should stay here, with him. In Alaska. He frowned at his reflection. Brenda was a professional musician. There wasn’t a lot for her here in Anchorage.
He pulled on his clothes and mulled the problem. He hadn’t arrived at a solution when he padded down the stairs and found her in the kitchen.
“Good morning, Sleepyhead,” she said with a smile.
He studied her with new eyes, liking what he saw. “It’s eight o’clock. I haven’t slept this late since I was in college.”
“Back when Anchorage was a tent city?” she teased, turning back to the stove.
“Have you heard from your brother yet?”
She concentrated on the pan. “No. I’ve tried him twice this morning. Still no answer.”
“I’m sure he’ll turn up.
She didn’t want to think about that. “Yeah. Relatives are always popping up here, aren’t they? By the way—I’ve forgiven you for the scene last night.”
“That’s big of you—especially since it was all your fault.”
She risked a glance at him. His tone was light and he didn’t seem angry with her. She decided to let it drop. No doubt he had an excellent benefit package that would cover any needed therapy. “How do you want your eggs?” she asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. He walked over the table, where Brenda had left the Anchorage Daily News open at the “Life” section. On the front page was an article about a guest conductor who was coming to Alaska for a charitable event at the Anchorage Museum of Art.
“Put that away and I’ll set the table,” she said.
“Did you read this article?” he asked slowly.
She shrugged, her hands busy with place settings. “They said the performance is sold out.” Wishing that she’d had a chance to hide the morning paper, she ducked his gaze and turned back to the stove. Thank heaven that show was sold out. She’d known the guest conductor for years and had even had a brief fling with him a very long time ago. Things were going reasonably well with Eric, but she didn’t need an old boyfriend popping up at this point.
Eric folded the newspaper, his eyes never leaving her back. His company was a Museum sponsor and Daniel was on the Board of Directors. Eric had been given a ticket to this fund raiser weeks ago.
And, of course, he’d been given one for his “wife.” He hid a smile. This was his chance to show Brenda that Anchorage had culture, too. She would be so surprised when he gave her that ticket!
She placed a platter of scrambled eggs on the table in front of him. Before he could help himself she took a big spoonful of eggs and put them in Ruffles’ dish, added a slice of bacon, and gave it to the pug. Eric eyed the dog. “Do you make him breakfast every day?”
She gave him a cheeky grin. “I made enough for everybody.”
Ruffles finished inhaling his eggs and turned back to the table. Hastily Eric filled his plate. “You’ll have to wait for seconds,” he told the dog.
Brenda sat down next to him. “So you’ll never guess who I met when Ruffles and I went for our walk,” she said.
“The Abdominal Snowman.”
“If you’re referring to our neighbor, Gary, I don’t think it’s very nice of you to make fun of the pectorally challenged. Not everyone can have a body like yours.”
It was his turn to grin. “You can have my body anytime you like.”
She gaped at him. “And here I was sure that you didn’t have a sense of humor. It’s a pity I was wrong.”
“What I meant,” he said, stung, “was that I have all the equipment you need to get ripped upstairs.”
“I don’t want to think about what I’d rip on your equipment,” she retorted. “Anyway, I invited Gary and his wife, Joyce, over for dinner tonight.”
“What?!” he gasped when he realized what she’d said. “Why?”
She smiled around a bite of toast. “Because it’s a nice, neighborly thing to do,” she said. “It’s what married people do.”
He slumped in his chair. “But I don’t want to.”
“I’ll take care of everything,” she assured him. “We want to seem like a nice, ordinary couple, don’t we?”
“I’ve never wanted to be ordinary.”
“Or nice, either.”
He frowned. “Where’d that come from?”
She stood. “You called me crazy last night,” she said, forgetting about her resolution to not bring up the disastrous subject of his parents’ visit.
“I just call it like I see it,” he shot back.
She had to admit that there was a certain amount of truth in his words. She leaned against the counter and tried to stay mad at him. “I will concede,” she said, “that telling your parents that you’d hired me to have your baby was not the brightest thing in the world—”
“I love your choice of words. That definitely was not ‘bright.’”
“But you were just plain mean about it.”
His eyes opened so wide she thought his eyeballs were going to pop right out. “I’m sorry,” he said, sounding strangled. “You mess up my life, convince my parents—who, by the way, have no doubt informed everyone I know that I’m a lunatic, and—”
“I’d be more worried about the fact that they think you’re gay.”
“This is fifty shades of crazy, lady.” He closed his protruding eyes and pressed his hands against the lids. Finally, apparently driven by morbid curiosity, he had to ask. “Why would they think I was gay?”
Trying not to smirk, she studied him with innocent eyes. “Let’s examine the evidence,” she said sweetly. “Exhibit A—” she gestured expansively “—this house. It’s not exactly the home of a swinging single guy.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my house!”
“Exhibit two: Your nonexistent love life.”
Rallying to the challenge, he crossed his arms over his chest and gave her a rakish smile. “Do you enjoy speculating about my love life?”
“When was the last time you did anything more than speculate?”
His smile faded. “A gentleman never kisses and tells,” he said haughtily.
She rolled her eyes. “The gentleman in question probably can’t remember that far back. Exhibit Number Three (which isn’t really an exhibit): the fact that you haven’t made a pass at me.”
His smile returned. “Are you sure I haven’t?”
“Pretty sure.” She felt giddy. Taking chances, flirting with the handsome guy whose home you’d invaded—this was living! “I realize that you think you’re the subtle type,” she said, “but I know what a pass feels like.”
“And with your vast experience—”
“Well, vast is probably an overstatement.”
He inclined his head politely. “So, in your experience, any guy who didn’t make a pass at you was gay?”
Her eyes flew around the room, looking everywhere that he wasn’t. “If I tried,” she conceded, “I could probably think of a couple who weren’t.”
“For argument’s sake,” he continued relentlessly, “let’s eliminate from this argument married men and males under eighteen and over eighty. I’m assuming, of course, that those men are somehow immune to your animal magnetism.”
She began to suspect that she was loosing control of the conversation. “We were talking about you,” she said.
“Actually,” he reminded her, “we were talking about the fact that I haven’t made a pass at you. Yet.” He regarded her through hooded eyes. “We’ve already eliminated the possibility that I could find you anything less than irresistible.”
“I think we can agree on that.” Her breath was coming in quick, short gasps and she was feeling light-headed. Must be delayed jet lag, she assured herself.
“Do you believe me when I say that I’m not gay?”
“I believe you,” she said solemnly.
He pursed his lips. “But that still leaves us with the original question. Why have I not made a pass at you?” He stood and moved toward her.
She watched him, suddenly wary. “You’re not going to turn into a hair-pulling Neanderthal to prove a point, are you?”
“No.” He stopped in front of her. “But back to the subject at hand: maybe I’m just shy.”
She snorted in a very unladylike fashion. “Try again.”
Lifting his hand he let his fingers skim over her cheek and push an errant lock of hair behind her ear. “Maybe I’m afraid that you’d reject me.” His finger drifted down over her neck to the hollow of her throat to rest over the pulse pounding under her skin.
She wet her lips and the small movement drew his eyes to her mouth. His fingers weren’t far behind. She watched his eyes as he traced the curve of her lips with his thumb. She was putty in his hands and they both knew it.
“That can’t be the reason, either,” she admitted.
Perhaps he was surprised by her candor. He let his hand fall away. He grinned at her, breaking the spell that held her immobile. To her irritation he leaned forward until his nose touched hers; he seemed pleased when she didn’t back away.
“Maybe,” he said, “I’m just waiting for the right moment.” Rocking back on his heels, he turned and left her standing there. His whistling, cheerful and tuneless, followed him out the front door.
Shocked, she slowly cleaned up from breakfast and wandered into his home office. Five minutes later she’d logged onto the Internet. She dug through her purse for the receipt from the jeweler’s; it had his Visa card number on it. If he expected her to sit at home and work herself into a frenzy over him, well, she was obliged to show him just how wrong he was.
Deciding to pay for express delivery wasn’t difficult at all. She couldn’t wait to see the look on his face when the brown-wrapped packages started arriving.