Authors: Mardi Ballou
“Wait.” He started going after her when the chef came from the kitchen and grabbed his arm.
“Omelets? French toast? Both? I must know now.”
Keith struggled to free himself. “My girl just ran off. I have to go after her. For God’s sake, make whatever you want, only get out of my way.”
By the time he managed to wrench himself away and follow Brenda, he saw her ride off in a taxi. No other taxis around, so he couldn’t jump into one and command the driver to follow. He’d parked three blocks away. No way he could catch up. He’d just have to wait for her to come back, however long that would take. He wasn’t about to give up.
* * *
Brenda didn’t break stride until she exited her building’s lobby. She grabbed a cab then realized she had no destination. No direction.
. “MOMA,” she said, the first place her mind dredged up. A morning at the Museum of Modern Art. Why not? Though she had a membership, she almost never got there.
She walked around the exhibits—the only single woman among couples, or at least that seemed to be the case. She could have been here with Keith, after a magnificent breakfast. Heck, he’d even dressed up for the occasion, pretty rare. But, dammit, she had to cut things off between them or they’d keep repeating the same pattern until they were both little old people in a home somewhere. He’d be the Romeo of the senior set and she’d be his geriatric
. Or he’d persuade another aging Juliet to play that role to get rid of her.
Despite her better judgment, this image made her laugh. So loudly that the patrons around her turned and stared. She sat down on a bench and stretched her elegantly shod feet out in front of her. Keith had come up with a decent plan—his posh surprise breakfast. Actually impressed her. She’d had to make an effort to ignore him. Unlike her not to at least listen. Her stomach grumbled with hunger. In her rush to make her exit, she’d walked away from a feast and not bothered to feed herself. Great start for her birthday. Starvation. There was food back at her condo. Delicious food. Courtesy of Keith.
The kind of surprise she’d fantasized about for years. She sucked in a breath. Did this mean he finally got
? Was that the miracle of her thirtieth birthday? She wrung her hands. The age of miracles was, after all, over. Wasn’t it?
Could she put herself out there once more—and risk getting her heart trampled? No, she’d really had enough.
But what if there was even a remote chance for the two of them to have something real?
Though her head warned of impending disaster, her heart wouldn’t let her risk losing out on the slight chance—maybe only a sliver of a chance—to be with Keith in the way she’d dreamed of since forever.
Almost ready to risk it all one more time, she summoned another cab to take her home. This time, if she opened the door to being with him once again, it would be on her terms. She’d walked away already. Twice. As the old song said, her boots could keep right on walking— unless Keith could finally man up, learn his lesson and treat her the way she deserved.
* * *
He’d gotten rid of all the staff but the chef, who had amazing French toast staying warm in the oven. Mimosas, coffee, all the other goodies waited. And then the very special dessert the pastry chef had put together. Delicious as it all smelled, Keith’s appetite was gone. His gut told him that listening to her this time and leaving really would be the end of them as a couple. Just when he knew without a doubt that a relationship with Brenda was exactly what he wanted. And that he was capable of being her forever partner in a happy match.
How long could he sit in her kitchen, stroking Chelsey, soaking up the Brenda energy in her condo, sniffing the coffee, before he had to face reality and give up?
A key turning in the front door lock kept him from having to answer that question. And then his wonderful Brenda was there with him, her beauty radiating like a beacon in the darkest of nights. He looked at her in amazement, as if he’d never seen her before.
She looked less ecstatic when she caught sight of him. “Is the catering crew gone?”
“Not quite.” He wanted to touch her, to take her in his arms, but she had a forbidding aura around her. He’d tread carefully, at least at first. Now that she was here he resolved not to give up without a fight. Hell, not to give up at all. Whatever it took.
“Any food left?”
Good that he hadn’t listened to her. “The chef’s finishing up. He’s made a ton of French toast, and there are mimosas and coffee and other goodies.”
“Fine. I’m starving for breakfast. I’ll eat what he made.”
“You’ve got it. I’ll go talk to the chef.” In moments he was on his way—clean-up crew to come when contacted—and the table was set for breakfast.
Brenda inhaled a cup of coffee and gazed greedily at the platter of French toast from which she’d removed the cover. “Looks yummy. Good idea, Keith. Thanks. You can go now.”
Good idea? I’ve busted my rear end— Never mind. Worth it.
For the first time ever, he said the words only she’d said previously. “We need to talk. I’m not going anywhere.”
Her brow shot up. “Really? Fine. But I’m starving. You can talk while I eat unless you get annoying. I want to enjoy all these calories.” She put two pieces of French toast on a plate and poured on maple syrup.
Truth be told, now that she’d come back, so had his appetite. He sat opposite her. She stopped eating and glared. “I want to eat alone.”
No. This was definitely not Brenda. “I’d like to join you. And toast your birthday. Brenda, give me a break. You came back. That’s got to mean something.”
“You know I hate for food to go to waste.”
“Yeah, but you came back for more than that.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Whatever. All right. You paid. You can eat.”
“Thanks. A mimosa toast first?” He nodded toward the two champagne flutes.
“Later. Food and coffee first. So, talk, Keith. I’ll listen unless you get boring.” She licked a drop of maple syrup from her lips and he crossed his legs.
Don’t blow it.
“I told you about Ryan?”
She nodded. “Your brother.” She took another forkful of French toast, her face expressing the pleasure she found in the food.
“The condensed version of the story. Our family was so messed up, we stayed away from each other. Didn’t want any reminders of how it was. Now I can see that was a mistake. He and I are getting closer. Talking to him has helped me realize I shouldn’t be afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” She frowned.
“Commitment. Of being as big a bastard as our father. Hell, there’s a lot more to say, but I’ll save the details for another time. I just wanted to give you a heads’ up. For the rest—it’s your birthday and I don’t want to tell you any sad stories. I want to celebrate this one with you and every other year. I one hundred percent want you and need you.”
“One hundred thousand percent. One million.” He swallowed hard and reached out to her. “All the high numbers. I’ve never been surer.” He took her hand and pressed it to over his heart. “I love you, Brenda. Let me prove how much, starting now.”
“Oh, please. How many women have fallen for that line?”
“It’s not a line. I’ve never said those words to another woman. Honest, Brenda, you’re the first, last and only.”
“I’m listening.” Was she fighting a smile? Did he have a shot?
“I want to start us off today. Let’s bid farewell to
and every other wrong thing I put you through in the past. Put it all in a boat and send it out on the Pacific. Throw it off the Golden Gate or under a trolley. You name it. Brenda, if you’ll have me, I’m yours. Forever.”
“Oh, Keith.” She threw her arms around him and they kissed for a really long time. “You’d better mean it because I love you too.”
His eyes devoured her. “Trust me on this. I’ll never again take you for granted or forget what the woman I love deserves.”
“Hmm, sounds like you know the words, but I’m still not sure you’re singing my song. As in, I have zero tolerance any more for when you act like an arrogant son of a—”
His brows shot up. “Whoa. I’ve never heard you talk like that.”
She snorted. “Better late than never. Believe me, I’ve thought it more times than I want to remember. You’re asking for another chance. You’re asking me to believe all that cruel, selfish taking advantage of my good nature is over and done.”
“Exactly. That’s what I’m asking.” He held out his hands in the appropriate gesture.
“And that from now on, you’ll never keep secrets from me. If something happens, I won’t be the last to know what you feel.”
“Ah hell, Brenda. Some habits are harder to break than others. I can’t guarantee it’ll all happen overnight, but I sure will try.”
She shook her head. “Oh you’re a trying guy all right.”
He groaned in acknowledgment of her bad joke. “Step by step, with you by my side, I’ll turn into a guy who’s worthy of you.”
She swallowed hard. “You just gave me goose bumps,” she hissed. “Good goose bumps.” She took his hand and they gazed at each other in a perfect silence full of communication.
The moment had arrived. He jumped up. “Hold that thought. Time for dessert.”
She put a hand on her belly. “No more for me. I’m full.”
“You’ll want this dessert. The pastry chef made it just for you for your birthday.”
In moments he brought in the small heart-shaped, pink-frosted chocolate cake. Right in the center was a piece of Lockheart Chocolate—the dark chocolate almond mocha crunch she called True Love. Other chocolates from her Romance formed a second heart outline around the cake.
Brenda clapped her hands to her face. “It’s gorgeous, Keith. Too gorgeous to touch.”
“It’s meant to be touched and more. Brenda Lockheart, please give me the True Love from your heart.”
“Okay, since you ask so nicely.” She delicately picked up the candy to discover a surprise underneath—a diamond ring. She gasped.
Keith fell to his knees. “Please say yes.”
Ring in hand, she burst into tears and laughter simultaneously. He hadn’t known that was possible. When she could talk, she said, “Keith, oh Keith… Ask the question.”
Right. The question. “Will you commit to me all the way?”
“Yes, oh yes.” She then got down on her knees next to him and fed him the True Love. Deliciousness flooded his mouth from the candy and a very deep kiss.
Agreeing to get off their knees, they kissed again and he slipped the ring onto her finger.
“You know,” she said when they broke off their next kiss, “I didn’t really think you’d be able to pull off any birthday celebration, but this is the beyond my wildest imagination. Perfect.”
He cupped her chin and gazed into her eyes. “Stick with me, Brenda. I promise this is just the beginning.”
(all in e-book versions, some also in print)