Authors: Clarice Wynter
“What?” he asked. “I don’t think women go to the ladies
’ room in groups, giggling, just to gossip, so don’t give me that look.”
“That’s not why I’m here.” Her serious tone surprised him. She shifted her gaze toward the restrooms as though she might be concerned about the others coming back too soon.
“What’s up, then?”
“You look really happy with Dani.”
“I am.” The response slipped out automatically. No use hedging. He’d never been happier, even during his period of blissful ignorance with Joyce. The look on Claudia’s face squashed some of his unbridled enthusiasm, though.
Doubt clouded her brilliant blue eyes. “I should mind my own business.”
“No one ever minds their own business after they’ve said ‘I should mind my own business,’ so you might as well spill it.”
“Dani is great, don’t get me wrong. I think she’s
really good for you, but I just want to be sure you know she’s not looking for anything serious.”
“I know that.” Taylor scoffed. Of course he knew that. He agreed with it, supported it
, and…hated it. And he knew it was stupid to hate it because in no way was he ready to go down that road to commitment again so soon—if two years could be considered soon. He’d learned his lesson the hard way. “Claudia, don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Dani’s fine, and we’re going to have a great time just having a great time. No strings, no complications.”
She smiled. “Good. I just don’t want to see you get hurt again.”
“Not gonna happen.”
“What’s not gonna happen?” Tanner appeared then, carrying
more empty glasses from the table.
“Claudia was just asking me when I’m going to start singing lead, and I told her never. Owen’s got the pipes, not me. I’m lucky I can hum in tune.”
Tanner shook his head and looped an arm around Claudia’s shoulders. “You poor, deluded girl. You don’t want my brother singing. Talk about killing the audience,” he said as he led her back to the table.
, and Lily reappeared then, still in a group, and Taylor suppressed an automatic grin. Dani was smiling and laughing, looking amazing and having that great time he’d been assuring Claudia about.
She broke away from the other women and met him at the bar. “Hey, sailor, buy a girl a drink?”
“I would, but the bar’s officially closed. We’re going to be kicked out in fifteen minutes.”
“Okay, give a girl a ride, then?” She batted dark, alluring lashes at him. “Or follow a girl home since we have separate cars? I guess I should be asking, your place or mine?”
He hadn’t meant to hesitate, hadn’t meant to let Claudia’s concern make him rethink how he wanted to feel about this new…arrangement, but a voice in his head that he should have had the good sense to silence
reminded him he needed to play it cool and not get in over his head. “It’s late.” The words slipped out, and the hopeful light in Dani’s eyes dimmed just a bit.
“Oh. Right. I forgot you work on Saturdays. You probably have to get up early.”
“Yeah. Saturday mornings are always brutal. That’s when everyone wants to come in for routine visits. I’m usually swamped,” he said as if spending the night with her wouldn’t infuse him with enough giddy energy to work a month of Saturdays back-to-back. He should have told her that, but something stopped him.
She nodded, the deep bobbing nod of someone who knows they should understand but doesn’t want to admit they don’t understand. “And you’re probably still exhausted from yesterday.”
“Of course. Well then, go get a good night’s sleep and tackle all those four-legged patients tomorrow and kiss all the puppies for me. I guess I’ll…”
“I’ll call you…first chance I get tomorrow.”
“Sure. I’ll be around.”
He leaned in to kiss her
, and she shifted at the last moment so he ended up planting his lips on her cheek rather than her mouth. “It’s just… You know…” he mumbled.
“Sure. I know. It’s fine. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Great. Bye!” She was gone before he finished mentally kicking himself. Why hadn’t he extricated himself from this mess
, turned it all around and begged her to come home with him because he really needed her, wanted her… Oh. That was exactly why. Because he wanted someone he could go home with when he was exhausted and just be with, someone who would think of his home as her home too, and Dani wanted someone who was up for anything all the time. Maybe Claudia’s concern was well-founded, but now that he had himself all figured out, she wouldn’t have to worry. He wasn’t going to let himself fall into that trap, no matter what.
“How did this all get so screwed up? I thought no-strings-attached relationships were supposed to be easy.” Dani lay in bed alone on Saturday morning, having thrown herself back amid the rumpled blankets after dialing Brenda’s number.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you may be overreacting,” Brenda replied.
“No. I’m certain I’m not. I don’t know what I did wrong, but in the space of a trip to the ladies’ room, we went from holding hands under the table to awkward, one-word sentences and leaving in separate cars. How does that happen?”
“You said yourself, he was tired. Maybe he was worried about, you know…his performance.”
“Trust me, he’s got
to worry about in the performance department. No. I did something or said something that changed things. I must have. And you know what the worst part is?”
“That you refuse to just call him and ask him what’s wrong?”
Dani sighed. Of course Brenda was right. Instead of lamenting to her coworker, she should have just marched over to Taylor’s place and hashed out this whole on-again, off-again thing they’d started. It was obvious that he wanted her—or he
—and she certainly wanted him, but something kept them from getting their vibes working. She pushed forward, and he backed up; he offered, and she declined as if they were both worried about what the other really wanted or was really thinking. It shouldn’t have been so difficult. It had never been this confusing before, but somehow now, the outcome of this confusion mattered. She didn’t want to let this thing just fade away. “No, that’s not the worst part. The worst part is, I used to be the chick who didn’t care if a guy called me or not. If he wasn’t into it, he wasn’t into it and that was that, but now I’m obsessing over every single word we said to each other last night, and that’s not me at all. I wasn’t even like that in high school. So what does that mean?”
“That this time it’s more important?”
“It’s not. It’s…” Sure it was. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. There was something about Taylor Croft that set off all Dani’s carefully suppressed nesting instincts. She’d caught herself exploring his house the other night, imagining which little touches might have been left over from his time with his former fiancée, and how she would change them if given half a chance. She’d perused his kitchen and found herself wondering if she should take a cooking class, and she’d gazed at family photos on his living room wall and wondered if his parents would like her since she was already certain hers would adore him.
None of this was classic Dani Lennox. Dani was the girl men dated before they ended up with a
fiancée, or the one they dated right after a long-term commitment ended when they were looking to just have some fun. She preferred things that way. She didn’t want some guy gazing at her and picturing her standing in the kitchen with a toddler wrapped around her knees the way Kyle had. So far everyone she encountered seemed to think Taylor was the kind of guy who would bring home a puppy for that toddler and build a tree house in the back yard, and— “Oh, my God.”
“I think I’ve turned into the guy I never wanted to date.”
“Well, that’s disturbing on so many levels. What are you talking about?”
“I don’t want to play games, Bren. I want to be with Taylor, but not if it makes me feel like this.”
“Like I don’t know who I am. How can being with him for such a short time change me so much?”
Brenda laughed softly. “If you have a few hours, I’ll explain it.” She had gone from being hopelessly in love with aspiring law-student Riley Thayer to being hopelessly in love with Chase Turner, Dani’s cubicle mate at EBD. That change had been rapid and complete
, and Brenda and Chase were now blissfully happy, but Dani suspected neither of them had been so different to begin with. They’d both ultimately wanted the same things in life, they just hadn’t found the right people to share those things with until they’d started dating each other.
Dani and Taylor were nothing like Brenda and Chase.
“What if it’s just a temporary thing? What if I don’t really know what I want?”
“I don’t know. The only thing I’m sure of is you should talk to Taylor.”
“Talking usually just complicates things.”
“And not talking makes them fall apart.
Dani contemplated all the ways that conversation might go. “I will. As soon as I figure out what to say.”
* * * *
“I’m sorry to drag you out of bed on a weekend,” Grant Addison said when Taylor met him in the parking lot of Taverna Fiora on Sunday morning.
“Not a problem,” Taylor replied.
It’s not like there’s any reason to lie around in bed
, he added silently. He squashed the self-pitying thought and reminded himself he was the reason the far side of his big bed had been empty this morning. “I don’t get to go on house calls too often, so it’s a nice change of pace.”
Grant laughed. “Well, I owe you for this one.” He waved Taylor toward the back parking lot of the restaurant. Halfway there he stopped and pointed to a group of small, furry forms lounging in the bright morning sunlight near the Dumpsters. “There they are.
Turns out some of the kitchen staff have been feeding them.”
Taylor surveyed the parking lot area. The animals in question certainly looked well fed and content. “Feral cats. They’re not easy to get rid of, especially when they have access to food.”
Grant sighed. “I’ve warned the staff to stop leaving scraps for them. If the health department sees them, we’ll have a big problem. And now that this place is turning a decent profit, I don’t want to have to shut down because of a health code violation. What can I do? I don’t want the cats to starve, but I don’t want them trying to move into my kitchen either.”
Taylor squinted at the tabbies. Most were mottled gray and white, but a fat ginger lounged in a position of honor. He was probably the leader of the little wild pack. “I’ll call a rescue group I know. They can come and set traps, take the cats to a shelter for spaying
, and if any of them can be adopted they’ll handle it. The ones that can’t be domesticated can be relocated to a feral cat sanctuary upstate. They’ll need a donation…probably a couple hundred dollars.”
“I’d rather pay a donation than a health code fine. No problem. When can they come?”
“I’ll make a call first thing tomorrow morning. But bear in mind once the cats are gone, you’re going to have a rodent issue.”
Grants relief faded
, and he looked bleak. “What?”
“Your little furry friends look like they’re in pretty good shape physically. They’re not just getting fat off of salmon scraps and leftover cheesecake. They’re also keeping rats and mice away from the Dum
psters. You’re going to have to set rat traps once the cats are gone.”
Grant groaned. “I think the health department would prefer the cats.”
“Ah, they’d probably prefer no animals at all.” Taylor pulled out his phone. “I’ve got a number in here for animal control. They’ll help you with the rat traps. Don’t worry. You should be able to get it all under control in a week or two. I’ll write the number down for you.”
“Thanks. I’m grateful for the help. I know you said this visit was no charge, but I want you to write up an invoice for your time.”
Taylor held up a hand. “Nonsense. Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, at least let me comp you a dinner. I heard you brought a very pretty lady here the other night. You can bring her back totally on the house.”
Taylor raised a brow. His phone had been silent all weekend, and likewise, he hadn’t called Dani even though he was desperate to hear her voice, but he was committed to playing it cool. “News travels fast around here, doesn’t it?”
“Nothing escapes the watchful eyes of my staff. They gossip like they get paid to do it.”
“Well, thanks for the offer. But I’m pretty sure I screwed up royally with that pretty lady.”
-oh. What did you do?”
He shrugged. “I keep letting my mouth say things before my brain signs off on them.”
Grant nodded sagely and clapped Taylor on the back. “Been there. And I’ve learned a very important lesson.”