Authors: Heather Graham
Still smiling, Sloan opened the door. Wesley stood there in faded, tattered jeans and an old football jersey, his rich, dark hair gleaming like a raven’s wing in the glare of the sun. A broad grin stretched across his face as he greeted her with sparkling eyes of appreciation.
“Good morning. Am I too early?”
“No...good morning.” Why am I always stammering around him? Sloan wondered. She had seemed caught in the spell of his eyes again, frozen into forgetting who she was, where she was...
“May we come in?”
“Yes, I’m sorry. Florence—” Wes turned from the doorway, and Sloan saw a tiny, middle-aged woman who had previously been hidden by Wesley’s broad, sinewed frame. “Sloan, this is Florence Hendry. Florence, Sloan Tallett. And those little faces peeping around her knees are Jamie, Laura, and Terry.”
Sloan smiled hesitantly, suddenly as shy as the children who withdrew their curious heads quickly. But the tiny woman had eyes as warm as the sun, and the smile she gave in return was full and heartening. “Sloan,” she said softly, taking the slender, outstretched hand firmly, “what a pleasure. Wesley has spoken of nothing but you since we arrived.” Her crinkled face dimpled. “I will admit, though, that I’m most anxious to meet the children.”
Sloan stepped aside, realizing that her company was still standing in the doorway. “Mrs. Hendry, the pleasure is mine. Please, come in. Jamie, Laura, Terry—say hello to Mrs. Hendry. She’ll be staying with you today—” Sloan bit lightly on her lower lip and glanced quickly from Wes—standing benignly amused in the background—to Florence. “Are you sure this isn’t too much trouble for you? Opening a house must have you busy—”
“I have no schedules!” Florence laughed. “And please, call me Florence. I’m pleased to death to spend a day with your children. I miss all the little ones at home.”
Sloan couldn’t prevent her startled glance from flying to Wesley’s face. He read her unasked question and threw up hands in mock protest. “Not mine!” he laughed. “I told you I was riddled with nieces and nephews—four of whom live with me. I went into the Thoroughbred business with my brother.”
“Oh,” Sloan murmured, feeling a flush rise to her cheeks. “Well, uh, Florence, let me show you a bit of the house. The refrigerator is stacked with sandwich meat—”
“Which we won’t need,” Florence supplied cheerfully. “We’re going to have our picnic here. Wes had them make us two baskets at the deli,” she explained. “So you just tell me any special instructions.”
“I really don’t have any special instructions,” Sloan murmured, leading Florence on a quick tour of the downstairs. “If you need anything, Jamie will help you. Their rooms are full of toys and books...” Sloan grinned sheepishly as they returned to the living room. “I’m not sure what else I should tell you.”
“We’ll get along famously,” Florence said with assurance.
Sloan was sure that they would. The little woman who had breezed into her life along with Wesley was like a fairy godmother. Mature, confident, cheerful. The type person who made you immediately feel as if everything was all right.
“Well...” Sloan murmured again, surprised and a little disoriented to see that the children had already lost their shyness. Jamie was having a very mature conversation with Wes, and Laura and Terry were looking at Florence with eager anticipation. “I’ll just get my sunglasses...”
No one seemed to notice as she ran back into the kitchen and searched the ledge above the sink which was a catchall. She dug her glasses out of a pile of coupons and savings stamps, pausing for a breath of air.
She felt as if she were walking on clouds. It was actually Wes who had brought the magic into her life. He lifted a hand, went poof, and all her problems were solved. He thought of everything. Their day stretched brightly before them—free and clear.
Of course, her problems would all come back in the morning. But she was—all scheming aside—exhilarated by the idea of the picnic she was about to go on. She was anxious...eager...
“Sloan! What are you doing, having those sunglasses made?” Wesley’s demand, called from the living room, rang with a teasing tolerance.
“Coming!” she called in return.
Sloan paused for a second as she entered the living room unnoticed. Florence, despite her rather severe, hawk-shaped nose and the ramrod posture of her tiny frame, was perched easily on the floor while she drew the children out, telling them about Kentucky and all the horses, ponies, and dogs and cats that lived on the farm. Wesley was beside her, allowing a giggling Jamie to climb upon his powerful shoulders.
“Mommy!” Jamie cried, seeing her at last. “Wesley is giving me a ride.”
“So I see.”
Wesley grinned up at her a little sheepishly. “All set?”
“Okay, Jamie,” Wes said, setting his small charge down. “We’ll be back in a bit. Take care of Florence.”
“I will,” Jamie vowed gravely.
Sloan kissed each of her kids and followed Wes to the door. She glanced back to Florence and started to open her mouth.
“I’m fine!” Florence insisted before she could say anything. “You two get going and have a nice day.”
“We are going,” Wesley answered for her, clamping a hand over Sloan’s mouth, which brought a burst of laughter from the children. “Bye—and you all have a nice day too!”
Sloan was giggling as Wesley led her out to his car, a plush, comfortable Lincoln, with his hand still clamped over her face. He released her only to usher her inside. “You,” he accused as the car leveled onto the highway, “are a very protective parent.”
“I’m sorry—” Sloan began.
“Don’t be sorry,” Wes interrupted, his right hand momentarily squeezing hers before returning to the wheel. “I think it’s a wonderful trait. If I ever have kids—which I hope to one day—I think I would be every bit as protective.”
Sloan smiled a little uneasily. She wondered what he would think if he knew she was already planning on his having kids—three, ready-made. But she didn’t spend much time brooding. Even the weather seemed to benignly assist her in her secret quest. The sun shone golden in the sky, and a gentle breeze stirred to keep the heat from becoming oppressive. The grass at the park had never seemed greener, the day more lustrously blue, the air more exhilarating.
“Shade or sun?” Wes asked after the Lincoln was parked. He handed Sloan a small cooler from the trunk as he grabbed the heftier food basket himself along with a wide blanket.
“Shade, I think,” Sloan chose. “I’m out so little that I have to be careful not to burn.”
Wes smiled noncommittally and led the way to a draping sycamore that provided a broad and gentle shelter. “Okay?”
Sloan was overwhelmed by that strange shyness again as Wes competently spread out the blanket and adjusted the basket and cooler. Absurd sensation! she told herself with an inward shake. Some vamp I’m shaping up to be!
Determined not to behave like a gauche, tongue-tied girl, she sat leisurely on the blanket and started the conversation rolling herself. “You were right about your housekeeper. She’s wonderful. Where did you find her?”
“I didn’t.” Wes grinned, half reclining beside her and opening the cooler to pull out a pair of semifrosted glasses and a bottle of Chablis. “Grab the glasses, will you? As to Florence”—he poured wine for them each—“she raised me. Her husband was killed in World War II, and she determined never to marry again, but she was crazy about kids, so she went to work for my mother. When my folks decided to move to Arizona, they sent Florence after me. They were worried—a little belatedly, since I was thirty at the time—but they thought a bachelor football player might not take care of himself properly.”
“Too much of a wild life, eh?” Sloan chuckled, sipping her wine and feeling relaxation steal over her.
“Not too wild,” Wes replied. “Thirty in sports is middle-aged. As a dancer you must know that there’s only so much you can do to a body and expect it to keep functioning properly.”
“You must have quit shortly after,” Sloan observed. She hesitated slightly, hoping she wasn’t traveling into troubled waters. “Cassie mentioned you had a knee injury. Was it serious?”
Wes shrugged. “Ligaments,” he replied casually. “I could have just sat out a season, but I’d had enough. I played for ten years. I wanted to get into something else while I was still young enough to give it everything that I had. Dave—my brother—had started with the horses on a small scale a few years before and so”—he lifted his shoulders and dropped them, turning lazy eyes to her as he took a sip of wine—“there’s the whole story.”
Sloan chuckled. “By what I hear from Cassie—she’s one of your staunchest fans, you know—there’s a lot more to the story than that.”
He shrugged again and plunged into the picnic basket. “Nope. That’s about it. A lot of monotony in between a few broken bones and sprained ankles.”
“But you never married.” The words were out before Sloan realized what she was saying. Prying a little was one thing—pushing too fast could get her into hot water.
“No, I never married.” His glance was cool and fathomless. “What would you like to start with? We have all kinds of salads, fried chicken, fried shrimp and—I am good at this if I do say so myself—I have a honey dip for the chicken and a choice of tartar or cocktail sauce for the shrimp.”
“I think I’ll start with everything,” Sloan murmured, a little uneasy since she had so openly pried and thinking it might be to her benefit to keep her mouth busy for a while with food. “I just realized I’m ravenous, and...you are very good at this!”
“Thank you.” Wes dunked a shrimp into the plastic container of cocktail sauce and popped it into her mouth. He laughed at her surprised expression, and the unease she had been feeling slipped away.
They both talked as they ate, and they began to learn a great deal about one another. While she managed to draw information diplomatically from Wesley about his summer camp and the battering years of pro football, he managed to get her talking about Terry. It was strange that she could talk about her deceased husband with Wes, a man she was supposedly seducing, when she found it difficult to talk about Terry to anyone. But he seemed interested, genuinely sympathetic. He seemed to offer her strength...silly. It was simply the way he was built, and the character that the years had ingrained in his face. Next to such a man it was easy to feel that he could take away the cares of the world and set them upon his own broad shoulders.
It was later in the day, after a bottle of wine and a half of the feast he had provided had been consumed, that Sloan contentedly made an admission to herself.
She was happy. Honest-to-God happy. Wesley had made no passes at her, but she felt herself drawn to him, at ease with him, comfortably so. He sat beside her, his compelling green eyes laughed into hers, his strong hand brushed over hers often, naturally. And she could feel him, his heat, his suppressed strength, his handsome frame so close to hers that it almost made her dizzy.
No, it was the wine making her dizzy. No, it was Wesley...
She blushed suddenly as they lay in lazy companionship, comfortably relaxed beneath the sycamore. She realized where her thoughts had been taking her.
She had been wondering what it would be like to be held in his arms...to feel his lips commanding hers...to lie beside him, flesh against flesh, and feel the mastery of his superb muscles...It was more than a blush, and she was glad his astute green eyes were idly upon the sky instead of her. Crimson splashed its way through her body, heating her from head to toe. What’s the matter with me? she demanded of herself. I’m not that sort of person!
But something else inside of her was crying out.
sort of a person. It had been so long...and she was a mature woman, a normal woman. It was only natural that she should feel the need for strong, masculine arms around her, revel in the faint and intoxicating aroma of after-shave and...and...simple
“What?” Startled, Sloan glanced at Wes. He was no longer watching the sky; he was watching her.
“Sleeping on me, huh?” he teased, knowing full well her mind had wandered. “Nice. Real nice. I take the girl out and put her right to sleep! I said, ‘Shall we take a walk?’”
“Oh—uh—yes, sure.” She smiled quickly. “A walk sounds nice.”
Wesley rose, moving with the agility that only an athlete could possess, and extended a hand to Sloan. She unwound her own legs and gracefully accepted his assistance up, her mind beginning to race.
Where was he leading her...?
It was a public park, she told herself coldly. He wasn’t leading her anywhere. But she began to feel a tinge of fear, and it had nothing to do with Wesley’s far superior strength or what he might attempt to do.
She was afraid of herself. The touch of his hand on hers was warm, commanding...inviting. She wanted to accept that invitation; she wanted to feel more and more of him...
Face it, she was attracted to him. Very attracted to him.
Which was a damned good thing! her mind hollered out even as she faced him with a smile on her lips and a guard carefully cast over her eyes. She was plotting to marry him, rationalizing the action by telling herself she was going to be a good wife. If she was going to be such a good wife, it was an awfully good thing she was going to be able to respond...
“How about the trail?” Wes queried, pointing off into the trees. “I think it offers a little privacy.”
“Wonderful...” Sloan heard herself saying weakly.
His arm was around her shoulder as they started off on the pine path and ambled into its delightful coolness. For a while they walked in companionable silence, speaking only occasionally in whispers as they pointed out the little gray squirrels that skittered in starts from tree to tree. Then they reached a small glen, hemmed in by the graceful fingers of pines, carpeted by beds of lush, green grass. Wesley sank down and pulled her beside him, face to face, half-prone on nature’s chaise.
Sloan’s nerves were as taut as piano wire. She was frightened; she was eager. Her pulses were racing in a crazy zigzag of yes and no while her heart pounded so loudly she was sure it must echo through the quiet of the surrounding forest. He was going to kiss her. She was no longer going to have to wonder about the feel of his corded arms because they were going to come around her...