Authors: Marie Ferrarella
She didn’t understand. “But this was the kind of thing you would share with someone you were close to.”
Morgan shrugged again. In typical blunt fashion, Traci had gotten to the crux of it. “Maybe that was the trouble. Maybe I was never really that close to her.” He sighed, remembering the way moonlight caught in Cynthia’s hair. Hell of a criterion to pick a bride by. “Just dazzled and wildly enamored.”
“God, I haven’t heard anyone talk like that since—” Traci’s mouth curved. “The last time I was here with you.”
Morgan’s story only confirmed her own argument
that she should be overjoyed at finding someone as steady, as dependable and loving, as Daniel. Look what being head over heels got you. Nothing but disappointment.
There, that settled it. She’d made up her mind.
But her heart…
Morgan took no offense at her words. Lifting the coffeepot, he took it off the hot plate and brought it over to the table.
“Still take it with a ton of cream?” he asked, pouring the dark liquid into her mug. He placed the carton of cream in front of her.
He took his black. Had he bought this especially for her? The thoughtfulness behind the small action surprised and pleased her.
Traci nodded. “And sugar.”
Morgan filled his own mug, then set the pot down. He still had a few packets of sugar in his pocket from when he’d gotten a container of coffee at the diner. Digging them out, he tossed the white packets on the table beside her mug.
“This is all I have. I forgot about the way you liked to rot your teeth.”
She tore open one envelope, then another. White crystals rained into the mug. “Hey, I still have all of mine.”
He shook out one for himself. “Mine didn’t rot,” he reminded her. “It was punched out.”
“Not technically,” she was quick to retaliate. “I hit you in the stomach.
were the one who hit your mouth on the bureau.”
She remembered how frightened she’d been
when she’d seen all that blood. Morgan had been teasing her and she’d only meant to get him out of her room, not maim him. He’d surprised her when he’d taken the blame and told his parents that he’d tripped on the scatter rug in her room. She’d never been able to figure out why he had passed up that perfect opportunity to get back at her. It was almost chivalrous.
Maybe that tiny, warm spot in her heart for him had been created that day.
Mug cupped in his hands, Morgan regarded her quietly. “You would have made a hell of a lawyer, you know that?”
Since he was one himself, she took it as a compliment. And returned it in kind. Remembering the incident had her feeling rather magnanimous toward him. “You were the one who kept me sharp.”
“I take no credit for that. You were born sharp. With a sharp tongue to match. Hell, you were probably born talking.”
He was one to throw rocks. She lifted her chin slightly. “I’m not the one who could talk the ears off a brass monkey.”
“No,” he admitted agreeably, then his eyes crinkled with a smile. “But you’re the one who could make the monkey run off, holding his ears and screaming.”
Just like old times.
Traci grinned at Morgan over the rim of her mug. A cozy feeling nestled in her chest. “Nice to know nothing’s changed.”
There he had to disagree. Again. A whole
world had changed since they had sat here like this the last time. “But it has. We’re older. Reasonably successful—”
“Not to hear your mother talk about it.”
He knew what she meant. His mother heralded every win in court as if he had just singlehandedly preserved justice. “Or yours.”
The wind was definitely getting louder. She took another sip of her coffee. The extra shot of warmth fortified her. “I guess they have a one-upmanship of their own going on.”
There, at least, they were in agreement. But it was a friendly sort of thing between their mothers. Not like between them. He thought of the way they had taken an instant dislike to each other, much to their parents’ dismay. “I think we really disappointed them.”
She set her mug down and leaned forward. Even in the fading light, his eyes were intensely green, she mused. “How so?”
She was so close, he felt an overwhelming urge to touch his mouth to hers. The thought startled him. Morgan stared down into his almost empty mug. “I think they saw us winding up together.”
Traci laughed, grateful she wasn’t drinking at the time. She would have choked. She sincerely doubted that her mother had ever thought of the two of them as a couple. Julia Richardson was far more perceptive than that.
“Not if they were looking.”
Fragments of a dozen different memories
flashed through his mind. “I guess that does sound pretty crazy.”
She didn’t quite like the way he said that. “Yeah, thinking I’d settle for you.”
There it was again, that superior tone of hers.
hadn’t changed in more than twenty years. “I was thinking of it the other way around.”
She sniffed and looked away. “You would.”
His eyes narrowed. For a second, he was fifteen again. And she was thirteen. An annoying, bratty, know-it-all thirteen. “Yes, I would.”
This time when she leaned across the table, her eyes were flashing. “What makes you think I’d want to be with you?”
He rose in his chair, inch for inch. “What makes you think I’d want to be with you?”
She waved her hand carelessly at him. “Nothing, except that for once you’d have shown more taste than to go mooning after a money-grasping Barbie doll.”
All right, since she’d chosen to go down this path again, he’d call the shots. “And you’ve done better with your dentist?”
He surprised her. It wasn’t like him to fight dirty. That was her domain. “You leave Daniel out of this. You don’t know anything about him.”
Bull’s-eye. He’d gotten to her, he thought with a touch of smugness. He savored the tiny victory. “Word gets around. Your mother told my mother.”
That didn’t make any sense. Anything her
mother would have said would have been rosecolored. “My mother adores Daniel.”
That might very well be true. When Morgan had called his mother last Friday, as soon as he’d read the cartoon, he’d been told that the man was practically sterling. But Morgan had also read between the platitudes.
“From the description I got, your intended is as lackluster as liver.”
Traci rose to her feet so quickly the chair almost fell over. She grabbed for it before it could crash to the side. Incensed, she came to Daniel’s rescue. “He is not. He’s an exciting, vibrant man.”
Morgan wondered if Traci was trying to convince him, or herself. In either case, she wasn’t succeeding. He could see it in her eyes. “So, why are you having doubts?”
Everything about her body language reminded him of a soldier preparing for battle.
“I am not having doubts,” she lied.
The higher her voice rose, the lower, calmer, his became. “Then why aren’t you wearing his ring?” A knowing smile took over. “Afraid a squirrel will mug you out here?”
She said the first thing that popped into her head. “It’s too big for me to wear.” She realized her mistake the moment the words were out.
He looked at her knowingly. She thought she saw compassion in his eyes and could have spit. “Yes, I read the strip this morning.”
Flattery took a back seat to indignation for
Daniel. “I told you, everything there is an exaggeration. I take liberties with things,” she insisted with more passion than she intended. “Otherwise, they’re not funny.”
He’d forgotten how magnificent anger made her. Or maybe he’d never really noticed. He did now. “You know what’s funny? You settling for comfortable and complacent.”
Was he comparing Daniel to himself? She wasn’t sure, but she took a stab at it, anyway. “Comfortable and complacent doesn’t give me a headache, and what would you know about what I want in a man?” His presumption galled her.
“Educated guess,” he answered calmly. “You’d want someone to send your temperature soaring, to keep you on your toes.” He hadn’t meant to use her own description of him. That had been an accident. He hoped she was too fired up to notice.
“Shows how much you know. Daniel is mentally stimulating enough, thank you.” She dragged a hand through her hair. “Look, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, coming up here again, I-” She fairly jumped at the loud crack that shook the heavens and the house. Her eyes widened. “What was that?”
He’d instinctively placed his hand on her shoulder. The way she stiffened had him dropping it immediately. “Thunder.” Morgan glanced toward the living room. “From the looks of it, your dog isn’t too keen on that, either.”
Traci turned to look behind her. From where
she stood she could see Jeremiah slipping under the rug he’d just been lying on. Argument forgotten, Traci hurried over to the dog.
“Poor baby.” She sank down on her knees beside the animal. “It’s all right, Jeremiah, just noise. Nothing else.”
She wasn’t aware that Morgan was right behind her until he spoke. “You’d think he’d be used to noise, being your dog. You still talk to anything with ears?”
It didn’t sound like an insult, so she smiled. “Yeah.”
Morgan folded his legs under him as he sat down on the floor beside her. “Here.” He handed her a fresh mug of coffee. “Sorry, out of sugar.”
Traci took it from him. “I’ll just dip my finger in.”
“That should spice it up,” he commented dryly.
Sipping, Traci stroked the animal’s fur slowly, knowing the repetitive action would soothe him. The coffee didn’t taste half-bad, even without sugar.
She raised her eyes to his. “Thanks.”
Morgan shrugged. “No sense in throwing out a good pot of coffee.”
Had he always had this core of shyness? she wondered. “Very prudent. Did you get economical after your father lost all that money?”
“I had to. Suddenly things I always thought I couldn’t live without were expendable.” It had
made him take stock of what was really important to him.
She cocked her head, her fingers still tangled in Jeremiah’s fur. “Like Cynthia?”
She saw something flicker in his eyes. For once, she didn’t want to return to old ground. “Sorry, low blow.”
He lifted a shoulder and let it drop carelessly, unfazed. “I’m used to it with you.”
“Very gracious of you.” She hesitated. For a moment she actually wanted to tell him about Rory. She hadn’t the faintest idea why.
Thunder rolled again. Jeremiah emitted a low moan. Time to get things moving. “I’d better take a walk out back before the storm hits.”
He rose to his feet. “That might not be such a bad idea,” he agreed. “This storm might not come for hours,” he mused, “but then again-”
“It might be here in five minutes,” she concluded. In which case, she’d better get on the road. She wanted to get back to the city before any storm of consequence hit.
Morgan took her hand in his and pulled her to her feet. Her body slid against his, igniting a very pleasant sensation.
“You know,” she murmured, “if it wasn’t you, I would have said that was a choreographed move.”
“And if it was anyone but you,” he countered, “I would have said you went along with it willingly.”
“Good thing we know each other.”
“Good thing,” he echoed, following her out the back door.
But he couldn’t help wondering if they did.
raci pulled the sleeves of her sweater down to cover her arms, hunching her shoulders slightly against the wind. The incline from the house to the dock below felt steeper than she remembered. She took smaller steps. Age had taken away some
of her bravado and made her more careful. So had the fear of falling in front of Morgan and making a fool of herself.
The weather didn’t help. It was more suited for a homecoming to a dark, gloomy castle on a lonely cliff than a warm summerhouse nestled beside a lake.
It had been a long time since anything had been tied here, she mused as she looked along the dock. Morgan’s father had owned a small motorboat, but she had favored the kayak he’d left for her and Morgan to use. There had been room for two, but she usually got to it first and was on the lake before Morgan was up. They fought about the kayak a lot.
And once, she remembered, sitting down on the edge of the dock, the kayak had been more than just the source of conflict. It had caused Morgan to be a hero. He’d saved her from an ignoble, watery end. The kayak had capsized, something she’d been completely convinced that it couldn’t do, and she hadn’t been able to right it, or get out. Her feet had somehow gotten stuck inside. Morgan had been the only one on the dock at the time. She’d abandoned him there. He’d seen the kayak go over and he’d jumped in, swimming out to her rescue.
Morgan hadn’t let her forget about that one for a long time.
Traci braced her hands on either side of her. The dock felt rough to the touch. Needed work, she mused. The whole house did, really. But it
was well worth the effort in her opinion. She hated to think of it as belonging to someone else.
Traci lifted her chin, letting the wind rake spiky, ghostly fingers over her face. Her hair was whipping around her head like curly blond snakes. She looked, Morgan thought, like an illustration for unharnessed mischief.
Or a temptress.
“It’s a lot more beautiful than I remember.” She nodded toward the lake. On the other side was a pristine, three-story white house. It appeared closer to her than she recalled. Her mouth curved. “And maybe a little smaller.”
There was something almost soft about her, Morgan noted. A dimension she probably wanted to keep under wraps.
“And darker.” Rain was only minutes away, if that long.
“That, too.” She looked up at the angry sky. It was as if a huge, dark comforter was being slipped over them. “It looks like it’s going to be a mean one.”
He laughed shortly to himself. “Reminds me a little of you.”
The comment caught her by surprise. “I was never mean.” Morgan arched a brow at the protest. “All right,” she relented slightly. She could see how he might have misinterpreted her actions over the years. “But not
Leave it to Traci to be obscure about something so straightforward and simple. “That terminology might fit right into a long-running children’s program
where the guy is forever changing his shoes to sneakers and back again, but I’m not sure I follow the distinction here.”
Traci blew out a breath. It was lost in the wind. “I was just being a kid—”
He shook his head at her explanation. “Not like any kid I ever knew.”
It was getting really chilly and she shivered. Morgan curbed the urge to put his arm around her. She’d probably bite it off, just like a fox gnawing off its own foot to be free of a trap.
Traci squared her shoulders. The wind ran right up her back. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
He put a pin to her bubble. “It wasn’t intended as one.”
“Never mind.” She sniffed, hiding her grin. “Too late.”
Funny how he was amused by the very thing that would have sent him up a wall a decade ago. “With you, it was too late from the first moment”
“If you mean you were a dead duck from the minute our parents introduced us, you were smarter back then than I gave you credit for.”
He opened his mouth to answer, then thought better of it. It was futile to battle it out verbally with her. Morgan knew by experience that one way or another, Traci would always come out on top. It was the warrior instinct in her.
The description made him smile.
He shook his head. “Never mind.”
Jeremiah, safely ensconced in the house, howled his displeasure about being left behind. Morgan looked behind him and saw the dog through the screen door. Jeremiah was hardly more than a dark shadow. A dark shadow that was trying to paw through the mesh and get out, he noted.
“Where did you ever find him?” As Traci began to answer, Morgan stopped her. “No, let me guess. He’s a stray.”
Jeremiah didn’t look like a mutt that had lived on the street. “How did you know?”
That was easy. Morgan’s short laugh was swallowed up by the wind. “You’re the type to take in strays.”
Something about the set of his mouth as he said that alerted her. “Is this leading up to another crack about Daniel?”
He had to have struck a nerve earlier, Morgan thought. Maybe she really was having strong doubts about marrying this dentist of hers, just as he’d suggested.
He looked up at the sky and thought about getting back. But there was something oddly nice about sitting out here with her. He didn’t know which was more invigorating, Traci or the wind. “A successful dentist who has two practices in New York City can’t be considered a stray by any stretch of the imagination.”
She turned toward him, pulling her legs up against her body for warmth and wrapping her arms around them. “How do you know so much
about him?” Before he could say anything, she had her answer. “My mother, right?”
He nodded, completing the thought. “Your mother relates information to my mother who, in turn, feels honor bound to pass it on to me, as if I would be missing something if I didn’t know.” The look on his face told Traci what he thought of
idea. “I think she hopes that our sense of competition will have me running to the nearest altar.”
Traci rocked back, studying him. A smile played on her lips. “Little good that’ll do you alone.”
“She was hoping I’d bring someone with me,” he said dryly.
“So, why don’t you?” She would have expected someone like Morgan to have already been married five years and working on his second child. “You’re young, reasonably attractive,” she paused, catching her tongue between her teeth, “and some women even like lawyers—”
He looked away. The water was getting choppier on the lake, like a bathtub where a child was conducting a battle with toy ships. It was going to be a big one when it hit, he thought.
“Thanks for the crumbs, but the truth is that I haven’t found anyone.”
How hard could that be? She stared at him incredulously. “My God, Morgan, you found Cynthia. Anyone else could only be a step up.”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “But I’ve been too busy to step anywhere—up or down.”
His words stirred a memory. “That was always your excuse.”
He looked at her, surprised.
“If you hadn’t hidden behind your school work, you wouldn’t have been such ripe prey for someone like Cynthia.”
Morgan didn’t see the connection, but then, he didn’t have Traci’s convoluted way of thinking, either. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
For a supposedly smart man, Morgan could be very dumb sometimes. Traci recited the answer in a singsong voice, as if she was trying to get the concept across to a child. “You lacked experience and were an easy target for a shark.”
He had a strange, bemused expression on his face.
“What’s the matter?”
He leaned closer so his words weren’t blown away before they reached her. “I just had a sudden vision of this turning up in your strip.” The look in her eyes didn’t lay his suspicions to rest. “It won’t, will it?”
She looked at Morgan innocently. Now that he mentioned it…
“No, why should it? This is your life, remember? Not mine.”
That didn’t assure him. She sounded much too innocent. “Yes, but somehow the edges have gotten blurred since I’ve been talking to you about it.” The Traci in the strip had a best friend named Velma with whom she dissected practically everything.
He could just see himself being dissected by the two.
Traci raised her hand as if making a solemn promise. Mentally, she crossed her fingers. All was fair in love, war and comic strips.
“Don’t worry, I’ll leave you out of it. Although the thought of drawing a shark with Cynthia’s face does have its appeal.”
He could see where it might for her, and if he were being completely honest, the thought appealed to him, as well. With one stipulation.
“Well, if she does turn up, I’d appreciate it if you draw her nibbling away at someone else.” The last thing in the world he wanted was to open the morning paper and look at a caricature of himself mooning at a sharklike Cynthia.
“Rory,” Traci muttered to herself. Someone like Cynthia should have feasted on someone like Rory. They deserved each other.
Traci looked at him in surprise. She hadn’t realized that she’d said the name out loud. “Hmm?’
Morgan moved closer to her. He had no desire to shout. “You said a name.”
Funny, how with all this wind she could still smell his cologne. She had no idea what it was, only that she liked it. Maybe a tad too much.
“No, I didn’t,” she protested staunchly.
He knew she had. “Roy?” he guessed. It had sounded something like that.
She’d be damned if she was going to play twenty questions about her past. She might want
him to bare his soul, but hers was staying right where it was, hidden. No one else knew about Rory and it was going to stay that way. She had better things to do than publicize her own stupidity. It was far more entertaining to tease Morgan about his.
Pity filled her eyes. “Approaching thirty and losing your hearing already. What a shame.”
He was about to say something about the wind being responsible when a large splotch of rain hit Traci directly in the face. Even larger drops followed in rapid succession, falling harder and faster.
Morgan rose to his feet at the same time she jumped to hers. “Yikes,” she cried. “These drops are as big as swimming pools.”
Without thinking, Morgan grabbed her hand and they ran up the hill toward the house.
“‘Yikes’?” he echoed. “Who the hell says yikes these days? You’ve been watching too many cartoons.”
“Never too many.” She laughed as they made it through the back door. And just in time. Suddenly, sheets of rain began falling.
Jeremiah, agitated and distressed by the weather, almost managed to knock Morgan down as they hurried in. Morgan grabbed for the doorjamb and shifted out of the way just in time.
Running a hand through his hair to shake off the rain, Morgan glared at the dog. “Can’t you train this animal?”
She managed to maintain a straight face for almost
a minute. “Not a problem. Jeremiah,” she said, looking sternly at the dog. “Knock him down. See?” Traci turned a sunny smile on Morgan. “He almost did it.”
When was he ever going to learn? “Do you ever get serious?”
Traci pushed her hair out of her face in the careless manner of a woman who was content with her looks in any situation.
“Not if I can help it. It doesn’t pay. Too depressing.”
She’d always been just a little too crazy for his tastes. “You know, there is a happy medium between Kafka and Jocko the Clown.”
“Tell me when you find it” She looked down and saw that there was a small puddle forming on the floor where she stood. She’d gotten wetter than she thought in that short run. “You have any more towels around here, or do I just stand dripping on your floor?”
“Sorry, this is all I have. I wasn’t expecting a storm.” His eyes washed over her as he passed her the lone towel. “Although, maybe I should have been.”
She fluttered her eyes at him the way she’d done when she’d imitated Cynthia. “You say the sweetest things.” Traci rubbed the towel through her hair quickly, then offered it back to him.
Morgan took it, vaguely aware that her scent was clinging to it. It became more potent when he brought the towel closer. Disturbed, he dropped it on the back of his chair.
Something moved through him, restless and unsettled when he looked at her.
He had to be crazy to be having these feelings about her. She was just as competitive, just as irritating, as ever. And she was about to be engaged. Any way he looked at it, the package was not inviting.
Or wasn’t supposed to be.
Avoiding her eyes, Morgan crossed to the window. “Not exactly the greatest weather for a reunion.” The trees directly outside the window were bending to and fro, like stately dancers doing stretching exercises before their performance. “You’d think the weather bureau could be right once in a while.”
Traci stroked Jeremiah’s head, then moved beside Morgan. It was really beginning to look foul out there. Her first weekend off in months and it had to turn into this.
She shrugged philosophically. “What? And spoil a perfect record? Not hardly. Think it’s easy always being wrong?” she quipped.
He turned to look at her. She was back on the floor, stroking that wimp of a dog of hers. “I don’t know. Is it?”