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Authors: Nora Roberts

Tribute (35 page)

“Yes, I would.” She leaned over the picnic debris, linked her arms around his neck. “Ford?”
“Yeah.”
“If I eat another bite of anything, I’m going to be sick. So . . .” She leaped up, grabbed his hands. “Let’s dance.”
“About that. My plans were to lie here like a dissipated Roman soldier and watch you dance.”
“No, you don’t. Up, up, up!”
“There’s just one problem. I don’t dance.”
“Everybody dances. Even Spock.”
“Not really. Well, yes, he does,” Ford admitted as Spock got up to demonstrate. “I don’t. Did you ever catch
Seinfeld
? The TV deal.”
“Of course.”
“Did you see the one where Elaine’s at this office party, and to get people up to dance, she starts it off?”
“Oh yeah.” The scene popped straight into her mind, made her laugh. “That was bad.”
“I make Elaine look like Jennifer Lopez.”
“You can’t be that bad. I refuse to believe it. Come on, show me.”
Those gold-rimmed eyes showed actual pain. “If I show you, you’ll never have sex with me again.”
“Absolutely false. Show me your moves, Sawyer.”
“I have no moves in this arena.” But with a heavy sigh, he r ose.
“Just a little boogie,” she suggested. She moved her hips, her shoulders, her feet. Obviously, to Ford’s mind, to some well-oiled internal engine. Clutching the bear between his paws, Spock gurgled his approval.
“You asked for it,” he muttered.
He moved, and could swear he heard rusty gears with mismatched teeth grind and shriek. He looked like the Tin Man of Oz, before the oil can.
“Well, that’s not . . . Okay, that’s really bad.” She struggled to swallow a snort of laughter, but didn’t quite succeed. The disgusted look he shot her had her holding up her hands and stepping quickly to him. “Wait, wait. Sorry. I can teach you.”
This time, Spock snorted.
“Others have tried; all have failed. I have no rhythm. I am rhythmically impaired. I’ve learned to live with it.”
“Bull. Anyone who has your kind of moves horizontally can have them vertically. Here.” She took his hands, set them on her hips, then put hers on his. “It starts here. This isn’t a structured sort of thing, like a waltz or quickstep. It’s just moving. A little hip action. No, unlock your knees, it’s not a goose step, either. Just left, right, left. Shift your weight to the left, not just your hip.”
“I look and feel like a spastic robot.”
“You don’t.” She shot Spock a warning glance, and the dog turned his head away. “Relax. Now, keep the hips going, but put your hands on my shoulders. That’s it. Feel my shoulders, just a little up and down. Feel that, let that go up your arms, into your shoulders. Just up and down. Don’t stiffen up, keep those knees loose. There you go, there you are. You’re dancing.”
“This isn’t dancing.”
“It is.” She put her hands on his shoulders, then slid them down his arms until they held hands. “And now you’re dancing with me.”
“I’m standing like an idiot in one spot.”
“We’ll worry about the feet later. We’re starting slow, and smooth. It would even be sexy if you took that pained expression off your face. Don’t stop!”
She did a quick inward spin so her back pressed into him, and lifted an arm to stroke it down his cheek.
“Oh, well, if
this
is dancing.”
Laughing, she spun back again so they were front to front. “Sway. A little more.” She wrapped her arms around his neck, lifted her lips to a breath from his. “Nice.”
He closed the distance, sliding slowly into the kiss while his hands ran down her back to her hips.
“Feels like dancing to me,” she whispered.
He surfaced to see he was facing in the opposite direction, and several feet away from where they’d started. “How’d that happen?”
“You let it happen. You stopped thinking about it.”
“So, I can dance, as long as it’s with you.”
“Just one more thing.” She danced back with a provocative rock of hips, and began unbuttoning her shirt.
“Whoa.”
“I believe the celebration called for naked dancing.”
He glanced in the direction of his closest neighbors. Dusk had fallen, but torches tossed out light. He glanced down at his dog, who sat, head cocked, obviously fascinated.
“Maybe we should move that event inside.”
She shook her head, and her blouse slid down with the movement of her shoulders. “In the grass.”
“Ah, Mrs. Berkowitz—”
“Shouldn’t spy on her neighbor, even if she could see through that big black walnut tree.” Cilla unhooked her pants, kicked off her shoes, which Spock retrieved and carried ter ritorially to his ratty towel. “And when we’ve finished dancing naked, there’s something else I’m going to do on the grass.”
“What?”
“I’m going to give you the ride of your life.” She stepped out of her pants, continued to sway, turn as she ran her hands over her own body, marginally covered now in two tiny white swatches.
Ford forgot the dog, the shoes, the neighbors. He watched, all of the blood draining out of his head as she flicked open the front hook, opened her bra inch by delicious inch. The torchlight glimmered gold over her skin, danced in her eyes like sun on a pure blue sea.
When the bra floated to the ground, she ran a fingertip under, just under the low-riding waist of her panties. “You’re still dressed. Don’t you want to dance with me?”
“Yeah. Oh yeah. Can I just say something first?”
She trailed her fingers down her breasts, smiled at him. “Go ahead.”
“Two things, actually. Oh Christ,” he managed when she lifted her hair, let it fall over those glowing shoulders. “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And at this moment? I’m the luckiest man in the known universe.”
“You’re about to get luckier.” Tossing her hair back, she started toward him. She pressed her naked body to his. “Now, dance with me.”
NINETEEN
O
n the morning of the Fourth, Ford rolled out of Cilla’s bed. It didn’t surprise him she was already up, even on a holiday. He considered it his duty as an American to sleep in, but apparently she didn’t share his staunch sense of patriotism. He groped his way downstairs, and followed the now familiar sound of
whoosh-bang!
to the living room.
She stood on a ladder shooting nails into window trim.
“You’re working.” It was an accusation.
She glanced back. “A little. I wanted to see how this trim looks against the paint since my father finished it. I still can’t believe he painted all this, and so well. If he didn’t have a job, I’d hire him.”
“Is there coffee?”
“Yes, there is. Spock’s out back. He fears the nail gun.”
“Minute.”
He heard more
whoosh-bang
ing behind him as he dragged himself into the kitchen. The coffeemaker stood on a small square of counter as yet un-demoed. Shielding his eyes from the sunlight blasting through the windows, he found a mug, poured. After the first couple sips, the light seemed more pleasant, and less like an alien weapon designed to blind all humankind.
He drank half the mug standing where he was, and after topping it off felt mostly awake. Carrying it with him, he walked back to the living room and watched her work for a few minutes while the caffeine wove its magic.
She stood on the floor now, fitting the diagonal edges of the bottom piece to the sides she’d already nailed up. In what struck him as wizard-fast time, the dark, wide trim framed the window.
She set the gun down, took several steps back. He heard her whisper, “Yes, exactly.”
“It looks good. What did you do with what was there before?”
“This is what was there before, or mostly. I had to build the sill to match because it was damaged.”
“I thought it was white.”
“Because some idiot along the way slapped white paint on this gorgeous walnut. I stripped it. A little planing, a little stain and a couple coats of poly, and it’s back to its original state.”
“Huh. Well, it looks good. I didn’t get the paint color until now. Thought it looked a little dull. But it looks warmer against the wood. Like, ah, a forest in the fog.”
“It’s called Shenandoah. It just seemed right. When you look out the windows in this room, it’s the mountains, the sky, the trees. It’s just right.” She walked back, picked up another piece of trim.
“You’re still working.”
“We don’t have to leave for . . .” She looked at her watch, calculated. “About ninety minutes. I can get some of this trim run before I have to get ready.”
“Okay. I’m taking the coffee and my dog and heading across the road. I’ll pick you up in an hour and a half.”
“Great. But you might want to put some pants on first.”
He glanced down at his boxers. “Right. I’m going to put on pants, possibly shoes, take the coffee and so on.”
“I’ll be ready.”
 
 
HE DIDN’T EXPECT her to be ready. Not because she was female, but because he knew what often happened when he himself got lost in the work. If he didn’t set an alarm, being late, or in fact missing an appointment or event altogether, was the norm.
So it surprised him when she came out of the house even as he stopped in front of it. And her appearance left him momentarily speechless.
She’d left her hair down, as she rarely did, so it spilled dark, aged gold, down her back. She wore a dress of bright red swirled against white, with a kind of thin and floaty skirt and thin straps that set off those strong shoulders.
With his paws planted on the window, Spock leaned out. Ford translated the series of sounds the dog made as the canine version of a wolf whistle.
He got out of the car—he just had to—and said, “Wow.”
“You like? Check this.” She did a turn, giving him a chance to admire the low dip of the back with the flirt of crisscross ing ties.
“And again, wow. I’ve never seen you in a dress before, and this one pulls out some stops.”
Instant distress ran across her face. “It’s too much, too fussy for a backyard cookout. I can change in five minutes.”
“First, over my dead body. Second, ‘fussy’ is the last word I’d use. It’s great. You look all summery sexy, ice-cream-sundae cool. Only now I wish I’d thought to take you out where you’d wear dresses. I feel a fancy dinner coming on.”
“I prefer backyard picnics.”
“They are permanently top of my list.”
 
 
SHE’D EXPECTED IT to be awkward initially, the introductions, the mixing. But she knew so many of the people there that it was as easy and pleasant as Matt’s backyard with its generous deck and smoking grill.
Josie, Matt’s pretty and very pregnant wife, snatched Cilla away from Ford almost immediately. “Here.” Josie handed Ford a beer. “Go away. Wine, beer, soft?” she asked Cilla.
“Ah, I’ll start with soft.”
“Try the lemonade, it’s great. Then I’m going to steal you for ten minutes over there in the shade. I’d say walk this way, but waddling’s unattractive unless you’re eight months pregnant. I’ve been dying to meet you.”
“You’re welcome to come by the house, anytime.”
“I nearly have a couple times, but with this.” She patted her belly as they walked. “And that.” And pointed toward a pack of kids on a swing set. “The little guy in the blue shorts and red shirt squeezing Spock in mutual adoration is mine. So between this and that, and a part-time job, I haven’t made it by. Either to welcome you to the area, or to poke my nose in to see what’s going on. Which Matt claims is pretty great.”
“He’s terrific to work with. He’s very talented.”
“I know. I met him when my family moved here. I was seventeen and very resentful that my father’s work dragged me away from Charlotte and my friends. My life was over, of course. Until the following summer when my parents hired a local contractor to put an addition on the house, and there was a young, handsome carpenter on the crew. It took me four years,” she said with a wink, “but I landed him.”
She sat with a long, heartfelt sigh.
“I’ll get this out of the way. I adored Katie. I had a Katie doll. In fact, I still do. It’s stored away for this one.” She ran a gentle circle over her belly. “We’re having a girl this time. I’ve seen most if not all of your grandmother’s movies and have
Barn Dance
on DVD. I hope we come to like each other because you’re seeing Ford and I love him. In fact, Matt knows if I ever get tired of him and decide to ditch him, I’m going after Ford.”
Cilla sipped her lemonade. “I think I already like you.”
 
 
IN THE HEAVY, drowsing heat, people sought out the shade of deck umbrellas or gathered at tables under the spread of trees. Seemingly unaffected by spiraling temperatures and thickening humidity, kids clambered over the swing set or raced around the yard like puppies with inexhaustible energy. Cilla calculated that Matt’s big yard, sturdy deck and pretty two-story Colonial held nearly a hundred people spanning about five generations.
She sat with Ford, Brian and a clutch of others at one of the picnic tables, plates loaded with burgers, hot dogs, a wide variety of summer salads. From where she sat, she could see her father, Patty and Ford’s parents talking and eating together on the deck. As she watched, Patty laughed, laid a hand on Gavin’s cheek and rubbed. He took his wife’s hand, kissed her knuckles lightly as the conversation continued.
It struck, a dull blade of envy and its keener edge of understanding. They loved each other. She’d known it, of course, on some level. But she saw it now, in the absent gestures she imagined neither of them would remember, the steady and simple love. Not just habit or contentment or duty, not even the bonds of—how long had they been together? she wondered. Twenty-three, twenty-four years? No, not even the bonds of half a lifetime.
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