Justine opened her eyes and gazed into his. Seth was stripping off his coat and had started to unfasten the buttons of his shirt. “I’m starving,” she told him, but they both knew she wasn’t talking about food.
“Oh, Jussie, me too.”
He was the only person in the world who dared to call her that.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” he said. He rapidly discarded his clothes, sitting on the far edge of the bed to remove his boots. He stood before her unzipping his pants. Even in his rush, he took time to drape his clothes over a chair. Then he stalked naked into the bathroom.
The shower had to be the fastest one on record. Justine had just slipped out of her shoes and pulled the sweater over her head. She’d started to unbutton her blouse when he returned. The intense look in his eyes stopped her, and her fingers froze on the last button. It was ridiculous to feel so shy with him. They were married and had already spent one glorious weekend together as husband and wife. But that had been weeks earlier and already seemed as distant as a dream.
Ever sensitive to her moods, Seth seemed to know her thoughts, to sense her apprehensions. With a tenderness that made her weak in the knees, he gently drew her to him. His mouth was warm and moist and there didn’t seem to be any part of her that he didn’t want to kiss. Soon her blouse was on the bed next to her sweater.
Their kisses appeared to have the same knee-weakening effect on him because he sank to the bed and wrapped his arms about her waist. He kissed her belly, then reached up and released her bra, freeing her breasts. He moaned and she lowered her mouth to meet his.
Not long afterward, he urged her onto the bed with him and they were caught in a sensual tumult that lasted until Justine was breathless and spent. Wrapped in her husband’s embrace with only a sheet covering their legs, she rested her head on his chest, one arm flung about his waist.
Half inclined, his back against the headboard, Seth ran his hand along the length of her hair. Justine had closed her eyes, but not because she was sleepy. These moments needed to be savored, especially if they had to last her another few weeks.
“I don’t know what brought you here,” Seth whispered. “But whatever it is, I’m grateful.”
“I had to know,” she said, her voice more breath than sound. “I had to ask if you were sorry we got married.”
“No.” He was adamant. Tilting her chin up, he studied her eyes. “Are you?”
Her smile developed slowly. Feeling deliciously relaxed and sated, she had no problem giving him the answer he wanted. “I’m so in love with you it’s driving me crazy. I want us to be together, Seth. I hate having you so far from home.”
“It’s been hard on me, too,” Seth told her, his hand continuing its soothing motion. “I’ve always loved fishing, but my heart’s been with you from the moment I left.”
Justine stroked his shoulder, delighting in the smooth skin there. “I didn’t tell anyone at home what I was doing. I knew if I told my mother or grandmother I was flying up to find you, they’d tell me it was impossible, that I was taking too big a chance.”
“You’ve always had an incredible sense of timing,” Seth teased.
“I do, don’t I?” She rubbed her cheek against the hard muscles of his chest, loving the feel, the sight, the scent of this man. She eased her leg over his.
“When do you have to leave?” he asked.
“Late Sunday afternoon.”
His hands were in her hair again. “In that case, we’d better make up for lost time, don’t you think?”
Justine was in full agreement.
Grace woke early Monday morning, feeling more contented than she had in a long while. Buttercup, her golden retriever, who slept on the floor beside her, got to her feet, tail waving vigorously as Grace folded back the covers and climbed out of bed.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” she said, reaching for her robe. She wondered what Dan would think if he learned that she’d replaced him with a dog.
Buttercup ambled behind Grace into the kitchen and then let herself outside, through the pet door. While the dog did her business, Grace brewed a small pot of coffee. Humming softly to herself, she showered and chose a red plaid blouse and jean jumper to wear to the library. She slid her feet into a pair of matching red shoes, and then popped two slices of whole wheat bread into the toaster for breakfast.
When it was time to leave, Buttercup followed her to the car. Grace rubbed her companion’s ears, grateful that her dog would be waiting for her when she returned.
Buttercup was the perfect housemate: loving, obedient, reliable. She’d return to the kitchen through her dog door as soon as Grace left. And then, when Grace got home, Buttercup would come out to greet her again.
The sun was out, but rain was forecast for the afternoon. Grace loved the autumn months; she remembered that Dan used to feel the same way. Having worked as a logger most of his career, he’d always been at home in the woods. Only in recent years, with much of the forest land closed to lumbering, had Dan taken a job with a local tree service. He’d never complained, but she knew he’d hated it and longed to return to the woods.
The sadness was back, and Grace forced her thoughts away from her soon-to-be ex-husband. Wherever Dan was now and whoever he was with, she wished him happiness. She’d never been able to give him that, even in the early years. They’d married young. Grace was pregnant with Maryellen by the time they graduated from high school. She’d married Dan and he’d enlisted and gone off to Vietnam, but the man who returned wasn’t the same man who’d left. Almost forty years later, he still suffered from nightmares and memories he refused to share. She never knew what had happened in those dark jungles and Dan always said it was better that she didn’t.
As usual, Monday morning at the library was slow after the heavy weekend activity. Grace decided to change the bulletin board and brought out the packet with a scarecrow, a black cat and a pumpkin patch. They had sets of cardboard cutouts for every season and holiday; Thanksgiving would be next, followed by Christmas. She was busily working on it, when she heard a male voice behind her.
“I’d like to apply for a library card,” Cliff Harding told her assistant, Loretta Bailey.
“I can help you with that.” Loretta pulled out a form and set it on the counter. She paused when she saw Grace watching her.
Cliff looked over his shoulder. “Hello, Grace.”
“Hello.” She hoped her voice didn’t betray how flustered she felt.
“I thought it was time I got a library card, since I’m in Cedar Cove practically every week.”
“We have the highest percentage of people with library cards per capita of any town or city in WashingtonState,” Loretta informed him proudly as she handed him a pen.
“I’m impressed,” Cliff said as his gaze moved back toward Grace.
She tried to ignore his appreciative stare but couldn’t. All at once she found herself fumbling and a tack fell and rolled across the floor. Bending to retrieve it, she nearly bumped heads with Cliff Harding as he, too, bent down. He was dressed in the same western style as he had been earlier, complete with a Stetson and boots. She even thought she detected the scent of hay on him.
“Are you ready to have dinner with me yet?” he asked in a stage whisper while both of them were crouched.
She glanced up at Loretta, who was carefully studying some paper or other, but Grace wasn’t fooled. Her co-worker was keenly interested in Grace’s answer, perhaps more so than Cliff.
“I…don’t think so.” She could feel the heat radiate from her face. His interest left her uncomfortable and out of her element. Her last date had been with Dan, when they were both teenagers. That was almost four decades ago—in a different century! The world was a vastly different place now.
“Would you consider having coffee with me, then?” Cliff asked.
Before Grace could respond, Loretta stood on her tiptoes, leaned over the counter and smiled down at them. “You can take your break now if you want.”
Grace resisted the urge to groan out loud.
“The PancakePalace?” Cliff suggested, grinning boyishly. He seemed thankful for Loretta’s encouragement, even if Grace wasn’t.
“Five o’clock,” she said, none too pleased.
His smile broadened as he stood. “I’ll be there.”
Grace came to her feet and glared across the counter at Loretta. Cliff, meanwhile, had started toward the door.
“What about your library card?” Grace called out.
Cliff didn’t break his stride. “I’ll fill out the form next time I stop by,” he told her.
By five o’clock, Grace still wasn’t sure she’d meet Cliff Harding. Good manners won out. She might be nervous about seeing him, but she’d agreed to be there, and Grace believed in keeping her word.
Cliff slid out of a booth at the restaurant and stood when she approached. “I wasn’t sure you’d come,” he said quietly.
“I wasn’t sure I would, either,” she admitted and got into the red upholstered bench across from him. She righted the beige ceramic cup.
Cliff raised his hand in order to catch the waitress’s eye.
“I’m coming,” Goldie announced from behind the counter. The elderly waitress had been with the PancakePalace for as long as Grace could remember—as far back as her high school days. It was a new employee, not Goldie, who’d confused the credit cards.
Bringing the glass coffeepot, Goldie poured Grace’s cup first, then refilled Cliff’s. “You two planning to stay long?” she asked Grace. “The Chamber’s coming here for dinner.”
This was Goldie’s subtle way of informing Grace that if she didn’t want the entire business community to know she was having coffee with Cliff, she’d better cut this meeting short.
Grace wanted to kiss the older woman’s hand. “We won’t be long.”
“Up to you,” Goldie assured her with a wink.
“Thanks,” Cliff said.
“Yes, thank you, Goldie.”
Now that he had her attention, Cliff stared down at his coffee, avoiding eye contact. “I have a fairly good notion of how you’re feeling just now.”
Grace sincerely doubted that. “You do?”
“You’re nervous, a little agitated and your stomach’s full of butterflies. Am I close?”
Actually, he was. “Close enough. How’d you know?”
“Because I’m feeling the same way.”
“You said you’d been divorced five years?” Did that mean this state of tension in the presence of the opposite sex went on indefinitely?
“Do you want to discuss it?” It’d help if he talked about himself because she had no intention of spilling out the private details of her life.
“One daughter. She’s married and lives on the East Coast. We talk every week, and I make a point of flying out to see her once or twice a year.”