He didn’t answer her for a long, silent moment. “I believe life’s a bitch,” he said as he paid for the necklace.
Monica bristled, but then she’d asked and he’d told her.
He moved behind her and put the necklace around her neck. The glass teardrop felt cool against her skin. “Thank you,” she whispered, touched that he’d bought it for her.
“Don’t make a big deal out of a few bucks,” he said as if he regretted the purchase.
When they came out of the store, Monica was surprised to find that it was snowing. She couldn’t remember the weatherman mentioning snow. The fat flakes came down fast and furious and had already covered the sidewalk.
“I’d better hurry to the bus stop,” she said, anxious to get home before the weather made it impossible. She was already an hour later than she said she’d be.
By the time they’d climbed the steep hill to the bus stop, Monica was breathless. It seemed that everyone in town had decided to head for home at the same time. Within minutes it became clear she was in for a long wait.
“You go on,” she urged Chet. “I’ll be fine.” But he refused to leave her and after waiting a half hour, Chet shook his head.
“This is ridiculous,” he said, “I’ll drive you home myself.”
“But it’s snowing, and the road conditions might make that impossible.”
“We’ll wait out the craziness and once everything settles down I’ll get my car out of the parking garage.”
He didn’t leave room for her to argue, and she doubted he would have listened if she had. Chet steered her toward the exit and reached for her hand when it looked as if they might be separated in the crowd.
“Where are we going?” she asked while they were making their way down the street. The conditions were blizzardlike. They were bent nearly in half as they walked against the brunt of the storm.
Chet didn’t bother to answer until they entered a redbrick building. In the foyer, he stamped the snow from his shoes and led the way to the elevator.
“Where are we?” she asked, obediently following him.
“My building, and before you get that outraged virgin look I promise I won’t so much as touch you.”
“I’d better call my father or else he’ll worry.” Monica sincerely doubted that he’d ever dated a woman who needed to check in with her family. She was pleased she couldn’t read his thoughts.
“No problem,” Chet said. At his floor, he took her down a narrow, dark hallway. His office had his name painted on a milky white door. Chet inserted the key and opened it for her, letting her precede him.
The first thing Monica noticed was the calendar with a naked blond woman sprawled out on a blanket of black velvet. The year 1963 was printed in bold letters down the side. His desk looked as if it had weathered a war on the losing side. It was scarred and battered and so cluttered it was impossible to see any part of the surface. His chair came straight out of the 1920s. A row of antique slot machines lined one wall.
Chet made his way around her and Monica realized she’d been blocking the doorway. “This is my office,” he explained.
“Your calendar’s for the wrong year,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper.
He laughed. “Only a woman would notice that.” He walked over to the other door and opened it. “Home, sweet home,” he said, gesturing for her to go before him.
Monica was just getting accustomed to the disarray in his office. She held her breath as she stepped into his living quarters, preparing herself for the worst.
She hesitated in the doorway. “It’s not so bad,” she said, then realized she’d verbalized the thought. There appeared to be some order to his studio apartment, compared to the chaos of his office.
Dishes were washed and stacked on the drainboard and the only food on the counter was a bowl with three overripe bananas. The sofa was a large overstuffed one with a stack of laundry—she couldn’t tell if it was clean or dirty—piled in one corner.
“The phone’s by the television,” Chet said. “I’ll make us some coffee.”
“All right,” she said, taking several tentative steps into the room and reaching for the phone. Her father answered on the second ring.
“I got caught in the snow,” she explained.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t leave with the others.” Her father was rarely angry, but he was close to being so now. “Just how do you propose to get home?”
“I’m an adult, Dad, I can take care of myself. Stop worrying. I’ll call again if I run into any problems.” Rather than get into discourse that required explanations, she quickly ended the conversation. When she’d finished, Chet brought her a steaming mug of coffee.
“It’s instant,” he said, and with one sweeping motion of his hand, he cleared the surface of the sofa.
Monica sat close to the edge of the cushions, cradling the mug with both hands, her back straight, her knees together. Rarely had she felt more out of place. She’d never been alone with a man in an apartment before and her sensibilities were badly shaken. Chet had promised to be a gentleman, and to her dismay she was sadly disappointed by his assurance.
“Relax,” Chet said, sounding irritated. “You look like you’re waiting for me to pounce on you. I said I wouldn’t touch you.”
She decided to ignore the comment. “Do you have any idea of how much snow is forecast?” she asked, looking for a means of light conversation. She wished now that she’d stayed and waited for a bus. No matter how tardy the transportation it would have saved them both this awkwardness.
“Sweetheart, the weatherman didn’t know about this. You don’t honestly expect me to figure it out, do you?”
She didn’t like the way he said sweetheart. He made the term of affection sound like an insult. “I’d rather you didn’t call me that.”
“Listen here, honeybunch,” she murmured sarcastically, “I’m not your sweetheart or anything else.”
“I didn’t say you were. Let’s just forget it, all right?” He stalked over to the sink and dumped what was left of his coffee. “I’ll see about getting you home now.”
One look out the window told her the snow hadn’t let up in the least; if anything, it was coming down heavier. Chet wanted to be rid of her and she was just as eager to go. She didn’t know what she was doing with a man who hung a picture of a naked woman in his office. She was out of her element and eager to get back where she belonged.
“I can take the bus.” She felt obliged to volunteer, but it was doubtful how much longer the transit would continue to run in the heavy snow.
Chet cast her a look that told her what he thought of that idea. “Come on, this might take a while.”
Monica bundled her coat around her and hurried after him. The wind was bitterly cold as it sliced through the open garage. Chet drove a battered Chevy Impala with a tail pipe that hung so low she wondered if he could make it over a speed bump. She couldn’t imagine that the faded green was a factory color.
“My Mercedes is in the shop,” he said, unlocking the passenger door for her.
Monica let herself inside and searched until she found the seat belt, clicking it into place. Chet started the engine, which came to life with the roar of a lion, and pulled out of the parking space.
The streets were terrible, and the traffic was a nightmare, but Chet was an excellent driver and managed to avoid the worst of it. Monica breathed a sigh of relief as they left the congested downtown area.
Both were quiet for several minutes, and as they neared her neighborhood, Monica tensed. “It might be a good idea if you dropped me off a block or so before the house.”
“Why? You aren’t wearing boots—your feet would be drenched within minutes.”
“I know, it’s just that . . .”
“It’ll save you having to make explanations if your father happens to see me.”
“Yes,” she murmured, appreciating that he’d said it for her. He drove a few more blocks, before pulling over to the side of the road. The church and parsonage were within sight, but it wasn’t likely that her father would notice her with Chet.
Now that she was near home, Monica wasn’t eager for her time with Chet to end. She clenched her purse in her lap with both hands. “Thank you,” she whispered, fingering the mustard-seed necklace. “For everything.”
“Think nothing of it.”
“I mean it,” she said, more adamant this time. “You didn’t need to do this and I appreciate everything you went through . . . even when it didn’t seem like it.” Only heaven knew how long it would take him to drive back into the city. The streets were difficult enough as it was.
Chet’s hands were braced against the steering wheel, his gaze focused straight ahead. “I don’t know that we solved anything.”
“You’re not the monster I assumed,” she said, making light of her prejudices. Honesty, however, could be a burden. Now that she’d admitted as much, she wasn’t sure where that left them. Monica didn’t know and she doubted that Chet did either.
“You’re not quite as prudish as I believed.”
They looked toward each other and a smile blossomed between them, slow and sweet. Time stood perfectly still, but it seemed impatient as if waiting for them to act. The stillness swelled around them, cutting off sound except the silent wonder of the falling snow.
Monica didn’t know who moved first. It didn’t seem that either of them had, when she found her mouth inches from his. Chet was motionless. She could barely feel his breath, barely feel her own. She should move, should turn away from him and flee while she could, but she couldn’t make herself do it. Enthralled, she raised her hands and placed them on his shoulders. He felt solid and strong. Her touch was all Chet needed. He bent forward and claimed her mouth in a slow, leisurely exercise.
This wasn’t the way it was before. It was much better . . . much worse. She dragged her mouth from his, frustration close to the surface, but she wasn’t allowed to vent that or anything else. Before she could so much as draw in a stabilizing breath, Chet caught her face and brought her mouth back to his.
His need was urgent now and he kissed her again and again as waves of confusion assaulted her. A warm, dizzy feeling began to build within her, spreading throughout her body. The sensation flooded every cell. She was aware of everything about Chet, the taste, the feel, the masculine scent of him.
When they did finally ease away from each other, neither of them seemed to know what to say.
Slowly, Monica raised her eyes to his. His gaze revealed the extent of his confusion. The same bewilderment, the same questions, the same doubts.
Monica had no idea how long they stared. The air crackled with static electricity, with sexual tension.
“You better get inside,” he said, and his voice sounded as if it were coming from the bottom of a deep well.
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