"Those are the hottest tickets in town.”

"I know that, too. The Forum’s been sold out for three weeks.”

"Do you follow the Lakers?”

She stared at him as if that were the most ridiculous question she’d ever heard. "Doesn’t everyone?”

Ted laughed. Blythe hated anything having to do with professional basketball, but she was a good sport about letting him watch the games when they were televised. But he hadn’t been to a game all year, and his mouth was watering at the thought of attending this one, especially with courtside seats.

"If you’re thinking about selling the tickets,” he said casually, "I’d be interested in buying them.”

She looked more confused than ever. "I don’t think so.”

"If you haven’t thought of anyone you’d like to take with you, I’d like to make a suggestion.”

"What?”

Ted grinned, and then surprised even himself. "Take me.”

7

Maureen was convinced barbecue sauce was smeared from one side of her face to the other. No matter how many times she checked the mirror, she was certain she’d missed a spot. Or several.

She’d let Thom know he wouldn’t find her so easy to manipulate a second time. He knew exactly how she felt about this outing, yet he’d purposely used the girls’ friendship to orchestrate their evening together.

Maureen planned on giving him an earful the minute they were alone. That had been her intention, only it never happened. The girls were so pleased to be together, and Thom couldn’t have been more charming. Early on, she decided she’d have dinner with him, but she was determined not to enjoy herself.

Her resolve lasted all of ten minutes.

Then, before she knew it, she was wearing a plastic bib, and the most delicious smoky-flavored sauce was dripping from her chin. The spareribs were the best she’d ever tasted.

Soon Thom and the girls had her laughing, and against her better judgment, against every dictate of her will, she had a wonderful time.

"I hope you plan to invite me in for coffee,” Thom announced when they pulled up in front of her small rental house. He turned off the ignition before she could answer. Apparently she wasn’t being given a choice.

"I’ll carry in Paula’s overnight bag for her,” he volunteered, as if the backpack were so heavy, it required someone with great physical strength to lift it.

He climbed out of the car, and Maureen fiddled with her house keys while he opened up the trunk and brought out the lightweight bag.

Maureen gave him a sideways look. "This is another underhanded trick in what is fast becoming a long line.”

"Would you have gone to dinner with me without the girls?” he asked under his breath.

"No,” she admitted readily.

"My point exactly. You would have sent me off on a lonely ride back to the valley without so much as a cup of coffee. What’s a man to do?”

Maureen smiled despite herself. She really had enjoyed herself, more than any time she could remember in a long while. It felt good to laugh again. Good to hear Karen laugh.

"All right.” She relented with poor grace. "I’ll brew you a cup of coffee.”

"That’s better.” Thom gave her one of his bone-melting smiles and followed her to the front door. The girls were practically dancing with excitement over the prospect of spending the entire night in one another’s company.

Karen and Paula disappeared inside Karen’s bedroom an instant after Maureen unlocked the front door. For the first time that evening, she found herself alone with Thom. Without the girls as a buffer, she was more aware of him as a man, more aware of herself as a woman.

"I’ll make you that cup of coffee,” she said, brushing her open palms together. "If you’d like to wait here, I’ll have it out in a jiffy.”

"I’ll help.” He followed her to the kitchen.

Maureen felt like a insect beneath a microscope, the way Thom’s eyes followed her every move. She brought out the coffee grounds and added them to the filter.

"Would you kindly stop?” she demanded when she could stand it no longer.

"What am I doing that’s so terrible?”

"You’re staring at me.”

"Is that a crime?”

"Yes.”

"You know, when you smile and your face relaxes, you’re an attractive woman. You should do it more often.”

Maureen wasn’t fishing for compliments, backhanded or otherwise. "I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but I don’t want any part of it.”

"Game?”

"Yes, game.” Her hand trembled as she filled up the glass pot with water and poured all of it into the coffeepot dispenser. "If you have the sudden urge to date again, I advise you to look elsewhere for companionship. I’m not interested.”

It disconcerted her to have him laugh just then, a low, rumbling sound, as if her words amused him.

"Is that so funny?” she demanded. She took down a mug. It slammed against the counter with a bang, much louder than she’d intended.

"What’s so funny? You, Maureen Woods. You claim you don’t want to see me again, and we both know that’s a lie.” Truth flashed in his eyes like a distant light.

"You’re so sure of yourself,” she managed finally, her pride rescuing her. "You men are all alike, you think that—”

"Are you saying you don’t want to see me again?”

Maureen was fast learning that Thom Nichols didn’t ask questions unless he was damn sure of the answers. She could deny it, tell a bold-faced lie, but he’d know exactly what it was, and so would she.

This was what made dealing with this man so impossible. She couldn’t hide from Thom behind insults. He saw through her fears. He saw through her pain. He recognized the truth as if it had been tattooed across her forehead.

"Aren’t you going to answer the question?” he asked. His tone was gentle. Her heart melted a little then, knowing he could have mocked her and didn’t.

"No.”

He smiled broadly, apparently encouraged by her lack of response. Joining her at the kitchen counter, he lifted her hand and placed it on his shoulder. He felt solid and real beneath her fingertips. Then he leaned forward and pressed his mouth to hers. The kiss was slow and gentle and at the same time the most erotic one she’d ever experienced. It had been so long since she had been kissed. Really kissed. That was it, she told herself. Not the man, but the fact it had been years since a man had taken her in his arms.

When he broke away Maureen was shaking so badly she needed to sit down. Apparently Thom felt much the same way, because he claimed the seat next to her.

She noticed his breath was ragged. Neither of them spoke. For her part, Maureen couldn’t. At that moment she was incapable of uttering anything more than weak, unintelligible sounds.

Thom scooted his chair close to hers, angled toward her, and dropped a row of soft, delicate kisses along the underside of her chin and up toward her ear. Slowly, in heart-stopping increments, he brought his lips back to hers.

"I…think…you…should…leave…now.” Maureen swore it took five minutes for the words to untangle themselves from the end of her tongue.

"I haven’t had my coffee.”

"Coffee.” She’d almost forgotten about it. Surely the pot was ready by now. All she need do was pour him a cup and usher him to the door. Then her duty would be complete.

"Coffee.” She was about to stand but discovered, to her chagrin, that her arms were wrapped securely about him. She hadn’t clue when that had happened.

Leaving him proved to be far more difficult than it should have been. Her eyes fluttered open, and she stiffened immediately. There, standing just inside the kitchen, were Karen and Paula, staring at them with wide eyes, their young faces creased with approving smiles.

"Wow,” Karen whispered as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. "Your dad just kissed my mom.”

"He did? Great. This is really, really great,” Paula said in the same awe-filled voice.

"If they get married, does that mean we’d be sisters?” Karen wanted to know.

Apparently an answer wasn’t necessary for the two to celebrate. With their arms wrapped around each other, they let out a whoop and did a little jig about the kitchen.

"We aren’t getting married,” Maureen said forcefully, bolting out of her chair. She wanted to blame Thom for this, but she’d been as much a partner in the kissing episode as he.

He touched her, and the emptiness inside her echoed like a shout down a dry well. The years hadn’t lessened the pain of her marriage, and this evening with Thom left her to face the haunting self-doubts. Brian had turned to another woman. He’d found her lacking, found her inadequate. Another man eventually would, too. She dared not risk that again. She didn’t know if she could live through it a second time.

"Great going, Dad.” Paula gave her father the thumbs-up sign. Thom’s thumb went up in response.

"It might be a good idea if you girls let us two adults talk.”

"Sure,” Paula said, scooting out a chair and sitting down. She propped her hands in her face and looked to her dad. Karen sat next to her friend, her eyes as bright as fireworks against a dark July sky.

"Privately,” Thom whispered to the girls.

"They want to be alone.” Paula said this, apparently for Karen’s benefit.

As soon as the two left the kitchen, Maureen started pacing. "That shouldn’t have happened.”

"What? Us kissing or the girls seeing us?”

"Both.”

"The kissing really bothers you?” he asked.

Maureen knew this was another one of those incidents where he was well aware of her answer. "As a matter of fact, it does. If you want my opinion, I think you should be concerned yourself.”

"Well, to be honest, I’ll admit your kiss packs quite a wallop.” He rubbed his hand down the side of his face as if to say he’d been surprised by the impact she’d had on him.

Maureen ignored his comment. "We’ve had exactly one dinner together, not even a dinner date, and already our daughters are talking about becoming stepsisters. Frankly, I think this is a cause for concern.”

She breathed in deeply in an effort to gain perspective. Everything seemed to be happening much too fast. She wasn’t like other women who floated easily in and out of relationships.

Ever since her divorce she’d been living in a vacuum, living off her bitterness. Brian had taught her well, and she wasn’t looking for a repeat of that experience. "I won’t allow you to pressure me into a relationship,” she announced, her back ramrod straight.

He opened his mouth as if he intended to argue with her, but the phone rang just then and he apparently changed his mind.

Maureen glared at the phone.

"Go ahead and answer it,” Thom advised after the third ring.

She walked across the room and reached for the receiver. "Hello,” she said, knowing she sounded nothing like herself.

***

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