Born in a Small Town / Page 30

Page 30


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Abby elbowed him. Laughing, Kevin and Melanie made it out the door. The air had a real bite, and she saw her breath in the porchlight. A parka would have clashed with her dress, but she wished she had one now.

“Brr,” she said. “I can feel winter hovering.”

“Nine months of winter, three months of summer. Isn’t that what they say about Elk Springs?”

She hurried to the defense of her home. “We have a spring. Sort of. And an autumn.”

“Uh-huh.”

She poked him and he laughed again, a deep comfortable sound. Then he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and murmured in her ear, “I’m tempted to insult your beloved town just to see you get fired up.”

Was she that bad? “I get fired up about other things,” she said defensively, then wished she could snatch the words back.

His voice became a sexy rumble. “Oh, I’m counting on it.”

“I didn’t mean…”

“I know you didn’t.” He opened the door of his four-by-four. “Hop in, milady.”

She let him give her a boost and rather enjoyed the way his hand lingered on her hip. His hand often lingered, she’d noticed, as it had on the small of her back earlier. In fact, most of the evening he had kept a hand on her arm or back. Either he was someone who liked to touch, or he was very very attracted to her. She rather hoped it was the latter.

He went around and got in on the driver’s side, but instead of belting himself in, he reached for her. “I’ve been wanting to kiss you all night,” he said huskily, and bent his head.

Melanie met his mouth eagerly. She loved the feel of his hand cupping her head, his fingers working in her hair, his grip on her arm. His knuckles brushed the side of her breast, and she sighed.

A groan vibrated in his chest and the kiss deepened, his mouth suddenly hard and demanding. His tongue touched hers, and she was the one to moan. His hand flattened on her breast; she pushed against him, frustrated by the hard bodice of the dress.

His laugh against her mouth was ragged. “How the hell did people make love in those days?”

Breathlessly, she said, “I’m not sure they wore underwear.”

“Ah.” Briefly his hand flexed on her thigh. “Interesting idea.”

Very. She imagined him throwing her skirts up, dropping to his knees… A spasm deep in her belly almost made her moan again.

Headlights flashed in the rearview mirror, and Kevin swore, pulling back. “My sense of timing…” he muttered.

“It’s okay. I… The baby-sitter…” She straightened her skirts, fought to steady her voice, couldn’t help shrinking away. “I really should get home.”

She was a coward. He would have suggested she go home with him—she knew he would have. She wanted to. But give her thirty seconds to think, and what did she do? Chicken out, of course. Women on the movie screen and in books made love anywhere and everywhere all the time. Heck, probably real women did, too, the ones she saw at the grocery or the stationery store. If they met a man and were attracted, they had sex with him. It wasn’t as if Angie would ever know, Melanie thought miserably, and she was entitled to a life, wasn’t she?

But she just couldn’t do something like that so casually. She needed to be very sure.

She needed to know she loved him.

In silence, Kevin started the engine and put the vehicle into gear. Some of the Halloween lanterns had flickered out, while others burned low, wisps of mysterious light on each side of the wooded lane. Melanie stared fiercely out the window and tried not to cry.

What if he asked, Will you come home with me? Would she really tell him no?

Not, she admitted to herself, if he once looked at her the way Ben Shea had at his wife Abby, with such passion and tenderness and intensity. With such…love.

Oh, no, she thought, her stomach lurching. She couldn’t be in love. Not already! Not when Kevin had said nothing to suggest he was thinking about wedding bells and forever.

His voice, edged with something indefinable, broke the silence about the time he made the turn onto the mountain highway. “Hey. I didn’t mean to get carried away. I’m sorry if I upset you.”

“No. Oh, no!” she exclaimed. “I, um, enjoyed… I mean…”

“Enjoyed is good.” His hand reached over and clasped hers, warm and strong. “I did, too.” After a moment he asked, “Did you have fun tonight?”

“I had a wonderful time!” She hesitated. “You’re quite a storyteller.”

“In other words, I dominated the conversation,” he said ruefully.

“Oh, no! Everyone enjoyed your stories. You know they did. You kept talking because people kept asking questions.” Very casually she added, “Do you miss such an adventurous life?”

“Miss it?” He shot her a look she couldn’t interpret with only the light from the dashboard. “Remind me sometime to tell you about my last day as a park ranger. That part I don’t miss. Sure, I have moments where I feel…restless. But, you know, those were the exciting bits I was talking about tonight. Most of what I did was considerably more mundane. The nature walk for families is not exactly a stroll on the wild side.”

“No,” she said cautiously, “I suppose not. No regrets, then?”

“Regrets are for old men.” He sounded almost arrogant. “I still have the chance to choose what I want to do with my life.”

And what he had chosen was to live in Elk Springs. Relief loosened tension she’d hardly known she was feeling. She’d been silly; she could have told funny stories about her days as a minor-league baseball player’s wife, too, but that didn’t mean she wanted to go back.

“I like your attitude,” she decided. “Most people are so…settled by our age. It must be exciting to change careers.”

“I’ve noticed,” his voice became a notch huskier, “that my personal life seems to be changing in a big way, too. You have something to do with that, you know.”

Her heart squeezed. Did he mean…? Was he hinting…? He must be!

“I can’t comment,” she said lightly, “since I don’t know what your life was like before you met me.”

His hand found hers again. “One hell of a lot emptier.”

“Oh.” Her heart was drumming. “Kevin—”

“Home sweet home.” He pulled up to the curb in front of her house and turned off the engine. The baby-sitter pulled back the curtain and peered out. Sounding regretful, Kevin said, “Looks to me like you’re eagerly awaited. And that we’ll have to continue this discussion another day.”

Another day? Could she bear to wait?

Did she have a choice?

“I was lucky to get Tiffany tonight. I had to bribe her, big time. She’s probably hoping to slip out with her boyfriend and egg a few houses before dawn.”

He laughed, and the moment was lost.

To be recaptured, Melanie reminded herself.

Soon.

CHAPTER FIVE

WEARING AN IMPRESSIVE stovepipe hat and a black wool suit—borrowed from a family of Civil War reenactors—a very short Abraham Lincoln walked onto the stage, cleared his throat and waited for the audience to quit whispering. Voice unexpectedly gruff for an eight-year-old, he declared, “Four square and seven years ago, our fathers bought forth on this continent, a new nation, con…conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the pop station that all men are created equal.”

Beside Melanie, Kevin covered his mouth and cleared his throat. She knew very well that he was disguising a laugh. She was glad he’d made the effort. Eight-year-olds were so very earnest.

After a strong start, the young Abraham Lincoln struggled with the remainder of the Gettysburg Address, his voice faltering, his wide desperate gaze occasionally turning to the wings of the stage for a cue. But at last he finished in triumph, “…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth!”

Enthusiastic applause evoked a pleased smile and a deep bow from the boy, who was immediately succeeded on the stage by an equally short Elizabeth Cady Stanton, performed by Angie Parker. Her severe Quaker-style gown had been created by her mother, just as Lincoln’s suit was.

In a huge rush, she whisked through her speech. “Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise,” she concluded, curtsied and dashed from the stage.

“Definitely a star,” Kevin whispered.

“Well, I don’t know about that…” Melanie whispered back, pleased despite herself.

One historical character after another appeared on the stage in a grand cavalcade that Melanie rather enjoyed. She kept sneaking glances at Kevin to see if he was bored, but if he was, he hid it. Not that she would feel guilty if he was—he’d invited himself when Angie had proudly told him of her role in the school performance.

Afterward the kids came from backstage, still in their costumes, to receive their parents’ congratulations. Kevin swept Angie into an extravagant hug. “Kiddo, you were fabulous.”

“I talked too fast, didn’t I?” Her anxious gaze sought her mother. “I practiced talking really really slow, and then I could hear myself going fast. Was it awful?”

“Kevin’s right.” Melanie hugged her, too. “You were great. Only a little bit fast.”

“Really?” The big brown eyes, so much like her father’s, searched Melanie’s face.

“Really,” Melanie said firmly. “In fact, the whole performance was wonderful. I want to tell Mrs. Jensen so while you’re changing.”

Her daughter shuffled her feet. “Well, um, a bunch of the girls are spending the night at Chelsea’s. Can I, too?” she pleaded.

An instinctive protest rose to Melanie’s tongue. With Angie away for the night, she wouldn’t have the excuse of having to get home for the baby-sitter or not being able to ask Kevin in. She would have to tell the truth: I’m not ready. Or, I need to know you love me.

Or, was it possible she’d realize she was ready?

She stole a glance his way and saw he was waiting for her answer as much as her daughter was. His eyes had darkened, become intent; although he hadn’t moved and was seemingly relaxed, she felt the difference, as if his sudden tension crackled through the air.

Melanie drew a deep breath. “Of course you can, Angie. If—” she held up one hand “—it’s okay with Chelsea’s mother and this isn’t something you girls have cooked up without asking.”

But, no. She didn’t get off so easily.

Chelsea’s mom, a laid-back woman who worked at the U.S. Forest Service office, agreed that she’d let Chelsea invite up to five other girls. “They won’t be any problem, I promise. On the way home, we’ll rent a video, and I’ll order a pizza later, in case they get hungry. I can run Angie home around lunchtime, if that’s okay,” she added.

“I don’t need my toothbrush or anything,” Angie assured her mother. “I can just sleep in my T-shirt.”


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