By Kim Strattford
Chris Kelly looked at the caller id on her phone and sighed before picking it up. "Hey, Ellen."
"Larry just told me you broke up with Luke. Sis, what the hell?"
Chris reached into the kitchen cabinet she'd turned into her personal bar and pulled out her favorite rye. "What the hell what?" She put the phone on speaker as she poured the rye over ice.
"I didn't introduce you to him so you could break his heart. Larry works with the guy."
"They're on totally different floors." She sat in her favorite chair, kicked off her shoes, and took a long, fortifying sip of her drink.
"They grab lunch all the time. Talk sports the way Larry likes. It's going to be awkward." Ellen sighed, and it was the sigh of this not being the first set-up that had gone badly. "What did he do wrong?
Finally, Chris said, "He didn't do anything wrong. He asked me to go with him to his brother's wedding."
"No. It's the family—his family, as in meeting of same. As in they'll think I'm his girlfriend. I just don't—I just don't like him that way."
"But he's so nice. And he's a lawyer. A good provider."
Chris looked around her condo that was located on a high floor, smack in the middle of the highly sought after Reston Town Center. The furniture was amazing, the electronics plentiful, the eclectic art expensive, and the booze top shelf—or as top shelf as she could get from the Virginia ABC stores. And she'd bought it all for herself from money earned by working long hours and moving up steadily at the IT firm she worked at. "I'm a good provider, Sis. Or have you forgotten?"
"But..." Ellen sighed again, even more dramatically if that was possible. "Don't you ever want to not work? Take time off and have kids?"
"You're doing that for both of us. I have Tyler and Mia to be the coolest aunt ever for. So much more fun for them, for you, and for me." She sighed. "Look, Luke was a sweet guy. But...we just didn't have much in common. And the spark...it wasn't there."
"You didn't even sleep with him. How do you know if it was there or not?"
"Because I didn't want to sleep with him?" And she'd slept with her share—she knew what real sparkage felt like. And Ellen knew that.
"Is this about Kirk Mitchell? Put that candle out, Chris. You know he's not available."
Chris rued the day she'd ever thought telling her sister about her impossible crush on the guy in the next office was a good idea. And that had been five years ago. She'd moved on. Kirk hadn't needed to. He'd been with someone. Not that he was that guy—the one who played around but never left the woman he had at home. He'd never done anything to make her think he wanted to cheat—they'd just had...
Sparkage. Chemistry up the wazoo. However you wanted to say it. She'd felt like someone turned on an electric current when she was around him. He was a few years older than she was. Tall and solid, with sandy hair that bleached out in the sun and made his hazel eyes look less brown and more green—good looking, for sure, but it wasn't the physical that had snared her.
He got her. Her love of sci fi and urban fantasy—and equally strong hatred of high fantasy. Her devotion to comic books. Her preference for straight talk over games both in romance and work. And her love of whiskey. She'd shared more than one drink with him as they'd kicked back after a long day in his or her office and just...talked.
Other than lunches out—usually with others—talk had been all they'd done. And then he was transferred to Phoenix, off to bigger and better things, which was no surprise because he was as competent as he was fun to be around. She'd hugged him at his goodbye party, and he'd held on a little longer than maybe was normal.
And then he was gone.
She realized Ellen was saying something. "What?"
"I said that I think you should call Luke and tell him you'll go."
"I despise weddings." That was true. She hated being a single woman relegated to the "leftovers" table. But she also didn't like taking someone just to have a date—that felt so...fake to her. If she'd gone with Luke, she'd have known it was fake but he'd have thought it was real. If he'd really understood that nothing was going to happen for them, she might have said yes.
"I know all about your bizarre wedding phobia, but please? Do it for me?"
She closed her eyes. This was how this whole thing started. Her wanting to please her big sister. No matter how unlikely the guy Ellen had found for her. She needed to stop saying yes to her. "No. I ended it. What little there was to end. He wanted more. I didn't. Moving on."
"Oh, if only." There was a sad note to Ellen's voice; the note that in childhood meant she understood she wasn't going to win this argument.
"I love you for caring."
"I love you even if you're an idiot."
"Not an idiot, El." She laughed and leaned back. "Are you okay? Other than having your matchmaking plans ruined?"
"Yep. The holidays are over for another year."
"Well, this set of holidays." Her sister pretty much decorated year round. And she'd taken over hosting family meals back in their twenties, when their parents died, their mother of cancer, their father half a year later from a heart attack. It had hurt like hell losing them both so close together. Now, this was the new normal—and Ellen seemed obsessed with getting her settled down with a guy, and it had only gotten worse since she turned thirty.
"Listen, I just got home and I need some me time. Talk later?"
"Yeah, you'll be getting lots of that. Fun spring for you coming up—all alone."
"It's only January."
"Uh huh. January turns to spring very fast. Your walks in the Town Center are going to be lonely ones."
"Hanging up now." She ended the call before her sister could think up a retort.
As she walked through the office, taking in all the roses and hearts spilling over desks, she decided maybe Ellen was right about it being a lonely spring. Although it was only Valentine's Day and at the moment it was still winter here in the D.C. suburbs.
Actually, there wasn't really a spring in D.C. Winter and summer just fought over which would hold the remote until summer finally took over at some point between April and May.
But that didn't mean she wasn't kind of lonely. Luke hadn't tried to get her back. Maybe he understood she wasn't going to change her mind on this. She sort of wished she missed him—life with him would be easy. But easy wasn't what she was looking for.
Trouble was, no one else was really appealing to her right now either.
Like generally happened when she was considering her romantic future, her thoughts circled back to Kirk. It sucked when your benchmark for the perfect guy was unavailable.
She forced herself to stop thinking of him, to focus on how pretty the flowers were, how nice they smelled. When she got to her lovely corner office, she smiled at her assistant's huge bouquet of red roses. "Nice. Natasha did good."
Marina smiled. "You should see the ones I got her. We're having a war to see who can win VD."
She laughed. "And that's exactly how I'll think of it now."
Marina grinned. "That skeezy guy from contracts was nosing around. The one who keeps asking you out for drinks? I think he wanted to see if you had flowers from anyone."
She groaned. "At least he didn't send any." She glanced into her office. "He didn't send any, did he?"
"Nope. You're safe." Marina followed her into the office. "Mister Gutierrez called a meeting at two. In his office, not the conference room."
"Did he say what about?" Her boss usually gave her a heads-up if it was something she wasn't ready for. She'd had no emails when she checked at breakfast or just now, riding up in the elevator.
"He didn't. Do you want me to call Sophia?" She had the look that said the executive assistants really ran the place—and many days she was right.
"No. I'll find out when I get up there." She trusted Hector not to blindside her. She'd been his hire after all, way back when. He tended to want to make her look good, not sabotage her.
The day was filled with meetings and she only had to feel the pangs of "Could have been me" when she walked through the cubicles, seeing the reminders of this fest to Cupid and all things gooey love.
No—she couldn't let herself get bitter. Yes, Valentine's Day sucked for the single. But settling for someone you didn't really love just to get some roses and chocolates would bite even more.
She could buy her own roses and she liked chocolates from an awesome chocolatier in Chicago, not from the grocery store. She doubted Luke would have known to get them for her—wouldn't have understood what made them special. What guy would? Milk or dark was about as sophisticated as most of them seemed to get.
Just before two, she headed up to Hector's office. It was an even bigger corner officer than hers, big enough to have a large table and also a sitting area. She smiled at Hector, who was at his desk, but then stopped in the doorway: Kirk was sitting on the couch.
Hector grinned. "Look who's back."
She grinned at him, then at Kirk. "Wow. Long time."
His grin was warmer than she remembered—and it had been warm in her memories. "Very long time."
Hector pushed away from the terminal, turning to give them both his full attention. "I told you I was getting a quick replacement for Mark." Mark, a fellow department head, who'd been unceremoniously fired two weeks ago for being a gigantic screw-up. Half his staff had thrown a "wheels up" happy hour—although she wasn't supposed to know about that. The other half were probably wondering if they were next on the chopping block.
"You're going to be working here?" In her city and building? On her floor, even? She knew her grin was growing ridiculously.
"Can you fill him in on some of his dicier personnel issues? I would but I have a meeting upstairs."
Hector got up, grabbing his pad and coffee mug. "I warned him Mark left him a mess, but I'm not sure he believes me. He'll believe me when he sees how much travel he's going to have to do to calm down Mark's clients." He patted Kirk on the shoulder. "Glad you're on board, man." Then he was off.
"You'll be living in L.A. Patting hands and making them feel special. Mark left behind a failing project and tattered relationships."
Kirk made a "What have I gotten into?" face, but then his smile returned, smaller this time—more professional for dealing with a fellow department head—but extending to his eyes. They were...tender. "So, give me the skinny?"
"Right. This way." She led him to her office, introduced him to Marina, and motioned him into her office, closing the door as he sat.
They talked business for a while, and he was shaking his head once he realized the magnitude of crap he'd been dealt. "I'll never be here, will I?"
"Kind of ironic. Move here and then spend all your time there." Less fun for her. She'd thought he be around more. But he'd get this cleared up and then he'd be around to shoot the shit with.
"Really ironic." He leaned back and seemed to be studying her office.
"Checking to see if it's bigger than yours?" She laughed softly.
"Seeing if you have any roses or cards or candy from a sweetheart." He made a sad face. "I don't see any. No Valentines for Chrissy."
"You know I hate that name. And I don't see how this is your business. I mean Heather made the move with you, right?"
"Heather did not make the move with me. Heather and I are...kaput." He smiled but it was a shaky expression. "Can your love life be my business now?"
He nodded but again the gesture wasn't totally committed—not like he was trying to snow her, more like he wasn't entirely sure he believed it. "Are you?"
"I am. Is that...interesting to you?"
"That may be the most interesting thing I've heard all day."
They were both grinning like idiots, and she tried to dial it back some. "I'm really glad you're here."
"I'm really glad I'm here, too." He glanced at her clock. "Crap. I have a meeting. I'd rather stay and talk."
"Business before pleasure."
"Yep." He turned when he got to the door. "Do you want to get dinner tonight?"
He looked confused, and bit concerned.
She laughed. "Valentine's Day—all the restaurants are going to be full of lovebirds."
"I'll brave it if you will." He studied her as if he wasn't sure she would. "We could go to the mall. There's the food court if all the restaurants are full, and you can help me pick out furniture. Heather kept most of our stuff." There was no doubt when he said that; it was clear he didn't expect to get his stuff back.
"Sure. That'll work."
"I'll swing by around six?"
He got up then turned, staring at her for a long moment. "Have I said that I'm so, so, so glad you're here?"
"Back at you."
He grinned and hurried out.
Marina lost no time in hurrying in. "Uhhh, spill?"
She tried to keep her expression casual. "Friend from one of my first assignments here. Before your time."
"Marina, we're not having this conversation." She rolled her eyes.
"Why not? You know I'll worm it out of you eventually." She tapped her fingernail on her watch like it was just a matter of time. Which it probably was.
"He was with someone the last time we were in the same city. He really is just a friend."
"I come from a long line of women with the sight. I can say with assurance, I think that whole friend thing's about to change." She pointed at her terminal. "I didn't just come in here to pry into your private life. I just sent you something you should see. Through my special channels." She grinned. She loved being the bearer of the strategically timed heads-up.
"You and your channels are my hero."
"And then there's this." Marina handed her a little purple box: chocolates from her favorite place.
Chris felt a rush of regret; these were incredibly expensive. "You should not have."
"Oh, stow it. They sent it as a freebie since I bought the huge VD tower thing for Natasha. Remember I asked you where you buy candy?" She glanced impatiently at the box. "There are two in there. Open that up so we can eat them."
Laughing, she tore off the cellophane and opened the box. Two truffles sat, one dark and one milk. "Dibs on the dark," she said, since it was her gift, after all.
"Fine with me. I like milk."
They held them up and clinked them softly like they were drinks, then ate.
"Oh my God, these are good." Marina moaned and closed her eyes, the way she did whenever she really liked something.
"Mmmmmm mmmmm," was all Chris managed to get out.
"All right, back to work, you slacker."
"Thank you." She was touched that Marina had thought of her when she could have kept the truffles all for herself.
"Couldn't let you have a candy-free VD, now could I? Especially when these chocolates are going to guarantee I win the day."
"What do you get for winning?"
Marina smirked. "Wouldn't you like to know?"
The rest of the afternoon passed in the usual dance of meetings and memos. It was six before she realized it, and Kirk was standing at the door. "Ready?"
"I am." She gathered her stuff and rode down to the parking garage with him, taking the lead in her car so he could follow her since she knew the best place to park at the mall—a little oasis where there was always parking close in, even on Valentine's night.
They hurried in out of the cold, and she took in all the hearts and flowers plastered over the mall displays as she walked with him down the main corridor. "This holiday is one hell of a moneymaker."
"That it is. So many expectations. Did your ex give good Valentines?"
She studied him as they walked. "I never said I had an ex."
He shrugged with a cagey grin. "I was here, just before the holidays, talking to Hector about my future—this was before he knew he was going to fire Mark. I asked if you were here and he said you were in Vail with your boyfriend."
"I was in Vail. But Luke wasn't really my boyfriend. Although I'm not sure I ever made that entirely clear to him."
"Either you did, and he's an idiot. Or you enjoyed him enough to keep him hanging on until you found someone better."
"Just calling it like I see it. You used to like that about me. And I liked it about you."
She sighed because he was right. They used to specialize in calling each other on their bullshit. "Okay, maybe a little of the latter."
"Luke." He said it like Dark Vader would have, voice low and raspy and she laughed. "That's a nerdgasm name. I can see why you wanted to like him."
"And Kirk isn't?"
"Well, okay, I'll give you that it's got lots of sci-fi cred. But at least Kirk isn't biblical."
"Scotland might disagree with that. You know a church is a kirk, right?"
"You know the most random things." He laughed. "Anyway, you weren't here when I was back, and I figured of course you were involved with someone. It was stupid of me to hope you'd still be free after this much time."
"Is that why you didn't tell me you were coming?"
He nodded. "I figured I'd surprise you. And it'd be like old times only I'd be the single one and you'd have the person waiting at home for you."
"We weren't living together." In fact, she'd insisted on separate rooms for their trip to Vail. She'd paid her own way—like friends do. She'd wanted to go skiing and eat good food and trudge snowy walks along the river. Things buddies did, nothing romantic. Luke had been the one to want to call what they had a relationship, not her.
"So were you not 'with him' with him?"
She laughed. "Are we in junior high? No, I wasn't sleeping with him."
"Uh, you're in town for a hot minute and ask me that? I didn't feel like it. Okay? What? Are you afraid I'm saving it for marriage? Which is a valid choice for those who feel strongly about chastity, but come one, you know me. How many bad choices did you have to hear about?"
"God, that was painful."
"Sorry I bored you." She mock punched him.
"No, you didn't bore me. I wanted to be those guys. So, so badly." He sighed.
"You never reached out."
"I like to be faithful. I sort of pride myself on that. Either it's real or I move on. You know?"
"Would you have reached back if I had wanted more?"
She let out a laughter that was more a bitter dig than amusement. "I think the only answer I can give after what you just said is no, I wouldn't have. You were taken."
"Hmmm. Yeah, but you weren't. So you wouldn't have been cheating on someone. Would you have reached back if you were with someone?"
"Of course not."
"Well then, see. It's the same." He started to laugh. "For what it's worth, I was going to try like hell to wrestle you away from your 'Going to Vail' guy. I caught up on all the latest comic book shows."
"Let's test that. Felicity or Laurel?"
"Am I going to tell a gorgeous blonde computer scientist with glasses that I prefer Laurel?"
"That's not really an answer."
His grin was adorable. "God I missed this. And of course, it's Felicity."
"Whew. Dodged a bullet. But we like Laurel. We're not crazy one-true pairing shippers."
"I'm not a shipper, period."
"Bull. You had very strong feelings about Mal and Inara."
"That's true." He laughed and had the old "Busted" expression he used to wear. "So, okay, Felicity is the bomb but we still like Laurel. Just not with Oliver."
"Right." She could feel something in her settle down as they sparred. It was so much fun to dip into the nerd pool. Ellen had no time for comic-book anything unless it was something the kids wanted to see, and they were still too little for most of the movies and shows Chris enjoyed.
Luke didn't know Green Arrow from Green Lantern. Or Wolverine from Vixen—actually he'd gotten really excited when she talked about Wolverine because he'd thought she meant the football team. He was into sports. Not just a little into them, either. Like "Turn on a sports network the minute you get home and don't turn it off again until you go to bed" into sports.
"So why did you break up with Luke?" He said Luke's name like Darth again.
"He didn't know a Klingon from a Cardassian."
"What about from a Wookie?"
"Yeah, but who doesn't?"
"Heather, for one." He laughed, but it was far from the amused sound of a guy who knew things were really over. "She loved rom coms."
"You have my condolences. Although, I didn't know you were so opposed to them." She studied the way his jaw tightened.
"Stupid stuff happens. Love wins in the end."
This did not sound like a guy who was over the girl he moved away from. She felt her excitement ebbing. "So, what happened? You were really into her." So into her, he'd never once turned the lovely rapport he and Chris had into something more physical—no matter how much hooch they drank after hours.
"I was. And she was really into me. Until she met Thomas. The guy she was cheating on me with."
Crap. This was the worst scenario. A guy hurt over what his ex did. Leaving because of that, not because he was tired of her or just didn't see the relationship progressing like she had with Luke. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah, you and me both." He stopped her, his hand gentle on her elbow. "That was the other reason I didn't call and tell you I was coming. I'd committed to her, you know? I didn't have to take the job at Phoenix five years ago, but I thought it was best for her and me. To go somewhere—well, somewhere you weren't." He looked down. "Because I really, really liked you, and I saw that becoming a problem."
"Yeah, it might have. I really, really liked you, too."
"So I'd done all that—for her, I mean. Moved and when she wanted to buy a place, we did. Got a dog, which she insisted on keeping even though I was the one who walked Trigger everywhere." He sighed. "And then she cheated on me. When I'd done all that just so I wouldn't cheat on her." He looked up, his eyes hard. "Pretty pathetic, huh? Quite the catch."
"Trusting someone isn't pathetic. Hurting someone who trusts you is. She's an idiot."
"Maybe not. I think—I think I was more fun to be around when I came home to her from you. You and I had such a good time. I enjoyed myself here at work. Laughing—and God the tension. I think she benefitted from how much I wanted you." He started to laugh. "Is this TMI?"
"I don't think so. Just don't get into positions and stuff."
He laughed. "I won't. In fact, I'm done. That's what happened. And now...I'm here. And if you aren't opposed, I'd really like to see where what we had five years ago could have gone if I'd been free."
She screwed her face up in an obvious pretense of having to think about it. Then she started to laugh. "I'd like that, too. After all, I'm at the freakin' mall with you. I hate the mall."
"Oh, yeah. Online shopping is amazing. You actually like the mall?"
"Well, no. But I thought all women did." He sighed. "Heather did. I can't tell you how many changing rooms I sat outside of, waiting to tell her she looked amazing."
Which she probably had. Heather was the quintessential stunning brunette. Chocolate-brown eyes, perfect skin and weight and height.
"Well, you'll never do that with me. I like clothes coming to my place in a big box that the concierge hands over. Everything's in a plastic bag that no one's opened. Nothing's all stretched out from the hanger or reeking of someone's perfume—or worse, their body odor—and I get to take my time deciding. And I am fully capable of dressing myself without boyfriend buyoff."
He pretended to be giving her the once over. "Witness how you look right at this moment. You did all that yourself?" He was laughing.
"Damned straight." Although if she'd known he was going to be here, she'd have worn her contacts and more make-up. She could pretend to be copacetic about how she looked but everyone had their insecurities. Probably even the perfect Heather.
They walked past a pretzel place, the scent wafting out at them, and he said, "I'm starving."
"Let's get some food. And then look at furniture. Although there are way better places to shop out where I am."
"Still in Reston?"
"Yep. Where are you?"
He started to laugh.
"The Town Center is great now. It takes up way more space than it did before and has so many options. And the metro."
She couldn't argue. It was why she paid the enormous mortgage to live there. "Which building."
He told her where he was renting, and it was on the same side of the complex as hers, but a block or so down. "Stalker." She laughed at the face he made. "Stalker man," she said again, in a singsong voice.
"Shut up." He set off down the mall, toward one of the many restaurants. It was packed. "Damn."
So were all the others.
"Food court?" She nudged him toward the escalator. "I'm hungry enough anything will do."
"Fine. Food court. Stupid holiday."
"As I said."
They ended up getting multiple slices of pizza and baked ziti and sharing it. Kirk waved over an old man carrying flowers.
But he ignored her and made a big show of inspecting the flowers. Finally, he chose a pink one with just the slightest bit of red.
"What if I like yellow?"
"It means infidelity."
"Since until the rose growers realized that theme wasn't a big seller and tried to rebrand it as friendship." He laughed. "Pink is for friendship, because I like you. So, so much, as I said. And there's a little bit of red because—well, as you've probably guessed, I'm kind of a mess over this thing with Heather. But...I have hope. For what we could be, you know?" He handed her the rose. "I hope you do, too."
"I do." Although she felt a bit crushed by his honesty. She loved that he was being straight with her, that he wasn't going to lie and say he was over his girlfriend of eight years when he wasn't, but also wishing maybe he'd said a little more about her and why he had hope. She felt suddenly embarrassed at how petty she was being—she loved being with this guy, in whatever capacity she could be. Trying to steer clear of any angst, she said in a mock sorrowful voice, "But I don't have anything for you."
"Believe me, by the time you get done helping me furnish my place, you'll think this was me getting off cheap." He winked and she felt any awkwardness falling away. Then he leaned in, speared some ziti from their communal plate, and said, "So, I caught up on movies, too. Wonder Woman? Awesome or what?" He shot her a warning look. "The wrong answer could finish us."
"Amazing." She tried not to think how Gal Gadot looked way more like Heather than her.
His grin was luminous. "That's my girl."
She heard a knock on her office door and looked up to see Kirk—a tired looking Kirk. "You're back—just back from the look of it." He'd spent most of February travelling and looked sick of it.
"Client wanted to knock off early. Thank God because the team had not really met the requirements—but it was due to a client change, not us ignoring what they wanted like before." He sat down. "I almost feel for Mark. This customer is really putting me through the wringer with all this travel." Normally department heads didn't have to visit clients as much as he was, but to save the account, he was having to get way down in the weeds with his development team.
"I'm sorry. Why didn't you just go home? No one expected you in the office."
"Missed you." He grinned but then his phone buzzed. He checked it, keyed something in, and put it on the table next to him. "Man, my internal clock is so screwed up."
His phone buzzed again, this time lighting up with Heather's face. Chris tried to bite back the frown, but gave up when it took him longer than a moment to figure out if he was going to hit ignore. "So you guys are talking?"
He did a combo nod-shrug that could mean just about anything.
"She calls a lot?"
He shot her a glance that clearly said he'd rather not talk about this now.
And then the phone buzzed again, her picture, the sexy smile.
"Maybe you should take it. Seems like she's not going to settle for voice mail."
"Okay." He stood, grabbing the phone and heading outside the office to talk.
Chris could just make out his voice but not what he was saying.
She closed her eyes and tried to relax. She'd been taking it slow with him for this reason. He and Heather clearly weren't done. She didn't want to be rebound girl—or worse: the girl you go out with for a time before you get back together with the true love of your life.
She didn't think he'd do that to her—not consciously. Not when they already had a nice friendship to build on. But it was a friendship that had been bounded by work until he'd shown up here without Heather. They'd never palled around like regular friends. She hadn't called him at home when she needed to talk. They'd had work and then he'd gone home to the woman lighting up his phone.
A woman he'd never ever seemed inclined to leave no matter how much fun he had with Chris. But also one he'd apparently never seen fit to marry. Was that because of her? It might keep her sane to pretend it was.
He came back in but didn't sit down. "I guess...I need to..."
"Look, this is none of my business."
"That's not true. It is. I care about you." He sighed. "She...she's sorry."
"She's sorry? That she screwed another guy while she was with you?"
"And that she lost me. She knew we'd eventually have to move, and she really likes Phoenix. I think—I think she didn't want to go and used the affair as a way to not have to."
"That was very adult of her." She knew she sounded like a disapproving schoolmarm and didn't care.
"She has—had a good job there."
"Had?" She felt her heart sinking. "Did she—is she coming here?"
"No. I mean she wants to, but I haven't said yes. She'll quit, if I ask her to." He gestured to the chair. "May I?"
"Since when do you have to ask?"
"Since the look on your face is not terribly friendly."
"Oh, how horrible of me. Sorry I'm not taking the news of 'My girlfriend may be moving here after all' all that well. Because who doesn't want to be friendly about that?" She leaned back, arms crossed. "Better yet. How about you go to your office and figure your own shit out. Or go home and get some sleep—you look like crap." She was about to go on when she realized she'd worked later than she'd meant to, distracted by him.
"I actually have to be at Ellen's. I'm already going to be late." She gathered her things and tried to get by him, but he stepped in front of her so she had to stop or crash into him.
"Chris, I was with her for eight years. You don't just close the door and walk away. There's..."
"Baggage? So I see. It's okay, Kirk. Figure your stuff out on your own time, though."
"Chris. Don't be like that."
"Like what? Realistic? Please, get out of my way." She kept her voice soft but with steel underneath, so he'd do what she asked. Men rarely knew what to do with anger wrapped in sugarplums.
He got out of her way.
She drove too fast from Tysons out to Sterling, thanking whatever deity looked out for visiting family members that traffic was light on the toll road and that Ellen and Larry had moved to a development where there was ample parking close to their house. The parking at their old townhouse development had been a joke.
Ellen gave her a hug as she came in and said, "Please don't kill me. But it's his birthday and I didn't think you'd come if I told you..."
His birthday? Whose birthday?
"Hey, Chris." Luke was standing in the kitchen looking somewhere between awkward and hopeful.
"Hey, Luke. Happy birthday!" Her voice was way too high pitched, like she was some mix of excited and startled. When really she was just aggravated at Kirk and mad that she hadn't remembered Luke's birthday was at the end of February—she might have seen through Ellen's invite if she'd been less focused on herself.
He gave her an awkward hug and said, "Thanks. It's really good to see you."
"Same. Same here." She sounded so insincere it made her cringe inwardly. "I didn't get you anything. I'm sorry."
"You're here. That's something." His smile was sweet and just for her and she wished with all her heart that he made her heart go pitter-patter even just a little bit.
But he didn't.
Being around Kirk gave her belly-deep butterflies that were scary and exciting all at once.
Kirk, who might have been screwing his ex when he was in LA. It was a short flight from Phoenix if Heather had wanted to join him. And he wouldn't be cheating on Chris if they weren't really together—or if he and Heather were never really over.
"So how have you been?" Luke sounded like he really wanted to know.
"Good. Real good. I mean at work. Busy, at work." She forced herself to move past whatever Kirk was doing. Luke deserved her attention even if she couldn't give him anything else. "You?"
"Good. I've been—okay, don't laugh but I've been walking dogs."
"For a living?" She glanced over at Ellen and Larry who were doing something with the kids—they'd tell her if Luke quit or got fired, wouldn't they? Ellen would probably make it out to be her fault for leaving him.
"No, for fun. And to help out. There's this rescue and they have all these dogs that need walking on the weekends. Some other people at work were doing it for one of those corporate charity days, so I went. And I liked it, so now I'm doing it all the time. It's really fun."
"Doesn't that cut into football or basketball?" Or whatever sport was on in the winter.
"I can record the games." He smiled. "I probably watch too many of them."
"Says the woman who had comic book shows on four nights out of five?"
She laughed. "Okay, maybe that's a good point." She studied him. "That's a really nice thing to do. With the dogs."
"It's not just nice. I mean I get some exercise and sunshine in the great outdoors. Win-win." His smile was easy and uncomplicated.
Why, oh why, couldn't she just fall for him? Was easy and uncomplicated a bad thing?
"So are these dogs going to be put down if no one adopts them?"
"Oh no, it's a no-kill place." His eyes shone as he told her about the rescue in excruciating detail.
But hey, it was way more interesting than sports. And that he cared so much actually charmed her.
At the end of the night, they went outside, the weather was that weird D.C. non-winter that sometimes came in February and March, making it fine to be outside without a coat.
"This garden's going to be amazing in the spring," Luke said softly. "Remember when we moved them in last year?"
"Hottest day of the year." She laughed. August in northern Virginia was bad enough. Lugging boxes in the heat and humidity had been a killer. But Luke had been such a good sport. It was the closest she'd come to loving him.
"We're not getting back together, are we?" he asked softly.
"No. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. If we can be friends still, that would be good. I—I really like coming here."
"They really like having you here. And yeah, of course we can be."
"Thanks." He turned to look at her, as if maybe, given enough time, she'd give him some other answer about their future.
She wished she wasn't superimposing hazel eyes over his blue ones, sandy hair over his dark. She leaned in and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Happy birthday, Luke. Let's go in before Ellen gets ideas."
"Yeah, she's pretty invested." He laughed softly. "Is she making you pay for not liking me?"
"Would you like it if she did?"
"Little bit, yeah."
"Then, yeah. She is." It was the nicest birthday gift she could think to give him.
A long department meeting finally ended and Chris waited for Kirk to gather his stuff up. As they walked back toward their side of the building, he murmured, "Thank you."
"For supporting me. Against Hector."
"Why wouldn't I? What you were proposing made sense—for my department, too."
"But I know we're not exactly...solid."
She gestured toward his office, then followed him in. "We're solid here. At work. When haven't we been?"
He sat and sighed. "I know. I'm sorry. Maybe it's just me. I'm feeling...guilty, I guess. Like I don't know where we stand precisely."
She stopped herself from rolling her eyes. If he didn't know where they stood, that was on him. She knew what she wanted.
"Kirk, I get that you're not sure what your status is. I don't precisely understand why you're having such a hard time deciding that, but I realize you are having a hard time. But that's personal. This is work. They're different." And frankly, work might be all she ended up with, so she was sure not going to do stupid things just because she was annoyed with him.
She turned to go, but he said, "Come over tonight. I've got all the shows on DVR."
"Yes, and no furniture except a bed."
"No, the sofa came. The one we picked out. Our sofa." He gave her his most pleading look. "Also the chair and tables. I'm furniture guy now. So come over. I'm sick of just going out for drinks or dinner. I want to stay in with you."
She closed her eyes. "And I'd love to sit and watch archers and speedsters with you. On a couch that may be ours someday. But it's not ours yet, and given how weird you're acting, it may never be. I just think it's better to not tempt fate by staying in."
"Do you think I can't control myself?"
"It's not you I'm worried about." She wanted to lean in and touch him, but until he decided whether or not he and Heather were really done, she didn't want to do that to herself. Because she wanted more, and touching would lead to more touching, and her heart was going to be broken enough if she lost to Heather without things getting physical.
"I should lie. Tell you that Heather and I aren't talking anymore. That's it's resolved."
"You're not that guy. I may be annoyed with the guy you are, but it's nothing compared to how much I would hate that guy." She smiled to try to take the sting out of her words. "I've got a ton of work to do anyway. I should stay and do it."
"So should I. But wait. I got us something." He reached into his credenza and pulled out a gorgeous bottle of seventeen-year-old Japanese whiskey.
"Wow. Way to make a girl feel special."
He grinned. "I know, right? I could come by in a bit? A nightcap in the office?"
She gave him her best smile. "Okay."
"Okay. I'll see you in a while."
As she was walking to her office, her phone buzzed and she saw it was Luke. Frowning and hoping nothing was wrong, she answered. "Hey?"
"Hey. You got a minute?"
"I do. But hold on one sec." She held the phone to her chest and stopped at Marina's desk. "Anything I should know?"
"Then before that changes, get out." She said the "Get out" part like they were in a horror movie.
Marina laughed as she grabbed her bag and turned off her terminal. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Bye." She sat down in her chair and put the phone back to her ear. "Okay. What's up?"
"So first, we're friends, right?"
"Luke, we've always been friends." She hated that he had to lead off with that. He was such a decent guy; she'd be a lucky girl to have him want to stay a friend.
"No, you knew we were just friends. I thought we could be more. So technically, we weren't friends."
The logic was convoluted, but at its heart accurate, so she laughed. "Okay. But now we are."
"Right. So, I need your advice. As a friend. About...about a girl." He sounded so tentative she felt bad.
She made her voice as supportive as she could. "Did you meet someone?" She hoped her voice didn't sound as hopeful as she felt. Him falling for someone would ease the part of her that did feel guilty she'd let the relationship linger in the not-friend, not-anything-more zone for way too long.
"Well, that's why I want your help. Because I thought I'd met someone when I was—or wasn't—with you. But witness how that turned out. So you can help me figure out if this is something real or not."
"Sounds fair. So where did you meet her?"
"At the rescue. Maddie started volunteering the week after I did. She's really cute. And young, but not too young, you know? We hit it off right away and she asked the people in the office which dogs could be walked together—because not all of them are socialized, so you can't just walk random dogs together and not have a fight—so that we could have more time."
"She did that?"
"Yeah." He started to laugh. "She's scarily direct sometimes."
She didn't think that was a bad thing for him. He was the kind of guy that liked that. "Is that something lots of people do? Walk them together?"
She grinned at how excited he sounded. "So is that all you do? Walk dogs together?"
"And we talk the entire time."
"And sports. She loves sports. And not pretend loves, like girls do. You know to get a guy. She actually knows stuff."
She was quick to respond. "I never pretended to like sports."
"Okay, that's true." He laughed, and she realized the sound, which had been getting on her nerves by the end, wasn't annoying her anymore.
"Well, she sounds dreamy. She's straight, right?"
"Of course." There was a long silence. "I think she is. Her face lights up when she sees me. The way I always wanted yours to, but it never did."
She decided to ignore that comment, not because it made her mad, but because it brought some of the guilt back. He would have been happy with so little. "Okay we'll just go with the concept she's straight. What do you do between walks?" She leaned back and put her feet up on the shelf of the bookcase that was next to her desk. She could see traffic starting to back up—good thing she had nowhere to be.
"We sit with the dogs, maybe let them play in the runs if they're free. Or just snuggle—with the dogs, I mean, not each other. They really like that. They're alone all week." He sighed. "Am I going to get hurt?"
"I don't think so. It sounds like this Maddie's into you."
"But she hasn't asked me to do anything after volunteering."
"Luke, she got you walking together, right?" At his grunt of assent, she said, "How many first moves does the girl have to make? Ask her out, you moron."
"She likes sports and dogs and you." She laughed, enjoying this opportunity to treat him like a kid brother rather than a guy she wasn't into.
"I'll ask her. Maybe I'll text her when we hang up."
"She gave you her number? And you haven't texted her? Just a 'Hey there' during the week?" No wonder she wasn't asking him out. She was probably confused as hell.
"Chris, you left me kinda gun shy. I really thought we had a chance, but we didn't. I don't want to get hurt again."
She felt another wave of guilt at his honesty. She'd never meant to hurt him. "Well, text her as soon as we're through. I think this time you'll be fine. And Luke?"
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry I left you hanging for as long as I did. It really sucks not knowing where you stand."
"Okay, I'll let you go."
"Chris, what if it was okay that you did it? Because I've been thinking about it and maybe if I hadn't been spending time with you, I'd have found someone else, and I'd have missed Maddie."
She grinned. "That's a really nice way to look at it."
"Yeah, I like it, too. I prefer a kindly universe, you know?"
"Thanks for the assist." He sounded eager to get off the phone.
"Bye. Good luck. Not that I think you'll need it." He was a super guy and this girl probably knew that and, more importantly, appreciated it.
She turned around as she hung up and saw Kirk standing in the doorway. "How much of that did you hear?"
"The end. Was that Luke?"
She started to laugh. "Yes, I was talking to my ex."
"And I'm the bad guy here?"
"In my defense, he wanted advice about a girl he's interested in."
"Oh. Crap. I am still the bad guy. Well, the bad guy comes bringing delicious whiskey." He'd put it a bag so it was less obvious, and pulled it out, the light shining on the faceted bottle that was pretty enough to use as a decanter once it was empty. "You have glasses?"
"But of course." She wished it was the sixties, like on Mad Men only without the chauvinism or racism or lack of smartphones. But with the cool barware displayed in every office. She stood and reached into the cabinets over her terminal and pulled out two plastic cups. "Not fine crystal, I'm afraid."
"They'll do." He poured the whiskey, then handed her a glass. "To you. For being...wonderful."
"How am I wonderful?" She took a sip of the whiskey and closed her eyes. "Oh my God, this is good."
"You're wonderful because you're letting me be an idiot and still talking to me." He looked down. "She cheated on me. This should be a no-brainer."
"She did." She studied him. "But you were with her for a long time. You love her, right? And yet there's us. A sort of...emotional affair, even if we never did the deed."
"So in a sense you both cheated."
"Why am I thinking your ex got a better talk than I'm getting?" He laughed softly.
"Because I don't care if he moves on. I care very much what you decide." She leaned forward, not trying to smile her way into being less serious or threatening or whatever. "I want you to pick me. I don't want her moving here, in your apartment, on our sofa." Then she leaned back and sighed. "But I may not get what I want."
"At least you're honest."
"We've always been honest with each other, haven't we? We may have chosen not to talk about some things but otherwise...?"
"Yeah, we've always had honesty." He put his feet up on the desk. "But...I don't want to find out you've met someone while I'm dicking around."
"Then stop dicking around."
"So you're not waiting?"
"I guess I deserve that. It's just, when I took Phoenix, I deliberately put you in a box, in a corner of my heart. You were this lovely woman who I was not with—was never going to be with—and I tried to be what Heather needed me to be. And then I found out she was cheating, and I got the offer to move back here, but it had to be at once." He sighed. "I leaped. Out of there. Into this. I never...processed what I felt or how it hurt or anything. I guess that's what Heather and I are doing now."
"And that makes sense." She wished it didn't. She wished she could be mad at him. But if she did win him, she wanted to really win. So he needed to work through this. She just wouldn't tell him she wasn't looking for another guy—let him think he might lose her if he snoozed too long.
"For what it's worth, I think Heather and I are processing ourselves out of the relationship. Please—please be patient? I know I have no right to ask you to wait. But I am asking you to wait."
She studied him, the way his mouth turned down when he was serious, the way he didn't look away, holding her gaze as if by force of will. To give him this was to give him a lot of power in their relationship. It meant she was trusting him not to trample her heart.
But she'd waited so long already. Even if she'd never admitted to Ellen that it was what she was doing. Maybe it had been. Maybe she'd picked guys like Luke because they'd never actually be a threat if this man was finally free.
"Chris?" His mouth was turning down, like he thought she was going to kick him to the curb.
"Don't make me wait too long, Kirk, or I'll be gone."
By the way he nodded, she could tell he believed her. "For what it's worth, it's easier, when I see her face on my phone. It's less...raw. It's less...anything."
She tilted her head, processing. "That sounds encouraging." She didn't let too much hope sneak into her voice.
"I don't want to promise you something I can't give. And if I were with you, I'd want to give you everything."
"Everything sounds nice."
"It really, really does." He took a deep breath, as if he was deciding whether to say something.
"She wanted to get married. I'd done so much for her, but I wouldn't do that, no matter how much she hinted. Maybe the affair was payback for that, too." He met her eyes. "I was in, but there was a limit. And I think that was because of you. Because for all the things she and I had, we never had the comfort and fun you and I do, and if I ever do marry, I want that. Does that make sense?"
"Perfect sense, actually."
"Good. I'm not sure I ever really analyzed it that way." He shook his head, his expression changing to one less serious, which she appreciated. This kind of talk could only go so far.
"Give me some more of that fine, fine hooch." She held her glass out and he poured her a little more. Neither of them drank that much when they were driving. She pulled out a bag of mixed nuts and they munched as they drank—an empty stomach was no drinker's friend.
"How about this?" he said, as he dug around in the bag clearly on a search for the pistachios, which she allowed since the cashews were her favorite. "We both have the shows recorded, so let's watch them at our own places but talk on the phone."
"Are you serious? People who talk during a movie drive you nuts." They'd been to plenty of movies. It was safe and fun and it gave them things to talk about at dinner afterwards that weren't his relationship or work.
"But this is different. It'll have to do until we're in the same room."
"We can try it." She grinned. "But not tonight. I think I'm going to crash when I get home." She motioned toward the window. "And home may be a long way away judging from the traffic out there."
He got up and walked to the window. "I'm going to remember I can get an instant traffic report from you. Yikes. Is this what it's like during the holidays?"
"Yep. Peril of working near the malls."
He walked over to her, took the bottle and put it in the cabinet where she kept the glasses. "Keeping it here will give me a reason to come back."
"Oh, sure, like I'm not enough."
"Well, just in case you were wondering how I felt about you. A man does not keep whiskey this fine with a gal who's not mighty important to him."
"I really, really believe that. Now get out and let me work." She was staring up at him, a smile playing on her lips that she knew she was letting turn sexy. He leaned down, moving slowly, and whispered, "Stop me if you want."
"I don't want to stop you." She let him kiss her, his mouth on hers sweet and light. A kiss that was more promise than anything. She didn't open her mouth to him; he didn't seem to expect her to.
She reached up and cupped his cheek. "I really, really, really want to win." Then she pulled him back and kissed him a little more seriously. She could feel the chemistry between them zinging madly; the way this man made her feel was worth waiting for. She thought by the way he was moaning that the sparkage going off between them was not lost on him.
She finally let him go and ducked away. "Now, go. Quit distracting me."
He laughed, muttered something that sounded like, "Vixen," and left her in peace.
Chris smiled as she replayed the kiss. She had no intention of taking this too far, but maybe to win the battle, she needed to at least fire a few shots.
Chris laughed as Kirk pulled her into the snow-covered streets of the Town Center. She slid for a moment on a piece of ice, then her expensive snow boots found some traction. Stupid snow storm on the first day of spring. "Happy freakin' equinox."
He pulled her closer, dropping his arm around her as they walked. "I can't believe it was nearly seventy for Saint Paddy's and now I get back to this."
"Perils of living on a climate bubble. Never sure if we're the south or the northeast." She reached around, hugging him close, glad he was back. "You should have stayed in L.A. if you wanted warm."
"I could have, you know. Beach bunnies and palm trees for the weekend but no, I came back here. Because I wanted to spend the equinox with you. Spring is officially ours." He said the last bit in a pompous voice, as if he was announcing "the Lord and Lady Marlboro" at some ball. "Actually, remember that Buffy episode where it snowed and they were walking like this right past the theater?" He pointed at the cinema marquee as they passed.
"Only that was at Christmas and this isn't mystical snow."
"No, it's very real. So what did you end up doing for Saint Patrick's? Did you pick up some guy in a rowdy Irish bar?"
"As if." She shook her head. "I stayed in, actually. Bought a bottle of Irish whiskey I'd never had before and sat on the balcony with a glass. It was a lovely evening." Their weather really was schizophrenic at times. It was a wonder they weren't all sick. "What'd you do?"
"Went out with the clients."
"They wuv you. Hector is so happy."
"They better wuv me, the number of times I've been out there for things I would normally not be at." He pulled her around so she was facing him. "I think I deserve a kiss for that, don't you?"
Ever since that kiss in her office, he'd been amazingly liberal in what he thought he deserved kisses for.
She pretended to think about it. But it wasn't hard: she liked kissing him.
"A happy Hector may mean a raise for you, too."
"Oh, fine." She gave him a quick but thorough kiss. It turned into something longer and normally, she'd have pulled back, but his phone hadn't rung all night, and it was a magical night with the snow and him back when she hadn't expected him to be.
"There's no way I could have stayed in L.A.," he said when they finally pulled away. "I missed you."
"I missed you, too."
"We should make a ritual. The first night of spring, no matter the weather, we take a walk, hand in hand, and kiss."
"What if it's an ice storm?" She laughed at his expression. "I'm paid to foresee problems and plan for them."
"We'll walk hand in hand under cover."
"What if we're not together?" That one was less fun, but she wanted to see what he'd do with it.
He pulled her in for another kiss. "I'd say that's not a very likely scenario."
She could have asked if that meant he and Heather were really, finally done—as in nail in the coffin, put a stake in it, kaput. But in case the answer was that he still wasn't sure, she didn't want to spoil the night, so she just grinned and asked, "What if we're in different cities because of work?"
"Then we do it while talking on the phone." He pushed her into a store entrance, out of the snow and conveniently also sheltered from the glances of the other people that were out walking. He pushed back her hair and just stared at her.
"You're making me nervous."
"Don't be." He kissed her, more tenderly than he ever had. And she thought he mouthed something against her cheek.
She thought it was "I love you."
She mouthed it back, into the air, into the night, where in case this went south, it wouldn't be right there for him to know.
But doing it made her feel warm, not cold. Even if she wasn't sure of them together, she was sure of how she felt right at this moment—and that she hadn't been wrong to not settle for less than this. It might kill her for a while if he and Heather got back together, but she'd spend the rest of her life looking for this. Not him, specifically, but this feeling. This lovely warmth and feeling of security. Which made no sense given the uncertainty, but there it was. This was what she wanted—preferably with him.
"I'm starving. Are you starving?" He tucked her scarf into her jacket a little more securely.
"I am." What she really wanted to do was kiss more, but she let him pull her down the street as they looked for a place that wasn't closed for snow.
The Thai place was open so they ducked in, laughing as they hung up their winter gear. It was surprisingly crowded and they had to wait a while for a table so they sat at the bar and he surprised her by ordering them an aged Thai rum instead of whiskey.
When it came, he held his glass to her. "To spring, and the gorgeous woman I'm welcoming it in with."
"To spring." She took a sip. The rum was smooth and sweet—but robust and not unlike whiskey in some ways. Rum to her meant tiki and limes and exotic fruits but this was the kind of thing you could while a quiet evening away with. She'd definitely have to revise her thinking. "This is good."
"Right? I had it in L.A. the other day. I thought you'd like it."
"You're usually right."
"I usually am, aren't I?"
His phone buzzed and she could feel herself tensing. Heather's picture lit up the screen, but he didn't get up to take it out of her hearing, just answered it and said, "Hey."
She thought the way he said it was the same casual way she talked to Luke, but maybe she was just projecting, because she wanted that to be true so damn badly.
"It's in the box in the hall closet. No, the white box." He rolled his eyes and she laughed. "The one that says 'Tax info.' Yeah, that one."
She laughed harder.
"Heather, just give that stuff to Glen and the receipts I sent you. He'll make sure you get the most you can get. Yes, he will require payment—that's how accountants work. Yes, it will still be worth it. Okay. All right. Bye." He cut the connection. "Oh, my God. I've done the taxes for eight years. You'd think it was rocket science."
She laughed, partly because if they had an accountant he trusted, what was the problem? But also because he sounded peeved not...hurt, the way talking about Heather had made him seem to feel before.
"Did she buy the townhouse from you?" This was uncharted territory; she'd been careful to stay out of their joint business.
"Actually, it's proving to be too much for her. So I'm buying it. I'll keep it as an income investment. It's in a neighborhood that's skyrocketing in value."
The hostess came over then, leading them to a table and motioning for a server to bring over a plate of satay, murmuring that it was on the house.
They ate happily and she let him order for them when the server came back. He didn't seem to want to keep talking about Phoenix or Heather, and that was fine with her. Especially since the phone didn't ring again during the rest of their dinner.
After dinner, he walked her to the door of her building and she wanted more than anything to invite him up and celebrate spring in the lusty way people had been doing for centuries, but maybe the weather was a clue that this was not the time to break down. Winter wasn't quite over—and neither was her wait.
But she pulled him to her out of the snow and not in full view of the concierge desk and kissed him for a long time, then murmured, "Happy spring, Kirk," and went into her building.
When she turned back, he was still there, staring in, a sweet smile on his face.
"Is she in?" Chris heard Kirk ask Marina, and he barely waited for the answer as he came barreling in.
"Is there a crisis?"
"No. Well, yes. In L.A. So I have to go out again tonight. But, I wanted you to see something." He did something to his phone and then thrust it at her. It said "Trigger" and had a picture of a chocolate lab.
"That's your dog in Phoenix, isn't it? And he has his own phone number?"
"Exactly." He was looking at her like she needed to start getting the point of whatever he was trying to say.
She laughed and tried to hand the phone back. "As messages go, this is sort of existential."
He pointed at the number. "That's Heather's number."
"I still don't get it."
"Look for her." He laughed at her expression. "No, really, search the numbers in my address book."
She did as he asked. No Heather. She looked up at him and shook her head slightly, not wanting to feel hope when she still wasn't sure she understood.
"This worked so much better in my head." He shut the door, calling out to Marina to hold her calls, then walked around, pulled her out of her chair and into his arms, and said, "The only reason Heather will be calling me now is if she needs anything for Trigger. Like, you know, money for surgery or some test."
"You mean? You guys are...?"
"Are really, really, really finished." He touched the dog's picture. "Except for him. Because you leave the person, not the animal, you know?"
She tried to bite back the stupidly big grin that was growing, but gave it up when he picked her up and spun her around.
"I'm free, you idiot," he whispered in her ear, nuzzling it for good measure.
"Don't even call me an idiot for that—it was so not an immediate leap from a picture of your dog to you being free." He was still holding her, so she leaned in and kissed him, to let him know that, even if she disagreed with his assessment of her ability to follow his logic, she wasn't opposed to the actual content of the message.
"I'm free." He nuzzled her neck.
"She'll still call about taxes, not just the dog."
"Yeah, okay, but that's not emotional."
"Or if something gets clogged."
"No, that will be the renters. Because she's moved out."
"Oh. Wow. So, she really is out of your life."
He nodded. "So stop spinning scenarios for a second and enjoy this."
"I can't believe you have to leave right after you tell me."
He pulled her in for another kiss and murmured, "We could have a quickie. This desk looks perfect for—"
"Don't even go there. This is our work place. And after all this time of me waiting for you, you'll just have to wait for me." She nuzzled against him and he groaned. "But I'm sure not going to play fair right at this moment." She ground against him just a little bit harder.
He drew her in, kissing her with more passion than before, and said, "I'll be home late Saturday. Sunday, I want to see you Sunday."
"It's Easter, silly." How could it be the start of April already?
"It is but you're not religious."
She laughed. "No, but I promised I'd go to Ellen's for brunch. It's a family thing. So you should come with me."
"Yeah." And then she started to laugh because Luke was coming too and bringing Maddie to meet the fam. "My ex will be there with his new squeeze."
"Then I have to be there. If he's going to be." He nuzzled her. "I know I wasn't fair to you. Making you wait."
She smoothed his hair and he closed his eyes so she filed that away as something he liked. "You were fair, though. You never lied to me. You never gave me false expectations. You told me you were figuring things out. And it wasn't exactly unpleasant finding out how much I like being around you even without the romance. It was my choice to wait."
"Why did you wait?"
"No one better came along." She stuck her tongue out at him just to add more snark to the answer.
"Very mature. Seriously, though, why?"
"Because for five years you were my benchmark for what I wanted from a guy. And I didn't find it, but then you came back. Sort of. I could have looked for something else but when the real guy is right in front of you..." She touched his cheek, cupping it and smiling as he leaned in. "We have sparkage." She hoped he'd understand that term.
"Yes. Yes, we do." He closed his eyes, pressing his hand over hers. "But we have a lot more than that, too. I like you, Chris Kelly. And in the long run, that's just as important as sparkage."
"True but sparkage is key. It's why Felicity and not Laurel. It's why Mulder and Scully. It's why Buffy and—"
"Spike," he said as she said "Angel."
"Uh, there may be trouble in paradise here. Spike? Really?" She started to laugh. "Well, we'll have something to argue about, at least."
"I'll call you from L.A. We can debate it to our heart's content."
He sighed and seemed to force himself away from her. "I don't want to go."
"You have to go."
"I know." He stood, staring.
"Are you memorizing my face?"
"You have a camera, dipshit. With selfies of us together."
"But that was before."
She moved to him. "Take one now. The day you greenlit this thing finally."
He laughed as he snapped the shot. "We look cute together."
She nodded as she studied the pic. They looked so happy in it. Before she could ask him to send her a copy, he did it on his own. She loved that he just knew.
"There," he said, as he stole a quick kiss then headed for the door. "You'll have something to look at longingly, too. I miss you already."
"Get outta here. What do you think this is—some kind of lame rom com, Spike-lover?" She laughed at his expression.
"Spike didn't have a curse, Toots. Something to be said for that." Then he turned and walked out, calling a cheery "Bye" to Marina.
Who walked in a few moments later. "Everything okay?"
"Everything is wonderful."
They shared the silent smile of women who knew they were loved, then Marina said, "Well, not to break up your bliss, but Hector wants to see you. New project to bid on. Proposals are due Friday. Planning meeting in fifteen minutes in the main conference room. You might want to touch up your lipstick before you go." With a wink, she left her in peace.
As Chris pulled out the pocket mirror she kept behind her phone for quick checks, she thanked the Universe, or whoever looked out for people who were sick of being patient, for this new project. She and her team would be working their butts off all week. Which meant less time to miss Kirk.
It would probably be the only time she'd ever be happy to hear about a short-turnaround request for proposals.
Chris leaned back and closed her eyes, dozing as Kirk drove. "So. Damn. Early."
"You're the one who said yes to Easter brunch at your sister's."
"You're the one who called me the minute you got home last night—make that this morning—and talked for three hours."
"I missed you. So sue me. I could have come over."
"Sure, because that would end up with us just talking." She glanced over to see if he was pouting, and he was. "I see no reason to rush things now." She laughed as his expression got even more morose. "Waiting is good for the soul, buster. Just ask me how I know."
"And since you're the one driving, I'm going to sleep." Even if the trip was only going to take about fifteen minutes. She could get a power nap.
"I think I'm done travelling for a while. Hector sent me a 'Happy Easter' text. He said he thought the clients were soothed sufficiently for me to cut back."
So much for naps. But that was okay if news like this was coming. "He could give out chocolate bunnies but no, all you get is an Easter text."
"Good news is better than candy. If it means more time with you."
"Aww. And there'll be a chocolate bunny in your future, if I know my sister. She hasn't met a holiday yet that doesn't call for decorations or gift bags. Easter is one of her favs."
"So, is she happy for us?"
"Mmmmm...?" She could lie but why start that now? "She knows how I feel about you. And that I've felt that way for a long time. She also knows it took you an ungodly long time to unload your ex." She laughed at his expression. "I'm kidding. I played that part down. And she knows you were travelling a lot."
"But she liked you with Luke, right?"
"She did. But I think she'll forgive me for not taking to Luke when she sees that we're both much happier with other people."
There was no traffic so they got to Ellen's neighborhood quickly. It was another crazy D.C. weather day. Perfect blue sky and sun so if you didn't know better, you'd swear it was a warm April day, but it was only in the high forties. It had been warmer during the week, though, so everything was in bloom.
Tyler and Mia ran out as she reached into the back for the Easter bags she'd put together for them. They grabbed them and ran back inside after yelling, "Hi!" to Kirk and her.
"I think the gift bag thing runs in the family."
"There were so many cute things. And you were on the road so I needed shopping to distract me." She grinned. "Also, Ellen won't buy them black things—well, shoes, she will, but not clothes. So I do it."
"You found Easter things that were black?"
"Oh, yeah. It's an art." She laughed. "You'll hear about it. It's a game at this point. And she'll let them keep all the stuff. She just won't buy anything black for them herself."
"I have no idea. Our mom was the same way." She laughed as Ellen came out to stand on the porch, hands on her hips. "I got Mia this adorable black jean jacket with flower and bunny appliqus. It's so cute. Ellen will be especially annoyed."
Mia pushed past Ellen, wearing the jacket and screaming, "I love it," as she ran up to Chris.
"Let me out, munchkin." She scooped her up as soon as she got out of the car. "Mia, this is Kirk."
He started to laugh. "So are you, young lady."
"Are you my aunt's boyfriend?"
"I am." He said it with no hesitation and a lovely happy lilt.
"I like him." She struggled to get down. "I have to open the rest of my stuff."
And she was off.
He laughed as he watched her go. "The boy?"
"Tyler will open everything all at once, very slowly and carefully. Come on, you need to meet him." She led him over to Ellen, giving her sister a huge hug. "Happy Easter." When she pulled away, she said, "And this is Kirk Mitchell, Ellen."
"The infamous Kirk." Ellen squinted, as if she was having to decide whether or not she liked him.
"The infamous Ellen." He had a crooked half grin going that made him look adorable. "I love your sister. Your children are beautiful. It's nice to meet you."
"Wow. You know how to cover the important stuff right at the door. Happy Easter and come out of the cold."
As he followed her in, he was introduced to Larry and Tyler.
Chris looked around. "Luke and Maddie?"
"In the family room, watching—something sports. I don't know."
Ellen made mimosas for her and Kirk, then shooed them out of the kitchen, saying, "Go say hi to them."
They walked past the dining room table, decorated beautifully and with little bags at each place.
"Man, you weren't kidding," Kirk said. "That looks like it's out of a magazine."
"I know. She's really good at this stuff. I'm not." She pulled him toward the family room.
Luke looked up as she walked in with Kirk and introduced them. She worried for a second that he might be hurt, but instead he stood and pulled Maddie up with him.
"This is Maddie, Chris." His smile was huge. Maddie's was wary as she looked at Chris, but it grew warmer when she turned to Kirk.
But then she took Chris by the elbow and sort of steered her down the hall out of earshot.
"I know you went out with Luke."
"Yes. I did."
"You can't have him back." She looked very serious about the whole thing, like she was trying to establish she was alpha in this.
"Okay. I'm with Kirk so that works out well."
"But Luke calls you."
"Hardly ever anymore. That's because of you. He's really happy. I'm glad. I didn't make him happy." She could tell Maddie hadn't expected her to be so honest.
"It's just really clear that it matters to him that you like me."
She debated telling her that shoving the ex into the hall to have it out wasn't the best way to make that happen, but Luke had said that Maddie was very direct. "Okay."
"Does it matter to you if Luke likes your new guy?"
"Not in the least." She saw Maddie relax—apparently that was the right answer. "Luke's yours." She heard Mia yelling for her. "If you'll excuse me, I have a niece to spoil."
She ran into Kirk as she went into the kitchen.
"What was that?"
"I'm not sure. I think she was laying claim to Luke."
He laughed. "I'm okay with that."
"So am I. Is that the right answer?"
"Mmm hmmm." He pulled her in for a quick kiss.
"Ick." Tyler was standing in the hallway, holding the cars she'd bought him. "These are awesome, Aunt Chris."
"I thought you'd like them."
Tyler looked up at Kirk. "Cars are way more fun than girls."
"Maybe when you're six they are."
"Sorry, man. My bad."
Tyler laughed at that. "You want to see my car collection?"
"Sure, buddy, show me what you got." He followed Luke down the hall.
She went the opposite direction, following the sound of Mia calling for her. "Munchkin, I'm coming."
"I like my presents." She lifted her arms up and Chris obliged her, even though she was way heavier at five than she'd been as a baby. But still, get the cuddles while the kids still wanted to give them. Mia snuggled in, her lips on Chris's neck. "Everything's black. Everything." She was laughing as she said it.
"I did good, huh?"
"You did really good."
She carried Mia into the kitchen and sat with her at the counter while Ellen worked, so they could all be together.
"Are you going to marry your boyfriend?"
"Mia, don't ask her that." Ellen shook her head. "I think she's taking blunt lessons from the new girl."
So it wasn't just her who thought Maddie was direct. Although the kids pretty much just said whatever they thought, so she didn't think that could be blamed on a woman they'd just met.
"Where is your boyfriend?"
"Checking out Tyler's car collection."
"Wow, he invited him to see it? He's been so shy lately."
"He caught us kissing. I think he might be trying to save Kirk from girl cooties."
"Ah, that makes sense."
Mia turned and did air kisses, adding ooh and ahh sound effects. "Kissing is fun."
Ellen stopped what she was doing and turned. "You know that how?"
"It wakes up the princesses in fairy tales." She shrugged. "And the girls in the make-up commercials kiss their boyfriends."
"So you haven't been kissing anyone in school?"
Chris laughed. "I remember Mom telling that story about how you had a boyfriend when you were two. You used to sit on the front porch and kiss and kiss."
"Don't give her ideas." But Ellen was laughing. "I wish I could remember that. Figures: my wild days were as a toddler."
"Wild days are overrated. I'm looking forward to being boring and settled."
Ellen smiled. "I'm looking forward to that, too. I just want you to be happy."
They could hear Tyler's voice as he explained something about his soccer team, then Kirk followed him into the kitchen.
"Kiddo, let your aunt's new guy catch his breath. You've got hours to bond with him." She shooed both children out of the kitchen, then handed Chris a bag of small foil-wrapped chocolate eggs. "You know the drill, Sis."
She took Kirk's hand and led him out to the back yard. "Okay, this is our task. Hide these. Not so well they can't find them and get frustrated. Not so easily they find them all at once and feel cheated. Got it?"
They moved around the garden, hiding things, laughing at some of the stranger places they put things. Kirk kept stealing kisses from her, making the egg hiding take way longer than it should have.
"There," she said as she surveyed their work. A few pieces of foil were apparent—she knew Tyler would let Mia find those—but the rest would be fun for both of them. "The rug rats will be happy with this."
"We've never talked about kids. Do you want them?"
"Is it over if I say no?"
"It's not over." But he sounded uncertain.
"Do you think I want kids?"
"You were eyeing kids' clothes in the mall on Valentine's Day."
"For these two. Not my future ones." She studied him. "I like kids but I can't say my biological clock is going off—I'm not sure I have one." She worked so much; kids had always seemed like something other people had.
"I like Ellen's kids. A lot."
"They're wonderful. Other people's kids are great because you can do the drop-in and spoil thing and then leave. Without them." She snuggled into him. "But I've been thinking of getting a kitten."
"I like cats. Two kittens are better than one." He kissed her gently. "Maybe we could wait until you're willing to live with me—or let me live with you or we buy a place together—and then we could get kittens that could be ours?"
"That would be nice."
He had a funny look on his face so she asked, "What is it?"
"I don't want to rule kids out completely. I mean I can imagine some down the line."
"Yeah?" She smiled. "It would depend on the guy."
"For argument's sake, pretend it's me." He made a funny face at her.
"Okay, not ruling them out. Just...I don't want to have them right away. I want to enjoy you."
"That sounds wonderful."
She took his hand and they walked through the garden, really looking at it now that they weren't hiding chocolates. The daffodils and narcissus were everywhere. Whoever had the house before Ellen and Larry must have thrown up bulbs, but the end result was haphazardly gorgeous. "They say yellow is the first color our eye is drawn to."
"Green-eyed blondes are the first color this man's eyes are drawn to."
"Aww, big romantic." She kissed him as a thank-you, then pointed at a ground cover with bright periwinkle flowers. "What's that?"
"How the hell would I know?" He laughed. "You will not be marrying a gardener."
"I won't be marrying you, either, since you haven't asked me." She turned to get a closer look at the flowers, but then he tugged at her sleeve and she realized he'd gone down on one knee. "Oh, shit, no. I didn't mean you had to..."
He pulled a small box out of his jacket pocket. The box was empty. He didn't seem upset by this fact.
She started to laugh. "Sweetie, you lost the ring."
"There is no ring. Because you're very particular. You think I'm going to unilaterally pick out something you have to wear all the time?" He laughed. "I also know it's insanely sudden since I've only been technically free for a week. But we've been sort of dating for several months."
"If you squint."
"We were dating. We just didn't know if it was for keeps. But that's not my whole case."
She couldn't keep a straight face; he looked so earnest. "Fine, continue."
"We've known each other so long."
"We had a five-year gap where I saw you the few times you were in town."
"Okay, but did you forget about me? Didn't it give you a warm fuzzy to know I was coming out, even for a few days? Because it sure made me happy to think I'd get to see you again."
He was right. She'd loved the times he visited the home office. "Fine. Argument accepted."
"Good. So, I realize we have to sort out how we work as a real couple that does more than just grab drinks or do a movie and dinner. But we can suss all that out during a long engagement, right?"
"Or we could date for a long time and have a short engagement."
"I'd rather not wait. Maybe I've just listened to that 'Put a ring on it' song too many times."
She laughed. "So I guess you want to lock this down toot suite?"
"Damn straight, woman." He grinned but then his expression turned serious. "Chris, you know me. Once I'm in, I'm in. And you're beautiful and amazing and I know—I truly do know—how lucky I am that you waited." He started to laugh. "Throw me a bone. Say you'll go shopping for an engagement ring."
"Fine, but it's going to be a really long engagement."
"And I hate weddings. I want to have a big party instead. After we're married. No white dress. No presents. Just fun." She'd thought a lot about this. Usually at every wedding she'd had to sit through.
"Or maybe we'll tell them to buy us whiskey. We can build our collection."
"That's a great idea." He was grinning in a silly way. "No white dress and lots of whiskey. You're the perfect woman."
"Don't I know it?" She laughed when he rolled his eyes. "Fine, okay. I'll go ring shopping with you."
Ellen chose that moment to open the slider and poke her head out. She cocked her head and took in his pose, still down on one knee. "Is he proposing?" she asked, way louder than was necessary.
"I don't think the entire neighborhood heard you, Sis." She pulled him up.
"You're proposing on Easter?" She looked like she didn't think the blending of holiday and personal event was a good idea.
"No, I planned to do it the next time I saw her, which was today, which just happens to be Easter."
"Hmm." It came out more a grunt than any kind of acceptance.
Chris tried not to laugh. Kirk was going to get a big dose of Ellen today whether he liked it or not.
"Let's see the ring."
"Yeah, about that—we're picking it out together." He sounded tentative, like maybe he thought he'd miscalculated. That he should have bought her one.
So she grabbed his arm and snuggled in. It was time to show Ellen they were a united front. "He knows me well, this one. I want a say in what goes on my hand."
"He must know you well." She made a face and said to Kirk, "She'll deny it, but I know she takes every gift I give her back."
"Not every one. And if you'd just give a gift card..."
"But that's no fun."
"This is a very old argument, I think," he said winking at them, and sounding glad he was finally not the center of Ellen's attention.
"So, El, what is this?" She pointed at the covering of periwinkle flowers.
"Vinca. I had to look it up when it started to bloom. Apparently it's invasive, but it's so pretty. This yard is going to be a lot of work. I don't suppose you garden, do you, new guy?"
Kirk shook his head, and Chris bit back a laugh at the name. He was saved from having to say more when Luke and Maddie came out followed by Larry and the kids.
"They're engaged. I think." Ellen looked at Luke with a "How are you taking that?" look.
"Congratulations!" He seemed sincerely happy for them.
"Can I see the ring?" Maddie asked.
"There's no ring. It's a them thing." Ellen took her by the arm. "Do you garden?"
"Not by choice."
"El, don't harass Maddie." Chris grinned when Maddie shot her a grateful look for the help.
"You can find a service or something online, Ellen. Wow it's cold out here. Winter's not giving up, I guess." As Maddie escaped Ellen's grip and turned Luke to go back into the house, Chris heard her say, "If you end up asking me to marry you, you better have a ring."
Kirk wrapped his arms around her. "She thinks I'm cheap."
"I know you're smart. Which is more important?"
"Excellent point." He pulled her closer and kissed her tenderly.
"God, you two, get a room." Ellen shooed the kids and Larry inside. But she stopped for a moment and grinned at them both. "Welcome to the family, Kirk," she said gently as she went inside.
"Thanks." He sounded truly touched.
Chris felt a little lump in her throat at her sister's acceptance. "I told you she'd like you."
"That was her liking me? Oh, man."
"Changing your mind?"
"Not on your life. And she had an excellent idea about getting a room. A room, with a bed, would be nice. How many years of foreplay have we had now?"
"Oh, sure, you think that since we're engaged, you can get the milk for free." She gave him a stern look. "And if you say you're willing to buy the cow, we're done."
"I'm not dumb enough to say that." He pulled her along with him as they checked out more flowers. "I think these are tulips. Just coming up."
"I remember them blooming all together."
"Me, too. Maybe it's a bulb thing."
"A bulb thing?" She laughed. "If we buy a new place, we are so not getting a big yard. We'll be hopeless."
"Or if we do, we'll also get a landscaping service."
"Right. That. I like the deck, though. This lovely view, a nice drink on a summer night. Maybe a fire pit?"
"A roof terrace would be nice, too. Have you seen the new places going in at the Town Center? They look amazing."
"Mmm, do we have to pick now? Summer seems very far away and I want to enjoy this moment." She snuggled into him.
"Not when I'm with you." They kissed for a long time, but then she realized she couldn't feel her fingers. "Okay, I actually am really cold."
"Me, too." He grabbed her hand and they ran, laughing, to the sliding door.
He opened it, but before he could go in, she whispered, "Hey, new guy?"
He started to laugh. "Yeah, that's gonna be a fun nickname. What, affianced one?"
"When we're done here, lets go back to your place and break in our couch."
"Break it in how?" He didn't turn but she could hear the grin in his voice.
"You're a smart boy. You'll think of something. I mean, we've got all this sparkage. We should use it right?"
He turned, his megawatt smile as beautiful as she'd ever seen it. "You're on."
© 2018 by Kim Strattford