Authors: Marie Ferrarella
Kara opened the car door and looked inside. There was still the faint new-car smell. The interior was utterly pristine. No junk, no crumbs, not a single thing to testify that anyone had even ridden in the car. Her own car looked as if she were living out of it. She was glad he hadn’t seen it. It would only give him added ammunition to make fun of her.
Getting in and buckling her seat belt, she said, “You just had this detailed, didn’t you?”
“Detailed?” he repeated as he did the same, his eyebrows drawing together over a nose that would make sculptors and plastic surgeons alike weak with envy. “What do you mean by ‘detailed’?”
He watched as a smile unfurled on her lips. If it hadn’t been at his expense, he would have enjoyed the sight.
“I forgot. You’re not a car person.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is
” he said pointedly.
She knew he was just saying that because he felt lacking in that department—and embarrassed about it. She doubted if the E.R. doctor knew very much beyond where the key went and where he put the gas. Still, she couldn’t help bristling at the put-down.
“There’s nothing fanatical about knowing how a car works or where the dipstick goes,” she informed him haughtily.
“I have a suggestion where to put the dipstick,” he muttered under his breath. “And if you really want to convince anyone that I’d actually voluntarily spend time with you, I suggest you stop being so damn antagonistic and taking apart everything I say.”
Instantly, Kara felt her back go up. “I don’t—”
She got no further. Inserting the key into the ignition, Dave gave her a look that said, “Yes, you do.” The awful part was that she knew she really couldn’t argue with him. She was being antagonistic, but only because she felt he was being condescending.
The reason didn’t matter, she told herself. She had to work on her attitude, work on her delivery. Neither of their mothers were going to be taken in by this charade if they saw her with her hands wrapped around Dave’s throat, choking the life out of him.
She paused to pull herself together before saying anything. Two deep breaths later, she finally murmured, “Sorry.” Another fortifying deep breath came and went before she added, “I’ll try to act like I think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
“Don’t go overboard,” he cautioned. “Neither of our mothers is going to buy into that. If you ask me, they’re not even going to buy that we’re dating.”
He was wrong there and she really wanted to say it that way, but she settled for a more diplomatic delivery. “They’ll buy into it because that’s what they were hoping for by sending me to you bearing a video game, remember?” She thought for a moment, searching for a plausible excuse as to why they initially got together. “We can tell them, if they ask why we’re seeing each other, that we’re catching up on the years since we last saw each other. Since that covers about eighteen years, it should take us a bit.”
“Sounds reasonable enough, I guess,” he conceded. “But to make that work, you realize we’re actually going to have to exchange some information.”
He sounded as if he was putting her on notice, she thought. She had nothing to hide. Her only problem was going to be staying awake to listen to eighteen years of his life.
“I’m game,” she told him.
Dave pressed down on the accelerator, making it through the light at the crosswalk just before it turned red.
“Okay, what have you been doing these last eighteen years—in fifty words or less?” he qualified as she opened her mouth.
This, Kara thought darkly, was definitely not going to be a walk in the park. Why in heaven’s name would her mother think she would
want to become romantically involved with this man? Other than his looks and maybe his selflessness, he had nothing going for him.
She reminded herself that this was to teach her mother a lesson. Eventually, it would all be worth it. If she survived.
take it your cousin likes balloons,” Kara observed, an amused smile curving her lips.
There’d been three balloons, one blue, one white, one yellow, attached to the sign right outside his cousin’s residential development along with an arrow pointing the way to the party. Another three balloons, comprised of the same colors, and another arrow were on the street sign at the first corner. Three more balloons again at the next turn and so on until they had reached the block—a cul-de-sac—where the party was taking place and, if parked cars and noise level were any indication, was currently in full swing.
She could see that the mailbox of a two-story house in the center of the block had not just three but six balloons, again comprised of the same three colors, indicating journey’s end. As if that were actually necessary.
“Melissa just didn’t want to take the chance that anyone would go the wrong way,” Dave told her as they entered the cul-de-sac.
He pulled up into the first available parking space he saw. It was also the
available parking space on either side of the street. A convention of SUVs hugged every available inch of curb space not only along both sides of the block, but trickling down toward the next block, as well.
Dave unbuckled his seat belt. But as he started to get out, Kara put her hand on his wrist, stopping him. Puzzled, he looked at her. “Change your mind?”
Having gotten him to play along, there was no way she was going to abandon her plan now. That was the whole point.
“No, I just want to remind you that we’re supposed to be into each other. That means you’re going to have to hold my hand and not look at me as if you’d really rather be attending my vivisection.”
He deliberately looked intrigued. “You’re having a vivisection?”
“Don’t get cute. You know what I mean. Just act as if you actually like me.”
He shook his head, a dubious expression on his face. “That’s an awful lot of acting you’re asking for,” he cracked. “I don’t know if I’m up to it.
Her eyes held his, trying to determine if he was being flippant or if there was more than a small vein of truth to his words. Maybe it was time to have it out in the open.
“You hate me that much?” she wanted to know.
He thought he heard a hint of vulnerability in her voice. Probably just his imagination. He really doubted that Kara had had a vulnerable moment in her life. But on the outside chance that her question was actually serious—and that his answer mattered—he told her the truth.
“I never hated you—well, almost never,” he amended, remembering a couple of incidents that involved purple paint and a great many showers afterward. He’d lost count just how many it had taken to get the hue off his skin the second time. “It was more that I was very leery of you. I never knew what you were going to pull next.”
Okay, maybe she had been a little hard on him, but it wasn’t as if he was an innocent in all this. “Maybe if you hadn’t treated me like I was contagious, stupid and beneath you, I wouldn’t have pulled anything.” He looked at her for a long moment without saying a word. But she could read his expression. “Okay,” she relented, amending her initial statement. “Maybe a few things, but you would have never had to submit yourself to being scrubbed down with nail polish remover.”
He’d forgotten about that. The distance of time allowed him to laugh at the memory. “I guess I should count myself lucky that I even survived my childhood with you around.”
“That goes double for me,” she countered.
He looked at her incredulously. Was she kidding? Or did she think he had amnesia? There were times she’d made his life a living hell.
“What do you mean, ‘ha’?” she challenged, ready to go a few rounds with him right now, the party and her mother notwithstanding.
“You were Kara Calhoun. You were invincible. As invincible,” he recalled, “as the comic-book heroine your dad named you after.”
He’d thought that? Somehow, she found it difficult to believe. But then, if he didn’t believe it, why had he just said it? Agreeing to her fallibility would have been more in keeping with his regular behavior, at least as it applied to her.
Something to puzzle over later, Kara told herself. Right now, they had mothers to fool.
“All water under the bridge,” she said with a shrug, getting out of his car.
Rising, he closed the door on his side. “Gee, that’s a clever saying. Mind if I use it sometime?”
“And we’re back,” she commented. But rather than being cryptic, she coupled the comment with a grin that she flashed at him.
A grin, Dave thought, that was oddly and perversely appealing. Which only meant that he needed to get in out of the sun before his brain was completely fried, he decided as he rounded the back of his vehicle and stepped onto the sidewalk next to Kara.
“All right, let’s get this over with.” Then, pausing to brace himself—an exaggerated moment for her benefit—he took Kara’s hand in his.
She leaned her head slightly into his and whispered, “It’d be a bit more romantic if your teeth weren’t clenched.”
“Baby steps, Kara. Baby steps,” he replied as he walked toward the house.
Kara did her best not to notice that when his hand enveloped hers, a strange feeling of well-being, of protection, washed over her. It was almost as if something inside her felt that all was well in heaven and God was in His kingdom.
She would have philosophically chalked it up to preperformance jitters, except that she’d never had any, not even when she’d taken to the actual stage in elementary school. She was a ham and loved the spotlight, loved being the focus of attention. This, however, felt different somehow. She decided now wasn’t the time to explore why.
“Showtime,” she murmured to Dave as they stood on the front porch, which was completely festooned with balloons.
Dave said nothing as he rang the doorbell. A moment later, the door opened. Dave’s cousin Melissa was a tall, willowy, dark-haired woman with an easy, welcoming smile. A smile, Kara realized, that resembled Dave’s a great deal.
Not that it mattered.
“Kara,” she greeted her warmly. “Dave said he’d be bringing you.” Taking Kara’s free hand in both of hers, Melissa lowered her voice before continuing, “I can’t thank you enough for getting that game for Ryan. He’s talked about nothing else since he saw the first commercial for it two months ago. Every place I tried was sold out and told me they would be for weeks. My husband, Simon, and I really hated knowing he was going to be disappointed, but now because of you, he isn’t going to be.” Dave’s cousin underscored her statement by giving Kara a fierce hug.
She was surprised that Dave had actually given her credit in this matter. Maybe he wasn’t as easy to read as she’d initially thought.
Released from the bear hug, Kara brushed off the woman’s thanks quickly. “Part of the perks for working at a company that pays dirt,” she confided flippantly. “I brought Ryan a few other games,” she added, raising the shopping bag in her hand. “They’re all age-appropriate,” she assured Melissa.
“I may never get Ryan to go to bed again.” Melissa laughed. “Just leave it on the birthday pile over there.” She pointed out a card table that had been set up on the side. Someone was calling her name and she was already withdrawing. “There are beverages in the kitchen and snacks all over the place. Please help yourself to anything you want.”
Pointedly, if perhaps a beat belatedly, Kara looked at Dave and told his cousin, “I already have everything I want.”
She hoped it wasn’t obvious that the words had stuck in her throat and had to be forced out. Dave, to his credit, didn’t look surprised. He remembered the plan. When she slanted a glance toward his cousin, Melissa was beaming, as if she was genuinely thrilled for them.
Obviously everyone in his family had, until now, just assumed Dave was going to remain a grumpy, unattached bachelor for the rest of his life, Kara thought. Apparently she was regarded as the answer to their prayers.
“Your mom’s already here,” Melissa told Dave, then glanced back at Kara. “Yours, too.”
Kara stretched her lips back in a smile that Dave found unreadable—but he could make an educated guess as to the feeling behind it.
“Wonderful,” Kara commented. Looking at Dave, she said, “Let’s put the gifts on the table, Dave.” At the last minute, she stopped herself from adding the
managing to stretch out his name instead.
“Try not to sound so stilted,” she whispered as they walked away, taking care that Melissa didn’t overhear them.
“That’s my everyday voice,” he told her, irritated. Was there anything she didn’t feel compelled to edit?
Dave let out a long breath but said nothing.
Leading the way to the growing pile of birthday gifts, Kara took the games she’d wrapped less than an hour ago and deposited them on top. Dave waited until she was finished, then added his to the stack.
“Laying it on a little thick back there, weren’t you?” he asked her.
“Melissa obviously didn’t think so,” Kara pointed out. “She looked happy.”
If that made her feel guilty, she was determined not to dwell on it. The old saying about breaking eggs and making omelets echoed in her brain.
“Besides,” she continued, also keeping her voice low, “the more in love everyone thinks we are, the more impact the breakup will have. My mother—and yours—will feel just awful that their misguided matchmaking efforts brought us nothing but pain. In the end, that should keep them from ever attempting anything like this again. I figure that’s a good thing—unless you actually like being set up on blind dates.”
Dave shivered at the mere suggestion of it. “God, no.”
“Okay, then we’re agreed.” She looked around but didn’t see her mother or his. Maybe their “audience” was out back with the children, she thought. “Could you get me something to drink?” she said to Dave.
Instead of doing as she asked, Dave physically turned her toward the kitchen and pointed. “Kitchen’s right through there. You can get it yourself.”
That wasn’t the point. No wonder he was still unattached, she thought. “You’re supposed to be willing to slay dragons for me,” she told him. “You can’t get a simple can of soda?”
“I’m saving my strength for the dragons,” he answered. “Besides, I figured you’d be insulted if I usurped your right to choose your own beverage. Trampling on your independence and all that sort of thing,” he elaborated when she looked at him quizzically.
Did he think she was that neurotic and insecure? “My independence is alive and well, thank you.” Well, they were supposed to be inseparable at this stage in their relationship, she thought. At least, so she’d heard. “Tell you what,” she proposed, taking his hand and lacing her fingers through his, “we’ll both go. I mean, since we’re in the beginning stages of euphoric infatuation. It only stands to reason that we’d want to spend every minute we can together, right?”
He looked at her, a little stunned. “You really plotted all this out, didn’t you?”
Kara raised her eyebrows until they disappeared beneath her feathery bangs. “And this surprises you?”
He thought back to all the elaborate tricks she’d played on him those summers he was forced to endure her company. Now that he reexamined them, a lot of planning must have gone into those tricks. She’d been a mini-Napoleon. Obviously, she still was.
“No, not really,” he conceded. And then a thought struck him. “This isn’t going to involve one of us getting left at the altar, is it?” Because if it did, he had a sinking feeling it would be him. He saw no reason for him to have to endure any sort of humiliation in this little charade of hers.
She stopped abruptly and looked at him. She hadn’t thought of that before. “No, but that’s not a bad idea,” she said as she turned it over in her head.
“Yes, it is,” he contradicted firmly. “A very bad idea.”
“Okay, I’ll shelve it,” she said agreeably as she resumed walking. “Temporarily.” She sidestepped another couple, flashing an absent smile at them even though she had no idea who they were.
Dave nodded at the couple. “You’ll shelve it permanently,” he snarled between clenched teeth, “or this stops right here.”
“Down, boy,” she soothed, placing a calming hand on his chest—which only irritated him further. “We’re not up to the part where we have public tiffs yet.” He made no response but his glare was boring a hole right through her. “Okay, you win,” she surrendered. “No getting left at the altar.” Kara cocked her head, giving it one last try. “Not even if it’s me?”
Dave’s one-word answer came quickly and firmly. “No.”
She thought that her being the one would have changed everything in his eyes. She was convinced the man would have enjoyed having a front-row seat to her humiliation, especially if it was in public. “Just curious. Why?”
“Because bailing out at the last minute and leaving you standing alone at the altar just isn’t something I’d do, and everyone knows it.” Because there were people within earshot, he lowered his head and his voice, talking into her ear. “Besides, that would put people in a really awkward position—not to mention there’s also the expense of getting a sitter for the afternoon, buying a wedding gift, maybe buying new clothes for the occasion, all for ultimately no reason.” There was more but he stopped abruptly because she was staring at him in amazement. “What?” he demanded.