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Page 24

Maggie smiled at him. A perfect toast, she thought, on what had turned out to be a perfect day.

After dinner and a dessert of pie and coffee and milk for Holly, they cleared the dishes, cleaned the kitchen, and put the leftovers in covered containers. Sam turned on the television, found a football game, and stretched out on a recliner. Full and replete, Holly snuggled in a corner of the sofa and promptly fell asleep. Maggie covered her with a throw blanket and sat next to Mark at the other end of the sofa. Renfield went to his dog bed in the corner and flopped down with a grunt of contentment.

Although Maggie didn’t care much about football one way or the other, she liked the ritual of watching a Thanksgiving game. It reminded her of all the Thanksgivings she had spent with her father and brothers, all of them hooting, moaning, and protesting the ref’s calls.

Alex came to the doorway. “I’m heading out now,” he said.

“Stay and watch the game,” Sam said.

“We’ll need help eating the leftovers,” Mark added.

Alex shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ve had enough family time. Nice to meet you, Maggie.”

“Nice to meet you, too.”

Sam rolled his eyes after Alex had left. “Spreading joy and sunshine wherever he goes.”

“With his marriage breaking up,” Maggie said, “it’s normal for him to go through a dark period.”

The brothers seemed to find this highly amusing. “Honey,” Mark said, “Alex has been in a dark period since the age of two.”

Eventually Maggie found herself leaning in the crook of Mark’s arm. His body was hard and warm, his shoulder supporting her head perfectly. She only half watched the game, the television screen a blur of color as she absorbed the feeling of being close to Mark.

“The mac and cheese,” he said, “was even better than I had imagined.”

“Secret ingredient.”

“What is it?”

“I won’t tell you mine unless you tell me yours.”

There was a smile in his voice. “You first.”

“I put a drizzle of truffle oil in the sauce. Now tell what you put in the coffee.”

“A hint of maple sugar.” He had taken her hand, his thumb stroking over the crests of her knuckles. The casual sensuality of his touch sent a deep, subtle quiver through her. She felt an equal measure of pleasure and despair, privately acknowledging that for a woman who had decided not to get involved, she had made a hell of a lot of questionable choices recently.

What was it Elizabeth had said?…That when it stopped feeling like flirting, that was when it became a problem. And it was impossible for Maggie to deny that it had gone beyond flirtation, far past the superficial. She could love him, if she let it happen. Deeply, passionately, ruinously.

He was the trap she had once desperately promised herself to avoid.

“I have to go,” she whispered.

“No, stay.” Mark looked into her eyes, and whatever he saw caused him to lift his hand to her cheek in the gentlest possible caress. “What is it?” he murmured.

Maggie shook her head and tried to force a smile, and pushed away from him. Every muscle tightened in protest as she left the warm comfort of his proximity. She went to Holly, who was still sleeping soundly, and bent to kiss her.

“Are you going?” Sam asked, levering himself out of the recliner.

“No need to get up,” Maggie said, but Sam came to her and put his arms around her in a brotherly hug.

“You know,” he said affably, “if you lose interest in my brother, I’m a refreshing alternative.”

Maggie laughed and shook her head.

As Mark walked outside with Maggie, he was filled with desire and liking and sympathy, all bound with a thread of frustration. He understood the conflict within her, probably better than she would have believed. And he found himself in the position of having to push her, carefully, into something she was determined never to be ready for. If it were merely a question of being patient, he would have given her all the patience in the world. But that wouldn’t be enough to get her past her fears.

He stopped her on the front porch, wanting to talk for a minute or two before they went out into the icy open breeze.

“Are you working at the shop tomorrow?” he asked.

Maggie nodded, not quite meeting his gaze. “It’s going to be pretty busy from now until Christmas.”

“How about dinner one night this week?”

That got her to look at him. Her eyes were soft and dark, her mouth edged with melancholy. “Mark, I…” She stopped and swallowed hard, and looked so woebegone that he instinctively reached for her. She stiffened, wedging her forearms between them, but he continued to hold her anyway. Their breaths mingled in puffs of steam.

“How come Sam got to hug you,” Mark whispered, “and I don’t?”

“Different kind of hug,” she managed to say.

Mark lowered his forehead to hers. “Because you want me,” he murmured.

Maggie didn’t deny it.

A long moment passed, and she unfolded and slid her arms around him. “I’m not what you need,” she said, her voice muffled in his sweater. “You need someone who can make a commitment to you and Holly. Someone who can be part of your family.”

“You gave a pretty good impression of that today.”

“I’ve been giving you mixed signals. I know that. I’m sorry.” Maggie sighed, and her tone turned rueful. “Apparently you’re too much temptation for me to withstand.”

“You should just give in,” he said kindly.

He felt a ripple of laughter run through her. But as she looked up at him, her breath caught on another laugh, he saw that her eyes were brilliant with unshed tears.

“God, please don’t do that,” he whispered. A single tear slipped down her cheek, and he wiped it with his thumb. “If you don’t stop, Maggie, I’m going to make love to you right on this freezing porch with all the splinters.”

Maggie buried her face against him, took a few deep breaths, and looked up at him again. “I probably seem like a coward,” she said. “But I know my limitations. You don’t know what I went through, watching my husband die slowly for more than a year. It nearly killed me. I can’t do it again, ever. That was my one shot.”

“Your one shot was over almost as soon as it started,” Mark said, filled with impatient longing, loving the feel of her in his arms. “Your marriage never had a chance to get off the ground. You never had the mortgage, the dog, the kids, the arguments about whose turn it is to do the laundry.” Glancing at the tremulous curve of her lower lip, he couldn’t stop himself from kissing her, too hard and brief for pleasure. “Let’s not do this right now. Come on, I’ll walk you to the car.”

They were both silent as he accompanied her to the Sebring. Maggie turned to face him, and he bracketed her face in his hands and kissed her again, this time letting his mouth linger until she made a soft sound in her throat and began to kiss him back.

Lifting his head, Mark smoothed her rambunctious curls and spoke in a voice roughened with affection. “Being alone isn’t safety, Maggie. It’s just being alone.” And after she had climbed into the car, he closed the door carefully and watched her drive off.

Thirteen

To Maggie’s relief, her relationship with Mark went back to normal the day after Thanksgiving. He brought coffee to the shop, and was so relaxed and charming that she could have almost believed that scene on his front porch had never happened.

On Monday, Maggie’s day off, Mark asked her to help him shop for Christmas decorations since he and Sam had not even a single ornament to start with. Maggie accompanied him to various shops in Friday Harbor to advise on such items as fresh garlands for the mantels and doorways, a wreath for the front door, a set of heavy pillar candles on mercury glass stands, and a vintage framed Santa poster. The only thing Mark had balked at was a Williamsburg-style ornamental fruit pyramid as a centerpiece for the table.

“I hate fake fruit,” Mark said.

“Why? It’s beautiful. It’s what the Victorians used for holiday decorating.”

“I don’t like anything that looks like I’m supposed to be able to eat it but can’t. I’d rather have one made out of real fruit.”

Maggie regarded him with amused exasperation. “It wouldn’t last long enough. And if it’s made out of real fruit and you eat it, what will you do then?”

“Buy more fruit.”

After they had loaded the last of the purchases into his truck, Mark managed to talk Maggie into having dinner with him. She had tried to refuse, saying it was too much like going out, but he had wheedled, “It’ll be just like lunch. Only later.” And she had relented. They had gone to an intimate restaurant four miles out from Friday Harbor, sitting at a table near a fieldstone fireplace. In the glow of candlelight, they had eaten succulent Alaskan sea scallops stacked with duck confit and goat cheese, and filet mignon shimmering with a date espresso glaze.

“If this had been a date,” Mark had told her afterward, “it would have been the best one of my life.”

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