Category: First Friday Fiction Feature (page 2 of 3)

Laci and Del: Giving Thanks Was Never So Difficult

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another installment of short fiction. You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF), by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.

Remember that 2014 is the year I’m trying serial work. This is part 11 of 12.

Laci and Del: Giving Thanks Was Never So Difficult

pilgrims and pumpkinsLaci loved autumn—crisp air, cozy clothes, football and hockey season, hearty and spicy foods—and Thanksgiving was one of her favorite holidays. She pulled her sweet potato casserole out of the oven and breathed in deeply. Ah, nothing could smell better. Except her mother’s turkey and stuffing. She pulled on her favorite sweater, loaded her casserole and pumpkin cheesecake into the car, and left for her parents’ house.

Yes, this was one of her favorite times of the year. But this year she couldn’t enjoy it.

Try as she might, she couldn’t get past her breakup with Del. The past few weeks had been torturous. She vacillated between knowing it was for the best, to staring at her phone praying he’d call, to almost dialing his number.

In the end, though, none of those were true. She didn’t think it was in either of their best interests to separate, but she couldn’t follow him, he shouldn’t stay, and he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to try to repair their relationship. He hadn’t contacted her once. Not one call. Not a text. Not a single email.

She sighed and bore left, her car automatically heading toward his apartment instead of her parents’ house. If she could maybe just get a glimpse of him before being inundated with family for the day, she might feel a bit better.

Or it might just make things worse.

She stopped at the corner of his street and stared, dumbfounded, at the sight in front of his building. A cab sat near the curb, trunk open, and the driver had exited and was helping Del load luggage into the back.

Definitely made things worse. She suffered the worst case of déjà vu ever. She struggled to breathe while the tears streamed silently down her cheeks. Of course he hadn’t tried to contact her. She’d told him to move on, and he was. Literally.

It was too awful to watch the cab driver pull away, taking her love and her future with him. Instead, she made an illegal U-turn and drove back the way she came. She didn’t get two blocks before the flashing lights in her rearview mirror indicated a problem. No one else was on the street. It had to be her. When the siren blared, she signaled and pulled to the curb. The police officer followed and, after parking behind her, approached her window.

“Miss, do you know why I pulled you over?”

Tears continued to fall, but now accompanied by wracking sobs. She nodded her head.

The officer sighed. “License, registration, and insurance, please.”

She fumbled in the glove compartment and produced the papers he needed. Then she got her license from her purse. Her sobs came like hiccups as she handed the information out the window.

“Miss, are you all right?”

She just shook her head. He produced a handkerchief from his pocket and passed it to her. “I’ll be right back.” He went back to his patrol car and did whatever took cops so long to do back there.

Laci tried to settle herself before he came back, mopping at her face and taking deep breaths. All she managed to do was smear her makeup.

He came back to her car and handed her information back to her. “You have a clean record, and I wouldn’t want to mess that up on Thanksgiving. Let’s consider this a warning. But be careful. And no driving until you’ve calmed down. Okay?”

“Okay.” It sounded more like “ah… ka,” but it was all she could manage to utter.

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

She nodded and offered a watery smile.

“Drive safely, Miss Marks.”

She offered him his hanky back, but he smiled and waved her off, then returned to his vehicle.

To Laci’s dismay, he didn’t pull out. She figured he was waiting for her, so she composed herself as best she could and left for her mother’s. He followed her to the bridge, then turned away.

The rest of her ride was uneventful. Because of her side trip and the subsequent stop, she arrived at her parents’ home late—right when the food was being placed on the table. No picking at turkey and stuffing right out of the oven this year. No matter, she wasn’t hungry anyway.

The house bustled with activity. The littlest children colored hand-outline turkeys while the older ones sang “Over the River” and danced around. The men walked sideways into the dining room, trying not to miss the last football play they’d get to see before dinner was over. Her mother and aunt hovered over the table, fussing over details while her cousin Clara snoodled up to her boyfriend Kyle on the couch. Everyone else must be in the kitchen, but she couldn’t see past the commotion in the dining room. Soon people filed to their seats from all corners of the house.

Far too many people, far too little room. Packed elbow-to-elbow and hip-to-hip, everyone—almost everyone—she loved clustered around the table. It was the kind of family event she adored.

And she didn’t know how she’d get through it.

Her dad looked at her and frowned, but he didn’t say anything. He just enveloped her in a hug and took the casserole dish out of her hand. Her mother reached for the cheesecake but stopped in her tracks. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Lying was just easier. “I got stopped by a cop on my way here, and I had to cry to get out of the ticket. Thank God it’s Thanksgiving. He was in a holiday mood and took pity on me. I got off with a warning.”

Thanksgiving mealHer mother frowned and took the dessert from her, weaving her way between the kid table and the adult table to put it in the refrigerator. Her Aunt Rose smiled and kissed her cheek. “Well, we’re just glad you’re here now. And what about your young fella? Where’s he?”

Her mother, reentering the dining room, cleared her throat and glared at her sister. “Help me pour, Rose.” She thrust a bottle into Rose’s hand, saving Laci from answering.

Laci swallowed her tears past the lump in her throat and wondered if she’d be able to eat anything. She knew it all smelled wonderful, but she was sick to her stomach and the aroma of the food just made it worse. Taking her seat, she grabbed her goblet of water and downed it in two gulps.

Her aunt got the children ginger ale while her mother walked around pouring Taittinger for everyone. Her father, at the head of the table, stood and tapped his fork against his champagne flute. Everyone grew quiet while he said the blessing, then he raised his glass.

“Another year, another wonderful spread. Another houseful of loved ones.” He turned toward Laci, but she couldn’t meet his gaze. She reached for her champagne flute and stared at the table. “I’m so grateful for all our blessings, and for each one of you. If you’d all raise your glasses…” When everyone had complied, he said, “For the bounty of Thanksgivings past, the blessings of Thanksgiving present, and the promises of Thanksgiving futures. Sláinte!

Laci mouthed the words as he spoke them. He ended every Thanksgiving toast the same way. This year, though, when everyone else drank, she put her glass down. She didn’t feel like celebrating. She didn’t feel blessed this year. And she certainly didn’t think her future was very promising.

Clara and her boyfriend managed to get to their feet without knocking over any chairs or crushing any toes. Clara clinked her fork against her glass, the crystal sounding shrill to Laci’s ears. When everyone looked at the couple, Clara said, “We have an announcement.”

Laci sighed. Clara always had something to share. Why it needed to be an announcement, she had no idea, but she refrained from rolling her eyes and waited.

Clara and Kyle wrapped their arms around each other, then Clara thrust her left hand into the air. “We’re getting married!”

The reaction was thunderous and immediate. Everyone did their best to extricate themselves from their seats and rush over to the young couple to offer congratulations. Everyone, that is, but Laci and her parents. Laci headed for the door, and they followed.

“Laci,” her mother said.

“I can’t, Mom. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.” She rooted through the pile of coats strewn on the stairs and found hers, second from the top. “Make my apologies, say whatever you have to. But I have to get out of here.”

“But it’s Thanksgiving,” her dad said.

She pecked him on the cheek and hugged her mom. “I know.” And she walked out the door.

Laci was really starting to get the hang of driving through a flood of tears. It had become the norm. She’d also grown accustomed to letting the car decide where to go, as she didn’t have the will or desire to direct it. For some reason, she was driving through the city again instead of heading home. The parade was long over, but in her mind she heard the echo of the marching bands, saw the horses and the floats, listened to the delighted squeals of the children as Santa made his way down the street. She liked to attend the parade every year, but this year she hadn’t been up to it. Now, the streets still littered with candy wrappers, soda cans, and confetti, it seemed so profound to her. Life was just like that parade. It was beautiful and exciting. And fleeting. And once the magic was over, all that was left was the tattered remnants. Until someone cleaned them up and disposed of them.

When she got to the bridge, she saw a street cleaning crew heading the way she had come. Too bad she couldn’t hire them to clean up her mess.

Point Park FountainShe drove across the bridge, not bothering to look at the fountain at The Point, the paddle boats on the river, the incline on the hill. Those were things she never missed; the city was gorgeous and the sights always lifted her spirits. But that day, she didn’t care. She just went where her car took her.

And cried when she ended up on the Coal Mountain overlook. The place Del had taken her on Valentine’s Day.

She put the car in drive and headed home, her heart broken and her mind reeling. Would she ever be thankful for anything again?

Laci and Del: Hallow-Why-Me?

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another installment of short fiction. You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF), by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.

Remember that 2014 is the year I’m trying serial work. This is part 10 of 12.

Laci and Del: Hallow-Why-Me?

sandy shoes greaseThe first thing Laci did when the cast came off was recoil in horror that anyone would see her with that much hair on her leg. Calling it stubble was like calling the Grand Canyon a small valley. That was full blown hair. Braid-able hair.

Almost, anyway.

Then she didn’t care. She could finally scratch all the itches she’d suffered through for eight weeks. It was pure heaven. Until the itching was gone and she was back to sasquatch-city. She yanked her pant leg down, checked out of the office, and went straight home to shave.

That was pure heaven.

With newly silken legs and unencumbered foot, she was finally able to try on her Halloween costume. One of Del’s coworkers was throwing a movie-themed party, and they decided to go as Sandy and Danny from Grease. She felt kind of foolish in the blonde wig. Some brunettes could pull off blonde, but she definitely wasn’t one of them. And the curls! But it suited the costume. And boy was she delighted to see that the pants fit.

Well, if you want to call skin-tight fitting.

She had been looking forward to this party for weeks. Tensions between her and Del had been getting worse; their relationship had grown quite strained. They’d spent less and less time together, and when they were alone, they never discussed the job-shaped elephant in the room. Every time one of them brought up the subject, the other changed the topic or found a reason to leave. It seemed neither was really ready to have that discussion.

On Halloween, she didn’t have to be Laci. She got to be Sandy, and stepping into someone else’s shoes for the night sounded wonderful.

Even if those shoes were red, high-heeled, open-toe pumps on a wooden platform.

She briefly wondered if her broken bone was ready for that kind of torture, then proceeded to practice walking in them. They kind of hurt her feet, but she was used to street shoes. One night wouldn’t kill her.

Laci took her time getting ready, and was just smearing on lip gloss when the doorbell rang. She rushed through her apartment, only rolling her ankle once, and flung open the door.

Del was a knockout, dressed all in black, right down to his shoes. Except for the signature white socks. He even had something rolled in his sleeve to look like a pack of cigarettes, and he held a leather jacket over his shoulder. His hair was greased back into a ducktail and a few locks flopped forward onto his forehead in a similar curled fashion to how Travolta wore his. Laci harbored a not-so-secret love affair with the movie and a slightly more secret crush on Danny Zuko, so it was no wonder her heart fluttered when she opened her door.

Del was even sexier than Danny.

He looked her over and smiled.

She said, “Tell me about it, stud.” And they left for the party.

Joe’s apartment was in the South Side, and the subway ride there garnered them some strange looks. But Laci didn’t think anything could dim her spirits. Her cast was off, she was with her gorgeous boyfriend, and she was going to a party. A few strange looks were nothing. Most people just smiled or ignored them, anyway.

When they finally arrived, she headed straight for the bar, stopping only briefly to say hello to a few acquaintances. She didn’t know many of the people Del worked with, but she’d know them all better once she had a drink and started chatting with them. She was through with her first beer when she noticed the karaoke machine in the living room. She had finished the second when people starting singing duets. Most were cringe-worthy, but that was the fun of it. Snacking on pretzels and making small talk with Abby, Del’s secretary, she was startled to see someone dragging Del to the microphone.

Abby said, “Don’t make me drag you, too. Just go.” And she nodded toward the living room.

“What?”

“Someone signed you and Del up to sing, and looking at the screen, I can see why.”

Laci glanced at the TV screen, where the lyrics were displayed for everyone to see. They were expected to sing “Summer Nights.” She laughed, slid off her stool, and tottered toward the living room.

Del was still trying to get out of it, but someone started the music and he shrugged and started singing.

Laci joined in and had a blast. She loved every song in Grease, and seeing Del singing to her dressed like that made her whole month.

Until she started paying attention to the words.

By the end of the song, she was trying so hard not to burst into tears that she barely made a sound. Luckily Danny’s voice was stronger than Sandy’s, and Del overpowering her just seemed like part of the performance.

Everyone broke into applause and called for a second song, but Laci was a wreck. While Del got stuck singing “Greased Lightning,” she maneuvered as carefully as she could through the throng of people and stepped onto the patio for some fresh—if not freezing—air.

Del’s boss was just stubbing out a cigarette butt and nodded his greeting to her. “That was some performance.”

“Oh.” What did one say to a comment like that, anyway? “You could hear us from out here?”

“Can’t you hear Del?”

She stood and listened to the noises around her. In addition to the cars and some occasional raucous laughter from the pub-crawlers down the street, she could hear Del singing. “Yes, I suppose so.”

He lit another cigarette and took a long drag, the end glowing bright orange in the darkness of the patio. “You know, I thought Del would be in California by now.”

Laci didn’t answer. She kind of thought, on some level, that Del would have left already, too.

“He could do great things out there. It’s the next logical step in his career. He’s already a year behind.”

She could feel her cheeks burn. “No one’s stopping him.”

He tipped his head up and blew a stream of smoke into the dark sky. It hovered for a second like a specter, then dissipated into the night. “Oh, someone’s stopping him. Just like that same someone did the last time.”

She looked at her feet and suppressed a shiver. “I never told him not to go.”

“You never told him to go, either. I don’t know what you’re playing at, but this is a man’s career at stake.”

“You aren’t worried about Del. You’re worried about your company.”

“The two aren’t mutually exclusive, Laci.” He stubbed out his cigarette and headed for the door. He nodded at Del who was just stepping outside, and made his way back to the party.

Del walked over to Laci and put his leather jacket around her. “I wondered where you ran off to. There was a request for “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” but you were already gone.”

“I couldn’t have sung that right now if I tried.”

He scoffed. “You probably know that song better than Olivia Newton John. Of course you could.”

She shook her head and swallowed past the lump in her throat. “No. Not tonight.”

“Too drunk?”

She knew he knew what was wrong, but this time she wasn’t going to let him change the topic. “Del, we have to talk.”

“Not here. Let’s just go inside and get something to eat.”

Her fairytale was over. Clock struck midnight, carriage a pumpkin, clothes back to rags. There was no escaping her life. Costume or not, she was still Laci and he was still Del. And no matter how much she wanted it all, she wasn’t being asked to try on that glass slipper.

“Del, listen.”

“No.”

“Del…”

“I’m not doing this here, Laci. And I’m not doing it now.”

“Then I will. I can’t keep seeing you. Not when there’s so much involved, and so much unresolved.”

“So we’ll resolve it. Later.”

“I’m resolving it now. Your company needs you. And California is something you want. I can’t stand in the way of that. Certainly not twice.”

“If that’s really how you feel, then come with me.”

“I can’t. I tried before. I can’t. I love it here. This is my home. This is where my family is.”

“And you can’t leave all that to be with me?”

She shook her head, and the tears ran down her face. “It’s just too much.”

“Then I’ll stay. For you.”

“And resent me for it five years from now, when we’re married and have kids?”

“You think about that?” he asked.

“What?”

“Marrying me. Having kids.”

“Of course I do. I love you. I’ve loved you for years.”

“Then I’m staying. I want that, too.”

“I love you too much to ruin your life like that,” she said, then gave him his jacket. “Please, don’t follow me. I can’t keep arguing with you.”

“Laci—”

She heard him calling her as she wove through the crowd and out the door. On her way to the subway, she thought she heard him behind her, but it was just someone in a clown costume. Creepy, but not as scary for her to face as Del would have been at that moment.

She managed not to cry until she opened her apartment door and slunk to the floor. She kicked of those wicked shoes and thought about Sandy and Danny, Cinderella and her prince.

Why didn’t she get a happily-ever-after?

Laci and Del: Belabored Day

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another installment of short fiction. You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF), by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.

Remember that 2014 is the year I’m trying serial work. This is part 9 of 12.

Laci and Del: Belabored Day

broken footLaci finished tossing the pasta salad together and looked out the patio door. Del was lounging on a deck chair, listening to classic rock and working on his tan. She sighed, but didn’t go to him.

Instead of spending Labor Day with family picnics, they’d decided to go away for the weekend and rented a place right on Lake Erie. She wasn’t sure what avoiding family was going to solve, other than delaying the inevitable. The subject of moving had come up at Del’s birthday, and he’d stormed off.

They hadn’t discussed it since.

The situation needed to be resolved. But what if she brought it up and he left again? She’d be stranded there. Not a bad place to be stranded, but still, it wasn’t something she wanted to experience.

She put the salad in the refrigerator and started mixing the fudge frosting for the chocolate chip brownies she’d baked. Double chocolate was good, so triple chocolate had to be better, right? Brownies never seemed complete to her unless they were frosted. She wasn’t sure how long she whipped the butter, but she stopped when she noticed the mixer getting hot. The butter was creamier than she’d ever seen and almost white. Setting the appliance aside, she dug around for a wooden spoon to finish mixing the frosting.

She needed to stop dwelling on the conversation-that-wasn’t and start paying attention to what she was doing. Before she did irreparable damage to their rental unit. Or herself.

Del came inside just as she completed icing the brownies. As usual, he swiped his finger through the finished product instead of through the remaining frosting in the bowl. “Mmm,” he said. “That’s good.”

Laci repaired the damage he’d done and swatted his hand away when he reached toward the pan again. “Oh no. One swipe per pan. If you want more, take it from the bowl.” She handed it to him and put the brownies under a cake dome.

“I won’t say no to the rest of the bowl. And where are the mixer beaters? I’ll lick them, too.”

She turned toward the sink so she didn’t have to meet his gaze. “I didn’t use the mixer for anything other than the butter. I don’t have beaters for you.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“You’re awfully demanding for a man who’s getting a treat.” She started washing dishes, pleased with her efforts at changing the subject. Even if she should just get it over with and talk to him about moving.

“This mixer’s hot.” He yanked the plug out of the wall. “Must be a problem with the outlet. Or the motor. Better not use this again while we’re here.”

“No problem. I’m done with everything. The rest is up to you.”

“Yeah, grilling steaks is so difficult.”

She smiled and took the bowl from him so she could finish cleaning up.

“So, we have all afternoon. What do you think? Swim? Rent a boat? Stay in?”

Laci glanced at him. He waggled his eyebrows and grinned.

“I don’t want to spend more money. Let’s just take our towels down to the beach and enjoy the view.”

He shrugged. “Your call.”

Laci walked into the bedroom to change into her swimsuit. She walked over to her luggage, a large hard suitcase her grandmother had given her. She claimed she’d never use the set again and didn’t want it to go to waste. Laci ran her finger over the initials by the handle. BCM—Brigid Cathleen Milligan. She smiled and grabbed the handle. When she lifted it, the handle pulled off and the luggage fell on her foot. “Ow!” The impact took her breath away.

Del came rushing in. “What happened? Are you okay?” He frowned when he saw the broken luggage. “You wouldn’t share my bag or use one of the new bags you bought me. And now look. You’re probably going to have a big bruise on your foot from your crappy luggage falling on you.”

“It’s not crappy. It’s antique. And it has sentimental value.” Her foot was killing her. The last thing she wanted to do was argue. Yes, she loved the luggage set because it had been her grandmother’s. But she had refused to use Del’s luggage, not because of sentiment, but because of the argument they’d had when she gave it to him. It was petty, sure, and now she was paying for it. She tried to walk away, but she couldn’t put any weight on her foot. She yelped and collapsed on the edge of the bed.

He sighed. “Let me see.” He stooped beside her and lifted her foot.

Del had hardly touched her foot when she winced and pulled it back. She had painted her toenails a lovely violet color, and her foot was starting to match the polish. The swelling was already making her flipflop too tight.

“It’s already bruising and swelling. This might be more than a minor injury. You may have broken it. Looks like we’re headed to the hospital.”

She blinked back tears when she put her foot down. “No. Don’t be silly. The ERs are always so crowded on holidays, and I’ll be walking off the pain in another minute.”

He stood and crossed his arms. “Really? Let’s see.”

“I said in a minute. Or two.”

“I could give you days and you won’t be walking on that. Let’s go.” He offered her his hand.

“Del, I really don’t think—”

He cut her off by picking her up. She squirmed and kicked her good foot, but to no avail.

“Better keep your legs down. You don’t want to smack the sore foot off a door or wall.” He carried her through the beach house, out the door, and down to the car.

She fumed and stared out the window.

They were at a hospital in about fifteen minutes, and Del dropped her off at the ER doors before going to park. She hadn’t made much progress getting inside when he caught up to her and half supported/half carried her to the registration desk. The nurse gave her a clipboard of forms to fill out, and Del took them to the last two seats together in the lobby.

“I told you it would be crowded.”

“And I told you that your foot needed to be checked.”

She sighed and filled out the forms. Del took them up to the desk for her. When he came back, he said, “She said it’s going to be a while. There are more serious cases ahead of you.”

“This isn’t the way I planned on spending our vacation.”

“If you’d just used my bag, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Pain, frustration, irritation… all warred in her until her frayed temper snapped. “Why on earth would you think I’d use your luggage? I bought you that set thinking it would be a nice gift, and you basically threw it back in my face.”

“I did not.”

“You did. You left without spending your birthday with me, and you didn’t take the luggage with you. It sat at my house for a week before I finally brought it to you.”

“I wasn’t rejecting the gift. I was angry at the message behind it.”

“What message? That I love you and wanted you to have it?” That was a lie. The message was that she wanted him to travel but not move away. She just hadn’t told him that yet.

“No. That you made up my mind for me and were sending me away. Without you. It’s basically breakup luggage.”

She jumped up and searing pain shot through her foot and up her leg. Gasping, she sat back down.

“Where did you think you were going to go?”

“I don’t know, but I’m not having this conversation with you. Not now. Not here in a hospital ER where everyone can listen to our business.” She glanced around. People in the waiting room, staff behind the window… they were all staring at her and Del.

“But it won’t be our business much longer, will it? Pretty soon, it’s just going to be me, alone again. No you. No couple.”

A nurse came over with a wheelchair. “Miss Marks? We’re ready for you now.”

“That was fast,” Del said. He helped Laci into the chair.

The nurse glanced around, then whispered so only the two of them could hear her. “Sometimes when there’s a disturbance out here, it’s just easier to change the order and take a patient early.” She started pushing Laci through the waiting area.

Del followed, and the nurse turned around to speak to him. “We’ve got it from here. Please have a seat. We’ll keep you updated.”

“Lace…”

“Just listen to her, Del. I’m sure I won’t be too long.” He frowned, but sat back down. She knew she’d be hearing more about that later. But that argument beat the other one they were having.

When the nurse got Laci situated behind a curtain, she started asking a lot of questions. And not about her foot. Laci would have laughed, the whole thing was so ludicrous, but she was in too much pain. Instead, she assured the nurse that she wasn’t in an abusive relationship and Del was actually a wonderful man. And no, he didn’t hurt her. Her own stubbornness and clumsiness was to blame.

Once the nurse was satisfied that Laci was in no danger from Del, she asked the necessary medical questions and a doctor came to see her. A long trip to the x-ray department and back, and the doctor was telling her she was lucky. She had broken her foot, but only one bone, and it was a clean break. Given the way the accident happened, she could have had many rough breaks, with chips and fragments, that would have required surgery.

Yay. Lucky her.

After her foot was set and she had crutches, she was led back out to the lobby.

Del was pacing up and down the hall. He rushed to her when she came out. “They said they’d keep me posted, but they didn’t tell me a thing.”

She continued hobbling down the hall toward the door. “Well, obviously it’s broken. But it’s not bad. He said it was a clean break, so I don’t need surgery.”

They walked outside, and he stopped her at the curb. She looked up at him, and he placed both hands on her face and gave her a tender kiss. “I was worried.”

“I’ll be okay.”

He rested his forehead on hers, and she just breathed him in. This was her Del, this was her heart, her home. She couldn’t bear to lose him.

He pushed away. “Stay here. I’ll get the car.”

“I need to learn to use these. I’ll come with you.”

“I said stay!” Rather than starting yet another argument, she waited while he loped across the parking lot. He was back in no time and got out to help her.

Once they were on their way back to the beach house, she said, “You really don’t need to treat me so delicately. I’m okay.”

He sighed. “Are you okay enough to continue our discussion about the move?”

Her stomach clenched. “No. I’m not that okay yet.”

The tick in his jaw said more than any of his words would or could. “We’ll table it for now. But we’re talking soon. We can’t let this stuff fester between us. It’s already gone unsaid for too long.”

She looked out the window at the surf. Her foot ached, but not as much as her heart. She leaned her head on the window. She didn’t want things left unresolved, but she was frightened of the resolution. What if instead of staying, he chose his career over her?

Laci and Del: Birthday Wishes

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another installment of short fiction. You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF), by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.

Remember that 2014 is the year I’m trying serial work. This is part 8 of 12.

Laci and Del: Birthday Wishes

three tiered chocolate cake with white frostingLaci’s stomach churned. This was so not a good idea.

After she and Del had talked out the misunderstanding that had broken them up for a year, they had each explained it to their families in the hopes of putting to rest the hard feelings that had developed. She wasn’t sure it had worked, particularly where his mother was concerned.

His birthday should be a day of celebration, not a day of détente.

She swirled the knife through the fluffy white frosting on three-tiered fudge cake she’d baked that morning. Just when she thought it looked perfect, Del ran his finger through the top.

“Mmm, that’s good.” Continue reading

Laci and Del: Fireworks

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another installment of short fiction. You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF), by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.

Remember that 2014 is the year I’m trying serial work. This is part 7 of 12.

Laci and Del: Fireworks

Fourth of JulyAs Del pushed off the dock, Laci listened to the chirping crickets and croaking frogs, their cheerful melody a mockery when juxtaposed against her occasional sighs and Del’s sporadic mutterings. A bunch of them were spending the three-day weekend at Del’s cousin’s lake house, and so far, despite everyone’s determination to have a great Independence Day holiday, she felt the tension between her and Del as solid and tangible as if an actual wall had been erected between them.

A wall she could walk around or climb over.

The tension? She didn’t know how to overcome.

Continue reading

Laci and Del: Hide and Go Hear

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another installment of short fiction. You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF), by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.

Remember that 2014 is the year I’m trying serial work. This is part 6 of 12.

Laci and Del: Hide and Go Hear

purple calla lilliesLaci had been distant with Del since she’d spent Mother’s Day with his family. Well, she could hardly call it spending the holiday with them. She’d stormed out, taking Del’s car and leaving him to find his own way home, well before dinner was even served.

She never told him why.

He assumed it was the usual girlfriend-and-mother-don’t-get-along stuff. Cliché, but not too far from the mark. She and Nora hadn’t been the best of friends the first time she and Del had dated. But that wasn’t why she’d cut and run.

What set her off was learning Del had told his family that when their relationship had imploded the first time, it was her fault. More to the point, that she had left him without reason or way to contact her. Continue reading

Laci and Del: Mother Doesn’t Always Know Best

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another installment of short fiction. You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF), by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.

Remember that 2014 is the year I’m trying serial work. This is part 5 of 12.

Laci and Del: Mother Doesn’t Always Know Best

potted tulips“I don’t know, Del.” Laci clutched the pot of tulips against her chest as they walked toward the door of his parents sprawling log ranch. “I mean, she’s your mother. And she never really liked me. Maybe the first time we do a family event together as a couple shouldn’t be Mother’s Day.”

When they reached the porch, he kissed the top of her head. “She never had a problem with you,” he whispered. “I need to see my mom today, and I want to spend time with you. I can’t do both unless you’re here with me.”

“I saw my mother this morning without you.”

“That was your decision, not mine.” He opened the door, took her hand, and dragged her inside. “Mom? We’re here!” He dropped his keys on the table and pulled her forward. Continue reading

Laci and Del: In Like a Lion

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another installment of short fiction. You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF), by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read. Remember that 2014 is the year I’m trying serial work. This is part 4 of 12.

Laci and Del: In Like a Lion

coloring eggsLaci dashed through the rain at five-thirty and flung open the passenger-side door of Del’s car. She dove inside and slammed the door closed behind her. Swiping at the rain on her sleeves and in her hair, she turned to him and huffed. “Remember when the post office stayed open late on tax day?”

He smiled and wiped a raindrop off her nose. “Most people file online now. And if they are using snail mail, they don’t wait for the fifteenth. Especially not until closing.”

She sat back. “Obviously I wasn’t the only one. Besides, I was there at five minutes to five, and the line was to the door. They needed more workers. Look at the time! And there are still people in there.”

“You’re lucky they didn’t lock the doors.”

“I beat closing by five minutes.”

He smiled. “You’re lucky they didn’t send you away.”

“I don’t think they can do that.”

“They’re the post office. They can do whatever they want.”

“No they can’t.”

“The bank used to switch their calendar days over to the next day around three p.m.”

Her eyes widened. “You don’t think they did that, do you? My taxes need to be post-dated today.”

He laughed and pulled into traffic. “No, I don’t think they did that. I’m sure you’re fine.”

She fidgeted as he drove, unable to focus on the ride. It had been a crappy day. Her alarm hadn’t gone off and she’d slept in, making her rush to work. She never slept in and never ran late, so starting the day that way really put her off her game. And the day went downhill from there. Her boss was on her case all day. None of her projects were going as planned. Her accountant was supposed to meet her with her final return at lunch, but he was late. She missed lunch in order to meet him, and she was late getting back to the office because of his tardiness, causing her boss to flip out again. To top it all off, she owed money for the first time in ten years, and she’d been counting on a refund. Stupid crappy economy. The end of her day? A mad dash in the rain to just barely make it to the post office in time. Thank God Del had been able to pick her up. She never would have caught a cab in this weather. She just wanted a glass of wine and a nice hot soak in the tub. Time to put this day behind her.

“Laci. Lace?”

“Huh?”

“You checked out on the drive home. We’re here.”

She looked out the window and tried—and failed—to suppress a sigh. She wasn’t home. She was at his home. “Del, I’m sorry. I’ve had the worst day. I just want to go home. I mean, my home.”

“You need to eat. And you need to relax. Besides, you made me a promise, and I’m collecting tonight.” She thought back over the things she’d promised him. Sometimes he caught her at the most vulnerable times and she made a lot of promises. Wonder what he had in mind for this evening? She really didn’t feel like paying up tonight.

He turned around and reached for something in the back seat. “I have an umbrella.” His voice was strained as he stretched. “Let me just find it.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’m already wet.” She opened her door and dashed for the awning in front of his building, not even bothering to feel sorry for him as he drove around the side of the complex to the parking lot. He had let her off at the door, but he’d have a much longer trek in the downpour. Umbrella or not, he’d be getting wet. At least the bottom half of him.

It wasn’t long before he ran up behind her. He hadn’t bothered with the umbrella, and he was soaked, his dark hair dripping onto his face and down his collar. “Let’s go up.” He held the door for her and led her into the lobby.

“You know, I’m really beat. And I’ve had the worst day. I don’t know how long I’m even going to be able to keep my eyes open. Exactly what promise did you want me to make good on tonight?”

She could see the heat in his eyes when he smiled at her. “I can think of plenty. But there’s just one that I had in mind when I brought you here.”

“Which is?”

His eyebrow quirked and he gestured for her to get in the elevator before him. He followed her in and pressed the ‘twelve’ button for his floor. Pressing her against the elevator wall, he bent down and claimed her mouth in a searing kiss, his lips hot against hers in contrast to his skin, cool and wet from the rain. Was this the promise she was fulfilling? She couldn’t remember them ever discussing the elevator… But she couldn’t remember much of anything. Her thoughts were a scrambled mess, her nerves a jumbled mass of tingling electricity. He pulled away from her way too soon. She lifted heavy lids and looked up at him. “Why’d you stop?” Her voice sounded far away, even to her own ears.

Chuckling, he released her from the wall and pulled her forward. “You didn’t hear the bell? We’re on my floor.” He tugged her out into the hall.

Laci followed him down the hall to his apartment, heat flooding her face. She never thought straight around him. Going home with him after the day she’d had was not a good idea.

Del opened his door and turned to her. “Here. Let me take that.” He stripped her of her coat and hung it on a peg in the foyer before taking his own off and hanging it beside hers. “We need to get you out of those wet things before you get sick.”

“I don’t have anything here. Del, I really should just go.” He took her hand and tugged on her until she followed him to his room. Thoughts tumbled through her brain like clothes in a dryer, falling all over each other, too fast for her to latch on to one before the next took its place. She stood in his doorway, dripping on his carpet, staring at his bed, wondering exactly what he had in mind, what promise she was supposed to fulfill.

He stepped in front of her, blocking her view. “You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?”

“Hmm? I’m sorry, what?”

“Wow. Your mind really is a hundred miles away tonight.”

She bit her lip and looked up at him. Feeling something soft in her hands, she looked down. And smiled. He’d put a pair of socks, a hoodie, and drawstring sweat shorts in her hands.

“I know everything will be big on you, but these are the only drawstring shorts I’ve got.”

She looked down, then back at him, mortified. “I can’t wear these.”

“Why not?”

“They’re Ravens shorts. And the fact that you even own them is an insult to me, our football team, and this great city.”

“Do you forgive me if I say they were a gag gift and I never wore them?”

“You kept them.”

“And aren’t you glad I did? Otherwise you won’t have any bottoms to wear.” She considered the alternatives. She had to take her other stuff off and throw them in the dryer—that included her underclothes. But to wear Ravens clothes? Sighing, she stomped off toward the bathroom with the garments, listening to him laugh. “There are towels in the linen closet,” he called through the closed door. She stripped and dried off, lamenting the misfortunes of her day. As she scrubbed her skin dry, she wondered exactly what Del was doing on the other side of the door. Deciding she didn’t want to wait long to find out, she hurried to dress, delaying only for a moment to adjust the oversized garments. When she came out, Del wasn’t in the bedroom. She followed noise to the kitchen, where he was busy getting things out of the refrigerator.

“There you are,” he said. “I ordered pizza. It’s supposed to be here in about forty minutes, but given the rain, I’m guessing more like an hour.” He opened a bottle of wine. “Give me your clothes. I’ll go throw them in the dryer with mine.”

“You look busy. I’ll do it.” She took her things to his laundry room, which was really just a closet converted to house the appliances, tossed them in the dryer, and returned to the kitchen, where Del was still bustling around. “So, what are you doing? And can I help?”

He turned and looked at her, and then burst out laughing.

“What?”

“Your shorts are on backward.”

“I couldn’t wear them and look at the logo. Plus, this way I get to sit on a Raven.”

He shook his head. “On anyone else, that would look ridiculous.”

“But not me? Please. I’m wearing socks, sweat shorts, and a hoodie, all of which are several sizes too big for me. I think it’s a safe bet that I look ridiculous regardless of whether the shorts are on backward or not.”

Growing serious, he studied her carefully. “No. You could never look ridiculous. Not to me.” He brushed a damp tendril of hair off her forehead and held her face, meeting her gaze. “You’ve never looked more beautiful.”

The air—was there air?—was thick, electrified… so hard to breathe. She leaned into his hand, lost in his gaze, drowning in his words and his touch. Then she pulled away and turned from him. “Are you kidding me? My makeup’s completely washed off. My hair is soaked. I look like a river otter. Or a raccoon. I don’t know. Some kind of wet rodent with circles under her eyes. I’m swimming in these clothes. I’m embarrassed to be seen like this!” She pulled at the sweat shorts and almost lost them, hiking them up through the oversized hoodie.

He spun her around and again cupped her face in his hands. “You’re always beautiful to me, Laci. I don’t care about your hair, your makeup, your clothes. I care about you.” And he kissed her, a feather-light kiss, soft and sweet, a kiss that promised his words were true. A kiss that scared her even as it exhilarated her. She looked up at him and blinked, trying to clear her mind. “I’m sorry, Del. You know I don’t usually care about this stuff. And I know you don’t either. It’s just been a really crappy day. Why don’t you just tell me what promise I’m supposed to be keeping, and then I can call it a night?”

“Wow. You really know how to make a guy feel like you’re interested in spending time with him.”

“I’m sorry, it’s just—”

“Did you ever think that maybe you could turn the day around?” He poured a glass of wine and handed it to her. “What?” She sipped the Merlot and looked at him over the rim of her glass.

“You had a bad morning, right? And a bad afternoon? Who says you have to have a bad evening and night, too? I plan on making things better.” He led her to a bar stool at his island and pulled it out so she would sit. Once she was settled, he started bringing items over to the counter, placing them within her reach. Cups. Vinegar. Food coloring. Eggs. White crayons.

She stared at him, then started to giggle. “What were you thinking?”

“You promised me you’d color eggs with me this year. We’re almost out of time. Easter’s on Sunday.”

“I thought you were kidding.”

“You said you hadn’t done it since you were little. And neither have I. It’s a tradition. We should start doing it again.”

“It’s a tradition for families with little kids.”

“Says who? Besides, this will give us a reason to make baked macaroni.”

“You don’t need…” she stopped and counted, “…four dozen eggs for baked macaroni.”

“I like baked macaroni. We’ll make a lot. We can freeze what we don’t eat. And we can make deviled eggs. And egg salad.”

She shook her head and poured some vinegar into all the cups of hot water.

“Oh! And pickled eggs. I love pickled eggs.”

“You don’t like beets.”

“But I like pickled eggs.” He put food coloring in all the cups.

She picked up a crayon and scanned the cups. “Did you make any black?”

“For Easter eggs?” He scoffed. “Um, no.” He finished writing something on an egg and put it in the pink cup.

“How am I supposed to make a black and gold egg without black?”

“Just draw the Steelers logo on it and put it in yellow.”

“You don’t do eggs right.”

“You’ll have to teach me next year.” She looked up at him, but didn’t say anything. They’d been together for a while, but no one had talked long-term. Nervous, she decided to change the subject. “Are you almost done with the pink?”

“I don’t know. Check and see if you think it’s dark enough.”

She lifted his egg out of the pink cup. He’d written, ‘I love you, Laci’ on it. She wished she’d stuck with the ‘teach me next year’ conversation. It was an easier one to deal with at the moment. And he said he wanted to make her night better. The L-bomb was not better. Not at all. What was she supposed to say to that?

Laci and Del: A Wee Bit O’ Picking

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another installment of short fiction. You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF), by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.

Remember that 2014 is the year I’m trying serial work. This is part 3 of 12: Laci and Del: A Wee Bit O’ Picking.

Laci and Del: A Wee Bit O’ Picking

wee bit o' irishIt was an irritant somewhere in her brain, picking away at her comfort zone.

Pick. Pick. Pick.

If Laci had felt nervous before Valentine’s Day, she was positively panicked afterward. The first month and a half of the year had gone more smoothly than she could have hoped after their years apart, then Del had to go and up the stakes with the perfect Valentine’s date: just the right mix of recreation and romance.

Since then she’d been a wreck.

He had dialed everything back to casual, but she knew it was a fake casual. They were past that. He’d taken them past that.

She kept going to movies with him, sharing meals, discussing their days, meeting for coffee, but she knew, she knew, those things weren’t innocuous. It was more than merely food, entertainment, and mindless chatter. They mattered to him. And if she was honest with herself, they all mattered to her, too.

Pick. Pick. Pick.

It was a month after their perfect date, and he hadn’t said anything, hadn’t put any pressure on her—none at all, in fact—but she felt it. Because over the last week, he’d spent less and less time with her. Time was running out. She had to choose.

Pick. Pick. Pick.

Commit or move on.

Pick.

Whatever was fiddling around in her head believed in divide and conquer, because some of it had gone to work in her stomach. She thought about making a bowl of soup, but took some antacid instead.

Pick.

St. Patrick’s Day was Monday. Because of his heritage, it used to be one of Del’s favorite days of the year. He had proven to her that he still knew her well. Maybe it was time to see how well she still knew him. She sat down with a notebook and pen and got to work.

On Monday evening, Laci’s doorbell rang at 5:30, right when she expected it. She straightened her green silk dress under her apron and answered the door.

He must have had a hard day, because he’d already taken off his jacket, untucked his shirt, loosened his collar, and undone his tie. His hair was mussed, like he’d been running his hand through it in frustration, and he was looking at his phone with a frown on his face. But when she greeted him, he pocketed his phone and the stress lines smoothed into a lazy grin. “You look gorgeous. What’s the occasion?”

She grabbed his hand and pulled him into her apartment. She looked gorgeous? One of her favorite looks on Del was his done-with-the-business-day look. His five o’clock shadow was coming in and his clothes were starting to come off… he had that perfect blend of elegant and casual that really got to her. “Are you kidding me? Delany Keegan doesn’t know what today is?”

He thought for a second and shook his head. “Sorry, babe. The last week’s been pretty rough. Today was a real killer. Let me think… It’s not a birthday. Not an anniversary. What am I missing?”

She reached behind her and slowly untied her apron, watching his every reaction.

His gaze followed her hands. He swallowed and smiled, clearly expecting a lot more to come.

Instead of removing her apron, she lifted it to him and said, “Read it.”

“What?” He chuckled, clearly not expecting that turn of events.

“What’s it say?”

He looked at her for a moment, then he looked down at the apron and read it. “Kiss Me. I May Have a Wee Bit O’ Irish in Me.” He smiled. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day.”

She spoke with her best brogue, which wasn’t that good, but was serviceable. “It is indeed, Delany Keegan. And you should be ashamed for neglecting your heritage like that. Forgetting our day. And not even wearing o’ the green! You know what that means!” She reached out and pinched him.

He tossed his jacket on the sofa and spoke in a brogue far better than Laci’s. “You get one free one, Laci Marks. Try it again, and I pinch back.”

She giggled and said, “You better not if you want to put a wee bit o’ Irish in me later!” and ran into the kitchen. He was close on her heels. She turned to ward off his advance, but he had stopped short. “Del? What’s wrong?”

He was staring at her table. “What did you do?” he asked, his voice low, soft.

The nerves were back again, working overtime. Pick. Pick. Pick. “I made dinner. We’ve been eating together almost every night, anyway. I just decided to cook tonight instead of us going out.”

She needed something to do with her hands, so she took her apron off. For the second time that night, she waited while he looked her over, head to toe. At the door, he just appraised her beauty, and she appreciated it. But in the kitchen, he assessed the intent behind her efforts, and it made her squirm. Then he turned toward the table, where she had already placed homemade soda bread, Colcannon potatoes, corned beef, and a steaming pot of Irish stew. Tall glasses of Guinness were at each place setting. He didn’t even know that coffee was already brewed for after dinner, Irish if he wanted it that way, to accompany an Irish cream chocolate cheesecake that she’d baked the day before. She bit her lip while she waited for his analysis to end.

“You did all this?”

She shrugged. “It’s no big deal.” Fidgeting under his stare, she continued. “We have to eat, right?”

He crossed to her and took her by the shoulders, forcing her to face him, but she stared at the floor. “Laci, look at me.”

She couldn’t quite manage it.

“Laci,” he whispered.

She looked up into his eyes and saw that he was searching for answers. Answers she was frightened to give.

“Did you do all this for me?”

She nodded. “I know your mother makes this meal every year. I wanted to make sure you got to eat your family feast, even if you were with me instead of them.”

He smiled, and his eyes stopped questioning her. Instead, they held answers. Those were the eyes that she’d once fallen in love with. Eyes that once held the promise of a future, of children, of growing old together. Of a lifetime. She saw those things again.

It was frightening.

And exhilarating.

“Your apron said I’m supposed to kiss you.” He pulled her into his embrace.

Everything had changed.

She had picked.

What if she’d made a mistake?

First Friday Fiction Feature — Laci and Del: Romance Tailor Made

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another installment of short fiction. You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF), by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.

Hopefully you remember that 2014 is the year I’m trying serial work. This is part 2 of 12: “Laci and Del: Romance Tailor Made”

Laci and Del: Romance Tailor Made

black & gold valentineThey’d been dating since New Year’s, midnight. This time. Laci had to admit things were going well. Over the last six weeks, Del seemed to have remembered everything that mattered to her.

She only ate ice cream in the summer… unless she was angry, then bring it on. By the gallon. She liked her pizza New York style, as thin as she could get it, and always with sausage and veggies. Chicken wings should be seasoned with paprika and garlic salt, not slathered in sauce, and served with blue cheese, not ranch. And like pizza, she had to drink Pepsi, not Coke, with them. And definitely not iced tea or something without bubbles. Beer would do in a pinch, but was not her first choice. She was fiercely addicted to hockey. She loved museums, but preferred to go to them alone because people usually rushed her through them. She pretended to enjoy art films but in actuality they bored her; she preferred action movies. And obviously, she hated being alone at midnight on New Year’s because not kissing someone was a double whammy for her: it was a new year and it was her birthday.

He remembered it all.

When Del told her he had something special planned for Valentine’s Day, she couldn’t help but panic. “Special” was too much. “Special” was too soon.

They had crossed that bridge before. They had discussed marriage. She’d been ready for it. She had been secretly buying bridal magazines and thinking about venues. She’d tentatively designed the perfect menu, chosen colors and flowers, and known just what gown she wanted. If she had closed her eyes, she could have felt the ring on her finger.

And it had blown up in her face.

She didn’t know if she was ready to deal with all that again.

“What time can you get off work?” he asked.

“Uh… I don’t know. Why?”

“I thought we might start the night early. Valentine’s Day is Friday, so you know it’s going to be even more crazy in town than usual.”

“What time do I need to be ready?”

“Well, I don’t want to give too much away. Can you be ready to walk out the door at five?”

“Five? That’s awfully early for dinner, isn’t it?”

“I’ve got a full evening planned.”

She sighed, but no air felt like it entered or exited her lungs. Her chest felt tight, her palms cold, clammy. “All right. Five. What should I wear?”

“Whatever you’re comfortable in.”

“I’m comfortable in jammies.”

He waggled his eyebrows.

“Seriously, Del. I need to know how to dress.”

“Something comfortable. That’s all I’m saying.” He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss, then started to walk away. He called over his shoulder. “I promise, this will be a night you won’t forget.”

Something comfortable? She bit her lower lip. I doubt I’ll be comfortable until that night is long over.

When Valentine’s Day rolled around, Laci had worked herself up so much that she couldn’t concentrate if she tried. She finally just took the afternoon off and went home. Standing in her closet, she pawed through her clothes countless times, never coming up with anything. Finally, she stood back.

“What the hell constitutes ‘comfortable’ to a man?”

She took a bubble bath, styled her hair, and applied her makeup. When her doorbell rang at 4:55, she was still in her robe.

“I know I said ‘comfortable,’ but I don’t think we’ll get out of your apartment with you looking like that.”

The look on his face was something between appreciation and predator. She whacked his arm as it reached for her and darted out of his reach. “I’d be ready by now if I knew what I was supposed to be wearing. You won’t tell me where we’re going, or what ‘comfortable’ means, or how dressy I should get, or…” She stopped and took a good look at him for the first time.

He was dressed in jeans and his winter jacket, underneath which she could see a hockey jersey peeking out.

“When you say ‘comfortable,’ do you mean ‘casual?’”

“I do.”

She started to relax. “How casual? Like, my lucky-hockey-jersey casual?”

“That would be perfect.” He smiled.

The pressure in her chest released so quickly, she was surprised steam didn’t pour out her ears. “I’ll be right back!” She all but danced to her room and stripped out of her robe. Her beloved Lemieux jersey held a place of honor in her closet; it hung right by the door next to the white Sidney Crosby, black Evgeni Malkin, and blue James Neal jerseys. But the black Lemieux jersey was her lucky jersey, and it was a special night, so that’s the one she wore. She donned it with a pair of black jeans and black boots, grabbed her jacket, and headed for the door.

“Perfect,” he said, standing back and looking her over.

She could feel the heat rise in her cheeks. “Stop it. I hate it when you look at me like that.”

“Get used to it.” He opened the door for her. “Let’s go.”

“Where are we going?”

“That’s classified.”

She sighed, but played along. Downstairs, a black car was parked at the curb. She started to walk around it to cross the street, but he led her to it and bowed low, opening the door. “Madame, your carriage awaits.”

“What?”

“I rented a car for tonight. I didn’t want to walk in the cold or try to hail cabs.”

“Where are we going?”

“Geez, Laci. Would you just play along and get in?”

“Okay!” She got in and Del climbed in behind her. He poured her champagne and they toasted to a wonderful Valentine’s Day. Laci hadn’t even finished her drink before they were at their destination: her favorite pizza parlor. “Are you kidding me?”

“Nope. Come on.” Del took her hand and led her inside. They ordered salad and pizza—New York style with sausage and veggies, of course—and two Pepsis.

When they were finished, Del took her hand. “Did you enjoy your meal?”

“Every bite.”

“Ready to go?”

“There’s more?”

“It’s only six-fifteen, Laci. The night’s just getting started.”

Their driver valiantly braved rush hour traffic to cross the river and stop at The Square, where Del paid for them to ride the incline to the top of Coal Mountain and look at the view of the city.

“It’s a little chilly, but it’s beautiful,” Laci said, nerves creeping back in. The top of the mountain was exactly the kind of place people went to propose, and she wasn’t ready.

“I’m glad you like it,” Del said. “But we can’t stay. We’ve got one more stop.”

Relief flooded through her, warm and comforting, tingling her chilled fingers and toes. “Really, Del? You’ve already given me a great night.”

“I think you’ll like this.”

They rode the incline back down and got in the car. Again the driver fought city traffic and took them to one of Laci’s favorite places: the hockey center.

Del produced two tickets from his pocket. “Center ice. Right behind the bench.”

She threw her arms around him. “Are you serious?”

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Laci.”

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Del.”

As they walked inside, Laci knew she was going to remember that night for the rest of her life.

She also knew Del had put together a far more romantic evening for her than if he had wined-and-dined her at a fancy restaurant.

What did that mean for them going forward?

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