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One Kiss Is Worth a Thousand Words
The time had come, and we both knew it. We were ready. I looked into his Clark Gable eyes as he drew me close and saw the tender love in them, the deep fire of restrained passion.
I watched his lips--those beautiful, expressive lips--as they slowly drew near.
I closed my eyes, felt his warm breath, knew the soft touch of his lips on mine.
Time melted away in the eternity of that kiss. Our first kiss, long awaited. I could almost hear music soar.
It was Bogie and Bacall, Scarlett and Rhett, Rick and Ilsa, Wesley and Buttercup, Belle and her Beast. Of all the wonderful kisses since the beginning of time, it was one of the best. It was not to be forgotten.
It was . . . it was definitely not happening.
I pulled back from my reverie and gazed across the table at my date. And sighed.
Those lips. Those eyes. That mouth. Those gorgeous Gregory Peck Roman Holiday lips--now closing in on an industrial-sized cinnamon roll.
I sighed again. I know that old song says a kiss is still a kiss. But when you're not being kissed at all, who cares what Sam the piano player says?
". . . thought we could hit Macy's first." Alex Spencer put down his roll and blew on his cappuccino with those wonderful, full lips before taking a sip and giving me a questioning look across the café table.
"Sounds good." I gulped my mocha, noticing as I did a trace of foam on his adorable mouth. Is this man ever going to kiss me?
Alex and I had been dating for three weeks now. Twenty-two days, actually, but who's counting? And things were going well. Quite well, in fact, considering our love-hate, mistaken-motives history. And the fact Alex was my new boss. And the whole kissing issue, of course--not that I'm obsessing about it or anything.
But they were going so well that in just a few minutes we were going to cross an important dating threshold: Alex was taking me shopping. In San Francisco. And since we'd never shopped together, I was a trifle nervous.
What if Alex turned out to be like most men, who loathe women's favorite sport?
That's why I'd already had a long talk with my shopping self and stressed that she behave with decorum and restraint. And she'd agreed to be on her best behavior. Unless we went into a shoe store. Then all bets were off.
Something you should probably know about me. I've had a love affair with shoes ever since I bought my first pair of Candies in high school. And although I'd had a spiritual epiphany of sorts a couple of months ago about scaling back and keeping things simple, that epiphany hadn't reached all the way down to my feet yet.
Or to my mouth. Or to my kiss-obsessed brain.
I was trying, though. I knew that the minute my lips locked with Alex's, there would be no scaling back. Also that my drooling might stain his leather bomber jacket, which, I might add, fit him extremely well and gave him a rakish, Brandoesque charm. So in an attempt to keep my smitten self in check, I resumed our favorite sport.
"Okay, Filmguy, what's the first Technicolor movie to win an Oscar?"
He shot me a smug grin as he set down his gooey cinnamon roll. "Gone With the Wind, in 1939. The same year of The Wizard of Oz, where they also made use of that innovative color change. But Gone with the Wind swept the Oscars, and the Wizard only won a couple."
"Brat." I stuck out my tongue at him. "Your turn."
"Right, then," he said with that competitive gleam in his eye that I knew and loved.
Whoops. Did I just say the L-word? No, no. I meant to say like. It's not the L-word yet. How could it be? We've only been dating a few weeks. Every single woman worth her romantic salt knows you can't say the L-word until he does.
Note to self: Do not even think the L-word. Otherwise, might blurt out unexpectedly at inopportune time.
Alex continued with our movie-addict game, seemingly unaware of my romantic inner turmoil. "Okay, Miss Movie Lover, which actress holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations?"
Now it was my turn for a smug smile. "For years, that honor was held by Miss Katharine Hepburn, with twelve nominations. Meryl Streep bypassed her a few years back. But the great Kate still holds the record for the most Best Actress Oscars--four."
"Didn't she win for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with Spencer Tracy?"
I nodded but was thinking, Spencer . . . the perfect segue. Maybe now I could finally pin Alex down on his background.
Though not exactly the strong, silent type, my gorgeous date had proved remarkably reserved--evasive, even--in supplying personal information. And I had to admit I was curious.
I knew he was rich and successful--heir to the Spencer publishing dynasty, no less. He'd been a big corporate muckety-muck before deciding to downscale and become a small-town newspaperman--in my hometown of Barley, California, no less.
I also knew he'd been raised in England but wasn't really English. That bit of mystery had slipped out in conversation with my niece. But he'd never mentioned it again.
I absolutely knew he was a good Christian man--woohoo!--with an athletic build, beautiful dark eyes with killer lashes, and delicious, kissable lips. He was one of the few people I'd ever met who knew more about movies than me. Beyond that . . . well, I just needed to know. And what was the point of being a reporter if I couldn't ask questions?
"Speaking of Spencer," I began innocently, spreading low-fat cream cheese on my bagel. "I've been wondering . . . what's your favorite color? And, uh, when's your birthday?" Then, quickly--"Oh, and what was your childhood like?"
His dark eyebrows lifted beneath his curly Jude Law hair. "That's three questions--none of them relating to movies."
"True. But I figure it's high time I learned a little more about you, Mr. Close to the Vest." I licked cream cheese from my fingers. "It's really not fair. You already know all about me--born and raised in Barley, joined the air force, got my journalism degree, worked in Cleveland and now California. But what about you, O corporate man of the world?"
Alex started to respond, but I interrupted him with a teasing smile. "Wait. Let me guess; you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth to a family of old money in New York. Or Connecticut--which would account for your upper-crust diction. And your grandmother was English, which is why you spent time there growing up."
Or maybe it was your whole family, and they own half of the British--
Alex took another bite of cinnamon roll and wiped icing from his mouth.
Darn, I'd been hoping to take care of that for him. There can't be too many calories in one lick, right?
". . . was born in a blue-collar area of Pittsburgh, and the spoon was wooden, not silver. My mom cleaned houses, and my father was a steelworker--when he worked, that is."
I gaped at him. "But then how did you wind up rich and in England?" My inner Emily Post sighed. You can dress her up, but you can't take her out. "Sorry. I mean . . ."
He guffawed. "Don't apologize. That's one of the things I really like about you, Phoebe. You just say what you're thinking. I wish more people would."
Really like? I lingered over the first part of his sentence. With apologies to Sally Field, "really like" is just a step away from the Big L!
He went on, oblivious to my lovestruck trembling. "My father died when I was six. He was drunk and driving." A bitter note crept into his voice. "Of course he didn't have insurance, so that left Mom and me practically on the streets."
"I'm sorry, Alex." I reached over and touched his hand. "I had no idea."
No wonder we'd had an instant connection--beyond the whole movie thing, I mean. I'd lost my dad in high school.
Alex shrugged. "That was a lifetime ago--a lifetime I hardly remember. Mom became a live-in housekeeper to a wealthy English family, and when the son and heir came over for a visit, they fell in love." He smiled. "Quite the scandal, at first, but my stepfather is the kind of man who tends to get his way. Any rate, six months later they were married, and a year after that we moved to England. By that time, I was eleven and my parents had a baby." He slid me a sly grin. "I believe you know Cordelia."
My face flushed. "Don't remind me." When I first heard of Cordelia, I'd mistakenly assumed she was his girlfriend and had jumped to foolish conclusions.
But I was still confused. "If you had a different father, how come your last name's Spencer?"
"David Spencer was a far better father to me than my own dad had ever been." Alex's eyes darkened. "And a far better husband to my mother. He never once made me feel like an unwanted stepchild. So when he asked if I would like to become his son legally, there wasn't anything I wanted more. I've been a Spencer ever since."
Before I could go and get all mushy on him, he added with a grin, "And the Spencer publishing family has been swooping down and buying up struggling newspapers since I came into the fold. There's even talk they might start buying up entire towns now too."
"You're never going to let me forget that, are you?"
"Not in this lifetime, George Bailey."
Shortly after Alex moved to our Central California valley town as the new owner and publisher--and therefore, my boss--of the Barley Bulletin, I'd jumped to yet another foolish conclusion. The town was trying to save my beloved Bijou movie house, so we'd been selling theater seats in a desperate fundraising attempt. But even if we'd sold every seat in the house, it still wouldn't have been enough to save the cherished building from the wrecking ball. Then someone anonymously rode to the rescue with a huge donation, and I assumed it was Alex since he was the richest man in town. To me, that sounded way too much like mean old Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life. I was sure Alex was going to take over the entire town and turn it into Potterville--uh, Spencerville. So I'd flown into full Jimmy Stewart righteous-indignation mode, accusing Alex of false philanthropic motives.
I'd had to eat some major crow when it turned out I was wrong. Unfortunately, I'm well acquainted with the taste of crow. Which is why I've been trying hard to reform.
No more jumping to conclusions. No more living in movie fantasies. No more longing meditations on certain newspaper publishers with amazing, kissable lips . . .
"Hey, are you going to eat that, or just play with it?" He pushed a packet of jelly my way and his voice took on a mock stern tone. "Eat, Phoebe, eat. You'll need your strength for our shopping marathon."
That's another thing I love about you--uh, I mean like, l-i-k-e, not love. You never say, "Are you sure you want to eat that?" like some guys I've known who have a thing for anorexic model types.
I lifted my bagel to my mouth but asked before taking a bite, "So, what was it like growing up in England?"
Alex released a homesick sigh. "It was a change, but I really liked it. Part of it was finally living in a happy family. But we moved into this ancestral home in the country that looked like a castle, with horses and all this acreage to explore, so that was great. Then I went to boarding school in Oxford and--
"Wow. Like Harry Potter?"
"Minus the wizards and dragons and creepy creatures hiding in the basement," he said dryly. "Just itchy uniforms, dreadful food, and ridiculous bedtimes. But my family also has an apartment in London, so it was always fun to go down to the city."
"Uh, how close is Oxford to London? Aren't they right next to each other?" Geography had never been my strong suit in school. Math either. But if they'd had a class in film, this movie lover would have made straight As.
"No, Oxford is a bit northwest of London--about an hour or so by train."
"Train? I've never been on a train." I gave a wistful sigh. "Is it as romantic as they show in films? All that swirling steam as they say good-bye, and she runs alongside the departing train as her sweetheart goes off to war. Except in Doctor Zhivago, when Omar Sharif was on the train and saw Lara through the window and tried to get her attention, but she never saw him and he died of a heart attack without her ever knowing. So sad. Although . . . come to think of it--was that a train? Might have been a streetcar."
"Wow. You didn't even take a breath." Alex shot me an admiring glance. "I never thought of riding the train as particularly romantic." He winked at me. "We'll have to take a train trip together one of these days."
Like on our honeymoon, maybe?
Down, happily-ever-after girl, down, my voice of reason commanded. You've only been dating a little while. Rein in the romance. He hasn't even kissed you yet.
And just why is that exactly? my familiar, neurotic self nagged. Doesn't he find me attractive?
My common-sense self stepped up to the romantic plate: Of course he finds you attractive.Hasn't he told you so?
But I glanced at Alex just to be sure. I was pretty sure he was giving me more than a "just friends" smile.
See, he's just exercising restraint like the strong, upright Christian man he is. Remember what it says in the Song of Solomon--"Do not awaken love before its time."
Yeah, my impatient self grumbled, but just how much time is it going to take?
"Phoebe? Still with me?"
Forever and ever, amen. I affected a nonchalance that belied my romantic fantasy. "Sorry. So, tell me more about England. Is the scenery really as gorgeous as it looks in all those Jane Austen movies?"
He smiled gently. "Well, not everywhere. We've got our share of urban blight, you know. But the countryside . . ." He got a faraway look in his eye. "You should see the Cotswolds, where my dad's estate is. Lush green hills dotted with sheep, villages with ancient churches and pretty stone cottages." Alex grinned. "And flowers everywhere. The English are quite proud of their gardens, and there are plenty of wildflowers too."
"I wandered lonely as a cloud," I murmured, "that danced on high o'er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils . . ."
He stared at me. "You know Wordsworth?"
"Not personally. But I studied him in English Lit." I didn't add that I'd first heard the poem on reruns of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show.
Alex continued to stare at me in amazement. "I didn't know you liked poetry."
"There's a lot you don't know about me," I said, tossing my hair. Or trying to. It's kind of difficult to execute a haughty flowing-tresses toss when you have a short, spiky cut. "I have hidden depths."
"I already know that." He gave me a flirtatious smile. "And I look forward to exploring more of them."
Note to self: Resist urge to climb over this table and kiss that adorable mouth and those to-die-for dimples this very second.
"But for now," he glanced at his watch, "we'd better go explore the stores before there's nothing left."
A few hours later, with several shopping bags between us but no shoe boxes--I'd salivated over some Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks but had sacrificially passed them by in the spirit of the season and in deference to my reporter's salary--we made our way to the top of Neiman Marcus to have lunch in the rotunda.
Intent on the menu, I didn't notice the couple that had stopped at our table until a familiar voice interrupted me. "Excuse me, is this seat taken?"
I looked up to see my two best friends from Cleveland grinning at me. "Phil! Lins! What are you doing here?" I jumped up and hugged them both.
"We had a long holiday weekend, so we thought we'd come see what it is about California that could drag two of our Lone Rangers all the way out here," Phil said.
Alex and I had both been members of the No More Lone Rangers church singles group in Cleveland--back when I was a lowly obits writer for the Cleveland Star and he was the corporate type who cost me my job. Phil and Lindsey were still official Lone Rangers, but seriously dating ones.
"Wow, Alex, isn't this a great surprise?" I intercepted a grin between him and Lindsey as we sat down. "Wait a minute. You knew all about this, didn't you?"
Phil laughed. "Of course he did. How do you think we knew what restaurant to come to? Logic has never been your strong suit, Pheebs," he said affectionately.
"Never mind him," Lindsey said, shooting a dirty look at her boyfriend and patting my hand. "I totally get your chick logic."
"Of course you do, sweetie." Phil returned her dirty look with a mushy one. "And I wouldn't have it any other way."
Now it was her turn to return his gooey look.
"Okay, you guys, stop." I grabbed a sugar packet and shook it in front of them. "I'm about to have a sugar attack."
"Too bad," said Phil, grinning and leaning over to plant a big kiss on my best friend's waiting mouth.
All I could do was watch longingly . . . and pray that my kissless days would be over soon.
"Talk about eye candy," Lindsey said as we wandered around the fine jewelry department for some friend shopping time while the guys did their male-bonding thing.
I snorted. "Yeah. Expensive eye candy. Reminds me of Tiffany's. I couldn't afford anything there either."
Lins scrabbled around in her purse and held up her sterling silver key chain. "I could."
We burst out laughing as we remembered our grand adventure in New York not so many months before. She'd done her petite, blonde Sweet Home Alabama Reese Witherspoon impression to the upscale saleswoman while I'd tried unsuccessfully to be Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany's.
"May I help you?" A cool Grace Kelly blonde in a cobalt blue silk blouse and straight black skirt wafted subtle waves of Chanel No. 5 toward us from the counter.
"No thanks," we hooted, clinging to each other as the giggles overtook us again. I sucked in my cheeks in another attempt to be Audreyesque, but wound up looking more like Dory the blue fish from Finding Nemo.
We beat a quick retreat from Neiman Marcus to the misty streets of San Francisco, where we wandered around for a while like Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon--minus the trench coat and the film noir lighting. But it was John Wayne who stopped me in my pilgrim tracks.
"Hey, look! It's a movie store." I peered in the window past the life-size cardboard cutout of the Duke. "I'll bet I can find a Christmas present for Alex here."
And I did. A really cool Casablanca wall clock for his office. Since Alex and I had watched that beloved black-and-white film on our first date and were forever quoting to each other from the movie, it was perfect. I began humming "As Time Goes By," Casablanca's un-forgettable signature song. Then I saw a paperweight bearing the line "I was misinformed" and snatched that up too.
Alex had used that same line from Casablanca in his early online correspondence with me, before we each knew who the other was. We didn't exchange names or addresses since, you never know, you could be writing to an ax murderer or something. To him, I was simply MovieLovr and he was my Filmguy. Who could've guessed we actually knew each other--that he was the corporate-raider troublemaker who had already cost me my job?
Well, anyone who's seen You've Got Mail and was paying attention could have guessed it. But I hadn't . . . and everything had still turned out great. Minus the kiss at the end, of course. But that was still to come.
Lindsey shot me a sly look as we left the movie store. "What do you think Alex will get you? Jewelry, maybe?"
"Oh, it's way too early for that." I sucked in my breath. "Isn't it?"
It doesn't have to be several carats, Lord. A simple but meaningful family heirloom works for me.
Note to self: Start practicing surprised look now so as to be ready by Christmas.
Near the end of an elegant candlelit dinner at an upscale Fisherman's Wharf restaurant that evening, a waiter set a silver-domed platter in front of me. "I didn't order anything else." I looked up at him in surprise.
Oh my! Be still, my heart. It's a ring, it's a ring!
Come off it, Pheebs. You know perfectly well it isn't. But I couldn't hear my practical self over the pounding in my chest.
"Permit me." The waiter removed the dome with a flourish. But instead of a jewelry box, the platter revealed a thick, creamy envelope with my name written on it in calligraphy.
Pretty flat ring, my practical self pointed out unhelpfully.
"What is it, Pheebs?" Lins got that feverish gift glint in her eyes. "Open it."
Oh my goodness. Shirley Temple took up residence in my head, totally quenching the voice of reason. Could it be? A proposal . . . in writing?
Not quite. Instead of "Phoebe, my beloved, I adore you and worship the ground you walk on. Will you marry me?" Alex had written, "At the end of the day you'll have seen your favorite musical." Tucked in behind the note were four tickets to a touring-company production of Les Miserables.
It's way too early for a proposal, my practical self reminded the disappointed me. He needs to say the L-word first, remember. Focus on how wonderful and romantic this gift is instead.
Alex had discovered that Les Miz was my favorite musical one day at the office. He'd been out to lunch, or so I thought. So I'd slipped on my headphones, shut my eyes, and lost myself in the musical I loved but had never seen on stage . . . until Alex's rich baritone jolted me back from Victor Hugo's Paris.
"Thought we'd make it a duet," he'd said, grinning at me when my eyes flew open. "Although 'Do You Hear the People Sing?' is best with a full revolutionary chorus."
He'd been right, of course. The chorus was stirring. Magnificent. When the lights came up after the show, Lins and I were both blubbering like babies. We heard a few sniffles from the guys too, but they insisted it was just the San Francisco fog.
We walked to Alex's car, debating the merits of each song and speculating on who should be cast in the movie version of the musical. Well, Alex and I debated and speculated. Phil and Lindsey just walked arm in arm and mooned over each other.
Realization dawned when we reached the distinctive claret-colored awning of the St. Francis Hotel. "Ah, now I know why you parked in the hotel garage." I smiled at my date. "It's so close to the theater."
"Actually, I parked here because we're spending the night."
I stopped short, causing Lindsey to bump into me. "Say what?"
Alex caught Phil's eye and winked. "I knew we'd be too tired to drive home this late, so I booked a couple of rooms--one for you and Lindsey and one for us."
"Oh," I said weakly. "Good idea." Another thought struck. "But I, um, don't have anything to--uh, a toothbrush or anything."
"Yes you do. Your mom packed an overnight bag, and I picked it up on my way to your house this morning. I had the valet take it to your room already."
Phil shot him an admiring glance. "Now I see how you got that big-time corporate title, buddy. You think of everything."
Alex lifted his shoulders in a modest shrug. "It's all in the planning."
Lins kicked off her shoes and lay down on one of the two queen-size beds, her feet dangling over the side. "Okay, dish. What's the latest with you and Alex?"
"Nothing." I began unpacking my overnight bag. "We're just enjoying each other's company. We have a lot of fun together."
She gave me a sharp look. "Yeah, right. Tell me another one. I know you too well, Pheebs. You're in serious like with that man."
"So what's not to like?" I said in my best Jewish mother voice as I pulled on my pajamas.
"True." Lins shifted on the bed. "How about working together? How's that?"
"So far, so good. He's a good boss and a really good writer. Not only that. He also appreciates my writing, which I appreciate." I grimaced. "Even when I'm only writing about stupid emus, cow-milking contests, or goat roping."
Lindsey wrinkled her nose. "I still can't believe that wussy, big-city you is getting so friendly with livestock."
"Comes with the small cow-town territory." I did not remind her that I'd actually grown up in that cow town. I just shrugged. "Not a lot of other writing options in Barley--other than my weekly review of whatever's showing down at the Bijou. Thankfully, there's the delicious perk of working side by side with Alex every day. Otherwise I'd have to slash my writing-career wrists."
"Enough about your wrists." Lindsey hugged her pillow to her. "Get to the good part. I want the whole romantic 411 on you and Alex! Have you guys kissed yet?"
"No. We're taking our time. Unlike some people I know."
She stuck her tongue out at me. "I'll say you're taking your time."
"Lins, we haven't even been dating a month yet. We're still at the getting-to-know-one-another stage. I mean, it was only today that I found out anything about his childhood."
"But don't you want to? Kiss Alex, I mean."
"Of course I want to. But it's not like I'm just going to jump him and grab him in a major lip-lock."
"Hel-looow," I said, doing my best Billy Crystal while arching my eyebrows. "We happen to be trying to rise above the whole lusts of the flesh thing." An image of Alex's full lips flashed before me, effectively demolishing my superior stance and bringing me back to reality. I sighed. "Besides, I've done that in the past, as you well know, and it never works out. No, I'm going the old-fashioned route this time, waiting for him to take the initiative--which I believe he will take in the very near future, thank you very much." I gave my friend a searching look. "But what about you? You and Phil were really doing some major face sucking today. Are you still keeping it pure?"
She nodded and grimaced. "But it's sure not easy. Especially as things get more serious."
"Serious? We're talking about the M-word here?"
"Hasn't crossed either of our lips, but we are dancing all around it. Her voice got all dreamy. "He's asked how many kids I want, what kind of house I like. Vacations--we both agree that wherever we go, we have to stay in at least a four-star hotel. No roughing it for this couple."
"I hear ya on that." I set my boots next to my suitcase.
Lindsey turned a speculative gaze to the low heels on my Kenneth Coles. "It's nice to see you've gotten over your short-men phobia."
I bristled. "Alex isn't short. He's more than an inch and three-quarters taller than me. Which is just perfect--I don't have to crane my neck to look up at him."
And kissing should be pretty easy too.
"I think this whole cultural thing about tall men being hotter is just way out of line!"
"Hey, down, girl. You're the one whose shopping list said at least six-foot-two."
"That's because big guys always made me feel smaller. But Alex doesn't like skinny women." I glanced in the mirror at my profile, sucking in my stomach. "He finds Jennifer Lopez and her curves a lot more appealing than any of those scrawny supermodel types." I lowered my head, sucked in my cheeks, and tried to look appropriately J.Lo sultry.
A soft knock at the door made me blow my cheeks back out to normal.
We looked at each other. Then at our watches. "The guys wouldn't be dropping by this late, would they?" Lins whispered.
I looked down at my oversized Winnie-the-Pooh slippers. "I certainly hope not."
"Room service," a muffled voice said.
"We didn't order anything," Lins yelled, peeking through the peephole.
"Courtesy of Mr. Spencer in Room 215."
Lindsey and I exchanged wide-eyed glances as she hurried to let the waiter in.
"Ooh, check out the gorgeous rose." Lindsey lifted the bud vase and held it up to the light once the waiter had left. "And that's not cut glass either, honey; that's crystal." She smacked her lips. "Let's see what the classy Mr. Spencer sent."
"Ooh." This time we both smacked our lips. Beneath the silver dome on a china plate drizzled with raspberry sauce sat the largest and densest piece of chocolate decadence cake I'd ever seen, topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream.
With two forks on the side.
In a sugar-fantasy fog I reached for one of the forks, but Lins stayed my hand. "Wait." She passed me a piece of folded creamy vellum paper from beneath the plate. I recognized Alex's familiar scrawl: "Since I deprived you of dessert, I thought you might like some now. Bon appetit."
"Oh Lins," I moaned as the first decadent bite hit my lips. "I just can't let this one get away."