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"Where're you going, Ja-ack?"
The women's voices, raised in singsong teasing, carried easily from the propped-open bakery door, stopping Jack in midstride on his nervous trek down the hallway of the Come to Your Senses building. He and four friends from the University of Washington, Seattle, had bought the place a couple of years back and turned it into living quarters and places of business.
Two of those friends, Angela Loukas, owner of the bakery A Taste for All Pleasures, and Bonnie Fortuna, florist proprietor of Bonnie Blooms, were grinning at him, hands on their hips in identical poses. He was busted.
"Me?" He pointed to his chest, looking behind him as if he expected to see someone else, though at slightly past seven in the morning, the only business open in the building was the bakery. "You talkin' to me?"
"Off to take pictures of someone, are we?" Bonnie pointed to his camera and raised her eyebrows, a light-brown contrast to her dyed-red hair.
"Gee." Angela faked a look of confusion, plunking a finger on her cheek. "I wonder who?"
Jack rolled his eyes. He'd told Angela about the woman way back in April when he'd first started taking photos of her practicing yoga in nearby Cal Anderson Park: an extraordinary woman, an immediate siren call to his photographer's instinct. He'd gotten to know her schedule and had taken picture after picture without her knowledge, obsessed on a level he didn't understand until the idea for a gallery show he'd been mulling over transformed from his original vision to one featuring this woman. Finally understanding what he wanted, he'd felt ready to approach her with an offer to model, and in a colossal demonstration of Murphy's Law, she didn't show up that day. Or the next or the next. May, June and July had been rainy and busy with graduations and weddings that kept the checks coming in. He might have lost track of the woman but he sure hadn't forgotten her, and hadn't stopped checking out the morning yoga class whenever he could spare the time. The vision for this series wouldn't leave him alone. He had to find her.
Then yesterday morning, the miracle.
"Tell me if you see this woman today you'll talk to her."
"For a raspberry muffin I'll tell you anything." He grinned at Angela, who made a sound of disgust and went behind her counter. Angela was a beautiful woman with thick chestnut hair, wide-set brown eyes and the warmest smile he'd ever seen. He adored her, thoroughly pla-tonically.
Bonnie's arms were folded disapprovingly across her bright red tank top worn over a white-and-red polka-dot skirt. He and Bonnie had had a fling not long after graduation, a brief experiment neither regretted, which had then settled into solid friendship. Which meant Jack adored her, too, only slightly less platonically. "You should have talked to her yesterday when you finally saw her again."
"I was in my car on the phone with one client and on my way to meeting another." He'd nearly driven off Denny Way when he saw the woman, for the first time in months, walking toward the park with her gym bag. For a split second he'd even calculated whether he could risk pulling over. "Leaping out of my car to ask for her phone number wouldn't have gone over so well."
"You should have talked to her last April." Angela handed him the muffin, fragrant and still warm.
"It's obvious why he didn't." Bonnie shook her head, tsk-tsking. "He's terrified of her."
Jack kept his features neutral as he slung the camera over his shoulder. Bonnie was dangerously close to a truth. Something about this woman had made him hesitant to contact her, a "something" he didn't care to examine closely. Fear wasn't Jack's operating mode, especially with women. "Yeah, she might beat me up."
He bit into the muffin, rich with a tart burst of fruit. Even his nervousness couldn't overcome the rapture of Angela's baking. "God, Angela, if Daniel hadn't already given you a promise ring, I would."
"uh-huh." She smiled her pleasure, but whether at his compliment or the mention of her future fiance, Jack wasn't sure. Daniel Flynn had walked into Angela's shop in early April, still grieving the death of his fiancée. In spite of some crazy vow he'd taken not to date anyone for two years, he'd succumbed in a very short time to Angela's beauty, sweetness and chocolate chunk cookies.
"Changing the subject." Bonnie sang out her disdain. "If you don't find her today, stay in the park until you do. You're starting to piss us off."
"Seriously." Angela nodded. "Gossip around here is in a very sad state. We need you to goose it up."
"I don't owe either of you any"
"Excuse me?" Bonnie was comically incredulous, green eyes wide with outrage. "Yes, you do."
"Absolutely, you do," Angela agreed. "What is wrong with you?"
Jack cracked up. The women were bright spots in his life. He was so happy Angela had found Daniel. Now if he could only find a way to yank their friend Seth's head out of his you-know-what long enough to realize he still loved Bonnie, and that she was perfect for him . "If I see the woman again today I will make contact, I promise. Okay? Happy?"
"Ooh!" Bonnie clapped her hands. "Delirious."
"Ecstatic." Angela was beaming. "Then come back immediately and tell us what she says."
"I have an idea what she'll say." Jack took a leisurely bite of muffin and chewed, fueling the women's impatience. "Either 'Oh, your work sounds fascinating,' or 'Go away and die, you creepy stalker.'"
"Could go either way," Bonnie said. "Angela, what do you think?"
"She'll do it." Angela poured herself a cup of coffee from the pot on her counter. "No woman has ever been able to resist Jack Shea."
"Give me a break." He made a sound of derision, both uncomfortable with and proud of the reputation. Women did tend to respond to his interest, probably because intuition told them that beneath the predatory maneuvers, Jack liked and respected them. Not to mention they were put together with parts he really, really enjoyed.
If he dug deeper, he'd admit that when he was on the prowl, part of him was warily watching out for the connection that would make committing himself worth it. That part kept him from feeling like a typical guy out to get laid. Plus, he was discerning in his choices, never was with a woman only one night unless that's what she wanted, and always protected his health. So if there was such a thing as a nice-guy, responsible player, he'd like to think he was it.
"Thanks for the muffin. Amazing as always." Jack crumpled the paper and pushed it into the white domed trash can under the counter, then poured and tossed back a cup of water. "I'm off."
"Good luck, Jack." Angela crossed fingers on both hands.
"I hope she's there today." Bonnie gave him a brief, fierce hug. "You're an amazing photographer. I still can't get over the picture you took of me."
Jack grinned, remembering the titillation of seeing his former lover clad only in orchids. "You're beautiful, Bonnie. It was a pleasure."
He enjoyed her blushing smile, waved to the two women then pushed out of the building's front door onto the sunny sidewalk of East Olive Way. For a few seconds he stood quietly, breathing in early August air under the whimsical Come to Your Senses sign Bonnie had designed and painted. The friends had named the building because their businesses represented the five senses: SmellBonnie's floral shop, tasteAngela's bakery, sighthis photography studio, soundSeth Blackstone's music studio, and touchthe rather mysterious Demi Anderson's physical therapy studio. Demi had bought the business from Caroline, their college friend who'd married and moved out of state. Demi didn't mix much with the rest of them, but no one could decide if she was shy or stuck-up, except Bonnie, who'd come down firmly on the side of stuck-up.
He turned right on Olive, then right on Tenth Avenue and entered the park, walking with deliberately unhurried steps to counter his urge to sprint. The class he'd seen the woman in started at 6:30 a.m. and went for an hour. Then his target went off to practice on her own, which was when he'd been photographing her, getting some amazing shots framed by branches in the foreground that had led to Angela and Bonnie's stalker-in-the-bushes accusations. They had a point. If Jack saw her today he'd have to play it cool. He was pretty sure saying, "Hi, I've been watching you for months, taking pictures without your knowledge, want to come up to my studio?" wouldn't cut it.
But photographing her without her knowledge had been addictive. Not everyone was comfortable in front of a camera, and she'd been beautiful, unselfconscious, serene and centered. If an earthquake hit the parktrees falling, people shrieking and scatteringhe figured she'd go right on through the sun salute, pose after pose, chest and abdomen taking in breath and letting it out. He'd felt as if he were photographing an extension of nature rather than an individual human being. Talking to her could have ruined it all and brought an end to any possibility of her participation in his series.
As he approached the area where the class was held on Tuesdays, he could see students enjoying the clear soft air, colorful mats laid out on the grass, arms raised, bodies lowering slowly. Both eager and nervous, he scanned the figures, about a dozen of them today, looking for blond hair in a simple ponytail, a long neck, slender figure
No. Damn it. He checked again more carefully.
Not here. Jack's stomach sank with disappointment. Yesterday he'd been so sure when he saw her that she must have resumed taking the class. He'd spent way too long pissing away time in April, stupidly taking for granted that she'd always be there, making excuses for not approaching her right then: his final vision for the project wasn't complete, there was somewhere else he had to be, she might turn him down if he didn't say the right thing, she might turn out to be nothing like the woman he envisioned.
So yes, he'd blown it last spring. But he sure as hell would like another chance. Because he had no idea what he'd do if he'd lost her.
Blood Pressure: Moderately Normal
"It was okay." Melissa Weber adjusted her cell phone against her ear, moving her left shoulder in a tentative circle, monitoring the joint for pain. "Didn't hurt too much. I'm glad I took a few more days off from class, though."
"I told you." Her younger sister, Gretchen, sighed. "If it was up to you, you'd keep exercising until your rotator cuff snapped and your arm fell right off."
"And that would be bad?" Melissa giggled at her sister's exasperation, reveling in the clear flow of breath down to her diaphragm, the exultant loosening of her muscles that her yoga class made possible. The rest of the time she must pant like a dog and hold herself like a stretched rubber band.
"You could have injured yourself seriously."
"It was just an irritation this time." Melissa turned her face up to the sunshine, more precious than gold in Seattle, though August was generally dry and warm. Most likely this latest setback with her shoulder would have healed on its own, but Gretchen did have a point. Babying it shortened recovery so Melissa only had to skip Tuesday's and Wednesday's yoga classes this week, not months of them as when she'd ignored the pain last spring. Then, she'd missed not only yoga, but her workouts in the pool and weight room and her dance and tennis lessons. Luckily she'd still been fine typing, because Au Bon Repas, the national cooks' supply company where she worked as a human resources specialist, had initiated a change in benefits, and she'd been crazy busy.
"Have you been checking your blood pressure every morning?"
"Yes, Sister Mommy." Melissa rolled her eyes, ambling through the park up to Broadway, where she'd turn north toward her car. She didn't generally amble; she strode. But yoga made all things nontype-A possible for her.
"And I'm not dead yet." Melissa loved that Gretchen worried about her, and she also hated it. Finding out this young that she had high blood pressure was the worst thing that had happened since her mom died of cancer when Melissa was thirteen. "Slow down," Dr. Glazer had said. "Relax."
Slow down? Relax? What did those strange terms mean?
Melissa had been trying. She'd given up her French lessons, her ceramics class, her jazz-dance class and her astrobiology continuing-education class at the university. Which left her a life consisting of work and working out. Period. What kind of bland, empty existence was that? At least she could help organize Gretchen's end-of-the-month wedding, trying to keep her sister's expenses as low as possible. Gretchen was a great sister, friend and person, but planning was not her forte. To put it politely.
"Your blood pressure's gone down?"
"Yoga is my salvation. I hold on to that calm feeling for hours after class and even through the week. It's really helping."
It was sort of helping. The doctor had threatened medication if she didn't improve her numbers. "You avoided the question."
Melissa sighed. "Gretchen, sometimes I wish you didn't know me so well. No, I'm not much lower, but I'm working on it. What's new with the wedding plans?"
The one topic sure to distract her sister from whatever Melissa didn't want to talk about. Gretchen and Ted had been inseparable since they were sixteen, which made Melissa very happy for her sister and utterly claustrophobic even thinking about it. The couple practically breathed in sync; it was amazing to watch them together. Mom and Dad had been like that, too, which was why Dad had gone into such a tailspin after his wife's death.
Melissa had dated here and there, but no guy seemed to hold her interest for long. She was happiest when she was learning and growing, and men didn't seem to be able to bring her that same stimulation.
Of course there was that other stimulation only men could bring, but given her experiences in that arena, she thought on balance a good class did more for her. Maybe she had a low sex drive. She hadn't been eager to compare notes with other women.
In any case, she was only twenty-five. She could take the next ten years to enjoy herself, if that's what she wanted, before she got herself tied down. Gretchen, however, didn't have that long. When Ted asked her to marry him two weeks ago, no one had been surprised, but Melissa nearly blew a gasket when they announced the date. Who could plan a wedding in five weeks? Certainly not Gretchen and Ted. Big sister would have to try.