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"Danny, hurry up and eat your cereal," Dori Robertson pleaded as she rushed from the bathroom to the bedroom. Quickly pulling on a tweed skirt and a sweater, she slipped her feet into black leather pumps and went back into the kitchen.
"Aren't you going to eat, Mom?"
"No time." As fast as her fingers would cooperate, Dori spread peanut butter and jelly across two pieces of bread for a sandwich, then opened the refrigerator and took out an orange. She stuffed both in a brown paper sack with a cartoon cat on the front. Lifting the lid of the cookie jar, she dug around and came up with only a handful of crumbs. Graham crackers would have to do.
"How come we're always so rushed in the mornings?" eleven-year-old Danny wanted to know.
Dori laughed. There'd been a time in her life when everything had fit into place, but not anymore. "Because your mother has trouble getting out of bed."
"Were you always late when Dad was still alive?"
Turning, Dori leaned against the kitchen counter and crossed her arms. "No. Your father used to bring me a cup of coffee in bed." Brad had had his own special way of waking her with coffee and kisses. But now Brad was gone and, except for their son, she faced the world alone. Still, the rushed mornings were easier to accept than the long lonely nights.
"Want me to bring you coffee? I could," Danny offered. "I've seen you make it lots of times."
A surge of love for her son constricted the muscles of her throat, and Dori tried to swallow. Every day Danny grew more like his father. Tenderly she looked down at his sparkling blue eyes and the freckles that danced across his nose. Brad's eyes had been exactly that shade of bottomless blue, though the freckles were all hers. Pinching her lips together, she turned back to the counter, picked up a cup and took her first sip of lukewarm coffee. "That's very thoughtful of you," she said.
"Then I can?"
"Sure. It might help." Anything would be better than this insane rush every morning. "Now brush your teeth and get your coat."
When Danny moved down the hallway, Dori carried his empty cereal bowl to the sink. The morning paper was open, and she folded it and set it aside. Danny used to pore over the sports section, but recently he'd been reading the want ads. He hadn't asked for anything in particular lately, and she couldn't imagine what he found so fascinating in the classified section. Kids! At his age, she remembered, her only interest in the paper had been the comics and Dear Abby. Come to think of it, she didn't read much more than that now.
Danny joined her in the kitchen and together they went out the door and into the garage. While Dori backed the Dodge onto the narrow driveway, Danny stood by and waited to pull the garage door shut.
"One of these days," she grumbled as her son climbed into the front seat, "I'm going to get an automatic garage-door opener."
Danny gave her a curious look. "Why? You've got me."
A smile worked its way across Dori's face. "Why, indeed?"
Several minutes followed while Danny said nothing. That was unusual, and twice Dori's eyes sought his. Danny's expression was troubled, but she didn't pry, knowing her son would speak when he was ready.
"Mom, I've been wanting to ask you something," he began haltingly, then paused.
"What?" Dori said, thinking the Seattle traffic got worse every morning. Or maybe it wasn't that the traffic got heavier, just that she got later.
"I've been thinking."
"Did it hurt?" That was an old joke of theirs, but Danny didn't have an immediate comeback the way he usually did.
"Hey, kid, this is serious, isn't it?"
Danny shrugged one shoulder in an offhand manner. "Well, I know you loved Dad and everything, but I think it's time you found me another dad."
Dori slammed on her brakes. The car came to a screeching halt at the red light as she turned to her son, eyes wide with shock. "Time I did what?" she asked incredulously.
"It's been five years, Mom. Dad wouldn't have wanted you to mope for the rest of your life. Next year I'm going to junior high and a kid needs a dad at that age."
Dori opened her mouth, searching for words of wisdom that didn't come.
"I can make coffee in the morning, but that's not enough. You need a husband. And I need a dad."
"This is all rather sudden, isn't it?" Her voice was little more than a husky murmur.
"No, I've been thinking about it for a long time." Danny swiveled his head and pointed behind him. "Hey, Mom, you just missed the school."
"Darn." She flipped on her turn signal and moved into the right lane with only a fleeting glance in her rearview mirror.
"Mom watch out!" Danny shrieked just as her rear bumper barely missed the front end of an expensive foreign car. Dori swerved out of its path, narrowly avoiding a collision.
The driver of the other car blared his horn angrily and followed her when she pulled into a side street that would lead her back to the grade school.
"The guy you almost hit is following you, Mom, and, boy, does he look mad."
"Great." Dori's fingers tightened around the steering wheel. This day was going from bad to worse.
Still looking behind him, Danny continued his commentary. "Now he's writing down your license plate number."
"Wonderful. What does he plan to do? Make a citizen's arrest?"
"He can do that?" Danny returned his attention to his flustered mother.
"Yup, and he looks like the type who would." Judging by the hard, uncompromising face that briefly met hers in the rearview mirror The deep-set dark eyes had narrowed, and the thick, equally dark hair was styled away from his face, revealing the harsh contours of his craggy features. He wasn't what could be called handsome, but his masculinity was blatant and forceful. "A man's man" was the term that came to mind.
"I recognize him," Danny said thoughtfully. "At least I think I do."
"Who is he?" Dori took a right-hand turn and eased to a stop in front of Cascade View Elementary. The man in the BMW pulled to a stop directly behind her and got out of his car.
"He looks familiar," Danny commented a second time, his wide brow furrowed in concentration, "but I don't know from where."
Squaring her shoulders, Dori reluctantly opened the car door and climbed out. She brushed a thick swatch of auburn hair off her shoulder as she walked back to meet the tall formidable man waiting for her. His impeccable suit and expensive leather shoes made him all the more intimidating. His eyes tracked her movements. They were interesting and arresting eyes in a face that looked capable of forging an empireor slicing her to ribbonswith one arch of a brow. Dori was determined not to let him unnerve her. Although she indicated with her hand that Danny should stay by the car, he seemed to think she'd need him for protection. She didn't have time to argue.
"I don't appreciate being followed." She decided taking the offensive was her best defense.
"And I don't appreciate being driven off the road."
"I apologize for that, but you were in my blind spot and when I went to change lanes"
"You didn't even look."
"I most certainly did," Dori said, her voice gaining volume. For the first time she noticed a large brown stain on his suit jacket. The beginnings of a smile edged up the corners of her mouth.
"Just what do you find so amusing?" he demanded harshly.
Dori cast her eyes to the pavement. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude."
"The most polite thing you can do is stay off the road."
Hands on her hips, Dori advanced one step. "In case you weren't aware of it, there's a law in Washington state against drinking any beverage while driving. You can't blame me if you spilled your coffee. You shouldn't have had it in the car in the first place." She prayed the righteous indignation in her tone would be enough to assure him she knew what she was talking about.
"You nearly caused an accident." He, too, advanced a step and a tremor ran through her at the stark anger in his eyes.
"I've already apologized for that," Dori said, knowing that if this confrontation continued she'd come out the loser. Discretion was the better part of valorat least that was what her father always claimed, and for once Dori was willing to follow his advice. "If it'll smooth your ruffled feathers, I'll pay to have your suit cleaned."
The school bell rang, and Danny hurried back to the car for his books and his lunch. "I've got to go, Mom."
Dori was digging around the bottom of her purse for a business card. "Okay, have a good day, hon." She hoped one of them would; hers certainly didn't look promising.
"Don't forget I've got soccer practice after school," he reminded her, walking backward toward the steps of the school.
"Yes, Danny?" she said irritably, the tight rein on her patience slackening.
"Do you promise to think about what I said?"
Dori glanced at him blankly.
"You know, about getting me another dad?"
Dori could feel the hot color creep up her neck and invade her face. Diverting her gaze from the unpleasant man standing beside her, she expelled her breath in a low groan. "I'll think about it."
A boyish grin brightened Danny's face as he turned and ran toward his classmates.
Searching for a business card helped lessen some of Dori's acute embarrassment. Another man might have said something to ease her chagrin, but not this one. "I'm sure I've got a card in here someplace."
"Forget it," the man said gruffly.
"No," she argued. "I'm responsible, so I'll pay." Unable to find the card, after all, Dori wrote her name and address on the back of her grocery list. "Here," she said, handing him the slip of paper.
He examined it briefly and stuck it in his suit pocket. "Thank you, Mrs. Robertson."
"It was my fault."
"I believe you've already admitted as much." Nothing seemed likely to crack this man's granite facade.
"I'll be waiting for the bill, Mr ?"
"Parker," he said grudgingly. "Gavin Parker." He retreated toward his car.
The name was strangely familiar to Dori, but she couldn't recall where she'd heard it. Odd. Danny had recognized him, too.
"Mr. Parker," Dori called out.
"Yes?" Irritably he turned to face her again.
"Excuse me, but I wonder if I could have another look at the paper I gave you."
His mouth tightened into an impatient line as he removed the slip from his pocket and handed it back.
She scanned the grocery list, hoping to commit it to memory. "Thanks. I just wanted to make sure I remembered everything."
He looked at her coldly, and by the time Dori was in her car and heading for the insurance office, she'd forgotten every item. Just the memory of his eyes caused a chill to race up her spine. His mouth had been interesting, though. Not that she usually noticed men's mouths. But his had been firm with that chiseled effect so many women liked. There was a hard-muscled grace to him Dori reined in her thoughts. How ridiculous she was being. She refused to spend one extra minute on that unpleasant character.
The employee parking lot was full when she arrived and she was forced to look for a place on the street, which was nearly impossible at this hour of the morning. Luckily, she found a narrow space three blocks from the insurance company where she was employed as an underwriter for homeowner policies.
By the time she got to her desk, she was irritated, exhausted and ten minutes late.
"You're late." Sandy Champoux announced as Dori rolled back her chair.
"I hadn't noticed," Dori returned sarcastically, dropping her purse in a bottom drawer and pretending an all-consuming interest in the file on her desk as her boss, Mr. Sandstrom, sauntered past.
"You always seem to make it to your desk on time," Sandy said, ignoring the sarcasm. "What happened this morning?"
"You mean other than a near-accident with a nasty man in an expensive suit or Danny telling me I should find him a new father?"
"He's right, you know."
Purposely being obtuse, Dori batted her thick lashes at her friend and smiled coyly. "Who's right? Danny or the man in the suit?"
"Danny! You should think about getting married again. It's time you joined the world of the living."
"Ah" Dori pointed her index finger at the ceiling "you misunderstand the problem. Danny wants a father the same way he wanted a new bike. He's not interested in a husband for me. " She paused and bit her bottom lip as a thought flashed into her mind. "That's it." Her eyes lit up.
"What's it?" Sandy demanded.
"You're going to bribe your son so he'll forget his need for a father?" Sandy was giving Dori the look she usually reserved for people showing off pictures of their children.
"No, Sandy." Dori groaned, slowly shaking her head. "You don't want to know."
Frowning, Sandy reached for a new policy from her basket. "If you say so."
Despite its troubled beginnings, the day passed quickly and without further incident. Dori was prepared to speak to her son when he stomped into the house at five-thirty, his soccer shoes looped around his neck.
"Hi, Mom, what's there to eat?"
"But I'm starved now."
"Good, set the table." Dori waited until Danny had washed his hands and placed two dinner plates on the round oak table before she spoke. "I've been thinking about what you said this morning."
"Did it hurt?" Danny asked and gave her a roguish grin, creating twin dimples in his freckled face. "What did you decide?"
"Well " Dori paid an inordinate amount of attention to the cube steak she was frying, then said, "I'll admit I wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea. At least not right away."
"And now?" Danny stood at the table, watching her keenly.
She paused, gathering her resolve. "The more I thought about it," she said at last, "the more I realized you may have a valid point."
"Then we can start looking?" His voice vibrated with eagerness. "I've had my eye on lots of neat guys. There's Jasonhe helps the coach with the soccer team. He'd be real good, but I don't think he's old enough. Is nineteen too young?"
This was worse than Dori had thought. "Not so fast," she said, stalling for time. "We need to go about this methodically."
"Oh, great," Danny mumbled. He heaved a disgusted sigh. "I know what that means."
"It means we'll wait until the dinner dishes are done and make up a list, just like we did when we got your bike."
Danny brightened. "Hey, that's a great idea."
Dori wasn't as sure of that as Danny was. He bolted down his dinner, and the minute the dishes were washed and put away, he produced a large writing tablet.
"You ready?" he asked, pausing to chew on the tip of the eraser.