Read an Excerpt
Ashley Robbins clenched her hands together as she sat in a plush velvet chair ten stories up in a Seattle high-rise. The cashier's check to Cooper Masters was in her purse. Rather than mail him the money, Ashley had impulsively decided to deliver it herself.
People moved about her, in and out of doors, as she thoughtfully watched their actions. Curious glances darted her way. She had never been one to blend into the background. Over the years she'd wondered if it was the striking ash blond hair that attracted attention, or her outrageous choice of clothes. Today, however, since she was meeting Cooper, she'd dressed conservatively. Never shy, she was a hit in the classroom, using techniques that had others shaking their heads in wonder. But no one doubted that she was the most popular teacher at John Knox Christian High School. Cooper had made that possible. No one knew he had loaned her the money to complete her studies. Not even Claudia, her best friend and Cooper's niece.
Ashley and Cooper were the godparents to John, Claudia's older boy. Being linked to Cooper had pleased Ashley more than her friend suspected. She'd been secretly in love with him since she was sixteen. It amazed her that no one had guessed during those ten years, least of all Cooper.
"Mr. Masters will see you now," his receptionist informed her.
Ashley smiled her appreciation and followed the attractive woman through the heavy oak door.
"Ashley." Cooper stood and strode to the front of his desk. "What a pleasant surprise."
"Hello, Cooper." He'd changed over the last six months since she'd seen him. Streaks of silver ran through his hair, and tiny lines fanned out from his eyes. But it would take more than years to disguise his strongly marked features. He wasn't a compellingly handsome man, not in the traditional sense, but seeing him again stirred familiar feelings of admiration and appreciation for all he'd done for her.
"Sit down, please." He indicated a chair not unlike the one she'd recently vacated. "What can I do for you? Any problems?"
She responded with a slight shake of her head. He had always been generous with her. Deep down, she doubted that there was anything she couldn't ask of this man, although she didn't expect any more favors, and he was probably aware of that.
"Everything's fine." She didn't meet his eyes as she opened the clasp of her purse and took out the check. "I wanted to personally give you this." Extending her arm, she handed him the check. "I owe you so much, it seemed almost rude to put it in the mail." The satisfaction of paying off the loan was secondary to the opportunity of seeing Cooper again. If she'd been honest with herself, she would have admitted she was hungry for the sight of him. After all these months she'd been looking for an excuse.
He glanced at the check and seemed to notice the amount. Two dark brows arched with surprise. "This satisfies the loan," he said thoughtfully. Half turning, he placed the check in the center of the large wooden desk. "Your mother tells me you've taken a second job?" The intonation in his voice made the statement a question.
"You see her more often than I do," she said in an attempt to evade the question. Her mother had been the Masters' cook and housekeeper from the time Ashley was a child.
He regarded her steadily, and although she could read no emotion in his eyes, she felt his irritation. "Was it necessary to pay this off as quickly as possible?"
"Fast? I've owed you this money for over four years." She laughed lightly. Someone had once told her that her laugh was one of the most appealing things about her. Sweet, gentle, melodic. She chanced a look at Cooper, whose cool dark eyes revealed nothing.
"I didn't care if you ever paid me back. I certainly didn't expect you'd half kill yourself to return it."
The displeasure in his voice surprised her. Taken aback, she watched as he stalked to the far corner of the office, putting as much distance between them as possible. Was it pride that had driven her to pay him back as quickly as possible? Maybe, but she doubted it. The loan to finish her schooling had been the answer to long, difficult prayers. From the time she'd been accepted into the University of Washington, she had attended on faith. Faith that God would supply the money for books and tuition. Faith that if God wanted her to obtain her teaching degree, then He would meet her needs. And He had. In the beginning things had worked well. She roomed with Claudia and managed two part-time jobs. But when Claudia and Seth got married, she was forced to find other accommodations, which quickly drained her funds. Cooper's offer had been completely unexpected. The loan had come at a time when she'd been hopeless and had been preparing to withdraw from classes. They'd never discussed terms, but surely he'd known she intended to repay him.
A tentative smile brushed her lips. She'd thought he would be pleased. His reaction amazed her. She attempted to keep her voice level as she assured him, "It was the honorable thing to do."
"But it wasn't necessary," he answered, turning back to her.
Again she experienced the familiar twinge of awareness that only Cooper Masters was capable of stirring within her.
"It was for me," she countered quickly.
"It wasn't necessary," he repeated in a flat tone.
Ashley released a slow breath. "We could go on like this all day. I didn't mean to offend you, I only came here today because I wanted to show my appreciation."
He stared back at her, then slowly nodded. "I understand."
Silence stretched between them.
"Have you heard from Claudia and Seth?" he asked after a while.
Ashley smiled. They had so little in common that whenever they were together that the conversation invariably centered around Claudia and their godson. "The last I heard she said something about coming down for Christmas."
"I hope they do." His intercom buzzed, and he leaned over and pressed a button on the phone. "Yes, Gloria?"
"Mr. Benson is here."
Taking her cue, Ashley stood. "I won't keep you." Her fingers brushed her wool skirt. She'd been hoping he would notice the new outfit and comment. He hadn't. "Thank you again. I guess you know that I wouldn't have been able to finish school without your help."
"I was wondering " Cooper moved to her side, his look slightly uneasy, as if he was unsure of himself. "I mean, I can understand if you'd rather not."
"Rather not what?" She couldn't remember him ever acting with anything but supreme confidence. In control of himself and every situation.
"Have dinner with me. A small celebration for paying off the loan."
"I'd like that very much. Anytime." Her heart soared at the suggestion; she wasn't sure how she managed to keep her voice level.
"Tonight at seven?"
"Wonderful. Should I wear something formal?" It wouldn't hurt to ask, and he hadn't mentioned where he intended they dine.
An hour later Ashley's heart still refused to beat at a normal pace. This was the first time Cooper had asked her out or given any indication he would like to see her socially. The man was difficult to understand, always had been. Even Claudia didn't fully know him; she saw him as dignified, predictable and overly concerned with respectability. In some ways he was, but through the years Ashley had seen past that facade. He might be refined, and sometimes overly proper, but he was a man who'd been forced to take on heavy responsibility at an early age. There had been little time for fun or frivolity in his life. Ashley wanted to be the one to change that. She loved him. Her mother claimed that opposites attract, and after meeting Cooper, Ashley had never doubted the truth of that statement.
Ashley chose to wear her finest designer jeans, knowing she looked good. At five foot nine, she was all legs. Her pink sweatshirt contained a starburst of sequins that extended to the ends of the full length sleeves. Her hair was styled in a casual perm, and soft curls reached her shoulders. Her perfume was a fragrance Cooper had given her the previous Christmas. Although not imaginative, the gift had pleased her immeasurably, even though he hadn't given it to her personally, but to her mother, who'd passed it on. When she'd phoned to thank him, his response had been clipped and vaguely ill-at-ease. Politely, he'd assured her that it was his duty, since they were John's godparents. He'd also told her he'd sent the same fragrance to Claudia. Ashley had hung up the phone feeling deflated. The next time she'd seen him had been in June, when her mother had gone to the hospital for surgery. Cooper had come for a visit at the same time Ashley had arrived. Standing on opposite sides of the bed, her sleeping mother between them, Ashley had hungrily drunk in the sight of him. Their short conversation had been carried on in hushed tones, and after a while they hadn't spoken at all. Afterward he'd had coffee out of a machine, and she'd sipped fruit juice as they sat talking in the waiting area at the end of the corridor. She hadn't seen him again until today.
Over the months she had dated several men, and she'd recently been seeing Dennis Webb, another teacher, on a steady basis. But no one had ever attracted her the way Cooper did. Whenever a pensive mood overtook her, she recognized how pointless that attraction was. Whole universes stretched between them, both social and economic. For Ashley, loving Cooper Masters was as impossible as understanding income tax forms.
The doorbell chimed precisely at seven. Claudia had claimed that she could set her watch by Cooper. If he said seven, he would arrive exactly at seven.
A sense of panic filled Ashley as she glanced at her wristwatch. It couldn't possibly be that time already, could it? With one red cowboy boot on and the other lying on the carpet, she looked around frantically. The laundry still hadn't been put away. Quickly she hobbled across the floor and shoved the basket full of folded clean clothes into the entryway closet, then closed the door with her back as she conducted a sweeping inspection of the apartment. Expelling a calming sigh, she forced herself to smile casually as she opened the door.
He greeted her with a warm look, that gradually faded as he handed her a florist's box.
To Cooper, apparently informal meant a three-piece suit and flowers. Glancing down at her jeans and sweatshirt, one cowboy boot on, the other missing, she smiled weakly and felt wretched. "Thank you." She took the small white box. "Sit down, please." Hurrying ahead of him, she fluffed up the pillows at the end of the sofa, then hugged one to her stomach. "I'm running a little late tonight. If you'll give me a few minutes I'll change clothes."
"You look fine just the way you are," he murmured, glancing at his watch.
What he was really saying, she realized, was that they would be late for their reservation if she took the time to change clothes. After glancing down at the hot pink sweatshirt, she raised her gaze to meet his. "You're sure? It'll only take a minute."
His nod seemed determined. Self-conscious, embarrassed and angry with herself, Ashley sat at the opposite end of the sofa and slipped her foot into the other boot. After tucking in her denim pant leg, she sat up and reached for the florist's box. A lovely white orchid was nestled in a bed of sheer green paper. A gasp of pleasure escaped her.
"Oh, Cooper," she murmured, feeling close to tears. No one had ever given her an orchid. "Thank you."
"Since I didn't know the color of your dress " He paused to correct himself. " your outfit this seemed appropriate." He remained standing, studying her. "It's the type women wear on their wrist."
As Ashley lifted the orchid from the box, its gentle fragrance drifted pleasantly to her. "I'm always having to thank you, Cooper. You've been very good to me."
He dismissed her appreciation with a hard shake of his head. "Nonsense."
She knew that further discussion would only embarrass them both. Standing, she glanced at the closet door, knowing nothing would induce her to open it and expose her folded underwear to Cooper. "I'll get my purse and we can go."
"You might want to wear a coat," he suggested. "I heard something about the possibility of snow over the radio this afternoon."
"Yes, of course." If he remained standing exactly as he was, she might be able to open the door just enough to slip her hand in and jerk her faux fur jacket off the hanger. Somehow she managed it. Turning, she noted that Cooper was regarding her curiously. Rather than fabricate a wild excuse about why she couldn't open the closet all the way, she decided to say nothing.
He took the coat from her grasp, holding it open for her to slip her arms into the sleeves. It seemed as if his hands lingered longer than necessary on her shoulders, but it could have been her imagination. He had never been one to display affection openly.
"Where are we going?" she asked, and her voice trembled slightly, affected by even the most impersonal touch.
"I chose an Italian restaurant not far from here. I hope that suits you."
"Sounds delicious. I love Italian food." Her tastes in food were wide and varied, but it wouldn't have mattered. If he had suggested hot dogs, she would have been thrilled. The idea of Cooper eating anything with his fingers produced a quivering smile. If he noticed it, he said nothing.
Cooper parked outside the small, family-owned restaurant and came around to her side of the car, opening the door for her. It was apparent when they were seated that he had never been there before. The thought flashed through her mind that he didn't want to be seen with her where he might be recognized.
But she quickly dismissed the idea. If he didn't want to be with her, then he wouldn't have asked her out. Those thoughts were unworthy of Cooper, who had always been good to her.
"Is everything all right?" As he stared across the table at her, a frown drew his brows together.
"Yes, of course." She looked down at her menu, guiltily forcing a smile on her face. "I wonder how long it'll be before we know if Claudia will be coming for Christmas," she said, hoping to resume the even flow of conversation.
"Time's getting close. I imagine we'll know soon."
Thanksgiving was the following weekend, but Christmas displays were already up in stores; some had shown up as early as Halloween. Doubtless Seth and Claudia would let them know by the end of next week. The prospect of sharing the holiday with her friendand therefore Cooperproduced a glow of happiness inside Ashley.
The waiter took their order, then promptly delivered their fresh green salads.
"It's been exceptionally chilly for this time of the year," Cooper commented, lifting his fork, his gaze centered on his plate.
Ashley thought it was a sad commentary that their only common ground consisted of Claudia and the weather. "Yes, it has." She looked up to note that a veiled look had come over his features. Perhaps he was thinking the same thing.