By Barbara Delinsky
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1987 Barbara Delinsky
All rights reserved.
Caroline Cooper untied the wilting bow at the neck of her blouse, released its top button and peeled the damp fabric from her sweaty neck.
Beep. "You're working too late, Caroline. It's eight o'clock your time now, and Lord knows when you'll be hearing this message. ... I'm worried about your father. The X rays of the leg look good, but he's in terrible pain. I'm beginning to wonder if he'll ever walk right, let alone play golf, and so help me, if he doesn't we'll sue. Maybe we'll sue anyway. The doctor who set his leg wrong last fall shouldn't be practicing medicine." Sigh. "Call me when you get a chance, sweetheart. We need to talk." Click.
Freeing the last of the buttons, Caroline carefully separated the blouse from her shoulders and arms.
Beep. "Ahh, Caroline, still out on the town. How I envy you your energy. Can you loan me a little?" Groan. "The baby's getting bigger. I'm getting bigger. Where I get the strength to keep going I'll never know. I think it's defiance. The men in the firm are worried that I'll give birth in the office. What sissies they are. Of course, they've never been pregnant. For that matter, neither have you, but I need a pep talk. Call whenever." Click.
Caroline breathed a sigh of relief when she stepped out of her skirt and an even greater one when she rolled the nylons from her legs.
Beep. "Would you like to know what your good friend did today? She demanded — not asked but demanded — to keep the lake house. It's not enough that she has the Colonial, the Camaro and Amy. She's a greedy bitch. I don't know what you ever saw in her as a friend." Grunt. "I don't know what I ever saw in her as a wife." Pause. "Catch you another time, Sis." Click.
Clad in panties and bra, Caroline padded wearily to the bathroom. The light there was oppressive after the dimness of the larger room and, if anything, exaggerated the heat. Wetting a cool cloth, she pressed it to her face.
Flowers. That was what she wanted to come home to after a long day's work. A bouquet of fresh, sweet-smelling flowers. Not an answering machine spouting complaints.
With a sigh, she dragged the cloth down over her neck and held it to her pulse. A bouquet of flowers ... or a bunch of brightly colored balloons ... or a gorgeous guy with a sympathetic smile and a frozen daiquiri in his outstretched hand. She moved the cloth around to her nape and realized that just then she'd take the daiquiri over the guy.
With a wistful sigh this time, she unsnapped her bra and let it fall to the commode before rewetting the cloth and dragging it slowly over those parts of her that hadn't breathed all day — the insides of her elbows, the curve of her waistline, beneath and between her breasts. The relief was wonderful, if short-lived. She debated taking a cool shower, decided it was too great an effort. She felt drained. What she wanted — given no bouquet of flowers, no bunch of balloons, no gorgeous guy, no frozen daiquiri — was to wipe her mind clear of all thought and relax.
Dropping the cloth in the sink, she flipped off the light and returned to the large single room she called home. It was a loft apartment, the third and top floor of a Georgetown town house. She'd been working in Washington for three years before she'd found it. Miracle of miracles, she'd been able to afford the rent, so the last thing she'd begrudged was the lack of air conditioning.
Until tonight. The dog days of summer had arrived suddenly and with a vengeance, but it wasn't even summer. It was the sixth of June. She shuddered to think what July and August would be like.
Her movements were sluggish, legs seeming to lack the strength to cut through the opaque heat. The Casablanca fan on the ceiling stirred the air some, but because the only air in the room was sweltering, the improvement was negligible. Her feet made a sticky sound on the large adobe tiles as she crossed to the closet. Even the thin batiste shift she slipped on felt heavy.
Opening the broad French windows as far as they'd go, she put one knee on the window seat, gathered the mass of her thick hair in her hands and held it off her neck. The courtyard seemed devoid of air this night. Still, it was peaceful — another plus for the loft. Cars were parked around the cobblestone drive; at its center was a small cluster of trees and shrubs, a patch of grass and a modest wrought-iron bench. Sharing the courtyard on its far side were town houses just like hers. All in all, the effect was charming.
Or claustrophobic. She'd begun thinking of open spaces, of fields filled with wheat that swayed in the wind or meadows dotted with willows and irrigated with bubbling brooks, when the sound of the telephone rent the still night air. She closed her eyes for a minute, took a long, deep breath and pushed away from the seat. Her hand hovered over the phone in a moment's indecision before it finally lowered.
"Hello, yourself," came a pleasant male voice. "Just get in?"
She didn't know whether to be relieved or annoyed. Though she'd been dating Elliot for several months, she wasn't in the mood for him just then. She was hot and tired. After a long day of talk, she craved silence. Still, she supposed Elliot was better than her family.
"A few minutes ago. What's up?"
"It's been a hell of a day, but I'm in heaven now. No more than two hours ago, we signed the contract on the shopping mall, but you wouldn't have believed the last-minute glitches. It was touch and go for so long I thought the whole thing was going down the tubes. But we did it, we actually did it. Do you realize what a coup this is?"
Caroline gave a weak smile as she daubed her beading forehead with the back of her hand. Predictably, Elliot babbled on.
"My firm is about to build the classiest mall Arlington's ever seen. For a young firm, that's not bad. The developer may be a tough nut to crack, but the architectural plans are great, and our reputation's bound to soar. So —" he paused and spoke with an audible smile "— how about you and I go out for some champagne and caviar?"
The frozen daiquiri still sounded better. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back, bracing the lax muscles of her neck with her hand. "I'm really exhausted, Elliot."
"But there's cause for celebration. It's not every day I land a deal like this."
"Shouldn't you be celebrating with your partners?"
"Spent the last hour doing that. The next couple of hours are for us."
She stifled a moan and worked at summoning compassion. "I'd really love to, but it's been a hell of a day for me, too, and I don't have a contract to show for it."
"Come out with me and I'll share the excitement."
"Nah. I'd only drag you down."
"Sweetheart," he drawled, "that would be impossible. Nothing's about to drag me down tonight. I'm on a first-class high. Join me and you'll see."
She rubbed an incipient tension from the bridge of her nose. "Thanks, but I'd better take a rain check."
"Rain checks aren't offered on bright nights like this. Who knows how long the high will last? Once the reality of the job sets in, I'll be a nervous wreck. Now's the time to celebrate."
She sighed. "Elliot, I don't think I could hold my head up for long in a restaurant."
"Then take a cab over here and we'll do it big with take-out or something."
"I'm not dressed."
"So much the better," he said in a tone that immediately told her she'd said the wrong thing. He'd been making suggestive noises for the past few weeks, and she'd held him off with one gentle quip after another. It wasn't that she didn't like him; she did. He was a good conversationalist and he was polite. He enjoyed concerts, lectures, fine restaurants. She could forgive him his self-centeredness, because she understood that it came from insecurity. But she felt little for him beyond friendship. He didn't turn her on.
"We'll have dinner another night," she said.
"I'd offer to bring food over there, but your place is probably hot as hell. What if I come rescue you, myself? You must be dying."
"I'm fine, just very tired."
He was quiet for a moment. By the time he spoke again, he'd apparently acclimated himself to Caroline's refusal, because there was a jauntiness in his voice. "You're missing out on a good thing."
"I know. Forgive me?"
"Don't I always?" he countered with such flippancy that she wanted to scream. But she didn't have the strength. Or the heart.
"We're on for Saturday, aren't we?"
"Okay, sweetheart. I'll talk with you later, then."
"Think of me tonight?"
She left that one alone. "I'm really glad you got the project, Elliot."
"So am I. Bye-bye."
Replacing the receiver in its cradle, she stood for a minute with her head bowed, rubbing the throbbing spot between her eyes. It occurred to her that with increasing frequency Elliot made her throb that way. Too bad the spot was wrong.
Rolling her eyes at the twist of her thoughts, she made for the refrigerator and a pitcher of iced tea. She'd no sooner grasped the handle, though, when there was a knock at her door. Reluctantly closing the refrigerator, she shuffled across the room and put her eye to the peephole. The cone-shaped face with an absurdly large nose in the lead was that of her downstairs neighbor.
She opened the door with a smile. "Hi, Connie." Her eyes widened. "You look super." Freed from the distortion of the peephole lens, Connie Halpern's face was exceptionally pretty, but Caroline had already known that. What impressed her now was the chic and daringly cut lounging outfit Connie wore. But then, Caroline shouldn't have been surprised. Connie was forty-two and divorced. A small designer boutique in Georgetown Park kept her busy by day. A congressman from Idaho kept her busy by night. "Big date?"
"Mmm. And I promised him café kirsch," Connie answered with a grimace, "but I'm out of eggs. You don't ... by chance ..." Her eyes finished the sentence by wandering toward the wall that was Caroline's kitchen.
"Sure do," Caroline said. "How many?" she called over her shoulder as she returned to the refrigerator.
Connie was right behind her. "Two, if you have them. Whew, is it hot up here! What's wrong with the air conditioning?"
"There isn't any."
"Why not?" Connie asked with endearing indignance.
"Ask Nestor Realty."
"The creeps. My place is delightfully cool." She took the eggs from Caroline. "I'd invite you down, but ..."
"You have a special guest and I look like something the cat dragged home."
"Actually," Connie said, tipping her head and giving Caroline a good once-over, "you look kind of sexy. Where's Elliot?"
Caroline smiled again and gave her friend a nudge. "Go on. He's waiting."
But Connie just stood. "I feel guilty as hell leaving you up here alone and sweltering."
"Alone I don't mind, and as for sweltering, it's really not that bad. I was just about to help myself to a tall glass of iced tea when you knocked."
That was enough to let Connie off the hook. "Go to it, then, girl," she said, heading for the door. "And thanks for the eggs. You're a lifesaver." With a wave, she was gone.
Closing the door behind her, Caroline promptly poured the drink she'd promised herself. No sooner had she replaced the pitcher in the refrigerator, though, when the phone rang. She stared at it, wishing she had the nerve to either ignore it or unplug it. But the caller could be her mother again, this time in a real panic. Or her sister, Karen, saying that she'd gone into premature labor. Or there might be an emergency involving one of her clients.
Her pulse faltered at the familiarity of the voice. It had been six months since she'd last heard it, but when one had been intimately involved with a man for over a year, there were certain things one didn't forget. Like his voice. And the promises he'd made ... and those he'd broken.
"How are you?"
"Just fine," she said. Actually, she was trying to figure that one out. The initial sound of his voice had touched off a reaction, but it seemed to have been more one of surprise than anything else.
"I'm back in town."
"Uh-huh. I finished up in Madrid."
Benjamin Howe was a floating member of the diplomatic corps. Only after the fact had Caroline realized that he manipulated his assignments to coincide with his love life. Or vice versa.
"How was it?" she asked, plucking uncomfortably at those parts of her shift that were clinging to her skin.
"Interesting. But it's good to be home. Tell me about you. What have you been up to?"
She shrugged. "Same old thing, Ben."
"It's my field."
He paused as though trying to think of something else to say. Or waiting for her to pick up the ball. Eventually he asked, "Have you had any interesting cases lately?"
"They're all interesting."
"I mean, anything out of the ordinary?"
"Unfortunately, broken homes aren't out of the ordinary nowadays. Neither are disturbed children, unfortunately."
"Fortunately for you, or you'd be out of business."
She tried to take his words for the humor she knew he'd intended, but still they sounded crass. She was beginning to feel uncomfortable in ways that had nothing to do with her stifling apartment. Ben, who'd once fascinated her with his good looks and exciting position, no longer did. She wasn't sure why he'd called.
"I'd be very happy to be out of business," she said, "if it meant there was less unhappiness in the world, just as I'm sure an oncologist would be thrilled by a cure for cancer."
"Ah, so lofty."
"No. But I do mean what I say."
There was a long pause, then a quiet "Touché."
Caroline's lips formed the reluctant beginnings of a smile. Ben had always been astute to the nuances of words. It was necessary in his work. Apparently he hadn't lost his touch while he'd been in Spain.
"You're still angry at me," he decided. If his perceptiveness was off just a hair, it was because he couldn't see her indulgent expression.
"No." She'd grown a lot since she and Ben had broken up. "I'm not angry."
"But you haven't forgotten."
"No woman forgets promises of undying love. That doesn't mean she has to wither and die when the promises are broken."
"So you've moved on? That has to say something about the love you felt for me."
"I never said that I loved you. Not once."
In the lengthy silence that followed, Caroline tugged open a kitchen drawer, took out an elastic band and, balancing the phone between jaw and shoulder, scooped her hair into a high, makeshift ponytail. The ends were wet. Her neck was even wetter. She wanted that iced tea. She wanted the window seat. She wanted peace and quiet.
"No, you never did say that, did you?" Ben asked, then went on before she could agree. "But, look, I didn't call to rehash the past. I just thought it'd be fun to get together. How about a drink? For old times' sake, if nothing else."
"Uh, thanks, Ben, but I'm beat. Maybe another time."
"How about tomorrow?"
She shook her head. "Late meetings."
"Then Friday. I could meet you after work."
"I'm sorry, but I have other plans." Opening the freezer, she dropped several ice cubes in her drink, holding one out to rub on her neck.
"You really are seeing someone else?"
"You could say that," she said with a touch of humor. The ice felt good, though it was melting on contact.
"Anyone I know?"
"I hope not. That'd be pretty uncomfortable, comparing notes and all."
"Is he good?"
She hesitated for only the short amount of time it took to straighten her spine. "And you don't. Why don't we leave it at that?"
"You're trying to make me jealous. It won't work, Caroline. I know what we had, and it'd be pretty hard to beat."
Caroline heard his defensiveness and surprised herself by feeling remorse. Then again, she should have expected it. She was a softy at heart. Ben had always prided himself on his sexual prowess. Teasing him about finding a replacement was hitting below the belt in more ways than one.
"I'm not denying what we had," she conceded. "It was good while it lasted. But it's over."
"So what's the harm in going out for a drink?"
"Maybe another time. Listen, I'm really glad you're back. I hope things go well."
"What's his name?"
"Whoever you're seeing."
She debated telling him to mind his own business, but she knew Ben too well for that. He was persistent. When he set his mind to something, he usually got it. He'd wanted her and he'd gotten her. He'd wanted out and he'd gotten out. If he wanted back in now, for whatever his reasons, she was going to have to close the door in his face.
The problem was that she wasn't naturally cruel or vengeful. She didn't want to hurt him; she simply wanted to be free of him. And the best way to do that, she realized, was to paint herself as being unavailable.
She could lie and say that she was wildly in love with another man, even engaged to be married, but she'd never been good at lying. On the other hand, she wasn't opposed to presenting the facts and letting him jump to conclusions.
"His name is Elliot Markham. He's a builder. We've been seeing each other for nearly four months."
"Is it serious?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Warm Hearts by Barbara Delinsky. Copyright © 1987 Barbara Delinsky. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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