Pulling up stakes
Cynthia Donohue sat on a plastic-wrapped armchair, watching dust motes dance in the spring sunshine that streamed in through the living room window. A dizzying chill of panic and elation raised goosebumps on her arms. Over the next few hours a moving truck would arrive, load up all her worldly possessions, and head west. She was about to leave behind the only home she’d ever known and the only city she’d ever lived in. Good-bye Montreal, hello Vancouver Island on the far side of the country.
A tinny version of Everybody Dance Now buzzed on her phone. It lay on top of a moving box, beside a cup of stale gas-station coffee. A picture of a handsome, gray-haired man with a neatly groomed beard and moustache flashed on the screen: Antony, please-don’t-call-me-Tony, Jacobson. As Cynthia reached for the it, her hand shook. Her nerves were shot. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept through the night. She hoped that once she moved into the seaside house on that faraway shore, the shaking would stop.
Until then Antony’s deep voice calmed her, reaching her from his ranch in the foothills of the Rockies. “Bon jour,” he said. “Ça va?”
Cynthia laughed at his attempt at French. He was using it humorously, like he’d done ever since they’d met at her daughter’s West Coast wedding in December. By his own admission, il parle français comme une vache espagnole: he spoke French like a Spanish cow. His tin accent, exaggerated for her amusement, never failed to make her laugh.
“Bien,” she said. “Even better now that I’m talking to you.” She held back the words she didn’t dare speak. I want you. I need you. She tried not to remember the woodsy smell of him, how he wrapped her in a sense of well-being simply by sharing the same air space whenever he was near.
“You ready for the big move?” His voice was like a caress.
“As ready as I’m ever going to be.” She drummed her right hand on her thigh and smiled. Her back ached a little, but it had every day since she’d been in a car accident the summer before. Packing boxes and emptying the house hadn’t helped it.
“How’re you feeling about it all?” Antony asked in his usual direct way.
“Like I’m on the edge of a great adventure? Is that the right answer? Somewhere between excited and terrified?” Her voice rose at the end of each sentence, as if she were uncertain what the correct answer was.
“Well, at least you’ll have one friend in Victoria.”
“Eventually, I guess.”
“No, I’m serious. My ranch is officially on the market. I’m moving out there this year.”
“That would be lovely,” Cynthia said, rubbing a damp palm on her faded jeans. Don’t read too much into this, she told herself. He’s just being friendly.
He’d been friendly since they met at Sadie’s wedding, claiming every dance with her that night. When Cynthia and her father, Donald, flew back to Montreal a few days later, Antony accompanied them, saying he hadn’t seen Montreal in years. Donald invited him to stay in his downstairs suite. During Antony’s visit, they showed him the best parts of Montreal, from the Basilique Notre Dame in the historic Place d’Armes district, to the public skating rinks, and La Petite Floride. Cynthia and Donald took him to an amateur hockey game locally and to see the Habs play at Bell Centre. Antony’s visit had been friendly, respectful, and full of laughter. It had also been frustratingly free of any romantic overtures. The three of them went places together, but when they got home, he and Donald both gave her a chaste good-night embrace before retreating to Donald’s living room where they talked until all hours. She’d lie in her bed in the room above, telling herself over and over that Antony was a good friend. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Cynthia and Donald told Antony of their plans to move to the coast, to be closer to their last remaining Canadian relative, Sadie. They’d already had an offer accepted on a house right on the ocean in Victoria.
“What a coincidence.” Antony smiled. “I’m planning to move to Victoria this year too.”
When he said that, Cynthia had felt a rush of excitement all the way to her toes. Donald looked away, unsuccessfully suppressing a grin.
It was snowing heavily the day she drove Antony to the airport to catch a plane back home to Calgary. They said good-bye at the drop-off point outside the terminal, snowflakes clinging to their hair and eyelashes. She’d had to swallow the burning lump in her throat when she looked into his warm, inviting eyes. Later, as sleep evaded her, she wondered if it was possible that she, being what was politely called a mature-aged woman, could have fallen in love at first sight. She’d rarely felt lonely as a single woman, but since she’d met Antony, she found herself longing for the type of company she’d never known, for a soulmate.
First thing in the new year, Cynthia and her father put both their house and their business up for sale. The busyness of preparing the properties for the market took her mind off Antony, for a while. The business didn’t sell, but the land it stood on was snatched up quickly at an excellent price. Cynthia immediately found herself working twelve-hour days to wind up Donohue Motors. She hadn’t had much time to think about Antony but he continued to phone often, sometimes calling Donald, but mostly phoning her.
The day Donald and Cynthia signed the contract for the sale of the business property, Donald complained of being tired and slightly lightheaded. That night, home alone with his cats, he sat down in his easy chair and coughed a couple of times before his big, generous heart stopped beating. Cynthia found him the next morning, his feet up with a blanket over his knees. Sheila and Colleen were sleeping on his lap.
“Daddy?” she said, reverting to the language of her childhood. The cats woke but her father’s half-smiling expression didn’t change. It looked as though he was enjoying a particularly happy dream. Sheila stretched, placing her paws on his shoulder, and sniffed his mouth. She mewed plaintively.
Cynthia stood, holding his cold hand as if she could transfer life back into his unmoving body by sheer effort of will. Tears stung her eyes as she tried to think of what to do next. When her brain finally stuttered back to life, the first person she tried to call was her daughter. Sadie was overseas on business, so Cynthia left a message before phoning her best friend. Cherie said she’d do the necessary calls to the family doctor and emergency services and get over to Cynthia’s house pronto.
For reasons Cynthia didn’t properly understand herself, the third person she called was Antony. He offered comforting words, but more importantly, he got the next available flight arriving at her house in the late evening, just as she was preparing to spend her first night alone.
The next afternoon, when Sadie arrived home, he stepped back and let the two women have their space. Neither Cynthia nor Sadie knew their way through the labyrinth of settling a deceased estate. Antony shouldered those responsibilities, to free the women to deal with the sobering task of making funeral arrangements.
Throughout Cynthia’s nightmare of loss and grieving, Antony stayed as steadfast as a rock. He was unfailingly calm, assertive, and caring. But he never moved beyond the realm of being a good friend. His cajoling, bossy supervision was the only bright light in the darkest time of her life. When grief almost crippled her with fatigue, Antony had ordered her to bed. He cooked for her. He even knew how to run a washer and dryer. He said she was family now and all he was doing was looking after one of the newest members of the Jacobson clan.
Sadie was married to his nephew, and as far as she knew, that made her and Antony exactly nothing to each other, beyond a thin thread of a twice-removed legal connection. Still, she accepted the solace of his companionship gratefully.
Her pulse quickened every time Everybody Dance Now signaled one of his calls. The ringtone was a private joke, alluding to the moment he had asked her to dance at the wedding. That was the first time she’d danced with a man in living memory. Her affection for him had started the moment he slipped his arm around her waist and waltzed her onto the dance floor. She was a girl again and he was the hot boy at the school dance. At fifty-something years old, Cynthia knew she should be past the point where she hoped for romantic love. Yet every time she spoke to Antony, the sun came out and life became brighter and happier for hours after. If she could figure out a way to move their platonic relationship to something a little hotter, she’d have done it in a second but she didn’t want to ruin what they had by asking for more.
Yet here he was, saying one more time that he was moving to the coast. Surely that meant his interest was more than casual.
“Your ranch is on the market? Seriously?”
“Yep. Just signed the listing agreement with my broker yesterday. I had to wait for spring to put it on the market. Some people have trouble seeing past a couple of feet of snow on the ground.” He laughed. “I’ll probably be moved before the start of summer. Then you can ask me all the questions I’ve been asking you for the past few days. Starting with, are you sure you’ve packed everything?”
“Checked all the cupboards and drawers one last time?” His voice rang with authority. Even her father never spoke to her in such an imperious manner.
“Everything out of the secret hiding places?”
“Cherie’s driving you to the airport?”
“She is. She’ll be here any minute. She’s going to hang around while the truck is loaded.”
“Where are Sheila and Colleen?”
“Cherie has them.” Cynthia had missed the company of her father’s two cats for the last few nights. Cherie had said the upheaval in the house would only upset them so she’d taken them home the week before so they wouldn’t have to be in the middle of the chaos. Once Cynthia was settled on the West Coast, Cherie would fly out with them and check out Victoria. She was getting pretty fed up with Montreal’s cold winters and humid summers herself. Maybe she’d find a place close to Cynthia’s new house.
“It sounds like you’ve got everything under control,” Antony said.
Everything but my feelings for you Cynthia thought. “Yeah, I’m pretty good at organizing and managing things.”
Neither of them spoke for a few beats. Then Antony said, slowly and rather quietly, “I was wondering…”
“Yes?” Cynthia’s pulse quickened.
“Remember I told you I have an old house up at Jordan River?”
Cynthia tried to recall their early, getting-to know-you conversations. Grief at losing her father had wiped her memory of many things that previously she could remember without effort. Closing her eyes, she could see Antony sitting beside her as the plane lifted off the tarmac in Vancouver after the wedding. He’d pointed to Vancouver Island on the western horizon.
“You’re smart to move there,” he’d said. “I’ve always intended to retire there myself. In fact, when I was twenty-five I bought my first home there. A surf shack on the beach. The winter storms were awesome. We used to get some great waves.”
Now that the peak of her grief was behind her, Cynthia recalled the conversation with minimal effort. With it came a flood of the warm, slightly sexual energy that fired between them on the long flight back to Montreal and on his visit to help her out after her father’s death.
She wished he was sitting beside her now, the slight earthy scent of his body wash filling the air between them. “You bought a rundown house and used it for a while when you were working in the nearby logging camps. Then you got a job in Calgary and rented it out to a bunch of surfers thinking they’d probably trash the place but that was okay because you had insurance,” she said.
The rumble of Antony’s laughter made Cynthia smile.
“And, do you remember how it backfired?” he asked.
“Yes.” Her smile broadened. “They turned out to be born-again Christians and instead of destroying the place and getting you an insurance-paid renovation, they fixed it up. Painted it. Refinished the hardwood floors. Fixed the broken windows and replaced the screens. Do I remember correctly?”
“Perfectly. That’s exactly what happened,” he said. “Now it looks like I’m being forced to sell it.”
“Forced?” Cynthia braced herself for the sting: for him to tell her that he had financial problems and was going to have to sell his dream place. Maybe she could help him out, just this once?
“Yeah, it seems that BC Hydro has been studying all of their dams. The Jordan River diversion dam is the one most likely to be wiped out in the event of an earthquake. You know the whole island is one big earthquake zone, right?”
“Yes. I’m not worried about it. It will either happen or it won’t.”
“It seems that BC Hydro don’t want to be liable if that dam fails so they are buying as many of the old beach shacks as people want to sell. All those houses would be wiped out if that dam failed. It’s the worst one they have.”
“So you’re going to sell the place?” Relief washed over Cynthia. He wasn’t calling to borrow money. He was being the same polite friend he’d been from the day she met him, sharing details of his life with her. Shame at her mistrust made a blush burn up her neck. Her father always said she was far too suspicious.
“I am,” Antony said. “I could do it from here, of course. But I thought it would be a lovely time of year to visit the island. I need to go through the place and see if there is anything in there of value that I might have forgotten about. Your stuff won’t arrive for a few weeks and I was wondering if you’d like some company exploring your new island home? Maybe even a guide? I haven’t lived there for over thirty years, but you haven’t lived there at all. I’d love an excuse to spend some time on the island and you’re the best excuse I can think of.” He paused to let that sink in.
Cynthia held her breath and waited for him to continue.
“And,” he said, drawing out the word as if to build the tension. “When your moving truck arrives, I could help you unpack if you wanted me to. I’m good at lifting heavy objects.”
A frisson of excitement ran over Cynthia. Her mouth curled in the first truly happy smile in months. A cloud of fatigue lifted off her as she stood and started pacing the room.
“That would be great,” she said, hoping she wasn’t reading too much into his offer.
* * *
After he said good-bye, Antony whooped and threw a fist into the air. Cynthia had said yes. She wanted him to join her on the island which was a good thing because he was halfway there already. He’d started driving the day before and had just stopped outside his motel in Kamloops to phone her. Now she’d told him the name of the B&B she was staying at, he called and booked the last room they had. It was only available for two nights. The cherry blossoms were late this year because of an unusually long winter and tourists were flooding into town, filling every hotel, motel, and bed and breakfast. Antony would worry later about where he was staying the third night and beyond. The only thing on his mind now was getting to Victoria as fast as he could. He wanted to be there to welcome Cynthia to her new city.
He’d liked this tall, statuesque woman from the moment he’d laid eyes on her. Her disinterest in his billionaire nephew and her indifference to the trappings of wealth that surrounded Simon drew Antony close to her. Besides that, she was intelligent, funny, and looked him in the eyes when she spoke to him, in a frank, non-flirtatious way. He’d pegged Cynthia’s age quite accurately as her mid to late fifties, given that she had a thirty-eight-year-old daughter. That was fine with him.
In his limited experience, younger women were more trouble than they were worth. Their lives were still rich with possibilities and little need to make lasting choices. At least that was what his ex-wife taught him. He met the blonde, beautiful, twenty-five-year-old Ashley Alexson at a friend’s dinner party. She never left his side, asking him endless questions about his life as a rancher. She loved horses. He loved having her around. He loved staring into her emerald green eyes. The first time she took her contacts out, he found out those eyes were really pale blue. He forgave that small deception, the same way he overlooked her augmented breasts. If that was what she needed to make her happy with herself, he had no complaints.
Soon they were spending every weekend together. When he loaded her suitcase into her car every Sunday night, their good-byes were long and often tearful on her part. She seemed so frail and lost at those partings, it broke his heart to let her go. He was sure she needed someone like him to look after her. A few months after they met, he proposed. She accepted without hesitation.
A stunning, cheerful bride on their wedding day, it didn’t take long before she soured into a discontented wife. Living on the thousand-acre property was different than visiting as an escape from her Monday to Friday office job. The isolation made her stir-crazy. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. She needed malls like a duck needed water. She craved the buzz of stores and the company of girlfriends.
He smiled patiently. “You’ll get used to it,” he said.
As if to prove him wrong, her frequent trips to the city became longer and more expensive. On their second wedding anniversary, her credit card bill topped $8,000 in a single month. Again. Designer clothes and accessories, some still new with tags on, spilled out of her large dressing room.
Antony told her coldly it was time to rein in her spending. Ashley said she’d been depressed. In fact, she still was. It was January and she’d been housebound for a week. She needed to escape to the sun for a bit. Antony agreed that she could go to Hawaii to recharge. He didn’t know she planned to take her best friend for company, all expenses paid, first class flights, including a private suite in a luxury hotel.
When the credit card statement for her trip arrived, Antony’s jaw dropped. He sat down with her in the kitchen and slid the bill in front of her. Refusing to meet his eyes, she stared out the window at the faraway oil wells that were paying for her extravagant lifestyle.
“Ashley, are you listening to me?” he asked.
“Blah, blah, blah,” she said. “You’re rich. We’re rich. Why are you so hung up on what I’m spending? I have to look after myself.” The lines at the corner of her mouth tightened in a sulky frown.
“What we have won’t last long if you keep spending like this.” His jaw ached as he wrestled his anger under control. “You’re behaving like a child who can’t see the consequences of her own actions. Maybe you need a good spanking and time in the corner to reflect on your behavior.”
“You lay one hand on me and I’ll charge you with assault.” Spittle flew from her perfect, plump lips. She pushed away from the table and stormed out of the house. The fury of her reaction surprised Antony because spanking had been a regular part of their lovemaking since they first met. She seemed to enjoy it. Sometimes she actually reminded him how long it had been since she’d last had her bottom warmed.
But those times were always playful.
The way she’d been behaving lately, he had considered giving her a sound disciplinary thrashing more than once. If she’d shown even an inkling of remorse or guilt he might have tried that. He would have forgiven her if only she’d admitted to any sort of wrongdoing.
But she didn’t, which left only one direction. That night, Antony sent her a text saying she didn’t need to come back.
The next day he had his lawyer offer her a generous property settlement. Ashley agreed to it so readily, Antony realized it was what she’d been waiting for. Chalking the cost up to experience, he brought movers in to pack up her clothes, jewelry, and the expensive furniture she’d insisted she needed, and deliver it to the condo he’d bought her in downtown Calgary.
After that, he decided he was better suited to a bachelor’s life. For the next three years, he barely left the ranch at all. Then he received the invitation to Simon and Sadie’s wedding and decided it was time to leave his cave. He didn’t expect to meet the sensuous, silver-haired woman who would quickly come to fill his head with optimistic thoughts of a shared future.
The metal stairs down to the open tarmac reminded Cynthia once again that she wasn’t in a big city any longer. For better or worse, Victoria was her new home and the small airport was just one of the many adjustments she’d have to make. She was so tired; every step was a huge effort. She just wanted to collect her bags and head for the B&B. She had to be at the lawyers’ office in the morning to sign the Statement of Adjustments which would finalize the purchase of her new house. It was 8:00 PM now and she didn’t have to be at the lawyers’ until 11:00 AM. If she got to bed quickly, she might manage a decent night’s sleep.
Her cabin bag dragged behind her, making a grating sound on the rough pavement as she trailed the queue of passengers into the small airport terminal.
“Cynthia.” A man’s voice rang out the moment she stepped through the doors.
Cynthia looked up and saw Antony standing inside the passenger gate. He wore a black leather jacket, a denim shirt and jeans, all of which emphasized his toned, lean physique. He looked slightly rumpled which made him more attractive still. His sky-blue eyes beamed a warm, friendly welcome. She blinked back happy, grateful tears.
“Antony!” She grinned wildly.
The heels of his cowboy boots clicked as he walked over to her. “Welcome to the West Coast, lovely lady.” He wrapped her in a bear hug.
“I didn’t know…I didn’t expect…” She inhaled his sandalwood scent. The way he fused his body to hers said more than his words did. This was not a brotherly embrace. It was hips grinding into hips, his hand on her lower spine, dipping down to her buttocks.
“I offered to come out here to show you around and you agreed. So, I decided I should be here the moment you got off the plane, a familiar face to welcome you to your new home.”
“Thank you. I’m lost for words.” She leaned her head against his chest feeling momentarily safe and protected. She allowed herself to savor his welcome before her mind switched back to practical things. She said, “I was going to get a taxi. I haven’t even arranged a rental car yet.”
“No need. I’ve got my car here. I drove out from Calgary so we’d have a vehicle to use. For the next two weeks or so, I’m at your service. Are you hungry?” He took her cabin bag as they went to claim her checked luggage.
“Yeah. I am, really.” She hadn’t ordered a meal on the plane. All she’d eaten since her gas station breakfast that morning was an apple, a small pouch of peanuts, and big bag of potato chips. Her stomach rumbled.
“Any idea of where you’d like to eat?”
“I don’t know the city that well. Any suggestions?”
“They’ve got a Wild Jane’s if that isn’t too down market for you.”
“Sounds perfect,” she said, dragging the first of her two suitcases off the carousel belt.
Antony took it out of her hands. “Let me, please. All you have to do is point.”
Cynthia smiled at this odd sensation of someone looking after her. Just having him near lifted her energy level. Bed could wait.
“I’m staying at the same B&B as you,” Antony led her out to the parking lot and loaded her bags into the trunk of a silver SUV.
“Wow. What a coincidence.”
“Hardly,” he said as they climbed into the car together. “You told me where you were staying and they had a room available. No magic involved.”
“I’m really happy to see you,” she said, settling into her seat. She didn’t say how lonely she’d felt as the plane touched down in Victoria. The move was a milestone in her life, which ever since her father died, had lost most of its luster. Now it was a red-letter day again.
“I’m happy to see you, too.” He squeezed her knee but kept his eyes on the road. “You’re having a big adventure and it’s always better to share your special times.”
There was a hint of so much promise in those few words, Cynthia had to tell herself not to get her hopes up. She was too old to be infatuated with a man because he was kind to her. As they sped down the highway toward downtown, Antony pointed out the features of the island. On her right was Elk Lake and after that the entrance to Beaver Lake Park. Both were fresh water lakes, ideal for summer swimming. The trees on top of the rocky outcrops on either side of the road were Garry oaks, the only oak tree indigenous to that province. The sun had set, but there was enough gloaming to see the points of interest.
His rapid fire questioning signaled a nervousness that pleased her. He’d always been so confident around her, it was refreshing to know that she could make him a little jumpy, too. Her own jitters had spilled into the pool of exhaustion that was drawing her down, making her concentrate on each and every word he spoke. She needed food and she needed a good night’s sleep, but she buried those thoughts as she took in the scenery some of which she’d seen only once before, some of which was brand new to her.
“I’m going to take you the long way around,” he said and drove through the downtown area, a detour that took less than fifteen minutes. They passed the Legislative Buildings, drove around Ogden Point, past Fishermen’s Wharf, and the cruise ship terminal, where one of the first ships of the season was preparing to weigh anchor.
“That’s the breakwater.” He pointed to a long concrete structure that stretched into the sea. “It’s a great place for an easy walk.”
“Mm,” she murmured. Even an easy walk would be a Herculean effort in her current state. Not wanting Antony to see how lethargic she was, she sat up a little straighter and said, “It looks like a good spot for sunsets.”
He drove along the waterfront and parked at Clover Point. They sat, looking over the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the twinkling lights of Port Angeles in Washington State.
“It’s hard to believe I’ll be able to see another country from my kitchen window,” Cynthia said, breaking the easy silence that had fallen between them.
“Yep,” Antony said. “Right now, we’re closer to Bellingham than we are to the Canadian mainland.”
His information comforted her, even though she could have found the same thing out with an internet search. It was like he was her wingman, clearing the cloudy areas in her side vision. She felt closer to him than anyone she’d known in years and yet they’d done nothing more than embrace like cautious friends. They’d spent days and evenings together in Montreal, but always with her father in attendance, making it more like a family outing than a date.
“Victoria may not have the nightlife of Montréal.” He pronounced it mun-ray-all, the proper French way, maybe just to show her he could. “But it has lots of interesting things to see.”
She sighed as fatigue tugged at her, pulling her down as if she’d jumped into the sea wearing heavy clothing. “I don’t want to be a buzzkill but I think I need to grab some dinner and get to bed.”
“I’m sorry.” Antony started the car. “I’m being selfish, wanting to sit here all night with you.”
He took her to the chain restaurant where they got a table in a quiet corner, away from where a mob of hockey fans watched a big screen TV. As Antony pored over his menu, Cynthia said, “Do you think we could just share a pizza and skip appetizers?”
Antony looked at her sharply, worry creasing his face.
“Of course,” he said and signaled to the server. He asked for a rush to be put on their meal. Cynthia asked for water so he ordered a bottle of Evian to share.
Taking in Cynthia’s shrunken eyes and the way her body looked ready to fold into itself with exhaustion, he kicked himself for being a jerk and not having noticed sooner. He started a stream of conversation so she wouldn’t have to talk.
“What do you know about Victoria and Vancouver Island?”
“Not much,” she said. “I was never a star student.”
Antony saw this as his chance to fill a gap. He blathered on about the local First Nations people whose history on the island went back 8,000 years. He talked about the ancient forests and the wild beaches.
“I’m looking forward to settling out here myself.” He was testing to see how much attention she was paying, what her response would be.
A spark of interest lit Cynthia’s eyes.
Her smile encouraged him. “Yeah, I have to admit, the hard, physical work of ranching has lost some of its allure, too. It’ll be good to live somewhere that snow is an occasional novelty rather than a fact of life.”
“Do you think the ranch will sell quickly?”
They paused as a hot pizza was placed between them. Antony nodded at Cynthia, indicating she should take the first slice. She pulled one away from the rest of the pie, twirling the sticky cheese around her fingers. Antony watched her take a big bite before he reached for any.
He put it on his plate, untouched. “I’m hopeful. It’s priced to sell. I’ve made a lot of money off the oil leases. I’m not being greedy with my asking price.”
Cynthia’s mouth was full but she smiled with her eyes and nodded. Her left hand shook slightly as she reached for the chili shaker. When she finished chewing she said, “What do you think you’ll do once you move out here?”
Antony wiped his mouth. “I have my eye on a small distillery that’s for sale. You ran a successful business and I hoped that you might help me by looking at the financials, seeing how the place is managed. Your input would mean a lot to me.”
Cynthia sipped some water. “I haven’t decided what I want to do with my retirement. I figure it’s going to take me a few months to settle in here. I thought I’d look around then.”
“What were you planning when you decided to move out here?”
“Not much really. It was mostly my father’s idea. It’s almost as though he set all the wheels in motion because he knew what was coming. Like he knew I’d be on my own soon. He said I’d brought him so much comfort as he got older, he wanted me to be closer to Sadie.”
She ran her hand through her hair. “Then, once everything was on course and we’d sold the business and had a couple offers on the house, it was like he decided I didn’t need him anymore. I don’t think he willed himself to die, but it was like his job was done and he knew I’d be okay on my own if Sadie was close.”
“Have you always done what your father wanted?”
“Hardly. I was a diehard feminist when I was younger and he wanted me to work in his business. I said I’d make my own decisions. After looking after my mother in her final years, I wanted to be a nurse. So, I got my RN and nursed for twenty years because I actually enjoyed it. But I’d grown up with a wrench in my hand. When my father wanted to go back to Ireland for a long holiday, I took a leave of absence and moved in to manage the shop. I never went back to the hospital after that.”
“Wow, you’re a woman of many hidden talents.”
“You have no idea.” She grinned and the no-nonsense woman he’d met in December shone across the table.
Watching her mood lift with the food sharpened his own appetite. He dropped the crust of his pizza on his plate and reached for another piece. By the time they’d finished eating, Cynthia was visibly sagging again. He called for the bill which came immediately. Standing, he laid down enough cash to cover it, plus a good tip.
“Now I’m going to get you home and to bed, princess,” he said.
Cynthia looked at him, eyes wide in surprise. “My father used to call me princess when I was a little girl.”
“Now that he’s gone, someone needs to take over where he left off, don’t they? I think I might be the perfect man for that role.” Antony smiled, holding the door open for her.
She walked to the car, too tired to resist him.
Their B&B was in a big Arts and Crafts house near Beacon Hill Park. By sheer good luck they had the only two rooms on the top floor. Cynthia retrieved her key from a lockbox at the front of the house while Antony carried her luggage in from the car. He told her to go straight to her room which he’d seen earlier in the day when the owner was putting fresh towels in the bathroom. Cynthia’s accommodation was three rooms: a large bedroom, a small sitting room, and a bathroom, all of which were accessed off a small entry hall.
When he brought in the second bag, Cynthia was sitting on the sofa, her head leaned back and eyes closed.
“You can’t nod off just yet,” he said.
Her eyes popped open and she sat to attention. “Sorry!”
“No need to apologize. I know you’re tired but have you checked this place out yet?”
“I can’t believe it—it’s more like a suite than a B&B. I mean that’s how it was described, but it’s even nicer than the pictures on the website.”
“You chose well. Have you seen the bathroom?”
“Sorry, no. I just needed to sit for a while.”
He held out his hand. “Come. You have to see the touch of luxury you’ll enjoy for the next two weeks.”
With weary reluctance, Cynthia took his hand. She let herself be led through the bedroom to the ensuite. It wasn’t big but it was beautifully designed with a deep bath, a separate shower stall, and a luxurious vanity
“Nice,” she murmured. “I’ve always wanted a soaker tub.”
“Look at this – our hosts even provide this beautiful French bubble bath. Now go and unpack,” he said. “You’ll sleep better after a warm bath. Moving days are exhausting on so many levels.”
“I dunno. I just want to go to bed.”
“I’m not asking you what you want,” he said, taking her by the shoulders and turning her toward the bedroom. I’m running you a bath and either you’ll get into it yourself or I will help you get there. Comprenez-vous?”
She laughed at his clumsy accent. As she walked away, he smacked her bottom playfully. A small smile raised the corners of her mouth. Antony grinned. Diehard feminist indeed.
He was leaning on the doorjamb of the bathroom when she came out of the bedroom. She wore a pale blue bathrobe. The neckline was low and the short hemline emphasized her long, slender legs. It appeared she was wearing nothing underneath it. He swallowed hard and forced himself not to think of her lithe body.
“What if I fall asleep in the bath and drown?” she asked, glancing at the tub that was topped with a layer of fragrant lavender foam.
“I think you’d start to splutter and choke and wake up before things got that serious. If you’re really worried, leave the door to the suite open. I’ll call in to you every ten minutes or so. If you don’t answer, I’ll come in and check. Either way, please let me know when you’re on your way to bed so I can go off high alert.”
Cynthia lowered herself into the silky bathwater and moaned with pleasure. Antony had got the temperature perfect and she savored the relaxing embrace of the water. She used her toe to start the Jacuzzi jets and let the pulsing water pummel the knots out of her muscles. Half an hour later she tiptoed across the hallway and looked in on Antony sitting cross-legged on his queen-sized bed, wearing only pajama bottoms and reading glasses. His bare chest was buff, lightly covered with gray-black hair. He put aside his tablet and smiled at her.
“Feel better?” he asked, swiping off his glasses.
With that six pack and sculpted beard, he was so attractive, there should have been a law against it. His blue eyes danced with pleasure at the sight of her.
“Much better, thanks. Just thought I’d report in and tell you that bath was one of the nicest things to happen to me in a very long time.”
“The best is yet to come,” he said. “Breakfast is either down in the communal dining room or you can ask for a tray sent to your room. Any preferences?”
“I suppose I may as well start my life in Victoria being a bit friendly. What time is it served?”
“Seven-thirty to nine-thirty. Want me to make sure you’re up?”
“Yes, please.” She took in the details of his accommodation which, unlike hers, was a single room. The bed had narrow night tables on either side of it. A small table and two chairs stood beside the French doors to a small balcony. There was a big armchair in front of a TV and a small kitchenette with a microwave and bar fridge.
“These are nice rooms, aren’t they?” she asked, not wanting to leave him just yet.
“They are. Unfortunately, I only have mine for another night.”
“Oh.” She realized how much she liked having him so close. He was kind of overbearing but it was enjoyable to give up control for a while, to have someone else make some of the decisions for her. Ever since her father died, she’d been carrying a heavy load, heavier than she realized until she was on her own with it. Antony had stepped up beside her exactly when she needed someone. Self-conscious at the idea that he might be reading her thoughts, she turned to go.
“Cindy,” he said, getting to his feet.
“Yes,” she looked back at him, trying to keep the worry out of her eyes. She didn’t want him to leave her so soon.
“I’ll drive you to the lawyers’ office tomorrow. If you like, I could come in with you and offer a separate set of eyes and ears on the contract.” He held out his hand. “May I see you to your room?”
“Certainly.” She took his hand, felt the warmth and strength of his long, tapered fingers as they wrapped around hers. “Only no one calls me Cindy.”
“Certainly what? Certainly I may see you to your room or certainly I may go to the lawyers with you tomorrow?”
“Both I guess. Although I think I’m okay to deal with the lawyer myself, a ride might be nice. Thanks.”
“Okay, Ms. Donohue,” he said as they walked the few steps between their rooms. “Your driver will be ready to deliver you to Cedar Hill at eleven tomorrow.”
At her doorway, he took her face in his hands. He kissed her gently at first, lips on lips, before gently lapping his tongue into her mouth. The forest smell of him filled her head as he opened his lips, seeking her mouth. Remembering the gentle warmth of his smack on her backside, she kissed back with complete abandon. She wanted his firm hands on her, everywhere. The last time she’d been kissed by a potential lover was when she was just out of high school. Back then she’d wondered why the sensation was so thin, so forgettable. Being wanted by a man like Antony, a strong willful man, made her bones turn to water. Their long, languorous kiss seemed to stretch forever.
When they broke apart they were both panting hard, as if they’d surfaced after a long breath-hold dive.
“That will give you something to think about tonight,” she said as if the kiss had been little more to her than a handshake.
He grinned. “And that love tap will give you something to think about, Cindy-Lou.”
She narrowed her eyes at his sarcasm but he’d turned to go back to his room. As she slid into bed she thought about the delicious fire that had he’d sparked inside her. His kisses rivalled the heat of the sun. The smack on the bottom said he was the one calling the shots.
She’d lied to him. When she was little her mother and father both called her Cindy, sometimes even Cindy Lou Who. But that didn’t mean he could. Some names were reserved for use only by special people.