“Did I miss something?”
“No. I just love watching women react to you. I don’t think you really know the effect you have on them.” When he started to interrupt, I held up my hand to stop him. “You know that you affect them, and you can turn it on at will. But I don’t think you fully understand the way it really affects them.”
“Well, then, why don’t you enlighten me?”
I started picking at my salad. “Let’s start at the bank. When you walked in the door, every woman in there was drawn to you. They all kept working, but they were intensely aware of your presence.” I left out what his entrance did to me. “Cassie was fanning herself when she left my office. Just now, with the waitress. All you did was smile at her, and she was putty in your hands. She totally forgot I was here.”
He raised one eyebrow. “And just how do I affect you?” His voice was silky, like satin on my skin.
“You know how you affect me, Dominic.”
He laid his fork down, folded his hands, and leaned toward me, elbows resting on the table. “Actually, I don’t have any idea. When I saw you yesterday, I thought it was obvious. Now, I’m not so sure. You’re warm and cool at the same time. You look at me like you might never look away, but there’s a distance in your stance.
“Tell me, Ella. How do I affect you?”
Was this the time to be totally honest, with Dominic and myself? Or should I tame it down to save both of us the pain it could cause? I wasn’t really sure. As I sat there staring into his eyes, I decided to tell the truth.
I dropped my gaze, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. When I looked up again, his eyes were swimming with so many emotions my heart nearly exploded.
“You make me want again. I want to hold you in my arms. I want to feel your arms around me, pulling me so close like you’ll never let me go. I want to breathe in your scent. I want to feel your lips pressed against mine. I want to get lost in your presence and forget the outside world exists.”
I paused to find the right words. “You make me feel things I haven’t felt since before the accident. Desire. Passion. Longing. Lust, even. It’s like you’ve awoken my inner woman that lay dormant.
“I can’t have you. I won’t have you. And it tears me apart. It’s painful to sit here with you, but I don’t want to be anywhere else. You’re here now, back from the grave in a sense, and I need you on so many levels it scares me.”
I turned and looked out over the trees. “That’s not to say that someone else wouldn’t have come along and stirred these feelings eventually. I’m human. It was bound to happen at some point.”
Turning back to Dominic, I continued. “You make me crave companionship, too. It’s so hard to go home every night and not have anyone to really talk to. I mean I can talk to Michael, and he understands, but he can’t hold a conversation with me. He can’t really give his opinion or thoughts on something in a back and forth way, you know? I need that. I talk to Cassie almost every night, but it’s not the same. I miss those intimate conversations. The ones that start on the sofa, or in the kitchen and carry through to the bedroom at bedtime.”
I stopped there and turned back to the view again. I had said it all in a fairly concise manner. Saying it made it that much more real—made the need that much more powerful.
We sat that way, in silence—me staring out over the mountain, Dominic watching me—until the waitress came back with a bread basket and our soup.
She was much more serious this time. Perhaps she sensed the change in the mood, perhaps Charles had said something to her. Either way, she set the food down, asked if we needed anything else, and then graciously took her leave.
I began stirring my soup in a methodical way to cool it down. When I looked up at Dominic, he was sitting there watching me. He hadn’t touched anything, and he looked extremely solemn.
“What?” I asked.
“That was very honest. I don’t think I was really expecting that depth of honesty. I’m sorry I’m causing you pain by being here. If you want, if it’s better for you, I can leave you alone after lunch. I’ll let you go again if that’s what you want.”
I scrutinized him across the table. He meant what he said. He would let me go again. But that’s not what I wanted. Now that he had come back, it would be worse if he left again.
“I don’t want you to leave, Dominic.” I reached across the table and took his hand. “I don’t want you to leave,” I repeated as I squeezed his hand. “I need you now.”
I immediately regretted my last words and actions. It came across as desperate and needy. I tried to pull my hand away, but he gave it a gentle squeeze, and the tenderness in his eyes relaxed me enough to give up without really trying.
He brought our joined hands to his cheek and rested mine on the light stubble on his face. “I won’t leave.” He turned and kissed my hand. “I’ll be here in whatever aspect you need.”
When he released my hand I went back to picking at my soup and a piece of bread. I didn’t really eat because I had lost most of my appetite. Hunger for the man across from me had replaced the hunger for food. I was quiet for a while, just watching my soup as the spoon swirled through it.
The waitress came back and asked how everything was. Dominic, using his warm and friendly voice, told her it was fine and that we didn’t need anything else, just the check. She nodded and left.
When she brought the check back, Dominic put the money in the bill-fold, folded his napkin on the table, and pushed his chair back. I watched him stand and walk around the table to me. He helped pull my chair out, then offered his hand to help me stand. I took it.
As we walked out of the restaurant, I looked around at the empty tables and remembered something. I stopped, and still surveying the vacant area, I said, “The Elk Horn isn’t open for lunch.” I turned to Dominic. “The Elk Horn doesn’t open until four.”
His eyes betrayed nothing as he shrugged his shoulders. “I have connections.”
Connections? How did a man fairly new in town get connections that opened a restaurant like the Elk Horn early? Or, more accurately, for a private lunch for two? Did he use money? His status as the new owner of the big chain opening soon? Just how did he pull this off?
He could tell the questions were swimming in my head. He probably even knew what those questions were. I stood there just staring at him, waiting for answers.
Charles came bustling through the restaurant from the kitchen. “Mr. Sterling. Mrs. Boothe. I trust everything was satisfactory?”
“Oh, yes, Charles. Everything was beautiful,” Dominic said looking up at the man. “Ms. Boothe and I were just leaving. She has to get back to the bank.” This last he said with a smile for me.
I noted that for the second time today he called me Ms. Boothe, not Mrs. I wondered if it was intentional. Was he trying to tone down my married name, or was it just a formal habit from the corporate world?
“Well, you two have a wonderful day. It was nice to see you again, Mrs. Boothe. We’ve missed having you as our guest. I hope we’ll be seeing more of you in the future.” Charles smiled at me. But I saw his glance at Dominic. He was glad I had come here with another man. He was hoping I had found someone to fill the void left by Michael’s accident. I couldn’t fault him for feeling that way. Not really. Charles and the other management had been almost like a second—business—family to me, Michael, and Allison. I had questioned his excitement when we arrived. Now I had my answer.
“Thank you, Charles. We’ll be back,” Dominic said, and he rested his hand on my shoulder and gently turned me toward the door. His arm draped across my back as we walked out.
He held my car door for me again. And again, I had to take the time for a few deep breaths before he climbed in on the other side.
We drove half-way down the mountain before he spoke.
“Maybe lunch was a mistake.” His voice was so serious.
I turned to see his eyes, but I was blocked by those dark glasses he wore. Damn those glasses.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, now I have to take you back to work.”
“So, I don’t want to take you back. I want to spend the rest of the day with you.” He shrugged. “Rest of the night too, truth be told.”
“Dominic, don’t. I have to go back, especially after this morning. God only knows what that crazy server might be doing.”
“I know. I know. But that doesn’t mean I can’t want.” He paused. “Can I take you by the store for a couple minutes?”
I thought about it. “I guess so. We haven’t been gone that long, and I already have more than forty hours in this week. Let’s go to the store. Your store,” I corrected.