Hurrying into the living room, I told Allison it was time to get ready for bed. She went upstairs to her bathroom while I gathered Michael into the room we slept in on the ground level. I brushed his teeth and washed his face and hands with a damp towel. I unstrapped him, pulled his clothes off and slipped his pajamas on. Then I carefully lifted him onto the bed and tucked him in. His nighttime medications aided in this routine since they made him very tired. He was able to help just enough to really help and not hinder the process.
I leaned in and kissed him on the forehead. For the first time several weeks he tried to wrap me in a hug as my body hung over his. Deeply moved by the gesture, I helped him by leaning closer and kind of propping his arms up with mine so they would drape over my back. He gave me as much of a squeeze as he could muster and said, “Uv-u,” in my ear.
“I love you too, Honey,” I whispered back. I gave him another kiss, this time on the lips, and turned out the lights.
Once I was sure Michael was resting comfortably and Allison was at least lying in her bed, if not sleeping, I went into the kitchen to get a hot cup of coffee. It wasn’t my habit to drink coffee at night, but I felt I needed it—why not add to the jitters I was already feeling? Then I gathered the phone and a blanket and headed out onto the porch where I nestled onto the swing and dialed the number scrawled on the business card.
He picked up on the third ring.
“Hello?” Even through the phone his voice melted my bones.
“Dominic. It’s Ella.” For some reason I was giddy as a school girl at the thought of talking to him. Because my stomach had suddenly gone into knots, I set my coffee down on the side table.
“Hi, beautiful. I was beginning to think you wouldn’t call.”
“I had to get Allison and Michael to bed. And Cassie called.”
His response was casual enough, but I could tell he was a little worried. “Oh. Is everything OK?”
“Everything’s fine. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I’m just making sure you’re not in trouble because someone might have seen us together. I don’t want to cause you problems.”
His simple presence caused me problems in so many ways. “Well, somebody did see us, but it’s not a big deal. I explained who you are…in a vague sort of way. Cassie will be prodding for more, of course, but I can handle her.” I brushed it off with a wave of my hand.
“Well, good then. So we can talk about simpler matters. Like dinner tomorrow night?” He sounded both hopeful and confident at the same time.
“Dinner…” I hadn’t thought about it. Hadn’t passed even a fleeting moment’s thought about his request to see me the next night. “I haven’t thought about it, Dominic. I’ve had so many things going on since I got home. I usually take Allison out to dinner on Friday’s.”
“You mentioned that. I thought I could take both of you out. Then I could meet her.”
I hesitated over it. “I don’t know. What would she think? A strange man taking me and her out to dinner? It’s not like she doesn’t know what’s going on around her. She may be ten in actual years, but she’s a lot older than that mentally, Dominic. She grew up fast after the accident. Maybe too fast, but I didn’t know how to help her stay young. Truth is, I probably needed her as much as she needed me during that time. Now even.” I pressed my hand to my eyes and shook my head. “Maybe it’s wrong. I don’t know. But we are each other’s strength, and I don’t want to throw anything off balance.”
“Ella, that’s fine. I’m not trying to throw your world out of whack. I just want to see you. I need to see you. And I want to meet the lucky man that snagged you up, and the beautiful daughter the two of you made.” He paused.
I don’t know if he was waiting for a response to that, but I couldn’t respond. How do you respond to a statement that is at once romantic and incredibly blunt?
“Lunch, then,” he said. “If you’re not ready for me to meet your family, let me take you to lunch.”
“Lunch.” It seemed simple enough. Then again, there could still be repercussions. “People will talk, Dominic. I’m not so worried about that personally, but professionally…” I trailed off, thinking that he would understand.
“We’ll give it a front. Say I’m taking you out for a business lunch. You know, trying to persuade you to help me set up the computers for the store. It’s believable.”
“It is.” I thought about it briefly. “Cassie would know better. But, like I said, I can handle her.” I thought about it some more, turning the idea over in my head and trying to look at it from every angle. Then something occurred to me. “Robert might not like it very much.”
“He’s my boss.”
“Oh. Well, I can say I’m just looking for an outsider’s opinion of the company’s system, and I was told you were the best. No threats to your current employer, since my company doesn’t know I’m having you look at it.”
Wow. He seemed to have all the answers. It was as if he’d been thinking it through while he waited for my call. “OK. Lunch, then. Do you have a place in mind, or do I get to pick?”
“I know where I want to take you. How long can you take?”
“I can take as long as I need or want. I put in enough hours throughout the week to take long lunches.”
“Good. It’s a date.”
“Not a good term, Dominic,” I said with a bit of a lecturing tone.
“Maybe not, but I’m not taking it back. When it comes to you, Ella, I’ll take what I can get.” His voice became soothing, sensual. “Like this phone call. I really didn’t think you would call, but I hoped you would. I hoped you would more than I’ve hoped for anything in a very long time. I wish for you, too. I wish I could hold you again, like I used to. I wish I could taste you.” He took a shuddering breath. “God, Ella, I want you so bad. Even after all these years, I still want you. But this time it would be different. I would take my time with you and savor every kiss, every touch.”