Risa’s Monday sucked. First she’d overslept, causing her to rush. When she’d reached the lobby, she’d realized she’d left her briefcase upstairs. She hit the button to take the elevator back up. As the doors parted, Jack had stepped into the lobby and she’d felt her entire world stop. Their gazes had locked for a millisecond before he’d nodded crisply and walked away, and then she’d felt like her world had shattered. Between her preoccupation with him and her getting behind last week, work wasn’t going smoothly, and Janine’s announcement that the Judge was holding on line three did nothing to calm Risa’s mood.
Her step-father never called, she thought as she picked up the receiver. Obviously Phillip had told him about the breakup. Thomas Winters was probably understandably indignant that she hadn’t told him herself, but she’d managed to find excuses to put it off, what with her babysitting and falling hopelessly for her next door neighbor.
"Clarise, this is your step-father. I’m on my cell phone and in your area. Are you free for lunch?"
She had no idea, but since she’d never defied the man in her life, a quick, "Sure" rolled off her tongue.
"Good, I’ll pick you up in five minutes." He disconnected.
Running a hand through her already disheveled hair, Risa told herself she might as well get their confrontation over on a bad day. No sense ruining a good day with it.
"That was brief," Janine said from the doorway of the office.
"He’s on his way here. To take me to lunch. Probably to ask how I could let a catch like Phillip get away."
"Phillip was not the catch for you. You just tell him that."
Risa bit her lip. Did she know who the catch for her was? Yesterday afternoon, she’d been sitting in Jack’s apartment all dreamy and moon-eyed over him. Ten minutes later, he’d politely thrown her out. Maybe romance just wasn’t her thing.
"I don’t know what you’re thinking, but Jason gets that same expression when I remind him he has a spelling test coming up."
"I was thinking about men."
"Oh, well that will definitely do it, then."
"Janine, you should’ve seen the way he looked at me this morning!" Since Risa had already shared the humiliation of Jack dismissing her like they were perfect strangers, she trusted her friend could follow the segue. "Honestly, Phillip took our breakup with more warmth than that."
"A sure sign that you and Phillip weren’t actually in love," Janine said as the outer door opened.
"The Judge!" As in, "here comes the…"
"Be brave," Janine mouthed before turning. "Good afternoon, Judge Winters. Risa’s expecting you."
Once they were in the Judge’s sedan, Risa shot her step-father a pained look. "I feel like I’m thirteen, trying to get up the nerve to tell you about a bad grade."
The man’s bushy white eyebrows crept upward in an expression of austere surprise. "I don’t recall you ever getting any bad ones."
"A few B’s. They weren’t A’s, and that’s what you wanted."
"Certainly I wanted to encourage you to do your best. And look at you now, a competent businesswoman, so you see, it’s good that I pushed."
Sure. But would a little more encouragement have hurt? "I suppose you’ve talked to Phillip," she said as the Judge turned the car out of the parking lot. Somehow, being in the car where they could both look at the road and not at each other made the conversation easier. Marginally.
"I did. But I’d like to hear your version of events."
She had the insane urge to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. "There’s not much to tell. I realized I didn’t love him, and so I told him I couldn’t marry him. You don’t have to tell me, sir, that Phillip is a good man, a successful one who would have made an excellent provider, but—"
He made a sudden left, swerving the car into the parking lot of a bank that had closed a few weeks’ earlier because a new branch was opening a block over.
"Why are we stopping here?" she asked, staring around the abandoned lot.
"Clarise, are you of the opinion that I don’t value love as an important ingredient in a union?"
"Oh. Well, no, I suppose not."
"You suppose not? Why do you think I married Maggie, God rest her soul, if not for love? If Phillip Donavan wasn’t the man for you, and you know that in your heart, you don’t have to justify it to me."
It was gruff, but it was approval, and it blossomed inside her like the first rose of spring. "Thank you. Sir. That means a lot to me."
He looked surprised by this. "Indeed? I’m glad we had this talk then. Truthfully, I know it would have made Maggie happy if we’d talked more, been closer, but it was hard, you being the spittin’ image of a woman I’d loved and lost. And me knowing nothing about parenting. But we did the best we could, didn’t we, Clarise?"
After a moment, she nodded, even managing a smile to soothe the rare note of uncertainty in his voice. It was too late to ever go back and have the childhood she’d longed for, but maybe a fresh start wasn’t out of the question.
"Here." Jack thrust the bag into his sister’s arms and was already turning to go when he added, "Thanks for letting me borrow them."
"And hello to you, too," Angela said, frowning as she tightened her grip on the video game equipment. "Care to come in for a cup of coffee?"
"I need to get back to work," he mumbled, wishing it weren’t a bright, shining May afternoon. The gaily chirping birds were giving him a heck of a headache.
"You know, you were in a lot better mood when I saw you two days ago."
Irritation blazed through him, reversing his direction so that he marched back onto Angie’s front porch. "Was it you who told Risa about me?"
His sister sighed. "So that’s what’s got you as grumpy as a bear with a thorn in its butt? It wasn’t me who told her, no, but—"
"Never mind. It’s not important."
"She’s obviously important," Angela said. "Another ten minutes without kids interrupting, you guys might have been horizontal in the surf."
"Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s not like that with Risa."
"How is it, then?"
He opened his mouth, closed it. Raked a hand over his unshaven jaw. Had Risa noticed this morning that he hadn’t shaved? He wished he’d looked slicker when he’d seen her. Polished was her type, like Phillip. No, Phillip obviously wasn’t her type, or she wouldn’t have dumped him, and what do you care, anyway?
Great. He was having silent arguments with himself and his sister was staring at him like she was going to call for the butterfly nets to come take him away. "I’m fine."
"You were a much better liar as a kid. Want to come in for that coffee?"
"Yeah, thanks." Driving back to work this distracted was like asking for an accident. Maybe the caffeine would clear his head.
"So." His sister pulled down two mugs. "We were talking about Risa."
"Not much left to say. She just broke off an engagement, Ange. She’s not ready for anything."
"She’s not, or you’re not? Don’t think your family hasn’t noticed your lack of dates since the divorce."
"Well, what do you want me to do, Angela, marry another woman who tells me that she’s fine with circumstances I can’t control, then changes her mind a few years later?"
"Jack. You can’t throw your life away because one woman couldn’t keep her word. That’s just stupid, and Mama will be the first to tell you she didn’t raise any fools."
After a moment, he grinned. "You’ve always been such a bossy know-it-all."
"Darn straight. And now that I’m old and married, I’ve got wisdom, too, so take my advice—talk to Risa. You look miserable."
"Yeah, but relationships bring the potential to become even more miserable."
She stirred sugar into her cup, pushed his across the kitchen island. "Love brings the potential for lots of things, little brother, you just gotta be open to them."
"Love? I didn’t say love. I said relationship, and even that is premature. I’ve known Risa less than a month."
Angela shrugged. "Greg and I knew each other all through high school and all through college before he proposed; Mom and Dad eloped after two weeks and are still going strong. I don’t think there’s a right way or wrong way to do it. The trick is, you actually do it instead of chicken out. If you don’t talk to her, I’m telling all our siblings that you’re a pansy."
With his sister’s pansy accusation ringing in his ears, Jack decided to make a grand gesture. Something that, best case would strike Risa as romantic and dramatic—especially since Phillip didn’t seem like the type who ever demonstrated she was worth a little drama and effort—and worst case, Jack’s actions would at least make her laugh and break the ice. What he wanted to say would be a lot less terrifying and awkward if she was smiling at him.
So, he hoisted himself over to Risa’s balcony and knocked on the glass sliding door. Although it was still fairly early in the evening, he’d heard her come home about half an hour ago. Now, he saw her wandering toward him, wearing work clothes and a puzzled expression.
She was laughing, but appeared understandably confused, when she unlocked the door. "Jack?"
"Can I come inside? I’m parboiling out here."
"Well of course you are." She moved aside. "It’s May and you’re wearing…flannel?"
"Pajamas my nephew Tyler gave me last Christmas. I’m doing a recreation here, but I drew the line at weird facial goop."
For a moment, she frowned, then realization dawned in her eyes. "The apricot facial mask. From when I landed on your balcony in my pj’s."
"Right, the night we met. Risa, I don’t know if you’re aware of how much you’ve changed my life since then."
"Oh." She swallowed nervously. "You mean in a good way, right?"
He grinned. "Yeah. Occasionally maddening, but good."
"Well, you try installing firewall tests for a billion dollar corporation with your gorgeous next door neighbor occupying all your thoughts."
"I’m not gorgeous," she said self-consciously, "but I know a little something about not being able to think of anything but your neighbor."
He cupped her cheeks in his hands. "Say what you like, I see gorgeous. I also see the woman who’s inspired me with the courage to face life again. After you told me a little about your mother, I thought you were avoiding the risks that come with love. But I was hiding from those risks myself. Not being able to have kids of my own has always been painful, but I was using that as an excuse not to consider any more long-term relationships. I rationalized it, but really I was just being a. . .well, to use my older sister’s term, a pansy."
Risa laughed. "Oh, Jack, that’s not how I see you at all. And you were right about my not wanting to take risks. Maybe I just hadn’t met someone worth the risks before."
She stood on her tip-toes, kissing him gently, thanking him for this silly stunt, for bringing so much laughter and emotion into her life. For freeing that emotion within her. She felt as if she and Janine were closer than ever before and maybe even she and the Judge could build a real relationship now.
When they broke apart, Jack leaned his forehead to hers. "One of the things Amy said when she left was that she wasn’t sure she could ever truly love someone else’s child as her own. After watching you with those three kids this week, I know that would never be true of you. You have a lot of love inside you, Risa Alexander."
Tears stung her eyes. "Thank you. That’s a really beautiful thing to say."
"If you don’t already have plans for the evening, I could hang around and say some other great stuff."
She laughed. "All right, but expect to be interrupted frequently." To prove her point, she kissed him again, reveling in the jolts of electricity that shot all the way to her toes, the excited dip in her stomach that made her feel as if she were about to shoot over a hill on the best roller coaster of her life.
Funny, she’d always wanted to feel like she belonged—had even founded a business devoted to helping others fit somewhere professionally—and here, in Jack’s arms, she finally knew just where she wanted to be.