“It’s made with love,” Paul joked and dished out the last of his pot of chili. “No other ingredients just love.” He placed the ladle in the pot and rolled his shoulders.
His boss, Todd Gardner nudged Paul. “Why don’t you wash up and tell the DJ to play some dance music. Oh and I have a request for you to stop by Lucy Straka’s table. She’s got a surprise for you. Don’t ask, I promised not to tell.”
Paul opened his mouth to protest, but was cut off by Todd’s command. “Get going,” he said. “Lucy isn’t getting any younger. Go.”
Paul complied and weaved his way over to the DJ. “You can make the announcement: last call for chili,” he said. “Start the dance music so we can work off dinner.”
When he pivoted to locate Lucy’s table, Paul noticed the blonde sitting next to Lucy. He wasn’t sure, but she didn’t look familiar from behind. He knew everyone in town, but that particular shade of blonde hadn’t been in town for years. His heart constricted in his throat for a moment.
Did she…, he wondered. Nah, she’s still a bleach blonde.
“Miss Lucy, Todd told me to see you about raffle tickets,” he said and touched the elderly woman’s shoulder. “I hear you were very convincing.”
Instead of Lucy turning to answer him, Paul was surprised by Berlin Carter. She was the owner of the honey blonde locks? Nice.
“Hi Paul. I sold those tickets. Was that enough?” She patted the seat next to Lucy and smiled. “Won’t you sit down?”
Paul’s jaw was on the floor. “Berlin? I…I hardly recognized you. You look beautiful,” he stammered. Heaven had to be shining down on him and offering a miracle in a simple blue cotton sundress.
“Thank you,” she replied with a gentle smile that showcased her perfectly straight white teeth. He thought he saw a glimmer of something else in her eyes. Passion? Lust? No matter. He’d do his best to find out.
“Oh, sit down and close your mouth,” Lucy said bluntly. Paul did as told and helplessly stared at Berlin. Lucy reached down and slapped his knee. “Stop staring,” she muttered. “It isn’t polite.”
When a ballad came on, Lucy nudged Paul and nodded at the dance floor.
“Oh,” he said and tripped on the chair leg. He held his hand out once he gained his balance. “Dance with me, Berlin?”
“Will Steph mind?” A hint of irritation and sadness clouded her voice.
He grabbed her hand and led her to the dance floor before he gave her an answer. Clumsily, they embraced and began to dance to the slow music. “Let’s just dance.”
“This is like being at the prom,” she laughed. “Without the bad techno music. So where is Steph? She should be proud of you all. Is she helping too?”
“She ran off with Denny Arden,” Paul replied and gently pulled her closer. She fit perfectly, so soft and sensuous without trying. “I’m glad she did.”
Berlin blushed. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“No need. I’m not.”
She rested her head on his shoulder and rubbed her cheek on his shirt. Paul rubbed her back and swayed with her to the music. “Berlin, I like the new you.” He leaned back enough to look in her eyes. There was a new innocent sparkle that hadn’t been there before. The light fragrance of her perfume wafted lightly in the air, making him almost dizzy. “Almost like being in school again.”
“Well, a little wiser anyway,” she replied. Her lips brushed his ear, sending shivers through his body. “Funny, I never thought this would happen.”
Paul kissed her neck lightly. “I didn’t either, but I’m glad I was wrong.”
They continued to dance until the selection of ballads segued into a raucous dance number. “I’d like to drive you home tonight if you don’t mind,” he asked and took her hand. “I’ll behave.”
“I’d like that,” she said simply and smiled.
The words sent an electric current along Paul’s spine. “Shall we go now? I thought we’d drive down to Carver’s Grove.” Moments later in his truck, they sped onto the main road. “I thought we’d go somewhere quiet.”
Timidly, Berlin scooted over next to him in the seat and Paul put his arm around her, holding her tight. He marveled at the way her body fell into his like a glove. She seemed so fragile and small, but strong and sexy at the same time.
“This is perfect,” she murmured and rested her head on his shoulder.
Paul parked on the gravel lot. He got out first and helped her onto the gravel path. Carver’s Grove was a picturesque apple plantation, with a tranquil duck pond, a large barn and a converted farmhouse.
“It’s hard to see the path in the dark,” she said and wrapped her arms around his waist.
“I’ll help you.”
“I feel like I’m sixteen and sneaking out, but I love it.”
“Happiness will do that.” He stopped at the pond. The moonlight glittered across the water in ripples.
“This is so beautiful.” She stepped onto the observation platform.
Paul came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “It’s as beautiful as you are,” he murmured and nibbled on her ear.
“Umm... that’s nice.” She turned around to face him.
“I’ve waited a long, long time to do this.” Paul leaned down and gently brought his lips to hers. She tasted sweet and silky. The moonlight made Berlin’s hair shimmer like a halo. “I’ve always believed you were beautiful inside and out.”
Berlin stared at him a moment and lowered her eyes. “I don’t deserve your affection.”
“Sure you do.”
“No. I never thought of doing this before I came back. I was so wrapped up in being somebody, I was too blind to see you.” She stepped over to the railing and looked at the water. “I took all the good things here for granted…including you. When I got out in the world, I realized that I wasn’t the big fish I’d been at home,” she said and paused to look at Paul. “I was stupid.”
“What happened?” Frustration flowed through his veins. “Tell me how they hurt you.”
Berlin lowered her eyes again. “Just a couple of bad relationships where I found out all I was good for was my body.”
Paul gathered her up in an embrace and smoothed his fingers through her hair. He wanted to beat the hell out of the men for being stupid, blind and callous. “You’ve always been enough for me,” he said calmly. “Flaws and all, I thought you were perfect.”
“You don’t understand,” she cried. “I retreated home to mend my wounds. I wish I could say I came home for you, but it’s not true.” She collapsed in his arms and began to cry again, smearing mascara on his crisp white dress shirt.
”I don’t care what’s true. You’re here now,” he said and cupped her chin in his hand. “I’ve never cared about the stuff you do. I’ve always cared about you.” He brushed away a tear. “I care about the woman inside; the one with the birthmark behind her ear and the faint chicken pox scar on her forehead. That’s the woman who drives me crazy with just a glance.”
“But why? I treated you like dirt,” she whimpered. “You deserve better than me.”
“You deserve to be treated like a decent human being. I always thought you were gorgeous, even without all that makeup and stuff. You have a glow about you that’s disarming and enchanting. All I have to do is think about you and I’m happy. No one ever made me feel like that.”
“Really?” In her eyes, he could see hope blossom.
“You just needed to realize what you had at home,” he said and lowered his lips to hers. The texture of her lips was so soft and inviting. It was meant to be quick, but instead lingered and gained in intensity.
“I never knew you were so smart,” she whispered and kissed him. “I’m glad I do now.”
Paul held her close and hungrily tasted her lips, brushing his tongue over her teeth, devouring her.
I’ve found my other half.
About the Author: I always dreamed of writing the stories in my head. Tall, dark, and handsome heroes are my favorites, as long as he has an independent woman keeping him in line. I tend to write books with titles taken from songs because music is one of my many muses. I earned a BA in education at Kent State university and as well as a Masters in Education from Nova Southeastern University. I've tried my hand at teaching, waitressing, and retail sales, but writing holds my heart. I love NASCAR, romance, books in general, Ohio farmland, dirt racing, and my menagerie of animals. I have six books under contract and more than my brain can handle percolating. I can't wait to share them with you!www.WendiZwaduk.com or http://WendiZwaduk.blogspot.com