Taming Natasha Page 32

“Oh, a lot longer than we can.”

“You’re such a comfort.”

“We’ll have them play games now. You’ll be surprised how quickly two hours can pass.”

She was right. By the time the numbered noses had all been stuck in the vicinity of the pumpkin head, when musical chairs was only a fond memory, after the costume parade and judging, when the last apple bobbed alone and the final clothespin had clunked into a mason jar, parents began to trail in to gather up their reluctant Frankensteins and ghoulies. But the fun wasn’t over.

In groups and clutches, trick-or-treaters canvassed the neighborhood for candy bars and caramel apples. The wind-rushed night and crackling leaves were things they would remember long after the last chocolate drop had been consumed.

It was nearly ten before Spence managed to tuck an exhausted and thrilled Freddie into bed. “It was the best birthday I ever had,” she told him. “I’m glad I got the chicken pox.”

Spence rubbed a finger over a smeared orange freckle the cold cream had missed. “I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I’m glad you had fun.”

“Can I have—?”

“No.” He kissed her nose. “If you eat one more piece of candy you’ll blow up.”

She giggled, and because she was too tired to try any strategy, snuggled into her pillow. Memories were already swirling in her head. “Next year I want to be a gypsy like Tash. Okay?”

“Sure. Go to sleep now. I’m going to take Natasha home, but Vera’s here.”

“Are you going to marry Tash soon, so she can stay with us?”

Spence opened his mouth, then closed it again as Freddie yawned hugely. “Where do you get these ideas?” he muttered.

“How long does it take to get a baby sister?” she asked as she drifted off.

Spence rubbed a hand over his face, grateful that she had fallen asleep and saved him from answering.

Downstairs he found Natasha cleaning up the worst of the mess. She flicked back her hair as he came in. “When it looks as bad as this, you know you’ve had a successful party.” Something in his expression had her narrowing her eyes. “Is something wrong?”

“No. No, it’s Freddie.”

“She has a tummy ache,” Natasha said, instantly sympathetic.

“Not yet.” He shrugged it off with a half laugh. “She always manages to surprise me. Don’t,” he said and took the trash bag from her. “You’ve done enough.”

“I don’t mind.”

“I know.”

Before he could take her hand, she linked her own. “I should be going. Tomorrow’s Saturday—our busiest day.”

He wondered what it would be like if they could simply walk upstairs together, into his bedroom. Into his bed. “I’ll take you home.”

“That’s all right. You don’t have to.”

“I’d like to.” The tension was back. Their eyes met, and he understood that she felt it as well. “Are you tired?”

“No.” It was time for some truths, she knew. He had done what she’d asked and been only Freddie’s father during the party. Now the party was over. But not the night.

“Would you like to walk?”

The corners of her lips turned up, then she put her hand into his. “Yes. I would.”

It was colder now, with a bite in the air warning of winter. Above, the moon was full and chillingly white. Clouds danced over it, sending shadows shifting. Over the rustle of leaves they heard the echoing shouts and laughter of lingering trick-or-treaters. Inevitably the big oak on the corner had been wrapped in bathroom tissue by teenagers.

“I love this time,” Natasha murmured. “Especially at night when there’s a little wind. You can smell smoke from the chimneys.”

On the main street, older children and college students still stalked in fright masks and painted faces. A poor imitation of a wolf howl bounced along the storefronts, followed by a feminine squeal and laughter. A car full of ghouls paused long enough for them to lean out the windows and screech.

Spence watched the car turn a corner, its passengers still howling. “I can’t remember being anywhere that Halloween was taken so seriously.”

“Wait until you see what happens at Christmas.”

Natasha’s own pumpkin was glowing on her stoop beside a bowl half-filled with candy bars. There was a sign on her door. Take Only One. Or Else.

Spence shook his head at it. “That really does it?”

Natasha merely glanced at the sign. “They know me.”

Leaning over, Spence plucked one. “Can I have a brandy to go with it?”

She hesitated. If she let him come in, it was inevitable that they would pick up where the earlier kiss had left off. It had been two months, she thought, two months of wondering, of stalling, of pretending. They both knew it had to stop sooner or later.

“Of course.” She opened the door and let him in.

Wound tight, she went into the kitchen to pour drinks. It was yes or it was no, she told herself. She had known the answer long before this night, even prepared for it. But what would it be like with him? What would she be like? And how, when she had shared herself with him in that most private way, would she be able to pretend she didn’t need more?

Couldn’t need more, Natasha reminded herself. Whatever her feelings for him, and they were deeper, much deeper than she dared admit, life had to continue as it was. No promises, no vows. No broken hearts.

He turned when she came back into the room, but didn’t speak. His own thoughts were mixed and confused. What did he want? Her, certainly. But how much, how little could he accept? He’d been sure he’d never feel this way again. More than sure that he would never want to. Yet it seemed so easy to feel, every time he looked at her.

“Thanks.” He took the brandy, watching her as he sipped. “You know, the first time I lectured, I stood at the podium and my mind went completely blank. For one terrible moment I couldn’t think of anything I’d planned to say. I’m having exactly the same problem now.”

“You don’t have to say anything.”

“It’s not as easy as I thought it would be.” He took her hand, surprised to find it cold and unsteady. Instinctively he lifted it to press his lips to the palm. It helped, knowing she was as nervous as he. “I don’t want to frighten you.”

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