Taming Natasha Page 8

“You wouldn’t want your mother to be mad at me, would you?”

Scott looked thoughtful for a moment, and Natasha could tell it was a tough choice. “I guess not.”

“Then go ask her, and I’ll hold one for you.”

Hope blossomed. “Promise?”

Natasha put a hand on her heart. “Solemnly.” She looked back at Spence, and the amusement faded from her eyes. “I hope Freddie enjoys her present.”

“I’m sure she will.” He walked out, annoyed with himself for wishing he were a ten-year-old boy with a missing tooth.

Natasha locked the shop at six. The sun was still bright, the air still steamy. It made her think of picnics under a shady tree. A nicer fantasy than the microwave meal on her agenda, she mused, but at the moment impractical.

As she walked home, she watched a couple stroll hand in hand into the restaurant across the street. Someone hailed her from a passing car, and she waved in response. She could have stopped in the local pub and whiled away an hour over a glass of wine with any number of people she knew. Finding a dinner companion was as simple as sticking her head through one of a dozen doors and making the suggestion.

She wasn’t in the mood for company. Not even her own.

It was the heat, she told herself as she turned the corner, the heat that had hung mercilessly in the air throughout the summer and showed no sign of yielding to autumn. It made her restless. It made her remember.

It had been summer when her life had changed so irrevocably.

Even now, years later, sometimes when she saw the roses in full bloom or heard the drunken buzz of bees she would ache. And wonder what might have happened. What would her life be like now, if…? She detested herself for playing those wishing games.

There were roses now, fragile pink ones that thrived despite the heat and lack of rain. She had planted them herself in the little patch of grass outside her apartment. Tending them brought her pleasure and pain. And what was life, she asked herself as she ran a fingertip over a petal, without them both? The warm scent of the roses followed her up the walkway.

Her rooms were quiet. She had thought about getting a kitten or a pup, so that there would be something there to greet her in the evening, something that loved and depended on her. But then she realized how unfair it would be to leave it alone while she was at the shop.

So she turned to music, flicking on the stereo as she stepped out of her shoes. Even that was a test. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. She could see herself dancing to those haunting, romantic strains, the hot lights surrounding her, the music beating like her blood, her movements fluid, controlled without looking it. A triple pirouette, showing grace without effort.

That was past, Natasha reminded herself. Regrets were for the weak.

She moved out of habit, changing her work clothes for a loose, sleeveless jumpsuit, hanging up her skirt and blouse neatly as she had been taught. It was habit again rather than necessity that had her checking the cotton skirt for wear.

There was iced tea in the refrigerator and one of those packaged meals for the microwave that she both depended on and detested. She laughed at herself as she pushed the buttons to heat it.

She was getting like an old woman, Natasha decided, cranky and cross from the heat. Sighing, she rubbed the cold glass over her forehead.

That man had started her off, she thought. For a few moments in the shop today she had actually started to like him. He’d been so sweet, worrying about his little girl, wanting to reward her for being brave enough to face that momentous first day in school. She’d liked the way his voice had sounded, the way his eyes had smiled. For those few moments he had seemed like someone she could laugh with, talk with.

Then that had changed. A part of it was surely her fault, she admitted. But that didn’t diminish his blame. She had felt something she hadn’t felt, hadn’t chosen to feel in a long, long time. That frisson of excitement. That tug of need. It made her angry and ashamed of herself. It made her furious with him.

The nerve, she thought, as she yanked her dish out of the microwave. Flirting with her as if she were some naive fool, before he went home to his wife and daughter.

Have dinner with him, indeed. She jammed her fork into the steaming seafood pasta. That kind of man expected payment in full for a meal. The candlelight and wine type, she thought with a sneer. Soft voice, patient eyes, clever hands. And no heart.

Just like Anthony. Impatient, she set the dish aside and picked up the glass that was already dripping with moisture. But she was wiser now than she had been at eighteen. Much wiser. Much stronger. She was no longer a woman who could be lured by charm and smooth words. Not that this man was smooth, she remembered with a quick smile. He— Lord, she didn’t even know his name and she already detested him—he was a little clumsy, a little awkward. That was a charm of its own.

But he was, she thought, very much like Anthony. Tall and blond with those oh, so American good looks. Looks that concealed a lack of morals and a carelessly deceitful heart.

What Anthony had cost her could never be tallied. Since that time, Natasha had made very, very certain no man would ever cost her so dearly again.

But she had survived. She lifted her glass in a self-toast. Not only had she survived, but except for times when memories crowded in on her, she was happy. She loved the shop, and the chance it gave her to be around children and make them happy. In her three years there she had watched them grow. She had a wonderful, funny friend in Annie, books that stayed in the black and a home that suited her.

She heard a thump over her head and smiled. The Jorgensons were getting ready for the evening meal. She imagined Don was fussing around Marilyn, who was carrying their first child. Natasha liked knowing they were there, just above her, happy, in love and full of hope.

That was family to her, what she had had in her youth, what she had expected as an adult. She could still see Papa fretting over Mama when she neared her time. Every time, Natasha remembered, thinking of her three younger siblings. How he had wept with happiness when his wife and babies were safe and well. He adored his Nadia. Even now Natasha knew he still brought flowers home to the little house in Brooklyn. When he came home after a day’s work, he kissed his wife, not with an absent peck on the cheek, but robustly, joyfully. A man wildly in love after almost thirty years.

It was her father who had kept her from shoveling all men into the pit Anthony had dug for her. Seeing her father and mother together had kept that small, secret hope alight that someday she would find someone who would love her as much and as honestly.

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