Authors: Lisa Watson
“Not without talking to you one last time,” she assured him. “I’m glad you’re home safe and sound.”
“I’m safe, but not sound. I have you to thank for that.”
“I know, but now I have something to remember you by,” Tiffany purred.
“One night soon, I’ll be giving you a lot more to remember me by.”
“I wish it were right now.”
“So do I. I’m sorry work got in the way.”
“It’s okay, Ivan. I understand that sometimes work takes precedence.”
“Yeah, but I’d prefer it wasn’t like that sometimes. You get that, don’t you?”
“Of course. You’re admirable, dedicated to work, sexy as hell, and now...exasperating.”
He chuckled at that. “I’ll make it up to you. That’s a promise.”
They hung up a few minutes later, then Ivan lay on his back with his arms folded behind his head. He was too wired to sleep, but going for a run right now was not on his list of priorities. At the moment, he wanted to remember, in exact detail, every square inch of Tiffany’s body that he had probed, kissed, touched and tasted. There was a lot more territory left undiscovered. He hadn’t even left on assignment yet, and already he was eagerly anticipating his return.
His cell phone rang ten minutes later. When he saw the number, he grimaced.
“Hi, Debra. It’s kind of late to be calling. Are you okay?”
“Hi, Ivan,” she replied. “Yes, I’m okay. I wanted you to know that I received your check this month. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Was that all you needed?” he asked when she remained silent. “It’s late, and I have to get up early.”
“I was hoping we could get together soon and talk?”
“You know, old times. It’s been so lonely here since Brian died. I really miss him,” she said tearfully.
Ivan sighed. “I know. I’m sorry, Debra, but the next few weeks are going to be hectic for me. I don’t think I’ll be able to travel up there, but we do need to talk. There’s another thing I’ve been meaning to discuss with you.”
“Oh?” she said excitedly. “What is it?”
Ivan decided to just plunge right in. He never liked beating around the bush.
“It’s time you evaluated your options, Debra. I know it’s been an extremely difficult time for you, and I agreed to help you through this transition period—”
“Yes, you did, and I’m grateful for your financial help, Ivan. I don’t know what I would have done without it. You’ve been kinder to me than I had any right to expect, all things considered. I want you to know how thankful I am for your kindness.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help, but when I did, we discussed it being a temporary measure to help get you on your feet. Have you been looking for employment?”
“Yes, of course I have. I have a few possibilities lined up, but it’s a slow process. I don’t expect to hear anything for a while, but I’m going to keep looking.”
“To help with that, Debra, I’ve asked a local company that we’ve done business with in the past to give you a call regarding an interview. The job isn’t guaranteed, but they are definitely interested in your coming in for an interview. The rest is up to you. You’ll have another thirty days of financial support from me, but then it will end. My hope is by then you’ll have received good news on the job front and will be starting a new chapter in your life.”
There was a long pause before she said, “Thank you, Ivan. Your support has meant the world to me. You don’t know how much.”
“You’re welcome. Be expecting a call early next week. Let me know if you get the job, and good luck.”
“I...I’ll be sure to do that,” she replied. “Good night, Ivan.”
Ivan said goodbye and hung up. He set the phone down, and then leaned back against the pillows.
Ivan felt good about setting an end date to his helping Debra. He wanted to sever all ties with her before anything cropped up that would cause problems between him and Tiffany. Her happiness was paramount, and though she said she was okay with the help he was extending to Debra, Ivan was smart enough to know that he didn’t want to push his luck. It was his hope that his relationship with Tiffany would continue to progress and move forward.
She represented his future.
Now it was time to bury the past and be done with it.
hy do you have such a problem picking out clothes?” Milán posed the question while she lounged on Tiffany’s bed.
Tiffany glanced over her shoulder. “You’re not helping.”
“It’s a date to go bowling, not a black-and-white ball.”
“I still want to look good,” Tiffany said. She held up two outfits and shook them in front of her.
“The one on the right,” Milán offered.
“You’re wonderful. That was my favorite, too.”
“So tell me again what this is about?”
“A few members of Ivan’s class are on a bowling team. They invited him to play a game after their practice tonight, and he’s invited me to go with him.”
“That’s cute,” Milán replied. “But you don’t bowl, do you?”
“Not really,” Tiffany said from the bathroom, “but it doesn’t matter.”
She reappeared wearing a pair of white denim shorts and the pink Girl Power T-shirt that Ivan had given her. She spun around. “How do I look?”
“Lovely. So are you meeting Ivan there, or is he coming to get you?”
“He’s coming here. He always insists on coming to get me. Ask me how long it’s been since I had to fill up my gas tank. The man is a perfect gentleman. He comes to get me, drives me wherever we’re going, brings me back home and sees me to the door.”
“It sounds as if it’s getting under your skin a bit.”
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate the gestures, but I can do all these things myself. I was doing all of it before we met.”
“Yes, and I recall how much you complained about not being pampered, and having to do it all on your own. You wanted someone to spoil you on occasion and make you feel special—remember?”
“Yes,” Tiffany replied with a frown.
“And he’s giving you just what you asked for. Why are you resisting it? It’s like you’re purposely not allowing yourself to be happy, to just enjoy being with a man who’s so attentive.”
Tiffany flopped into a chair. “Is that what I’m doing?”
Her friend got up and walked over to her. “Honey, this isn’t the first time you’ve mentioned that Ivan being so focused on you is getting under your skin. The question I’m trying to get you to ask yourself is
does it bother you so much? You should give that some thought, Tiff. I’ve got to run. I’m meeting Adrian for dinner.” Milán kissed her cheek. “Have fun tonight, and we’ll talk later, okay?”
“Thanks,” Tiffany said absentmindedly.
She was sitting in the same spot when her doorbell rang minutes later. She stood up and checked her reflection in the mirror, pasted on a big smile and went to answer the door.
* * *
Bowling with Ivan and the group from class was more fun than Tiffany had imagined. She was not good at it, but with Ivan’s coaching and the support from her teammates, she got her first strike five frames into their first game. When they fell, Tiffany screamed with excitement and did a little dance.
“Is that your happy dance?” Ivan laughed.
She spun around a final time before pointing to the scoreboard. “I’m above thirty now,” she said triumphantly.
“Way to go,” he said supportively. “You’re improving.”
“Hey, let me take your picture,” Gladys said.
Ivan pulled Tiffany to his side while the elderly woman took their picture with her cell phone.
She glanced up at them afterward and said, “I’m taking another one. You two are too boring. Come on, Ivan, get in close and give your woman a smooch!”
He bent down to kiss Tiffany. She wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned into him.
“That’s better,” Gladys said. “Would you like me to email it to you?”
Ivan’s eyes widened. “You know how to do that?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course I do. My grandkids gave me an iPhone for my birthday, and they’ve been showing me all sorts of stuff. Next week they’re teaching me something called “Just Dance.” Like I don’t know how to dance already.”
“Hi.” A man came upon the group. “I’m Charles Waters. I work for
magazine.” He handed Ivan his card. “Do you have a minute?”
“Sure,” Ivan replied.
“I write an online column and get a lot of followers on my social media sites who are interested in community issues. Colonel Mangum, I heard from a very reliable source that you donate your time and money to help out community-center patrons by teaching self-defense classes and that you’ve also supported local businesses in our area by installing security systems.”
Ivan’s eyebrows rose higher. “A reliable source?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve also heard that your company donates time and money to global and local charities. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a few questions and take some pictures?”
Looking decidedly uncomfortable, Ivan seemed about to say no when Tiffany whispered into his hear to remind him of the seniors who were mulling around with excitement.
“They want this for you, Ivan. Just say yes.”
“I don’t need to draw attention to myself,” he whispered, and then smiled at the crowd. “I enjoy what I do,” he continued in a subdued voice. “I want to help my community where I can. Nothing more.”
“I know,” she murmured, “but it’s obvious someone must’ve placed a bug in the reporter’s ear. You’ll disappoint them if you say no.”
He glanced around for a moment, and then said yes. A round of cheers went up, and the group buzzed around the table where Ivan was being interviewed.
Charles took a few minutes to ask Ivan and Tiffany some questions, then he turned to a few members of the Ivan’s class before following up with a few digital pictures.
“I’ll have these up in a few days, and I’ll email you both the link to the magazine and my social media sites.”
“Great,” Ivan replied. “I’ll have my community-outreach team add them to my company’s website, as well.”
“Thanks again,” Charles said. Suddenly he leaned forward. “I’m not supposed to tell, but my grandmother is friends with one of your students, and she insisted that I interview you. She couldn’t sing your praises enough, and now I can see why. What you both do is important to our seniors and our community.”
“It’s our pleasure,” Ivan said sincerely.
“Yes, it is. I know I’ve enjoyed being Ivan’s assistant. It’s a great feeling to empower others to have confidence in their abilities and feel safe,” Tiffany added.
He shook Ivan’s and Tiffany’s hands and then left.
“That was fun,” she said to Ivan.
“It actually was,” he admitted. He leaned in and kissed her. “Thanks for insisting I do the interview. I was surprised how much fun it was, and you’re right, our group really did enjoy it.”
“Oh, yeah? I think I’m ready to bring the pain, Mangum.”
A loud rumble echoed around their lane as everyone resumed their bowling match.
* * *
“What happened to bringing the pain?” he asked Tiffany that night on the phone. “I’ve just loaded up the pictures so now all our friends will know how bad I kicked your heinie in bowling.”
“Hey, I broke seventy so I’m happy.”
“That’s true, you did. The only person who did worse than you was the guy who had a cast on, and he wasn’t even playing.”
Tiffany gasped. “Hey, I was kicking butt and you know it. I won for best improved, didn’t I?”
“That’s because everyone felt sorry for you.”
“That may be true,” she said with a chuckle. “I had a great time tonight, Ivan. Thanks for taking me.”
“You’re welcome, and it was my pleasure. It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten out and just enjoyed myself like that. It was nice.”
“I agree. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day that you forget to go out and just enjoy yourself sometimes. You know, throw caution to the wind and just act silly and not care who sees you, or what other people think.”
“Well, I’d say we did that in spades tonight,” Ivan added.
“Yes, we did.”
“I’m looking forward to our date.”
Tiffany smiled. “Me, too.”
They spoke on the phone a few more minutes, and then said goodbye.
After Ivan hung up, he glanced at his cell phone. He had loaded their pictures on his social networking sites, and he checked out the comments. He smiled. He felt incredibly happy when they were out together, and he always looked forward to seeing her. He was truly dreading his business trip, but he had decided to get Tiffany something beautiful for her birthday while he was gone.
He had not thought about what he would do for her yet, but he knew it would be special.
His last thoughts before drifting off to sleep were of Tiffany—what he was going to get her for her birthday, and what he planned on doing with the leftover icing.
* * *
How was she going to survive a week without Ivan? Tiffany asked herself this question a dozen times.
He had lit a fire in her over the past few days, and it wasn’t about to be extinguished by some sexy promises made during their late-night conversations. She wanted all of him, and this time nothing short of them consummating their feelings would do.
Just then Tiffany’s cell phone rang. She picked it up and looked at the screen. Blocked.
Normally those types of calls meant an annoying telemarketer, or someone trying not to be traced. “Hello?”
There was a stretch of silence, followed by a loud click in her ear.
“Strange,” she said into the phone before hanging up.
Tiffany made it till about four o’clock before she told Celeste that she was heading home. As she drove, she noticed storm clouds moving in. It was sunny for the moment, so she put her windows down and cranked up the music. While she was jamming, her Bluetooth kicked in and she heard her phone ringing. She turned the music down and answered.
“Hi, Ms. Jeannie. How are you?”
“Running around like a fox in a henhouse. I’ve got so many things to wrap up before Saturday.”
“Anything I can help you with?”
“No, dear, I’ve got my family on party detail. They aren’t happy, but they’ll get over it.”
“I’ll be there early on Saturday to help out,” Tiffany assured her.
“Ivan called to tell me that he won’t be able to make it. He said he’s got to go out of town, but then you knew that, didn’t you?”
Warning bells were clamoring in Tiffany’s head. She had to tread carefully. “Yes, he did mention it the last time I saw him.”
Just recalling their last encounter had her fidgeting in her seat.
“Cliff, it doesn’t go there,” Norma Jean yelled. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to run dear, before my husband breaks something. I’ll see you on Saturday. And be early. I’ve got some great things lined up.”
“Will do,” she promised before ending the call.
Tiffany wondered if Norma Jean suspected anything. She brushed that fear aside. One thing was certain—Jeannie did not do subtle. It wasn’t in her nature.
When Tiffany got home, she sprang into action. She wanted to look her best for Ivan’s last night in town. She chose a sensual, floral body lotion and a dress guaranteed to drive him crazy.
A while ago she had purchased a silky, violet-blue, spaghetti-strap dress with a diamond-shaped cutout in the middle of her back. It exposed a fair amount of skin without being too overwhelming. Tiffany felt it was the perfect night to christen it. She picked a pair of silver, jewel-studded sandals to go with it. For her hair, she chose a softer, sleek look and shimmering violet-tinted lip gloss. She was putting on her silver teardrop earrings when the doorbell rang. She glanced at the clock on her nightstand. It was seven o’clock on the dot. Excitement fluttered within her. “Right on time,” she said aloud.
When she opened the door, Ivan’s eyes devoured her. His stunned expression was all the validation she needed. She felt like a knockout.
Ivan scanned her entire body again before he spoke. “You’re stunning. I feel like it’s my birthday—and you’re my gift.”
She beamed. “You haven’t seen the full view.” She turned around to show him the back, and felt ultra sexy when he whistled appreciatively.
“You’re wearing the hell out of that dress, Miss Gentry.”
“Thank you, Colonel Mangum.”
* * *
While Ivan drove, they discussed the details of his trip.
“I’ll print out a copy of my itinerary for you,” he told her. “Right now, it’s looking like I’ll just be gone a week.”
“You think that’ll change?”
“It might, depending on my client’s schedule. I’m at his disposal.”
She nodded. “Ms. Jeannie called me earlier. She wasn’t thrilled you aren’t coming, but I told her I’d get there early to help out.” Tiffany stared out the window. “Ivan, where do you live?” She laughed. “You’ve been driving almost thirty minutes. I don’t know why, but I just assumed you lived closer to downtown.”
“My parents’ house is in Beverly. I had an apartment in town, but I gave it up when I decided to spend the summer helping Cole renovate some stuff in the house and keep an eye on GiGi,” he told her.
A few minutes later, they pulled into the circular driveway and he shut off the engine. “We’re here.”
Tiffany’s mouth dropped open. “
is your home?”
He walked around and opened her door to help her out.
She stared up the stone steps. From there she saw a landing of large slate tiles, and on it a pair of black wrought-iron chairs with a small table between them.
Tiffany turned to him. “It’s a mini stone castle,” she exclaimed, glancing around the heavily wooded lot. “I didn’t know they had hills in Chicago. Ivan, this place is gorgeous. How big is this thing, anyway?”
Ivan slipped her hand in his and guided her toward the stairs. “Only seven thousand square feet.”
“Only? My loft could fit into this thing several times. You must feel claustrophobic coming to my house.”
“Not really.” He kissed her. “Actually, I’m quite content in it, especially in your fourteen-by-twenty-square-foot bedroom.”
She smiled. “You’re ridiculous.”
He unlocked the front door, and they went in. “Welcome to Mangum Manor,” he said in his best Count Dracula voice. “Come on, I’ll give you a tour.”
The house had arched doorways, and they all led off the main foyer. A living room was on the left with six windows on each side of the room that let in loads of natural light. The fireplace had a five-pillar wrought-iron holder with cream-colored candles. The floor was hardwood, and there were wood beams spaced across the high ceilings. The furniture was neutral, and there was a large colorful area rug, plus paintings and accessories that introduced color into the room.