Authors: Teresa Carpenter
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
She opened her eyes, drew in a breath, and saw the door still stood open behind them.
“You should come inside,” she urged him while moving backward. Her fingers went to his shirt buttons. He took one step forward.
sent Amanda’s pulse skittering.
And Xavier’s phone rang.
They both froze. And then Xavier reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his cell. He read the display and regret darkened his eyes when he looked back at her.
“I must return to the event.” He confirmed what she had already guessed.
She let her head drop to his chest, felt the rapid beat of his heart against her forehead. The evidence of his excitement, knowing he’d been as caught up as she had, helped to offset the frustration of being interrupted.
He lifted her chin on the edge of his hand. “I am sorry.”
“Don’t be.” She smiled ruefully. “You told me you couldn’t stay.”
He kissed her hard before stepping over to the door. “Remember where we were.”
“Oh, I will,” she promised, following him, watching until he reached the stairs. He waved. She waved. He paused. She waited. He pointed to her apartment and she realized he wanted her to go inside and lock up. She complied, closing the door and leaning back against it. “And next time I’m disabling your phone first.”
* * *
As days so often did in San Francisco, Thursday started out as overcast and gloomy, but the morning news said the sun was expected out later.
Amanda had agreed to join Xavier at his hotel for breakfast so she hopped on the Bart. He was waiting for her in the lobby of the Fairmont when she arrived. It was a beautiful old hotel, elegant with a coolly chic décor blending comfort and tradition
He looked right at home in crisp jeans, a short-sleeved red polo shirt, a black leather jacket and high-end sport shoes. She’d advised him to wear comfortable clothes with layers and shoes with a good grip for their trip to the island.
She’d chosen to pair her black jeans with a cream mock cowl sweater over a lavender turtleneck.
“Good morning.” Xavier greeted her with a kiss. “You look beautiful this morning.”
“You look pretty good yourself.”
He ushered her toward the restaurant. “Are you sure we have time for a meal?”
“Yes. It’s just eight and our tour isn’t until eleven. As long as we’re at Pier 33 by ten, we’re good.”
“Excellent, because I am famished.”
“Then let’s eat.” She stepped up to the Maître d’ and they were soon seated in comfortable cream tufted chairs at a table overlooking the lobby. Xavier asked for her preferences and then ordered for the both of them.
“How are you this morning?” he asked. “Did you hear from your grandmother?”
“No, but I didn’t expect to. Apologies don’t come easily to her.” She ducked her head, forced herself to face the truth. “Who am I kidding?” She swallowed hard to dislodge the lump forming in her throat. “She’s the one expecting an apology.”
His hand covered hers on the table.
“Are you sorry for standing up for yourself?” he asked quietly.
It took two seconds for her to answer. “No.” Her self-respect demanded no other response. “I love my grandparents, but I must admit I’m enjoying my freedom from them.”
The waiter arrived with their food. He set a full breakfast of steak and eggs before Xavier and a yogurt parfait and bowl of fruit in front of her.
“Freedom.” Xavier returned to their conversation. “An interesting choice of words. Tell me about your childhood.”
She picked up her spoon, poked at her parfait. “My friends say it was the strictest childhood in the history of California. And that’s saying a lot because Michelle—you met her that first night at the museum—her dad was a sheriff and very protective.”
“Hmm. I would not take her for a policeman’s daughter.”
“Right.” His assessment confirmed her faith in his ability to read people. “She was a bit of a rebel. Anyway, my grandparents are both professors at Hunt College, a small, prestigious university, steeped in tradition. We practically lived on campus.”
“A contained environment.” He reached for the marmalade for his toast, and she took a bite of her yogurt, enjoying the tang and crunchiness of the creamy concoction.
“Yes. But strict was what I knew and I wasn’t a rebel, so, I didn’t buck the system much. The tough part was they made it clear my behavior reflected on their reputations. It was more effective than a leash. Gossip in a small college community is second to none. I felt I couldn’t do anything for fear of it getting back to them.”
“And to the Dean, and college council.”
“Exactly. So I had limited independence, and when I did get to go out, I felt as if I were living in a fishbowl. And unfortunately my grandparents weren’t very sympathetic.”
“In other words you paid for your mother’s sins.”
“They miss her so much. And it’s not that I want to replace her—but it’s been clear to me for a long time that they’ll never feel for me what they did for her.”
“Amanda, you cannot blame yourself for their short-sightedness. You are a beautiful, intelligent, loving woman. I have always been taught that love is limitless. Mine is a large family, and each new member just expands the love we have for one another.”
“That sounds wonderful,” she said wistfully.
He bowed his head in acknowledgement. “Yes, but my point is your grandparents suffered a loss they cannot get past. It appears to me they were not particularly demonstrative people to begin with and losing their daughter stole their ability to expand their affections beyond that loss.”
Amanda pushed her half-finished meal aside as tears threatened. He was so understanding, she found herself getting deeper into her psyche than she ever had before.
“I’m coming to realize that I love my grandparents, but I don’t really like them.” It hurt to say the words aloud. And she immediately looked around to make sure neither of her grandparents or any friends or foes were nearby to hear her.
Xavier squeezed her hand drawing her attention back to him. She turned her hand in his, lacing their fingers together. She felt safe talking to him in ways she didn’t even feel she could talk to Michelle and Elle.
“Those are valid feelings,” he assured her. “But are you okay with it?”
“Yes and no,” she admitted. “I have to be because I can’t change my feelings. But they are my only family and unfortunately I only see us growing further apart, not closer. Especially if they can’t respect my choices.”
He frowned and she saw the turmoil in his eyes before he turned his head to look over the lobby and the nameless people coming and going. It touched her that he took her feelings so much to heart.
“Have you found no mention of your father in your mother’s journals?”
“Ha.” She gave a surprised laugh, the moment shocking her out of her funk. “I forgot I told you about the diaries. And yes, he’s definitely in there, but with no name. She calls him her prince.”
He choked on a sip of water.
“Oh.” She handed him his napkin. “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” He coughed, sipped again, and pinned her with a disbelieving gaze. “Her prince?”
“I know, corny, huh. Obviously the romance and medieval ambiance of Europe got to her.”
He wiped his mouth. “Obviously.”
She bit her lip, and decided she’d bored him long enough with her problems.
“Goodness, it’s nearly nine-thirty. We should get going.”
* * *
Wanting to give him the full San Francisco experience, Amanda chose to hop on the cable car just outside his hotel and then walk the short distance to catch the street car for a ride to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 33, where they’d board the ferry.
On the ferry Xavier pulled her to a spot on the rail. “I want to see the approach of the island and the view of San Francisco from the boat.”
“Okay. But it’s going to be cold,” she warned him.
“I can see the island just there.” He pointed out in the bay. “It cannot be a long trip.”
“About fifteen minutes.”
“Then do not worry. I will keep you warm.” He pulled her in front of him, tucked her inside his jacket and wrapped his arms around her. “Comfortable?”
Oh yeah. The man gave off heat like a bonfire. And his nearness caused her internal temperature to spike, too. At this rate she’d be peeling off layers before she reached hard ground. Or maybe not. A little sweat never hurt a girl when the reward was staying in the safe haven of a handsome man’s arms. Xavier’s arms.
“Yes,” she assured him, kissing his cheek. My, he smelled good—a combination of a woodsy cologne and clean male. It made her knees weak every time she got close enough to touch.
She loved that he was a gentleman, that he cared about her reputation and rushing into a short-term affair. But she’d weighed the options and made her decision. She didn’t want to look back and have regrets, she wanted to look back and smile at the unbelievable memories she’d made. Because she believed getting her some Xavier was going to blow her mind.
Learning from her mother’s mistake, Amanda took precautions earlier in the week by buying condoms and calling her doctor for a renewal of her birth control pills.
The engines roared as the ferry began to move away from the pier.
She felt his mouth against her hair and snuggled into the cozy warmth of his embrace. Too bad the trip wasn’t longer.
The weather wasn’t much better on the island, but they got out of the wind to view the orientation video. And then they were too caught up in the history to care.
Xavier really got into the tour. After listening to the audio tour, he found the rangers and drew additional information from them. He found the island’s military history as fascinating as its prison history, including its role in the Civil War.
Luckily she found it all interesting and was able to add a few tidbits she’d learned from previous trips to The Rock.
Halfway through the day she got a text from Elle saying she was in town and may be able to be free for dinner. She’d let them know by six. Amanda sent an acknowledgement and saw Michelle also responded.
Amanda hadn’t included dinner in their plans, but she was hoping Xavier would want to continue the day together. She loved the thought of dinner with her best friends, their men and Xavier. She had the feeling he’d get along great with Nate and Max.
The day flew by as they tromped all over the island, hand in hand, exploring the lighthouse and the exercise yard, and then walking back to the ferry past the family housing and the guard tower.
She took joy in seeing him revel in her gift. She took more joy in the closeness that grew even stronger between them. She liked that he reached for her hand as often as she reached for his.
* * *
Breakfast was a faint memory by the time the ferry returned them to Fisherman’s Wharf a little after three. Chilled after the ride on the water, with sore feet and a growling stomach—the sun had not made its forecasted appearance, in fact dark clouds had descended on the city—Amanda wanted out of the elements, to sit down, and food, in that order.
Luckily Fisherman’s Wharf offered plenty of options. She chose a cafe that looked out over the water and offered a lovely fish stew.
Xavier refused to let her pay for breakfast, or even go Dutch. So she told him that lunch was a part of the day out.
“Do not even think of telling me no.” She shook her finger at him when he got that I-am-male-therefore-I-must-pay look on his face. “One thing my grandparents weren’t is stingy. They gave me a good allowance, that I had nowhere to spend, and a healthy college fund that I didn’t have to pay out because my fees were waived at Hunt. I can afford to buy you lunch.”
“I would never be so rude as to question your finances. It is a matter of how I was raised. My mother has standards in these matters that she expects her son to adhere to, and paying for the date is one of her unbreakable rules.”
A perky blond hostess greeted them and saw them to a table for two. She took their drink order and left them with menus.
“The more I hear about your mother, the more I like her. She sounds like a strong woman.”
“She is the heart of our family. My sister and I adore her.”
“And your father?” Coffee was delivered to the table and Amanda thanked the waitress and gratefully wrapped her hands around the mug. She ordered the stew with sourdough bread and Xavier chose crab cakes served over rice with a sherry-cream sauce.
“They were childhood sweethearts.” He answered once they were alone again. “Both are strong on their own, but they are stronger together. Mom says it is because they grew up together. I cannot imagine them apart.”
“That sounds nice. Solid.”
“It was a great childhood,” he agreed. “My father would do anything for my mother. He gave up a prestigious assignment with the Prince when mom had a hysterectomy eight years ago. This delayed his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel a few years. I asked him if he ever regretted his decision, but he said no. She was more important to him than his career.”
“That’s a powerful love.”
“Yes. It could be difficult for a kid when they united against you. It was much easier when we could play one against the other. Unfortunately it did not happen often.”
“Ouch.” She winced for him, though it was clear he loved his family. A total soldier, he rarely gave anything away with his expression, but it was all there in the warmth of his eyes and in the way he spoke of them.
He nodded. And then leaned back to make room for the food. “This smells good.”
“What about you,” she finally gave into curiosity, “have you ever been married? Ever come close?”
“No.” He spread his hands in front of him and shook his head, the expression in his eyes cloaked once again. “There was a girl from my neighborhood I dated intermittently through school and while I did my officer training.”
“That probably made your mother happy.”
“Very.” He shrugged and for the first time the gesture had a Gaelic feel to it. “Which is probably why I persevered for so long. I wanted to love her, to have what my parents have. In the end that is what kept me from marriage. I did not feel for her what my father felt for my mother.”
“How did you gauge that? I imagine love to be very personal between two people. Your relationship will be very different from your parents’.”