Lucas was standing on a ladder, running wiring to the center of a dining room ceiling to hang a chandelier, when his cell phone rang. He pulled it from his pocket and glanced at the caller I.D. Mariah.
He gripped the top of the ladder with his free hand. He hadn’t heard from her for months. Was she okay? Had something happened? He tried to steady his voice. “Hey, how’s it going?”
His heart sped up at the sound of her. “I’m in town. Thought I’d give you a call. I’ll have everything finished by five. If you’re free, it would be fun to meet at the Gas House for supper.”
His grip tightened until his knuckles turned white. Why hadn’t she called ahead, given him a warning? Did he want to see her? All he’d thought about was her when she left, and he’d finally gotten past that. He only thought about her once in a great while now. He hedged. “How long will you be in town?”
“Tonight and early tomorrow. I catch a plane tomorrow night.”
If he made an excuse and missed her, she’d be gone. Out of his life again. And no old feelings would get stirred up.
“I really want to see you,” she said. “For old times’ sake?”
He didn’t put a sugar coating on it. “I’m finally over you.”
“That’s what I want to talk about.”
Oh, hell. “Not much has changed. I still want to be here, and you want to be somewhere else.”
She laughed. “You’re big and strong. Meet me at the Gas House and we’ll talk.”
He’d feel like a monster if he said no. “Six?”
“Be there or be square.” She hung up. She always used to say that when he didn’t want to go someplace and she did. It brought back memories. How many times had he attended dinners and functions he had no interest in to please her? He frowned. How many times did she pass on getting together with his family to please him?
He jammed his phone back in his pocket and made himself concentrate on the job at hand. Part of him couldn’t wait to see her again. Had she changed? Was she as beautiful as always? Kelli was every bit as stunning. And then he thought of Randie with her wild copper hair and creamy complexion. Not stunning, but mesmerizing. He bet she and the male teacher who always came out to stand next to her while kids exited the building had a thing going on. Who could work with her every day and not be tempted?
She kept saying no men, but she seemed pretty cozy with him.
He shook his head and pushed thoughts of women out of his mind. Better to stay the course he’d chosen. Women only made things complicated. He’d work and watch Dulcey’s kids until the New Year. Then, if he was feeling lucky and the stars shone on him, he might dip his toes in the dating pool again.
He installed three more ceiling lights before the end of the day. Then he drove home to change before meeting Mariah. She’d be dressed and glamorous for her job, and he didn’t want to look like a country bumpkin. He dressed in gray slacks and a black V-neck, lightweight sweater over a gray shirt. She’d always loved it when he dressed up. Why not go for broke tonight? And then he drove to the restaurant.
The Gas House sat on the corner of two busy streets downtown. The food was wonderful. People thronged it on weekends. Patrons crowded tables tonight, but when Lucas walked to look in the dining room, he spotted Mariah right away. Her platinum-blonde hair always set her apart. He started toward her when he noticed Randie sitting at a corner table with an older couple who must be her parents and an even older woman who must be her grandma. He walked over to say hello to them before joining Mariah.
Randie bit her bottom lip. “We keep running into each other.”
She didn’t sound happy about it. He grinned. “I’ve been stalking you, haven’t you noticed?”
She blushed. It was easy to make her uncomfortable. “I’ve never seen you here before.”
“Is that a good thing?”
Her green eyes shot fire.
He glanced at the people at her table. “I’m assuming this is your family? Hi. I’m Lucas Cainer. Miss Doore is my nephew’s first grade teacher.”
Gram licked her lips. He felt like an appetizer that excited her. “Randie told us how kind you are, teaming up with your brothers so that your sister can care for her father-in-law.”
He glanced at Mariah, and she was beginning to look annoyed. “I have to go. I’m meeting a friend for supper, but it was nice meeting you.”
Randie’s shoulders relaxed, but he could feel her gaze on his back as he went to join Mariah. Good. She must be a little curious.
Mariah beamed up at him. “You’re more handsome than when I left.”
He laughed. “I tipped over the big 3-0. I’m getting older.”
“You’re always going to turn heads.”
“So will you.” She wore snug black slacks, a red, silky blouse, and red heels. She knew how to put the glam into glamour.
“That was a pretty girl you were talking to.” She took a sip of the wine she’d ordered.
“Miss Doore.” The waitress came and he ordered a rum and Coke. “She’s Jordy’s first grade teacher. I pick him up every Friday night until Dulcey gets home.”
She frowned. “Where’s Dulcey?”
They hadn’t kept in touch. She wouldn’t know, so he explained. When he finished, Mariah blinked. “So, you’re babysitting your sister’s kids?”
“Friday nights and Sundays. They still think I’m a cool uncle, so it’s been fun.”
“If you say so.”
The waitress returned with his drink, and they ordered. She chose crab cakes, as usual. He ordered the brisket sandwich, and she blinked at him. “You always ordered steak when we came here.”
He shrugged. “I’ve gotten really good at grilling them, so I go for things I won’t cook at home when I go out.”
“Do you cook a lot now?”
“I invite my brothers over every other weekend. I’m no gourmet, but they haven’t turned down anything I put in front of them.”
She pursed her lips, looking pensive. “I lived with someone for a few months, but it didn’t work out. He liked to cook, but he wasn’t very good at it.”
“He’ll learn. It takes time and experience.”
She reached across the table and put her hand over his. “I miss you.”
“It took you a while.”
She grimaced. “At first, I was all pumped because I had a new job, a promotion. But I’ve met a few men, and none of them are like you. It’s going to be hard to find a man as good as you.”
Their salads came and Lucas took a bite of his. She didn’t. She sat there, watching him. He put down his fork and sighed. “There are lots of good men out there. Maybe you should try looking in different places. I’m blue collar, remember? Maybe you should look for someone in the trades.”
“Or maybe I should move to the Midwest and see if we can compromise.”
“Do you travel a lot with your job?”
She started talking work and didn’t stop. It was always like that. Once she started telling him about her latest client, her newest campaign, the words flowed. He let her talk all through their meal, making a small comment here or there. While he listened to her, he realized he was bored. He didn’t care about client A or if she lost client B. She finally stopped and stared at him. “You did that on purpose so that we wouldn’t talk about anything serious while we ate.”
“I wanted to enjoy my food.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “You weren’t one bit interested, were you?”
“I used to know the details about your job, your ideas. I’m not invested anymore.” She hadn’t enthralled him with her career chatter. Her ambition for success no longer dazzled.
She leaned across the table to be closer to him. “What if I moved to Chicago? With you? It’s close enough, you could visit your family a lot.”
Chicago was over a three-hour drive. Do-able, but it wouldn’t happen often.
“It wouldn’t work.” He used to dream about hooking up with her again, trying to think of ways. “You’d get a better offer and want to go for it. We’d end up right where we were before. You’ll find someone who’s as driven as you are, and you’ll be perfect for each other. I’m not that guy.”
She turned to look away from him and blinked. “I blew it, didn’t I?”
“No, we were attracted to each other, but we were never quite right together. You were brave enough to do the right thing. You called it for what it was.”
“If had to make that choice again, I’m not sure I’d leave.”
He shook his head. “Yes, you would. I’m not your Mr. Right, but you’ll find him. Look at you. You’re beautiful and brilliant.”
“You don’t want me.”
“We don’t have enough in common, but you’ll find the right person. You’re ready to.”
Her smile barely lifted her lips. “Have you found someone?”
“Not yet, but I’m going to. You should, too.”
The waitress came to take their bills, and they both rose.
“This is goodbye again,” Mariah said. “I still care about you, Lucas.”
“We spent some great time together. I care about you, too.” But as a friend. He was ready to move on, to find someone else. They parted, and he was surprised how free he felt on the drive home. Mariah had fallen off her pedestal. The ache of losing her was gone.