Desire by Design
Author:Paula Altenburg

chapter Ten

Matt couldn’t be serious.

“You mean, as in flowers and candy?” she asked, her voice cracking a bit more than she liked.

Humor crept into his one functioning eye. “Oh, I don’t think so. I’ve seen your opinion of men giving you flowers. You can do better than that.”

No, she couldn’t. Didn’t her failed marriage tell him anything about her and her romantic abilities?

“This is a joke, right?”

“Do I look like I’m joking to you?”

He definitely didn’t look like he was joking. With the one closed eye, the rumpled clothes, and the fierce set to his lean face, he seemed perfectly serious.

Way too serious. Sort of a sexy serious.

“I’m not romancing you,” she said.

“Why not?” he challenged her. “If a man wants a casual relationship with a woman, he’s expected to figure out what she likes and romance her at least a little for it. If you want casual, why shouldn’t you be expected to romance me?”

Now Eve was confused. Was he telling her he wasn’t all that interested in her, so if she was interested in him, she’d have to do all the work?

“Forget it. Forget the whole thing.” Eve wished she could, too.

“I think I’m starting to see your problem,” Matt said. “Your marriage was a twisted relationship, that much is obvious—and no way would I ever suggest you should have stuck it out—but it affected you more than you want to let on. So now, when relationships get too difficult for you, you just walk away.”

His gaze narrowed. “Well, guess what? I’m going to make this real easy for you. I’m yours if you want me, for however long you want me. But you have to make me feel special first. And that means romancing me.” He started for the hall. “I’ll be sleeping on the air mattress, and I’m setting it up in the living room. But where I sleep after this weekend is up to you.”

An early morning mist hung low over the neighborhood on Monday. Up and down the street, doors opened and closed and cars started as people got ready for work. Eve reached down and yanked a patch of dew-slickened dandelion leaves from her lawn, pitched them underhand onto the driveway in the direction of the compost container, then wiped her hand on her jeans.

The two men were packing the car, chatting like friends.

Matt canceled the flight to Toronto and had spent his entire Sunday doing his best to win over her parents—and with amazing results. It hadn’t taken them long to forget both Lena and the breast-grabbing incident.

Because Matt would never dream of walking away from anything difficult. He liked a challenge.

And her mother was certainly a challenge.

She stood beside Eve on the short concrete walkway leading from the steps to the street. They both searched for something to say.

“I like your young man,” her mother said. “We didn’t get off to the best start, but you were right. He’s nice.”

“He’s not my young man.”

“He could be.”

“Didn’t you have someone you wanted me to meet?” Eve asked, anxious to throw her mother off the scent. When it came to man-hunting for Eve, her mother morphed into a bloodhound.

Her mother smoothed her hair into place, then adjusted her starched white blouse. “I did. But he was no one special.”

But at some point she’d thought him special enough for Eve. “You know, after thinking about it, I’m not one hundred percent sure Matt and Lena don’t have something going on between them,” Eve said. “It’s a little odd my boss’s wife would be over here when I’m not around, don’t you think?”

“She’s no competition for you, sweetheart. From what I saw, you’re much prettier.” Her mother looked her over carefully. “At least you would be if you fixed yourself up a little and maybe did something with your hair.”

Mothers were the reason for the term “justifiable homicide.” Eve cut her off before she could launch into any more self-improvement tips.

“Don’t get your hopes up too high,” she warned. “Matt’s mother’s been married five times, and I don’t think it’s made him view marriage very favorably.” Not to mention, Eve wasn’t thrilled with the institution herself.

“There’s something to be said for living together,” her ultra-traditional mother said. “You and Matt can take your time getting to know each other. You need to get to know Matt’s goals. That’s what you said went wrong with Claude—you didn’t really know what you both wanted in life.”

“Matt and I aren’t living together,” Eve said, still trying to recover from the shock of hearing her mother—her mother—encouraging her to live with a man.

“Oh, no?” Her mother began to count on her fingers. “He cooked us breakfast. He has a key to your house. There are razor trimmings in your bathroom sink.” She flashed a triumphant smile. “Call it what you will, but from where I stand, you two are living together.”

Spots danced before Eve’s eyes, and the world faded in and out for a moment. Fortunately, Matt and her father appeared on the front doorstep then, saving her from the conversation.

Matt, dressed in a suit for a day at the office, picked up her parents’ suitcase and loped easily across the tiny front yard. He hoisted the suitcase into the car’s open trunk.

Her heart did a crazy little tap dance. There was no doubt about it. She wanted him. But she wasn’t sure to what extent. Her heart couldn’t be trusted. It had been fooled before.

“And you’ll be coming home with Eve for our anniversary party?” her father was saying to Matt as the two men shook hands good-bye.

Eve froze. She didn’t want Matt to meet the rest of her family. Hadn’t the Tinker Bell story suggested anything to him?

“Matt’s a busy man,” she interrupted. “He doesn’t have the time to waste on a three-hour drive. That’s three hours one way,” she added for Matt’s benefit.

“I think I can work it into my schedule.” His eyes gleamed, and he shot her a look that dared her to argue with him.

No, no, no.

“It’s not a formal party like you’re used to. More of a reunion. Most of the family is Acadian,” she tried next, desperate to find something—anything—to make him change his mind. “A lot of them don’t like speaking English.”

“You’d be surprised what kinds of parties I’ve been to. And I speak French,” Matt said.

Of course he did.

“My brothers will try and treat you like one of the family,” she warned. “Trust me. You don’t want that.”

Instead of being put off, Matt seemed fascinated. “I’ve always wanted brothers. You’ve got, what—three?”

That answer pleased her parents as much as it worried Eve.

“You wouldn’t want these ones,” she said. Not if he wanted to live a long, healthy life. “They’re kind of rough. You know, physical.”

“It’s an anniversary party, not mortal combat.” Matt folded his arms across his chest, full of blissful, ignorant confidence. Eve pitied him.

Very well. He didn’t know what he was setting himself up for, but he’d brought this on himself. He couldn’t say she hadn’t tried to warn him. At least one good thing would come from this. Once he’d met the whole family, a casual relationship was all he’d want to pursue with her.

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

“Wonderful!” Her mother’s face was beaming as she kissed Eve’s cheek. “It will be nice to have you visit. Both of you. You can introduce Matt to the whole family. We’ll see you on the weekend.”

“Exactly how much family do you have?” Matt asked Eve.

Eve smiled. “You should have asked that question first.”

She waved as her parents backed their car out of the drive, a funny little feeling in her throat. Spending a few days with them hadn’t been as hard as she’d expected it to be, but it hadn’t been wonderful, either. They disappeared around a corner, leaving her alone on the lawn with Matt.

And an empty house.

What she’d proposed in the darkness of night now seemed so…sordid in the bright light of day. She was such an idiot sometimes. How could they keep things casual when they were living together? How romantic could she be? How romantic did she want to be?

She plopped onto the steps, dropping her elbows to her knees and her head to her hands, suddenly unable to face the thought of entering that empty house with a man who made her forget everything but the way she felt. And the way she felt right now scared her. All she had to do was look at him in his custom-made suit, to smell his aftershave, to melt beneath those intense blue eyes, and she knew they weren’t right for each other. When they were alone and he was kissing her…touching her…she could forget everything and everyone else. But when she tried to envision the two of them together, the way other people must see them…

What a contrast they must make. Eve’s idea of dressing up for the office when there were no meetings scheduled meant she’d put on a stain-free blouse to go with her jeans and a pair of sandals instead of work boots. She studied her toes. She’d painted her nails Moroccan Plum. They looked nice, but they didn’t exactly scream elegance.

“What’s the matter?” Matt asked. He sat down beside her.

“I can’t romance you,” she said, glad she didn’t have to look at him when she said it. “Sorry. But I can’t think of a single romantic thing to do.”

“I’m really not all that hard to please,” he said. “It’s the thought that counts. What do you think of when you think of romantic?”

He inched closer, but he didn’t touch her. Eve wanted him to—and to touch him back. She wanted to lean into his chest, to find out if his fresh-shaven jaw was as smooth as it appeared, and to taste the swell of his full lower lip. She wished they weren’t having this discussion on her front steps, with her neighbors waving to them as they left for work, when they themselves had to be at work in another twenty minutes or so.

But better to have it here, now, out in the open, rather than inside with too much privacy.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Handcuffs? Plastic wrap?”

She heard him swallow. Great. He was trying not to laugh at her.

“I’m not saying no. Those might prove interesting. But maybe we should work up to them.” He gave her an all too brief hug, then a gentle shove. “We’re going to be late for work if we don’t get a move on.”

“That reminds me,” Eve said. “Where are the construction catalogs I brought home from the office?”

She swore she saw guilt on his face.

“Don’t change the subject.” He helped her to her feet, then looked into her eyes, softness and reassurance lurking in the deep ocean depths of his own. “Don’t worry so much, Eve. You’re going to figure out what’s romantic when you’re ready. And when you do, I’ll be waiting.”

Good thing Matt seemed like such a patient man, because Eve was afraid he was going to have a very long wait.

But if she waited too long, he’d be gone.

For the rest of the week, Matt carried around a vivid mental image of how Eve might look dressed in clear, clingy wrap. Each time he conjured up the image, he pictured himself slowly unwrapping her—from the bottom up, taking his time, touching and tasting each part he exposed.

The short, butter-yellow sundress she’d chosen to wear for the long car ride to her parents’ house on Friday did nothing to hinder his fantasies.

Matt shifted in the passenger seat. So far, fantasies were all he had. Eve didn’t seem to know the difference between sex and romance, but she was going to have to learn soon because the wait was killing him and time was now at a premium. He couldn’t stay in Halifax forever.

Accepting the invitation to a family event because he’d wanted to tease her a little, and throw her off kilter, had been meant in good fun. He’d planned to back out at the last minute, using that preempted trip to Toronto as an excuse. But Eve had gotten quiet as the week went on, and he was learning to read the signs. This anniversary was important to her and he wanted it to go well. She needed moral support, but never in a million years would she ask for it.

He’d been informed of the basics for the weekend. Saturday was going to be a family day, more of a reunion than a formal party, with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Everyone but Eve lived in her parents’ neighborhood, and Eve’s brothers would arrive at the house in the morning to help out.

He had to confess, he was a little nervous about meeting them all at once. That Tinker Bell story implied a mob mentality that he hoped they’d outgrown.

“Is there anything I should know about your brothers before we arrive?” Matt asked.

“Have you ever played tackle soccer?”

“Is it like Australian football?”

“Sort of. But with fewer rules,” Eve said. She reached over and patted his knee. “But don’t worry. I’ll take good care of you.”

“Thanks,” Matt said.

It was early evening before they took the turn-off for the small village on the shore of the Bay of Fundy. The closer they got, however, the edgier she became. He worried that when they finally arrived he might have to pry her fingers off the steering wheel, which was ridiculous. She was lucky to have so much family to love her.

The temperature dropped several degrees as they left the highway. A few miles farther on, forests along the sides of the steadily climbing road gave way to giant rock slabs and scattered strands of scrubby, gnarled spruce trees stunted by the damp, salty air. Seagulls sailed high overhead.

They drove through a tiny village hugging the waterfront, then past a number of cottages sprinkled along the rock-ribbed cliffs. The gleaming blue waters of the Bay, peppered with whitecaps, dashed against the breakwater protecting the road.

Eve turned down a dirt lane. “This is it,” she said, coasting the car through a deep rut and into a potholed driveway. “Home sweet home.”

Home was a square, two-story house with a double-sloped, mansard-style roof and an attached garage. Matt bet the house, with its whitewashed, shingled siding and green trim, was around two-hundred years old, although the garage was probably only about fifty. There were one or two outbuildings, an ancient apple orchard, and a recently mowed hayfield behind the house.

She parked at the back and turned off the ignition, her fingers still on the key. “It’s not too late to make a run for it.” Then her parents stepped onto the sagging veranda, and a screen door flapped shut behind them. “Wait. Sorry. Yes, it is.”

“I’m not running, Eve.” Matt reached for the car door handle. He was no quitter. No matter what, he and Eve were going to have a good time this weekend. “I’m going to be right beside you.”

“Come inside,” Therese urged them once she’d hugged her daughter. “I have supper waiting for you.”

They ate in the kitchen, seated at a sturdy table wrapped in a checkered vinyl tablecloth. Therese puttered between the table and the stove, chattering happily about the anniversary plans for the next day.

“We aren’t going to need the tent,” she said. “The weather’s supposed to be lovely.”

Partway through the meal, an ancient Great Dane plodded into the kitchen and settled beside Matt. The dog looked him straight in the eye, its graying, slobbery jowls quivering. Matt had read somewhere that dogs didn’t like to make eye contact because it threatened them. He could only assume that either this dog hadn’t read that particular book, or it was doing some serious threatening of its own.

“Riel likes you,” Giles spoke up, mopping up the last of the gravy on his plate with a piece of bread.

Matt wished Riel liked him a little less. He was a big dog, and he made Matt feel like a great big doggie biscuit. Riel inched his nose closer, and Matt reached out to scratch his ears.

“Don’t touch him,” Therese warned, opening the back door. “He’s arthritic. Touching him makes him cranky.”

Matt yanked his fingers back. The dog bunched his creaky hips beneath himself and lumbered toward the open door when Therese called him, his toenails clicking against the chipped linoleum flooring.

Matt had to ask. “Why is the dog named Riel?”

“Eve named him after Louis Riel because he fights for what he believes in. Mind you, what he believes in is his squeaky toy. Don’t touch that, either.” Giles set his fork on his plate with a satisfied sigh. “That was a good meal.”

Matt looked at Eve. It made perfect sense to him that she would name her dog after the leader of a rebellion. “Your dog has a social conscience?”

Eve pushed her plate away, her own food scarcely touched. “Of course.”

So far, those two words were the most she’d contributed to the dinner conversation.

He couldn’t understand this attitude she had toward her family. When he was growing up, he’d been totally envious of friends with families like this. If she would only try a little harder, they’d meet her halfway. He was sure of it.

Maybe he could get the ball rolling.

“Eve’s doing a great job on this new project,” he said. “She’s good with numbers, and the budget is a big responsibility.”

“Thank you. Does this mean you’ll rethink the marble inlay in the foyer?” Eve asked him.

He wiped his mouth on a paper napkin. “No.”

“Eve’s always been good with math,” her mother said. “Too bad she failed English.”

“I did not fail English,” Eve said, tapping the end of her fork on the table. “I got a C for my final term mark in Grade Twelve.”

“It kept her off the Honor Roll. Her brothers all made the Honor Roll.”

This wasn’t going as Matt intended. Time for a change in tactic. “I bet she was a cute baby.”

Therese and Giles both laughed.

“You’d lose,” Eve said.

“She had this funny head of hair that stood straight up on end no matter what I did to it. And she was all bones.” Therese shook her head. “She looked like a skinned rabbit. I’d never seen such an ugly baby before. We were embarrassed to have her baptized. Would you like to see some pictures?”

“No,” Eve said. “He wouldn’t.”

Actually, he was dying to see them, but he didn’t dare say so. Not with Eve glaring at him that way. He gave up.

Therese began to clear off the table. “Why don’t the pair of you take your tea out on the veranda?”

Matt tried not to cringe. He had his doubts about that tea. It had been steeping for a suspicious amount of time in a cast-iron kettle on the back burner of the stove.

Eve kicked him under the table and gathered up her plate. “We’ll help with the dishes first.”

“Right.” He picked up his own plate and looked around for the dishwasher. There wasn’t one. “Where do we put them?”

Therese took the plate from his hand and gave her daughter one of those long looks mothers give their children when they’re displeased. “I’ll wash the dishes. Matt’s a guest.”

“Matt doesn’t mind.” Eve turned to him, her chocolate eyes daring him to contradict her. “Do you, Matt?”

The last thing he wanted was to find himself in the middle of a mother-daughter dispute, especially between this particular pair. He looked to Giles for manly guidance. His desperation must have conveyed itself.

“Take the tea,” Giles advised him, pushing away from the table and leaving his own dishes behind. He picked up the crossword puzzle and his reading glasses, and moved to a chair in a corner of the large room.

Matt took a deep breath, praying Giles had made the right call. “I’d love a cup of tea.”

Eve filled two mugs with a wicked-looking brew, added a generous dose of canned milk to each, then handed one mug to Matt. She led the way onto the veranda, nudging him with a slender shoulder as the screen door swung shut with a bang behind them. “Wuss.”

He took a tentative sip of his tea. It was strong, thick, and guaranteed to keep him awake all night. But not bad. He settled beside her on a patio swing at the far end of the veranda, rocking it gently with one foot. Fireflies flickered in the velvety darkness that blanketed the yard, and an owl hooted somewhere off in the distance.

“Mind telling me what I’ve done wrong?” he asked.

The soft scent of her hair tangled with the aroma of the tea. Matt loved her hair. His fingers always itched to touch it. He edged closer to her, and the swing squealed a protest. Even the furniture was against him tonight.

She gripped her mug in both hands and jerked her feet up, bringing her knees to chin level, forming a barrier between herself and the world. “I hate the way my mother always acts like a servant. You shouldn’t encourage her.”

That was it? He’d let her mother do as she pleased? And here he thought he’d done something terrible.

“Your mother doesn’t act like any servant I’ve ever seen. She didn’t want our help. She wanted us out of her kitchen.”

“I know.” Eve rolled her eyes. “She’s such a housewife.”

She said that like it was a bad thing. Matt didn’t see what the problem was. As long as Therese enjoyed it, why should Eve complain?

“What’s wrong with being a housewife?” he asked. “It’s a job like any other, and your mother seems to take a great deal of pride in doing it well.”

“Let her, then.” Eve rested her chin on her knees. “But it’s not for me. And that drives her crazy.”

Matt took another sip of his tea and thought about that. “You’re right. It’s not for you,” he said slowly. “And that drives you crazy, too, doesn’t it?”

Eve tipped her head sideways, and his thoughts drifted to other, more pleasant things—like how the soft, exposed curve of her neck might taste by starlight. “You sound disappointed.”

Matt gave the swing another push with his foot. His ideal woman had always been one who could make him a home, but not necessarily from scratch. Eve didn’t possess any of the qualities he’d always thought he wanted in a life partner, except for the one thing that mattered to him the most.

She was Eve.

He admired her lovely face in the glow of the rising moon, debating whether or not to kiss her, but he’d already told her that she’d get to set the pace. If they sat here long enough, there was a good chance she might kiss him instead.

“You’re a lot of things, but disappointing isn’t one of them,” he said. Come on. There’s moonlight, fresh salty air, and a cozy swing. Romantic enough. Kiss me.

A large specter loomed from out of the shadows, then suddenly, Riel dropped his head on Matt’s lap. Eve tried to shoo him away, but Riel refused to budge, and Matt reconciled himself to missing out on a kiss.

From Eve. Riel, on the other hand, was looking at him with adoration in those soulful, canine eyes.

“Okay, maybe I’m a little disappointed,” Matt conceded. “But it’s not because of you.”