Love Me (Take a Chance)
Author:Diane Alberts

chapter Eight


Over the top of Brianna’s menu, Thomas looked much too calm. Much too confident. He should be running for the hills. He should be the nervous one, yet here she was sweating into her boots and scrunching her toes in her damp socks. Dating again, even so many years after Michael’s death, was like trying to remember a foreign language she hadn’t used in decades. Open her mouth, and nothing but gibberish would spill out.

“So exactly how long has it been since your husband passed?” Thomas asked, voice neutral. “If you don’t mind talking about it, that is.”

“I don’t mind.” She cleared her throat. A fist of pain tightened over her heart. “It was three and a half years ago. He had cancer. It wasn’t an easy passing.”

He reached across the table and squeezed her hand. The contact was oddly intimate. She swallowed hard and forced herself to concentrate on the here, the now, and the surf and turf platter on the restaurant’s menu.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his gaze unwavering.

“Don’t be. It may have been difficult, but…” The words stuck in her throat. “Once we found out, it was a matter of months. As if, once he knew, he didn’t want to leave us hanging. Like he wanted it to be over.”

“I’ve seen that happen before.”

“It hit Zach the hardest. Maybe because he’s the oldest. Katelyn handled it well enough, but she’s young still. Cody was only six, so he barely remembers his father.”

Thomas’s grasp tightened. “Is Zach acting out?”

Brianna tilted her head. Was he actually interested in her children? Her chest ached. No. He couldn’t care about her. Not after two quick flings and this impromptu date. He was being polite. “Not really,” she said. “He gets fabulous grades. Plays soccer. Star forward.”

“Soccer, hmm?” His brows rose.

“Don’t tell me. You played forward, too?”

“All four years in high school. I can still balance a ball on my head with my eyes closed and a few beers in me.”

“So can a seal.”

“Ork ork.” He chuckled. “Think he’d mind kicking the ball around the yard with a has-been?”

Her stomach sank, heavy and cold. What would Michael think, another man taking his place and coaching his son? Why was she even thinking about this when Thomas was likely putting on a brave face and wouldn’t even stick around long enough to meet Zach? The initial spark of excitement left her flushed with guilt.

She shouldn’t be thinking about this.

She’d been doing fine without anyone else’s help, but being a single parent was exhausting. There was no good cop, bad cop. She had to be the bad cop, then kiss it better. She had to be mother and father, and there were some things she just couldn’t teach her son. Like how to shave his first stubble—though she’d have tried if Zach had wanted her to. She would have lathered up her face right alongside him if he asked.

Anything for her kids.

She looked away from Thomas. “You don’t have to do that.”

“I know I don’t have to.” His thumb stroked along her knuckles. “I would probably have fun.”

She swallowed hard. “I—then—we can think about it. I don’t want to introduce you too soon. You could be gone in a week for all I know.”

He drummed the fingers of his free hand on the table and watched the restaurant—a quiet bustle of activity and energy as waiters and waitresses floated from table to table. “I’m here for at least two more weeks.”

“That’s not very long. Will you go back to California then?”

“I don’t know. Probably.”

She shook her head. “So we’re doomed from the start?”

“I know we don’t have long, but I’d hope it’s long enough for us to figure out if there’s something worth pursuing. If there is something here, then we can figure out what to do when the time comes. We could work something out.”

Work what out? If he left, they would never become anything. “What do you mean? Like a long-distance relationship?”

“Shit, I don’t know. I’m not very good at planning stuff like this. Or talking about my feelings.” He cleared his throat. “But I do like you enough to try this thing. Enough to risk another ass-to-window serenade from your son.”

Her breath caught. Oh, God, please no. “He didn’t.”

“He did.”

She groaned. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s not the first time I’ve been mooned. I don’t think it’s fatal or catching.” He gave her a small smile. “If I go around mooning people, then we’ll worry. Until then, I’m fine.”

She groaned. “When I get home, I’m going to ground him until he dies.”

“From the look on your face, that won’t be very long.” His gaze flicked over her face, leaving behind a warmth that crept down her jaw to her neck. “You didn’t answer me.”

“Didn’t I?”

“No.”

“You didn’t ask me a question.”

He reached across the table and brushed his fingers beneath her chin, sending chills over her skin. “I’m asking if you want me to stick around for two weeks or not.”

“I—yes. Okay.”

“Just ‘okay’?”

“You’re not the only one who’s not very good at talking about this.”

“Then I’ll take what I can get.” He let go of her hand with one last lingering caress. “Now…on the matter of your shoes. Remind me to give them back before my truck turns into a pumpkin.”

She smiled but shook her head. “I can’t believe I ran out barefoot.”

“Stocking-foot Cinderella.” The way he said the name, rolling each syllable with rumbling amusement and pleasure, made her shiver. “Though I’m no Prince Charming.”

The waitress interrupted them, her ponytail bouncing as she cruised to a halt at their table. “Evening! Can I start you off with a drink?”

Brianna laid her menu on the table. “I’ll have a vodka tonic.”

Thomas raised a brow. “I pegged you for more of a wine girl.”

“I’ll have you know I drink vodka, wear my fat pants on weekends, and look like hell under my makeup just like any other girl.”

He laughed, full and rumbling and deep. He didn’t laugh nearly enough, she thought—as if he didn’t want the world to know when he was happy. If he ever was happy. What was he missing in his life, she wondered, that he was so desperate to hide himself from everyone?

He flashed the waitress a brief, polite smile. “I’ll have the same.” The waitress left after a coy look for Thomas, which he completely ignored. He shook his head. “Vodka tonic. Not very prim and proper.”

“Must I be prim and proper all the time?”

“It’s a refreshing change of pace when you aren’t. And I especially like it when you loosen up enough to call me a prick, like you did the other day.”

“In that case, you’re a prick, in case I hadn’t reminded you lately.” She tilted her head. Time for some questioning of her own. “Did your ex-wife drink wine?”

His face closed over. Brianna suddenly had the feeling she knew exactly how a soldier in the field felt when his foot came down on a land mine, and he didn’t dare lift it. Thomas fixed her with a stony look, then shrugged.

“Yes. She loved it,” he said, his voice rough. “Almost as much as I hate it. The taste irritates me. Just another of the ways we were complete opposites.”

Okay, then. Obviously not a happy marriage. Then again, if they’d been happily married, they wouldn’t have gotten divorced. “What was her name?”

“Nicole.” He picked up his menu, holding it like a shield. “I’m thinking steak. You?”

She reached across the table and pulled the menu down until she could see his face. “If you don’t want to talk about her, just say so.”

His gaze was flinty, but underneath… God, he was hurting so much, wasn’t he? She could see it in his eyes. “I don’t want to talk about her. My marriage wasn’t happy. I don’t have smiling pictures of her in my house or any fond memories. At all. That’s really all you need to know.”

“I can accept that. But I have one more question.”

“What is it?”

“How long ago did you split up?”

He didn’t answer at first, just looked at her as if she’d slapped him. She dropped her gaze to the table and fiddled with her silverware. If he said a month ago, she’d walk out. A month ago meant she was the rebound girl.

He sighed. “Eight years ago.” His menu hit the table with a heavy plop. “We split more than eight years ago. I’ve never remarried or even dated seriously. I’ve been single all that time, and perfectly happy that way.”

“I see.” She looked down at her lap. “But…” She shook her head. “Never mind.”

She kept her gaze on her napkin and fretted the edges until the thread started to unravel.

He hadn’t dated for years…but now all of a sudden he was pursuing her? All of a sudden, he was ready? Why now? Why her? He might have the best of intentions, but a man who hadn’t dated for eight years wasn’t about to change his habits. He probably had a casual fling back home, too.

“What’s wrong?”

She jerked. “For someone who says he isn’t good with emotions, you’re a little too good at catching my mood swings.”

“Comes with the territory. Marketing executive, remember? It helps if I know how to read people. You could say I was born with a natural talent for reading brooding stares.”

She choked on a laugh. “Is that what I was doing? Brooding?”

“Indeed.” His gaze focused on her again, intense and dark. “What’s wrong?”

“I was just wondering…why are you ready to date now?”

He tensed up. “Honestly? I don’t know. I haven’t dated because I’ve been absorbed in my own bitterness for years. It wasn’t until recently, when my sister got married to my best friend, that I realized how miserable I was. Seeing their happiness brought me out of my own shadow.” He ran a hand through his hair. “And since then, I’ve been working on getting out of the abyss I’ve been stuck in. I’ve been working on being more open to other people. And then…you came along.”

Her heart fluttered. “And now?”

“And now I’m ready to try again.” He leaned in, catching her gaze. “With you.”

“Oh.”

She watched him without saying anything else. She didn’t think she could come up with a coherent sentence right now, anyway. He’d told her he might want something serious with her, and all she could manage to say is oh? How pathetic.

He picked his menu back up, his knuckles white on the plastic edges. “Do you know what you want?”

No. Not at all. “What do you mean?”

“For dinner.” He cocked his head. “The waitress should be back soon.”

And just like that, he was calm and collected. Talking about dinner when she was trying to decide whether or not she’d get in trouble for throwing herself into his lap and kissing him until he smiled down at her. Until she chased away the shadows lurking in his eyes even now. “Ah. R-Right. I think I’ll have a salad.”

His eyes narrowed. “Again?”

She flushed. “It’s woman code.”

“Woman code?”

“We have to order salads on dates to seem like we care about our weight.”

He snorted. “I don’t care if you’re five hundred pounds. Just eat something. I’m sure you didn’t peck at crumbs around your husband.”

She bit her lip. How much did she want to tell him about her past? When she tried to meet his eyes, she couldn’t make it past the point of his chin. “I was overweight as a child. It’s something that kind of stuck with me.”

“Hey.” He brushed his fingers under her chin and tipped her face up. “Are you happy with yourself?”

No, she started to say, then realized that was wrong. “Yes,” she said, almost unable to believe the words were coming out of her mouth. “Yes, I am.”

“Then that’s all that matters.” He cupped her cheek. “Size zero is overrated and frankly scary at times. I think you’re damned sexy just the way you are, if that counts for anything.”

“It does.” More than it should. Can you see how frightened I am right now? How afraid I am that you’ll break my heart?

He smiled—that smile she didn’t see nearly often enough. “Good.” The waitress returned with their drinks. Thomas inclined his head to Brianna. “Ladies first.”

“Um.” Brianna pushed her menu away, smiling. “I’ll have the rib eye steak, medium well.”

Thomas’s eyes gleamed with satisfaction. “I’ll have the same. Medium.”

She sat back with her drink and watched how the light played over his hair and cast his eyes into an alluring shadow. She couldn’t help thinking about what he must have been like in high school. A soccer player, just like Zach. He’d probably been the school hottie. And if the time since his divorce was anything to go by, he’d married the head cheerleader.

“So…you were a soccer player, hmm?”

He raised a brow. “Yes.”

“Did you play in college, too?”

“Yeah,” he said, his tone hard.

When he didn’t say anything else, she fidgeted. He obviously didn’t like talking about college. What had happened? Doing some quick math, she realized that it must have something to do with his ex-wife. He definitely didn’t like talking about her. He picked up his drink, his knuckles white, his jaw clenched. Right. Subject change.

“So what about your family?”

His eyes grew wary, distant. “I have one.”

She sighed, frustration picking away at her. They couldn’t talk about college. Couldn’t talk about his ex-wife. And even family was off-limits? How was she supposed to get to know him if he refused to let her? “Is there any topic with you that isn’t forbidden?”

“No. I mean yes. I—” He rubbed his temples. “Family, friends…they’re a sensitive subject. Just give me time.”

“Time for what?”

“For me to get used to having someone in my life to talk to. I never really—”

The waitress interrupted with a sunny smile and a loaded tray. Bad timing. Brianna nearly told her to go away, but bit her tongue and waited for the girl to finish setting out their food. She kept watching Thomas, as if Brianna weren’t there. Brianna caught her eye with a pointed look. The waitress ducked her head and left quickly.

By the time she left, Thomas had already withdrawn, calm and in control again. He picked up his fork. “Look. I’ll get better at this…relationship thing. With time. Just don’t give up on me yet.” He set his fork down and captured her hand. He kissed her knuckles.

She squeezed his hand, her heart twisting. “Okay.”

He let go and cut into his steak, his head bowed. How hard must it have been for him to make that simple admission?

She cleared her throat. “I haven’t been attracted to anyone since Michael. You…you make things different. You make me different.”

“You mean I refuse to leave you alone until you snap?”

She scowled. “You really know how to ruin a moment.”

“Were we having a moment?” His eyes remained lowered, his fingers tight on his fork.

“Damn it, Thomas—”

He leaned across the table and kissed her. His lips were soft, his breathing harsh; he lingered over the kiss, caressing her mouth until her chest tightened. Each touch of his lips spoke of so many things unsaid. So much emotion, showing her what he couldn’t say.

When he drew back, his eyes were warm. “Time, Bree. And a chance.”

“Two weeks.” She bit her lip. “I can give you that.”

His smile was oddly shy, oddly boyish—and it was enough to almost destroy her. “I’ll try to make it worth it.”

They fell into companionable silence over their food. Brianna couldn’t help stealing little glances at him, only to catch his eye, flush, and look away. When they were finished, the waitress brought the check. Brianna reached for her purse, but Thomas covered her hand.

“No. It’s on me.”

She hesitated. On the few dates she’d gone on since Michael, she had paid her way. She could certainly afford to. “I can pay for mine.”

“You can. But tonight you don’t have to.” His fingers slid over the backs of her knuckles, then fell away. “Drop the independent businesswoman act. I’m not patronizing you.”

She hated that, she thought. Hated that he got to the heart of issues she wouldn’t even acknowledge, with so few words. She closed her mouth and looked away as he left a folded stack of bills on the table, then stood and offered his hand.

She slid her palm into his. His skin against hers was electrifying, and her scalp tingled. “Thank you for everything.”

“You’re welcome.” His grip tightened. “Does our two-week agreement mean I don’t have to hold any more articles of clothing hostage if I want to see you again?”

“Depends. How long do you think it’ll take you to recover from Zach’s full moon serenade?”

He snorted. “Please. I’m tougher than that.”

Outside the restaurant, he pulled her into his arms. She caught her breath and looked up at him. His eyes were intent on her, their heat making her melt. She could lose herself in this man, she thought. Lose herself and never come out again—and that was dangerous. So dangerous she’d kept herself from touching him all night, but now she finally let herself run her fingers over his jaw.

His five o’clock shadow scratched her fingertips. How long had it been since she’d felt a man’s rough stubble? He rubbed his cheek against her palm; the velvet brown of his eyes never left her. Her heart lurched. He made her want things she’d thought long out of reach. Made her hope for something more than a life as a grieving widow.

“Want to come up to my room?” he asked, his voice raspy.

God, she wanted to. But would it be the best choice? If they wanted to see if they had something real between them, maybe they should take things slower. Not jump right into bed again. Thomas had asked for time and a chance. But she needed distance. She couldn’t let herself get too invested when they didn’t even know if they were going to be together two weeks from now.

“I do, but I think I shouldn’t.” She took a step back and squared her shoulders. “We need to see if we have something real before we do that. I owe it to myself and my kids.”

He nodded. “All right.”

She took a deep breath. It was harder to say no than she’d expected. Would it really be so bad to get lost in his arms again? “So what comes next?”

The struggle on his face said every word was precious. “We date each other. Take things slow.”

“I have a question.”

He cocked a brow. “You don’t need my permission to ask one.”

Well, duh. She just needed to get the nerve to ask him, since it might be a deal breaker. “If we decide, after two weeks, to take this further…will you be able to stay in Vegas? Is there a way you could move here?”

He hesitated. “They want me to take a position here permanently. I was not interested in it. But if things work out…” He shrugged, his face closed off. “Who knows? I’m not promising long-term yet. I just want to take it slow and see where it goes. All right?”

She hesitated, but he stole her chance to reply. Stole her senses when he pressed his lips to hers, slanting to meld their mouths together in a perfect lock. She shivered and twined her arms around his neck. His hand pressed to the small of her back, possessively drawing her closer. His tongue slipped into her mouth, stroking her gently, exploring with a slow, careful need. She moaned and curled her fingers in his shirt collar, tugging him closer still.

With each caress of his tongue, he seemed to pull her deeper into him, until she no longer remembered how it felt not to be in his arms. By the time he pulled away, she wasn’t sure if her legs would support her. He looked down at her, his eyes heavy-lidded.

“So tell me,” he whispered. “When can I see you again? We could stay in with the kids. Give me a chance to meet them. We’ll tell them I’m a friend—nothing more.”

She released his shirt and stepped back. She immediately missed the warmth of his arms, but the warmth of his words kept her burning inside. He actually wanted to spend time with her kids. Get to know them. Her brain screamed at her. Keep him away from her kids. Keep him away from her, until she could actually be certain of what they could be.

But her heart already hoped for what they would be and it spoke too loudly for her to ignore.

“All right,” she said. “We can try that. Friday night at my place? Be prepared for a second helping of bare butt cheeks.”

“Oh?”

“Oh, God. That came out wrong.” She buried her face in her hands. “I didn’t— I mean, not my— I meant his. Wait, that’s worse.” She groaned. “I’m going to shut up now.”

His deep, husky laughter wrapped around her. “Yours or his. I can handle the challenge.”

She had no doubt of that.