A Gift of “Art” for Valentine’s Day
The Art of Romance
Copyright © 2011 by Kaye Dacus
Book 2 of the Matchmakers Series
. . . . . .Their food arrived. She’d barely had time to grab a sandwich from the snack bar in the student center between classes today, so she’d inhaled the first half of the Monte Christo sandwich before Riley had finished doctoring his hamburger and drowning his fries with ketchup.
. . . . . . “I figured you for a gal with a healthy appetite.” Riley reached over and squeezed her waist with his right hand, grinning.
. . . . . .She wouldn’t smack him. She wouldn’t. She wouldn’t. Forcing her fists to unclench, she reached for her glass and took a sip of tea to wash down her pique. “I’ve never believed in going hungry just to try to impress someone.” And frankly, the sandwich would probably be the most pleasure she’d get out of this evening—especially with the chipotle-spiced raspberry dipping sauce….
. . . . . . “So, anyway,” Riley picked up his hamburger and took a huge, sloppy bite of it. “I got the wrong-size pipe and had to go back to the plumbing center…” He chewed as he rambled on about his newest construction job.
. . . . . .Caylor almost gagged but moved her focus to her own food and finishing it. Which she did. And he was still talking.
. . . . . .Why was it that sometimes, when taken in small chunks—and when “on the job”—some people seemed perfectly nice, perfectly normal? But get them out into a social situation and they completely changed?
. . . . . .As unobtrusively as she could, Caylor reached for her purse, pulled out her journal, and wrote those questions down. Since she couldn’t stomach writing romance right now—because she couldn’t do it without thinking about Dylan—maybe she’d see if she could work that dichotomy into some kind of idea for a new novel.
. . . . . . “Come on, let’s go down for the dance lessons. They’ll save our table for us.” Riley grabbed her hand and started pulling her off the high, bar-style chair.
. . . . . .Caylor grabbed for her purse and looped the long strap over her head and across her chest. She already knew the dances they’d announced they were going to teach, but what the heck. This would give them something to do that didn’t involve Riley talking about plumbing supplies or nearly exploding gas lines.
. . . . . .Down on the dance floor with a couple dozen other people, Caylor actually started having fun. Most of the young women from a bachelorette party had come down also, and several of them managed to work their way between Caylor and Riley during one of the line dances.
. . . . . .She supposed she should make some nominal effort to “fight” for him, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. She was having too much fun dancing and helping a few middle-aged couples with the steps. When it came time for learning the two-step, Caylor begged off and returned to their table on the balcony overlooking the main floor. She ordered another iced tea—going wild and having them add raspberry flavoring to it—and perched on the chair at the high table and watched the dancing going on below.
. . . . . .Riley looked up a few times and waved. Impressive—even surrounded by the bachelorette party girls, he still remembered he was here with Caylor. He pulled out his phone and texted someone. Caylor’s phone chirped. A new message. From Riley. If you could order me another beer, that would be fantastic.
. . . . . .It would only be his second, and they’d be here for hours yet. It would be through his system by the time they left.
. . . . . .Or she could just pretend that she hadn’t seen his text. She shoved her phone back into her purse and pulled out her journal. It fell open to the pages she’d filled up back in December and January with descriptions and story ideas for Giovanni and Isabella’s story. She made the mistake of starting to read it—and lost herself. The bar, the noise, the music, the woman calling dance steps below—everything around her disappeared as her mind traveled back to Renaissance Italy.
. . . . . .Suddenly she was yanked out of her fictional world when someone grabbed the sides of her waist and squeezed. She stifled a scream and turned, ready to defend herself.
. . . . . . “Hey, you.” Riley’s forehead dripped sweat, and he leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “The girls want us to do some shots with them.”
. . . . . . “I don’t—No Riley, I don’t do shots.” Honesty time. “And I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to have anything else to drink tonight if you’re going to be driving me anywhere.”
. . . . . . “Aw…I’ll be okay. I can hold my alcohol. Speaking of… Where’s my beer?” He lifted the first bottle and shook it, then looked around the almost empty table.
. . . . . . “The server hasn’t been back yet.” Lame excuse, considering she sat only a few dozen feet from a huge bar.
. . . . . .But he bought it. “Oh, okay. I’ll order it when I order the shots. I told them I’d treat them since it’s a celebration. You sure you don’t want one?”
. . . . . . “I’m sure.” Caylor capped her pen, stuck it and the journal back into her purse, then crossed her arms and leaned on the table. By the time the warm-up band was halfway through their set, one shot had turned into four, and Caylor was pretty sure Riley had forgotten he hadn’t been hired to be the entertainment for the bachelorettes.
. . . . . .Caylor’s head throbbed worse than it had all day. She’d known this was a mistake, that she should have canceled. She should have trusted her gut instincts on this.
. . . . . .When Riley ordered another round of tequila for the table, Caylor couldn’t deal with it any longer. She pulled out her phone. But whom could she call?
. . . . . .She tried her sister first. No answer. She waited through the voicemail message, swinging her foot in agitation. “Sage, it’s Caylor. It’s…almost nine o’clock. If you get this message in the next twenty minutes, please give me a call. It’s urgent.”
. . . . . .But she really didn’t want to wait twenty minutes. She scrolled through the list. Zarah was teaching tonight. Flannery had an author in town whom she was treating to dinner. Bridget was at play rehearsal. Who could she…?
. . . . . .She stopped scrolling through the contact list at the end of the Ds. Dylan Bradley. He should be home by now. She hit call before she could talk herself out of it.
. . . . . . “Hey, Caylor.” Dylan’s voice sounded either amused or curious—she couldn’t tell.
. . . . . . “Hey, I hope I didn’t interrupt anything.”
. . . . . . “No. I was just doodling around with a new project. What’s up?”
. . . . . .Caylor glanced over at the bachelorettes’ table. Riley seemed to be the life of the party. He staggered a bit as he slammed back another shot of liquor. “Um…I hate to ask this, but I’m kind of stuck and need someone to come pick me up.”
. . . . . . “Is everything okay? Did your car break down?”
. . . . . . “No—my car’s over at school, so that’s where I need a ride to. I’m in downtown, at the Wildhorse Saloon, and my…the person who was supposed to drive me back to campus isn’t in any condition to be driving me anywhere.” Caylor pressed her hand to her free ear to try to block out the overpowering noise.
. . . . . . “It’ll take me at least twenty minutes to get there. Where should I meet you?”
. . . . . . “If you will call me as soon as you pass Tootsie’s on Broadway, I’ll meet you down on Second Avenue just in front of the Wildhorse.” She cringed as a loud, shrieking woooooooo went up from the table beside her. Riley had just chugged a beer into which a shot had been dropped. He’d be dropping soon if his unsteadiness was any indication.
. . . . . . “Are you sure? I don’t mind parking and coming in to meet you.”
. . . . . . “No point in you paying to park and having to buy a ticket or pay the cover or whatever to come in.” Besides, she didn’t want him to see the condition of the guy she’d agreed to go out with on a date. “I’ll meet you on the street.”
. . . . . . “Okay. I’ll call you when I pass Tootsie’s. I’m in the car and headed your direction now.”
. . . . . . “Thanks, Dylan.”
. . . . . . “My pleasure.”
. . . . . .After hanging up, she kept the phone wrapped securely in her hand, checking the time every couple of minutes. She couldn’t wait until he called to say he was just a few minutes up the street before telling Riley she was leaving.
. . . . . .Fifteen minutes after talking to Dylan, Caylor stood and shrugged into her raincoat. She checked the time again. Based on how long it took her to get into downtown from Sassy’s house—which was a little farther away than Perty’s—Dylan should be approaching the Broadway exit on I-40, which meant he’d be calling her in a couple of minutes.
. . . . . .Tucking her purse under her arm, she slid down from the chair and squeezed through the crowd that had gathered between the tables and the bar to get to the bachelorettes’ table. It took a couple of attempts to get Riley’s attention. When she finally did, she wished she hadn’t.
. . . . . . “Hey babe.” He wrapped his arm around her waist, pulled her to him, and gave her a smacking kiss—which missed her mouth only because she turned her head at the last moment. The overwhelming stench of alcohol on his breath turned her stomach.
. . . . . . “Riley, I’m leaving. A friend is coming to pick me up.” She had to use both hands to pull his arm away and free herself from his painful grip.
. . . . . . “No—stay. Have a drink.” He thrust a half-full beer mug toward her. It sloshed over the side, but she jumped back in time to keep from being splashed.
. . . . . . “No thank you. I’ve got papers to grade tonight, so I really need to get going. Thank you so much for dinner.” Which she’d gone ahead and paid for because the server really wanted to clear the table so someone else could have it.
. . . . . .One of the bachelorettes pulled Riley’s attention away, and Caylor’s phone started ringing.
. . . . . .Dylan Bradley calling.
. . . . . .What a difference a day could make. Yesterday, seeing that on her phone had brought anxiety and uncertainty. Now—relief, gratitude, and an overwhelming desire to be with him. She answered and wended her way through the burgeoning crowd.
. . . . . . “I’ll be there in about a minute.” Dylan’s voice acted upon her like a soothing nerve tonic.
. . . . . . “I’m on my way down now. Thank you so much for doing this for me.”
. . . . . . “As I said, it’s my pleasure. I just stopped at the red light on Third Avenue, so I’m about a block away.”
. . . . . .Caylor pushed through the crowd coming up the stairs. “Is it still raining?”
. . . . . . “Just a light drizzle.”
. . . . . . “Good. I just realized I left my umbrella in Ri—in the car of the person who brought me here tonight.” Why couldn’t she bring herself to tell him she’d been on a date with someone else? It wasn’t as if she and Dylan were anything to each other but friends and colleagues. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t just seen a picture of him with some blond bombshell hanging off his arm in the newspaper. And besides, there was still the little matter of Dylan’s former department chair to contend with.
. . . . . . “I’m turning left onto Second Avenue.”
. . . . . . “I’m at the front doors now.” Caylor stepped out into the cold, damp air and took a cleansing breath. She’d have to shower as soon as she got home and throw everything she was wearing into an incinerator—well, the washing machine would probably do fine—just to get the stench of alcohol out of it.
. . . . . .Dylan’s bright blue Escape pulled to a stop on the other side of the cars parked along the curb. Caylor hurried to it and climbed in. “Thank you so much.”
. . . . . . “I’ve always wanted to be the hero who rescues the damsel in distress. Just like you always wrote about me doing.”
. . . . . .Caylor whipped her head around. Dylan’s eyes sparkled in the lights from the signs on the buildings lining the street.
. . . . . .Riley behind her and Dylan before her, Caylor rediscovered her good humor. “But I always pictured you doing it on horseback. Don’t you think an SUV is cheating?”
. . . . . . “An SUV is faster—and more comfortable.” He put the car in gear and eased forward to the next traffic light, which turned red as they approached. “And besides, putting it into that context, aren’t cell phones cheating? Shouldn’t you have sent me something scrawled on parchment with a quill pen and sent by carrier pigeon?”
. . . . . .Caylor didn’t want to break the comfortable banter, but she couldn’t stand not knowing any longer. “I have to ask you a question, and I really need you to be completely honest with me.”
. . . . . .The humor left his expression, replaced by seriousness with a hint of fear.
. . . . . . “Who’s the girl with you in the picture in the newspaper?”
. . . . . .Dylan groaned. “I was hoping you wouldn’t see that. She’s my mother’s event planner. Mother gave her tickets for the game and told her to invite me. If I’d known she’d morph into a clinging vine, if I’d known Mother had planned it as a publicity stunt, I never would have gone.” His eyes bored into Caylor’s. “There’s nothing going on between me and Emerson. I promise.”
. . . . . . “Was that why you argued with your mother at the restaurant?”
. . . . . .Dylan’s groan lasted even longer this time. “You saw that, too? Yes—I publicly embarrassed Judge Grace Paxton-Bradley by arguing with her and accusing her of setting me up. Because I was afraid of what you would think if you saw the photo.” He turned and drove another block to another red light. “You aren’t mad at me, are you? You do believe me, don’t you?”
. . . . . . “I’m not mad at you, and I do believe you.” But what about Dr. Kramer? She longed to ask, but her mouth wouldn’t form the words. Dylan braced his elbow on the center console and leaned toward her, his brown eyes as warm as hot fudge.
. . . . . .Caylor no longer cared about the past or what Dylan had done or whom he’d dated. Only the present mattered—the present and the very, very near future.
. . . . . .Did she dare?
. . . . . .His eyes searched hers.
. . . . . .Oh yes, she dared.
. . . . . .Ignoring the car horn blowing behind them, Caylor leaned forward and kissed Dylan. Heart pounding, skin tingling, she pressed her lips to his and reached over and threaded her fingers through the short curls at the back of his head. He stiffened for a brief moment then relaxed, smiling against her mouth, and returned the kiss with equal gusto.
. . . . . .And it was better than she’d ever imagined.