Chapter Four

Chapter Four

At Belvidere’s, Jessica and Marjorie arrived to find Cassandra standing at the hostess stand. She grinned when she saw her blond and beautiful cousin, clad in pale blue.

“Well, well, well. I think I know you. You come here a lot?” Cassandra bantered, tilting her head absently.

“I’d better be here a lot or else the place would go under because of my vain and shallow cousin.” Cassandra rolled her eyes but there was humor in them.

“Very funny, Jess.” She turned to Marjorie. “You must be the Countess. How very nice to finally meet you after all the buzz I’ve heard.”

Marjorie shook her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I have heard nothing but wonderful things about this place. I suppose there are a couple of reasons why that could be so…”

“Good to know that you think so highly of us,” Jessica joked dryly.

“Everyone’s already on the roof,” Cassandra told them. “I saw Matt come with Deborah and Rachel came alone. The new mayor is up there with his very recognizable wife…”

As Jessica sighed wearily, Marjorie asked, “Who’s the new mayor? And why do you look so stressed about it?”

“You would be stressed out too if the mayor’s wife was your own mother.”

Marjorie only laughed, then the two bade Cassandra goodbye to join the others for brunch.

The esteemed Mayor David Wolfe was sitting at a table with a couple of congressman friends, the Honorable Judge Henrietta Beard and Kaminari University President Mikage Tsukimori. His wife was at his side, looking confident and efficient in a white blouse and navy slacks. She appeared engaged in the conversation about politics, and the furrow of her brow indicated that she was listening and thinking of a rebuttal. Yes, that was Irene Thomas-Wolfe, intrepid lawyer and unshakable debater. Jessica would have hated to be in the shoes of the balding congressman whose head was turning red with anger. She didn’t bother to get her mother’s attention, because she found Deborah and Rachel sitting at a table with enough room for her and Marjorie. Matt must have been in the bathroom.

“Jessica!” Deborah cried in surprise. Again, Jessica cursed Marjorie silently. Deborah wore a cashmere sweater in pale gray and ash gray slacks. “Wow. I didn’t think you’d be here.”

“Neither did I.” They exchanged hugs and cheek pecks before Jessica and Marjorie took their seats. “Someone had to drag me out here to this thing.” Jessica looked at Marjorie, who stared at her innocently. “You could have let me change into some nicer clothing.”

“You look fine, Jessica,” Marjorie told her. “Everyone will be looking at me, anyway.”

“Gee, thanks for making my self-esteem shoot through the roof,” Jessica muttered.

“If you hadn’t noticed, we’re sitting on top of the roof,” Marjorie countered smoothly.

“The thanks I get for getting dragged to this…” Jessica was saying under her breath.

“Well, I, for one, am glad she did.” This came from Rachel, who wore a stylish black turtleneck and skirt. “It’s been so long since we had a meal in the presence of Jessica Kathleen Thomas. Even though she’s underdressed.” Jessica threw her napkin at her at that, and everyone laughed. “I was just kidding. I really am glad you came.”

“You’re right,” Jessica admitted. “We’ve all been so busy lately with Christmas coming up. Deb’s got her realtor’s job, and you’re still with the district attorney’s office aren’t you?”

“We can talk about whether that’s fortunate or unfortunate later,” Rachel remarked wryly.

“Aren’t you going to tell her about the job offer you got?” Deborah inquired.

Rachel waved her hand in dismissal. “It’s nothing, really.”

“Nothing?” Deborah turned to Jessica and Marjorie. “Don’t listen to her. It’s wonderful, I think.”

“What is?”

“Rachel was invited to join the law firm of Cannon, Jones, and Wolfe,” Deborah told them.

Jessica’s eyes widened. She grabbed Rachel’s arm, beaming. “Rachel! Why didn’t you tell me? This is big! This is huge. We absolutely have to celebrate. Tell me you accepted.”

“Of course I did,” Rachel answered. “I may be crazy sometimes, but I’m not stupid.” She sighed. “I didn’t tell you because I thought your mom may have told you already—”

“Mom hardly ever tells me about the law firm anymore.” When Jessica said this, she said it with no hurt or malice. “She makes it a point to almost never bring her work home with her.”

“Good for her,” Deborah declared. “I’ve heard that she’s done some pretty intense cases. I can definitely see why she may want to keep her work at work.”

“You and me both, Deb.”

With a sudden thought in her head, Rachel turned to Jessica. “So are you going to return to the hospital?”

Jessica shook her head. That was another thing Lawrence had ruined for her. Another thing she let him ruin for her. “I might in a year or two, but I want to help Cassandra run the restaurant for a while. It’ll be a change of pace.” She brightened as a thought developed in her head. “But I heard that Nicole’s planning on being a doctor. How’s that going?”

“It’s Nicole. What do you expect?” Rachel smiled and shook her head in amusement. Then the smile transformed as her right eyebrow arched. Uh oh. Ladies and gentlemen, it was gossip time. “And speaking of, you’re not going to believe this. Nicole was on the Internet last night when she called me. She looked up Kevin’s wife. Out of curiosity or something. She’s some kind of actress/performer type thing.”

Jessica couldn’t hold back a bubble of laughter at Rachel’s apt description of Kevin’s wife’s occupation. “Gee, I can see that one getting laughs at the IRS. What the hell is that exactly? An actress/performer type thing?”

Rachel was already laughing at herself and had Deborah and Marjorie indulging in their mirth.

“Hm.” Jessica considered this. “That makes sense. Los Angeles is the superstar capital, and Gracia is a small city of nobodies. Oh yes. I can definitely see the problem.”

“Has she been anything that we’ve seen?” Deborah asked.

Rachel shook her head. “I didn’t recognize anything except for a couple of the TV shows. But nothing long-lasting or significant. Just a guest-star or the-girl-with-umbrella type role.”

“Hollywood’s a cutthroat place,” Jessica remarked.

“All I have to say is, any movie that doesn’t feature Will Smith getting naked or Denzel Washington going kamikaze on somebody goes under my radar.”

Jessica laughed. “You and me both, Rachel. You and me both.”

“And that,” Deborah remarked, pointing, “is a very fine specimen over there.”

Following her finger, Marjorie, Jessica, and Rachel shifted to look. At the entrance to the roof dining area, Matt was having a conversation with Kevin Richardson. Midori Tsukimori was talking with her father at Mayor Wolfe’s table. A couple of servers were supplying the mimosas.

Rachel shook her head. “I see there’s going to be some major flirtation going on when he gets here.” But she smirked. A server offered them drinks and they took them. “Not that I won’t be participating.”

“Oh, we should leave him alone.” Jessica tried to deny that she found Kevin attractive and sipped on orange juice and champagne. “That would just put ideas in our heads. And one thing that a woman shouldn’t fantasize about is a married man.”

“Hey,” protested Rachel. “I fantasize about Will Smith all the time. I’m pretty sure Jada is not going to come up to Gracia just to kick my ass.”

“So? You’re not face-to-face with Will Smith, first of all. Second of all, Jada Pinkett knows she’s got that man wrapped around her finger. She could probably care less if you’re imagining a hot shower scene with her husband.”

Rachel reached for her champagne flute. “Are you saying Kevin’s wife is insecure?”

Jessica pursed her lips together and chose her words carefully. “All I’m saying is,” she began diplomatically, “the circumstances are quite different.”

As Rachel followed Jessica’s reasoning in her head, Deborah clarified, “What she means is Kevin has more of a chance being influenced in this case, especially with the state his marriage is in—”

“Hold on a minute,” Jessica interrupted. “Now that could be a rumor. You can’t take anything for truth until you see it with your own two eyes.”

“What could be a rumor?”

Jessica froze at the slow Southern drawl from above her head. There were some masochistic gods up there that must have wanted to see her squirm like a fish out of water. There had to be. There was no way that something like this was just by accident. The cruel hands of immortals had crafted this whole scene.

Luckily for Jessica, her two friends could think fast on their feet. Rachel pasted a sheepish expression on her face as she gazed at Kevin.

“Alright,” she started, “you caught us. Red-handed. We were gossiping.”

When Kevin’s eyebrows arched, Deborah continued. “An old acquaintance of ours has gone off the deep end of the operating table. And Jessica here”—Deborah gestured to her with a slight nod of the head—“says she won’t believe it until she sees it.”

“What can I say? I’m a skeptic,” Jessica admitted. She passed a look of gratitude at Deborah as Matt and Kevin sat down at the table. “If someone’s gotten a nose job, I want to see for myself. I’m not going to trust hearsay.”

“Good for you, Jess,” Matt remarked in a voice that indicated that a conversation about rhinoplasty was not on his Top Ten List of Things to Talk About at Brunch.

Frowning, Marjorie gazed questioningly at Kevin. She knew the others’ minds were burning with curiosity, but she figured she’d be the one who would ask. She had to offer something to the conversation. “So Kevin love, where’s your wife? Is she still feeling embarrassed about last night?”

“I hope not,” Deborah added. “Hardly anyone noticed. And even the ones who did will find something else to spread around town like Brie cheese on bread.” The latter part of her statement was true. The second part was not.

“Kristin is on her way to New York,” Kevin replied. From his tone of voice, it sounded like he was fine with the trip. Either that or his disapproval was expertly veiled. “There’s a casting call for a part in a movie.”

“Oh New York!” Deborah placed her elbow on the table, her chin on her palm. “I remember New York. I almost miss it. Almost being the operative word. Until I hear about the record low temperatures and heavy snow showers.”

“Five inches on the way,” Jessica put in, thanks to the Weather Channel. “I don’t envy them one bit. I can deal without a white Christmas for once in my life. There will be others, I assure you. The way it feels now, we might get one here.”

“So Kevin,” Rachel began in that sly tone that indicated that she was fishing for information, earning a glare from Jessica, “are you going home for Christmas?”

Kevin, who was naïve about Rachel’s keen sense of interest (and that’s putting mildly), answered truthfully. “That’s the plan so far.” Then he stopped a minute, thought—about motives. A dubious grin lit up his face. “What—are you planning to get me a gift, Rachel? That’s so charming of you. If you do, make sure it doesn’t need watering too much or isn’t already potty-trained.”

“Sure.” She beamed. “I can get those strippers anytime you want. With one phone call.” Rachel could be so wonderfully unpredictable sometimes.

“Oh Rachel,” Matt said in a chiding tone that intensified his fading Texas drawl, his face comically straight, as everyone laughed in astonishment. “Leave Melanie and Nicole out of this. I don’t think Kristin would appreciate it very much it if she walked in the room and found her husband getting a lap dance from two young black women to the tune of ‘Bootylicious.’”

Fresh peals of laughter broke out at the mind’s eye image that Matt had just described to them. The laughter increased when Rachel kicked Matt underneath the table. As the tabletop rattled and centerpieces trembled, Jessica and Deborah had to save their drinks, which fed the mirth.

When Irene Thomas-Wolfe drifted to their table, her blue eyes were filled with mirth. She surveyed the scene carefully before speaking. Apparently, the champagne was having an effect on some more than others. But she couldn’t discount how the sight of her eldest laughing freely and unabashedly tugged on her heart. Perhaps—and hopefully—it wasn’t just the champagne. Company had to account for something, didn’t it?

“Do you mind if I join you all?” Irene inquired amicably. The laughter tapered off as everyone fought their giggles to address her. “It sounds like you all are having much more fun over here than we are.”

“We were just joking around, Mrs. Wolfe,” Matt explained. “You can thank Ms. Smith over there for that one.”

“That’s Counselor Smith to you, Chambers,” Rachel shot back. “Watch your titles and prefixes there, my friend.”

Before Rachel and Matt started in on another one of their episodes of friendly raillery, Jessica turned to Kevin on her right. “Oh! Kevin, this is my mother, Irene Thomas-Wolfe. She’s a lawyer—criminal prosecutor to be exact.” She turned to her mother. “Mom, this is Kevin Richardson.”

“Oh yes.” Irene graciously shook his hand and nodded. “You’re the one Midori was talking about. She has said nothing but great and wonderful things about you. I am…very fond of your work as a matter of fact.”

“Work?” Kevin’s eyebrow quirked.

“Mrs. Wolfe, I didn’t know you were a Backstreet Boys fan!” Deborah remarked. She shook her head in idle disbelief. “Well, who would have thought?”

Irene shrugged. “I appreciate good music when I hear it. Who doesn’t?”

“An *NSYNC fan?”

Suddenly, Rachel turned to her, face puckered up in anger and hurt before anyone could laugh. “Damn you, Deborah! How dare you insult my taste in music? I love them boys. They be tearing up my heart all the way down Gracia Avenue every single morning.”

“I’m sorry, Rachel,” Deborah said in a small voice, genuinely contrite—and a little frightened.

Pause. Rachel dropped her straight face and collapsed in laughter again. Everyone followed. Irene watched as Kevin leaned into her eldest daughter and said something in her ear. There was something oddly comforting, reassuring, in that scene—and disturbing.

“Tell me something: are they like this all the time?”

Something abruptly slammed into Jessica at the gut as Kevin’s breath danced along her side of her face. She knew what that invisible punch was—lust. Damn. She tried not to show that it affected her. It was all about appearances, wasn’t it? And she was not about to let her hormones make her into some stuttering, sweating little teenybopper. She was twenty-eight. She could be cool. She didn’t live this long to land herself in a situation like this only to act like a spineless heroine. It was just a question. Not sex. But oh holy Zeus and Buddha, how a deep, dark, buried part of her wished it was…

“Actually,” she said, forcing herself to look at him as if they were sharing some deep dark secret, “it gets worse if it’s anything stronger than champagne.”

As Rachel prodded Marjorie to sing “Tearing Up My Heart” with her, Kevin grinned at her sidelong, putting a jocular light in his olive-green eyes. Now she understood why millions of girls screamed whenever he came into a room. His attractiveness just rendered a woman (or girl) speechless. And able only to scream out his name.

Damn it, able to only scream out his name was not a phrase that seemed exactly appropriate at that moment. What a nice mental image that brought.

Fighting lust, Jessica swallowed nausea and just returned the smile. He’s married, he’s married! repeated like a mantra in her head. Oh God, how she wished that would sink in!

Well, there just went her appetite.

* * *

When the brunch was over, Jessica vowed that she was going to go downstairs to the kitchen and check up on things. Not that she distrusted the kitchen manager; it made her feel better if she checked on the food herself. After that, she would go home and try to go over the new menu additions for the restaurant with a chilled red wine and nothing but peace. And fluffy pillows. With the phone turned off.

Funny, that thing about her and vows—they seemed to continuously get broken around her.

After she bade her friends goodbye, and made a promise to come visit Mayor Wolfe and his wife for Christmas, she found herself toe-to-toe with Kevin Richardson. Marjorie was taking a tour of Gracia with her stepfather and left her without a passenger. And someone to save her from this potentially embarrassing situation.

Shit. She swore inside her head and mustered up a smile as her toe tips throbbed. “Uh, hi there. Did you enjoy brunch?”

The right corner of Kevin’s mouth turned up. “Fine cuisine always puts me in a good mood.”

“Good. As half-owner of this place, I am glad to know you’re satisfied.”

“You half-own this place?” Kevin asked, astonished. “I thought you just moved here.”

Jessica shook her head. “I lived here for a couple of years before I moved to New York. Cassandra, my cousin, bought the space then.” Trying not to get trampled in the current of people leaving, Jessica merged into them and Kevin followed. “Her boyfriend at the time bought half of the shares, but he threatened to run the place into the ground with his ruinous sense of business. So I bought him out when I moved back here.”

“Tell me, did he agree to being bought out?”

Jessica chuckled, remembering. “He had no other choice. I can be very persuasive when I need to be.” She paused as they descended the steps. “Of course, the fact that I’d threatened to emasculate him with a rusty steak knife sort of tipped the scales in my favor.”

Kevin just stared at her as if he were summing her up in his head right at that moment. She had yet to discern if he liked what he saw. But she could tell that she was amusing him, at least. She didn’t know how to feel. The jury was still out on that one.

“Are all men scared of you?” Kevin wanted to know. “Because that sort of statement would make me terrified of you if I hadn’t of met you before now.” Jessica placed her hands in her pockets sheepishly and said nothing. “I can’t imagine how you date without men groveling for mercy on their genitalia.”

Jessica laughed at the mere thought. “That would be a change. Usually the men that meet me for the first time hit on me—and they don’t like it when I hit on them back. I stick with the men I know well. They understand me best.”

“Like Matt Chambers?”

“Yeah, like Matt. We’ve been buddies for years.” She sighed, the memories of their friendship sweet to her. “I remember the first time I met him. His family had just moved to Audbone Heights to distance themselves from the oil refinery business, and all the kids thought he was spoiled. So when he wanted to play with us, the other guys would tell him to bug off.” When Kevin’s eyebrows quirked, she added, “Their words at the time, not mine. Anyway, one day, he wasn’t having any luck with the guys, so I came up to him and asked if he wanted to play Horse with me and my friends. His exact words were, ‘I’m not about to play basketball with a whole bunch of sissy girls.’” Kevin snickered. “And after I hit him in the shoulder and told him he was going to play with us, he snapped out of it. He actually had fun with a whole bunch of sissy girls.”

“It looks like he still does.”

Not knowing what else to say to that, Jessica simply said, “Yep. We can’t shake him.”

“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the legendary Jessica Williams, then my eyes must be deceiving me.”

Well, fuck. That was just her luck. What was it about old acquaintances that made them show up at the most inopportune time? It was radar. It just had to be.

Jessica turned to stare at Chloe Estes, the younger, more immoral sister of her best friend Gillian, and didn’t even find the good breeding to smile. There was too much bad blood between them for her to play nice. “I think you’ve missed the news bulletin, Chloe. Lawrence and I are divorced.”

Chloe reacted with wide-eyed surprise—a surprise that seemed too staged to Jessica. “Oh sweetheart. I’m sorry. And the two of you made a really beautiful couple.” She clucked her tongue. “What a pity. But the single life looks like it’s doing well for you.” And on that note, she noticed Kevin, her tawny-brown eyes lighting up in interest. “So who is this fine…gentleman?”

Jessica held back all manner of pithy comebacks and decided to be gracious. “This is Kevin Richardson.”

Chloe presented him with her bejeweled hand. “Chloe Estes.” After another considering glance, she asked, “That name sounds familiar. Do you I know you from somewhere?”

“Probably not,” Kevin answered. He had summed her up, and already he found that he didn’t like her. “But then again, the name Chloe Estes doesn’t ring a bell in my head either.”

Jessica stifled a snicker and took Kevin’s arm. It was time to go. “It was nice seeing you, Chloe. Have fun and do enjoy your food here.” Before Chloe could stop them, Jessica whisked Kevin toward the back of the restaurant to the kitchen, where cooks sliced, diced, and mixed. Here, food sizzled and tastes melded over heat. Jessica called out to a petite figure in a white cook’s hat over the symphony of cooking. A young-looking brunette glanced up, then rolled her eyes.

“Cousin Jess—” she began.

“Stuff a mushroom in it, Julia Child,” Jessica said briskly. She looked around to make sure things were in order. That was the way she was.

Kevin watched at Jessica took over the chopping of onions, the stirring of skillets, the garnishing of plates. The small brunette wandered close to him and sighed wearily as Jessica yelled at someone about overcooking chicken. Yes, this was the same woman who would emasculate a man with a rusty steak knife. If she was pushed, Kevin contended as laughter broke out over a joke about snow peas. Otherwise, she was focused, driven, and fair. A perfectionist. He could admire and understand that quality in her.

“Sometimes I wonder why I don’t just quit,” said the brunette. She looked up at a stunned Kevin thoughtfully. “Do you know how to cook?”

* * *

Later, after they had exited the restaurant, Kevin found out that the small brunette had actually been Jessica’s cousin, Julianne Harrison.

“She just graduated from culinary arts school,” Jessica explained as they drifted out of the restaurant. “She did short-order for a while, and then Cass and I made her kitchen manager. We’re going to wait to make her head cook.”

“So what do you do?” Jessica frowned at him. “I mean, it looked like Cassandra has the lion’s share of the work.”

“Of course she does. I just stepped into the whole scheme of things. Besides, Cassandra prefers it that way. This is her livelihood, so to speak. She loves being here for ten hours, even though she doesn’t have to. The restaurant manager she hired could run the place with her hands behind her back. We’ve got good cashiers, good hosts. So Cassandra’s not working too much.” Kevin stopped and leaned on her car. She raised an eyebrow. “But if you must know, I’m going to be head cook a few nights a week starting at the beginning of the year.”

“That ought to be a sight. I can see you and your cousin dueling already. It’ll be frying pans at fifty paces.”

Jessica hit him on the arm playfully and he laughed. “Shut up. That’s not funny. We’re family, so that entitles us to fight like children whenever we see each other.” She crossed her arms. “Don’t you have family that you argue with?”

“Yes I do,” Kevin replied in a voice that was slightly wistful, a voice that implied sweet memories of home-cooked dinners and family barbeques. “In a land far, far away.”

Jessica tilted her head. “That’s sad. No really, it is.” She shook her head absently, and then, Kevin could see another side of her. A side that mildly surprised him. “I don’t know what I would do if I had been dropped on this earth all alone. I certainly wouldn’t have anyone to argue with, but then there wouldn’t be anyone to share my good fortune with.”

“That’s your Achilles’ heel,” Kevin observed. “Your family.”

“Isn’t everyone’s?”

“Mmm…” Kevin considered this. Jessica not was shaping out to be the woman he thought she was. “No. Not everybody’s. Some people would be more hurt if someone took money from them, or their plasma screen TV. But you and I, my friend, we are different.”

“Thank goodness.” She sighed, then looked at her watch. “And speaking of family, I’ve got to go Christmas shopping. With all of the moving and rearranging, I didn’t get to go shopping early like I usually do.”

“Do you want company?”

Jessica blinked. “Company?” Then, in a flash, she figured out what Kevin wanted. To spend time with her. “Oh! I’m sorry. I was kind of lost for a second.” Goodness, how could she refuse those darling green eyes? Sucker. “Well, if you don’t have anything else to do…”

A few moments later, they were strolling down Gracia Row, window shopping and making idle conversation. Jessica pushed down lust for a moment and found that she was comfortable. She hated that clichéd feeling of comfort that she had just discovered. What kind of woman liked another woman’s husband?

Pulling herself back to the task at hand, Jessica paused at a jewelry store with her mother in mind. She had been planning to buy her a diamond and sapphire tennis bracelet for a long time, but she hadn’t had the chance to search for one.

The jingling of a bell signaled their arrival, and a smartly dressed young man greeted them with a beguiling grin. “Hello, and how are you two today?”

“We’re fine, thank you,” Jessica responded, glancing around for what she was looking.

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” the man asked. Before she could answer, he gazed at them thoughtfully. “I think I know what you two are in here for. A beautiful couple like you must be looking for something…special.” He grabbed Jessica’s hand. “We have just the thing for you, right over here.”

“Uh…” Jessica uttered, shocked to speechlessness. Kevin was enjoying seeing her blindsided for once, so he just stood there and watched. And smirked.

The man took them to the glass counter and pointed to a diamond-sapphire solitaire bedded on blue velvet. “This one’s our best seller. It’s classic and—”

Jessica found her senses enough to extract her hands from his. “Not what we came here for.”

The man’s smile dropped a notch. “Oh? You two aren’t—?”

“We’re not getting married anytime soon,” Jessica interrupted briskly. “I’m divorced and he’s”—she thumbed in Kevin’s direction—“already married.”

“Oh,” the man said abruptly, nodding. Then, after he took a speculative look at the duo, he smirked and drew out the little word into three syllables. “Oh. I see.”

Jessica frowned, then looked back at Kevin. Kevin shrugged innocently and she narrowed his eyes at him, a silent threat.

Fifteen agonizing, embarrassing minutes later, Jessica walked out of the jewelry store with her mother’s Christmas present and a set of pursed lips. And she wanted so badly to hit someone. Or something solid, but not too solid, because it could hurt back.

“Are you alright?” Kevin asked gingerly.

Jessica twisted her head to work out the kinks in her tense neck. “I’m fine, thank you. Nice of you to save me back there before that jeweler had us walking down the altar.”

Kevin grinned at her. “I’m happy to be of service.”

Jessica growled. A few people blinked at her as she walked past them. “I think you better go home before something happens to you.”

His grin gave way to laughter, and Jessica’s lips tightened. She resisted the urge to growl again, because she knew it would make him laugh harder. And while a part of her loved to hear his laugh, the more sensible part of her figured that it wouldn’t be a good idea to make him laugh.

“Was your ex-husband intimidated by that Amazon growl of yours?” Kevin asked, when his laughter had tapered off.

Even though he was joking, and she knew it, she paused in front of a pet store and just stared at him. Lawrence had found his way into her life again, and Kevin was the one with the hand on the doorknob. But he had opened the door without reading the signs first. Excusable…or stupid? No, he had to be excused. Just this one time.

Shaking her head, she resumed walking and caught up with him. “Lawrence insisted that I was affected by my bad relationship with my mother’s ex-husband.” When Kevin opened his mouth to speak, she clarified, “My father.”

“Oh.” The one word was quiet and somber. As horns honked and people clamored around them, Kevin focused upon the woman in step beside him. And urged her to speak more. “He didn’t…hurt you, did he?”

“No, no.” Jessica shook her head. “He made the very unintelligent mistake of thinking he could rule me—and my sisters, too. His grand plan was to have a private medical practice with him at the helm—and his children doing the work.” She chuckled sardonically. “He was quite disappointed when his first-born turned out to be a girl. But that didn’t stop him. Oh no. He just supposed that a woman would be easier to control. And supposed wrong.”

They paused at a crosswalk and waited for the light to turn red. Jessica looked up at him. “Lawrence postulated that I became a ‘manbeater’—his term of course—because I never truly outran or outwitted my father. In some ways I didn’t. I do have a medical license. And I married the man he wanted me to marry. But then again, here we are talking about it, so then that means that I did.” She paused. “Do you think I’m a manbeater?”

The light turned red, and it was safe to cross. As they walked, Kevin remarked, “I think there is something inside of you that makes men afraid of you. I’ll admit that there was something that intimidated me the first time we met. And then of course,” he added, “Matt was terrified when you found out that he told that story—”

“And rightly so,” Jessica broke in. “I’d flog him in a minute to teach him a lesson. But I wouldn’t beat him to death.” A brief smile touched the corners of her mouth. “I think a certain reputation precedes me because of massive exaggeration. People hear that and think I’m a monster.”

“You’re not a monster,” Kevin assured her. “At best, you’re a little high-strung—”

“High-strung?!”

“—And a little over-protective. I’ll bet, I’ll just bet, that half of the fights you ever got in were about your sisters.”

Fuming, Jessica crossed her arms. Damn, why did he have to be so accurate? “Well, someone had to take care of them until they could beat the crap of people themselves.”

“You’re their big sister. It’s written in your job description, somewhere. That’s what older sibs do.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. He felt the jolt under his fingertips and tried to ignore it. “And that husband of yours? I’ll just bet that he misunderstood you from the very beginning. You kicked his ass when you guys were little.”

Jessica snickered. “Broke his nose once. With a basketball.” She started to laugh. “He was teasing my little sister Gretchen.” She looked at him, eyes a little wide. “Are you sure you’re not a quack underneath that boy-band exterior?”

It was Kevin’s turn to be dismayed. “Hey!” he protested. “Now that’s not fair.”

When Jessica pursed her lips together this time, it was to hold back a laugh. She teased him down Gracia Avenue, shopping forgotten. He threatened her, but she knew he couldn’t—and wouldn’t follow through. Amid their laughter, a petite woman walked out of a coffee shop and noted the pair, having a hunch that she should keep her eye on each of them.

 

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