(Missed some? Read chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.)
Q: Why do bees have sticky hair?
A: They use honeycombs.
— Laffy Taffy Joke #95
When Dyllie finished inspecting every blade of grass for the perfect spot to squat, we turned to head back to the limo.
In what couldn't have been more than sixty seconds, the limo had disappeared, leaving Phelps, Ferrero, and the driver standing next to the pile of luggage. One of the bags—mine, of course—had fallen open in a brisk wind, sending my weekend wardrobe flying across the heavily trafficked Cross Westchester Expressway. And a dozen police cars had the parking lot surrounded.
"What the hell happened?" I shouted, running as fast as my Stuart Weitzman's could carry me, and tugging on Dyllie to keep up.
A stern voice on the megaphone stopped my return. "Don't move and raise your hands above your head."
I froze and tried to lift my hands, but Dyllie's leash kept my right hand from rising above shoulder height.
"Both hands above your head."
Stifling a growl of frustration, I shouted back, "I can't, my dog is attached to my—"
"Lydia Vanderwalk?" The voice asked.
"Y-yes," I ventured.
"Hey, it's me," the voice continued, as if that were an enlightening statement of identity, "Rick Pearson."
In the space of two words I was back in high school, crushing on the Bingley Academy quarterback. Rick of the surfer boy good looks, West Coast laid back attitude, and truly generous nature. Always in the nebulous zone between popular and not, I had flourished under the platonic friendship Rick offered when his family moved in next door. After a while platonic wasn't enough.
But he had only ever seen me as a friend. More as a little sister than the cherished girlfriend I fantasized of being. Mom had said he became a cop. Apparently she was right.
"Sir, take off the trench coat and lay it on the ground."
A swarm of cops with service revolvers aimed at her hire-a-date had a way of popping a girl out of a daydream.
"Rick, what the hell is going on?" I asked as he sidled up next to me.
"We got a—" He dropped the megaphone, probably realizing that if he could hear me I could hear him. "We got a report of a carjacking."
"That was us, you moron," Phelps shouted, trench coat in hand. "We were carjacked."
A ruby blush colored Rick's cheeks.
Turning his attention to the gathered police, he announced over the megaphone, "These aren't the perps. Spread out into a vehicular canvas of the area. Kirby, post an APB on a black Lincoln limousine."
In a flurry of activity, the cops rushed back into their patrol cars and roared out of the parking lot, sirens blaring.
"Sweet Saltwater Taffy, Rick," I gasped as we met in front of the sad pile of luggage. "What was that about?"
"A mistake," he admitted. He always had more integrity than any ten men. "I apologize. We've had a rash of carjackings lately, I guess we rode into the wave before we figured if it was rideable or not."
I took that as surfer-speak for leaping before they looked.
"So you really became a cop. You always said that's what you wanted to do."
"Yeah." He baby blue eyes sparkled with the excitement of someone who loves their work. "Became sheriff even."
"Sheriff, really? Aren't you a little young?"
I felt old. Very old.
Almost thirty-three, unattached, uncertain, and under the influence of a successful, bright-eyed, California boy with a lot more muscles than he'd had as a high school football player.
"Nah. I worked hard to get this job."
"I would imagi—"
"What?" My irritation at being interrupted made my question snappish. But Phelps should see that I was happily flirting here and—
"Don't you think we should retrieve your underwear before it gets stuck to the tires of an eighteen-wheeler and decides to hitchhike to Canada?"
Just then a blur of pink rolled past my feet. Rick and I both bent to grab it, but his reaction was quicker. As he handed me the thong, color again staining his sculpted cheeks, the glint of sunlight on gold flashed in my eyes.
Of all the luck. A wedding band.
I stuffed the wad of lace in my pocket and took off to save the rest of my belongings from a trip to the border.
Rick dropped Phelps, Ferrero, and me at my parents house before heading to the police station with the driver to take his statement. Ferrero was inconsolable, bemoaning the loss of his precious limo and wondering how we would ever get back to the city from the godforsaken country. No attempts to explain that Westchester is suburban and not rural could convince him that we had any number of options for transport home, not the least of which was my dad's SUV.
But from the moment the squad car pulled up in front of my house, there was not a moment for self-pity.
"Lydia, my God," Mom squealed as she ran down the porch steps, "what happened? Are you hurt? Have you—"
"No, Mom, we're fine."
"—been to the hospital? Have you—"
"Really, no one's hurt."
"—done something illegal? And what—"
"Of course not."
"—is that?" She finally stopped to point an accusatory finger at me.
"What?" I turned in a circle, trying to discern what had her so concerned. Finding nothing, I asked, "What is what?"
"That, that, that thing under your arm."
Lifting my arm I saw Dyllie poking her furry head out of my purse. Though the carjacker saw fit to leave us our luggage—my guess was that Ferrero negotiated for that—he did not leave the doggie tote.
"Oh, this is Dyllie. She's a— um, I'm not sure what she is, actually."
"A dog?" Mom squealed.
"Yes, I'm just not sure what kind."
She looked odd, both horrified and furious, like she could go either way. When she rushed me with arms outstretched, I instinctively tucked Dyllie behind my back. Mom had been a little emotional lately, and I didn't want a defenseless puppy to bear the brunt.
Next thing I knew, Mom threw her arms around me and engulfed me in an enthusiastic hug.
"How wonderful, darling," she exclaimed. "I thought you would never get over your fear of dogs. I can't believe you actually bought a pup—"
"Actually," I interrupted, "it was Phelps who bought me the dog."
Mom jumped back, as if she just realized that there were other people present. And that one of them was my purported boyfriend. She quickly brushed down the floral apron covering her skirt in a homemaker's instinctive primp for company.
"Mom," I said by way of introduction, "meet Franco Ferrero, my boss. Franco, my mother, Jeanette Vanderwalk."
While they exchanged pleasantries I looked at Phelps, uncertain that I could carry on the charade in front of my mother. In two steps he was by my side, his arm around my waist. No turning back now.
"And this—" I took a deep breath and leaned into Phelps's side. "—is my date, Ph—"
"Elliot," he interrupted, thrusting out a hand in offering. "Elliot Phelps."
I blinked what felt like a thousand times, watching as Mom took Phelps's hand in both of hers, welcoming him into her household.
Why had he introduced himself that way? No matter how hard I concentrated, I couldn't come up with a single valid reason. It just didn't make any sense.
"Welcome home, gumdrop." Dad emerged on the porch, barbecue tongs in hand and sporting an apron that read, Kiss the Cook. "Let's get these cityfolk settled so we can start the party."
Just like that, Dad set everyone to action. Ferrero picked up his worn leather briefcase. Phelps hoisted his duffle bag onto his shoulder and grabbed the two suitcases. I tucked Dyllie down into my purse. Mom herded us up the steps and into the house.
I had told Phelps that we would probably be in separate rooms. My parents were kind of old fashioned in a lot of ways. Which only made their sudden decision to uproot and sail around the world even more peculiar.
So, when Mom showed Phelps and me to my old bedroom—now devoid of all but a bed and a nightstand—and told us to come downstairs when we were ready, it only added to the shock.
"I can't believe she put us in the same room."
Phelps set the luggage and his duffle at the end of the bed before flopping his lean length onto the quilt-covered mattress. "After the day I've had," he exhaled as folded his arms behind his head and closed his eyes, "I'm just glad to have a bed at all."
"What?" I asked. Spying a few inches of space, I sat down next to his hip. "You mean more than being stuck in a limo with Ferrero in an artistic tizzy, pulling over to get a trench coat out of the trunk, and getting carjacked in the process?"
He unfolded one tan arm and rubbed his eyes. I'd never seen him look quite so worn out.
"I had the gig from hell this morning."
I leaned down on one elbow and took over his temple massage. Come to think of it, he had been uncharacteristically quiet during the drive up. I had chalked it up to Ferrero's obsessive attitude, but maybe it was more.
"Tell me about it," I ventured as I rubbed gentle circles across his forehead.
He smiled a wicked grin. "I spent six hours surrounded by fawning swimsuit models."
His eyes flashed open and before I could react he reached around my neck and pulled me flush across his body. Settling me across his chest, he clasped his hands over my lower back and held me close.
I closed my eyes and absorbed the feeling of every single inch of his fitness model body. I found myself sinking into him. Startled, my eyes jerked open, only to find him fully relaxed against the pillow, his own eyes dreamily drifted shut.
"Poor baby," I cooed, laying my head down on his chest. Mesmerized by the rhythmic rise and fall of his breathing, my mind drifted.
How long had it been since I felt this way? So content. There was something about this wild man that, paradoxically enough, soothed my mind. He might not be the kind of guy I would settle down with, but he sure was the kind that made me feel like a princess. And most of the time I didn't even remember that he was seven years younger.
Most of the time.
He was fun and exciting and always came up with ways to shake up my life. Like when he—
"Hey," I admonished, shaking him out of our contented slumber, "Why did you introduce yourself to my mom as Elliot Phelps?"
"Because that's my name," he answered sleepily.
"My name." His eyes drifted open and he looked at me with the blurry admiration of a puppy dog—not that Dyllie would ever stoop to blurry admiration.
"No," I argued, "your name is Phelps Elliot. Fiona told me. You told me. I saw it in a magazine."
I rolled off his chest and off the bed to better project my indignation. He sat up, stretching the beautiful, tight t-shirt-clad chest.
"I'm sure you did." Stifling a yawn, he jumped out of bed and pulled me into a hug. "But my real name is Elliot Phelps. Elliot Richard Phelps, actually. Famous Faces thought Phelps Elliot sounded a little more fashionable. A little less—"
"Geeky?" I supplied.
He frowned. "Exactly."
Okay, that might have been a low blow. "But why didn't you tell me the truth before?"
"Never came up." He shrugged, as if it didn't matter, but the wariness lurking in his bright blues said it did.
And none of this explained... "Then why did you tell my mom the truth? Why not just keep up the façade."
"It wasn't a façade, Lyd. It was just... easier." He looked away for an instant before meeting my eager gaze. "I didn't want any half-truths between us anymore."
Holy Hot Tamales. There was some kind of intensity in his eyes, in his entire body as he confessed this. He might as well have said I want there to be more between us.
My first instinct was to run. To back away and never, ever mention this again.
But his arms tightened around me before I could flee.
Forced to look at him, to answer, I faced the deep down realization that maybe I wanted there to be more, too.
My eyes dropped to his mouth, so full and masculine and begging to be kissed. To kiss. He licked his lips and I lost the ability to breath. At that moment I had to kiss him, or die.
Suddenly I knew that all those romance novels were on to something.
And I needed to find out more.
Framing his beautiful, chiseled cheeks with my hands, I looked up into his searching, questioning eyes. Phelps, the man who drove me around Southampton on a yellow Vespa, would never reveal that much uncertainty. But Elliot, the man who came home to meet my parents with an open heart, showed a vulnerability that tugged at me.
In answer to his silent question, I lifted onto my toes and kissed him.
Right there on the mouth in my childhood bedroom.
It was like magic. He tasted better than any penny candy or gourmet sweet ever could.
His arms tightened around my waist, pulling me into him as his tongue nudged my mouth open. I willingly let him in.
We were as close as we could get, but I needed to be even closer. Finding the hem of his t-shirt, I tugged it up to reveal his washboard abs. The instant my fingers touched his heated flesh, I knew what real lust felt like.
Never one to be overtaken by passion, I felt the red-eyed monster take over, urging me to uncover more skin, feel more, reveal more. Lust was carrying me away.
Until my mother burst in.
"Oh, my, dear, I didn't— I mean, I'm sorry to— well, color me embarrassed."
I tried to jump away, but Ph— Elliot held me close.
"What is it, Mom?" I asked as I continued to struggle, finally breaking free of his embrace just as another figure stepped into the doorway.
"Well, you see, there's a young woman here who claims to know your Mr. Phelps."
After seeing to it that my clothes were back in order—it seemed that he had done some uncovering of his own—I looked up.
My jaw dropped at the sight of the extremely pregnant woman in the doorway.
"Rhonda?" Phelps and I exclaimed at the same time.
Then Phelps ran up to embrace the woman I had last seen on her knees in front of my fiancé.