Copyright © 2013 Mary Hughes
All rights reserved
The waiter zoomed back and slid a loaf of spicy‑smelling bread in front of each of them.
Cliff ate all of his, then sat, eyes wistfully following Vickie’s second slice on its way to her mouth. After a few minutes of puppy‑dog eyes, Vickie swallowed carefully. “Would you like some of mine?”
“Only if you’re sure.”
“I’m sur—” She wasn’t really surprised to see the rest of her loaf disappear. “How do you survive on l’haute cuisine when you entertain clients?”
“I don’t.” He washed down the bread with a full glass of water. “I have a cook who raised seven sons. She feeds me after I’ve been out.”
“You’re going to go home and eat after this?”
“No, of course not.” He grinned and pressed his fingers into the crumbs of bread on her plate, then licked his fingers. “There is, however, a chocolate cake in the refrigerator at my house, calling softly to me.”
“Really? Are you sure that’s not my brownie, singing from your stomach?”
“I can see you’re going to be stubborn over this.”
Vickie raised one eyebrow. “I prefer ‘tenacious’.”
“Hmm.” Cliff tapped his empty glass thoughtfully, then picked up the pitcher and poured them both more water. As the ice cracked, not looking at her, he said, “Maybe you’d like to try some.”
“Chocolate cake. Hannah makes it with semisweet bakers chocolate and cream cheese and fresh eggs and, well, it’s really good.”
“You mean…you’re inviting me to your house?
“Yes.” He looked up then, eyes clear and intent. “No strings attached, of course.”
She shook her head. Impossible. He was impossible, it was impossible.
Cliff smiled ruefully. “I don’t blame you, after the way I behaved the last time.”
“No, that’s not it.” Vickie flushed, feeling slightly guilty. It was the first time he had mentioned it since that day and now he was taking full blame for the incident? Sweet man… “I’d love to come.”
A smile spread clear across his face, clear to his eyes. “Thanks.”
“For giving me another chance. So, which do you like better, coding or managing?”
Vickie wondered at his sudden shift in topics, but said, “I like them both, I guess. I like working with your people a lot.” Especially your CEO.
That was about all she thought it was professional and proper to say, so she then attempted to shift the focus from herself. “What about you? Which do you like better?”
“I like them both, too, I guess,” he said, mimicking her overly‑bright tone. “Good grief, Vickie, I get more on the real you from John than I do from you. What’s the problem?” His eyes narrowed. “Are you afraid of me?”
That stung her eyes wide. Lucky guess, or was he really that sharp? She fenced a little. “You mean, am I afraid of you, just because you own the company?”
“Let’s not start that again.”
“Well, aside from the fact that my boss thinks you walk on water and that your influence probably could keep me from ever finding another job if I ever crossed you, no, I can’t think of any reason to be afraid of you.” Let’s not mention crushing my heart.
“You forgot your brother.”
The flip rejoinder she’d been about to make stuck in her throat. Fortunately the waiter zoomed in with the pizza. He set the steaming hot pie between them, then whipped out a metal server and dug it under one precut slice.
Cliff smiled at the waiter, waved him off, and served the pizza himself.
As he slid a thick wedge on her plate she found her voice. “What has my brother got to do with it?” She didn’t even bother asking how he knew she had a brother.
“He’s at a rather expensive university, wouldn’t you say?” He raised an eyebrow at her.
“Yes, but he’s got a generous scholarship that pays for most of…” She trailed off as realization dawned.
“Provided by the Hawkesclyffe Foundation.” He slid a wedge onto his own plate. “Mmm. Smells great.” He picked it up and bit off half the slice. “Tastes even better.”
Vickie watched him chew, trying to clear her head. “Did you know?” she said finally. “Did you give him the money on purpose, because you somehow knew who I was?” She winced when she realized how self-centered that sounded.
“You mean to hold it over you? Other way around, actually.” He finished the slice. “I screen all scholarship recipients and found out about you.” He took another huge bite. “Although I admit I thought V. Johnston was a brother, until I met you.”
“At the office?”
“No, at the hotel.”
She blushed, remembering it. Then, remembering it, “I didn’t tell you my name then.”
“People at the embassy mentioned a person named
had been kidnapped, and since I would be in town, would I please look out for
Mr. Johnston. Apparently I wasn’t the only one confused on that point. Then I
saw you, and the matter was cleared up immediately. Definitely female.” Johnston
His eyes met and held hers, his mouth crooked up on one side in a very sexy smile, and for a moment she couldn’t breathe. She looked away. “I’m glad you were there. I don’t think I could have escaped, otherwise.”
“You didn’t seem glad at the time.”
“There were…other factors.” Sexy, high-handed, half-naked factors. “So about that subroutine.”
“You mean the one you sneakily commented?”
“Hardly. The variables were clearly and beautifully named, anyway.” And they were back on safe ground again.
When they were done eating, Cliff put the tab on the company card and they walked together out of the restaurant, hunger, for food at any rate, sated.
Silently, she let him into her sedan. Wondering what she’d find at his home. Whether he’d be professional…or not. The idea of his…not…excited her. And that scared her. As she pulled out, she said, “You know, I didn’t mean it before, about being afraid of you. I’m not afraid of anyone just because they’re in a position of authority. But…well, you’re big, you know. I’d imaging most people would find you…intimidating.”
He laughed. “Not so very long ago, you could have kicked sand in my face at the beach.”
“I can’t picture that.”
“But it’s true. I was a skinny kid. Tall, but gangly. No interest in sports whatsoever. Turn right here.”
Vickie realized they were headed toward the park Cliff had taken her to for their picnic. She wondered if he lived nearby. “In my high school, we had jocks, nerds and freaks. Jocks were brawn without brains, nerds were brains without brawn, and freaks didn’t have either. Somehow, I can’t see you with the broken glasses and a pocket computer.”
“But I was. Nothing interested me except for electronic gismos. Obviously, that did not make me too popular with my peers.”
“It must have delighted your parents.” Vickie’s head spun. Yet another Cliff.
“Dad was already dead by then. Mum just despaired of me ever making it in proper society.”
He shrugged. “It was a long time ago. I guess that’s part of the reason I hated sports. Dad was always very athletic, and it just got him killed.”
Cliff gave her a series of directions before continuing. “He was a career serviceman. Well, he volunteered for every extra assignment that came along, which allowed Mum to live in the style to which she was accustomed, and got Dad out of the house. And since Dad kept himself in peak physical condition, he was always chosen for the highest‑paid, and coincidentally most dangerous assignments.” He smiled thinly before going on.
“One day, he volunteered for a peace‑keeping force in the
East. He and his commanding officer were taken hostage the day
after he got there. Dad died helping the officer escape.”
“He was a hero, then.” The directions had taken her into the park. She stopped, uncertain.
Cliff looked up from his own thoughts, saw her indecision, and smiled. “Go straight. We moved here after that.”
She started forward. The parkway, surprisingly, curved into a long driveway.
And at the end of the drive stood the most beautiful home she had ever seen.