Sugar and Spice
His next move turned out to be far easier than Ian had imagined. Maybe even predestined. He woke up Sunday morning to find chilly November rain pouring down outside the windows. For some reason, the idea of going to a worship service occurred to him.
And the first person he saw, as he shut the church door on a wet gust of wind, was Cass Stuart.
"Ian!" Her lovely face shone with pleasure as she came toward him. "Welcome to St. Peter's. Is this your first visit?"
He shook the hand she extended, then discovered he was reluctant to release her. So he didn't. "I thought I should get back in the habit of showing up on Sundays." Impulsively, he added, "That was even before I knew you were here."
She made no attempt to take her hand back. At his words, her gaze warmed like a goblet of fine liqueur held over a flame. "I'm glad you chose our church this morning. Let me find you a seat." Even as she turned away, her fingers clung to his for a few seconds. Ian missed her touch as soon as it was gone.
Their progress to a suitable pew was delayed by introductions. Cass, it would seem, knew everyone in the congregation, from the grandparents to the youngest of babies. Ian suspected he would have met them all, if the service hadn’t started.
“I’m ushering today,” she whispered, as she seated him. “But I’ll find you later.”
Her introductions continued after the service, in addition to several encounters with doctors and nurses Ian knew from work. He was feeling quite comfortable as they reached the front door and the minister who stood there to greet each member of the departing flock.
But then Cass stepped up ahead of him and hugged the robed man around the neck. “Daddy, I want you to meet somebody.” Before Ian could assimilate what he’d just heard, she caught his hand and drew him forward. “This is Dr. Ian Baker, the client I’ve been telling you and Mom about. Ian, this is my dad, Andrew Stuart.”
Ian put his arm out for a handshake, though he wasn’t sure a word could get past the lump in his throat. “—I’m glad t-to m-meet you, sir. I enjoyed your sermon very much.” There didn’t seem to be much more he could offer, especially since his brain had frozen solid. And the idea he’d come up with about asking Cass to lunch — which was why he hadn’t paid attention to who was preaching — seemed completely hopeless.
The reverend turned to his daughter. “Honey, maybe Dr. Baker would like to join us at home for dinner. Your mother always has an extra place set.”
Paralyzed now, as well as speechless, Ian felt Cass squeeze his hand. “Thanks, Daddy, but we’ve already made lunch plans. We’ll take a rain check, okay?” Still holding on, Cass led Ian out onto the front porch of the church. She looked up at him with a blush on her cheeks and a shy smile in her brown eyes. “You don’t actually have to go to lunch with me. But I knew you weren’t prepared for lunch with them.”
When her hand started to slip away, Ian held tight. “But I do want to go to lunch with you. I was thinking about that instead of the sermon.” He hung his head in mock shame. “If I’d known I was going to meet your dad, I would have listened better.”
Cass stared at him for a second, her soft, wide lips parted in surprise. “That’s…” She shook her head, laughing. “That’s perfect.”
They went down the church steps and Ian turned her toward his car. “So where should we eat?” “Don’t worry,” she said, with another of those smiles he’d become addicted to. “I know just the place.”
* * *
At the Carolina Diner, Cass introduced Ian to the owner, Charlie Brannon, and his daughter, Abby, both of whom stared in shock when he ordered fried chicken.
“It’s bad for you, son.” Charlie shook his head. “You, being a heart surgeon and all, should know that.”
Ian nodded. “Oh, I do. I see enough clogged arteries in a week to make you plan your meals around celery, carrots, and lettuce.” Then he shrugged and grinned. “But what’s the point of living a long life if you don’t enjoy it? A little fried chicken now and then won’t hurt.”
Charlie went back to the kitchen, nodding to himself, obviously pleased. But Abby frowned. “Now see what you’ve done? He’s gonna feed me that line every time I remind him the doctor wants him to lose weight. Thanks a lot, Ian. Thanks a whole lot.” She stomped off, pretending to be mad until she got behind the counter, then gave them both a smile and a wave.
Chuckling, Cass turned to face Ian across the table. “If they only knew how you eat most of the time, they’d probably come hog-tie you and drag you down here every night for a decent dinner.”
“Speaking of which,” he said, fixing her with that deep blue gaze, “I really appreciate the food you left yesterday. I got home early enough to enjoy the chicken and two pieces of pie and a ballgame on TV. I don’t know when I’ve had such a normal Saturday night.”
She could feel a blush climbing to her face. “I’m glad. As long as I was there, I thought…” Taking a deep breath, she looked up from the napkin she’d been pleating. “What did you think of the candles and the table? Are the pillows too much?”
Ian reached over and covered her right hand with his left. “Everything looked really good. I knew I could trust you.” He tightened his hold for a second, then sat back and drew his hand away as Abby approached. “With everything.”
His voice was so low, Cass wasn’t sure she hadn’t imagined that last part. Could he possibly mean…?
But then she got busy making more introductions, as friends she’d known since childhood arrived for Sunday dinner. Rob Warren and his daughter Ginny came over to say hello, and then Adam DeVries, who needed no introduction at all since he’d built Ian’s house to begin with.
“Rob, Adam, Abby, and I graduated from high school the same year,” Cass explained as they drove back to the church, where she’d left her car. “Kate Bowdrey, who’s helping me on your house, was our valedictorian and her brother-in-law, Pete Mitchell, was in the same class. And Charlie’s been running the diner ever since we were in elementary school. It’s a pretty small world, I guess. But I like being able to count on seeing friends wherever I go in town.”
They reached the church parking lot, where her SUV sat alone in the rain. Ian turned to face her. “Do you have plans for the rest of the afternoon?”
Cass wished fiercely that she could say no. “I have to go to work,” she said, instead. “We’re serving lunch to the Women’s Club tomorrow. Sixty plates of chicken Florentine with wild rice pilaf, cranberry-pecan salad, and pumpkin mousse for dessert. I’m making the mousse today.”
”Alone?” There was no mistaking the hope in his mellow voice.
A hope she had to destroy. “Two other people will be at the shop at three o’clock.” She glanced at her watch. “Which gives me a whole five minutes. Good thing it’s a small town.”
Before Ian could stir, she opened her door and stepped out into the rain. But when she got to the driver’s side of her own car, he was there beside her.
“Okay, I give up.” He heaved a mock sigh. “But it’ll only take you three minutes to drive to your shop. So you’ve got two minutes to spare.”
She stared at him, confused. “For what?”
He cupped her face in his warm hands, took the one step that separated their bodies. Then he bent his head until their lips were a mere whisper apart.