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Sugar and Spice

Written by Lynnette Kent

Chapter five

Kissing Cass was like coming home?only better, because his empty house didn't welcome him the way she did, with an instant melting against him, the warmth of her palms holding his wrists, the spicy sweet taste of her lips moving, giving under his. He could have stood in the rain with her forever.

Except that she was pulling away. He lifted his head to look at her and found her eyes closed, her smile dreamy. "Ian." He'd never heard his name sighed that way before, wanted to hear it over and over again. Then she opened her eyes. "I have to go. It's not heart surgery." She smiled, wistfully. "But people do count on me."

A sudden clutch in his gut protested. But commitment was a characteristic he respected. And this was a woman he'd come to care about too much to dishonor. "I know." He stepped back, set her free. "Can I see you sometime this week? I don't know my schedule, but?" Like he ever had free time during the week for something as ordinary, as sociable, as a date.

Cass smiled at him over her shoulder as she unlocked her car. "Oh, I imagine we'll run into each other. After all, this is a really small town."

They next ran into each other on his staircase, as Ian was using his last ounce of energy climbing up and Cass was skipping down. He gazed up at her, sniffing the air. "Is that paint I smell?"

She stopped, blocking his way. "Paint, it is. Top quality latex."

Ian had liked the white walls. After a day of chaos at the hospital?? a day like this one where it seemed everything had gone wrong?? white was quiet. Soothing. He came to the step just below the one on which Cass stood, but when he edged to the right, so did she. "You didn't tell me you were going to paint."

"You didn't ask." When Ian stepped to her left, she followed.

Hands on his hips, he frowned. "What color?"

"Which room?"

"You're painting all the rooms different colors?" He swallowed hard. "And the bathrooms?"

"Paper."

Worse and worse. Visions of his mother's flower-covered walls assailed him. Again, he tried to move past her. Again, Cass blocked. "Please, let me by," he said through clenched jaws, barely remembering his manners. "I want to see what you're doing."

"Why don't you wait until it's done and get the whole effect?"

"Because it doesn't make sense to have you do something, pay for everything, and then have to do it over when I hate it. I'd rather stop this process as early as possible."

"Whoa." The woman above him backed up a step. "What happened to trusting me?"

He had said that. And meant it. But tonight, he just couldn't take the chance.

"What happened to making things comfortable without any major changes?" he retorted.

There was no doubt he'd roused her temper. She had her chin up in the air and her eyes were hard. "Your family will appreciate these changes."

"My family will be here three nights. I live here all the time. If I'd wanted the walls all sorts of wild colors, I would have had them painted that way."

Cass jammed her hands in the pockets of her overalls. "Excuse me, but that's not quite the impression you gave me of the way you finished this house." When Ian opened his mouth, she shook her head. "Never mind. Feel free to go up and make your judgment. If you hate it, tell the guys to paint over the color and charge the paint to me. I wouldn't stick you with a room you didn't like any more than I would a meal you couldn't eat. Good night." Brushing past him, she hurried down the stairs. The slam of the front door rattled the windows in every room.

Ian ran his hands over his face and through his hair. Then, wearily, he climbed the rest of the way to the second floor to see what disaster awaited him there.

The room at the top had two walls painted a soft green, lighter than the chair fabric he'd chosen, but in the same shade. With the woodwork left white, he had to admit the effect was cool, crisp. Pleasant. There were no flowers in the bathroom, just a pale green, marble-patterned paper with rolls of a Greek key border waiting to be installed.

So it went. As he viewed each bedroom, Ian found a variation of paint against which his green chair looked?well, great. Soft gold, a light brown. The most unusual color was orange?? not a harsh or bright tone, just a moment pulled from a cozy blaze in the fireplace and expanded to glow on the walls. He felt warm and comfortable, standing there in the half-painted room.

At the same time, he felt like an absolute jerk. A heel. An ungrateful, stupid, ill-natured boor.

And there was nobody in the house to tell him he was wrong.

Cass turned her answering machine off and refused to answer the first six calls that rang after she got home. She didn't want to talk to anyone on the entire planet, not even Russell Crowe. Didn't need any more work. Didn't want any more friends. Just expected to sit on the couch next to Ginger with a pint of H?en Dazs and eat until her teeth froze and her brain exploded.

"When?" she asked the kitten. "When will I learn?" All her life, she'd been smart, fast, organized. And bossy. How many times had she heard that from teachers, from other girls? From boys? And when would she stop expecting to find a man who actually appreciated her talent for getting things done?

Today might just be the day. Ian Baker had accomplished what no man had done before. He'd shut Cass Stuart up.

A pint of H?en Dazs didn't last long enough for this kind of pain, and Cass realized she would have to go out for more. She set the carton on the floor for Ginger to clean and was dragging on her jacket, debating between French Vanilla and Bailey's Irish Cream, when the phone rang again.

"'Lo?" Then she remembered, and swore.

"Cass, it's Ian. Don't hang up." The words reached her even as she aimed the receiver at its hook. "Please, let me apologize."

She brought the phone back to her ear long enough to say, "Don't bother." Then, for some reason, she didn't hang up, but stood there like a fool, one arm in her coat and one out. Waiting.

"Listen, Cass, I was wrong. Totally, miserably wrong." He sounded breathless, frantic. "I looked at the rooms upstairs and the colors are great. Perfect. I wouldn't change one, and the bathroom papers are fantastic, too. I'm really sorry I acted like such a?a?"

"Would you like me to supply the word?"

"I'm sure you could. Let's just take it as already said." She heard the smile in his voice. "My only excuse is that I had a really bad day. A patient died during bypass surgery. Not my case but, still, it throws everybody."

Immediately, she felt horrible. "Oh, Ian, I'm so sorry. Why didn't you say something?"

"I didn't give myself a chance, did I? Instead, I jumped down your throat and made everything worse. But if you'll forgive me, that'll help."

How could she refuse? "Of course. Do you want me to keep going? It's up to you."

"Definitely." No doubt at all. "And I want to make up to you for being a jerk."

Cass smiled, the ice cream forgotten. "How do you propose to do that?"

"You'd like to know, wouldn't you?" Ian now sounded his usual, in-control self. "Just meet me here at eight Friday night. I guarantee an evening you won't forget!"

To be continued...

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Despite being a child of the North Carolina mountains, I seem destined...

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