"I didn't poison it," he remarked a few minutes later when he saw her reach automatically for the glass then yank her hand away.
"I didn't think you did," she said with a self-conscious laugh. She picked up the glass and drank some, and Zack noticed that her hand was shaking. She was uneasy about going to bed with him, he decided; she knew he hadn't been near a woman in five years. She was probably worried that he was going to jump on her the moment they were done with their meal or that once they started making love, he'd lose control and finish in two minutes. Zack didn't know why she should be concerned about all that; if anyone should be worried about his ability to pleasurably prolong the act and perform well after five years abstinence, it was him.
And he was.
He decided to try to reassure her by engaging her in some sort of pleasant, casual conversation. Mentally, he rifled through those topics of immediate interest to him and reluctantly discarded the subject of her beautiful body, her gorgeous eyes, and—most reluctantly of all—her whispered statement at the stream that she wanted to go to bed with him. The last reminded him of the other things she'd said to him in the bedroom this afternoon, when he hadn't been able to shake off his numb paralysis and respond. Now, he was almost certain he hadn't been meant to hear most of them. Or else he'd only imagined some of them. He wished she'd talk about her students; he loved her stories. He was about to try to get her to talk about them, when he realized she was giving him an odd, curious look. "What?" he asked.
"I was wondering," she said, "that day—at the restaurant—did I really have a flat tire?"
Zack struggled to suppress his guilty smile. "You saw it with your own eyes."
"Are you saying that I ran over a nail or something and didn't realize my tire was going flat?"
"I wouldn't say it happened exactly like that." He was pretty certain she suspected him now, but her face was so marvelously bland that he had no idea if she was playing cat and mouse with him or not.
"How would you say it happened?"
"I'd say that the side of your tire probably came into sudden contact with a sharp, pointed object."
Finished with her stew, she leaned back and fixed him with a level look that would have shamed an instant confession and apology out of any recalcitrant eight-year-old male. He could almost see her, standing outside her classroom with a wrongdoer, looking at him with exactly that same expression. "A sharp, pointed object?" she speculated, lifting her brows. "Like a knife?"
"Like a knife," Zack confirmed, trying desperately to keep his face straight.
"Mine." With an impenitent grin, he added in a boyish chant, "I'm sorry, Miss Mathison."
She didn't miss a beat. Raising her brows, she said drolly, "I'll expect you to fix that tire, Zack."
The only thing that quelled his shout of laughter was the sweet shock of hearing her finally say his name. "Yes, ma'am," he said. It was unbelievable, Zack thought, his entire life was in dire chaos, and all he wanted to do was burst out laughing and drag her into his arms. "I don't have to write a three-page essay on why I shouldn't have done it, do I?" he asked, watching her huge indigo eyes shimmer with answering amusement as she looked pointedly at the bowl he'd just pushed aside. "No," she said, "but you're on KP tonight."
"Aw, gee!" he replied, but he stood up obediently and picked up his bowl. As he reached for hers, he added, "You're mean, Miss Mathison!"
To which she firmly replied, "No whining, please."
Zack couldn't help it. He burst out laughing, turned his head, and surprised her with a quick kiss on her forehead. "Thank you," he whispered, choking back a chuckle at her flustered expression.
He sobered, holding her gaze. "For making me laugh. For staying here and not turning me in. For being brave and funny and incredibly lovely in that red kimono. And for making me a wonderful meal." He chucked her under the chin to lighten the mood a split second before he realized the expression in her shining eyes wasn't embarrassment.
"I'll help you," she said, starting to stand.
Zack put his hand on her shoulder. "Stay there and enjoy the fire and the rest of your wine."
Too tense to sit still, waiting to see what would happen next, no, when it was going to happen, Julie got up and walked over to the windows. Leaning her shoulder against the pane, she gazed out at the spectacular panorama of snow-covered mountaintops gleaming in the moonlight. In the kitchen, Zack touched the rheostat on the wall, dimming the lights on the beams above the living room to a mellow glow. "You'll be able to see outside better that way," he explained when she threw a questioning look over her shoulder at him. And, Julie thought, it was also much cozier with only the dimmed lights and the glow from the fireplace to illuminate the room. Very cozy and very romantic, especially with the music playing on the stereo.
Zack saw her shoulders stiffen imperceptibly when he came up behind her at the windows, and her unpredictable reactions to him began to genuinely unnerve him. Rather than turning her into his arms and kissing her, which was what he would have done if she were any other woman he'd known, he hit on a more subtle method of getting her where he wanted her to be. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he met her gaze in the window, tipped his head toward the stereo, and said with teasing formality, "May I have the next dance, Miss Mathison?"
She turned, her enchanting smile aglow with surprise, and Zack's spirits soared crazily simply because she was pleased. He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets to keep from touching her and said with a wry grin, "The last time I asked a teacher to dance, I was more properly dressed for the occasion in a white shirt, maroon tie, and my favorite navy blue suit. She turned me down though."
"She probably thought I was too short for her."
Julie smiled because he was easily 6'2" tall, and she thought he was either joking or else the woman had been a giant. "Were you really shorter than she was?"
He nodded. "By about three feet. I, however, didn't regard that as a serious obstacle at the time because I had a wild crush on her."
She caught on then and her smile faded. "How old were you?"
She looked at him as if she knew the slight had hurt him, which, now that he thought about it, it had. "I would never have turned you down, Zack."