Page 79 of Smoke in Mirrors

“I was thinking of maybe dinner this coming Saturday.”

“Oh.”

He waited but she did not say anything else.

“Can I take that as an affirmative response?” he asked eventually.

“Oh. Oh, yes. Yes, that would be great. I’ll look forward to it.”

“Is there something wrong here?” Deke asked. “I’m getting mixed signals.”

“No, really, I’d love to go out with you on Saturday night.”

He reached up to stroke his beard in a gesture that had become a habit. When he touched bare skin he winced. He dropped his hand.

“You’ve been very patient with me, Cassie. Very kind. I feel like I’ve been living in another world for a while. But I’m back.”

“I’m so glad,” she whispered.

“I’m okay,” he plowed on. “I don’t need any more acts of charity. Do you understand what I’m trying to say? I don’t want you to go out with me just because you feel sorry for me.”

“I do want to have dinner with you, Deke, it’s just—” She trailed off.

Panic hit him. He struggled, trying to figure out how to handle the situation. The problem was, he hadn’t had a lot of experience with this kind of thing. Too long out of the dating game, he thought. Not that he’d ever played the game that well in the first place.

Inspiration struck. He looked at her, squinting a little against the glow of the light behind her. “Maybe I could come in for a while so that we can talk about this over coffee?”

“Come in?”

“Is that an invitation or a question?”

She went very still. “Deke, there’s something I need to tell you.”

Damn. It had all been charity. She wasn’t really interested in him as a man. She had just felt sorry for a client. He steeled himself. He could handle the truth, he thought. What he couldn’t take was false hope and kindness disguised as passion.

“Say it,” he demanded. “Just say it and get it over with. I won’t shatter into a million pieces.”

“I know that,” she said. “Only a very strong man could have weathered all of the rumors and gossip concerning the state of your mind these past few months. Only a strong man could have stuck to his guns when everyone was telling him that he was obsessive and crazy.”

“Not everyone said I was obsessive and crazy. You and Thomas never said it. At least, not to my face.”

“What I’m trying to get across here is that I didn’t go out with you tonight because I felt sorry for you, and I didn’t agree to go out on Saturday because I felt like doing you a favor. I want you to know the truth before you come in for coffee.”

“What truth?”

“Deke, you have been the target of a carefully calculated seduction.”

Maybe he had flipped out, after all.

“Huh?” he said.

“Remember the dinner with Leonora and Thomas? The one I helped cook?”

“Yes,” he said, cautious now.

“That was part of the strategy. And tonight, this black dress?”

“I really, really like the dress.”

“More strategy. Leonora consulted her grandmother, who checked with Herb, who writes an advice column.”

“I see.”

“Herb chose the lasagna and the apple pie and this dress.”

“I’ll have to remember to thank Herb. Can I ask why I was targeted for this strategy of seduction?”

“Why? You have to ask me why? Isn’t it obvious? You were targeted because I’m in love with you.” She flung her arms wide. “I have been for the past six months. But you never noticed and I was afraid you never would, and your beard was getting longer and longer and it all looked hopeless. That’s why.”

The damp night air was suddenly as effervescent as champagne. Deke laughed.

“I think,” he said, “that this may be the happiest night of my life.”

She blinked once or twice. “You’re sure?”

“I love you,” he said. “I think I must have fallen in love with you somewhere in the middle of that first yoga lesson.”

“Really?”

“Why do you think I signed up for a full year in advance?”

“Oh.” Her expression softened. Her full mouth curved into a welcoming smile.

“Are you going to invite me in for coffee now?” he asked.

She stood back and held the door open for him.

A long time later, he settled beside her in the warm, shadowed bed, replete and content beyond measure. He reached for Cassie. She came to him, damp and happy, folded her arms on his chest.

“That was incredible,” she said.

“It was, wasn’t it?” He stroked the full curve of her hip. “Always knew those damn yoga lessons would be good for something someday.”

Leonora kicked off her high heels the moment she walked into Thomas’s house. Wrench brought her a mangled leather bone, which she admired while Thomas hung up their coats and got the fire going.

When he had a blaze crackling he went around the end of the counter, poured two brandies and took them into the living room.

She savored the sight of him as he lowered himself onto the sofa beside her. He had removed the jacket of his suit. The collar of the white dress shirt was open, the sleeves rolled up on his muscular forearms. His tie hung loose around his neck. He propped his feet, clad in black dress socks, next to her nylon-sheathed toes on the coffee table.

They sipped brandy in a comfortable silence.

“What do you think?” Leonora said eventually. “Are they in bed together yet?”

Thomas checked his watch. “It’s been nearly forty minutes since we left them both at her place. I’d say, unequivocally and without a doubt, yes. They’re in bed.”

“Unequivocally?”

“It’s a fancy word meaning, for sure.”

“I know what it means, I just wondered how you could be so certain that Deke and Cassie are in bed.”

“Something about the way they were looking at each other during that last dance, I think.”

“Mesmerized by each other.”

“Yeah.” He sipped brandy and lowered the glass. “Mesmerized.”

She rested her head against the high cushion behind her and looked at his feet stacked one on top of the other on the low table. They looked very large next to her own. She felt a little mesmerized herself, she thought. She closed her eyes.

“I owe you,” Thomas said after a while. “For a lot of things. For coming here to Wing Cove. For working with Deke and me to get the answers we all needed. For helping Cassie seduce Deke. For—”

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