She'd been right, of course, Grace thought now. It was simple, almost virginal, with its unadorned bodice and graceful lines. But it looked pretty on, with the color cool against her skin, and the skirt floating around her legs.
Grace traced a finger over the square neckline, faintly amazed that the bra Julie had nagged her into buying actually did gift her with a hint of cleavage. A miracle indeed, Grace thought with a little laugh.
Concentrating, she leaned close to the mirror. She'd done everything Julie had instructed with the borrowed makeup. And her eyes did look bigger and deeper, she decided. She'd done her best to blot away the signs of fatigue and thought she had succeeded. Maybe she hadn't managed more than a wink of sleep the night before, but she didn't feel in the least tired.
She felt energized.
She reached out, and her hand hovered over the samples of perfumes they'd been given at the cosmetics counter. Then she remembered that Anna had told her to wear her own scent for Ethan before. That it would say something to him.
Choosing that instead, she closed her eyes and dabbed it on. With her eyes closed, imagining that his lips might brush here, brush there, linger and taste where her pulse beat that fragrance into life.
Still dreaming, she picked up a little ivory evening bag—another loan—and checked its contents. She hadn't carried such a small purse since… well, before Aubrey was born, she thought. It was so odd to look inside and see none of the dozens of mother things she was used to carrying. Only women things now, she mused. The little compact she'd splurged on, a tube of lipstick she rarely thought to use, her house key, a few carefully folded bills, and a tissue that wasn't thin and ragged from wiping a sticky face.
It made her feel feminine just to look at it, to slip her feet into impractical heeled sandals—oh, she'd be scrambling to pay off her charge card when the bill came—to turn in front of the mirror and watch her skirt follow the movement.
When she heard his truck pull up outside, she dashed across the room. Made herself stop. No, she wasn't going to race to the door like an eager puppy. She would wait right here until he knocked. And give her heart a chance to beat normally again.
When he did knock, it was still thundering in her ears. But she stepped out, smiled at him through the screen, and moved toward the door.
He remembered watching her walk to the door like this before, on the night they'd made love the first time. She'd looked so lovely, so lonely with the candlelight flickering around her.
But tonight she looked… he didn't think he had words for it. Everything about her seemed to glow—skin, hair, eyes. It made him feel awkward, humble, reverent. He wanted to kiss her to be certain she was real, and yet was afraid to touch.
He stepped back as she opened the screen, then took the hand she held out carefully. "You look different."
No, it wasn't poetry. And it made her smile. "I wanted to." She pulled the door closed behind her and let him lead her to his truck.
He wished immediately that he'd borrowed the 'Vette.
"The truck doesn't suit that dress," he said as she climbed in.
"It suits me." She swept her skirts in to be certain they didn't catch in the door. "I may look different, Ethan, but I'm still the same."
She settled back and prepared for the most beautiful evening of her life.
the sun was still up and bright when they arrived in Princess Anne. The restaurant he'd chosen was in one of the old, refurbished houses where the ceilings were high and the windows tall and narrow. Candles yet to be lighted stood on tables draped in white linen, and the waiters wore jackets and formal black ties. Conversations from other diners were muted, as in church. She could hear her heels click on the polished floor as they were led to their table.
She wanted to remember every detail. The way the little table sat snug by the window, the painting of the Bay that hung on the wall behind Ethan. The friendly twinkle in the waiter's eyes when he offered them menus and asked if they'd like a cocktail.
But most of all she wanted to remember Ethan. The quiet smile in his eyes when he looked across the table at her, the way his fingertips continued to brush hers on the white linen.
"Would you like to have some wine?" he asked her.
Wine, candles, flowers. "Yes, that would be nice."
He opened the wine list, studied it thoughtfully. He knew she preferred white, and one or two of the types were familiar. Phillip always kept a couple of bottles chilling. Though God knew why any reasonable man would pay that much money on a regular basis for a drink.
Grateful that the selections were numbered and he wouldn't have to attempt to pronounce any French, he gave the waiter the order, privately pleased when he saw his choice met with approval.
"A little." She wondered if she'd be able to swallow a crumb around the delight in her throat. "It's just so nice to be here like this, with you."
"I should've taken you out before."
"This is perfect. There hasn't been much time for this."
"We can juggle some time." And it wasn't so bad, he discovered, wearing a tie, eating in a place surrounded by other people. Not when he got to look at her across the table. "You look rested, Grace."
"Rested?" The laugh bubbled out, making him smile uncertainly. Then her fingers squeezed his affectionately. "Oh, Ethan. I do love you."
the sun dipped lower, and the candles were lighted as they sipped wine and enjoyed a perfectly prepared meal served with flair. He told her about the progress of the boat, and of the new contract Phillip had finessed.
"That's wonderful. It's hard to believe you only started the business this spring."
"I'd thought about it for a long time," he told her. "Had a lot of the details worked out in my head."
He would have, of course, she thought. Thinking things through was innate with Ethan. "Even so, you're making it work. Really making it work. I've thought about coming by dozens of times."
"Why haven't you?"
"Before… If I saw you too often or in too many different places, it worried me." She loved being able to tell him, to watch his eyes change when she did. "I was sure you'd be able to see the way I felt about you—how I wanted to touch you, and have you touch me."
The blood hummed in his fingertips as they grazed hers. And his eyes did change, just as she'd wanted, deepening as they stared into hers. "I'd talked myself out of you," he said carefully.
"I'm glad it didn't stick."
"So am I." He brought her fingers over, touched his lips to them. "Maybe you'll come by the boatyard one of these days, and I'll look at you… and I'll see."
She angled her head. "Maybe I will."
"You could drop in some hot afternoon and…" His thumb cruised lazily over her knuckles. "Bring fried chicken."
Her laugh was quick and easy. "I should've figured that's what really attracted you to me."
"Yeah, it tipped the scales. A pretty face, sea-goddess eyes, long legs, a warm laugh—they don't mean much to a man. But you add a nice batch of southern fried chicken, and you've got something."
Delightfully flattered, she shook her head. "And here I was thinking I wouldn't get any poetry out of you."
His gaze skimmed over her face, and for the first time in his life he wished he had a talent for composing odes. "Do you want poetry, Grace?"
"I want you, Ethan. Just the way you are." With a long, contented sigh, she looked around the restaurant. "And you add an evening like this now and then…" She shifted her gaze back to him and grinned. "And you've got something."
"Sounds like a deal, since I like being out with you, like this. I like being anywhere with you."
She curled her fingers into his. "A long time ago. It seems like a long time, I used to dream about romance. The way I hoped it would be one day. This is better, Ethan. Real turned out to be better than the dream."
"I want you to be happy."
"If I was any happier, I'd have to be two people for it all to fit." Her ey
es sparkled with the laugh as she leaned toward him. "And then you'd have to figure out what to do with two of me."
"One's all I need. Do you want to take a walk?"
Her heart soared. Would it be now? "Yes. I think a walk would be perfect."
The sun was nearly gone as they strolled along the pretty streets, casting shadows lovely and deep. In a sky dazzled by hot color, the moon was starting its rise. It wouldn't be full, Grace noted, but it didn't matter. Her heart was.
When he turned her into his arms just at the edge of the splash of light from a streetlamp, she melted into the long, slow kiss.
Different, Ethan thought again as he let himself take the kiss just a shade deeper. She felt softer, warmer, yielding against him, though he could feel faint tremors rippling through her.
"I love you, Grace." He said it to soothe both of them.
Her heart bounded straight into her throat, making her voice shaky. Stars were blinking to life overhead, brilliantly white points of light. "I love you, Ethan." She closed her eyes, held her breath in anticipation of the words.
"We'd better start back."
She blinked her eyes open. "Oh. Yes." Let out her breath. "Yes, you're right."
Foolish of her, she decided as they walked back to his truck. A man as careful and thorough as Ethan wouldn't propose to her on a street corner in Princess Anne. He would wait until they got back, until Julie had gone home and Aubrey had been checked on.
He'd wait until they were alone, private, in familiar surroundings. Of course, that was it. So she beamed a smile at him as he started the engine. "It was a wonderful dinner, Ethan."
there was moonlight, just as she'd imagined. It slanted through the window and slipped gently over Aubrey in her crib. Her baby dreamed happy dreams, she thought. And how much happier they would all be in the morning when they'd taken the next step toward becoming a family.
Aubrey already loved him, Grace thought as she stroked her daughter's hair. Just a short time ago, she had resolved to raise her child alone, to make certain that she was enough. All that was changing now. Ethan would be a father to her daughter, a loving parent who would watch over her.
One day they'd tuck Aubrey in together. One day they would stand over a crib watching another child sleep. With Ethan she could share the joy of a simple moment like that—that quiet moment in the moonwashed dark when you looked in and saw your child asleep and safe.
There was so much he could give them, she thought. And that she could give to him.
A man like Ethan, she knew, would feel that first flutter of life in his heart just as she would feel it in her womb. They could share that, and a lifetime of simple moments.