“Sure I did. I couldn’t refuse. I was a mite worried, him being so skittish and all about touching. The minute he held the kitten in his arms, he started petting it. And that kitten just sat there and licked his fingers. I knew he had to have it. I saw what you just saw, and I’m not ashamed to tell you I had tears in my eyes.”
Dora reached out across the table and took his hand in hers. She squeezed it tight. “Thank you.”
“Yeah.” Leaning back, he crossed his boot over his knee and gave a sorry shake of his head. “But I’m still lookin’ for a dog.”
Dora picked up her wineglass and leaned back in her chair. “Maybe I should return the favor and find you a dog.”
“No, ma’am. A man’s got to choose his own dog.”
“Is that some unwritten code in the world of men?”
“It is for a lowcountry man.”
“I see.” She rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Well, just remember that you’re responsible for my gift,” she said, exaggerating the word gift. “And you’re also my landlord. So I don’t want to hear one peep from you about litter-box smells or accidents on the carpet.”
He laughed his low, rumbling laugh. “I know, I know.” He paused to swallow a long drink from his wineglass. “That brings up another subject. Hear me out before you jump to conclusions, okay?” He looked at her, demanding an answer.
His tone had changed. She could tell that he was a bit nervous and it wasn’t about the kitten. “Okay, you’ve got my attention.”
“Good. Real good.” He set his glass on the table and left his hand there, his fingers drumming. “You remember how we arranged things for this cottage. I told you I’d have to put the house on the market when things picked up.”
“Well, this spring things have really picked up. The market’s good. Especially for a house on the creek.”
Dora’s heart beat harder, fearing where this was headed. “You’re selling the house?”
“I might have to.”
“Oh.” She felt all the joy of the evening fizzle.
“Honey, I have no choice. I’m carrying a lot right now after a slow season, including two houses. This one and the one I’m living in. Oceanfront usually sells good, but the price on my place is a lot higher than this one and the damn beach is eroding. Dora, the simple fact is I can only afford to keep one. One has to go.”
Dora wrapped her arms across her chest. She’d known the day would come that this cottage would have to be sold. Her rent didn’t nearly cover the mortgage. It had all been arranged from the start. But the thought of losing it . . .
“I’ll buy it.”
Devlin’s face softened. “You can’t afford it, baby.”
As much as it hurt to hear, Dora knew that was true but had to ask. She found her voice. “Can I pay a higher rent? At least until I sell my house in Summerville? I could give you a down payment then.”
“I don’t want to do that to you. You’re stretched so thin as it is.”
She looked out the window. The night was dark and rainy, but in her mind’s eye she could see the grassy slope to the salt marsh, the long wooden dock that stretched far out into the creek. All her dreams for this place were like driftwood, caught in the racing tide. She chewed her lip, lest she burst into tears.
Devlin reached out and took her hand. “Hear me out, now,” he said, gently reminding her of her promise. “See, then I thought . . . if we moved in together, it wouldn’t be an issue. We’d sell one, but still keep one. Together.”
“Dev,” she said near tears. “You know we can’t live together. Not with Nate. The scandal . . .” She didn’t need to elaborate. This was still a small, old-fashioned town at heart, and gossips would reach his school eventually. Kids could be cruel.
Devlin sat for a moment looking at her hand, playing with her fingers. Longer than normal.
Dora was attuned to a subtle shift of mood. She waited, breath held. He lifted her left hand and held it in his, letting his fingers stroke her ring finger. Then Devlin reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small black velveteen box and set it on the table in front of her.
“I understand that you don’t want to live together. And I don’t want to be your landlord any more. I want to be your husband.” He paused. “You know how I feel about you, Dora. I’ve loved you and only you since we were sixteen years old. When you came back into my life, I swore I’d never let you leave me again. I got to thinking. . . . Your two sisters are getting married. I know how close y’all are. Why don’t we join them? Make it a threesome? It’d solve everything. Aw, baby, say you’ll marry me and make me the happiest man in the world.”
He flipped open the jeweler’s box and slid it closer to her.
Dora gasped. The ring was stunning by any standards, but more, she recognized it as one she’d admired in a magazine ad months earlier. He’d casually shown her the ad in the Sunday New York Times and asked her which of the four rings pictured she liked best. She’d told him not to get any ideas, but when he prodded, she’d pointed to the three-carat, cushion-cut stone wreathed with small pavé diamonds. What woman wouldn’t want that?
And there it was, sitting before her. All she had to do was pick it up and let Devlin slide it on her finger. Dora looked at Devlin’s face, flushed with anticipation. So sure of his answer. When she’d first fallen head over heels for the wiry, tanned surfer boy on Sullivan’s Island, he’d been poorer than a church mouse. Devlin Cassell was a self-made man. She saw in his face the pride that he could buy her such a ring now, when years before, back when they’d dated, he didn’t have one dime to rub against another. She hoped that he knew she’d accept a ring from a Cracker Jack box when the time was right.
But the time wasn’t right.
“Oh, Devlin. It’s a beautiful ring. The most beautiful ring I’ve ever seen.”
“You did see this one.” He pulled the ring from the box. “In that ad, remember? You told me how pretty it was. I kept that ad and ordered the ring in your size.”
She smiled tremulously.
He reached for her hand. “Let’s put it on and see if it fits.”
“Wait.” She slid her hand back. Her heart was pounding in her ears in a way that felt very much like panic.