“Come with me. I want to show you something.”
“I will admit I was keeping this a secret, but I’ve made an executive decision to break with Handymen tradition.”
“What will Lacey think?”
“Let’s not go there.” He brought her upstairs, to the room that used to be the master bedroom, the one where several crew members stowed their belongings most days. Michael opened the door. At the far end of the empty room sat a large object, covered in a long tarp. “I’ve been working on something for you.”
“You mean other than renovating my house?”
He grinned. “Remember those old family photos Lacey borrowed from you?”
“Yeah. She said they wanted to include a montage of old pictures in the show introduction.”
“That might have been a slight fabrication. I just needed a way to get some photos from you. Anyway, I was saving this for the big reveal, but I think I want to show you now.” He grabbed the edge of the tarp and pulled, revealing the object hidden beneath it.
It was an old wooden ladder, one he’d found months ago at a salvage yard. He’d decided to repurpose it, turning it into a set of frames for the old photos they’d borrowed. Faces now smiled out from the six gaps between the rungs. Nonna Olivia hugging two blond children, Emily and her brother. Nonna Olivia and her husband on their wedding day. Six photos in total, all part of the heritage Emily so treasured. He hoped she’d like the rustic look of the ladder. Rather than sanding and painting it, he’d left it rough and worn, so that it looked as if it might have been sitting in Nonna Olivia’s toolshed, just waiting to be used. All Michael had done was affix the appropriate hooks and backings and had blown all the photos up to sizes that would fit the spaces.
Emily gazed upon her grandmother’s face. Her chest heaved. She blinked once, then twice. All at once, big, fat tears began to roll down her cheeks. “Michael, it’s…”
“I hope you don’t mind I used the photos. I thought it might be nice for you to have mementos of your grandmother in the finished store.”
“Oh.” Her hand covered her mouth but it shook so much she was unsuccessful at covering her open mouth.
“I hope you like it. You’ve had a shitty week and I thought you could use a pick-me-up. I was supposed to keep quiet about it, so maybe you could keep it under your hat until—”
Emily threw herself at him and wrapped her arms around his torso, cutting off his words and his breath. Only when he hugged her back did he realize how hard she was quivering.
She wasn’t just crying about the old photos.
“It’s okay, Em. Let it out, sweetheart.”
The collar of his shirt grew wet but he didn’t care. Wardrobe had tons of shirts. Besides, she felt good in his arms, all soft and warm. He rubbed her shoulders and the back of her waist, exploring and familiarizing himself with her luscious body. He breathed, drinking in her scent. His nasal cavities had never known such bliss. It was like that first clear breath after a long period of congestion. His fingers were pretty happy too, enjoying the give of her womanly body. It was all he could do not to slide them down, cup her sweet ass, and pull her up against him.
Just not while she was crying over another man.
She lingered in his arms and he did nothing to push her away. In fact, it surprised him how badly he wanted to keep her there, so much so that when Emily finally extricated herself, he wanted to pull her back into his embrace. Instead, he wiped her cheeks of the remaining tears.
“The makeup ladies are going to kill me for making you cry.”
It might have been his imagination, but her tears made her eyes appear even greener. In fact, her entire face seemed a riot of tempting color. Each shade called to him. The crushed roses in her cheeks. Her strawberry lips, so plump and moist. Even the doeskin brown of her freckles fascinated him to no end. He wanted to count them, to kiss and mark them all.
Kissing her made a whole lot of sense right now. Kissing her senseless seemed even better.
Emily’s eyes widened. Her lips parted in invitation. Michael paused, knowing it was wrong, even though every raised hair on his arms told him it was right.
As he debated with himself for a split second, she brushed her lips against his. It was quick and soft, hunger masquerading as something platonic. Even though a spectator might have called it a friendly kiss, he knew the truth. As brief as it may have been, he felt her yield to him, even if just a little.
From the startled look in her eye, Emily knew it too.
She took a step back. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“You’re right. I should have been the one to do it.” Michael licked his lips. “Your lips really do taste like strawberries.”
“Michael, I can’t.”
“I think you just did.”
“You know what I mean.” She waved her hand between their two torsos. “This. I can’t do this.”
“What? Point at my chest?”
“You’re teasing me.”
“Maybe a little. Listen, Em, I understand. As unexpected as that kiss was, as much as I want to taste your lips again, I know it’s too soon.”
“It’s too much, too soon.”
He reached for her hand. “I get it. It’s okay.”
“But that doesn’t mean I won’t be spending all my waking hours waiting for the moment I can make it happen again.”
“Don’t worry. I’d never force the matter. Besides, I enjoyed having you thrust yourself at me.”
“Are you ever going to let me live it down?”
“Not in this century, sweetheart.”