A BEAM OF SUNLIGHT slid between the slats of the venetian blinds and cast a band of brightness across Johanna’s face. She stretched and touched her toes. Twenty minutes later, she’d showered and reached the kitchen for breakfast.
Once the household chores had been done, she changed into dark green slacks and a white sleeveless blouse. As she left the house, strains of
flowed through the open window. Knowing the music would be playing when she
returned allowed her to pretend someone waited for her. Swan Lake
As she strolled toward town, she skirted a game of hopscotch, then paused to watch the local double dutch team at practice. A pair of young boys on bicycles swerved from her path. As she walked along the sidewalk, she planned her expedition. After exploring several antique shops, she would stop at the library to see what new books had arrived.
Trees shaded the sidewalk from the bright morning sun. Cars, parked bumper to bumper, lined both sides of the street. As she passed the library, the crowd-jammed walk nearly made her change directions.
Johanna plunged through an opening between two groups of shrill-voiced women. She barely avoided a collision with the fist of a wildly gesticulating bleached blonde. A purse smacked her arm. Someone tramped on her foot. Though the mass of people brought a false sense of togetherness, she knew none of the strangers cared about her presence.
Moments later, she exhaled a sigh. An empty space in front of
promised a moment of calm. Last month, she and Rachel had eaten dinner here.
The food had been delicious, but the noise from the partisan baseball fans at
the bar had made conversation nearly impossible. She sank on one of the benches
flanking the door and watched people eddy past.
Blaine—” She cut off the
greeting. Though the man who strolled past resembled her friend from freshman
year at the local college, nearly twenty-five years had passed since then.
Her thoughts flashed to a time when gentle caresses and sweet kisses had been hers. She’d been in love with him, but there’d been no future for them. He’d had his life mapped out and so had she. At the end of the year, he’d left for a more prestigious school.
Johanna had never brought him home. Her parents would have been angry. Her sister had to be protected from the eyes of strangers.
Blaine’s parents had also lived in
Hudsonville, he’d seldom returned and on those rare occasions, he hadn’t
called. He’d never written. Through the local newspaper, she’d learned of his
success as a lawyer and of his marriage to a socialite. Her love and dreams had
died that day.
The plaintive cry sounded beneath the noise of the crowd. Johanna peered between the slats of the bench. A long-haired black-and-brown kitten huddled against the restaurant wall. The animal resembled the one she’d found a week after her eighth birthday. She’d called him Fluff. The kitten had been the first and last thing completely hers. On a gray day,
had caught the small bit of fur and squeezed him to death.
“She doesn’t know any better.” Johanna’s mother had pulled the retarded child into her arms. “Pets aren’t a good idea, Johanna.”
Friends hadn’t been acceptable either. Other children wouldn’t understand what a special burden
was. The habit of standing apart from others had grown until Johanna shielded
herself and seldom allowed people to brush more than the surface of her life.
Impulsively, she crouched beside the bench and coaxed the kitten from its refuge. A door banged shut. The kitten scampered away from her hands. As the small animal darted toward the street, somehow it managed to avoid being trampled.
Johanna jumped to her feet. The kitten tumbled from the curb and landed between two parked cars. After righting itself, the animal darted into the street. Without a glimpse at traffic, Johanna followed. Seconds later, she scooped the bit of fur from the pavement.
A car horn blared. She froze. How dumb. Visions of being a patient in the intensive care unit flashed through her thoughts. An arm caught her around the waist and pulled her from the path of an oncoming car. Brakes screeched.
“Lady, there are better ways to commit suicide. Lucky thing I stepped out for a breath of air before the lunch crowd descends. What in heaven’s name made you dash into the street like you’d been shot from a cannon?”
Johanna’s feet touched the sidewalk. Her rescuer’s arm remained around her waist. He pulled her toward
Blarney’s. The deep voice
continued scolding. Unable to speak without revealing how scared she’d been,
she studied his hands. Tanned, square fingers, short nails.
The kitten squirmed. Needle claws raked furrows on her arms. They reached the door of
Blarney’s. Instead of allowing herself to
be dragged inside, Johanna sank on a bench. Reaction to the earlier surge of
adrenaline made her body shake. She looked up and her eyes widened.
He was like and unlike the warrior in her fantasy world. His unruly, auburn hair needed a trim. Green eyes tinted with blue reminded her of the sea. His rugged face bore laughter lines.
“I’m waiting for an explanation of your rush toward oblivion.” His voice held concern and amusement. “Hope it wasn’t thoughts of the food.”
Her cheeks heated. How could she deal with the glint of humor she saw in his eyes? “The kitten ran into the street.”
“And look what the ungrateful creature’s doing to you. He’s not feeling an ounce of remorse. You’ll be lucky to escape with your skin intact.”
Johanna tried to contain the kitten on her lap. “Guess it was a foolish thing to do.”
“An act of kindness.” He plucked the animal from her hands. “See here, my boy, you’ve got to treat this lady with more respect.”
Johanna smiled. She wanted to say something, but she didn’t know what would end the tension that pulsed between them.
He put one foot on the bench and held the squirming kitten. “Dylan Connelly at your service. Next time you need a rescue, be sure to call me.”
A bubble of laughter escaped. “Johanna Gordon.”
“Aha. Hudson Community’s Director of Nursing. My niece has told me a lot about you.”
When he laughed, Johanna knew her expression showed dismay. Bridget was a talented nurse and the most vocal of the union leaders. Johanna wondered if she and the younger woman would ever agree about anything.
“Don’t look so shocked. The girl likes you.” He reached for Johanna’s hand. “You’re needing to see to your wounds. No telling where the wee beast has been.”
Without a protest, Johanna rose. She frowned. Why was she following him? In ten minutes, she could be home using her own first aid supplies. When he opened the restaurant door, cool air rushed over her flushed face. She blinked to adjust to the dim light.
Empty stools lined the curved oak bar. A younger version of the man whose hand cupped her elbow slid wine glasses into a rack above the bar. Dylan Connelly ushered her to the ladies room and vanished down the hall. Johanna attacked the multitude of scratches with soap and water.
Dylan tapped on the door. “Peroxide. I’ve bandages if you need them. We have our share of kitchen mishaps.”
“No need for them.” Probably not for the peroxide either, but she took the bottle.
“I’ve boxed the kitten.” He paused with one hand on the door. “Would you be interested in joining me for a bit of lunch before you leave?”
Not sure what she saw in his eyes or his smile, she nodded. “I’d like that.”
“Then you’re on. I’ll put in our order.”
“But—” The door closed leaving her with second thoughts. He hadn’t given her a chance to choose her meal. She poured peroxide on her arms. What had she done? When the liquid no longer foamed, she patted dry. She had to tell him she’d changed her mind. She opened the door and stepped into the hall. Maybe she could slip away.
Dylan leaned against the wall across from the door. “I was wondering if you’d gone out the window.”
She frowned. “There’s no window.”
“Good thing you noticed before you tried to escape.”
Had he read her mind? Johanna felt thankful the hall was dimly lit. “I wanted to be thorough.”
He grinned. “Your lunch awaits.”
What, no chariot? The frivolity of this thought surprised her. Maybe she was in shock from accepting his invitation. Having lunch with a stranger wasn’t her style.
He showed her to a booth across from the bar. High back church pews formed the seats. She saw a shoebox on the bench and heard a faint meow. “What am I going to do with a kitten?”
“Become a slave. The creatures have a way of creeping into your life and letting you know how much you need them. The pair of you are bonded for life. I’ve a memory of the time my oldest brought home a bedraggled cat. Next morning, there were six. Makes one think twice about rescue missions.”
Johanna stared at the box. Did Dylan feel responsible for her? How could she tell him there was no need? Before she framed a reply, a significantly pregnant waitress set two plates on the table.
“Dina, love,” Dylan said. “I thought you were hostess today.”
She made a face. “You and Patrick...I’m not an invalid. Colleen’s late, so I’m filling in ’til she gets here.”
“Make sure you’re not on your feet too long.”
Johanna smiled. The caring in his voice raised a bit of envy. She wished someone cared for her in that way.
She watched him drip catsup on his burger and fries. Did he realize how much fat the food contained? She inhaled and the aroma of the burger made her realize how hungry she was.
As they ate, he related stories of the bar he’d bought from his father-in-law and how it had evolved into a restaurant. “First there were the snacks. Then a bit of soda bread. When Colleen’s husband graduated from the Culinary Institute, he was needing a job, so we bought the building next door and expanded.”
Before she finished the savory burger, Johanna learned Dylan had been a widower for two years. His oldest children were his partners, and the youngest two were in college and spending the summer on work/study projects.
The town clock struck twelve times. Johanna glanced around the room. The other booths and the tables near the windows were occupied and so were most of the seats at the bar. She slid toward the aisle. “I should go.”
“Feel free to stay for a bit of dessert,” Dylan said. “Time I was headed to the bar. I’ll call and see how you and the wee beast are dealing with each other and if your wounds have healed.”
“There’s no need. I’ll be fine.”
He winked. “I’m not one for doing a thing I don’t want to do. Remember, if you need another rescue from an iron dragon, I’m your man.” He strode to the bar.
Johanna waved the waitress away. “No dessert. Thanks.” She’d eaten more this noon than she had for months. She slipped a bill beneath her plate and rose. As she lifted the shoe box, she heard a mournful cry. What was she going to do with a kitten?
“Take care crossing the street,” Dylan called.
Johanna stepped outside. Forgotten were her plans for the antique shops and the library. She had a kitten, the promise of a phone call and lighter spirits. At the curb, she turned to look at the restaurant, saw Dylan and waved.