She carried her tea out to the deck and went to stand at the railing, one arm hugging her waist, her glass clasped in her other hand. When he joined her, he stood so close the fine hair on her bare arm tingled. She inched away to give herself the buffer zone she needed and then tried to block him out, to concentrate on the birds singing, on Boo's snoring, on the ice chinking in their glasses. Joe Lakota was difficult to ignore.
She soothed her throat with a sip of tea. He turned his dark head, bringing his face so close she could see the pores of his burnished skin, the strands of his long, sable lashes, and the flecks of gold in his brown eyes. Her gaze shifted to his mouth, and she resisted an urge to move farther away.
"I'm sorry for barging in on you like this, but I needed to get this first meeting over with. Living in the same small town, we're bound to bump into each other. I don't know about you, but I've been dreading it."
"Flattery will get you nowhere."
"You know what I mean. We didn't part company under the best of terms." A sheepish expression came over his dark features. "I'm ashamed to admit it, but I hid out at first, hoping to avoid you. That seemed ridiculous after a while. It got so I was paranoid every time I saw a blonde. When I almost hunkered down at the supermarket to hide behind the oranges, I knew I had to come face you."
Marilee couldn't help but giggle at the image his words conjured. Joe Lakota, cowering behind the oranges? It helped somehow, knowing he felt nervous, too. "I nearly rammed a parked car the other day when I thought I saw you crossing the street. I know the feeling."
He sighed and glanced at her hair. "The color has changed. That's scary. I was watching for pure blond, and you've got streaks. We would've been nose to nose before I recognized you."
She fingered a frizzy curl at her temple. "It started to turn brown as I grew older, and Mother Nature went on hiatus before completing the job. I wound up with the present mess."
"Same old Marilee, putting yourself down. Some women pay a fortune to streak their hair with blond like that. It's beautiful."
"Yeah," he assured her warmly. "You really don't realize, do you?"
The breeze picked up, and he pushed at a lock of hair that trailed across his forehead. "How pretty you are."
"Hey, you've got to know I wouldn't pay you a compliment just to make you feel good."
She laughed again, aware as she did that some of the tension had eased from her shoulders. "Thank you. I think."
"Hey, I'm being brutally honest here. I resent the hell out of you, honey, but that doesn't mean I'm stone blind."
"Thank you." she said again.
"Some people just have a special glow," he went on. "You look at them, and they justI don't know how to describe it, but you feel the sweetness in them. It's almost like a hug. Have you ever experienced that?"
"Yes, with Aunt Luce."
"Aunt Luce?" He threw back his head and barked with laughter. When his mirth subsided, he wiped under one eye and said, "Oh, God, I'm sorry. She's a sweetheart, really. It's just " He gave in to laughter again. "She's such a corker! Does she still tint her hair outlandish colors?"
"Pink, last count. And she's into earrings that twinkle now. Little lights powered by watch batteries. She looks like an alien that just landed. A very sweet one, though. Whenever I need someone to love me no matter what, I go to Aunt Luce. She doesn't pass judgment, you know?"
"What have you ever doneaside from breaking my heart, of coursethat anyone could pass judgment on?"
If only he knew. "We all mess up, Joe."
"Like I said, I resent the hell out of you, honey. But I still think you're as close to perfect as anyone can get."
"Don't be absurd." More of her tension eased away. Why that surprised her, she didn't know. That was the most treacherous thing about Joe, his ability to work past her defenses. "I'm the girl who split your head open. Remember? Got mad and pushed you off the high dive."
"It was my own fault I hit the cement."
She gave a startled laugh. "Good grief! You always did make excuses for me."
"Well, it's true. I twisted in midair to catch myself. Besides, I untied your swimsuit top and had it coming."
"I was a brat. Eleven years old and flat as a board. If I'd been older, with something to hide, it might've been understandable."
He swirled his glass, making the ice chatter. "Girls that age are painfully modest. I was the brat. Somehow, I just couldn't resist teasing you."
Marilee smiled nostalgically as the sweet memories curled around her. "You did go through an ornery stage."
"I was flirting with you. You were still too naïve to appreciate my efforts."
"Oh, go on. Not way back then. I was way too young."
"And what was I, Methuselah?" He shook his head. "I always loved you. You know that. Just last night, I was lying awake, trying to remember when I first caught the fatal disease. I think you were about five and I was eight."
Somehow they had ventured onto dangerous ground. But, then, wasn't all ground dangerous with Joe?