Alaine stands beside Lucas, hidden inside his jacket. She stares out at the expanse of darkness – taking in the silhouetted, conical shape of evergreens – beneath a cornucopia of twinkling starlight.
She is once again silent and Lucas is once more at a loss over the insanely inordinate effect this woman of such petite stature draws from him.
After everything that passed between them tonight, he was finally able to put away his alarm – unfounded as it was – man up, and offer her his jacket.
She hadn’t accepted the gesture eagerly and her reluctance had stung. But with only a minimal amount of cajoling, he was able to convince her to wear it, since they could be standing out here for a while.
Once he fit it over her shoulders, Alaine felt that, although it served its purpose, the jacket was a poor substitute for the warmth of Lucas’ embrace. She’d said her thanks but wished he’d pulled her against him instead.
Ever so often, she shifts a covert glance to the man standing beside her. Those thoughts she entertains about him are now commonplace. Though she will never speak these words aloud, Alaine has given up on the quest to tame them. Truthfully, she kind of enjoys the fantasy they create.
Lucas pretends not to notice the little peeks she sneaks at him. He surveys the haphazard clutter of traffic along the driveway and across the yard. Mentally, he makes a note to address the poor organization for valet service and parking with Darcy.
From where Seth told him he was parked, he may have a hard time manipulating his way through this disaster before he is able to get back up to the house. Now that Lucas has given up his only source of warmth, the cold is beginning to bite.
Alaine and he would have been better off waiting indoors where it’s cozy. Lucas couldn’t do it. He could not remain a second longer under the stifling attention of his guests. Especially since one of them violated the hospitality he’s extended and had attacked Alaine.
If only he could persuade her to admit who it was who had bothered her so in the bathroom. That person would be dealt with swiftly.
It’s not for lack of trying that the name of the culprit is still a mystery to him. Alaine is stubborn. She remains mum on the matter and not knowing is eating away at Lucas. It irks him that this person is in his house, having a grand old time after painting such a poor picture of him to Alaine.
He should probably admire her for her grit, though. Someone else might have cried foul and demanded immediate retribution. But not Alaine. She retains her composure and continues to protect the identity of the perpetrator. To an extent, it’s an admirable quality.
For a split second, a little sliver of something seeps through the crack in Lucas’ melancholic brooding. Thoughts of Alaine have a way of making him happy. His lips quirk up in a smile before his spirit dives back into a state of pensiveness.
More than anything, he feels guilty. Like he is the one responsible for the tears she’d tried to shield from him. The thought that he failed to look after her is going to haunt him for the foreseeable future. He should have accompanied Alaine to the bathroom. Maybe stand outside the door. Nothing is going to change the fact that she’d cried on his watch.
Lucas bites back a grunt of frustration. He should apologize again. Such is the nature of his mind. He doesn’t know how to simply turn off and set things aside.
The way he handled the whole situation left something to be desired as well. Admittedly, he could have treated it with a lot more finesse. Seeing the hurt and contempt in Alaine’s eyes, he’d panicked and reacted accordingly.
He could see on her face that she was going to walk away. He’d read it in the way she wrenched herself from his hold too. Kissing her in front of everyone had been a Hail Mary. It was rash and selfish and maybe a mistake. She hasn’t yet voiced a complaint, which is good but Lucas is still wary. Especially because she hasn’t said much since.
Even if she thinks that he kissed her for the wrong reason, he at least hopes whoever it was who upset Alaine had gotten the message. Lucas has no appreciation for liars and he'll spend the rest of the evening trying to get Alaine to stay if she is truly of the mind to leave.
His father will frown in disapproval when he learns that Lucas walked out of his own charity function early but he couldn’t just sit there and pretend everything was alright. Neither could he subject Alaine to the snares of a jealous woman any longer.
Maybe the worst thing really is that he had every intention of dancing with her again – for the rest of the night if she was willing to entertain it. Some interloper foiled his plan. There’s no telling if he will ever be presented with another opportunity to hold her like he did tonight. This event provided the perfect excuse.
After their impromptu, public kiss, it had been impossible to return to normal. So Lucas suggested they take their leave and Alaine did not protest. At least not vehemently.
She suggested something along the lines of what his father no doubt will express on the matter. As she so inarticulately put it, he shouldn’t bail on his guests. Yet, here they are now, waiting in silence in the freezing cold while the party inside continues.
Very often, Lucas finds himself wondering what she is thinking when she slips into this quiet mode. He could ask her but doesn’t want to intrude on her private musings.
With each passing second his nerves seem to wind tighter and their quietude somehow augments the magnitude of differences between them.
The silence becomes disturbing. It leaves Lucas’ mind too idle and open for the free passage of thoughts. Say something, he tries to command his tongue. All he manages to do is clear his throat.
The sound disrupts the peaceful harmony of the quiet stillness that can only be created at midnight. The noise hovers heavily between them but at least Alaine turns to look at his face.
His heart, again, at her wispy smile. The reaction is still inexplicable. He pulls in a deep, steadying breath before looking away to glance at his watch.
He summoned Seth over ten minutes ago. Just how far away was he? Lucas is not sure how much more of this tension he can take.
Accepting that there is nothing else to do but break their stalemate, Lucas turns back to Alaine.
“Is all well?” he asks her.
She looks up at him, breaks into a wide grin, then bubbles with soft laughter; the sound a beautiful ripple floating across the quietness in the air.
“I guess it is,” Lucas answers for himself.
“The way you speak sometimes,” Alaine tells him. “Is all well, like you walked straight out of a British classic.”
Feeling a surge of embarrassment that she is laughing at him, Lucas scowls. That she would, hurts. “How should I speak, then?” he asks.
“No, I like it,” Alaine confirms. “It’s impressive.”
“And yet you laugh at me,” he notes.
“I’m not laughing at you,” she assures. Her laughter fizzles out but her little smile remains. “It’s just different I guess.”
Lucas nods, though he is unsure of what to make of her revelation. It’s just different. He makes himself brush off the sting of her laughter. She did not do it callously, so he chides his still very human heart for allowing him to experience it in the first place.
Now, the silence is no longer just disturbing. It’s also somber and laden with the weight of his past. Alaine doesn’t know the things he’s endured. The things he’d had to do just to survive it. He doesn’t want her or anybody to know for that matter. But especially not her. She can’t know what a weak person he is.
“I’m sorry, Lucas,” Alaine offers once she recognizes his discomfort and hurt.
He tries to offer her a placating smile that she instantly knows is not genuine. Even in the dark, she can tell that the little spark she’s seen in his eyes when he is happy is absent.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” she explains. “And I really do find you impressive.”
He beams at her now. “Impressive?” he questions.
“Yes,” she replies.
“That means a lot coming from you,” Lucas admits. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she says.
Understanding and forgiveness hum like a current between them as they stare at each other. The silence, the awkwardness and the pain in the memory of Lucas’ past slip away and is replaced by a frisson of awareness. Something ignites in the atmosphere pushing him to draw her closer. He steps. She gasps in recognition of his intent.
He's going to kiss her. Alaine can feel it. She wants him to so she lifts her face to him in invitation. Lucas dips his head lower at the same time he slips his cold hands under the jacket to brand her naked back. The eager anticipation for the feel of his lips against hers stills Alaine’s breath. She closes her eyes and waits.
“There you are. I’ve been looking for a moment to talk to you.”
The sudden intrusion makes Lucas freeze and he steps back. Alaine blinks to refocus her vision.
“Mr. Gaines,” Lucas says immediately recognizing the voice. Regretfully, he turns away from Alaine to extend his hand to the graying gentleman.
“It’s good to see you, son. I wanted to talk to you all evening but I saw you with this lovely lady and knew I couldn’t disturb. I’m sorry, but I had to catch you before you leave,” the man explains.
“That’s fine, sir,” Lucas answers. “This is Alaine,” he offers. “Alaine this is Judah Gaines,” he introduces. “He owns a small fleet.”
“Pleasure, little lady,” the man says in a rich southern drawl.
“Boats?” Alaine questions.
“I own an airline,” Mr. Gaines corrects. “I have been meaning to reschedule our meeting which you postponed the other day,” he says, turning his attention back to Lucas. “I was quite surprised by that.”
“Yes, I am truly sorry about it, sir,” Lucas replies. “I had a matter of great import to attend to,” he continues and glances down at Alaine. “We can reschedule of course,” he adds, though he is well aware that it will take quite a bit of tweaking and a miracle to fit in another appointment in his calendar.
This is part of the reason he is a stickler for time and organization. But after a night of having Alaine in his arms, learning the feel of her lips and body, Lucas cannot regret the disruption in his routine. He’d had to cancel that meeting with Judah Gaines to accommodate her tardiness but as far as he is concerned, the disruption was well worth it.
"We'll definitely work it out," Lucas assures the older man.
“Good,” Mr. Gaines replies. “I’ll have my office call your office. So,” he says to Alaine “What is it that you do? How did you manage to tame this one?”
“Nothing yet,” she answers, ignoring the latter question. “I graduated last fall and I’m trying to find a job to put that costly software engineering degree to use. Hopefully, I’ll be able to complete my masters in machine learning,” she rambles.
“Well, how convenient is that,” Mr. Gaines notes. “My sons are trying to get the business deeper into modern technology. We'll be hiring. Why don’t you send in an application and give us a call,” he says as he reaches into his pocket to pull out a business card. “I’ve never done business with a better person,” he says about Lucas. “I can certainly extend a hand to his lady.”
Unsure of whether or not this is appropriate or if Lucas will be displeased about it, Alaine hesitates, then looks up at him for confirmation that this is okay. She finds him smiling tenderly at her and to the question in her eyes he nods enthusiastically.
“Thank you,” Lucas answers, his voice jolting her out of her stupor. “You will definitely be hearing from her.”
“Yes,” Alaine says, finally accepting the business card from the older man. “Thank you so much.”
“See,” Lucas says after Judah Gaines walks away. “Being with me has its perks.
Now, if only he could get back the moment they lost.
“So machine learning,” he tells Alaine. “I am impressed with you as well. You are beauty and brains.”
“Says the handsome genius,” she jokes.
Lucas chuckles. “Don’t sell yourself short,” he scolds. “I’ve read your resume, remember?”
“Well, thank you,” she offers.
“Aside from the obvious, I wonder if you enjoyed the evening?” he asks. “I’d have loved to dance with you again. I’m curious whether I’d have had to coerce you or if you would simply accept.”
“It’s been wonderful,” Alaine answers. “Aside from the obvious. Your home is beautiful. It’s been like a fairytale,” she admits, voicing her earlier thoughts. “And I believe I would have accepted," she admits.
“Hmmm. Does that make me prince charming?” Lucas quips.
“Maybe,” Alaine responds with a blushing smile.
“Okay, I guess that makes you the princess,” Lucas tells her, as his eyes drop down to her lips.
The penetrating brightness of light from the approaching SUV causes him to squint. Lucas raises his hand against the intrusion and mentally curses people and their terrible timing.
He liked where this conversation was going. The little pull to kiss her was just returning. The way Alaine’s breath caught in her throat, he can tell she felt it too. As quickly as it came, it fades.
“This is us,” he says.
They climb into the vehicle, eager to be out of the freezing air, and pull away from their fairytale evening. It’s back to reality now. Lucas doesn’t want the night to end. Maybe it doesn’t have to. They’re sharing a hotel room tonight.
The heat inside the car becomes intolerable. Alaine has no choice but to remove Lucas' jacket. She tugs it off and sets it the space between them. Just like the last time she wore his clothes, Lucas' essence makes a home in her pores. It will be a while before it fades but she doesn't mind.
Lucas watches her movement and has to school his features to hide his growing desire. If he doesn't she will notice him undressing her with his eyes.
Now that the tension and uncertainty that clouded his mind have passed and he is aware that she definitely wants to kiss him, the backseat of his SUV opens a world of possibilities.
The space is large with comfortable seats that can accommodate maneuverability. They could easily continue what started before Judah Gaines and Seth interrupted them and maybe take it a little further. All he has to do is raise the privacy window to separate them from their driver.
A different type of tension builds in Lucas’ chest. His pants too feel constricted as his body responds to the images in his mind. Suddenly, his breathing feels restricted as well. He’s never lost control with a woman but feels very close to losing all battles when it comes to the little woman beside him.
He throws a furtive glance in Alaine’s direction.
She’s sitting there quietly and hasn’t looked at him since they entered the car. But her quietness speaks volumes. So does the tense way she keeps wringing her hands together in her lap.
It doesn’t help Lucas when she pulls her bottom lip between her teeth. Neither does the uneven rise and fall of her chest.
Lucas runs his tongue over his dry lips in anticipation as his eyes search out the movement of her breasts with each breath she takes. It’s so easy to see that she’s not wearing a bra.
What would she do if he chose to kiss her? Would she give in and allow him to lift her off her seat to straddle him? How would she react when she encounters his hardon? The poor little innocent. He's curious just how much she knows.
Would she run away? Or would she grow wet? He prefers to imagine the latter and that she would stroke herself against him to afford them both a bit of relief. Maybe she would even permit him to run his hands over her supple curves and touch her in places where she’s never been touched.
Lucas mouths a curse in the darkness. Never has he been so tormented by the thought of making love to a woman. Making love. It's a strange concept to use. He doesn't do love. Maybe that's what it is when there is kissing involved.
As his mind conjures the feel of her warm arousal on his fingers, Lucas feels his groin clench. He has to adjust himself in his seat. Usually, it’s easy to slake his thirst, something tells him that even if he has a harem of women he won't be satisfied. Not until he has Alaine.
Hesitantly, he reaches across to place his palm over her hands.
“Relax,” he suggests but needs to take the advice for himself as well.
The tiredness that creeps up on Alaine takes all options off the table. A scant fifteen minutes into their hour-long drive to their hotel, she starts to doze.
Thinking that she would be more comfortable resting against him rather than the hard window, Lucas sidles up next to her and pulls her gently against him.
“Shhhh,” he encourages when she stirs and mutters something in her sleep. "It's okay."
Studying her resting features in the passing glow of streetlights, Lucas feels a light tugging in his chest. In his heart really as he considers her situation.
Alaine works two jobs, suffers from pain after an old injury, sleeps on a small rock. It’s no wonder she’s tired. Now she has the additional stress of an older sister and a young child to take care of. He can't help but admire her indomitable spirit.
Let me take care of you, Alaine.
The thought flits across Lucas’ mind. He can take care of her; give her whatever she wants. Whatever she wants?
What of love? What if she wants that? No, he could make her understand. He’s been stripped bare of that sentiment. He doesn’t know how to give it or receive it anymore. But she can have anything else.
Lucas places his arm around her so she fits more comfortably against him, while his mind turns like a mill, recycling images of the hell he’d endured as a child; of what it’s turned him into.
Alaine burrows into him and murmurs inaudibly. The movie reel playing in his head stops as he looks down at features in repose. She is something to look at. So beautiful.
A Calmness seems to seep into his soul. With his eyes closed, Lucas leans back into the headrest and basks in the unfamiliar sensation. In his mind, there are only thoughts and images of Alaine; Smiling, laughing, blushing. All for him.
When the hotel comes into view, he tries to rouse out of sleep. "Do you need me to carry you again?" he asks.
His voice, whispered very close to her ear startles Alaine into wakefulness. Immediately she realizes how intimately she is curled up against him and his arms have somehow snaked their way around her body.
Breaking into a stream of apologies, she tries to back away.
“It’s fine,” Lucas whispers and tightens his arm around her to keep her where she is. “I quite like having you here,” he says. “We are just driving up to the hotel. I thought you might like to see where you are going to be sleeping.”