“You’re uncle Michael?” Olivia asked in disbelief, not liking the way her voice came out in a strangled squeak.
“Hello again, Olivia.” Michael replied in a smooth voice.
“You know each other?” His niece wondered in amazement. Then, it clicked. This had been the woman his uncle had been referring to last night. The same woman he had been mad at, because she had said no to going out with him.
Oh, my God! Uncle Michael has a thing for Ms. B! Her excitement was such, Camie had to keep her feet firmly planted on the floor to keep her entire body from jumping up and down with delight.
“But…..I mean…..you….” Olivia stuttered.
“I believe someone here owes me an apology.”
“Excuse me?” That put a stop to her blabbering. Her nostrils flared as all she saw was the amusement plastered all over his gorgeous face. Her temper flared as more than hurt, Michael was clearly enjoying this as much as she was hating it.
“Weren’t you accusing me yesterday of making the whole tale about my niece just to get into your pants?”
Camie’s giggles were enough for Olivia to snap and sound like her own mother.
“There’s a kid in here. Watch your language!”
“Oh, don’t let her cute face fool you. You should listen to the things that come out of that tiny mouth of hers.”
Michael’s hands landed on Camie’s shoulders and he squeezed them affectionately.
“But as you can see, I do have a niece.”
“Ha, looks like you do owe him an apology.”
Emilia now realized why Camie and Michael had emitted such confusing energy. There was no doubt now in her hazy mind that Michael was part of the reason she was still here. It made even more sense now why she had to convince Olivia to leave Noah and perhaps, give charming and mouthwatering Michael a shot. The attraction flying between them was making her dead transparent body feel warm.
With no way out, Olivia sucked in her pride, and lifted her gaze to meet his.
“I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. Although, you have to admit your dinner invitation was out of the blue. Any woman would’ve reacted like I did. Men just don’t go on following women, cornering them at the checkout line just to ask them out.”
No wonder he was fascinated by her. Despite the chagrined look on her face, as it was plainly obvious she had only apologized because Camie was around, Olivia was a woman who spoke her mind, no matter how deep she had stepped in it. She had to have the last word.
After a brief pause he said.
“Apology accepted. I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but you’re all Camie could talk about last night at dinner.”
This time it was Camie’s turn to blush. She wrinkled her nose and she tensed under her uncle’s hold. This was supposed to be classified information.
Great! Now, she’ll be forced to be nice to me. Camie regretted having shared that much information whit her uncle. Like her dad, he sometimes had a knack for embarrassing her.
“I’m honored. You should be proud of her. From what I saw in my class, she’s really smart.”
“She must get it from me.”
“I think being smart is inherited directly from the parents.”
Olivia’s lips curved into a mocking smile, glad she was more herself and less a bundle of overexcited nerves.
“Uncle Michael, can we go now? I’m starving.”
“Sure, let’s go.”
But his head scanned the deserted parking lot trying to spot Olivia’s car. For some reason, Michael doubted she walked to school everyday, unless she lived real close.
“See you next week Camie. Have a good holiday.”
“You, too, Ms. B.”
But instead of following her to the car, Michael stayed standing where he was.
“Where’s your car Olivia?” Michael inquired, his eyes searching her face in case she decided to lie to him just to avoid being with him any longer.
“My friend Tracy borrowed it. I’m waiting for my…….” Olivia stopped. She was going to say “boyfriend” but the word got stuck in her throat.
“My ride to pick me up. Don’t worry…….I have it covered.”
Her hesitation was enough for him to formulate a quick plan inside his head. Only that he would have to resort to his niece’s help. With his gaze glued to the woman in front of him, he called Camie back.
“What?” She rolled her eyes, teenager-like.
“Looks like Ms. B here has no ride to get her home. Do you mind if we gave her a lift before heading to the house?”
One of the reasons Ms. B had complimented on her being smart was because Camila Hurst had indeed inherited that particular trait from her dad, but also from her loving uncle. Her mind was quick enough to grasp the plan his uncle wanted to put in motion.
“Sure, no problem.”
“Oh, say yes. Please, please.” Emilia got closer to both uncle and niece and with pleading eyes begged Olivia to accept their offer.
“No! I mean, no, really. You don’t have to worry. I’m…..” But her plea was interrupted by an incoming text message. She took the phone from her purse.
Her heart sank all the way to her feet when Noah’s text flashed like a mock from fate on her screen.
-Hey Ollie, tied up at the office. Will be late to pick you up. Sorry.
Don’t do this to me, Noah. Not now.
“I must say, for once, his timing couldn’t have been more perfect.” Emilia announced from behind Michael and Camie. Apparently, she was all set to ride back with them.
Did you have anything to do with this?
“I’m a ghost, not a mind controlling freak. And if I had that power I wouldn’t waste it on your boyfriend. No, this was just fate siding with me, for once.”
Before Michael could say anything, Olivia called Noah’s cellphone number and waited patiently until his voice replaced the constant ringing.
“Ollie. You got my message?” Noah’s voice sounded distracted. Like he was really busy working. Olivia still didn’t buy the whole noninterference from Emilia.
“Yes. Couldn’t you just step out quickly and come pick me up? I could even tag along back to your office. I have some papers to grade before the holiday. I promise I’ll be quiet as a mouse.”
“I can’t, Olivia. There’s no room here for you, anyway. Isn’t there anyone there that can give you a lift?” Noah now sounded annoyed at her squeaky plea.
Her eyes automatically found Michael’s. His smug face told her he already suspected her so called ride was not going to be able to make it.
“I….how long do you think you’ll be?”
“An hour, maybe two. I, too, have stuff to finish before the holidays and….”
“And what?” Olivia didn’t like how he paused after the and. Certainly he wasn’t going to bail on Thanksgiving at her parents’, was he? They hadn’t seen each other since Monday and she wanted to see him, to prove Emilia wrong about the whole wedding issue.
“Nothing that can’t wait. Sorry, Ollie. So, you’ll wait for me?”
It was obvious his attention was already on whatever work he was still doing.
“I…don’t worry. I’ll figure something out.”
She hung up and sighed.
“I take it your ride isn’t coming?”
Olivia wanted to smack that look of triumph from his handsome face. Not only had she had to endure the shame of seeing him again after the whole deodorant fiasco, but now she was going to have to spend unnecessary time with him. What was worse, not only did he now know where she worked, but he also would know where she lived.
Not that she was worried about him being the stalker type of guy, but the glint coming from his kind honey colored eyes told her she was in deep trouble. Especially when her entire body quivered in response.
“Oh, just ask him, Olivia.” Emilia urged, now standing next to her. Although mind boggling, it was way cool to be able to move from spot to spot in the blink of an eye.
Michael beat her up to it.
“My offer still stands. It won’t be any trouble at all for us to give you a ride.”
Defeated, she tucked her hair behind her ears and tugged at the strap from her school bag.
“Thanks. I would appreciate it.”
Camila knew her uncle’s plan had worked flawlessly. Maybe she could give him a hand.
“Why don’t you join us for dinner, too? It’s spaguetti night and Dad’s tomato sauce is a legend in the Hurst family.”
“Way to go kid. Seems like not only fate is on my side this fine evening.” Emilia’s lips curved at the sides, and wasn’t at all offended when a stream of loud curses she’d only heard truck drivers mutter, streamed loudly inside Olivia’s mind.
Michael swore he would buy Camie anything she asked for, if her plan worked out. The silent words that passed between both identical pair of golden brown eyes reminded him of the same look that had passed over the years between brothers as well.
The look had always meant one thing: we’re in this together.
“Oh no, I couldn’t. Besides, I have work to do and I think it would be rude to your brother to have to put up with an unexpected guest.”
“Dad won’t mind. Right, uncle Michael?”
“Of course, he won’t. Who could mind having two beautiful women sharing dinner with us ugly, Hurst men?”
Somehow, Olivia couldn’t fathom the idea of thinking of Michael as ugly. In fact, it was a strong possibility Camie’s dad would be as good-looking as his brother. But it made her uneasy that Michael thought of her as beautiful.
Camie took Olivia’s free hand and gave the history teacher her rehearsed signature foolproof you-can’t-say-no-to face: pouted mouth, widened eager eyes, but with less of the eyelash fluttering. Finally, her voice came out with the tiniest hint of begging and would-be-crushed-if-you-said-no-to tone that never failed with her dad and uncle.
“Please, Ms. B? It would be totally cool if my dad could meet you, too.”
It had the desired effect. Olivia knew she should say no, and just ask to be taken home. On the other hand, she really liked Camie and the idea of facing a reheated plate of leftover chilli in front of the basement’s T.V. , chatting like some mental person with the ghost of a dead woman was suddenly very unappealing.
Ignoring Michael, she nodded with her head and was instantly being pulled toward a black Ford Explorer, while Camie chatted excitedly about her father meeting her and her uncle’s way too cool house.
“She’s good, really good.” Emilia muttered and followed them, careful to sit at the very end of the back seat next to the girl.
Michael held the door open for Olivia and then rounded the front of the car to climb in next to her. Being this close to him was making her sweaty and her insides were rapidly melting like wax. Her heart rate had jumped off to the roof and she could see, thanks to the side view mirror, that her face had turned a horrible red-purple color. It was as if her head had transformed into a giant beet.
As Emilia had pointed out when they first met, she was indeed, a very confident woman, rarely rattled by anything. She couldn’t remember the last time a man, let alone a stranger, had caused her to blush repeatedly in such a short amount of time.
Michael’s presence was enough to make her body feel all jumpy and anxious. Regrettably, it wasn’t a dreaded anxiousness but a welcome one.
Halfheartedly, she tried to pay attention to Camie’s conversation about her new room and her plans for decorating it. Still, the girl’s chatter seemed to be one-sided and didn’t expect any type of response from Olivia. She used this as an excuse to turn her body to the left side and focus on the houses they were driving by.
Her eyes recognized the street as it was the same she used to drive to get to work. Most of the houses in this street were bigger and always had little kids’ toys scattered messily all over the front lawns. They reached the end of Peacock Street, and then Michael’s car entered a paved driveway with a small front yard to the right.
Olivia must’ve passed this house many times before on her way to work. Her own house was a couple of streets down, where the smaller houses began, on Eagle Street.
Michael’s house was similar to hers in the exterior, all red brick with white window shutters, white door with the addition of a white metal garage door. It, too, had two floors, only that she was a hundred percent sure the inside space would be more generous compared to her cramped home. There was another car parked right in front of the closed garage door, a silver Volvo sedan, this one way newer than her old-as-last-century blue one.
She would’ve never imagined that a single man lived in this house. It always looked so homey. Olivia had always assumed a big family inhabited it.
“Wow, this place is huge.” Emilia exclaimed as her blue-grey eyes took in the entire size of the house.
Please, it’s just a little bit bigger than my place, that’s all. Olivia scoffed, mentally.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, right? I bet more than one person can be in this house’s kitchen at the same time without having to contort their bodies as if they were from Cirque Du Soleil.”
There was a faint golden light pouring from the lower floor windows, casting a bright halo on the tended garden in front. The autumn sky had already turned into a black blanket hovering over them with just the faintest glitter of a few scattered stars above.
Olivia had barely unhooked her seat belt, when the overexcited teenager was dragging her to the main entrance. Michael followed quietly with the ghost of Emilia walking close to him. Before the front door shut behind him. Emilia made a dash for it and was glad no one could hear her idiotic gasp when her gaze took in the interior of the house.
“Holy shit! Okay, I take it back, your house is a shoebox compared to this. I mean, my whole place and yours could fit inside this one.”
Rolling her eyes at her dead roomie’s comment, Olivia followed Camie’s voice and came to a halt at the kitchen’s threshold. A man, she assumed it was Michael’s brother, was busy draining a steaming pot of pasta by the sink. The minute his daughter walked up to him, he caught her in a bear-like embrace. Olivia knew that what she’d said to Camie had been the truth: her dad’s strikingly handsome face looked like nothing else mattered but the young girl standing in front of him.
Immediately, her nose caught the scent of garlic and tomato mixed with the clean, spicy one coming from behind her. The combination made her stomach churn and the rest of her go all mushy on the inside.
Michael touched her shoulder and her skeleton nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Let me take that for you.” He gestured to the bag she was clutching as if she were guarding the crown jewels. Her fingers uncurled and let go of the strap. Their hands touched when he extended his to take her bag. Her gasp reached his ears and made him smile. Olivia felt like throttling off that smile, even when it had her knees buckling under her.
The moment he left the kitchen, Olivia took three steadying breaths and prepared herself to meet her student’s father.
Father and daughter were deep in conversation. Camie had momentarily forgotten all about her, which gave her an excuse to take a look around. Emilia was right, not only about the kitchen comment, but about the rest as well.
First of all, this kitchen would kick her sorry excuse for a kitchen’s ass. To her right were two doors, one on top of the other. The bottom stainless steel one belonged to the oven that made her want to cry with envy, while the upper door belonged to the microwave. The paneling on the cupboard doors was all done in a light white oak with steel handles. They extended on either side of the stove, which was situated right in the middle a few feet away from where Olivia was standing.
Her gaze continued to scan the room making a mental note to “get one of those” next time she had enough money to splurge at Williams and Sonoma.
The upkeep of her house, although left to her by her grandmother when she passed away, took up most of her paycheck, leaving next to nothing to indulge in some much needed amenities for her kitchen or the rest of the house for that matter. It wasn’t a dump, but apart from her “brand new toaster,” the rest of her appliances looked like they had been invented seconds before her grandmother bought them, more than twenty years ago.
Inconspicuously, Olivia finished her appraisal of the space taking a good look at the double sink, dishwasher and the humongous refrigerator stuck into the wall to the left. The refrigerator was one of those energy efficiency ones, also in the same stainless steel finish as the oven. It, too, made the one she had at home look like it could actually fit inside this one. Finally, she noticed a door to her left, which Olivia guessed was the house’s basement.
Seconds later, Michael came to stand behind her. Olivia moved further inside the kitchen to avoid feeling his breath gently caressing her neck and causing the hairs on her arms to stand up. The conversation between father and daughter had now lowered to a barely audible murmur. Her constant interaction with teenagers at work was enough for Olivia to know that she was now the topic being discussed between Camila and Michael’s brother.
Speaking of barely audible, where the hell was Emilia?
Nervous, Olivia strained to hear for any sign of her. As if on cue, Emilia’s ethereal laughter floated through the garlic scented air. The blare and noise from the T.V. came from somewhere next to the dinning room in front of her. Trying to appear inconspicuous, Olivia walked further inside until she spotted a couch right next to the dinning area and a 60’ plasma T.V. hanging from the wall in front of it.
To her disbelief, Emilia’s legs were hanging from one of the arms of the couch. Olivia realized that the rest of her body had to be sprawled leisurely on the rest of the comfy-looking piece of furniture.
Emilia! Get up this instant! What do you think you’re doing?
“Watching this show. What does it look like?”
You can’t just take over the couch as if it were your own house. Get up right now!
“Hey, you’re all about to have dinner and these are Dancing with the Stars reruns, I love that show.”
“Just make sure they don’t turn the T.V off, okay?”
Seriously, you’re getting on my last nerve!
“Now, that sounded like my mother, all right.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s a gorgeous woman standing in your kitchen and yet you give that midget over there all of your attention. Seriously Jerry, I’m starting to think you are, indeed, adopted.”
Michael saw Olivia start at the sound of his voice. Just seconds ago, her gaze had been fixed on the T.V. from the living room. He could tell her mind had been miles away, not necessarily following the couple dancing the mambo on the screen.
Where did you just go to, my dear Olivia? Michael desperately wanted to ask her but decided from the glare coming from her brown eyes, that he was still on her bad side.
No worries, he usually got what he wanted, one way or the other.
“Damn, I mean, oops. Dad, this is Ms. B., my history teacher.”
“See what I told you about that mouth of hers?” Michael said to Olivia and winked at Camie.
Jerry Hurst stretched his hand and shook their guest’s delicate but firm one.
“Jerry Hurst. Nice to meet you. I must tell you, you are now famous in this household. You’ve caused quite an impression on my daughter.”
The family resemblance was undeniable. The three Hurst’s looked liked they’d all won the lottery in the good-looking department. What was more amazing was that they had all gotten away with having such strikingly beautiful eyes. For the first time in her life, she felt the tiniest bit self-conscious as three pairs of curious warm honey eyes stared at her waiting for her answer.
“It’s nice to meet you, too. I am glad I get to have your daughter as my student. As I told her uncle, she’s really smart and committed.”
Jerry noticed the way Camie’s teacher pronounced the word uncle. Like she’d rather he wasn’t in the same planet, let alone in the same room as them.
“Well, Ms. B……. I’m sorry, that’s how Camie calls you. What does the B stand for?”
“Right. Well, Ms. Beckett, I usually have a glass of wine when it is pasta night. Would you care to join me?”
“Sure, I’d love some wine. And please, it’s Olivia.”
The name rang a bell. Jerry turned to stare at his brother and had to work hard not to mirror the grin spreading on Michael’s face.
“Olivia, you said?” Jerry moved to the counter where he had an already open bottle of wine. He took two glasses from a cupboard and continued to say, free to grin as his back was to Olivia. “Don’t tell me you’re the same woman who accused my brother of being nothing more than a poor schmuck hoping to get lucky, making up the whole my-niece-really-needs-this drama yesterday at the supermarket?”
From the living room, Olivia heard Emilia’s chuckle followed by an “Oh boy.”
Oh boy, indeed.
Before she could decide whether to answer or make a run for the front door, Michael said behind her. “Give her a break Jerry. Besides, she has already apologized.”
Not willing to succumb to this man’s charm, Olivia pointed out.
“And I also said most women would’ve been freaked out by you cornering them and asking them out to dinner in the middle of the checkout line.”
“Wait a second. You actually did that?” Jerry’s brows lifted up in astonishment.
Smooth, Ms. Beckett, very smooth. Michael had to give her that.
“She might be embellishing the moment a little bit.”
“Olivia,” Jerry handed her a wine glass, “I must also congratulate you. You’re the first woman ever to say no to my brother. You have officially broken his no rejection streak. Usually he is the one to walk away. So, I assume that’s why he is still so irked by your refusal.”
“I also said your daughter was smart. Now, I know she gets it all from you.”
She toasted Jerry. Her moment of triumph though, was interrupted by Emilia’s “Oh man! Why did they kick him out? He was such a good dancer.”
For God’s sake, don’t make me ask them to turn off that damn thing.
“I’m dead remember? You’re the only loony person who can hear me.”
I’m officially ignoring you now.
“About time. Just let me watch this show in peace.”
Michael’s voice tuned out the last of Emilia’s retort as he stated.
“I don’t think that’s quite true. You are here about to have dinner, which by the way, was my intention yesterday before you accused me of being a predator trying to get my hands on pretty little things such as yourself. So, no, my perfect streak hasn’t been broken yet.”
“If I remember correctly, it was your niece who asked me to come to dinner tonight, not you.”
“She is right uncle Michael.” Camie said as she finished pouring the hot tomato sauce into the pasta pot.
So much for helping me out, kiddo. Michael saw his niece bite her bottom lip as she tried very hard not to grin.
“So,” the history teacher continued, “the fact that you happen to be here at the same time I’m about to have dinner with Camie and her dad, is just a kink in the plan. Which would make the final score: Olivia, one, Michael, nothing.”
“Is that a challenge, Ms. Beckett? Because let me tell you, I’m always up for one.”
“No. It’s just me reminding you, you can’t always get what you want.”
“On that note, one thing you are all going to get, is an excellent dinner. So, who’s hungry?”
Jerry motioned them to the table. He could tell that, although Olivia seemed to be dead on keeping his brother at arms-length, there was a reason not one single woman had ever said no to him. He had a way of getting under their skin.
But he could also tell that Olivia was a woman who didn’t go down without a fight.
He wondered who would win this time?