Barry swallowed hard once he was finally standing in front of Mo. She was cute as a button, with waist-length, spiral-curled chestnut hair and trim, jean-clad legs.
She stared hard at him like he was a raving idiot, but he’d made up his mind. He’d been a chicken shit coward for six months.
For a year after his divorce, he hated all women, and only used them when his itch couldn’t be cured in the shower.
Then last summer, he spotted Mo. Oh, he had noticed her in the store when she started working there a few years ago. Little hard not to notice a beautiful woman. But he’d been married then.
He had been faithful to his unfaithful wife. But that June day, six months ago, Mo had been breathtaking, standing in the morning sunlight that drifted in the big front window.
She had been laughing at something the guys said and had helped him with his purchase: jeans and work shirts. He’d been so tongue-tied, he probably forgot to thank her.
From that day forward, she captivated too many of his thoughts. He found himself driving by the store, trying to steal a glimpse of her through the front window.
And he had a whole stash of jeans in his closet, plus a few extra work coats and plenty of gloves. It looked like he was fencing stolen merchandise. But he couldn’t stay away from the store.
Every time he saw that woman, his hands started sweating, his voice wobbled, and his knees felt shaky.
His ex wife never produced those kinds of physical reactions from him. No woman had.
He was going to ask Mo out, finally, and take his shot. He had dreamed of this woman for months, knowing she was the answer to his dreams.
He just hoped if she shot him down, it wouldn’t be too painfully humiliating. His pride had taken a few hits lately, from a cheating ex-wife to a back-stabbing best friend.
He didn’t think he could take much more. He continued to stare at Mo and wait.
He kind of wished Sam and George would disappear. It was hard enough asking out a woman, but they made it harder by hanging around and watching.
And worse yet when Mo just stared at him, a peculiar look on her face. Was it a look of amusement? Or fear that he was completely unhinged?
He started to wonder if he’d said anything out loud when her eyes twinkled. Those deep cocoa brown eyes that pulled him in. Damn, if he didn’t love rich brown eyes on a woman.
And hers, combined with her deep red hair, literally stole his breath away. She was dressed in bright red, making her hair pop. He couldn’t not stare and tried to act like he wasn’t.
“Can I help you?.” She asked him.
He couldn’t keep his damn hand from shaking. He hated this part. It was why he didn’t date. He couldn’t ask a woman out without throwing up.
In fact, he’d had to stop his pickup twice on the drive from the site to the store to lean out the window and chuck out the contents of his stomach.
“Ah, yeah.” He finally said, but when he looked back at George and Sam, two guys he’d known since he was a kid and two men he’d respected and looked to for advice, they were both trying to stifle laughs. Barry groaned inwardly. He felt like he was twelve and making an ass out of himself.
He wondered how fast he could sprint out of the store and to his truck. But if he ran now, there wouldn’t be another chance with this woman. He had to believe in a leap of faith with her.
He took a deep breath. All the words he’d practiced and memorized were no longer in his brain. He simply blurted out the big reason he was standing there. “I’d like to take you to Disney World for a week.”
Mo’s jaw dropped. Her brow wrinkled slightly as she frowned. She opened her mouth once. Twice. Then shut it tight and just stared, wide-eyed, at him. She glanced toward the guys.
She turned back to Barry.
He saw her reaction and quickly clarified. “My mom’s got this fun fund and has been planning this family trip for a couple of years. My folks, my sister and brother-in-law, and me.” He paused and swallowed over a lump in his throat. “And there’s money for me to take a date.”
“And that’s me?” Mo squeaked.
“I’d like it to be.” He leaned against the front counter.
“But, we don’t even know each other.”
“We’ll know each other really well by the time we get back.”
Mo stared at him. . This was Barry Connors’ idea of a first date? A weeklong trip to Disney World. Jaysus. What did he do for an encore? Fly her to the moon for cheese? He had to be thirty.
And his mom still planned family trips for them? Made her wonder about him a little bit. Was he a spoiled mama’s boy? Or did he have a really close-knit family?
And his confidence had to be through the roof. To ask out a woman he didn’t even know, to spend an entire week with his family?
She couldn’t get her brain to work. The store was suddenly too hot. He was too close. And the guys were too damned nosy. She wanted Sam and George to disappear.
But they stood there and watched, like she and Barry were putting on a play for them.
Barry worried that her lack of an answer meant she was trying to figure out a way to let him down nicely. He kept talking, trying to sell himself, knowing he was making it worse. “It would be like a tour. If we don’t get along, no big.”
Mo bit her lip. “What if we can’t stand each other? You’d be stuck with me for a week!”
He stared lazily at her. “I have a feeling we’ll get along.”
“Can I think about it?”
“Sure.” He glanced at his watch. “The store closes in two minutes.”
Mo stared hard at him. “Can I call you?”
He nodded, not sure of what to do. He hadn’t dated for several years. And back then, things were different. The rules were different. “I’m in the book.” Barry stood to leave.
Mo’s brow furrowed. “Hold it! You’re in the book? What the hell kind of answer is that?”
Barry turned and stared at her. “Pardon?”
“Don’t come in here all cute and unassuming, ask me out on a freaking week-long date and then tell me to call you. You’re in the book!”
Barry’s face drained of all warmth. Now he’d pissed her off. He had heard that a man shouldn’t do that to a red head. But all he could wonder was how that fire might translate into passion.
And he easily imagined her using that passion against him in his bed. Her face was turning an adorable shade of pink and her eyebrows furrowed close together.
He quickly buttoned his work coat up, to conceal the evidence of his attraction to her.
She thought he was cute? That was something to build on. Maybe if he turned on the cute charm, he could diffuse the situation before it was totally FUBAR.
Damn, he just couldn’t talk to women he was attracted to. If Mo was married or had a steady boyfriend, he’d be chatting up a storm.
But he wanted to be that boyfriend and it scared the crap out of him. Last time he was the boyfriend, he ended up the husband and his entire world went to shit.
He had Mo up on a pedestal, and he hated to ruin his dreams about her. But it was time to see how much of her was like his dreams and how much was going to disappoint.
Think, Connors, think of something to say.
“I didn’t mean it like that.” He crossed his hands over his crotch, going for nonchalant.
“What did you mean?” Her eyes narrowed and she scanned him from head to toe.
“Just.” He sighed. “I’m a little rusty on the dating game.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t play games, Barry.” She started to turn around.
He caught her shoulder and gently twisted her back to face him. “It’s been a while since I’ve asked a woman out.” He pulled out a business card from his wallet. “Think about it, then call me. Top one’s my office. Bottom one’s cell.”
She took the paper and noticed his hand shaking. “When’s the trip?”
“In three weeks.”
She tightened her grip on the paper. “How long have you known about it?”
“Awhile.” He blushed. “I’ve been trying to work up the nerve to ask you, Mo.”
She leaned back against the hat display. “So, you’ve noticed me?”
He grinned. “First time I saw you.” He pointed to the paper. “Call me anytime.”
Mo’s jaw dropped again. But she watched him saunter away from her, admiring the cut of his jeans over the round curve of his ass. He looked more like an elite athlete than a construction worker.
Christ, she could see his muscle definition through three layers of clothing. And then he was gone. The bell tinkled again. The store was empty.
She went through the motions of closing the store: locking the front door, counting out the till, turning down the lights.
The guys didn’t say much as she gathered her coat and got ready for the walk home.
“Want a ride?” George offered.
Mo shook her head. “I need to think.”
Sam grunted. “Don’t think too long.” He put his arm on the small of her back. “A man like Barry Connors won’t be on the market very long.”
“I’m not shopping.”
“Maybe you should be.”
George nodded. “He’d be good for you, Mo.”
“Better match for you than Doug.” Sam squeezed her lightly. “We just want what’s best for you, little girl.”
She glanced from Sam to George and back again. “I don’t know what – or who – that is.”
“Trust your heart for once.”
She stopped buttoning her coat. “What’s that mean?”
George leaned against the wall and crossed his legs at the ankles. “It means you think about things too much.”
“You analyze and categorize everything Mo.”
She blushed and looked at her fingers. “It’s what I’m good at.”
Sam tilted her chin up. “For your school and professional life, that’s fine.”
George nodded. “But when it comes to men, go with what feels right.”
Mo chuckled. “Since when did you two crusty old farts get so sentimental?”
Sam shook his head. “It’s always there. We just hide it well.”
George winked at her. “I almost let my wife get away from me, Mo, because I over-thought the situation. If you like Barry, tell him so.”
“And then find a way to get him into your life.” Sam zipped up his coat. “We’re not shitting you, Mo. We think he’s the best kind of guy there is. Someone you deserve.”
Mo warmed with their words and their thoughts. She gave them each a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks again for the clothes. And the advice.”
The three of them left via the back door. George turned to lock it and asked again. “Sure you don’t want a ride?”
“This is my thinking time.” Mo started her walk from down town to her apartment near campus. “Good night, guys.”
She walked down Main, toward her small place on College. She had a set route. She knew where the sidewalks would be shoveled and where she could cross safely.
The snow hadn’t let up, and she noticed about a foot piled up along the curbs. Cars crept along, and the snow muffled any noise. She breathed deeply, hoping for some clarity.
Before she’d gone a block, a big diesel pickup pulled over and a deep male voice greeted her. “Can I give you a ride?”
She looked into the devilishly handsome face of Barry Connors. She couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t live that far.”
“It’s starting to snow again. And it’s cold as a witch’s . . .” He closed his mouth for a moment. “It’s cold out.” He popped the door open and waited for her.
She stared at the warm cab then glanced at his face. He was smiling, his dimples showing, and he waggled his eyebrows.
“I don’t accept rides from strangers.”
“We’re not strangers, Mo. And after I take you home, we’ll know each other better.”
She swallowed, wondering if he had chosen words to confuse her or if they just came out that way.
“Come on, Mo. I can’t leave a woman to walk alone in a snow storm. That would hurt my manly pride.”
Mo grinned and shook her head at him. She thought about the advice Sam and George had given her. Her heart pounding, she decided to go with spontaneity.
Mo climbed into the work truck and slipped her seat belt on. The truck was loaded: leather seats, too many buttons and knobs to know which one to press, a sun roof, even a heated seat. “You must be a supervisor.”
He shrugged. “I’m part owner of C and C Construction.”
“Owner?” Her head swiveled to stare at him. “C stands for Connors!”
Barry nodded as he pulled back into traffic. “I bought into the business after college.”
“You went to college?”
“Don’t sound so surprised, Mo.” His jaw tightened. “I graduated at the top of my class.”
She shook her head. “I’m not surprised. I just . . . don’t know much about you.”
He glanced at her at a stop light. “Nor me about you. Just what I’ve found out from the guys.”
She fiddled with the seat belt strap. “You asked Sam and George about me?”
He nodded. “Once I finally strapped some courage on.”
“What did they say?”
He shook his head and grinned slowly. “I’ll take that to my grave, sweet heart.”
She smiled a little. “So, you checked me out before you asked me out?”
He looked out the window. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
“I didn’t mean it to sound like you’re . . .”
“Too stupid to do something besides construction?” He looked sideways at her.
She sighed. “Not quite the words I’d use.” She bit her lip and looked at her hands. “You just don’t strike me as a college guy.”
He lifted an eyebrow.
“College isn’t the answer for everyone’s future.”
“I really enjoyed college.” He turned onto Willson. “I sometimes think about going back.”
Mo turned to face him and took a deep breath. “I think you need to know something. I’ve got this semester and the next one and then I’m done. I’ll have my doctorate. That’s my goal right now.”
“George said you were pretty serious about school.”
“I’ve worked too long and too hard to get side tracked now.”
“I’m not out to side track you, Mo.” He turned the heat up and the radio off.
She bit her lip. “Maybe not intentionally. . .”
“When are your finals?”
“I don’t have any.” Mo watched the fat, fluffy flakes bounce off the dark blue hood of his pickup. “Graduate school’s so different from undergraduate. I’m in constant contact with my advisor. Constantly working on papers.”
“When’s the semester break?”
He grinned. “I’d say this is serendipity. We’re going to Florida right after Christmas.” Then he pulled over to a parking space on a side street.
He faced her. “Mo, if you’re not interested, just say so.” He spoke quickly, like the words were fire leaving his mouth.
“I know I’m not smooth and I’m probably blowing any chance I have with you. But just be honest with me if I have a shot or not.”
Mo swallowed. “Thing is, I have a boyfriend.”
His face dropped. “Didn’t see that coming.” He leaned over the steering wheel. “That would have been a good thing for the guys to mention.” He groaned. “Christ, I’m an ass.”
“How does that make you an ass?”
“Hitting on another guy’s girl?”
“I don’t belong to Doug.”
He took his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. “Can’t believe those two didn’t mention it.”
Mo cleared her throat. “They don’t like him.”
He lifted his head. “Really?”
“They like you a lot better.”
He grinned. “Really. . .”
“All they did this afternoon was brag about what a great catch you are.” She winked at him. “How much are you paying them?”
“Not enough.” He moved his cap back on his head.
“It’s about over with Doug; he doesn’t want me to finish college.”
He frowned. “Why the hell not?”
Mo shrugged. “I think he wants me available to be with him whenever he wants.”
“That’s a crock of shit, Mo.”
She hinged a glance at him.
“Why should you give up your dream just so he can get what he wants?” He sat back up.
“I think the fact that he didn’t go to graduate school has something to do with it.”
He thumped the steering wheel. “He’s jealous.”
She shook her head. “He’s a teacher at the middle school and a football coach for the high school, but I think he wanted to coach at the university level.”
“I don’t understand why a guy would want to take an education away from you just because he didn’t do what he wanted.”
“You wouldn’t stand in the way of school?” She felt a glimmer of potential in her chest.
“Not intentionally.” He sighed. “I know this is sudden. And I’m asking a lot of you to give me an answer right away. But we need to know for tickets.”
Mo closed her eyes. “Maybe we should have a date first?” She wanted to say yes, to do something so totally unlike herself. Take a chance. Be daring.
“Date?” He frowned and put his arm over the back of the seat.
“You know, talk, get to know each other a little bit.” Mo smiled. “See if we even like each other. I can be stubborn.” She paused. “And I have a temper.”
He barked out a laugh. “I just assumed we’d get along and nothing would be a problem.”
“Maybe we will.” Mo bit her lip. “But I can’t honestly answer you or know what to do about Doug until I know a little more about you.”
He glanced at his watch. “What about now?”