Loved and Cherished
Emma Brook has been hopelessly in love with Benjamin Ashton for the last seven years, since he saved her from a horrific fate.
She’s beautiful, intelligent, and slated to start college in a few months. He’s devastatingly handsome, a successful Internet investor, and has recently moved back to Valdosta, Georgia and into her life.
So what could possibly be threatening their happily ever after?
“You’re following me.”
Emma looked up from her salad, eyes widening in shock.
“Why?” Her accuser asked, his voice deep and masculine. Dressed in a blue buttoned-down shirt, black slacks, and black boots, he towered over her at six feet tall, appearing closer to twenty-two than twenty, with close-cropped, wavy black hair over a handsome, angular face. His skin tone was light, eyes pale blue, nose straight, bottom lip a little fuller than the top, chin and jaw very strong.
Emma set her fork down and leaned back in her seat. She breathed normally to regain her composure so that the forthcoming lie would sound believable. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Without asking permission, the man seated himself across from her in the booth of the café. Sighing, he said, “You know, coincidences do sometimes occur. But they’re not likely to come in threes, and definitely never in fours. By my count, this is the fourth place we’ve accidentally ended up together today.”
“Really?” Emma put on an expression of pure innocence. “I hadn’t noticed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.”
“No?” He regarded her in obvious disbelief.
She shook her head as she held his gaze. “Nope.”
He scoffed, indulgence crinkling the corners of his eyes and mouth. “Well then, let me refresh your memory. We were both in the bookstore around nine-fifteen. I entered first and you came in right after. I perused the erotica books while you pretended to be interested in the graphic novels. Upon leaving, I stopped at the 7-11 for gas. When I went in to pay, you parked in front but never came inside to get anything. Then I swung by the mall. Every time I looked up, you were in my peripheral. So, when you walked in here for lunch after I did, what else am I to conclude except that you are following me?”
“Valdosta’s a pretty big town.” She tried to sound nonchalant. “And it’s Friday, so lots of people are out and about. You must have mistaken me with someone else.”
“No. I took a good look at you each time, and it was certainly you.”
“I don’t think so.” She flashed a smile, pleased that he’d noticed her this morning. For a fact, she believed she was an attractive woman. She’d received more than one compliment on the beauty of her long, black, curly hair, delicate features, sultry brown eyes, mocha skin, and petite figure. Yeah, those guys were relentless in trying to win a date with her.
Too bad for them she was already spoken for, or rather, intended to be in the very near future. Because she hadn’t worn a skimpy pink blouse, skin-tight shorty-shorts and four-inch wedges to simply beat the summer heat today. Oh no, she definitely had an ulterior motive.
He frowned at her smile, a touch of exasperation showing on his handsome face.
She took a bite of salad, glancing up as an older African-American woman in a light blue uniform walked over to top off her glass with more iced tea. Quickly chewing and swallowing, she said, “Thank you, Alice.”
“You’re welcome, baby girl.” Sympathy filled Alice’s wrinkled face. “How have you been getting along since your grandmother passed?”
Emma’s shoulders slumped in dejection. “I really miss taking care of her. Now that she’s gone, I don’t know what to do with myself most days. I just feel lost.”
“That’s to be expected. But it’s good to see you finally getting out again. Maybe this Sunday you’ll feel up to coming back to church. We’ve been missing you.”
“I don’t know,” Emma replied. “We’ll see.”
Alice gave a subtle nod toward Emma’s uninvited guest. “Who’s your new friend?”
Emma opened her mouth to introduce the man across from her, only to remember that she wasn’t supposed to know him. She stammered, “I-I-I don’t know who he is. He just sat down and started talking to me. He’s got such a vivid imagination that I never thought to ask his name.”
Indulgence seeped into the man’s face again.
Alice cast a reproving look at Emma. “Girl, your grandmother raised you better than to keep company with strange men. If she was here right now, she’d jerk you up by the ear and tan your hide a shade darker than it already is.”
Emma, becoming embarrassed at being treated as if she was less than a fully grown woman, smiled uneasily under the heat suffusing her face. She dropped her gaze to the tabletop. “I already told you, I didn’t sit with him. He sat with me. So I’m not keeping company with anyone.”
“Have it your way.” Alice’s eyes narrowed. “But I’ll have you know that I’m no fool.”
“We’re only talking.” Emma tried to placate Alice’s suspicions. “That’s it. I promise.”
“Um-hmmm… I know when something’s going on right in front of me, baby girl. I’m not blind, no matter what you think.” Alice sent Emma a reproachful look before walking off.
“When did your grandmother pass?” the man asked.
Emma looked around the bustling café before giving up a weary sigh. “Two weeks ago.”
“I can tell you really loved her.” His countenance and demeanor had changed, the suspicion gone, leaving behind a caring tenderness.
“I did.” She nodded, thinking his eyes seemed bluer than any man’s she’d ever seen. “She was the only person I had left in this world. My mama died when I was three. I never knew my father.”
“I’m very sorry.”
“Me too,” she confided. That this man didn’t remember her only made her sadness more poignant. But then, in his defense, it’d been seven years since their one and only introduction. And that introduction had been brief; she’d barely had time to blink her eyes while in his arms before he disappeared. Until fate returned him to Valdosta, and her, a week ago.
“It gets easier in time,” he said. “I promise.”
“I hope so.” She gave up a wan smile. “It really sucks right now.”
“Losing loved ones has a way of being like that,” he sympathized, and then said, “The trick is to focus on goals, like finishing high school and getting into a good college.”
This statement caught her by surprise because it declared he’d never thought of her as a possible romantic interest when he’d first noticed her this morning. To rectify her mistaken identity, she said, “I’m eighteen. I graduated high school last week. And I’ve already been accepted to college in the fall.”
“Forgive me.” He held up his hands defensively. “I didn’t mean to sound condescending. You just look young to me.”
“No worries,” Emma replied, grateful to have that cleared up. On impulse, she asked, “How old did you think I was?”
He looked embarrassed, fidgeting uncomfortable. “Seventeen at the very most. But I’ve always been terrible at guessing women’s ages.”
“You must be getting better at it.” She smiled. “I was seventeen only three months ago.”
He returned her smile and the young man she’d fallen helplessly in love with on that chilly October day so long ago shined through. She knew she’d answer anything he asked of her, while listening to any and everything he offered to share with her in return. He only needed to take her out on a date first.