For eight months, Dr. Mark Vance has been visiting Sheehan’s Nursery to buy flowers for his mother’s grave, and every week, Hal Sheehan slips an extra lily into the bunch. Mark would love nothing more than to get to know the gentle giant better, but in 1950s Baltimore, a man just doesn’t ask another man out. His fears are compounded when a visit the day before Valentine’s casts doubts on Hal’s intentions. Maybe he really was meant to live a life of secrets.
Or maybe he just needs the holiday to discover the best secret of them all.
Mark followed her into the dining area. His assessment of its occupancy had been correct. All of the tables save one were barren, frozen in time with their squat, flickering candles and single red rose. From the structure, the room had originally been two, but now a marble archway framed the pedestals that would have been cornerstones for the dividing wall. Real ivy winding along twigs edged the wainscoting and cornices, and a roaring fire danced in the stone hearth near the front windows.
Hal sat at a table in the farthest corner, toying with a nearly empty glass of red wine in front of him. It was the first time Mark had seen him in anything but his work clothes, and he had to blink twice to make sure it was the same man. Hal’s suit jacket pulled across his broad shoulders, while the crisp collar of his starched white shirt seemed a fraction too small for his neck. His entire demeanor seemed straighter, stiffer, but the moment he lifted his gaze and saw Mark approaching, the tension in his body dissipated.
They were both grinning like schoolboys when the hostess waved Mark into the seat opposite him.
“Another glass of wine?” she asked Hal.
He nodded, but kept his eyes on Mark. “Do you want some? Or you can get something else if you prefer.”
“Oh, phshhh,” the woman said. “He wants red.” She waggled her fingers at the menus that already sat on the table. “I’ll get your order when I bring them back. Make sure he picks out something with meat. And lots of it.”
As she scurried off through another door, this one leading presumably to the kitchen, Mark laughed. “She has a whole house full of kids, doesn’t she?”
Hal joined in with his own chuckles. “Eight, actually. As far as I know, all but one of them works here, too.”
“One actually escaped? How’d she let that happen?”
“Not easily. But the youngest got a scholarship to George Washington University, so Mrs. Morano couldn’t very well tell him he couldn’t go.”
With the brief sojourn into their hostess’s life out of the way, it suddenly struck him where he was and who he was with. “You showed,” he blurted, unable to hold it back. “I wasn’t sure you would.”
Picking up his glass, Hal drained the rest of his wine. His fingers trembled a little when he set it back down again, but Mark was more enamored with the way his mouth glistened from the drink to care about nerves.
“I wouldn’t have said yes if I didn’t want to come.” Though they were the only ones in the room, Hal pitched his voice lower, affording a new intimacy to their conversation that sent tiny shocks racing down Mark’s neck. “But I did wonder if you’d change your mind.”
“Never.” The lone word rushed out with the same frenzied energy that forced his earlier confession. His cheeks heated in embarrassment.