"I'm Shannon O'Brien," the man standing at my front door said when I answered his knock Monday morning. "You have an walk-up apartment for rent?"
"Yes, I do," I said, and gulped.
"Melissa Parker," I said, stepping with him into the sunshine, catching the faint scent of his spicy cologne. "The stairs are on the side of the house. I'm interested in having a long-term renter."
Why I hadn't written Women Only in my newspaper ad? As handsome as this man was, he could be a fugitive, right? Or a con man.
"I expect to be here quite sometime," he said, smiling, his startling blue eyes making my pulse spike. "I've taken a position as an English Professor at Belmont College."
My head tilted. "Our local college?"
"Your local college, indeed."
We trooped up the stairs, and I showed him the one-bedroom apartment, all self-contained and fully furnished. "Beautiful," he said, looking at me with those blue eyes. "More than I'd hoped for."
I gulped again.
Surely he was talking about the apartment.
In no time, he agreed to sign the lease, paid a security deposit and a month's rent in advance. We chatted a bit. He said he taught previously for fifteen years at a big Midwestern university but longed to escape the hype and headlines. He yearned for a small-town atmosphere, where he could finish the novel he'd been working on for the last two years. He was divorced long ago.
Of course, I told him my husband had died three years ago. We'd rented the apartment to Belmont College students, but I was tired of the hassle of renting and re-renting. My children—Todd and Theresa—had married and settled elsewhere.
By evening, he'd moved in his personal belongings, all crammed into a big SUV and a small U-haul. That night I had a hard time falling asleep. From the movements I heard upstairs, I knew Shannon was awake, too. I found the man intriguing, and while we'd talked, I felt myself relaxing and actually liking him. But how silly of me. I'd just met him. Besides, I was independent and perfectly happy alone. My job as an office manager of a big insurance agency and my income from the apartment more than paid my bills and then some.
Wednesday afternoon when I came home from work, I found Shannon standing in the backyard, eyeing the covered charcoal grill hunched under an oak tree, a picnic table nearby. He cleared his throat. "Um...would you mind if I used your grill.
"Help yourself," I said. "I haven't used the grill in ages. The grate might need cleaning."
"I'll be happy to do it." Then he knocked me off balance when his blue-eyed smile flicked over me, and I nearly fell over into the grass when he added, "Would you like to join me?"
I couldn't find my voice.
"Only burgers," he said. "Nothing fancy. I bought lettuce and tomatoes. Mustard, catsup, and mayonnaise."
I don't know what happened. I sucked in enough air to stay calm and heard myself telling him I'd prepare baked beans and a salad.
"A feast!" he said, and we laughed.
Sitting at the picnic table across from Shannon in the shade of the oak tree, chatting while we ate, I enjoyed a most wonderful meal. He told me about his novel, a mainstream romance set in a small town like Belmont. When I told him I devoured romances, he asked if I'd critique his. "I'd be happy to," I said.
As we finished eating, he said, "Funny how a burger tastes so much better cooked over charcoal."
"I agree," I said. "I've been eating way too much fast food lately."
His blue-eyed gaze rose to meet my eyes. My heart lurched. His lips moved. What was he going to say? "I'm a master of the sparerib," he said. "Slowly grilled for hours. I make my own barbeque sauce..." He seemed to hesitate. "How about Saturday, early evening. Um...unless you have plans with... someone."
Heat crept into my face. "There's no one," I said. I swallowed. I didn't tell him that I'd never even dated after Jason's death. Still, I knew at that moment I wanted to know red-haired Shannon O'Brien better.
"Is it a date?"
As I hesitated, a bit of fear flickered in his eyes.
Deep breathe. "It's a date," I said.
And then he smiled again.
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