Luke exhaled a long, measured breath. “Have I mentioned how good you are at cutting me down to size?”
“If you can’t handle the reviews, get off the stage.”
“Thought you were supposed to have my back, partner.”
He’d pushed the wrong button. “And I was under the impression we were on a date last night. Looks like we’re both laboring under misconceptions.”
“Aha!” A look of triumph washed over his face. “I knew you were pouting.”
How dare he? Pouting? For goodness sake, she wasn’t a five year-old whimpering over lost candy. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Linnea said stiffly.
Wow, couldn’t she do any better for a comeback? Her brain must have a charley horse. She tried to shake free a pithy zinger, but came up with nothing.
Luke scooted closer and took her hand. “Look, I’m told I didn’t handle things as well as I could have last night.”
Flabbergasted, Linnea shook off his hand. “Someone had to point it out? You didn’t put two and two together when I left the restaurant without you?”
“I clued in you were upset. Doesn’t automatically make it my fault.”
“Well, I’m glad you’ve seen the light.” Linnea kept her tone cool and light. He’d acknowledged his mistake and she would be big enough, mature enough to move on. No need to dwell on her deep levels of both humiliation and disappointment at the way the night turned out.
“Not what I said. Being gracious to fans, taking the time to speak with them is a big part of what I do. I don’t apologize for it.” Luke enveloped her hand again in both of his. “However, I am sorry I upset you. Should’ve asked you to come with me to the mayor’s table. Now I know for next time.”
Whoa! Could he really be so blind? She certainly hadn’t hidden her bruised feelings. His self-confidence was severely overinflated if he harbored any misguided presumption she’d go out with him again. Well, she’d happily set him straight on his nonexistent chances.
“Don’t hold your breath. The basic prerequisite for a second date is for the first date to end well.”
Luke flashed a watered-down version of his devilish smile. “It started well. Middle was good too. Doesn’t that count for something?”
So much for not dwelling on it. Linnea gathered her tattered pride and let the sad facts rush out. “Luke, you walked away from me. Left me all alone without a word. Pulled up a chair and sat down at another table!”
“Okay, but you could’ve given me more than five minutes to deal with the situation. It’s not as if I planned to go home with the mayor.”
Linnea bit her lip. His words echoed Ingrid’s. Perhaps she’d wallowed in her misery too deeply to fairly assess his actions. Luke was still in the doghouse, but maybe, just maybe she’d been too hasty in her exit.
“Give me another chance.” Eyes, darkened to deep emerald, beseeched her, and his grip on her hand tightened. “I won’t screw up again—at least, not in the same way. I always learn from my mistakes. Please, Linnea. Don’t cut off the array of possibilities between us. We burst into flames when we’re together. And I’ve never been so enchanted and intrigued by a woman before. Let me try to be a better man.”>
Her heart skipped a beat. Until today, she’d thought it a fairytale cliché, not a physical reality. But the funny little flutter in her chest said otherwise. The sheer romance of his speech knocked Linnea right off her self-pity pedestal.
“Sky and Sarah, get in your places for the end of the song. We think we’ve got the lighting ironed out.” Her father’s voice shattered their intimate bubble. Linnea stood, pulling Luke with her. His movements were tentative, as though testing to see what hurt the most. She found the spot slightly left of center stage where they’d left off.
“Sarah, why don’t you take it from the last line where you do your drunken twirl?” At Kurt’s direction, the house lights dimmed and the piano gave her a few bars of intro. One white hot spotlight targeted Linnea while the other stayed on Luke an arm’s length away.
Linnea opened her mouth and began the best part of every day, singing. “‘Ask me how to describe this whole beautiful thing. Well, if I were a bell I’d go ding, dong, ding, dong, ding.’” At this point in the show, her character, Sarah, had gotten drunk for the first time in her life, and let it all hang out. She moved with the music, arms swinging overhead to the left and right as she twirled in a giant circle around Luke. On the last note she collapsed against Luke’s chest and he deftly twisted her into a dip.
As scripted, his mouth covered hers while the piano barreled through to the end of the song. Linnea told herself to be true to the scene and her character. After all, Sarah Brown, the missionary, although drunk, had never before kissed a man, or wanted to. One swift peck should do it, and then they could move on to the dialogue.
But nothing in the stage directions covered what happened next, Linnea thought, with the tiny corner of her brain that hadn’t fogged over with lust. Moments ago Luke could barely move, as agile as an eighty-year-old with creaky joints. Now his arms were like steel around her; she’d never felt so secure. One leg braced most of their weight, its support rock solid against her legs and butt.
One hand cupped the back of her neck so her head didn’t fall backwards under the pressure, no, the assault of his kiss. Linnea knew his lips moved against hers, but the sensation went far deeper. Lightning flicks of heat started at her mouth, or maybe her heart? Hard to tell when she felt his touch everywhere, all at once.
A moan caught in her throat when he slanted his mouth for better access. Luke bent her even lower, bowing her over his knee till her hair swept the floor. His kiss deepened, tongue tracing and learning every exquisitely sensitive inch of her mouth. Her tongue twined around his with eagerness, because as wonderful, as sweeping as his kisses were, she couldn’t get enough. Luke set off a craving in her body which intensified with every nip and lick he gave.
Loud applause broke through the haze of pleasure clouding her mind. Why did she hear applause? The scene hadn’t ended yet. And since when did the cast ever applaud during rehearsal? Luke noticed it too, because he swung her up and stood her on her feet, one hand still around her waist for support while Linnea’s head continued to spin.
“Finally!” Kurt sounded jubilant. “Luke, my boy, I’ve spent all day telling you to be bigger. Bigger words, bigger expressions, bigger gestures. I said go so big, even the people in the last row can see you. Well, damned if they didn’t see that kiss in the last row of the theatre two towns over.” He chuckled good-naturedly. “Any bigger and I’d ask exactly what your intentions toward my daughter are.”
Nothing like being kissed into a puddle right in front of your father. Why, Linnea wondered, had she spent most days since meeting Luke in a state of perpetual embarrassment?