Gabe saw it too. “Got a hunch Mitchell ratted us out.”
“Looks that way. Probably my mother. Great.” She put down the carton of painting supplies she had carried in from the car. “I’ll deal with it later.”
“Thought you said your folks were on a business trip in San Diego.”
“They are. But you know as well as I do that gossip travels fast among the Hartes and the Madisons, especially since the wedding.”
“Well, we both knew we wouldn’t be able to keep this a secret. And it’s not as if we’re not all adults here.”
He sounded a little too philosophical, she thought. Downright upbeat, in fact. As if the prospect of explaining away a red-hot affair between a Harte and a Madison was no big deal. Just a walk in the park.
“Yeah, right,” she said. “We’re all adults here.”
He set her suitcase in the hall and looked at her, brows raised in polite inquiry. “Need backup?”
“From a Madison? That would be like pouring oil on a burning fire.”
“We Madisons are good at that.”
“I’ll remember that the next time I’m trying to start a blaze instead of putting one out.”
“This is going to be a tough fire to put out,” he said softly.
She did not know if she ought to take that as a warning or just another teasing remark. Upon brief reflection, she decided it would be best to assume the latter.
“I’m an adult,” she said. “I make my own decisions. My parents know that.”
“Uh-huh.” He looked unconvinced but he turned to walk toward the door. “Well, if you don’t need my assistance in pacifying your mother, I’ll be on my way. See you for dinner.”
He said it with such breathtaking casualness, she thought. Taking the concept of dinner together for granted. The unspoken expectation of spending the night was very clear. He was moving right into her daily routine, making himself comfortable.
Well? They had both agreed that they were starting an affair, hadn’t they? Why the sudden qualms?
But the answer was there in the next heartbeat. For all her fine talk of being a grown-up, the bottom line here was that getting involved with Gabe was a dangerous business.
“Why don’t we go out tonight?” she said on sudden impulse.
Dining out in public would be more like a date. She could handle a date with him. Dates were more structured, more ritualized. They were not infused with quite the same degree of casual intimacy as cooking dinner together and eating it at the kitchen table. A date allowed her to keep a little distance. So what if they went back to his place later and made wild, passionate love. Some people did that after a date. Or so she had heard.
Something told her that he had guessed what was going through her mind. But he did not argue. Instead, he walked out onto the porch.
“I’ll pick you up. Six-thirty okay?”
“I can meet you at your place.” She went to stand in the doorway. “It’s a short walk.”
“No. It’ll be dark. I don’t want you walking alone after dark.”
“There’s nothing to worry about. We’re not exactly crime central around here. Especially in the dead of winter.”
“Eclipse Bay isn’t the same town it was when you and I were kids. It’s not just the summer tourists who cause trouble around here now. Chamberlain College is expanding and so is the institute. I’d rather you didn’t stroll around on your own after the sun goes down.”
She propped one shoulder against the door frame, amused, and crossed her arms. “Are you always this bossy?”
“I’m cautious, not bossy.”
“And maybe a tad inclined to be overcontrolling?”
“Sure, but hey, isn’t everyone?” He brushed his mouth across hers. “Humor me, okay?”
“Okay. This time.”
He nodded, satisfied and went down the steps. “See you later. Good luck with your painting.”
“What are you going to do this afternoon?”
He paused and looked back over his shoulder. “I’m going to go online to do some deep background research on a potential Madison Commercial client. Why?”
She made a face. “Have fun.”
“I thought I explained to you that what I do at M.C. is called work, not fun.” He gave her his slow, sexy Madison smile. “Fun comes later, after work. I’ll show you.”
He walked to the Jag, opened the door and got behind the wheel.
Back at the beginning she had made the mistake of assuming that he was a victim of burnout because he claimed that running Madison Commercial was not fun for him. In one sense, she thought, he was right.
But work wasn’t the correct label, either, although it was the one he preferred. The truth was, Madison Commercial was his passion.
Passion wasn’t fun. Passion was serious stuff.
She had always understood that distinction intuitively when it came to her painting. Now she was starting to understand it about her relationship with Gabe, as well. Serious stuff.
She went back into the house, closed the door and crossed to the phone to listen to her messages.
There were two, she noticed. The first was, as she had expected, from her mother.
Might as well get this over with fast. She braced herself and dialed the number of the hotel room in San Diego.
We’re all adults here.
Elaine Harte answered on the second ring. In typical maternal fashion, she did not take long to come to the point.
“What in the world is going on up there in Eclipse Bay?” she asked without preamble.
“Your grandfather phoned yesterday. He and your father talked for a very long time. It was not what anyone would call a cheerful, lighthearted conversation. I haven’t heard those two go at it like that in years. Sullivan says that you’ve closed Private Arrangements for good. Is that true?”
“But, darling, why?” Elaine’s voice rose in that practiced wail of dismay that is unique to mothers around the world. “You were doing so well.”
Elaine did not actually add at last but it was there, silently tacked on to the end of the sentence.
“You know why, Mom.”
There was a short silence, then Elaine sighed.
“Your painting,” she said.
The whining tone had vanished from her voice as if by magic, Lillian noticed. Smart moms also knew when to abandon a tactic that no longer worked.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, Mom. I need to see if I can make it happen.”