“I really don’t ever do this,” she slurred again as, two hours later, Seth opened the car door to retrieve a tipsy Libby from his beat up sedan. “I really don’t.”
“I know,” he repeated, smothering an urge to smile at her guilty face.
When Tom had asked him to take her home, Seth had jumped at the chance, aware that the older man wore a smug, scheming expression on his face, and the two men shared a moment of understanding. Tom was a keen study of human nature, and Seth had the odd feeling that the writer knew what was going through his mind regarding Libby.
Pressing a few respectable bills into Seth’s reluctant hand, Tom had said, “I doubt old Larry there will be too free with the gratuities this evening, but it’s been the most fun I’ve had in weeks.” With a chuckle, he slapped Seth on the back as he turned to usher the inebriated Libby out the door.
“I’ll be back once I drop her off,” Seth assured him.
“Don’t worry,” Tom said. “I’ll protect little Lord Larry from any would-be assassins who infiltrate my living room.”
The jovial man was still laughing at his witticism as he shut the door on the pair, and Seth had bundled Libby into his car and buckled her up.
Throughout the drive, Libby seemed close to dozing, and Seth had time to consider what he’d learned. So, Liberty Sullivan was also Andrea Harper, a name even he vaguely recognized from the bestsellers lists. It did make sense, in a weird way. There were perhaps only a handful of people who really got romance the way she did – both the good and bad versions. Perhaps she was using it as an outlet to keep her from real life, as she said she hoped other women would.
After their conversations tonight, Seth finally understood it. Libby Sullivan wasn’t just a brain, or just a beautiful woman; nor was she a spinster who just hadn’t been loved – she was a person that some bastard had hurt, badly. Now why did it occur to him that he was jealous of the man who would someday get the chance to heal her?
Was it perhaps because any woman who wrote sexy books couldn’t have given up on love as much as she pretended?
“I really don’t ever do this,” Libby said again. “Get drunk, I mean.”
“I know,” he said again, softly. He was sure she didn’t. Their moment of unexpected intimacy had rattled her so much she likely didn’t notice her host continually refilling her glass, and only an inexperienced drinker would seem so oblivious to the way wine tends to creep up on a person.
At least she wasn’t slobbering drunk – mostly tired, he thought. She was able to walk steadily enough, and she managed to dig out her own keys from the ridiculously small handbag she carried when they arrived at her home.
“Well, thanks for the lift,” she said, dismissing him.
Refusing to take the hint, Seth took her keys from her stunned hands and unlocked the front door of the comfortable two-story farmhouse, planting a firm hand on the small of her back.
“I’m okay,” she said, almost seeming panicked at the thought of him coming in with her.
He suddenly noticed how close they had gotten when he could feel the warmth of her lush breasts and belly against his front. Knowing it wasn’t gentlemanly to take advantage of drunken women, he reminded himself to back off. But her eyes, round and liquid brown in the porch light, felt like they were pulling him in.
Slowly, he lowered his head, almost against his will, until his forehead brushed against hers and he could feel the hot, nervous puff of her breath. Rubbing his nose slowly against hers for a moment, he recalled himself and pulled his head back, never breaking eye contact.
Her face was pale and startled, and, feeling guilty, he cleared his throat and turned to the door, leading her past the threshold.
“I’ll just walk you in and make sure everything is okay,” he said. “I see you left some lights on, which is really smart, but…”
Suddenly, a reedy, excited voice echoed through the front hall, as a small boy in blue pajamas bolted in from the living room. “Mom!” the child shouted as he launched himself at her.
Hoisting him up, somewhat unsteadily, Libby pasted a bright smile on her drowsy face and shot a warning glance at Seth as she passed by him into the house.
“He was an angel, as usual,” an older woman said as she gathered up a bright pile of children’s books on the sofa. “But, he did refuse to go to bed until you came home.”
“I wasn’t tired,” the boy explained as his mother lowered him to his feet, rubbing his eyes in contradiction to his words. “I want to hear more about Charlotte.”
“I’m reading him Charlotte’s Web,” Libby explained to Seth briefly. “As you can see, I’m fine…”
“Who’s he?” Charlie asked, with the equanimity only children can ever achieve, as if he were completely unfazed by meeting a strange man in his living room.
“Hi,” Seth said. “I’m Seth – I know your mom from school.”
“Hi, Seth,” Charlie nodded, hiding his sleepiness but not his interest. “I’m Charlie, and I’m going to be eight soon.”
“In about five months...” Libby added out of habit.
“That’s a great age!” Seth enthused.
“Well, I think it’s time for bed,” Libby hinted to both males.
Again failing to take the bait, Seth shrugged. “Why don’t I go in and start some coffee…”
“And I should be getting on,” the woman said, cheerfully. “If I’m not home by ten, Henry might get himself another girl.”
“Thanks so much, Margaret,” Libby said, discreetly handing the woman some money as she saw her to the door. Seth wandered into the kitchen, and Libby relented and followed an exhausted Charlie up to his room.
Only three pages later, her son was out like a light, and Libby was wishing Seth was gone so she could follow suit.
But, as she returned downstairs to the smell of coffee, she had to admit it sounded like a good idea. Never a heavy drinker, alcohol always had the effect of sleepiness on her. She never managed to achieve that sense of happy euphoria so many seemed to get off booze.
“Everything okay?” Seth asked, placing a tomato-cheese sandwich and a mug of coffee on the table for her.
“Oh, yes. He just doesn’t like to sleep until I’m home, I guess.”
“Yeah,” he said with a nostalgic smile. “Kelsey, my daughter, used to be like that, too. Of course, now she’s fifteen and couldn’t care less. It’s tough being a single parent; especially when they’re teens, because then they have no one else to consider the enemy but you.”
She sat at the table, smiling awkwardly, aware he’d just unsubtly announced his single status. Suddenly her stomach growled, and she realized the sandwich was just what she needed. Foolishly, she hadn’t had any food at the party, which likely explained the quick effects of the wine.
“Aren’t you going to have one…?” she offered.
“Ah, no,” he said. “I’d love to, but I have a stuffed shirt to shepherd back to his hotel. You know, in case Al Qaeda comes after him.” Smiling, he picked up his suit jacket from the back of her chair, brushing against her arm. “But I’m happy to take you up on it some other time…?”
Confused, she wondered what he was talking about.
“Coffee? Sometime soon… We can even wait until term is over, if you want, so people don’t think I’m sleeping my way to an A.”
“Fine, then,” he shrugged with a grin. “Then maybe tomorrow, after class?”
“I want to take you out, Libby,” he said, bluntly. “So, I’m asking you to go out. With me. Soon. Starting with coffee.”
“And I should warn you, I might not easily take no for an answer on this one.”
“Shall we call it Love at First Sight?” he said, without a hint of humor.
Libby could only cough in surprise.
Smiling at her, he said, “Eat your sandwich, and lock up after me.” And then he was gone, and Libby stared at her snack in bewilderment.
And realized she’d just made a date.
A date with someone she thought she found irresistible.
Some women might be thrilled at that moment. For Libby, it was a disaster waiting to happen.
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