After Ethan put Misty to bed—something he hoped to only have to do once in his life—he returned home and found Zoe sitting on their front porch, clutching a Mason jar.
“What’s this?” he asked.
Zoe stood and held out the jar. “A thank-you token for being a hero.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Ethan said, but he took the jar anyway. “Are these cookies?” he asked hopefully.
“Lavender with lemon zest. I love them. I hope you will too.”
“Want to share?”
“Tonight?” Her voice squeaked with surprise.
“We could sit and watch the stars.” He dropped down on the step she’d just vacated.
“Okay,” she said in a small voice, joining him.
“I have a favor to ask,” he said, nerves hitching his voice.
“The gallery has an annual holiday party. Would you like to go with me?”
“It’s stuffy and pretentious, and there’s usually cheap wine and smelly cheese.”
She leaned over and bumped him with her shoulder. “How can I resist cheap wine and smelly cheese?”
“Your being there will make it bearable for me.”
“I take it you would do things differently if you owned the gallery?”
He nodded. “Hannah thinks I should just open up my own, but it’s not that easy.” She waited for him to go on and after a moment, he did. “As it is, Oak Hollow can’t really have two galleries…well, maybe it could if the two galleries were radically different from each other. But as long as Dez has his gallery, I can’t open another.”
“You could somewhere else.”
“I want to be close to Hannah.”
“You are close to Hannah.”
“Geographically as well as emotionally.” He turned and looked into her eyes. “Does that make sense to you?”
“I’m all about emotional and geographical proximity.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” He set the jar on the porch, debating.
“So we could do this.” And this time he kissed her, only it wasn’t brief or tentative. It was the sort of kiss that burned through him, the sort of kiss he hadn’t had since Allison’s death. He broke away, not wanting to think about his late wife while kissing Zoe. It wasn’t fair to her.
And he wasn’t sure it was fair to Allison, either.
Zoe stared at him with wide eyes. Then she startled him by climbing onto his lap, wrapping her arms around him, and kissing him so deeply, he forgot about Allison, Hannah, or the neighbors who could be watching over the hedge. The only thing he could think of was the kiss searing through him and curling his toes with pleasure.
“Okay, this time it is a date,” Zoe told Mildred. They both stood in front of Zoe’s open closet, but Mildred was much more interested in her bath than she was in Zoe’s wardrobe. Zoe rifled through the clothes on the hangers, considering. No, no, no, nope with an extra helping of nope sauce.
Her phone buzzed. Courtney.
“I need you,” Zoe said. “Bring cute outfits, preferably ones that will fit me.”
Moments later, Courtney and Laurel arrived, each bearing a laundry basket full of clothes. “You didn’t tell me the occasion,” Courtney said, sounding breathless.
“There’s a party at the gallery,” Zoe said, holding the door for her sister.
“Will the lush be there?” Courtney deposited the basket on the bed and motioned for Laurel to do the same.
Zoe closed the door, hoping Ethan hadn’t overheard the conversation. “Probably, but I’m not worried about her.”
“Mom, can I go and see if Hannah can play?” Laurel asked.
“Sure, sweetie,” Courtney said. She waited until Laurel had disappeared through the door before she continued. “Just because he’s not interested in her doesn’t mean she can’t cause problems.”
Zoe perched on the side of the bed and rifled through Courtney’s basket of clothes. “I’m not even sure he’s all that interested in me.”
Courtney began to pull clothes out of the basket and lay them out on the bed in ensembles. “Girl! Please! Has he kissed you?”
Zoe’s cheeks grew warm.
Courtney chortled. “Tell me! Tell me everything!”
Courtney had agreed to watch Hannah so Ethan and Zoe could go to the gallery gala. Before this night, every time that Ethan and Zoe had been together had felt natural—like two friends enjoying each other’s company. But tonight, as he held the door open to the gallery for Zoe to pass through, felt like a date.
Ethan hadn’t been on a first date in years. Maybe even decades.
He ran a finger around his collar, wondering what had made him include Zoe. She’d probably hate it. Even he had a hard time when artists started acting snooty—as if their art came from some woo-woo planet detached from their own imaginations. And a few of the artists who would be attending tonight were some of the worst. She’d probably be bored out of her mind. He knew if Misty started talking harmonious compositions he would be, too.
Zoe, wearing a curve-hugging black dress, stiletto heels, and long strand of pearls, looked better than the art on the walls—his included. He still tingled every time he thought of her kiss.
Oak Hollow Gallery sat on the corner of PCH and a tiny cross street that angled off toward the beach. The large plate-glass windows gaped at the busy sidewalk to the front and overlooked the seasonal creek in the back. White walls stretched up to twelve-foot ceilings. Everything looked pristine, avant-garde, and beautiful, but Ethan had misgivings. He didn’t know if Zoe was ready for the art crowd. And he wasn’t sure he was ready to show her this side of himself.
Not that he was embarrassed about being an artist. He’d fought long and hard to get to where he was…or had been. He knew better than anyone that if he didn’t start producing soon, his name and reputation would slide away into oblivion. And that would be okay, wouldn’t it? He liked teaching.
Ethan followed Zoe’s gaze as she surveyed the room.
“Your paintings,” she began.
A discussion on his work would lead to speculation on why he no longer painted. Because he wasn’t ready for that conversation—and maybe he never would be—Ethan took Zoe’s hand and led her to the group gathered in the corner surrounding Desmond.
Tonight, Desmond looked especially debonair. De-boner, Allison used to say in a hillbilly’s voice. No one could make him feel more down-to-earth than Allison. But tonight, he didn’t want to think about Allie. He put his hand on the small of Zoe’s back and stepped close enough to smell her perfume. Typically, she smelled of the bakery—yeast, cinnamon, sugar. Tonight, she wore something else. He hadn’t decided if he liked the change, or not.
The crowd in the corner made way for him. “Desmond, Lance, and Leo, Mr. and Mrs. Greer —this is my friend, Zoe.”
They all shook Zoe’s hand. Lance and Leo—better known as the Gear Heads—eyed her. They were both stoned already. Their parents were only slightly steadier on their feet.
“Are you an artist, too?” Mrs. Greer asked.
Before Zoe could answer, Ethan cut in. “Culinary art,” he said.
“Ah,” Mr. Greer patted his stomach, “my favorite.”
“Daddy!” Mrs. Greer screeched and widened her eyes at her sons, trying to apologize for her husband without using words.
“It’s okay, mom,” Lance said. “I know our stuff takes some warming up to.”
Leo hooted as if Lance had said something hilarious. “Warming up,” he said between breaths, “because we’re machine artists.”
Zoe smiled politely and sent Ethan a questioning glance.
Lance must have noticed, because he asked, “Are you familiar with machine art?”
Zoe shook her head.
“It’s the combination of art and machines,” Lance said. Holding his hand in front of him with his fingers flexed, he mimicked a rotating device. “Cogs and wheels fused together into the fantastic that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery.”
Ethan was impressed. He didn’t know the Gearhead Brothers knew such big words.
“Let me show you,” Leo said, taking possession of Zoe’s arm and leading her across the room to a canvas that had been painted red and covered with bits of broken machinery.
Ethan felt naked without Zoe at his side, he moved to follow her and Leo but just then Misty clicked into the gallery on her Kate Spade shoes. Grabbing Ethan’s arm, she pulled him into a corner. “What are we going to do if Desmond sells the gallery to the potheads?” she whispering hissed.
Ethan tried not to be annoyed that Misty hadn’t even apologized for making him take her home from the bar. But maybe she’d been so soused, she hadn’t remembered. He shrugged and tried to look nonchalant. “I’m not sure what we can do.”
“We could pool our resources and buy it ourselves,” Misty suggested.
Could he live with a daily dose of Misty? He didn’t think so, but he wasn’t sure how to say this. Misty, although a talented artist, was probably the last person he’d want to go into business with. He sought out Zoe. Their gazes locked.
She was one of the few people who wasn’t interested in him because of his art. He liked that. He liked her. When was it too soon to tell her?