To Love or Not to Love - Jean C. Joachim - ebook
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When real estate tycoon Penn Roberts was knocked down in Central Park by one of her dogs, he realized it was Miranda who was the knockout with her voluptuous figure, teal blue eyes, peaches-and-cream complexion, and long hair dark as midnight. Their attraction was instantaneous: like a flash fire setting them each aflame – unexpected and undeniable. And neither of them would ever be the same…. Was it fate they met – or fatal? Would Penn, aka Mr. Hottie, prove to be Mira’s best friend and most sizzling lover or the architect of her greatest betrayal? Compassionate like his late mother – or ruthless like his father? Woo her beyond her wildest dreams or wound her savagely? Heart-broken and confused, she turns to her girlfriends (and their pugs!) at The Manhattan Dinner Club….

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Table of Contents

Title Page

TO LOVE OR NOT TO LOVE | Manhattan Dinner Club 4 | Jean C. Joachim | Sensual Romance | Moonlight Books

Acknowledgment

Other books by Jean C. Joachim

TO LOVE OR NOT TO LOVE | Jean C. Joachim | Copyright © 2014 | Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Epilogue

About the Author

TO LOVE OR NOT TO LOVE

Manhattan Dinner Club 4

Jean C. Joachim

Sensual Romance

Moonlight Books

ABOUT THE E-BOOK YOU HAVE PURCHASED: Your non-refundable purchase of this e-book allows you to only ONE LEGAL copy for your own personal reading on your own personal computer or device. You do not have resell or distribution rights without the prior written permission of both the publisher and the copyright owner of this book. This book cannot be copied in any format, sold, or otherwise transferred from your computer to another through upload to a file sharing peer to peer program, for free or for a fee, or as a prize in any contest. Such action is illegal and in violation of the U.S. Copyright Law. Distribution of this e-book, in whole or in part, online, offline, in print or in any way or any other method currently known or yet to be invented, is forbidden. If you do not want this book anymore, you must delete it from your computer.

WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

A Moonlight Books Novel

Sensual Romance

To Love or Not to Love

Copyright © 2014  Jean C. Joachim

E-book ISBN: 978-1-62622-818-4

First E-book Publication: July 2014

Cover design by Dawné Dominique

Edited by Tabitha Bower

Proofread by Renee Waring

All cover art and logo copyright © 2015 by Moonlight Books

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission.

All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

PUBLISHER

Moonlight Books

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Dedication

To my readers.

Thank you for buying and reading my books. You make my heart sing.

Acknowledgment

Thank you for your help and support: Marilyn Lee, Tabitha Bower, Renee Waring, Sandy Sullivan, Ariana Gaynor, Larry Joachim, The Tuesday Tales writers, Kathleen Tighe Ball, Elaine Raco Chase, and Homer.

Other books by Jean C. Joachim

FIRST & TEN SERIES

GRIFF MONTGOMERY, QUARTERBACK

BUDDY CARRUTHERS, WIDE RECEIVER

PETE SEBASTIAN, COACH

DEVON DRAKE, CORNERBACK

THE MANHATTAN DINNER CLUB

RESCUE MY HEART

SEDUCING HIS HEART

SHINE YOUR LOVE ON ME

TO LOVE OR NOT TO LOVE

HOLLYWOOD HEARTS SERIES

IF I LOVED YOU

RED CARPET ROMANCE

MEMORIES OF LOVE

MOVIE LOVERS

LOVE’S LAST CHANCE

LOVERS & LIARS

His Leading Lady (Series Starter)

NOW AND FOREVER SERIES

NOW AND FOREVER 1, A LOVE STORY

NOW AND FOREVER 2, THE BOOK OF DANNY

NOW AND FOREVER 3, BLIND LOVE

NOW AND FOREVER 4, THE RENOVATED HEART

NOW AND FOREVER 5, LOVE’S JOURNEY

NOW AND FOREVER, CALLIE’S STORY(series starter)

MOONLIGHT SERIES

SUNNY DAYS, MOONLIT NIGHTS

APRIL’S KISS IN THE MOONLIGHT

UNDER THE MIDNIGHT MOON

LOST & FOUND DUET (with BEN TANNER)

LOVE LOST & FOUND

DANGEROUS LOVE, LOST & FOUND

SHORT STORY

SWEET LOVE REMEMBERED

TO LOVE OR NOT TO LOVE

Jean C. Joachim

Copyright © 2014

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Chapter One

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Central Park

Wham! A huge, shaggy, golden retriever sent Penn Roberts flying through the air. Intent on his prey—a gray squirrel—the dog never missed a beat, racing full speed after the wily rodent. The furry target scurried safely up a tree, leaving the canine barking in frustration on the ground.

Struggling to breathe, the shirtless runner lay flat on his back in the dirt. Pebbles dug into his bare skin. The fall had knocked the wind out of him. The perpetrator trotted back to lick Penn’s face. He looked up into a pair of soulful brown eyes belonging to a handsome pooch. Buddy! Was it Buddy? His beloved golden, died seven years ago. As he reached up to touch the dog he didn’t believe was real, he heard a voice.

“Are you hurt? Should I call 911?”

Penn switched his gaze from the canine to the most beautiful teal blue eyes, framed in black lashes, he had ever seen. The woman’s peaches-n-cream complexion was set off perfectly by long hair as dark as midnight. Her left hand held two more leashes. One with a pug at the end, the other linked to a Boston Terrier.

“Lucky didn’t mean to knock you over,” she said. The dog licked him again. “See? He’s sorry. Are you okay? Can you talk?” She leaned over him, providing a perfect sneak peek of a pair of tantalizing breasts. Penn’s stare was riveted.

He pushed himself up on his elbows. “I’ll live. Is this your dog?” He petted Lucky.

“I’m his dog walker.”

“Some dog walker...can’t keep control of one this big, eh?” His regard moved from Lucky to the luscious figure of the stunning woman crouched before him. She wore black bicycle shorts topped by a low-cut, turquoise tank top. The outfit molded her figure perfectly, leaving little to his imagination...which kicked into overdrive anyway.

“You’re okay?” Her brows knitted.

“No thanks to Lucky, here...or you, for that matter.” He tried to scowl, but was unsuccessful.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. When he sees a squirrel, he bolts. My fault all the way. I’m Miranda Bradford.” She stood then extended her hand.

Penn used it to pull himself up. “Penn Roberts.”

“What can I do to make it up to you?” Miranda picked up the dog’s leash.

That’s a leading question, honey. I can think of lots of things. Embarrassed by his own X-rated thoughts, he sensed heat rising from his chest to his face.

“Have breakfast with me at The Boathouse.” He shaded his eyes from the brilliant, June sun. Squinting, he located his Aviator sunglasses, knocked away by the collision. He brushed dirt off his shorts. Sweat from running glued the loose soil of the bridle path to his back. He handed her a handkerchief and turned around. “Would you mind?”

Miranda turned over the leashes to Penn. She flopped the cloth over her small hand then touched him softly.

He squirmed. “Hey, that tickles!”

“Sorry.” She increased the pressure, brushing away the debris. Her delicate nails dislodged a few stubborn pebbles embedded in his skin. At her touch, a tingle ran up his spine then straight down to his groin. Penn was in no hurry to move away from her warm fingers. After a few more caresses, she dropped her arm.

“Thank you. Breakfast?” He turned to face her, his gaze warm on hers.

She handed him the dirty linen. “I can’t...Lucky, here. Romeo and Blackie, too.” She gestured at the two small dogs quietly sniffing the ground.

“They’re allowed to sit with us in the outdoor section.”

She tried to hide a smile. “Glad to see your injury hasn’t killed your appetite.”

“Nope. Stomach’s fine.” So is my taste for beautiful women. “Will you join me?”

“Guess so. If you’re a serial killer, Lucky’ll protect me.”

“By licking me to death?” Penn cocked an eyebrow. A grin played on his lips.

“Pen, like the writing implement?” she asked, casting a long gaze over his form.

“Two ‘n’s,’ short for Pennington,” he explained.

“Family name?”

“How’d you guess?” he asked. She laughed. “You walk three dogs three times a day?”

“Only twice a day. I have others, too.”

“A lot to keep track of...” he commented, putting his hand in front of each pooch’s nose to get acquainted.

“I’m used to it.”

“You’re a professional dog walker?” He crouched down to pet the animals.

“I’m a playwright, actually. But this pays the bills.” Her frank stare roaming over his body made him warm.

He prided himself on his tall, lean, muscular build and clear, light gray eyes. His straight, dark, almost black, hair constantly annoyed him by falling over his forehead. He rubbed his face, shadowed with a day’s growth of beard, wondering if this woman appreciated his scruff or preferred a smoothly shaved face. He’d often been told that the shadow on his slightly square jaw coupled with his dark eyebrows gave his face an expressive quality. He hoped she agreed with that opinion.

“I’ve never met a playwright before. Would I know your work?”

“My plays haven’t been produced yet, but I’m getting close...long story,” she tossed off, gathering the leashes again to continue her walk.

Hmm, she’s more embarrassed about not having a play produced than obviously giving me the once-over. Interesting.

Miranda pulled the leads tighter, drawing the dogs closer to her as they approached the road snaking through the park. She headed for the big hill leading to The Ramble, a maze of paths winding around trees and artfully planted shrubbery.

Penn tugged on her hand. “Let’s go this way, by the Shakespeare Garden,” he said.

“But that’s a longer route,” she protested.

“The roses are in bloom, and they’re amazing right now.”

“You know this how?” She lifted an eyebrow.

“I run in the park every day.”

She followed along, turning right toward the Swiss Chalet puppet theater then making a sharp left. Penn didn’t drop her hand as she fell in step with him. When they rounded the chalet, pink and white roses bloomed abundantly, climbing the long, winding split rail fence on both sides of the path. The sweet fragrance of their perfume drifted toward the pair, enticing them farther along the way, as lovely as it was fragrant. The canines stopped to sniff.

“You were right. This is amazing. Do they do this every year?”

“Roses are perennials, so the answer is ‘yes’.”

“You’re into gardening?”

“I’m into beauty,” he said, tightening his grip on her hand, pleased at the blush that colored her cheeks. They walked slowly on the rose-petal-strewn trail, giving the dogs a chance to get their fill of the scent. Next came the Shakespeare Theater.

“Do you ever come to Shakespeare in the Park?” she asked him as they lingered for a moment in front of the statue of Romeo and Juliet.

“I used to. I haven’t been in a long time,” he admitted.

“I come every year. They do different plays, so it’s worth it. And it’s free.”

“But you have to get here at daybreak to get in line for tickets.”

“I have friends...and we each take a shift, a couple of hours. I bring breakfast and catch up on some sleep or read.”

“If you get up so early, can you stay awake through the show?”

“It’s Shakespeare. You’re kidding, right?”

He looked at her quizzically.

“My name is Miranda. My dogs are Romeo and Juliet... See a pattern here?”

“You’re a Shakespeare nut?”

“My father was Shaw Bradford, a Shakespearean actor. My folks named us after characters from his plays. My sister is Cressida,” she said as they passed the turtle pond, heading for the edge of The Ramble.

“Was?” He dropped her hand to lean on the railing.

“He passed away when I was seventeen.”

“I’m sorry. I know what that’s like...both my parents died when I was fifteen.”

“Both?” she exclaimed, putting her hand on his forearm and squeezing it, her eyes wide.

He nodded and stared at the pond, avoiding her gaze. Six turtles were lying on rocks, basking in the sun. She put her hand in his again, and they walked on in silence. Coming down the steep path toward The Boathouse, Miranda gasped when she saw the riot of bright yellow and dazzling red tulips in front of the private dining room.

“I try to come by here every few weeks because they change the flowers often, and each display is more beautiful than the last,” he said, tightening his grip on her fingers.

Lucky barked at a squirrel. Romy and Blackie sat down and panted. Miranda tried to quiet the retriever. Lucky jerked again, trying to get loose. He caught Miranda off balance, bringing her down hard on her knees on the pavement. Tears filled her eyes.

Penn grabbed Lucky’s leash and yanked him back. “Bad dog!” he said to the animal, who promptly sat and looked shamed. “Are you all right?” he asked, helping her up, a frown creasing his forehead.

When Miranda stood up, the cut on one leg started to bleed. Her eyes watered, but she blinked rapidly to hold back the flow. Her lip quivered. “I’m okay,” she answered in a wobbly voice.

“Come on.” He took the leashes in one hand, putting his other around her waist to support her, ignoring the sparks he felt when he touched her. He settled her in a chair at the restaurant and went to the men’s room, returning with some wet paper towels, one with soap.

She held the dogs while he knelt down and cleaned her wound. His long fingers gently washed off the lather with a wet towel and then dried the gash. Bruising and swelling had already begun. He tried to keep his attention focused on her knee, but managed to steal a peek at her chest when she leaned forward.

“Ice. I’ll be right back,” he said, jumping up.

“No, no...it’s okay,” she called, but he was already halfway to the counter before he heard.

Upon returning, Penn examined her wound. The bleeding had stopped. It looked angry, but clean. Penn wrapped a few ice cubes in a paper towel and held it on the area. “I think this injury calls for a big breakfast, coffee alone won’t do. What would you like?”

“Oh, I...” she stumbled, clearly embarrassed.

“Come on. I’m hungry, too. Getting all those paper towels gave me an appetite. Keep me company. They have great bacon here...” he coaxed her.

“Okay, okay. Bacon and scrambled eggs sound great.”

“How do you like your coffee?”

“I prefer tea, if that’s okay...with milk and a little sugar,” she replied, making eye contact with him.

“Done,” he said, reluctantly pulling his gaze away from hers and rising quickly.

* * * *

Miranda sat on the wrought iron chair, holding the leashes and watching Penn walk to the counter. God, he is poetry in motion, she thought, focusing on his confident gait, broad shoulders, and cute butt, unable to keep a grin off her face despite the sting in her knee.

Once he placed his order, he turned to look at her. Cupping his hands in front of his mouth, he hollered, “Ice!”

She smiled and waved at him then returned the small, makeshift ice pack to her injury. The cold made the pain subside. When he returned, carrying a tray with beverages as well as two paper plates loaded with bacon, eggs, and toast, he straddled the chair opposite her.

“I got you whole wheat toast...since you’re in such good shape...that is, you look like you work out...you’re wearing running gear...anyway, I figured you eat healthy,” he said, stammering to cover his obvious appreciation of her body.

“Good choice,” she responded, staring at his chest, covered with a smattering of dark hair. She flushed when she raised her gaze to his then looked down, flustered, and focused on her toast. Penn blushed slightly then yanked his T-shirt from the waistband of his shorts and slipped it on. God, he saw you staring at him, checking him out, like a schoolgirl. Damn.

“So, you write plays...what kind? Drama? Comedy?” he asked, slipping a forkful of eggs into his mouth.

“Comedy,” she answered, delicately fingering a piece of bacon.

“I love comedy.” His eyes lit up.

“Most people do, but it’s the hardest to write.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, but that’s what they say. Seems like it should be harder to make people cry than laugh, but it isn’t. Say, what was that you called Lucky? Buddy?” she asked, changing the subject.

“He reminds me of a dog I used to have. He looks just like Buddy.”

“When you were a kid?”

“I got him as a consolation prize right before my parents flew off to a week’s vacation in the Bahamas, leaving me behind. They never made it.”

“What happened?”

“Their private plane went down, and they were killed...together. I was left with Buddy.”

Miranda looked away from him as tears pricked her eyes, thinking about the lost fifteen-year-old boy, suddenly on his own.

“Buddy died seven years ago. I still miss him.” Penn’s gaze rested on Lucky.

She tore off a small piece of toast for each dog and fed it to them. He ate quietly, watching her. “You treat each one as if he’s your own,” he observed, breaking the silence.

She laughed. “Walking them every day, they feel like mine,” she admitted. “What happened to you after...after you lost your parents? You were only fifteen.”

“My uncle Alfred, my father’s brother and business partner, took me in for three years. Then, I went off to college. My father left me his half of the business, and I’ve been running it for the past ten years,” he replied.

“What business are you in?”

“Real Estate...are you...uh, seeing anyone, in a committed relationship?” He glanced at her naked ring finger before making eye contact again.

“No...not now. I...uh...well, I’m kind of busy...” she stammered.

“Too busy for...dating?” He raised his eyebrows.

“My life is complicated,” she replied, petting Romeo and avoiding Penn’s eyes.

“Isn’t everyone’s?"

“I mean...I have responsibilities...It isn’t just about me.”

“Children?”

“No kids. Look, I have to go,” she said, rising from the chair.

“Wait.” He grabbed her elbow.

A stab of pain in her knee and Penn’s tug on her arm made her sink down again.

“You’d better let that knee rest for a bit more. Tell me, what responsibilities?”

“I take care of my mother and sister. My sister just graduated from F.I.T. I hope she can get a job soon. My mother has emphysema and can’t work. And the two pugs. I have baggage. Most guys aren’t interested in someone like me...who can’t spend the night whenever they want or be available all the time...to...to focus on them. I can’t,” she said, facing him.

“I run a company. I understand about responsibilities,” he said, taking her hand.

“Do you? You live alone?”

“Yes.”

“No pets...of any kind?”

“No.”

“Then you don’t have the same idea about responsibilities. Mine are twenty-four seven, not only nine to five,” she said, pulling her hand away from his to pet Lucky. Miranda adjusted the leashes in her grip. “Do you have a girlfriend?” she asked after a pause, looking into his eyes.

“I play the field...safety in numbers,” he chuckled.

“A commitment-phobe with no responsibilities beyond himself...nice to meet you and thanks for breakfast,” she mumbled, standing up. Miranda winced with the pain, but continued anyway. She untangled the leads.

“Can I see you again?” Penn asked.

“Why?”

“Because...I like you,” he stammered, blushing, obviously embarrassed.

“I come to the park every day it doesn’t rain. Thanks again for the food and for the medical care,” she said, moving away with the dogs.

“What time?” he called after her.

“Same time as today,” she replied, walking faster.

Penn turned and headed south while Miranda went north.

* * * *

Penn looked at his watch. He was supposed to be in the office an hour ago. He’d lost track of time, been distracted by Miranda’s intense blue eyes and stunning body. Perfect was the only word he could think of, besides lush, to describe her. He’d had a hard time keeping his hand from moving up from her injured knee to touch her slender thigh...and more.

Her lips looked so soft, and the way she had smiled at him at the table...he had almost kissed her. Her rack... When she had leaned over, he had been in heaven, staring until she straightened up. For a moment, he had worried he’d get hard simply looking at her.

Miranda was different from the women he usually met and dated. She’s a playwright and a dog walker, a woman who cares for others...not some society chick whose greatest concern is the latest Jimmy Cho’s. She’s a writer...creative, a woman who carefully budgets her hard-earned money. And she listens. He found her almost unbearably sexy. When she’d touched his back, he had wanted to take her right there in the park, even in front of the dogs.

Penn shook his head. What’s happening to me? Forget her. Back to business. He dialed his uncle. “Uncle Alfred. Penn. I’ll be there in forty-five, plenty of time before our eleven o’clock.”

“Where are you? Why are you late?” Alfred inquired.

“Long story.”

“I want to hear it when you get here. Don’t be late, this is an important meeting.”

“I know. I’m coming,” Penn reassured him.

“Does this have something to do with a girl?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Oh, Lord. Who is she?” He could imagine Uncle Alfred dropping his forehead to his palm.

He’s so melodramatic. “Gotta go,” Penn said and abruptly hung up the phone.

He straightened his tie and looked in the full-length mirror on the back of his bedroom door. He smiled at his image, clad in a well-tailored, black suit, a crisp, white shirt, and an expensive, gold silk tie.

Penn’s majordomo, John Hauser, a tall Englishman about fifty years old with light brown hair and eyes to match, poked his head in the door. “’Bout ready, Mr. Penn?”

“Are we late enough to avoid the traffic?” Penn asked as he picked up his briefcase and followed John to the front door. The two men rode down in the elevator together. “Oh, before I forget, please tell Maggie I’ll be needing breakfast at seven every morning, not seven thirty, from now on.”

John raised an eyebrow. “Should I ask why you’re getting up a half hour earlier, Mr. Penn?”

“Probably not, John,” Penn stared straight ahead. It was a long ride down from the penthouse. Suddenly, his collar seemed tight.

“Right, sir. No problem. I’ll tell her.” John pulled keys from his pocket.

The men nodded greetings to Fritz, the doorman, as they passed through the luxuriously appointed lobby of the tony Mont Blanc co-op apartment building. John held open the car door to the comfortable back seat for Penn then got in the driver side of the silver Bentley sedan parked on Central Park West. He drove Penn to his office on Fifty Seventh Street and Sixth Avenue.

The elevator was waiting to take him to the top floor. It opened to the only company there, Roberts and Roberts Holdings, Inc.

Penn greeted Nina, the receptionist, who smiled flirtatiously at him. He walked quickly to his office, the first corner one with floor to ceiling windows facing North and West to the Hudson River and New Jersey. Uncle Alfred had the corner office down the hall. Roberts and Roberts employed seventy people and took in two hundred million dollars a year. Penn received two point five million dollars each year in salary and bonus.

No sooner had he put his briefcase down than Alfred Roberts walked in.

“Nice of you to join us today,” Alfred said sarcastically.

“We have twenty minutes until the meeting,” Penn remarked, raising an eyebrow.

“So we have. Enough time for you to tell me about this new girl.”

“I don’t have any girl...yet.” Penn smirked.

“Who is she? Does she have money?”

“Alf, I’m thirty-two years old, stop asking personal questions.” The younger man frowned.

“I’m looking out for your interests, like your father would, if he were here. Is she good enough for you?”

“Forget it. I don’t need you to look out for me. Any news about the new project?”

“Still deadlocked.”

“Damn. Where’s the agenda for today’s meeting? And no, she doesn’t have money, and I don’t care, okay?” Penn said, impatiently.

“Fortune hunter? Here’s the agenda,” Alf Roberts handed his nephew a piece of paper.

“Doubt it. Where are the financials?” Penn asked, looking over the list then opening his briefcase.

“Can you be sure? Sam is bringing them,” Alf said as the buzzer on Penn’s desk sounded.

Penn flipped a switch, and Nina announced the arrival of the members of the eleven o’clock meeting. Penn cleared his throat, snapped the agenda to a clipboard, and walked toward the elevator with Alfred.

“Not all poor women have class like your mother had, you know,” Alfred whispered.

“And not all of them are fortune hunters, either,” Penn whispered back.

“She must be very attractive.” Alfred smiled at his nephew.

Penn sensed a blush steal up his neck. He coughed as they rounded the bend and entered the reception area.

“I was young once, too,” Alfred said, chuckling.

“Sometimes, I wonder...Hello, Mr. Martin.” Penn extended his hand to the visitor.

Chapter Two

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Miranda stopped to sit on a park bench a few blocks from where she’d dropped off Lucky and Blackie. She was shaken up, and her knee ached. Penn was too tempting. Gorgeous, sweet—the way he took care of her injury—probably financially stable, and interested in her...she couldn’t handle it. One more person tugging on her time, her emotions, making demands, expecting love, commitment, attention...and maybe breaking her heart. Her stomach knotted.

Still, one night with Mr. Sexy...just one night. She thought about his broad shoulders, strong arms, muscled chest, and those incredible lips, curving into a seductive smile, looking so...so kissable. He seemed so self-assured, confident. The way his cool, gray eyes made her feel naked sent a shiver up her spine. She thought about his slender fingers touching more than the cut on her knee, and suddenly, she was very warm.

One night? Where was she going to get one night? Making dinner for her mother, walking the dogs, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, and her writing sandwiched in-between. Sure, one night, so sweet...fat chance, she thought. Her shoulders drooped, and she sighed as she got up to finish her trip home. Once there, Miranda opened the door, letting Romeo run into the house ahead of her.

“I’m home!” she hollered, to assure her mother it was not some burglar. She always did this, and Susan Bradford appreciated it.

“About time. Where’ve you been? Breakfast is stone cold,” her mother said from her chair at the table.

“Breakfast? I already ate, Ma. I didn’t know you were cooking. What did you make?” Miranda asked, going into the kitchen. She went directly to the dogs’ water bowl and food dishes. Her first assignment when she got home was to fill them. “Pancakes. Ma, you outdid yourself.” Miranda spied the plate when stooping to give her mother a kiss on her head.

“All for nothing. Where’ve you been?”

Miranda refilled the water bowls and opened a can of dog food to split between the two pugs. Before she divvied it up, she took a piece of pancake with her fingers and stuffed it in her mouth. “Hmm. Good. Cinnamon sour cream. My favorite.”

“That’s why I made them. Where were you?”

“You must be feeling better today, Ma,” Miranda said, sidestepping the question a third time.

“Miranda Desdemona Bradford, get over here!”

Miranda turned to look at her mother with one raised eyebrow and a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“I asked where you were.” Susan rose out of her chair then sank back down again.

“I heard you...and chose not to answer.”

“Must be a man,” Susan said with a sly grin.

Miranda sensed color in her cheeks. Damn her. She knows me too well.

“I knew it. So? Who is he?”

Miranda turned back to her task, fiddling with the dog food, giving herself time to think up some plausible fabrication for her mother.

“Don’t bother to lie, because I won’t believe the first story you tell me anyway.”

“It doesn’t matter who he was, Ma. Because he’s going to take off when he gets a good look at my life. Forget it,” Miranda replied.

“Not if he’s Prince Charming. Who is he, a homeless guy living in the park?”

“Some...some business guy. He grabbed Lucky when he got away...again, for the hundredth time. He bought me breakfast.”

“Is he cute?” Susan asked with a twinkle in her eye.

“Not really...gorgeous is more like it,” Miranda confided, blushing again.

Her mother laughed, which caused a coughing fit. Miranda put hot water on to boil because tea seemed to soothe her mother after an episode. After a minute, Susan was able to control her breathing. Her daughter poured them each a cup and sat down at the table.

“Gorgeous? Who is he?” Susan asked again.

“Just a guy,” Miranda said, staring into her teacup.

“Give. Tracking your love life is my only entertainment.”

“What love life?”

“Twenty-eight and stunning...you’d have a love life if you didn’t chase everyone away.”

“I don’t chase them away...they just go.”

“What about Dewey Mason?”

“What about Dewey?” Miranda asked.

“He called. Call him back. I know he wants to take you out.”

“I like Dewey, but there’s no chemistry.”

“But there’s chemistry with Mr. Gorgeous?” her mother probed.

Miranda didn’t answer. She turned away, hoping her mother wouldn’t see the color in her face, but Susan’s sharp eye caught everything.

“So, go out with Mr. Gorgeous...sleep with him. Be reckless. Have fun.”

“How do you know he even wants to go out with me?”

“You’re beautiful, smart...who wouldn’t want to go out with you?”

“Ma! I’m twenty-eight years old. I don’t need you running my sex life or my social life, either,” Miranda said, her cheeks hot with anger and embarrassment.

“Somebody has to...you’re certainly not...” Susan rebutted, unwilling to be shouted down.

Miranda turned her back to her mother and began washing dishes, hoping not to hear her over the sound of the water.

“You don’t have to stay here and babysit me.”

“Oh? And you’re fine? What about two months ago?”

“That was then. Now, I’m fine. Go and have a good time.”

“Ma, it’s not safe to leave you alone.”

“Don’t do this. You’re making me feel guilty. It’s bad enough you’ve given up so much already. Don’t be a martyr. I’m fine by myself. We’ve got cell phones, and if anything goes wrong...”

Miranda whirled around. “If anything goes wrong? Goes wrong? What if you die because I wasn’t here? Because I was out getting laid? I could never live with that.”

Susan reached out to touch her daughter’s hand. “Please, darling. Let me breathe, and don’t let this crazy sense of responsibility keep you from living your life. You’re young and beautiful only once. Go out. Have fun. Be reckless.”

Miranda shot her mother a frown and finished at the sink.

“A night out would be good for you, even if it’s only Dewey, Miranda,” Susan said, softening her tone.

“What did he want?”

“Call him,” Susan said, handing her the phone.

Miranda dried her hands and took it. Then, she went into the living room to have a private conversation, out of her mother’s earshot. “Hey, what’s up?” She cut right to the chase after Dewey’s greeting.

“I called for two reasons. One, that lawyer, Blake Thomas, called me again. They’ve upped the ante and will pay you six point two million dollars for your brownstone.”

“What part of ‘not for sale’ doesn’t this guy understand? Not for sale means not for sale. Tell him to stop calling with offers, okay?”

“Okay, but that’s a heckuva lot of money.”

“It’s not about the money, Dewey, you know that.”

“I know, I know. Still...it’s hard to turn down. Shouldn’t you discuss this with your sister? She owns half the house.”

“Cress? She’d sell in a heartbeat. I can’t move my mother. It’d kill her,” Miranda said, trying to blink back tears. “I don’t know how much time she has left, but it’s going to be spent here where she can catch the sun in the backyard, pad around the kitchen, be...in her home.” Miranda wiped away the drops on her cheeks.

“You don’t have to sell me, I understand, but six point two million...”

“Your second reason for calling?” Miranda asked abruptly, to change the subject.

“Are we going to Shakespeare in the Park this year?”

“Why not?”

“Not exactly an enthusiastic response.”

“Oh...Dewey...I’m so excited to be lying on the grass in Central Park for five hours so I can get you a ticket to see Shakespeare with me...what a privilege!” She squealed.

“Okay, okay. I know. But I bring the dinner, don’t I?”

“So?”

“And I don’t attack you.”

“Repeating myself—so?”

“Your enthusiasm is killing me, Miranda, control yourself,” he responded, laughing.

“We’re on. When I get a schedule, we can decide on a play.”

“When are you going to spend the night with me?”

“What?”

“Just hoping maybe you’ve changed your mind,” he chuckled.

“Gotta go. Tell that Blake guy to sit on it,” she said and hung up. Good old Dewey, been after me for years and won’t give up. Maybe I should sleep with him for his birthday. Nah...

“What did Dewey want?” Susan called in a raspy voice.

“Checking on Shakespeare in the Park, Ma.” She returned to finish her kitchen chores before she could disappear to the basement to write. “Where’s Cressida?”

“She’s in the attic, laying out some new designs. She’s got a few interviews. How come you didn’t tell me she’s saving up to go to Paris?” Susan finished her tea.

“I didn’t take it seriously. Cress saving is like Yogi Bear giving up robbing picnic baskets...never gonna happen.”

“But that is where she should be, isn’t it?” Susan asked her daughter.

“Probably. We’ll find a way to get her there, Ma. You want to sit outside, get some sun?”

“I’m tired. Think I’ll lie down,” Susan said, rising and walking toward her room next to the kitchen, wheeling the oxygen tank she used for emergencies behind her.

“Pancakes took it out of you?”

“No, the image of Mr. Gorgeous seducing you,” Susan snickered.

“Don’t laugh, Ma. Besides, you don’t know what Mr. Gorgeous looks like.”

“I wasn’t born seventy years old, you know. I had a few Mr. Gorgeous types in my day.”

“I thought Dad was the only one.” Miranda feigned shock.

“He was the only one after I met him. But there were others before him...”

“T.M.I. I’m going downstairs to work,” Miranda disappeared down the stairs with the sound of her mother’s gentle laughter trailing behind her.

* * * *

“Your coffee is waiting, Mr. Penn,” John said, peeking his head through the bedroom door.

“Thank you,” Penn muttered, his mind elsewhere. He was searching furiously through drawers, tossing clothes and other items everywhere in his large, sumptuous bedroom. His queen-sized bed was covered with tennis racquets, cans of tennis balls, magazines, sweatshirts, and other things pulled from the closet shelves.

“What are you looking for, sir?” John inquired.

“My binoculars, damn it!” Penn swore as he ripped open the bottom drawer of his modern, black lacquer chest of drawers, only to come up empty handed.

“Binoculars? I seem to remember you last used those when you discovered a redheaded nudist living on Fifth Avenue right across the park...”

“Dammit, John, I know why I last used them, where the hell are they now?”

“Sir, I believe you left them in the chest in the living room, so they’d be convenient. Shall I check?”

“Yes! You’re right. That’s where I last had them. Bless you. You’re a genius.” Penn put a tennis ball in his pocket before racing to that very spot. A carafe and a small fruit salad sat on the coffee table in front of a huge, sliding glass door opening onto a generous terrace.