Chris spent the afternoon wandering around the mall. He got himself some designer jeans for half the price he would have paid in London and brought Beth a diamond pendant on a delicate gold chain. Then he headed back to the hotel to get showered and changed. Beth was waiting for him outside Molly's when he strolled through the public garden at seven-thirty. She'd changed out of her work clothes and into a pair of tight jeans and white vest-top, and she had tied back her long blond hair in a ponytail.
"Where have you been?" she asked.
Chris looked at his watch. "We said seven-thirty. It's now seven-thirty-one. I'd hardly call that late."
"I know, but I got here early. I thought you might, too."
"You should have waited inside then."
"God, no. I couldn't go in alone. Come on."
"Hang on. I bought you something this afternoon." He held out the gift-wrapped box. "I hope you like it."
"Chris, you shouldn't have."
"I wanted to."
She took it from him, ripped off the wrapping and stared at the small black jewelry box. "What's this?"
She opened the box and gasped. "Oh, Chris. It's gorgeous. You really shouldn't have. It must have been really expensive."
"Call it two years worth of birthday, Christmas, and Valentine's Day presents wrapped up in one."
She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. "Thank you," she said, then stepped back and fumbled to get the chain from the box.
"Here, let me." He took the box from her and removed the necklace. He told her to turn around and draped it around her neck.
She spun around. "How does it look?"
"Perfect." The diamond hung just above the swell of her breasts, drawing his eyes to her cleavage.
"Are you looking at the chain, or my titties?"
"Both," he replied with a grin. "What normal bloke wouldn't?"
Beth giggled. "I'll take that as a compliment. Come on, let's go in. I have to find a mirror."
She linked her arm in his and led them into the bar. They sat in a booth by the window. No sooner had they sat down than Mitch came over with the menus. "Austins, Chris Austins. Glad you came to see us again. And this must be the mysterious Elizabeth. Nice to meet you. How come I've not seen you in here before?"
"Er, I, er, don't go out all that much."
"Shame. Good-looking girl like you ought to be out every night. I must say, I'm surprised you're still on the market. I bet you were homecoming queen, weren't you?"
"Actually, no. Missy Marshall was queen that year. I lost out by six votes."
"Missy Marshall, eh? I remember her. Doesn't she do porn now? Anyway, what can I get you guys?"
They ordered and Mitch returned to the bar. "How the hell does he know who I am?" Beth asked.
"Mitch claims to know everyone in town."
"Mitch is notorious—that's why I wouldn't come in by myself."
"I was in here last night and asked if anybody knew you. I wanted to surprise you. I had this vision of turning up on your doorstep and you melting into my arms. Only trouble was, I didn't have your address."
Their meals didn't take long to arrive and took them even less time to eat. They ordered ice cream for dessert.
"I can't believe I've come all this way and wind up with steak and chips as a main and ice cream for dessert. It's shocking. On the Eurostar, I could be in Paris within three hours of leaving my house and find a more varied menu."
Beth laughed and playfully punched his arm. "If our food's not good enough, you can always get right back on the plane to merry old England."
"Only if you come with me. I'll treat you to fish and chips and an afternoon at the footy."
"You're on. But I can't tomorrow. I'm busy." She smiled weakly. "Lance would have liked you. You'd have got on well."
"Yeah. You have a similar sense of humor. I think that's what I'll miss the most, you know. His laughter. It was infectious." She paused. "It's not like he wanted to be the center of attention. You know how some people do and they scream, 'look at me, look at me.' But he had such a big personality that he just sort of wound up in the middle. D'you know what I mean?"
Chris nodded. "Yeah."
"I guess it was because he always went full tilt at everything he did. Always gave everything he had and then a little bit more. Our high school won the state championship for the first time ever when he was quarterback. And then they repeated it in his senior year before he went off to West Point. The Colonel was so proud of him. I was too."
"I'm sorry I'll never meet him," said Chris.
"He never wanted to go to West Point, you know. He wanted to follow me to Connecticut and study law—to be a lawyer like me. But the Colonel had other ideas. Lance only went along with the nomination because it's what the Colonel wanted. He never thought he'd get in. I knew better. I knew they'd snap him up. I also knew that when Lance decided on a military career, he'd give it his all. He was a brilliant soldier. A brilliant officer. But he'd have made an even better lawyer."
Chris stared at her as she spoke.
"I'm sorry," she said. "You come all this way and have to listen to me going on about Lance."
"Don't be sorry. Talk all you like. I'm happy to just to sit and listen to you. As long as I get to look at you at the same time."
Dessert arrived and they tucked in.
"Where are you staying?" Beth asked before spooning a mouthful of ice cream into her mouth.
"At the hotel across the square."
"River's Crossing Inn? That must be costing you a fortune. No, that'll never do. You can check right out of there and haul ass over to my place."
"Beth, I couldn't. It wouldn't be right. I couldn't impose."
"Don't go getting all stiff-assed Brit on me. You're staying at my place and that's the end of it. I have a spare room. Besides, if you're my shoulder to cry on, I do most of my crying at night. I'm gonna need you a lot closer than River's Crossing Inn."
After they'd finished dessert, Chris packed his bags and checked out of the hotel. Then he followed Beth back to her house. She gave him the dime tour and left him to unpack while she made coffee. He joined her in the kitchen when he'd finished. She handed him a cup as he sat at the counter and smiled at him. "Chris?"
"Will you come with me tomorrow?"
"To the funeral?"
"Well, I'm not planning on going any place else."
"Are you sure that's a good idea? What would people say? What would your parents say?"
"I don't care what anybody says! You said you were here for me, right? Here to support me? I'm burying my baby brother tomorrow, and my father has turned the whole thing into some kind of god-awful show. I need you there, Chris. I'm dreading it, but if you're there with me, I think I might just about be able to cope."
"I don't know. I didn't know Lance. It wouldn't be right."
"Most of the people who will be there didn't know Lance. What's not right is you coming all this way and then not being there when I need you the most. Please, Chris. Don't make me beg."
Chris looked into her eyes. They were so sad that he couldn't say no. He nodded.
"Oh, thank you. Thank you." She lent forward and kissed his cheek. Chris's heart started to race again. His breathing became labored. A tingle of electricity shot down his back and he shivered. She didn't pull away. Her face was close to his. He could feel her hot breath and smell her sweet perfume. She put her hand on his other cheek and kissed him again. She brought her fingers around and traced his lips, then turned his head until his lips met hers. Their breath was heavy and coarse. Chris could feel the rise and fall of her breasts against his chest. He lowered his hands to her hips and drew her closer. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, slipping her tongue into his mouth. She tasted like cinnamon—sweet and spicy.
Suddenly, Chris pulled away. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that. Not with the funeral tomorrow. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry, Chris. I've been waiting for you to kiss me like that all night."
"Maybe so, but it doesn't make it right. You're vulnerable right now. I shouldn't take advantage."
"It wouldn't be taking advantage. Not if it's what we both want." She put her hand on his face, cocked her head to the side and smiled. "You know, I always wondered if you'd be the same sweet guy in real life that you were on my computer. Well, you're not—you're a million times better. All the guys I know would be trying to get their hands in my panties right about now. But not you. Always the gentleman, eh? I'm so glad you're here." She walked to the door. "I'm going to bed. I have to be up early. I'll see you in the morning."