Chapter One

Hudson grabbed her backpack from the seat and leaned against the car, smiling. Her time with her students gave her a reason to be happy. They were a special group of kids, and she’d been grateful for the opportunity to know them. She was going to miss them when they moved on to the more advanced class. She opened the driver door and retrieved a bouquet of flowers. They’d been a gift from Michelle, one of her older students, who was moving out of the area. The girl had been a clumsy, gangly youngster when they’d met. In just shy of a year, she’d turned into a disciplined swimmer, graceful in and out of the water. Michelle told her it was Hudson’s belief in her abilities that had given her the confidence to do so well.

Hudson held the flowers and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. When she opened them again, she looked up in gratitude. Clouds drifted across the pink-tinged sky. The earth was coming alive after the harsh winter. A cool breeze lifted the damp curls from her face as she watched two birds bathing in an abandoned pail. Although she wanted to stay outside longer, she headed inside the apartment. She was dreading spending another night with her younger roommates at their shared home. Though if she thought about it, it had never been her home and never would be. It was where she slept and sometimes ate, but there wasn’t one thing in the apartment that felt like home. Home was hundreds of miles away. Where people knew and loved her. No one knew her in Albany. Certainly, no one loved her.

“I was just thinking about you.” Jill pulled out a chair from the kitchen table. “We need to talk.”

“Not now. I really need a shower.” Hudson stepped into the laundry room, shoved the damp gi into her hamper, and strode toward the hallway but didn’t get far.

“You look sexy even when you’re sweaty. The shower can wait.” Jill pointed to the chair.

Hudson didn’t feel sexy. She’d always been physically active and her body was well toned. There were times her looks were a curse rather than a gift. And she’d never been one to fall for insincere compliments. Actions spoke louder than words. At least her breakup had taught her something useful.

“Okay, but I smell.” Hudson lifted her arm, sniffed, and wrinkled her nose. She hoped Jill would let her escape, but when she glanced in her direction, Hudson knew it was time to have the inevitable conversation. She’d put if off long enough. Although her outward appearance was one of a confident, secure woman—inside, she was the exact opposite.

Jill sat across from her at the table and folded her hands. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“What do you mean?” Hudson tugged at a loose thread to avoid looking in her direction. The melancholy she’d been battling the last few weeks prevailed, but she hadn’t wanted to admit to her roommates that it was time for a change.

“You know what I mean. What’s wrong?” Jill wasn’t serious often, but when they made eye contact it was obvious this was one of those times.

Hudson wanted to find the right words and figured she’d stalled as long as she could. “I’m grateful to you and Cathy for taking me in.”

Jill pursed her lips. “You make it sound like you were a stray dog running amok in the streets.” They both laughed, breaking the tension. Once Jill settled down, she waved a hand at Hudson. “I know what you’re trying to do, handsome, and it’s not working. Enough with going off subject. Spill it.”

“Wow. You aren’t going to let me get out of this are you!” Hudson blew out a breath. “How did I get here?” she asked.

Jill stared at her with confusion. “You answered the ad, silly woman.”

Hudson sat back in a huff. “No, no. Not here.” She pointed to the floor.

“Well, that’s what you asked.” Jill threw her hands in the air. “What then?”

“This past year hasn’t been anything like I would have imagined.”

Jill reached across the table and ran a thumb over Hudson’s cheek. “Life isn’t predictable. What did you imagine it would be?”

Hudson’s heart ached. She’d quit her job and moved hundreds of miles from everyone and everything she knew to get away from her ex—the woman who’d ended their five-year relationship without batting an eye. It was time for her to make a change, too. But this wasn’t how she’d planned on breaking the impending news.

“World travel. Women falling at my feet. Winning the lottery.” She grinned. “You know—the same thing every sexy butch with a fantastic personality wants.”

“Sounds wonderful, except for the women thing ’cause, you know, I’m into guys.”

“Eww.” Hudson wrinkled her nose.

“Hey! I can’t help it if I like…” Color rose in her cheeks. “Never mind. See. Here we go again. Will you please just tell me what’s bugging you so much?”

“I want…” Hudson paused, shaking her head. “I need to live alone and figure that out.”

Jill’s face turned wistful. “That’s what I thought. Cathy and I are young and—” Jill’s already pink face turned red before she rushed on. “Not that you aren’t, but…”

“Oh, so now you think I’m an old lady?” Jill shrunk in her chair.

Laughing, Hudson slapped Jill’s arm. “I know what you meant, but yeah, at thirty-six I’m not into all-nighters anymore.” The conversation hadn’t been as bad as she thought it would be. “Although, if I suddenly become rich, who knows.” Hudson hoped Cathy would be okay with the news, too. She’d been very lucky to find such a sweet duo as roommates, even if they were a bit wild at times.

“I told Cathy you weren’t going to be here much longer. You’re an amazing woman and a good friend.” Jill stood and squeezed her hand. “We’re all going to be fine.”

 

v

 

Three hours later, Hudson was frustrated. Her newspaper was a mess of crossed out listings. There weren’t any apartments she could afford in her neighborhood; all the studios were downtown, not anywhere near where she wanted to be, and a decent one-bedroom in her current area was well over her budget. With all the rental properties in Albany, there had to be one that was right for her. All she had to do was find it.

Disheartened, she packed her gym bag. The dojo was the one place she found refuge. A good workout would bring her life into perspective.

Master Jin moved across the padded surface, watching her. The precision of his movements, along with the certificates hanging on the wall, suggested he was well into his seventies, although his real age was anyone’s guess. He was often mistaken as lacking real power, but new members learned how wrong that assumption could be. She was still in awe of the physical control he showed. Even now, as he scrutinized his students, his face remained composed.

Hudson was sure he could tell how stiff her body was. The uninterrupted flow of energy was missing in the repetitive movements she’d performed thousands of times. When she’d asked to join eight months ago, he’d made it clear he only admitted students who were serious in dedication, form, and technique. Up until today, she hadn’t disappointed him. She struggled to finish the sequence, out of breath and perspiring.

“Again.” His stern voice filled the room as he waved his hand, indicating his displeasure. “Focus.”

He stepped beside her as she performed the opening movements, leading her through the motion and projecting his calm energy. While she could feel his aura pressed against her skin, her inner turmoil formed a barrier. Again, she faltered.

“Stop. You need to meditate. You cannot be one with the world if you are not one with yourself.”

If only it were that easy.

Hudson knelt on a corner of the mat, closed her eyes, and focused on her breathing. She struggled. Panic choked her. The dojo was the only place she was ever able to escape the uncertainty of her life. The hopelessness threatened to overtake her if she let her guard down. She searched for the calm, centered space that allowed her energy to flow. Distantly, she heard Master Jin’s voice. Search inside yourself for the way. She could do this. She had to.

Forty-five minutes later, she opened her eyes and stood waiting for Master Jin to acknowledge her. She’d concentrated on the good in her life. Teaching youngsters to swim at the Y always lifted her spirits, and she looked forward to her next class with renewed anticipation. Their innocence and enthusiasm were infectious, and Hudson loved being around them, hoping someday there would be children of her own.

Master Jin faced her. “Much better, Hudson. Shall we begin again?”


Chapter Two

Ari parked at the far end of the lot and slowed her racing heart. This is it. Even though she wanted to run inside to find out how soon she’d receive her loan check, she took her time to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. The day had turned warm, and a breeze rustled the leaves on the trees and lifted hair away from her face. She’d picked out a favorite skirt and silk blouse from her limited wardrobe hoping to project a professional image.

The extra steps helped settle her nerves, and she strode into the National Trust Bank with confidence. She gave her name to the office receptionist and reviewed a mental list. She had written a solid business plan and completed the application. This was the last piece of the puzzle she needed in order to get her catering business off the ground, and she was encouraged when she received a call to set up an appointment to talk with a loan officer. It all pointed to an approval for the money. Now, sitting across the desk, she knew how wrong she’d been.

She stared at the loan officer in disbelief. “I don’t understand. Are you sure you have the right application?”

The man handed her a piece of paper. “Is that yours, Ms. Marks?”

Ari looked over the form. There was no doubt it was her application. The sinking feeling in her gut wasn’t her only reaction. She stared a minute longer and forced the tears back, unwilling to show how upset she felt. Nodding, she handed it back.

“Can you tell me why I was denied?” Somehow, she managed to keep the disappointment from her voice.

“It’s nothing personal.” The agent appeared to regret being the bearer of bad news. “The bank has tightened its financial belt, so to speak, with the economy being what it is. You don’t have any collateral, so there’s no guarantee of repayment.”

She wanted to scream! How could they expect someone asking for a loan to have collateral in the first place? “I see. I appreciate your time.” Standing on shaky legs, she stuck out her hand. “Thank you.”

“I’m very sorry. I wish I had better news.”

“So do I,” Ari said before ending the handshake. She turned and hurried to the exit. Her mind raced. She’d asked her boss at the restaurant where she worked and friends who owned businesses what her best options were to obtain the funds she still needed to open her business. Their advice was to go to the branch office right in Albany because they would be more motivated to invest in the local economy. Perhaps she’d been wrong to trust anyone else with such an important decision. Too late for second-guessing. She had no choice. She’d think of some other way to get things up and running. She had to. After spending the last six years focused on her formal training and saving every cent she could, she wasn’t about to give up.

The trip home to her one-bedroom apartment took less than twenty minutes, but it felt more like an hour. Her hands shook as the disappointment set in. Now what the hell am I going to do? The answer was simple. She’d do the same thing she always did when life fell short of her expectations. She tossed her purse and keys on the table, curled up in the corner of the couch, and tucked her feet under her while she waited for her best friend, Kara, to answer the phone. All she needed right now was to hear a friendly voice.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Kara. How are things in the big city?” She tried to sound casual.

“Good. How are things in the little city?” Kara lived in New York City; any other town couldn’t compare in her eyes.

“They’re okay.” Despite her best effort, her voice cracked. They’d been friends since the second grade and grew up in a rural neighborhood in the northern region of New York. It wasn’t long before they became inseparable. Even during high school, if there was a pep rally, dance, or party, they always went together. They also didn’t have any secrets between them. She still remembered the night she’d told Kara she liked girls and had been shocked when Kara said, “I was wondering when you were going to figure that out.”

When Kara had been accepted at Pace University in the city, Ari had been left to decide whether to follow her dream of being a chef or settle for a career of her parents’ choosing. Her mother had taught her how to cook and bake, but Ari longed to cultivate a finer palate and sharpen her skills, inspired by TV cooking shows. Kara had been gone a whole semester before she applied to the Culinary Institute of America. Her parents didn’t have any idea. They were convinced she was filling out applications for nursing school and business colleges, which she did if nothing more than to buy herself some time. Ari was convinced, if she were accepted at the CIA in Hyde Park, they would give in and support her. Every day, she raced to the mailbox in hope of finding an acceptance letter.

And when it finally arrived, she couldn’t contain her excitement. Her parents, however, didn’t share her joy. In the end, she wasn’t given a choice. She left her parents’ house and moved in with Kara, where she stayed until she earned her degree. Moving upstate to the Capital District had been one of the hardest decisions she’d ever made. Kara told her it was about time she got out from under her wing and even helped her move, assuring her living in the twenty-first century meant they could visit each other often.

“Tell me what’s wrong, and we’ll figure it out.”

She held her head in her hand. “The damn bank turned me down.” Clattering noises over the phone meant Kara was on the move.

“I’m coming for a visit.”

Kara always knew what to say to make her feel loved. “You don’t have to do that. I can figure this out.” Spending time with Kara was enticing, but with working in the medical billing office and hosting at the restaurant nights, she couldn’t afford to take time off. Especially now.

A growl came through the phone. “I know I don’t have to and I know you can figure out what to do. It’ll just happen quicker and be a lot more fun if we do it together.”

“You know I’d love to see you. Are you sure you can get away?”

“They owe me. I got them out of a big jam, and they’d do just about anything to keep me happy. No worries.”

“I won’t be able to take much time off.” She tried to remember her schedule at the restaurant for the coming week.

“Whatever time you have will be great. You can show off your village.”

“Hey! I’ll have you know, it’s a real city. A very pretty one, I might add.” Ari picked up old newspapers and empty food containers as she moved around her small apartment. She’d been working so much she hadn’t had the energy to clean, but she didn’t want Kara to think she’d turned into a slob. Thinking of her impending visit, she felt the corners of her mouth lift. The future, at least her immediate one, looked a little brighter.


Chapter Three

Ari pulled Kara into a bear hug. “God, it’s great to see you.”

Holding her tight and smiling, Kara spun her around before letting go. “I’ve missed you, too.” She picked up her discarded suitcase.

“I’m parked right outside.”

They hooked elbows, turned from the crowd of train passengers, and headed toward the exit to take the quickest route back to Ari’s place. Less than twenty minutes later, Kara plunked on the sofa and got comfortable.

Ari needed a drink if she was going to relive the events of the last six months. She handed Kara a glass of wine and paced as she talked. The worn carpet under her feet reminded her of all she’d gone without since earning her degree. Even with two jobs she never spent money unless she absolutely had to, and those times could be counted on one hand. Like when the zipper broke on her well-worn black pants. Or the pair of living room curtains she’d found in a bargain bin. The apartment was filled with mix-matched items. Not that it mattered. Kara was the first person to visit her apartment. She didn’t have much energy left at the end of a day for a social life either.

“You know how hard I’ve been working to save enough money to open my own business.” Ari thought about the long hours she spent developing flavors while she’d been at CIA. Every imaginable ingredient had been at her disposal. Her instructors marveled at her drive and told her it had been a long time since they’d seen a student with such passion for cooking, encouraging her to embrace the feeling. “I’ve even been making all these different recipes and bringing them to My Fare, where I’m a hostess, for the customers to try.” Ari grabbed a stack of papers in protective sleeves. Some of the recipes were fairly common. Others she’d developed along the way, tweaking the flavors until she was happy.

Kara flipped through the top few. “This one looks good. Will you make it for me?”

Ari promised before continuing, telling her everything she’d done, including writing a woman-owned, start-up grant proposal and a small business loan application. By the time she finished talking, she felt better than she had in weeks. Sharing with someone who cared eased her fears.

“There must be something more you can do.”

Ari shook her head. “I’ve tried everything. The only thing more left is to keep saving and hope for the best.” She hated sounding resigned. She’d worked so hard for so long, and now her dream seemed even further away.

Kara held her hand. “Hey, I didn’t come here for you to give up so easy. We’ll think of something. Okay?” She pulled Ari in for another hug and rubbed her back. A loud grumble made them both laugh.

“I can’t think when I’m hungry.” Kara rubbed her stomach.

“Everything is close by,” Ari said. “We can walk the neighborhood and get something to eat.”

Ari took Kara’s bag to her bedroom. “This is it. You can either bunk with me, or I can sleep on the couch.” She turned. “Either way, I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me, too. Let me change out of these grungy clothes, and we’ll take that walk.”

 

v

 

Ari pointed out some of her favorite shops along Carriage Way. Two of her favorites were Fancy Pants, a vintage clothing boutique, and I’ll Be Dangled, a funky handmade jewelry store with a window display of whimsical scarves and hats. She was happy to have Kara by her side while they pawed items, just like when they shopped together as teens. It was good to hear Kara’s folks were doing well. They had been more supportive over the years than her parents ever were.

She’d forgotten about the easy rapport she shared with Kara. They talked as they strolled along the edge of the park, soaking up the last few hours of the June sun. Kara pointed to a shop and they ducked inside. Ari picked up a pair of particularly interesting earrings several times before finally putting them down. At least her frugal ways didn’t take away from enjoying Kara’s company.

In the next block, they checked out a pottery shop. Kara purchased a small bowl with pale blues and greens as a gift for her mother, who was coming to visit her in a few weeks. Kara said her dad was a bit harder to buy for and decided to keep looking.

“Are you shopped out yet?” Ari asked.

She looked at Ari in disbelief. “You know that’s not possible, but I am famished.”

They stepped through the door of Lacey’s Bistro and were greeted by the scent of pine. A smooth, polished bar ran the entire length of the building with an impressive display of wine in floor-to-ceiling racks. Ambient lighting and warm colors filled the long, open space. Candles on every table and in many of the nooks and crannies added to the overall atmosphere.

“This okay?” Ari asked, pointing to one of the small cocktail tables with padded seats.

Kara turned in a slow circle. “It’s beautiful.” A painting displaying a semi-nude woman hung on the wall. “Is this a lesbian bar?”

Ari leaned close and whispered, “I think so, but don’t tell the owners.”

Kara wrinkled her nose. “Funny,” she said.

“Actually, it’s owned by a lesbian couple, but the patrons are mixed. Eclectic, like the decor. Every dish is an original creation. Sarah invited me to cook with her one afternoon, and I learned some of the finer points of fusion cuisine.”

Kara raised her glass. “I’ve missed the shit out of you. Whatever the problems are, I know you can figure them out. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Ari said.

Ari’s friend Rae approached their table.

“Hello, Ari.” She kissed Ari on the cheek.

“Rae! It’s been a long time. Where have you been?” Ari turned in her seat and gave her a hug.

“Running a business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be at times, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve had to change my gym time to evenings. Are you still going?” Rae asked.

“It’s been a while.”

“I’m going for a swim at the Y on Saturday if you want to join me.”

Ari hesitated. “Okay.” She wasn’t enthused with the idea.

“Good.” Rae glanced at Kara. “And who is this lovely woman?” Rae asked.

Ari made introductions. Rae asked where things stood with the plans for opening her business. Ari shared the disappointing news.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Rae said before her eyes brightened. “Have you considered buying a house?”

“What?” Ari leaned closer.

“Buy a house. It will give you collateral, and if you find the right one, you can run the business from it and write it off as an expense. Win-win.”

“Oh, Rae, I don’t know.”

“Rae’s right,” said Kara. “It’s worth considering.” She looked at Rae. “What could it hurt?”

“Just promise me you’ll think about it,” Rae said.

Ari sighed in resignation. “Fine. I’ll think about it.”

“Great. My job here is done. Kara, it was a pleasure to meet you.” Rae took Ari’s hand and brushed her lips over the back, then she winked over her shoulder as she strode out the door.

Kara picked up her glass before motioning to Ari to do the same. “To a great solution from a sizzling hot woman.”

“So, how do you know the looker?” Kara asked.

“She owns her own business in town. And she’s a regular at the restaurant where I work. I’ve picked her brain a time or two for ideas.”

“Uh-huh. I’m sure you have,” Kara said. “How regular?”

Ari pursed her lips and picked up a menu. “Let’s order. I’m starved.”

 

v

 

Tugging at the shirring of her one-piece suit, Ari tried not to let her discomfort show. It had been a long time since she’d been swimming, and the bathing suit felt too snug. People milled about nearby, but they didn’t seem to notice her fidgeting. A group of children splashed around at the far end of the pool, their cheers and laughter echoing off the tiled walls. Rae had texted saying she was running a little late and to start without her. Ari sat on a bench and waited for adult swim time, taking it all in.

A head broke the surface, and a tall figure emerged from the shallow water. The woman gathered the children around her and demonstrated a stroke. Clearly defined muscles flexed in her shoulders and arms, highlighted by the water’s reflection. Wet tendrils of dark, wavy hair clung to her face and neck. A feeling stirred deep in Ari’s center, one she’d all but forgotten. Her heartbeat quickened as she continued to stare, mesmerized by the dark-haired woman, and forgetting all about her discomfort.

The shrill sound of a whistle made her jump. The children scrambled out of the pool shaking off water as they went. The woman followed them toward the locker room, heading in Ari’s direction. Their eyes met and the woman smiled. Ari was mortified at having been caught. Heat rose up her neck. She broke their connection by turning away, looking anywhere but in her direction. When she was sure the coast was clear, she glanced at the doorway. The heat in her face began to subside. If swimming instructors looked like that when I was a youngster, I’d have a gold medal by now.

 

v

 

Ari handed Kara a glass of Riesling.

“How was your swim?” Kara lounged at one end of the couch, a cooking magazine open on her lap.

“It was fine until I tried to do an underwater flip and ended up swallowing half the damn pool.” She flopped on the other end of the couch, looking forward to a much-deserved break. The rest of the morning had her running errands, including the dreaded grocery store. Unless she was shopping for ingredients for a new recipe, she rarely stocked her refrigerator. Kara’s arrival meant she needed to have food in the apartment, and wine was always on the list. She also picked up the items to make the recipe she’d promised Kara.

“It did have an upside though.”

“What was that?” Kara asked.

“There was a very attractive swim instructor.” Ari envisioned the toned body. She pressed her thighs together and tried to ignore the unexpected throbbing.

“Well, as I live and breathe! You haven’t mentioned a woman that way in ages. A little eye candy for your swim? Did you talk to her?”

“Of course not.” She drained her glass. “She had a group of kids with her, and they left the pool right after I got there.” Ari waved her hand dismissively.

Kara tossed the magazine on the table. “Shit. You’re going to have to go for another swim.” She waggled her eyebrows, making Ari laugh.

“Maybe. I’ll be pretty busy house hunting and working.” She stared into her empty goblet. The prospect of buying a home scared her to death. Even with a decent down payment, the mortgage would most likely prove to be too much for her to handle.

Kara scooted closer and put an arm over her shoulder. “Don’t you dare be sad. I know you can find the perfect place. Then you can tell the bank to go fuck themselves.” Kara always did have a way with words. “As long as I’ve known you, you’ve never backed down from a challenge, including the really big ones. You’re going to make this work, you hear me?”

Kara was right. There’d been many challenges in her life, and she’d conquered each one. This was just one more.

“I’ll drink to that. Hell, this isn’t nearly as scary as that time we went careening down the hill and crashed into that car.” She laughed at the memory. They’d been insane to try the daredevil stunt, but they’d been kids and the element of danger was exciting to them back then.

“Tell me about it.” Kara giggled. “I still have the scars to prove riding on your handlebars wasn’t as cool as we thought!”

 

v

 

The newsstand held dozens of papers from the region, as well as an array of free house hunting guides and open house flyers. Ari stacked them in her arm and kept searching, not wanting to miss any. She had an appointment the next afternoon with Sally, a Realtor that Rae had recommended who wanted to have an idea of what she was looking for and how much she could spend. Sally told her it was a buyer’s market, meaning she could negotiate a better price if she found a house she liked. The news was encouraging. She hoped a sizeable chunk of her savings would be left for the business. She was going to need it.

Ari spotted more magazines on the bottom shelf, and when she leaned over, the precarious stack slipped and shot across the floor.

“Damn it.”

A pair of black western boots stepped into view and the person wearing them handed her a couple of magazines that had slid out of her reach.

“Thanks,” Ari said before looking up. Oh, my God. It’s her. She stared into the captivating eyes of the instructor from the Y. It took a minute to realize the woman was offering her outstretched hand to help her up. The muscles in her arm flexed, just like they had in the pool. Ari swallowed hard. The fire low in her stomach smoldered to a slow burn.

“You’re welcome.” The woman looked around. “I think that’s all of them.” She smiled, displaying dimples. She tapped the stack Ari had finally managed to straighten. “Looks like you’re going to be busy.”

Off-kilter from the sudden rush of attraction, all Ari could do was nod before finally finding her voice. “Yes. Looks like you are, too.” She pointed to the renter’s guide in the woman’s hand.

“Yeah. Time to find someplace I can call my own. Good luck.” The woman turned and headed for the door.

“Wait!” Ari’s sudden outburst drew stares. The woman looked back, and her friendly features turned to confusion.

She fumbled, knowing she needed to come up with a reason for calling after the woman. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” Now what do I say? “As a thank you?”

“That’s very nice of you, but it was just a couple of magazines.”

“Still,” Ari said, “one good deed deserves another.”


Chapter Four

Sitting so close to the woman was unnerving. Ari didn’t know where the sudden impulse to pursue the woman had come from, but staying mute would make her look more foolish than she already felt. While one part of her brain was glad the woman accepted her invitation, another wondered what the hell was wrong with her.

She stuck out her hand. “I’m Ari. And thank you again.”

The woman clasped her hand and gave a gentle squeeze. The warmth against Ari’s cool skin sent a shiver up her spine. The light sweater she wore didn’t ward off the reaction.

“My pleasure. I’m Hudson.” She blew across her steaming coffee before taking a tentative sip.

Ari watched her soft looking lips, unable to stop staring at them until Hudson spoke, then she pretended a sudden interest in the contents of her cup.

“Are you looking to move into the area?”

Ari shook her head. “I already live in the southwestern part of town. I moved up from NYC a couple of years ago.” She sipped on her latte. “I’m looking to buy a home in my neighborhood.”

“You have a little whipped cream on your lip.” Hudson pointed to her own mouth.

Ari quickly dabbed her lips with a napkin. “Smooth, aren’t I? So much for making a good first impression.”

“Is that what you’re doing? Trying to impress me?”

“No! I…” Of course that’s what she was doing, although she couldn’t imagine why. She’d been with any number of women in dozens of situations, but none had thrown her into such a tailspin.

Hudson laughed and touched her hand. The heat she left in its wake should have scorched her skin. What in the hell is wrong with me?

“I was only teasing you. You’re doing fine. So that’s the reason for all the flyers and magazines?” Hudson glanced at the renter’s guide on the table before turning her attention back to Ari.

“Well, I’m actually looking for a multipurpose place. One I can live in and run a business from.”

“What kind of business?” Hudson sat back, looking like she had all the time in the world.

Ari wondered if telling Hudson about her personal life was going too far. After all, they’d only just met. She considered how much she should share, knowing once she got started it would be harder to stop, but she couldn’t come up with a good reason not to. If Hudson was like her parents, she’d see it as nothing but a foolish venture. Here goes nothing.

“Catering. I have a master’s in culinary arts, and I’d like to start using it, but so far it hasn’t gone quite the way I planned.” The truth wasn’t far off the mark, and she felt better for not lying about her goals.

“I know what you mean about things not going as planned.”

Hudson took a breath as though she was going to say more, but nothing came out, and Ari picked up the conversation. “What about you?” Ari asked. She drained her mug, remembering to lick her upper lip clean. No need to embarrass herself any more than she already had.

“I live with a couple of roommates. Not the ideal situation.” Hudson glanced at her watch. “Thanks for the coffee and the chat, but I’ve got a class to teach soon.”

Ari took the opportunity to find out more. “You teach swimming at the Y, right?” Hudson’s face became wary, so Ari went on. “I think I saw you there a couple of weeks ago right before the adult swim.”

Hudson’s features relaxed. “That’s it! I thought you looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember from where. You were near the locker room entrance.”

Ari perked up and nodded. She remembers me. “That was me.”

Hudson stood. “Maybe we’ll run into each other again.”

Ari hoped so, but she couldn’t tell Hudson her body hummed, and she wanted more time together. A lot more. Hudson’s mouth and full lips begged to be kissed, and she didn’t want to stop there. Ari’s gaze moved along her strong jawline and continued to the indentation at her neck, traveling over the wide shoulders before ending at the bulging bicep flexing as Hudson shoved her hand in her jeans. Hudson cleared her throat, ending her fantasy.

“I’d like that, without me being on the ground.” I’d much rather be in bed. Ari feigned interest in the slow-moving traffic to hide her nervousness before saying good-bye.

 

v

 

Thoughts of Hudson came at the most inappropriate times and this was definitely one. The papers Ari held would soon bear her signature. She had to concentrate to keep her hands from shaking. Hope swelled inside and her lofty dreams felt closer. She’d run out of patience and given in to Rae’s suggestion.

Sally Huron sat across the table waiting for her to sign the contract.

Ari had done her research. The commission rate was fair and the language concise. She signed the paper and the deal was done.

“I know you’re worried about finding just the right house. All I ask is for you to keep an open mind when we look at properties.”

Kara had told her the same thing.

“It might not be your idea of perfect, but it might be perfect for you.”

Ari nodded, shaking Sally’s hand. “I will. I don’t want to be one of those clients.” Sally’s head tipped to one side. Ari bit her lip. “The kind that must drive you crazy with unreasonable expectations.” She didn’t want to be a pain in the ass, but she couldn’t help feeling pressured to make the right choice for her business—and her life. If Sally’s expression was meant to put Ari at ease, it worked.

“Somehow, I don’t think you’d ever fall into that category, but I’ll keep it in mind.”

When Ari got back to her car, her nerves were still on edge. There was no way she could drive. She pressed the speed dial number. When the familiar voice said, “Hi,” she took a deep breath.

“I did it.”

“I left too soon. This calls for a celebration,” Kara yelled through the receiver.

“Don’t you think that’s a little premature? All I did was sign the contract.”

“Come on. You haven’t let loose in so long, I’ll bet your undies are in a bunch.”

“They are not!” She hated to admit it, but she hadn’t really had time to relax since she’d made the move almost two years ago. There was always something to worry over, or plan, or calculate. She’d squirreled away every penny. Treating herself was a luxury.

“Stop.”

“What?” Ari asked.

“Stop worrying about money. At least for tonight. Okay?”

“How do you know what I was thinking?”

“Unless you’ve been replaced by an alien, I know you, Ms. Marks,” Kara stated matter-of-factly.

Kara was right. She hadn’t changed her ways in years. Maybe that was part of the problem.

 

v

 

Hudson stared at the ledgers spread in front of her. A cursory glance told her they weren’t as much of a mystery as they were a mess. As an independent financial auditor and accountant, she liked that she could set her own hours. But there wasn’t a guaranteed paycheck, and she’d taken a second job for its steady income. She hung her blazer over the back of the chair, then rolled up her sleeves. It took her an hour to get through the first few pages of incomprehensible numbers and untraceable entries. A couple of hours later, she pushed away from the desk and rubbed her eyes. She was desperate for a cup of coffee.

Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Ari’s voice. Soft as velvet. She hadn’t wanted to accept until she’d seen the silent plea in her eyes. Sitting and talking had been enjoyable. No expectations. No flirting. Just two people having a casual conversation. The same way she and Pam had started. Goose bumps prickled her skin. It was a good thing they hadn’t exchanged numbers. She didn’t want a repeat of that fiasco.

Determined not to linger on thoughts of Ari, she stood and stretched her back. She’d promised Jill and Cathy she’d join them for dinner and drinks. She was already running late. She could be at the bar in less than twenty minutes and dialed Jill’s cell to let her know. The loud music almost drowned out the voice on the other end.

“Hi, Hudson.”

“I’m leaving work now. Where are you?”

“We’re a few doors from Cagney’s. We were in the mood for greasy pizza. You want to meet us here?” Jill yelled over the noise.

“No, that’s okay. I’ll catch up with you later. I need a little down time.”

“Okay. Later.” Jill ended the call.

Her anger flared. It was just like them to change their minds. She took a breath. I did the same thing when I was their age. She turned the key and then backed out of the lot. She was looking forward to a quiet dinner. At least she hoped it would be quiet.

 

v

 

Hudson walked through the door and braced for pounding music to hit her. When it didn’t come, she took a seat at the bar and let the quiet jazz soothe her earlier irritation away. This wasn’t the type of place her roommates were known to frequent. Now she understood why they had backed out.

“What can I get you?” the bartender asked.

“A good glass of red wine with some dark fruit and spice flavors.”

“The Franck Balthazar Cornas Cuvee 2007 is our best, but it’s only sold by the bottle.”

What the hell. I deserve it. “I’ll take it.”

The rich burgundy liquid coated the glass as she swirled it. The first sip made her taste buds come alive. She ordered food and was pleasantly surprised by how well it paired with the perfectly cooked lamb chops. She pushed her empty plate away as her cell phone vibrated.

“Hello?”

Giggling and shushing came through the phone. “Hudson, it’s Jill. I don’t think we’re going to make it. There’s a big group of our college friends here, and no one wants to leave. Do you want to join us?”

“I think I’ll pass. I’m going to finish my drink and head home. Have fun.”

Just as well. I’m pretty beat. The half bottle of wine was more than she should have had, but it was too good to go to waste. Maybe she could take it with her. She was about to ask the bartender when a beautiful butch with dark blue eyes and curly dark hair caught her eye. The response of her rapidly beating pulse startled her right before her inner voice yelled, “No.” She’d reacted to Pam in much the same way. A flood of angst made her shiver. Beads of moisture formed on her upper lip. The visceral reaction to the woman made her stomach flip. She needed to get out of there. Quick. She abruptly pushed her chair back, which caught the bartender’s attention.

“I have to leave. Can you give the rest of this to the woman in the white shirt?” She pushed the bottle toward him.

“Sure. Everything okay?”

Hudson swallowed the bile rising in her throat. “Yes. Just an urgent matter.” She forced a smile. “Thanks.” She settled her check and hurried out.

When the cool air hit her she was able to breathe. She hurried to her car. Frustrated, she banged both hands on the steering wheel. What the hell is wrong with me? She had no control over the irrational panic, and it scared her to death.

 

v

 

Ari plopped on the loveseat with a grunt. She enjoyed interacting with the restaurant’s customers, but the long hours and little sleep were taking their toll. Her head pounded and her feet screamed to be free of the confines of her fashionable yet well-worn shoes. She needed a new pair and dreaded spending so much money on comfort. She could wait another few weeks until they went on sale. Every penny counted. She’d prove to her father she wasn’t a failure. She didn’t want to ever have to admit he was right. Not like that time in grade school.

Her sixth-grade class had performed a short production of Alice in Wonderland, and she’d been chosen to play the Cheshire Cat. Her mother had quietly encouraged her and even snuck in moments here and there to help her memorize her lines. Her father had pissed and moaned during the days leading up to the play. He had better things to do than spend an evening with a bunch of misfits. On the ride to school, he glanced in the mirror and growled at her. “I hope you don’t embarrass your mom and me, or there’ll be hell to pay.”

Ari had done okay until she made the mistake of looking at the audience like the teacher had instructed them during rehearsals. The first and only person she saw was her father. He wore a snarl on his weathered face, and she froze when it came to remembering her next line. All she could think of was the promise her father had made if she embarrassed him. And that’s exactly what she was doing. Luckily, her friend was standing next to her and nudged her into action, whispering her line. After that, she didn’t dare look anywhere but at the other cast members. When it was over, she found her mother in the crowd. Her father wasn’t with her.

“Where’s Father?” she asked.

Her mother’s face was tense as she helped her get her coat on. “He’s in the car. It’s best if you don’t say anything to him.”

Ari knew she would most likely be punished. She slid into the backseat and kept her eyes lowered.

Her father pulled out of the parking lot and slammed his hand on the steering wheel. “I knew damn well you’d screw up.” His eyes were full of fire as he stared at her in the rearview mirror. “You’ll never amount to anything. Don’t ever ask me to come to school again, you hear me?” he yelled.

All she could do was nod. She was trembling so much that she didn’t trust her voice, but she wouldn’t cry. She never let him see her cry. That night she had buried her face in her pillow and sobbed until the hurt dulled. His words cut her deeper than any spanking ever could, although she was glad he had never touched her. Ari believed he didn’t want to soil his hands. He had never wanted children. And he had let her know every chance he got.

It had taken a lot of encouragement from Ari’s friends to survive his verbal abuse. Her mother hadn’t been much help. She’d cowered under his hard stare, always the dutiful wife who did what she was told. This was her chance to show him she could excel despite his discouragement. But still, there was always the ingrained doubt. What if she couldn’t find a house she liked? What if the zoning laws wouldn’t let her run a business from her home? What if? Her life was full of what-ifs right now. Crunching the numbers didn’t help with her anxiety level. There were too many pieces to fit into the financial puzzle. Student loans took a fair chunk of her income—thanks to her parents’ lack of support.

Exhaustion took over and she fell into bed. Her brain was fried. As she drifted off, all she remembered was remarkable gray eyes. Hudson’s eyes. She wished they’d exchanged numbers. Not that she had time to call. Or date. Or have sex. But still…