“What are you doing here?” Carolyn asked. Her heartbeat doubled with the shock of seeing him. She saw the same surprise reflected in the widening of his eyes, the way he seemed rooted to the spot. Nick Gilbert, the last man she expected to run into in the toy aisle.
The thought ran through her in a rush, along with the embarrassing memory of when she’d said “I do” in a tacky Vegas wedding chapel and made promises she, of all people, shouldn’t have made.
No, he wasn’t her husband. Not anymore. Her ex.
Their marriage, their relationship was over now. They were over.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” he said.
She looked up at him, hating the disadvantage of being shorter. At six-foot-two, Nick had always had a good seven-inch height advantage over her. Years ago, she’d liked that. Liked that she could look up into his teasing blue eyes and be swept up into the humor of his smile.
But not anymore. Right now, she wished she had on platform heels so she could go toe-to-toe with those blue eyes.
Blue eyes that no longer had any effect on her. Whatsoever. Despite the tingle she’d felt when she ran into him in the crowded courthouse elevator last week. And glimpsed him in the cafeteria from time to time.
She’d seen him off and on many times since their divorce, but never this close. Never had to have a real conversation with him. Even now, as she had for the last three years, she could turn away, walk down the aisle, as if nothing had happened.
But something had. A little something inside her had zigged when they had zagged.
With a start, she realized he was staring at herbecause she hadn’t answered the question. Heat filled her cheeks, which only left her more discomfited.
Carolyn Duff didn’t do discomfited. She never felt out of sorts.
“I’m buying toys for one of the children in the charity“ She glanced down at his cart and saw toys. Books.
“Me, too. I think the entire Lawford legal community got onboard with this one,” he said. “But maybe I should have stuck to business law. I haven’t the foggiest idea what the hell I’m doing.” He reached into his cart and pulled out the two dolls. “Burps or cries? Which is better? How am I supposed to know? To me, they’re both losing propositions.”
She laughed and when she did, it resurrected a part of her she’d thought she left behind long ago. A lightness she’d lost in the years she’d lived with her Aunt Greta, then rediscovered when she’d met Nick.
A lightness she’d missed in the heavy work of being a city prosecutor.
She glanced at Nick. The poor man clearly had no clue when it came to kids and neither did she. The two of them were stuck in the same shopping hell. What harm could come from a little talking? “I know exactly how you feel. I was standing in the next aisle with the same problem.” She reached into her cart and pulled out a selection of trucks. “Fire engine or police car? Dump truck or…what is this thing? A backhoe? A front loader? And what is a front loader anyway? And then there’s these things called transformers, but I can’t figure out why anyone would want a toy that transforms, or if it’s even what this boy would want.” Carolyn tossed the toys back into her cart and threw up her hands.
She was babbling. She always did that when she got nervoussomething that only seemed to happen outside the courtroom, and apparently whenever she got around Nick, who was a six-foot-two reminder of her biggest mistake. “Whatever happened to a bat, a ball and a catcher’s mitt?”
Nick chuckled. “It has gotten complicated, hasn’t it? Every single thing I see here has a computer chip in it, I swear. These aren’t just toys, they’re technological revolutions.” Nick shook his head.
“Well, I’ll muddle through somehow. After all, I’ve got a college degree. How hard can it be? Just watch me.” He chuckled, showing the easy humor that had always been as much a part of Nick as his dark brown hair and his cobalt eyes.
Did he remember that crazy decision to rush off to Vegas? The heady choice they’d made? One where they’d clearly not been thinking with brain cells, and only with the blush of lust?
Carolyn, out of Aunt Greta’s house for the first time since she was nine, so desperate to cast off the strangling structure of her past, and seeing escape in Nick. She’d married him for all the wrong reasons, and had at least been smart enough to undo it the first chance she got.
Nick leaned forward, reading the boxes that lined the shelves. Studying the facts and figures, researching his purchase. Being the detail man that made him a good lawyer. But betraying none of the funny, spontaneous Nick she’d once known. Just as well. She didn’t need that man in her life. Because that man was the one who hadfor a snippet of timemade her think she could be someone she really wasn’t.
“This says ages eight and up,” Nick read aloud, sounding as serious as a tax accountant. “I don’t think that will work. My paper says the child is six.”
“My…” She caught herself before she said “my child,” because this wasn’t her child, “the child I’m sponsoring is almost the same age. I have a five-year-old.”
“Someone wasn’t thinking. Giving you and me a couple of little kids like that. They should have assigned us two high school students. That we can handle. Buy them a couple calculators and some dictionaries. Sit them down, dispense some college advice.”
“Yeah.” She let out a little laugh. An uncomfortable silence filled the space between them, the kind that came from two people who used to know each other and now didn’t, who were pretending everything was cooleven when a heat still simmered in the air.
Leave, her mind said. Take this pause as what it wasan excuse to go. But her feet didn’t go anywhere and she couldn’t have said why.