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Authors: Lois Faye Dyer

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BOOK: Beauty and the Wolf
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Chapter Eight

T
he following morning, she drove to Princess Lily's Boutique a full hour before the time she'd agreed to meet Ava, stopping at a Starbucks in downtown Ballard on her way.

She breathed a sigh of relief when Lily's assistant told her Lily was in the workroom on the second floor. Frankie climbed the stairs and knocked on the open door of the big workspace.

Dressed in slim black slacks, ballet flats and a loose, chic black-and-white patterned top, Lily leaned over the wide table, shears moving swiftly and smoothly as she cut fabric. She glanced over her shoulder at Frankie's knock, a smile lighting her face.

“Frankie! You're here—come in.”

“I hope I'm not interrupting you.”

“Not at all.” Lily's dark hair brushed her shoulders as she shook her head. “I'm glad you could come by early—it seems as if we hardly ever get to chat. We can catch up while we're waiting for Justin to drop off Ava.”

“What an excellent idea.” Frankie handed Lily a take-out Starbucks cup. “It's green tea,” she assured her when Lily lifted a questioning eyebrow. “I thought we'd switch to tea for a while. I considered chai tea,” she said, perching on a stool next to Lily's, one of several ranged along the edges of the long worktable that filled the center of the room, “but wasn't sure if you liked the black pepper and spices.”

“I'm not a big fan,” Lily said. “But I love green tea—so thanks for thinking of me.” She leaned a hip against the wide cutting table where a roll of apricot silk snuggled against a half-unrolled bolt of cobalt blue. “I had the distinct impression when you called this morning that this wasn't a spur-of-the-moment visit.”

“No,” Frankie admitted. “I need a woman's perspective about something, and I can't talk to my sisters about it.”

Lily's eyes widened. “And you came to me?” She pulled a stool closer and perched on it, her expression pleased. “I'm all ears.” She glanced at her watch. “And we have at least an hour before Justin drops off Ava for your playdate.”

“It's about Eli—and me.”

“Ahh.” Lily nodded sagely. “I heard you two have been dating.”

“Yes—we have,” Frankie confirmed. She was silent for a moment, tugging on the end of her ponytail.

“And?” Lily prompted when the silence stretched.

“Well…” Frankie drew a deep breath. “Here's the thing. When we started dating, we agreed that it would be…uncomplicated.” She was having a difficult time finding the words to make Lily understand without confessing the entire scheme to trick Harry.

“Uncomplicated? As in—you were just friends?” Lily asked.

“Yes, sort of.” Frankie sipped her tea and frowned.

“And that's become a problem?” Lily nudged.

“Exactly.” Frankie rubbed her fingertips against her temple. “Will you promise not to tell Justin about this?”

“Of course,” Lily said firmly.

“Good,” Frankie said with relief. “Because he and Eli are such good friends, and I don't want him telling Eli about our conversation.”

“I totally understand,” Lily assured her.

“So, here's the thing. Since Eli and I have been dating, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to say no to him. It's not that other men haven't wanted to go to bed with me, but…this is
Eli.
” Frankie spread her hands expressively, the take-out cup of tea tilting precariously in one hand. “He's practically part of my extended family. If I sleep with him and things don't work out, it's not as if I can just walk away. I'll keep running into him at family gatherings. I'll hear about him in casual conversation from Justin or Uncle Harry.”

“I see your problem,” Lily said slowly, sipping her tea.

“Not to mention the fact that he hasn't said a word about where he thinks our relationship is going,” Frankie added.

Lily's sable eyebrows lifted. “Do you want it to go somewhere? Permanently, I mean?”

Frankie's mouth drooped. “I don't know. I've never wanted a permanent relationship.” She slipped off the stool and paced across the room to stare out the bank of tall windows that looked out on Ballard Avenue. Traffic hummed along the brick street below. “But with Eli, I find myself wondering if having a man in my life for the long haul might not be a bad thing.”

“Are you saying you've thought marriage was a bad thing up until now?” Lily asked, her voice gentle.

“Maybe not bad,” Frankie told her. “Just…not some thing I could see myself choosing.”

“You mean, before Eli?”

“I never thought about it before Eli.”

“Ah.” Lily nodded and sipped her tea.

“Has it been worth it for you? I mean—” Frankie waved her hand to encompass the high-ceilinged, well-appointed workroom with its bright bolts of silk, mannequins and lingerie-design sketches tacked on the white-painted walls “—you were a successful designer before you met Justin and had Ava. It must have been difficult to readjust your life to include a husband and child.”

“Oh, yes.” Lily's face softened, her eyes warm as her
gaze met Frankie's. “But their presence in my life has made me a better designer. And even more importantly, a happier, more contented, more fulfilled person.”

“Hmm,” Frankie murmured, considering Lily's words.

“You and Eli haven't had any conversations, even a few comments, about where your relationship is going?” Lily asked.

Frankie shook her head. “No. We've only been seeing each other for a short time.” She paced away from her abandoned stool and Lily, then turned to pace back, too restless to be still. “That's one of the things that bothers me. How can I feel so strongly about him after only a few weeks—days, really,” she amended.

“But haven't you known him a long time?”

“Yes, since I was a little girl,” Frankie conceded. “But still…” She stopped, leaned a hip against the worktable, and eyed Lily. “Eli Wolf is handsome, charming and kisses like the devil himself. I'm incredibly attracted to him. But he has a reputation for serial dating. He scares me—and I don't know what to do about him.”

Lily smiled a mischievous, impish grin. “I swear, I felt the same way about Justin. And I never admitted it to a living soul. Kudos to you, Frankie, for being so honest.”

“I don't know what good it does me,” Frankie grumbled. “It's not making me feel better. I hate not having answers. I'm a woman who treasures a rational, reasonable approach to life. My sisters tell me I'm too brainy and value logic over emotion, but the truth is, I've never
found a situation I couldn't resolve through research and rational thinking.” She threw up her hands and paced away once more. “And this situation is filled with emotion and too little logic. He's making me crazy. And on top of everything else about him that's so incredibly attractive, he doesn't appear to be the slightest bit intimidated that I have a PhD in English Lit and two master's degrees. I've never dated a man who didn't ultimately resent me for having a double master's in math and science. It's as if men are offended by a female who likes math or science, but Eli doesn't seem to care in the slightest.”

“So, you're saying Eli sees you as a woman, not a brain?”

Frankie thought for a moment, eyes narrowed, before nodding abruptly. “I suppose I am.”

Lily's laugh was infectious. “Frankie, do you realize you have the opposite problem from most pretty women—and you are
definitely
pretty,” she said firmly. “In any event—” she waved a hand before continuing “—women are more likely to complain that men notice their face and body first, while ignoring their brain. You, on the other hand, appreciate Eli because he sees past your brain to the wonderful woman you are.”

“I suppose you're right,” Frankie murmured, considering Lily's words.

“I know I'm right,” Lily said firmly. “And how terrific is it that Eli appreciates your emotional, physical self and accepts the cerebral, brilliant side of you as well?”

“I think that's part of why I'm so drawn to him,” Frankie admitted.

Clear childish tones sounded in the stairwell, answered by a deep male voice as footsteps clattered on the stairs.

“I think Ava's arrived,” Lily told her.

The little dark-haired girl burst through the doorway, followed by Justin. Lily's smile held warm affection as she bent to swing Ava up for a hug. The glance she exchanged with Justin as he bent and brushed a kiss against her mouth was filled with love. A twist of wistful envy swept Frankie.

Could she have that with Eli? Was it possible?

“Hi, cousin.” Justin threw an arm around her shoulders and gave her a quick, hard hug. “How's everything?”

“Fine, Justin, just fine. How are you?”

He gave her a wry grin. “I've just spent an hour eating pancakes with Ava at Vera's Restaurant. My ears hurt from all the chattering.”

Frankie laughed. “That's what you get for having a bright, precocious daughter. When are you going to have a little boy so your family balances the male-female ratio?”

Justin looked at Lily, lifting an eyebrow. “I'll let Lily field that question,” he said dryly.

“And Lily's not talking,” his wife said with a laugh.

“Good for you,” Frankie told them. “Don't cave in to peer pressure. Have a baby when you're ready.”

“I'm ready,” Ava piped up. “I want a baby brother.”

The adults blinked before exchanging glances and laughing.

A half hour later, Frankie and Ava left Lily and Justin in the design room above the boutique to drive to the park for an hour of play.

“Cousin Frankie, can we ride our bikes over there?” Ava pointed at open space in the parking lot behind them.

“Well, we could,” Frankie acknowledged. “But if we follow the path around the park, we can stop and get hot chocolate at the coffee stand halfway around.”

“Ooh.” Ava's eyes lit with anticipation. “Let's go on the path.”

“Yes, let's.” Frankie unloaded their bikes from the back of the SUV she'd borrowed from Lily. She tucked the keys into the pocket of her black fleece jacket and pushed her bike beside Ava's little pink and white bicycle with its two-toned training wheels as they set off down the path that wound through the Ballard green space. The park was geared toward family activities, and even on this chilly January day, with a brisk breeze tangling hair and turning cheeks pink, the space was thronged. Parents accompanied children as they rode bicycles, tricycles and scooters along the paths, slid down slides or glided high on swings. Bundled up in boots, jeans, fleeces zipped to just beneath their chins, with gloves on their hands and earmuffs to keep their ears warm, Ava and Frankie joined the other children and adults on the wide, paved bike path.

Ava concentrated on pedaling and keeping her wheels
straight, the tip of her pink tongue just visible between her teeth as she focused. The loquacious little girl couldn't be silent for long, however.

“Cousin Frankie, you have to come to my house and see my bunny.”

“I heard you have a new rabbit,” Frankie told her. “What color is he?”

“He's white with brown spots.” Ava wobbled to a stop and looked up, her eyes sparkling. “And he has brown ears!”

“Wow, brown ears? He sounds beautiful,” Frankie said gravely.

“And he's really a big bunny,” Ava confided. “Daddy says he's a flop-ear.”

“Flop-ear?” Frankie repeated, nonplussed. “Oh, you mean a lop-ear?”

“Yes, and he has floppy ears, so I call him flop-ear.” Ava beamed.

“Is that his name?”

“No, his name is Mr. Bunny.”

“That sounds like a perfect name for a rabbit,” Frankie said, hiding a smile.

“I think so, too.” Ava nodded emphatically. She pushed determinedly on the pedals, struggling to set the bicycle in motion.

“Can I give you a push?” Frankie asked. “Just till you get going,” she added hastily, well aware Ava was currently passionately committed to doing all things by herself, with no adult assistance.

“I guess that's okay.” Her little legs pumped when
Frankie moved the bike forward, and once again they were on their way. “Riding bikes is hard,” she confided to Frankie. “But now that I'm a big girl, I can steer really good.”

“Yes,” Frankie agreed solemnly. “I can see that.”

“Look!” Ava stopped pedaling and pointed down the path. “It's Unca Eli.”

Frankie's gaze followed the direction indicated by Ava's chubby little index finger. Sure enough, Eli was strolling toward them. He wore faded jeans, tennis shoes and a dark blue pullover fleece over a white T-shirt. The breeze tousled his black hair; his cheeks were pink from the cool air. As he drew nearer, his lips curved in a smile, and Frankie felt her heart soar as he reached them.

“Hi, Unca Eli.” Ava grinned up at him, and he tousled her hair.

“Nice earmuffs, Ava,” he told her, eyeing the hot pink headware.

“Thanks.” She beamed and pointed at Frankie. “Cousin Frankie has some just like mine. We match.”

“I see.” Eli's gaze skimmed over Frankie's hair and met her gaze. “Nice earmuffs, Frankie.” His words were so unconnected to the heated message she saw in his eyes that Frankie didn't react for a moment.

“Umm, thanks,” she murmured. She glanced sideways at Ava, and the dizzying swirl of mental images, memories of being in his arms last night, dissipated. “What are you doing in the park this morning?” she asked, her voice perfectly steady and normal once more.

“I talked to Justin earlier, and he said you were riding bikes with Ava, so I thought I'd join you,” he replied, his eyes lit with amused acknowledgment.

“But you don't have a bike,” she pointed out reason ably.

“True.” He glanced at Ava. “I'll have to jog to keep up with you. Unless you're training for the Olympics this morning—are you racing this morning, kid?”

BOOK: Beauty and the Wolf
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