“And if Rick accepts, I hope y’all have a lovely lunch. Unfortunately, I won’t be here.”
“What do you mean, you won’t be here?”
“I mean I’ll go somewhere else for lunch. I will not allow you to play matchmaker for me with a man who is as unsuitable for me as I am for him.”
Birdie pivoted around slowly, then smiled broadly when she glanced at the front door. “You do whatever you want, sugar, but I’m going to issue my invitation in person.”
Lori Lee followed her aunt’s mesmerized stare, straight to the man approaching the front entrance. When the door opened, a blustery wind blew a gust of frozen rain into the shop as Rick Warrick entered. He shook the rain from his shaggy black hair and brushed icy droplets off his thick, corduroy work jacket. Lori Lee noticed the swirl of dark chest hair peeping over the top of his beige thermal undershirt.
“Good day, ladies.”
The sound of his deep, husky voice rippled along Lori Lee’s nerve endings like Mississippi sorghum poured over hot flapjacks.
“Well, hello, Rick,” Aunt Birdie said. “You boys taking a lunch break? Because if you are, Lori Lee and I would like to invite you to share lunch with us. I brought leftovers from my Sunday dinner.”
“Thank you, Miss Birdie—”
“Thank you, Aunt Birdie. I’m sure your leftovers will beat the heck out of my cold bologna sandwich.” Rick ran his fingers through his damp hair. “I’d be happy to accept your offer, if we can postpone eating for a bit.”
“Wonderful.” Birdie beamed, her eyelashes fluttered. “How long shall we wait? It’s nearly noon. I thought y’all took your lunch break at twelve.”
“We do, and my men are getting ready to eat right now. But before I join you ladies for lunch, I’d like y’all to come next door for a minute.”
“Is something wrong?” Lori Lee asked. “Have y’all run into a problem of some sort in removing the old heating system?”
“No, ma’am, not a problem, just an interesting development,” Rick said. “While we were tearing out the old heating unit, a part of the wooden wall behind it fell in. The boards were rotted clean through.”
“Was it some type of support wall?” Lori Lee went into the basement as seldom as possible. She hated the creepy feeling it gave her, as if she were inside a tomb. “Is there any danger of the upper level floor falling in?”
“No, nothing like that,” Rick assured her. “The wall served no purpose, really. I figure it was put up to close off part of the basement. We found something down there I thought you and Miss...Aunt Birdie might like to see.”
“Something in our basement?” Dimples creased Birdie’s fat cheeks. “Well, you go on over, sugar, and check it out. I’m afraid I can’t get up and down those rickety old stairs.” She smiled at Rick. “Just what have you found?”
“It looks like a bar,” Rick said. “And not just any bar. This sucker is a huge, ornately carved wooden bar, a good fifteen feet long.”
“Oh, my, yes.” Birdie clapped her hands together like a giddy child. “I’ve heard the rumors all my life, but I never realized that the old speakeasy was located in the basement of one of my buildings. Isn’t this exciting?”
Lori Lee didn’t know whether she would call the discovery of an old bar beneath her studio exciting or not, but Aunt Birdie and Rick certainly seemed to think so. She really wasn’t interested in exploring the subterranean depths beneath Tuscumbia, but if she didn’t pacify Aunt Birdie’s curiosity, her elderly aunt just might try to make the journey into the basement herself.
“All right. Let’s go see this great marvel.” Lori Lee wondered if she’d need her jacket. But if she took the time to bundle up and get an umbrella it would only prolong this little adventure. “We’ll be back in just a few minutes.”
“Take your time,” Birdie called after them as they rushed out the door.
The awnings connecting the two buildings partially protected them from the downpour, but not from the wind gusts. Rick flung the door open for her, then followed her inside. Several workers spoke or nodded to Lori Lee; she returned their greetings. The men sat on the floor, their lunches spread out around them like a picnic.
“It’s quite a sight, Miss Guy. Bet that bar’s been in the basement since the twenties,” one of the crew members said. “After lunch we’ll clean up all that old rotted wood before we do anything else.”
Rick placed his hand in the small of Lori Lee’s back and guided her down the basement steps. His hand was big and warm and strong. His touch seared her through her sweater.
No other man’s touch had ever affected her the way Rick’s did. Years after he’d grabbed her on the front porch when she was seventeen, she’d told herself that she had exaggerated the power of his touch, that memories often played tricks on a person’s emotions. But this touch wasn’t memory. It was here and now—and its power was as great as she remembered.
She hurried down the steps, fleeing from him, trying to escape the unwanted sensations spiraling up from the depths of her femininity. The chill of the damp basement hit her suddenly. She shivered. Hugging her body to warm herself, she rubbed her palms up and down her arms.
“Are you cold?” Rick asked, coming up behind her.
“Yes,” she admitted. “I should have brought my coat.”
Before she could utter a protest, he removed his jacket and flung it around her shoulders. As she turned to face him, he pulled the zippered edge across her chest. His hands lingered, his long, thick fingers clutching the material. His knuckles rested in the crevice between her breasts.
Lori Lee looked at his hands. Big and broad. The tops sprinkled with dark hair. The palms callused.
“Thank you. But won’t you be cold without it?” She lifted her gaze to his face and her breath caught in her throat. Didn’t the man ever shave? Or was it that his heavy black beard gave him a perpetual five-o’clock shadow?
A lock of hair hung across the edge of his forehead. She longed to brush the errant strand away from his eye. She clenched her hand into a tight fist, warning herself not to touch him.
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