A Minute to Smile
How had single mother Esther Lucas become the fix-it lady? Bandaging her sons’ scraped knees was one thing; hoping to heal a handsome widower’s broken heart was quite another. But Alexander Stone brought out much more than just Esther’s maternal instincts. And she knew that loving the tall, dark loner would make her need a fix-it person of her own ….
Alexander Stone didn’t know if he agreed with that old saying about having loved and lost–he just knew he’d never love again. But how could he resist a warm, sexy woman who always had a minute to smile and two little boys who made him remember what it was like to laugh… or to long for a family to call his own?
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From the window seat in his tiny office, Alexander Stone could see a great portion of the university campus. The big, multi-paned window was the one redeeming feature of the stuffy room, located high in a tower, and today the view acted as a balm on his aching heart. Trees branched out in feathery green, waving their slender topmost branches into a vivid Colorado sky. Beyond the sprawling campus, dusty blue foothills surrounded the city of Boulder like brawny sentinels.
Alexander’s gaze was focused below, upon the whirling reds and russets and wines of a festival sponsored by the history club each year. The sound of medieval flutes and harps floated through his open window, mingled with the laughter and catcalls of the students below.
He watched the quadrangle for a long time. As usual, everyone had thrown themselves into the preparations for the fair—a great many of them his students. He had been among them until an hour ago, when the sense of his own isolation had driven him upstairs to this quiet room. Once, he had enjoyed the bustle and noise, but that had been back in the days when he’d had someone to share it with. Now the fair seemed like just another obligation to fulfill.
Obligations. He eyed the stack of final exams on his desk, but the thought of wading through them held absolutely no appeal.
Picking up a pair of binoculars he kept in the office to examine the birds that often sang outside the window, he scanned the high branches and was rewarded with the sight of a shiny black crow alighting briefly on a branch before it swooped down toward a knot of discarded food on the sidewalk. Alexander watched the bird descend almost dizzily, snag the food and sail away.
Through the binoculars, he caught sight of a group of his students who were singing a rousing—and no doubt bawdy—song in front of a hedge. He smiled to himself. Farther on was a fellow professor, sprawled against a tree, eating chicken. A pair of dark-haired children chased one another in the grass. Handsome lads, he thought distractedly, moving his binoculars a little farther.
He paused as a woman came into view, no doubt the mother of the two little boys. The vivid yellow of her blouse caught his eye, a yellow impossibly at odds with the cloud of pale red hair skimming her bared shoulders. Those colors should never have worked together, he thought.
But they did. He admired the bold combination for a moment, and found his eyes sweeping the flawless, milk white of the woman’s skin. Generous breasts and hips balanced the roundness of her arms. As he watched, she laughed robustly, then reached out to snag one of the children, affectionately tumbling him into her lap to nibble his neck and tickle his ribs. There was a vividness about the woman, about the vibrant love spilling out from her that stirred Alexander deeply.
As the small boy giggled helplessly against his mother, Alexander felt a wistfulness move through him, a pinch of hunger he’d not felt in a long time. He watched the woman kiss her child almost reverently, then hold out an arm to the other boy, who sank next to her, his face flushed.
All three of them simply sat there for a moment, spent with the festival, dappled by the speckled shade that fell through the branches of an oak tree. Alexander felt the restless stirring within him grow and ache for an instant before he could push it away. He threw down his glasses and turned away from the window, shedding the mantle he’d worn for the festival in favor of his street clothes. There was no restlessness, no pain that a good round of combat in the dojo couldn’t cure.
Esther Lucas was running late. As usual. This afternoon, it was for a typical reason. She’d been unable to find the boys’ gis, which turned out to be exactly where she’d put them—folded in a neat stack on the dryer. It was the towels folded on top of them that had thrown her off.
Now she checked her watch and hurried the boys along. “Come on, guys. This isn’t a city hike. We have to get to the dojo.”
“Sensei said it’s important to be on time,” Jeremy, her youngest reminded her.
“I know.” Sensei said had preceded a solid third of his sentences in the past few weeks. Most of them were the kinds of things a mother loved to hear her children mouth, but they all mainly revolved around a sense of orderliness and balance that Esther had never mastered.
“We’re almost there,” she said. “See?” She pointed to a small, unassuming building sandwiched between a photographer’s studio and a quilting shop. A sign in the window announced the form taught, Shotokan Karate, and the instructor’s name, Ryohe Kobayashi, in Roman letters. The lovely calligraphy of Japan followed, presumably announcing the same information.
The boys slowed as they reached the door and entered the dojo with a dignity and hush that always surprised her. Esther tagged behind, scowling at the bank of heavy clouds that hung over the mountains. Ordinarily the precious hour the children spent at their lessons was the only time she had to herself in a day. She used it to stroll along the streets nearby, sometimes stopping for a cup of tea or a sweet while she waited.
Today, the impending rain made that impossible.
Just inside the doors of the studio was a bank of chairs and Esther settled in one, desultorily taking out a book to read while she waited, thinking with longing of the piece of pie she’d intended to treat herself to before the clouds had ruined her plan.
A pretty Asian girl sat behind a low counter to Esther’s right, tallying numbers on an adding machine. She smiled at Esther’s sigh.
Off to the left through an archway, was the main room. Long and wide, it consumed the rest of the space in the dojo except for a few smaller rooms toward the back.
Her wandering gaze caught on the figure of a man at her end of the dojo going through elaborate, stylized exercises. It was tai chi, Esther realized after a moment; the same form her friend Abe practiced.
But Abe had never looked like this.
The man wore only a loose pair of trousers, leaving his chest and feet bare. Tall and lean, with thick, unruly dark hair and a beard, his movements sent the long muscles in his arms and back rippling with the sleek grace of a jungle cat. His skin was tawny, his nose blunt and broad, and his hair curled over his well-shaped head like a mane.
A mane, Esther thought. Yes. He was no ordinary jungle cat. A quickening shivered through her middle. He looked like a lion—king of all the lesser beasts, master of jaguars and tigers and foolish monkeys. It was in the arrogant tilt of his proud head, in the intelligence of his wide brow.
The quickening rippled outward from her belly, into her limbs. Who was he? She knew she had never seen him here before.
As he shifted once more, the light from a window high on the wall spilled over him, showing tiny strands of silver in the glossy mahogany hair. He wore a neatly trimmed beard, and it had been heavily painted with the same silver. Esther inclined her head with a small frown, sure he’d not yet seen forty. She wondered if genetics or tragedy had given him that early frost.
Absently she thought she should quit staring. But somehow it seemed as silly to turn her eyes away from the natural splendor of his male form as it would be to turn away from the brawny shoulders of the mountains. She let herself admire him until his set was complete. He paused, shaking his hands loosely. The heavy canvas trousers rode his hipbones, showing a lean, tanned stomach with a line of dark hair running over the muscles as if for emphasis. Another quiver ran over her nerves.
Then he met her gaze and for an instant, she was riveted. It was an unflinchingly masculine face, rendered in clean, bold strokes. But she was snared less by the face itself than by something strangely compelling in his unsmiling expression. There was incandescence in his eyes, and a definite sense of recognition.
As she watched, a strange flash of bleakness bled everything else from his eyes, giving Esther a fleeting glimpse of a hopelessness so vast she could barely fathom it.
Abruptly he bent down to pick up a short canvas robe. As he walked toward the back of the room, carefully skirting the mat where the children were practicing, he shrugged into the robe. He didn’t look back.
Esther touched her breastbone, feeling her heart threading below. A blast of rain struck the window behind her and she started, whirling to look at the gray sheeting into the glass. The bleakness in the man’s eyes had looked just that color, she thought, and decided that tragedy had silvered his beard.
* * *
Several days later, Esther washed shelves in the organic and natural foods shop she ran from the front of her old home. The alternative radio station was playing a Jelly Roll Morton tune and the fragrance of a freshly brewed pot of her special herb tea wafted through the sunny, plant-filled room. Expertly she analyzed the scent as she dusted antique tins that held plastic bags of the same mixture of rose hips, hibiscus, chamomile and various other beneficial herbs.
“Too much hibiscus this time,” she told the Victorian face on the ornate box.
The bell over the door rang and Abe Smith limped in. “Caught you talking to your tins again,” he teased with a shake of his head.
Esther grinned ruefully. “You always do.” She watched him carefully, a tall man with thick dark hair he wore too long and the remains of an ache-ravaged childhood on his face. He moved stiffly, each step carefully measured. “Bad day?” she asked gently.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I need some of that bath stuff you make for me.”
“Well, you just sit yourself down. I’ll make you a cup of tea to drink while you wait.”
“No problem.” She shot him an amused glance. The two of them shared a love of white sugar, although Esther tolerated honey in her tea when purists were shopping. “I’ve got some glazed doughnuts in the kitchen if you want one,” she added in a conspiratorial tone.
He shook his head. “Not today, thanks.”
When he settled with his tea, she measured herbs for his bath preparation. In spite of the fact that she’d found the recipe in a sixteenth-century text on herbal lore, it was hardly an exotic mixture—ordinary garden herbs.
“Where’s Jeremy?” Abe asked, sipping his tea.
“Outside, no doubt killing dragons or scaling mountains or slaying the enemy with his superior brand of martial arts.”
“What a kid.”
“Right,” Esther replied dryly. “What a kid. He’s a daredevil with all the caution of a kamakazi.”
“But he’s got a great imagination.”
“Sure. All I have to do as a mother is see that he makes it to adulthood in one piece so that he can do something with that imagination.” She rolled her eyes. “I have my doubts some days.”
Abe wiggled his nose, a sure indication he was about to tease her. “Great soldier material.”
“Not if I can help it,” she replied firmly and frowned at him. “Honestly, how can you even tease me about that?” He was so full of shrapnel he could barely walk some days.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine.” He lifted a heavy eyebrow, amusement in his dark eyes. “And unlike soldier boy out there in the backyard, for me it was all in pursuit of the admiration of women.” His nose wiggled again. “It worked for all the guys in the movies.”
She gave him the sealed plastic bag of herbs. “Good thing the good Lord invented women,” she said with a wry smile. “Otherwise, who would heal you?”
“We’d figure something out,” he said.
Esther grinned. They’d met when Esther was eight, Abe almost thirteen, and had been friends ever since. “How are you, really?”
“I’m okay, Mom. Just a little stiff.”
“All right. I’m going to go check on Jeremy, then.” But as she was turning toward the back of the house, the bell rang over the door. For an instant, she listened to see if she could hear her son’s voice. It came to her faintly, full of the undertones of command he used in playing his games. Reassured, she turned to greet her new customer.
The lion man from the dojo stood just inside the door, looking no less powerful than he had last week. Instead of loose trousers and bare feet, he wore a hand-tailored cotton shirt, open at the collar, and jeans that fit his lean thighs well. Light from the windows haloed his thick, curly hair and outlined the breadth of his shoulders. In his big, brown hands he held a white Panama hat.
For an instant, all she could do was look at him in surprise, and he seemed as stunned as she. When the silence between them stretched to an almost unbearable length, Esther finally broke it.
“Hello,” she said. “Can I help you?”
Abe jumped up. “Esther, this is a friend of mine from the dojo, Alexander Stone.”
The man extended his hand. “Hello,” he said. “Abe has been telling me about your expertise with herbs.” The voice was richly textured, as deep as a summer midnight, the edges and vowels of his words clipped with a British accent. Esther felt it flow over her spine as his strong, callused hand grasped hers firmly.
Rattled, she shot Abe a glance. “He has?”
Alexander dropped her hand. “I’ve been looking for someone to help teach a summer class. Abe said you’re the most knowledgeable herbalist in Boulder.”
“He overestimates me,” Esther said with a smile. His eyes, she thought, were a very unusual shade of blue—a clear aquamarine that made her think of marbles.
“You’ve got the right woman,” Abe interjected from his seat by the tea table. “Esther is about to be modest and mild, but she’s the best there is.”
Again she was about to protest, but a single scream pierced the air, cutting through the sound of the radio and their conversation. Without an instant’s hesitation, Esther turned and ran for the backyard, her heart pounding in fear. Jeremy was, in addition to being an eccentric little daredevil, very loud, and he was known to shriek in frustration. But the scream she heard had been one of pain and fear.
As she slammed out the back door, she cursed herself inwardly. Her instincts had told her to check on Jeremy a moment ago. She should have listened—they’d proved true more than once. If anything serious had happened to him—He lay beneath the crab apple tree unmoving, flat on his back. Esther raced toward him and kneeled in the grass. “Jeremy!” she cried.
He opened his eyes and coughed, then promptly burst into tears.
“Are you all right, honey?”
“I fell!” he wailed and sat up to throw himself into his mother’s arms. The tears were as much a defense from the wrath of the scolding he knew was coming as in fear.
She hugged him for a moment, then loosened his grip around her neck to look at his face. “How many times have I told you to stay out of that tree?”
“Not a word, Jeremy. You could have broken your neck.” She paused to let the meaning sink in. “You can’t watch any television for the rest of the week.”
His head dropped, the dark curls tumbling forward in glossy disarray, and his plump lower lip popped out. “Okay,” he said in a tragic voice. Then he realized the consequences of his actions. “That means I can’t watch Sesame Street!” He wept, and threw himself against her chest again.
For a moment, Esther simply held him in her arms, reveling in the smell of little boy—sunshine in his hair and dust on his clothes. She felt the heat of his wire-taut limbs against her palms and the prickling of his hair against her shoulder. And in memory, she saw him lying so still in the grass.
What was she going to do with this child?
* * *
Alexander fingered the tins on the shelf as he waited for Esther to return, and admired a row of jewel-toned jellies with hand-lettered labels: rose petal, chokecherry, crab apple. Curiously he picked one up. “I’ve never heard of anything like this,” he commented to Abe, who had returned to sipping tea in a rattan chair next to a huge fern.
“You ought to give them a try.” He grinned and lowered his voice. “Esther would probably hang me for saying so, but you get the flavor best if you make the toast out of white bread.”
Alexander smiled appreciatively, for he was no stranger to the fanatical devotion of many Boulderites to natural foods. He lifted the jar toward the light, admiring the pale ruby color. “It’s beautiful.”
“Esther makes it.”
“Do they have healing properties?” Alexander asked with a grin.
“No. But they’ll do wonders for your attitude.”
Esther breezed back into the room. Once again, Alexander felt himself riveted upon her. Instead of the bright yellow peasant blouse of the festival, she wore a brown rayon dress with buttons up the front. It was oddly old-fashioned, a dress from the forties, and it clung with demure but enticing exactness to her generous curves. “Abe,” she said with a toss of wild red hair, “would you mind sitting with Jeremy outside for a few minutes? He’s pouting, but he might like a friend.”
“Maybe I’ll go tell him some soldier stories,” Abe said with a wicked grin and headed for the backyard.
Esther turned toward Alexander, brushing wisps of hair from her porcelain face. “Would you like to sit down?” She gestured toward a rattan love seat.
As he settled on floral cushions, he decided that she made him think of a goddess, but not those ethereal creatures artists were so fond of, with their flat blond hair and frail figures. Rather, Esther was more like an ancient goddess of fertility—laughing and lusty, drawn in robust hues, love and appetite flowing from her like sunshine.
Oddly appropriate that she was an herbalist.
“Since you’re English, I’m sure my tea won’t suit you,” she said, “but can I offer you a glass of lemonade?”
Alexander had to gather his scattered thoughts to speak and it annoyed him. He was thirty-nine years old and in addition to having been married twelve years, he was no stranger to women. What was it about this woman that tied his tongue? “Lemonade is fine,” he said gruffly.
“Fresh squeezed,” she said, sliding open the door of a glass-fronted cooler that displayed all sorts of exotic juices and soft drinks. She poured a tall glass of lemonade for each of them from a pitcher, then settled in the chair Abe had vacated. The pose put her against the light, giving her hair an edging of gold fire. Taking a dainty sip of her lemonade, she gave him a curious glance. “So, tell me more about this class.”
Alexander fingered his beard momentarily, gathering his thoughts. “My specialty is the history of the dark and middle ages, and I’ve several students who need a touch of reality regarding their favorite time period.”
She flashed that inviting, mysterious, goddess smile. “How interesting. What would you like me to do?”
“We need someone to share the old ways of medicine with us. Abe said there’s no one who knows the herbal arts as well as you do.”
Again she brushed away the compliment. “He’s much too loyal. But I love talking about herbs on any level.” Biting her lip, she paused. “I think I may even have a few books on the dark ages in particular.”
“An honorarium would be arranged, of course.” He forced himself to look away from the glowing colors of the woman before him and sipped the pulpy lemonade.
“Waive the honorarium,” she said. “It’s been a while since I’ve taken a class of any kind. I might enjoy sitting in on the sessions that I don’t teach.” She looked at him, a hint of shyness in her rich brown eyes. “Would that be all right?”
“Of course.” He smiled to put her at ease and cocked an eyebrow. “Does that mean you’ll do it?”
“How many students are in the class?”
“Only eleven—most of them very intense, I should warn you. The sort of students who live and breathe for history. All of them are very bright, eloquent, and—” he gave her a rueful smile “—absurdly certain that the world we left was a far better one than the one in which we live.”
“You sound as if you know them very well.”
“Oh, I do. I proposed the class with all of them in mind. Obsession can be dangerous.” He shook his head. “You’ll see what I mean soon enough, I’m afraid.”
“Believe me,” Esther said with asperity, “I’m familiar with the syndrome.” She laughed. “I’ve probably even been one of those students.”
“As have I, I’m afraid.”
A group of little boys rushed up to the door. “Mrs. Lucas, can Jeremy play?” one called through the screen.
“He’s around back, guys.”
Alexander watched the gaggle of them run toward a parked group of trikes and tiny two-wheelers.
“Do you have children?” Esther asked.
“No,” he said.
“Somehow I didn’t think so.”
“Oh, really? Why is that?” His question was more curious than anything.
“You strike me as someone with an orderly life—and don’t ask me why, because I don’t know.”
For a moment, he was surprised, then he laughed at how accurately she had pegged him. “As a matter of fact, I do have an orderly life.” He inclined his head, realizing with a small part of his mind that it had been literally years since he’d laughed out loud so spontaneously. “But would I still live amidst disorder if my children were grown and gone?”
“Not a chance, Professor. That silver might fool some people, but you aren’t old enough to have children already sprung from the nest.”
“Right again,” he said. He stood up. “I’ve got a feeling I’m going to like working with you, Ms. Lucas.”
She inclined her head, as if taking his measure, a measure that somehow puzzled her. “The feeling is mutual.”
“I’ll send you a syllabus for the class and you’ll have a clear idea of what I’ll need from you on that.” He stood up and extended a hand. “I’m listed in the university directory if you should have any questions—and I don’t live very far from here, either.”
“All right. It was nice to meet you, Alexander Stone.”
“Goodbye,” he said formally, and firmly placed his hat on his head. Outside, the day seemed bursting with life and energy. He decided suddenly to forego the work he’d had planned for this afternoon in favor of working out at the dojo.
As he walked home to get his things, he found himself whistling.