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The Peony | Sophie & Gabe (almost one year after 'Under the Stars')
“Christ, can you make this seem any more awkward?”
Looking up, Bo promptly tripped over his own big feet, landing heavily against a white picket fence.
“Take five. Let’s just take five ya big klutz.”
How had he chosen the only dog in the litter to flunk puppy school three times? Given his own struggles with the education system, Gabe figured that it was probably karma.
As the dog stared at him adoringly, Gabe looked over the fence at one hell of a garden. Thanks to Sophie’s parents his – their – once overgrown yard had a chance of looking like this one day.
His gaze fell on a big, fat bloom, the purple petals so deep and rich and silky that it was tempting to reach out and touch them. Sophie would love—
“Are you planning to steal my prize-winning peony, Gabriel Marshal?”
Gabe froze at the don’t-you-bullshit-me tone he remembered all too well. Ms. Mercer, his fifth grade teacher, and the now principal of Cedar Bend Elementary. She’d scared him when he was ten, and he felt no more comfortable now.
“Are you?” she demanded.
“No.” Not now he wasn’t. But he couldn’t pick something from his own garden either—that wasn’t how this worked. And Sophie deserved better than another flower off the side of the road.
“Is this about the little flower tattoo on Sophie’s wrist? An Indian Paintbrush if I’m not mistaken.”
Despite the ingrained urge to confess every sin committed between the fifth grade and now, and that list was long, Gabe hesitated.
Her face softened, or looked like it did. Trick of the light.
“Follow me,” she commanded. “You can bring—” She glanced down.
“You can bring Bo.”
Cursing the dog for getting them into this predicament in the first place, Gabe led Bo through the gate, up the path and in her front door, hoping that neither of them would come to regret her offer.
For safety’s sake as she marched off through the house, Gabe snapped out a no-nonsense “sit,” the only lesson from puppy school that had stuck. Bo sat. On his foot.
“That’s one of the things I like about you,” Gabe admitted, “with you around I’m not the thickest one in the family anymore.” Sophie would have his ass for calling himself thick, but after a lifetime of struggling to read it was hard to see yourself any differently. The dog though? Had him beat hands down.
With Bo secured, Gabe looked around. The sitting room was far less military barracks and far more homey than he’d expected, even a little cluttered. A scattering of throw pillows on the mismatched couches, two large palms in big bronze urns, fat candles placed in groups here and there, shelves upon shelves of books and a single framed photo.
Gabe stilled. Stared. Almost swore.
Sliding his foot out from under Bo’s backside, he stepped up to the photo. Ms. Mercer—Louise—smiling, young and happy, looking at the woman standing beside her, and the expression on Louise’s face… His heart stopped. It was the same look of love he saw every day from Sophie and he still had no idea what a guy like him had done to deserve it. Or her.
Louise walked back in, a long-stemmed flower in her hand and, seeing the picture in his hand, froze, her face tense and watchful.
Shit. Gabe knew he’d intruded into something he shouldn’t. Something intensely private. He carefully set the photo back down again. “She’s…stunning.” There was just no other word to describe the bohemian beauty, and even that felt like an understatement.
Louise smiled sadly. Longingly. “Her name was, is Marguerite. And yes, yes, she was.” Finally dragging her eyes away, she held out an impossibly pale pink orchid. “This is for you. For your Sophie.”
The orchid was just as show-stopping as the peony, but in a totally different way. Delicate where the peony was bold. Reticent where the peony was showy.
“Thank you, she’ll love it. Absolutely love it.”
“You always were a good boy.”
Gabe smirked. “No. I wasn’t. I was a delinquent through and through. And don’t tell me you had a soft spot for delinquents because I remember how much time I spent in detention.” Now that smile was no trick of the light. He turned for the door, Sophie’s orchid in hand. “Come on, Bo.”
— ♥ —
Walking down the street, the orchid in one hand and the dog’s leash in the other, Gabe had just nodded to Sophie’s dad as he drove past in his delivery van when he saw a familiar truck heading down the road. “Dammit,” he muttered.
Christopher “Rabbit” Webb slowed down so he could cruise by making kissy faces as he mimed holding up a flower.
Lifting his leash hand, Gabe shot him the finger. Christ, he’d get a ribbing from the guys at the fire station tomorrow—and he’d only had one hundred meters to go until he’d made it home safe and sound.
At the gate Bo stared up at him, ever hopeful.
“No. The last flower I gave to you to carry to her, you ate.” Bo suddenly took great interest in the gravel on the driveway. Not so stupid after all.
He shut the gate behind them and let Bo loose. “Go find Soph!” The dog took off all legs and limbs and feet. Gabe followed at a more sedate pace, taking a second to breathe, to bask, to marvel. He wondered if he’d ever get used to the soul-deep surge of contentment he felt at coming home to Sophie.
Toeing off his sneakers, he walked through to the kitchen where she stood, iPad in hand, and silently held out the orchid.
“You didn’t find that on the side of the road.” Her lips quirked as she set the tablet down. “Did you steal it?”
For Sophie he’d do anything, but this time… “No.”
Like Louise’s long-lost Marguerite.
He hung Bo’s leash over its hook and, removing last week’s flower, placed the orchid in the ever-present highball glass. “We should invite Louise around. To see our garden.”
Sophie’s eyes shot wide. “Louise? My boss Louise?”
She sent him a bemused look. “Where did that come from?”
He shrugged, knowing he’d tell her later, but wanting to keep Louise’s secret for now.
She nodded slowly, her face lighting with that million dollar smile he’d seen her dole out to her students.
Oh, hell no.
He backed her into the kitchen counter, trapping her there. “Do not tell me I’m a good boy.” Once today had been enough.
She laughed, then gasped as he caught the hem of her top and tugged it over her head. Groaned as he leaned forward to place a kiss on her jaw, nuzzled her neck. “No,” she sighed, “I caught the town bad-boy.”
“Caught or bought?” he asked, amusement creeping in.
“Well, it was a bachelor auction. Now don’t stop. Please, Gabe, don’t stop.”