Author's Note: Here is my Valentine's Day story, better late than never. This is a sequel to Unexpected Gifts, although it stands on its own. Many thanks to my beta readers. Please vote and send feedback!
"Sir, I'm flattered, but ... I really don't know if I'm right for this position." Val squirmed in his seat and resisted the urge to run a hand through his hair.
"Oh, don't worry, Val." Mr. K gave him a reassuring smile. "I think you'll be great."
"I'd hate to leave you in the lurch, though."
"You won't." The older man shook his head. "The rush is over so we can all take it easy for a while. I admit, this means you don't get much of a vacation, since your busy day is less than two months off, but I think you're up to it. As for next year, we have a lot of time to prepare and you could probably come back if we needed you."
Val was silent for a minute. He had to be honest. "Sir, in all seriousness, I think I'm completely wrong for this. Things with Halley should prove that."
Mr. K chuckled but not without sympathy. "I am sorry about that. On the other hand, you and Vicki handled things all right."
Val flushed with embarrassment. "You knew? About me and Vicki?"
Now his boss gave a deep belly laugh. "Oh, Val, my boy. Remember who you're talking to. Naughty, indeed." He chuckled some more and stroked his white beard.
"Ah." Val cleared his throat. "Yes, I, um..." He tried to get himself together. "But again, sir, I'd think that just shows that anything dealing with relationships is not my strong point."
"We often don't know our strong points until we're tested on the weak ones." Mr. K was still smiling, but his tone was businesslike. "I can't force you, of course, and I admit I hate to break up my team. On the other hand, it might do you and Halley a bit of good to, ah, have a little space."
Like a galaxy's worth, Val thought. "I know. Sorry."
"Plus," his boss—soon to be ex-boss, Val realized—continued, "we really are in a bind. Cathe had to leave suddenly and there's not much time to find a replacement. Look, why don't you just try it this one time? Get us through to the end of February, then we can evaluate everything. If you don't like it, perhaps you can just hold the fort until we find someone else."
Val made one last attempt. "What about Don? He and Jeanette are doing great; they're so much better at the love thing than I am."
"Sorry." Mr. K shook his head. "Don and Jeanette are going on their honeymoon. We need someone to start now. Like I said, I realize it means a shortened vacation for you. I have to say, Val, I'd consider it a personal favor."
Val sighed. How could he say no? "Sure, sir."
"You?" Halley gaped. "They picked you?"
"Yeah. They did. Mr. K asked me himself." Val tried to stay calm as he packed his stuff.
"Amazing." She shook her head, her hair drifting in dark waves around her shoulders. "This is like putting a dog in charge of building a rocket ship. What the hell do you know about love?"
"I know plenty." He flashed her a cocky grin to hide his hurt. "I must or they wouldn't have asked me."
Halley snorted. "You know about lust, not love. Two completely different things."
"But not unrelated," he countered. He threw the last few items in his bag and yanked on the zipper, so anxious to leave that he broke it. Muttering in frustration, he turned to Halley and took a deep breath. "Look, I know what you think happened, but..."
"What I think happened?" Halley's face was a mix of incredulity and hurt. "You couldn't stay with me for three months! I hang out with the girls for a day and come back to find you rolling in the loft with the seasonal help!"
Val flushed. There had been no excuse for that when it happened, but she'd misunderstood and had never let him explain. "Halley..."
"Bye, Val." She turned and took a step toward the door. "Good luck. I'll be curious to see who replaces you."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence." He spoke to the empty space where she'd been standing.
Maybe she's right. Maybe anyone else but me should do this. He sighed and shouldered his bag.
He turned to see Don jogging up to him, Jeanette a few steps behind. She smiled and waved; Val waved back.
"Hey, congratulations!" Don grinned at him. "Off already?"
"Yep." Val nodded. "Figured there was no sense in putting it off, and from what I've heard, the new place is already under the gun."
"I can't believe you're going to be the boss over there." Don shook his head. "Weren't you always the one who said you didn't want to be the boss, so there was someone else to blame when things went wrong?"
"Well, things change." Val shrugged. "I could do with a change of scenery and, hey, it can't hurt to try being in charge for a while. Might be nice to have people call me 'sir' for a change."
"Hi, Val." Jeanette came up and Don's arm snaked around her shoulders. Val wondered if Don even knew he'd done it.
"Hi, cutie." Val winked and Jeanette just shook her head.
"You're an incorrigible flirt," she informed him.
"With ladies as pretty as you, who can blame me?"
Jeanette was pretty, he had to admit, if not his type. Then again, he thought, he'd never locked himself down to any one "type." He'd thought that Halley might have been his final type but it appeared he'd been wrong about that.
"She's mine, Val." Don hugged Jeanette closer. "Flirt all you want, it doesn't bother me."
"Well, then it's no fun." Val shook his head in mock disappointment.
"So, you're really going into the relationship business?" Jeanette cocked her head. "It could get messy."
"No, it's relationships that are messy, not business," Val corrected. "I'm just there to help, you know; keep the mess to a minimum, I guess. Besides, I'm probably just a temp when it gets down to it. Mr. K said they need someone now, so I don't mind helping out, but after the rush they'll get down to hiring someone else."
"Well, good luck, Val." Jeanette pushed her blonde hair back behind her ears and stepped up to give him a hug. "I'm sure you'll do great."
"I'm sure I will, too." Val reached down to give Jeanette's tush a friendly squeeze, but she was wise to him and slapped his hand away. "Can't blame a guy for trying," he said with a sigh.
"Take it easy, Val." Don stuck out a hand and Val took it, amazed at Don's confidence. He wasn't fazed in the least at Val making his moves on Jeanette. After he shook Don's hand and watched them walk away, he made a mental note to keep in touch with them. They were the most stable couple he knew, and might be a good place to start if he had any questions.
What's to question? he asked himself with a scoff. You just get two compatible people in a room, sprinkle a little pixie dust or something, and then it all falls into place. All this stuff about 'romance;' it's overrated.
Val walked into the office and stared. "Whoa."
He wasn't sure what he'd expected. Lots of pink hearts, maybe. Or lace. Or teddy bears. His predecessor had been a woman, after all, so he thought there might be a more feminine touch to things. He couldn't have been more wrong.
There was a large, semi-circular desk, on which sat three computer terminals. The wall to his right was a huge screen made up of smaller screens and reminded Val of the briefing wall in Leverage. Behind the desk the wall was floor-to-ceiling smoked glass. The wall to his left and the wall behind him were a deep, cherry red wood. A plush carpet the color of dark wine covered the floor. The formality of the room made him self-conscious; he was in jeans and a black dress shirt and wondered if he should have worn a tie.
"Oh, my goodness, you're early, sir! I'm so sorry, we're nearly ready for you but not quite."
Val jumped, turned around and found himself face-to-face ... well, chest-to-face with a bright-eyed woman with red-blonde hair and a cheerful, heart-shaped face.
"Oh, it's fine. I, ah ... I didn't..." Way to make a forceful, boss-type impression, Val thought.
"I know it's a bit confusing at first. My name is Tina, sir. I'll be your personal assistant, at least to start. If you find you'd rather work with someone else, well, that's fine, but I thought we should keep things running as close to usual as possible."
"Absolutely." Val was lost already. "I mean, yes. I know this is short notice so it's probably best if we don't introduce too many changes."
Tina beamed. "Excellent, sir. Come, let me show you your desk. The system is simple once you know it but it can seem tricky when you first start."
Val followed as Tina took brisk steps across the carpet. He wondered that she didn't sink into it in her heels, soft as it was. He was feeling better, though; he could handle computers. He wasn't as good as Blix, but if someone could walk him through it, and he wrote a few notes, he was sure he'd pick it up soon enough.
"So," he asked, "how long have you been here?"
She laughed, a cheery sound that Val decided was pleasant enough, and fitting for the operation. "I'm not sure I could count that long." Tina gestured to the chair and Val sat down, feeling like he was in someone else's place. "It seems like I've never done anything else."
"You must know it all, then." Val smiled at her and she blushed. "Now I know where to go when I have questions." He felt more comfortable, with a woman to flirt with. He eased back in the chair. "How does this puppy work?"
"I can just get you started with the basics." Tina hit the power button on each of the three machines in efficient sequence. Monitors flashed on and Val chuckled to himself at the hearts and flowers that danced across the screen. "For more detail, you'll need to talk to Chac."
"No, Chac." She pronounced it like shock. She glanced at her watch. "He should be here soon, he's quite punctual. Now, what we have here is really just a spreadsheet."
Val's confidence seeped away as Tina outlined the "basics" of their system. He was lost after the first two minutes. He'd thought it was just a matter of finding people with things in common and making sure they got together. Maybe a nudge here or there to make sure they did, in fact, speak to each other to get things rolling.
He'd been sorely mistaken, Val realized. It was much more complicated than that, and as he had when Mr. K had first suggested the job, Val felt underqualified to an extreme degree.
Tina must have sensed it, and laughed again. "Oh, sir, please don't be so worried. Everyone has that look on their face when they first see this." She paused and looked serious for a moment. "Now, sir, if I may ... well, you don't have much background in this area, do you?"
Val's defenses kicked in on instinct. "I may not have been involved in this exact type of operation, but..." He groped for words. "I do have experience in making people happy, and that's what this is really all about, isn't it?"
She considered before replying. "Well, I suppose that's one way of looking at it." There was a sharp rap on the door. "Oh, that will be Chac." There was another rap.
"Sir, I believe..." Tina cleared her throat and Val looked at her. "It is your office, sir."
"What?" Val blinked. "Oh, right. Right." He raised his voice. "Come in, please." He gave Tina one of his best looks, mixing some sheepishness in with a sexy smile. "Sorry. Still getting used to being in charge."
Tina nodded, unaffected. "Of course, sir."
Val mused for a moment on whether he wanted to risk another workplace romance, but snapped out of it as a dark-skinned man in a flawlessly tailored suit approached. He held a leather folder and when they shook hands, Val found the slender fingers belied the strength of the man's hands.
"Hello, sir. I am Chac. I look forward to assisting you."
"Nice to meet you, Chac." Val was careful to imitate the man's pronunciation. "I'm ... you can call me Val."
"Si, sir." Chac gave a brief nod.
Val gave him a puzzled look. "No, I mean, call me 'Val' instead of 'sir.'"
Chac looked so appalled Val had to bite back a laugh. The man gave himself a slight shake as though to right himself. "I don't believe that would be appropriate, sir."
"Oh, Chac, would you relax for once?" Tina sighed and turned an apologetic face to Val. "Your predecessor, Miss Cathe, she was more formal, sir. Val. It will take some time to change the atmosphere."
"Let's get started, then." Val gave Tina a wink and a grin that he hoped communicated more confidence than he felt. "Not much time until the big day."
Halley brooded over a cup of coffee while Vicki and Jeanette kept her company.
"I can't believe it." Halley shook her head. "How could they put him in charge of that? The man knows nothing about love, unless it's 'love 'em and leave 'em.'"
"Could be worse." Vicki flicked her hair back and sipped her double cappuccino. "They could have put Blix in charge."
"Blix?" Jeanette laughed and Halley had to join in. "Oh, no, I don't think so. He's too shy."
"Shy?" Vicky cocked her head. "You think Blix is shy?"
Jeannette looked puzzled. "Sure. Don't you think so?"
Vicky and Halley exchanged a look. "We've worked with him for a while," Halley said. "We tend to think he's pretty anti-social. Don't get me wrong, he's a great worker and all. He'd just rather type on a computer than talk to a person."
"I don't know. I've talked to him. He's sweet." Jeanette tapped a finger on her cup.
Halley let out a low whistle. "You've talked to him? Wow. He usually freezes up talking to women, including us, and we've known him for ages."
"Well, anyway," Vicki interjected, "it all just goes to show that yes, there are worse choices than Val for the job."
"Maybe." Halley's expression darkened again. "I'm still not convinced."
This time Jeanette and Vicki traded glances. "He's not such a bad guy," Jeanette offered. She felt like she was on thin ice; she hadn't known them all that long and didn't mean to be giving opinions where she shouldn't. She wondered, though, if maybe she had a different perspective than the rest of them, since she was new.
"I never said he was a bad guy," Halley pointed out. "It's just ... I don't see, after the way he's been, that they can put him in charge of all this stuff. I was his longest relationship and we didn't last three months! How is someone like that supposed to bring people together, and keep them together?"
"Maybe this is sort of a test," Vicky suggested. "Maybe they're trying to see what he really thinks. I mean, guys play the field for lots of different reasons. Could be Val's so used to it he doesn't see any other way. This might open his eyes."
Halley nodded, her expression glum, and stared at her now-cold coffee. "I guess. Not that it's any good now."
They were quiet for a moment and then Jeanette reached to change the subject. "Have you heard about Martha and Toni? They're thinking of opening a dancing school. Wouldn't that be fun? I've always wanted to learn ballroom dancing."
Halley perked up at that, and the three chatted for a few more minutes before Halley said she had to go. She walked off and Vicki and Jeanette stared after her.
Vicki sighed. "She has it bad."
Jeanette nodded. "Looks like it. So ... what happened? Between her and Val, I mean?"
"Well." Vicki puffed out a breath and tapped a long red fingernail on her lip as she thought about her answer.
At first, Jeanette had been intimidated by Vicki. The taller woman wore her light brown hair in a chic bob, with edges so straight they looked like they might cut you if you touched them. She had a model-perfect face, with high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, and walked with a regal air. Jeanette had been polite, but it hadn't taken long for Vicki's mischievous nature to come through, and since then the two women had grown close.
"Halley was surprised when Val went for her," Vicki said. "I mean, you know how Val is—he flirts with everyone, so of course he'd flirted with Halley. She didn't care for it. She was professional, always, but was careful to keep a distance. Then I don't know what changed, but Val went after her in a serious way right around when Don met you."
"So he liked her? For real?" Jeanette was curious.
"He likes us all 'for real, ' but I know what you mean." Vicki laughed. "Yes, I think he liked her in a serious way. She took a chance, and Halley hardly ever takes chances. Like, once every seventy-some years she'll take a chance. It looked like it might work, too."
"But it didn't," Jeanette observed.
"No, unfortunately, it didn't." Vicki sighed. "It didn't last very long at all. About three months. We all put in a tough week, and went on vacation—they even went together—and it seemed good when we got back. Then one day, she walked in on Val and this woman and ... it wasn't pretty."
"That's too bad."
"It is, and the worst part is, Halley's still got it for him." Vicki shook her head.
"I thought so." Jeanette gave a rueful smile. "But I wasn't sure if I was reading things correctly so I just kept my mouth shut."
"A wise policy. You'll go far." Vicki chuckled. "See, Val and I had a thing a while ago, but it was okay. We both knew it was just fun. It's tough on Halley because like I said, she still cares for him. She's not a 'fun' kind of woman when it comes to things like that. And if he wasn't such a jerk, he'd admit he cares for her, too."
"It did seem like he was in a hurry to get out of here."
"A sure sign of guilt where Val's concerned. If he feels guilty, or apologetic, he am-scrays at the first opportunity. He will apologize, or make it right, when he's ready, but that can take a while. So he leaves."
"Wow." Jeanette laughed. "He must have had truckloads of guilt if he took that job."
"Yeah." Vicki sighed. "Makes me wonder if we'll be waiting for the apology this time next year."
Val was starting to panic. He had been fighting a desire to make any excuse under the sun not to come in the office, but since he was the boss, he couldn't do that.
I've only been here three days! He took a deep breath. Delegate. He'd have to delegate. In fact, he could start that today. Val felt the panic recede.
He turned back to the mirror and combed his hair. It was dark and curly, like his mother's, and he'd learned that women liked that kind-of-messy look with hair like his. Halley had, he recalled. She had loved running her fingers through his hair, and he had to admit, he'd liked it. He frowned.
He had liked it when Halley did it, but the odd thing was, he'd never cared much before that. Sure, women had teased and complimented him on his hair, had played with it and run their hands through. He'd let them do it for the attention, and for the fun they seemed to have. Only with Halley had he enjoyed it as well.
There was a beep at his waist and he pulled the phone out. Tina had given it to him, saying it was the easiest way to keep in touch. And boy, did she keep in touch. Val didn't think so much as fifteen minutes had passed since he'd arrived that she hadn't sent him a message. He poked at the buttons and found her text: Exec staff mtg in 30 m. Pls be prompt.
Val nodded, impressed with her efficiency. After one last look in the mirror, he decided he was ready. Ready as I'll ever be.
He found his way to the office with no problem today using the tunnels, and was pleased. His quarters were in the same complex as the office and he could walk outside, or through the underground tunnel system. Or as he thought of it, The Labyrinth. Tina had taken him through it, and confident in his abilities he'd used it the next morning, and had promptly gotten lost.
He'd called Tina, too baffled to be embarrassed. She'd arrived within ten minutes, nodded hello and begun discussing the day's schedule, making no mention of his trouble. She was smooth, Val thought. She knew how to keep a day flowing even when it started out rough, and Val rapidly came to appreciate that quality.
Val thought ahead to the meeting as he sipped the coffee Tina had left on his desk. She was something, he thought, and couldn't imagine why he'd want anyone else as a PA. He could also feel his resolve to avoid workplace relationships fading when she was around. Focus, he told himself.
"Sir?" Tina knocked and poked her head in. "If you're ready, everyone's assembled in the conference room."
"Sure." Val stood up and tossed her a smile, hoping it hid his nervousness. "Let's meet the crew."
"Now, everyone's been doing this for awhile," Tina said as they walked down the hall, "but it never hurts to review everything. Plus, you should get an overview, at least, especially since we're on such a compressed schedule now."
"Sounds good." Val was relieved to know that his staff had the basics covered; it likely meant he only needed to supervise. Just sign a few papers, give a few authorizations, and it should all work out, he thought. "I'm looking forward to meeting them and then I guess I can just stay out of the way."
"Oh, no, sir." Tina looked at him in surprise. "Everyone will be very hands-on, including you." She smiled. "You'll get the hang of it in no time, I'm sure."
"Any problems I should know about?" Val decided to change the subject.
"Hmmm." Tina pursed her lips into a kissable pout. Val noticed it, but in an objective way, and wondered at himself. Then he caught up with Tina as she spoke. "Well, there's always some little frictions, I guess, but nothing too serious. June and Rhodi will just never get along, but everyone puts it aside for the big day."
Before Val could ask anything else, she knocked on the door of the conference room and then opened it and gestured for Val to go through. Murmurs ceased as everyone looked up to take stock of the new boss. After a moment, he realized they were waiting for him to speak.
"Ah, well." He cleared his throat. "Hi. I'm Val, and I'm the new boss. I can't say I'm not a little nervous, but Tina here tells me you all know your jobs. I'm here to learn and to help. So ... let's get started."
"Si, sir." Val looked over and saw Chac standing to one side. "If I may."
Chac gestured a blond-haired man with a cherubic face who sat to Val's right. "This is Ross, who runs the Department of Introductions."
"Nice to meet you, sir," Ross said.
Val nodded in greeting. He'd been over the list of departments with Tina, and he'd been shocked. He knew from his former position that it often took more people than one would expect to get the job done, but he had to admit he'd been guilty of that thinking with his new position. Ross and his department were a perfect example. Who would have thought, Val wondered, that someone had to be in charge of introducing people.
Chac was speaking again and Val forced himself to keep up.
Next Chac introduced a tall, broad-shouldered man named Lem. Val shook his hand and was relieved to get it back in one piece. Lem had a booming voice, broad gestures and made no secret of his own sensuality. Val watched as Lem turned his attentions to a statuesque woman who sat next to him. She gave him a cold look and turned away.
"Sir, this is Miss Diana," Chac told him. "She is in charge of virtue."
Val gave her a smile to rival Lem's, and although he thought he detected a thaw in her manner, it was slight.
The next two women were introduced as June and Rhodi, and Val felt the tension between them despite the friendly smiles they both gave him. June, like Diana, had chiseled, aquiline features framed by dark hair. Rhodi had sleek blonde hair hanging past her shoulders. Her eyes were a vibrant blue in contrast to the others' chocolate brown.
"Nice to meet you, Val." Her voice was the definition of sultry.
"Likewise." Val gave what he hoped was a suave grin and nod. Her presence rivaled that of Lem's, though she didn't share his outgoing personality. Confident as he was, Val decided he had to be careful around his new employees. They'd been at this far longer than he had, and he had the feeling that as in any office, there were politics at play.
There were a few more introductions, and Val hoped his surprise didn't show. Wouldn't do for the person in charge of the operation to look shocked. He kept his expression neutral, nodding as Chac finished. Val shook the hand of the last person at the table, a man named Harry who Val thought was in charge of something involving families, before taking his own seat.
"Well, it's good to meet you all." Val looked around the table and nodded. "I know we're on a deadline here, and I'm new, but that's all the more reason for me to be brought up to speed. I'm sure we all want everything to go as smoothly as it usually does."
That brought a laugh from an exotic-looking woman named Izzy, which in turn elicited angry glares from Rhodi and June. Val glanced from one woman to the other; Tina had said the two didn't get along, but it appeared they had a common dislike in this case.
Have to deal with it sooner or later, he thought, and plunged in. "Is there a problem?"
"No, sir." Izzy's voice was silky. "It's just that, well, things never really run smoothly." Her laugh made all the men at the table clear their throats and shift in their chairs.
"She has a point," Harry said.
Val turned to him. "How so?"
There was quiet around the table until Diana began, "Love is messy."
"As it should be." Lem grinned. Izzy laughed with him but others just shook their heads, although Val saw a few smiles.
"What I mean is," Diana continued, with a glare at Lem, "is that things just never go as planned. It's bad enough to try to manage the problems during the course of the year, and on special days like Christmas, or a person's birthday, but for this day..." She shook her head.
Val was still puzzled, so June continued.
"People are looking for perfection," she told Val. Many around the table gave world-weary nods. "Whether it's perfection in their mate, or themselves, or how feelings are expressed. And perfection, of course, is difficult if not impossible to achieve."
"Not for everyone." Izzy's voice was a purr and Val felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as her eyes raked over him.
"Yes, well." Val coughed. "I guess we'll just have to aim for as smooth as possible, then. So, ah, what's the first step?"
"That's for you to decide, sir. Val." Tina spoke up first. "I'm sure everyone has their information ready, but every year the priorities have to be reassessed."
"Of course." Val nodded. He hoped the fear rushing through his system wasn't visible on his face. So much for delegation.
Halley turned over on her bed, something she'd been doing all night. She tried to blame it on the post-dinner coffee she'd had with Martha and Toni, but that wasn't it.
I can't believe I'm still thinking about him. She huffed out a breath and flopped onto her back.
What was the problem, she wondered. We tried. It just didn't work. Happens all the time. That wasn't enough of an answer. Because she had wanted it to work, she thought with a sigh.
Val had been a whole different person in the time they'd dated ... been a couple ... whatever. He hadn't stopped his flirting, but it had changed. He'd been lighter with it, perhaps. Whatever he'd done, Halley had thought he was serious about her, and for a while, his actions had shown it. Whenever he'd flirted with Martha, or even Jeanette, he'd laughed it off almost immediately and come back to her for a hug, or a kiss.
He hugged and kissed that woman in the loft, she reminded herself. Anger rose up in her, but so did some sorrow. She had wanted to believe him, but he'd never given an explanation, and the woman she'd caught him with hadn't seemed the least concerned. Together, their reactions had added up to one thing: Val had cheated on her.
"But why?" She stared at the ceiling. "What did I do wrong? Did I give him too much space? Did I press him? I tried to just ... take it as it came." She dragged a hand over her face. Perhaps she should have been more proactive, but she just hadn't been sure at the time.
One thing she had to admit, if only to herself in the middle of the night, was that she missed Val. He'd made her laugh, he'd laughed with her, and damn, his body had made hers feel good.
Almost against her will, she remembered that night in the loft.
Back in the loft...
Halley turned around, her mouth open in surprise for a minute before she snapped it shut. There was a blanket with a picnic laid out, and candles placed in various corners filled the loft with soft, warm light. Val held out a hand as she climbed up the last step.
"You did this?" Halley stared at him, then looked around again.
He laughed and her stomach flipped at the sound. "Don't sound so surprised."
"I just ... didn't expect something like this."
"You have a really bad impression of me, don't you?" Val tugged her over to the picnic blanket. "I'm sorry for that."
Halley was lost for words as they sat down, and blushed in guilty embarrassment. "It's not that, Val. I just ... I don't know. You like to play the field, and I don't."
He nodded. "I understand. And yeah, I like to flirt and goof around. But it doesn't mean I can't be serious."
"You can be serious?" Halley raised an eyebrow and tried to distance herself a little with sarcasm.
"Of course I can." Val's dark eyes stared into her golden brown ones. "Do you think I do this for everyone?"
"I wouldn't know."
He paused, then nodded. "Fair enough."
"Look, Val, why are we here? Why did you ask me here?" She dropped her eyes but raised them again, determined not to be cowed.
"Because I wanted to. I wanted to be with you." He stretched out on the blanket, propping himself up on one elbow. "Is that another surprise?"
"Well, yes." Halley tried not to be distracted by him. He looked good, wrapped in snug blue jeans and a flannel shirt. Dark curls hung almost down to mischievous brown eyes; she'd often thought those eyes were mocking her, but right now they were serious. It's not like I ever denied he had a nice body, she thought. Val's next question jerked her out of her thoughts.
She paused. "I don't know. Maybe because we've never had a conversation that lasted longer than three minutes? Because any time we talk, it's really just you hitting on me and me saying no?"
"Really?" Val frowned.
"What's my favorite movie?" She crossed her arms over her chest.
"I don't know."
"The Shop around the Corner with Jimmy Stewart. What's my favorite color?"
"No, you're just guessing. It's green."
He sighed. "So because I don't know your favorite things, I'm a jerk?"
"No!" She made frustrated noise and stood up to pace the room. "Because you never even asked me about them, you're a jerk! You've never had a serious conversation with me, but then suddenly you ask me up here?" She waved an arm around to encompass the romantic setting. "And I'm supposed to just fall into your arms?"
"Not right away." Val sighed and sat up. "You know, this works both ways, Halley."
"What do you mean?"
"You haven't exactly been approachable." He raised a hand as she opened her mouth to protest. "I'm not insulting you, for God's sake, I'm just observing. Every time I say hello to you, you all but bite my head off. No one else seems to be upset. So I flirt, so what? Have I ever done anything to you? Insulted you? Anything?"
"Well ... no, but..."
"Why won't you give me a chance, then? Why do think I can't be serious?"
"Because ... I don't know. Because I've never seen you be serious." Halley bit her lip. Because no one's ever been serious about me. God, that sounds so pathetic.
"Look, Halley." Val came over and put his hand on her shoulders. "Please, sit down. Let's eat and talk. I got a bottle of wine; Chardonnay. It's what Martha said you liked."
"You asked Martha about me?" For a moment, Halley felt like a teenager and blushed at asking such a silly question.
"How else would I know that you like Greek pasta salad?" He flashed that grin that Halley had all too often wished would be meant just for her. "Or that you like mint chocolate chip ice cream?"
Halley relented and smiled back, then let sat down. There was the promised salad, more Greek side dishes, gourmet rolls and after, the ice cream. Deciding she had to give Val a chance after his efforts, she forced herself to put aside her previous feelings about him.
To her great surprise, she found ... she liked him. He asked her about herself, and she told him things she hadn't shared with anyone. She hadn't felt close to anyone in a long time, but with Val she had no hesitation in talking about anything. He shared himself with her as well. They talked about music, movies, how they'd come into their jobs.
Halley sighed as she finished her ice cream. "How come you were never this nice to me before?"
Val chuckled. "You never gave me the chance."
"I guess not." She smiled at him. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right. You can make it up to me."
"I can? How?" She felt her stomach twist in pleasant apprehension.
"A kiss?" She swallowed.
"Yes. A kiss."
"O ... okay."
Val chuckled as he knelt down in front of her and took her hands to pull her up to her knees. "Relax, Halley. It won't hurt."
"Halley, hush." Val smiled and kissed her.
Oh wow. Halley relaxed and leaned into Val and the kiss. His arms were warm and strong around her, and she liked it. He didn't pressure, didn't rush anything. After a few minutes, she let the last of the tension go and slid her arms around him.
When Val pulled away, she had to bite back a whimper of protest. He chuckled. "That wasn't so bad, now, was it?"
"No." Halley blushed and looked down. "I was kind of nervous."
"Feeling more relaxed now?" Val tunneled one hand in her hair and she shivered as he massaged her scalp.
"I ... think so."
"Good." Val flashed the smile that so often had made her roll her eyes. Now it made her anxious with anticipation. "Let's try it again."
Her eyes widened as he grinned and pulled her down onto the blanket so that she lay half on top of him. Then she couldn't help it and laughed when he moved to kiss her again. This time she relaxed and returned the kiss. He coaxed her lips apart and another shiver went through her as his tongue met hers. She had just begun to let herself go and stop thinking when Val broke the kiss.
"What?" Do I really sound that breathless? Halley stared at him.
"Do you know how good you feel?" Val's voice was dark and all she could do was shake her head. "I have been waiting and waiting to see how you feel..." He slid his hands under her shirt and she felt goosebumps race over her skin. He smiled. "And of course I wanted to know how you tasted..."
Halley gasped again and her eyes widened as he moved in for another kiss. She snapped her eyes shut as though he might stop if she didn't.
"No, no, this isn't quite right."
Halley didn't time to ask what he meant before he had rolled to his side and reversed their positions, so that his leg lay over hers. She felt the weight of him holding her down and didn't mind at all.
"There. That's better." Val smiled at her. "Isn't it?"
She gave a nervous laugh. "I think so."
Val laughed, but it was reassuring, not mocking. "Oh, Halley. You really do need to relax." To help her along, he stroked her side. His hand moved under her shirt, from just under breasts to her waist. "How's that?"
"I ... it feels nice." She swallowed and blushed, furious with herself. I'm a grown woman, for heaven's sake! I've done this before! Just not with Val... That, she realized, was the problem. She was willing to believe, at least for the moment, that Val was interested in more than just the one proverbial thing. However, he had quite the amount of experience and she, well, didn't.
"Nice?" Val raised an eyebrow. "I must be slipping."
"No ... it's not ... I mean..." She huffed out a breath. "It's me. I haven't ... I don't..."
Val stilled his hand. "What is it, Halley? You can tell me. I won't laugh, I swear. I won't do anything but listen."
She bit her lip and shifted under him, missing his soft grunt of surprise as her leg brushed against his erection. When she realized what she felt against her leg, she blushed again, then cleared her throat.
"Okay. Look, you've had more than a few lovers, according to what I hear. I haven't."
"All right. So?"
"So ... I don't know. Okay, yes I do. I can't ... compare to them. To the other women you've been with."
His surprise seemed genuine when she met his eyes. "That's what you're worried about? Really?"
"Well ... yes." Having said it, she felt like an idiot.
"Oh, Halley." Val chuckled and pressed his lips to her forehead, and resumed stroking her side. "You've got it wrong. They can't compare to you."
"Really?" She closed her eyes, lulled by the touch of his warm hand against her skin.
"You know ... I know I have a reputation." Val started to drop soft kisses on her face. "But it's really more other people than me. A little flirting, a little joking and next thing you know..." He moved to her neck and she tilted her head to allow him easier access.
"Yes?" She forced the word out of a dry throat.
"People talk, even if there's nothing to talk about, and then the next thing you know, people think I'm the incarnation of Don Juan or something." He nipped at her earlobe and she dug her nails into his arm.
"So your reputation is just ... a figment of someone's imagination?" Halley began to wish that they could hurry things along.
He laughed again and the sound slid over her like his touch; there were more goosebumps. "Well, I can't say there isn't a bit of truth at the root of it, but, Halley." He propped himself up on one arm and traced her cheek with his free hand. "I wouldn't do anything to hurt you. I don't hurt people."