Lori propped her folded umbrella against the wall while she unlocked her apartment door. The rain had been coming down steadily since they left the restaurant. She shook moisture from the umbrella and stepped inside the apartment. It was warm inside and the manufactured aroma of flowers greeted her. Some day she would have real flowers, not the cut flowers that suitors brought, but the kind that grew in well maintained gardens. Apartment life, and even being alone, suited her in many ways, but a flower garden was impossible.
She sighed as she removed her coat. It had been a long time since she had any hope of a permanent relationship with any man, but tonight she saw a glimmer. Carmen and Josh had been fighting about something for the last month. At first she thought it would blow over, but tonight was the first time she had witnessed Josh treating Carmen disrespectfully. Of course, the presence of Katie's brother may have stirred up some jealousy, but there had been other signs that their relationship was in trouble. To be honest, Carmen had never appeared all that romantic toward Josh. Carmen was more of a girly-girl than she wanted to believe, and Josh simply wasn't cut out to be a Romeo. It was frustrating to watch them together, knowing that circumstances, not romance, had made them a couple. If Carmen would look around, she'd see there were other men better suited to her needs. But then, Josh had more than good looks. He wasn't rich, but he was certainly financially secure.
Tonight, though, another man had stepped into the picture, and that had rattled Josh. Alex was handsome in a dashing way, not like the rugged good looks of Josh. Alex had polished manners - and deep pockets. Most important, though, was the way he looked at Carmen. Josh noticed, but Carmen appeared to be oblivious. Carmen was a beautiful woman, but unless Lori missed her guess, it was more than that for Alex.
Lori sighed again and removed her coat, hanging it in the closet. Maybe it was only wishful thinking. Still, it wasn't as though Josh had never given her any reason to hope. A quickening pulse sent warmth to her face at the memory of the time he kissed her. He and Carmen were fussing at each other back then, too. It had happened suddenly, and without intent. They bumped into each other in the kitchen and he grabbed Lori to keep her from falling.
Lori slammed the closet door and headed for the kitchen. "That was almost a year ago. If he was interested, he would have done something by now."
Saturday she slept late and spent the rest of the morning indulging in hot chocolate and a good book. She was fixing a sandwich for lunch when someone pounded on the door. It wasn't a gentle knock, but an insistent call to arms. A look through the peek hole before she opened the door confirmed her suspicion. It was Josh.
He beat the snow from his coat with his Stetson and stomped it from his boots before stepping into the room.
"I thought I'd check and see if you needed anything," he said, his stern gray gaze searching her face.
Lori smiled up at him and shook her head. "I'm fine. Why don't you sit down and have a sandwich with me?"
He tossed his hat on the counter and slid onto a stool, watching as she cut a thick slice of roast beef. "That looks good." He glanced around. "It smells good in here. What is that?"
She pointed at the scent dispenser. "Gardenia."
She placed his sandwich on a saucer and cut it in half. Handing it to him, she smiled. "Coffee?"
He nodded. "Sounds good."
She poured them both a cup of coffee and, placing her sandwich on the counter, took a seat beside him. "So, what's wrong?"
His brows lifted. "What makes you think anything is wrong?"
She smiled again, but didn't answer his question. There was nothing specific, but knowing him since childhood, she could tell.
He wolfed down the sandwich in silence, washing it down with coffee before he finally answered her question.
"He's a cocky little..."
She carefully laid her sandwich on a saucer and gave Josh her full attention. "Alex, I presume?"
He took another sip of coffee and nodded. "Chased me out of her house."
"Carmen's house?" She queried.
He nodded again and frowned. "She's gone daft. You should have seen them, playing in the snow like a couple of kids."
Lori put an elbow on the table and leaned on her hand, keeping her expression bland. "Carmen and Alex?"
Rusty brows crouched over eyes that searched her face for sincerity. "It's not funny."
"Am I laughing?"
"Inside," he said in a gruff voice. He stared at her for a moment before his mouth slipped into a saccharine smile. "At least I'm not boring you."
She placed a hand on his arm, her gaze seeking his. "Never that. I'm glad you feel comfortable enough to discuss your troubles with me."
He patted her hand, his gaze searching hers. "Sometimes I wonder..."
Whether he wondered about his relationship with Carmen or something else, he never clarified. When he spoke again, it was on another subject and it never drifted back to Carmen or Alex.
They talked for over an hour and he finally headed for the door.
"I'd better get back to the ranch. I need to get some hay out into the fields for the cattle."
He paused at the door, gazing down at her, his expression reflective. Finally he put a hand on her waist, drawing her close in a friendly hug. "Thanks for being there for me - again." He gently kissed her forehead and spoke as he turned to the door. "I'll check on you tomorrow."
She smiled as she shut the door behind him. Alex wasn't big enough or strong enough to force Josh to leave Carmen's house. No doubt Josh left because he felt like a third wheel. More important than why he left, though, was where he went after he left Carmen's house. Her smile deepened. There was hope.