âEllie,â Manny said.
âYeah, you know.â Manny toyed with another cigarette, but didnât light it. âLike compelled to be around her?â
Mark glanced from side to side. Is this guy for real? âI donât know if Iâd use that word exactly,â Mark said slowly, âbut she does seem to have an effect on me.â
Mannyâs sandy eyebrows shot up and he leaned back, nodding and contemplating. Mark glanced toward the hall. âEllie?â he called, standing.
To his relief, she appeared with a huge canvas bag over her shoulder. A floppy denim hat nearly hid her cropped wavy hair and made her appear even younger. She smiled and shaved off another couple of years.
âJust how old are you?â he asked.
âTwenty-nine,â she said cheerfully. âDid I go overboard?â she asked, looking down at her outfit. Silver earrings brushed the tops of her shoulders. âYour mom will hate it, wonât she?â Concern pulled down the corners of her eyes and mouth.
Mark grinned. âYes.â
Ellie grinned, too. âThen letâs go.â She leaned forward to study his face, undoubtedly red from the sneezing. âSorry about Esmerelda. Sheâs a hairy thing, isnât she?â
He waved off the incident and reached for her bulging bag, then playfully buckled under its weight. âLet me guessâyou brought books to read, didnât you?â
Ellie laughed. âNo, just a few necessities for a picnic.â She picked up a small bottle from the kitchen counter, shook two pink tablets into her palm and filled a glass with water from the tap.
âHeadache?â Mark asked, suddenly concerned.
âHmm?â Ellie asked. Apprehension crossed her face, then disappeared. âThese are just, um...vitamins.â She stuck the bottle into the weighted canvas bag. âI have to take them throughout the day,â she explained. âWoman stuff,â she added in a whisper.
Mark had figured as much and nodded curtly, and he hoped, sympathetically.
When Ellie pulled a huge chocolate layer cake from the fridge, he shot her a questioning look. The last thing he needed was for his mom to think heâd snared a domestic dream.
âWell, I canât go completely empty-handed,â she said defensively,
âOkay,â Mark relented. âBut itâd better not taste too good.â For a few seconds, he experienced misgivings. What if she did hit it off with his family? If they pestered him to bring her around again, his plan would backfire in his face.
âSo TELL ME, what kind of woman does your mother expect you to marry?â Ellie hoped setting the stage for her performance would soothe her jangled nerves.
Mark pursed his lips and glanced back at the road in front of him. He looked relaxed and athletic in his casual clothes. The muscles in his legs bunched when he shifted gears, sending shocks of awareness through Ellieâs body.
âSomeone demure and domestic, I suppose. Like her.â He smiled wryly. âShe thinks I need someone to be a hostess in my home and help me entertain to further my career.â
âAnd you donât?â she asked.
âNo,â he said flatly.
âWhy not?â she persisted.
He sighed. âBecause Iâve seen too many of my friends get rooked into marriage only to find themselves digging out from under a divorce settlement within a couple of years. I worked my tail off to get where I am. I have no intention of starting over.â
Ellie sat still, heat burning her neck and cheeks. Mark was convinced that women were fortune seekers. And sheâd given him ammunition by lowering his bank account by more than four hundred dollars since sheâd met him a week ago. âSo,â she said, trying to cover her embarrassment, âyouâve never been married?â
âNope.â Then he shot her a worried