CHAPTER 7

Lucio had not meant to take a meal with the Garrisons. He had not even known that Ginger’s sons would be at her house that evening. Stupid of him! He knew nothing of the woman and her life, so he’d walked right into the middle of a cozy family evening. It was the last thing he’d expected, and the last thing he’d wanted. But his intentions no longer mattered. He’d ended up sharing a feast with the family, and now everything was far more complicated.

Lucio had long ago perfected the ability to manage garden-variety lust. It was simple, really. He just had to remain detached emotionally while hooking up physically. It required balance. Lucio would give the woman enough of himself that he wouldn’t seem distant, and accept a large enough portion of the woman’s affection so that she would feel needed. But no gifts. No promises for the future. No I love yous. Certainly no meals with the woman’s family.

And up until that evening, that was all Lucio had had with Ginger Garrisonlust. Granted, it was an unusually strong kind of lust. It was a lust so forceful it made his thoughts fuzzy and his blood hotbut, at its core, it had been only lust.

Until now.

Lucio had enjoyed himself thoroughly. He liked the Garrison twins more than he would have anticipated. They were spoiled American boys, yes, but they were smart and funny and interested in the bigger world. Lucio could work with that.

The meal was delicious. The home was comfortable and gracious. He’d laughed more that night than he had in many months. He enjoyed the way the little spoiled dog felt curled up on his lap.

And oh, how he liked sitting next to Ginger.

So it pained him to know what she was thinking. At some point during the meal, Ginger had decided his interest in her was only financial. He’d seen the realization hit her, taking the light right out of her eyes. She believed he was after her money to help repay the stolen funds and that anything else they’d shared was a ruse.

The thought was so wrong it was funny, but Lucio now had to decide if he wished to correct the misunderstanding. That was his problem, and it was a big one.

Lucio glanced to his side, just to watch Ginger walk. She created a pretty profilea straight, small nose, a delicate chin, and lovely full lips. Her skin was much paler than his own, but tinged with a warm undertone and a few scattered freckles, especially on her chest. Ginger was long and lean and curvy in precisely the right places. She was a graceful woman.

He took a moment to really think this through: If Ginger thought he was only after her money, then she would hold him at arm’s length. She would pay him his fee and might give him the names of potential clients and then leave it at that. And that’s what he wanted, yes? He wanted to sort out his professional difficulties and resume his life. He was itching to get out of San Francisco and back on the road, yes?

Lucio peeked down at where Ginger’s hand had slipped into his. Her fingers were long and elegant, like the rest of her. Like her arms. Her neck. Her’

What are you thinking about, Lucio? Her question jarred him from his private inventory.

I am sorry, senora. You’ll have to forgive me, but I am not like many men.

She chuckled. No kidding.

He squeezed her hand and smiled. What I mean is that I experience everything through my eyes. I understand my world by the light, the line, the composition and form. I was admiring how all those elements come together in you. It is pure pleasure to look at you. That’s what I was thinking.

Her cheeks flushed. Their eyes locked. And suddenly, Lucio realized the woman at his side was nearly as tall as he was, that he could hold his head high and be looking directly into her eyes. He smiled.

What are you, about one hundred eighty-two centimeters? he asked.

Ginger’s head snapped back. She looked offended. What?

Your height. How tall are you?

Oh. She relaxed a little. I’m pretty tall. About five ten without shoes, but I have no idea what the metric conversion is for that.

Lucio grinned, suddenly understanding what had made her uncomfortable. You thought I had asked about your weight?

Ginger shrugged.

Bonita, whatever your weight is, it is perfect. Your height is perfect. Your body and face are perfect. Your hair is perfect.

She looked askance at him. Uh-huh.

He laughed. Inexplicably, Ginger seemed uncomfortable with this line of conversation. It made no sense. How could a woman as exquisite as Ginger Garrison not want a man to admire her? In Lucio’s experience, beautiful women of every culture couldn’t get enough of that, unless, of course, they didn’t believe it themselves.

That could not be the case with Ginger, Lucio decided. It would be ridiculous.

You know you are a stunning woman, yes? He asked this politely, without accusation. He wanted to see how she’d react. But she said nothing. Ginger?

She turned to him, a big smile on her face. I love the way you just said that.

Said what?

My name! She laughed. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say it before, because you’re always calling me senora or guava or peliglobo or something.

It was Lucio’s turn to laugh. Pelirroja. It means redheaded. And it’s guapa, which means ‘lovely lady,’ the same as bonita.

Oh.

But what is so funny about how I say ‘Ginger’?

She laughed again. Your accent makes it sound like ‘Jeen-jair,’ is all. It’s actually kind of cute.

Lucio frowned, not certain he liked the idea of sounding cute. He had never once aspired to be cute.

My real name would probably be easier for you to pronounce, she suggested.

Lucio shook his head in confusion. Ginger is not your real name?

No. Ginger is the same as ‘Lucky’ is for you. It’s my nickname. My given name is Genevieve.

Lucio stopped walking. They had strolled from the back patio down a flagstone walkway into what the Americans called the yard, but he could not move another inch. He was astounded by that nameit suited her perfectly. So sensual. So regal.

Genevieve, he said.

Yes. She tilted her head and smiled. Now that sounds very nice rolling off your tongue.

Lucio took a quick glance toward the house, trying to determine which windows might correspond with which rooms. He saw no youthful male faces pressed to the glass and decided he would risk it. He had no choice. He had to kiss her.

Lucio grabbed that beautiful, warm face in his hands and covered that mouth with his.

He gave himself wholly to the kiss and to the earnestness of her response. It was then that Lucio decided he might as well admit it to himselfthere was something incredibly special about Genevieve Garrison. She fit him. She made him hum inside. She lit a fire in him the likes of which he’d never before experienced. He wanted to pull her so close and tight that there would be no space between them. He wanted to say her name over and over.

Genevieve, he whispered, dragging his kisses over her nose and cheeks and chin. Genevieve, Genevieve, mi corazon. When he kissed her throat she gasped.

I don’t know what is happening to me, Lucio, she whimpered. What is this? Tell me what this is.

Lucio laughed, still planting kisses all over her face, in her hair. Truly, I do not know. But it is something very powerful. He kept kissing. I think we should pay attention to it.

Me, too. She reached up behind his back and pulled his mouth to hers again. Kiss me again.

Wait. Stop. Un momento. Lucio grabbed her by the shoulders and steadied her in front of him. I need to tell you something before we go any further.

Genevieve’s face fell. All the pleasure he’d seen there only seconds before had vanished. He did not even give her time to ask.

No, no, no. Lucio shook his head, knowing what critical bit of information she sought. I was married once, for three weeks, when I was still a boy. I have never been married since.

One of Genevieve’s carefully groomed eyebrows arched high above a hazel eye. All right. So you were going to tell me you’re leaving the country next week.

He laughed. Impossible.

Genevieve nodded slowly, as if further discussion were unnecessary. Okay. So you want me to understand that if you weren’t in trouble, you wouldn’t even be here. Is that right?

Lucio said nothing.

You wouldn’t be in San Francisco unless you absolutely had to be. You wouldn’t have been at Rick and Josie’s wedding. Or at my house tonight. I would never have met you if you hadn’t had all those problems with the magazine.

What you say is likely true.

Ginger chuckled bitterly, raking her fingers through her thick red hair. Great. So you want me to understand that you’ll take as many pet portraits as necessary to get your money, and then you’ll be on your way.

He blinked.

Ha! That’s it, isn’t it? Genevieve pulled away from Lucio and crossed her arms protectively under her breasts. Whenever she did that it only caused Lucio’s blood to boil further. What was he going to do with this woman, with everything he was feeling? How could starting a relationship with her possibly be good for anyone?

You got me, Genevieve. Lucio smiled. That was my initial plan.

She lowered her eyes to the ground.

But no longer. Lucio tapped his fingertip against the underside of her chin, lifting her gaze to his. I’ve changed my mind, guapa.

Why?

Because of you. Because of how I feel whenever I see you. I cannot control myself. That is unusual for me.

Genevieve laughed. It’s unusual for me, too.

But you feel it, yes? You feel something very strong between us, yes?

Yes, she whispered.

Then we need to have a new plan. Lucio reached for her hand again, guiding her back toward the house. I will court you, yes? I know this is not Spain. I know I’ve never before cared about going about things the right way. I know you’re a grown woman in her thirties. But I would still like to ask your father for permission to court you. How might I reach him?

Genevieve froze. She swallowed hard. My father passed away a few years ago, she said quietly.

I am so sorry, mi amor, Lucio said. Your mother?

Genevieve frowned. Oh, boy.

What?

My mother lives in Los Angeles, but trust me, she’d be thrilled that I was dating you. She might even try to steal you from me. Oddly, Genevieve began the strange tapping of her fingers against her brow again. He had seen her do this several times, and it baffled him.

Something is wrong. What is it?

What? She looked surprised, but continued to pat her face. Nothing’s wrong. Why do you say that?

Because of this tap-tap-tap you do on your face. Lucio mimicked her by patting his own forehead rapidly. Is it a nervous tic of some sort? A disorder?

Genevieve’s hand fell to her side, her eyes locked on him but revealing nothing. Just a second ago you said I was a woman in my thirties.

Lucio shrugged. I am thirty-nine, myself, bonita. I was just guessing. You are obviously younger than me.

Again, her eyes revealed nothing. Her mouth was set firmly. Eventually she spoke. Exactly how old do you think I am? Genevieve waited for an answer, but by then, Lucio had realized he’d stumbled into the bramble bushes of the female ego. He decided it would be best to step away before he was scratched bloody.

It does not matter, Genevieve.

I’d like a number, she said.

Lucio laughed. Why in heaven do you need a number? It isn’t important, guapa! What are you afraid of?

She said nothing, but her eyes narrowed ever so slightly.

Ah. I see, Lucio said with a nod. You do not wish me to know that you were a very young mother. He shrugged. This is not a problem for me. All of us make mistakes when we are teenagers. I certainly did. There is nothing to be embarrassed about.

With that, Genevieve began walking againmarching, reallyright up to the back patio door. As much as Lucio enjoyed watching Senora Garrison from behind, this was not the time to let her get away.

Genevieve! He ran to her side and grabbed her arm. Stop! What is wrong?

She turned to him then, her face twisted in sadness and streaked with tears. That familiar pang hit his heart. This grown woman had a child’s sensitivity, a vulnerability he had yet to comprehend. He’d sensed that he’d need to proceed gently with her, but until that very moment, he hadn’t appreciated how delicate an assignment it would be.

Just then, Lucio knew that when it came to Genevieve Garrison, he would need every bit of the expertise he’d amassed in twenty years of travel to unknown lands. It would take a sharp mind, a facility for diplomacy, patience, skill, and a sense of adventure.

I am forty freakin’ years old, she said in a tense whisper. I am older than you, Lucio. I am going through menopause. Very soon now, things are going to start falling and stop working. I’m going to need a face-lift and an eye job and Botox injections. You should probably leave before it all goes to hell.

Lucio’s lower jaw fell, leaving his mouth gaping open. So this was what the tap-tap-tap was about! This was why she was uncomfortable with compliments! It was shocking. But

She didn’t let him continue. Forget it. You thought I was in my thirties. You were attracted to a woman you thought was still in her thirties.

I am attracted to younot your age. He said it simply, with no hint of reprimand. He only wanted her to believe him.

Genevieve closed her eyes.

Who could have put these ideas in her head? he wondered. It was a tragedy! What kind of monster could have convinced this magnificent woman that she needed to go under the surgeon’s blade? Who the devil could have done her such a disservice?

GINGER!

Lucio watched her eyes fly open. Oh, hell, she whispered.

The booming male voice echoed from the front of the house, followed by a door slam. Lucio heard the boys’ voices grow louder as they came toward the kitchen.

I need a moment to deal with this. Would you mind very much waiting out here on the patio?

Of course, Lucio said. I will be right here if you need me.

Thanks. With that, Genevieve turned, stomped across the patio, and flung open the French doors. Lucio took a seat in one of the outdoor dining chairs, and turned it so that he had a clear view of the kitchen interior reflected in the half-open door.

Hello, Larry, he heard Genevieve say.

Clearly, the tall blond man was Genevieve’s ex-husband and the father of her boys. Obviously, this was none of Lucio’s affair, but he decided to observe, just as a precaution. The man had raised his voice, after all.

You just don’t know where to stop, do you? the ex-husband said, pointing to Genevieve. This is an outrage!

She reached for her boys, who stared at their father in fascination. Go to your rooms, guys. I’ll deal with your dad.

Hell no! Larry shouted. I want them to stay put so they can hear about how low you’ve stooped, Ginger. They have a right to know about their mother’s deranged kleptomania!

Nothing. That was what Lucio heard nexta whole lot of nothing.

Have you completely lost it, Larry? Ginger eventually asked. You just barged into my home like a psycho and scared the hell out of everybody! Whatever your issue is with me, I’m happy to talk with you about it, but this is

You’re just never satisfied, are you? Larry asked, interrupting her. The alimony wasn’t enough. The house wasn’t enough! The money I set aside for the boys’ education wasn’t enough. The fact that I pay their health insurance wasn’t enough! So you demand more and more and more and get your lawyer on my ass! And now, this! This this travesty!

I think you should go, Dad, Joshua said, taking a step closer to Larry.

I’ll walk you to your car, Jason said, reaching for his father’s arm.

With a wild swing, Larry pulled it away from his grasp. Get your hands off me!

With that, Lucio realized the father was drunk. He jumped out of the chair and was headed to the kitchen where he planned to knock the fool silly and drag his ass into the street. Genevieve beat him to it, however.

Crack! The sound of her palm against Larry’s face put an end to the man’s idiotic ranting. Lucio knew from experience that her smack stung like the devil. He stepped to the side of the doorway, out of sight.

Get out, Larry, Genevieve said between clenched teeth.

You took my beans. The ex-husband straightened his shoulders when he said that, and sniffed in defiance. You entered my house illegally and stole my canned goods.

Lucio watched Genevieve turn to her boys. The mother and sons stared at one another in silence, as if confirming that they’d all heard the same bizarre statement.

What are you talking about, Dad? Jason eventually asked.

I am talking about the fact that your motherwhom I continue to support out of the kindness of my heart and to my own detrimenthad the nerve to break into my home at some point during the day and steal two cans of refried beans.

Lucio almost laughed. There was something very odd about this conversation, but who was he to judge? It reminded him of when he was on assignment photographing the puberty rites of the Baniva people of the Orinoco River Valley. He hadn’t understood their elaborate ritual, nor did he approve of it, but that didn’t make it wrong. In the case of the Garrison tribe, Lucio knew nothing about the ex-husband, or his mental history, or his relationship with his ex-wife. As long as it didn’t turn abusive, he had no right to interfere. But the fact remained that it was quite entertaining.

Excuse me? Genevieve seemed shocked by the accusation.

You deny it? Larry staggered around a bit, dipping his hand into his front pocket. For an instant, Lucio feared he was reaching for a weapon and prepared to rush inside to tackle the man, but Larry pulled out a set of keys. They looked familiar.

I found your keys on my kitchen counter, Ginger. The pantry door was left open. I did an inventory. I am missing two cans of Annie’s Organic Kitchen refried beans. With that, Larry jangled the keys in her face for effect. Give me back my beans or I’m calling the police.

Lucio watched as Genevieve slowly turned to Joshua. Her son shrugged, looking guilty.

I thought you went to the corner market for those beans, Josh, she said.

Uh, no. I went over to Dad’s. It’s closer.

Genevieve rolled her eyes.

That’s sick, Larry said. You would actually send your child to do your dirty work? Incredible! Beyond the pale!

Genevieve grabbed her keys from Larry’s hand. Jason, get my purse. Joshua, get the cans out of the recycle bin and bring them to me. Now.

The boys did as she directed, scurrying off in opposite directions. While they were gone, Genevieve stood firmly in front of Larry and shook her head in disgust. You’re a mess, Larry.

She left me, he mumbled, rubbing his hands through his mussed-up hair. She was so young and so beautiful! She was so fun! So incredibly, unbelievably young! He scowled when he realized he’d repeated himself. I guess I was good enough to go to Maui with but not good enough to date once we got back to town! It’s so unfair!

Gee, sorry to hear all that. Genevieve grabbed her purse from Jason as he ran up, holding it out to her. Joshua returned with the cans. What is the price on each of those cans? she asked him.

Joshua studied the labels. Looks like one dollar and ninety-five cents each, he said.

Genevieve opened her wallet and pulled out a five-dollar bill, which she folded and stuck into Larry’s front pants pocket. He looked confused.

That will cover the cost of the beans with a little extra for your mental anguish. Then she grabbed the cans from Joshua and shoved them at her ex-husband. Here you go. I wouldn’t want to deprive you of your recycling refund.

Lucio lost his battle. He snickered. He could not help it. The dialogue was funnier than any BBC farce he’d ever seen.

Who the fuck is that? Larry pointed a can out toward the patio. Who’s out there?

Lucio stepped forward, then moved inside the doorway to stand next to Genevieve and the boys. Hello, Senor Garrison. My name is Lucio Montevez. I am a photographer here to take a portrait of Genevieve and her dog.

Larry scrunched up his nose and mouth, obviously having trouble processing the information Lucio had just shared. Huh? Larry asked. Did you just call her Genevieve? What the fu’?

Let’s go, Dad, Jason said, turning his father around so that he faced the hallway that would lead to the foyer and front door. Lucio said I could work as his photographer’s assistant. Isn’t that cool?

Larry spun out of his son’s grip, then lurched toward Lucio. You have no right to be in my home, he said, waving around one of the cans. I didn’t build this place from the ground up so that some greasy Italian pretty boy could come in here and put his hands on my wife and take pictures of my dog and pretend to be some kind of fucking mentor to my boys! They don’t need a father figure! They have me!

Of course, Lucio said.

Larry was not done. That’s my dog you’re talking about, Fabio! My wife! My boys! My house! His face became flushed. Just who the hell do you think you are? You’ll never fit into Larry Garrison’s shoes!

Joshua went to his father’s other side. Together, the teenagers dragged him down the hall to the door. Larry, however, wanted one last word, and managed to swivel free again. He straightened an arm and glared down the barrel of the empty can pointed directly at Lucio. I’ve never trusted Italians, he said.

I have always felt fortunate to be a Spaniard, Lucio said.

Same thing, Larry said.

At that instant, little HeatherLynn decided to join the party. She toddled up to Larry, stretching out her front paws while raising her rump, then let go with a big, wide yawn.

See? Larry said, nodding toward the dog with pride. She knows I’m her master.

With that, the little doggie sniffed at Larry’s loafer, then squatted, shooting a hard and straight stream of urine directly onto the shoe’s squared leather toe. Then she ran into the sitting room and dove under the sofa.

Larry was in shock. The only sound he made was a high squeak of disbelief as he raised his foot above the puddle. The boys turned him around and led him out the door and down the drive, walking right past a shiny new black Porsche convertible in the driveway. The boys were smart not to let him get behind the wheel.

We’ll be back in a few minutes, Mom! Josh called out.

While they watched the boys navigate their father down the sidewalk, Lucio draped an arm over Genevieve’s shoulder.

She sighed, curling her arm around his waist. Well, you’ve just met my former husband, Dr. Lawrence Hutchins Garrison the Third. He’s the chief of urology at University Hospital.

Lucio nodded. In those shoes, he most certainly is.

She laughed. You know, Larry’s not a horrible guy not all the time, anyway. He was in rare form tonight, and I’m sorry you had to see him like that.

Lucio leaned into Genevieve and hugged her tight to his side. I have seen most of life’s grand spectacle, bonita. I can handle one drunk and disorderly ex-husband.

She looked him square in the eye. Are you sure about that?

I am sure.

What about two wild fifteen-year-old boys? Genevieve asked.

They are good kids. I look forward to getting to know them.

And a badly behaved bichon frise?

She has extremely good aim.

And me? A forty-year-old, jobless, menopausal crone?

Lucio would not laugh at her, no matter how preposterous she sounded. Ridicule was the last thing she needed. So he turned and gathered Genevieve into his arms, pressed her head to his shoulder, and held her tight against him.

Be still, Genevieve, he whispered to her. Lean against me and be still a moment.

Lucio inhaled the sweet fragrance of her hair, smiling to himself. Who, really, had he been advising with those words? Genevieve, or himself? Lucio felt her heart beat against him and her breath against his neck. Could it be that after all the years of adventureall the exotic locations he’d seen and all the people he’d encounteredthat he’d finally found a place where he wanted to be still? All he knew was there had never been a woman who touched his heart the way Genevieve had, or presented a challenge that called to him so clearly.

He could feel the upheaval as it swept through him. The elements of his universe were being jumbled, rearranged. Right at that moment.

Possibly forever.

Of course there would be his work. There would always be his work. He could not imagine a world without the light and the lens. There was his reputation to save, the Erskine Prize to hold in his hands, and money to make. And soon, he would track down whoever had messed with him and get the justice he deserved.

But all those things had just been bumped down in importance, replaced by this beautiful woman with the damaged spirit and two boys on the verge of manhood.

Genevieve’s ex-husband had it so very wrong. Jason and Joshua did need a father figure in their livesone who wasn’t a self-centered buffoon. Genevieve most definitely needed the touch of a man who adored her, the encouragement of a man who believed in her. Perhaps then she’d be able to see her own strength and beauty.

But the last thing Lucio intended to do was step into Larry’s pissed-upon shoes.

He would make his own way.

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