Sure, it was only four or five inches of snow, and he bet Miranda was up to shoveling it, but he wanted to make something easier for her. She hadn’t said much about her personal life over wine and virtual space missions, but he’d listened to what she hadn’t said as much as what she had.
Definitely divorced. Confirmed by the way she rubbed at the empty groove on her left ring finger when she was thinking. The ex sounded like any number of successful corporate douchebags he knew; the guy kind of had to be, for letting a woman like that walk out of his life. Or worse, leaving her behind.
He thought her wheat-colored hair would float around her shoulders if she pulled it out of her sensible low ponytail. She had wise eyes and a quick smile, both of which betrayed hints of anxiety and weariness, the kind he understood all too well.
She loved her son and the cat, despite her charmingly foul-mouth when it came to Marvin’s antics. She knew books and picked things up quickly. By the time she’d left, she had a more than rudimentary understanding of the entire Spectre Armada franchise, never mind the Armageddon Impact game itself.
She looked equally great in old yoga clothes and a puffy winter jacket and jeans.
He’d done all the sidewalks, traveling counter-clockwise around the neighborhood until he got to her driveway, thinking the whole time that it was nice to share a glass of wine with a woman who didn’t automatically dismiss his hobby as infantile, even if she was doing it to improve her relationship with a seventh grader. By the time he finished her driveway, he was trying to figure out ways to make it happen again.
Next time, he’d shave, put on a clean shirt, ask her if she was into childless, middle-aged divorced guys and making out.
In your dreams, Pearson. Your neighbor is as far out of your league as Captain Jex to an ensign aboard the Arcadia. And you’re a giant dork who should find out what he inside of a gym looks like.
Miranda’s garage door creaked and groaned, riding up its tracks to reveal the woman herself. She’d traded the puffy coat for a knit sweater that looked like a blanket with sleeves; she was holding two steaming mugs, one red and one green.
Justin took out his earbuds, letting them dangle while he cut the engine. “Almost done here.”
“Got time for a hot chocolate break?” She sipped from the green mug. “Or is that lame?”
“Always have time for cocoa.” He took the red mug from her. “Marshmallows? Score.”
Miranda bit her lower lip. “I always feel a little silly, but I love them. Elliot likes whipped cream, from a can.”
Justin met her gaze through the steam. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“It’s fine, but–“ she blew over the top of her cocoa, “I like the real stuff better.”
“But, instant gratification,” he pointed out.
“It’s hardly difficult, but so worth the wait.”
Were they even talking about food anymore? His head was spinning. Change the topic before you embarrass yourself!
“I have to ask. Your accent, where are you from?”
She sighed, but her smile reached her eyes. “Diplomatic brat. We lived in Denmark for six years when I was a child, then we lived in Singapore for a few years. My mom ended her government career and took a job at a TV production company in Vancouver, which is where we were living when I graduated from high school. My father is British. She married him while living there.” She paused, searching his face and apparently seeing the question he was about to ask, because she answered it. “I was actually born in Boston. She insisted we all be born in the U.S. During her third trimester with my brother and sister, she packed me up and flew home. My dad was working in Singapore and had to stay until she delivered the twins.”
Justin sucked a marshmallow from the top of his hot chocolate. “Wow.”
“I know. So, it’s an everywhere and nowhere mishmash of what my ear picked up when I was young. I always think I do such a good job at regular American.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m not offended. In fact, I only do that––play it down––because Mike wanted me to. He didn’t like people paying attention to my exotic accent when he wanted to have the spotlight.” Her brows knit, as though she were puzzling that out for the first time.
“Exotic?” He laughed. “More like classy, mysterious, I don’t know…like Katherine Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor in an old movie.”
She blinked and a hint of a blush rose on her cheeks. “You’re flattering me.”
“Is it working?”
“That depends.” She held the mug in two hands, though if it was as cool has his, she wasn’t getting any warmth there. “Are you going to ask me for help stringing your lights for the festival? Because no amount of flattery will convince me to get up on a ladder.”
“I don’t decorate.” He hadn’t meant to shut her down; the short reply slipped out before he had time to soften it. “My dad used to do it for my mom, but I––“
“I understand.” She held out a hand. “Are you finished with that?”
He was, but he didn’t want the conversation to be over. He wanted to make it up to her. “Yeah. Thanks. It was delicious.”
She took the mug. “You’re welcome.”
Justin turned back to the snowblower, but it occurred to him she might had been fishing for help with her own lights. “Hey, if you need help with yours, you know where to find me.”
She shrugged, but missed the mark for nonchalance. “A big lights display isn’t in the cards for me. I sunk everything into the Quail Ridge address.”
He didn’t like the sadness––the weariness he’d heard the night before––that crept into that vintage film star voice. “Use mine.”
“What? No.” She shook her head as though he’d proposed she amputate a limb. “I couldn’t possibly––“
“You said that about the snow removal.” He put a hand on the snowblower’s handle. “Seriously, they’re yours. I’ll even come over with a ladder. Tomorrow?” That was time enough to shave and wash some decent looking clothes.
“I can’t tomorrow. I’m spending the day with my sister before I pick Elliot up at Mike and Sharli’s.”
“No problem.” He hid his disappointment with a––hopefully charming, not goofy––grin. “You know where to find me.”