Ross waited until the waitress left their table before he asked Maureen, "Are you sure this is okay?"
She gave him a tiny smile. "Company has a pleasant ambiance. Buzz and I can be in the same room without either of us falling apart. Really, Ross. This is okay."
"As long as you're sure."
A slight frown wrinkled her brow. Ross inhaled a quick breath. His tone was petty and she definitely heard it. This wasn't how dinner was supposed to go.
He leaned forward and reached for her hand. "I want tonight to be enjoyable for both of us."
"I can't think of better company," she murmured. She closed her other hand over his. "It's just the two of us."
Ross stiffened. The surge of electricity that went through him upon Maureen's touch was too good. He should have known the night wouldn't be that enjoyable. He leaned back and looked up into the icy glare of his soon to be ex-wife.
"Blake, what are you doing?"
His estranged wife glanced down at the joined hands and replied in a saccharine sweet voice, "Interrupting a romantic dinner for two. Sorry."
"You're far from that," he said.
Maureen gave his hand a brief squeeze. The smile she offered Blake was genuine. "How are you and the children?"
"When you say it like that, I almost believe you care."
"No, Ross," Maureen cut him off and gave Blake her full attention. "I do care. I've always cared about you. I always will."
"You have a funny way of showing it," Blake snapped. "Holding hands with my husband!"
"I haven't been your husband for a very long time," Ross said. He stood and moved to Maureen's side. "Shall we?"
Maureen stood and took Ross' offered hand.
"Go ahead and walk away," Blake said, oblivious to the stares of the dining crowd. "You're good at that."
Ross didn't bother to respond. Blake's unhappiness wasn't new to him. He only hoped it wouldn't spoil the rest of his evening with Maureen.
"You're doing a good job, baby, keep going."
Nikolas paused to give his wife a hard look.
"What?" she asked, all innocence.
His brows drew together into a frown. "I'm washing dishes."
She rolled up the dishtowel and swatted his rear. "And you're wonderful at it. This is my way of letting you know that I appreciate you."
He grunted. "There are better ways of doing that."
"All in due time." She took a clean, dripping plate from him. "Today was full of surprises."
"I have one of my own, but you can go first."
"Thanks." She giggled as he flicked a soap sud in her direction. "Phillip Spaulding invited me to lunch and I accepted."
"Did he?" The muscles in Nikolas' jaw worked. "Did he offer dessert?"
"Mmm," she murmured in a throaty growl, unable to resist teasing him. "And it was delicious, too."
"He wants you," Nikolas stated. He pulled the plug on the drain and squeezed the excess water from the sponge. His knuckles whitened from the effort.
Dawn shook her head. "He's a flirt."
He tossed the deflated sponge onto the counter and turned to her. "I trust you, but I want you to make me a promise."
He pulled her to him. His forehead rested on hers. "You will be careful."
Her mouth brushed his. His lips parted. The kiss deepened. Hours later as they lay side by side, she remembered the second surprise—Stefan's telephone call. As Nikolas shifted their bodies and his mouth nuzzled her neck, she didn't want anything negative to intrude on the moment.
"How difficult would it be for you to join me in Texas?"
"Excuse me?" she asked, momentarily stunned by the question.
"Josh has asked me to accompany him to the Lewis homestead in Texas. My first visit to a Texas oil field. I'd like for you to join me."
"Because of Philip?" she asked.
Nikolas chuckled. His brown eyes lit up with mischief. He slid his hand down to her side. "No, because I can't imagine being apart from you, and I love your laugh."
His fingertips caressed her side in rapid strokes. "The Tickle Monster needs his tickle toy," he confessed, grinning as peals of laughter exploded from her.
"Mercy!" she screamed in defense.
"You'll come?" he asked, his fingers poised for another attack.
She grabbed his hand. "I'll try."
"That's all I ask." He smiled and then kissed her.
"That much longer?" Rick complained as he cradled the telephone receiver against his ear. "Maybe I should come in to help."
"We have it covered," Mel said. "I just want you to know why I'll be a little later than expected."
"First you miss lunch and now this. I'm beginning to get worried."
Mel's laughter sent a ripple down his spine. Rick smiled. "Who is this guy anyway?"
"He arrived with no identification, bruises and lacerations on his face, and since he hasn't regained consciousness… His last episode was rather intense. We're glad that he's still holding his own," she said. "The ID can come later."
Rick swallowed hard. He wished he was there with her. "I understand. I'll be thinking about you."
"I know. Give Jude a kiss for me."
"What about me?" He pouted even though she couldn't see him.
"You get ten kisses. I'll see you as soon as I can."
"Okay," he said. Their call ended and a coughing fit immediately seized him. He stumbled to the kitchen and poured a glass of water. The cool liquid eased down his throat. The hacking cough subsided. Rick clutched the counter for support. He could hardly believe how weak he'd become.
"Rick?" Maureen called out. "I heard you outside. What are you doing up?"
"I'm fine, Mo." He turned to face her. His mouth twisted into what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Really."
"You're really lying." She tossed her purse and coat onto the kitchen table as she rushed to him. Her palm pressed against his forehead. "You look like a ghost and your skin is clammy. Come with me."
She took his hand and led him to sofa in the den. Pillows and blankets were already arranged and she promptly pushed him down onto them.
"It's either this or a trip to Cedars."
Rick didn't hesitate. He sat and pulled the blanket around him. "There. I'm cooperating."
She smirked. "For once."
He let that slide. Stifling a cough, he pressed his hand to his chest. "You're home early," he croaked after a moment. "What happened with your date? Do I need to give Ross pointers?"
She shrugged. Her lips curved into a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "Ross doesn't need any help. We had an unexpected visitor."
"Who?" Rick frowned. "Buzz?"
She chuckled once. "No. He's okay with how things ended. It seems that Blake isn't okay… She has a right to be upset. The divorce isn't final…"
He sat up straight. His gaze bore into Maureen's expressive eyes. "What happened?"
"She showed up. I've known her all her life and to see that look in her eyes, directed at me." Maureen shuddered. "Ross and I are friends. The potential for something more is there, but maybe this isn't the right time."
A cough bubbled inside Rick's chest. He pressed his fist to his chest. Now wasn't the time. He took a slow breath and then asked, "What does Ross say?"
"He's moving on."
"Good. Listen to him."
The cough returned. This time, Rick couldn’t fight it. His body shook from the intensity of the fit. He tried to catch his breath. Suddenly, the world closed around him and he fell into darkness.