A shiver snaked its way down her spine. The temperature in the rink was frigid. If she didn’t want to turn into an ice statue, she’d have to get moving. The song on the radio ended. A more familiar tune wafted on the air, making her feel less out of sorts. “I see. Well, maybe we should have invited Melissa along today. I could use a lesson or two.”
“Then I’m the man you’re looking for,” an amused masculine voice said from behind her. “Skating lessons are my specialty.”
Oh no. Not him again. Not now. Am I being punished for something specific, Lord, or are you just playing with me for the fun of it?
“Thanks for calling, Sport. I see what you mean. We’ve got a real rookie on our hands. White knuckles and all.”
Emily whipped her head around. “Robbie called you?”
Eric studied her face before answering, as if gauging her mood. “I gave him my number when we were at Paisan’s. Told him to keep in touch.”
Robbie had had the man’s phone number all this time and not said a word? Emily wanted to cry. She no longer knew her son at all.
Eric misunderstood her upset. “Hey, it’s not so bad. Just give me your hands and—”
She yanked them out of his reach, not caring if she fell. “No! Don’t you understand? Either of you? I don’t want to skate with you. I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
The flash of hurt in his eyes made her look away, only to find a matching hurt in Robbie’s face. Emily felt ashamed of herself, and embarrassed for all of them. What was it about this man that brought out the worst in her?
“Just once, Emily,” Eric said quietly. “Just once around the rink. If you don’t like it, we can stop. And if you do, as soon as you’re able to skate alone, I’ll leave you to it. It shouldn’t take long. Fair enough?”
Still too embarrassed to meet his eyes, she looked at his chest. He wore a black turtleneck beneath an open hip-length parka, and looked as big and tall as a mountain. Nobody, but nobody was going to skate over him. The thought was reassuring.
She lifted her head, and met his eyes beneath the brim of his black baseball cap. He hadn’t shaved in at least a day or two, and looked a little scruffy, but she understood he was trying not to be recognized again. Suddenly she appreciated his making the trip out here, risking the exposure, to help her out.
“All right. And I’m sorry for...for overreacting. I’m nervous about...” she nodded in the direction of the speeding skaters. “...all of this.”
Eric’s expression gentled in understanding as he held out his hands. “Don’t be. You can handle anything.”
With a dry, disbelieving look, she laid her hands in his. He squeezed them reassuringly and a comforting warmth seeped into her limbs.
“That’s it, Mom. You’ll be all right now. Eric won’t let you fall.”
“He’s got that right,” Eric said, his dark brown eyes not leaving hers.
Emily suddenly wished she was tall, blonde, graceful and on the other side of thirty, like Miranda Manzelrod. Or at least that she’d put on makeup and worn something other than her oldest jeans and a washed out green sweater beneath an equally worn parka. But she’d planned on falling a lot, so...
Self-consciously she looked down at her scuffed rental skates. “What do I do first?”
Eric’s hand slid up to encircle her wrists beneath her parka sleeves. “Just relax and let me lead the way, okay?”
She took a deep breath to calm her sudden attack of butterflies. His skin was so warm against hers, his touch so sure and self-confident. “I’ll try.”
Eric told Robbie to stay close to the edge of the rink, and started skating backward, gently pulling Emily with him. She let him tow her along, watching her feet slide rigidly across the ice, feeling like a barge behind a tugboat. Whenever she faltered, Eric’s fingers tightened on her wrists, setting off little fires along her nerve endings. She didn’t pull away, though. She couldn’t afford to without falling flat on her face.
Instead she concentrated on his murmured instructions. With words alone he coaxed the stiffness from her muscles. She’d begun to think she had a handle on this skating business, when Eric eased them to a stop.
She looked up at him in surprise. “What?”
“We’ve finished our lap.”
Already? She looked around and saw they were indeed at their point of departure. Robbie was practicing figure eights in the area at the end of the rink set aside for beginners and small children, safely out of the flow of traffic.
“Want to give it another shot?”
She met the hopeful look in his eyes and couldn’t help but wonder if he was talking about more than skating. “If you don’t mind moving at a snail’s pace,” she said quietly.
His eyes darkened, and then he smiled, a slow, soft smile that made her feel deliciously special. “For you, anything.”
Before she knew it, they were moving again. Around and around they coasted, Eric skating backwards, Emily feeling more secure with each lap. It seemed her earlier assumption had been on target. Eric’s size was a major deterrent to those who rode roughshod over the less skilled. Even when he eased her into the mainstream of traffic no one came near them. As skaters sped by on either side of them, she looked up at him and grinned.
“I think I’ve got it!” She hit a rut in the ice and stumbled. Without missing a beat, Eric caught her. Before she could blink, he’d flipped her around so that both of them were facing forward. “What are you—?”
“Relax. I won’t hurt you. Now just follow my lead. One step at a time.”
He nudged her forward, right arm around her waist, left hand holding hers. Emily had no choice but to relax or be run over. Forcing herself to ignore the feeling of being surrounded by him, she concentrated on his steady, “Left, right, left, right.”
Soon they were moving in tandem to the music of Faith Hill. Emily felt a chill on her back as Eric gently released her.
She started skating alone without realizing it.
“You’re doing it, Mom! You’re skating!” Robbie shouted in glee as she glided past the practice area.
She looked at him over her shoulder, and tripped. The next thing she knew, Eric and his magnificent reflexes had scooped her into his arms and was skating over to where Robbie waited, near to bursting with excitement. Wrapping an arm around Eric’s parka-padded shoulders, Emily laughed in relief...and pure giddiness. Being swept off her feet by the man was heady stuff indeed.
“Not too shabby for a first-timer,” Eric said with a grin, and set her down next to Robbie.
Damn, but she looked good, he thought, giving Emily’s shoulders a light hug before he released her. Felt good, too. She smiled up at him, and the unexpected warmth of it nearly knocked him flat. With her dancing green eyes and silky auburn hair swept up in a loose topknot instead of her usual no-nonsense bun, she looked relaxed, approachable. Kissable.
He cleared his throat and tried to clear his mind. The idea of kissing Emily Jordan was a little too much to handle right now. “Now we need to work on a few technical points, and you’ll be all set.”
For the next ten minutes he drilled her on stops and starts. He loved how her little pink tongue curled out over her upper lip when she concentrated. He also couldn’t decide which he enjoyed more, watching her skate away from him, catching tantalizing glimpses of the bottom half of her sweetly curved backside beneath her hip-length parka, or watching her return. Either way, her balance and coordination were exceptional.
Finally he pronounced her ready to skate solo, and with a determinedly casual arm around her shoulders, turned her toward the flow of circling skaters. “Now get out there and show us your stuff,” he ordered, and dropped his hand to the small of her back to nudge her forward.
“Oh, no. I couldn’t.” She looked up at him over her shoulder, her green eyes wide with trepidation. A boisterous group of skaters swept by and she backed up, her shoulders bumping his chest. A thrill shot straight to Eric’s heart. Whether she realized it or not, Emily Jordan was warming up to him.
“You just did,” he pointed out softly.