“Where to, Ms. Layne?” the driver asked.
She glanced at Sam. “Where are you headed?”
“Hopefully to dinner with you.”
Ellen looked into Sam’s Paul Newman-blue eyes and made herself face the awful truth. Now that she knew he wasn’t T.S. Harrison, and now that she knew he was a police detective and not some weirdo who hung around airport newsstands, she had to admit that she truly liked him. He was funny and smart and incredibly attractive. She wanted to have dinner with him. She wanted to spend an evening with the intensity of those neon eyes focused on her. She wanted to be just a little bit wild. She wanted to take this lighthearted flirtation one teeny little babystep further.
Nothing heavy. Nothing too intense. Just dinner.
She wanted to.
And she was going to.
So what if he was too young. Age was a state of mind, anyway, wasn’t it? Look at Alma. 89 and going strong.
Still looking into Sam’s eyes, Ellen raised her voice loudly enough to be picked up by the speaker phone. “Head for the West Side, please, Ron,” she said. “We’d like to stop at the Carnegie Deli and pick something up for dinner. And then, if it’s all right with you, we’d like the dollar tour of the city.”
“It would be my pleasure,” Ron said and signed off.
The heat and intensity in Sam’s eyes had grown even stronger at her words. But at the same time, there was a softness that hadn’t been there before. He smiled, a sweet, crooked, utterly charming smile. “Thank you.”
Ellen felt herself blush as she let herself be thoroughly charmed. “Well, we both do have to eat and…”
Sam was looking around the limo as if seeing the luxurious interior for the first time. “Nice car. I don’t suppose the TV has got cable.”
Ellen picked up the telephone. “Hello, Ron? Sam just made the old ‘Does the limo get cable’ joke. How many does that make it? Seven thousand, six hundred and fifty-two times in the past three years that you’ve had this job? Shall we push him out of the car now, or wait until we’re going through the tunnel?”
“Very funny.” Sam took the phone out of her hand, listened to make sure Ron wasn’t really on the other end, then hung it up. He sat there, then, just smiling at her.
Ellen nervously searched for something, anything to talk about. “So…how did you meet T.S. Harrison?”
“I refused to steal his 1969 Mets World Series autographed baseball.”
He grinned. “We were both in fifth grade. Angelo Giglione and Marty Keller — they were seventh graders, and everyone was scared to death of them — they told me that they were going to beat the crap out of me unless I finagled an invitation to Toby Harrison’s house and stole this baseball he had that all the Mets on the ’69 team had signed.”
“Tobias Shavar Harrison. He decided in ninth grade to do the initial thing — it was around the time he grew a foot and a half taller and made the basketball team. But back in fifth grade he was fat Toby H., the weird science nerd.”
Ellen tried not to laugh. “I love the way you talk about your best friend.”
“It’s the truth. T.S. would be the first to admit it.”
“So what happened?”
“So Marty and Angelo knew Toby was my science partner, and that he’d have to invite me over to his house to get the project done. I think we were building a volcano or something. Toby was in charge of making diagrams of tectonic plates, and I was in charge of making the volcano — which was easy, since I’d made a model volcano in the fourth grade and it was still out in my garage. We were both in charge of creating the goo that was supposed to ooze down the sides of the volcano.”
Ellen found herself hanging onto Sam’s every word, like some teenager struck with puppy love. She tried to convince herself that she was interested in the story he was telling, rather than the slightly rough texture of his voice and the way his graceful mouth moved when he spoke. It didn’t take much imagination to picture that mouth moving against her lips, her neck, her…
She forced herself to look away from him, forced herself to pay attention to his story.
“So he invited me over,” Sam continued, “and I went, and we mixed all this horrible looking stuff together in his kitchen, and his mom even helped us figure out what we had to add to vinegar to make the volcano bubble and foam, and we had a pretty good time. He was an okay guy for a nerd, you know? He really knew how to make me laugh.”
It was no use. Ellen couldn’t keep from gazing at him, this time into his eyes. She found herself looking closer, trying to see if maybe he wore colored contact lenses. Nobody could have eyes that blue, could they?
“After we finished up with the volcano,” he told her, “I sort of casually asked to see this incredible baseball that everyone knew he had. He took me up to his bedroom, and took it out of its case and let me hold it. It was so cool. All those signatures. It was worth a lot of money — well, you know, not by grown-up standards, but to a kid… I asked him where he got it, and he told me his dad gave it to him.
“Now, when Toby said that, I knew he was full of crap, because everyone knew his dad died in Vietnam before he was born. But then he showed me this letter that his dad had written to him, telling him that his mom was going to hold this baseball for him until his tenth birthday. See his dad knew he might not come back from ‘Nam, so he wrote this letter for this kid that he would never meet.”
Ellen forgot about the color of Sam’s eyes, totally engrossed in the story he was telling.
Sam smiled at her ruefully. “And so I sat there, looking at all those signatures and the mark of the bat where Wayne Garrett had hit the ball into the stands for a homerun. And I looked at the letter, and I looked at Toby, and I looked at the way he put that baseball back in its special case, and I knew that Angelo Giglione and Marty Keller were just going to have to beat the hell out of me, because there was no way I was going to take that baseball away from this kid. And there was no way I was going to let anyone else take it away, either. I told Toby everything, told him to lock that baseball up and to not trust anyone.”
Ellen had to ask. “Did they? Those boys? Did they beat you up?”
Sam leaned forward slightly, pointing to a spot on his face just above and off to the side of his right eyebrow. “See this scar? Seven stitches at City Hospital courtesy of Angelo Giglione.”
Ellen had noticed that scar earlier. It wasn’t a very big scar, yet it managed to add character to his face. It added even more now that she knew where he’d gotten it.
“T.S. only had to get five stitches that day.”
“They beat him up, too?”
“He saw them corner me on the playground after school, and tried to even up the odds. We’ve been tight ever since.”
She resisted the urge to reach out and lightly trace his scar with her finger. She sat back in her seat, putting some distance between them, suddenly aware that for several long moments his face had been mere inches from hers, his mouth well within kissing range.
She wanted to kiss this man.
It was such a strange sensation. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d allowed herself even to think such a thought.
He was looking at her as if he could read her mind. God help her if he could.
But instead of leaning toward her and covering her mouth with his, Sam turned and opened the little refrigerator that was built into the side of the car. “Hey. Look at this. There’re five bottles of champagne in here.”
“Bob’s always ready for anything,” Ellen told him as he took one out and looked at the label. She tried to slow the pounding of her heart. “Emmy nominations. High ratings. Viewer’s choice awards. Academy award winning actresses who might need to be personally escorted back to their hotel after his show… Although, you know, he doesn’t drink himself.”
“I’d heard, yeah.” He eyed the glasses and corkscrew that were secured in a nearby compartment. “Do you think he’d mind if we opened a bottle?”
“What are we celebrating?”
“Now, there’s a myth.” Sam unwrapped the plastic from the top of the bottle, exposing the cork. “Who says we need to celebrate something in order to enjoy a glass of champagne? It’s really just beer made from grapes.”
The phone rang again, and again, Ellen put on the speaker. “Hang on folks,” Ron’s voice said. “I’ve got a lot of brake lights ahead.”
The limo slowed, all the way to a stop.
As Sam watched, Ellen reached for a button on a control panel, and the opaque privacy panel that separated the back of the limo from the front seat went down. She moved across onto the other seats, sitting sideways so that she could look out the front windshield.
“What’s going on?” she asked the driver.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. But it looks as if some people up ahead are getting out of their cars.”
Sam looked at his watch. “There’ll be a traffic report on WINS in just a minute.”
Ron nodded. “I’ve been going back and forth between the stations — nobody’s said anything about this. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything. But from the way this looks, we could be here for a while.”
Ellen turned back to look at Sam as she put the panel back into place. “If there’s one thing I hate about New York City, it’s the relentless traffic. I hope you don’t need to be anywhere soon.”
“No, I’ve got the whole night.” For the first time in his life, Sam was ecstatic about being stuck in a traffic jam.
Who said they had nothing to celebrate?
He smiled, and popped the champagne’s cork.