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Chapter Fifteen

How many cloves of garlic?" Russ asked. "Three."

"They're worse to peel than onions. The skins keep sticking to my fingers." He held up hands covered in white shreds.

Emma laughed and took the clove from him. "I'll show you a trick." They'd started cooking together a month ago, after her creative breakthrough about the train station. She'd had only two weeks to put her idea on a foam poster board before the deadline. When Russ had seen how frantically she was working to get it done, he'd volunteered to do the cooking.

One awful meal was enough to persuade Emma that a better solution was to e-mail him a grocery list; then, when he arrived at the apartment with the food, to prepare the meal with him as her sous-chef. It would have been simpler to buy takeout, but she enjoyed working side by side with him.

Over the past month an easy familiarity had grown between them; a comfort that hadn't been there before that night at the hockey rink. It felt as if a few of the walls between them had been removed. They cuddled up on the futon couch to watch The Daily Show or Letterman together some nights, and on Fridays he stayed until dawn, his arm over her as they slept spooned together.

But they hadn't again gone out together in public.

Emma set the clove of garlic on the cutting board, put the flat of her chef's knife over it, and gave the blade a solid whack with the heel of her hand.

"Careful!" Russ warned.

"Look." She held up the clove, now fissured and easily rid of its skin.

Her cell phone started ringing before Russ could respond to her culinary feat. She looked over at the phone, her heart tripping.

Russ raised a brow, understanding in his eyes. "Are you going to answer?"

Emma wiped her hands on a dish towel and went to the phone. It was now two weeks since she'd turned in her design, and today was the day that the finalists in the train station contest were to be notified. She'd been waiting for a call all day, pacing her apartment and staring out the window.

She picked up the phone with a shaking hand and looked at the display.

"Is it them?" Russ asked.

"I don't know. I don't recognize the name or number." She flipped open the phone and put it to her ear. "Hello?" she croaked.

"Hello! This is Mavis Hunter from the City of Seattle 's Planning and Development Office. I'm trying to reach Emma Mayson."

"This is she." Emma met Russ's eyes and nodded, her own eyes wide and her heart kerthumping in her chest.

"Ms. Mayson, I'm pleased to tell you that you are one of the ten finalists in the King Street Station design competition. Congratulations!"

An "eep" escaped Emma's throat and the phone slid out of her hand, landing on the floor. Emma followed it down, sinking gracelessly into a sprawled sitting position.

"Ms. Mayson? Ms. Mayson?" the voice called tinnily from the phone.

Emma looked up at Russ and blinked. "Meeep!"

"Emma?" Russ said.

"Ms. Mayson?" the phone queried.

She managed a tight, fractional nod of her head.

"You got it?" Russ asked.

She nodded.

Russ scooped up the phone as he sat beside Emma and pulled her close. "Hi. Emma is too happy to speak at the moment, I'm afraid."

Emma heard the woman laugh and start talking again.

She reached for the phone and Russ gave it back. "I'm here!" she squeaked out. "I'm okay, I'm here!"

Mavis explained what would happen next and what Emma would need to do. Afraid that she wouldn't remember a word of it the moment she hung up the phone, Emma walked on her knees to her desk, reaching for a notepad and pen.

"Okay, so that was what time again?" Emma asked, writing down the information. When the call ended she closed the phone and looked up at Russ.

"You're a finalist?"

She smiled with her lips closed, the expression of happiness tentative, as if she couldn't quite believe it. She was still too stunned to take it in and react with the joy she had expected.

Russ did it for her. "Emma, that's wonderful! Congratulations!" He pulled her up off the floor and embraced her in a bear hug, lifting her off her feet and spinning in a circle.

She laughed, his enthusiasm taking her by surprise.

He planted a big kiss on her cheek. "I'm so proud of you, honey."

The "honey" took her by surprise, too. He'd never used a pet name with her before. She met his eyes, wondering what it meant, but he didn't seem to know he'd said anything of significance. If it was significant.

"You're on your way, Emma! Someone has finally noticed your brilliance!"

"Hardly! I'm just a finalist," she said, self-doubt snaking into her nascent joy. "There were probably only ten entries."

"Don't discount your achievement. This means something, Emma. Be proud of it! We need to celebrate: I should go get a bottle of champagne."

"Sure. That would be nice," Emma said with little enthusiasm. When he'd said they should celebrate, she'd gotten a sudden image of them going out to dinner, maybe someplace elegant and celebratory like the ultraposh restaurant Canlis. "You wouldn't want to go out?" she asked tentatively.

"After peeling all that garlic? Dinner's already half-made! The fish won't keep, will it?"

She couldn't tell if he was genuinely concerned, or if it was a way to get out of going out in public with her. She had no right to expect him to take her out; that had never been part of their arrangement. She had to remember that they weren't in a real relationship. Which made it difficult to ask the favor she wanted to request now.

"The fish would keep, but you're right, dinner is half-made. I'll finish up if you want to run out for the champagne."

"Great!" He reached for his coat and then paused, watching her as she went into the kitchen and focused on chopping garlic, not looking his way. "This is okay with you, isn't it?"

She looked up at him and gave him a big smile. "Yes! Of course!"

"Are you sure?"

"Yes!" She smiled too brightly, the corners of her mouth aching.

He frowned. "I want this to be special for you. Would you rather I stayed and helped with dinner? Or finished it myself? Why don't I do that, and you can sit and have a glass of wine."

He obviously had no idea of what she was thinking, and she wasn't going to enlighten him. But perhaps this would be as good a time as any to make another request. "There is a favor I wanted to ask you," she began tentatively.

He put down his coat and came toward her. He put his hands on her upper arms. "What is it, Emma? You can ask me anything."

"Next Friday, there's a public event where all the finalists present their designs to the press and to the committee. It's semiformal-cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, that kind of thing. I'm allowed to bring a guest."

He raised his brows.

"Would you I mean, can you?"

"You want me to be your date?"

"Not date!" she said, although that was exactly what she had been hoping. If he wouldn't even take her out to dinner, though, he'd never appear with her at a big to-do like this. "Just as, I don't know, moral support. You must be comfortable with this type of event. You know how they go, whereas I have no clue, and I'm going to be a nervous wreck."

"So you want me to be your security blanket."

"Yes. If you wouldn't mind? And if, you know, you wouldn't mind being out in public with me."

"Why should going out in public be a problem for me?" he asked, emphasizing the last word.

What did he mean by that? "I know this is going beyond the bounds of our agreement," she said, "and I don't mean to impose. If anyone asks, you can just say you're my friend. That's true enough, isn't it?"

His expression was unreadable. "True enough. I'm surprised you wouldn't rather take one of your friends. There wouldn't be any hidden undertones with them."

Was he upset? He certainly wasn't delighted by her invitation. "I'll feel less like an outsider with you there," she said, smiling, trying to make it sound like a compliment. "With Daphne, I'd feel like we were teenagers at a dance, afraid to leave each other's side."

A muscle in his jaw worked. She waited, afraid to say anything more, and then he said, "All right. I'll go."

"Thank you."

He didn't seem excited by it, whereas she couldn't think of anyone she'd rather have at her side. He was so supportive of her, and seemed genuinely proud of her accomplishment. However nervous she got when it was time to present her design, she wouldn't be alone. It wouldn't matter if she did well or flubbed up, because either way, he would be there to put his arm around her shoulders when she was finished, to kiss her and tell her "Well done."

At least, that's what she'd thought. Judging from his reaction, it seemed he thought he'd been drafted for a distasteful tour of social duty.

He went to buy the champagne and she finished preparing the meal, but an hour later when they popped the cork and filled their glasses for a toast, Emma felt that the mood had been lost. She felt as if a small distance had opened between them, and she didn't know how to bring them back to where they had been.

They were nibbling at their dessert of seasonal berries in Moscato when she said, "Maybe I shouldn't have asked you to come with me."

He looked at her, his brows raised slightly in question, and waited for her to continue.

"I mean, that type of thing, that's not what we're about."

"No," he said after a long moment. "It's not."

"So I'm sorry I imposed on you like that. It's like the hockey thing-I sometimes forget the limits."

"You'd rather I didn't go, then?"

"I'd love for you to come. But only if you're comfortable."

"If it will help you, then I'd love to come."

Where had all this awkwardness come from? They were talking to each other like strangers, and a small sadness opened up inside Emma. She sensed that she was now on the cusp of a change in her Hfe, and she didn't know if her relationship with Russ would survive it. Their being together had only been to meet present needs, nothing more.

Now her needs were about to change.

They were both subdued the rest of the evening, although Emma tried to talk with enthusiasm about the upcoming event. Every word she said, though, seemed to drain their energy further. The sex was perfunctory, though physically satisfying. Russ left earlier than usual, claiming an early morning meeting, and then Emma was alone again in her apartment.

His apartment, she corrected herself as she tidied up the kitchen. Would she want to stay here if she no longer had Russ in her life? No, it would be too painful, not to mention awkward.

She looked at the room, with her make-do college furniture and cheaply done efforts at comfort and hominess. She'd made the best of what she had, and had begun to think of it as home, as her own space. With the phone call tonight, though, she felt the first hint of disengagement.

Realistically, her chances of winning the contest were slim to none. But being a finalist meant her chances of getting a job had just gone up. And perhaps even more important, she'd found confidence in her own talents and had that confidence validated by others. The Emma who went to interviews now would be a far different creature from the one who'd gone in a month ago. She would be Super Emma, the Emma of her own dreams for herself.

Super Emma wouldn't need or want to be a man's paid mistress, however much she was coming to adore that man. Super Emma would pay her own rent.

A tingle at the end of her nose and a stinging in her eyes warned of the loss that was soon to come. She couldn't ever tell anyone the agreement she and Russ had had; they'd never understand. And she'd also have to keep secret how much she had enjoyed her role, until it became too small for her dreams.

She wiped a tear away with the back of her hand and finished cleaning up.

Chapter Fourteen | The Erotic Secrets Of A French Maid | Chapter Sixteen