SONGBIRD

EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER THREE

"How about you?" Desiree asked. "Have you ever been married?"

"No."

"Really? Thirty years old and never been hitched?"

A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "Thirty-five. But thanks for the compliment."

She expected him to add more, to explain that he was against the idea of marriage. After all, she reasoned, a man this handsome, this charming and successful, could hardly have escaped marriage unless he had an aversion to the institution in general. But he said nothing for several heartbeats, just continued to look at her over the rim of his wineglass.

She felt her skin grow hot under his gaze and she glanced out the window beside them, where the setting sun painted a watercolor wash of purple, pink, and gold across the sky. A few hardy surfers still sat astride their boards, rising and failing on the water's dark surface like bobbing ducks.

"I guess we can't get married, anyway," Kyle said.

Her eyes flew up to meet his, astonished by the stab of disappointment those words had brought.

"We'd have two copies of every book in the house," he teased.

She laughed. "True. It'd be so...redundant. And since I can't throw anything away, it'd create quite a storage problem."

He grinned in response but didn't comment. She had no idea what to say next. To her relief, the waiter chose that moment to arrive with their dinners. For Desiree: a platter of mesquite-broiled halibut, with wild rice, French-cut green beans, and honeyed carrots on the side. When the waiter placed Kyle's meal before him, she felt a pang of envy rise in her chest. He'd ordered lobster. Fresh American lobster, flown in that morning from Maine.

"Ahh. Look at this beauty." Kyle spread his cloth napkin across his lap. The lobster reclined on a bed of rice in reddish-orange splendor, head and tail intact, arched shell up. The detached claws, already cracked, were arranged beside a cup of melted butter. She could smell its rich scent across the table.

She watched him pierce a wedge of lemon with his fork and squeeze it into the butter. Her mouth watered. He used the fork to scoop a large piece of white meat from one claw, dipped it into the lemon butter and lifted it to his lips. He caught her eye and stopped, the fork poised in midair.

"I told you to order the lobster," he said.

It was true. The waiter had also highly recommended it. But the complimentary dinner pass stated plainly that lobster was not included. Favorite food or no, they came for a free dinner, and she insisted that at least one of them should take advantage of it. Besides, she could eat for half a week for the same price.

"This is fine." She quickly tasted a piece of halibut. Firm. Meaty. Mildly flavorful. One hundred and ninety-four calories per four ounce serving. The healthier choice. "Delicious," she lied.

"Try this." Kyle extended his forkful of lobster across the table.

"Your first bite? No, I couldn't--" Before she could protest further, he popped the morsel into her mouth. She closed her eyes and chewed, savoring the moist, buttery flavor.

"Oh, yum," she said. "A rare treat. It's been ages." She heard his laugh, followed by a scraping sound. When she blinked open her eyes, the lobster stared back at her. Her own plate sat in front of Kyle.

"I got a sudden, uncontrollable craving for halibut." He picked up the plastic bib the waiter had brought, leaned forward, and tied it around Desiree's neck. "This looks better on you than it would on me, anyway."

Her eyes widened. "No, Kyle. I wouldn't dream of taking your dinner."

"Go ahead. Enjoy."

Hesitantly, she added, "Are you sure you don't mind?"

"I'm sure."

She pounced. Picking up the lobster's steaming shell in two hands, she turned it soft side up and arched it until the tailpiece pulled loose from the body. With one deft movement she bent back the tail flipper section until it cracked off. She lifted the tailpiece downside up, expertly inserted the lobster fork through the hole left by the flippers and pushed the meat out through the open end.

"I can see," he said, watching her, "just how rarely you get lobster."

"It's only been rare recently." She took a bite, pausing for a moment of appreciative silence as she chewed and swallowed. "I lived in Maine for a year and a half. Every chance I got, I'd buy a lobster or two at the wharf. Three dollars a pound, plucked right out of the tank, and cooked while you wait."

She broke off one of the lobster's legs, softly closed her mouth around the open end. With lips and tongue she slowly and gently sucked out the contents. Across from her and watching, Kyle drew a single breath that was out of rhythm with the others. His green eyes glittered with sudden brightness, and a smile lingered on his mouth.

All at once aware of what he might be thinking, Desiree felt her cheeks flush red and hot. She swallowed hard. Picking up one of the legs, she held it out to him. "Would you like to share?"

He shook his head. "Not just now."