Micah waited until Kelsey settled onto the black wrought iron chair before pushing it toward the table. He dropped onto the chair across from her and resisted the urge to reach for the hands splayed on the tile tabletop. He'd never considered a woman's hands particularly sexy, but he'd been watching those strong, slender digits all afternoon. He wanted to see if her skin was as satiny as he remembered.
"I hope this is okay," Kelsey said. Hazel eyes darted around the semi-crowded patio. "It's the quietest place in the area. The ceviche tostadas are amazing. If you even like ceviche, that is. Their shrimp tacos are good. So are their fajitas if you don't want seafood."
Stifling a laugh, Micah smiled reassuringly at his nervous dinner companion. "I enjoy ceviche and shrimp tacos."
"You should get both." She ducked her head; a flush rose on her cheeks. "That was my plan."
"With a Shiner?" He'd spent enough time with Kelsey Monahan and her cousin to realize that Shiner Bock was their beer of preference. As a businessman, he could appreciate a dedication to a local company.
"Actually, I suggest a Southern Star Blonde Bombshell. It's lighter, which means it won't bog down the food."
"Is it made here in Texas?"
Kelsey pressed a hand to her chest as if offended by the question. "Of course it is. Brewed and bottled in Conroe, Texas by B-52 Brewing."
"We went near Conroe to get to the blackberry place didn't we?"
The broad, happy grin that spread across her face made him feel like a king. It also made him glad he'd studied a map of the area before they'd ventured out on their wine tasting road trip. "Do they offer tours?" he asked.
"Tours and tastings," she said. Her grin dimmed. "I've driven past the place a hundred times, but I've never been inside. I've never actually been on a brewery tour."
He resolved to take her on her first brewery tour. She'd had prior knowledge of all their stops during the wine tour. He wanted to share the thrill of a new experience with her. "Are you free this weekend?"
If she was stunned by the invitation, she gave no indication. Regret was the only thing that flashed in her bright eyes. "Avery is the sponsor for her school's science UIL team. She's going with them to a meet in League City."
"Are you free this weekend?"
He wanted more than just a quick brewery tour; he wanted every second of time she'd grace him with. Making plans without consulting her would be the fastest way to scare her off, though. She was skittish. That had been obvious from the start. He'd tried to glean information from Avery, but Kelsey's cousin was loyal.
"I could pick you up," he offered. "If there is anything else of interest in Conroe, we could make a day of it."
Kelsey blinked as if she'd never considered the possibility of spending an entire day exploring Conroe. "I don't know." She blinked again, laughed self-consciously. "Not about spending time with you, that is. About Conroe. I'll have to ask Aunt Jill for suggestions."
"The aunt who lives near Conroe."
"Yes." She patted his hand. "Don't worry, I won't throw you to the Inquisition just yet."
He wouldn't have minded. He liked her cousin. From the stories Kelsey and Avery had shared, their family was exceptionally close-knit. He couldn't imagine either cousin voluntarily spending so much time with people they didn't like.
"We can discuss it over lunch on Wednesday." The invitation spilled out of Micah's mouth before he could stop it. Hadn't he just decided that he wasn't going to pressure her?
"I can't. I'm having lunch with my cousin."
A sudden rush of bitterness rose from his stomach. He'd pushed too hard. Moved too fast. That he understood. He couldn't understand why she'd felt it necessary to lie about her plans. Was she afraid of him? Too compassionate to risk hurting his feelings? Playing coy? No. That didn't jive with the regret on her pretty face.
He leaned away from Kelsey until his shoulders brushed the sun-warmed chair back. "I was under the impression that Avery and David had a standing daily lunch appointment."
She chuckled. "Probably. I don't mean Avery. I live with her. I only meet her for lunch if we're exchanging cars or dropping off something. Jessica, Aunt Jill's oldest, graduated from Texas Tech in December. She's taking classes in the Med Center; I take her out to lunch every other week."
"Checking up on her without checking up on her."
"Something like that. When she moved to Houston, Avery and I offered to find a three-bedroom. Jess likes the idea of being independent, and I don't blame her. Still, I can't have her so close and not check in every now and then."
Even as relief settled the swirling stone in his stomach, Micah felt like a heel for his assumption. Hadn't she mentioned a passel of cousins? Ridiculous to think that Avery was the only one in the city.
When a young, dark-haired waitress finally stopped at their table, Micah gestured for Kelsey to place their order. The restaurant had been her choice, and he trusted her not to give him food poisoning. Kelsey greeted the waitress like an old friend and placed their order in perfect Spanish.
As soon as the waitress was out of earshot, Micah arched an eyebrow. The name of the restaurant had come quickly when he'd asked for a suggestion. "I take it you are a regular."
"This is our usual Friday Happy Hour spot. We come for lunch at least once a month, too. QuinnTech holds its annual Christmas party here. Maria's father runs the kitchen, and she waits on the patio. I think Stewart went to her high school graduation last summer."
Silence, thick and awkward, rose between them after their drinks were delivered. Micah floundered for a topic. They'd made tentative plans for the weekend. He didn't want to discuss work. Dinner was supposed to be a time for relaxation. He could ask about her family, but he didn't want her to feel like she was under interrogation or that he was overeager.
Kelsey drummed her fingers on the tabletop. She glanced at her fingers, flicked her eyes up to his face, and then settled her gaze on the stack of paper coasters between them. "So," she sighed, "what state would you never move to – even if you were offered the job of your dreams?"
It was a random, oddly familiar question. Still, it was better than silence. "Oklahoma. Tornadoes terrify me."
"Alaska. I'm not fond of ice. Or snow. Or bears." She sipped her beer. "Our apartment has a fireplace, but we've never used it. I don't want to have to use it."
Heat swept up Micah's spine. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to see firelight dance across her face and make her eyes sparkle. He pictured her curled up on the couch in his living room – in his arms – while a fire crackled in front of them. He was certain that, given an hour or so, he could reverse her opinion of fireplaces.
"Come up to Stamford in January, and we'll see about changing your mind."
"Watch it," she ventured carefully, "I might just take you up on that."
Before the silence could swell again, Micah mentally ran through a few of the articles he'd on his phone while waiting for Kelsey to meet him. He didn't remember dinner with a pretty girl feeling so awkward. He conversed with women; he wasn't a serial dater, but he'd never lacked for female companionship. What did he talk about with women in New York? What was it about Kelsey that made him crave a conversation that went beyond the superficial topics of the weather and mutual acquaintances?
"What was your favorite family vacation?" he asked.
"Does an annual trip count?"
He shrugged. "Why not?"
"My family – all twenty-something of us – spend a weekend every September camping over in New Braunfels. We tube down the Guadalupe River and play games and cook out. It's a blast. Even more so now that most of my cousins can legally drink. Yours?"
"This might not count, but it's my favorite vacation of all time. Isabel, my sister, is six years younger than me. After her freshman year at Bryn Mawr, she wanted to go backpacking in Europe. Well, that wasn't going to happen." Micah smiled ruefully at Kelsey's burst of laughter. "We compromised. We signed up with a travel agency that takes college students on tours. Twelve cities in twenty-nine days. I'd been wary about the entire thing, but we enjoyed the hell out of it."
"I don't know that I could stand being stuck in a foreign country with my brother for a month, and we have less of an age gap."
"Oh, there were a few nights when we had to get separate rooms," he said, wincing as he remembered a particularly vicious argument. "Once, I looked up flights to New York from Rome. I was going to leave her there and skip the rest of the tour."
"I bet you're glad you didn't."
He nodded, fished his phone out of his pocket. He scrolled through his picture gallery before handing the phone to Kelsey. "This is Isabel. Never Izzy. Never Belle or Bella. Just Isabel." He rolled his eyes. "No one who's met her has ever dared call me a tyrant."
"She's beautiful. Does she live in Stamford with you?" Kelsey asked after returning the phone.
"No. She runs a nonprofit out in San Diego and swears that she's never moving back East."
"Sun and surf versus snow and ice? Really not much of a competition, Micah."
"Does your brother live nearby?"
"Well, Jake doesn't live on a different coast. He lives an hour north of New Orleans," she said. It was her turn to hand over her phone.
Micah studied the photo of a tall, dark-haired young man and a laughing Kelsey. The man wore jeans, a white dress shirt, and a black suit jacket. There was a white boutonniere pinned to the jacket. Kelsey was radiant in a burnished copper strapless sheath. The bouquet in her hand matched the boutonniere. A tiny female face peered through the space between brother and sister.
"That's from his wedding last September," she said as she returned her phone to her purse. "He adopted Molly's daughter Kynsi this spring. She's the sweetest kid on the planet."
When Maria returned with plates of mouthwateringly fragrant food, Micah ordered another beer while Kelsey requested a glass of iced tea. He watched Kelsey bite into a tostada covered with mounds of fresh shrimp, fish, cilantro, and avocado before attempting to try his own food. As it had with Kelsey, his tostada cracked in half and most of the ceviche wound up on the plate. She winked and nudged a silverware packet toward him.
"This is delicious," he managed in between bites. The seafood was juicy and perfectly flavored. The creamy avocado was a nice contrast to the crisp tostada and firm shrimp. The cilantro and lime juice provided just enough bite to the dish.
"I could eat here every day. Good thing for my wallet, and my stomach, I don't have time to leave the office for lunch."
It was a sentiment Micah could appreciate. Most of his lunches were eaten at his desk or at a conference room table. He didn't think he'd mind a cold sandwich quite so much if he could share it with Kelsey.
"Do you get to visit your brother often?" he asked, unfamiliar with the dynamics of a family as close as hers.
He saw his sister twice a year, but they had never been particularly close. When their parents had died Isabel's junior year of high school, he assumed control of the Ashbury conglomerate. A great-aunt had stepped in to help raise Isabel while he worked fourteen-hour days trying to step into his father's colossal shoes. Too soon, his sister had gone off to college and then moved to California. They had a handful of cousins, but he hadn't seen them more than once or twice in the eleven years since the double funeral.
"He moved to Mississippi two years ago; I've made the drive eight times." Kelsey waited until Maria dropped off fresh drinks to continue. "It helps that he lives so close to New Orleans. I fell in love with the city ages ago, and I'll use every excuse in the book to visit."
"I was there once for a convention. I didn't make it to the French Quarter."
Kelsey gasped like a beached fish. Her eyes were wide and her mouth gaped open. "What? What? How could you be in New Orleans and not see Jackson Square?"
"I was on a tight schedule." He couldn't resist teasing her. "I take it you think I should make the city my next vacation spot."
"Definitely. Everyone should visit New Orleans at least twice."
He was intrigued by the seriousness of her statement. This was exactly the type of conversation he'd been searching for. She obviously held a firm opinion on the topic. "Twice?"
"The first time you go, do all the typical tourist stuff. Eat beignets at Café Du Monde, visit the World War II museum, stroll up and down Bourbon Street, or whatever you want. Go on a carriage ride." She crinkled her nose as if the thought offended her. "The second time you go, see the city like a local. If you ask me, the music's better on Frenchmen Street. Use streetcars – especially if you want to see the Garden District. Eat at Johnny's Po-Boys. There's a hole-in-the-wall bookstore across from the Bourbon Orleans hotel that you have to visit. Buy a cup of chicory-blend coffee from the Community Coffee store and spend a few hours in Jackson Square just listening to performers."
He'd nearly crossed a line inviting her for a day with him; asking her to show him her New Orleans would send her running in the opposite direction. He had no doubt that, with her as his tour guide, he would enjoy every second of his vacation. "I'll have to take your advice."
Micah tried to recall what other questions the articles had suggested. He had plans for Kelsey Monahan – plans that potentially included a long weekend in a vibrant Southern city – and he didn't want to spoil her impression of him. He was a geek at heart. He wanted to ask for suggestions on how to improve ADMS. He wanted to tell her about the other projects Ashbury Software had in the pipeline. He wanted to talk about project delays and scope slippage with someone who'd understand and commiserate.
Not on a first real date, though. Work couldn't be all they discussed.
"What was your -," Kelsey started.
"What are two items -," Micah said, his words overlapping Kelsey's.
Both laughed. Micah felt his cheeks warm. Kelsey shook her head and gestured for him to continue.
"What are two items on your bucket list? But, first, what was your question?" he asked.
"What was your favorite school subject?"
That question definitely sounded familiar. It had been mentioned in one of the articles. Had she been as nervous about dinner as he'd been? "That was my favorite article, but I'm surprised you didn't ask the alien question," he teased, the tension melting off his shoulders.
"Well, I was going to ask the superpower question first and then lead into aliens. You can't just jump right into the paranormal or extraterrestrial, you know."
"I was unaware that we were governed by the rules of etiquette."
"Of course we are, Micah. Without etiquette, we would have chaos. The question of whether or not you prefer chaos over order is, of course, a question that must be reserved for the fourth date."
"Then I must thank you for serving as my guide. I would hate to have embarrassed myself and mortified you by asking an improper question. I suppose that means asking your view on haunted houses will have to wait."
Kelsey pressed a hand against her mouth. Her shoulders shook with silent laughter. "You are very welcome," she sputtered through a giggling fit.
Micah passed Kelsey a fistful of paper napkins. She dabbed at her streaming eyes as the laughter died down. Why had he been so anxious about the date, again? Hadn't they bonded over research and note-taking software?
"Math. My favorite school subject was math," he offered.
"Astronomy. I had the best professor," Kelsey said. "But my high school advanced programming class was fun. There were only two of us, so we were stuck doing mostly-independent study while the teacher was busy with an intro class. Jason and I had been on the UIL team together for years, and, really, they should have known better than to allow us to have so much unsupervised time together."
Micah finished his shrimp tacos as she launched into an entertaining story about an infinite loop and a weekend spent creating a presentation on the importance of utilizing an off-site backup server. Oh, yes, he definitely had plans for Ms. Kelsey Monahan.