A Long, Silly Love Chase

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“You have to do it right, Riley,” insisted Vanessa, leaning over the counter at the Grace Place coffee shop, where she was currently on duty.  “Guys are so un-romantic.  Let me help you.”

            “So, what do suggest, Miss Lonely Heart?” Riley didn’t bother to hide the sarcasm in his voice.  It wasn’t as if his cousin was a huge success in the romance department either.

            “I have to think.”  She gazed at the beautiful solitaire diamond she held.  “Grace will love this.  It’s gorgeous.”  .

            “Thanks for helping me pick it out.”  He may not trust her romance ideas, but he’d been pretty sure she could spot what Grace would like.  Women had a sixth sense that men seemed unable to cultivate when it came to things like this.

            Vanessa’s eyes widened as she looked over his shoulder.  She shoved the ring at him.   “Put it away, quick.  Here comes Grace.”

            “What!  It’s her day off.”  He took the ring and fumbled it back into the little velvet covered box.  Just as he heard the door opening, Riley stuffed it into his coat pocket.

            “Oh great,” whispered Vanessa.  “Guess who’s with her.”

            Riley bit back a groan.  It had to be Steve – again.  Ever since he’d broken up with Janice, Steve had clung to Grace for sympathy.

            “Why doesn’t she just tell him to get lost?”

            “You know Gracie.”  Riley sighed.  “She’s too kindhearted to do something like that.”

            “If he’d left me at the altar and taken another woman on my honeymoon, I’d have no trouble telling him to get lost,” grouched Vanessa.

            Riley couldn’t respond because Grace and Steve reached the counter.  Instead, he smiled – through gritted teeth – and greeted them.

            Grace held up her hand.  “Don’t say it Riley.  I know this is my day off, but I realized I’d forgotten to fax an order.  I’m just going to do that quickly, and then I’m out of here.”  She hurried around the counter and into the back.

            Riley turned and regarded Steve, whom he’d once considered his best friend.  “Don’t you have to work today?”

            “No, I had a dentist appointment this morning, so I took the day off.”

            “Nothing serious I hope.”

            “No, just a check up.”

            “You took the whole day off for that?”

            “I wanted to take Grace to lunch.  She’s been so nice to me since…since Janice and I broke up.”

            “Any chance of you and Janice getting back together?” Riley was getting fed up with Steve hovering around Grace.

            “None,” replied Steve with a firmness that squashed the brief flicker of  Riley’s hope.

            “All right, I’m finished.”  Grace sailed out into the coffee shop, a smile on her face.  Riley’s stomach knotted.  She was so beautiful – inside and out.  What if Steve had finally woken up and realized what he’d thrown away?  What if Gracie decided to take him back?

            Riley was pleased when she came straight to him.  She reached up to give him a quick peck, but Riley grabbed her waist and held her so he could give her a real kiss.

            “Hey, buddy,” said Steve “This is a family establishment.”  Was that jealousy in his voice? 

Riley smiled and let Grace go.

            Steve might be annoyed but Grace looked pleased.  “What was that for?” she asked.

            “Just because I haven’t kissed you all day.”

            “Oh, Riley, it’s not even noon.”

            “Can I help it if you’re so irresistible?”

            She laughed.  “Why do I get the feeling you want something?”

            “I don’t want anything.”  Anything but you, anyway.  And an absence of Steve.  “Don’t forget about our date on Saturday.”

            “It’s Valentine’s Day, Riley.  How could I forget?”

            “No self respecting woman could forget that,” Vanessa chimed in.

            “Riley,” said Grace “Steve and I are going to lunch.  Want to join us?”

            “No.”  He didn’t think he could handle a whole meal with Steve right now.  “I’ve got to get back to work.  I just stopped in to tell Vanessa something.”

            Grace’s eyes widened.  “Oh, thanks Riley.  You just reminded me I need to tell Vanessa about the repairman coming to see the dishwasher today.”

            As the women put their heads together and conferred, Riley said “I really have to get going.  I’ll see you later, Gracie.”

            She glanced over her shoulder.  “Sure, Riley.” Then she shifted her attention back to Vanessa.

            “Too bad you can’t join us.”  Steve didn’t seem disappointed in the least.

            “Yeah, too bad.”  Riley pulled his gloves from his pocket, preparing to go out into the cold.  With a clatter the little velvet box fell to the floor.

            Steve bent and picked it up.  He looked at the box, and then at Riley.  Their eyes locked.  Then a slow smile spread across Steve’s face, sending panic into Riley’s heart.  Would he try to ruin everything?

            Steve handed the box back to Riley, who shoved it back into his pocket and made a quick exit.

 *** 

            “This is going to be perfect, Riley,” gushed Vanessa as she reached into the heart shaped box and pulled out the center chocolate.  She raised it a mock salute to him and then bit into it.

            “I hope you’re right,” he grumbled as he wedged the ring box into the empty slot.  He’d been worrying about this night ever since Steve had seen the ring box.  What was that look on his face all about?  Was he going to try to beat Riley to the punch and ask Grace to go out with him again – to marry him again?  What if Grace said yes?

            “Riley.” Vanessa eased the cover back onto the box.  “You don’t think you’re rushing things with this proposal, do you?”

            “What do you mean?”

            “I mean that you and Grace have only been going out for about a month and a half.  Then suddenly you decide to propose?  This doesn’t have anything to do with Steve, does it?”

            He took a deep breath.  “Yes…and no.  I asked myself that question when I first thought of buying the ring.  Yes, it’s making me nervous that she’s been spending so much time with Steve.  Maybe I wouldn’t have done this quite so quickly otherwise.”

            “But then again, I love Gracie.  I know that.  I believe with all my heart that I want to spend the rest of my life with her.  It would be different if we’d just met, but we’ve known each other—”

            “Forever” finished Vanessa.  “I know.  I’ve heard all about how cute you two were in the sandbox.”

            “Do you think it’s too soon for me to ask her?”

            She grinned up at him.  “Not if you’re asking her for the right reasons.  And I think you are.”

            “I’m going to make a quick stop at the men’s room, and then I’m leaving to pick up Gracie.”

            As Riley walked away, Joy Harper came in carrying a big stack of music books.

            “Hi Riley,” she greeted him.

            “Hi Joy.  Do you need some help with those?”

            “No, I forgot my tote bag when I walked down to the church to get these.”  Joy was the organist for the Orchard Hill Community church where Riley and Grace both belonged.  “But they aren’t as heavy as they look.”

            “Okay,” Riley continued on his way to the men’s room.

            When he returned to the counter she was gone – and so was the heart shaped box.

            “Vanessa, where’s my box?” he called.

            She poked her head out of the back room.  “What do you mean?  It’s right on the counter.”

            “No, it’s not.”

            Vanessa’s hands flew to her face.  “Joy put that big stack of books down on the counter.  I bet she put them right on top of the box and then picked it all up when she left.

            “And you didn’t notice!” Riley shouted.

            “Now, calm down.  She mentioned she was heading home.  You can catch up with her there.”

            “I’m going to be late,” Riley fretted, glancing at his watch.  Grace had given it to him as an early Valentine's gift.  It was sleek and silver and best of all, she'd had them engrave on the back:  To R.O., Love G. R.  He smiled, thinking how excited she’d been to give it to him, unable to wait until tonight.

            “Go pick up Grace,” Vanessa suggested.  “You can stop at Joy’s on the way to the restaurant.”

            “All right, all right,” he grumbled, wondering how he would explain that little detour.

 ***

            Grace was stunning.  Riley had a hard time catching his breath when she opened the door for him.  She was wearing a sleek red sheath with matching pumps.  A heart pendant hung from a gold chain around her neck, and Riley realized it might as well be his own heart she wore there, because surely it belonged to her.

            He wanted to tell her how beautiful she looked but she rushed away before he could get the words out.  “I’ll be ready in just a minute,” she called over her shoulder.  Riley wandered into the living room to wait.

            “So, big night tonight.”

            He turned to see Steve lounging on the couch.  As Gracie rushed around getting ready, the two men stared each other down.

            “So what are you doing here tonight?” asked Riley.

            “Watching a movie.  I didn’t want to be alone on the most romantic day of the year.”  He smirked at Riley.

            Since when had Steve cared about Valentine’s Day or romance, Riley wondered.  When Steve and Gracie were dating, it had been Riley who had to remind him to buy her flowers. 

“You are going to be alone.  Gracie and I are going out.”  She wouldn’t invite him along, would she?  Not on Valentine’s Day.

            “I know.  But at least I was with Gracie for the afternoon.”  More smirking.  Riley’s hands clenched into fists.

            “I’m all set, Riley.  Let’s go.”

            "I'm just going to finish watching this DVD, Grace," Steve said.

            “Great.  I’ll see you later.  Turn out the lights when you leave.”  Riley placed his hand possessively on the small of Grace’s back as they headed out.  He turned to look at Steve and did his best to copy that smirk.  Steve wasn’t smiling now.

            "We have to make a stop before we go to the restaurant," Riley told Grace as he opened the car door for her.

            "Where?"

            "Joy Harper's house."

            She narrowed her eyes at him.  "Oh really.  Why is that?"

            Riley was hoping Grace wouldn't remember that little misunderstanding about him supposedly dating Joy.  No such luck.  "She accidentally picked up something that belonged to me at the Grace Place today."

            Grace seemed to accept that, and Riley let out the breath he'd been holding.  It didn’t take long to get to Joy’s place.  "I'll just be a minute," Riley told her as he scrambled out of the car.

            "I'll be timing you."  Grace's warning floated after him.  He was sure she would be.

            Riley rang the bell and after what seemed like a few hours, Joy opened the door.  "Riley?"

            "Hey Joy.  I think you picked up something that belonged to me when you stopped at the Grace Place today."

            "The box of candy, I know.  I called the Grace Place and Vanessa told me it was yours so I dropped it off at your house."

            "What?  Where did you leave it?"

            "I gave it to Ian."

            "My brother was at my house?  What's he doing there?"

            Joy shrugged.  "How would I know?"

            "Okay.  Thanks Joy."

            Riley checked his watch as he hurried back to the car.  If they stopped at his house they would be late for their dinner reservation.  On Valentine’s night that could mean they’d lose their table.  They'd have to pick it up after dinner.  He hoped Ian wouldn't eat all the chocolates before then.  Or worse, eat the ring by mistake.  He could see absentminded Ian doing that.

            "Well?" asked Grace as he slid back into the warmth of the car.

            "Well, what?"

            "Where is this thing that Joy picked up?"

            "She dropped it off at my place."

            "Well wasn't that sweet of her," grumbled Grace.  Uh-oh.  They were off to a bad start.  Riley blew out a breath of frustration.  This was not the evening he'd imagined.

            The restaurant was crowded with other couples out to celebrate Valentine's Day.  The noise level was too high for intimate conversation.  Riley was glad when they finished up and left.

            "I'm sorry, Gracie," he said as he opened the car door again for her.  "This isn't the way I wanted the evening to go.  Hopefully things will improve when we get to my house."

            "Your house?  Why are we going there?"

            "Because the package that Joy picked up by mistake was your Valentine gift."

            She raised her eyebrows.  "Joy had my Valentine gift?"

            "Only by mistake."

            "Sure."  Grace's countenance was stormy.  It was a long silent ride to Riley's house.  When he pulled into the drive he could see the light from the TV flickering in the living room window and Ian’s SUV at the curb.  He was here, all right.

            "Do you want to come in?" asked Riley.  Maybe Ian would be smart enough to leave them alone.  He just needed a few quiet moments with Gracie...

            She shrugged.  "Why not?"

            Riley linked his hand with hers as they negotiated the slippery walk to his back door.  Inside, he went straight through the kitchen and into the living room.

            "Ian, what are you doing here?"

            "Hi Riley."  His entire concentration was on a basketball game on the television.  He didn't even turn around when they walked in.  "My satellite service is out, so I came over here to watch the game.  I figured you'd have a date, with Valentine's and all.

            "I do have a date and I'd like to give her gift to her.  Where is it?"

            Still Ian's gaze remained riveted on the television.  "Where's what?"

            Riley counted to ten quickly and then crossed the room to stand in front of the television.  "The package Joy dropped off."

            Ian blinked.  "Funny thing about that Riley.  I called Grace's house to see if I could catch you and Steve answered."

            "Yeah, he was there earlier.  What has this got to do with the package?"

            "He came and picked it up.  Said he was taking it back to Grace's for you.  Now will you move?"

            Anxiety drenched Riley like a bucket of cold water.  He moved all right – he grabbed Grace’s hand and they were out the door.  He didn’t bother to say good bye but he doubted if Ian would notice.

            “What’s the hurry Riley?” She slipped on the walk, but he managed to catch her before she fell.  “Ian said Steve was going to drop it off at my place.”

            He handed her into the car and ran around to the other side.  “Yeah, Steve.  Your best friend.”

            “Well not exactly Riley.  You’re my best friend.”

            He started the car, but instead of backing down the driveway, he turned to Grace.  “What is he to you, then?”

            “After what he pulled in December, I shouldn’t even be talking to him, but I can’t help it.  We’re friends again,” she admitted.

            “Just friends?”  Riley held his breath as he waited for her answer.

            Hurt shone in her eyes.  “How can you even ask that?”

            He shrugged.  “Well, it seems you guys are together every time I turn around these days.”

            “Are you jealous?  I’m sorry, Riley, I never thought…”  Grace shook her head.  “I know he’s been a pain since he and Janice broke up, but I just can’t find it in my heart to be mad at him anymore.  If he hadn’t weaseled out on our wedding, you and I wouldn’t have gotten together.”

            “So you aren’t thinking of going back to Steve?”

            “Why would you even think that?  I’ve never been happier than I am with you.”

            He studied her face, searched her eyes.  “You mean that?”

            “Yes, Riley, with all my heart.  I love you, you know.”  Her eyes were soft and earnest.

            Relief washed over him.  “In that case, let’s go get your gift.”

 

            When they walked into Grace’s house, Steve was still there, planted on the couch, watching the same basketball game as Ian.  He grinned when they walked in.

            “I picked up your package, Riley,” he said.  “It’s on the kitchen table.”

            Riley studied him.  Was he up to something?  “Thanks.”  He went to get it.

            In the kitchen, Riley lifted the lid of the box.  The ring box still sat in the center.  He opened it and saw the flash of light reflecting on the diamond.

            “Congratulations, Riley.”

            He quickly shut everything and turned to see Steve behind him.  “She hasn’t answered yet.”

            “She’ll say yes, believe me.”  Steve shoved his hands in his pockets.  “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past couple of weeks, it’s that Grace really loves you.  She’s happier with you than she ever was with me.”

            “Does that mean you haven’t been trying to steal her back?’

            He smiled.  “Oh, I’ve been trying, it just hasn’t been working.  She hasn’t even picked up on my signals.”

            Steve’s gaze shifted to the floor.  “But seriously, I learned, once again, that Grace and I aren’t right for each other.  But you and Grace are.”

            A lump filled Riley’s throat.  “Thank you Steve.”

            “So you go ahead and propose.  I’ll be seeing you.”

            “You aren’t staying?”

            “Nah, you guys don’t need me hanging around.  Send me an invitation to the wedding.”

            “We’ll do that.”

After the door closed behind Steve, Riley picked up the box of chocolates and took them into the living room.  Gracie had turned the TV channel to a romantic comedy they’d both seen about a hundred times.

            He took the remote from her and turned off the set.  Then he sat on the couch next to her and handed her the box of candy.

            “Oh, Chocolates.  Thank you.”  She was disappointed.  She tried to hide it but Riley could read it on her face.  After all, she’d gotten him an expensive watch, and she thought all she was getting was a box of candy from the drug store.

            “Open it,” he urged.

            She lifted off the lid.  When she saw the ring box, she went totally still.

            He picked up the little velvet box and lifted the lid.

            Grace gasped.

            Riley slid from the couch and down on one knee and said “I love you Grace.  Will you please be my wife?”

            Tears spilled from her eyes, but she was smiling.  “Riley, I can’t believe this.  It’s so unexpected.  I mean we’ve only been dating…”

            “I know we haven’t been dating long, but we’ve known each other our whole lives, Gracie.  I love you, and I want us to be together always.”

            “I want that, too.  Yes, I’ll marry you Riley.”

            He moved back onto the couch and slid the ring on her finger where it shone like a captured star.  They reached for each other at the same time and the box tipped, scattering chocolates across the floor.  Neither one noticed.