Grace Bennett happened upon the wrought iron greenhouse with ten minutes to spare. Going from winter cold into the warm, damp air immediately made the heavy satin gown cling to her skin. Why her daughter, Kara, had picked a regency masquerade for her annual New Year’s Eve party was beyond Grace’s understanding. The 1820s estate venue was a nice touch. The authentic duchess-inspired dress was not.
Digging her cell phone out of a pocket sewn into the high-waisted dress, Grace held it up like a flashlight. A distracting flashlight, as it vibrated three times in a row and displayed Kara’s name twice, followed by Rich’s. She put the phone away. No matter how dark it was, she refused to stare at her ex’s name for the last few minutes of the year.
Even if she did miss him.
Silence enveloped the greenhouse, in contrast to the excessive volume of the ballroom across the garden path. Through the glass door, she could see swirling skirts and coat tails as guests stumbled through the old-fashioned steps Kara’s dance instructor friend had tried to teach earlier in the evening. Eight minutes to go. Grace removed the mask Kara insisted everyone wear and took a deep breath. She’d finally found some solitude.
A stroll around the greenhouse, surrounded only by the smell of dirt and growing things, would be a much better way to end a terrible year. Grace turned from the door and headed toward the path running around the right side, only to collide with a solid male form. She reached toward him when she heard his deep groan, cursing the clumsiness that seemed to come with middle age. “I’m so sorry. I thought I was alone. Did I hurt you?”
It was dark enough she couldn’t make out any features around his mask, only a tall outline wearing a long jacket and topped by something shiny. A crown? Kara called it a fairy tale ball, but was he actually dressed as Prince Charming?
“Just a crushed toe, nothing that won’t heal.” His words came out in a hoarse whisper, like he’d cheered too much at a football game and mostly lost his voice. Something about the way he spoke struck her as familiar, though. He must be one of the regulars Kara always invited to her events.
“Well, I guess it’s what you get for hiding in the dark during a party.”
His chuckle warmed her even more than the humidity, although it made him cough before responding. Maybe a winter cold had led to laryngitis? “I could say the same for you.”
Grace peeked at her phone again before moving toward the door, only half-hoping he would get the point and leave her alone. “It’s four minutes to midnight. Don’t you want to get back inside, so you don’t miss the countdown?”
He followed her, standing close enough that his arm brushed against the puffed sleeve of her dress. “Nope. Too much going on in there, at the moment.”
Grace leaned against a support post. “No kidding. Can you believe I got talked into a blind date on New Year’s Eve? The last thing I need to start off a new year is a near-stranger trying to kiss me. I’m too old for that nonsense.”
She heard him shift, and it sounded like he was facing her now. “Oh, I’d hardly call you old, Grace.”
Yes, definitely someone she’d met before. But with his voice coming out in a croak and darkness hiding his face, she couldn’t place where. “And how would you know? We’ve probably met, what? Three or four times?”
In the ballroom, guests were starting to gather in the middle of the dance floor. She checked the time again. One minute to go. Her companion laughed as his hand slid over to cradle hers. “Oh, we’ve been much closer than that.”
Grace froze. She knew that touch. “Rich?”
“Sorry, Grace. I stepped out here to call you and then, low and behold, you appeared. I didn’t want to scare you off before I could talk to you. To apologize for not trying harder to work things out.”
Grace kept her eyes on the ballroom, even as she longed to stare at him. She’d been thinking about him all day, wishing they had another chance to sort through the problems that had separated them last year. And now, here she was, facing that opportunity.
Even from their secluded spot, Grace could hear the countdown start in the ballroom.
Ten, nine, eight.
Rich leaned close. “I don’t want to make things awkward, but maybe you’d like a New Year’s kiss on the cheek? A promise of what could be this year if you’ll give me a chance to prove myself.”
Seven, six, five.
Her heart thumped in time with the countdown. “You really want to try again? We have a lot to work on.”
Four, three, two.
“You’re worth it.”
Grace turned her cheek and let him press his lips against her skin. The sweetest feeling of hope swelled in her heart.
Echoing the rest of the guests, his whisper was only for her. “Happy New Year, Grace. Here’s to another beginning.”
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