Was it her imagination or did that make him smile a little?
“You might want to adjust your aspirations to a medium or small dog.” He swept her with a look. “A big dog would walk you.”
“Sorry, my mind is set on Beethoven.”
She waited, hoping he would remember watching that movie several times together on her parents’ couch all those years ago, neighborhood kids sprawled on the floor munching popcorn. When recognition meandered through his expression, Georgie’s heart kicked.
“‘Any kind of weirdness and Beethoven is gone,’” he drawled, quoting the movie.
“‘Weirdness? What should I watch for, hon? Wearin’ my clothes around the house?’”
“Classic.” He made an impatient gesture for her to keep moving, but she caught his lips twitching. “Show me the rest. I don’t have all day.”
“Okay.” She had to force herself not to skip down the hallway, but her steps faltered the closer they came to the bedroom. Travis Ford was going to look at her bedroom. See it. Be near it. Were the fantasies she continually had about him going to be visible, like vines hanging from the ceiling? “Um. This is my room.”
“Oh, uh . . .” He gave a tight nod, barely glancing through the doorway. “Great.”
“Moving right along,” she said too quickly, directing his attention to the tiny, closet-sized room across the hall. “This is my magic zone.”
“I keep my performance equipment inside.” His narrow-eyed interest tickled her pulse. “Normally I would charge for a show, but since you braved my cooking I owe you at least one magic trick.”
He propped a shoulder on the hallway wall and crossed his arms. “Fire away. But be warned, I’m a skeptic.”
Georgie gasped in mock surprise. “You? A skeptic?” Lips pursed, she opened the door slowly, slowly, as if it held the secrets to the universe. Maintaining eye contact, she slipped into the room and moved behind the door little by little until disappearing from view. “I’m building the drama,” she said, ducking down to retrieve a few items. “Are you intrigued?”
“On the edge of my seat.”
Georgie came back into the hallway and closed the door, holding a blue scarf in her hand. As she expected, Travis eyed the silk with suspicion. She threw it up in the air, let it flutter down, and caught it. “Just your average, ordinary, everyday scarf that I stole from my sister.”
“Okay. What are you going to do with it?”
She tilted her head and frowned. “Do you hear the pitter-patter of rain? I think it’s raining outside.”
Even when Travis was patronizing, he was the sexiest man on the planet. She swore his eyes twinkled as those sensual lips tilted in a smirk. “I don’t hear anything.”
Really? Not even my heart? “Just in case, you should take an umbrella.” With a twist of her wrist and a sleight of hand, a rainbow-colored umbrella bloomed beneath the scarf, sending it fluttering to the ground. Oh, he struggled not to be confused, but failed, quite possibly making her life complete. “I know what you’re thinking. Will I perform at your birthday party? I usually only book children’s events, but I’ll make this one exception.”
He shook his head, studying her for a moment. “You weren’t always like this, were you?”
“Sure.” He graced her with a too-brief smile, then pushed off the wall, moving in that long-legged stride back toward the living room. “We’ll call it ‘delightful’ instead of ‘weird.’”
Georgie caught up to him in front of the fireplace, just in time to watch his hand run over the brick.
“You haven’t, uh, heard anything about some competition in town . . .”
“The competition to go on a date with you?”
His head fell back with a groan. “Oh God, it is real.”
“And you’re not thrilled about it?” Georgie mentally reviewed the conversations she’d heard around town all week. In the bakery, at a birthday party, simply walking down Main Street. “I mean, even if you’re not thrilled, you’re at least used to this kind of attention from women, right?”
A shadow passed over his face. “Yeah. Something like that.”
A jealousy fountain tried to bubble up, but she stuck a rock in it. The green monster was useless where Travis Ford was concerned and always would be. Instead, she focused on what his body language was telling her. The stiffness in his shoulders, the bunched jaw. “You’re not thrilled about it.”
He stared straight ahead at the fireplace. “No.”
It took him a moment to answer. “I guess I don’t want to be a novelty anymore. A good time. Something easy, not to be taken seriously.” He ran a rash hand through his dark auburn hair. “It’s no one’s fault but mine. I made myself the punch line of a bad dirty joke, didn’t I?”
“I don’t think of you that way. You could never be a joke,” she whispered, taken aback. “I’m sorry if the mean things I said in your apartment made you feel this way.”
“No. What you did was different. I needed that.” He reached over and tweaked her nose. “There. You finally got me to admit that throwing food and calling me on my shit is why I’m back among the living.”
If he hadn’t just played gotcha with her nose like she was five, Georgie might have kissed him then and there out of pure joy. But he had. So she didn’t. “You’re welcome.” She curled her fingers into the edges of her apron. “Ignoring the competition is only going to up the stakes, you know. Long Island women take betting seriously.”
“Let me worry about that.” As if becoming conscious of time and place, Travis cleared his throat hard and headed for the door. “I’ll talk to Stephen about the fireplace, all right? Thanks for breakfast.”
He stopped with a hand on the knob, but only gave her a half-turn of attention.
“Thank you for staying.”
The door closed in reply.
Take off your shirt!”
Ignoring the shouted suggestion, Travis clamped his teeth around the pencil in his mouth and focused on the laser leveler in his hand, eventually lowering it to make notations. The major downside to renovating a house was definitely the lack of windows—there was nothing to muffle the outdoor noise. A crowd of around a dozen women and a handful of men had gathered on the curb outside the flip, snapping pictures of Travis with their camera phones—and if the portable Dunkin’ Donuts coffee dispenser was any indication, they were planning on getting comfortable. Yes, safe to say the Date Travis Ford competition was in full swing.
Out of the corner of his eye, Travis watched a petite redhead break from the pack, approaching a clipboard-holding Stephen with a casual air. “So . . . I’m thinking of doing some work in my kitchen this fall.” Her smile broadened. “Do you think I could ask Travis a few questions? I’m trying to decide between vinyl and ceramic tile.”
Blessedly clueless that he was being played, Stephen slapped the clipboard against his thigh. “Look no further. I could talk flooring for hours.”
The redhead’s smile transformed into more of a baring of teeth as Stephen launched into a presentation, complete with hand gestures and his iPhone camera roll.
“Yo, Ford,” one of the freelance workers said, wiping plaster onto the front of his T-shirt. “There’s enough people wanting to see you naked out there, you could crowd-surf over them. I’m personally offended by your bored attitude.”
“And here I thought I was being polite by not showing you up.”
“Please show me up!” He gestured toward the growing crowd. “You are mocking a gift from the Lord God himself.”
With a snort, Travis went back to making measurements. Once upon a time, he would have been front and center, absorbing the attention. Basking in it. As soon as he’d been let go from his final team, he’d learned pretty fucking fast that that kind of superficial admiration was cheap and fleeting. The women who’d once flocked to him had moved on to the next big thing, just like his coach, the team managers, and the fans. None of it had ever been real—and it wasn’t real now.
There was one advantage to having an audience outside. He either ignored them or encouraged them—and it would be a cold day in hell before he did the latter. Pretending he didn’t see the pack of admirers prevented him from looking outside. Across the street to the ramshackle old house of his youth.
Really, there was no need to look. He could picture every square inch of the place. If he lifted his head and glanced out the window, his catcalling fans would be outlined by the drooping roof. The overgrown, sun-scorched lawn. Pretty ironic, wasn’t it? At their backs stood a reminder of how the world really worked. In his parents’ case, love had bred resentment and eventually eaten it whole. For Travis, affection had been given based on his success. Once that was gone, he’d been left alone. Again. Even his stardom hadn’t changed the rules.
Hours later, Stephen had managed to disperse the crowd by lecturing them to death on insulation, allowing Travis to escape the flip without having to turn anyone down for a date. Going from a chauffeured SUV to carpooling in a minivan was a kick in the ass. Travis resisted the urge to hide his face as Stephen took a right turn, bringing them trundling straight down Main Street at happy hour. Port Jefferson natives were either picking up dinner or heading into one of the pubs for the liquid version. After spending the last few days working across the street from his childhood home, Travis wouldn’t have minded a few slugs of whiskey, but he’d have them in the privacy of his own home or not at all. He might have escaped the uncomfortable public interest unscathed today, but its presence had mentally exhausted him.