He’d expected this.  He’d even hoped for it.  But he still felt a twinge of — pity.  She’d been stood up.  Again.  Here she sat, alone in an upscale restaurant, dressed in her favourite little black dress.

Kevin watched her reflection in a mirror and saw the sigh that gusted out of Catherine’s mouth and ruffled her hair as she sat back in her chair, closing her eyes.

It was time to make his move.

Before she became aware of his presence behind her, he cupped the back of her neck, his thumb caressing her just under her left ear.  He felt her pulse leap, saw a smile burst across her face as she turned to look back over her shoulder.  Kevin stepped up beside her and watched as her smile died.

Yanking herself away from his touch, she frowned at him.  “What’re you doing here?”

Kevin just gave her a long-suffering look.  Then, jerking his head, he said, “Come on.  Let’s go.”

Catherine hunched a shoulder and turned her head away.  “Get lost.  I don’t need you to rescue me.”

He glanced at the two empty water bottles sitting before her and pulled a bill out of his wallet to leave on the table.  Then he stood there for a moment, gazing at the top of her head, his mind juggling the usual spank her or kiss her debate.  Under his breath, he said, “Yes, you do.  And this time I’m going to do it right.”

In one way or another he’d been rescuing her since they were kids, and she’d always resented it.  Whether as a pre-pubescent tomboy or the swan she’d evolved into, she’d been diving headfirst into catastrophes and he’d been reeling her out.  And though until just recently — he hoped — she’d viewed him as nothing more than a bothersome big brother, he’d never considered her a sister.

Kevin’s problem was that every time he’d tried to tell her how he felt he’d muck it up, the result being she’d never believed him.

He reached down and started to pull her chair out from the table, the muscles of his arm flexing.

She didn’t surprise him.  True to form, Catherine was stubborn and tried to dig her feet in, but after a brief struggle she must have realized it was pointless.  With a sigh, she let him help her up and followed him out of the restaurant.  They walked for a block without speaking, but he had no problem reading her thoughts.  She had an expressive face and he’d been translating it for years.

Before long he was unlocking the passenger door of his car.  “Come on.  Get in.”

She pulled away from him, then turned and lifted her head and looked into his eyes, still not saying anything.

Kevin felt his lips twitch.  “What?  Still mad at me?”

She settled her butt back against the side of his car and shook her head, a sad look on her face.  “I’m not mad at you.  I’m mad at Mark.  Mad at myself — or at least disgusted with myself.”  His heart clenched as tears began to roll down her face.  “What’s wrong with me, Kevin?  Why is it so hard for me to find someone who will care about me once in a while, instead of thinking only of himself?  Someone who can remember which night of the week is my night, and which night is the night with the guys.”

Taking a step forward, she settled herself against his body, her arms around his waist, the side of her face resting on his throat.  His chin came down, and using it, he gently rubbed the top of her head while his arms surrounded her in a gesture of comfort and protection.  Their movements were fluid and natural, as if they’d stood like this many times before.  They had.

Catherine mumbled into the bare flesh beneath her mouth, “If you crack a joke or make fun of me, I swear I’ll bite you.”

Kevin cupped the back of her head, pulled back, and dropped a kiss on her forehead.  “It wouldn’t be the first time, would it?  All right, no jokes, no making fun.  Come on.  Get in the car.  Everything will be okay.  I promise.”

Frowning up at him,  Catherine said,  “I have my own car here.”

Lightly squeezing her head, he said, “Kitty Cat, I told you to get in the car.  Now get in!”

Wrenching herself out of his hands, nearly hissing like the cat he’d just called her, she said, “Don’t call me that!  And how many times have I told you, you are not the boss of me!”

Grinning, he replied, “I’ve lost count.  But I do remember that you were six years old the first time you said it.”

Grumbling, crossing her arms over her chest and staying her ground, she said, “For all the good it’s done me.”

Exasperated, Kevin said, “Fine, I didn’t want to do this here, but you leave me no choice.”  With that, he pushed her back against the car, using the weight of his pelvis to hold her there, letting her feel one facet of his desire, but knowing he had to make her understand the extent of it.  With a deep breath, he said, “You’ve been a part of my life since you were six, and I was eight.  So I can speak with authority and say there is nothing wrong with you, Cat.”  He paused.  “I wanted to drive you to the park near where we lived when we were kids.  I was fourteen years old the first time I told you I wanted to marry you, and that’s where we were.  Since then I’ve told you four times.  And each time, it was in that park.”

He felt her gasp and heard the wobble in her voice as she said, “I told you no jokes.  You’re making fun of me again.”

Kevin leaned his forehead on hers.  “Sweetheart, it’s never been a joke.  But the way I feel about you scares me, so every time I tried to tell you I deliberately made it sound like I was teasing.  But I was serious, even when I was fourteen.  Every time, I was standing there with my heart in my palms, offering it to you.”

Catherine put her hands on his chest and pushed him away, looking up into his face.  “What are you saying?”

He swallowed around his heart, which had taken up lodging in his throat.  “I guess I still haven’t said it, have I?  I love you, Cat.  I want you to be my wife.  And lately I’ve been thinking that, just maybe, you love me too.”

She punched him on the shoulder and then yelled in his face.  “You moron!  Of course I love you.  Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

Laughing, Kevin grabbed her fist, and then pulled her tightly to him.  Lowering his mouth to hers, he said, “I’ve been asking you to marry me since I was fourteen!  What more do you want?”