* * *
For Lily, dinner seemed to be something magical. She’d never imagined or dreamed of the extent John would go to in order to impress her. Nor did she know how any other man would live up to her dreams now. John had found a cozy Italian restaurant that she didn’t know even existed. Apparently, he’d gone there first and lined everything up first. They had to wait just a moment before being seated, but for good reason. They had a private small room off to the side that had a single red rose in the center of the table. It looked like they had rushed into the room to light the candles before seating them.
The room had candelabras in the corners that glowed warmly, giving it a decidedly romantic ambiance. Two glasses of champagne had been poured, as well as rose petals sprinkled on the floor and table. There were brilliant pieces of glitter on the table cloth glinting in the candlelight, making it all look so magical. There was even a place setting for Radar complete with a large bowl for her meal too.
When the waiter opened the door, she’d caught her breath and glanced at John, seeing the twinkle in his tender eyes. John took her hand and pulled her inside of the room, leaving them alone for a few moments. She was surprised to feel John’s hand tremble in her own and realized the lengths he would go to win her over. He held out the chair as she took her seat and quickly dashed a tear from her eyes.
“My lady,” he murmured as he pushed in her chair and softly kissed her on the cheek. She was overwhelmed with tenderness for this sweet man and humbled by the efforts he was showing. She’d never, ever had someone try this hard to impress her, much less a man that made her toes curl with a single smile.
The door to the private room opened and she saw them bringing in water, bread and something else she couldn’t identify easily in a wicker basket lined with a napkin. John took his seat as they filed out, handing them menus. Lily glanced at the menu unseeingly and felt his eyes on her. Instead, she glanced up and smiled.
“Hi there,” she whispered nervously in the silence and saw his upturned lip turn into a full-blown smile. She melted into a puddle immediately and felt a flush of heat at the memory of kissing those lips not too long ago.
“I adore the way you say that,” John told her and grabbed his glass of champagne, holding it up. Lily took hers as well.
“To first meetings of old friends,” he said, tipping his glass towards hers. “May there be many more to come and always this special.”
“Amen,” she breathed before taking a tiny sip. The cool bubbly liquid tickled her lips and tongue, tasting slightly bitter yet sweet at the same time. His eyes watched her every moment as he if was drinking it in. She knew, because she was doing the same. The way he held his glass, the way his mouth moved as he spoke. The way his eyes crinkled when he smiled. She never ever drank, much less champagne, but she was glad for it. It made her feel special and as she took another sip, she felt a languid warmth steal over her, helping her to relax.
“Would you like some bread?” he asked politely. Lily nodded and watched as he pulled the sliced loaf apart with tiny tongs. He put the slice on her plate and grabbed one for himself. He was being a perfect gentleman and unfurled his napkin, putting it across his lap.
“What is that?” she asked curiously and lifted the corner of the napkin in the other basket. If this was bread, was that some sort of roll or an appetizer? He’d made it abundantly clear he was out to impress her and so far, it was working. She was utterly charmed by the gorgeous man opposite of her.
Lily couldn’t help the bubble of laughter that escaped as well, as the way she threw back her head and laughed full on. She heard him chuckling as he grasped her hand, lacing his fingers with hers. She felt such a sense of relief wash through her as she realized he had not only wanted to win her over by making a good first impression - He meant to woo her mind, body, soul and stomach. Lily removed the napkin to see several packages of Twinkies wrapped in cellophane for them.
“For dessert?” she teased, snickering merrily.
“Anything to make you smile,” John answered honestly. “I want to know everything about you and we have all the time in the world to talk now.”
“No more calling cards or brief phone calls.”
“Nope,” she heard him say. “I want to hear your voice, listen to you speak and see those beautiful eyes every chance I get.”
“If I cook tomorrow, it might not be turkey, but it will be edible and not give you food poisoning,” she admitted softly. “We could watch the parade together if you don’t have any plans for the whole day instead of just having dinner together.”
“I’d like that.”
“I have something for you,” he suddenly said, getting to his feet. “Shut your eyes.”
Lily quickly shut her eyes and imagined him standing there before suddenly feeling his hands on her shoulders and feeling his breath on her cheek. She felt something cold touch her just below her collarbone. Her fingers fluttered blindly upwards to touch it immediately.
“Utterly gorgeous,” he whispered and kissed her neck lightly. “Open your eyes, Lily. I wanted to thank you for being so wonderful and show you how much it meant to me.”
Opening her eyes, she saw him take his seat again and flushed at the heat in his gaze. Glancing down, she held it up and saw the bright blue stone teardrop that matched her earrings he’d given her. “This is too much,” she protested and saw him shake his head.
“No, it’s not enough, but I saw it before leaving Afghanistan and carried it home with me the entire way. I’ve been waiting to see it on you for weeks and I admit, it’s a gorgeous splash of color on a perfect canvas.”
The rest of the evening seemed to be almost magical. She was simply fascinated that this man was interested in her. Lily didn’t even taste her food, she was so enraptured by watching him talk or fascinated by the subtle things he did. When he got nervous, she noticed he would glance down and run his fingers through his hair. If he was happy, he’d give a little smile before laughing. He insisted on saying grace before their meal and held her hand as much as possible.
After dinner, he drove her back to her vehicle and she could tell he didn’t want to part. John had sent Radar into the field to use the restroom and she marveled at how the two seemed to work together perfectly. He understood his dog better than anyone she’d seen. He took that moment to kiss her goodnight, cradling her tenderly in his arms like she was infinitely precious. John was a perfect gentleman, so what was wrong?
Why her and why was she holding back?
John called his mother early the next morning simply reaching out for help. He was at a loss. It was such a perfect evening for their dinner. Lily was everything he could have hoped for or more. So why was she holding back? He could see it, the hesitation hidden deep down inside of her expressive face. She looked wary, restrained or frightened. He would never, ever hurt her.