“You know that I want to see you tonight,” she reassured Dennis, “but I just don’t feel up to going out. I think I’m coming down with that flu bug that has been making the rounds. I’m really tired, kind of achy all over, and my stomach has been doing somersaults for a couple of days. I’m just going to stay here in my nice, warm bed and try to sleep it off.”

“I could bring you chicken soup,” Dennis offered.

“Are you planning on making it yourself?” she teased.

“Absolutely,” he replied seriously. “I will head to the kitchen right now to fire up the stove. Then I’ll head out to the well to get water for the broth and catch the fattest chicken . . .”

“Enough!” she said, laughing. “My head hurts and you’re making it worse by conjuring up images of the poor chicken.”

“O.K., I’ll quit,” he responded. “I’ll call you tomorrow to see how you’re feeling.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” she said softly. “Good night.”

“Good night, honey,” Dennis said softly before hanging up the telephone.

“Honey,” she whispered to herself. Never before had a man called her that — or any other term of endearment.

Honey,” she said again, slightly louder and with a different inflection. “Honey,” she repeated one last time, as she considered the word. “Hmmm,” she murmured as she fluffed her pillow and tried to get comfortable, “I think I like it.”

For five weeks, she and Dennis had been spending every free moment together. On their first date, he took her to a local Italian restaurant owned by his best friend, Tony. The food was delicious, the atmosphere familial and comfortable, and Tony was gregarious and quite obviously auditioning her. Before the evening was over, his entire family had stopped by their table to meet her and visit. Dennis laughed apologetically, but she understood that if they did not approve, she would likely never see Dennis again.

The next day, however, Dennis reported that “they all adored you” and asked her to dine with him for the third night in a row. From that point on, they had been virtually inseparable. He was a gentleman and their physical relationship was moving forward slowly and cautiously. Dennis was affectionate, but did not press her to respond to him at a rate with which she was not comfortable which, of course, intensified her attraction to him.

Dennis did not know, of course, what had transpired on New Year’s Eve, although she alluded in conversation to the fact that there had recently been someone special in her life. But they did not pry into each other’s pasts.

“I don’t believe any of that matters now,” he told her after they had been seeing each other for a couple of weeks. “The past is over and done. You can ask me any questions that you want and I will answer them truthfully, but I don’t plan to ask you any. You can tell me anything that you want to share, but, as far as I’m concerned, the future is what is important.”

“Then you don’t have any ex-wives lurking around that you want to tell me about?” she joked. “No children stashed away? No monthly child support or paternity payments that you’ll be making for the next . . . oh, eighteen years or so?”

“Oh, yeah, I have a couple of ex-wives, but one of them fled the country and the other is incarcerated in another state, so you won’t have to worry about them interfering in our lives,” Dennis said with a perfectly straight face. But when he looked at her, he could not contain his laughter and they ended up telling each other progressively outrageous made-up tales about their lives, each trying to top the other, that left them laughing until they cried.

It was so easy to be with Dennis that she found herself falling in love with him in spite of herself. And it was clear that Dennis was completely spellbound by her. She did not understand it and most days she dared not think about what he could possibly find so attractive about her, lest she “jinx” their relationship and cause his feelings for her to dissipate. She was determined to simply enjoy being with him for as long as he wanted to be a part of her life.

In the ensuing weeks, she had heard from the man she had loved so completely on New Year’s Eve only a few times. From time to time, he called and chatted casually, but never mentioned that night — or why he left so abruptly. No words of love were spoken. It was as though none of it ever happened. In fact, she found herself wondering from time to time if she had dreamed it.

She was just dozing off when she heard a knock on the door. As she lay there debating whether or not to answer, the doorbell rang.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she grumbled. With a heavy sigh, she sat up, grabbed her robe from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around her shoulders as she padded to the living room to see who was at the door.

As she opened it slightly, she could not believe her eyes. Again unannounced, there he stood! She was speechless.

What are you doing here?” she said incredulously, suddenly remembering that she was wearing an old pair of sweat pants, baggy sweatshirt, and heavy socks. Her hair was gathered up into a bright-colored scrunchy that she would never wear in public. Hurriedly, she shoved her arms into the sleeves of her robe and let her hair down. “Come in,” she mumbled as she tied her robe shut.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call first,” he said, stepping across the threshold tentatively. “I just wanted to see you, so I took a chance on your being here.”

“Well, here I am,” she said. “I was supposed to go out tonight, but I don’t feel very well. I think I have a touch of the flu, so it might not be a good idea for you to be here with me. I wouldn’t want you to get sick, too.”

“I’ll risk it,” he grinned, his eyes twinkling, as he moved toward her. When he kissed her softly on the lips, her stomach did a couple of back flips and she felt slightly dizzy.

“Would you like to have dinner?” he said. She thought about how just a few minutes earlier she had told Dennis she would be staying at home rather than dining with him.

Guilt rushed over her when she heard herself offer, “Perhaps something light. Soup? My stomach has been bothering me for a few days.”

“Sure. Do you know of a good place around here? It’s actually a nice night for a bowl of soup. It’s a little chilly, but otherwise shaping up to be a beautiful evening,” he replied.

“As a matter of fact, I do. There’s a really lovely place down on the beach,” she explained.

“Perfect!” he said enthusiastically. “Get dressed!”

As she stood in the bathroom gazing into her reflection in the mirror she wondered how her life had reached this point. A few weeks earlier, she had paused here as she dressed for her first date alone with Dennis, feeling hopeful, optimistic and . . . what was the word she was looking for? Valued? Validated? No, that wasn’t quite right.

Then it came to her. Worthy. With Dennis she felt valued and validated, but she also felt worthy. For the first time in her life. Worthy of the affection and warmth he gave her so willingly and without reservation.

Now here she was again — in the same room looking into the same mirror. But she was agonizingly cognizant of her emotional reversion. She felt familiarly tenuous, unsure of herself, nervous. Her hands shook as she brushed her hair and wondered what the evening held in store. Would it be a repeat of New Year’s Eve? Would she let it be? If so, what would it mean? She shivered as her stomach rumbled and she felt slightly nauseous, anticipating the evening that lay ahead. “I shouldn’t be going anywhere except to bed,” she told herself as she shut off the light and turned to rejoin him.

“All set?” he asked as she entered the living room.

She nodded tentatively as she locked the door and they headed off to the beach.

Click here to read Chapter Seventeen

Inspired by the Writer’s Island prompt: “Spellbound”