Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Salesman's Son (3)

Chapter Two

      In 1910, Zim enrolled at Yale.
      It had been a battle of wills against his grandmother, who was predictably horrified at the idea of any of her grandchildren being educated in a northern institution, no matter how prestigious. His father, perhaps surprisingly, had defended the decision though, and ultimately was able to bring it about by swearing that Zim would return to Carolina at the end of his degree. Of course, though a grown man of seventeen, Zim was denied any say in the final decision, content at least that he would be able to attend a university so close to New York, a city about which he had read much over the years, and which seemed like a world apart from his life in the South.
      And so he left Charleston once again, this time to travel even further into Yankee territory, to uninspired New Haven. He wouldn’t have been entirely honest if he hadn’t admitted that the fact that his grandmother disliked the idea so much made him enjoy the train ride north even more. Ever the dutiful but cynical grandson, he even penned her letter along the way, posting it in New York when he changed trains for the last leg of his journey.
      Just as he had assimilated easily into the boarding school in Virginia, Zim was almost immediately and universally well-liked at Yale. At first, some were suspicious of his elongated vowels and deliberate manner of both moving and speaking, but they were quickly overlooked as Zim revealed himself to be game for entertainments of all sorts, not to mention fully acquainted with the pursuits of a well-bred gentleman, from cards to cars and all things in between. A well-placed quote from Socrates even established him to be scholarly enough, though not unsocially bookish.
      What Zim found difficult to adjust to was the pace and attitude of northern sophisticates. He had been raise to think that there was a universal etiquette in the “right kind” of circles, things that entailed rising when a lady entered a room and always offering a lady a compliment in the course of conversation, even if the compliment was merely perfunctory. In New Haven, and even more so in New York though, they seemed to have a wholly different code of conduct, though there was no question that those young and monied sons were of the same “right kind” of circle that was his own birthright. And so, Zim found himself simultaneously at risk of being labeled old-fashioned – or worse, a country bumpkin – as well as a hardened flirt. He walked a fine line his entire first semester, trying to emulate the habits of his peers as best as he was able, until at last he was able to find a handful of other southern-born sons at the august university.
      Chief among this set was a likeable young man by the memorable name of Saxby Allston. Saxby – Sax to most of the boys – was the epitome of both the southern gentleman and the southern stereotype. He was confident and brash; he talked and drank too much; and he was known to make the ladies blush redder than their painted lips. Most importantly, Sax could guarantee a good time, and any brand of good time. He was older than Zim by two years, but they were in the same year at Yale, and when they met at one of the clubs, early in Zim's second semester, everyone attested that it was like a meeting of the minds, the two seeming as though they had been brothers mistakenly separated at birth. From their first encounter, there was no good thing Sax couldn't say about Zim nor the other way around. Their shared experience of growing up in reconstruction states, being raised by once great families, and having errant fathers only strengthened their bond as their first year came to a close.
      "The boys around here say that I could drink a sailor under the table, but they have never – nor will they ever – meet my father. Now there is a man no stranger to the bottle," Sax confessed one night as the two sat in one of the empty club rooms on campus, smoking and of course drinking.
      "At least you can say that much about your father," Zim said quietly, staring moodily into his nearly empty glass. He had been morose for the better part of the day, the result of a particularly strident letter from his grandmother and a frustrating one from Charlotte. "I don't know a thing about my father well enough to say with any certainty. He might drink. He might womanize. Only he and God know what he does because my mother and I sure as Hell don't."
      "There are worse things than not knowing your father," Sax mused after a sympathetic pause. "I don't know that I wouldn't have traded mine for an absent one. Would have lessened the number of beatings as a kid, that's for sure."
      They fell silent again, nothing but the smoke filling the air between them.
      Although Zim was more concerned with the social aspects of life at Yale than he was with his courses, he maintained standing as a good student and was allowed to equally split his courses between banking and law because he couldn't bring himself to decide between the two. He felt certain he could tolerate a career in either and that both, being respectable enterprises, would eventually lead him to the sort of life he envisioned for himself.
      But even the life he envisioned for himself was split in two. On the one hand he longed to escape the depression of his beloved Carolina. Beyond his less than pleasant family situation, the place itself was riddled with the baggage of a war lost and the burden of a loser's reconstruction. Although nearly fifty years post-war, the South had yet to rise again, yet alone to the splendor it had once known, the splendor that was idealized to him as a child and seared unto his mind as if the antebellum memories were his own. –Which is what rest on the other hand for him. He would sometimes imagine himself going back to Charleston and being useful to the city’s revitalization. Perhaps even becoming a city figure of some kind. A savior who would finally be able to restore the old jewel of the south to her former glory, lift the downtrodden lady from her knees, so to speak, and breathe new and beautiful life into her...
      But that was just the hero complex in him.
      In his rational mind, he knew such a dream was distant from reality, and what little of it might be realized would require time and effort and commitment, not to mention money, which though he didn't necessarily lack, remained precarious so long as it depended on his Mamaw's favor.
      While one part of him longed for glory, the other part of Zim eschewed it. He reminded himself that he would be better off simply dedicating himself to amassing a fortune and being happy with that pursuit. He was certain he’d be able to find a pretty young wife to make and keep his home when the time was right. Perhaps he could even add to his fortune through marriage. After all, the Montjoy name was nothing to turn up a nose at. His family had been early settlers of the Carolina colony, Revolutionary patriots before they'd turned Confederate rebels, and his name still had gold to lend it a bit of polish and plenty of respectability. He might not catch the fancy of a northern girl, concerned with her New York nightlife or Newport summer home, or the Such-and-such family of Boston, but who wanted a cold, northern girl anyhow? Give him a sweet southern belle, a flirt and a tease, and he could easily find himself content. Of anything, Zim was sure of this.
      That's not to say the New York girls didn't catch his eye though.
      When the boys went around town, he saw plenty of girls, even stepped out with a few on occasion, but there always seemed to be a decided lack of connection. It went back to his sense that Yankees had a different social code than the one he had known so well. It seemed no one had taught any of the New York debutantes to flirt, and some reacted with sharp gasps and sharper words when he said something they considered “too forward,” but he considered the most ordinary compliment. Some of the other boys even teased him on occasion for "chasing the ladies away."
      "Where I was raised, if you saw a pretty girl, you let her know how pretty she was, and she accepted such a compliment as her proper due. Can't a gentleman tell a lady she's lovely north of the Mason-Dixon?" Zim asked one evening after having sent a waitress hurrying away with a blush on her cheeks while he grinned after her retreating figure.
      Saxby, having witnessed the little drama, laughed. "It's not a matter of telling her, it's how you do it, Zim. I've never seen a girl leave your side without blushing scarlet."
      "I like to see a bit of pink in a lady's cheeks," Zim insisted.
      "Putting some pink there is one thing, but I said scarlet. You have them red to their ears, though God knows what you say to do it."
      With them that night was one of the few Yankees of their set, William Davenport Lawley, Jr., a Philadelphia man with a somewhat nervous temperament, always cautioning them against their latest prank, but in the end always grudgingly joining in. Wills, as they called him, tried to get Zim to reveal what it was he did say to make the girls blush that way, but Zim winked and refused to tell, claiming it as a “trade secret.”
      The club they were at in Manhattan was slowly losing its crowd as the time neared two in the morning, and the boys headed outside for a last cigarette, still teasing Zim.
      “Wills, run and find that stupid car we hired, will you?” Sax asked after a few minutes. “We’ll freeze if we don’t get off these streets soon.”
      One thing neither Zim nor Sax could get used to was the cold. Even in April the wind in New York could be biting and both men found no comfort in either their lifted collars or thick scarves.
      Wills went off to get the car, but not without a wondering comment about what kind of men they were if they couldn’t stand a little Spring chill. When he was out of hearing distance, the silence of the empty streets seemed to surround Zim and Sax, the latter obviously having something to say but taking his time to say it.
      “When was the last time you took a girl out, Zim?” he asked casually.
      “I don’t know. Probably the last dance over at Vassar we went to. February, wasn’t it? Claimed it was a Spring dance, but I remember there being seven inches of snow.” Zim shook his head remembering.
      “Seems like it’s been a while is all,” Sax observed. “Unless, of course, you're not really interested in any of the girls here..."
      There was no pretending that Sax was subtle.
      Zim had begun to mention Charlotte with greater frequency and it was obvious from Sax’s pointed stare that he was implying that Zim had designs on the girl – designs that included marriage. Wise to the implication, Zim did not rise to the bait, instead shrugging in disinterest. He was saved from having to give any further response by a black car rounding the corner, reflecting the yellow street lamps. It slowed and Wills threw open the back door so that the other two could slide in.

Untitled 1: Part 8 (I'm tired of the roman numerals)

Mike’s eyes fluttered open and he stretched. Eileen was not in bed with him, and for an instant, he felt panic rising. Then he remembered that he was in her house, her bed, and it wasn’t likely that she’d gone far. He also vaguely remembered waking up a little earlier when she had crawled out of bed, but he’d drifted back to sleep. Sitting up now, he saw his clothes folded neatly at the foot of the bed, along with a toothbrush, towel, and bar of soap. There was a folded slip of paper, and in Eileen’s neat script, he read, “Ran out to get stuff for breakfast. Back soon. E.”

How cute, he thought. He still couldn’t believe he was here. The night before had been intense, and they’d woken twice during the night and made love again. The first time, he had woken and the feel of her back against his chest and her warm bottom pressed against him was too much to handle. He’d absent-mindedly begun to stroke her breasts and kiss her neck, and she had gradually wakened with him. It was slow and gentle, and she had wrapped her legs around his waist, clinging to him as he took her. The second time, he had woken to find himself completely engulfed in her mouth. He’d almost lost it in that instant. Tina had never done that over the course of their marriage. He had gone down on her many times, but she had never offered to reciprocate, and he never questioned her about it. So, to find himself like that with Eileen had almost driven him over the edge before he was even fully awake. Fortunately, Eileen was very in tune with his body, and slowed it down until he could regain control. That time, she was almost rough with him, her hunger spilling over as she crushed his lips with her kisses and held onto him as she rode him. Just thinking about it made him hard again.

Mike sat up and arched his back, enjoying how good he felt. It was tempting to just stay in bed. He rarely slept in, but didn’t want Eileen to think he was lazy, either. He flopped back on the sheets, aware that they were still damp from their mingled sweat, redolent with pheromones. After a few minutes, he got up and stripped the sheets, then walked down the hall and loaded them in the washer, but not before he inhaled the fragrance of them one more time. He then made his way to the bathroom, figuring he could at least be presentable when Eileen got back. His reflection revealed that he was a little scruffy, but he didn’t have a razor. Instead, he brushed his teeth, then turned on the water in the shower.

Steam was billowing around him as he soaped up, humming to himself. As the hot water needled his skin, he closed his eyes, reliving the night before. Soft skin, whispered words, the taste of her lips. He was lost in reverie when the curtain was suddenly yanked back. He nearly lost his footing he was so startled, but Eileen reached out and steadied him.

She was smiling at him and he took in her appearance. Her hair was pulled back into a high, damp ponytail, and her face was dewy with sweat. She was wearing a blue and white sports bra and blue jogging shorts. She reached down and unlaced her running shoes, simultaneously kicking them off and pulling the sports bra over her head.

“Want some company?”

Still amazed by his luck, Mike nodded. He watched as she peeled off the sweaty jogging shorts and stripped off the plain white cotton panties, which were a stark contrast to the sexy satin ones she’d worn the night before. Not that he cared. Underwear was underwear, though it appeared she had a knack for choosing styles and colors that complemented her sexy figure.
Eileen stepped into the shower, pulling the curtain closed behind her. Mike steered her into the warm spray of water and she sighed.

“It’s weird how it can be so flipping hot out, but a hot shower still feels good.” She tilted her head back, letting the water run over her hair. She rolled her head from side to side, easing out a sleep-induced kink. “It is really miserable outside. I can’t stand the humidity.”

“Then why did you go out?” he asked. “You didn’t have to run out for breakfast, especially since it appears you literally ran. You probably shouldn’t be running in this weather anyway.”

She shampooed her hair as she spoke. “I have to. If I miss even one day, I’ll never want to start again. I missed a few days this week because of the bee stings and I was on the verge of completely losing my motivation. I grumble and moan about my diet and exercise, but I need to keep healthy. And running helps me to clear my head, especially after a long work week.” She rinsed out the shampoo and applied conditioner, then pulled on a funny looking pair of gloves and began soaping herself up as the conditioner worked its magic on her frizzy tresses.

Mike was puzzled. “What in the world do you have on your hands?”

“Loofah gloves. They really help to exfoliate.”

“Exfoliate? That sounds scary.”

She laughed. “No, it actually feels really good. Here, let me rub you down.”

He took a step back from her. “I don’t think so.”

“Oh, come on. Live a little.”

He watched her warily as she raised her hands and began to rub his chest with the rough, nubby material. He relaxed under her ministrations. She was right. It did feel good. And weird. But mostly good. And it felt even better when she pulled him closer under the warm spray and wrapped her arms around him. She rubbed his back as the water came down, and she rested her chin on his shoulder. He gently massaged her scalp as the water rinsed away the conditioner. She sighed and snuggled in closer, kissing his neck.

“Too bad you have to work today. We could’ve gone to the beach or something.”

Mike grunted. “I’m not exactly a beach kind of guy.” He nibbled on her ear and whispered, “But we could’ve stayed in bed all day.”

Eileen rubbed up against him, trapping him between her thighs. “Want to call in sick?”

“Don’t tempt me,” he growled.

He turned her so that her back was pressed against the shower wall and kissed her. She responded by bringing her right leg up and hooking it around his waist. She trailed kisses along his neck and said, “We can take advantage of the rest of the morning. Give you something to think about during your shift.”

Mike moaned softly as he eased himself into her, partly because he was sore from the number of times they’d made love, but mostly because he felt so damn good. Eileen practically purred as she met him thrust for thrust. It was quick, but good. They were both caught up in the afterglow when Eileen suddenly shrieked as the water turned ice cold. Mike hurriedly turned off the faucet.

They both stood there, dripping and laughing. Mike grabbed a towel and wrapped Eileen in it, briskly rubbing her to warm her up. He pulled her close and said, “You know, getting all wet is what got you in trouble in the first place, little lady.”

She wrapped her arms around him, resting her cheek against his shoulder. “I know. But it’s nice.” She closed her eyes for a moment and just stood there against him. “You better watch out,” she murmured. “I could get used to this.”

Mike turned her face up toward his and softly kissed her lips. “I could get used to it, too. So, maybe you’re the one who ought to watch out.”

“I’m fine with it if you’re fine with it.”

He nodded and tugged the towel away from her body, wanting to feel her skin next to his. While admiring her rear view in the large mirror, he noticed something that he hadn’t seen the night before.

“Is that a tattoo on your back?”

“Yeah. You didn’t notice it last night?”

“No.” He ran his hands over it. It was an ace of spades in the center of her lower back. “Does it have some kind of significance? Or did you just do it on a crazy whim on spring break in Florida?”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Contrary to what my behaviors indicated last night, I typically don’t do anything on a whim. I actually gave it a lot of thought beforehand, knowing full well it was a lifetime decision.” A small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Some people associate aces with poker or blackjack, but for me it’s a little more significant. I remember reading somewhere that during World War II, American prisoners in the German camps were sent decks of cards. If the prisoners moistened the Ace of Spades and peeled it apart, they would find a section of a map inside with an escape route. Later on, in the Vietnam War, soldiers would put an ace of spades in the front of their helmets. I think for some, it was sort of anti-peace sign, but I learned in school that it was kind of a psychological weapon. There was a superstition that the Vietnamese believed the spade meant death. Even though it was kind of an old wives tale, a lot of guys believed in it, and even if it wasn’t true, it probably boosted their morale a little.”

Mike kissed her forehead, slightly embarrassed over his lack of knowledge, especially considering his own stint in the military. “So, you cook, you do interior design, you’re fantastic in bed, you’re a homicide detective, and you can give history lessons. You are something else, Eileen Riley.”

“Yes I am. And you’re stuck with me now.”

“I can’t imagine wanting to be stuck with anyone else.”

Though neither of them said anything else as they made their way back to Eileen’s room to dress, Mike was sure that this new relationship would last far beyond a one night stand. They were both too sensitive for this to be a fling, and too old for the games and consequences of casual sex. After dressing, Eileen served up a fabulous breakfast of whole grain bagels with low-fat cream cheese, yogurt, egg-white omelets, and fresh fruit. Mike was embarrassed over the fuss she made, but loved it at the same time.

He gazed across the table at her, amazed at how young and fresh she looked. She wore a white tank top with a white and red floral print skirt. Today, she was wearing bright red flip-flops. He smiled as he took her in, noticing how she wore no jewelry except a pair of pearl stud earrings. She had her hair casually pulled back into a low ponytail and was makeup free, except for a hint of ruby-colored lip stain. He felt grossly underdressed in his jeans and polo shirt from the day before.

Eileen caught Mike staring and blushed. She seemed to be blushing an awful lot around him lately. “What are you looking at?”

He slowly shook his head back and forth. “You. I’m looking at you. You don’t get it. You’re beautiful. I’ve known you for four years, and yet, I never realized until last night that you’re stunning. Whenever I see you on the job, you’re always in those damn dark suits and looking so serious. Right now, you look ten years younger. Hell, Eileen, you look like jail bait.”

She blushed harder, but laughed good-naturedly. “You’re good for my self-esteem. Can I keep you?”

Mike reached across the table and took her hand. He kissed each of her knuckles and fingertips. “I would love for you to keep me.”

“Deal,” she whispered.

They finished breakfast and Mike helped her load the dishwasher. Afterward, he leaned against the counter, ankles crossed, lingering over a cup of coffee as she busied herself wiping the counters, humming along with a country song that was quietly playing from her kitchen radio.
Her movements were quick and focused until the next song came on. Looking at him with a bright smile, she draped the towel she was holding over the back of a chair, and did a pirouette. Before he knew what was happening, she had his hands grasped tightly in her own and they were moving around the kitchen floor in a slow dance. She rested her forehead on his shoulder, singing quietly. He didn’t recognize the song, but understood the significance of the words as she sang along. “We could keep things just the same/Leave here the way we came/With nothing to lose/But I don’t want to/If you don’t want to...”

When the song was over, she continued to sway back and forth for another few seconds, loving the feel of Mike’s hard body next to her own. They were both quiet for a few minutes, just holding each other, neither one wanting to break the magic of the moment.

Finally, Mike sighed. “I really wish I hadn’t agreed to pick up this extra shift. I’d love to spend the day with you.”

She kissed him lightly on the lips. “I know. Me too. But maybe we can meet for lunch on Monday since you’re off.”

“Sounds good. I work again Tuesday through Friday, then I’m off again for a few days.”
He pulled a piece of paper from the table by the kitchen phone and wrote down his number. “Call me at home, okay?”

“I will.”


“Of course I promise. I’ll even make something good for lunch on Monday.”

He wrapped her in a warm hug and they stood that way for a few minutes, just holding each other there in the kitchen. Reluctantly, he let her go.

“I should get moving. I need to stop off at home before my shift.”

She nodded against his neck, then sighed. “I should get moving, too. I have an appointment out in Lake Zurich this afternoon.”

“What in the world is out in Lake Zurich?”

“Dentist,” she replied. “I’m lucky he’s got hours on Saturdays.”

Eileen grabbed her purse and car keys, and she and Mike, holding hands, walked out to the garage. The air was heavy with humidity, the ground still wet from the previous night’s storms.
Mike inhaled deeply. “I love the way the air smells after a good rain.”

Eileen nodded in agreement. “It does smell good. Sort of like everything has been swept clean. A new day, a new beginning.”

Her hand felt lost in his and when she looked up at him, she saw that he was smiling. “What are you smiling about?”

“You. Us. What a night, huh?”

“That’s an understatement. And what a morning, too.”

“Yeah.” Strong arms pulled her in close and she could feel Mike’s chin resting on top of her head. “Eileen, I need to ask you something.”

“Of course.” She was slouching slightly, her head pressed against his chest and his voice was deep, reverberating under her ear.

“Was last night okay?”

Picking up her head and looking deep into his eyes, she smiled. A real smile. “It was absolutely okay. Why wouldn’t it be? Are you worried that I’m having second thoughts? If there were any second thoughts even lurking in the back of my brain, last night never would have happened.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. I’m not worried about second thoughts. I know I don’t have any, that’s for sure. It’s just,” he swallowed and looked away from her. “What I mean is, like you thought it was really okay? I was okay? I mean you liked it? And you like me?”

Eileen was incredulous. “Are you actually being serious?”

Mike, still not looking at her, nodded slowly. “I’m way out of practice. I mean, way, way out of practice. You said last night you were afraid of disappointing me, but I was terrified of disappointing you.”

“Mike, you’ve got to be kidding. But you’re not, are you?” When he shook his head, she plunged ahead. “Last night was amazing. Wonderful. If it wouldn’t blow your ego into outer space, I’d tell you that you’re a total stud.” She smiled when he blushed. Cupping his face between her hands, she forced him to look at her. “I never would have even entertained the thought of going to bed with you if I didn’t already like you. And I do like you. A lot. And after last night, I can say that I like you that way, too. You practically set my whole body on fire. Woke up a part of me that I didn’t know was there. Saying that I enjoyed it is nowhere near sufficient. Were you in the same room with me? The same bed? The same shower?”

Leaning in, Mike gave her a feather light kiss, his lips barely touching hers with a sheer gossamer caress. “I was there. Oh, I was there all right. You had me totally and completely. You still do.” Nuzzling against her neck, his hot breath on her skin, he whispered, “You can still have me if you want.”

Shivers ran down her spine. “I still want you. That’s not an issue.” Looking up at him, her arms around his neck, she planted a hard kiss on him. “And not just in a physical way. Your body isn’t the only thing that stimulates me.”

“That’s good to know. See, I’m not all brawn. I’ve got brains, too.”

“Of course you do. And so do I. Which is why we both need to get going. You have to work and I have to get to the dentist.”

As they stood in front of the garage, Eileen noticed the marked squad slowly driving past her house. She couldn’t tell who the officer was, but she waved in greeting anyway. He returned the gesture with a friendly wave of his own.

She raised an eyebrow at Mike. “You know, people are going to find out about this. Even if we don’t say a word, Officer Friendly over there is bound to shoot off his mouth to somebody.”

Mike shrugged. “Do you care?”

Eileen carefully weighed her words. “Not for myself. I’m perfectly capable of handling gossip and rumors.” Mike nodded, knowing about some of the vicious rumors that circulated around her partnership with Ryan. Eileen looked at him with a serious expression. “But I don’t want to put you in a compromised position.”

“I won’t be. Really.” He noticed her dubious look and pulled her close to his chest. “Listen to me. We’re two adults. Consenting adults. Neither of us is married, we don’t have families to worry about.”

He noticed that she had stiffened, but she didn’t say anything, so he continued. “If people want to gossip, that’s their business. As long as we’re not doing anything to jeopardize our jobs or anyone else, it doesn’t matter what people say. And if anyone gives you crap, let me know and I’ll beat them senseless. And if anyone gives me crap, I’ll tell you and can pistol whip them or something, okay?”

She was still stiff in his arms, but she smiled and nodded. He kissed the tip of her nose. “I really do have to get going.”

“Me, too,” she said, standing next to his motorcycle, watching as he pulled off his cap. He was getting ready to put it away, but thought better of it and put it on Eileen’s head instead.
She laughed and pulled it low over her forehead, snaking her ponytail through the back as he strapped on his helmet. He reached out and stroked her cheek for a second before reluctantly straddling the bike.

Eileen ran her fingers over the smooth chrome. “Maybe you can take me for a ride sometime. I’ve never been on a motorcycle.”

“You bet, kiddo. How about next weekend? Or even the weekend after. I’m off for the holiday.” He hesitated for a second, but then forged ahead with what he was thinking. “Maybe we could go away overnight somewhere Friday or Saturday. With the Fourth being on Thursday, places shouldn’t be too crowded. We could get a cabin out at Starved Rock. Or go to…I don’t know. Somewhere.”

She nodded enthusiastically. “Sounds like a plan. Let’s talk more on Monday and we’ll work out the details.” She kissed the tip of her finger, and then tweaked his nose through the opening in the helmet. “I can hardly wait.”

“Me too,” he said. He kicked up the stand on his bike and began walking it out of the garage. “I…” He stopped short.


He shook his head. “Nothing. I’ll talk to you on Monday. I’ll miss you until then.” The bike roared to life and he rolled down the driveway. He raised his hand in a final farewell gesture, thinking how dangerously close he’d come to blurting out that he loved her. He tried to convince himself that he was confusing loving feelings with the sexual feelings he had for her, but he knew that wasn’t it. It didn’t seem possible, but he felt things stirring in him, a longing that he thought he’d lost the day he buried his wife. But it was still there, and the tiny spark he’d felt last night, that had turned into a flicker the second he kissed Eileen, was fast turning into a burning flame.
* * *
Mike sailed through his Saturday shift and Sunday dawned hot and bright. He was lingering in bed, deciding what to do to ease his cabin fever. He felt restless, but giddy and full of energy. It was too hot to really do anything outside, but he didn’t want to sit at home all day, either. He mulled it over as he showered, finally deciding to go downtown and wander around, do some window shopping.

He ate breakfast alone at his small kitchen table, thinking how funny it was to be eating Honey Nut Cheerios when just the morning before, he’d been eating breakfast with Eileen. He flipped through the Sunday paper, and decided to go head to church before he went downtown. He hadn’t gone for a few weeks, and after his amazing night with Eileen, he thought it would be nice to give thanks, lose himself spiritually, and make his soul shiny. It would be a good way to start the week.

Mike sat toward the back of the church, a habit he’d picked up when Tina was still alive. Poor Tina had suffered from terrible claustrophobia and had preferred to sit in back near the doors. The idea of sitting in front with all those people behind her had caused anxiety attacks, and she just couldn’t do it.

Mass was short and Mike smiled to himself during Communion, remembering their wedding day and how terrified Tina had looked as she walked up this same aisle. He knew she’d been completely freaked out knowing all the wedding guests would be looking at her back. But she knew how important a Catholic wedding was to him, and it was a sacrifice she was willing to make.

After mass ended, he hung around for a few extra minutes, as he always did. He loved the feeling of sitting in the big cavernous space. He always felt closer to God, and today was no exception. He said a few silent prayers, remembering to thank God for all the blessings in his life, and offering up a weak apology for the night he’d spent with Eileen. Growing up Catholic, he was aware of the teachings on pre-marital sex. He and Tina had waited, and he hadn’t shared a sexual bond with anyone else until last night. He waited for guilt to consume him, but it didn’t. Thinking about it, he wondered if maybe it was because he was older, or just because of everything he’d been through, but it didn’t feel wrong. He and Eileen had a mutual respect for each other and the time they’d spent together was special. It wasn’t just because Eileen was beautiful and kind. Their lovemaking had a spiritual quality to it, something that went far beyond just sex. It wasn’t just about joining their bodies, though they certainly had done that. He felt connected to her in a different way now.

Mike continued to think about it for a few minutes, then pushed the thoughts away. It was what it was. And whatever it was, he knew it was special. On his way out, he lit a candle, just like always, in memory of Tina. He hesitated for a second, then bowed his head and lit a second candle. As he watched the flame glow, he hoped it indicated a bright new chapter in his life.

Two hours later, Mike was walking around a Michigan Avenue shop, still basking in the glow of his lovemaking with Eileen when a framed picture caught his eye. It was a huge black and white print of Wrigley Field at night, and he knew it would look perfect on Eileen’s dining room wall. On a whim, he grabbed it and paid for it, glad now that he’d come downtown.

He left the shop and was getting ready to cross the street and head back to the parking garage, thinking about the picture, and feeling really glad that he’d taken his car instead of his bike. And that was when he saw her.

He did a double-take when he saw Eileen walking out of the ice-cream shop. His heart fluttered in his chest and he couldn’t help smiling. He raised his hand and was ready to call out her name, figuring that her softball game had been cancelled for today, when he saw her holding the door open for the man behind her. She’s so nice, he thought.

What he saw next made his blood run like ice-water in his veins.

The man leaned forward and whispered something in her ear that made her laugh. She said something back to him, and he took Eileen’s hand and kissed her on the cheek. Mike felt sick to his stomach as he watched them walk away. The picture he carried suddenly felt unbearably heavy, heavier than his heart felt sitting in his chest. He didn’t remember walking back to his car and putting the picture in his trunk, or pulling out of the parking garage. The drive home was a blur. The next thing he remembered was sitting at his kitchen table, wiping tears from his cheeks.
* * *
Eileen plugged along through Monday morning, drinking an extra cup of coffee to keep her going. As the lunch hour drew closer, she tried calling Mike for the third time. She was sure he said he was going to be off today. They were supposed to make plans for next weekend. She gnawed on her lower lip, wondering if maybe he’d had to pick up an extra shift with Rodriguez out. But if he’d had to work, he would have called.

She thought about it for the next ten minutes, then decided the hell with it, and called the station house. Someone answered on the third ring.

“Chicago Fire Department, this is Brian.”

Eileen was relieved it was at least someone she knew. “Hey, Jamieson. It’s Eileen Riley.”

“Riley! What’s going on pretty lady?”

She smiled. “Not much. I was actually wondering if Mike was in.”

“Nope. He’s off today. Not due back in until tomorrow afternoon. But he usually comes in a few hours early, just to shoot the breeze with the guys. You can try back maybe around twelve, one o’clock tomorrow.”

Eileen’s heart sank. “Okay. Thanks Brian.”

She hung up the phone, wondering what was going on. He couldn’t be blowing her off. Could he? That would just be plain mean after the night they’d spent together. He wasn’t at home, wasn’t at work. But he had to be somewhere. She dialed Mike’s home number again, frowning as all she heard was ring after ring. She hung up after the eighth ring. Not even an answering machine to leave a message. She clicked her ballpoint pen against her teeth, finally deciding to just eat without him. He’d turn up eventually.

Looking at the cooler next to her desk, she felt a heavy rock forming in the pit of her stomach. Something had to be wrong. But what? Eileen tried to shrug it off. “Ryan?”

Ryan looked across his desk at her. “What’s up, Lee-Lee?”

“You hungry? I’ve got extra food today. Good stuff.”

Never one to pass up a free meal, Ryan bounded across and peeked in the cooler. “What do you have? I’m starving.”
* * *

Back in his apartment, Mike sat alone on his couch, holding his head in his hands, trying to ignore the hollow feeling in his chest that seemed to get bigger each the time the phone rang, growing and expanding until he was engulfed in emptiness.
* * *

Monday night, Eileen tried several more times to get in touch with Mike. She was having trouble believing that he was only interested in a one-night stand. He didn’t seem like that kind of guy at all and after the tender words and sweetness prior to their departure, it was even harder to believe that he’d changed his mind. Unless maybe he was feeling guilty about Tina.

It was well after midnight before Eileen finally settled down enough to go to bed, and after two before she finally fell asleep. Even then, her sleep was restless. She tossed and turned, feeling uncomfortable, nagging fears and doubts plaguing her. At five-thirty, she forced herself to get up and go out for a morning run. She waved to the officer out in front, then focused on nothing but the task in front of her, which was simply to get in her five miles. As she ran, she found herself wondering if maybe Mike had bailed because of the case she was working on. Or what if…the thought crashed so hard into Eileen that she actually stumbled and almost fell. What if whoever was stalking her got to Mike?

Trying to quiet the doubts, she reminded herself that Mike was a strong man, someone to be reckoned with. He’d worked on Saturday, of that she was sure. Brian Jamieson had said nothing about him not showing up for his last shift. There had to be some other explanation.

Cutting her run short, she sprinted towards home, wanting to get in a good shower and a solid breakfast before starting her day. In the shower, she hurried to get ready, getting clean in record time. Back in her bedroom, she pulled on a lightweight, cotton pair of navy blue slacks and a crisp, white linen blouse. Looking in the mirror, she smiled to herself. If she’d had her hair in pigtails, she would have looked exactly as she had when she was attending Catholic grade school. Eileen skipped putting on makeup. She knew that her skin was pretty good, and there was nothing she could do about the dark circles under her eyes anyway. She threw a few necessities in her purse then sat in the kitchen, eating a bowl of Cheerios and a banana. Her stomach was churning, but she knew she needed to eat something if she planned on getting through the morning without fainting.

She threw lunch together, packing enough for two, and was out the door before seven o’clock. She’d be getting in early today, but maybe that was a good thing. She could re-read some of the files from the cases she and Ryan were working on. Plus, she wanted to take a little bit longer lunch. If Mike was still working today, she had every intention of catching up with him.

Tuesday afternoon, after trying three more times to get in touch with Mike on the phone, Eileen decided that she had to know what was going on. In throwing lunch together that morning, she had packed a soft, insulated cooler with homemade chicken salad, croissants, mixed salad greens, fresh squeezed orange juice, a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and slices of homemade blueberry pie, carefully tucked into Tupperware containers. As she drove to the fire station, her mind kept wandering back to Friday night and Saturday morning, and the sheer intensity of making love with Mike. She was thoroughly confused as to why he had missed their lunch date, but whatever his reasons, she wanted to know. It was more than that. She needed to know. The thought of beginning something so special and intimate and then losing it made her feel ill.

Pulling into the parking lot, she noticed that Mike’s motorcycle was parked along the side of the building. She was relieved and scared at the same time. If his bike was there, it meant he was there and he was okay. She checked her reflection in the rearview mirror, smoothed her windblown hair and blotted sweat off her face with a tissue. She was glad she had skipped makeup, knowing full well that because of the heat and humidity, it would have all melted off. Now, though, she was feeling self-conscious. The circles under her eyes told quite a story, and she didn’t want Mike to know that she’d been worried sick. She dabbed concealer over the circles and swept a sheer mineral powder over her face, finishing with a hastily applied layer of rosy-colored lip gloss, giving her mouth a slightly pouty look. That’s about the best I can do, she thought. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out of the car, pulling the cooler with her.

One of the garage doors was open, but it didn’t feel right to just walk in. Instead, she walked over to the set of double doors and rang the doorbell. Brian Jamieson was working again, and he gave her a big smile as he opened the door.

“Hey, Eileen.” He eyeballed the cooler and sighed. “I’m guessing you’re looking for Mike and that you don’t have anything in your cooler for me.”

She smiled at him. “You would be correct.”

He stuck his tongue out at her. “Fine. I’ll go get Mike.” He disappeared as Eileen waited in the doorway enjoying the blast of air conditioning.

Mike was reading the paper in the lounge when Brian came in with a grin on his face. “Hey Mikey. You got a visitor waiting for you downstairs.”

“Don’t call me Mikey. I can’t stand that. And what do you mean I have a visitor? Who would be visiting me at work?”

“Your lady friend. She looks real good today. Looks like she brought you lunch, too. Lucky bastard. Good food and a good looking woman. I’m already jealous.” He gave Mike a playful one-two punch on the shoulder, then disappeared.

Mike took a deep breath. He’d thought that Eileen would have gotten the hint to back off when he didn’t answer her calls the day before. And he knew it had to be her calling him over and over again. The only other time his phone rang was if his mom was calling or they needed him for overtime at the station. Going downstairs, Mike steeled himself for whatever was going to happen. When he saw Eileen, he thought his heart was going to stop and he silently cursed himself for feeling so weak around her. Even in her boring dark blue slacks and white blouse, she looked beautiful and he couldn’t help but let it have an effect on him. Her smile practically beamed from her face when she saw him, but it faded quickly when she noticed the serious expression on his face. He stepped past her and pushed the door open, motioning for her to follow him, which she did.

“Mike,” she began, but he held up a finger, indicating for her to be quiet. She snapped her mouth shut.

He glared at her. “You shouldn’t be here.”

She was taken aback by his venomous tone. “I’m sorry. I had been trying to call you and I know you’re working this afternoon, but,” she hefted up the cooler, “I thought since we didn’t meet for lunch yesterday, we could do it today.”

“I don’t think so.”

Eileen was visibly upset. “Do you mind telling me what’s gong on? We had an amazing night together and I thought we were entering into a relationship. I’m not exactly the kind of person who engages in a one-night stand.”

Mike raised an eyebrow at her, disdain clearly evident on his face. “You sure about that?”

Shock and rage crashed over Eileen. “Just what in the hell is that supposed to mean?” She was aware that she had raised her voice, and dropped it down to just above a whisper. “What exactly are you implying? I’m ready to jump in here and make a commitment to a relationship with you, and you’re backing out. Why?”

Mike rolled his eyes and turned to go back into the station house.

Eileen grabbed his shoulder but he shrugged her hand away, continuing to walk away from her. “Wait. Tell me what’s going on. If you’re going to blow me off, you could at least be fair and give me some kind of explanation.”

He whirled on her, fire in his eyes. “Fair? Fair? I saw you downtown on Sunday, you inconsiderate bitch!”

He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, but it was like a dam had broken loose, and he was helpless to stop the words that spilled out.

Eileen paled. Now it made sense. “Shit. I can explain.”

“No. Don’t bother. I am not going to be some kind of boy toy for you. You say you’re not into one-night stands? I don’t believe a word you say. I’m not going to sit around like an idiot who’s only good for an occasional pity fuck for the town slut.” His voice became choked more with emotion than fury. Tears pricked his eyes, which only served to fuel his verbal assault on the woman he thought he was falling in love with. “Damn you Eileen. Damn you for making me care. Damn you for making me betray Tina’s memory.” He was angry, lashing out, wanting to hurt her for making him hurt so bad.

Her pale face actually went a shade whiter, then abruptly flooded with color, and Mike knew he couldn’t have hurt her more if he’d physically struck her. She opened her mouth as if getting ready to speak, but changed her mind. Instead, she set the cooler at Mike’s feet, then straightened up and looked him square in the eyes for a few seconds. Her chin quivered, just once. Refusing to give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry, she turned and walked slowly back to her car, her heels clicking across the pavement as she retreated in defeat.

Mike stood there, aching, watching her leave. He wanted to run after her, take her into his arms and kiss away the hurt he knew he had just caused her, but his pride kept him rooted where he stood. He watched Eileen get into her car, put her sunglasses on, and drive away. She wasn’t aggressive in her driving, didn’t speed away or squeal her tires. She simply left. She never looked back at him, not even once. He stood there, hoping she might change her mind and turn back around, but her car just kept going, without even the flash of a brake light, until it was out of sight.

He stood there, absorbing the silence. Finally, he sighed and looked down at the cooler. His curiosity got the better of him and he opened it up, touched by the thoughtfulness that Eileen had obviously put into the preparation of the lunch. It was good that she had packed so much. He could easily get two full lunches out of it, which was good since it would most likely be a very long time before he had another homemade meal.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Untitled 1: Part VII (aka the part with the naughty sex scene to make the story longer and more complicated)

Friday morning, Eileen took her time getting up. The sun was already high and hot and she was grateful for the central air conditioning she’d had installed several years earlier. These old brick bungalows retained heat like the devil himself. Fortunately, Eileen no longer had to be concerned with that issue. Stretching languorously against her soft cotton sheets she thought about what she needed to do before Mike and Ryan came over that evening. After a few moments, she was pleasantly surprised to realize that she didn’t really have anything to do other than make the cheesecake and cook the food. Excited about the prospect of having a full day for herself, she bounded out of bed, full of energy.

Eating a bowl of oatmeal, she clicked on the television and caught the weather report. Another hot one. Record breaking heat was gripping the city and she felt badly for all the people who had to go to the cooling centers. Their homes were hot, and they had to go out into worse heat to get to a safe place to cool off. After the weather report, the anchors went right into the depressing statistics about the ongoing battles in Iraq and she hurriedly clicked off the television. Nothing was going to ruin this day. Nothing.

Eileen rinsed her bowl at the sink and set it in the dish drainer, still trying to decide what to do with herself. It was only eight-thirty and the guys weren’t coming over until six. She knew she didn’t want to just sit around all day. Her body was feeling better and a quick inspection of her skin revealed that the hives were gone and the redness was almost completely gone. She really wanted to go to the zoo, but she wasn’t sure how wise it would be to subject her pale skin to the rays of the sun so soon after the violent allergic reaction she’d had. It was also time for her to get back into her morning routine of jogging, but the thought of trekking through the muggy air was not appealing to her at all.

After a few more minutes of quiet consideration, she finally decided to head up to the local mall and walk for an hour. It wasn’t quite as good as running, but she would get some exercise and maybe even squeeze in a little bit of fun shopping. She rarely did any shopping other than for groceries, and since she had a whole day for herself, she figured it wouldn’t hurt to buy something new to wear for her little dinner party tonight. Not that the guys would notice. But she would know, and it never hurt to feel pretty and feminine.

While she was washing her face and brushing her teeth, her phone rang. Curious as to who would be calling her at home, she ran back into the kitchen and saw that it was Ryan.

She got it on the fourth ring, right before the answering machine picked it up. “Hey booger face. Are you jealous that I’m off today?”

Ryan was scowling on the other end. “I hate you. It’s so not fair that I’m here working like a dog and you’re at home doing whatever it is you’re doing.”

Eileen laughed. “All I’m doing is getting ready to exercise. Then I have to get things together so I can feed you and Mike. Tonight will be fun.”

Ryan relented and agreed with her. “Yeah, we’re both looking forward to it. I’m actually glad that Mike agreed to coming over. He doesn’t get out too often. Anyway, are you sure you don’t need me to bring anything? I mean, other than hot sauce so I can choke down whatever healthy crap you’re going to throw at me?”

Not about to be goaded into an argument about her eating habits, she blew off his comment and returned it with sweetness. “Nope. All I need is for you to bring your bad self. And a big appetite. I’m making brownie cheesecake for dessert.”

There was a loud whoop on the other end. “All right! Brownie cheesecake! I won’t need hot sauce for that. Just a big glass of milk.”

Though Ryan couldn’t see her, she was smiling wide enough that her cheeks hurt. “I’ll make sure to give you an extra big piece with a giant glass of milk.” She could hear something in the background and could tell that Ryan had covered the mouthpiece of the phone. He came back a second later.

“Hey Lee-Lee, I have to go, but I’ll see you tonight at six. I’m going to eat a light lunch, so have food ready when I get there.”

“Yes sir,” she said.

They both hung up and Eileen shook her head as she placed the phone back in the receiver. Sometimes it was hard to believe that she and Ryan were the same age. She was sure that he would always suffer from Peter Pan Syndrome and she never really understood why he chose to work in law enforcement. Then again, maybe his goofy behaviors were just his way of dealing with the daily stress of the job. This kind of work could bring anyone down. But not Ryan. He took things as they came, choosing to believe that no matter how bad it was for any of their victims, there was a purpose, a reason, for whatever happened, and part of his job was to discover to that purpose or reason. She sincerely hoped that Ryan would be able to find out the purpose and reason for the attack on her.

Shrugging off a sudden chill, she headed into her bedroom and selected lightweight cotton shorts and a t-shirt for her trip to the mall. Pulling on her running shoes and grabbing her cell phone and wallet from her purse, she headed out the door just in time to see a flash of movement at the side of the house.

She froze, straining to hear any sound. It was quiet. Too quiet. No insects humming, no birds chirping. Just a faint, rustling sound. Who the hell was on her property? Gripping her keys in her palm, she fingered the trigger on the can of pepper spray that was attached to the key ring. She didn’t dare try to go back inside and risk making any sound with the door that would tip off whoever was lurking around the corner. Slowly, slowly, she inched her way along the back of the house, creeping carefully and silently. When she reached the corner of the house, she could hear faint breathing. It wasn’t an animal, of that she was sure. The breathing had a human quality to it, and it was coming from about three feet away.

Summoning up all her courage, she jumped around the corner, pepper spray aimed and shouted, “Freeze!”

The meter reader lost his balance in his crouched position and flopped backwards, dropping his clipboard and pen. “What? What’s wrong?” He was flat on the ground, eyes wide and terrified.

Eileen was relieved but still wary. “Do you have any identification?” It was a bellowed command, not a question.

“Y-yes. H-h-here in m-my front pocket.” He pointed to his shirt. “Should I g-get it for you?”

Eileen lowered her pepper spray. “Yes, please.”

He cautiously reached into his shirt, pulling out his photo ID card, which was laminated and embossed with the gas company logo. Eileen looked at it and sighed with relief.

“I’m so sorry. Someone vandalized my property a few days ago and I thought maybe he came back.”

The gentleman stood up and brushed off his uniform slacks, leaving a wide space between himself and Eileen. “Holy cow, you scared the crap out of me.” He pulled his cap on and picked up his clipboard. “You a cop?”

She nodded. “Detective Eileen Riley. I haven’t seen you here before. Jerry used to do my readings. I saw him every other month when he came out.”

He nodded. “Yeah, Jerry took a transfer. I’m—”

“Amos Rault,” Eileen finished. He nodded, obviously perplexed. “Your nametag,” she said. “I saw your name on your nametag.”

“Duh,” he said, embarrassed. “I took over Jerry’s route. I’m new. Sorry that I startled you. I’m a little slower at doing the readings than Jerry was. Our computers have been down so I have to do everything by hand this month. To think that’s how all the meter readers used to do it.” He wiped sweat from his forehead. “I was just finishing up here. Can I go?”

Eileen laughed. “Of course you can go. I really am sorry I startled you. Have a good day.”

He waved at her as he headed next door to continue with his route. Eileen chided herself for being so jumpy, but figured it was better to be a little overly cautious than to risk getting hurt. She found that she was angry though. Her heart was racing, blood thundering in her ears as she realized that whoever had tried to kill her had fully invaded her life. It wasn’t fair that she couldn’t just enjoy a quiet day off and instead had to worry about who or what might be lurking around.

Storming over to the garage, she yanked open the door and climbed into her old Escort. Frustration grew deep within her when it didn’t start. After three tries, the engine finally turned over and roared to life. “Just a little longer, baby,” she said as she lovingly patted the steering wheel. “Get me through a few more months and then I promise you can retire.” The old car rumbled beneath her as she backed out of the garage, and she found herself praying that things would settle down so she could follow through on purchasing a new car in the fall. She didn’t think this one would make it through another Chicago winter. At this point, she didn’t know if it would make it through another Chicago summer.

Puttering along with traffic, she thought about the upcoming evening. It was nice to be able to invite people over for a change. Her schedule was normally so crammed with things to do that she barely had time to socialize. Other than going to Charlie’s with Ryan and sometimes throwing darts with Mike, she didn’t have much of anything to do with anyone outside of work. As she drove, she continued to think about Ryan and Mike. They were both good men. Ryan could be goofy and immature, but he was sweet and had really stuck by her through a lot in her messed up life. She knew Mike pretty well overall and he seemed like a genuinely decent guy. She admired him and how he’d been faithful to his wife even through the rough patches and she remembered how he had been completely devastated when she’d died several years earlier.

Eileen could picture his bright blue eyes. He was very attractive and someone who would qualify as a potential relationship interest if she ever bothered to make time for those sorts of things. Besides, everyone knew that Mike wasn’t on the market. He obviously preferred his solitary lifestyle, and to the best of everyone’s knowledge, he hadn’t been out on a single date since he lost his wife.

Maybe it’s better that way, she thought. In work like this, relationships always end up coming last and it’s not fair. Shrugging it off, she turned her thoughts to getting in a good walk and finding something nice to wear.
* * *
Two hours later, Eileen was making her way back home, a bag from an upscale department store perched on the seat next to her. As the queen of the clearance racks, she’d successfully found an outfit that was both fun and appropriate for tonight’s dinner. She’d selected a khaki skirt that was a little shorter than what she usually wore, but still decent enough for company, and a delicately embroidered pale green silk tank top. The top brought out her eyes and Eileen thought it would be fun to wear something a little dressier. She always wore dark colors for work, and it was nice to break out of that mold for a change.

When she got home, she checked the mail, sifting through the array of sales ads and junk mail, peeking at a bill from her dentist and tossing the phone bill onto the kitchen table before dropping the rest of it into the recycling pile. After clipping the tags from her new items and throwing them into the washer, she made herself a sandwich and settled down on the couch in the living room, flipping through a magazine as she ate. The house was quiet around her and she was enjoying the silence.

When she was through eating, she tossed her new clothes into the dryer, then rinsed her plate and began gathering the items she would need to make dessert. The crust was relatively easy, taking only a half hour before she had it in the oven. While it baked, she began the arduous process of making the filling. It was a tedious process, and one she was determined not to mess up. She wanted tonight to be perfect. When she had the filling to the right consistency and texture, she poured it into the crust, then put the whole thing back in the oven.

While it baked, she cleaned and chopped the vegetables she had purchased the day before, feeling good about preparing them ahead of time so that she wouldn’t be rushing around later. She had just finished with doing the initial prep for the meal when it was time to get the cheesecake out of the oven. Carefully removing it, she was delighted to see that it didn’t crack down the middle. It looked strangely perfect. Maybe it was a good sign. Maybe tonight would be perfect, too.

Letting the cheesecake cool on the counter, she decided to take a shower. In the privacy of her bathroom, she stripped naked and looked at herself in the mirror. Her figure wasn’t bad, even though she had hit thirty. It probably wouldn’t hurt to lose a few pounds, but overall, she was comfortable with her body, and her doctor had insisted that her elevated cholesterol was due to genetics and not because of what she was or wasn’t doing with her body. Turning around, she could see the strong lines of muscle that ran down her legs and was proud of the fact that other than the past few days, she regularly ran five miles every morning and did weight lifting three times every week. It kept her healthy and fit and left her feeling good about herself. Most people noticed her because of her height, but they often failed to notice the way her legs and butt did not jiggle when she moved.

Once in the shower, she shampooed and conditioned her hair, enjoying the refreshing tingle from the mint. She soaped herself up and carefully shaved, not wanting to nick her legs at all since she was planning on wearing a skirt. When she was through, she toweled off and slathered her skin with a lightly scented lotion and spritzed on some perfume. Looking back in the mirror, she decided it was time to take the bandage off her neck. The doctor had promised her it wouldn’t be bad, and upon close inspection, she saw that it wasn’t. It could have been way worse. Carefully swabbing it with the antiseptic they’d given her at the hospital, she braced herself against the anticipated sting and was relieved when it didn’t really hurt at all. After the antiseptic dried, she carefully laid on one of the bandages they’d instructed her to use. Once it was in place, she found that it didn’t hurt at all. It just itched like crazy. She contemplated taking off the bandage, then figured she’d better leave it on for another day or two so she wouldn’t pick at it.

Feeling relaxed and knowing she still had time to kill before the guys came over, she indulged in giving herself a quick manicure and pedicure. She was sitting with her fingers and toes splayed out before her, letting the nails dry when the phone rang. Walking on her heels, she hurried to the kitchen as fast as she could to answer it. It was Ryan again.

“Hey Eileen.”

His voice was thick with tension and she was immediately alarmed. “Hey, is everything all right? Did you get some new information?”

“No, nothing like that. I just got a call from my landlord, and apparently, there’s water leaking from my place into the downstairs unit. Something’s wrong with my washing machine and I have to get home. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it tonight. I guess there’s quite a mess.”

Eileen’s heart sank. “Are you kidding me? You really can’t make it?”

“I’m sorry, but no. I’m going to have to take care of this right away.”

She was obviously crestfallen and looked down at her pearly pink nails. “Maybe you can check it out and come over later? I’m not planning on having food ready until six.”

“Eileen, I really don’t think I’m going to be able to. The landlord said it was really bad and I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to clean it up. Don’t be mad, okay? You know there’s nothing I would like better than a free meal at your place.”

She sighed into the receiver. “I know. I just really went out of my way to make tonight special. I made cheesecake.”

“And you better save a piece for me,” Ryan interjected.

“You know I will. I’m just bummed. I’ve got all this food. And I bought new clothes. And I did my nails.”

“What? You did your nails? What got into you?”

“I don’t know. I guess I liked the idea of having two men to entertain. I was really looking forward to tonight and having the chance to act like a woman instead of just a cop.”

“Eileen, you can still have fun. Look why don’t you and Mike go ahead and get started without me. I’ll see how bad my apartment is and I’ll give you a call later. Maybe I can still make it over for a little bit.”

“Okay. You know you can come, even if it’s late. There’s going to be a lot of leftover food.”

“I’ll do my best. Look, I’m just pulling up at my place now. I have to let you go, but I’ll keep you posted.”

“All right. I’ll talk to you later.” They both hung up and Eileen frowned. She wasn’t kidding when she said there was going to be a lot of leftover food. She purposely bought extra, knowing that Ryan had a huge appetite and figuring that Mike could probably give him a run for his money. It was too late to freeze the fish since it had been in her refrigerator since yesterday, so she decided she would just cook all of it and figure out what to do with the leftovers later.

When she was sure that her nails were thoroughly dry, she slipped on a pair of Keds and went out in the yard to start the grill. To her surprise and delight, she got it going on the first try, which was a rarity for her. Normally, it took a whole book of matches and a good round of cursing before the coals got going. Sure that the grill would stay hot, she ran back into her kitchen and busied herself at the counter with the food she was going to prepare. Hurriedly chopping fresh fruit, she saw that it was getting late. She hoped she would have enough time to still toss a salad. A light seasoning on the salmon with some white wine in a foil packet, fresh vegetables, scrubbed potatoes wrapped in foil and she was ready to go. Placing everything on a large tray, she headed back outside. The air was still heavy and muggy, but a light breeze made it more comfortable and with the clouds building, the sun wasn’t as intense. Sitting down at the patio table, she prepared a salad and found herself daydreaming a little. It had been a good day. Quiet. Relaxing.

Thinking about the evening she had planned, she was still disappointed that Ryan was probably not going to make it, but decided to make the most of it anyway. She and Mike could get to know each other better, and hopefully Ryan could still join them later in the evening for dessert and coffee. Lifting the lid of the grill, she heard a roar coming from the front of her house and smiled. Glancing at her watch, she saw that it was five fifty-five. Mike was right on time.

* * *

Mike rode up to Eileen’s bungalow and sighed. He was so glad that he was coming here this time as a friend and not out of medical necessity. He got off his motorcycle and stretched, enjoying the light breeze sweeping through the humid, summer air. He switched his helmet for his cap and grabbed the small bunch of flowers from the storage under the seat and walked toward the backyard, avoiding looking at the shed.

Eileen, dressed in her new short khaki skirt and green tank top, was standing over the grill, turning a huge foil packet. The heat rising up from the grill caused those weird, wavy lines, making her face look like a mirage.

“What’s cooking, good-looking?”

She looked up and smiled. “Hey stranger. I’ve got salmon and mixed vegetables. And baked potatoes. And salad. And fruit salad. And brownie cheesecake for dessert.”

Mike laughed when he saw the bowls and serving dishes spread out over the patio table. “How many people are coming?”

Eileen looked sheepish and scuffed her Keds against the brick patio. “Ryan cancelled, something about a water leak in his apartment, so it’s just us.” Looking at all the food, she shrugged. “Even if he can make it later, I guess I’d still have to admit that I got carried away. I was so excited about having company that I went a little overboard.” She set down her tongs and looked at him. “In any case, I’m glad you’re here. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate you saving me.” She stood on tiptoes and gave him a soft kiss on the forehead. “I’m alive because of you.”

He gave her a quick hug and handed her the flowers. “Anytime, kiddo.”

She hugged him back then turned and set the flowers on the patio table. “I’m glad your visit this time around doesn’t include cutting my neck open.” She gently fingered the band-aid that now covered the wound. “I can’t complain, though. You did a good job. I thought the healing process would be some big hassle, but it’s not. The ER doctor said it would heal fine with antiseptic and an airtight bandage. And he was right. I’m all closed up.”

Mike nodded. “Yeah, you were pretty lucky. I wish all my patients were that easy.”

She poked at the band-aid, picking at it with her fingernail for a moment. “It itches like a son of a gun, so I’m keeping the band-aid on to avoid scratching it.”

They made idle conversation while she finished grilling dinner. The patio table was set and they were just getting ready to sit down when Eileen felt the first drop of rain.

“Oh, hell no. Not after all the time I spent getting dinner together.”

Mike looked up at the sky. “Let’s just eat. It’ll probably just be a little drizzle. Or it might even pass us over completely.” Thunder rumbled in the distance and lightning zig-zagged across the sky. “Or maybe not.”

Eileen agreed. “Let’s move this party inside. I’m not up for being soaked.” As she said the words, the wind kicked up and the sky opened. She shrieked, grabbed serving dishes from the table and ran for the back door. Mike followed her lead.

It took both of them two trips to get everything inside. Eileen stood at the kitchen counter laughing and squeezing her hair out over the sink as her dripping clothes formed a puddle around her feet. “I feel like I need to shake like a dog.”

Mike laughed with her, but then looked outside and groaned. His bike.

Eileen followed his gaze out the window. “Uh-oh. Do you want to put it in my garage? There’s plenty of room.”

“Would you mind?”

“Not at all. C’mon. I’ll open it up.”

“No, no. You wait here. I can do it.”

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever. I’ll do it. The door sticks and can be tricky to open. Besides, I’m already wet. A little more rain on my head won’t hurt.”

“You sure you won’t melt?”

She whopped him on his big shoulder. “Shut up.”

He threw up his hands in mock terror, pretending to fend off her attack. “I meant because you’re sweet as sugar, not because you’re a witch.”

“Right. Uh-huh. And I believe you.” She swung open the back door and sprinted for the garage. Mike ran out after her.

It was raining harder now, and he was impressed as he watched Eileen run across the yard, so sure of her footing, as if she had run that same path a hundred times. He followed her to the side of the house. She was struggling with the garage door. It appeared to be jammed, but with a grunt and a good pull, she had it open. Mike wheeled his bike in, setting it next to Eileen’s Ford. He noted the oil spots on the concrete floor.

“Babe, it looks like it’s time to send Betsy to that big junkyard in the sky.”

Eileen nodded. “I know. Things are just a little tight right now. I’m trying to wait until October. Besides,” she lovingly patted the hood, “she still gets me from point A to point B and back to point A again. I can’t complain too much. But what do you say we head back inside and dry off so we can finally eat?”

He nodded enthusiastically. “Sounds good. I’m hungry.”

They ran back inside, but were presented with a new problem. They were both soaked. Eileen chewed on her lower lip.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m too wet to just dry off. Let’s change clothes and I’ll throw the wet stuff in the dryer.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “One small problem, kiddo. I don’t have a change of clothes. Look, I’ll be fine with a towel.”

“Nope. I’m sure I have something that will fit you. I wear my pajamas super big.”

He looked at her warily. “I’m not going to wear some big granny nightgown.”

She started to laugh. “I don’t wear granny nightgowns. I wear big-butt flannel pants and t-shirts.”

He thought about it for a second. “Okay, but no lacy underwear, either.”

Eileen continued to laugh good-naturedly. “Don’t worry. I save the lacy underwear for special occasions.” She winked playfully at him. “Of course, that’s when I bother to wear underwear at all.”

Eileen was still laughing as she disappeared down the hall, and Mike was glad that she didn’t look over her shoulder to see him blush at her brazen comment. She came back a few minutes later, changed into dry clothes, with her wet clothes balled up under one arm, and dry clothes for him in the other.

“I think these will fit. They should at least be close. The t-shirt is an extra large and the pants are a large. Both men’s sizes.”

Mike grinned at her. “Do you make a habit out of wearing men’s clothes?”

Eileen laughed. “Only when I’m undercover. Just kidding. No. It’s just that I like my pajamas roomy, and these were on sale in the men’s department. Men’s clothes are way warmer than women’s clothes. And I get cold sleeping by myself.”

Mike thought he caught a hint of suggestion in her voice, but then decided he was wrong. He felt guilty and slightly embarrassed. He was too old for Eileen. She needed someone closer to her own age, someone who would be around to take care of her and have children with her.

She tossed him the clothes, which he caught. “Go ahead and change. The bathroom is just down the hall. Then just throw your stuff in the dryer.” She tilted her head toward a door off the kitchen. “I converted the walk-in pantry to a laundry room. The dryer’s in there. I’ll set it so all you have to do is hit the start button. While you do that, I’ll go dish up the food.”

“Sounds good.” He took the flannel pants and t-shirt and went into the bathroom, trying not to notice how nice she looked. She had pulled her wet hair up into a clip, and her white cotton sleeveless blouse and denim shorts clung invitingly, but not obscenely, to her body. Her breasts strained against the buttons of the blouse, her long legs came out from the denim looking just fine, and on her feet were some wild, tropical print flip-flops. He took a deep breath and tried to ignore the tingly feeling in his groin, focusing instead on the décor in the bathroom, which was a variety of shades of blue and silver. He also noticed how the air smelled like Eileen, crisp and clean, with just a hint of her favorite perfume.

He sighed heavily as he changed. It had been a long time since he’d had dinner with a woman. Any woman. But this was Eileen. He’d known her for four years, and she was a sweet woman, but it was awkward to be with her outside of work. He tugged the t-shirt over his head. It was nice to be invited out, though. When he wasn’t at the station house, he was usually at home by himself. Sure, he hung out at Charlie’s sometimes, but it really wasn’t his thing.

Mike gave himself a quick once-over in the mirror and ran his hands over his damp, sandy-colored hair. The shirt was a little snug, and even though the pants were a little short, they fit okay. He did feel weird not having on underwear, but there was no way he could have worn his soaked boxer briefs under the dry pants. He moved around the bathroom, trying to make sure it didn’t look awkward when he walked, and finally figured it would be okay. The pants would do until his things were dry. He padded barefoot down the hall to the laundry room and tossed his clothes into the dryer. He did a double-take when he saw the lacy green panties sitting in with the rest of Eileen’s clothes. A pretty shade of green, just like her eyes. He shook his head, trying to clear the image he had conjured up of Eileen wearing the panties. Only the panties. Out of nowhere, he felt himself getting hard. Taking a deep breath, he tried to picture her instead in the flannel pants and t-shirt he was wearing. It was almost comical to imagine. The clothes had to be huge on her. Slowly, the tightening below his waist eased.

“Hey, Mike, you coming? I’ve got the food ready.”

He jumped at the sound of her voice and warmth crept into his face, as if she could read his thoughts. “Heck yeah, I’m ready. I’m starving.” He started the dryer, then went into the dining room. Eileen had traded the paper plates and plastic silverware for real dishes, and had poured two glasses of wine. He slid into the chair across from her, getting comfortable on the thick seat cushion.

“Looks good,” he commented. She handed him the platter of fish and he helped himself to two pieces. “You appear to be a good cook.”

Eileen nodded, nibbling on a piece of asparagus. “I am a good cook. I got good out of necessity. My only other two options were to eat fast food and die of a cholesterol-related heart attack or starve to death.”

Mike let go with a good laugh. “Whatever works, I guess.” He speared a piece of fish, savoring the delicate lemon-butter flavor. “Eileen, this is fantastic. If you ever decide to ditch working in law enforcement, you could open a restaurant.” He looked around the dining room and commented, “Or you could be an interior designer. Your bathroom is gorgeous. A little girly for my taste, but still gorgeous. And this room is amazing.”

Eileen’s smile was wide. “Thank you. I love decorating. The dining room was my pet project this past winter. I wasn’t sure about the color at first, but now I love it.”

He nodded, taking in the unique color on the walls. “What do you call it? Orange? Orange-red? Orange-brown? Autumn leaves?”

“Burnt Sienna,” she said, talking around the food in her mouth. She sipped her wine, enjoying the mix of flavors on her tongue. “I thought the color would be a nice complement with the dark wood table and chairs.” She pointed to the china cabinet on the far wall. “I got that at a garage sale. It was pretty beat up, but a little stripping and sanding, a nice layer of stain and some clear varnish, and presto,” she snapped her fingers, “it was like new.”

Mike was impressed. “It looks like you got the whole room as a set. The color matches almost perfectly.”

She nodded. “I had to do some serious searching for a close match for the stain. I got lucky at an old hardware store not far from work. The guy had two cans from Lord only knows how long ago, but it was close enough that I jumped on it. And from across the room, you can barely tell.”

“You can barely tell at all,” Mike commented. “You’re awfully handy. You know, for being a girl.”

Eileen rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You’d think I was secretly a man or something.” She shook her head, taking another sip of wine. “But I promise I’m not. I’m a girl, through and through. What it’s really about is me not wanting to have to pay someone else to do the work. I’m stubborn that way.”

“You? Stubborn? I hadn’t noticed.” Mike swirled wine in his glass before taking a long swallow. It was good, cool, and crisp. “This is good. What is it?”

“It’s a merlot. Cranberry Twist. It goes well with chicken.”

“Of course you would know what kind of wine would go with poultry. Just like you know how to strip and sand wood furniture, right?” He grinned at her. “Little Miss Know-It-All. All teasing aside, though, you are really handy. But I have to say, something seems to be missing in this room.”

She nodded in agreement and pointed at the wall behind him. “It’s that big, empty space. I just can’t seem to find something I like to put there. I thought about doing a small picture grouping, but I really need something big to balance out the room. I always have my eyes open for something, but I just haven’t found it yet.”

She finished her glass of wine, and stared at the empty glass for a moment. “I think I drank that a little too fast. But you know what? I don’t care. Good food, good wine, good company. Thanks for joining me tonight.”

“No problem, kiddo. This is the best meal I’ve had in years.”

They spent the next hour eating, chatting easily about work, Eileen’s other home improvement projects, the upcoming Fourth of July holiday, and how the Cubs were doing. He was surprised and pleased that she had a sports fan’s working knowledge of baseball and football, and when she glibly named all the teams in major league baseball, he laughed so hard he was afraid his wine was going to come out of his nose.

“How do you know all the team names? That’s not normal for anyone, let alone a girl.”

She cocked an eyebrow and snorted at him. “Hmph. Plenty of people know all the teams in major league baseball. It just goes to show I’m a more devoted fan than you.”

Eileen surprised him again when she told him about the summer softball league she played in on weekends.

Obviously impressed, he smiled in admiration at her. “So, that’s why nobody ever sees you from Friday night to Monday morning. Maybe I can watch a game sometime.”

Eileen didn’t respond, and Mike saw a flicker of something cross her face. Fear? But what could she be afraid of? Maybe she was good at naming baseball teams, but wasn’t a very good player and didn’t want to be embarrassed. Then he caught her staring at him.

“What’s up, kiddo?”

Two bright spots appeared high up on her cheeks. Flustered, she looked away and focused back on her empty dinner plate. “Sorry. It just occurred to me that I’ve never seen you without your hat.” She finished her second glass of wine, then looked back at him, still pink-faced, but smiling. “You look younger without it.”

“Really? I’ll have to take it off more often. Maybe it’ll improve my social life.”

She got up to clear the dishes. “Maybe, but I doubt it. You’re an old fart.”

He pretended to look hurt as he helped her clear the table. “Be nice or I won’t give you your pj’s back.”

She looked amused. “You think I don’t have drawers full of flannels and t-shirts? I doubt I would miss one set.”

She continued to chat as he looked out the kitchen window. She joined him and peered outside. “It looks like it’s not going to let up for a while,” she said.

“I know,” he replied. “I’m just wondering if I should hit the road now. The streets are only going to get worse. I should’ve driven my car instead.”

Eileen patted him on the shoulder. “Nah. Don’t rush out. The rain may still pass. Why don’t you stick around for a while? I’ll pop in a movie.”

Mike was getting ready to respond when the phone rang. It was Ryan.

“Hey Eileen, it’s me.”

“What’s up? How bad is the damage to your apartment?”

“Bad, but not as bad as I was afraid it would be. I had some of my buddies come over and we got up all the water with a wet-dry vac. Now I have to get down to the business of cleaning up the mess. There’s no way I’m going to be able to make it tonight.”

“Are you sure? Not even for cake and coffee?”

“Sorry babe. I’m going to need the whole weekend to take care of this. And I’m going to have to find somewhere else to do my laundry until I can get a new washer.”

“You know you can come over here anytime for that. Just let me know.”

Ryan sighed. “Yeah. I’ll keep you posted. I’ve got to go. Tell Mike I said hi. See you Monday.”

Eileen hung up the phone and looked at Mike. “Ryan’s not going to be able to make it at all. Sounds like there was some pretty heavy water damage. Poor guy needs a new washer. But he says to tell you hi. Ah well.” She shrugged. “Such is life, right? So how about that movie?”

Mike thought about it for a moment. “Why not? I don’t have to be at the station house until three tomorrow afternoon. I can afford to stay up a little later tonight.”

“I thought you were off tomorrow.”

He shrugged. “I was supposed to be, but Rodriguez took a nasty fall when the guy he was trying to help slugged him in the face.” He shook his head in disgust. “The guy was high as a kite and Rodriguez was trying to get him settled on the gurney. Bastard broke the arm restraint, clocked him square on the jaw. He lost his footing and tumbled down the stairs. Broke his leg in two places. He’ll be out for a while, so I’m doing what I can to help out. We’re all adjusting our shifts, doing our twenty-four hours on, but then instead of doing forty-eight off, we’re doing twenty-four off, then twelve on, twelve off. And starting over again. I’ve got some seniority. Most of the guys have moved up to being firefighters, but I’m still doing the paramedic thing. I love it. We look out for each other.”

“Sounds a lot like us down at the precinct.”

Mike nodded. “In a lot of ways, it is. There’s that same camaraderie. I work with some great guys.” He playfully tapped her nose. “And some great girls, too.”

“So, you’re sure you’re up for a movie?”

“Yeah, let’s do it. It’s nice to have some time to relax.”

She clapped her hands. “Goodie. We can watch one of my favorites.”

He followed her into the living room. “What movie?”

She fumbled at the entertainment center with a DVD and the television, giving him a smug look over her shoulder. “You’ll see. If I tell you, you might change your mind.”

He watched as the picture came up on the screen and shook his head slowly back and forth. “You have got to be kidding me. Finding Nemo?”

She started laughing, obviously delighted by his reaction. “You bet. It really is one of my favorites. I love all kinds of movies, but I’m the biggest sucker for kiddie flicks.”

He plopped down on the couch, still shaking his head. “A tough as nails detective hooked on kids’ movies? Unbelievable.”

She gave a solemn nod. “I know. It’s one of my darkest secrets. Well, that and the fact that I love Goldfish crackers. It’s like kindergarten crack. They’re totally addictive. Especially the rainbow ones.”

Mike had to hide his face behind his hands to conceal his smile. “Kindergarten crack? Eileen, that’s not nice. You shouldn’t say that.”

“Why? Have you ever seen how kids go nuts over them?”

“Well, yeah. But it’s not nice because…well, just because!”

“Just because? Come on, Mike. You’ve got to have a better reason than that.”

“I do. I love Goldfish, too, and I don’t like to think that I have any vices.”

“You? No vices? Yeah right. At least I can admit to my own little vices. They just happen to include rainbow fish and animated films.”

He held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. I give in. It’s your house, so I’ll follow your rules. But next time, it’s dinner and a movie at my place. Then I get to pick what we watch.”

Eileen said nothing, but was secretly thrilled that there might be a next time. She grabbed a blanket off the recliner and plopped down on the other end of the couch, draping the blanket over her legs.

He looked at her quizzically. “You’re cold?”

She nodded. “A little. I got a chill from being wet earlier and then coming in to the air conditioning. And I’m too lazy to go change into warmer clothes.”

Mike draped his arm over the back of the couch. “Well, scoot closer. I’m like a furnace. I’ll keep you warm.”

She slid next to him, grateful for the added body heat. Ten minutes into the movie, Mike noticed that her breathing had become deeper and more rhythmic. He looked at her face as she slept. The downpour earlier had washed away all traces of makeup, leaving her skin clean and bare. He saw the beginnings of some fine lines around her eyes and mouth, and a sprinkling of freckles over the bridge of her nose, which he had never noticed before. She looked lovely and peaceful lying there. Even the small scar above her right eyebrow, which may have been leftover from chicken pox, lent a sense of beauty to her. He inhaled her scent, a mix of soap, shampoo, rainwater and perfume, with just the slightest hint of charcoal from grilling. He couldn’t remember ever smelling anything so good.

He found his mind drifting again to the lacy green panties he’d seen in her dryer. Swallowing over a dry lump in his throat, he mentally chastised himself. He was a guest in her home and it wouldn’t do to be thinking of her that way. She was a graceful and kind woman who was dealing with a lot. His gaze swept over her face again. It was a pretty face, especially lovely in repose. Carefully and gently, so as not to disturb her, he pulled her closer to him, folding her into his arms so that her head rested against his chest. The position was awkward and slightly uncomfortable for him, but for the next forty-five minutes, he quietly held her, watching the steady rise and fall of her chest with each breath she took.

Gradually, she began to stir, and her eyes fluttered open. She sat up and stretched. “I am so sorry. A full belly and being snuggly warm makes for a sleepy Eileen.”

“It’s not a problem. You looked like you needed the rest.”

She nodded, rubbing her eyes. “Yeah, things have been crazy lately.” She stretched again, this time arching her back until it popped. “Mmmm. Better.” She looked at him. “Can I get you anything? Something more to eat or drink? Or how about dessert? I’ve got that brownie cheesecake.”

He shook his head. “No. I should probably get going.” He looked out at the steady rainfall. “It’s going to be a long ride home, and I should get out of here before all the crazies and drunks get on the road.”

Eileen looked genuinely disappointed. “You’re sure you don’t want to stick around a while longer? Not even for cheesecake?”

“Yeah, I should go. Besides, why would you want to spend your whole evening with an old guy like me?”

She grabbed a decorative pillow from the couch and bopped him on the head with it. “Because I like you, silly.” She caught his eye and in that instant, something changed. She felt a warm flush rise up from her chest as the air between them became suddenly heavy, very much alive. She leaned forward slightly, gazing into his blue eyes, then added softly, “I like you a lot.”

He looked at her, trying to read her eyes. The green orbs danced with merriment as she gauged his reaction in turn. His eyes remained locked with hers. Was she serious? She looked back at him expectantly, a slow smile spreading across her face. She arched one eyebrow at him and moistened her lips with her tongue.

That was all the prompting he needed. He reached out to her, hesitantly at first, tracing his finger across her cheek, then with more assurance when she didn’t back away. Sliding his fingers over her face and into her hair, slowly pulling her face toward his, he lowered his mouth to her lips, barely brushing them. They were soft and moist, and Mike found that he didn’t want to stop, but he did, waiting to see if she would react. Eileen’s eyes locked with his, just for a moment, before he found himself leaning in again, kissing her slowly and gently at first, then more intensely as she slid her arms up and around his neck. She closed her eyes and moaned softly, parting her lips under his. He ran his tongue over her lower lip, then completely covered her mouth with his own. Her hands moved up his neck, fingers playing with his hair as he pulled her closer, gently massaging her lower back. He leaned back into the couch, pulling her with him, so that they were half-laying as they continued to kiss.

He pushed her away for a second, looking at her, drinking her in, waiting for some sign that he should stop. When there was none, he pulled her back, losing himself in the sweetness of her lips. Eileen ran her hands down his chest, over his flat stomach, then tugged up his shirt, releasing her mouth from his only long enough to pull it over his head. She teased his tongue with her own as her fingers ran idly over his smooth skin, gently caressing. She arched her back, pressing her breasts against his chest. He could feel her hard nipples against him, even through her clothes.

She pulled her hands from him and moved to unbutton her blouse. He moved her hands aside. “Let me do it,” he whispered hoarsely.

Slowly, starting at the top, he unbuttoned it, drawing in his breath as the tops of her creamy breasts were exposed. He pulled her in close, burying his face in her flesh, kissing and licking the delicate skin, enjoying how she moaned with pleasure. He ran his tongue under the top of her bra and felt her shudder.

“You okay?”

Breathless, unable to speak, she nodded.

He slid the blouse down over her shoulders and reached behind her to unhook her bra. He lowered it, fully exposing her breasts. He cupped them in his hands, reveling in the feel and weight of them. “Nice,” he murmured as he drew one puckered nipple into his mouth, gently sucking on it, teasing it with his teeth, caressing the other one with his thumb, occasionally giving it a gentle pinch. She responded by shifting her weight and straddling him, feeling him grow harder as she pressed him between her thighs. He drew in a sharp breath as he felt the heat emanating from between her legs and reluctantly pushed her away.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, eyes wide.

His own eyes were hazy with pleasure. He ran his hands over his face, aware of how hot his skin was, how fast his heart was beating. “Sorry. I wasn’t expecting…I mean, I wasn’t planning on…” He took a deep breath. “I’m not that kind of guy. You know. It never occurred to me that I might need to be prepared for..I mean, I didn’t bring any…”

She put a finger to his lips, shushing him. “Condoms?” He nodded. She leaned in and kissed him again, soft, pleasing sounds escaping from her lips, then pulled away.

“Mike, it’s a rare man that would give a woman that kind of consideration. You have no idea how much I appreciate that. It probably says something about both of us since I don’t have any here, either. Um, the thing is,” she paused and cleared her throat, “I can’t have children. Can’t get pregnant.” She ran her fingers over her lower belly, her eyes distant. “Medical problems from a long time ago.” She sighed. “For what it’s worth, though, I—well—um, I haven’t been with anyone in a long time. A really long time. I don’t believe in casual sex. Even though it’s been a long time, I still—I mean just to play it safe and all, I was tested a while back. Can’t be too careful. I’m totally clean.”

He stroked her cheek. “I haven’t been with anyone since Tina.” He swallowed hard, gearing up for what he was afraid would be an embarrassing admission. “Actually, I wasn’t with anyone before Tina, either.”

She cupped his face in her hands, astonished and touched by his words. “I think that’s wonderful. And so special.” She kissed him again, floating outside of herself, drifting in the soft warmth of his mouth. He shifted underneath her, his erection becoming almost painful. She smiled against his lips as he bumped against her, sending little stabs of pleasure through her loins. “Would you like to move this to my bedroom?”

He nodded. She stood up, taking his hand to lead him down the hall. Mike tried to quiet his racing thoughts, the thoughts that wanted to strip her the rest of the way and take her right there in the hallway before he lost his nerve and got too anxious to do anything. Once in her room, though, his anxiety eased as she wrapped her arms around him, kissing him deeply. He ran his hands down her back, hooking his thumbs into the belt loops of her shorts. He lowered them, kissing his way down her body as he went. She stepped out of the shorts, now clad only in her satin bikini panties. He ran his fingertips over the smooth fabric, tracing the outline of what was just underneath, feeling the dampness that was building there.

Eileen closed her hand over his, smiling down at him. “Do you want to do the honors or should I?”

He looked like an eager little boy. “Oh please. Allow me.” He slid his hands under the thin elastic waistband, stroking her buttocks for a moment before kneeling in front of her and removing the delicate fabic. She stood before him, glorious in her nakedness. Dark hair curled between her legs and he brushed it with his fingertips as he stood. His eyes roamed over her body, taking in her smooth skin and sensual curves. He reached behind her head, releasing the clip from her hair and running his fingers through the soft waves that tumbled down.

Eileen blushed, obviously embarrassed by Mike’s close scrutiny. “You know, Mike, this picture is a little lopsided. You could at least ditch the pants so I’m not the only one naked here.”

His smile widened. “Don’t mind if I do.”

He took off the flannel pants he was wearing as Eileen pulled back the covers on her bed. She slid in between the sheets, enjoying the feel of the cool, crisp cotton against her naked skin. She opened her arms, beckoning him to join her. He hesitated for a moment.

“You’re sure about this, Eileen? Really sure? We can still stop.”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to stop. I want you to stay. But I’ll stop if you want to.” She gave a soft laugh. “I promise I’m not a sex maniac. We can stop if you want and go right back to what we were doing before.”

His gaze fell to her breasts, small round globes that he wanted to touch. “I don’t think so,” he said, getting into bed next to her. She wrapped her arms around him, drawing his mouth down to hers. He lowered her onto her back, hands roaming her body, stroking her neck and shoulders, sliding over her belly, and caressing her thighs, which involuntarily parted for him. His hand wandered upward and she pressed herself against his fingers as they sought out her most secret, sensitive area. He touched gently, working his fingers over her slippery wetness until he heard a moan escaped from her lips. Bingo. He encircled it with his thumb, occasionally pressing against it, which made her breath come in short, little gasps. She began to squirm and reached for him, her desire to have him inside of her becoming more intense.

He took her hand and kissed it, then gently pushed it away. “Not yet, kiddo. Right now is just for you.” He began kissing her again, slowly, trailing his tongue down her neck, across her collarbone, and down her body. He kissed lower and lower, until his mouth clamped down over her, replacing the role his thumb had been playing only a moment earlier.

Eileen was completely lost in sensation. Her whole body was on fire, but her skin broke out in hard, little goosebumps. The cool, air conditioned room was such a contrast to his warm mouth and soft, probing tongue, and the combination caused her to shudder. She reached down and ran her fingers through Mike’s hair, barely able to contain herself. He was bringing her higher, closer, kissing and licking, occasionally dipping a finger or the tip of his tongue into her. She was pumping her hips, meeting his touch, feeling everything build up inside of her, and then it happened. She arched her back and her thigh muscles contracted as she reached her climax.

Mike rode it out, continuing to gently kiss her, amazed at what had just occurred. He could hardly believe he was here with Eileen, in her house. In her bedroom. Never had he imagined he would be with another woman. Since Tina died, he felt as though he was living in a black and white world, but tonight, with Eileen, he could suddenly see color again. He kissed his way back up Eileen, blanketing her body with his own.

He nuzzled against her neck before resting his cheek against her left breast. She sighed deeply, loving the feel of his warm breath against her. She ran her hands up and down his back, lightly scratching his skin as she tried to breathe normally. He could hear her heart thudding and realized what a sweet sound it was to his ears.

“You still doing okay, kiddo?” he whispered.

Still breathless, eyes closed, Eileen nodded. He lifted his head and looked down into her face, tangling his fingers in her hair. Even in the dark, he could see that she was flushed and that tiny beads of sweat had formed on her upper lip. She opened her eyes, caught his gaze, and smiled as he leaned his face down and kissed her lips.

She shifted her weight under him and wrapped her long legs around his waist, pulling him closer. He inhaled sharply as he bumped against her. He was engorged, throbbing, aching with desire to be inside of her.

He slid his arms under her back, and with her legs still around him, rolled both of them so that she was on top. She stiffened slightly, almost imperceptibly, but Mike noticed. He immediately let her go.

“Are you okay? Do you want to stop?”

She shook her head, and looked away, forcing herself to relax. “No. No, I don’t want to stop. I’m just a little nervous. You know, not very experienced. I don’t want to disappoint you.”

He reached up and cupped her chin, turning her face back toward him, but she kept her eyes downcast. “Are you kidding? You couldn’t disappoint me.”

She blushed slightly, but forced herself to look at him. He looked so sweet, so sincere, lying there looking up at her. His blue eyes were searching her face and he lay still, not wanting to rush things, waiting for her to make the next move.

And she did.

He almost lost it as she guided him in. She was hot and wet and tight, and felt unbelievably good. His hands were shaking, his heart was pounding, and he was beginning to sweat.

“Wait,” he said, taking a deep breath. He pressed down on Eileen’s hips. “Stop, just for a minute.” He was breathing hard, trying to regain control. He wanted to ride this out, make it last, but he was having a hard time getting his body to cooperate. It had been so long. Too long. And he wanted to savor every second of it.

Eileen reached out and stroked his face. “It’s okay. Just relax.” She leaned forward, sweeping her breasts over his chest, pressing and rubbing against him. She kissed his neck, nibbled on his ears, kissed his nose, his cheeks, his mouth. “Better?”

Mike nodded and she began to ride him, slowly at first, trying to establish an easy rhythm, then picking up the pace, steadily bringing him closer to his own climax. He felt like a raw bundle of nerve endings. His body was shaking and sweat slid down his face in rivulets as he throbbed inside of her, thoughts swirling in his head. He reached up and cupped Eileen’s breasts, gently kneading them as she moved up and down, back and forth. He pulled her down to him as he erupted, his whole body convulsing. She held him close, her face next to his, their sweat mingling, as he lay there, breathing hard.

“How was that?” she whispered.

He smiled in the darkness, rolling both of them onto their sides so they were facing each other. He kissed the tip of her nose. “Amazing. Not what I was expecting when I accepted your dinner invitation. But what a sweet ending to an amazing day.”

Eileen grinned mischievously. “What can I say? I’m just full of surprises.” She made a move to get up, but Mike held fast to her, not wanting to pull out yet.
“Not so fast.”

A look of surprise crossed over her face before quickly turning to a look of pleasure. He held her, rocking back and forth and she could feel him growing inside of her. Gently laying her on her back, he positioned himself above her, moving in long, slow strokes, balancing his weight on his forearms, alternating between kissing her lips and her breasts.

Her breath was heavy in his ears as she moved beneath him, matching his movements with her own, small sounds escaping from the back of her throat. He pulled almost all the way out, teasing her as she worked her hips against him, and then plunged into her sweet warmth. In a moment that seemed reserved for whimsical romance novels, they climaxed together, feeding off of each other’s contracting muscles.
Afterward, Mike collapsed against her, exhausted and exhilarated. He held her close, their bodies pressing together so that they seemed to be one person. In the darkness, Mike heard a low rumble.

Eileen, embarrassed at her noisy stomach, wriggled out of his embrace and pulled on a t-shirt that was draped over the footboard of her bed. “I’ll be right back.”

She strode out of the room, leaving him wondering what in the world she was up to. He heard her in the kitchen, and she returned a moment later with two forks in one hand and a plate bearing a huge slice of cheesecake in the other.

Mike laughed out loud. “Someone work up an appetite?”

Eileen joined his laughter. “Yes, I’m hungry. And I don’t want this to go to waste, because I worked really hard on it.”

He held the plate and forks while she pulled off the t-shirt and climbed back into bed. He admired the long lines and curves of her body. She was beautiful.

She snuggled close to him. “Gimme a fork.”

He hesitated before handing it to her. “Should you be eating this? I mean, with your cholesterol.”

She shrugged. “Normally, I wouldn’t. But I’ve been tweaking the recipe for over a year trying to make it not so evil with fat and calories, but still taste good. I think I finally got it.”

He took a small bite. “I would say so. It’s fantastic.”

“Good. Now let me at it.”

They devoured the dessert in a matter of minutes. Afterward, she cuddled up against him, enjoying the feel of his strong body next to hers. They lay quietly in the dark, listening to the patter of rain against the glass of the bedroom window. He pulled her closer, burying his face in her hair.

“I’m glad it rained,” he murmured into the fragrant strands.

“Me too,” she whispered back, feeling her eyelids getting heavy.

A minute later, she was asleep, her head resting on his chest. Mike held her, trailing his fingers up and down her spine. For the first time in three years, he didn’t think of Tina as he drifted off to sleep.