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Paddling Upstream

By Strickland83

 

Chapter 2 - A New Friend

I put the glasses in the dishwasher and it hit me what I had just committed to. I had made a date. What was I thinking?

Youíre doing exactly what Amanda would want you to be doingóTheresa too.

That thought brought back the guilt over what I had done to Amanda. I hadnít talked to her since I had hung up so abruptly. I needed to call her.

I opened the computer and was just clipping on the headset when I heard the ringing. I clicked the answer icon and Amandaís voice burst forth.

"Michael! Michael, where in hell have you been? Iíve been worried sick about you. You canít leave me hanging like that. Iíve been e-mailing you, watching for you to come online in IM and Skypeó"

"Youíre right, Amanda. Iím sorry."

That took the wind out of her sails. She was expecting an argument and I gave up without a fight.

"YouíreÖ youíre what?"

"Iím sorry. You are entirely right. I should never have done that. I need you in my life. You are my rock, my confidante."

"Well, Iím glad you see it that way."

I could hear the sudden smugness in her voice.

"So what caused you to do such a turnaround?" she asked me.

"I need help. Lindsey is coming over for dinner tomorrow night andó"

"What did you say? Lindsey? What have I missed? Michael, that is wonderful! How did this happen?"

I was unsure about so much. The only thing I was sure about was, "I kind of invited her and she kind of accepted."

"Eeee!" she shrieked. "Iím doing the Happy Snoopy Dance over here!"

"Amanda, Iím scared to death. Iím not sure how it happened, but it just did. Now I donít know what to do."

"You donít know what to do? Cook her dinner. Make it a fabulous meal. Everything needs to be perfect. Clean your house. Wear somethingó"

"Amanda, Amanda, Iím not sure I can go through with this."

"You cannot stand this girl up. You have a date with her. You have an obligation to make it wonderful."

I only heard one word she said in that sentence. "Date?" Lindsey had called it the same thing, but I certainly wasnít comfortable calling it that. I didnít go on dates. Not anymore.

"Yes, Michael, a date." She paused to let that pronouncement sink in. "Did you invite her, or did the young lady have to invite herself?"

"No, I did it. At least I think I did. One minute I was telling her how I make pizza, you know, from scratch and everything, and the next sheís saying sheís looking forward to my invitation. I think she even called it a date. Damn it, Amanda, what have I done?"

"Something that has made us, I mean me, very proud of you," she said. "Youíre making pizza for her. Are you going to buy the ingredients from her tomorrow?"

"Yes, I have to go shopping tonight, and get the dough going in the morning before I get the vegetables from her. Iím nervous about this."

"Itís okay. You work well under pressure. Donít get all flustered if things start going wrong with the food. Iím sure she will be flattered that youíre going to all this trouble for her. I know I would be."

"But a date? I havenít dated sinceÖ"

"Right, and it is time to start again, Michael," she said quickly, cutting me off before I could complete the sentence or the thought. She wasnít letting me dwell on what we were both thinking.

"Wear something nice but casual. She expects you to be cooking. Does the house need cleaning?"

"I donít think so. I havenít lived here long enough to mess it up. Much."

"Do some cleaning. Especially the bathroom sheíll be using. Women notice things like that. Has she seen the house yet?"

"Yes, I was giving her the tour when I opened my big mouth about making pizza."

"Okay, so she knows how you live. Just straighten up a little, clean the bathroom, and make sure the kitchen counter and floor are clean. Where are you going to serve dinner?"

"Amanda, itís just pizza. I usually eat in the study if Iím working, or in front of the television."

"That wonít do. From what youíve told me, the table will probably be a mess from making the pizza. Hey, how about eating outside around the pool. Do you have a table out there?"

"A little one. I wasnít expecting to be hosting any parties. Itís just a little table, and two chairs."

"Itís perfect. Intimate."

I winced at her choice of that word.

"Some candles, the light reflecting off the water, maybe some light music, this is going to be perfect."

"Amanda, Iím scared. Iím not sure I want to do this."

"Sure you do. You love making pizza."

"I mean having her over. What was I thinking?"

"You were thinking like a man, Michael. Itís okay to get horny."

"Amanda!"

"Oh, when you go to the store, get some condoms just in case she ends up staying over. Donít automatically expect her to provide that."

"Amanda, stop it! That is not going to happen."

"My little author is growing up," Amanda said, an evil grin evident in the sound of her voice.

"Damn it, Amanda, I didnít invite her over to have sex on the kitchen table. I invited her for dinner."

"And after dinner comesÖ"

"Her going home," I finished for her.

"At least allow some time for sitting and talking, and sipping wine, after dinner. Conversation, itís called, Michael. Donít forget that."

"Amanda, youíre treating me like a child."

"Iím treating you like a teenager on his first date. Only I wonít care if you end up sleeping with your date like your parents would have."

"Amanda, stop. I should have never told you."

"Oh, no. Youíre going to tell me everything. Every sordid detail."

Amanda was clearly enjoying my discomfort. I wanted to be angry but I laughed instead and she joined me.

"Good. Youíre relaxing. Now, tell me how it went when she was there? Had you invited her over for drinks, or what?"

"No, she just kind of showed up," I explained, and launched into a recap of the afternoon. Amanda listened attentively, not teasing me anymore. Well, not much. Amanda is Amanda, after all.

What she accomplished was getting me to relax. Eventually, I had to hang up to go shopping. Before I did that, though, Amanda told me not to worry if things didnít work out exactly as I had them planned. She said to improvise if necessary and just let things happen.

At the grocery store, I was able to find most of my preferred ingredients, and a few substitutions. When I passed the pharmacy section, I remembered Amandaís suggestion that I buy some condoms. I was not ready for that, but then I thought what she said about me not expecting Lindsey to have some already. I almost relented, but instead I thought of how it would look if someone who knew Lindsey saw me buying them and it got back to her. Either I was expecting sex with her, or I was buying them to use with someone else. I didnít buy them, but I could feel my face heating just from having this internal conversation with myself.

I unloaded the groceries and put things away, laying out in my mind how I was going to organize the pizza making activities. Eating by the pool wasnít a bad idea. The weather was being uncharacteristically mild and rain was not in the forecast. I had become fond of sitting out by the pool at night. Perhaps Lindsey would like that, too.

When I thought about Lindsey, my heart pounded and my palms started to sweat. What was I doing? I knew I had to move on with my life. I knew Amanda was right. Theresa would want me to do this. But I still felt it was somehow wrong.

I warred with this, finally coming to the conclusion that this was just a friendly dinner. I needed to make friends in town. I wasnít going to throw Lindsey in bed and screw her. I was going to make pizza for her.

I stayed up late cleaning the house. Even though she had already seen it in my usually slightly messy state, I wanted it to look nice for her. When I finally finished and headed off to bed, I lay there in the dark, looking up at the ceiling I couldnít see, and I whispered, "Theresa, what am I doing?"

A vision came to me. It was Theresa and she was laughing at me. She had a delightful laugh. Her eyes, most of all, showed her mirth. Those sparkling blue eyes that lit up when she was happy. Before I could start missing her, she spoke. "Michael, youíre making a fool of yourself. Enjoy this time with Lindsey. Itís alright. Just donít make too much of a mess in the kitchen."

I laughed, too, even though there were tears tracing down my cheeks. I fell asleep with visions of Theresa, and of Lindsey, going through my head.

The alarm startled me. I had forgotten I had set it. It was the first time I had set it in a long time because I usually didnít have to get up early. Then I remembered why. I had to get the dough started. I had a guest coming over for dinner. I got up and headed for the kitchen. In short order, I had the bread machine plugged in on the granite counter and I was pouring in ingredients from memory Ė spring water, olive oil, unbleached bread flour, salt, yeast. I turned on the machine and it began making its periodic grunts as the ingredients slowly started to mix. The miraculous transformation was underway. In an hour or so, Iím going to have dough to knead.

I started thinking of what Iíd need from Lindsey. I knew the vegetables I liked to use but I wasnít sure if I could get all of them fresh down here. If it was possible to find them, sheíd know where.

I ate breakfast and took a shower. By the time I was dressed, the dough was ready for the final hand kneading before I put it aside to rise.

The question was where to put it? I hadnít thought about that yet. I needed a warm place. It used to drive Theresa crazy when sheíd open a cabinet and find a towel covered bowl of rising dough in a totally unexpected place. But I didnít know this house well enough yet. I finally ended up putting a towel on top of the water heater out in the garage and the bowl of dough on top of that. I just hoped Lindsey didnít find out I had left her dinner out in the garage for most of the day.

It was time to face Lindsey. I drove downtown and parked at the farmerís market. I figured Iíd wander around until she was free so weíd be able to talk. I neednít have worried because she was waiting for me. It was obvious.

"Hi, Newcomer!" she called out as I walked up. "I saved my best tomatoes for you."

Looking at the beautiful red ripe orbs, I told her, "Youíve done your part. I guess it is up to me now."

"So donít disappoint me," she said with a huge grin.

"The dough is already rising. Iím going right home to start on the sauce."

"I can hardly wait."

She was able to supply me with bell peppers and onions, too. She insisted on not charging me since I was cooking for her. Another vendor had fresh mushrooms but they werenít grown locally. Though I had already bought dried basil in the grocery store, she was able to find me some fresh basil and garlic.

I headed home with the fresh produce and got right to work. It was probably best that I kept so busy because I didnít have time to get nervous. I jumped when there was a knock on the garage door. To my surprise, it was already three oíclock. I opened the door and let Lindsey in.

"It smells wonderful!" she said as she entered the kitchen. "Youíve impressed me already, Newcomer."

"Thanks. Dinner is still a ways off. Are you hungry? I can get some hors d'oeuvres going."

"Sure, I ate a little something but I wanted to come hungry. I have faith in your abilities."

"I just hope I can live up to that."

"What can I do to help?" she asked.

"You could grate some cheese, if you donít mind."

"Not at allÖ Iíd love to help."

I already had the cheese grater out on the table. She got blocks of mozzarella and cheddar cheese from the refrigerator and got to work as we talked. The conversation went easy, maybe because I was busy. I had to talk off the top of my head.

Lindsey asked about the recipe and I told her what I had already done. When she finished with the cheese, she came over to watch as I stirred the sauce and seasoned the beef. Having her stand so close to me was intoxicating. She smelled wonderful and her closeness was havingÖ effectsÖ on me.

I took some of the dough and made a small loaf of bread with it, covering the outside of the dough with kosher salt and rosemary. She was very impressed watching me put the bread on a wooden peel and deftly slide it onto the smaller of the two stones that I had already heated in the oven.

"Iíve heard of that but never seen it done. You make it look so easy."

"Itís scary the first time but once you get the hang of it, itís really easy," I told her.

It was fun impressing her with my cooking skills. While the bread baked, I had her pour some olive oil onto a saucer and add some ground black pepper. Before long, I used the peel to retrieve the bread from the oven. I slid it onto a wire rack to cool and asked her to get a bottle of wine from the wine cooler. She chose a bottle of Chianti from the top shelf.

With the sauce and meat finished, I was able to take a break and sit at the table with her. We broke apart the bread, dipping pieces in the oil and eating them while we sipped wine. It wasnít the wine that was intoxicatingóit was Lindsey.

Talking to her was so easy. It came naturally. She told me more about herself and got me to tell her a little about my past. She had questions about what being a writer was like. She playfully tried to get me to reveal my pen name but I didnít give in.

With our immediate hunger satisfied, it was time to bake pizza. I told her she would have to get her hands dirty if she was going to eat my pizza.

"I already did. I grated all that cheese," she said.

"That was just the beginning. Open that bottle of olive oil."

As she did that, I cut off a piece of dough, rolling and stretched it out into a square about as large as the stone in the oven. There is something sensual about working with dough.

"Now sprinkle some cornmeal on the peel." She did but I told her to put more. I carefully picked up the dough and transferred it onto the peel. Next I formed raised edges. When I was done I grabbed the handle and demonstrated how the crust easily slid around the peel.

"Now pour some olive oil on top of the crust and spread it around with your hands."

She looked me in the eye.

"Go ahead. Get your hands dirty. The olive oil will keep the liquid in the sauce from making the crust soggy."

She giggled but put a hand in the oil.

"No, like this," I told her, putting my hand on hers without even thinking about what I was doing, and showed her how to spread the oil. "Use both hands," I continued, and reached around her waist to guide her other hand. The feeling of my hands on hers, slippery with oil, was so sensual, so sexual. The oil lubricated her already soft hands, letting my hands slip and slide against hers as we worked. The dough was already covered but I didnít want to let go of her hands. I was enjoying being that close to her, and it was making me think of things I shouldnít be thinking about with her. I realized all at once the position I was in, standing behind her, my body pressed tightly against hers, and I panicked.

I slid away from her, trying to not make it obvious to her how guilty I felt about what I had been doing, and I retrieved the pot of sauce from the stove. When the crust was glistening with olive oil, I spooned enough sauce to cover the crust.

"Now cover the sauce with mozzarella cheese. It will melt and hold the pizza together," I told her. After that, the beef went on, followed by pepperoni, sliced onions and sliced bell peppers.

Finally we put more mozzarella cheese on top along with cheddar cheese.

"Want to put it in the oven?" I asked her.

"Uh-uh. You do this one. I donít want to ruin dinner."

She watched fascinated as I easily transferred the pizza from the peel to the stone. I set a timer for twelve minutes and got to work making a smaller pizza with the remaining ingredients.

"Weíll never be able to eat all that," Lindsey observed.

I just smiled and said, "Youíll be glad to take leftovers home when you taste it. Trust me."

The larger pizza came out first, followed a few minutes later by the small one on the round stone. They were cooling on wire racks on the granite tabletop.

"More olive oil?" Lindsey asked as I poured some into a small cup and reached for a pastry brush.

"The pizza bakes at five hundred degrees," I explained as I brushed the crust with olive oil. "That temperature destroys the taste and aroma of the olive oil. This puts back the aroma."

I saw Lindsey sniff the air. "That smells so good." I grinned. "I know I said it when I got here, but this is even better. When can we eat it?"

"It has to cool a little. I donít want to be responsible for burning your mouth. Give it a few minutes." I motioned with my elbow towards a cabinet. "Take out a couple plates and some utensils."

She did that while I finished glazing the crusts of the two pizzas. Then she watched as I took out my pizza knife and cut both of them into squares.

"Square pizza?"

"Yes, itís not the way you usually see pizza, but it serves better at a dinner party."

"Oh, are you expecting more guests?" she asked.

Before I could stop myself, I spoke what was on my mind. "Not tonight. Iím not sharing you with anyone else."

I felt panic wash over me as I realized what I had said. I looked quickly in her direction. She was looking at me strangely, but there was a faint smile on her lips. I could feel myself starting to sweat. Neither of us said anything for a few minutes.

I put healthy portions on both plates and carried them out to the table on the patio. Lindsey followed with forks, knives, napkins and our wine glasses. I hadnít gone as far as candles, but the pool light was on. When it got dark, that would cast a nice glow around the deck.

I pulled out Lindseyís chair for her and she gifted me with one of those smiles that made my heart melt. I took my seat and said, "I hope you like it."

"Are you kidding? It will be hard not to embarrass myself by eating too much."

"Embarrass? Never. Eating a lot will only compliment the cook."

She looked into my eyes, my pulse quickened, and she spoke softly. "Then my compliments to the cook." She took a bite and her expression was priceless.

"My God, Michael! This is incredible!"

Well, it sounded about like that. She was talking with her mouth full. She realized what she was doing and quickly put her napkin to her mouth, but sounds of "Mmm" and "Ohh" continued.

Once she swallowed, she could speak again though she was blushing.

"If one of my students did that, Iíd punish them."

"DidÖ?"

"Talk with their mouth full," she explained and we both giggled. "I couldnít help myself," she continued. "Youíre wasting your time as a writer. You should open a restaurant."

"You donít know if Iím wasting my time. You havenít read anything Iíve written."

"Are you offering?" she asked with a sly expression on her face.

I shook my head. "I was just commenting tható"

"Michael, come on. Show me something youíve written. Itís killing me to know what you write. If you write anything like you cook, you must be famous."

I smiled pleasantly.

"Thatís it, isnít it? Youíre someone famous? Youíre a famous writer. But who?"

"Iím not all that famous," I said modestly. "I do alright."

"Michael, who are you?"

I grinned as broadly as I could and answered, "Michael Newcombe."

She gritted her teeth as she said, "I know that, but who are you really? What name is on your books?"

"Perhaps in time," I said, grinning and forcing her to lose her fake angry faÁade. Motioning to her plate, "Mangia, mangia, eat, eat."

It was so pleasant, enjoying the outdoors, the wine, the good food, and the exquisite company. I tried to not make it obvious I was staring but I couldnít help myself. My companion was so lovely and it was so much fun watching her enjoy the meal I had cooked.

When we couldnít eat anymore, she helped me clear the table and take the dishes back inside. We cleaned up the mess on the table and stove; it didnít take long with both of us, and I enjoyed having her working alongside me. I packaged the small pizza and told her it was for her to take home. I smiled when she didnít protest.

We put away the rest of the food and I refilled the wine glasses. I handed a glass to her and led the way back outside. Instead of sitting, we walked around the yard. I picked two plums and handed her one.

"Dessert," I said.

She crunched into the thin skin.

"The tartness of the skin and the sweetness of the flesh is a nice contrast," she said, taking a sip of wine.

"What do you do all day here by yourself?" Lindsey asked me as we walked.

"Oh, do research, keep in touch with my writer friends around the world, talk to my agent. Heís after me to start a new book but Iím not ready yet."

"Why not?"

"I canít start writing until inspiration strikes. When it does, Iíll be writing almost nonstop. Iím waiting for that magical moment when something touches me and I can see the plot."

"Tell me what you write about and maybe I can help," she tried again.

I smiled at her and said, "Thatís alright. The moment will come."

Lindsey made a frustrated sound that I pretended to ignore.

"And that is your job?"

"Pretty much," I told her. "When Iím writing, I stay really busy. When Iím between books, I relax." We had reached the hammock under the pine trees. "Thatís why I bought this. To relax."

Lindsey sat down in the hammock and I sat next to her. You canít really keep your distance sitting side by side in a hammock. Everything kind of slides to the middleónot that I minded, of course.

"It sounds like a wonderful life," she said and I nodded in agreement.

"I really enjoy writing. It lets my imagination wander."

"Whatís it like?" she asked, turning to face me. Her face was only inches away in the twilight, and I took in a deep breath.

"Writing?" I asked, and she nodded as she sipped her wine. I let myself watch the delicate muscles of her throat swallow before responding.

"Itís like I can see the scene in my head. I like to say itís as if Iím sitting in a chair in the corner while the characters act out the scene. I just write down what I see." Then I chuckled. "Sounds psychotic, doesnít it?"

"No, it sounds fascinating," she said sweetly.

"I have a general idea of how the plot should go, where things start and where they should end up. Then I write, and all the in-between stuff justÖ sort ofÖ happens."

"You mean you donít plot it all out in advance?"

"No, things happen along the way as I write that surprise even me. It all comes out well in the end."

"Amazing," she said. Then, "You are a man of amazing talents, Newcomer. You can cook, you can write and youíre so easy to talk to."

She looked at me with what I can only describe as admiration. Embarrassed, I tried to think of a way to change the subject.

"Do you need a refill on your wine?" I asked her.

"No, thanks, I think Iíve had quite enough," she said and put her glass on the ground. She sat back up and looked at me.

Knowing she couldnít possibly mean what I was thinking, I reached down for her glass and stood. She looked at me kind of funny before standing and following me back to the house. We didnít talk much on the walk back. Back at the house, I put the glasses in the dishwasher.

"Iím sorry that I donít have any dessert prepared."

"But you did. Fresh plums."

"Oh, yes. Thatís right."

"And you have nothing to apologize for. Everything was perfect," she told me.

"Iím glad you enjoyed it. The tomatoes came from you, and a cook is only as good as his ingredients."

She blushed as I said that. "Youíre welcome for the tomatoes. Now you must let me cook dinner for you so you can see what I can do with tomatoes. How about tomorrow night?"

"Tomorrow night? That should be fine. Iíll look forward to it. Where do you live?"

She told me how to find her house and asked me to be there at five oíclock. That would give her time to get some cooking done after she finished at the market. I handed her the small pizza I had wrapped and walked her out to her car.

We were standing there under that big oak tree and I had a fleeting thought that I should kiss her on the cheek. There was a panicked feeling in my stomach and I realized that I shouldnít do that. We were just friends, after all. I told her goodnight and watched her drive off.

Inside, there really wasnít much cleaning up to do. She had helped me take care of that. I opened my computer and looked for Amanda so I could tell her how the evening went. She was already online, and my speaker rang as soon as the program loaded.

"Michael! How did it go? Was she impressed? Are you going to see her again? Did you kiss her goodnight?" Amanda was full of questions.

"Hi, Amanda. It went well. She said she really liked the pizza. I made a small one for her to take home. I think she had a good time. I know I did."

"And?"

"And, she invited me over to her house for dinner tomorrow night."

"Good. What are you going to bring?"

"What am I going to bring? I donít know. Iím going there for dinner. Sheís fixing it so I donít think I need to bring anything."

Amanda made an exasperated sound. "Men. Okay, dear, you have to bring her something. It doesnít have to be much. Flowers, a bottle of wine, something like that. Just donít go there without anything. Promise me that, okay?"

"If you think so, Iíll find something."

"Michael, donít you dare go to that womanís house without bringing her a gift."

"Alright, Amanda. Iíll do it."

"So, what was it like when you kissed her goodnight? Or did you wait that long to kiss her?"

"Amanda, weíre just friends."

"Do you mean you didnít kiss her?" she asked me crossly.

"No, I didnít. I invited her for dinner, not to take her to bed."

"You are not making this easy. Tell me everything that happened. Then Iíll tell you what you did wrong."

I chuckled. "Yes, Mom." Then I recounted everything that took place She kept prompting me for more details. When I was finished, she thought for a little while.

"Your big mistake was when you two were sitting in the hammock. That could have been so romantic."

"I really donít think she was interested. She didnít want any more wine. She was ready to go home."

"Michael, Michael, that poor girl was practically throwing herself at you. She was giving you great big heaping signs and you ignored them.

"It was good when you talked about your writing, though. You really relax when you do that. It comes naturally for you so you can just be yourself. When she put her glass down, that was so she would have her hands free. Remember when she looked at you after that? Did you feel like she was looking deeply into your eyes? Peering into your soul?"

"Yes, I think I know what you mean."

"That was when she was waiting for you to kiss her."

"You have to be kidding."

"No, I am not. She wanted you to take the initiative. You blew it right there. You had another chance when you walked her to the car. She expected you to kiss her and you didnít do anything."

"Weíre just friends. Sheís not like that. Sheís sweet, and funny, and she just wants to be friends."

"Dear, a woman doesnít spend an evening alone with a man just because he is a friend. Look, sheís trying to give you another chance tomorrow night. Donít blow it."

"You werenít here. You donít know Lindsey."

"I know women. You thought I didnít know Theresa."

"That was different. That was sneaky."

"No, it wasnít." She deftly changed the subject before I could dwell on that. "You should just tell her who you really are. It would make things so much simpler. Women love sensitive guys like that. Writers are cool, and romance writers are so hot."

"You know Iím not going to flaunt my fame."

She tried yet another tactic to get to me. "That woman is falling for you, Michael. She has it bad for you. Youíre falling for her, too. You just donít realize it yet."

"Thatís ridiculous. Iím not even ready for another relationship. We just met."

"Youíll see," Amanda said, and I could clearly hear the smile on her face. Then, she made another move to throw me off my feet. "What is she cooking for you?"

"I have no idea. She didnít say. I guess itís going to be a surprise."

"Did you two talk about the things you like?"

"No, I donít think so. Well, we established that we both like pizza. Yes, I think Iíve told her that I love Italian cooking."

"There you have it."

"I donít follow you."

"Tomorrow night, if she cooks something Italian, youíll know sheís after you."

"Amanda, youíre being foolish. I thought youíd be glad I made a friend in town."

"Oh, youíve made more than just a friend, Michael. Trust me."

"Can we talk about something else?" I pleaded. All this talk about Lindsey was making me uncomfortable.

"Okay, what is the new book going to be about?"

"I donít know. I havenít come up with anything yet."

"Itís been a long time," she started to say.

"I know exactly how long itís been," I said acerbically. I had finished writing my last book only about a month before Theresa was diagnosed.

When Amanda spoke again, it was in a very gentle tone. "You have to move on." She said it so gently and with such feeling that I regretted how I had spoken to her.

"Iím sorry. Itís just tható"

"Itís just that you have to grieve so you can move on."

"I have been grieving, Amanda. What do you think my life is like, without her?"

"Have you cried?" she asked.

"Have I cried? What kind of question is that?"

"Have you cried?" she asked again.

"Thatís kind of a personal question, donít you think?"

"Youíre avoiding my question, Michael. You always do that when you donít want to lie. I want an answer this time. Have you cried?"

I didnít say anything. I couldnít.

"Have you given yourself permission to cry? You have to cry, Michael. You have to grieve for Theresa so you can move on. She would want you to find happiness again."

"Amanda, I, I just canít. I canít replace her in my life."

"Youíre not replacing her, Michael. She will always be in your heart. You will always love her but there can be room for another. You have to let yourself love again. You didnít die. She did."

We both thought silently about that for a minute. Then Amanda spoke again, calmly and quietly.

"Tomorrow night, give it a chance. Give Lindsey a chance. If you look into your heart, youíll see there is room for her. You ran away from all the memories. Itís time to stop running."

"Amanda," and then I stopped. I sighed heavily. I guess I was getting tired of carrying all that baggage around with me. "Okay."

"Thank you. You will be glad you did. You deserve to be happy."

"I just hope I donít make a fool of myself."

"Donít forget the present," she said.

I found a flower shop near downtown, beneath some of those stately oak trees, and tried to pick out something appropriate. The air inside was cool and fragrant. It smelled like a flower shop, as I suppose all of them do. Flowers and plants were everywhere inside the old building and I couldnít see anything that stood out as the obvious choice. A clerk finally came to my aid. I explained what I was looking for and she put together a very nice arrangement while I waited. It wasnít overly romantic like a dozen roses. It was something that would make a nice centerpiece for the table. That I could handle.

I was nervous. I was like a teenage boy on his first date. I guess in a way that is exactly what it was. I hadnít really dated in years. Theresa had been my life for so long. I got dressed three times, finally giving up and accepting the final outfit by default. At least the redressing kept me from just staring at the clock. Then it was time to go.

I found Lindseyís house easy enough. She lived in a nice though small house in a quiet neighborhood. Her house was on the river like mine, but she lived closer to downtown. I parked and got out, clutching the flowers and hoping it wasnít obvious that I was trembling.

This is ridiculous, I told myself. Last night I was so relaxed with her. Tonight should be no different. I rang the doorbell and when I heard her footsteps my heart pounded harder.

Lindseyís smile disarmed me. It was like I was melting inside. Seeing her face, the way she looked at me, made me forget how nervous I was. She was wearing an apron but looked otherwise dressed more for entertaining rather than cooking.

"Dinner is just about finished," she told me as I handed her the flowers. "Oh, how sweet. Those will look lovely on the table." Her left hand touched my cheek as she took the flowers in her right. I almost sighed audibly at her touch.

I followed her to the kitchen where the smells were wonderful. Amanda was right. She was preparing something Italian.

"I hope you like Penne Pasta with Vodka Sauce. You said you like Italian."

"I love it. Hello, kitty." I bent down to pet an orange tabby that was affectionately rubbing against my leg.

"Thatís Brisco. He likes everybody," she told me.

"Brisco? Thatís an unusual name for a cat," I said, trying to keep my voice steady.

Lindsey giggled. "I know. Itís from one of my favorite books. The main character had a cat named Brisco. Have you ever read any Ken Stryker?"

I used every bit of strength in me to not react.

"So you do read a lot, like you said," I answered, knowing my voice sounded like I was straining to sound normal. "Do you get much chance for recreational reading when school is in session?"

"Not as much as during the summer," she said as she measured and poured vodka and cream into the skillet. "Brisco, did you have to do that now?" she called out.

Her cat was scratching in his litter box in the corner, and watching me with an intent gaze as he did what cats do.

She giggled as she said, "He loves to dig. Grandpa calls him Backhoe."

We both laughed at that. I helped Lindsey in the kitchen with little things. She would reach for my shoulder and ask for a spice, or a spoon. When she took something from my hand, her hand always touched mine. It felt nice. It felt better than nice. In short order, dinner was served. Lindsey had set the table for two, with candles.

"Would you light the candles, please?" she asked as she guided me to my chair with a gentle hand on my back.

I picked up the long handled lighter and lit the candles. As they flared into life, Lindsey was dimming the lights. My panic was returning. When she returned to the table, I still had the good graces to hold out her chair for her.

"Thank you, Michael. You are obviously a man of refined talents."

"My mother taught me well," I said as I sat across from her.

With the two candles framing her face, she truly was a vision of loveliness. Her face glowed in the golden light. I was drawn out of the trance when she cleared her throat.

She was holding up her wine glass. I caught on and lifted mine to hers.

"To Fourntonís newest citizen, and our only resident writer," she said and we clinked glasses. After she took a sip, she looked into my eyes and said with thought, "Though we still donít know what exactly he writes."

I took a bite of the pasta so I could compliment her on it.

"This is wonderful. The sausage is perfect," I said.

"You like it? One of the markets in town makes it."

"Itís terrific, Lindsey. The whole dish is perfect."

"Thanks," she said, lowering her head demurely.

"How soon does school start?" I asked.

"Too soon," she said, chuckling. "Teachers always say that."

"I suppose they do. It must be nice having summers off."

"Yes, it is. I like being able to help Grandpa, but I love teaching, too. Those eager faces so interested in learning. It makes all the rest worthwhile."

We managed to keep the conversation going through dinner with no lags, talking about everything and nothing. I relaxed and enjoyed the meal. She really was a great cook. Brisco finally took up residence on the sofa and watched us eat as he bathed.

After the meal was finished, I helped her take the dishes to the kitchen. Dessert was cheesecake and coffee which we carried to the sofa. Brisco grudgingly moved to one corner of the sofa when Lindsey gave him a gentle shove. He sat there, giving me an intent look that was more curious than annoyed.

"Did you make the cheesecake?" I asked as we sat down.

"No, Iím not that good. Itís from the market, too."

"Well, itís good enough to be homemade," I said after tasting a bite. I sipped the coffee. I was getting used to the local coffee, which was much stronger than what I was used to, but hers was even darker. I leaned forward and added generous amounts of cream and sugar from the containers she had set on the coffee table.

"Thank you," she said, smiling and looking curiously at me. She put her hand on mine. "You say the sweetest things."

I just smiled, not knowing what to say. The touch of her hand on mine was making my heart pound.

"Did I just make the famous author speechless?" she teased.

She had indeed.

"Why wonít you just tell me?" she asked.

"Tell you what?" I asked and took a sip of the coffee, more palatable with my additions.

She finished taking a bite of the cheesecake and put her fork on her plate, turning to face me fully with one leg now tucked beneath her.

"Michael, I want to know what you write. I really want to read your stuff. I might actually like it, you know."

"Perhaps," I said. "Then again, if I keep my secret, I know I will never disappoint you."

"You are obviously good at it since you can make your living at it. You should be proud of that."

"Lindsey," I said, looking now directly into her lovely eyes, "I donít like to flaunt my success. I am very proud of what I have accomplished. I just donít want it to change how people treat me or what they think of me."

Lindsey made a cute groaning sound. "I will find out, you know. Eventually. So you might as well just tell me."

"Sorry. You will just have to figure it out on your own."

"And I will. That is a challenge and Lindsey McAllister doesnít back away from a challenge. You will regret telling me that."

I grinned. "Good luck," was all I said in answer.

"By the way, we call that coffee milk," she said with a smile, looking pointedly at my cup with its light brown contents. "Itís how little children drink their coffee." She made a polite little laugh as she said it.

"Iím getting used to this stuff slowly. I donít use a knife to cut it anymore."

"Is it really that different from what youíre used to?" she asked.

"Oh, yes."

After dessert, we walked out to her backyard, where the current made her canoe bump against the wharf from time to time. It was fully dark by then, but the glow of lights from houses along the river, along with the moon, cast more than enough light to see by. Lindsey grasped my arm with both hands as we walked and I didnít mind one bit. We sat in a swing that faced the water and listened to the delicate night sounds of summer.

"Where is your grandfatherís farm?" I asked her.

"Huh? Oh, itís a little downriver on the other side, over there," she said and pointed to a spot where there were no lights visible. "Itís not too far from your house."

I looked at the canoe in the water.

"I think Iíd like one of those," I said, pointing with my free hand. "It must be relaxing."

"Mmm, it is," she said. Then, sitting more upright, "Want to go for a ride?"

"Sure. Next time youíre out, stop by and pick me up," I said.

"No, I mean right now. How about it?"

"Are you serious?" I asked, her expression telling me she was.

"Iím not really dressed for it," I said.

"Sure you are. We wonít fall in."

With that, she stood, pulling me by my arm and leading the way. She got in first and held onto the wharf to steady the canoe.

"Have you ever been in a canoe before?" she asked.

"No, I donít think so."

"Then remember to keep low, keep your center of gravity low. Step in and sit down slowly."

I did, and once I was settled on the metal seat she untied the rope. Taking hold of the paddle, she pushed us out into the current.

"What do I do?" I asked her.

"Just sit there and look cute," she said with a giggle.

The water trickling off the end of the paddle made a soft sound, and we otherwise glided through the water silently.

"This is so peaceful, so nice," I observed.

"Yes, it is. After a hectic day in class, I like to go canoeing to relax. Some days, I really need the peace and quiet after school."

After a few minutes, she turned the tiny boat back into the current and paddled more vigorously.

"Are you sure you donít want me to help?"

"No, Iím fine. I do this all the time. Just not with someone else in the front."

"Are you saying Iím too fat?" I asked, grinning and turning around to look at her.

"Of course not," she said. Then, pointing with her upraised paddle at my stomach, "In fact, you could stand for some fattening up. You need to let me cook for you more often."

"Deal," I said before I could stop myself. What had I just agreed to? What was I doing?

Lindsey just smiled and paddled. We went past her house towards the bridge. As we approached, the current could be heard rushing around the supports.

"Itís a lot harder paddling upstream," Lindsey said, turning the boat around so we could drift back to her house.

"Let me try," I pleaded.

"Okay," she said and handled me the paddle.

I gripped it as I had seen her doing, and began paddling.

"Paddle on both sides, otherwise weíll just go in circles," she instructed.

I did as she said and soon had us heading to her dock.

"Now paddle backwards a little. Slow down so we donít hit the wharf so hard."

I tried but only managed to make the canoe start to go in circles.

"Sorry," I apologized.

"Itís okay. Let me have the paddle."

I handed it over and she expertly brought us alongside, the canoe making a light bump as it gently settled into its place.

"Not bad for a Newcomer," Lindsey told me as we got out. "You need more practice, though."

"I really enjoyed that. I need to get one of these."

"Any time you want to use mine, just ask," she said sweetly.

As we walked back to the house, she put an arm around my waist. Her touch reminded me of Theresa and I caught myself in time just before I moaned out loud.

"Lindsey, this was truly wonderful. The food was fantastic, and the canoe ride delightful. Thank you so much. I almost regret having to leave."

"Leave? Why? Itís not that late. Itís not like you have to go to work tomorrow, is it?"

I chuckled. "You think we writers donít work, do you? I have to get to work on my new book. I still havenít found the right inspiration. And what about you? You have to be at the market early in the morning."

"Well, if you have to, but I wish youíd stay a little longer."

She sounded almost sad as she said that.

"Thanks. Maybe another time. I really enjoyed it. It will be my turn to cook next time, okay?"

"How about we cook together?" she suggested as she walked me out to my car.

"That sounds nice. Iíll let you know when."

After I got in the car, I noticed she was standing there looking at me. The way she looked at me made me feel a little uncomfortable. I wondered if I had forgotten anything.

"Goodnight, and thanks again," I said cheerily as I closed the car door. Lindsey waved and watched me back out of her driveway.

 

Continued in Chapter 3

 

This story is Copyright © 2007 by Strickland83. All rights reserved.

 

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