|Draw Me A Picture
Author: MeredithGreeneWriter PM
Jobless & alone, 23-yr-old Michelle sells pen & ink drawings on a Manhattan street corner in order to eat. Lonely, she draws the portrait of a handsome, British stranger whom walks by her each day. He sees it, though Michelle's nutty uncle may interfere..Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance - Chapters: 6 - Words: 59,364 - Reviews: 792 - Favs: 593 - Follows: 459 - Updated: 02-18-13 - Published: 09-14-07 - id: 2414913
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Michelle settled in at her new corner with surprising ease. No other drawing artists frequented the place besides the occasional food vendor cart and one elderly guitarist, named Patrick. The singer's 'art' consisted of warbling through all the Simon & Garfunkle songs he could remember. Any initial suspicion felt by Patrick was thwarted by Michelle's daily offering of an apple or orange. He reminded her a little of her grandfather, with his pronounced features and false teeth. Over the ensuing weeks Michelle allowed him to sit next to her while they ate lunch. Patrick was full of amusing stories, as well as marked opinions of those who favored him with daily musical 'criticism'.
The corner lay several blocks from her old one, in an entirely different direction. Michelle knew she probably would not see William here, reasoning that his lunchtime routine was fairly fixed. She hoped the new location was too far out of the way for him to accidentally stumble upon her. Once again Michelle was lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces, hidden in the swirling bustle of walking, work, lights and sound that made up New York City. Her contact with humans now broadened slightly to include noontime conversations with Patrick. She sketched more drawings than ever during the hours of waning sunshine. In these ways Michelle felt somewhat distracted; she was grateful not to be left alone with thoughts of William.
At night, however, memories of his shocked expression that day haunted her. Each time these thoughts re-emerged, tears of remorse and loneliness fell to her pillow for what might have been. As silly as it was to think on it-and torture herself-the situation left Michelle with a feeling of purely feminine regret. It seemed to her that the streets grew darker each day, the wind blew colder and the passing faces appeared strange and threatening.
Six weeks after she'd left her old haunt, Michelle came home early in a jubilant mood. Finally, her daily sales had compiled enough to buy some warm, winter clothing. Depositing her display in its place, Michelle quickly made her way out the Waldorf's back entrance, intent on heading straight to the nearby Good Will Store. Samuel saw her as she breezed out the door, however. He walked up to her with a quick pace, his face lit with some secret joy.
"Miss Michelle," he greeted, walking over to her. "I hope y' like Monet."
Puzzled at these words, Michelle paused her stride.
"Well, he's a little old for me," she said, smiling, "and deceased... but, yes. I adore his paintings. Who doesn't?" Samuel chuckled, his teeth sowing brightly in his swarthy face.
"Me," he replied. "Now, don't get me wrong... I like a nice painting same as anybody but, being dragged around for a whole night lookin' at art and talkin' about art isn't my idea of a good time. Especially on a night the Knicks are playin'."
"I see," Michelle said, trying not to laugh. "I take it Mabel likes Monet?"
"Yes, she does," Samuel returned, taking off his cap and rubbing his bald head. "Her sister gave her tickets to some art show at the Guggenheim."
Michelle's eyes widened considerably.
"You mean… you have tickets... to the Guggenheim Monet showing?" she repeated, quietly. "Twelve of his actual paintings on display?" Samuel nodded.
"Mabel's mother has the flu. She called today and needs Mabel to go take care of her for a few days," he explained, his smile returning full force. "So, instead of being at some ritzy to-do I get to hang with my boys at the game. I figured the tickets shouldn't go to waste, so, why don't you go... and take a friend?" He held out a small, thick envelope to her with the museum's logo emblazoned upon it.
Michelle looked from it back to the good-natured security guard.
"I would love to see those paintings," she conceded, "But, this... this is too much, sir. I can't."
"You can," Samuel said, smiling. He pressed the envelope into Michelle's hand. "I insist. They should be seen by folk who'll actually enjoy them. That would be you." Looking down at the tickets, Michelle felt her eyes mist over.
"I'm eternally grateful to you both," she told him, meaning every syllable. Patting the young woman on the shoulder Samuel put his cap back on and straightened it.
"I'll take warm beer over wine any day," he said plaintively. Michelle smiled.
"I hope you have a wonderful time."
"You too, Miss Michelle." The middle-aged security guard turned back to his duties, giving her a friendly nod. Michelle returned his wave and jubilantly resumed her errand, which was now infused with added incentive. It would feel odd to walk closely among strangers, all evening and in one room but the prospect of seeing those particular paintings... to gaze at them as long as she wanted stole away any feelings of reserve. Now, if she could just find something to wear...
The woman behind the Good Will counter looked bored with life. She took no notice of incoming customers and continued reading her magazine. Michelle secured a cart and passed the counter with an inward glee; nothing was going to dampen her excitement. There were just a few shoppers; the hour was yet early. Slowly and carefully, Michelle perused racks of coats with a savor only the unfortunate know. This particular store had access to some of the finer neighborhoods in the city and was thereby able to stock its shelves with mostly quality items. Feeling thick wools and fluffy fleeces, Michelle thought it was tragic that the affluent men and women whom donated these fine items probably didn't have a clue how much happiness their cast-off clothing brought.
"If they only knew," she thought, shaking her head. At least the clothes were being thrown out or put in storage where no one could use them.
A hint of bright blue caught Michelle's eye. Buried between a tawny, fringed monstrosity and a black dinner jacket hung a long, blue pea coat. Extricating it from the other garments, Michelle looked over every inch of the material with a critical eye. The wool was thick and exquisite; there was a small tear in the right sleeve and some of the dark blue buttons were missing; it came down past Michelle's knees. She knew she had buttons enough to replace the missing ones, but she was more concerned with the coat's price; it was well made and it had certainly cost a pretty penny brand new. Flipping over the price tag Michelle breathed a sigh of relief. For sixteen she could be the owner of the warm, blue coat.
She put it in her little cart with a smile. For a few dollars more, she found a new set of white fleece gloves and a fluffy, white beret to match. Thick socks were found along with warm leggings and new thermals. Wool sweaters were available in abundance; Michelle quickly found two that would service her well. Having found all her necessary things she made her way towards the check-out. The dress rack, however, beckoned and Michelle did not resist.
"Just a look," she thought, a smile playing around her mouth. It had been such a long time since she'd had an occasion to dress up for.
After a half hour of careful searching she found a long, pale pink gown. It had a low, square neck and long, slim sleeves; it looked almost medieval. Though it was not brand new Michelle decided after dry cleaning and a few judicious alterations, it would look very well.
"I'm glad I kept a pair of heels," she thought with satisfaction. Slowly, she walked to the check stand with her treasures. Standing in line, Michelle tapped her foot with a smile on her face; she could not wait to get home.
Once back in her hotel room she turned the pink gown inside out and tried it on. It felt a little stiff, like it had been recently starched. At her mother's insistence Michelle had taken sewing classes-as a teenager-at a local fabric store. Now, she was very glad she had taken them; with a bit of skill, and restraint, even a second-hand dress could be fitted nicely. Smiling, Michelle thought of the Cinderella movie and chuckled at the thought of mice and birds altering a dress. She threaded a needle with light pink thread, unconsciously humming a Disney song.
An hour later Michelle clipped her threads and took out the last pins from the gown. Hanging it up, she started mending the new coat's sleeve. Carefully pinning the torn sides right-side-together, she selected strong, thick thread somewhat close to the material's hue. With the aid of a thimble, she pulled the needle in and out of the fabric in a series of tiny 'whip' stitches. Satisfied the repair seam would not unravel, the young woman began clipping the existing buttons from the coats' bright blue surface.
Digging in her sewing basket Michelle located a vintage metal, hinged box that had once contained bath-salts. It was filled with hundreds of buttons of many shapes, colors and sizes. Her Gramma Betty had started the 'button box' when she was a young bride; it was passed down to Michelle's mother and then to herself. After searching for some minutes, Michelle found some antique, silver-plated buttons with thistles embossed on them; theywere all tied together with thread. There were more than enough of them to replace the coat's buttons. Sewing these on Michelle felt unusually industrious.
Leaving her room with the two garments on hangers, she took the stairs down to the first level, making her way to the laundry. A Mrs. Carlyle was section manager there. Michelle had met her briefly when she first came to live on the second floor. Since the young guest hardly used the laundry service Mrs. Carlyle did not object to taking the two items out along with the evening dry-cleaning.
Thanking her, Michelle jogged back up to her floor and did the rest of her laundry and spent a happy half-hour folding and putting away the new clothes. As she closed the armoire's doors, relief washed over her like a warm tide. The winter's rage and icy threats seemed lessened already by the simple shield of warm clothing. Michelle gave in to closing her blinds, turning on her CD player and waltzing around her room for a few minutes. Chuckling softly at herself, Michelle shut off the music.
"Once in awhile, one must dance," she murmured.
THE FOLLOWING day Michelle planned on quitting the streets early. Patrick absorbed her happy news of the art-show tickets with a straight face, but Michelle knew he was pleased. Her suspicions were confirmed when she presented him with her spare ticket. He held it close a moment, and then grinned.
"I'll have to find my 'dinner jacket'," he said, his eyes twinkling merrily. "I hope they put on a good spread." Michelle chuckled a little.
"More likely there will only a few, tiny hors d'oeuvres and champagne; nothing substantial," she said. Patrick shook his head.
"Well, then I'll see if I can make it," he said, rubbing his beard. "You never know, something else might come up."
"I am looking forward to going by myself," Michelle admitted. "No one to distract me... or tell me that they think Monet is over-rated. So what if he was half-blind? He still painted the most beautiful pictures… and when I look at them, they fill my mind with breezy thoughts of sunshine, of idyllic afternoons and naps in flower-scented gardens."
"Couldn't have said it better myself," Patrick agreed. "If I see you I'll just sagely nod and move on, like them aristocratic rich folk do." He lifted his chin a little and played a few bars of 'Pomp and Circumstance' on his guitar. Laughing, Michelle put an orange in his guitar-case and packed up her display. The opening of the Monet exhibit began in little over two hours. There was just enough time to get ready.
An hour later Michelle leaned into her armoire, searching for her pair of fancy shoes. A sharp knock came at her door a few moments later. Peering out the peephole, Michelle saw Mrs. Carlyle from the laundry downstairs; the woman held two garment bags. Taking out one of her precious five-dollar bills Michelle slipped on sweatshirt and opened the door. The woman handed her the clothes and smiled a little at the tip. Thanking her, Michelle closed the door. She laid the bulkier coat down on her bed and eagerly took off the plastic garment bag covering the pale pink dress.
The gown looked much improved. The cleaning had left it very soft and smoothly pressed. She wanted to try it on right away, but her hair was still wet from showering. Laying the gown carefully on the bed Michelle disappeared into the bathroom. As quickly as possible, she dried and brushed her hair; taking out her curling iron from the cabinet, Michelle put soft curls on the ends of the long, tresses. Carefully parting her hair on the far right side, she tucked the front ends behind her ears and pinned them, allowing the rest of her hair to tumble down her shoulders in a shiny, bouncy fountain. Holding her breath, she slipped into her gown. Michelle looked at herself in the bathroom mirror, feeling an odd sensation of nervousness.
It looked well on her, she decided. The design seemed lovely in its simple lines. The color blended well with her skin tone, giving her a healthy glow and her eyes blazed out pale gold, with a hint of green. Encouraged by the sight, Michelle brought out her makeup box, something she hardly ever wore anymore. She dabbed on a little foundation, powder and thinly lined her eyes with brown liner, using similarly-shaded mascara. Clear lip gloss finished out her makeup job and Michelle was happy with the results. Looking critically in the mirror Michelle almost didn't recognize herself; a healthier, prettier girl looked back at her.
"I have not seen you in a long time," she told her reflection.
Donning her coat Michelle slid on the new white hat and gloves, reveling in their warmth. The coat felt as good as it looked. The silver buttons twinkled in the soft light. Michelle found a pair of nylons and her high heels. The dress almost covered her shoes, but she'd had seen long gowns like this recently in store windows. Modesty was apparently 'in' again.
"Lucky me," Michelle said to herself. "I get to be fashionable and warm." The thought pleased her. Glancing at the clock, she grabbed her ticket and put it carefully in her coats inside pocket. She put the tube of lip gloss in her other pocket, deciding against taking her purse. What would be the point? Purse snatchers scuttled about in the shadows of these gala events, though Michelle reasoned they'd not bother her. She looked nice,not wealthy.
Stepping out the door Michelle hesitated at the familiar stairwell entrance. Turning around, she walked all the way down the hall to the main elevator. Normally-dressed in her street clothes and carrying her vending display-she never took the elevator; she did not want to bring any ill-repute to Mr. Chan or the hotel because of her appearance. Tonight, she felt equal to everyone.
The elevator doors opened and she stepped inside, earning a smile from a young man dressed entirely in black Armani. She stood away from him in the other corner. After a few moments the man cleared his throat; Michelle suspected it was a signal to converse but ignored it. She smiled down at the floor until the doors opened in the lobby. Her fellow passenger motioned for her to precede him and Michelle walked out into the grand foyer. She resisted the temptation to sashay.
The Waldorf-Astoria lobby was famous for its décor. Elegant, professionally designed seasonal touches graced almost every surface, applied by people who were paid far too much. Michelle knew this for fact; she'd seen the receipts. Smiling, she walked on and admired the view. The lovely sight invoked a soft sigh from the young woman; the fall-themed garlands, classical furniture and twinkling chandeliers spoke pleasant promises of comfort to visitors, calling them onward to the more expensive rooms upstairs. Despite the luxury presented, Michelle felt happy with her little room; she had no bill to pay at the end of her stay.
Heading out one of the front doors, Michelle halted as icy air enveloped her; freezing air. Her breath turned into an opaque cloud before her face, looking almost solid. Though most of her person was nestled in the new coat, Michelle could feel the chill wrap around her throat.
"Should've worn a muffler," she silently chided herself. The valet, well-wrapped against the night air asked if he could call her a cab. Michelle was tempted but shook her head; it was simply too great a luxury. The subway was her carriage for the evening, at a fraction of the cost. Walking was the cheapest but the museum was forty-two blocks away.
"No use arriving at the gallery drenched in sweat," she thought, descending the subways steps.
Outside the Guggenheim, a line of cabs, cars and limos stretched around the corner; horns beeped loudly and the vehicles jostled for attention from the valets. Suddenly glad to be a pedestrian, Michelle joined the short queue of people outside the main entrance. Bright banners hung from the building on poles emblazoned with the name of the famous French impressionist; two, huge searchlights pointed straight into the sky on either side of the entrance, as if to say 'Monet has arrived'. Lovely couples strolled up and down the wide, white staircase, looking as if they did this every day.
Waiting in line Michelle nervously clutched her ticket; so many people standing nearby put her a little on edge. Even though she walked back and forth to her corner in a huge crowd every day, this was different; the commuting people she'd never see again, but these fellow art-enthusiasts would be holed up in a room with her for the next few hours, brushing up against her and possibly attempting conversation. Michelle took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. In spite of her anti-social tendencies, she knew it was good for her to fight it and mingle with humans.
"Nobody knows who I am, or what I do," she thought.
The couple in front of her moved forward; Michelle noticed the bottom of the woman's black dress dragged slightly on the ground, effectively picking up the dust. Little crystals sewn all over the fabric clinked as the woman moved. Smiling, Michelle wondered how much the man had paid for his wife to wear a sparkly dust-mop. The couple ahead of her handed their tickets to the doorman and went inside. Doubts inundated Michelle as she approached the doorman and guards. What if she was here on the wrong night? What if the ticket was no good? Maybe Mabel's sister had bought them from some con-artist making forgeries? What if...
The doorman clipped her ticket and handed it back with a smile.
"Enjoy the paintings, miss," he said, opening the door. Nodding, Michelle stepped inside.
Insignificant. She felt every letter of that word standing inside the bulwark building of artistic expression. The very air felt intimidating. Despite this, Michelle remembered that had come to see paintings, grandeur notwithstanding. Soft lights beckoned from the far end of the echoing antechamber; through tall, glass doors Michelle glimpsed couples walking and talking. Peeking amid the milling people was a painting, hung on a gray-hued wall, lit by tiny spotlights. Monet's own works were just inside those doors.
Although Michelle thought it a little silly to feel so thrilled at seeing art, she knew from whence her emotions sprung. To her, the paintings were beautiful monuments, testifying that one would live, work, love and die, but pieces of that life were somehow able to be preserved and appreciated... even hundreds of years later. Her eyes aglow with muted excitement, Michelle walked forward feeling grateful to be among those allowed to see and enjoy.
A coat check stood ready for the night's occasion. Unbuttoning her overcoat, Michelle enjoyed the way the embossed buttons felt in her fingers as she pushed them through the buttonholes. She tucked her hat and gloves into the pockets and reluctantly handed the coat across the counter. The black-clad youth slipped the coat onto a hangar, tagged it and gave her back the bottom portion of the ticket. Michelle uttered a low 'thank you,' before turning away. Walking towards the glass doors, she slipped the ticket stub discreetly into her bodice, having no pocket or purse. The glass door opened before her and Michelle stepped into the exhibition, suddenly immersed in an ethereal world of low voices, clinking glasses and art.
Despite her desire to see the paintings, insecurity gripped the young woman as she entered the room. Michelle resisted an urge to find the darkest corner and hide in it; one or two of the large, potted palms looked promising. She did not see Patrick the street musician anywhere but that did not really surprise her. The ticket was worth a lot fenced. Forcing herself to act like a normal person would, she slowly made her way towards the first painting. The people milling around seemed more interested in conversations with one another than actually looking at the art, enabling Michelle an unobstructed view of the first painting.
It was exquisite. No other word even came close, but then Michelle did not see a mere collection of framed artwork. The people around her faded, the wall darkened and the painting itself blazed forth filling her view completely. Every brush-stroke beckoned; each color called out for attention. So ensconced was she in her perusal that a nearby server had to call to her three times. Michelle jumped as a middle-aged man in a server's tuxedo lightly touched her shoulder.
"Wh-what?" she said, uncertainly, blinking at the waiter.
"Wine?" the server asked, offering his tray. The gleaming, stemmed glasses were half-filled with various wines, both pale and vibrant. Michelle shook her head.
"Oh... I'm sorry, sir," she stammered. "I don't drink but, thank you."
"We have sparkling cider, miss," the server said, holding out a tall, thin flute. Minute bubbles in the golden liquid rose, disappearing as they gained the surface. Michelle accepted the glass and inhaled its sweet fragrance.
"Perfect," she said, smiling. The man nodded and swept off, balancing his tray with adept precision. Michelle was free to lose herself in the painting once more.
Across the room, a man with blue eyes stared at Michelle as she turned back to the painting. His expression was one of astonishment. William Montgomery indeed felt surprised; the young street artist with the unusual eyes was standing not thirty feet away from him. He was certain it was her... Michelle Gregory. The girl who'd drawn the incredible portrait of him and then yelled at him; the girl who'd run away embarrassed, never to reappear. She was the very last person he expected to see here.
William had tried for weeks to locate the artist. The private investigator he hired turned up some interesting information: the years at Stanford, her parent's auto accident and the fact that over two years ago she was sacked from a very prestigious accounting firm. More inquiries established she'd not been fired for legitimate reasons; a former coworker informed the PI that Michelle Gregory was 'brilliant' with taxes, a little anti-social but was fired since she wasn't willing to bend the rules for a wealthy client.
There the trail went cold. Her old landlord thought well of her but did not have a forwarding address. There were no post office boxes with her name attached to them, and none of the employment agencies had heard from a Michelle Gregory in almost two years. William tried code-calling the local hotels; they either didn't have her there, or refused to give out any information. It was as if she'd fallen off the map. He walked by her vacated corner each day hoping to see her, to no avail. Yet, here she was… standing in the Guggenheim exhibition room looking as if she'd stepped right out of one of the paintings.
When she'd entered the room, his eye was drawn to her hesitant body language; the girl appeared inexplicably familiar to him, but he couldn't place her. He'd studied the young woman as she moved, trying to remember who she was; he was about to walk over to her when she turned to face a server. Oddly-beautiful eyes looked out from her face; pale gold, with a little green in them. William knew her at once. Drifting closer, he weighed what to say to her; he couldn't imagine admitting he'd been investigating her whereabouts, but he wanted her to know how much he'd been trying to find her.
"Hello. I've been searching for you… want to go out?" William shook his head, a rueful smile lifting one corner of his mouth, and then he froze. Go out? The thought baffled William momentarily; he just wanted to meet her, to apologize for calling her homeless... why the jump to dating?
William looked at the young woman again. She hadn't moved from the first painting; she was just gazing at it, standing like a graceful statue. "She definitely cleans up well," he thought. William suddenly missed her eyes; he wanted to look into them and speak with her, to make her laugh... just to see her eyes light up. Perhaps she would go out with him. There were so many things he wanted to ask her; surely she wouldn't run away again. William suspected that yelling wasn't something she did frequently; she seemed embarrassed and surprised at herself that day at the corner.
"Well, here goes nothing," he said to himself. Taking a large drink of champagne William began weaving his way through the surrounding crowd, toward the young woman in the pink dress.
Lost in a color-strewn landscape Michelle could almost see the painter standing in his Giverny studio: tubes of paint littered the floor and a wooden palette sat on a nearby stool. Paintbrush in hand, Monet stood with a serious expression on his face, his feet apart in stubborn stance. At that moment, the master painter was merely a fellow human... a little-known artist with stains on his clothes, wearing an odd, unfashionable cap that 'unsettled' everyone but himself. Michelle was comforted by the thought. Although fame and money were considered by most to be 'wonderful', she was glad the artist had not lived to witness the frenzy of popularity that ensued post mortem. She just knew he would have hated gushing fans and hordes of visitors invading his beloved haunts.
"Unknown, undiscovered artists are... happier," she murmured.
A man beside-and slightly behind—her spoke, but Michelle did not look at him. The voice was pleasant and refined with a clear, English accent… all horribly familiar. The painting blurred. Staring ahead, Michelle unconsciously gripped her cider.
"It's Miss Gregory, isn't it?" came the voice again. "I found your name on your drawing. Michelle Gregory." The man's head leaned a little more into her peripheral view. Michelle couldn't get her voice to work; she wanted to say something but nothing would come out. She could feel his intent gaze on her face. "You've gone pale," the man continued, quietly. "Does this mean you're going to yell and toss your drink at me?" Mortified, Michelle turned away, feeling an overwhelming urge to bolt.
A hand on her arm stopped her.
"Please don't go." The man's voice came again; he moved to block her way. "I meant no offense. It's just... last time you ran off and didn't come back. I know. I looked for you."
Venturing a glance up, Michelle's eyes met William's; they were looking at her with concern. He was so very good -looking and as always well-dressed; the fine, gray-wool suit, gray shirt and dark gray silk tie suited him well. Michelle was amazed he was even speaking with her, let alone searching her face with questions in his eyes.
"I am so sorry," she blurted out, surprising herself and her companion. "I never behave that way, and … oh, your poor mother! I... um..." Unable to continue Michelle looked down, biting her lip.
A soft chuckle brought her gaze back up. The blue-eyed man was smiling at her; not mockingly, per say, but as if he found her mortification amusing.
"Truthfully, Miss Gregory, your words were justified... however dramatic," he said. "I should not have assumed you were homeless."
"I'm not," Michelle said, lifting her chin a little. "But, I do sell my drawings out there." The man held out his hand to her.
"William Montgomery," he said, looking down into her eyes.
"Michelle Gregory," said she, gently taking his hand. "But... you already knew that."
The man's palm felt a little rough; Michelle unconsciously gave it her attention. She expected a soft, manicured hand, but his had calluses and scrapes on it. William saw her scrutiny and grinned.
"I build furniture," he explained. "I have a little wood shop at my apartment."
"Oh." Realizing she still held his hand, Michelle quickly let it go. "Uh... as your occupation?" she asked, looking up at him.
Momentarily William's gaze was caught up in her strange, beautiful eyes. If his heart had the capacity to flutter, it would have. The young woman looked quite stunning in her pale, pink dress. Her sable-colored hair seemed to glow in the soft light. William thought he could faintly smell apple blossoms. Suddenly, he imagined them picnicking together in some sunny apple orchard, the air scented with rosy flowers. In his vision she smiled up at him and he leaned in for a kiss...
A soft voice interrupted William's reverie. The orchard disappeared, but Michelle was still in front of him.
"Er... ah... no. Hobby," he stammered, attempting to clear his head. His brain reeled from the vibrant, imaginary scene. "I'm a corporate lawyer… Brownstone & Peters. I only wish carpentry was my sole occupation, but... one must pay the bills." He gave Michelle a wistful smile. She looked at him steadily for a moment and then took a sip of her cider.
"Not much money in hobbies," she returned. "Being a 'starving artist' is not for the faint of heart." William noted her wry tone. Leaning forward a little, he looked down at her.
"You may be slender, my dear but hardly emaciated," he said, lowering his voice.
Michelle felt her face turn red. She looked away and drained her cider. Smiling, William halted a nearby server. "Two more champagne," he directed at the man.
"Not for me... thank you," Michelle managed to say. William looked at her with one eyebrow raised.
The waiter recognized Michelle and held out a different flute.
"Sparkling cider for the lady," he quipped. Michelle nodded and let William relieve her of her empty glass.
"You're a bit dressed up to be a devout teetotaler," William remarked, taking a drink of his champagne.
"I have never liked the taste of alcohol," Michelle explained. Taking a step towards the next painting, she saw William fall into step beside her. "It's not a religious thing, more of a personal preference. I do cook with it, though."
"Do you?" William said, smiling. Michelle gave him a sidelong look.
"Yes," she said. "I do know how to cook... for myself, anyway."
William was pleased at their conversation thus far, though he was finding it difficult to concentrate on the paintings when a living one was standing right next to him, delicately sipping her drink. She seemed to be enjoying the cider very much.
They approached a large painting. The canvas nearly covered the wall. Michelle's eyes grew wide at the sight of it.
"I can see him," she said, almost too softly to be heard. William caught it, however. Lifting an eyebrow he looked at t he painting, then over at her.
"Who?" he inquired. Michelle started, looked at William.
"Oh... sorry," she replied. "I didn't realize I said that out loud."
"Who did you see?" William asked, gently, leaning closer to her. He already liked the way her soft voice threaded its way through the surrounding chatter.
Feeling a bit silly Michelle took a deep breath.
"Monet," she admitted. She pointed to the floor in front of her feet. "He must have stood just this far away to paint this part. I can see him... in his paint-spattered clothes, his garden clogs... wearing that little cap that everyone loathed."
William smiled but did not interrupt. The change in her face fascinated him. Her shyness was gone and her face glowed as she described the scene in the studio, the painter's face and how he held the brushes.
"So…" he said, as she paused. "What is he doing?" Looking at the painting, Michelle's mouth curved into a little smile.
"He's gripping his hair, like all painters do, saying: 'That corner is not right! Alice! Where the hell is my lunch?!'"
William threw back his head and laughed; his companion's expression and the subtle French accent she'd lapsed into were hilarious. Some nearby socialites were bothered by his outburst and moved away, whispering. Michelle was delighted; she sipped her cider and enjoyed the sight. Her companion's laughter sounded like cheerful music.
"You have quite an imagination, Michelle," William said, recovering his composure; his blue eyes appeared bright with humor. Michelle noticed William had beautiful teeth; so much for the stereotypical Englishman with crooked choppers. His were very white and straight.
"Thank you, Mr. Montgomery," she said, turning to the painting again.
William hovered by her side.
"Please call me William," he offered, hoping she would. Playing nervously with her drink, Michelle suddenly felt uncomfortable.
"Please don't be insulted by this but... I don't know you that well," she said, glancing shyly at him. William's brain whirred to come up with a good response to her frank reply.
"True," he said. "Then, perhaps we could eat dinner together later; we can get to know one another better, and you can ask me all kinds of things."
Michelle's initial instinct was to refuse; however, she remembered it was normal for people to socially attend meals together. Had it been that long since she'd been out?
"Yes, it has," she thought. She wondered if the man was merely asking her out of pity.
"I'm not saying you look like you need to eat," William continued, forestalling her. "I've already established that you look... lovely." He watched her fair skin turn a deep rose color and liked it; she was beautiful. She looked as delicate as a flower and was obviously not used to compliments.
"I would love to," Michelle said, unexpectedly; her voice was almost too soft to be heard. "I was going to eat after coming here; you can't really enjoy this on a full stomach." She lifted her hand and gestured towards the paintings.
Grinning, William nodded; he was elated at his success in procuring her company for dinner. Offering her his arm, he stepped closer.
"Shall we enjoy the paintings together?" he suggested, looking down into her eyes. Michelle blinked; she wondered what she'd done to deserve the undivided attention of this handsome, polite man. Part of her warned 'Rich man... he wants what all men want'. The other side of her said: 'keep your wits about you but dream and hope all you like'.
Looking up at William, Michelle gently took his arm and smiled.
"I promise not to talk too much," she said, her eyes shining.
"Rubbish," William returned, "I would like you to tell me what you see him doing at each one. That was quite entertaining. I've never quite seen Monet in such a light." Michelle shrugged a little.
"I've read his journals and the articles his friends wrote of him," she said. "His paintings just seem to speak. When I look at them, Monet does not seem so intimidating, but is just an artist... you know, a fellow human being." As she spoke, her lips curved into a half-smile. William saw Michelle possessed a single dimple; he thought it adorable. He wanted to reach up and brush it with his fingertip, but did not. Having finally found Michelle, William had no intention of scaring her off.
In the hours that followed no two people in the museum enjoyed themselves more than they. Their conversations were filled with more merriment than either had experienced for some time. Looking at Michelle as she reverently spoke of Madame Monet's death, William was suddenly struck by the vast amount of time he spent in his office. This little slip of an American sketch-artist felt more passion about these paintings and knew more about them than himself, despite his careful education and the facilitating refinements of high society. So thoroughly was he entangled in his work, he'd been missing the very juice of life and all it had to offer. He could see life in Michelle's eyes and longed to share it.
Lingering beside William, Michelle was envious of each couple she saw; they were able to go home with their respective companions, while she merely had the pleasure of William's company for but a few, wonderful hours. Unwilling to let the opportunity pass her by, she reveled in every second and prodded herself to come a little more out of her habitual shell. As the minutes flew by, Michelle grew more comfortable talking with her escort, and managed to say mostly witty things; she did reminded herself not to dominate the conversation, for, years ago her grandmother had instructed her on talking to men:
"Don't talk so much that you can't learn a little. No one likes people who think they know everything." Wise words they were, and Michelle applied them.
A few minutes after eight PM, Michelle looked up and saw that they stood in front of the last painting. Apprehension flooded her; she was about to go to dinner, with him… the man she'd watched walk by each day, the one she'd dreamed of, the unattainable man of her portrait; the man with the smile. However, unlike her fearful suspicions, William hadn't rebuffed her; he sought her out and in lieu of the look of disgust she had once envisioned he had searched her eyes with interest and perhaps a little uncertainty.
William did not look uncertain now; he grinned and pointed towards the main entrance.
"Shall we?" he asked. Michelle thought they were the most beautiful words ever spoken. Nodding, she took his arm with a deep delight.
"Just for dinner..." she thought, "I can have a dear companion."
At the coat check, she let William hold her overcoat for her. He, in turn, liked how his companion snuggled into its woolen depths; he was loath to cover up her form in such heavy layers but when Michelle put on her white hat and gloves, she looked so darling that the dim antechamber was brightened.
Outside, William signaled for a cab. Michelle tried not to look as excited as she felt; she loved riding in taxis. It was fun just being driven somewhere, let alone with a dashing acquaintance; it had been over a year since she'd been able to even think about taking one anywhere. William quietly observed her expression as the cab drew up.
"You're all bubbly," he said, smiling down at her. "You don't even know where we're going." Michelle looked at him and smiled. Getting into the taxi, she scooted over so William could get in beside her.
"Oh, anywhere would be nice," she replied, smiling at him. Then a thought occurred to her. "Except sushi," she corrected, wrinkling her nose. William laughed.
"Good heavens… no," he said, closing the taxi's door. "At a party I may tolerate a bit of sushi, drowned out with a few tumblers of sake, but not by choice in this weather..." Michelle giggled a bit at his dismal tone.
"Ah, so you've been at a few 'there's-nothing-but-sushi' parties," she said. Grinning, William nodded.
"More than a few," he commented. "For some reason most of Manhattan's corporate party-planners are ardent fans of well-presented bits of raw fish."
"Tonight kind of feels like hot soup and fresh bread night," Michelle proposed, after a pause; she resisted the urge to lick her lips. Hunger had been building up in her since breakfast. William looked thoughtful.
"That suggestion is quite apropos," he replied. "I know just the place." He leaned forward and said something to the driver. Michelle didn't catch it but the cab began edging into the traffic, despite some honks of protest from the vehicles behind.
Sitting beside one another the two felt oddly comfortable, even in saying nothing. William didn't know if he'd ever met a more pleasant girl in his life. Glancing sideways at her, he watched as she sat serenely, hands folded in her lap; she looked out her window with rapt attention.
"How long have you lived in New York?" he asked, suddenly feeling curious. The investigative report he'd received on her did not include everything.
"Three years," Michelle answered, turning to face him. William looked mildly surprised.
"You seem to enjoy the city like a tourist," he remarked. Michelle's eyes took on a doubtful look, as if she didn't know what he meant by it. "It's a compliment, Michelle," William told her.
A slow smile spread over Michelle's face.
"I wasn't going to throw anything at you," she replied, her eyes twinkling with mischief. William was very tempted to lean over and kiss her, she looked so attractive smiling. Michelle saw the intense look in his eyes and demurely dropped her gaze to her hands; her white gloves stood out nicely against the intense blue coat and its glinting buttons.
"This is pretty," William commented, fingering the very edge of her coat sleeve. "Is it new?"
Michelle smiled to herself.
"If only he knew," she thought. Looking sideways at William, she decided to tell him.
"Well, it is, to me," she said. "It was twelve dollars at the Good Will.." The latter part she whispered conspiratorially. Her companion's eyebrows rose slightly. "It had a tear and missing buttons," Michelle continued. "All it needed was a proper dry-cleaning and a little TLC."
William liked seeing the more animated side of his guest and was rather moved by her pride in taking a cast-off coat and making it whole again.
"I'm impressed," he said. Michelle caught the look in his eyes and saw he meant his words. A little bit of her pink dress peeked out beyond the coat sleeve. William drew his finger across it. "The dress too?" he asked, looking down at her face. He as rewarded by a deep blush from his guest, visible even in the darkness of the cab. Michelle nodded, dumbly; the flutter of William's touch on her sleeve affected even her breathing.
"Wow..." she thought, as he continued to finger her sleeve. "He's only touching my sleeve..."
"It's lovely," William said, interrupting her thoughts. Michelle willed herself not to blush again; she failed.
"Thank you," she said, softly; she looked at his perfectly tailored, black wool coat. "You are always so well-dressed," she told him. "You must shop at the Good Will, too." William chuckled.
"Perhaps I should start," he mused, not removing his hand from Michelle's sleeve. "I must admit, you pull it off," he continued. "No one would guess second hand; you've quite put your own little touches into it." He fingered one of the silver buttons on her sleeve.
Michelle resisted the urge to throw her arms around William's neck and kiss his face in gratitude for his compliments. Instead, she gave him a sweet smile and a soft 'thank you'. After a moment, something caused her to remember the elegant woman who'd accompanied William the last time she saw him... the day she'd yelled at him. Michelle looked up at William, a sudden look of concern filling her eyes.
"Your mother..." she began,"I hope she wasn't offended by my behavior, you know that day... at my old corner." William patted her arm, leaning a little closer to her.
"Please do not worry about it," he said. "My mother was merely concerned about you. She hoped you were alright." Michelle's eyes held a far-away look.
"I don't know what she must think of me," she returned her voice a little sad. "She was so lovely." William smiled.
"Ironically, she thought the same thing about you," he said, his hand still on her sleeve. "You know, Michelle… if my mother had not been with me, I would have chased after you."
His voice dropped lower as he spoke; Michelle met his gaze. The intense look was back in his deep, blue eyes. Michelle was suddenly very aware of how small the cab was, and how close she sat to this man, about whom she had entertained many a romantic notion. Taking a deep breath, she lifted her chin, slightly.
"I doubt you'd have caught me," she said, hoping she didn't sound too prim. William grinned; it was the smile of an over-confident teenager.
"Really?" he murmured. "It seems that I have caught up to you just fine." Michelle's eyes widened, then she scowled a little.
"Touché," she assented. William chuckled, patting her gloved hand.
"I am very glad you agreed to come out with me," he said. Looking into her eyes, William wondered if he should share some of his thoughts out loud. "After all..." he thought, "what good is this night if it's wasted in shallow chatter?" She didn't seem the type for that anyhow. William figured if he let her into his mind a little she'd either run away screaming or stick it out. He decided it was worth the risk.
"When I first saw you sitting on the sidewalk," he began, sitting up a little more, "I was intrigued by your eyes, looking up from under that hat of yours." A small smile graced Michelle's lips, and William felt encouraged to go on. "I looked for you every day after that, but you never came back," he continued, shifting in his seat a little.
Michelle searched William's eyes carefully, as if weighing each one of his words. She swallowed her; this was all very interesting information. If William felt such freedom to communicate, she did not object to learning more of his thoughts.
William found it difficult to concentrate on his little 'confession' when Michelle's clear, beautiful eyes were delving so deeply into his. He didn't see any dark things in them... just the honest and pure thoughts of youth. The orchard-picnic vision popped up again as they rode along in the cab and even though William wanted to re-play it in his mind, he forced himself to keep talking.
"Even my mother asked about you," he continued. "I cannot express my relief in seeing you again, tonight." He looked into Michelle's eyes fearlessly. This time William did not stop his hand from lifting up; softly, he tucked a stray piece of her hair back behind her ear.
Michelle had never wanted to be kissed so much in her life; she was blissfully drowning in the cobalt waters of William's eyes. She watched his gaze drop to her mouth; momentarily, her lungs stopped working. William leaned a little towards her.
The cab abruptly halted, tossing both passengers forward, then back against the seat.
"Bloody hell!" William exclaimed. He turned to Michelle, putting his hand on her shoulder. "Are you alright?" he asked,; he almost broke out laughing. Michelle's hat had slid forward over her eyes in the most comical fashion; she pushed it back off her face, her eyes wide. Seeing William's face, she relaxed.
"I forgot about that aspect of taxi-rides," she said.
The little window between the driver and backseat slid open.
"That'll be $32.50," the driver spat out; his hand reached through the window, the gloved fingers snapping expectantly. William's brow darkened; he'd been this close to tasting Michelle's lips when they were so rudely interrupted. The driver's attitude was typical of 'cabbies'. William handed the money over and helped his guest out of the cab. The taxi sped off immediately, tires squealing.
Offering Michelle his arm, William led her towards a small, white staircase.
"Oh, how pleasant this looks..." Michelle breathed. The short staircase before them was lit with lanterns that had candles inside; they led up to a wide, red door with the name 'Marie's' emblazoned upon it in large, scrolling, gold lettering.
"It is," William agreed, smiling at her awed reaction. "This is my favorite spot for a quiet dinner." Michelle nodded; she was grateful just to be out with him; a fast-food place would have been alright but this was a nice surprise.
The restaurant looked small but immaculately clean. There were no tables; semi-circle booths hugged the dark, fabric-covered walls ending with a long bar at the far end of the room. The room boasted deep shades of rich red, black damask upholstery and soft, glowing candles; dark-clad waiters drifted through the cozy space like black swans on a midnight lake. A myriad of pleasant scents drifted in the warm air, above all the sublime scent of fresh-baked bread. The maitre d' nodded at William and without a word escorted them to a nearby booth.
"I guess you do come here often," Michelle said, removing her coat; she scooted into the booth, trying to do so daintily. William slipped in next to her, secretly pleased that the small booth gave him a legitimate excuse to sit as close to Michelle as possible.
"Yes, well… working as much as I do, dinners at home are not conducive to deadlines. This place is close and quiet."
"One needs some quiet," Michelle agreed. "Even in New York." William smiled.
"Especially here," he said.
Laying his coat beside him on the seat, William turned to his date; she was glowing again in her pink dress. He especially liked her long hair; it looked touchable and soft. She wore simple jewelry and just a little makeup; she appeared to be just herself, nothing more or less. His scrutiny was not lost on Michelle; she pretended to occupy herself with folding her coat and laying it next to her on the booth seat.
They ended up ordering clam chowder and fresh rolls. While they waited for the food, William amused Michelle with stories of his childhood in London.
"... Yes, I was a little ripper," he said, smiling. "The fire department came out and everything. We were only having our own little Bonfire Night… didn't mean for the whole field to go ablaze." Michelle giggled softly at her companion's admission of youthful-albeit unintentional-arson.
"I bet your mother has a bunch of stories to tell about you," she said. William narrowed his eyes at her.
"Don't even joke about that; she'd go on all day," he stated. "I don't suppose you did anything bad as a child, eh?"
"Well, I never set anything on fire, but I did play a few pranks..." Michelle confessed, absently re-folding the table napkin.
Interested, William set his elbows on the table ad leaned forward a little.
"Do tell," he murmured; his eyes held a strange gleam.
"Uh... alright." William's expression made Michelle a little uneasy but she plunged into her story regardless, hoping to amuse him. "There were a few but the best one was getting back at a group of preppy girls, after they had their jock boyfriends toss me and my friend Leah into the school dumpster a few times." William's eyebrows rose slightly.
"Now, why would they do a thing like that?" he inquired. "Come on... what did you do to get them mad?"
"It was more like what we didn't do," Michelle told him, giving a half-smile. "Leah and I pulled some of the best grades and were two of the few 'girl geeks', I guess. The 'leader' of the preppy girls was, ah… a girl of ill repute, so to speak. Too much time at parties and not enough actual studying."
"I see," William said. "She didn't like you and your friend?"
"Not quite," Michelle said, titling her head a little. "We were not in her set, so I doubt she'd ever have noticed us, until she wanted us to sell her some term papers."
"I gather you said 'no'," William said, grinning.
"Correct," Michelle returned, with a smile. "Apparently the problem was that since we wouldn't sell her the papers, no one else would, either."
"So, the little witches had their jock boyfriends put pressure on you, eh?" William asked. Nodding, Michelle laughed inwardly at William's pronunciation of 'witches'; his 'w' sounded almost non-existent.
"Exactly," she answered, putting her hands in her lap.
"What did you do about it?" William asked; he enjoyed seeing Michelle more enlivened; it was visible proof that the young woman was growing more comfortable around him. Honestly, he couldn't remember the last time he'd so enjoyed someone's company.
"Well, we waited until after P.E.-when 'the witches' were showering-" Michelle was saying. "... and no, it's nothing perverted, William." She paused, looking narrowly at her companion. Wiping the knowing grin off his face, William feigned innocence.
"Why would you assume..."
"Well, you are male…" Michelle said, plaintively. William snorted and motioned for her to continue. "Anyway, Leah and I each grabbed a CO2 fire extinguisher and spent a glorious half minute freezing all their clothing solid."
At this, William's eyebrows shot up, a smile creeping over his face.
"Why, you little minx," he said, admiringly. Michelle shrugged.
"They deserved it," she said. "They never should have messed with kids who received A's in Chemistry." William chuckled, nodding his head.
"Sounds like fun," he said, catching Michelle's eye.
"It was," she said, sighing a little. "You could hear the screams all the way to the quad."
Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, William watched his date smile at the table; she appeared lost in youthful memories.
"I think that is one of the best pranks I have ever heard of," he stated. All of the sudden, his stomach rumbled; William's face reddened a little; to her credit Michelle pretended she hadn't heard. "Service is a little slow," William joked, rubbing the back of his neck. Michelle gave him a smile.
"I bet the food is worth the wait," she said, gently. Something in Michelle's voice put William at ease. Sinking back comfortably against the booth, he looked at her.
"It is," said he. "Like so many things." Michelle bit her lip and looked away; William's gaze was so intense she felt warmed through, like being slowly dipped in melted chocolate. Michelle fiddled with the tablecloth and steered her mind away from that whole realm.
William watched her for a moment, and then cleared his throat.
"I've been meaning to ask you something, Michelle," said he. A wave of nervousness welled up in his companion at these words. Michelle forced herself to look up at William despite her trepidation; she'd long realized it was best to face questions with bravery, even if one did not feel it. "That portrait you drew of me... had you been watching me long?" William continued. Michelle swallowed, forcing herself to keep eye contact with her companion.
"Not really watching, per say..." she managed, feeling a blush creep up her neck. "You just walked by at the same, exact time. I really only saw you for a few seconds each day… walking in the one direction, but never back." Smiling at the young woman's uncertain tone, William switched his gaze to the vase on the table.
"I see. Well, I go to lunch and then I walk around the block back to work. Exercise, you know," he explained, looking over at Michelle again. "You drew that picture of me just from that?"
Michelle looked at him with mild surprise.
"Oh, no…" she said, firmly. "There was this one little boy. He ran into you one day." Her smile returned as she watched William's eyebrows draw together in puzzlement.
"I remember..." he said, brightening. "The little urchin was running from his mum; he slammed right into my leg." He shook his head, grinning. "He reminded me of myself, when things were simpler." Looking at Michelle, William saw her regarding him with a soft look in her eyes.
"You smiled at him," she said. "I had never seen you smile before but when you looked down at the boy there was… a glow that spread over your face, and the warmth of it radiated in that dismal crowd. I couldn't rest until I'd put your expression on paper." Michelle's eyes brightened as she spoke.
William forgot his grumbling stomach and leaned towards her a little. This girl fascinated him; she had such a passion for art and it showed through her eyes and carefully chosen words. He felt he could watch her for hours. He was tempted to launch into a discussion on Monet just to hear her sweet voice and watch her lovely mouth form words.
Realizing he was staring, William straightened up, shaking his head a little. What spell was he under? He'd known this young woman only a few hours, and he'd spent all that time vastly enjoying himself. For the first time in years, William was looking forward to eating with company, something he normally avoided. He liked solitude and had for years; there was never any pressure to be this or that or act properly, but, after being with Michelle eating alone simply no longer appealed. Suddenly, William could see Michelle sitting with him for every meal he'd ever have. The idea of her constant company filled his soul with a warm comfort.
"William?" Michelle's soft voice interrupted his thoughts. She looked amused at his daydreaming. "Are you tired?" she asked, tilting her head a little to one side. William grinned down at her, perusing her face with pleasure; she'd spoken his first name and naturally so. This was progress.
"Not a bit," he said, warmly. "I was merely thinking how long it had been since I'd had such pleasant company." He spoke with such sincerity that Michelle immediately dismissed her doubts of boring him to death. "I've never brought a date here," William continued.
At his words, Michelle looked a bit taken aback.
"This is a date?" she wondered aloud; after a moment she allowed a smile to return to her face. "A date," she said, nodding to herself. She looked up at William; he appeared amused. "Do you always ask out ragged street artists that you barely know?" Michelle asked, crossing her arms defensively. Chuckling, William lowered his eyelids a little.
"Only the pretty ones that run away," he said in a low voice. He got what he was after; Michelle blushed again.
At that moment, a dark-clad waiter appeared bearing two pewter soup-plates. A large, wicker cornucopia of rolls was set down on the table as well and the server swept off, leaving the two hungry guests to themselves. William and Michelle exchanged a look of mutual relief... food. William was genuinely famished, having skipped lunch that day. He watched Michelle from the corner of his eye as she expertly flicked out her napkin and laid it across her lap.
"You've done that before," he observed, grinning boyishly at his guest.
"Yes," Michelle replied, returning his smile. "I was a server at four-star restaurant while I was at college. I'm resisting polishing the silver." William chuckled as Michelle critically eyed her fork; how fun it would be to tell the owner his silver did not measure up to the standards of an unemployed Manhattan street-artist.
They dipped into their dinner with relish; the savory, thick soup was creamy and delicious, the fresh, buttery rolls the perfect accompaniment. William and Michelle spent several pleasant minutes eating in the warm atmosphere. The clink of glasses and the soft murmurs of quiet conversation sounded now and again but nothing disturbed the peace.
Michelle enjoyed every morsel; it reminded her grandmother's clam chowder. As she ate, Michelle thought of her kindly 'Gramma Betty'; the lady had died several years earlier. She had owned a 'cottage' on the Chesapeake Bay, which was in reality a sprawling domicile by the water. Though well off, the woman has always done her own cooking; each Christmas, Michelle and her family flew out to see her. They'd make the special clam chowder together as well as dozens of different cookies. Later they'd sit out on the snowy veranda, watching the stormy, gray water, well bundled up with hot cocoa in hand. Deluged with fond memories, Michelle smiled down at her bowl, lovingly dipping a piece of bread into the soup.
Enjoying his own food, William snuck a few glances at Michelle; she did not eat as though starving but with such enjoyment he couldn't help but smile. Rarely would women eat well on a date, in his experience; they usually ordered a few lettuce leaves or something and nibbled away daintily, pretending they did not feel anything as archaic as Hunger. Sitting by Michelle, William felt at home, like he was in his own living room; he was momentarily tempted to remove his shoes and slouch back into the seat.
Beside him, Michelle took another roll and sighed contentedly.
"Excellent," she said, when William looked over. "It's just like my grandmother's chowder." William felt interested to know more but Michelle didn't elaborate. Wiping his mouth with the napkin, he sat back. It was good; such was the reason he came here; the food tasted home-made and fresh.
"One of my grandmothers used to make lemon curd on toast for breakfast," he said, laying his napkin on the table. "She'd eat in her conservatory; it was the best breakfast, with the flowers inside and the rain outside running the glass." Michelle leaned forward a little, drawn to William's happy expression.
"That sounds lovely," said she. "Thank you for the soup. I have not enjoyed an evening so much in... well, a long time."
William heard the sincerity in Michelle's voice and looked at her. His eyes dropped to her hand as it rested on the table; it looked lonely. He gently covered it with his own.
"Same here, Michelle," he murmured. Michelle felt the air leave her lungs, momentarily; the moment felt similar to the one in the cab, before the driver has so rudely tossed them around. She didn't think William would try to kiss her again, and in public, too. They barely knew each other.
"Dessert?" William asked; his voice walked firmly through Michelle's thoughts.
"Um... dinner was perfect," she said, stammering a little. "Nothing more is needed." The corners of William's eyes crinkled as he grinned.
"Oh, I don't know," he mused, aloud. "I've never known a woman to turn down..." He glanced down at the gilt-edged dessert card. "... Dark Chocolate Mousse Cake?"
Michelle forced herself not to lick her lips.
"Completely... utterly... unfair," she said, in defeat. Grinning, William beckoned at a nearby waiter.
"Want to share one?" he asked. "I doubt I could eat a whole slice." Michelle nodded, feeling a little surprised at the suggestion. The sharing of food was normally reserved for intimate couples. They'd met on a street corner, for crying out loud. Looking at William, however, Michelle saw he was leaning back comfortably, apparently unconcerned with the doubts she was obliged to feel for him.
The cake proved incredibly rich. William watched as Michelle savored her bites; he allowed himself a few fork-fulls then urged his guest to eat the rest. When Michelle balked at the idea, William stole her fork and tried to feed her another bite. Laughing, his guest lightly pushed his arm away; she slyly stole his fork and stabbed a piece of cake with it. She lifted the bit of dessert to William's lips; he let her feed him, keeping a soft hold on her wrist. Michelle realized she'd leaned in a little too close to her date and pulled slowly out of his grasp, feeling like she'd crossed a bit of a line.
William signaled for the check.
"You can only pay if I get to leave a tip," Michelle said, trying not to sound demanding. William began to object; Michelle laid her hand on his arm. "Please?" she asked, looking at him. "I would feel... strange, if you didn't allow me."
"Good heavens..." William thought, looking at Michelle, "I'd love to allow you so much more..." He smiled at her and nodded, rewarded by his companion's answering smile.
Taking out a ten-dollar bill, Michelle quickly folded and re-folded it into a series of tiny triangles, at last carefully drawing it out into the shape of a little, flying bird; her hands flew so swiftly that William hardly knew what she was doing until she placed it on the table. He smiled down at the green-tinted crane.
"I love doing that," Michelle said, shyly looking up at him. "It's something different."
"Well, aren't you clever," her date said, flashing her a grin. William signed off on the check quickly and grabbed his coat. "Now, my origami-folding, chocolate-feeding companion," he said, leaning towards Michelle a little; she giggled at his words. "I must admit that I honestly don't wish to part company with you."
Michelle's expression sobered when she encountered William's eyes; he looked almost sad.
"Me either, William," she said, sincerely. "This entire evening has been… wonderful." To William's puzzlement, Michelle grimaced after she spoke.
"Something the matter?" he asked.
"It's such a trite word," Michelle said, wistfully. "I wish no one had ever used the word 'wonderful' so I could use it to describe tonight without sounding like I've never picked up a dictionary..."
William laughed; his date looked rather adorable with her nose wrinkled up.
"Ah, Michelle... I have not laughed so much in ages," he said, scooting out from the booth. Offering a hand to Michelle, he immediately noted the soft warmth of her skin when their hands to connected. Clearing his throat, he helped his companion into her coat; the subtle scent of her apple blossom perfume didn't help matters much. As William led Michelle out of Marie's, the idyllic orchard vision haunted his brain with a vengeance.
"Apples aren't even blossoming this time of year..." he silently admonished himself.
Michelle unconsciously slipped her arm through his as they gained the front stairs; the cold air made her want to draw close to her new acquaintance. Turning his collar against the wind, William smiled down at Michelle.
"Let me see you home," he said, as they descended the stairs. "I would love to take a stroll with you, or get coffee... anything other than end our evening." William surprised himself by blurting out such information. It sounded rather desperate.
"But?" Michelle rescued him.
"But... I have to work tomorrow," William admitted, heavily.
For the first time in years, he was actually dreading going home. Normally, he couldn't wait to get home, to kick off his shoes and drop onto his favored couch. Yet, tonight, William did not want to part from this intriguing young woman who made him laugh. Frankly, he really wanted to bring her home with him but he knew that would definitely scare her off. Michelle fairly radiated 'good girl' vibrations, if such things existed. Still, William stood on the sidewalk, toying with ideas he shouldn't.
"You may," Michelle said.
Williams looked at her, momentarily confused. "See me home... if you'd still like to, that is." Michelle continued; she wondered at the fleeting look of guilt on William's face, but dismissed it.
"Ah... absolutely," William said, smiling down at her. He delighted in the feel of her arm holding his. Reaching up, he tucked a wispy strand of hair behind her ear; he decided he liked her ears very much; they were soft, pink and irresistible. Michelle shivered just a little at his touch.
"I... uh... won't be able to... um, invite you in," she managed to say, striving hard not to blush.
"What, no cognac on hand?" William teased. Michelle looked up with a small grin.
"No, I just... don't invite anyone into my room," she explained; she glanced up at with William with hesitation, half expecting him to laugh. He did not. Touched by Michelle's forthright manner, William smiled. He liked that she absolutely did not want to give the wrong impression.
"I understand, Michelle," he said. "I wasn't expecting anything." Michelle's shoulders relaxed a little; she felt her anxiety draining away.
"Thank you," she said, with gratitude.
A taxi pulled up in front of them, as if by magic; Michelle didn't remember William signaling for one.
"You said—some time ago-that you lived in a 'nice' hotel," William said, shutting the cab door after them. "Where should I send the driver?" Michelle giggled softly; this was going to be fun. Clearing her throat, she mustered her best sophisticated voice.
"The Waldorf-Astoria," she said, lifting her chin. William smiled.
"Now, now..." he joked. "You may as well just tell me. I'll find out sooner or later." Looking closer at Michelle's face, William sobered; her eyes were bright with mirth but there was no falsehood in them. "You're... serious?" he said, incredulous.
Unable to hold back her laughter, Michelle told William about her arrangement with the hotel in between breaths. William seemed impressed.
"You knew when you told me that I wouldn't believe the Waldorf… didn't you?" Wiping her eyes, Michelle nodded.
"I love telling people where I live," she admitted. "Why lie? The truth is far more interesting."Allowing himself a smile, William took her gloved hand.
"You are full of surprises," he said. "Well then, to the Waldorf-Astoria, driver!" he ordered, speaking the sentence as only a Englishman is able. The cab sped off but soon after slowed in the after-dinner traffic. For once, William did not mind the languid pace; it meant more time with Michelle.
"So, any other 'arrangements' I should know about?" he inquired, after a few moments. Michelle gave him a shy upward glance.
"Nothing bad," she told him. "Once a quarter I look over the books for a small day spa. They give me a free body wrap and a mineral shower. Those are amazingly relaxing... just like being back in a Colorado hot springs." Michelle's eyes took on a dreamy look as eh spoke. She looked quite alluring so relaxed; William was tempted to lean down to kiss her.
"Slow... take it slow, old boy," he thought. Their newly established association was tenuous enough without rushing into physical contact.
"Colorado," he mused, aloud. "That's where you're from, correct?"
At this, Michelle's eyebrows shot up. William felt that perhaps an explanation was due. "Well… when you didn't come back to your corner, I looked up the name on my mother's portrait with a private investigator I know," he said. "You mentioned Stanford in your little shout at me that day; I found your name in the alumnus list."
Michelle's face colored a little at the mention of her verbal-outburst that day.
"Yes," she acknowledged, after a short pause. "I grew up in Denver. My parents sent me to Stanford University, in California; my mother also went there." As she spoke Michelle struggled with welling emotions; her parents were not a safe subject.
"Graduate School of Business, Financial Accounting," William recited. "... and a minor in Drawing. An odd combination." He reached for her hand. "The investigator also found that rather unpleasant business with the Johnson & Black Accounting Firm."
Michelle gave a short sigh of exasperation; just hearing that name caused a bit of resentment to boil up within her.
"Yes. Some things you can dance around in taxes," she said, her voice sounding a little forced. "Then there are illegal means; popular ones... but still illegal."
"So, that's why you were blacklisted," William said, noting her discomfort.
"Yes," Michelle said, leaning back against the seat. "It's amazing how ethics can cost you not only your job but the chance of being re-hired in the field, ever again." She looked out the window, willing herself not to cry.
"And, with four or five people clamoring for every job, I can see why you sell your drawings out on the corner," William said, gently. Michelle gave him a side-long look.
"No pitying the bedraggled street artists, now," she said. "I know I have a lot to be thankful for. I may have lost my apartment but at least I don't have to sleep out on the streets, or in a shelter. Working out there is not so bad, you know. All things considered, it has been great experience for face studies."
Making an effort, William refrained from smiling at Michelle's little speech; her chin had lifted ever so slightly as she spoke. Sit was clear to him that she wished no one to feel sorry for her. Despite this, he felt a rapidly increasing desire to sweep her into his arms and promise to take care of her forever.
William gave himself a mental slap. Here he was sitting with a stranger, albeit a lovely and good one, but a stranger nonetheless. Thoughts o f companionship, a relationship... even of marriage occurred to him so quickly that he felt unprepared to deal with them at the moment. Bewildered by his own brain's leaps into the unknown William gazed at Michelle, thinking fantastic things.
Michelle saw a soft look descend into William's face; his eyes appeared to harbor a intensely pensive expression. She was dying to know what was on his mind but feared to pry. She contented herself with timidly squeezing his hand.
"I do alright, William," she said, reassuringly. "Please don't worry about me." Her companion smiled back at her; it was the ethereal smile Michelle had captured in her portrait. Michelle found herself gazing back at him. In spite of her insecurities, she wanted very badly to believe that William would be interested in her for a long time to come; logic told her she should not allow that hope to take flight so soon.
Sitting beside her, William grew curious about the conflicting expressions in Michelle's eyes. There was so much in her face he felt fascinated by... and yet, he could see she possessed a pointed fear, one that he could not quite fathom. William wondered if perhaps all she needed was a little comfort. He needed some as well; more than anything he wanted to be the one to bring her what solace a man was able.
"I can see you take care of yourself, sweetheart," he murmured; he stopped, realizing he'd called her 'sweetheart'. Blushing, Michelle looked out her window. The taxi was not far from her hotel now; just a few more blocks.
"Will you have lunch with me tomorrow?" William ventured, after a moment. The end of their evening drew nearer. Despite their recent acquaintance, he could not let her go without giving her some indication of his intentions. He intended to see her as much as humanly possible.
Michelle gave William her attention once more.
"In my floppy hat?" she inquired, with a teasing smile. "Carrying my display case and rug?" Grinning, William narrowed his eyes at her.
"You would, wouldn't you?" he remarked. "Take the day off work tomorrow. Then you can finally see where I go to lunch." Michelle looked uncertain. "My mother is in town visiting again; I will be meeting her for lunch, before she travels back to her house." Michelle's smile faded at his words about his mother. William squeezed her hand.
"Relax," he said, softly. "She'd love to see you… as would I."
Giving William a brave smile, Michelle took in a deep breath. It occurred to her that this was one of those now-or-never moments, the kind one encounters while traveling the path of life; you either take it or forever rue your own cowardice.
"My old corner then? At 12:06?" she offered, sounding more confident than she felt. Whatever doubts she harbored, William's answering smile made them vanish.
"Not a moment later," he promised.
The taxi pulled up in front of the Waldorf's grand edifice.
"Michelle?" The young woman paused in her exit of the cab; she looked back at William uncertainly. He smiled. "Sleep well," he said, looking as if he wished to say much more. Michelle surprised her companion, and herself, by leaning back into the cab; she gave William a very small kiss on the side of his face.
"I will," she whispered, pulling back. William was mesmerized; Michelle's lovely eyes glowed with something unearthly. "You as well... and, thank you."
William squeezed her hand before letting go.
"You're very welcome, Michelle," he said. He meant, 'You're very welcome to be a part of my life until I die', but hoped the young woman wouldn't guess that. He rolled down the window as she walked from the cab. "Goodnight," he called after her. Michelle turned and gave him a little wave before disappearing through the doors.
Settling back in the seat, William gave the driver directions to his building, unable to stop a slow smile from spreading over his face. His felt that his emotions and thoughts were slipping away from their logical rut at an alarming rate, but it didn't bother him in the least. Letting out a small sigh William pondered the evening's events, chuckling now and then at the amusing things Michelle had said and done. Her charming traits outweighed the insecure, awkward ones. He simply couldn't believe he'd found her after all these weeks.
For the full ride home William allowed himself the wispy daydream of blossoming apple trees and a pretty girl in pale pink.