|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|
The next day dawned under a gray, rainy sky. Standing beneath her umbrella, Michelle hovered by the wall at her old corner... waiting for William. The excitement she felt seemed almost impossible to contain. The evening before seemed like a dream in the face of the rain pouring down… but nothing could dampen Michelle's spirits. She fortified herself to see William's face, feeling a bit like a teenage girl off on her first date.
"It won't do to seem too eager," she thought. "No use scaring the man off with desperation."
Michelle dressed with care for her lunch date; she still owned a nice 'everyday' outfit. Under her blue coat she wore warm, black tights, black ankle boots, a red plaid skirt and a crisp, white blouse. A thin, black ribbon choker necklace rounded out her ensemble, though she felt a bit schoolgirl-ish wearing it. It wasn't a 'business lunch' or anything, she reasoned. Concluding that William liked her hairstyle yesterday, Michelle had taken the time to put a few curls on the ends of her hair. She valiantly fended the rain off with the large, white umbrella.
Standing at the corner her smile shone out radiantly, her eyes lit up with anticipation, once again searching the oncoming foot traffic for a glimpse of his face. 12:05. Michelle held her breath.
"Oh, calm down!" she whispered. She could not stop smiling; she forced herself to look at her boots. She looked up into the umbrella. She tried counting raindrops, but gave up as the skies above let loose a cloudburst.
"No hat today?" came a pleasant voice. Peeking out from under her umbrella, Michelle saw William standing next to her, armed with his own umbrella. She graced him with a brilliant smile. The sight of her happy expression chased any weather-induced gloom away from William's thoughts. Walking towards Michelle's old corner, he'd spied a blue-coated figure standing still, mostly hidden by a large white umbrella. It wasn't until he'd drawn closer-and observed the silver buttons-that he'd let out a relieved breath.
"Hello, William," Michelle said, pleasantly; even her tone made William feel welcome. He pretended to tip a hat that wasn't there.
"Michelle," he said. Still smiling, the young woman switched her umbrella to her other hand and took his offered arm.
As they walked forward Michelle felt the ghostly presence of loneliness leave her. The corner no longer seemed to be a well of disappointed dreams, but a portal... opening to a realm of possibility. She glanced over at her companion as often as possible, trying to be discreet about it. William had such a noble profile; she liked how his dark blond hair picked up light in spite of the overcast sky.
"See something you like?" William asked after a few moments. Michelle blushed and forced herself not to hide under her umbrella.
"It's just good to see you," she stated. "You're wearing gloves today." William gave her a boyish grin. "Yes, well my hands were chilly last night," he said. He indicated a glossy set of double doors off to their right. A hanging, wooden sign above the doors read The Flagon.
Weaving their way through the other pedestrians the two companions paused at the restaurant entrance to shake and close their soaking umbrellas.
"After you," William said, holding the door. Michelle smiled as she went in. A warm cloud of air met her inside the atrium. A stout, cheerful-looking man-clad in a green vest and shirt-sleeves-grinned at them.
"Welcome to The Flagon!" he called out heartily. "Mr. Montgomery," he nodded at William. "Another guest today, then?" The man held out his hands for their coats.
As Michelle unbuttoned her coat, she looked around the long, low room. It appeared styled after an English pub with dark leather chairs, polished wood fixtures and a genuine, crackling fireplace. The ambiance of the room felt unusually comfortable, for a mere eating establishment. Turning back towards William, Michelle caught his expression. He seemed to be studying her outfit with frank admiration. Blushing, Michelle looked at the greeter and handed him her coat. Much to her embarrassment, the man in the green vest winked at her. William stepped a bit closer to his guest.
"You look... very nice, Michelle," he said, clearing his throat. Michelle resisted batting her eyes at him; her skirt wasn't that short.
"Thank you. Is your mother here already?" she asked, looking around the main room.
William swallowed and pretended to look for his mum. Michelle looked a bit more fun and comfortable than last night, though he was quite partial to that pink dress of hers. However, this little, red skirt and feminine blouse looked downright seductive, yet she managed to appear completely unaware of it. Trying to clear his mind, William searched for his mother. Spying a familiar hat across the room, he took Michelle's hand and led the way toward the table. The green-vested man scooped up a few menus and followed them.
As they approached a far table William's mother looked up. Immediately she noted that her son was holding the hand of a pretty, young woman. She beamed. Getting to her feet, the lady held out her arm gracefully to William. Her son kissed her on the cheek in greeting and turned to Michelle. His guest appeared to be a little uncomfortable, a rather forced smile on her face.
"Mother, I'd like to introduce..."
"Michelle. Yes, I know," his mother interrupted, still smiling. "You told me all about her at breakfast. I'm not losing my memory yet, my boy." She turned to her son's guest; her kindly expression evaporated what fears Michelle held. "My dear, how nice of you to join us," the woman said. "Don't you look lovely. Pay no mind to what happened when we met, poor dear. I was overjoyed when William told me that he found you..."
William coughed, pulling out a chair for his mother.
"Please sit," he told her, patiently. Sporting a tolerant smile, the older woman complied. William held Michelle's chair for her as well; his guest took her seat, feeling much more at ease.
"I hope you'll accept my apology for my behavior that day, Mrs. Montgomery," Michelle said, looking at William's mother.
"Nonsense," the woman said, blithely. She patted Michelle's hand. "My name is Margaret, my dear. 'Mrs. Montgomery' was my mother-in-law... an unpleasant woman. It is very good to see you! I simply adore the picture you drew of William. It is superb; you are singularly talented. All of my friends in Vermont are quite jealous and want to know whom the elusive artist is and if they do commissioned work..."
Overwhelmed by the flood of goodwill coming from Margaret, Michelle was rendered speechless.
"My dear madam," William began, trying to hide his smile. His date seemed rather flustered. "Do take a breath. My guest has no intention of running off, I think." Recovering herself, Michelle gave William a narrow look. Satisfied, William turned to contemplate his menu.
"I am glad you like the picture so much," Michelle said, turning back to Margaret. "It was one of my favorites." the lady smiled, dimpling prettily.
"I love it," she answered. "I have it hanging in the ballroom. The framing company in town is simply brilliant. The light in that room is largely natural, you see, and suits all my artwork well. I hope you will visit and see how it is situated." Michelle didn't know what to say, but Margaret did not appear to need a response. "I am frankly amazed that you perfected such a accurate drawing from your little corner, though it is a good spot for face study, isn't it? Two years is quite a long time to vend sketches... William told me a little about your situation."
Michelle's eyebrows rose at this. The lady patted her hand again. "I think you're quite clever," Margaret continued, unfazed. "Your parents would be very proud of you." Blinking, Michelle felt nearly on the verge of tears. This motherly woman was about killing her with kindness, the loss of her own mother all that more apparent. William observed Michelle's drawn expression and handed his mother a menu.
"I recommend the fish and chips," he said, trying to catch Michelle's eye; the young woman stared down at the table as if she didn't really see it.
"You would," Margaret announced, looking at her son over her menu.
Her annoyed tone made Michelle glance up at her. "I will bet one hundred American dollars that you order 'fish and chips' every, single day," Margaret continued. "You should eat a variety of foods, or your health will deteriorate... the salmon looks good." The last part she said to herself. Michelle stifled a giggle; William grinned.
"So, a variety from fish and chips is... salmon? Another fish?"
"Oh, you know what I mean," Margaret said, giving her son's arm a little pinch. She looked up at an approaching waiter. "Bread? Oh, good. I am famished."
William caught Michelle's eye and smiled reassuringly at her. Returning his smile, she picked up her menu and attempted to act normally. While the young woman searched her menu, William studied her face, rather wishing they were alone; her hair looked rather touchable, all loose and curling softly around her shoulders. She softly bit her bottom lip in concentration; William smiled, wanting to try it himself. Margaret looked up-about to say something-and saw her son watching Michelle. Glancing between the two, she smiled down into her menu, remaining quiet.
A waiter appeared and silently took their orders. William did order the fish and chips, despite a glare from his mum. Michelle made him smile by having the same thing.
"It sounds good," she defended. Margaret patted her hand.
"You have whatever you like, dear." The elegant lady ordered the salmon and pinched William's arm again when he asked the waiter to bring his mother a 'variety' salad.
As the waiter sauntered off with their orders, Michelle studied the room. Instead of a booth the round, mahogany table was flanked by four dark brown leather chairs. Coffer-ed wooden partitions were built up between tables, a detail Michelle liked very much; it enabled more private conversation amid the lunching groups. The air of the place was both smoky and spicy, the furniture deep and relaxing; the whole effect was pleasing.
"This is very much a man-hangout," she thought, fingering a pewter salt-shaker.
"How do you like my midday haven, Michelle?" William asked from across the table. Looking over at him, Michelle immediately liked the playful twinkle in his eye. Straightening her posture a little, she folded her hands in her lap.
"Very much," said she, keeping William's gaze. "It is pleasant and... relaxed. I can see why you like it."
Margaret gave a little snort.
"The same food everyday... really," she scoffed. "You should eat better. Doesn't Alfred feed you greens?"
"Alfred would feed me greens for breakfast if I would allow it," William replied testily. He didn't appreciated being berated by his mother in front of Michelle. His guest-he noticed—seemed quite amused by their banter. "I'm surprised he doesn't wake me at two in the morning, wanting me to take in a little spinach."
Michelle repressed a strong desire to laugh at William's expression; she'd not seen him annoyed before. She cleared her throat instead.
"Who's Alfred?" she asked, innocently. Margaret turned to her.
"Why Alfred is William's valet," she explained, giving her son a saccharine smile. William grimaced at her. Leaning forward, Michelle set her elbows on the tabletop and rested her chin on her hands; she fixed her eyes on William.
"You need a valet?" she asked, smiling.
"Yes, well William is far too busy to take proper care of himself," Margaret answered for her son. "Besides, Alfred's been with the family since William was in nappies."
William pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers; part of him wanting to throttle his mother. The woman looked on the verge of pulling out photo albums. Across the table Michelle gave him some very amused glances. Of all the things William wanted to discuss on their second outing, his mother's memories of his babyhood was not among them.
"He put me through some worrisome times, believe me," Margaret continued. "Once he swallowed a whole goldfish... one of my favorites. It took some to-do to get it out. A lot of castor oil..."
"Enough!" William demanded. "Surely, there is something else to talk about..." His voice took on a desperation that Michelle found hilarious. She giggled behind her hand while Margaret argued a mother's right to share embarrassing stories.
"You were a good boy," she said, tapping her fork on the tabletop. "You've really nothing to be ashamed of."
Fortunately, the waiter chose that moment to bring a tray of steaming plates to their table. The delicious smell of the food seemed to quell the goodnatured disagreement between William and his mother, and they retreated to their proverbial corners. Michelle dipped her head at Margret's quick blessing and cut genteelly into her fish.
William began to reach for his chips but thought better of it and went for his fork. Michelle also wanted to use her fingers; in her experience one didn't eat fish and chips any other way. However, in front of Margaret, Michelle acquiesced to 'decorum'. William caught her eye and she knew he was thinking the same thing.
"This is nice," Margaret said, after a minute. "They do know how to cook fish properly, I will give you that. You should have Michelle over to your flat for dinner, William. Alfred really can put on a feast."
Grimacing, William resisted the urge to 'accidentally' spill his glass of water on her. He'd been toying with the idea of asking Michelle over since last night, but now it was tossed tactlessly onto the table like a flopping, dying fish. Michelle, however, didn't seem to notice his mother's gentle prodding; she leaned forward smiling.
"Does Alfred do all the cooking?" she asked, sweetly. Immediately, she felt William's intent gaze upon her; she pretended to be very interested in arranging the fork and knife on her plate. Looking up, she met William's eyes; his smile seemed rather predatory all of the sudden. Returning to her food Michelle ate slowly, a smile hovering around her mouth.
The food kept Margret's stories to a minimum; Michelle did not encourage her, though she was sorely tempted. It was strange to think of William as a child, as a mischievous, little "ripper" with dirt on his face and snails in his pockets. Stealing glances at him Michelle inwardly laughed; every time his mother spoke frustration evidenced itself on his face, giving way to embarrassment soon after. He made valiant attempts to change the subject several times; Michelle decided to give him a hand.
"Have you lived in Vermont long?" she inquired of Margaret, as the older woman paused to sip her coffee. Margaret patted her lips daintily with her table napkin.
"No; only a few years," said she, giving Michelle a kind smile. "Originally, I purchased the property to remodel and sell quickly but when William was promoted to junior partner, I knew trans-Atlantic flights to visit London would be too much for his busy schedule, or for my health."
"You moved to another country... just to be near William?" Michelle felt a little surprised at such devotion, wondering if the woman was unable to let go.
"Do not misunderstand me, my dear," she answered, sagely. "I wanted to see my son more than once a year. I love my home in London... however, Vermont is growing on me, I must say. Some of the ladies nearby even play bridge and seem enthralled to have me in their set. The air is sufficiently dry, the winter is manageable and the fall colors... simply breathtaking." The older woman sighed and gazed out a nearby window.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, as if struck by a thought. "I have the most wonderful idea! William, why don't you and Michelle drive up and visit me? The leaves have just turned and are nearly at the most beautiful stage. There is an apple festival coming up and a fabulous farmers market; my chef, Jean-Claude is simply wild about it..."
William interrupted his mother's soliloquy.
"My dear madam, Michelle has her work... and I do not know if I can procure any time off right now. There are rumors of an upcoming merger..."
"Pish!" Margaret interposed, with a flip of her hand. "There are always rumors of mergers; you have been working at that office for six years solid, seven days a week without a proper holiday. I can barely get him for one day at Christmas," she said, aside to Michelle. "Don't tell me you haven't racked up the vacation days. And Michelle, have you ever seen Vermont in the fall?"
Michelle felt unwilling to be pulled into the matter.
"Uh... no, but I..." she began.
"Wonderful!" Margaret stated, happily. "You'll simply adore it, my dear. I am dying for you to see your picture all framed in its nook. There are so many things to do around the little town. I've a few friends who'd like to meet you very much. Now, I won't take 'no' for an answer. Tell me what weekend you're free and I'll arrange things." Margaret looked very pleased with herself; she set her coffee cup down on its saucer as a sort of final gesture.
"No promises, Mother," William said, gravely, raking his hand slowly through his hair. Taking work off was no joke. There were indeed rumors circling around the upper offices of a possible buyout of the firm, which meant new owner and perhaps layoffs. Not to mention preparing for the possible merger he spoke of; an especially complicated and delicate matter, it hung like a dark cloud over his entire floor. He glanced over at Michelle. The young woman looked down at the table with a rather blank expression; she appeared to be racking her brain for a good excuse not to go. Her apparent confusion was not lost on William; he knew that she hated to be pitied or extended charity. Perhaps she simply did not wish to go.
"She's out with us now," he thought, looking at her expression intently. "She's enjoying herself, and she had a good time with me last night at dinner..." Without a doubt Michelle had enjoyed herself last night; he'd seen it all over her face the entire evening. Perhaps his mother's suggestion had merit. A long drive in his tiny roadster would allow them hours of uninterrupted conversation. Perhaps even a picnic. William shook his head slightly. Michelle had not even agreed to the idea yet, no matter what his mum had decided. He would find out later what his young companion really wanted to do.
Absentmindedly, Michelle arranged her fork and knife on the empty plate. She glanced over at William; he seemed thoughtful, though a slight smile curved one side of his mouth. He was a perplexing man to read, she decided; yet, the enigma of William also seemed intriguing. She longed for the time and opportunity to figure him out. The idea of imposing on Margaret weighed on her, but such a trip with William would give them plenty of time to talk and get to know one another better. William's silence on the issue worried Michelle a little; perhaps he felt burdened by the idea. She was resolved to say nothing about it unless he brought it up. Taking a folded ten-dollar bill from her skirt pocket, Michelle started to fold the origami bird in her lap. Finished, she put it slyly behind her water glass; William saw her actions, however, and chuckled.
"You and your little gratuities," he said. Michelle looked at him guiltily and shrugged. William beckoned to the server and signed the check, adding a tip. Standing, he reached over and took the bird, putting it into his pocket. "Souvenir," he explained to Michelle. She grinned.
"If you wanted one, you just had to ask," she replied, folding her arms over her chest. "Now you've stolen from the bus-boy." William laughed.
"Hardly," he said, smiling down at Michelle. "I left a generous tip. This bird is mine." He said the last words in a soft tone, sending a quick wink in Michelle's direction. Blushing, the young woman excused herself from the table to find the ladies room.
Once Michelle was out of earshot, Margaret turned to her son with a broad smile.
"You were right," she said, "She is just lovely. I quite adore her already." William smiled.
"I am glad of it," he said. "I just hope you didn't scare her off with that forced vacation to your home. She despises being pitied." At this, Margaret looked a little taken aback.
"Pity? Nonsense," she said her hand to her chest. "I would give an invitation to any sweet girl I thought you were interested in."
"You think she interests me, eh?" William stalled. He really didn't want his mother interfering with him and Michelle, especially when things were going so well.
Margaret gave her son a knowing look.
"The feelings between you two, however recent, are very ardent," she remarked, quietly. "Even an old woman can see that. If I weren't here I wager you would both be elsewhere and more happily occupied." William's eyebrows shot up; he tried to say something to the contrary but the color rising in his face belied any denial he could invent. "Don't mind me," his mother continued, smiling innocently. "I am just getting older, William... I want grand-babies; several of them, if you wouldn't mind."
"Anything else?" her son sputtered, astonished.
"Yes," Margaret said, opening her purse. "Please take some time off and bring Michelle up to the house sooner rather than later. I would like to get to know her a little better."
"So would I," William thought, glancing towards the restrooms. His mother's bold suggestion triggered oddly dualistic emotions to crop up in his mind, likened to simultaneous offense and appeal.
"I may be able to take a weekend off," he said to his mother. "But don't push it."
Margaret nodded, trying not to smile; her son-though grown and successful-was still very easy for her to read.
"And furthermore," William continued, commanding Margret's attention once more; her son furrowed his brow for added seriousness. "If you mention grand-babies or anything of the sort to Michelle I will personally cancel my Christmas plans and offer to work double overtime at my firm past New Year's." Margaret hid a grin away.
"Don't be petulant. I'm an old woman," she said, primly. "It's only natural that I want some sweet, little grandb..."
"Michelle! There you are..." William interrupted, loudly. His guest walked up to the table, a little bemused at William's desperate tone. She was very curious to know what he and his mother were discussing; her date looked positively embarrassed. Margaret, on the other hand, gave her a bright smile.
"William and I were just talking about you, my dear," Margaret said, sweetly, ignoring her son's grimace. "I hope you found the restroom clean. You never know if they sanitize things properly."
"They are very good about cleaning the lavatory, my dear madam," William said, testily. "I have never seen it out of order."
"It pays to inquire," Margaret said, titling her head a little. William contented himself with shooting his mother a glare and standing to go.
"Their hand soap is exquisite," Michelle said, smelling her hands. "It's thick and smells like spiced cider."
"Now, that is my favorite hot drink," Margaret said, patting Michelle's arm. "Especially when it's chilly out."
Michelle nodded in answer, managing a small smile. The frequent touching was a little different, but she knew Margaret meant well; the elegant woman's motherly ways bore with them a comfort Michelle had not known in years.
"Shall we?" William suggested; his expression softened a little as he watched the two women. As much as he wanted to avoid his mother's interference, it seemed heartening-and a little surprising—that Margaret was so easily warming up to Michelle. The other women he'd dated in the past became quickly familiar with his mother's icy, 'aristocratic' side. Sometimes, she'd been downright insulting. Anyone seeing her now would assume she was talking to a good friend, instead of a person she had formally met only an hour ago. His mother's motives for her pleasantries did not escape William but he let it go, for now.
The party of three collected their coats from the front greeter; Michelle shyly thanked the man and told him the meal was delicious. The green-vested man beamed at her.
"Come again lassie... anytime," he said, giving her another broad wink. Michelle turned around and rolled her eyes, an action which amused William very much.
"So this is why you wear those worn clothes and that floppy hat," he whispered in her ear. "You have to beat them off with a stick." Blushing, Michelle shrugged and gave him a half-smile.
"Yes," she whispered back. "It works while my tin overcoat is being repaired." William smiled and resisted winking at her himself; he decided that he'd been doing far too much of that lately.
Margaret stood by the entrance, talking to her driver on a cell phone.
"He will pick me up out front," she told William, shutting her phone with a click. She straightened her hat in the foyer mirror and turned to give her son a quick peck on the cheek; he had to lean down a ways to receive it but did so without complaining. "Thank you for lunch my boy," Margaret said, looking up at her son affectionately; she turned to Michelle. "And, it was delightful to meet you, Michelle. I do hope you will visit me soon."
Michelle smiled at her; the older lady's kindness managed to permeate one's soul like balm.
"Thank you," she returned, with more confidence than she felt. "I enjoyed meeting you as well. I hope you have a safe journey home." Margret's smile struck the young woman as completely genuine.
"Thank you, my dear. Au revoir," William's mother said, elegantly. William held the door open for her; Margaret stepped out, expertly unfolding her umbrella in one, smooth action.
It dawned on Michelle that she did not have a problem being cordial or sociable; she simply hadn't met many people worthy of cordiality. Samuel, Mabel, Patrick, William and Margaret made up her entire circle of acquaintances, though she considered William a bit differently than the rest. She watched her companion as he buttoned up his coat, giving room to hopeful thoughts which, normally, she would not have dared entertain. What if he should turn out to be her soul mate?
Considering their positions in life, such a thing was illogical. He was foreign born, a successful lawyer, brought up in wealth and considerable social standing; Michelle was not raised a pauper but she was certainly one now. She first saw him merely by chance, vending sketches on the street. It was by chance his mother saw the picture in the first placer. She'd had a near-manic episode in front of William and his mother, and yet they had just shared a very pleasant meal together. Just a few weeks ago, William was ignorant of her very existence; now he couldn't stop smiling at her. Michelle shook her head, wondering at life's great ironies.
William felt Michelle's scrutiny of him and grinned at her; Michelle returned it; in one hand she clasped her folded umbrella.
"Want to walk me back to work?" William asked; he sounded amused. Michelle nodded, wanting to shrug. How was it that this man could laugh at her shyness but she didn't feel insulted? Deep down, Michelle knew she wasn't offended that William found her quirks humorous. It was actually flattering. She smiled up at him.
"You mean I get to glimpse the famed bulwark of legality that is Brownstone & Peters?" she asked, amused. William's smile was a little strained.
"It is not all that special," he said, flatly. "The building's rather old and boxy; the offices within are horribly outdated." He opened the restaurant door for his date.
The rain had not let up, but it failed to damped Michelle's spirits; her feet felt light walking by William once again. His comments about his place of work intrigued Michelle and she felt compelled to further the subject.
"Have the owners of your company ever thought of renovating?" she inquired; she held her umbrella up with one hand, her other arm linked with William's. Her blue-eyed companion shrugged a little.
"Er... the idea had been tossed about a lot lately," he admitted. "Problem is it would take a million to properly remodel the place. I'm only a junior partner, but from what I've heard come down from the top, Mr. Peters wants to see a little more revenue from our branch before investing such a considerable sum into aesthetics."
Michelle looked thoughtful for a moment.
"Maybe your firm could have a sale," she said, smiling. "That would raise some eyebrows... and money." William gave her a half-smile.
"A sale, eh? As in washing cars or tables of baked goods?" Michelle softly at his tone.
"Ha... as if they could," she said. "I doubt your fellow legalists would even know how to wash a car."
"Legalists? Now that's just silly," William returned, smiling. "Still, you might be right about the lack of manual labor. I, however, do wash my own car. It's an Aston Martin. No teenager making $8.00 an hour is going anywhere near it."
"I'm sure you wash it yourself," Michelle said, smiling widely. "No, I'm talking about a sale of services; you know... a two-for-one hostile takeover deal." Her voice took on a bright, advertisement tone. "The first restructuring is free with purchase; firings not included. Fine print has not been tested on animals..."
William laughed; the young woman was quite convincing as she rattled off her little suggestions. He suddenly imagined someone presenting such ideas to the board; the ensuing looks of disbelief on such stoic faces would be priceless. He smiled down at Michelle. The fun in her bright eyes seemed almost tangible.
"You're quite the little improv-comic," William told her. "Ever perform at a comedy club?" Michelle wrinkled her nose.
"I have not," she said, with conviction. "You'll not find me on a stage. Definitely not my forte."
"Aw, now... you'd sing me a song if I asked, wouldn't you?" William queried, smiling. Michelle saw he was teasing her.
"Well, I can sing 'It's a small world after all'. Want to hear that?" William shook his head at her.
"Minx," was all he said.
They walked a ways in silence, comfortable being near one another. Michelle thought over William's pet name for her; even having a pet name was kind of flattering. She would not have considered herself in the 'minx' category but William had a way of subtly drawing her from her shell; when he baited her, she found herself bantering back and liking it.
"Your mother is very nice," Michelle said, after a short pause. William grinned and looked at her sideways.
"You're serious?" he joked. Michelle made a face at him.
"You are fortunate to have a kind mother," she replied. "Mine was like that. They try hard to make your life better, in their own way." Sobering, William looked at Michelle's face a bit more closely.
"I was sorry to learn of your parents, Michelle," he said, leaning a little closer to her as they walked. His companion looked at him searchingly for a moment.
"I don't remember telling you about them," she said, puzzled. "Oh... right. You had a PI 'investigate' me." She said the last bit with a small smile.
"Yes, well... I wanted to know if you were 'for real', as you Americans say," he explained. Michelle squeezed his arm reassuringly.
"It's OK…" she said. "I have nothing to hide."
"So I found," William said, affably. "Although, I was curious about something... have you no family at all?"
"Ouch," Michelle thought, closing her eyes. William felt her wince and instantly regretted the question.
"I'm sorry to ask..." he began. Michelle gave him a half-smile.
"Please don't worry about it. I'm not upset," she explained. "It just seems so corny talking about my life. I really don't want to be pitied."
"Corny or not, I really want to know," William said, soberly. Encouraged by his interest Michelle took in a slow breath. It seemed refreshing to have someone ask her direct questions, apparently spawned of a genuine interest. Michelle decided to tell him all that he'd care to ask her about.
"I have an uncle," she said, finally.
William appeared somewhat baffled by her answer.
"An uncle. Just one?" Michelle nodded.
"My Uncle Oscar," she explained. "He's my father's older brother."
"Oh," William answered. He walked a few steps before speaking again. "I didn't see him in the report." Michelle bit her lip.
"I'm not surprised," she said, heavily. "He and dad argued or something a long time ago, when I was about ten. Dad said he changed his last name in college, something to do with being mad at his father. I haven't seen him in years. I do know he used to travel around the world a lot; sometimes he'd bring us gifts and things from other countries, I mean… until he didn't come back anymore."
"I suppose it would be silly to ask if he died," William commented, after a short pause. "It sounds as if you don't really know what happened to him."
Nodding, Michelle concentrated on the pedestrian immediately in front of her. The entire topic teetered on an emotional precipice, for her. Still, she wanted William to know more about her, and this was a big part of why she was alone.
"He sounds like a bit of an eccentric," William remarked.
"I suppose that would be an accurate description," Michelle said, slowly. "He helped construct skyscrapers; a foreman of sorts, or so my parents told me. He was building one in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia the last time he visited us. I remember he brought my mother and I each a bright-blue, silk scarf. My dad said that he and Uncle Oscar had a 'disagreement'. That's when he stopped visiting. I was still in high school."
"Must have been a bloody big disagreement," William put in.
"Yes," Michelle said, shrugging. "All I know is that he didn't respond to the letter I sent about my parent's accident, and I didn't see him at the funeral."
"I see." William's statement was full of understanding. Just listening to Michelle talk, he felt nearly overwhelmed with sadness. He'd had a similar burden in having to direct his own father's funeral. The urge to help Michelle pulled on him stronger the more she spoke.
"You know..." the young woman said, quietly. "Even though he wasn't around too much, I don't think I have forgiven him completely for disappearing. If he's still alive, I mean. How can you be so angry as to ignore your own brother's funeral?"
"A grudge is an ugly thing, Michelle," William remarked. "It can't really be explained unless you know firsthand what happened. Your Uncle must have had his reasons."
"True," Michelle said, frowning. "It still hurts that my remaining family member is nowhere to be found." William nodded.
"I agree with you there," he said.
Looking up at William, Michelle grinned.
"Well, since I can't hire Sam Spade to check you out, maybe you could tell me a little more about yourself."
"Ask away, sweetheart," William said, flashing her a grin.
"Alright... what made you reside stateside?"
"I interned at Brownstone & Peters' London office after University. A position opened up here in an area I seem to have a knack for: corporate contracts, take-over bids, that kind of thing."
"Ah," Michelle said, smiling. "Modern-day legal piracy." William gave her a side-long look and grinned.
"You're not far off," he told her. "I've been closeted away there for six years now; sometimes they let me out for meetings and things but mostly its just piles and piles of paperwork to look through." Wanting to show an interest in his work, Michelle searched for something intelligent to say.
"So, you look for loopholes?" she suggested. "Trying to find anything that will get a better deal for your clients, right?" William seemed unenthusiastic about this entire subject, but he brightened visibly at Michelle's comment.
"That's right," he said, smiling looking down at her. "Anything that improves the client's chance is appreciated, but also I hash out the fine points, so to speak: which staff goes where, who gets the Axe, who stays at what salary and all the mundane, impossibly tedious details needed for today's corporate take-over." William closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed his forehead.
"You need a break, don't you?" Michelle said, softly. William flashed a 'Don't Worry I'm Fine' smile at her.
At the mention of 'vacation' the notion of taking a long drive to Vermont together floated up in William's mind. Though the biting air made a picnic impossible, he suddenly wanted to know if Michelle would even consider going. Despite their rather recent acquaintance but seemed to be a strangely strong bond growing rapidly between them, more so than a mere physical attraction. He enjoyed every moment of their time together.
In William's mind, the idea of her becoming part of his life begged to be thoroughly investigated. Looking over at Michelle again he decided to take the plunge.
"I do hope you'll consider Mother's offer, Michelle," he said with more confidence than he felt. "I could use a break and I wouldn't mind at all if you came along with me to Vermont."
"Wouldn't mind?" Michelle thought, disappointed. So, he wouldn't mind taking her... but did he want her to go?
"Of course, if you'd rather not, there's no pressure," William continued.
Something in his voice made Michelle pause her inward musing; a slow realization blossomed as analyzed his words and tone.
"He's worried I'll say 'no'," she thought. Her eyes winded a little at the idea. For all William's well-dressed, confidant demeanor Michelle saw that-like herself-he could fall victim uncertainty, even nervousness. The knowledge comforted her, somehow. Seeing a more human attribute in the man she walked with enabled trust gain a stronger foothold within her. Turning her head, Michelle looked up at William. He was looking at her face intently. The marked uncertainly in his gaze surprised Michelle.
"Would you like me to go with you?" she asked. "I mean, you… personally."
For a few seconds it seemed to Michelle that her heart failed within her; she knew William wasn't trying to be cruel with his pause but the moments appeared to stretch out longer with each passing second. Finally, he smiled; it was the quick, warm smile Michelle already admired.
"Is that why you hesitate?" he queried, his eyes twinkling. "You don't think I wanted to take you with me?" He sounded merrily incredulous, as if he'd gained some imperative piece of information and was puzzled by it.
"Well, no one wants an obligatory guest..." Michelle began. At this, William laughed out loud; he ran a hand through his hair.
"Michelle Gregory," he said, sounding vastly amused, "There is no one on this planet I would rather drive to Vermont with… or anywhere else, for that matter. Will you accompany me and-dare I say-put up with my questions?"
Michelle broke out in a smile; a look of relief crossed her face.
"I'd love to," she said. "And for the record I like your questions."
"Do you?" William asked, with a grin.
"You have such a pleasant voice," Michelle explained, shyly. "I think you could get away with asking just about anything." Biting her lip, she suddenly wished she hadn't said the last bit.
"Really?" William said, lifting an eyebrow at her. "I'll have to bear that in mind." At this, the young woman retreated into the recesses of her umbrella.
Walking forward, Michelle wondered at the wisdom of agreeing to spend hours alone with William in his car, driving to another state. Certainly they were going to visit his kind mother and would be staying at her home, in separate rooms... but, still. Glancing sideways at her companion, she saw his confidence had fully returned; a content smile dressed his face as they strolled forward. They ambled in the rain for a few minutes in happy silence.
"Here we are," William said, at last. Looking up, Michelle saw the edifice of an old fashioned, medium high-rise office building, clad in the familiar gray concrete and large, tinted windows. William led them under an awning, out of the way of the foot-traffic. "My offices are on the 23rd floor."
"It's impressive," Michelle said, smiling up at him. They were standing only a foot apart, but it seemed like a comfortable amount of space. William grimaced.
"Sure, it is," he said. His choice of words made Michelle wrinkle her nose.
"Oh, please don't say it like that." she said. Puzzled, William looked down at her.
"Say what... like what?" he asked, looking confused. Michelle laughed, softly.
"Sure. You can't say it like an Englishman… it's an American word." William gave her a wry grin.
"Perhaps I should have said 'surely'," he said, narrowing his eyes at her.
"Uh... no," Michelle said, clearing her throat. "You can say it, but you have to say it like a used car salesman. Like this, sheewrrr." As the young woman intoned the word, William immediately imagined a man selling cars in some dusty lot. He laughed.
"Point made," he said, licking his bottom lip quickly. "I would like to have your room number, if you don't mind so I can call you about a date."
Michelle smiled, her eyes bright with mirth.
"A date? We've just had one."
William leaned down, stopping just inches from her ear.
"We'll have more, believe me," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. His breath warmed Michelle's ear momentarily. She willed herself not to blush; she failed. William noted her rosy face with satisfaction and drew away, a little. "A date for our trip, Michelle," he explained, looking down at her eyes.
"Oh," Michelle said, feeling a bit stupid. "Right. Um... Room 203." She let go of William's arm and took a step back. "Won't you be late for work?" she asked, slipping her hands into her coat pockets. Grinning knowingly at her, William took off one of his gloves; he reached up and tucked a stray piece of Michelle's hair behind her ear. His fingers were very warm.
"Want me to call you a cab, Michelle?" he asked, stepping close to her again.
"Uh... no thank you," his companion stammered. "I am a fairly accomplished walker. I feel like getting some… uh, exercise."
Allowing himself a last look into her eyes, William nudged her arm softly with his elbow.
"Off with you, then," he said, affectionately. "Or, I'll not be getting any work done. You are far too... distracting." He wanted to say desirable... exquisite; even those adjectives still didn't cover it but she definitely distracted him. Not that he minded.
"Thank you for lunch, William," Michelle said, nudging him back lightly.
"Anytime, Michelle," he answered. "I will see you later."
Michelle forced herself to turn around and walk away; even her feet seemed to be saying: 'Stay! Stay with the gorgeous man with blue eyes!' Shivering with a whole host of foreign emotions, Michelle slowly made her way down the packed sidewalk in a sort of blissful trance. William wanted her to go with him to Vermont! He was flirting with her. Not too much, but definitely flirting. Warmed by these thoughts, Michelle walked on, enjoying the moment tremendously.
William watched her go; her face seemed alight with some purely innocent joy.
"If you only knew what I was thinking half the time, you'd run," he thought, wryly. Would she? He wondered about her. Michelle flirted like a timid, little sparrow and seemed painfully naive to some of his suggestive remarks. Then again, he had been making her blush almost constantly. He silently admitted he liked doing that, most of all. Passing through the building's revolving door, William walked to the familiar corporate elevators. Alone in the lift, he meditated on his date with Michelle; she was not far from his mind at any time of the day or night lately.
As he stood in the elevator, William wondered of Michelle's serene exterior harbored an entire, inward bottle of passion hidden away for later use; he longed to find out. Even being near her sometimes made it necessary to clench his jaw and think of something unpleasant to avoid certain discomforts... especially when she smiled.
"Dammed unprofessional," William muttered; he missed Michelle already. "Room 203," he said. Just knowing her room number brought him comfort.
The doors of the elevator swept open, revealing the receptionist's desk. The middle-aged woman behind it was a rather irritable sort, with stiff, bleached hair and a matching personality.
"Mr. Peters and Mr. Johnson want all the department heads in the main conference room," she snapped. From her sour attitude, William guessed the woman had missed lunch. Nodding, he changed direction towards the executive hall.
"Ah... William," Mr. Johnson called out to him as he entered the large room. "Take a seat." William did and fixed his employer with an unemotional stare.
Though large, the main conference room was little more than a box with a table in it. Besides the whimsical, antique windows, whoever decorated this place had no imagination whatsoever. The short, portly man before him sat at the head of a long, polished table that had been painted black; it always made William wince when he saw it. What a waste of perfectly good wood to simply paint over it.
"Peters will be a minute." Mr. Johnson was speaking again; he drummed his fleshy fingers on the table in a bored fashion. "I hear you've been finishing up the Morton-Viece thing."
"I have, sir," William responded. Mr. Johnson attempted a smile; the result was a lopsided sneer. William wished the man could see himself; he looked like a clown that had suffered a stroke.
"Great, great... I hadn't heard about it for awhile until today; some junior associate said you were handling it," the man droned on. "So, been on vacation lately?" William resisted rolling his eyes. He detested small talk, especially before meetings, but this obvious, vague drivel was intolerable. Honestly, how did the man become a lawyer? William kept his thoughts to himself as the man rambled on about going fishing in Virginia. It occurred to William that he didn't really know what Mr. Johnson did at the firm.
"Sir?" William interrupted. "I will be taking next weekend off; I'll bear fishing in mind. I do have a few hundred pages of the Morton-Viece merger to go through today."
Mr. Johnson nodded.
"Oh... yeah. How's it going?" he inquired said.
"Well, right now... it's not," William responded, managing to keep his face straight. "I am sitting here."
"Oh, right... uh... great," Mr. Johnson said, with little effort. "Here's Peters."
William turned to see the senior partner walk through the door, followed by several of the junior partners. Despite his poor choice in part choice in business partners, William had some respect for Mr. Peters. The man was a brilliant litigator who'd used his turn-the-screws-on-witnesses approach towards merger deals, ending up with a few devoted clients and an international company. The man's original partner, the respected A. M. Brownstone had died some years ago; heart attacks were common among lawyers. It was rumored Peters took on Johnson as a silent partner merely for some additional capital.
"Alright, sit," Peters boomed out, his forehead lined in a permanent scowl. "As you know the rumors are true about the upcoming Warthall-Poller venture; they want us to negotiate the same deal as Morton-Viece but they want 2/3 of the staff gone. Montgomery..."
"Sir," William looked his boss square in the eye, over the long expanse of the table.
"Hammer out the final details on Morton-Viece and courier it over before end of business today. Copies on my desk by four," the man barked.
"Yes, sir," William said, his face blank. Mr. Peters was not angry; he snapped at everyone, even on good days. The firm's senior partner doled out a few more jobs and was about to adjourn the meeting when the newest junior partner spoke up. William couldn't remember his name.
"What about the rumors of Felix Maclane..." the young man said, nervously; he hushed up as he encountered Mr. Peters' expression. The boss gave the man such an icy glare that William wondered if his boss was going to leap over the table and throttle the inquirer.
"That son-of-a-bitch won't trouble us," Peters said, stiffly. "Sometimes rumors are just rumors. Brownstone built this company; I've worked here since I was twenty. It's mine now and no one's taking it from me."
William sat forward, interested; he looked over at Johnson. The man shuffled papers aimlessly, looking at the table. Mr. Peters promptly ended the meeting and the partners scattered.
Catching up with the man who'd spoken up in the meeting, William introduced himself.
"Caleb Grenell," the man said, shaking William's hand.
"What was all that business about Felix Maclane?" William asked as they passed a water cooler. "Is he a new client?" The junior partner's eyes bulged a little.
"You don't know?" he asked, his voice incredulous. "Felix-Maclane Inc. is a legal firm, like this one, only bigger, with more offices and more clients..."
"I get the idea," William interrupted. "I've been buried in my office the last six years with my nose in one contract after another. Sometimes I miss the news."
"I guess..." Grenell said, getting a cup of water. "They've made a name for themselves lately by taking over legal firms and firing nearly everyone. Three already, just this year; they hostilely takeover corporate takeover specialists."
"Sounds like poetic justice," William mused aloud, looking at the nearby window. "Peters seemed unnerved at the mere mention of them."
"He should be," Grenell said, with conviction. William looked back at him, interested. Grenell continued; "My brother works for our accounting firm and he says our revenue has dropped dramatically since Brownstone kicked the bucket. If Felix-Maclane takes over, they'll downsize to bare-bones… we'll all need new jobs." Grenell nodded at William and hurried off down the hall. William walked to his own office, deep in thought.
Reaching his corridor, he glanced at Mabel, his middle-aged secretary; she nodded at him over her typing.
"Two courier deliveries for you, Mr. Montgomery," she quipped, inclining her head slightly towards the IN box.
"Thank you Mabel," William said, picking them up; he scrutinized the labels and grimaced. More changes to the merger contract. "I'll need the courier service in the lobby by three o'clock; the final contract will be ready to send over by then, if I can just get it done. See that I'm not disturbed."
"Yes sir," Mabel answered automatically, still typing. Pushing open his office door, William closed it swiftly behind him. Walking over to the windows, he opened the blinds and watched the rain drizzle down for a moment; he puts his hands in his pockets.
A bit of sharply-folded paper poked his finger; he drew out the little origami bird Michelle had made. It looked a little crinkled but still graceful. Smiling, William turned it over; just thinking about Michelle brightened his mood. Walking to his desk, William moved a stack of papers and placed the bird down right where he could see it. Filling his coffee cup, he sat down resolutely to work, pausing now and then to look at the little bird and smile.
MICHELLE WALKED happily down the dirty sidewalk, not noticing the trash or the people who bumped into her with rude remarks. If cloud nine existed, she felt close to stepping on its surface. As she headed in the direction of her hotel, Michelle didn't know quite what to do with herself. For the first time in years, she had not gone out to sell her drawings; here she was, ambling down the street like anyone else, but with nowhere to go. It did not matter; wings seemed attached to her heels and she floated despite gravity, despite the grim faces around her and in spite of all the moody feelings that hovered in the dark skies above.
A trip; it had been far too long since Michelle's last journey out of the city. Walking slowly, she spied the side street leading towards the Good Will Pausing, she looked down at her clothes; it was the one nice, unstained outfit she possessed besides the pink gown. Biting her bottom lip, Michelle hovered by a bus stop sign, wondering if she could part with more of her precious dollars for 'trip' clothes. It seemed a bit extravagant but Michelle wanted to look nice for William and for Margaret; she did not want to bring shame to them or to herself by the want of a few items of clothing.
A dozen or so other people browsed through the Good Will aisles. Having decided to 'shop' Michelle put aside her frugal reservations. Her last date had been at senior prom; her 'escort' that night was as shy as she and they barely exchanged six words all night. Instead, they danced… a lot, and had a considerable amount of fun doing so. There was no need for speaking at a dance. He'd given her a chaste peck on the cheek; the boy certainly never inspired the emotions in her that William did and yet, she felt safe with her new-found interest. Soon, she'd get to go on a trip with him, to get to know his family better. The feelings accompanying such thoughts felt mildly exhilarating, as if she was about to dive out of a plane… but with a sturdy, trusty parachute.
Not in any hurry, Michelle dreamily perused the racks of used things; it looked a rainbow array of wealth to her. She was not looking for anything in particular, but hoped a wonderful outfit would jump out at her... figuratively speaking. A dark-red housecoat caught her eye; she felt it. Silk. Michelle was almost afraid to look at the tag.
"Six dollars," she murmured. "Not bad." For six dollars she could have a robe to be 'suitable' in. Margret's home, Michelle knew, was sure to be a place where one should look proper, at the very least. The robe went into her basket. Michelle found some other useful items, including a pair of leather walking boots, garnet-red velvet jeans, a creamy pullover fleece and a long, deep green dinner dress and a gray woolen suit-dress. These, she felt would prove useful even after the trip.
Lingering in the used book section Michelle suddenly felt like someone was watching her. Pretending to ignore it, she looked for the nearest exit; spying a door nearby, she stole a glance toward the offender. A man in his late fifties stood about fifteen feet away from her, scrutinizing her face intently; his face struck Michelle silent. She stared at him, her mouth open.
The man said her name but she didn't move. Tears began to form in Michelle's eyes but she blinked them away.
The man stepped closer and clasped her hand in a secure hold. It was not a threatening action, but one of relief. Still a little stunned, Michelle studied his face; she knew it well even after all this time. He towered over her much like William did, but the man's face was aged, tanned and stocky; his hair seemed grayer than she remembered but his eyes were unchanged, a keen, warm gray. Her uncle smiled and stepped forward. Michelle let him hug her briefly.
"I've been trying to find you," her uncle stated. His voice sounded stiff, but the sincerity in his face jabbed at Michelle's heart; her brows drew together and she felt perilously close to crying.
"I thought you were dead," she whispered, shaking her head. "Dad and Mom..."
"I know," her uncle said, putting a hand on Michelle's shoulder. "I was out of the country for several years... um... why don't we get some coffee? This isn't a great place to sit and talk." Managing a weak smile, Michelle nodded.
"Just let me get these paid for and we'll go," she said, quietly; she paid for her items as her uncle stood nearby.
A few minutes later they sat in a nearby coffee shop. Michelle ordered cocoa; her uncle asked the man behind the counter for black coffee.
"You've really changed," Oscar said, after they sat down. "I know that's obvious but it was so strange to see you all grown up, standing in a Manhattan store." Michelle laughed.
"The Good Will is hardly haute couture shopping," she said, smiling. Her uncle returned her smile.
"I figured you'd be at one of them," he explained. "I remember your mom used to go there. I kind of staked out the stores around your previous address. It was my last resort to find you."
Michelle sat forward and looked him in the eye.
"If I may, sir... where have you been?" she began. "My father said you two had a fight but he wouldn't say what about or why. Mom just figured it would work out between you. She said you were very busy." Oscar's expression sobered at her words.
"It was a bit more than just 'busy'," he said, seriously. "Your dad and I... well, we just stopped speaking for awhile. Back then, my work was easy to lose myself in. I had government contracts overseas, rebuilding bombed buildings, remodeling embassy compounds... that sort of thing. One country's government where we were working kind of, well… imploded. All westerners and Americans were evacuated, but not all of us made it out in time. My crew and I were hid for weeks by a few brave families until we could make the border and fly out."
Michelle looked at her uncle wide-eyed.
"I don't remember seeing any of this on the news," she said, slowly. Oscar grinned.
"Well, you wouldn't have… bad for PR," he said.
"So, you found out about the funeral when you got back in?"
Oscar rubbed his forehead, nodding.
"Yeah," he said, heavily. "I heard you'd gone on to New York and I tried calling, but you weren't listed; went by your address but the landlady said your lease had expired; she didn't know where you'd gone. She did have your cat, though." Michelle beamed.
"Really?" she said, joyfully. "I am so glad she still has him. I miss him."
Oscar looked at his niece's face carefully. This was the girl he remembered; he saw her mother's lovely smile shining out.
"I got as far as your employer, uh… Johnson and Black," he continued. "... but you just up and disappeared the last two years."
"About that... I wasn't fired justly," Michelle put in; she didn't know why she bothered explaining that, but for some reason it was important. Her uncle smiled.
"I figured that," he said. "So why go underground? Did they threaten you?" Michelle snorted.
"Hardly," she said. "They blacklisted me. No accounting firm would hire me; it was the only thing I had been schooled to do. I looked for other jobs but nothing else came up."
"Nothing?" Oscar returned, gruffly. "Come on, surely there were jobs in restaurants and things like that..."
Michelle looked at him narrowly. She guessed that he suspected she thought herself too good for that kind of work.
"I hate to disagree with you, sir, but there were not." Michelle was careful to keep her tone respectful; he was her uncle, after all. "It may have been some time since you looked for work in New York, but there are five people for every job. Believe me, when my lease came due I would have taken anything to keep my apartment. And, not that you'd know this, but I did work in a restaurant as a server for two years, during college."
The man across the table from her seemed satisfied with her answer.
"Fair enough," he said. "Your dad didn't want to talk with me, either, you know. He and I were both were to blame, not just me." His voice seemed gentler as he said this.
"I know," Michelle said. "I still missed you. Especially when you were all I had left." She reached forward and touched her Uncle's hand briefly. He gave Michelle a half-smile.
"Yeah," he said, heaving a sigh. "Death separates like nothing else." He looked at her closely. "You were probably too young, but do you remember Jeanie... your aunt?"
Surprised, Michelle shook her head.
"You're married?" she asked. Oscar smiled, sadly.
"Was. She died when you were about five or so," he explained. Michelle closed her eyes, trying to remember that far back.
"I do recall you bringing someone over once... um... she had long, black hair. She let me braid it."
Smiling a little, Oscar nodded.
"That's right. I'm surprised you remember. She and I were married just three years; she was pregnant and there were complications; she started hemorrhaging after only three months and they couldn't stop it in time." Michelle covered her mouth with her hand for a moment.
"Oh, my word…," she managed to say. "I had no idea."
"Yeah," Oscar said, heavily. "Well, I had my work, you know. It's complicated stuff; easy to get entrenched in and forget the world exists." Michelle looked at her uncle; she realizes that was probably why he didn't visit much after Jeanie died; her presence alone would have caused him grief, seeing how his child has died and his wife as well.
"I can understand that," Michelle said. "These last three years I've drawn pen and ink pictures and sold them on a corner in Midtown. That's what I do."
Oscar sat up a bit straighter and stared at his niece.
"You're kidding," he stated. Michelle shook her head.
"It pays the bills," she declared. "I'm not ashamed to be looked down upon. I still make my own living." Oscar leaned forward, interested.
"So, where do you live?" Michelle smiled. Once she was done explaining her housing situation, her uncle was smiling as well.
"Well, I'll be..." he said, scratching his head. "Even your dad would approve of that."
"I think so," Michelle said, happily. It felt almost sublime to talk to a family member again; she could see a lot of her father in him though she did not say so. William was Michelle's favored choice for company but having her uncle back bolstered her confidence even more. "So, what have you been up to, Uncle?"
Leaning back against the seat, Oscar heaved a sigh.
"Well, I sold the construction company and focused back on my law degree; I opened a firm, then more of them," he said, shortly.
"You're a lawyer?" Michelle inquired, smiling. "I would never have guessed that." Grinning, her uncle nodded.
"Yep. That's what my competitors though too, until I started buying up their shares and folding their companies into my corporation. Got over forty offices now, in four countries." He folded his arms over his chest.
Michelle looked at her uncle with a new respect.
"So... mainly, your law firm takes over other law firms?" she asked, attempting to understand his work fully. Oscar nodded.
"That's about it," he replied. "Of course we take on additional clients here and there to represent in takeover bids, that kind of thing."
"That sounds like what William does for a living," Michelle said, not realizing she'd said it out loud.
Immediately, her uncle was all ears.
"Who's William?" he asked, looking at her keenly. At this, Michelle blushed and Oscar knew exactly who 'William' was.
"Um... I guess you could say he's my boyfriend," Michelle said, not really knowing how to explain it. She supposed they were an item, though not officially. "I met him weeks ago but we didn't go out until yesterday, at the Monet showing; we ate dinner together and really hit it off. I had lunch with him and his mother today." Oscar considered this information for a minute.
"Guy moves fast," he commented. "Artsy type, huh?" Michelle made a face.
"Not really. I suppose he was there just to be there, like most people would be. He's a lawyer." Michelle saw her uncle scowl. "But, he also makes furniture... he has a shop full of tools; it's his hobby."
Oscar leaned forward and grimaced at the counter; their drinks still hadn't come.
"Could we get our damn coffee already?" he said loudly towards a man in a green apron. Michelle hid a smile in her glove. "The service here is unacceptable." Oscar sat back and regarded Michelle again. "So... a lawyer who can make furniture." He scratched his chin. "He can't be all bad. You like him, huh?" Michelle gave him a bright smile.
"Very much," she said, with conviction. "I think Mom and Dad would have loved him. He's English and very proper." Oscar rolled his eyes in a comical fashion.
"Of course they'd have liked some highfalutin limey." He picked up a paper napkin and blew his nose. "So, where does this guy work?"
"Brownstone and Peters," Michelle answered.
At this her uncle brightened, visibly.
"Really?" He rubbed his chin for a few seconds. "That's interesting."
"I'd like you to meet him sometime," Michelle suggested, hoping he'd want to. Her uncle smiled at her reassuringly.
"You bet," he agreed. "I'm going to be here for awhile. I came here to find you, but stayed to grow the company. My main office is about six blocks that way." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. Michelle shook her head in disbelief.
"That's so... weird," she said at last, her eyes wide. "You were close by all this time." Oscar smiled at her.
"It's a small world," he said.
A timid, young girl in a green apron cautiously brought their cups to the table, looking at Oscar as if he was about to sprout fangs and devour her. Michelle's uncle took the cups from her.
"You can go," he told the young waitress, who scampered away. Oscar cast a warning glance at the counter, where the man glared back at him.
"Send the lamb out, eh?" Oscar mumbled into his coffee. Michelle heard it, though and smiled.
"So, where do you live in the city?" she asked.
"I don't," her uncle answered. "I live in Brooklyn. Take the subway in." Michelle was impressed but not surprised. Her uncle seemed to be a common-man's hero; of course he'd live in Brooklyn... and take the subway.
"Wise move," she returned. "I walk everywhere. The traffic around here is something dreadful." Oscar grimaced.
"Wouldn't be caught dead in it," he agreed. "Take a helicopter first." He leaned forward a little. "Where can I get a hold of you? Do you have a phone?"
"Sort of. The hotel will ring my room. Number 203."
Oscar retrieved a small address book from his back pocket and wrote in it. Michelle saw that he wrote a silver Parker fountain pen. She recognized it at once; her former boss had one just like it. She remembered the man telling her it was a gift, but the giver had paid over $1000 for it.
"203," her uncle repeated, more to himself than anyone. Looking up, he put the pen and the little book away. "No email?" Michelle shook her head.
"Shamefully, no," she said. "The hotel has WiFi but you have to have a computer for that to work. You can leave messages for me, if I'm out."
"Everybody has email now," Oscar said, grinning. "I have seven different accounts to check."
"I hope that's more fun than it sounds," Michelle told him, smiling back. "Just to let you know, I will be going out of state for about a week, sometime very soon. William's mother invited us to visit her home for an apple festival, in Vermont."
"Huh… sounds serious."
Looking at her uncle in the eye Michelle chose her next words very carefully. The last thing she wanted was a vigilante relative warning William off.
"I'd rather it be serious, than not," she said, softly. To her surprise, her uncle smiled, broadly.
"That's a good attitude to have," he said. "Just watch yourself with him. I'm sure your dad and mom raised you to be a good, smart girl. So when are you going?" A little surprised at the compliments, Michelle gathered her thoughts.
"Um... I don't quite know," she admitted. "William was going to try to get a weekend off from work, and then call me with a date to leave; apparently he hasn't had a vacation in some time. I haven't, either." Oscar nodded.
"I'll give you a ring then and maybe we can get some lunch or something," he offered. "I don't wanna lose contact with you again. Here's my info card; it has my number, my address and my cell number on it. Call anytime, for anything. I mean it." He fixed her with a stern look but Michelle could see there was humor in his eyes. She smiled.
"I will. Thank you." Michelle took the card from his hand and held it a moment before putting it in her inside pocket. "I promise to let you know if I move again."
"You look well, did I tell you that?" Oscar said, suddenly. "You have your mom's smile." Michelle felt her eyes mist at his words. "I'm glad you don't look like your dad very much; he was an ugly kid." His words made Michelle laugh; her uncle chuckled a little along with her and they both felt as if something heavy had lifted between them.
Oscar looked at the clock.
"Well, I gotta go," he said, standing up. He took a lid from a nearby shelf and popped it on top of his coffee. Michelle did the same with her cocoa. She was glad he wasn't the type to just throw the unfinished beverage away. "Got people to fire… companies to buy."
"Well, good luck with that," Michelle returned, smiling. "I'm going to go home and do laundry."
"I hire that out," Oscar said, twitching his mustache. "Always hated doing laundry." Michelle wondered if she should hug him, but he forestalled her by shaking her hand.
"Take care of yourself," he said, looking at her with a sort of squished expression. Michelle thought his eyes looked a little watery. He was a tough, hard-working man; not the type to cry. Michelle was touched at the display of emotion apparent on his face. "And call me if you need anything… really," the man continued.
"Thank you," Michelle said, squeezing his hand briefly. "I am so glad you kept looking for me. I am sorry I didn't try as hard to find you."
"You did what you could," Oscar said, plaintively. "No one can ask more than that. Get on home now. This place isn't really safe, you know." Smiling, Michelle nodded.
"I will, Uncle. It is good to see you again." She let him open the door for her and returned his wave; he walked away, heading up the street. The Waldorf lay in the opposite direction and Michelle set out once again toward home.
Already elevated by William's presence earlier, her happiness reached new heights. She had family again! Her uncle was not dead after all; he'd been looking for her and wanted to be a part of her life. He was very much a down-to-earth kind of man, which Michelle found she preferred. At least she could go to him for advice if she needed to.
Walking through the front doors of her hotel clutching her Goodwill bag, Michelle pondered her uncle's cautionary words about William. She thought about it in the elevator and all the way to her room. She put her uncle's card on the antique desk. The sight of the thin, white rectangle laying on the wooden surface felt exceedingly comforting.
As Michelle washed her newly-purchased clothes she pondered what sort of signals she was giving William, weighing those that he gave in return. She was beginning to trust him; she wanted a serious relationship with him. His actions and questions led her to believe that he was serious in his intentions as well. Why else would he want her to meet his mother, or to visit her house? It told her that William wanted to get to know her well but didn't want to scare her off. Catching a glimpse of herself in the wall-mirror Michelle saw the wide smile on her face. William seemed to effect her life for the better. Above all, she hoped she'd done the same for him.
The phone rang as was putting away her purchases. Michelle stared at the device for a moment, bewildered. It had been so long since she'd heard it ring that the sound seemed foreign. Perhaps her uncle was testing the line, she wondered. Reaching over, she picked up the receiver.
"Hello?" she said, uncertainly.
"Ah... you're there." It was William. He sounded both relieved and happy to hear her voice. "How's Thursday?"
"Thursday?" Michelle repeated. "Oh, for the trip. This Thursday?"
"Is that too soon for you? I couldn't get a whole week off. Have to be back at work Monday, I'm afraid."
"No... no, Thursday's great!" Michelle responded. "Thank you so much."
"For what, sweetheart?" William asked. Michelle could hear amusement in his voice.
"For calling," she replied, grinning. "I have not had a call in over a year."
There was a small pause.
"You're joking," William said. Michelle laughed softly.
"Nope. Wasn't sure if I remembered how to use it." She heard William's warm chuckle on the other end.
"Well, that surprises me, I must say," he said. "This is a bit sudden, but would you like to eat dinner with me, here at my flat? Alfred's making lamb stew and it's simply delicious."
Michelle felt a bit unprepared for the invitation; dinner alone at his apartment? She didn't know what to say. Would it give him the wrong impression if she said yes? "You don't have to sweetheart," William continued.
"Oh... I'd love to," Michelle said firmly. "I... just don't want to barge in on your privacy."
Another pause ensued.
"Has it occurred to you that I might actually enjoy your company?" William asked. His voice seemed a little strange. Michelle closed her eyes and made a face at the wall. "Certainly over spending an evening with only my aging valet to talk to."
"Please don't be offended," Michelle said, quickly; she did not wish to convey to William the wrong reason for her hesitation. "I am sorry... I rely on myself a lot and I push people away. It's a problem and I'm trying to deal with it. There's really no other place I would rather be than with you."
The last bit tumbled out before Michelle could stop it; her face reddened and she bit her lip, wondering if William would snicker at her. To his credit he did not, or at least did so quietly.
"You don't have to worry about me giving obligatory invitations, Michelle," came William's voice at last; his tone sounded softer. "I don't do that. I wouldn't ask if I didn't want to see you. I ask for exactly what I want."
"Good." Michelle let out a breath of relief. "I'm glad you are that way. It's rare, so let me get used to it. I do learn quickly." William chuckled.
"Yes, well you are doing rather well, having just been out with me."
"Indeed," Michelle returned in a lighter tone. "You're very demanding of my time."
"So, you'll come for dinner? Shall I send a cab for you?"
"I can get a cab. I'm not destitute and... if you protest I'll take the subway."
Michelle had no intention of doing that at night… but William didn't know that.
"You'll do no such thing!" William sounded genuinely alarmed. "At night… are you insane? I know you think you're quite independent but..." He stopped talked as he heard Michelle's soft giggles over the phone. "Why... you little minx," he continued. "You had no intention of taking the tube, did you?"
"Nope," Michelle said, smiling to herself. "But it's nice to know you care. Oh!" She saw her uncle's card sitting on the desk. "I saw my Uncle today!"
"Pardon?" William asked, not sure if he'd heard right.
"You know, my uncle. I was telling you about him earlier... my Uncle Oscar." Michelle could not keep the enthusiasm from her voice. "He found me as I was walking back to the hotel; he's been looking for me these last two years at least. We had coffee and caught up..."
"Just a moment," William interrupted. He sounded dubious. "Your uncle... that you haven't seen in years... you just happened to see him, today?"
"Yes, it's amazing, I know but... I am so glad. I have family again William! I can't tell you how important that is to me right now."
"Of course, sweetheart." Michelle sounded so happy William did not want to bring up any suspicions, just yet. "How did that go?"
"Very well," Michelle answered, smiling. "I'd forgotten how much he looks like my father. He sold his construction company years ago. He's a lawyer now; he has several offices."
"Really? That's interesting..."
Michelle let out a small chuckle.
"That's exactly what he said about you," she informed him.
"Did he? You told him about me, then? Hmm." Michelle thought he still sounded dubious. "Well, that is amazing, I'll admit, but I am very happy he found you. Did he see you in the hotel?"
"No. He remembered that I favor the Good Will and had been staking out the local ones hoping I'd show up. That's where he saw me."
"The Good Will? What on earth were you doing there?" Michelle rolled her eyes a little. Men, she thought.
"Shopping," she informed him. "I figured I'd need something more than this outfit if we were going to go visit your mother next week."
The ensuing pause was very long.
"Don't get me wrong, love… but, the GoodWill is hardly the place to go for proper attire. Mother isn't arrogant or anything but you deserve to dress better than that." Surprised at his words, Michelle let me mouth hang open a little. She collected herself quickly.
"You didn't seem to mind where I purchased my attire at dinner," she said, her voice taking on an unusually brisk tone. "Were you ashamed to be seen with me then? What about today?"
Sensing he'd made an error, William switch tacks.
"I didn't mean it that way," he said, firmly. "I'm just saying you should let me..."
"No, thank you," Michelle interrupted, perilously close to tears. "I would never use you that way. I'm not ashamed of my appearance. It's clean and neat. Anything more is just... extra."
"That's a nice ideal Michelle, but that is not how the real world functions... you're intelligent enough to know that." William's voice sounded flat. "You are a sweet girl but perceptions do mean something. You were lucky to find that gown but I'm not taking you to my mother's in shabby, thrift-store clothes. It's not proper."
Tears pricked Michelle's eyes. A feeling of shame washed over her, however, lending her momentary calm.
"Please don't trouble yourself." She tried to say it coolly, but her voice grew more unsteady by the second. "I am certain you could find someone else higher up in society that would make you look better." The phone slipped out of her hand, bouncing on the carpet. Michelle knelt down, trying to keep from sobbing out loud. She groped for the phone receiver and quickly hung it up. Blindly, Michelle made her way over to the shower and turned it on. Disrobing quickly, she stepped into the hot stream of water and sat down, her head bowed onto her knees.
Staring at the phone in his hand William blinked, wondering what the hell had just happened. Setting the phone down on his desk he stared at the wall; it occurred to him that he'd just told a girl who made her entire living selling drawings on a street corner that her clothes weren't good enough to be seen in. Only an arrogant ass would say that. Michelle had looked fantastic last night; she certainly knew how to dress. He couldn't keep his eyes to himself half the time... and his mother, well, she'd loved Michelle immediately.
"What have I done?" he said to himself. The heavy sounds of pelting rain outside made for a lonely answer.
Reaching for the phone, he re-dialed the hotel's number and asked for room 203. No answer. It rang and rang; William tried again, same result; six more times and still Michelle did not pick up. "Bollocks!" William exclaimed, tossing his phone down onto his desk. He got up and paced around the office, trying to calm himself. He halted by the window, raking his hand through his hair. As if to compliment the situation, the clouds outside looked dark and threatening. "I'm an idiot," he muttered, going back to his desk.
Pressing the intercom, he waited until the irritated voice of his secretary came through.
"Sir?" Mabel was never in a good mood; neither was he, at the moment.
"Get me a florist on the line!" William barked. "A good one… and hurry." He didn't let her reply but paced up and down the carpet by his desk until the call came through. Michelle's last words came back to him; she'd sounded on the verge of tears. Her words repeated themselves in his mind: "someone else higher up in society".
William knew he didn't want someone else. He wanted Michelle.
"THANK GOD for boiler systems," Michelle thought, with a sigh.
Leaning back against the shower wall, she let the steaming water pour over her. Closing her eyes, Michelle imagined she was back in Denver at a certain hot springs; it has been her favorite place, a large pool where hot water cascaded down in a fountain, cooling off just enough to be bearable and infinitely relaxing. "Minus the smell of sulfur," she mused, wrinkling her nose. Michelle tried to think of anything other than William but soon melancholy feelings overwhelmed her. Sniffling, she rubbed conditioner into her hair.
"Oh, grow up," she told herself.
Thinking over William's words she considered them carefully. Why had they upset her so much? What did he say that wasn't true? Certainly she tried her best to dress appropriately; even William had acknowledged that fact. Perhaps she had been used to lesser things for so long she didn't see how shabby they really looked. There was a time that she had worn sharp dress skirts and crisp business jackets. It was true her things were used.
Still, Michelle thought William's objections to her favored shop sounded overly elitist; his mother hadn't said a word about her clothes. William had cast her several rather appreciative glances throughout the day. Michelle knew she was a bit naive but even so she was able to recognize attraction. William didn't exactly hide it, either. Maybe it was just the idea of getting clothes at as thrift store that had so repulsed him. Michelle reasoned that he was probably brought up with the finer things, but surely he knew that she had no such luxury. Perhaps, she wondered, they were just too different. The thought made her tear up again and she sighed.
Eventually, Michelle shut off the water. She felt spent. After toweling herself off, she quickly dried her hair. Sitting cross-legged on her bed in her favorite yoga pants and Stanford camisole she sent a few moments brushing out her hair. Despite the warmth of her pajamas, they struck her as worn. She picked at a ball of fuzz on the surface of her pants.
"Shabby," she whispered. Biting her lower lip, she got up from the bed. The silk robe she bought hung on the back of the door. Fingering it, Michelle managed a small smile. It was a good robe; a quality item, despite being a little used. "I bet even William has an old t-shirt he throws on when no one is around," she thought. Thinking about him hurt, so she distracted her self with tidying up the room.
Moving swiftly, she put away her brush and made the bed. Spraying a little apple blossom spray in the room she hopped into bed, reveling in its warmth and comfort. As Michelle reached up and switched off the light she glanced at the clock; 4pm. Early, even for her.
"Ah well..." she said out loud. "At least I won't have shabby dreams, sleeping in one of the most prestigious hotels in the world." She smiled but tears glistened in her eyes. Closing them against the dark, Michelle marveled at how many tears one was able to cry out. "I didn't know I had that much water in me," she thought. With a final sigh, she turned over.
It seemed to Michelle that she was just drifting off when a knock came at her door. Lifting her head from the pillow, she squinted through the dark. At first she thought she'd imagined it but the knock came again, louder. Flipping on the light Michelle got up, drew on her robe and peered out the peephole. She felt instantly awake. Outside her door—in the corridor-stood William, looking agitated and pale.
Unlocking the door Michelle slowly drew it open, wondering what to expect. William seemed surprised by her appearance.
"You were asleep?" he asked, his brows drawing together. "I am sorry… I didn't mean to wake you."
"I wasn't asleep, yet," Michelle replied, softly. She kept her hand on the doorknob and did not dare look William in the eyes. Instead, she studied his shoes; they had raindrops on them.
"Look, Michelle... I... er..."
William had practiced various apologies during the whole way over; none of them were right. "Please pardon me for speaking to you that way. I don't know what came over me. I'm so sorry." The words just came spilling out. "Bloody hell," he thought. "I went to Cambridge. Is that the best I can do?" To his surprise, Michelle covered her face with her hands and burst into tears.
Dropping the flowers William stepped forward and folded her into his arms. They stood several moments in the doorway as Michelle cried against William's coat.
"You're... sorry?" she mumbled, trying to get a hold of herself. "You were right. My clothes are shabby. Maybe I live in a Utopian dream world..."
"Hush," William said, gently. He tried to look at her face but she turned away into his shoulder. He struggled not to smile; her sniffles were adorable.
Digging in his pocket for his handkerchief William brought it out and held it up to Michelle. She looked at it a second and pushed gently away from him.
"No, thank you," she said, quietly. "I have tissues in here." Michelle disappeared inside her room but left the door open. William took that as a good sign; he collected the fallen roses from the landing and let himself in.
Stepping inside, he felt impressed by the comfort of Michelle's room... despite its miniscule size. The whole room would fit nicely in his guest bathroom but it looked very neat and homey. He could faintly smell apple blossoms again. Michelle emerged from her tiny washroom looking a little better; her fingers fidgeted with the sash of her robe.
"Sorry for my casual attire, but I wasn't expecting company," she told him, looking at the floor. William winced inwardly but managed a small smile.
"I'm not surprised," he said. To him, Michelle looked lovely with her soft hair a little messed from bed. Her long blood-red robe flowed around her feet, conveying a sweet, Capulet appearance that William found very attractive. He cleared his throat. "You probably had me for some cad who wouldn't dream of coming over here directly to apologize." Michelle looked to be on the verge of tears again. "Sweetheart," William continued, softly. "Please don't cry. I am sorry for losing my temper... Michelle."
Stepping forward he wrapped his arms around Michelle's waist, touching his forehead to hers. She still wouldn't look at him. "I'm not ashamed to be seen with you, love," he said, his voice firm, but gentle. "You are an extraordinary woman and you've heaps of taste. I was merely pointing out that if you had the means you would not be shopping at the Good Will, would you?"
Michelle bit her lip. As much as she wanted to stand tall and shout: 'Yes I would!' she knew better. Any girl would rather shop at Dolce & Gabbana than the Good Will, if given the choice.
"Probably not," she admitted, sighing. Summoning her courage, Michelle looked right up into his eyes. "I just... I don't want you to buy things for me, William. I refuse to be that kind of girlfriend."
William appeared momentarily taken aback and then he grinned. The expression in his eyes warmed as if a fire had been lit in them. Michelle almost felt afraid from the intensity of his gaze, but wondered what had inspired such a look.
"So... you agree, then?" William asked, looking at her closely.
"Agree to what?" Michelle asked with caution. William chuckled and leaned a little closer to her; she could feel his breath on her face. He smelled really, really good, she noticed.
"To be my girlfriend," William answered, softly. He perused her face and enjoyed seeing a blush creeping up her neck.
"Oh that," Michelle said, looking at her hands. "Of course. Why else would you be here?"
Standing so close to the young woman William struggled valiantly with an inward desire to kiss her. He'd yet to taste those inviting lips of hers. He especially noticed the word 'Stanford' stretched tightly across her breast. Funny how he'd never thought that word particularly sexy, until now. William forced himself to step back and put his hands into his coat pockets.
"You know, until I met you I didn't realize how buried in work I was," he admitted, trying a new subject. "Near obsessed with it, really. You've given me a reason to step outside the office."
At this, Michelle glanced at her clock.
"That's right... you must have left work early," she mused aloud. William grinned.
"Haven't done that in six years," he admitted. "And what on God's green earth are you doing going to bed at..." He glanced at his watch. "4:30?"
"A lot of reasons," she stalled, looking at the floor. "I was tired."
"Please come and eat dinner with me," William said, clearing his throat. "I promise I won't bite." About to refuse, Michelle felt her stomach gurgle a little. The noise was slight, but William heard it. "Ah... you didn't eat yet, did you?" he admonished. Michelle stepped back from him a little and folded her arms over her breast. She thought his voice sounded a little too victorious.
"I have food," she said, gesturing towards her desk.
Looking over, William saw an apple sitting on top of a composition notebook. He looked back at Michelle with raised eyebrows. "Fruit is food," she defended. William gave her a grin that said otherwise. Michelle felt defeated but wasn't willing to relent just yet.
"Michelle cannot live on fruit alone," William told her, folding his arms to match her stance. He could be stubborn as hell if he wanted and this little slip of an American girl was not going to sway him. Not one bit. "Now, are you going to get dressed," he continued, looking down at her from his six-foot psychological advantage, "Or must I drag you out of here in your robe and bare feet?"
Michelle looked at him with wide eyes.
"You wouldn't!" William lifted an eyebrow at her. Michelle sprang into action; she opened her door and motioned for him to exit. "If you wouldn't mind, I'll just be three minutes." William smirked and moved out the door, pausing just outside.
"Only three?" he teased. Michelle narrowed her eyes at him.
"You can time me," she said, closing the door.
"If you don't come out I'll fetch the manager," came William's muffled words. Michelle snorted as she opened her armoire.
Determined to impress William she pulled on the new blue jeans and a long-sleeved dark red top. Hopping up and down she put on thick, speckled wool socks and over them her brown leather boots, glad she'd polished them only hours before. Whipping a brush through her hair she put on lip gloss and a little mascara before buttoning up her blue coat and putting on the beret and gloves. Glancing at the clock Michelle smiled; only two and a half minutes had elapsed.
"Ha!" she thought. "How 'bout them apples?"
Turning towards the door, Michelle's gaze fell on the roses. They lay on her bed-a little hidden by her comforter-looking like pale pink perfection. Scooping the soft blossoms up Michelle held them to her face, inhaling the scent. Oh, it had been so long.
As Michelle opened her door William pretended to consult his watch.
"A record for women worldwide!" he announced, with obvious enjoyment. Michelle chuckled at his words as she closed her door. "An improvement over the robe," William continued. "You look... nice."
Glancing at his face Michelle saw he meant it.
"Thank you, sir," She held up the roses. "And, thank you for these… they are loveliness incarnate" William smiled; he leaned down close to the young woman's ear.
"You're supposed to keep those here," he whispered.
"I'm aware of that," Michelle returned, clearing her throat a little. "But, I do not have a vase." She accented the word 'vase' very heavily in a way that would make any aristocrat proud. "Besides, they probably would look lovely on Alfred's dinner table."
"Yes, they would," William agreed. He offered Michelle his arm. "That's very thoughtful of you. Shall we?" Michelle linked her arm with his.
"Yes. We mustn't keep Alfred waiting."
In the elevator Michelle unknowingly tortured her companion by fully enjoying the roses.
"These are just beautiful," she said. Closing her eyes, she inhaled rapturously, the petals brushing her face.
"Bloody hell," William thought, trying to ignore her sweet expression. "She's not even aware of what she does to me." He determinedly studied the elevator buttons. Reaching the taxi outside Michelle surprised William by turning and putting her arms about his neck.
"Thank you," she told him with shining eyes. "For the flowers, the advice... for coming here... everything." She gave William a small kiss on his cheek and jumped into the waiting cab. Smiling a little William ducked into the taxi and shut the door.
"TriBeCa... Westyn Terrace," he told the driver. The cab took off.
William leaned contentedly back next to Michelle. Her innocent kiss and gratitude effectively quelled his rather lustful thoughts, for the moment. Once more he felt happy to just sit beside her. Michelle hid her face in the roses. She was a little surprised at her own boldness. William didn't seem to be offended, however.
"I've never actually eaten lamb stew," she said, after a few moments.
William turned to her with a smile.
"Really? Alfred will be enthralled at an untried palette."
"I hope he won't wrinkle up his nose at me and ask 'what the cat dragged in'," Michelle returned. William laughed. He laughed so hard his side ached.
"Good heavens, Michelle," he wheezed, "You say the most amusing things." He wiped his eyes, a broad grin upon his face. "Alfred is not a snob. That's a very outdated stereotype, you know. He'll adore you, don't worry. I shouldn't wonder if you began regarding him as a surrogate grandfather."
"He sounds almost as agreeable as you," Michelle said, with a smile. Eyes twinkling, William pretended to scowl.
"I'm agreeable?" he hazarded. "Agreeable. Huh."
"Agreeable is good," Michelle said, chuckling a little. "There is a severe short of agreeable people in this city." Michelle looked down at her hands and fidgeted a little. As true as her words were, she knew that the adjective did not do William justice. Intrigued by Michelle's bashful expression, William leaned down towards her.
"Agreeable... and what else?" he asked, his voice dropping lower. "Come on, Michelle... what am I besides agreeable?" Squirming under William's intense gaze, Michelle prayed for a distraction.
"I don't want to inflate your ego," she answered, quietly. William snorted.
"Unfair," said he. "You've managed to avoid answering the question while appearing to have my interests in mind." A smile was all the answer he got.
The Westyn Terrace building matched closely what Michelle had envisioned: a tall, luridly expensive building of town-homes, complete with the affluent people who could afford to live there. Michelle could not resist teasing William about paying a hefty amount of rent. Her 'date' surprised her by revealing that he owned his home, as well as the one above it.
"I had to make sure the floors immediately above me had a little old lady in a wheelchair as a tenant," William explained to her, as he helped her from the cab. "My first apartment in this city had young people above me and I never got any sleep. Besides, owning the space I get double the storage space for my workshop." Michelle took his arm.
"I would so enjoy seeing your wood shop," she told him. "I love the smell of fresh cut wood." At this, William smiled down on her affectionately.
"So you shall." He was very pleased she wanted to see his hobby. He found solace in it, as well as in her company. Having the two together would be interesting. "I bought the two homes to make a little money off living here, seeing as it necessary," he said as they walked up to the doorman.
"Smart move," Michelle said, nodding. "I hear town-homes have really gone up in value the last few years. I know when I was looking for a cheaper loft, there were none anywhere."
"Except in Jersey," William said, smiling. Michelle gave a little laugh.
"Now, now... everyone picks on Jersey."
"Mr. Montgomery," the doorman said, letting them in.
"Thank you, Hawkins," William returned. Hearing the man's name, Michelle stifled a giggle.
"I hear he has a treasure map," she whispered, when they were out of earshot. William's mouth twitched. He narrowed his eyes down at her.
"He's quite touchy about that, actually. Apparently all he gets at Christmas are pirate hats and fake treasure maps."
Inside William's building they crossed a large, echoing lobby; black granite floors and a rather stark design made it look more modern than the Waldorf, though comparing the two Michelle favored the warmth of her hotel's lobby far more.
"The décor's a bit cold," William told her as they neared the elevator. "They let a half-drunk Japanese gentleman have his way with the color scheme."
"That explains all the gray and black," Michelle replied, wrinkling her nose. Her remark got a deep chuckle from William. The elevator had a type of butler in it, the kind that pushes the button the occupants. Michelle suppressed a laugh at the laziness of the tenants.
The doors opened at the sixteenth floor. William led Michelle out into a wide hallway with solid wood floors. His home was the first door on the left. Michelle stood and admired the door's wooden facade while William entered in his code.
"Entrée," he said, holding the door open. The rooms beyond invoked a feeling of pleasant surprise in his guest.
"Wow," Michelle said, simply.
By the looks of the lobby Michelle expected a typical bachelor pad, with black leather furniture, a chromed bar, animal print and a giant shark aquarium. William's home was a far cry from that image; it actually looked homey. Certainly, the spaces were high and opulent but that walls were painted a muted, warm tone to counteract the space. Polished wood floors set off the walls' hue nicely, with gray cotton rugs tastefully placed here and there. Black and white photos hung on the walls; live ferns were planted in standing pots, their green fronds waving slightly in the ventilation currents. Natural light poured in from large windows along one side of the apartment, giving the entire space a soft, pleasant feel.
"Wow, as in you like it?" William inquired, noting her scrutiny.
"It's so comfortable," Michelle said, smiling but also looking a little puzzled. "I admit... I was expecting a bachelor pad but, this feels like a home." William grinned from ear to ear.
"I don't think anyone could come up with a better compliment, Michelle," he said, looking quite pleased. "I had the place gutted and redone for that reason alone. I wanted a haven to return to each day, not some warehouse echoing of loneliness." He saw Michelle still had her coat on. "Here, let me take your coat and I'll give you the grand tour."
"Oh, silly me," Michelle replied. She unbuttoned her coat and slipped it off, taking off her gloves and hat and stuffing them in the pockets. "I can hang up my own coat, you know," she said, lightly, looking up at William. He had an odd look on his face.
William sucked in a breath when Michelle removed her coat. He mentally took back everything he'd said about her clothes; her fitted, deep red shirt looked uncommonly well. The faded jeans she wore fit her like a glove. Aware of Michelle's gaze on his face he scowled.
"I'm certain you are able to hang up your coat," he said, gathering his thoughts back from the sultry, inappropriate corners they had immediately flown to. "You're a perfectly capable person, so relax." He turned and hung her coat on one of the curved hooks on the wall. "Come with me."
Taking Michelle's hand, William led her around his domicile. The entry, office and living room (or 'den' as William called it) all flowed into each other, cleverly utilizing the space with built-in shelving and hidden closets. The ceiling looked about sixteen feet high by Michelle's reckoning. She noted a few framed paintings, hung out of the direct sunlight. Her host stopped in front of one of them.
"I thought you would like to see this one," he said, softly. "It isn't Monet, or anything, it's..."
"Sisley," Michelle finished for him, her eyes widening.
"That's right," William said, admiringly. "You know your impressionists." Michelle pointed at the painting. "Um... that's, uh... not a print." William smiled.
"No, it isn't."
"Oh my stars," Michelle said, stepping back. "I'll try not to breathe on it." William laughed at her awed expression.
"It's alright," he assured her. "Look all you like."
Though not one of Michelle's favorites, the painting showed a pleasant scene peeking out a grove of trees towards a sun-drenched, hillside village.
"Beautiful," she whispered. "Makes you want to go to that spot, bring a picnic lunch and never leave." William looked at it as well, standing close beside her.
"That sounds quite nice, actually," he agreed. Closing his eyes, he could almost see them doing just that, picnicking in the French countryside; maybe she'd wear her pink dress. Leaning towards Michelle ever-so-slightly, he could smell the sweet perfume of her hair. Reluctantly, William opened his eyes.
"Shall we sit down?" he suggested; he suddenly felt the need to put a little space between them. Michelle kept her soft hand in his.
"I'd love to," she said. William looked at her; the smile on his guest's face seemed so trusting. Inwardly cursing his excitable anatomy William led the way back to his den.
Michelle felt drawn to the living room the most. The couches therein looked utterly inviting. Overstuffed with feathers they seemed to silently beg one to sit. One couch was long and wide, with a shorter loveseat adjacent, arranged in an 'L' shape facing the huge windows.
"Please sit," William offered, indicating the long couch.
"I see where you spend a good deal of your time," Michelle said, smiling up at him.
"Guilty," he confessed, deliberately sitting away, on the love seat. Michelle sat on the end of the couch closest to William, sinking down with a contented sigh.
"Oh... nice," she breathed. "This is what my dad used to call a 'nap trap'." Chuckling, William sat forward, his elbows resting on his knees.
"That is an accurate description," he said, smiling at the floor. He did favor stretching out on that couch; Michelle had pegged that right off. However, William really wanted was to sit over there with her, maybe even cuddle. Definitely cuddle. Looking over at her, he drew in a long breath and studied the floor in a vain attempt to think of something other than his naively luscious guest.
"You have a pleasant home, William," Michelle told him in her soft way. William's sudden discomfort did not escape her. She did not know whether she was the cause, or something else. After their disagreement earlier Michelle figured he would speak up if she did anything improper.
"Thank you," William answered, looking at the wall.
Clinking sounds emanated from a solid set of double doors on the other side of the room. Michelle lifted an eyebrow at the sounds.
"Alfred," William said, by way of explanation. He glanced up at the clock. "He should be nearly finished."
"You mean Alfred actually exists?" Michelle teased. "I was beginning to suspect you had your very own invisible six-foot rabbit." William snorted but a grin soon followed.
"You must like old movies," he teased. "You're lucky I've seen 'Harvey' or I'd have missed that reference entirely."
"When insomnia hits at 2AM, it's either watch old movies or start a drinking habit," Michelle defended.
"Touché," William returned, flatly. He knew their normally robust conversation was waning. This self-imposed contact deprivation of his was darkening his mood. William was also aware that Michelle sensed something was not right, but there was nothing he could really do about it.
"If I go over there I would not ever want to leave," William thought, looking over at Michelle. Bad idea. She was rubbing the back of her neck, gazing out the windows; the sunset colors illuminated her face and neck. Feeling his heart speed up a little William leaned back and closed his eyes. "Relax," he told himself. He longed just to take off his shoes; his right toes felt a little pinched.
"You need a dog to bring your slippers and the paper."
Michelle's gentle voice lightly interrupted his thoughts.
"What a darling," William thought, smiling a little. "She's trying to cheer me up." He was being a terrible host and reprimanded himself accordingly.
"No pets allowed, I'm afraid," he said at last, opening his eyes and regarding Michelle. She sighed, a little sadly, William thought.
"A pity," said Michelle, looking at her slender boot. "When I moved to the hotel I had to give away my cat. He was the finest feline to ever walk the planet."
Not one for fawning over animals, William was nonetheless interested; another aspect of Michelle.
"Why the 'finest'?" he inquired.
"He was such fun... but also severely austere. He cleaned himself incessantly. He was prone to fits of rage, which he took out on one of my lamps." William smiled at these outlandish descriptions; Michelle's expression, however, was completely in earnest.
"Let me guess his name... Monet?"
"Napoleon," his guest replied. William laughed.
"How appropriate," he said, smiling. "Moody, raging... perfect."
"Though... my Napoleon did have a weakness," Michelle went on. "Easily distracted by string."
The fondness in her voice drew William's eyes to her; the red shirt she wore put a nice glow on her face; she was lost in pleasant memories, a small smile on her lips. William looked away.
Michelle was drawn from her reverie when William abruptly stood from the couch. Puzzled, she watched he moodily rearranged magazines on the low coffee table.
"Would you like to meet Alfred?" he asked; his voice sounded a little strained.
"I would," Michelle replied, reluctantly leaving the comfy couch.
"This way." William walked ahead of her, towards the kitchen doors. As Michelle followed him, she wondered about this change in attitude. Maybe he hated cats... perhaps one had scratched him badly as a child. Maybe she talked too much. Since William wasn't explaining himself Michelle was left to guess, something she absolutely loathed.
The pleasant aroma of herbs and roasted meat greeted her as she walked into the kitchen. A piano concerto filled the air. The kitchen looked immense to Michelle, and neat with its white tile surfaces, stainless steel fixtures and deep-cherry wood floors. Fresh herbs hung in bunches from the ceiling among spotless copper pans. A white-haired man-in immaculately pressed clothes-stood at the far end, stirring a large copper pot on a huge stove; a white bistro apron was tied around the man's waist.
"Alfred," William called, over the music. The man turned and wiped his hands on a dish-towel. Michelle liked him immediately; his face looked grandfatherly but seemed to have "propriety" written all over it. He took in Michelle with warm brown eyes. As he smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkled. He glanced over at William.
"I am glad you are home, sir," he said. His voice sounded unusually crisp for his age. "Dinner is nearly complete."
"Excellent. May I present Miss Michelle Gregory. Michelle, this is my valet, Alfred Walters II." He introduced the valet with a comical flourish of his hand. Michelle had to bite her lip to keep from giggling. She looked at Alfred.
"I am pleased to meet you," she said softly. Alfred smiled at her again; his eyes twinkled with something Michelle couldn't quite make out, but it seemed favorable.
"Charmed, my dear," he said, amiably. "I trust Master William is playing the host well?"
"He is, thank you," Michelle replied. "It smells delicious in here."
"Yes… you have a novice tonight, Alfred," William said. "Michelle has never tasted lamb stew."
"My dear girl," he said. "I am truly sorry that you have been deprived of such a pleasure for so long." His gallant tone made Michelle smile.
"I know," she acquiesced. "Being a Gregory, too."
"A fine, Scottish name," Alfred said, still smiling. "For shame... no lamb stew. Well, off with you both; as charming the company you are impeding my progress." He turned back to the copper cot with a smile. Michelle let William lead her out of the kitchen.
They stood in the living room-by the wall of windows-looking out on the buildings below.
"He likes you," William said, after a minute. Alfred's warm manner made him realize how brusque he was being with his guest. "Enough," he said under his breath. Michelle heard it, however; she wondered what he was talking about.
"Work on your mind?" she guessed, sitting back down on the couch. "Or, do you just hate cats?" William looked over his shoulder at her, a puzzled expression on his face.
"Hate cats? Why would you ask that?"
"Well, ever since we talked about mine you've been brooding," Michelle explained, quietly. "I wondered if you had bad cat memories, or something. They can be pretty mean sometimes." William stared at his guest for a moment and then chuckled. Sighing, he moved over to the smaller couch once more.
"I do not dislike cats," he stated, sitting down. "I dislike... formality."
Michelle sat silent for a moment and then she smiled.
"Well, there's no need for formality in your own home," she told him. "Here… I'll start." She quickly unzipped her boots and stowed them discreetly under the coffee table. She sat up and gave William an expectant smile. Blinking, William did not know what to say at first.
"It doesn't matter," he thought, smiling. "It's my bloody house." Slipping off his loafers William got up and sat by Michelle, draping his arm across her shoulder.
"Much better," he said, looking down at her fondly. Michelle smiled at him, deciding to let his arm remain.
The view from their perch on the couch was spectacular. Shifting colors bent by the setting sun glanced off the gray buildings, painting a slowly evolving picture. Michelle leaned her head on William's shoulder, feeling very content. William felt her relax and smiled to himself.
"This is good," he thought, leaning his head to rest on Michelle's. He allowed a quiet sigh to escape his lips.
Some minutes later Alfred emerged from the kitchen, drying his hands on a towel. Looking around he spied the top of William's head, just visible over the top of the ridiculously overstuffed couch. Approaching with a cautious step Alfred came up behind the couch and leaned over it a little. The sight below made him smile. His employer was fast asleep, cozily snuggled up against his guest; Michelle was peacefully sleeping as well, her head on William's shoulder. Alfred chuckled at their stocking feet.
"Ahem," he coughed, politely. "Ahem."
William's eyes flew open; he looked up at Alfred, blinking. His valet stood tall behind the couch, smiling in a fatherly way. "Dinner, sir," Alfred said. "Unless you want it cold."
"Thank you, Alfred," William said, bringing up his arms in a deep stretch. Beside him, Michelle stirred at the movement; her eyes were still closed. Leaning down, William kissed her gently on the forehead. The young woman's eyes fluttered open, slowly focusing on William's face. She smiled at first, but grew instantly bashful; she sat up quickly.
"Oh, I'm so sorry..." she apologized biting her lip. "How long was I asleep?" William smiled at her apparent dismay.
"Not long," he said. "Don't be sorry; I fell asleep as well. It felt rather good to get a short nap, actually."
"I see," Michelle said, relaxing. "So, it's OK if the host does it too." Still smiling, William drew his fingers lightly over her hair.
"That's the general rule," he said.
Alfred gave a discreet cough.
"Dinner is served," he announced, cheerfully. "Lamb Stew a' la Walters." Michelle stood from the couch and got directions to the ladies room. In her absence, William pushed the dinner cart from the kitchen to the small dining room beyond and transferred the large soup tureen to the table.
"I'm neither senile nor infirm, yet," Alfred objected, arranging the spoons.
"I know that," William returned. "I just don't want Michelle knowing how truly useless I am around here." Alfred smiled and spent a moment polishing the silver ladle with a cloth.
"You are remarkably comfortable with her, sir," he commented. William nodded.
"I like her," he said, simply.
"That is quite clear," Alfred stated, glancing at William from under his brows. "Honestly, I have never seen you remove your shoes while company is present." William looked at him. "Don't 'get me wrong', as the Americans say. It's about time you met a nice girl. I hope you keep her." Smiling, Alfred swept back into the kitchen, leaving a stunned William staring after him.
"At least he didn't say anything about grandchildren..." he muttered.
"Alfred has grandchildren?" came a voice behind him. Turning, William beheld Michelle entering the dining area.
"Ah... er... yes... well..." William stuttered. Hopefully she didn't hear anything else. "Did... you find everything alright?"
"Yes." Michelle grew serious. "My whole apartment could fit in your restroom." William laughed.
"Yes, well... my lavatory is rather small," he said, teasingly. Narrowing her eyes at him, Michelle crossed her arms.
"You're lucky there's nothing to throw at you easily at hand," she said.
"Now, now... you know I'd just chase you and toss you onto the couch," William countered. "I bet you're ticklish." Michelle's eyes widened a little.
"Horribly," she said, warily. "Don't even joke about it; it's a terrible affliction." William laughed at her and pulled out a chair.
"Sit. I'll behave," he promised. Smiling, Michelle complied; she draped a napkin across her lap as Alfred appeared with a basket of fresh bread; he sat down on one side of Michelle and William sat on the other. Michelle felt glad that Alfred was eating with them; the apparent importance of class distinction proved to be another baseless stereotype.
The dining room looked elegant despite the simple décor. A gorgeous, solid wood table of square design dominated the space; its size seemed just right for four people to eat comfortably. Running her hand over its smooth, red-hued top, Michelle caught William's eye.
"One of yours?" she asked, smiling. At her words, William's eyes grew bright.
"Yes," he said, giving her an affectionate smile. The fact that Michelle recognized a custom-built table impressed him. "One of my favorite pieces, actually. I couldn't find a table the right size for this room."
"So, you made one," Michelle returned. She felt the wood with appreciative fingers. "It is beautiful."
"Thank you," William replied. "I am flattered you noticed it."
Michelle looked up at Alfred. The man handed her a hot bowl of stew in a heavy soup-plate. Taking it with both hands, she smiled at him, setting the plate down in front of her. The rich, meaty scent of her mouth water. Michelle savored the first bite. A slight spiciness of fresh ground pepper made itself known, mingling well with the bits of braised lamb and soft pearl barley. The early winter vegetables-turnips and leeks-seemed to bring every thing together. Alfred noted her expression with satisfaction and passed her a basket of bread. Michelle swallowed her mouthful and licked her lips.
"You are a magnificent cook, Alfred," she said, meaning every word. Looking up, William grinned at the pleasure on his valet's face. "You cook almost as well as my grandmother did." Michelle went on, reverently dipping another spoonful.
"Ah... a high compliment," Alfred said, smiling. "No one could hold a candle to mine, either."
"A triumph, Alfred," William commented with a nod. "Perfect for this weather."
"Yes, the air felt like stew this morning." Alfred stirred his food thoughtfully and ate a little, nodding approvingly. "You're mother rang, earlier," he said, to William. "Just after one."
"Don't tell me. She wants me to pick up some god-forsaken cheese trinket from Switzerland before I drive up." By William's annoyed tone, Michelle guessed that he disliked being used as an 'errand-boy'.
Alfred gave his boss a look, though it appeared tempered.
"Not quite," the older man began. "I do not happen to be a cheese trinket from Switzerland and God hasn't yet forsaken me." William looked a little sheepish.
"Be glad to have you along, old boy," he said, smiling. "I didn't think you wished to make the long journey in my little roadster."
"Nonsense," Alfred stated. "I used to cram into tiny phone booths and such with my fellow Carpathians back in college, you know. I'll be fine."
William snorted a little and glanced at Michelle; she appeared to be chuckling behind her napkin.
"Will there be any room for me," she asked, smiling at her host. "Or will you have to strap me to the hood?"
"Pfft... my car's not that small, sweetheart," William announced, pointing his spoon at her. "You'll fit in snugly with us. Phone booth, indeed." Still grinning, Michelle took a bit of bread.
After a few minutes, she mustered up her courage enough to speak with Alfred.
"Margaret told me you've been with William's family a long time," she ventured.
His mouth full, William chewed a little faster.
"Please... no more bloody stories of me as a darling baby," he thought.
"I have, Miss Gregory," Alfred said, leaning back in his chair. "I was his father's valet until he passed, nearly eight years ago." Michelle glanced at William; she said nothing but he saw a look of mutual sympathy in her eyes.
"You're not going to regale me with William's repressed childhood memories, are you?" she asked, turning back to Alfred. Chuckling, the older man shook his head.
"My dear, grown men dislike very much to be reminded that they were once adorable toddlers dressed in cute outfits," Alfred stated, laying his napkin on the table. "Judging by his rather pained expression, I'll just eat and let his memories be."
Michelle laughed softly and clapped her hands together.
"I am so glad," she said, merrily, "When we were eating lunch with Margaret I thought he was going to have an aneurysm."
"I'm right here, you know," William said, giving Alfred a grateful look. "My mother does far too much tripping down memory lane… with anyone. When I took her to lunch at the Oriental, she actually showed baby photographs to the server." He gave Michelle a narrow look; she hadn't stopped giggling. "It isn't funny," he stated, returning to his food.
The conversation turned to the proper time to leave for Vermont that Thursday.
"We should get an early start," William remarked. "Really early. I strongly dislike sitting in traffic."
"Not too early, sir, if you please," Alfred countered. "Bear in mind that I am sixty-four."
"Weren't you in the army?" William asked, smiling. "Where's your pre-dawn spirit?" Alfred shuddered.
"Buried deep in my youth, thank Heavens," he said, grimacing. "No need to bring it back."
Having finished her food Michelle stood up, plate in hand. Taking the opportunity while the men were engaged in conversation, she disappeared into the kitchen before anyone could object.
"Where's your dish soap?" her voice floated in from the other room. Alfred rose from his chair and motioned towards the door; with William's help he brought the other dishes in and waylaid the 'helpful' guest at the sink.
"I'm used to cleaning up after myself," Michelle objected as William led her from Alfred's domain.
"Yes, and I'm used to eating alone in my office buried under paperwork." William told her. "You are going to relax ... don't look so innocent." Michelle gave him a secretive smile; she obediently sat down on the couch again and looked up at William.
"You're not going to suggest 'Boggle', are you?" she asked. Her voice was light and full of fun. William liked this 'comfortable' side of Michelle very much. She was still sweet and a little shy but she looked more relaxed, like she was enjoying herself very much; he marveled at how easy it was to enjoy himself around her.
"I actually enjoy playing Boggle," he grinned, sitting down beside her. Carefully, he laid his arm on her shoulders. She did not seem to mind him doing that.
"I do was well," Michelle admitted. "But, you have to have more than two people to play it properly, kind of like Scrabble." William nodded.
"I bet your family played board games every night," he said, looking down at her. Michelle smiled.
"Not every night, but we did play them quite often." She sighed; with William nearby it did not seem quite as difficult to access her memories. "My father adored Scrabble, especially. He could make up the most convincing words, and could relate the supposed meanings so well that it felt like one was risking a lot to challenge him."
Chuckling, William rubbed his forehead a little with one hand.
"In my elementary school, we were instructed to occupy ourselves in a civil manner," he informed his guest. "Board games were actually part of the curricula. With Scrabble—for instance-I prided myself on knowing all the 'X' and 'Z' words."
"All forty-three of them?" Michelle inquired; her eyes looked bright with mirth.
"Well, it was forty-three more than the other lads knew," William defended.
There was a long pause. As she gazed out the windows Michelle considered asking William more about his family, but she felt hesitant in doing so; she really did not want to pry, nor make him uncomfortable… but the fact that she knew so little about him seemed glaringly obvious. More than anything, Michelle wanted to know him better, and on a far deeper level than finding out his favorite color or preferred food.
"I take it your family didn't have a 'game night' together," she said, quietly.
At her remark, William shifted in his seat a bit.
"No," he said, flatly. "My father was a respected investment banker; he was extraordinarily busy. For him, dinner was a meal taken between 9pm and 2am. I rarely saw him."
"Oh," Michelle said, not knowing how to reply to such a statement. She waited a few seconds before speaking again. "I can see it did you good, though… in a way." William looked at her with his eyebrows raised a little. "I mean," she continued, "In that you seem to know there is more to life than work, and money, or hiding yourself away pretending other people don't exist... as you showed me earlier." Michelle allowed herself to look up into his clear, blue eyes. "I bet you even want to play Scrabble with your own kids... someday."
Michelle's earnest words moved her host more than he let show. Inwardly, William felt struck by the thought of children, his children; he imagined cozy nights around a board game, listening to little voices laughing. His throat clenched with an odd emotion… something like longing. Certainly, children changed one's life; they cried and got sick and needed attention, but the wonderful moments they brought made William silently admitted he wanted to have children of his own. Perhaps they'd have Michelle's beautiful eyes.
"Definitely," he replied. His voice dropped very low. "What about you?" Michelle blushed, to William's delight. Perhaps she was thinking the same things as he.
"Yes," she answered, softly. "I cannot imagine my life without a family. All money and career aside, it's the only thing really worth working for."
For just a moment, William glimpsed a bit of the vast well of loneliness that lay within his guest.
"You never wanted to be a CPA, did you?" he asked, gently. At his words Michelle's eyes widened, a little.
"No," she admitted. Her voice was suddenly unsteady. This conversation was moving perilously close to home. "I had a knack for it, but it was always just a way to pay the bills. My heart wasn't really in it."
"I gather... that you're one of those girls who wanted to have a family," William pursued. "You know… children, keeping a house and all that." Drawing in a steady breath, Michelle nodded. She was amazed at the man's ability to extract these things from her. She'd never admitted to anyone what at college had been such an "outdated" idea, being a homemaker.
"Yes... my mother worked for my father, you see, keeping his books from their home-office. I always liked that arrangement, you know. She was always there when I needed her. My father used to joke at parties that he was having a lifelong 'affair' with his secretary." William chuckled quietly at this; his guests' face seemed to light up whilst speaking of her parents.
"But… that kind of thing takes two," Michelle continued, shrugging. "I mean, most guys turn pale and run away from the idea of marriage, and children. At least, these days they do."
Michelle did her best to sound calm as she spoke; she felt horribly vulnerable sitting here next to the man she so admired, confessing her most cherished hopes. "The idea of commuting to an office each day and sitting in a tiny cubicle for eight hours has never once appealed to me."
Sensing that his companion was a little uncomfortable with this subject, William turned his gaze out the windows.
"Not all men run from marriage, Michelle," he said. "Just the irrational ones with inferior DNA; survival of the fittest, you know." His joke broke the awkwardness feeling of the discussion. Michelle let out a soft chuckle.
"Yes," she replied. "They party until they're thirty-nine years old and realize in horror that by the time they find a girl, marry and have children they'll be a senior citizen before their first child graduates high school."
Laughing a little, William nodded.
"That's probably not far off," he agreed. He ventured a glance at Michelle, She gazed out the windows. "So, you've been waiting, have you? For a nice bloke who won't run at the suggestion of a family?" Michelle looked at him and nodded.
"I know it sounds very old-fashioned," she began, "But, to me... raising a family is a life-long career; it's hard work, sometimes, but the job has satisfying dividends… and a 401k in grandchildren." Her frank expression made William laugh. She looked ready to bring out a pie-chart.
"That's a creative way of putting it, Michelle," he returned, looking down into her eyes. "I have always liked the idea of the lord and lady of the castle. Perhaps, I have been waiting... like you."
Listening to William, Michelle found herself unable to speak. She did not know if he was talking directly about her, or if she was supposed to say something in reply. Should she shrug, give a half-smile and act dumb? Her mind muddled with these thoughts, she felt William's arm tighten around her shoulders; looking up, she saw that he was leaning down towards her upturned face.
As his face drew closer Michelle's eyes widened. She opened her mouth to say something, but William did not give her the chance. Michelle had been kissed once before but it was nothing like this; William seemed to overtake her. Even though he was being gentle, she felt only him. Her eyes closed of their own volition and she allowed him to continue unimpeded. William was not disappointed; Michelle tasted exactly as she looked, sweet. He thoroughly enjoyed the feel of her lips until those nagging 'discomforts' came back for another visit.
"The curse of the male body," he thought, reluctantly releasing her soft mouth. "Just one kiss and I'm a goner." He gazed at Michelle's lovely face like one transfixed. Her eyes fluttered open. Encountering William's gaze, Michelle blushed deeper than any rose; her fingers went to her lips with an awed expression that told William her experience with men was relatively slim. Just that knowledge brought him a large amount of comfort. There was no doubt in his mind that Michelle Gregory just the sort of girl to be the lady of his castle.
"What was that for?" Michelle whispered; her breathless voice sent thrills through William's brain and he had to concentrate in order to answer.
"To let you know my intentions," William answered, smiling warmly. A smile crept over Michelle's mouth.
"You're intention was to kiss me?" she asked, sounding amused.
Chuckling, William shook his head.
"I don't want to merely 'date' you, Michelle," he explained, still keeping close to her; he really liked how her hair smelled. "I detest the very idea of modern dating." He did not release Michelle's gaze. She returned it fearlessly.
"So, what are your intentions?" she asked. William saw that Michelle looked a little uncertain; the idea occurred to him that she may not know he felt so deeply for her.
"To fall in love with you," he replied. Sincerity wove itself around each word and Michelle believed him.
"Well, it's nice to have all doubt removed," she said, a sweet smile overtaking her features. Her eyes sparkled like gems. "I have the same intentions, William." Her companion's eyes grew soft at her words. William leaned down and captured her lips again; this time he did not stop his hand from curving around her face.
Alfred stepped into the room and immediately halted his stride. The top of two heads were just visible over the top of the couch. Master William and his guest were obviously very happily engaged. Silently, Alfred disappeared back into the kitchen, to go through the dining room to his own rooms. He thought they were well matched.
"Young love," he sighed, smiling to himself.
William did not want to end the kiss but felt his control slipping fast. If he didn't send Michelle home soon, she'd become a permanent resident sooner than he'd planned. Drawing back from her face, William smiled at her demurely closed eyes and flushed face. When her eyes opened, her look of mild surprise gave William a gigantic ego boost. It really was flattering to have a girl react so to a mere kiss. He lovingly caressed her hair before leaned back on his 'side' of the couch.
"Ah..." he began, rubbing the back of his neck. "I hate to sound rude, but... perhaps we should call it a night." Michelle was regarding him with mild wonder.
"Are you… blushing?" she asked. William grimaced.
"A little," he admitted, standing up; he stuffed his hands in his pockets. "It's not uncommon. You've been doing it all night." Michelle proved his point by doing so again.
"Yes, but… why would you,?" she asked, vastly curious. "Did I embarrass you?" She was relieved when William grinned.
"No," he said; he gave Michelle an intense look that warmed her right down to her toes. "I just was thinking that if I didn't stop kissing you, I'd soon be making love to you right here on the couch." His voice lowered as he spoke. Michelle's eyes grew wide.
"Oh," she said, taking a deep breath. "Perhaps, you're... um... right. It's late anyway." She stood up, a little shakily.
William walked Michelle to the door and helped her into her coat, all without a word. It was as if he was physically suffering. He wanted her to stay, badly; letting her go was extremely difficult. A glutton for punishment, he accompanied her to the lobby and hailed a cab for her. Despite the girl's protests, he handed the driver a few folded bills before opening the taxi's door.
Michelle tarried by the curb for several moments. Heartened by her reluctance to leave him, William kissed her on the cheek; he wasn't about to torture himself with her lips again.
"Thank you for dinner," Michelle said, softly; her breath showed white in the chill. An empty feeling welled up in her mind, one she could not quite explain.
"You are most welcome, Michelle," William said, holding her hand tightly. "Anytime... I mean that. Oh, here, I almost forgot." Bringing out a card from his pocket he handed it to his lady. "This is my cell number and office number, address and everything." Michelle took the card with relieved look; William was moved by her expression. "I hope you'll use it," he added, smiling.
"I will," Michelle replied. "Thank you." William kissed her hand and forced himself to let her go.
Turning, the young woman ducked into the waiting cab. She smiled at William through the glass, just as the taxi sped off. Burying his hands in his pockets, William trudged back through the lobby. He opted to take the stairs, just to get his mind off the very appealing idea of hopping a cab over to her place.
The cold air helped. William determined he'd shower in glacial temperatures once he made it back to his apartment. In spite of the various uncertainties that had deluged him all evening William knew that Michelle wanted something very serious with him. As he climbed yet another flight of steps, he turned over in his mind the words she had spoken earlier: "It's nice to have all doubt removed."
"Yes, it is," he said, smiling to himself.
By the time he got back up to his flat there was a message waiting on his cell phone. It was Michelle.
"I just called to see if it worked," came the sound of her voice. "I hope you'll have me over again; you forgot to show me your shop." William mentally kicked himself upon hearing this, but Michelle's message went on. "It's OK… I just wanted to let you know I didn't forget and I really want to see it sometime, if you don't mind. Gosh, I'm rambling... um, goodnight William."
Shutting his phone William ran his hand through his hair, letting out a short sigh.
"Goodnight, love," he said, wishing she was there.