Marshall Conover stood six feet tall, or maybe a shade over, with a broad chest that tapered to his waist and closely cropped black hair faintly threaded with silver. I watched with amusement as he walked into the small, crowded conference room and sat at the head of the table.
Edward Jameson, the account manager who had called the meeting, followed Marshall into the room and hesitated when he saw the new electronic prepress manager in his seat. Marshall didn’t notice the smaller man standing behind him, and when Jameson opened his mouth to speak, I interrupted him.
“There’s an empty chair down here, Mr. Jameson.” I patted the seat beside me. “We’ll let you squeeze in.”
While my boss trekked past the other customer service representatives to the far end of the room where I sat, I returned my attention to Marshall.
The new man certainly wasn’t from Texas. Despite the heat, he wore a crisp white dress shirt, the cuffs unbuttoned and folded back once, dark dress pants held up with button-on suspenders, polished oxblood penny loafers, and a red patterned tie held in place with a gold tie chain. When I squinted, I identified the muted pattern as Mickey Mouse’s silhouette and I smiled.
Gary Anderson bustled into the room a moment later, glancing at his watch and fussing with the knot of his coffee-stained tie. Each time I saw the division vice president, I couldn’t help but think of a mouse caught in a maze.
“Is everybody here?” Anderson asked, and then answered his own question without waiting. “Good. Great. I’m sure you’ve all seen the memo about our new manager. Marshall is joining us from Chicago. He’s filled with ideas on how we can improve our prepress department, and I know he’s looking forward to working with all of you during the upcoming weeks. Are there any questions?”
I knew better than to ask any. Instead, I doodled on my yellow legal pad, writing the name Conover and then scratching it out.
After only a moment’s pause, Anderson answered his own question. “Good. Great.”
The division vice president glanced at his watch, nodded, and then bustled out of the conference room as quickly as he’d arrived.
My boss cleared his throat and stood. Fourteen customer service representatives, two trainees, and the department’s secretary turned our attention to Jameson.
“I realize that this is only your first day, Marshall, but I was hoping to spend a few minutes discussing the problems we’ve been having with your department. I would like each of the CSRs to introduce him or herself, and then take a moment to describe the absolute nightmare it’s been working with electronic prepress.”
Marshall had been in the prepress department checking negatives before the meeting, and he still wore the white cotton gloves that prevented him from leaving oily fingerprints on the film. He slipped the gloves off and folded them together in his left hand as Jameson spoke. When Jameson finished, before any of the customer service representatives could speak, Marshall stood.
“Eddie,” he said, his voice rumbling up from the depths. “I agreed to meet your staff, not be party to my own lynching.”
I felt my boss flinch at the diminutive form of his name, and when I looked up I saw his ears turning red. I pushed my chair back and stood.
“Well, Mr. Conover,” I said in the silence. “Let me be the first to welcome you to Wett Incorporated.”
Marshall’s gaze locked with mine and held for a moment longer than necessary. My entire body shuddered imperceptibly as the raw masculinity flowing through his gaze swept over me like a crushing wave.
He broke the spell. “Marshall,” he said. “My father’s the only mister in my family.”
Then everyone stood and welcomed Marshall Conover to the printing plant. Jameson slipped out behind them.
An hour after the morning meeting finally ended and I had returned to my cubicle, Jameson called me into his office. I took the yellow legal pad I’d had with me in the meeting, the page with Conover’s name penned on it already torn off and discarded. I expected to be reprimanded for interrupting Jameson twice, and I was surprised when my boss didn’t say a thing about it.
“Kingston phoned this morning,” Jameson said as I settled into one of the two uncomfortable wooden guest chairs. He shot his cuffs, revealing expensive gold cuff links. “Bama Today signed the contract over breakfast.”
“And you want me to handle it.”
“Kingston asked for you specifically,” Jameson said. Wett Inc. specialized in printing short-run, special-interest magazines, and I already handled two magazines Kingston had sold.
“I’m already handling seven monthlies and two bi-monthlies,” I protested. Even though I’d always worked well with the company’s southeastern sales representative, I really didn’t want to add new titles to my workload. “I’m not sure I can handle another monthly.”
“It’s already been assigned to you,” Jameson said, dismissing my protests. He spoke in my direction, but never caught my eye. “There’s nothing to it. Kingston assures me that it’ll all be on disk. Just send the disk through electronic prepress for film and proofs.”
I already knew the procedures—I’d helped write them a few years earlier when the printing company finally stopped resisting desktop publishing and began accepting computer files created by our publishing clients.
“Thirty-two page self-cover, four-color throughout, and it bulk ships to Montgomery.”
I finally realized Jameson wasn’t speaking to me—he was speaking to my breasts. Of German-Irish descent, I had my mother’s buxom figure and my father’s auburn hair, pale skin, and light spattering of freckles, a combination that often caught men’s attention. Even worse, after four days of triple-digit Texas heat, I wore as little as possible while still adhering to the company’s business-casual apparel policy.
At that moment, however, I wished I’d worn a less-revealing blouse. I held up my legal pad, blocking Jameson’s view of my ample cleavage, and pretended to take notes while he finished telling me about the new client.
When I finally left Jameson’s office, my back hurt from sitting in the hard wooden chair and I felt the dire need to cleanse myself. I often felt unclean after spending time alone with Jameson.
I stopped in the ladies’ room to wash my hands, and then walked through Customer Service and down the hall to the electronic prepress department. I wanted to confirm that the department had upgraded to the latest page layout software before phoning Kingston and my new client.
I stepped up into the computer room, the only room in the company with a second floor raised twelve inches above the first to accommodate all the wiring needed by the electronic prepress department’s computers. I shivered as I stepped into the sixty eight-degree room.
Wilma Gibbons sat in front of one of the Macintosh computers, an old sweater draped across her shoulders. She stared at a magazine page created with QuarkXPress. She had dark bags under her eyes, but responded with a warm smile when I entered the room.
“We have a new title,” I said, my voice raised above the constant electronic hum that filled the room—the sound of a film processor, three image setters, two PCs, six Macintoshes, and tons of other peripheral devices.
“Is it another book about chickens?” Wilma asked. The plant printed many farming and ranching publications and the employees always joked about which came first—the chicken or the magazine about how to raise it.
“Regional,” I told her. Then I asked about software versions and Wilma assured me that we were in the process of loading the latest upgrades.
“Third shift is fixing to do the upgrades tonight,” Wilma said.
I didn’t hear the door open behind me and would not have paid any attention if I had. Employees constantly walked in and out of the computer room, delivering disks containing files to output or picking up film ready to be checked on the light tables in the next room.
“May I help you with something?” Marshall asked, surprising me.
I turned abruptly, smashing my face into the new electronic prepress manager’s chest. Then, I nearly tripped over my own feet as I tried to step backward and away from him. Marshall caught my upper arms, steadying me. Being this close to him, his fragrance overwhelmed my senses. His thick fingers felt hot against my cold skin, and an electric tingle surged through my entire body.
“I’m sorry,” Marshall said; his deep voice clear and crisp despite the room’s electronic hum. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
A blush rose up from my chest, over my neck, and to my cheeks, and my heart thumped wildly in my chest. I looked up to his dark eyes, our gaze meeting for the second time that morning, and suddenly I felt an overwhelming desire to step forward, press my body against him, reach behind his neck and pull his face down to mine.
But I didn’t.
I moistened my lips with the tip of my tongue and caught my breath. “It’s okay,” I said.
Marshall released his hold on my arms and I stepped back.
“I should pay more attention when I’m in here.”
“Why are you in here?” Marshall asked.
I told him about the new client and Kingston’s questions about software as relayed to me through Jameson.
“In the future, it might be more appropriate to direct those questions to me.”
“The employees back here already have too many interruptions. Let’s not compound the problem.” He opened the door and held it until I stepped out of the computer room. Then he followed me and let the door swing closed.
I felt Marshall dismissing me, but I wasn’t ready to leave. “You handled yourself pretty well in this morning’s meeting.”
Marshall walked through the prepress department toward the hall leading back to customer service. I kept pace with him.
“How is that?” Marshall asked.
“The way you handled Mr. Jameson,” I said. I touched my hair, pushing my bangs away from my emerald green eyes. “He can be an ass.”
“Does he know you talk about him that way?”
“Are you planning to tell him?”
Marshall didn’t respond. He stopped at the door leading into customer service and I stopped with him. When I didn’t reach for the door, Marshall pulled it open and held it with his left hand.
“Well,” I said. “Thanks.”
I turned away from Marshall to return to my cubicle and that’s when I saw it.
It was on his left hand, the one holding the door open.
It was right there, at eye level—a simple gold band encircling his left ring finger.
I felt my heart sink to the pit of my stomach, and I mentally kicked myself all the way back to my cubicle.
During the previous five years, downtown Waco has enjoyed a resurrection. The Hippodrome theatre has returned to its former glory, and it frequently features touring companies performing current and past Broadway hits, as well as any number of comedy troupes and live musicians. A number of abandoned warehouses have been renovated into loft apartments, quaint and eccentric shops, and a variety of restaurants and nightclubs.
Ninfa’s occupies one end of a refurbished two-story warehouse in a block-long row of refurbished buildings, with a porch both upstairs and downstairs. Pew-style benches line the downstairs front where guests wait for tables on busy nights. On the balcony upstairs, tables overlook the parking lot from behind the black iron railing. Inside, Ninfa’s is a typical Mexican restaurant made to look like an old cantina. The pre-existing hardwood floor has been refinished. The wood columns break up the monotony of the vast open space of the former warehouse by separating the bar from the dining area. Large wooden pews are used for the booths along the exposed brick walls, and a two-story mural at the far end of the room featured a historic local Hispanic Catholic church.
Because of the large, open space of the former warehouse, the noise could be deafening when the place was busy, and that night the restaurant had people stacked three-deep waiting for tables.
Allison Wainwright and I sat in a booth, nursing a pair of Margaritas while we waited for our entrees to arrive.
I almost had to shout to be heard above the din.
“I never looked at his hands,” I explained after telling my best friend about the new man at the printing plant. “I never even thought to look at his hands.”
“Imagine what he thinks of you now,” Allison said. “I hope he doesn’t think all Texas women are like you, just throwing ourselves at every cowpoke who rides into town.”
Our entrees arrived with the waiter’s admonition to be wary of the hot plates. A moment later, I sliced into my chimichanga and felt an explosion of steam in my face. I leaned away from the heat and continued cutting. “Marshall probably thinks I’m wilder than Cooter Brown.”
“Are you really so desperate that you’d hit on a married man?”
“You haven’t been in a serious relationship since—” Allison paused, thought hard for a moment, and then continued. “Since Moe Ron.”
“His name was Morris Ronald,” I protested. Morris had moved from Kansas to sell janitorial supplies for a local company, but he lacked any real sales ability and his income had never amounted to more than chump change. Nearly two years after we met, after allowing Morris to leech off of me for far too long, I dumped him. Within two months he’d left town.
“But he came by his Texas name honestly,” Allison said, “as soon as everybody realized he was a few bricks short of a load.”
“He wasn’t that bad!” I insisted. “And what about you? Who was that goat-roper you dated for six months?”
“Ben Jones,” Allison.
I made the shape of an L with my hand and pressed it against my forehead.
Allison laughed so hard she nearly choked on her burrito. When she finally recovered, our conversation drifted onto other subjects.
After dinner, we walked to another renovated warehouse a block closer to the Brazos River and slipped into JD’s Art Café, where we split a thick slice of triple-layer Red Velvet cake.
“The company appreciation dinner dance is coming up soon,” I said after swallowing my first forkful of cake. “I can’t believe I’ve been there ten years already.”
“Time flies whether you’re having fun or not.”
“Anderson recruited me straight out of Baylor. He wasn’t the Division Vice President then; he was the Senior Account Manager. I started work the Monday following graduation.”
“I never heard anybody complain as much as you did, either,” Allison said. “You hated the noise of the presses and the way the building shakes.”
Although the office area is separated from the web presses at Wett Inc. and some effort had been made to soundproof the common wall, the presses and the bindery equipment generate a tremendous amount of noise. Employees and visitors are required to wear hearing protection when in the pressroom, and the sound leaks into the office area any time one of the adjoining doors opened.
“I hardly even notice it now,” I said. “I’d probably miss it if I ever left.”
We finished the cake and Allison scraped the last of the cream cheese frosting off the plate.
“My only concern is that I don’t have a date for the dinner. There isn’t a single man I’d be interested in taking.”
“Or a married one, either,” Allison said.
So our conversation finally came back around to where it began.
“It’s too bad I was wrong about Marshall,” I said. I closed my eyes and for a moment, I remembered his earthy scent, the tingle in my body when he held my arms, and the way he’d gazed deep into my eyes that morning. “The man can make love to you with his eyes.”
“Forget him,” Allison suggested. “A married man is more trouble than you need.”
I couldn’t forget Marshall—he walked past my cubicle a dozen times each day, we bumped into one another in the mailroom each afternoon, and he took coffee breaks just as mine ended, holding the lunchroom door open for me and unintentionally taunting me by flashing his wedding ring in my face.
Marshall’s earthy warmth enveloped me and his presence consumed me each time we came in contact, my body aching with inner longing and desire far out of proportion to the situation in which I found myself. I spent hours wondering if Marshall’s wife felt the same overpowering attraction, and I envied the woman I had never met.
Each night, I dreamed of Marshall’s full lips covering mine, his day’s growth of facial hair rough against my smooth skin, and his short black and silver hair, soft and silky as I ran my fingers through it. I held the back of his head during long, passionate, breath-stealing kisses that made my eyes droop closed and my heart pound inside my chest. Between kisses we would speak of past and future, and then he would take my hand and lead my gently down the hall, undressing me and undressing himself as we floated toward my bedroom.
In my dreams,Marshall’s body glistened with sweat as he lay spread across the crisp white sheets of my bed. His broad shoulders and thick chest tapered to a taut abdomen and slender hips. In my dreams, Marshall beckoned to me and I floated across the room to him. He reached up and took me in his arms, pulling me onto the bed. Then he rolled onto me, pinning me to the mattress.
I always awoke at that point, so hot that I felt as if I were aflame with fever. I was covered in sweat and tangled in my sheets, ashamed by the thoughts and images that had risen from my subconscious. I had no desire to steal another woman’s husband.
On Friday afternoon, Jameson called me into his office, rousing me from a moment of reverie induced by Marshall’s last trip past my cubicle. I checked the buttons on my blouse and fastened the top one before grabbing my legal pad and a pen.
I settled into one of the hard wooden chairs in Jameson’s office, chairs that I suspected he placed there to ensure that none of his visitors ever felt completely comfortable. He pushed a FedEx package across the top of his desk toward me and I leaned forward to pick it up, grateful that I’d remembered to fasten the top button of my blouse before entering the office.
“That’s the disk from Bama Today,” Jameson said. “The magazine needs to be on press by Tuesday.”
“That isn’t much time,” I said.
“I’ve got confidence in your abilities,” Jameson said. He adjusted the knot of his silk tie while he spoke. He always wore expensive, tailored clothes and had manicured nails and perfectly coiffed hair, but the impression he left in my mind was of a smarmy used car salesman, not a polished professional. “You won’t let me down.”
“I’ll need to work late.”
“That’s not a problem is it?” Jameson asked. His gaze crept along my inner thigh, and then rose to my chest. “You don’t have any other plans do you?”
I shook my head.
“No one in your life these days?” Finally, he looked in my eyes and I caught a glimpse of the predator hiding beneath the smarmy exterior.
I didn’t like the direction Jameson’s conversation had taken.
“Must be awfully lonely, you and that cat—”
“I don’t have any pets, Mr. Jameson.”
Jameson waved his hand, dismissing my interruption. “Not having a man around and all.”
I stood, the FedEx package clasped across my bosom. “Men are a dime a dozen,” I said. “I’m just fresh out of small change.”
Then I turned and stalked out of his office. I felt Jameson watching me as I walked away, and I did my best not to let my hips sway.
I returned to my cubicle, gathered all the appropriate paperwork from my filing cabinet, and stacked it in the order I needed to complete it. I had to prepare work orders for electronic prepress; stripping, plate making, printing, bindery, and shipping. Then I had to ensure that the warehouse had a sufficient amount of the right kind of paper and that there was actually press time available on Tuesday.
The phone rang and I answered it, tucking the handset between my left ear and my shoulder while I spoke.
“How’s tonight looking?” Allison asked.
“Not good. I have to stay late.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“I was going to bail on you. I just got invited to the Hippodrome. A comedy troupe is in town for one night only. Mack’s sister had tickets, but her husband was called out of town and she gave them to Mack. He asked if I wanted to fill the empty seat beside him. When I hesitated, he offered dinner, too.”
“Mack is the UPS driver?”
“That’s the one.”
“I love those brown uniforms,” I said. “Especially those shorts.”
“They make me all hot and bothered every time I see him.”
I smiled into the phone. “Tomorrow night?”
“Ninfa’s at six,” Allison suggested.
After Allison and I ended our conversation, I walked down the hall to the plant scheduler’s office and requested press time on Tuesday, providing him with details about the press run. He checked his schedule, and then offered Tuesday at noon.
“Do you think you can have the plates ready by then?”
“I’ll push it through,” I promised.
I had finished the first work order, so I carried the Zip disk and the paperwork back to the electronic prepress department.
I rapped on the open door to Marshall’s office and he looked up from his computer screen. He was dressed like he had been all week—a crisp white shirt, a dark suit with pants held up by button-on suspenders, and oxblood penny loafers. Only his tie had changed. Today, he wore a red paisley tie with Mickey Mouse’s face hidden in the pattern.
“You said you didn’t want me in the computer room,” I said as I stepped into his office, “and I have the first disk from Bama Today.”
Marshall stood and moved from behind his desk. “Did you preflight it?”
I stared at him blankly.
Marshall rephrased his question. “Did you open the disk, check the files, make sure all the fonts were there, and make sure the page size was correct?”
I shook my head. “That’s what your department does.”
“Not for long,” Marshall told me. “We need to begin preflighting disks as soon as they enter the plant, not wait until days later to discover there are problems with the job.”
He crossed the room and took the Zip disk from me. Our fingers touched and I caught my breath. I felt the same electrical tingle I’d felt in the computer room on Monday when he’d caught my arms to keep me from falling. I tried not to think or react to the sensation.
It ended when Marshall pulled his hand away and returned to his seat.
He slipped the Bama Today disk into the Zip drive on his Macintosh, clicked his way through a series of windows, and then double-clicked on the icon for the magazine’s page layout. A moment later, it appeared on his screen and he gestured for me to join him.
I stepped behind him, standing so close I could feel the heat radiating from his body. He showed me how to check for missing fonts and missing graphics, showed me how to ensure that all the graphics were saved in the proper color model and file format, and showed me some other things he expected a preflighter to check for.
“How do you know all this?” I asked.
“I used to be a geek,” Marshall said. He turned his chair around to face me. He could have easily focused on my breasts, but he didn’t. He looked up into my face. His eyes smoldered with an inner flame and I felt his desire. We were only inches apart, easily within the bounds of intimacy, yet neither of us backed away.
“But you’re not now.”
With that simple statement, I said far more than I’d intended. If Marshall understood the implications, he didn’t respond to them.
“About twelve years ago, I overheard something that changed my life.” Marshall’s deep voice rumbled through his story, making my heart thud against the inside of my chest. His gaze never left mine. “I was at a seminar, sitting behind an executive from another company. ‘I have a department full of brilliant programmers,’ the executive told the man beside him, ‘but they’ll never be anything else. I can’t let them meet with clients. They don’t have the social skills, they can barely dress themselves, and they can’t hold a conversation for more than three sentences without relying on computer industry jargon.’ That night, I took out my earring, the next day I cut my hair, and that weekend I bought my first suit. I’ve been moving uphill ever since.”
“Waco is a long way from Chicago,” I said. I touched at my hair, moving some imaginary strands back into place. “What brought you here?”
“Atlas Van Lines.” A smile pulled at the corners of Marshall’s mouth before he deftly changed the subject. “What about you? How long have you been here?”
“It’s been ten years at this company and fourteen years altogether,” I said. I had not unfastened the top button of my blouse after leaving Jameson’s office and now I toyed with it. “I came to Wett Inc. straight out of college. Except for part-time work at the campus bookstore and a couple of waitressing jobs, this is the only place I’ve ever worked.”
“So you’re not a local.”
“I’m from Virginia, near D.C.,” I said. “My parents are still there.”
“Why here, then?”
“I bleed green and gold.” Marshall didn’t understand, so I explained. “I graduated from Baylor, so did both my parents.”
I glanced at Marshall’s computer screen and then at his desk. He had a file folder open and it appeared as if he’d been taking notes on a yellow legal pad before I’d entered his office.
On the other end of his desk, opposite the computer, were two simple gold picture frames and I looked at them for the first time. The first frame contained a studio portrait of a beautiful blonde in a scoop-front white wedding dress, her hair in a French twist and crowned with a garland of baby’s breath. The second photo, a candid snapshot of Marshall with his arms wrapped around the same blonde, had been taken in a park. He wore a blue Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and she wore a pink Minnie Mouse sweatshirt. They stared deep into each other’s eyes and deliriously happy smiles split their faces.
“Your wife?” I asked, indicating the two photographs.
A sad smile played across Marshall’s rugged features. The light in his eyes dimmed for just a moment. “Patricia.”
I didn’t push any further.
Marshall rose from his chair, forcing me to step backward.
“Anyway, this job is hot,” I said, my mind back on the business at hand. “I need the film first thing Monday morning so I can route it into stripping and plate making. It’s due on press Tuesday at noon.”
“I’ll have someone take care of it this weekend.”
I returned to my desk at a quarter to five more confused than I had already been. I absent-mindedly straightened the things on my desk, moving the photograph of my parents closer to the photograph of my cousins, and sticking my finger in the ivy pot to see if the plant needed more water. Then I rearranged the open Bama Today file folders.
I couldn’t deny the sparks that flew between Marshall and me, yet he had quite obviously done absolutely nothing about them. And how would I have felt if he had? How could I respect a married man who thought so little of his vows that he would act upon the slightest temptation?
Jameson interrupted my reverie a moment later. He stood in the hall outside of my cubicle, looking down at me. “Are we good to go with the new magazine?”
“The disk is in prepress,” I informed him. “And we have press time confirmed. I’ll have the rest of the paperwork finished before I leave.”
Jameson continued to stare.
“Is there anything else?” I stood, then turned and opened the top drawer of my filing cabinet. It slid open, effectively preventing access to my cubicle by acting as a barrier between me and my boss. I looked him directly in the eyes.
“Just keep me posted.” Jameson turned and walked briskly toward his office.
I closed the file drawer without taking anything from it, and then settled back into my seat. I spent the next two hours completing all of the necessary paperwork. By the time I finished, all the other customer service representatives had gone for the weekend, as had all of the front office personnel. Only the second shift production workers and their supervisors remained in the plant.
After walking to the mailroom, a room not much bigger than a good walk-in closet, I copied the Bama Today paperwork, then distributed the copies to the appropriate departments—scheduling, electronic prepress, stripping, plate making, pressroom, bindery, and shipping. A complete set of copies went into Jameson’s mail slot and I kept the originals for my files.
When I finished, I returned to my cubicle, filed all of my paperwork, and then spent ten minutes cleaning off the top of my desk and dusting everything. I liked to start each week with a clean slate, so I never left work unfinished on Friday night, and I never left any mess behind.
I exited the printing plant a few minutes later, nodding to the second-shift guard. Then, I sat in my aging Nissan, depressed the clutch, and twisted the ignition key. I heard a click but nothing else.
I tried again, and then a third time before the engine finally started.
The following night, after a day spent cleaning my apartment and catching up on my laundry, I met Allison at Ninfa’s. The Saturday night crowd spilled out the doors and onto the front porch, and it took nearly an hour before we were shown to a table. By then, Allison and I had each finished our first Margarita and were well into our second.
“How was the UPS guy?” I asked.
Allison smiled. “He delivered.”
“On the first date?”
“Come on, I’ve known the guy for a year.”
“He delivers packages,” I said. “You see him for two minutes every day!”
“It’s all quality time.”
I shook my head. “I’ve never slept with a man on the first date.”
“It could explain why you don’t have many second dates.”
The waiter interrupted to take our orders. While we waited for our food to arrive, I told Allison about Jameson and his recent advances.
“He’s a weasel,” Allison said.
“I know, but he’s my boss.”
“It doesn’t give him the right.”
Our food arrived—chicken fajitas for two—and Allison ordered another round of Margaritas. I protested, “I won’t be able to drive.”
“We’ll do some shopping upstairs and walk it off.”
Upstairs meant The Shops at River Square Center—dozens of small specialty shops sharing the large open area that had once been a warehouse’s second floor. I quickly agreed.
After we each prepared a fajita, I told Allison about my encounter in Marshall’s office.
“I saw photos of his wife.”
“Yeah?” Allison spoke around a mouthful of chicken and tortilla.
“She is a beautiful, blue-eyed blonde with a body to die for.”
Our third Margaritas arrived and Allison took a quick drink. “Are you still having dreams about this guy?”
“Like I can stop.”
“Even after seeing the wife’s picture?”
“He’s sending me signals,” I explained.
“Did he make a pass at you?”
“No,” I said.
“But you think he’s putting the moves on you.”
“He may not realize he’s doing it.”
“Are you sure you don’t have an over-active imagination?”
I licked salt from the rim of my third Margarita glass and took a short sip. As I glanced over the rim of my glass, I watched a shapely young blonde hostess lead Marshall Conover to an empty table on the far side of the restaurant and hand him a menu.
I pointed him out to Allison. “Oh my gosh, that’s him! He’s over there, in the khakis and the blue Polo shirt.”
Allison lowered her voice and leaned forward, her dark hair nearly falling into the plate of fajita meat. “That’s him?”
“No wonder you have those dreams,” Allison said. “I think I’ll be tossing and turning all night myself. He’s dead sexy.”
Marshall opened his menu and I sighed.
“I think he’s sending signals,” Allison joked. “They’re coming clear across the room. See, he’s signaling for the waiter.”
I shook my head at my best friend’s ribbing.
We both watched Marshall as he spoke to the waiter. When the waiter turned and walked off, Allison asked, “It’s Saturday night—where’s his wife?”
On Monday morning, I arrived to find a stack of film on my desk. After stuffing my purse into the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet, I picked up the first piece of film and held it up to the light. Something about it didn’t look right, and I stared at it for a moment. Then I examined the next piece of film, and the next, and the next.
I scooped up the entire stack of negatives and stormed through customer service and electronic prepress. I continued straight into Marshall’s office and dumped all of the film on his desk.
“This is a load of crap!” My face had grown red with anger, connecting my freckles into one mass of color. “You promised this job wouldn’t be a problem.”
Marshall didn’t even look at the pile of film about to slip off his desk and tumble to the floor. “What’s wrong?”
“There are no center marks, no crop marks, and no color bars. This job’s due on press tomorrow at noon and I’ve got worthless pieces of film. You promised this wouldn’t be a problem. You promised!”
I planted my fists on my hips. “Sorry isn’t good enough. Who did the output on this—a narcoleptic chimp?”
Marshall selected the first piece of film and held it up to the light. “Are they all like this?”
“Yes, every single one of them.”
Marshall stood and exited his office. He returned a moment later with Wilma Gibbons following close behind.
She glanced at me and then back at Marshall. “Have I done something wrong?”
Marshall handed Wilma a piece of film and she stared at it for a moment. As soon as she realized what had happened, Wilma’s hand flew to her mouth and she said, “Oh!”
“They’re all like that,” I said. Some of the anger had disappeared from my voice, and I no longer had my fists planted on my hips.
“I’m sorry,” Wilma said. “I didn’t . . . I just . . . I mean—”
Marshall pressed his palm against the small of my back and ushered me out of his office, closing the door behind me.
I turned and stared at the closed door for a moment before returning to my desk. Wilma had always done good work and had always been easy to work with. I had not intended to cause her any trouble.
I had other projects to work on while Marshall resolved my film problem. I was on the phone with one of my clients a short time later when Marshall and Wilma walked briskly past my cubicle.
I leaned back in my chair without any interruption in my telephone conversation and watched as they disappeared into Human Resources.
Later, Marshall returned alone. He stopped at my cubicle and cleared his throat to get my attention.
“The Bama Today film will be finished in time,” Marshall said when I looked up. “I’ll run it myself.”
“Whatever it takes,” I said.
As soon as Marshall disappeared from my cubicle entrance, Jameson filled the empty space.
“What was that about?” he asked.
I explained what had happened.
“I didn’t think he was the man for the job,” Jameson said. “He’s only been here a week and his department has already screwed up an important job.”
“He assured me new film would be prepared in time to strip and plate the job by noon tomorrow.”
“Didn’t he promise you film this morning?”
“Once burned, twice shy,” Jameson said. He looked down the front of my blouse. “Keep that in mind.”
I turned away from Jameson’s leer. “I’ll stay on top of it all day.”
“See that you do.” Jameson turned away from me and walked toward the break room.
An hour later, I still hadn’t seen Wilma return from Human Resources. I stood and walked back to the computer room, discovering Marshall seated in front of one of the Macintoshes, a page of Bama Today on the computer monitor.
“I’ll have the film finished by mid-afternoon,” Marshall said. “I’ve already spoken to the stripping supervisor—he’s assigned the job to one of his strippers and I’ll feed the film to him as it comes out.”
In many printing plants, film is stripped into flats—four, eight, or sixteen page sections—but here, all film was stripped to single-page Mylar carriers, registered and punched for plate making on a Misomex automated plate-maker. I knew Marshall could feed film to the stripper almost as fast as a good stripper could strip the negatives.
“She’s gone,” Marshall said.
“Gone?” I said. “That seems harsh.”
When Marshall didn’t say anything else, I turned and walked slowly back to my cubicle. I’d been upset at having my project thrown off schedule, but I had certainly never intended to get anyone fired.
Back in my cubicle, surrounded by pictures of my family, I drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. The new electronic prepress manager had me twisted in knots. He wore confidence like expensive cologne and it drew me to him. Yet, that same confidence madeMarshallseem cold, aloof, and unwilling to have his decisions challenged.
I followed the progress of Bama Today through electronic prepress and stripping, and had the blues on my desk by four o’clock. The plate room supervisor assured me that plates would be burned during third shift, and that they would be ready for the pressroom before first shift began the following day.
I left the plant that night feeling better than I had when I’d first arrived at my desk that morning. The feeling didn’t last long. My Nissan resisted efforts to start until my fifth try, when the engine finally turned over reluctantly.
I drove directly home from the plant.
At home, I discovered the usual assortment of bills, credit card offers, and discount coupons, which I carried upstairs to my apartment. I also discovered my invitation to the annual company appreciation party. Each year, employees who have reached a five-year or five-year multiple anniversary with the company are recognized with a certificate of appreciation presented at a dinner dance hosted by the company’s managers and supervisors. Morris Ronald had been my date when I received my five-year certificate.
Once inside my apartment, I dropped the other mail on my kitchen counter and carried the invitation into the bedroom. I flopped onto my new double bed and grabbed the phone from the nightstand. I dialed Allison’s number, waited through four rings, and then left a message on her answering machine requesting a call back.
I had originally furnished my apartment with yard sale finds, but over the years I had slowly replaced the worst pieces. The table and four chairs in my tiny dining room had been yard sale treasures, antiques that had been sold for a song. My living room furniture included a couch and matching chair purchased during a local furniture store’s going-out-of-business sale, and my television had been a Christmas present from my parents while I was still in college. My bookshelf was the same brick-and-board shelves I’d had in college, and my end tables and lamps had been purchased at the local Goodwill.
My bedroom suite was less than six months old, a gift I had given myself after scrimping and saving for four years. Everything was new—the dresser, the nightstand, the four-post bed, the green-and-gold drapes, the dust ruffle, and the comforter. Even the pillows, pillowcases, and sheets were new.
By the time Allison returned my call, I had rolled off the bed and changed into loose-fitting gray sweatpants and a college T-shirt.
“Sorry, I wasn’t home earlier,” Allison said. “I stopped at the gym.”
“Are you back on your diet, too?” I carried the cordless phone into the kitchen and began rummaging through the cabinets looking for potential dinner entrees.
Allison hesitated before answering. “Yeah. Why?”
“You must be serious about Mack.”
“I might be.”
“Every time you’re serious about a guy, you go back on your diet and start going to the gym.” I closed the last cabinet door and opened the refrigerator. I enjoyed the cool air, but saw nothing appealing hidden behind my half-empty box of wine and head of wilted lettuce.
“My love life can’t be the reason you phoned.”
“It isn’t.” I told her about the upcoming dinner dance. “You want to be my date?
“You can’t do any better?”
“The invitation says I can bring a guest. Are you turning down a free meal?”
“Any single men coming?”
“Just the weasel.”
“That’s no enticement,” Allison said. “So how is the weasel these days?”
“Getting worse all the time,” I told her. “He doesn’t understand rejection.”
Allison returned the conversation to the dinner dance. “Can I wear that slinky black thing I wore to Charity Ball last year?”
“Only if you keep hitting the gym.”
When I finally ended my conversation with Allison, I had to admit that I couldn’t find any appealing dinner fixings. I realized I hadn’t done proper shopping in weeks, so I prepared a shopping list, and then drove to the new supermarket at the intersection of Bosque and Lake Air.
Halfway through the massive grocery store, I swung my wobble-wheeled cart into the soft drink aisle and nearly ran into Wilma Gibbons.
Wilma turned to face me, and a smile split her face in two.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I was sorry about nearly running into her and sorry about causing her to lose her job.
“No,” Wilma said, “I’m sorry. I ran all that film wrong. I just wasn’t paying attention. I hadn’t told anybody before Monday, but my Jimmy has got leukemia, and I’ve hardly slept in days.”
I reached out and placed my hand on Wilma’s forearm. I didn’t know what to say, so I repeated myself. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Wilma said. “When Mr. Conover called me into his office and told me what I done to your job, I thought for sure he was fixing to fire me. I just broke down and cried all over that man’s carpet and I told him about my Jimmy. You just won’t believe what that man did. He carried me right up to the personnel department and worked it all out so I could take some time off to be with my Jimmy. He said I had rights under the Family Medical Leave act, and he promised my job would be waiting for me soon as my Jimmy got well.”
I had to fight to keep my mouth from dropping open in surprise.
“He took good care of me and my Jimmy, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Wilma said. “He’s a good man, that one.”
“Are you going to be okay?” I asked.
“We’ll get by, I suppose,” Wilma said. “The money is tight, but now I got time to take my Jimmy to his treatments, maybe I can get some sleep.”
“If you need anything, you call,” I said. “You have many friends at the plant that would be glad to help if you just asked.”
“I know that,” Wilma said. “I just didn’t want to burden anybody with my troubles.”
We spoke for another minute, and then Wilma excused herself so she could get home to fix Jimmy’s dinner.
I arrived at my cubicle late the next morning, having endured another battle getting my Nissan to start. I discovered a blue Post-It note on my desk from the third shift plate room supervisor notifying me that Bama Today plates were complete and had been delivered to the pressroom.
I followed-up with the plant scheduler and the pressroom supervisor. I felt relief that despite the rocky start Monday morning, the publication was on schedule.
After I settled in, I headed to the break room for a cup of coffee. Jameson stopped me in the hall and asked about the company party.
“I just received my invitation yesterday,” I said. “Why?”
“I was wondering if you had a date yet,” Jameson replied. He seemed to be talking to my chest. “Since you’re not seeing anyone.”
The thought of accompanying my boss to the company dinner dance made me shiver involuntarily. “I’ve already made arrangements.”
“That’s a shame,” Jameson said. He smiled. “I thought I’d have you all to myself.”
Marshall interrupted us when he stepped out of the mailroom and headed toward the break room. I quickly stepped away from my boss and matched my pace to Marshall’s.
“That was a nice thing you did for Wilma,” I said as Marshall held the break room door open. “She appreciates it.”
As I stepped past him, I felt the heat radiating from Marshall’s body, and his earthy fragrance tickled my nostrils.
“I didn’t do a nice thing,” Marshall said. “I did the right thing.”
I stopped inside the break room and turned to face the new electronic prepress manager just as he released the door behind us. For a moment, we were alone in the harshly lit room, surrounded by vending machines. I looked up into his dark eyes and discovered him staring down into mine. I reached out and touched the back of Marshall’s hand with the tips of my fingers. An electric tingle shot up my arm.
I was about to speak when the other door opened and a dozen pressmen in blue uniforms piled into the room. Whatever I had hoped to tell Marshall remained unsaid as I quickly stepped away.
I dropped a quarter into the coffee machine, punched the buttons for cream and sugar, and waited with my back to the room as the machine filled a wax paper cup with the barely-tolerable liquid. By the time I turned around again, Marshall had already left.
My day disappeared in a flurry of phone calls, paper pushing, and hair pulling. One customer, the publisher of a magazine for dog breeders, sent the wrong mailing labels, and another customer wanted me to explain every item on his most recent printing invoice. I worked through lunch, eating a sandwich and a bag of chips from the vending machines, and stayed well past five o’clock to ensure that Bama Today had finished printing and the bindery department had begun collating, binding, and trimming the magazine.
As I bent to retrieve my purse from the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet, I felt a presence behind me. I knew that all the other customer service representatives had gone for the day and no one else should be in our department after hours. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
I turned quickly, finding my boss leaning against a cubicle wall on the other side of the aisle. “What are you doing?”
“Enjoying the view,” Jameson said. He smiled. “I could stare at you all day.”
I stepped past my boss, moving quickly toward the exit.
“It’s been a long day,” he called after me. “I could buy you a drink. Then maybe we could go someplace quiet—”
“Not tonight, Mr. Jameson,” I called over my shoulder. Under my breath I said, “Not ever.”
My Nissan wouldn’t start no matter how hard I pressed the clutch and no matter how many times I twisted the key in the ignition. Finally, frustrated beyond my ability to cope, I slammed the palms of my hands against the steering wheel.
Marshall rapped on my window with one of his keys, startling me. I rolled my window down.
He bent over to look in my open window. “Need help?”
The last thing I wanted was to appear helpless. “I can take care of it.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Marshall said. “But it’s getting late. I just thought that I could offer you a ride. Maybe you could take care of it tomorrow.”
“In which direction are you headed?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Marshall said. “I’m not in any hurry to get home.”
I climbed out of my car, rolled the window up, and locked the door.
“It’s not far,” I said. “I live down New Road, near Bosque.”
I followed Marshall to his car, a teal blue 1968 Mustang G.T. coupe with sparkling chrome wheels and original black interior.
After Marshall opened the passenger door, I slipped into the car and fastened my seatbelt.
When Marshall slipped in beside me, I said, “I would have taken you for a Lexus or a Camry.”
“This was my father’s car,” Marshall explained. He started the engine and I heard the engine’s throaty rumble. “He gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday.”
“It’s in good shape, as old as it is.”
“I did a little work on it when I was younger—chrome wheels and engine modifications to make the original three hundred and ninety cubic-inch four-valve V-8 even more powerful. I did the typical things that a teenaged boy would do.” He glanced over at me. “Chicago weather was tough on the paint job, so I repainted it just before Patricia and I married. I’d put in an 8-track when I was a teenager, but I finally pulled that out last week and installed a CD player and new Rockford Fosgate speakers.”
“Do you do all the work yourself?”
“A good bit of it,” Marshall said. “It’s something that my Dad taught me. You know, take care of things and they’ll take care of you.”
“So what does your wife drive?” I asked. “Is she the one with the Camry?”
“She . . . doesn’t drive.”
I sensed the hesitation in his voice, but before I could react to it, Marshall continued.
“My Dad was an auto mechanic when I was a kid. Before he died, he’d built the biggest chain of auto parts stores in Chicago.”
“So why aren’t you working in the family business?”
“I like cars. I don’t love them.”
We were both silent for a moment, then I asked, “Are you living out of a suitcase, or have you found a place yet?”
“I have a small place on Austin Avenue. I can see the castle from my front yard,” Marshall said. When he told me the address, I knew it couldn’t be a small house—much of Austin Avenue is populated with large homes built when Waco was still young. Many of the city’s wealthiest people lived on Austin Avenue.
I didn’t know what an electronic prepress manager earned, but I doubted it was enough to afford a home on Austin Avenue.
“Make a right at the next corner,” I said. “Then a right into the parking lot. My apartment’s in the end unit.”
Marshall pulled the Mustang into an empty parking spot.
“Thanks,” I said. I had my door open before the car had come to a complete stop.
Marshall asked, “Do you need help with your car?”
“I can take care of it,” I said. I unfastened my seatbelt.
“Suit yourself,”Marshallsaid. He pulled a business card from his pocket and wrote on the back of it before handing it to me. “But here’s my phone number just in case.”
The drive home from the printing plant had seemed longer than it really was. Sitting so close to Marshall in his Mustang had made me realize how much I wanted him. I had intentionally brought up his wife just to remind myself that he wasn’t available. I didn’t understand why he’d changed the subject so quickly, but it didn’t really matter. She had him and I didn’t.
I phoned my favorite automotive repair shop as soon as I let myself into my apartment, then I phoned Allison. When she answered, I said, “I need a ride to work in the morning.”
She listened while I explained how my day had slowly circled the drain before finally getting sucked down.
“So how did you get home?” she asked.
“The prepress guy carried you home,” she said, “and that wasn’t the first thing you told me?”
“He was just being nice,” I said. “That’s all it was.”
“The man makes your temperature rise and you didn’t steam up the inside of his car?”
“Still, it must have been tempting.”
“Not at all,” I told her. It was only a little white lie. “Not after the day I’d had.”
I don’t think she believed me, so I changed the subject by asking about her deliveryman. I changed clothes while I listened to her tell me more than I really wanted to know about her new man’s physical attributes.
I had just hung up the phone when my doorbell rang. I opened my apartment door to find a pot-bellied grease monkey standing on the landing outside. After he identified himself, I handed him the keys to my Nissan and told him where to find it.
“I know where that’s at,” he said. “I got a cousin works out there.”
He told me his cousin’s name, but I didn’t recognize it.
“He works in the bindery,” he said hopefully. “Third shift.”
I still didn’t know the guy, so I changed the subject. “Did the guys at the garage tell you how soon they would get to my car?”
“I just tow the cars, ma’am,” he said. “I got nothing to do with fixing them. You might call them first thing in the morning.”
“I’ll do that. Thanks.”
I pushed the door closed after he walked away, and I found myself alone in my apartment without even a good book to read. I microwaved a frozen diet dinner, channel surfed through some bad sitcoms, and then went to bed early.
I lay in bed wondering what could have happened in Marshall’s car. If he had just moved his hand from the steering wheel to my knee; if he had just put his arm around me; if he had just leaned over and kissed me. If he had just . . .
I don’t think I would have stopped him. I don’t think I could have stopped him.
Suddenly, my bedroom felt intolerably warm, and I kicked aside the covers. I still felt warm all over when I finally fell asleep.
The next morning, Allison swung by my apartment and drove me to the printing plant.
My boss was standing in front of my cubicle when I arrived. “Running a little late this morning, aren’t you?”
“A little,” I said. It was barely two minutes past eight.
“There’s a problem in shipping,” Jameson said. “Carl says he doesn’t have the mailing address for Bama Today.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
Jameson’s gaze traveled up and down my body. I felt like he was imagining me naked and I shivered with disgust. I stepped past him and into my cubicle. Then, I immediately opened my filing cabinet’s top drawer and began thumbing through the files as if I was looking for Bama Today’s address.
Jameson finally turned away and returned to his office.
I found the information Carl needed and walked it to the shipping department. When I returned to my desk, I phoned the garage and received the low-down on my car. It needed a new starter and would be ready to pick up at the end of the day.
I spent most of the morning glued to the telephone, answering questions from my clients and providing information to the printing plant’s sales force. Around noon, a manila envelope landed on my desk. It had been passed along by one of the other customer service reps. Inside was a get well soon card and a variety of one, five, and ten dollar bills.
Word had spread throughout the plant about Wilma Gibbons and her son, and everyone wanted to do something to help. I added my signature to the card and stuffed in ten dollars. By the end of the day we had almost nine hundred dollars. I volunteered to deliver the money and the card since Wilma lived only a few blocks away from the garage where my car waited.
Allison was waiting in the printing plant’s parking lot when I clocked out at five, and she drove me directly to the garage.
“The starter is not the only thing you need,” said the shop’s owner.
“It’s the only thing I need right now, though, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. He took my check, had me sign the paperwork, and pushed my copies and my keys across the counter to me. “Your starter put some stress on your battery. We recharged it, but you’ll probably need to replace it soon.”
I thanked him, and then folded up my receipt and stuffed it in my purse. Then I found my car waiting in the lot.
It sprang to life the moment I turned the ignition key, and I drove the few blocks to Wilma’s home. She lived in a small, two-bedroom shingle house on a dead-end street. I parked out front and crossed the dirt and dead grass front yard to her porch. I rapped on the door and a moment later she pulled it open.
As soon as she saw me, a smile spilt Wilma’s face in two. She pushed the screen door open. “Come in, come in,” she said quietly. “I wasn’t expecting any company so excuse the mess and all, but come on in.”
I didn’t see any mess. Though small, the living room I stepped into had been carefully decorated and everything seemed to be in its place.
“Sit down,” Wilma said. She continued to speak quietly, explaining that Jimmy was sleeping in the next room. “Can I get you anything to drink? Tea? Soda?”
“No, thank you,” I told her. I held out the thick manila envelope I’d brought. “I just came to give you this.”
She hesitated. “What is it?”
“It’s just a little something from your friends at the plant.”
Wilma finally took the envelope from my hands and opened it. As soon as she saw all the money inside, her eyes became moist. “Y’all shouldn’t have done this.”
“We wanted to,” I said. “You deserve it.”
Wilma turned away and walked into the kitchen. She returned a minute later with two tall glasses of iced tea. Her eyes were still puffy from crying, and I pretended not to notice.
“You’re not the first person to come visit,” she said. “Mr. Conover stopped by yesterday.”
“He asked was there anything he could do to help.” Wilma shook her head. “Have you ever known a boss to do that?”
“Me neither, but he talked with Jimmy for half an hour about cars and stuff and Jimmy had a big grin on his face by the time Mr. Conover had to giddy-up on out of here.”
Wilma and I talked for twenty more minutes. She told me about Jimmy’s chemotherapy and I shared some of the gossip from the plant. In the few days she’d been away, two promotions and one marriage had been announced. Before I left, Wilma asked if I would thank everybody at the plant for her and I told her that I would.
I stopped at the grocery store on the way home. I thought I saw Marshall’s Mustang pulling out of the lot as I pulled in. I watched as it drove away, waiting until it was out of sight before finally gathering up my purse and sliding out of my car.
The new electronic prepress manager wasn’t like any other man I had ever met. He seemed so business-like on the outside, yet there seemed to be a sensitive man hidden inside the hard exterior shell. For some reason, thinking of Marshall like that made me think of my favorite candy when I was a kid—Tootsie Pops. They were hard on the outside, soft on the inside, and I was always in a rush to get to the chewy center.
I smiled and put Marshall out of my mind. I had serious shopping to do or I wouldn’t eat. I grabbed a cart and pushed it into the store.
The next morning Marshall stopped outside my cubicle. “I parked next to your car this morning,” he said. “Did you get the problem fixed?”
I turned and looked up at him. He stood so close I could feel the heat radiating from his loins. “It was nothing,” I said. “But it cost nearly as much to tow my car to the shop as it did to fix it.”
“Is everything okay now?”
“It seems to be,” I said. I didn’t tell Marshall that I might soon need a new battery. “Thanks for asking.”
He hesitated a moment as if he wanted to say something else.
“I visited Wilma last night,” I said, filling the empty moment before it stretched on for too long. “She said you’d been by the night before.”
“I talked to her son.”
“She said Jimmy really enjoyed that.”
“Good,” Marshall said. “He’s a good kid. He knows a lot about cars.”
I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Neither could Marshall.
“Well, if you need any help with your car,” Marshall said. “Let me know.”
Then he walked down the hall toward the break room. I slid my chair back just a smidgen so I could watch him walk away.
Jameson called me into his office that afternoon and shoved a memo across his desk the moment I sat down. “What’s this all about?”
I had no idea what my boss was asking, so I picked up the memo and read it. Marshall had written it and had sent copies to the senior managers. It was very well written, better than any Jameson had ever produced.
After I finished reading, I explained, “He thinks we should preflight computer files before we send them to the prepress department.”
“We aren’t going to do his job for him,” Jameson said. “If a publication arrives on disk, it’s his problem.”
I suspected my boss didn’t know what preflighting meant. I’d first heard the term myself when Marshall had worked with me on The Bama Today job. Still, I acted like I knew all about it.
“If we check every file as soon as it arrives in the plant,” I said, “we can spot problems before the job ever reaches prepress. It could shave a day or two off production and allow us to turn the work around faster.”
“So he thinks he can come in here and change the way we do things, does he?” My boss was so frustrated that he didn’t even try to look down my blouse while he ranted about the memo.
“Lots of printing plants are preflighting computer files,” I said. “We don’t want to be left behind, do we?”
Jameson snatched the memo from my outstretched hand.
“Is there anything else?” I asked.
“No. That’s it. Get out of here.” He waved me away.
I stood and exited my boss’s office, careful not to let my hips sway even the least little bit. I was smiling when I returned to my cubicle. It was nice to see Jameson frustrated by someone who was smarter, nicer, and far better looking.
I spent the afternoon working on one of the medical journals I’d had as a client. The client provided film and I had to be certain we had received all the pages before I scheduled production.
It took nearly an hour to check all the film, and then I prepared the paperwork for stripping, plate making, and the pressroom. I set the paperwork for the bindery aside to do the following morning, and then I prepared a “to do” list and cleaned off my desk.
I actually left the plant on time and treated myself to take-out Chinese food, which I ate standing over my kitchen sink. When I finished, I threw away the paper cartons and plastic fork and only had to rinse the sink to clean up.
Later that evening, I tried on the dress I’d worn to all my college formals, and I realized that I had gained at least one dress size since graduation. Wearing the dress made me look like a stuffed sausage and I knew I couldn’t wear it to the company party. I phoned Allison and invited her shopping with me. We drove to Richland Mall and spent the next few hours trying on clothes.
I finally settled on a floor-length black dress that clung to my curves, and a pair of black heels that added two inches to my height.
Allison had something else in mind. She bought a crimson teddy at Victoria’s Secret and a new bottle of perfume at Dillard’s.
After we finished shopping, we stopped for dessert at one of the restaurants near the mall. Over pie and coffee, Allison told me more about her UPS driver.
“Mack’s never been married and has never even been in a serious relationship,” she explained.
“How old is he?”
“Our age,” she said. “Early thirties.”
“And he’s never been in a serious relationship?” I asked. “What does that mean? Has he been in a lot of funny relationships, like with clowns?”
Allison laughed so hard she almost sprayed coffee on me. When she finally regained control of herself, she said, “He says he’s been waiting for the right woman.”
“And that’s you?”
“It could be,” Allison said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Does he know how many relationships you’ve been in?”
She shook her head. “And I’m not planning to tell him, either.”
“Is that fair?”
“Either Mack’s the right guy or he isn’t,” Allison explained. “Why confuse things by telling him about my past?” She forked a piece of her cherry pie, but stopped with it halfway to her mouth. “What about you? Who did you buy the new dress for?”
“The old one doesn’t fit any more.”
“Be serious,” she said.
“Okay,” I admitted. “Maybe there is someone I want to notice me.”
“You still have the hots for Mr. Prepress?”
I shrugged. I wanted Marshall to notice me at the company party, even though I knew I shouldn’t.
The next few days flew past, despite Friday’s two-hour presentation on preflighting that we were required to attend even after Jameson strenuously objected. The presentation might not have been so bad if Marshall had led it, but he assigned the task to one of his technical people and he sat in the back of the room listening. I turned once, about halfway through the presentation, and caught Marshall staring at me. Our gazes locked, and for a split second he looked like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Then he looked away.
I didn’t know what to make of the look I’d seen on Marshall’s face, but I didn’t have time to worry over it. Clients kept me late on Friday night, and I spent most of Saturday preparing for the company party.
That evening, Allison and I arrived at the convention center just before seven o’clock. I parked my Nissan in the lot on the other side of Waco Drive, and we crossed the street, walking as quickly as possible in our floor-length black gowns and high heels. Once inside the convention center, we hurried upstairs to the room Wett Inc. had reserved for the dinner dance.
The catering company had already begun serving, and we quickly found two empty seats with three other employees and their spouses. I introduced Allison to the two men from the pressroom and the woman from accounting, and they each introduced their spouses.
Halfway through the meal, I excused myself. I returned to the table a moment later with two glasses of red wine from the cash bar. Dinner conversation was mostly about work, but the men also talked about sports and the three wives discussed their children. Allison and I, not being sports fans or parents, mostly listened. Dinner was over soon enough, and then the presentations began.
The Division Vice President, Gary Anderson, crossed the dance floor to the stage and tapped on the microphone. Feedback wailed through the intercom system, and then he said, “Is everybody ready?”
The few people who hadn’t already glanced toward the stage shifted their attention, and the room quickly quieted.
After a moment’s pause, he said, “Good. Great. Let’s get started.”
Anderson welcomed all the employees about to be honored, our spouses and guests, and the various managers and supervisors.
“It’s been a great year,” he said after welcoming everyone. “Sales are up, corporate is happy, and we just received approval to purchase the new six-color press we’ve been talking about for two years. It’s all because of you. We have the best staff in the entire printing industry, and we’re here tonight to recognize you for all you’ve done.”
I didn’t hear the rest of what Anderson said because Allison nudged me with her elbow and pointed across the room. Marshall stood by himself near the bar nursing a longneck. He’d obviously spent the morning at the barber, and he wore a dark suit that seemed tailor-made to fit his muscular body. I felt my knees go weak and I might have swooned if I hadn’t been sitting.
“Do you see his wife?” Allison whispered.
I let my gaze work its way around the room, but I never saw anyone who looked like the photograph on Marshall’s desk. I whispered back, “No. I think he’s alone.”
Allison said, “Imagine that.”
My attention returned to the front of the room when Anderson turned the microphone over to the manager of human resources, who announced the names of each of the evening’s honorees. Forty-seven people came forward to accept congratulations, certificates, and twenty-five dollar savings bonds for five years of continuous service; eighteen people, including me, received congratulations, certificates, and fifty dollar savings bonds for ten years of continuous service; twelve people accepted congratulations, certificates and one hundred dollar savings bonds for fifteen years of continuous service; and nine people received congratulations, certificates, and two hundred dollar savings bonds for twenty years of continuous service.
After accepting our certificates and savings bonds, each of us shook hands with Anderson and our respective supervisors. Jameson’s hand clasped mine tightly and he placed his free hand over the top of our clasped hands, giving me a two-handed shake that lingered a moment longer than necessary. A faint scent of liquor drifted from Jameson to tickle my nostrils, and then he moved on to congratulate other employees from Customer Service.
“Is that everybody?” Anderson asked. “Good. Great. Then let’s dance.”
While we returned to our seats, the band took the stage and launched into a powerful rendition of Proud Mary. I grabbed my napkin and wiped Jameson’s clammy sweat off my hand.
The dance floor remained empty until the third song, when Anderson and his wife took the lead. After that, other couples drifted onto the dance floor, including all three of the couples from our table.
When I started looking around the room, Allison said, “He’s over there.”
Marshall stood near the bar again, talking to the third shift supervisor from the shipping department. While I watched, they ended their conversation and Marshall stepped up to the bar.
Allison elbowed me. “Go talk to him,” she said. “What can it hurt?”
I glared at her for a moment.
I finally stood.
“How do I look?”
“You look fine,” Allison said. “Now go.”
As I crossed the dance floor, I felt two pairs of eyes on me and I tried to ignore one of them.
Marshall smiled as I approached, and I stopped in front of him. He raised his longneck as a salute. “You look nice.”
“Thanks,” I said. “So do you.”
“I like your hair like that.”
I’d had my stylist put my hair up and I touched at my new do. “Are you alone tonight?”
“It seems that way.”
“Where’s your wife?” I asked. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jameson sloshing toward us, his steps unsteady from too much drink.
“She’s still in Chicago.”
“It’s been three months,” I said. “Is she planning to join you soon?”
Marshall smiled sadly. His voice was barely a whisper when he responded, “I only wish.”
Before I could ask another question, Jameson took my hand and pulled me onto the dance floor, telling Marshall over his shoulder, “She promised me this dance.”
The band played a ballad and Jameson wanted to slow dance. He wrapped one arm around my back and grabbed my butt with the other, pulling me tight against him. I felt a part of his body pressed against my abdomen that I shouldn’t have felt, and I tried to pull back. He only tightened his grip.
As we danced, my boss whispered heavily in my ear. “I’ve got a room next door.” The convention center was next door to a Hilton. “We could slip out and no one would notice.”
I tried to pull away, but I couldn’t manage. Jameson was stronger than I had expected, and I didn’t want to cause a scene.
“You know you want it just as much as I do,” he said. “I don’t know why you keep denying it.”
He held me tighter, his hand squeezing my rear end like he was kneading bread dough. When he leaned forward, I turned my face away so that I didn’t have to smell his alcohol-soaked breath and I could avoid any possibility of his lips landing on mine.
I tried stepping on my boss’s feet as we moved around the dance floor, but even having my heel pressed into the top of his foot didn’t cause him to loosen his grip.
I was as surprised as my boss was when Marshall approached us and tapped Jameson’s shoulder. “Mind if I cut in?”
As soon as Jameson loosened his grip on me, Marshall spun me away from my boss and into his arms. Then we danced quickly across the floor, as far from Jameson as we could get.
“That creep,” I said under my breath.
“It’s okay,” Marshall said. “He’s just had a little too much to drink.”
“You didn’t hear what he said.”
“I can guess,” Marshall said. “It couldn’t have been appropriate.”
“It wasn’t. It wasn’t at all.”
I relaxed in Marshall’s arms and felt my body mold itself to his, my chest flattening against his muscular upper body. This was the moment I had dreamed about so many times, but I couldn’t enjoy it because I was still angry at what Jameson had done.
I laid my head on Marshall’s shoulder and breathed deep. His musky aftershave tickled my nostrils. The warmth of his body relaxed me, and I felt as if I could remain in his arms all night.
Then the song ended and I saw Jameson leering at me, ready to pounce the moment Marshall released me. I pulled myself away from Marshall, strode quickly to the table where Allison still sat, and grabbed her arm. “Let’s go,” I said. “Now, before he wants to dance again.”
She glanced at Marshall, who remained alone on the dance floor, and then grabbed our purses and followed me out of the convention center to the car.
“What’s wrong?” she asked when we reached the parking lot.
“Did you see what he did?” I asked angrily.
“No, the weasel.” I opened the car doors and we slipped inside. “He was squeezing so hard I probably have a bruise on my butt.”
“You danced with your boss?” Allison asked. “I just saw you with Marshall.”
“I didn’t want to,” I explained as I started the car. “He grabbed me and pulled me onto the dance floor. I was trying to get away from him, but I didn’t want to make a big scene. It’s a good thing Marshall cut in.”
I took a deep breath and suddenly regretted my decision to leave the convention center. I’d been in Marshall’s arms, feeling warm and protected, and I had abandoned him the moment the song ended.
I couldn’t figure out exactly why I felt so attracted to the new electronic prepress manager. He seemed to be encouraging my attention, yet maintaining his distance, as if he were teasing or testing me somehow. I couldn’t figure out what it was he wanted or needed from me, and I couldn’t even understand my own feelings. I wasn’t the female version of my boss, throwing myself at every attractive man who caught my eye.
Just thinking about what Jameson had done while we were dancing upset me all over again. I told Allison, “If Mr. Jameson keeps it up, I’m going to have to take matters into my own hands.”
Hot Off The Presses
Part 2: Marshall’s Secret
The following Monday morning, after spending most of Sunday kicking myself in the backside for leaving the company party so quickly, I stopped Marshall in the hall outside of the electronic prepress department. He’d already removed his jacket, revealing a crisp white dress shirt, but he had not yet unbuttoned his cuffs and folded them back. His red tie and red suspenders were decorated with tiny Mickey Mouse silhouettes.
I touched his forearm lightly with the tips of my fingers and looked up at him. “Do you make it a habit of rescuing women?”
“First my car,” I said, “and then again on Saturday night.”
“He seemed to be getting a little too familiar with you,” Marshall said. “You didn’t seem to appreciate it.”
Marshall hesitated, and then asked. “Was I too forward?”
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“You disappeared when the song ended.”
“It wasn’t you,” I explained.“I was still upset about-”
“Eddie,” Marshall said, finishing my sentence. He looked down at me and his smoldering gaze locked with mine. “Would you have danced with me again if I’d asked?”
Warmth rose from my chest to my cheeks. My voice dropped an octave and I responded breathily. “Yes.”
I didn’t know what else to say and apparently neither did Marshall. We stood awkwardly staring at each other until someone called Marshall’s name and he turned.
While he spoke to a co-worker, Marshall used his hands to explain something about a client’s electronic file. That’s when I noticed a thin white indention encircling his ring finger, and I realized that he was no longer wearing his wedding band.
When he finished answering the question, Marshall returned his attention back to me.
“I need to get back to my desk,” I said. I turned away and quickly returned to my cubicle in the customer service department, all the time wondering what had just happened between us in the hallway. More importantly, I wondered if Marshall had separated from his wife, or if he had simply forgotten to put his ring on in the morning.
I could barely concentrate on a print order, and I had to read it three times before the information sank in. I took a deep breath to calm myself before phoning the client to confirm the additional five thousand copies the magazine’s production manager had requested.
“We’re taking them to a convention in Georgia,” he explained.
“So you want the extras bulk-shipped?” I asked.
“Isn’t that what I ordered?”
I quickly thumbed through the print order and found the information. I didn’t usually make mistakes, and I quickly tried to cover my slip. “I was just thinking that rather than ship copies to your office, we could drop ship them directly to the convention center. That way you won’t have to transport them halfway across the country.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” my client said. “That would be great. I’ll get the address and fax it to you this afternoon.”
I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise as I finished my conversation and hung up the phone. I detected a disgustingly sweet smell, and I turned to discover that my boss had stepped into my cubicle behind me.
“Too bad the new guy whisked you away,” Jameson said. The smell was coming from his aftershave, which he had apparently applied a little too heavily. “I could tell how much you enjoyed our dance.”
I stared at him blankly. Enjoyment had been the last thing I’d felt during our dance.
A smirk twisted up the corners of his mouth. “I know I enjoyed it.”
“You must have been carrying a roll of pennies in your pocket,” I said, “because all I noticed was small change.”
The smirk slipped a fraction of an inch. My boss shot his cuffs and flashed his cuff links, and as he adjusted one of them he said, “You won’t be able to resist me much longer. I’m growing on you.”
“Like a fungus,” I said under my breath.
Jameson didn’t hear me because one of the other CSRs had called his name. After my boss stepped away from my cubicle, I returned to the poultry magazine’s print order.
Being a customer service representative for a large printing company is like being a babysitter, but with far more paperwork. I have to hold my clients’ hands through the entire printing process, making certain they provide me with everything I need to print and mail their magazines. Then I have to guide their publications through the printing plant, ensuring that every department has the appropriate information—and that information has to be absolutely accurate. One missed decimal point can turn a print run of ten thousand copies into a print run of a hundred thousand copies, an expensive mistake that has cost more than one CSR a job.
I’d been lucky during my ten years as a CSR. My worst mistake had been rectified by a sincere apology, and the client had stayed with me until another printing company underbid us six years later.
That’s when I’d picked up the poultry magazine. One of the other CSRs was juggling too many titles at the time, and Jameson’s predecessor added it to my responsibilities. The poultry magazine’s staff had been great to work with, and I never understood why the other CSR had chosen to relinquish that particular title. I pulled out the magazine’s file and began preparing paperwork, including the forms for printing extra copies and making special shipping arrangements.
Later that afternoon, after making an appointment with the plant scheduler, I walked to the mailroom to retrieve the day’s mail from my box. I was thumbing through the assortment of magazines and junk mail, looking for anything of value, when Marshall joined me in the tiny room. He stepped past me to his box, grabbed his mail, and then turned to face me. He stood so close I could feel the heat radiating from his body, and when he spoke the breeze tickled my ear.
“May I ask you a personal question?” he asked. He spoke softly and I doubt anyone outside the room could hear him.
I looked up. “Sure.”
“Are you married?”
Marshall was silent for a moment, and then he exited the mailroom as quickly as he’d appeared. I was left standing with my mouth open until the Division Vice President stuck his head in the room.
“Hey! There you are,” Anderson said. “I heard about the good job you did with Bama Today. I just wanted to say thanks. Keep it up.”
I closed my mouth, finished sorting through my mail, and then dumped most of it into the waste can next to the door.
“He asked if I was married,” I told Allison. We had returned to Ninfa’s and had frozen Margaritas sitting in front of us. It was a slow night, and we almost had the place to ourselves. “Why would he ask if I was married?”
Allison licked the salt from her glass and then took a long drink through the straw. “Is it some big secret that you aren’t married?”
“I didn’t think so,” I said. “I thought the whole world knew I wasn’t married. I’m so not married that my grandmother thinks it’s a crime.”
“So do you think he’s fishing.”
“You’re right,” Allison said. “The way you’ve been throwing yourself at him, you’d think he’d already hooked you.”
I hadn’t told her the entire story. I took a long drink from my Margarita. “Here’s the other thing,” I finally said. “He wasn’t wearing his wedding ring today.”
Allison’s eyes opened wide.
“And I don’t think it was a mistake. I think he took it off for a reason.”
Allison leaned forward. “Have you ever seen his wife?”
“Well, just in the pictures on his desk.”
“I’ll bet she stayed in Chicago,” Allison said. “Maybe they are divorced.”
“At the very least they are separated,” I said.
“So what’s wrong with him?”
“Why would something be wrong with him?”
“You told me she’s drop-dead gorgeous. Why do you think he would leave her?”
I had no idea and I said so.
The waiter delivered our fajitas for two and we began filling our flour tortillas with chicken, grilled onions, sour cream, and guacamole.
“He wants you,” Allison said after she’d finished preparing her fajita. “That must be it. He wants you. You just better hope he’s not using you as a rebound relationship, or as some kind of stepping stone to exit his current marriage.”
“Marshall doesn’t seem like the type of guy to do that,” I said.
“Men will fool you,” Allison said. “I should know—I’ve been fooled often enough.”
I watched my best friend stuff one end of her fajita into her mouth and bite it off, and then I returned my attention to my own unfinished fajita. She was faster at everything than me—from making fajitas to jumping into bed with men she barely knew.
Marshall spent most of the next two days in meetings, and I did not have an opportunity to talk to him. Luckily, the meetings also involved the plant’s other managers, and I had two days without my boss leering at me. My clients kept me busy, though, and I hardly had time to stop for a deep breath.
On Tuesday night I worked late, and I stayed late again on Wednesday night because one of the presses broke and I had to make arrangements to print the poultry magazine on a different press.
I thought I was alone in the department, but when I looked up after completing my paperwork and straightening my desk, I discovered Marshall standing outside my cubicle.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“A bit,” I said.
“How about we go out for dinner?”
“We have to eat,” he said. “Why not do it together?”
I glanced at his hand. Marshall had clearly stopped wearing his ring, and the white indention around his finger didn’t seem as deep as it had when I first noticed it on Monday.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
Waco has its share of chain restaurants—places that are crowded, noisy, and often over-priced—so I suggested a little Italian place downtown.
“Italian’s fine,” Marshall said.
“I have to take this out to the bindery,” I explained as I held up the paperwork I’d just finished. Changing presses meant changing the bindery’s instructions as well. “How about I meet you there?”
“I’ll get us a table,” Marshall said.
He headed to the parking lot and I walked to the bindery. I showed the instructions to the second shift supervisor, answered a couple of questions, and then hurried to my car. I arrived at the restaurant about fifteen minutes after Marshall and found him waiting in a booth near the back.
The restaurant was only two doors down from Ninfa’s, in the same strip of refurbished warehouses. It was a narrow place, with booths along each side and a single row of tables between the booths. Posters from Broadway shows hung on one wall, and the other had been decorated to look like a sidewalk café. Marshall had taken the liberty of ordering drinks, and a glass of red wine awaited my arrival.
By the time I sat down, Marshall had nearly finished his wine. He ordered a refill after I slipped into the booth opposite him. He’d rolled his sleeves all the way to his elbows and loosened his tie. The top button of his shirt was undone, and I realized that it was the first time I’d ever seen Marshall without every bit of his clothing perfectly arranged. I stared at the hollow at the base of his throat, which seemed so very kissable, until he spoke.
“Tough day?” he asked.
“No worse than usual,” I said. I sipped my wine. He’d made an excellent selection, and I could tell he hadn’t chosen a cheap wine.
“Do you work late often?”
“Not so often. Why?”
The waiter interrupted with Marshall’s wine, asked if we were ready to order, and then stepped away when we told him that we weren’t.
“I see your car in the lot when I leave,” Marshall said. “It looks so lonely all by itself.”
I couldn’t tell if he was serious or if he was making a subtle comment about my lonely lifestyle. When I arrived at work each morning, I parked with the rest of the employees who worked the day shift. By the time I left at night, most of the day shift cars had disappeared and the second shift employees were parked on the other side of the lot, leaving my car sitting all by itself.
“There’s no rush for me to get home,” I explained. “I don’t have any kids or pets. I like to leave a clean desk when I go home at night, and that means I’m usually at work a little later than the other CSRs. Of course, the new magazine Jameson gave me put me behind for a couple of weeks as well.”
“I heard that you did a good job with that,” Marshall said. “Anderson mentioned it at the manager’s meeting on Monday.”
My boss hadn’t said a word about it to me, but I didn’t mention that to Marshall. Jameson rarely praised people in my department, even when we did everything in our power to keep a client satisfied. He usually took the credit and shared the blame. If he had been my boss when I’d first started work at Wett Inc., I might not have stayed long. Luckily, Anderson had trained me before being promoted to Division Vice President, and his replacement had been great to work for until he was promoted to our corporate headquarters back east. I knew that Jameson wouldn’t be a permanent fixture either, and I planned to weather the storm as long as I could.
The waiter returned and we had to tell him we still weren’t ready. Marshall stopped the waiter before he could step away again. He reached for the menu, but didn’t look at it. Instead, he looked at me and asked, “What’s your favorite dish?”
“The ravioli,” I said.
“Two raviolis,” Marshall told the waiter, and a moment later we were alone again.
“So what brought you to Texas?” I asked, restarting our conversation.
“I had to get away from Chicago,” Marshall explained. “There were too many memories. I wanted to start over.”
I felt warm and toyed with the top button of my blouse. Thanks to Jameson’s unwanted attention, I’d taken to wearing my blouses buttoned all the way up. “So what did you do in Chicago?”
“The same thing that I’m doing here,” Marshall explained, “but for a smaller company. The plant was about the size of this one, but they only had one facility. The place was family owned, and every position above mine was occupied by a family member. I’d pretty much topped out.”
The top button of my blouse slipped open and I toyed with the second button until it opened as well.
“What about you?” Marshall asked. “Any plans to leave Waco?”
I hated to admit that I hadn’t been looking too far ahead. I liked what I did, and I liked most of the people I worked with.
“It isn’t where you go,” I said as I leaned forward to touch Marshall’s arm. “It’s who you’re with.”
I saw Marshall glance at my unbuttoned shirt. It was the first time his gaze had ventured below my neck the entire time I’d known him.
“And if you like what you do,” Marshall said, “you can do it anywhere.”
The waiter arrived with our meals and I leaned back. After arranging our plates, the waiter asked if we needed anything else.
We had everything we needed and told him so. Alone again, Marshall asked about my family in Virginia.
“I’m surprised you remember where I’m from,” I told him.
“Of course I remember,” Marshall said with a smile. “So tell me about Virginia.”
We spent the rest of the meal talking about me, even though I hadn’t planned to be such a blabbermouth. Every time I tried to ask Marshall about himself, he seemed to deflect the question. I didn’t realize this until later, and I didn’t learn much more about him beyond his work life. I had told him about accidentally using the boy’s restroom my first day at school, about my father trying to teach me to drive when I was fifteen, and about some of my worst college experiences. I even told him the names of all of the pets I’d had growing up.
Marshall told me about his father’s auto parts store and how the family had sold the company after his father’s heart attack. He also told me that he’d first learned printing when he helped operate a small one-color press for his father’s business. “It was less expensive to print our own flyers and order forms. As the company grew, the in-house print shop expanded. By the time I graduated high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. My father made me go to college rather than a trade school—and I’m glad he did—but I worked in the production department of the college newspaper and started working for a printing company two months after graduation. I’ve been in printing ever since.”
I never asked about Marshall’s wife, and he never volunteered any information about her. Soon we had worked our way through the ravioli, two slices of cheesecake, and after-dinner coffee. I didn’t want the evening to end, but I knew that eventually it had to.
Marshall saw me glance at my watch.
“It’s getting late, isn’t it?” he said. “Maybe we should call it a night.”
Even though I offered to split the check, Marshall insisted on paying.
“At least let me leave the tip,” I said.
He conceded to that, and then he walked me to my car. I opened the car door and turned, hoping Marshall would take me into his arms and kiss me.
In fact, while I opened my door he actually stepped away from me. I wasn’t sure how I had misread the signals, but I knew I must have. This hadn’t been a date, it had just been dinner with a hungry co-worker.
“Well then,” I stammered. “Thanks for dinner. I guess I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”
I slipped into the driver’s seat. When I did that, Marshall stepped forward and closed my door. I looked up at him through the glass, started the car, and backed out of the parking space. I watched him in my rearview mirror as he watched me drive away.
“I expected him to kiss me,” I said into the phone. I lay in bed wearing my favorite cotton pajamas, the threadbare blue ones covered with yellow ducks that I’d worn all through college. The room was dark around me, and I had the covers pulled up to my neck.
“You said he didn’t talk much about himself,” Allison said. From the sounds coming through the phone, she either had company or the television was on. “You said that you did most of the talking.”
“Yeah, but he really listened to me,” I said. “How often does that happen?”
Allison giggled, and then covered the phone with something. I heard her muffled voice, but I couldn’t tell what she was saying. A moment later, she uncovered the phone.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I really can’t talk right now. Mack’s here and something has come up.”
I let out a big sigh.
“We’ll talk later,” Allison said. “Okay?”
I told her it was fine and disconnected the line. Then I lay on my back and stared up at the darkened ceiling. Life wasn’t fair. I couldn’t even get a goodbye kiss and my best friend was about to seal the deal—again.
I waited a long time but Allison didn’t phone. I finally fell asleep.
On Friday morning, the publisher of Bama Today phoned.
“I’ve been out of town for the past few weeks,” he said, “and I just returned to the office this morning. The moment I walked in the door, the production manager showed me the magazine. I was so impressed. I never realized how good it could look. I called Kingston but he said you deserve all the credit, he said all he does is sell and that you do the real work.”
Kingston was one of the best sales reps the company had. He not only knew how to make the client feel good, but he also knew how important the customer service reps were to the success of any project. “I’m sure he would have said the same thing no matter which CSR had been assigned to your account.”
“Maybe he would have,” the publisher said, “but we didn’t get just any CSR—we got you. I want to be sure you understand how much we appreciate the work you did on our first issue—it looks great, it was delivered on time, and we’re looking forward to working with you for a long time to come.”
After I thanked him for his compliments, we discussed his plans for a special issue the following summer. Then he ended the call. I walked back to the electronic prepress department.
I found Marshall in his office, sitting behind his desk and staring at his computer. Nothing in the office had changed—the pictures of his wife were still on his desk. I tried not to look at them as I stood on the far side and told him about the Bama Today publisher’s call.
“If you hadn’t redone the film,” I told him, “we might not have made deadline. I just came back to thank you for that.”
Marshall stood and walked around his desk. We had barely spoken to each other since dinner on Wednesday evening, and I wondered if he’d been avoiding me. He leaned back against the desk.
“You’ve been on my mind since dinner the other night,” he said. He reached out and took my hand in his. Electric tingles shot up my arm. “I have tickets to the Pat Green concert on Saturday. Are you interested in joining me?”
I hesitated, wetting my lips with the tip of my tongue while I considered Marshall’s invitation. “Sure,” I finally said. “I’d like that.”
“Then it’s a date,” Marshall said, but I couldn’t tell if he meant it really was a date, or if he was just being polite.
His phone rang. He released his hold on my hand to reach for the phone and I stepped away.
“I’ll pick you up at seven,” he said. “The concert starts at eight.”
Before I could respond, Marshall had the phone in his hand and was talking to one of the sales reps in San Diego.
I gave him a thumbs-up and then returned to my cubicle.
I stood in my bedroom wearing only my bra and panties, the only things I was certain I would wear that evening. Into the phone, I said, “I really don’t know what to wear.”
“Put on some boots and blue jeans,” Allison suggested. “You don’t need to dress up. You aren’t going to your senior prom.”
I’d already tried on half a dozen different outfits, all of which littered my bed, and none of them had seemed right. “I know, but—”
“What about the Wranglers you bought at the after-Christmas sale last year? They look good on you. Try those with the blue top.”
“No,” Allison insisted, “the other blue top. The one you bought when we went to Austin last summer. You’ve only worn it once and it looks really good on you.”
I pushed around the clothes in my closet until I found the blouse Allison was talking about. I slipped it on and looked in the mirror. It did look good on me, and I wondered why I hadn’t worn it recently. Then I remembered that the front gaped open when I bent forward, something I certainly wouldn’t want to happen at work.
Then I found my jeans and pulled them on.
“I knew I could count on you,” I told Allison while I stood in front of the mirror checking out my look. The jeans were tight but not painted on, and the blouse accentuated my buxom figure without making me look trashy.
“So,” Allison said. “When do you expect him?”
“At seven,” I told her.
“You’re getting dressed awfully early, aren’t you?” Allison asked.
I glanced at the clock next to my bed and realized it wasn’t even six. “I’m nervous,” I told her. “I don’t know if this is a date, or if it’s like dinner the other night—two co-workers just hanging out.”
“You must think it’s a date,” Allison suggested. “You sound like you’re going to a lot of trouble if you think you’re just going to hang out.”
“He keeps sending me mixed signals,” I told her. “One minute I think he’s treating me like a co-worker, and the next minute I think he’s being friendlier than that. I mean, he’s never done anything out of line, but I still keep thinking he has more on his mind than just dinner or a concert.”
“Maybe you’ll figure it out tonight,” Allison said.
“I certainly hope so,” I told her. “I don’t like feeling as if he’s pulling me close and then pushing me away. I’m not a yo-yo.”
After ending my conversation with Allison, I fixed my hair and did my makeup. I took my time primping, but was still ready nearly half an hour early. I paced around my apartment, flipped through programs on the television, and then worried that maybe my jeans were too tight and my blouse too revealing. At a few minutes before seven, I realized that Marshall knew what building I lived in, but that I had never given him my apartment number.
I didn’t want to carry my purse to a concert, so I stuffed my driver’s license and some money into my pockets and walked downstairs to the parking lot.
Marshall was just getting out of his Mustang when I hit the bottom step. He wore topsiders, khaki slacks, and a teal polo shirt that accentuated his broad shoulders and trim waist. He looked absolutely wonderful. . .and completely wrong.
“You’re not from around these parts, are you?” I asked as I walked toward him.
“No, Ma’am,” he said. He looked me up and down. “But it looks like you’ve gone native.”
“Close enough,” I told him. I no longer dressed like my friends back east, and I had learned the difference between hanging-out jeans and dress jeans.
After walking around his car, Marshall opened the passenger door for me and held it while I slid in. Then he returned to the driver’s seat and drove to the Heart of Texas Fair and Coliseum.
It’s difficult to spit in Texas without hitting someone who has a secret desire to be a country singer. Every once in a while, someone actually picks up a guitar, writes a few songs, and starts playing in the local bars. Even less common is when a local singer actually has the talent and determination to become a success.
Pat Green is Waco’s success story. He’s a talented local boy who worked hard, became a success, and never forgot where he came from. Marshall, who had never heard of Pat Green, had won two tickets to the concert in a drawing held at his credit union.
On the way into the coliseum from the field where we parked, I told Marshall everything I knew about Pat Green. Green hadn’t played in Waco since the Margarita and Salsa Festival, which benefited a local charity, but he’d drawn quite a crowd there.
Despite Marshall’s business casual attire, we actually didn’t look out of place. When we finally made it to our seats, we found ourselves sandwiched between a couple who smelled like they’d been cleaning out barns a short time before they had arrived, and a middle-aged couple who made Marshall look underdressed. Occupying the row in front of us were half a dozen college students, and behind us were three women with big hair.
The opening act took the stage a few minutes after we reached our seats, but they weren’t anything to write home about. Then Pat Green and his band took the stage and the place went wild. Most of the audience knew the words to Green’s songs and they sang along with him.
I sang along with a couple of the songs, but Marshall was clearly at a loss. He did his best to keep up—yelling, clapping, and stomping his feet at the appropriate times—but it wasn’t an evening designed for a newly transplanted Northerner.
After the concert ended, we threaded our way through the crowd to Marshall’s car. Instead of immediately getting in the car, Marshall suggested we wait until the line of traffic had thinned out a bit.
I certainly wasn’t in any rush to get home, so we stood and talked.
“That sure was something,” Marshall said.
“The concert?” I asked. “It was great. The funny thing is, I never listened to country music before I moved to Texas. I thought it was all pick-up trucks, crying-in-my-beer, and women-done-me-wrong songs.”
I told him about Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and a half-dozen other country singers I’d discovered since moving to Texas. While I talked, Marshall leaned back against his car and took my hand in his.
I hesitated. “Am I talking too much?”
“No,” he said. “I like listening to you. And if you don’t tell me about living in Texas, who will?”
“It’s not a foreign country,” I said.
“It used to be.”
I had to admit that Marshall was right. Even now, there were still a few diehards who insisted that the Republic of Texas had never given up its independence.
We talked for so long that we were nearly the last people remaining in the field. Marshall opened my door and I slid into the Mustang.
He drove me home, walked me to my apartment door, and waited until I opened it. When I turned around to say goodnight, he stood close. He smelled warm, musky, and a little like the couple who had sat beside us at the concert.
“I had a wonderful evening,” I told him.
“So did I,” Marshall said.
“Perhaps we could do it again,” I suggested.
“I’d like that.”
Then we stood and stared at one another.
I wet my lips with the tip of my tongue. “Well,” I said. “Are you going to kiss me or not?”
Marshall hesitated, and then leaned forward. I tilted my head back and lifted up on my tiptoes to meet him halfway. Then our lips met tenderly.
My eyelids closed, my lips parted, and Marshall placed one hand behind my head, his fingers entwined in my hair. Then he wrapped one strong arm around my lower back and pulled me to him. My body melted against his, and I felt his temperature rise as the kiss lengthened and deepened.
I’m not sure how long we kissed because time seemed to stop. When the kiss finally ended, I found myself weak-kneed and short of breath. Without Marshall’s hand behind my back to provide support, I knew that I would barely be able to stand. I leaned against the wall and continued to look up at him.
“Thank you,” Marshall said, his voice barely a whisper.
Thank you? That’s not what I expect to hear after a kiss takes my breath away.
He stepped back. “I had a great time tonight.”
“So did I,” I told him.
“I’ll see you on Monday,” Marshall said. “I have a sales rep coming in to talk about preflighting software. I’ll be tied up all morning.”
That’s how the evening ended—with my knees unable to support my body and Marshall talking about work. We finally wished each other a good night, and then Marshall returned to his car.
I stood outside my apartment and watched until he drove out of the apartment building’s lot. I didn’t go inside until his Mustang’s taillights disappeared from view.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before,” I told Allison over a buffet lunch the next day.
“One kiss did that to you?” She was picking her way through a spinach salad and I had to admit the diet and exercise she’d been doing since she’d gotten involved with Mack had been very beneficial.
“It wasn’t just the kiss,” I explained. I had loaded my plate with meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and corn. “It was the entire date.”
Allison chewed on her salad and waited for me to explain.
“Sure, I was nervous when I was getting ready to go out—”
“You could have fooled me,” she said with a laugh.
“But once Marshall arrived, I felt fine,” I continued. “I felt comfortable. I didn’t feel like I had to do anything special. It was as if we had known each other forever.”
“You said he seemed shy about the kiss.”
“Not shy, just a little hesitant, like he wasn’t quite sure if he should kiss me or not,” I said. “He was being the perfect gentleman. Still, when I asked if he was going to kiss me, he sure didn’t hesitate.”
“Men are funny like that,” Allison said. “The good ones are always reluctant, and the bad ones are always pushy.”
I thought about my boss and nodded in agreement.
“Like Mack,” she continued. “Sometimes, I have to call him. He’s always eager to get together, but I often have to initiate it.”
“Men,” I said with a shake of my head. “There’s no telling what they’re thinking.”
“Or if they’re thinking at all!”
On Monday, I noticed a “Thank You” card from Wilma Gibbons posted on the bulletin board. It had been there since the previous Thursday, but I hadn’t seen it. She thanked everyone for the gift we’d sent and for everything else her fellow employees had done. It seemed that people had been preparing meals for her, and that a couple of the guys from shipping had been taking care of her yard. Marshall had visited her son twice more, once delivering a stack of books on car customization, and the other time visiting with Jimmy for nearly an hour.
“Do you like Mexican food?” Marshall asked.
I turned to find him standing behind me. “Of course.”
“I found this place downtown that has really good food,” he said.
“I love Ninfa’s.”
Marshall arrived for our next date promptly at seven, and this time I waited for him to knock on my apartment door. He wore a pale green polo shirt, tan slacks, and polished loafers. As usual, the sight of him made my heart skip a beat.
I wore date clothes—a white blouse, blue knee-length skirt, and low-heels. I wore simple gold earrings that did not jingle when I moved my head, and I had a necklace made from a thin gold chain that directed the eye toward my cleavage. This was a tried-and-true ensemble, one that flattered my figure and usually drew appropriate comments.
Marshall didn’t disappoint me. “You look gorgeous,” he said.
I smiled and touched my hair, even though I knew nothing was out of place.
The restaurant was packed and we had to wait for a table. Marshall bought two Margaritas from the bar, and we stood inside the door drinking and waiting for Marshall’s name to be called.
He asked about my car. “Any more problems?”
“None at all,” I said. “Knock on wood.”
“Any new clients?”
“Kingston thinks he has a shot at a new mystery magazine,” I said. “That would be a change of pace after all the medical journals and farm titles we handle.”
We killed time like that, not discussing anything significant, until we were shown to our table. I ordered a chimichanga and Marshall opted for the fajitas Chihuahua style.
While we waited for our food, I asked how Marshall was feeling about Waco.
“I think I’m finally able to get around without asking for directions,” he said. “It’s not that Waco is all that big, it’s just that north and south aren’t where I expect them to be.”
I’d had the same problem when I’d moved to Waco for college, and I told him how long it had taken for me to figure things out. “When you spend most of your time on campus, it doesn’t really matter,” I said. “By the time I was a senior, though, I didn’t want to spend all my time on campus anymore. That’s when I started learning my way around town.”
“I felt comfortable in Chicago,” Marshall said. “Even though it’s so much bigger, it’s where I grew up.”
“I bet you don’t miss rush hour.”
Marshall laughed. “Nobody misses rush hour once they don’t have to deal with it anymore.”
Our dinner arrived and the waiter warned us about the hot plates. After he left, Marshall leaned forward and said, “Aren’t you tempted to touch the plates just to see how hot they really are?”
“I’ve burned myself three times doing that,” I admitted. “Now I believe it when they tell me that my plate is hot.”
We ate in silence for a moment and then Marshall said, “Have you ever met someone and it feels as if you’ve known them forever?”
“Once or twice,” I said. “Why?”
“That’s how I feel about you,” Marshall said. “We’ve really only known each other for a short time, but it feels like I’ve known you forever.”
I stopped with a bite of my chimichanga halfway to my mouth. “Is that good or bad?”
He looked directly at me and I found myself lost in his eyes. “It’s good. It’s good.”
I rested my arm on the table. Marshall reached across and placed one hand on mine.
“I never expected to meet anyone like you when I moved here,” Marshall said. “I certainly wasn’t looking for anyone.”
“Sometimes,” I said, “you find the best things in life when you least expect them.”
Then the waiter interrupted us to make sure we had everything we needed.
Marshall pulled back his hand and told the waiter we were fine. After the waiter walked away, we resumed eating. When the conversation resumed, we discussed work. It was almost as if we had never said the things we’d just said.
I learned more about desktop publishing than I ever would have imagined, and I found myself amazed at the way Marshall lit up when he talked about the way technology was changing the printing and publishing industries. It wasn’t just a job to Marshall, he truly loved what he did.
Since I’d done most of the talking the previous time we’d had dinner together, I decided to sit back and let Marshall talk. I was hoping to learn more about him, but he never said much about his personal life. Although he’d previously told me about working in his father’s business while he was growing up, he never spoke much about what he’d done away from work.
I didn’t push the topic, and I wondered if it was because I was afraid to know any more about Marshall than he was willing to share. Dinner ended with us sharing a sopapilla, and I didn’t argue with Marshall over the bill. I let him pay and leave the tip.
“Look at that,” Marshall said when we stepped out of the restaurant. A black carriage pulled by a single white horse had stopped in front of the restaurant and an older couple was stepping down from it.
Before I could say anything, Marshall approached the driver. Soon we were in the back of the carriage riding through Cameron Park, under a canopy of trees and on a road that paralleled the Brazos River. Traffic was light, and all we could hear was the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves against the pavement and the creak of the wagon swaying beneath us.
“Nobody has ever taken me for a carriage ride,” I said.
Marshall put his arm around my shoulder and I leaned into him. I felt comfortable, like we fit together perfectly, and I relaxed against him. We barely spoke, commenting only on what we saw. Long before I wanted the carriage ride to end, we returned to the restaurant.
Marshall drove me home and walked me to my apartment door. I opened the door, and when I turned back to face him, he took me in his arms. He covered my lips with his and kissed me, stealing my breath and making my legs turn to rubber.
When the kiss ended, I took Marshall’s hand in mine and backed into my apartment. Once inside, I pushed the door closed. He pulled me into his arms again and we continued kissing.
He kissed my lips, my chin, and the hollow at the base of my throat. Somehow, we fell back onto my couch, our arms and legs all entwined. I unbuttoned his shirt and pressed my palm against his muscular chest. He pulled the hem of my blouse free from the waistband of my skirt and his hands slipped under my blouse. They felt warm against my back. I expected him to struggle with the clasps of my bra, but he didn’t. Instead, Marshall pulled away.
His voice was low and husky when he spoke. “I have to go.”
I protested. “It’s still early.”
He pushed himself off the couch and straightened his clothes. I could see the desire in his eyes and I knew that he felt the same way I did. It didn’t prevent him from leaving, though. He buttoned his shirt and quickly tucked it in.
“It’s just—” he said. “It’s just too soon, that’s all.”
“It’s too soon?” I didn’t understand and I followed him to the door.
He pulled the door open and turned to face me. He took my chin in his hand and lifted my face. His lips met mine in a brief, gentle kiss followed by a whispered, “Thank you.”
Then he was gone, leaving me with my heart racing and blood pounding in my ears.
I took a long, cold shower and then watched old movies until I fell asleep.
“It’s impossible,” I told Allison two days later, “seeing him at work every day and remembering how I felt with his arms wrapped around me and his lips caressing mine.”
“How has he acted at work?”
“Fine,” I said. “I mean, we’re at work, after all. I don’t expect him to whisk me in to an empty office or anything like that.”
“He keeps it all business?”
“Pretty much,” I said.
“Has he asked you out again?”
I shook my head. “Not yet, but I’m sure he will,” I said. “He’d better.”
The next morning, I slipped into my car and turned the key. Nothing happened. I didn’t even hear a click, a whir, or anything that gave me any hope that my car might start. I turned the key again and again, and my car wouldn’t respond.
I glanced at my watch. I knew Allison had already left for work, so I dug through my purse looking for the business card Marshall had given me the night he’d brought me home after my car died in the company parking lot. I walked back into my apartment and dialed the phone number he’d written on the back.
When he answered, I explained my problem.
“I was just about to leave,” Marshall said. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
I told him I’d be waiting in the parking lot next to my car. Less than ten minutes later that’s where he met me.
I opened the passenger door and slipped in almost before he brought his Mustang to a complete stop.
“Thank you,” I said. “You’ve rescued me again.”
He looked over and smiled. “Maybe I should be driving a white Mustang.”
“Maybe you should,” I agreed. “Especially if you plan to make a habit out of rescuing damsels in distress.”
The printing plant wasn’t far from my apartment, and Waco’s morning and evening traffic only lasts a few minutes. We arrived at the plant five minutes late, and I hurried to my cubicle. I stuffed my purse in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet and turned to see the light flashing on my phone. Only a few minutes past eight and already I had phone messages to deal with.
As I settled into my chair, my boss stepped into my cubicle with me. His aftershave seemed sickeningly sweet after having just experienced Marshall’s musky scent in the confines of his car.
“Must be nice to wake up next to a man,” my boss said.
I spun my chair around to face Jameson, not realizing that I had forgotten to fasten the top two buttons of my blouse. “Excuse me?”
He nodded toward the back of the department where Marshall had already pushed through the door and into the electronic prepress department. “It must be nice to finally be getting some.”
I gritted my teeth as I said, “My battery died.”
Jameson stared down into my cleavage. “I’ll bet you could wear out just about anything,” he said, “or anyone.”
I stood up and stepped toward my boss. I’m not sure if it was the look on my face or the abruptness of my rising to my feet, but Jameson stepped backward in surprise. Before I had a chance to say anything, he turned and headed toward his office.
I stood at the entrance to my cubicle and stared at his back, hoping he could feel the visual daggers I was glaring at him. After he rounded the corner and disappeared from my view, I returned to my chair, fastened my top two buttons, and took a long, deep breath.
Then I picked up my phone and listened to the messages.
I caught Marshall in the parking lot that afternoon. I was returning from lunch with Allison and he was headed out. “Are you busy Saturday afternoon?”
“I need to do a few things at home, but nothing I can’t postpone again,” he said. “I still haven’t put everything away after the move. Why?”
“The weather’s supposed to be good,” I said. “I was thinking maybe we could have a picnic.”
“What time should I pick you up?” Marshall asked.
“This time, I’ll pick you up,” I said.
Marshall smiled. “If your car will start.”
We agreed on a time and I headed inside.
The rest of the day flew by in the blink of an eye. After work, Allison picked me up and took me to an auto parts store where I purchased a new battery. Then we picked up dinner at a fast food restaurant and ate it at my kitchen table.
After Allison left, I changed into my grubby clothes and went downstairs to my car. It was easy enough to replace my dead battery with the new battery. Before long, I drove to the auto parts store to turn in my dead battery and receive my core fee.
From the auto parts store, I drove to the grocery store and shopped for the next afternoon’s picnic.
I parked my Nissan in Marshall’s driveway and then walked up to the two-story house. I couldn’t believe that he had selected such a large place for himself, and I had every reason to believe that he had been expecting his wife to join him.
I rang the doorbell and waited nervously until he opened the door. He wore a T-shirt with a college logo on it, blue jeans, and running shoes. The jeans and shoes looked new.
“Did I select the right clothes?” he asked.
“You look great,” I told him.
He stepped aside and ushered me into the foyer. “Make yourself at home,” he said. “I’m not quite ready.”
Then he bounded up the steps two at a time and disappeared through one of the doors. I glanced around and then stepped into the living room. Marshall hadn’t been kidding when he’d said he hadn’t finished unpacking. Boxes with the moving company’s logo printed on them were stacked in the living room, and the furniture didn’t look like it had been placed with any thought.
Over the fireplace hung a single picture, a framed print of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, but nothing else hung on the living room walls. I wandered through the boxes and randomly placed furniture until I discovered a sofa table filled with framed pictures of Marshall’s wife. Some were studio portraits, but most were candid shots—in a park, in a kitchen, and on a boat. She wore an evening gown in one and a bikini in another. A couple of the photos had the two of them together. I picked one of the photos off the table and looked at it. They both looked happy, smiling at each other and not looking at the camera.
I hurriedly replaced the photo on the table and walked back to the foyer.
“This place is a mess,” Marshall said as he came down the stairs. “I’m mostly living in the kitchen and the master bedroom.”
As we turned to head out the front door, I saw another photo of Marshall’s wife, this one hanging on the foyer wall where it could be seen every time anyone approached the front door.
We stepped outside. Marshall pulled the door closed and we walked to my car. I drove to Cameron Park and we spread a blanket on the ground near the bank of the Brazos River. I’d prepared a cold pasta salad, crunchy French bread that we tore off the loaf in chunks, and strawberries dipped in milk chocolate.
We talked about work because we always talked about work. It was one thing we had in common.
“So why did you really move to Waco?” I finally asked. “You could have gone anywhere.”
“I wish I could say it was the best offer I received,” Marshall explained. “It might have been, but I’ll never know. It was the first offer I received and I took it. I had to leave Chicago.”
Marshall didn’t look at me when he answered. Instead, he looked out at the river. “I had to leave because Patricia is there.”
“Is she your wife?”
“You wanted to get away from your wife?”
He still didn’t look at me. “It’s not as simple as that.”
“Are you divorced, separated, what?”
“You have pictures of her on your desk,” I said, “and I saw all the pictures in your living room. If you want to get away from her so badly, why do you keep so many photos of her?”
He finally turned to face me. “It isn’t that simple.”
“It should be,” I said.
I turned away from Marshall and began cleaning up our picnic dishes. A moment later, Marshall carried our trash to one of the waste cans and then returned to help me fold our blanket. Then we carried everything to my car and I drove him home.
After I pulled into Marshall’s drive, he turned to me. “Would you like to come in for a few minutes?”
I thought about all the photos of Patricia and how creepy it was to think she would be looking at me. I also wondered about the exact nature of Marshall’s relationship with his wife. I didn’t feel prepared to deal with his unresolved emotions.
“Not today,” I finally said. “I have things to do this evening.”
He stared at me for a moment, an unexpected sadness in his eyes, and then he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. He might have kissed me on the lips, but I didn’t give him the chance. I didn’t turn my head.
“You’d think he lived in a shrine,” I told Allison the next evening. “Pictures of his wife are all over the place.”
Allison had brought take-out Chinese food and we were sitting in my living room with plates of sesame chicken and shrimp fried rice. I was chasing my last piece of chicken around my plate when I said, “That’s what I thought.”
“So he’s not over her, is he?”
“I don’t know what he is,” I said. “It’s obvious that he’s interested in me, and it’s clear that he’s not over her. This isn’t fair. I’ve fallen for him, fallen for him hard, and I want to be with him. I just don’t understand what he wants.”
“He wants to have his cake and eat it too,” Allison said. “Men are like that.”
“He’s not that type,” I protested.
“All men are that type,” Allison said. She pushed her empty plate away. “Certainly every man I’ve known has been like that.”
“Have you considered that maybe it’s the type of guys you date,” I suggested.
Allison took one of the fortune cookies and handed the other one to me. We opened them and pulled out the fortunes.
“What’s yours say?” I asked.
“Man does not live by bread alone,” she read. “What about yours?”
“Still waters run deep.”
I stayed late Monday evening to finish reading a report Marshall had written about preflighting computer disks, and then I walked to the mailroom.
My boss was in there and I tried to back out before he saw me. I didn’t make it.
Jameson grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the mailroom. Then he pulled me tight against him and grabbed my rear with one hand. “You’re putting out for the new guy, aren’t you? Why not for me also?”
I’d had enough of my boss’s unwanted advances. I reached down and grabbed his crotch.
“Is this what you want, Eddie?” I asked. When he started to smile, I squeezed and twisted.
Jameson’s eyes bulged out.
“No,” my boss managed to choke out.
I twisted harder. “You have two choices,” I said. “You leave me alone, or I rip this off and use it to carry small change.”
Wilma visited the plant the next day and stopped at my cubicle.
“Jimmy is in remission,” she told me, a huge smile brightening her face. “Maybe all those prayers helped.”
We talked for a few minutes before she was spirited away by one of the other customer service representatives. She must have worked her way around the plant because I didn’t see her again for nearly three hours. She was talking to Marshall in the break room when I stepped in for a cup of coffee.
As the coffee machine dribbled out a cup of over-priced slop, Marshall walked her to the door, said something I couldn’t hear, and then held the door as she stepped into the hallway.
I retrieved my coffee from the machine. When I straightened up, I found Marshall standing next to me.
“I want to apologize for Saturday,” he said.
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” I said. We were alone in the break room, but I knew we wouldn’t be alone for long.
“Then how about dinner tomorrow night,” he suggested. “I’ll pick you up at seven.”
I considered turning Marshall down, but the look in his eyes let me know that he was very interested in me. He reached out and touched my arm and I felt a familiar tingle shoot through my entire body. Maybe it was foolish to feel the way I did, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Seven is fine.”
The following evening, Marshall took me to one of Waco’s most exclusive restaurants, an old home hidden in the trees near McLennan Community College that had been converted to a restaurant. I’d dressed up for our date, but still felt underdressed. Luckily, our table was tucked into a dark corner and we dined by candlelight.
Marshall ordered a bottle of wine, and no matter how much I drank, my wine glass always seemed to be full. While waiting for our dinner, we talked about work. Marshall told me that Wilma would be returning before the end of the month, and I told him the next issue of Bama Today would enter production soon. We talked for a moment about how he planned to have the new department preflight all computer disks as soon as they were received by customer service.
Our conversation didn’t grow personal until after the meal arrived. We ate in silence for a minute and then Marshall said, “I never expected to meet anyone like you.”
I stopped with my fork halfway in my mouth. “How’s that?”
“I didn’t come here looking for another relationship, not after—” He hesitated and then started again. “I wish I had the words to say the things I feel.”
I had no idea what Marshall wanted to say, but I knew what I wanted to hear. “Just say what’s in your heart.”
“You’re in my heart,” Marshall said. He’d stopped eating and had laid his utensils on his plate. “I think about you all the time. It seems like everything has happened so fast—moving here, meeting you, having these feelings so unexpectedly—and I’m not sure—”
I finished his sentence for him. “Not sure how you feel.”
I reached across the table and took his hand in mine.
“You make my heart skip a beat every time I see you,” Marshall continued. “You make my palms sweat when I think about you. When you’re near, you make me feel like anything is possible.”
I knew how Marshall felt and I told him so. “I’ve never believed in love at first sight,” I said, “but the moment I met you I knew you were someone special. When I stumbled into your arms later that day, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time, something I’m not sure I’ve ever really felt before.”
Marshall’s hand tightened around mine. I could see his eyes sparkle in the candlelight. I wanted him to take me in his arms and smother me with kisses. I wanted him to take me—
“Is everything okay with your meal?” the waiter asked.
My concentration had been so thoroughly focused on Marshall that the waiter surprised me and I jumped, nearly knocking over my wine glass.
“Everything is fine,” Marshall told him. Under the table I felt Marshall’s leg against mine. “Nothing could be better.”
We finished the meal without any more awkward moments, and then Marshall drove me home. He walked me upstairs.
I slid my key into the lock and opened my apartment door. I turned to say goodnight, and without warning he drew me into his arms and we kissed. Slowly, I melted against him, my soft body molding itself to his muscular shape. When the kiss ended, I took his hand and led him inside, kicking the door closed behind me.
We kissed again, deeply, passionately, our eyes half-closed. His kisses were tender and passionate, hungry but not impatient, and he stole my breath away.
Marshall hesitated. He whispered softly, his warm breath tickling my ear, “This is the first time since—”
I turned my head and silenced him with my lips. I had dreamed of this moment and I didn’t want to hear what he had to say.
He didn’t protest when I led him to the bedroom, and we stripped off one another’s clothes and left them strewn on the bedroom floor. Then I pulled back the comforter, exposing the crisp white sheet, and I lay back on the bed, pulling Marshall to the mattress with me.
I had imagined this moment, dreamed of this moment, and so far it was everything I had imagined—and more.
When it was over, Marshall collapsed on top of me, whispering one word in my ear.
My eyes snapped open and I stared hard at the ceiling. When Marshall rolled off of me, I sat up and crossed my arms. I glared hard at Marshall.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“You called me by her name,” I said. I was angry, angry and hurt in a way I didn’t quite understand. The perfect evening had been destroyed by a single word. “You’re with me and you’re thinking of your ex-wife. How fair is that?”
“I—” Marshall didn’t finish. He sat up and swung his legs off the bed. Then he stood, gathered his clothes from the floor, and stepped into the bathroom. I saw the light snap on as the door closed, and then I heard running water and the toilet flush.
I slipped from bed and grabbed my robe, wrapping it around me tightly and cinching the belt. Then I went to the living room and sat on the couch, facing the balcony
When Marshall stepped out of the bedroom a minute later, I felt him stop and stare at my back, but I didn’t respond to him in any manner. He finally turned away and I heard my apartment door open. The keys I’d left dangling from the door dropped onto the table inside, and then the door closed again as Marshall left.
I stared out the window for a long time.
“So?” Allison asked. “How was it?”
“He still loves her,” I explained. I told her what had happened.
“I told you married men were trouble.”
“I felt like there were three of us in that bed,” I said. “I wasn’t sure if he was with me or if I was just a substitute for his ex.”
“I told you this wouldn’t turn out well.”
“You did, but I didn’t listen.”
The next day, Marshall told me that he was going out of town for the weekend. We didn’t speak about the previous evening.
“You would think Anderson would give you more notice,” I said.
“It isn’t business,” Marshall said. “It’s personal.”
Later, when I delivered some paperwork to his office while he was at lunch, I saw Marshall’s itinerary on his desk. He was scheduled to leave right after work that evening and would return on Sunday evening.
I phoned Allison from my cubicle and caught her just before she left for lunch. We didn’t usually phone each other at work, so Allison told me she could postpone lunch.
“Where is he going?” Allison asked after I told her about Marshall’s trip.
“He wouldn’t tell me, but I saw his itinerary,” I said.
“It was on his desk. I didn’t even have to open it.”
“So where did he go?”
“Isn’t that where—?” Allison asks.
“One of the suburbs.”
“You think he went back to see the ex?”
That afternoon, Jameson held a departmental meeting in the boardroom to announce his transfer to the company’s sales office in San Diego, California. Three sales reps work out of that office—none of them were female.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Jameson said, “but they need me right away.”
Even though Jameson repeatedly extolled the virtues of his new opportunity, he seemed less than convincing. After explaining that Anderson would temporarily resume responsibility for the customer service department, Jameson sent us all back to work.
I’d been sitting at the far end of the room and was the last person to the door. “The move is rather sudden, isn’t it?”
Jameson glared at me. We were the only people remaining in the room. In a low, harsh whisper he said, “If you had anything to do with this—”
I cut him off. “I should have turned you in,” I said, “but I didn’t. You’re lucky you still have a job.”
I exited the boardroom and returned to my cubicle. I don’t know if I had an extra bounce in my step, but I sure felt like I did.
I met Allison for lunch the next day and told her about Jameson’s transfer.
“It’s about time,” Allison said. “I reported him a couple of weeks ago.”
“I was handling it myself,” I said.
“If he was bothering you, don’t you think he’s been bothering other women, too? Besides, I made an anonymous complaint. It won’t boomerang on either of us.”
“But how did you do it?” I asked. “You don’t work there.”
“I called your human resources department in New York,” Allison explained. “I found the phone number on the company’s web site, so I reported some of Jameson’s activities. They must have investigated him because he’s gone.”
Allison powered her way through chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, a mound of corn, and three dinner rolls. She washed it all down with two non-diet colas.
Then Allison ordered dessert, a towering concoction of ice cream and toppings, and when it arrived I stared at her across the table. She hadn’t ordered dessert in weeks.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Allison said as she dug into the ice cream.
“Last time we went out, you ordered salad and a diet soda,” I said, “and you didn’t finish the salad. Something is wrong.”
Allison jammed her spoon into the ice cream. “Is it that obvious?”
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Allison said. “It didn’t seem right. You’ve got your own problems.”
I felt the light going on above my head. “Mack dumped you.”
“Last night,” Allison said.
I reached across the table and held my best friend’s hand.
“You know what the worst thing is?” She lowered her voice. “He did it after we had sex.”
There wasn’t anything I could say to make her feel better, so I just squeezed her hand a little tighter.
“There I was in bed, thinking that maybe this time it would be different, that Mack would be the one,” she said. “Boy was I wrong.”
“Did he say why?”
“He said it wasn’t me, it was him,” Allison explained. “How many times have I heard that lie?”
I couldn’t answer her question, so I didn’t even try.
“After Mack left, I tried to go to sleep, but his smell was still there. I stripped everything off the bed and put on fresh sheets. Then I emptied an entire can of air freshener in my bedroom. All I had was some pine-scented stuff I’d been using in the bathroom, and after I fell asleep I dreamed I was sleeping on a Christmas tree farm.”
I smiled and tried not to laugh.
“What about work?” I asked. “Won’t you see Mack every day when he makes deliveries?”
“He’s easy enough to avoid,” Allison said. She pushed the last of her ice cream aside. “I’ll make one of the other girls sign for deliveries.”
The waiter brought our check and we paid.
“So what now?” I asked.
Before Allison could answer, we were interrupted.
We both looked up to find a handsome young man standing at our table.
“Aren’t you Allison?” the young man asked. “We met at Ethel and Ted’s fourth of July barbecue last summer. I’m sorry that I don’t remember your last name, but I remember you plain as day. You wore a blue halter and cut-offs. I’m Jerry, Jerry Webster.”
“Have you eaten?” Allison asked.
“I had dinner with a client,” he explained. “We just finished. He had to rush home to his wife.”
“And you?” Allison asked.
“No wife,” Jerry said, “and no plans for the evening.”
“We were about to have coffee,” Allison said, even though we’d already paid our bill and were about to leave. “Why don’t you join us?”
“I’d like that,” Jerry said.
I suddenly felt like a third wheel, so I excused myself. As soon as I slipped out of the booth, Jerry replaced me. Mack might have hurt Allison’s feelings, but he hadn’t diminished her spirit. Allison was the eternal optimist, always ready to give the next guy the benefit of the doubt.
“Are you seeing anyone?” Jerry asked Allison as I crossed the restaurant toward the door.
“No,” I heard Allison say. I didn’t hear the rest of her response.
Unlike Allison, I didn’t bounce back easily from failed relationships, and I didn’t like abrupt endings. I wasn’t ready to let Marshall slip from my life, and if he planned to return to his wife I needed to understand why.
Marshall returned Sunday night. I was sitting on his porch waiting for him when he arrived, and I demanded that he quit toying with me and make up his mind. “If your ex-wife is important, why isn’t she here now?”
“She’s dead,” Marshall said. Just like that.
It was the last thing I expected to hear and I sat in stunned silence.
Marshall dropped his suitcase and sat down beside me. “I loved her with all my heart, but we never had a chance. About two years after we married, Patricia was diagnosed with cancer. She had radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery, but nothing the doctors did could save her. After she died, I couldn’t go anywhere without passing her favorite restaurant, her favorite grocery store, or the theater where we had our first date. Everything reminded me of her and I just couldn’t take it. I moved to get away from her friends, her family, her co-workers, and all of her favorite places.”
I said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was easier not to. I didn’t want to have to explain all this. Then I realized how much I loved you and I felt confused. It wasn’t fair to you that I was keeping all this inside, but I didn’t know how I would explain it,” Marshall said.
“You could have tried,” I said. I took Marshall’s hand in mine. “I would have listened.”
“I know you would have,” Marshall said. He looked away for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “I’d tried to put everything behind me by leaving Chicago. I even put our house up for sale and gave a lot of Patricia’s things to charity. Still, I couldn’t forget what she meant to me. I think that’s why in all the time since her passing, I’d never taken off my wedding ring. I think I’d been wearing it like armor, as a way to protect myself from having my heart broken again. After I met you, I wondered if I was being too careful.”
I squeezed his hand, letting him know that I was listening.
“Our house finally sold and I went to Chicago for the closing this weekend,” he explained. “While I was there, I visited all of Patricia’s favorite places. It wasn’t the same anymore. I didn’t feel like they were haunted by her ghost. Instead, they were just places filled with great memories. I loved Patricia, and I felt like my heart had been ripped out when she died. When I finally left Chicago, I felt like a big weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I certainly never expected to ever fall in love again.”
I wrapped my arms around Marshall and hugged him for a long, long time. After a while, we went inside and sat at his kitchen table. Then he told me all about his first wife, how they’d met on a blind date and how they’d married in the same church where his parents had married many years earlier. He told me about their house, a fixer-upper in Des Plaines, and about how they liked to spend Saturdays in the park and Sundays being lazy around the house. By the time Marshall finished, I felt as if I’d known Patricia forever, and I knew more about Marshall than I had ever dreamed of knowing.
“It’s time to start my life over,” Marshall said. He took my hand in his and looked deep into my eyes. “I want to do it with you. I want you to give me a chance. No more secrets. I won’t ever forget Patricia—I can’t ever forget Patricia—but I’d like to make new memories with you.”
No man had ever been so open and so honest with me, and no man had ever offered his heart to me the way Marshall had. At that moment, I wanted Marshall in a way I had never wanted any other man. He was still the sexy, strong, determined man I had seen that first day at the printing plant, but now he was also so much more. I knew he was a man who could love and be loved and who would never let me down.
Without either of us saying a word, we stood and took each other in our arms. We hugged and we kissed, but I didn’t feel the kind of physical desire I had felt before. Instead, I felt something more, something deeper—something that touched my soul. For the first time in my life, I felt true love—not the fleeting, man-of-the-moment love that Allison experienced—and it changed me in ways I had never expected.
We talked most of the night away, and when we finally stopped, I glanced at the clock.
“I hate to say this,” I whispered, “but we have to be at work in an hour.”
I never could explain to Allison exactly what Marshall and I had, and by the time we finally married a year later, she’d dumped Jerry Webster and had gone through three more relationships. Someday, I hoped she would find what I had.