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I was angry. Not for nothing, but at almost forty-six years old, I had managed to earn four degrees and was about to earn a fifth. I had been a teacher for twenty-six of those years, from the time I graduated, a raw girl, from university. I had managed to avoid pregnancy and single motherhood, not through any great goodness of my own, but because God was watching my back, and I didn’t sleep around, except for that one year, when I was nineteen, and then only with those two Indian boys from Trinidad, and then only once each time. In fact, I was generally afraid of men, even though I had had deep friendships with three boys-who-wanted-to-be-men before I was twenty years old. I had grown up in a dysfunctional household where, among other things, I was the only legitimate child of my parents. My siblings, one of whom was younger than me, were either related to my mother or my father by blood, but not to both. I bore that special distinction.
Now, at almost forty-six, I was a married mother of two, a boy and a girl, both of whom were off to college in a few weeks. One would be a junior, one a freshman. I was about to have an empty nest, and I was grateful not sad, because I knew I was about to blow a gasket and I didn’t want the children there when I did. Maybe this was all about menopause. I certainly had had my fair share of hot flashes, anxiety attacks, weeping fits, mood swings, and weight gain. I was not happy about any of these little joys of middle life, but the weight gain upset me the most, because it only added to an already overburdened body. I was fat, and I hated it.
Damaris, my daughter, had blossomed in her fourteenth year, from a fat girl to a tall, willowy young woman, now about to take the college world by storm. Her older brother, Joshua, the junior in college, had lost all the baby puddles around his middle after his first year in college, and had come home with a six-pack and beautiful biceps and triceps. My husband had taken my word for it and had lost his belly and regained his buff. Yet here I was unable to lose an ounce of flesh, and falling further and further into a funk I didn’t seem to be able to get myself out of. And it didn’t help that Alex, my husband of twenty two years, had developed the, in my opinion, bad habit of making decisions for us and acting on them without regard to my feelings in the matter. This was why we had ended up in this huge house two years after we bought it, with no children and a ridiculous mortgage. This was why we had a Hummer parked on the driveway, as well as the second-hand Lexus that we had before the house and the Hummer. This was why I had to drive for almost an hour to get to a hair dresser who could do black hair. This was why I was still writing my dissertation instead of job hunting in the local colleges.
I was angry with Alex, as much as I was angry with myself. And it didn’t help that, unlike most other menopausal women, my libido had spiked, not dipped, and being at heart a moral human being, I had to seek release in Alex. How can you be angry with someone and want to jump his bones at the same time and almost all the time? The interesting thing is that I could probably just as easily have jumped any man’s bones, if I found him beautiful enough, but I knew any man I found up to scratch would find me wanting and not even spare me a second glance. So I was angry.
This is why I ended up in a hotel by myself, supposedly taking some time to myself before it was time to go back to work, and before we had to take the kids up to their colleges. Alex used to suggest that I do this, when the kids were younger and I was feeling hemmed in, but I had never worked up the courage to do it until now. Now, when we could ill afford the cost of a four-day, three-night stay anywhere. But I knew if I didn’t get away from him, I’d say the absolutely wrong thing and ruin any chance we might have to keep things stable between us. I looked out of the French windows to the pool beyond the flowering fence, and wished I could join those people splashing about or lounging around. But I knew I wouldn’t fit in. My body was too round, and my conversation was too flat. I kept wondering why I hadn’t chosen a small country inn or B & B, and then remembered that this had been a bargain I couldn’t refuse. I sighed and put on my sweats. Maybe I should just go and do a little riding in the exercise room.
I took a towel with me and went off to the gym in the basement. No one seemed to be around, which was fine by me, I thought, trying to ignore the niggling feelings of loneliness and fear that threatened to ambush and overwhelm me. I chose a stationary bike in the back of the room, and set it to the time and speed I thought I could handle without having a heart attack. I did the warm-up stretches I had learned from Body by Jake shows, and then I rode hard for about thirty minutes without stopping. I had worked up a sweat and was feeling the burn in my legs, and the pumping of my heart was making me feel like I was accomplishing canlı bahis something when another woman came in and with her a tall, broad, muscular man. He seemed to be her personal trainer, because he set up the first machine she would work on while she warmed up, and as I moved on to the weights, she began her routine.
Suddenly, I was not in the mood to shake the fat anymore. I had been in the gym a good forty-five minutes by now, and I thought to myself that I had done enough for one morning. Maybe I’d come back in the afternoon, if the pool was still too crowded. I wiped sweat from my face with the towel I had brought and was about to leave the room when the trainer approached me.
“You should stretch to end your exercise routine,” he advised. “Keeps you from having cramps later,” he added. “You might even want to soak a little bit in the hot tub, to ease the tired muscles some more.”
I didn’t know quite how to respond to this, since I hadn’t realized that he had been watching me, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. He was definitely not the type to look twice at me, with his broad shoulders, and what the teenage girls in my high school senior English class would call his hot body and drop-dead gorgeous face, and I couldn’t imagine him having any interest in anything I did or said. So why was he talking to me now?
“Are you employed here?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking. My voice sounded stiff and cold to my ears.
He smiled, revealing deep dimples in each cheek to match the cleft in his chin.
“No, I’m with Anne,” he replied, pointing to the woman he had come in with. “I hope I haven’t offended you,” he continued, watching my face anxiously.
My turn again. “No,” I lied, willing my pulse to go back to normal after that sexy smile, “I’m just … surprised, that’s all. Usually no one talks to me when I come down here. Anyway, thanks for the tip.”
“You’re welcome,” he answered, smiling again, and then, just before he walked away, he added, “If you can wait a few minutes, I’ll show you a few stretches.”
I was tempted, oh I was tempted, but I was beginning to feel afraid, my old response to all men. I lied again.
“Sorry, I have an appointment and I’m about to be late as it is. Maybe next time.” I made good my escape, before he could continue.
My heart was pounding as I made my way back to my room. I was a married woman who didn’t know anything about how to handle men who made passes at her, especially when she was interested. Guilt washed over me. I shouldn’t even have had that conversation, I shouldn’t have let him think I would entertain him again. But he was a gorgeous man, and I recognized my immediate response to him for what it was. Best to stay away from all that. I may have some problems with my husband, but I wasn’t about to make a spectacle of myself with a stranger.
I showered and washed my hair. Wrapped in a terry bath robe, I sat in front of the television and dried it with the little blow dryer provided by the hotel. Then I combed and brushed it and secured it in a ponytail. It fell to my shoulders, thick and lush, one of the few things I still actually liked about myself. Alex liked it too, and was always playing in it, sometimes to my great irritation. Alex! I hadn’t thought about him at all for a whole day. After dinner, I decided, I’d call him, to find out how things were going. Damaris had her hair appointment today, and they were to go shopping for linens and toiletries. I was relieved that they didn’t need me. Damaris had her head solidly on her shoulders, and Alex could deal with Josh’s boy issues, having been a boy himself once.
Nothing interesting was on television, so I took up the book I had been reading and stretched out on the chaise lounge by the French windows. I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I had the most explicitly erotic dream I had ever had, and it was about the stranger in the gym doing the most unspeakably exciting things to me with his hands and mouth and other body parts. I woke up in a sweat, my heart pounding fiercely in my chest. I didn’t know this man, not even his name, and for all I knew he was a lounge lizard or a man on the prowl for weak women like me to prey on. What was I doing dreaming about him?
A knock on the door woke me instantly. I hurried to see who it was, tying the bath robe more firmly around my waist, and wondering who could be there, since I had not ordered anything from room service. I peeped through the little peephole and saw the dishy stranger from the gym. My face heated. How did he know where I was staying? Should I open the door?
“Mrs. Kerr, we met earlier today in the gym. May I have a word with you?”
So, he knew I was married, and he still wanted to talk. Maybe that meant he was harmless and I had nothing to worry about. I opened the door on the chain.
“Please wait a few minutes.”
He nodded and leaned against the wall, hands in the pockets of dark blue slacks. I closed the door, my hands bahis siteleri sweaty, my heart pounding again, and tried to think clearly. Why did he want to see me and what was I to wear? I couldn’t make up my mind about the latter question, and I wouldn’t know the answer to the former question until I had some clothes on, so I put on red Capri pants and a white T-shirt. Slipping my feet into a pair of thongs, I re-opened the door.
“Yes, how may I help you?” I asked in my best cool voice, avoiding his eyes.
“Can we talk in the bar?” he asked, blue eyes piercing into me.
“What is this about?” I asked, sliding my gaze away from his face.
“It’s a little awkward to discuss at your door, and it would probably not be in the best taste to have a strange man in your room,” he answered, with a look I couldn’t read on his face when I looked up again.
“Okay,” I agreed after a very long pause. I was on holiday, and not likely to meet this man ever again after today, I reasoned, so I went back inside for my key card, stuffed it into a pocket and left the room. The bar was public enough that he couldn’t try anything, but having never been in a bar before, I was still wary of him.
“You have the advantage of me. It might help if I knew what to call you,” I said coolly.
He laughed softly. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Ben Mandeville.” He put out his hand and I put my own into it. His hand was big and warm, and he squeezed mine gently before letting go.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Mandeville,” I said. “Where’s your boss?”
He turned puzzled eyes to me. “My boss?” he asked, then smiled. Oh my, those killer dimples again! “You mean Anne? She’s not my boss, she’s my sister. I’m helping to train her for a competition she’s entered. It’s happening this weekend, and these are the last few days before the big event.” He paused, as we exited the elevator and headed towards the bar.
“Where’s your husband?” was his surprising question.
“At home with the kids, getting them ready for college.” I wanted him to know I was no shrimp, and he should respect me.
“College? How many kids?” We were being seated as he asked that one.
“Two,” I answered, deciding not to volunteer any more information, but needing to know why we were sitting in a bar having drinks when we didn’t know each other, had never even met before that morning. He had ordered a beer.
“Why are we here?” I asked plainly. “We don’t know each other.”
“I’d like to get to know you, and I thought you might not mind getting to know me,” he said, his voice changing subtly on the word “know”.
I felt myself changing color, and wished I could leave. I fell back on outrage instead. “I see marital status doesn’t mean anything to you, Mr. Mandeville.”
“You wound me,” he said, assuming a hurt expression. “You’re a beautiful woman, and you caught my eye. I’m interested in you, I want to talk to you, to be in your company. After all, I assume that we’re both on holiday, and I merely want to spend my free time in pleasant company.”
“Why?” I wanted to know. I tried to ignore the beautiful woman part. “What’s the point of such a relationship?”
“Does being married make you off limits? Where’s the harm in making a new friend?” His question was soft.
“Do women have to be beautiful to qualify for friendship with you?” I asked, ignoring the part about marriage making me off limits.
He swallowed some beer before answering. “No, they don’t, but I get to choose who I want to be friends with, and this time I want you.”
I heard no special intonation in his voice this time, but I felt the thrum of double entendre nonetheless. I hadn’t been an English teacher for twenty-six years for nothing.
I looked at him as he sat opposite me, taking in the black hair with sprinkles of grey throughout, cut military style, the extra long eyelashes, the dark blue, almost black eyes, the square jaw with the beginning of a five o’clock shadow. His hands were large and deeply veined, with long fingers, as though he played the piano. I struggled to keep my mind away from thoughts of those hands on my body, remembering the very erotic dream I had had about him. His skin was the color of caramel. So much like my own that he might pass for a light-skinned black man. Only that hair and those eyes gave him away.
“Do you like what you see?” he asked suddenly, smiling slowly at the flush of color that infused my face. “Do I pass?”
I decided to try and disconcert him. “For a white man, yes,” I responded, trying to inject nonchalance into my voice.
He chuckled. “Touché, Mrs. Kerr, touché!” He raised his hand for another beer, and asked, “Want another?”
I had ordered a strawberry daiquiri, and knew I didn’t need to have a second, but I said yes, and the waiter went away to get the second round. I could feel his eyes on me, and almost jumped out of my skin when he asked,
“Why are you so shy? You’re beautiful and, I’ve now discovered, bahis şirketleri clever and witty.” His eyes searched my face in the dimly lit room.
“I’m not shy,” I corrected him. “I’m just uncomfortable with men.”
“Someone hurt you once,” he said slowly, after a pause, “and we’ve all been tarred with his brush in your eyes. But we’re not all cruel, hateful creatures, you know. Some of us are actually human.” He laughed when he said that. Then he continued, with what sounded like regret in his voice, “But you already know that, since you married one.”
“Most men of my acquaintance only want one thing, though not usually from me,” I said coldly. He leaned forward in his chair and took my hand, holding it firmly when I tried to pull it away.
“And you’re wondering whether that’s what I want, too, right?” He looked me in the eyes, and then slowly raised my hand to his lips, not taking his eyes from mine. “I won’t deny that I often want that, too,” he confessed, and his dark blue eyes glittered, “but right now I really only want to get to know you. Sex without friendship is prostitution, and I choose to be with you, not a prostitute. Besides, as you say, you are married.” He kissed my hand again, then let me go and asked, “Pax?”
I relaxed and nodded. I was beginning to enjoy this charged banter between us, and I was intrigued by this man who wasn’t afraid to say what he wanted. I just had to be careful about all this hand kissing, though. That could lead to places I would rather not go.
“How did you know my name and where to find me?” I asked, as I sipped my second drink.
“I used my eyes,” he said. His answer was non-committal, giving nothing away. “And I saw you go to your room when you first arrived. You didn’t notice, but I was in the elevator with you. I’m just down the hall.”
I wasn’t sure I liked that he was staying in a room close to mine, but there was nothing I could do about that. I felt his eyes on me again, and blushed.
“I wish you wouldn’t keep staring at me,” I said, irritated and not a little bit afraid. “It makes me uncomfortable.”
“I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” he said. “If I promise not to stare anymore, will you have lunch with me?”
He looked at his watch as he spoke, and I realized with a pang that I was hungry, too.
“What about your sister? Won’t she mind having lunch with a stranger?”
“Anne doesn’t eat lunch. She has a power shake and a nap.” He put up his finger again and asked for the drinks to be added to his bill.
“Do you want to eat in, or shall we go out for lunch?”
His question startled me, until I figured out he meant the hotel restaurant or one in town. I chose the hotel restaurant, in the interests of safety, though considering that I was alone in the hotel, I’m not sure how safe I was anywhere with this interesting man.
“Can we not sit by the door?” I requested.
“Afraid of being seen with me?” he teased.
He didn’t know how close to the truth he was, and I didn’t enlighten him. I laughed lightly and left the question unanswered.
As we sat at the table for two in the corner by the fish tank, I wondered whether this intimate setting was any better than the table by the door. But it was too late to change so I sat and looked at the menu. I was starving, but I didn’t want to order too freely, for fear I put him off. I found myself reluctant to leave him with a bad impression of me, so I tried to find the least expensive items and had just decided to drink water instead of the fruity concoction I really wanted to try, when I heard, too close for comfort, in my ear, it seemed:
“Stop it! Order what you want to eat. You agonize over everything, don’t you?”
I looked up to find him watching me amusedly, and I was suddenly more upset than if he had called me a fat cow. No one, not even Alex, had ever been able to read me so well, and I did not like the way it left me feeling vulnerable. Fuming, I lowered my eyes to the menu again, and felt him touch my arm.
“Sorry!” he said. “I didn’t mean to upset you, though I’m not sure what I did.” There was a question in his voice, and I decided to answer him.
“I dislike being watched. It makes me uncomfortable.”
That was the third time today I had told him he made me uncomfortable. Not a good way to start a friendship, or anything else, for that matter, and definitely not a good way to impress anyone with my great self-confidence.
“Doesn’t your husband watch you?” he asked innocently, too innocently I thought. “That’s different,” I retorted. “He’s my husband. We’ve been together for twenty-two years.” I clamped my mouth shut. Too much information, again.
He called the waitress over and placed his order, then waited while I placed mine. I ordered the fruity drink and a ham sandwich with salad.
“We’ll order dessert later,” he told the waitress. I stole a look at him while he dealt with her, and what I saw made me squirm in my seat. I saw full lips curved in a smile, a handsome square-jawed face, broad shoulders, muscular arms, and large, capable hands; I saw a man I could happily make love with. I didn’t realize I had made a sound until he asked,
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