Cassie reached under the counter and switched off the front window’s red neon OPEN sign as Derrick entered the bookshop. He was no longer wearing his work clothes; instead, he wore a clean pair of blue jeans and a button-down shirt. His brown hair was neatly combed back into gelled lines, and his gray peppered beard was trimmed.
“Wow, you look nice,” Cassie said as Derrick walked up to her at the counter. He kissed her on the cheek.
“Nothing but the best for you.” He smiled as he stuffed the tips of his fingers into the pockets of his snug denim. “Are you ready?”
Cassie straightened the stack of hardcover books on the counter, remembering Gustave’s ring that was still in her pocket. Her stomach growled. “Yeah, I’m starving.”
Derrick shifted his weight. “I can tell, I heard your stomach. Did you eat anything today?”
“I did,” Cassie said as she walked into the office. She retrieved her purse from the desk drawer, taking a moment to look at the beach picture of them on the desktop. The picture of her and her future husband? She put the purse over her shoulder and walked out. “Nicole’s daughter brought in chocolate chip cookies, so I had a bunch of those.”
“That’s all you ate, a bunch of sugar?” Derrick laughed.
“And a bunch of chocolate. But no, I also had potato soup and a Greek salad from Pete’s next-door.”
“That’s still not enough food,” Derrick said, walking to the entrance door. He held it open for Cassie. “You can order anything you want on the menu at Aubree’s. I don’t want you to wither away to nothing.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that.” Cassie playfully glanced up at him as she walked through the doorway.
While Cassie locked up the bookstore Derrick rushed to his truck and opened the passenger-side door. He motioned for Cassie to climb inside the cab as if she was Cinderella stepping into a pumpkin carriage.
Based on every move Derrick made, Cassie was sure her hunch of him proposing was correct. Either that or he had been swilling whiskey.
Cassie pushed aside an old McDonald’s bag along with a stray french fry and climbed onto the vinyl seat. Derrick gently closed the passenger door and crossed in front of the pickup, winking at her as he passed by the front grill.
The driver’s side door clunked when Derrick opened it; Cassie was sure it was moments away from falling off its hinges. She caught a whiff of cologne. “Not only do you look good, but you smell good, too.”
Derrick nodded as he turned on the ignition. The truck roared as Derrick pulled onto the road.
Cassie fastened her seatbelt and thought of her future name, Cassie Garner—that’s not bad. But she could not stop thinking about Gustave. It had to be a sign, a sign that she should wait and see what the mysterious man had to offer. She could tell that Ringman, as Nicole calls him, liked her and the fact he left the ring on the counter surely was done so that she would return it and he would see her again. Maybe Gustave would invite her inside his home or out to dinner. She knew it was a fantasy, an unrealistic thought, but what if Gustave was the one, she had to find out.
“I have tomorrow off,” Derrick said, stopping at a traffic light, causing a large metal bolt to roll out from under Cassie’s seat, hitting the heel of her shoe. “We can do something like go to the beach or go on a lakeshore cruise.”
Cassie hated not knowing which decision to make. She was flip-flopping between Derrick and Gustave. Her head was telling her to go with Derrick but her heart, or rather her curiosity, was telling her to go with Gustave.
“I have to go to Lolly and pick up some books. I have to deliver one of them to a client in Anisteem.”
The light turned green; Derrick accelerated. “Can’t Nicole do that?”
Cassie sensed the disappointment in his voice. “We’d have to close the shop.”
“I understand,” Derrick said, turning into Aubree’s parking lot, parking his beater next to a midnight blue Lincoln. “Don’t get out yet, I’ll open the door for you.”
Cassie noticed that Derrick was losing the spring in his step; she was sure it was because she was acting a little standoffish. The passenger door creaked open and Cassie slid out, into Derrick’s arms.
“I’m glad I got reservations because it looks busy,” Derrick said, pointing to a group of well-heeled people walking inside Aubree’s, underneath the orange awning.
“I think I’m kind of underdressed,” Cassie said, looking down at her faded blue jeans that were wearing thin at the knees.
“You look beautiful, Cassie,” Derrick said, as they walked toward the bustling entrance where primarily older couples were talking and laughing. Warm amber lights framed both the awning and the oval Aubree’s sign above it. “You could be wearing rags and I’d still love you.”
Cassie knew it was true. Derrick would love her no matter what. He was a loyal man who would die for her.
Derrick held the door open for Cassie as they walked inside the dimly lit foyer.
“Welcome to Aubree’s, sir and madam. Do you have reservations?” the maître d’ said, his mustache wiggled when he spoke. Dressed in a black suit with a crisp white shirt, he stood behind a desk that looked like a church pedestal.
“My name’s Derrick Garner and we have reservations for six-thirty.”
The man looked unemotionally down at an open book, adjusting the glasses on his nose. He picked up a couple of menus from underneath the counter. “Yes, sir, I have you and madam down for six-thirty. Please, follow me.”
Cassie hooked her arm around Derrick’s elbow and followed the stuffy maître d’ to an isolated table by a window overlooking Lake Michigan. It was beautiful. A sailboat far offshore sat in its own isolated space, bobbing on gentle waves.
Derrick pulled a chair out for Cassie. She sat down on the padded seat and looked at the candle flickering in the center of the table.
“Johnathon will be your server,” the maître d’ said. “He will be here shortly to take your order.”
“Thank you,” Derrick said as he sat across from Cassie. “Nice place, huh?”
“It’s absolutely charming,” Cassie said, looking around the room of people enjoying themselves with conversation and drink. “But I must admit that I feel a little out of place.”
“You’re the prettiest girl here,” Derrick said, picking up a menu.
Cassie knew he meant it. She blushed and smiled at Derrick who returned the smile with a quick nod as he opened the menu. He looked handsome in the flickering candlelight casting a warm glow on his face.
A tall and skinny young man dressed in a stark white long-sleeved shirt topped with a black vest approached the table with a pad and pen in hand. “Hello, I am your server, Johnathon, may I get you something to drink?”
This night was going to take an alcoholic beverage, a vodka and grapefruit juice would help. “I’ll have a salty dog.”
“Thank you, madam, and you sir?”
“A whiskey sour for me, my dear man,” Derrick said, glancing at Cassie.
Johnathon thanked them and walked away.
Cassie held back a giggle. “My dear man?”
“Hey, just playing the part.”
“Like James Bond?”
“I love you,” Cassie said, and she meant it.
A table of two couples began laughing, a man appeared to be telling a joke even though Cassie could not hear everything he was saying. Tonight was going better than she thought it would. But of course, she knew the outcome was totally in her hands and her hands only.
Johnathon returned with their drinks. He took the rest of their order and swiftly left.
Cassie’s stomach grumbled again. “I can’t wait for my steak to get here. I am so hungry.”
“I am too,” Derrick said, taking a roll from the basket that Johnathon had placed on the table.
They talked about their day while they waited for their food. Derrick was happy he caught a defect in a part at work before they shipped it to the customer and Cassie mentioned the book and the pamphlet that she had to pick up from The Antiquarian Bookseller. She said she would be delivering An Impartial Account of the Trial of Lord Conwallis to a client in Anisteem and would be gone most of the day. She didn’t mention, however, anything about Gustave Veil even though his image was occupying her mind—an uncomfortably large portion of her mind.
“Too bad you can’t get out of work; I should’ve given you more notice.” Derrick paused and then reached into his pocket, bringing out a small container that looked like a ring box.
Cassie’s moment of decision had come, and she still did not know what to say. Her ‘no’ had turned to ‘yes’, and then now it sat at ‘I totally don’t know what to say’.
Derrick waved the violinist to come to their table and moments later the violin player was drawing the bow across the strings, playing a beautiful love song.
Cassie watched as Derrick took a beautiful diamond ring from the box; he must have been saving his money for months. Then he did one of the most romantic things a man could do, he got out of his chair and knelt on one knee next to her.
People watched as Derrick held Cassie’s hand to his lips.
“Cassie, I love you so much. There are no other women like you on Earth. You’re gorgeous, smart, and kind.” Derrick paused, then said. “Cassie, will you marry me?”
Cassie could hardly breathe. Everyone was staring at her. She did not know what to say. If she said yes, she would be getting his hopes up for something that might not happen. If she said no, Derrick would be devastated, not to mention the fact she would look like an evil witch. Derrick was waiting for her answer.
The violinist stopped playing so that everyone could hear Cassie’s answer. And everyone was listening in the now quiet room. Aside from an occasional clank of silverware, all attention was turned her way.
“Derrick I love you with all my heart and soul.” Cassie meant what she said. “But . . .”
Horrified sighs and one sadistic giggle filled the silence. Cassie watched as Derrick’s happy face turned to bewilderment, then to sorrow, and then to embarrassment. He hung his head while still holding her hand and the ring. Cassie felt a warm teardrop fall onto her finger.
“What’d she say?” an old man, obviously hard of hearing, asked.
“She said no,” a woman replied loudly.
“Poor fellow,” the old man said.
Derrick released her hand, wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans, and stood up as the violinist walked quickly away. Derrick sank into his seat, placed the ring back into its case, and returned it to his pocket.
Johnathon brought their food. It smelled and looked delicious, but Cassie had lost her appetite. She looked at Derrick who downed the rest of his whiskey sour rather than cut into the steamy steak. The atmosphere in Aubree’s returned to near normal, albeit a bit subdued.
“I’m so sorry, Derrick.” Cassie thought Derrick was going to start crying. She was such a heel. Feeling ugly, stupid, and mean, she picked up her fork and then set it back down. “I’m just not ready.”
Derrick nodded. “Yeah.”
Cassie downed her salty dog.
“I lost my appetite,” Derrick said abruptly.
“Me too.” Cassie looked down at the baked potato, avoiding eye contact with Derrick.
“Are you ready to go?”
Cassie nodded, feeling so bad that she had hurt Derrick’s feelings. She should have said yes and then deal with the aftermath later. No, that would just make things worse.
Derrick motioned for Johnathon who quietly approached with the check presenter—he must have expected that was what Derrick wanted after the failed proposal.
“Can we have doggy bags?” Cassie said quietly as Derrick placed the credit card in the black book.
“Of course, I’ll be right back.”
“I’m sorry I made a mess of our evening,” Derrick said, forcing a smile. “If you’re not ready, it is best to wait.”
Cassie was feeling like her worst nightmare was coming true. Nothing would develop between her and Gustave, Derrick would move on to someone better than her, and she would become that bitter spinster from a night terror.
“It wasn’t your fault, Derrick, it was mine.” Of that Cassie was sure.
“Don’t worry about it,” Derrick said, almost sounding angry. “It’s been a couple of years and we still can’t get together, so I think we need to see other people.”
Cassie’s jaw dropped; she was not expecting that response. But why not, she wanted to see someone else, but she was not so sure about Derrick seeing other women. “I suppose.”
Johnathon returned with the receipt and containers big enough to fit their uneaten meals. Suddenly the scent of steak did not seem so great.
“Are you ready?” Derrick said, standing.
Cassie felt eyes upon her as they left Aubree’s. The trip to Cassie’s apartment was awkward, to say the least. She could not help but think that she had made a mistake, she should have said yes to the proposal. What was she thinking? Why did Ringman have such a hold on her? She wanted to turn to Derrick and tell him she had changed her mind, but he had already mentioned seeing other people. What happened? Why couldn’t he have waited a few weeks before proposing, by then she’d know more about Gustave. She had messed up and messed up big.
Derrick pulled in front of Evergreen Apartments, leaving the pickup running and showing no intent on walking her inside. He leaned over and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“I’ll call you soon,” Cassie said, not knowing how to end this miserable night out.
Cassie got out and was about to close the pickup door when Derrick said, “Cassie, don’t forget your food.”
Cassie was half-hoping he was going to say something else, something like I love you and I really don’t want to see anyone else. “Thanks.” She cleared her throat. “Are you taking me to work in the morning?”
“I wasn’t planning on it. I thought you’d drive since you have to go to Lolly and Anisteem tomorrow.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot.” Oh god, she sounded like such a liar, even though she was not lying about not being able to take tomorrow off work because of the business trip. Not true. She did not tell him the complete truth. Nicole would have made the trip, in fact she insisted, but Cassie’s stupid self wanted to see Gustave who was more than likely a weirdo, just like Nicole said.
As she walked to the entrance, she turned and momentarily watched Derrick drive through the parking lot and back out to the road. She buzzed herself in and decided to take the elevator up to her second-floor apartment; the events of the evening had zapped her energy and climbing stairs sounded like too much work. She went inside and locked the door behind her. After setting her purse on the bar, she put the food in the refrigerator and took out a cold beer. Not exactly what she wanted but it would surely help her feel better.
She began to cry as she walked into the bathroom to change into her pajamas. What had she done? She slipped off her jeans and heard a ting on the marble tiled floor. The skull ring, not the engagement ring, had fallen from her pocket. She examined it before slipping it onto her ring finger as if it was the engagement ring Derrick was close to placing there.
Cassie finished getting ready for bed, surprised the large man’s ring had not yet slipped off her finger. She walked back to the kitchen and swallowed more beer before trying to remove the ring, but it would not come off her finger.
“Really? I can’t believe this is stuck,” Cassie said, twisting and pulling on it.
She turned on the cold-water faucet and put her hand into the stream, hoping it would help release the ring, but it was stuck.
“What the heck.” Cassie took canola oil from the cupboard and poured a small amount around the ring, trying to work some of the slipperiness between the ring and her skin without messing up the ring too much. The ring was bound to keep its place.
Cassie worked on it for half an hour. What would she do if the ring would not come off before she returned it to Gustave? She sighed. “This is ridiculous.”
Having tried everything from butter to holding her hand above her head, hoping to reduce the swelling, she gave up. She was tired and it had been a rather crappy day—still was.
Cassie washed the slippery goo from her hands and brushed her teeth before staggering into her bedroom, plopping onto her bed. She could not help but keep tugging on the ring, it was driving her mad.
She rolled onto her side and pulled the sheet over her midbody. Then a clicking sound came from inside the apartment. Cassie looked through her bedroom door where she could see the kitchen. Probably the fridge, she thought.
After closing her eyes, she opened them back up moments later. She could not stop mulling over the day’s events. “I can’t sleep.” She got out of bed and turned on the fan sitting on her windowsill, hoping the white noise would block the day's thoughts and lull her to sleep.
Cassie climbed back into bed and stared at the ceiling, at least until a scurrying sound came from the living room. It startled her. She sat up in bed and looked back out her bedroom door. “I can’t believe I have to deal with mice, too.
Cassie got out of bed and did a cursory search for the rodent, unsure what to do if she had actually found it.
Finding no sign of the mouse, she laid back down on the bed’s cotton sheets. “This has to be the worst day ever,” she whispered before dosing off to sleep.
CASSIE AWOKE IN A START, it seemed something had run across her bed, over her legs. “Damned mouse, I was sound asleep.” She looked at the clock, it was three o’clock in the morning. Cassie threw the sheet off her legs and looked at the foot of her bed. She had either dreamed it, or a mouse climbed up the sheet that was hanging over the edge of the mattress and took a shortcut to the other side of the room.
Cassie got out of bed, turned off the fan and turned on the bedroom light. There were no signs of mice, no sounds of a mouse nibbling on food or inside the walls. She walked into the kitchen and cautiously looked behind the toaster. She knew she would jump if she saw a mouse shoot out and run away. Fortunately, there was not a mouse or signs of mouse turds. She opened the cupboard and looked at the bread, no part of the package had been gnawed. At least there was not an infestation, but she would still report it to the Evergreen Apartments manager and get some mouse traps.
It was too early to stay up, so Cassie decided to go back to bed, hoping to get a couple more hours of much-needed sleep. She turned off the kitchen light and walked back to the bedroom, stopping dead in her tracks. The top sheet and the pillow were no longer lying on the bed; instead, they were underneath it, deep underneath. She stood motionless trying to make sense out of what she was seeing. She did not remember putting them there, it made no sense. She supposed it was possible she had done it and just does not remember; it had been a rough day after all and she was woken from a sound sleep. There had to be a logical explanation.
Cassie got down on her hands and knees and pulled the pillow and sheet out from underneath. She cautiously picked up the queen size cloth and shook it, you never know if a mouse was clinging to the fabric. There was not.
She smoothed the sheet over her bed and walked to the light switch. Before turning it off, she listened. There were no sounds, they must have found a hiding place, probably the closet. At least it was not on her bed.
Cassie turned off the light, turned on the fan again, and got back into bed, making sure the sheet was wholly on the top of the mattress. So much had happened Thursday, and Friday was not turning out to be much better. She would deal with it when she woke up in a couple of hours.
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