Dazzling afternoon sun blinded Kate as she stepped out onto the street and, squinting, stopped to fish her sunglasses out of her bag. Remembering her tea with Simon, she smiled to herself and thought how pleasant it would be to sit outside again. This was likely the last bit of sunshine she would see before next spring. She would treat herself to a nice restaurant lunch and take her mind off of both her temperamental clients and their interfering, exasperating barristers. I know just the spot.
Two blocks over, she approached Luigi’s, but was dismayed to find a cluster of people in the doorway with similar intentions. She’d have a long wait for a table. She paused on the sidewalk, glancing at her watch and surveying the crowd. A flash of movement caught her eye, and glancing over, she was amazed to see Simon sitting alone at a small table outside, waving a menu in the air. She strolled over, her stomach tightening, feeling awkward after their parting words.
“Hey, this isn’t an Asian restaurant. What are you doing here?” She forced a laugh.
He smirked, a knowing light shining in his blue eyes. “Were you trying to avoid me by choosing Italian?” He twirled a glass of red wine, the only ornament on the plastic covered red and white checked tablecloth.
She feared her hot face exposed her distress. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve been here before, the food’s excellent.”
“Join me,” he invited. “You’ll have quite a wait otherwise. It seems I got here just in time.”
What? She hesitated, biting her lip. “Sure.” She shrugged, stepping around the barrier. “You’re not expecting anyone?”
“Only you,” he smiled, as she pulled out a chair and perched across from him. “Here,” he handed the menu to her, “I’ve already decided.”
“Oh, I think I know what I’ll order already, unless there are specials to tempt me,” she replied, flipping open the menu to glance at the fresh sheet. “Hmm. I’ll stick with the pesto.”
“Good choice. You know he grows his own organic basil… ” A young waiter sidled through the crowded patio smiling at them.
“Buon giorno, signore. You have company.” He took their orders, Simon ordering the pesto too. The young man grinned at Simon. “Signorina,” he bowed his head slightly and met her eye with a mischievous grin.
“That looks awfully good,” said Kate, eyeing Simon’s wine, “I think I’ll have one, too,” she told the waiter before he turned away. “I don’t know where they find young Italians to wait tables here in Vancouver, but it sure helps the ambiance.”
Simon chuckled. “Octavio was born here, over near the Drive, though his parents and grandparents immigrated. I think he gets better tips with the accent.”
She laughed. Waiting for the food, they reviewed the morning. “Sorry if I didn’t follow protocol,” he said, his sincerity unmistakable. “I just reacted when I saw Eli losing it. I didn’t want him to say something he couldn’t take back. I was trying to help.”
Kate dropped her eyes, acknowledging his apology. “What did you say to him, anyway?”
Simon’s mouth twisted to the side, and his eyes dropped. “Er. Guy stuff. Confidential.”
Whatever it was, he seemed to have a way with Eli and she said so, her resentment evaporating in response to his bashful smile.
“I’m a lot more comfortable one-on-one with my clients than in the public arena of a courtroom,” Simon explained. “Too introverted, I guess.”
“That reminds, me,” Kate sipped her wine, “Is that what happened to criminal law? You used to be so fervent about that. I figured by now you’d be…” she hesitated. Perhaps this was not a diplomatic line of questioning. “I don’t know… ” She waved a hand in the air, tossing the question away, and reached for a piece of bread instead.
He laughed. “It’s okay. Some days I wonder what happened to my dreams, too.” He pulled apart some bread and nibbled at it thoughtfully. “It’s complicated I guess. I did work in criminal law for a while, until I passed the bar and then a bit longer.” He hesitated, and added softly. “I was still with Rachel then, before Maddie was born. We were both very driven.”
She glanced up quickly. “Sharon mentioned. You’re divorced?” She knew it was none of her business, but some part of her couldn’t help digging for details.
“No, not yet. Separated two years. My wife’s a lawyer, too, and a very good one. She didn’t slow down when our daughter was born, so I had to.” He shrugged and offered a skewed smile to Kate, and she saw that it was full of sadness. “I made the shift to business law first. But I really didn’t fit in, anyway. Sometimes… ” he looked up at the canopy of trees that cast filigreed shadows across the table, ruffling in the gentle breeze, “ …sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you expect them to.”
Kate nodded. You can say that again. But she didn’t want to interrupt his wistful rambling. She urged him to continue with her eyes alone, sipping her wine.
Simon sighed. “Then I found corporate law just too tedious to bear. I don’t really have a mind for business, so I shifted into divorce and personal services a couple years ago. It may not have the panache or the upside potential, but it’s easier, that’s certain, with more regular hours. But that’s not the only reason I made the changes. Just being around all those ruthless, greedy people made me feel sick. Someone was always trying to take advantage of someone else. I couldn’t bury myself in that world day after day. Not… ” he added, “…that I don’t see ruthlessness and greed in divorce law.” He laughed. “It wasn’t the thrill I expected it to be in my idealistic youth,” he threw a lopsided grin at her, making light of it.
“So, do you see much of your daughter?” Kate asked.
Simon tossed his head back and exploded with laughter. “Every day.” In response to her puzzled expression, he chortled, reaching out to pat the back of her hand. Rather than feeling reassurance, his touch sent a frisson of excitement though her. He sobered and said, “When Rachel and I separated two years ago, Maddie stayed with me. Though we haven’t moved forward on the divorce settlement much,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “I want full custody of Madison. Rachel never had time for her in the first place, so she isn’t involved much these days. But she’s holding out for shared custody anyway, just to aggravate me. I think.”
It took Kate a moment to process what he was saying. As the realization dawned, she opened her mouth, hesitated and then said, “Are you telling me your daughter lives with you full time?”
“I am. Rachel travels a lot. She just plain works more than I do. It makes sense. That’s why I bought the house.” He smiled and shrugged. “I always did most of the parenting anyhow. Maddie’s my little girl, so I couldn’t have parted with her, even part time.” He studied his glass, twirling it around and around.
Kate’s heart swelled with compassion. She could hardly imagine Simon as a father, let alone a single parent. What a disconcerting notion to try to integrate into her image of him. She really had no idea who he was, but she liked this new Simon too much, far too much for her own good.
“You must be very close,” Kate said. “I mean, don’t the courts usually… ” she stopped, and looked askance, embarrassed. “Never mind. I’m sorry.”
“No, no. It’s okay.” Simon raised his brows, his eyes guarded. “It is much less common, definitely. Though it’s not unheard of. I basically raised her. And Rachel would offer no opposition to Maddie living full time with me… at least so she says, most days. When she’s feeling cooperative.” His laugh was taught and brittle, and he pressed his lips into a thin resolute line. “That’s why we’re still married. I see a lot of kids go home with their mothers, even when they shouldn’t. I’m not ready to test the courts archaic views. I don’t want Maddie to lose her mother, but I’m determined that she not lose her father.”
What a heart-wrenching dilemma. What kind of mother wouldn’t want custody of her little girl? Kate wondered if that was the main reason he wasn’t divorced, or whether he still harbored hopes of reconciliation with Rachel. She was curious about Simon’s wife, and the impact this must have had on his career, but couldn’t pry any further. “So. Now that you’re a divorce lawyer, are you enjoying it? Have you worked with a mediator before?”
Simon tensed, his eyes unfocussed. Several moments passed.
“What? I’m sorry, you asked about… divorce law?”
She smiled and nodded, studying him through narrowed eyes, hiding her mouth behind a delicate dabbing of her napkin.
“Um. Do I like it? Well. Yes and no. I’m very good at it, perhaps because I’m in the middle of it myself. I seem to have a talent for moving the really volatile cases forward. I think it’s because I avoid being inflammatory, unlike many attorneys.” He paused. “I encourage my clients to separate the emotional battles from the legal ones.”
Just then, the waiter brought their pasta, and it was a few minutes before they could resume. Kate tucked into her lunch and let him continue.
“You eat like you really mean it,” he laughed.
She looked up, surprised. “It’s pasta,” she said in her defense.
He lifted his wine and took a sip. “I guess I can’t bear to see people ripping each other apart. People aren’t all that happy to destroy each other once the court case begins. Everyone suffers, especially the kids. They all walk away damaged.”
“I would have a hard time with that too,” she sympathized, her eyes cast down as she rearranged her napkin. She felt a strong affinity with his views, and liked that he was comfortable talking about the things that mattered to her.
“I guess I’m old-fashioned, or sentimental, or … ”
“Idealistic?” she suggested, meeting his eyes.
He grunted. Understanding sparked between them. “Mmm. Perhaps that’s it. I like to see families whole.”
Kate nodded again. “And mediation? Have you had any experience with it?”
His face crumpled, his cheeks flushing, and she wondered if he would finally confess that he thought it was a bunch of baloney, like Sharon did. “Clients of mine have gone to mediation, mostly over child custody issues, but I haven’t been involved.” He hesitated. “The only time I’ve experienced mediation, I was the… client.” He dipped his chin and grimaced.
He cleared his throat and took a sip of wine. “We… Rachel and I tried… about a year… it wasn’t very…He let out an exasperated sigh, grimacing, and still she just looked at him. “Um. I… uh… I walked out. The… it seemed to me the mediator was quite… not objective. I found the process very frustrating.” He stabbed his fork into his linguini, avoiding her gaze.
“Oh. I see.” She’d had clients abandon sessions before. But she would have pegged him as calmer, more rational than that.
He looked up. “You doubt me?”
She was perplexed. She knew it wasn’t impossible that some mediators took sides, despite their training. It was a shame, and gave them all a bad name. “I’m sorry.” She placed a forkful of pesto into her mouth and chewed. “It shouldn’t be that way.”
After another moment he said, “Have you been very successful helping clients reconcile?”
“Pretty successful. You can’t help everyone.” She hesitated. “Are you… still hoping to reconcile with Rachel?”
“No.” Simon’s eyes flashed. “I’m not sure I was then, either. I just felt I had to give it a try. Rachel never wanted to stay with us. But I guess I had a hard time letting go of Maddie’s mother.”
“Some people really shouldn’t be together.” Kate concentrated on her food. “But though I work on other kinds of cases… no even when I do, I always try to bring families together again. Even if couples end up going through with divorce, they tend to do it more amicably. But my philosophy is therapeutic, and I’ve built my reputation on my success in reconciliation.” Kate pondered the case study she planned to present at the awards ceremony in January. It was going well, so far, and she no longer worried about Simon making her work more difficult. In fact, it felt like he was on her side.
“That’s right. There are other… philosophies then?”
“Oh, yes. But of course there are mediators working in a wide array of settings — corporate, union, government… ” she trailed off. “They have different objectives. The relationship is usually an important factor, though, if not paramount.”
“Do you do only divorce mediation?”
“No. Family mediation, and some community work. You’d be surprised at the things people fight about. Child custody, of course. Family businesses. Abuse. Property. Wills and estates. That’s a popular one.” She laughed.
“That would interest me,” Simon leaned forward, earnest. “It’s an extension of what I’m doing now, with a different aim - more positive.”
“Perhaps you should think of shifting into mediation. Many mediators are lawyers, you know.
Simon made a wry face. “That would be ironic.”
They talked about the business of mediation for a while longer.
“You mentioned you got into mediation through crisis counseling. How did that happen, if I’m not prying?” Simon ate his lunch, waiting for her answer.
Her chest tightened, and she dipped her chin, swallowing. “Well. You are. But… it’s okay.” Kate hesitated. She could share without making the connection with him, with them. “I discovered crisis counseling the hard way. It really made a big difference in my life when I was at a low point. Afterwards, I volunteered. After a few months, I realized that, not only did it make me feel wonderful to help others that way, but, I had a real talent for it.”
Simon frowned but said nothing.
“I took a few courses, here and there, and then I discovered the program at the Justice Institute. My background’s not in Psychology, per se, or law, but I supplemented. All in all, I studied for a few years before qualifying. It was quick. To be a Clinical Psychologist, I would have had to go back to school for another six or seven years, get a doctorate… I really didn’t have the patience for that. This way, I was able to get working right away.” Kate held one hand open, palm up. “Not that I’m a counselor, of course,” she added.
“So it’s more a kind of specialty on top of other training. That’s why lawyers do it, I suppose, and shrinks.”
“And it’s more goal oriented, I imagine, than family or marriage counseling, which can just go on and on and then peter out.”
“Exactly. I think you’d make a great mediator. You have empathy,” she her eyes to his, felt her face heat, and a small smile pulling at her lips. “You keep your cool around difficult people. That’s challenging for some.” She raised her index finger, her enthusiasm brimming over, “And, you’re a keen student of human behavior. I’ve seen the way you observe. Study. Analyze. Those are just the qualities you need.” In that moment, Kate felt as though they were alone, and that his attention was as focussed on her as hers was on him.
He tilted his head to study her face. “You’ve almost got me convinced. You obviously love what you do.”
“I do. It’s a great feeling to find what you’re meant to do in life. It’s very empowering and energizing. I love going to work every day.” It was true. She loved her work.
“I’m not sure I’ve got your… I don’t know. Commitment, I guess.” He sipped his wine. “So how about you. I gather you’re not married?”
“No. Never been. I’ve been seeing someone for a couple of years.”
She lifted one shoulder. “My life is mostly about my work.”
His eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.
Their conversation swung to lighter topics, food, books and travel. Kate listened with curiosity to Simon tell of his travels in Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand, and his discovery of various new culinary and cultural experiences along the way. Suddenly, despite her apprehensions of being with him, she couldn’t get enough. She leaned in on her elbows.
“Each new trip I plan, I try to visit a country or region I haven’t seen before. At the moment I’m thinking I might be ready for some trekking in the Himalayas. I’m not sure. It’s hard not to go back to the places I’ve really enjoyed. It’s tempting just to lie in a hammock in Phuket. These days it’s a toss-up between the food and culture and experiencing the spiritual meccas.”
“Does Madison stay with your wife when you go?” Kate asked, wondering what exactly he did at a spiritual mecca.
A sharp bark of laughter escaped his lips. “Oh. No. Not for the two or three weeks I need. I’m very fortunate in that; my parents and my brother help out a lot.”
“So, you’re interested in Eastern philosophies as well?” Her head was spinning with his myriad interests and activities. It was difficult for her to reconcile this sensitive complex spiritual man with the brilliant, career driven party guy she once knew. She was intrigued.
“Yes, more and more so as I get older. When I’m not traveling, I read a great deal. The classics, poetry and philosophy. I know it sounds, well, eccentric. Maybe a bit flaky. But… ”
She shook her head, about to protest, but he continued.
“You’re very polite.” He laughed softly, with the self-deprecating, bashful grin and shy, dropped eyelids that she had always found so endearing. “Usually when I warm to my subject, people squirm. I’m afraid my interests have become a bit esoteric over the years.”
“Well, I remember you being quite the aficionado of rock music, professional sports and, um, beer,” she laughed, and he joined her with a rollicking guffaw, tossing his head back. She was touched by his easy grace, the unselfconscious way he held his body. It was very appealing.
“Everyone changes, not that I’ve given up those pursuits entirely,” he said, shaking his head and pressing his forehead into his interlocked hands. “I guess I’ve never stopped looking for answers. I certainly didn’t find them in the lyrics of rock songs, though they might have seemed relevant when I was nineteen. If anything, they only raised more questions.” He looked up at her, humor sparkling in the cerulean depths of his eyes. “What about you? Have you traveled much?”
Kate bobbed her head ambiguously. “Not quite as much as you, but I’ve been to Europe a couple of times. And Alex and I have been to the Yucatan. I seem to be more drawn to European history, and art, when I travel. I never get enough of the Great Masters.”
“Alex… is he–?” His brows drew together in a question.
She hesitated. “Alexa Jenner? You might remember her.” Kate shrugged, feeling momentarily awkward at the prod to their memories. Perhaps he wouldn’t. She wasn’t sure how much he paid attention to back then. He sure didn’t seem to miss much now, though.
“Yes. I do remember. Short little brunette? She was in your dorm,” he nodded, his eyes faltered and slid sideways. “I went to Greece and Italy once, years ago. But I’d end up sitting on a rock contemplating ruined civilizations, thinking about life, rather than touring museums and stuff.”
“What are your thoughts on Eli’s work?” he enquired, his expression giving nothing away of his own opinions.
She remembered his comments in the boardroom. “You seemed to think it had merit, as I recall. Were you being polite?”
“Aah. But I asked you first.” His mouth lifted to one side, teasing, with a sexy flash of white teeth.
She smiled back. “You missed my comments that day. I had just finished telling Eli that I liked his work very much. And I was not just being polite. I think he’s amazing. Really talented and very, very smart.”
“Mmhmm. Me too, though I meant to have another look.” He grinned. “If you ever get the chance to travel in Asia, you might be surprised by the art and architecture there. When I was in Japan—” he was interrupted by the trilling of his cell phone, and stopped to dig it out of his pocket. “Excuse me. Sorry. Hello?”
Kate sat quietly sipping her wine, watching Simon. He was so well-rounded and thoughtful, and all of this on top of being a full time single father to his daughter. How did he manage it?
The waiter took the opportunity to whisk away their empty plates, smiling warmly at her. “Cappuccino, Signorina? Espresso?” he asked quietly, and she held up a hand to indicate they needed a minute. He nodded and drifted away again. Simon’s countenance changed quickly from curious to concerned as he listened on the phone.
“She was fine this morning. When did this start?” He listened. “Did she eat anything?” Another pause. “Okay. Yes. I’ll be there right away. Give me twenty minutes or so. Right. Thanks.” He clicked off, and rose from his chair.
“Trouble?” asked Kate, sensing, her bright mood dampened, that their lunch was over.
“Yes. I’m afraid so. That was Maddie’s day care. She seems to have come down with something after lunch. She’s barfing and running a fever. I’ve got to go get her. I’m sorry.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, frowning, though he had shut down, mentally having left already. He pulled his mouth into a tight attempt to smile, and bent to pick up his briefcase.
She felt the light, fizzy sense of happiness they’d shared over lunch drain away, and her heart seemed to sink into the pit of her stomach. She felt the powerful pull of her attraction, and something more. A desire to comfort him. She sensed that, despite help from his family, he was very much alone. “It’s okay. She needs you. And we’re done here anyway. It’s been a great lunch. Thank you so much for… everything. It was fun.”
“I’m glad you found me.” Simon said, taking the time to meet her eyes, and she believed him, though it was obvious he was distracted and worried. His face flickered with alarm, and he sucked in a breath. “The bill!” He rummaged for his wallet.
“I’ve got it. Don’t even think about it.” She placed a hand lightly on his arm to stop him. “Really. I hope Madison’s alright. I’m sure she is… Just go.”
He shook his head, reaching to curl a hand over her shoulder, his thumb squeezing gently, gliding over the edge of her collarbone. That small gesture felt like a momentous embrace, stopping her breath. “Thank you. Thanks a lot. I’ll see you next week.”
And he was gone, leaving Kate to sit and ponder the astonishing amount of information he had shared about himself, feeling as if her shoulder was on fire, throbbing with his heat, and the memory of his touch. She couldn’t recall meeting anyone like him, perhaps ever. Not even himself at nineteen. There always was that dreamy side to him, even then, she thought. Strangest of all was trying to fathom how he’d traveled along that road, how he’d gotten from there to here, with everything else going on in his life. The waiter returned, his jaw hanging, apparently confused to find the charming tête-à-tête ended so abruptly. Kate ordered a cup of green tea, determined to sit awhile longer and contemplate the astonishing reappearance of Simon Sharpe in her life.
Kate was glad to have a night out, and an excuse to wear the new violet chiffon gown she’d bought recently. The Children's Hospital Fundraiser ball was the perfect venue, and she looked forward to catching up with the old work colleagues who had invited her to join them.
She pressed through the dense crowd, eager to get her first glass of wine. Too many bodies, most of them taller than her, pressed close, a pungent mix of colognes, alcoholic breath and, even at this early hour, perspiration assaulting her senses. On the other hand, it was nice to see people dressed up, especially the men in their tuxedos. A tall, broad-shouldered specimen up ahead caught her eye. The warm light of the crystal chandeliers overhead sparkled in his golden waves. She felt suddenly breathless, the skin on the back of her neck tingling. He looked almost like—he turned his head— hey, it actually was Simon.
Her pulse fluttering wildly, she lifted her voice to hail him. “Hey neighbor. I would have expected you to be home with a book on Confucius or the I Ching tonight, not rubbing elbows with the glitterati in your tux.”
Simon whirled around at the familiar voice, his eyes searching the dense crowd.
“Here,” she said, with a little wave. “Excuse me,” she elbowed her way between two men and approached him. He stared at her, his jaw slack, but still hadn’t spoken. “You look rather Bond this evening. Or you might if you didn’t have such a vacuous expression on your face,” she teased.
Then he spoke, his voice throaty and deep. “Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly/Their beauty shakes me who was once serene/Straight through my heart… the wound is quick and keen.”
“Hmm?” Her grin vanished, and she stared, uncomprehending. What did he say?
“Chaucer,” he murmured. He swallowed. “Sorry. I’m not hitting on you. I just mean to say, you look… amazing.”
Her pulse kicked into higher gear. “Oh.” She looked at his tie, feeling her face heat. “Thank you.”
“Can I get you a drink?”
“I was on my way,” she said, gripping her beaded evening bag. “I was thinking about a glass of white wine.”
“How about Champagne?” he suggested. When she nodded, he elbowed up to the bar, looping his arm behind her, steering her closer, laying his fingertips lightly against the bare skin of her back to keep her beside him. She stiffened slightly, shivering, and drew her shoulders up, goose-bumps rising on her flesh. He ordered two glasses, then raised them high to turn toward her.
“Shouldn’t you be drinking a martini? You know, shaken… ”
“That’s not me,” he laughed, shaking his head, handing her a glass. She took a sip, and wrinkled her nose as the bubbles tickled it. His mouth lifted into a crooked smile.
“There you go again laughing at your own private joke.” She clicked her tongue with feigned annoyance, secretly thrilled at his nearness, and his attention on her again. “And I was seeing you as this… sort of … bearded mystic on a hilltop.”
“Hah! That may be closer to the truth. I’ve been known to forget to shave, or forgo a haircut, but my daughter keeps me in line. She likes her guys clean shaven.”
“A woman after my own heart,” replied Kate, their eyes briefly meeting before she glanced away.
“How is she, by the way? Last I saw you she was ill.”
“Much better, thanks. It was a short-lived stomach virus, I guess. She was back at pre-school yesterday, good as new.”
Just then, the MC announced that dinner would be served shortly.
“They bounce back quickly, don’t they?”
“Where are you seated for dinner?” he ventured, and reached for her elbow, which tingled again at his touch. “Are you here with someone?”
She flinched, picturing Jay, who loathed formal fundraisers, refusing to accompany her tonight, and replied, a little breathless, glancing across the room, “Oh, table twelve, over there. A bunch I sort of know from my volunteer work at the hospital. Social workers and psychiatric nurses, mostly.” She spoke too quickly.
“I should have known you’d be involved with the patients somehow,” he said.
“It’s nothing. The hospital social worker calls me up from time to time when there’s a little problem with the families,” she shrugged, her sheer shawl slipped, baring one shoulder. Simon stared, and she pulled up her shawl self-consciously.
“Uh. Well if your boyfriend’s not here with you, would you care to join me? There’s room at my table,” he hurried to explain, “and a group of very dull old lawyers whose evening your company would distinguish, not to mention my own.”
A little wave of guilt washed over her. Could she abandon the colleagues who invited her? She knew they’d understand and cheer her on. “Maybe for a while?”
At her hesitation, he added, “I won’t bite.”
“I… ah… I suppose. Sure.” She tilted her head. “I’ll just let them know. What table?”
“Thirty-one. Just there.” He pointed, standing close to her so she could share his line of sight, and she inhaled deeply the fresh, crisp masculine scent of his hair and skin, a hint of his citrusy cologne, vaguely familiar, making her head spin. “I’ll be waiting.” He strolled slowly away from her toward the table, and stood by his chair watching her across the room.
She felt awkward explaining Simon to her friends, especially since a couple of them had met Jay. “He’s just an old friend,” she said, shaking her head, trying to convince herself as much as them. Several of them turned to check him out, and then gave her approving mischievous glances and nods. “I’ll catch you later.” She bent to retrieve her auction ticket. Blushing, she gave a little wave to her colleagues, and turned back in his direction.
The older lawyers at his table were bold and lewd. As Simon introduced her to the partners from the firm where he’d articled years ago, they stood, bowing and fawning over her like schoolboys. But she was more than used to holding her own among professional men, even younger and more aggressive ones. And their interest was more avuncular, in truth, than real. One old guy had a face like a shriveled apple doll.
As dinner was served, Simon watched her silently. Her efforts at conversation felt forced, and she squirmed under his gaze. What is he doing? They ate in shy silence, she attempting small talk, and he staring and smiling, with heat in his eyes.
As the dinner plates were being cleared, and the live auction was wrapping up, he leaned toward her and whispered, “If I leave you alone with these old lechers for a minute, will you manage?” She simply laughed, and cocked an eyebrow. He sauntered away slowly.
Between bids and banter, the older men at her table eventually turned their attentions away. It allowed her a chance to return to her table of friends and chat awhile, though she had to rebuff their questions about the mystery man. “We’re working together on a case, that’s all.” Simon’s temporary absence also gave her a little space to contemplate the strange evening, especially now that her was not staring at her so relentlessly.
She still was stunned to have found him here. But more than that, his demeanor left her in a coil. He was behaving like a besotted lover, staring at her and (gasp) reciting poetry, inviting her to join him for dinner. But then, he just sat there, aloof, observing her with that infuriating half-smile on his handsome face and a question in his hooded eyes, barely saying two words together. She imagined his busy brain brooding, questioning who she was, how she’d changed, just as she was. She’d felt obliged to fill the silence with empty chatter, which made her feel vapid and awkward. His attentions both warmed and worried her. Is he still shy? Is he toying with me? What on earth is he thinking about? Her mind bounced to Jay again. Why am I even thinking these thoughts?
Discretely, she kept one restless eye on his progress across the room. He strode with a polished and confident air, and struck a dashing figure in his black tuxedo, with his height, broad shoulders and slender hips. He moved with elfin grace, the candlelight glinting off his golden hair. She had assumed he went to the men’s room, but he stopped abruptly and exchanged words with a stunning beauty in an elegant navy blue sheath. Her gleaming chestnut hair streamed down her back like a racehorse’s mane, and she had a sleek, sinewy model’s physique to match.
They made a striking couple. Standing close together—she was almost as tall as Simon—their degree of intimacy was obvious from the nearness of their faces and their steady eye contact. Kate’s forte was reading non-verbal behavior and it was clear they knew each other well. Simon stood rigidly with his back to her, arms at his sides, his hands clenched in fists, but the woman’s expression was sultry and seductive, and Kate couldn’t help wondering who she was, and what claim she had on Simon’s attention.
But, Kate caught herself, what claim do I have on it? She was being ridiculous, just because of some innocent flirtation and a little superficial flattery. It was dangerous to entertain such thoughts. She fell instantly to imagining Simon as he was all those years ago– when he was hers. Though then he was not so polished and worldly, he was both romantic and passionate. Why did he make her feel such strong emotions, when in truth she hardly knew him? She’d become enthralled by him again, so easily. It was too easy to imagine herself the object of his desire, too.
It frightened her to allow the thoughts playtime, and she quelled them with ruthless reminders of how he’d rejected her, and how she’d fallen to pieces. A shiver skittered over her bare skin, and she tugged at the edges of her thin shawl. She couldn’t trust herself to judge her true feelings, even though it felt wonderful to imagine that kind of infatuation and desire overtaking her. Surely he was only playing, and meant nothing by his flirtation. The room tilted as dizziness invaded her head, her stomach squeezed and surged. She sat upright, stiffening, and closed her eyes, trying to breath through it. It was best to put a stop to this before it went any further. She would turn away both eyes and heart from his encounters with other women. It was none of her business.
When she saw him returning to their table, she excused herself and made her way back. But when he arrived, he was altered, and she found she no longer had to withstand his heated regard. She tried not to care; though he spoke no more or less than before, he was tense, fidgety, more reserved, and looked not at her but at his utensils. He made desultory conversation with the man to his right, ignoring her for long periods, as dessert was laid before them, and coffee and tea served. What happened to him? Abruptly, she felt cold and unwelcome. I should say goodnight and rejoin my friends.
Kate’s appetite for sweets was gone, and although she told herself she didn’t mind, she couldn’t help feeling dejected. She felt heat in her head building. She missed his eyes on her, though they made her tremulous and queasy, as if she were an amateur on stage, her lines forgotten. After another empty exchange with the lawyer to her left ended, she could no longer pretend she hadn’t notice Simon’s mood.
“You’ve gone quiet,” she observed.
There was a long pause as he sipped and set down his teacup. “I often am.” Now he was curt. Not the charming romantic from an hour earlier. He seemed to regret his harsh words, and relenting, said, “I bumped into Sharon on my way back.” He pressed his three middle fingers to his creased brow, rubbing with an abstracted air.
“Oh? She’s here too?” The conversation felt forced, with long awkward pauses, and she was certain he would rather be anywhere than sitting here with her. He must be embarrassed that Sharon would see them together. “I can’t picture her at an event like this.”
“She’s actually quite civic-minded. She got me the ticket, insisted I come,” he replied, glancing at her chin. His jaw was working, dimpling as he clenched his teeth, thin-lipped.
Kate remembered their exchange on Tuesday. “You seem upset. Did she say something?”
His eyes closed slowly and opened again, flicking skyward. “Almost everything she says annoys me. It appears she’s figured out that we…” he flicked a finger back and forth between them to indicate which ‘we’ he meant, “…were much more than acquaintances back in university. I hope she doesn’t make trouble. I wouldn’t put it past her.”
“Ooh. Oh! I worried that we should have disclosed more. Now what?” Kate pondered aloud, nibbling the inside of her cheek. This could get sticky, especially if Sharon decided to press the issue publicly. “I mean… not that anything–”
“Now? Nothing. We’ll be certain to give them nothing further to talk about.” There was a cold distance in the tarn blue of his eyes, a flatness she hadn’t encountered for a long, long time. It made her shudder to remember that other side of him. He could be ruthless when enraged; as hard and cold as a steel blade. The message was clear enough, though.
Nothing for whom to talk about? Her stomach clenched. “I wonder how she figured it out?” Kate mused, poking indifferently at her mousse. She didn’t want those glacial eyes aimed at her anymore.
He sneered. “Some women make it their business to poke into other people’s concerns and use whatever they find out against them. Sharon’s a pretty typical professional, clawing and scratching her way to the top, stepping on people as she goes.” Simon’s jaw was set like granite, and his eyes did not meet hers while he delivered his verdict.
She could hardly believe her ears. Where did that come from? Kate felt a hard jolt of rage slam through her, and gripped her fork with white knuckled fingers, pointing it at him. “Professional woman, I suppose you mean? I can’t believe you would make such a blatantly sexist and petty comment. You sound like a misogynist, when I know you’re not. Maybe it’s you who has issues about competition in the workplace, not Sharon.”
He tongued his cheek and shot a wary glance at her hostile fork, his nostrils flaring, and replied, “There’s truth in what I said and you know it. It wasn’t my intention to offend you.”
“Too late, I’m afraid.” She glared at him for a long moment, assessing, while her buzzing nerves made her tremble so hard she could hardly draw breath. Her chest ached with tension. Inside she was in turmoil. Perhaps he wasn’t the enlightened male she took him for, or that he pretended to be. Maybe it was all an act, to get rid of her, so he could return to the company of that goddess in the blue dress. Or maybe she’d only imagined his charm and insight, dredged up from the years of fantasies she’d conjured. She turned her head from side to side, gnawing her upper lip. Either way, she’d had enough. Infuriating man. “I think I’ll head over and visit with my friends from the hospital. Excuse me.” She stood up. “Good night.”
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