The phone ringing woke me up. Disoriented, I sat up on the couch. Gabe raised his head and panted smugly, curled at my feet at the other end of the sofa. "Get off the couch!" I shouted, scrambling to the kitchen. I got there on the sixth ring, just before the answering machine clicked in. "Hello?"
"Good morning," said John, sounding more like "G'mornin.'"
I looked at the clock. Eight?
"How the heck did I miss you on your walk with Gabe?" He sounded a little tense.
"You didn't miss me," I said woozily, wondering how I could have slept so long. "I only woke up when the phone rang. I fell asleep on the couch, I guess, and the dog didn't wake me up."
"Well, hey, want some tea? I'll put some on for you right now."
"You just became my best friend ever. I'll be over in a matter of minutes."
I let Gabe out and staggered, blinking blearily, to the bathroom. Why hadn't he come back to my house last night? He'd certainly seemed as interested as I was in the exploration of a physical aspect to our relationship. I washed my face, brushed my teeth, and put on minimal makeup. The crease in my cheek from sleeping with my face on the arm of the couch didn't want to flatten out. Maybe he suddenly realized that he didn't want to tangle too much with a woman my age, I thought. Or maybe he's a conscientious Catholic man who wouldn't just jump into bed with a suddenly really horny Catholic woman who should know better anyway.
I pulled my nightgown off over my head. The naked woman in the mirror wasn't too bad looking -- I hadn't had children to stretch me in various directions, and after going to France with Claire, I'd been taking better care of myself. Yet there was no doubt that I was a woman in my forties, with lines and some sags. But not so bad, not at all. Maybe because my best friends for years were about ten years younger than I was, maybe because after five kids, my sister still looked fantastic and I was determined not to let her outshine me, I hadn't gone into the "over the hill" look.
I found a clean shirt and some jeans in my bedroom and put them on, not bothering with underwear because I didn't feel like rummaging for them in my lingerie drawer.
Mary opened the door as I stepped onto her porch. "You didn't break down and tell him about my trip last night, did you?" she whispered.
"Not a chance. Why?"
"He's as grouchy as a bear this morning. I'm tempted to take off for Lourdie's place and just visit with her until it's time for our bus to leave. Ayee-hee-hee," she laughed, "I could call him from there to tell him I'm going to Reno and then hang up on him when he starts to yell."
"Is he really going to yell?" I asked quietly as we went in the door.
"Let's bet a fifty on it, Sully. I could use the extra money for the slots."
"Mary, if you honestly think he's going to yell at you for playing the slot machines with your friends, then I think you should be able to hang up on him. Wounded cop or no, he shouldn't be yelling at his mother."
"Jack's death dealt him a terrible blow," she said. "I try to keep that in mind when he gets panicky about something happening to me. He yells out of fear, not anger." She patted my arm. "It's still a pain in the ass, though."
At the sound of my laughter, John appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Your tea's getting cold, what are ya doing, making a quilt?"
"Distract him while I pack and load my bag in the car, Sully," Mary whispered aside to me, and went upstairs.
Distract him? If he was indeed as grouchy as a bear, I was going to go back to my house and lock the doors. No, wait. I'd go to Port Laughton and sulk. Or get the key to the Reich townhouse in San Francisco. I had so many options. I chose to lean on the doorjamb, blocking him in the kitchen.
He poured tea into a mug and handed it to me. "Is that good on the sugar?"
My eyebrows jumped. "That's perfect. You're good."
"Seen you make tea for five years. I'm a cop, I'm supposed to be observant." He was wearing a denim shirt and jeans, and the shirt had not been buttoned. A narrow line of dark hair ran from his heart all the way to his navel. What is this, I thought, a come-on? Or is he a little on the dim side about what dressing like this would do to me? I approached him, looking him in the eyes. He backed up slowly until he was stopped by the counter. When I got within arm's length, I reached out and lifted the left side of the shirt with the backs of my fingers. The big double scar on his side was still purple.
"Have I told you today that I'm glad you're not dead?"
"You've told me that every day in your e-mails since I got home from the hospital, except for yesterday and today. I was kind of wondering about that," he said, watching me like I was a predator about to attack.
He's playing coy with me, I thought. Teasing me with his body and his words, while his voice and his face play serious. He made me my tea just the way I like it, but backed up out of my reach. He was either messing with my head, or I'd made a really bad miscalculation about us. "I'm glad you're not dead, John. And if you didn't get that message yesterday, then you need remedial classes in communication."
"You teachin' them?"
I was still too groggy from oversleeping to verbally spar with him. All I wanted was to drink my tea, and to know if I should cool myself off or not. Also I was supposed to be distracting him, and was failing. I heard a door close upstairs. "I do want to talk to you, John. Could we step out on the patio?"
He frowned with his eyebrows. "Sure, Sully. Something wrong?"
I shut the heavy inner door, and leaned on it. He stood by Mary's little fountain staring down, hands in pockets. I could remember a time when I first met him, and thought he was skinny and mean-looking. Now he appeared to me to be trim and graceful, kind and gentle. Whatever happened, I didn't want to lose track of being his friend. "I don't know. I'm kind of embarrassed to ask this, but I need to know ... uh, what happened last night? I -- well, I -- " I took another swallow of my tea and decided to simply plow into the subject, like Andersol would. "I thought you were coming back."
John's face went red and he pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry, Sul. I fell asleep."
"You fell asleep?"
"I told Ma I was going to watch some television, and then when she was quiet I was going to come back over to talk to you some more. Next thing I know it's four in the morning, and I'm freezing my ass off, and kicking myself for getting old."
"Well, that's a relief! I thought maybe you were hiding from me. Then you seemed like you were backing away from me just now ... " I hooked a thumb over my shoulder to point to the kitchen.
"I was," he said, smiling a little smile. "I was hoping you'd chase me a little and then kiss on me like you did last night."
"John LeMay." I began to walk toward him. "I don't chase anyone until after the second cup of tea."
"Okay, then, I won't run. Does that work?"
"Maybe." I walked past him, but looped my left arm gently around his middle. He turned to follow me. I put my right hand on the center of his chest and slid it under his shirt above the scars to wrap around his shoulder. He didn't wait for me to kiss on him, no, not at all. I felt him gasp as he realized the only thing under my shirt was me.
We dropped each other like sacks of snakes as Mary tapped on the glass of the door to get our attention. Suddenly we were three feet apart, a bit disheveled and disoriented.
She slid the inner door open. "John, I have something to tell you," she said, pulling the outer screen shut and locking it. "I'm going on a weekend tour with Lourdie and some of the other girls from the parish to Reno. I love you, and I'll be back Sunday afternoon. Have fun, you two."
She slid the inner door shut and locked that, as well, just as John reached the screen door handle and pulled on it, shouting, "You're what? You're WHAT? Hey, wait a minute! You can't do that!"
He sprinted for the side of her house with the access gate, pulled the deadlock off, yanked the latch open and ran out to the front of her house in time to see her car speed up the street. She must have had the engine idling as she made her pronouncement. "She shouldn't be going off to Reno," he said loudly.
I shook my head. "She's over twenty-one, John."
"She's over sixty-five!"
"So what? John, why are you so upset?"
"There's all kinds of creeps that hang around those casino towns that prey on old ladies all the time, you think I don't know that? What do you think I do for a living?"
Get shot, I thought. Annoy people. Froth at the mouth and run around in circles. "They're with a tour group, and Lourdie and the other women make this trip a couple times a year. She'll be fine," I said, instead of all the sarcastic responses that itched to sear the air.
He frowned. "I can't believe you knew about this, and didn't tell me. This is the kind of thing I need to know before it happens!"
I stared him down. "Why, so you can shout at her? I don't like when you do that. So you can stop her from having a good time with her friends? Forget it! She's been on her own for many, many years -- I've learned a lot from her on how to live successfully and happily on my own, on my own terms. She knows a lot about how to live! She wanted to go on this trip, and she didn't want it spoiled by you berating her. And no, I didn't rat her out because I'm not going to be an accessory to your temper! Besides, she only told me last night, and asked me not to mention it," I added, trying to curb my own irritation.
"So you'd side with her and not me, is that what I'm hearing?" He looked hurt and angry.
"Let's see. She wanted to go have fun with her pals and leave us alone for the weekend, and I wanted her to go have fun and me to be alone with you for the weekend. Yep, that sounds like me being on her side, all the way. Sorry, didn't mean to offend you." I walked to the front door and opened it, gesturing him in. "Look, she left your key right here on the table beside the door. You can feed the fish, lock up the house, and go wherever you like. You're a free man in California. I myself am going home, because frankly, I think it's too early in the day to argue."
The phone in the kitchen began ringing, and with one last scowl at me, he went to answer it. I left, wondering what I should make for breakfast; I wasn't very hungry, as the transition from being scorchingly attracted to touching John's skin to being very disappointed in his reaction made my innards twist. I looked at my watch, and thought about driving up to Port Laughton; considering that it was the beginning of the university's fall term, however, if I showed up on a Friday morning, I'd be expected to appear at some infernal formal dinner Friday night.
Gabe's whining alerted me to John's presence at my door. I opened it and let him in, Gabe slithering against him in an ecstasy of greeting.
"Sorry I was shouting there a while ago," he said, fending off the dog's obtrusive nose. "I wasn't really mad at you."
"Yes, you were. You were mad as a hornet."
"I'm trying to make it up with you, goddammit, Sully, why are you always so hard-headed?" He shook his head and turned his back on me, his glare towards the evergreens outside the windows that shaded the south side of the house.
Hard-headed? Why, yes, so hard-headed that I had nothing to say. I put my hand on the doorknob, one rash moment away from asking him to leave.
"Jesus, I'm no good at this. I wasn't mad mad, I was just -- I don't want to ruin this, Sully. Help me out here. If I scare you away right after finally getting you interested, then I should have died when that bastard shot me, because I've screwed up the best thing that ever happened in my life." He rubbed the back of his head and turned to face me. "I wish to God that I'd met you before your ex did -- maybe I wouldn't be such a dummy about things."
My heart somersaulted. Was he saying what I thought he was saying? "That sounds good, in theory, but when I met Adam, you weren't yet of drinking age. I didn't go for you young stuff then."
"What about now, if the young stuff can shut his mouth and not shout?"
My world pivoted on this point in time. I could turn him down, say I wasn't sure of my feelings, drag him off to Port Laughton for a wholesome visit with the family, and maintain the ol' status quo. I looked at the scar that ran from his eyebrow into his hairline, the divot out of one cute ear, the way he stood poised, alert, watching me with an intensity I'd never encountered with any other man. I remembered him reading the poem Hiawatha to the kids, his accent making Longfellow new again; him standing beside Bodie, looking short by comparison but in solid agreement in some gender dispute; hearing him sing, an unexpectedly sweet voice. Yes, I could turn him down, and then I would kick myself every single day of the rest of my life. I crooked my index finger at him to make him come near me, and watched the question in his eyes turn to a strangely humbling mixture of gratitude and joy.
I flicked the front of his shirt, which was still hanging open. "Did you dress like this on purpose to torment me?"
"Sorry, Ma'am. Let me fix that." With a shamelessly sinuous shrug, his shirt landed on the floor behind him. He grinned at my sharp intake of breath.
I grabbed the belt loops of his jeans. "Caught you again."