“Booker! Your ride is here!” yelled Jack, his face briefly becoming the same shade of his hair.
I had to cover my ears from the shout reverberating off the cavernous walls of the fire department’s garage. Jack was an old friend from high school. We dated a couple of times, but now we just hang out. He had brown eyes, bright red hair, freckles, a quick, fun smile and always seemed to be up to something. Tiffi has held a torch for him for a few years now and he’s crazy about her, but she’s pretty shy about that kind of stuff and he’s in denial.
“Thanks, Jack,” I said sarcastically. “That really helped my headache.”
“Right, sorry,” he said with his mouth full. He was eating some kind of mystery meat sandwich that looked like it came right out of the meat grinder and smelled even worse.
“What are you eating?”
“It’s Tuna salad, hardboiled eggs, mayo and mustard with onion on rye.”
My stomach flopped. “I’ll just wait in the car. It’s too cold to stand here. Send him out when he’s down,” I said and turned to go out. Jack stopped me.
“Are you sure you want to look at houses in this kind of weather? It’s supposed to get pretty bad.”
“Awe, you’re sweet, but we shouldn’t be out too long. I’m used to driving in a little snow so we should be back before it really starts to accumulate.”
“Ok, well, be careful. Does Tiffi have a ride home?”
“Yeah, she drove her car to work.”
“Alright then. See ya later.”
I got back into my warm car and waited for Mr. Booker. The garage was in shadow so I couldn’t see anything other than generic figures moving about. Someone started a truck and began to pull it out for the daily siren testing. Please hurry, Booker. I don’t think my headache will take any more loud noises.
There he was, decked out in a brown leather bomber jacket, jeans, and a Wallace Fire Department ball cap. He was tall, broad shouldered, and walked smoothly. He didn’t strut, but there was definitely something about the way he carried himself. Confidence, or… perhaps recklessness.
Wait a minute. Brown leather jacket and broad shoulders…
His light eyes found mine and he tipped his chin in acknowledgment and waved to Jack. Oh, no! The guy from the bank! Flustered, I peeked at my face and hair in the rear view mirror.
Wait. What am I thinking? I just broke up with my long time boyfriend; shouldn’t there be a ‘grieving period’ or something? He’s the client, I’m the realtor. He opened the passenger door and smiled.
I waved. “Hi. Just Kat, though.” My face must have been as red as Jack’s hair.
“I’m Tom,” he replied and climbed into the Passport. He smiled at me and I flushed.
He had really straight teeth. A ghost of a dimple flashed and his smiled widened, crinkling his eyes a little. I couldn’t stop staring and I kept feeling more embarrassed.
He raised his left brow as if in question mark, but still smiled.
“So, where are we going?”
Snap out of it Kat. Use complete sentences.
Maybe that’s asking too much of myself. Try using coherent words.
“Sorry. I’m a little out of it today. Thanks for helping me, you know, at the bank.”
Yeah, that’s professional. Keep it up- he’s nodding.
“I thought we would drive out of town and look at a few abandoned farm houses. I know of a great one that has only been on the market for a year. The previous slick- I mean, owners did a few big repairs already, but ran out of funds before they finished so they sold it to us and move back to Columbus. It’s just a few miles across the river. How does that sound?” I said that really fast. I’m babbling.
“Sounds great,” he seemed to relax in his seat despite my lurching take-off. He didn’t seem to notice, or rather acknowledge, my inner battle to keep sane. What a hunk. Then he says, “What’s a slick?”
“A what?” I said, trying to stall. Better to tell the truth. If he’s moving here he’ll hear it anyway. “Oh- well, I started to say slicker, but I thought you might take it as an insult. You know, a city-slicker. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, people move to the country all the time.”
Stop babbling. And you know that’s a lie.
“Right,” he raised his left eyebrow. He seemed unconvinced of my confidence. “So am I just another ‘slicker’ coming out to “rough-it” only to give up and move back to the comforts of the city?”
“No, I didn’t mean… I’m sorry.” What is wrong with me today? I’m never drinking tequila again.
He laughed a little then. “Don’t worry about it. I can handle a little razzing. I get plenty of it at the fire department, being the new guy and all.”
“Oh, I bet you do. Watch out for Jack. He doesn’t mean any harm but he can be pretty rotten. I went to high school with him.”
Now there was silence. I’ve been doing this job long enough to fill up space with small talk, but for some reason I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound like mindless chatter. We were coming up on the old covered bridge. I break because I know it’s going to be icy.
“Wow, what a great old bridge,” Tom says cranking his neck to get a better look at the top. “How old is it?”
I pause, thrown off. “Um, I’m not sure, maybe a hundred years or so. Actually I have no idea. There are quiet a few around the county.”
“It reminds me of that movie. You know, with Clint Eastwood.”
“The ‘Bridges of Madison County’? I love that movie.” Wait, that movie is a chick flick. Is this guy gay? I give him a sideways glance, trying to see any other clues. He looks straight to me, but what do I know. We were coming up on the house.
I pointed out the window, “There’s the house and here’s the paper work on it,” I said, handing him packet of papers with the details of the property including the most recent repairs. “Ready to take a look?”
“Yep.” He waited a beat, “Is Jack your boyfriend?”
Startled, I replied, “I don’t have a boyfriend.” That was the first time I’ve said that. It felt good to say. He seemed satisfied with that and got out.
Hmm, must not be gay.
The house was built in the late nineteenth century and had already had several electrical updates, a new septic system and leach bed, and new insulated windows. It had a leaky roof, and the wood siding was in desperate need of new paint, preferably one that was distinguishable from drab gray. It has two stories with cathedral ceilings and a huge attic that could really be considered a third floor, and a sagging front porch.
“The porch was the next repair on the list from the previous owners, along with the roof. Careful, the steps are a little rotten.”
I fished out my keys and unlocked the front door. He held the screen open and waited for me to go in first. That was sweet. He then followed me inside, nose deep in the comments.
“It has a good amount of property with it, but if you’re low on funds we could finance a smaller portion since we own it. How much would you want to put down? We refer all our customers to the local bank rather than finance out of town,” I said.
“When was the wiring redone the last time?” I don’t think he heard me. I had to mentally switch gears.
“It was about four years ago, so that should all be in good shape. We have a special going on right now that if you put at least twenty percent down we’ll pay for the inspections.” He contemplated that and nodded, seemingly impressed.
We went from room to room looking at the outlets and ceiling lights and commenting on the original wood flooring and the updated cabinets. He was pretty close-mouthed and straight faced, trying not to “encourage the dealer”, but I could see that gleam in his eye. The one all the slickers get when they see a house they want so bad they’ll pay anything to get the chance fix it, but they don’t want me to know that. We went upstairs; every other step creaked. The banister needed a good coat of varnish. It was the original banister that curled at the bottom of the steps and wrapped around the landing on the second floor.
I jumped when I heard something move in one of the bedrooms; probably a mouse or a squirrel. I cringed inwardly; raccoons freak me out. There was one in a house I was showing once and it must have been threatened by me because it latched onto my leg and bit me before running away. We never found it, and it didn’t do any damage to my leg, but I still had to get a rabies shot. That was not fun.
“Are you okay?” He asked, the left corner of his smile following his left eyebrow.
“Yeah, I just thought I heard a critter of some kind in one of the rooms. I have bad luck with rodents.”
Another scuttle and I shuddered.
Tom heard it this time. “Hmm, let me check.” Well, he is a fireman.
The first bedroom on the left was empty, but as we came out I noticed a feather swirling down in front of the next door. I let out a huge breath I wasn’t aware I was holding. I can handle birds. I stepped in front of Tom.
“Oh, just a bird. It must have gotten stuck in here. I’ll just open a window and maybe it will fly …” A large blob of feathers blocked my view and I stumbled, screaming and flailing my arms.
“Look out!” Tom grabbed my wrist as I stumbled back into the old railing. It gave way with a quick snap. The next thing I knew, I was dangling about ten feet off the first floor. Tom was crouched with both feet on the edge; one hand a hold of my wrist and the other was holding the edge of a floorboard. My eyes locked with his and he said, “Hold on.”
I looked down. It didn’t seem so far down when you consider that my feet are five and a half feet closer to the next floor than my head was.
“I think… I think my feet are pretty close to the floor. Just let go.”
There seemed to be a chill run down his back, but he shook it off and said, “No, you could break an ankle. Just let me get braced better and I’ll pull you up.” His voice was very calm and steady, but it looked very difficult to pull up in that position. Just then the floorboards came loose, flipped up behind him, and we both fell to the floor below, and it all went black.
* * *
“Kat? Can you hear me? Katrina?”
I opened my eyes and saw little flashes of light in my peripheral vision. This was not a good day for my head. I could smell leather and something spicy and soapy.
“Yeah,” I said.
His face was so close. His eyes weren’t really blue, but gray, with little dark gray flecks in them and he had a burn scar on his right ear lobe going down into his jacket. “Are you alright?” He was lying on top of me, hip to hip. A bruise was already forming under his left eye.
“I think so. Your face…,” I said and touched his cheek.
“I think my face hit your head. You blacked out for a second. I’m going to get up. Do you feel any pain?
“Just my head. I think I’m okay.”
“Don’t move.” He was propped up on his elbows with his hands moving behind my head and neck, working his way down my ribs and my legs, apparently feeling for broken bones. I said, “Really, I’m fine.” He moved them back up to my head again. We were once again hip to hip and I could feel him trembling. He looked shaken.
“Are you okay?”
He never took his gaze away and he whispered, “You’re really pretty.”
I whispered back, “So are you.”
He grinned and that dimple came back.
Then he lightly touched his lips to mine. His lips were so silky, but firm. I brought my hands up to his shoulders and I felt his tongue brush against my lips. Startled, I gasped for air. He touched the side of my face and I slipped my fingers behind his neck to feel his hair- it was silky like his lips. I began to feel dizzy and my vision blurred. He finished with one more, light kiss on my lips and I opened my eyes. He was so close I couldn’t see his smile, but I new he had one because those pretty eyes crinkled again.