Want to start at the beginning?
As Colleen pulled into a parking place at her apartment building she could see Mike walking in the front door. He looked as though some thought had gone into his attire. Pressed blue shirt, tan chinos. And he was carrying flowers.
Colleen sat in her car until her blush faded. She could still feel the pressure of Dan’s hand on hers while he talked to her in that deep, rich voice. When he listened it was less like listening and more like he heard everything she didn’t say. But Mike had flowers. How did this happen? Yesterday she’d been a carefree single woman. And now…
She hurried in the building, taking the first two flights of stairs at a run and slowing for the last flight so she could catch her breath. When she pushed open the stairwell door, he was knocking.
“Mike?” she called.
He turned and smiled. “There you are. I started to worry when you didn’t answer.”
“I’m sorry. I was late leaving my cousin’s house.”
“No problem. I brought these for you.” He held out the flowers, gardenias and orchids. Very noncommittal.
“Thank you. They’re beautiful. Why don’t you come in and I’ll put them in water before we go. I’ll warn you, I don’t know what state Sonya left the place in.” She stuck her key in the lock, praying that Sonya hadn’t decided to dry her underwear on the back of the couch.
She hadn’t. The place looked like a furniture showroom. Colleen breathed a sigh of relief. Obviously Sonya felt the need to show off for Mike too. “Have a seat. Do I need to change or will this be alright?”
“I think you look great. You might want a sweater though. It gets cold at night.”
“Cold.” Colleen chuckled as she walked into the kitchen for a glass to put the flowers in. “You Californians just don’t understand cold.”
“It can get pretty cold. I lived in the desert in San Bernardino County for a while.” Mike leaned on the doorway, watching her move around the small room. “Some days it would be hundred degrees at noon and drop to forty at night.”
“Heck of a drop, but still not cold.” Colleen half filled a glass with water and arranged the flowers in it. “Cold is when it’s been below zero for a month and the wind chill is thirty below, and it’s only November.” She carried the flowers out to the table. “But I’ll take your advice and get a sweater.
In her bedroom, she caught sight of herself in the mirror. She couldn’t believe that the person in the mirror was the one who had made it all the way through high school without a date. Or that the person in the mirror had been engaged to a man who was cheating on her.
“All ready,” she said joining him in the living room.
“Have you ever had Korean food?” he asked.
“Would you like to?”
“I’ll try anything once.” She smiled.
“Good deal. I know a great Korean place.”
“What’s Korean like?” Colleen asked, locking the door behind them.
“Kinda like Chinese, but spicier.”
“Spicier, huh? Okay.”
He led her down to the parking lot and opened the door of a white jeep.
“Thanks.” He closed the door and went around to the other side.
“My car isn’t much to look at, but it’s very safe.” Colleen glanced at it. A brown Chevette that got good gas mileage.
“Very safe?” Mike asked.
“My cousin’s husband picked it out for me when I moved out here. He’s a cop. Sorry, policeman. He hates it when I say cop.”
Mike said nothing as he pulled into the street.
“He’s a good guy,” Colleen added, suddenly worried that she had given Mike the wrong impression. “I kinda moved out here with nothing and he put a lot of time into finding me a good ride. Something reliable, low maintenance, and safe. You should see what my cousin Laura has to drive. It’s like a tank.”
Mike laughed. “Sounds like he’s seen a few accidents.”
“So why did you move out here? You’re from Ohio, right?”
Colleen licked her lips. She could feel herself on the verge of telling him the truth. David, grad school, the cheating. The Truth. Not first date material by a long shot. She’d obviously been off the market too long. “I just needed to make a fresh go of things, and if I’m out here I’ve got a really good chance of getting promoted at the store. That wouldn’t be so bad.”
“So you like working for the book store?”
“Sure, it’s great. What about you? Do you like being a fireman?”
“Oh yeah. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”
“I can’t imagine it. It must be very dangerous.”
Mike shrugged. “You don’t really think about the danger when you’re doing it.”
“It’s very important though. You must see a lot of accidents too. As a paramedic.” Colleen leaned back in her seat, watching his profile. “It’s a lot less stressful to be a bookstore manger.”
“So you grew up in the desert. What was it like?”
“You know how it is when you’re a kid, you think everything is normal.”
“I’ve never seen a desert.” She wondered if that shouldn’t be a field trip. Maybe one of the locals would go with her.
“You could drive out in a day and be home before dark.”
“Sure. Death Valley is only about four hours drive from here.”
“Death Valley,” Colleen said. “I haven’t had much time to sightsee. We got here about ten weeks ago, did the sort, opened the store six weeks ago, I moved in with Sonya last month. It’s been nonstop.”
“What’s the sort?”
“We had to unpack all the books, sort them by section and shelve them.”
“All five hundred thousand?”
He remembered one of the first things she’d said to him. She suppressed a hysterical giggle. “All five hundred thousand titles.” Colleen twisted sideways in her seat. “So tell me about yourself. You grew up in San Bernardino County in the desert. What are your parents like?”
“They both died when I was little. I was raised by my Aunt Sita. She was a migrant farm worker until about ten years ago.”
“Really? A migrant worker. That’s fascinating.”
Mike studied the road. “I guess so.”
Colleen let the subject drop. There were things she didn’t want to talk about so naturally there would be things he didn’t want to talk about. “How long have you been a fireman?”
“I joined the department when I was nineteen and I just trained to be a paramedic last year.”
“How old are you?”
He glanced at her. “Twenty-three.”
“So am I.”
He glanced over again. “How did you get to be a bookstore manager so young?”
“I started working there when I was eighteen.”
He pulled into a parking lot and shut off the engine. “Here we are. I hope you like this.”
“I’ll try anything once.” She hopped out and met him at the front of the jeep. He didn’t reach for her hand. David had been very big on public displays of affection and now she wondered if it was guilt that made him do it. Or if it was only to keep her from being suspicious.
“Something wrong?” Mike asked, holding opened the door.
“No.” She smiled, pulling herself forcibly out of the past.
The restaurant was a maze of tiny tables and bamboo prints. Mike led her to the table and pulled out the chair for her. A waitress in a crisp white shirt and a black skirt appeared at the table, smiling and bowing. She handed them menus. “Would you like drinks?” she asked through a thick accent.
Mike looked at Colleen. “They’ve got some pretty interesting stuff.”
Colleen flipped over her menu and surveyed the list. Coconut milk, papaya juice, mango juice, pineapple juice, Sappo. “What’s Sappo?”
“Beaha,” the waitress said.
Colleen looked at Mike for translation.
“Korean beer? Really? I think I’ll try the coconut milk and save the beer for another time.”
“She’ll have the coconut milk, I’ll have a Sappo.” Mike told the waitress who bowed and hurried away from the table.
“I don’t think I can pronounce these words,” Colleen announced.
“You can order by number.”
“Good. I’d hate to insult them by accident.” Colleen held the menu up in front of her, pretending to study it. She knew what she wanted simply because it was the only thing on the menu she remotely recognized and since she didn’t have to work out the pronunciation she was free to think.
All day Dan had been kind, solicitous, and pleasant company all around. Scott and Laura hadn’t seemed at all surprised by his behavior so she had to assume he was normally like this. She had sort of written him off as a bland guy with an occasionally dry sense of humor.
Until she’d talked to him in the driveway. In the driveway, he had nearly bowled her over. The tone of his voice sent shivers down her spine and when he took her hand she’d thought she felt her first earthquake. Not bland. Not bland at all.
But Mike had arrived with flowers and brought her to a Korean restaurant. In conversation yesterday, he had revealed himself to have a nimble wit and a lot of enthusiasm. For everything. Then there was that unusual childhood. That was darned interesting even if he didn’t want to talk about it.
It was too soon to tell.