Friday, April 5, 2013

Hot Chips and Sand 131-135

Hot Chips and Sand
Copyright © 2013 Mary Hughes
All rights reserved

Chapter Nine
On their way out of the building, Vickie’s phone chimed. She pulled it out. “I’ve got a voicemail.” She put it on speaker and played back the message.
It was Tess. “Hey Vickie, you’ll never guess what I just heard on the office grapevine. Not that I ever spread rumors, you understand.” She chuckled evilly. “Since I got this directly from Jerry, and I consider it fact, not rumor.”
Vickie was more hungry than interested in Jerry right then. But her ears perked up at Tess’s next words.
“Mel Pinlow got canned today. Not only did he screw up another big job, but he got a sexual discrimination suit filed against the company because of his idiotic behavior—remember how we used to call him ‘His AssHoliness’?”
Vickie blushed. She felt sorry for Mel and hated to see it happen to anybody, but wasn’t totally surprised. Time wounds all heels. Tess and Phil had been covering for him too long.
“And when I thought about the number of times he cut into you about your professional conduct…” Tess laughed. “Well, I thought you’d like to hear about it.”
“Poor Mel.” Vickie ended the call and put away her phone.
“You feel sorry for that jerk?” Cliff said. “I’d have fired him long before now, or at least put him in rehab training. Or maybe I’d have fired him because he wasn’t very nice to you.”
Vickie stared. Cliff would have fired Mel long ago? She remembered thinking they were two peas in a pod, like‑minded to the point of being twins.
The sudden incongruity between who she’d thought he was and how he was acting slapped her like a laptop to the face. How had she missed this decisive manager, this supportive friend?
Well, maybe she was confused by all the other Cliffs she’d met. The sweet lover at the picnic. In the restaurant, the suave and cool and sophisticated man. The powerful president and CEO of a multi‑million dollar company, telling her on the car ride to his corporate head quarters in no uncertain terms that she couldn’t judge his dealing with a power‑mad dictator. And of course in Middle Yemen, her night in shining armor—or black silk pants. She blushed.
All those Cliffs…if she had been a computer system, she would have had a system overload/abort transaction message about now. As it was Vickie had to consciously reel herself back in. She simply did not have enough information, and she couldn’t trust her fragile heart to anything less than certainty.
And if Cliff was anything, he wasn’t a certainty.
He was eyeing her strangely. Oh yes, and another Cliff, the astute human being. Vickie knew she had to say something. “Well, I don’t like to see anyone get fired, although in this case, I supposed it’s for the best. Maybe Mel will learn something from it.”
“I doubt it. Egos like that seldom learn from experience.”
This she could parry. “Oh? How did you learn so much, then?”
“Repetition.” He smiled cryptically. “Practice.”
“What does that mean?” She was speaking to his back. He’d headed toward yet another strange car. She ran to catch up. “Let’s use my car this time, okay?”
He smiled and followed her to her sedan.
Vickie popped the locks, watched him fold his long frame into the car, fanned herself, then she slid behind the steering wheel. Her faithful sedan started up on the first crank, and she pulled smoothly out of the parking lot.
Cliff amused himself by futzing with the stereo for a while. After he had rejected half a dozen or so stations, she took pity on him and showed him the presets. He hit the first one, liked it, and settled back.
She smiled, a bit ruefully, to herself. Since the episode in the park, Cliff had been the perfect gentleman. Gradually, her feeling of awkwardness around him was subsiding. And without feeling obliged to remind him of his moral duties to Prince Kulinahr, she was really beginning to enjoy his company, to feel comfortable with him. Every day it seemed they found more things they had in common.
Then why did she feel something vital was missing? Something personal?
No. Personal was bad. She should be happy. This was what she was trying to achieve, a good professional relationship. When the project was over they could part with no regrets, no hurt on any side.
A pang hit her chest at the thought of leaving Cliff. No hurt indeed.
Vickie clenched her eyes briefly. Hadn’t she learned anything? Actions said it all. The way Cliff switched turn his passion on and off wasn’t love. It might hurt in the short run but it was better this way. Enjoy the time they had together, then leave. Good business. No regrets.
“Vickie? What’s wrong?”
God, why did he have to be so perceptive? When the Deity did not answer her, she made an attempt to sidetrack him. “Do you think John will ever notice Tess as more than just a friend?” Which was actually quite brilliant. It was close enough to her own truth without revealing her feelings.
“Tess likes John? Really? Why hasn’t she said anything to him?”
“Well, I…I don’t know, but I’d guess she’s afraid to. John’s so attractive, he must have scores of women after him…” Lovesick, one and all. “I imagine Tess just doesn’t want to embarrass herself.”
“Sure, scores of women who aren’t Tess. John would jump at the chance to date her. He hasn’t asked her out because he says she always seems so aloof.”
She’d never been aloof in Cliff’s arms.
“I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned this to him. You’re close friends.”
She and John had shared laughs, drinks, even sundaes. But… “Friends, yes. But never…intimate…friends.”
Cliff’s eyebrow went up. “I know. John would have warned me if you were lovers.”
“Great. So glad we had this little chat.” Did men share everything? Was nothing sacred from locker-room discussions?
Then she turned onto the street for The Pizza Place and could practically smell the spicy sauce and melted mozzarella. As she pulled into a parking space, annoyance and doubts jettisoned in anticipation of a good dinner. She always felt better on a full stomach. She leaped out of her car and hurried toward the restaurant. His reply, something about non‑competition, was lost to her as she flung open the door. The tang of tomato and oregano nearly knocked her off her feet. She left him to plug the parking meter and beckoned to the hostess.
“Your regular table, Vickie?”
She and John and Tess and Belva and the others had come often to this restaurant to talk and relax after a long, hard day’s work. This was a safe place. Vickie smiled. “Yes.”
Cliff entered just in time to receive a lingering once‑over from the hostess. Then they were being led to a secluded booth with a window view of the river.
A college age waiter zoomed up as they seated themselves. “Stuffed spinach pizza and diet cola?”
Cliff rolled his eyes. Before he could snark, Vickie added, “And two orders of cheese garlic bread, Terry.”
When the waiter had gone, Cliff waved at the walls. “This is the real reason you’ve gained weight, isn’t it? Trying to blame those innocent hot fudge sundaes. Tsk, tsk.” He shook his head slowly.
Vickie primly unfolded her paper napkin and placed it on her lap. “Nonsense. The crust is whole wheat, spinach is a marvelous source of several vitamins and minerals, and cheese is a basic food in the milk group.”
“And diet soda?”
“That’s an essential component of a very necessary food group.”
“Which is…?”
“The diet food group. So I can eat more hot fudge sundaes.”
“And brownies.”
“Ha. Fat lot of them I get with you around.”
“You had one just yesterday.”
“We ordered four. I thought I’d have one for later, but you gobbled them up so fast, the one I did manage to grab I nearly got my fingers bitten off.”

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