Copyright © 2013 Mary Hughes
All rights reserved
Two stories tall in most places, it was one story in some and three in others. A corner tower stood five stories high, crowned by an observatory of some sort. Cliff pointed toward what looked like a garage, but it had at least six doors. At least now she knew where all the different cars came from.
She parked in front of a sweeping set of stairs. They mounted the steps together, taking them slowly. Vickie stood back as Cliff unlocked the solid cedar door. It was massive. He swung it open, silently, and allowed her to cross the sill first.
It was like crossing into a different country, a different time. The cut stone floor was covered with intricately woven carpets, and chandeliers lit the huge front hall and what she could see of the room beyond. A full suit of armor stood in one corner. On the walls hung oil portraits of men and women in clothes from earlier centuries. “My mother’s,” said Cliff, leading Vickie down the hall.
She followed him past several rooms in various styles, finally finding herself in a very modern kitchen. Cliff pulled out a chair at a small breakfast table for four. As she sat, he poured two glasses of milk and set them on the table. He dug a large cake knife from a drawer and a couple plates from a cupboard. Setting them on the table, he went through a door and returned with a large metal cake carrier. With a flourish, he set it in front of her and drew off the top.
The cake revealed was well worth the fanfare. A wedge had already been taken and she saw light, high layers separated by half an inch of frosting. The rich smell of chocolate wafted through the kitchen. Vickie sniffed appreciatively. Cliff cut them each a big wedge, seated himself, and waited.
Sensing he wanted her reaction, she sampled a small, moist corner of the cake. It was delicious, and she said so. “Your Hannah is a culinary genius.”
“Better than the brownies?” he teased.
“I don’t know.” She made a face. “We’ll see how much of this I actually get to eat.”
He laughed. “Actually quite a bit. Hannah made two.”
“Were you really ever a skinny little kid?”
She was just bantering, but he sobered immediately. “It was rather painful.”
He was silent after that, but Vickie found she wanted to know him better. “John said you didn’t take up weight training until after college.”
He stirred and met her gaze squarely. “That’s somewhat misleading. I started college at sixteen, and skipped through a bachelors and masters in three years. Being a bit of a loner, I didn’t have much else to do.”
Vickie’s eyes dropped to study her cake crumbs. “I guess you had some lost time to make up for after that.”
He didn’t pretend to misunderstand her. “I had a lot of offers of companionship, once I had increased my body mass by fifty percent. But some of the women who were now offering were those whose rejections had been the cruelest.”
Vickie frowned. She was beginning to see a very different Cliff, one more like herself than she’d ever realized. “Used to be all I had to do was say some thing vaguely intelligent to scare off a prospective date.”
He looked up from his second piece of cake. “You know, I think that’s the first thing you’ve said about yourself that I haven’t had to drag out of you?”
She paused. “I guess you’ve always seemed so…professional and perfect to me. It’s hard to be one’s own bungling self with someone who always does things just right.”
“Oh, I’m far from perfect. I try very hard to do things right, but you’d be amazed at how many screw‑ups I’ve had. It’s just that I always come back and try again, and again, until I do get it right.”
“I knew it. You’re stubborn.”
“I prefer ‘tenacious’.”
They laughed together at that. Cliff served her a second piece of cake, and helped himself to a third. Vickie cut into hers, and chewed slowly, considering. He wanted her to be more open. What could she reveal without revealing her heart? Job? No, he knew about that. School? No, he knew that from the background investigation. Family? She thought about that for a while. Her family seemed nothing like his. Father dead in childhood, mother soon after, probably neither of them understanding the technical streak in their son, perhaps not under standing their bookish son at all.
“You know, Cliff, maybe the reason I don’t talk about myself is there’s nothing much to say. I mean, our family made the Cleavers look like neighborhood trendsetters.”
Cliff’s face lit up. “Ah, a personal anecdote. So yours was the typical American family? Two‑point‑four children? Dog? Station wagon? T.V.?”
“The works. Mom was even stay-at-home, until my brother was in high school. Then she went back to work. I guess that was daring.”
“What did she do?”
Vickie laughed. “Crossing‑guard. She just retired last year. Dad retired three years ago. They go traveling a lot now.”
“That’s how I’d like to do it. Raise the children in a secure, loving home, then send them out into the world and live it up.”
“You’re silly! It takes two decades to raise children. How much living it up do you think you’re going to do at…er…”
Cliff quickly cut her off. “Fifty. I’ll only be fifty.”
“Hey, me too.”
“I know. We were born the same year.”
Vickie made an exasperated noise. “That’s why I don’t tell you anything about myself. I don’t need to. You already know it all.”
“Not everything. You said your family was traditional. Are you?”
“I think it’s important to give kids a safe home, too. And everyone needs love.” She winced mentally at that. “But I think my parents are doing it the right way. You don’t marry your family—you marry each other.”
“So when you’re fifty, you’re going to be painting the town red, too.”
“Either that, or I’ll go back to school. I’ve always been interested in psychology.”
“Why didn’t you go into that before?”
“Well, I had to make a living.” She smiled. “My parents weren’t going to support me forever. And besides, they had my brother to pay for. I guess boys are more expensive than girls, with their cars and everything.” She looked sidelong at him, wondering if he was aware that having six cars was unusual.
Cliff squared his shoulders. “Some boys pay for their own ‘cars and everything’.” He drank milk, then considered her. “Had you ever thought of marrying some rich guy and doing what you want to do now?”
“That doesn’t sound fair. I mean, just because some poor slob has worked his tail off to make some money shouldn’t turn him into marriage meat. For that matter, maybe some guy should ride my coattails to success.”
“I don’t know. I just think a person should put his or her fair share into a marriage. If I marry a rich guy, it shouldn’t be to do what I want, it should be to do what we want.”
“Well, you make enough money now to pull your own weight, and then some. Had you ever thought about taking a trophy husband?”
“You mean marry somebody for their looks?”
“Or because they’re good in bed. Or both.”
“Forget it. What happens if I lose my job? Or he meets someone who makes more than I do? That’s a relationship that spells disaster.”
Cliff shook his head. “You’d be surprised at how many men can’t see that clearly.”
“Not really. To be honest with you, most men I’ve known haven’t been able to see beyond the end of their…sexual organ.”
“Ah‑hah! A misanthrope. You don’t want to marry at all.”
Vickie shook her head vehemently. “Of course I want to marry. If it’s the right person.”