“No, Mrs. Veslen, Mr. Wexler isn’t in this week. Yes, I’m sure. I can take a message for you, and make sure he gets it tomorrow. Yes, ok, yes I will. Okay, Mrs. Veslen, you have a nice day. Thanks, you too. Bye now.” I hung up the phone and inhaled deeply, the first full breath I’d been able to draw since picking up Elva Veslen’s call five minutes ago. In the few months I’d been temping as the receptionist in my father’s law office, Mrs. Veslen had called at least once a week, asking for “Jimmy” and pouting a bit if he wasn’t immediately able to take her call or, worse, if I had to take a message from her to pass along to him. She had also visited the office at least three times in the last two months, and her visits were a lot easier to take than the phone calls. A sprightly seventy-four, she would come in each time with a bouquet of her prized daffodils in tow, and as I arranged them in the old vase we had in the break office, she would tell me all about their history, as well as the history of her marriage to Richard Veslen, the real estate tycoon and philanthropist who had built the first enclosed mall in my town.
“My Richard, he always treated me like gold,” she’d tell me, her pale blue eyes misting over a bit as she remembered the good times. “It was hard in the beginning – we didn’t have much more than a double bed, an electric range and a lot of love back then. You know,” she’d always say at that point, “you should find someone like my Richard, Evelynn. Someone who will respect your dreams and make you want to support his as well.”
I would always nod and agree with her, saying, “I just haven’t found him yet.” I’d found Scott early in my sophomore year, and I’d thought he’d been “the one,” but I didn’t even want to think about how badly that had turned out, how his protectiveness had turned to possessiveness and his boisterous high spirits had become violent after a few drinks. Thank god my roommate had convinced me to go to the hospital after . . .
But I never shared that with Mrs. Veslen, or anyone else, just put on a polite smile when she’d pat my hand and give the daffodils a final adjustment in their vase. “I’m sure he’ll come along just when you aren’t looking,” she’d tell me, then smile up at James “Jimmy” Wexler, the senior partner of the firm, as he came out of his office to greet her. She changed her mind every other week about whom to leave her fortunes to, and even though she appeared to me to be in excellent health, I always heard an undertone of urgency in her voice when she called, as if she truly believed that she might die tomorrow without her will and trusts just as she wanted them.
Mrs. Veslen’s latest bunch of daffodils had been transferred from the reception desk to an end table, and as I looked over to determine if it might need more water – it was wilting just the smallest bit – I saw the mug of tea Cory had left behind sitting on top of his copy of JAMA. Leaving my desk for a moment, I went over to retrieve both, noticing as I picked up the now-cool mug that it had left a noticeable water ring on the cover, warping the Victorian-era image of a girl and her doll.
I dumped the mug of tea in the sink, then filled it with water to soak a while. Rolling the journal in my hands, I walked back to the desk, set the phone to voice mail, and knocked on the door of my father’s office. He grunted affirmatively, and I coaxed the door open.
Dad was leaning back in his chair, feet propped up on his desk as he perused a stack of yellow legal-size papers. When he saw me, he removed his half-moon reading glasses, scowled at them briefly, then tossed them onto his desk blotter. “Ready to call it a day, Lynn-din?” He stretched his arms up toward the ceiling, then interlaced his fingers at the back of his head, his elbows sticking out like wings.
“Actually, I need to make a stop on
my way home, if you can give me some help.” I showed him the journal, then
said, “I need the address for the
“Ah. In that case, I guess I can break a few rules and look that address up for you.” He consulted the stack of papers he’d been holding, flipped to the third one, and then pulled out an index card from a box on his desk and wrote something down on it. “Give him my regards, will you? David admitted that he should have been in bed, but since the accident, driving has been tough, so Cory offered to chauffeur him here today. He’s a good son.” Dad handed me the card and grinned. “And you’re a good daughter.”
My father had never been stingy with his praise, and he always made it known that he loved me and was proud of me, but for some reason, I felt my throat tighten a little just then. “Thanks, Dad,” I managed to say, then walked out of his office, shutting the door behind me.
According to the card, the
Fortunately for me, most of the neighborhood had been built before the boom of Deena’s Eastside Dreamhouse planned communities, so each house was different. I pulled up in front of a modest two-story Craftsman-style home, noting the clean lines of the house as they revealed a series of window boxes planted with pansies and violets.
Leaving my suit jacket behind in the car, I clutched the journal under my arm and walked up the three steps to the front porch, looking for a doorbell. Finding none, I opened the screen door and rapped on the heavy oak front door. Within a minute or so, I could hear a muffled voice call, “We don’t want any,” then add, as if to scare off potential missionaries, “We’re Unitarians.”
“So was Thomas Jefferson,” I retorted, sure that that would get a response. Indeed, I heard the door being unlatched, then it slowly swung open to reveal a sleepy and bedraggled Cory Marshall. He had changed into blue flannel pajamas and a red corduroy robe, the belt flopping from its loops on either side of his waist.
He blinked at the sun behind me, and then turned abruptly away, a loud, uncovered sneeze bending him over at the waist. “Huh –uhshooo!”
“Bless you.” I started to dig through my tote bag for a tissue to offer him, but he straightened up and shook his head.
“Thag you, but dough.” He fished a crumpled white handkerchief out of the pocket of his robe and blew his nose, making a pronounced gurgling sound. “Sorry.” He stepped back from the doorway and motioned me inside with one hand, using the other to swipe at his nose again.
“Please, have a seat in the kitchen for a moment. You want a cup of coffee or anything?” He padded through a short hallway in his bare feet, and I followed him into a small but tidy kitchen. A breakfast nook that looked original to the house sat in one corner, a crisp sky blue table cloth overlaid with three dinner plates, three sets of utensils, and a small, empty vase. I could almost picture Cory and his parents sitting down there for breakfast or dinner, discussing the topics of the day and bantering easily with each other.
“I’m fine.” I took a seat in the nook, setting the journal down next to me.
great. I’ll be right back – I just have to get another of these.” He gestured
with the white cloth, now a sodden and crumpled ball, then
disappeared around a corner. In the time he was gone, I glanced around the
room, marveling at how homey it seemed without ever devolving into kitsch.
Someone had framed a series of fruit prints, proudly advertising Tahoma Chief,
Yakima Gold and
“It’s like being in a tree house,” I breathed, and was startled when someone responded, “Yeah.”
I spun around to see Cory again, changed into a pair of faded jeans and a dark green flannel shirt. He had wet down his hair, and it was slicked back from his forehead so neatly I could still see the grooves the comb had left.
“Everyone who visits falls in love with that view,” he said. “When I was a kid, raccoons would come up to the window, and my mother would feed them dog food and eggs. They’d take an egg right out of my hand – it was just amazing.”
“I’ll bet. You know, you didn’t have to get all dressed up on my account.”
He sat back down at the nook and motioned for me to sit opposite him. “You look so nice, in a suit and heels and those sparkly earrings. I had to make an effort somehow.”
I reached up to self-consciously adjust the spirals dangling from my lobes. Normally, in the lab, I only wore small gold posts, but the law office job seemed to call for more pizzazz, and I realized I rather liked it. Making an impression on Cory had not been my number one priority just then, but I was certainly glad I had.
“You must be pre-law, then,” Cory went on. “One of these days, will it be Carlson and Carlson, Attorneys at Law?”
“No.” I fiddled with my earrings some more, wanting to avoid answering the question. “I’m majoring in chemistry, actually. I just, uhm, took a break for a quarter.”
“Chemistry can be pretty intense,” he agreed, apparently not noticing anything odd in my needing a break. “I’ve been taking the pre-med route, and it’s been wild.”
“Wow.” I folded my hands one over the other on the table, avoiding touching the dinner plate in front of me. “What kind of practice do you want to go into?”
Cory sniffed hard in answer to my question, and jammed a hand into the back pocket of his jeans. “Pediatrics, I think.” He drew out a red bandanna and began slowly, meticulously unfolding it. For some reason, the process fascinated me, in the way that some people were awestruck by car accidents and the like. I knew what was coming next, but I was alternately willing it to go faster or to go away all together. Knowing that he was on the verge of a sneeze was strangely exciting, like thinking about yelling an obscenity in the library (not that I’d ever done that) to see the reaction.
“Reconstructive surgery, or, huh, maybe…” His breath was coming in little hitched gulps now, and his upper lip curled to reveal his teeth, his nostrils flaring slightly.
“’Scuse me.” He cupped the handkerchief to his face and sneezed into it, a loud “Eeer-shooo!” that literally rattled the plate in front of him. From behind the cloth, he muttered something that I couldn’t quite make out, turned to one side, and continued sneezing into the cloth. Fifteen sneezes later (I counted), he looked up, his bright blue eyes the only visible part of his face over the large red square.
“Ghesundheit,” I admonished, likely more startled than he was at the intensity and length of the attack.
“Thag you.” His voice was rough, and he coughed to clear his throat. “Could you had be some tissues, please?” He didn’t lower the cloth, keeping most of his face hidden from view.
“Sure, if you want.” I rummaged around in my tote bag and dug up the pack he’d refused earlier, sliding them across the table to him. He took out two, set the handkerchief on the table beside him, then blew long and loud into the tissues. Scowling as he balled those up and set them aside, he took out another two tissues from the pack and blew again, this time with a bit less force. He did that one more time, sneezing a final, half-stifled “ih-shmmf” into his fist just after balling up the decimated mess of tissues.
“Huh.” His shoulders rose and fell with his sigh, and he began to refold the bandanna as meticulously as he’d unfolded it minutes earlier. I waited until he’d tucked it back into his pocket before I said anything.
“What else were you thinking of going into after medical school?” I offered, as if our conversation hadn’t been interrupted, and he relaxed visibly. A slow grin crept across his face as he thought of his answer.
“Would you believe pediatric allergy and immunology?”
I laughed, and Cory’s face broke into the sort of smile you expect to see in a toothpaste ad. Sure, his face was slightly flushed, the tips of his ears were bright red, and his nose was an even more florid shade, but he was cute. Okay, I amended silently, cute and handsome, a combination of appealingly vulnerable little boy and confident man. His blond hair was tousled, and I fought the urge to reach across the table to put it back in place. I’d never thought of myself as the mothering type, but he inspired me to tuck him into bed, then jump in after him.
Oh, good lord, where on earth had that come from? After Scott, I had vowed to steel myself against all men, avoid falling into the hurtful traps of exposing myself to more potential harm. With Cory, however, it was easy to let down my guard, and that scared me to death. Maybe a guy who seemed constantly on the verge of a sneeze and actually upheld the archaic, impractical but charming tradition of carrying a handkerchief was just too sweetly vulnerable to be much of a threat to me. Nevertheless, the thought of my own vulnerabilities spilling out across the table, and his reaction to what I had secreted away for half a year, prompted me to scoop up my tote bag and get up from the nook as fast as I could.
“Hey, did I say something wrong?” Cory’s hand reached out to encircle my wrist, and I looked down at it, superimposing a stronger, more forceful hand grabbing me.
“Please, I – I need to go.” I broke free from his grip, which wasn’t hard to do. “My folks are probably worried that I’ve been in an accident.” I dashed over to the door, hearing Cory’s bare footsteps slapping behind me.
“You can call them from here, if you want, let them know you’re okay.”
I kept my eyes averted from him, fumbling to unlock the deadbolt. Once again, his hand snaked past me, and I jumped back from it as he snapped the deadbolt back from the lock with an audible thunk.
“No, no thank you,” I mumbled, screwing up all of my courage to face him. Part of me realized it none of this was his fault, that I owed him an explanation for my sudden panic, but I wasn’t sure how long I could be in the house before I freaked out completely. “You’re a really nice guy,” I said, damning the quaver in my voice, “and I hope you feel better soon, but I can’t stay here any longer.” I could hear my pulse rushing through my head as I ran to my car, and as I fumbled with the key, I knew that Cory was still standing in the doorway of his home, probably thinking I was a complete nut case. Two failed turns of the ignition later, the car roared to life, and I peeled away from the curb, wanting to be as far away from Cory Marshall and his sweet blue eyes as possible.