By SX Meagher
The next afternoon, the fledgling stock moguls kept their planned lunch date and sat in front of Jamie's computer, watching the real-time stock ticker. "I can't believe how quickly Palm is going up," Jamie gasped. "It's absolutely amazing!"
"Offered at 38, and it's at 145," Ryan nodded slowly. "There are some very wealthy people out there if they get out soon."
"When do you think we should sell short?" Jamie asked.
Ryan checked her watch. "It's gotta be now," she said. "I've gotta be on the bus in thirty minutes. Unless you want to take over "
"No, no, this has to be a joint decision. Now's fine."
Ryan kissed Jamie's cheek and said, "I don't think this is the best way to time stock sales, but duty calls. Call me later and let me know how high it got."
"Will do, Ms. Megabucks."
Giving her one last kiss, Ryan said, "That's a title I'll never be able to wrest from you, sweet cheeks. See you later tonight."
"Can't wait," Jamie said. "You, a cheap motel room and a dusty field in Sacramento. What more could a woman want?"
* * * * * *
After they were finished with work for the day, Conor, Kevin and Brian met Catherine at her new home. The roared up in Conor's black Ram truck, Catherine smiling at the fact that she'd never seen him drive anywhere stealthily.
The men emerged from the truck, each of them carrying a bag with the tools of his trade. Conor had a metal clipboard in his hand and he waved it at Catherine. She got out of her car and hugged each of the men in turn, thinking how nice it was that everyone in the clan was so comfortable with showing affection.
"We're ready to go," Conor said. "Kevin's going to check the electrical, Brian will look at the plumbing, heating and air conditioning, and I'll get up on the roof and do a water test."
"Oh, Conor, do you really have to do that?"
"Yeah, it's a mistake not to," he said. "A leaky roof can cause more damage than almost any other fault. I'll be surprised if this one leaks, but I'd feel like a fool if I didn't test it and you were putting out buckets during our first storm."
"If you're sure," Catherine said. "I just don't want any of you to risk injury."
"We risk injury every day," Kevin said. "We're tradesmen." He struck a heroic pose, throwing out his chest for a moment before Brian gave him a hard jab in the belly.
Conor took his extension ladder from the truck bed, and hefted it over to the side of the house.
As he got it into position and started to raise it, Catherine said, "I'll go into the house and show Kevin and Brian around. I can't stand to watch you climb that high."
"This isn't very high," Conor said, but Catherine had disappeared by the time he'd finished his sentence.
* * * * * *
It took about two hours for the men to check every system thoroughly. Kevin wanted a couple of ground-fault interrupter outlets put into the kitchen, and Brian advised replacing an old section of galvanized pipe with copper. Conor couldn't find a thing that needed fixing, and he'd looked as hard as he knew how.
"The few little things we found will cost under $500 to fix," Conor said. "You can try to negotiate for the seller to pay for them, or we can do the repairs for you. Materials will be about $100."
"I'd be happy to have you do the work," Catherine said, "but only if I pay your normal rate."
"That's not how we do it," Brian said, his strong jaw sticking out just the way Ryan's did when she was being inflexible. "Materials only."
"All right," she said, smiling sweetly at him. "I'll ask my real estate agent to recommend someone."
"She's as hard-headed as we are," Kevin said, laughing. "She'd hire a guy off the street before she'd let us work for free."
"Just like Jamie," Brian said, shaking his head.
"Where do you think Jamie got it?" Conor asked. "She's a chip off the young, beautiful block.
Catherine bumped him with her shoulder and laughed. "I think it's lovely that you all help each other out, but you've all got skills that you use for each other's benefit. All I have is money, so it's only fair that I pay for what I receive."
Conor put an arm around her shoulders. "She does have a lot of money," he agreed. "It's only right that you two should help her lighten her load."
"Now it's your turn," Catherine said, turning to Conor. "I'd love to put an office in the house, and I'd like for you to help me plan it and get it done."
Conor put his hands over his eyes, crying, "No, no, not me!"
"Yes, you," Catherine said, poking him in the chest. "I need you to help lighten my load, too."
He let out an aggrieved sigh. "When do you want me?"
"How about tomorrow? I'm going to be here to have a termite inspection at around noon."
"That's good for me. I'm gonna go to Sacramento to see Ryan play, but I think I'll go over on Sunday."
"Great. That's when I'm going, too. See you tomorrow anytime after one o'clock."
"Should I bring you lunch?" he asked.
"No, I never eat lunch," she said. "But feel free to bring something for yourself."
"He's always got a snack stashed somewhere," Brian said. "He and Ryan eat more than any two of the rest of us."
"Good metabolism," Conor said. "Although if I worked a desk job, I probably couldn't get through the front door."
* * * * * *
At around six o'clock that afternoon, Jamie reached her lover on the bus. "We sold 3,000 shares at one fifty."
"Wow, we've gotta put $675,000 in our margin account. That's a lotta dough."
"Oh, no we don't," Jamie said. "It's already down to one twenty five. We only have to put in $562,500.
"Only you could say 'only' when you're speaking of half a million dollars," Ryan said. "Hey, you're breaking up. Good job on the sale. See you later."
* * * * * *
Jamie knocked on the door of room 215 at the Comfort Inn in Sacramento at 11:00 p.m. As soon as the door opened, she put her hands on Ryan's waist and asked in sing-song fashion, "Guess how much our margin is?"
"I don't know," Ryan asked excitedly. "How much?"
"$405,000," Jamie cried.
"Jesus! You mean the stock dropped all the way to ninety?"
Momentarily stunned, the blonde asked, "How do you do that so fast?"
"Uhm math me you know the drill," the dark beauty said. "That's off the hook, babe. We're making money hand over fist."
"When should we buy? Soon?"
"Nah. Let's let it ride for a while. I think it'll continue to drop for a while."
"Well, you've been a damn fine prognosticator so far. 3Com closed at eighty-one today. We made over $30 a share by selling when we did."
"Not too shabby," Ryan said.
"I'm really excited about this," Jamie said. "We should celebrate."
"Okay," the taller woman said. "Let's drink some fine imaginary champagne and eat some of the best caviar that money can't buy-all paid for with our sham profits."
"Our profits might be fake, but the fun is real," the blonde beamed. "Now strip me and take me to bed, in that order."
* * * * * *
They lay in bed, their bodies entwined. Jamie's head was on Ryan's breast and she was nearly asleep from listening to the slow, steady beat of her heart. "What would you do with the money if it were real?" Jamie idly asked.
"Oh I don't know. Probably invest most of it. Give as much to my grandparents as they'd take which isn't much. Help pay for my cousins to go to university." She chuckled, making Jamie's head bounce. "Hire someone to impersonate me when I have to take my language proficiency test for grad school."
"Mia could hook you up."
"I've been looking around school. It's hard to find a woman who's as tall as I am. I've had my eyes peeled."
Jamie turned her head and kissed Ryan's breast. "Why won't you send your grandparents money now? We've got a lot more real money than imaginary money."
Ryan's shoulders shifted. "Dunno. Still doesn't seem like mine, I guess. Don't think it ever will."
"I hate that," Jamie said. "I thought we'd agree that we'd work on putting together a foundation to give most of our money away."
"We will," Ryan said. "But that's different than giving money to my family."
"I don't know," she mumbled. "It just is."
"It doesn't make any difference to your grandparents or your cousins. If they need some help "
"I know, I know. I'll ask my aunt if she can think of a way to slip my grandparents some cash without their going wild."
"Who'll be the harder sell?"
"Usually my granny, but I think my grandfather might have a harder time with accepting money-especially from one of his grandchildren. He never made a good living, but he wouldn't take any assistance-not even used clothes from St. Vincent de Paul. Poor Aunt Moira had to wear Aunt Maeve's clothes, after my mother had worn them. I don't think she had one new piece of clothing until both Aunt Maeve and my mother had moved to America."
"Write to her, honey. If we can make them a little more comfortable we just have to find a way."
Ryan shifted her hips and sank lower onto the bed. "'Kay. I've gotta do what I promised and start writing to Cate more regularly. I've really let that drop."
"You can't do everything, honey. You have written a couple of times, haven't you?"
"Yeah. But she doesn't tell me anything. I don't think she trusts me."
"Yeah. But she doesn't trust Aisling, either, so I'm not surprised. I've just gotta work harder at gaining her trust." She let out a breath. "One more item on my to-do list." She lay down and turned onto her side, wrapping an arm around Jamie. "G'night."
Jamie kissed her, then turned onto her side. Nice move. You have a night alone and you spend it making her feel bad for more things she doesn't think she's doing well.
* * * * * *
On Friday night, the senior softball players went to a bar close to their hotel to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Coach Roberts gave them permission to go, and told them they could stay out as late as they wanted. The girls met in the lobby, and were just about to leave when they saw the coach reading Sports Illustrated while sitting in a chair near the door.
"Have a nice time, ladies," he said, not looking up.
"Thanks, Coach," Jackie said. "We'll have one for you."
"No curfew, right?" she asked.
"Right. I'm gonna sit right here and make out the lineup card for tomorrow. I have a hard time remembering names, so I'll probably just put down the first people I see as they come home."
"Eleven o'clock?" Ryan asked, smirking at the man.
"That's a lovely time," he said. "One of my favorites."
"We'll be here," she said. "Sober."
"That's one of my second favorite things," he said, taking in a deep breath as though he could smell it. "Ahh sobriety."
"Are we gonna have to walk a straight line?" Ryan asked.
He looked at her for the first time. "Ryan! You make it sound like I supervise you. You're adults."
"Yeah, right," she said, turning and giving him a little wave from over her shoulder.
Coach Roberts looked at Jamie, who was smiling at him. "I'm misunderstood."
"I don't know how you do it, but they understand you better when you try to confuse 'em."
"That's my secret," he said, winking at her. "I shoulda worked for the government."
* * * * * *
Jim Evans stood at the window of his suite, looking down at the revelers streaming in and out of the hotel. "There must be a big St. Patrick's Day party here," he said to Kayla.
"I saw signs in the lobby when I came in. It's some ancient order of something or other."
He turned, a small smile forming when he saw that she was wearing nothing but a tiny white T-shirt and bright green bikinis. "Are you Irish?"
"Yeah, a little," she said. "My mother was some mix of English, Irish and Scottish."
"You look Irish," he said, regarding her thoughtfully. "With your red hair and fair skin. Green's a very good color for you."
"For my ass?" she asked, turning and wiggling it.
"For all of you," he said. "But it looks awfully good on your ass. Of course, everything does."
She went to him and put an arm around his waist, and they stood together for a few minutes, observing the traffic and the people near the hotel.
"Looks like fun," he finally said. "Do you want to go out? I'm sure we could find someplace close that wouldn't be filled with kids."
Smiling to herself, she thought of how often he seemed to forget she was a lot closer in age to the kids than she was to him. "No, it's only fun to go out on St. Paddy's Day if you're with a group of friends." Her arm dropped and she moved away, going to sit on the sofa. She picked up the remote and started channel-surfing. "PBS has Great Performances. Les Troyens from Milan. Want that?"
He sat down next to her. "Sure. I'm always up for opera." He relaxed against the sofa. "Have you ever seen Les Troyens performed?"
"No," she said, not elaborating.
"Well, do you want to watch? What would you watch if I weren't home?"
"I wouldn't watch TV," she said without hesitation. "When you're gone, I'm either on my computer or talking on the phone. Well, I might have the TV on," she amended. "But only for background noise. I put on MTV or VH1 if either of them actually has music on which isn't very often."
"What do you do on your computer?" he asked.
She glanced at him out of the side of her eyes. "Why the interest?"
He blinked in surprise. "What?"
"Why are you interested in what I do when you're not home?"
He frowned at her, wounded. "You're my lover. Shouldn't I be interested in what you do?"
"Sure. You should be. But you usually aren't." She didn't blink, staring right back into his eyes as he looked at her for a few seconds. "What? You look surprised."
"I am. Don't you think I care about you?"
She put her hand on his thigh, gently stroking him. "Sure you do. But " She trailed off and looked away.
"What? Come on, tell me."
She could tell he was getting upset, but she knew she couldn't turn back now. "You care about me like I care about you."
He stood up, releasing her hand and letting it fall to the cushion. "What in the hell does that mean?"
Her first instinct was to calm him down and distract him. The easiest way to do that was to kiss him and tug him into the bedroom. It was so easy that she'd never even had to think of another trick. But she didn't want to have sex; she felt like being honest for a change. "We use each other, Jim. We always have. That can't come as a surprise."
"I thought we'd had this out before," he said, looking very perturbed.
"We've skirted around it before, but it's time to discuss the future. I'm going to have to find a new job soon."
She sighed. "We've talked about this. I can't go back to the firm. Everyone knows about our affair. I'll never have credibility in the San Francisco legal community again. I think I have to stay here."
"Here? As in Washington?"
"Yeah. I don't think anyone will hold our affair against me." She laughed bitterly. "It might even help me."
"So this is a done deal? You're definitely not going back to San Francisco with me?"
"With you?" Now she was surprised. "What are you asking?"
His eyes grew a little wide. "Uhm just that I thought we'd work together and live together. I'd love to have you as my deputy."
"Oh. Right." She shook her head. "No thanks. I've got ten years to make a name for myself while I'm still young. Then, when I get older, people will stop looking at me like a piece of ass and start paying attention to what I know. I can't spend my prime time riding your coattails."
He stumbled a little as he grasped for a chair and sat down heavily. "Is that all I am to you? A vehicle?"
She glared at him. "Why are you playing the victim here? You know just what you wanted when you started flirting with me. You wanted a young woman who was naοve enough to sleep with you and be discrete about it. You had a plan."
His glare matched hers. "And you didn't?"
Kayla was silent for a minute. She turned her head, gazing at a picture on the wall, then she swept her crimson hair from the side of her face and lay her cheek against the back of the sofa. "Not at first," she said quietly. "I hadn't been at the firm very long, and I hadn't heard much gossip. I was really flattered that I got to work with you when I was a new associate. I thought they'd picked me because they thought I had a lot of potential." She turned her head and stared at Jim for a few seconds. "You asked for me, didn't you?"
"Uhm I don't recall. I uhm might have mentioned-"
She cut him off. "Spare me. I'm sure your list consisted of Melanie Angelos and me. You lucked out. She's gay."
Jim turned away from her, striding over to the window, where he let his head rest against the cool glass. He didn't say a word, so she continued.
"I was so dumb." She let out a short, wry laugh. "I honestly thought that you and I had something special. I knew you were married, of course, but I assumed that you'd divorce your wife so we could be together." She sniffled, and wiped a few tears from her cheek. "I'll never forget the day I was having lunch with a couple of people who'd been at the firm for a few years. One of the guys started teasing me about keeping my distance from you. That's when I found out that I wasn't the first-and that I wouldn't be the last."
He turned and leaned against the window, staring at her in stunned silence. Finally he asked, "Why didn't you tell me to fuck off?"
"It wasn't that easy," she said. "I knew word would get out. And once people knew, it didn't matter if I'd slept with you once or a thousand times. So, I swallowed my pride and decided to get what I could out of the relationship. And, to be honest, I think we've both come out of it pretty well. You wanted me because of how I looked, and you got a bonus because I also know what I'm doing and I've helped you. I got the bonus of coming to Washington with you."
"Do you care about me or not?" Jim demanded.
He looked like he might cry, and she had no stomach for that. She spoke sharply, trying to make him angry so he'd stop whining. "I care about you just as much as you care about me. Do you want to get married? Have children?" She paused for a second and said with added emphasis, "Be faithful?"
Jim paled and moved to an upholstered chair, where he sat quietly for a moment. When he looked up, she was next to him.
She sat on the arm of his chair and touched his chin, lifting it so they could see each other's eyes. "Is that what you want?"
He shook his head. "No. I don't want to get married again, and I certainly don't want to have more children." He cocked his head and asked, "Is that what you want? You've never mentioned anything like that before."
She dropped her hand. "I want it if I can have it," she said. "If I can't, then I want a kick-ass career. I can't have either with you, and there's no use getting sentimental over it."
"Jesus, you sound so hard."
Kayla got up and returned to the sofa. Looking at him for a long time, her eyes burning with intensity, she finally said, "You'd like it better if I threatened to hang myself, wouldn't you."
Her tone was bitterly cold, and Jim felt himself shiver. "Why in the fuck would I want that?"
With a wry, astringent smile, she asked, "Am I the first one who played the game like you do?"
Kayla looked at him like he was slow and thick-headed. "The sex game. The cheating game. The 'I'll use you until I tire of you' game." She blinked when she saw the hurt on his face. "Don't even try to tell me you don't think of this as a game."
"It's not," he said, indignant. "I've never thought of our relationship as a game, and it's very disturbing to learn that you do!"
She got up and went to the bar. She didn't offer to make anything for Jim, but spent a few thoughtful minutes making herself a margarita. When she was finished she sat down on the sofa and took a sip. Conversationally, she said, "I can name four women at the firm with whom you've had affairs. Each one is about four years younger than the last, and rumor has it that you dumped each of them when a younger, more shall we say malleable one came along." She took another sip, savoring the tart tang of the drink. "Coincidence?"
"Yes!" He got up and stalked over to the windows, his back to Kayla. "I was married. I couldn't afford to have significant, long-term relationships with other women. It was just fun."
"Fun," she repeated. "Kinda like a oh, I don't know a game?"
"You make it sound so conniving," he muttered. "Like I used them."
"You did," she said. "And they used you. All of them have done pretty well at the firm. I'd say they've kept up with the men in their peer group, and that's all a woman can hope for."
"But you say you can't return to the firm," he said, turning to look at her again. "If they've done well, why can't you?"
"Because I don't want to be number five on the list. I mean I am number five, but I don't want that to be how I'm referred to at work. If I leave, people will forget me after a while and put your next conquest in the number five spot."
He looked more aggrieved than she'd ever seen him. "People really refer to those women that way?"
She laughed at his naοvetι. "Of course they do. Being your ex gives a woman a certain degree of security. No one knows many details, but everyone's a little leery about crossing them. If you let them stay at the firm, you must still have a little place in your heart for them, and that's reason enough to steer clear."
Walking to the bar, he said, "I never knew. I swear, I didn't know."
"How many people tell you the truth?" she asked, cocking her head. "Does anyone?"
He stopped in the middle of pouring a glass of scotch. Thinking for a moment, he said, "I guess you're the only one." He put down the bottle and walked over to her, then sat next to her on the sofa. "That's why I need you to go back to San Francisco with me. You're more than a fling to me, Kayla. I've really come to rely on you. I trust you."
She reached down and took his hand, then smoothed her thumb across his skin. "I'm glad to hear that. I really am. I trust you, too about work."
"But not personally?" His eyes narrowed, reflecting his suspicions.
"No, not personally. I can't trust a man who cheats on his wife."
"You cheated with me," he said indignantly. "You're as much to blame as I am."
She patted his hand as she would a child's. "No, that's not true. You were married, I wasn't. And even if you'd never met me, you'd still be a cheater. If I'd never met you, I wouldn't be one."
"So you've ?"
"Never," she said. "And I'll never do it again. I still don't know why I did it. I guess I was genuinely attracted to you and thought we could be discreet enough to fly under the radar. I was just stupid," she said without any rancor in her voice.
"Do you regret it?" he asked, carefully looking into her eyes.
Once again she gave him a reassuring pat on the leg. "No, not really. I told you-I'm attracted to you. I think we work well together, and I've learned a lot."
"So, how do you think of me?"
"Mmm I think of you as my boyfriend. I know it's not permanent, but I'm happy with you. I'd like this to continue until it doesn't work for one or the other of us, then we should let it go."
"Just like that?"
"Yeah. Just like that. I'll miss you, but I'm not in love with you, Jim. I put away that delusion when I found out about your history." She waited a moment, trying to decide if she should say what was on her mind. Deciding to, she added, "I think your wife is the only one who ever really loved you."
Annoyed, he asked, "How can you know that? You've met her once."
"True. But she's very attractive, very youthful looking, and very wealthy. Maybe she has her own string of lovers, but it doesn't seem logical that she would have stayed married all of those years if she didn't love you."
"She did," Jim said solemnly. "I betrayed her time and again, and she forgave me each time but this one. I think she saw there was more between you and me than just sex."
"There is," Kayla said. "But she made a mistake in thinking that extra bit was love. It isn't."
"How do you know I don't love you?" Jim asked. "Would it make a difference?"
"No," she said immediately. "That wouldn't change my mind. Besides," Kayla added, gentling her voice, "if you can't love your wife, a woman you promised to love, I don't know that you're capable of it. I'm sorry to say that, Jim, but if you don't love the mother of your child, you might just not be able to love a woman."
He didn't say a word. Returning to the bar, he finished pouring his drink then returned to sit next to her. He used the remote to switch to the PBS station and settled down to watch Les Troyens, thinking of the night he and Catherine had seen it performed at La Scala. He could feel Kayla's body next to his, but he consciously tried to recall how it had felt to have Catherine pressed against him in the narrow seats, the lovely music washing over them, the light, floral scent of Catherine's perfume that he noticed every time he turned his head to whisper a little something to her.
She's probably been there with her boyfriend by now. He sat up a little, his stomach aching each time he thought of her with that man. She was only mine, he thought. Only mine.
* * * * * *
At one o'clock on Saturday, Conor arrived at Catherine's new house. He had to park about fifteen blocks away, and while walking to the house, he decided that he'd better borrow Ryan's motorcycle if he was going to be making it a regular trek.
He knocked on the door and she answered, looking very, very casual for Catherine Evans. He took in the blue chambray, man-style shirt and the buff-colored Capri pants and waggled his eyebrows. "You look mighty fine today, Catherine."
"I thought I might have to climb up on the roof with the inspector."
He waited for a second, then realized she was teasing him. "You look dressed-up to me, but if this is casual, it really works for you. Is the inspector finished?"
"Yes. He left just before you got here. Ready to brainstorm?"
"Sure am." He opened his nylon briefcase and took out a legal pad and a pencil. "Tell me everything you'd like in an office and we'll see if we can get it done."
They spent the better part of three hours discussing which bedroom should be converted, what kind of lighting she wanted, how many electrical appliances she would be using, and a dozen other details. At four o'clock she looked at her watch and said, "No wonder I'm tired."
"And hungry," he said, smiling.
"Did you have lunch?"
"Oh, sure. I always have lunch. I just usually have a snack at 3:00 or 4:00."
"You know, I'm hungry, too. Do you have plans for dinner?"
"Huh-uh." He looked contemplative for a moment and said, "You know, I thought we'd go over to Maeve's for dinner all of the time, but Kevin and Rory and I wind up ordering pizza or stopping for burritos most nights. Things have really changed."
"Does it bother you?" Catherine asked, concerned.
"No, not really. I'm almost twenty-nine. It's time for me to stop relying on my father to make dinner for me." He let out a low laugh. "Time to find a woman to take over for him."
"I have a feeling you're not ready to settle down yet," Catherine said, giving him an appraising glance.
"You never know. You don't have any sisters or cousins or "
"No, Conor," she said, smiling at him. "I'm the only single woman in my family right now. Jim has a sister, though."
"No offense to Jim, but I think I'd like your side of the family better. That is where the fortune is, right?"
She patted him on the back. "That's right. I suppose you'll have to wrest Jamie away from Ryan."
"Like I haven't tried!"
* * * * * *
Catherine refused to go out for dinner, insisting that only a natural disaster would compel her to appear in public in such casual clothes. Conor was happy to go to the Mission and pick up Mexican, but Catherine insisted on providing a proper dinner for him. She called a service that delivered meals from some of the best restaurants in the city, ordering a selection of appetizers and two entrees, just to make sure Conor had enough to eat.
The feast arrived quickly, and they laughed as they set it out on the dining room table. The seller hadn't left any linens or dishes, so she set the foil containers directly on the wood. "My mother would turn over in her grave if she saw me doing this," Catherine said. "Actually, she'd faint to see me dressed this way."
"We always ate at the table, but there wasn't much of a dress code except for Sunday dinner."
Catherine started to sit, but she stopped and stood up quickly. "Utensils!"
"Utensils," Conor said, nodding gravely. "Plastic won't work, huh?"
"I bought you a nice steak," she said. "I can't imagine a plastic knife will get through it."
"Knife knife " He brightened, saying, "Hold tight. I've got just the thing." He walked to his truck, grousing to himself about the dearth of parking in the city. When he finally reached the vehicle, he pulled out a small bag of tools he always carried, then ran back into the house. "Snap-off cutters!" he exclaimed, holding them in the air. "We break off a couple of blades, and they're like brand new."
Catherine extended her hand and Conor dropped an orange one into her palm. "I've never seen one of these," she said, curiously investigating it. "How does it work?"
He showed her, then they both sat down and started to eat. Catherine didn't need the knife, since she only picked at a couple of appetizers and ate a good portion of the salad Nicoise. But Conor made good use of his tool, ripping through nearly everything that Catherine didn't consume.
"Your appetite is even healthier than your sister's," Catherine observed, watching Conor eat his steak in a very determined fashion.
He grinned. "Da says we all eat like polite wolves." He gestured with his fork while he swallowed. "But it's his fault. He used to serve the food on a big platter, so the faster you ate-the more you got. He should have divided the portions in the kitchen. Then we wouldn't have gotten into the habit of eating like beasts."
"It's nice to see people who enjoy food," she said. "I still have a love/hate relationship with it."
Cocking his head, he gave her a puzzled look. "You hate food?"
She moved a tiny bit of seared tuna around on her paper plate. "In a way." She looked like she was going to avoid answering, but then she looked him in the eye and said, "I debate over every bite."
"Huh?" His voice was several decibels louder than it had previously been.
"You heard me," she said, looking a little embarrassed and shy. Her brown eyes were mostly downcast, and her chin was tilted away when she snuck a quick look at him. "I have a running argument with myself over every bite of food I eat. I always try to eat as much salad and vegetables as I need to satisfy my hunger, then I let myself have a few bites of something really tasty like this tuna," she said. "It's divine," she said in a near whisper, her voice taking on a sultry tone. "But I'm fairly sure I'll be full enough without it. So I'm arguing with myself about whether I should eat it or not."
"Eat it," Conor said immediately. "When in doubt, give into temptation."
Catherine smiled fondly at the young man. "You sound so much like your sister."
"She sounds like me," Conor said, then got back to the point. "You don't have to starve yourself," he insisted. "I don't wanna get into your business but you're awfully skinny I mean, thin. You've lost a lot of weight in the last few months, haven't you?"
She nodded and gave him a brittle smile. "I was getting a lot of calories from vodka."
He ignored the import of her statement and said, "So eat a little more. You can't treat food like it's toxic. It's one of the best things about being human. There's a reason we have so many taste buds, ya know."
"I have always treated it like it's poison," Catherine said. "Being thin wasn't just encouraged at my house, it was required. My mother regarded extra pounds with disgust."
She was quiet for a moment, but Conor could see that she had more to say. He could see her struggle.
"I was bulimic in high school and college."
"Is that when you " He drew a line from his stomach to his mouth.
"Yes. I'd sneak into the kitchen and take a fresh box of cookies and eat every one. Then I'd go down to dinner and eat next to nothing, then vomit afterwards. It was the only way I could I guess rebel."
"Uhm how long has your mother been gone?"
"It'll be twenty-three years in June."
Conor softened his voice and reached across the containers of food to gently touch her knee. "Isn't it time to started listening to yourself? Your mom didn't give you very good advice, Catherine. You don't have to listen to her anymore."
She looked at him and saw his genuine concern for her. It touched her in a way that nearly took her breath away. Blindly, she patted his hand, and he removed it from her knee. "I'll I'll think about that," she said. She took a breath and managed a smile. "Catherine Deneuve has said that a woman has to make a decision when she reaches middle age. You have to choose your ass or your face."
Conor's eyes widened and he looked as shocked as he would have if she'd belched. "What? Choose them for what?"
She laughed, a genuine one this time. "Which part you want to keep looking good. If you choose your face, you need to add weight to keep it full. You won't have as many wrinkles, but your derriere and hips will be a lot bigger. If you choose your ass, you can stay thin, but you'll look your age. A thin face starts to look haggard." She gave him a rueful smile. "Of course, most women in my peer group stay thin and start having plastic surgery at thirty-five. I'm already overdue."
"You can put off that decision for a good ten years," Conor said. "And I hope you decide to leave that beautiful face alone. I think plastic surgery is a crock." He gave her his boyish, devilish smile. "Except for breast implants, that is. Those rock."
She reached over and grabbed a lock of his hair and gave it a good tug. "You, Mr. O'Flaherty, are incorrigible."
"I'll take that as a compliment," he said, still grinning.
"That's exactly how I meant it," Catherine said.
* * * * * *
After cleaning up from dinner, they gathered their things and started to walk to Catherine's car. They walked up Divisidero, both of them silent until Catherine said, "I've been thinking of asking you for a favor, but I want you to promise that you'll say no if you're uncomfortable with it."
"Uhm, okay, I think I can do that."
"First off: do you own a tuxedo?"
Conor chuckled. "The last tux I wore was to my high school prom. I think I weigh about fifty pounds more than I did then, so even if I did own it, I couldn't get it on."
"How would you like me to buy you a nice tux in exchange for putting up with some of the most two-faced, insufferable women in the entire Bay Area?"
"Hmm Boy, you sure would make a good salesperson." Conor scratched his head and made a face. "Before I give you my answer I have one question-will you be there?"
"Then it sounds like a blast, whatever it is," he said. "You don't have to buy me a tux, though. I can rent one."
"No offense to the rental houses, Conor, but those suits look like they're rented. This is a very elegant event, and I can't have my escort looking less than top-notch."
"I can pay for my own suit, you know. I can get one for a few hundred dollars, can't I?"
Catherine put her hand on his arm. "I'm inviting you as my guest, Conor. This isn't the kind if thing you'd go to on your own, so I'd really like to buy your suit. Is that all right?"
"Sure," he said, nodding. "A couple hundred won't do it, will it?"
"Sadly, no," she admitted. "Now, the event's in a couple of weeks, so we're cutting it close here. Can you make some time this week to go shopping? We'll have to work some magic to get the suit altered in time, but I think we can manage."
Thinking that Catherine could probably charm any tailor in town into working overtime, he said, "Sure. I can be free any day after 4:00. Name the place and the time. Uhm I can act like myself at this thing, can't I?" he asked with a touch of hesitancy. "I mean, you don't want me to impersonate a guy with class, do you?"
She took his arm. "Conor, I couldn't dream up a man that would be one shred more interesting than you are. Of course I want you to be yourself."
"Just checking." He gave her a smile. "Let's make a deal. I'll try to act like myself and not feel like a fish out of water, and you try to not give a crap about how much you eat or what your friends think of you."
Catherine's eyes got big and she considered his proposal as they neared her car. She opened the locks and put her things on the passenger seat. "It's a deal," she said at last. "I'll do my best to go to one of these events and actually have a good time."
"It's guaranteed," Conor said, confidence nearly oozing from him.
* * * * * *
Charles Evans was working on his sermon for the week when his phone rang. He was in the middle of a thought and was going to let the machine answer, but changed his mind on the fourth ring. "Hello?"
"Senator James Evans is calling for Reverend Charles Evans. Is this Reverend Evans?"
"Yes, it is," Charles said, smiling to himself.
"Will you hold one moment for the senator?"
"Yes, but just a moment," he said, "I'm a very busy man." But the secretary had already put him on hold, and he decided she probably wouldn't have gotten his joke, anyway.
"Senator Evans?" he asked, sounding excited. "Is it really you?"
"Okay, okay," Jim said, laughing. "I guess it is a little pompous to have my secretary make my personal calls."
"Just a little, son, but I'm always glad to hear from you, even if I have to get through a layer or two of the bureaucracy. How are you?"
"I'm good. A little bored, but good."
"Bored? My tax dollars are paying your salary. Get busy!"
Jim laughed. "I'm a lame duck, Dad. Everyone has turned his attention to the November election. I'm just keeping this chair warm until January when I hope Bob Washington is going to fill it."
"His competition is making things easier for him. The Republican candidates went after each other with hammer and tongs. They really injured each other during the primary. And I don't think the better man won."
"I don't either," Jim said.
"I think Washington should win fairly easily."
"Yeah, I do, too. He's a good man. I think he'll fit in here."
"So I'm sure you didn't call to get political advice. What's on your mind?"
"You have been," Jim said. "I miss seeing you, Dad, and I haven't been able to come home as often as I thought I would. So I thought I might be able to talk you into coming to visit me for a few days."
"I'm sorry you miss me, but I'm a little glad, too. Parents like to be needed."
"I'm serious, Dad. I know you can't get away on weekends, but I thought you might be able to come out on a Sunday evening and stay until Wednesday or Thursday. We could visit some sites, have lunch in the Senate dining room do some touristy things I haven't done."
"You really want me to come?" Charles asked.
"Yes, of course I do. Why else would I ask?"
"I don't know," Charles said. "It just seems odd to think of visiting you. I guess having you live so close by all of your life makes this seem extraordinary."
"I think we'd have fun," Jim said. "But I'll understand if you're not able to come."
"No, I'd like to," Charles said. "I haven't been in Washington for many, many years. Have they finished the Lincoln Memorial yet?"
Laughing, Jim said, "Yeah, they have. There's a bridge over the Potomac, too."
"Well, that I've got to see. When do you want me?"
"Whenever you can make it. I don't have anything I can't get out of for the rest of the month."
"Then we should probably do it soon," Charles said, "so nothing comes up."
"Great," Jim said. "I'll fly you out tomorrow night."
"Yeah, why not?"
"You have to buy tickets two weeks in advance. You can't do things like this at the last minute!"
"Sure you can," Jim said. "Don't give it another thought. I'll make all the arrangements."
"Now, don't go to a lot of trouble. I can sleep on your couch."
"Okay, Dad. I'll just get you a newspaper to keep the light out of your eyes, and you can sleep in the lobby."
"You got your mother's sense of humor," Charles said. "But I'm still happy that you called, Jim. I'm looking forward to seeing you."
"Me, too, Dad. See you late tomorrow night."
* * * * * *
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