Thursday, July 07, 2011
EXCERPT of SMOOTH-TALKING THE HOMETOWN GIRL
Kyle Warren pulled out a turquoise vinyl-covered chair in his father’s kitchen and sat down. “Here’s to you, Pop,” he whispered before lifting an amber beer bottle to his lips. He raised his eyes heavenward. “Don’t you worry. I’ll take care of the place. I’m home now.”
Shifting in the dinosaur of a chair with its chrome edges, he laughed quietly. He’d bet his father hadn’t even known these old kitchen sets had come into style again.
John Warren hadn’t cared much for luxury. He’d been a practical man and lived a simple life. Lord only knew what he’d done with the monthly checks Kyle had sent him through the years. Kyle had never asked, since he’d been too pleased his father had finally agreed to accept the money.
“Pop” Warren, as the whole town of Bentley called him, had been the rock of stability Kyle could always count on.
Now he was gone.
Soft music playing from the house next door had Kyle swiveling his head to look out the window. He strained his ears and picked up the lulling sound of a female voice singing along with the radio.
He stood up abruptly, the heavy chair hampering his swift action, and moved to the kitchen’s garden box window to catch a better look. From his vantage point he had a clear view of the woman standing not twelve feet away in her own kitchen.
He’d heard she had moved back here four years ago when her parents retired in Houston. Transfixed, he stood watching her bustle about her kitchen, harmonizing beautifully with the snappy tune.
She hadn’t changed much since high school. She wore her pale blonde hair long, past her shoulders. From what he could see from this distance, her skin still appeared tan and healthy and as always, in direct contrast with the softest blue eyes Kyle had ever remembered.
“Still a looker, Christy,” he muttered before taking another sip of beer.
She glanced up then and surprise registered on her face when she noticed him. He smiled and put up his hand to wave.
Her hand went up slowly and, with the slightest of movements, her fingers wiggled their greeting. She mouthed a polite “hello” then turned her back on him.
Kyle let out a chuckle. “Same old Christy,” he said, plunking down the bottle he held. She’d been the one girl in high school who hadn’t fallen for him. The one girl who’d seen right through his practiced ways and smooth talk and the one girl who’d made no bones about turning him down if he ever offered.
Therefore, he never had.
In his mind, he’d labeled her a prude, a stick in the mud, no fun. But he’d liked so many things about her even though he’d also labeled her off-limits.
Not that Kyle didn’t like a challenge, he did. But Christy Evans had won her way into Pop’s heart. He could still hear Pop now, warning, “She’s our neighbor and a fine girl. You do right by her or don’t bother with her a’tal, boy.”
Kyle smiled now thinking back on all the innocent flirtations and teasing he put her through, but never once had he offered more, respecting his father’s wishes. He realized much later on, she’d been the only girl in the entire student body at Bentley High who’d truly intrigued him.
Kyle shrugged off his nostalgic feelings and went about the task of going through his father’s things. He took a tour of the house leisurely, as pleasant memories of his childhood came rushing back. He and Pop had had a great father-son relationship. It had been just the two of them since his mother’s untimely death. Kyle had been five years old when an illness took his mother’s life.
He entered his father’s bedroom. The stale remnants of his father’s minty aftershave still lingered. He breathed in the scent that seemed to encompass the entire room and felt as if Pop would come walking through the door any time now.
His old man sure liked to keep the status quo. Everything looked the same as it had when Kyle lived here. As his gaze traveled around the room, he realized a part of him wanted to keep everything in its place—the hand-knitted afghan on the rocker, Pop’s worn-out brown slippers on the side of his bed, and his thick reading glasses perched next to the alarm clock on the nightstand.
Practicality won out. Eventually, Kyle reasoned, he would have to pack everything up. He’d have to cleanse this house of everything his father loved. But he decided, quite adamantly, not today.
He didn’t have to do it today.
Kyle shrugged off the thought and headed for the shower. Minutes later, he came towel-wrapped out of the bathroom and began drying off when a rattling at the front screen door made him turn in that direction. He heard a female voice call out. “Hello, Kyle? Are you in there? It’s me, Christy.”
* * * * *
Christy knocked on Kyle’s door a bit louder this time. She knew he was in here. She’d seen him just thirty minutes ago watching her from the kitchen window. And she’d had to walk around a sleek black convertible Lexus on the driveway to reach his front door. When the seconds clicked by and no one answered, she turned on the porch to leave.
“That you, Christy?”
She twirled around in time to see Kyle Warren opening the screen door dressed only in a pair of black jogging shorts. Droplets of water cascaded down his face onto his chest and shoulders. Casually, he took the terry-cloth towel from about his neck, mopped his face, then dabbed at the bigger drops coating his bare chest.
“It’s...me. Hello,” she said, awkwardly shifting the basket of muffins she held from one hand to the other. She kept her eyes trained on his. “I came to offer my condolences. I was visiting my parents in Houston when I heard the news. I’m terribly sorry I missed Pop’s memorial service.”
“Thank you,” he said with sincerity. “Come in.”
She handed him the basket. “I thought these might help. Low-fat, cherry-raisin muffins.”
Kyle dipped his head down to the basket, taking in the aroma. “They smell good. You baked them?”
“They’re fresh out of the oven.”
Christy caught a whiff of his clean, fresh shower scent as she moved past him to stand in the center of the parlor. He looked good. Better than she remembered. Of course, she’d never seen so much of him before. He stood before her with casual ease, naked, except for a scant pair of shorts. But then the Kyle Warren she’d known in the past wouldn’t let that bother him. No, he seemed to relish making girls squirm.
Not her, of course. She’d never succumbed to his charms.
But, somehow she had hoped when she met up with him again, he’d have a receding hairline, a paunch stomach, and a toothless grin. Instead, he stood before her, powerfully built and muscular with a melt-your-heart smile, chock-full of confidence.
“That’s very nice of you.”
“Uh, what? Oh right, the muffins. It’s the least I can do. Pop was a special man. I adored him. The whole town adored him.”
Kyle handed the basket back to her and pointed toward the kitchen. “Take a load off and have a seat. I’ll be right back.”
She stared after him, watching as he trekked through the parlor to lift a shirt off a bedroom knob and throw it on quickly. He met her in the kitchen, not bothering to button up.
He gave her a quizzical look as she stood there numbly, not moving. He pulled out the kitchen chair in a gallant gesture. “Thanks again for the muffins.”
She hunkered down, fighting tears. She didn’t want to do this in front of Kyle. Breaking down in front of Pop’s son wasn’t what she’d planned, but she hadn’t been inside the house since the dear man had passed on. Old, familiar, not-too-distant memories filtered in. Pop was the sweetest, most young-at-heart older man she’d ever known. He was her friend as well as her neighbor. But Kyle was probably struggling with his own grief at the moment. She’d come to lend support, not to add to Kyle’s discomfort. “Thank you.” Christy drew in a breath and gave him a small smile. “How are you doing?”
Kyle gave her a long, serious look. “I’ll be okay. It takes some getting used to.”
“I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
He took a seat facing her, then grabbed a muffin from the toweling in the basket to study it. “I can’t believe he’s gone either.”
“I heard...” she began, then cleared her throat. “I heard you were with him when it happened.”
He nodded, shuttering his eyes. “I’d brought him up to Boston for a visit. We had a great week together, just hanging out, catching up on news. It was relaxing and fun. I’d often send for Pop when I couldn’t get away. And he would always come. Then, out of the blue, wham. His heart goes. He’d never had any symptoms that I knew about.”
Christy nodded. “I didn’t know of any either. He was always so happy. He never let anything really rattle him.”
Kyle agreed. “My dad was a rock...a real man.”
Christy sighed aloud, fingering the serrated chrome edges of the old kitchen table, almost smooth from age now. “Did he...linger?”
Relief washed over Kyle’s face, and the frown lines separating his forehead disappeared. “That’s my only consolation. He died instantly. With a smile on his face. We’d just come home from dinner...trout, his favorite, when it happened.”
Christy reached for Kyle’s hand from across the table. She squeezed his wrist gently and quickly. “I’m so sorry.”
With a quick smile, he let the muffin drop back into the basket. “At least my old man was happy. He had a good seventy-two years.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, thinking back on all the time she’d known John Warren. He’d always had a kind word, always a smile. Only when he worried about Kyle did he have moments of anxiety. “He loved you very much.”
“I know. Thanks for saying it though. Hey,” he said, picking up another muffin, this time taking a big bite. “I heard you were in the catering business now.” He gestured with a tilt of his head toward her front yard. “That your truck outside?”
“It’s mine,” she said, watching him devour the entire muffin with one large swallow. “Evans’ Edible Delights.”
His dark eyes lit with amusement before traveling the length of her body. “That’s the name of your catering company?”
“Yes, why? Is something wrong?”
“Uh, no,” he said, apparently holding back a smile. “Good name. Are you successful?”
“I do all right.”
“Well, judging by the muffin I just inhaled, I’d say you’d be pretty handy in the kitchen.”
“I am. Thanks for the compliment.” She looked around the house. Nothing had changed. Of course, she didn’t expect anything to be really different, except that Pop was gone. “So what now? What’ll you do with the place and with Warren’s Hardware?”
“Don’t know. This all happened so fast, I haven’t decided what to do. I’m taking some time off. I plan to be here a while, to settle the estate.”
“I can’t imagine anyone else owning Warren’s Hardware. That store is a Bentley icon. How long had your dad been in business here?”
“Let’s see. He opened the place a couple of years before I was born. I’d say at least thirty-two years now.” There was pride in his response, and Christy, too, felt a measure of it.
“Wow, in this day, nothing lasts that long. Except maybe some marriages.”
“Yeah, even those are hard to find...like your parents’ marriage. How long have they been together?”
“Going on forty years soon.”
Kyle nodded and gave her a wide grin. “What about you?”
“Me? Oh no, I never married. I was engaged once,” she said not wanting to elaborate. Confiding to Kyle about her failed engagement was not on her To Do list and it never would be. They’d never had that kind of relationship. “It didn’t work out.”
He accepted her answer without commenting. She didn’t need to ask him about his marital status. Through Pop, Christy had known Kyle had never married. But she was sure there’d been plenty of women. In high school, all he’d had to do was smile at a girl and she’d fall under his spell. Kyle drew women like a magnet to metal.
In the quiet kitchen they heard a dog barking, a car horn sound off, and in the distance Main Street Elementary’s school bell rang its dismissal. Children’s muted voices filled the air. Christy had always relished those small-town noises, had always welcomed their familiar sound. She wondered if Kyle, after living the last eleven years in a big city, thought them now quaint and antiquated.
“You look good, Christy,” he said, “real good.” His rich voice deepened even more with the addition of those last two words.
Blood rushed to her face immediately. Kyle’s unexpected compliment caught her unaware. “Th-Thank you. So do you...I mean, under the circumstances, you look...okay.”
One dark brow lifted, and he laughed. He braced both forearms on the table and leaned in, his face coming close to hers. “I look ‘okay’? God, Christy, you never would budge an inch with me.”
“No, I, uh—” Christy stood up abruptly. “I’d better go. I just wanted to come over here to say how sorry I am about Pop. If there’s any way I can make the transition go smoother for you, I’d be happy to help.”
For Pop Warren, she’d do just about anything, including helping his overly confident, impossibly handsome son get through this rough time.
“Have dinner with me, Christy.”
“What?” She felt the color drain from her face. “Dinner? No, I-I couldn’t.” She backed up a step.
Kyle stood and eyed her for a moment. “We’re not in high school anymore. I promise I won’t bite. Well,” he said on a chuckle, “I would have to eat the food.”
She let out a nervous laugh and backed up again. For the four years while in high school, Christy wondered what she’d say, what she’d do, if Kyle ever asked her out. But he’d never shown more than passing interest in her.
Now, he looked at her as if she were the only woman in the universe. She passed it off as practiced charm, a way to get what he wanted.
“It’s not a date. Just dinner with an old neighbor.”
“No, Kyle, really, I can’t. I’ve got a catering job to do tonight. I’ve been cooking in the kitchen all day.”
“Tomorrow night, then.”
Her brows furrowed and she blinked several times. “Why?”
Why, after all this time? Why me, she wanted to ask.
He shrugged and took a step closer. “I could use the company.”
She noted a flicker of sadness in his eyes, heard it in his voice. How could she deny companionship to a man who’d just lost his father?
She put her head down, realizing she couldn’t refuse him, but not because he was charming or handsome, or surprisingly that he appeared lonely. No, she couldn’t refuse him because he was John Warren’s son.
“Come over at eight tomorrow night. I’ll cook you dinner.”
There. That seemed less like a date.
“It’s a date,” he said without hesitation.
Christy groaned inwardly.
He led her to the door, opening the screen to walk her outside. “And thanks.”
“Don’t thank me just yet. I’m going try out a new recipe on you.”
“Experiment with me all you want,” he said innocently enough, but she didn’t miss the teasing glint in his eyes.
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