Authors: Amanda Carpenter
Lazy warmth, on a peaceful summer day. Lazy, sensuous warmth. With her eyes closed, Robbie could see a blurry red as the sun’s hot, powerful rays pulsed down on her lithe, outstretched body. Clad in the briefest of swimsuits, she oozed sleek, shiny, slippery suntan oil, every browned muscle relaxed, full mouth slightly curved in unspoken satisfaction.
The air smelled like freshly cut grass, the fruit of her recent endeavor. It was a ritual for Robbie to cut the grass every Saturday during the summer, weather permitting. Her father worked quite hard, and she always felt that it was his due to have at least one day in which he could totally relax, with no obligations to meet. She raised slim arms over her head in a languid pose and sighed, turning her head to one side. Someone else in the comfortable neighborhood was cutting grass; the sound of a mower purred and rattled, a continuous, faint undercurrent to the occasional passing car and the far-off shouts of children playing.
The sound of quiet footsteps came to her, along with the impression of something large approaching, and Robbie tensed very slightly. She waited, the serenity of her afternoon splintering. The footsteps stopped just beside her lounge chair, and after a moment’s stillness, the person folded down into a sitting position.
She knew who it was and waited for him to speak first, for she was still too full of resentment to make the first overture. Jason said quietly, deep voice blending mellow and rich with the other summer sounds, “I spoke out of turn yesterday. I’m sorry.”
Robbie rolled onto her stomach, a quick, tense movement, and hid her face in her arms. After a moment, she spoke and the words throbbed with hurt. “You felt what you said. You still do.”
A heavy sigh came from him. “Not really. You were right. Nobody other than you can know what’s best for you. I still don’t like the thought of all your energy and talent going to waste in that waitressing job of yours, but then it isn’t any of my business. If you’re happy, that’s the most important thing.”
She raised her head, light brown hair blowing across her eyes and obscuring Jason’s features. “I have to take things at my own speed,” she said. “I have to do what I want to do, not what you or someone else wants. You’ve done so well for yourself that you want everyone else to know the same kind of satisfaction and success, but it just doesn’t work that way.”
Her brown eyes met his, which were a light silvery gray, clouded now with a frown. “I know,” he said gently, his gaze steady and apologetic. Jason was always very good about that. He apologized handsomely, with integrity. A slow smile spread across his lips, creasing his lean face. “You just be happy, Rob. That’s all I ask.”
She relaxed and grinned back, laying her head down with a plop. “I’d be happier if I had something cold to drink right now,” she said pathetically, and he snorted.
“Give her an inch, and she takes a continent. All right, I’ll go and get you something. Is your back door open?”
“Yup,” she said to her forearm and listened as he stood and walked away. She called out, “Help yourself to a beer, if you like.”
Robbie hated beer, and Jason well knew it. But her father liked the drink, so they usually kept a six-pack in the refrigerator during the summer.
There were a lot of little things like her dislike of beer that Jason knew about her, and her father. She had grown up with Jason and his family. He lived just next door to them, in a rather secluded cul-de-sac that held just three houses. In the third house lived an older, childless couple, so she and Jason had gravitated towards each other from the start. He was twenty-four, two years older than she, and already doing well for himself. He had earned his undergraduate degree in business administration, and he already made a substantial salary as a junior executive in a local branch of a nationwide public accounting firm. He had drive, but he’d always been that way, ever since she was ten and he was twelve.
And so now he was destined to go places, with enough ambition to make his career soar. He had all his future ahead of him, and she was as proud of him as if he’d been her own brother. Looking at his possibilities was extremely exciting, but Jason simply had to learn that he was no longer the leader, and that her life would branch in ways that his would never do, that she had to find her own ambitions and her own life’s desire.
That was what they had argued about last night. Since he had started college six years ago, the close, best-friend relationship that they had shared had cooled. She hadn’t seen him for months at a time when he had gone away to attend university, and then she’d seen him very briefly. He was busy during the summers at the different jobs he’d acquired, while she was busy with her own life, dating, working at a twenty-four-hour family restaurant and later, after she’d become old enough to serve liquor, at a distinguished, elegant restaurant. Then Jason had graduated at the top of his class and instead of trying his luck in one of the larger cities, which had been what everyone had expected, he had chosen to come back to Cincinnati to live for the time being.
And he was back, however infrequently, in her life. He found a large, lovely apartment across town, close to his work, and she saw him about as much as she had when he was at college. That was, until last week. He had moved back home for the summer to keep an eye on the house while his parents, who had recently retired, took an extended vacation in Europe.
It had seemed like old times when he had wandered over yesterday evening as she sat with her father in the front yard and looked over the deserted side street, talking over their respective days. Jason had sprawled at his ease on the ground at their feet, and while her father was outside, their visit had been companionable. She had felt a real surge of pleasure at his presence along with that old, half-exasperated affection she’d always felt for him. It had been good old Robbie and Jason again.
But when her father had finally risen from his chair to go inside, the conversation between herself and Jason had gradually, subtly changed. She still couldn’t pinpoint where it had occurred. Soon it dawned on her that they were arguing, and not in the old foolish way of the past. (Did so. Did not. Did so.) It had been an argument of strange strength and incomprehensible motivations, until she had felt pressured into crying out, “You are a fine one to talk of my lack of ambition! If you’re so full of it, why did you come back here instead of moving to New York, or Los Angeles? You could have made it big, could still do it. Why are you here?”
She hadn’t meant it as anything but a diversion from herself. At the very least, she’d simply wanted to point out that he wasn’t in a position to be giving her unwanted advice. But he had reacted strangely in a strange argument, going quite quiet and still as he sat at her feet and ignored her father’s now empty lounge chair. His long, muscular legs were stretched out and one shoulder flexed as he leaned back on his hand. Something in Jason’s gray eyes flickered as he looked at her and then away, as if to hide the expression in them. “I…have family here,” he said softly. She couldn’t think why he had hesitated over the words.
“Well, just don’t tell me how to live my life,” she had said then, her face closed tight and full of resentment. “It’s not wanted or needed, d’you hear?”
It had been an odd, disturbing occurrence. They had both reacted in ways that perhaps they shouldn’t have. If she hadn’t been so sensitive about the subject already, then maybe she wouldn’t have been so defensive, for surely he had the best of motives in wanting to encourage her. Ah, well. It was best forgotten.
She heard the back door slam a second time and knew that Jason was returning. He walked over to her, and then she felt something extremely cold trickle wetly down her heated back. She reacted as if she’d been scalded, yelping and leaping straight up in the air, landing beside the lounge chair and rounding on him furiously.
He stood with one slim arm leaning against the chair, legs long and deeply tanned under brief, ragged cut-offs, chest bare and dark, teeth flashing white as he laughed openly at her. In one hand he held an open beer can, and in the other, a sweating glass of iced lemonade. After sputtering like a faulty motor for a few moments, she reached grumpily for her drink and subsided back into her chair, sending him one last, glowering look. It bounced off his thick hide.
He settled at her side, squinting up at the afternoon sun. He, too, had light brown hair, but his was several shades lighter than hers, with golden highlights brought out by the summer sun. He was a lean young man, standing just under six feet, with tight, compact muscles, thickened shoulders as he had reached maturity, and keen, steady gray eyes under sleek brows. She ran her eyes over him appreciatively. He would age well, with perhaps a deepening of lines at the corners of his eyes in twin spreading fans, and a sprinkle of white at his temples. He stretched, lithe as a cat, and threw her a lazy smile as he said casually, “Lusting after my beautiful body?”
“Mmm,” she replied, disparagingly, and then laughed as he cocked a pained eyebrow at her response. She continued wickedly, “Oh, yes, you are a cute young thing, ripe for some forty-year-old, man-hungry divorcée to snap up.” She reached over and held her half-empty glass over his flat, sleek stomach, dribbling cold liquid on him.
His reaction was much the same as hers had been, only surprisingly faster. He thrust her hand away with a grumbled curse. “Now, stop that before I pour the rest of this beer in your hair. Forty-year-old divorcée, eh? Would she be rich?”
“Definitely.” Robbie set her drink precariously in the grass and settled back, stretching her arms over her head and closing her eyes against the bright glare of the sun. She felt a tickling drop of sweat slither down her chest. “She’d sweep you off your feet and demand that you leave your job. Then she’d keep you in her guest bungalow by the beach. You’d sneak up to the main house in the night and lie in the sun by day, drinking those fruity concoctions that hit you like an exploding bomb.”
“Ye gods.” His reply was not particularly indicative of any worry. “I’d have a paunch by the time I was thirty, be kicked out after she tired of me, and be unable to find a decent job because I’d lost touch with the market. No, thank you.” The last was with some degree of dryness.
Robbie raised her head slightly to look at him. She was hot, and as always when she grew so heated, she felt an overwhelming reluctance to move any part of her body. She shifted her legs, feeling them slip along the lounge cushion, and knew she’d have to hose down the chair to rinse off the suntan lotion. “You don’t like the older sophisticate? Well then, you’ll probably find yourself some sweet young virgin, fresh out of high school, and spend the rest of your life having the little woman take care of you.”
He winced, exaggeratedly. “I already have a doormat and I have no overriding desire to have someone running all day long to cater to my needs, for God’s sake. Can’t you imagine some other, less stifling future for me?”
She pondered that. “You’ll be a free, swinging bachelor, with bags under your eyes from years of late nights and affairs begun in singles bars,” she offered sleepily and laughed at his groan.
“Speaking of late nights,” said Jason then, as he sat and drank the rest of his beer, “are you working tonight?”
Robbie smiled. “Nope. I’ve got a date.”
“Oh, yes?” he said, and laughed. She frowned at him heavily. “What’s he like?”
This was a great deal like the way they had treated each other through high school. He had treated everyone that she dated with the same tolerant scorn that she had shown for his choices. He had also shown a remarkable patience whenever she found herself crying out her broken heart at the end of a particularly nasty breakup, and similarly, she had stifled her own impatience when he talked endlessly about the virtues of his current goddess.
But now she didn’t feel like pouring out her youthful heart, and for a reason she couldn’t begin to fathom, she shrugged his question aside carelessly. “Oh, heck. When you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, know what I mean?”
That made him laugh out loud, and the sound of it rolled over the lawns. “God! You are to the morale what the Japanese were to Pearl Harbor! When did you pick up that nasty trait?”
She flicked up a hand to tuck her shoulder-length hair out of her eyes. “It comes with age, my dear,” she said, wearily. “It comes with age.”
Jason got up on his knees and bent over her. She squinted up at him, ostensibly irritable, and found herself vaguely uncomfortable because she couldn’t see his facial expression. All she could see, half blinded, was the black outline of his head and strong, naked shoulders, and then she sat up and rubbed her eyes to dispel the illusion. He was still inspecting her closely, too closely. “What are you doing?”