Confidence is sexy was the mantra running through Gretchen's head as she strode down the stamped concrete sidewalks. Strong August sunshine was tempered by an intermittent breeze off the lake. Today was going to be perfect. Abruptly her sandal clad feet stopped. Brad was sitting on the bench in front of the restaurant where they had agreed to meet. "How did you get here before I did?"
"I had some errands to run so I left work early." Swirls of filmy peasant skirt clung to him when she kissed the side of his face. Normally Gretchen gave him a real hug. Not a kiss he could barely feel. The unintentional rejection stung. "You look nice today. What's the occasion?" The way his arms wrapped around her gave Gretchen renewed hope. Maybe today he would agree to go out with her. Meanwhile she made a conscious effort to keep her tone light. "You could have let me know you had errands to run. I was out and about anyways."
Intense was the adjective Brad associated with Gretchen. From the forceful blue of her eyes to the blinding white of her skirt energy permeated the air around her. If only there was some way to bottle her effervescence. The essence and miracle of her. "I had to stop at the post office but thanks anyways. It was out of your way and on the way here."
Cool café air soothed their sun warmed skin while they waited for the hostess to seat them. Anxiety flooded through Gretchen now that she was standing next to Brad. "I'll be back in a minute. Go ahead and sit down without me." Hand painted tiles decorated the womens' bathroom but the knot in her stomach consumed Gretchen's attention.
Meeting Brad for lunch had been a mistake. He wasn't interested in a romantic relationship. The lunch invitation was a way for him to accept his birthday present without subjecting him to an audience. Gretchen knew the way his mind worked. Furious with herself she pasted a smile on her face. Never would he know how much she was hurting. Grimly she watched him open his present. "You have one don't you?"
Five years ago Brad had purchased a harmonica down in Tennessee. Carrying it around had become a habit even though he rarely used it. Experimentally he played a measure of music. "This is nicer than the one I have. Thanks Gretchen." The new harmonica was set aside to make room for another small box. Incredulously Gretchen stared at the unwrapped gift in front of her. If he had really bought her a cell phone then she didn’t know what to think. "It's not my birthday silly. What's up with the phone?"
"I have two so I was wondering if you wanted one of them. I have a gift receipt so it's not a big deal either way. Your mom mentioned you were thinking of getting a new phone so I thought this might save you a trip to the store." For months the new iPhone had been a goal of Gretchen's. And it was a gift from Brad. "How’d you end up with two phones?"
"Brent and Fern bought me one when I was out in Seattle but then Brent couldn't find his phone so I told him he could use my new one until his turned up. Somehow I forgot to mention the new phone to Mary Beth so that's what she and the kids bought me for my birthday. After seeing how excited they were I couldn't very well tell them I already had one. It's not a big deal if you don't want the phone."
Before Gretchen could wonder about the undercurrents in his voice their server arrived. Counting calories was a bitch but it was worth it if she could fit into a smaller size. Curiously she looked up when Brad ordered iced tea. That was her drink of choice. "Are you okay?" As if to prove that everything was okay Brad leaned back in his chair. "I'm fine. How are you?"
"Fine. How was your trip to Seattle? I swear I haven't seen you in the longest time." Meeting with Brad was so much work Gretchen wondered why she bothered. Across the table Brad watched as she crumpled her straw wrapper. Something seemed to be eating Gretchen. "I've been around. You're the one who keeps moving. What have you been up to lately?"
"Not much. What's new with you?" They were acting like they hadn't known each other for thirteen years but neither of them knew what else to say. When Brad didn't answer her question Gretchen kept the conversation moving. Later on she would try and find out what was bothering him. "I saw some of your family down in Florida. Your uncle Matt was there with the twins. We went to one of Brent's games with them."
Brad nodded thoughtfully. His mother had mentioned that. "Matt's father-in-law fell so he went down to put a wheelchair ramp in for him. The girls were pretty excited about flying down to Florida. Ashlynn wants to be a flight attendant when she grows up."
"You should tell her to stay in school so she can get a real job." Relief coursed through her when their salads arrived. At least now they had something to talk about. "Your uncle Matt did fine too. I don't know why he hates flying so much. The twins really seemed to like it."
"Machines don't scare him as much as not being the one in control does. You'd think with all the control issues in my family no one would let anyone else transport them anywhere." Something must have happened recently or Brad wouldn't be talking like this. "Your family is fine. Geez Brad. My dad wrote the book on how to control other people. Any time your family wants some lessons you come and talk to me. I'll set them straight on how to control other people."
"I don't see you as controlling Gretchen." A smile appeared over the icy rim of his glass. "As long as people do what you want when you want it done everything goes smoothly. It's almost beautiful to watch it's so well orchestrated."
"What's the point in being a control freak if you can’t be the one handing out the orders? If it's control or be controlled you know which side I'm going to be on. Except you never listen to me when I tell you to do things so it doesn't really work."
"I do listen to you Gretchen. I listen to a lot of the things that you tell me." Brad said seriously. "Then how come you never want to go out with me when I tell you I'm going to be around?" Gretchen retorted. Seconds later she could have cried. All her hard work demolished by a single careless sentence. Brad hated desperate needy women. Especially when they were aggressive and demanding. "Never mind. You're free to go out with whoever you want to. Who's your latest by the way?"
Sunshine dancing across golden curls distracted Brad momentarily. "Her name is Monique. She thinks I'm gay." Gretchen's startled blue eyes met Brad's blue-green ones. "What? You've got to be kidding me. I was down in Florida with this guy who is so gay and his parents have no clue. You couldn't be gay if you tried. Why does Monique think that you're gay?"
A bite of his salad disappeared before he answered. "Any guy who doesn't want to fuck her must be gay. That's her logic." Vinegar and oil slid from his cherry tomato onto a cucumber slice. Boldly Gretchen stuck her fork into his salad. "It really is a good thing I came back when I did. You were going out with her because…, why?"
The path from his plate to her mouth was a short one. Half of his cucumber slice fell behind teeth that he had been examining since he was a second year dental student. From a clinical standpoint Gretchen had a fabulous smile. "Her sister is a patient of Dave's. She's easy to talk to I thought that Monique would be nice too. Right now Monique is mad because her dad's tooth fell apart after I extracted it. That means a root canal is no longer an option for him and he doesn't have the money to get an implant which is what I told Cassandra I would want for my dad if our roles were reversed. Cassandra isn't as attractive as Monique is but she is much more levelheaded and way nicer. Guess who their little brother is."
"I have no idea. Who?" Talking with Gretchen was a refreshing change of pace. With her Brad could say what he wanted without worrying that she would take it the wrong way. "Do you remember going to school with Dwayne Whitaker?” A grotesque image of an overweight adolescent male made Gretchen cringe. "He was so gross. How can sisters of his be pretty?"
"At the risk of furthering the case for me being gay Dwayne would be better looking if he lost two or three hundred pounds. Cassandra is pudgy but there is nothing wrong with Monique's body. She might even have one of the better bodies I’ve seen. If she let you dress her she'd be a knockout. Until she opened her mouth. I don't know what you could do about that."
"I'd gag her." Gretchen gave him a secret wicked smile. "That's what I do with men I like that won't shut up. What does Monique look like?"
"She's not nearly as pretty as you are. Her legs aren't half as good either." Gretchen felt her face heat up as she turned her attention back to her salad. "Okay but what does she look like?" Getting Gretchen riled up was fun. Brad couldn't remember the last time he had seen her blush. "Monique is about five-three. She has medium length dark brown hair and sleepy looking eyes that are almost as dark as her hair. Her hair is straight and shiny. It's so dark it almost looks black. She has nice legs and a good figure but she does not know how to dress herself. She dresses conservatively but not tastefully. She has none of your panache."
"So what you're really saying is she's a female version of you but you're nice and she's not." Since Gretchen had taken his cucumber he figured her cherry tomatoes were fair game. But Brad waited until she reached for her glass to spear one. "If I wear clothes that make me look uptight and repressed I guess that's accurate."
"You're kind of uptight but I wouldn't call you repressed." Thinking about what would Brad would do if he let some of his inhibitions slip around someone who would take advantage of what he had to offer made her dizzy with anticipation and sick with dread. What had he done with Monique? Cautiously she put forth another dangerous question. "Is Monique repressed?"
"I don't know what she is. She went from not wanting to kiss to stripping her clothes off for my enjoyment. There was alcohol involved but not that much." Gretchen had seen Brad drunk exactly twice and she had known him and his family for years. "Did you like watching her take her clothes off?"
"I liked it a lot more than she did. She told me she was going to be a stripper and I told her it was a lot more work than she thought it was. It's hard to be coy, flirtatious, seductive and alluring for hours at a time while working a crowd full of drunks. I told Monique I'd take her to a strip club so she could see first hand what some of the patrons were like."
"You're funny." It was true. He had an offbeat sense of humor but Gretchen liked that about him. "What did Monique say to that?"
"She told me I was cruel and heartless. I made her take her clothes off and put them back on until I thought she was doing it the way it should be done on stage. Not that I'm an expert or anything." It was hard to concentrate on the food in front of her when Brad was talking. Gretchen wanted to hear more but not about Monique taking off her clothes. Red hot jealousy streaked through her. "She doesn't sound worth your time sweetie. I'm sorry it didn't work out though. It sucks to invest time in other people and then have them turn on you. Did you break it off or did she?"
"We went out a couple of times and I think the decision to not see each other again was mutual. The bad news is I told her about my uncle Dave. Monique wants to meet him." A server carrying a mouthwatering dessert passed their table. Not even crème brulee garnished with fresh berries would be as good as a taste of Gretchen. A smile accompanied the pepper strips he placed upon her plate. Red peppers were her favorite and it was fun to watch her eat them. Currently her luscious mouth was forming words that he should be paying attention to. "What'd you tell her?"
"Dave is going through this kind of midlife crisis. Natalie and I will be remembered in his will only we shouldn’t expect much due to the rising costs of health care. Half the time he forgets his new glasses which is fine since he doesn't really need them. Generally I'm in favor of good supportive shoes but not when it means dropping hundreds of dollars at the shoe store because you like to shop. I was complaining to Monique about some of this. She thinks Dave is cute and quirky so she wants to meet him."
"Would Dave and Monique be a good couple?" A sip of iced tea helped cool his throat. Talking to Gretchen was thirsty work. Too bad his glass didn't have something stronger in it. "It's hard to say. I thought they might be but now I'm not so sure. They both want kids, they can be interesting to talk to, they're both moody and in some ways I can see them being complementary. They both like white wine and sitting out on the boat late at night. Monique is a night owl and Dave is more of a morning person but that shouldn't make or break a relationship."
"Would Dave find Monique attractive?" Gretchen's bare pink lips were the new center of Brad's wandering attention. "You know I don't care for lipstick regardless of who is wearing it but Monique has a nice mouth. Put Dave and Monique in a room together and her cranberry colored lipstick will be a thing of the past." The day Brad had kissed her whispered through the back of Gretchen's mind, more sensation than conscious thought. "Dave isn’t as hot as you are but he knows how to work with what he's got. Monique isn't out for money is she?”
"That's a tough call." Brad said indecisively. "I would say no but she could use some. She's a real estate agent and if you are looking for a career you should go into real estate sales. You would be great."
"I would not. You would be but I wouldn't."
"Gretchen, they network and talk to people. You walk down the street and people talk to you. You fly to fucking Florida and find little old men and women who are looking for a condo down there. You know how much money you could make just by doing what you're already doing? Why not get paid for that?"
"I wouldn't have benefits though. And I hate Wisconsin." She would pick now to contemplate the practical side of a career move. Impatiently he waved aside her concerns. "Be a real estate agent down in Florida." Her blouse was almost the same color as the raspberries that grew in her mother's garden. Would her love be as sweet as the fruit that grew behind her home? "I guarantee that you would be successful."
"I could have sold Robert and Delia a place if it wouldn't have been for Brent." Angrily she picked up his glass of tea. "I was so pissed at him. If he ever does that to me again I'm going to slap him.”
"Violence is not the answer Gretchen. What'd he do?”
"He talked Robert and Delia into a different condo than the one I picked out for them."
"Was it a better deal for them?" Bitter blue eyes were still seeing breakers hit a rocky stretch of shoreline. "It was across the mother fucking street. He is such an asshole I can't even believe it."
"Was there a reason Brent wanted them to be across the street?"
"He's a jackass. That's why."
"I'm sorry he was a prick. How'd you guys get into this competition anyways?"
"Your uncle Matt started talking to Timmy's parents on the way down to Florida. Timmy's dad Robert used to sell Snap-On Tools so they talked about that. Matt said that his nephew played baseball and then he said that his in-laws were down in Florida so then Robert and Delia told him that they were thinking of moving and somehow Brent found out about it and I know the only reason he found them a condo is because I had one picked out. A friend of mine is selling hers and she really needs the money. She needs it way more than Brent's stupid friend who owns a bunch of real estate down there. Brent should go into real estate sales. He could jack nice people from the Midwest who don't know shit about the real estate market down in Florida. I hate him."
"He's had a rough year which doesn't excuse his behavior if he was a jerk. I didn't hear anything about him having a friend down in Florida who owns real estate."
"It's some guy who plays for the Rays. He wants Brent to move to Florida and so do a lot of other people."
"Florida would be better than Seattle as far as I'm concerned. You did hear that Brent broke his finger didn't you?" Annoyance made tight white lines around her mouth. Brent was such a drama queen. "My parents told me. If I broke my finger he sure as hell wouldn't give a damn."
"He said this is his last season. He hates Seattle and now he hates baseball too."
"He does not." This was the kind of behavior Gretchen was used to from Brent. He called Brad up just to worry him. "He's frustrated Brad. He does this every year. Don't worry about it."
"He's also burned out. I know you travel for a living but I don't know how either of you guys manage it. I come home and I'm exhausted just from watching baseball."
"You do a lot more than just watch Brent play. He's lucky he has a brother like you to manage things. He should have bought you a lot more than a stupid cell phone for your birthday."
"He bought me a new phone just because." Brad said quietly. "That wasn't a birthday present."
"What'd he get you for your birthday?" Sarcasm fell across the table widening the gulf between them. "A card?"
"Inside the card was a picture. I was going to ask if you wanted to go for a drive but you're probably not interested in that either." Frustrated with everything Gretchen took another sip of her water. "I'm sorry but I'm not real happy with Brent right now." Belatedly she remembered that he had mentioned a drive. "Don't you have to go back to work?"
"I could go back but I'm not going to. I was supposed to have the day off but Dave called and asked if I would switch with him. I told him I'd give him half of my day so I'm free for the rest of the afternoon."
"Where did you want to drive to?"
"Never mind. It doesn't matter."
"It matters to me." Behind the anger in her deep blue eyes Brad could see love. Gretchen was Gretchen and Brent was Brent. Trying to reconcile them was an exercise in futility. "Brent and Fern bought me enough land for a golf course of my own. I don't know that that's what I'm going to do with the land but I thought maybe you'd have some ideas for me. I do listen to what you say and I remember you saying that if I ever wanted to build a house you would help me decorate it." Gretchen had been sitting in his lap crying when he had told her he wanted to build a house of his own. The hurt in his voice made her want to start crying again. Seeing tension mar his handsome face dissolved some of Gretchen's rage. Golf was Brad's passion and at least Brent recognized that. Idly Gretchen wondered how much building a golf course cost. More money than she had. That was for sure.
Brad watched as Gretchen put her elbows on the table and sighed. She looked good but she also looked sad. Gretchen spent a lot of time trying to cheer other people up. It was time someone did that for her. Sunshine wasn't as soft or as warm as the kiss he dropped on the top of her hand. Gretchen was a good friend. She had gone out of her way to get him a present for his birthday and she did things like that because of who she was. On their way out the door Gretchen leaned into him cherishing the way his arm went around her back. Lazily they walked to the post office where his car had been parked. Neither of them said a thing as the sun roof retreated. Kissing in a sun filled field wasn't on his agenda but dreams were free and Gretchen had enjoyed lunch with a good friend.