(click the title to see the entire chapter)
“Vesta, Jon, have mercy on our poor visitors. They are, after all, guests, and we as their hosts are expected to entertain not interrogate them,” the mortal, Gavin, said pointedly to his daughter whose mouth, open and ready to argue, closed with surprising swiftness. Va’s green beans got another smile as he silently commended the mortal.
After a moment of quiet, Vesta speared a sliver of turkey and rubbed it back and forth on her plate before letting her eyes settle on Aileen again. Cen, in an effort to divert her daughter’s attention, asked about the shoes Vesta wanted. Vesta had argued that she had to have them, that they were made for her new dress. The upcoming dance was important to Vesta and she and her mother had shopped for and decided upon the dress together, but Cen had balked at the price of the shoes she wanted. Momentarily diverted, Vesta looked hopefully towards her mother who was saying, “Her feet are still growing. I refuse to spend that kind of money on something she’ll probably only wear once.” Realizing that her mother still hadn’t given in, she turned back to Aileen with a sour look.
“We’ll just have to continue looking,” Cen said.
“Nordstrom’s always has a great sale after the new year,” Aileen said.
Vesta rolled her eyes as the two women continued, Cen vowing to make sure that she and Vesta would make the sale and going on to describe Vesta’s dress in all it couture glory.
“It’s so elegant and fits her so well,” Cen boasted. “After dinner I’ll show it to you.”
Vesta issued a very adolescent sigh of exasperation.
Va shook his head slowly as though trying to make sense of it all. Why did he come to these things? Was it just to moon over Cen, to breathe in her scent? To watch her glory in the children that should have been his or to remind her that he still waited? Probably all of these things, but mostly because he knew that she must, on occasion, miss her own kind, and hoped that maybe she missed him too. He imagined that she too took great breaths of his scent storing it up so that when she was alone she could immerse herself in memory.
She wore blue today, a brilliant satiny cloth that seemed to skim her length and caress rather than cover her body. She was smiling at him, an ironic smile. Had he missed something?
“He rescued me,” Aileen was saying, “My boss is a veritable automaton and thinks that everyone else should be equally driven. Holidays mean nothing to him and he doesn’t believe that humans need food or sleep. Va came in, stuffed my coat and scarf into my arms, and literally dragged me out of the office. ‘Remember Jacob Marley,’ he said to Mr. Leonard who just stood there with his mouth open. Before he could say anything, Va said, ‘I’ll have her back after the New Year.’ and scooted me out of the office.”
“And you and he have been together ever since?” Cen asked.
“Well, he lets me go home to rest up for the next adventure.”
“How generous of him,” Gavin’s voice sounded amused.
“I’m flattered that you consider our little dinner an adventure,” Cen smiled at Aileen. Va imagined the smile was a little tight, that Cen was bothered by his attentions toward Aileen. He grinned.
“A very pleasant one,” Aileen smiled back.
“You are most kind,” Gavin said as he dropped his napkin onto his plate. “Let’s go into the family room. The tree is there and Cen and Vesta have done such a beautiful job.”
“Dad’s pretending that it’s a woman’s job, but he put as much effort in as either of us. And he insists on hanging the star himself.” Vesta was doing a sort of skip backwards as her father took her mother’s hand, pulled her closed, and slid his arm around her waist before catching up with Vesta and pulling her to his other side. The cozy trio headed down the hall. Aileen flanked by Va and Jon followed.
“It’s beautiful,” Aileen said as they entered the large family room to gaze upon the tree, which was nearly seven feet tall and all sparkled over with tinsel and glittering golden balls. Va rather liked it; it was another example of Cen’s exuberance.
Gavin went to a far wall, flicked a switch and the tree glowed even brighter, tiny twinkling lights some of which blinked and others that remained constant.
“Ahh,” Aileen said in obvious pleasure, her hand reaching for Va’s, “It’s wonderful.”
“Yes,” Va said as he lifted her hand to his lips and brushed a kiss over her fingers.
“The tree,” she said.
“That too,” he said. She shook her head and smiled.
“Coffee or spiced cider?” Cen asked.
“That was different,” Aileen said as she stepped into her apartment. Va followed.
“You didn’t enjoy it?” he asked closing the door behind them.
“No, no. It was great. I just felt . . .” she trailed off.
“Felt . . .?” he asked as he unbuttoned his overcoat.
He obviously wasn’t ready to head home yet, Aileen thought, her heart beating a little faster as they stood very close to each other in the entrance hallway. Va stood behind her and she could almost feel the heat of his body as he helped her off with her coat. He held it for her while she shoved jackets and sweaters aside to make room for their coats in the small hall closet. His desire to stay was a good sign especially since she hadn’t had to whip out the old, “Would you like a nightcap?”
After hanging up their coats, she took him by the hand and led him into the living room. It was a small apartment with only three rooms: eat-in kitchen, living room and bedroom, but the rooms were a good size and Aileen had put time and much of her salary into making them cozy. The building was historical, which was one of the things that had attracted her to the three-story walk-up. She’d found the sumptuous Russian print sofa on sale at Macy’s and had haunted flea markets and estate auctions for tables with character and pieces of art to complete the eclectically styled living space.
She didn’t often have guests and this was technically only the second time Va had actually entered her apartment. The first time he’d only stayed long enough for her to change clothes. This time she hoped he’d stay awhile.
She led him to the sofa where he sat and then she went to the small console on the bookshelf where she slid Santana’s Supernatural CD into the slot. Guitar strumming and softly spoken Spanish filled the room and she did an unconscious merengue as she made her way back to Va.
“Nice,” he said.
“Yeah, I know it’s really old, but I like this album,” she said sounding almost apologetic.
“No, the music is good,” he said, “but I was referring to the dancing.”
“That wasn’t really dancing,” she blushed.
He took her hand this time pulling her down to sit next to him and holding it as he stroked her fingers with his.
“So, how did tonight make you feel?” he asked emphasizing the word.
“Honestly, I had a great time,” she smiled up at him, “Vesta was a little tempestuous, but then she’s in love with you.”
He laughed, a burst of honest humor tinged with pleasure. “I’m her Uncle Va, like a second father.”
“But you’re neither her uncle nor her father and she is a teenager. Everything at that age is . . . more.”
“Yeah,” he said sounding thoughtful now, “but she’ll get over it. It’s hormonal, and I’m not just being dismissive. I’m being . . . clinical.”
Aileen laughed, “You’d better not say that to Vesta.”
“She’ll survive. She’s made of sturdy stock. I’m more concerned with you.” He was still stroking her hand, his hot fingertips stroking, sending tiny little charges into the tender flesh of her palms. Aileen squirmed; a slight shift and slide of her bottom against the plump sofa cushions in an attempt to ease the feeling that seemed to end and begin between her legs, causing her sex to clench and moisten. His touch felt like a series of tender nips that made her palms itch, was trailed by a pleasure akin to being scratched. Then another finger passed over the once itchy spot. It was oddly tingly like he had prickly things on his fingertips; she shivered. She was nervous, but she liked the prickly-soothing way he made her feel, all squirmy with warm tendrils. She tried to remember what they had been talking about. Oh yeah, Vesta’s sturdy stock and the fact that he was more concerned with her, with Aileen.
“Meaning what?” Aileen asked letting him have his way with her hand.
“You do like me?” he asked giving her a shy schoolboy look. He liked that he could play with Aileen, pretend to be coy, or stern, just be himself and she usually kept up. With most women, he was always the strong, urbane type, always on top.
“That goes without saying,” she said as she leaned in to press her lips against his enjoying the soft pressure, the warm lips, the moist heat as his mouth opened before he leaned in to take tiny nibbles and licks of her lower lip. That itch and cooling pleasure again.
His hands were at her waist pulling her forward crushing her breasts against his chest. She pressed forward trying to feel more of him through the shirt and suit jacket. Sensing her need, he slowed the kiss and then resting her head on his shoulder he shrugged the jacket off and let it fall to the floor. She drew nearer running a hand down his side, savoring the heat that permeated the crisp cloth of his shirt and the strength of the skin and muscle beneath.
“I guess I made it through the trial period,” he quipped.
“More or less,” she said, “It’s been a long time since I’ve been with anyone.”
“How long?” he asked before he could stop himself knowing that his question was more than curiosity, it was an odd need to feed his vanity. Since this thing with Cen, he found himself battling occasional bouts of self-doubt. He knew it was silly, he was an attractive, virile male and it didn’t really matter whether Aileen had been with someone else a week or a year ago, but there you have it. He still liked the idea that she’d chosen him to break her fast.
“It’s been nearly a year and a half,” she answered. “Work, as you have noticed, doesn’t leave a lot of time for relationships.”
“Sex doesn’t require a relationship,” he said being maybe a little too honest.
“Are you warning me?” she asked, but she didn’t move her head, which now rested in the crook of his neck.
He stroked her back soothingly as though she were a skittish cub and was relieved to note that she didn’t tense, her muscles remained relaxed, calm. He liked that about her too. She didn’t sweat the small things.
“Do you need a warning?” he asked maintaining the soothing rhythm.
“I don’t know,” she answered, “but I do like you.”
“I’m glad,” he said deliberately not responding in kind and waited.
After a very brief silence, she kissed his neck and said, “A lot.”
That surprised him. He’d expected a sulky silence because he hadn’t replicated her response. “I like you a lot too,” he said honestly as he lifted her chin with his finger. He wanted to see her face; he wanted to kiss her again.