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Autumn Leaves

By Robert J. Oliver All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Drama

Blurb

Claire Bedard falls for the handsome chef Ryan James, but their love turns toxic when Ryan’s past of abuse resurfaces to control her. Will she be able to help him move beyond his darkness?

Chapter 1

The autumn leaves were falling slowly across the Common. It was a perfect contrast to the animation of the hurried runners who took to the newly arrived chilly air for a brisk run that early September morn. They scurried about across the many pathways, tracing a route through the park and around the pond. Cold statues, faces void of life but replete with the determination of their honorees, stared blankly, as more and more people filtered into the park.

The morning was fresh and new, despite being nestled in the center of Boston, with the old hill staring down from a position of heralded and antiquated grandeur. Park benches were slowly occupied by older couples dressed in darkening shades, their attire harbingers of the coming winter. A soft breeze blew the willows along the shore of the pond. The air was always thick with scents drifting up from the city. On this morning- before the city fully shook off its slumber- the air was sharp and cold, frozen even, and seemed to cause a shiver to everything it touched.

Ryan James sat on a bench by a willow, his eyes not turned upon the pond or the dainty little swan boats anchored on the far side, but rather on the path and the joggers who passed. Bright colors, some autumnal, danced past, creating a sort of athletic fashion show for the park bench viewers. Ryan was resting, or looking like he was, but in reality, he was searching. He came here every morning for the past few weeks since he first happened by chance to see her. To his eye, she was the most beautiful creature to ever prance across the fabled ether of Avalon, and at the thought of her, he felt a sensation long lost in his heart.

Ryan was a man in his thirties, a culinary master by trade, and one-time owner of “The Singing Duck Gastropub” and “Gillian’s Bakery.” Before these, and after cutting his teeth with the likes of Daniel Boulud in New York, he opened RJ in his native Boston. Of the three restaurants, RJ was the only one still in operation, and brilliantly managed, freeing much of Ryan’s time to explore new and exciting possibilities. That was Ryan’s nature: an aggressive, business-minded restaurateur who was seldom happy with just one project. At the present moment, he was eying a space in the North End.

Ryan leaned back against the bench and examined one runner moving past. Her shape was similar and gait about the same, but it was not her. He sighed and continued searching.

With a reddish brown trimmed beard and brown eyes, Ryan was a handsome and modern man. His oval face seemed to wear the beard magnificently, and his build, toned and muscular, showed his attention to his physique. He wore shorts that morning, thinking a slight warming trend would make the run more pleasant. He was wrong. He did, however, have the foresight to grab a light jacket before leaving his apartment. The North End, where he lived, was a distance from the park, but because that was where she ran, he made the trek every morning, his body moving happily through the ritualistic procession.

Ryan ran his plan over one more time, fearing any lack of preparedness would make him look foolish. When she ran, she would always stop by the monument on the bridge and check her time. Ryan, when he saw her run past, would follow and stop when she stopped, starting a conversation with her. This girl was all he thought about the past few weeks, and he knew he simply had to meet her. For too long, his days were dark and gloomy, and no pretty face could pull him from the deep, morose agony which was his life. When she died, a piece of him went, too. But now, there was a new animation in Ryan, a new life bequeathed to him by the beautiful runner in the Common. Above him, the autumn leaves were changing.

“Ryan, my friend,” he began, aloud to himself, “you are a nut. Yes, you really are,” and he chuckled. Sitting on a bench waiting for a perfect stranger to run past was not what he thought he would be doing that morning, but somewhere in the middle of the night, courage came to him, and so, at around 7 a.m., he was waiting.

What fear Ryan felt, what confusion and trepidation he harbored in his mind, seemed to be hiding from his thoughts, or at least dulled into submission by the chill. Ryan was nervous, but he was propelled by his desire, a desire emanating from new life. He could taste the sun again, and through the surrounding gloom, see a bright future. His life, so dark, was about to be bright once more, and memories of the past, cherished and relished, would be stepping stones into a new tomorrow.

A lone man walked up to the anchored swan boats and was looking at them. Ryan watched him, inhaling the icy air into his lungs and feeling the vivacity of the morning. The man was taking a picture. The image of the photographer and the boats captivated Ryan and he narrowed his gaze. Behind Ryan, a few joggers and one walker moved past. She was among them.

Ryan allowed his mind to wander over the fabricated history of the man with the camera when he happened to look at the path. He saw the electric blue jacket, the hair in a ponytail, and the familiar gait.

“Shit!” he said aloud, springing from the bench at the same instant.

The woman passed him and was closing in on the bridge. If Ryan did not get there in time, she would move on and not stop again. He flew past the walker, and running more than jogging, pushed himself forcibly through the frozen air, the wind chilling his face. He was glad he had his beard.

Come on, come on, he thought, I gotta get up there. Hurry. Keep moving. Ryan sprinted among the growing maze of runners who came in from different points, navigating like a ship amidst an ice field. With frustration mounting, Ryan feared he would not meet her.

The bridge was coming closer, and the color of her jacket acted like a beacon to Ryan’s peering eyes. He would never succeed in the Boston Marathon, but at that moment he rushed with haste that was uncanny, swerving and dodging all those around him. The cold air attacked him, but Ryan cared little for the discomfort. There was a goal set before him, and he was busy obtaining it.

Before the delicate runner the bridge emerged, large and seemingly issuing forth all the chilliness of the park. The stonework looked bleak amidst the autumn day, resembling more the dead statues who kept guard throughout the park. She gracefully moved through the throng of people like a deer of the field.

Ryan was gaining on her, yet winded as he was, he allowed himself no reprieve from the strain of this hunt. He saw the woman cross the bridge and stop by the monument. She always obeyed her schedule, he thought to himself as he pressed forward, the thudding of his feet sounding like drums calling soldiers to arms.

The woman, staring at her phone’s timer and stretching her legs, did not see the winded man come jogging up to her, his pace much slower than it was before. There was an attempt at coolness on his part, as if this short reprieve was scheduled.

There was beauty in her flushed face, flushed from the exertion of the run and from the temperature. Her hair, of auburn strands, swayed slowly as she continued her stretching. She was young, athletic, with a figure that spoke of an attentiveness to fitness. Her face, so radiant, seemed chiseled by the greatest sculptures of the ancient world, using no model short of the Caryatides of old.

Ryan slowed to a stop near her and started doing his own stretches, though his familiarity with that sort of athletic preparation was dismal at best. He bent and touched his toes, grimacing at the pain he felt in his legs. Casually, he watched the woman as she continued her routine. Other joggers ran past, sometimes obscuring his view completely. Ryan was waiting for the opportune time to make his move. His nerves, growing exited and anxious, stirred inside him as he viewed the woman. Thoughts of failure, rejection and simple fatuity flashed before him and he cringed, fearing he would not gain the success he so desired.

It looked to Ryan that she was concluding her routine, so he casually jogged over. He was almost there, when a group of runners came through, their colors blazing past him. The flurry of excitement sent Ryan dodging one way, then skipping another, trying not to be trampled. He thought quickly of Mufasa in the midst of the herd, then laughed dryly to himself.

Ryan raced through the crowd as best he could, his speed increasing when he saw the woman looking again at her watch. Damn, she’s going to move again, he thought, and angrily threw himself through the river of runners racing past.

One person, an older man in tight running pants and a jacket, nearly crashed into Ryan as he plunged forward, and with a curse, skipped around the man as he cleared the stream, lunging out of the running path and into the open. To his surprise, the woman was right before him, concealed behind the last older runner. Ryan had speed, but no stopping power; she barely looked up as he pummeled her down.

“Shit,” Ryan said out loud as he crashed into the woman.

The woman, barely able to register surprise on her face, and even more so unable to let out the appropriate scream that should follow, simply felt the forceful impact of the man. Together, they both toppled over onto the cold cement, falling hard and landing even harder.

Ryan was first to jump up, what pain he endured quickly subdued by his eagerness to correct the mishap. The woman, he saw, looked angry, but her features quickly softened as the realization of the moment came to her. Staring up at Ryan, she felt his apologetic expression warming her.

“I am so, so sorry,” Ryan began, extending two hands to her. “I totally did not see you behind that group of runners.”

The woman, still looking up at him, smiled pleasantly, her visage striking. Ryan was struck deeply by her beauty, by the curvature of her face, her blue eyes, so ice-like that they immediately made him think of stars on a cool winter’s night. His thoughts were lost to him, his mind numbed by her appearance. Seldom had a woman so inspired him with the harmony of creation as she did. From afar he always viewed her; now, with eyes turned upon her, he beheld not just her own loveliness, but the essential form of beauty, as if she alone were the express image of all that was lovely in the world.

“It’s alright,” she replied.

“Again, I bulldozed you. I am so sorry,” Ryan replied. “Here, let me.”

Ryan took her hands in his. Her flesh was soft and warm, welcoming and tender to his cold hands. He lifted her lithe form as gentlemanly as possible, then was quick to release her, though he could have held her hand all morning.

“It’s okay,” she reiterated strongly.

The woman dusted herself off and did a quick survey of her person. Ryan watched her, unaware of the little bits of dirt and gravel that clung to parts of his body. He was consumed by her form, her essence, and dared not remove his eyes.

“Are you alright? Talk about a blind spot,” Ryan said, a bit of laughter in his voice.

“I’m fine,” she replied, rotating an ankle. “Actually, this kind of hurts.”

“Your ankle?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah. I bet I can just walk it off.”

“Crap. I bet I did that.”

“Nah, it’s been like that for some time. Every so often, it acts up. Today must be its day.”

“Can I help you to a bench?” asked Ryan.

“I think I’m cool, but thanks. I’ll just run it out now. No pain, no gain, right?” and she laughed, a laughter so light and joyful.

At the mention of her leaving, Ryan panicked. He made contact with her in the most awkward of manners, but contact was established nonetheless. This was his moment, and awkwardness aside, he was going to conquer it.

“I’m sorry. I’m Ryan. Guess you should at least know the guy who tackled you in the Common.”

She laughed again, looking into his nervous face. Sensing something in him, she allowed her eyes to mingle with his for a moment longer than usual, looking at his brown hues and his beard. She liked beards. She accepted his extended hand in hers.

“I’m Claire, Claire Bedard” she replied, smiling.

“Well, hello, Claire. It’s a pleasure to both meet and clobber you. Ryan James.”

Ryan and Claire both laughed, the giddiness of the moment overwhelming them. Inside each heart beat an uneasy teenager on their first date, the attractiveness of their companion adding to their nervousness. For Ryan, he felt a sensation tingling inside his heart, and relished it. For Claire, it was the mystery of this new person, the man behind the cuteness standing before her.

“And a pleasure to be tackled by you, Ryan.”

Ryan quickly detected a certain emphasis placed on his name as she spoke it, something delightful and happy in its pronunciation. That made him more nervous and happy and shy, but he managed to control each.

“Um, are you sure your ankle is okay? Can I help you back to your car? I mean, it’s the least I can do.”

“Actually, it feels a little stiff, that’s all. And I walk here. I used to drive till I saw that meme with the kid. You know, the ‘you mean to tell me you drive to the gym to run on a treadmill,’ one. Yeah, that kind of put things in perspective.”

Claire laughed at the reference, the memory so clear in her mind. Ryan laughed too, though he expressed simple joy over her playful nature and the melodious tones she made.

“I love that meme,” he said. “And, I do confess, I’m a grumpy cat fan still.”

“Grumpy Cat? I love him!” she exclaimed.

“He’s the best.”

Claire brought her clasped hands to her chest and smiled, turning her head up to look at the sky in great excitement.

“He’s simply the cutest little thing in all his grumpiness. He’s just so adorable.”

“He is, he really is,” Ryan replied.

“Oh,” Claire began with a sort of sigh in her voice, “I guess I should finish up. Got to get to work soon.”

Panic resumed its place in Ryan’s heart. He felt it grip him tightly and strangle the joy he was experiencing. He had to think quickly, or else it would be adieu and nothing more. He thought, then remembered the totality of his plan: coffee.

“Oh, um, hey, since I disrupted your run, can I buy you a cup of coffee when you’re finished? There’s a great bistro just around the block.”

Claire thought for a moment, then remembered an important meeting she had in the office. Time and expeditiousness were necessary, and she had only enough of the early morning left to get home, shower and prepare for it. She hated to decline, but she had to. After all, as giddy as she was, she did not know the man standing before her. Coffee was a great way to open doors, but in a city such as Boston, or anywhere for that matter, one had always to be careful. The giddiness she felt subsided, and the cool and collected woman reemerged.

“I’m sorry, but I have to get going. I’ve an important meeting later in the morning, and I need to be ready for it.”

Claire saw the desperate attempt to hide the disappointment on Ryan’s face as he boldly put forth a smile. Inside, she felt her own disappointment.

“Hey, no worries. Maybe some other time. I run here every morning, so maybe later.”

Ryan’s voice was dampened by the blow, but he still managed some confident tones to his words.

“Yeah,” Claire replied, and after saying goodbye, she walked off briskly.

“Goodbye,” Ryan said, watching her walk out of his life.

He followed her across the bridge with his eyes, watching her carry off the happiness he was feeling. It was a somber and sobering moment for him, and despite the animation surrounding him, he felt alone.

A sigh escaped him, and he was about to turn when he saw Claire stop, turn around and look back to where they had just stood. After a moment of searching for Ryan’s athletic attire among an emerging collection of runners, Claire spotted him and started back, holding one hand up until he spotted it. She felt something, almost sensed something, and as prudent as she normally was, her curiosity enticed her.

Ryan held his breath as she approached, not fully knowing what was going to happen. Was she going to ask him to keep away? Was she going to ask him out? He did not know, and his heart fluttered with both excitement and fear.

“Ryan. Of course, nothing changed for this morning, but I did remember that tomorrow is free for me, if that coffee offer still is good?”

Ryan froze. He heard her, but in his mind, he failed to completely comprehend what was spoken. Ryan was in the sheer disbelief of the event, the simple question resonating in his mind so powerfully that he could not fathom such a thing actually just occurred. Finally, in what felt like an age, Ryan gave his response.

“Sure! I mean, no expiration date on that one. After all, I do owe you at least that much. Um, tomorrow, after your run? Have you ever been to the Littlest Bean? It’s on Charles Street.”

“Oohh, I have, and I love it. That sounds wonderful, Ryan. Meet there at what time?”

“After your run, whenever you are finished. I know some of the people there, so I hang there sometimes. Maybe eight?”

“That sounds perfect,” she said, nearly gushing in her delight.

“Alright, I guess eight it is, then.”

“Yeah. Well, have a good run, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You, too, Claire. See you tomorrow.”

And with that, Claire turned and sprinted away, this time leaving more joy with Ryan than he could manage to understand. His heart was light and fluttery, and was unable to even think properly. All he sensed was excitement and wonder; excitement at his success, and wonder that he actually pulled it off…with a little assistance from gravity, that is.

“When have the laws of physics ever dabbled in love?” Ryan asked out loud, laughing.

As he turned, he saw his park bench, some leaves falling over it. No longer would he need to sit there and linger. The times, they were changing, and for the better. Amber leaves fell at his feet and swished with his steps until he was gone and out of the Common.

* * * * * * * * * *

The coffee house was a brilliant concept and design for the area, and when it opened a few months ago, it was the rage all through the Hill. With brick walls covered in famous Bostonian sons and daughters, an indie music list that couldn’t be topped, and drinks that were fantastic, it was the place to hang in the afternoon, after work, or to grab a drink on the morning commute.

Ryan was lounging on an old leather sofa, the material faded but soft and comfortable. He was sipping a double shot and nibbling on a fresh baked scone, his mind seemingly occupied with the thoughts of the day, though he watched the door attentively. Every movement in its vicinity he caught eagerly, hoping to see his new friend.

The early morning moved swiftly for Ryan, as his heart danced around the new prospect and renewed hope of love and happiness. In the morning, he followed his usual routine, this time remembering a jacket. He thought he spotted her in the park once, but with the distance, he could not be certain.

Sipping his espresso, Ryan could not help but marvel at his situation. Here, on the old couch, he was waiting for a woman he had sought for so long. He envisioned what the moment would be like when she acquiesced, but it was nothing like what transpired. Somehow, though, that pleased him. His version was the picture perfect resemblance, the serialized moment on every Hallmark card. The moment that actually happened, that was reality, and he laughed at it all night and well into the next morning.

Ryan, like most anxious men on a first date, ran through a pre-ordained script in his mind, trying to find all the coolest things about him to mention first, the things he knew women would like. In his mind, he saw with clarity how suave and collected he would be, reclining on the couch with his beverage, looking like a modern bohemian. But what if she wasn’t not into that level of modernity? He promptly sat up and put the espresso on the table, shifting so as to look more studious. Geeky guys, he thought, maybe she likes the geeks. How to be geeky, though, troubled him.

Thinking about his first real encounter with her, Ryan tried to digest what he thought her preferences were, based on what he knew of her. She was athletic and stylish. She always had a kept appearance, and ran like a professional. Ryan put together a mental picture of her life; whether he was right or not, he would soon find out.

Outside, Claire was making her way down the street. She could see the sign swinging lazily in the autumn breeze, as a few stray leaves fell to her feet. Claire loved autumn; it was her favorite season. When she was a child, she remembered playing in the large leaf piles her father would rake, scattering them all across the yard again. Her father never seemed to mind, and at times would join in the fun. Those memories christened the season for her, endearing themselves to her heart.

Claire stopped outside the shop, wondering very quickly how exciting, strange and even a little frightening this was. She was not one to just jump into a situation like this. Claire was meticulous and thorough, “researching,” as she called it, prospective men before she ever engaged with them. But, she reminded herself, this was a neutral location, and it was only coffee. After all, he could be gay, she thought, only wanting to make amends for the incident. At the thought, though, she felt a twinge of disappointment. Smiling, she went inside.

The lighting was dim, but the picture windows flanking the door threw in an abundance of light. The scene before Claire was what she had seen before, the typical rush at the Littlest Bean, with suit clad women and men standing in line with care-free loafers, and trendy- or not so trendy- Bostonians waiting for the morning brew. Charles Street was the bastion of commerce on Beacon Hill, the place everyone frequented for wine, boutiques, restaurants, and coffee. This little shop, tucked away in the nook of a larger building, was a favorite hangout for Claire, her best friend, Brett, and his partner Dylan.

Claire looked around for the bearded man she only met yesterday, not knowing where he was sitting, but certainly not forgetting his features. She scanned the room, then saw a man in the back, sitting upright on the couch. It was him.

Ryan saw Claire enter and stiffened his appearance, trying to meet the fabricated expectation he had set in his mind. She was not dressed in her sports attire – he certainly didn’t expect it – but was groomed and clothed in her business attire. She walked slowly across the floor, her hair parted to one side and styled neatly. She wore black slacks with a royal blue blouse, collar ruffled, and a long coat stretching down her tight figure. Her stride was bold and confident, something that immediately caught Ryan’s attention. Looking at her made his heart pound uncontrollably. If the woman in the park stole his heart, how much more did this rendition further imprison it within her grasp?

As she strolled up to him, Ryan suddenly became aware of his own clothing, and feeling a burst of shame, wished he had the foresight she already mastered to come looking his best. Ryan rose from the couch and greeted her.

“Hey Claire,” he said, staring into her brilliant blue eyes.

Claire smiled at him and admired his firm body beneath his sporting attire.

“Hi Ryan,” she said, feeling she should say more, but not knowing what.

“I already got an espresso, but I’m game for something more. Can I get you anything?” he asked.

Claire set her leather case down on a chair and took off her jacket. Ryan tried not to stare, but her disrobing stirred him profoundly. Around her neck, she wore a large necklace with a gold disk and several blue beads.

“Yeah, I’m thinking of a latte. I’ll go up with you.”

“Cool. Shall we?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“I guess you’re off to work after this?” Ryan asked.

Ryan waved his hand at her clothing, and smiled at her. She understood the question, but knew it meant more than it asked. She knew Ryan was asking if that she deliberately changed for their meeting, since it would have made more sense to simply stop by immediately after her run. She was caught and she knew it, for she had indeed risen earlier than usual to get her run in before making a hasty return to her apartment to shower and change. She did not dare meet him again in her running clothes; that was just something Claire was not going to do. Her attire was chosen deliberately. Playfully, she nodded her head in affirmation and replied yes, then turned away to hide her blushing face.

Together, they moved through the bustling scene and entered the line. Fortune smiled on them, as the line was short and they quickly reached the counter. A dreadlocked man with black-rimmed glasses stood before them, his shirt displaying a vintage photo of Darth Vader. Ryan smiled to himself.

“Hey Carter,” Ryan began, “I’ll get hers and mine together.”

“No prob, Ryan.”

“Um, oh, let me get a hot soy chai with vanilla. Oh, no, let me do the green tea latte instead,” Claire said lightly.

“Regular, 2 percent, Skim or Soy?” Carter said flatly.

“With that? Skim.”

“Hot or iced,” he asked again, just as flat.

“Hot.”

“16 or 20 ounce?”

“Oh, the 16.”

“And you, Ryan.”

“Carter, let me get a medium hot soy latte with one pump of vanilla. And not whipped.”

“Concise order. Thank you,” Carter said under his breath.

Claire was smiling at something on the wall while Ryan paid for the drinks. He watched her order, and to his horror, found she was just like the masses who had no clue how to properly order a beverage, despite buying one every morning. It was a food services thing only those in the field understood, and he chuckled to himself, knowing he would have to work on that if the fates allowed a chance with her.

“Shall we sit?” Ryan asked Claire.

“Sure. But the drinks?”

“They know me here and will run them out.”

“Table service? Nice,” Claire replied, nodding her head.

“Yeah, I’m good friends with the owner and most of the staff. Right, Carter?”

“Bro,” Carter replied, nodding at Ryan.

Ryan stepped to the side and allowed Claire to move past. Once they reached the couch, Claire took a corner, and Ryan retrieved his original seat. The coffee house was loud with music and chatter, so there was no awkward silence between them, though both Claire and Ryan could feel it approaching. In his heart, Ryan wanted to know so much about Claire - about her past, her present, her friends and job, what she did for fun, all of it. Every aspect of her interested him, and he waited patiently for the moment when he could stomach beginning the conversation.

Claire, looking at Ryan, found him so mysterious and fun. He knew the park, she reasoned, knew her area of the Hill, and now, was intimate with one of her favorite joints. He was a true man of mystery, and that intrigued her. And she thought he was really cute.

“So,” Ryan began, cringing at his opening, “how long have you run in the Common?”

Claire smiled. “I’ve been at it since I moved here, about two years ago. It’s such a beautiful place to run. I mean, when the leaves are changing, and the crisp air chills you. It’s just amazing. How about you?”

“To be honest, I do it off and on. I’ve had a lot more free time lately, so I have been getting there a little more frequently.”

“Do you live close by?” she asked him.

Ryan shook his head no.

“I’m in the North End. I take it you live around here?”

Claire adjusted in her seat and crossed her legs. She was enjoying the sound of his voice over the murmur in the background. It was strong and powerful, yet soft. She didn’t know how it functioned in that manner, but it did, and to her ears, it was so pleasant.

“I do. I actually live up the way.”

“That’s cool. This is such an awesome area. I used to own the Singing Duck Gastro Pub here.”

“Oh my gosh, no way! I loved that place. You owned it?” asked Claire with shock.

“Yeah, I’m a chef by trade. I used to have that, and Gillian’s Bakery, and I still have RJ, downtown.”

“That’s too cool, Ryan. We used to eat there a lot on our lunch breaks. I’d always get that, um, what was it, the lamb stew, and something else.”

Claire stumbled through a list of mental ingredients, realizing how foolish she was quickly becoming to the man who made the dish nightly. With a cute grin on her face, she confessed that she was no culinary aficionado.

“I’m sorry, I know I just butchered that lovely dish.”

“Hey, no worries. And it was duck, not lamb. But it’s cool.”

Ryan waved off her clumsiness and started to laugh. It was cute to him, so he took no offence, though he closely guarded the reputation of all his culinary efforts.

“So, you’re a chef then?”

“I am. I graduated a few years back, cut my teeth with Boulud in New York, then came here and started. RJ was my first, and still my flagship. The gastro pub was fun, and the bakery awesome, but, well, let’s just say it was time to let those go.”

“Why’s that?” Claire asked innocently.

“Um, that’s kind of a long story,” Ryan replied with hesitancy.

Carter strolled over and gently set the two drinks down on the table. The steam from the beverages whirled with the atmosphere and seemed to lure each set of eyes to their frothy caps. Ryan was grateful for the distraction.

“Oohh, that looks yummy,” Claire purred.

“They have awesome drinks here, and all of it is free trade and organic. Awesome stuff. You know, small batch roasts they do themselves, giving the kind of flavor we should be demanding.”

Claire sipped her drink, and pulling the cup away after savoring the green tea, she heard Ryan snicker. She looked at him puzzled, then felt the froth on her upper lip. Quickly, she wiped it away, then threw a playful warning glance at Ryan, who was still chuckling.

“I saw nothing,” he said to her.

“Good!”

They both laughed. It was playful and fun, and the moment seemed to grow in intimacy. Each could feel its warming presence, like standing beside a low burning fire. The feeling felt good against the coldness of Ryan’s beaten heart, and it slowly sank into the old, frozen ground of his being, sowing new life.

“Claire, what do you do?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, I work in marketing. I’m the director of marketing for Waterton, downtown. It’s a great place to work and I love what I do.”

“You said you came here two years ago. Was that for the job?”

Claire shook her head yes, then carefully took another sip, this time acting more dexterous with her cup.

“It was,” she began. “Thanks to my dad, he hooked me up with one of his old frat buddies, and they hired me on. One year later, I got the promotion to director. I work with some really cool people; it’s busy, and crazy and so awesome.”

“That sounds really nice. I think I’ve heard of Waterton. They, well, do marketing, of course, and other things, right?”

“Yes, we are like a one stop center for large corporations. We come in and handle all internal issues. We started with just marketing, then branched into Human Resources, and all that. I don’t know much more about it.”

“Corporate America at its best, right?”

“You got it.”

“I’ve only ever dealt with small business issues. Payroll can be a beast, but now that I’m back to just one restaurant, it’s not too bad. And I have help. Like you, I have worked with some very special people.”

Ryan became drifty for a moment as his mind wandered to another place and time. He could see her, surrounded by bakers, all clad in white aprons and covered in flour. She was instructing them, watching them, and occasionally telling a light joke to keep things fun. He smiled.

“Yeah, you said you had three and are now back to one. Lost interest in them?”

Ryan reflected for a moment, relishing in the pain that was attacking his heart. For so long, it haunted him and frightened him, causing so much agony. But, after a time, the pain became his lover, and his eyes turned to darkness. All the world around him vanished into a morbid existence, and before him, he saw only endless plains of desolation. Now, however, a sun was cresting over those plains, and newness was reborn.

“It’s a long story. And it would only bore you,” he said, making a joke.

“I’ll listen,” Claire replied.

Ryan sipped his coffee. He knew she would have to find out sooner or later, and now was as good a time as any. Something, however, was different. With so many, Ryan restrained both the pain and the story, fearing to tell it; with Claire, he felt he could finally open up and share freely, of his own volition. It was a moment of realization for Ryan, a moment when he actually felt safe in his vulnerability.

“Well, here goes. I’m going to warn you, it’s sad. After I opened RJ, I worked that for a time, when I met Gillian. She was fresh out of culinary and came to work for me. She was that apprentice that just rocked, you know? We fell in love, moved in together, and started our life together. It was fun. We opened the gastro pub together, then Gillian’s Bakery. She loved baking; that was definitely her thing. We ran the three of them together like a well-oiled machine, pardon the cliché. Then she died. Sorry for the bluntness, but I don’t know how else to say it. That was over a year ago. She was caught in the cross fire of a midnight gang hit, coming home from RJ’s. I had left earlier and went to the pub to help out with the last of the night’s routine. She never made it to the hospital. After that, well, I fell apart, and so did everything we built. I sold the bakery because it was just too hard to be there. Then I unloaded the pub to a former chef employee. I kept RJ only because the staff swore they would work for no one else, and they managed it for me. I didn’t crawl into a bottle, but I did crawl into darkness.”

Ryan stopped and took a breath, releasing some of the pain with his exhalation. He turned his somber eyes upon Claire, who was embracing his pain with her eyes, her face expressing the grief she was feeling at his agony. She ran the story through her mind, knowing it probably haunted him every day. To have plans for the future, then to lose them so abruptly, she did not know how he managed it. The story was so new to her, but in his telling, she felt it all, as if she were the one to lose her lover. She never felt such a connection before.

“Ryan,” she started, “I am so very sorry. I should not have asked, and I do apologize.”

“Oh, Claire, no, it’s not a problem. Actually, I’m sorry. Here I am, hogging the whole conversation with all this stuff. I just…you…I…you just seemed like you would listen. That means a lot.”

“I bet she was a magnificent woman.”

“She was.”

There was a moment between them, steeped in awkward silence, when they both pondered the narrative again. Ryan needed a minute to collect himself, and Claire wanted a transition from darker to lighter conversation. The silence was good and it allowed Ryan the time he needed to turn the conversation.

“But time stands still for no person. That was the lesson I learned, among other things. I see new and brilliant horizons again, and I want to chase them. I’m actually eying a new location in the northeast. I have an idea for a gothic themed restaurant.”

“Oh, wow. Something creepy, maybe?” Claire asked, happy to move to something less deep.

“Yep! You got it!” he replied.

“Well, you’ll have to let me know when you open it. I have a really fun witch’s costume from last Halloween. Maybe I’ll wear it.”

Claire snickered happily, and Ryan’s eyes lit up at the thought. His heart was racing, partly from her interest in him, and partly from telling the story and her receiving it. It was a moment of trial, and he passed through it well enough. Every time he told the story, he felt an old part of him ignite and the same old part die again. His only thought was how she truly received the story.

“Only if I can dress as the mummy.”

“What, a mummy? Ryan, honey, you need to be a sexy vampire, or, maybe a fireman. Yes, that would suit you.”

Claire was an expert at flirtation, and she exhibited her prowess, not only catching Ryan’s attention even more than previously, but also dropping a hint about a certain interest she might have for him, and possibility for a future meeting. Her smile was delightfully wicked, playful and almost naughty. Claire seldom revealed this aspect of her nature so quickly, but with Ryan, she felt a certain peace that allowed her to open up. And she did.

“A vampire, eh? Not one of those glittery ones, I hope?”

Ryan tried to sound not amused, but he was a poor actor. His face failed in concealing his delight and enthusiasm.

“No, one of those really cool ones.”

“Okay, I could do that.”

Ryan was glad the conversation became light again. He did not want to frighten her away with his morbidity, and he was surprised he actually said as much as he did. He seldom felt open with people.

“Well,” Claire began, looking at her watch, “I hate to run, but I do need to get to work.”

“I figured it was about that time. Hey, thanks for coming by today.”

“No, thank you for the coffee. This was fun.”

Ryan stood with her and admired her as she gathered her jacket and bag, and took one last cold sip of her latte. She was perfect, he thought, perfect in every way. And it was not his mind telling him that, but his heart, a heart that had not spoken in over a year.

“Um, maybe we can get together for dinner one night, say, Friday? I know this awesome Vietnamese fusion bistro that is amazing. Or we can do Americana?”

Claire smiled. His boyish enthusiasm was so charming, and his zeal and general excitement was just so cute. She could not help but be stirred by the invitation, though she felt she should play it cool.

“Ryan, that sounds lovely. Friday it is. And you can choose. As you might have figured out by now, I’m no chef. So, I’ll let you pick.”

Claire then handed him a business card with her contact information, smiling as she did so.

“Work email and personal cell,” she said.

“Alright, sounds great. Oh, and here, this is my card. The email is business, but the cell is personal. Shoot me a line later in the week and we’ll make the definite plans. And Claire, thanks for listening.”

Claire smiled at him, thanked him again, and throwing her jacket on, walked out of the building, her steps lighter and her heart racing. Ryan watched her go, but did not feel her leave. Her presence was still with him, still warming him gently. For the first time in months, he thought it was going to be a good day.

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