"Well played, Mr. Grant. Well played," Harrison said after Olivia gave an account of what had transpired.
"He is quite a Casanova, and Olivia is so transparent. You should have seen her, Harrison. I don't know how she is going to manage all this," Abby said.
"Stop talking about me like I'm not here. I'm 33 years old and I know how to handle a man who…"
"You didn't even think he was into you when it had to be obvious. I could tell before I saw you two on the stairs just from your description of the meeting. He had to spell it out to you for you to get it, Liv," Abby said.
"She has a point," said Harrison.
"I've only just met him today, a little over 6 hours ago. I know this may sound silly but it was lust at first sight. This is not the setting for being picked up so I didn't just assume he was attracted to me too." Olivia rose from the table and resumed arranging the classroom for tomorrow.
"Maybe it was love at first sight," Abby said.
Olivia rolled her eyes at Abby's comment.
Harrison spoke up. "Are you going tonight?"
"I don't know. Honestly, part of me wants to go…the unthinking part, but good sense says I should not. He has to know this goes counter to professional ethics. I am in an impossible situation with the power dynamic. Doesn't he think this is dangerous for him as well? He doesn't know me. Isn't he afraid that I could say he harassed me?"
"Professional ethics? Power dynamics? Really Liv?" said Abby, "You are no fun. What about the excitement, the-"
"I live in the real world…most of the time, Abby. Professionals who cross the line like this are always in the news. Even the hint of impropriety can end a career. I don't know Mr. Grant, personally, but he has to be well connected in this district. This could end my career. I don't want my face plastered all over the news… 'Fourth Grade Teacher Resigns Amid Allegation of Sexual Harassment'," Olivia said.
"You are so pragmatic. You are overanalyzing as usual and jumping to conclusions," said Harrison.
"Yeah. It's just dinner…or are you afraid of yourself?" said Abby.
Olivia stared at her friends. They stared back at her expectantly. "You two are something else. I am going to have dinner with him tonight. I am curious to see what he is up to. Regardless of any attraction, my relationship with him will not go beyond the professional."
Harrison and Abby looked at each other, practically giddy with excitement. "This is going to be fun, watching you two. On a serious note, though, Liv, you have to think about how you are going to keep your relationship a secret. Gossip travels like an airborne virus here. Mr. Grant already has everyone's attention. You better keep your distance from him at school. Everyone will know if they see you two together staring at each other like no one else is around. Harrison, you have to see them. It is funny."
"I bet it is," said Harrison.
"There is nothing to keep secret. It's almost five. I have to pick up Rolfo and walk him before I get ready for my working dinner meeting tonight."
They all walked to the door. "Let's stop by Huck's room and tell him. I know he is still here setting up for that science experiment for tomorrow," said Abby. They ignored Olivia and turned in the opposite direction to take the back stairwell to Huck's classroom.
"You all are such meddlers. Bye." Olivia shook her head at them and descended the stairs to the front door.
"So, Dad, who is she again?" Karen said. She tossed a pretzel bite in her mouth. Fitz, Gerry, and Karen sat at a booth waiting for Olivia to arrive. They had ordered drinks and an appetizer.
"Ms. Pope teaches fourth grade at Ambrose Elementary. We had a meeting today that we didn't finish so I invited her to dinner with us so we could continue." Karen and Gerry glanced at each other and back at their dad.
"So it's like a working dinner?" said Karen.
"Something like that, yes."
"Dad, you said that Dave and Buster's nights were sacred, just for us. You never let us invite friends," said Gerry. He tossed back two pretzel bites in his mouth.
"Yeah, Dad!" Karen crossed her arms and stuck out her bottom lip in a fake pout.
"This night is sacred. I'm sorry, but I needed to finish this meeting. I don't have as much flexibility on this job as I did with the other one," said Fitz.
Gerry leaned over and pretended to whisper in his sister's ear. "Karen, I think Dad likes this teacher."
"Mom's gonna be maa-aad," Karen said, "She didn't like it when you when you were going out with Rachel."
"Your mom will be fine. I am concerned about you two. Ms. Pope is a nice woman. I know you will like her."
"You are totally busted. This is a date then…for all of us. You must by very rusty when it comes to dating, Dad. Your kids shouldn't be with you on the first date," said Gerry.
"What do you know about dating, Gerry?" Karen blew her straw wrapper at him. He watched it fall on the empty seat beside him.
"More than you. You've only ever been out with Justin."
"Karen, Gerry. She just sent me a text that she is in the lobby. I am going up to the front to get her. Be on your best behavior when I get back."
Olivia put her cell phone in her shoulder bag as she waited in the lobby. She had agonized over her attire for the night. She wore white blue jeans, a grey pullover, grey flats, and a white pea coat. Her hair was pulled into a ponytail. Now she was beginning to have doubts about her wardrobe choices. Is this too casual?
She lifted her head and looked right into his eyes. He was walking to her. His smile was contagious. How does he always look so good? He wore blue jeans and a white t-shirt under a dark blue v-neck pullover.
"You look nice, Ms. Pope. I am glad you came."
"Thank you, Mr. Grant." Olivia didn't know how else to greet him. She had the urge to extend her hand, but the casual environment made that seem awkward. He took her hand and led her to their booth. Is he really holding my hand?
When they reached the booth, Karen and Gerry had moved to one side. They stood.
"Gerry, Karen, this is Ms. Pope." Olivia extended her hand to shake theirs. "Please call me Olivia."
They exchanged pleasantries. Fitz extended his arm to direct her to move into the booth first.
The server appeared and took Olivia's drink order.
"I'll have a ginger ale."
It was quiet at the table as everyone reviewed their menus.
"What are you having, Ms. Pope?" said Fitz. Olivia was beginning to wish he would call her by her first name. Addressing her as "Ms. Pope" seemed ridiculous now.
"I don't know? What's good?"
"What do you like?"
Are we still talking about food? This is insane with his kids sitting here. I have a one-track mind with him sitting so close! Gotta get a serious grip. Olivia thought.
"Karen, what do you usually order? Mr. Grant tells me that you all come here every Wednesday."
"I like the fish and chips and the D&B signature burgers."
"What about you Gerry?"
"The burgers and steaks."
When the server reappeared with Olivia's drink and refills for everyone, they ordered.
"How is my Dad doing as principal?" Gerry asked.
"It remains to be seen. He's only been principal for a day." Olivia looked over at him.
"If all the teachers are as talented as you, I'll have an easy job." Olivia smiled but she didn't know how to respond.
"What high school do you attend?" Olivia said.
"Ambrose High School," they said in tandem.
"That's in our cluster. Did you go to Cloverfield Middle?"
"No, we transferred to Ambrose. We went to Sherwood Middle and then Evermore High. We were in the Evermore cluster before." Karen said.
"So how are you liking it so far?" Olivia asked. She was thankful that his children were present. They provided a helpful diversion.
"It's okay. I miss my friends, but I've met some new ones on the soccer team. Gerry doesn't like it because Ambrose doesn't have lacrosse. He had to join a rec league. He misses his girlfriend who isn't around everyday to follow him around like a lost puppy."
"Are you going to play some games tonight? That's what we do after we eat." Gerry asked, ignoring his sister's comments.
By then their food arrived. They ate and engaged in more casual conversation.
"Dad, we're going to get the tokens." Gerry and Karen left the table. Fitz nodded in acknowledgement.
"I like your kids," said Olivia.
Fitz turned toward her in the booth. "Yes. The divorce was difficult for them at first, but they have really come around."
"Do they live with you or their mother?" Olivia knew the answer to this question due to Harrison's gossip.
"Home base is with me. That's why I moved them to Ambrose High. I didn't want them driving on the expressway everyday to come home. They are supposed to see her every weekend, but between their games and her activities with the school board, it's rare. It's not good for Karen especially, but my sisters are there for her."
"Any room for dessert?" the server asked. She began clearing away their plates.
"Oh no, the check please, unless…" Fitz glanced at Olivia.
"No, I'm fine. I need to use the ladies' room." Fitz slid out of the booth to let Olivia out. He extended his hand to help her up. He stood in front of her, blocking her way. "The bathrooms are that way." He motioned his head to the right.
"Okay. If you move, I can make my way there."
Fitz moved back and watched her walk away. He slid back into the booth and sipped on his soda. The server returned with the check.
"I'll take that whenever you're ready, sir." She smiled and walked away.
He opened the holder and perused the check. He smiled when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Expecting to see Olivia, he turned around and that smile instantly turned to a frown. It was Mellie's face that looked down at him. She looked out of place in her skirt suit and heels.
"Good evening, Fitz. Did you get my flowers today?"
Fitz moved his shoulders to throw off her hand. "What are you doing here, Mellie?"
Mellie sat down across from him. "I wanted to congratulate you on your new job. I was surprised not to hear from you after the flowers were delivered. I hope you like them."
Fitz stared at her before he spoke. "What are you doing? Don't pretend you are happy for me. You never would have wanted me to leave an Area Superintendent's job to be a principal."
"No, I admire your willingness to serve. We need more people like you who will sacrifice for the sake of the children in this district. Your school board stands with you. Where is Karen and Gerry?" Mellie made a quick survey of the table. Her eyes honed in on Olivia's white coat. "Whose coat is that? Karen's?"
Fitz didn't answer. He was silently praying that Olivia wouldn't return until he got rid of Mellie.
Mellie continued examining the table. All the plates had been moved, but she noticed four cups. The rim of the cup beside Fitz had a lipstick stain.
"Whose coat is that? Who else is here with you and the kids? Is it Rachel? I didn't think she had ever met the kids."
"Do you want to see Karen and Gerry, Mellie? They are getting tokens at the arcade desk."
"I want you to answer my questions."
They stared each other down until Fitz broke eye contact. He stuffed a couple of twenty-dollar bills into the black check holder. "Come with me, Mellie," he said. She followed him to the foyer and out the front door.
"Mellie, I don't know what this is about…the flowers…your unannounced visit tonight, but you can't do things like this. If you want the kids, let me know and we can make arrangements."
"I have a right to know who you are traipsing in front of my children."
"Maybe you should spend more time with them. I'll make sure they are packed and ready to come to you on Friday night for regular visitation. They both have games on Saturday."
"Was our marriage that bad, Fitz?"
"You should leave, Mellie. You can be with them this weekend. Please don't come back inside…for their sake." He left her standing there.
When he returned to the table, Olivia and the kids were waiting for him. "Where did you go, Dad?"
"I had to check on something in the car. Are we ready to play some games?" Fitz asked. He looked at Olivia's jacket and purse. "Let's get a locker for these."
For the next hour they played games in the arcade. They alternated boys versus girls and teenagers versus adults. Fitz and Gerry left Olivia and Karen in the game room to get drinks and popcorn. Karen and Olivia explored the entertainment room. There was a small group of people surrounding a raised stage. A large screen stood in front of the stage. A teenage boy was dancing to a popular song, mimicking the moves of the person on the video. He gained points based on his ability to keep up with the dancing and lyrics.
Olivia and Karen watched for a while. "Karen, why don't you try? It looks fun."
"Okay, but only if you go after me."
"It's a deal." Karen cued up, "Call Me Maybe" and stepped on the stage. When the music played, Karen performed karaoke style and pulled her own group of onlookers who clapped and sang along. When Karen jumped off the stage at the end, she hugged Olivia.
"It's your turn, Olivia! What song do you want?" Karen asked.
"Umm, how about "Thriller?"
Olivia situated herself in the start position and waited for the music to begin.
Instead of the introduction to "Thriller" she heard opening strains of music and then John Legend's sultry voice, "Ahh, alright."
This isn't Thriller. This is John Legend's Tonight…Best You Ever Had.
"Sorry, Olivia. I chose the wrong song," said Karen.
She didn't have time to react so she began to dance and sing. Enjoying herself immensely, she threw herself into the sultry moves and lyrics.
Olivia had totally lost herself in the dance. She had her own group of onlookers too who sang along with her.
Olivia twirled around and faced Fitz who was getting his fill. Just as Ludacris started his rap, Olivia hopped off the stage to applause and whistles.
"Wow, Ms. Pope. That was..."
"Epic," said Gerry, interrupting Fitz.
"Thanks, Olivia. That was fun," Karen said before she followed Gerry to the game room.
"Yeah…that was fun," said Olivia.
"Let's have a seat." Fitz led her to a little table. He pushed one of the sodas toward her.
"Thanks. I really worked up a thirst."
"You looked good up there."
"Believe it or not, I told Karen to cue, "Thriller." She must have chosen the wrong song. I wouldn't have chosen such a suggestive one."
"Don't worry," said Fitz, with at wink.
Olivia rubbed the back of her neck nervously. I can't believe he just did that. "Tonight has been fun, but we didn't discuss school at all." Olivia said.
"Well…I guess we'll have to do this again." Fitz covered her hand.
Olivia looked from their hands to his eyes. Is he serious?
She slid her hand away. "It's getting late. I should get going. Thanks for the dinner." Olivia stood. She knew she should squash this right now and tell him they couldn't interact in this way. This was the appropriate thing to do, but she could bring herself to do it.
"Yes. I need to get Karen and Gerry home too. Let me walk you out."
"Okay. Tell them goodnight for me." Olivia walked with Fitz to the locker for her purse and coat. Then they headed through the lobby and out the front door.
They reached Olivia's black Land Rover in the parking lot.
"This is me." Olivia unlocked and opened her door.
Fitz stepped inside the door also. She turned around to face him. He pressed his body close to hers and leaned in. He rubbed his nose against hers and then leaned his forehead down to hers.
"Tonight was…very nice," he whispered.
"Yes." Olivia breathed out against his lips. Fitz leaned in closer, his lips millimeters from hers.
The loud blaring sound of a horn startled them. They jumped apart.
"Idiot!" A man shouted out of his car window at another car that almost hit him as it pulled out of its parking space.
Olivia climbed into her vehicle and shut the door. She turned the ignition and lowered her window.
"Saved by the bell again," she said.
"It would seem so," he said.
That almost kiss emboldened Olivia. She could no longer pretend. "Mr. Grant…Fitz…you know this can't happen. It's obvious that we like each other. I'll be very honest and admit that I was uncomfortable with that today. After tonight, I think we should be friends."
Fitz chuckled. "Hmm, Friends… If it wasn't for that horn, we'd be kissing right now."
"We should be thankful for that horn. You know the reality of this situation and the positions we are in. This cannot happen. Thanks again for the dinner. Good night."
Olivia put her vehicle in reverse and backed out of the space. Fitz watched her drive away.
Lauren picked up the phone on the first ring. "Hello."
"Hi Lauren, It's Mellie."
Lauren hesitated. She was surprised to hear from her former sister-in-law at ten o'clock at night. She must need a favor. Fitz's sisters Lauren and Sybil were always willing to be there for Fitz and the kids. Mellie was perpetually busy with something.
"Hi Mellie, is everything okay with Gerry and Karen? Do you need me to do something for them? I know they both have games this weekend. Jake does too, but Sybil probably can go."
"Oh, thanks, Lauren. I'm sure Fitz has it covered this weekend. I am calling about something else. Is Fitz dating someone new?"
Lauren scowled at Mellie's intrusive question. "I don't feel comfortable talking to you about my brother's personal life, Mellie. It's inappropriate and invasive. You two are divorced. You should ask Fitz those sorts of questions."
"Come on, Lauren. Do you want some strange woman around our Karen and Gerry?" Mellie asked. "I ran into them at Dave and Busters tonight. There was a woman with him, but he wouldn't tell me who she was. He rushed me out of the place. Don't you think that was suspicious? I have a right to know who this woman is. When he was dating Rachel, he never took them along. Aren't you troubled by that, Lauren?"
"How could you run into them at D&B when they have a standing dinner there every Wednesday? I trust my brother and I know he has Karen's and Gerry's best interest at heart. I'd rather not comment on who he is or isn't dating, okay, Mellie?"
Lauren's voice rose in growing anger.
"I don't mean to put you in an awkward position. I understand, honey. Let's do lunch one day. Give David and Jake my love." Mellie hung up.
"I can't stand her!" Lauren couldn't help herself. David walked in the room.
"Babe, who was that?" he said.
"Mellie. She is back on the warpath after Fitz. Apparently he is dating someone new. I'm going to call him about that. He didn't tell me. But I need to warn him about Mellie."
"It can't be that bad, honey. She is his ex-wife after all. The worst is over," said David.
"We are talking about Mellie, here."
Fitz talked himself into phoning Olivia, but then he talked himself out of it. He sat on his sofa with his legs propped on the coffee table. He closed his eyes and let the memories of her wash over him. He knew she was right about them. A relationship between them was an absolute taboo even if they were two consenting adults. He knew that very well well as a professional standard bearer that every employee in the district had to abide by and confirm.
At the same time, Olivia was curled up in her bed trying to get Abby off the phone.
"Sounds like you had a wonderful night. I like how you are playing it too, dangling the carrot in front of the horse. However, he sounds more like a hungry lion and you are the fresh meat," said Abby.
"I am not playing any games, Abby. I am serious. It is obvious we have a certain…affinity to each other, but we can only be friends. We can't work together and have an intimate relationship too. I won't risk my job and he shouldn't either," said Olivia through a yawn.
"If you are serious about this friend thing then stop being a tease. You are playing with fire, Ms. Pope."
"As sexist as that sounds, part of it is right. Now more personal dinners with him, I agree. Abby, I gotta go. My alarm clock will be going off soon."
"Okay, Liv. Bye."
Olivia hung up her phone and snuggled deeper into her covers. Rolfo was snoring so loudly she could hear him from where he lay in the hallway. He changed his sleeping place at will, sometimes in the hallway, other times downstairs on his pillow, and less often on the floor at the foot of her bed.
"Rolfo, cut it out!" Olivia said. She jumped out of bed and closed the bedroom door.
Her phone rang again. "What now, Abby?"
"What did Abby do to get on your bad side?" Fitz said.
"Oh, Mr. Grant! I'm sorry."
"Did I wake you?"
"No, but I will be turning in soon," said Olivia.
"I just wanted to thank you again for coming."
"Me too," she said closing her eyes.
"Ms. Pope, do you believe in love at first sight?" Fitz said.
Olivia's eyes shot open. "What do you mean?"
"Do you believe that two people can meet and fall in love instantly?"
Olivia sat up and leaned against her headboard. "Do you want my honest, big girl, answer or do you want my princess hopes and fairytale dreams answer?" She felt a rush of adrenaline flow through her body. She was irritated and excited all at once.
"I'll take your honest answer."
Olivia sat up in the middle of her bed to answer him. An inexplicable anger rose up in her chest at his question. Though she admitted to liking him, she was beginning to balk at his pushy ways. "No, Mr. Grant, I don't believe in love at first sight. There is physical attraction and lust, but not love. Love is hard. It doesn't feel good and exciting all the time. It is hard and difficult. It is not pushy like you're being right now. I don't understand why you're asking this question."
There was silence. Olivia regretted her words.
"What do you think?" Olivia asked.
"I think it is possible, but it is difficult to surrender to it if you've been hurt before," he said, "I should let you get to sleep."
"Bye…Goodnight," Olivia said. She disconnected the line and tried to get to sleep.