“Everyone, I’d like you to meet Katrina.” Andrew had called the other employees into the back of the shop to introduce me—which I later learned was called the “break room”—and I smiled and shook hands with the other employees. When Andrew and I had returned to the shop after our fast food dinner the day before, Mr. Crossman had more or less told me that I was hired even though my criminal background check wasn’t completed. Once again he seemed almost embarrassed to admit that the shop was woefully understaffed and that he was in dire need of assistance given the approaching holiday season, and when I accepted the job graciously, he almost sighed in relief.
“Besides,” he told me good-naturedly as he held the door for me after setting the shop alarm. “If it turns out you’re not entirely on the up and up, I can always call the cops on you. I do know where you live after all.”
“Dad….” Andrew offered me an apologetic grin at his father’s attempt at humor. “Really, his jokes are not normally this bad. Usually they’re worse.”
We had all shared a laugh as we parted ways, and Andrew paused before unlocking his truck.
“I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Derrick, a tall and lean six foot three Brit, raised his eyebrows when I shook his hand and I saw the appreciative look in his gaze as he introduced himself. “A pleasure, love. Andrew you wanker, you’ve been holding out on us? You should have introduced her sooner.”
Andrew shrugged and dug his hands in his pockets. “We were busy last night.”
Derrick’s eyebrows rose higher.
Flustered—and suddenly realizing how loaded a response that was—Andrew rushed to clarify: “We were over at that place on Stonehaven so I could show her the ins and outs of the business; it was good practice.”
Derrick grinned, clearly getting a kick out of seeing his friend in such a state. Apparently this was a trait common to all men of any given generation, and I was at a loss to explain it. “No worries, mate. I forgive you.”
A tall woman with dark hair and large blue eyes set in a face that was girlish in appearance stood off to the side. Her stiff posture and folded arms were clear indications that she wasn’t too keen on my being here, and her standoffish vibe set me on edge. Great. I’ve been here exactly one day and already there’s drama brewing.
Andrew led me to where she was standing and I could see the emotions warring on her face. Her eyes flicked from me to him and then back to me in what I could only guess was an assessment, but an assessment of what?
“Katrina, Karla. Karla, Katrina.”
Not wanting to appear equally standoffish, I extended my hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“You too.” She took my hand but her grip was limp and halfhearted. She let her hand drop and then her eyes shot back to Andrew. “So, do you still need my help inventorying stock? I’m willing to help out in any way that I can.”
“Actually, I was planning on letting Katrina help me out with that, her still being in training and all.”
A flash of disappointment and annoyance flickered across her kittenish features. “That’s okay.” The look on her face made it clear that it was definitely not okay, but Andrew didn’t seem to notice, which only seemed to upset her more.
Hmm. Interesting dynamics were at play here, I mused. Just then I caught Karla eying me closely, almost speculatively as she took in my appearance from head to toe. We locked eyes and then she gave me the look.
Right then and there it hit me: she was in love with Andrew, and he—poor innocent and naïve soul that he was—didn’t have a clue. I would have laughed right then and there if the whole situation wasn’t so ludicrous. Good grief, Katrina, how do you keep ending up in these situations? First the whole unexpected hiring, then the uncanny coincidence with Andrew, and now you’re right in the middle of an office romance-slash-love triangle.
“Ready to get started?” Andrew’s brown eyes peered at me expectantly and then were quickly averted as I met his gaze.
“Hey Karla, would you mind working the front today? I need someone who’s good with people to look after things while I continue to train Katrina.”
A slightly miffed expression flit across Karla’s face but it quickly vanished. “Absolutely. Let me know if you need help with anything.”
I noticed that she didn’t offer to help me with anything that I might need, but decided to ignore the jab.
The back storage area was a virtual time capsule of all kinds of things from varying eras and I felt the past crowd in on me. Andrew explained that the store was planning on conducting a tent sale in which at least three estates along with some items that had sat in the shop for a while would be liquidated. I walked over to a large, ornate chest from what appeared to be Indonesia if knowledge served me well, and ran my hands over its carved surface. “This is part of those estates? Seemed like the previous owners did some extensive traveling.”
“Actually this item has been in stock for months now—no one seems all that interested in it.”
I turned over the price tag attached to one of the side handles. Eight big ones. That was a bit pricey, even if it did come from halfway around the world. I hurriedly let the tag go and wiped my palms on my jeans.
Andrew chuckled. “You know we do offer an employee discount if anyone, uh, anything interests you.” His cheeks colored at the apparent Freudian slip and I did my best to pick up the conversation as if I hadn’t noticed.
“Thanks. I may just take advantage of that opportunity.”
A pregnant pause followed and it seemed once again that Andrew was on the verge of gathering his courage to say something else.
“Need any help?”
We both turned in unison to see Karla standing in the doorway with a bottle of water in her hands.
“Oh, hey Karla. Nope, we’re fine.”
Clearly not satisfied with that response she persisted. “I figured you might be thirsty so I brought you some cold water, Andrew.” She strode forward and held it out to him.
Fat chance, I thought wryly. We’d been back here less than twenty minutes and the store room was a cool and comfortable seventy-three degrees. It seemed more likely that she was trolling around to see if anything was going on between Andrew and me, and I turned away with a weary sigh.
Mistaking my reaction for fatigue, Andrew held the bottle out to me. “Are you thirsty? You can have mine if you want.”
I smiled at his thoughtfulness. “I’m fine, thanks.” Karla continued to stand there like a fifth wheel while Andrew set the bottle down on a nearby shelf and busied himself with ripping the tape off of a large cardboard box. From somewhere at the front of the shop the phone rang, and I thanked whatever powers were in the universe for the distraction.
Unsure of what else to do or say, she left to go answer the phone.
Andrew paused and watched her go. “She’s really nice.”
“Yeah.” To you maybe.
We spent the next four hours going through the stock and were interrupted by Karla no less than five times. The fifth time that she poked her head in to see if we needed anything, a small girl of around nine years old rushed past her and practically flung herself at Andrew.
“Whoa! Hey, Nat Attack!” He ruffled her hair playfully and she squealed, easily twisting out of his grip. He bent down to her height and held her out at arm’s length. The look of warmth he directed towards her struck a deep chord within me and I felt my maternal instincts kick in. Miklos—my late husband—had had a similar way with children and was one of the reasons why I had been attracted to him. “Man, you’ve grown since the last time I saw you.”
“Well, it has been almost a year,” she replied sagely. She suddenly seemed to take notice of me standing there. “Who’s this? Your girlfriend?”
Andrew balked and I felt my smile widen. Apparently shyness was a recessive trait in the family. I bent down and offered my hand. “Hi, I’m Katrina. What’s your name?”
“Natalie.” She shook my hand without hesitation. “So are you his girlfriend? Mom says Uncle Andy needs to get out of his shell and socialize more.”
“I socialize plenty.”
“Comic book conventions don’t count—they’re just traps for nerds.”
I quickly hid my grin as Andrew—who looked positively mortified—tried to do damage control. “Katrina just works here; in fact she was hired yesterday and I’m helping to train her.”
She seemed slightly disappointed. Karla seemed positively jubilant. “Oh. She’s pretty. You two should definitely go out.”
Just then a woman who resembled Andrew came into the room—Natalie’s mother I assumed—and with just a glance took stock of the situation. “There you are, now what—?” She seemed to hone in on the awkwardness which was thick enough to cut. “Natalie Loraine, have you been teasing your uncle? You know very well that that’s my job.” She embraced Andrew and then swatted him playfully on the arm. “Good to see you, bro. How’s it hanging?”
Yep, shyness was definitely a recessive family trait.
Andrew ignored the comment and flashed me a winning smile. “Deanna, this is Katrina. Katrina, meet my annoying older sister.”
“You mean older and wiser sister.” She extended her hand and shook mine with a strength that was firm. “Nice to meet you. I’d ask how you were doing, but seeing as you’ve been hanging around with my brother, all bets are pretty much off.”
I laughed. “Actually he was schooling me in the finer arts of appraisal—fascinating stuff.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “Really? Hmm, I think Natalie’s right: Andy, you two should definitely go out.”
Karla’s smile withered slightly around the edges but she had the good sense to remain quiet. Deanna continued on with the small talk but there was a palpable shift in the mood. Andrew listened to his sister’s conversation with polite interest and even attempted to keep it going when it began to lag, but I could tell that he was not really into it and had lapsed back into his characteristic speculative mood.
Karla meanwhile was forced to return to her post at the front of the store, no doubt stewing in her own conflicting emotions.
“So what do you say? Dinner at seven?”
I started. “Sorry?”
“Deanna and my parents are making dinner tonight and we were wondering if you’d like to join us?”
Such a simple innocent request, so many dangerous possibilities.
“I’d love to.”
Andrew smiled. “Great, I’ll pick you up at your place at around six-thirty if that’s okay.”
So what does one wear to a family dinner with a man you’ve just met whom you think about constantly and can’t possibly have a relationship with because you’re an immortal creature who subsists on the life force of others of your kind who have gone rogue?
Answer: no idea.
I sighed and flipped a loose strand of my hair away from my face. My closet yawned before me and the longer I stared, the contents blurred and began to look the same. I sighed again and flopped down heavily on the bed.
This was not a good idea.
There was a tentative knock at my apartment door and I rolled over, groaning. I was still in my work clothes and hadn’t even bothered to brush out my hair. I hurriedly scuffed on my shoes and made my way down the short hallway to the front door. I took a deep breath and braced myself, not sure what to expect.
I opened the door.
Andrew stood there in jeans and a black polo shirt that was tucked in neatly and showed off his trim physique. He smiled shyly at me and I caught a whiff of cologne that made me want to bury my face into the side of his neck to investigate its complicated and tantalizing nuances more closely.
Thankfully I said none of this out loud and settled instead for clearing my throat. “Hi, uh come on in.” I stepped back to allow him to cross the threshold.
He came into the “living room” which was really a kitchen-slash-living room combination and his eyes scanned his surroundings out of habit. “Nice place.”
“Thanks.” Awkward silence. “I uh, didn’t know what to wear to a family dinner, so will dressy casual work?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I was wondering about that seeing as how you were still in the same clothes as earlier today. Not that you don’t look great,” he added with a rush. “We still have a few minutes if you want to change.”
“I’ll be right out.” This time when I entered my bedroom I knew exactly what I needed and within a minute I was dressed in a clean pair of jeans and a Merlot colored tunic that hinted at my body’s natural curves but which wasn’t overtly revealing. I quickly ran a brush through my hair as I came back down the hallway and found Andrew staring at a print that I had hanging near a bookcase. The artist was Swedish and a bit on the eccentric side—in fact most of his work tended to lean towards the anatomically grotesque and macabre—but this print in particular spoke to me.
“So what do you think?”
He started and then straightened up. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be nosy, it’s just that—” He stared at me for a full five seconds before hastily glancing away. “You look great.”
Now it was my turn to look surprised. “Thank you.” I nervously shuffled my feet and gestured towards the print. “And the picture? What do you think?”
He blinked and then turned back to the picture as he realized his slip. “Oh, that. Actually it’s really interesting. I recognize the artist from my Art History classes, but I don’t recall this particular print. What’s it called?”
“Nevermore. Yeah, I can see that. The way that the wolfhounds are staring at the ascending hot air balloon is symbolic for escape, like whoever is in it has finally outrun their demons. ‘Nevermore’ may be representative of this freedom—they’ll never be a prisoner of them again.”
I nodded in approval. “I felt the same way when I saw it. Some people have tried to argue that the balloon is actually landing on the barren plain, but I see it in a more positive light. Kind of a glass half full half empty situation.”
Kind of like this situation, I thought as I grabbed my keys off of the counter and stuffed them in my purse.
Andrew dug his hands in his jeans pockets. “Ready to go? I hope you’re hungry because they’ll be no shortage of food at the house. Deanna doesn’t visit all that often and my mom always tries to make a big deal out of it.”
“I’m famished actually. Deanna seems like a great person and from what I’ve seen, I’m guessing the rest of the family is not that far off.”
“Yeah, she can be a bit forceful and annoying—the whole older sister thing and all—but you’re right, deep down she is a good person. It’s a shame what happened between her and Gerald—her ex-husband—but the way we see it, at least Natalie won’t be around that kind of environment and can grow up in a normal household with family who love her.”
“What happened, if you don’t mind my asking?”
He shrugged. “He got into drugs, cheated on her with other women and then one night walked out on them and basically relinquished all paternal rights to Natalie. Like I said, it’s better this way.”
I nodded. I set about shutting off the lights and when I made a move towards the door, Andrew held it open for me. His hand hovered near the small of my back as he shut the door behind him and the warmth and proximity of his skin was nearly unbearable. My hands shook slightly as I locked the door and when we turned to go Wendell emerged from his apartment.
He paused for a split second, surprise registering on his face and then it quickly vanished. “I was just on my way over to see you, but I can see you have other plans.” He nodded towards Andrew and extended his hand. “Wendell Bowers.”
Andrew shook it. “Nice to meet you, sir. Andrew Crossman.”
Wendell’s eyebrows crooked. “Ah, from that estate sales place. You know, Katrina will be helping to handle my estate when I’m gone—in fact, I’m directly responsible for her currently being under your employ.”
Andrew smiled. “Well, then thanks are definitely in order. She’s great.”
“That she is.” Wendell’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Well, I don’t want to take up any more of your time—you kids have fun.” He winked at me and I wished that the ground would’ve opened up and swallowed me whole.
“Nice to have met you.”
Wendell nodded and then vanished back into his apartment, no doubt looking forward to my account of the evening once I returned.
Andrew’s family was just as I imagined: warm, welcoming, everything that I missed about my own parents. His mother Magdalena—Magda for short—was a petite woman of even more diminutive height than my own who smelled of Shalimar perfume and White Rain hairspray. She embraced Andrew as he came in the front door and shook my hand when I introduced myself. She beamed appreciatively, searching with that uncanny sixth sense that all mothers seemed to possess for all the little signs indicating that Andrew and I were serious about one another.
She fretted over what she considered his being ‘too skinny’ and deftly maneuvered us into the dining room where the table was being set. Deanna was there along with Mr. Crossman and Natalie, who busied herself by folding the napkins into swans.
“Need some help?”
She glanced up at me, her dark eyes evincing an intelligence beyond her years. “Oh, it’s you again.” Her eyes flicked to where Andrew was standing across the room talking to Deanna, or at least pretending to. He had paused in the conversation to stare at me and when he realized that we were both staring at him, he hurriedly glanced away. She scoffed and put the final touches on one of the napkin swans. “He likes you, you know. The way he stares at you gives it away.”
“Well of course he likes me, we’re...friends. We work together.”
She gave me a look that indicated she knew the difference. “You like him too, don’t you?”
I licked my lips, not sure how much more bizarre this evening could turn out. “Of course I do, but it’s...complicated.”
She picked up another napkin and began to fold it. “Grownups,” she muttered.
I didn’t say anything and she paused. “Sorry. Mom tells me that I have a tendency to be too nosy sometimes.”
“You’re not nosy, just perceptive for your age. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
She smiled slightly and handed me a napkin. “Do you know how to fold it?”
“I can fold it into a triangle pretty well.”
She giggled and set about showing me how to fold it into a swan. Deanna came over at that moment and gave the table a once over. “Really Natalie, it’s just a family dinner.”
“I know, but it’s been a long time since we visited and I wanted the table to look nice.”
She sighed indulgently and gave my arm a squeeze. “Hi. Nice to see you again.”
“You too. Everything looks and smells great.”
“I hope you’re not counting carbs or calories—that’s heresy around here.”
I laughed. “Life’s too short to deny yourself the things you enjoy.”
“That’s a great quote—I’m going to email that to myself.” Natalie pulled out her cellphone and bega-n texting at an impressive speed.
“Hey, remember no phones at the table. Go and see if your grandma needs help with anything.”
“Aw, mom,” she grumbled. The phone vanished into her back pocket and she headed off to the kitchen.
A few minutes later the rest of the family came into the dining room laden down with bowls and platters. There was no particular seating arrangement but as luck would have it Andrew and I wound up seated right next to each other. His mother cast me a knowing look as we bowed our heads to say grace, and then we heaped our plates high.
Dinner was casual and the conversation was light. I didn’t even have to work that hard to skirt around the larger issues in my life such as my parents, where I went to school or grew up, and I found myself relaxing in slow degrees. I assisted with the cleanup and as Andrew and I got ready to leave, his mother embraced me and said that I was welcome back at any time.
The ride back over to my apartment was quiet and subdued and the rhythmic hum of the truck’s engine was soothing.
“I had fun tonight.”
“Natalie seems to like you—she normally doesn’t open up to people all that easily, and my parents seem to like you too. In fact everyone did.”
Present company included? I wondered silently.
“You really are welcome back anytime, you know.”
“Thanks. It was nice to feel like part of a family again. Wendell—the elderly gentleman you met outside my apartment—looks after me like I’m his own daughter and is very protective. I don’t know what I’m going to do when he’s gone.”
His voice was quiet. “Is he sick?”
I nodded. “Cancer. He has maybe six months at most and he wants me to handle his estate, hence the reason I came to the store yesterday. I never expected to be hired on the spot, but in a way I’m glad—you know, ‘When God closes a door He opens a window’ kind of deal.”
“I didn’t realize that you were the religious type.”
I shrugged. “I was raised Catholic but over the years it’s lapsed, though I still believe.”
“Me too. Mom’s not too thrilled about it, but she doesn’t press the issue. At least not as much as she keeps asking me about my personal life. The whole ‘when are you going to get married and give me grand kids?’ thing.”
“At least she has Natalie.”
He laughed. “Trust me she’s enough all on her own, but I guess Mom just wants to make sure that all of her children are taken care of.”
He steered the truck smoothly into the parking lot of my apartment complex and pulled into a spot by the front entrance. He shut off the engine and climbed out, then made his way to the passenger side door where he held it open for me once again.
I climbed down without a word and we walked in silence up the stairs to my apartment. My heart thundered in my chest and I fumbled nervously for my keys. I’d seen enough over the years to know that the inevitable goodnight kiss was lurking close by and I was unsure how to deal with it if and when the situation arose. Ten feet remained between innumerable possibilities and the safety of my apartment.
Our footfalls were muted by the cheap carpeting lining the hallways and I was keenly aware of our respective breathing patterns.
Five feet remained.
Think, Katrina, think!
I cast a desperate glance at Wendell’s door, half-expecting half-hoping to see him seated in his customary camp chair as he waited up for me. No such luck.
We stood in front of my door and the tension ratcheted up a notch. I could feel Andrew’s gaze on me and his cologne was cloying and thick in the confined space.
We blinked and then giggled nervously. I lowered my gaze and unsure of what else to do, I took his hand in mine. He returned the pressure gently and I detected a slight, nervous tremor.
“Thank you for a lovely evening.” I slowly raised my eyes towards his face.
“You’re welcome.” His voice was low and husky, but he fearlessly held my gaze.
I gave his hand a final lingering squeeze. “I’ll see you at work tomorrow.” I let his hand go and stepped into my apartment.
He sighed, clearly disappointed but was too much of a gentleman to press the issue. “Good night.”
I shut the door and then leaned my back heavily against it as I listened to his footsteps recede softly down the hallway. Satisfied that he was safely out of the building I went to my window and saw him crossing the parking lot with his hands in his pockets. He paused halfway and then turned back towards my building as if he was considering coming back in.
He ran his hands up through his hair, paced back and forth, and then began walking back towards the front entrance. I silently willed him to turn back, to save himself the heartache that would surely result from such actions and I saw him pause. He shook his head ruefully and then began to retreat towards his truck. He got behind the wheel and sat there for a full minute before inserting the key in the ignition.
The engine roared to life and he backed out and then headed up the street towards his own house.
I breathed a shaky sigh of relief and then turned away from the window, not anticipating the sleepless night ahead of me.