“Good morning, Kate,” Smith said, beaming at me across the desk.
“Hey there,” I smiled back.
It was Monday, and I’d now been an official employee of the Smith Weston Group for three weeks.
“So, what do you have going on for the day?”
“Well, I’m meeting with the team in about an hour to go over the initial ideas for the Schwartz Company. After that, I thought I’d work out some figures on those ad buys for Phillips and Sons.”
“Great. Let me take a look at those when you’re done, okay.”
“This is going to be great, Kate. I can tell. I smell a Clio here.”
I laughed. Actually, it had been great. The feel of something more permanent. Like something I’d worked so hard for had finally paid off. Every day, I got a call from someone to see how I was doing -- Emile, Michelle, Penelope, my mom.
Clark called a couple times, too. But, I never called him back. I was too chicken. After I’d seen him that night with Mike, I decided I’d been right to avoid him. It was just too easy to fall back into old patterns. That and the fact that I’d completely embarrassed and humiliated myself with him. So, I’d sent him an email when everything was official. Just so that could keep my promise of letting him know how things were going. But, I couldn’t talk to him.
Just hearing his voice messages was hard enough. I got in the habit of saving and listening to them a few times a day. But, after his third phone message, and my third email back to him, he’d stopped calling. Part of me was sad. The other part of me was relieved. I’d finally gotten what I wanted, right?
Mike and I had gone out several more times. Since the kiss, I’d tried to keep things light and casual, not ready to test my feelings for him beyond that. Not to say that there hadn’t been more kissing. There had been. And, it was good. But, I made a conscious effort to not let it progress much further from there.
I didn’t understand my reaction, though. Here was this guy who really liked me. But, I wouldn’t let myself take the plunge. I felt like I was at the top of that diving board again, looking down at the pool and not letting myself jump in. Maybe with what I’d been through earlier with Mike and then letting myself fall for Clark, my heart wasn’t quite ready for anything more, yet.
Friday night, I made plans to meet Michelle for dinner. We hadn’t seen each other since Labor Day weekend because she was always out with Zach, and I’d been busy with work and Mike. Of course, I worked later than I expected and was in danger of being late. I got off the subway and was heading home to change when my cell phone rang. It was Michelle, checking up on me, I was sure.
“Hi, Michelle,” I said into the phone. “I’m running a bit behind, but I should be there almost on time, okay?”
“Kate?” She acted like she hadn’t even heard me. There was something wrong with her voice.
“Michelle? Can you hear me? I’m running a little late. Is something wrong?”
“Kate, it’s dad.”
“Mom just called from the hospital. She said dad wasn’t feeling well tonight after dinner. He had an upset stomach that wasn’t getting better. So, she took him to the emergency room. It turns out he was having another heart attack.”
My heart plummeted. “Oh, my God. Is he alright?”
“I think so. Kate, we’ve got to get out there. I’ve already checked the train schedule, and there’s a train leaving at 7:21. Can you get to the station in time to meet me?
I looked at my watch. It was six-thirty. I was about a block from my apartment. If I ran in and threw together a few things in a hurry, I should be able to catch a cab to make it there on time.
“Yes. I’m almost home. I’ll just grab and few things and meet you there. Where are you now?”
“I’m home. Mom caught me just as I was leaving to meet you.”
“Okay. Meet me at the ticket window. I’ll call you if there’s a problem.”
“Okay. Just hurry, okay?” Her voice sounded worried.
“I will. Don’t worry,” I said. “He’ll be alright.” I said that more to hear it than anything else. My dad had to be alright.
I turned the corner at my street, hurrying to get home. I looked down, trying to jam my phone into my bag, so I didn’t notice Clark coming down the sidewalk before colliding into him.
“Kate,” Clark said, grabbing my arms to keep me from falling.
“Oh, God. Sorry,” I said.
He saw the worried expression on my face. “Kate, what’s wrong?”
“It’s my dad,” I replied, my voice breaking a little. “Michelle just called. My mom took him to the hospital. They think he had a heart attack.”
“Oh, no. Is he okay?”
“I think so,” I said distracted, trying to pull away. “I’ve got to get to the train station to meet Michelle. I was just running home to grab a few things.”
“I’ll drive you,” he said, holding on to my arm.
“No, I can’t . . . Thank you, but you don’t have to. I’ve just got to get there,” I said, trying to move away again.
His grip was firm. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll drive you. Think about your mom. She’s at the hospital with your dad. She’s not going to want to leave the hospital to get you from the train station, and it’s too much of a hassle to find a cab. I can drive you guys right to the hospital.”
I looked up at him, at the concern etched in his features. “It’s too much,” I whispered. “I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You’re not asking me,” he insisted. “I’m telling you.” He turned, leading me toward my building. “Run up and grab a few things. I’ll meet you down here with the car in fifteen minutes, okay? Call Michelle and tell her we’ll pick her up, too.”
“Clark, I don’t . . . ”
“Go,” he ordered.
Gratefully, I ran up to my apartment and threw together a few changes of clothes and a few other things before running back down to meet Clark. A few minutes later, he pulled up in his car, and I jumped in. We set off to pick up Michelle, but my mind was racing. I tried calling my mom, but she didn’t pick up her phone. After trying a second time with no luck, I hung up, worried and frustrated.
“Don’t worry, Kate. I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Clark said, echoing the words I’d said earlier to Michelle.
I glanced over at him. He gave me a reassuring look, but his grip was tight on the steering wheel. Seeing that, I realized I was still tightly gripping my phone, so I took a deep breath and made an effort to relax. My exhale was forced and jagged. I felt the tears slowly slip from my eyes. Clark’s hand reached across and found one of mine, giving it a squeeze. I wiped the tears from my face with my free hand before squeezing back.
“Thank you,” I whispered to him.
After we picked up Michelle and she again told me of the conversation she’d had with mom, we passed the drive in relative silence. Mom finally called, and I let her know that we were on our way. Despite the fact that it was Friday, traffic wasn’t as brutal as it could have been, and we made it to the hospital in about an hour and a half. Michelle and I raced in, while Clark found a place to park the car. After inquiring at the front desk, Michelle and I waited for Clark before taking the elevator to the third floor. Once there, a nurse directed us to the waiting area, while she went to find our mom. We found couches and sat down. I could feel the tears start to form again, and I sat there, staring at the ground. Clark grabbed my hand and held it, waiting with us to hear the news.
“Girls,” we heard our mom say after a few moments.
“Mom!” Michelle said, jumping up to hug her. “How’s dad?”
“It looks like he’s going to be okay,” she sighed, hugging Michelle back.
I stood up and walked over to her, too. “What happened?” I asked, after giving her my hug.
“Dad wasn’t feeling well after dinner. He thought it was heartburn or something. It didn’t seem right to me, you know? It was too much like the last time. The doctor had told us what to look out for. So, I said we should come here, just in case. You know your dad. He never wants to make trouble. But, he agreed. It turns out it was a mild heart attack. Nothing more serious than that. But, if we hadn’t come . . . ” Her voice broke.
I gave her another hug. “Can we see him?” I asked.
“I think so. He was sleeping earlier, but why don’t you go and peek in on him.”
Michelle and I followed her into my dad’s room. The sheet was pulled up to his chin, and he was hooked up to a few monitors, all tracking his heart rate and other vital signs. He looked pale, drained. Like he’d aged another five years since I’d last seen him.
“Oh, mom,” I whispered, squeezing her arm.
“I know,” she nodded, squeezing back.
Michelle found a chair next to the bed and sat there, the worry evident on her face as she gazed at our father. We all waited there for a while, for any signs of change. My dad’s breathing was even, his heart beat a steady blip on the monitor. After a while, I slipped out and went to look for Clark in the waiting area.
“How is he?” he asked, moving from the spot where we’d left him.
“Fine,” I replied, walking over to him. “He’s sleeping.” I felt a little better seeing my dad, knowing things were looking okay.
“Do you want me to stay with you?”
I suddenly felt guilty. I shook my head. “Clark, you’ve done so much already,” I insisted, touching his arm. “I don’t know how to thank you.” I looked at the floor.
He reached out and pulled me into a hug. For a second, I held back. But, then, I melted into his arms, feeling the tears flow again. It was all too much. Work, my dad, and now Clark. His caring, his friendship. Here I’d been trying to avoid him, and all he’d been trying to do was be my friend. I felt like I didn’t deserve him.
After a moment, he released his hold on me and stood back, looking into my face. “Call me, okay? I’m going to stay at my parent’s house tonight, and then I’ll be back tomorrow. Let me know if anything changes.”
I nodded, wiping away the tears. He leaned in again and gave me a kiss on the top of my head and another quick hug before turning to leave. I watched him leave, my emotions drained, before turning to rejoin my family.
The next day, Clark brought us lunch to the hospital.
“This is so sweet of you, Clark,” my mom said, giving him a hug.
“Think nothing of it,” he shrugged. “Actually, it’s from my mom. She wanted me to tell you that you are all in her thoughts. And, I couldn’t leave you guys here to survive on hospital food, either,” he smiled.
“Be sure to thank your mom from us, Clark. On second thought, if you’d give me her number, maybe I can call her later and thank her myself.”
We’d been at the hospital since early that morning. When it was apparent that my dad would be okay, we’d left the hospital the night before, exhausted, to get a few hours of sleep before coming back. We’d seen my dad that morning. He was tired, but in good spirits. He was eager to leave, but the doctors wanted to monitor him for another day or so until they were satisfied that nothing else could be done. They couldn’t rule out the possibility of heart surgery yet, and it looked like my dad would have to wear a heart monitor for a while.
“How are you doing?” Clark asked, taking in my tired expression.
“Better,” I admitted, taking a bite of my salad. “He’s looking even better than he did last night.”
“The doctors are pretty confident he’ll be fine,” Michelle agreed. “It’s just a wait and see sort of thing.”
“That’s good news,” Clark said. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Clark,” my mom said. “I want to thank you again for driving the girls out here. It was so generous of you.”
He smiled at my mom. “What are friends for?”
Friends, I thought, smiling at him. Yes, Clark had been a good friend. In so many ways. And, I should be grateful for that. I’d been stupid and almost ruined it all. I resolved there and then to get over any feelings that I had for Clark other than friendship. That part of our relationship meant too much to me. If it meant suppressing the way I felt about him to keep that friendship intact, that is what I was going to have to do.
I returned to the office on Tuesday, staying an extra day to help my mom and make sure my dad got settled at home okay. They’d been able to find someone to handle his classes, and he was taking the rest of the semester off to recover.
“Look on the bright side,” he’d said to me when he told me the news. “Now, I have more time to write my book.”
“More time to rest, you mean,” my mom had said, shaking her head in disbelief.
It was good to see my dad in good spirits, and I felt a better after being in such turmoil a few days before. Clark had returned to the city on Saturday afternoon after our lunch, making me promise to fill me in on what was happening. I sent him a text message later that day, letting him know everything was fine. I’d also had a chance to call Mike later that day, to cancel our plans for that night and let him know what was going on.
“I hope your dad is alright, Kate,” he’d said. “I wish you would have called me earlier. I could have been there for you.”
“No, it’s okay, Mike.” I’d told him. “He’s going to be fine. I’m fine. Don’t worry. I’ll see you in a few days.”
Penelope heard about my dad from Clark, and she called later in the week to check up on me and make sure I was doing okay.
“Things are fine, Penelope. My dad is doing better. He had a checkup at the doctor this morning, and he’s going to be okay. They put him on a blood thinner, and they are just going to monitor things for a while.”
“Sounds scary,” she said.
“It was scary,” I admitted. “I was so worried. But, my dad’s a fighter. If there’s anything to do to stay healthy, I think he’ll do it.”
“Clark told me it you were pretty upset. I’m glad to hear things are better.”
“Thanks. You know, Clark is so great. I feel like I don’t deserve a friend like him. He was so great to drive us all of the way out there.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “He is great. I’ve discovered that myself over the years. I’m surprised you haven’t realized that sooner. Anyway, what are you doing this weekend? Do you want to hang out?”
“Oh, that would be great. But, can we make it on Sunday? I’ve got plans on Saturday night.”
“Oh, are you meeting Clark?”
“Clark? Um, no, actually, I have a date.”
“A date? You’re dating someone?” she asked, surprised.
“Yes. I’ve been seeing someone for a few weeks,” I said, not ready to reveal that it was Mike. “It’s nothing serious, yet. But, I’m trying to get out there in the dating world, you know. Check out my options.”
“I see,” she said, hesitating for a moment. “Okay. Well, I have to run. You’ll have to tell me all about it on Sunday. I’ll call you and we’ll set a time for lunch, okay?”
Saturday night, Mike and I had an early dinner. Afterward, we decided to rent a movie and went to my place to watch it. Some lighthearted comedy that kept us laughing the whole way through. Mike’s laugh was infectious, and it was just what I needed. After the events of the weekend before, it felt good to relax and have a good time.
“Want a glass of wine or something?” I asked him when the movie was over.
I returned with the wine and handed him a glass. “Thanks,” he said.
We sat in silence a while, sipping our wine, enjoying the quiet. Finally, he took a large drink before setting the glass on the coffee table in front of him. He sat back on the couch, one arm draped across the back, staring at me.
I suddenly felt shy, and I took a sip of wine to cover my awkwardness. My heart was beating fast because I had a feeling where this was going to lead, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it, yet. As old fashioned as it seemed, we hadn’t progressed much beyond our end-of-the-night kisses despite our past history.
He leaned forward, grabbing the wine glass from my hand and setting it down on the table. Then, he turned to me, taking both of my hands in his. Slowly, tenderly, he reached one hand up to touch my cheek. My eyes closed as he leaned toward me, his lips finding mine. The kiss was surprisingly tender and sweet, and I felt myself warm under his touch. Not a spark, but again that gentle warmth that started in my stomach and led to my toes. When I opened my eyes, he was smiling at me.
“I’ve been wanting to do that all night,” he said. The expression on his face was so content, but I didn’t know what to say. I think he took my silence for agreement, and he leaned in for another long, slow kiss. After a moment, he came up for air. ” Kate, can we do this? Can we be together again?”
“I really like you, Mike,” I responded automatically, not sure what else to say.
“I’m glad.” He flashed a grin. “I know we’d be good together. You just need to give it a chance.”
I thought about it. Maybe he was right. We certainly enjoyed each other’s company. And, if that kiss was any indication of things to come, I figured we could find out way back to the physical part of our relationship soon enough. But, I still felt conflicted. Was this really what it was supposed to be like? Like, maybe there weren’t supposed to be sparks. Maybe the one you were supposed to be with was all warmth and gentleness. No fireworks.
His hands brushed my hair and the back of my neck. His arms wrapped around me, and he pulled me even closer. His lips found mine again, and I could feel my body automatically responding to his familiar touch. Tentatively, I placed my hands around his neck, kissing him back with slightly more force. Excited, he let his lips trail across my cheek and down to my neck. Things were moving so fast, I hardly had time to think. He guided me back into the couch, his hands exploring my body questioningly, his lips returning to mine. I felt myself letting go, giving in. My hands grabbed the back of his head, pressing his lips harder onto mine.
This is it, I thought. This is what I need, right? His breath was becoming fast and shallow, his kisses increasing in intensity. His fingers brushed across my body. He moaned as he continued to kiss my lips, my face, making his way down my neck.
He started to unbutton my blouse, when a voice screamed out in my head. This isn’t right. He’s not the one you want. Not yet. Not now. He felt the sudden change, my body as it stiffened. He stopped, looking up at me.
“Kate?” he looked into my eyes.
I sat up, gently pushing him back. “Mike, I . . . I’m sorry. It’s too soon. I . . . I’m just not ready for this, yet.”
He sat back, unwrapping his arms from my body. “No, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have taken it so far. You’ve been through a lot lately, with your dad and everything. And, I’d promised we’d take it slow. It’s just that I thought . . . ”
“No. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s me,” I shook my head. “I’m just not ready.” I told a little white lie. “I guess part of me is still needs to figure out my feelings for you and us.” And my feelings for Clark, I thought to myself. “And, you’re right, with my dad and everything, my emotions are a little frazzled. I’m just scared of going too far too soon. I don’t want to get hurt again.”
He reached out and touched my face. “Kate, I care about you too much. I will never hurt you again.”
My heart went out to him. I leaned forward and touched his lips with my fingertips. They were warm and soft. “I know,” I whispered. “I know you won’t. But,” I added, taking my hand away. “I’m afraid of hurting you, too.”
“I’m willing to take that chance,” he vowed.
“I can’t promise anything,” I insisted.
“I’m not asking you to. But, you’ll see,” he said, picking up my hand and kissing my wrist. “We’re good together, Kate. We fit.”
I looked at him, wanting to believe it. But right now, my heart was telling a different story.
The next day, I met Penelope for lunch downtown.
“How are things?” she said, giving me a hug. “It’s been so long since we got together.”
I smiled, her infectious friendliness putting me at ease as usual. “Well, things are interesting, I guess.”
“Good interesting or bad interesting?”
“Just interesting, I guess,” I shrugged, picking up one of the menus the waitress had left us.
“Well, I bet. You’ve had a lot going on, what with your new job and your dad.” She picked up the other menu, scanning it for a second before putting it down. “And, you’re dating someone, now, too. So, I’m sure things are very interesting.”
“Uh, huh,” I nodded, being deliberately vague.
“C’mon,” she said. “You can’t just say things are interesting and then not give me any details. How about work? Let’s start there. Are they still treating you okay? Are you wowing them with your brilliant ideas?”
I smiled. “Work has been fine, actually. Smith was really great when I needed to take a few days off for my dad. It’s getting busier -- we just picked up two new clients -- and the Seldrige campaign is almost finished. We will hopefully be presenting to them in a few weeks.”
The waitress came to take our orders. When the waitress left, Penelope turned to me again.
“Ah, the Seldrige campaign. I’m excited to see the finished product.”
“Believe me, so am I. And, it’ll be great, you know, getting more of your work out there.”
“You don’t think I’ll be too commercial?”
“With a campaign whose aim it is to give clothes to needy people in Africa? Hardly!”
She smiled. “So, your dad?” she asked. “He’s still doing well?”
“Since Thursday?” I smiled. “Yes, he’s fine. At least, I haven’t heard anything different. Last time I talked to my mom, my dad was driving her crazy. Always underfoot, she said. But, I know she’s happy he’s home and okay. I think she was really worried there for a while. We all were.” There was only one more subject we hadn’t talked about, and that was my dating. I tried to head her off by asking a little about what she was up to.
“Oh, you know. Same old stuff. I’m working on putting together a new show for the spring. There’s a new gallery in Soho, and I’ve made friends with the owner. It’ll be another chance to show my stuff.”
“And, your boyfriend? Are things still going well there?”
She smiled. “Blissfully well, I’d say,” she said. “Great friend, great in bed. Can’t get much better than that.”
I laughed. Just then, the waitress showed up with our food and set it down before us. Before I could get out another question, Penelope beat me to the punch.
Grabbing a forkful of salad, she asked, “What about this guy you are dating? Who is he?”
“Mike. Wait? Your old boyfriend, Mike?”
“And going out with him again because . . .” She left that hanging out there.
“Because,” I answered. “We have history. He says he loves me. I felt I at least had to give him a second chance.”
“But, why put yourself through that again? What if he breaks your heart again? Will you give him a third chance? Fourth chance?”
I grimaced. “Look,” I continued. “I don’t know how things are going to turn out.”
“Uh, huh,” she nodded. “Didn’t he have a girlfriend?”
“She moved. He said he made a mistake breaking up with me. He seems really sincere.”
“So, tell me about him. Is he smart, funny? Is he drop dead gorgeous?”
“Yes, yes, and yes.”
“Okay. But, I’m a little confused.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong. But, didn’t you have a thing for Clark?”
“What?” I felt my face turn a little red.
“I thought you liked Clark? Am I wrong?”
I hesitated. “Well, Clark’s been a really good friend.”
“A friend,” she said. “Just a friend?”
“Yes, just a friend.” I bit my lip, not sure how much I wanted to reveal about my feelings. She nodded, taking another bite of salad, but she didn’t say anything. I thought about it for a second longer before I continued. “Okay, do you really want to know?”
She looked up, eyebrows raised, and nodded.
“Fine. I like Clark, okay? There, I said it. But, it doesn’t matter anyway. Because all he wants is to be friends. And, he’s a really good friend, too. I love being with him. It’s like there’s a part of the world that’s right when we’re together, you know. But, I can’t say anything because then that means our friendship would be totally screwed up and I’d never see him again. But, then I’m totally screwed there, too, because I realized it’s too hard to only be friends, so I’ve been doing everything to try and avoid him. Only, that doesn’t work because then he has to do something great like driving me to see my dad in the hospital and being so nice by bringing us lunch and calling to make sure everything’s okay. And, I hate it, okay? I’m trying to get past it, but I can’t. It’s killing me. Besides, he’s beautiful, funny, nice, perfect, and he’s got this perfect model girlfriend, so what could he possibly see in me anyway? So, I don’t know why I waste my time obsessing about it because it’s pointless. It doesn’t matter anyway.”
Penelope looked at me, speechless for a moment before she found her voice. “Let me get this straight. You like Clark.”
“But,” she continued, “you think he’s only interested in being a friend so you’ve been torturing yourself by trying to avoid him and dating other people.”
“Not people,” I interrupted. “Just Mike. And, it’s not torture. Really, it . . .”
She held up her hand, cutting me off. “And, you think Clark couldn’t possibly be interested in you because, what, he’s so perfect and you’re not?”
“You’re forgetting the model girlfriend.”
“Girlfriend, shmirlfriend,” she said, waving that statement away with her hand. “What’s important here is you. And your feelings. How do you know Clark wouldn’t be interested in you?”
“I’m pretty sure he only wants to be friends.”
“What makes you say so?”
I told her a little bit of what had happened on Labor Day weekend with Clark, our conversation, him leaving to get Camille. I also told her about the disaster of a conversation we’d had when I’d run into him at the bar. And, then I reiterated the comment he’d made to my mom about driving me and Michelle to the hospital. ” ‘That’s what friends are for,’ he said. I mean, how plainer could it get?”
“Right,” she said, eyeing my critically. “I see.”
“I see that things have gotten a bit more complicated than I realized. I’m glad I’m not you.”
“Don’t mention it,” she smiled, taking another bite of salad. “So, what are you going to do?”
“I really have no idea. Right now, I’m sticking with my original plan until I figure it out.”
“And that would be?”
“Avoiding him. I figure out of sight, out of mind.”
“And, how’s that working for you?” she asked, with more than a hint of sarcasm.
“So far?” She nodded. “Not that great,” I admitted, shaking my head. Not great at all, I thought.