The Stranger

elevator copyI told myself no. A chorus of reasons shouted in my head—that I didn’t know him, that we were standing in a hotel hallway waiting for an elevator. Anyone could walk up. Additional major point: accosting a stranger simply wasn’t something I would do. Jennifer Franklin wasn’t that kind of girl.

The handle of my heavy briefcase itched against my sweaty palm. I could assign this momentary insanity to fatigue. Like all such conferences, this one had turned into a three-day blur of classes on everything from specialty cost coding and catastrophe adjustment to the latest on defining a collapse under a property insurance policy. Shaking hands, remembering names, smiling through dinners with speakers droning on about an adjuster’s duty to please both the insurer and the property owner. Keeping up with the latest industry standards and procedures zapped me with fresh confidence. But I was ready for a long hot soak in my tub and a mindless couch session with a bottle of wine and my cat Winston.

Yet here I was at the elevator a few feet from this man who made everything in my mind turn to mush. There was this urge, whatever recess of hell it sprang from, that caused my thighs to clench. I licked my lips, hoping my libido would tuck its tail and slink away. Maybe if I gave myself a few more minutes and couple of deep breaths…

Nope. Not working. Jesus, how did anyone exude such sensuality?

Okay, Jen, reason through this.

He wasn’t my type. I went for the slightly shorter, less sinewy man whereas this guy loomed several inches taller with an almost lanky frame. In the past, my tastes had ranged from blond and blue-eyed to dark and dangerous. I’d never given much consideration to men with light brown hair and eyes that were—what, amber? I stole another glance.

Damn. He caught my brief examination. One of his eyebrows rose slightly, asking. I quickly looked down and broke out in a little sweat. Damn damn damn.

His lips fascinated me, halfway between full and thin, sensual with a little flare at the bow and curling upwards at the corners. Tan and weathered, his skin stretched over prominent cheekbones and a bold jaw. And his neck, which happened to be directly in my line of vision—if I ever looked up again–what was it about his neck? Its intriguing cords and hollows disappeared into the open throat of his white shirt.

Oh, I could almost taste the salt on his skin. Feel the pulse in his throat against my lips.

I had seen him around the hotel, once passing along the corridor when I arrived for the first day of the conference, another time on the other side of the cocktail lounge where I hid at a dark corner table and sipped my wine. He’d been alone there, and I fantasized that he would appear at my table. I would allow him to join me and we would sit smiling in the dim light to pursue witty conversation with just enough innuendo. I refused to imagine what would happen afterwards, but I dreamed about him that night and woke up wet.

What the hell was wrong with me? I’d been around. No virgin here. Mild wear and tear, enough to consider any potential hook-up through slightly jaded eyes. No big hope left that some special ‘one’ lurked out there for me.

Now this? I wanted to slap myself for being ridiculous.

But, damn it, here I was at the elevator feeling as if my body had disconnected from my brain and would do what it pleased no matter what I thought.

Maybe it was that we were both leaving and I’d never see him again. Really, it wasn’t a choice I made, now that I look back on it. I was standing there with my briefcase gripped in my hand and a garment bag slung over my arm, my other hand seized on the handle of my wheeled travel case. Hands sweating. Knees trembling. Wanting a stranger so much I was about to embarrass myself in public.

The elevator was taking forever. He was standing a couple of feet away to my right, looking up to watch the elevator numbers frozen on floor twelve. He too had a garment bag over one arm and his travel case handle in his other hand, looking so incredibly fabulous in that simple white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up those tan forearms and in khaki slacks that looked a little wrinkled. I even checked out his shoes, Sixties style cordovan loafers, winey brown color, well-polished and clearly loved.

I could almost hear the switch flip in my head. Brain turned off. Instinct taking over.

I turned into him holding my gear on either side of me. He accommodated me by holding his luggage away from his body. With only a brief glance up at his face, I registered on his amusement, his welcome. As if we had known each other forever and this was going home.

I nestled my full length against him and brushed my lips against his neck, and oh god he felt good. At every point of contact, which actually was the entire front of me, he felt good. The strength of his thighs, the solid press of his loins, his hard chest—right there against me, holding his own, not backing away. And his neck—Jesus Christ, it was chocolate and musky wine and that skin, that soft velvet flesh that had served its time in the sun, warm and strong and scented with a heavenly fragrance that was aftershave and soap and him.

My lips savored him in that brief moment, brushing along the column of his neck as if he was my last sip of fresh water in the middle of a desert. In those few seconds—minutes?—that I stood there pressed against him, I had no sense of shame, no regret, no worry, no question. My mind stood still. I wanted never to move.

And then it ended. I don’t know how it ended. Maybe it was the elevator that ended it. A musical ‘ding.’ We moved apart. I really couldn’t remember, later, when I fought to overcome the searing embarrassment of what I’d done. One minute I was in full body contact with a man I didn’t know, oblivious to anything but him, and the next minute we were on opposite sides of the elevator with six people in between us including two kids and a dog.

I wanted to cry.

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What she wants…

The profile of his wide shoulders was unmistakable, the way his neck turned. Shock tore through Tyler. She wheeled around to face the direction they’d just come and grabbed at Ronnie’s arm.

“Come on,” she hissed.

“What the…” Ronnie’s dark eyes flashed as she glanced around.

Crowds thronged the big parking lot and sidewalks, clustering in friendly mobs at each of the farmers’ market colorful canopies flapped in the breeze over booths where tables overran with bright yellow squash, deep red tomatoes, onions with long green tops, heaps of okra and green beans, baskets of apples, peaches, grapes. Fresh cut red and yellow zinnias, giant pink and white lilies, sprays of white baby’s breath and blue cornflower, daisies and sunflowers brimmed from tall cylinders. Bunches of aromatic herbs sent their fragrant scent into the warm sunshine—basil, sage, chives, many more that Tyler couldn’t name.

Children ran by laughing, and for a moment, Tyler felt suspended in time, like she no longer stood there frozen but had somehow floated into the air and hovered over the scene like a gliding bird. Ronnie squeezed her hand.

“Ty?”

“L-Lee,” she managed. “I’m sure it’s him. My god.” Tyler forced herself to take a breath. Her skin felt tingly, like her whole body had gone numb.

Ronnie peered around, and Tyler jerked on her hand. “Don’t look. He’ll see you.”

“Where the hell is he?”

“Back there, halfway down,” Tyler tilted her head briefly. “Don’t look, damn it. Let’s get out of here.”

“Hey, calm down. You’re acting like you’re in high school or something. What’s the big deal—I thought you were over him.”

A flush spread up Tyler’s neck and her cheeks were on fire. The big deal. She could hardly form words, let alone imagine trying to stand in front of Lee Hatfield with his blue-gray eyes staring down at her. She swallowed and stifled the impulse to run. Instead, she forced her feet to move, one step, then another, until she could put as much distance as possible between them. She shouldered through a crowd gathered around a pancake stand. The scent of maple syrup cloyed in her throat sending more unwanted memories racing through her mind.

Ronnie tugged on her arm as she walked beside her. “You’re not solving anything, you know. If he wants to see you or talk to you, he’ll find you no matter how many times you escape.”

“No,” Tyler shook her head, her jaw clenched. She stopped at the crosswalk, staring intently at the traffic signal willing it to change. “Anyway, he doesn’t want to see me. I just can’t have it look like I want to see him.”

“You do want to see him, silly. It’s written all over you.”

“See?!” Tyler stared again at the light. More people gathered, waiting to cross to where all their cars were parked. Another crowd had gathered on the opposite side. “He’ll know. I can’t do this. I should have known this was a stupid idea.”

“What, going out? Damn it, Tyler, you can’t hide forever.”

The light would never change. She was trapped here, and any minute he would be standing behind her, whispering in his low rumbling voice. His hands would grip her shoulders, her waist, and her body would soften, and his mouth would lower toward hers. She closed her eyes as tears welled in the corners. Her lip hurt, and she realized she’d bitten it so hard she tasted blood.

Like magic, the light finally did change, and they were swept across the wide boulevard with the rest of the crowd. Gravel crunched under her feet as they neared Ronnie’s white compact sedan. Ronnie stopped and rested against the back of the car, peering up over her sunglasses.

“You’re ridiculous, you know. There’s nothing in the world you want more than Lee Hatfield. You know it and I know it.” She waved her hand as Tyler started to protest. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re still being ridiculous. I wanted to spend the morning over there, buy some veggies, have some pancakes. Now I’m over here at my car way too soon.”

Tyler crossed her arms. “Fine. I’ll stay in the car. You go over there and do whatever.”

“No, hell no, you might stroke out if you thought I’d see him, maybe talk to him, tip him off about how you really feel.”

“No. You wouldn’t dare.” Tyler stood straight, pulling her long dark hair back from her face and twisting it over her shoulder. A faint breeze stirred over her neck. Insanely, it felt like Lee’s lips brushing her skin, and her nipples instantly puckered. Unbelievable.

“No,” she repeated inanely. No to the avalanche of emotion cascading through her body. Just the sight of him. She shook her head.

Ronnie swore darkly and flipped the car door locks before yanking open the driver’s side door. She rested her foot on the side rail and stared at Tyler across the top of the car. “Let’s go,” she said in a resentful tone.

“Maybe it wasn’t even him,” Tyler muttered, brushing a loose strand of hair back from her cheek. “Maybe it was just somebody with the same kind of body and hair color.”

“Right,” Ronnie said, her face contorted into an expression of disgruntled impatience. “Maybe it wasn’t. Why couldn’t you think of that while we were still over there? I could be eating pancakes right now. I’m starving to death.”

“I know.” Tyler sighed and looked up. A few white fluffy clouds drifted across the bright blue sky. “I’m sorry. It probably wasn’t him.” She scuffed her loafer in the gravel. “Look, seriously, I’ll hang out here at the car while you do whatever over there. I’ll watch people. Bring me some pancakes.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Ty, you’re starting to piss me off. Why can’t we both go back over there and do what everyone else is doing—you know, walk around, see friends, smile, buy stuff, eat? You think I’ll have any fun knowing you’re sitting over here in the damn car?”

“Can’t.” She shook her head, feeling the panic rising again in her throat. “I’ll be fine.”

With a few choice words, Ronnie slammed the car door and stalked off across the lot. Tyler sighed and remained leaning against the car watching Ronnie merge into the waiting throng at the street crossing. Stupid. Selfish. Coward. She couldn’t argue that she was all those things. But it had taken months to get over Lee. Okay, she wasn’t over him. But at least she was eating, although her clothes still hung loose around the waist. And sleeping, although some nights she sat up in bed holding her breath, his touch fresh from her dream, her heart pounding in her chest.

It was what she had to do to survive.

***

Tyler sat in the hot car with the front doors open to coax a slight breeze across her. Sweat pooled between her breasts and under her arms. This truly was one of her more absurd moments, she admitted to herself. First, she didn’t know for sure it was Lee. Second, even if it was, why couldn’t she just take the chance of seeing him, and if she did, have the composure and self-confidence to calmly say ‘hi’ and go on with her business? It wasn’t like he’d make a scene in public.

And if he did somehow say something pointed, she could always walk away.

But why go through it? Why risk standing close enough that his scent could swell in her nose and make her pulse flutter? Why struggle to keep her eyes from roaming over his gorgeous face with its stubborn jaw, his chest, those damn arms with their ropey muscles and bulging biceps? She licked her lips and realized the flesh between her legs had swollen.

“Damn it!” She flung the door open and heaved herself out of the car to pace in the gravel. Her hands clenched and unclenched, dangerously close to seizing the first thing she could find and throwing it hard against some large inanimate object. She wanted to cry so badly, but hadn’t she shed the last miserable tear already? Imaginary buckets of salty tears loomed in her mind.

“Ty.”

The low voice caught her completely by surprise. She jumped a foot and uttered a muffled shriek. Her breath came fast and blood pounded in her ears. No, this cannot be happening.

“Sorry,” he laughed, “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Forcing herself to straighten, Tyler brought her gaze around to meet his eyes. Damn those eyes, blue or gray or somewhere in between, only today they were blue as the sky. His words barely penetrated the drumming of her pulse. She tried to form words, but her mouth felt like it was stuffed full of cotton.

“I thought it was you,” he continued. “Do you know how many times I’ve tried to find you?”

She shook her head, still unable to speak.

“Months, Ty, ever since…” He cleared his throat and looked around. “What the hell, anyway? What happened?”

He stepped closer. All the memories she had worked so hard to erase flooded back into her mind, Lee with his rough laugh, his teasing touch as he melted her into submission. Lee with his powerful body poised over her, waiting for her to beg. His mouth and hands in all her secret places, pleasing her and bringing her to the edge. Forcing her to fall into an oblivion of absolute perfect joy.

Then newer memories. She stiffened and stepped back.

“What happened? I wised up, Lee.” Her voice sounded far away. “I found out about Gloria and the rest of your hidden world. Did you really think you could keep all that a secret?”

His eyes searched her face. “Christ, Ty, is that why…? All this?” He shook his head. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“What’s to say? Once I knew, I couldn’t un-know.” She swallowed around her dry throat. “I did what I had to do.”

“If you had asked…”

She cut him off, growing more angry by the second. “Ask what? How you could tell me you loved me and still see other women on the side? What’s there to ask, Lee? Damn you, anyway.”

His stare burned into her. The sun baked the top of her head and for a moment, she wondered if she really would stroke out like Ronnie said. This had to be some kind of bad dream. Lee couldn’t really be standing here three feet away, pretending she was the one who’d done something wrong. The idea of it sent a new surge of fury through her.

“Look,” he said, leaning toward her. “Let’s go somewhere, let me explain. I need you to understand.”

“You need?! Get real. Why do I care what you need?”

“Okay, sure.” He dropped his head. “What do you need, Ty?”

Her jaw fell open. This really had to be a freaking dream. “Seriously? Do you really think I’m going to stand here and tell you what I need? Or that I’m going to stand here one second longer and tell you anything?” She whirled around and began walking away. She didn’t know where she was going, except away from this man and everything they had shared and everything inside her that still wanted him. To the end of the earth.

She heard him seconds before she felt his big hand grip her arm to spin her around. He loomed over her, shadowing her face with his tall form and the dense whirlwind of unruly blonde hair that caught in the breeze. His mouth crushed hers, and she inhaled in the shock of it, drawing his familiar musk into her nostrils. His lips tormented her, demanding a response as his tongue darted against her lips and probed for entry. Spears of pleasure shot through her, pleasure and pain, fear and need.

His hands found her waist and pulled her tight against his hard chest. The bulge at his groin thrust against her swollen mound, and there was nothing in the world she wanted more than to yield, to open herself for the divine pleasure of Lee’s body against hers.

“Ty, I dream about you,” he whispered, tracing a line of kisses along her cheek and down her neck. “We have to figure this out. Please.”

“No!” she said, her body suddenly rigid. This was what she couldn’t do, wouldn’t do. She tried to pull away as a fresh wave of tears burned her eyelids. “No no no.”

He gripped her arms. “I’m not letting you go. You’ll disappear again.”

“Let me disappear!” she cried. “I can’t be what you want.”

“You are what I want,” he insisted with a gruff voice. “I can explain Gloria, whatever else you think you know. Just give me a chance.”

For a moment, Tyler wavered. Maybe she had been too quick to decide. Maybe what she knew wasn’t the whole story. Still, she had seen them with her own eyes, Gloria’s luscious body spread out naked on the bed, Lee half dressed, his head between her legs. Later, the short sharp words that Gloria used to tell her, pointedly, about the multiple obligations in Lee’s life that Tyler had never known. How could she have been so dumb, so clueless? Why hadn’t he tried to explain?

It didn’t matter now. She pulled herself free from Lee’s grip and twisted her hair together behind her neck.

“Leave me alone,” she said slowly, putting a cold edge to her voice. “It’s over and you know it.”

He shook his head, his gaze lingering on her face with an expression of disbelief. Against her will, she saw pain in his eyes, regret. She hadn’t ever noticed the lines spreading from the corners of his eyes, or the creases along either side of his mouth. He looked like he’d aged, or maybe he’d always been this way. Neither of them were exactly young.

But to see his face, now, with his expression etched in the lines, caught her off guard, and she wanted to wail in grief. If not Lee, who? If not now, when? Was her life going to trail off into a gray future of solitary evenings and distant memories of happier times?

She shook her head and turned. More than she could consider. Not her problem. As she took the first few steps back toward Ronnie’s car, she wiped at the tears that somehow had drifted down her cheeks. He walked behind her. She heard his steps in the gravel.

She waited beside the car again, shading her eyes with her hand as she hoped feverishly for Ronnie to appear. He stood a few feet away, his jaw pulsing.

“It’s not over,” he said finally. “There’s too much you don’t understand. But I’ll leave you alone. For now.”

His stare burned into her, his eyes saying things that registered deep inside her, and as she watched him stride across the parking lot, as his form grew smaller in the distance, the cord that connected them tugged at her heart.