Author's Note: This is a sequel to "Second Billing,"
Stevie was watching, his nose almost pressed against the glass of the front window, trying to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus in the early darkness and blowing snow. In spite of myself, I smiled. He'd already had two false alarms--one from the lights of a passing airplane, the other from the red, blinking light on the top of a microwave tower that was up on the mountain every night, but tonight must be Rudolph, leading the way through the storm.
I sat back on the couch, cool beer in my hand, and tried to clear my head. It was the first Christmas Eve in many years that I wasn't freezing in a patrol car. I handed in my badge and gun this summer to join my brother-in-law Jack's security firm, growing in leaps and bounds after the World Trade Center attack. When he first suggested it, I didn't even consider it seriously. I was a cop. That's what I wanted to be from before I was even Stevie's age.
Jack is one of those hyperkinetic business types who doesn't take "no" for an answer. He kept at me for a good three months before I finally caved in. He was smart about it. Had he just talked about the money, I probably never would have come over. Instead, he talked about what I could do for Stevie with the money. One night, listening to the radio chatter about a stabbing at the high school that Stevie would have attended, I made the decision. It turned out to be surprisingly easy.
I don't mean to paint Jack too cynically. He loves Stevie. Violet's whole family does. In a very real way, he's all they have left of her. By extension, they've adopted me. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I'm actually grateful for snow on Christmas Eve. It gave me the perfect excuse to avoid going to his grandmother's house tomorrow.
In addition to hiring me, helping me find a house with a big yard in a good school district, and spoiling my son rotten, Jack has also taken it upon himself to get me married again. In the six months that I've lived here, I've gone on four dates. They were all set up by Jack. Had I wanted to go out with a different woman every weekend, I suspect Jack could have arranged it. He seemed to know an endless string of the sort of women I might want my sister's widower to date if I were in Jack's place. Sweet, serious, and empathetic, the four I had gone out with just didn't spur any romantic interest. It's not that I don't find those characteristics appealing or even necessary. Violet had them in spades. They were all very nice girls. That was part of the problem. For all of her sweet, serious, empathy, I knew better than to think of her as a nice girl.
I was lost in reminiscence, not really hearing the news on TV when Stevie piped up, "Daddy, there's a car outside." Before I could question whether he meant my car, headlights scanned past the window, searching across the back wall of the living room.
Figuring that it was probably Jack or one of Stevie's other relatives, I flipped on the porch light so that they could see their way up the path. The white BMW pulling into my driveway didn't belong to any of them as far as I knew. And, I didn't immediately recognize the woman getting out of it either.
Stevie recognized her before I did, "It's Noelle."
I started to shake my head. Noelle lived next door to my old house, ninety minutes away. Besides that, Noelle was seventeen. This woman was older, more poised.
I blinked and looked again. It was Noelle, impossible as that might seem. Striding up the path, stylish tan trench coat blowing out behind her, sunglasses pushed back onto her head, she'd lost most of her coltishness. If Stevie hadn't recognized her immediately, I don't know when I would have recognized her.
If the doorbell hadn't finally broke the spell, I might have spent a long time staring out of the picture window, trying to figure out why she was there and afraid that I already knew. As it was, I jumped up as if shocked, almost tripping over Stevie who had already run over and was leveraging the door out of its frame with all of his weight.
So, I was standing behind Stevie when he opened the door. Still standing half outside, she crouched down to accept his fervent hug. Unquestioning, Stevie called out her name and hugged her in that intense, un-self conscious way that only children can. Noelle rose, still in the clutch, and looked me in the eyes.
"Hi, Mike," she said. "I hope you don't mind me dropping in like this."
I was troubled and concerned by her dropping in like this, but standing in the doorway, letting the wind in, holding my son didn't put her in an ideal position to be argued with. So, I said, "No. It's good to see you." It was the truth anyway. "Please, come in."
She did, carrying Stevie back to the couch and depositing him there. Once he released his grip, she turned to me, arms open a little. Once I indicated willingness, she hugged me, clinging firmly to my chest as if emulating Stevie.
"Is everything all right?" I asked, hugging her back gently.
She nodded against me, "I just missed you two. I haven't seen you since summer."
"So, you drove all the way down here in a blizzard?" I asked, trying to show only a little bit of concern in my voice so as not to worry Stevie.
Noelle released me, "It's not really a blizzard yet. I took care while driving."
I looked past her out the window, "You'll never be able to make it back tonight."
Noelle nodded, making eye contact in a way that left little doubt as to what she was saying, "I know. I brought clothes."
So, there it was. She was staying the night, one way or another. I could see the determined set of her shoulders and jaw.
"Can I get you something to eat?" I asked. "Stevie's grandmother sent over enough food to feed about ten people for Christmas."
"Steven," announced Stevie.
"What?" I asked.
"My name is Steven. Stevie is a baby name." He looked defiant.
I'd never wanted to call him Stevie in the beginning. Violet had started it. Steven looked like he was angling for a fight, so I said, "Excuse me. Steven's grandmother sent over a ton of food. Would you like to look in the refrigerator for something to eat? I'm still a master of the microwave."
Noelle smoothed a strand of hair back behind her ear, laughter dancing in her eyes, "Thank you. I haven't eaten since breakfast. That would be great. Is there somewhere I can put my coat?"
I took Noelle's coat. Underneath, she wore an ankle-length black skirt and an off-white, v-neck sweater. It was the sort of outfit that would have looked right with pearls, but as the only sop to her youth, she wore a black ribbon choker with an antique cameo across the hollow of her throat.
"You look pretty," announced Steven.
"Why, thank you, Steven," said Noelle immediately. "You're quite the handsome young gentleman yourself this evening."
Steven looked down at himself, "These are my pajamas. My Uncle Jack got them for me."
Noelle nodded gravely, "Obviously, your Uncle Jack is a man of excellent taste. Can you show me where the kitchen is, Steven?"
I smiled to myself outside of their vision. Noelle was looking directly at the kitchen when she asked. While they rifled through the refrigerator and I hung Noelle's coat up, I let myself think about why Noelle was here. My urge was to discount the most immediate answer, but none of the others made any sense.
Two years ago, the night she had turned sixteen, Noelle had kissed me and told me that she loved me. I told her that she was too young for me and left it at that. Since then, I only brought up the subject once and got back the less-than-reassuring, "Don't worry, Mike. It was much too soon. I should have known better."
Noelle would turn eighteen tonight. She once told me that her mother deliberately held off on giving birth so that she would be a Christmas baby, born shortly after midnight.
Had she decided that her eighteenth birthday was late enough to try again, then driven ninety minutes in the snow to do so? I thought I knew Noelle well enough to see it as the sort of thing she was capable of. Most of the time, Noelle was quiet and agreeable, not at all like a teenager. In most things, she was easygoing. But, when she wanted something, she could probably give Jack a run for his money on tenacity.
Since that night, I hadn't really allowed myself to think about what I wanted out of the situation. The truth was that I had come dangerously close to taking Noelle up on her offer when she was sixteen. For a few long seconds, I had considered it. Since then, I have always been ashamed of that moment of weakness. No matter what I told myself, it all sounded like excuses.
True, Noelle never behaved like a child. From the first day that Violet spoke to her, when she was nine or ten years old, she'd had an unshakeable earnestness. At first, it was born of shyness. As Violet took Noelle under her wing, as a sort of protege, it became more a genuine matter of poise and grace.
Violet never treated Noelle like a child. As a result, neither did I. As time went by, I saw Noelle take on many of Violet's mannerisms. After the accident, she could take my breath away with a careless gesture.
Steven loved her, too. Best of all, it wasn't the way he loved his grandmother or Uncle Jack, who he could wrap around his little finger as soon as look at them. Noelle knew how to handle him, somehow making him look forward to doing all of the things that were a struggle with other babysitters. And, she loved Steven. As Violet had done with her, Noelle never talked down to Steven, but treated him as an equal.
My face turned away from them. The idea that Noelle might be interested in me so that she could get a hold of my son was actually more comforting than the idea that she wanted me for myself.
"Is it okay if I take some of the meatloaf?" Noelle called.
"Take whatever you like," I said, closing the closet. "There's no way Steven and I will eat a third of what was sent."
Noelle nodded and started making up a plate for herself, "Do you two want anything?"
"Cake!" said Steven.
"We already ate," I said firmly. "If you eat cake now, you're never going to fall asleep. You know that Santa doesn't come until you're asleep."
Steven nodded gravely.
Noelle put her plate in the microwave, then ducked back into the refrigerator, emerging with a bottle of beer. She held it up towards me, "You don't mind?"
I shrugged, "You drink now?"
Noelle removed the magnetic church key from the refrigerator door and popped the top off of the bottle in a practiced motion, "A little. In Switzerland, it seems like everyone drinks a little."
I shrugged more expansively, "When in Rome."
Noelle smiled, "Speaking of which, I got to see Rome this year. You'll have to let me tell you about it."
"Sure," I said. "We have a lot of catching up to do."
Noelle walked over to the breakfast nook, sitting in the chair that looked out into the living room. I sat back in my easy chair, turning it so that I could face her. Steven sat at the table and began peppering her with questions. I was about to send him off on some errand to let Noelle catch her breath and eat, but she managed to turn the conversation around quickly until Steven was delivering a monologue while she nodded and occasionally asked questions whenever he flagged in the narrative.
When she finished, Noelle rose with dishes in hand.
"I can get those," I offered, but she already had them in the sink with the hot water running and waved me off.
When she walked into the living room, Noelle walked past where I was sitting to stand and stare at the Christmas tree. Standing in profile, her eyes seemed to be shining and a faint smile touched her lips.
"You guys have a real tree," she said, her voice wistful. "It's really beautiful."
"There's a huge pine farm about an hour south of here," I said. "Steven helped me pick out and cut the tree."
"My parents didn't want to put up a tree this year," said Noelle, sounding as if she was speaking from far off. "The last time they put one up, I was twelve. They said there was no point with no children in the house."
"Is that why you came here?" asked Steven. "So Santa knew where to put your presents?"
Noelle laughed, "No. I came to see you two. I suspect Santa will know enough to leave my presents at home."
Steven seemed to see the wisdom in this. Last year, he told me he didn't believe in Santa, but Jack had dressed up and run past his window shortly after he went to bed. Still, this was probably the last year we would get away with it.
As I watched, Noelle and Steven had a long conversation about the relative merits of their schools. Considering the fact that Steven was in the second grade and Noelle about to finish the equivalent of high school, they still seemed to have a remarkable number of points of comparison.
While they talked, I wondered to myself if I was going crazy. What on Earth would a girl about to start college and I even have to talk about. There was Steven, of course. Whenever she'd come home from school, Noelle had watched him while I worked. But, after that, what did we really have in common?
As I watched, Noelle raised her hands, drew her hair, worn long and free, back over her ears, transferred it all to her left hand, twisted it into a bundle, and laid it over her left shoulder. It was an undeniable Violet move. Tonight, I found it oddly comforting.
Steven let out a big yawn. Noelle asked, "Are you getting ready for bed, Steven? The sooner you fall asleep, the sooner you can wake up and see what Santa brought."
Despite the fact that I had tried the same line of logic with him in years past without success, Steven nodded and rose from the couch. Turning to face Noelle, he said, "Daddy says I can't get up until the sun rises, in case Santa's not done and I scare him off."
Noelle nodded, "Daddy has a point. Want me to tuck you in?"
"Okay," said Steven, running towards his room.
I stood in the doorway and watched as Noelle tucked Steven in to bed, then kissed him good night on the forehead. Once she stepped out of the way, I came over and kissed his cheek.
"Good night, Noelle." he said. "Will you be coming to watch me again?"
Noelle looked at me, "I'll have to talk to your father about that. I'll see you in the morning, Steven."
Out in the living room, I sat back in my chair. Noelle resumed her seat on the couch.
"So," I asked, letting my real concern show through in my voice, emphasizing the next word, "is everything all right at home."
Noelle's laugh was laced with weariness, "No, but it's not any less all right than it's ever been--except that it's Christmas-time, which is always worse. I just had to get away from it tonight. Mike," she leaned forward so that she could see me eye-to-eye, "is it really okay that I'm here tonight? I know I've put you in a position where you can't throw me out..."
I shook my head quickly, before she could go on, "No, Noelle. It's good to see you."
She sat back, seeming to relax, "It's good to see you too, Mike--you and Stevie. I was going to come see you before I headed back to Switzerland, but I didn't plan to drop in quite so abruptly."
I shook my head again, "It's nice to have company tonight."
Noelle nodded, "It must be nice to not have to be out on patrol tonight."
I chuckled, "Yeah, but I don't know what to do with myself. Once Stevie falls asleep, I'll put out his presents. Then..." I held out my hands in a gesture of supplication.
Noelle nodded, "Mike, there's something I wanted to talk to you about."
I braced myself. I couldn't give Noelle the answer she wanted. Even if I could see past the age difference, she just wasn't the woman I was looking for. She was sweet, serious, and empathetic--all the things the women I had failed to click with were. I had come to terms with the fact that I would never be able to replace Violet, but it didn't change what I wanted in a woman. Violet was sweet, serious, and empathetic, but she was also alive in a way that I rarely saw in anyone. People often mistook her for shy because she let so much just slide off of her. But, when she wanted something, she was fierce, even brazen. We had gone to high school together, been friends, but always involved with someone else. Shortly after high school, I'd just started at the police academy in New York. Violet had tracked me down and refused to go away until I made love to her. Less than six months later, we were engaged.
I had known that I wanted Violet for years before that. But, she had dated Aaron Gundleroy, a close friend of mine for most of the time. I thought that I'd given her no hint as to how I felt, but she knew well enough to put our friendship and her pride on the line. In that way, she was far braver than I could ever be.
I nodded to Noelle to continue.
Noelle crossed her legs, lacing her fingers over one stocking-clad knee. Taking a deep breath, she said, "I've applied to Stryker for fall. I think you should take me on as Stevie's au pair while I'm there."
There were so many things I didn't know how to deal with in that statement that I was momentarily speechless, "I... uh..."
Noelle leaned forward, "I talked to Jack when I called him to get your address. He said that you've been going to church so that Stevie will have day care. I already checked with the administration at Stryker and they say I can be full-time at night. I would be able to watch Stevie during the day and it's only a twenty-minute..."
"Wait a second," I said, raising my hands. "You're going to Stryker Bible College?"
Noelle shook her head emphatically, "No. I'm going to Stryker University. They're opening a liberal arts college alongside SBC next year. I assumed you would have heard..."
I waved a hand, "I heard something. And, I guess I saw all the construction equiptment heading up there. I just didn't realize it was opening so soon."
Noelle nodded, "You didn't really think I would go to a Bible college, did you?"
I shook my head, chuckling, "No. That's why I was confused."
"Of course, I didn't think you'd be going to church every week either," she added.
I shrugged, "Like Jack said, it's for the day care. I don't have a lot of options out here."
"So, let me be your au pair." Noelle said. "Stevie's used to me. I'm crazy about him. You're already my best reference. You know I'll take good care of him."
"I, uh..." I said again, unable to come up with a cogent argument against what she'd said. Shaking my beer bottle, I realized it was empty and rose, knowing I would need more for this conversation.
"So, Mike. What do you say?" she asked, her face hopeful.
"Let me think about it," I said. Watching her face fall, I added almost involuntarily, "until morning. I'll give you an answer before you go."
"Oh, Mike," she said, leaping to her feet, relief and joy clear on her face. She wrapped her arms around me. I wanted to protest that I hadn't made up my mind yet, but the truth was that I had and she already knew it.
With Noelle's arms wrapped around me, her body pressed against mine, the one issue that had kept me from saying yes immediately came to the forefront of my brain. The hug felt good and I didn't push her away. To tell the truth, I'd been feeling depressed and isolated most of the day and, for just a moment, it felt really good to be hugged. Sensing that Noelle could take the same solace, I hugged her back.
Once she pulled away a little, I headed to the refrigerator for a fresh beer. I normally limited myself to one an evening, considering how many cops let depression lead to alcoholism and worse. Even taking that into consideration, I had a feeling that this conversation was going to require another beer.
When I turned from the refrigerator, Noelle was standing behind me. She indicated the beer in my hand, "May I?"
Wordlessly, I handed her mine and reached in for another. Somehow, the fact that she felt this was a two-beer conversation as well comforted me. Chuckling to myself, I realized that I was feeling a little bit intimidated by Noelle. There was something vaguely terrifying in her calm composure, so unlike a girl her age should behave.
As we sat back down on the couch, I decided to ease into the discussion I knew we would have to have eventually. "So, what ever happened to those girls who were kidnapped from your school? Were the ever found?"
Noelle nodded, "In a manner of speaking. They turned up on their own. The whole story was rather convoluted and the school didn't want to tell us too much, but I don't think they were kidnapped. I think they ran away together. They were kind of a couple?"
I raised an eyebrow, "Kind of a couple?"
Noelle nodded, "On-again, off-again. They were both into some messed-up stuff."
"What sort of stuff?" I asked.
"I don't know many details," said Noelle. "It wasn't really my scene. I got into enough trouble, but they were pretty out of control."
I frowned. This was the first she'd ever mentioned getting in trouble, "What sort of trouble did you get in?" I asked, stressing the pronoun.
The look Noelle gave me told me that I'd fallen into some sort of erroneous assumption about her. Turning to face her more directly, I inspected her as if whatever she'd been up to would have left some sort of physical trace.
"Petty stuff," she said. "Sneaking out, forging a note from my parents, smoking."
"You smoke?" I asked. I was having a hard time taking in all the surprises she was throwing at me.
"Not in your house--or in front of Stevie," she said.
"That's appreciated," I said automatically. Somehow, I'd hoped that a conversation about more mundane things would put me in a more relaxed frame of mind for what was coming. Instead, I was becoming more off-balance with each revelation.
"It's really starting to come down out there," said Noelle, looking out the window. "I should get my things out of the car before the path is completely snowed over."
I nodded my assent, glad to have a moment to regain my equilibrium. While I did manage to relax a bit, something else Noelle had said nagged at me. When she came back inside, she was lugging a green, military-issue duffel bag. It had snow on it like she'd been forced to drag it part of the way through the snow.
As she came in the door, I jumped up, taking it from her. By the heft, it was full of more than just clothes.
I laughed uncertainly, "Were you planning on spending the night or running away?"
Noelle gave me an enigmatic half-smile, "That depends."
I was dumbstruck for a moment again, but at least it gave me a conversational opening. Noelle followed me into the guest room, where I laid her bag on the bed.
"Noelle," I said, turning to her, "there is something we need to talk about if you're going to be Stevie's au pair."
Noelle held her wrists behind her back and looked up at my expectantly. It was such an attentive pose that I suspected a degree of mockery in it.
Mocking or not, her unblinking stare made it even more difficult for me to broach the subject. I turned a little so as not to make direct eye contact.
"You may not even remember this," I said, taking a deep breath, "but, when you had just turned sixteen, you... you kissed me and told me that you loved me. I..."
Noelle's smile seemed a little sad, "Of course I remember, Mike. But, like I told you, it was a moment of weakness. I knew it was too soon to talk about it."
"I think we should talk about it now."
Noelle shook her head, "It's still too soon."
"I really think it needs to be resolved if you're..."
Noelle cut me off, "In three and a half hours, I'll be an adult. We can talk about it then... like adults."
Noelle raised a finger, "Until midnight, I'm at a distinct disadvantage. We'll talk about it then."
Seeing the look of consternation on my face, Noelle added, "Why don't you show me the house, Mike? I'd love to see it."
As she said it, Noelle's hands clasped behind her back, her head tilted back, and again, she fixed me with that unblinking stare. This time, I was sure that there was some mockery in it, but it was much easier to just do as she requested than to call her on it.
I led Noelle through the downstairs rooms. She'd already been in most of them, at least briefly. I showed her the main bathroom, opened the door to the master bedroom long enough to turn on the light, wave at the room, and identify it.
"What's that door lead to?" she asked, pointing across my bedroom.
"The master bathroom," I said.
Noelle trod across the room to the door. At some point, she had taken off her boots and was now in stocking feet. When she got to the door, she paused and looked to me for permission. I nodded, realizing that, for some reason, I'd been holding my breath. Something about watching those feet pad across my room just made me catch my breath and, once caught, I found myself unwilling to let it go.
Noelle opened the bathroom door and flicked on the light. Bending at the waist, she looked inside, her feet still firmly planted on the bedroom carpet. She emerged after a few seconds, half-turning to face me, and nodded as if it had passed some sort of inspection.
"Let me show you upstairs," I said, suddenly nervous.
Noelle nodded again and made as if to follow. But, halfway across the room, she stopped, looking around for a few long seconds. It was long enough that I had time to do my own quick inventory. King-sized bed with dark green duvet to match the carpet, black leather chair halfway between the bookshelf and the stereo, end table with a reading lamp. I didn't consider it either sufficiently austere or frivolous to warrant such intent scrutiny.
"It's a nice place you have here, Mike."
"Thank you," I said, feeling like I had passed a test. I extended an arm to guide her out of the room. Noelle took my lead, sliding past the arm and placing her hand on my chest as if for balance as she passed. As she did, she held eye contact. Noelle had always had amazing, cloudy green eyes. Many times, Violet had told her that she would one day knock men dead with those eyes.
If I hadn't known Noelle for as long as I did, I would have thought she was trying to seduce me. But, it wasn't in her nature. She had always been sweet and earnest and direct. When she'd had her crush on me at sixteen, she'd put it all out there. As gentle as my rejection had been, I could only imagine how much it had hurt to hear it.
After Noelle passed, I frowned to myself. She was a beautiful young woman and I was flattered, but I realized that I had decided. I would never replace Violet, but I needed a woman who was stable enough to be good for Stevie and still had enough of an edge to excite me.
Unless you knew Violet well, it was easy to make the mistake of thinking that she was a "good girl." She was certainly a good wife and a good mother, but that came later, after I fell in love with her. My memories of the academy will always be colored by the weekends.
That weekend was the fifth or sixth time Violet had come down to the city for the weekend since I started at the academy and she went away to school. While I took a lot of teasing from my roommates about her, we'd shared a room enough times in the past that I didn't really think much more of it than I ever had. The quarters might be a little bit tighter than they had been in the past, but no more than when we'd shared a tent two summers earlier while hiking down the Appalacian Trail. It had been Violet, her boyfriend Doug who was also my best friend, my first serious girlfriend Paula, and me in a four-man tent. We were with a larger group that published slick pamphlets and talked extensively about the adult supervision. But, in reality, they were a fly-by-night organization whose "adult supervision" for most of the trip consisted of four college students who weren't interested in anything but enjoying the trail and each other's company. Within three days, Doug and I had kicked our tent-mates out and invited Violet and Paula in. Compared to that, the two of us in a room the size of that tent was almost luxurious.
When Violet came to the city, she would drive to New York on Friday afternoon after her last class, arriving around dusk. Despite all of out protests, she would then proceed to buy Chinese food for everyone. I didn't realize it at the time, but she was working hard at getting in good with my roommates. After dinner, the four of us would hang around in the common space talking about whatever was on our minds. Eventually, Violet and I would retire to my room and talk until the wee hours of the morning.
By that point, the visits had become routine. Violet and I had been friends for a long time and I thought we talked about everything. I liked to believe and often said that I thought of her as a little sister. It had taken a while for her to talk to me about the problems she was having with Doug. But, she eventually explained that, since I had set them up, she didn't want to sound like she was blaming me for what went wrong.
In hindsight, Violet had dropped so many hints that she wanted more from me than my friendship they should have crunched when I walked across the floor. But, I was a particularly dense young man. That night, Violet had finally gotten tired of waiting for me to catch on. As I was cleaning up after dinner, my roommates came into the kitchen to tell me that they were headed out to catch a movie. I asked Violet if she wanted to join them, but she feigned fatigue and said that she just wanted to stay in. Not knowing that she'd asked the two of them to make themselves scarce for the rest of the night, I didn't understand why they were rolling their eyes at each other.
Almost as soon as I heard the front door click, I felt Violet behind me, her arms encircling my chest as best they could, her lips pressed against my back. I turned in the circle of her arms, drying my hands.
"Is everything okay?"
She looked up at me, nodding, "Everything is fine. I'm just glad we have a chance to be alone together."
I nodded, "Those two can be kind of tiresome, but I thought you enjoyed their company."
Violet made a face, "I didn't say I was glad they were gone. I said I was glad we were alone."
"Right..." I said uncertainly.
"Do you understand the difference?"
I thought that I did, but I wasn't willing to admit it. So, I said, "No."
She looked me in the eye, annoyed, "Mike, I swear. You are the stupidest boy I've ever met."
"Mike, why do you think I've started coming up here since I broke up with Doug?"
I furrowed my brow, "You said you needed a friend."
"I have friends at college, Mike."
Seeing the look of confusion on my face, she went on, "Today is six months since I broke up with Doug."
"Congratulations?" I offered weakly.
"Mike," she said, a note of iron in her voice, "put your hands back on the counter, close your eyes, and don't move."
Doing as I was told, I felt Violet lean down and place a kiss on my chest just above the neckline of my t-shirt, charmingly (but, I have to admit accurately in my experience as a police officer) nicknamed a "wife beater." Moving down about an inch, she placed another one than another.
I was stuck teetering between letting Violet do what we both wanted to do and stopping her. Before I'd set her up with Doug, we'd decided that it was more important that we remain friends than date. In fairness, it had been the right decision at the time. I had made a lot of dating mistakes since then. Had I made them with Violet, we would not have been friends any more.
I was not as dense at I make it seem, either. It wasn't that I never thought Violet's actions were meant to seduce me. To the contrary, about a year after I set up Violet and Doug, I started to think that everything she did was meant to seduce me. I had just enough self-control to realize that couldn't be the case and ignore every indication to the contrary.
I was right to a degree. Violet was a merciless flirt in general and, realizing that I would do nothing about it, Violet took particular delight in tormenting me. She was smart enough not to do it in front of Doug or whoever I was dating at the moment or anyone who knew them. Even then, she had blend.
This was different, though. There was no way it could be mistaken for innocent flirtation. As she got to my stomach, she pulled my t-shirt up to rain kisses directly on the skin. It was something that I'd dreamed about for so long that the feel of it actually made me moan out loud.
So intent was I on the kisses that I hadn't noticed her undoing my belt until my pants were suddenly down around my ankles. My eyes flew open and I caught her wrists as I felt her hands on the waistband of my boxers.
"Violet," I said, half a reproach, half a moan of frustration as I dragged her to her feet. "What are you doing?"
"Come on, Mike," she chided. "Even you know the answer to that one."
"But... we don't... we talked about this."
"When we were fourteen!" Violet said indignantly. "Let go of me."
I released her wrists.
Violet sounded angry, "Mike, I'm tired of playing games. I want this. You want this. We both have for a long time. Stop fighting me. And don't give me that lame line about not wanting to introduce sex and risk ruining a friendship. Sex has been introduced. It's too late for that now."
"We need to talk about this," I said as reasonably as I could imagine.
Violet shook her head in the negative and started unbuttoning her blouse.
"Violet, what are you doing?" I asked, starting to panic.
"I'm taking my clothes off," she said unnecessarily. Then, she added, "and I'm not putting them back on until you fuck me." I tried to open my mouth to protest, but she placed a finger on my lips. "No more talking, Mike. If I let you, you would talk this thing to death. You would dissect and analyze it until it was a bloodless carcass, bereft of life or passion. I'm going in your room now and I'm taking off the rest of my clothes. Eventually, you're going to have to come in there and deal with me."
I would have followed her immediately, but my first step reminded me that my pants were still down around my ankles by almost pitching me flat on my face. By the time I disentangled myself, Violet had made good on her promise and was lying naked on my bed, arms slightly akimbo.
Knowing when I was beaten, I didn't try to talk anymore. I lay down next to Violet, wrapping my arms around her and kissing her. If I'd had any lingering doubt that Violet loved or wanted me before that night, that first time proved it to me. I was so nervous, conflicted, and awkward that what we did could only charitably be considered sex. The fact that she ever let me try again was all the proof I needed of her affection.
And try again we did--that night, that weekend, and nearly every weekend that followed. The walls were thin and conditions cramped. No matter how quiet we tried to be, my roommates always knew what we were up to. So, improbable as it sounded, we found ourselves most weekends escaping to the streets of Manhattan for some privacy. During the week, I learned how to be an officer of the law. On the weekends, I learned the finer points of trespassing and breaking and entering. We restricted those activities largely to parks and courtyards. But, had we been caught it could well have ended my career before it started. That only added to the excitement. I'd wanted to be a cop since I was six. It felt like I'd wanted Violet longer, even though I knew that wasn't possible.
That was the woman I fell in love with: the sweet, serious, empathetic, merciless flirt goading me into following her over the wrought-iron fence of some tiny, nameless park so that we could make love in the grass to the sounds of the city.
I'd fallen into exactly the trap I had hoped to avoid this year. Without the patrol to keep me busy, I'd started to reminisce about Violet. Even if the pain had faded, even the best memories still brought a certain melancholy with them.
Despite the fact that it had all come back in a rush and I had only missed a half-step, Noelle stopped behind me, laying a hand gently on my arm, "Mike, are you okay?"
I nodded, "Just tired. Let me show you the upstairs."
Noelle made a skeptical face like she was looking right through me, but followed me to the spiral staircase. I undid the chain that closed off the bottom of the stairway, handing it to Noelle, "Redo that behind you, please. It's how I keep Stevie from climbing the stairs when I'm not watching."
Noelle did as I asked her, "That's not going to work much longer."
I laughed, "It doesn't really work now. He could open it if he wanted to. He doesn't because I told him not to." Still laughing, I said, "Of course, that's not going to work much longer either."
Noelle laughed along with me. She'd spent enough time with Stevie to know that it was true.
Turning to offer my hand to help her out of the stairwell, I caught an oddly calculating look on her face. It disappeared so quickly that I almost could have imagined it. Still, it had definitely been there and incongruous enough that it reminded me of the scenes in old horror movies where an actor would change their facial expression dramatically to indicate that they were possessed.
As brief as it had been, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had made a lot of assumptions about Noelle based on the way she behaved when I was around, most of which had been spent babysitting. What did I really know about her? For that matter, what did I really know about about any of the women I'd been set up with? None of the characteristics I was looking for were going to show up on a first date or, for that matter, while trying to watch a child.
"Wow, this is cool!" exclaimed Noelle. Her face was open and full of joy, the way I expected Stevie to look in a few hours. She was doing a wide circuit of the room, taking in the furnishings. "Did you buy all of this stuff since you moved here?"
"Just the pool table," I said. "Jack got me a really good price on it. Most of this was Violet's when we got married or wedding gifts. It was in storage until we got a bigger place."
"I'm sorry," said Noelle. "I didn't mean to..."
I smiled, "No. You didn't. I love this room--listening to her music, reading her books. It's a much better shrine than a closet full of unworn clothes. I feel really close to her when I'm here."