Millie had always been shy. She was never an outcast, never excluded at school from parties or other events. But even when she attended them, she was never in the center of the room — always on the edges. One of life's leafs making a pleasant background for the flowers of the world.
At least, that's how she thought of herself. She didn't see herself as ugly or untalented or anything particularly negative; she was simply ordinary. Common place. She actually liked the idea — she and all the other ordinary leaves made the trees green. Without them to cover the bare limbs of life, who would know the blossoms were lovely?
Vance was just the opposite — he knew, early on that he was unique and strove desperately to hide it. He was a bit of an outcast, but he'd fostered the teasing that put him there. He'd craved the background, pushing himself to the back of the line, back of the room, the last to do anything so that people began to see the 'loser' and not the boy.
Or the man, as he continued such behavior in college and his first jobs. He wasn't incompetent or incapable and many teachers and well meaning co-workers suggested that he gain more confidence. Have more self-esteem. They seemed to think that he didn't know he could be more than he was. In truth, he wanted to be less.
And so, the table was silent as they faced each other. A friend of Millie's roommate was a co-worker of Vance's. After meeting them on separate occasions, she determined that they were perfect for each other and arranged a dinner party for them to meet. As a 'get-to-know' game, she arranged for all the guests to solve a puzzle and win a door prize. She had given Vance and Mille the hardest puzzle, knowing it would take them the longest to solve it. Instead of chatting about themselves, as the others around the room were, Vance and Mille had applied their concentration on the puzzle and spoke only as needed to indicate a possible solution.
This was not to say that either had not take note of the other. Vance had spied Mille as soon as he entered the room. She was hard to overlook as she had been standing in the very corner Vance had headed for. Auburn locks fell in classic soft waves over her shoulders. The demure navy blue dress she wore revealed nothing but displayed her physical charms exquisitely. A more than generous bust hovered over an equally curvy posterior. Delicate ankles ended in a pair of heels that were surprisingly high. Then again, she would have been short without them; even with the heels, she was only as tall as Vance's chin. She had turned to step out of someone's way and Vance saw her thick lips and heavy hooded eyes. She must be waiting for someone, he thought, and turned to find another unused spot to stand for the next hour or two.
Millie had not seen Vance then. Not until her roommate had grabbed her arm, held it tightly and called Vance over for the game. Then she watched the tall, dark man approach them with a somewhat stiff gait. He walked as if one knee was injured and could not bend deeply. Somehow, the gait lent a tragic air to the young man who seemed otherwise fit. His eyes, when he finally met hers were a shocking hazel, so at odds with the rest of his coloring. His hand was soft when he shook hers, his voice was soft too. A tenor, she guessed, not a baritone.
Millie had seen this type of puzzle before and knew the keys to solving it. But, in truth, Vance was handsome and sitting quietly with him was pleasant. He seemed in no more of a rush to solve the puzzle than she was.
And Vance wasn't; the sooner the puzzle was done, the sooner he had to return to mingling. He'd rather stay where he was. Millie seemed to understand quiet.
He reached for a piece in the center of the table and their fingers met. She blushed; it was the first time since high school that she'd had an occasion to hold a boy's hand. Silly, she thought, but true. His fingers were warm; she found her throat a touch dry.
"Punch?" Vince asked when Millie cleared her throat again.
"Pardon?" Then she realized what he was asking and nodded. "Thank you."
He got up and walked to the buffet. Her fingers were long and slender and swept his concentration aside. He'd been grateful for an excuse to leave the table and go somewhere else for a moment. Still, it didn't take long to get two glasses of the sweet fruity drink the other guests were raving about and he had to return to the table at some point. It was a shame; Millie was the kind of girl he'd like to know better.
While he was gone, friends descended on Millie. She laughed lightly at their questions. Was he nice, yes he seemed so. Was he cute was a matter of personal preference but yes, he seemed very nice. They scattered as they saw him returning and again Millie was struck by his odd, stiff step.
"What happened to your leg?" She asked and he handed her a glass. She noticed that he had some trouble sitting down as well.
"Nothing." He was confused and then enlightened. "Oh, my walk. Nothing happened; it congenital." Which was true, if a bit misleading. "I don't like to discuss it."
"Oh." Millie wanted to slap herself for the faux pas. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry."
Vance shrugged. "It's fine. You couldn't have known."
They went back to studying the puzzle, both knowing the solution but neither sure of the other. They spoke very little and had only placed less than half the pieces two hours later. The hostess smiled warmly and refilled their drinks. "I don't think I've seen either of you move from this spot since you got here! That must be quite a puzzle."
"It is. Thank you." Millie sipped the punch. "This is very good."
"Thank you!" She giggled. "I'll just leave you two to get to know each other."
Vance watched the well-meaning friend walk away. "I'm afraid her matchmaking attempts have not been successful in the past."
Millie nodded. "I think she and Joyce are working together this time." She sighed. "Getting me married off is some sort of achievement, I think."
Vince smiled. "I think they'd be happy if I'd simply go out on a date."
"That would just encourage them."
He nodded and picked up anothe puzzle piece. "We have been doing this for a while." He said.
"If you want to go do something else, I don't mind." She smiled faintly. "I'm afraid I'm not much of a party person."
"Oh, I hate these things. Too many people." He stopped and looked at Millie. "But for once, I'm glad I came."
She blushed. "If I hadn't, I'd be doing the same thing. Except it's nice to do it with someone else."
"You'd be... ?" Vance wasn't sure where he'd lost the thread.
"This. The puzzle. It's part of a series. I have the whole set."
Vance failed to hide his chagrin. "So you've known the solution the whole time?"
"Well, I haven't worked this specific puzzle but I've had some idea of it."
Vance picked up a piece and put it in place. He didn't like the idea that she'd thought he was too slow to solve the game but, in part, was intrigued by the fact that she thought she was smarter than he was. Few people were.
Millie recognized the challenge in his eyes and pick up a piece. They alternated placing pieces, moving faster and faster until they both reached for the last piece.
"That's mine." Vance grinned. She was very quick.
"I think not." Millie tried not to grin back but the air between them had changed and she saw light dancing behind his eyes.
They were leaning toward each other, and Vance felt that familier ache. She was lovely but how could things go further than an ache and regret. He sat back with a deep sigh.
Millie sat back as well, wondering what had stopped him. She had thought that he was going to kiss her. But, no, she decided that she must have misread his intent. She picked up the forgotten final piece and put it in place. The puzzle formed a three-dimentional heart. It was very pretty but suddenly, Millie was very tired.
She sighed. "Well, it was a pleasure meeting you, but I should be going now."
Vance sighed again; he been thinking much the same thing. "Yes. It is getting a bit late." He checked his watch. 8:30.
"I wonder where my roommate got to?" Millie mused as she looked around the room.
"I don't know." He smiled sadly, knowing he evening's fantasy had ended. "I'll help you look."
They found the host fiirst who looked less than innocent when she informed them that the roommate had let sometime ago.
Millie smirked. "No doubt forgetting that she was my ride home."
"Thereby obligating me to take you." Vance rolled his eyes. "How clever."
"You are certainly not obligated to do anything." Millie protested, annoyed by both the manipulation and the word 'obligated'.
"Oh but I am." Being near her was nearly unbearable but he craved even the few minutes they'd be alone in the car. At least for that, he could stretch his leg out. "I'm leaving now anyway. This would give me a polite excuse."
She agreed. In truth, it was what she wanted in the first place. She already knew nothing would come of it. He was a flower, albet it a subtler one than most. But a flower nonetheless and flowers pollinate flowers. Not leaves. It had been fun to imagine that he had even a passing interest in her but that dream would fade soon like so many others.
They left the house oblivious to the whispers of friends who saw the whistful looks in both of their eyes and the tender way Vance helped Millie with her coat.
.... There is more of this story ...