Colors: A Novel By Leah McClellan

The horn blast shattered the silence, and her heart thumped a few uneven beats as she slowed to a walk. The black car, still hugging the road’s gravel shoulder, eased to the center of the lane as it crested the hill and disappeared in the bright light ahead. She stared and shivered in the shady woods and, after catching her breath, quickened her pace as she approached the long driveway at the base of the downslope. Normally, this final half-mile stretch was a cooldown after a run, but not this time.
 Colors: A Novel
 Colors: A Novel By Leah McClellan
The front door of the two-story house was locked. She ran to the garage and found her husband leaning over his car’s trunk, wrestling with a suitcase zipper. Next to him, a pile of wrinkled clothes was strewn over an old towel, and a toiletry kit topped folded clothing in a laundry basket. A garment bag was draped over the car’s roof. She stopped just outside, hands on hips, panting. After filling the suitcase, he closed the zipper and opened a carry-on bag. “What was that about?” “What was what about?” He turned, unsurprised. He was unshaven, and his thinning, gray-black hair was uncombed. “You almost hit me! And what’s with the horn?” She threw her hands in the air, shook them. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His voice was flat, his face vacant except for his eyes. His eyes always widened slightly when he lied. “What? You almost hit me,” she snapped. “You were only a few inches away.” His expression didn’t change. “And why did you lay on the horn?” “I was just saying hello,” he said. “I haven’t seen you in a week, Mack, and I’m on my way to Sydney now for ten days. I didn’t know if you’d be back in time from — wherever you were — before I leave again.” “I was running, obviously.” She gestured toward her neon green runners and running shorts and held up the flowers she’d picked. “From here to Young’s Road and back. As usual.” She clenched her teeth. Using her childhood nickname, Mack, was always a bad sign. And what was his hurry? She tried to see his side. Maybe he meant well. And maybe he hadn’t realized how close he’d come to hitting her or how the horn would startle her. His social skills had never been the best, after all, though he was an excellent driver normally. She shook her head and pressed her lips together. His car had come dangerously close, and she could still envision the passenger-side mirror only inches from her arm. Tires off the road. The horn. She recoiled at the memory. This wasn’t about social skills. “Mike, you were too close. You scared the crap out of me.” “It’s not my fault you scare easily.” His tone was even. “Other people would just wave. Why can’t you be like everyone else?” She stared until he looked away. It didn’t make sense. If what he’d done was normal, then why . . . No. He’d almost hit her. Wrong. She glared and marched past him, head held high. He stepped back even though she left a wide berth, and his eyes widened again, if only by a millimeter. Why did he back away? Shouldn’t she be the one to be afraid? She was on the defensive, after all. Why didn’t the expression on his face match his cocky words? Nothing made sense except that he was lying; it was obvious. She opened the door that led through the laundry room to the kitchen. Slammed it behind her. “Asshole.” She didn’t care if he heard her. Didn’t care whether he believed his behavior was normal or not; it wasn’t. If he were concerned, the situation would be different. But he wasn’t. And where, in all of that, was the lie? She took a shower, and he was gone. * Autumn Rose Mackenzie dabbed the last bit of paint on the canvas and stepped back. The blue flower, plucked that morning, was wilting in its vase as the late afternoon light faded behind gathering clouds. It was time to quit. She rinsed her brushes in the kitchen sink and examined her still life from a distance. Good, but something was missing. A brighter highlight on the vase? A deeper shadow? Her eyes didn’t leave it as she drifted back to her studio — a repurposed breakfast room with three walls of windows and skylights overhead — and laid out her brushes to dry. Back in the kitchen, she opened the refrigerator. A bit of cheese. Old bread. Half a bag of wilted kale and a couple sweet potatoes decorated with white mold. She pushed some aging rice aside and spotted the baked tofu behind a near-empty bowl of spaghetti. Perfect. She pulled it out and set it aside. She’d already eaten half, but this was plenty. In the freezer, a few frostbitten bags of vegetables were the only choices. And unless she ate kidney beans from a can, everything in the pantry needed preparation except for plain crackers and roasted cashews. That would have to do. She sliced the tofu and arranged it on a plate with the crackers and nuts. And after contemplating a wine bottle on the counter, she uncorked it, poured a glass, and took it all to the living room where she curled up on her loveseat. She clicked the TV on. Another night alone. Her best friend, Natalie, was out on the West Coast, and she hadn’t heard from her other friends in months. They were probably busy with the kids home from college for summer break. Why didn’t they travel like other kids, like she and Natalie had? Backpack around Europe or Asia and stay in hostels. Go somewhere. Anywhere. Or get a job. Give their parents a break. Autumn sipped her wine and softened. Maybe it was money. Maybe they had to cut back on extras like the long lunches they used to have. Beth and Kyra were a few years older and well established in their careers, but they had younger kids, too, and they had to be prudent as they doled out hard-earned savings for college and expenses. At least they never reminded Autumn she wasn’t a parent and couldn’t possibly understand She’d heard that one far too many times. But Autumn understood kids and college and budgets; she’d grown up with a budget. Her mother told her it was life preparation. “A budget is the difference between rich and poor,” she always said. Her father agreed, and she wanted to honor them and pass that tradition on to her own family, but her husband refused. “Why bother, Mack?” he always said. “We’re worth millions. We invest carefully and spend conservatively. We’re not reckless with money. What’s the point?” Autumn hated it when he called her Mack. It was his tit-for-tat game: If she annoyed him, however unwittingly, he would provoke her in ways easily defended as harmless or mere habit. Mack had been her childhood nickname, after all, and that’s what everyone had called her. But as she got older, especially after her parents died, she asked friends and colleagues to call her Autumn instead. Autumn was a fine name, though she’d been teased in school, and it was hers. She had asked her husband to stop using Mack, too. Her father had given her the nickname, fondly calling her his little Mack truck, and she couldn’t stand to hear Mike use it. He obliged for a short time but soon forgot, and when he saw it troubled her, he adopted it as a weapon. But she didn’t care anymore. It wasn’t worth it — whether she gently explained how his jabs hurt, whether she got angry and upset, or whether she ignored him — nothing changed. He seemed oblivious to her pain, and his hostility only worsened as time went on. She picked at her tofu and imagined a real dinner: a spicy vegetable curry with fragrant rice, a hearty soup, a rich vegetable stew. Or at least a sandwich with all the trimmings. What she really needed was a housekeeper who could cook. Darly, the woman who came to clean once a week, was thorough and dependable, but cooking wasn’t part of the deal. Autumn was a good cook when she was motivated. But for herself — her husband didn’t eat dinner at home — she just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm. And her diet had been terrible lately; she barely ate sometimes. She rode her bike or ran a few miles almost every day, and she had to eat right if she wanted to stay healthy. She pulled her laptop closer from where it waited on the ottoman and keyed in terms like housekeeper and cook, personal cook, chef service, and home meal delivery. One company looked promising, but the menus revolved around meat. Another one offered a vegetarian option, but even though the ingredients were cut, chopped, or otherwise prepared, she’d still have to cook and clean up. The other options were for the sick or elderly. Didn’t regular people have cooks or private chefs? She knew a few semi-celebrities who did, and she’d heard it was becoming more popular. She clicked through her search results and experimented with keywords. She snorted and shut the browser down. She needed a wife, a traditional wife like her mother had been, someone to wait on her, make her meals, call her when it was ready. Or just some help. All she wanted to do was paint; she had put it off far too long. And it had to be now — or never. If only she hadn’t believed a house in the country, in a tiny town called Embreeville, was the answer to her problems. An hour from Philadelphia, she thought it would mean less stress and more creative time. She could relax after work and on the weekends, and she’d have more time to paint like Monet at Giverny or Thoreau at his pond — or so she had thought. But it only meant more work plus isolation, especially after she lost her job. And now she was like a farmer without a farm, someone who had to “go into town” to get anything done. No take-out, no delivery, and a twenty-minute drive to a grocery store. But even though she missed the city, she knew the problem wasn’t living in Embreeville so much as it was her marriage. And she had to make a decision. Her heart raced as her thoughts turned to her husband again. Even if he treated her better, nothing was left of their sex life, which had always floundered. After so much rejection and being responsible for her own pleasure — it was a turn-on at first — she just couldn’t stand the thought of being intimate with him. And he rarely initiated unless it was in some odd place. A rocky beach along the Oregon coast. His mother’s flat in London. An olive grove in Italy — she flat-out said no to that one. But those isolated occasions couldn’t compensate for all the times he was done in a flash and she fell asleep with tear-swollen eyes, hours after he’d silently rolled off her. And finally, after a long stretch of silence with no hug, no warmth, and not even a simple bedtime kiss, she snapped. Told him to sleep in his own room if he wasn’t going to touch her. What was the point? She couldn’t bear to reach out anymore, and he remained in his bedroom with no discussion despite her efforts and apologies. She wished she could have seen the signs early on. She asked what he needed, but he offered little. She tried to give what she guessed he needed, tried to be patient and understanding, but it didn’t matter — some vital connection between his brain and his sexuality, between his heart and his soul was missing. If he had some diagnosable mental health problem, she could deal with it. But he’d refused her marriage counseling suggestion, and this was beyond anything she’d ever heard of. And she was still young, only thirty-six. He was five years older, but age wasn’t a factor; this was how he’d always been. She ground her teeth. She wanted a love life. A sex life. Didn’t she deserve that? Wasn’t that normal? Sex was a part of marriage, last she heard. And she’d already had great relationships and fabulous sex before she got married. They weren’t the right guys for her in the end, but in bed they were wild for her and she for them. Her husband wasn’t anything like that. Why had she married him? She swirled her wine around and watched the wine tears slip down the sides of the glass. It wasn’t the money. She came from money and didn’t care about it. And her thrifty parents had left her, their only child, an inheritance that was almost obscene. Plus, after college, she had risen quickly through the ranks and earned a salary that anyone might envy. She was smart, savvy, and creative, and with her double major in marketing and psychology from Cornell plus an MBA from Wharton, she could go anywhere. And here she sat, unemployed six months after DeFacto Marketing and Advertising’s restructuring and layoffs. She knew it wasn’t her fault. That morning, the CEO was almost in tears. He’d done his best to keep her, but the board of directors wouldn’t make exceptions. She hugged him good-bye and kissed him full on the lips instead of the quick peck on a cheek she usually gave him at holiday parties or on his birthday. And he’d returned her fervor, pulling her into him for one scorching moment before breaking away. His face was flushed, and she saw the burning in his eyes, heard his quick breath, felt the heat between them. It had always been there, had always made it fun to work together and even dangerous, knowing if she let her guard down or crossed a line something could happen. But she’d never cheat on her husband, and now it didn’t matter anyway. He chuckled as he regained his professional demeanor and looked around. “You’re in shock, Autumn. Everyone is, and I’m sorry we couldn’t let you know before today.” He slapped her on the back and walked her to her office. “Your desk is already packed, and you can go home.” He nodded and stepped aside as she lifted the box and approached the door. “You’ll be all right. Take a break and work on priorities. What do you need most from life?” He glanced over her quickly. “I’ve been asking myself that for years, and I still don’t know. But you’ll figure it out. I know you will. You’re one of a kind.” Their eyes locked as the current between them charged the air. He apologized again; this time, though, his voice broke oddly, as if he were a teenager. She was silent. And she could see he knew. He knew what she was missing. He probably had a similar problem in his own marriage, which explained the constant sexual buzz though neither had acted on it until that last day. She stabbed another piece of tofu and popped it in her mouth. It was done, and she didn’t want to think about it. She’d had her month of shock and grief and moping, and she’d chosen to paint for now, to see what she could make of it. And that was that. Life goes on. She grabbed her empty wine glass and rose to refill it, but the tofu suddenly tasted wrong. She rolled it around in her mouth and ran to the kitchen. Spit it out. Grabbed the plate and flicked on the overhead kitchen lights. Her stomach churned at the black mold filaments intertwined with oregano and basil. She rinsed her mouth as the tofu swirled down the drain, glanced at her wine glass, and slapped it into the ceramic sink. The glass shattered as she walked back to the living room. She couldn’t hang around and drink herself to sleep again. She was better than that; she was her dad’s little Mack truck. The clock on the microwave said 6:50 p.m. It wasn’t too late to get some shopping done in West Chester if she hurried. She’d stockpile groceries and some healthy frozen food that wouldn’t take too long to heat. Vegetables for a stir-fry or two. Fresh fruit and greens. She resolved to cook and prepare enough for a week, and she scribbled a list after checking the pantry and refrigerator again. In the downstairs bathroom, she pulled out her ponytail and brushed her shoulder-length auburn hair. She checked her jeans for paint — a few old splatters, but nothing major. Her white linen blouse was fine, too, thanks to the artist’s smock she usually wore. She brushed her teeth and dusted her lightly freckled skin with bronzing powder. Some tinted lip gloss, and she was ready. Autumn was halfway to West Chester in her white Mercedes coupe when she slapped the steering wheel. “Damn it!” The shopping list. She’d forgotten it. Her hands clenched the wheel. She tried to shake it, but it remained impassive. She pounded the dashboard with her fist but it wouldn’t break. Her foot slammed the gas hard as she downshifted and swerved around the car in front of her. She sped around curve after curve on the two-lane country road, tires screaming. Passed trucks in a no-passing zone. Barely missed a car in an intersection. As she wove in and out, tempted almost beyond control to hit someone, she imagined closing her eyes. Relinquishing control of the car she hated but that her husband had insisted she buy. Giving up. Ending it. But if she closed her eyes, she’d see her parents even more clearly than she saw them now: her dad’s jaw wired like a ventriloquist’s broken sidekick. His mouth toothless and slightly agape, his prominent nose blending with his cheek’s black flatness. And her mother’s head hidden by a tight cap that flattened her hair; she’d hate that. She reached out to remove it but shrank from the icy flesh. This wasn’t her mother. This bruised, bloodied face was not her mother. Yet it was. She nodded to the attendant who gently took her arm and escorted her out. Shaken by the unbidden memory, she released the gas pedal. Breathed in deeply once, twice, and again. Exhaled slowly. Counted each breath. At five, she shook her head and slowed in a flurry of straw and feathers flying from a battered old pickup truck. Laughed a short laugh at herself and her misery and the way she’d let her life fall to pieces. How she’d married the wrong man for reasons she didn’t understand. Stayed married despite her unhappiness. She could be free, if she gave herself permission. Calm settled over her. She would call her mother’s lawyer the next day. If they were alive, her parents would be unhappy if she divorced her husband, but they’d be supportive. If only she could talk to them, if only that 18-wheeler hadn’t smashed them to bits, they’d understand. They’d see her side, even without the details, just because they believed in her. And she had no other choice. Her husband wasn’t going to change, but she could change her situation. He wasn’t due home for a week, and maybe she could have papers ready by then. She’d have to move out, though. He’d probably sign with no fuss, but he’d make her pay for it later, if only because it wasn’t in his plans. And to hell with the list. She knew what she needed and could buy whatever caught her eye. She didn’t need to follow a budget, not for groceries. She didn’t need to follow anything or anybody. And maybe, just maybe, she could finally live her life on her own terms, her way, and follow whatever she damn well pleased. * Autumn barely noticed the parking lot as she pulled in at Organic Originals. If she were going to live on her own terms, she’d need a steady income. Her severance package had been respectable, and she hadn’t spent much, but it wouldn’t last long even if she scrimped. Savings were for possible emergencies, and she’d already dug into them deeply for a cruise last year with her friends. Clothes. Expensive shoes. Nights out on the town. Art supplies and books. And she couldn’t touch her inheritance since it was designated a trust fund with disbursements that would begin on her fortieth birthday. She knew she could sell her paintings somehow. They weren’t as polished as she’d like, not yet, but maybe, if she painted something simple every day and sold it, she could live. She’d have to talk with gallery owners and other artists to get feedback, especially about pricing. And she’d take lessons; her month of study in Provence was a long time ago, right after high school, and she hadn’t been committed to practice more than casually. She considered keeping her plans quiet until she was already earning money since her husband would, no doubt, scoff and belittle her. But she needed help so she could focus. Especially with cooking. Her husband might even like that; he liked to see her weak and needy and spending money on things only upper-class people could afford, acting like the wife he wanted her to be. She imagined him bragging in his twisted way, making fun of her and how she’s such a lousy cook she needs to hire one. She didn’t care. She’d never hear it. And for now she’d pay for it with money from the household account. His money. She considered details as she walked toward the store in the evening sun’s warmth. An ad in Craigslist or Philadelphia’s weekly newspapers might work. Maybe other people like her had placed ads; she could use those as an example and even call to commiserate and get advice. Wanted: Chef experienced with vegetarian and vegan cooking to prepare meals privately. Two or three days per week. Hours and salary negotiable. As she maneuvered through the busy entrance and grabbed a cart, fresh-cut flowers and a plethora of potted plants greeted her. She inhaled deeply and savored hyacinth, lilac, roses, and lavender. Cinnamon and nutmeg and baking smells swirled with the rich ripeness of mangoes, pineapple, and kiwi fruit that overflowed baskets next to the plants. The fragrances swirled as she selected bananas and oranges, lemons and limes. Local strawberries were next, and though they probably weren’t as sweet as she liked since it was early in the season, Autumn tucked a box in her cart anyway. Fresh mint overflowed a display next to the berries, and she snapped off a leaf, rubbed it between her fingers, and fanned it under her nose. The aisle was decadent with red, green, yellow, and purple hues adorning the refrigerated wooden bins, and her mind reeled. Such bounty. Such wealth. How could she be unhappy living in a place where every conceivable need or desire can be met? She stopped at the mounds of slender white and deep-green asparagus piled high. “The Season is Short. Get It While It Lasts!” a large sign ordered. The tightly budded stalks seemed fresh, but did she feel like asparagus? What would she do with it other than steam it as a side dish? “Are you finding everything you need, miss?” A male voice jolted her. She smiled automatically and looked up. A clerk with an unruly shock of shiny brown hair and matching eyes stood only a few feet away. He was a little taller than her five-foot-nine-inch frame, but not by much. A student, probably, a graduate student, older than most. His jeans and crisp white shirt were protected by a long, green apron. He seemed friendly. Happy. A welcome intrusion. “Actually, no. What I need is a personal chef.” She heard her words as if on replay and immediately regretted them. “I also need that million-dollar check that’s hidden here somewhere, and I wonder if you can give me a hint.” She rolled her eyes and snickered, hoping he’d treat her slip as a joke. “Well, I don’t know about the hidden check, but I can ask my manager about it.” He winked, grinning. “But what do you need a personal chef for? Are you planning a wedding or a party?” He took a half step toward her and rested a hand on the asparagus bin. Autumn exhaled audibly. She didn’t normally blurt out her thoughts like that, but she decided to be honest. “No, I was thinking of household help. You know, someone who visits every few days and cooks a batch of healthy food — veggies and all that — and does it all over again a few days later. And cleans the kitchen, too.” She laughed again. “I am so not domestic. You wouldn’t believe it.” She smoothed her hair back and tucked one side behind her ear. “But I’m just thinking, for now. Isn’t it a common thing these days? I don’t know where to start looking though I searched a little online.” “Sure. Lots of families on the Main Line or in Center City have their own chefs. It’s usually celebrities or the über rich, but not always. I know the CEO of a small company who has a private chef. His wife owns a business, too, they have kids, and neither has time to cook. Then there’s a local TV news anchor who has one. He was seriously overweight, and he did it for his health and his job.” He nodded knowingly; he was obviously in good shape. “Is there anything I can help you with? Local asparagus is at its peak, and the prices are great.” He waved a hand toward the bin. “Do you like asparagus?” “Yes, I love it,” Autumn said. “But I don’t know what to do with it other than steam it. You know, with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, the usual.” The clerk’s eyes sparkled as he launched into cooking methods and recipes for asparagus. Creamed asparagus, asparagus soup, roasted asparagus with mushrooms, paella and grilled asparagus, risotto . . . She watched as he described combinations with other vegetables, stews, and gratins. He gestured with his hands as he talked. They looked strong, graceful and well-groomed but a little rough, and she imagined he did other work or spent time outdoors. His shoulders were broad though bordering on thin, and his legs looked lean yet toned as he turned to pluck an eggplant from a display. He was cute, handsome even, possibly a cyclist or a runner, or maybe he climbed. She saw now that his otherwise ordinary brown hair was laced with blond streaks. Salon highlights, maybe, or time spent in the sun. They framed his face beautifully. “Are you a student?” she blurted again. She bit her lip. “I’m sorry. Long day. Those are all great ideas.” She nodded but had barely heard them. “I’m just curious, since you’re obviously so knowledgeable, why you’re . . . ” She stopped herself this time. She wondered why he worked at a grocery store instead of something else, something more at his level. Something a bit more . . . advanced. He seemed too intelligent or knowledgeable for this kind of work. He laughed. “Yeah, I’m a student. And I know what you’re thinking.” He lowered his voice. “Have you ever done mindless work in the short term so you can get something accomplished in the long term?” She wasn’t sure what he meant, but she nodded. “In college, I guess.” “Well, I’m finishing my master’s degree — I’m almost done with my thesis — and I do this on the side just for some spare cash plus the employee discount and freebies. I get to write all day, go to classes, and eat good food in exchange for working fifteen or twenty hours a week. If I want a serious hot meal plus a few extra bucks, I work for my dad.” “What does your dad do?” “He owns some restaurants in Philly. Jamie Dumas. Have you heard of him?” He shrugged and laughed a short laugh that was little more than a snicker. “Jamie Dumas? Of course. He owns everything. He’s your dad?” She stared. That might explain the rough hands. She had toured one of Jamie Dumas’s restaurant kitchens, and the work looked backbreaking. “So why . . . ” “Why do I work when my dad’s a mega-star restaurant mogul?” The creases at the corners of his eyes deepened as he grinned. He didn’t seem bothered, but Autumn backtracked. “No, no. I don’t need to know that. I get it. I like to work too, whether I need the money or not.” “And you don’t have time to cook because you work,” he said. Direct but friendly. “Whether you need to or not. Plus the kids keep you busy.” His eyes didn’t leave hers. “That’s almost right, but skip the kids part.” She looked away and focused on a heap of green beans. That was as far as she would go. She wondered how to escape, how to close the conversation. They stood in the narrow aisle with people milling around, blocking it, bound by an exchange of words that somehow couldn’t be broken. “I could be your personal chef.” He couldn’t be serious. She turned to him, raised an eyebrow, blinked. He watched her, and his eyes held their gaze. She looked away again as her face flushed and a blossoming flame burned hotter. “No, no. That’s okay.” Her eyes drifted back. “I was . . . just thinking about it for now. I’m sure you know how to cook. But I’m nowhere near ready to make a decision.” She let out a little laugh. Ran her fingers through her hair. “I guess I should put an ad in a newspaper or online. But I’ll probably get a bunch of wackos applying.” “And you’d better not let on you’re a woman at first, or the wackos will apply in droves.” His eyes traveled downward, and she could almost feel them. Electricity. A shimmer. A tightness in her abdomen she hadn’t felt since the last day at her job, with her CEO. Pleasure. Urgency. Almost pain, an aching pain. All combined, and almost uncontrollable. She watched him as her breath became quick, shallow, as his eyes traveled down her legs and up again, lingering on her center as she tried to control her intensifying response. She wore only a thin bra under her blouse, and in the chilly air, she knew her nipples were visible. It was so wrong; he was so forward, so aggressive. But she didn’t turn away. His eyes moved upward once again and stopped before meeting her eyes. The blood in her lips pulsed and a warmth spread over her skin; even her ears and hands flamed. But this she knew. This she understood. This was natural. In a grocery store produce aisle, maybe not. But this was the dance she had known before her husband. This was real. Lust was real. Two bodies, each wanting the other was real. Normal. Physical cravings to join together were normal. A weak laugh escaped as she looked around. What could she say or do? Say good-bye and thanks for the help? Thanks for the flash of desire? Invite him for a drink? She was older, so she should buy. Or maybe she would just let him take the lead. If he didn’t, so be it. “Well,” she said. She cleared her throat. “I have to get going. It’s getting late, and I need to get some . . . food, if I’m ever going to eat again.” He reached in his pocket without moving his eyes away. As if assessing. As if confused. He scribbled on a card and held it out. “Call me,” he said. “Or…may I call you?” He shrugged lightly. She stared at the tan and green business card and traced it with a fingertip, as if it were a delicate butterfly or a flower petal, before taking it and returning his steady gaze. She contemplated his curved, full lips. Studied them, wondered how they would feel against hers. His chest behind his partially open shirt — she almost reached out to push his apron aside but envisioned her hand slipping under instead. She watched the pulse in his neck throb and longed to kiss it as a small smile lifted her cheek. Her eyes traveled leisurely as she imagined her lips in the hollow between his neck and collarbone, breath hot under his jaw, at his neck, his temple. She lingered before traveling down his torso, his hips, his legs and returning upward once again. She imagined him naked and wrapping her arms around his chest, resting her face against his bare shoulder, locking her legs around his waist . . . A distant clatter and voices nudged her back to reality. His eyes were locked on hers, and she lost herself in the shimmering caramel, burnt sienna, and rich dark chocolate. But she shook her head and shut down the fantasy as her face flushed hot. “I’d better get going. You don’t want to get fired for cavorting with the customers, I’m sure.” A smile with volition of its own spread across her face as she ended the dance. He looked around, a half-smile curving his lips. He said nothing but raised an eyebrow. “I think you should call me,” she murmured. She tucked his card in her purse and dug out one of her own. “Here. Call me any time. Or email. That’s even better. I don’t pay attention to my phone when I’m working.” He took her glossy white card, made a point to brush her fingers, and looked it over. He nodded. “I’ll email you.” He studied her card again. “Autumn Rose. What a beautiful name. I’ll email you, Autumn. Sooner than you think.” He fastened his eyes on hers once again, questioning. Wondering. TWO She could only nod. But he dropped his head and shoulders in a small bow over folded hands, and Autumn returned the gesture. She smiled and waved a little wave as she turned and looked for her cart, still feeling his eyes on her. The image of his face lingered: dark eyes, a thumb and forefinger rubbing his chin, a tousle of brown hair. She wondered about the bow — he must meditate or practice yoga, as she did, though she hadn’t been regular lately. And it had been years since she attended a Buddhist meditation center. Her husband had sneered at her sitting cushion, and she let it go, refused to let it bother her. But it had. She shoved the thought away as she tossed mushrooms, peppers, and greens in her cart and finished shopping quickly. The self-confidence that had surged for a moment disappeared, and she didn’t want to see . . . him. Not again. Not until she had her thoughts in better order. The country roads were dark with only silhouettes and the occasional building or sign visible, and she drove with more care than she had earlier. She dropped her bags on the kitchen floor, kicked her shoes off, and headed to her laptop. She clicked on the email icon. She looked at the time. Almost 9:30. He must still be at work, or maybe he had plans; it was Friday night, after all. He probably wouldn’t email her until next week, if ever. She sighed. The groceries had to be put away, and she forced herself from her loveseat to confront the refrigerator. The mess stared back, and she’d have to clean it out before putting anything in. She pulled the trash can to her side and got to work. What if he didn’t email? Worse, what if he did? She was married. Soon to be divorced, but still married. And the thoughts evaporated as his face, his voice, his words, and the effect he’d had on her replayed over and over in her mind as she busied herself with her task. With the old and spoiled food thrown out, the shelves and drawers wiped, and the groceries put away, she pulled the trash can to the sink and picked out her wine glass’s remains. No more. She wiped tiny shards away before rinsing. No man would ever make her this angry, this upset again. With a fresh-baked muffin from the store and a cup of herbal tea, she settled in the living room with her laptop. No email. She switched to a browser and searched for divorce information in Pennsylvania. In as little as four months, if a divorce is uncontested with no conflicts over property division or child custody, a marriage could be undone. Over. Finished. She checked other sites for verification. Her mother’s long-time lawyer didn’t include divorce info on her firm’s website, but it was listed under services. Site after site confirmed the approximate timeline and necessary steps. She couldn’t imagine her husband disagreeing with anything. Why would he? He rarely expressed an opinion anyway, and they were barely roommates at this point. Autumn was both elated and horrified by how quickly she could end a lifelong commitment. Was it that easy? It would be horrible, but the relatively short wait meant less misery and less pain. And she had to end this. Now. Not so she could see other men, but to be free. Free of the burden she had carried for so long. She had tried her best and done everything she could to make her marriage work. But with only one person rowing the boat, it had spun in circles. She checked her inbox again. This time, two new emails had arrived. One from her husband, and one from Jory Dumas. Jory. Dumas. Jamie Dumas was his dad. That had to be him. But it couldn't be, not that fast, even though she had hoped. But who else could it be? She dithered for a moment. What did her husband want? She clicked. It was short and to the point: he’d be home a few days early. She let out her breath. No smart remarks, nothing too cryptic, no calling her Mack. She calculated quickly. A few usually meant three, so that left four or five days of freedom. Or at least the beginning of freedom. She returned to her inbox, closed her eyes, and told herself to calm down. She visualized her husband disappearing from her mind and replaced the image with the grocery store and the flowers, the herbs and fragrances, the display cases overflowing with brightly colored fruits and vegetables. His — Jory’s — voice. His face. Everything about him. The way he’d looked at her and the effect he’d had on her. How she nearly had an orgasm in the vegetable aisle without even touching. How he had bowed to say good-bye. She exhaled slowly as she clicked his email. Hi Autumn, It was a pleasure to meet you tonight. Would you like to have coffee tomorrow? I’m free any time after 5:00 p.m. Jory She focused on the word “pleasure.” Had he used the word intentionally? Or without considering the double entendre? She scrolled down — nothing. Disappointed, she closed the email. It was probably awkward for him too, unless he made a habit of arousing grocery store customers with his eyes and emailing them. Maybe he was a psycho. A sociopath. But if he were, he would have written something longer, more flirtatious, more seductive, and he would have complimented her. He’d want to take advantage of her vulnerabilities, make her fall in love with him so he could wrap her around his finger and get money from her or kill her. She shook the thought from her mind and opened the email again and reread. Formal. A simple greeting, a simple question, and a meeting in a public place: the all-purpose coffee shop. Perfectly reasonable. She would wait before responding; she didn’t want him to think she was hovering over email as she was. Half an hour later, showered and wearing the oversized T-shirt and boxer shorts her husband hated, she began a response. “The pleasure was mine” might have been appropriate in person, in another situation, but in this case it was overkill. “Likewise” wouldn’t work either, and “nice to meet you, too” was lame. Finally, she came up with something. Hi Jory, Nice name. And I’d love to have coffee. Seven-ish? Where? Autumn It seemed just right. Casual, and “love to have coffee” matched his “pleasure to meet you” in a way that wasn’t a direct response to it. And although 5 p.m. was fine, suggesting 7 p.m. gave her some control. She scolded herself for overanalyzing as she hit send. But she opened it again a few minutes later. What would he think? What was he thinking about anything? She searched for coffee shops in West Chester and clicked on a map. Which one? And had he meant West Chester? His reply arrived before she had time to look. Without a greeting, he simply suggested two possibilities. Each was prominently featured on the map. One was an ordinary franchise, but the other was privately owned and offered poetry readings and open mics for musicians and other performers. She hadn’t known it existed, but it seemed perfect. She replied right away this time. Why pretend? He wasn’t. He shot back within a minute. I thought you’d pick that one. See you at 7 p.m. tomorrow. Looking forward. She sent a quick “sounds great” and leaned back. How perceptive he was, to know she’d pick that coffee shop. But his age was her most pressing concern. She nibbled on a fingernail and tried to remember his face. He wasn’t that young despite his student status. If he’d gone straight to a two-year grad program after a four year degree — assuming he started at eighteen — he would be around twenty-four. Twenty-five if the program required three years. But he seemed older than that. More mature. Possibly twenty-eight. He had probably taken time off. A gap year, maybe. A year or two after finishing his undergrad work. Or both. She wondered why she cared. A ten- or twelve-year difference was nothing if the older of the two were a man, after all. And he wasn’t a teenager or her student, though he might become her employee. But he could walk away easily from a part-time chef position with no benefits. She’d have to create a simple contract with provisions for either party to end the arrangement at will plus wording to the effect that he would be paid for all time worked, with or without notice. But she was jumping too far ahead. She was married. She shifted back to Jory and wondered what university he’d attended and where he lived. She assumed it was West Chester, and she imagined him with a well-worn backpack trudging across campus in close-fitting jeans and stylish boots. No doubt girls crushed on him regularly. Did he flirt with them? She groaned. What was she thinking? As she drifted off to sleep an hour later, just at the edge of consciousness, dream images alternated. A man with a tall white hat. Food dripping from her hands and mouth as she dug deep into giant bowls, gorging herself. A beach party, a luau, revelers chanting around a floating suit in a swimming pool, cheering as it sank and a white lotus blooming in its place. A smiling chef behind a table, machete held high and plunging it in a pig, a pig decorated with purple and orange nightshade and laid out for roasting but still alive . . . “Eeee-yah!” She gasped and yanked herself out of the dream before sinking back into unconsciousness once again. Finally, toward morning, she fell into a deep sleep. “Jory?” The voice belonged to a dream, but it was hers somehow. She threw a hand over her eyes; she’d forgotten to close the blinds, and the eastern sunlight streamed in through pale, gauzy curtains. Disjointed images paraded in her jumbled mind as she pulled a pillow over her face. Jory. The dreams came back in short clips as she tried to let go and fall into sleep once more. But it was no use. She finally threw on a robe and headed downstairs. Her friend Natalie had sent an email, but she made coffee before settling in to read it. Natalie was almost always upbeat and full of news and details about the news, and Autumn liked to curl up and read her missives like a favorite novel. She’d been in Seattle for a month, partly for work and partly to visit her long-distance boyfriend, and she was due home soon. Autumn clicked and read, fascinated. At the end, Natalie asked about her. How are things? How's the painting going? I worry, you know. Every time I see you and even in email, I can tell something’s wrong. Need to talk? And what was that email about? The one about being too busy to talk or hang out and don’t bother you anymore. That didn’t sound like you, so I ignored it. She rarely discussed her personal problems with anyone, even Natalie, though they had been close friends since childhood. She didn’t mind talking about her job and painting aspirations with all her friends; that didn’t feel too personal since almost everyone goes through tough times with work. But she’d only made joking references to her marriage problems. Natalie knew about a few specific events, but no matter how angry or hurt she was, she simply couldn’t divulge personal information any more than she’d gossip about a friend. He was her husband, after all, and it was too embarrassing. Or frightening. But maybe it was time to talk. At least with Natalie. Natalie understood — she’d been through a difficult marriage and divorce herself. But Beth and Kyra weren’t the best shoulders to cry on. She knew they’d had their share of disappointments and frustrations in their own marriages, and she wondered if they held on for the kids’ sake. But asking for support right now wasn’t a good idea, especially since she hadn’t heard from them in so long. Natalie, on the other hand, had been divorced for years after marrying right after college, and she swore she’d never get married again. And now that her ex-husband had remarried and had two stepdaughters, Natalie’s just-turned-teenage daughter lived mainly with him. The three girls had become fast friends, and Natalie was having fun, fun Autumn envied. Natalie would be her cheerleader, her backbone. She re-read. An email about being too busy? She’d never sent anything like that. Weird. Had Natalie misunderstood something? She typed a reply and remarked on Natalie’s stories before responding to the final question. Not good. I think I’ve had enough, and I have to do something radical. Can we talk? I mean on the phone. And I don’t think I said anything about being too busy to hang out or that I was bothered. Maybe I was talking about someone else. I don’t know. It was only 10 a.m. She'd sent the email just an hour ago, so Natalie must have been up early — it would have been 6 a.m. in Seattle when she sent it. Maybe she was out for the day already. She signed off and hit send. A few minutes later, as she poured cereal into a bowl, her cell phone rang. It was Natalie. It was good to hear her voice. Autumn tapped the speakerphone icon and told her almost everything and how disgusted she was. “I knew it was something like that,” Natalie said. “You mentioned stuff like this before, and just the vibe I get from him . . . well, you two were never lovebirds. I know he liked to say you’re not joined at the hip, and that’s great. But I remember your wedding and how he ignored you except for cake cutting and official stuff. And he just seems angry all the time, like a bomb ready to go off. And honestly, Autumn, you’re a nervous wreck around him, but you always act cheerful no matter what.” “I do?” Autumn’s jaw dropped. “Yeah, you do. It’s subtle, though, so don’t worry. I’m sure nobody else can tell, or they just think that’s how you are. But I’ve known you for how long? Twenty-five years? Thirty? Jesus. But it’s like you’re always on guard. On edge. He doesn’t hit you, does he?” “No! I would never put up with that.” She paused, remembering how close he came to hitting her with his car. “But it’s almost as bad. It’s verbal and mental or emotional or something, but not cursing or name calling. Just subtle digs and weird stuff that makes no sense. No affection or kindness or even support for anything I do, even when I’m sick. “One time I asked him to go to the doctor with me, and he fainted when the nurse took blood. Then he got all pissy about it, like it was my fault he fainted. So he was giving me attitude while I was terrified I had cancer, which I didn’t, as you know. But still, what a jerk. And then there’s the silence — it’s a hell of a weapon.” “Oh, I know. That’s my ex, the sick bastard. Fucking textbook passive-aggressive. And the nicer I was, the worse he got, goading and needling me without doing anything he could be held accountable for. Crazy-making. Gaslighting. And yeah, silence is the worst. I know, honey. I get it.” Natalie’s voice was warm and understanding, and the tears welled up. Autumn pressed her eyes on her sleeve as she struggled for control. Finally, she blurted it out. “I’m getting a divorce.” Natalie was silent for a moment. “Seriously?” “Yes. Seriously.” “Woo! Go, girl! It’s about damned time!” Autumn was shocked again. How did she know how miserable she’d been? “Girlfriend, you act tough or play cheerleader, but I know you. I can see your sadness. And a few times with you and Mike . . . I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut. I just wanted to slap him.” She explained her plans, and Natalie agreed it sounded good so far. And she was ready to say good-bye when she remembered the email. “I almost forgot. What email were you talking about? I never said anything about being too busy.” “Well, that’s what your email said about a month ago. Let me see if I still have it.” Natalie’s end was quiet for a few moments except for a keyboard clicking. “Well, I can’t find it. I’ll check later; maybe I deleted it. But it said you were too busy to talk or get together, and you just wanted to be left alone. Don’t bother you — something like that. It was so odd I figured it must be for someone else and you accidentally used my address. I’ve been meaning to tell you so you can resend, but I keep forgetting.” “That’s weird. I don’t remember writing anything like that to anyone. Spam, maybe? Some kind of bot?” “I don’t know. Maybe. I’ll try to find it and check the source. And we can Google it, see what turns up.” “Weird,” Autumn repeated. “Definitely. But heck, I have to get going.” Natalie promised to be there for her, and she insisted Autumn should call or email any time. She puzzled over the email and remembered Jory — she forgot to mention him. Her mother’s voice echoed in her head and discouraged her from boring other people with her problems, but she shrugged her off. Maybe it was time to make her own decisions. Natalie! Forgot to say. I met a guy last night. He’s gorgeous. I’m meeting him again tonight for coffee. But I don’t know. I wanted to hire a chef, someone to help in the kitchen, and I ran into him at Organic Originals. He’s Jamie Dumas’s son, and he offered though I don’t know how serious he was. Do you think I’m crazy? Autumn Natalie’s reply arrived within a few minutes. Oh, wow. Jamie Dumas has an heir? Who knew? He’s not underage, is he? Just be careful and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do! Which isn’t much, as you know. And be safe! You remember what that means, right? Condoms? Birth control? Love you. And keep me updated ;) Autumn smiled. Natalie had always been her effervescent better half who was, at the same time, firmly grounded. Birth control hadn’t even occurred to her, but she’d gone off the pill a year ago. Suppose something just . . . happened? She searched for condoms online to see what was new and studied the choices for an hour. She doubted they’d come in a “discreet, unmarked box,” but she ordered four different styles and a few bottles of lube anyway, plus samples. And after rolling her eyes at the exaggerated advertising copy, she added a few toys to her shopping cart. She’d dumped her “pleasure chest” a month after she was married. She was upset; her husband had mocked her toys and frozen up over a long feather, and there was no point. He couldn’t handle vanilla, so why would he be interested in pistachio? She didn’t have anything crazy, just the usual stuff sold on South Street in Philly. A blindfold. Nipple clamps. Handcuffs and vibrators for him and her. It was just fun stuff, and she shouldn’t have thrown it out. Shouldn’t have walked down the aisle, either. She was half-convinced the mail carrier would laugh and tell the neighbors, but she wouldn’t be here long anyway. And what if someone did find out? Sex was the most normal, healthy thing in the world; it didn’t need to be about unmet hopes and dreams and a partner’s problems. It was hard to wrap her head around it. Two years dating, almost six married. Maybe she was a freak, too, for staying so long. She’d have to make an appointment with her gynecologist. She shook her head. What was she thinking? Was she going to have sex with a . . . a college kid? Cheat on her husband? She’d probably imagined everything last night. THREE The next day flew by as Autumn painted the background for a landscape and then, later, switched over to charcoal and human figures. Strangers. Unknown faces. Celebrities. Fashionistas. Aliens. Mythological characters: Lancelot and Guinevere, Adonis and Aphrodite, Zeus as a swan raping Leda in the air. Nudes, contortions, twosomes, threesomes, all performing acts she didn’t devise and scenarios that emerged without conscious thought. As the time to leave for West Chester drew closer, she heated the organic, store-made veggie burrito she’d bought the night before and swigged down a bottle of carrot juice. She imagined devoting her time to painting without worrying about mealtimes and reasonably healthy food. Could it work out with someone like Jory cooking for her? As she headed upstairs for a shower, the previous night’s surrealism took over. Their heated exchange must have been brief, twenty seconds, maybe, but it had seemed like minutes. An hour. She couldn’t mention it to him. What would she say? Would he bring it up? But something about him was so genuine and straightforward she couldn’t imagine any awkwardness. But she didn’t know him. What would they talk about? What would she have talked about at that age? Could he be closer to thirty than twenty? What would she wear? After coaxing her thick hair into order — it always frizzed in the summer — she decided on faded jeans and a simple white T-shirt. Her jeans slipped on too easily; she looked in the mirror and realized she’d lost weight though she had little to lose in the first place. She shrugged and dug around in an old jewelry box. Earrings. She picked out tiny rhinestones and some small hoops and wrestled all seven into place. A bold silver bracelet — perfect. She snapped it over her wrist and stared in the mirror. She couldn’t remember the last time she went out or wore more than one earring in each ear. And she used to be a stickler for her beauty routine, but now she was shocked to see her eyebrows had almost grown together. She grabbed a tweezer, yanked out the worst, and dabbed a cooling toner over her skin. Stood back and looked again. Sunken cheeks and concave temples, but clear skin and dark blue eyes bright. Sunlight from the west window brought out the red in her hair, and she combed her fingers through and twisted a few ends into curls. Never again. She would never let this happen again. At the last minute, she grabbed her black, faux-leather jacket and switched her skimmers for old Chuck Taylors. It was just the kind of outfit her husband despised, but it had always been her style. She ran back to the bathroom, darkened her eyeliner, and ran down the stairs to her studio. Her black canvas backpack hung from a chair, and she stuffed it with a few books on art and design before swinging it over her shoulder. She walked into the coffee shop ten minutes early, and the place was quiet with only a few customers. Deep oranges and blues dominated the eclectic decor, and upholstered couches lined the walls. A mishmash of tables and chairs had obviously been arranged and rearranged countless times during the day, and Autumn pulled a table closer to an oval corner couch. A cushioned chair was nearby, and she arranged it for Jory, opposite where she would sit. She unloaded the books and arranged them with a notepad, as if in preparation for a work-related meeting. She could even be a professor. Either way, it would look like business if anyone she or her husband knew saw her. She was just getting settled with a plain iced latte when she saw him at the door. A smile spread over her face as she raised her eyebrows and cocked her head just a little. He grinned and nodded as if to say Yes, it’s me as he strode across the room. Still grinning, he dropped his navy-blue backpack on the floor — worn, as she’d guessed — and pulled out the chair. He looked at her, looked away, and looked back as countless thoughts and emotions flickered over his face. “Hi.” “Hi.” She stood and extended her hand, aware that anyone could be watching. He reached out immediately, seeming puzzled at the formality but not unhappy. Their hands melded together, relaxed, palms fully touching, each using about the same strength. A wave of heat pulsed through her body, and she pulled her hand away as graciously as she could. He held up one finger and winked before turning toward the counter. Jeans, faded like hers, but black. A thin lavender shirt hanging loose, silk from the sheen and smooth drape, with arms rolled up carelessly and more buttons open than at the grocery store. A narrow silver bracelet intertwined with copper. Leather toe-loop sandals. Thick, wavy brown hair, long on top, shorter at the sides and golden in the sun that slanted through a window. Slender, graceful. Almost familiar, as if she knew him from somewhere. She bit her lip. He was beautiful. Unique. Not a cookie-cutter model or actor type but intensely attractive all the same. She would let him take the lead. She didn’t want to anymore, at least not as she had with her husband. She waited, not planning what to say, and opened a book. He was back in just a few moments with a tall drink piled high with whipped cream. “That was fast.” “Ah, but I have connections.” He set his drink on the table and air-tapped an imaginary cell phone. Autumn nodded. He must have ordered online. She stared at his drink, smile frozen on her face as she placed the slender volume back with the other. “So.” “So, were you waiting long?” He arranged himself in his chair, more relaxed than at first. “No, just a few minutes. Just enough time to get settled.” He raised his drink and waited for Autumn to lift hers. Glass clinked against glass. “Cheers.” “Salut.” Clearly accustomed to chit-chat, he pulled it together when she could not. He asked questions. “What do you do for work? I’m an artist but I used to be in marketing. Do you live in West Chester? No, I’m from Cherry Hill and lived in Philly, but I’m in Embreeville now. Seriously? Yes. Any particular reason? Well, it’s a long story. Okay, what do you do for fun? I run and ride my bike.” And on and on. “What were you shopping for last night? Vegetables.” And he burst into laughter. “Vegetables? Was that all?” She put on an indignant look and assured him that yes, that’s exactly what she’d been shopping for along with a few other things to round out meals. Breakfast was easy, she told him: granola with soy milk or yogurt, toast with peanut butter, fruit, a protein shake or a smoothie. Easy. Everything else, not so much, especially when a painting inspired her. She knew what he was hinting at, though, or thought she did. But she hadn’t been shopping for love or lust. Or anything related. Or was she? Maybe that’s not what he meant. “It’s actually possible I could do chef duty, you know,” Jory said. “I mean, I wasn’t joking last night. In the summer, business dies down because most students are on vacay. The farmer’s markets and roadside stands cut into business, too, and my hours were chopped. So I need something else, then you strolled in and announced you had a vacancy.” He lifted his drink to his lips and watched her. Autumn pushed her hair behind her ears and tried to think. She hadn’t made any plans. But it couldn’t hurt to talk it over. “Well, just last night I was frustrated and disgusted with my refrigerator,” she explained. “Disgusted with the mess, I mean, not the refrigerator itself.” She rolled her eyes. “But I was hungry, and I had nothing to eat. I just have no interest in cooking and chopping things up. It’s not that I don’t know how; it’s that it takes too much time. And I’d rather eat clean, at least as much as possible. You know, skip the processed stuff. But then I eat stuff like spaghetti with olive oil and cheese anyway, and maybe some steamed broccoli and cashews for protein. Over and over. It’s ridiculous. Last night I ate some leftover baked tofu and it was moldy. I just need help.” “Ew. It definitely sounds like you could use some help.” He nodded and rubbed his chin. “What’s up with your husband? I mean, what does he eat?” She slapped her hand over her ring. She’d forgotten to take it off, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to, not for this meeting. She didn’t want to lie, and he might have seen it last night anyway. “He never eats at home. Besides, I’m firing him. Also known as divorce.” She maintained the light tone, the humor, not wanting to touch her emotions or involve him. “It’s way overdue, and it will be done in a few months. We rarely see each other and barely talk; it’s been like that for years. And I’m on my own — he travels. I just didn’t want to take my ring off before I tell him.” “Ah.” He nodded but didn’t comment. And he didn’t seem shocked or upset, either. She exhaled, relieved. She brought a fingernail to her mouth and promptly dropped her hand. He looked at his watch. “Want to get something to eat? They usually have some decent stuff here, but not much is happening tonight. They’re probably short-staffed with student employees gone. Have you eaten lately?” He glanced down just briefly. “Better keep your strength up if you’re going to do much painting.” His tone was gentle, and she laughed. “Sure, I ate, but it’s been a few hours now, and it was just a burrito I bought at your store last night.” “Well, there’s a place with great sandwiches down the street, if that’s okay with you. I haven’t eaten since this morning. You know, the busy student diet.” He led the way out. The restaurant was just half a block down, across the street, and the decor was so artsy Autumn wondered out loud whether the people who owned the coffee shop owned this establishment as well. “No,” Jory said. “But most places around here, the indie places anyway, look pretty much the same, at least colorful. Very artsy with the Art Association here and the crafts fairs and exhibits. I’m sure you’ve been to them.” “Actually, I haven’t,” Autumn said. “I started painting regularly only six months ago, and I usually browse around Philly, though I haven’t done that lately, either. I’ll have to look into it.” Her mind raced. She’d thought Philadelphia was her destination for art contacts or galleries and showings, and she’d been intimidated. But West Chester didn’t seem like such a big, bad wolf. Jory looked curious, but she didn’t want to talk about it. Not yet. She opened a menu, scanned the choices, and found a vegetarian option that looked good. A pint of beer, a sandwich, and Jory talking helped her relax. Philadelphia was home, he explained, but he’d spent time in New York City, too, where his mother’s family lived and where she lived now. His parents had divorced when he was in middle school, and he’d gone back and forth between Manhattan and Philly on the train. He’d also traveled a little. She had been right about the gap year; after high school, he spent most of his time in Europe with just a backpack, a tent, and his guitar. During the winter months, he shared a flat with musician friends in London, new friends he met at a music festival in Geneva. They formed a small band — Jory played guitar and sang — and they had fun and made money. “I used to play guitar, too,” Autumn said. “Do you still have it?” “Yes, but it’s stuffed away somewhere.” “Maybe we could play together sometime. How’s your sandwich?” “It’s fabulous, but it has so many veggies they keep sliding out.” She laughed and skewered an errant pepper slice with her fork. “But the feta cheese makes a nice accent against the balsamic dressing, and the portabella is grilled to perfection.” With her fingers, she gathered a few leaves of arugula and popped them in her mouth. He nodded and smiled, and they chewed in silence as Autumn looked around. The antique wood bar caught her eye, and although the dominant color scheme was blue and deep yellow, almost Provençal, the tablecloths were multihued and accented with orange candles, much like the orange in the coffee shop. “I was wondering,” Autumn said. “How did you know I’d pick the coffee shop we went to?” “Oh, that was easy. You didn’t look like someone who’s into the same ol’, same ol’ when something better is available.” “Oh?” “I mean, you don’t seem very conventional. You look more . . . artistic. A thinking person, someone who doesn’t follow the crowd. So I figured you’d be drawn to places like that rather than the predictable chain shops.” “Well, I guess that makes sense.” Simple enough, though she’d thought it would be more specific or something she had said. She knew she wasn’t conventional, or at least not someone who always tried to fit in, but she didn’t realize she looked it. She played with her bracelet. Latched. Unlatched. Latched. Unlatched. She snapped the fastener and looked up. “So where did you go to college?” After some silent chewing, he explained. He’d studied at Columbia for his undergrad degree in comparative literature, and he’d lived with his mother. She was more supportive than his dad had been, and it worked out well since she spent most of her time with a love interest. He hesitated over love interest and reached for his beer. Autumn nudged him back to facts. They could talk about that some other time. “And I guess you’re doing your grad work at West Chester?” He nodded. “They have a solid MFA program in creative writing. That’s my focus.” “Interesting. But why isn’t your dad more supportive?” Too personal, maybe, but he’d mentioned it, and she was curious about his shrug the night before. Jory smiled wryly as he leaned back in his chair. He ran his hands through his hair and intertwined them behind his head. His dad had pushed culinary school since he was a kid. The restaurant business was all he knew, and even though he was wildly successful, his mother knew Jory didn’t want to spend his life working in kitchens or running the business. He loved cooking, and he was good at it; he just didn’t want it as a career. He’d grown up in restaurants, after all, and worked in every position on both good days and bad. The good days were great, he said. Lots of fun even if hard work. But the bad days meant high stress, even fights between cooks or between cooks and servers. One time someone pulled a knife, and drugs were common. “A knife? Seriously?” Autumn tried to imagine. “Yep. Good thing one of the dishwashers was huge, and he was used to crap like that. He pinned the guy down easily until the police got there.” Although his dad refused to support him in any other choice, his mother understood. She had already finished college when his parents met, and she continued to study even after they divorced. Jory speculated that education was partly why he and his dad clashed; his mom didn’t consider culinary school an education any more than Jory did. But she’d been young, in love, and hadn’t seen it as a potential problem. Autumn was fascinated. “What does she do for a living?” He laughed. “Dozes off while patients stare at the ceiling and talk about their screwed-up childhoods.” “What?” “Kidding. She’s a psychiatrist. A psychoanalyst. Lucky me, right?” “Wow. I don’t know about lucky. But she must be interesting.” Autumn tried to picture his mother. “Oh, she knows a thing or two.” He leaned forward. “You’re not going to joke about cigars? That’s a first.” Autumn shook her head. “No. I double majored as an undergrad — marketing and psych.” She winked. “And I know she might not be a fan of Freud — who is anymore? But I don’t remember who else she might follow. I didn’t learn much about psychoanalysis, but I think it’s big in literary circles, isn’t it? You psychoanalyze the characters, I think.” “Yeah, it is. We can talk about that, if you want, some other time. Well, I hope we can.” He looked around and raised a hand toward the bar. “Would you like to go for a walk? There’s a park just a few blocks away. It’s nice — well lit, benches, even swings. Quiet, usually, and safe. I go there to think sometimes. Or swing. Or both.” “Sure.” A walk sounded good. Easier to talk when not face to face. The waiter arrived, and Jory said he’d like to pay, as if he knew she’d ordinarily insist on splitting it. And she let him. It was mostly a business meeting, after all, and since he invited her, he should pick up the check. It would have bugged her, though, if he just assumed he’d pay. But that only applied to dates. Was this a date? She was married . . . While Jory chatted with the waiter, Autumn let “married” go and rolled the word “safe” around instead. Safe from muggers and murderers, no doubt, but safe with him? She was sure he wasn’t violent or a criminal, but as she pictured a park, a bench, and dim lighting, she knew she’d have to keep things formal. He was young, yet he seemed her own age. But he was like a child, too, a boy who laughed with abandon, innocence, or a certain glee. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but his entire being gave in to the joy of the moment. And when he spoke or listened to her, he was immersed in those moments as well, thoughtful and attentive. Once again, Jory led the way as they left the restaurant. She wanted to reach for his hand; it seemed so natural, as if his hand were a magnet. But she held back and focused, instead, on the sights and smells around her. Gay Street seemed to be the downtown area, and she wondered about the name. The street sign was ordinary, and nothing about the street itself suggested a reference to the residents like The Gayborhood in Philadelphia did. Food Row was a more apt name with aromas of tangy beer and pizza soon replaced by the spicy-gingery fragrance wafting from a Japanese restaurant. Within moments, smoky clouds of sweet and sour barbecue and peppery Jamaican jerk made her eyes water as it obliterated the ginger. And as they turned a corner, cumin and cinnamon and cloves and cardamom were replaced by the scent of fresh-mown grass and a street lined with well-kept Victorian homes probably considered mansions in their day. “Wow. I had no idea West Chester had so many homes like this.” “Oh, they’re everywhere,” Jory said. “I live in one, actually. It’s nothing as nice as these houses, though, and it’s just an apartment. But I have a turret!” He chuckled and cleared his throat. “A turret?” She examined the houses. One had a little tower on the corner, the rounded roof like a close-fitting hat. She blinked a few times and restrained a giggle as she looked at Jory. He stared straight ahead with just a hint of a smile playing around his mouth. Finally, he turned to her, his fingertips covering his mouth, a grin suppressed as his shoulders shook with silent laughter. “Sorry. Bit of a joke around here. I shouldn’t have said that.” Autumn laughed. She didn’t care. Everything seemed so light, so simple. It was so easy to be around him. “It’s fine. I totally get it. By all means, carry on.” She gestured dramatically with her hand. How long had it been since she’d laughed at silly jokes? He nodded. “Well, a lot of these big houses were converted into student housing or frat and sorority houses. It’s hard to tell, though, from the outside, but the wear and tear is usually the giveaway. I should give you the official historic tour.” The street, shadowed by arching oaks and maples and sycamores with thick trunks, was friendly and welcoming. The yards were tidy, as far as she could see by the street lights, and more than a few featured old-fashioned swings on wide porches or lattices covered with climbing roses. The park, too, was difficult to see beyond the brightly lit street and playground area, but it looked cared for with trimmed shrubs and smallish trees. Jory pointed to a wooden bench and sat down as he dropped his backpack to the ground. Autumn positioned hers between them and pulled her feet up to sit cross-legged, facing him. “So what did you do after your undergrad work?” “I worked some more.” He laughed as he, too, arranged his position to face her. “I waited tables at a restaurant here in Philly. It wasn’t one of my dad’s; we weren’t getting along back then. But I had to save money if I wanted to go to grad school. My mom helped, but I had to re-establish my Pennsylvania residency for a year to avoid the out-of-state tuition. And why I picked West Chester over Columbia is a long story.” Another uncomfortable topic. He pushed his hair back as Autumn made a mental note. Since he mentioned restaurant work, she brought up the chef position and asked for his thoughts. With his experience and a father who owned at least half of the five-star restaurants in Philadelphia, she had no doubt about his skills. He removed a folder from his backpack and handed her a reference list and a résumé. With her cell phone light, she read over it quickly. She was impressed, and even though things were happening fast, she decided to take a chance. This was exactly what she was looking for, and she had nothing to lose but time and effort. She would hire him with an agreement to a six-week trial period and a salary increase if all went well. “Check me out as much as you like — I’m about as clean as they come,” he joked. “I’ve never even had a traffic ticket. Boring, I know.” He grinned. “Not boring at all,” Autumn said. His cheer was infectious, and she couldn’t help but laugh. “I’ve never had one either, so if you’re boring, then so am I.” The previous night’s fire had become glowing embers, a warmth, a friendliness. And a connection, an understanding, as if they’d known each other a long time and only had to catch up. But in the darkness, he was even more attractive. His hair and eyes seemed darker, and at one point, when he pushed his hair back, she glimpsed earrings in both ears and another one, wider with an engraved pattern, further up. His earrings sparkled, like his eyes, and they made her wonder if he had any tattoos, but from habit she didn’t ask. Body art had nothing to do with job skills. As they headed back to the business district, Autumn kicked caution to the street. “Assuming your references check out fine, which I’m sure they will, when do you think you can start?” She watched his face and longed to wrap him in her arms — he was like oil in a dry lamp, manna from heaven, a light in the darkness. “Almost any time. I only have a few hours at Organic Originals right now, and I don’t have regular classes. And the time I spend on my thesis is pretty flexible.” “What about a few hours Tuesday afternoon? We’ll consider it the official interview but also paid time, and it would be for you, too, to see if we’ll get along. And you might not like the kitchen.” She raised her eyebrows. “Sounds good. And I can handle anything. Even a wood stove or a fireplace.” He laughed as they waited at a traffic light. “I’m just teasing,” she said. “The house is only a few years old, and the kitchen’s huge. It’s about as modern and trendy as they get, and I have almost every gadget imaginable.” “Everyone needs a McApple Apple Peeler! They’re indispensable, and every chef has one. Order now!” His imitation of a TV announcer was perfect. Autumn snickered. “But wait! That’s not all! If you order right now, you’ll get not one but two — that’s right, two amazing apple peelers plus a big pile of free junk for you and all your friends!” She pointed at a poster in a store window. “Advertising is crazy, isn’t it? Companies make millions using variations of the same old message. And I’ve written more than my share.” She laughed again. “I know, right?” Jory rolled his eyes skyward. “And then it’s stamped As Seen on TV and sold in stores, as if that adds credibility. Obviously it does for whoever buys the stuff or they wouldn’t do it.” After the laughter died down, she told him she’d check his references and get back to him on email by Monday. She pointed to her car as they approached. It was pretentious, and she hated it. She’d never wanted a luxury car much less a high-end Mercedes, but her husband had insisted. She’d have to sell it. She almost stopped. She wanted to talk forever, to pour out everything, tell him this wasn’t really her car, not her choice, not what she wanted. The feeling was so strong that tears almost welled up. She turned to him and caught herself before blurting out her thoughts. She stared. He tilted his head a little as he held her gaze and a smile spread across his face. She wanted to say something, but she couldn’t. She wished he would, but he didn’t. She watched as his eyes, almost imperceptibly, spoke for him. He wasn’t going anywhere. They’d made the connection and could relax, explore, wait. A different warmth flooded through her, and she relaxed as she took a deep breath. “Thanks, Jory. It was fun, and I’m looking forward to getting you started.” The business voice she’d used every day for years went into action. She could see him wondering what she was thinking, but she forced herself to ignore it. “I enjoyed it too,” he said. “Thanks for driving all this way. And I’m looking forward to Tuesday. Can’t wait to see that apple peeler!” He laughed. It was so natural, so unrestrained. She took a step forward and gave him a quick hug at the shoulder. She couldn’t just shake his hand after all they’d talked about, all he had shared, and what they had shared last night. He returned it warmly, and she almost regretted it. Too close, too close. Her palm burned, the spot on her back where he placed his hand burned, her . . . She forced it out of her mind and smiled and nodded and turned to her car. He stood on the sidewalk, relaxed and smiling. Graceful, poised, Adonis under a street lamp. She smiled again as she pulled out and drove away. FOUR A clatter of pots and pans echoed in the open-space kitchen. From her studio, Autumn couldn’t see Jory, but the occasional clang or rattle or cabinet door thud caught her attention as he explored her kitchen and equipment. She stared out the window, paintbrush in mid-air, and watched the water drops fall from the eaves. After a bright, sunny morning, clouds had moved in with a light drizzle. She had hoped to pull weeds in her flower beds and pick fresh flowers for a painting, but she had to change plans. Autumn had been skeptical about contacting Jory’s references on a weekend, but it made sense that chefs and restaurant managers worked when customers didn’t. Each had spoken highly of him, and he responded to her email within an hour. And today, the brief official interview had gone well as she reviewed the contract and other paperwork. She asked his permission for a background check and explained it was standard as she slid the document across the counter. He shrugged and filled it out, and she took a quick look before setting it aside. His birth date made him twenty-six. Ten years younger. He watched as she did the math in her head, and she smiled quickly. Professionally. Legally, she couldn’t discuss it anyway. Not with an employee. She was sure the background check would be clean, and after a quick kitchen tour, Jory was confident he wanted the job. He loved the kitchen, and the only equipment he’d need to bring were his own knives and a few specialized utensils. Autumn had set up an expense account, but she gave him cash so he could buy some oversized pots and bowls plus groceries and other supplies. His debit card would arrive in a week or so. She told him to explore as much as he liked, and she’d include the time in his pay. He wanted to take inventory and create some tentative menus and lists to review with her, but he would work on recipes and specifics at home. Mondays and Thursdays would be his regular days, and he’d work from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. She refocused on her canvas and drew her paintbrush upward in long, wide strokes and created a row of abstract figures, all male and shadowy except one. She adjusted her easel to catch the afternoon light, but the cloud cover was heavy. She turned on the reflector lamps hanging from the ceiling behind her. “Where do you keep things like sugar and flour?” Jory called out. Autumn turned. “The sugar’s in the vegetable bin in the refrigerator. The one on the right. And I think there’s some flour in there, too. Rice and all that is in the pantry.” “You keep sugar and flour in the fridge? Why?” He opened it and bent down. She couldn’t see him now with the breakfast bar in the way, but she could hear plastic and metal clanging. “I think it’s broken,” he said. “It’s just off the track, that’s all. The shelf above it sort of slipped out of the thing that holds it up. Pull harder and lift the shelf up at the same time.” A loud crash announced his success. He stood, grinning, and held the bin up like a trophy. He lowered it and peeked in. “Wow. You’ve got sugar and flour and quinoa in here and . . . lard?” He set the drawer on the center island and held up a small white box. “I thought you’re a vegetarian.” “Oh, right. That was for killing ants at my old house. You mix it with honey or sugar, I think, and something else. Borax? I wasn’t sure I needed it here, but I brought it just in case. You can throw it out. I haven’t seen any ants so far.” He raised an eyebrow in mock horror. “Oh, my God. You’re a murderer! Killing poor innocent bugs with a dead cow’s fat. Tsk, tsk.” He examined the box and bags. “Based on the expiration dates, I should probably throw all this stuff out.” “It’s that old? Sure, throw it out.” She laughed as he grasped each item with his fingertips and dropped them gingerly in the trash can. “So you don’t think I should keep flour and sugar in the refrigerator? I was worried about bugs. I mean, you never know.” Jory looked up. “Nah. Unless you have an ant problem, I wouldn’t worry about it. And I doubt you have cockroaches way out here in Sticksville; you’d know it if you did. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll put stuff like that in the pantry. That will give you more cold storage space.” “Sure. Great idea. But what about worms in the flour?” Autumn frowned. “That only happens if you have moths or flour bugs around — weevils — or if the flour is already contaminated. They lay eggs in the flour, and presto! Worms. Larvae, actually. This is such a new house, though, and it looks clean. I doubt you have a problem. But it’s still a good idea to keep it in sealed containers and wipe down shelves and cabinets regularly. And if you see any moths flying around, let me know. I haven’t seen any so far.” He moved the bin to the sink behind the breakfast bar and ran water. “I can buy some storage containers with tight lids if you’d like.” He scrubbed the bin and rinsed it. “Where are the dish towels?” “In the drawer on the right. Well, on your left.” She pointed. “Thanks. I don’t like to use my hand towel on the dishes.” He jiggled the towel tucked in his apron string as he opened the drawer. He was an authority just as he’d been at Organic Originals. Her eyes lingered on the figure he made in her kitchen, the tousled golden-brown hair, the slender but athletic body. He was dressed almost the same as the first time they’d met: casual jeans and a button-up cotton shirt, this time a pale blue. Hiking shoes. And a white, full-length apron with a white bar towel tucked in the strings around his hips. “Okay,” Autumn said. “Yes, get the storage containers. And I’ll ask Darly, my housekeeper, to be on the lookout for moths. And let me know if you need a higher limit on your expense account. You’ll probably have to buy a lot just to get started.” She was almost drunk with this, this being cared for. A cleaning service was one thing and almost passé. But her own chef solved so many problems. Now she could finally focus on her work and eat right. And the fact that the chef was extraordinarily good-looking couldn’t be ignored. “I think it’ll be more than enough — your kitchen is fabulous, and you already have just about everything. But thanks. I’ll let you know.” He was almost bouncing up and down, obviously excited about getting things set up the way he needed them. He stood between the pewter-colored stove and the long center island. “This six-burner gas stove is great — it’s almost industrial strength.” He grinned and tested the gas flames. “Two ovens, the extra sink here with the pull-down faucet . . . ” He pulled the hose out and sprayed water. “I couldn’t ask for more in a home kitchen. And this is eco-friendly glass, isn’t it?” He stroked the pale, speckled countertop. Autumn smiled. “Yes, it’s recycled. I insisted on it.” He nodded and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Well, there’s not much I’ll need. I mean, it looks like you’ve been collecting kitchen equipment for years.” He looked around. “Are you sure you’re not the chef?” “Not a chance.” He opened the pantry door where she stored food as well as small appliances: a juicer, a blender, a food processor, and so much she’d never used. Most had been wedding gifts; others were items she and her husband had purchased on good days, the early days when they shared their love of good food and had fun cooking together until he became competitive and obsessed with perfection. She returned to her canvas. The cabinet doors and drawers thumping, dishes clattering, and the occasional bang were comforting; it made the house seem lived in and alive. And what had been wishful thinking only last week was now a reality that hardly seemed real. She dabbed her paintbrush in water and wiped off the excess before dipping it in oxide black and a little titanium white for shadows. A little phthalo blue . . . It was hard to stop thinking about Jory, though. By mid-afternoon, he asked her to review his work. She needed to stretch, anyway, and she did a few lunges on her way to the kitchen. He handed her a pen and a questionnaire, and she leaned against the counter to study it. “We can get started right now,” he said. “But check out these food types over the next few days” — he gave her a list — “and make some notes about your preferences and anything I should know. You said you’re a vegetarian, for example. But how strict are you? I mean, I eat mostly vegetarian, but sometimes I’ll grab a hard-boiled egg or a piece of chicken at work.” His pen was poised. “There’s nothing animal-based I can’t live without,” Autumn said as she circled an option on the questionnaire. “But cheese is fine — I adore a good brie. Plain yogurt is good too but the regular kind, not low fat or zero fat; it’s awful. If milk is in the recipe, that’s okay if it’s not too much. I don’t drink it, though, and in coffee I’d rather have soy milk.” “So you like soy milk? Any other kind?” She nodded. “Almond milk. And coconut is good, too, especially in something like rice pudding or a curry or pad Thai. I haven’t tried any others, though.” He scribbled notes. “Anything else I should know? Food allergies? Nuts or anything?” “No. None that I know of. Oh, wait. I can’t eat fresh cherries. My mouth gets itchy. Same with pineapple, but if it’s cooked, it’s not a problem. I love grilled pineapple. Or fried. Whatever.” “Do you eat fish?” “Rarely. Usually salmon, if anything, grilled until it’s all dried out and no longer resembles fish.” She grinned. “But I can get the same nutrients from other sources, especially now that I have help.” She gave him a thumbs up and he gave her two. And when he was satisfied he had enough information, she turned toward her studio but stopped.

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