posted on 16-Aug-2002 3:18:26 AM
Title: American Dream
Author: SansuCry
Email: sansucry⊕earthlink.net
Rating: PG-13, some parts R for violence and language
Category: AU, M/L with other CC. No aliens.
Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Roswell or any one associated with it.
Summary: Max is a farmer, Liz is a developer. What happens when their visions of the American Dream collide?

Feedback is appreciated.
This is dedicated to GTB, whose love of the land is truly an inspiration.




Part 1


“Max, I wish I could help you, but my hands are tied. Between the mortgage on the farm and the note on the combine, you are already way in over your head. The bank simply cannot extend you any more credit.”

Max Evans could only give Dan Seligman a blank stare. Five generations of Evans farmers had been coming to this bank to borrow money, and they had always paid back every penny. Until three years ago. Until…

“You know that if it were up to me, I’d give you the money in a second. But I’ve got people I have to answer to. Please understand, Max. It’s just business.”

Max didn’t even try to stifle the snort that came from deep in his throat. Funny how everyone at the bank used to greet him and his father by name each time they came in, back when times were good.

“Hey Philip! I hear you got six dollars a bushel over in Lockton.”

“Great tackle Friday night, Max. Bet you’ll make All-American again.”

“Good morning, Mr. Evans. Trudi tells me that you didn’t get any damage from that hail storm.”

“Good luck at college, Max. We’re going to miss you around here.”



Once things started heading south, suddenly no one greeted him. They went out of their way to avert their eyes now, boring financial reports becoming the most interesting thing in the world whenever he came through those doors. Some of them just didn’t know what to say to him. ‘I’m sorry’ didn’t seem to cover all that he had lost this past year. Others didn’t want to be witness to what he would lose in the future.

“What about a second mortgage?”

Mr. Seligman let out a deep sigh. “Max, I know you’ve heard this before but in case you’ve forgotten, no one would think any less of you if you sold…”

“NO.” Max’s voice was strong and firm. “That is not an option.”

“Maybe it should be. Your father…”

“My father raised me to never give up, no matter how hard things got. My family has been farming that land since before this damned bank even existed, so don’t you dare tell me what my father would have wanted me to do.” Standing up, he raised his voice a little louder before continuing. “My father taught me that if you were honest and true to yourself, worked hard and asked the Good Lord for guidance, you would be rewarded with prosperity.” He grabbed his hat and leaned over the desk, his turbulent amber eyes piercing straight through the loan officer.

“That, my friend, is called the American Dream.”

Without another glance he headed for the door, roughly pushing it open with one hand as he strode out into the filtered spring sunlight.




“Miss Parker, your father wants an update on the land acquisition for the Kensington Ridge development. He wants to make sure things stay on track,” Maria DeLuca commented to her boss.

Liz Parker smiled inwardly. Of course things were going to stay on track. This was the first project that her father had entrusted to her where she had 100% control, and she was going to prove to him that Money magazine was right: she was one of the ‘Top 10 Young Entrepreneurs to Watch’.

“Please, just Liz,” the petite brunette reminded her new secretary. “Does he want the files or just a list?” she asked as she sat upright in her chair.

“He didn’t say, but I’m sure a list will be fine. If he wants the files, I’ll come back for them,” Maria said as she sat down across from Liz.

Liz looked at the two stacks of files in front of her. “Rogers, Huntington, Sayfield and Ayers are all going to be closing this week. Johansen, Evans and Bitman are still on hold for one reason or another, but I don’t expect them to be too far behind. Sean is working on Johansen. I think he mentioned that the owner is already in a nursing home and that it is just a matter of time for the paperwork to be finished. Evans is just being stubborn from what Kyle has said…he won’t even meet with our attorneys. I may have to look into that one personally. And Bitman…I think if we offer another grand per acre they’ll bite, and we’ll still be two grand per acre under our projected price.”

“Okay,” Maria said, standing up and walking towards the door.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Liz called out before the pixie blonde could leave. “For this Evans…Max Evans…find out anything you can about him that I might be able to use as leverage. The last thing I need is one holdout screwing up my schedule. I want to be breaking ground out there within the month.”

“Sure thing,” Maria consented before leaving Liz alone.

Liz turned to look out her office window. She loved being back in Chicago. Not that there was anything wrong with the East Coast…it just wasn’t home. Swiveling back to examine her office, her eyes fell on the photos on her desk. The one of her dad on their boat, his arms around a much younger Liz. The more recent one of her graduation, her dad flanking one side of her while Kyle was planted on the other side, his arm possessively wrapped around her shoulder.

Glancing around she couldn’t help but be proud of her accomplishments. Even if she weren’t Jeffrey Parker’s daughter, she had earned every right to occupy the corner office. She had been educated at the best schools, took advantage of every opportunity that had presented itself, learned the art of converting useless farmland into stunning commercial and residential developments at the heels of her father, and now she was on the verge of making a name all for herself. Could life get any better?

She was living the American Dream.


[ edited 5 time(s), last at 23-Oct-2002 1:05:28 AM ]
posted on 16-Aug-2002 3:19:35 AM
Part 2

“I hear Bitmans finally caved in,” Alex Whitman said to his best friend as they sat on the porch, watching the chilly spring rain fall for the fourth day in a row. “Got five hundred dollars an acre more than they wanted.”

Max shook his head sadly. “Nothing but vultures, the whole damn lot of them,” he grumbled before taking another bite of his peanut butter sandwich. Too wired to enjoy it, he chewed quickly. “And Parker Development Corp. is at the top of the heap. ‘We Grow Communities.’ My ass they do. All they do is destroy people’s lives. ‘Wear them down ‘til they can’t refuse, then screw them over’. That should be their motto. That Kyle Valenti guy of theirs has called me fifteen times in the last week. Fifteen times. That’s harassment, plain and simple.”

“Why don’t you tell me how you really feel?” Alex asked sarcastically.

Max stuffed the last piece of crust into his mouth. Washing it down with a swig of water, he said apologetically, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to drag you down. I guess I’m still mad that the bank turned me down for that operating loan. How do they expect me to pay them back on the mortgage and the combine if they won’t advance me the money to plant my crops? Can you believe Seligman even had the nerve to suggest I sell out?”

Alex knew better than to tell Max that he thought Seligman was right. The two had been friends since they were young enough to sleep in cribs, and the only thing deeper than his respect for Max’s determination was his love for Max’s younger sibling, Isabelle. It had been an unexpected occurrence, but as the bratty little girl who followed him around everywhere blossomed into a beautiful young woman, neither of them could resist the insistent beckoning of their hearts. Max had been so pissed when he found out, chasing Alex around the farm and threatening to kill him for daring to touch his innocent sister, that it hadn’t mattered one bit that Alex had only kissed Isabelle one time. It was only after Zanny, the oldest of the Evans children, got Max in a headlock and proclaimed that he, if anybody, would be defending their sister’s honor that Max finally calmed down enough to listen to reason. Soon not only had he accepted his best friend and his sister as a couple, but he also silently wished that he would someday be as in love as those two were.

“I’m going to use what’s left of my college fund.” Max’s unemotional statement snapped Alex out of his reminiscing.

“Max, you can’t,” Alex said simply.

“Why not? Do you really think I’ll ever be going back?” he started to bite out bitterly but softened his tone when he saw the concern on his friend’s face. “There’s just enough to buy the seed and chemicals if I plant 300 acres of soybeans and 200 of corn.”

“And what are you going to live off of? What about the loan payments? That’s the last of your cash.” Take the fifty grand and run, he wanted to tell this man who was like his brother. Run and don’t look back..

“Doug’s Dad said I could come and work at the steel press mill on the days I don’t have anything to do around here.”

“Right. How often does that happen?” Alex asked cynically, knowing that the path Max had chosen was a constant labor.

“Even if I only work a few hours a week, it will be enough for groceries. I’m not saying things aren’t going to be tight, but I’ll make it work. I have to. Seligman agreed that they wouldn’t foreclose as long as I was making some kind of payment, even if it’s only a hundred bucks a month. I just have to make sure I’m caught up after the harvest.”

Alex knew that Max had probably already come up with every conceivable argument against this idea, but he wouldn’t be Max’s best friend if he didn’t let Max know that what he was planning could be financial suicide.

“If this rain don’t let up all the money in the world won’t get those crops planted. What happens if we have a repeat of last year?”

Max looked down at his hands, not really wanting to hear the warning his friend was giving him. The previous year had been a disaster in so many ways. Spring had started out just like this one: cold and wet. Once the fields had dried out enough for planting to begin, Zanny, Isabelle and he had used every minute the sun was up to get the crops in. Of course as soon as they had finished planting it didn’t rain another measurable drop for two months. When harvest time came the drought had taken its toll, and yields were much lower than he had expected. The farm had barely broken even. “Last year was a fluke,” he argued, trying to convince himself as well as Alex. Suddenly deciding he wanted to end this conversation, he said in a decisive tone. “The rain’ll let up by tonight. I’m going down to Milt’s today to make delivery arrangements. That way I’ll be ready once it’s dry enough.”

“Whatever you think is best, Max,” Alex said, the words his own personal way of telling his friend he would be there to help him any way he could.




“What do you have for me today?” Liz asked as soon as she arrived at the office.

“The info you wanted for the Evans file,” Maria explained. “Apparently Kyle had already started researching this, so I started with his notes.”

“So what’s the scoop?”

“Farm’s been in the family forever. Typical operating loans each year, always paid back on time. Then four years ago they took out a loan on a combine, which they still owe sixty thousand on. Two and a half years ago they mortgaged the place to the hilt.”

“Why the sudden change?” Liz asked, wondering why a debt-free farm would suddenly incur such huge liabilities during prosperous times.

“Medical bills.”

“Medical bills?”

“Seems the father, Philip Evans was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. They had no health insurance, so the only way to pay for treatment was to mortgage the farm. The guy died a little over a year ago, so now his wife and three children are in charge. It appears that Max Evans is in charge of running the operation.”

“How much is owed on the mortgage?”

“The original loan was for three quarters of a million, and it has been paid down to a little more than seven hundred thirty-five thousand. First National of Plainsland holds the note,” Maria said, recalling the information off the top of her head. It had been hard enough for her to take out a twenty thousand-dollar loan for a new car. She couldn’t fathom how nerve-wracking it would be to owe hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“All that went for medical bills? Damn,” Liz shook her head in disbelief. “First National. Isn’t that Sparky Andrew’s bank?”

“Um, I’m not sure,” Maria hesitated. She silently chastised herself for not being thorough enough. Not a good way to impress a new boss.

“I’m pretty sure it is. Check into that for me. If it is Sparky’s bank, get his number and find out his drink of choice. I want to give him a call. If worse comes to worse and this Evans family still refuses to negotiate, I may need to get a little heavy handed,” Liz said pensively. “Is that all for now, Maria?”

“One other thing. Senator Durkstrom’s office called. He’s in town for some re-election fund-raiser. He would like you and your father to attend, of course, but he also wanted to borrow you two for a press conference to tout his Developers’ Tax Abatement Program. Your father thought it would be a good opportunity to release the plans for Kensington Ridge.”

Liz sighed. She hadn’t wanted to go public until they had acquired all the land for the project, worrying that a rival might start a bidding war for the remaining parcels just to throw a wrench into her plans. Since Johansen was already in the bag that just left Evans, and she was sure that with the information Maria had just provided she would have the upper hand on that one. Never foolish enough to pass up free advertising, she conceded, “That sounds great. When and where?”

“Day after tomorrow, ten in the morning. They’ll have the sales office trailer set up on the Sayfield property by then, so your father wants to hold it there.”

“All right. It looks like you and I are taking our first road trip together on Friday. I want to get there in plenty of time, so let’s plan to leave here at 8:30. It’s about a forty-five minute drive out there, so that will give me plenty of time to organize the press release info and look over the scale model.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Maria agreed before leaving her boss alone with her thoughts.

Liz was looking forward to driving out to Plainsland for the press conference. She had only been to the Kensington site twice, but she loved seeing the other sixty or so developments around the county that had Parker Development Corp. signs proudly displayed at their entrances. It seemed that every time she meandered through the countryside, the sight of a drab lifeless farmhouse surrounded by acres of land being squandered on corn and wheat and whatever those bean things were inspired her to create a project that would showcase the land’s true potential.

With the unveiling of her very first solo effort on Friday, she knew that it would be the beginning of something great. Hopefully she could take time for a little drive in the country after the conference was over.

Because she was ready to be inspired, as she had never been before.


posted on 16-Aug-2002 3:22:10 AM
Part 3

Even wrapped up in her covers, Liz could tell it was a sunny day. Finally, after five days of rain, the sun had made an appearance, and just in time for her press conference. She wouldn’t be stuck standing out in the pouring rain.

Could this day get any better?

She lazily stretched as she tossed her comforter aside, walking over to the window to watch the sailboats gliding across Lake Michigan in the early morning sun. She loved how the bright oranges and yellow reflected on the water as the sun made its first appearance of the…

Wait a minute. The sun was not on the horizon. Apparently it had been up for quite some time.

Turning to look at her alarm clock, her dark chocolate eyes became two big saucers as she saw no numbers on the digital display.

“Shit.” The electricity was off.

What time was it? Jogging into her bathroom, she grabbed her watch.

8:15

“SHIT!”

That only gave her fifteen minutes to get ready and make it to the office in time to pick up Maria. Good thing she had built some extra time into the schedule. Briskly walking to the utility closet, she found the fusebox in the dark room and popped open the door. Pushing the reset button, she waited and…

Nothing happened.

“Shit! I can’t believe this is happening.” Five days of rain and thunderstorms and the power didn’t so much as flicker. And now, on one of the most important days of her life, she can’t even…

Take a shower. “Damn it!”

Of course she had chosen to live on the fiftieth floor. What a beautiful view of the lake, she had thought. Now there was all that water down there, but with no electricity in the building…or maybe there was.

She bolted for the door but even before she opened it, the telltale hum of the florescent lights that usually illuminated the corridors was noticeably absent.

With no electricity in the building, there was no way to pump even an ounce of water up fifty floors to reach her bathroom.

Whatcouldshedo? Whatcouldshedo?

Parker Development had a corporate gym. She could just shower there.

Grabbing the gray power suit that she saved for special occasions, she put it in her garment bag along with the pink silk blouse that Kyle had given her for Christmas.

“Bra. Underwear. Pantyhose. Oh, can’t forget the lucky earrings. Watch…better put that on right now. Jewelry bag. Shampoo…strawberry today. Matching soap. Deodorant. Perfume. Toothpaste. Toothbrush. Heels. Anything else? 8:30? Shit!”

She ran to her closet and put on the first thing she could find, a faded pair of jeans and her favorite cranberry sweater. Stuffing her bare feet into her tennis shoes, she gathered up the rest of her things and headed to the…

“No elevator? Damn it!” Why in the hell had she needed a condo with a view of the lake? It was just a bunch of sewage infested rain drops anyway.

Fifty flights of stairs, a car ride across the Loop and half an hour later, Liz burst into her office, impeccably dressed in…

A faded pair of jeans and a cranberry sweater.

“Miss Parker, is everything all right? Your father…”

“It’s Liz. Just Liz. And no, I’m not all right. This has been the morning from hell, if you must know.”

“Uh…”

“Are you ready to go? ‘Cuz we only have about fifteen minutes worth of leeway now.”

“What about your clothes? Are you going to wear that to…”

“Of course not! Look, I don’t have time to shower now. I’m just going to get dressed out at the trailer. What were you saying about my father?”

“We tried contacting you, but we couldn’t get through on you home line or cell…”

“Yeahyeahyeah. Power went out, no phone, no charged battery for the cell phone. Anyway, my father...”

“He said to tell you that he’ll meet you out there at a quarter to ten to go over everything for the press conference. He said don’t be late.”

“Then what are you waiting for? Let’s go!”




Maria never wanted to ride with her boss again…at least not until her life insurance was paid up.

“Damn it! Where are those pantyhose? I know I packed them. How the hell can I get dressed without pantyhose. MARIA!” Liz called from the bathroom.

The still shaken secretary cracked the door open just enough to answer her boss. “Yes, Miss…Liz?”

“Here. Take my car and go buy me some pantyhose. Suntan. Petite. There’s a Walgreens right in the center of town.”

“Um, I’ve never been out here before. I don’t…”

“It’s not rocket science. You pull out here, take a left, a right, then another left and then two rights in a row. It’s on the second street on the left hand side.”

“Ok, I go right out here. Then I take two lefts and three rights?”

“No. When you pull out of here, you go left. Then you take a…oh, nevermind. We’re wasting time. I’ll just go get the damned things myself.”

“Are you sure? Your father will be here in fifteen minutes.”

“I’ll be there, back and dressed before he’s even stepping out of his car.”

If Liz’s driving from Chicago to Plainsland was any indication, Maria didn’t doubt it.



“Who the hell is sold out of petite pantyhose? Do a bunch of midgets live around here or what?” Liz ranted to herself as she got back behind the wheel. “Can this day get any crappier?”

She pulled out of Walgreens lot and began to drive back to the sales office trailer. As she passed one of the older strips of businesses, she spotted a drug store stashed away in the corner. Quickly pulling into the lot, she hopped out and ran inside.

“Pantyhose?” she asked the white-haired woman who was at the checkout counter.

“Straight back. By the pharmacy.”

“Thanks.”

Straight back. Straight back. Bingo. Petite? Suntan? Yeah Baby! Let’s go pay for these and get the…

BAM! She was flat on her ass. Just as she was about to bite the head off of the jerk who had slammed into her, a lightly tanned, well-muscled arm reached down to pull her up.

“I am so sorry, miss. I was coming around the corner and didn’t see you. Are you all right?”

And for the first time in her life, Liz Parker was speechless.

His voice was a mixture of warmth and strength, and he spoke with such sincerity that she couldn’t help but take his hand. Once she was back on her feet, she found herself staring up at the most magnificent pair of eyes she had ever seen. They were a deep amber with tiny flecks of gold that made it appear as though he were looking straight into her soul. Bordered by thick dark lashes and set in a face that looked wise beyond his years, he couldn’t have been much older than she. His raven hair looked as though it had been hidden under a hat, the very tips of it tinged red by the sun. His chiseled cheekbones highlighted those magnificent eyes of his, and the stubble that shadowed his face only made the angle of his chin appear all the more masculine. The softness of his lips rivaled the gruff calluses on the hand that was steadying her, and she couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to have those lips kissing her bare…

“Miss?”

“Huh?”

“I asked you whether you were all right. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“OH! Uh, no,” she finally choked out around the lump that had formed in her throat as she watched those perfect lips form into an even more perfect grin.

“No, you aren’t all right or no, I didn’t hurt you?”

Shaking off her stupor, she managed to say, “I’m fine. No harm done. I just lost my…”

“These?” he asked as he bent over to pick up the package of pantyhose, uncurling the fingers of her hand so that she could grasp them.

She nodded.

“Have I seen you around here before? You seem familiar to me.”

“Um, I come out here on business once in a while.” Business. Damn! “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I really need to…go.”

“As long as you’re all right…”

“Yeah. I’m fine. Really.” Although you could give me a little mouth-to-mouth just to be sure.

“Ok. Well, maybe I’ll run into you again sometime, Leggs.”

“Huh?”

Pointing to the pantyhose and making his even more perfect grin the epitome of perfection by gently biting his bottom lip, he repeated, “Leggs.”

“Oh,” she said as she finally realized his joke, she added. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”

“Bye.”

Her eyes couldn’t leave his body as she watched him walk back to the pharmacy. Never had the traditional farmer’s uniform of denim overalls looked so damn good, and she longed to be that baseball cap stuck in his back pocket.

Shaking her head to bring herself back to reality, she smiled at the white-haired woman as she paid for her purchase, straining to hear his rich voice as bits of his conversation with the pharmacist filtered through the air.

“Blah blah blah, Mack,” an older voice responded to whatever he had asked.

So his name is Mack.

She’d just have to make it a point to let Mack run into her again.

Could this day get any better?



Could this day get any worse?

She had been so adrift in her thoughts of Mack that somehow she had missed a turn and had ended up incredibly, hopelessly lost. It was amazing how all these damn backroads looked exactly like all the other backroads she had already come across.

She might have found it a little humorous even, if her watch hadn’t read 10:00. Talk about royally screwing up. She was going to be a no-show at her first solo press conference.

She spent another twenty minutes driving around before she spotted a Parker Development sign that pointed the way to the new Kensington Ridge Development, A Unique Blend of Commercial and Residential Properties. Turning in the direction the sign indicated, she immediately knew when she had reached the first plots of land Parker Development owned. She knew the order by heart: Bitman, Huntington, Ayers, Evans, Rogers, Johansen, Sayfield.
As she approached the Evans farm, she wondered whether she should take the time to stop and talk some sense into this Max Evans. It was already 10:30, so there was no point in rushing to get to the press conference. It was most likely over by now.

She pulled into the gravel driveway that was next to the white mailbox, ‘EVANS’ neatly lettered in black paint on the side of it. She drove slowly to avoid damaging the underside of her Mercedes on some of the deep potholes that peppered the long path to the various buildings on the property, finally parking in front of the farmhouse that faced the road she had just turned from.

She stepped out and tentatively walked to the door, half expecting some lunatic with a pitchfork in one hand and a shotgun in the other to come rushing out and attack her. She knocked and waited. Knocked and waited. One last time. When there was no answer, she spun on her heels to go back to her car, almost screaming when she saw the tall skinny man standing next to it.

“Can I help you?” he asked politely.

“I’m looking for Max Evans,” she said hesitantly.

“He’s not here right now. I’m hoping he’ll be back in the next ten or fifteen minutes, if you want to wait,” he offered.

“Are you his brother?”

“No. My name is Alex. I’m just a friend.”

“Oh. Nice to meet you, Alex,” she said in a nearly condescending tone before looking at her watch. She knew this confrontation with Mr. Evans would probably not be pleasant, and with all the other lousy things that had happened so far that day, she didn’t think she could manage the patience to wait around for him. “I really can’t stay. I’ll just try to call him later.”

“Suit yourself,” he shrugged before walking back to the barn he had come from.

She got back into her car and made the slow trek back to the road, turning in the right direction to get to the sales office on the Sayfield property. As she reached the point where the Rogers and Johansen land met, she spied a red pickup truck approaching at breakneck speed. “Damn, they drive faster than me,” she muttered as the vehicle flew by her, kicking up a trail of dust and rocks behind it.

She continued on her journey until she reached the sales office trailer, pulling into the makeshift parking lot before getting out to bear the wrath of her father. She spotted him standing with Senator Durkstrom, both men apparently upset by something. Taking a quick look around, she noticed that there were still several reports hanging about, either writing in their notepads or talking in small groups.

Spying Maria cowering in the doorway of the trailer, she quickly walked over to her secretary.

“Liz, where have you been?” the dirty blonde asked as she grabbed Liz’s arm.

“Where haven’t I been?”

Maria wanted to remind her boss that it wasn’t rocket science. “Anyway I am so glad you’re back.”

“Why? What’s wrong?” What could have happened to put everyone on edge?

“You just missed seeing Max Evans on the war path.”

Could this day get any crappier?

posted on 16-Aug-2002 3:23:13 AM
Part 4

Max hated days like this. It was a beautiful bright spring morning, yet the seeds waiting to be planted continued to wait, the fields still wet from the previous days’ rain. If he tried to put a tractor in any one of them, it would sink to its axles in no time. It wasn’t as though he didn’t have anything else to occupy his time, but the truth remained that this year’s harvest would either be his demise or his salvation. Ideal planting time to achieve the highest yields was between April 26th and May 10th, and with this already being the 3rd he’d need to work seven twelve hour days to have everything planted in that time. That was assuming he could plant about six acres an hour, a lofty goal in some of the bottomland areas.

In any case he wouldn’t be planting this day, so as soon as the sun came up he had set out to do some of the endless tasks that had been piling up. Farming is all about family and machinery. Take care of both and they’ll take care of you. He could hear his father’s voice in his head and knew that the elder Evans would be ashamed of him. Looking at it now even he was embarrassed to see the condition he had left the combine in last fall, the mud plastered on the sides a reminder of just how awful that time in his life had been. Not only had he left the exterior a mess, but he had also let the expensive piece of machinery sit without winterizing it, a very foolish way to ruin a sizable investment.

Alex had shown up around seven, his choice to spend his day off from the repair shop helping his best friend now like second nature to him. After a quick briefing with Max to discuss what they planned to accomplish the two men set to work, occasionally breaking into conversations on various subjects before returning to a comfortable silence. After spending a couple of hours washing down and waxing the combine, Max decided to take a break to go pick up the filters he would need to maintain the large piece of equipment.

“I should have told my dad to bring them home last night,” Alex chastised himself. “Do you want me to go get them?”

“Don’t worry about it. I was planning to stop in at Kelley’s anyway and settle up with them now that I cashed in those bonds. You can come with me if you want.”

“Nah. I think I’ll go up to the house for a little while.”

Max just nodded, knowing exactly which room Alex would be going to.




“Hey, Max. How’s it going?” Mr. Whitman greeted his son’s friend as the young man walked into the front of the shop, respectfully removing his cap and cramming it into the back pocket of his overalls.

“Good, sir. And you?” Max replied politely.

“Did Alex tell you I’m sharecropping my acreage with Steve McCullum?” the man asked as he pushed his glasses up his nose.

“He mentioned that you were getting too busy with the car repairs to worry about planting crops. I’m glad business is good for you.” Thinking a minute, he added, “Steve’s a pretty responsible guy, so I don’t think you’ll have any problems with him. I’ve seen him get 172 bushels an acre on corn.”

“He’s looking to buy a pickup. Thought you might want to know in case you’re planning to sell any,” Alex’s dad hinted.

“Thanks. I’ll remember that,” Max replied, glad to know that someone was looking out for him.

“So, what can I do for you today, son?”

“Need filters for the combine. Two 8820’s and one 1650.”

“That all?”

“Yup.”

Mr. Whitman disappeared into the back room for several minutes before returning with the items Max had requested. “That’ll be sixteen even.”

Max gave Mr. Whitman an incredulous look, knowing full well that the bill should be over twenty-five dollars. “Mr. Whitman, I can’t …”

“I’m not making you a charity case, Max. You’re like family to me, you know that. And I always charge family at cost,” the kindhearted man said with a wink.

“Thank you. I appreciate it,” Max said solemnly as he handed over the money.

“I bet you’re chompin’ at the bit to get out into those fields,” the middle-aged man commented with a gleam in his eye, remembering all too well the impatience that came with warm spring weather.

“Yeah. I’m going to try the north field tomorrow. I figure the ridge will be the driest place.”

“Well, good luck to ya. Ag report says no rain 'til next Wednesday.”

“I hope they’re right,” Max commented as he gathered up his purchase.



Since it was such a beautiful day weather-wise, Max decided to walk down the street to Kelley’s Drug Store after dropping the filters in the front seat of the pickup, not bothering to toss his cap back on for the short jog.

“Good morning, Mrs. Kelley,” he greeted as he walked into the small store, his boots pounding on the hardwood floor.

“You’re a grown man now, Max. You can call me Phyllis,” she teased.

He leaned over the counter and whispered, “If I did that, the world just might come to an end.”

She let out a hearty laugh and playfully slapped him on the shoulder.

He gave her a wink and started walking towards the back when something in the next aisle caught his eye. Changing direction he made his way over to the small green bottle and picked it up. Lady’s Choice Aftershave. A smile lit up his eyes as he remembered that his dad’s birthday was next week. As far back as he could recall, his mother would bring him here a few days before that date, and he would pick out a bottle of Lady’s Choice to give to his father as a gift. He would beam with pride as his dad opened the carefully wrapped present, a huge grin coming across his face when his dad thanked him. It wasn’t until he was a freshman in high school that he found out that the stuff was truly awful. His dad must have been a saint to wear it instead of hurting his feelings. He put the bottle back on the shelf and shook his head. What he wouldn’t give to see his dad open a birthday present just one more time.

Not wanting to spend the whole day running errands he left the aisle and turned the corner, running smack dab into some poor woman and knocking her on her behind. He couldn’t believe he had been so clumsy.

He offered her his hand as he apologized, hoping that he hadn’t hurt the petite young woman. “I am so sorry, miss. I was coming around the corner and didn’t see you. Are you all right?”

With a toss of her head she flipped her silky dark hair over her shoulder, a flicker of anger flashing over her features before she looked up at him and took his hand. He almost lost his grip on her when his eyes met hers, the most magnificent pair of eyes he had ever seen. The were of a brown deeper and wider than the rich soil that lined the edges of Whitman’s pond and the sparkle in them made it appear as though she were looking straight into his soul. Bordered by thick dark lashes and set in a face that was both innocent and tempting, she couldn’t have been much younger than he. The hair that now rested behind her shoulders went halfway down her back and just begged for him to run his fingers through it. The softness of her full lips was only rivaled by the softness of the skin under his hand, and he couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to kiss her bare…

He could not go there.

Realizing that this beautiful creature hadn’t answered him, he asked, “Miss?”

“Huh?” she asked, sounding a little stunned.

Hoping that he hadn’t knocked the breath out of her he replied, “I asked you whether you were all right. I didn’t hurt you, did I?” She looked so cute just standing there staring up at him that he couldn’t resist smiling at her.

“OH! Uh, no.”

Oh, gosh. She was having a difficult time talking. Maybe she had hit her head on the floor. “No, you aren’t all right or no, I didn’t hurt you?”

“I’m fine. No harm done. I just lost my…”

He sighed with relief that he hadn’t injured her. His eyes following her line of sight, he noticed the package of stockings on the floor. He bent over to pick them up. “These?” he asked as he held them out to her. Petite? She sure was that. Suntan? Bet she’d be a knockout in a bikini.Don’t go there! When she didn’t take them, he uncurled the fingers of her hand and placed the package in her palm.

She nodded at him, a strange expression on her face.

Taking a second very good look at her, he was certain that he recognized her from somewhere. “Have I seen you around here before? You seem familiar to me.”

“Um, I come out here on business once in a while.” An irritated look marred her exquisite features before she gave him a sweet smile. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I really need to…go.”

“As long as you’re all right…” he inquired, silently hoping she’d ask him to perform a little mouth-to-mouth just to be sure.

“Yeah. I’m fine. Really.”

Darn. No such luck. Trying to come up with something witty, he blurted out, “Ok. Well, maybe I’ll run into you again sometime, Leggs.” Leggs? Good one, genius. You’re Mr. Suave.

“Huh?”

Pointing to the pantyhose, he nervously bit his lip and repeated his lame attempt at a joke, “Leggs.”

“Oh,” she said as she broke out into a beautiful smile that lit up her entire face. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”

“Bye,” he decided to say before he could make any other stupid comments. As he walked away, he resisted the urge to look back at her.

“Morning, Mr. Kelley. I’ve come to pay off the rest of my dad’s prescriptions.”

“You don’t have to do that now, Max. Wait ‘til after harvest.”

Needing to see just one last glimpse of her, Max turned to look when he heard the bell over the door jingle. Never had a red sweater and a pair of faded blue jeans looked so darn good.

“Maxwell?”

Max turned back to the old pharmacist, a shy smile on his face. “Sorry. I just got a little distracted.”

“I can see why,” the man said with a chuckle. “I’m not so old that I’ve forgotten what a pretty lady looks like. After all, I’m married to the prettiest one of all.”

“That you are, sir,” Max agreed. “Now, about the bill. I’ve got the money now, so I’ll pay it now. You’ve been more than patient waiting for me to settle up. Somehow I doubt that Walgreens would have allowed me to buy prescriptions on credit in the first place. I really appreciate it.”

“Any time, Max.”

As he left the drug store his eyes wandered up and down the block in search of his mystery woman, but there was no sign of her. Why hadn’t he asked for her phone number? Or at least her name? ’Cuz you’re a dirt poor farmer who has nothing to offer a beautiful woman like that. Sighing dejectedly, he made his way back to his truck and drove over to Gordon’s Groceries, spending the last dollars in his wallet on the few necessities he could afford.

Max made a couple more stops before turning towards home, deciding to take the south route back to avoid US Highway 6. He almost hated to venture off the farm nowadays because each time he made the trek to town there were more houses and less farmland. Gilkerson, Monroe, Schultz, Kalber…one by one each of the homesteads he had known since the first day of kindergarten had been replaced by rows and rows of cookie-cutter houses.

Parker Development Corp. presents Kensington Ridge. A Unique Blend of Commercial and Residential Properties. We Build Communities. Phase I coming May 2002

Max grumbled every time he saw the sign or its companion one down by Bitmans. He slowed down as he passed by Sayfield’s farm, coming to a complete stop when he saw a couple of news trucks parked by the trailer that had been set up in front of the house. There were about two dozen cars as well, and a platform had been set up as a makeshift stage. He pulled into the lot and parked, hoping that someone from Parker Development was around so he could tell them to stop calling him.

Joining the small crowd he recognized the two men in front of the microphone immediately: Jeff Parker and Senator Lyle Durkstrom. He listened intently as the senator talked about the Developers’ Tax Abatement Program.

“…Ridge is a perfect example of business and government working together. We provide the tax incentives for new commercial and residential development in economically depressed areas, and companies like Parker Development here use those incentives to add valuable land to the tax base so that in ten years when the abatement ends, local governments will have the funds they need to keep the area flourishing.”

“Senator, how do you respond to some people’s claims that these incentives give developers an unfair advantage over farmers who don’t want to sell their land?”

“I don’t think it’s unfair at all. The fact of the matter is you can’t stop progress. I’m sure in the short-term there are some farmers who may resent giving up their land, but they’re being paid top dollar for it. In the long run it’s a win-win situation for everybody involved.”

Win-win situation, my ass. Max couldn’t believe the garbage the senator was spouting, typical political jargon. He hadn’t intended to interrupt the man’s speech until he saw the scale model for Kensington Ridge off to the right of the stage. There, where his house currently stood, was a strip mall complete with parking lot. Just like the other dozen or so strip malls that had popped up from the local cornfields these past couple of years. Anger took over as he strode up to the front of the small crowd.

“How can you talk about people’s livelihoods with such callousness? You’re destroying some of the best farmland in the country just so people don’t have to drive an extra three blocks to get to a Starbucks or a Walmart. You build acres of identical looking houses for people who want to live out in the country then complain about farmers harvesting their crops late at night. You think nothing of browbeating and bullying and blackmailing people out of land that has been in their family for generations. Well, you’re not getting mine.”

“Now young man, settle down. You need to be reasonable…” Jeff Parker interrupted.

Max marched over to the scale model, his eyes blazing. “The name is Max Evans, and how do you expect me to be reasonable when your goons are calling my house nonstop? Then I come here and see this!” He pointed to the center of the display. “You’re showing this off to the public like it’s some done deal. This is still my land. And I will never sell it to you.” He ripped the miniature strip mall out of the display. Holding it up before he smashed it in his hands, he gritted out, “The only win-win situation I see here is the one where you get richer by using taxpayers’ money and the senator gets a generous donation for his re-election fund.”

Suddenly a pair of hands grabbed him by the shoulders.

“Get your damned hands off me!” he yelled as he broke free from the grasp of a flawlessly dressed man. He pushed through the crowd, who were all standing in stunned silence at the events playing out before them. Halfway back to the truck, he yelled, “And this wouldn’t be an economically depressed area if you damned politicians hadn’t given our tax dollars to companies to move their plants overseas!” With that he jumped in and drove off like a bat out of hell, a cloud of dust and gravel following him all the way back to his farm.



[ edited 1 time(s), last at 16-Aug-2002 3:24:22 AM ]
posted on 16-Aug-2002 3:25:44 AM
Part 5

“Elizabeth, how nice of you to join us,” her father commented, his words laced with sarcasm. “And in such a ravishing outfit.”

“Dad…”

“So how do you think you did on your first solo press conference, dear? Overall I think it went quite well, although I must admit you were so transparent it was if you weren’t even here.”

“I’m sorry, Dad. I got lost,” she attempted to explain.

“Gee, I find that hard to believe. Even a half-wit farmer like Max Evans was able to find us without any problem whatsoever. What I want to know is why Mr. Evans seems to think that he still owns the land that we are going to start building on in just a few short weeks. Can you explain that to me, Elizabeth?”

“Dad, you know that Kyle…”

“Kyle has nothing to do with this,” he said abruptly. “This is your project, and you’re using my money to finance it. Do not let me regret giving you this responsibility. Max Evans is your problem, and I expect you to take care of it, starting with the little temper tantrum he threw here. I do not want to see his face on my television screen tonight, nor do I want to read anything about him in the newspaper tomorrow morning. Have I made myself clear?”

Liz merely nodded, suddenly feeling like she was ten years old again.




Alex heard Max’s return more than he saw it, the sound of spitting gravel and a slamming truck door predeceasing the string of uncharacteristic expletives that burst from his best friend’s mouth.

“Those damned sons of b*tches. The unmitigated gall of those bastards. A strip mall. They already have the damn plans and they’re going to put a strip mall where my damned house is. The same house my dad was born in, my grandpa was born in! Un-f*cking believable!”

“Um, what did I miss?” Alex asked as he came from the back of the machine shed, not sure whether he really wanted to know. In all the years he had known Max, there had only been two other times when he had heard his friend use any kind of strong language beyond the word damn, and that had been after receiving the worst possible news.

“Jeff Parker and Senator Durkstrom are down at Sayfields having a press conference. Parker already has the whole Kensington Ridge Development planned out, including an entire commercial center on my farm, complete with a strip mall where the house is. When I saw that I just snapped,” the dark-haired man explained as he paced back and forth in front of his truck.

“You were at the press conference?” his friend asked, fearful of what else Max might have done in his moment of ‘snapping’.

“Yeah,” he answered, shaking his head. “I went there to ask them to stop calling me about selling the farm to them, and here I find out they assume they already own it.”

“I’m sorry, man,” Alex said honestly, wondering what else he could say to comfort the young farmer.

Max reached in the passenger side window to retrieve the filters for the combine. “Don’t be. They aren’t going to win this one. They can offer me twenty grand an acre and I won’t take it. They’re not the government, so it’s not like they can force me to sell. Jeff Parker is going to learn that even he can’t control everybody, and I’m going to be the one to teach him.”




Back in her office early that afternoon, Liz looked over her “to do” list as she absently played with the bun pinned at the nape of her neck. She had learned early on that if she wanted to be taken seriously, she needed to act and look like one of the boys as much as possible. As much as she hated wearing her hair up, it was a necessity. Any other way proved to be too much of a distraction to the men she worked with.

“Did you get a hold of Chet Green at FOX?” she asked Maria.

“Yes. He said that with their special report on Chicagoland Speedway’s opening day they hadn’t planned to run any of the press conference footage anyway.”

“Good,” Liz nodded approvingly.

“And Jeff Blount over at WGN agreed to only show the senator’s speech and nothing else. WGN and the Tribune are practically one and the same, so the Trib will follow suit. No pictures of Max Evans, not even his name anywhere.”

“And the Sun-Times?” she queried.

“They started spewing some freedom-of-the-press garbage until I threatened to pull our weekend advertising. After that they saw things our way,” Maria said proudly.

Just as Liz was about to move on to the next thing on her list, Kyle strode into the office uninvited. He slammed his fist on Liz’s desk and demanded, “Why aren’t you having him thrown in jail?”

“Good afternoon, Kyle. Good to see you made it back safely,” she said tersely, knowing exactly whom Kyle wanted arrested.

“Liz…” he said through clenched teeth.

The small woman’s eyes hardened in anger. “Kyle, don’t second guess me on this. It’s bad enough I got my ass chewed for your lack of performance. I didn’t ask for your input on this, and I certainly don’t need it.”

“Well, obviously you do since you weren’t there to see any of it. He deliberately walked up to that display and destroyed Parker Development property. He embarrassed the senator who, may I remind you, is a pretty nice person to have in our back pocket. Then the hick intentionally assaulted me…”

Liz rolled her eyes. “Oh cut the dramatics, Kyle. There’s a dozen people who would testify that you put your hands on him, not the other way around. There’s maybe a hundred dollars worth of damage to the model. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m trying to keep this low profile. If we were to actually have him arrested, every do-gooder and tree hugger in Illinois would be breathing down our necks, and he’d become the poster boy in the fight against ‘urban sprawl’. Is that the kind of publicity my father wants? I don’t think so.”

Kyle slumped his shoulders in defeat. “I guess you’re right. I just hate to see him get away with it.”

“Believe me. He won’t. I’ve got something better in mind than calling the police,” she said as she tapped her notepad with her pen.

“What?” Kyle smirked, curious to know Liz’s plan.

Her irritation was obvious as she spoke. “Nuh-uh. You couldn’t get the job done, buddy, so now it’s my turn to make the pitch. And I’m not giving away my game plan. Go away and don’t bother me for the rest of the day.”

“C’mon Liz. Don’t be…”

“Don’t let the door his your ass on the way out,” she said dismissively.

Kyle fumed at her before turning on his heels and stomping out in as big of a huff as he had arrived.

“Excuse me for asking, and you can just tell me to blow it out my ear if you don’t want to answer, but aren’t you and Kyle a couple?”

“You could call it that,” Liz said cryptically.

“Then how can be so harsh with him?”

Liz laughed. “Because I don’t let business and pleasure interfere with each other. What goes on inside this office has nothing to do with what goes on in the bedroom, so to speak.”

“Oh,” Maria said, her cheeks pinking at her boss’ analogy. “I don’t think I could do that.”

Realizing Maria had misunderstood the depth of her relationship with Kyle, Liz spoke up. “Oh, God. I didn’t mean it like that…I mean Kyle and I never…we haven’t…..we aren’t that close.”

“You’re not in love with him?” Maria asked surprised. Everyone else at the office gushed about how inseparable the couple was, despite their sometimes indifferent behavior towards each other. Obviously looks could be deceiving.

“No. Not even close. If I were to ever let myself fall in love, which I won’t, it wouldn’t be with someone like Kyle. He’s a good guy, though. He’s steady and loyal, and he appreciates me.”

“Sounds like you’re describing a poodle. What’s the point in being with him if you aren’t in love with him?”

Liz thought a moment before responding. “I’m sure it’s not easy for you to understand. Kyle and I are a lot a like. He’s my father’s right hand man, and he’s got a good head for business, when he doesn’t let his emotions get in the way. I don’t have to go through all that posturing crap with him because he already knows everything about me.” Smiling at Maria, she continued, “You’ve got to admit he’s not too bad to look at, especially when he’s hanging on my arm at some black-tie event like this fund-raising dinner tonight. All the society page photographers are in love with us, especially now that I have my first solo project. We’re like the royal couple of Parker Development. And best of all Kyle has enough of his own money that I know he won’t try to screw me out of mine.”

Maria couldn’t believe how unemotional Liz was regarding what should have been the most intimate relationship of her life. “So you’ve never been in love?”

Liz’s thoughts instantly flashed to her encounter with Mack. From the moment her eyes had met his, she knew that if she ever did allow herself to fall in love, it would be with him. The idea was a little disconcerting. After all, what did she really know about him? “No, I’ve never been in love.” Deciding that the subject was getting a little too personal to be discussing with her secretary, she returned to the previous topic. “Now, about Max Evans…”




The two men called it a day around six o’clock that evening, both of them knowing that the next morning would come too early. Alex wouldn’t be joining Max in the fields for the first day of planting, his obligations to his own family’s business taking precedent. After the two said their good-byes Max walked into the house and spotted the answering machine. Instead of the usual double-digit numbers on the display, only one had registered. He stood in stunned disbelief for several minutes. Had he finally gotten through to them? Had his impassioned speech convinced them to leave him and his land alone once and for all? There was only one way to tell. He pressed the button.

“Friday 3:45 p.m.,” the digital voice commented.

“Mr. Evans. My name is Maria DeLuca and I’m the secretary for Elizabeth Parker of Parker Development Corporation. Ms. Parker wanted me to give you a call to discuss a possible exchange, you might say. Parker Development will agree to not seek your arrest or press any charges against you for the damages you inflicted at this morning’s press conference. You, in turn, must agree to a meeting with our attorneys. This would just be an informational meeting, a time to listen to what we’re offering and ask any questions you may have. You will not be under any obligation to accept any offer we may make. You may call me at 773-555-6300 to let me know whether these terms are acceptable and hopefully arrange a time for that meeting. We’ll be awaiting you return call.”

Max had been so outraged by Parker Development’s arrogant assumption regarding his land that it never even crossed his mind that they would have him arrested for crushing their little toy strip mall. Nevertheless, he didn’t doubt that their threat was serious. He had no intention of sitting down with an attorney from Parker Development or any other land grabber, but he had to use the situation to his advantage. If they had him arrested before he could get all the crops planted, he was done for. He needed a way to stall them. Tapping his foot impatiently he pondered their ‘exchange’ offer for several minutes before he came up with as good of an idea as he could muster. Picking up the phone, he dialed the number. One. Two. Three. Four. Voice Mail.

“You have reached the office of Elizabeth Parker of Parker Development. Our office is currently closed. Your call is important to us, so you may leave a message after the tone and we will get back to you as soon as possible or you may call during normal business hours, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thank you for calling.”

Max cleared his throat before he began to speak. “Miss DeLuca, this is Max Evans returning your call. Would you please give your boss a message for me? Although I am very familiar with Jeff Parker, I have never heard of Elizabeth Parker before. If she feels that it is so imperative for me to forgo jail in exchange for meeting with her attorneys, then she needs to stop hiding behind her secretary and have the guts to call me herself. I’ll be awaiting her return call.”

With that he slammed down the receiver and stalked out of the kitchen, anxious to shower up, eat a quick dinner and get to sleep. Late in the night as one of the first cricket serenades of spring wove its spell over the farm, Max dreamed of the exquisite woman from the drug store, her soft creamy skin and what his lips would do to her if she were there with him.



Liz loved staying late at work. She got so much more accomplished after hours when there wasn’t the constant interruption of appointments and phone calls. With the fund-raiser for Senator Durkstrom beginning at 8 p.m., she had planned to only work until 6. When the small alarm on her watch indicated it was time for her to depart, she gathered her things and locked up her office. The phone on Maria’s desk began to ring, and she contemplated answering it. She decided against it, concluding it would not be a good idea to be late to the politician’s dinner after the earlier events of the day. That’s what voice mail was for.

In the wee hours of the morning, after returning home and refusing Kyle’s sexual advances once again, Liz fell asleep to the sound of Lake Michigan waves crashing against the breakwaters. Soon after, she was dreaming of the handsome farmer from the drug store, his soft lips, and what she would have those lips do if he were there with her.


posted on 16-Aug-2002 3:26:44 AM
(You Tess haters may be tempted to stop reading after this chapter. All I ask is that you read to the end of Part 8 before giving up on this story completely.)

Part 6

Max watched as a familiar silver pickup wound its way around the edge of the field, slowly moving to where his own truck sat, the back stacked with 50 lb. bags of Funks hybrid seed corn. A faint smile crossed his lips as he finished planting the rows he was currently on, raising the row marker on the planter before driving the tractor over to where the two trucks met.

He glanced at his watch before climbing down from the old Farmall, calculating how much seed he had put down in the past six hours. He was just about on schedule, despite the problems with two of the eight planter boxes continuously plugging up.

“Tess, honey, you shouldn’t be out here,” Max commented, kissing the curly blonde on the cheek as she cautiously slid out from behind the wheel of the Ford.

Rubbing her swollen belly, she grabbed a couple of brown bags and walked to the small platform Max had set up for unloading the corn. “Baby and I were lonely, so we thought we’d bring you some lunch. I know how you are about stopping to eat during planting time, but you have to keep up your strength. Can’t have you passing out in the middle of the field, now can we?”

He gave her a grateful smile as he unpacked one of the brown bags, chuckling when he saw that she had made three sandwiches for him, all his favorite kind. “Thanks. I really appreciate it. So I guess it wouldn’t do me any good to tell you to go home and rest.”

“Not a chance,” she said as she pulled out a sandwich for herself and settled down next to him on the tailgate of the red Chevy, squirming and wiggling to make her oversized body comfortable.

“So how is our boy doing today?” Max asked between bites, popping open a can of soda to rinse down the delicious food.

She is doing just fine, thank you. She’s been doing a lot of kicking, so I think it’s getting a little crowded in there.”

“You only have about eight weeks left, right?” he asked as he hungrily finished the first sandwich and started in on the second.

“Yeah, July second. Maybe she’ll be a fourth of July baby. Either way, it feels like it will never get here,” she jokingly complained. Changing the subject she asked, “So how is the planting going?”

“All right. Just the usual problems. Gil was late with the fertilizer truck this morning, so I had to wait for him before I could start. Then the diode on number 2 box must be bad even though I changed it ‘cuz it’s still not registering on the meter. I think I’ll have to check the wiring again. And I’ve gotten a few plugs here and there.”

“At least you finally got some good weather. The Ag report said it should be nice until Tuesday afternoon.”

They ate in silence for several long minutes before Max’s heartfelt voice cut through the warm afternoon air. “Tess, it’s not too late to change your mind about marrying me.”

Tess immediately stopped eating and put down her sandwich, going over her already prepared response to his statement. She clumsily made the small jump down to the ground and stood in front of him. Taking his sandwich and placing it in the spot she had just vacated, she picked up his rough hands in her small delicate ones.

“We’ve already been over this, Max,” she sighed. “You know I love this baby more than any other thing in this world, but the fact of the matter is that she was a mistake. A very welcomed one, but a mistake none the less. And I refuse to compound one mistake with another.” She then reached up and took his face in her hands, forcing him to look her in the eyes. “Max, I like you a lot, but you know I could never fall in love with you. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life knowing that you’ve thrown away a chance at true love out of some twisted sense of obligation to me. You are one of the sweetest guys I know. Some day you will find a woman who loves you as much as you love her…your soulmate. You of all people deserve to have that kind of happiness, and you never will if you’re married to me.”

It was Max’s turn to take her hands in his. Although they had had this discussion several times before, his words felt less sincere now that he had actually met his dreamgirl, the one he instinctively knew could be his soulmate. “I don’t care about any of that soulmate stuff. From what I’ve seen, it only brings you heartbreak in the end. What I do care about is this baby. Every child needs a father, Tess. You shouldn’t try to raise him on your own if you don’t have to.”

“You can still be there for her, help me raise her without being married to me. There are lots of single mothers in the world.”

“I know. But they aren’t Ed Harding’s daughter. If there’s something you can do to mend…”

Tess pulled out of Max’s grasp immediately, tears glistening in her eyes. “Max, I’m not going to marry you just to make my father happy. If he can’t accept that, then it will be his loss.”

Max cursed himself for upsetting her. That was the last thing he wanted to do, especially in her condition. He climbed off the tailgate and took her in his arms, idly stroking her hair as he nestled her head under his chin. He calmly said, “Shhh, Tess. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything. I promise that I won’t mention getting married again, ok? But if you decide to change your mind, the proposal will still stand. No matter what, I’ll always be here for you. If you need anything, please don’t be afraid to ask me. All that I have is yours, too.” Trying to lighten her mood, he added, “at least until the bank comes and takes it away.”

He felt a soft chuckle against his chest. “As a matter of fact, there was something I wanted to ask you to do,” her muffled voice commented through her sniffles.

“What?” he asked as he pulled back to look down at her, noting the seriousness of her tone.

“Will you be my Lamaze partner?” she timidly asked.

“Of course I will,” he said without hesitation. “Just tell me what I have to do and I’ll be there.”

“Well, I signed up a little late, so classes don’t start until next Thursday night at the YMCA. They run for six weeks, but if you aren’t done planting in time then I can go to the first one by myself. They never teach you much of anything the first day of a class.” She picked up her sandwich and took the last couple of bites. “I just hope we finish all of them before she’s born.”

He’s born,” Max teased as he picked up his own sandwich and finished it. When she returned his smile, he knew their precarious relationship was all right once again.

“She,” Tess laughed as she went back to the silver truck, opening the cab door to search for something.

“Hey, do you mind if I save the last sandwich for later?” Max questioned. “I’d like to get back to planting.”

Tess rolled her eyes as she pulled out a small blue cooler. She carried it over to him and lifted the top, setting the now nearly empty paper bag inside. “I figured you wouldn’t want to sit still too long. There’s two more in here, plus some sodas and a couple of candy bars on ice. Just promise me you’ll eat everything in this cooler before you go to sleep tonight.”

“Only if you promise to go home as soon as you leave here and get your feet up where they belong.”

“It’s a deal.”




Max spent the rest of the day and all of the next getting the corn planted on the ridge and in the bottomland, their rough contours better suited to take the picker head used for combining corn than the wide, low-to-the-ground paddle wheel header used for harvesting soybeans. He rose and rested with the sun, only taking enough time out to go to church Sunday morning and eat the remaining sandwiches Tess had left him.

By the time he made it back to the house each night he barely had enough energy to shower and eat a light dinner, the hours of throwing heavy bags of seed and twisting back and forth to watch the planter as well as drive the tractor taking its toll on his unseasoned body. His aching muscles struggled to climb the stairs to his bedroom, and as soon as his head hit the pillow he was fast asleep, too exhausted even to dream about the dark-haired beauty who had so easily entranced him with just a smile.




“Well, we got our fish to bite,” Maria said proudly as Liz walked into the office Monday morning.

“Good. When does he want to meet with the attorneys?” Liz choked out, her voice nothing more than a mixture of cracks and squeals.

“My gosh. What happened to you?” Maria asked in shock.

“Senator Durkstrom’s fundraiser. Lots of talking. Lots of cigar smoke. Bad for throat,” Liz choppily explained. “What about Evans?”

“Actually I guess it’s more like a nibble than a bite, now that I think about it,” Maria mumbled.

Liz gave Maria a look that said she was in no mood for her secretary’s very own cryptic language.

“Max Evans left a voice mail Friday night,” Maria began. “He basically said he won’t agree to anything unless he talks to you personally. Sounds like your typical stall tactic if you ask me.”

Liz shook her head in irritation. The phone call Friday evening, the one she hadn’t bothered to answer. More than likely it had been the elusive Mr. Evans, and because she had been in too big of a hurry to get ready for that damned dinner she had let the opportunity to speak to him and straighten things out slip right through her fingers.

“Get me his number. I’ll call him right now.”

Maria stated the obvious. “But won’t he have a hard time understanding you?”

Liz smirked, “Everybody understands when money talks.”

“All right. Just a minute…” the blonde said as she flipped through her notebook. “Here it is. 815-555-1189.”

Liz dialed the number and waited impatiently as the phone on the other end rang. Disappointment flashed across her features as an answering machine picked up on the fourth ring. “You’ve reached the Evans farm. There is no need for alarm. Although we’re not here, your phone call’s still dear. So just leave a message. We’ll call you. I swear,” a young woman’s voice laughed cheerily.

Liz rolled her eyes at the corniness of the outgoing message. She cleared her throat as best she could while waiting for the beep, then finally spoke. “This is Elizabeth Parker of Parker Development Corp. calling for Max Evans. I understand that you wanted to speak with me directly about setting up a meeting with our attorneys. I’d like to speak to you as soon as possible regarding this, so you may call me during regular business hours at my office. 773-555-6300. After hours call my cell phone at 773-693-2424. I look forward to hearing from you.”

She hung up the receiver and looked at her secretary. “Tag. He’s it,” she said sarcastically.

Maria gave her boss a sympathetic smile as Liz massaged her throat. “Hey, if you want I can make you some herbal tea. My mother runs a homeopathic store and swears by the stuff.”

Liz wanted to tell Maria what she thought of nutcases who chose a bunch of plants over good old-fashioned medicine, but instead she just politely declined. Maria continued her secretarial duties by informing Liz that Senator Durkstrom expected her and Kyle to join him and her father for dinner Tuesday night before he left town. Just what I need, she thought. More cigar smoke.

The rest of the day was spent pouring over the final contracts for the purchase of the Bitman property as Liz waited for Max Evans’ return phone call. By the time she left the office at nearly eight that night, he had not contacted her.




“This is Elizabeth Parker of Parker Development Corp. calling for Max Evans. I understand that you wanted to speak with me directly about setting up a meeting with our attorneys. I’d like to speak to you as soon as possible regarding this, so you may call me during regular business hours at my office. 773-555-6300. After hours call my cell phone at 773-693-2424. I look forward to hearing from you.”

“Damn. She sounds exactly like Cruella DeVille.” Alex commented as he sat in the living room, chomping on the pizza he had brought over.

Max replayed the message one more time before joining his friend. “Makes me sort of glad I missed her call. I get the feeling that having a root canal would be more fun than talking to her,” the tired farmer said bitterly as he rubbed his sore shoulder.

“So you haven’t called her back yet?” Alex questioned.

“Are you crazy? I barely had time to shower before you showed up. Not that I’m complaining,” he added before scarfing down a whole piece of pizza in two bites. “This is so much better than another night of macaroni and cheese.”

Alex acknowledged Max’s compliment with a nod. Wanting to know more about the answering machine message he asked, “So how old is this Elizabeth Parker anyway? I sort of assumed she was Jeff Parker’s daughter, but from the sound of her voice she’s gotta be pretty old.”

“Maybe she’s his wife,” Max guessed, inhaling another piece of pizza. “I don’t really care, because I have absolutely no intention of meeting with her or any of those Parker Development vultures.”

“Then why does she seem to think that’s what you want?” Alex asked confused.

“I had to tell her secretary something to get her off my back. She was going to have me arrested for the incident at their little press conference, so I sort of agreed to meet with her lawyers,” Max smugly explained as he began to work on piece number three.

“And what makes you think she won’t have you arrested once she finds out you’re reneging?” his friend inquired.

“I plan to stall until I have the crops planted by playing phone tag with her. After that, let her haul me in. If I sit in jail a few days then, it won’t really matter.”

“So how is the planting going, by the way?” the lanky young man asked.

“All the corn is in now, but I had wanted to start on the soybeans today since they’re calling for storms tomorrow afternoon. It just didn’t happen though, so I guess I’ll keep going until it I get rained out.”

“I’ll be able to help you on Friday if you’d like,” Alex offered, knowing that Max wouldn’t refuse him but giving his friend the chance to anyway.

“That would be great,” Max murmured, leaning his head against the back of the couch now that he was done eating. Almost as an afterthought, he said, “I saw Tess Saturday. I asked her to marry me again.”

Alex thought a moment before responding. “And I’m sure she turned you down again. You know, Max, sometimes you just don’t know when to give up. This is what…the third or fourth time you’ve asked her? Take the hint. She’s not going to change her mind about this. Did you really think that she…”

Alex’s speech was cut off by a loud snort. He raised his eyes from where they had been focused on his hands to look over at his friend.

Max was sound asleep.

Alex quickly picked up the dinner mess and threw it away in the kitchen. Returning to the living room, he grabbed the afghan off the back of the rocking chair and covered up his friend. Making sure the door was locked, Alex slowly closed it behind him before walking out into the cloudy spring night.


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 9-Sep-2002 1:15:31 PM ]
posted on 16-Aug-2002 3:30:09 AM
Part 7

Max awoke to bright lightning coupled with booming thunder, and it took him a few blinks of his eyes to get his bearings. Looking around the living room, he vaguely remembered Alex and pizza. He must have dozed off in a weird position because his neck was killing him. Rubbing it to loosen up the muscles, he glanced at his watch to check the time. 5:30 a.m. So much for the Ag report. He wouldn’t be getting any planting done today.

Tossing the afghan off his lap he stood up slowly, stretching his hands up to the ceiling to work the aches out of his body. He stumbled into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, staring at the nearly empty shelves before taking the carton of orange juice out and polishing it off in four gulps. Dropping the cardboard container into the garbage can, he turned towards the stairs to seek the comfort of his bed. Just as he was about to set foot on the first step, the bright red number one on the answering machine caught his eye, so he walked over to play the message back one more time.

“This is Elizabeth Parker of Parker Development Corp. calling for Max Evans. I understand that you wanted to speak with me directly about setting up a meeting with our attorneys. I’d like to speak to you as soon as possible regarding this, so you may call me during regular business hours at my office. 773-555-6300. After hours call my cell phone at 773-693-2424. I look forward to hearing from you.”
As if he were getting away with murder, he reached out and pressed the delete button. “Bite me, Cruella.”

There were a million chores to be done, but at the moment he just didn’t care. All he wanted to do was go back to sleep.



“I’ll have you know that the Evans property now has crops planted on it,” Kyle reported, arms folded behind his head and feet resting on the edge of Liz’s desk in an arrogant display.

“Is that so?” Liz asked, not looking up from her papers. “And how would you know, pray tell?” She knew he was being a show-off just to try to impress her, but she was just too busy to take the time to discourage him.

“Let’s just say I have my sources,” he said mysteriously. “You can never have too many people looking out for you.”

She rolled her eyes, making sure her curtain of hair and the hand supporting her head hid her reaction. So Mr. Evans has been planting crops.

Continuing his blather for several more minutes he finally asked, “So what color tie am I wearing tonight?”

“Burgundy,” she mumbled.

After a moment of silence he whined, “C’mon, Liz. You know I can’t stand that dress.”

“And your point is?” she glared at him, her eyebrow raised in annoyance.

“It’s just so…plain. Why don’t you wear that purple one I got you for Valentine’s Day?”

“Kyle, it’s a quiet dinner with the senator, not Jell-o shots at an all-night rave.”

“Please, Liz. Anything but the burgundy one.”

She closed her eyes as his bristling voice grated on her nerves. Generally she enjoyed these morning conversations with Kyle, but today was different. She really did not have time for this. “Fine. Emerald green.”

“Now that’s more like it,” he mugged as he rubbed his hands together greedily.

“Is that all?” she asked in an unfriendly tone that told him he better be on his way.

“Yeah. I gotta head out. I’m going to that nursing home with Sean to get the Johansen widow to sign the final contract before she realizes we’re making out like bandits.”

Not really listening to him, Liz simply said, “Ok, have fun with that,” as she continued reading the paper in front of her.

Once her office was free of Kyle’s constant chatter, Liz grabbed the rest of the Evans file and set it on her lap. Kyle’s news of the land now having crops planted on it was anything but good. It meant this farmer planned to hang on as long as he could, and even if he agreed to sell the land to her it would either be after the crops were harvested or at a higher price than she had originally anticipated to compensate for the money he had just sunk into the ground.

Convincing herself that the stubborn man had most likely just been too busy out in the fields to call her back yesterday, she decided to try him again today. Even she remembered enough about farming to know that you can’t plant corn in a constant downpour. She looked up the number in the front of the file and dialed. One. Two. Three. Damn, she was going to get the machine.

“Hmm?” a deep voice moaned after the loud noise of a receiver being picked up on the other end.

“Hello?” she ask, surprised that she had finally gotten through to a live person.

“Hmm?”

“Is this Max Evans?” she questioned with a frown. Did this man not know the proper way to answer a telephone?

“Mmmm-hmm”

“Mr. Evans, this is Elizabeth Parker from Parker Development. I didn’t hear from you yesterday about setting up that meeting with our attorneys, and I’m beginning to think I need to give Sheriff…Hanson a call,” she said as she checked the officer’s name in her records. She waited for the angered response she was sure to receive.

Nothing.

“Mr. Evans?”

Still nothing.

“Mister Evans?” she drew out slowly.

She had to pull the receiver away as her ear was suddenly blasted with the rich thunderous sound of masculine snoring.

“I don’t believe this,” she muttered. “This bozo’s asleep.”

Continuing to hold the top half of the phone away from her, she brought her lips back to the mouthpiece and said with a firm, authoritative tone, “MISTER EVANS!”

More snoring.

She thought about raising her voice higher and higher until there was no way he would remain asleep, but she refused to be that undignified no matter how much the man irritated her. Shaking her head in disbelief, she hung up the phone and turned her attention back to the copy of the loan paper she had been examining while Kyle was jabbering to her.

Original loan amount: $ 750,000.00
Interest rate: 8% simple
Length of term: 30 years
Total amount of interest: $ 1,231,169.87
Total payments: $ 1, 981,169.87
Monthly payment: $ 5,503.23


She looked at the accompanying computer printout that indicated the current outstanding balance was $ 735,682.41 with the account being 120 days delinquent. Next to that information was the black outline of a photocopied sticky note. The neat script writing indicated that a D. Seligman had Sparky’s approval to not start foreclosure proceedings until November 15th. If worst came to worst and Mr. Sleepyhead Evans absolutely refused to sell his land to Parker Development outright, a case of the best chardonay and a box of Cubans had already secured Sparky’s assurance that she would have first dibs on the land once the foreclosure proceedings began. Nothing short of divine intervention was going to keep that property out of her hands.

Hoping to find a quick amicable solution to their conflict so that there would be no need to change her construction schedule, she called Max Evans several more times throughout the day, but each attempt was greeted with a busy signal.




Max awoke around one in the afternoon, moaning as he realized that he had slept much later than he had planned. As he stretched among the sheets, the stiffness in certain areas of his body reminded him of the strange erotic dream he had had sometime during the night. He couldn’t remember very many details, but somehow it involved handcuffs and the beautiful angel he called Leggs yelling his name. Keep dreaming those kind of dreams and you’re gonna have to go to confession before church on Sunday, pal.

Climbing out of bed he went to the closet and put on his last clean pair of jeans, sighing at the dirty pile of clothes in the corner of the room. Taking a handful with him he made his way downstairs to start the load. He smiled while he worked, his thoughts never wandering too far from the drug store encounter with his dreamgirl. She must have put some kind of force on him for him to be to the point of obsession over someone he had met only once. He had dated all through high school and during the two years of college he did attend, so the opposite sex was hardly anything new to him. Still, there was something about this one that was…special.

Although he had told Tess that he didn’t care about that soulmate stuff, the truth was he cared about it quite a bit. His parents had always had that deep connection, the kind where they’d finish each other’s sentences and light up a room with the radiance of their love, so lost in each other that it was as if no one else existed. He wanted that kind of relationship for himself, even after seeing the agonizing loneliness his mother had experienced since his father’s death. Both he and Tess knew they would never be that close, and he secretly admired her for putting his best interests before her’s or the baby’s, no matter how frustrating she could be.

Once his clothes were washing he tossed on his baseball cap and walked out into the light drizzle. The sky was already clearing out to the west, so he was sure he’d be able to start planting soybeans the next day. Now that he was a day and a half behind schedule he figured it would be a good idea to double-check the tractor for any possible problems before removing the planter and hooking up the grain drill. He spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening completing as many of his chores and projects as possible, deciding that if he weren’t in jail next week he would have to spend as much time as possible working at Shellow’s steel mill.

It wasn’t until he went to bed at eight o’clock that evening that he noticed the phone had been knocked off its cradle.




“Gee Liz, back to square one I see. No, I think you actually sound worse today than you did Monday,” Maria commented as her boss attempted to greet her Wednesday morning. “If the senator hadn’t gone back to Washington I think you would be at risk for permanently damaging your throat. Are you sure you don’t want some of my mother’s tea?”

Rubbing her neck to ease the pain Liz simply nodded her acceptance, willing to try anything to rid herself of the discomfort and scratchiness. Indicating that she would be in her office, she left her secretary to mix her herbal concoction. She plopped her briefcase down on the desk before settling in her chair, her attention equally split between the soulful-eyed farmer from the drug store and the still-elusive Max Evans. It amazed her that two men, one who she had only met once and the other not at all, could make her blood boil for entirely different reasons.

Mack must have put some kind of spell on her with one look of those amber eyes because ever since their encounter she was spending much more time thinking about him than she should be. She would say she felt like a schoolgirl reliving her first crush, but what she had told Maria was the truth. She had never been in love before. That entire conversation with her secretary had hit a nerve deep inside of her, one that she hadn’t even wanted to admit existed. Ever since then she had started to think about what she really wanted out of her life. Suddenly being the heir to Jeff Parker’s legacy and Kyle Valenti’s “master” just wasn’t enough. Mack had brought about this revelation with just a few soft-spoken words and an inviting smile, and although the logical part of her said that wanting someone she barely knew should scare her to death, instead nothing had ever seemed so right. Now all she had to do was figure out how to run into him again. Obviously another trip to that drug store in Plainsland was in order.

Which lead her thoughts directly to Max Evans. His continued avoidance made her wonder whether he had figured out that her threat to have him arrested was not a credible one. Just to be sure he understood how serious she was about acquiring his property she would flaunt the knowledge of his delinquency the next time she contacted him. Once Maria’s tea hopefully soothed her throat enough to form a discernible sentence she would give him another call and give him something to think about. Even at three grand an acre, he would have enough money to pay off the bank loan and still have a good amount to make a sizable down payment on a new farm somewhere farther south. He would have to be a fool to not at least hear her out.

Late that afternoon she had recovered enough of her voice to make the call, although even she had to admit she sounded like death warmed over. Perhaps the extra growl in her tone would be an extra incentive for him to take her threat seriously. As she predicted the answering machine picked up on the fourth ring, and after listening to that corny message again she began the next level of her plan to acquire the Evans farm.

“This message is for Max Evans. This is Elizabeth Parker of Parker Development. I left a message on Monday regarding setting up a time for you to meet with our attorneys, but I have not heard back from you yet. You really should call me before November 15th. After that, well let’s just say I’ll be too busy ‘playing monopoly’ with the owner of the First National Bank of Plainsland to be of much assistance to you. Calling me now would be in your best interest. 773-555-6300. After hours call my cell phone at 773-693-2424.”

She hoped his curiosity would be enough for him to return her call this time.




Max had to listen to the message three times Wednesday night before the shock of Elizabeth Parker’s words sunk in. The veiled threat that she would get his farm one way or another made him wonder exactly how much she knew about him and his financial situation. It pissed him off beyond belief. He knew she thought the brief comment would be enough for him to come crawling to her, begging to sell his farm before he lost it to the bank, but she was sadly mistaken. He would never sell to her. A smirk came over his face as he replayed the message to write down her office phone number. He dialed the number and waited for the imminent sound of voice mail before leaving his own message in the most sickeningly sweet voice he could muster.

“This message is for Elizabeth Parker. Max Evans returning your phone call. I must apologize for not calling you sooner but I did not receive your original message. We had a bad storm here Monday night and the power went out, so it must have erased your message in the process. It seems that with our busy work schedules we have a tendency to miss each other’s calls, so why don’t we meet in person? I’ll be here at my house Thursday evening, say around six o’clock. I’m sure you know where I live.”

Let her think she’s won.


posted on 16-Aug-2002 3:31:18 AM
Part 8

“I’m so glad you could make it tonight, Max,” Tess said, her arm wrapped around Max’s as they left the Plainsland YMCA. “I guess with a six week class, you have to jump into things the first night.”

“I gotta tell ya, Tessie, I think this is gonna be fun. I enjoy watching you act like a blowfish,” he mused as he looked down at his watch. It was only 7:30, and he wondered how long Elizabeth Parker would sit at his house before figuring out that he would not be showing up.

“Fun for you, maybe. I’m the one who’s going to end up doing all the work,” was her playful reply as she punched him in the arm.

Not wanting to risk running into an irate Miss or Mrs. Parker, Max wrapped his arm around Tess’ small plump frame and said, “Hey, let’s go get some ice cream. My treat.”

“I don’t think that’s very good for the baby,” Tess answered thoughtfully. “Or your meager savings account.”

“Nonsense. It’s just a couple of scoops. Besides, no time like the present to get that boy started on his daddy’s favorite flavor.”

“Excuse me,” she said disdainfully. “In order for her to have any of her daddy’s favorite ice cream, I would have to eat it, and we both know I can’t stand Rocky Road.”

“Well, you’d better get used to it, my dear. Rocky Road ice cream is an Evans family tradition.”

“I guess some traditions are just meant to be broken,” she teased.

“Bite your tongue, woman,” he mockingly grumbled. His tone a little more serious, he added, “We have to get ice cream tonight. For old time’s sake.”

Tess tried to pretend she didn’t know what he was talking about, but she knew she couldn’t fool him. Their first “date” together as high school freshmen had been at the Ice Cream Palace during this same month, the number on the calendar then identical to the one on today’s calendar: May 9th. What transpired that night those eight years ago was directly responsible for where she was today, pregnant and unmarried, yet she only had one regret. And the only person who could truly understand that regret was the man standing next to her.

Leaning into his side a little closer, she quietly answered with a flourish of her hand, “You’ve convinced me, oh reigning king of Rocky Road. Lead the way.”




Liz Parker couldn’t believe she had been stupid enough to think that Max Evans would actually be home.

She had played right into his hands, and she was certain that wherever he really was he was having a pretty good laugh at her expense. She contemplated staying around another hour just to be sure he wouldn’t show up, but each time a car or truck passed by the property she couldn’t help but remember what Kyle said about having people look out for you. More than likely Mr. Evans would not return to the house until it was guaranteed that she was long gone.

She knew she should be seething right about now, and there was no doubt she was quite upset, but part of her had to admire a man who was obviously as good at bluffing as she was. It also didn’t hurt that the trip to meet with him had been any easy cover to hide her other incentive for taking the almost hour-long drive out here.

Since the only thing she knew about Mack was his name, she decided that the best plan to get him into her life was to go back to the drug store and pump the pharmacist for information. He’s the one who had provided her with a name in the first place, and with a mom and pop operation like that he probably knew the guy’s whole life history…his birthdate….did he have chicken pox as a kid…was he allergic to anything…did he have a steady girlfriend…

or worse, a wife…

or worst yet an STD?

Shaking the frightening thought from her head she turned her attention back to Max Evans. Pulling a legal pad out from under a stack of files in the passenger’s seat, she tore out a sheet of the yellow lined paper and scribbled a brief note. She stepped out of her Mercedes and walked up to the huge wrap-around porch. A smile briefly flickered over her features as she remembered the last time she had set foot on a porch like this, not including the other time she had been here, the time she had been so distracted she’s surprised she remembered the place at all. Carefully she folded the paper in half and closed it in the screen door, making sure she left enough hanging out that the joker was certain to not miss it. Letting out a frustrated sigh she took one last look around the farm.

The east entrance to the strip mall would be right about where the gravel driveway was now. The design of the mall itself defied the term strip mall, a triangle shape with stores on both the interior and exterior segments. In the triangle’s courtyard was the centerpiece of the mall, an impressive fountain that would be carved from the finest Joliet limestone. She could envision it now, lit up on a warm summer night with all the colors of the rainbow, children laughing and splashing their hands in it while couples took a romantic stroll in the park-like atmosphere.

She already had five of the larger mall spaces leased and eight of the smaller ones, one interior section of the triangle being devoted to a series of wedding related shops: a florist, a tuxedo store, a travel agency, and a bridal shop. Maybe she would even buy her wedding dress there…

Her cheeks reddened as she realized how easily her thoughts were turning from one life’s ambition to a completely different one lately. This was not a good time to get sidetracked.

Seeing no point in sticking around the empty property any longer, Liz wandered back to her car and drove down the long drive. If she stuck around any longer she wouldn’t be surprised if he had her arrested for trespassing. She headed for the center of town as she planned on how to get the pharmacist to tell her everything he knew about a soulful-eyed farmer named Mack.

Unfortunately those plans fell to the wayside as she discovered the main drawback of a mom and pop pharmacy—mom and pop wanted to go home and go to bed at night. The drug store had closed at seven o’clock, so she would have to wait for another time to question her new best friend about her mystery man.




Alex met Max in the machine shed Friday morning before they headed out to work on planting soybeans. Max was in an especially melancholy mood, and Alex didn’t really need to ask why. Throughout the morning the two men took turns watching the grain drill and driving the tractor, having small pieces of conversation when they shut down the noisy equipment to reload the seed.

Max finally told Alex about Elizabeth Parker’s obvious knowledge of his financial situation in a matter-of-fact kind of way, not with the usual zeal he generally exhibited when discussing anything Parker related. Alex in turn just shook his head, wondering how low she would stoop to get what she wanted.

Around lunchtime the two men took a short break to watch the dark clouds begin to roll in from the west, an obvious sign that a cold spring rain was headed their way.

“Are you going to call it a day?” Alex questioned.

“I want to go ‘til I run this load out or it gets too chilly,” Max replied as he watched the clouds thicken. Looking over at his friend he asked, “Would you do me a huge favor?”

“Sure.”

“Between raining and planting I haven’t been able to mow the yard or the furrows, and they’re starting to get pretty bad. With how the place looks lately, my dad’s probably rolling over in his grave as we speak.”

“Is the mower deck already hooked up?”

“No. You can hook it to the Deere.”

“All righty. I’ll see you back at the house, then?”

Max nodded as Alex jumped off and headed for the pickup, both men racing the weather.




Alex managed to get all of the grass mowed before the rain began to pelt the farm, so he went into the house to wait for Max, who was certainly on his way in by now. As he walked around the kitchen the phone rang, but he refused to pick it up, instead listening to Isabelle’s cheery voice on the answering machine.

“You’ve reached the Evans farm. There is no need for alarm. Although we’re not here, your phone call’s still dear. So just leave a message. We’ll call you. I swear.”

Whoever called didn’t bother to leave a message. Alex walked over to the machine to play the outgoing message again when he spied a piece of yellow paper sitting next to it. His eyes widened as he read the neat block-lettered note.



Mr. Evans—

I’m sorry I missed you and your family tonight. I was looking forward to our meeting, but obviously you were delayed. I’ll call you tomorrow to reschedule.


P.S. Please accept my sympathy on the untimely loss of your father, and offer my condolences to your mother and siblings as well.


Elizabeth Parker



Well, that explained Max’s morose mood, and on today of all days.

The phone rang again, and this time Alex answered it. “Evans residence.”

“Good afternoon. Is this Max Evans?” a professional sounding voice asked.

“No. He’s not here at the moment. May I take a message?” Alex inquired.

“Is this his brother?” the woman inquired.

“No, I’m just…”

“My name is Elizabeth Parker and I really need to speak with Mr. Evans…”

As soon as Alex heard the name, his whole demeanor changed in an instant. “Well, I seriously doubt he wants to speak with you, especially after that note you left him. You are some piece of work, lady.”

“Excuse me?” the female voice asked indignantly.

“It’s bad enough you keep hounding him about buying this farm, but to stoop so low as to dig into his finances, his personal life. What kind of sick game are you playing?”

“Whoever you are, I can assure you I’m not playing any kind of game. I did what any good businessperson would do. It’s called research.”

In his most threatening voice Alex growled through clenched teeth, “Ms. Parker, I strongly suggest that you do not call here again. And if you do decide to call, you might think about doing a more thorough job on your research before mentioning anything more to Max about his family!”

Before Elizabeth Parker had a chance to respond he slammed the receiver of the old-style phone down so hard that the bell gave off an impudent ring.

Still livid, Alex noticed the rain coming down in sheets and decided to go see whether Max needed any help getting the tractor backed into the shed. Before he could get his hat on the door swung open and in stepped his best friend, soaked to the bone.

“Dang, that sure is cold!” Max grumbled as he took off his wet cap and shirt. Seeing the extremely irritated look on Alex’s face he asked, “What happened?”

“I just had a polite conversation with one Elizabeth Parker,” Alex replied, his tone indicating he had been anything but polite.

“Oh?” Max asked, curious to know exactly what Alex had said to her.

The tense silence was cut by the sound of the phone ringing once again. Neither man made a move to answer it, their eyes locked on each other as the shrill bell continued to announce the call. Finally Isabelle’s voice responded and the two friends listened as the caller left their panicky message.

“Max. This is Mrs. Duncan. If you’re there, please pick up. It’s Tess.”

Both men were instantly filled with fear and worry as Max grabbed for the phone.




He saw her curled up form on the ground as soon as he pulled into the drive, her body shaking from the cold rain as much as from the sobbing he knew she was doing. He swiftly climbed out of his truck, grabbing the blanket that he always kept behind the seat before running over to the fragile young woman. Kneeling down next to her, he worked his hands under her arms to pull her up to a sitting position. He unfolded the blanket to cover her drenched curls, wrapping the rest of it around her before sitting down on the soaked grass, pulling her into his lap and holding her close. With his eyes closed, he rested his chin on the top of her head as she cried into his chest, her heartbreaking tears barely registering on his already wet shirt. He just sat there in the rain, gently rocking her until she finally began to calm down.

“Oh Max, it hurts so much. I miss him so much,” she said haltingly, the deep gulps of air her body demanded making it difficult to speak.

“I know, sweetie. I miss all of them,” he said as he looked up for the first time since his arrival.

Zaniel Philip Evans
May 10, 1978-October 10, 2001

Philip Daniel Evans
May 10, 1946-February 12, 2001

Diane Lynn Evans
July 9, 1947-October 10, 2001

Isabelle Lucille Evans
October 8, 1983-October 10, 2001

The four gravestones soundlessly mocked the man who had lost his entire family in the span of a few months and the young woman who by all rights should have been his sister-in-law by now.

She shifted her body to look up at him, her eyes squinting against the raindrops. “I just wish we had known about the baby. Do you think he would have been happy even though it was an accident?”

“Tess, you know all he ever wanted was to get married and have a family with you. I don’t think it really mattered to him which came first,” Max said honestly. “Let’s get you out of this rain, ok? Can’t let my little nephew get sick, now can I?”

She nodded her acceptance and let him move her off his lap, pulling the blanket tightly around her shivering frame at the loss of his comforting warmth. He stood up and brushed off the pieces of grass that clung to his damp jeans before bending down to help her get to her feet. Once they were both standing he led her to the passenger’s side of the silver truck and held the door while she wiggled into the cab. After she was securely inside he jogged to the driver’s side and climbed in, starting the engine and immediately turning the heater on high to warm them up.

They sat for several long minutes, both staring unfocused eyes out the windshield before Tess’ quiet voice broke the silence. “I know I’ve already told you a million times, but thanks for letting me have his truck.”

Max gave her a slight nod.

“It still smells like him. When I can’t sleep I bring my pillow and blanket in here and curl up on the seat, although it’s starting to be a tight fit lately. I close my eyes and pretend his arms are wrapped around me.”

Max stared at his hands pensively, his thumbs habitually rubbing the calluses on his palms. “Every time Alex comes over he goes to Isabelle’s room and lays on her bed. When he thinks I’m not around he plays the answering machine message just to hear her voice again. And me…I’m just sorry that I never truly appreciated how much work my mom did around the house. Dishes, cooking, laundry…not to mention helping out my dad all the time. She just made it all look so easy.” He let out a penitent sigh. “The only way I can find any peace is knowing that she is with dad again, that they’re all together.”

Tess looked over at him and soothingly rubbed his arm. “Max, you can’t blame yourself…”

“Can’t I?” he asked bitterly. “If I hadn’t gone back, things would have been different.”

“You don’t know that for sure, Max. Besides, Zan told you to go. It’s not like you could have refused,” she said with a tiny smile, trying to lighten the serious mood. Pointing to her protruding belly, she said, “Take it from me. I know how persuasive he could be.”

Max couldn’t hold back a small laugh at her joke. He had known her long enough to tell that she was trying to get past her breakdown and once again find the strength to carry on, even if it were only for the sake of the baby within her.

Leaning against his shoulder, she whispered, “Please tell me the story again.”

“What story?” he asked with a genuine smile, playing along with their game. Ever since that fateful day, this had been her refuge…her way of coping.

“You know. The one about how Zan took me away from you.”

“Oh, that one,” he exaggerated. His voice suddenly serious, he said. “Let me get you back to your aunt’s house first so you can change out of those wet clothes. Then if you’re a good girl I’ll tell you the story.”

“What about your truck?”

“Alex and I will come back and get it later. Right now I’m only worried about you, so buckle up that seatbelt and let’s get you home.”

“Thanks, Max. For coming to get me.”

“I told you that I will always be here for you. You and Alex are the closest thing I have to family, Tess, and you know what my dad always said.”

Mimicking Philip Evan’s voice, Tess repeated, “Take care of family, and they’ll take care of you.”

“You got it.”

posted on 16-Aug-2002 3:32:54 AM
Part 9

Liz had prevented another ass-chewing by her father at their Friday morning meeting by surreptitiously avoiding the subject of the Evans property altogether. Instead she spent the one hour block of time reviewing the progress of the residential portion of Kensington Ridge with him.

“The construction office’s latest report indicates that all the surveying for the townhomes should be completed within the next two weeks. Presales are higher for those versus the single-family homes, so I believe it would be in our best interest to begin construction on those as soon as possible,” Liz explained.

“Have all the groundwater tests come back for the remaining properties?” he questioned.

“Henry sent them over to me this morning. Everything checked out.”

“Good. Good,” her father replied. Tense silence stretched for endless minutes before he rested his chin on his folded hands, a sign that he was reflecting on her plan. “I think I’m going to disagree with you priorities as far as construction goes, though.”

Liz wrinkled a brow in confusion, although his opposition to her opinions was nothing new. It always seemed that if she said something was black, he would chastise her for not seeing that it was obviously white, and she had learned long ago to not argue with him.

“Think about it Elizabeth. Right now the townhomes are the more popular of the two, so they apparently are going to sell with or without a model unit. I think it would be best to concentrate our efforts on getting a few of the single-family homes built as models so that we can get the sales figures for those up to a presentable level. Evidently those people want to see the appearance of the finished project before comitting their money.”

Liz gave him an obedient smile. “Of course. That makes more sense. I guess I didn’t think it completely through.”

“And that will be your downfall, my dear. Everything you do, every decision you make has consequences, and you need to always be vigilant of the cumulative effects of those consequences, not just the short-term ramifications. That is the difference between success and failure.”

Liz continued to give him a grateful smile for pointing out yet another of her faults, the same smile she had been giving him for the past twelve years.




Right before she left for a late lunch with Kyle, Liz decided to try reaching Max Evans one more time. Last night she had come to appreciate that the man was just as determined as she, so as she sat waiting for him she had decided to alter her approach to acquiring his property. It was evident that her heavy-handed style was not working on him, so in an attempt to convey a more friendly attitude she had penned that brief, sincere note to leave in his door. Well aware of the immeasurable pain of losing a parent she decided as an afterthought to offer him and his family her condolences on the loss of the Evans’ patriarch. She only hoped he didn’t think she was being too forward.

Grabbing the Evans file from the corner of her desk she picked up the phone and dialed, thinking to herself that she was going to have the number memorized pretty soon. Just as the phone began to ring Maria burst into her office.

“Liz, you are not going to believe this…”

Incensed by the unannounced intrusion, Liz slammed down the phone and glared at her secretary. “Maria, I would appreciate it if you would remember to knock before entering my office, and in case you have forgotten I never want to be disturbed when I am on the phone. Is that clear?”

“Yes, but…”

“I said, ‘Is that clear?’”

Maria lowered her eyes apologetically and answered a quick ‘yes’ before backing out of the room and closing the door.

Liz hit redial on the phone and was surprised when a person actually answered. Hopefully he wouldn’t be asleep this time. “Evans residence,” a man’s voice spoke.

“Good afternoon. Is this Max Evans?” she asked in a friendly tone.

“No. He’s not here at the moment. May I take a message?”

Damn. He wasn’t there. Or maybe he was and this person was covering for him. Perhaps if this were his brother she could talk to him about setting up a meeting. “Is this his brother?”

“No, I’m just…”

Damn! There goes that plan. Maybe if she told this guy it was urgent… “My name is Elizabeth Parker and I really need to speak with Mr. Evans…”

“Well, I seriously doubt he wants to speak with you, especially after that note you left him. You are some piece of work, lady,” the man snarled, the contempt in his voice palpable.

“Excuse me?” she asked indignantly, wondering what the simply worded note had to do with this sudden attack on her.

“It’s bad enough you keep hounding him about buying this farm, but to stoop so low as to dig into his finances, his personal life. What kind of sick game are you playing?”

Who was this creep and what the hell was he talking about? Apparently he knew Mr. Evans well enough that he was aware of her efforts to purchase the property, but that in and of itself certainly didn’t warrant this type of verbal assault. “Whoever you are, I can assure you I’m not playing any kind of game. I did what any good businessperson would do. It’s called research.”

She could hear his angered nostrils flaring as he commanded, “Ms. Parker, I strongly suggest that you do not call here again. And if you do decide to call, you might think about doing a more thorough job on your research before mentioning anything more to Max about his family!”

Before she had a chance to ask him to enlighten her, he slammed the phone down in her face.

“Great. Just great,” she mumbled as she set down the receiver, wondering if all of Max Evan’s acquaintances were so protective of him to the point of obvious insanity. She didn’t have a chance to dwell on it very long because it was time for lunch. Grabbing her purse and raincoat she stepped out of her office to go meet Kyle.

“I’m going to lunch, Maria. I’ll be back in a couple of hours at the most. If Max Evans should happen to call, forward him to my cell phone.”

“Liz, I have some more information to give you…” Maria quietly offered.

“Can’t it wait until I come back?” she demanded.

“Um, I don’t think so,” Maria literally squeaked.

“Fine. What is it?” Liz sighed.

“Well, when I was going through the file and Kyle’s notes on the Evans property something struck me as being off, but it didn’t finally hit me until this morning. So while you were in the meeting with your father, I went back and looked over the loan papers and all the other info one more time.”

Liz gave Maria a gesture that said, ‘get on with it’.

“Mr. Evans’ name is the only one on the mortgage, but the property tax records list his mother and brother and sister as owners of the property as well. I thought that maybe they did it to limit their liability, but then when I looked at some other papers, I noticed a distinction. The loan paper we have is marked as a reassignment of the original loan and it is dated October 25, 2001. Everything before that date is listed with the four names, everything after with just his.”

“And?” Liz questioned, not following her secretary’s nervous rambling.

“And so I went online to look at the Tribune archives. Sure enough, there it was.”

“There what was?”

Maria handed her the printout of the newspaper article she had found.

Plainsland Family Perishes in Fiery Collision

Liz’s hand automatically went to her temple. “Oh, dear God, what have I done?”




Maria DeLuca had only been working for Liz Parker a few weeks, but with her superior gift of reading people she had already learned to tell when her boss would be in an especially bad mood.

Any time Liz was to have lunch with Kyle she would flit about her office nervously, straightening files and rearranging the nick-nacks on the bookshelves until her departure time. At first Maria thought that Liz did it to pass the time, eager to be with her boyfriend, but since her boss’ admission that she had no amorous feelings for Kyle the secretary understood that Liz’s habit was more of a way to prepare herself for spending time with someone she didn’t really want to be with. That same nervous habit showed up on the days Liz had to meet face-to-face with her father and was augmented by a short temper as well. On days like today, where both events were to occur, Liz was downright b*tchy.

As soon as Maria made the horrible discovery about the Evans family she wished it had not been on one of Liz’s b*tchy days, and she even contemplated waiting to tell her the news until the high-strung woman was in a better mood. However she was sure her boss would be pissed at her for overlooking such an important fact, so she didn’t want to compound the mistake by withholding the information even for a second. Before she realized what she was doing she had barged into her superior’s office and was quickly reprimanded for her unannounced intrusion.

She had still been sulking when Liz emerged from her office to leave for lunch, and it had taken every ounce of her courage to explain to Liz what she had found, especially with her boss’ blatant impatience. She had expected Liz to be furious with her, and she was prepared for the berating she knew she deserved for not being thorough, so when Liz turned whiter than a ghost and looked like she would vomit, Maria had been more than shocked. Before she had a chance to find out the reason for Liz’s reaction or to be sure her boss was alright Liz excused herself, asking Maria over her shoulder to cancel her lunch date with Kyle before she ran out the door.

Liz hadn’t returned the rest of the day.




Max walked over to the rectory after church, hoping to catch the priest before he left to say mass at a church in Coal City which was currently without its own priest. The beautiful spring morning had put many people in a talkative mood, so it had taken him a while to wade through the crowd outside the church. He smiled politely and gave his sincere thanks to the elderly women who sympathetically patted his arm as they asked him how he was doing while most of the men, mainly old-time farmers themselves, inquired as to how his planting was coming along. By the time he made it across the parking lot to the priest’s residence the only people there were the secretary and the senior usher, counting the money from the offering.

Wanting to hurry home to begin another day of planting, Max jogged back towards the truck that used to belong to his dad. The 2000 Dodge Ram 4x4 was the first new vehicle his father had ever owned, purchased to fulfill a dying man’s wish. Max smiled at the truck’s gleaming black paint, proud that he had kept it in the same pristine condition his father had. He knew eventually his financial situation would require him to sell it, but for now he drove it as a tribute to the man who had always put his family first.

His own red truck was a ’90 Chevy 2500, the oldest of the Evans’ five vehicles. He hadn’t taken the truck with him when he went away to college, unwilling to pay the exhorbinant fees it would have cost to park it. In his absence it had become the farm’s work truck, worn yet dependable.

Zan’s truck was the silver ’93 Ford F-150 that his father’s new Dodge had replaced, and it had been lovingly maintained throughout its ownership as if it had been purchased new. Tess used to tease Zan that it was the one thing he loved more than her, so Max didn’t think twice about giving it to her after his brother’s death. It was the least he could do to ease her pain.

Being daddy’s little girl, Isabelle had been the one most affected by their father’s death, and her eighteenth birthday would be the first one without him. Max and Zan, wanting to do something special for their youngest sibling, used the last of the funds from the previous year’s crops to buy her a white 2000 Ford F-150. She had been thrilled with the gift, vowing to care for it as if it were her baby. Two days later she had died in it. Max had to use the insurance payout on it to bury his mother and siblings.

Reaching into his back pocket for his favorite cap, Max realized that he must have accidentally left it in the now-deserted church. He jogged back to the vacant building and went inside, grabbing the worn blue hat from the pew where he had been sitting. As he passed through the narthex to leave he spotted movement on the flight of stairs that led to where the choir usually sat. Turning to get a better look at the woman who seemed to be floating down the steps, his eyes instantly turned into lively crescents as he recognized her beautiful form. She was like an angel come to life, her silky dark hair perfectly offsetting the deep pink dress she was wearing.

“Leggs?” he asked in the quiet space, his voice automatically raising with his surprise.

Her distressed then startled features immediately shot up to meet the face of the man who had addressed her, brightening as she acknowledged the nickname he had given her with a sweet smile. “Hi there,” she said softly.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, cringing inside as his tone reminded him of a police interrogation. Trying to clarify his meaning he added in a cordial voice, “I didn’t see you here during mass.”

“I didn’t come here for mass. I just…. I was…I was praying for some guidance, actually,” she said shyly as she strolled over to stand in front of him.

“Did you find any?” he asked in a concerned voice as he looked into her magnificent yet troubled eyes.

“No, not really,” she admitted, her own voice suddenly full of emotion.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said as he absently played with the trim on his cap, wishing there were some way to ease her burden.

She tore her eyes away from his entranced gaze to look around at the beautiful surroundings, the light filtering through the stained glass entrance creating a kaleidoscope of colors on the hardwood floor as she confessed, “It’s been a long time since I’ve set foot in a church.”

She could not conceal the pain behind her words, and suddenly Max felt an overwhelming need to reach out and comfort her. Stuffing his cap into his back pocket, he placed a hand directly on the velvety bare skin of her arm. When she didn’t protest he slid a single rough finger under her chin to guide her eyes to meet his again. “If you need a friendly ear, I’d be glad to listen.”

She gave him an appreciative smile, and the look that crossed her delicate features indicated that she was contemplating exactly how much she should tell him. Letting out a regretful sigh she finally explained, “I just…said something to someone, trying to be nice, and it turned out to be the most completely wrong thing to say, and now I feel like a Grade-A jerk.”

“So why don’t you simply apologize to this someone,” Max asked, hoping that this someone wasn’t a ‘he’ kind of someone.

“It’s complicated,” she said on a second sigh. “He and I are…well, we aren’t friends or anything. He’s just someone I know through my dealings at work, so I don’t think he’d even give me the time of day now, let alone a chance to apologize to him. And worse yet, I bit off someone else’s head who was just trying to help me avoid saying the wrong thing to him. I mean, at the time I didn’t know that is what she was doing, but then…” Suddenly she stopped talking as her cheeks turned a deep crimson. “Oh gosh, you must think I’m awful. Here you are a perfect stranger and I’m over her spilling my guts to you about how heartless I am.”

That was it! Just the opening he needed to entice her to spend more time with him. She had said she looked forward to running into him again, so he had a feeling that now was the right time to act. Giving her what he hoped was an inviting smile, he tenderly added three more fingers to her chin and made his pitch. “I doubt you’re heartless, and as far as spilling your guts to a stranger…I’d say that you have two choices. One, you can stop spilling your guts to me because I’m a stranger or two, you can get to know me better so that I’m no longer a stranger and you can continue to spill your guts all you want. Personally, I’m hoping you’ll pick option two.”

He held his breath and waited for her response. Her eyes had widened at his speech, but her prolonged silence was making him think he had just made the biggest fool of himself. Maybe she hadn’t really wanted to run into him again, after all. Removing his hands from her in embarrassment he was about to apologize for being so forward when she grabbed his hands in her own and gave him the most heartwarming smile he had ever seen. “I can’t possibly turn down such a tempting offer, so I choose option two.”

“Really?” he questioned as his own smile lit up his face. “Great.”

“So, um do you want to go get some coffee or something?” she asked.

He hesitated for a moment. There was nothing more in the world he wanted to do than to run off and spend the day with this lovely angel standing in front of him, but he had responsibilities. If he were going to keep the Parker vultures at bay he would need every penny he could squeezed out of his crops to do so, and this was already the second day past ideal planting time. Each day the crops were delayed now would mean lower yields come harvest time. If this girl had any serious interest in him, she might as well get used to a farmer’s life right from the start.

“I’d love nothing more than to go have coffee with you, but I need to get back home and finish planting my soybeans,” he said unenthusiastically.

“Oh, sure. I understand,” she said, the disappointment evident in her tone. Max was certain he had just blown away any chance he might have had with this woman, and all his insecurities about being a dirt poor farmer with nothing to offer her came flooding back to him.

“Maybe we can get together next weekend, if you’ll be done planting by then,” she said with a squeeze of his hands.

The smile instantly returned to his face. She still wanted to get to know him! “That would be great,” he said enthusiastically. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be done by then.”

“Why don’t you give me your number and I’ll call you sometime during the week?” she suggested.

“Sure,” he said.

“Darn. I don’t have my purse with me. It’s in my car.”

“I’ve got some paper in my truck,” he offered.

“Then why are we still standing in here?” she teased. She dropped one of his hands from her grasp but solidly refused to let go of the other one as she waited for him to lead the way.

The couple walked out of the church and both immediately brought their free hands up to shield their eyes from the bright morning sun. “I’m over here,” Max said as he escorted her to the impressive black truck. Walking over to the passenger’s side he reluctantly released her hand to lean into the cab and retreive the pen and paper, taking his hat out of his pocket and tossing it onto the seat in the process.

“Wow, that’s beautiful,” she mumbled from behind him.

“Thanks,” he said, assuming she was talking about the truck until he turned around to see where her eyes had been focused. She had been staring at his ass! Not wanting to embarrass her by letting her know she had been caught, he immediately shifted his eyes down to the piece of paper in his hands. “Um, I probably will be done with planting tomorrow, assuming it doesn’t rain, and after that I’ll be working at Shellow’s Steel. That’s probably the best place to reach me,” he said as he wrote down the mill’s phone number before handing the scrap of paper to her. “I’ll be there from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., starting Tuesday.”

“Are you sure it’s all right for me to call you there?” she asked, her cheeks noticibly redder than before.

He gave her a wink, “I’m friends with the owner’s son, so it’s no problem.” He almost added, Tess calls me there all the time, but he didn’t want to get into the specifics of that complicated friendship and scare the poor thing off altogether. No, he definitely needed to see this woman again.

“Well, I should probably let you go,” she said grudgingly. Holding up the piece of paper she gave hin a flash of her perfect white teeth. “Be expecting my call.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it,” he said with a cheeky grin before walking to the driver’s side of the truck, feeling her eyes appraising him once again as she followed behind him. Suddenly noticing that there were no other vehicles in the church lot, he asked, “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

“No thanks. My car is parked across the street.”

“All right, then,” he said as he climbed into the towering vehicle, rolling down the window after starting it up. “See you next weekend?”

“It’s a date, Mack” she beamed.

Max chuckled at her reference to him running into her at Kelley’s as he slowly drove out of the lot, keeping his eye on her pink figure until she disappeared from view. It wasn’t until he was in the fields, mentally replaying his second encounter with the captivating beauty, that he realized he still didn’t know her real name.

posted on 16-Aug-2002 3:34:11 AM
Part 10

If Liz Parker had eaten lunch before Maria showed her the newspaper article about Max Evans’ family, she would have thrown up every last bite of it. As it was, it took all of her resolve to get out of the office and down to the underground lot before breaking down and crying her eyes out in the refuge of her car. Once she had settled down enough to concentrate she had managed the drive back to her condo in Lake Pointe Tower, the chill in the afternoon rain mirroring the cold emptiness that had consumed her heart for so long that she was amazed she was still capable of feeling anything at all.

Once inside her gaze roamed over the stark colorless furnishings of her opulent quarters, the lavish black leather and cool white marble an extension of her soul’s bleak, lifeless decor. These rooms that should have been her home, her sanctuary, were as inviting as a mausoleum and so very different from the places she had known as a child, places filled with bright, joyful hues and limitless amounts of unconditional love. Those places constantly lingered in the back of her mind, begging for her to remember them. Frequently they beseeched her to reclaim the part of herself that had flourished in their presence, but she had steadfastly refused to acknowledge their existence. Until now.

This Max Evans…irritant, thorn in her side, loose canon, enemy in so many ways real and imagined…had made her experience things that she hadn’t want to feel, things that she had worked so hard to avoid. Pain. Loneliness. Loss. The fissure in her solidly crafted façade had first appeared when Maria informed her that the young Mr. Evans’ father had died of cancer, that the family’s patriarch had known his fate for seventeen long months before finally succumbing to the insidious ailment. That information made each of the questions she had been denied answers to as a girl slowly trickle into her consciousness until they flowed like a rain-swollen river, individual memories knitting together in an elaborate scheme to gradually splinter the fragile veneer known as Elizabeth Parker.

How long had her mom known her fate? Had her mom fought with every ounce of her being to spend just one more day with her only child or had she welcomed death head on? Had her mom hidden the seriousness of her illness from everyone or had it been an orchestrated move by the adults in Liz’s life to shield her from the painful truth? Had her father spent every penny necessary to ensure her mom’s comfort? Was there really a time when she could do no wrong in her father’s eyes or had that been nothing more than the wishful thinking of a lonely little girl?

She had used almost every day since her mom’s passing to perfect the Elizabeth Parker that her father wanted her to be, the one he blackmailed her into becoming with unspoken promises of a daddy’s love that never materialized. Her time away at a prestigious girls-only boarding school had been spent learning how to toughen her skin against the viciously brutal comments of her classmates, icy glares increasingly replacing sorrowful tears as she unhesitatingly adopted her father’s belief that emotions were nothing more than a weakness for the enemy to exploit. During summers and holidays a paid caretaker was her only companion until she was old enough to accompany her father to his architectural firm turned land development corporation, her position as a gopher or file clerk carefully devised to keep her from getting underfoot. It wasn’t until she had been accepted to Harvard that her father had acknowledged her continued existence and had completely taken her under his wing, the smile that lit his features as he read her letter of admission the first sign in years that he was still capable of some kind of genuine emotion.

That summer she had been paired with the only other person her father had ever accepted as an apprentice, and there had never been any doubt on her part that Kyle Valenti was only with her because she was Jeffrey Parker’s daughter. The young executive’s obvious possessiveness of her had absolutely nothing to do with love and everything to do with remaining in her father’s good graces. Both men used the media’s fascination with the personal lives of wealthy people to plan for the day when Liz and Kyle would be the irrefutable queen and king of Parker Development Corporation, each party or dinner out carefully designed to showcase the superficial beauty of the influential couple.

Of course Liz had accepted her destiny without protest as the dutiful daughter and loyal employee inside of her allowed her life to be controlled for the greater good of her father’s company. That process had created the cold, calculating, heartless Elizabeth Parker who had no qualms about using every means necessary to advance the interests of Parker Development, the Elizabeth Parker who, according to that Money article, was ‘poised for success due to her uncanny ability to never permit emotion to cloud her decisions’.

All that changed the minute Liz had felt a strange, tenuous connection to a young farmer who had lost his beloved father. The shared grief that was the basis of this unnerving kinship was what it had finally taken to make the ice around her heart begin to defrost. A rich, comforting voice and a pair of warm, amber eyes had not only completed that thawing, but the man who possessed those attributes had managed to melt this closely guarded part of her to the point that she had actually experienced real emotion again. Embracing those emotions was what had prompted her to extend her sympathies to Mr. Evans and his family. In the end, her sincerely worded note coupled with a horrifying newspaper article made a now feeling heart shatter into a million pieces, each melted bit becoming a tear as she finally allowed herself to truly mourn not only for her own untimely loss but for a man who had experienced that same ache of loss four times over.

It was in the middle of her sparsely appointed bedroom that Liz finally understood Max Evans’ motivation. He was fighting for the only thing he had left in the world.

For the first time she would permit emotion to cloud her decision.

There was nothing she could do to spare his farm from the Kensington Ridge plans, but she would make no more moves against him. Instead she would let nature take its course, knowing full well that it was nearly impossible for him to make enough money to keep the bank from foreclosing. It would happen soon enough, and she would eventually end up with the property. In the meantime she would leave him alone with his grief.




Liz spent the rest of Friday and half of Saturday locked away in her condo, probing the recesses of her mind for those hidden memories of her mom, the beautiful little house that had been such a happy home, and the man who had been her adoring daddy long before he became her demanding father. In the afternoon her curiosity got the better of her and she went online to do her own search of the Tribune’s archives. The eyes of a sandy blonde woman and her two flaxen-haired children stared back at Liz from the computer screen as she carefully examined their photos, the picture of the young man giving her an eerie feeling that she somehow knew him. Diane, age 54, Zaniel, age 23, and Isabelle Evans, age 18, had burned to death in a collision with a semi-truck on rain-soaked Interstate 55. It appeared that Isabelle lost control of the white Ford truck she had been driving, crossed the grassy median and swerved into the northbound lanes before hitting the semi head on. No seatbelt or air bag in the world could have saved the trio from the impact of being hit at seventy-five miles an hour or from the resultant explosion. Funeral arrangements had being handled by Overbrook-Johnson Funeral Home, and the three were to be buried at St. Mary’s cemetery in Plainsland next to Philip Evans, who had passed away earlier in the year. Maxwell was now the only surviving member of the family.




As the bright morning light greeted Liz Sunday she resolved to take some flowers to Diane Evans’ grave, her own mom’s grave too far away to receive the Mother’s Day visit it deserved. Looking at the closet filled to the brim with power suits and evening dresses in various shades of dark, somber tones she pushed all of them aside to reveal the lone vividly colored dress. She had purchased it on a whim one afternoon on her lunch break, the color and style closely matching that of the dress she had worn in the final family picture taken before her mother’s death, the last photo in which cheerful sparks of life lit her father’s and her eyes. Despite the poignant circumstances surrounding her trip to Plainsland, this somehow seemed to be the perfect occasion to wear the dress for the first time.

She stopped at the small flower shop in the lobby of her building, glad that the owners had opened for the rush of mainly male customers who had forgotten the significance of the day. Perusing the vast selection of fragrant blooms in every color imaginable Liz finally settled on a bouquet of unassuming white roses, believing they would best match the personality of a farmer’s wife and loving mother, of someone with a modest name like Diane Evans.




Zaniel Philip Evans
May 10, 1978-October 10, 2001

The first thing she noticed was the unusual name of Max Evans’ older brother. Was it some type of family moniker, passed down from generation to generation because of its significance? Or was it some play on the father’s middle name? She realized that Friday, the day after she had left that unfortunate note, would have been this man’s twenty-fourth birthday. Her already heavy heart weakened a little more at the revelation.


Philip Daniel Evans
May 10, 1946-February 12, 2001

A tear trickled down her face as she noticed this father shared his son’s birthday. Had it been some kind of divine strategy for the father to pass on just months earlier, a kind of celestial intervention intended to ease his wife and children’s transition from one world into the next? Had he been happy to be reunited with his family once again, or was he saddened by the knowledge that his youngest son had been left on Earth to fend for himself?


Diane Lynn Evans
July 9, 1947-October 10, 2001

The beautiful display of wildflowers, picked either from the sides of endless county roads or perhaps from edges of the very fields this woman used to farm with her husband, had been painstakingly arranged around her headstone, the loving devotion of a grieving son obvious in the placement of each stem. She took apart the bouquet she had bought and wove the roses in amongst the Baby Blue Eyes, Yarrow, Crimson, Cornflower, and Evening Primrose that adorned the dark marble, the white petals a perfect compliment to the stunning natural hues already present.

Isabelle Lucille Evans
October 8, 1983-October 10, 2001

A smaller display of wildflowers decorated this headstone, and she slipped one single rose in among them. This woman had died so young. Had she experienced love in her short lifetime? What effect did her father’s death have on her? What had her goals been before her life was cut so tragically short? If she had survived would she have blamed herself for the accident?


Sitting in the grass in front of what remained of Max Evans’ family Liz wondered whether there was any possible way to make up for the huge wrong she had done to the poor man. After her not so subtle suggestion regarding his financial condition, she doubted he would ever believe she had not intentionally meant to torment him with his family’s destruction.

Watching the people filing out of the church across the street, she wondered what the tragedy had done to his faith in God. Had he stopped believing altogether as her father had? As she had? Or had his faith been the only thing to get him through the dark times? Suddenly she had the urge to go inside the church, to bring to mind another of those hidden memories of happier times. She stood up and brushed the dew-covered pieces of grass from her dress before crossing the street, sneaking into the building as the throng of parishioners milled about outside.

She was trembling as she stepped into the narthex, certain that lightning would strike her at any moment for her litany of transgressions. There were a few people still on the main floor so she took to the stairs, hoping that they led to the solitude of a balcony as they did in the church she had attended as a child. She breathed a sigh of relief as she saw that she had made a wise choice. Tentatively she sat down in one of the pews and closed her eyes, imagining she could hear her mom’s sweet voice singing one of the many hymns she loved so dearly when she was a girl, before she had lost her faith in God and in the people around her.

Carefully she leaned forward, resting her elbows on the seat in front of her and folding her hands in prayer.

“I haven’t done this in a long time so if I’m a little rusty you’ll just have to forgive me,” she insistently whispered. “I…um, have a problem, and as I wondered whom I could discuss this with, I came to the realization that I have no one. I have no mom, no friends, no one that I can talk to about this. My father and Kyle are out of the question. Usually they won’t take the time to discuss anything with me that doesn’t pertain to business, unless they’re trying to impress someone at a dinner or a party. I guess it’s kind of a catch-22 with them. Technically this is work related because it has to do with Max Evans, but I don’t think either one of them wants to hear that he’s the one responsible for this…this…whatever you want to call it that I’m having.”

She was silent for several minutes as she gathered her thoughts. Finally as a single tear spilled down her cheek she sighed, “I used to think that if I were like my father, did everything the way he wanted, that he would love me, that one day I’d wake up and he’d be my daddy again. But I see that I was wrong now. I don’t like the person I’ve become…I don’t like the fact that Mr. Evans’ friend automatically assumed I wrote that note to deliberately hurt him…I’m tired of pretending that my mom never existed…I miss my grandparents…and I’m so lonely that sometimes all I want to do is go to sleep…and never wake up again. I can’t live like this anymore, but it’s been so long that I don’t know how to be anyone else. Please tell me, show me what to do to change. I’m begging you.”

Once she realized that the quiet sobs she was hearing were emanating from her own throat, she took several deep breaths to calm herself. “Most of all, I need to know what I can do to let Mr. Evans see that I truly am sorry for his loss…that I wasn’t trying to hurt him.” She brushed the side of her hand over her cheeks as the salty trails began to irritate her skin. Tilting her head back to stare up at the simple white plaster ceiling she concluded, “I don’t even know whether you’re bothering to listen to me, but at least someone finally knows how I really feel.”

She stood up and looked around the now empty church one more time before walking to the stairway and making her descent. Lost in thought, she didn’t realize she wasn’t alone until a deep voice startled her from her ruminations.

“Leggs?”

Her eyes immediately shot up to meet the face of the man who had addressed her. It was Mack! Her somber mood instantly improved Her brain turned to mush at the utterly adorable grin he was giving her, her heart pounding in her chest so loudly that she was certain he could hear it. “Hi there,” she said as she struggled to form any kind of coherent sentence, her lips automatically curling into a smile at the sight of him.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, with very real concern in his voice. His eyes flashed with disappointment as he added, “I didn’t see you here during mass.”

She was afraid if she told him, ‘I was just visiting the graves of some people I didn’t know when I spotted this church and came in,’ that he might think she was a little on the strange side, so she left that part out as she shyly explained, “I didn’t come here for mass. I just…. I was…I was praying for some guidance, actually.” She unconsciously drifted closer to him, his mere presence immediately soothing her frayed emotions.

“Did you find any?” he asked, his voice laced with worry as his breathtaking amber eyes reflected that same concern.

“No, not really,” she had to admit, her own voice still shaky from being so close to the man of her dreams.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said earnestly.

She watched out of the corner of her eye as his fingers ran over the braiding on his baseball cap, and her mind instantly wondered what it would feel like to have him caress her with those same gentle touches. Suddenly embarrassed to be having those kinds of thoughts in such a sacred place, she tore her spellbound eyes away from his penetrating gaze. Getting her first good look at the beautiful surroundings, her heart ached even more for her forgotten childhood. The light filtering through the stained glass entrance created a kaleidoscope of colors on the hardwood floor, just like one of the many rainbows her grandma had pointed out to her as a girl. Sadly she admitted with her eyes still averted, “It’s been a long time since I’ve set foot in a church.”

She felt him move closer to her as her arm began to tingle with the unexpected contact of his warm, strong hand on her skin. Her mind didn’t even have time to register all the feelings that slight movement stirred up inside of her before his other hand reached out to her chin, a lone finger deftly instructing her to lose herself in his expressive golden eyes again. His voice poured over her like warm honey as he suggested, “If you need a friendly ear, I’d be glad to listen.”

Was this it? Could this be her chance to end her self-imposed loneliness and finally open her heart to someone, and not just any someone, but the man of her dreams? Her father’s speech about consequences popped into her head and dampened her enthusiasm. There was no doubt that this amazing man in front of her was a farmer…a farmer in an area where her family name was uttered as a curse by most of them. What if she became involved with him and then some future development project included his farm? She had adopted a softhearted approach when dealing with a complete stranger like Max Evans…could she ever take land away from someone she was in love with?

Then it hit her. It was too late to worry about consequences because she was already falling in love with Mack. The concern in his voice and the way he looked at her like she was the most precious thing in the world had captivated her from the moment they first ran into each other, and even with the minuscule amount of time they had spent together she knew she was falling hard. There was no turning back now.

Accepting her fate, she confided, “I just…said something to someone, trying to be nice, and it turned out to be the most completely wrong thing to say, and now I feel like a Grade-A jerk.”

“So why don’t you simply apologize to this someone?” he asked, the straightforwardness of his solution making her wish it were really that easy.

“It’s complicated,” she attempted to explain, needing him to understand that she was not romantically involved with Max Evans. “He and I are…well, we aren’t friends or anything. He’s just someone I know through my dealings at work, so I don’t think he’d even give me the time of day now, let alone a chance to apologize to him. And worse yet, I bit off someone else’s head who was just trying to help me avoid saying the wrong thing to him. I mean, at the time I didn’t know that is what she was doing, but then…” Suddenly she stopped talking as her cheeks turned a deep crimson. “Oh gosh, you must think I’m awful. Here you are a perfect stranger and I’m over her spilling my guts to you about how heartless I am.”

Instead of recoiling from her at her awkward display, he allowed two more of his fingers to tenderly stroke her chin. A friendly smile lit up his face as he said in a naturally seductive tone, “I doubt you’re heartless, and as far as spilling your guts to a stranger…I’d say that you have two choices. One, you can stop spilling your guts to me because I’m a stranger or two, you can get to know me better so that I’m no longer a stranger and you can continue to spill your guts all you want. Personally, I’m hoping you’ll pick option two.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. This was really happening. He was inviting her to spend more time with him. Her heart seized for a moment as she realized that not only would he be getting to know her, she would be getting reacquainted with the loving, feeling girl she used to be those countless years ago. The thought should have been unsettling, but something about the adoring look in his eyes told her she would enjoy every last minute of it.

The comforting gentleness of his hands was suddenly gone as embarrassment flickered across his features. She almost moaned at the loss until it quickly dawned on her that he thought she was going to reject him. Desperate to let him know how wrong he was, she grabbed his hands in her own and gave him the most heartwarming smile she could muster. “I can’t possibly turn down such a tempting offer, so I choose option two.”

“Really?” he questioned. “Great.”

The smile that lit up his face made her want to stand on her toes and press her lips to his. Unfortunately they were still inside the church, and she didn’t think it was the proper place to have their first kiss. Hoping to move them to a more appropriate location she asked, “So, um do you want to go get some coffee or something?”

He gave her a hesitant look and she worried that he was having second thoughts about his suggestion. Maybe he had just wanted to cheer up a stranger and hadn’t really thought she would accept his invitation. Perhaps this whole opening up thing had been a big mistake on her part and she should just go back to Chicago and be the Elizabeth Parker everyone expected her to be.

“I’d love nothing more than to go have coffee with you, but I need to get back home and finish planting my soybeans,” he said with obvious displeasure.

That was the only problem? He couldn’t have coffee because he had to go plant crops? She chastised herself for so quickly thinking about scrapping her plan to reclaim her life. “Oh, sure. I understand,” she said, still disappointed that she would have to wait to spend more time with him. Squeezing his hands she said excitedly, “Maybe we can get together next weekend, if you’ll be done planting by then.”

“That would be great,” he said as the smile returned to his face. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be done by then.”

“Why don’t you give me your number and I’ll call you sometime during the week?” she suggested.

“Sure,” he said with a contagious glint in his eyes.

She instantly remembered that she had wandered over here from the cemetery. “Darn. I don’t have my purse with me. It’s in my car.”

“I’ve got some paper in my truck,” he offered as he ran his thumb over their clasped hands, the simple act causing a slight shiver to resonate throughout her body.

“Then why are we still standing in here?” she teased, the day suddenly so much brighter than when she had awakened. She reluctantly dropped one of his hands from her grasp but solidly refused to let go of the other one as she waited for him to take her to his truck.

As he led her outside she had to shield her eyes from the luminous morning sun. Once they were clear of the church she allowed her eyes to admiringly roam his body. She was already familiar with the callused hand and muscled arm that had helped her up off the floor of the drug store, but the sight of his long, tanned fingers entwined with her small pale ones made her want to find out for herself how far under his short-sleeved, royal blue dress shirt that tan went.

“I’m over here,” he said as he escorted her to a very expensive, meticulously kept, black Dodge Ram. There was no way she would ever be able to get into the monstrous vehicle on her own, and her imagination quickly came up with several ways for Mack to assist her, all of them involving those strong arms of his grasping various parts of her body. He guided her over to the passenger’s side of the truck, and she flinched as he opened the door, expecting the vehicle’s alarm to go off any second. Before she had any time to ponder the fact that the truck not only had no alarm, but hadn’t even been locked, he grudgingly released his grip on her hand. She carefully followed his movements as he removed the baseball cap from the rear pocket of his pitch-black jeans. He threw it somewhere inside as he leaned into the cab, but she didn’t notice where because she was too busy staring at his flawless backside. Although she had never seen a naked man in person, she had viewed enough love scenes in movies to wonder how it would feel to stroke and massage that backside as he made love to her. As the erotic image flashed in her mind she murmured, “Wow, that’s beautiful.”

“Thanks,” he replied, and her eyes instantly widened as she tore her gaze from him, realizing that she had spoken her sexually charged thought aloud. Fortunately as he turned around his own eyes were focused on the piece of paper he had retrieved, and she sighed in relief as it appeared he believed the compliment was aimed at his truck.

He shook the pen a few times and began to write as he spoke. “Um, I probably will be done with planting tomorrow, assuming it doesn’t rain, and after that I’ll be working at Shellow’s Steel. That’s probably the best place to reach me.” Handing the scrap of paper to her, he continued, “I’ll be there from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., starting Tuesday.”

She glanced at the hastily written numbers on the paper:

Home (815) 555-1189

Work (815) 727-1992


“Are you sure it’s all right for me to call you there?” she asked, her cheeks tinged red with mortification over her almost revealed carnal thought.

He gave her a wink, “I’m friends with the owner’s son, so it’s no problem.”

“Well, I should probably let you go,” she said, even though letting him go was the last thing she wanted to do. Holding up the piece of paper she gave him joyful smile. “Be expecting my call.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it,” he said with a teasing grin, echoing the words she had spoken to him at the end of their first encounter. With a mind of their own, her eyes once again took in the wonderful features of his backside as he walked to the driver’s side of the truck, swiftly averting her gaze as he turned to face her. A blend of hopeful concern crossed his features as he asked, “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

That is just the wrong question to be asking me right now! She spoke her reply slowly, determined to not voice her sensual thoughts a second time. “No thanks. My car is parked across the street.”

“All right, then,” he said as he used his powerful legs to easily climb into the towering vehicle. The engine roared to life as he rolled the window down to continue their conversation. “See you next weekend?”

For the first time in her life, she would be going out on a date with a man who wasn’t Kyle Valenti. What would her father think if he knew? What would Kyle think? She just couldn’t bring herself to give a damn at the moment. Nothing was going to stop her from going out with this man, the one who had made her heart come alive with just one gaze of his soulful amber eyes. “It’s a date, Mack.”

He gave a light, cheery laugh that made her eyes light up as he slowly drove out of the church lot. Her sight never wandered from the black truck until it finally disappeared from view. Once she knew he was gone she walked across the street to her own vehicle with his phone numbers tightly clasped in her hand, immediately putting them in her purse for safekeeping.

Starting up the car she thought about taking Mack’s advice and driving to the Evans farm to apologize to Mr. Evans. She decided against it, not wanting to cause more grief for her kindred spirit, however insignificant their connection may be. Perhaps she could find some other way to make it up to him.

She pulled out of the cemetery and began the nearly hour drive back to Chicago. Halfway there she chose to stop at a few stores and buy some new decorations for her condo, determined to finally make it the home it should be.

Five shopping bags, a dropped purse and a broken bottle of perfume later, Liz discovered that the pen Mack had used to write down his phone numbers smeared beyond recognition when it came into contact with alcohol.

posted on 16-Aug-2002 3:35:22 AM
Part 11

“Cello, Chill-O, Shallow, Shitload…something like that.”

If you hadn’t been fantasizing about Mack’s gorgeous shoulders and butt, you would have heard the name of the business he worked for, Liz told herself disgustedly.

“Is that all you have to go on?” her secretary asked, certain that the weird request meant her boss had gone off the deep end.

“I can’t be sure what city it’s in, but I think it was some kind of factory, so start there. Oh, and limit your search to phone numbers in the 815 area code. I’m sure it was an 815 number.”

“And what do I do once I find all these numbers?” Maria inquired.

“Print out the list and bring it to me,” Liz directed, her voice missing that hard edge it usually held.

“Ok. I’ll get right on this,” the secretary said as she walked towards the door.

“And Maria?”

“Yes?” came the drawn out reply.

“Not a word of this to anyone,” Liz said solemnly.

“All right.”




“Roses? Do you really think I could afford two dozen roses?” Max asked Tess incredulously.

“If you didn’t put them there and Alex didn’t, then who was it?” Tess replied as she brushed a wind-blown curl from her face.

“You got me,” Max answered as he took another bite of his sandwich. Knowing how much it irritated her, he ruffled her hair as he said in a teasing tone, “You know you’re going to spoil me if you keep bringing me lunch like this.”

She gave him a hard poke in the side before pulling her head out of his reach. “Trust me. My motives are purely selfish. I can’t have my Lamaze partner wasting away to nothingness. Then I’d have to count on Alex .”

“Mr. I-Have-A-Papercut-And-I’m-Going-To-Bleed-To-Death? Oh yeah, I can see him in a delivery room,” Max said with a laugh.

“See what I mean? Purely selfish motives. It looks like you’re almost done with planting for the year anyway.”

“Yup. After I finish this sandwich I’m going to keep going ‘til I’m done. I figure that by six or seven I’ll be rolling back into the shed.”

“Good job. How about I come over tomorrow night and make dinner for you and Alex? You know, kind of a mini-celebration.”

Max knew that Tess’ claim of purely selfish motives was partially true. She needed to keep busy, needed to have someone to mother until the baby could occupy the endless hours she faced without the love of her life. Her shared history of joy and grief with the two men made them an inseparable trio. “Sure, but it will have to be late. I’m starting the day shift at Shellow’s.”

“That’s no problem,” Tess said with a hint of sadness. It wasn’t like she had anything else to do.

“May I ask you a favor?”

“You’re not going to ask me to marry you again, are you?” she questioned sarcastically.

“Sorry to disappoint you, Tessie-Bear. My days of proposing to you are o-vah,” Max quipped as he tried to suppress the smile that automatically came to his face every time he thought of Leggs.

“Wait a minute. Who are you and what have you done with the real Max Evans?” she asked as she glared at him suspiciously.

“The real Max Evans is up at the house getting ready for his date this weekend.”

He cringed as Tess’ screech filled his ears. “Who is she? Do I know her? Where are you taking her?” Seeing the amused look on his face, she put her hands on her widening hips in a huff and demanded, “You better not be pulling my leg!”

“I’ve never been more serious in my life,” he said with an obvious glint in his eye.

“Then ‘fess up. I want details,” she ordered.

“I’ve only seen her twice, and only for a few minutes each time, so there isn’t really a whole lot to tell.”

“What’s her name?” Tess asked curiously.

“Um, I don’t really know.”

“You don’t know? How can you not know the name of the first girl you have a date with in what, two years?”

“It’s complicated. I met her at Kelley’s when I bumped into her and knocked her down.”

“That’s a great way to make a first impression,” Tess laughed sardonically.

He gave her an irritated look, “Do you want to hear this or not?”

“Go on, Mr. Sensitive.”

“When I knocked her down she dropped the package of pantyhose she was holding, so I teasingly called her Leggs. That’s the only name I know her by, so far anyway.”

“That’s so cute,” she said as though she were cooing to a baby.

“She must have thought so ‘cuz she came up with her own nickname for me.”

Tapping her finger to her temple and rolling her eyes as if in deep thought, she said, “Hmm, let me see…Old McDonald? Farmer Brown? Studmuffin? Dufus? Klutz?”

He threw his napkin at her, but the wind caught it before it could make contact with her face. “You brat.”

She stuck her tongue out at him before she asked, “So? What’s the nickname?”

“Mack.”

“Ooooooookayyyy,” Tess said in obvious confusion.

“Mack, you know. Like in Mack Truck. ‘Cuz I ran into her like a Mack Truck.”

“Oh, I get it,” Tess said as she nodded. After a few seconds of silence she asked, “Leggs and Mack, huh? What are you gonna name your kids? Peterbuilt and No Nonsense?”

“If they look anything like their mother, they’ll be perfect no matter what their names are,” Max replied dreamily.

“WHOA THERE!” she said as she held up her hand, quite surprised by the tone of his voice. “I was just kidding, but you…you sound pretty serious there.”

Max shyly stared down at his hands as he realized his statement.

“Max?” she asked in concern, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder. “You’re really falling for this woman.”

“I think she’s the one, Tess,” he said quietly.

“Wow,” was all she could manage to say. She had known Max a long time, had been his closest friend next to Alex since their freshman year of high school, and she knew he didn’t take things like this lightly. Max Evans always meant what he said.

“That’s what I keep saying. Wow.” Looking up to face her, her said, “I’m not going to lie. I used to get so jealous of you and Zan, not because I wanted you for myself or anything, but because you two really had that whole look-into-my-eyes soulmate kind of love going for you, just like my parents. I never really thought I would find someone I could feel that with, but here I am, head over heels for a woman I know nothing about, except that she wears petite, suntan Leggs pantyhose.”

“Do you want to know more about her?”

“Of course I do. That’s why I asked her out on a date.” Or had she asked him?

“Then that’s all that matters, Max. I knew I loved Zan from the moment I saw him. It took your mom and dad three years of dating before they realized how right they were for each other. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to fall in love with someone, only that you’re willing to completely open your heart to them...” Squinting her eyes as if she were searching for a ghost, she looked over the half-planted field. “…even knowing that at any time it might shatter into a million pieces.”

“Would you do it again?” Max asked softly.

A gentle smile crossed her lips as the familiar image of Zan driving the combine while she sat curled up next to him played out in her mind. “Even if it were to know only one second of the happiness he brought me, I’d go through every last bit of it a hundred times over.”




“St. Mary’s Parish. May I help you?” a friendly woman’s voice asked.

“Yes, I was wondering whom I would speak to regarding the cemetery across from the church,” Liz spoke into the receiver as she nervously bit her lip.

“I’m sorry, but there are no more plots available,” the woman informed her.

“Oh, no. I just…” ]Just what? Want to find out more about Max Evan’s dead family? “I just was reading an old newspaper article about a family who was buried there last fall after a car accident…”

“You must mean the Evans kids and their mother,” the woman interrupted.

“Yes. I think that was their name,” Liz said as she feigned ignorance.

“What do you want to know about them?” the amicable voice offered.

“I just felt terrible when I read the article about the accident and wondered if there was anything I could do to help the surviving son with the burial expenses.”

“Just a minute. I’ll have to check with Father because I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to give out that information. Let me see what I can find out for you,” the woman said before Liz was put on hold. After five minutes that seemed to last five days, the helpful voice confirmed, “Father said it was all right since you want to help out. I called the funeral home and confirmed that all the funeral and burial expenses were taken care of. The only outstanding expense is for the headstones.”

“And how much is that?”

“Let’s see…they were four hundred and fifty dollars each, plus twenty-five a piece to set them minus six payments of twenty-five…one thousand two hundred and seventy-five dollars is still owed.”

“I’d like to pay that off.”

“The whole amount?” the woman asked in amazement.

“Of course,” Liz said as if it were the most ridiculous question she had ever heard.

“Um, ok.”

“What do you need? My credit card number and expiration date?”

“I’m sorry. We’re a church. We don’t take credit cards,” the woman replied hesitantly.

“That’s all right. I’d prefer to remain anonymous anyway. Why don’t I mail you a cashier’s check or a money order instead?”

“Either one should be fine.”

Looking at the address on her computer screen Liz asked, “And I mail it to: 122 S. Burlington Road in Plainsland?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll get that in the mail today, and thanks so much for your help,” she said with genuine gratitude.

“Well, thank you. I’m sure Max will appreciate it.”

Somehow Liz doubted he’d be very appreciative if he discovered she had been the benefactor.



posted on 25-Aug-2002 10:08:12 AM
Part 12

8157877705

“Shale’s.”

“Good afternoon. Do you have a man by the name of Mack there?”

“Sorry. No one here by that name.”

“Thanks.”



8154694270

“Sharlen Manufacturing.”

“Hi. Does someone named Mack work there?”

“No, I’m sorry. No Mack here.”

“Ok. Thanks.”

8154293960

“Sheffield Steel”

“Hi there. Does someone named Mack work there?”

“Mack? Yeah, you wanna talk to him?”

“Yes, please,” she said eagerly. Finally, after 63 phone calls, she had found him!

“Hang on.”

Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

“Yeah, what do ya want?”

“Is this Mack?” she asked confused.

“Yeah. Who’s this?”

“Um, it’s Liz Parker.”

“Don’t ring a bell.”

“Um, we met at St. Mary’s Church on Sunday.”

“HA! HA! HA! HA!,” the boisterous voice rang out. “Lady, you got the wrong Mack. I ain’t set foot in no church since the ‘ol lady duped me into marryin’ here thirty-some years ago!”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry.”

Damn.

815439

“Hey, Liz. Are you ready for lunch?”

Kyle!

“Kyle! Wow, is it one o’clock already?” she asked as she looked to the grandfather clock across the room, hoping his eyes would follow hers instead of watching her hands burying the printout of phone numbers.

“Yeah,” he answered guardedly. Liz was never one to lose track of time, so she had to have been involved with something pretty important. “I thought we’d go to the 95th today.”

“That sounds great,” she said with feigned enthusiasm. The last thing she wanted to do was spend the next hour and a half listening to Kyle drone on about the NASCAR race he planned to see over the weekend or how irritating the doorman in his building was. However, they had developed their Wednesday and Friday lunch routine when they first began their internships together, and she didn’t have the heart to change things now. Besides, it might make him suspicious for her to suddenly cancel on him, and she didn’t need any extra scrutiny in her life at the moment.

She knew there was no way Kyle or anyone else could trace the money order she had sent to pay off the headstones for Max Evans’ family back to her, but that coupled with her search for Mack’s work place was making her a tad bit on the nervous side. There were certain things that her pseudo-boyfriend just didn’t need to find out about, and her burgeoning interest in another man was definitely one of them.




“What do you mean you won’t go?” he asked incredulously.

“Kyle, I am not going to spend my whole weekend watching cars drive around in a circle,” Liz said with disdain. “I’ve got much better things to do with my time.” Like find Mack and go out on a date with him.

“It’s an oval,” Kyle retorted, “and you have to be there. I talked to John Pickett over at WMAQ and he’s going to make sure the camera man gets plenty of shots of us. We’re going to be on national t.v., Liz! Think of all the publicity, especially with ‘Parker Development Corp.’ plastered all over the skybox.”

“Kyle, I said I’m not going. End of story,” Liz said through gritted teeth.

Kyle gave out an exasperated sigh. He had called in several favors to have the arrangements made for the three-day event, and he wasn’t about to let Liz’s stubborn streak ruin his plans. He’d have to talk to Jeff when he got back to the office and see that Liz was persuaded to attend the race with him for at least part of the time. What good was all that publicity for the royal couple of Parker Development if his queen wasn’t by his side? “Suit yourself,” he shot back, knowing full well that in the end she would be at the race.




“You never did tell me where you were taking this soulmate of yours for your first date,” Tess commented as she and Max left the YMCA Thursday evening.

“Nowhere, I guess,” Max answered, unable to hide his overwhelming disappointment from his friend. “She never called me.”

“Oh, Max. I’m so sorry,” she said as she put a soothing hand on his arm.

“I should have known better than to get my hopes up. She was way out of my league.”

“C’mon Max. Don’t be like that. Any girl who wouldn’t want to go out with you must be crazy,” she observed.

“Yourself included?” he asked with a raised brow.

“I don’t count. You’re like a brother to me, so that would just be too incesty,” she answered with her nose scrunched up.

“I know. I’m just feeling sorry for myself, ok? Let me have my moment,” he said sarcastically. “Incesty? Is that even a word?”

“If it isn’t it should be,” she laughed at his attempt to lighten the mood. Trying to offer him some hope she said, “Maybe she just lost your number. Why don’t you call her? That’s how it usually works anyway.”

“Do you think that if I had her number I wouldn’t have called her by now?” he retorted.

“Oh,” she said sheepishly. “Sorry.” So much for cheering him up.

“I’m the sorry one. I shouldn’t have bitten your head off,” he scolded himself. “It’s just that I was so sure, you know?”

“Well you ran into each other once. If it’s meant to be you’ll find each other again.”

Max said a little prayer that somehow Tess was right.




How in the hell did I ever get roped into this? Liz wondered as she watched the flashy racecars drive around and around the oval track Friday afternoon. She cursed herself for being so weak that she had given in to her father with hardly a fight. She had at least won the concession of only having to be there during the actual time trials and races, allowed to skip the after-hours parties where she would normally be subjected to Kyle’s slightly tipsy behavior and groping hands.

“How much longer do I have to stay here?” she asked Kyle as she took another sip of her lemonade.

“It usually winds down around five,” Kyle answered, raising his voice to be heard over the other dozen junior executives who were sharing the company’s skybox. “You don’t have to go right away. Stick around for a while.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” she said caustically as she looked at her watch. One more hour. “I think I’ve seen enough.” Spying the long-necked bottle in his hand, she ordered, “Give me your keys. I’ll take your car back to the city and you hitch a ride in the limo tonight. I’ll pick you up in the morning to come back out here.” Giving him a sharp look she added, “The last thing we need is publicity over a DUI arrest. My father would really go insane over that.”

“Gee, and I thought you were doing this because you cared about me,” he quipped as he leaned against her to extract the keys from the front pocket of his jeans. Seizing the opportunity he turned and bit at the side of her neck.

It took every ounce of Liz’s resolve to not shudder at the contact. “Do you mind? We are in a public place, you know,” she bit out.

Kyle rolled his eyes. “Didn’t mean to tarnish your genteel reputation,” he mocked as he handed her the keys. “You’ll probably need to gas it up before you head back. Unless you don’t want to break a nail.”

Liz thought up a dozen different retorts in a matter of seconds but chose to remain silent, knowing that any further attempts at conversation were fruitless. Once Kyle realized that she wasn’t going to rise to his baiting, he walked over to join the group of guys on the other side of the room, leaving Liz alone with her thoughts.

The second the race was over she planned to high-tail it out of there and drive the short distance to Plainsland, praying she could reach the drug store before the elderly proprietors closed up shop for the day. She had tried to no avail to find her Mack at every single one of the phone numbers Maria had given her, and every attempt to drive out here earlier to pump the pharmacist for information had been thwarted one way or another. Now he was her only hope of finding Mack before the entire weekend was over. The last thing she wanted Mack to think was that she was not interested in him.

Just when she thought she’d scream if she had to watch the cars race around the track one more time the official waved the checkered flag to indicate the end of the race. A bunch of cheers and grunts rose up from the corner where the guys had congregated around the bar as Kyle headed over to her with a huge grin plastered on his face.

“Sure you don’t want to stick around, Lizzie? Jeff Gordon’s going to be up here in about an hour.”

Already gathering up her things, Liz mouthed her response: no f*cking way.




Liz sighed with relief as she took off out the V.I.P. entrance in Kyle’s ebony Jaguar convertible, shifting it into high gear as she barreled down the blacktop drive that lead her away from the droves of regular spectators lined up to leave through the other entrances. There were some advantages to being Jeffrey Parker’s daughter.

Pulling a CD out of her bag, she popped it in the player to commence with her own beginning- of-summer ritual. She yanked the clip from her hair, shaking out the chocolate mass as it cascaded from the top of her head. Forwarding the CD until she reached the right track number she laughed with delight as she cranked up the volume, the first chords of Van Halen’s ‘Summer Nights’ filling the air and making her feel free for the first time in ages.

Winding her way to the main road that lead to Plainsland she drove the entire distance to the town singing at the top of her lungs. She reached the southern edge of town before the low fuel indicator blinked on the dashboard and checking her watch, she swung the sleek car into the nearest gas station. She had almost an hour to get to the drug store, so with a quick fill up she would be on her way again.

The early evening breeze scattered her already windblown hair across her face as she stepped out of the vehicle, a wave of contentment washing over her as she took in the sights and sounds of the late spring day. Walking over to the gas pump she slid her Visa Gold through the credit card reader, nearly jumping out of her skin when a deep, gentle voice behind her said, “Wow, that’s beautiful.”

She couldn’t help the smile that lit up her face as she imagined Mack admiring Kyle’s posh vehicle. “Thanks,” she said as she slowly turned around to see him standing on the opposite side of the car, near the driver’s door she had just exited. As if by force of nature she gravitated towards him until she was looking up into his handsome, expressive face, his own hair being tousled by the soft gusts of wind. He was wearing a smile, but his eyes gave away everything. He was quite happy to see her yet apprehensive that she didn’t feel the same way about him. She’d put that concern to rest immediately.

“I’d say that we should stop running into each other like this, but I rather enjoy it,” she said with smiling eyes, “especially since I was foolish enough to let my perfume ruin the paper your phone number was on before I had a chance to call you.”

“You won’t hear any complaints from me,” he said with a slight laugh that made his cheeks dimple, “especially since I was foolish enough to not ask for your number at all.”

That made Liz break out into her own gentle laugh. Before she could respond to him he began talking again.

“I’m sure you’re very capable of pumping your own gasoline, but why don’t you let me do it? I wouldn’t want you to ruin that nice outfit you’re wearing.”

If any other man had said those word to her she probably would have been insulted by the cheap pickup line, but the tenderness in his voice told her that he was being nothing but sincere. She thanked him for his thoughtfulness and stepped aside to let him walk around the car to the pump, following behind him with her eyes firmly planted to the back of his head where they wouldn’t get her into trouble again. Unless she thought about running her fingers through his thick dark hair as he made sweet passionate love to her all night long…

“So is this your car?” he asked in awe as he removed the gas cap.

Snapping out of her fantasy she shook her head as much to clear her mind as to emphasize her answer. “No. I’m just taking it back to the city for… my boyfriend, my business associate, my father’s lackey…what exactly was Kyle to her?…an acquaintance who is going to be imbibing in quite a bit of alcohol tonight.”

“Smart move,” he complimented as he put the nozzle in the tank and squeezed the handle tightly, locking the pump into the “on” position.

“Anyway, now that I’ve run into you again I hope it isn’t too late to get together some time this weekend,” she said with optimism.

“Well I still have an hour left before I get off of work. I’m just starting my last break now. Usually I take it much sooner than this but I wanted to finish up some welding before I stopped,” he explained. “Being my first day back I’m going to be pretty wiped out by the time I get home and cleaned up, so would you like go out with me tomorrow night instead?”

“That sounds perfect,” she said cheerily. “I’ll be busy until five or so with work related stuff, so maybe I can meet you somewhere?”

“Do you mind driving up to Evanston for dinner?” he inquired with an eagerness that was contagious.

“Evanston is fine,” she replied as she did the math in her head. A little over an hour from the racetrack to her condo, an hour to get ready, and another hour to drive north to the college town. “Is 8:30 too late?”

“That should be good. Do you know where Trio’s is?” Mack questioned with a sparkle in his eye.

Liz tried to conceal the shock from her face. She had asked Kyle to go to the pricey restaurant with her at least a dozen times but he always refused, saying the only thing worse than French cuisine was the rude people serving it. “I’ve never been there before, but I think I know where it is. On Hinman Avenue, north of Dempster?”

“A little further north. Right off of Davis,” he corrected.

Nodding she said, “I remember now, but isn’t it a little late to get a reservation?”

“Not only will I get us a reservation, we’ll have the entire private dining room all to ourselves,” he said proudly.

There was no way for her to hide her surprise now. This man was planning on dropping a ton of money down for their first date without a second thought. That truck of his was worth a pretty penny as well, and she suddenly wondered how he could afford such extravagant expenses. He must be one hell of a good farmer. Looking around for the first time she wrinkled her brow as she asked, “Where is your truck?”

Pointing across the street he said, “I walked.”

Her line of sight followed his hand to an impressive set of buildings. The one fronting the street had a tastefully lettered sign that read, ‘J.D. Shellow Steel Press Mill, Inc.’. Her hand flew to her mouth to cover her self-conscious grin as her eyes languidly blinked in comprehension. She had been foiled by two initials.

“Did I say something wrong?” he asked with concern.

Reluctantly admitting her mistake she explained with embarrassment, “Nothing at all. It’s just that after I messed up your number I tried calling every ‘Sh’ and ‘Ch’ company imaginable looking for you. I didn’t even consider that there might be a J.D. in front of the name.” As he gave her a grateful smile that melted her heart, she inched closer to him and softly said, “It must have been a twist of fate that I decided to stop for gas at this very station at the exact same moment you were taking an unusually late work break.”

“Yeah,” he breathed back as his head lowered towards hers. “More like divine intervention bringing me an angel.” His hand instinctively moved to tuck several strands of her wind-swept hair behind her ear as his lips begged to touch hers. She closed her eyes in anticipation of his kiss when the loud click of the pump turning off suddenly made them jump apart and shyly look away from each other.

Mack pulled the nozzle out of the Jaguar and set it back in the pump’s holder before replacing the luxury car’s gas cap. “So, Trio’s, tomorrow night, 8:30 in the private dining room?”

“That sounds wonderful,” Liz replied with a friendly smile. She was silently screaming for him to kiss her, but she knew the moment had passed. She took two wide steps to the back of the car so she could get to the driver’s side again.

“One last thing?” he asked, the vulnerability in his voice warming her heart.

She turned back around and grinned at him expectantly.

“What will your be wearing?” he questioned as if it were the most important thing in the world.

Without hesitation she replied, “A dress. Burgundy.”

“A burgundy dress. Got it,” he said nodding his head. He took a step closer to her. “I should get back now.”

“Yeah,” she admitted as she eagerly leaned into him. “I don’t want to be out driving this thing too much after dark.”

He raised his hand and tenderly cupped her face. Her eyes involuntarily closed at the gentle contact of his rough thumb rubbing her flushed cheek. That thumb was quickly replaced by lips that were even softer than those in her many dreams of him.

A moment later his deep voice whispered in her ear. “When I said, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful’, I wasn’t talking about the car.”

Her passion filled eyes immediately came open, and the devilish look in his own affectionate amber gaze told her that he had indeed caught her staring at his rear end that morning in the church lot. Her cheeks turned a deep crimson as she looked away in mortification.

His imploring hand eventually persuaded her to return her gaze to his perceptive face. He pressed another kiss to her forehead before pulling back and saying with a playful half-smile and a wink, “Bye, Leggs.”

As he jogged across the street to return to his work place, she let her eyes follow him to once again admire how beautiful his backside was.


posted on 25-Aug-2002 10:09:19 AM
Part 13

Friday afternoon Max realized that he had not had a very good week. Who was he kidding? He’d had a lousy week.

He had hoped that Leggs would call him Monday but since he had told her he’d be planting all day, he wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t.

The planting he should have finished Monday ended up spilling over into half of Tuesday because one of the large hitch pins that kept the grain drill level had sheared in half. First he had to go into town to get a new pin, then he spent two and a half hours trying to line up the two frame sections to repair them with said new pin.

Leggs didn’t call the house on Tuesday, but since he had told her he’d be working at Shellow’s all day, he wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t. He had phoned the mill just to see whether anyone might have left a message for him out there, and his heart sank a little when he was told that no one had.

Wednesday wasn’t much better as he started his first day at Shellow’s. He had worked summers there in high school when he wasn’t away at football camp but all his skills, not to mention the muscles required to utilize them, were quite rusty from lack of use. The twisting, lifting, and gripping needed to work with the steel were in a different category than moves used on the farm, so that upon arriving home in the evening his body complained from two sets of aches. He had checked with the main office several times throughout the day to confirm that Leggs hadn’t called him, and he noticed there were no messages on his machine when he walked through the kitchen door just after dark. His heart sank a little lower.

By lunch time on Thursday he was beginning to accept that the amazing woman who had so easily made herself a huge part of his life was not going to be calling him. When he left work early to go with Tess to her Lamaze class, he dreaded the moment he would enter the room at the YMCA and see all those happy couples preparing for one of the most important days of their lives. Would he ever be allowed to know that kind of happiness?

Friday morning he woke to discover that his phone had finally been disconnected, the five dollars a month he had been sending SBC not enough to satisfy their collections department. He had hoped that he could pay off the past due bill with his first check from Shellow’s, but now that they had finally cut him off he would have to pay a fifty dollar reinstatement fee on top of the other charges before the service would be switched back on. He even contemplated leaving it disconnected since the only woman who might actually call him was the last person in the world he wanted to speak with.

The work day had dragged by endlessly until the foreman, a burly guy named Charlie who was also a member of Plainsland’s volunteer fire department, had asked him to weld up some parts that needed to be express shipped for Saturday morning delivery to Tennessee. He was relieved that there was something about working against a deadline that suddenly made the hours seem like minutes.

He had completed the job just as the semi from Overnight Express pulled up to the loading dock and with an appreciative clasp of his shoulder, Charlie told him to add five minutes to his delayed break. He decided to go sit outside and breathe in some of the late spring air that always seemed to refresh him, hoping that it would also help clear from his mind the numerous thoughts of the enticing woman he called Leggs.

He had just sat down on the concrete steps that lead to the currently closed main office when a sleek black Jaguar XKR convertible caught his attention. It seemed that with each new cornfield turned subdivision there were more and more overpriced SUVs and luxury cars driving around the unassuming town, but a vehicle of this caliber was still quite a rarity. He watched with fascination as the car swung into Racetrack, the chain gas station across the street that had such low prices when they opened up the previous year that they had put Mr. Sorrenson’s station out of business within a matter of weeks.

He had to rub his tired eyes a few times to be certain he wasn’t imagining things as he noticed who was driving the high-priced car. Like a moth to a flame he was crossing the asphalt road in a flash, any thoughts of making a fool of himself in front of this woman who hadn’t even bothered to call him pushed to the back of his mind as his need just to be near her overtook any sense of pride he had. He was a goner and he knew it.

He was entranced watching the early evening breeze scatter her already windblown hair across her face as she stepped out of the vehicle. She exuded an air of casual elegance, and it was obvious that she wasn’t wearing any Leggs today. Her tiny feet were scarcely covered by a pair of beige sandals, the color matching the skin of her alluring legs so closely that it appeared she was barefoot.. Those alluring legs rose up to a tailored pair of black shorts that were the perfect length to accent her toned thighs. Her lilac blouse had little cap sleeves that fluttered in the breeze, and once again he thought she looked like the most perfect celestial being he could imagine. She had walked to the gas pump before he had the chance to admire her face, but he already knew there was only one thing he could say. “Wow, that’s beautiful.”

“Thanks,” she said as she slowly turned around to face him with a friendly smile. His heart began pounding in his chest as he wondered whether she was truly happy to see him again, and it nearly exploded when she glided around the sleek car to stand in front of him. “I’d say that we should stop running into each other like this, but I rather enjoy it,” she said as the breathtaking smile on her lips spread to her eyes, “especially since I was foolish enough to let my perfume ruin the paper your phone number was on before I had a chance to call you.”

Perfume? The only reason she hadn’t called him was because of some perfume? He wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her breathless, but instead he laughed as he admitted his own role in their lack of communication. “You won’t hear any complaints from me, especially since I was foolish enough to not ask for your number at all.”

As her sweet laugh filled his ears he once again admired how beautiful she was. Could she tell that she already had him wrapped around her finger so tightly that he would do just about anything to be with her? If she didn’t, he would just have to show her any way he could. Time to impress her with some of the manners his mother had drilled into him. “I’m sure you’re very capable of pumping your own gasoline, but why don’t you let me do it? I wouldn’t want you to ruin that nice outfit you’re wearing.”

He watched her intently as her thoughts played out over her face in a second’s time, ending when her eyes softened and she thanked him, stepping aside so he could get to the gas pump. As he reached for the gas cap on the Jaguar the impossiblilty of the situation hit him square in the face. This woman was so much further out of his league than he ever could have imagined. She owned a Jaguar for goodness sake. The gas cap alone, the same one he was currently removing, would probably costs a week’s worth of his wages to replace. Still, he had to know for sure, “So is this your car?”

She had such a blissfully dazed look on her face that he couldn’t help but wonder what had put it there. He could only hope she was thinking of him somehow. Finally she shook her head and said, “No. I’m just taking it back to the city for… an acquaintance who is going to be imbibing in quite a bit of alcohol tonight.”

So the car wasn’t hers. A little sigh of relief crossed his lips even as a tiny nagging voice in his head asked him how many people allow a mere acquaintance to drive their eighty thousand dollar car around hicktown USA. This acquaintance must have been drunk out of their mind! “Smart move,” he decided to say while his brain whirled with the little tidbits of information he was gathering. He started the gas pump and fixed the nozzle in the “on” position so that he could focus solely on this marvelous creature in front of him.

“Anyway, now that I’ve run into you again I hope it isn’t too late to get together some time this weekend,” she said with an optimism that made him want to take her in his arms and kiss her breathless. He knew that his first date with her would have to be something special if he were going to keep her interest, and that would take a little planning. He had to stall her without chasing her away, so he answered honestly. “Well I still have an hour left before I get off of work. I’m just starting my last break now. Usually I take it much sooner than this but I wanted to finish up some welding before I stopped. Being my first day back I’m going to be pretty wiped out by the time I get home and cleaned up, so would you like go out with me tomorrow night instead?”

“That sounds perfect,” she said cheerily. “I’ll be busy until five or so with work related stuff, so maybe I can meet you somewhere?”

It was readily apparent that this was a woman used to having the finer things in life. Even though she wasn’t the Jaguar’s owner she looked supremely at ease behind its wheel, almost as if it were made just for her. In addition her taste in clothing and the way she carried herself spoke of an affluence he would never have. Maybe he could win her heart deeply enough that she could one day look beyond his lack of money and appreciate him for who he really was. Until then he knew precisely what he could do to impress her and give her the treatment she was used to having. Eagerly he asked, “Do you mind driving up to Evanston for dinner?”

“Evanston is fine. Is 8:30 too late?” she asked with a sparkle in her eye.

That time should be perfect. Most of the people who frequented Trio’s usually dined there before going to one of the shows in downtown Chicago, so by 8:30 the majority of the place was quiet. He only hoped that no other man had ever taken her there on one of the dozens of dates a gorgeous woman like her must have been on. “That should be good. Do you know where Trio’s is?”

“I’ve never been there before, but I think I know where it is. On Hinman Avenue, north of Dempster?” she asked.

He had hoped to get some reaction from her at the mention of the pricey restaurant, but for the most part her expression was unreadable. He thought perhaps a hint of shock flickered across her sumptuous lips, but then again maybe it was just wishful thinking on his part. At least she hadn’t eaten there before. “A little further north. Right off of Davis,” he corrected.

The tips of her long, silky hair bounced against her arms as she nodded. “I remember now, but isn’t it a little late to get a reservation?”

Now was the time to really amaze her. He just prayed that he could work out the arrangements with Mr. Madanila so that he wouldn’t end up having to change his plans and look like a fool. “Not only will I get us a reservation, we’ll have the entire private dining room all to ourselves.”

The surprised look on her face almost made him cry out in victory. He knew he had impressed her with that one, so the groundwork was now set. All he had to do was figure out how to pay for this, and he had a pretty good idea on how to manage that. He would do just about anything to be with her, even if it meant making a few temporary sacrifices.

She looked away from him and glanced around as if searching for something in particular. Just as he was about to inquire what she was peaking her interest she asked, “Where is your truck?”

His dad’s truck. Like a strong slap in the face her question brought up a ton of insecuities and doubts. What would his father think of him pretending to be someone he really wasn’t? Was it fair to let her believe he had plenty of money to spare when he was really sinking in debt? All’s fair in love and war. Wasn’t that the saying? Before he could let his conscience get the best of him he pointed across the street and said, “I walked.”

Her line of sight followed his hand to his current work place, then her hand flew to her mouth and her eyes slowly blinked open and shut. Seeing where he worked had shocked her way more than the mention of a private dinner at Trio’s, and he suddenly feared that she had put the pieces together. Why would he be working at a mill if he were so well off? He was dressed the part of a laborer, so it wasn’t as if he could have passed himself off as one of the salesmen. Would she now regret agreeing to go out with him? Was she thinking of backing out of their date? Needing to know either way, he asked, “Did I say something wrong?”

The blush that graced her cheeks was adorable as she admitted, “Nothing at all. It’s just that after I messed up your number I tried calling every ‘Sh’ and ‘Ch’ company imaginable looking for you. I didn’t even consider that there might be a J.D. in front of the name.”

I tried calling every ‘Sh’ and ‘Ch’ company imaginable looking for you I tried calling every ‘Sh’ and ‘Ch’ company imaginable looking for you I tried calling every ‘Sh’ and ‘Ch’ company imaginable looking for you I tried calling every ‘Sh’ and ‘Ch’ company imaginable looking for you.

Holy cow! She had gone to that much effort just to try to find him! Now he wanted to toss her into the Jaguar, drive her to Vegas, marry her, drag her to the nearest motel room, take her in his arms and kiss her breathless as he made sweet passionate love to her all night long. Instead he gave her a grateful smile so that she knew how elated he was over her attempts to reach him. Certainly it worked because she moved closer to him and quietly said, “It must have been a twist of fate that I decided to stop for gas at this very station at the exact same moment you were taking an unusually late work break.”

His entire body came alive at her words, and he could no longer stand there with her so close to him and not touch her. Forcing himself to breathe he lowered his head towards hers and spoke from his heart. “Yeah. More like divine intervention bringing me an angel.” His hand instinctively moved to tuck her silky dark strands behind her ear so that he could glimpse more of her creamy skin. As his lingering gaze drank in her soft luscious lips he knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life tasting her sweetness, and her closed eyes were all the invitation he needed to kiss her breathless.

The loud click of the pump turning off suddenly made them jump apart and shyly look away from each other.

He pulled the nozzle out of the Jaguar and set it back in the pump’s holder before replacing the lavish car’s gas cap, his thoughts once again focused on the cost of replacing such an item. He hesitantly asked the next question, wanting her to be able to bow out gracefully but praying she wouldn’t. “So, Trio’s, tomorrow night, 8:30 in the private dining room?”

“That sounds wonderful,” she answered with a captivating smile. His mind was screaming out for him to kiss her, but he knew the moment had passed when she backed away from him and began walking towards the driver’s side.

Quickly going over his date plans in his head, he remembered there was another question he needed to ask her to make their time together the next evening a little more perfect. “One last thing?”

She turned back around and gave him another captivating smile than nearly made him lose his train of thought. Place. Date. Time. What else? Oh, that. How could he forget that? “What will your be wearing?”

“A dress. Burgundy,” she answered with obvious enthusiasm.

Images of her in a dozen different styles of burgundy dresses danced through his mind. “A burgundy dress. Got it.”

Certain that his break was near to being over by now, he wanted one last opportunity to take her in his arms and kiss her breathless. He took a step closer as he grudgingly said, “I should get back now,” hoping that she might take the hint and meet him half way.

“Yeah. I _______ to be out _____ thing too much ______.”

He knew she had said something, but he only heard her exquisite features calling out for his touch as she leaned into him. He tenderly raised his hand to the side of her extraordinary face, reveling in the sensation of her warm flesh pressed against his palm as he gathered his will to proceed. Afraid that his coarse digits would mar her perfect skin, he hesitated for a moment before gently trailing his thumb over her flushed cheek, the urge to caress her willing countenance winning out over his irrational fear of harming her.

He had planned to say farewell with a worshipping brush of his lips to hers, but as her eyes closed in surrender he resolved to postpone their first kiss and make it another wonderful part of their special evening at Trio’s. His lips still aching to touch her he chose to use them to explore the skin that had been hidden under his thumb as a devilish idea formed through his passion-filled haze.

A moment later his lips were feathering her ear as he adoringly whispered, “When I said, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful’, I wasn’t talking about the car.”

Her eyes opened immediately at his words, and he was suddenly awe-struck by the desire he saw swimming in their chocolate depth, desire for him. It disappeared quickly as she comprehended that he was referring to her recitation of those words as well, as evidenced by the endearing way her cheeks blushed to a deep crimson. She averted her eyes in embarrassment and he instantly worried that he had taken his teasing a little too far. Skillfully coaxing her with his hand he silently beseeched her to look into his own eyes and witness the flattered reaction her appreciative words had invoked.

She appeared so vulnerable in that moment that he nearly took her in his arms to breathlessly kiss away all of her misguided shame. Instead he tenderly placed a comforting kiss on her forehead before tearing himself away from her and lightening the mood with a quick wink. Giving her a thankful smile, he simply said, “Bye, Leggs,” as he used every ounce of his willpower to walk away from the magnificent beauty who already owned his heart.



“Max, are you sure you really want to do this?” Mrs. DuPree asked as she eyed the young man warily. She couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sympathy for him, something she wasn’t used to doling out in her line of work.

“I’ve got four weeks to pay off the loan and get them back, right?” he asked as he sadly stared at the items in the box.

“Yeah, and if you need a little more time just let me know,” she offered.

“Let’s do it, then,” he decided. “I’m working for Mr. Shellow now, so hopefully I’ll be able to pay you back before then.”

He waited patiently as the middle-aged woman filled out all the necessary paperwork to trade the precious treasures for the three hundred and fifty dollars he needed to get his telephone turned back on and cover the deeply discounted cost of an evening of private dining at Trio’s.

He planned to wear the only suit he had, the black one he had purchased for his father’s funeral a little over a year ago, the same one he had worn eight months later as he laid his remaining family members to rest. Intent on moving forward with his life he asked Tess to help him choose a burgundy dress shirt to go with the suit, ready to make some beautiful memories to replace the bad ones associated with it.

She was not with him yet. Too ashamed to admit what he was doing even to her, he stopped by the pawn shop on his way to pick her up at her aunt’s house. He knew she wouldn’t understand his need to impress the exquisite woman only known as Leggs with an extravagant, a.k.a. expensive, dinner. He barely understood it himself. His entire life he had never been one to put on airs, always taking to heart his dad’s teaching to be honest and true to oneself, but somehow he knew the rules were different with this dark haired beauty.

Mrs. DuPree handed him the three hundred and fifty dollars along with the claim ticket for his items. He quietly thanked her and slid the papers into his wallet before walking out the door to go pick up his friend.

Tess wouldn’t understand.

A beautiful angel had put some kind of force on him and as much as he hated to admit it, he was beginning to think he would even sell his family’s farm to be with her.




[ edited 1 time(s), last at 25-Aug-2002 5:53:48 PM ]
posted on 10-Sep-2002 2:39:03 AM
The song used here is Goldilox by King's X. Here's a link to a piece of it at Amazon.com

www.amazon.com/...v=glance&s=music

Part 14


Lucien Madanila watched his animated friend swarm around the private dining room of his restaurant, helping the busboys store away the extra tables and chairs from the previous party’s gathering as if the task were second nature to him. Of course it hadn’t been that long since Max had been in his employ, but it was apparent that the boy had aged much more than the seven months it had been since they had last seen each other.

He would never forget the first time he had met the striking young man, a nervous college freshman looking for any job that would bring him some extra funds. Lucien had been won over by the earnest student’s zeal, setting him up to be a busboy at Symphony’s, his pizzeria on the other side of town. Max never missed a scheduled shift and would often come in on a minute’s notice to fill in for others who did, and this, along with his caring nature and continued enthusiasm, earned him a privileged place in Lucien’s establishment as well as his heart.

Noticing how many of the female patrons were instantly attracted to his newest hire he quickly promoted the hard-working Max to a waiter position, where the honest man’s natural friendliness and obvious good looks garnered him some pretty lofty tips, despite his complete romantic disinterest in any of the brazen women who threw themselves at him time and again. For a while he thought that perhaps Max was a homosexual until the two had a conversation one evening when the thoughtful young man had stayed behind to help with cleanup. Lucien had asked his assistant why he never dated any of the customers who were so obviously willing to satisfy his masculine urges, and the reasoned, mature response from a boy of his age had floored him. Max planned to remain a virgin until his wedding night, and since he was no saint he thought it best to not put himself in a position of physical temptation with women he really had no interest in. With that answer Lucien knew that when Max finally allowed himself to fall in love, he would give his heart away unreservedly. Judging from the young man’s high spirits it looked like that day had arrived.

Lucien had been quite surprised when Max called him late Friday evening with his request to use the private dining room. He was certain that his estranged friend would never want to set foot in Trio’s again after what had happened the last time he was here. Lucien’s heart ached just thinking about that tragic day. Max had paid his dues as a waiter at Symphony’s throughout two years of college, only quitting once he was needed to work on his family’s farm after his father’s worsening illness and subsequent death. When he had returned to school last fall Lucien had offered him the much higher paying waiter position at Trio’s, certain that his capable charge could use the extra money in light of his family’s tragic loss. Max had jumped at the chance and had once again proven himself an excellent employee in the six weeks he had worked before the Illinois State policemen came looking for him one late night. They would only tell Lucien that they needed a place to speak alone with Max, so he had led them to the private dining room then retrieved the young man who, by then, was almost like a son to him. The inhuman cry that had resonated throughout the patronless restaurant had told him all he needed to know.

Remembering that painful night made Lucien even more pleased to see his friend’s joyous demeanor over his upcoming date. It was the least the young man deserved after all the unfortunate incidents he had experienced in his short life. Lucien had told Max that he would gladly provide the dinner and all the accommodations free of charge, but true to form Max had flat out refused, insisting on paying for at least half the cost of the affair. Lucien reluctantly agreed, knowing that Max would rather make other arrangements than take advantage of his charity. His instincts told him that Max needed to have his special moment here in this room to chase away the horrors of the past, so the restaurantier would do whatever necessary to make that happen.

He watched with adoration as his wife laid out linens and tapestries of burgundy and cream to decorate the now intimate room, a gentle smile crossing his features as he remembered his own courting days. Whoever this love of Max’s was, he hoped she realized the power she held over the boy, and he prayed that she wouldn’t misuse it. A heart that felt as deeply and intensely as Max’s was easily wounded beyond repair once broken.




Liz had checked her watch three dozen times since she left home, her mind constantly recalculating precisely how many minutes until her arrival at Trio’s. She was relieved that she was right on time despite the delay leaving the racetrack earlier in the evening. She had been on edge all day, eager to begin her date with the man who had so easily captured her heart. It was a struggle to remain calm as she more than once shrugged off Kyle’s romantic overtures while trying to still play her half of Parker Development Corp.’s royal couple, a role she was beginning to despise more with each passing day. Why shouldn’t she be allowed to choose whom to date without needing to hide it? Why had she allowed her love life to be scheduled and arranged as if it were part of a business deal? Because you didn’t care about your love life until you met Mack.

Kyle had begged her to stay and party with him after the race ended, half an hour later than she had planned. She adamantly declined his invitation but had reluctantly allowed him to kiss her in order to escape the skybox and race back to her home to prepare for her date. She had wanted to take a relaxing bubble bath before dressing but with her tardy arrival she had to forego the soothing ritual in favor of a quick shower.

“Thank you,” she said sincerely to the valet as she took hold of the hand he offered. He gave her a polite nod before walking her to the ornate wooden door of the restaurant and holding it open as she entered.

Tears instantly welled up in her eyes at the magnificent sight that greeted her. Mack was standing there waiting, looking so handsome it was as if he had stepped from the pages of a fashion magazine. He was wearing a crisp black suit that was cut to accent his strong shoulders and muscled biceps, the deep burgundy shirt underneath perfectly matched to the color of her dress. The reddened tips had been trimmed from his hair, and the feathered bangs that begged to be brushed from his face gave him an innocence that rivaled his smoldering amber eyes and seductively curved lips. He was simply perfection brought to life.

Her stomach fluttered as he silently approached her, his adoring gaze speaking all the words she needed to hear. She was beautiful. She was breathtaking. And at the moment she was the most important person in the world to him. His hand sought out hers, but she was so spellbound by the stunning flecks of gold shimmering in his eyes that she didn’t even notice he had pressed something into her palm. Without a sound he wrapped her arm in his and guided her through a small doorway to the left of the foyer.

This time she could not stop the tear from trickling its path down her cheek as she observed the extravagantly decorated room. The lone table situated in the center of the dining area was decorated with a burgundy lace cloth, a white satin cloth underneath it to reveal the details of the lace’s intricate pattern. Ornate pedestals carrying meticulously arranged boquets of cream colored roses flanked the table on the two sides that did not have elaborately carved chairs placed at them. Two candles burned brightly in the center of the table, their glow augmented by dozens of well-concealed strings of miniature white lights that bordered the room. Swaths of burgundy and cream gauze were billowed around the walls in such a way that they created a heavenly appearance.

Her eyes automatically closed at the feel of soft lips brushing her cheek before his warm, gentle voice whispered in her ear, “I’ll always kiss your tears away.”

The loving profession caused more moisture to adorn her cheeks, and true to his word several gentle kisses were slowly placed upon her dampened skin. What had she done to deserve such adoration? She felt a twinge of guilt for all the heartless things she had done in the name of business, but it was short-lived as she recognized that there was nothing she could do to change the past. However, she knew with a slightly disconcerting certainty that this amazing man in front of her represented the opportunity to create a future for herself different from the one that had been planned by her father. Regaining her composure Liz finally managed to flutter her lashes open as she quietly said, “Thank you so much.”

“I’m glad you like this,” Mack said as he gestured towards their surroundings.

Of course he thought she was thanking him for the expensive date they were about to begin. She appreciated that he felt she was special enough to warrant such lavish accommodations, but if he believed he needed to do this to impress her, then perhaps he wasn’t the sincere, unpretentious farmer she had imagined him to be. Didn’t he realize that she would have eaten at McDonald’s if it meant spending time with him? “Please. Don’t misunderstand. All this is wonderful, and no one has ever done anything this thoughtful for me before, but what I meant was thank you for your lovely words. They, and spending time with you, matter more to me than anything else. I don’t think you can begin to imagine how they make me feel.”

“And you can’t imagine how it feels to say them,” he said reverently.

As she reached up to caress his face she realized for the first time that she was holding something in her hand. Stopping her movement, she looked down to see a single thornless cream rose, the edges of its petals tinted the color of her dress. “This is so beautiful,” she whispered.

“Not nearly as beautiful as you,” he replied as he moved beside her. Wrapping her arm around his once again he led her to the table and graciously held out her chair, patiently waiting to push it in as she adjusted her dress and placed the rose in the bud vase centered between the two candles. Once she was settled he sat down across from her, instantly reaching for her hand as if it were a lifeline. “I don’t drink, so I didn’t order us a bottle of wine or champagne. I’ll be more than glad to request a glass for you if you would like.”

Kyle’s asinine behavior immediately came to mind and she quickly refused. “No, thank you. I want to be able to remember every minute of this night.”

His eyes shimmered in the candlelight as he explained the dinner. “Since it is later in the evening, I chose a four course meal instead of an eight course one.”

“I’m sure it will be delicious,” she said simply.

“The first course is Black Truffle Ravioli. It’s always been one of my favorites.”

She felt a tinge of jealousy pierce her heart. Had he brought other women here like this? Maybe she wasn’t so special to him after all. Trying to keep up her end of the conversation she politely asked, “So you’ve eaten here often?”

“I have to admit it has been a while, but when I was in school this was practically my second home,” he said proudly.

“I see,” was all she could choke out past the lump forming in her throat.

Suddenly his eyes softened as he took her other hand in his as well. “This is the first time I’ve ever had a date here,” he admitted. Giving a nervous laugh he continued, “As a matter of fact, not counting going out with my group of friends in high school every weekend, this is only about the tenth date I have ever been on, and the other nine don’t count.”

“You’re kidding me,” she said with undisguised shock. This man was drop dead gorgeous, so he must have women constantly fawning all over him. He certainly could have had ten dates a week if he had wanted. The last part of his comment sinking in she curiously asked, “Why don’t the other nine count?”

“Because they were all blind dates set up for me by my friends. This is the first time I have had a date with a woman I asked out.”

Her cheeks instantly flushed from a combination of his flattery and her embarrassment. “Why did you decide to start dating now?” she inquired.

“It was you,” he said with a surety that made her heart swell with delight. “I’ve been waiting for you.”


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 10-Sep-2002 2:53:19 AM ]
posted on 10-Sep-2002 2:41:33 AM
Part 14 (continued)

Their eyes remained intently focused on each other until the first course arrived a few minutes later, Mack thanking the waiter who in turn simply nodded his acknowledgment. She reluctantly removed one of her hands from his to unfold her napkin and set it in her lap. “Mmm, this smells incredible,” she observed as she took a deep breath of the food in front of her. She took a tentative bite and immediately let out a moan as it melted in her mouth. As soon as the morsel finished sliding down her throat she gave him a big smile and said, “I can see why you would like this so much.”

He gave her a sexy grin as he said, “Now that I’ve had the privilege of watching you enjoy it, I’d have to say it is my all time favorite.” Her stomach gave a little flutter at this, and she was pretty sure it wasn’t from the food. They ate the rest of the course without conversation, both savoring the companionable silence as their loving gazes met again and again.

As the waiter cleared their dishes, Liz set about the task of getting to know Mack. “You mentioned that you came here a lot when you were in school. Do you mean Northwestern?”

His hands instinctually reached for hers as he nodded his answer. Looking down at where their fingers were entwined he explained, “I was going to be an environmental activist and single-handedly save the planet.”

“But you’re a farmer, aren’t you? I’ve always gotten the impression that environmentalists aren’t too keen on all the chemicals farmers use,” she inquired.

“I think that’s a huge part of the problem. The two sides see each other as adversaries when they really have a lot of the same goals. Environmentalists obviously see the chemicals as harmful. Herbicides and pesticides cost money, and lots of it. For example, to spray an acre of soybeans for spider mites runs about fifteen dollars an acre or around thirty-three cents a bushel, money that isn’t always recovered come harvest time, so it’s in the farmer’s best interest to find ways to use as few chemicals as possible. Many think that genetically engineered crops are the way to go, but personally I don’t think we lowly humans should be trying to play God, especially when crossbreeding what He has already given us has many of the same benefits as genetic engineering without all the moral debate surrounding it. Rotating crops also cuts down on the need for chemicals because the remnants of the previous year’s crops act as a fertilizer for the new crop. Rotating also makes the crops less susceptible to disease. Water conservation is another area where the two sides should be working together to find some solutions. Fortunately we don’t have much of a problem in the Midwest, but in areas where crops need to be irrigated both farmers and environmentalists want to see more efficient systems developed, to conserve the water as well as stop land erosion. Right now, worldwide, agriculture accounts for nearly two-thirds of the fresh water used, and that’s just too high of a number.”

Mack would occasionally remove his hand from hers as he gestured to emphasize a point, but like a homing pigeon it would automatically return within a matter of seconds. She adored watching his animated face as he fervently discussed a topic he so obviously loved. Would he ever feel that passionately about her? Pushing the thought to the back of her mind, she focused on what he had been saying. “What can you do to change that? Plants need water to grow.”

“We can create more drought-resistant crops, and plant the rows closer together so that there is less run off. Even a simple thing like changing the time of day irrigating is done will help conserve water.”

Before he could say any more on the subject the waiter came with their second course. Faster than she believed possible Mack switched from discussing farming and environmental issues to describing in vivid detail how the Spicy Cod Roe in front of her had been prepared. With each word he spoke she was beginning to understand that this simple farmer was anything but simple, and she couldn’t wait to uncover more of his complexities.

She began to ask him a question about college, but he beat her to the punch and said, “I’m very sorry for being so rude and monopolizing the entire conversation. I tend to get carried away sometimes.” You can carry me away anytime you want, her devilish mind whispered as she savored the latest course of their dinner. Once again they feasted in silence until Mack spoke up. “Here I am enjoying a delicious meal with the most enthralling woman I have ever met, and I don’t even know your name.”

I don’t even know my name, she thought absently. Who was she? A few short weeks ago she would have proudly told him she was Elizabeth Parker, one of Money magazine’s ‘Top Ten Young Entepeneurs’, but that name and moniker no longer seemed to fit who she was now. Elizabeth Parker was a cold, calculating, scheming businesswoman who had no heart. The man sitting across from her was in the process of stealing hers, so that in and of itself proved she could not be Elizabeth. She would have to discover a new name for herself, one that had not been given to her by a man who held so much contempt for the world that he refused to feel anything else. It would be her first step in working her way out from under his controlling thumb. Or had this date with Mack been the first step?

She was no longer the innocent little girl she had been in the years before her mom died, yet her childhood name held so many wonderful memories of joyful times that perhaps it would be a good starting point to recreating the happiness she had felt then. With a shy smile she said, “My name is Nancibeth.”

“Nancibeth?” Max asked with a strange look in his eyes. When she nodded in affirmation he said, “Excuse me for saying so, but you don’t really strike me as a Nancibeth.”

His comment made her chuckle. “And just why is that?”

“Well, Nancibeth is the kind of name I’d expect a farmer to give his daughter, or maybe the name of a preacher’s wife. You aren’t wearing a wedding ring, so I assume you’re not a preacher’s wife, and I’m fairly certain you are no farmer’s daughter,” he said mirthfully.

She feigned insult as she set down her fork and pressed her hand to her chest, “And how can you be so sure that I’m not a farmer’s daughter?”

“Are you?” he asked curiously.

“No,” she said honestly as she dropped her hand with an exaggerated thud, “but I am a farmer’s granddaughter.”

“Really?” he asked with genuine surprise. “Around Plainsland? Maybe I know your grandparents.”

“No, their farm is in Iowa. I spent every summer there as a child until my mom passed away,” she replied, unable to hide her sadness.

Mack stroked her hand soothingly until she gave him a appreciative smile. Hesitantly he asked, “You said last Sunday that it has been a long time since you’ve been to church. If you don’t mind my asking, exactly how long has it been?”

She was surprised by his perceptiveness. They had barely begun to become acquainted, yet he somehow knew that her mom’s death was related to her lagging church attendance. Could she manage to talk to him about this long buried subject without breaking down? Maybe he’s exactly the person she needed for this discussion. He had promised to kiss away her tears, hadn’t he? “It’s been twelve years,” she sighed. Confirming his suspicion she added, “I haven’t been to church since shortly after my mom’s funeral.”

“I’m very sorry to hear about your loss,” he said as he continued to caress her free hand with his. “You must have been pretty young when she passed away.”

“I was ten,” she answered quietly. “The last time I went to church was with my grandparents. My father sent me to live with them after mom’s funeral, and the first weekend he finally came to visit me we were gone at church. When we came home…he was…livid. He asked Grandma Claudia how she could worship a God that had let her daughter suffer so much, how could she love a God who had taken away something so precious. She told him his bitterness would destroy him. She begged him to get some kind of grief counseling, which just made him all the angrier. That day he packed my bags and I never saw my grandparents again. I never set foot inside a church again.”

“Until last week,” he said, more of a statement than a question.

“Until last week,” she repeated as she stared across the room at the tiny white lights.

“How did your mother die?” he questioned.

Once again training her gaze on his face, she blandly replied, “Ovarian cancer.”

Mack’s eyes closed and his brows scrunched together almost as if he were in agony. He took a few deep breaths before his eyes met hers again, the candlelight illuminating a faint hint of tears. “And you father blamed God.”

She nodded slowly. “They were always so happy together, and anyone who knew our family said I was a lucky girl to have such loving parents. We’d spend all our holidays at my grandparents’ farm as one big family, and I loved those times so much. But when mom died it’s like my dad went with her. Physically, he was still on earth, but he became this completely different person almost overnight. He refused to talk about mom at all, and he even put away all the pictures of her we had around our house.”

“That must have been terrible for you,” Mack said quietly.

She was too lost in her story to stop now. In for a penny…

“When he sent me to live with my grandparents I was actually glad, just because they let me talk about her, they let me know it was ok to remember her. Then the church incident happened and he took me away from them. It was like I had lost my whole family in a matter of months,” she said through blurry eyes as she brought her right hand to her mouth to cover her sob, mourning not only her own loss but also Max Evans’ loss of his entire family.

Mack pulled her left hand from his and stood up, quickly walking to her side of the table and picking her up in his arms as if she weighed nothing. He sat in the vacant seat and held her close, stroking her hair away from her face as she allowed her tears to overtake her. She was aware that she should be embarrassed by the scene she was causing in front of this man she barely knew, but instead his attentiveness made her feel more loved and cherished than she had felt in years, each of his caresses healing her as if he somehow knew exactly what she was going through. He whispered comforting words to her as she continued to grieve, only stopping when she had finally calmed. “Are you all right, my sweet Angel? You don’t have to tell me these things if it is too painful for you. I understand anyway.”

She sniffled as she replied, “No, it’s actually a relief to finally get this out. I’ve been holding it all in for years now, and I’m tired of pretending my life is perfect when all I want to do is fall apart.” Seeing the dark spot on his shirt, she said, “I’m sorry for ruining your shirt. I’ll buy you a new one.”

“Don’t worry about the shirt,” he said in a reassuring tone. “I just wish I could do more to take your sorrow away.”

“Simply listening to me is a bigger help than you can ever know,” she said through another round of sniffles. “I’ve never been comfortable enough with anyone to be able to discuss these things before.”

“I’m flattered that you chose me,” he said quietly. Wrapping his arms around her a little tighter he asked, “Is that all there is? Do have more you feel like telling me?”

She gently nodded. “As my father drove us home from my grandparents I thought that maybe things would be different, but when we got back to Chicago he drove us to a condo near Wrigley Field. He had sold our house without telling me or my grandparents, and suddenly all of my mom’s things were just gone.”

She hesitated a few minutes before deciding to tell him the worst part. “I guess I was beginning to look more like her every day, and after a few weeks he couldn’t even stand to glance at me for more than a few minutes. He wouldn’t even say my name.”

“Your name?” Mack softly questioned.

“Mom’s name was Nancilou. I was named after her, so my father refused to say either of our names. Eventually he sent me off to boarding school and the next time I spoke to him, he called me only by my middle name. To this day that is the only name he will use to address me.”

Mack ran his hand along her jaw line until his fingertips were softly resting under her chin. He silently directed her to raise her face from his chest, then gave her a reverent look that made her feel as though he were seeing into her soul. No words were needed as he comforted her. She had exposed herself, had been so vulnerable as she allowed all her pent-up emotions to relentlessly pour out of her, yet being here in his arms like this gave her a sense of security that she’d never thought she’d have again. He felt like home, and as he kissed away her tears again she knew this was exactly where she belonged.

Her brief narrative on her family’s history over, she straightened up in his lap and asked with a nervous laugh, “Now that I’ve completely humiliated myself, you wouldn’t happen to want to even the score and embarrass yourself in front of me, would you?”

Understanding her diversionary tactic, his smile lit up his eyes as he said, “Anything for you. What do you want me to do?”

“I know,” she said as an idea came to mind. “Since you seem to think I don’t look like a Nancibeth, why don’t you tell me something about you that doesn’t fit in with how you look?”

Mack shook his head as he swallowed hard, his eyes dancing mischievously as he came up with an answer. “All right. I’ve got a good one. You would never guess this in a million years.”

“Go ahead,” she prompted. “I’m waiting.”

“Oh, I don’t know. You’ll probably want to go home after I tell you this,” he teased.

It was at that moment that she realized just how close his lips were to hers, how easily he had surrounded her. His strong arms held her close to him with a protective possessiveness, his right hand sending shivers up her spine as he idly stroked her arm. The heat radiating from his chest infused her entire body with his calming presence even as the heady aromas of soap and aftershave tempted her senses with promises of an underlying passion. With a mind of its own her hand reached out to cup his cheek as her thumb traced the outline of his mouth, her eyes automatically following its path. “Somehow I seriously doubt that,” she said in a throaty voice as images of what she wanted that mouth to do to her flashed through her mind.

“You asked for it,” he warned. Steeling himself he said, “When I was a senior in high school, I took ballet lessons.”

“You what?” she asked incredulously as she backed away slightly to look in his eyes. “No, you’re joking.”

posted on 10-Sep-2002 2:43:51 AM
Part 14 (continued)

He raised his hand from where it was caressing her shoulder. “I swear. Scout’s honor.”

She burst out into fits of laughter as she pictured Mack standing on tiptoes in a tutu, her sides aching a little more with each bout of giggles. “The pirouetting farmer. Who would have guessed? So were you planning to start the farm bureau’s first dance troupe or was this going to be a solo effort?”

“I’m glad you find that so amusing,” he attempted to say with a straight face, but soon he too was joining in on the laughter. Once her outburst had settled down into a few hiccups Mack explained, “Ballet, my dear, is the dirty little secret of the National Football League. I was All-American my junior and senior years, so my coach suggested I take some lessons to help with my leg strength and agility.”

“Did they work?” she questioned with amused bewilderment.

He shrugged his shoulders. “They must have because I got scholarship offers from all over the country.”

“Including Northwestern?” she deduced.

“Including Northwestern. I decided to go there because they had the degree program I wanted, and I was close enough to home that I could help out on the weekends if they needed me.”

“Wow. So did you play for Northwestern all four years?” she asked in awe.

He shook his head in disgust. “I never got to play at all. Two weeks into football camp that summer I blew my knee out, and the damage was too severe for me to risk playing again.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said sympathetically, wincing at the imagined pain of such an injury. “Did you at least get to keep your scholarship?”

“Yeah, but only for my freshman year. After that my family had to foot the entire bill,” he said remorsefully. “I never did get my degree.”

“Because it got too expensive?” she queried. She was beginning to think that he wasn’t nearly as well off as he had wanted her to believe.

“No, my parents made sure I had the money, but I was needed at home for an extended period of time and then…life just sort of kept throwing obstacles in my way,” he said somberly.

It was very apparent to her that those ‘obstacles’ were still too difficult for him to discuss, and since he had gone to so much effort to give her the perfect evening, she wanted to show him the same courtesy he had given her minutes earlier. She pressed a gentle kiss on his cheek and whispered his own words to him, “You don’t have to tell me these things if it is too painful for you. I understand anyway.” The smile he attempted to give her nearly broke her heart as the torment in his eyes negated it a thousand times over. What could have possibly happened to this sweet, adoring man to bring him such anguish? She placed several more light kisses on his cheeks and forehead as she resolved to make both of them enjoy the rest of their date with no more sadness. Giving him an understanding smile she teased, “Well, Mr. Piouretting Farmer, does this fancy restaurant of yours have any music you can use to show me some of your slick dance moves?”

The same determined look came across his features as his forced grin became a genuine one. “You can’t possibly expect me to dance by myself? When I could have Ms. Nancibeth Angel as my partner?” he asked in mock horror.

“Since you put it that way, I guess I’ll have to join you,” she quipped back as she hesitantly stood up from his embrace. She felt so safe there that she didn’t really want to move, despite knowing that in a matter of minutes she would be in his arms again.

Right on cue the waiter returned to remove the dishes from their half-eaten second course. Mack walked back to his side of the table and whispered something in the waiter’s ear, to which the gentleman responded, “Of course, Mon Ami.” Mack clasped him on the shoulder in a thankful gesture before returning to her side. Offering her his hand, she eagerly took it with a quick squeeze.

He led her to the small dance floor that occupied the other half of the room and held her hand to his chest, his rapidly beating heart pulsing under her fingertips in a soothing rhythm. As a quiet song began to play in the background it thrilled her to know that he was obviously as nervous as she was, yet she sensed that their anxiousness would be fleeting. Being in his arms felt too good to be anything but comforting.

I can’t believe summer’s almost here…

She brought her other hand up to play with the soft hair curled at the nape of his neck as he rested his other hand on her, the feel of his coarse fingers grazing her bare back creating a shiver that resonated up her spine and down to her toes.

I made it through another year, even if alone…

As they slowly moved to the music he stared down at her adoringly, the gold flecks in his eyes shimmering brighter against his darkening amber irises. “Have I told you how handsome you look tonight?” she asked as she memorized the curves and lines of his face.

But there’s no tears in my eyes…

“I’m only handsome because I’m dancing with an amazingly beautiful woman,” he said reverently as he languorously stroked the back of her hand with his thumb.

Life is still full of surprise…

“And I’m only beautiful because I’m dancing with a man who makes me feel that way,” she whispered back.

I’m not looking for a one night stand…

She rested her head against his chest and closed her eyes, reveling in his warmth.
He hesitated a moment before he said, “I know this is our first date…”

I stand behind you and I watch you from a mile away…

“Mmm-hmmm,” she purred as she enjoyed the silky feeling of his shirt against her cheek, any dampness from her tears long forgotten.

Wishing you could be the one, but not here this way…

“…and you’ll probably think this sounds insane…”

I’ve got to know your name…

She didn’t care whether he told her he was an alien as long as he continued to hold her like this as they danced. They fit together so perfectly it was as if they were made for each other, as though he were her very own angel sent down from heaven to be the answer to her prayer. “Try me,” she whispered.

I must know who you are…

“…but I feel like we ran into each other that day at Kelley’s for a reason, like you were my very own angel sent down from heaven to be my salvation.”

I look at you and I know who you are…

The candor of his words haunted her. Was he able to read her mind? How could he possibly know her thoughts unless he truly was an alien? Or perhaps an angel? She raised her head from his chest, fully expecting to see a pair of wings sprouting from his back, but all she saw were his eyes intently focused on her and filled with the same vulnerability she had felt earlier. He may not be an angel, but he certainly was the answer to her prayer.

You’re just a little bit too far from my home

He took a deep breath and quickly continued, as though he would lose his nerve if he spoke too slowly. “I hope you won’t think I’m being too forward, and I pray I won’t frighten you away when I tell you that……I think ….I’m falling in love with you.”

But please don’t get me wrong

A flood of doubts hit her so hard that she was sure she would collapse under the weight of them. It had been so long since she had given herself permission to feel anything, and here this man holding her was professing his love to her. What if it had been too long? What if she no longer knew how to love? How could she possibly deserve the adoration of such a remarkable man?

Even though it has been long

His eyes immediately shifted away from hers as she met him with silence. How could she possibly get him to comprehend what his confession meant to her? Would he understand that she was wildly ecstatic and utterly terrified all at the same time?

“I’m sorry that I upset you,” he said regretfully. “I’ve never been good at hiding my emotions, and I just had to let you know how I felt.”

I hope I never sing my last song without someone

He was apologizing? He had nothing to be sorry for.

I stand behind you and I watch you from a mile away

Then she knew. It wasn’t too late for her. If she had forgotten how to love, then he would surely teach her. It didn’t matter whether or not she deserved his love. She wanted it anyway, and once she had it she would do anything to keep it, even if it meant walking away from her father’s company and every last one of her materialistic possessions.

She just had to let Mack know.

Wishing you could be the one, but not here this way

She slid her hand from where it was wrapped around the back of his neck, forward to his cheek, tenderly caressing his shadowed skin until he allowed his eyes to meet hers again.

I’ve got to know your name

With a shy smile she began, ““I hope you won’t think I’m being too forward, and I pray I won’t frighten you away…”

I must know who you are

“…when I tell you that I’ve already fallen.”

His despair suddenly turned to elation as he picked her up by her waist and swung her around, his joyous holler filling the room even as her heart overflowed with bliss. When he finally set her on her feet again the most beautiful smile she had ever seen lit up his entire face, and she was certain his happiness was reflected in her own features as well.

“Nancibeth, I..…I..…I’m sorry,” he laughed. “You still don’t look like a Nancibeth to me.”

I don’t feel like Nancibeth, either. I’ll never be that innocent again. “Then why don’t you just keep calling me Leggs, Mack?” she teased as she widened her eyes at him.

He held her at arms' length and gave the lower half of her body an appreciative glance. “Leggs, huh?”

“Or you can choose a name that you think suits me better than Nancibeth,” she suggested.

He withdrew his hands from her and pretended to ponder the question for a minute, tapping his finger to his temple as if in deep thought. He looked so enticing with his sensuous mouth twisted into a sexy half-smile that she was tempted to take his face in her hands and kiss him breathless.

Evidently coming to a decision he crooked his finger at her in a come-hither gesture that said he wanted her close. She stepped in front of him and was about to question his choice of names when he placed a silencing finger on her lips. He leaned down towards her, and just as she thought he was going to whisper his answer in her ear, his lips were suddenly a breath away from her own, his finger the only thing separating her from her heart’s desire.

“I think I’ll stick with Leggs,” he whispered, and a split second later his soft mouth was caressing her lips as he threaded his hands through her hair, silently begging her to open her mouth and her heart to him even as her eyes closed in sweet surrender and her arms invited him nearer. She let him enter her little by little, savoring each taste of him as he took her breath away with kisses that began as tender nips and progressed into demanding sweeps of his tongue that threatened to set her entire body aflame. As their mouths continued their languid mating, her soul was gradually filled with a completeness she had never before experienced. If being in his arms had felt like home, than this was the most exquisite homecoming she ever could have asked for.

In the privacy of the lavishly decorated dining room the newfound couple continued to celebrate their burgeoning romance with passionate kisses until the ringing of a cell phone cut through their blissful haze like a knife.


posted on 10-Sep-2002 2:45:37 AM
Part 15

Part 15

“Are you Maxwell Evans of 6540 Murray Lane in Plainsland?”

Max had been relieved when Mr. Madanila told him the private dining room was rented out until 8 p.m. With Leggs scheduled to arrive at 8:30, he had been so busy helping get things set up for his date that he hadn’t had much of a chance to dwell on the last time he had set foot in the elaborately decorated room.

“Son, you’d better sit down.”

Now as he stood in the foyer waiting for his dreamgirl to arrive, he prayed she wouldn’t be late.

“When was the last time you saw your mother and siblings?”

Because if she were, he might just go crazy.

“Mr. Evans, I’m sorry to inform you…”

And then she was there. Like an angel coming to rescue him from the depths of his own private hell, she stepped through the ornate wooden door and immediately gave him a heavenly smile that was a soothing balm for his aching heart. Her eyes lit up as well, but not before they glistened with a hint of tears for so brief a moment that it almost didn’t register in his mind. His concern was quickly pushed aside, replaced by speechless awe as he got the first full glimpse of the woman who had stolen his heart. Her silky dark hair, begging for his touch, cascaded down her back, revealing smooth, creamy shoulders that were bare save the two tiny straps of her dress. He never imagined that such a simple piece of burgundy material could be fashioned to create the splendid piece of clothing currently gracing her soft curves. Its color was an identical match to the shirt Tess had chosen for him, and he couldn’t help but notice that it clung to her in all the right places. With no fancy decorations or intricate stitching to serve as distractions, it mirrored the same magnificence as the gorgeous creature wearing it. She was simply perfection brought to life.

His stomach fluttered as he silently approached her, her stunning appearance still making it impossible to speak. He tried to communicate to her with his eyes the unspoken words coming from his heart. She was beautiful. She was breathtaking. And from this moment on she would always be the most important person in the world to him. He fought to control the shaking in his hands as he remembered the rose he had been waiting to give her. Spellbound by the deep richness of her chocolate eyes, it took all the concentration he could muster just to find her hand and press the flower into her palm. It wasn’t until they were standing in the entrance to the private dining room that he realized he must have wrapped her arm around his and guided her there.

He turned to gauge her reaction to the room’s décor, hoping that she would like the burgundy appointments, when he noticed a solitary tear pooling in the corner of her eye. He certainly hadn’t expected it to have that kind of effect on her! The drop of moisture gradually trickled down her flawless cheek, and all he could think was that it looked so out of place there that he had to do something to make it disappear. Determination overpowering his usually reserved behavior, he closed the distance between them and softly brushed his lips against the wetness on her cheek. There was no hesitancy as he sacredly vowed, “I’ll always kiss your tears away.” He was surprised to see that once again his actions had not had the desired effect, but as he was about to apologize for causing more tears to tumble down her face, he discerned that she was crying out of happiness. The realization made his heart swell with a mixture of pride and gratitude. Silently he thanked her by fulfilling his just-made promise, the slight salty taste of her damp, unblemished skin the sweetest thing to have ever graced his lips.

Moments later she had calmed enough to say, “Thank you so much.”

He was relieved to know that she liked what he and his former employer had done to the dining room. When he had so impetuously come up with the idea of having their date at a place that held such horrendous memories for him, he had immediately believed he would regret it. He had debated the pros and cons of such a move for the rest of the work day, cursing himself for making the foolish choice as he drove home, becoming angry at his self-pity as he showered, and eventually resolving to go through with his plan by calling Mr. Madanila from Alex’s house, making it his first step in working his way out from under the guilt of the past. Hearing her thank him confirmed that he had made the right decision. He gestured towards their surroundings. “I’m glad you like this.”

A strange emotion briefly flickered in her eyes, one he couldn’t quite put a name to. Surprise? Gratitude? Regret? Maybe she thought he had gone a little overboard for a first date. Or worse, she was so used to such lavish accommodations that she felt his attempt to impress her was laughable. She was probably thinking he might as well have taken her to McDonald’s.

“Please. Don’t misunderstand,” she said with a bit of trepidation. Oh, no. Here it comes. This is so below me. You are so below me. Did you really think caviar and Big Macs would compliment each other? “All this is wonderful, and no one has ever done anything this thoughtful for me before, but what I meant was thank you for your lovely words. They, and spending time with you, matter more to me than anything else. I don’t think you can begin to imagine how they make me feel.”

Immediately his emotional roller coaster spun out of its downward spiral and began to climb once again. She appreciated the atmosphere he had created, but what he had said to her, words spoken directly from the depths of his heart, had been what she was truly grateful for. She loved his words. Could she possibly love him? Responding to her admission, he reverently said, “And you can’t imagine how it feels to say them.”

She raised her hand as if she were going to caress his face but stopped short when she saw she was holding something, obviously wondering how it had come to be in her possession. The corners of her mouth curled into an endearing smile as she realized she was holding a single thornless cream and burgundy rose. “This is so beautiful,” she whispered.

Max quickly made a mental note to thank Mrs. Madanila for getting the custom made flower, especially on such short notice. He had wanted to give his angel something as unique as she was, a memento of what he knew would be a perfect evening. As lovely as the rose was, however, it might as well have been a weed compared to the remarkable woman holding it. “Not nearly as beautiful as you,” he answered with unrestrained adoration.

A flash of cold terror surged through him as he realized it was time to move from the doorway and take her into the room. He took a deep breath and took her hand in his. With her by his side, he could do this. She would be his lifeline. All he had to do was hold onto her and not let go. He wrapped her arm around his and led her to the table, each step a struggle to not bolt for the door. He reached for the chair and pulled it out with one hand, while the other hand reluctantly released her arm before automatically coming to rest on her bare shoulder. He nearly gasped at the feel of the warm, supple expanse of skin under his fingers. What would it feel like to have her wrapped in his arms, able to freely caress all the flesh left exposed by that marvelous dress?

After she placed her rose in the bud vase he pushed her chair in and swiftly strode to the other side of table. Sitting down he instantly reached for her hand like a man drowning at sea. He cleared his mind of all the sad thoughts looming at its edges, unwavering in his decision to exorcise the demons of the past. “I don’t drink, so I didn’t order us a bottle of wine or champagne. I’ll be more than glad to request a glass for you if you would like,” he informed her.

“No, thank you. I want to be able to remember every minute of this night,” she said shyly.

His own eyes teared up at her confession, and he wordlessly swore that he would make the rest of the evening a memorable one for both of them. The fact that his dreamgirl was actually in front of him finally began to sink in, and he suddenly grew nervous. Forcing himself to make small talk he began by discussing something he was quite familiar with. He wanted to boast that he and the chef were on a first name basis, that he had hand-picked each of the courses they would be consuming, but after her declaration that spending time with him was the most important part of the evening he decided that he didn’t need to try so hard to impress her. He simply stated, “Since it is later in the evening, I chose a four course meal instead of an eight course one.”

“I’m sure it will be delicious,” she said simply.

“The first course is Black Truffle Ravioli. It’s always been one of my favorites,” he said briefly, not wanting to automatically go into full waiter mode and describe the crisp broccoli or tasty bacon that was part of the dish. He’d rather see her savor it for herself.

“So you’ve eaten here often?” she asked.

How many times had he been a guinea pig for one of Grant’s new main dishes or Paula’s latest dessert creations? He still remembered the one she had made with strawberries that was just so delicious that he might have even thought it was better than sex if he weren’t too inexperienced to make that kind of comparison. It had taken a little sweet-talking and some downright begging on his part, but eventually she had agreed to make the coveted recipe for him this evening. He couldn’t wait to see the look of ecstasy on his angel’s face as he fed her the first bite. Or how much sweeter those strawberries would taste as he sampled them from her succulent lips…

Her question. She had asked him a question. What was it again? Oh, yeah! “I have to admit it has been a while, but when I was in school this was practically my second home.”

“I see,” she said with a wavering voice. It may not have been discernible to anyone else, but he was already so in tune with her that her hurt had been obvious. What had he said to upset her? He had just said that he had been here plenty of other times…and she must think that meant he had brought other women here as dates. Didn’t she know how special she was? He had to put and end to this misunderstanding immediately. He took her other hand in his as he admitted, “This is the first time I’ve ever had a date here.”

Should he tell her the rest? Could this striking woman, who has probably lost count of how many dates she has had in her lifetime, ever understand that he had dated more than his fair share of women as well? Yet that share only amounted to nine others besides her? And all of them set-ups at the insistence of his friends? Yes, he would tell her. She needed to realize how important she had already become to him. Giving a nervous laugh, he confessed, “As a matter of fact, not counting going out with my group of friends in high school every weekend, this is only about the tenth date I have ever been on, and the other nine don’t count.”

“You’re kidding me,” she said, the hurt in her voice now replaced by surprise. She quickly gave him an appraising look before asking, “Why don’t the other nine count?”

“Because they were all blind dates set up for me by my friends. This is the first time I have had a date with a woman I asked out.”

Her cheeks turned an adorable shade of pink as she asked, “Why did you decide to start dating now?”

Because I fell in love with you the moment I saw you. Because your eyes saw into my soul. Because I discovered my dreamgirl. Because I’ve finally found my soulmate. “It was you,” he said simply, hoping that it summed up the hundreds of reasons floating in his head, all of them centered on the precise minute she had unceremoniously crashed into his life. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

He refused to look away from her, awed by the emotions he saw playing in her eyes. Had he put those feelings there? He suddenly wanted to know everything about her. Her name. Where she lived. What her family was like. Who her friends were. Where she worked. What made her laugh. What brought her the greatest joy. What movie made her cry. What she looked like when she first woke up in the morning. Before he could ask her a single one of those questions, Mr. Madanila himself brought out the first course of their meal. He thanked his former boss and dear friend, who simply nodded his acknowledgment.

He reluctantly let one of her hands slip from his grasp so that she could protect her elegant dress with the napkin currently resting next to her plate. “Mmm, this smells incredible,” she observed as she took a deep breath of the food in front of her. She took a tentative bite and immediately let out a moan that left no doubt that she was enjoying the meal. “I can see why you would like this so much,” she complimented.

He couldn’t help but agree. Grant had really outdone himself this time, and Max would be sure to thank both him and Mr. Madanila for helping make the evening perfect. He gave her a smile as he observed, “Now that I’ve had the privilege of watching you enjoy it, I’d have to say that it is my all time favorite.” At least until I feed you dessert later this evening.

His sudden need to question her had disappeared as they ate without conversation, both savoring the companionable silence as their loving gazes met again and again. It wasn’t until Mr. Madanila cleared away the dishes from the first course that she finally spoke. “You mentioned that you came here a lot when you were in school. Do you mean Northwestern?”

He had been so enthralled by her that he hadn’t even imagined that she would want to know more about him. There were so many things that he still was not able to deal with, things he refused to discuss even with Alex or Tess. How much would he be able to reveal to her? He would have to take it one step at a time. Needing her comforting touch he reached for her hand as he nodded his answer. “I was going to be an environmental activist and single-handedly save the planet.”

“But you’re a farmer, aren’t you? I’ve always gotten the impression that environmentalists aren’t too keen on all the chemicals farmers use,” she asked. He was taken aback by her sincere curiosity. His experience had taught him that most people who weren’t farmers or environmentalists couldn’t care less what one group thought of the other, so to hear her ask for his take on the situation was certainly an unexpected occurrence.

Not wanting to disappoint her he gave his opinion, occasionally falling into his father’s habit of talking with his hands until he would realize that he still needed the lifeline of her touch. “I think that’s a huge part of the problem. The two sides see each other as adversaries when they really have a lot of the same goals. Environmentalists obviously see the chemicals as harmful. Herbicides and pesticides cost money, and lots of it. For example, to spray an acre of soybeans for spider mites runs about fifteen dollars an acre or around thirty-three cents a bushel, money that isn’t always recovered come harvest time, so it’s in the farmer’s best interest to find ways to use as few chemicals as possible. Many think that genetically engineered crops are the way to go, but personally I don’t think we lowly humans should be trying to play God, especially when crossbreeding what He has already given us has many of the same benefits as genetic engineering without all the moral debate surrounding it. Rotating crops also cuts down on the need for chemicals because the remnants of the previous year’s crops act as a fertilizer for the new crop. Rotating also makes the crops less susceptible to disease. Water conservation is another area where the two sides should be working together to find some solutions. Fortunately we don’t have much of a problem in the Midwest, but in areas where crops need to be irrigated both farmers and environmentalists want to see more efficient systems developed, to conserve the water as well as stop land erosion. Right now, worldwide, agriculture accounts for nearly two-thirds of the fresh water used, and that’s just too high of a number.”

“What can you do to change that?” she asked in bewilderment. “Plants need water to grow.”

“We can create more drought-resistant crops, and plant the rows closer together so that there is less run off. Even a simple thing like changing the time of day irrigating is done will help conserve water,” he explained. As he was about to give her more specifics on the ins and outs of determining optimal irrigation times, Mr. Madanila brought their second course. He couldn’t admit to her that his choice of the Spicy Cod Roe was attributed to nothing less than an overblown ego. When discussing the evening’s menu with his former employer, the elder man had confided that Greg believed the recipe’s enormous success was directly related to Max’s suggestion that he use watermelon to contrast the searing flavor of the fish. Max didn’t have the heart to tell either of the men that he had only been joking, especially since it seemed to have worked out so well. Leaving out the story surrounding this part of the meal, Max concentrated on listing the recipe’s ingredients for her perusal as he watched her eyes light up with fascination.

Suddenly remembering his manners he said apologetically, “I’m very sorry for being so rude and monopolizing the entire conversation. I tend to get carried away sometimes.” And right now I’d love to carry you away, he silently added as he watched her enticing smile. His gaze drifted to her eyes and when he saw that the same emotion-filled look had returned to them, all his questions about her came rushing back to him. He’d better take them one at a time. What was her name? Whatever it was, he was certain that it was as perfect as the rest of her. Christine? Too Stephen King. Adrianne? Too harsh. Maria? Too plain. Shiri? Sounded nice, but was that even a real name? Liz? Too close to the name of the heartless woman trying to steal his farm. That last choice took all the fun out of his little guessing game, so he finally decided to just end the mystery altogether. “Here I am enjoying a delicious meal with the most enthralling woman I have ever met, and I don’t even know your name.”

She hesitated for a moment before she answered with a shy smile, “My name is Nancibeth.”

He almost choked on the bite of cod he had just swallowed. Nancibeth? NANCIBETH? What kind of name was that for such a stunning creature like her? Nancibeth was so…simple…boring…old…and just plain wrong. Maybe he hadn’t heard her correctly. Giving her a confused look, he asked, “Nancibeth?” When she nodded in affirmation he couldn’t help but tell her as he prayed she wouldn’t be offended, “Excuse me for saying so, but you don’t really strike me as a Nancibeth.”

He was thankful that she laughed as she asked, “And just why is that?”

Because you are an angel, and you deserve a heavenly name, not one that would be given to a mere mortal. “Well, Nancibeth is the kind of name I’d expect a farmer to give his daughter, or maybe the name of a preacher’s wife. You aren’t wearing a wedding ring, so I assume you’re not a preacher’s wife, and I’m fairly certain you are no farmer’s daughter,” he said mirthfully.

He had to give her an amused smile when she pretended to be insulted by his observation. “And how can you be so sure I’m not a farmer’s daughter?”

Could she really be the daughter of a farmer? If so, she couldn’t possibly be from around Plainsland. He knew just about every farmer left in northern Will County, and he definitely would have remembered meeting her before. However, it might explain how she knew about the struggle between farmers and environmentalists. Perhaps that was why she had agreed to go out with him. Maybe she wasn’t as far out of his league as he had believed. With eager curiosity he asked, “Are you?”

posted on 10-Sep-2002 2:47:14 AM
Part 15 (continued)

“No,” she admitted as his heart clenched at the setback. The spasm ended when she added, “But I am a farmer’s granddaughter.”

“Really?” he asked with unconcealed surprise. “Around Plainsland? Maybe I know your grandparents.” Maybe you know that not everything is about making money. Maybe you know what it’s like to have your whole life revolve around the weather. Maybe you could fall in love with a dirt poor farmer like me.

“No, their farm is in Iowa. I spent every summer there as a child until my mom passed away,” she replied the hurt in her eyes prevalent once again.

He stroked her hand soothingly, willing her to take as much strength from him as needed. Obviously her mother’s death was a sensitive issue with her, yet she had been the one to bring it up. He felt he needed to give her some kind of out in case she really didn’t want to discuss the subject with him. He recognized that lost look in her eyes from when he had seen her at the church last weekend, and he put together the pieces enough to know why she had stopped attending church. He would ask an easily answered question and allowed her to response to whatever degree made her comfortable. “You said last Sunday that it has been a long time since you’ve been to church. If you don’t mind my asking, exactly how long has it been?”

Her internal debate played out across her features before her deep sigh revealed her decision. “It’s been twelve years. I haven’t been to church since shortly after my mom’s funeral.”

He wanted to tell her that he knew exactly how she felt. He wanted her to know how difficult it had been to set foot inside St. Mary’s as he watched his father painfully whither away, how it had been damned near impossible after losing the rest of his family. He wanted to open up to her, but he just couldn’t. Not yet. It was still too agonizing. Instead he kept the conversation focused on her, because it appeared that she was ready to open up. To him. “I’m very sorry to hear about your loss,” he said as he continued to caress her free hand with his. “You must have been pretty young when she passed away.”

“I was ten,” she answered quietly. “The last time I went to church was with my grandparents. My father sent me to live with them after mom’s funeral, and the first weekend he finally came to visit me we were gone at church. When we came home…he was…livid. He asked Grandma Claudia how she could worship a God that had let her daughter suffer so much, how could she love a God who had taken away something so precious. She told him his bitterness would destroy him. She begged him to get some kind of grief counseling, which just made him all the angrier. That day he packed my bags and I never saw my grandparents again. I never set foot inside a church again.”

He asked Grandma Claudia how she could worship a God that had let her daughter suffer so much, how could she love a God who had taken away something so precious. How many times had he asked himself those very same questions? No matter how heartbreaking it had been for her, he completely understood her father’s actions. He had closed himself off, had been angry and bitter, hadn’t he? He may still be that way today if it hadn’t been for Tess. No, he couldn’t think about it. It was too painful. Focus only on Nancibeth. “Until last week.”

“Until last week,” she repeated.

Sensing that he already knew the answer he asked the question before he had the chance to change his mind. “How did your mother die?”

“Ovarian cancer.”

He squeezed his eyes shut against the memories but they came anyway.

Sit down, kids…cancer…chemotherapy…spread…lymph nodes…bills…another round…mortgage…into the brain…hospice…three months…morphine…still in pain…
Yes, he knew exactly how her father had felt. He took a few deep breaths to compose himself before stating the feeling he had once shared with her only surviving parent. “And your father blamed God.”

She nodded slowly. “They were always so happy together, and anyone who knew our family said I was a lucky girl to have such loving parents. We’d spend all our holidays at my grandparents’ farm as one big family, and I loved those times so much. But when mom died it’s like my dad went with her. Physically, he was still on earth, but he became this completely different person almost overnight. He refused to talk about mom at all, and he even put away all the pictures of her we had around our house.”

Max, you aren’t the only one dad left. He left all of us….Are you going to pretend that he didn’t even exist…Look what you’re doing to mom…You still have us. Quietly he said, “That must have been terrible for you.”

“When he sent me to live with my grandparents I was actually glad, just because they let me talk about her, they let me know it was ok to remember her. Then the church incident happened and he took me away from them. It was like I had lost my whole family in a matter of months,” she said through blurry eyes as she brought her right hand to her mouth to cover her sob. His heart shattered right along with hers as he realized why she had been sent to him. Wealthy or not, poor or not, they were kindred spirits. Her family had been stolen from her. He had allowed his to be taken away. Either way they had been alone in the world, but now they had found each other.

He reluctantly let go of his lifeline to reach her side, swiftly picking her up and holding her tightly to him as she fell apart in his arms. He wanted so desperately to take her pain, to will it out of her and into his own body. He wanted to break down and cry right along with her. He wanted to kiss away her tears and make sure she never had a reason to cry ever again. For the moment he merely stroked her soft, silky hair away from her tear-stained face as he whispered comforting words, wishing his loving caresses would somehow heal her wounds. Eventually her sobs became a series of deep breaths and he was able to ask, “Are you all right, my sweet Angel? You don’t have to tell me these things if it is too painful for you. I understand anyway.”

She sniffled as she replied, “No, it’s actually a relief to finally get this out. I’ve been holding it all in for years now, and I’m tired of pretending my life is perfect when all I want to do is fall apart.” She pulled back slightly and looked at his chest, then said the most endearing thing he could imagine. “I’m sorry for ruining your shirt. I’ll buy you a new one.”

He wanted to tell her that she was so precious to him that she could ruin every last shirt he owned if it meant he would be able to hold and comfort her for the rest of his life, but now was not the time for such declarations. This moment was about helping her through her pain. “Don’t worry about the shirt,” he said in a reassuring tone. “I just wish I could do more to take your sorrow away.”

She sniffled some more as she confided, “Simply listening to me is a bigger help than you can ever know. I’ve never been comfortable enough with anyone to be able to discuss these things before.”

He wanted to kiss her for allowing him the privilege of being her confidant, but he sensed that she was not done with her story. “I’m flattered that you chose me,” he said honestly. Wrapping his arms around her a little tighter to let her know she was safe with him, he asked, “Is that all there is? Do you have more you feel like telling me?”

She gently nodded, the gesture sending the last of he tears tumbling down her cheeks. “As my father drove us home from my grandparents I thought that maybe things would be different, but when we got back to Chicago he drove us to a condo near Wrigley Field. He had sold our house without telling me or my grandparents, and suddenly all of my mom’s things were just gone.” She hesitated a few minutes before deciding to tell him what apparently was the worst part of her mother’s death. “I guess I was beginning to look more like her every day, and after a few weeks he couldn’t even stand to glance at me for more than a few minutes. He wouldn’t even say my name.”

“Your name?” he questioned, wondering why her father wouldn’t want to speak her name.

“Mom’s name was Nancilou. I was named after her, so my father refused to say either of our names. Eventually he sent me off to boarding school and the next time I spoke to him, he called me only by my middle name. To this day that is the only name he will use to address me.”

Max immediately chastised himself for assuming so much about this amazing woman. She may appear perfect on the outside, but on the inside she was just as human as he was. She had exuded such an air of confidence that he never would have guessed she was so vulnerable and lonely. He thanked God that she had been entrusted to his care, for he knew there were many men who would break the heart of a woman like her without a second thought if it served their own selfish purposes.

The atmosphere in the quiet room was simply too peace to destroy with conversation, so he ran
his hand along her jaw line until his fingertips were softly resting under her chin. He silently directed her to raise her face from his chest, then nearly gasped when she gave him a reverent look that made him feel as though she were seeing into his soul. Could she see all the things that he was too afraid to tell her? In that moment he knew it was only a matter of time before he told her everything. Having her in his arms like this gave him a sense of security that he never thought he’d have again. She felt like home, and as he kissed away her tears again he knew this was exactly where he belonged.

When she straightened up in his lap he felt a sudden shift in her demeanor, which was confirmed by her nervous laugh as she asked, “Now that I’ve completely humiliated myself, you wouldn’t happen to want to even the score and embarrass yourself in front of me, would you?”

He understood the diversionary tactic quite well. After all, he had become somewhat of an expert at using it himself over the past year. “Anything for you. What do you want me to do?”

“I know,” she said as her eyes sparkled mirthfully. “Since you seem to think I don’t look like a Nancibeth, why don’t you tell me something about you that doesn’t fit in with how you look?”

He shook his head as he swallowed hard. Do I look like a murderer? My family is dead because of me, so I might as well be one. There were some things he just wasn’t ready to share, so he searched his memories from happier times until he thought of something that would certainly make her forget her grief, if only for a little while. “All right. I’ve got a good one. You would never guess this in a million years.”

“Go ahead,” she prompted like an impatient first-grader. “I’m waiting.”

“What do you know? My little brother the ballerina! C’mon, Maxieboy, you can admit to ole’ Zanny that football is just a cover so you can prance around in a tu-tu!”

“Oh, I don’t know. You’ll probably want to go home after I tell you this,” he teased.

It was at that moment that he realized just how close her lips were to his, how easily she had settled into him. Her soft arms felt so fragile that he caressed them with a possessive protectiveness, shivers resonating throughout his body as he idly stroked her arm. The heat radiating from her tiny frame infused his entire body with her soothing presence even as the sensuous aroma of strawberries and vanilla tempted him with vows of a hidden desire. He inhaled sharply when her hand reached out to cup his cheek as her thumb traced the outline of his mouth, her eyes automatically following its path. “Somehow I seriously doubt that,” she said in a throaty voice that made images of what he wanted his mouth to do to her flash through his mind.

“You asked for it,” he warned with amusement. Steeling himself for her reaction he confessed, “When I was a senior in high school, I took ballet lessons.”

“You what?” she asked incredulously as she backed away from him and looked into his eyes to confirm the truth. “No, you’re joking.”

He reluctantly raised his hand from where it was caressing her shoulder. “I swear. Scout’s honor.”

She burst out into a fit of laughter that was the most heavenly sound he ever could have dreamed up, and it filled him with a deep sense of satisfaction to know he had been the one to bring her such joy. When she finally caught her breath she giggled out, “The pirouetting farmer. Who would have guessed? So were you planning to start the farm bureau’s first dance troupe or was this going to be a solo effort?”

“I’m glad you find that so amusing,” he tried to say in a serious tone, but soon he too was joining in on the laughter. Once her second outburst had settled down into a few hiccups he explained, “Ballet, my dear, is the dirty little secret of the National Football League. I was All-American my junior and senior years, so my coach suggested I take some lessons to help with my leg strength and agility.”

“Did they work?” she asked as she tried to maintain her composure.

He shrugged his shoulders. “They must have because I got scholarship offers from all over the country.”

“Including Northwestern?”

“Including Northwestern. I decided to go there because they had the degree program I wanted, and I was close enough to home that I could help out on the weekends if they needed me.”

“Wow. So did you play for Northwestern all four years?” she asked with curiosity.

He shook his head in disgust as he remembered the events of another lifetime. “I never got to play at all. Two weeks into football camp that summer I blew my knee out, and the damage was too severe for me to risk playing again.” Back then he had been naïve enough to believe that not being able to play football was the worst thing that ever could have happened to him. How terribly wrong he had been.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said as she winced at his explanation. “Did you at least get to keep your scholarship?”

“Yeah, but only for my freshman year. After that my family had to foot the entire bill.” He didn’t like the direction in which this conversation was headed. She was getting dangerously close to subjects that he had never discussed with anyone before, and for good reason. Before his mind could register what his mouth was saying, though, a simple admission slipped out. “I never did get my degree.”

“Because it got too expensive?” she asked innocently.

How many times had he prayed that money had been the only reason he was not a college graduate? How many times would he be punished for his selfishness? Part of him longed to tell her the truth, but the shame behind his actions was still too great for him to open up to her. He answered her honestly without giving up too many details. “No, my parents made sure I had the money, but I was needed at home for an extended period of time and then…life just sort of kept throwing obstacles in my way.”

He came very close to breaking down and crying when she pressed a gentle kiss on his cheek and whispered his own words back to him, “You don’t have to tell me these things if it is too painful for you. I understand anyway.”

She had easily seen the anguish he thought he had hidden so well, and for a moment he wasn’t sure whether he should be thankful for her perceptiveness or intimidated that he was so transparent to her. Maybe he could tell her some of his past. He didn’t need to reveal all of his disgraceful secrets to tell her that she was not the only one who had lost her entire family.

“Mr. Evans, I’m sorry to inform you that your mother, brother and sister were all killed in a car accident on I-55 this morning.

He tried so hard to open his mouth and form the words, but they just refused to be spoken. He simply was not ready to talk about this yet, not even to the woman who he already considered his soulmate. For months now he had pretended that the pain of their deaths was behind him, that he was handling his loss as graciously as possible, but one vicious note from Elizabeth Parker had managed to bring back every agonizing memory of that tragic day and the weeks that followed. She was the reason he had brought Nancibeth here to Trio’s for their date. It hadn’t really been about impressing the angel in his arms. No, he had to admit to himself, that was just an extra benefit. He had brought her here because deep in his soul he knew that she was the only one who could help him begin to heal and forgive himself. Although he wasn’t ready to actually talk about what had become of his family, being here with her was the grandest first step he ever could have imagined taking towards finally opening up and sharing his grief with someone who truly understood.

He wanted to thank her for being his salvation, but his throat was so choked with unshed tears that he just gave her a smile that he hoped would show his gratitude. She must have understood because she placed several more tender kisses on his cheeks and forehead before serenely smiling as she teased, “Well, Mr. Piouretting Farmer, does this fancy restaurant of yours have any music you can use to show me some of your slick dance moves?”

He appreciated her diversionary tactic this time, and his smile wasn’t forced as he resolved to enjoy the rest of the evening with the beauty in his arms. “You can’t possibly expect me to dance by myself? When I could have Ms. Nancibeth Angel as my partner?” he asked in mock horror.

“Since you put it that way, I guess I’ll have to join you,” she bantered back as she removed herself from his embrace. He felt so at peace with her in his arms that he reluctantly released her, despite knowing that in a matter of minutes she would be in his arms again.

Mr. Madanila took their separation as a cue to remove the dishes from their half-eaten second course. Max stood and walked over to his friend and quietly requested, “Would you please hold off on the next course and put on a nice slow song? We feel like doing some dancing first.”

The older man gave him a knowing smile and enthusiastically said, “Of course, Mon Ami.”
Max clasped his old friend on the shoulder, the look exchanged between the two men indicating that they both knew this entire evening was so much more than a simple date with a beautiful woman.

posted on 10-Sep-2002 2:48:58 AM
Part 15 (continued)

He quickly returned to her side and offered her his hand, an electric jolt burning up his arm as she eagerly took it with a quick squeeze. As he led her to the dance floor the reality of the situation began to sink in. He was here with the girl of his dreams! He was about to dance with the sweetest, most captivating woman he had ever met! The thought was so astounding that his heart began to pound uncontrollably in his chest as he willed his entire body to not tremble with anxiety.

After bringing her to stand in front of him he held her hand to his chest, hoping that she wasn’t able to feel his erratic pulse. Could she be anywhere near as nervous as he was? He calmed a little as he heard the opening bars of the song Mr. Madanila had chosen for this special dance. His friend must have remembered that it had always been one of his favorites, playing it any time he would stay late to help with clean up. The lyrics described his feelings for the incredible angel in his arms so perfectly that he might as well have written the words himself. His heartrate slowed back to normal as the sensation of her leaning against him gradually soothed away his nervousness.

I can’t believe summer’s almost here…

She reached up and wrapped her hand around the back of his neck, a shiver resonating down his spine as she began to play with the hairs on the back of his neck. His breath hitched in his throat at the slight contact of her skin against his, and when his fingers grazed the smooth bare skin of her back his heart instantly began pounding even more erratically than before.

I made it through another year, even if alone…

As they slowly moved to the music he stared down into her porcelain features, her brown irises so dark that they neatly blended with her pupils to make her eyes seem all the more wide and innocent. “Have I told you how handsome you look tonight?”

But there’s no tears in my eyes…

He was so entranced by her that it took a moment for him to notice she had asked him a question. Did she really think he was handsome? Idly stroking the back of her hand with his thumb he reverently spoke what he knew was the gospel truth. “I’m only handsome because I’m dancing with an amazingly beautiful woman.”

Life is still full of surprise…

“And I’m only beautiful because I’m dancing with a man who makes me feel that way,” she whispered back.

He was tempted to tell her that her beauty had absolutely nothing to do with him before he realized the implication of her words. He decided he’d be crazy to give her any kind of idea that he thought they didn’t belong together, especially if she cared for him even a tenth as much as he cared for her.

I’m not looking for a one night stand…

She rested her head against his chest, and he instinctually closed his eyes to revel in the scent of her strawberry hair as its silkiness gently tickled the side of his face. He wanted to spend the rest of his life just like this. Could she possibly feel the same? Whether she did or not, he had to make sure she knew how he felt about her. He hesitated a moment before he said, “I know this is our first date…”

I stand behind you and I watch you from a mile away…

“Mmm-hmmm,” she purred into his chest, the harmonious tone resonating into his sternum and throughout the rest of his bones.

Wishing you could be the one, but not here this way…

His whole body tingled with the sensually innocent action. It took him a moment to compose himself and regain his train of thought. “…and you’ll probably think this sounds insane…”

I’ve got to know your name…

“Try me,” she whispered.

I must know who you are…

What he wouldn’t do to hear her whisper words of love to him with that voice.

“…but I feel like we ran into each other that day at Kelley’s for a reason, like you were my very own angel sent down from heaven to be my salvation.”

I look at you and I know who you are…

She raised her head from his chest, a puzzled yet expectant look in her eyes. She probably did think he was insane.

You’re just a little bit too far from my home

He took a deep breath and quickly continued, knowing he would definitely lose his nerve if he spoke too slowly. “I hope you won’t think I’m being too forward, and I pray I won’t frighten you away when I tell you that……I think ….I’m falling in love with you.”

But please don’t get me wrong

Her gaze quickly clouded over with some unnamed emotion.

Even though it has been long

He looked away, unable to bear to watch the coldness fill her eyes as she rejected him. Still, he knew he would have regretted not telling her what was in his heart. “I’m sorry that I upset you,” he finally said in a jagged voice. “I’ve never been good at hiding my emotions, and I just had to let you know how I felt.”

I hope I never sing my last song without someone

She continued to remain silent as he prayed for her to say something, anything.

I stand behind you and I watch you from a mile away

He had known all along that he didn’t deserve her, and the ache beginning in his heart was just punishment for allowing himself to believe that he ever had a chance with such an exquisite woman.

Wishing you could be the one, but not here this way

His throat tightened as she slid her hand from where it was wrapped around his neck. Had he frightened her so badly that she didn’t even want to touch him now?

He was shocked when her hand remained on his face, even more so when she cupped his cheek and began to tenderly caress the stubble that had started to develop there. He hesitated to return his gaze to her face, fearful of what he would see if he looked into her eyes. As her hand grew more insistent he finally decided to accept whatever fate she determined for him.

I’ve got to know your name

He noticed her shy smile and flushed cheeks before raising his eyes to meet hers. What he saw there gave him some hope as she began, “I hope you won’t think I’m being too forward, and I pray I won’t frighten you away…”

I must know who you are

“…when I tell you that I’ve already fallen.”

Already fallen? ALREADY FALLEN? Was she? No. She couldn’t be. Was she really saying that she was already in love with him? He thought his heart was going to explode out of his chest, so to be sure it didn’t he let out an ecstatic yell as he picked her up by her waist and swung her around. When he finally set her on her feet again the most beautiful smile he had ever seen lit up her entire face, and he was certain her happiness was reflected in his own features as well.

“Nancibeth, I…Go milk the cows, Nancibeth!…I..Don’t forget to slop them pigs, neither, Nancibeth!…I’m sorry,” he laughed as images of his angel trudging through ankle-deep mud to reach a farrowing pen leapt into his imagination. “You still don’t look like a Nancibeth to me.”

“Then why don’t you just keep calling me Leggs, Mack?” she teased, emphasizing her own pet name for him with widened eyes.

He used her suggestion as an excuse to take a long, appraising look at her. She was beautiful. She was sweet. She had a natural grace in even the slightest of her movements. And she was in love with him. “Leggs, huh?”

“Or you can choose a name that you think suits me better than Nancibeth,” she suggested.

He withdrew his hands from her and pretended to ponder the question for a minute, tapping his finger to his temple as if in deep thought. What would she say if she found out what he was really thinking about? She looked so enticing with her sumptuous lips curled into an innocent pout that he was tempted to take her face in his hands and kiss her breathless. Well, why shouldn’t he, he wondered. He was in love with her. She was in love with him. And he’d only been dreaming about kissing those soft full lips every second of every minute of every hour of every day for just over two whole weeks now.

The name game forgotten once again he crooked his finger at her in a come-hither gesture that said he wanted her close. She stepped in front of him and was about to ask him a question when he placed a silencing finger on her lips. He leaned down towards her to make her think he wanted to whisper something in her ear. Then, before he even realized it, his lips were suddenly a breath away from her own, his finger the only thing separating him from his heart’s greatest desire.

“I think I’ll stick with Leggs,” he whispered, and a split second later her soft mouth was under his impassioned lips as he threaded his hands through her thick dark mass of hair. He wanted to consume her soul as fully as she did his, and when her eyes closed in sweet surrender he knew he would never get enough of her. He gained entrance little by little as he savored each taste of her ardent flesh, fighting to continue breathing as she stunned him with kisses that began as innocent brushes of her lips and progressed into a series of unrelenting requests for more that threatened to set his entire body aflame. As their mouths continued their languid mating, his soul was gradually filled with a completeness he had never before experienced. If having her in his arms felt like home, than this was the most exquisite homecoming he ever could have asked for.

In the privacy of the lavishly decorated dining room the newfound couple continued to celebrate their burgeoning romance with passionate kisses until the ringing of a cell phone cut through their blissful haze like a knife.

“I can’t believe I left that thing on,” she mumbled as she continued to kiss him. When the ringing persisted she grudgingly tore her lips from his.

“Do you have to answer it?” he pleaded as she pulled away from him and walked back to the table.

“Unfortunately, yes,” she said over her shoulder. “That’s my business line.” She reached for her purse and removed the offending piece of electronics from inside. She held it close to the candles in the middle of the table, apparently trying to read the name of the caller.

“Business calls on a Saturday night? What exactly do you do for a living?” he asked curiously.

She held up a solitary finger in a silent request for him to wait as she answered the phone.

“This had better be good,” she said in an extremely irritated tone. Even from across the room he could see the anger flaring in her eyes.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. What the hell were you thinking?” The anger had now reached her voice.

“You’re where?” she asked incredulously. She was not happy at all. Whoever was on the other end of that conversation, Max was glad it wasn’t he.

“And you can’t find anybody else to come and get you?” she demanded. Was she really going to have to leave in the middle of their date?

“Fine,” she said so bitterly that her voice was venomous. “I’ll be there when I get there.” He made a mental note to never piss her off, even though she did look kinda cute with her eyes blazing so violently.

She shut the phone off and turned her attention back to him, her features automatically softening. “Obviously picking up spoiled immature men from jail has been added to my job description without my knowledge,” she said resentfully. She walked back to where he had stood frozen to the dance floor. She gave him a tender kiss as she added, “I’m terribly sorry, but I have to leave.”

He released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding before weakly asking, “You really can’t stay?”

She sighed heavily. “If I don’t take care of this now, I’ll never hear the end of it on Monday. Please…I don’t want to go, but I really don’t have a choice.”

He could tell by the agitated look in her eyes that the thought of their date ending early was just as upsetting for her as it was for him. There was no point in trying to guilt her into staying, no matter how desperately he didn’t want the night to end. “I understand,” he said as he pulled her against him. Leaning down and giving her a lingering kiss, he added quietly, “but you’re not leaving here until I get that phone number. Who knows when I may need you to come and rescue me from jail.”

She led him back to the table as she joked, “You don’t seem like the spoiled immature type to me, but I’ll let you have my number anyway.” She pulled out a pen and scribbled on a piece of paper as she continued, “This is a two-line phone and I always have it with me, although on days my head isn’t in the clouds, I do shut it off when I don’t want to be bothered. My secretary sometimes checks the voicemail on the business line, so I’ll give you my personal line instead. No one ever calls me on it, so consider it your own direct connection to me.”

“Sort of like the Bat phone?” he teased.

“Yeah,” she laughed as her brows furrowed in concentration. “Now that I think of it, I’m not even positive this is the number.” Scribbling some more, she elaborated, “I know it’s one number different from the business line, so try 25 first. If that doesn’t work then try 23. In the meantime I’ll get my voicemail set up on it so you’ll know when you’ve dialed the right number.”

She handed him the piece of paper, and he didn’t bother to stifle his chuckle as he read her neat script writing, the impromptu heart drawn around it adding the perfect touch:

Ms. Nancibeth Angel a/k/a Leggs

773-693-2425 (or 2423?)

He neatly folded the paper in half and placed it in his wallet, then offered her his arm for her to stand. She took it eagerly and held on tight, her reluctance to leave him as great as his desire to not let her go. Suddenly remembering that his home phone wouldn’t be reconnected until at least Tuesday, he offered, “I’m going to be working at Shellow’s, J.D. Shellow’s, that is, all week long, so if you want to get in touch with me the best bet is to call me there.”

She nodded before giving his arm a squeeze and tilting her head up to silently request a kiss. He willingly granted her wish until they had to stop for breath.

“I really should be going,” she said as she pointed towards the doorway.

He reluctantly nodded. “Let me walk you out.”

“Oh, no. You went through all this effort. Why don’t you at least stay and finish the dinner. I can find my own way out.”

His eyes darted about the room, looking for the ghosts that had been there when he had first arrived earlier in the evening. When all he saw was the spot where he had professed his love to her, where they had kissed for the first time, where he had held her as she mourned her own loss, he acquiesced. “All right, but only on one condition.”

“And what would that be?” she asked curiously.

“You have to promise me a rain check for dessert.”

She held up her fingers as he had done previously. “Scout’s honor.”

He leaned down and gave her a final chaste kiss before watching her walk towards the door. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed her rose still in the bud vase on the table. “Wait,” he ordered.

She spun around as if she had been looking for an excuse to come running back to him.

“You forgot your rose,” he explained as he brought it to her.

Her eyes lit up the moment she realized she had left it behind. “Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe I almost left that here. Thank you,” she said sincerely. Her eyes raised up to meet his and he was nearly done in by the emotions swimming there. “Thank you for an unforgettable evening.” She pulled his head down for another final kiss, but this one was anything but chaste. It was filled with need and longing and desire and… “I love you,” she whispered as she broke away from him.

His eyes burned with tears as he repeated her sentiment. “I love you, too,” he said just as quietly as she had.

With one more quick brush of his lips, she was gone.


posted on 13-Sep-2002 11:01:12 PM
Part 16

An hour and forty minutes after leaving the man of her dreams, Elizabeth Parker pulled into the Will County Sheriff’s Station to clean up Kyle Valenti’s mess. As soon as she had seen his name on her cell phone’s Caller ID she had been very tempted to not answer it, but if she hadn’t, the next call would have been from her father. Kyle had made sure she understood that when she had demanded he find someone else to pick him up.

To say she was thoroughly and utterly pissed off at him would have been quite an understatement. Besides the fact that he had ruined the most perfect night of her life, he had gone and done something so stupid that he had put all of Parker Development Corp. at serious risk.

“I’m here to see Sheriff Hanson,” she said in a pleasant tone that completely contradicted what she was feeling.

“And you are?” the bleach-blonde receptionist asked nicely.

“Elizabeth Parker. He’s expecting me.”

“Have a seat. He’ll be with you in a minute.”

“Thank you,” she said as she sank down into one of the well-used plastic chairs. The small waiting room had the usual stale smell most local government buildings had, and as she looked around at the furnishings it was apparent that there hadn’t been much money in the redecorating budget for quite some time.

“Ms. Parker?” a man in uniform asked as he stood in the open doorway. When she nodded he gestured for her to follow him. “Tina, hold all my calls,” the portly middle-aged man directed the overly made up woman at the counter. “I do not want to be disturbed.”

He escorted her into his office, the furniture in here more modern and in much better shape than the items in the waiting room. A photo of the Sheriff and what were certainly his wife and children rested on the corner of his desk between two precariously perched stacks of paper. It was a typical overworked public official’s office.

She automatically took the seat across from him.

“So I understand that one of my boys pulled over your company’s limousine for suspicion of DUI,” the man said in a slightly disgusted tone.

Liz immediately switched into her best PR mode. “Let me assure you, Sheriff, that Parker Development takes the issue of drinking and driving very seriously. Although I obviously don’t know the exact details of tonight’s incident, let me assure you that it is, and will continue to be, an isolated incident. Now I know you are a busy man, and you certainly don’t want to have to deal with all those reporters descending on your building if word of this gets out, so I’d like to suggest that you turn the driver and Mr. Valenti over to me. It would be beneficial for both of us if Parker Development could keep this purely an internal matter.”

“Technically, Mr. Valenti and the other four passengers were only being stupid by riding with a drunk driver. They weren’t breaking the law, so we’ve released them all to family members. However, the driver’s blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit. I can’t let him go scot-free,” he explained as he lazily rocked in his chair.

“That’s perfectly understandable,” She commented. “I wouldn’t expect you to have it any other way.” Looking him straight in the eye she suggested, “By the way, when I was out at the race track earlier today, I noticed that your department was sponsoring some type of benefit concert out there in a few weeks. Twenty dollars a ticket if I remember correctly.”

He gave her a knowing nod.

“As a matter of fact I was going to stop by your booth tomorrow and have you put Parker Development down for two hundred and fifty of those tickets. I thought perhaps you could distribute them to the local schools to reward the kids who have had perfect attendance this year.”

“Well, that’s very generous of your company, Ms. Parker. I’m sure we can manage to put those tickets to good use for you,” he played along. “Now as far as your limo driver goes, this is his first offense. I don’t see anything wrong with letting him off with a warning as long as he agrees to attend our drivers’ training refresher course. One night a week for eight weeks.”

“I personally guarantee he won’t be a minute late to any of his classes,” she said as she stood up. Offering him her hand she continued, “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve had a long night. I’d like to collect Mr. Valenti, call a taxi to take my limo driver home, and be on my way.”

He gave her hand a solid shake. “I’m glad to see that you came to handle this in person, Ms. Parker. Let’s just make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again, shall we?”

“You can bet it won’t, sir.”




Max stayed at Trio’s for almost two hours after Leggs had left.

First, Mr. Madanila had insisted that he finish the rest of the meal Grant had prepared, muttering under his breath something about him being too skinny of a boy. He hadn’t argued, the private dining room’s atmosphere now a comfort rather than a curse as her unique strawberry-vanilla scent lingered in the air.

Paula gave him a sympathetic look as he stood in the kitchen sulking over her original dessert creation, reassuring him that she would make it again the next time he brought his date to the restaurant. He gave her a grateful smile between bites, the sweet concoction tasting just the slightest bit off since it had become a treat for one.

He couldn’t help but laugh at the animated stories his former coworkers told about various customers they had had in the months since he had left. They joked about the man who had tried to impress his date by sending back the sushi because it hadn’t been cooked well enough. He smiled as they described the children’s scrunched up faces and adorable antics at the “grown-up” Christmas dinner they had hosted for the local boys and girls club. And for the first time in a long time he felt like a normal, carefree twenty-two-year-old.

He helped the busboys exchange the decorations in the private dining room for more conservative ones as they set it up for a Sunday brunch before he paid the agreed-upon two hundred dollars and a grateful thank you to Mr. Madanila and the staff. With one quick wave to Jesse the valet he jogged across the street and hopped into his truck. It was almost eleven-thirty, and by the time he made it home it would be nearly two in the morning. Getting up in time for church would be difficult, but he didn’t want to miss services in case Nancibeth happened to show up again. Besides, there was still that conversation he needed to have with the priest.

Turning on the radio, his ears were blasted by one of the Metallica songs he used to listen to as he studied for his several college courses. He changed the station quickly, wanting the serene calm of his time with his angel to continue for as long as possible. Flipping through the multitude of choices he settled on one mellow tune as the words caught his attention.



“C’mon, Lizzie. Aren’t you going to talk to me at all?” Kyle whined as Liz stalked out of the Will County Sheriff’s office. “It’s not like I got arrested.”

“No, Kyle, you just got the limo driver drunk and let him get arrested,” Liz spat out. She had nearly bribed a public official because of him, and he didn’t even have the sense to apologize to her. “What in God’s name could you have been thinking? Letting him up in the skybox was against the rules in the first place, but then to let him drink with you guys kind of defeats the whole purpose of having the limo there in the first place!”

“Look, it was some harmless fun. Nobody got hurt.”

“HARMLESS FUN?” she screamed, loud enough that she was sure the Sheriff inside had heard her. “Do you have any idea of what kind of liability you opened us up to with this crappy little stunt of yours? You ought to be damned lucky that nobody got hurt. What would you have done if that limo driver, a Parker Development employee that YOU got drunk, killed someone?”

“Jesus, Liz. That’s why we pay for insurance. Nothing would have happened to the company.”

She shook her head with disgust as she disarmed the Mercedes’ alarm and climbed behind the steering wheel. He just didn’t get it. “You’re unbelievable,” she muttered.

“If I had known you were gonna be this pissed, I wish I hadn’t called you to come get me,” he foolishly commented as he settled into the passenger’s seat.

“SO DO I!” she screamed even louder than the first time, the confines of the car causing her voice to echo. “Why don’t you learn to grow up because I’m sick of being your mommy!”

He let out a defeated sigh. “I’m sorry. Ok? I’m sorry I screwed up and I’m sorry for making you come to get me. It’s just…Sean’s girlfriend came and got him. Tony’s wife picked him up. Mark’s wife took him and Joe home. You’re my girlfriend, for God’s sake. Who else was I supposed to call?”

She couldn’t help the pang of guilt that shot through her at his words. She had always considered their relationship to be a professional obligation more than anything. They had risen through the ranks together and he was a loyal friend to her, but the vulnerable way he had just spoken told her that he considered her to be much more than a casual companion. “Just don’t let it happen again,” she simply said.

He leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. When he aimed a second kiss towards her lips, she waved him off, “You still reek of booze.”

He plopped back into the passenger’s seat and was silent as she started the vehicle. As she backed out of the parking space he assessed her appearance with a critical eye. “If you were going to bother dressing up to come and get me, did you have to wear that ugly thing? You know how much I despise it.”

Any guilt she had felt instantly disappeared at his intentionally insensitive comment. “I hate to tell you this, Kyle, but my entire life doesn’t revolve around you,” she said bitterly.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” he threatened.

She pinned him with a hateful glare. “If you have any common sense, you’ll shut up now before I decide to let Jeffrey get wind of just how stupid you were today.”

He glared back at her before turning to look out the window.

To make sure he knew where he stood with her she added, “Don’t ever expect me to bail your ass out again.”

A second later she turned on the radio and adjusted the volume to ensure his continued silence. Who knew what she might do if he persisted in baiting her. In the matter of a couple of hours she had gone from being ecstatically happy to completely miserable, and it was entirely his fault.

She was only slightly aware of the radio station’s disc jockey announcing the latest Bryan Adams song, a duet with Sarah McLachlan. Once the music began, though, all her anger and tension began to drain away as the sweet lyrics took her back to a private dining room in Evanston where she had felt safe and loved.




I can’t believe this moment’s come
It’s so incredible that we’re alone
There’s so much to be said and done
It’s impossible not to be overcome
Will you forgive me if I feel this way
Cuz we’ve just met – tell me that’s ok
So take this feeling and make it grow
Never let it go


Max would have thought the entire evening had been nothing but a wonderful dream if he hadn’t had Mr. Madanila as a witness that his dreamgirl really did exist. Everything about her had felt so right, and she complimented him perfectly. Where he was rough, she was soft. He was bold, and she was shy. Her heart needed healing, and he wanted to heal it. Suddenly the fact that she was rich and he was not didn’t seem to matter so much.

Because she was in love with him.


Mack had been so sweet and thoughtful during their entire brief date, and he had been pretty understanding when she had to cut it short. He was the perfect gentleman, and everything about him was so comforting that it was hard to believe they had just met. Each look and kiss and caress he gave her had made her feel so cherished that she knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life in his warm, strong embrace. In return she would do whatever necessary to make sure his eyes never again held the torment she had seen there earlier. It was the least she could do.

Because he was in love with her.

Don’t let go of the things you believe in
You give me something to believe in
Don’t let go of this moment in time
Don’t let go of things that you’re feeling
I can’t explain the things that I’m feeling
Don’t let go


He knew that before he let them get any more involved he should come clean about his lack of money. Would she still love him once she found out dinner at Trio’s wouldn’t be a weekly occurrence?


She knew that before she let them get any more involved she would have to make it clear to Kyle and her father that her love life was finally her own. She only hoped she could find the courage to stand up to them.

Now would you mind if I bared my soul
If I came right out and said you’re beautiful
Cuz there’s something here I can’t explain
I feel I’m diving into driving rain
You get my senses running wild
I can’t resist your sweet, sweet smile
So take this feeling and make it grow
Never let it go


She had only been away from him for a few short hours and already he ached for her. How long would it be before he could hold her again? Kiss her?

He had only been away from her for a few short hours and already she ached for him. How long would it be before she could feel him holding her again? Kissing her?

I’ve been waiting all my life
To make this moment feel so right
The feel of you just fills the night
So c’mon – just hold on tight


After the song ended and several others had been announced and played, two soulmates passed in the night on a moonlit ribbon of highway as they eagerly drove toward their homes and waited to meet in their dreams.




“Good morning, Mrs. Langley. How are you this morning?” Max asked as he stepped into the church office.

“I’m fine, Max. How are you?” the middle-aged woman at the desk reciprocated.

It was another beautiful late spring morning, and he had just had the best night of his life. “I couldn’t be better,” he said with a wide grin as he removed his wallet from his back pocket. He counted out twenty-five dollars and set it in front of her. “Here you go.”

She opened the drawer next to her desk and pulled out his file. She did a double take and then gave Max an enthusiastic look. “Max, you aren’t going to believe this.”

“Believe what?” he asked, worry crossing his brow.

“According to this note Mary left, someone made an anonymous donation that paid off the balance of the gravestones. Just put that money back in your wallet because you don’t owe the church a penny now.”

Max stared at her in disbelief. First someone leaves expensive roses for his mother and sister, and now a stranger paid nearly thirteen hundred dollars on his behalf. Somehow he just knew the two were connected. “They specifically made the donation to me?” he asked for verification.

“Apparently.”

“But how did they know?” he asked, not expecting her to really have an answer.

“Mary wrote here that she asked Father before giving out the information on how much was owed. Maybe he’ll know more.”

Max took a quick look at his watch and then over to the door that led to the priest’s private quarters. Mass wouldn’t be starting for another fifteen minutes, so that would be plenty of time to talk to him. Picking up his money and returning it to his wallet he replied, “Thanks, Mrs. Langley. I think I’ll go see him right now.”

He walked across the room and gave the door a tentative knock before opening it and stepping into the kitchen. “Hello?” he called out.

The muffled sound of feet pounding down the stairs indicated that the priest had heard him. He waited patiently until the man joined him.

“Good morning, Max. Would you like to sit down?” the church official asked politely.

Max refused the offered chair at the kitchen table, “No thank you. I won’t take long.”

“What can I do for you?” the balding man questioned in a friendly voice.

“Two things, actually,” Max said nervously. “Um, I just found out about the donor paying off the headstones for my family, and I was wondering whether you could tell me what you know about it.”

“Not much, to tell you the truth,” the priest admitted. “Mary said there was a woman on the phone who had read about the accident in the newspaper and wanted to help out. I didn’t know she had wanted to remain anonymous until the money order arrived.”

“Do you know where it had been mailed from?” he asked, wanting some kind of lead on this mystery person.

“No, I really didn’t pay attention,” the priest said as he shook his head. “Max, why does it matter who paid it off? If the woman doesn’t want to be known, then why don’t you just leave it at that?”

“Because I’m not some charity case,” Max said through clenched teeth. “Couldn’t you have at least asked me before you let someone else pay my debt?”

“Max, I did what was best for you. I know you never would have accepted the help if you knew about it ahead of time. Too much pride can be a dangerous thing.”

Max gave the man an incredulous look as he spoke bluntly, “Are you speaking from experience, Father Harding?”

“We’ve been over this before, Max, so there’s really no point in rehashing it,” the man said evasively.

“No point? What about the fact that your daughter needs you? What about the fact that you’re going to be a grandfather?” he asked as calmly as possible.

“She should have thought of that before she showed such utter lack of disrespect for me by going against everything I raised her to believe. I took that girl in when nobody else wanted her, adopted her out of the goodness of my own heart, and this is how she shows her gratitude? How can I possibly expect my congregation to obey the teachings of the Church when my own daughter won’t?”

“What about forgiveness? Isn’t that one of the Church’s teachings?” Max asked bitterly.

“There are some things even the Church won’t forgive…”

“I’m not talking about the Church’s forgiveness! I’m talking about yours! Can’t you stop being a Father just long enough to be a dad for once?”

Father Harding shook his head, “No, Max. I can’t. I can no more stop being a priest than you can stop being a farmer.”

Max gave a disgusted snort. “Then I’ll pray for you,” he said as he turned and walked out of the room.




Liz couldn’t help but be in a good mood Monday despite the crap Kyle pulled over the weekend. She had been so upset with him that she had come very close to not going to the racetrack Sunday morning, the urge to set foot in church and possibly see Mack again being a major incentive to ditch the trip to Joliet and head to Plainsland. Unfortunately, she knew she would face her father’s incessant questioning this morning if she had indeed missed the race, and at this point she wanted to do everything she could to avoid drawing his attention. The irony that she had spent most of her life yearning for it was not lost on her. How quickly things could change.

She had refused to talk to Kyle from the moment he had picked her up for the last day of races, choosing to hide behind the latest issue of Fortune and ignore any attempts he made at small talk. Several times throughout the day she had been tempted to call Mack just to hear his voice, but with it not being a work day he wouldn’t be at J.D. Shellow’s, and in her deeply enamored state she had forgotten to get his home number from him again. Besides it would be nearly impossible to have a private conversation with Kyle lurking around her, completely sober. The drive home from the racetrack that evening had been just as silent, and she couldn’t wait to get back to the newfound cheeriness of her condo. It had been a very long day.

She had dreaded coming into work this morning because she knew there was no possible way to avoid Kyle altogether, yet she couldn’t restrain her happiness no matter how hard she tried. She was in love, and although she was nowhere near ready to reveal that to Kyle or her father, there was no reason to pretend that she wasn’t in a good mood.

As soon as she stepped out of elevator for her floor she realized that it was time to stop isolating herself from the rest of the world, and she knew just where to start. She hadn’t had a female friend since before her mother’s passing, so she decided to try to forge a friendship with the woman she spent the most amount of time with: her secretary.



“Good morning, Maria. How was your weekend? Did you do anything special?” Liz Parker enthusiastically asked as she strolled into the small reception area of her office.

“Nothing special, just nice and quiet, thank you,” Maria said hesitantly. Who was this lady? This certainly couldn’t be her boss, even though she could be the petite brunette’s identical twin. In the five or so weeks she had been working for the ruthless woman, Liz had not once said good morning to her, let alone ask her how her weekend had been. As a matter of fact, she hadn’t asked Maria even one question about her personal life or family. She had always been about business. What surprised Maria more than Liz’s genuine interest in her weekend was the joyous smile and dreamy look in her employer’s eyes. She was almost glowing. Maria knew it must have something to do with the surprise in Liz’s office. Perhaps Max Evans had finally agreed to sell his farm.

Liz paused for a moment before saying, “You know, you’ve been here over a month now, and I haven’t even taken you out to lunch yet. What do you say? Why don’t we go out to Gino’s today and get to know each other a little?”

Maria tried to not do her best impression of a deer caught in a Mack Truck’s headlights. What should she say?

Hell, no. You scare me to death?
I’d rather be stranded in the middle of Lake Michigan?
Sorry, but I have to go have my elective root canal surgery?


She was stuck, and she knew it. The first rule to an amicable relationship with your boss is to never turn down her lunch invitation. Besides, she was just a little curious to see exactly what had brought out this new cheery, easygoing side of her usually cold and distant superior.

“That sounds nice,” she said as casually as possible. “What time?”

“Why don’t we plan to leave at one? That way we’ll only catch the tail end of the lunch crowd,” Liz suggested.

“I’ll be ready,” Maria answered, wondering what she was getting herself into.



Liz gasped as she stepped into her office, her hand automatically going to her mouth as a joyful tear slipped down her cheek. Mack must have called her business line to find out where she worked, for sitting in the middle of her desk was a display of white roses intermixed with burgundy ones. She tentatively crept over to them, afraid they might disappear if she walked too quickly. The flowers were simply beautiful, and she knew she should be flattered that Mack would be so thoughtful to send them. Nevertheless, they didn’t mean nearly as much to her as the single burgundy-tinged rose sitting in a bud vase next to her bed.

She sat down in her chair and set her briefcase on the floor, leaning it against the desk leg. Taking the little white envelope from the clip, she carefully unsealed it and pulled out the card. Mack always seemed to know exactly what to say to her, so she couldn’t wait to see what he had written. Turning it over, she was shocked by what she read:



I know now that Saturday was a mistake. I’m sorry.




posted on 29-Sep-2002 2:51:55 PM
Part 17

“I don’t want to hear any excuses, John. That grading work on the Ayers and Huntington properties should have started last week. Everything has been surveyed out, so there is no acceptable reason for these delays. I expect you to have at least a third of it done by the end of this week, including the retention pond. Surveying on the Bitman, Rogers and Johansen properties will be completed Thursday and if you haven’t started in on those by next Wednesday, then I’ll be more than glad to find a contractor who can accommodate me.”

She slammed down the phone before the construction foreman had a chance to respond.

Elizabeth Parker was back in control.

She had returned to her true self the minute she had read the half-assed apology on that card. Immediately she had called maintenance to unceremoniously remove the repulsive floral arrangement, giving specific orders that every last rose be destroyed. She tore the card to shreds herself, too humiliated to let anyone else see what was written there. Everything she had thought Mack felt for her had been nothing but a mistake according to him, and her own willingness to believe all that he had said Saturday evening had been the biggest mistake of all. She’d make sure that NEVER happened again.

Heads rolled that morning as she completely focused on the only love she would allow herself to feel, the passion for Kensington Ridge consuming her every thought and action. She muttered curses to Max Evans, the farmer holding up the project that would thrust her into the spotlight, refusing to admit her anger at him had anything to do with the farmer who had crushed her heart with two simple sentences.

Chewing out the foreman, going through preliminary meetings with three more potential tenants, begging off lunch with Maria to sulk alone in her office and enduring an extensive afternoon appointment with the interior decorator to discuss the model homes still hadn’t been enough to completely distract her from unbidden memories of that seemingly perfect date. It was part of her job to be able to read people and their intentions, so how could she have been so wrong about Mack?

When she returned to her condo later that evening, she couldn’t help but think that the bright colors that had seemed so festive just a couple of days ago were now mocking her foolishness. As she crawled into bed she spied the single beautiful burgundy and cream rose on her nightstand. She reached out to crush it as Mack had crushed her, but at the last second she curled her perfectly manicured nails into the flesh of her palm and squeezed her hand until the pain there was more severe than the ache in her heart. She valiantly fought the tears the welled up in the corners of her eyes. She would not cry over a man.

And as her cheeks were dampened by a salty trail of moisture, she told herself that she wasn’t crying over a man. She was mourning for her mother and for Max Evan’s family.


When Liz walked past her secretary’s desk Tuesday morning and saw Maria diligently reviewing the stack of purchase orders generated by the meeting with the interior designer, she suddenly decided that just because Mack had called it quits on her didn’t mean she had to completely return to her previous cold-hearted persona. What harm could be done by befriending her secretary? It would be pretty nice to have someone to share things with. Perhaps the other woman could even give her some insight into the opposite sex, since her own experience with men was so pathetically limited.

“Maria, I’m not busy this afternoon if you would still like to go ahead and have lunch together,” she tentatively suggested.

The blonde looked up at her and said with a polite smile, “That would be nice. Is one o’clock still a good time?”

“That should be perfect,” Liz answered as she moved to her office door.

“Uh, Liz,” Maria started.

“Yes.”

“I thought I better warn you. There are more flowers in your office today.”

Liz immediately tensed. What kind of sick game was Mack playing? “Call maintenance,” she ordered, her voice steady and void of emotion.

“Ok,” Maria replied hesitantly. She paused before she said, “Do you mind me asking you what Kyle did to get you so upset with him?”

“Kyle?” Liz asked in surprise. Had Maria found out about his drunken debacle with the limo driver? “What makes you think I’m upset with Kyle?”

“Um, I’d say that throwing out the flowers he keeps sending you has been my biggest clue,” the secretary said wryly.

“The flowers aren’t from Kyle,” Liz admitted sadly.

“Yes they are,” Maria confirmed.

Liz turned around to gawk at her secretary. She had been so wrapped up in images of the flowers that had been part of her perfect evening with Mack that she hadn’t even considered yesterday’s bouquet could be from anyone else but him. Was it just a coincidence that the flowers were the same color? Actually, the flowers at Trio’s had been burgundy and cream, not burgundy and white. Now that she thought about it, she remembered that it had seemed strange for Mack to send her flowers after he had made a point of giving her that single flawless rose Saturday night. She grabbed her cell phone out of her purse and scrolled through her Caller ID display. No one had even called and hung up between the time she had given Mack her phone number and Monday morning when the flowers had arrived, so how would he have possibly known where to send them? I know now that Saturday was a mistake. I’m sorry. And of course, Kyle had royally screwed up Saturday night, hadn’t he? “Why do you think that they’re from Kyle?” she asked as she tried to disguise the elated hope in her voice.

“The florist’s delivery ticket I had to sign yesterday said they were. I just assumed you two were celebrating something until you decided to have the roses destroyed. Then this morning Kyle’s secretary Jeannie brought this second bunch over. She said he had her do it because he’s too afraid to come near you. I guess he thinks you’ll do to him what you had done to the first bouquet.”

Liz nearly burst out into tears right in the doorway to her office. The flowers hadn’t been from Mack, so he wasn’t the one who thought Saturday had been a mistake. He really did love her. Liz wanted to throw her arms around Maria and kiss her for giving her such great news. Instead she breathed a huge sigh of relief and said to her secretary with more sincerity than Maria would ever know, “Thank you.”

Maria gave her boss a quizzical look, “Who did you think sent them?”

The love of my life. My soulmate. The man who owns my heart. “Um, not Kyle,” she simply said. She wasn’t ready to admit her involvement with Mack to anyone at work. First she had to figure out a way to dissolve her ‘relationship’ with Kyle. Then she would have to handle the fallout that such a breakup would create, especially the explosive response she was certain to receive from her father. Every one of her decisions and actions over the past twelve years had been executed solely to please him. Would she have to strength to go against his wishes now? Changing the subject to avoid a discussion of who ‘not Kyle’ might be, she asked, “Would you please find the programming book for my cell phone and bring it to me as soon as possible?”

“Sure,” Maria said with a hint of suspicion. “I can check your messages or change your voice mail greeting if you want.”

“No thank you. I’ll take care of it,” she answered. “Oh, and Maria?”

“Yes?”

“I’m really looking forward to lunch.”



Max tiredly rubbed his eyes as he dragged himself into the kitchen early Tuesday morning, a small grin crossing his face as he reread the note on the table. Tess had brought him dinner the previous night, and the kitchen still smelled of garlic bread.

His smile faded to a regretful sigh as he remembered his conversation with her father before mass on Sunday. He had merely intended to tell the priest that Tess had started Lamaze classes, knowing that the middle-aged man wanted to keep abreast of his daughter’s progress despite his protestations that she was an embarrassment to him. If only he had not goaded Max with his comment regarding the dangers of too much pride. Max knew all too well that words spoken in the heat of anger were a much more dangerous thing than pride, yet he had risen to the occasion once again. Would he ever learn?

Despite the priest’s discouragement he still wanted to find the person who had suddenly taken such keen interest in his deceased family, yet it was apparent the person…she…did not want to be found. He couldn’t shake the feeling that her generosity had been more than a mere random act of a stranger’s kindness. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in miracles. They just never happened to him. Well, they hadn’t, until he had walked into Kelley’s to pay off a one hundred and fifteen-dollar prescription debt and ended up running smack dab into his very own dark-haired miracle.

Since the moment she had left the restaurant Saturday evening he had wanted to reach into his wallet, retrieve the small scrap of paper hidden there and dial the number she had given him. However, poor timing and the fates had plotted to keep him apart from the one thing necessary to fulfill that desire: a telephone.

He had planned to do some chores after he came home from church late Sunday morning then go check on Tess at her aunt’s house, hoping to borrow the phone long enough to speak with Leggs some time during his visit. Instead he made the unfortunate mistake of stretching out on the couch to rest his eyes while he waited for the last load of his clothes to dry, and before he knew it a very late Saturday night conspired with a week of exercising long-forgotten muscles to turn that short rest into a full-fledged slumber.

Several hours later chores became a distant memory as he salvaged what was left of his weekend by immediately driving to see Tess. Upon arriving at Mrs. Duncan’s house a few minutes after five she informed him that her niece and the silver Ford were stranded on the shoulder of Route 47, a few miles south of Morris. It was 10:47 at night when Max had finally returned home from retrieving Tess and attempting to repair the vehicle that had once belonged to his brother. Still it remained on the shoulder of Route 47, and Max knew that he would have to bring Alex out there to help him get the truck running again. He wanted to chastise Tess for driving so far away from home, alone and in her condition, but he knew that sometimes the memories that inhabited every corner of their hometown were just too numerous for her to endure. On those occasions, solitary flight was her only means of escaping the nightmare of a life without her soulmate.

They each had their own way of coping with their sins. She fled hers. He embraced his.

He had made his confession, the one he was too ashamed to reveal even to Father Harding, in the confines of the grassy median centered in the north field, the place where his father had proposed to his mother and more than one Evans wife had told her husband she was carrying the next generation of farmer in her womb. He knew that the dark, fertile earth surrounding him wasn’t capable of giving absolution, but that didn’t stop his futile attempt to find forgiveness.

Caring for Tess was an essential part of his penance, so he couldn’t complain about the Sunday night rescue. Nor had he protested giving her his red Chevy to take home with her, the imposing black Dodge in much better shape but utterly useless to a pregnant woman of her short stature. He had promised to return Zan’s truck as soon as possible but knew it would be a few days before it was in her possession once again. He couldn’t very well take off work to retrieve the vehicle when he was in need of the day’s wages to purchase the alternator and serpentine belt required for the repair.

His efforts to call Nancibeth throughout the day Monday were just as fruitless as Sunday’s had been, mostly because the phone lines at Shellow’s were already occupied at both his break times and at lunch. Apparently Karen the receptionist had broken up with her boyfriend and needed to tell every last one of her friends what a jerk the guy was, while the bookkeeper, Mrs. Augustine, had to spread the news that she was finally a grandmother.

He had hurried home after work Monday night to mow the yard and furrows, one of the chores he hadn’t gotten around to on Sunday. The Ag report had indicated the upcoming week would be unusually hot and humid for May, with a slow steady rain beginning to fall some time during the day and continuing through Friday. That was just the type of moisture newly planted crops needed to flourish, but it made the grass grow as well. If he waited until next weekend to take care of the yard, he would have a small forest on his hands.

When he had walked into the kitchen after finishing the grass he thought the lasagna warming in the oven had been another miracle, but the thank you note from Tess revealed its appearance was of a more earthly nature. In either case each bite was heavenly, and he hastily ate two good-sized portions of the dinner before showering and collapsing in bed shortly before nine o’clock.

He still couldn’t believe how quickly morning had arrived. The pungent scent of freshly brewing coffee swiftly mingled with the garlic bread smell to create a unique aroma as he ate a couple of pieces of toast and packed a small lunch for work. He briefly lifted the phone to see whether service had been restored earlier than predicted, but he was met with the familiar sound of dead air. Filling his thermos with pure black liquid and downing the rest in a few short gulps he jumped into the Dodge and headed to Shellow’s. He was going to get to a phone today and call Leggs no matter what. Karen and Mrs. Augustine better have on their boxing gloves if they planned on monopolizing the phone lines again.




“They actually let you write on the walls?” Maria asked incredulously as she looked around the small restaurant.

“Yeah,” Liz said with obvious enthusiasm as she pointed to the almost black interior of Gino’s. “Except there’s so much ink on the walls that you need to use a white out pen if you want anyone to actually read what you write.”

Maria glanced around the room suspiciously. This had to be Candid Camera. Or maybe the Twilight Zone. In the space of a little more than twenty-four hours, the woman sitting across from her had gone from happy to b*tchy to b*tchier to gleeful. Now her boss was getting excited at the prospect of writing on a restaurant wall. Perhaps she had sniffed one too many of those white out pens.

“So, Maria. This is nice, isn’t it? Just you and me having lunch together.”

Oh, God. Was Liz Parker gay?

“You know, the last time I went out to eat with someone besides Kyle or my father was…” she trailed off.

Maria gave Liz a suspicious look. Was this supposed to be some sort of come on line?

“…nevermind. Let’s just say that the last time I had a female friend I was still in pigtails.”

“Oh. Really,” was all Maria could manage to say. She had to stop this before it got out of hand. Would Liz fire her for rejecting her advances? “Um, Liz, I don’t want to sound rude, but what exactly do you expect from me?”

“Expect?” Liz asked with concern. “I’m not expecting anything from you. I just thought that we could get some pizza and you could tell me a little bit about yourself. You know…where you’re from…where did you go to school…do you have a boyfriend…whatever kind of stuff women usually talk about when they go out to lunch.”

“So you’re not interested interested in me?” That Candid Camera would be popping up at any moment.

Liz gave her a perplexed look until dawning comprehension raised her brows. “I’m sorry if I gave you that impression, Maria, but I’m not a lesbian…”

Maria blurted out, “Neither am I.”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” the two said in perfect unison.

Both women stared at each other in surprise for several long seconds before they burst out laughing, the tension between them rapidly dissipating.

“Why don’t we start over,” Liz suggested as she perused the menu.

“Good idea,” Maria commented, relieved that she hadn’t just been fired for jumping to the wrong conclusion.

“Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?” Liz said in a lighthearted tone. “Now think carefully because your answer to this next question will determine your future employment with Parker Development.”

“No pressure there,” Maria quipped. Was Liz Parker actually joking around?

Liz pierced her with a withering glare. “Deep dish or thin crust?”

Maria glared right back. “Deep dish. Accept no substitute.”

And still she waited for the Candid Camera guy to make himself known.




“Here you go, ladies. One Gino’s deep dish special. Can I get you anything else?” the waiter asked politely.

“Why don’t you bring a pitcher of ice water. That way you don’t have to keep coming back here for refills,” Liz offered before the server left the table. Turning her attention back to Maria, she picked at the piece of pizza that had been placed before her as she asked, “I don’t get it. If you two fight all the time, then why are you together?” After their misunderstanding at the beginning of lunch it didn’t take much prompting for Maria to talk about her relationship with her live-in boyfriend, an artistic type named Michael Guerin. In the half hour it had taken for their pizza to cook Liz had learned that Michael was originally from Roswell, New Mexico, thus Maria’s nickname of Spaceboy for him. He was twenty-two, the same age as both Liz and Maria, and he had this weird spiky haircut that drove Maria insane. Oh yeah, and Maria was head over heels in love with him.

“Well, I guess I shouldn’t really call it fighting. We don’t argue over the important things…it’s the silly little stuff, like why can’t he manage to put his dirty underwear in the hamper instead of on the floor or which one of us should take out the garbage…” Liz couldn’t help but wonder what living with Mack would be like. He didn’t seem like the type of guy who would leave his underwear laying around, and she somehow doubted he would ever expect her to take the garbage out…yet he would allow her to be independent enough that he wouldn’t demand that she let him do all the ‘men’s chores’. “…foreplay.”

“What?” Liz asked as she came out of her Mack-induced haze. Had Maria just said the word ‘foreplay’?

“I guess talking about fighting as a form of foreplay is just too much information, huh?” Maria asked as she took the last bite of her pizza. Liz wondered how her secretary, and now friend, had managed to eat and talk at the same time.

Before she could reply, a strange sound began to emanate from her purse. It took her a few seconds to realize it was the second line, her personal line, on her cell phone. It had to be Mack calling her! She eagerly grabbed the phone from the side pocket and looked at the Caller ID display. Sure enough, the call was coming from J.D. Shellow Steel. Seeing the expectant look on Maria’s face, she knew she couldn’t answer it. Just because the girl sitting across from her had spilled her guts about the man in her life, Liz didn’t think she should be sharing information about Mack yet, especially since she was technically cheating on Kyle with the man. She pressed the button that would send the call directly to voice mail and then set the phone back inside her purse. “Now where were we?”




Max couldn’t suppress the laugh that welled up in his throat as he listened to Legg’s voice mail greeting. Charlie had him working on another rush order, so he had not taken a morning break. He probably would have worked throughout lunch had he not wanted to talk to his dreamgirl so desperately. He had been disappointed when all he got was her voice mail, but the honeyed sound of her voice as she asked him to leave a message was all he needed to cheer him up.

“You have reached the Bat phone. I’m sorry that I’m not available. I’m probably out rescuing some spoiled immature man from jail. If you’ll please leave a message I will be more than glad to return your call the first chance I get.”

He cleared his throat as he waited for the electronic beep. “Hey, my beautiful angel,” he began, “if I pretend to be a spoiled immature man will you come and rescue me? I was hoping I would get to talk to you in person, but I guess I’ll just have to be content with hearing you sweet voice in your greeting. Look, I’m in the middle of a rush project here at work, so don’t try calling me back today. If I get a chance to take a break later this afternoon I’ll try you again. Otherwise call me tomorrow. Love you.”




Liz sighed as she listened to Mack’s message after returning from lunch. She had really enjoyed spending time getting to know her secretary, and they had even planned to go out again on Thursday. She finally had a friend.

And now she also had two boyfriends, one she wanted and one she didn’t. She had nearly choked when she read the second card Kyle had sent, this one in his own handwriting instead of the florist’s.

Liz—

Give me a chance to make it up to you. I’ll finally take you out to Trio’s Saturday night. You can even wear your burgundy dress. Let me know tomorrow at lunch.

Kyle


There was no way in hell that was going to happen. Trio’s was her special place with Mack, and she sure wasn’t about to share it with the likes of Kyle Valenti, and especially not in the dress she had worn while Mack had kissed her breathless.

She shook her head in disgust. How had she gotten herself into this situation in the first place? Breaking up with Kyle was not going to be as easy as just telling him to buzz off. He was her father’s right hand man, personally chosen by Jeffrey Parker to be her future partner in every sense of the word. How do you disassociate yourself from someone who has been such a big part of your life for the past five years? But then, how is it possible that a man you literally ran into a little over two weeks ago knew you better than that someone ever would?

What about her father? Even if he did accept that she did not want to be with Kyle, which was a big if, how would he react when he found out that she had dumped her Yale-educated boyfriend for a farmer who had dropped out of Northwestern? Certainly he would understand that she was a grown woman who was capable of deciding for herself whom she wanted to be with, wouldn’t he? He was her father, after all.

And that was the problem. He was her father, not her daddy.

Her daddy would have greeted Mack with a friendly smile.
Her father would scowl at a man who wore his heart on his sleeve.

Her daddy would have welcomed Mack into his house with open arms.
Her father would slam the door on his face.

Her daddy would have asked her whether Mack made her happy.
He father would remind her that duty was more important than love.

Her daddy would have been glad to have Mack as a son-in-law.
Her father would disown her before accepting a farmer into his family.

If she pursued a relationship with Mack, she would lose her father and with him, the chance of ever discovering whether her daddy was still alive in some remote place in his heart.

If she didn’t pursue a relationship with Mack, she would lose the person who had shown her that she could be more than Elizabeth Parker, one of Money magazine’s ‘Top 10 Young Entrepreneurs to Watch’.


So she would do the only thing she could. She would keep her relationship with Mack a secret and put off dealing with Kyle and her father for as long as possible. In the meantime she would pray for a miracle that would allow her to keep both her father’s love and Mack’s.


Wednesday morning when Liz walked into the reception area of her office, she was surprised to find Maria was not at her desk. She was even more surprised when she saw her new friend waiting for her inside her office with a conspiratorial aura about her.

“Is something wrong, Maria?” she asked warily.

“Liz, do you ever read Lakeshore Faces?”

Liz rolled her eyes in disgust. Lakeshore Faces was one of the many local magazines that tended to report on the upper echelons of Chicago society, and one of the less reputable ones at that. “No, I can’t say that I do,” she answered coolly.

“Well, maybe you’d better start,” her secretary said hesitantly.

“Maria, would you please just tell me what is going on?” Liz said, mildly irritated that the woman knew something of obvious importance.

Maria walked across the room and handed a copy of the latest edition to Liz. “Page 3.”

Liz flipped open the cover and stared at the page’s headline in horror.

A NEW DEVELOPMENT IN ELIZABETH PARKER’S LOVE LIFE?


posted on 6-Oct-2002 2:40:59 PM
Part 18

“Oh, no. Nononono. This cannot be happening,” Liz moaned.

Or an old project revisited? Who is this serious, dark haired mystery man, seemingly from some exotic place (see above), dancing with the heir apparent to Jeffrey Parker’s vast development empire? Rumor has it that it’s an old flame from Ms. Parker’s Harvard days. Whatever his name may be (and you’ll be sure to read it here first), these two were quite intimate Saturday night at the preeminent Trio’s Restaurant in Evanston, just hours after the well-traveled Elizabeth was spied being lovey-dovey with longtime beau Kyle Valenti (see below) at the Chicagoland Motor Speedway in Joliet. Everyone’s asking which one of these gentlemen is going to end up spinning his wheels over the lovely lady and who will make it to the winner’s circle. We’re not placing our bets just yet…

“So I’m guessing that the guy in the top photo is, uh, ‘not Kyle’?” Maria inquired.

Liz couldn’t do anything but stare at the page in front of her. The top photo had to have been taken just moments after her first kiss with Mack on the dance floor at Trio’s, and she was torn between being furious at the photographer’s enormous invasion of such an immensely personal moment and awed by the profound love reflected in Mack’s beautiful amber eyes, love for her.

The bottom photo of Kyle nipping at her neck as he had retrieved his car keys had captured a less than lovey-dovey moment, but anyone who hadn’t been privy to the accompanying conversation wouldn’t know that. If Mack saw that photo he would more than likely jump to the wrong conclusion about the depth of her involvement with Kyle.

She suddenly looked up at Maria in terror. “Where did you get this?”

“From the newsstand in the lobby,” her secretary answered calmly.

Liz stalked over to her desk, setting down her briefcase and grabbing her wallet out of her purse. “I’ll be right back, and whatever you do…”

“Liz…”

“PLEASE do not show that magazine to Kyle or anyone else in the office…”

“Liz…”

Liz turned to head out the door when Maria dashed across the room and blocked her exit. “LIZ!”

“What?” Liz asked in agitation.

“I already bought up all the copies the lobby newsstand guy had. I also bought up the ones at the newsstand on the corner…”

Liz dropped her wallet as she clasped her hands on Maria’s shoulders. “Oh, thank you…” she said with obvious relief, then raised her eyes in surprise, “but…..how did you know that…”

“…that you don’t want anyone to know? I’ll tell you as long as you promise to spill your guts about this guy. It’s only fair since you know everything there is to tell about Michael and me.”

Liz realized she didn’t really have any choice in the matter but even if she did, she had no doubt that she would have eventually told Maria about Mack anyway. Her secretary was quickly becoming a loyal and trustworthy friend, something she had never imagined having just a few short weeks ago. She nodded her acceptance of the terms as she dropped her arms down to her sides, slowly moving towards her desk to plop down in her chair.

“Well, it just made sense,” Maria explained. “If everyone thought I was dating one guy when I was so obviously in love with another guy, I wouldn’t want the first guy finding out about the second guy by reading it in some Enquirer-type tabloid magazine either, especially if I threw out flowers sent by the first guy thinking they were from the second guy, which, by the way, why did you do that?”

Liz gaped at the blonde. How had the woman managed to say that all in one breath? Before she could even answer the question, Maria’s mouth was off and running again.

“I mean, giving me an answer like ‘not Kyle’ when I asked who you thought sent them and then trying to change the subject by asking me about the cell phone’s programming book and then not answering the phone at lunch time even though your whole face was, like, screaming to talk to the person calling it was just so obvious that you were hiding something or should I say someone. I’m not telling you what to do or anything, but if it were me I’d just tell Kyle the truth and get it over with.”

Liz was exhausted just listening to Maria’s logic. “It’s a lot more complicated than just breaking up with Kyle.”

“Are you in love with Kyle?” Maria questioned, already knowing the answer from their previous conversation on the subject.

“No,” Liz admitted again.

“Are you in love with…” she inquired, the photo in the magazine providing the undeniable answer.

“Mack. His name is Mack,” Liz supplied, “And yes, I am in love with him.”

“Then what’s the complication?”

“How much time do you have?” Liz asked cynically.

“Tell you what. You showed me the wonders of Gino’s. Let me return the favor and treat you to the best Italian beef sandwich in Chicago. You’ll have plenty of time to explain all about Mack and the complications that are making you keep him a secret.”

“It’s Wednesday. I’m supposed to have lunch with Kyle.”

Maria gave her an exasperated look. “Do you want to have lunch with Kyle?”

“No, not really.”

“Then don’t,” Maria said as she opened the door. With a wink she added, “I’ll call Jeannie and let her know that you’re still too pissed at Kyle to see him.”

Liz gave Maria a grateful smile, “Thanks. I don’t know what I would do without your help.”




“Society for the Rescue of Spoiled Immature Men. May I help you?”

“Good morning, miss. I was calling to speak with a beautiful dark-haired angel. You wouldn’t happen to know any, would you?” Max asked in a teasing tone after hearing his dreamgirl’s heavenly voice answer her cell phone with what was becoming their inside joke. It felt so good to finally get to speak to her in person.

“I’m sure that you are one of the few people who would actually consider me an angel,” Leggs observed dryly, “but since I’m the only one here I guess I’ll just have to do. Don’t tell me you need to be rescued from jail.”

“Not jail, just a really long, boring day of work,” he sighed. “I can’t believe it is only ten in the morning.”

“Well, you are in luck, sir. I happen to specialize in workplace rescues. As a matter of fact I could use some rescuing myself. What do you say I meet you after you get off work and take you some place nice and private for a light dinner?”

He wanted to jump at the chance to spend time with her, but he and Alex had already planned to drive out to Morris after he was done at the steel mill. Letting her hear his disappointment he answered, “I’m sorry, Angel, but tonight’s a bad night. My buddy and I have to go fix a truck for a friend of ours. It’s been sitting on the side of the road since Sunday afternoon, and I’m afraid it is going to be towed if we don’t take care of it after work today.”

“That’s all right,” she said with just as much regret. “How about tomorrow night instead?”

Tomorrow was Thursday. That meant he had to spend the evening with Tess at Lamaze class. Somehow it didn’t seem right to go into the details of his complicated relationship with his almost sister-in-law over the phone, so he vaguely replied, “Gosh, you’re gonna hate me. I miss you so much that I can’t wait to see you, but my Thursday nights for the next month are sort of occupied with something I had planned long before I knew I was going to fall in love with you. I really can’t get out of it, either. Can you forgive me?”

“Well, I don’t know…”

“Friday night. I promise that I’m all yours to do with as you please Friday night,” he volunteered as he hoped that she would understand about his previous commitments.

“You’ll do anything I want you to do?” she inquired mysteriously. “No questions asked?”

He cringed at the thought of what she might do to ‘punish’ him for keeping them apart until Friday evening, but he knew he would not refuse her. He would endure being kidnapped and probed by aliens if it meant spending time with her.

“Anything. Just name the time and place. I’ll be there,” he conceded.

There was silence on the other end for several long seconds before she asked her next question, the sudden huskiness of her voice intriguing him. “Do you happen to own a pair of swim trunks?”

Swim trunks? If she was asking about swim trunks, did that mean he would get to see her in a bikini? He was liking this ‘punishment’ already. Chuckling he said, “Well, I can’t say I have an actual pair of swim trunks. Most of us farm boys just wear an old cut off pair of Levi’s when we want to go for a dip. Will that be acceptable to you?”

He thought he heard a muffled moan on the other end of the line before she said, “That will be more than fine. Bring your…cutoffs with you to work Friday. I’ll be there to pick you up as soon as you get off. I mean, get off work. Seven o’clock, right?”

“Right,” he managed to say before his mind began to reel with awareness. Even if it didn’t turn out to be a bikini, it was obvious that he was going to get to see his dreamgirl in a swimming suit of some kind Friday night. If he thought the morning had dragged on endlessly, the next fifty-seven hours were going to be pure torture…

“Will it be all right to leave your truck in the mill’s parking lot for a few hours after your shift Friday?” she inquired.

“That shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll just let Mr. Shellow know it will be there.”

“Good,” she said contentedly.

Now his curiosity was peaked. What exactly were her plans for the evening? “I don’t suppose you’re going to give me a clue as to where you will be taking me Friday night,” he questioned futilely.

“Nope. Not a one. My lips are sealed.”

“Then I guess it’s a good thing I won’t be seeing you before then,” he remarked.

“And why is that?” she asked curiously.

“Well, I’m not usually very patient when it comes to surprises, so if I were to see you I’d be looking for some way to unseal those lips of yours.” Before she had a chance to voice her comeback, he spotted the clock on the break room wall. “Hey, Leggs. I hate to cut this short, but I gotta get back to the floor. So we’re ok for Friday? You aren’t mad at me?”

“Of course I’m not mad at you,” she said with that throaty voice again. “I do realize we both had our own lives before we met, so I’m disappointed, but not mad. Friday can’t get here fast enough as far as I’m concerned.”

The buzzer indicating the end of break sounded throughout the plant. Before he reluctantly hung up the phone, Max hastily answered, “Ditto for me. Gotta go, Angel. Love you.”




“So then you weren’t lying when you told me a few weeks ago that you’d never been in love,” Maria commented as she picked a hot pepper off of her sandwich and plucked it into her mouth. She had eagerly listened for the past half hour as Liz described her budding relationship with a Plainsland farmer known only as Mack who, it just so happened, worked a side job at a manufacturing plant named J.D. Shellow Steel Press Mill. She still couldn’t believe that this was the same woman known throughout the office as a ruthless ice queen, and she felt privileged to be experiencing a side of Elizabeth Parker that she doubted many others had ever seen. It was like someone had uncorked a bottle of dry, somber wine only to discover it filled with sparkling, bubbly champagne.

“The day you asked me that question is the same day I met Mack for the first time. He had quite literally knocked me off of my feet, and I guess I didn’t want to admit that he had swept me off of them as well,” Liz confirmed.

He most certainly had. Maria had snuck a few more glances at the photos in the magazine before leaving with Liz for lunch, and she had to admit that Mack and Liz looked simply stunning together. There was just something about them, something she couldn’t easily put into words, that seemed to make them glow. She might have even be jealous that her boss had discovered such an amazingly profound love if she herself weren’t reaping the benefits of it. There was no arguing that a happy, in-love-with-Mack Liz was much easier to handle than a b*tchy, I-have-to-eat-lunch-with-Kyle Liz. From here on out she was going to make it her personal goal to banish b*tchy Liz forever. “Then if you obviously dig Mack so much, why haven’t you already dumped Kyle?”

“Kyle is more than just a boyfriend…I mean, he isn’t even really a boyfriend at all.
My father handpicked him to be the only apprentice he has taken on besides me. Since the day we were first introduced it was just a given that Kyle and I would learn everything there was about Parker Development Corp. so that we could one day get married and take it over. It was never up for discussion.”

“But how could you ever think of letting your father decide whom you would marry?”

“At the time all I cared about was getting close to my father. He is the only family I have, since my mother passed away when I was a little girl. He ignored me for so long after she died that I would have done anything just to get his attention for one small moment. When the acceptance letter from Harvard arrived he began to plan the rest of my life for me, and I let him because suddenly I had all of his attention. He spent the next several years pounding it into my head that it was pointless to show feelings and emotions because in the end they only make you weak and vulnerable.”

“And you believed him?” Maria asked incredulously.

“Of course I believed him, at least up until a few weeks ago. He was my father. Why would he lie to me?”

“But you know differently now, right?”

“Thanks to Mack, yes, I know differently now.”

“Then I still don’t understand why you are so hesitant to dump Kyle if you’re in love with someone else.”

Liz let out a despondent sigh. “Put yourself in my shoes. Since my mother’s death I have lived in boarding schools where being the best of the best was the only thing that mattered. For the past five years, since I was a seventeen-year-old girl, I have done nothing but eat, drink, sleep, and breathe Parker Development Corp. I even made it through Harvard in three years just so I could start working with my father that much sooner. Marrying Kyle Valenti and taking over the company is the only future I had ever thought possible.”

“Then in a heartbeat my whole life is changed by a man crashing into me in the middle of a drug store. I couldn’t understand how running into a stranger could make me feel things I’d never felt before, and it scared me to death. For someone who has been taught that emotions are a weakness, admitting that I am in love with Mack is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”

“And now I have a problem. My father has controlled every facet of my professional career and personal life. I have never gone against a single one of his wishes, and even when I tried he would browbeat me until I gave in. What is going to happen when I tell him that I don’t want to marry Kyle? The best case scenario has him accepting it on the surface but then doing everything possible to break Mack and me up until I finally come back to Kyle. Worst case…he disowns me and I have nothing…no job, no career, no family.”

“You could go work for another developer, couldn’t you?”

“It’s common practice for all top level executives to sign non-competition agreements, even if you are the owner’s daughter. Mine runs for five years from the date of termination or separation.”

“Couldn’t you do something else? You’ve got a degree from Harvard, for Christ’s sake.”

“Possibly, but it takes more than a degree. You need references, and somehow I doubt that my father would be willing to provide me with a glowing recommendation if I decide to defy him. Even if he did, do you really think anyone is going to want to hire someone known as the ‘Ice Bitch’? Not to mention that people talk…enough rumors would be flying around that I’d be blackballed from just about every reputable company in the Chicago area before I could even secure an interview.”

“So move away from Chicago.”

“I think that would sort of defeat the purpose of all of this. Mack is a farmer, and from what I know of them, I doubt he would be willing to sell his farm and move to some big city like New York or L.A. just to be with me. Maybe in the short run he could handle it, but eventually he would end up resenting me for taking him away from his land. That is the last thing I would ever want to do to him.”

Maria gave Liz a sympathetic look. “I don’t suppose you’d be happy just staying at home and being a farmer’s wife, huh?”

“I wish I could lie and say it would be enough for me, but I refuse to delude myself. I’d need to be doing something to keep busy.”

“So what are you going to do? Kyle or your father are bound to see that magazine spread eventually. And what if Mack sees it?”

“I’m not too worried about Mack. I doubt that the circulation of Lakeshore Faces reaches as far as Plainsland. I’m sure that most farmers couldn’t care less about what happens in Chicago society. Kyle and my father…I know that I’m going to have to tell them the truth eventually, but even if I can stall them for a week or so it might give me an idea on how to make everything work out all right.”

Maria finally understood. Breaking up with Kyle would result in either personal or professional suicide for her boss, and Liz just wasn’t ready to deal with the drastic consequences of finally allowing herself to feel. Sadly enough, this path to destruction had started all because a girl had wanted her father’s love.

“My father didn’t used to be so heartless,” Liz commented as if she had been reading Maria’s thoughts. “We used to be so close when my mom was alive. We’d do everything together as a family, and he would always tell my mom and me how much he loved us. I still have to believe that man is hiding in there somewhere. I just don’t know what it will take to find him. This business is the only thing he and I have in common anymore. If we aren’t talking about business, then we aren’t talking at all. It may be hard for you to understand, but if that is all he can give me, then I’ll take it for as long as I can.”

The tense silence was interrupted by the L train rattling and creaking overhead before Maria finally admitted, “My father walked out on my mom and me when I was seven. I barely remember him, but I do remember hearing my mom crying herself to sleep every night for months.” She took a deep breath. “If he were to knock on my door tomorrow, I’d go running to him with open arms.”

The two women’s eyes meet across the table, the unshed tears there reflecting the sad truth.

Daughters loved their fathers. No matter what.




posted on 23-Oct-2002 12:54:49 AM
Part 19

“I don’t believe this,” Max muttered as he tried to get the motor of his red Chevy to turn over Friday morning. “This has to be some kind of conspiracy.” Wednesday evening he and Alex had spent two hours lying on the shoulder of Route 47 as they teamed up to replace the alternator on Tess’s silver Ford, and now it looked like he would be spending his Saturday morning doing the exact same thing solo in his own gravel driveway. He quickly grabbed his gym bag with his after work change of clothes and his cut off Levi’s and headed towards the shed where he kept the Dodge garaged, chuckling to himself as he remembered the previous night’s conversation with Tess. He had brought her back to the house after Lamaze class so she could pick up her repaired truck, and when he returned from using the bathroom he had nearly flipped out at the sight of her holding a huge butcher knife.

“Tess, what are you doing?” he asked fearfully as he inched closer to the kitchen table, preparing to pounce on her if needed.

“I’m helping your love life,” she said calmly.

“With a butcher knife?” he demanded.

“Well, this would be a lot easier with scissors, but I couldn’t find any, so I improvised,” she explained.

“What would be a lot easier? I’m not quite following you,” he asked warily, wincing at the sound of ripping fabric. Had her demons found her once again?

“Making you a decent pair of cutoffs. I mean, c’mon Max, you’re going swimming with the love of your life, not your brother and your friends.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, suddenly defensive instead of nervous.

“It means that I’m chopping several inches off of these things you planned to wear swimming tomorrow night,” she answered, holding up the half-shorn pair of jeans for emphasis.

“But I already cut them off,” he complained.

“Give me a break,” she said as she rolled her eyes. “Cutting them off just above the knees does not make them cutoffs.”

“Do you know just how ridiculous that sounds?” he asked with an amused glint in his eye as he realized she had not gone off the deep end after all.

“Not nearly as ridiculous as your attempt to impress your girlfriend by wearing denim Capri pants,” she muttered as she returned to her work.

“Capri what?” he asked in confusion.

“Nevermind,” she said with the wave of her hand. “Just suffice it to say that I’m giving your Nancibeth an opportunity to sample some eye candy.”

“Eye candy? Tess, would you please just speak to me in English.”

Irritated that he continued to distract her from her self-appointed task, she finally gave him a you-may-be-my-best-friend-but-you’re-still-a-dense-male look. With the accompanying voice she elaborated, “Max, you are Zan’s brother, so I have no doubt that you’ve got a great body hiding somewhere under all those baggy clothes of yours. If you aren’t going to let your soulmate get a nice eyeful of it while you’re out swimming with her, when are you going to let her see it?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said sarcastically, “my wedding night, perhaps.”

She had already anticipated he would overreact. “Look, I’m not saying you have to do a strip tease or anything. Simply show a little more leg than just your knees. Trust me, she’ll appreciate it.”

“Yeah?” he asked with a small amount of skepticism. He had caught Leggs ‘appreciating’ his ass, hadn’t he?

“Do you want to see her in a bikini?” she asked incisively.

He couldn’t hide the blush that filled his cheeks. “Sure,” he said meekly, “but that doesn’t mean she’s going to wear one.”

“That’s not the point,” she sighed. “Even if she wears a one piece, you’re still going to be able to check out quite a bit of her skin. It’s only fair that you give her the chance to reciprocate.”

Seeing the new length of his cutoffs, he observed, “That’s the only pair of jeans I can spare anyway, so I guess there is no choice but to wear them.”

“That’s the spirit,” Tess teased as she tossed what remained of the comfortably worn, much shorter Levi’s to him. “And by the way, don’t even think about wearing a T-shirt with those.”

Sometimes he hated that she knew him so well.


That conversation had been the catalyst for one very arousing dream involving cutoffs, a bikini, and a delicious way to help Leggs cool off in the stifling May heatwave they were currently experiencing. Erotic dreams weren’t anything new to him—he was a normal, healthy, very imaginative twenty-two-year-old guy after all—but this dream had been real enough that just thinking about these several hours later still made him flush with a combination of embarrassment and excitement.

Shaking the images of Leggs and strawberry ice cubes from his mind, he climbed into the Dodge and prayed it would not betray him as easily as the other trucks had. Fortunately it started without hesitation, so he swiftly drove out of the shed and down the driveway to get to work on time. Just as he was going to make the turn towards town, a steady plume of smoke approaching from that direction caught his eye. The smoke hadn’t moved more than a few hundred feet when it became apparent to Max that the dark cloud was in fact gravel dust.

A parade of semi-trucks was selfishly appropriating Murray Lane for an arrogant exhibit of constructive might, each Peterbilt, Mack and Freightliner’s flatbed becoming a steel float to showcase the various pieces of earthmoving equipment flaunting his sudden captivity. A Cat 163H motor grader. A Komatsu HD 465 off-highway dump truck. A Cat 777D off-highway dump truck. A second Cat motor grader. A Terex TS14G Motor Scraper. A Deere 9400 four-wheel drive tractor, a larger version of the one that currently resided in his very own shed. A Deere 1812C tow-behind scraper. Over and over the machines leisurely strutted by the driveway, holding him prisoner as makes and model numbers burned themselves into his memory. For fifteen minutes he could do nothing but imagine where the procession would end, wonder how long it would be before those same pieces of equipment were knocking on his back door, eager to strip his farm of its rich black soil and flatten the gently sloping curves that gave his family’s land its identity.

Thirty-seven pieces of equipment, easily totaling ten million dollars.
Twenty tractors and scrapers mocking him.
Eleven off-highway dump trucks goading him.
Six motor graders deriding him.

The vultures were beginning to circle, and nothing short of a miracle would prevent them from going in for the kill.




Liz tiredly rubbed her eyes Friday afternoon as she leaned back in her chair, still pondering how she had made it through the day relatively unscathed.

She had been more nervous than ever at her weekly meeting with her father, every moment spent anticipating when he would bring up the photo spread from Lakeshore Faces. It never happened. If he knew about the article, he never mentioned it. Instead he sat quietly as she reviewed the progress of Kensington Ridge’s grading work, relaying the information that John McCarter had provided to her minutes before her father had entered her office.

After Liz chewed John out Monday morning, the contractor had pulled every worker and piece of equipment from his other job sites to begin the grading project on the first two Kensington Ridge properties. John mentioned there had been a minor problem at the Ayers property reconciling what had been staked out with what the survey papers had shown, but he had been able to work out a satisfactory solution without needing to disturb her. Once that obstacle was out of the way the construction crew had been so successful that they had finished grading both properties by late Thursday afternoon, far surpassing the one-third completion Liz had demanded. As a result John had been able to move all his machinery to the Rogers property three days ahead of schedule and promised Liz that the second phase of grading work would begin later in the day, just as soon as the semi-trucks had been relieved of their cargo and sent back to quarters.

Next Liz had given her father some cursory information on the plans the interior decorator had come up with for the model homes, not wanting to admit that, despite her best efforts, the erroneous thoughts of Mack’s rejection had been foremost in her mind as she had approved hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of purchase orders. He seemed pleased when she explained that construction on the first three model homes would begin as soon as the sewer lines were put in the following week, but as usual he had to find fault with at least one of her ideas. This time it involved the floor plans she had chosen as the subdivision’s main selling points. Seeing no purpose in arguing the reasons behind her choices, she had simply acquiesced and made a note to call the builder as soon as their meeting concluded to change the floor plans to the ones her father had chosen. Unwilling to endure another prolonged meeting with the interior decorator, she had also made a note to notify the overly-enthusiastic woman that the original designs would have to be modified to accommodate the new room layouts.

Liz did not mention anything to her father about Kyle’s foolish drunken prank and he, in turn, never once questioned the status of the Evans property. When it was obvious that they had no more to discuss, her father had quickly headed for the door. He opened it hesitantly, and as he was about to step out of her office, he had tersely said, “I don’t know what kind of games you and Kyle are playing, but I expect both of you to put the best interests of this company before any personal problems you two may be having.”

Before she even thought to respond, she had been left alone in the room.

Lunch with Kyle had not been much better. It was hard to be angry with him when she felt guilty for sneaking around behind his back, especially when she was uncertain whether he had any knowledge of that damning photo spread. As with her father, she had been on pins and needles every minute she had spent in Kyle’s presence, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Fortunately Kyle had seemed oblivious to the tension, but to keep up her charade she had felt obligated to accept his Saturday night dinner invitation. Luckily she had been able to convince him that Trio’s no longer held any interest for her, so at least she wouldn’t have to worry about that aspect of an evening she was already beginning to dread.

Remembering Trio’s brought her abruptly back to the present. Who had taken that photo of Mack and her? She hadn’t remembered seeing any photographers around, but then again, she had been a little distracted. What if that photographer, desperate to find her mystery man’s name and more evidence of her relationship with him, were still following her? Would someone who invaded an intimate moment in a restaurant go so far as to tail her to the secluded area she planned to share with her newfound love? She couldn’t take any chances. Pressing the button on her intercom, she asked her secretary to join her at her desk.

“I have a favor to ask of you,” she requested as soon as Maria had made herself comfortable, “as a friend.”

“What kind of favor?” the blonde asked warily.

“How would you like to drive home a Mercedes tonight?”




Wednesday: twelve hours
Thursday: ten hours
Friday: twelve hours

Thirty-four hours at twelve dollars an hour. Four hundred and eight dollars gross pay.

Three hundred twenty dollars and twenty-one cents net pay, and every last penny of it was already spent. Just as next week’s check would be, too.

Property taxes would be coming due the middle of next month, and even at the agricultural rate of twenty-five dollars an acre, he would still need over twelve thousand dollars just to make the payment. Folding up his paycheck and sliding it into his wallet, he knew his days of hanging onto his father’s beloved truck were rapidly coming to an end. But he wouldn’t think of that now. Now he was just going to sit here on the tailgate and wait for the one person who could make this whole lousy day disappear with one beautifully simple smile.

Looking up at the clear blue sky, Max wondered whether the rain the Ag report had predicted to fall three days earlier would ever bother showing up. The air was so humid outside that it felt like he was still in the mill’s shower room, so he knew it was only a matter of time before the excess moisture would be squeezed from the muggy atmosphere. That didn’t make the waiting any easier, he thought as he absently wondered why weathermen could be wrong half the time and still get paid. Hanging onto the farm another year was a longshot at best. He didn’t want to think of what would happen if Alex were right and this season was a repeat of the last one.

Just as the depression and self-loathing over his situation began to set in again, out of the corner of his eye he caught a red Volkswagen Jetta swinging into the parking lot. Assuming the driver was just turning around in the vacant space, he paid little attention to the vehicle until it pulled up next to him. The passenger’s side window lowered to reveal the woman of his dreams.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you happen to know of anyone in need of a little workplace rescuing?” her sweet voice echoed against the vacant building.

[I[A Jetta? his mind asked curiously. Somehow she didn’t seem like the kind of woman who would own a Jetta, but then again he was quickly discovering that she wasn’t at all like the type of woman he had assumed her to be. It didn’t really matter to him what kind of car she drove, as long as it was big enough to keep her safe on the many drives he hoped she would be taking to come to see him. He jumped down from his perch at the back of the truck and walked over to the car, leaning into the opened window as he answered, “I can definitely use some rescuing, and not just from work.”

“Bad day?” she sympathized as she removed her sunglasses to meet his gaze.

His eyes quickly adjusting to the darker interior of the car, he was immediately greeted with the sight of very creamy, very bare skin stretching up from the sandaled foot on the brake pedal to scant inches below where her seatbelt was fastened. Her black shorts blended with the seat’s fabric to give the appearance that she had on much less clothing than she actually did, and her blouse was tied around her middle high enough to reveal another enticing expanse of skin, the bright red band of her bikini top peeking out from underneath the crisp, white linen. Images from the previous night’s dream flew into his mind unbidden. “Oh, I think it’s about to get a whole lot better,” he eagerly replied.

Her smile widened as she noticed the pair of cutoffs in his hand. “I agree,” she laughed. “Hop in and let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

He pulled out of the car just long enough to hitch up the tailgate before opening the Jetta’s door and climbing into the passenger’s seat. Dropping his cutoffs onto the back seat, he continued to lean over and lovingly captured her cheek in his palm. His eyes automatically closed as he coaxed her lips closer to his, the sensation of her breath lightly teasing his mouth sending an electric jolt throughout his body. Slowly, tenderly he explored her mouth inside and out, committing every sweet inch of her to memory as he willed her to feel the depth of his love. When the time came to pull away, he did so reluctantly as he tilted his forehead against hers. “I’ve missed you so much,” he said in a hoarse whisper.

“I’ve missed you, too,” she said softly as she smiled at him shyly.

Just as he had predicted, his whole lousy day did disappear with that one beautiful smile; in its stead was the beginning of a wonderful evening. “So now will you tell me where you’re taking me?” he anxiously pleaded.

“Patience, grasshopper,” she teased. “Just sit back and enjoy the ride.” She started to reach for the gearshift, but at the last second she stopped and grabbed her purse. Pulling out her cell phone, she made a production of pressing the off button and unceremoniously tossing the offending piece of electronics into the back seat to join his cutoffs. “I refuse to be interrupted tonight,” she said adamantly as she put the car in gear and drove out of the lot .

“You won’t tell me where we are going, so then you’re pretty much abducting me?” he asked with a glint of humor.

“You’ve found me out,” she answered with feigned disappointment as she shook her head. “I guess there’s no reason to keep my true identity a secret now.”

“And what secret would that be?” he asked as he took her hand in his, marveling at how perfectly they fit together despite their obvious differences.

“I’m an alien, of course,” she said straight-faced. “I have orders from my planet to take over the earth, and my first mission is to abduct you and do all sorts of evil experiments on you.”

He took a sharp intake of breath as his overactive imagination came up with a variety of ‘evil experiments’ he would gladly let her perform on him. His cheeks flushed automatically as he realized how easily his musings were turning to all things carnal lately. He was used to his almost daily thoughts on how it would feel to finally make love, but the intense physical need she stirred up in him was something completely new and a little unnerving. Women had made many blatantly suggestive comments to him over the years, but even hearing their most graphic innuendoes had never caused the kind of overpowering reaction that his angel triggered with just a few innocently playful words.

Attempting to distract himself from his illicit ruminations he intently concentrated on the first half of her humorous response. “An alien, huh? So are you the one going around destroying the fields of unsuspecting farmers by making all those crop circles?”

“I think I’m going to plead the fifth on that question,” she laughed. “I can’t be giving away all my secrets, now can I?”

He couldn’t resist bringing her hand up to his lips to tenderly kiss her knuckles, amazed by how soft her delicate skin was compared to his own leathery hand. “I want you to tell me every last one of them,” he said solemnly. She gave him a look he couldn’t quite place—elation tinged with a heavy dose of apprehension, if he were to hazard a guess—and he cursed himself for being so forward. Trying to save face he quickly added, “eventually.”

She gave his hand a grateful squeeze before pulling it away to turn the steering wheel. “We’ll be at our destination in about twenty minutes,” she commented. “In the meantime, do you want to tell me about your lousy day?”

Did he really want to burden her with all of his problems? He didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with her as it was, so he certainly didn’t want to waste it on things that would only depress him. “No, not really,” he said honestly. “Let’s just say that I hope I don’t have another one like it anytime soon. What about you? How was your day?”

“Not much better than yours, I’m afraid,” she admitted. “So let’s agree. Discussing work is off limits tonight.”

“I won’t argue with you there,” he swiftly conceded. “I’ll even go one better. Let’s agree to not talk about anything unpleasant tonight.” Accepting her outreached hand he explained, “Please don’t get me wrong. I’m very honored that you trusted me enough to tell me about your family and share your tears with me Saturday night, but I I’d rather spend this evening doing nothing else but relaxing and having fun with you. Just Leggs and Mack, having a good time. I think we both deserve it.”

She chanced a quick look at him before she repeated his earlier gesture and brought their clasped hands up to her mouth. Kissing the back of his hand she replied in a lighthearted tone, “I accept the terms you have set forth for the evening. Therefore, if our conversation heads to a place one of us doesn’t want it to go, then the other must respect the request to change the subject without threat of recrimination.”

“You wouldn’t happen to be an attorney, would you?” he asked suspiciously.

“Ah.ah.ah. We agreed to not discuss work,” she scolded. Dropping their hands to the steering wheel so that she could make another turn, she added, “but I will tell you that no, I am not an attorney. I’ve just spent a lot of time reading every kind of contract you can imagine. Now, No. More. Cheating.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered with a fake pout. After a few minutes of comfortable silence, he asked, “So what do you want to talk about?”

“Um, let me see. Let’s start out with something simple. What is your favorite color?”

He couldn’t help but laugh as her innocent question took his mind straight to the gutter once again, his eyes automatically appraising the small amount of bikini top hiding underneath her blouse. “I can’t say I’ve ever had a favorite color before,” he answered truthfully, “but I believe that by the end of the night I’ll be very partial to red.” The sudden blush of her cheeks made his heart swell. He didn’t think she could look more beautiful than she did at that moment, her shy sexiness a wonderful contradiction. Trying to keep his mind from wandering to places it shouldn’t go, he hastily asked, “So, uh, what is your favorite color?”

The car was quiet for a minute as she pondered her response. “I’d have to go with blue…a bright, royal blue.”

He knew immediately that she was referring to the shirt he had been wearing the morning they met in the church. His lips formed into a bittersweet smile as he recalled that it was the last birthday present he would ever receive from his little sister.

“I get the feeling that is your ‘change the subject’ look,” Leggs soberly observed, “although I didn’t expect to see it quite this soon.”

How was it that she could read him so well? He wasn’t sure whether he should let her know that he appreciated the concern showing on her face or tell her to save her pity for someone who truly deserved it. He certainly had no right to accept sympathy for something that was his fault in the first place. “I figured I’d go ahead and get it out of the way early on,” he feebly joked. “So, change of subject. Now it can be your turn to give me that look.”

She gave him a questioning glance.

Choosing his words carefully, he asked, “Did you ever make peace with your…work…acquaintance?” When she showed no sign of acknowledgment, he wondered for a moment whether she even remembered her church confessional to him regarding the wrong she thought she had committed. Perhaps it had not bothered her as much as he believed it had.

“Yes and no,” she said hesitantly. “I’ve pretty much just left him alone for now. I’m sure I’m his least favorite person in the entire world already, so I decided I wouldn’t make it any worse than I have to.”

So he had been right. She obviously regretted whatever she had done to this guy, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what she could have done that was so terrible. “Well, Angel, you are my most favorite person in the entire world, so I guess I cancel him out,” he said reverently, “although I still believe a simply apology may do a lot more good than you realize.”

“Like I said before, I seriously doubt he would ever give me a chance to apologize to him. I did say I was sorry in my own way, though,” she said cryptically.

“Oh?” he asked curiously.

“I took care of something that was important to him, so that he wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore,” she replied, her tone of voice leaving no doubt that it was time to change the subject again.

“This is unbelievable,” he said incredulously. “ I refuse to accept that there is nothing we can talk about that won’t make us want to change the subject. I think we just must not be trying hard enough.”

“You think so, huh?” she questioned.

“Either that or we both have very empty lives,” he muttered, the words slipping out before he realized what he was actually saying. He looked over at her in horror, expecting her to be furious for making such a heartless comment about her personal life. Instead he only saw complete understanding.

“Mine is a lot less empty since I met you,” she said with quiet sincerely. Before he had a chance to respond she said, “We’re here.”

He looked around for the first time since he had stepped into the car and quickly realized that he had no idea where they were. She had just turned onto a narrow gravel road, driving slowly to not kick up too much dust. Lush green foliage, a combination of tall prairie grasses and the occasional stray soybean plant that indicated the land had been part of a farm at one time, surrounded them. A perfectly sized lake came into view as she maneuvered around the bend, the late evening sun casting orange, purple and pink sparkles across the clear water. Whitman’s pond had nothing on this place. “Where exactly is ‘here’?” he queried.

Parking the car where the gravel ended by the water, she turned to him with deep, wide eyes. He couldn’t resist pulling her close to him to give her an adoring kiss that would relay how much of his own life’s emptiness she had managed to erase in the few short weeks they had known each other. Threading the fingers of his right hand through her hair as he tenderly cradled the nape of her neck with his left one, he swept feather-light pecks across her forehead, down the bridge of her nose, and over her cheeks until he came to her lips. “I love you,” he whispered against their inviting softness before tasting the sweetness that was only hers, each brush of his mouth against hers a silent plea of gratitude. By the time he had completely thanked her for tolerating his carelessness he caught his breath and quietly said into the hair he had tucked behind her ear, “Nevermind. I don’t need to know where ‘here’ is. All that matters is that I am sharing it with you.”

She nuzzled the side of his face and gave him a chaste kiss on his temple. “Do you like it?” she asked enthusiastically.

“Being with you? Of course I do,” he teased, knowing what she was really asking.

“No, silly. I was talking about my little getaway,” she said as she willfully turned his head to stare out the window at the incredible landscape surrounding them.

“Your getaway?” he asked with complete surprise. “Do you own this land?”

“In a manner of speaking. We won’t get arrested for trespassing, if that is what you’re worried about. I came out here all last summer to go swimming, but this is the first time I’ve been here this year.”

“It’s not like the weather has been very cooperative this season,” he remarked as he opened up the car door, a surge of muggy heat instantly clashing with the air-conditioned interior.

“Whew,” she said as she fanned herself. “It sure looks like Mother Nature is making up for it in spades, though. Hey, can you grab the picnic basket?” She had already stepped out of the car and had the back door opened on her side, her hands deftly balancing a blanket, a small radio or CD player, and a medium sized box before she walked herself and the items over to a small stand of trees situated just a few feet away.

He quickly got out of the car and opened the back door on his side, kneeling in to retrieve his cutoffs before grabbing the handle of the picnic basket and pulling it out of the car. When he stood up he was greeted by the sight of Leggs shrugging off her white shirt, her black shorts already in a pile on the spread out blanket. That bikini she was wearing was really…tiny. Never before had he been this close to so much of a woman’s exposed skin, especially skin that he desperately wanted to kiss and taste and…

“Mack, is everything all right?” her concerned voice asked, shaking him out of his heady thoughts.

“Uh, yeah. Why wouldn’t it be?” he managed to choke out.

“Well, you just dropped the picnic basket,” she announced. “I just don’t want the strawberries to get bruised. I’ve got something special planned for them.”

It took every bit of his willpower to stifle the urges that her two simple sentences had incited. This was definitely going to be a very wonderful and interesting evening.

posted on 23-Oct-2002 1:02:48 AM
WARNING:This is an extra part of American Dream, Max's Heatwave Dream, that is rated NC-17 for sexual content. The entire part is posted in yellow, so if you do not want to read it and prefer to skip to Part 20, then scroll down until the font is back to its normal color.





It was an especially humid night and even at eight in the evening, the temperature hovered way over 85 degrees. After spending the day in the air conditioning, Leggs almost regretted that she had agreed to meet Max at Whitman’s pond so they could lay together and watch the stars. Almost. Her long hair was pinned up to keep her neck cool, and she wore the skimpiest bikini she had so that the light breeze might give her body some relief from the stifling heat. Max was already there when she arrived, his arms folded behind his head as he lay on a blanket, wistfully staring at the glistening specks of light above. Leggs, noticing he was only wearing a pair of cut off Levi’s, decided to protest. “You guys have no idea how easy you have it. It’s a million degrees outside and you get to walk around with no shirt on. Meanwhile, we women have to suffer,” she whined as she sat down in the grass.

“If you want to walk around with no top on, you won’t hear me complain, but I don’t think I could handle all those guys leering at my beautiful angel,” he teased.

She leaned over him and gave him a gentle kiss, her lips barely grazing his. “I guess since you’re the jealous type, I’ll just have to keep my top on and suffer.”

“Or we’ll just have to find another way to cool you off,” he said in a deep voice. He sat up and grasped her hips, guiding her to straddle his lap. Tenderly threading his fingers into her dark silky hair, he gently pulled her towards him, bringing her lips to his and kissing her eagerly. She boldly slid her arms around his neck as she returned his kisses, pressing the perfectly rounded mounds of her thinly covered breasts into his strong, bare chest. His mouth languidly wandered down the column of her throat as she leaned her head back in loving submission, exposing a tempting expanse of willing flesh for his lips to eagerly devour. He fervently planted open-mouthed kisses over nearly every inch of her upper body until she finally moaned out in a breathless voice, “This is doing anything but cooling me off, you know.”

She quickly felt the loss as Max pulled his lips away from her heated skin. “Hold that thought, Angel,” his voice tickled her ear. “Keep your eyes closed for me, okay?”

She shook her head yes as she sensed him moving underneath her, felt him reaching for something. A familiar jingling noise lingered in the heavy air, but she wasn’t quite able to place it. Max’s voice resonated against her throat, “Are you ready, my love?”

She was about to ask, “Ready for what?” but before she could get the words out, she gasped as a small spot on her shoulder suddenly burned with frozen heat. Slowly she felt the cold trailing across her collarbone and up the side of her neck, Max’s hot mouth quickly following the path left by the frosty object. The contrast of arctic chill and searing heat was incredibly arousing, and she had no choice but to emit a series of lusty moans at the enticing sensation. Soon the cold was being pressed against her lips as she realized that Max was using an ice cube to create the marvelous feeling that was quickly consuming every one of her thoughts. He rubbed the frozen square across her bottom lip before capturing her mouth with his own, and she groaned with pleasure as she savored the intoxicating taste of Max mixed with strawberries. When they finally broke apart to catch their breath she gasped, “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing. What is that? A strawberry ice cube?”

“Do you like it?” he asked as his tongue captured a stray drop that teasingly rested against the upper edge of her bikini top. “It’s Kool-Aid. My mom used to make them for me when I was little.” Flashing her a seductively sexy smile he added, “Of course, I don’t think she ever intended for me to use them this way.”

“Mmm…this tastes great,” she moaned as she darted her own tongue out to trace the corners of his mouth.

“Yeah, but does it feel good?” he whispered against her lips with childlike curiosity.

“Hmmm, ‘good’ doesn’t quite describe it,” she said pensively. Her eyes lighting up impishly, she said, “Why don’t you let me show you?” Before he could respond she took a cube from the tray next to him and meticulously repeated what he had done to her. When she broke their kiss, the passionate look in his eyes took her breath away.

“I see what you mean,” he replied with unconcealed desire. Bringing her hand up to his mouth, he gently cleansed each of her fingers of the ice cube’s sticky remnants. As his tongue grazed the pulse point throbbing in her wrist he asked, “So, uh, are there any other places on your body that need cooling down?”

Leaning into his ear she said in a heady whisper, “Oh, Max, I’m hot all over.”

“I’ll just have to take care of that, won’t I?” he said in an inviting tone. Grabbing another ice cube he drew it down the left side of her neck in a circular motion, making a path to the top of her bikini as he lovingly followed up with his lips and tongue. He unhooked the butterfly clasp that kept him from certain paradise, letting the thin ribbon of fabric flutter down her body to expose her luscious breasts to his adoring gaze. Her beauty was flawless.

Taking a few steadying breaths to calm his overly excited body before continuing his ministrations, he returned to rubbing the cube over her skin by circling one nipple then the other, watching with fascination as they stiffened against the invading cold. He looked up to gauge her reaction to his loving attention and felt himself grow harder as he relished the ecstasy clearly displayed on her face. He reached up to caress her cheek, gently coaxing her to look at him. “You are so beautiful. I just love touching you, kissing you. Do you know what you do to me just by feeling your soft skin against my lips?”

She opened her eyes and was immediately mesmerized by the intense love reflected in his features. Struggling to gather her thoughts she realized that she knew precisely what she did to him, because he made her feel the exact same way. “Max…this…you are so incredible. You’re driving me absolutely crazy,” Her moans vibrated throughout both their bodies as he returned to gliding the cube over her heated flesh, his mouth eagerly savoring her strawberry flavored skin.

As much as she was enjoying his sweet torture, she simply had to stop him so that she could take her turn teasing his body with the cold treat. Running her hands up his strong, smooth chest, she gently grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him back until he was laying down. He reached up and ran his hands down her sides and up her front, gently caressing her breasts. “You are truly a goddess, and I want the spend every minute of the rest of my life worshipping you.”

Stretching to retrieve another ice cube she adoringly replied, “I’m only a goddess because you treat me like one, but right now I believe it’s my turn to worship you.” Leaning over him, she placed the cube in her mouth and covered his face and body with strawberry kisses. Her caressing lips stirred a desire so deep that he didn’t think anything could be better than having her breasts pressing against his chest as she devoured him until she slid down his legs to bring her face was even with his crotch. She made quick work of liberating him from his cutoffs, tossing them next to her bikini top before removing her bottoms and adding them to the small pile. Once she was comfortably settled between his legs she gradually took his erection in her mouth, using her tongue to press the partially melted cube against the sensitive underside of his cock. The cold rubbing against him while being surrounded by her hot mouth was going to push him over the edge quickly, and he fought hard to remain in control even as his mind screamed for release. She wasted no time in setting up a steady rhythm, swirling the ice cube around his swollen tip and down his shaft, lingering in the places that seemed to affect him the most. The low moans in his throat were music to her ears as she instinctively undulated her core against his leg in an identical rhythm to her oral ministrations, both places where their flesh met rapidly becoming wet with uninhibited desire. As soon as the ice cube disappeared she removed her mouth from his pulsing erection and wantonly impaled herself on his hardness, a breathy moan escaping her strawberry lips as he filled her completely. He lurched forward as her silken passage enveloped him, the coldness from the ice cube making her tight walls an unquenchable inferno by comparison. He was certain every nerve in his body would explode the minute she began to move. Knowing that neither of them could hold out for very long, he frantically grasped her hips and suckled her breast as he matched his thrusting to her grinding. Hearing her fervently panting his name as her orgasm began to course through her, Max let himself go, chanting her name like a prayer as he was swept away by the profound love and ecstasy he felt for the exquisite angel in his arms.