The following is an excerpt from Shelter Me, my upcoming book available soon.
“So, seeing that Valentine’s Day is only two days away, I think I should help set the mood, if you don’t mind,” Thomas said.
The crowd cheered, clearly not minding.
“This is from Irish songwriter Foy Vance. “Here’s, “Feel for me.”
He wasn’t kidding about setting the mood. The tempo was exquisitely slow and the guitar chords and his voice replete with longing. The cords in his neck bulged with the effort, and the incessant pub chatter nearly ceased, as did Kathleen’s breathing as he repeated the song’s title.
“Feel for me, babe, feel for me baby…let our blood run like holy wine, new wine…”
Kathleen glanced at the throng of people. Surely, this aching ballad had to be for a girlfriend, somewhere, perhaps in the audience. There did seem to be a table of rather enthusiastic folks with a few women, and after the song he stopped for a brief break and talked with them. The girl must be one of them, she was thinking, feeling absurdly disappointed, just as he approached her table.
“May I?” he asked.
She lurched forward too quickly, almost upending a glass of water. “Sure.”
His long body filled up the empty space, and a blush bloomed on her cheeks and extended down her neck like a spreading wine stain.
“Hi,” he said, slightly slouching back with his knees apart.
She swallowed. “Hi. Hey, you sound fantastic up there.”
“Thanks, but with these songs I’m really just a good imitator. Hours of practicing pays off that way.” He leaned in. “I hope you’re sticking around?”
“I am. In fact, if I have much more Doubting Thomas, I might need a ride home.” The words flew out, the effect the same as if she’d erroneously pushed the send button on an electronic device. “Um, I mean, I wasn’t hinting. I guess that sounded bad.”
Shut. Up. Now. The irresistible urge to giggle launched upward, killed into oblivion as he stared at her.
“I think it sounds absolutely fine,” he said, and at that moment the server Deirdre appeared and asked, or gushed as Kathleen heard it, if Thomas would like another drink.
“Yes, thank you, another Doubting Thomas, and one for you, too?” he said, gesturing to Kathleen.
“Maybe just a five ouncer. And some water, please.”
He continued with his quite unsettling direct perusal, and she tingled and fidgeted under its strength. To feel seen by someone so obviously attractive was a wonderful, foreign sensation to her.
His deep voice interrupted her thoughts. “You’re liking the show?”
“Very much. That is, what I’ve seen of it. There was an older couple—”
“Yes,” he chuckled. “I heard them. And I saw what you did.”
“I didn’t do anything, just let them sit, is all.” Kathleen commented on the nearby table. “You have some fans, it would appear.”
He turned. “Oh, those guys. They’re all friends from work. My previous day job.”
“Ah. And what was that, if I may ask?”
“I was a nurse in the psychiatric unit at St. Anthony’s.”
Her brow raised in surprise. “Is that right?”
“How long did you do that?”
“Three years. And then I officially burned out. Or my body did, rather.” He laughed a bitter laugh. “Pretty sad, isn’t it?”
“No. Isn’t it a risk of the profession?”
She finished off her pint. “One thing you always hear about nursing is how rewarding it is.”
“And one thing you also hear about is how compassionate nurses are. I tried to be, but I wasn’t.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
His neck jerked back slightly. “Really? We just met. I could be a horrible person for all you know.”
“I doubt it. Working in the service industry automatically qualifies me as an excellent judge of character. And you strike me as…” What, Kathleen? Magnetizing? Talented? The Solution to Celibacy? Check all of the above.
She swallowed nervously. “As…I don’t know, warm?”
“Warm, huh?” He laughed. “That’s a first.”
She could feel the burn creeping up her neck again. “And not the last to say it, no doubt.”
Deirdre appeared with their drinks. They both sipped, looking at each other while trying not to be obvious.
“So, how did you end up on the musical path?” Kathleen asked, gesturing to the stage.
He shrugged, causing the V in his sweater to shift and reveal a tuft of hair, and never had a dismissive movement looked so alluring. She tried not to gawk.
“My dad was a doctor, and he wanted nursing for me. In his eyes, pursuing music was in the same category as becoming a tree-hugging yoga instructor. Pointless and empty-pocketed, I believe were his words. You can imagine the resulting shitshow. Excuse my French.”
“I actually like the idea of teaching yoga.” She impulsively placed a hand on top of his. “But what I know for sure is that nurses are angels on earth. When my husband was dying, they literally saved my life. I’ll bet some would say the same about music, too.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” His expression belied the trite phrase, loosening her own thoughts.
I’m not. Not anymore.
The forbidden voice was gone as quickly as it came, and she withdrew her hand, already missing his warmth. “Thanks,” she murmured, then brightly: “On a lighter note, I’m glad I stayed after work to catch your act. What’ve you got planned next?”
“Mmm, let’s see. A little John Mayer, a few other blues-ey numbers. Any special requests?”
Oh, I’d like to request, all right.
For one terrifying second, she wondered if she’d said it aloud. No. He was still waiting for her answer.
“Just do what you do,” she said, hoping she sounded nonchalant. He smiled and got up. He floated across the floor and her mind wandered, picturing his lithe legs wrapped up in hers, his back arching up and down like a cat, and she ground a fist to her forehead.
Sitting in front of Sears with Summer all those years ago had definitely left its mark.
After the set he came back to the table, bending down close to talk since the taproom had returned to its noisy levels. He smelled woodsy, and his lips brushed her ear accidentally as someone pushed from behind, knocking him off balance.
“Sorry,” she heard someone mutter. The brief contact with him sent a repeat tingle down her body, this one like an atom splitting in a thousand directions.
“It’ll only take me a few minutes to load up my gear, if you still need that ride home. I’ll be right back.”
She nodded and watched him sweep up the equipment as if it were dust, even with the slight limp. She imagined him lifting sick people and their wires and tubes, maybe even forced to coerce or restrain uncooperative patients. Only someone fit could do that, someone with strong arms and a reassuring presence. Could he rescue widows with wavering self-esteem and no real sense of purpose as well? In one night?
He was there then, towering over her. “Ready?”
“Ready.” For what, exactly?
He led her out to his Subaru. She told him her address, and she willed herself to look out the window to calm the jangling in her belly. Upon arriving he parked, and her head spun with what to do next. Expressing appreciation would be a start, she surmised.
“Thanks for the ride,” she said, grasping the unmoving door handle.
He reached across her, his hair falling forward and peach-creamy skin inches away. For all his slenderness, his face was not haggard. “The lock jams sometimes,” he said, yanking at the mechanism, and she pulled his hand away and placed hers on top, tracing his fingers. She couldn’t help it; she’d been mesmerized all night by the way they’d produced lovely melodies, by the intricate pattern of veins wrapping around his wrists and forearms. Like vines on a tree, she thought, entranced as she studied them once more.
“You have beautiful hands,” she said quietly, her eyes darting up. “It probably sounds geeky, but I like to…sketch portraits, for a hobby.” She traced a ropy vein. “And I could draw this for days.”
He smiled and laced his fingers around hers. “Not geeky,” he said, sweeping in for a luscious, alcohol flavors- combining, tongues- barely-entwining kiss. She was the one to break off, beyond flummoxed at the turn of events.
“You should know I turn forty this summer.”
“Okay,” he said slowly.
“I mean, I have wrinkles. In places you can’t see. And I’m getting a double chin.”
He laughed, the gap in his teeth and his deliciously wide mouth causing more twinges to run straight through her. “And you’re very attractive. Maybe it’s the youthful freckles on your nose.”
He brushed a thumb across one cheek, and she felt her skin raise like braille under his touch. “They’re technically sun damage. A sign of aging,” she blurted foolishly. What on earth was she babbling about? She’d had the sprinkle across the bridge of her face her whole life.
“I’m turning thirty in November,” he said. “Does that sound better than twenty-nine?”
She wondered if he were making fun of her, but his smile was gentle, not mocking. He leaned in as if for another kiss. “Tell me, are you purposely trying to kill the mood?”
“No, I…I just believe in laying your cards out on the table. No games. As I said before, I’m widowed, with a grown stepdaughter. No kids. We—I mean, I—couldn’t. I wanted a baby (that time), but it didn’t happen.”
“Ah. Same here. The no kid part, I mean. Which will be permanent.”
There was an awkward pause, and she shifted. What? Cancer survivor? Hate children? How did this end up on the table? Because you put it there, dumb ass…
“Not because I don’t like them,” he added. “I happen to firmly believe the world doesn’t need a clone of myself out there.”
“I beg to differ,” she said, and he laughed again, this time kissing her. This time, harder, but not a plunge-down-her-throat hard. The right balance of pressure, no fish-lips, and no slimy saliva smeared on her upper lip. He was insanely good, from what she could remember about kissing. Steve had been perfunctory about it; done for foreplay and not much else.
Her heart battered in her chest like a ram charging a rock wall. He backed up and caressed her cheek.
“Well.” She was an aroused bundle of nerves. “Now that our confessionals are over, what happens next?”
A teasing smile, then: “What would you like to have happen?”
“That’s a loaded question…but… that song you did, by the Irish guy?”
“I’ve got his music on a CD here. Want to listen to it?”
The battering doubled. “Yes, I do. Inside, with you. If you want to, that is. Or I could just borrow it.”
“I would love to go inside.”
“I have animals,” she said. “I hope you like animals? Oh, my God, I sound like a rambling idiot. I’m not saying another word. I’m sorry.”
He pulled the compact disc out. “My ex-girlfriend has the dog we rescued, and I have the cat,” he said, taking her chin with his thumb and forefinger. “Maybe just nod, if you agree we won’t be sorry for anything tonight.”
She laughed, her head bobbing.
“Great,” he said, and opened the car door for her, the tricky jam cooperating for the moment.