“What precisely is the problem?”
Cassie sat up straighter. The Simon she recognized was back. He wasn’t interested in listening to any excuses—except that in this instance excuses were necessary. Cassie couldn’t possibly invite her neighbors to Christmas dinner. She didn’t really know these people, and what she did know unnerved her.
“Out with it, Cassie. I don’t have all day.”
Hiding her smile would have been impossible.
“What’s that silly grin for?” he demanded in the gruff voice she’d grown accustomed to.
“You. You’re back!”
“I never left.”
“But you did,” she said. “A few minutes ago, while we were discussing—you know, what we promised never to mention again—you seemed…almost human.”
His left brow rose, mocking her. “Almost, you say?”
“Yes—and I rather liked it.”
“Don’t get used to it.”
“Oh, not to worry. I won’t.” She set her coffee aside and sat on her hands. “Anyway, continue.”
“We were discussing your third task.”
“I feel you should know that one of my neighbors, Mrs. Mullinex, is a thief.”
“She has a police record?”
“I…No, I don’t think so. But who knows? Anyone who’d purposely take my newspaper…”
“Yes, that’s what she’s been stealing for the last few months.” Then, stricken by an attack of conscience, Cassie went on to explain. “To be honest, Mrs. Mullinex does return it, but she clips out the coupons. Then, a couple of weeks back, she went so far as to take the Sunday edition, and get this—she likes to do the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. My crossword puzzle.” She narrowed her eyes. “I wouldn’t have to invite her, would I?”
“And Mr. Oliver?”
“What’s wrong with Mr. Oliver?”
Cassie had no qualms about detailing her other neighbor’s faults. “First, he’s rude. More than once, Mr. Oliver has deliberately allowed the elevator doors to close on me.” She wagged her index finger at Simon. “I’m positive he could see me, too. I saw that gleam in his eyes. The Sunday before last he left me standing there, loaded down with groceries, and he enjoyed it.”
“I…see.” Once more he seemed unimpressed by her tales of woe.
“Then there’s the guy whose condo’s next to mine. I don’t know his name and I don’t want to. He plays his music so loud it shakes my whole kitchen. It’s horrible music, too. Rap and heavy metal.” She paused. “Now here’s the interesting part.”
“I can hardly wait.”
Simon might be making fun of her, but Cassie forged on. “I saw him in the hallway for the first time this week. All along I’d assumed that whoever he was, he must be college age. This guy was old. He had to be sixty if he was a day.”
Having laid out her case, Cassie felt certain that Simon would understand why she wouldn’t want to go to all that effort for these people. “So you’ll reconsider?” she asked him.
“Giving me a different third task. Surely even you can see it would be impossible to put on a festive dinner for my neighbors.”
“No, after hearing this, I believe the third task will be perfect.”
Simon says: The perfect neighbor is the one who’s never home. “Y ou mean you won’t reconsider?” Cassie sputtered.
Simon was being totally unreasonable.
“Did you or did you not agree to host this dinner?”
“Well, yes,” she admitted with some reluctance, “but that was before I realized I’d be obliged to fly through the air with my underwear showing.” A little guilt on his part might not be amiss.
“A small wardrobe malfunction.”
He said it with a straight face and Cassie stared at him, wondering if this was meant to be a joke. “I suppose you could call it that.”
“At least you didn’t have a television audience.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that makes it better.”
“Regardless, you are still required to complete a third task.”
Cassie made a face. “You’re a cruel man, Dr. Dodson.”
“You were well aware of the conditions of our agreement before you signed the contract. However…”
“Yes?” Hope filled her.
“However, I believe it might be advantageous if you served this dinner prior to Christmas. In other words, not on Christmas Day itself as I originally specified.”
“If you agree to this new stipulation, I’ll arrange for you to meet John before the twenty-fifth.”
“Oh.” Cassie had her suspicions. “And when did you make this decision?” She wasn’t fooled; Simon wanted her gone and on her way to marital bliss so he wouldn’t have to deal with her anymore.
“Why the dirty look? I would think you’d be grateful.”
“I’d be a whole lot more grateful if I didn’t distrust your motives.”
Simon watched her steadily. “And what is wrong with my motives?”
Irritated, Cassie stood. She wasn’t sure why his latest suggestion upset her—the opposite should be true. It should thrill her, since she’d be that much closer to meeting John. But it didn’t. She walked over to the picture window. “You want me out of your life,” she mumbled, her back to him.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t need to.”
“Listen, Cassie, and this is important. Don’t fall in love with me. I’m not good husband material. Furthermore—”
“Oh, please,” she snapped. “You’re in greater danger of falling for me!”
“Don’t flatter yourself.” He went into the kitchen with their coffee cups. When he came back, she guessed it was time to leave. Her clue was that he’d put on his coat and scarf.
On the return trip to the mall, there was silence between them, no music, not even the radio. When they arrived, Cassie told him where to drop her off. Simon pulled up behind her parked car.
“Please let me know when you intend to serve the Christmas meal,” he said.
“Can I get back to you?”
He kept his hands on the steering wheel and gazed straight ahead. “Fine. But remember that all three tasks must be completed to my satisfaction. So far, you’ve done well.”
Was that praise? From the high and mighty Simon Dodson? She could hardly believe it. He must have an ulterior motive, no matter how much he claimed otherwise. Although, now that she considered it, he hadn’t exactly denied her accusation. “I’ll call you later in the week with the date.”
“Good. I thought you’d come around.”
She opened the passenger door, then climbed out and banged it shut. “Good,” she mimicked. Seeing someone waiting eagerly for her parking space, Cassie hurriedly got into her car and backed out.
On the drive home she did her best to analyze why someone she disliked could affect her so profoundly. It troubled her that she’d enjoyed Simon’s touch and his kiss, that she felt invigorated by his—occasionally annoying—conversation.
Not until the following Wednesday was Cassie able to work out a date that was agreeable to all her neighbors, as well as Angie and Shawn. Dinner was scheduled for the Sunday before Christmas.
To her credit, Mrs. Mullinex seemed pleased by the invitation and offered to bring her special pickled brussels sprouts. Her mother’s recipe, she said. Cassie declined, saying she’d take care of everything.
Mr. Oliver gave a one-word answer. “Why?”
“It’s just an invitation to dinner,” Cassie said. “I’m doing all the cooking and…and it seemed neighborly to have a Christmas celebration.” The explanation struck her as a bit lame, but she could hardly tell him her real reason.
“Who else are you inviting?”
She told him.
“I suppose I could come,” he said and closed the door. He made it sound as if he was doing her a favor. In retrospect, maybe he was.
The rap-music man was harder to catch. She rang his doorbell several times, then pounded hard, but either he didn’t want to answer or he was so deaf he couldn’t hear her. In the end she slipped a note under his door.
He responded in kind, placing a message under her door that said he’d be delighted to join her for dinner. He signed it Bob, which seemed a rather inoffensive name for someone who listened to such belligerent music.
Now that the arrangements were made, Cassie was ready to contact Simon. She knew he kept evening hours a couple of days a week for the benefit of working clients, and this was one of those days.
“He’s not in the office,” Ms. Snelling informed her. “I don’t see your name on the appointment list.”
“He asked me to call.” Or maybe she’d volunteered; Cassie couldn’t remember.
“I see. Do you wish to leave a message for him?”
“No.” Cassie was emphatic about that. She preferred to speak to him personally. In her opinion, it was time that he learned the art of compromise. She was going to ask for one small concession, and if Simon had any common sense at all, he’d agree.
“Can you tell me when he’ll be available?”
“Oh, dear, I’m afraid I can’t. Dr. Dodson is home sick with the flu.”
Simon was sick? Cassie felt immediate sympathy. “How long has he been out?”
“Two days, and when he phoned in, he sounded absolutely dreadful.”
“Poor man.” Cassie hung up and went about her business. Her apartment looked Christmassy, thanks primarily to her brother’s tree. She’d draped it with merrily twinkling lights that brought a festive quality to the dark evening. Cassie had added a trio of angels to the fireplace mantel. A lovely wreath hung on the inside, rather than the outside, of her door because she didn’t trust her neighbors (one in particular) not to steal it.
Even with Christmas music playing in the background and cookbooks strewn across the kitchen counter, all Cassie could think about was Simon, sick and in bed. He was alone. He’d never mentioned family. She didn’t know about friends, either. As far as she could tell, there was no one to check up on him. If she’d had a special recipe for chicken noodle soup she would’ve made him a pot of it.
Then it came to her—why not make him some soup? Medicinal soup for a friend. Simon might not consider her a friend, but Cassie couldn’t ignore the fact that he might need someone. She began paging through her cookbooks….
She didn’t fool herself into believing Simon would appreciate the effort. But even knowing he’d probably resent her dropping off the soup wasn’t enough to change her mind.
“You’re going to a lot of trouble for him,” Angie told her the next morning at work, when Cassie brought in a full quart of her concoction.