“That’s true,” she said, finding space in the lunchroom fridge for her plastic container.
“Why would you care? He’s such a difficult man. I bet he’ll bite your head off for making him get out of bed to answer the door.”
“How do you know where he lives, anyway?”
Rather than launch into the whole complicated tale, she said, “It’s a long story. I’ll save it for when we have more time.”
“I’m holding you to that.”
Fortunately, two colleagues joined them for lunch, so Cassie was spared the necessity of telling Angie what had happened on Saturday, when she’d been an elf. After work she called Simon’s office and learned he was still sick. Her decision made, Cassie drove to Tacoma. She had no problem locating the neighborhood but had to drive around numerous streets before she found his house.
By then, it was completely dark and the rain fell in sheets. Racing from the car to his front door, carrying her quart container, she shook the moisture out of her hair before she rang his doorbell. When no one answered, she was tempted to leave the soup on his porch and drive away.
Just as she turned to do exactly that, the door opened and Simon stood there in his housecoat and slippers. He looked even worse than she might have imagined, with a pale face, rumpled hair and rheumy eyes. Her sympathy was instantly aroused and it was all she could do not to reach out and test his brow for fever.
She hadn’t planned what she’d say, and now her tongue seemed to twist itself into knots. “I heard you were sick…. I—I brought you some homemade chicken noodle soup.”
He stared at her as if he wasn’t sure whether he was hallucinating.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, although the answer was obvious.
“Terrible.” He stepped aside, silently inviting her into the house.
Cassie hadn’t expected that. In fact, she’d been sure that he’d be angry. She’d expected him to growl and demand that she leave.
“I can’t stay long. Like I said, I wanted to drop off the soup and tell you the turkey dinner’s set for Sunday.”
Simon covered his mouth and coughed. It resembled a dog’s barking and seemed to rack his entire body. She wondered if he had pneumonia.
“Have you seen a doctor?” she asked urgently.
“I’ll be fine. Don’t fuss, Cassie.”
“Someone should. Now, lie down and I’ll heat up this soup.” Taking charge, she walked past him and into his kitchen, which to her shock was untidy. Dishes littered the counter and pots were stacked in the sink. She could see that he’d made an effort to straighten up but had either grown too tired or was too sick to continue.
Before she started heating the soup, she placed the dirty dishes in the dishwasher and turned it on. Her soup warmed on the stove as she cleaned up the kitchen. Simon had disappeared and now returned dressed in slacks and a sweater. He’d apparently showered, because his hair was wet and combed.
“This is thoughtful of you.” He actually sounded grateful.
Dishcloth in hand, Cassie regarded him suspiciously. “You mean to say you’re not angry?”
“Why would I be angry?”
“I’m invading your privacy.”
He acknowledged that with a slight tilt of his head.
The soup began to boil and Cassie removed the pan from the burner, poured some in a bowl and set it on the kitchen table with a spoon.
While Simon had his soup, she made them both cups of strong, hot tea, then sat across from him at the table. She declined his suggestion of soup, since she was too nervous to eat.
“This might surprise you, but I quite like you when you’re sick.”
He set the spoon next to his bowl and studied her warily. “I beg your pardon?”
That must have sounded strange. “You’re more human when you’re vulnerable.” He didn’t respond.
Cassie was gratified to see that he finished the entire bowlful of soup.
“Shall we have our tea in the living room?” she asked, noting that the television was on, the volume low.
Simon nodded. “I’ve watched more television in the past three days than the previous three years.”
“Oh, Jeopardy!’s just starting. That’s my favorite game show,” she said, sitting on the couch. Simon sat beside her, a careful distance away—not too close and not too far.
He picked up the remote and turned up the volume. The thirty minutes passed quickly. She couldn’t resist shouting out answers—“What is the Battle of Gettysburg?” “Who are Sacco and Vanzetti?” “What is silver nitrate?” She was pleased that she was almost always right, although she noticed that Simon didn’t participate at all. He must be feeling very ill.
“I should leave,” she said after Final Jeopardy (“Who was St. Nicholas?”) and started to stand.
Simon reached for her hand. “Stay a while longer, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t…” The sudden surge of tenderness she felt shocked her. What shocked her even more was that his hand continued to hold hers. His touch was light, but sometime during the next thirty minutes he intertwined their fingers. It was hard to concentrate on the rerun of Frasier—a Christmas episode she’d already seen—when her whole body was focused on his hand holding hers. Innocent enough on the surface, his action was highly sensual in its effect. She felt his touch in every part of her, in every sensitized nerve, every cell. She needed all her self-control not to turn into his arms and beg him to kiss her.
“My brother might be at the dinner,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound as breathless as she felt.
“I’d enjoy meeting him.”
“You would? Angie might be able to come, too.”
“My best friend. You met her—and rejected her.”
“Ah, yes, I remember her now.”
“I wish you’d given her a chance,” Cassie murmured.
“I couldn’t. She was in love with someone and refused to admit it.”
“How do you know?” she asked.
“It’s my job. That’s the point of such a detailed questionnaire. I explore people’s responses and I read between the lines.” He looked at her sternly, their hands still linked. “You know I can’t discuss this with you.”
“Oh.” Her mouth had gone dry. If Simon could read others so well, she wondered if he was aware of the intense sensation she was experiencing. Did he feel it, too?
“Will you come for dinner?” she asked. This was the concession she’d intended to request. She wasn’t quite sure why. She’d told herself it was so he’d be able to judge the way she handled the third task, which would expedite her introduction to John. But now…
He didn’t answer.
He rubbed his thumb along hers and it was all Cassie could do not to faint. Her eyes drifted shut.
“I’ll be there,” he finally agreed.
The argument between Frasier and Niles on the TV seemed to fade into the background. “I should go,” she said.
“Yes,” he said in a whisper. “You should.” He released her and she clenched her fist to keep from grabbing his hand again.
“I’ll see you at three o’clock on Sunday,” she said hoarsely, staggering to her feet.
He didn’t walk her to the door.
Simon says: The perfect match lights a lasting fire. C assie pored over every cookbook she owned. They were all full of wonderful recipes. Even more encouraging, the instructions didn’t seem too difficult. She had her menu set for this all-important dinner: roast turkey with a traditional stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh green beans with butter and sliced almonds, two different salads and three kinds of pie, apple, pumpkin and pecan. Her grocery list was two pages long.
Angie had offered to help with the shopping; she’d also volunteered to set the table. This was by far the most elaborate meal Cassie had ever undertaken.
Her brother, too, seemed eager to help. Luckily, Shawn was in town for a benefit and he’d promised to hand-letter the place cards. He said he’d also do small drawings on each, which were sure to be highly collectible—if any of her neighbors recognized her brother as the famous mural artist. Well, even if they didn’t, they were bound to like the personal touch.
Reading over the stuffing recipe one last time, Cassie rested her elbows on the kitchen counter.
Unfortunately, her mind kept wandering from the page. She hadn’t seen Simon since she’d visited him in his home. He’d fully recovered from his bout with the flu and gone back to work.
Cassie knew that because she’d phoned and chatted briefly with his assistant who’d told her Simon was indeed in the office. But when Ms. Snelling asked if Cassie wished to speak to him, she’d declined and hurriedly got off the phone.
Simon hadn’t called to thank her for the soup, not that she expected him to. He was coming to dinner on Sunday and she almost dreaded seeing him; at the same time, she could hardly wait.
She hardly thought of John—John the engineer, John the perfect man—anymore. Only Simon seemed to inhabit her mind. And her heart?
Something was very wrong.
The doorbell rang and Cassie left her kitchen. Angie breezed into the room as though floating on air. This wasn’t unusual these days. Her friend was in love. Angie seemed like a different person; nothing upset her, nothing annoyed her. In fact, she glowed with happiness. And yet she remained secretive about this new man in her life. Still, Cassie had begun to have her suspicions. In retrospect, the night of her solitary tree-decorating should have been a giveaway.
“You ready?” Angie asked.
“Shawn phoned earlier,” Cassie said and carefully watched her friend’s expression.
Angie revealed nothing.
“Oh, he’s in town?”
“My brother seems to have a fair amount of business in the Pacific Northwest lately,” Cassie said, playing along. “He said he was here for some benefit, but if you ask me, the one who’s benefiting is my brother.”
Angie turned away and walked into the kitchen. She set down her purse, then removed her coat and draped it over the back of a kitchen chair. “This is your menu for tomorrow?” she said, still avoiding eye contact. She studied the paper on which Cassie had written her menu ideas. “Three different pies seems a bit ambitious, don’t you think?”
“I wanted there to be choices.” It didn’t escape Cassie’s notice how quickly Angie had diverted the subject from Shawn.
“Simon agreed to come, right?”
Switching the topic to Simon was a clever move. “Yes.” Before she could expand or hint further about Shawn, the doorbell chimed again. Cassie opened the door to her brother, who hugged her enthusiastically. His eyes gleamed with a merriment that was due to more than the season, Cassie thought. When he saw Angie his expression sobered. He greeted her politely, even rather distantly.