Throughout January each Thursday I have posted what I’m calling a quickie, a quick read, in the form of a chapter from my newest romance Love, Simplified. In today’s fourth and final installment, the story focuses on Cecile’s feelings of guilt and her questioning what she truly wants out of her new life at the Lake of the Ozarks.
Cecile woke up bright and early the next morning and brewed a pot of coffee. She decided the view from the deck was too beautiful to waste. As she walked out onto the patio with her steaming mug of coffee, she thought of Jeff Jacobs. Would she ever be able to forget the fact that her coworker had killed himself and listed losing his job as a contributing factor to his decision?
A wave of sadness washed over her. What must she do to atone for her behavior? How could she make things right going forward with her life? As Cecile was being serenaded by a flock of birds overhead that were flying south for winter, she thought about her life in Denver. When she’d first moved there, Cecile had decided she should reinvent herself.
A Mid-Western native, she felt like moving to a new city and new part of the country would be like being reborn. The Cecile who had always been a chunky tomboy could dissipate. The Cecile that grew up without nice things would suddenly have anything she wanted. The Cecile who was compliant would become assertive.
But it all blew up in your face, she told herself. She starved herself in order to have what she thought was an ideal body. Once she had her new body, Cecile had spent thousands on designer labels, thinking it would announce to the world her transformation from an awkward tomboy to a sexy woman. Worst of all, when she began working for Spencer and started disciplining and firing coworkers, she’d believed she had finally grown a spine. Instead, she had been Sphincter’s pawn.
She had been right, she’d changed, and she’d been reborn. Into someone she was neither proud of nor really knew. Cecile chucked her cold coffee over the railing on the deck with a frustrated flick of the wrist. So how could she change for the better this time, and how could she find who she was? More importantly, how could she make up for all the wrong she had done?
When she was a little girl, and had asked questions about how something was made or why something was the way it was, her parents always gave her the same reply. Go look it up. As a result, Cecile spent a lot of her childhood with her nose in a book.
She pushed her Adirondack chair back with a loud scrape. Cecile remembered seeing a used bookstore in town when she had gone to the grocery store. She would go there. She wasn’t exactly sure what she was looking for, but she was pretty sure she could find it there.
A cow bell sounded with a metallic clang as Cecile opened the door to the used bookstore. Her eyes took in the warm interior. Wall sconces provided an inviting glow. There was no one behind the large maple wood counter, so Cecile decided to explore the store on her own.
She set off down an aisle looking for the cooking section. Cecile figured first things first, she needed a cookbook. She had never really cooked her own meals before. She had gone from a student to being too busy or broke to cook, to being too worried about her figure to eat. At this point in her life, she no longer had the money to warrant going out every meal, besides, there weren’t a lot of options in the small town.
Cecile grabbed a book that boasted country and home-cooking cuisine off of the shelf and began thumbing through the pages. She heard her stomach growl and felt her mouth salivate as she looked at pictures of cheesy casseroles, hearty soups and creamy desserts. She pulled her eyes away from the book long enough to look from side to side to make sure no one was staring at her. After not eating for so long it felt a bit naughty to be drooling over a recipe book. Feeling as though she were holding pornographic material in her hands, instead of a culinary aid, Cecile stepped around the corner to see what else the charming shop carried.
“Something in particular you’re looking for?” asked a soft voice.
“Oh, no. I’m just sort of browsing. Do you have a Mind and Body section?” Cecile asked without turning to see whom the voice belonged to.
“I’m afraid not, dear. What exactly were you looking for?”
Cecile turned her head for the first time to address the bookstore clerk and had to direct her gaze down several inches in order to make eye contact. Once she did, she was met with a pair of happy brown eyes set in a weathered face with a grey head of hair sitting atop a plump body. The woman’s smile and demeanor were so pleasant and inviting, she practically screamed grandma. All she needed was to hold a plate of warm cookies and a glass of milk.
Cecile smiled at the diminutive woman. It wasn’t every day she was taller than another adult while not wearing heels. “Well, I’m looking for books on how to find inner peace, I suppose,” Cecile suddenly felt very silly. She forced herself to continue. “I’m not exactly sure what I want. I’m thinking maybe some books on yoga or meditation.”
“Oh, are the books a gift for someone else, dear?”
“No, they’re for me. I’m feeling indecisive,” Cecile answered with a chuckle.
“That would be over here in health,” said the elderly woman as she walked across the store to the correct section.
She thanked the woman whose name tag read ‘Rose,’ and began looking through some of the titles. After flipping through several books, she finally settled on one that aimed at teaching yoga to even the simplest of minds. Cecile didn’t like being called a dummy, but if that was the easiest book she could get on yoga, so be it.
It occurred to her that she may be in the cabin all winter, with no TV or other forms of entertainment. She moved to the fiction section and began to peruse some of the more popular paperbacks. There seemed to be an abundance of romance novels. Cecile hadn’t read a romance since she was in college, but in a moment of nostalgia decided she’d start again. She grabbed a handful of the ones with the most colorful covers. If nothing else, they’ll be light, easy reading, she told herself.
Cecile spied a large overstuffed chair covered in a deep plum colored fabric. The chair was nestled in a nook, and looked very inviting. She flopped down into it and flipped through some of her selections. It didn’t take her very long to realize romance novels had gotten much racier since she’d last read them. Cecile shut one of the books and began to fan herself with it. Ah, what the hell, she thought as she stood from the chair. With a determined stride, Cecile made her way to the cash register to pay for her smut.
As the last bit of twilight peeked through her window, Cecile grabbed her book and a mug of hot apple cider and decided she’d spend the evening curled up with one of her new books. She had just gotten situated on the couch with a quilt thrown over her lap for warmth, her mug safely within reach, when she heard a knock on the door. With an irritated sigh she threw off the quilt and stomped toward the door. Well, as much as a person could stomp wearing house shoes. Cecile flipped on the porch light and looked through the peephole.
She let out a small gasp. She could not open the door looking this way, she realized, as she glanced down at her pink-flowered robe and house slippers adorned with drawings of cats. Cecile knew Ethan well enough by now to know he’d go all Mr. Neighborhood Watch Captain on her and likely burst her newly repaired door down if she didn’t answer. Damn him for being so concerned about his neighbors, anyway, she thought as she unlocked and opened her front door.
“Ethan, what a pleasant…surprise,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster.
“Hi. Oh, are you feeling okay?” Ethan asked as he took in her robe and house slippers.
Cecile realized she must look a fright. Or at least like a lazy slob, all decked out in her pajamas at six in the evening. She tried in vain to pull her robe closed at the neck.
“I’m feeling fine. Careful,” she said in a confidential tone as she leaned toward him, “I’m a pretty wild girl. I was just gearing up for an exciting evening of reading and hot apple cider.”
“Oh, well, I came by to offer you alternative plans for the evening, but I can see now that my plan isn’t nearly thrilling enough for a hellion such as yourself,” he said with a playful smile.
Damn, he’s cute, she thought.
“Really? I suppose I could take a walk on the tamer side tonight. Just this once,” she replied as she leaned against the doorway in a move she hoped looked flirty. “What did you have in mind?”
Cecile could’ve sworn she saw a sly smile appear on Ethan’s face just before he spoke. “Bill and Alice Freeman, they live a few cabins down the lane, are having a bonfire party this evening. I thought you might want to go. It’d be a good way to meet all of your neighbors,” he added sheepishly.
“Well, I must admit it sounds a lot more sociable than the evening I had planned. When does it start?”
“Now,” he said with an apologetic look.
“Oh, well, I suppose I could change. Which house is it? I can meet everyone down there.”
“I can wait for you to change, I’d like to be able to introduce you to everyone,” when he saw she was about to protest, he quickly interjected, “No, please. I insist.”
Cecile couldn’t figure out if he wanted to walk with her because he was interested in her or if he took his duty as head of the neighborhood watch a little too seriously. Whatever the case, she supposed she shouldn’t second guess a chance to be escorted by Ethan.
“Okay, since you insist. Wait out here a minute, I’ll be right back.” With that Cecile quickly closed the front door, leaving Ethan on the front porch to wait.
She dashed into her bedroom and slid into a pair of jeans and threw on a heavy wool sweater with a t-shirt underneath for added warmth. She grabbed her thickest pair of socks and boots, and paused briefly to glance at herself in the mirror. Her hair was sticking straight up, thanks to static electricity. She tried in vain to smooth it into place. It would just have to do. Besides, it’s dark outside, so hopefully no one will notice, including Ethan, she thought.
Cecile had always been taught one never went to a party empty-handed. She rummaged through her cabinets and finally decided a bag of snack crackers was the most neighborly thing she could bring on such short notice. She clutched the doorknob and pulled the door open. Ethan turned around at the sound of the door opening and gave Cecile a warm smile as the two of them walked toward the Freeman’s party.
Even though it was a short distance, Cecile was acutely aware of Ethan’s presence at her left side. She craned her neck upward to glance at him. The moonlight highlighted his sculpted cheekbones and sensual mouth. As though sensing her stare, Ethan turned to look at her. He must have great peripheral vision, Cecile mused to herself as she felt her cheeks grow warm from embarrassment. Maybe I should find a way to keep myself from ogling him like a horny teenager, she thought.
“So, do you know everyone who lives on this street?” Cecile asked him.
“Now that you and I have gotten acquainted, yes.”
“Oh, so do Mr. and Mrs. Martin still live here?”
“No, Mr. Martin passed away last year,” he said softly. “Mrs. Martin couldn’t keep up with their place, so she moved to Florida to live with her daughter. A family bought the Martins’ place, but they’re only here a few times a year.”
“Gosh, that’s sad. They lived here for as long as I can remember. Mrs. Martin used to make the best chocolate pie. She’d always bring a piece to my sister and me,” she said wistfully.
Cecile asked Ethan about a few of the other neighbors that she remembered from when she came to the lake with her parents. Cecile learned that all of the tenants she had known no longer lived in the neighborhood. She was surprised to discover she was living with a whole new set of neighbors. As Cecile smelled the scent of burning timber and heard peals of laughter, she knew they must be getting close to the Freeman’s house. She couldn’t help but wonder what other surprises would be in store for her during the course of the evening.
Cecile walked onto the deck, carrying coffee in her favorite mug. She briefly closed her eyes and savored the sunlight as it kissed her eyelids. In the cold morning air, steam rose from the brew. She watched as the sun dipped over the bluff and danced on the surface of the water. Cecile plopped down into the Adirondack chair and took several deep breaths. Soon, it would be too frigid to enjoy her coffee out of doors. As she basked in the morning light, her mind drifted toward the bonfire party the night before.
The other guests at the bonfire had been eager to learn her story. Cecile fielded questions concerning where she was from, to her marital status to why no one could recall seeing her at the cabin before. She felt all that was missing from the experience was a big, bright light in her eyes, and it could’ve been an official interrogation. It was also clear to her that Ethan was single, and quite interested in Cecile.
She recalled the way he had stuck close by her side all evening. At the beginning of the evening, she’d told herself he was merely a friendly neighbor. By the end of the night, however, it was clear he wanted more than friendship. She smiled to herself as she remembered the short walk from the Freeman’s to her cabin.
“Thanks for inviting me tonight, Ethan. It was thoughtful of you to ask me, plus it kept me from spending the evening in solitude,” she told him with a laugh.
“Oh, no problem. I’m glad I saved you from solitude. I couldn’t have something like that on my conscience,” he paused for a moment to stare at the star-filled sky. “I’m sorry if the rest of the neighbors got a little too personal with their questions. Most of the people who live here are either retirees or part-time residents, so when a beautiful woman moves in, we all get pretty excited.”
For the second time that night, Cecile felt her cheeks grow warm. Is Ethan coming on to me?, the more rational part of her wondered, followed by the giddy schoolgirl in her screeching: He does like me!
Taking her silence for disinterest, Ethan rushed to smooth things over. “Sorry if I made you uncomfortable, I just really had fun with you tonight and yesterday, when we worked on your door together.”
“I had fun, too. And I’m not uncomfortable, just surprised,” Cecile said as she walked up the creaking steps to her cabin. The stairs groaned beneath Ethan’s heavy tread. When they reached her door, Cecile felt a moment of palpable tension pass between the two of them. She was unsure what would come next. Luckily, Ethan was the first to break the silence.
“I don’t want this to sound like I’m collecting on a debt or anything…but I was thinking I need more compensation than lunch for the door repair yesterday.”
Cecile was caught off guard by his statement. “Oh, of course. I’ll get the cash to you tonight, just let me grab my wallet,” she said as she started to open her front door.
Ethan reached for her hand and removed it from her doorknob. “Sorry, that was my awful attempt at a joke,” Ethan said with a laugh. “I’m terrible at this. What I meant to say is, I get out on the kayak at least once a week. I was wondering, would you’d like to join me Sunday morning?”
So, he was coming on to me, Cecile thought, a satisfied smile spread across her lips. “Sure, but on one condition. If I can’t paddle very far, you can’t make fun of me.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he told her with a sparkle in his blue eyes.
A booming voice interrupted her reverie, and she recognized it as belonging to Bill Freeman. The Day family cabin was at the end of a cove, and any noise in the vicinity seemed to be magnified. The acoustics on the deck made any human voice hard to ignore, but a boisterous fellow like Bill was impossible to block out. It was obvious he was talking to Ethan about something. Rather than sit on her deck, Cecile thought it may seem less like eavesdropping and more like she was being neighborly if she went around front.
She arrived just in time to watch Ethan drive away. Bill saw her and started walking toward Cecile. She groaned inwardly when she saw the old gent coming her way. Even though she’d only met him last night, it was obvious the man was chatty. She cursed herself for leaving the safety of the back deck, where she could remain unseen by her neighbors. Her coffee would be cold by the time she was able to wrangle herself away from the talkative chap.
“Mornin’ neighbor,” he called to Cecile.
“Oh, good morning,” she replied.
“Did you enjoy the shindig last night?” Bill asked.
“Yes, it was great. Thank you again for including me.”
“No, problem. Me and the missus just moved here a few years ago, so we still remember what it’s like to be the new kid on the block.” Bill turned his gaze toward the wake of dust and gravel stirred up by Ethan’s truck. “Ain’t he something?” Bill asked her with an incline of his head.
“Ethan? He seems…” Cecile struggled for a suitable word. “Nice,” she said at last. “When he pulled away I noticed the back of his truck was loaded up with tools. I guess he works on Saturdays?”
“You could say that. He helps build houses for Habitat for Humanity.”
Cecile reeled backward a few steps. Was Ethan Morgan hiding angel’s wings beneath those form-fitting flannel shirts? She mentally ticked off his admirable traits. Captain of the Neighborhood Watch. Volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. She’d learned at last night’s bonfire that he chopped firewood for the Freemans and a few other elderly residents in the area. She felt like a villain in comparison. What had she done for someone lately? Absolutely nothing. Cecile snapped out of her self-pity long enough to respond to Bill.
“He seems to do a lot for others,” she mumbled.
“Sure does. He’s one helluva man,” Bill replied.
Cecile sighed to herself and tried to think of a way out of the awkward conversation with her neighbor. She suddenly jolted her body and threw her hands in the air.
“Excuse me, Bill. I think I left the coffee pot on!”
Without any further explanation, she dashed into her house and shut the heavy door behind her. Cecile knew her behavior was immature, but she didn’t care. Her mug of coffee on the back deck was probably cold, and she did leave the coffee pot on, but it was the kind that had an automatic shut-off after two hours of use. She slowly traipsed to the back deck and went out the French doors. Cecile sank down into the large wooden chair and tried not to feel like a slacker.
Ethan was certainly ambitious. And a Good Samaritan, she thought sarcastically. Cecile knew her nasty thoughts stemmed from jealousy. She was envious that Ethan was at a different stage of his life than she. Cecile was still trying to figure out what she was doing with her life, and it appeared, Ethan had it all together. Cecile took a sip of her tepid coffee and reluctantly swallowed it.
Even though she was attracted to Ethan and enjoyed spending time with him, Cecile still felt inadequate compared to Saint Ethan. Here he was helping build homes for the needy and just one month ago she’d been finding creative ways to screw her coworkers out of whatever Spencer told her to. Could they have come from more different pasts?
Regardless of their pasts, and feeling cautiously optimistic of their future, Cecile knew that the connection she and Ethan shared was a special one. She knew getting involved with her neighbor could be tricky, especially if things ended badly. But on the other hand, it could be great, she thought with a smile on her face.
Copyright © 2012 Amanda Bretz
All rights reserved.
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