“It’s only three months. I’ll be back before you know it.” Rhonda squeezed Mari in a tight hug as they waited in the Denver airport for Rhonda’s flight to board. Her sci-fi comedy novel, Galaxy Grind, had been a runaway bestseller in the States, and her publisher hoped for the same success abroad. “I’ll hate missing the Rhodes family Chanukkah this year, but I’ll be back in Colorado Springs for New Year’s Eve.”
Rhonda pulled back, and Mari dabbed at the corners of her eyes. “I know. It’s a wonderful opportunity, but I will miss you so much.” Mari’s lip quivered a moment before she broke into sobs.
Rhonda looked to Mari’s husband, Joe, questioningly, as she ran her hand in a small circle on her best friend’s back.
The tall, handsome blond that Mari called her “Dazzling Joe” leaned forward slightly over the double stroller he was pushing with fourteen-month-old Jesus sitting in the front and newborn baby James lying fast asleep in the back. He mouthed the word, “hormones,” and Rhonda nodded, still looking concerned.
Ben sidled up to Rhonda’s elbow, as Mari attempted to get her crying jag under control while Joe stroked her long, brunette curls. Ben was a smaller version of Joe, and Rhonda didn’t have to lift her chin as far to look into his blue eyes. Eyes that lately held such sadness. She hardly knew what to say to him. She wanted to plant a big, wet kiss on his lips and declare her feelings for him, but all her flirting over the last year had fallen on deaf ears and blind eyes. Ben had slipped into a depression that he couldn’t seem to shake. She hadn’t been the only one to suggest he seek medical help, but he wouldn’t admit there was anything wrong. It broke her heart to see his sweet personality slip into sullenness.
Sheri stepped forward, followed by Joe’s brother Eli. Sheri took Rhonda’s hand. “I wish you all the best on your book tour. I’ve been to a few places in Europe with art gallery tours, and it was a wonderful experience. Be sure to hit the Louvre.” Sheri hooked her hair behind her “bedazzled” ear that sported no less than five earrings curving around the edge to her lobe.
Rhonda grinned at the redhead who had become her very good friend over the last twenty months. “I will.” She looked to the dark-haired man beside her. “And I promise to take lots of pictures of interesting architecture for you, Eli.”
Eli laughed, showing off his dimples, and gave her a hug. “I’ll be able to take my own pictures on our honeymoon, although Irish architecture is probably a might different than where you’ll be touring.” He ran a hand up Sheri’s back and played with the ends of her hair that had grown out to nearly shoulder length.
“And remember,” put in Sheri, “you promised to be back in the Springs for the wedding. Don’t let some Italian lover talk you into staying.”
Rhonda rolled her green eyes. “I think I’m going to be pretty busy with the tour. I may have to disappoint all the good-looking Italians this trip.”
She glanced at Ben, flashing him a nervous smile while sweeping her long, straight, dishwater blond hair over her shoulder. He half smiled back, putting his arms out for a hug. She hesitantly moved forward, trying not to breathe in the aftershave that usually drove her wild. She desperately wanted some signal that she shouldn’t give up on him—some sign from heaven that he might actually miss her while she was gone—some whispered word of encouragement to keep her heart open. But after a quick squeeze, he released her and stepped back without a word.
Rhonda blinked back tears that the group gathered to send her off misinterpreted as goodbye tears. She wasn’t about to set them straight. She gave hugs all around one more time and gave Jesus and James a kiss before picking up her carry-on bag and turning toward the line of people now boarding.
Three months. I wonder if I can forget him in three months.
November: Unexpected Encounter
Rhonda saw him stop at the window of the quaint Paris shop and read the poster. He shaded his eyes against the glare of the window and peered in. Their eyes locked for a moment before Rhonda’s attention was stolen by a woman who wanted her to add her scrawl inside the front cover of the book she was holding out. When she looked up again, the handsome man with dark, wavy hair was heading her way.
Expecting him to walk on by, as most do when faced with someone who wants them to buy something they hadn’t planned on buying, she was surprised when he strode right up to her small table. She slapped on a smile. “Bonjour!” Then she pulled out her rehearsed French phrase of inquiry. “Puis-je vous intéresser por mon livre best seller? C’est une comédie de science-fiction.”
The man flashed her a surprised smile. “Parlez-vous français? Votre affiche indique que vous êtes l’Amérique.”
Rhonda caught most of what he said but nervously swept up her French/English dictionary. “Um, I only speak a little. I mean, seulemont un peu. And… oui, je suis Américaine.”
His smile grew wider, and his eyes lingered on hers a moment longer before letting them drop to the stacks of books in front of her. “You are an American writer.” He picked one up and turned it over to read the back copy.
Rhonda breathed a sigh of relief and set her dictionary down as she got to her feet. “Yes, I live in Colorado. I’m one month into my three-month tour in Europe.”
“Colorado. This is one of your states?”
“Yes, a very pretty one. With mountains,” she added.
He finished reading the back, mildly chuckling at the featured excerpt. He looked back into her eyes, his own sparkling. “I’ll buy one if you will go to lunch with me.”
Rhonda blinked. “Uh… well, I…”
“Don’t worry, we will only go to the bistro a few doors down.” When she still hesitated, he went on. “You must eat, no?” He winked and carried the book to the check-out counter.
Rhonda only hesitated a moment before reaching under the table to find her “I will be back soon” sign written in all the languages of her tour stops. Straightening, she glanced down to assess her outfit, picking at a crusty spot on her brown, wool skirt. She needed to find a dry cleaners that could do a rush job. A person simply couldn’t pack three months worth of clothes. She tugged her floral sweater down to cover it as the man returned, her book in hand.
She held up her black felt-tip pen. “So do you want my John Hancock?”
Instead of the confused look she often got with that line, a smile lit up his deep brown eyes. “Oui.”
She penned her very practiced autograph and handed it back before coming around the table. “I guess if I’m going to have lunch with you, I should probably know your name.”
He put out his hand, and she took it, surprised when he lifted hers to his lips. “My name is Louis Reteneau.”
He didn’t release her hand. “Nice to meet you, Louis. I’m–”
“Rhonda Holloway,” Louis said along with her. He held up the book bearing her name.
“Oh, yes, I guess you know that already.” She pulled her hand from his. “Well, I suppose we best be moving toward that bistro you mentioned. I really shouldn’t leave for more than a half hour or so.”
Louis started toward the door, chuckling. “In France, we do not chomp our food down like jackals.” He held the door open for her. “We may need a wee bit more time than that.”
“So you have hiked this Pikes Peak?” Louis Reteneau’s eyes flashed with incredulity. “You are an athlete, as well as an author.”
She picked at her flaky dessert with a fork, reluctant to leave it behind, yet knowing she was entirely too full to eat it. “I wouldn’t say that. I just put one foot in front of the other until I got to the top. My friend Ben went with me.”
“Ah, I see.”
Rhonda raised her eyebrows and smirked. “Just what do you see?” She reached for her wineglass then thought better of it.
“You are… attached?”
She laughed so hard she snorted, and she scolded herself for drinking more than usual. She waved a hand in front of her face, trying to stop giggling. “I’m sorry, it’s just that, well, first of all, the word ‘attached’ just struck my funny bone because that is the term I used for alien sex in my book.”
Louis laughed along with her. “I’m sorry, mademoiselle. I did not mean to be so… so intimate over lunch.”
People were starting to stare, but Rhonda continued to giggle, the muscles in her face refusing to relax into a proper shape. “And secondly, what you really meant is laughable as well.”
Louis grew silent, his eyes speaking his question several moments before words came forth. “And why would you say that?”
His very serious tone brought her buoyant spirit down in a heartbeat. She fidgeted with her napkin on her lap. “I’ve just not had much success with relationships. Getting into them, that is. I’ve never had a boyfriend.” Rhonda grabbed her wineglass and drank down the inch that remained. When she let her eyes find his, her breath caught at the desire she saw shining out. She blinked and gave her head a little shake. I really did drink way too much.
Looking at her watch, she rose quickly. “Oh my heavens, I had no idea. I need to get back.” Nearly two hours had passed with this engaging Frenchman since they left her book table.
Louis stood and waved a waiter over for their bill. After settling up, he walked her back to the bookstore, stopping her a moment outside the shop. “How long will you be in Paris?”
“Just a couple of days; then it’s on to Italy.”
He took her hand. “I’d like to see you again. Say you’ll have dinner with me tonight.”
Rhonda’s heart skittered, making it difficult to breathe. She looked down at their hands, Ben’s blue eyes coming to mind for just a second before being replaced by a pair of eyes as dark and rich as espresso.
Her mouth was like dust. “Okay,” she managed to squeak out.
After a few more minutes of planning, Rhonda found herself back behind her table, feeling dazed and totally amazed.
“You hike tall mountains, but you do not dance?” Louis looked at her over his champagne flute as he drained his glass.
“Well, dancing and hiking are hardly in the same category. There’s no real skill to hiking, other than stamina. And my mother always said I had that in spades.” She smiled. “Of course she called it ‘stubborn.’ She said I never knew when to quit.”
“You are… tenacious. That is why you are a bestselling author at such a young age.”
“Maybe.” She fiddled with the pendant she was wearing, taking the dangling, golden lion of Judah to her lips as she thought. “Once I start something, I do have a hard time changing directions. Even when I seem to hit a brick wall, I can’t quit. I just know if I keep at it a little bit longer, there’ll be a break-through of some kind.” She thought of the long process she’d gone through in finding an agent, and then of Ben, and wondered if he might be the first ‘project’ she’d give up on.
Louis chuckled. “But you have not applied that tenacity to learning to dance?”
Rhonda snapped back to the man across from her, who seemed to be very persistent himself on the subject of dancing. “I’m sorry, Louis, I’m afraid not. I’m sure I would just embarrass you.” She twisted a finger in one of the curls she’d added to her hair for the occasion.
“I could teach you.”
“When? I’m only here a few more days.”
He started to rise, and Rhonda admired again his well-tailored suit that was completed with a black shirt and an eye-popping impressionistic tie. “Right now. There’s a place close by that plays Latin music.”
Rhonda didn’t know if it was Paris, the charming man she was with, or merely an abundance of champagne, but she actually felt giddy about the idea of shaming herself to a great degree on the dance floor. She took the hand he offered her and stood.
“Is this the samba or the mambo? No wait–the cha cha?” Rhonda and Louis, who had ditched heels, jacket, and tie, were occupying a lonely corner of the dance floor, where Louis was attempting to teach her the basics of salsa dancing. Rhonda hadn’t laughed so hard in a long time, even though she thought she was taxing her handsome partner’s patience.
Louis looked intently into her eyes. “We are still trying to get the basic steps. Remember the eight count. Let’s do it together this time.” He placed a hand on her back and took her hand.
Her deep blue dress had a plunging back neckline, and his fingertips on her bare skin sent shivers down her spine. She hesitated when she should have stepped, and Louis’s foot came down on her toes. “Ouch!”
Louis released her and stepped back, looking contrite and irritated at the same time. “My apologies, mon amour, but dancing requires that you move your feet.”
Rhonda looked at his very serious expression, and a laugh sputtered forth. “I’m sorry, Louis, but I’m not going to become a salsa star in a few days or maybe even a few months, and besides, you–” she cut herself off, blushing.
He moved back toward her. “I…?”
She licked her lips and swallowed. “You sidetrack the part of my brain I would normally use for learning new things.”
He moved closer still, and Rhonda had to tilt her chin to hold his gaze. With his hand sliding down her hair, the noise of the dance club faded, and the dancers around them blurred. “Since you are already sidetracked, it can do no harm to kiss you.”
Rhonda’s eyes dipped to his chiseled lips, her heart racing. “I don’t think it will affect my dancing skill, if that’s what you mean.” At thirty-one years of age, Rhonda had never been kissed, and she was certainly open to the idea, should this sexy man like to do the honors. “And who knows? Maybe it will activate latent dancing genes I don’t even know I have.”
He smiled. “We can only hope.” His other hand came to her chin, and he leaned in, his lips touching hers in something like a whisper.
Rhonda sighed against him, and he wrapped his arms around her as she slid hers around his neck. He kissed her again, harder this time, his lips doing maneuvers Rhonda tried to follow. When he broke the kiss, he leaned his forehead against hers. “I think this is something else I could teach you, no?”
Rhonda nodded, still trying to catch her breath. “I’m sure I would learn this faster. I promise you I’d put my whole heart into it, and I wouldn’t give up until I got it right.”
Louis laughed and released her, then swept up her abandoned shoes in the corner. “We shall see.”
December: Epiphany and Expectations
Ben sat looking out the window of his office at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. When an assistant administrator position had opened up, he applied on a whim, and with his two years of business management classes along with his zoo experience, he’d been hired. It was more pay, but he missed the hands on work with the animals. Some days, he pretended the pile of papers on his desk didn’t exist, and he went and mucked out the pony barn.
Today, though, it was gloomy, with freezing rain coming down, and he was content to stay inside. Usually a rainy day would send his depression plunging to new lows, but that was before Joe and Eli had hauled him to the doctor and forced him to keep the appointment they had made for him. He had agreed to try an anti-depressant, despite the feeling that to do so was admitting he had somehow failed at life. The first pill he tried wasn’t quite right—made him uptight and jittery—but the next one was like a miracle.
The fog that had surrounded his mind, and more importantly, his heart, for the last year and a half lifted, and he could think clearly about himself and those around him. And he realized something.
Rhonda was in love with him.
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