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Four Bidding For Love (a novel)

Part 34: An unexpected and extremely unwelcome houseguest (01/06/13)

      Given her keen anticipation of being home alone, Alexia did not welcome the lights on in her flat. Heaving a sigh which bridged her initial confusion and mood deflation, she recalled giving Robin permission to stay in her spare bedroom.
     Shivering in her thin gold-and-green sundress, Alexia clutched her small travel bag and strode through the evening's cool air with a new and profound annoyance—at Robin, for being in her flat right when she needed respite, and at herself for being so irritated by her unwitting presence. If there is anyone who will understand, it's Robin, she reassured herself; I'll just excuse myself, take a bath and then fall into bed.
     But then another set of emotions arose within her, feelings born of her memory of the unexpected embrace they'd shared on her sofa. If there's ever a night I could use some comfort, this is it, she thought, and then dismissed her hopes of a second act as foolish. Despite her admonitions that such fantasies would only heighten her disappointment, Alexia climbed the steps with the keen desire to unburden her distress in the arms of an understanding lover.
     Most of the time she kept her mind away from such tender vulnerabilities, but as she opened the door, her heart fluttered with the possibility that Robin would offer comfort of the primordial sort. Forget it, she told herself irritably; he's not my lover, he's my neighbor; that was a one-off event.
     As she entered her home, her attention was immediately drawn to a scuffed old pair of men's sneakers by her shoe rack and the rich scent of meat cooking. Both were unexpected, for she'd never seen Robin wear anything so ratty, nor had she ever known him to cook a meal.
     Walking into her kitchen, her greeting to Robin froze in her throat, for a strange man of mid-height and age with dark damp hair was standing contentedly at her stove, tending a sizzling frying pan and a steaming pot. Dressed in a red and gold embroidered Chinese smoking jacket, he cut a peculiar figure beside her expectation of preppily-attired Robin, and as she watched in dismay he bent down and offered a tidbit to Hanover, who accepted the offering with gusto. Seeing the stranger had already seduced her cat only increased her sense of trespass and she announced crossly, "Excuse me. Who are you, and what are you feeding my cat?"
     The man turned to her with a look of surprise that melted into an expression of delight. "You must be A.R. You are even lovelier than Robin led me to believe."
     Those who knew Ross best might be forgiven for expecting him to respond the woman's accusatory tone with a torrent of wounded effrontery. But despite having opened the cabernet some time ago, Ross's sense of the moment's fragility was extremely acute. He intuited at once that this long-legged, busty dusky-blond sexpot in a gold-green dress had to be A.R., and that he was standing on ice so thin that the scales on the fish peering up from the placid world below could easily be counted. If he mismanaged her neurotic volatility, the ice would crack and he would be plunged into the cold world of a homeless shelter.
     Furthermore, Ross was in a rare mood of warm gratitude: for the upcoming trip to Las Vegas, for the deluxe temporary quarters, and now, for the opportunity to feast on the delectable if somewhat annoyed visage of his heart-stopping hostess. For despite her frigid demeanor, Ross found everything about her utterly enthralling—even the neurotic edge he'd so presciently expected. And so his first words of praise carried the unmistakable weight of complete sincerity.
     For it was a generally obscured strength of Ross's character to rise up not to life's daily disappointments and corrosions, but to life's tsunamis, when the odds were so heavily stacked against him that survival, much less triumph, seemed hopeless. Facing just such a challenge, he unearthed the charm that few other than his ex-wife had ever witnessed, and quickly intuited the best approach to A.R.'s foul surprise was to act as if he'd been expecting her.
     It was a stretch, he knew, akin to body-surfing the tsunami, but he had one huge advantage: the wine and the meal were prepared for two. For in the daft hope that Kylie would yet appear to join his celebration, he'd prepared both rib-eye steaks he'd bought, as well as potatoes and asparagus for two.
     Feeling anything but lovely—bedraggled would have been her self-description—Alexia demanded, "What are you feeding my cat?"
     Rather than answering her question, her unwanted guest added to her aggravation by taking up a waiting wine glass from the counter, half-filling it with red wine from a costly-looking bottle and affably crossed the room to hand it to her.
     Bowing slightly, Ross said, "R.T. at your service. Hanover is getting very small tidbits of grilled rib-eye, and don't worry, I'm not overfeeding him. Oh, and dinner is about ready: small red potatoes encrusted with Provence herbs, asparagus with light vinaigrette, and the rib-eye steak, medium-rare and drizzled with fresh ground pepper."
     As Alexia absorbed this friendly patter, her stomach rudely announced it hadn't received any sustenance since breakfast. As she accepted the wine in a state divided equally between high dudgeon and befuddlement, the man suddenly exclaimed, "By Jupiter, you truly are incredibly hot."
     Not at all in the mood for such coarse compliments, even if they were rather charmingly sincere, she replied testily. "I am not. At least not tonight."
     Ross's expression turned contemplative, and as he raised his glass to hers in a toast he said in a solicitous voice, "You do look a bit peaked. Why not tell me all about it over dinner?"

Next: Dinner, Confession and the Blossoming of Love (Chapter 11)

To read the previous chapters, visit the "Four Bidding For Love" home page.

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