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Chapter Nine

Russ's world narrowed to the scraping of his skates on the ice and the rasp of his breathing inside his helmet. Skate full-bore to the blue line, stop on the outside edge of his skate, cross his other leg over, skate back to the goal line, stop on outside edge of skate, cross over, skate to red line, stop, cross over, skate, stop. He was doing line drills while his fellow players showered and dressed after the final game. Skate, stop, cross over, skate. Stopping on the outside edge of his skate strained the inner muscles of his thighs and the crossover demanded concentration and agility. The sprints from line to line sucked every last dreg of energy from his muscles. It was all he could think to do, to force thoughts of Emma from his mind. Thoughts of her, thoughts of the things they'd done together, thoughts of how he had forgotten who he was as he chased her through the apartment, his only goal to capture her nearly nude body, toss it down, and plunge himself inside it until the steel-hard ache in his loins was eased.

He'd turned into an animal!

Skate, stop, cross over, skate. It had been a favorite drill of his coach when he'd first learned to play, and had also been his coach's favorite punishment when he thought his team needed to get their act together.

He needed to get his act together. That sexually aggressive side of himself had frightened him afterward, realizing how slim his control was over his baser nature; how thin the wall was between civilized behavior and barbaric.

Worse yet was knowing that last night's escapade was just a mild version of what he would be capable of, given the proper circumstance. If he'd been born a thousand years ago and given a sword and a village to plunder

Skate, stop, cross over, skate. And what about Emma? Had she gotten off on that power play? Well, technically she hadn't, though she'd complained that she'd gotten close.

He didn't know if he could handle many more nights like that. The role-playing, the freaky ideas, never knowing what to expect, never certain if he'd be able to perform-and aware that he'd left her unsatisified twice now.

He coasted to a stop, winded, feeling the nausea of overexertion. Crap. He used to be able to go twice as long. He was getting old.

The pop of a beer can being opened echoed across the ice, and he turned and saw Greg standing in the box with a beer in his hand, another sitting on top of the boards.

"Want a beer?" Greg called across the ice.

Russ skated over to him and climbed over the boards, propping his stick in a corner. He pulled off his gloves and helmet and took the can, popping the top and taking a gulp.

"Whatcha doing? Training for the senior Olympics?" Greg asked, taking a seat on the bench.

Russ joined him, wiping sweat off his brow with the back of his wrist. "I've been eating too well lately. Got to fight off the belly." The Zamboni driver started up the machine and moved it onto the ice.

"Business dinners?"

Russ shook his head, watching the Zamboni begin its pattern of ice-cleaning and repair. "No."

"A shopping trip to Costco? Those giant muffins, man, they'll kill you."

Russ chuckled. "No, I've gone out a couple times."

"You mean out out? Like with a member of the opposite sex?"

Russ nodded.

Greg slapped him on the back. "Finally! Russell has a girlfriend! Congratulations!" He lifted his beer can and clunked it against Russ's.

"Don't register me for wedding gifts yet. I doubt things will last the week."

"Hey, stop with the half-empty view. You've got a living female willing to go out with you more than once! You should be offering prayers of thanks."

They were silent for a moment while the Zamboni roared by in front of them.

"So who is she? That younger woman you talked about? The one who was cleaning your house?"

Russ nodded.

"And she actually likes you?"

He shrugged. "I don't know."

"Are you going to see her again?"

"Tomorrow night."

"What date number is it?"

"Three."

"You're golden, man! If she hasn't done it already, she's probably planning to jump you."

Russ laughed. "Maybe."

"Women usually wait till the third date. They don't want you to think they're cheap."

"Where did you pick up this bit of wisdom?"

"Mens Health magazine. But everyone knows about the third-date thing."

"I can't believe you read that crap. It's Cosmo for guys."

"Hey, I'm a well-informed, balanced male," Greg said, buffing his nails on his chest. "A veritable Renaissance man."

Russ choked and Greg pounded his back, making him slosh beer onto the back of his hand.

"Sorry, man. Hey, if you make it past date three and she's still talking to you after she sees that tiny mushroom you call a dick, maybe the wife and I can have you two over to dinner. Tina would love that. She's always asking why you aren't seeing anyone."

"I don't think this is going to be that type of relationship. She's made it clear that she's not looking for anything permanent."

Greg stared at him. "You are so lucky. So fucking lucky, I can't believe it. Where's the justice?"

"The justice is that you can grow a beer gut and Tina won't leave you."

"That's right," Greg said, patting his gut. "I'm losing my hair, too. And she's noticed the hair growing out of my dad's ears and nose, and swears she's going to trim mine when it gets that way. Yep, she's good and stuck with me."

"It will be a long time before Emma is stuck with anyone, and that's the way she wants it."

Greg belched. "Her loss."

Russ arched a brow and refrained from comment. He didn't know what was going on in Emma's head, but he was sure that the last thing on her "I Want" list was trimming a man's nose hairs for the next sixty years.

Emma sidestepped a transient sitting on the sidewalk and continued along Second Avenue. Belltown was host to a fair share of homeless folk and day laborers waiting to be picked up in drive-by hirings. None of them had ever paid the least attention to her, though, so she was beginning to get used to their presence and no longer steeled her nerves to walk by them.

It was Wednesday afternoon, and she had nothing to do but think about her design for the train station. She'd spent all yesterday preparing for tonight with Russ, including buying the latex gloves she'd need for one rather surprising sexual technique she'd read about, and she knew her preparations were an excuse to avoid her drafting table, computer, and sheets of paper covered with lousy concepts.

This morning she'd cleaned the bathroom and washed every bit of laundry she could think of. She'd vacuumed and polished her grandmother's silver. She'd watched the noon news and tried to engross herself in an episode of Emeril on the Food Network. Eventually, though, she'd forced herself to sit down in front of her sketch pad.

And there she'd sat, staring, until twenty minutes had passed and she'd pushed away in disgust. A walk seemed like a good idea, and maybe taking another look at King Street Station would inspire her.

She'd been walking about twenty minutes when her cell phone rang. "Hello?"

"Emma?"

"Yes?"

"Hi! This is Kevin. Remember, Kevin from Russ's house?"

"Oh, hi. Yes, I remember."

"I was just calling to see how you've been, and if you got moved in all right."

"Yes, everything's fine. The new place is great."

"Good! Where is it, anyway?"

"Downtown."

"What part?"

"Belltown."

"Nice area. Russ used to have a place there."

"Mmm."

"I hear traffic. Are you on the road?"

"No, I'm walking. I'm at Pioneer Square."

"Really? I'm about six blocks from there! Have you had lunch?"

"A snack," Emma mumbled, unable to lie.

"Do you have some free time? I know a great little Vietnamese place in the International District."

"Actually, I wanted to finish my walk. I want to go look at the train station."

"The station? Why?"

She explained about the design contest.

"How about I meet you there, then? It's just a few blocks from the station to the restaurant. We could go there when you're done looking around."

"Kevin, I think you need to know that I'm seeing someone."

He was silent for a long moment. "Someone serious?"

"Not really. We've been going out for only a week. But I'm not the type of person who can date more than one guy at a time."

"Ah. Okay." Another long moment of silence passed.

"Well, would you still consider having lunch with me, just as a friend?"

"You don't have to do that."

"I'd like to. It's good to have friends of the opposite sex, don't you think?"

Emma felt her stomach rumble. "I've only had Vietnamese food once, but I did like it."

"Great! I'll meet you at the station in about twenty minutes? Will that give you enough time?"

"Sure. That'd be great." Emma said good-bye and closed the phone, regretting already that she'd agreed to lunch. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but she was going to have to be careful not to let something slip about Russ. She'd have to keep the conversation focused on Kevin, and hope he was like most guys and loved to talk about himself.

She picked up her pace to cover the last couple of blocks to the station quickly. She didn't want Kevin with her, distracting her, as she looked around and tried to call down divine inspiration from the gods of Amtrak and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.

When she got there, she stood for a while across the street, mentally matching the maps and site diagrams from the contest website to what she was seeing before her. The station had been built in 1906 by the same architects who'd done Grand Central Station in New York City.

Now it was just a mess. Except for the clock tower, you couldn't tell that the place was a station, and couldn't see how to get to it by car or even how to enter it by foot, since the entrance across the elevated street was barricaded with chain-link gates. You wouldn't guess that you had to find a stairwell beside a building half a block away to get to the station one story lower, or drive a block and a half west and circle around a block of unrelated buildings.

So. Necessity number one: improve access.

Two: make it obvious that this is the station.

Three:

Three. Hmm.

The place needed to be clean and attractive; welcoming, comfortable, and convenient. Efficient to move through. Interesting to wait in, and calming to soothe the nerves of irritated travelers.

What aesthetic would achieve that? She didn't know if she should try to revive the old Edwardian Era station-the historic photos she'd seen on the web were beautiful-or go for something purely modern Northwest. She didn't know what the people of Seattle would prefer. She didn't know what she would prefer, and didn't know what else she should be thinking about but wasn't.

Well, she'd watched The Apprentice and had learned the value of market research.

Twenty minutes later, she'd talked to three passengers sitting in the waiting area and to two Amtrak employees. The brief conversations had been revealing. They wanted natural light instead of the boarded-up windows. They wanted a shop with magazines and snacks. They wanted time schedules posted where you could see them. And those who lived in Seattle wanted their station to impress visitors and give them a taste of the region.

She was standing in the middle of the crowded, dirty waiting area, staring up at the stained acoustical tiles and fluorescent lights overhead, when Kevin found her.

"Emma! Hi! I hope I didn't keep you waiting!" He trotted up to her with an eager puppy dog look.

"Hi, Kevin."

"Are you done here?"

"I think so." She would have liked to stay longer, but she wouldn't be able to think with him trailing her.

"I don't want to rush you."

"No, it's okay. I've seen what I needed to."

As they climbed the stairs up to the street, he asked, "So, how's the house-cleaning business going?"

"It's going all right. I've cut back so that I can work on this train station project."

"Yeah? Still cleaning Russ's place, though?"

"No. He didn't really need a housekeeper." She slanted a glance at him, curious how he would take that news.

"Did he fire you?"

"Not really. We mutually decided that he could clean his own house."

"Yeah, he's a neat freak. A perfectionist. I didn't know why his sister hired you in the first place. She should have known that the last thing Russ would want was someone coming in and messing with his stuff."

"A perfectionist? Really? I didn't get that impression." She was intrigued.

"Maybe you weren't around him long enough. He's the type of guy who can't stand loose threads, vagueness. He wants things done right, planned out. He's big on process. He wants everything to follow a process."

"No freewheeling creativity?"

"Not if it means things aren't being ticked off the checklist on schedule. I think he believes that even art can be created according to a timeline."

"So from your tone, I take it that you work differently?"

He grinned. "I'm more laid-back."

And that was the reason Russ owned a company that he'd started himself, and Kevin was only an employee. And would always be an employee.

"Oh, we're here! This is the restaurant." Kevin opened the glass door at the end of a dismal little strip mall.

The smells as they entered did much to allay Emma's misgivings. The decor wasn't much, but the place was busy, most of the older customers Asian and speaking what she assumed to be Vietnamese. A young Asian woman greeted them in English and showed them to a table.

Emma glanced over the menu, recognized nothing, and set it aside. "You're familiar with the food, so you can order for me. I'll eat anything except green bell peppers."

They chatted for a minute about what to get, and then the waitress came and took their order, appearing again a minute later with iced tea for both of them.

"So is Russ hard to work for?" Emma asked as she dumped Splenda into her glass and stirred it with her straw. "Just what do you do at his company anyway?"

"I'm a senior account manager. And Russ is great, as long as you do your job the way he thinks it should be done."

"A micromanager?" If so, he must leave the tendency at the office. He had let her do whatever she wished these past nights and seemed to trust her to make decisions on her own.

"If he thinks things have gone off track, yeah, he spells out exactly what he thinks you should be doing."

Emma murmured a noncommittal sound, wondering if Russ got on Kevin's case because Kevin needed a whip cracked over his head to keep from being a total screwup.

"I'll feel sorry for whoever marries him," Kevin went on, grinning. "He'd tell her exactly how he wanted the house kept, how the kids should be raised, which groceries to buy; probably even examine her checkbook to be sure it was balanced."

Emma raised an eyebrow, wondering if Kevin was serious about his ideas of what wives were for. It apparently hadn't occurred to him that Russ might marry a woman who worked outside the home. It also wasn't helping her opinion of Kevin that he was all but badmouthing his boss and friend.

"But you like him, overall?" she asked.

Kevin shrugged. "You can't not like him. I mean, the guy's a straight shooter and as determined as a Sherman tank. And he's not going to let his personal feelings get in the way of doing what he thinks is right. And he's loyal."

"He sounds like a fine, upstanding citizen. Not very exciting, though," she said, baiting him to say more. "Not much of a risk taker."

"No, James was the one who was daring, who was willing to take a gamble. That was his brother-do you know about that?"

"Yes."

"James was the visionary, but his ideas probably wouldn't have come to much without Russ there to do the grunt work. And when their first business, usedbooks.com, started to go under, it was Russ who saw that some of their proprietary software was worth salvaging. Enough about him, though. Tell me more about this design contest."

Emma did, keeping it as brief and impersonal as possible. She didn't want to tell Kevin about her creative struggles. He didn't give her the same sense of being an emotionally safe sounding board that Russ did.

Their salad rolls arrived while she was talking, and by the time those were finished and their enormous bowls of pho-noodle soup-had arrived she was trying to turn the conversation back to him. "So, how's your car treating you?"

"All right. But I'm beginning to think it was a mistake. It looks too middle-aged. I'd be better off with something like that beefed-up Honda of yours."

Til trade ya."

He laughed. "What type of car do you think I should get?"

"For attracting women?"

He nodded.

"It doesn't really work that way. Not if you're looking for a serious relationship. Are you?"

"I'd like to get married." He looked at her soulfully.

"Well if that's what you want, forget about impressing women with your car. Buy one that you honestly love and are excited about. If you didn't give a rat's ass about what anyone thought of you, what would you buy? What's the first thing that comes to mind?"

"Hmm"

"No, tell me. Now! Don't think about it."

"A Mini."

Emma blinked. "One of those new Mini Coopers?" It was a chick car, even cuter than the new VW Bugs.

He nodded, looking hopeful.

"Then that's what you should get. The right woman will appreciate your choice and be impressed that you had the courage to choose what suited you, rather than the biggest, fastest penis car you could afford."

His face colored. "Penis car?"

She slurped up a mouthful of noodles. "You think women can't see through a guy's car choices?" she said when she'd swallowed. "We assume that penis cars are driven by insecure, arrogant assholes. With a Mini, though, a woman would think, 'There's a man who'd make a kind, attentive, and good-humored dad.'"

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"So what does your new boyfriend drive?"

She blinked. "Er, some sort of hybrid, I think. I haven't been in it yet, though."

"Russ has one of those."

"Mmm?" she murmured, quickly stuffing her mouth with noodles.

"He donates to a lot of environmental causes. Sierra Club, all that. So is that the type of guy you like, one who drives a hybrid?"

She shrugged, stuffing more noodles into her mouth. He waited for her to swallow. She took her time. "All I want to know," she said at last, "is that it's paid for and it runs."

"So what does your car say about you?"

She laughed. "That I take what I can get." She explained about her brother and his cautious wife.

"What would you buy if money were no object and you didn't care what anyone would think?"

"I don't know."

"Yes, you do. Tell me," he insisted, echoing her earlier command to him. A classic convertible roadster from the 1920s zipped through her imagination, roaring along a country road in England. It zipped and was gone, the impracticality of it erasing it from her mind. "A Volvo station wagon."

His eyes widened. "Really?"

"They're safe and you can haul a lot of stuff."

He didn't say anything.

Emma took a moment to think about her choice, then covered her face with her hands. "Oh God. That's pathetic."

"No, it's, er practical. A very reasonable car. It sounds as if you're looking forward to being a wife and mother."

Emma groaned and pulled her hands down her face, stretching it into Edvard Munch's The Scream. "No! There will be time for that in my thirties. Why did I say a Volvo station wagon? Why? Why?"

"Maybe it's a secret longing."

She rolled her eyes. "Oh for God's sake. Not every woman is looking for a husband!"

"But if you find him before you think you're ready, maybe that means that you're more ready than you thought."

Emma dropped her hands. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Maybe you've already found your Mr. Right." He stared at her with an infuriating expression of kindly patience, as if awaiting her inevitable acceptance of him as savior.

Emma pulled out her cell phone and checked the time.

"Jeez, it's getting late. I've got to get home. My boyfriend is coming over soon. Lunch has been great, though."

"You don't want dessert?" he asked, sitting up straight, the expression of calm wiped off his face.

"I'm stuffed-couldn't eat another bite. Thanks, though, I'll have to remember this place. Good food!" She dug in her purse, pulling out some cash.

"No, no, I invited you."

"That's kind of you." She looked him in the eye. "Thank you. Can I leave the tip?"

He shook his head and signaled for the check.

She accepted his offer of a ride back to her neighborhood and had him drop her a block and a half away from her building. He'd chattered about his favorite TV shows throughout the short drive, leaving her blissfully free to lose herself in her own thoughts. As she said good-bye and watched him drive off, the same thought plagued her that had plagued her throughout the drive.

A Volvo? What the hell was the matter with her?

Talk about thinking inside the box.

Cripes.


Chapter Eight | The Erotic Secrets Of A French Maid | Chapter Ten