The Alphabet Soup Diner

A Romance In Three Parts

Anna

While you are looking longingly at someone, someone else is looking longingly at you. Be careful that you don’t miss a golden opportunity.

That was what my Scorpio horoscope said. Of course, the same horoscope said that I would find my heart’s desire in yesterday’s paper. I’ve been looking for that since I was twelve. No luck yet.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not a nut for the horoscopes. Sometimes they’re silly and out of whack, sometimes they’re amusing and sometimes they make absolutely no sense whatsoever. But sometimes they resonate in me – those are the ones I cut out and paste in my journal.

That’s what I was debating on doing right now. I mean, it was unusual enough to grab my attention, but was it really worth the time to dig out my pair of scissors and glue stick for?

Folding the paper back, I caught the front page as it slid to the floor. A bold headline grabbed my eye and I zeroed in on it. The by-line read Benjamin Ashbrook – it was my brother’s story, the second of three parts, about a local horse-trainer who managed to save and rehabilitate one of ten abused and starving horses. The other nine had been too far gone to save their lives and they were put down.

The owner, Gladys Gallows, had abandoned her small barn only a month ago, less than a week before her court date and had yet to resurface.

I read the story again, taking a long time to look at the pictures of the horse named Fresco, one taken just after he was rescued, and a more recent one with his trainer, Clara Calloway. She had her hand up, shading her eyes from the glare of the sun, but it was the horse standing next to her that dominated.

In the first picture, Fresco looked like he had lost the will to live and was too tired to die – his head was down, his eyes lifeless and turned inward.

Even in the reproduced photo, I could count every vertebrate in his back and every rib in his side. The second picture was of a different horse entirely. Fat, glossy, his once thin mane now thick and caught forever blowing in a breeze, Fresco had clearly regained his former glory and he seemed to understand that it was the woman holding his halter who had a great deal to do with it.

He was resting his nose on her cheek, his eyes half-closed.

It had been the stories like these, some far worse (though that was hard to imagine), that had made me decide to stop watching Animal Cops on the Discovery Channel and become a vegetarian.

My eyes stung as I folded the paper and put it aside, slumping back in my seat with a long sigh. Ben had outdone himself on this story – never much for horses, something about Fresco and the trainer had touched him deep and it was showing in the quality of his reporting.

I couldn’t wait to get a copy of tomorrow’s paper – part three would be published then, finishing his human interest assignment and I was wondering how he would wrap it up. He was getting that restless look in his eyes – he knew there was more to the horse’s story than what he had and Gladys Gallows was the key to it.

Pondering my brother’s situation, I looked around, noticing the only other customer in the place – a woman wearing a ball cap and form-fitting navy blue breeches and black leather tall boots was sitting at the far end of the counter, reading a book. It looked like she had a notebook, as well, but I was too far away to see for sure.

I leaned back further in my seat. I was sitting at my favorite booth in my favorite diner, the Alphabet Soup.

I’ve been coming in here since I can’t remember when – my earliest memory of the Soup is being with my older brother, Ben, and having a vanilla shake after school. I think I was six.

They used real vanilla ice cream – not the cheap stuff in the grocery stores, the good kind, the kind you have to scale the highest mountains for. At least, that’s what Ben had always told me. Even now, even though I had left childhood behind, a part of me still believes that.

The Soup was a constant in my life as I was growing up and, now that I’ve moved away, has become a different kind of home away from home. Nostalgia. Way better than dealing with the folks. On the other side of the diner, someone had put some coins in the juke box. The Flamingos came on, wondering if the stars were out tonight.

I looked up when Debbie the waitress waltzed up to my corner table with my order on her tray. The fries on the plate had obviously just come from the fryer – I could see the steam rising in lazy wisps. Next to it, the veggie burger looked a little flat, even with slices of bright red tomato, pickles and lettuce topping it.

My taste buds watered; my stomach grumbled. This was not an unusual argument and I was totally in agreement with my taste buds – fries are the greatest comfort food ever invented. My stomach, on the other hand, kept trying to tell me that the last five pounds I gained were the result of such comfort foods.

I ignored my stomach and smiled at Debbie. “That looks fabulous.”

Debbie grinned back. “Shake’s on the way up. Enjoy.”

“Always.” I grabbed the bottle of ketchup, uncapped it and settled in to wait for the long, slow tease of red, sugared tomato sauce. Normally, I’d get impatient and grab a knife to try and scoop it out, but not today.

Today was different. Today, I was going to be patient.

Not like Brad Billings, who had none. After interviewing for a new job on a two day trip, I came back to find him inflagrante delecto with Carol Cross, my best friend. Make that my former best friend.

His reason? “Well, gee, Anna. I got needs and you weren’t here.”

My reply? “I was gone two days. Next time, try using your hand, dickwad.”

Ben found me at the apartment we shared. I had been crying my eyes out to the point that they were almost swollen shut, both in hurt and rage. After scaring me bad enough to make me pee my pants, I blubbered out the whole story.

He put me in the shower – when I had cleaned up and changed into sweats and a t-shirt, I came out of my room to find that he had made me hot cocoa, some soup and set up the TV and VCR with Foul Play.

Arguably the best San Francisco movie ever. Well, okay. Dark Passage with Bogie and Bacall ranks as number one.

Ben went out for a walk shortly after that. I think he had spiked my cocoa because the next thing I remembered was him trying to clean up his right fist. It was bruised and bloody and from the way he kept grimacing, I thought he’d broken something.

When I went over to Brad’s to pick up the few items I had left there, I noticed that he was sporting a black eye and a broken nose. He wouldn’t say where he got it from and I expressed no sympathy.

I gave myself a good, head-clearing shake, bringing myself back from the past and into the present. I had a good guy, now, we were familiar with each other and I think we both knew that we were onto something special.

I decided to focus on the ketchup. I was still waiting for that first crimson drop when a shadow crossed over me and I looked up, flushed and breathless. “Hi.”

Dark eyes warm and smiling, he gestured to my now-melting mountain of whipped cream on my shake. “Are you going to eat that? Or may I?”

“Help yourself.” I pushed it towards him as he moved the newspaper to another table, the pages rustling in their own breeze before sitting across from me and sliding his hand across the table until it covered mine. Heat seemed to glow from that simple touch and spread through me.

I’ve known Beck since the second grade, even though he was two years ahead and in the same class as my brother and was more my brother’s friend than mine.

He was always Beck to me – I never knew his other name. He’d married his high school sweetheart, Clarissa (never Liss) while in college, but he caught her cheating on him with her best friend a year ago and they split up. The divorce had just come through when we met up for the first time in fifteen years at my brother’s twenty year high school reunion.

I was my brother’s date. It’s not like it sounds. I had the car.

Almost as soon as we got there, Ben went off and mingled, leaving me at the door to fend for myself. After running into and talking to a few acquaintances we shared for an hour, I wandered over to the wet bar and ordered a pumpkin martini, then turned to watch the dance floor. I finally found Ben dancing with Celia Connors when someone bumped into me from behind, pushing me against the bar, jostling my arm. The martini swirled in the glass, then sloshed over the front of my dress.

“Shit!” I exclaimed. I could barely hear myself over the music as I stared in dismay at the stain spreading over the burgundy silk. I turned on the offender. “Listen, you jerk, this dress cost me more than I want to think about and it’s ruined!”

“So I’ll replace it.” Even above the music, I knew that deep voice. I looked up and met the teasing, warm brown eyes of Beck. I think my heart stopped. I definitely forgot to breathe. He was already shrugging out of his dinner jacket, handing it to me while taking my glass. Except for his coloring, he looked like the new James Bond. I wanted to be his Bond girl.

I put the jacket on, pulling it close. The alcohol was beginning to dry, the sugar was beginning to itch and I wanted to go home and get out of these sticky, wet clothes and onto his body – I mean, into a clean dress.

“Thanks for the jacket,” I said.

His smile widened. “Not at all. Where’s Ben?”

I pointed to the dance floor. “Reliving the past with Celia. Where’s Clarissa?”

His face became grim. “In the Bahamas with Abby Aronson.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

We were quiet for awhile. Then he asked me to dance. I hesitated. My dress was beyond gross now – my skin itched in places I didn’t know existed and the fabric was starting to stick in really uncomfortable ways under his jacket.

I said yes, anyway.

The band had started playing another slow number, one that I would remember as my song. Our song.

As the vocalist crooned about the stars being out tonight, Beck led me out to the dance floor and pulled me close. We danced through the next three numbers; then he took me home so that I could shower and change and we went out to dinner at some generic restaurant with fluorescent lights and muzak on the speakers, where we had talked and laughed over fries and milkshakes.

It was one in the morning before I realized that I had forgotten all about Ben. I tried calling his cell, but his voicemail kept picking up. I convinced Beck to take me back to the reunion, where I found Ben and Celia desecrating the back seat of my car.

I made Ben get my car cleaned several times, but I can never look in the back seat without seeing body parts and underwear. None of which were mine or Beck’s.

I was sorely tempted to get it exorcised and I’m not even Catholic.

“Anna?”

I looked up from my fries. “What?”

He had finished my shake. “You went away there, for a minute. You okay?”

I blinked, glanced around the diner. I saw that Ben had come in and was sitting at a booth across from us, reading the paper Beck had put aside. When Debbie brought him a cup of coffee, he looked up, saw us and waved. I waved back.

When I looked back at Beck, he was pulling out a couple of bills. “Let’s go for a walk.”

“Sounds great.”

As we walked out the door, Beck slipped his hand through mine.

“Where are we going?”

“Wherever you want.”

I considered, shouldering my bag. “Belgium. I hear they make great chocolate.”

He laughed.

Ben

The Alphabet Soup hadn’t changed at all, right down to the perky waitress taking orders from people at the counter. The jukebox was playing the Flamingos, which was now winding down. Even as I listened, another song began to play, this time Patsy Cline and how she fell to pieces.

I’ve been eating here every day, since I got back. I’d been assigned the Fresco the Horse story since it broke over a month ago that former owner Gladys Gallows had left town in the middle of the night to avoid appearing in court.

I’d been in touch with Fresco’s current owner, a trainer named Clara Calloway, and got more than just the usual sob story involving animals.

From the before pictures she’d shown me of Fresco’s condition, it was clear that she’d done wonders with the horse in weight gain and handling. He seemed to trust only her and got anxious when she left him alone, even to go get a carrot from her truck. Even after a year, it was clear that he still had issues.

When I went down to the stables for the first time a month ago, she was introducing Fresco to a smaller horse that belonged to her niece (what I later discovered was a Welsh pony) with some success. Both were a dark brown color with black legs, manes and tails (bays with black points for you lay people).

After rubbing the pony down with a towel, she draped it over Fresco’s stall door and put the pony into a stall across the barn aisle, so that they could see each other.

I could hear them snuffling and snorting at each other as I followed Clara outside.

We sat on a bench underneath an old oak tree just outside the barn and listened to the ranch sounds. I wasn’t surprised to see tears in her eyes as we talked about Fresco, how she managed to save him from the fate of his barn-mates, what the meeting with the pony (Taz, I learned, was his name) would mean for him.

While we never touched on the absent Gladys Gallows, I had the uneasy gut feeling that if Ms. Gallows should suddenly take it into her mind to come back to Zedville, Clara Calloway would deem her own resulting actions as justifiable homicide if the two women ever had the misfortune to cross paths.

I didn’t think I would want to be there, if it ever happened.

As I walked into the Soup, I saw my sister and Beck sitting at a booth to my left, a discarded newspaper on the table next to them. I saw the subject of my story – the human side of it, anyway – sitting alone at the counter, a book and notebook and pen in front of her. I nodded my head in greeting – she gave me a small smile back.

I went to get the paper. They didn’t seem to hear me approach – the last time Anna had been so unaware of my presence, she’d been nursing a broken heart. After making her pee her pants, I got the story from her – Brad Somebody or other had dumped her for some woman named Carol. I got her clean clothes, made her hot cocoa spiked with rum, put her to bed with the TV playing Foul Play and took a long walk.

I ended up at Brad’s. We had a very loud conversation. I left his place with a bruised fist. Brad had to walk around with a bandage on his nose for a week.

Looking at her now, with Beck, I knew dragging her to my high school reunion last month had been more than just a good idea. If it wasn’t love yet, it soon would be. I’d always suspected that she had a crush on my best friend and I’d seen how careful he was with her while we were growing up. Whether they took it anywhere was up to them. All I had to do was get them in the same room.

Besides, she had the car.

I didn’t count on running into Celia Connors. Last I’d heard, she was in Chicago, working for the Sun-Times. I didn’t think she was into nostalgia – she had quit Zedville right after high school, turning up only for the incremental reunions. She hadn’t been at the fifteenth, so I didn’t expect to see her at the twentieth.

But five minutes after I ditched Anna, I ran into Celia and her old Gaggle Group.

And in that moment, I either fell in love or fell into a really bad romance movie, because what I remember from that encounter was that she looked like an angel in red, dressed for fun and games of the adult variety…..

I glanced up from the newspaper when the waitress approached. Her name tag read Debbie and she was holding a carafe of coffee.

She held it up, questioning. I nodded. “God, yes, please!”

While she poured, I watched Anna and Beck. He was holding her hand and eating her shake while she looked as if she had drifted off into dreamland. He didn’t look angry – he looked…..content. Curious, but patient.

Yeah, Beck was a better man for my sister. Brad would have crushed her fingers for not giving him all of her attention.

“Did you need a menu or do you know what you want?”

“Uh, I’m waiting on someone, so….just leave a menu, thanks.”

“Sure thing.” Debbie placed one on the table in front of me and left. I went back to the newspaper and found the funnies. Next to them was the horoscopes and I read them, idly. Anna and I were both Scorpios, but her birthday landed in October and mine is in November. I found my horoscope and read, amused.

While you are looking longingly at someone, someone else is looking longingly at you. Be careful that you don’t miss a golden opportunity.

Of course. The usual bullshit.

A chair scraped the floor and I looked up. Anna and Beck were leaving, holding hands. Anna was glowing. Beck looked like a sheep. Good. So far, one of us Ashbrook kids is happy.

I went back to the paper, turning to my story. Good, no grammar mistakes, spelling was excellent and the pictures of Clara Calloway and Fresco were probably the best ever put in a newspaper, if I do say so myself. And I do. I took them.

This was the second part of the three. The third would be in tomorrow’s edition and I already had that turned in. I also heard a rumor that it was being picked up in a national paper and I was wondering how I could make this story even bigger.

After finishing my third cup of coffee, I glanced at my watch and realized that Celia was fifteen minutes late. I dug out my cell and called her, only to get her voicemail, so I left her a message.

I had a fourth cup of coffee, then a fifth. Then Nature called so I went to the men’s room to relieve my bladder of any undue pressure.

When I got back to my table, a woman was waiting for me, but it wasn’t Celia.

She looked up when I slid back into my seat, offering up a tired smile. “I told Celia that she should be the one doing this, not me, but you know what a coward she is.”

I stared, perplexed. “I don’t understand. Where is she?”

The woman took a moment to collect herself. I studied her – black hair, gray-blue eyes, pale skin. Very Snow White. She spoke. “Celia went back to Chicago last night. With Adam Armstrong. Her editor.”

Oh, well. Work-related. Snow White saw what I was thinking and shook her head. “It’s not work-related, Ben. They’re eloping.”

Oh. Oooohhhh. Now I got it. All those cancelled dates….

While I grappled with the bad news, Snow White flagged down the waitress and ordered coffee and lunch for herself.

“So, why did you come?”

She shrugged. “I didn’t think you deserved to be stood up. Even if you are of the male persuasion.”

Ouch. “Well, thanks, er….”

“Catherine Connolly. With a C. Sometimes Cathy, very rarely Cat. Never Cate.”

“Catherine. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

We were silent for awhile. Debbie brought Catherine’s food and freshened up my coffee. I took the opportunity to place my own order and then we were left alone again to our silence.

I cleared my throat. “So, how do you know Celia?”

Catherine grinned wryly. “We both work at the Sun-Times. Except in three days I’m off to Colorado. I’m transferring there.”

“Why Colorado?”

“Got tired of Chicago. Plus, I’ve always wanted to see that part of the country.”

“Well, good luck to you.”

She eyed me curiously. “What are you going to do now? About Celia leaving?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. What can I do? In this day and age, I can’t exactly run after her, club her over the head and drag her back to my cave. I’d be arrested and thrown in jail for that. Those are at least three felonies – stalking, battery and kidnapping.”

Catherine laughed with the whole of her body. I found myself admiring her breasts as they shifted under her blouse. When she caught her breath, she said, “At least you know where to draw the line.”

I grinned. “As for what I’m going to do in the immediate future…. I don’t know. I have some time off. I may want to travel the country.”

Her eyes twinkled. “Really?”

“Sure, why not? There’s a lot of history to see and beautiful landscape to admire.”

Our eyes met and suddenly I felt flushed. Catherine looked rosy and uncertain as she hurriedly finished her coffee.

“I have to go,” she said. “Again, I’m really sorry about Celia.” She hesitated. “Celia told me about your story, the monster who killed those horses.”

“She didn’t exactly kill them, she abused and starved them. The vets were the ones who had to kill them.”

“Same difference. Anyway, I did a little checking around and thought you might be interested in this.”

She handed me a folded slip of paper, plunked down some bills and left. I munched on a fry. Unfolded the paper. On it were four words.

Gladys Gallows, Denver, Colorado.

Without thinking, I stood, flung down my own money and ran out the door.

Never let it be said that I don’t do things on impulse. I had a story to go after.

Besides, Colorado was the only place in the world that would soon have a woman named Catherine who could give Snow White a run for her money.

Clara

My favorite spot to sit at in the Alphabet Soup diner is at the counter towards the kitchen, so that I can watch the rest of the restaurant.

I come here after my early morning chores at the Elvenhurst stables every day for breakfast, smelling of horses. Most people don’t care for the smell, but I find it to be the most heavenly scent in the world.

It’s no wonder that the counter is usually empty.

I’d spent most of this morning working with my horse, Fresco, the dark bay gelding I’d rescued from near starvation a year ago. He’d also been beaten, if the scars all over his back and neck were anything to go by. Just looking at the white fur that had grown over them made me tight and hot with rage, but it was his weight and his spirit that I had worried about the most when I took him in – after months of careful monitoring and a vet prescribed diet, though he was still a hundred pounds or so underweight, he seemed to be well on the way to recovering.

And now he finally had a friend – he and Taz, my niece’s pony that she’d outgrown, were starting to bond. Now I could leave him in the barn with a clear conscience, go to my home and relax, knowing he’d be fine when I got there in the morning.

I’m hoping to put them in the same paddock together in another month, to let them play and wander and explore, stand head to tail together and swish off annoying flies with their tails. Let them just be, let Fresco learn to be just a horse again.

I’m thinking Taz would be a great help with that, too. They sure seem to have a lot to talk about.

In addition to my world at the barn, I come to the Soup to eat. It’s not the greatest restaurant in the world – far from it, but the atmosphere is friendly and it feels like my kitchen away from home. When I come in, I park at the counter and read the newspaper or a book.

I also like to observe the people around me and write about them, making up stories about who they might be, what they’re doing in the Alphabet Soup and where they’re planning to go next. Sometimes, I get great short stories and character studies. At other times, my pen stays capped and the page remains blank.

Today I had the great fortune to watch two separate couples – one couple appeared to be very much in love and the other…..well, that was interesting. I knew the man – he was Ben Ashbrook. He’d been interviewing me about Fresco and how I came to be his owner. Or mom, as the case may be.

When a horse decides you’re his parent, you don’t argue. They’d win.

The woman seemed to be giving him some bad news. It stunned him, of course, whatever it was. But I could also see that the woman intrigued him.

I was not surprised when he followed her out.

Chuckling to myself, I finished my coffee and motioned for more. Then I picked up my pen and scribbled down the character sketches of the two couples.

After an hour of writing, I put my pen down and flexed my hand, trying to relieve the sudden cramp that lanced it. This had been happening a lot lately, to the point where I was seriously considering picking up a laptop. The only reason I hadn’t yet was because I like writing with pen and paper. I felt closer to the words.

Plus, I kinda liked watching my handwriting form on the page.

While I rubbed my hand, waiting for the cramp to ease, a man in a dark blue suit walked into the diner and sat at the counter, three stools away. My heart skipped a beat, my face grew warm and for a moment I forgot to breathe. From the corner of my eyes, I studied him as inconspicuously as possible.

He wasn’t traditionally handsome – at least, not according to the strict Hollywood standards of male beauty that my younger sister, Evie, moons over in her magazines – but he wasn’t unpleasant to look at, either. He had blonde hair that curled at the ends, even as short as it was. I suppose what was striking about him, what drew one’s attention to him, was the enigmatic half smile on his face.

The waitress – Debbie, I think her name is – approached him. “Coffee?”

“Actually, I’d prefer an iced tea if you don’t mind,” he said in a raspy voice.

Debbie nodded. “Of course.” And turned to get his tea.

I blinked. Was it my imagination or did she swish her hips a little more than she’d had all morning?

She came back a few minutes later with his tea, flatware and napkins. “Can I get you anything to eat?”

“Cheeseburger and fries, please.”

“You got it.”

I couldn’t see her from my perspective, but I would lay good money down that she actually winked at him. I’m not even sure why I cared whether she did or not.

Oh, who am I kidding? She’s a young, perky twenty-five. I’m fast approaching forty and beginning to develop cynicism. I smell like horses on a regular basis, a smell I would choose over the most expensive perfumes. Of the two remaining women in this diner, it would be an easy bet that the man in the blue suit would pick the waitress.

I picked up my pen again and began doodling on a blank page. My last relationship ended badly three years ago, when I found out the rat-bastard I’d been in love with was not only two-timing me with another woman, but was married to a third.

Actually, I’ve met rats with more sense. Plain bastard will do for him.

It took me over a year to get over him and the humiliation I felt at his duplicity, but recovering the ability to trust was taking a lot longer than I thought. Going out was hard – crowds make me nervous even in the best of times and most of the people I met wanted a quickie, either with themselves or someone else. So I stopped trying to meet people and began keeping my own company to the exclusion of all others, except when I was at the barn. The problem, of course, was that I wanted to do things with other people. Being on my own is great, but so is sharing things with friends.

Then I met Fresco and I never looked back. I immersed myself in him, his pain and his recovery, ignoring the relief that followed now that my interactions with people were at a minimum. Sometimes, I feel that I am not quite human…..

I shook myself, trying to break free of the negative feelings before they took hold and glanced at my doodles. I had written the name Alan over and over again.

“Who’s Alan, if you don’t mind me asking?”

I looked up, caught in his gaze, made bluer by the color of his suit. He had gotten up to get a paper from the recycle stack and had walked past me, which had given him ample opportunity to look over my shoulder.

I shook my head, hiding the page under my arm. “No one important.”

Regaining his seat, his smile grew wider. “I’d certainly hope so, judging by the way you wrote his name.” I must have looked confused because he laughed. “My name is Andrew Ackerman. I’m a handwriting analyst.”

“Really?”

His blue eyes rested on mine. “Really.”

I felt caught in those eyes again – deer in headlights – but I couldn’t look away, even when I felt my face flush a hot pink. I was finding it difficult to breathe and when Debbie came out with his order, the spell was broken. I looked away quickly, flipping to a blank page in my notebook, poised to write.

It would have been easier if my hand wasn’t trembling.

The jukebox kicked on again – it was the Flamingos again, but they weren’t singing about starry skies. They went right to my hurt, to my other love who had another girl in his arms when I wasn’t there.

I brushed the sudden tears away angrily. My love was married to someone who just wasn’t me. He had been unfaithful to her, not me.

A piece of paper was pushed my way – I looked up at Ackerman, but he was busy eating his burger. I looked at the paper. Typed on it was the single instruction to write a paragraph about whatever comes to mind.

I stared at it. “What’s this?”
“I thought it was self-explanatory.”

“No, I mean, why are you asking me to do this?”

“No particular reason.”

“Of course there’s a reason.”

He picked up a napkin and wiped at some mustard. “I like the way you blush.”

Speechless, I did the only thing I could do. I stared at the paper like it was a snake, ready to strike. Better that than deer-in-headlights.

Then I firmed my hand and wrote quickly, describing a writing project that I was working on, what I hoped to accomplish with it, Fresco’s new friend and what I saw myself doing in the future.

Then I slid it back to him, stretching as far as I could without leaving my seat.

He looked at me, amused. “Do I frighten you?”

I refused to get sucked into his blue eyes. I stared at my notebook. “No.”

Which was true. I was more afraid of the feelings he was stirring up. And of myself, for what I thought was buried had somehow managed to dig its way out, demanding to be acknowledged.

Pushing aside his plate, he asked, “Do you mind if I sit closer? To describe how I’m analyzing your handwriting?”

“I couldn’t stop you if you wanted to.”

“Yes, you could.” He waited until I nodded assent and shifted seats, moving closer to me, but leaving one stool between us. He began describing loops and curls and how I crossed my t’s, my sevens – some of it indicated my creative nature, my intelligence, how I was a deep thinker.

I became interested in spite of myself. “Wow, that’s a lot of information just in my handwriting.”

“Yes, it is.” He leaned back in his chair. I could feel his gaze on me, so I kept mine on the paper. “I also suspect that you are of a deeply romantic nature and were badly hurt by that man whose name you kept scribbling.”

A weight had settled itself on my shoulders and the urge to cry was strong. I held it at bay. He reached for my right hand and squeezed it gently, offering comfort. I let him take it, trying to ignore the sudden thrill of how his skin felt against mine – cool, gentle, smooth.

My mouth went dry. If this was how I felt when he only touched my hand, what would happen if…?

I couldn’t finish the question, let alone answer it. I tugged at my hand – he let it go easily, never attempting to close the distance between us.

We sat like that for awhile, neither of us looking at each other directly. At last he reached over for the newspaper he’d picked up and sorted through it.

He glanced at me. “You ever read the horoscopes?”

I nodded. “Sometimes.”

“What’s your sign?”

“Scorpio.”

He smiled. “What a coincidence. So am I.” He found our horoscope and read it out loud. “While you are looking longingly at someone, someone else is looking longingly at you. Be careful that you don’t miss a golden opportunity.” He folded the paper and was about to put it on top of the other sections he had, when he hesitated, his gaze arrested by some article or photo. I couldn’t see it. “How true that is.”

“How so?”

He was silent for a moment. “I went horseback riding with an old friend one day, oh, maybe six months ago, at Elvenhurst Riding and Board.” I started – the same stable I work at. He paid no attention to my sudden confusion, but I guessed that he was aware of it. “On the way out to the trail, I happened to observe a woman working with a horse that I later found out had been abused by its previous owner. It was such a simple thing she was asking the horse to do, to walk through a gate, but it wouldn’t budge. As far away as we were, I could still see the fear in its posture. But this woman…” He shook his head in admiration. He kept talking, but I was only half-listening.

My heart thudded against my ribs and my breath grew short as I fell into memory with his voice surrounding me. I remembered that day so clearly. It was the day that Fresco had decided he really trusted me. He had let me lead him up to the gate, but then balked at the last minute.

I knew why, of course. Paddock gates had made him nervous because they were too close for him, an eighteen hand Dutch warmblood. The stupid, ugly, sadistic bitch had taken a whip to him, beat him to get him to move forward, to back up, to mind her. Even getting him to walk into the barn had been a challenge.

So when he balked at the gate, I just let him stand there, the lead rope tied to his halter in my left hand, my right hand on his shoulder, feeling his pulse race, the sweat marking his coat, watching his eyes as they grew so round I could see the whites, and I talked to him, telling him what a good, brave boy he was.

His nostrils swelled, showing the thin red skin inside and he snorted heavily several times, but eventually, Fresco stopped looking at the gate and turned his ears to me. When he lowered his head, I knew it was time. I took a step forward, tugged at his lead gently, then stepped forward again.

Fresco followed me as if he’d never been abused at the gate.

“…….was quite prepared to marry her, after that.”

I jumped, coming back to the present and watched Ackerman closely. He had been talking about Fresco. I knew that, but I wasn’t so sure about that last comment of his. I cleared my throat. “Don’t you think that’s a little extreme? I mean, you don’t know her at all.”

Ackerman sipped his tea. “How a person treats an animal is usually a good indicator of how he or she would treat other people.”

“But you wouldn’t know unless you got to really know them.”

“True. Which is why I’d like to meet her.”

Oh, right. A man wearing a three-piece suit that probably cost more than a month of barn fees at Elvenhurst couldn’t possibly be interested in a woman that preferred to smell like horses. “Why didn’t you? While you were at the barn, I mean?”

“After we got back from the trail ride, I went looking for her, but I couldn’t find her. I didn’t even have her name or a very good description.”

“Did you ever find her?”

“I think I have.” He paused, glanced at the newspaper again. I suddenly knew what it was. He looked back at me with a certainty that shuddered through me and pushed the section of paper over to me. “I know I have.”

I took it, knowing that I would see the picture of me and Fresco. I stared at it, not blinking, and swallowed. “What are you going to do now?”

“I think I have to wait and be patient.”

Sure he would. “Good luck.”

He smiled, as if sensing my skepticism, but didn’t say anything. He moved back to his seat, finished his tea and pulled out his wallet. After fishing out some bills to pay for his lunch, he handed me a business card. “In case you have any questions regarding handwriting analysis.”

I took his card and read it – Andrew Ackerman, it read in plain script, along with his email address and phone numbers indicating he had an office in Atlanta, Georgia.

“I don’t want to say ‘no’,” I said suddenly. “But I’m terrified to say ‘yes’. I got lost once and I couldn’t find my way out.”

His hand touched mine again, fingers tracing fingers. “That’s what flashlights are for. To find the way.”

I burst out laughing at his nonsensical reply and he joined in.

Funny how I thought at first that he wasn’t traditionally handsome, because when he laughed, he was beautiful.

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