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Ferris Wheel Love

Charlie Hudson

Rachel sat on the park bench, continuing to sort through multiple scenarios for when Conrad would join her. A paper bag with two cups of coffee rested beside her. Despite what she’d repeated countless times, she felt the tug of desire she hoped would disappear before he touched her. She would rise and offer her cheek for a platonic kiss, not able to trust herself if she let his lips press against her mouth. It was hopeless to pretend the temptation didn’t exist, but she possessed an emotional buffer she hadn’t at twenty-seven.

At two o’clock in the afternoon they were past lunchtime crowds that escaped office buildings for welcomed autumn air, yet before schools adjourned to release swarms of children and watchful guardians. The park boasted a sparse population of joggers and strollers, most benches empty as scattered lengths of white clouds broke a deep blue sky. Sunlight enhanced the spectrum of gold through russet leaves, especially those reflected in a large pond where ducks and other water fowl lingered, knowing bread crust wielding visitors would arrive before long.

Rachel loved pre-Halloween autumn before the season’s cycle stripped vibrantly colored leaves away, when chimney smoke curled in early morning and evening; sweater weather when overcoats weren’t yet required, but summer heat and humidity had dissipated. Was it ironic that she’d met Conrad in another October, in another city, in another life? And now here she was, they were, an unplanned coming together unintentionally set into motion by her husband.

“I know we weren’t expecting to move this soon, but Rachel, it’s a great chance for me and your company has an office there. It will be a bigger raise than we were counting on and we could go ahead and buy a house if you’d like.” Matt had tried to balance his eagerness with his news with sensitivity to the suddenness of his announcement.

“I don’t know if we have anything open,” she’d responded faintly. That sounded better than saying, “It would be practically impossible to not run into my former lover on a regular basis and I don’t know how well I’m going to handle that.”

Knoxville! My God, what a crazy coincidence! Matt’s boss wasn’t supposed to be in the running for Knoxville, but once the promotion was announced, it was hardly a surprise that he wanted Matt to come along. Knoxville, where Conrad Shelton’s SYNTEN company was headquartered; Systems and Networking of Tennessee, Affordable Information Technology Solutions You Can’t Afford to Miss. That had been part of her team’s pitch when he wanted to expand his regional roots west of the Mississippi. Her company, in turn, had opened a Knoxville office eighteen months prior in the same building as SYNTEN.

Oh sure, when she’d heard about the Knoxville office, she’d briefly envisioned going for a visit, meeting Conrad for old times sake; the fantasy alternating between them whirled into familiar passion – a hotel room, his office? – and a low key drink, dinner, maybe where she would politely, firmly resist his declaration of having made a mistake in not leaving his wife. The unacceptable ugly scene of throwing herself into his arms pleading for his love had been mentally shoved back deeply into her memory; doing that once in her life was more than enough.

Had she, somehow, in even imagining the scenes tempted Fate too much so that the drama became inevitable? A moment for potential amusement to gods who one would think would be tired of such clichés? Older, successful, married businessman on travel, high energy younger woman with instant attraction – my God, what an often-repeated story!

A woman in her late twenties whizzed past on roller blades, her body clad in a dark green, shiny bodysuit.

Rachel took a coffee from the bag, leaving the lid on, and sipped gingerly from the opening. Dark green, not quite the shade of Conrad’s eyes, his were more a Mexican jade color, but with sprinkles of amber that you didn’t register at first. You only knew there was something different, but you’d already felt that with the introduction. At six foot even, he had the look, the bearing, the modulated voice of a man to whom the word indecisiveness would be unknown.

“My being here has nothing to do with getting your account, you know,” she said that evening when they’d met for a drink that had been hastily downed in their hurry to adjourn to his room. It had been the presence of a couple with a small child in the elevator that restrained them from heated embrace on the way to his fifteenth floor suite. Rachel didn’t even try to explain she’d never been affected in such a way; she couldn’t catch her breath enough to form long sentences.

He’d gently brushed hair from her glistening forehead. “I know. Will you believe me if I tell you I usually treat a lady to dinner first? I can’t get over how much I wanted you from the minute I shook your hand and smelled your perfume. I normally have more willpower, but it was all I could do to listen to your presentation. Thank God I would have given you the account based on quality. I would have hated to make a bad business decision because you’re so hot all I could think about was trying to get you alone.”

She’d shifted in the king size bed, crisp sheets crumpled with their mingled sweat. “I suppose this is what they mean by sexual chemistry.”

“It’s more like the explosion my lab partner and I once caused,” he said and grinned that captivating smile that created flutters in her stomach. “But if you’ll pardon the reversed sequence, could I take you to dinner now?”

She’s smiled back and nipped his shoulder. “Only if you make it room service.”

Fourteen months later, their parting had been equally passionate and infinitely messier. Of course she knew he wouldn’t divorce his wife; it had been for the sex, the fun, the excitement she’d avoided with other offers from married men. She knew better, had watched friends make the mistake, was smarter than to be caught in that torrid trap. But no, he’d been the exception, the rule she should never have broken, the inexorable slide from carefree understanding to bourbon-induced tears.

She hadn’t given him an ultimatum precisely, merely come to the recognition that she couldn’t continue, couldn’t celebrate her thirtieth birthday as the mistress of a man who, despite affection for her, was not about to upend his life. She’d stepped momentarily onto the, “but if you’re not happy in your marriage…” path and it had frightened her into action. Their final night together was more controlled, a bittersweet agreement that it had been fun while it lasted.

Conrad delegated future trips to Dallas to one of his assistants and Rachel reluctantly attended a party her friend insisted she come to.

The party had been unremarkable and when her friend dragged Matt over, it hadn’t occurred to Rachel that his quiet hello would transform into soothing relief from the intensity of her affair with Conrad. His average height, slender frame and Mediterranean lineage dark coloring couldn’t have been less like Conrad and his slightly shy suggestion that she accompany him to an art exhibit she expressed interest in was sweet, if not enthralling. A part of her was drawn to his calm compatibility and she allowed that part a larger vote when their friendship progressed to marriage. She’d wrapped herself in his undemanding affection and regained her emotional strength. And now? Now what?

Rachel almost dropped the cup when a pigeon landed on the back of the bench, no doubt hoping for something other than coffee in the bag. She shooed him with a flap of her hand and saw Conrad’s unmistakable saunter as he came into view. He’d sounded truly glad to hear from her and offered lunch as a welcome, but expressed no surprise at her preference for conversation in the nearby park.

She breathed deeply, watching him approach. No office casual for him; a double breasted dark taupe suit fitted perfectly across his shoulders, a butter cream shirt with the hint of yellow and a tie of muted golds and browns.

“You look terrific,” he said when she stood, her cheek proffered according to plan.

“Thanks, I brought you a coffee. Black, one packet of sweetner.” Damn, how easily the words popped out!

“You remembered.” He sat comfortably, not crowding her, his sandy hair still worn short, silver hair blended too well to show. The fine lines of his face had not deepened and admiration in his eyes was not faked.

Rachel had changed her clothes four times that morning, grateful Matt left for the office early so she didn’t have to explain her consternation. She’d finally decided on a burgundy mid-calf length knitted dress with a navy blue lightweight flannel blazer, a navy and burgundy paisley accent scarf, navy belt and low pumps to pull the ensemble together. Her black hair was cut shorter than when they’d been together, a slightly sculpted look that framed her face.

“I’m glad you could break away.” She took another sip of coffee, not sure who should begin.

Conrad asked innocuous questions about the move and spoke of his latest business venture, whether to give her time, or him, she couldn’t tell. Their harmless dialogue lasted through the coffee. He tossed a tiny amount of liquid to the faint breeze and crushed the empty cup in his broad hand. His left hand with a wide wedding band.

“Do you want me to start?” His eyes smiled, although not in a mocking way.

Rachel took his cup, twisted and pushed everything through the swinging flap of the metal trashcan to her right. She nodded, aware that she had nothing to occupy her hands. She interlaced her fingers, held them in her lap and set her face in what she hoped was a composed expression.

“I admit you took me by surprise, although I had sometimes wondered if you might not come to town on a trip.”

“I thought it would be best not to.” Her voice was steadier than she expected. God, he looked delicious! She tightened her fingers.

“I’m sorry things ended the way they did if I never told you that. Matt sounds like a nice guy.” He propped one arm along the back of the bench, his fingers resting lightly.

“He is, and like I said on the telephone, this move was because of him, not me.”

Conrad cleared his throat. “Yes. Well, if you remember, I told you a long time ago that traveling is one thing; how I behave in my home town is something else.”

Rachel tilted her head to the right, but he held his hand up before she could speak. “The truth of the matter though is that you were always different, more than just an out-of-town pleasure. I understood why you did what you did, but now that you’re married and here, well, it’s a large enough city where two discrete people could be together.”

Shit! The proposition she’d dreamed of and dreaded, an easy lob dropped into her court. He waited, his body angled to where she could snuggle against him, lift her mouth….

She inhaled deeply. “If I said I was incredibly tempted, would you take it the right way?”

“The right way being thanks, but no thanks? Somehow I was getting the impression that your marriage might not be as thrilling as you might like.”

Rachel paused, chagrined that an immediate denial hadn’t spurted out. She pulled herself straighter and let Conrad’s sense of presence wash over her. Choices hovered inside, little angel, little devil, whispering conflicting instructions, neither comprehending what she felt.

“It isn’t that simple. Matt is a good man, a decent man who loves me. I respect him.”

Conrad edged closer, his voice low. “That part I have no problem with. I’m serious about you being the exception for me and I’m not making the offer just for the hell of it. You know we’re good together. You can’t tell me you haven’t missed that.”

Rachel struggled not to close her eyes to relish the ghost sensation of him, of them. She allowed visions of snatched hours in hotel rooms instead, guarded arrangements and excuses she would make. The first lie might be difficult or it might be much too easy considering how trusting Matt was likely to be. What was she more afraid of – engaging in constant deceit or discovering she might adapt to it with little problem?

She shook her head slowly. “Of course I missed it, but as they say, ‘that was then and this is now’. Shit, Conrad it’s like a roller coaster and a Ferris wheel.”

He pulled back imperceptibly, a crease between his eyes. “What?”

She unlaced her hands, moved them into a pyramid and tapped her fingertips soundless. “Like at a theme park or a fair. You’re the high tech roller coaster, speed along, turn you upside down, make you scream and when it’s over, you’re ready to go again.” She cut her eyes away for an instant, took another deep breath and searched his face. “Matt is the Ferris wheel, a nice tall one where you get a great view and a slow ride with just that little bit of a jolt when you come over the top and start down. You have time to enjoy the scenery and there’s nothing out of control about it.”

“If I were laying odds, I’d put you as the roller coaster type.”

Rachel smiled, her desire beginning to cool as she thought of her analogy. Funny that it hadn’t come to her before. She’d been too caught up in how things had been and temporarily forgotten the price she’d paid; forgotten why Matt had been a refuge for her.

“I was, and if I’m being truthful, that’s why we’re having this conversation in a park with coffee. I’m not sure I’d make the same choice with two or three bourbons in me.”

Conrad laughed, his face relaxed. He reached out and traced her jaw with his index finger before he withdrew his hand. “Ah Rachel, it’s good to see you and if this is what you want, I’m okay with it. I’ll leave the offer open and maybe we’ll have lunch occasionally.”

“Sure.” The lie was a civilized out for them both. It made seeing each other in the lobby or in an elevator manageable, a How are you – great – we’ll do lunch soon. An acknowledgement without recrimination.

Conrad stood and held out his hand. “Walk with me back to the building?”

Rachel rose and lifted her head up to meet his eyes. “I’m going to wait a few minutes if you don’t mind.” She went on tiptoes to kiss his cheek, a soft peck closer to his chin than lips.

He turned with a half smile and walked away, no hesitation in his step. Of course there wouldn’t be.

Rachel felt a wetness and groped a tissue from her purse to dab the corner of her eyes and blow her nose. A pair of ducks splashed gracefully into the pond, ripples spreading out and then fading until the water was mirror-like calm again. She focused on them and relaxed a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

Her cell phone rang and she drew it out of a special compartment in her purse. It was one of the newer models, no larger than her palm.

“Hi, they told me you were out for a late lunch,” Matt said.

“An errand to run actually. What’s up?”

“Look, I’ve got to work a little later tonight and I didn’t know what we had planned for dinner. I don’t think I’ll be too long, but I wanted to let you know.”

“No problem, I can always stop for carryout and we’ll just have it when you get home.”

He said something she couldn’t hear as if someone else was in the room. “Sorry about that. Hey, I have a better idea. I don’t think I’ll be much after seven. If you’ve got things to do, why don’t you stay late, I’ll pick you up and we’ll have dinner at the Sky View? They re-opened over the weekend and it shouldn’t be crowded on a Wednesday. You can leave your car and I’ll drop you at the office tomorrow.”

“I like the idea, give me a call when you’re ready. Talk to you then.”

Rachel snapped the telephone shut and walked leisurely from the park. A red leaf broke loose from a low hanging branch and spiraled to her feet. The Sky View was a penthouse restaurant that had been closed for major renovations and the newspaper food columnist said the wait had been worthwhile.

What a great suggestion. She was in the mood for soft lighting and being pampered a bit. If it wasn’t crowded they could sit next to window to look out on the skyline and river below. It was sort of like being on a Ferris wheel.

The End