For the umpteenth time, I peek at the arrivals board, trying not to bounce on the balls of my feet. Kerry's plane landed nearly twenty minutes ago but she still hasn't made it to the meeting point.
Ever since she had accepted my invitation to visit, I'd been determined to give her some space, to not let the intoxicating familiarity of rediscovery overwhelm us again. Not like the last time we met, when we couldn't keep our hands off each other even for the short walk from the restaurant to the hotel lobby. There was nothing pretty about the hours that followed, just a driving need that allowed for neither subtlety nor tenderness, our bodies remembering every touch we had ever shared and frantically seeking more.
Too much, too fast, leaving both of us shaken in its wake.
We've talked almost daily since that weekend in Chicago, but I'd sensed a reluctance in her to reignite that intensity. No pressure, no expectations, I'd assured her repeatedly. No, this time I would let her set the pace. Hell, just let her breathe -– from what she's said, Kerry hasn't had a proper vacation in ages.
Finally I catch sight of her and wave. The relief must show in my face because she makes a little moue of apology, pointing at her phone. As she gets closer I hear the tail end of her conversation. "Escuchar a tu abuelita. Nos vemos luego, okay? Te quiero, monito." Stopping in front of me, she shoves the phone into her purse and gives me a smile. "Hello, you."
She balances her briefcase and purse on top of her carry-on, drapes her arms around my neck and kisses me. I hug her close, pulling her hips snugly against mine. Vaguely I note the catcalls from a passing group of teenagers but the feel of her is too sweet to bother reacting.
Kerry seems to agree. She brushes back my hair, slides her hand down to cup my cheek; I kitty-cat against her palm, press my lips to the base of her thumb. "Hello, yourself. Everything okay at home?"
She nods. "Henry's excited. He's going to stay with his grandparents this week. He'll get back just before school starts."
"Travelling by himself?"
"With Elisa -– I told you about our au pair? They've made the trip so many times, I think the Lopezes are ready to adopt her."
I laugh, and kiss her again, eliciting a wolf whistle from somewhere down the corridor. "Much as I'd like to keep entertaining the terminal, somehow I doubt this is the part of San Francisco you came to see." I pick up her briefcase; she grabs the handle of her suitcase and we head toward the tunnel to the parking deck. Along the way, she slips her free hand into mine. "Good flight?"
"Good as can be expected these days. Guy next to me insisted on trying to chat me up until I pretended to fall asleep. The woman across the aisle had the worst case of onychomycosis I've ever seen; naturally, she was wearing flip flops. And of course the plane was packed, so there was no way to change seats. At least there was only one crying baby. Remember when flying used to be fun?"
"Yeah, probably around the same time that getting felt up by strangers used to be fun. Here we are." I pop the hatch on the Mini and wedge her suitcase in the trunk.
"Very cute," she says, looking around the interior as I slide behind the wheel. "But I'd think you'd have to replace the clutch every couple of years in this town."
"Nah, haven't burned one out yet. I've never owned a car that didn't have a manual transmission. It's almost a security feature these days -– some idiot broke in once but he had to leave it because he evidently didn't know how to drive a stick. Only things he got away with were a tube of lip balm and the charging cable for my phone." I thread my way through the deck, pay at the booth and swing out onto 101 from the airport exit. "I can put the top down if you want. The view gets better; you'll see the Bay in a few miles."
"That's okay. I'd forgotten how cold it can get here in August. Glad I packed a sweater."
"Your blood's just gotten thinner, living in Miami."
"That's not physiologically possible, you know. I have to say that I like the heat better as I get older, though I could do with less of the humidity. Don't know how I managed to survive those Chicago winters for so long."
"Do you miss it?" I say after a while. "Emergency medicine, I mean, not winter."
She sighs. "Sometimes. I like what I do now, using my knowledge and experience to reach people and make complicated concepts accessible and relatable to real life situations. It's kind of fun being a minor local celebrity, too. But every once in a while I miss the adrenaline rush, never knowing what to expect but knowing that my team and I will be able to handle whatever comes through the door. And I especially miss teaching."
"Could you go back?"
"Honestly? Probably not. I don't think I could live on that knife-edge any more -– I'd be afraid that my patients' care would suffer while I was getting back up to speed. I don't miss treating and dispo'ing 30 patients in a 12-hour shift and being physically and emotionally exhausted for hours after getting home. And I definitely don't miss having such an irregular schedule. Even if I have to be away now, at least it's a predictable absence and Henry always knows when I'll be back. Besides," she says with a slight grimace, "nobody ever dies if I make a wrong decision."
"True. Though I bet you do have to deal with your share of controversy. Wasn't there some kind of flap when you did the piece advocating for the HPV vaccine?"
"Yeah, we got a bunch of letters after that one. Nothing like the number we got after the first time I got my eyebrows threaded, though."
"Seriously. It drives me nuts when viewers focus more on what I'm wearing or what I look like than the topic I'm covering, but I can't ignore that getting filmed in HD is unforgiving -– every flaw gets magnified and people notice the tiniest, most insignificant things."
I sneak a glance over at her. If she's had any work done, I can't tell. Kerry's always had fantastic skin; even now, at nearly 49, her complexion glows. "I don't think you have anything to worry about."
"You're a shameless flatterer."
"Just callin' 'em like I see 'em."
She makes a little "tch" sound of derision, but a half-smile plays around the corners of her mouth.
We travel the rest of the way in companionable silence. Negotiating the short distance from the highway to Folsom Street, I turn into my driveway and tuck my car safely away in the garage.
Kerry walks a few steps toward the curb to get a better look at the front of the house. "Nice."
"It's sort of plain on this side, but wait'll you see the view from the back. And I've done a fair bit of tinkering. Got a great deal when I bought it -– even when the bottom dropped out of the real estate market, there wasn't exactly a huge demand for a hundred-year-old fixer-upper in dire condition."
She grins. "That figures. You wouldn't have been happy in a place that was finished."
"True. The first few years I was out here, I rented a condo close to my workplace. It was convenient and nice enough but so generic, and I was going crazy wanting to change things. Come on, I'll give you the dime tour." I grab her bag from the trunk and hit the remote to close the garage, then follow her up the steep flight of stairs leading to the front entrance.
Her ass is still outstanding. Down, girl.
The keyless mortise lock is the one thing I modified in the front door; the heavy wood, diamond-shaped beveled glass divided lights and brass hardware are otherwise original to the house. I punch in the code and let her in.
"Kim, it's beautiful," says Kerry, looking around.
I preen silently. She gravitates toward the fireplace with its elaborate brick surround, makes a slow circuit of the living room, then moves toward the adjoining dining room, running her fingers over the massive table that holds pride of place, the one I built years ago. The wide-planked heart pine floors gleam, ringing beneath her heels as she heads toward the kitchen.
Even out of sight, I know exactly what she's looking at.
Passing through the kitchen, I join her in the breakfast nook. Its far wall consists of enormous windows that frame a spectacular expanse of the Bay.
I open the French doors leading to the wide lower deck. "That view is what sold me on the house. It's even better from the deck off my bedroom upstairs."
Kerry gives me an enigmatic smile and looks out over the courtyard below. "So that's what took you six months to finish?" she says, indicating the Belgian block paving.
"Don't remind me. I regretted it almost as soon as I'd started, but by then of course it was too late to quit. Besides, I'd already decided I didn't want to maintain a lawn -– or the mudpit that was actually there. So I spent ages swearing and killing my back and arms until it was done."
"I've heard a rumor that you can hire people to do stuff like that," she says dryly.
"I know, I know. But I probably would've hovered the entire time, directing them where to place each stone."
The fog's starting to roll in and it's getting damp and chilly. I slip my arms around her from behind, breathing in the scent of her hair; she leans back against me with a small contented sigh. "I hate to think of the state of your hands after subjecting them to six months of cruel and unusual labor, but the end result was totally worth it. Your Passiflora is gorgeous, by the way."
Kerry chuckles and points. "The vine with the big orange flowers that's clinging to the alder tree. I take it the landscaping wasn't your doing?"
"Nope. Still have a black thumb -– remember the supposedly unkillable cactus I once killed? Friend of mine is a preservation horticulturist at the Botanical Garden. According to her, the yard was a living museum of plants that were nearly extinct locally. The previous owner must have been a pretty discerning collector. Or a hoarder, depending on whom you ask. Francine worked with a garden designer to figure out which ones would thrive best here and told me where to build the raised beds. Transplanted a bunch of things that weren't doing all that well to try to propagate them elsewhere, too."
"It's beautiful," she says again.
The sunset tints the fog in a swirling array of Monet colors. I would happily stay right where I am, but I can feel that Kerry's getting cold. "Let's get you settled. You can see the rest of the house later."
"I'd like that."
"Should've asked earlier, but are you hungry?"
"They fed us something that resembled dinner on the plane." She stifles a yawn, then smiles sheepishly up at me. "Sorry, I'm still on east coast time. I'm usually asleep by now."
"No, I'm sorry, I should have realized you'd be tired." I fetch her suitcase from the living room, then show her up the stairs to the bedroom down the hall from mine. "Bathroom's through that door, closet's over there. Let me know if you need anything."
"I'm glad you're here."
Even shadowed with fatigue, her face is radiant. "Me too."
"I didn't know you had a cat."
"He's not mine. Nobody seems to know who he belongs to, but he has a fairly regular social schedule. Pays me a call at around this time almost every day. I don't even know what his name actually is, he just looks like a George." I give her the bag and one of the cups, setting mine on a side table, then scritch the big orange tabby under the chin; he purrs like an outboard motor. "Don't tell me you don't like cats? Some kind of lesbian you are." I pick him up and set him gently on the floor, taking his place on the swing; he figure-eights against my shins and arches up on his toes to butt his head into my hand, then stalks off magnificently, tail held high as he glides down the stairs.
Kerry watches him suspiciously, as if making sure he's actually leaving. "I never had pets growing up. We didn't have a lot of money, and my parents would have considered them a wasteful indulgence, especially when we lived in Africa. Plus I think they just didn't like animals."
"They'd probably have run screaming from our house. We had just about every kind of pet you can think of. Dogs, cats, a squirrel that one of my sisters found when it was a baby, birds, fish, a bunch of mice and rats -– not all of which came from a store -– and even a milk snake. The snake got out of his cage once and went missing for months. We tried to cover up but we needn't have bothered; when my mom found out about him, she just shrugged and said at least he didn't leave hair everywhere and that he was probably keeping the rodent population down to a manageable level."
"I've occasionally thought about getting a dog for Henry but I just don't see the point in having a cat. Why would you want to cater to a creature that won't come when you tell it to, scratches and bites unpredictably and spends hours licking its own asshole?"
I fight to keep a straight face. The same train of thought and images evidently goes through her mind because she instantly flushes crimson, then gives in and laughs, snuggling against me. "Careful, I'll get you all sweaty," I caution her. I've cooled down considerably since finishing my run, but the two-block walk from the bakery wasn't nearly long enough for my T-shirt to dry.
"I like it when you get me all sweaty," she says, nibbling on my earlobe. "What's in the bag?"
Her hands roam over sensitive places, making it hard to concentrate. "Um. Couple croissants, one chocolate, one ham and cheese. Some ginger scones with yuzu marmalade. And a toffee brownie, but you'll have to wrestle me for it."
She responds by licking the edge of my ear, making me shiver, then kissing along my jawline. "Mmm. Very tempting."
Somehow I don't think she's talking about the pastries.
Wrapping one arm around her to gather her to me, I intercept her mouth, our tongues tangling in a slow dance of exploration and welcome. I lace the fingers of my other hand into her hair, cupping and gently caressing the back of her head. Kerry cradles my cheek, tracing with delicate precision my eyebrows, the curve of my cheekbones. We lose ourselves in the rhythm of our kiss, breath quickening, accelerating heartbeats palpable in our swelling lips.
A burst of applause startles us apart. "Get a room, Kim!" calls Dawn, waving as she and Jenna amble down the sidewalk, pushing their twins in a stroller roughly the size of my car.
Kerry laughs, resting her forehead against mine. "Is it my imagination or are there a lot of gay families around here? That's at least the fifth one I've seen pass by in the last hour or so."
I kiss the tip of her nose. "Bernal Heights is unofficially called 'Lesbian Hill.' I didn't know about the population before I moved here but it amused the hell out of me when I found out."
She kisses her way down my neck, pressing her lips to the thrumming pulse at the base of my throat. I tilt my head to give her better access and lean back into the corner of the swing so that she's almost draped over me; sliding my hands under her camisole and fleece jacket, I draw tiny random patterns over the small of her back, delighting in the warm satiny feel of her skin. Purring loud enough to rival George, she bites the junction of my neck and shoulder just hard enough to mark me with her teeth but not enough to break the skin. "Wanna take this inside before we really start putting on a show for the neighbors?"
"Lay on, Macduff."
"Dunno, I nodded off too. Entirely your fault."
"How is that my fault?"
I trail the tips of my nails lightly up and down the length of her back; she stretches languidly. "Whose idea was it to christen every room in the house? If you hadn't insisted on including the closets and the bay window, we might have made it past the living room."
"They're big closets. And I don't recall hearing any objections."
Burying my mouth in her hair, I laugh softly. "Didn't say I had any. I'm just glad that we managed to make it to the sofa rather than passing out on the dining table. But we do have the rest of the week to complete the circuit, you know." Something strikes me. "Since when do you not snore?"
"Ha, ha." Kerry tilts up her head to kiss me, then snuggles close again. "Funny thing is, I never really believed I did snore until this woman I was dating showed me a video she took of me one night."
"Hope she didn't post it online."
"No, thank goodness, though I made her delete it from her phone just to be sure. Anyway, a few years ago, I hit my head in a minor car accident. The rads and CT scan were clear, but I found out that I had a deviated septum. Finally had it repaired when I underwent iliopsoas tenotomy after the THA."
Tracing with my fingers the faint ridges of the scars railroading over her hip, I brush a kiss against her temple. "Not exactly a fun time, I'm guessing."
"Understatement of the century. Recovering from the septoplasty actually seemed worse, though -– I was nauseated for weeks from swallowing blood. But no, I don't snore any more." Kerry snickers. "Afterward, I dated another woman who thought I was too quiet when I slept. She was always sure I wasn't breathing, so she'd poke me to wake me up, then pretend she hadn't done anything."
"Oh, that's annoying." I slide my other hand up to knead the back of her neck; she makes a rumbling sound deep in her chest.
"Yes, she was, and for a number of other reasons as well. That one didn't last very long."
A fit of giggling overtakes me. "Kerry Weaver, I do believe you've become a bit of a hound."
"I haven't been with that many people."
"Come on, spill. Tell me about them."
Her lips find the tender spot below my ear. "Quid pro quo. Tell me about yours and I'll tell you about mine."
"Only the actual relationships?" Circling my fingertips over the very base of her spine provokes a sinuous ripple through her entire body.
Teeth nip the side of my neck. "Only the actual relationships. I don't think I could keep pace with your Nobody Specials."
"That's because I order them by the dozen when they're on sale at Costco. All right, I'll start. Um, you remember Lori, right?"
"Cradle robbing victim in sweatshirt and diapers?"
"Very funny. She was a grad student, I'll have you know. PhD candidate in History."
"Who looked about twelve. What could you two possibly have had in common?"
Kerry squints at me. "What?"
I shake my head. "Lori was smart, sarcastic and fun. And not remotely likely to break my heart."
She kisses me gently, then burrows back into my shoulder. "Touché. And ouch." One hand settles comfortably along the curve of my ribcage. "Sandy was my first real relationship after you and I... after you."
I wait a couple of beats, hearing in her silence how much she's leaving out, but this isn't the time and I'm in no position to push her so I cover the pause as smoothly as I can. "After I arrived in San Francisco, a friend introduced me to Danie, her massage therapist. She was sweet but a bit flaky. Rearranged everything in my house monthly because she was convinced that the feng shui changed based on the phases of the moon. Kept trying to convert me to veganism; she'd leave literature all over the place with disturbing pictures of food animals in appalling condition. I wouldn't have minded so much if she hadn't been such an awful cook -– I found myself sneaking over to In-N-Out on the days she made dinner."
"How long were you together?"
"Almost six months."
"I'm surprised you stuck it out."
Kerry's hand is distractingly busy. I know she's watching the fluttering of my pulse, the rise and fall of my chest. "Dietary and philosophical quirks aside, she was easygoing, not to mention creative in bed and highly decorative. Plus she was a really good masseuse."
"Well, there are certainly far worse reasons to stay with someone." She ghosts tiny kisses down my throat, heating my skin in her wake. "After Sandy died, it took a long while before I was ready to try to find anyone new. I went on a bunch of first dates and slept with a handful of them, but there wasn't a real connection. And then I got into a drawn-out custody battle with the Lopezes, which was how I met Charles."
I press my lips to her forehead. "Funny name for a girl," I say lightly.
That earns me another bite at my neck. "He worked for the same firm as my legal team. Very good looking in a bookish kind of way. Also very bright, very nice, and very respectful. A little too respectful -– I had to make the first move."
"Quite the gentleman."
"He was." A small sigh gusts across my chest. "And it was just so uncomplicated. Charles was good company, a thoughtful and open-minded lover, liked a lot of the same things I did. But I gradually realized that I enjoyed being with him precisely because it was so uncomplicated, so easy -– I had absolutely no desire to be emotionally involved with him, and if he had left me I wouldn't have given his absence a second thought. It wasn't really fair to him, so I ended it before he could get hurt too badly."
She levers herself up to straddle me, bracing her arms against the end of the sofa on either side of my head and claiming my mouth in a deepening kiss. My hands stroke the long planes of her back, feeling the muscles flex beautifully at my touch as we instinctively move together. "What about the rest of your conquests?" I tease, a little breathless.
"Right now I'm only interested in my most recent one." She moves downward. Before conscious thought gets exquisitely short-circuited, I make a mental note to find out which of her exes taught her how to do that with her tongue so I can thank them profusely.
I'm far more captivated by the view across our table.
"You're staring," she says, a little gruffly.
"Got something worthwhile to stare at."
She rolls her eyes, but smiles into her margarita. "There's something I've been meaning to ask you."
"Where is all your stuff? I've had a pretty good look at most of your house by now," she says with a Groucho waggle of her brow, "but every surface and space has been minimalistically pristine. I keep expecting to stumble across a hidden room where you've stashed everything, like a less gruesome version of Bluebeard's castle."
"Ha! Thought that might come up at some point." I consider ordering another Bellini but remind myself that I have to drive us home, so I stick to spooning up the last of the Sausalito Mud Pie we'd shared for dessert. "After I got fired from County and was getting ready to leave Chicago, I looked at this mountain of boxes full of things I'd carted from place to place for years, which would have had to go into storage again for who knows how long until I got settled, and something just snapped. I dumped a ton of it at Goodwill, foisted other things on friends and acquaintances until they started locking their doors when they knew I was coming, sold most of the furniture. Even got rid of my CD collection after I'd had Jordan convert all the discs to .mp3 files. Just wanted to start over, you know? It was actually pretty cathartic. Made the move a hell of a lot easier, too."
"I'll bet." Kerry licks the salt off the twist of lime garnishing her glass. "Whatever happened to Jordan, by the way?"
"Grew about a foot since you saw him last. Still eats like he's never going to see food again in his lifetime, still skinny as a ferret. Graduated from the Naval Academy a couple years ago with the goal of becoming a fighter pilot, so he's now First Lieutenant Jordan McAleer of the United States Marine Corps."
Shaking her head, she sighs. "Time really does fly. There are days when I'd swear Henry's taller in the evening than he was that morning." Her purse starts barking. "Speak of the devil. I'm sorry, Kim, I've got to take this. Hi, honey, how are you?" Swiftly her eyebrows swoop together. "You're where? What happened?" Listening intently, her frown gradually relaxes into amused resignation. "How many stitches? Send me a picture." She turns her phone to show me; Henry's sitting on the edge of a hospital bed, proudly pointing to the line of sutures neatly marching along a quarter the length of his forearm. Next to him is a familiar face. "Yes, that's a nice one. Let me talk to Dr. Lockhart, okay?" Kerry's demeanor shifts subtly. "Abby? Neuro cleared him? Good, but I want him to be evaluated by a hand surgeon as well. Yes, Berkowitz is fine -– didn't know she was still there. Right, that should be sufficient for pain. Give him a tetanus booster, and remember he's allergic to cephalosporins. Thank you, Abby."
Another shift as she speaks with Henry's grandmother. Her Spanish is far more fluent than mine and I catch only a word or phrase here and there, but I gather the gist of what she's saying is to assure Florina that no one is to blame. She has a few more loving admonishments for Henry, then finally puts away her phone with a rueful laugh.
"How'd he do it?"
"Ran into a corner of the toolshed while playing soccer with his cousins."
"You sure he's not related to my family?"
"I'm just glad there's only one of him. Hard enough to keep covering up the gray hairs as it is. My colorist should be able to retire after this little adventure."
"I did notice that the carpet doesn't quite match the drapes."
Kerry almost chokes on her water. "The carpet isn't visible on camera."
"That'd be an entirely different kind of show. Not that I'd mind. Bet you'd get a hell of a boost in your ratings, too."
"You're incorrigible." Leaning over the table to kiss me, she murmurs, "Good thing I like you that way."
"Of course I don't mind. It'll give me a chance to catch up on some work of my own. And maybe take a nap in which I actually get some sleep," Kerry says with a sideways glance.
She bumps me with her hip. "Any idea what time you'll be back?"
"Probably early to mid afternoon. Why?"
"No particular reason," she says airily.
Pondering what Kerry might have in mind makes the drive into campus go by quickly. Unfortunately it also diverts my attention from what I'm supposed to be doing.
"Didn't think you'd grace us with your presence."
I look up to see my friend Carolina leaning against the doorjamb. "Shoot me now, Hernandez."
"Nuh unh. You don't get off that easily, Legaspi. Anything promising?" She nods toward the stack of research proposals I've been sifting through.
"The usual suspects -– body image, self-esteem, relationship issues. Half these kids seem to get their ideas from Cosmo quizzes. Oh," I pick out a paper and hand it to her, "then there's this guy."
One eyebrow quirks. " 'Anxiety and Depression in College Life: Co-morbidity and Communality.' Seems to be surprisingly well thought-out and cogent."
"It's also cribbed almost word for word from the abstract of an AJP article written in 2000. I'm kind of torn -– if I have to supervise a semester of undergraduate research, working with someone who has that kind of chutzpah might actually make it entertaining enough to be worthwhile."
"Chutzpah? Or laziness, self-aggrandizement and utter contempt for authority?"
"There is that." I sit back with a sigh.
Carolina hitches herself upright and drops into a chair across from my desk, slinging one long leg across the other. "How'd you get stuck with PSYC 199, anyway?"
"Someone's got to do the scutwork. And you know I'm not tenure track."
She shrugs eloquently. "Still, you must have pissed off someone again."
"I just suggested mildly and ever so politely that our students might benefit if we came down out of our -– "
"You did not say it."
" -– ivory tower every once in a while and got our hands dirty in the real world."
"Bet that went over well."
In reply I pick up the pile of papers and salute her with it.
"Legaspi, when are you going to learn not to rattle cages?" Carolina slouches in her chair, propping her head on her hand. For such a stunning woman, she has atrocious posture. "So how's it going with your lady love? Never mind, I can tell from that shit-eating grin. I'm surprised you could tear yourself out of bed to get down here."
"I'll have you know we've spent very little time in bed."
"And the rest of the time atop, beneath, beside -– "
I pick out a raisin from my container of trail mix and throw it at her; she watches unconcernedly as it bounces off her ample bosom. "You're a riot, Hernandez."
Wide brown eyes regard me levelly. "She have any idea how serious you are about her?"
"I'm trying to let things develop organically. Kerry's got a great life now, a terrific kid, a job she loves; I'm not sure how ready she is to make any major permanent adjustments. And as much as she's changed, there's a tiny voice in the back of my head that keeps piping up to say that the last time I fell for her -– well, as the old song goes, she done stomped on my heart and mashed that sucker flat."
Carolina cracks up. "You know what I'd give to hear you do that the next time we hit karaoke night?"
I pelt her with another raisin. "It would take a hell of a lot of tequila."
"Tell you what," she says, finally sobering. "I'll cover your office hours today so you can go home and resume shagging her brains out." She catches the next raisin with a neat snap of her teeth. "You're going to get ants in here if you keep that up. Why don't you throw some of those M&Ms instead?"
"Because I'm going to eat them. You really don't mind?"
"Course not. Besides, once the kids realize you're not actually here, all the ones who have a crush on you will pack up and leave. It'll be the easiest time I do this week."
Hastily I shove papers into my briefcase and gather the rest of my things. "I owe you one, Hernandez. Thanks."
"De nada. I expect you to invite Michael and me over for dinner to tell us all the smutty details, preferably complete with pictures and diagrams. Now get out of here. And leave the M&Ms."
A mouthwatering scent hits me halfway up the back stairway. Mary Foster Conklin's slyly knowing version of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" slinks over the sound system; I can hear Kerry humming along. Over at the counter, she arranges two neatly folded and crimped parchment packets on a half-sheet pan, then slides the whole thing into the upper oven. Catching sight of me, she greets me with a delighted smile. I drop my briefcase and purse on a corner of the desk and embrace her. "Hey, lady."
Her fingers wind into my hair. She tastes of something tropical, a sweet-tart and faintly musky grace note to the always intriguing depths of her mouth. "Hey, yourself. How was work?"
I smile into our kiss. "Briefer than expected. Hope I gave you enough of a warning. What smells so good?"
"Cauliflower gratin with chèvre and a ton of garlic. You'd better be hungry."
My tongue slowly teases hers. "Always."
Breaking away, she nuzzles my neck with incomparably soft lips. "Lunch will be ready in fifteen minutes."
"Mmm. Wonder what we could possibly do to occupy ourselves for fifteen whole minutes?"
Kerry swats me lightly on the rear. "You could make yourself useful and open that," she says, hooking her thumb at a bottle of Vouvray standing on the bar.
I reluctantly let her go and find the waiter's key in its drawer. Cutting and removing the foil, I center the corkscrew and twist it in, then smoothly lever out the cork with a faint pop. I fetch glasses from a cabinet and pour generously for each of us. "Find everything you need?"
"Yep. Got a good idea of where things are when you made dinner the other night. And your neighborhood markets are pretty amazing."
"They are, aren't they? If I want something they don't usually carry, I just give them a heads up a day or two in advance and they'll special order it for me. I hardly ever have to go to Safeway or Whole Foods." I sniff appreciatively; whatever's in the other oven is adding its own tantalizing aroma to the general atmosphere of deliciousness.
She tosses together the contents of a bowl on the counter. I peek over her shoulder to see an opulent tumble of halved miniature red, yellow, green and purple tomatoes, thinly sliced onion and chiffonaded basil; a swipe of my finger to get a taste of the dressing confirms olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Turning her head, she kisses me just below my jaw. "No sampling," Kerry says sternly.
I wrap my arms around her waist. "You're not exactly deterring me by doing that, you know." She elbows me in the belly. "Oof! Okay, okay. What can I help you with?"
"The tomatoes and salad go out on the deck." Obediently I grab the bowls and take them to the wrought iron table, which has already been set with placemats and silverware. Making sure Kerry's not watching, I sneak a pinch of the salad, which despite its pale colors bursts with flavor: the sharp crunch of celery, anise notes from shaved fennel, a touch of sweetness from a crisp apple, all bound together with olive oil and salt and lemon juice and laced throughout with delicate green fronds of fennel leaves.
Kerry follows with the cauliflower, which is beautifully browned and bubbling in its enameled cast iron baking dish. "Don't burn your tongue," she says with a smirk. I look longingly at the dish but return to the kitchen to fetch our wine.
She removes the sheet pan from the upper oven. The parchment packets have puffed up attractively; I'm a little jealous because I can never get them to stay folded like that unless I staple the tail end. She snips kitchen shears across the tops of the packets, releasing a cloud of savory steam. Widening the openings, she slides a thin angled spatula inside to lift out each packet's contents -– a thick perfectly cooked fillet of some kind of fish resting atop a tangle of finely shredded carrot and leek -– onto a plate, sprinkles a spoonful of gremolata and squeezes a wedge of lemon over each portion, then hands me the plates to take outside.
Bringing out more glasses and a pitcher of ice water with lemon slices floating in it, Kerry gestures for me to sit and closes the door behind us. As she settles into her chair, I kiss her softly. "Everything looks wonderful."
"Wait'll you see what's for dessert." She nibbles gently on my lower lip.
"Oh, I know exactly what I'm having for dessert."
She smiles. "Before that."
"Just thinking about the last time we took a road trip."
"It was pretty, ah, memorable. I think I walked funny for about a week after we got back."
"You walked funny. I was never so thankful for my crutch." She plays her fingers over my hand as it rests on the gearshift knob. "You still haven't told me where we're going."
"You'll have to wait and see."
"Patience is a virtue."
"So is persistence. Considering that we're not doing too well on chastity and temperance, I have to make up ground somewhere."
"Admirable, but I'm not telling you. Don't want to spoil the surprise."
"I don't like surprises."
"You'll like this one. I promise."
She's still adorable when she's grumpy.
Her phone chirps. Kerry digs it out of her purse, laughs and taps away rapidly. "Henry says his grandmother is teaching him how to make morcilla and he just had his hands in a bucket of pig's blood."
"Hope he washed them before he texted you."
"Who knows. I'll let Florina deal with that."
"Ha! With boys you do have to pick your battles when it comes to standards of cleanliness."
"Took me a long time to learn that. I finally realized that no matter how many baby wipes I used on him or how often I bathed him, something was always going to be messy or sticky. I could have an immaculate house and stay perfectly clean, or I could have Henry. Wasn't a difficult choice."
Sarah Vaughan's velvet voice croons "The Nearness of You"; I sing along under my breath.
"Did you ever want kids?" she says after a while.
"No, not really. I mean, I like kids," I say hastily, feeling her eyes on me. "I have about a hundred nieces and nephews, and there's hardly a school break or holiday when I don't have a pack of them staying at my house. I get to have fun being the cool aunt, and then I can send everyone back to their parents. But I've never wanted to have any of my own."
"Because of growing up in such a large family?"
"That's part of it. There was a pretty big gap between me and my youngest siblings; with the age spread among my older sisters and brothers, the bulk of the babysitting fell to me. Definitely had no illusions or romantic ideas about childrearing by the time I left for college."
"Surely you've been with women who had children."
"A few, though it's a factor when I'm considering dating someone. I have to admit that I'm a little hesitant if they have babies or really young ones."
"And if they have older kids?"
I hold her gaze. "Then it would depend on the woman."
She blushes and looks away.
I point out San Pablo Bay and the various small islands as we pass them. Her hand migrates to my thigh; its presence is exceedingly beguiling, as she perfectly well knows. "Still not telling you."
"Napa!" she says suddenly. "We're going to Napa, right?"
I can just make out the Maps app on her phone. "You're cheating."
"No, I'm using an available resource to arrive at a logical conclusion."
"In other words, cheating. Won't do you much good, though, since you still don't know where in Napa." I have to laugh. "It tickles me that you're so technologically savvy now. You used to have that old flip phone that was so basic it didn't even have a camera."
"It was cheap and it worked, at least until the hinge broke. I resisted getting one of these for the longest time, but it really has become indispensable. Henry uses his to FaceTime and Skype with his grandparents. And he got me addicted to Angry Birds."
"You too? It ate about three months of my life. Eventually I had to delete it. Mostly now I just play Words with Friends."
"It's been your move for the past couple of days, by the way."
"There's this insatiable redhead who's been keeping me occupied. Take it up with her."
"You're just stewing because I hit the triple-word space you were angling for."
She's right. Kerry does bring out the competitive streak in me.
The terrain gradually changes, flattening out, with vineyards stretching out to the horizon on either side of the highway. Finally I make the turn at Rutherford, climbing the winding tree-lined road that takes us past more vineyards and up the hill that leads to Auberge du Soleil.
Kerry actually gasps. Feeling inordinately pleased with myself, I lean over to kiss her soundly. "Happy birthday."
"What are we doing?"
I blink, raising up on my elbows so I can see her face. "Considering what I've got lodged where, I'd think that would be moderately obvious." I swivel my hips for emphasis, greedily drinking in her whimpering moan.
"No, I mean, what are we doing? Are we going to be friends with benefits who screw each other senseless whenever we have the chance to meet? Or are we actually going to try to make a long distance -– no, a cross-country relationship work?"
"We can't do both?" She pinches me in a highly sensitive place. "Ow!"
"That was a remarkably insincere semblance of an apology."
She grabs the back of my head and pulls me into a slow deep kiss. "Better?"
"Nnnhh. That is not fair."
"What's not fair?"
"Stop trying to look innocent. That thing you do with your -– ohhh..." Nails dig into my back and shoulders, stinging pleasantly. "I guess I'm a little confused. You invite me here on the pretext that there would be 'no pressure and no expectations,' but then you plan this perfect week and you drop a not-so-small fortune on that resort and the winery tours and dinner at The French Laundry. And I loved everything, which you knew I would, but those are hardly the actions of someone with no expectations."
"As a woman I know once said, what's the point of working like a maniac if you can't spend a little money on your friends?"
"Oh, no you don't, Legaspi." Kerry grasps my chin firmly. "You don't get to play it off like that. What is it you want?"
Bracing on one arm, I caress the curve of her cheek, the outline of her lips. I could drown in the depths of her eyes. "I want you. If you'll have me."
She kisses me again, hard enough to bruise, responding to the pulse of my hips with the same rough urgency.
Much, much later, she's draped bonelessly over me, our bodies separated only by a thin layer of sweat. "Did you mean it?" she murmurs, her lips lazily nuzzling my neck.
I stroke her damp-darkened hair. "Very much."
"It's going to be a logistical headache, you know."
"I'd like to try."
Her tongue caresses mine; she tastes of salt and sex and her own indefinable essence. "Not to mention there'll necessarily be some long irregular intervals between, um, benefits. What about your herd of Nobody Specials?"
I shake my head. "Sent them riding off into the sunset. Haven't been with anyone else since we met up that last time in Chicago."
"Poor you. All alone and left to your own devices."
"Thought you liked my devices."
"I do. Including this one."
"I noticed. So what do you say?"
Kerry manages to gracefully roll upright, the shift in her weight making us both groan. My hands roam over the curves of her torso, her skin palely gleaming in the moonlight streaming through the skylights and windows. "I say you'll have to convince me of the seriousness of your intentions. Matter of fact," she bends to kiss me, "I might need a lot of convincing. You can start any time."
"Mmm. What's the magic word?"
"Works for me."