Wendy Avery had something on her mind. The something just happened to be Bob, her business partner.
She couldn’t really have said when it started, but she thought it was probably sometime after he’d broken his leg. All right, if she was being honest with herself, it was the same day he’d broken his leg. Because that was the day Bob had told her, under the tongue-loosening influence of a hefty dose of painkillers, that she was pretty and smart and nice, and all in a manner of other wonderful things; that day, she’d realized that her outwardly very professional partner had actually seen her in something other than a professional way, and that he’d been putting some thought into what he’d seen.
Bob McKinney had a crush on her. And Wendy couldn’t deny that, since that awful day, she’d been starting to crush back. Why else would she still be carrying around his handkerchief like some wide-eyed little schoolgirl? Just thinking about the fact that she still had the handkerchief was embarrassing to her, but Wendy couldn’t seem to make herself return it to him – and of course, the longer she had it, the more impossibly embarrassing the situation became. Especially since she’d taken to carrying it around in her pocket every day, ostensibly so that she could give it back to him when the opportunity arose.
Not that it was ever going to arise, of course; he’d tried to hide the handkerchief from her the day he’d broken his leg, he’d be absolutely mortified if he ever found out that she’d not only seen it but kept it. And Wendy carefully avoided asking herself why she just hadn’t put the handkerchief back where it belonged some day when Bob wasn’t at home, thereby avoiding embarrassment for them both.
Actually, she’d been trying to avoid a lot of the thoughts she was having about Bob lately. He was a puzzle, this busy builder who seemingly had no life outside of his job. Which he loved doing, there was no question about that. Wendy was quite sure Bob got out of bed with a smile on his face every morning, looking forward to another day of doing all the things he loved to do – building things, fixing things, and running around helping people. He’d never, in all the six months she’d known him, said no to anyone unless it was “no problem” – Bob’s standard response when asked if he could do something for someone. She’d never seen him irritated; she’d never seen him mad. Part of that had to be because of the decency clause, but Wendy had a feeling that Bob had just been an even-tempered, pleasant person to begin with.
Which made it even more puzzling that he was still unattached at thirty-three. Bob occasionally went up to Fred Pickles’ farm for a night of poker with his friends, but other than that he didn’t seem to have a social life, or to be looking for one. Mavis Keller, who helped John Dixon with the mail, had apparently been trying to get Bob’s attention ever since he’d set foot on the island, but he either hadn’t noticed (which, knowing Bob, was entirely possible) or he just wasn’t interested. Wendy had considered the possibility that her partner’s interests fell on a different side of the fence, but according to her neighbor Mrs. Lykins, Lucas Lewis who ran the café had checked on that possibility himself and had met with even less success than Mavis. Wendy might have concluded from all this that Bob was just one of those people who liked being alone…except that it was really quite obvious he wasn’t. He was open, friendly, and thoughtful. He did not use being horribly overworked – ‘busy’, in his terms – as an excuse for not making time for other people. Bob cared, probably more than anyone else Wendy had ever met. So why was he living all alone with only a spoiled cat for company?
Wendy was also carefully avoiding asking herself why Bob being alone was on her mind so much lately. There wasn’t anything personal between them – until he’d broken his leg, Bob hadn’t showed any more interest in her than he had in Mavis or Lucas. And Wendy hadn’t and wouldn’t consider trying to start something with Bob. He was her business partner, their relationship had to stay professional. There was also the decency clause to consider. Not to mention that her father would have hated Bob with a passion; Jack Avery had been a contractor himself and had always had a very low opinion of workaholics. He wouldn’t even have approved of Wendy being Bob’s partner in the building yard, something her sister Jenny had mentioned the last time they’d talked on the phone.
Which was why Wendy hadn’t told Jenny about the handkerchief and wasn’t going to. She was just going to have to figure the problem of Bob and her sudden preoccupation with him out on her own.
In spite of the security restrictions, it wasn’t that unusual for people from the outside world to visit Sunflower Valley. Some of them were visiting with an eye to seeing if they wanted to relocate there – that kind were interested in housing, school, and neighbors. Mr. Bentley showed them around town and surreptitiously ‘arranged’ for them to run across Fred or Bob with one or more of their machines at work, just to see how the visitor reacted. People who didn’t react well usually didn’t stay long after that; there were plenty of jobs at the mainland facility, after all. And some people just couldn’t accept being in close proximity to talking, thinking machines.
But then there were others who were more than accepting. One physicist, a single father who had brought his four-year-old son along with him to look over the town, had been on the short ‘walking tour’ of Sunflower Valley when they’d gone past a construction site where Bob was out working, and the boy had dashed into the middle of the machines in what anywhere else could have ended in a horrendous tragedy. Not in Sunflower Valley, though. The first machine to spot the boy had frozen in place, all the others had followed suit, and Bob had quite casually ordered, “Okay, nobody move; we have a visitor!” while he strolled over to greet the wide-eyed child and gently informed him that it wasn’t safe to be in a construction area without a hard hat and special boots. Then he’d picked the boy up and carried him back to his father, smilingly introduced himself as ‘Bob’, and welcomed the man to Sunflower Valley, expressing hope that he and his son would choose to stay. And then he’d excused himself back to his work, and after a cheery round of see-you-later’s from the machines the job had swung back into motion. The physicist had almost refused to leave the island to pack. He and his son were still there, too, living in a little house on Third Street. Mr. Bentley loved telling that story.
Other visitors, however, did not come with any sort of intention to stay. These were visiting scientists, only there to oversee a project phase or contribute their expertise to research and development – there was a lot more going on in Sunflower Valley and on Sol Island than just Project Sunflower. The scientists stayed in dormitory-style accommodations within the lab compound and were only rarely seen in town unless weather or some other delay kept them from leaving on schedule. Not having been cleared to work with the machines, most of them were ‘discouraged’ from leaving the compound even then, and truth be told most of them didn’t want to anyway.
Most of them. But not Dr. Chester Langfield.
Dr. Langfield was an evolutionary geneticist. He’d been working at the mainland headquarters off and on for several years, and he’d come to the Sol Island facility to oversee the critical phase of a particular genome project. But while he was there he’d decided there was something else in Sunflower Valley that he’d like to spend some time on as well, and that decision drew him out of the compound and into the center of town on the very first day he arrived.
He walked through the front gate of the building yard and immediately saw what he’d come there to find. “Wendy!”
“Chester?” Wendy was surprised, to say the least. She’d met Chester while she was at the mainland training center, and they’d gone out on a few dates. She had never expected to see him on the island. Still… “It’s good to see you!” she told him, crossing the yard to meet him before he could come too far in; as far as she knew, Chester wasn’t cleared to work with the machines, and three of them were in the yard. “What brings you to Sunflower Valley?”
He took the hand she offered and kissed it instead of shaking it. “I wish I could say you, but that would only be partially true,” he told her. “I’m overseeing part of a project at the lab, but I knew I couldn’t be this close and not come see the most beautiful woman on the island.”
Wendy blushed, moving to herd him back toward the sidewalk and away from the avidly interested machines. Chester may or may not have known that he was treading close to the gray edges of the decency clause, not that she thought he would care too much if he did know, but Wendy did know and she had to care – not only did her job depend on it, but so did the mental and emotional well-being of the machines in the yard. “It might be better if we met someplace else, maybe after I’m done with work for the day,” she told him awkwardly. “The building yard isn’t really the place for…this.”
Chester let himself be moved back outside the thick walls, but he took her hand and squeezed it. “I quite understand,” he said. “You’ll have to forgive me for getting carried away in front of your machines. But you are having dinner with me tonight, Wendy, I stopped by so early on purpose to make sure you had no other plans. Seven o’clock all right with you?”
“That would be fine.” Something occurred to her. “But I don’t live…”
“I know where you live. I’ll be on your doorstep at seven.” He made a show of looking around the neighborhood, possibly the entire town, and raised an eyebrow. “Casual dress, I believe – wouldn’t want to shock the natives. Until then, adieu.”
Wendy watched him walk away, jaunty and whistling, feeling a little bit helpless in the face of Chester’s all-knowingness…but just a little bit excited, too. She had a date tonight!
At exactly six forty-five, Chester Landfield walked back up the sidewalk to the building yard and went through the open gate. It was just a short stop on his way to pick Wendy up for dinner, but it was something that needed to be done – he would have done it earlier, but the person who ran the building yard was only certain to be encountered at his actual place of business in the evenings. He was there now, cleaning some equipment while the machines he worked with looked on, and when he straightened and turned to greet his visitor Chester saw that he had even less to be concerned about than he’d originally believed. The man was short and heavyset with blunt features, not in Wendy’s league at all and certainly not in his own. “Mr. McKinney?”
A frown flickered across the man’s face. “Mr. McKinney is my father,” he said, very clearly, obviously for the machines’ benefit. “I’m Bob.”
“ ‘Bob’, then,” Chester drawled. “Dr. Chester Langfield. I stopped by to speak with you about your business partner. She and I became quite well acquainted when she was assigned to headquarters.” He let a slightly smug smile twitch at one corner of his mouth. “I’ll be on the island for a week, possibly two, and I wished to let you know that I intend to be taking up a good deal of Wendy’s time. We won’t be having any difficulties over that, will we?”
The man blinked at him, seemingly surprised, and his eyes narrowed ever-so-slightly. “Does Wendy already know you’re on the island, Dr. Langfield, or are you planning to surprise her?”
Ah, so she hadn’t told her business partner about their date, or about Chester being there at all. Interesting and promising. “Of course she knows,” Chester said, sounding surprised. “I stopped in to see her this morning, and I’m on my way to escort her to dinner. I just thought I’d best come have a little chat with you about the situation first.” He smiled, a little smugly. “I wouldn’t want to be the cause of difficulties if she happened to come in late tomorrow.”
This time the other man’s reaction was much easier to read, although just as quickly concealed. He took a few steps forward, revealing a moderate limp that dragged at his right leg, and spoke in a lower voice. “This isn’t an appropriate conversation to have here, Dr. Langfield. And Wendy is a full partner in the business, she sets her own schedule.”
“Of course,” Chester agreed. “I suppose that’s why she didn’t mention me to you.” He let the smile slip out again. “I didn’t think there could possibly be anything between the two of you, but one never knows what may develop in a place like this where opportunities for social interaction are so limited. It had occurred to me that Wendy may have settled for what was available and convenient; I’m glad to hear that isn’t the case. I’ll just be on my way, then. Thank you for setting my concerns to rest.”
“No problem,” the other man told him, then turned and limped back to his work. Chester left the yard and continued down the sidewalk toward Wendy’s house, checking his watch. That had taken even less time than he’d expected.
He paid no attention to the short, portly man with the square-framed glasses who he passed on the sidewalk just outside the building yard’s walls, and therefore did not notice the shocked, angry look on the man’s face. If Chester had noticed it, he might have also seen the man give the building yard’s open gate a thoughtful, worried look before turning and hurrying off in the opposite direction.
The next morning, Wendy showed up for work at her usual time, and if Bob looked a little bit like he hadn’t had much sleep she didn’t really think much about it – she was too busy thinking about how nice it had been to go out on a date after work instead of just going home. And they also had a full day of jobs scheduled, some of which had to be re-scheduled when Mr. Bentley came around to the yard with a new project; some residents had proposed that they have a community party, an event where the adults could relax and enjoy themselves without children or machines in attendance. The proposal had just been approved by Charlie the night before, and Mr. Bentley needed to approve a site where the event could safely be held, someplace far enough away that the machines couldn’t see or hear the party but yet close enough to town so that everyone could walk there without it being inconvenient enough to discourage people from coming.
Bob had, surprisingly, stopped Wendy when she’d tried to take on several of his day’s scheduled jobs so that he could go survey potential sites for the party and report them to Mr. Bentley so a choice could be made and the rest of the plans could be set in motion. “You don’t have to do that,” he’d told her quietly, shaking his head. “Nothing on the list today is urgent. I’ll either be a little late getting done or I’ll call and reschedule them, it’s no big deal. You deserve to have to have a life outside of work.”
Wendy was never sure, later, why that last statement hadn’t raised all kinds of alarm bells in her mind. At the time, though, she’d just smiled and agreed with him that yes, it was nice to have a life outside of work, and then she’d taken her original list and gotten started. Because she did actually have another date with Chester that evening, and she wanted to be finished with work in time to go home and get cleaned up beforehand.
The next day, Wendy was once again at work at her usual time. It was Wednesday, which was normally her in-office day, but today she’d shown up in jeans just in case she needed to pitch in with the community party project. Bob was working in the office when she got there, printing off some plans he’d apparently drawn up the night before and which would be going to Mr. Bentley later that morning. He took his list of jobs with him when he left, and if the two of them didn’t have much conversation Wendy attributed it to his being preoccupied with the plans and the logistics of the upcoming party. And in truth, she’d been preoccupied too, because she was thinking about Chester, and she’d been somewhat relieved when her partner had left because she’d needed to think undisturbed and undistracted.
In a way, it was flattering to have a man like Chester Langfield paying so much attention to her. He was thirty-five and already at the top of his field; word was – his word, mostly – that he was expected to receive a Nobel prize before he turned forty. He was rich, both by birth and as a consequence of his own brilliance, and he could be devastatingly charming when he wanted to be. Unfortunately brilliance had made him arrogant, wealth had made him contemptuous of everyone who had less than he did, and his charm could wear a little thin.
Or at lot thin, if someone wasn’t disposed to overlook the man’s snobbishness. Wendy wasn’t, at least not any more, and so in spite of being flattered by his attentions she was quickly coming to the conclusion that she’d had just about enough of Chester – even if it was only three days into his visit to the island. Meaning she’d already decided to tell him that she was going to be busy with work for the rest of the week and wouldn’t be able to spend any more time with him. Which turned out not to be necessary, as Chester didn’t show up at all that morning, even though he’d mentioned stopping by to ‘surprise’ her for lunch the night before, and he still hadn’t stopped by before Wendy decided to take a late lunch at the café early that afternoon.
The lunch rush, if you could call it that in a place as small as Sunflower Valley, was long over by the time Wendy reached Luigi’s Café, so she wasn’t surprised when the only person who came out in response to the bell was the owner, Lucas Lewis. What did surprise her was that he took a seat across from her and instead of his usual greeting asked, “No Chester today?”
The question startled her. “No, I haven’t seen him today. Why?”
Lucas folded his arms on top of the table. “Were you expecting to see him today?”
“I thought he might stop by the building yard this morning,” she answered slowly, not understanding his intensity. “He can be rather…insistent when he wants something.” She hesitated, then added, “I was going to tell him I was busy the rest of this week. Going out on a few dates was fun, but Chester gets tiresome after a while.”
“After a very short while, apparently.” Lucas looked somewhat relieved. “I don’t suppose anyone has mentioned what else your not-so-charming Dr. Langfield had been up to in town, have they?” When she shook her head, he relaxed the rest of the way and made a face. “I didn’t think so. So you didn’t know about his visit to the building yard Monday evening, hmm?”
“Chester came by the yard…why?” Wendy wanted to know, puzzled. “He said he knew where I lived, he shouldn’t have had to ask for directions…”
“Oh, that wasn’t what he wanted at all – at least, not from Bob,” Lucas told her. “You see, Martin Beasley was walking past right about the same time Chester was going in, he heard most of the conversation Chester had stopped to have with Bob before picking you up. Mainly the part about how he hadn’t thought you’d be involved with your business partner, although he hadn’t been sure if you had ‘settled for what was available’ because the town is so small. And his very blatant innuendos that he was doing significantly more with you than just taking you out for dinner.”
Wendy’s mouth dropped open. “I never…I haven’t…that’s terrible! He said that in front of the machines?” Lucas nodded. “Why on earth didn’t Bob tell me?”
Lucas raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Wendy, as one blonde to another, I know you’re smarter than that.” He shook his head when she blushed and looked away. “I have to admit, I’m relieved you didn’t know.”
“I would never have expected Chester to…I mean, I didn’t have a relationship with him!” she exclaimed. She felt horrified and sick. “We’d only gone out on a couple of dates while I was at the training center, before I came to the island. Chester didn’t have any reason to…”
“Try to knock out the competition?” Lucas finished for her. He smirked. “Luv, I may not know the man, but I know the type – and the fact that Bob existed was reason enough for him. His kind don’t tolerate any other pieces on the playing field, whether they’re an actual threat to him or not. Martin said it was all he could do not to accost the bugger right there on the sidewalk, he looked so satisfied with himself when he came out of the yard.” He paused, not quite hesitating. “Chester’s off the island, by the way, and he’ll most likely never be allowed back – Martin called in a complaint to headquarters.” He decided not to mention that several other people Martin had ranted to had also called headquarters to complain, or that one of those people had been Aaron Bentley – Martin had stopped into the café for a late breakfast that morning and snickeringly told Lucas all about Aaron’s blistering condemnation of Langfield’s behavior and the very loud phone call he’d made wherein he’d repeated it all to the lab supervisor prior to demanding that the physicist not be allowed out of the labs until he could be removed from the island for improper conduct.
Lucas also wasn’t going to tell Wendy that Dr. Johnson had stopped by that morning as well, having followed Martin to the café so he could talk to him about what he’d heard. Or that both men had been worried about Bob, and he was too. Wendy wasn’t the only person on the island who’d noticed how lonely their overworked builder was, and they all knew that he’d fallen hard for his business partner – the arrival of an arsehole like Chester had not done the situation any favors.
Bob, of course, knew none of this; it was a busy day and he was a busy builder, and work was almost enough to keep him from thinking about Chester Langfield. And Wendy. And so he made small talk with Fred Pickles while he was fixing the farmer’s fence – again – secure in the knowledge that nobody knew what had happened.
Fred, of course, had heard about Bob’s encounter with Chester Langfield because both Todd and Martin had called him up and told him, and they had all agreed that Wendy more than likely hadn’t known a thing about it. Even with Langfield gone, though, they still had a problem - namely, the fact that their builder’s self-confidence had been badly shaken. Bob was drooping, that was the only word for it.
Leaning on the fence, Fred considered his young friend carefully. Bob wasn’t classically handsome, but he was a good-looking young man – ‘cute and cuddly’ was how Mavis at the post office described him. If he’d been paying attention – which he usually wasn’t – he probably could have had his pick of half the unattached women on the island or a good third of the men. Bob never seemed to notice all the flirting, though, and when he did he brushed it off.
And then Charlie had started playing matchmaker, damn him, and Bob had fallen head over heels in love. With a woman who seemed bound and determined to keep their relationship strictly professional, probably at least in part because hers and Bob’s versions of the decency clause were so strict that a good-night kiss could have gotten them both fired – Fred and Todd were both pretty unhappy with Charlie for not considering that before he’d hand-picked a pretty little blonde contractor to saddle Bob with.
Fred wasn’t going to discuss that with Bob, though. Just like he wasn’t going to discuss Chester Langfield and the island’s abrupt lack thereof with Bob right away either. He knew he had to get Bob to talk about the situation, though, so he waited for the right moment and then let fly. “So, I heard Wendy’s had a gentleman caller hanging around town the past couple of days, huh?”
Bob missed a nail and almost hit his hand instead. He grimaced. “Dr. Langfield? Yeah, he’s apparently over at the labs overseeing a project. I guess he and Wendy were dating when she was at the mainland training center.”
Fred frowned. “Are they still dating?”
This time the nail bent; Bob straightened it back out. “I don’t know. He seems to think they are.”
“I don’t think they are, since she’s never mentioned him before. Has she ever mentioned him to you?”
Ooh, there was the reaction he’d been waiting for. Bob’s jaw clenched so tight it was almost audible. “No, not even when he was here.”
Fred had known that, and thought it was actually a good sign – if Wendy hadn’t had any feelings for Bob, she wouldn’t have hesitated to talk to him about Langfield. “Oh,” was all he said, however. “Well, he’s not here anymore, so I guess it doesn’t really matter.”
This time, Bob laid the hammer down. His brown eyes had narrowed, but instead of looking angry he mainly just looked tired. “Fred…just spit it out, please.”
“Martin was passing the yard when Langfield made his little visit to you,” Fred told him. “He wasn’t too happy with what he heard. So he complained, and Charlie recalled Langfield to the mainland…from what I understood, forever. He’s not ever coming back.”
To his surprise, Bob drooped even further, and then sat down on the pile of fenceposts, covering his eyes with his hands. “Oh no, she’s going to think I did it…”
“I doubt that, since everyone who knows knows Martin did it. And Wendy’s not stupid, Bob, if she hadn’t figured Langfield’s game out already, I’m sure she would have pretty quickly and she’d have shown him the road.”
“I don’t know,” Bob admitted. “I…I don’t think she’d have approved of the way he was acting, no, but…they seemed to have a lot in common, she seemed happy to be going out with him. And Wendy likes to do a lot of things that I…can’t.”
That, Fred reflected, was true, especially lately. Without meaning to, Fred’s eyes strayed down to Bob’s right leg, the one he’d broken just over two months ago. The cast had finally come off but the younger man was still limping, and even though he never actually complained about it Fred could tell that it sometimes still hurt him. The one complaining was Todd; he’d been trying to get Bob in for some physical therapy for weeks now, but the stubborn builder always said he was too busy and that he was getting enough exercise at work anyway…
Exercise! That was it! Fred couldn’t hold back his grin. “You know, that is something we may be able to fix,” he told Bob, and pulled out his cell phone. “Todd,” he greeted jovially when the doctor answered, “No, it’s not that kind of emergency, I just had a brilliant idea…ha, ha, very funny. But I think I just figured out how to solve a couple of problems we’ve been having. How does killing two birds with one stone sound to you?”