“It's okay to use a fork.”
Cal smiled at Beth's chagrined face, then adeptly used his chopsticks to eat the shrimp fried rice.
“It takes a bit of practice. Next time I'll order Mu Shu pork.”
“Mu Shu's served with Chinese pancakes. A lot easier than rice when you're learning to use chopsticks.”
“That's a good idea.”
"It's my mother's. I wanted to learn when I was young, but got quickly frustrated. And hungry. So she started serving pancakes for breakfast. Each day she'd cut them into smaller pieces and hand me a pair of chopsticks. It made learning easy and fun."
Beth barely remembered her mother's face, but the memories of Amanda Hollister's indifference were still vivid.
“She must have been a wonderful mother.”
“Still is. Better than I deserve. I disappointed her, but she's never stopped supporting me. In prison, she was my only visitor. She even convinced Gloria to let me see the children again.”
“How old are they?”
“Jed is eleven and Tracy is nine. Gloria obtained a divorce and full custody of the children after I was convicted. Tracy was only two years old. She wouldn't let me see them after I was released.”
“That doesn't seem fair, Cal.”
“I can't blame her. I began selling drugs for extra cash. My career had good prospects. But I was just starting and money was tight. Gloria learned about it and begged me to stop. I swore that I would. She believed me and I betrayed that trust. So why would she believe me after my release? She was trying to protect our children.”
“But you see them now?”
“Yes. Gloria always let the kids visit their grandmother. Eventually, she let me visit them there for a couple hours a week. My mother promised that we would not leave the house and that she would not leave me alone with the children. I was happy to see them on any terms. And my mother's presence really helped. They knew her. Tracy had no memory of me and Jed's were faint. It took time to rebuild. It was almost three years before Gloria let me have time alone with them. Now they stay with me on alternate weekends and we took a vacation together last summer.”
“It sounds as if you've regained her trust. Have you considered a reconciliation?”
“No, she's got a new life now and I'm not a part of it. I'm just grateful for the relationship with my children.”
He paused a moment.
“I can't believe we're talking about this, Beth. It's certainly not first date material. Next you'll be telling me about your old boyfriends. You were too young to be married, right?”
“Right. Although I was engaged for a while. Don't worry about old boyfriend tales, the list was pretty short.”
The conversation lightened and they enjoyed the rest of their meal, lingering over another cup of tea and fortune cookies.
“Your wealth will be vaster than the stars.”, Cal read. “What does yours say. Beth?”
“Fortunes are like birthday wishes, Cal. They don't come true if you reveal them.”
“In that case, I've just ruined my chance to be rich. Care to go for a walk with a pauper?”
They left the restaurant laughing. The sun was bright, but the air was crisp. She mentally thanked Cassandra for loaning a black fringed shawl. They continued to chat and stopped occasionally to admire merchandise in the small storefronts. Her enjoyment was tempered by aching feet. The slingbacks were gorgeous, but not intended for long walks. She said nothing, hating to end the moment. Soon the ache turned to pain and Cal became aware of her plight.
“Beth, I'm so sorry. I should have realized. Let's head back to the car.”
They started back. She struggled not to wince at each step.
He turned and lifted her into his arms.
“No, Cal. I can walk.”
“No sense in blistering your feet, Beth. Just relax.”
Relax? How? She felt the strength of his arms and the warmth of his body. The clean scent of soap mingled with that subtle male muskiness. She sensed more than saw the scrutiny of his dark eyes. Imagined the feel of those sensuous lips. Emotions restrained during years of incarceration began to break free. The intensity sent shivers up her spine.
She didn't trust her voice. Then realized there was no need to speak. He knew.
He stopped and bent his head. His lips brushed lightly across hers. Then returned. Firmer. Testing. Tasting. The world receded.
A car horn returned them to the present. Cal resumed walking. Beth searched for words but found none. In a few minutes they reached his car. Cal started to drive. Finally he broke the silence.
“I'm sorry for my impetuousness, Beth. This is our first date, but I've been wanting to do that for two months. I promise to behave. I'm not ready for this date to end.”
“Neither am I. Although you're going to get tired of carrying me.”
They laughed and the tension eased.
“Take those shoes off, Beth. I've got an idea.”
She sighed in relief and wiggled her toes.
“I fear that a career as a fashion model is out of the question.”
He gave her a look that said otherwise. Tension returned. Beth grew quiet and gazed out her window. Soon Cal turned into a shopping plaza and parked the car.
“I'll be back in a few minutes.”
She was content to stay. Cal had been gone for a couple minutes before she realized that one of the slingbacks was missing.
“Try these. I hope you like them.”
Cal returned the missing slingback and handed her a shoebox. Inside were a pair of black leather loafers.
“Try them on. I want to be sure that they don't hurt your feet.”
The look of pure bliss on her face assured him that they didn't.
“They're wonderful, Cal. So soft. But I really shouldn't accept them.”
“Only candy or flowers? I know it's not proper and it certainly isn't romantic, but you need a comfortable pair of shoes. If you must, consider it a business investment. I can't have the newest sample distributor hobbling around on blistered feet.”
“Or the meat manager suffering from a broken back? Don't say otherwise, Cal. I'm not that light. Thank you for the shoes and for your thoughtfulness.”
“You're welcome, Beth. Feel up to doing something else now?”
“What do you have in mind?”
She caught that look on his face again and regretted her choice of words.
“There's a planetarium nearby. They have a 2pm show. We'd have time to see the afternoon show and return you to Redemption House before supper.”
“I've never been to a planetarium, Cal. But I'm sure I'd love it.“
The show was wonderful. Beth relaxed. When Cal slipped his arm around her, she rested her head against him. Time passed quickly as they enjoyed the night-like surroundings and the beauty of the star show.
They kept the conversation light on the ride back. Far too soon, Cal pulled the car to a stop in front of Redemption House.
“I've had a wonderful day, Cal. Thank you so much.”
“It was wonderful for me too, Beth. Our schedules won't make it easy, but we must work at finding more time together.”
Cal turned towards her and placed a gentle hand against her cheek. Then he leaned forward and Beth met him halfway. Their kiss was tender, but lingering. Finally they separated.
“I'll see you in the morning, working girl.”
He watched until the door hid her from his view. As she rode up the elevator, Beth drew the Chinese fortune from her pocket.
Your heart is a place to draw true happiness.
Good friends, a new job and now Cal. Her heart had felt empty for so long. The drawing was not complete, but it it had begun to fill her heart with warmth and color.
Cassandra and Judith had insisted on preparing supper, but wouldn't reveal their menu. She hoped it was a success. Cassandra's confidence could use the boost. Judith had quiet self-assurance, but Cassandra couldn't see her own skills. Suddenly Beth couldn't wait to see them and hurried towards the kitchen.
Judith sat at the worktable, but there were no signs of dinner.
“Is everything alright, Judith? Where's Cassandra?”
Judith turned towards her, revealing a face streaked by tears.
From behind Beth came the haughty voice of Lord's Servant Margaret.
“Cassandra is no longer with us.”
Want to read more? Check back next Saturday for the next installment.
Don't forget to head over to the Weekend Writers' Retreat to enjoy submissions from more authors.