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Authors: Robin Jones Gunn

Echoes (9 page)

BOOK: Echoes
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A tug-of-war began inside of Lauren. She wanted to go to the picnic, but part of her wanted to stay right here, in front of her computer for the rest of the day, waiting for a reply from KC and then responding back to him. She hoped her letter hadn’t sounded too personal. The words had come so naturally as she wrote them.

Lauren laced up her tennis shoes, packed her salad and chips, and headed for the front door. As she left her apartment and stepped lightly down the stairs, she wondered about KC. What did he look like? Was he old? Young? Where did he live? Was he married? She didn’t think he was. Why would he correspond so freely with a woman who was obviously young and single if he were married? Was he possibly interested in her? How could he be after a few simple letters?

Cranking the key in the ignition, Lauren reminded herself that Robert and Elizabeth had met through only a few simple letters. She remembered from her paper the first line of the first letter Robert wrote her: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett.”

“With all my heart,” Lauren repeated aloud as she came to a stop sign. The romance fairies had begun their work, sprinkling their dream dust all over her thoughts until reality became quite clouded. All Lauren could think of was that someday, somehow, somewhere, a man would say to her, “I love your letters with all my heart, dear Miss Phillips.”

Chapter Eight

C
entennial Park brimmed to nearly overflowing with picnickers as Lauren drove through the parking lot a second time looking for a spot. None of the carefully lined up cars were budging. She gave up and drove three blocks away before finding a spot. As Lauren hiked through the muggy September afternoon with her salad in her arms, she wondered if all the lettuce would turn to mush before she found the group from the bank.

Her coworkers were already lined up to eat, so Lauren quickly slipped her salad onto the end of the table and removed the foil covering it. Ripping open the bag of tortilla chips with her teeth, she sprinkled them on top and then wedged the bag next to the bowl for anyone who wanted more. It was a delicious salad, one she had learned to make from Teri, her college roommate.

Lauren said hi to a few of the people standing around her and was about to make her way to the end of the line when
someone called her name. “Lauren? Lauren Phillips? It is Lauren, isn’t it?”

She turned to see the large, annoying eyes of the man who had bought Jeff and her champagne and dinner at The Ambassador.

“Garry Taft,” he said, stretching out his hand to shake hers. Then looking around he added, “Where’s Jeff? Did he come down for the weekend?”

Everyone was looking at Lauren, or so she felt. She toned her answer a few notches lower than Garry’s question and said, “Jeff isn’t here. We aren’t together anymore.”

Garry instantly turned into Mr. Sympathy. His brown eyes seemed to change from annoying to weepy puppy-dog eyes. “Oh, Lauren, I didn’t know. Jeff never said anything. I assumed you were in New York. If I’d known, I would have called you. Are you doing all right?”

“I’m fine, thank you.” Lauren nervously pinched the tablecloth. She glanced around to see if Mindy might be near and could help her out of this awkward situation. She didn’t notice that Garry was reaching for her arm. He tenderly grasped it and pulled it toward himself in a gesture of concern. Lauren was still pinching the vinyl tablecloth, and as Garry tugged on her arm, the cloth came with it, upsetting the two salad bowls on the end of the table.

In one spastic motion, a bowl of potato salad and Lauren’s bowl of taco salad toppled over onto her bare legs and tennis shoes. “Look out!” Garry cried, after the incident was over. “I mean, are you okay?”

A glob of green guacamole clung to her right knee. Her shoes were covered with sour cream, wilting lettuce, and crumpled tortilla chips.

“Entirely my fault,” Garry said, stooping to help by running his hand down her leg, smearing the guacamole.

“That’s okay,” Lauren said, brushing his hand off her leg.

“I’ll find some napkins for you.”

A crowd had gathered around her at the end of the line, their plates heaped with food. Lauren tried to move out of the way. An older woman offered her a napkin, and one of the men from the loan department handed her a bottle of water to use. Garry returned with a heap of napkins and more apologies.

She could hear Jeff’s voice echoing in her head.
“These things seem to happen to you, Lauren.”

“I’m fine,” she said to Garry and the others standing around. She scooped the ruined salad, along with the wad of potato salad on the ground, into the broken teakwood salad bowl and carried it to the nearest trash can. It upset her that she had spent all that time and expense on her deluxe salad and now it was ruined. And her bowl was broken. A memory flashed through her mind of Jeff saying the bowl was cheaply made when she bought it. She didn’t want to think about Jeff. And she didn’t want to spend another second around Garry.

“Hey, you!” Mindy called from a few yards away. She and Leon were walking across the grass toward Lauren. Mindy waved and tugged on Leon’s arm, urging him to move faster. He held a big salad bowl in his hands.

“Can you believe this crowd?” Mindy asked from behind her sunglasses. “We had to park five blocks away. Are we too late? Is everything gone?”

“No, there’s plenty—” Before she could finish she heard Garry’s voice behind her.

“Here’s a plate for you, Lauren. Are you ready to get in line with me?”

Mindy pulled down her sunglasses and gave Garry a close examination over the top of the rims. Then she turned to Lauren for an explanation.

Without even turning around to look at Garry, Lauren said,
“Garry, these are my friends Mindy and Leon. This is Garry, ah …”

“Taft,” he said, filling in for her memory lapse. He stretched out a hand to shake with Leon and then Mindy.

“Jeff used to work with Garry,” Lauren said to Mindy.

Mindy’s lips formed a silent, “Oh.”

“You arrived at the right time with that salad,” Garry said, eyeing the covered bowl in Leon’s arm. “I hope it’s potato salad!” Garry was about an inch shorter than Lauren and that made him more than a foot shorter than Leon.

“It’s taco salad,” Mindy said. “I made it from your recipe, Lauren. Remember that one you made when Leon and I came over last spring?”

“Oh, yeah,” Lauren said dryly. “I know just the salad.”

“What do you say we all grab ourselves some food before it’s gone?” Garry suggested, leading the way back to the table as the three of them followed their unchosen leader.

Mindy set her salad bowl on the newly opened spot at the end of the table and said, “Look at this, Leon. Someone else brought tortilla chips. I told you it didn’t matter that I forgot them.”

Lauren bit the inside of her mouth. More and more she was liking the idea of going home and writing another letter to KC. She had never told Mindy about KC, partly because the e-mail system she had going with her brother and with KC never had come up as a topic of conversation. The deeper reason, though, was that she didn’t want Mindy or anyone else to give her any negative feedback about KC. She didn’t want to be cautioned, teased, or counseled. All she wanted was for her easy, private, and often soothing communication with this unknown man to continue unhindered by anyone or anything.

“Over here, Lauren.” Garry flagged her to the front of the line with the paper plate in his hand. Leon, Mindy, and Lauren
joined him as Lauren said to Mindy between clenched teeth, “Don’t you dare leave me alone with him. Not even for one second. Do you understand?”

“Got it,” Mindy said.

Garry handed each of them plates. Mindy used hers as a fan. “So, Garry,” she said, “what brings you to this gathering of money-changers?”

“Didn’t you know? I’m your adman. You know the billboard with the puppies for sale at the ATM machine? That was my brainstorm.” Garry reached for a burger. Instead of putting it on his plate, he put it on Lauren’s. With a smile he said, “Ladies first. That’s what I always say.”

Lauren was furious. The puppies had been her idea, which she had told Jeff, and he had presented it to his committee. The ad idea occurred to her when she saw a boy stand by the front door of the bank last Christmas with a box of kittens for sale. After two hours of hard peddling, he had come into her teller window and asked if she could give him a fresh twenty-dollar bill for his pocketful of kitten profit.

She didn’t mind Jeff using her idea or getting the credit for it. At least at the time she hadn’t. It had made her feel a part of his world. But for Garry to say it was his idea was something else. If her salad hadn’t already been dumped, she would have dumped it over his head.

When they sat down, Lauren turned her back to Garry and purposefully didn’t eat the hamburger he had put on her plate. She didn’t enter into the conversation but kept her mind whirling, trying to think of how to get rid of Garry. Fortunately Mindy had been socializing and formulating a plan at the same time.

“Isn’t that Justin McKinley over by the volleyball court?” Mindy said, flipping down her sunglasses to have a better look. “I’ve been looking for him. Will you all excuse me?”

Lauren flashed her a “don’t leave me” look. Too late. Mindy was up and gone. At least Leon had been carrying the conversation with Garry. They were going through all the businesses in town with which Anchor Advertising had an account. Garry flexed his intellectual muscles for Leon by reciting ad slogans for each business.

Mindy came back right away, announcing that Justin needed one more player for his team—a woman—and Lauren was his choice. Lauren didn’t mind a bit. She loved volleyball. It would also allow her to keep her distance from the marketing maniac.

“Great,” she said, hopping up. Then, as firmly as she could, she added, “Good-bye, Garry,” hoping it would sound like the dismissal she intended it to be.

“Ciao
, baby,” he said, winking one of his cow eyes at her. “You go knock ’em dead!”

Lauren gave Mindy’s arm a little squeeze of thanks and jogged over to the volleyball court. Her legs felt sticky from the guacamole. White and green specks still clung to her shoe laces.

“Hi,” Lauren said, a bit breathless and perhaps a bit too eagerly. “Mindy said you needed another player.”

Charming, southern Justin McKinley put his arm around Lauren’s shoulders and said, “You stick with me, darlin’. I’ll keep that barracuda away from you.”

Mindy, you weren’t supposed to tell him about Garry!

Justin was one of the leaders of the career group Lauren had begun to attend at church after she and Jeff broke up.

“What barracuda?” Lauren said coyly. She liked Justin from the first day she had visited the group. He had an easygoing manner, a great sense of humor, was a natural leader, and looked like a movie star: tall, tanned, and athletic. He was someone she wouldn’t mind getting to know better. The
chances of that had improved considerably when, two weeks ago, Justin had showed up at the bank. He had just been hired to work for a radio station that had its office on the fifth floor of their building.

“You mean to say you’re not interested in my protection services?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lauren said with a smile in her voice. “I came over here to play some serious volleyball.”

“That’s what I want to hear,” Justin said. He left his arm looped around her shoulder and told her to stick with him, and they would rotate in.

Lauren peeked over her shoulder. Yes, Garry was watching her.

“You know,” Justin said, tilting his head slightly toward hers, still watching the game, “I would kiss your lips right here and now and give him a good show, but I don’t kiss on first dates.”

“This isn’t a first date,” Lauren answered playfully.

“Then we’ll have to go on one. What do you say? This Friday night? You and me, and we’ll leave the barracuda at home.”

“How do I know you’re not a barracuda in disguise?” Lauren said.

“I’m not a barracuda. I’m a vegetarian. Now will you go out with me? I know a great place for salads.”

“As long as it’s not taco salad,” Lauren muttered.

“What’s that? Was that your answer, and I missed it?”

They still hadn’t made eye contact. His arm was comfortably around her shoulder, and they both were watching their team as it made another point. Justin was up next to rotate in.

“So, who’s winning?” asked a voice right between the two of them. It was, of course, Garry.

Justin dropped his arm and gave the outgoing player a high five as he jogged in to take his place. Before the server could call the score, Justin waved his hands over his head and yelled, “Wait! Hold up!”

He had everyone’s attention, especially Lauren’s because his dark green eyes were focused directly on her. Everyone else followed his line of sight.

“Did you say something, Miss Phillips?” he asked politely. “I believe we were waiting for an answer from you regarding Mr. McKinley’s question about a date this Friday night.”

Lauren felt her cheeks turn crimson. Garry, startled, stood next to her. This was a huge step, reactivating her social life in such a public way. Clearly Garry would get the message to bug off. She pressed her lips into a smile and nodded her head.

BOOK: Echoes
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