Authors: Arlene Sachitano
"I'd love to have a tour of the exhibit, but I should call Aiden after that and see if he finished at the clinic. He's probably starving if he's been in surgery all this time."
"Fair enough,” he said. “I'll take whatever time I can with the lovely lady.” He smiled his rakish smile at her. She had to admit he was charming. “Now, let me show you a real shortcut,” he said and led her to the opposite side of the room and through a door that opened into the central supply room. He turned left as he guided her across a circular space and through another door into the large windowed room that held the main exhibit.
"This first section features work by a group of advanced students who worked with experimental glazes,” he said and pointed to an array of four-inch tiles artfully arranged on a pale green wall. They ranged from finely textured pastel colors to ones that looked like pieces of wet stone. “These bowls,” he said, and gestured toward a dozen bowls on a tabletop, each of which sat on a color-coordinated hand-woven mat, “are from a throwing technique class. Notice how thin they are—the more skilled the potter, the thinner the wall of the bowl."
"These are amazing,” Harriet said. “How do—"
Before she could finish, Tom pulled her around a free-standing display wall, turning her away from the crowd and putting his arm around her shoulders. The momentum jostled her into the back of a tall man who was looking at a free-form piece on a wooden pedestal.
"Excuse me,” Harriet apologized.
And turned to find herself looking into the ice-blue eyes of Aiden Jalbert.
"I'm sorry,” Tom explained, “your friends were coming around the corner."
"I assumed you were too busy to call,” Aiden said. “I can see I was right."
"Why aren't you in surgery?” Harriet demanded.
The muscle in Aiden's jaw tensed.
"Have you seen enough? I'm hungry,” said a tall, slender blonde with a pixie haircut and gold pirate hoop earrings. She had a little girl's voice and was wearing black-and-white striped tights and a strip of leather that might have been a skirt. She looped her arm through Aiden's and pulled him toward the door. He turned as he went and looked back at Harriet, the hurt plain on his face.
"I'm guessing that was your date?” Tom said.
Harriet nodded. She stood rooted in place, looking at the door.
"Come on,” Tom said, and pulled her through yet another door into the center room. “Let's go get something to eat."
The shock of seeing Aiden with the blonde prevented her from protesting. By the time she could speak, she was already outside, following him down a wooded path that led to a gravel parking lot.
"I think I want to go back to the Tree House,” she said.
"Do you really think facing your friends back there and trying to explain what happened is going to be easier on an empty stomach?” he asked. “Besides, wouldn't you rather come home late from a date with a mysterious stranger and keep them guessing?"
"When you put it that way, how can I refuse?"
"That's what I thought.” He opened the passenger door of a black Ford Explorer.
He pulled out of the parking lot and followed the access road off the school property. When they reached the crossroad, he turned toward Angel Harbor.
"What kind of food do you feel like?” he asked as they approached the downtown area.
"I'm not really hungry,” Harriet said in a flat tone. A small voice in her head was telling her she should have known better than to trust a man again. Her husband Steve had lied to her. Look where that had gotten him. He was dead. She'd sworn she was never going to trust a man again, hadn't she?
"Italian? Wow, that's just what I was thinking,” Tom said as he pulled to the curb.
When he'd parked, he got out and came around and opened Harriet's door. “Come on, help me out here. If I have to undo your seatbelt I'm going to feel like I'm with my grandmother instead of out on a hot date."
She finally smiled.
"What? Was that a smile I saw?” Tom asked hopefully.
Harriet laughed. “I'm sorry. I'm acting like a sulky teenager, and you're being nothing but charming."
"Hey, I'll take what I can get. It's not every day a beautiful woman breaks into my business meetings, and a damsel in distress, at that. I'll guarantee that things will seem better by the time dinner is over."
"I feel better already,” Harriet said and wanted to believe it.
Tom led her into the restaurant.
"Hey,” said a dark-haired man with a white cloth apron tied around his waist.
"Hey, Giovanni. Got a quiet corner where we can drown our sorrows in pasta?"
"Right this way,” he said with a not-too-subtle wink at Tom.
"I suppose you come here all the time.” Harriet realized she'd probably be the topic of tomorrow's gossip. At least she didn't know anyone in Angel Harbor.
"I might have been here a time or two."
"Please tell me you don't take all your first dates here."
"Okay, I won't. Tell you, that is.” His eyes danced as he tried not to laugh.
Harriet sighed. This was turning into a nightmare. “Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.” She started to get up.
"Fine,” he said. “The truth is, I don't date.” Harriet's discomfort turn to horror. “I'm not married or anything,” he added quickly.
She sat back down, letting her relief show on her face. She wasn't about to complicate her life by dating someone who was already entangled.
"I was married,” he continued, “but I've been divorced for two years."
She was beginning to like him in spite of herself.
"If it wouldn't be too presumptuous, may I order for both of us?"
She agreed, and he proceeded to order an antipasto plate and salads made of delicate Italian greens and a light vinaigrette dressing. He added a main course of sea scallops poached in garlic butter with angel hair pasta tossed with capers, sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil. Their meal was accompanied by crusty Italian bread they dipped in extra-virgin olive oil.
"Okay, it was worth it,” Harriet declared when they were finished.
"After that, I couldn't eat another bite. And as nice as this has been, I really should get back. I do have class in the morning."
"I can't talk you into playing hooky?” he teased with a roguish smile.
"No. Besides, I have to face my friends, and I'd rather do that tonight and get it over with."
"What kind of friends are these that you have to hide from them and then dread telling them a legitimate problem?"
"It's not my friends I'm dodging. In any group, you have to take the good with the bad, and there are a couple of people in ours who are ... a bit of a challenge."
She reached for the bill, but Tom was quicker.
"Hey, I asked you out, so I get to pay. Besides, what kind of knight in shining armor would I be if I made the damsel pay?"
"Okay, but I get to pay next time. If there is a next time, that is."
"I like the sound of that. You've got a deal."
She excused herself and went to the restroom while he paid. The ladies room had an old-fashioned multi-paned window covered by cafe curtains in a fabric with the red, green and white of the Italian flag. She glanced out through the space between the curtain and the valance.
The alley was lit with the yellow glare from a lamp at the back of the building. She was about to turn away when she saw two people enter the alley, passing through the bright circle of light cast by the lamp then stopping at a dark door in the building opposite the restaurant. The first person reached in and turned on a light that illuminated the stairway that ascended from the small entry.
The two people were clearly visible in the light. The second person was Lauren. The one leading the way was the janitor they'd seen talking to her the night before. He was carrying an armload of papers and file folders as he held the door and let Lauren inside.
Harriet was thankful Tom dropped her in the parking lot to the Tree House and let her walk to the door unescorted. She hoped the Loose Threads had turned in early, but as she entered she heard voices coming from the common area.
"Don't even think of sneaking upstairs without making a full report,” Mavis ordered from her perch on one of the leather sofas.
Harriet surrendered to the unavoidable and went in where they were seated.
"Sit down,” Connie said. “I'll make you some tea.” She got up and put the kettle on to boil.
As expected, Lauren was absent, and Harriet was glad to see that Sarah was also.
"Sarah is helping Patience prep materials for her class tomorrow,” Mavis explained, as if reading her mind. “Carla is taking advantage of the clawfoot tub and the lavender bath salts in the downstairs bathroom. So, talk. What happened, and what was Aiden doing with that blond bimbo?"
Harriet crossed the room and picked up a pillow from the couch. She carried it to the twig rocking chair and put it against the back then sat down. She knew she wasn't fooling anyone with her stalling tactics, but she needed to gather her thoughts.
"Start at the beginning,” Connie suggested, and set a steaming cup of Constant Comment on the hearth within reach.
Harriet recounted the note, her call back and Aiden's failure to show up. She ended with her bumping into him at the pottery exhibit. She left out the part where she'd hidden from them.
"If he no-showed, where have you been and why weren't you at the pottery show?” Mavis demanded.
She explained how she had met Tom while looking at the pottery and that he'd asked her to dinner, since Aiden was obviously otherwise occupied.
"He's cute,” Robin said.
Mavis glared at her.
"We ran into him on our walk the other day,” Robin added in self-defense.
"Shouldn't he be at the hospital with his mother?” Connie asked.
"He said she wanted him to come make sure the school was surviving in her absence. I didn't think I should refuse his invitation, given the circumstances."
"Don't even try to make us believe you went out with him out of sympathy,” Mavis said. “You went with that fellow because you were hurt when you saw Aiden with another woman. There could be a completely innocent explanation."
"And what would that be?"
"Maybe he didn't get your message."
"Of course. He didn't get my message, and instead of calling or asking someone if that were the case, he asks the blond bombshell to go in my place. Is that how you figure it?” She got up and strode across the room.
"I'm sure there's a perfectly innocent reason for that,” Mavis insisted.
"Yeah, but you can't think of one, can you? Well, I couldn't either, so, yes, you got me. I had an opportunity to go to dinner with a handsome, available man, and given the alternative of coming back here and telling all of you I'd been stood up, I took it."
Connie got the kettle and topped off Mavis's and Robin's cups then took it back to the kitchenette. Robin busied herself with her hand stitching.
"On an unrelated subject,” Harriet continued. “When I was in the ladies room at the restaurant, I looked out the window, and you'll never guess who I saw."
"Don't keep us in suspense, honey,” Mavis said.
"Lauren and the janitor from the other night. And they went through a door that opened onto some stairs that looked like they went up to apartments over the storefront."
"That's weird,” Robin said. “I wonder what she was doing with him."
"I don't know, but he was carrying an armload of papers. They looked like files or something."
"She said she was going back to the classroom to dye some thread for tomorrow's class,” Connie said. “Are you sure it was Lauren?"
"She walked right under the streetlight, and so did he."
"Maybe she has a boyfriend,” Mavis offered. “It is allowed. And you did see her with someone last night."
"Yeah, but I can't imagine her being evolved enough to date a janitor. Besides, their body language didn't look like they were a couple."
"You're right,” Mavis acknowledged, “it is interesting."
"So, what class is everyone taking tomorrow?” Robin asked, ending speculation about Lauren's love life.
Harriet and Carla would be together again, this time taking a two-day class working on pieced patterns that used elongated triangles to create the illusion of curved shapes. Lauren and Connie would continue their advanced machine embroidery and Mavis her dyeing. Robin and Sarah were going to be doing bobbin work. With that established, everyone decided to call it a night.
Clouds greeted the Loose Threads as they stepped off the Tree House porch and headed for the dining cabin. Harriet pulled the hood of her gray sweatshirt over her shower-damp hair. Carla gave her a sheepish glance and drew her hood up over her own dark hair, pulling the strings to close it around her face. They all made room as a small group of pottery students descended the steps and turned down the path toward building A.
Inside, the oak sideboard was set up with insulated carafes of coffee, hot water and hot cocoa. A large pitcher of orange juice surrounded by clean glasses sat to one side of the hot drinks. Sarah grabbed it and poured a glass. She held it up to the light as if it were a fine wine she was evaluating.
"This is probably that frozen kind that comes in a can,” she said to no one in particular as she sat down at the long table.
The cook's braid was pinned up in a thick coil on top of her head this morning, giving her a Scandinavian look. She carried a tray laden with bowls of steaming oatmeal to the table and started setting one at each place.
"I squeezed the juice this morning while you were still getting your beauty sleep,” she said without looking up from her task. “I've got the peels in the compost pile out back if you need proof."
"I'm sure that won't be necessary,” Mavis soothed her, and glared at Sarah.
"The oatmeal looks delicious,” Connie added. “And were those raisins and dates I saw on the sideboard?"
The cook glared a long moment at Sarah's back—Sarah refused to turn and face her—before she turned to Connie.