As always, Dennis knew exactly what she needed and provided it. As she stood on the deck of the little cottage at the top of the walkway leading to the shore, she marveled at how well he understood her. Leave it to Dennis to arrange for them to enjoy an end-of-summer vacation on the coast. The cottage was charming — just right for the three of them. It was located a scant mile or so outside a quaint village that tourists had yet to discover. Dennis learned about it from a colleague who rented the same cottage a couple of summers earlier. The little town was per se Americana, complete with a Labor Day fireworks display heralding the end of the summer season.
“It’s absolutely perfect,” she sighed, as Dennis walked up behind her and slipped his arms around her waist.
“We already met the next-door neighbors when we were unloading the suitcases.” He nuzzled her neck and whispered “the kids are all playing over there” seductively, as he took her hand and led her down the hall. “Let’s see what the master bedroom is like. I hope it has a firm mattress.”
“So are you ever going to tell me what happened at the reunion? . . . Why you came home early?” They enjoyed a delicious lunch and were lying on a blanket on the beach, relaxing as their son and the four children from the cottage next door ran up and down near the water’s edge, chasing several beach balls and the other family’s dog. Their shrieks of sunny afternoon joy assured her that, even when she was not looking directly at them, they were safe.
“Nothing happened. Nothing at all,” she shrugged. “I told you. The reunion was a dud. After I spent some time with the people I cared about seeing, I had no desire to hang out just to get a glimpse at people who were never really my friends to begin with. I missed you guys, so I came home. No big deal.”
“So you’ve said at least a dozen times in the last month-and-a-half.” The kids were moments away from breaking ground on a sand castle. Dennis watched in fascination as they negotiated the final details of the design.
“How is everyone doin’?” a voice boomed behind them before Dennis could press the issue. “Man, what a perfect day this turned out to be!”
“It sure did,” Dennis responded, jumping to his feet and extending his hand to the inhabitant of the cottage next to theirs. “Sweetheart, you haven’t met the Knutsons yet. This is Jeff and his wife, Marge.”
She stood beside Dennis, extending her hand, as well. “Oh, it’s lovely to meet you. Your children have been keeping our boy busy. They’re having a great time over there working on their sand castle.”
“I see that. Thanks for keeping an eye on them for a little while,” Marge smiled warmly. “Do you mind if we join you? We brought more blankets, some sunscreen. A couple bottles of our favorite wine, too.”
“By all means!” Dennis and Jeff spread out the blankets and they all made themselves comfortable, as she and Marge uncorked the first bottle of wine. “A toast to the end of summer and some new friends!” Jeff declared as they all raised their glasses and settled in for the afternoon.
Just then, her son stood up from the sand and turned around to check on his parents’ whereabouts. When he saw that the Knutsons had joined them, he said something to their children, all of whom stood and began jumping about and waving wildly, pointing to their work-in-progress.
As she called to her son, assuring him that they would all inspect the castle as soon as he and his fellow architects deemed it ready, she felt as contended and at peace as she ever had in her life. She glanced over at Dennis who was speculating enthusiastically with Jeff about the upcoming football season. He caught her staring wistfully at him and smiled lovingly as Jeff opined about his favorite players’ draft by a new team.
“Jeff could talk sports all day every day if somebody would listen to him,” Marge said shaking her head in amusement. “And our oldest is turning out to be just like him, so at least they have each other! How about your boy? Is he into sports?”
“Somewhat,” she replied. “He isn’t quite as athletic as his father, but he’s really been enjoying soccer and basketball.”
Before they knew it, the sand castle had been completed and declared a masterpiece by all four adults just in time for the afternoon tide to begin nipping away at the grounds and moat surrounding it.
“Show me the pictures,” Dennis said, as he poured two more glasses of wine and sat next to her on the couch in the living room of the cottage. “You know my theory. If a camera can handle fireworks, it can take great photos of any subject.”
She connected the camera to her laptop computer and as they surveyed the images, Dennis signified his approval with enthusiastic “ooohs” and “aaaahs.” She giggled at his silly commentary, in part because the several glasses of wine she had enjoyed throughout the afternoon and evening were making her light-headed.
“That’s my favorite,” he declared as they considered the splash of white and red captured bursting over the water. “I love the way you shot this through the trees. Will you frame a copy of that for me? It would look great in my office. My new office,” he added slyly to see if she was paying attention.
“What new office? You didn’t tell me you were getting a new office.”
“I’m telling you now,” he grinned. “The new office comes with my new title. I got the promotion.”
She remained focused on the laptop screen, refusing to look at him.
After a few moments of awkward silence, he pushed. “Aren’t you going to congratulate me?”
“I thought we agreed.”
“We did,” he said somewhat gleefully. “That’s why, when George first offered me the job, I turned it down. But he was very persistent — which allowed me to negotiate.”
She continued looking straight ahead.
“Don’t you want to know the details? You’re going to like them.”
“No. Because I already told you I don’t want you away from home on business trips any more than you already are. And if you’re going to be the Regional Manager, I know you’re going to have to be gone more. You told me that when we first talked about this. So we agreed that you weren’t going to seek the job.” She added sarcastically, “Now you’re decorating your new office.”
“I told George that I was only interested in the job if he guaranteed me that I wouldn’t have to travel any more that I have been. And he agreed.” Dennis was clearly a bit tipsy — and proud of himself. “He is going to allow me to conduct quarterly meetings by teleconference. It will save the company a lot of money, so he loved the idea. In fact, we’re going to be implementing teleconferencing pretty much across the board. So I have secured the best of both worlds — the promotion with no additional travel — for us! How ’bout that?” With one arm around her shoulders, he reached over and gently placed his hand on her cheek, tenderly urging her to face him. “You know I would never break a promise to you.”
“Swear to me you won’t be traveling more.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he teased, making an “x” over his chest with his right hand.
“Dennis! You know I hate that expression.” With both hands on his chest, she feigned an attempt to push him away, but he held her in his arms.
“Yup, I do. That’s why I say it. Just to annoy you. Lovingly.”
“When do you start?” She couldn’t help smiling at his playfulness. In all the years they had been together, she had never managed to stay angry at him for more than a few minutes and tonight was no exception.
“October 1. The salary increase is significant. We will be able to put more money into his college fund,” Dennis said with sudden seriousness. “And our retirement accounts. I really couldn’t bypass this opportunity. I don’t know when such a solid offer will come my way again. This is for all of us. It will work out just fine. You’ll see. Trust me?”
She fell into his arms, as she always did. Safe, secure, loved. Those were the three emotions she had felt with Dennis from the moment she met him. He stroked her hair as they leaned back on the couch, their embrace familiar, comforting. “Do you really have to ask?”
“No. Just like I haven’t really pressed to know what happened at the reunion. Because if something had happened, you would have told me by now.”
Sitting up, she looked into his eyes, finally read to talk about that night. “He was there. I tried to sneak out of the ballroom without talking to him, but just as I was about to walk out the door, there he was. He said he wanted to ‘catch up,’ so I asked him to get us a couple of drinks while I used the ladies’ room. Then I got in the elevator, went up to my room, packed, and caught a cab to the airport. That was it.”
“So you left him in the ball room with a drink in each hand?” Dennis asked incredulously.
“I guess. I never went back into the ballroom so I didn’t see what he did after that. I didn’t want to speak to him. All I wanted to do was come home — to you and our son. That’s all that happened.” She added, “I swear to you,” as she studied his expression.
Dennis burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Dennis’ shocking reaction caught her completely off-guard.
“That poor son-of-a-bitch.” Dennis continued laughing until tears rolled down his cheeks. “I almost feel sorry for him. Almost. Talk about being stood up. I’m picturing the look on his face as he stood there with a drink in each hand, asking people where you went. Oh, honey, that’s priceless. Brava!”
For the first time since returning home, she envisioned him standing in the ballroom, completely bewildered, and surveying the hallway of the hotel in search of her. She had been so wrapped up in her own desire to avoid interacting with him that she had never stopped to consider his reaction, his befuddled expression when she failed to return. Because logically, he would have been confident that she was as anxious to see him and, as he put it, “catch up” as he was to converse with her. After all, she had never, ever said “no” to or denied him anything — not even herself. Why would he expect her to do anything other than breathlessly return to the ballroom to hang on his every word?
“Wow, I hadn’t thought about it like that. I guess I totally dissed him, didn’t I?”
“You sure did! Oh, that made my whole night. I wish you had told me sooner.” Dennis stood up, dried his eyes, and held out his hands to her. “He’s probably still trying to figure out what happened. I love you and I’m very proud of you.” He kissed her passionately before whispering, “Let’s call it a night.”
To be continued . . .