Mr. Imperfect(6)

By: Karina Bliss

Kezia began to laugh. She laughed until she cried.


ONE SHUDDERING SOB led to another and then another until her body convulsed under the force of them and she curled up on the couch like a lost child, her arms wrapped around her knees. Christian reached for her, but with shaking hands she pushed him away, did the same to Don.

“Let me get someone—a friend,” Christian offered.

Terror strafed through her grief. “No! I don’t want to be seen like this.” A fresh paroxysm racked her body. “Please, both of you go away,” she sobbed, then laid her head on her knees and gave herself over to the anguish.

Dimly she heard a murmur of voices, the door open and close again, the scrape of a chair. And Christian was sitting next to her. “I…don’t…want…anyone…here!” she said between sobs, but took the handkerchief he offered.

“I know,” he said soothingly. “I’m temporary.”

“Don’t touch me.”

“I won’t,” he promised. “I’ll just sit here.”

And he did, watching the shadows lengthen in the room, listening to her sobs until they abated and, emotionally exhausted, she slept. And all the while he suffered, resisting grief, resisting Kezia. He sat stiff and unyielding in his chair. He would not be moved by her beyond common pity.

When he stirred at last, his muscles ached like a prizefighter’s. But he’d won. He stretched as he turned on a lamp against the encroaching dusk, found a throw and covered Kezia.

His opponent looked worse, her face blotchy, her closed lids swollen. In the circle of light her disheveled hair gleamed with velvet browns and sparks of amber. Just as her eyes did, he remembered, and because she looked so vulnerable, so un-Kezia, he smoothed her knotted brow.

An unexpected blow to the heart made him step back, shove his hands into his pockets. His fingers brushed the crumpled ball of paper and, swearing softly, he pulled it out of his pocket, smoothed the creases and glared at it.

Nothing complicated about it, just a scrap of a page torn from an exercise book. The IOU had been dated and signed, the letters sprawling loose and untidy across the page. His signature hadn’t changed much in sixteen years.

You conniving, brilliant old woman. You got me good.

With a sigh he opened the door, saw Don and Bernice May and a host of other anxious people—many familiar—staring at him. He fought back a sense of claustrophobia and nodded acknowledgments. “She’s sleeping, but I doubt she’ll want a welcoming party when she wakes. Perhaps just you, Don?”

He drew the older man away, ostensibly to talk privately, but moving closer to the pub’s exit. He was in no mood to renew old acquaintances. Plenty of time for that in the following weeks, he thought bleakly. “I’ll be back when I’ve reorganized my affairs. I’m sure Muriel’s bank will allow us a few weeks’grace.”

“A phone call from you will get it,” Don said dryly.

“Tell Kez I’ll need a bed at the hotel. Ask her to courier me the books so I can start formulating strategies.”

Don looked doubtful. “I can’t promise anything. She hasn’t exactly warmed to the idea of you coming back.”

“Then here’s the carrot. Tell her I’ve set myself a deadline. I’ll turn the hotel around in a month.”

“You don’t know how bad things are….”

“A month,” said Christian grimly. “If it kills me.”

KEZIA RACKED HER BRAIN FOR another way to tell Christian no. Spats of rain against the pane heralded a summer squall. But the storm building indoors was of more concern than racing to bring in the white tablecloths snapping on the line in the easterly below.

“Probably not,” she ventured.

They sat on spindle-legged antique chairs in the private sitting room on the hotel’s first floor. Much of the threadbare blue carpet was covered by piles of paper, as neat and precisely spaced as soldiers at attention, testament to Kezia’s methodical sifting over the previous week.

Christian had roared back into town thirty minutes earlier in old jeans and a new Enzo Ferrari he called Consolation. If asked, Kezia would recall it as red and showy. And—like its charismatic, self-indulgent owner—not to her mature taste.

“You mean no.” Christian began pacing while Kezia watched her tidy piles of paper anxiously. “I thought we agreed to cooperate—get me out of here as quickly as possible.”

“It’s not that I think your ideas lack merit.” Kezia had spent the intervening days practicing her responses to this intrusion and had resolved on diplomacy, civility and detachment. She frowned as his foot knocked a pile askew. “I just think we need to quantify the problem to qualify the solution.”

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