When I See Your Face, Part 8
After some minutes of walking in tense silence, Cathy dared to speak.
“Mr. Newland, what exactly will we do? And where?”
“Oh please, don’t call me that. It makes me feel like some snobby real estate agent or your senior by decades. Can we stick to Michael?”
She certainly didn’t feel like getting so familiar with this stranger so soon, as if it meant some commitment. On the other hand, addressing her husband’s look-alike by his surname wasn’t right, and they were going to spend hours working alongside each other.
“Okay. I’m Cathy.”
He turned and held out his hand. “Great! Let’s do this right. Hi Cathy, I’m Michael. Pleased to meet you.”
Shaking the hand she meekly laid in his while automatically echoing his smile, he continued, “See, this is how our first meeting should have gone.”
When there was no reply from her, he dropped her hand and strode onwards.
“It’s better if I explain the work when you see it. Learning by doing, you know? To cut the long story short, Mr. Thackeray’s garden needs a make-over and today’s a good day to start. With your help, I think, the preliminary work will be done within a day instead of two.”
He had a way of sounding enamored with his work that reminded her all too much of her husband. She recalled that he was the village gardener and wondered what the heck he wanted her to help with, while at the same time being quite relieved that he wasn’t leading her to his home. What surprises would this day spring at her next?
* * *
As if the question she had asked herself had been heard by life itself or by some higher power, the day did its best to spring all too many surprises at her. Time flew by and the most surprising thing of them all was that she felt happy. Here she was in a stranger’s backyard in a village she had spent only a few days in, with a man she had known for only several minutes, shoveling earth, uprooting weeds, sweeping fallen leaves—and actually enjoying it.
As soon as they had reached their destination, Michael had transformed. From being energetic, he had turned outright dedicated, full of authority and professionalism mixed in with a good amount of joy at what he was doing. Clearly, like Mark, he loved his job and saw it as his fulfilment, but on a slightly different level that seemed more passionate than consumed, more like he were the driving force and not the man taking the ride offered to him. It was contagious, like his smile, which pierced her like the thorny weeds that managed to prick through the garden gloves, only in a sweeter way and much deeper than she would admit it to herself.
Before long, she was sweating, had rolled her sleeves up her arms and knew her shoulder length, wavy, brownish-blonde hair must be decorating her head in unruly, wet tendrils and spikes. Her sneakers were caked in mud, her jeans liberally sprinkled with grass, clumps of dirt and the odd tiny pebble and her mouth was dry with exhaustion.
And yet, she felt good. She loved to be so active, something she had never been before or during her time with Mark. It was liberating to be working hard next to someone who expected her to do just that and did even more, someone who led the way and yet made her feel his equal by constantly filling her in on what they did and why they did it.
While turning over the soil and weeding what was to become rows and rows of orderly flower beds, he kept up a constant, never nagging stream of conversation which was purely centered on their efforts and his plans for the land they were working on. Mark had never talked about his work with her, rather talked at her about his successes. True, she had no real knowledge about or interest in his land sales and building contracts and stock market trading and investments. Neither did she have the faintest experience with gardening, and yet he held her interest for hours. She absorbed every word of his and felt incredibly useful, although she realized with chagrin that she was probably only managing a tenth of what he did.
He never once asked her anything and she was most content keeping silent and listening to him. And watching him.
For, if truth be told, the biggest reason for her not making much progress was probably not her lack of experience but the effort she put into watching him. Every gesture, every flicker of expression across his handsome face was registered and instantly compared to Mark’s behavior.
And here lay many surprises too. The longer she worked alongside him and observed him, the more tiny differences did she discover between the two men who had at first looked like Siamese twins to her.
There was the physique itself. Where Mark had been thin in a sleek, angular, boyish way, Michael was slim and fit with subtle, fine-toned muscles that spoke of an active lifestyle. More often than was probably proper, she felt her eyes roam his body with the muscles rippling under the sweat-stained white singlet after he had unceremoniously slipped out of his polo shirt. It was plastered to his body and made him look much too attractive.
Sometimes, their arms would brush or their legs touch or his breath ruffle her hair when he came closer to instruct her. Instinctively, she flinched away from those moments of physical closeness. She wasn’t sure whether it was fear, shyness, memories or a budding attraction that made her do so. He must have noticed, because there was a slight hitch in his breathing every time they touched and his jaw tightened almost imperceptibly whenever she flinched.
His face wasn’t a copy of her husband’s either. There were fine lines around his eyes, on his forehead and around his mouth that deepened whenever he smiled, which he did unconsciously most of the time. This also gave him more depth, a more masculine and mature look than Mark. He was probably the more emotional of the two, not only the more active and open one.
Then there was his voice that fit perfectly to his stature and facial expressions, similar to Mark’s yet somehow warmer and livelier. She suspected that this was also true for his character. And asked herself why on earth she would care about his character. For a minute or two, she would work diligently without so much as sparing him a glance, but before long that morbid interest—morbid because with her comparisons, she would inevitably conjure up recollections of Mark and their unhappy life—would kick back in and she would stare at him again.
After what felt like days and must have been several hours, Michael straightened up, tossed the spade to the side and stretched luxuriously like a wild cat after a nap. She felt her mouth go drier when his muscles seemed to spring at her while his wet singlet clung to his body. When he stretched his arms up, the singlet rid up his body to reveal an inch of skin around his stomach and hips, as sun-kissed as the rest of his upper body. Did that mean that he usually worked topless? The notion sent her heart beat on overdrive and made her shake herself all over when she caught herself all but drooling over this stranger that surely only attracted her because of his likeness to her husband.
It took her a second to realize that he was looking at her, that slightly crooked grin on his face that made her legs feel like jelly and did funny things to her breathing.
“Wow, we’ve worked real hard, haven’t we? I’m sure it’s past lunchtime. Give me a second while I charm Mr. Thackeray into rustling us something up to eat and drink. Be right back.”
He was already half turning toward the house whose inhabitant hadn’t once showed up to check in on their work. Pointing behind her, he added, “There’s a tap at the back of the house. I’m afraid that’ll have to do for now to clean yourself up and refresh after all the hard work.”
He was gone in a manner of seconds, leaving her with a myriad of thoughts running through her head.
(To be continued tomorrow!)
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