When I See Your Face, Part 9
For the 17 months spent alongside Mark, a spotless appearance that spoke of wealth and sophistication had been one of his demands of her. She wasn’t allowed to leave the house without her makeup on even when she wanted to go to the supermarket. When there were events, which happened all too often, she had to play at dress-up and stand decoratively by his side or at the opposite corner of the room in high heels and elegant dresses and expensive jewelry with all the other wives that looked like copies of her in various ages.
She couldn’t remember when she had last been covered in dust and sweating so profusely. Maybe during her childhood; certainly not in the past ten years or so. She faintly recalled Michael looking much dirtier, which actually made him sexy in a wildish, out-of-doors way. She must be a terrible sight to behold, though. With a sigh of frustration that turned into a longer sigh of exhaustion, she splashed her face and neck with the deliciously cool water and combed it through her hair and rinsed her arms up to the elbows. Now that she wasn’t working and watching, her whole body was aching and her limbs were too heavy to lift.
When she walked back to their patch of land, Michael was spreading a sheet on the grass next to the future flower beds. He arranged a few items on it that she recognized as two plates, two glasses and food. Sandwich bread, cheese, a big, ripe tomato cut into equal halves, cucumbers, two cold chicken legs. Her stomach growled at the sight and she couldn’t help but laugh at herself. What a difference exercise and charming company could make. She actually felt so hungry she could devour a whole buffet. As if he had read her thoughts, he turned to her and spread his arm across the improvised picnic in an exaggerated gesture.
“Madam, if you please, here’s your buffet waiting for you. Choice left-overs from here and there and everywhere, specially prepared for hard working, starving gardeners. Please allow me to draw back your chair for you, madam. Oh, we don’t have chairs. Please feel free to sit down on this rather coarse and much too small sheet in the grass and start gobbling before I steal all the food because I’m positively famished.”
He looked so comical and the French accent that accompanied his words was so hilariously exaggerated that she found herself giggling like a schoolgirl, her hand over her mouth. When had she laughed or giggled the last time?
For a second, there was an unreadable expression on his face when he looked right at her laughing, defenseless face. What was it in his eyes, darkening them to a deep-sea blue with slate grey dots and burning into her? Desire? Her stomach was much too agitated for her mind to work properly, so she managed to tear her gaze from his and plonked down onto the sheet gracelessly.
The next half an hour passed in amiable silence while both of them helped themselves to the food and a bottle of mixed-fruit juice that wasn’t nearly cold enough yet tasted like heaven to her. For once, he didn’t talk at all and she didn’t watch him—but whenever she lifted her head to scout for more food, she could swear that he was observing her from the corner of his eye. Still too occupied with her lunch to make much of it, she felt strangely content once more.
She was shaking off their meal’s crumbs and folding the sheet when it happened. Out of the blue, his hand was on her upper arm, warm and not overly firm.
“Hold on a second,” he said.
Cathy froze and her head shot up to meet his eyes.
Michael was standing right in front of her, surprisingly close. He was looking at her neck instead of her face. Slowly, his hand crept up from her arm, over her shoulder to the bare skin close to her neck.
His touch set her on fire, kept her rooted to the spot and aching for more with the simple feel of his slightly calloused fingers—yet another difference between him and Mark—against her moist skin and the pulse hammering beneath his thumb. She had no idea what he was doing, but was dimly aware of her pulse on overdrive.
He seemed to have noticed because a moment later he did look into her eyes. There was that intense emotion again, like hunger and something else warring inside him and claiming her as his. It was a gaze that made her fantasize. They were locked like that for she didn’t know how long. His face came closer and closer still, her breath stopping, his breath a faint breeze on her lips that had parted.
Would he kiss her now? Would she let him?
Part of her was sure that his kiss would send her reeling with desire and satisfaction. There was another part though, that pleaded with her to use her brain and remember that men who pretended to be interested in her only meant trouble.
There was an odd, faint movement on her collar bone and his finger moved right to that spot. It broke the magic. He took a step back and tore his eyes from her as though it were a colossal effort. While she tried to remember how to breathe and regain her senses, he brought his hand up in front of her face.
“Ladybug,” he said in a voice that had gone deep and rough.
Still off balance from that moment of closeness and all that temptation boiling inside her, she didn’t know how to react. He spared her from uttering some nonsense in a voice that she was sure would betray her inner turmoil by walking to a nearby shrub and tenderly placing the ladybug that was circling the nail of his thumb on a branch.
“We should get back to work,” he said without looking at her, striding toward where he had left his spade. Mechanically, she followed and picked up the rake with which she had started to sweep weeds and fallen leaves together before their lunch break.
The rest of the afternoon passed in silence. He didn’t talk this time and she didn’t watch him. Things had changed. The silence didn’t feel oppressive, however. It felt…private. There was plenty of work to keep them occupied until dusk set in and Michael straightened up yet again. He called it a day, collected all the tools, went into the house to speak about God knew what with Mr. Thackeray and came back out looking strangely reluctant.
“So. I guess this is it.”
She nodded, knotting the garden gloves in her hands and feeling equally reluctant to tear herself away from this day, from him.
“I want to say thank you, from the bottom of my heart. There was no need to make anything up to me and yet you accepted the challenge and worked so hard. You helped me considerably and it was…it was fun,” Michael said. For an instant, there was that look in his eyes again when he talked about fun, the one that made her ache for him in places that had been sleeping for months and grown cold and desolate. In the heart that Mark had cut out and stomped on.
“Yes, it was fun.”
Cathy found she was actually smiling at him.
“There’s no need to thank me. I had a nice day full of surprises.”
She bit her lip, realizing what she had blurted out. His look intensified.
“Surprises. Yes,” she heard him mutter to himself.
He motioned for her to walk toward the tap with him and while they scrubbed away at their dirty hands, he said, “I will walk you back to your room.”
It was a statement that allowed no protest. Oddly enough, protest was the last thing on her mind. They walked toward the guesthouse side by side, Michael wheeling his bike with her grocery bags, Cathy all fluttery inside while wondering how they would say goodbye.
In front of the steps leading to the door, they stopped and he handed her the two bags. They gazed at each other, long and longingly. He was struggling with something for a few moments, his face losing all the quiet confidence.
(To be continued tomorrow.)
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