Reaching inside she found a pale blue sheet and matching comforter. They were the extra things that she had always kept for those times when Tommy bought some friend home from college. She reached a bit further back and found the matching pillow.
She stood on her tip toes and pushed the box that she had been fiddling with earlier back on its shelf. There would be time enough to deal with that tomorrow, she thought as she pushed the step stole back inside the closet as well.
What the hell was she thinking? She asked herself as she clutched the linens to her chest. She had just asked a stranger to spend the night with her.
Not that she had ever spent much time caring about what the people of this small town thought about her. When she had come her, she was nothing more to any of them than a stereotypical single black mother. If over the years, her dedication to her son, her work as a teacher and her unremarkable life had earned their respect it meant little to her.
No, what bothered Esther was not what people thought. It was what she felt. Her awareness of this man was uncomfortably new. Since her crush upon the college football hero that had taken advantage of her, robbed her innocence and given her the most precious gift of all, Esther had been virtually bereft of sexual desire.
Whether it was the rape that she never told a single soul about, some fluke of nature that made her less than a woman, or the responsibilities of her life as a single mother, men just were not something that she wasted her energy upon.
Except for the one that sat in her living room. Her reaction to him had been different from that first email. It was not the infatuation of a young girl that had ripped Esther's life apart and taken it down a different path.
Oh, she supposed it might be that she had read...and written one too many romance novels. Staff Sergeant Michael O'Malley would certainly fit nicely upon the cover of any of them. Her fertile imagination captured the image of him dressed in fatigue pants, his chest bare, sweat gleaming upon his skin.
She shook herself. This was exactly why this whole thing was a bad idea, she thought. How could she manage sleeping under the same roof with the man that had haunted her dreams for over two years?
How could she turn away the man that had been Tommy's best friend? Had shared the final chapter of his life? A man that had come all this way to help her out...for Tommy's sake.
Clutching the sheets tight to her chest like a Kevlar vest, she took several cleansing breaths before turning back towards the living room where the man waited. She could do this. It was just three days until Halloween. They would be busy. There were pumpkins to be craved. A haunted house to be built. Cookies and a dozen more treats to be baked. And hundreds of goody bags to assemble.
There would be no time to lust after a man she could never have. With a secret smile, she took her first step forward. But who knew maybe she could gain a bit of fodder for her fertile imagination. She had to admit that in person this man was even more compelling than anything in those photos.
She wondered for a moment if there would be an opportunity in the coming days to see him without his shirt. She blushed at the memory of her favorite photograph. She would just have to pray for a couple of Indian summer days.
Sleep was even harder to come that night. Esther tossed and turned in her double bed. Her mind filled with the stories that they had shared. She had known so little of the past few years of her son's life. She always thought that he was trying to protect her from the harsh realities of his three tours of duty in the Gulf. This evening had filled in a few of those gaps. She in turn had shared stories of Tommy as a boy with his closest friend. A man she could tell did not easily laugh or smile.
As most night, Esther felt the coldness of the tears as they dropped on the crisp cotton of her pillow case. She did not want to disturb the Sergeant. So this night she fought hard to keep back the sobs that most nights eventually lulled her into an exhausted slumber.
Instead she sought a diversion; her always active imagination came to her rescue. Closing her eyes, she imagined the man lying on her couch. He would not dare sleep naked, not when there was a woman in the house. Probably not at all, the man would have learned the essential... always be ready, alert.
But she would bet that he wore nothing more than his underwear. Boxers? Briefs? Those new skin tight things that were a mix of both?
Of course, she did not need to use her fertile mind to conjure up images of the golden brown expanse of muscles lightly sprinkled with dark curls. She had more than one picture of his chest. But her curiosity was peeked about his legs that were nicely encased in those denim jeans. And of course, that perfect butt.
Definitely the new skin tight boxer thingies she hoped. They would show off his assets to the best advantage. She drifted off to dreamland that night with a girlish grin playing on her dark mocha lips. Pride in her use of irony and simile. Ass...assets.
The sun was streaming between the pale pink sheers when she woke up the next morning.
Rolling over, she picked up the clock. It was almost eight. A much later start to the day than she had anticipated.
But then again, with an extra set of hands and a strong back as Sergeant Mike had said, she could breathe a bit easier about the job ahead.
Throwing back the hand sewn quilt that was the newest addition to her room, she stretched. Her full breasts brushed against the soft nylon of her night gown. The dark brown areolas stood at attention. She supposed the unusual reaction to the slight brush against the material was due to the erotic videos that had played one after another through her mind the night before.
It seemed that every ancient legend, Jason and the Argonauts, Hercules and Hector, had played out in Technicolor dreams with Sergeant Mike in the starring role and she his leading lady. Oh, and there were a few modern romance storylines thrown in for good measure, Viking, Scotts and contemporary heroes that wound their tales through the night leaving her mature body alive in a way that she could never remember before.
Reaching for her thick cotton robe at the foot of the bed, she wrapped it about her like chain mail of a medieval warrior. Cinching the belt tight about her still thin waist, she girded herself for the day. The next three days, she reminded herself with both trepidation and excitement. Three days with this man. It would either kill her or bring her back to life.
But for now, breakfast was the first order of business. She tip toed out of her bedroom and down the hall. She stopped at the edge of the living room. A smile broke wide across her face. Bare chest could be seen above the pale blue of the sheets that wound tightly about his waist. She fought back the urge to steal across the room and trail her fingers down the hard ridge of abdominal muscles.
She imagined her fingers slipping beneath the heated cotton sheets. Imagined what she would find beneath...white? Regulation green? Black? She doubted the man who had followed such a strict code for most of his life would dare something unconventional like red, blue or purple. But the thought held possibilities.
The man turned in his sleep and Esther beat a hasty retreat towards the kitchen. It would not do to begin the day with him catching her ogling his half naked body.
Throwing open the refrigerator doors, she stared into the vast expanse of emptiness. If she was to play hostess for the next three days to a man, a strapping man, she would have to add a trip to the grocery store to her to-do list. Since Tommy had left for college, she rarely cooked. It simply was not worth the effort for one person.
And since that day when her world changed forever, food had even less meaning. Everything was cardboard, a necessity to be consumed if she was continue living, something she was not thoroughly certain she wanted to do anyway. But until she made that final choice, it was something to which she gave a passing salute.
Most nights she survived on a sandwich or cup of soup. If she bothered at all. Many times, she simply survived upon the scant meal that she forced past her lips in the teacher's lounge. Breakfast was certainly not on the menu.
Scouring the shelves, she managed to find a packet of sliced ham, leftovers from her sandwiches and a bit of cheese as well. There were eggs a plenty. She had brought them on her way home from work yesterday, ingredients for her Halloween cookies and cupcakes. She could pick some more up when she went to the store later. A Denver omelet it would be then.
But that seemed scant fair for such a robust man. Reaching into the cupboard she drew forth a container of flour. Combined with the eggs, a touch of sugar and some milk that she kept on hand for her morning breakfast of coffee on the run it would make a nice side of pancakes. As an afterthought she grabbed a packet of the chocolate chips from among the items on the counter top that awaited her.
Chocolate chip pancakes had been Tommy's favorite. The thought was barely through her mind before she felt the noose tighten about her throat and chest. Had he shared that with the Sergeant? Tales of Saturday morning cartoons and chocolate chip pancakes cuddle together under the blankets in front of the old television. He had practically been in college before that tradition gave away to morning runs, his friends and girls.
Esther drew another deep cleansing breath as she took out bowls and pans. She brushed back tears with the back of her flour covered hand as she mixed a batch of pancakes. The skillet heated on the burner as she poured the first of the batter into it.
She grabbed another pan and fried up the ham and an old onion. Cracking three eggs into another bowl she beat the mixture, wishing that she had the will to beat back the despair that gripped her like the fiercest of ancient villains, Medusa, the Minotaur or the Sphinx.
Looking into the bowl as a tear drop spiced it; she added another egg for good measure. Like Tommy, Sergeant Mike was a big guy. He was certain to have a big appetite. She poured the mixture over the ham and flipped the pancake. It was a perfect golden brown, just the way that Tommy liked them. She reminded herself to take deep cleansing breaths as she began grating the cheese.
"Something smells delicious," she jumped at the sound of the deep voice behind her. Raising a messy hand, she swiped away the tears once more.
Forcing words past the tightness in her chest, she smiled. "Thought you might be hungry this morning so I made some breakfast. It isn't much, just an omelet and some pancakes. I'm not a big breakfast person, but we can pick up some things later when we go into town. More eggs, sausage, bacon, whatever you like."
Esther knew she was rambling, but was powerless to stop it. Knowing that her dark eyes were probably puffy and red already, she made excuses. "Afraid I did not realize how strong that onion was. I'll have to get fresh ones of those too."
Coming to stand next to her, Esther felt his presence like the heat and steam rising off the hot Texas asphalt after a summer thunder storm.
"You shouldn't have gone to any trouble, ma'am. I could have grabbed something at the diner. Heck, I should be the one to treat you."
She laughed softly, "And get a belly ache this early in the morning? We wouldn't get much done today after eating at that greasy spoon."
The man smiled softly at her. "Yeah, Tommy did say that your cooking was much better than anything else. Of course, that was usually said after K rations or another round of powdered eggs in the mess hall. It wasn't fair the way he went on and on about your cooking as we ate that crap." Inhaling deeply, he added, "It certainly smells like the boy didn't lie. I don't suppose those happen to be chocolate chip pancakes, by any chance?"
Esther smiled. So Tommy had shared their little secret with this man. "Yes, Sergeant, they are." Flipping the finished product onto the plate next to her, she handed it to him before turning back to the stove to add more batter to the skillet.
The man brought the plate close to his face. He appeared almost boyish as he grinned and breathed deeply. "Hmm, I don't think I have ever smelled anything this good, ma'am."
Esther handed him a fork as she turned the heat down on the stove. "Then dig in, Sergeant. There is plenty more where that came from."
"There's coffee too in the pot," she added as she checked the omelet. "Cups are in the cupboard there," she motioned with her elbow towards the cupboard next to her.
"Coffee would be nice," he said as he squeezed in next to her.
The hard granite of thighs brushed against hers. Esther forced air through her lungs trying to concentrate on cooking and not upon this man. But her body was attuned to his presence; her son's words ran like an old record through her mind. "Sergeant Mike..."
"Yes, ma'am?" She blinked. She had been so deep in thought that she did not realize she had said it aloud.
He was inches away. His large body touching hers in places as he paused in mid-air, reaching for a cup. Her whole being sang like the choir at the AME church around the corner. Their African spirituals so loud and heartfelt that they carried on the winds to invade the peace of her home. The sound of joy and faith was so powerful for sometimes even she wanted to believe.
In that moment it was something decidedly different that Esther wanted to believe. What would happen if she leaned in just a bit? What would he taste like? What would it feel like to be held in those strong arms? To be loved by this man...if only for a moment?
But then she came crashing back to earth. Women her age should be past such things, especially women who never had a great deal of experience to begin with. School teachers, who read about love and sex but never gave into those sorts of wild fantasies.
He cleared his throat and Esther stared up into those blue-grey eyes. For a single moment, the blink of an eye, she would have sworn that he felt it too. That he was even tempted to kiss her half as much as she wanted to be kissed. She closed her eyes; whether to clear her mind or in anticipation of that kiss she was not certain.
Then he was moving away. Looking up she saw that held an old Aggie mug in his large hands. He cupped it so softly as if he instinctively knew its meaning. Tommy's old cup. It was enough of a reminder of who she was, what she was...another duty in a life time of them.
The smell of burning chocolate whiffed to her nose. Fresh tears glistened in her eyes as she turned back to the stove.
"Damn," she cursed as she reached for the spatula. Turning it she saw that it was not the disaster she had feared. Just a bit too dark around the edges. She would have to stay focused. The burnt pancake and the mug told her...some things are not for you. This man was one of them.
Scooping the omelet and a couple more of the pancakes onto a plate, she motioned for him to take a seat at the table. Hot steam was rising from Tommy's mug as he followed her there.
"Can I get you some milk for your coffee, Sergeant? More butter?" she asked. Her voice sounded tight even to her ears.
The man shook his head. "Aren't you joining me, ma'am?"
"Afraid I really am not much of a breakfast person. Besides now that you are here, I need to stop procrastinating this Halloween thing. Get the show on the road as they say. You eat while I go get dressed and we'll head into town for a few more things."
He nodded as she made her escape. Just barely. Tears cascading down her soft brown cheeks.
The sun was sinking low into the East Texas sky, a kaleidoscope of blues, oranges, reds and even purples as it disappeared behind the trees. Esther stood up from her perch on the top step. She stretched, her back aching from the past hour spent bent over a half dozen pumpkins with a paring knife in her hand.
Before her sat six Halloween jack-o-lanterns now. Some funny, some scary, she was afraid that this last one even held a bit of sadness about his eyes and mouth. She would work on him some more tomorrow.
Taking up almost all of the right side of her front yard, the PVC pipe and plastic sheeting that would become the haunted house was finally taking shape. Its maze of rooms that would hold a menagerie of horrors was almost complete.
Tomorrow they would add the final touches, cotton stretched out to form spider webs from the ceiling and doors. Tiny plastic creatures centered in each web, awaiting its prey. Old cotton sheets carefully shaped to give a ghost like appearance. The dressmaker's mannequin attired in all black with its long white wig and teeth that would be dripping with blood on Halloween night.
The man appeared from behind the curtain of plastic. His smile was wide as he walked towards her. She could see the fine sheen of perspiration that glistened like the first dew of spring on his brow.
Instinctively the mother in her reached for the almost empty pitcher of homemade lemonade that sat next to her on the porch. She poured the last of it into his glass. By the time he reached her, she was ready, glass in hand.
"Not a bad day's work if I do say so myself," he smiled
"Not a bad day at all, Sergeant," she added returning his smile. "I don't know what I would have done without your help. I forgot just how hard that damned thing was to put up."
"It wasn't that bad, ma'am."
"Maybe not for you, Sergeant, but you have a lot more experience building things and putting up tents than I do. Even if I have written instructions, I can never get it right."
His deep laughter caressed her skin like the refreshing evening air. "Yeah, Tommy told us all about your first Boy Scout camp out when we were putting up his tent. Took us twice as long to get his up as any of the others. We were all laughing so hard at his story. Please tell me that you did not really try to put the center pole into the ground with your hair brush."
"Hey, I didn't know we would need a hammer to put the damned thing up and I did not want to embarrass Tommy in front of the other boys by asking to borrow one," she defended that long ago indiscretion.
"When he told us how it came down in the middle of the night, my ribs actually hurt from all the laughing."
Her dark gaze could not help but take in those ribs now. Although the day had been a scorcher for this late in autumn, his t-shirt had remained firmly in place all day. She had cursed his chivalry until she realized that the play of the thin damp cotton across his muscles was an enticing seduction in itself. The way that it clung like skin to his broad his chest as he stretched and lifted, bent and pulled had gotten her so worked up that she had finally excused herself to work upon carving the pumpkins.
But even then she found herself looking up every couple of minutes to catch a glimpse of the man. Perhaps that was why one of the jack-o-lanterns had such a snarky grin on its face.
The Sergeant was just finishing his lemonade when Cassie Monroe sashayed up the walk-away with six year old son in tow. With her perfectly applied make-up, big hair and tight jeans, her neighbor broadcast her intentions to any male within a twenty mile radius.
"Evening, Joey," Esther said to the little boy that would sometimes use the old swing set and tree house in her back yard. She tried to ignore his brazen mother as the smell of beer drifted on the night breeze to her nostrils. The younger woman must have had a couple to bolster her courage before making her move.
"Evening, Miss Esther," she purred with saccharine sweetness. "I was beginning to think that Halloween was canceled this year," she might be addressing Esther but her eyes were raking up and down the Sergeant's body like a barn cat toying with a mouse before devouring it. She turned her gaze to Esther's for a second as she dealt the death blow. "Not that anyone in town would blame you. Not with your son's d-e-a-t-h," she spelled the word with pretense.