Back to Life Ch. 01byDawnJ©
(Dedicated to my darling friend, the Dutch English teacher. Thanks for your assistance with the "couleur locale" for this story! Love you, sweetie!)
The day had been a long one, and Karen Mullings was too tired to care much about where she ate. She just needed dinner and her bed. She walked into the hotel's Italian restaurant and waited to be seated. The table for two was in the quietest corner, which suited her just fine. Although she had happily embarked on this solo European tour, and though she had enjoyed every city she had stayed in, she still preferred to hide away at dinnertime. It seemed to her a little sad that a grown woman would be alone for dinner every day, and while she had no pressing need of a companion, she felt her aloneness most sharply in the evenings, which is why she more often than not called for room service of an evening.
Today, however, she knew if she went upstairs to her room she would fall asleep without eating, and when she woke, both the restaurant and room service would be unavailable. She ordered the house special for the evening and a glass of sweet red wine, and stretched her feet out under the table, letting the peace and quiet soak into her bones. After swallowing almost the whole glass of water thoughtfully provided for her, she hurried to the ladies' room.
On the way out, she bumped into someone going in the opposite direction, almost falling over. Only his quick hands and steady feet kept her on her own. The arm around her waist, dangerously close to her bottom, was hard and muscled, the fingers long and strong. The man's shoulders were wide, and he was taller than she by a good six inches. His eyes were the bluest she had ever seen...come to think of it, she had never met a blue-eyed person before in her life. His eyes reminded her of the sea on a hot summer day.
"I...I'm so sorry!" she exclaimed, pulling herself up to her full height and looking the stranger in the eye.
He smiled at her, and his dimpled cheeks surprised her. "That's okay. I'm glad to help. Are you all right now?" He withdrew his hand from her back, and she felt the loss immediately.
"Yes, I'm fine, thank you!"
She smiled in her turn, and then excused herself and hurried back to her table. The food, when it was served, was hot and filling, and delicious as usual. She was glad of something to take her mind off the still unsettling encounter with the handsome blue-eyed man outside the restroom. She savored a second glass of wine, in lieu of dessert, and then went to pay her bill. As she turned towards the elevators, her mystery encounter rounded the corner and their eyes met. Something like an electric charge shot up her arms and settled in her chest. He smiled again, acknowledging her with a nod before walking out through the wide glass doors with his companions, two women and another man. She went up to her room in a daze.
After a hot shower, during which she tried to escape the thoughts of the dark-haired stranger with the dimples, sexy mouth, husky voice, and hard hands, she rubbed lotion into her skin and crawled into bed. She was thoroughly exhausted and hoped she would sleep undisturbed. Tomorrow she would be visiting the Oude Kerk and the Dam Plein, and she knew she would need reserves of energy for the long walking and standing about.
Some time during the night she awoke, shaking and so wet she thought she had had a childhood accident. The dream came crashing in on her conscious mind, and she rushed from the bed to the bathroom to relieve herself, and to hope she could run from the eroticism of it. Her relationships had all failed, and her heart had been broken one too many times, so she was very wary of men, and mistrusted them on principle. To dream about a perfect stranger as she had done, then, was unprecedented and extremely unsettling, even though she was very aware of her allure, and when she did trust them, very willing to share the depth and breadth of her passion with them. She took a glass of water with her back to bed, and flipped through the TV channels till she found some mindless comedy to occupy her till she grew drowsy again and fell back on her pillows.
Almost two hours away in Leeuwarden, Peter van der Meulen sipped a second glass of brandy and stared into the fireplace. He had not been able to get the woman in the restaurant out of his mind. That brief contact had fired his imagination and his desires like nothing else had in years, not since the earliest days with Alijd, who had died four years before, after twenty years of marriage. The woman was everything Alijd had not been. She had been wearing jeans and a loose shirt with a scoop neckline, so Peter got a good up close of her breasts. In her mid-forties, she had beautiful brown eyes, a bright, ravishing smile, nice long legs, and delicious-looking breasts. She was a little plump, which was exactly the way Peter liked a woman to be.
He wondered who she was, how she came to be in Amsterdam, and why she was alone. She was quite the most alluring woman he had seen in years, and he found himself wanting to meet her again, to get to know her, perhaps even become friends. It was unexpected, this interest in a stranger. Peter was nothing if not conservative in public, and in fact his friends often had to encourage him to loosen up and enjoy himself. But this woman made him feel as though he were completely out of all control with the way he had been feeling since he got back home. Perhaps, for his peace of mind, he needed to forget her, and get on with the business of his life. He had some tests to mark – the thought made him groan – and then he had to prepare for his next week's classes. Monday was fast approaching.
He drained the glass and took it to the sink where he rinsed it and turned it over to dry before going into his office to begin the work that never stopped. He taught in a nearby secondary school, and his pupils ranged in ability from the apparently terminally lazy to the impossibly brilliant, with a fair number of average Joes in between. He sighed as he picked up his pencil and began to mark the batch of tests he had stopped halfway through. He worked through the rest of that one and the next one, before giving up in favor of some jazz and a book. He could wait to tackle the last two tomorrow, during his non-teaching periods.
Two months later, Peter found himself standing in the British Museum alone for the time being. His colleagues had gone off with the students they had brought with them on this trip, and he was making his way back to them from a restroom stop, when he saw her. The sight of her brought him up short. She was transfixed by the work of art she stood before, her gaze rapt, and no doubt, by the earbuds in her ears, she was listening to a description of the piece she was looking at. She was in jeans, snuggling up to her round bottom and hugging her long legs. Her top was loose, but he could clearly tell that her breasts were large and full. He felt himself grow warm as desire, unexpected and overwhelming, roared through him.
He stepped back, out of her possible line of vision, and tried to calm his body's response to the sight of her. He couldn't rejoin his party with anything resembling the hard-on that was threatening his peace of mind and his equanimity, not to mention the front closure of his slacks. He inhaled deeply, and turned away from her to look at the artwork around him, trying to lose himself in the variety. When his body calmed, he turned sharply and walked away to the place he knew his colleagues had taken the students. Both of them were female, and the younger one eyed him speculatively, as though she knew something had transpired and only needed to look at him to be able to sum up his experience. The older one ignored him, as she always did.
The students who had chosen to come on this tour were listening to the docent talk about the pieces in the gallery, and Peter paid as little heed as he needed to give the semblance of attention, while his body remained totally aware of the fact that the mystery woman was once again occupying the same building as he was. Was she an Englishwoman? Was she on holiday...again? Who was she? When the docent moved on, he did, too, and found himself in the same gallery as his mystery lady again. Her profile greeted him this time, and he fought to keep his eyes off her and on the works the guide was describing. He closed his eyes, and breathed away the tightness in his chest. This is ridiculous, he thought angrily, and was about to turn resolutely away when her scent assailed him.
He was shocked to discover that he remembered it from that one brief meeting two months earlier. It had imprinted itself on his synapses, setting off electrical pulses that made his skin tingle with awareness, and his heart race. He looked around and discovered he didn't have to look too far down to see into the most incredible coffee-brown eyes. The woman glanced up and he knew she recognized him by the way her eyes widened. He felt obliged to speak, though he was at a loss as to what to say.
"Hello again," he settled for, smiling faintly. He felt like a child, gawking longingly at candy in the shop window. He wished he knew why this woman brought out such odd and unsettling reactions in him.
"Oh, hello! Small world!" she replied, her smile a nervous reflection of his own.
"Yes, isn't it?" What an utterly inane response, he thought angrily. "Are you on holiday?" The question popped out without his permission, and he closed his eyes briefly, opening them again expecting there to be a sharp reprimand for his temerity. Instead, the woman smiled at him and answered,
"In a way, I suppose I am. My brother lives here, and I have just moved from the States. Until I can find a new position, I'm taking in the sights, and soaking up the culture." Her smile widened charmingly, and then she stuck her hand out and added, "My name is Karen, by the way. Karen Mullings."
"Peter van der Meulen," he said, taking her hand in his.
It was velvet smooth, and very soft, the caramel pigmentation of her skin tone contrasting warmly with his paler one. She was beautiful close up, with dimples in her cheeks, and a sexy mole above the left corner of her top lip. She had a few freckles scattered across her cheeks, a fact that surprised him as he had thought only very pale women with red hair had them.
"It's very nice to meet you again," he added, reluctantly relinquishing her hand.
"Are you on holiday?" she asked in her turn.
"In a manner of speaking," he returned laughingly. "A busman's holiday. My colleagues and I have brought some students over on a school trip. It's an annual event in our school." Immediately he said it, he remembered why he was in the museum. "Which reminds me, I'd better catch up with my group." He paused, then decided to go ahead and take the plunge. "But if you'd like some company, how about a drink later this evening?"
Karen didn't respond immediately. In fact, she appeared not to have heard him, and he was just about to repeat himself when she said,
"I'd like that, thank you." She gave him the name of her hotel, which he recorded in his handily secreted notebook.
"Eight o'clock good for you? We have to see to the students first."
Karen smiled, her dimples flashing at him. "Eight will be fine, thank you."
Peter felt himself drowning in her eyes, and clenched his hands into fists behind his back to bring himself back from the edge.
"I'm sorry but I must rush off now," he said. "See you at eight."
For the rest of the afternoon, Peter was distracted, and it showed. Neither of his colleagues had witnessed his meeting with Karen, and he was glad of that, but he kept expecting the younger one, Anika, to accost him about his inattention. While she did look at him questioningly a time or two, she refrained from commenting, for which he was grateful, as he could not even think of a good lie to explain away his behavior. Mina, the older one, steadfastly ignored him. He suspected it was because he had snubbed her once when she seemed to be making advances he was not interested in responding to.
Mercifully, the tour ended, and they took their twelve students, along with the eight from the other group and their other colleagues, Miep and Jan, out for dinner at a local eatery in the town where the host families' homes were located. He managed to keep his attention on his companions during the meal, entering into the students' buoyant spirits as they made amusing observations about the other patrons in the restaurant, about their teachers, about each other. He had been lucky to be assigned to this particular group of students, all of whom were level-headed, intelligent, and witty. His colleagues he tolerated, as he did most of them at work, and they got along because they tolerated him as well.
There were very few people whom Peter trusted, but he managed to get along with everyone, mostly because he made himself invisible. He rather liked being the one most people overlooked, especially after Alijd's death, when the natural reaction of his peers had been to smother him with attention in an attempt to keep him from brooding. Little did they know how odd his grief had been, and that he had been grieving her loss for years before she died.
He shook himself out of his reverie in time to participate in the review of plans for the next day. After much walkabouts, including enjoying the changing of the guard and the march along the Mall back to Buckingham palace, they would return to their host families, participate in a local fun fair on Friday morning, and have the afternoon and evening to themselves. On Saturday they were to return to Leeuwarden.
He saw that she was staying at the Tavistock Hotel, close to the Museum where they had met again. It seemed they were staying close to her. He asked directions of the father of their host family, and was even given leave to borrow the family sedan to take himself off for his date. Promptly at eight then, after having left far too early, and spending most of the extra twenty minutes finding a flower shop and making a purchase, Peter knocked on the door of room 413. He waited a heartbeat before the door opened and Karen appeared, a smile lighting her face.
"Please come in!" she invited him, and when he stepped inside, she closed the door and turned back to say, "What beautiful flowers! And how thoughtful of you to have brought them in a vase!"
"I'm glad you like them," he replied, handing them to her with a smile of his own.
He watched her walk over to the table beside the couch and push aside the books on it to place the flowers. Her hips were wide, her bottom round and inviting, and he felt his body stirring at the sight. He was glad in that moment that he was standing in the shadowed entryway, so she wouldn't notice if his cheeks heated from the direction of his thoughts. He had to get a grip!
"I noticed the hotel has quite a serviceable bar," he said hastily, to distract himself. "We can go there, or I can take you to a quiet little pub I noticed a few blocks away. It'll be a nice walk, if you're up to that!" His eyes went to her feet, which were encased in high-heeled pumps.
She noticed where he looked and chuckled. "I'll manage," she answered. "These are my work shoes!"
She walked toward him, holding a small clutch that matched the sunshine yellow of her dress. He loved a woman in a dress, and he swallowed against the urge to stare at her pretty legs beneath the knee-length skirt. He could not withhold the compliment that burst from his lips, however.
"You look lovely, Karen!" The warmth of his comment shone from his eyes, and Karen's face heated in response.
"Thank you! You look quite dapper yourself!" She walked through the door he opened for her, and waited till he closed it before asking, "So, have you decided where we're going?"
"I believe I have," he answered and escorted her down to the lobby. "I noticed it during one of our day tour walks," he said. "It looks quite cozy, and not too crowded. Shall we?" He gave her his arm, and they strolled the few blocks to the pub. By the time they got there, Peter had worked up an appetite, and hoped she wouldn't mind sharing supper with him. He waited till they were seated at a small table in the back before asking,
"Could you use some supper?"
"I don't mind if I do," she replied with a smile.
"What would you like to drink?" he wanted to know next, and went to give their order and ask after a menu. Returning with the drinks, he put her glass of Riesling before her and sat with his own glass. "Perhaps we can share a fish and chip supper? They seem to be rather large servings."
"That would be fine," she said, sipping her wine and smiling at him. He gestured for a waiter and placed their order, then turned back to her to say,
"Whereabouts does your brother live?"
"Birmingham," she answered. "He's away on business, and I didn't fancy staying alone, so I took the opportunity to come down to London for a visit till he comes back."
"I'm rather glad you did," he said, and took a large swallow of wine. He didn't know what was coming over him, but he was almost garrulous, not at all his usual self. Something about this woman sitting across from him stirred him up and disturbed his quiet equilibrium. It was at once exhilarating and disconcerting, and as he watched her sip her drink, he wondered how he was going to get it under control. If he could get her to talk, it might shut him up.
"So, why would you wish to leave the States to live in a smaller country?" he wondered, and made room for the food that the waiter brought just then.
Karen waited until she had served her plate before replying, nibbling on a chip.
"I'm a small town, island girl. The States was just too big, too overwhelming. Everything was larger than life, overblown, and after my first visit here, I knew this was where I wanted to live. I wanted to get back the feeling of being home." She cut a piece of the fish on her plate and ate it.
"And home is?" Peter watched her eat, and had to remind himself not to stare.
"Jamaica," she answered.
"Ah," he said, taking a forkful of the fish before him. "I thought I heard a bit of an accent!"
Karen eyed him speculatively. "Have you visited Jamaica?" she asked, sipping her wine again.
"No," he answered, "but I have a friend who is married to a Jamaican, and I sometimes visit them when I'm in England on my own." He paused, swallowing more wine before adding, "Your accent isn't as heavy as hers, though. That's why I couldn't place it." He smiled at her and returned his eyes to his plate, stuffing chips and fish into his mouth to keep from saying more.
"That's probably because I was born there, but spent my growing up years on a different island," she commented with a chuckle. "I'm a truly Caribbean child, because I lived on a third island as a young adult before moving to the States."
"Ah, you're a well-traveled lady, then," he said, watching her face.
"I wouldn't say that," she replied, "because aside from a month-long stay in the south of France when I was a girl, my visit to Amsterdam was my first visit to the European continent."
They ate in silence after that, and when Peter ordered a second round of drinks, this time an Amaretto sour for her at her request, and a Drambuie for himself. He let himself relax completely, watching her as she watched the other patrons in the pub. Her face was serene, as though she had a wellspring of calm inside her. He wanted to know how someone could be so calm in such uncertain circumstances. She didn't have a job, and she was living with her brother, a condition he felt certain she would not long endure. She seemed to be pretty independent, and he found he liked her spunky attitude.