Equal Shares Ch. 03bysteveh11©
It was a month later. Denise and Stan had been on six dates now and were firmly established as real friends and not just as work colleagues. Denise chuckled in her mind about being 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend', but they both didn't really think of it that way.
At least, Stan didn't.
Denise found that she was thinking more and more about the way Stan held his chin in his hand sometimes, or his strange habit of whistling some unknown tune, often out of key, when he was thinking. Her own past relationships made her reluctant to consider anything closer, however.
On the plus side, Stan had ventured out of his depression and his colleagues were profoundly grateful. Elizabeth, in particular, was pleased to see her surrogate son looking and acting happier again.
It was an improvement professionally, as well. Last week, Bob had mentioned this to Stan, who sheepishly admitted that he'd been in a funk for a long time. Still, he'd told Bob, "I'm taking life a day at a time. Today I'm fine. Yesterday I'd been fine. Tomorrow? We'll see."
- - - - - - - - - -
Another design review meeting, and once again it was Anne's project. Stan found himself paying far less attention than he should have to the details of the latest design proofs and changes. He was much more interested in the hazel eyes, blond hair and elfin features of their presenter.
The subject of his attention was either unaware of it or, more likely, ignored it. Stan managed to stay professional enough to take the necessary notes and ask some pertinent questions, all of which were answered in a positive, knowledgeable and self-confident manner that told everyone there – and especially Stan – that of course everything was in hand and correct.
Anne's colleagues in the design team were definitely junior partners in this design, even though some of them had much more experience. Actually, Stan had heard one of them telling another that, "I hate being that woman's gofer, but God, she's good!"
There was a discussion of timelines. The first 'silicon' was due back from the wafer fab six weeks after delivery of the design data. Then they had to allow another couple of weeks to have it packaged and returned as testable chips.
Anne loftily told the meeting that she'd be ready for evaluation in eight weeks, the data was ready to send now. No one was going to say nay to her opinion and the meeting broke up after agreeing to send the new chip design for fabrication. Stan thought he saw a gleam in Anne's eye that hadn't been there earlier, but she caught him looking, and he broke eye contact immediately.
After his customary, "Thank you everyone," Stan left to get on with the rest of his day.
- - - - - - - - - -
Elizabeth had been watching Stan for years and thought she knew something.
"Well, have you asked her yet?" she teased across the desks. Stan looked at her, completely at a loss.
"You've been thinking of someone and for a change it's not Caron, is it? I can tell."
"Elizabeth, I don't know what you mean. Denise and I are friends, nothing more," answered Stan.
"I never said a name," Elizabeth answered, quietly. "But if it's not Denise, who is it that's got you all introspective and quiet." She paused a moment. "Stan, you're not relapsing, are you?"
"Actually, I wasn't thinking of Caron. I was thinking of Anne."
"Anne Berkely, in the Design Group."
"I know who she is, I didn't know you had any interest in her, that's all."
"Well, I don't," Stan said, "but when you asked, I was going over the meeting this afternoon. She's the lead designer."
"Right, that's all you were thinking about her for, wasn't it?" Elizabeth arched an eyebrow at him.
Fully on the defensive now, Stan said, "She's very attractive, you know. I am allowed some lapses into fantasy!"
The two friends shared a laugh. However, Elizabeth worried inside. Denise should have been on his mind, not Anne – Denise would be upset if she knew. Well, Elizabeth wouldn't be the one to tell her, not yet anyway – after all, Stan was right, a simple fantasy meant nothing.
- - - - - - - - - -
The following Wednesday, it was Stan's turn to drive. That afternoon, Denise asked if they could go for a meal instead of just a drink, "'cuz I didn't have time for lunch today." Stan agreed, because he couldn't think of an excuse not to.
"You make the reservations, Stan. I'm like putty in your hands tonight!" she joked.
Stan didn't think much of the joke, but he waited until Denise left before his face fell. He looked over at his assistant.
"Elizabeth, you talk to Denise, don't you?"
"Does she think there's more to her and me than friendship?"
"What makes you ask that?"
"Elizabeth..." there was a hint of a whine in Stan's voice.
"Denise has just asked if she and you can go for a meal tonight. There's no need to jump to conclusions," Elizabeth calmly replied
"Look, we – I thought – Denise is – I dunno, we're good friends, but..."
Elizabeth looked at Stan calmly, but he could see the concern in her eyes.
"But friendship is all there is, for you. Is that it?"
Stan looked down, "Yes, she's great, but..."
"But she's not your girlfriend," interrupted Elizabeth. "Well, like I said, you're jumping to conclusions. But if you're right, you know you're going to have to tread carefully, Stan. She's never told me about it, but I've seen that she's been hurt before. If friends is all you can be with her, but she wants more – 'Case Not Proven,' as they say in Scotland – you'll need to be very gentle in telling her."
Now, Stan looked up, "All I can do is play it by ear, I guess."
- - - - - - - - - -
Stan had made reservations at a local curry house for nine o'clock, allowing them time for a quick drink first. He picked her up at eight, as usual, and Denise was happy enough to chat away on their way and at the pub across the road from the restaurant.
Stan was paying just enough attention to Denise's chatter to get away with it, while thinking about the two of them. Looked at objectively, he supposed someone could have concluded they were dating – after all, they had been out for drinks for the last six or seven weeks. Oh dear.
They crossed over the road and walked into the restaurant. They were quickly seated – the place was nearly empty at this time in midweek – and the waiter asked about drinks. Both asked for water, and after it was brought to the table they chose their meals.
Denise chose a mild Korma, while Stan opted for a stronger Dhansak. As they waited for their food, Denise began chatting again.
"Raoul never liked Indian food," she said.
"My ex. He said that all that spice was simply there to cover the bad meat."
"Have you ever eaten real Indian food?" Stan asked.
"I don't think so," Denise replied.
"Ghita, you know, in Production?" Denise nodded, and Stan continued, "She laid on a spread once, I can't remember what the occasion was. Several of us from work were invited. Huge amounts of food, looking and smelling thoroughly enjoyable. It was lovely, and you could tell that there was a lot of pride that went into it. I think that convinced me that, while there may have been a kernel of truth there once, the idea that Indian food is so spicy hot in order to hide the rancid meat is an old wive's tale, an urban myth."
"Oh. Well, Raoul was a fucking ignorant bastard at times."
Stan looked up at Denise in surprise. "That's the first time I've ever heard you swear. Even when you have some idiot telling you that "of course" he's remembered to 'File, Save' before switching off, you never swear. So tell me about Raoul, and why he was such a," and he curled his mouth into a wide grin, "fucking ignorant bastard."
Denise looked at him, then finished her mouthful and patted her mouth with her napkin while she collected herself. After a mouthful of water she said,
"Raoul was witty, handsome and charming. He was excellent in bed. I thought he was all I could dream of. Trouble is, several other women were led to believe the same thing."
"Oh." Stan said, flatly.
"Putting it simply, Raoul couldn't keep his dick in his pants if he saw a woman he was attracted to. He was attracted to a lot of women, too. In the end, I found out about six of them.
"We were not engaged or anything, but Raoul had given me a bracelet – and it gave me great satisfaction to walk in on a dinner he was having with one of his Other Ladies, take off the bracelet and lay it on the table next to her plate. I told her that it, and he, was hers now – unless Sandra, or Reyna, or one of the others wanted him.
"I walked away, but I heard her slap his face before I got out of earshot. I was very, very satisfied to do that, but when I got home I cried and cried. I'd loved him, we'd been together for four years, and though we'd never said anything I was sure he loved me back. Then he goes and breaks my heart."
"I'm very sorry," Stan said, quietly. "I shouldn't have pushed the issue."
"No, no, that's fine, friends share. I'm not going to let it spoil the night!" she said, but Stan could see she was being brave. Denise's eyes moistened. Stan changed the subject to some gossip from work, and no more was said of Raoul.
That night, Caron's concerned dark eyes told him he'd have to be careful. Elizabeth had been right – Denise was vulnerable, if she thought there was more than friendship possible – and there wasn't, not from his side – she could get badly hurt.
Before he went to sleep, Stan thought about tomorrow's schedule. He had a few routine things to do, then in the afternoon there was a peer review meeting. Anne would probably be ripping some poor guy's brain, as well as several week's work, apart.
His last thought was that it was unusual for him to think about work at all while at home.
- - - - - - - - - -
"I missed you last night!" Elaine said as he walked through the door.
Stan laughed, "Yes, we went for Indian food instead."
"As long as you two had fun, that's all that matters!" Elaine told him.
Stan walked through to his desk. "How'd it go?" asked Elizabeth, grinning. Stan's demeanour told her most of what she wanted.
"Nice meal. She told me about Raoul."
"Not here. Have a coffee with me in a few minutes, I'll tell you then." Elizabeth agreed, and they turned to professional matters.
An hour later, Stan still hadn't been able to get away, but finally it looked like he could take a break. He caught Elizabeth's eye and they walked together to get their coffees.
"Did you know that Denise had a long relationship go wrong?" he started.
"Yes, I remember. I don't know any details." Actually, Elizabeth was wondering which relationship.
"Well, she thought that Raoul was The One, you know? Then she found out he was cheating on her, multiple times. She broke up with him immediately, but it broke her heart. I think she'd been hearing wedding bells, but it turned out he was just using her."
"God, poor Denise," Elizabeth was quiet for a moment. "You know this means you'll have to be very careful with her. Stan, you have to tell her if you don't want more than friendship. Otherwise she'll think you're leading her on."
"I'm not!" Stan said, with a little too much force.
"Shhh. I know, Stan. But you know that's how it might look?"
Stan sighed. "Yes, I know. It already looks like we're 'Dating', doesn't it?"
Elizabeth laid her hand on his, flat on the table.
As Elizabeth answered, "Yes, Stan. Stan, you have to tell her!" She realized that Stan's eyes were tracking someone behind her and quickly glanced over. "You do like Anne, don't you?" she grinned.
"Of course I like her. Half the company likes her, probably more – just about all the guys and half the women."
"Stanley! I shall forget you said that," Elizabeth said, with mock outrage.
"Sorry Elizabeth." 'But you know it's true,' he thought, 'she's enough to make a gay man straight. She's way out of my reach.' Still, he couldn't keep a grin from his face.
At lunch, that day, Elizabeth was once again sitting with Denise. They chatted about this and that, and then...
"How did your date go last night?" Elizabeth asked, her face carefully neutral.
"Very well! We had a nice meal, chatted away – just lovely!"
"Don't go too fast, Denise. I don't think Stan's ready for that, yet. You're starting to think of him as your boyfriend, aren't you?"
Denise dropped her eyes to the table, "Yes, I think I am."
Then, she looked back up into Elizabeth's eyes, "Is that wrong?"
"Denise," Elizabeth said with compassion, "as I said, I don't think Stan's ready for that. You're his friend that he goes out with once a week." She looked past Denise into the distance. "It took me a while, too." Her gaze returned to Denise. "You'll end up hurting both yourself and, I think, Stan. He'd blame himself if you got hurt, without knowing how to solve the problem."
"So you think I should cool it a little?" Denise asked, almost in a whisper.
"I'm sorry, Denise, but yes. For the moment. I think you'll know when he's ready to go further.
- - - - - - - - - -
It was the following Wednesday afternoon. Stan and Denise had spoken since the restaurant but neither had talked about what was on their minds. Denise realized she had to confirm something.
"Shall I pick you up at eight for a drink at the Mitre as usual?"
"That'll be good Denise. See you then," and Stan turned back to his work. 'Well, there's nothing like a dismissal,' she thought.
Stan barely noticed.
Just before going home time, Anne strode in to confirm the due date of her design with Harry, the Materials Controller. Stan looked up, and followed her with his eyes as she entered, made her enquiry, nodded and left. She never glanced Stan's way once. 'Just as well, or I'd have blown my cover,' he realized. 'Better snap out of it.'
- - - - - - - - - -
Denise and Stan were awkward with each other that evening. Denise had picked him up as usual in her StreetKa, but they'd hardly exchanged a word on the way, both wanting to say something but neither knowing how to start.
They got their drinks, said "Hello!" to Elaine and settled down at a table.
After a couple of minutes, Denise looked up at Stan.
"You first," she said.
"Look, it's obvious we both want to say something. You go first."
He paused for a moment longer.
"Denise, I think I ought to tell you something. I'm not really ready yet, not for a, well, a relationship."
She grinned at him for a moment, and then went serious.
"I had a chat with Elizabeth, too."
"I rather thought you might have," he said. "She's a very perceptive lady. What did she tell you?"
"That you weren't ready for a relationship yet."
"Uh-huh." She laid a hand on his. "She's looking out for us both, Stan. She doesn't want to see us get hurt, and if she's right – and it seems she is – then trying to go further than friends would hurt both of us, since you can't do it yet. So, friends it is. Good friends, who go for drinks and cheer each other up."
Denise seemed to have a little difficulty getting that last bit out.
Stan cleared his throat, "Well, on that note, who's that with Elaine?"
Denise looked, and giggled.
"Oh, that'll be her latest."
The best Stan could manage was an interrogative grunt, "Uh?"
Denise burst into laughter. She got herself under control, and beckoned him closer.
"You didn't know about Elaine? I think she's had half-a-dozen girlfriends since I've known her."
Stan simply gaped, shut his mouth, and said, "How come I'm always the last to find out these things? I swear the gossip mill deliberately goes right around my desk without stopping."
Denise, still giggling, said, "That's 'cuz we all want to protect you from the nasty, horrible world out there. We don't want you to know the terrible truth!"
Mock grumbling, Stan said, "But I don't want to be protected!"
Denise told him, "It's for your own good, you know!" and disintegrated back into laughter again.
When the two of them left, Elaine waved, and Stan waved back. He couldn't help but look at the two women. Now, it seemed obvious – they were very close together, their body language wasn't that of 'just friends' at all. 'Not that you're a great student of body language,' he silently chided himself.
On the drive to his home, Denise asked,
"You're okay with Elaine, aren't you?"
"Sure. Her lifestyle, her choice. I just didn't know."
"Good. I don't want to see her get in any trouble."
"She's doing nothing wrong, Denise. Why should she get into trouble?"
Denise had just reached his house, so she pulled over and parked.
"No, it's not wrong, but it's still unusual and frowned upon by a lot of people. She could be made very unhappy if someone, who shall remain nameless but whose initials are Stanley Hinch, were to open his big mouth and say the wrong thing."
Denise continued softly, "But you won't do that, will you Stan, because you're a good guy, not a thoughtless Neanderthal."
"Like I said, I've no problem. One of Caron's colleagues was gay, he and his partner had a ceremony shortly before she died. I wished them well and the best of luck. Luck because there's still prejudice, but they were obviously in love with each other. That's what matters."
"Yes, Stan, it is. Well, thanks for the evening." She looked him in the eye, "Good friends, right?"
- - - - - - - - - -