Neglected

bykomrad1156©

"I'm sorry?" Dustin said not understanding what she meant.

"Oh, that's okay. I don't want to burden you with my petty little problems. You look...tanned." She saw the white band of skin around his temples then saw him laugh.

"That's my cover line," he said.

"Your what?" she asked now the lost one.

"I spent a lot of time outside the last ten weeks, all of it with a cov...a 'hat' on my head. That's why I have the three-inch band of white skin around my gourd. Sorry—my head."

"Did you go to a different country? It sounds like you're speaking a foreign language," she said finally smiling herself.

"Kind of," he told her. "I really have to get back to the shoe store, but perhaps we'll have a chance to talk one of these days."

"I'd like that, Dustin," she told him honestly. "And...for the record, it's Miss Calveri now. Or it will be in another month or two." She held up her left hand and the huge diamond ring was missing.

"Oh. Wow. I'm...I'm very sorry," he said sympathetically.

"Don't be," she told him. "It's a long story. So...maybe we could get together sometime. Lunch at the food court?"

"Okay," he said smiling brightly. He began to walk away then said, "Or maybe even dinner."

She returned his half wave before being aware that her smile was so big it almost hurt.

Just before he reached the exit, Chloe, who said she'd be late, passed Dustin and did a double take. Shandy heard him say 'hello' to her but just like Shandy, her brain wasn't able to process who was speaking to her.

The confused look disappeared when Chloe saw Shandy's smile.

"Holy cow! Was that...?" Chloe looked back but Dustin was long gone. "That was, wasn't it?" she said. "And look at you, grinning like the Cheshire Cat! So where has your hot, young lover been all summer?"

"My what?" Shandy said feigning being indignant.

"You heard me. Your...future husband, almost-Miss Calveri."

"Okay, that's ridiculous," she replied.

"Uh-huh. Sure it is. So...where was your young Romeo all this time?"

"Honestly? I don't know. Some place where he was outside all the time and wearing a hat to um...cover his head...gourd or something."

"That was helpful," Chloe teased. "You need any help with the new display?"

"No. I think I've got it. Thanks, though."

It was the divorce that faded into the back of her mind the rest of the day as she kept thinking about his new tanned, leaner look. He certainly hadn't been overweight before, but his face had been slightly more round. He'd worn his hair short on the sides, but the top had been 4-5 inches long. Now it was more like a flat top. And that tan...

Shandy was on her way out when she heard a deep, baritone voice call her name.

"Shandy?"

She stopped and froze and felt like her heart had stopped, too. She wanted to turn around but couldn't.

Dustin was standing next to her now and she forced herself to look over.

"Oh, it's you," she said pretending not to have known. "Hi."

"Hey," he said. "Can I walk you out?"

"Um, sure. Okay."

As they walked, Dustin did most of the talking.

"I was hoping we could maybe get together like you said."

"Oh, well, the food court is the other direction," she said without looking his way.

"It is," he agreed. "Maybe I should have said 'my way' meaning...dinner."

"Oh, I don't know, Dustin. I'm really busy lately with work and the divorce and..."

"Yeah, these four-hour work days are killers, huh?" he said with a big smile. "Sorry. That sounded snarky. True but snarky."

They walked a bit further before Dustin said, "I thought about you all summer, Shandy."

"You did?" she said. "You thought about...me?"

"Every day," he told her. "I wouldn't have confessed were you still happily married."

Shandy shook her head then said, "It's been several years since I was happily married, Dustin." Then she apologized for being so terse. "I didn't mean to snap at you. Like I said, it's a long story and one that would bore you to death so..."

"I'd be more than happy to listen," he told her. "Anytime. About anything, frankly. And unless you agree to finally go out with me, you'll never know where I spent the summer. It'll just remain that unsolved mystery in your mind. Haunting you." He was making dramatic gestures as though he was talking about some actual mystery. "Tormenting you. Never letting you rest until you..."

"Okay, okay. I'll...go out with you. But it won't be a date. Just two people getting together to...tell stories. Okay?"

"Okay," he said happily. "But not the Food Court. Anywhere but there."

They got to her car and Dustin took a look at it and said, "Whoa! Very nice."

"It's just a car. It gets me front point A to point B."

"Still, that's not a bad way to get from point to point."

Shandy actually laughed then said, "Good...point. It is very quiet and smooth. But honestly? I'd be happy to drive an old clunker if I could have my marriage back. Well, when it was actually a marriage."

"What group sang 'money can't buy me love'?" he asked.

"The Beatles, I believe," she said knowing the answer. "That's unfortunately true. My husband made a ton of it and we couldn't have been less happy." She looked at Dustin then said, "Sorry, I guess I should save that for our story-telling time, huh?"

"Not really," he said quietly. "I can tell you were deeply hurt and sometimes we need to talk about things that hurt us. It's how we get passed them. That plus time, I suppose."

"That is very true. I'm impressed," she said sweetly.

Dustin smiled then said, "What can I say? I'm just...an impressive kind of guy."

Shandy couldn't help herself and laughed at his silliness. She hit the button on her key fob and the car chirped.

"You really are an impressive guy, Dustin," she said. The she smiled and quickly said, "I mean, you did set a record for sock sales, right?"

He laughed then said very seriously, "Hey, you jest, but my name is still up on the sock-sales hall of fame board. Not to brag or anything, of course."

Shandy laughed again then said, "Spending some time with you telling stories might not be all that bad."

"Well, thank you!" he said puffing out his chest. "I believe that may be the nicest compliment I've ever had. Today at least."

"You goof!" she said as she got in.

"Can I call you?" he asked holding her door open.

"You're persistent too, aren't you?"

He pretended to put his hand inside his shirt then began to pontificate. "Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent," he said obviously quoting someone.

"Why do I get the feeling I should know who said that even though I have no idea who it was?" she said still smiling at him.

"I'll give you a hint. It was a former president."

"Oh, okay. Roosevelt, right?"

"Not quite."

"Reagan?"

"Nope."

"Clinton?"

"Guess again."

"I give up," she said. "Who said it?"

"I'll tell you on our first date. How's that?"

Shandy rolled her eyes but didn't stop smiling. "There's not going to be any first date, Dustin. Just a get together to tell stories. That's it."

"Okay, keep telling yourself that, Mrs. Miller," he said smiling happily back at her.

"Ahhh! You're impossible!" she said trying to pull her door shut before realizing he was holding it open.

"Sorry, but you owe me a phone number."

"Oh, right. The persistence thing. Okay. Fine. I'll give you my number if you'll let go of my door."

"Deal," he said continuing to smile.

"It's 360-555-4832. Got it?"

"Yep. Right here," he said pointing to his head. "Right here in the old gourd."

Shandy shook her head and tried not to laugh.

"Goodbye, Dustin," she said feigning exasperation and pulling on her door until he let go.

"I'll call you!" he said loudly just as she started the car. He moved to the side to give her room to back out. When she put it in drive, he bent down, looked at her and waved.

She rolled her eyes again but couldn't help but smile at him as he waved to her until she drove away.

Shandy was still smiling when she got ready to exit the parking garage then laughed when her phone buzzed. She didn't have to look. She knew who it was. She clicked on his text then kept smiling.

"Dear Mrs. Miller. I'm not only persistent, I'm like a pit bull. I just thought you should know that because I'll be asking you on a second date during our first. And being irresistible, you'll say 'yes' which will lead to a third date and our eventual engagement. Then, after some respectable amount of time to plan our wedding, we'll exchange nuptials at the location of your choice. (I'm persistent but also ready to compromise.)

I have a sweet tooth and was hoping you might, too. I would love to take you to Bakery Nouveau or Crumble & Flake Patisserie. Both have amazing croissants and coffee. Your choice. See how easy I am?

I'm also a morning person so...would Saturday kind of early work for you? That would be tomorrow, btw. With persistence, I remain truly yours, Dustin Miller."

Shandy hadn't been in this good a mood in a very, very long time. It made no difference this was only going to be a one-time get together. It was just so nice to feel like there might be light at the end of this very long, sad, lonely tunnel. The thought of being happy again made her happy, and once again, it felt so good to be alive!

She waited until she got home before answering as she didn't want Dustin to think she was eager to spend time with him, and yet she couldn't wait for Saturday morning. She chalked it up to feeling great and let it go at that as she sat down to reply.

"Dear Mr. Miller. You are persistent, but I am unmoved and unmovable. You are a very nice guy and I'll even grant you're reasonably nice looking—even with that goofy, untanned circle around your head. Or gourd. Or whatever you call that big lump on your shoulders. But this is just coffee and croissants (or maybe something sweet as I also have a sweet tooth.) I'm also a morning person, but I'm sure that's where any commonalities end. Okay, we both have high-end jobs at the mall, but that's where I really draw the line!

Seriously, what time shall I meet you there? Shandy Calveri. That's Calveri, got it? ;-)"

She set her phone down and tried to decide what she wanted for dinner later on when her phone buzzed again.

"He's not persistent, he's downright annoying!" she said unable not to read his reply.

"My male ego is still intact, but just barely," his text began. "I clearly mentioned I'd be picking you up and yet you said you'd meet me there. I know you're a good listener so I can only conclude you're avoiding riding in real luxury. You mentioned be willing to drive an older car and I just happen to have one. It's a very sleek, 2005 Nissan Sentra with less than 200,000 miles on it. (And it still has paint on it in several places!) I chose the early morning because it doesn't have air conditioning, something we need around here maybe two months out of the year. Since it's August, it's one of those months. But not to worry, the window on your side rolls both up and down without too much difficulty. So how about I pick you up at 8 o'clock?"

Shandy was not only smiling she was also laughing.

"I like to consider myself a reasonable person so I suppose you could give me a ride in your like-new chariot. But this is where I really, really draw that line in the sand! See you then. Shandy."

She got an almost immediate reply with a smiley face and the words. "You won't regret it—too much. Oh, I kind of need your address. See you then! Dustin."

She sent it to him then went about the rest of her day feeling on top of the world.

Shandy was up at 6:30 and was still in a very good mood. She had a cup of coffee then showered and got dressed. As she looked through her things she told herself having a hard time deciding to what to wear was only because it was chilly in the mornings and very warm in the afternoons during August. It had nothing to do with wanting to look nice for anyone in particular.

So after trying on four different tops, she finally settled on a very cute, very preppy-looking, long-sleeved, coral-colored lace up sweater with a blue accent stripe around the neckline and the cuffs. She paired it with some blue capri pants and a pair of flat, white sandals. She added a pair of white hoop earrings then touched up her glossy lipstick which matched the coral sweater perfectly.

"Not bad," she thought. It was cute and casual yet kind of chic in that preppy sort of way.

She heard Dustin arrive before she saw him as the beat-up Sentra pulled into her driveway. Shandy didn't know what was causing the noise, but it had a small hole in the muffler that announced its presence well ahead of its arrival wherever it went.

She did her best not to laugh when she went to the door anticipating the bell would ring. She got there just as Dustin did and opened the door right as he was reaching for the button.

"Hey! Come in," she said smiling much to brightly for a simple get together.

"Wow, you look amazing," he said as he walked inside. "And...so does your home. Wow—again."

"Oh, well, thank you—twice," she said. "You look very nice yourself."

"Oh, it's the jonquil," he said without smiling.

He was wearing a nice-looking three-button Henley shirt with a collar that was yellow—or more accurately—jonquil in color. He also had on a pair of khaki-colored shorts with cargo pockets and a pair of brown sandals.

"A man who knows his colors. Again, I'm impressed."

"Don't be," he said with a smile. "I saw it on the tag before I cut it off. It's yellow to me."

"Well, it looks very nice on you," she told him.

"You look very...preppy," he told her.

"Hmmm. Was that a compliment or a put down?" she said trying to be very serious.

"Oh, definitely a compliment. I like preppy—a lot. Don't get me wrong. You always look sensational in your um...tres chic dress and skirts at work. This is just kind of my favorite look of all looks."

"Ah, I see," she said. "Well, lucky me, huh?"

He saw her trying not to smile as he said, "So are you ready? If so, my chariot awaits."

"Yes, your Nissan Sentra. I um...heard you pull up this morning," she said trying hard not to laugh.

"You know, guys spend a lot of money to put headers on their trucks to make them sound that way. Me? I just leave the hole in my muffler and I'm good to go. Yeah, I get a lot of looks from jealous guys and hot chicks. I know the guys want my car and the girls want to ride in it, but that spot is reserved for you, Shandy."

"Oh, gee. Lucky me—again."

"Shall we?" he said, offering her his arm.

She tilted her head and tried giving him the eye but couldn't keep from smiling. "Let me just grab my purse, okay?"

She was back a few seconds later and Dustin still had his elbow out for her to take.

"Persistence. Remember?" he told her.

"I don't know about you," she said while hooking her arm through his.

Riding in his car was even 'better' than hearing it drive up.

"You'll have to talk a little louder!" he yelled after she said something he couldn't understand.

"Oh, okay!" she called out. "Which place are we going to?" she yelled over the noisy muffler and the wind noise coming in through the partially open windows.

"Crumble and Flake over on Olive Way," he hollered back. "You're gonna love it!"

Shandy was laughing so hard she couldn't answer him. She just nodded then laughed even harder.

When they arrived and he finally shut off the car, Shandy exhaled audibly.

"We made it," she said very loudly.

"There's no need yell," Dustin said very quietly. "I'm sitting right next to you."

She shook her head and went to get out when he said, "Uh-uh. Don't you dare. You wait right there."

He came around and pulled out on her door while also pulling up.

"You see, you thought I was being a gentleman, but I was actually saving you from having to lay back and kick the door with your feet." He saw her start to laugh again then looked and the door and said very seriously, "I think it needs a little oil."

She took his arm without prompting as they headed inside.

"It's going to be beautiful today," she said looking at the crystal clear, very blue sky.

"It already is," Dustin said looking her up and down so she'd know he meant her.

His silliness deeply touched her as he made her feel beautiful for the first time in ages. She decided to enjoy her time with this very cute, very nice, very young man knowing it wouldn't last more than an hour or so.

As they walked along the glass-enclosed cases of pastries, Shandy kept saying, "Oh, that looks delicious!" or "Look at this right here. I could eat two of those," and other such things.

She settled on a chocolate croissant and a blueberry scone with a cup of black coffee while Dustin ordered a cinnamon roll that made those at the mall look tiny. The card explaining what it was said: "Made from a 'laminated' brioche (a brioche dough that is layered w/ butter like a croissant), they are flaky on the outside & light, moist, & tender on the inside. Not too sweet, w/ a smear of cream cheese glaze on top."

His single pastry was larger than the two of hers combined.

"Everything looks and smells so fresh and delicious," Shandy said as they sat down.

Dustin 'looked' at her again and said, "Yes, it does."

"You!" she said playfully as she daintily picked up the croissant and tried to take a small bite. "Oh...my gosh! This is so good!" she said. "Here. Try a bite." She held it out across the table and Dustin did his best to take an equally small taste.

"Oh, wow! That is amazing," he agreed. He finished chewing then cut a small piece of the cinnamon roll off. As he chewed he dropped his fork and moaned. "Oh! Talk about heavenly!"

"Me, me, me!" Shandy said leaning over for a bite. Dustin cut another small piece and fed it to her.

"Oh, my God! Everything is incredible!" she said savoring the burst of flavor.

She took a sip of coffee then said, "Okay, so...talk, Mr. Miller. I'll listen and eat."

"No, you go ahead," he told her. "I'm not very interesting. Besides, I already know how all of my stories end."

Shandy nearly choked as she was swallowing a bite of scone when he made his little quip.

"My stories are all depressing," she said.

"Good. Then we'll get them out of the way first and move on to my very inspirational stories."

Shandy found herself laughing again and said, "You seem to have that effect on me a lot."

"I'm glad," he said being serious. "You're even more beautiful when you laugh."

Shandy stopped laughing and smiling and just looked at him for several seconds.

Suddenly she said, "Oh, right. My story. Okay, well, things were really great the first few years we were married."

She spent about fifteen minutes detailing how she and her soon-to-be ex-husband met, fell in love, got married, and the long, slow change over the last two years ending in his admission to having had an affair. "Or...affairs—plural," she added. "So that's my sad story. Now tell me what you did all summer."

"I spent ten weeks at Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia," he told her.

She remembered the table and the booth and seeing Dustin talking to the two Marines and mentioned it.

"Ah, okay. That was my OSO." He saw her puzzled look and said, "Officer selection officer. They're kind of like recruiters only for officers."

"What's the difference?" Shandy asked having no idea.

"Well, Marine officers lead Marines. They also fly their jets and helicopters."

"Interesting," she said. "So is this what you're going to be doing after you finish college?"

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