The Warmest Winter, Day 05byTooCleverByHalf©
Thanks to everyone for their feedback on the previous chapters, with a special thank-you to my real-life editor. Remaining errors, if any, are mine. Reading the chapters of this story in order is highly recommended. All geek culture references are properties of their original copyright holders.
Jenny's eyes snapped open. She hadn't needed an alarm clock for years. Sure, on occasion she would have to get up earlier, or she would decide to go back to sleep, but every single day at seven twenty-seven in the morning, she would be awake. It started in grade school and she never saw a reason to try and change it.
She sat up in bed and stretched, listening to the sounds of the house. Cassie was in the shower down the hall, and the snow outside still damped down the wildlife's wild lives. Jenny pulled off the quilt she slept under, and felt a slight buzz of excitement as the morning air hit her skin. Her nipples immediately stiffened as goose bumps rippled across her arms and chest.
Not for the first time, Jenny reflected on her nighttime attire. She used to wear pajamas, when she was younger, and then switched to nothing. Shortly after the switch, she started getting her period. This meant that a few days a month, she'd had to wear underwear to bed anyway, to hold the pad in place. She started wearing panties to bed the rest of the month as well, because the inconsistency got on her nerves.
Once she got to high school and went for sports, switching to tampons became a no-brainer, but wearing a thong or such to bed was still a habit. And so, this morning, she rose from the bed wearing a solid black number that would have made almost any man looking at her drop to his knees. And while Jenny liked feeling so sexy first thing in the morning – it was a great way to start the day – she did wish that it did not so often include a wedgie.
By the time Cassie was heading downstairs to cook another breakfast, Jenny was ready for her shower. As she headed into the bathroom, she heard Veronica start to stir. Upstairs, Mike's room, was still quiet. He had worked the entire previous day, and so she hoped he finally got to relax today. He might even do something fun for a change.
After her shower, Jenny considered what she would do for the day. She was supposed to have exercised yesterday, but shoveling snow took its toll and she considered it her workout. Unfortunately, that was strength training, and she really liked to include a fair amount of cardio. Today, then, she'd see what activity she could do around Mike's house. Running the stairs, playing Ping-Pong, cleaning the floors as an excuse to zip around the house, and as a last resort, there was always the exercise bike in the basement.
All of that told her what to wear for the day. Boy shorts, for a start – one wedgie per day is plenty, thank you very much. By design, she had a matching sports bra. All black. Jenny rarely if ever bought undergarments of any kind in any other color. It's not like she wore fabrics thin enough for the color to show through.
Because she'd be running around all day, Jenny opted for yoga pants. And because these left not quite enough to the imagination, a nice, big, loose t-shirt with Marvin the Martian on it. That left the hair tie once her hair was dry enough, and the day was ready to be faced.
Coming downstairs, Jenny became a bit worried. There was nothing to smell. No bacon, pancakes, eggs, or even toast wafted from the kitchen. Veronica was already downstairs, having showered the previous evening, and Cassie was cooking... cereal?
Catching her confused look, Cassie said, "The milk's about to go bad, so I figured we may as well. Don't worry – I still cooked."
Jenny sat down and looked at the contents of her bowl. Cassie had apparently concocted a cereal salad, mixing proportions of several boxes or more of the stuff. Jenny shrugged. Cassie had yet to make a bad meal, in her opinion. It was worth a try. After the milk was poured, Jenny took a bite and nodded. Who knew that Fruity Pebbles went with Lucky Charms? Jenny never thought about it, but apparently Cassie had.
Mike finally trotted down around eight-thirty, and Jenny tried not to think of him as "late." After looking at the morning's selection, he smiled at Cassie.
"Does this mean I can have oatmeal again?" Cassie blushed slightly, but smiled back.
"Only today," she said, "The milk's almost had it."
"The fresh milk, anyway," said Mike, "I made a trip to town not long before the blizzard. There's a case of evaporated downstairs. Even if we don't drink it straight, it'll be more than fine for cooking. Speaking of which, how's the fresh fruit and veggie supply?"
"Doing fine," said Cassie, "We'll manage to use it up before any goes bad. Remember, you bought a supply one person could use before that point, and there's four of us."
"Right, of course."
"Are you working all day again?" asked Veronica, "We could have our Ping-Pong rematch."
"That sounds good, Veronica," said Mike, "But I think we'll do that maybe tomorrow. I do have to work today."
All three women groaned their disappointment.
"But it's only for a few hours," Mike continued. "I'll be done by lunchtime. My major deadlines have passed, and I won't be accepting any new jobs until the road is clear and things get back to what other people call normal."
"So then what are you doing, if not Ping-Pong with Veronica?" asked Cassie.
"I was thinking I might chill with Jenny today," said Mike, turning to her, "If that's alright with you."
"Um, sure," said Jenny, "And, don't take this the wrong way, but... why?"
"Well," Mike said, chuckling, "I've had pretty good chances to get to know Cassie and Veronica. Cassie and I chatted a few days ago after I cleared the roof of snow, and then again last night when she brought me dinner and scolded me for not eating it sooner. Veronica and I had our first Ping-Pong match, and I taught her how to play Duck Hunt. So now, I'd like to get to know you better."
Mike's face was the pinnacle of innocence, when what he just described was anything but. The bonding moments he had referred to had really been intense sexual encounters. But he hid it so well that both Cassie and Veronica did not even suspect one another of anything at all.
Jenny, however, prided herself on being able to read people. She knew very well the first rule of body language: no information is still information. People radiate things about themselves all the time, from the words they say and their tone, to the clothes they wear, to the length of their stride, their breathing rate, and on, and on. More importantly, when and how a person carefully omits parts of this tapestry, and which parts, can speak volumes as well, much like seeing the gap where exactly one puzzle piece fits.
Somehow, Jenny observed, Mike was able to mix his signals. And she was sure that it was intentional. His voice was perfect, as if every word he spoke was nothing more than its face value. But his shoulders hardly moved, a potential sign of deliberate control, and something about the pacing of his phrases gave her the slight suspicion that his words had been rehearsed.
So had something happened between him and Cassie, or Veronica, or both? Or did he just manufacture an excuse to get her alone? And why? He sent absolutely no other signals. The more Jenny thought about it, the more she realized she had no idea what Mike was thinking, and what his time with her later was going to be about. And damn it all, she had already agreed. She wouldn't be able to buy any time to figure it out. Oh, well. Time to play it cool and see what happened. It may very well be nothing.
"I'm glad," Jenny said, "Considering we were accidentally thrown into this situation, it's a relief that we're becoming good friends."
Mike smiled at her, but said nothing.
Mike did indeed spend the rest of the morning behind his office door, flipping pages and reading online journals, typing and collating, and in general, finding those golden nuggets of information that his clients didn't realize they were really asking for until he told them. Veronica exercised, showered, and practiced a bit more on Duck Hunt. Jenny retreated to the Library, connected to her room by the closet for reasons unknown, searching the book titles for clues into Mike's mind. But the sheer number and variety of books in the room was prohibitive to even scratching the surface. Damn again, she thought as she went back downstairs for lunch.
Mike took one sniff as he entered the kitchen.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "You found the Old Bay."
"What is it and why haven't I heard of it before?" Cassie interrogated.
"It's a seasoning from the Chesapeake Bay area. You know, Baltimore and Washington? Anyway, one summer in college, I went down there for a seminar and we went out to a local seafood place. I took one bite and accosted the waiter. On my way back, I brought a case of the stuff with me, which by the way was a fun story to tell to the security guards at the airport as to why I was carrying a dozen small metal boxes with me on my flight."
The women all started laughing.
"And you know," Mike continued, "Offering to bribe them with one of the boxes is pretty much always a bad idea, especially when they don't get that you're joking. And the security boss at BWI is really a nice guy, once the strip search is over."
Veronica and Cassie were red in the face from laughing so hard. Jenny probably was, too, but it was hard to tell with her complexion.
"Oh, come on, Mike," said Veronica, "Did that really happen?"
"Sort of. I told them it was Old Bay and we didn't have it where I lived, and when they saw my face as I talked about it, they believed me and relaxed. I still had to show them, but all the same it was just a formality. The box you used is the seventh. I have five left."
"This is really good, Cass," said Veronica.
"Just doing my part," said Cassie, "Besides, I hardly did anything but cook the filets and add the Old Bay. I can see why it's popular."
They interrogated Mike for the rest of lunch, about his trip to the nation's capital. He'd spent an extra week there, just going to all the museums and taking the White House tour, and even going to some other places in the area, like the National Cryptologic Museum to the north.
"So what are your plans after lunch?" Mike asked Cassie as they cleared the dishes from the table.
"Veronica suggested that we keep shoveling, now that it's the warmest part of the day, and try to reach our car. If we clear enough snow, could we move it into your garage, out of the elements?"
"Absolutely! That's a great idea. Let me know when it's time to move the car. I'll move the stuff in the garage for you."
"With us," Cassie corrected, putting her dishes into the sink, "We'll pull our weight around here, mister."
"Yes, ma'am," Mike said, with a slight bow. Cassie gave him a playful smack on the arm. He turned to Veronica. "You guys can go ahead and get ready to shovel. I'm sure Jenny and I can handle it from here."
Veronica and Cassie shared a glance. Now they understood. Mike wanted to talk to Jenny about something, he just wasn't saying what. With brief but friendly parting words, they went upstairs to their bedrooms to change into outdoor clothing.
Mike turned on the water and handed Jenny the drying towel when she came over. After about half the dishes were done, he turned to her.
"I've been meaning to ask," he started, "Not that it matters, or that it's any of my business, but I'm just curious-"
"My mother is Czech and my father is Brazilian. Everyone prefaces asking me the same way. What's so funny?"
"Nothing," Mike said, still smiling. In truth, Veronica had said pretty much the same thing when he had trepidatiously asked her a question just as personal. "So what kind of name is Jennifer for a Czech-Brazilian girl? Again, if you don't mind my asking."
"My parents are both professors. When they had immigrated, they met at some naturalization meeting, and spent most of the time with each other, being the only two who spoke English fluently. From that chemistry was I eventually born. I learned Portuguese but never got the hang of Czech. As for the name, my parents both love this country. They decided to give me a very American name. And so, I am Jennifer Eliska Azevedo."
"Pleased to meet you again," Mike said, holding out his wet hand. Jenny shook it.
"What about you?"
"Dunno," Mike shrugged, "As far as I know, my family's been here one way or another since this was the colonies. I think they just picked a name that sounded good to them: Michael Thomas Evans."
"Pleased to meet you. Again."
"I'm sure. So: now that we know each other, what'd you do all morning?"
"Oh, I , uh... I was browsing your library."
"Find anything you like?"
"A few things."
"Tell you what," Mike said, "Once we're done here, you can show me."
Veronica went into the closet connecting her room to Cassie's once she was ready to go outside. Cassie was already inside, putting on her shoes. They didn't have proper snow gear, of course, because they never intended to be out in it anyway. However, since it wasn't actively snowing, they could make do with what they had.
When her shoes were on, Cassie stood up and gave a twirl for Veronica.
"How do I look?" she asked playfully.
"You look good, Cassie," said Veronica. She bit her lip to keep from saying more, like just how good Cassie looked to her. Veronica never had a problem seeing in Cassie what men saw. She didn't really like to think about it much, either.
"Thanks!" Cassie said, "Let's go get sweaty!"
Veronica groaned inwardly. Now why did she have to put it that way?
Mike and Jenny heard the other two head downstairs just as Jenny had decided on a book to show Mike. She pulled it off of its shelf and handed it to him.
"Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett," Mike read, "A good choice. What did you think of Lupin Wonse?"
"I didn't actually read it," Jenny confessed, "It just looked interesting."
"So what else in here would interest you?"
"You tell me; you're the librarian, aren't you?"
"Never mind. It would take too long to explain. Anyway, I think you'd like Michael Crichton's Airframe. Female protagonist, mystery investigation. Spends a lot of time inside the character's head."
"Just because that's my expertise doesn't mean I always want that," Jennifer reproached him, "Sometimes I like books as an escape."
"Ah," Mike replied from behind the bookshelves somewhere. His voice bounced around in odd ways, being absorbed erratically by the shelves of books. "Your geekdom is assured. And by the way, you were only two-thirds right the other day."
"About being a geeked-out, geeky geek. Geeked-out? Yes. Geek? Yes. Geeky? Not in the least. I've found you to be quite confident."
The inflection he put into quite caught her attention. She started looking around for him, but still couldn't find him. Was he avoiding her, or was it just an accident?
"So, what books would you recommend as an escape for me?"
"How about the Dune books? I think you may rather like the Bene Gesserit."
"I've read them, and I do."
"Manipulative witches who use men as means to an end?" He was deliberately goading her, she realized. And worse, it was starting to work.
"Strong women with talent, independence, close ties to one another," she countered, "and the ability to think long-term. Women who are-"
Suddenly she was facing Michael, his face blank.
"Say it." His tone was flat, but his eyes were locked onto hers.
"Women... in control," Jenny finished. Michael smiled.
"Ventriloquism lessons when I was seven. I developed the skill, but not the rest of it. Moved on to other interests."
"So what was all that about?" Jenny asked, hoping her nervousness didn't show. It did.
"Oh, nothing," Michael grinned, "We wanted to get to know each other better. How about we just sit down and talk for a while?"
"But we don't want to be interrupted, do we?"
"So let's go to your room." Jenny wanted to object, but couldn't think of a clear enough reason. Damn it, she thought. What is he doing?
Mike led the way through the closet into Jenny's bedroom. Along the way, she noticed that a pair of her panties were the top item in the laundry basket, one of the things she borrowed from the linen closet to use during her stay. And now her growing anger split, as it now directed her way as well as at Mike.
The guest bedrooms were fairly large, as non-Master bedrooms go. Each was furnished with a bed, a nightstand, a full dresser, a low set of shelves, a recliner with an ottoman, and a desk with an office chair. Mike took the office chair and gestured for Jenny to take the recliner.
After sitting, she looked unwaveringly at Mike, doing her best not to glare.
"So how did you want to get to know me better?" she prompted.
"Oh, I'm learning more all the time," Mike grinned.
"Okay, look," Jenny started, "I'm grateful for everything you've done for us. And I do think we could be good friends. But, and please don't take this the wrong way, what the Hell is up with you today?"
Mike grunted. "You mean you don't know? Really?"
"Not exactly, no."
"Take a guess."
"All right... I know I pushed a little hard, too soon, before I got to know you better. And I'm sorry about that."
"Thank you. And you're not wrong. But you're not right, either. Keep guessing."
"This is about the first night, isn't it?"
"Bingo," said Mike, with a sarcastic clap, "Tell the lady what she's won, Don Pardo."
"What's your problem? As I recall, you liked it. I bet your shirt is stained with the proof."
"The handjob? A gorgeous woman surprising me with a handjob? Gimme a break. On that score, part of me is disappointed that's all it was. I'm a man, not a mannequin. I'd have had to have been seriously disturbed not to enjoy that."
Jenny threw up her hands in exasperation. "So what the fuck is wrong with you, then?" Mike leaned forward, now displaying anger openly, "What's 'wrong with me' is the mindfuck you decided to pull at the same time as my cock!"
"So I let you know a few things that got you to stop being stuck in a rut. It was obvious, Mike, you needed it." She was raising her voice to meet his.
"And did you think about the unexpected consequences?"
"How could I, if they're unexpected?"
"Exactly! Problems have solutions, but solutions have problems. Basic sociology, and I bet for psych, too."
"Oh, and how exactly have you suffered because of what I said?"
"For a start I go from being alone to rampant hormones in a matter of hours. That is not an easy transition to handle. All kinds of complications show up, and now I have to deal with them."
"So, what, you don't want to play like grown-ups?"
"Oh, so that's what you were really after, isn't it?" Mike's eyes gleamed.
"Playing like grown-ups. That's what you want? Fine." With swift movements, he grabbed his shirt and pulled it off over his head, then crumpled it into a ball, and lobbed it at Jenny. It draped over her head.
She took a deep breath, ready to really let him have it, but his scent on the shirt distracted her. She whipped the shirt off her head, tossed it to the side, and settled for glaring at him defiantly.
"This is what you wanted, right?" Mike said.
"Not in the least," Jenny said, but they both knew she was lying. On their first day, Cassie mentioned how strong Mike had to have been to save them from the blizzard. Jenny now saw the proof. She could see his entire upper body, now bare in front of her. He wasn't merely cut – he was carved. Mike grinned again. God, Jenny thought, that grin is getting on my nerves.