(This is a continuing series called “Kissing Frogs” posted every Friday. To get caught up, you can click the “Kissing Frogs . . . so far” link at the top of the page.)
The men’s laughter from the kitchen startled Tracey, who felt like she was waking from one of those movie dream sequences. Joanna was staring at her expectantly, and as Tracey began to share the conversation with her friend, she watched Joanna’s face fall. The words alone where only business. Andrew had invited her to appear on his radio program in a month, and promote the book. They had worked out scheduling and discussed how to handle the call-in portion of the program. Andrew had offered her an entire hour dedicated to the book, and Tracey had accepted.
It wasn’t the words that had made the moment. Tracey knew that, and she was startled to realize that she didn’t want to share that with Joanna. She didn’t want to talk about how they sat so close, face to face, that she could feel the crease of his pants on her knee and the warmth of his breath on her cheeks as he talked. There had been nothing immoral in their contact, in fact they had barely touched, but the intensity of his presence made Tracey a little breathless. She couldn’t tell Joanna any of it, and she didn’t know why.
“Who is in the kitchen?” she asked, trying to ignore the hurt in Joanna’s eyes.
“Joey Dreus and his friend Jack. They said you had invited them to do a walk through of the building. The kitchen made them groan.”
Tracey chuckled. “They can join the club. If they can do something affordable with that wreck they’re hired!”
It was said too loudly, just as she entered the kitchen to find herself face to face with the two men. They both smiled at her, and she felt the blush creeping up her neck as Joey introduced Jack. Why was she embarrassed to talk renovations with two hired hands – one of which, from the look of his left hand, was married? Was it the embarrassment of knowing they had overheard Andrew’s invitation to dinner? Tracey shook off the feeling, put on her work face and told them that when they had finished looking over the building to come to her office and let her know what they thought. Then she went to her office, closed the door, and caught her breath.
She lifted the phone, and dialed the local hospital.
“Yes, this is Tracey MacManus. I’m calling to check on a patient. Ms. Jan Billar-Sykes. She was brought in by ambulance about. . .”
Tracey checked her clock, and was stunned to see the time.
“About an hour ago.”
The rest of the building tour was fairly uneventful. The main floor, apart from Joanna’s lonely desk in the foyer, was the shipping department, and the only question Dianne in shipping wanted to know was: “Could I get a window in this cave?”
Joey and Jack looked at each other and back at Dianne, and she grinned at them.
“I know, I know. One window here, or completely replace the kitchen.”
“Oh no, it wouldn’t that expensive.” began Jack.
“Yes it would,” answered Joey. “I don’t want to do it, so it would be so expensive that I wouldn’t have to.”
Dianne laughed and went back to work organizing a shipment of the nondescript inspirational books from which Tracey was trying to save Sophia publishing.
The basement, of which Joey had seen half, held only one surprise: behind a fairly ordinary door they found a very nice office, with leather chairs and a large mahogany desk and several framed diplomas hanging on the walls.
“It looks like a lawyer’s office.” said Jack as he looked around. Joanna giggled and a voice from behind them made both men jump.
“Well that was exactly the look I was going for, so thank you.”
Joanna introduced the men to Cori, who assured them that there was no need for repair in her carefully ordered office. Both men checked for themselves before retreating to the actual basement portion of the building. Staring around them at the bare concrete floor, the open brick and exposed plumbing, wiring and duct work, each of them let out a sigh, and turned to face each other.
“You were right. It’s bad.” was Jack’s assessment.
Joey just nodded. It wasn’t the type of work, or even the amount of it. Neither of them were afraid of work, and they had done far more difficult jobs both together and separately. But the squealing receptionist and nationally syndicated boyfriends could get under the skin after a while.
“It would almost be like that sorority house job we did eight years ago,” muttered Joey.
Jack nodded and then began to laugh.
“Well that might be a reason to do it, right there. I got a wife out of that job. And I’m reasonably certain you won’t encounter any of these women in their under things.”
“That settles it then. If you assess a low under garment risk, then we’ll just march up those stairs and put in an estimate on this old dinosaur.” Joey flipped open his clipboard, like a gunslinger drawing for a duel. The two men laughed together, and turned to see Tracey standing at the base of the stairs.
“What is a low under garment risk?”
Jack burst into laughter, but Joey began to blush. He could see that she was not amused, and he didn’t know how he was going to explain the statement. While he was stammering about it, Jack stepped in.
“Eight years ago we were desperate for work, as we are now, and a fairly wealthy sorority hired us to do some serious upgrades to one of their houses. Two of the girls took a liking to Joey, and would find ways to be ‘accidentally’ undressing every time he was around. I had just offered the opinion that this establishment would not offer the same risks.”
Tracey raised an eye brow and addressed Joey.
“Why weren’t they undressing for him?” she indicated Jack.
All of Joey’s stammering and embarrassment vaporized. He could feel the indignation boiling up in his chest. He took two deep breaths, and responded as calmly as he could.
“I am aware that he’s by far the better looking of us, but on the first day on the job he met a young woman, took her out for dinner, and after that he was off the market. I suppose I was the best the poor girls could hope for at the moment.” The last bit of sarcasm had slipped out.
Jack raised his eyebrows at the exchange, and leaned back against a heating duct, his arms crossed, just watching the dynamics.
“I wasn’t implying you were deficient in any way,” was Tracey’s even response, “I was just wondering what you had done to make them feel so desperate.”
Oh man this just kept getting worse and worse. The questions sounded fine in her head, but as they came out they didn’t. And she was making him mad, she could see it. He took a step toward her, then re-thought and stepped back.
“I don’t think that I did anything to make them feel ‘desperate’ or anything else. They asked me out, and I told them no, so they thought they could change my mind.”
“Why didn’t you just take them out once, and then leave it at that?” she meant it to sound inquisitive, because she really wanted to know. Instead it sounded almost defensive. And he was feeling it too. He was clearly agitated, opening and closing his clipboard, and clipping and un-clipping his pen. He looked directly into her eyes, and responded in a far softer way than she had expected.
“I don’t date.”
“Sorority girls?” Tracey was incredulous.
It was so completely outside the realm of her comprehension, that she blinked, looked at Jack (who nodded) and then shook her head. He wasn’t a monk, he wasn’t even a preacher, or a missionary or anyone special. He was just a plumber. Who was packing his stuff to leave.
“Listen, I’m sorry. When I heard under garments . . . I feel pretty protective of my staff, and I don’t know you very well . . . and then . . . well sometimes things sound better in my head. If I promise no one will undress around you, and not to imply you’re unattractive, can we talk bottom line on these renovations?”
Jack stood up from his duct, patted Joey on the shoulder, and took the clipboard from him.
“We’ve got some notes here. Is there somewhere we can sit and talk about this?”
Tracey smiled, and motioned toward the stairs. She hoped that she wasn’t going anywhere fancy for dinner tonight. The idea of dinner with Andrew Faulkner was fantastic! It was just one she needed to prepare for, and the way things were going today, she felt like crawling into her pajamas and eating ice cream straight from the box. Instead she had to talk about conduits and CPVC and building codes.