“Ms. Sparling, this is a classic case of bait and switch.” He said gesturing to the fine roll of silken hand stamped damask cloth. “I’ll not be paying for this.”
Sophie’s coffee hadn’t even had a chance to cool in her to-go container as she stood next to Philip Nigel, looking at the bolt of fabric. It was no less than twelve hours before that she’d been standing there talking with him about the very bolt of fabric that he’d wanted to get to know better. It was the same one that had been removed the day prior, it hadn’t even been unloaded from the decorating van.
“Why is that Mr. Nigel?”
“Just look at it, this isn’t what I wanted.”
“It isn’t what you wanted or this isn’t the fabric that was here the other day?”
“Don’t ‘round robin on me Ms. Sparling. Remember who’s paying you.”
Sophie took a sip of her coffee to keep her mouth busy. It’s aromatic warmth infused her with patience, “Mr. Nigel. I’m just being clear in order to prevent more miscommunication. I’m not trying to go ‘round with you, just trying to understand where you’re coming from.”
“This is the wrong fabric.”
It was an hour later when Sophie left to attend to another client, the Mather’s. A prominent plastic surgeon, he and his wife were blissfully happy clients. The hour at their home nearly had her nerves smoothed out from the visit to the Nigel home.
Knight would only purchase one more bolt of fabric for the Nigel project then it was going to be a Come to Jesus meeting with the man if that didn’t appease him. His mid-project bill was still unpaid and when all was said and done Knight Interiors didn’t run a charity. They’d bounce the ball back into his court and stop work. There was something about him too, she thought as she loaded her things back into her vehicle. The sun glinted off the pearl paint as Sophie pulled her sunglasses down. It was as if Philip Nigel were a cat with a vast fortune and the only thing he’d learned to do with it was buy things and interact with the service personnel aggressively. Someone of his fortune would have a whole slew of service personnel in the home, a greeter, gardener, housekeeper and cook.
As she slid into the driver’s seat her phone rang.
“Sophie! I’m glad I caught you.”
“Hi, mom.” She said turning the ignition switch.
“Remember those groceries?”
Sophie closed her eyes as she remembered them, “Ah, yeah. I’ll come get them after work. Or can you use them?”
“No dear. They’ll go bad before I get to them. Want to come by for lunch for tuna sandwiches and pick them up?”
Sophie’s stomach growled as if on queue as she looked at her watch, it was noon and the only thing she’d had to eat was a 20oz. cup of coffee. “Yeah, but I can’t stay long.”
At the house Sophie dropped her purse on the couch and threw her thumb over her shoulder, “Is Ms. Daria getting a new driveway? Didn’t she just get one?”
Helen looked up from the counter in the kitchen where she was preparing lunch of tuna sandwiches. “You know Merna, she wants to support the troops as much as possible, even if that means getting her driveway redone every year.”
Sophie went to the front window to inspect the crew working at Merna’s. Up the street two houses were the white work trucks of Miner’s Concrete, they were currently jack-hammering the so called old driveway out and hauling large slabs into a construction dumpster. All the men she realized were physically well equipped to haul out tons of concrete in wheel barrows. No machines needed. Sophie let her mind wander away from her day and over the man candy. It was the company that the loathsome Cason worked for but luckily that wasn’t his crew.
“Mom.” Sophie asked pondering, “Do you know anything about the Nigel’s?”
“Hmmm,” Her mother said scooping out tuna into a mixing bowl, “Not much, they don’t keep folks around. I think it’s only the son now though. Word, early on when they first moved here, is that the son ran out all the nurses who were watching his sick mother. She died of bone cancer I hear, but some folks will tell you the son poisoned her. Not sure how much value I’d stake in those opinions, but the bottom line is that they weren’t nice folks. Boastful.”
The way Helen said boastful was clearly a grand faux pas and Sophie knew that if there was anything in this small community that you didn’t want to get known as it was boastful. It was ungentlemanly and unladylike. Had it been the eighteenth century England, the Nigel’s could consider themselves out of favor with the ton.
“Boastful, huh?” Sophie on the other hand felt that it was the least of issues she was running up against with Philip Nigel.
Her mother tapped the spoon clean on the edge of the mixing bowl, “Why do you ask?”
“He’s a client of ours and I’m having difficulty working with him. I thought if I knew his background then I’d be able to work another angle with him. But, it’s as I figured. He is boastful, but there’s something else that I can’t put my finger on.”
Helen mixed in the other ingredients to the bowl and stirred, “I’d be careful with that one. I’m not inclined to believe the rumors but the fact that he can’t keep service personnel and if Merna is to be believed,” Helen said referring to the woman who’s driveway was currently being worked on, “You are right, there’s more than just boastfulness as they’re poorer qualities.”
Sophie looked over her shoulder, “What’d Merna say?”
“Well, her housekeeper’s sister used to work for the Nigel’s when they first moved to town and she said that he’d threatened to beat her with the broom handle if the floors didn’t shine.”
Sophie shook her head in disgust, “Did she quit?”
“Yes, a week later. And the girl’s sister, Merna’s housekeeper, swore she saw bruises on her sister, but she never said anything.”
Sophie’s gut twisted, he’d threatened Casey when she was there the other day too. Sophie had left her groceries behind to go talk with him, thinking that Casey had messed up somewhere. Only now she was realizing that Philip Nigel was not a client that one showed up to alone.
Diving deeper into her thoughts on how to deal with Philip, Sophie watched the workmen down the street.
“Does Miner’s Concrete still only hire vets?” Sophie asked switching to a lighter conversation.
“They’ve got some other folks now too, but mainly veterans.”
Some of the men had taken off their shirts, the midday southern sun working it’s magic to slicken their bodies. Watching the physicality’s of their labor Sophie’s eye caught on one of the men who, back to her and shirtless, was the lifter of sorts. Wheelbarrows came to him and he hefted massive concrete chunks with his gloved hands and dropped them systematically into them. The chunks were hauled off and unloaded into the dumpster as another wheelbarrow rolled in to take it’s place. They all moved at their own jobs, jackhammering, tossing concrete and disposal like one giant well oiled machine.
“You would think,” Sophie mumbled into the glass of the front window, “That hauling concrete chunks shirtless would tear up your skin.”
“Mmmm.” Her mother said hearing her, “I doubt they feel it or even care.”
“Yeah, I’m gathering as much.”
Sophie watched the flex and bow of the man she’d been watching’s back, he was an exquisite sample of male physique. He stood again and with an aggressive pitch of the broken slab of concrete, tossed it into the waiting wheelbarrow. Only this time the owner of the barrow went off to assist the man who was jackhammering. She watched as her concrete tosser moved to take the missing wheelbarrow pusher’s place. He turned, his front to her, maneuvering over and around broken pieces. His pull and and push on the wheelbarrow were like watching a private power play.
“Exquisite.” Sophie mumbled, the sandy colored cargo pants and work boots stopping at a black nylon belt which lead to his washboard like abdomen. Hard labor was doing things to this man’s muscles that were natural and steel like. Her eyes traveled up his body to his sculpted arms and shoulders. It was when he was on the road in front of the dumpster that she realized he had a hitch in his step. Her eyes flew to his now clearly recognizable face. “Fuck.”
“Sophie Anne Sparling!” her mother admonished.
Sophie turned from the window in disgust, “I just realized the man I was admiring was Cason.”
Helen laughed out.
“Mother, that’s not funny.”
“You’re right dear,” She said coming around the kitchen bar to the small four person table, “It’s extremely humorous. I’ve told you time and time again that he’s a good man. You just needed to appreciate his finer qualities before seeing his other ones.”
“You mean I need to admire his naked body so that I can find it in me somewhere to forgive him of his other follies? You have an odd set of sensibilities mother.” She said moving past her into the kitchen.
“I’ve already gotten the pickles.” Her mother said to her as she set she and Sophie’s plates at the table.
“Oh.” She said and turned around to leave when she noticed the third plate on the counter. Then realized the trap.
“Mother, why is there a third plate? Cason isn’t joining us is he? Please tell me that’s for later.” She said pointing at it.
“I’m not sure if he’s joining us, I just made it, just in case.” She said avoiding eye contact, “Please bring the bowl of potato chips to the table.”
Sophie sighed and sent up a small prayer that her day wasn’t going to get worse. She put the bowl down on the table as her mother opened the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of iced tea.
“Would you like a glass?”
“Yes.” Sophie said as the front door opened and a shirtless Cason walked in. She felt her grip on the back of the dining chair tighten.
He’d only just crossed the threshold, wiping the sweat from his face with his faded gray shirt as he pushed the door closed behind him. Letting it fall he made to put his shirt on but paused looking up.
Cason paused at the door, he felt the presence of another person in the house, and met the glare of Sophie. She stood at the end of the table her hand on the back of the chair. The high waisted knee-length tight black skirt, white long sleeve shirt and heels she wore made her look like something out of the movies. A horror movie since her eyes were like chilly black pools.
“Sophie.” He said acknowledging her.
She made a point to rake her eyes slowly over his upper body. He felt himself go warm and finished pulling on his shirt.
“What a pity.” Sophie dug then walked into the kitchen pulling out another plate of sandwiches making three at the table. She came back and dropped the third plate with a loud thud to the table.
“Sophie…” Helen said to her daughter then to Cason, “What a great treat having you both with me for lunch will be!” she said attempting a joyful attitude. It was as if she didn’t feel the ice storm brewing between he and Sophie.
Cason undid his boots and toed them off to keep the majority of the concrete dust off the floors.
“Mrs. Sparling, I’ve got work dust on me, I’ll take my sandwich in the kitchen.” He said walking up to the table and reaching past Sophie – getting into her space – to pick up the nearest plate.
Sophie’s head tilted to the side as he reached past her. His heat and sweat not going unnoticed. Instead of stepping back She whispered to him, “That’s a great idea Cason.”
He could feel her chastising breath on his jaw, cooling the sweat that still lingered there. Starving and not enjoying the increasingly sharp pain his shrapnel hip was giving him he got close to her face, “I’m glad you think so Sophie, but now that you mention it. It’d be rude to leave your mother alone at the table.”
“I wasn’t planning on helping you eat your sandwich in the kitchen.”
“Neither was I. But about halfway through lunch your phone will ring and you’ll leave. So how about you save Mrs. S the heartache and you eat in the kitchen.”
Sophie’s face went red and her lips into a thin line.
Helen spoke up, “Now you two, nobody is eating in the kitchen. Let’s just sit down and enjoy the sandwiches before they get soggy.”
Eyes still on Sophie, watching them get to an even deeper black, he stepped back and slid into the hardwood chair across the table from her. There was a perverse sense of joy there for him. She, no doubt, would think of a come back and he’d be there waiting for it.
As Sophie sat, she turned and smiled at her mother, “You familiar with the new plastic surgeon in town mother? The Mather’s?”
Grateful for a diversion, Helen dove in, “Yes! Nice folks from what I hear.”
“They’ve hired Knight Interiors to redo their entire bottom floor. It’s an amazing four thousand square foot home and they’re ready to take it down to the studs.”
“Wonderful, will you be working on it?”
“As a matter of fact, I was just there today.” Sophie said trying to make conversation, her insides on fire from Cason’s accusation.
The bastard, she thought.
“Excellent! I can’t wait for you to tell the Barney’s – they’re neighbors to them you know.”
Sophie’s next line to keep the conversation going, halted. Instead she thought it odd that anyone would be talking with the Barney’s. A suffocatingly perfect mother and son duo that dominated any conversation they were invited to. “Why would you tell the Barney’s? I’m sure they’ve redone their five thousand square foot home with the help of a French decorator in all baroque and silk fabrics.” Sophie said sarcastically, her perfectly controlled conversation slipping.
Cason made a sound, that if coming from anyone else might have been muffled laugh, instead of the grunt that it was.
“Well, I’m sure that they had a good French designer,” Helen said ignoring the sarcasm, “We all will just just have to ask them tomorrow.”
Cason put his sandwich down abruptly as Sophie asked, “What?”
“Yes, I’ve invited the Barney’s to brunch. Mrs. Barney is a widow like me and her son will be escorting her—”
“I have a work function.” Sophie said without checking her calendar, she really had to be better at not getting trapped at her mother’s doing things she didn’t want to do. It was as if she were a teenager again.
“It’s a Saturday at ten AM Sophie.” Helen said, “I’d like you to be there. And you too Cason, I think you and Barty will hit it off. He’s still doing that investment job and I think he could use a down to earth friend like you.”
Sophie looked at Cason, the darkly built man who spoke very little since Barty had no doubt seen him last. Barty was tall and slim and wore silk suits with matching paisley ascots. Sophie hadn’t seen Cason in a suit much less wear a ruffled piece of silk tied about his neck, ever.
Cason paused mid chew and looked askance at her mother.
Sophie laughed and looked at her mother as well who was busy cutting her pickle on her plate with more devotion than necessary. “Mother, did you just call Cason ‘down to earth’? You mean salt of the earth or a down and dirty sort a man. I can see Bart enjoying that immensely.”
“Now Sophie, I’m implying no such thing. Barty and Cason need friends their own age and this will be a good opportunity for them to branch out.”
Cason’s brows rose even higher.
Sophie missed nothing.
“Pardon me Ms. Sparling.” Cason said swallowing his bite, “But I’ve come to like the friends I’ve got. I’m not sure how Bart will—”
“I know you go to the bars with your military friends but Barty comes from a different view of the world and so do you. It’ll be good for the both of you to hang out.”
Sophie couldn’t help it, “Mother, Bart gets hundred dollar manicures and starches his underpants. Are you thinking you want the same for Cason? If so, I’m all for it. Let the male bonding begin!” she said and toasted the glowering Cason with her iced tea glass. “Honestly though it sounds like I won’t need to be there, so—”
“You’re going.” Cason said.
“What? And intervene on boy bonding time? Never.” She said smiling wolfishly at him.
“Alright.” He said finishing off the rest of his sandwich and leaned back in his chair grimacing before he said, “I’ll be sure to pass on to Bart that you’ve been nursing a mad crush on him since we were kids.”
“That’s a bald face lie. Besides, I doubt I’m his persuasion so go ahead, he won’t give two shakes about it all. And neither will I.”
“It’s not him that needs to hear it.”
Sophie glowered at him, “You wouldn’t.”
“We all know Mrs. Barney has wanted to set him up since he was born. I hear she’s even more eager for some grandkids now.”
Helen interjected, “Do you really like him, Sophie?”
“What?” Sophie nearly shrieked as she turned to her mother, “No! And that’s beside the point.”
Cason stood and grabbed his plate, “Thanks Ms. Sparling – I’ve got to get back to work now.”
Sophie snatched her plate not feeling hungry anymore and followed him into the kitchen, “You wouldn’t dare.” She said tossing her plate into the sink as he rinsed his.
He just watched her, his face impassive as he opened the dishwasher and placed his plate in it. As he closed it with a firm click he said, “I think we both know that I would.”
“Asshole.” She said under her breath as he left the kitchen.
Cason paused and turned back to her, “Takes one to know one.” He said and saluted her.
Sophie heard him say goodbye to her mother then leave out the front door after grabbing his boots. She glowered after his form. First the god-aweful Nigel project, then this.
Helen stood from the table came around the corner with her half eaten sandwich, “It’s a good thing I’m not hungry today – I’d be eating alone now!”
Sophie was still glowering, “I’ll be right back.”
Cason was halfway down the street by the time she was out the front door. She marched smartly past her car and into the street. Ahead the concrete crew was back at work. The heat of the sun and humidity instantly warmed her skin and moistened the air she breathed. With the heat she was feeling inside toward Cason she was nearly at overload.
Cason paused without turning and reached his hand over his head pulling off his shirt. He tucked it into his back pocket and stood still as Sophie’s heels clipped a pointed staccato on the street.
Two or three in Cason’s crew stopped to watch her progress, but she was oblivious save for the shirtless man in front of her.
He turned and slid his hands into his pockets, the affect would have been heart stopping for any other hot blooded female, but Sophie had a score to settle.
Cason waited as she close the distance, his face impassive.
“Cason.” She said crisply.
“Ma’am.” He replied as she stepped up to him.
“Don’t ma’am me—”
“You won’t like the other word I was going to use.”
Her eyes narrowed, she barely noticed the sheen that his skin was starting to take on in all the heat. “I see.” She said feeling her blood get even hotter, “I don’t care what you call me, but it’d be best if you and I agree right now that telling lies to the Barney’s tomorrow to manipulate me into being there will land you in a world of hurt.”
His lips tugged at one corner of his mouth and he took a step closer to her, “A world of hurt, huh?” he said letting those words fall between them, “How ever will I survive it?” he asked sarcastically, his voice becoming an arctic chill.
It was suddenly there between them. Afghanistan. Ryan. His death, the insurgent attack in Kandahar Valley. The ripping apart of their worlds. The world of hurt.
Only, Ryan had been more than Sophie’s only brother. He’d taken care of her as both a father and brother after the death of their father as kids. Cason had taken two men at once when he’d led Ryan to Afghanistan then left him there to die. And she was the only one who didn’t take pity on him for his war wounds. She had her own world of hurt.
The twist the conversation took was far from the Barney’s by the time she spoke again. Sophie’s eye narrowed at the battle gray eyes in front of her, “I’ll personally insure that it’s a new level of hell you feel.”
“I doubt you know the level of hell that it would take Soph.”
“Really? I hear your mom’s been off the sauce for a while and is looking for you. I hear she’s wanting some time with her baby boy.”
“Trust me Cason when I say I know how far that dagger is that’s in your chest, and I have no problem shoving it deeper and twisting. I’m not an idle threat maker and I’m not in a position to have the man to led my brother to his death manipulate me into going to a silly breakfast party. Do we understand each other?”
Cason felt his body go cold under the beating sun, “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you Soph, that I’m sorry Ryan died. And the more you’re pissed at me doesn’t change the fact that he’s never coming back.”
“He wouldn’t have been in that godforsaken place if it hadn’t been for you – so yeah, it’ll take a whole lot more than just ‘sorry’ to erase those wounds.”
“Your brother died a goddamn hero Soph, and the sooner you realize that the better.”
“And what are you – the pedestal he’s supposed to sit on?”
His jaw clenched, “Fuck you.”
“Fuck you too McPherson.” She said and turned on her heel going back to the house.
Cason’s blood was on fire as he watched her leave. She knew just where jab at him, knew where the opening was to crawl under his skin and turn him into a human inferno. It was hard to believe that there was a time when he thought she walked on water, a time where all the world stood still when she walked into a room. She had never known it, and for that he was grateful to the world for its small mercies.
Cason turned back toward his work crew and pulling his gloves from his back pocket shoved them on. He realized then that they all were staring at him, crooked grins on their faces. One whistled low.
“McPherson, you never told us you were datin’ Mrs. S’s daughter.”
He smiled half heartedly and picked up the wheelbarrow.
Here we go, he thought.
“Datin’? Shoot, no. Makin’ babies in the middle of the street more like.”
Cason shucked a piece of cement into the wheelbarrow. “If that’s how you think babies are made Alexander, that explains why you haven’t been laid.”
There was a low whistle and a hoot of laughter. “Hoo ‘xander, he’s got your number.”
“Just sayin’ a fine looking woman like that putting her body up against me in the street. Shoot she’s not looking for a fight. She looking for some love.”
Cason let his mind think for just one second what that conversation would have been like through his work buddy’s eyes. He’d have noticed the lace of the bra under her white billowy shirt, the citrus sent of Sophie would have been an invite.
Just as that word rolled around in his mind he knew he shouldn’t have. He thought of her at lunch, how close she’d been to him when he’d grabbed his plate. The feel of her breath on his jaw. Then and thought if those dark pools of hate actually were smiling at him. His gut clenched.
No. Give him Sophie Sparling’s hate, because her love would surely kill him.
There was no need to explain any of that to his crew, they knew who Ryan Sparling was to Cason. Knew of that valley of death, each of them having their own versions of a similar story. No, they knew what what was happening between Sophie and he, there was no explanation needed. Better to laugh than cry like a little girl about it all.