Robin spotted Kylie standing outside the doors of the appointed cafe, and his heart rate leapt in anxious anticipation. For if there was a more delectable young woman on the planet, Robin could not imagine her; Kylie's dark chestnut locks swirled fetchingly in the gusty breeze, and her fluttering short black skirt left plenty of firm brown leg delightfully visible.
As each nervous hopeful feared, the other was equally nervous and on their best, which is to say awkwardly tentative, behavior. After a strained greeting, the pair ordered mochas and sat down at a table facing the side street. Kylie took out her cell phone and set it to vibrate so no incoming calls would disturb their meeting, and each fidgeted as the cold air of doubt descended over their table. Trying to break the chilly reserve, Robin set the toaster and posters on the chair beside him and joked, "I feel like I'm transporting the crown jewels."
"Me, too," Kylie laughed and then spoiled her smile with a wince.
"What's wrong?" Robin asked solicitously, and she replied with self-effacing chagrin. "I stupidly pulled something in my shoulder this afternoon playing tennis, and the pain pills I took have had zero effect."
"I took a summer of physical therapy courses after my freshman year in college," Robin said. "I had this crazy idea that I could make money as a physical therapist while I finished my degree in marketing."
"It didn't work?"
"No," he said with a shrug, "But I did learn a lot about injuries." Glancing at her, he said, "Do you mind if I take a look at your shoulder?"
Her expression turned coy and she said, "Don't tell me you're going to suggest coming over to my place to give me a full-body massage."
Robin grinned ruefully. "No, I meant right here."
Kylie looked askance and he said, "I'll just put my hand on your shoulder blade to see if I can feel any strained muscles."
Concluding his offer might ease their second-date anxiety, Kylie consented. As Robin took up position behind her he joked, "Of course like any patient you will need to take off your clothes—but only to the waist."
"I suddenly feel those pain pills working," she countered, and at this hint of humor in their voices, the pixies of their first meeting returned.
Placing one hand firmly on her shoulder, Robin lifted her right arm and she sucked in her breath at the resulting stab of pain.
"You're very tight right here," he remarked, and pressed his thumb gently into her flesh. "It feels like there's an iron rod in there."
The pressure relieved some of her red-hot hurt, and she murmured, "That feels better."
As Robin kneaded the inflamed muscles with his thumb, he luxuriated in the scent of her hair and the golden-brown swath of exposed neckline left bare by the collarless blouse. Please invite me over to continue the massage, he implored her silently, even as he knew a careful girl like Kylie would never dream of permitting such intimacy on a second date.
"Relax your neck," he told her in a soothing voice. "Just ease your head forward, yes, like that." Gently pulling her hair over her other shoulder, Robin congratulated himself on extending a very delightful proximity.
"Better?" he asked.
"Yes," she murmured, and against his wishes he reckoned discretion would best be served by limiting his laying on of hands. Sitting down across from her, he was rewarded with a much more radiant Kylie than the one who'd sat down full of tension a few moments before.
"You did learn something," she conceded. "It does feel better."
"Glad to be of service," he said with a mock bow, and then glanced at the packages beside him. "I guess we better conduct the business."
"And what serious business it is," she replied. "I've been instructed to test the appliance lest your Dragon Lady friend pass a dead toaster off on us."
Robin chuckled. "They really are alike. She told me to check for the same thing."
Glancing round at the walls, Robin added, "Too bad there's no outlet around."
"There's always one in the bathroom," Kylie said, and the absurdity of the setting made both negotiators grin. Taking up the bag containing the precious T-20Z, Robin said, "To the bathroom we go."
By balancing each toaster on the edge of the sink, the pair completed their test in the unisex restroom. To their mutual relief, each toaster was ready to accept two slices of soft cool bread and transform them into crisp browned toast. Jokes were bandied back and forth about the rather tame graffiti scrawled on the walls, and the young couple returned to their seats with their ears full of angelic whispering.
The posters were duly checked for authenticity and damage, and Kylie admitted she'd never heard of the two movies advertised in the garish posters being given to Ross: Blue Bikers Take Borneo and Kama Sutra Cadillac.
"I think they fall into the category of 'so bad they're good,'" Robin joked. "They're probably worth a small fortune."
The wind had stiffened, and as the trees outside the cafe swayed, Robin added, "I don't feel much like going out into that," and Kylie demurred to the implicit invitation to stay longer.
Their conversation roamed from their work—or in Kylie's case, the lack of it—to their university days, childhood, families and eventually round to the present.
"I'm just getting by now," Robin confessed, and then brightened. "If I had a partner, I could take over my mentor's route. He wants to retire, and no wonder—he also covers organic goods and restaurant supply."
"Why don't you? I mean, take a partner?"
Robin's enthusiasm deflated like a punctured birthday balloon. "That's the rub. I like being out with customers, and most of the new workload would be back office stuff I loathe. And the partner would have to work without pay at first until we paid off my mentor and built the accounts up. We'd have to really trust each other, and, well, trust is a rare commodity these days."
Kylie nodded appreciatively, and then gazed at Robin with a faintly quizzical expression. "So where exactly do you live?"
"In the ground-floor flat below Alexia."
Bowing to the expected symmetry in personal information, Kylie confided that she lived across the hall from Ross, on the first floor of their rooming house.
"I still don't know what he looks like," Robin remarked, and Kylie tilted her head and smiled most endearingly. "Let's just say he looks better in drag than he does in an old Ohio State sweatshirt."
"Poor guy," Robin said sympathetically. "You and this Dewey are probably his only friends."
Kylie looked down at the table and toyed with her mocha-stained white coffee cup. "I really don't know what he'd do without his dream of going to Vegas."
This sparked Robin's curiosity, and so Kylie sketched the story of Ross's crushing defeat online for the coveted T-20Z, his machinations to wrest it from Alexia's grip and his dreams of glory at the Las Vegas small-appliance show. She told it so entertainingly that both were surprised to find the storm-laden sky dark by the time their conversation ebbed.
The time to part was at hand, and Robin looked at her with a sudden intensity. "Tell me the truth—will you meet me for lunch next week? If you say no, it's okay—I won't melt into Jell-O."
Amused by the seriousness of his query, Kylie grinned and said, "Oh, I love Jell-O, especially the orange flavor. And yes, I will meet you for lunch next week."
A jolt of relief lit Robin's expression and he asked, "Then shall we set a date? I'm here in the East Bay every week on sales calls."
Kylie successfully hid her joy behind a cool aplomb. "Gosh, my schedule is just so packed, what with appointments at the unemployment office and all. How about next Wednesday?"
"Wonderfulness," he replied, and then arose to accompany her to the door.
To read the previous chapters, visit the "Four Bidding For Love" home page.
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