There were few people in the park this time of the day, and Michon elected to sit under one of the oak trees, avoiding wrought-iron benches because the grass looked more comfortable. Her nostrils were hungry for the smell of grass and leaves and dirt after a morning spent trying to sort through the perfumes each customer adorned herself with. Michon opened the wrapper on her diet lunch bar and bit into it. It did nothing for her taste buds, but she was so hungry she would have settled for anything. As she munched, a park squirrel ventured closer, his twitching nose zeroing in on the morsel in her hand.
"It's not good for you," Michon warned the squirrel. "Probably enough preservatives here to last the rest of both of our lives. How about a trade? You bring me some peanuts and you can have this...whatever it is."
The squirrel balanced on its hind legs, studying Michon. In turn Michon's mood softened. Why did humans ask so much out of life? All anyone really needed was a warm place to sleep, a winter's supply of nuts, a tree to scamper up. "You've got it made, old boy, you know that?" she asked the attentive squirrel. "No car payments. No worrying about getting grass stains on your clothes. No caring whether blue eye shadow goes with green eyes." She laughed. "You don't even worry about keeping all your lady friends satisfied, do you? So what if you get fat on peanuts and diet bars? They don't care. Just do what comes naturally."
Michon sighed. She'd been making things so complicated for herself lately by asking questions about where she was heading in her life. Why did she insist on trying to find out why she no longer woke up eager to go to work, whether she really wanted to put so much of her salary on her back?
"Maybe I just need a vacation," she told the squirrel. "That's it. Everyone needs a break, a change of pace." She opened her second diet bar, stared at it, and then impulsively broke off a piece for the squirrel. "How about a little bribe?" she asked the rodent, who'd moved back a few steps while he lunched on a combination of nuts, coconut, and preservatives held together with honey. "You go to work for me this afternoon. You smile nice for the customers. I'll stay here and keep my eye out for handouts."
"That sounds like an even trade."
Michon started, found the source of the deep masculine voice, and stared up at the man standing over her. The sun was behind him so she had to squint, which reduced his features to a blurred, vague outline. "I--" she started and then tried again. "This was a private conversation."
"Kind of one-sided, wouldn't you say?" the shadowy figure clad in dark clothes asked. "I've yet to meet a squirrel who was much of a conversationalist."
Michon scrambled to her feet, hoping the tall stranger wouldn't guess she was doing so because she wanted to lessen the feeling that she was being dominated by his size. "Maybe not, but he's a good listener," she said. "How much of this did you eavesdrop on?"
"Not much. Can anyone really get fat on that junk you fed him?"
Not much! That was a likely story. He'd probably heard everything she'd said. Michon felt her cheeks flame and could only hope that the stranger would think it was her blusher. "I can't believe I said anything that would interest you."
"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?" he asked in a voice that reached her like the soft whisper of wind in treetops. "You're right, you know. Sometimes that's what we need. Someone to listen to us."
Michon had been feeling uneasy about talking to a man she didn't know, especially one whose features were still partially hidden, thanks to the sun's glare, but what he said sent a wave of understanding through her. He wasn't laughing at her conversation with the squirrel. He understood. "Maybe we all need a pet squirrel, a permanent listening post," she suggested as she bent over to collect her purse.
The stranger was shaking his head as she straightened. "We'd have to keep them in cages so they'd be there when we needed them. I don't want to cage up anything."
"You're right," she acknowledged. "Well, it was nice talking to you, but I really do have to get back to work."
For a moment Michon thought he was going to touch her, but he didn't have to. His presence was enough to keep her from walking away. "I thought you didn't want to go back to work," he said.
"I don't. But I have to pay the bills." She started to walk back toward the mall and he fell in step with her. For a couple of minutes Michon could think of nothing to say, and the man didn't seem inclined to break the silence.
Finally he stopped. It was as if there were an invisible thread between Michon and the stranger. She stopped too. "Do you put, you know, stuff on your hair?" he asked.
Michon looked up at him. Now she could make out his features--thick black eyebrows, deep-set eyes, slightly sunburned nose, a little-boy quality to the smile that revealed perfect teeth, except for a small chip on one of the lower ones. "What are you talking about?" Should she be offended? It was hard to know, because she was more interested in deciding whether blue or black dominated in his eyes.
"Well, I don't really know." His boyish, almost shy, grin started up again. "I mean your hair is kind of blond, but it's almost white in places. Does hair really come that way?"
Michon laughed, her first honest laugh of the day. "With a little help. That's called streaking. Do you always ask such personal questions of women you've just met?"
He shrugged. "I was curious. By the way, do you know where I might be able to pick up a Duluth pack around here?"
"A what? I've never heard of that."
"Never mind. Is this where you work?" the man indicated the ornate brass handles leading the way into Chantilla. "I've never been inside a place like that."
"Why not?" Michon wasn't just talking to keep the conversation going. She really wanted to know. A man wearing a chambray shirt with an unironed collar turning up at the ends would turn a head or two in Chantilla, especially when he filled out his faded jeans the way this man did. Somehow she couldn't imagine him ever being comfortable in one of the raw silk jackets displayed on the male mannequins.
He shrugged. "No reason to."
Unexpectedly Michon found herself laughing. What would the owners think of his casual dismissal of the cultured atmosphere they'd worked so hard to attain? "How would you know?" she teased. "Someday you might need to buy some expensive perfume or a gown for a special woman."
"Yeah?" He peered in the glass door a minute. "No. I don't think so. Not much use for that stuff in a class-three rapid."
Michon shook her head. "There you go again, mentioning things I've never heard of before. What is this class-three rapid?"
"It's a river route with enough obstructions and geological irregularities to require scouting the course before taking a canoe through it," he said, his tone resembling a class lecture. Then he winked. "I'm sorry. I know most people don't know what I'm talking about. It's just that that's what I do. I have a way of getting carried away about river canoeing."
"That's a job?" Michon stared up at him. At the moment blue dominated in his eyes.
"Kind of. It's rather complicated. Don't you have to get back to work?"
"Are you trying to get rid of me?"
For a moment their eyes locked. She could feel the sensation along the length of her spine. "No."
"Oh." Michon was used to holding her own with people. It was necessary in a job as competitive as the one she had. But a few minutes with the tall, sunburned stranger had stripped her of that skill. "Well, I--"
He stopped her by placing his hand on her shoulder. "I don't want to make you late. It was nice talking to you." Before she knew it was going to happen, he'd spun lightly and was walking away from her.
Michon stared after him, noting the athletic grace to his walk, the hard line of his legs, the powerful shoulders straining against the well-worn shirt. What was his name? She hadn't learned that simple fact, and yet he'd affected her in a way that reminded her of what it felt like to be singled out by the football captain during the high school prom.