As it happens – and it doesn’t happen often – my “Future Columns” tab is empty this morning. I can’t imagine how that came about. Nevertheless, it gives me an excuse to divert to fiction topics for a change.
On the marketing front, Hans G. Schantz has announced another big sale of Based Fiction. It’s all $0.99 per book or less, so if you need reading material, hie thee hence! And yes, my tripe is in there.
Hans also mentions the BasedCon fiction convention which will open on September 12 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As the title suggests, it’s for readers and writers who are soundly based in reality. (This despite being heavy with science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers. Go figure.) As my health has improved somewhat recently, I toyed with attending this year, reckoned up the pluses and minuses, and decide to order a few more cases of wine instead. This way I don’t have to get on an (shudder) airliner, and I’ll get a little exercise toting all that wine down to the cellar. Best wishes to all who do attend.
To those who’ve asked…repeatedly…why I haven’t released a novel since 2021, I’ve been working on one. This one presented me with more challenges than most of my others. Still, it should be ready before Christmas. Here’s the first snippet of it.
And here is the second:
As Paul expected, their first few days were untroubled. The district remained tranquil. Most of the shops were open, but few did much business. The restaurants, hotels, and B&Bs busied themselves making ready for the Memorial Day weekend, when the Maine seacoast’s opening barrage of vacationers and day-trippers would arrive. Owing to his off-season labors, he and Carol had little other than cleaning and freshening to do.
Carol proved to be a comfortable housemate. She kept to his hours, did her work cheerfully and well, and was agreeable to any sort of evening entertainment or none. She asked him for nothing other than what he would like to have for lunch and dinner. She prepared the shopping list; he bought the groceries.
On Thursday morning of her first week with him, he took her to the firing range in Berwick for her first acquaintance with firearms. It went remarkably well. She charmed the range safety officer, who took it upon himself to instruct her in the basics of firearms handling and maintenance. Under his tutelage, she demonstrated an aptitude for the handgun at once. She attributed her exceptional fine motor control to hundreds of hours spent drafting others’ designs. Paul took as much pleasure from watching her shoot as from his own practice.
She spent two hours perforating targets with each of Paul’s four handguns before declaring herself finished for the day. The RSO, who had been watching her intermittently throughout her practice, congratulated her on her swift acquisition of skill. He schooled her about the legal hazards pertinent to carrying a firearm and using one in self-defense, and cautioned her not to be lax about her practice. She looked at Paul.
“Can we be here once a week?”
She faced the RSO and put a hand over her heart. “I solemnly promise to be here at least once each week to maintain my proficiency—and to enjoy myself. It’s a lot more fun than I thought it would be.”
The RSO’s face split in a wide grin.
He expected her to be at least a little unsettled when the barrage of Memorial Day weekenders arrived, but it was not so. She demonstrated an unaffected courtesy toward the B&B’s guests and their demands that had initially come hard to him. He was never even tempted to intervene. The guests responded better to her management than they ever had to his. His admiration for her rose day by day.
Three more weeks of smooth, untroubled operation of the B&B followed. Each Thursday morning, after they had cleaned up from breakfast and their guests had lit off on their travels around the region, he packed up the handguns and took her back to the firing range. She was as enthusiastic as she’d been the first time. At the fourth visit, her skills were already a close match to his own.
When they returned to the B&B, Paul stopped the Jetta before the front door and turned to Carol.
“Think you can man the place by yourself for a couple of hours?”
“I have some shopping to do.”
She peered at him, openly curious, then shrugged and let herself out of the car. He U-turned and drove off humming an old Guns and Roses tune.
The next morning, after they had finished breakfast and well before the first of their weekend guests had arrived, Paul asked her to take the front desk for a moment and said “I’ll be right back.” She went to the reception area and seated herself as he trotted back to their apartment.
He returned bearing a modest box wrapped in plain brown paper and presented it to her without words. She frowned.
“What is it?”
She did so.
Within was a brand new KelTec P15 and an ornately tooled, femininely delicate leather gunbelt for it.
“For me?” she said.
He smiled and nodded. “Perk of the job. Besides, I haven’t seen you wear anything with pockets.”
She squealed, grabbed him, and laid a kiss on him well beyond what he’d been prepared for. It left him breathless and red-faced.
“Thank you thank you thank you!”
“I’m just happy that you enjoy it so much,” he murmured.
She hugged him once more and immediately wrapped the belt around her waist. He admired her for a moment before ambling back to the kitchen to inventory their supplies.
How did I get so lucky with that ad?
And what else do I have to look forward to?
He forced his thoughts to return to mundane things as he rummaged through the cabinets and freezer.
The aroma from the kitchen had permeated the B&B and tantalized Paul throughout Friday. He wasn’t the only one. Every one of the guests that booked in for the weekend asked what concoction was tormenting them with its unidentifiable but heavenly scent. At each inquiry he shrugged and professed ignorance. Carol had loaded the slow cooker before they’d opened for the day, but had refrained from telling him what she’d put in it.
When the bustle of the day was behind them, he retreated to the kitchen to find Carol at the slow cooker, lid in one hand and serving spoon in the other, sampling the broth.
“What hath Carol wrought?” he said as he approached.
She flashed him a pixie smile. “Something you probably haven’t had before, so brace yourself.”
“From the aroma, I know I’m going to love it.” He peered over her shoulder into the cooker. It appeared to contain a relatively conventional stew: chunks of meat, green peas, diced potatoes and carrots, and a scattering of herbs.
That aroma is anything but conventional. It makes me want to dive into that pot.
His urge to bury his face in the creamy flesh peeking out through the collar of Carol’s blouse was almost as strong. He suppressed both impulses and stepped back.
“Is it near to ready?” he said.
“Ready enough,” she said. “Bring me a couple of shallow bowls and cut us each a chunk of French bread. We are going to feast.”
He did as she’d directed. She ladled generous portions into the bowls, handed him one, and looked meaningfully at the kitchen table. They sat and addressed their meals.
Paul’s first bite left him stunned.
Carol smiled. “I found the frozen venison.”
“I can tell. But where did the recipe come from?”
“It’s mine. I hit on it a couple of years ago,” she said. “New York is the venison capital of the world, you know. Be sure to dunk your bread.”
He nodded and went back to eating. His serving was gone all too soon. When he sat back from the table, there was a huge smile on his face and nothing edible in his bowl.
“There’s more if you want,” she said innocently.
He pretended to shudder. “Don’t tempt me beyond my strength. It’s way too good just to gorge ourselves on it. Let’s save it for another night, if there’s enough for the two of us.”
“There is.” They rose from the table. He collected the bowls and silver and deposited them in the sink. He was about to start the washing-up when she said “Leave it for later.”
He turned and leaned back against the counter to find her standing intimately close and smiling.
“I’m glad you liked it. It’s my special-occasions recipe,” she said.
“A great way to kick off the season,” he said.
There was a brief silence.
“Actually,” she said, “I was thinking of something else.”
“Oh…your gun?” He glanced at her waist and grinned. She’d worn the gunbelt from the instant he’d presented it to her. It looked good on her.
“Ah, no, not that either.”
He waited, baffled.
“Paul,” she said, “isn’t it about time we made love?”
His mouth dropped open. Her expression was open and guileless.
“I thought…” He faltered, caught himself, and steadied. “I thought we were just coworkers. I didn’t know you thought of me that way.”
She peered at him with an expression of puzzlement. “I’ve thought of you that way from the day you interviewed me. You couldn’t tell?”
He winced. “I’m not really up on…that kind of stuff.”
“What kind of ‘stuff,’ Paul?”
“Girls,” he muttered. “Romance.”
“Well, how have you thought of me?” she said.
Like an impossible dream.
“Am I just a coworker to you, Paul?”
“No.” He lowered his eyes. “But I was sure you would already have someone, and that I’d meet him once you felt settled in. I didn’t want to risk driving you away.”
“Hm. Well,” she said as if pondering an intellectual proposition, “as it happens, I don’t have anyone. But if you have some other reason we should wait a while longer, let me hear it. I promise I’m not going anywhere.” Her lips quirked in a faint, fleeting smile. “Though I was looking forward to loving you tonight.”
There was no mistaking the disappointment in her tone.
“I’m not saying no!” he blurted. “I’m just…surprised.”
She grinned faintly. “In a good way, I hope?”
“Well, yeah! But…”
“But why you?”
“Paul, for the past four weeks I’ve been trying to figure out why no girl has staked a claim to you yet. You’re not a homosexual, are you?”
His eyelids snapped back. “No!”
“Then why are you running around loose? What are you, late twenties maybe?”
“Thirty-three in September,” he muttered.
She spread her arms in incredulity. “Good Lord! Don’t the women in this town have eyes? You’re good-looking, competent, hardworking, responsible, generous, and just plain nice to be around. When you gave me this—” she gently slapped her holstered pistol “—it took everything I had not to trip you and rip your pants off right then and there.”
He had no words.
“So would you like to?” she said. She stepped a little closer and slipped her arms around him. “It’s not a dealbreaker. I’m not going to scream and run back to New York if you don’t.”
“I just don’t want to disappoint you,” he said.
“I’m…not very experienced.”
“Oh.” She brightened. “That’s not a problem. In fact, I’m kind of happy to hear it.” She closed the remaining space between them and looked up at him expectantly.
He pulled her fully against him and kissed her awkwardly. She molded herself to his torso, gently corrected the kiss, and deepened it to the maximum. A few moments later she led him to her bedroom, unlocked and opened the steel door he’d installed for her security, and nudged him inside.
“Are you okay?” he said.
She opened her eyes and smiled up at him. “I’m great. Why?”
He elbowed himself off her and settled onto his back. She immediately snugged herself against his side and rested an arm on his chest.
“You were shaking and screaming,” he said. “I didn’t know if that’s…”
“Normal?” She chuckled. “I suppose it isn’t. But it isn’t bad. At least, not in this case.” She ran a fingertip over his lips. “This was your first time, wasn’t it?”
“Why did you wait so long?”
He said nothing.
“Have I embarrassed you?” she said.
“No…I’m just not very social.”
He works too much. Probably always has.
She started to speak, checked herself.
But that’s not necessarily the whole story.
“Paul? Look at me, please?”
“Did I make you do something you didn’t want to do?”
His eyes compressed in dismay. “No!”
“Good.” She caressed his chest. “I wouldn’t want to think so.”
“But did I?” he said.
“Did you what?”
“Make you do something you didn’t want to do?”
How could he think that? “Not at all! I’ve been looking forward to this since the day we met!”
He winced and returned to staring at the bedroom ceiling.
“What made you ask me that?” she said.
There was a brief silence. She began to wonder if she’d breached a barrier he’d erected and maintained deliberately.
“This place has been my whole existence since before high school,” he said at last. “Even when my parents were here, every moment I wasn’t in school or doing something else that I couldn’t avoid, I was working here. I’d run back here at the end of the school day, drop my books in my room, and get busy right away with whatever Mom or Dad said needed doing. After graduation that became my whole life. I never got to ask a girl on a date. The only girls I even got to speak to were guests here.”
“No college?” she said.
He scowled. “Who needs a college degree to work in a B&B?”
It stripped the words out of her.
I’m his first girl, in every sense of the words. His parents virtually locked him in here, and I’ve gone and broken down the door.
What do I do now?
She was seized by a sense of danger. Her carefree way with her body had put her in a position to cause great suffering.
Some of that suffering could be mine.
She breathed once deeply, let it out, and summoned her resolve.
“This isn’t just about sex, okay?”
That brought his head around. “Oh?”
“Yeah.” She caressed his cheek. “Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to make love with you—quite a lot, actually—but it wasn’t just an itch I needed to scratch. I wanted you. I think you’re super. You’re the most impressive guy I’ve ever met, and a sweetheart on top of it.”
Don’t say it, Carol.
“And I intend to hang on to you with both arms, both legs, and all my strength. If you’ll have me, anyway.”
He peered at her in open disbelief.
“You’ve been to college,” he said.
She nodded. “So?”
“You’d really rather be with me than any of the men you met there?”
“Or any of the men you’ve worked with?”
He shook his head in disbelief and turned away. She chuckled.
“What makes it so hard to believe?”
“You! You make it hard to believe!” He propped himself on an elbow and squinted down at her. “You’re too beautiful, too smart, and too damned nice.” His face reddened as he spoke. “You think just because I’ve been trapped here with no social life, I haven’t seen how things work? Women of your caliber don’t go for blue-collar losers like me!”
She faced him squarely. “Just like women of my caliber don’t leave engineering jobs in New York to work in a Maine B&B, right?”
He started to reply, closed his mouth without speaking.
“How,” she said evenly, “are you a loser?” She raised a finger. “You own your own, profitable business.” Another finger. “That business is five-star rated with the Maine BBB.” A third finger. “You’re able to do more kinds of construction and maintenance than anyone I’ve met.” A fourth finger. “And you’re a dead-eye shot with any of four different handguns. So how?”
He did not reply.
She had an epiphany.
I know what I have to do. Am I ready, willing, and able?
“Paul,” she said in her lowest register, “how old am I?”
His shoulders lifted briefly. “I don’t know. I thought it’s crass to ask a woman her age.”
“I’m twenty-eight,” she said. “These days that’s long enough to have looked around, and I have. I don’t have any big ambitions. I’m not looking for fame or fortune. This is what I want. Tranquility. A quiet life. Yes, it’s a hardworking life, but it’s quiet all the same. And to have you into the bargain…I don’t think I could have asked for more or better. I think I know what it’s going to take to convince you of that.”
He watched her in silence.
“Time,” she said. “I’m here less than a month. That’s not a lot of time to get to know and trust someone. But after I’ve been here a year, you’ll feel more secure about me. After two years? Five?” She smiled. “I think you’ll be convinced. For the moment, can I persuade you to stay with me tonight?”
He closed his eyes and nodded.
She bade him lie down and gathered him into her arms. Presently they slept.
Copyright © 2023 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.