INVESTMENT IN LOVE
Susan McGuire sat trembling in the stairwell that lead up to her apartment. Her cheeks were wet with tears as the cool soft air blew into the alcove. The town was quiet this time of night and she was sitting in the dark. No one could have noticed her. The darkness was a comfort, hiding her red cheeks as the shame of her actions came back to her. She was really in love with Phil Allen, no matter how much she tried to deny it. Maggie had seen it happening several months ago.
They had been having coffee after the evening meal. Susan had been talking about the party she had gone to the night before. She had made it practically a monologue about one man.
"Is this the Susan I know who holds all men at arm's length?" Maggie said with a smile.
Susan stopped for a moment, then went on. "I guess I have said quite a bit about Mr. Allen. But it isn't every day you find an Englishman in a midwestern town our size. He's doing great things in Marshall with the money he's invested. The downtown renovation is going well."
"Since you're doing interviews on the people involved, tell me, are any of the others as interesting as Mr. Allen?"
Susan made a face at her as she gathered up the dishes but didn't give an answer. She shared most everything with her older cousin: the apartment, the chores, and most of her thoughts. But not all of them. Maggie McGuire did know of Susan's strong feelings for a certain lawyer a year ago. He was everything Susan had ever wanted in a man. But a previous love of his had thought so, too, and he had left Susan on the threshold of a tender moment, sending her into a deep depression. Maggie and she had begun rooming together shortly after that and Susan had dug into her work at the newspaper. She buried all her feelings deep within and never again showed much interest in men, although she did date occasionally.
Meeting Phil at the party, she felt a little fear. Her heart beat a little faster when he made polite conversation, his voice deep and smooth. During the course of the evening, Susan lingered near the area where he was, listening to his wonderful voice in conversation, gathering tidbits of what he was trying to help with in Marshall. He had medium blonde hair which lay casually touseled and covered the tops of his ears. Once he caught her looking at him and she noticed his golden brown eyes which reminded her of a beautiful cat she'd had once. She glanced quickly away. Susan was a contrast to most of the stylishly dressed older women in the room with her short dark curls which made her look about twenty-five instead of the thirty-five that she was. She wore a nice pair of black slacks topped with a lovely sweater and vest. Phil on the other hand wore dark gray slacks and a turtleneck shirt with a dark plaid sportcoat. There was the look of class about him. He certainly was the attention of all the females in the room.
Susan saw him around town several times after that as she continued the interviews. She knew he must be wondering when he would be included. Some of the investors were wealthy locals, some from other parts of the country. Only Phil was out of his element, so to speak. Susan felt the electricity between them and began to avoid him whenever she saw him in the distance. In a town as small as Marshall, this was a problem.
"How are the interviews going?" Maggie asked one night.
"Only one left," Susan said as she proofread the last one she'd done.
"Let me guess," Maggie remarked. "Phil Allen."
Susan looked up for a moment but did not reply.
"It's very evident you're reluctant to do it," Maggie continued. "I've brought up his name several times and you're rather touchy about it. Tom mentioned it at the office today. He said you two met the man at The Chalet restaurant last night and you were distracted the rest of the evening. Does Phil Allen upset you that much?"
"Of course not!" Susan was quick to reply, "and how could you discuss me with Tom Gregory?"
"You know Tom's an old friend, Susan. He was just asking about you. Is there anything I can do? You've been rather moody lately."
Susan glanced into the flames of the small fireplace. It was a blessing that at least this had remained intact when the old house had been converted into apartments. Finally she spoke, although reluctantly.
"There's something about him that cuts deep beneath the control I've always had over my feelings. Just being near him, hearing him speak, makes me want to know him better, to want to be with him. I don't know him but I'd like to. That scares me."
"You've always had a love for the British Isles. Perhaps that's the attraction. Tom said the man seems to be attracted to you. Why not give him a chance? I hear his accent is lovely." Maggie grinned.
"No, Maggie!" Susan said with determination. "My writing is all that I'm interested in. I'm taking no more chances on a man."
Maggie shook her head and Susan knew whose side Maggie was on. "I think you're passing up a wonderful opportunity. But no matter, you've still got to do that interview."
Susan knew that and the next day she faced the inevitable with her boss pushing her to wind up things. Walking toward the hotel where Phil was staying, she observed the work being done to restore old buildings to their former glory. Susan felt a great pride in her town. A new art gallery had been opened in a large white building, at one time a bank. The tall columns out front gave it elegance. A visit there might calm her a bit, she thought.
Inside, paintings and statuary were arranged to great advantage, all priced within Marshall's range. They reminded Susan of things she had seen in the many picture books of England that she had often lingered through. A lovely copy of a Constable showing the English countryside hung beside the photo of a beautiful blonde-haired woman with sparkling eyes and a very pleasant smile.
"How do you like the gallery?"
Susan turned to find Phil Allen standing beside her. She instantly became a bit flustered but hid it as well as possible.
"It's beautiful. Something that Marshall has needed and what a wonderful building to put it in."
"Thank you. I own it. That picture is my favorite, too."
"Both, actually. The Constable was my wife's favorite. Shelley taught me what little I know about art and that was her favorite. That's Shelley." He indicated the lovely lady.
Susan felt a sense of disappointment and relief at the same time. She hadn't noticed that he had said "was". Her mind seemed to go blank as his intense gaze held hers. She finally forced herself to look back at the painting as he spoke.
"I'm always hoping no one buys it. I guess that's why I have Shelley guarding it."
He showed her around and she saw many pieces she would love to have, but none more than the first one, where she lingered when they came to the end of the tour.
"How about lunch?" he asked. "The hotel restaurant has a good menu."
She hesitated, but she did need the interview and this would be a neutral ground. Susan nodded and Phil smiled. That slow, peaceful smile that drew her in. She explained about the interviews and asked if she could combine the questions with lunch.
"Love to," he said and they went across to the hotel.
As they waited for their meals, Susan took notes.
"Well, I was born in London. I was a professional hair stylist as was Shelley. We split when our son Brian was little. That's when I moved to Yorkshire. But I never lost my love for Shelley." He was quiet for a bit, the food arrived, and Susan asked no more questions till they were finishing the desert.
"How did you come to Marshall?"
"Well, when Shelley died of cancer, and Brian married, I just wanted to get away, change everything. A friend in London was into investments, using the NY Times ads to find interesting stuff. I offered to put in my half with money I'd saved and came over here to scout things out. I love Marshall. I'm glad to be here. It has been much easier to get over Shelley's being gone."
"Well, we appreciate your interest," Susan said. She noticed now the lines of sadness around his eyes and wished she could bring comfort to him. However, she fought the feeling and when they parted, Susan felt a great sense of relief. Once the interview was submitted, all would be normal again. But it was not as simple as she thought.
Several days later the phone rang and that pleasant, smooth English voice asked her to a movie. She went, unable to find a reason to say no. Rather enjoying the danger of skirting on the edge of a new life but maintaining the old one. Many more times followed. Concerts, a play at the local playhouse, dinner several times. Susan was on a cloud when she was with him. Once she was alone, she dug into her past, trying to bring up the memories: her last conversation with Charlie as she had been told of someone else in his life, her awareness of the female figure in the restaurant that night, Charlie trying to be kind. But his revealing earlier deceptions when he had been dating both women had only filled her with anger, an anger that was still bottled within her. She felt a little safer because she knew Phil still loved his late wife. Once again there was another female in the life of a man she had begun to care for. But this time she was prepared, or at least so she thought.
One evening it came to a decisive head. A package was delivered to her. Maggie brought it into the living room with a puzzled look. When the brown wrapping was removed, Susan could only look at it in complete surprise. It was the Constable she had admired that first day in the gallery. Shelley was no longer guarding it. There was a note taped to the frame:
"For a lovely lady....a lovely painting.
Once more my heart has been captured."
"How thoughtful," Maggie said, putting on her light coat. "Well, I've got to go to the drugstore before my date. Need anything?"
"Yes!" Susan replied in an angry tone. She rewrapped the painting as Maggie watched in disbelief. "Return this to the gallery for me. It's just down the block from there."
"Are you sure, Susan? It's so beautiful."
"I'm as sure as I can possibly be. I'm not letting a casual friendship turn into anything else."
"Doesn't sound like friendship is what he's got in mind," Maggie said as she left.
Later, when Maggie and her date had gone, Susan sat before the front window, brooding in silence. Her anger was surfacing, trying to engulf her but it was directed at Phil. He who talked of his love for Shelly. If he had only not sent the painting. As long as they were dating, Susan could control everything. Her feeling for him had become more than what she had felt for Charlie and it frightened her that a man could once more have that opportunity to hurt her.
It was after nine when she put on her jacket and went out into the night. She practically ran the two blocks to the gallery. It had just closed; only one light remained at the rear. Susan banged on the door, hoping Phil would still be there. As it happened, it was he who turned the lock and opened the door, standing before her, the streetlight revealing his handsome face full of puzzlement.
"You've ruined my life, do you realize that! I had everything in hand!"
He kept that puzzled look. The wind ruffled her curls and he reached up to brush them gently back from her face, seeing tears on her cheeks. As a police car came down the street, he pulled her inside. No need to draw attention. He offered his handkerchief without a word but she refused.
"I don't want your handkerchief! I don't want your painting! And most of all, I don't want you!"
She turned and ran out of the store.
Now on the steps she felt a great weariness. It had been a childish action, she knew that. As a small girl she had always lashed out in anger at things that frightened her. She sat quietly now, the soft breeze on her face calming her a bit. When she looked up, she saw a figure framed in the doorway. Phil came to sit beside her, taking one of her cold hands in his, bringing warmth in that touch. Then he spoke softly with that beautiful voice of velvet.
"What have I done?"
"You've done nothing," she replied, looking down once more. She couldn't face him. "I'm sorry. I acted stupidly." Then she told him of Charley. "You've only made me face myself and my fear of falling in love again."
"Then we share something. Shelley left me many years before she died and I hung on to my love for her, even after her death. Now I've found I can love again." He leaned over in the dim stairwell, lifted her chin with a finger so she had to look at him, and kissed her softly. It was a tender kiss and Susan felt the walls she had built come tumbling down.
"Will you come in for awhile?" she asked.
Inside, watching the fire, Susan felt a little reluctance still. They really were worlds apart. They sat before the fire, on the floor, their backs against the sofa.
"Susan," Phil said, drawing her to him with an arm around her shoulder. "You're a very special person. I've felt drawn to you from the first time we met at the party. But there was always a barrier around you. Have I finally broken through? I assure you there is no female in my past. I'd love to share my life with you, both here and in England. There's so much I'd like to show you. Do I have a chance?"
Susan's green eyes contrasted with Phil's golden brown ones, but both of them had that deep look of love. She was soon wrapped in his arms and the smile on her face touched his heart and gave him his answer. Their love was sealed completely with his warm kiss once more and Susan felt peace and contentment.
(Author's note: the scene in front of the gallery at night was a very vivid dream I had many years ago that I had written down. The story just came of itself from that bit.)