Ken drove for several miles, and still Julie did not speak. She had her eyes closed, and he hesitated to interrupt her. She seemed vulnerable then, as if the weight of the world were wearing on her. He wanted to protect her, but he wasn’t sure from what. “I’m sorry, Ken,” Julie said, opening her eyes to look at him. “My mom still doesn’t approve of my decision.”
“But you haven’t changed your mind.” He had to know. His whole career depended on the answer.
“No. Have you?” She twisted to study him. “You haven’t found a better partner – one who doesn’t make so many demands.”
He laughed. “No. I’m pretty happy with my partner. I just hope she stays happy with me.” Ken had managed to dismiss the doubts Evan had planted as he had prayed and reread the partnership agreement before he went to bed last night. Not many would be willing to make an investment that wouldn’t yield a cent of profit for up to ten years, depending on how fast they could pay off that loan. And her demands were definitely not excessive so far. He hoped she didn’t become unbearable or nit-picking when they came to the actually running of the business. Ken glanced at Julie, and she was smiling now.
“It’s so good to be with someone who’s pleased with me for a change. It’s been rotten at work. But that’s not important.”
“It is if it bothers you. I’m willing to listen,” Ken offered as he pulled into a family restaurant. It was cheaper than Olive Garden but still had good food. He hoped she didn’t mind.
“I like this tape. I saw Wes a few years ago at a Grand Rapids concert. A bunch of us went over. My dad would always take us….” she trailed off, when the car stopped. Her pensive mood had returned. She opened the door, and then stood behind the car waiting for him.
They walked together to the restaurant. “I wish I could have seen him. Is he as good a guitarist in concert as he is on tape?”
“Better. It was excellent. Just him and his guitar. Well, there was a percussionist.”
They were greeted and seated before Ken could respond. “I haven’t been to a concert in years.” He hesitated, and then decided to take the chance. “I haven’t really had anyone to go with. Maybe next time one comes up, we could go together, unless you already have plans with your father or friends.”
“My dad died a couple years ago. I haven’t gone since, but….”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay. It’d be good to go again. Just don’t hold it against me if I get a little sentimental about my dad.”
“Never.” He wanted to hold her hands, but she kept them down at her sides, barely lifting them above the table top to turn the pages of the menu. The waitress came. Ken ordered chili and a burger, while Julie had a taco salad. They began discussing their fish.
The time went quickly, and they stayed long after they finished eating. Julie had relaxed and smiled more as they talked. She leaned back in the booth now. “This is the best lunch I’ve had in a long time.”
“I’m open for a repeat whenever you are,” Ken offered quickly.
“I’m afraid we’d both get back late.” She grinned. “But you’re going to be the boss, so you can take two hour lunches, and if I don’t go at noon I have flexible hours.”
“You’ll let me? You’re not going to say how many hours I have to put in to earn that salary?”
“Don’t you know when you’re the boss you work until the work is done? Hours don’t count anymore.”
They were both teasing now. It was good that he didn’t have to explain anything to her. Growing up with her parents owning a business probably taught her a lot. Another jarring thought intruded. Two hour lunches? Ken glanced at his watch. It was after two. “I forgot all about my mom coming at two.”
“Oh? Were you supposed to meet her? You’re late. We better make sure someone else opens the store in the morning.”
Ken grinned at her teasing. He’d never been late for work no matter how early he had to be there. “My brother is home, but I was told to be there.”
Julie rose from the booth. “Well, I guess the day couldn’t last forever.” Her pensive mood seemed to return, and her thoughts appeared far away. Her mouth turned down at the corners, and she stared into the plants beyond them as she waited for him.
“What is it?” he asked softly, standing beside her.
“I’m sorry. What was that?”
“What were you thinking about?” Ken took the opportunity to reach for the arm closest to him.
Julie shook her head, and they moved toward the door. “Nothing. Home just hasn’t been very restful lately.”
“Come with me.” It was out before he thought, and he couldn’t retract it.
She was grinning at him now. “And meet your fish as well as your relatives?”
Ken shrugged. “Sometimes the fish are better company. Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No. I understand. Are you sure they wouldn’t mind though?” Julie got into the car, and Ken was able to think as he walked around it.
“I don’t think they’d mind,” Ken told her as he started the engine. “They just might assume that we’re dating.”
“Well, you did invite me to a concert.”
Ken laughed then. “You don’t mind?”
“As long as you don’t. Your regular girlfriend might.”
“I haven’t had a girlfriend in a few years. What about your boyfriend? That dark haired guy.” He glanced at Julie and was surprised at her reaction. She seemed to shiver.
“I hate Thomas. I’m sorry. I keep praying and praying, but nothing helps. He’s ruining my life. But it’s not important.”
Ken reached for her hand with his right hand, keeping the other on the steering wheel. “Yes it is important if it hurts you that much. Did you used to go out?”
She seemed to come out of it. “I’m sorry, Ken. There’s a lot going on, and I feel like a gossip to talk about it – a gossip and a slander. It’s all a bunch of fuss about nothing important.” Julie squeezed the hand he had offered, but didn’t let go. “Thanks for your friendship.”
Ken wanted to protest that he wanted more than friendship, but she seemed to be telling him that was all she was ready for. “So, no jealous boyfriends,” he clarified.
“None. I’m pretty much a homebody, I guess. I don’t get out much.” She grinned then. “Not that I haven’t been asked out at work a few times. During tax season I get quite a few impromptu declarations, especially if I find them a good break.”
“But no one you’ve ever felt serious enough about to pursue.”
Julie shrugged. “Not really. I dated a few in college, but there was always something. Guess I’m too picky, but Mom didn’t settle for second best. How about you? Ever serious?”
“Once. We broke up before I could save enough for the ring. So you only date the best?”
Julie grinned. “My own definition of the best. I think you’d qualify.” She was teasing him again, but it was better than the serious questions. “Are you really going to take me to a concert?”
“I’ll see what’s coming the first chance I get,” he promised. Ken pulled into his driveway. His stepfather’s car was parked in front of the house in the street. Ken faced Julie after he turned off the engine. “You aren’t worried about compromising our working relationship, are you?”
Julie hesitated, and Ken realized she was hiding something from him. “It shouldn’t. I’m usually able to forgive and get on with life when things don’t go the way I expect. I wish I could forgive Thomas, but he hasn’t stopped doing it.”
“Doing what?” Ken had to know.
But she still wouldn’t tell him. “Never mind.” She opened the car door. “It’s not important. I should be able to stop thinking about it.” She faced the house. “So I’m going to meet your brother and your mom.”
Ken wanted to pursue it, but he didn’t have time. Evan had looked out the window as he pulled in, and they knew he was home. He let her change the subject. “And my stepfather. Maybe my step siblings. I’m not sure about that. They’ve only been married a few years so we’re not close.” That was an understatement. He hardly knew his step-siblings other than the basics, and even those kept changing. When he’d seen his stepsister, Marlene, at Christmas he had barely recognized her because she’d filled out, slimmed down, and styled her hair. In one year she’d gone from a shy, awkward, plump, adolescent to a girl who seemed to be older than he knew she was. He doubted he would have known her had she walked into SaveMart alone.
Julie put a hand on his arm, as if offering sympathy, but he wasn’t sure what had caused the reaction. Maybe she was just serious about being his girlfriend. He didn’t mind that either. He took her hand and held it.
Evan had better stay away from Julie. What if she preferred him? Ken tightened his grip on her hand. After Lynn’s betrayal he hadn’t thought he could feel this strongly again. Only this time he didn’t have the illusions of trust. He didn’t trust Evan, and he wasn’t even sure he could trust Julie. Of course she’d made no commitment to him except in the area of business.
As Ken led her to his house, he became painfully aware that his house inside and out was probably not what she was used to. He’d made little effort to beautify his surroundings. Everything was functional and probably not quite as clean as a woman like Julie would want things. This is what he had to offer her if their relationship progressed. He knew it wasn’t enough. Why had he suggested this?
Ken opened the door and let her enter first. “Welcome to my humble abode,” he tried to joke, but the cliché sounded flat to his own ears.
Julie entered the house hesitantly, aware that a group of strangers waited on the other side of the door who probably didn’t expect her.
“There you are, Ken,” a middle-aged woman said before Ken had closed the door. “I thought Evan told you we’d be here at two.” Her hair was brown with large streaks of grey coming from the temples. She wore it pulled back from her face, making it seem severe. Julie guessed her to be older than Katie, but then Katie looked young for her age. A man with a bald spot surrounded by light hair sat in the armchair. Julie guessed him to be the stepfather.
“He did.” Ken mumbled.
“So is this Julie?” asked a nice looking man with long, styled, deep-brown hair. He lounged against the door frame leading into a back room, possibly a bedroom. She glanced around quickly. No one else was around, but as suspected he had aquariums in every available nook.
“Yes. This is my friend, Julie,” Ken said, helping her remove her coat.
Julie smiled and managed a polite hello.
“The one that you’re buying that store with?” Ken’s mother asked.
“Ken says you won’t give Evan a job.”
Julie hesitated only from surprise. She glanced at Ken.
“Mom, let’s not get into this now.”
“I want to know why you can’t help your own brother.”
Julie suddenly knew what was happening. Every once in a while someone had tried to get her father and mother to give someone a job. If they had an opening, they would consider them, but too often they weren’t able to accommodate them. “Oh, it’s not that we don’t want to help Evan, Mrs. Wright, I mean….”
“Little. Allison Little.”
“Mrs. Little. It’s just that we can only keep so many people employed without going bankrupt, and we have all we need right now. If someone quits, and Evan is qualified, we’ll certainly consider him first.” She glanced at Ken. She wasn’t sure what he was thinking. He was staring at her like he didn’t know her. She hoped she hadn’t overstepped what he considered proper for a semi-silent partner. But she’d been careful not to make any promises.
“You could fire someone,” Mrs. Little suggested bluntly.
Julie laughed to try to diffuse the tension. “Oh, you really wouldn’t want me to do that. What if I were your boss? You’d have no peace if I were so fickle.” And she would have a ton of lawsuits. “Really, it’s best to let the employees themselves decide when they feel they need to move on unless they’re grossly incompetent or some other major problem occurs. And all these people have been there over nine months, with one girl being with the store six years. They all know more than I do, I’m afraid.” She tried to laugh again, but it sounded hollow, being alone.
“She’s right, Mom,” Ken said, finally coming to stand beside her. He put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ve tried to explain this, but I think Julie did it much more clearly. We’ll help when and if we can. In the meantime I’ll make sure Evan has a place to stay, food, clothes, and the means to look for other work that may even give him better hours, pay, and experience than I could.”
Evan’s brow furrowed briefly, but he said nothing.
Ken put his hand on Julie’s waist as he directed her across the living room to an old love seat between a small table with an even smaller television, and an aquarium full of young female bettas. “Have a seat. May I get you some juice?”
“No, thanks,” she said, smiling up at him. “I’m still full from lunch.” She wished he’d sit beside her, but he turned to the others and took their orders. Then he disappeared. She tried not to appear too nervous among these strangers. It was dark inside the house, giving the place a dreary feel. Julie longed to open the shades, or better yet, replace them with blinds and lace draperies. Although then the cobwebs would show. He should hire Carri who cleaned their office and their home once a week. Katie had always had someone come in to do the heavy house cleaning ever since Julie could remember. And when her grandfather had fallen ill, Julie’s father had arranged for his mother to have help which she still had, even though both Katie and Julie were there now.
Evan sat on the edge of the love seat beside her, taking the spot she’d hoped Ken would occupy. “Ken made you sound like the wicked witch of the West,” Evan said quietly. “But I knew you’d help me if you could. I’ve just had a little hard luck, but things will be different now.”
Julie wondered what Ken had said about her. She couldn’t imagine him talking about her behind her back, but then she never imagined everyone at work, including her own mother would be gossiping about her either. She was unaware that her pain showed in her face.
“Don’t mind Ken,” Evan said. “He’s just grouchy a lot. But you don’t have to work with him, do you? What do you do for fun? You must have a boyfriend.”
Ken reentered the room, handed his mother and stepfather their coffee, turned, and froze. He stared a Julie a moment, and then left the room.
“See, a grouch,” Evan said.
Julie wished she knew what had upset him. And it was obvious he was upset. She wished she wasn’t trapped here with this group of strangers.
“So, Julie,” Gray Little began. “How did you manage to be able to invest in business so young? You’re not more than twenty or so, are you?”
“I’m twenty-five. And I live with my grandmother, so my rent is very reasonable. I have few expenses.”
“And what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a CPA.”
“I heard the test for that was hard.”
“Yes. Not many pass the first time.”
This interrogation was almost as bad as the uncomfortable silence. She wished they’d talk among themselves and ignore her. Ken reentered the room. He leaned against the wall near the chairs his parents sat in. Julie didn’t understand the look on his face. She wished he’d help her. “I had an advantage,” she said, to try to avoid sounding as if she were bragging. “My parents both coached me.”
“You’re beautiful, as well as smart,” Evan said. He reached for her hand.
Julie avoided his hand and stood. “Ken, the rest room?”
“I’ll show you,” Evan volunteered, rising to lead her from the room before Ken could respond. Evan led her through the kitchen and pointed to a door. “Don’t take too long.”
Julie shut the door and then leaned against it. “Okay, Lord. I know I have to get used to this. We’re partners now. But why doesn’t he say anything? Is he always like this? Getting upset and all? If I did something wrong, I need to know. Just give me wisdom, Lord. Please.”
Julie was relieved that no one was in the kitchen when she left the bathroom. She stopped to admire the shelf of bettas. Most of them were in quart canning jars. “Oh, a double tail. Quite a few of you fellows, actually. You’re so pretty. I never see you guys in the stores.”
“I can get more for them through the mail,” Ken said quietly. “Are you ready to go home?”
“Yeah, sure. I’d hoped to have a guided tour of your aquaria, but….”
“Maybe some other time,” he said, cutting her off. He handed her the coat he’d helped her remove earlier.
“Of course.” Julie put on her coat, but knew he was still upset.
“I’m taking Julie home,” Ken said to his family, and then he escorted her outside before any goodbye’s or nice-to-have-met-you’s could be exchanged.
She expected him to tell her what was wrong, but after three miles of silence she could wait no longer. “What did I do wrong? Whatever it is, I’m sorry.”
“I’m assuming I’m going in the right direction. Where do you live?”
“Ken! I can’t not repeat it if I don’t know why you’re upset. You’ve got to talk to me.”
“I am. What’s the address?”
Julie faced the window as she gave him directions. Then she gave up. It seemed she couldn’t do anything right lately. Maybe her mother was right, and she was too stupid to know who would be a good partner.
Ken pulled into her driveway and stopped. “Julie.”
She didn’t respond, because her emotions would betray her. Yet she didn’t run to the house because she didn’t want to leave him like this.
Julie felt his hands on her shoulders, turning her. She was facing him; then he pulled her close. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to upset you. You didn’t do anything wrong. If you… if Evan… well, that’s your business, I guess.” His arms tightened around her. “Julie, I don’t know if I can do this,” he said hoarsely, pushing away from her.
He shook his head and wouldn’t face her. “Please go. It’s better this way. I’ll call the bank tomorrow to cancel the sale.”
Too hurt to respond, Julie fled from the car, not even sure what had caused him to find her so hard to work with.
Go to Chapter 12
© 2013, 1997 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.