The Never Series Pt. 02

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This is Part Two of a four-part story.

The drive sucked. It always sucked, but that late Friday afternoon and evening it was worse than usual. He made sure to grab a sandwich before he left the pub at about 4:00, so he wouldn’t have to stop later, and he ate it during the mostly uninterrupted stretch of the 101 through San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. He started hitting rush hour traffic just west of Santa Barbara, which wasn’t all that unusual, but it held steady from there all through Montecito, Carpinteria, Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, Calabasas, and into the Valley. Even though it was nearly 7:30 when he crossed the 405, there was still bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 101.

He continued crawling on for another four or five miles until he reached his exit at Coldwater Canyon Avenue and turned south. Once the road said goodbye to several miles of strip malls, small office buildings, car dealerships, and fast food restaurants, it wove a twisting trail through the Santa Monica Mountains, briefly ran concurrently with Mullholland, until it reached the northernmost part of Beverly Hills and Coldwater Canyon Drive.

When he found her street, it was only a few minutes before sunset. From there, it didn’t take him long to find the mansion, a sprawling, white, two-story Mediterranean, that sat high up on the side of the canyon wall. He put his Accord into first gear as he entered a long, winding drive. The road climbed for another 50 feet or so then leveled out before he arrived at the visitor’s gate. Caroline had given him the code, but while he was entering it into the keypad, he heard her pleasant voice on the intercom, “Welcome, Chris! I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding the place.”

“Hello, Caroline! No, no trouble finding it, just a lot of traffic getting here.” He tried to sound as pleasant as she had, despite his palpable annoyance about being in L.A. after more than four hours of driving.

“Some things never change!” she said cheerily before continuing. “You can park right out front. I’ll meet you at the front door.” The gate opened, and he continued on up the driveway which followed a steep grade through thick foliage for perhaps 300 feet until it leveled out and the house came into view. There was another driveway that curved off to a two-car garage that was tucked into a second house on the property. He stayed on the road until he reached the circle drive in front of the main house. He knew he was entering another world, but the house and grounds were even more impressive than he’d expected.

He gathered his things — an overnight bag containing two changes of clothes and a computer satchel that held his laptop, an external hard drive, and several hard copies of stories he wanted Caroline to read. He got out of his car and climbed one of two sets of stairs to the main level and the front entrance which was situated on a symmetrical front porch landing enclosed by impressive iron railings that led to a set of classic double doors framed by matching sidelights.

Just as he reached the landing, Caroline opened one of the doors. He was stunned. She looked half her age, and he barely recognized her. For one thing, she was much slimmer and more toned and athletic-looking than the pictures he’d seen of her on her web and Facebook pages. Still, it was her stylish and revealing evening dress that really caught his attention. It was long and shimmering, a silver-gray Vera Wang front-slit chiffon that dipped nearly to the floor until it came to rest just above a pair of Jimmy Choo Lang glitter sandals with six inch heels.

The bottom half of the dress was tightly cinched around her reedy waist and legs, but he could see that the slit opened to the tops of her thighs. The top was sleeveless, low-cut, and exposed more cleavage than he remembered her having. She wore several metal, designer necklaces of varying lengths, one of which disappeared between her breasts. She was also wearing a pair of matching earrings and several bracelets. This was not the same woman he knew from college — apparently, the Mt. Pleasant Mall had given way to Rodeo Drive. “Oh, Chris”, she said with great sentimentality.

He thought he had dressed up. He was wearing dark jeans, a dress shirt, and a sports jacket. Now, he doubted himself. “Jesus, Caroline! I think I’m a little ill-prepared,” he joked as he approached. “If I had known I was invited to a gala, I would have dressed for the occasion!” He spoke sarcastically, so she would know that he was teasing, but then added, “Seriously, you look amazing!” Before she could respond, he leaned in and kissed her politely on the cheek.

She smiled warmly, emotionally, but didn’t say anything, even as she hugged him with great affection, wrapping both arms tightly around him and holding him closely. She held the embrace, and when she continued holding him for what seemed an uncomfortably protracted length of time, he returned the affection, wrapping his free arm around her back and in the process feeling the warm skin exposed by her canlı bahis backless dress.

Finally, she spoke. “I’m sorry, Chris, I just got back from this lavish, bullshit reception that my publisher threw. It went longer than I expected, so I haven’t had a chance to change.” Then, she broke the embrace, but held him with both hands by the shoulders as she stared at him smiling, trying to absorb a visage obscured by nearly 30 years and hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. “You look wonderful yourself! You are a very, very handsome man, Chris! I love your beard, and you’re in such good shape! I always thought you were quite handsome, but I have to say, you’ve aged better than I could ever have imagined.”

He smiled, and then responded as facetiously as possible, “Apparently, it’s important to know how to bullshit at those ‘lavish, bullshit receptions,’ huh?”

She unleased a girlish giggle, and then stepped backward releasing her hold on him. “I’m not bullshitting! You look great! You really do, and it’s so good to see you after all this time. I’m really glad you’re here. Now, come in and make yourself at home, while I go change.”

“This place is amazing”, he said looking around with awe, as he stepped into a foyer that opened onto a huge, open-concept great room. The room and adjoining antechamber looked like a museum, featuring an abundance of what was obviously original, framed artwork that added splashes of color to the otherwise starkly white walls. The room’s hardwood floors were covered in two antique, Persian rugs scattered between a white fireplace and mantle, a Grand piano and stool, several floor lamps, as well as a dozen or so pieces of antique, Edwardian furniture — cabinets, accent chairs, end tables, a coffee table, house desk, love seat, sofa, and chaise lounge.

The great room opened onto a study that contained several large bookshelves, more Edwardian furniture, including a massive desk, and then led to a small, outdoor patio. Around another short wall, the great room led to an extravagant kitchen and dining area that contained an odd mix of modernist flourishes along with a small, Edwardian dining set around which sat an assortment of both modern and antique chairs. The entire main floor surrounded a marble stairwell that seemingly led to both the upstairs bedrooms and what must have been an exposed lower story. Beyond two separate patio doors in the back corners of the great room was a deck that overlooked the main outdoor area, a large flagstone patio surrounded by lush foliage.

The entire patio was custom-built in stone, and it sported myriad potted plants, an outdoor fireplace and barbeque, in-ground pool and hot tub, fountain, and enough patio furniture to accommodate dozens of guests. At the other end of the patio sat a two-story guesthouse with two outdoor eating areas. The entire patio was surrounded on three sides by a 20-foot, ivy-covered wall that separated it from the wild canyon above the property. The attached garage occupied one half of the lower story of the guesthouse.

The patio led to a number of flagstone walkways that directed visitors to gardens that occupied part of the three-acre property and afforded stunning views of the sunset, as well as a half dozen other beautiful homes in the neighborhood that didn’t offer such striking vistas since they sat at lower elevations on the canyon wall.

“Caroline”, he said abruptly. He was about to enter the great room into which she was leading him before he was overcome by the view. From his vantage point behind her, he couldn’t help but appreciate her unbelievable body and impressively revealing outfit. It was as if he had died and gone to heaven, and he wanted to freeze the moment. In that instant, he didn’t want a single thing to change.

She was about to head upstairs to what he assumed was her bedroom, but he stopped her, “If you don’t mind, and it’s not terribly uncomfortable for you, I’d love it if you didn’t change. I don’t get to see women in evening gowns very often. It’s kind of a treat for me, and that one’s especially spectacular. My god, you look like you’re about 35! How do you stay in such amazing shape?” He pulled his satchel from his shoulder, and along with his overnight bag, he set them both on top of the house desk that commanded the entrance to that side of the room.

She stopped and turned to him blushing and replied, “Aw, Chris, that’s so nice of you to say! You really know how to charm a girl. All right, I guess I don’t have to change. If you’re going to shower me with compliments, I’m certainly not going to stop you!” She paused momentarily as if a thought had come to her mind, and she took several steps toward an ornate cabinet to the right of the Grand piano. “Would you care for a glass of wine, Chris?” She gestured for him to sit down on the sofa, and he took a seat at the far end.

“Sure, that sounds nice!” he answered. Caroline opened the top panel of the cabinet and pulled the bottom tray forward. It held a wine rack that contained a dozen bottles, decanter, foil cutter, bahis siteleri and a corkscrew. She selected a bottle of red. Though he fancied himself as someone knowledgeable about wines, he didn’t recognize the label.

She deftly cut the foil around the top of the bottle, and quickly removed the cork, then replaced it in the neck. She slid the bottom tray back into its place, pulled the top tray out, selecting two wine glasses out of the dozen or so that hung from the glass rack, and then slid the tray back in, closed the cabinet door, and returned to the sofa, placing the two glasses and corked bottle on the coffee table within arms’ reach. She sat down.

She poured a small amount of the wine into a glass and handed it to him. He nodded his thanks. Then, she offered her own glass a similarly modest pour and took a small drink, savoring the flavor. Apparently satisfied with its quality, she poured some more of the wine in both of their glasses, then leaned back to relax before continuing.

“As for staying in shape, well — I have to be honest — it’s only been in the last six months or so that I started taking care of myself. I know it sounds oh-so cliché, especially here in L.A., but I started doing Pilates! I have a personal trainer who comes over to work with me right here in the house. And I have to say, I’ve been completely overwhelmed. I thought it was another one of those silly, Hollywood fads that come and go as fast as movie releases, but I can’t deny how much it’s helped me. My balance, strength, flexibility, even my concentration has improved. And then there’s the superficial stuff. I’ve lost a great deal of weight and about 4 dress sizes. Even three months ago, I could never have pulled this off.” She gestured downward to her dress.

Taking a larger sip from her glass, she crossed her legs, and the shimmering, chiffon leaves of her split skirt fell open like butterfly wings to reveal her slender legs. He couldn’t take his eyes off them. They were simply spectacular — toned, tanned, with nary a hint of fat, and the reality of it all struck him like a runaway train.

Caroline Seale or Caroline Cole — whatever her name was now — was 51 years old, a year older than he was. He couldn’t remember a single woman he’d ever personally known that looked as good as she did at that age. She seemed so different from the young woman he’d known three decades earlier.

But beyond all that, now he was alone with this woman in her multi-million dollar mansion, and he suddenly felt like he didn’t measure up. “Well, you’re certainly pulling it off now!” he responded with a smile. He was so excited that he felt like a little schoolboy. He took a large sip of the wine to steady his nerves.

She stared at him and a wry smile crossed her face as she slid a foot closer. “Just keep those compliments coming, Chris! Play your cards right, and you’ll be the one pulling it off!” She giggled provocatively. He could only grin awkwardly, uncomfortably.

Stunned by her brazen humor, he was so taken aback by the forwardness of the joke that he couldn’t think of a solitary thing to say in response. For a brief moment, silence enveloped the room, and a single night decades earlier seemed to hang like a pall over them. Thankfully, Caroline next words broke the haze that blanketed them, like rays of sunlight piercing through rainclouds.

“So, I hope you brought some of your writing for me to take a look at.”

He was surprised and more than a little grateful for the sudden shift in the conversation, and he smiled excitedly. “I did. I brought a couple of things I’d love to have you read. The first is a novella, I suppose. It’s about 90 pages long, and the second is a short story.” He set his glass down on the coffee table, got up from the sofa, found his satchel on the desk, unzipped a compartment and pulled the manuscripts of two different stories from his bag. With childish enthusiasm, he brought them back and set them both on the coffee table, deciding that he would let Caroline choose when to peruse them. The title of the larger manuscript was clearly visible. It read “The Awful Grace of God.”

“If you don’t mind, Chris, I think I’ll wait until tomorrow to take a look at those. Let’s just visit for now. Is that okay?”

“Sure”, he nodded his head, smiling. He was a little disappointed that she hadn’t even looked at either story, but he understood. They hadn’t seen each other in many, many years, and it only made sense to get reacquainted first. Still, in the back of his mind he began to wonder whether Caroline was just being polite when she told him she would read his stories. Perhaps she wasn’t as interested as he’d previously thought.

So, he was both surprised and reassured when the next thing out of her mouth was a question about his work, “What’s your genre?”

“Mostly, I write short stories. Some are long enough that I suppose they qualify as novellas, like that one”, he nodded toward the manuscript on the coffee table. He found his glass and took another small sip of the bahis şirketleri wine. It was a pinot noir, and he was amazed at its complexity. He was certain that it was the best wine he’d ever had.

“Yeah, but who’s the audience — New Adult, Young Adult, Neo-Romanticism, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Western, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, or, god forbid, even straight-up Romance?” He was encouraged; Caroline seemed genuinely interested in discussing his work.

Still, it was a difficult question to answer, and so a sheepish look swept his face as he stared at her. “Well, maybe that’s part of my problem. I’m not sure I know the audience. I don’t really like categorizations and, I have to confess, I don’t really write for anyone in particular. I suppose the closest of those you named is probably Neo-Romanticism, but….” He paused, and as he did, he averted his gaze.

An especially exceptional painting on the wall behind the sofa caught his attention. It was a nude that reminded him of some of Matisse’s early work. The sight of the buxom female figure in the painting had the effect of diminishing, or, at least, diffusing his embarrassment. “…well, I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but there are strong elements of erotica in most of what I write. I’m not into anything particularly weird… but I don’t know — sex, love, relationships… they all play a pretty big part in the lives of the characters I’ve created. Bottom line, I’m just trying to tell good stories about characters whose backgrounds and motivations I’ve developed as fully as I know how. Still, there’s no denying it, the erotic element is a pretty central to what I’m trying to accomplish.”

“You seem a little hesitant, maybe even embarrassed to say that, Chris. Why? Not that I’m all that proud of it, but telling stories of love and romance is what bought everything you see here. There’s no reason for you to shy away from those themes. Quite a bit of contemporary fiction is at least somewhat focused on all of that, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yeah, but, I guess, all of the writers I’ve always admired managed to present that subject in such oblique and abstruse ways that they can get away with the salacious stuff without alienating mainstream readers. I’m probably a little too graphic in my approach, and perhaps that makes my work unacceptable for a wider audience. I don’t really know. That’s why I want your opinion.” He paused.

“On the other hand, if my writing isn’t suitable for a commercial audience, I don’t really care. It’s not that I don’t think that I need to improve — god knows, I do — but I’m not really interested in catering my style or content to fit someone’s expectations of what’s appropriate or what will sell. I realize that makes me sound incredibly arrogant and stubborn, and I don’t want to be that way. It’s just that I’m kind of happy writing for an audience of one, and if that’s the only audience I ever have, so be it. I’m just curious whether or not you think that anybody would consider reading me, and if so, whether I have any chance in this world to be published.”

“Now you’ve got me intrigued! I can’t wait to read these!” She exclaimed excitedly, nodding toward the manuscripts on the coffee table. Then, just as suddenly, her brow narrowed, and a serious, almost professorial look crossed her face. “Look, Chris, writers who don’t believe in themselves and their ability can never convince anyone else of their talent. You’re not arrogant for wanting to hold fast to your own vision, and the more adamant you are about sticking to that vision, the more likely you are to be able to accomplish exactly what you want. Of course, writers like that have to have immense talent.” She smiled and took another drink. He followed suit.

“Then, there are writers like me. I don’t have immense talent. Oh, I know how to construct sentences, and maybe I have a little bit of a knack for writing dialogue. Of course, after four dozen novels, I do understand all of the rules of story arcs and pacing, but, let’s face it, Chris, I’m a hack. I do this for the money. There is nothing satisfying about churning out ridiculous tales of impossible love between characters that have no basis whatsoever in reality, characters whose lives are set in days of yore that no one really knows and understands anymore anyway. And, by the way, that’s on purpose!”

She took another small sip, and he thought her face momentarily exuded palpable enjoyment at the flavor and character of the wine. Without a doubt, he thought to himself, it was excellent, far bolder and heartier than any pinot noir he’d ever had.

“Oh, I research the time periods in which I set all my stories to try to lend some semblance of realism to them, but the reason that they all occur in England during Elizabethan or Victorian times is quite intentional. None of my readers know a damn thing about either one of those periods. How could anyone really think that anything about Victorian England was romantic? Haven’t any of them ever read Dickens? In fact, my readers don’t know a damn thing about much of anything. All they want is to escape, and escaping to a time they consider romantic or fanciful is how they cope with the pathetic sameness and tragic tediousness of the lives they live.”

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