These five words – well, six if a contraction counted as two – kept ricocheting in Severin's mind all evening, most of the night and throughout the next day, along with a teeming crowd of questions. Mandy had been the one to initiate what had transpired between them, and despite her need for space she was not regretting one second. Why wouldn't she? Why had she started it in the first place? Why had she kissed him, and why had she jumped him as greedily as she had? She had never displayed a flicker of attraction in their university days, and the way he looked now could not exactly have been conducive to eliciting such an attraction. And yet she had positively devoured him, something that could not possibly have been born from pity. Only pure, white-hot desire could induce such fervor.
Desire. For him? The notion seemed ludicrous. Who would want him the way he was now? And what about his half of the equation? Yesterday Severin had not been able to get enough of Mandy, a woman he had always admired but would never even have considered dating. And now? She was a little – no, a tall – wildfire and had bloomed into a, if not beautiful, certainly striking woman whom he missed more by the second. Had it been a one-time thing yesterday? Or had it been the beginning of something more? Something that had felt as real as nothing had in years.
This solitude and silence were killing Severin. He needed to see Mandy, it was as simple as that. Only she would be able to give him the answers he was craving the answers to like he usually craved sugar. Instantly he pushed away the chair from his desk and swiveled around to grab his cell phone off the windowsill.
'May I take you to dinner tonight?' he texted her after several futile attempts at something witty. He did not realize how tense he was and how shallow his breathing had become until his phone chimed. No more than two minutes could have passed, yet it felt to Severin as if he had been holding his breath underwater for said amount of time.
'Would Indian be OK? We haven't fought there yet.'
Despite the renewed guilt Severin felt at this reminder her reply made him smile. So much about Mandy made him smile, and he wanted more of that. He wanted her smiles, her joy and her zest for the unusual. Hastily he typed back:
'Indian it is. Pick you up at 7?'
Whereas Mandy had been in Severin's home several times now, this was the first time that Severin would see hers, he realized for the dozenth time that night. Finding a parking space along the narrow street was indeed a challenge as Mandy had warned him in her latest text, in particular with a big vehicle, but luckily a lady was pulling out of her space as Severin circled the block a second time in the thankfully abating drizzle. He hurried beneath the tiny drops through a wide gateway leading the way to an interior yard and up to a front door with simple plastic nameplates. With suddenly trembling fingers Severin pressed ‘Huhn’, and a moment later the buzzer sounded without any inquiry over the intercom.
The thought of Mandy expecting him sufficed to accelerate his heartbeat, and it was with moist palms that Severin pushed open the door. 'Up to the third floor, then through the glass door on your left,' it had said in Mandy's text, and with no elevator in sight Severin had no choice but to climb the stairs tiled in an old-fashioned black-and-white pattern. No wonder Mandy was in such good shape if she climbed these steps every day.
Soon his reflections were drowned out by the sound of his wheezing, and he had to stop to catch his breath before he had reached the third floor. Just pathetic, he thought bitterly. Mandy would think twice about starting over when she saw him huffing and puffing like that. Then again, she had told him twice that she did not mind his weight gain. For whatever reason she didn't Severin still could not comprehend, but he knew one thing for a fact: Mandy was not a liar. Heartened by the thought, Severin treated himself to a deep, invigorating breath before tackling the remaining stairs. Just before he pulled open the glass door, he resolved not to waste another minute with these useless self-doubts. Mandy and he had a date!
The glass door gave way to a row of uniform wooden doors on the left and a long balcony on the right that overlooked the small yard.
Mandy had appeared in the second doorway and was looking so breathtaking that Severin could not for the life of him figure out how he could have thought she was 'still no beauty' after she had left his office. Her hair had a bit of a wave to it today and she was wearing a simply cut burgundy dress which ended mid-thigh, providing generous visible access to these long, long legs encased in black low-heeled boots. A simple necklace with a silver disc adorned her neck, and she had applied a little dark eye makeup. She was beautiful, smart and possessed the biggest heart one could imagine on a woman of her spare frame – a heart which might even expand so much as to accommodate a man like him. He was the luckiest man to have her by his side.
"Hey,” Severin returned her timid smile and took a step closer to hug her hello. Despite yesterday's intimacy he did not feel quite ready to kiss her, and he sensed that Mandy shared the feeling. As always, her slim proportions complemented his large ones perfectly, and Severin held her close for longer than befitted a hug because he knew his touch was welcome. Indeed Mandy kept holding on as well and made no move to break contact. As usual, she was not wearing any perfume, so Severin was treated to her unique scent that signaled to him that he was safe with her. In fact, he could almost believe there was a chance for them at a future together. At last he loosened his hold on her and withdrew gently.
"You look beautiful."
Her gaze dropped to her booted feet and her left hand tucked a stray lock behind her ear before she lifted her head again, taking in Severin's dress shoes, best jeans and favorite – because slimming – navy shirt. "You're looking very handsome as well."
Severin chose to leave her compliment uncommented except for a "Thank you", as his appearance was something he intended to talk with her about at some point, as much as his stomach contracted at the mere thought.
"Would you like to come in for a moment?" Mandy offered, "you've never been at my place before."
"I was just thinking the same thing when I parked. I'd love to see it, and we have some time to spare."
"Because you're always early," she grinned up at him and stepped back to let him enter.
"Exactly," Severin returned her smile and closed the door behind himself.
"Would you like something to drink?" Mandy offered, turning to a door on the left.
"Not right now, thank you." His true thirst would only be quenched by learning more about her.
"OK. Well, welcome to my kitchen then. Please notice: the number of square feet of this room correlates to the rank its purpose occupies in my list of favorite activities."
"You did mention your cooking skills," Severin commented with a straight face, taking in the small square room with its neat countertops and the tiny wooden table with two chairs. There was no way Severin would be able to maneuver properly in this so-called kitchen, let alone produce a decent meal.
"There should always be quotation marks around 'cooking skills' when you're talking about me," Mandy remarked dryly and Severin followed her down a short hallway. They entered a larger room, her office. Severin took in the orderly desktop, tidy pin board and the neatly lined up binders in her bookcase with appreciation before something else caught his eye. He stepped closer to study the colorful wall around the pin board.
Askhole: a person who constantly asks for your advice but always does the opposite of what you tell them.
"Oh my goodness, that is hilarious!" Severin laughed. This was so her.
"This is one of my favorites, too. Or look at this one." Mandy pointed to a different spot:
Spider web: a thing you walk into which suddenly turns you into a karate master
"Oh his gosh, I'd love to have a wall like this!" Severin chuckled. "Then again, my clients would have a hard time taking me seriously, and I would probably get no work done at all because I would read those all the time."
"My gaze keeps straying from the road of labor, too, I have to admit," Mandy grinned, "but it keeps up the motivation."
"Didn't you mention in one of our study sessions that you collect quotes like that for greeting cards?"
Mandy's honest face revealed her astonishment. "I did. Amazing you would remember that."
"You made an impression," Severin merely stated, hoping she would leave it at that. Again he detected that, the more time he spent with her, the more details about her came floating back to him, and the realization both heartened and scared him.
"Where is my QED quote then?" he added in a teasing tone lest she reply to his comment after all. But apparently this was no teasing matter to Mandy because her face grew pensive.
"You know," she finally answered, "It would make a fine addition to my collection now."
'Now'. True, she would hardly have been able to stand the sight of it before. Determined to focus on the promising present, however, Severin turned to take in the rest of the room.
"You sleep in your office?" he blurted when he set eyes on a twin-size bed.
"Well, I have nowhere else to put the bed," Mandy shrugged, "there is only one room left."
She led the way to a living room with a comfortable-looking smooth brown couch, a flat-screen TV and some colorful prints. No stuffed animals or other girly knickknacks, but then again Severin had not expected to find any of that here. Nicole had never developed a preference for those either, one of the few similarities between the two women.
"I like your place. It is very neat and it reflects you as a person."
Colorful, cheery and inviting to lower your guard and be yourself, he added silently and was rewarded by another illuminating smile.
How beautiful she looked. She was his date for tonight, and hopefully for more nights.
"Uh, could I use your bathroom before we head out?" Severin asked her, a little embarrassed at his own request, but since no one had yet invented a socially acceptable answering machine for nature's call, he had no choice but to answer it the conventional way.
"Sure. It's the only door in the hallway."
Mandy's bathroom was as neat as the remainder of her apartment although the fact that it did not have a window created a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere. Well, for a big man like him at least. While Severin rinsed his hands, he took in the few sensitive-skin hygiene products in the tub and on the shelf below the mirror. Nicole had always had a parade of beauty items of the most exclusive brands at her disposal, whereas Mandy contented herself with the barest necessities. Quickly Severin finished up and joined her in the entry. Meanwhile she had availed herself of her coat and a simple black purse.
Once they exited the building – the rain had stopped – and crossed the yard, Severin became acutely aware of their two hands so close to each other. Feeling like the nervous teenager he never was – prior to his accident all of that had come natural to him – he fumbled around in the small space between them until his fingers connected with hers. Holding his breath for her reaction, he enveloped her hand in his. Was she OK with being seen in public with a man as large as him? He had never had to worry about physical acceptance from a woman before and did not care for the novel sensation. On the other hand there would have been no future for them in his pre-accident life. Only because they had both changed could they be a fit now.
It seemed, however, his worries were all for nothing. Not only did Mandy not wiggle out of his grasp, but she lifted her astonished face to his for a few seconds, offering a wide, joyous smile before she stared straight ahead again. It required all of Severin's willpower to keep on walking. Although it made no sense that he should be the one to elicit such joy from her, he was. Could this be the beginning of something that Severin had never experienced with anyone?
I am on a date with Severin.
I am on a datewith Severin.
I am on a date with Severin.
I am on a date with Severin.
All throughout the short walk to Severin's SUV, Mandy's brain could not seem to stop chanting the obvious, gleefully putting varying emphasis on the words. Did she dare let herself believe that this was not a dream? Once in the car Severin turned to her, affording her just sufficient time to glimpse a deep solemnity in his beautiful hazel eyes before the light dimmed and they were sitting in semi-darkness.
"Mandy? Before we leave, please let me say something."
"OK," she replied softly.
"I'm really sorry about what I said about you to Jordan. He was teasing me about having met my match in you and I… I guess I wanted to shut him up and downplay our relationship. Please believe me I was not using you. I was just too much of a coward to own up to the fact that I'd become… fond of you. I wasn't into you at that time but… I always liked spending time with you. I'm really, really sorry for how I treated you. I've been meaning to tell you before but… well… there always seemed to be something new to apologize for first."
Despite his humorous phrasing, Mandy momentarily forgot the concept of breathing, let alone how to perform the act. Severin had not used her. Mandy's eyes closed with a will of their own and she heaved a deep, cleansing sigh. It felt as if some tainting mark was being washed off her and she was finally standing in front of Severin as a whole, clean, worthy person.
"Thank you. I… I needed to hear that," she finally told him, opening her eyes again.
"I can imagine you did."
Severin's remarkable hazel eyes, their color hardly distinguishable in the dark interior of the car, did not leave hers. Silence reigned. Mandy was still too stunned into inertia by Severin's heartfelt apology to piece together a coherent utterance, and at last he turned back towards the steering wheel, started the ignition and pulled away from the curb.
"You know, I still haven't figured out what's happening here," Mandy addressed the awkward issue of yesterday's events. From the corner of her eye she caught Severin's astonished glance at her head-on approach, but she could tell by his deep inhale that he felt grateful for it.
"Neither have I. I... I just knew that I had to see you."
"And I'm so glad you texted."
Silence fell again after their mutual admissions.
"I am still overwhelmed that... all of this happened at all, and so fast," Severin finally began. "I mean when you looked at me like that all of a sudden... well, I knew you wanted me, but it came out of nowhere. I mean, you never let anything on at university. Were you ever attracted to me?"
Again Mandy saw him glance at her and felt grateful he needed to keep his eyes on the road. This was the most intimate conversation Mandy had ever had with a man.
Severin's head snapped around to hers before he hastily transferred his eyes back to the wet road again. Clearly he had expected different, but how was she to explain she had only thought him good-looking in the conventional sense, a sense that did nothing for her? She saw a slight frown bloom Severin's forehead as he contemplated her answer. It was all
"Huh," was his only comment after several seconds of intense reflection.
"Is your university ego debating whether it should be hurt in retrospect?"
"You really enjoy doing that, don't you?"
Despite his wrinkled forehead Mandy could tell he was amused, and she was relieved to feel the tension lift to a certain extent.
"Immensely," she announced with a wide grin, and it warmed her heart so hear him chuckle. Then she sobered as she reconsidered his question. "I guess I was... attracted to who you could be, and it made me furious that you stayed below your possibilities."
"Spoken like a true teacher. Maybe you should rethink your career decision," Severin smiled back, but this smile held a wealth of bitterness.
"I'm sorry if I'm sounding judgmental again. I meant it as... well, sort of a compliment. I... I always thought that you could be an amazing person," Mandy finished softly, suddenly afraid to meet his eyes.
"And I always thought you already were one," he answered softly after a while, causing her to look at him at last. His eyes, so briefly on hers, seemed to hold the sadness of the world. "I might not have wanted to date you, but I always admired who you were. Are. And then when I screwed up..." he shook his head and Mandy felt a renewed stab at her heart at the painful memory. "You were the last person to deserve that. It felt like you had written me off. I felt your good opinion once lost was lost forever."
As emotional as the topic was, these familiar words would have caused any book worm to veer off track. "Don't tell me you have read 'Pride and Prejudice'."
"Of course not. I haven't turned into a complete geek," Severin scoffed, but at least he no longer looked weighed down by sorrow.
"Oh, you know how I mean it."
"I do," she smiled at him, signaling that she was not in the least offended.
"Nicky made me watch the movie with her, and for some reason the quote stuck," he explained.
"You know, I thought I had written you off," Mandy admitted softly after a moment. "But then when Herb mentioned your name, I realized how much you'd been lingering beneath the surface."
"The same happened to me in my office when you revealed who you were."
"Then you can imagine how much that feeling caught me off guard!" Mandy exclaimed. "I mean, we hardly knew each other. We only spent a few hours together for eight weeks or so, and even then we hardly got to know one another. It seemed all we ever did was study and fight."
"I know! But it was as if..." he added more softly, "as if you'd claimed a little space in my life."
"This is how I felt, too, and I didn't want it be that way! I didn't want to be looking forward to meeting you, or even fighting with you. I didn't want any of that because you can guess how I've been at the receiving end of good-looking, shallow people's scorn, and initially I lumped you with all of them. But as I got to know you a little... I guess I expected more from you," Mandy finished her heretofore passionate tirade gently.
"You always expected more from me."
A movement at her fingertips drew her attention downwards, and she saw that Severin had reached out for her hand. Instantly she responded and found her hand gently enveloped in his warm, soft, glove-like one. All of a sudden Mandy had trouble breathing, and she let him finish the rest of the short car trip in silence. By the time they arrived at the restaurant, Mandy felt much calmer, and when they disembarked from the car, she turned to Severin who was eyeing her with apprehension.
"All I'm expecting at this moment," she resumed their last topic, "is to finally get to know you. And a good dinner of course," she added with a grin.
It warmed her heart to see his smile, and she dared to reach for his right hand. His gaze dropped to their joined fingers, and his smile widened even more, his eyes shining with... dare she name it hope?
"Come on then, you skinny thing, let's get you fed."
Severin enjoyed singing.
He liked children.
He had not spoken to his family in four years.
Although Mandy knew that Severin was not ready to elaborate on item no. three, the mere fact that he was willing to answer her increasingly personal questions in their unusual-question game told her how much he was opening up. However Mandy longed for more elaboration, for now she contented herself with storing and treasuring these unelaborated-on facts like the most precious gems. They only constituted a few of the many things that made him Severin. She hungered for more and wished for him to want her just as much. Just like she was slowly getting to know the new him, he would find that she had changed as well. And just as she was thinking those words, Mandy realized that there was something she had to tell him.
"Severin?" she began softly. "I owe you an apology, too. You once accused me of seeing you as… I think your words were 'shallow, narcissistic monster', or something to that effect, and you were right. I truly apologize for being such a judgmental snob," Mandy finished. She might have felt herself eternally wronged by the beautiful people in this world, but in truth the old Severin had never done anything to deserve such scorn from her. Well, until the ugly scene in the cafeteria, but that was all water under the bridge now.
"While I accept that long-overdue apology – ow!" Apparently her fist did not agree to the water-under-the-bridge bit. "You might want to add an apology for physical violence," Severin added with a grimace, rubbing the offended spot on his forearm.
"Not in your lifetime."
"That's what I thought… Anyway, you were right about several things."
"In case you're ever wondering in the future, I am right most of the time."
"Brat," Severin shook his head, raising his eyes to the ceiling as if in prayer. Then he seemed to process something, and his eyes settled back on hers in intense solemnity: "'In the future'? Do we... do we have a future then?"
Mandy's heart contracted at the insecure, hopeful look in his beautiful eyes. "I would like that very much," she nodded softly.
His hands right hand reached out across the tablecloth, and Mandy met him halfway. Severin looked at Mandy's and his hand joined on the table. Did he realize how right they looked and felt together?
"You know," he began, "while we're exchanging apologies, I owe you another one: I'm sorry I took you for granted at university. I had no idea what it was like to feel..."
"Second-rate?" Mandy provided softly when she saw him grope around for a suitable term.
"Only if you let them," Mandy shook her head in determination. "I have struggled with that feeling for years, but towards the end of school I learned that only a few people's opinions truly matter."
Severin seemed to ponder that for a moment. Clearly Severin had yet to master the lesson, but she felt he had every reason to believe that he would catch up.
"So... where do we go from here?" Severin finally broke the silence.
"Is that code for 'your place or my place'?" Mandy grinned. Instantly she bit her lip when she saw his smile crumble. “Uh, I didn't mean--”
“I know,” Severin put in hastily. After several deep breaths he spoke again. “Will you come to my place with me?"
Chapter 17: We have all the time in the world (part 1)
"I can't believe I'm not carrying an aluminum container for once," Mandy teased Severin as they closed the car doors behind them. Although he had felt a little disappointed initially that Mandy had declined dessert, it was the smart thing to do. Perhaps now that they stood a chance at a future together, he would finally muster the self-discipline to give up his unhealthy eating habits. Their drive home was interspersed with little conversation, and Severin felt the tension grow until he felt sure someone could have lit a match between them and blown up his car. Finally he pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine.
"Severin?" Mandy addressed him softly. "Let's go for a walk."
"You seem tense. Let's go for a walk; we have all the time in the world."
Instantly Severin felt the balloon of fear deflate that had been swelling ever since Mandy had uttered the words 'your place or mine'. A walk would be just the thing to soothe his nerves, he realized, and silently thanked Mandy for sensing his fear and acting on it. "Good idea," he answered simply.
"Would you like to change into some more comfortable, knee-friendly shoes?" she suggested, causing another wave of guilt to rise in him. How much of a prick had he been to not even remember her real name while there was not a thing about him that escaped her? How could he possibly deserve her? Then again, she had told him that she would like 'very much' for them to have a future, and who was he to argue with the smartest person he knew?
"That would be best." His sturdy, comfortable and yet stylish half-boots with the insoles were best for his knee. "But what about you?"
"I am literally good to go; I could walk in those boots for hours.”
When Severin let them both in half an hour later, the walk had helped smooth his frayed nerves, and he could almost believe that this night was holding no expectations that he could not fulfill.
"Would you like something to drink?" he asked Mandy when they entered his apartment on socked feet.
"Water would be nice.”
"Coming right up. Just make yourself comfortable."
"I'd love to, but before I do, would you treat me to a tour of your house?”
She was already familiar with the first floor except for the small kitchen and work space for Christina. The basement offered several nice rooms as well but was almost completely empty and therefore negligible. Buying this house had just been an investment for Severin, but if he played his cards right, it might see more life from now on.
When he returned with their water, Mandy was standing by the large window, looking out into his medium-sized back yard, and his heart twisted in painful bliss at this image: Mandy in his home, willing and relaxed. The exact opposite to how Severin was feeling, which was why their glasses trembled in his hands when he crossed over to Mandy to hand her one. How could she look so calm when he was so tense that one could have used him for a bow and won the gold Olympic medal?
"Ready?" Severin finally asked her when both had drained their glasses.
Severin opened the door to his bedroom, even more anxious now that he remembered her initial reaction to the room. 'Not in here,' she had said. Why not? Indeed Mandy's attitude had not changed to favorable. The kindest term for her expression with which she surveyed the space as she turned on the spot would be 'neutral', but Severin could tell she was feeling uncomfortable.
"I just remembered how chaotic your backpack always was when we were students," she finally turned to him with a slight smile. "And I'm impressed to see you've become tidy. You overdid things with your bedroom, though. It could use some pictures, for instance," she added before Severin could comment on her tease.
So that lay at the root of the matter? Now he understood. Naturally a woman with a gift for design would feel the absence of any decoration or spots of color acutely. "Yeah, I know," Severin shrugged in apology, "I am useless when it comes to interior decorating. I could say that I did a better job with the fireplace and the kitchen, but since I bought those from the previous owner, I can't take credit for those either."
Instantly Mandy looked contrite and stepped closer towards him. "Hey, I'm sorry if that came out too harshly. This is your house and I like it. The pictures are just my personal preference."
"It's OK, I know how you meant it."
"And if you hadn't and would have ripped my head off, at least we would have already finished our meal this time," she winked and administered a gentle nudge that only added to his tension.
Next they passed the bathroom. "Well, you're already familiar with the bathroom," Severin told her, only to clamp his lips shut again immediately. Was she thinking of last night, too? Not daring to glance behind him to verify, he led her to the last room and let her enter ahead of him.
"My office. As you can see there's not much in there either," he apologized in advance, wondering how he had never noticed how empty his house was. Mandy entered the room and took in the tidy desk, a big bookcase and a smaller shelf with Severin's personal binders.
"I don't spend a lot of time in here, but I need to keep my personal files separate from the work files," he shrugged.
"That makes sense," Mandy nodded, and Severin felt almost certain she was mentally comparing his bare wall with hers covered in her colored, hilarious quotes. How well their homes reflected them: comfort, colors and a zest for life versus stark white emptiness. Add to that Mandy's minute excuse for a kitchen compared to Severin's gourmand's paradise with its supersize refrigerator and the vast expanse of workspace. At least he could score in that regard; working at a stonemason's company she would appreciate the granite. Indeed Mandy's face lit up at the sight of his kitchen, and she took in the modern appliances and the large fridge with visible appreciation.
"How lucky you were able to purchase this kitchen from the previous owner. It's amazing!"
"I'm glad you like it. Perhaps you'll even enjoy cooking with me here sometime," Severin teased her, only half joking.
"I dare say I might not loathe the process to such an extent as I usually do," she grinned back at him, and for the first time in the last fifteen minutes did Severin breathe easier.
"Would you like me to turn on the fire?" Severin nodded towards his gas fireplace in front of which they had been intimate only one day before. Whether Mandy's blush was born from the same thoughts as his or not, Severin did not know. At any rate she nodded.
"That would be nice."
As it was a modern fireplace which came with a control, it only took a few buttons and knobs to get the fire working, and finally Severin could put the moment off no longer. Despite the fact that he longed to hold Mandy, he had been putting off that moment. All his fears and insecurities were back with a vengeance, and he dreaded the moment she would realize that she would do ten times better than him. Taking a deep, fortifying breath, he willed himself to turn around with composure and found that Mandy's intense gaze had rested on him the entire time.
The minute his eyes connected with hers, Severin thought that he caught a deep... did he dare call it wistfulness? One second later it was replaced by a smile so timid it looked ill-fitting on this confident woman – a woman who was waiting for him to join her on the couch. What die she expect of him? How did she imagine this evening to go on? Willing himself to remain calm, Severin closed the small distance and lowered himself gently next to her on the couch. He was acutely aware of his left arm which he could settle around her shoulders, but he was just so--
"Severin?" Mandy addressed him softly, and he turned in his seat to face her. Longing – there was no mistaking it in her grave eyes. Earlier she had told him that she 'would like very much' for them to have a future, but here he was, unable to even take the first step.
"Will you just hold me, please?"
Severin suppressed a sigh of relief at this manageable request. Wordlessly he settled his arm around Mandy's narrow shoulders and pulled her against him. What a perfect fit, he noticed at once, and what an unfamiliar feeling. Mandy wanted him close to her. Not only had Nicole almost never asked him to hold her, she had even fought him off on the rare occasions when Severin had initiated it. He had been more than fine with that at the time, but he had changed a lot since then. Even though he still had only accepted a minor portion of the changes he had undergone, his thoughts revisited his earlier hypothesis: 'Only because we have both changed we could be a fit now.' Would he turn out to be right?
"You know," Mandy broke through his reflections, "I could make some sappy remark about this romantic fire, but I can't seem to concentrate with all the grinding and ticking of the cogs in that overactive mind of yours."
A chuckle escaped Severin at her choice of words. "I should be terrified at having a mind reader sitting beside me."
"Well, there is an absolutely viable alternative available," Mandy nodded at him with a grin of mischief lighting up her features, "it is called conversation. You might have heard of it before; it has proven to be a very effective means to save time and effort in ascertaining the other party's thoughts and feelings."
Chapter 17: We have all the time in the world (part 2)
"Verbose brat," Severin chuckled and turned a little in order to see her face. Regrettably his arm had to relinquish its position in the process, but he availed himself of her right hand instead. Mandy smiled down at their hands, then back up at Severin's face.
"Like I said," she repeated, "we have all the time in the world. If you'd like to watch TV, we'll watch TV. If you'd like to show me your stamp collection, I will decline as politely as I can muster and we'll find an alternative."
Severin chuckled and felt his heart slow from a sprint into a bearable trot. "I'm sorry, it's just that... this all feels so surreal. From the moment you stepped into my office, everything has spun out of control. I never expected to see you again, let alone to be holding you like this one day. I just wasn't prepared for all this."
Mandy contemplated his answer for several moments. "You know, you always came across as that laid-back dude who didn't need to prepare for anything, but… I may be way off here, but are you actually something like a closeted planner? Someone who needs defined structures?"
It took Severin a moment to reply. She was spot on. "OK, this is downright creepy. Uh, what about you? You always seemed so organized with your laptop, your neat papers and your well-in-advance-planned plans for your life, but… you're actually the spontaneous kind, am I right?"
"You are," Mandy smiled back at him, her eyes never leaving his – eyes that were growing shinier by the second. "You're amazing," she whispered, leaned over and closed the small distance between their lips. Hers felt so infinitely soft. In the heat of the moment only one day before she had not had the chance to appreciate them. And there it was again, that indescribable taste that would always surpass all others. He pulled her close until she was settled on his lap again, but as opposed to the day before, they were taking their time exploring each other. Today they were not sharing lust and hunger but proximity and tenderness.
Their glasses had met mid-kiss, and with an embarrassed chuckle they broke apart.
"Sorry about that." Severin grimaced.
Mandy only giggled. "By the way, I've been meaning to tell you before: I like your glasses. I suppose they're more practical than contacts since you work at the computer so much?"
She slid back into her former seat and settled her legs over his lap so she could see him better.
"Exactly," Severin nodded, disappointed she was no longer pressed up against him and relieved they hadn't gone any further. He began to rub her feet with his warm hands.
"What about you? Do you ever wear contacts?"
"No. I tried them once, but I seem to be one of these people who can't let anything get close to their eyes. I always blink too much."
"If you ever wanted to try again, I could show you. Uh, not that there's anything wrong with your glasses. They suit you very much," he quickly added.
"I might take you up on that," Mandy simply commented, holding his gaze. "You mentioned earlier that you liked to sing. Since when?"
Severin hesitated before he permitted himself to breathe again. It was personal but not too person. "A few years ago. I was cleaning up my apartment because J was coming over. I had some music on and was singing along. When J rang the bell and I opened the door, he had this shit-eating grin on his face. Turned out he'd been early and listening, the sneak. He said I had a good and suggested I take lessons or join a choir. Well, obviously I haven't done either, but I still sing for myself."
Although Severin felt a little embarrassed at having shared so much about himself, Mandy could not seem to tear her gaze away from him. "I would love to hear you sometime. Absolutely no pressure intended. Singing along with the radio will suffice."
"Uh, I don’t sing in front of an audience.”
"I could sing with you if that will help you."
"You can sing?"
"Well, I don't have a strong voice, but I can carry a tune and read music. I played the recorder for a few years," she added with a sheepish smile.
"My parents forced piano lessons on me but after four years I quit," Severin grimaced. "I'm kind of grateful for it, though, because I still remember how to read music, too."
"Good. So, when are we doing our duet? I was kidding!" she added quickly and leaned forward reach out for his hands.
"Someday, OK?" Severin answered after a while. "I promise.”
"Thank you," Mandy smiled back at him and he pulled her onto his lap again, cradling the back of her head, massaging her scalp.
It is incredible how time flies when you talk, cuddle or simply stare at someone special. Severin had no idea what time it was, but all off a sudden Mandy gave off a yawn that sounded too large to fit her skinny frame. He chuckled at her contrite expression.
"Hey, don’t feel bad. It is getting late. "
"Yes, it is."
"I would ask if you'd like to stay but…" Severin's voice trailed off. Mandy bowed her head and bit her lip. "This is all happening so fast and... " Again he did not finish his sentence.
"I agree, don't worry," Mandy relieved him when he kept floundering.
Severin only chuckled helplessly at that, meeting her eyes again. "'Don't worry' – you might as well tell me to create world peace." That made her laugh. “Don't get me wrong, though. I need some time but I… I want this. And I want to see you again as soon as possible."
"As do I," Mandy smiled at their joined hands, then back at up at him. "Uh, I promised my friend Miriam that we'd talk on the phone tomorrow night. That usually takes at least two hours, but how about Friday?"
"Friday sounds good."
Twenty minutes later Mandy was standing in her open doorway and smiling up at Severin, whose tension was acting up again.
"This has been a wonderful evening, and not just because we finished our meal for once."
Some of his tension left him, riding on his chuckle.
Then her expression grew serious again. "Thank you for tonight, Severin. So, I'll see you on Friday?"
"Friday." Come hell or high water. "Your place or mine?" he added deliberately, thinking back to Mandy's tease at the restaurant.
"Could I come over to yours again? I never thought would catch myself saying this, but your cooking suggestion sounds like a great idea, and... well, you've seen my kitchen."
“Good call. Now go get some sleep."
"You too." The mirth in her eyes softened, and she raised her arms to settle them around his neck. Automatically he pulled her close for a tender kiss. How much he loved her taste and the way her body fit so perfectly against his. Mandy, he silently pleaded with her, you are so precious; please give me a chance to prove to you I deserve you. At last he felt her pull away ever so gently, but for all her gentleness he felt her loss acutely.
"Good night," she smiled up at him with such radiance that Severin could almost believe that he did deserve her.
Chapter 18: The first weekend of all the time in the world (part 1)
Ring. "Uh, you remember what I told you about my old study partner Severin?"
"Of course I do, which is why I'm glad I never met him. Why do you ask? Did you come across his obituary – stabbed by another girl he took advantage of?"
Although Mandy giggled at her vicarious indignation, her next words did not come easy: "No, but I did come across something else: the man himself."
Mandy filled her in on the events of the past weeks – stopping shortly before Tuesday – interrupted by an impressive number of 'Whats?!' and other interjections. In particular the news of Severin's weight gain made an impression. In the end, however, Miriam had only one question for her best friend: "So, how was he?"
"You are so bad, Miriam! Why do you automatically assume that we… slept together?"
"Well, did you?"
"Uh, well, as a matter of fact we did," Mandy admitted and laughed along with her friend, this time from the heart. And she finally confessed to the events of Tuesday and Wednesday.
"OH MY GOSH!!!" Miriam squealed into the phone. "And you're calling me bad?! Way to go, girl!"
"Uh, thank you?"
"So, are you guys together now or what?"
"I'm not sure,” Mandy hedged, twirling a strand of hair around her free hand, “I guess so, but for now we're just taking this one step at a time."
"As long as those steps are leading you to comfortable horizontal surfaces,” Maureen giggled before she emitted a long sigh. “Gosh, I'm so happy for you! You deserve it more than anyone! That is," a wary tone crept into her voice, "if he really has changed the way you said. If he ever does anything to make you unhappy, he's dead meat."
"Uhm, as much as I appreciate the offer, Dominic already volunteered as a hitman." Although Mandy tried to keep it light, the memory held a bitter taste.
"Oh yeah, I've been meaning to ask: how did he take the news?"
"What do you mean?” Mandy hedged again, bracing herself for what she knew to be coming.
"Well, you know I've never been sure where Dom stands when it comes to you," her friend confirmed her suspicions. "It just seems odd for a guy to be friends with a girl for seven years without ever making a move. I mean, he could just be gay, but you said he's never been with anyone since you've known him, right?"
Why is everyone questioning Dominic's motives? Mandy fumed silently. "That's right, he hasn't, but you know he is a workaholic. As for him and me, we really are just friends, and he's just looking out for me! Please let's leave it at that, OK?”
"All right. But still, I take it he wasn't amused?"
"You take right."
"Told y- never mind, I promised I'd stop. Anyway, when do I get to meet the infamous Severin? Will you bring him on New Year's Eve?"
Mandy sighed, even though the thought had actually peeked in its head a few times. "Miriam, we've only been together – if we are together at all – for a day. I can't ask him about New Year's Eve yet. But I promise you I'll ask him as soon as it feels right, OK?"
"I know. OK then, enough about me, what's going on with you guys?"
Miriam filled her in on their offspring's latest antics and other things until they had passed the two-hour mark and finally told each other goodbye.
With a satisfied smile that her best friend was finally in the picture, Mandy turned off the light that night. Only a few more hours and she would see Severin again.
It all still seemed so surreal to Severin: Mandy, his girlfriend of two days – or did Tuesday count? – was sitting next to him on his couch, and a backpack with her clothes and toiletries rested on top of his bed because she was staying for the weekend. After seven solitary years he could hardly let himself believe it without repeated glances at the woman next to him lest she disappear in a puff of smoke.
The single word pulled him back into reality, and he hurried to focus on her laptop screen. As per his request, she had brought her laptop in order to show him some of her designs, and it had just finished booting up.
"Let’s see… Let me show you some of the designs for my dad first and save the headstones for later, OK?"
A few seconds later Severin was looking at a colorful flyer for a Christmas party at the youth center where Mandy’s father worked.
"Wow, this is amazing!" Severin could not hold back his admiration at her choice of font, colors and images. "Many flyers are so overstuffed with information that you hardly know where to look, but this here… this is designed to be remembered."
Mandy turned her pretty face to him. ""Designed to be remembered" – what a beautiful phrase.” An expression of such personal nature settled over her face as she gazed off into the distance that Severin began to fidget. After a moment she refocused on him. "May I consider it for our headstone campaign?"
"Uh, sure, if you think it will help."
"It is definitely worth considering."
Mandy nodded emphatically while Severin pocketed her praise like a precious gem. She had no idea what her praise meant to him. She, an expert designer, taking advice from someone with a severe aesthetics impairment. As usually unaware of the effect she had on him, Mandy proceeded with the company logos she had created as well as with their own company website and Severin grew more impressed by the minute. Aside from her extraordinary way with words, Mandy truly had a feeling for the path on which the human eye would travel over a page and which information or image should be placed where.
"Now the headstones. Uh, may I start with my mom’s?" Mandy asked softly when they were through with all the other designs.
"Please," Severin agreed just as softly, as he knew what a privilege this was. A moment later the photo of a grave unlike any other he had ever seen lay before him, and just like Mrs. Lander had, he took in the stack of sandstone books in utter amazement. No weeping angels or any other symbols of mourning and gloom, only an intriguing, almost cheerful looking grave that beckoned passers-by to step closer and examine.
"Your mom was an avid reader then?" Severin inquired gently, uncertain of the impact this re-confrontation with her mother’s absence might have on Mandy.
"She was," Mandy nodded, her voice sounding strained. "She was a librarian, and our house looks pretty much like her former workplace." A little smile touched her lips at this. "My dad shares her passion."
"As do you."
"As do I. And you as well from what I have seen in your office?" Mandy’s expression perked up, and Severin felt relieved that they had veered off the painful topic of her mom’s death.
"True, although I switched to using a Kindle two years ago."
"Since I grew up with so many books around me, I don’t know if I want to give up real paper, but I can definitely see the perks of an electronic book."
"Hey, by all means, stick to what feels best to you," Severin told her gently and dared to reach out and run his fingers through her hair, as he already knew that she was partial to this caress. Indeed she closed her eyes and a blissful smile decidedly drove out the last vestiges of gloom. After a while she opened her eyes again.
"I'll be right back."
"Uh, OK. Would it be all right if looked through the rest of your pictures?"
Mandy looked happy at his question, as if she had still doubted that Severin was truly interested. Throwing another hesitant smile over her shoulder, she disappeared into the bathroom. Shaking his head over her lack of awareness of her own talents, Severin resumed his perusal.
Chapter 18: The first weekend of all the time in the world (part 2)
Wincing reflexively at Mandy's stern tone, he looked up when she had returned. Uh-oh. She was wearing the face to match her tone.
"What are all those sensitive-skin products doing in your bathroom?"
"Uh, waiting for you?" Severin grimaced. He had only meant well, but evidently his gesture had angered her. As she continued to stand and stare at him, Severin grew more and more uncomfortable.
"Well, ever since Wednesday I have been hoping you'd come back here and I… wanted you to feel welcome when you did. I saw which brand you use in your bathroom the other day and purchased everything I could remember. If I've gone too far--"
"Hey," Mandy interrupted his worried rambling, looking both touched and amazed. "I was just messing with you. This is amazing. Thank you." She leaned close for a tender kiss. "I can't believe how thoughtful you've become. I guess I am liking you more every day."
Mandy froze. This was not her bedroom, and this was not her bed either. Nor was she alone in said bed.
The sudden realization of how she came to wake up in strange surroundings roused Mandy instantly. When they had finished looking through her designs yesterday, Severin led her through the remainder of his house after which they prepared dinner together. Under his direction and supervision, Mandy performed the menial tasks for which no culinary aptitude was required, such as peeling and dicing, and due to Severin’s talents they enjoyed the pasta, chicken and salad very much. After an extended walk they let the day fade out cuddling on the couch and went to bed early. They had done all that! Mandy could not even remember how long it had been since she had begun the day with that pronoun.
Mandy started. She had not expected Severin to be awake as well, and judging by his alert voice he had been for some time. Yet he had made no move or sound to wake her, nor had he come closer. Was he waiting for her to make a move?
"Ditto." Mandy turned her head and smiled at him, a facial gift wasted in this darkness, but she knew he would be able to tell from her voice. "Good morning in the truest sense of the word. It is wonderful not to wake up alone."
"It is." Mandy could hear him smile back at her and finally felt his strong fingers in her hair. "I take that it has been some time for you, too?" she heard him ask several moments later and picked up on the hesitation and a hint of embarrassment in his voice.
"Yes." If you only knew... she added to herself bitterly. "Severin, could you hold me, please?"
She needed to believe he did not regret inviting her over, but that he was as eager for her presence and her touch as she was for his.
Wordlessly Severin reached out for her, slightly turning her in the process so that her back was turned to his front, and pulled her close against him. He guided his right arm through the hollow between her neck and shoulder and rested the other one on top of her left one. Mandy, in turn, angled her right arm so that she could rest the back of her hand against his palm, allowing their fingers to interlace. Although no sound emerged from the man behind her, she could feel he was relaxing and bit by bit accepting that this was reality and that she was here to stay. Just for the weekend for now, but who knew what the future would bring?
Tentatively Severin began stroking the soft skin on Mandy's arm, not yet venturing further down along her hips, however she might have wished him to. Should she have chosen something sexier than her simple sleep short and top? Was her body still not attractive enough? The way he had looked at and touched her the night before, she could almost believe that she was beautiful, but only almost. Despite Severin's apology she would forever wear that scar tissue on her soul.
She could feel him bury his face in the back of her neck, inhaling her scent. Was he not ready to go any further, or did he fear that she was the one who was not ready? Whatever Severin's reasoning, however, his body did not care for limiting the exploration of her body, instead opting for... in-depth probing. Evidently anxious not to discomfit Mandy, he tried to scoot away.
"Please don’t pull away,” Mandy blurted when she felt the tantalizing prodding against her backside subside. "I want this just as much as you do."
Instantly Severin halted mid-motion, and a moment later she felt again what she wanted to feel. She snuggled closer, just in case, and heard a soft groan from the man behind her. Unable to help herself, she reached behind her with her left hand to grab Severin’s full rear end. What a masterpiece... She wanted to turn in order to gain more access, but Severin was holding her tight, trailing kisses all along her neck and shoulders, kisses which made her shiver with delight. "Please, Severin, I want you inside of me."
Instantly she felt him break contact and was finally free to turn, but the next moment he was back, ripping open a condom packet.
"May I?" she whispered, longing to get her hands on him.
"Soon, OK?" he whispered back after a moment’s hesitation and despite the stab of disappointment she understood his need for a slow pace. Although they had been intimate just a few days ago, it had been a crime of passion for both of them, and just like Severin had not been ready to lose his T-shirt then, he was not ready for Mandy to touch all of him yet.
"Would it be OK if you turned onto your right again?"
Mandy's heart sank a little at his request. Just when she had though she would finally get her hands on that beckoning belly. However, this simple question which betrayed the extent of his insecurities sufficed to keep a truly deep disappointment at bay. Severin had fallen hard, and if he needed time to trust her, so be it. She would be there for him every step of the way.
Wordlessly she complied, turned onto her right and slid her shorts down her thighs before she felt Severin’s lips and fingers reconnect with her skin. She could feel his warmth radiating through the fabric of his T-shirt and her tank top, and she wished she could just yank it off. Severin’s left hand slipped between them to cup and squeeze her rear, making her moan with pleasure. His warm fingers traveled down the back of her thighs and upwards again, then on towards her belly where her top had ridden up.
"Please, Severin, touch me anywhere you like," she breathed, yearning for his touch on her breasts, and indeed she felt his heated palms slip under the fabric of her top where they finally began to knead slowly. Severin’s sharp breathing told her that he was just as affected as she was, and soon she felt him pull away slightly in order to prepare for crossing the final frontier. She wiggled her butt in order for him to fill her as much as was anatomically possible, and the groan she elicited through the movement sent new shivers of delight through her heated body. This was the only thing that mattered, this perfect fit, this ultimate closeness. Love me, Severin, have all of me!
Soon, again all too soon, they were both lying next to each other, panting with the exertion. When Mandy had finally regained sufficient control over her limp limbs – Could we call them ‘limps’? the inane thought darted through her blown mind – she slowly turned her head to find the source of her glorious exhaustion. Due to the darkness of the bedroom and the absence of her glasses, she was unable to make out Severin's expression, but she could feel the hesitancy radiating off him.
"I need to go to the bathroom – well, applying the term ‘going' very loosely," she smiled at him, suddenly back in command of her tongue, and reached out to run her right hand through his hair. "I would say you milked me for all I'm worth, but I guess the milking applies more to you than me."
"Incredible. How can you use such big words in such wee hours before your first cup of coffee?" Mandy heard the smile in his voice and could feel his hand on her hip.
"Because the wee hours are not so wee anymore," she squinted at the glowing numbers on Severin’s alarm clock. "And because I don’t drink coffee."
"You don’t?" The surprise was evident in his voice. "Wow, another thing I have learned about you. Well, go ahead then."
"I’ll be right back. Uh, my hinting at breakfast does not mean that we have to get up right away," she added before pulling away. "In fact, would it be OK if I opened the roll shutters when I come back? I’d like to lie in with you for a little while longer."
Again she heard him smile and, after she had worked her way back into her shorts again, parted from him with a light kiss and an even lighter heart.
Chapter 18: The first weekend of all the time in the world (part 3)
A minute later Mandy rejoined Severin in bed and for a while they simply enjoyed the feel of one another.
"I… I'm sorry for… making such a fuss earlier. It's just that... it has been some time."
His tone caused her eyes to sting with unshed tears. Whatever shame she felt about her lack of experience, it was worth sharing it if it helped this broken man open up and trust her.
"Severin? To me it has been forever. I mean, obviously I’m no longer a virgin, but I've never been in a real relationship."
Severin shifted in order to face her better. Mandy followed suit, turned to face him at a 90° angle and crossed her legs under the covers.
"What do you mean by 'real relationship'?" he asked, fixing his beautiful eyes on hers intently.
"Well, there have been men I have dated longer than others but nobody who would merit the distinction 'boyfriend'."
“You've never had a boyfriend?”
Although Severin's eyes were anything but judgmental, their incredulous stare only served to heighten her shame.
"How is that possible?"
Although his question made her feel marginally better, the next words still didn't come easy. "Well, you know what I looked like seven years ago. My friend Miriam convinced me to try nerd frames towards the end of my second semester. About a year later I let her talk me into cutting and dyeing my hair, and at some point she put her foot down with regards to my wardrobe. All in all, it took me a long time to... well... get noticed at all and to feel more comfortable in my own skin."
And she still didn't feel completely comfortable in it, especially not right now. "Still," she continued, "I was such a late bloomer that I felt really awkward on dates at first. At least it got better over time with Miriam as a coach."
"She sounds like a good friend," Severin remarked softly.
"She is," Mandy nodded, still not meeting his eyes, "I'm so glad to have her."
"And I'm glad for you."
He extended his hands to her palms-up, causing her to withdraw them from beneath the covers and place them gently into his where he began to stroke them softly.
"Your new look suits you very much. If you hadn't recognized me, I guess I would have handled your company's finances for years without ever suspecting a thing. But anyway, how come no one has snatched you up by now?"
That only made her scoff. "Well, when you walked around campus, how many men over 6'2" did you see?"
"Not that I ever paid much attention to other guys, I get your point.”
"Exactly. Don't get me wrong, I like being tall, but it works to my disadvantage in the romance department. Also, I could never be with a man who needs a dictionary to have a conversation with me.”
“Right.” Severin seemed busy processing. "Is that why you only have a twin bed?"
What an odd follow-up question, Mandy thought, but only shook her head. "No, actually that is because my parents have never had a lot of money. When I moved out after my diploma, my dad could not afford helping me out with new furniture. Of course I have replaced quite a few things since then, but you're sort of right: there's never been the need for a bigger bed. Whenever I had someone over, we slept on the couch."
Was she imagining it or had Severin's jaw just tensed at her mention of the word 'we'? Was he… jealous?
"You know, as little as you deserved this bad luck, I'm very happy that you are single."
So he was jealous! Mandy felt a small but ever growing smile starting to claim possession of her features.
"And don’t ever let anybody make you feel bad about yourself, do you hear me? You. Are. Beautiful."
Struggling for breath, let alone words, Mandy pulled him back into a supine position again and snuggled into his softness. He was becoming dearer to her every minute. She would not give up on him this time.
Sunday night closed in on Severin, once again the sole occupant of his house. As he was roaming the space restlessly, he replayed every minute they had spent in bed, outside, on the couch or at a bar in town the night before. The time with her had simply flown by, and Severin could not wait to see her again. A woman he had taken for granted and hurt deeply had just spent an entire weekend with him.
As judgmental as she had been at university, all the more accepting of his insecurities was she now, and neither the first nor this time had she questioned his need to keep his T-shirt on. She had incredible skin he longed to explore with his entire body, yet he just could not bring himself to do that, not even in the dark. Mandy might believe that she found him attractive, but she would be cured of her faith the instant she saw him without his clothes. What might she be thinking this very moment? Now that she had received a taste of what life with him could be like, had it put her off, or would she come back for more?
Out of character though it was for him to feel so strongly for a woman after such a short time, he wanted Mandy in his life. It was as simple as that. The question was, did she want him in hers? She had seemed happy enough all weekend, but how long would that last? Walking, cooking or going out for drinks or dinner, all of the above he would always be able to offer, but there was no way he could go to the pool with her or sit comfortably in a narrow movie theater or theme park ride seat. What if Mandy began to tire of him in a few months, if not before? Cursing himself for being such a wuss, he continued to roam and pace until he finally came to a stop in front of the kitchen cabinet – the one cabinet he unfailingly turned to when assailed by guilt, doubt or loneliness, and tonight was no different despite the wonderful time with Mandy.
Ten minutes later Severin threw an emptied box of chocolates on the couch table and let himself fall back against the backrest of the couch in disgust. So much for Mandy’s good influence. Here he was, almost 30 years old and still struggling with a chocolate addiction. What could Mandy possibly see in him? Sure, he was smart, financially stable, and she seemed to appreciate his sense of humor. But other than that... he was no longer attractive nor did he pursue any interesting activities. What was in this relationship for her?