“You have one fine set of knockers, you know that, right?”
Lauren propped herself up on the hotel pillows and knocked a cigarette out of the pack on the bedside table. She blew a perfect smoke ring while Salim’s tongue worked its way from one breast to the other and licked its way down her stomach. Her hand found the top of his head and gently pulled until he stopped and looked up at her. His black eyes reminded her of a cat’s, sly and otherworldly.
“What?” he asked.
She kept the regret she was feeling out of her voice. “I don’t have time for round two. I’m leaving the city for a while.”
“Where’re you going?” His finger circled her belly button.
“My father’s not well and I promised my mother I’d … God, don’t stop whatever it is you’re doing.”
He grinned. “Did your schedule open up all of a sudden?”
“Yes. I mean no.” She pushed herself off the pillows and lowered her face to kiss the top of his head. She was going to have to be the one to show some self-restraint. She said with feigned conviction, “I have to go and you have to get back to the office, Salim.”
He rolled onto his back and crossed his hands over his chest. The loud release of air through his nose expressed his frustration, but she ignored him. She stood and stretched her arms over her head, breasts and belly pushed forward, all the while knowing that he was looking at her body and liking the feeling. She dodged his hand as he reached over to pull her back on top of him.
“I can’t get enough of you,” he said, his voice low and thick with lust.
“Don’t sound so surprised.”
He plumped up the pillows she’d vacated and flopped against the headboard. “When you hired me, I had no idea this is what you had in mind, but I’m not complaining.”
“No, I don’t suppose you are.” She crossed to the desk where she’d laid her clothes across the back of the chair. “I need to have the kitchen drawings completed before Monday morning.”
“You’re going to owe me one if I have to work on my day off. I have an idea how you can pay me.”
“Whatever it takes.” She smiled. “You’ve almost nailed the design but she’s not happy with the position of the island and the flow into the dining area.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Will you be back early in the week?”
She hesitated on her way to stepping into her panties. “I have no idea how long I’ll be away. Let me know when you’ve saved the drawings and I’ll access them from my laptop. If worse comes to worst, you can take the meeting with the client and I’ll call in.”
“Believe me, I wouldn’t even be going if I had a choice.”
Three hours later, Lauren sat in the driver’s seat of her Honda Civic, forearms resting on the steering wheel, staring at her parents’ house on Grenville Crescent. The last time she’d been home had been the year before in the spring for her dad’s birthday, having gone south for Christmas on an all-inclusive holiday with Salim to avoid the usual holiday depression. The trip home in April had been a quick overnight visit, and then back to the safety of her life in Toronto. Her parents had lived in this house since their wedding day forty years ago. A seventies split-level with a twocar garage on a treed lot — oak and maple now bare of leaves. Shingles on the roof were lifting in spots where snow hadn’t accumulated. The white siding had turned a dull beige in the fading sunlight. A light snow had fallen the last hour of her drive from Toronto and coated the driveway and sidewalk. Her father would have cleared both by now if he’d been home.
She looked to the right of their property, at the Orlovs’ house, and saw the same slow decay taking over the property. Boris and Antonia had been living there as far back as she could remember. They’d never had any kids and Lauren had resented them for it when she was younger. She’d longed for a girl next door to hang out with instead of her two brothers.
On the other side of her parents’ house, the woods stood thick and dark, the deciduous tree limbs bare of foliage. A path cut through the trees, marking an opening to the Rideau Trail, almost four hundred kilometres of interconnected pathways through the back country between Ottawa and Kingston. She’d planned to bike the length of it once but never had. A boulevard of trees across from their house in the middle of the road blocked out the neighbours and made her feel as if they lived in the country.
She took another drag from the cigarette burned down to a stub between her gloved fingers. A car she didn’t recognize was in her parents’ driveway and she wondered which of her brothers had made it here ahead of her. Probably Adam. Tristan and Vivian would make an entrance as usual, or at least that’s how the vivacious Vivian would arrange it.
She began to feel the chill through her thin wool coat, so she butted her cigarette out in the ashtray and opened the car door at the same time that her mother opened the front door of the house. Her mom stood backlit by the hall light. Clemmie was next to her, tail a waving flag as he looked up, waiting to see if they’d be going for a walk. She swiped a hand across her eyes and swore softly.
Damn it all to hell. I hate that I have to be here. I hate that this is happening.
Lauren hugged her mom, who hugged her back with one arm, her ear pressed to a cellphone. “Just talking to Ruth,” she said. “I’ll order pizza when we’re done. Take your old room.”
Lauren felt the familiar disappointment. Against all reason, she’d hoped for a warmer greeting this time with her dad so ill, but her mom put little pressure into the hug and turned away as she waved Lauren inside, already saying something into the phone. Lauren carried her suitcase upstairs and lay on the single bed for a moment, closing her eyes and breathing in the smells of her childhood. She knew that it was only the fabric softener, but it was the same fabric softener her mother had bought forever.
Welcome home, Lauren.
She found Adam in the den working on his laptop. He glanced up at her and back down at the keyboard. “Hey, kid.”
“Hey,” she answered and sat in the chair next to him. Clemmie flopped at her feet. She reached down to scratch behind his ears. She and Adam had never had a demonstrative relationship, but a hug wouldn’t have killed him. “Mom’s finishing up a phone call with Aunt Ruth and then she’s going to order pizza.”
“I’m starving so that’s good news.” He typed a few more words before shutting his laptop. He smiled at her. “I like your hair short and white. Very on trend. Hipster.”
She touched the back of her neck, surprised at the compliment. “Thanks, I think. When are Tristan and Vivian expected to arrive?”
“Mom said tomorrow morning.”
She studied her brother, whom she hadn’t seen in over a year. He looked tired, his brown eyes that could snare a woman’s interest with one glance bloodshot, and the way he slumped into the couch, dripping exhaustion. He’d lost weight since the last time they’d met up in Toronto on one of his stopovers. “Are you still on the western and northern routes?” she asked.
“I accepted a new itinerary at the end of the summer. I’m flying between Vancouver and Hong Kong now. Didn’t Mona tell you?”
“No, but we haven’t spoken in a while. That’s a big change. Did you ask for it?”
“I was ready for something else.”
“How does Mona feel about that?”
“Good, I guess. I’m home more now since half the stopovers are in Vancouver.”
“I was hoping to see her this trip.”
“It’s hard for her to leave her class and Simon isn’t good when his routine is disrupted, but she’ll come for the funeral.”
They were silent for a moment, thinking about their father’s impending death without the idea of his passing seeming real. Lauren didn’t want to contemplate the change this would bring to her family … at least, not before it happened. “What grade is Mona teaching this year?”
“Four, and Simon just entered grade three at the same school. He’s got a full-time teacher’s aide with him, which is helping.”
Even though they hadn’t seen each other in a long time, she knew her brother well enough to hear the frustration underlying his words. “I imagine it’s been tough for you.” She remembered how hard he’d taken having a son with special needs. Mona had wanted to try for a second child but Adam had so far refused.
“Tougher for Mona,” he said. “Your kitchen and bath design business appears to be doing well.”
She started to talk about her latest kitchen project but before she’d finished her first sentence, Adam opened his laptop again and clicked on a couple of keys. He glanced up at her and back at the screen a few times, pretending an interest in her work that she knew he didn’t have. She let her words trail off after a few moments and stood up. Clemmie was instantly on his feet, eager chocolate eyes fixed on her face. “Just heading out for a walk with Clem,” she said.
“Right, see you later then.” Adam glanced up and smiled one last time. She heard the keys tapping in earnest as she went in search of her coat and the dog’s leash.
“Well, Clemmie,” she said as she bent down to grab his collar, “At least you’re always glad to see me.”