Frank sat in the back of a taxi as it trundled through the dark streets. He didn’t often leave the coast without a bodyguard, but he needed to blend in. Hopefully, no one would recognize him. It was risky. It was especially risky since only a few days ago Cylus had walked into his restaurant looking for a job. He should have canceled this trip. He had already burned the letter and anything that Cylus could use to trace Caroline, but he couldn’t disappoint her and not show. He didn’t want to.
The taxi pulled over in front of a brownstone row house. The windows tinkled with lights. Frank paid the driver and carried his satchel up the front stairs. The door opened before he could even reach the bell. Caroline stepped out into the cold and wrapped her arms around him in a friendly hug.
“I should warn you,” she whispered, “but it’s a dry party. Homer only drinks on vacation apparently, and only one glass of wine on holidays. Some of the women are from my group as well…”
“So law abiding teetotalers, the whole lot of them?” Frank chuckled. “I’ll fit right in, I promise.” Caroline led him inside.
“Homer!” she called. “Cousin Frank made it!” She took Frank’s bag and disappeared up the stairs as Homer made his way through the crowd. Frank watched her climb away from him with some remorse. She was still beautiful and he had treated her badly. Homer clapped him heartily on the shoulder.
“Frank, make yourself comfortable! I want to introduce you to some of my friends. Do you do stocks at all?” Frank shook his head.
“No, I haven’t tried that. It sounds risky and I’m afraid it goes right over my head.” Frank let himself be led away into the crowd.
“That’s okay. We’ll show you how it’s done.”
Caroline stopped on the stairs and watched Frank from a distance. Out of all these people here tonight. He was the only one that knew her. The real her, that is. Not the contrived Mrs. Birkenbauer that she introduced to everyone else. It was a few moments before she realized one of her guests was calling her.
“Caroline, Caroline!” Mrs. Otterbourne called. Caroline hurried down the stairs.
“Yes, Edna, what is it?”
“I caught you lost in thought, dear! The expression on your face! What on earth were you thinking about?” The older woman cooed.
“I-I was looking around at all the people…and I know it is silly of me, but I thought how wonderful it would be to have a holiday party all the time,” she said, which was an outright lie. Everyone in that room was a boring stiff compared to the nightlife she used to know on the boardwalk. So proper, these people were. They didn’t know how to have fun.
“Goodness gracious, girl, that would be quite an undertaking, but perhaps you’ll settle for hosting one or more committee gatherings,” Edna suggested. Caroline nodded and Cynthia piped in.
“I saw that man you let in just now, your cousin, is it? I have to ask if he’s married. He looks the type my niece might like. She’s a widow, poor thing, but your cousin there looks well dressed. Well-employed, is he?” Cynthia adjusted her spectacles on her nose. Caroline stared at the old woman for a moment, then glanced at Frank. He was well dressed, but the phase ‘well-employed’ stumped her. The old woman would not approve of anything Frank considered business.
“I’m afraid your niece might be sorely disappointed in him as a husband. He pours himself into his work, you see. He’s rarely home. I’m surprised he took me up on my invitation. Philadelphia is out of the way.”
“Oh, how unfortunate,” Edna commented. “What is it you said he did?” Caroline caught herself staring at him across the room. He winked at her.
“What he does?” Caroline realized the women were waiting. “Didn’t I say? He owns restaurants, but if you’ll excuse me I’m going to check on the kitchen.” Caroline made her exit across the room. She passed through the kitchen where the caterer diligently made more finger sandwiches to put out on the table. Caroline went down the back steps, grabbed her wrap and slipped outside. Her feet crunched on the icy snow as she scurried to the dark side of a bush and pulled out a cigarette. Homer disapproved of women smoking, but as long as he didn’t see her, he never noticed.
This was a mistake, she thought. Frank is like a fox in the hen house. All these naïve people clucking away with a man that would slit their throats if he needed to. Caroline shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold. It was excitement, she realized. That wink from across the room. The feeling of balancing on a knife’s edge. She wasn’t a good girl. That was boring. She sucked tenaciously at her cigarette until it was a stub, then shoved it in a coffee can she hid under the bush. She stopped outside the back door and put her smile back on before sweeping inside.
The next morning Homer rose out of bed at his usual 6:30. Caroline put on her robe and went downstairs to fix his breakfast. By seven like always, he handed her his coffee cup as she held out his briefcase. He kissed her on the cheek and was out the door to the office. Even though it was Saturday, he still put in a half day to double check everyone else’s work.
Caroline went back to the kitchen and poured another cup of coffee. She stood there wondering, perhaps arguing with herself a little on what was the right thing to do. But she thought about that cigarette and the several that followed the night before. She had to strain to keep her hands to herself all evening until the last guest left. Then she excused herself from Homer and Frank as they sat by the fireplace and went to bed early, where she only pretended to sleep. She laid awake and listened to Homer snore and wondered what was wrong with her. Why wasn’t this enough? Why would she want to go back to where she knew there would always be pain and things left unsaid? But she did.
The floorboards above her creaked as if teasing her. They dared her to go back upstairs. She filled another cup with coffee. I’m being a good hostess, that’s all, she told herself. She went upstairs and knocked on the door of the guest room. Frank was already out of bed. He was going over how he was going to tell Caroline about Cylus’s return in his mind. He heard the tentative knock and opened the door in only his undershirt and boxers. The sight of Caroline in a silk robe pushed Cylus to the farthest reaches of Frank’s mind.
“Good morning…coffee?” Caroline said as she handed him the cup.
“Was that Mr. Birkenbauer I heard leaving for work on a Saturday?” Frank asked. He took the cup and nonchalantly set it on the desk by the door.
“Y-yes,” she answered. Her voice shook from anticipation, “Would you like breakfast?” Frank looked at her and she could tell he was not thinking about eggs and bacon. She took a step into the room.
“We shouldn’t,” Frank started to say as she shut the door behind her and leaned on it, but he knew whatever he was going to say was bullshit. She wrapped her arms around him and he kissed her as his hands ran over the silk robe.
“How much time do we have?” he growled instead. He picked her up and carried her to the bed.
“He’ll be back at noon,” she sighed. Caroline pulled Frank into her grip and wound herself around him. He whispered in her ear.
“Don’t ever invite me up here again. I can’t stand it.”