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Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

 

Mr. Popularity

Chapter Six

Oh, Great Googamooga,
Can't you hear me talking to you
Just a ball of confusion
That's what the world is today, hey

Ball Of Confusion, Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, 1970

On Friday morning of the first week after what had already become known as Black Saturday, due to events at the now infamous soirée, Elizabeth was exhausted. She'd not slept well. Her mind raced and her tired body couldn't find rest. Nothing was worse than tossing and turning and hearing Hook snore peacefully.

The huge release from dumping her pent up frustrations all over Delarango had caused Elizabeth's emotions to peak and come out on the other side. But the other side wasn't as sunny as she expected. The residual effects of her rant still clung to her. They were like barnacles stuck in the hull of her conscience.

She tossed and turned and went over - and over - their conversations. Maybe she was wrong. To a degree. About certain things. It seemed there was little doubt she entirely misread that Delarango had ignored her. When he'd pulled out his glasses and put them on, she recalled all the times he'd squinted at her. The man was near-sighted. In the poor light, at a distance, he couldn't see her. She grudgingly gave him that one.

But, she didn't know why he denied he tried to buy her off the hill. She firmly believed that he should have discussed the naming of the road with her. She still wanted to know why in the world he built The House so close to hers. And, what was this about slandering Mark's business ethics?

As dawn broke on the other side of her new drapes, she looked at Hook and grimaced as she recalled her rabid Doberman remark. And her assessment of Delarango's driving skills. And her drunk Picasso remark. Her insight crystallized and she understood that he probably didn't have a very good impression of her.

Jane didn't know she wrestled with such thoughts. Elizabeth chose to keep a steely façade when it came to discussing anything Delarango. While Elizabeth orchestrated her movements all week to avoid him, Jane managed to tour The House and was treated to Delarango's premium brand of baked corn chips and guacamole.

Delarango. It sounded like a grubby, good-for-nothin' desperado sneering out from a wanted poster. If only she could get rid of him by turning him in to the law and collecting the reward. [I was rotflmao here!]

She had the day off. Jane needed to get to the airport by noon. To try and combat her fatigue, Elizabeth took Hook for a walk before they were due to leave. When she came back, she noticed Jane's bag wasn't packed. She wasn't ready to go. She was peeling an orange, slowly eating each section. Elizabeth observed, 'You don't look like someone set to fly home.'

'I'm not.'

'Well, you'd better get on with it. Your plane leaves in an hour. Hurry up.' Elizabeth went around Jane and reached for an energy drink out of the fridge.

'I've decided to stay for a while longer.'

Intuition kicked in, that inexplicable force that could set off sirens and flashing red lights. Elizabeth immediately became wary, 'Well that's great, but why?'

Jane was straightforward about the business at hand. After throwing away her orange peel and washing her hands, she said, 'Lizzy, you're having difficulty adjusting to all these changes in your life. There's nothing wrong with needing time to accept them, but after a year, if you haven't been able to resolve it on your own, you need to get help.'

Elizabeth thought she hadn't heard her sister right, 'Hmmm?'

'It's time for an intervention. I need you to listen and not say a word.'

'Oh, please Jane---'

'Quiet!'

'Jane,---'

'Sit down!' Elizabeth's eyes widened as she sank onto a bamboo bar stool. 'You're in denial. You aren't acknowledging your own part in all this. You aren't aware that you need help with your problem. I'm closer to you than anyone and I have to do the right thing.'

Jane spent the next 15 minutes highlighting the events of the past year, always focusing on Elizabeth's reactions and her inability to understand, adjust or forgive, and silencing her sister when she tried to interrupt. 'We're not going to get anywhere if you don't let me do the talking. You'll have your turn in a minute.'

She mentioned Elizabeth's trip back east and her professed desire to establish a new relationship with Delarango upon her return, only to blast him with her pent up hostilities once she had him in her sights. As Jane leapt from point to point, Elizabeth began to crack. 'I just want my life back to what it was.'

They went back and forth. Elizabeth never got the last word in and found herself verbally cornered. Through watery eyes she looked at her sister, 'Jane, I'm so confused.'

'There's help out there to get you through this.'

She waffled, 'Oh, I just don't know.'

They talked some more and eventually Elizabeth came around and admitted to Jane she was wrong to have gone after Delarango the way she did. She gave Jane a peek into the dark place she'd been inhabiting, 'I honestly couldn't control myself. Once I started in on him, I had to keep going. Sort of like a shark chasing a blood trail.'

Jane repeated, 'You need some professional help.'

Elizabeth didn't put two and two together straight away. 'That might be something to consider.'

'You know this is not normal, especially for you?' You're always the one who lights up a room and who's upbeat and positive.'

'I am, aren't I?' she posed meekly.

'Yes. So, you agree you're in a crisis?'

Elizabeth nodded. She wondered how long it had been since her cheerful self had been replaced by a cynical one. More than that, when was the last time she'd woken up to thoughts other than The House and the man connected to it? Too long. She reflected back on her regrets from this morning and nodded at Jane again.

'Great, grab your purse, I'm taking you for treatment now.'

'Treatment?' Now she got what Jane meant about taking a trip to see a professional.

'Yes, that's the most important part of the intervention. I talk, you listen, you go to treatment. I've made an appointment with a doctor. He's expecting us.'

'Now? But I haven't had lunch yet.'

Jane went to the kitchen, grabbed an apple and banana out of the new fruit bowl, and handed them to her sister. She took the energy drink out of her hand. 'Come on, now.'

Jane got her moving and walked right on her heels all the way to the truck. They both stood at the driver's door.

'Give me your keys.'

'I'm having problems adjusting not driving.'

'Lizzy! This is how it works with an intervention. You can't take care of yourself. I have to drive you or it's not an intervention anymore.' She held out her hand and Elizabeth reluctantly dropped the keys into it. They got down to the main road and Jane hung a right.

'Where are we going?'

'San Ramona.'

'Then, you're going the wrong way.' Jane executed a u-turn while Elizabeth got a case of nerves. 'Where in San Ramona?'

'Do you know where Jimbo's All Day Buffet is?'

'Yeah, is the office close to that?'

'No, that's where the doctor is.'

'What!?' Elizabeth put her foot down, 'I'm not going to see a doctor who works out of an all you can eat diner!'

'It's just a central place to meet. He's from out of town.'

'Which town?'

'San Francisco.'

'Why would he come all the way here to see me?'

'He's doing this as a favor.'

'Why?'

'Because he was asked.'

'I ask people a lot of things that they don't do, Jane.'

'He's a friend.'

'I didn't know you had any friends who were therapists.'

'I don't'

'Then, whose friend is he?'

Jane's admission followed a long pause, 'Mom's.'

'Turn the car around!'

'I will not.' Jane gripped the steering wheel tightly.

Elizabeth would have turned the car back around if she'd been driving. Restricted in her options, all she could do was offer her opinion based on the kind of company her mother kept. 'This is going to be a complete waste of time.'

They pulled into a crowded parking lot of a building done up like a log cabin with a snow covered roof. Jimbo, Elizabeth assumed, was the fiberglass giant in a red checkered shirt guarding the front doors. Someone had taken a hunk out of one of his ears and hacked off his kneecaps. He was one tough mountain man, still smiling despite his losses.

'I've heard of this place,' Elizabeth mulled.

'Really? That's good.'

'Actually, it's not.'

They went in, and once her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she stood stunned at the scene before her. Everywhere she looked seniors scavenged the buffet bars and consumed voluminous plates of food at numbered picnic benches. They crossed the sawdust-covered floors in a great circular migration. Tables, buffet bars, tables. Then, the cycle was repeated. Tables, bathrooms, buffet bars, tables. It was a social scene as crowded as the Serengeti. Clearly, this was where it was happening in San Ramona if you were part of the over 60 crowd. [OMG, am I happy I don't live there! LOL]

From over in a corner, a man stood up at his table and gestured to them. Elizabeth rightly assumed this was the doctor they'd come to meet as he was the only one in the place, besides the staff, who wouldn't have been a card-carrying member of the AARP.* Nothing about his appearance, he was dressed in a lightweight turtleneck and casual slacks, gave any indication of his professional individuality.

'Hello, Ms. Bennet,' he stretched his hand out to Jane.

'Hello Dr. Collins. I'm Jane. This is Elizabeth.' She cleared up their identities.

'Ah, the patient.' He inclined his head towards her and Elizabeth saw an earphone protruding from his left ear. 'Hello! I was waiting for you.'

'Well, we got here as fast as we could,' Elizabeth said and then, when he began talking to the velveteen curtains, she realized Dr. Collins had answered a call. Jane giggled behind his back.

'I hate those phones,' Elizabeth mouthed to her.

They sat down at Table 16 and eventually Collins did whatever he had to do to disconnect the call. He said nothing else, merely inspected Elizabeth in a non-committal fashion. The patient felt obligated to speak. 'This is my first intervention.'

'We are here today for you, Elizabeth. This is your, time. I hope you've come prepared to listen with an open mind.' He smiled into space and asked, 'You got my information?'

'No, I don't have anything, do you Jane?' But Collins was off again, talking to the voice in his ear.

While he spoke, the waiter arrived and ran through the multitude of offerings at Jimbo's. Apparently, the $8.95 price also included bottomless drinks. Elizabeth's eyes lit up as he set large, empty glasses in front of them. All things considered, ordering a martini to rival the size of Lake Tahoe seemed to be just the ticket about now. She rejected the idea when she saw the look on Jane's face. It was as if she could read her mind sometimes. 'I'll have a diet Pepsi.'

The doctor concluded his call in time to order a drink and, at the waiter's invitation, looked towards the salad bar. So did Jane, who declared, 'Start without me, I'll be right back.'

'Jane! Is this an intervention or have we come for a cheap lunch?'

'Sorry Lizzy, but I'm hungry.'

'Why did you have me eat that fruit?'

'Because you need to concentrate on your therapy, not BBQ ribs.'

Dr. Collins couldn't take his eyes off the mountains of food. He rose from his seat, 'I'll only be a moment Elizabeth and then we can begin.'

The waiter arrived, flashing an "I like big tips" grin as he filled their glasses. Elizabeth sat flipping her knife end over end while Jane and the doctor filled their plates. She eyed the Chinese bar and considered rebellion. But her hunger had vanished. Once they returned and settled in, Dr. Collins managed between bites of shrimp and Swedish meatballs, 'Now, Jane has told me about your problem, but I'd like to hear about it from you.'

He put down his fork, poised a pen over a small pad of paper, and waited for her to begin. She launched into her story, jumping back and forth from point to point, finally ending with the image of what it was like to have her view replaced with the unsightly edifice of The House.

Dr. Collins' first question addressed this, 'Have you always disliked boxes?'

'I don't dislike boxes.'

'Do you have some sort of phobia for the color black?'

'Black isn't a color. It absorbs all colors and reflects none.' He scribbled on his pad when she said this and Elizabeth felt compelled to explain, 'I don't particularly like black, certainly not on a house.'

Wearing stretchy white pants and a matching jacket, Jane volunteered, 'I don't like black either.'

'Please Mrs. Bingley, remain an observer if you will.' He returned to Elizabeth, 'But, you dislike the architectural style of this house which, by your own admission, is a group of boxes painted black.'

'That's a reflection of the owner's bad taste.'

'Ah, the owner. Perhaps now would be a good time to explore his part in all of this.' Dr. Collins cast a stealthy eye at the pasta bar. Its lure was too great and he interrupted Elizabeth, just as she was about to begin, with a raised hand, 'If you'll just hold that thought, I'll be right back.'

He retreated to wait his turn at the end of a long line of patient plate-holders. Elizabeth leaned across to Jane, 'Have you completely lost your mind? What could you possibly have been thinking meeting at this place? His mind is full of how much food he can pack in.'

'I think he's jumped in and really started to get into the heart of it all. And, we do have to eat if we're taking up a table.' Jane glanced in the doctor's direction and back to her sister, offering an apology as she rose, 'Sorry, I'll only be a sec.'

Jane trotted over to the pasta bar and conferred with Dr. Collins. They both returned with heaping plates of colorful sauces and imaginatively shaped noodles. The doctor picked up a laden fork. It hovered threateningly at his mouth while he instructed his patient, 'Alright, now let's hear about this man.' Then, he devoured the oversized bite.

'Delarango?'

He mumbled affirmatively, 'Yes, would you describe him for me?'

Elizabeth bit her lip in thought and answered, 'Well, he's very tall, has a hint of olive in his complexion, thick dark hair with a little bit of a wave - just the length that's long but not too long, very large hands he takes good care of, a classic Greek profile, although I don't think he's Greek, and he needs glasses.'

Jane couldn't help but toss in her two cents, 'He has a wonderful voice, doesn't he Lizzy? Deep and confident without being overbearing.'

'Tell me about the other night,' Collins coaxed.

'Well, we had a few moments.' Jane cleared her throat and Elizabeth elaborated more fully on events from last Saturday, giving the doctor important as well as irrelevant details of the conversations that night. She ended with the talk she and Jane had about his shirt.

With a mouth full of linguini and clam sauce, Collins hit one into left field with his next question, 'What shade of green was his shirt?'

Jane jumped in, 'Sort of emerald.'

A large group of buffet migrants shuffled behind Elizabeth. One from the herd knocked her in the head with an elbow and either didn't notice or didn't think it was worthwhile to stop long enough to apologize. Already testy from the food and phone interruptions, Elizabeth snapped, 'Jane, eat your pasta!'

Her patience lost with her well-meaning sister, the good doctor and the proceedings in general, she continued, 'It was peacock but what difference does any of this make? The shade of his shirt, his voice, that fact he's drop-dead gorgeous has nothing to do with anything.'

'Ah! I can see we need to implement some relaxation techniques. Here's an excellent tool.' Collins' nostrils flared with a huge intake of air. 'Deep cleansing breath. It does wonders. You try.'

He smiled encouragingly at Elizabeth. She creased her brows at a speck of oregano stuck to his tooth and would have given the doctor some specific instructions on what to do with his over-inflated counsel but for Jane, who was also encouraging her by sucking in air through 'O' shaped lips glowing in the sheer, dimensional shine of Crystal Coral gloss. Elizabeth gave in and took a dainty breath. Dr. Collins smiled at her and indulged in another together before he finished, 'You need to get out of these destructive negative-thinking habits. Let the situation resolve by itself.'

Then, Dr. Collins smoothly explained the method to his madness. 'How you described Mr. Delarango has absolutely everything to do with it. You named all his physical features that appeal to you and did not offer any examples about how he behaved, how he acted, or what you thought of it. It wasn't until I questioned you about the other night that you told me. My educated guess is, despite a real distaste for him due to events you've experienced, you're attracted to him. I'd also put my reputation on the line,' he summed up, with a tone of voice that indicating he was quite pleased with himself, 'by concluding that a degree of sexual tension exists between the two of you.'

Sex! With Delarango? Elizabeth's eyes practically popped out of her head.

'I'd like to ascertain how serious it is,' Collins told her.

'That's ridiculous!' Elizabeth refuted the doctor. She visually implored Jane to back her up. Jane just shrugged. Intimacy with her neighbor? Consensual nookie in The House? Consensual...she mused. Sensual, sensuously, sensuousness, sensuosity! She shook herself free from those thoughts and felt compelled to state her position, 'I have never - ever - had any thoughts of that nature towards Delarango.'

'Consciously.'

'Or unconsciously,' she insisted.

'But Lizzy, if they were unconscious, how would you know you had them?'

'Jane, he told you to be quiet!' She addressed Dr. Collins, 'Look, I'm not interested in Delarango.'

'That's for us to ascertain, now isn't it Elizabeth?' He put down his fork and looked directly at her. 'And, nothing good can ever come between the two of you if you can't move past the resentment you have for him. Good afternoon, Dr. Collins here.'

He'd taken another call. Elizabeth told the ceiling, 'I don't believe this. Any of this.'

Dr. Collins didn't seem to notice her frustration with his tableside manner. He made quick work of his latest call and continued, 'So, let's address your hostility of late. Whether or not he deserves any portion of it, it appears you've projected all your aggressive tendencies onto this Mr. Delarango.'

'But, he's been responsible for everything that's changed at the ranch! He even changed the name of the road to Calle de Oro.'

'You don't like the name?'

'No, of course I don't.'

He jotted some more on his pad and asked, 'Is it that the name is in Spanish? Many Californians don't recognize the cultural heritage we have with our neighbors to the south.'

Elizabeth shook her head.

'Perhaps you actually do like it, but refuse to admit it because Mr. Delarango chose it? We may have some control issues here too, Mrs. Bingley.'

Jane shared a concerned air with the doctor while they both scrutinized Elizabeth.

'This has nothing to do with control. I already told you, the road had always been called Bennet Ranch Road. Calle de Oro means nothing.'

'To you.'

'That's right, to me.'

'Control,' the doctor confirmed. He went on, 'Maybe it means something to him. Have you considered that there is another person who is responsible for the changes in your life?'

Everyone knew to whom he referred. 'Of course.'

'It appears that you haven't made any effort to come to terms with your mother's part in this.'

This was unfortunately true. Jane nodded.

Dr. Collins pushed his plate away and, no longer under the influence of a mediocre meal, began to sound much more credible. 'Elizabeth,' he began, 'all situations we face in life can be classified into two categories: things we can change and things we can't. When you have no control over a situation, sitting and worrying and getting angry won't make any difference to the outcome.'

'The key to moving on is forgiveness--of self and others. You must forgive yourself for the way you've acted. You must forgive your mother for her part in this and you must forgive your neighbor for his.'

He put it all back on her. Elizabeth looked guilty.

'Forgiveness is a two way street. If you really want to resolve this, you need to clear your conscience by apologizing to Mr. Delarango.' Elizabeth dropped her head into her hands. While she'd kicked around that very notion during her sleeplessness - some sort of general 'if my conduct on Saturday night overstepped acceptable dining conventions, I am sorry' speech - hearing it said out loud made it very real. Her stomach roiled. Collins continued, 'But, Elizabeth, it must be genuine. Don't do it until you're ready. You'll known when its time. Have you ever heard of reframing?'

Thinking he'd taken yet another call, she remained buried in her hands and didn't reply.

He repeated, 'Elizabeth? Have you ever heard of reframing?'

Apparently, this was meant for her. She looked at him through spread fingers, 'Well, it usually involves new wood, glass and matt boards!'

Humor was apparently not his strong suit. Dr. Collins appeared confused.

'Chronic stress makes us vulnerable to negative suggestion. Reframing is a technique used to change the way we look at things in order to feel better about them. This exercise helps you to learn to focus on positives. The key is to recognize that there are many ways to interpret the same situation. It involves three simple steps,' he ticked them off on his fingers. 'First, accentuate the positive. Second, eliminate the negative. Finally - the most important - latch on to the affirmative.'

'And don't mess with Mr. In Between,' Elizabeth sang as she perked back up and twirled her finger.' From their blank looks, Jane and the doctor did not find her jokes amusing. She sobered up and said, 'Sorry.'

'You have nothing to apologize for. Remember this time is for you and what you can get out of it.' He paused before taking off in another direction, 'I'm not going to extend myself any further for this cause unless clear parameters are set.'

'I just want my life back,' Elizabeth explained.

'You may very well think that but I couldn't possibly comment.'

'Isn't that what you're here for?'

Collins tapped on his ear phone, indicating he was once again talking to someone else. Elizabeth drummed her fingers on the table while he finished. Then he told her the first thing that she could really latch on to, 'You've always had your life Elizabeth, it's up to you what you choose to do with it.'

Thus began, over profiteroles and espresso torte, thirty minutes of quality Elizabeth time, punctuated by Collins' breaking off only twice in mid-sentence to redirect his conversation to callers.

He ended their time with a long-winded questionnaire about diet and stress. 'Do you experience migraines, lack of energy, insomnia? Do you have skin problems, hair loss or bleeding gums? Are you regular?' Collins asked her about her sugar intake and fretted over her abused adrenaline glands. He touched upon her salt consumption and fussed over her blood pressure. He recommended a comprehensive physical exam and a radical diet overhaul.

'That's been my goal for the last week,' Jane injected into the conversation.

'I had no idea my diet could be so deadly.'

'Do as I say, Elizabeth,' Dr. Collins advised.

She watched him spoon tapioca pudding into his mouth. Definitely not as he does!

They came the end of their session. After Jane paid the bill and they stood to leave, Dr. Collins was inspired to lead them in one final motivational tool. The good doctor extended plump hands to Elizabeth and Jane, whose faces were the essence of bewilderment.

'Let's join together for some parting inspiration.' The quickest way to get out of Jimbo's was to go along with him. They followed his lead and bowed their heads, Elizabeth sending up her own prayer that no one in the restaurant knew her.

Collins began, 'Now, repeat after me. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.'

He paused patiently until they recited, 'God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...'

'Courage to change the things I can.'

'Courage to change the things I can...'

'And the wisdom to know the difference.'

'And the wisdom to know the difference.'

Elizabeth left under a smattering of stares from the diners, some of whom had paused their midday food intake long enough to watch the curious events at Table 16. She was armed with pamphlets on nutrition and its relationship to her mental health, a ten-point chart to make it through the day with a positive perspective, the number to a 24 hour stress management hotline and a new way to breathe.

Dr. Collins offered a final parting encouragement over a parking lot full of sensibly priced, midsized cars, 'Remember Elizabeth, it's a waste of energy to worry about events over which we have no control, and to deny any attraction you might have.'

At the beginning of the drive home, Jane made a point of praising Dr. Collins and probing Elizabeth for her thoughts on it all. But Elizabeth didn't feel like talking. Jane left her alone to mull things over. She thought about stress. She thought about how much 'bad fats', trans fatty acids and saturated fats, were coursing through her body. Enough to implode her. She thought about eliminating the negative. And she thought about Mr. In Between, Delarango, who had become the man of the hour this afternoon. She had no doubt that Collins had aimed in entirely the wrong direction when he targeted her feelings for him as romantic. It was impossible. Delarango? What a joke.

Delarango. The De La Raaaango! It sounded like a 60's dance craze, the latest in-thing for a teenybopper shindig, danced wildly for a few months before it was dethroned by the Hanky Panky.

* AARP: American Association of Retired Persons

Chapter Seven

When I woke up this morning
You were on my mind
And you were on my mind
I got troubles, whoa-whoa
I got worries, whoa-whoa
I got wounds to bind

You Were On My Mind, Sylvia Fricker, 1965

The wind had turned with autumn's departure and chilly blasts, easily mistaken for Arctic bellows, roared off the sea and up the hillside. It whipped the tufts of long, dry grasses into an agitated state and moaned a lonely cry across the ranch. A doleful whistle threaded through a tiny space in the old sliding doors that extended along the length of Elizabeth's deck.

Before a cheery fire Hook lay at her feet with his head between his paws. His eyes flicked towards the doors whenever they rattled and shook. Elizabeth reclined in one of the Mission chairs with a handmade quilt tucked around her. On a table by her elbow was a mug with green tea pooled at the bottom. A weighty bestseller, 'How to Live Long Through Good Nutrition: The Essential Guide to Healthy Living', rested on her lap and all the information from Dr. Collins cluttered the floor, along with a mountain of her own sources from Internet sites and the local library. Elizabeth knew much of it by heart, having spent the weeks since the intervention at Jimbo's trying to apply it to her daily life. It was an exercise in self-sacrifice when it came to avoiding some of her favorite foods. It was one in self-healing when it came to coping with stress and looking at life from a different perspective. She'd taken huge steps to accentuate the positive and made significant changes in her outlook towards health, tolerance of others and what it meant to forgive and forget. The 'forget part' was possibly the hardest of all, especially given the view through the open drapes.

Ultimately the Elizabeth of old, the one who'd been M.I.A. for the last year, was back. A little bruised and a little wiser, but back just the same. And overtly cognizant of how very un-Elizabeth-like she'd been. She'd over-reacted to events and over-dramatized the effects they'd had upon her. And the dinner! The empathy she felt towards Delarango maxed out whenever she revisited that night. If she felt this way, how must her victim feel?

As always, this led Elizabeth to what had become known as The Delarango Question. It was not so much of a question as it was an assessment of the dynamics brewing between her and the gentleman next door. There was no way she could accept Dr. Collins' assertion that she was attracted to him. She didn't identify any feelings - deep or superficial - that told her she wanted Delarango for a long weekend, an invigorating night, or even a speedy 30 minutes. He was attractive, no problem admitting that, all you had to do was take him in and unless you'd just crawled out from under a rock on an undiscovered continent that was obvious. But, Elizabeth liked to think she was deeper than that when it came to who she decided to fancy. She didn't know Delarango, and she knew zippo-zero about him except what little she learned through a slick magazine article, some fancy food packaging, his self-proclamations and Jane's second-hand tidbits.

Still, she'd come to understand that people didn't always recognize their real feelings. But, facing the possibility that she might subconsciously want Delarango for more than a good tamale recipe was too much to grapple with right now.

Delarango. The Delarangos. It sounded like the whole Charro team, dressed in their silver-studded jackets, mounted on sleek horses prancing down Colorado Boulevard on New Years' morning. Feliz Año Nuevo!

Now, Elizabeth focused on her apology. The doctor had predicted she'd know when the time was right. But so far, all she'd come up with was empty a bunch of empty excuses to avoid the inevitable. Since Jimbo's, she'd done nothing but duck for cover whenever the risk of contact with her neighbor seemed imminent. Guarded eyes shifted towards the sliding doors. Outside, mere yards away was The House, with Delarango doing who-knows-what inside: painting, writing, cooking, micro-managing his food empire from hundreds of miles away. She'd spotted him numerous times. And avoided him just as many.

Her newly enlightened self-awareness led her to one clear-cut fact: she was chicken. Every time she came close to making direct contact, her bravado popped and she was left a deflated, rubbery shell of doubt. If she didn't change her approach, she'd never accidentally-on-purpose bump into him and get past this apology business!

Maybe tonight she'd taken strength from the forces of nature roaring outside because this time she wrestled with her reluctance and won, finally formulating a speech to testify to her newfound knowledge and attitude. It touched upon every point that should be addressed. Elizabeth's confidence grew with her progress until, rallying her enthusiasm, she got up and paced the floor, deftly stepping over Hook as she went back and forth experimenting with her delivery style: Honest and conciliatory; sincere and contrite; direct and assured. She settled on positive and genuine. The most important aspect of it was she really meant what she was going to say. She went to bed fully prepared to speak to him the next morning. It would be a new start to their relationship.

In the morning Delarango's sprinklers automatically came alive, watering his lawn with showery precision. It was the first thing Elizabeth heard. Over time, a strange transformation had occurred without her realizing it. The House - and the presence of its owner - had woven into the fabric of her daily life, making routine and predictable events next door go hand in hand with hers, so that one happening without the other came to mean that something was missing.

When Hook was slow to come back inside - a friendly exchange with Delarango would have occurred.

Dusk fell - like clockwork Delarango's drapes were routinely pulled shut.

Returning from work - light from the stained glass porch light next door cut through the night.

Late night on the deck - one by one lights inside The House were extinguished until only a solitary one continued to shine in the top middle window.

So this morning she didn't think twice about the soft sound of sprinklers waking her up. Her apology was her first thought. The fragile speech had shattered during the night and pieces of it floated around inside her head like space debris circling Earth. As she let Hook out, she quickly put it all back in place and steeled her faltering will which, during the night, had inched her back towards the Chicken Zone. If she was going to get through this, a prepared mental state was crucial so she poured coffee and began to run through the speech as she waited for Hook. He was back before she'd started on a second rehearsal. She recruited him as her audience and received tail-wagging approval. This buoyed Elizabeth's confidence and spurred her into action. As soon as it was practical, she pulled the drapes and stepped out onto the deck, half expecting Delarango to be waiting for her across the narrow divide.

He wasn't. Just like last night, it was cold and windy. Except for the iridescent patterns excess water from the sprinklers left on Delarango's concrete, there were no signs of life at The House. Her momentary disappointment didn't diminish her enthusiasm though and Elizabeth left for work with one eye on the rear-view mirror, looking forward to getting back home to hunt down Delarango.

After work, when she crested the last rise of Calle de Oro and approached her carport, Elizabeth appraised her surroundings. Something was out of place. She quickly identified a black patch where there was usually a warm beacon from Delarango's porch light. So, Delarango had an absent-mindedness about him. She tucked away this tidbit of knowledge and as she parked, picturing him mad scientist-like in his kitchen-slash-laboratory, knee deep in bubbling sauces, scribbling notes on the results of his latest concoction, too busy to even notice that night had fallen.

A novel idea struck her. To hell with trying to invent an "unexpected" meeting to apologize; she could go over, ring the bell and initiate contact. That would be much better than a devised meeting of the neighbors. He would know she was there for exactly one purpose: to confess her regrets and begin anew. It was such a good idea, she found herself halfway across his drive, finger out ready to punch his doorbell before she came to an abrupt halt. First, she needed to wash away the eau de fish that clung to her.

Her hellos to Hook were short and as shampoo rinsed away down her face and shoulders, another idea came to her that surpassed the initial genius of her new plan. Capuliatu in crudo, or Spaghetti with Fresh Tomato was penciled in on tonight's menu. She could make it for two. Delarango would appreciate the healthy benefits from the Mediterranean meal and she could demonstrate he'd been an influence on her new way of eating. She could even take over a conversation booster, 'The Essential Guide to Healthy Living'; it would be a double whammy since Delarango was into nutrition and books.

Top heavy in her towel turban, she left all the ingredients to marinate and went to finish getting dressed. Tonight the wardrobe road was full of potholes. Nothing looked good. All her jeans seemed baggy and none of her tops did the right thing in the right places. Elizabeth wasted 20 minutes choosing a grey sweater with a daring neckline. In the middle of applying finishing strokes of mascara, she abruptly stopped. A close inspection revealed her eyebrows weren't symmetrical. She leaned into the mirror and wiggled them one at a time. They were seriously askew. The right one curved while the left one sort of angled en route. Elizabeth couldn't believe she'd never noticed it before. It was so obvious and strange looking! She tried to fluff them up to hide the difference. She frowned. While she rummaged through a drawer for her tweezers, the clock reminded her she couldn't dawdle, so she gave up after adding a dash of lipstick and turned away. Maybe her deformity would garner some pity from Delarango.

With a great batch of Capuliatu in crudo resting on top of the voluminous book of health, she headed for the door and didn't go five steps before she sat it all down to wipe her sweaty hands. Nerves had kicked in. She ran through her apology one more time, then picked everything up and went next door.

The House had one of those over-sized doors, something a goliath could enter through without stooping. Elizabeth fumbled in the darkness and with her elbow pressed the doorbell, part of an elaborate communication system mounted on the wall. While she waited, the wind had its own ideas of what her hair should look like and took action. With her arms full there was little she could do to counter its effects. As she tried to flip her hair from her face without any hands, she remembered her eyebrows. To compensate for their deficiencies, she tried to even them out by raising and holding up the right one. It made her look like half of her face was surprised. She was about to press the doorbell again when the speaker crackled to life.

'Hi!' she offered, hugging the wall to stay out of the wind.

'Hello!'

'It's Elizabeth from next door.' She looked up, expecting the porch light to come on with her arrival.

'This is Rick.'

'I know that! Hey, I've been wanting to talk to you.'

'I can't come to the door right now.'

'Oh, you have to! I've brought dinner over. Are you hungry?'

'Press and hold down the blue button and leave me a message. I'll get back to you as soon as can.'

'Rick!" Elizabeth began, trying not to make any judgments about his attitude. She pushed the blue button, 'Rick, did you hear me say I've brought dinner over? I made something I knew you'd like. A healthy Mediterranean dish. All we need is some of your red wine!

She released the button and waited for his response. When he didn't say anything more, she pushed it again. 'It's dark out here. You didn't turn your porch light on. Rick? Aren't you going to answer the door?'

Apparently he wasn't.

'Rick listen, I wanted to apologize about your mailbox and about insulting your accomplishments and especially about dinner the other night, but not through a speaker. Please, just come to the door for a minute. Then, if you don't want to talk to me anymore you can eat your spaghetti alone. Rick?!'

She rang the bell again and the speaker crackled, 'Hello!'

She was about to answer again when he continued on, "This is Rick. I can't come to the door right now. Press and hold down the blue button and leave me a message. I'll get back to you as soon as can.'

'Rick! Are you in there?' she asked, forgetting to press and hold the blue button. She leaned against The House, in the dark, in the cold, with her platter of spaghetti quickly losing its steam. Once she accepted Delarango wasn't going to come to the door, she let her eyebrow drop in disappointment before she stumbled back home in the wind.

Delarango. It sounded like a wannabe artiste who probably spent waaaaay too much time sniffing the paint thinner.

As she turned away from the driving rain, Elizabeth chuckled to herself. Only fools and dedicated employees would be out on a day like this. She wryly thought they may be one and the same. Once again, she was pulling 24-hour Christmas duties -solo- at ORRI. She was the warm body to handle feeding schedules and emergencies. It seemed like the right thing to do. She'd offered after a blatant hint and a nice Christmas gift from Mark, a $50 grocery store gift card which was nice compared to last year's gift of a cheese and meat platter pre-packaged in Des Moines.

With her fellow employees in their warm homes that smelled of pine trees and roasted dinners, and Mark off for a few weeks in Napa where he'd bought into a vineyard, Elizabeth slogged along with buckets of fish to Mercy and Mild's enclosure. The refrigeration unit for the sea lions, on the fritz for almost a month, should have been fixed by now but remained out of commission. Their meals had to be hauled over from the large old facilities that housed a number of other ORRI residents.

She set down the heavy buckets and wiped water from her face. The gray sky blended with the horizon and it was difficult to pinpoint where it stopped and the sea began. A sudden gust roughly pushed her. She picked up her buckets and hurried around the corner and into the sea lions' den. Ready for dinner, they barked approvingly when they saw the buckets. Elizabeth cleaned out their enclosure and played with them, squirting them with the hose. She repeated this general theme for several hours until Christmas dinner had been served throughout the Institute.

Back in her office, she watched the afternoon dissolve into chaos with bits of debris flying though the air as the storm gained intensity. Inside was cozy enough with her space heater and a package of rice cakes. She looked at the wilted mistletoe hanging from the light. Its red bow sagged. On his last day at work, Mark had tried one more time to get her under it. He'd reminded her that the funding for the sea otters would be in place after the first of the year and suggested that he deserved a reward for his hard work. Elizabeth tactfully demurred. In any other circumstance she would blindly follow his lead. Mark was a dynamic man - full of energy, canny and upbeat. He looked and acted much younger than she suspected he was. She wasn't sure of his age, but a review of his history could zero in on a pretty good guess. Elizabeth was possibly his biggest fan, but she couldn't get past the age gap to think about a personal relationship with him. The kind of admiration that Mark was encouraging just wasn't there.

As Elizabeth crunched on her rice snack, she decided it was just as well Jane was in Vanuatu for the holidays; she didn't have to test her healthy diet commitment with the temptation of a lot of once-a-year treats. This way, spending Christmas and New Years alone, was really a help for her. None of that artery-clogging stuff this year, she could just sit and prop her rubber boots onto the edge of the desk and munch away on another dry cake. No one to open a bunch of gifts with or swap stories about Christmases past. Yep, she could just sit and watch the weather run amok. She was lucky she didn't have the after-dinner mess to clean up. That was always the worst part of the day. The crowded kitchen had ten different conversations going at once. Nope, she could just sit here all alone, look at the cards she'd taped to the wall, and play with her phone.

Her last call had been to Jane before she'd left for her tropical paradise. She checked her voice mail; the only two there she'd already picked up, both from Mark wishing her a Merry Christmas. She navigated to her contacts and deleted three she couldn't place. She tested her ring volume. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" pierced the quiet office with its poignant melody. She tested it again and again - da-da-da da dada dada daa-da - singing the lyrics to herself until it was time to restock the refrigerators with frozen fish from the freezers.

When she stepped outside, leaning into the gale to keep from being knocked backwards, she half-sang the final line of the carol, 'And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.'

It was carried away on the wind.

December 25th might be Elizabeth's marathon work day but New Year's Eve and Day weren't. She popped in for a couple of hours the last morning of the year before she checked out until January 2nd. On her drive home Jane called from a million miles away. She was watching the sunrise tomorrow, New Year's Day, since she was on the other side of the International Date Line.

'Happy New Year!'

'Why are you whispering?' Elizabeth asked.

'I'm the only one up.'

'How was your New Year's Eve?'

'Festive! Full of raunchy dancing and French champagne.'

'You don't like to dance.'

'No, but the local men do and let me tell you how hot they are gyrating to a primitive beat in nothing but sarongs.'

'How hot are they?'

'Hot enough to keep me sizzling all night!'

'Wicked, wicked.'

'I will say I used the situation to the best of my advantage.'

'And my brother-in-law's.'

'Most definitely! What are you doing tonight?' Silence gave Jane her answer. 'Weren't you invited out?'

Elizabeth usually had a New Year's Eve fling with friends from University. 'Young families seem to have priority this year.'

'Oh.'

'I don't want to go out anyway. The weather's been bad and I've got things to do.'

'Okay.' Jane didn't sound convinced. 'Maybe Mr. Delarango will be throwing a bash and invite you over. Oh, that's right, someone hasn't apologized yet, unless you want to tell me something I don't know.'

'He's still gone. I finally get my act together and he vanishes.'

'It's ironic that you're complaining about his absence. You've wanted him gone since before he moved in.'

'I know, but now I'm ready to apologize.'

'Look, Rick will be back, sometime. After building that mansion he wouldn't just abandon it.'

'You don't think so?'

'Well, I don't know...'

'But, you just said...'

'I know what I just said. What I meant was, he'd have to at least deal with moving his things out.'

'So, you think he's left to live back in L.A.'

'I don't know. It would appear he has business in other places to be gone for so long.'

'That's L.A. He could have a company move his things out and never come back.'

'Yes, he could. But we don't know that's what's going on.'

'Well we don't know it's not. And Jane, if he doesn't come back, I'll never see him again!'

'Don't get so worked up. We don't know anything.'

'But, it's this not knowing that's bugging me. If he doesn't come back so I can apologize, I'll never forgive him.'

'I know.' Jane paused and quickly added, 'Oh, I've got to go. Breakfast is being laid out on the terrace.'

'By a man in a sarong?'

'Not sure. I can only see a brown chest. I ought to go check if he's wearing anything down below. Maybe they have a custom in Vanuatu that I don't know about! Try and have a good night Lizzy.'

Elizabeth spent the afternoon working on her sea otter project. Time slipped by and it was dark before she took a break. She let Hook out and had a peek in the fridge to see about dinner. She'd forgotten she needed to food shop. Salad was an option but she wanted something warm and filling. Going all the way back to the market in San Ramona was out of the question so she decided to live a little and order from a roadhouse cafe a few miles down the road. She found their take out menu; they had a veggie burger so she ordered it along with a jumbo side of onion rings.

She thought it rather pitiful to be working on New Year's Eve so instead she read the news headlines. The lead story about the high price of gasoline had a linked article about ethanol where she learned about corn hoarding to keep ethanol prices high. That linked to an article about how expensive corn tortillas had become in Mexico because of the hoarded corn, all of which led her to forget that Hook was out. She went to the door to find him sauntering up apparently unperturbed about the inclement weather. She went back to the PC and continued, thinking about corn tortillas and Mexican food and people who made money from it and that, of course, led her to Delarango.

And Elizabeth did something she never thought she would do. She googled him.

Business links, art links, links that had to do with a charity he founded, and his company's website. Several sites in Spanish, one that, from what Elizabeth could tell, was nothing more than chatting about the attributes of well-known or successful Latinos. Delarango had his own topic and pictures were linked. Elizabeth got lost looking at Delarango in a suit, in a starched white button-down Oxford, with glasses, without glasses and, her personal favorite, tanned in faded blue denim with the sleeves rolled up. Intriguingly dark in the photo - his skin, his hair, his eyes - the picture also portrayed an element of the unknown about him, the enigmatic Delarango. Dr. Collin's theory resurfaced but she was too hungry to think about it. She left Delarango up on her screen to go call the cafe just as their delivery person knocked on her door. Elizabeth grabbed her wallet and rummaged through, looking for something besides a twenty.

'Hi, do you have change?' she asked as she opened the door.

'I might but I left my wallet at home.'

The answer from the other side of the threshold pierced her somewhere way down deep inside. She lifted her head and found herself in a dead stare with Delarango. The alive and kicking version. The situation knocked her of balance and she uttered the obvious into those dark eyes. 'You're not the delivery guy.'

'Well, I have this,' he said, holding her gaze and a bottle of red, 'so you could call me the delivery guy.'

Elizabeth smiled uncertainly and lost her voice.

'I got your message and was wondering if you still had that spaghetti.'

She shook her head and managed, 'That was from weeks ago.'

'I've been gone.' They appraised each other as Delarango continued, 'Well, if you haven't eaten, I'm not going to let you start on this. Who knows where that might lead.'

He said it lightly, politely, without any hint that it was meant other than to keep the conversation flowing. But Elizabeth tried to read deeper into it, wondering if he was referring to the dinner. Maybe that was his way of alluding to it. Then he added, 'Unless you're in the mood just to see where it does lead.'

Elizabeth scrutinized him more closely. Maybe he meant something else all together. Before she could decide, the delivery guy arrived with her order. He didn't have change so she bought a very expensive burger. Delicious smells filled the doorway. Fate had handed her a belated Christmas gift. This was what she'd been hoping for. Pulling herself together, she didn't think twice. 'Do you like onion rings?'

'I love onion rings. Have you ever had them with an award-winning Merlot?'

There was never any doubt about inviting him in. She stood aside to let him pass and found herself riveted to some great-fitting black jeans or possibly what was inside the jeans. She knew this was her moment and she tried to retrieve her apology but watching Delarango as he walked into the house was a distraction. In the meantime he'd asked her a question she'd missed.

'Sorry?'

With Hook shadowing him, he was making his way to the PC where marine mammal reference material laid open, 'How's your sea otter project coming?'

The monitor! A surge of terror jolted her when she remembered Delarango in faded denim reproduced in high pixel resolution looking out across the room. As she tried to remember if her screen saver was set, she practically screamed, 'Rick!'

Man and beast stopped in their tracks.

'Watch out, I've got extension cords going everywhere.' The extension cords weren't anywhere near him; Delarango looked around for them which distracted him from looking at the PC monitor long enough for Elizabeth to coax him into the kitchen to open the wine. She left him uncorking on the pretense of lighting a fire, detouring on the way to the PC to shut it off. She exhaled in relief when his picture vanished.

Elizabeth made a salad and over dinner shared everything except her apology. Things were going so well; they were getting along as if she'd never gone for his jugular like a hungry lioness. She couldn't seem to fit the apology into the cautious dance of re-acquaintance they performed. Then, about an hour into his visit, Delarango gave her the chance.

They sat on the floor, close enough to the fire to feel the heat on their faces, sharing the last of the wine. Several times when they'd been talking, she caught herself drifting off in appreciation of his outward appearance. Tonight he looked just about as fetching as he did in the faded denim picture. She reminded herself she wasn't the type to pick a man based on his looks, at least not his looks. Hook had laid claim to him, never leaving his side even after the onion rings were gone. Now Hook's head rested against his leg. As he stroked the length of the dog's back, Delarango asked, 'So, why do you need to apologize about my mailbox?'

Elizabeth looked like she'd mistakenly walked into a crowded men's room. 'Look, the night's been really nice. Do we need to mess it up by talking about your mailbox?'

'I doubt there's anything you could say that would be that upsetting.'

'Really?'

'Try me.'

She decided to take a leap; if she'd thought more about it she might never get it out. 'The day I met you at the mailboxes I was trying to prop yours back up.'

'It was falling over.'

'That's right but it wasn't falling over until I hit it with the door of my truck.' Her confession had his full attention. 'I accidentally hit it when I was trying to get out of the truck to catch your mail. The door had opened and it was falling out.'

'So while you were being neighborly and trying to help me you accidentally knocked the mailbox over? I think I can live with that.'

'But I didn't tell you that I was the one that did it, and that wasn't right. I'll be happy to pay for the repairs.'

'Are you happy you got it off your chest, umm, so to speak?'

She nodded, acknowledging that was the whole story and nothing but the story. Actually, the truth lay somewhere in between but she didn't need to go there.

'Then that's all the payment I need.'

Delarango wouldn't listen to any more talk about it. He was so gracious and easy-going that Elizabeth just sort of slipped into talking about the last year and how she'd turned into another person.

'It never occurred to me that someone else would live up here. It's been just me for so long and it happened so fast that I never had a chance to get used to the idea before everything changed. I didn't react well.' She played with the end of Hook's tail. 'Every little thing just set me off and my attitude took a dive. I would like to apologize for that.'

She didn't know whether it was that Delarango was astute and understood how much she needed to tell him the things she did or that he was too polite to interrupt, but Elizabeth made most of the points she outlined with him listening quietly. Her speech wasn't delivered like she'd planned; it evolved into a dialogue that acted as a bridge of understanding between the two of them. Too far to cross in just one short interlude, nevertheless, the way to establish friendly relations was identified; the course was marked. She still had questions for Delarango, but not to be asked tonight.

He didn't stay late; he'd driven up from L.A. that day and was tired. An afterthought made him pause after their goodbye. He stood half-shadowed and the light defined the contours of his face. Looking down at her with a frank expression, he added, 'Thanks very much for dinner, Elizabeth. Again.'

They were the exact same parting words that he'd used before, at the end of that fateful dinner they'd never forget, but the way he said them tonight conveyed an entirely different meaning. She closed the door behind him and let the warmth of contentment spread over her.

So happy with herself and how things had gone, Elizabeth was on a bit of a high so she wrapped up in a quilt and went out onto the deck. The wind had blown away all the clouds and the stars celebrated up above. She couldn't recall the last time she felt so untroubled. She watched them for a while until their light became the same light she'd just seen in Delarango's eyes. They held her fast and wouldn't let go.

Before she went inside she glanced over to The House, just in time to see one solitary light, shinning in the top middle window, go out.

Chapter Eight
I think it's so groovy now That people are finally getting together I thinks it's wonderful and how That people are finally getting together Reach out in the darkness Reach out in the darkness Reach out in the darkness And you may find a friend

Reach Out of the Darkness by Jim Post, 1968

Women! What was it with them?

The more interesting half of the world's population belonged to a secret society that declared itself off limits to the other half. They met underground, in ladies' rooms across the nation, and they weren't fooling men about what they really did when they embarked en masse to freshen up. It had nothing to do with the call of nature; it was all about talking. When women couldn't hit a powder room, they received regular updates from their compatriots via cell phones. Passing glances and quick nods were an unspoken language that transcended cultures. When all else failed, they went telepathic. The mental rhythm of their intuitive drums kept them connected.

And, the funny thing about it, despite men's exclusion from this charmed circle, women still expected them to completely and unequivocally understand their innermost thoughts, feelings, and *gasp* desires. To be sure, without needing to be prompted, they'd explain themselves in an outpouring of emotional discourse that made perfect sense only to other women. But for men, it was like walking blind through a minefield. You were bound to trip up and the inevitable explosion could generate fallout that would last for weeks.

Women.

Delarango gave his head a manly shake. His was the reasonable sex. The rational sex. The no-nonsense sex. When forced to do so, men expressed their thoughts and ideas in a clear, organized manner. When a man said what he thought, a man meant what he said. And, he said it in 20 words or less. He quoted a famous, fictional professor to the empty room, 'Why can't a woman be more like a man?'

In fact, that was the last thing he'd want. The system, he believed, had been set up pretty well. Balance in the Universe existed between the sexes; their differences created their own form of harmony, sort of a yin-yang kind of a thing.

Now, while he contemplated some of the more pleasing aspects that were unique to women, he watched the first day of the new year fight valiantly against a determined cold front. The currents shifted and the first sky of the year, a pale winter offering, appeared. The invitation to go outside was tempting and, as he sized up the chance of more rain, by habit he reached up to the shelf for his glasses and put them on. The world became fuzzy and vague. He pulled them off again and, while congratulating himself on his decision to finally have laser eye surgery, he saw the razor-sharp figure of Elizabeth, with Hook by her side, bundled up and walking down the road.

He watched until they disappeared around a turn guarded by a detachment of oaks and thought more about women. Particular women. Bennet women. The three of them were certainly something. If Elizabeth was to be believed, her mother's priorities were out of balance and she had acted with little regard for her daughters' wishes when she'd sold him the land. But Delarango's conscience was clean; although he'd made the purchase for very personal reasons, he looked at it judiciously in terms of the deal. He hadn't twisted Mrs. Bennet's arm; his money had with a quiet firm grasp. But the decision to either accept his offer or walk away had always rested with her. Despite having created the situation, Delarango wasn't accountable for how the mother had treated her daughters over the land sale.

Elizabeth's sister Jane had polished social skills and a cosmopolitan style. Good at small talk, she'd said all the right things about the latest trends in interior design, international destinations and the stock market. But, she seemed to hover over Elizabeth. The word 'overbearing' came to mind. Before, during and after dinner, she worked overtime promoting her sister.

And then there was Elizabeth, his unusual neighbor, an elusive puzzle not yet solved.

After months of her humorless posturing and silent disapproval, they'd met face to face for the first time while she fretted over the ridiculous mailbox his designer erected. It fell over and he couldn't have been happier. She wouldn't listen when he said just to leave it. He was late that day so he'd taken his mail and took off. The next few times they met, before he could acknowledge her, she got huffy and retreated to her weather-beaten house. You could almost see the trail of fire in her wake. Eventually he discovered she blamed him for her behavior. He didn't initiate a conversation so he was rude. Why couldn't she say hello first? What happened to that sexual equality business from forty some-odd years ago? There was a big bru-ha-ha about it at the time. Surely news of bra burning had made the rounds of the current sisterhood.

Never slow on the uptake, Delarango had decided to steer clear of Elizabeth Bennet. But she crossed paths with him again, shattering the peace of an unsuspecting night, and that time she had no problem finding her voice. She'd startled the bejezus out of him when she emerged from the shadows. Her soliloquy began as a slow drip of ire and then spilled over into a flashflood of raw anger. Friendly fire it was not. He had no idea what hit him and suspected that's just the way she wanted it. Elizabeth cleared up any lingering doubt about what she thought of him and anything associated with him. This was particularly ironic when she didn't even know him.

Women.

After that night a stalemate ensued. Any chance of neighborly discourse between them had been lost - until Jane stepped in and created the perfect chance to turn the situation around. His strategy in accepting her dinner invitation had been to share a low-key evening with the sisters that would rectify the past encounters with Elizabeth and establish cordial relations. Kissinger he wasn't; he had realistic expectations. If he could just wipe away the look of disdain that was forever etched across her face and get her to speak in a normal tone of voice, he would call that progress.

That night, amongst the Bennet family knick-knacks, Jane cooked, Elizabeth kept her distance and he made an unexpected discovery that went against everything he'd learned through years of experience and a few hard knocks. It happened in an instant and added an unknown dimension to the entire affair. He found Elizabeth attractive!

Jane had stressed that the invitation was from both of them, but within the first 5 minutes of his arrival he knew that was a whopper of a lie. The vibrations coming from Elizabeth hadn't been good ones. Unperturbed, Delarango always faced a challenge. Over the rim of his glass, as the sanguine liquid reflected upon his face, he took her in and while the strength and independence she displayed was more combative than congenial, those were traits that charmed him. That alone wasn't enough, though. With the disclosure about her burning some lawyer's letter, the passionate way Elizabeth expressed her feelings revved his engines. It was when she expressed her feelings about the land though that Delarango understood something deep inside her because it was inside of him too. They connected, although she didn't know it.

He marked Elizabeth as potential and new possibilities opened up for the evening - and possibly beyond.

From his vantage - a man's view of the world - he figured the current state of their relationship could be easily rectified by a simple conversation. Clear the air, 1-2-3, and that would be that. Thinking without benefit of a woman's viewpoint, Delarango failed to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. He was the source that fuelled Elizabeth's less-than-eloquent outbursts but it never registered with him.

He'd wanted to move beyond the nonsense about The House and get to know her better. She'd had other plans, like going a few rounds with him and mixed it up through most of the meal. Delarango's attraction waned. Confidence was one thing; belligerence was something else. Different points of view made the conversation flow; accusations and blame killed it. Delarango found it a tough stretch to imagine Elizabeth's kind of aggression as sexual tension. Nothing that Jane had said swayed him. Disappointed, he wrote her off as a fiery she-devil and abandoned the possibility of taking it any further with her.

From that night onwards Delarango found himself deliberately avoiding any chance to run into Elizabeth. Unaccustomed to tip-toeing around, he resented this encroachment upon his lifestyle, the result of another's cranky disposition. In this particular case though, Elizabeth out of sight did not mean Elizabeth out of mind. The intensity of her feelings and how she looked when she expressed herself crept up upon him as a misty memory much like fog enveloped the Bay Bridge. He wondered about her while he worked, ironically experiencing one of his most creative periods. Starting in the early morning when he had good light on the eastern side of The House, Delarango completed a mobile of gigantic proportions applying tens of thousands of cancelled postage stamps to hanging, rotating cylinders. The result was a sunscape in constant motion to be viewed from below. In the evenings, while he imagined his next door neighbor devising elaborate plots of retaliation against him, he was able to complete the first draft of a Mexican cookbook, choosing recipes and coordinating a schedule to test each one by making them himself. Within a short space of time, he finished an enormous amount of work, thrilled with his productivity and his emergence unscathed from any plans Elizabeth might have made to do him in.

He'd had no intention of getting involved with her beyond his chance reflections. She'd been deleted to his recycle bin, marked for a permanent adios when she went and did what her sex lived for: she made an inexplicable change of course. Unpredictable and very womanly.

He'd been shocked to find that while he was in Los Angeles she'd come over with pasta and apologies. Against the backdrop of a fierce-sounding windstorm, her upbeat message-in-the-box became subdued when she figured out he wasn't home. His discovery of her gesture left him curious. Was it a mad moment for her or had he been right before when he thought there was something about her he should get to know better? Not without a little trepidation, he went over to her place armed with wine. If it turned into another disaster at least he'd be humming along moderately numbed until he could escape.

The pleasantries of last night faced off with all his previously conceived notions about her. Gone was the woman in the grips of perpetual PMS, replaced by a sane, sensible version you might want to take to an environmental fundraiser or a concert in the park. Her buoyant disposition did nothing to make light of what she saw as the poor form of her past behavior. It blew his past impressions of her out of the water, and for a moment he questioned whether this was same person sharing her veggie burger. But, there was that crooked eyebrow and the dog's unwavering loyalty. Neither of those was easily duplicated. It was her all right.

Elizabeth Bennet. He'd been sure that cupcake wasn't done all the way through.

And, to be perfectly frank, she might not be. One thing she said stuck with him: the realization she'd acted like the kind of person she always detested was a frightening wake-up call. She told him one of the hardest things she had ever done was to be honest enough with herself to accept the way she had reacted. He believed her disclosures and the sincerity of her apologies. Clearly Ms. Bennet had gone through some sort of an emotional watershed. She had a stack of self-help books to attest to that.

The episode opened a door previously unseen and Delarango now found himself facing his part in Elizabeth's misery. Her behavior, easily dismissed as female emotional over-reaction, was deflected back to him. Now that he knew Elizabeth better, her experiences with The House and her feelings with the changes it had created came to life and he was left to evaluate what part he'd played in the whole thing. Regardless to what degree Delarango might accept responsibility, it was too early to tell where she was really coming from. He was sure he'd never entirely figure her out anyway; women didn't have any intention of letting men do that. If they did, the game would be over.

He wanted to believe what he saw last night was the real woman. Buried inside him, an attraction still existed and, like claps of thunder on a clear night, he'd been unexpectedly jolted by it throughout their evening - when she spoke, when she moved, when she quietly responded to him. Under the circumstances, it was an unexplainable appeal that was unadvisable to pursue. Still, if things were actually different, maybe he could resurrect the possibility of a relationship with her. Maybe. But, no longer a naive young man, the prudent and wise Delarango geared his approach with a healthy dose of caution. He wasn't going to fall into a trap disguised with remorse and forgiveness.

Elizabeth Bennet. The woman next door could be playing with a few pieces missing from her monopoly set.

The wind picked up and the bare-branched oaks braced against it. Just like a description he recalled in one of Mama Gertie's journals. She was probably the Bennet he knew best. A stalwart figure in an emerging time, her journals testified to her position as matriarch of the family. She drew Delarango into the past with simple, descriptive writing and entertained with acerbic wit. The ranch came alive with life in the thirties as she sketched the defining time of the place. Her offhand notes, meant as a record of personal experiences, provided him with clues to his own questions. But, Mama Gertie's journals had only taken him so far. The rest was left to Delarango. He suspected she'd find the drama of this latest chapter in the ranch's history highly absorbing.

It hadn't taken long for clutter to build up in The House. From the time he'd moved in - gradually - like a slow rising tide, things had begun to gather under foot, in every corner, and in places where furniture was meant to be. Now, Delarango was up to here in stuff. Today he was downstairs in a room where all the bits and pieces with nowhere else to go had landed, making no headway in shifting things from one temporary spot to another. His garage was full of everything ordered for the downstairs rooms but couldn't go in the downstairs rooms because they weren't finished yet. It was time to call for backup and put an end to all this. He grabbed the phone and dialed Cerise, his designer based on the East Coast. He got her voice message.

'Hi, it's Rick,' and, just in case she knew five different Ricks that might be calling, he added, 'Delarango. About the lower floors, uh, they need to be finished within three weeks. I've got houseguests coming the first of the month. They need to be repainted in the right color. Did we ever get the missing pieces for the chairs in the home theatre? And, my mailbox still hasn't been replaced. My mail's being delivered into a box and it gets wet and blows away. Can you get me something that looks like a regular mailbox and get it up this week? Thanks.'

He missed it when she returned his call and retrieved her message a few hours later. Her voice, gravelly as if she'd had too many cigarettes with her mint juleps, resonated in his ear as she picked off points with precision.

'Rick-honey! We didn't re-paint because you'd been thinkin' about making two of the rooms into one. You were supposed to get back with me on that. If the issue's resolved, and I think,' whenever Cerise pronounced a long 'i', she drew it out with her Southern twang, 'you should leave them as they are, we can move forward. The paint color was Champagne Cocktail. I'll call Steve and have him get it repainted this week. Go online and look at your files - confirm everything tonight! And, no darlin', I will not let you get out of the faux fireplace mantle. Everything'll be all whopper-jawed if it's excluded. Besides, the stone matches the inlay in the wet bar. Do you want that pair of vases I showed you from Martin's gallery. We can get them cheap, he's desperate to get his money out of them. And, Rick-honey, we had those chairs replaced!'

Cerise then slowed down to about 80 mph, 'I'm workin' under a deadline here. I'll get this all arranged and come in for the weekend before the first. You have my word it'll be finished for your guests. And, speakin' of guests, now that the house is livable, I don't suppose you could put me up when I come out? I'll be your test guest and,' her voice dropped an octave, 'leave it up to you what you'd like to test. I'm pretty open,' before she adopted her normal voice,' I've got a fabulous tan and new cheek implants, very Joan Crawford-ish. Let's talk by Friday. Bye.'

Delarango listened to the message once more with a hand covering his scrunched up face. He'd hoped that this would never come up. From the outset, he'd picked up signals that he interpreted as a willingness on Cerise's part to be more than professional colleagues. Her address - Rick-honey - wasn't suggestive, just annoying. But, the way she leaned into him, the way she pursed her bright, engorged lips and talked just to him, and especially the way she took particular care with his bedroom décor. Sometimes he wondered if the finished product was what he wanted for himself or what Cerise wanted for her dream bedroom. Well, she could keep dreaming. Actually, there had been one unfortunate night when matters had come perilously close to going too far. It was over a year ago, early in their collaboration on The House, and Delarango almost let himself go in a moment he wouldn't define so much as weak as empty. The patron saint for resisting physical temptations or saving souls from grave mistakes - whoever it was - had watched over him that night. A shining beacon of clarity descended from above and re-established a healthy perspective before any compromises of virtue occurred. He'd never been so happy to wake up alone as he had been on that grey Manhattan morning-after.

Instantly preoccupied with finding a way to keep her from staying at The House, he neglected to notice she hadn't said a word about his mailbox.

After three days Delarango couldn't find a plausible excuse to book her into the Marriott Suites. When she called him back he voiced some apprehension about there being enough space, along with his other guests, a concern she quickly extinguished by pointing out he had seven furnished bedrooms. That was when he heard himself cheerfully confirming she could bunk in her favorite guest room. Cerise peppered the rest of the conversation with double entendres and Delarango decided he would never be able to look at his pool table the same way again. He hung up with Rick-honey ringing in his head.

He had that sinking feeling that he'd been right. It appeared that Cerise might not be looking at things the same way he was. She was coming back to haunt him like that 80's TV cliché, a power-woman who thought padded everything was better: hair, lips, breasts, shoulders - and now apparently cheekbones - and who was hell-bent on having it her way. He planned to run plenty of interference with his aunt and his globe-trotting cousin Brian being there. Delarango had talked to Brian the day before but the connection kept fading out and he could only guess where he might be calling from.

'If something changes and you can't pick her up, I'll find a way to get down there.'

'I should be fine. I'm scheduled to fly into El Toro the night before and *cr-fzzzzzt-ck* until the following Wednesday.'

'You mean the government is actually going to do without you for a few days?'

'I'm trying to stay under the radar so it doesn't get rescheduled. *ccccr-ffffzzz-ttt-ckkkk* forward to it. I can use a break. Give me a comfy recliner and the remote and I'll be in heaven.'

'I'm doing my best to get the home theatre finished.'

'You've got a home theatre? I can't even remember what your place looks like.'

'Well, you need to come when its daylight and stay for more than an hour instead of racing over in between flights at some ungodly hour.'

'Aw, come on, what have you got to do in the middle of the night except sleep?'

'I'm not about to tell you.'

'You don't have to, remember I was the one who taught you everything you know about *crrrr-fzz-ttttt-cccck* and *cr-fzzzt-ccck*.' Delarango thought this the perfect time to change the subject back to their aunt. He asked how she was doing. 'Better.'

'Does she still need the walker?'

'No. I saw her before I flew out last week and she seems completely recovered until she realizes you know it, and then she has an immediate relapse. You'd *cccc-rrrr-fzzzt-ck* or she'll have you waiting on her like a hospital orderly.'

'You're talking about a 65 year-old woman here.'

'*ccrrr-fff-zzz-ttt-ck* And, I think she's almost 70, but don't *crrrrrr-fzztt-ckk-kkk-kkk* or you're sunk.'

Delarango laughed, 'By the way, my interior designer will be here, just for a couple of days.'

'*ccc-ccc-crrr-ffzzzzztt-ckk*' who's so top-heavy a light breeze would knock her off-balance? Good job! *cccccc-rrrr-rr-rr-fzzzt-ck*'

'Be kind, Brian.'

'I am! Since when are *ccccr-fzzzzzt-ck* a bad thing?!'

Delarango tried to think when they might be and couldn't come up with anything. The connection dropped out a moment later. He stared at the phone thinking maybe the two of them, Brian and Cerise, would take to each other and he could be cast aside like her old bras that were too small for her.

When Delarango decided to buy Mrs. Bennet's land, he fulfilled one of his life goals - the important kind that made it onto that list of things to accomplish before you die. He would never leave Southern California for good, but he chose to make his first year a sabbatical from life down south to work uninterrupted on projects he didn't have time for while running the company full time. Within the first six months though, two trips down to LA had been necessary to iron out transitional wrinkles within the company. He combined the second one with the Christmas holidays, but he baffled friends and family when he rushed off on the 31st to get back to The House. For reasons he didn't want to explain, Delarango had it in his head that The House was where he would spend the auspicious night - turning over a new year in a new place. His own private christening of sorts. Determined to fulfill his plans, he only came to terms with the fact that his would be a party for one when he was halfway back home. A solo evening would be novel; as it turned out, he had a much better night than expected.

New Years' Eve crept into his thoughts quite regularly but he hadn't seen his neighbor since then until one evening when they both turned into Calle de Oro at the same time. Elizabeth was in front and she was taking it easy on the drive. His headlights shone on the tailgate of her old truck, lighting up an ancient California license plate. He liked the truck but didn't see it as very practical for a daily work commute. Downshifting, he wondered if she had to drive this slow all the way to work. Eventually, they pulled into their respective drives and he went over before she opened her door. She smiled at him through the window.

'Hi,' he said when she got out and quickly caught his breath, unable to continue. Sturgeon, flounder or cod, the smell of whatever fish she'd been in contact with clung to her like icing on a cake. Memories of the day at the mailbox returned.

'Hi Rick, how are things with you?'

'Not bad,' he cleared his throat. Standing back while she got out, he appreciated the classic body design before him and asked about the truck. 'What year GMC is this?'

'Fifty-eight.'

'Very distinctive. Are you going to restore it?'

'I can't see why. It wouldn't be worth the money it would take.'

'Don't you know anything about classic cars? I figured that was why you were driving it.'

'I'm driving it because a couple of years ago my 4-wheel drive had a major breakdown and I wasn't going to pay the repair costs.'

'Who'd you buy this from?' He ran his hand along a sculpted fender.

'I didn't buy it. It's been here as long as I can remember.' She admitted somewhat reluctantly, 'It's another connection I have to the ranch. I know it's sentimental and silly, but -'

'No, it's not. I understand how you feel. You are taking care of it, aren't you?' She adopted a blank expression. 'Do you have it serviced regularly and check the oil and water in between?'

'Oh that, sure.' He appraised her and she continued, 'In fact, I'm going to take it in to my guy this week. It's time for a check-up.'

'A tune up.'

She bit her lip, 'Yeah, that's right.'

Delarango knelt down and examined her hubcaps, 'Thanks again for dinner the other night.'

She came closer and brought her fish fragrance with her, 'Did I set your healthy diet back a few notches?'

'With the onion rings? Life's too short not to enjoy things you like. I try to keep a good balance but I'm not obsessive.'

Her eyes brightened with doubt. Before she could challenge him, a whimper from the other side of Elizabeth's door called her over to release Hook from his daytime prison. He greeted them both and took off across the road into the field.

'So what have you been up to?' She sounded like she really wanted to know. He told her about what he'd been working on. 'Twirling stamps? I can't picture it.'

'You're welcome to come over and have a look at it any time. In fact, you'll have to be sure and come around while my cousin's here next weekend. He's bringing my aunt up. She's all alone and comes to stay with me off and on.'

'Thank you, I'd like that.'

An idea struck him, 'I don't have your number, do I? It's just you and me up here. It would be a good idea to have it.' Delarango took out his phone and added her to his contacts.

She fingered the ends of her hair and suggested, 'Maybe I could take yours, too.' After she punched him in, she said, 'Well, I should go in and shower. I smell like fish.'

Delarango grinned, 'I don't smell anything.'

'Let me tell you something,' she leaned in closer and counseled Delarango while he held his breath, 'you're a lousy liar, but thanks.'

He gave a short, deep laugh and didn't contradict her. Hook came trotting up and that was their cue to say goodnight. Delarango crossed to his yard and noticed that the dog was right in step with him.

'Come here Hook,' Elizabeth called. He completely ignored her and wagged his tail at Delarango.

'Don't you want to go home?' Delarango stopped and asked him. Hook lay down on a lush section of lawn in reply. 'He wants to stay with me!'

The air was crisp and fresh and carried away Elizabeth's fishy smell when she came over. Stars winked and the sound of distant silence on their remote section of the hill swallowed them up. The rest of the world faded into the background. Life beyond this one tiny spot could have stopped and they wouldn't have known.

She softly admonished her dog but he hid behind Delarango, peaking around the side of a long leg, and wouldn't budge.

'Go ahead and take your shower. He can stay with me.'

'Are you sure?'

'Yeah, come down to the back when you're done. I'll leave the gate open.'

He lit the garden, so when Elizabeth returned she would have a golden pathway to lead her to where he and Hook relaxed. Delarango had been out all day and putting his feet up felt good. They sat in silent companionship, Hook settled next to him, vigilantly scanning the perimeter. The dog detected his owner's presence first and alerted Delarango when his tail thumped the concrete.

'Hi!' Delarango got up and walked over. Fresh out of the shower, her cheeks were flushed and her hair slightly damp. The gentle scent of citrus floated his way. Her clothes seemed a little lightweight for the cold night. 'You warm enough?'

'I'm fine. Where's Hook?'

Delarango indicated to the grouping of chairs on a raised section of patio where a lumpy form with a waggly tail was ensconced. He followed Elizabeth over and sat down as she knelt by Hook. She greeted him with loving pet owner language that Delarango couldn't remember hearing since he was young, when his mother spoke to the family's pair of Basset Hounds. It had a comfortable familiarity to it. After a moment, she perched on the edge of a chair and Hook rested his head on her leg. The splash of a waterfall, unseen in the darkness, was all that could be heard until Elizabeth made a weighty reflection, 'It's funny how things can change.'

'What do you mean?'

'Oh, nothing in particular and everything in general.'

'Nothing stays the same. Sometimes change is for the best even though we may not know it at the time.'

'We aren't able to see beyond what we don't want to happen.' She was looking far out over the sea and said in a wistful way, 'As if there's someone guiding us who knows us better than we do ourselves, leading us in the direction we should go.'

Delarango asked the obvious, 'Do you mean God or a god?'

'I suppose so.'

He saw the moon as it emerged from behind a bank of lacy clouds. It poised low on the horizon, so low that the ocean waves might splash its parched surface with salty water. 'Do you believe in God?'

'Yes,' she glanced sideways at him, 'Do you?'

'You're talking to a card-carrying Catholic.'

'That didn't answer my question,' she pursued.

'Yes, I do, although my inner beliefs of what I believe God to be have changed.'

A fleeting look passed between them before she asked, 'And, how does that fit in with your religious upbringing?'

That was an unanswered question that Delarango had grappled with for a long while. 'I'd like to think that there's room for personal interpretation. What about you?'

'I have my beliefs, they are quite personal and I don't like to join in with large crowds to proclaim them.'

He felt he'd overstepped, 'I'm sorry.'

'Oh, I don't mean this conversation. I'm happy to talk to you. I meant I resist anyone, whether it's my family, a political party, or a religious group telling me how I should think or what I should believe.'

'Somehow, that doesn't surprise me,' he observed.

'Doesn't it?' She considered him at length before giving him a tiny smile. 'Given our history, I suppose it wouldn't.'

'We've had an unusual beginning.'

Elizabeth rubbed her arms, looked down at Hook and hurriedly added, almost as if he wasn't supposed to hear her, 'I'm glad you want to be friends.' With that she stood up, 'Well, I'd better go inside. It is kind of cold out here.'

She announced to Hook that they were going home. The dog rolled on his side and laid his head on the pavement. A verbal reprimand brought him reluctantly to his feet. Delarango stood up too and, as Elizabeth walked up the path, Hook stopped next to him in a last defiant gesture. She turned back and used a stern voice to bring him to her side. Her dog ambled ever so slowly over to her.

With her face cloaked by the winter night, Delarango heard Elizabeth say, 'I think he's taken with you.' Then their darkened forms, Hooks and hers, slipped away.

Chapter Nine

Papa-oom-mow-mow
Papa-oom-mow-mow
Baba, baba, baba-whoo
Papa-oom-mow-mow
Papa-oom-mow-mow
Baba, baba, baba-whooooo!
Baba, baba, baba-whoooooooooo!
Ooooo-oooo-ooo-whoooooo

Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow, Carl White, Alan Frazier, Sonny Harris, Turner Wilson Jr, 1962

'Con cuidado,' Delarango's aunt cautioned about her bags, 'carefully. Just set them over....there.' She gestured with her cane to an open space between the closet and the bathroom and took in the room while her nephew set them down.

' Gracias, Francisco. The room, it has a balcony?' She parted the drapes and peeked around them, her raven black hair, artfully arranged atop her head, hidden behind textured silk. Far below, the shore break gently lapped the coastline. 'What a spectacular view! I think you spent too much for it.'

The slender woman turned back to her nephew, shrewdly appraising him as if he were about to confess to naughty deeds and be sent to the corner. 'Tia Contessa, you know exactly how much I paid. You asked me when I bought the land.'

'And The House was free?' She poked through some drawers, appraised the rug, ignored the occasional chair and ended up perched on the edge of the bed testing the mattress.

Delarango smiled. Having his aunt around was the best way to keep him on his toes. 'The files on The House are in my office. Let me know if you want to go over them before lunch, or after.'

'Don't be silly,' she softened as she looked around, 'El cuarto no es muy grande?'

'No, this isn't the biggest guest room but it's the only one that has a tub in the bathroom. You can choose another if you'd like.'

'This is very nice,' She paused and then squared off with him. 'I'm only saying, you paid a fortune to move all the way out here, in the middle of nowhere!'

'I have a next-door neighbor.'

'¡Dios Mio! Why did you build La Casa so close to that awful place?' On the way from the airport, she'd been enjoying the rural drive along Calle de Oro until the two houses came into view, when she completely ignored The House to exclaim about Elizabeth's place which, snuggled next to his, could be mistaken for a tumbledown shack.

'I didn't have a choice.'

She waved her cane, 'You had a choice. You could have stayed in Los Angeles!'

Delarango didn't have to look at his watch to know the best time to bail out of a conversation with his aunt, 'Should I leave you to freshen up while I go check on lunch?'

'You ignore me?'

'Te amo.' He kissed the top of her head. Their entire conversation had been in Spanish. His bilingual aunt refused to speak English anymore; people who weren't well acquainted with her assumed she didn't know it. 'And, I'm taking care of you by making sure you're well-nourished.'

'Hi!' They both turned to Brian, who'd appeared in the doorway.

'Your timing's perfect. I'm going to see about lunch.'

'Do you want me to help you unpack?' Brian offered to Tia Contessa. He liked to rattle his aunt's cage and chose to speak only in English to her. Delarango left them in a dysfunctional two-language argument, with Brian lecturing her about taking care with her new hip and his aunt protesting - everything! Delarango descended the stairs to their fading squabble.

'Would you let me do that for you?'

'¡Hables in espanol!'

'Give me those and I'll hang them up.'

'No es necesario. ¡Vas Brian, vas!'

'I'm not going to go. I want to help you.'

'No quiero su ayuda. ¿Tienes un problema de oido?'

'My hearing's just fine.'

The last thing Delarango heard his aunt say was something he worried would become a recurring theme throughout her visit. 'If you want to help, go convince Francisco to come back to Los Angeles.'

'Is that your neighbor?'

It was late. Delarango and Brian had moved inside to a cavernous empty room off the patio. They'd brought their chairs in with them. Over the last of their coffee talk had dwindled away and they perused the dying embers in the abandoned fire pit, the fine mist that had moved them indoors and the figure of a woman next door, just visible between the branches of Delarango's eucalyptus. She rapidly removed laundry off a drying rack on her deck. A dog approached her then moved their way and stood at the gate at the end of the deck, looking over towards The House and wagging its tail.

'One more time! Is that your neighbor?'

Delarango had been staring past the trees. While he'd scrutinized Elizabeth, spotlighted in porch light yellow, he'd missed his cousin's question - twice. Eventually, it dawned on Delarango that he'd dropped the ball. His voice echoed through the room, 'Yes, that's Hook. I think he's a pure bred border collie'

'I've always said to anyone who'd listen that you should be doing stand up.' They exchanged glances before Delarango let Elizabeth recapture his attention. Brian shot him another question, 'You must have met her?'

He exhaled, 'Uh huh.'

'And?'

'She's...' he fumbled for a description as his mind raced through possibilities, 'what am I looking for?

Brain continued to watch Elizabeth, 'Hot? Taken? Please don't say not attracted to men!'

'I was going to say she's a marine biologist. She works with seals and dolphins and otters at a rescue center.'

'Good! Intelligent and attractive. What's her name?'

'Elizabeth Bennet.'

Brian was used to cutting a swath through governmental bureaucracy every day and now he headed straight for the heart of the matter, 'Here's the crunch question: how much has Elizabeth Bennet taught you about biology?'

'We don't know each other that well.'

'Do you want to know her better?' When Delarango didn't respond, he prodded, 'Or not?'

'As usual, you're just teeming with information.' Delarango remained stalwart, a word he'd always liked but never seemed to have an opportunity to use. Brian continued, 'Don't let anyone kid you, you'd never make a living as a paid informant.'

Delarango grinned into his coffee mug and drank the last lukewarm swallow. Just when it seemed their conversation should be buried, he brought it back to life, 'What was the question?'

'Never mind.'

'Ask me again.'

'Forget it.'

'I can't figure her out.'

'Do you need to?'

'Well, yeah Brian, I do!'

'Why? Because she's the only game in town?' Brian received a definitive non-verbal answer. 'No, I guess I didn't need to ask that. But thanks, now I have an answer to my question.'

'And that would be...?'

'You're interested.'

'Or frustrated.'

'I thought you knew what to do about that!'

'I'm working on it.'

They saw Elizabeth go inside. Her dog stayed glued to the gate, staring over at The House until, apparently, she called for him to come inside. When her light was extinguished, Delarango set his mug next to the chair and stood up, ready to call it a night. As they walked upstairs, Brian observed, 'You could've fooled me. I don't see you doing much of anything.'

'You don't know what's been going on around here.'

'Well my astute powers of observation tell me that, on a perfectly good weekend night, neither of you has a thing to do. You're on one side of the fence and she's on the other. So, I think I can safely say that not too much has been going on around here.'

'I have my reasons for taking things slow.'

'Careful how slow you go or you may end up going in reverse.'

They reached the top floor and parted, going in separate directions to their rooms. Delarango reached for the door handle and offered, 'I planned to invite her over while you were here.'

'I'm here for three days not three months!'

His cousin's implications rang in Delarango's ears long after he extinguished the light. He'd long since moved past thinking Elizabeth might be a head case but he was still left wondering about the unpredictability of her emotions. A woman whose reactions were all over the map was a woman you didn't ask to dance.

Elizabeth Bennet. Her packaging suggested a quality product, but without a full list of ingredients available to this consumer, more research was required. She wasn't FRD approved.

Things went into full swing on Friday and all of a sudden it was crowded in The House. Cerise arrived the night before with her new assistant in tow. Bud, a hulking guy who'd played linebacker in college, graduated with honors in Traditional Design of Indigenous Cultures of the Pacific Islands. They took up two guest rooms. Along with Brian, Tia Contessa and himself, five of his bedrooms were occupied. Delarango had thought it extravagant at the time to design The House with seven bedrooms; now he wondered it he'd been too conservative. In case of an emergency, he was down to only two.

His housekeeper was scheduled to come every day while he had company and to bring her husband, who'd been a cook at the Holiday Inn until forced to retire because of deposits on his knees. All together, including the home theater system techie who'd roared up bright and early; eight people were under his roof this morning.

Delarango had been awakened several times during the night by his neighbor. She occupied his dreams. With only frustrating fragments from his slumber, snapshots of Elizabeth materialized from the darkness, always at his doorstep pressing the blue button and talking through the speaker, either on a mercy mission with a five-course meal or aggressively demanding the return of Mama Gertie's journals. There was more but it lay just beyond his grasp. Falling back asleep proved difficult. He put it down to coffee before bed, not willing to admit a developing a weakness for Elizabeth.

The entire business caused to him oversleep. While he shook off the weariness of a restless night, he could hear the unusual sounds of Others in The House.

The rubbery tread of his housekeeper going past his door and down the hallway.

Clunking on the stairs that was either Brian or Bud.

The front door slamming, followed by hollow bootsteps of the technician.

The slap-slappity-slap of Cerise's open back mules resounding across the expansive living area.

And, his housekeeper's rubbery tread coming back up the hallway.

Finally making it downstairs, Delarango heard a shuffle in his kitchen - thunk-shoop thunk-shoop.

'Good morning Mr. Rick. Would you like your tea?' A compact man with a white cloth apron tied around his waist beamed up at him. Delarango looked over the breakfast spread on his polished cement worktop, a well-organized array, and knew he'd made the right choice in having his housekeeper's husband take over the kitchen this weekend. 'Morning Carlos. Wow, this looks great, really nice job. Ah yes, thanks to the tea.'

The cook pulled himself up to his full height and thunk-shooped over with a cup.

'Hey! The technician's here.' Brian announced as he came in. He turned to Carlos, 'Andre would like another burrito, this one with salsa verde and double cheese. I might go for another one too, same for me thanks!'

Delarango had just popped a chuck of melon into his mouth. Before he could chew and swallow and ask why Andre the technician was eating his burritos instead of connecting the entertainment system - an interruption came slappity-slapping into his kitchen.

'Good mornin' Rick-honey. Man, this kitchen fits you even better'n those jeans you're wearin!' The kitchen and dining area - a spacious, inviting environment - flowed into the living space on the main floor. Cerise stood in the center of it all, taking in more than her decorating handiwork when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw her assistant tromping past a 10-foot couch carrying a stone carving. 'Bud! Take that back downstairs.'

'You just told me you wanted it up here!' He stopped and repositioned the heavy item cradled in his arms.

'Well, now I'm tellin' you I want it back downstairs!'

Amidst the commotion, Tia Contessa had come into the kitchen from the entrance behind them. As was her habit indoors, she was barefoot - running silent - in contrast to the noisy ways of all the others. They didn't hear her approach from behind. Cerise swept her arm in the direction Bud should backpeddle, and bumped Tia Contessa up the side of the head.

The decorator's eyes popped out and her inflated lips formed a plump 'O'. Then she rallied to apologize in a loud, slow delivery meant to aid Delarango's aunt in comprehending her, 'I'm so sorry, Ma'am! Are you okay?'

Her hair was perfect but Tia Contessa patted it back into place anyway. As she did, she advised her nephew, 'Wherever you got this woman from, send her back.' The night before, after Cerise had worked the room to meet Brian and his aunt, Tia Contessa had deadpanned that Delarango's decorator sounded like she'd been forced to watch Gone With the Wind too many times as a child. She also pointed out that Cerise resembled an alien from Area 5 - except her lips - which she swore were about to burst and spray Restylyn on anyone within a 15 foot range.

'We went over this already,' he told her in Spanish, 'she's here for the weekend and then she's gone.'

'I'm willing to pay. How much could UPS cost?'

Delarango changed the subject to one his aunt wouldn't want to pursue, 'Your hip must be better. You don't have your cane this morning.'

His aunt didn't reply, instead engineering a credible limp on her way over to the counter where a rapid-paced exchange began with Carlos about the meals for the rest of the day. Her questions had him thunk-shooping his way around the kitchen to check for ingredients while Brian protested that Carlos should finish his burrito order first.

'I didn't see her there. Is she all right?' Cerise was saying. 'I feel awful.'

'She's fine. She says not to worry about it.' Delarango received a stony stare from his aunt.

'Oh, good! In that case, I need you downstairs.' She linked her arm though his to lead him away, 'We have some decisions to make. Have you been thinkin' about your studio?'

'There's nothing to think about.' Delarango tried to casually remove his arm from her grasp. She held on like it was the last pair of Jimmy Choos off the sale rack.

'I have a couple of ideas - nothin' big - just to make the room more functional.'

'I told you I didn't want you in there.'

'You didn't say anything about standin' in the doorway!'

He disentangled his arm and repeated his position, 'I don't want my studio touched.'

She whispered conspiratorially, 'It could use a little organization. An aesthetically pleasing environment would make you work better.'

'You don't know anything about the way I work.'

'So, help me to understand.'

'You're not touching my studio, Cerise.'

Tia Contessa interjected with her take on things, '¡Ella me recuerda una mula!'

Brian chuckled, Delarango shook his head and Carlos the cook wisely pretended he didn't hear the comparison to a mule. It all went right over Cerise's head since she didn't understand a word of Spanish. 'Won't you even consider my ideas?'

'No.'

'You'll be sorry.' she mock-pouted.

Just then Bud returned and barged in to ask, 'Did you discuss the weaving?'

Delarango looked blankly between Cerise and Bud.

Cerise attempted to dismiss him, 'Not yet, Bud.'

'Now might be a good time.'

'No Bud,' she hissed under her breath.

"What are the two of you talking about?' Delarango asked.

Before Cerise could stop him, Bud jumped in, 'I thought some hand-woven wall coverings might work very well in the downstairs area. The indigenous islanders from Tonga have an elaborate design that I can picture bringing your walls life.'

'Bud!'

'Or possibly the simpler pattern that the Fijians are known for would be the way to go.'

'I think that Mr. Delarango -'

'If you have some dried fronds - preferably from the cocos nucifera - I can put together a couple of samples in no time.' He emphasized, 'Now might be a good time.'

Cerise was clearly annoyed, 'Why are you repeatin' yourself?'

'Well,' Bud's brow wrinkled, 'I was setting the carving down and it sort of slipped out of my hands.'

'Sorta?! You'd better be more specific...and fast.'

'It dinged the wall.'

'Which wall?'

'The fireplace wall in the game room.'

'How bad is it?'

'Well, it's a funny thing. Drywall crumbles away with just the slightest ding.'

Cerise began slinging a heap of abuse at her giant assistant. Without so much as a parting word to those assembled in the kitchen, she slappity-slapped off with Bud following behind, looking very much like a prisoner being led to the gallows.

While he wasn't any sort of a recluse, Delarango had become used to a blessed solitude in The House and after lunch the assembled crowd and all their quirks encouraged him to escape. He went out the back and circled around to the front to check on the health of his Mexican Blue palm which was neither a native of Tonga nor Fiji. He noticed a disturbance on the surface of the pond and detected a lapping sound to his left. Hook's head popped up from the greenery and he trotted over to greet Delarango. A dripping muzzle spotted his shoes.

'Hi, what are you doing here?'

Elizabeth stepped out from her carport and answered for Hook, 'He's being disobedient. Hook, for the last time, come over here!'

This was unexpected. Bells and whistles went off in Delarango's head reminding him of his conversation the night before with Brian. Hook stayed by his side as he crossed his lawn and met her at the property line, 'Well, you gotta show him who's the boss, Elizabeth.'

A quick laugh chimed through the air. Dressed in a plum pantsuit, a shade he particularly liked, she looked good. Her hair had a new style, too. Yep, she looked very good. It was Friday afternoon, closer to when she should be coming home than leaving and he wondered what was up. 'You look nice.'

'Thank you. I'm on my way to the Institute.'

'Dressed like that?'

'Yeah, no feeding rounds for me today. My boss and I are meeting a representative for Seamus Richter Hoffmann, the source of funding for my sea otters. I'm giving a presentation and we're taking him on a tour. He'll be reporting back to the company directors in Germany.'

While Delarango continued to admire her appearance, 'It's all coming together then.'

'Finally. This is the final step before the funds are released. I expected us to be up and running by this time. Their board passed our submission last summer. Mark, my boss Dr. Wiegghocé, has gone through this hundreds of times. He says this is normal and I'm supposed to be patient.'

'It's hard to sit around and wait on others when you're ready to move on something.'

'That's so true. We can't go forward until they release the funds. I'm a little nervous. I'm responsible for everything. This has to go well. It's really important for the Institute.'

'Come on, this is your baby. You're the only person to who could present it. It'll go great and when it's all over you'll want to do it again.' The appreciative expression that appeared on Elizabeth's face changed to one of curiosity. She was distracted by something behind him. Delarango turned and saw his aunt standing at a window looking out over the yard. 'That's my aunt. She doesn't miss much.'

Her laughter caught in the air again and danced away like a tune on a Caribbean beach. 'What does she think of The House?'

'She thinks it should be a few hundred miles south of here! Why don't you come over tonight? You can meet her.' They looked over and saw Tia Contessa was gone, 'And my cousin Brian. Do you speak Spanish?'

Elizabeth didn't get a chance to answer. From around the side of The House Cerise called for Delarango, drawling her pet name for him as she came up the path. It made him feel incredibly uncomfortable but before Delarango could explain about his decorator, Cerise appeared.

'Rick-honey! If I didn't know better, I'd think you were tryin' to -' She saw he wasn't alone and made a beeline for him, picking her way across the lawn with determination. On her travels, the heel of one of her mules stuck fast in the turf and she was forced stop and yank it out. The rest of the journey was executed on tiptoe and she arrived to claim the prized position on Delarango's right.

'Aren't you gonna to introduce me? Never mind. Hi, I'm Cerise Colquitt.' She stuck her hand out and Delarango watched Elizabeth shake it. 'You must be here to pick up the carpet samples. They're stacked in the garage for you.'

With all her artificial enhancements, Cerise could look strikingly odd. Now, straining a smile at Elizabeth, Delarango thought he could detect the outline of her new check implants under her skin. He made a deliberate effort not to shudder. As he was about to explain who Elizabeth was, his neighbor took care of it herself.

'I live next door.'

'Oooh! We'd always wondered just who could be livin' there.' "There" was pronounced as if Cerise was holding it at arm's length pinched between two fingers.

'It's a family property.'

'Oh, I see.'

'It's been in my family for generations.'

'Oh, well.'

'It was very handy when I needed a place to live.'

Pseudo-sympathy dripped in Cerise's voice, 'You don't have to say nothin' else. Everyone needs help sometime. You're lucky you have somewhere to go and be safe!'

From the confusion on Elizabeth's face, Delarango could tell she didn't read the implications of Cerise's remark. He interjected, 'We don't want to keep Elizabeth. She's on her way to a business meeting. So, we'll see you later?'

'I can't. Dinner's part of the agenda.'

He found that truly disappointing. 'Where are you going?'

Elizabeth named a premiere establishment, well-known for its celebrity chef and ground-breaking cuisine. Cerise had hinted on a previous trip that she wouldn't protest at all if Delarango wanted to take her there. He told Elizabeth, 'I've always wanted to try it, but never had the chance. I hope everything goes well.'

'Thanks. I'd better go. It was nice to meet you, Cerise.'

Cerise's reply was so sugar-coated you might break a tooth on it, 'Same here Elizabeth, and if you ever get in a position where you feel like you can re-decorate, let me know. I never back away from a challenge.'

'I'll keep that in mind.'

Cerise spun around to head back to The House and almost fell over Hook, who had crept up next to her. She let out a startled screech and Hook barked back.

'Cute dawg.' She recovered her dignity and began tiptoeing back the way she came.

Delarango was left smiling at Elizabeth. 'Tell me how well it went tomorrow, will you?' She nodded and hustled her dog into the house. Delarango lost sight of her when he went down the path to the back of The House but he heard the croaky engine of her truck start up before she drove off.

He considered putting the encounter down to fate and might have, except practicality told him when you lived less than10 yards from someone, the probability of running into them was pretty high.

Elizabeth Bennet. She sparkled like a gemstone. With radiant allure, each facet reflected another fine aspect, suggesting she was a valuable acquisition to treasure. But care needed to be taken. What one might think a truly rare find could be nothing more than a worthless piece of glass.

The day had started early for everyone except Delarango. After dinner, before it could be called late, The House had been set in order and was ready for the next morning. Bud had clunked his way upstairs to read Sumatran poetry, Brian had fallen asleep in one of the home theatre's pliable leather chairs, Tia Contessa was content to retire to her room. And then there was Cerise. Although Delarango hadn't planned on it, her omnipresence annoyed him; her unwanted attention engulfed him to the point he felt like he was drowning. The only way to shake her was to hide in his room - a prospect that went against all he supported and could only be utilized so many times.

Tonight he definitely didn't want to be alone with her. Looking for someplace other than his room to occupy his time, he saw that Elizabeth's truck was parked in her carport. She was back. His cunning side kicked in and, before he could second-guess himself, Delarango snuck next door. He climbed the stairs to Elizabeth's balcony and saw Hook on the deck, looking through the gate, detecting his presence before he appeared.

'Hi boy.' He reached his hand over the top of the gate and patted his friend before he quietly called out, 'Hey, Elizabeth, are you back?'

After three calls, when he didn't get an answer, Delarango was about to go home and subject him self to an unpleasant fate when Elizabeth stuck her head out the sliding door, 'Hi.' 'Hey, how'd it go?' Changed out of her pantsuit, she was wearing faded denim and a 49ers jersey. She didn't look too upbeat. 'Did you come back early?'

'Ah, yeah.'

Something wasn't right. When she didn't offer an explanation he asked, 'What happened?'

'It was cancelled.'

'Dinner? If you're hungry I've got more than - '

'Everything,' she said flatly as she came over and opened the gate.

'At the last minute? What happened?'

'I was waiting there and nobody came. I called my boss. His phone was turned off. Finally, he called me and told me the meeting was cancelled.'

'Why?'

'The representative from Seamus Richter Hoffmann couldn't get here. He was held over with other meetings and never flew in.'

'So he's still coming? Tomorrow, or the next day?' She shrugged. It didn't sound right to Delarango. 'Your boss didn't show up either?'

'No, he's been out of town and was coming back just for this. When it fell through, he didn't bother.'

'Where is he?'

'North of San Francisco.'

It only took Delarango a second to digest her story. He told her, 'Well, if he was coming from that far, he would have had to have left hours before you were due to meet to be there on time. Why didn't he call you sooner?'

Elizabeth sat down on the top of her picnic table and plopped her chin in her hands. 'I don't know.'

'I'm really sorry this happened.'

'Finding funding isn't easy. We tried every conceivable source and finally Seamus Richter Hoffmann came through. But, now it seems like maybe they aren't going to come through and we're back at square one after all this time.'

On her face and in her voice, Elizabeth's disappointment was obvious. He sat down on top of the table next to her. The drapes were drawn, the porch light was off and the moon was nowhere to be found. Her profile was dark against dark. 'What's your boss like?'

'Amazing.'

Even as low as she felt, she sang his praises, enough so that Delarango knew no one could be that good. They sat quietly with Elizabeth's troubles until she looked towards her sliding door and jumped down. 'Bohemian Rhapsody, that's my phone! Be right back.'

She returned promptly and reclaimed the same spot next to him. Her spirits had rebounded somewhat. Another chapter in her story unfolded as she told Delarango that Mark had called to say they would do a recording of her presentation on Monday and get it to SRH for their monthly board meeting. He was emailing her a script he wanted her to memorize. Elizabeth had offered to go in tomorrow - Sunday - to meet with "someone with a camera" to map out how it should be shot.

Instinct, and possibly a mixer of some other primitive reaction, had Delarango disliking Mark. It was an intense feeling that welled within him. He belied what he felt and said, 'That's good news.'

'Very. But I'll be a basket case until this is finished.'

From The House, an unlikely interruption occurred, moving them on from talk of the Institute. They heard music and looked over at the balcony with a door ajar. Elizabeth turned to him, apparently expecting an explanation.

'Ah, that would be my aunt.'

'What's she doing?'

'Dancing the flamenco.'

'Really?' she asked incredulously.

'Yeah, but we aren't supposed to know.'

'Why not?'

'Because she recently had hip replacement surgery and she still likes to get the attention of a recovering patient.'

They looked up and over as a bright red skirt flashed between the parted drapes. Along with it was an abundance of tapping and clapping. 'How can you miss all that?'

'You can't, but we just pretend. It doesn't hurt anything to let her think she's pulling something over on us.'

'She misses you not being close?'

'It wasn't like I was just around the corner in Los Angeles; she lives in San Diego County.'

'Why didn't you buy land there?'

'I wanted to come here.'

'Why?'

Delarango went for a vague response, 'It's nice here.'

'I've been to San Diego County. It's nice there, too.' He heard it in her voice, she wanted him to explain himself. When he didn't, she tried another route, 'Why did you build The House where you did?'

'A lot of your family's land can't be built on.'

'I've never heard that before. How do you know?'

'The land's unstable. It's very common for this area. Landowners up and down the coast may not be the flaming conservationists they appear to be with their vast tracks of open land; they simply may not be able to develop it. I surveyed three sections that your mother was willing to sell and this was the only one that could have a structure built on it. My first preference was down at the double turn, on the other side of the road.'

'By the apple orchard?' Her head turned in that direction. When she turned back, her crooked brow was arched, 'I don't remember seeing surveyors around there. They probably came while I was at work. I can't imagine The House there.'

'Neither can I. Something entirely different would have been built.'

'Like what?'

'I wanted to build on the spot where the meadow gently rises. The House there would have been built mostly with glass walls following the natural contours of the land. The impression that there were no barriers between nature and a man-made environment was a concept I wanted to pursue.'

'So you couldn't tell where one ended and the other began.'

'Exactly,' he said. 'Imagine feeling like you were sitting in that meadow when you were in your living room.'

'Umm, the wildflowers are gorgeous in that spot. They'd come right inside.'

'So, although it wasn't my first choice, The House was built here, uh, there.' He pointed to his left.

'Why didn't you build in San Diego?' she asked again.

'I didn't want to.'

'You're not really answering me.' Her eyes shone in the dark. Their intensity made him feel like she could read what was in his mind. He looked away to avoid that possibility. 'You could have built anywhere.'

'No, I couldn't Elizabeth.'

'Why not?'

'I just couldn't.'

He said nothing more about it and they drifted off to other topics, including the Mexican food extravaganza at his house earlier tonight. He was chided for straying from his righteous path of nutritional excellence. Delarango never realized he'd appeared that way to her.

'Tonight I was testing recipes for a cookbook. I'm approaching it with the theme of all fresh, natural ingredients.'

''Natural' is a word that pretty loosely used.'

'It's used and abused. You can't rely on its' meaning. Instead, you need to avoid additives and chemicals and anything that keeps your food looking the same six months later.'

'It's not always practical to be able to avoid all that.'

'Not the way people live today. And as long as there's demand, there'll be products made to fill it. There's so much education and information out there but if people don't want to take better care of themselves, you can't force-feed them a healthy diet.'

'Thank you.'

She'd lost him. 'For what?'

'For encouraging me to change my eating habits.'

He was pleased, 'Did I do that?'

'You did and I cleaned up my act - somewhatt - I still prefer white wine, bread, and chocolate!'

He gently knocked her shoulder with his, 'Don't be too hasty with your thanks. Tomorrow there's going to be a kitchen full of Mexican desserts, made from only the finest ingredients, but maybe not falling entirely within the parameters of healthy eating, and I'm inviting you over to taste-test them for me.'

'I don't know anything about Mexican desserts.'

'You know what you like, don't you?' Their shoulders still touched. At the spot where they met, Delarango felt the heat of her body mix with his.

'That I definitely do.'

He challenged the quiet of the evening with his reply, 'Then all you have to do is tell me.'

Continue reading Lisa's story here


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