It was quarter til nine and the power hadn’t returned; candlelight gave the room a soft amber glow. From a sleepy hotel room at the foot of the mountain, Debra managed a faint signal, saying they couldn’t drive any further and they’d get an early start the next morning. That they were safely off the road came at a great relief to Van and Janelle who were sitting casually on the living room floor in front of the plate glass window listening to the wind and slush mercilessly battering the trees.

“This was delicious.” Janelle washed down her last bite of cold lobster salad prepared from her untouched lobster from the previous night. “Promise to cook for me and I’ll marry you right now. I’m so full.”

“Glad it met your approval.” Van collected their dishes and returned them to the kitchen. He returned to find Janelle spread eagle, moaning. “You are too fast, didn’t you?” He laughed at Janelle’s pitiful nod, sat beside her, and asked, “No room for dessert?”

Eyes wide, Janelle’s cartoonish head shaking garnered a heartier laugh. “Oh, what have I done?” She rubbed her belly and looked up at Van. He was flipping through a book and wearing a pair of thin rimmed glasses which coupled with his J. Crew attire gave him a scholarly appearance. Van was a formidable conversationalist, thoroughly versed in numerous areas so it came as no surprise his well-thumbed volume of ‘History of Henry Esmond’ was his traveling companion.

“You’re adorkable in glasses,” Janelle purred.

“Adorkable?!” Van’s brows pleated.

“Yeah. You’re like a sexy nerd. Adorkable.”

“You’re unbelievable.” Van shook head, and a small, appreciative smile crept across his lips. “Thanks. I think.”

“In case you missed it that was a compliment.” Janelle collapsed under the weight of the meal churning in her stomach. “I’ve attempted to read Thackeray but it doesn’t hold my attention in the same way Dickens does. What everyone’s seeing in ‘Vanity Fair’ is beyond me. It’s boring.”

“Vanity Fair is a masterpiece.” Van’s gaze sharpened. “My ex, Roma, was a Dickensian. She literally worshiped her copy of ‘David Copperfield’ from its hand-carved, illuminated bookcase.”

“Never underestimate the power of crazy. Michael, my ex, believed educated women were anomalies and respected solely for their freak-factor. I mean, we were together for years and, besides his infidelity and rage issues, our conversations were limited. I hung on because I stupidly believed I could change him. And…” Janelle cut herself short, fearing she’d open Pandora’s Box. In the spirit of honesty, she continued. “And after so many years of being with someone, I didn’t know how to be alone. And that frightened me.”

“I can imagine. So what changed?” Van asked.

“I felt weak and I didn’t like myself.” Janelle thought for a moment. “Things changed when I realized I feared the fear of being alone more than the prospect of being so. I don’t think Michael saw the breakup coming. It came during one of his spells of fidelity; we weren’t even arguing. I’d had enough of hating myself so I ended the relationship without a penny; that’s what happens when you rely on others to take care of you.” She snorted and pressed on though she felt Van’s primal urge to protect her swell.

“You didn’t have anything?”

“No.” She replied. “I found a small apartment and bartered with my landlord until I got on my feet. Thanks to my extensive knowledge of wine, I landed a hostess position at a local vineyard and gradually, things fell into place. Now I’m a sommelier for Mondavi where the rich pay handsomely to get well and truly drunk.” Her smile faded slowly remembering the depths from which she’d climbed. “Yeah, I was petrified but I pulled myself together and shut out the world. Sure, I show them superficial bullshit but they can’t touch the real me and I’ll never depend on anyone again. My philosophy: If I don’t care about you, you won’t care about me, and no one gets hurt.”

“But you do care. I’ve seen glimpses of it.” a quizzically expression crossed Van’s face.

She grimaced and snorted. “Don’t tell anyone else. I have a reputation to uphold.”

Van sat has book aside and lay on his stomach beside Janelle, looking down at her. ”I’m being serious. I admire you and your determination to start anew. The deaths of your mother and sister, and a life changing breakup, managing your eating disorder; you’re incredibly resilient, Janelle.”

“Thanks.” Her eyes fluttered around his looming face, comfortable with her vulnerability.

Van found himself in the depths of Janelle’s eyes, in ways he’d guarded himself since his last relationship. Lying there with her thick, loose hair around her face, her brown eyes staring innocently up at him, he permitted himself the pleasure of lingering over her delicate features. Janelle sent his heart racing like a teenager. He chuckled quietly at the absurdity.
“What?” Janelle asked.

“Nothing. Just thinking.” He pushed the thought of kissing her out of his mind and reluctantly labored to drag his eyes away from her lips.

Janelle smirked devilishly. “You’ve never been with a black woman, have you?”

“Ha!” Van’s coughed and stood. “Wow, look at the time. I have to clean the kitchen before bed.” Minutes later, as he stood at the sink rinsing their glasses, he nearly jumped out of his skin when Janelle slapped his butt.

“I’ll start your shower, you sexy nerd. Grrr!” She sauntered to the bedroom. “Oh God, I growled. Well, stand next to craziness long enough, sumthin’ bound to rub off on ya!”

The corner of his mouth rose in a twitch of a smile. Having someone cater to his needs was a welcomed change. When she let her guard down, Janelle was charismatic, even delicate. Van took a deep breath and reminded himself how easily her current could pull him under.