By Robyn Anders
Copyright 2000/2002 by Robert Preece, all rights reserved. Please visit BooksForABuck.com
where you can read this and other eBooks for at great prices.
Dedicated to my friend John, and all the men and women of the world who have been injured by
land mines. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people or situations is
Amy Halprin didn't like the bench press much. Having two hundred pounds of a stranger sit on her ribs just as she was about to start her set didn't make her like it any better. Even if he was awful good looking.
"Hey, blind man, why don't you watch where you're going," she gasped out as soon as she could recover her breath.
"Sorry," the stranger replied as he got off her. "I was working that machine." His voice sounded like ice grating on the sidewalk. Anything but truly sorry.
She glared at him, then was sorry she hadn't kept her eyes to herself.
He looked like he'd just stepped off the pages of Men's Fitness Magazine: Air Force Academy T-shirt, expensive running shoes left casually untied, and those muscles. My, those muscles.
The effect was marred, or maybe enhanced, by several deep scars on his arms and up one of his cheeks. They gave him a sinister look, like a pirate or something.
One scar extended across his face all the way to mirrored sunglasses. The shades, totally out of place in the dim Dallas health club, made Amy wonder whether he thought he was a movie star. Or maybe he was still recovering from a Friday night hangover?
All in all, the man looked more than a little threatening. There was no telling what might happen if she ran into him in a dark alley. Not that thinking about running into him somewhere, alone, wasn't a little titillating.
It would have helped if he would smile. Unfortunately, from the expression on his face, she could tell that smiling was about the farthest thing from his mind.
He was trying to be intimidating, Amy decided. Well, she was used to intimidation and knew how to fight back. "If you were using it first, it's funny that I ended up on the bottom."
He shrugged his impressive shoulders. "I was between sets so I got a drink of water."
"The sign says circuit trainers have first priority," Amy reasoned. "But even if we didn't, you have a lot of nerve sitting on me just because I was in your way."
"Hey, Mark," a voice boomed. Another body builder type, this one even more developed than her assailant, threw an arm around the man who'd had sat on her. "I need you to spot me. I'm going to try to beat my personal best."
The new man led her assailant, Mark, off to the testosterone dominated free-weight section.
Amy frowned after him but Mark was oblivious.
He was, she decided, exactly the type of man her mother would pick out for her. Handsome in a rugged way. Not pretty, but awful nice to look at. Obviously a jock, but not overbuilt the way many bodybuilders end up. He even had an education. That is, unless he had picked up the Air Force Academy shirt at a garage sale somewhere.
Since her younger sister had gotten married to a doctor, her mother had focused all of her planning on Amy. After Amy had finally given up her dream of pursuing a career on the woman's pro basketball circuit and settled down teaching P.E. at a private girls school, her mother had taken to throwing every single man she could find at her. It would have been funny if it hadn't been so humiliating.
Amy lay back on the bench, took the bars in her hands and inhaled, getting ready. Visualize the lift, she reminded herself. Definitely don't visualize that dangerous face.
Just as she was about to lift, voices from the free weight room caught her attention, distracting her nearly as much as when Mark had sat on her.
"All right, Frank, you can do it," Mark encouraged. His voice was still sexy but with his friend, he actually sounded supportive. Not at all the man he had shown himself to be a few moments ago.
Ignore them, she instructed herself. Unfortunately, Amy was never much good at taking advice, even from herself. She sat and watched through the doorway of the weight room.
Frank grunted, shoved at the weight, lifted it about three inches off the supports, then gave a shout and moved it up another inch. Then slowly, despite Frank's efforts, it began to slide down toward his chest.
Mark moved in, taking the bar in both hands. "It's all right, Frank, you'll get it next time. Now let's rack it up. Work with me on this."
The bar bent under hundreds of pounds of steel weights as the two men moved synchronously, slowly shifting the bar toward its support.
A couple of other lifters saw what was happening and joined the two. "You guys all right?" one of them asked.
"Yeah," Frank said. " Mark just saved my life with that spot. I couldn't hold the weight. Guess I shouldn't have had that second beer last night."
"Or the third, fourth, or fifth," one of the others said.
"Hey, good job, Mark," a builders said. "But then you seem to have a way with the smooth touch. I liked the way you moved in on that blonde, by the way. Don't know that I'd have the nerve to actually sit on one, but that way they sure can't run away."
He turned to the other men. "You guys see the way Mark scouted out that action."
Amy got busy with her weight lifting gloves. She couldn't help hearing the rough laughter that followed the man's vulgarity.
"Hey, so I wasn't watching where I was going," Mark said.
"I'll tell you what, there are more than a few of us who would have paid to be in your shoes, or your seat, just now."
"Are we going to lift weights, or are you guys just going to sit around and talk about chicks?" Mark asked.
"Talk about chicks," half a dozen male voices answered.
"Well you can do that without me. I'm hitting the showers."
Mark cranked the steaming hot water a couple of notches hotter and let it pound on his muscles. He'd always enjoyed weightlifting, but since his injury, it had become one of the few sports in which he was able to compete on roughly equal terms.
Finally he snapped off the shower and returned to his locker.
The usual crowd of bodybuilder types hung around in the locker room. He didn't mind. Some of them might be a little too caught up in their own looks, but at least they accepted him for who he was. Unlike the rest of the world, which often treated him as if he were so fragile that he'd break if anyone even said the wrong thing.
"I wasn't kidding about the blonde," Jeff told him.
His friends must have come in while he'd been on the shower.
"She just comes in here and does her workout," Jeff continued. "Complete ice princess. I've never seen her say word one to anybody. But I guess you pinned her down, right?"
Mark didn't join the laughter. He couldn't even manage to find his way around the weight machines without almost crushing a woman. From her voice, he knew she'd been young and healthy. But what if he'd sat on an older woman? He could seriously hurt someone.
"It's not like I singled her out. I told you I wasn't looking."
"That's the best part," Jeff replied. "Here all of us were wondering how to start a conversation with her and you did it all without even trying."
Mark opened his locker and felt for his slacks. "Was she really pretty?"
"Pretty? Nah, not her. Not unless you happen to like twenty-something blondes with legs that don't stop and hair down to their waist. Oh, and did I mention a body build for love?"
"Don't forget that cover girl face," Frank commented.
Mark didn't have to be a genius to detect the sarcasm. On the other hand, the guys had been known to play some pretty nasty tricks. Male humor, he knew from years of experience, wasn't always particularly subtle.
Still, what did he care about looks? He'd never be able to see them. What he'd like was a woman who could treat him like a man without being fixated on his blindness. Like that woman out there had. He'd messed up and she'd laid into him. Unlike most everyone he met, she'd treated him exactly as she would a sighted man, not trying to protect him from her anger with the mistaken concept that the injury to his eyes might also have softened his head.
He paused, his shirt half-buttoned, as an idea took hold of him. What the hell. "Will you guys do me a favor?" he asked.
Five minutes later, a crowd of bodybuilders, all trying to be discrete and hidden and each sounding something like an Asian water buffalo wallowing through a rice paddy, had strategically placed themselves around the gym.
They'd checked with the health club staff and made sure the blonde hadn't vanished while Mark was in the shower, then waited for her to emerge from the woman's locker room.
The wolf whistle was his signal.
He continued his conversation with the girl who handled check-in, letting her bring him up to date on countless details that seemed centered on the high school football game she'd gone to the previous evening.
"Hey, the juice machine is broken again," Jeff called out. The second signal. The blonde would be passing the entrance desk.
"I'll talk to you tomorrow, Chrissie," Mark said, adjusting his sunglasses.
"See you, Mark," she chirped.
An icy chill grasped his stomach for an instant. What if this supposed blonde were really a kid like Chrissie? The guys would think that hysterical.
"I guess she is cute," Chrissie observed reluctantly. "But she's pretty old. I bet she's at least twenty-five."
Mark ignored Chrissie's hint that he might be interested in someone younger, say around eighteen, and headed for the door.
He'd walked this route so many times he left his cane folded, carried in the same hand as his workout bag.
The plan was to open the door for the blonde, apologize for sitting on her, then ask her if she'd let him buy her a cup of coffee.
A solid thunk as he swung open the door sent that plan into shambles. Time to improvise.
"What? Did someone pay you to make my day miserable?"
He'd found the right woman all right, but smacking the door into her head hadn't been the smoothest approach. She must have walked faster than Chrissie had when they had rehearsed the plan.
"Sorry. Again. But hey, you mean I can actually get paid for doing this?" he asked.
"You tell me," she shot back. Obviously she didn't share his sardonic sense of humor.
Still, he said he was looking for a woman who would let him know what she thought. So far, this was the first woman since he'd stepped on that land mine in Bosnia who'd treated him like a man rather than an invalid. Of course he would prefer to be treated like a decent man rather than a complete schmuck. Still, with time that might be arranged.
He dropped the glib lines, since they weren't working anyway. "Tell you what, let me make it up to you by buying you a cup of coffee."
He could feel her hesitation. Something, maybe the way she caught her breath, the rustle of her clothing. Something. She was going to say no. Well, his ex-fiancée had warned him no woman would be interested in an incomplete man like him. Why should this woman be any different?
"I've got to--oh, what the heck. Why not? At least it'll get my mother off my case."
That wasn't the motivation he was looking for in a date. Still, he'd asked her and he wouldn't just walk away now. Later, if there was a later, he'd find out about this mother thing.
"You the one who called for a cab?"
John picked Mark up at this time every day. Every day he seemed surprised to see that Mark had been the one who'd called. Oh, well, he was a good driver and that was a lot more than most of the taxi drivers in North Dallas could claim.
"I'm the one," Mark answered. "Know a good place to get coffee around here?"
"Hey, is this a setup or something?" the woman asked.
John ignored her question. "The bookstore down the street has a coffee bar if you want something a little fancier than take-out at 7-11.
"Let's go," Mark said.
He held open the door for the woman, then walked around the cab.
Amy was pretty sure this was a mistake. If he'd already called a taxi, that little accident at the door must have been planned and coordinated. She'd thought she was getting an awful lot of attention from the gang of musclemen standing around near the entryway. Maybe this lunk of a man used sitting on women and opening doors in their face as a pickup move. He was attractive enough that it probably worked most of the time.
Well, it wouldn't work with her. Still, she was a big girl and could take care of herself. And why not have that cup of coffee? She could always tell him to get lost afterwards.
At least she'd be able to tell her mother she'd tried. Surely she could manage to spend half an hour with Mark. If worst came to worst, she could shut off her ears and just look at him. Lots of men a lot less attractive than Mark had graced her dreams in the past. Too bad he was such a jerk.
She slid all the way over in the back seat of the cab to let him get in while he went around back to dump his workout bag in the trunk.
Just as she got her seatbelt fastened, the door nearest her opened and Mark started to climb in.
"Don't you ever look where you're going?" she called out to him, pressing against his back to prevent him from sitting on her for the second time that day.
Mark froze, then climbed back out. "No," he answered coldly. "As a matter of fact, I never watch where I'm going."
Slowly he reached up and removed his sunglasses.
Part of the scar had been hidden by his shades. It zagged up his right cheek, then cut across his eyes and nose.
Sightless eyes stared at her.
Amy froze. Of all the insensitive, rude, and downright nasty things she'd ever done, this had to take first place. It took the wind right out of her snappy rejoinder
"Uh, do you want me to slide back over?"
"I'll go around."
They each huddled in their respective corners while John the cab driver broke the silence by telling them about a fare he'd had the previous night who hadn't been able to speak any English. John's story might have been amusing, but Amy wasn't sure since his Russian accent made it so hard to follow.
Finally he pulled into the parking lot of the neighborhood bookstore.
Amy waited to see if Mark would open the door for her but he sat there like a bump on a log.
"Are you ready?" she asked. "Or were you planning to sit here all night?"
Mark turned to face her.
For an instant, she was afraid he would snarl at her. "Sorry. I thought we were at a stop light."
"Oh, Jeeze. I blew it again." Dhe felt like a complete heel. She'd been insulting him, thinking all sorts of unkind thoughts about him, and he was doing the best he could with a terrible handicap.
"I'm not looking for sympathy."
She recognized his need for independence but wished he didn't have to take it out on her quite so directly.
"Okay. Well, we're here. So let's go." And get this over with, she silently added.
Mark opened his door and pulled what looked like a bundle of thin white pipes from his pocket. With a flip of his wrist faster than her eye could follow, he opened the object into a white cane.
"Put it on your tab?" John the driver asked.
"Same as always," Mark replied.
He walked around the car, then opened Amy's door for her.
She stepped out. "I've never spent any time with a blind person before," she confessed. "Should I let you go first or what?"
Obviously she hadn't said the right thing. His face showed frustration and just a little impatience.
"If you think I'd slow you down, you can offer me your arm."
He reached for her.
She flinched away from him. He had moved too quickly for her body to assimilate what he had told her. Unfortunately, she flinched just enough so his hand missed her arm and settled neatly over her breast.
He pulled his hand away as if she had burned him. "That wasn't--"
"I know," she interrupted.
"Never mind. I don't need your help."
"Don't be silly. We can do this."
She reached out and grasped his left hand putting it firmly on her upper arm. "There."
Her body still tingled from that touch. Of course she'd had a more than a few young men reaching for her breasts when she'd been in college. In the cheap motels where they put up members of the Woman's Basketball League, there always seemed to be a swarm of scum ready with a paw and grope. Never, however, had her body tingled like it did now. Even his grasp on her arm, firm, yet as gentle as if he were afraid of cracking an egg, had to be raising her temperature.
She stepped up as she reached the curb, then cringed, waiting for him to fall.
Somehow, though, he seemed in sync with her body, and made the step with her.
"Is it true," she asked him, "that losing one sense make all of your other senses more acute?"
He shook his head. "Some of the guys I've met, guys who were blind from birth, seem to have exceptional senses of smell or hearing. That didn't work for me. I just had to learn to pay attention all the time."
"Like when I stepped up right now."
"I can't tell you how many times I fell down, usually dragging my guide with me, before I learned to watch for that little step."
She was surprised at the way he seemed to take his blindness for granted. Yet he'd just indicated that he hadn't had it from infancy. Just what had happened to him?
She led him to an empty table and guided him to a chair, then sat herself.
A waitress wandered over, wiggled her hips at Mark, then gave Amy a look like "what do you have that I don't have."
"I'd like a café-au-lait," Amy told her.
"Espresso," Mark said.
"I know it's a little late in our relationship for introductions," he told her, "but I'm Mark Barnes."
Of course, she'd heard his name when the bodybuilders had dragged him off to the free weight room. He couldn't know hers.
"Oh. I'm Amy Halprin." She held out her hand.
He stared directly at her but didn't make any move to meet the handshake.
After several uncomfortable seconds, she put her hand back down. Why was she being such an idiot? He was blind. How was he supposed to know she was holding out her hand if she didn't tell him?
"Nice to meet you," she managed.
Mark took the hint. His handshake was warm and strong, not overpowering and lasted just long enough. She'd always been proud of her large hands, one of her strengths as a basketball player. Held in Mark's, her hand felt almost dainty.
So far, Amy decided, this wasn't going too badly. In retrospect, calling him a blind man back at the club hadn't been her brightest move. Still, Mark seemed to be warming up a bit.
"So what do you do--"
"I know I'm prying--"
Mark held up his hand. "I'll let you go first," he told her.
"I know this is none of my business. I'm just curious how you happened to lose your sight. If you don't want to tell me, I'll understand. I mean--"
Mark broke into her floundering. "I don't mind."
He removed his sunglasses again, and seemed to stare at something far away. Then his empty eyes turned on her.
She resisted the urge to ask him to put his shades back on. Those sightless eyes seemed to see too much.
"It's simple, really. I was in the Air Force during the Bosnian operation. One night I went for a walk outside the camp. I stepped on a land mine. It was one of those that pop up and then explode."
She shuddered. Of all the senses, sight had to be the most important. Everything she did, from teaching, to driving, to basketball, to sitting and reading, all depended on her eyes.
"It must have been horribly painful."
Mark laughed without humor. "It must have been. I can't remember anything about the next month. I remember leaving our cabin, then I remember waking up in a Chicago hospital."
She tried to imagine. For the first time in her life, she found she couldn't empathize. Even the most terrible things that had happened in her life, even the knee injury that had finally destroyed her chances of making it big in the Woman's league, paled in comparison.
"Were you in the hospital for long?"
He shook his head angrily. "Too long. I needed to get out and on with my life."
"So what do you do?"
She wondered if she'd put her foot in it again. What could a blind man do? Surely the military had some sort of pension program for those disabled in a military operation. Still, the idea of a man as vital as Mark spending the rest of his life surviving on a pension and spending his days at health club didn't sit well with her.
"I'm an attorney."
Her jaw didn't actually hit the table. On the other hand, she was momentarily happy that he couldn't see her face. That would teach her to jump to conclusions.
At her silence, he continued. "I'd started law school while I was in the service. Then in the hospital, I got into one of those remote training programs. I finished my degree and passed the Texas bar."
"Where do you work?" She couldn't imagine how he could survive in an occupation that, as far as she knew, meant spending most of your time reading old law books.
"I work for the Government," he told her. "It's a great place to be a starting lawyer. Of course they pretty much have to hire disabled veterans. That makes it nice."
He didn't bother hiding the bitterness that entered his voice when he spoke of these special privileges.
As far as Amy was concerned, the government owed something to a man who had given his eyesight in a far-off military venture that many people didn't understand or even care about. She couldn't imagine anyone begrudging him a job preference, so long as he was qualified. His expression made it clear he wasn't looking for her sympathy, however well intentioned it might be.
"What about you?" he asked.
"There isn't much to tell. I went to A&M, got drafted into the Woman's Pro Basketball league, got passed around between half a dozen teams in three years, then blew out my knee and headed back home where I got a job teaching P.E. at Ursuline Academy. It's a private girls school here in Dallas."
"Teaching is supposed to be a tough job. How long have you been doing it?"
"Two years," she told him. "I guess it's fun, if you want to ride herd over a couple of hundred girls whose hormones are totally out of control and who are more worried about messing up their hair than they are about playing the game."
Amy was easy to talk to, Mark realized. He hadn't noticed any limp when she had been holding his arm, so her knee injury couldn't be too serious. Still, in some ways her experience paralleled his. One moment he'd been living his dreams flying bombers, the next moment, everything was gone. For each of them, an apparently insignificant misstep had changed their lives.
Sure he liked his job. Just as it sounded like Amy enjoyed her job teaching. But it wasn't the same as flying halfway between earth and space.
He did the arithmetic. College, plus three years in basketball and two years of teaching would make her about twenty-six. He'd be thirty on his next birthday, but he didn't think the years between them would be what kept them apart.
The rattle of plastic cups on a tray told him their coffee had arrived.
Carefully he reached out, feeling for his cup.
Instead of coffee, he found Amy's hand on the table.
To his surprise, she didn't jerk away when he touched her.
Her skin felt smooth and firm. So far, his workout buddies had been straight with him.
Reluctantly, he pulled his hand away and continued his exploration, finally finding the cup.
Amy laughed with a compelling happiness. He didn't remember ever having times when he wanted to laugh with quite so little reserve as she did, and he wasn't sure he could get used to a woman with a laugh like that.
"So what's the joke?" he asked.
"It's just that I was trying to move your cup where you could find it and every time I moved it, you went somewhere else."
"You don't need to do that. They train us to be self- sufficient." He needed Amy's pity like another land mine. Why couldn't people accept the reality that he could manage fine without his eyesight?
"I try to help my friends."
"That's very noble." All the time he'd been telling himself that she was different, that she was treating him like a man rather than a helpless cripple, he'd been suffering under a misapprehension. She'd thought he was just a jerk who sat on people rather than a blind man. Now she was revealing her true colors.
She was like everyone else. People at his office treated him with a combination of caution and aversion. His workout buds treated him like just another guy, but their relationships never quite extended outside the club's walls. The men and women he'd served with in the Air Force made an effort to include him in some of their gatherings but his injury was a constant reminder of their own mortality, a reminder that left everyone uncomfortable.
The coffee tasted bitter as he swallowed a sip.
"I didn't mean to offend you," Amy told him. "I already explained that I don't know the right things to do. Maybe you could help me."
He took another sip then set down the cup.
"All right. I'd like to ask a favor. If you don't feel comfortable with it, tell me."
"Sure. What do you want?" She sounded absolutely trusting.
"I'd like to get an idea of what you look like."
"So you want me to describe myself?" She sounded doubtful. He couldn't blame her.
"Actually, I want to look at your face."
"Oh. You mean touch it?"
"That's how we blind people see things," he said.
"Oh. I guess that would be all right."
He heard the sound of her chair dragging near him.
"I'm ready," she told him, her voice soft.
He put his hands in front of him and waited. If he leaned forward and hit her a little low, he'd never be able to explain it away as yet another accident.
After a second, she got the idea and grasped his wrists, guiding them toward her face.
Smooth, soft. He barely touched her, running his fingertips just over the surface of her face taking in its texture, mapping its shape.
She smelled of soap and something flowery like orange blossoms, maybe. Mixed with the scent of the coffee they were drinking.
Her chin felt strong, her lips maybe a little wider than average.
Kissable lips, he realized. Then he stopped that train of thought. He hadn't kissed anyone since his accident.
Her nose was straight, with maybe just a hint of an upturn at its end. Her eyes wide set.
He had known she was slender from when he had sat on her. He hadn't realized that she was beautiful.
Too beautiful. A woman like this would have guys all over her like fleas on a dog. Why was he setting himself up for disappointment?
"Hum?" He started to draw away.
"You're not saying anything. Is there something wrong with my face?"
He ran his thumbs over her eyebrows, soft and silky. There sure as hell was something wrong with it. It was as far out of a blind man's reach as having his own face carved in Mount Rushmore. "It's a nice face," he admitted.
His watch announced the time out loud. Six o'clock.
"Is it really?" she asked.
"A couple of minutes before. I keep it fast. Why?"
"I've got to go."
She pulled away from him.
"I'll take you back," he said.
"My car is close enough that I can walk," she told him. "I need the exercise. Somehow my workout got cut short."
"I brought you here and I think I should take you back."
"Don't you think you're getting a little pushy?" She had an edge in her voice.
To his surprise, he liked that edge.
"Yeah, that would be me, all right."
"I'll let you walk me back. Come on."
He heard her chair swivel, then the whish of her silky dress or top or whatever she wore drawing near him.
He reached out a hand and caught an elbow.
Her arm felt good, naked skin and tight muscle. He stroked it lightly, just for a moment, then grasped it firmly.
Her top felt like real silk, a shell, he thought they called them.
"How 'bout I call you?" he asked, steeling himself for a negative answer, telling himself it didn't matter.
"What's your number?"
She rattled it off fast, just once.
Obviously she thought he'd never be able to remember. Unfortunately for her, a blind man learns to remember.
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