Sanguinolent sunset. Now there's a word you don't see every day. Charlotte circled it with her red pen and drew a smiley face at the end of the line, just below where she'd called out a different phrase for being trite. She continued making notes in the margin as the rest of the group took turns giving their feedback. By the time she was done marking up the poem, the paper was also sanguinolent.
She looked up when the group grew quiet. Her turn. She looked down at the poem again and hoped its author wouldn't be offended. She had to look at the paper to remember his name. Steven.
“It's a little confused,” she said. There was a pause and a shuffle of papers.
“What don't you understand?” he asked.
She snapped her chin up to look at him and was taken aback by the force of his gaze and the color of his eyes. There wasn't an adjective to describe the shade of green staring back at her.
“I'm not confused. Your poem is.”
His gaze dropped to his copy of the poem. She could almost see his brain struggling to acknowledge that there could be any imperfections. He probably thought it was soooo amazing! as proclaimed by Aubrey, the bubbly redhead to his left. She had gushed to an embarrassing extent, obviously more interested in getting his number than saying anything meaningful. It had been sad and funny at the same time. With a pang of something she refused to believe was jealousy, Charlotte realized that, of the two of them, Aubrey would be the only one taking any numbers.
Whatever. She certainly didn't want Steven's number. Not when he looked at her again with an aloof, almost cocky grin, apparently waiting to hear more of her thoughts about his poem. Well, if he insisted.
“The style isn't consistent. The first stanza is really concise, like you chose each word for a reason.” The red smiley face she'd drawn next to sanguinolent sunset caught her eye, but she ignored it. She'd let Aubrey pad his ego. “But the last couple of stanzas have some ornate description that's just a waste of space. And some clichés that need to go.”
“Lots of authors use clichés,” Aubrey said and shot a hopeful glance at Steven. “It can be an effective tool.”
Charlotte shrugged. “Except it's not. Not here. They don't help create a tone or anything, and this isn't satire. A cliché without purpose is still just a cliché.”
Aubrey frowned, but Steven nodded slowly, like he was seeing her point.
“Easy on the poor lad, Charlotte,”Alexander McAnulty said. He was a portly gentleman, and one of the oldest workshop participants. Charlotte liked to think of him as her long-lost, really awesome Irish uncle. The kind who might've let you take a puff of his pipe when you were barely twelve, with a warning of don't tell yer mum. She'd gotten to know him during a previous workshop. “Wasn't there anything you liked about it?”
She softened a bit. She wasn't trying to be mean. “I never said I didn't like it.”
“No, it's okay. I appreciate the honesty,” Steven said.
She would've gone on to mention what she did like about it, but Deb, the instructor, called for the small groups to break up and reform one large group.
At the end of the day's session, Charlotte met Deb at the front of the classroom.
“Ready to go?” Charlotte was looking forward to a cream soda float at the campus creamery.
“In a minute. I asked Steven to come along,” Deb said.
Deb laughed and shook her head. “What'd he do to rub you the wrong way?”
“Nothing. He's just very sure of himself.” She watched him pack up his messenger bag from across the room.
“Since when is that a fault?”
She shrugged. Aubrey bounced over to Steven, grinning like a fool. Charlotte couldn't deny she was cute. A thick mass of red curls, fair skin, a smattering of freckles. Her voice was a little nasally, though. It carried across the room. She was asking Steven to get lunch with her and a few others. He smiled and looked over Aubrey's head to where Charlotte and Deb stood. Aubrey's gaze followed. Charlotte couldn't hear Steven's reply, but the pretty pout said it all.
He slung his bag over his shoulder and approached the front of the room, acknowledging them with a nod. As they walked across campus, Deb and Steven chatted about his job search while Charlotte felt like the odd man out. She trudged alongside Steven, trying not to resent his presence. She had been looking forward to chatting one on one with Deb this afternoon. Deb was like a mother to her, and they hadn't gotten to talk as often as usual in the past month or so.
She perked up a bit when she finally had her cream soda float in hand. Before she could hand the cashier her check card, Steven stepped in front of her and thrust a twenty at the cashier.
“I'll get it.”
“It's fine, I can get my own.”
“For all three.” He ignored her protest. The cashier hesitantly reached for the money.
“I said I can get it.” She gritted her teeth.
“I heard you.” He took his change and smiled his thanks to the girl behind the counter, who promptly blushed. Good lord. Was she the only one not all that impressed? She stalked out to the patio without another word.
She didn't like being indebted to anyone, even if it was for less than five bucks. Especially not some smug guy who thinks his recently earned college diploma makes him an authority on life. After a moment, he came out of the building and sat down next to her. Deb trailed a few feet behind, but before she reached the table, her cell phone rang. She stepped further away and took the call.
“Pistachio is so pretentious,” Charotte said of Steven's double-dip waffle cone.
He laughed and shook his head. “Is that better or worse than being trite?”
She flushed against her better judgment and hoped any color on her cheeks would be mistaken for the effects of the sun. She gazed out across the green stretch of campus between them and the main academic buildings. The Common Grounds is what everyone called the open space. In the middle of summer now, there were more sunbathers than study groups clustered on the lawn. She studied each one that was close enough to see clearly, but no matter how hard she concentrated on tanned bodies and colorful blankets, she couldn't ignore the weight of his gaze.
“You're staring,” she said, without meeting his eyes.
“Why cream soda?”
“What?” She looked at him that time, and immediately regretted it. Didn't he ever blink?
“Root beer float, sure. Coke float, even. Why cream soda?”
The sun glinted in his eyes. At least she thought it was the sun. Eyes couldn't naturally possess that much sparkle, could they? She looked down into her cup, then silently cursed his ability to make her uncomfortable.
“It's what I always get.” The melting ice cream formed a frothy foam on top of the soda. She scooped some up with her spoon and brought it to her lips. It began to fizz and melt away the moment it hit her tongue. She loved the mellow caramel flavor of cream soda as opposed to the almost spicy bite of root beer. Vanilla and caramel. Few things worked so well together. “Why mess with perfection?”
“I agree.” He reached toward her and wiped the corner of her mouth with his thumb. His eyes bore into hers like he was looking for something.
At the brush of his fingertips across her cheek, her spine shifted into a sensuous curve and the hair on her scalp prickled. A flutter of eyelashes obscured her vision for a moment. She couldn't keep looking at him if he was going to keep looking at her like that. She averted her eyes, feeling like a part of her was showing that she'd much rather keep under wraps.
“Sorry.” His voice tickled the base of her spine even as his hand dropped back to the table.
“It's okay.” His hands she didn't mind. It was his eyes she wished he would keep to himself.
Deb finally joined them at the table, oblivious to the tension of a moment ago.
“Sorry about that, guys. Gary is taking the boys to the lake for a little while and couldn't find Gregory's swim trunks. I swear, if the man bothered to move something, life would be a little easier.”
“The lake sounds really good right now,” Charlotte said. Her cheeks burned. From the sun, of course.
“Maybe you can come with us some time next week,” Deb said. “The boys have been asking about you.”
“I miss their little faces.” After seeing them and helping care for them every day for more than two years, she was having cuteness withdrawal after moving out of Deb's house earlier in the summer. She glanced at her watch and sighed.
“What? Oh, you don't have to leave right now, do you?” Deb asked.
“I have to get ready for work.”
“Where's work?” Steven asked. She pretended not to hear.
“I left my uniform in the dryer last night, so I’m going to need to starch it to death.”
“That's too bad. I wanted to ask you guys how you liked working in small groups today.”
“I got some great feedback,” Steven said, grinning.
Deb looked at him, then Charlotte.
“Apparently I’m trite.” He still smiled when he said it, but she blushed anyway. God damn, she wished he'd stop making her do that.
“Not you, the poem. Although you're getting there.”
“Charlotte doesn't hold back when it comes to criticism,” Deb said, smiling.
“Oh come on, you say that like I get some pleasure from it.”
“I said no such thing. But maybe it says something that that's what you heard.” Deb winked and nudged Steven with her elbow.
Maybe she was right. She shrugged it off and stood up.
“Call me tomorrow,” Deb said. “There's something else I wanted to talk to you about.”
Charlotte stiffened. The air grew thick, as though the humidity had doubled. She already knew what the something else was, and she didn't want to discuss it any more.
“I told my Aunt no. I’m not changing my mind.”
“Honey, I just want you to understand--”
“No.” She angled her body more toward Deb, in an attempt to remove Steven from her peripheral vision. “I have nothing to say to him and want nothing to do with him. He has no legal standing over me anymore. I made sure of that.”
“I know. I get that.” Deb stood and embraced her briefly. “Sorry I brought it up here. Just call me, okay?”
“Okay.” She smoothed her shorts over her hips, more as a way to iron out her irritation than to rid herself of wrinkles. “Give the boys hugs and kisses for me.”
“See ya, Charlotte.” Steven's voice made her pause mid-turn as she was leaving. She looked back over her shoulder. His smile worked some of the tension out of her shoulders. She nodded and smiled back. He'd at least earned that much.