Rhonda applied the lipstick carefully and blotted it with a tissue. She ran a comb through her short brown curls and tugged her pantyhose back up to her waistline. She was barely five-three in her bare feet, but the two inch heels on her scandals kept her from feeling like a shrimp beside her co-worker. She'd managed to keep her weight down, but it was an on-going battle. "I don't understand you," Theresa mused as she dried her hands. You use lipstick and makeup, but refuse to dye your hair. You have lovely legs, but you insist on wearing those calf-length skirts." Rhonda picked up her purse. "I read somewhere that long dresses make you look taller. As far as makeup, I want to look my best, but I'm not ashamed of my age. Why cover up the gray hair? That would be misrepresentation." "Misrepresentation?" Theresa laughed. "It's a date, Rhonda, not a business venture. Lighten up." Rhonda turned to the door. "I suppose you're right," she sighed. "It's been so long. I don't know how to act." Theresa gave Rhonda an encouraging smile as she opened the door. "You had a good marriage for 25 years. How did you act when James took you out for an evening?" Rhonda laughed without humor. "We rarely went out to eat, and never at a place as nice as this one. We simply couldn't afford it." Theresa patted her on the shoulder. "You had a good marriage until the day he passed away. I wish I could say the same. Harold and I never did get along. The only thing we ever agreed on was divorce. I'll never go that route again." Rhonda stepped through the door and turned toward their table. Theresa's personality was well suited to her single lifestyle. She was bubbly and gregarious at parties, but made a poor hostess. Theresa avoided responsibility, which might explain why her two girls were so self-sufficient. It certainly had a lot to do with the failure of her marriage. "Well," Rhonda spoke low so only Theresa could hear. "The first time I married for love, but the next time I want a man with money." Theresa looked startled, but they were too close to the table to continue the conversation. Theresa scooted into the booth beside her date, and Thomas stood to let Rhonda in beside him. His smile revealed stained and crooked teeth, but it was heartfelt. Faded blue eyes greeted her enthusiastically as she slid into the booth. Thomas was pushing sixty, but he wasn't even thinking about retiring yet. He was the proud owner of the best ISP in Elmdale, and as if that wasn't enough, owned several rental houses in a nice neighborhood. Thomas wasn't rich, but he had enough money to live comfortably. He rested a hand on her shoulder. "Our order should be here shortly. The service here is excellent." "That's nice," she responded lamely. Why was it so hard to think of anything to say to him? He was a wonderful person, sweet and considerate. She resisted the urge to drum her fingernails on the table. "How is your nephew doing?" His face lit up at the mention of his newest employee. "He's working out terrifically. I think he'll make a great salesman in time." "That's nice." The words slipped out again. "How does your sister feel about having her son and husband working at the same place?" Thomas shrugged. "I don't suppose she minds. It's a job." The waitress rescued them with dinner, and all conversation stopped. It was an uneventful evening that left her wondering why she hadn't stayed home to read a good book. The next morning was Saturday, her day off work. It wasn't as if she put much physical effort into banging away on the keyboard, but somehow it managed to be as exhausting as working in the garden. Speaking of which, a man was supposed to come by and till a small area in the back yard for her vegetable garden. He was nearly a half-hour late already, and she was anxious about the tomato plants she'd purchased three days ago. They were beginning to get tall and spindly. The man drove up in a battered old ford truck and cheerfully introduced himself as Jim Reynolds, of Reynolds Rentals. The name jingled, but unless her guess was wrong, his pockets never did. He was dressed in clean overalls and a white tee shirt, and his boots were well worn. Gray streaked black hair poked out rebelliously from under his cap, and his dark eyes proclaimed an active mind.
Reynolds made no excuse for being tardy, but his skill with the tiller was impressive. He worked diligently for nearly two hours.
Rhonda prepared some ice tea and a few egg salad sandwiches as he worked. It wasn't much, but he'd likely be hot and hungry when he finished. She placed the pitcher of ice tea, two glasses and the covered sandwiches on a table between the two wicker chairs on the screened in porch. Once that was done, she brought out her tomato plants and sorted them. This year she had bought the regular "Big Boys", and some low acid tomatoes as well. Some would be orange colored when they were ripe, and some would be cream colored.
The tiller stopped and she straightened, watching Reynolds walk it across the yard to his truck. She stepped to the door as he rolled it into the truck and closed the tailgate.
"Mr. Reynolds, I have some ice tea and sandwiches ready, if you'd care to join me."
He glanced up at her, his expression clearly surprised and pleased. "Sounds great."
He washed his hands and sank down into one of the chairs. "Ahh," he sighed. "Feels good."
Rhonda pored him a glass of tea and handed him a sandwich. "Do you do all the tilling for your company?"
He shook his head as he picked up the sandwich. "I enjoy working with the ground in the spring. But I couldn't possibly keep up with the demand."
She nodded. "I can hardly wait until spring each year. This year I'm going to try some low-acid tomatoes."
He swallowed and took a sip of the tea. "Yellow, or orange?"
"Orange and cream colored," she said.
"I planted some of the yellow ones last year," he said. "They did OK, but they don't have a whole lot of taste. I like the big Beef Steak tomatoes."
"I tried those one year, but didn't have much luck with them." She poured herself a glass of tea.
He placed his glass carefully on the table. "You have to give them plenty of water and fertilizer when they're young plants. Do you use pesticides?"
"No. I sprinkle a little red pepper on the plants to keep the cutworms off."
"Yeah, I use soapy water. No point in killing the bees that pollinate them and the worms that keep the soil worked up." He leaned back and looked at his sandwich. "You use dill pickles in this, don't you? Delicious!"
They talked about gardening, weather, politics and everything under the sun for nearly an hour. Jim Reynolds had been a widower for the last two years and he was enjoying the camaraderie as much as she was. Finally he stood.
"Well, Mrs. Bryant. It's sure been nice talking to you, but I'd better get going. I have to be at the shop by two o'clock, and it's already quarter of."
Her face burned. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to keep you tied up for so long." She gave him the money for tilling the garden and followed him to the truck. "Thank you for the good work . . . and conversation."
He smiled, his dark eyes twinkling. "I can work my jaws better than my hands, I'm afraid." He paused, his expression sobering. "I could help you plant those tomatoes, if you want to wait until this evening. That's the best time to plant them anyway."
She hesitated, resisting an urge to accept his offer. There was no point in encouraging him, much as she enjoyed his company. Jim was a man of means by no means. The person who said love was more important than money hadn't spent the last 25 years of their life in a hand-to-mouth existence. "Thanks, but I can handle it myself," she finally said.
He nodded. "Well, I'd best be going, then."
He climbed into the truck and backed out of the drive. As the old truck sputtered down the road, she knew a brief moment of regret. She shook her head. "Rhonda," she said under her breath, "You're getting desperate for companionship."
As she was cleaning up the table, the telephone rang. She dumped the glasses in the sink and lifted the receiver.
"Good afternoon," came the reply in a professionally friendly tone. Did Thomas ever loosen up? "I know it's short notice, but would you like to go to a movie tonight?"
"What's playing?" Not that it made any difference. It had to beat what was on television.
He named several movies. "Do any of them sound interesting to you?"
They didn't, but neither did sitting at home alone. "They all sound nice," she lied. "Why don't you select one?"
"Fine." He sounded eager. "I'll pick you up around seven."
The movie was marginally better than the companionship, which left Rhonda wondering if she should be looking for a different companion. It was a thought that crossed her mind all too often. There simply wasn't any magic between them, but then, they weren't young kids, either. What could she expect? Thomas obviously cared for her, and she deeply respected him. Those things made a good foundation for marriage.
As she planted another tomato the next morning, she considered idea of marriage to Thomas. Of course, he hadn't asked yet, but it was obvious that he was fond of her. Could she say the same? Respect might be a good foundation for marriage, but could she marry a man she didn't love?
With irritating speed, her thoughts returned to Jim Reynolds. All the time they had talked that day, romance with him had not entered her mind until he offered to help her plant the tomatoes. It had been purely companionship. Yet, since that time, he had crossed her mind all too often. She shook her head. Companionship was a wonderful thing, but it didn't pay the bills.
Her hand froze on the spade. Didn't pay the bills? Was that what she was looking for; someone to pay her bills? She had been blessed with a good husband for 25 years. Together they had raised 2 boys and a girl. In all those years, she had never once regretted marrying James. They had been poor, but never hungry or without the essentials. James had died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 47, and until then, they had all been healthy.
She dug a hole and placed a tomato plant in it. If they had been able to afford good health insurance, would James have died? She pushed the thought from her mind, as she had done many times in the last three years. The past couldn't be changed. There was no point in dwelling on it. Money insured the best health care and secure retirement. Money was an important factor at her age.
"You can't have it all," she muttered bitterly as she stabbed the spade into the ground again.
Three weeks later, Jim Reynolds stopped by to see how her garden was doing. She was hoeing weeds in the garden and her pulse quickened when his truck pulled into the drive. He stepped out of the truck and reached to get something out of the bed before walking around the front of the vehicle. In his hands, he carried two flats of flowers.
"Nasturtiums," he announced. They'll help keep the bugs off your tomatoes. Besides," he said with a smile, "they're edible and pretty."
"Thank you," she said, wrinkling her nose as he set the flowers down beside her. "I think I'd rather look at them than eat them."
He laughed, a deep musical sound. "Well, they'll attract the bees."
They planted the flowers, weeded and hoed in the garden and solved the world's problems . . . all in the space of a few hours. Finally he stood.
"I'd better get going." But his feed didn't move. He stared at her with an unreadable expression for a few moments. "Have you ever been to a flea market?"
She nodded. "My husband and I used to go to them."
"Oh," he said simply. His shoulders drooped.
"I haven't been to one in a long time," she said, convincing herself that she did so out of consideration for his feelings. "Are there any new ones around?"
The shoulders straightened and the eyes gained interest. "There's a great big one just opened up out on Lanagan Road. I haven't been out there yet, but they say it's pretty nice." He hesitated. "I could run you out there, if you'd like to go."
She hesitated. Four walls were lonely, she could attest to that. If it would make him feel better to have someone with him, then why not go? "You mean tonight?"
He glanced at his watch. "Sure. It doesn't close for another three hours."
It was hard to explain how a stroll through a flea market could be more romantic than an elegant dinner at a fancy restaurant, but it was so. Maybe it was the association with the past . . . or maybe it was the company. In any case, it was one of the most pleasant evenings she had experienced in three years.
All the same, when he called the following day, she found an excuse not to go. His companionship was becoming all too desirable, and her relationship with Thomas might suffer. So far, she hadn't mentioned Jim to Thomas . . . or Thomas to Jim, for that matter. There was no need to do so. If Thomas proposed, she would accept. It was the economical thing to do. That sounded cold and calculated, but at her age, such decisions should be made with the mind, not the heart.
In spite of her resolve, each time Jim Reynolds appeared on her doorstep, she welcomed him in with an annoying degree of excitement. When the tomatoes ripened, he was there to help her can them. He brought her corn to freeze, and even found a place where they could pick green beans. By fall, her freezer was full and her garden was tilled under. For a man with no money, Jim was quite a provider. All the same, hospital bills couldn't be paid with produce.
She had been so busy all summer that there had been little time for Thomas. It was something she was beginning to feel guilty about, so when he called one night, she accepted his invitation to dinner. She had a headache and wasn't much in the mood for primping, but she took care with her appearance, all the same. As she put the finishing touches on her make-up, it occurred to her that she had never worn make-up when Jim was around. In fact, it had never crossed her mind to dress up for him. She shook her head. Of course not. Why should she? And yet, the thought nagged at her all evening. Would Thomas like her as well if she didn't dress up and wear make-up? Was her appearance that important to Thomas?
The restaurant was the usual, but Thomas was more attentive. He ordered wine and a meal fit for a queen. She sipped at the wine and gave the expected compliments on the food. If she hadn't been thinking about the little burger place on west tenth, where Jim had taken her last week, she wouldn't have felt so guilty. When had she become so pretentious . . . so insincere?
"So," Thomas said in conclusion to a conversation that she hadn't even heard, "I thought it was time I popped the question."
Her attention riveted on his face and her breath caught in her throat. The question? She met his solemn gaze.
He reached across the table and took her hand gently in his. "Will you marry me, Rhonda?"
She stared at him, unable to speak . . . unable to breath. Here was the opportunity she had been waiting for. A carefree life with a gentle and loving man lay only a yes away. And yet, nothing escaped her lips. Only one thought occupied her mind. Jim. There would be no more long evenings of stimulating conversation. No more relaxing strolls through flea markets. Instead there would be years of pretending she was something she wasn't. Life wouldn't be a challenge, it would be a . . . bore.
She withdrew her hand from his and stared at the table. She had encouraged his attention . . . had guided their relationship to this point. And yet, when it came down to the final question, she couldn't marry a man she didn't love.
"I'm sorry," Thomas said. "I guess I took you by surprise. I'll give you time to think about it."
She glanced up into his faded eyes and shook her head. "I'm the one who should be apologizing. You're such a wonderful person." She bit her lower lip. "Listen, it isn't that I wouldn't be honored to be your wife . . . it's just that I don't think we're . . . I simply don't love you in the right way."
His expression went from puzzled to disappointment in one swift moment. "I see," he finally said in a controlled tone. He hesitated a moment. "Is there someone else?"
Warmth crawled up her neck and flushed her face and she stared at the napkin in her lap. "I . . . I don't know . . . maybe."
"I thought so." He said. "Reynolds?"
She jerked her head up and stared at him. How could he know about Jim?
He smiled in that sweet understanding way of his. "I saw you with him one day, and you looked like you were enjoying yourself. I asked a friend about him."
As opposed to how she looked when she was with Thomas? "You've been a . . . an excellent companion," she stammered.
He lifted a hand as if to hold back her feeble protest. "I know. I'm not much of a conversationalist." He shrugged, "Anyway, you looked completely at ease with him. I think I knew then . . ." He left the sentence hanging.
There was no need to complete it. They both knew, even if she had refused to admit it. Love was important at any age.
"I hear he runs a successful business," Thomas continued. "He has a reputation for honesty. I suppose that in time, he'll be pretty well set up."
She met his thoughtful gaze. Did Thomas know that she had been attracted to his money? He probably suspected as much. Was it a common occurrence? She reached across the table and patted his hand. "Your warm smile and sweet personality are irresistible," she said with sincerity. "I wish I could love you the way you deserve to be loved." She sighed. "Money shouldn't be a controlling factor in selecting a mate." She smiled, "Or appearances."
He responded to her smile with a puzzled one of his own. The woman who married Thomas for love would be a lucky one indeed.
It was no surprise when Jim asked her to marry him. Nor was there any doubt in her mind when she said yes. Though she could never forget James, her new love would grow as strong. Perhaps God hat been trying to teaching her a lesson . . . not to set too much store by the material things in life.
Apparently Jim's success in the rental business was due to the way he treated his customers. Everybody trusted honest Jim Reynolds. Everyone warmed to his friendly smile and giving nature. Perhaps that was what made love more valuable than money.
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