Chapter 16

ON MONDAY MORNING, the plumber came and fixed the pipe and they drained the kitchen. They were back in business. It had cost Francesca two thousand dollars, which was a stretch for her, but she had no choice.

Marya and Charles-Edouard baby-sat for Ian on Tuesday when Chris took Francesca out to dinner. She had to take Marya into her confidence, otherwise it didn’t make sense.

“Like a date?” Marya looked shocked. She hadn’t picked up even a hint of romance between them, ever, although she loved them both, and could easily see them together. But she had never thought it appealed to either of them and had been sorry it didn’t.

“Yeah. Like a date,” Francesca admitted, looking embarrassed. She felt awkward saying it to anyone. She didn’t even feel like dating material anymore. She had been in neutral for nearly a year. “At least that’s what he said. But don’t tell anyone.”

“Who am I going to tell? Page Six of the New York Post?” Marya was laughing at her. Francesca was a wreck.

“I don’t know-Ian, my mother, Charles-Edouard. I don’t want to make this a bigger deal than it is. It’s just dinner.” But it was dinner with Chris, in a restaurant, and he had called it a date. And he had kissed her several times.

“Is it a big deal?” Marya asked her pointedly.

“Maybe… I don’t know… maybe not… maybe it will be. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe we’re both too afraid.”

“What if you’re not? What if it works?”

“That’s even scarier,” Francesca said, looking panicked.

“That’s how I felt about Charles-Edouard. It’s a little frightening getting into a relationship, at any age. And the older you are, the more defined your personality and your life, and the harder it is to put the puzzle pieces together.”

“How’s it going with you and him?” Francesca asked her. Marya looked ecstatic, and so did he.

“It’s fantastic. Other than my late husband, he’s the most wonderful man I’ve ever met. I’m a very lucky woman to have two great men in one lifetime. It’s probably more than I deserve, but I’m loving it,” she said humbly.

“You deserve it,” Francesca confirmed to her. “Just don’t say that to my mother. But what the hell, she’s had five helpings at the buffet of life, you only had one. You have a right to seconds.” She was happy for her.

“My best advice to you is to just see what comes with Chris. Don’t anticipate, don’t project, don’t expect him to be someone he isn’t, or try to be someone you’re not. Be yourself. And enjoy it.” It was good advice. “And don’t worry about Ian. I’m happy to baby-sit for him anytime. And Charles-Edouard loves him too. When Chris takes you out, sign us up for Ian. We’ll make cookies or something. Have fun,” Marya said to her, as she went upstairs to dress.

For the first time in months, when Francesca sat in the bathtub, she shaved her legs. She didn’t know yet if she’d wear a dress, but whether she did or not, it was a symbolic gesture. “Welcome back to the world,” she said to herself in the tub, and then she laughed out loud.

“What did you tell them?” Chris asked her as they hurried down the steps and the front door closed behind them. She was wearing a black leather skirt, a red sweater, and high heels. She felt a little like her mother, and worried that she’d overdone it. She didn’t want to look like she was trying too hard. She couldn’t even remember what you were supposed to wear on a real date and didn’t have the wardrobe. Her forays into dating had been minimal so far. And for someone she actually cared about, she was aware that she was supposed to look cute and sexy. She had no idea if she did. But he had smiled at her admiringly when she came down the stairs and knocked on the door of his room to let him know she was ready. Ian was already in his pajamas with freshly washed hair and told her she looked sick.

“I do?” She looked worried.

“Sick is good.” Chris translated for her. “Like ‘hot,’ only cooler and younger.”

“Oh, thanks, Ian… you look sick too,” she said over Chris’s shoulder, and then they ran down the stairs and out the door. Ian knew he was supposed to report to Marya and Charles-Edouard in the kitchen for a cookie-baking fest.

“So what did you tell Marya and Charles-Edouard?” Chris repeated the question. She hadn’t answered.

“I told them you hate their food and wanted to go out for a decent dinner.” With two of the most famous chefs in the world cooking daily meals for them, it was admittedly hard to justify going out. But this was different.

“Very amusing.” He knew she hadn’t really said that.

“I told Marya you invited me to dinner.”

“What did she say?” He was curious at the reaction they were going to get if they started going out. Ian had already said he thought it was funny and let it go at that. He had laughed at his dad as he got dressed.

“She thought it was a good idea. So do I.” She was liking the idea better and better, although she had terrified herself for the past two days, imagining every possible disaster that could befall them if they got involved. But she had still kept their date.

“I like the idea too,” he said, looking pleased with himself as they walked to Da Silvano. He had chosen that because they both liked it. And he didn’t want to do anything too fancy and make her uncomfortable. He wanted her to have a nice time. She already was. It was fun to feel like a girl again, on a date, in a skirt, with a man. Wow!

The headwaiter gave them a good table inside, and there was a chill in the air. Winter was coming, and fall had arrived. Chris was wearing jeans, a white shirt, and a brown corduroy jacket, with freshly shined loafers. He looked nice. And he had shaved before they went out. She liked that. The five-day beard stubble look had always turned her off. Trendy or not, it looked dirty to her. Chris looked immaculate and handsome, and they looked right together.

They both ordered pasta and salad, and he ordered a great bottle of Napa Valley wine. And even before the pasta arrived, they were talking and laughing, about how silly they felt all dressed up and out together, about the leak the other night, and things Charles-Edouard did and said. When she thought about it later, she didn’t even know what they had talked about, but they’d had a nice time. A really nice time. It was fun to get away from the house, their work, and even Ian, and just be grown-ups out for an evening together. It was great.

They lingered over dessert and coffee and were the last to leave the restaurant. They wandered home slowly, and everyone was in bed when they got home. Ian was sound asleep, tucked in on his top bunk.

“I had a wonderful time,” Chris said, as he kissed her just outside her room, on the landing. He had walked her upstairs, like a proper date.

“So did I,” she whispered, and he kissed her again.

“I don’t know why we didn’t figure this out six or nine months ago,” he said, smiling down at her. “I feel like we wasted a lot of time.”

“We didn’t. We weren’t ready.” And now they knew each other well. It was better this way.

Chris nodded, and kissed her again. They held each other, and he hated to turn away. She finally let herself into her room, and he ran quickly down the stairs to his own. She walked into her bedroom with a big smile on her face and then laughed. It had been an excellent first date.

Francesca and Chris tried to act like nothing was happening, but it was obvious that something was. Marya smiled every time she saw them together, and Charles-Edouard clapped him on the back with a big grin after their date on Tuesday night.

The next morning at breakfast, it was hard being together, trying to act normal. Chris kept smiling at her, and Francesca blushed shyly, which made him want to kiss her, but he couldn’t. He didn’t want to have to say anything to Ian yet. But his son was no dummy either. He chuckled when he saw them together.

Chris took her out again on Friday night, for Mexican food and a movie, and on Saturday morning Ian looked at both of them and burst into a fit of giggles. He was eating his favorite Mickey Mouse pancakes and bacon. Marya had made them for him, since he never tired of them and requested them again and again, and then she and Charles-Edouard had gone to Vermont for the weekend. Their romance was going well, and they both looked happy. So did Francesca and Chris. It was contagious.

“So, have you kissed her yet?” Ian asked his father when Francesca went upstairs to get something from her room. She had promised to give Chris a book she read that summer and thought he would love too.

“What are you talking about?” Chris tried to look innocent, but Ian wasn’t buying it.

“If you take a girl to dinner, you have to kiss her. Everyone knows that. You took her to dinner twice. If you don’t kiss her, she’ll think you’re gay.”

“Where did you get that from?” Chris looked shocked.

“A fifth grader told me. He said that means you’re a sissy and don’t like girls.”

“Well, don’t go calling anyone that, or they might take a swing at you if they don’t like it,” his father warned him.

“Okay. So did you?”

“It’s none of your business,” Chris said defensively.

“Yes, it is. She’s my friend too. I’d kiss her if I took her out to dinner.”

“That’s nice to know.” Chris smiled at him as Francesca walked back into the room and handed him the book. She said she had loved it and thought he would too. It was a well-written thriller by a new writer.

“What are you two talking about?” Francesca asked innocently as she poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table with them.

“I asked him if he kissed you yet, and he wouldn’t tell me,” Ian said, polishing off the last of his pancake, and then he looked straight at her. “Did he?” She nearly choked, and didn’t know what to say.

“Would you be upset if he did?” Francesca asked gently, and Ian laughed.

“Of course not. I love you, Francesca. I think my dad does too. He’s just too chicken to say it, or do anything about it. I told him if he doesn’t, he’s gay.” Francesca’s eyes opened wide. She hadn’t expected that.

“I don’t think he’s gay,” she said, and sipped her coffee, looking at Chris for cues. She had no idea what to say. Chris was nodding imperceptibly, and she looked straight at Ian. “He kissed me.”

“Then he’s not gay.” He gave his dad a high five for the kiss, and she felt like she had walked into the locker room with two high school boys. She was the object of a high five. It was a first for her.

“I figured he wasn’t. So that’s okay with you?” she asked Ian. She was glad that Charles-Edouard and Marya weren’t there. This was definitely a family discussion.

“Yeah, it’s okay with me,” Ian confirmed. “I like it. You’re our friend.”

“Yes, I am, but I don’t want to do anything that makes you unhappy. You both mean a lot to me, and I don’t want to mess that up.”

“You mean like my mom?” he asked. They were heading into deep waters.

“I don’t know about your mom, Ian. That’s between you and your dad. I just don’t want to upset you or your dad, or disappoint you in any way.”

“You won’t,” Ian said confidently. He had total faith in her. “What are we doing today?” He moved on to the next subject, since they had established that they had kissed. He hopped out of his chair then, and bounced upstairs to watch TV. He wanted to go to Central Park after lunch.

“Well, that was easy,” she said with a look of relief after he left the room. “I was afraid he’d be upset.” Chris was smiling at her.

“I didn’t think he would.” He leaned over and kissed her then, and then slipped into the chair next to hers and put his arms around her and gave her a real one. At that exact moment Ian walked back into the room. They didn’t even see him until they came up for air. He was laughing at them.

“Good one, Dad,” he said happily, and left the room again, and took a box of rice cakes with him, to munch while he watched TV.

“I have to get the hang of this,” Francesca said, looking a little shaken. “I wasn’t expecting a cheering section in the bleachers.” But she was glad that he approved. It was better that way.

“They talk about sex too much in school,” Chris said, looking slightly unnerved too.

They cleaned up the kitchen, and went out for lunch that afternoon, and then to Central Park. They walked around the boat pond, wandered into the zoo, bought ice cream, and threw a football between the three of them and played tag. They felt like a family, and all three of them were happy when they came home late that afternoon with some new DVDs. Chris invited her into their room, and she watched TV with them, sitting next to Chris on the couch, and Ian sprawled out on the floor. Francesca hadn’t been that happy in years. And best of all, Ian approved.

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