She’s here, Matt thought as his eyes drank her in. So what if she’s in her ultra supervisory mode, she’s still here. She’s so beautiful. Those dimples are so enchanting. Those eyes, those beautiful full lips. Oh to be able to kiss those lips again. She liked it too, I know she did. Even if she pretends it never happened I will never forget that it did. That New Year’s kiss. Sighing inwardly as he remembered that wonderful event. How many times have I gone to sleep with that kiss on my mind? With Ellen on my mind. From the moment I saw her there was something about her that touched me. That forever endeared her to me. It’s not just that gorgeous face or that perfect ten body, it’s her, the essence of Ellen; that aura that makes me happy just to be around her. This uptight professional colleague attitude is just one of her many walls of protection. Protection for her heart that has seen more hurt than any one person should have to handle in a lifetime. If I could break down those walls for more than a few minutes at a time I’d be able to show her how important she has become to me and how wonderful and special I think she is, and that I would never let anything or anyone hurt…hurt her. Stop it. Stop hoping for something that you know you’ll never have no matter how desperately you want it. You can’t make a promise like that because your past, your life won’t allow you to. Hurt would be welcomed compared to what could happen if she got involved in your world. Oh but she’s right here, his heart pounding as he continued to look at her. For one night don’t think about what can’t be and just enjoy the moment. Accept this night for what it is. Some much wanted precious time alone with Ellen. Maybe you’ll never have a future with her but damn if you can’t enjoy this night and make the very most of it.
"May I take your coat?" Matt asked Ellen as she quietly scanned her surroundings. "Dr. Burgess?"
Ellen didn't hear him. All she could hear was the continual pounding of her heart in her ears as she looked around the apartment. It suited him she thought. Spotting the basketball hoop above his door didn't even surprise her. He was in such great physical condition she mused as she continued to focus on the orange circle of steel and nylon twine; she’d have to be blind not to notice that. And those eyes…those milk chocolate eyes that seemed to look beyond her physical being and into her very soul. That beguiling smile he wore on those perfect lips. Those soft lips she felt on hers New Year’s Eve when he sprung that kiss on her seemingly out of nowhere. She continued to replay that memory in her mind, feeling herself becoming warm, although her hands were as cold as ice from her still acute case of nervousness. What was he doing to her? Why couldn’t she shake this man? Where were these feelings coming from? Why did they scare her so much and why did she feel guilty for feeling this way? A tapping on her forearm and the sound of her name shook Ellen from her daze.
"Dr. Burgess?" Matt repeated.
The effect of even the most innocent of his touches was like an electric current straight to Ellen’s heart. "I'm sorry did you say something?"
Ellen asked trying to clear her mind of the near wanton thoughts she had been having of her host for the evening.
"I was wondering if I could take your coat?" he repeated also feeling the effect of their touch. "You might be more comfortable if it were off while you ate." After pausing for a moment he continued, "Is something wrong?"
"No why would you ask?" she asked placing her purse on the couch and removing her short black leather coat.
"You seemed a million miles away just now."
"I wasn't," she answered handing him her coat. Not a million miles, only a few weeks she thought to herself.
His hand grazed hers as he took the coat, "Your hand is like an ice cube," taking her hand in his. "You sure you're okay?"
Feeling her façade slipping she pushed her assertive posturing into second gear. Pulling back her hand, "I'm fine Dr. Harmon, I left my gloves at home and it's winter time. The temperature tends to drop, hands get cold, noses run. It's the season," she explained defensively.
"Whatever you say," Matt said laying the coat against the back of the couch.
Making her way over to the table she placed down her package of takeout and inquired, "Do you always dine by candlelight?"
"Doesn’t everyone?" he remarked jocularly grateful he lit the candles before she arrived.
He could see now she would have never allowed him do it after.
"Not anyone I know," she shared.
"That’s not true, you know me, and I do…apparently," motioning to the table as he went to the wall and turned off the lights that illuminated the dining area of his apartment.
"What are you doing?" Ellen asked nervously as darkness descended upon the area.
"I’ve turned off the lights. After working under all those bright lights at the hospital a quiet candlelight dinner at home is just what the doctor ordered. Pun intended," he smiled. "It’s very relaxing, as I’m sure you’ll find out, besides it’s really not that dark as you can see there are a few lights still on," pointing out the overhead stove light in the kitchen and a lit end table lamp. "I have a microwave in the kitchen, does your dinner need to be reheated?"
Giving him a curious look not believing for one minute and rightfully so that he dined by candlelight on a regular bases, "No I just picked it up and it was steaming then so it should be
"Great," pulling her chair from the table, "please, have a seat."
"I can do that doctor," Ellen insisted maintaining her ‘I’m in control’ demeanor.
Holding both hands up in submission, "Fine suit yourself," Matt said making his way to the other side of the table.
"Do you always buy fresh flowers for these candlelight dinners of yours too?" Ellen asked taking her seat and sliding it closer to the table.
"Actually no, I bought the flowers because I thought you’d like them. Was I wrong?"
Ellen wasn’t expecting a truthful answer so his response took her aback. "No you were not wrong, the flowers are beautiful Dr. Harmon."
"Wow, a compliment. Now was that so hard?" he remarked in good nature seeing a hint of humor radiate in her eyes. "Can I make a suggestion?" Ellen’s silence prompted him to continue. "Just for tonight could we drop the doctor thing? I promise I won’t make it a habit unless you want me too. When I’m not at the hospital I’m just Matt and I’d prefer it if you called me that when we’re not there. This is supposed to be a laid back dinner remember."
"With candlelight?" Ellen had to add.
"It’s soothing. May I call you Ellen just for tonight?"
"Fine, but just throughout dinner. I am still your boss Dr. Burgess you understand?"
"Perfectly, besides I’m sure you’ll never let me forget that," he smirked. "Would you like some wine with your dinner Ellen?"
"Yes Dr…Matt, I would like some wine," she answered figuring she could use something to steel her still somewhat jittery nerves as he was being way too charming.
Matt went over to the refrigerator and returned with the bottle of wine and two glasses. "I hope you like Merlot?"
"I do as a matter of fact."
"So do I," popping the cork and pouring the beverage. "I don’t drink too often but I like a glass of wine every now and then." After filling both glasses he raised his in a toast.
Before he could say anything Ellen spoke first. "That won’t be necessary," she said taking a drink of the wine then replacing the glass on the table.
Lowering his glass. She’s not going to make this easy he thought. "I guess there’s nothing left to do but eat," Matt said handing her a plate.
"I guess you’re right," she replied taking the plate and then opening the plastic bag that contained four small white paper boxes of Chinese food.
"You have Chinese too. Yet something else we have in common," Matt offered as he dished some veggie stir-fry onto his plate.
"How about that," Ellen absently replied while dishing a portion of the contents of each of the four containers she had onto her plate.
After Ellen finished serving herself she looked up to see Matt’s eyes fixed on her plate, "Is there a problem?" she asked.
"Do you think you have all the meat groups covered there?" He asked curiously after seeing that every dish contained meat of some kind.
"This is my dinner. I like meat. That is your dinner," looking at his plate of stir-fry, "you don’t."
"May I ask what all that is?"
"Sure," pointing at the different foods with her fork as she went around the plate in a clockwise motion. "Sweet-n-sour pork, beef and broccoli, chicken lo mein, and shrimp fried rice."
"And you actually eat all that?"
"Yes I actually do," she said taking a bite of the noodles. "You don’t see me giving you a hard time about eating soy products all the time do you?" Not giving him a chance to answer. "No I don’t think you do," she smiled before popping a bite size piece of shrimp into her mouth.
The meal commenced with the two extolling the benefits of their choice of eating patterns neither convinced that the other’s was the right way to go, although it did go a long way to easing Ellen’s nerves thereby making her more at ease, much to Matt’s delight. Seeing as how their meal for the most part was at its end Matt decided to attempt to keep the evening going by starting on another subject of conversation.
"I checked on your mother before leaving the hospital," he shared with her.
"Really," she replied dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin before taking a sip of wine.
Although picking up on her less than enthusiastic response Matt continued, "Yeah. She’s doing much better."
"I know, I saw her today too remember."
"Yes you mentioned that. Physically she is doing better every day, but emotionally she’s still critical."
"Critical?" Ellen repeated. "That sounds about right," she said flippantly.
"You know what I mean. She’s concerned that she’ll never have a relationship with you again."
"And that means what? I’ve been through this with my brother today I don’t want to go through it with you," reaching for her glass of wine and taking a few sips.
She didn’t leave so that encouraged him. "The fact that she feels this way doesn’t bother you?" Matt asked taking a drink of his wine as he waited for her response.
"Why should it? How many ways can I say this? I didn’t make things this way Alice did. Because she had a heart attack I’m just supposed to forget about all the pain she’s caused me and just embrace her as if nothing happened? I’m not that big of a person and forgetting doesn’t come that easily for me. Truth be told I don’t see where anything has changed where she’s concerned. She never wanted Sam in my life; she never gave him half a chance. Now he’s dead and our paths have crossed so she wants us to be a family again. Sorry too little too late."
"She’s making an effort."
"Matt why can’t you get this? I don’t give a damn about her effort. If Sam were still alive she wouldn’t be saying anything to me. Her reaction would be hostile because then she would see that all those recriminations she made against him would have been proven wrong and she can never be wrong. Sam’s dead, her charges neither got a chance to be confirmed nor denied so things can now just go back to the way they were before he was ever an issue. He’s gone now so it’s not a problem anymore, we can be a happy family again, but because I’m not going along with the program I’m seen as the bad guy. You know for once I would like someone to be on my side in this."
"Ellen, hey I’m on your side," fighting the urge to take her hand he instead placed it around his wineglass. "I’ll always be on your side no matter what," taking a drink of the wine. "I just want to help make that bridge that connects you to your mother again more passable. I see that there’s a lot of hurt and pain involved in this and I also know it’s even more profound for you because you still love her."
"Yes I still love my mother, I’ll always love her but what about all those other feelings that I feel? Do you have any idea of what it’s like to be considered dead by your family?" she asked her sad eyes pooling with tears as she looked at him.
"More than you know," he found himself whispering softly.
"What?" Ellen asked wiping away her tears.
"I’m sorry I upset you, that wasn’t my intention." Attempting to change the subject, "I have some dessert. Ice cream. You know I scream you scream we all scream for ice cream," he said offering a weak smile.
"I don’t feel like screaming right now. What was it that you just said?"
"I have ice cream for dessert," he answered, with no desire to elaborate on the statement in which she was referring.
"That wasn’t what I was talking about. You said you understood what it was like to be dead to your family. How’s that?"
"Ellen it’s nothing really. I was just saying I could imagine what that must be like," leaving the table and heading over to the fridge. "I have Neapolitan I wasn’t sure what flavor you liked."
"Let’s forget the ice cream for a minute," her words stopping him as he was about to reach for the frozen treat. "You didn’t say you could imagine what I was going through, you intimated that you understood first hand. You never talk about your family is that why? Are you cut off from your family too?"
Closing the freezer compartment of the fridge, "If I said yes I am would you drop it?"
"No," she answered, rising from her seat, and turning on the lights in the dining area before walking over to him. "What happened?" she asked standing directly before him in front of the refrigerator.
"I don’t want to get into it."
"But it’s okay to get into my family problems."
"Your mother is in your life again and she wants to mend fences. I just want you to be sure if this opportunity is one you really want to throw away."
"I’m not throwing anything away. Alice did the throwing. I had to choose the man I love or my family. For most people they can have both, but when Mother handed me a choice she in effect had made it for me. Giving up Sam was never even an option and I don’t have any regrets. What about you, do you have regrets about your family?"
"No I don’t, but even if I did it would be pointless. My family is…my family is not the traditional American family. Forgiveness is not a word they understand and regret is not something they feel."
"Does your ski accident have anything to do with this?"
Emitting a deep breath, "Granted your agreeing to this ‘dinner’ meant that I would have to agree to that interview, but I didn’t think you would be playing the role of interviewer tonight."
"Are you trying to tell me in a roundabout way I’m being nosey?"
"No what I’m saying is I don’t like talking about myself. I talked to Mrs. Hardy and the interview is scheduled for tomorrow. Are these the questions you think I’ll be asked?"
"I don’t know maybe. If these sort of questions are asked how will you handle it?"
"I won’t. I’m not answering any personal questions. You’ve gotten more out of me tonight than I ever thought I’d share with anyone."
"That was a lot?"
"A lot more than you could ever know," he asserted.
"How can I get more on the story of Matthew Harmon?"
"Is that a serious inquiry?"
"Yes it is."
"Are you up for a challenge?"
"What kind of challenge?"
"Well I saw you staring at my basketball goal earlier and it got me to thinking maybe you have some B-ball skills, am I wrong?"
"I played a little point in my day," she smiled proudly walking into the living room space.
"Oh you played a little point," he chuckled following behind her.
"Don’t you laugh, I did. I led my high school team in assists for two years and scoring for three. I might be short but I’m tough."
"You don’t have to tell me that," he offered knowingly. "I’ll tell you what we’ll play to five. I’ll even spot you 2 points because I can only imagine how long it’s been since you’ve touched a basketball," picking up the ball from the nearby bookcase. "Now you appear to be in amazing shape, but with all the meat you invade your body with it might cause an adverse affect and I wouldn’t want to be accused of unfair treatment," he teased.
"I got your unfair treatment. You keep your two points once I beat you what do I get?"
"Aren’t we confident?" he smiled.
"Very much so. Well what do I get when I win?"
"You get to play interviewer a little longer."
"And if by some strange twist of fate I lose this little game what do you get?"
A wicked grin covers his face, "Let’s not worry about that now. I’m not going to win anyway right?"
"You better believe it," Ellen said kicking off her pumps and removing the jacket to her pantsuit. Taking the ball from his hands, "Let’s do this."
The game commenced. Minutes later the score was tied at four all and Ellen had the ball. In true basketball player fashion she began to taunt him, "I hope you’re ready to start doing some talking because once this ball hits the bottom of that net you’re going to think I’m Oprah Winfrey."
Matt enjoyed seeing this free-spirited side of Ellen, he’d seen glimpses of it before but now she was in rare form. "Bring it on," he insisted.
Ellen went up for the shot and it bounced off the back rim and came directly to Matt’s hands. As Matt was attempting his winning shot Ellen came over and managed to knock the ball away as it rolled back toward the kitchen.
"FOUL!" Matt shouted.
"That was no foul, that was a clean block," Ellen informed him, as she went to retrieve the ball.
"Whoa," Matt said extending his arm, grabbing her around the waist and bringing her to his lap. "That was a foul," he asserted once again.
"You just don’t want to deal with the fact that a woman beat you," she explained as she attempted to remove herself from his lap and go for the ball again.
"I’m a nineties kinda guy. I don’t have a problem with a woman beating me in basketball or being my boss, especially when the woman is as beautiful as you are, and Ellen you are extremely beautiful."
Their eyes lock as he brings his hand to her face and gently caresses her cheek. Their hearts are pounding wildly and both are aware that it’s not from the basketball game. Her delicate hand covered his warm hand that now cupped her face. Their lips brushed ever so slightly when Ellen bolted from his lap.
"This can’t happen. I shouldn’t have come here. It was a mistake," putting on her jacket and stepping back into her shoes.
"It wasn’t a mistake Ellen, we had fun tonight. There is something between us. Why are you running from it?"
"Maybe for the same reasons you don’t talk about your past Dr. Harmon, because it’s painful and pointless. And I’ve personally had enough pain in my life and I don’t want anymore," she said, retrieving her purse and jacket from the back of the couch before making her way to the door.
"Ellen you can’t…" Matt began as he grabbed her hand.
Pulling her hand from his grasp, "It’s Dr. Burgess," Ellen impressed upon him. "This evening was pleasant Dr. Harmon, now it’s over and we should forget it ever happened. Goodnight." Not giving him the chance to say anything more Ellen was out the door in a flash.
Now alone on opposite sides of Matt’s door they are both trying to absorb what happened between them just mere moments before. The battle that had been being waged in both their splintering hearts had now taken on a whole new intensity. It was becoming clearer to both that no matter what they told themselves they couldn’t control or deny this connection they had and that tonight rather they chose to accept it or not was just the beginning.