Heading west on Interstate 480 after work, Hunter’s mind drifted back to that morning’s unsuccessful meeting. Another potential sale lost.
His third major turndown this month.
He hadn’t seen this one coming, though. In fact, he had considered Pipeline Insurance Corporation a hot prospect, with high likelihood of becoming a long-term client. In his phone conversations with Jake Geyer, he had perceived genuine interest in hearing more about the software product. Jake had acknowledged how the product could help, but hadn’t mentioned his employer’s limited scope of need.
Hunter’s manager, Wayne, held a one-on-one status meeting each week. When he’d mentioned Pipeline to Wayne during one recent meeting, Wayne had inquired about Hunter’s ability to secure the client. Though he’d prefaced his response with caution, noting it was too early to know for sure, Hunter had estimated his chances as high.
Wayne latched onto that estimation and forgot the preface.
Today’s development couldn’t help Hunter’s employment status. He hadn’t just underperformed this month. His dry streak had lasted six months and counting.
Once the top-performing member of his team’s sales force, Hunter hadn’t worried about losing his job. Nowadays, however, he’d grown concerned.
His back ache persisted. Hunter scratched his head. The bristles of his brown hair, which he kept short and styled with a touch of gel, tickled his fingers. He rubbed his neck, a nervous habit, and tried to ignore the sickening feeling in his stomach.
“Lord, please help me,” he murmured.
After the meeting with Jake, Hunter had stopped by a current client’s office to ask how well the software continued to work for them and to let them know if they ever needed anything, they could give him a call. An unnecessary visit, but it would only strengthen their business relationship.
More than that, Hunter had needed to revisit a past success. It provided a visual reminder that the dry streak could end and his fortunes could turn around.
He heard a single buzz from his cell phone as he veered toward Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Grabbing the phone from the empty passenger seat, he checked its display and found a text message from his girlfriend, Kara.
Her flight had arrived. To avoid wasting time waiting in the baggage-claim area, Kara always brought a piece of luggage small enough to fit into a plane’s overhead bin. That meant she was now on her way through the airport concourse, heading for the pickup area.
Perfect timing. Hunter wouldn’t need to pay to park.
Standing at the curb, Kara looked diminutive compared to most passersby. At five foot four, the top of her head could rest comfortably beneath Hunter’s chin when he tilted his head at the proper angle. He found it cute.
When she saw his car approach, she gave a feverish wave, as though her trip had lasted weeks rather than a few days. By the time Hunter reached the curb, Kara had already begun dragging her luggage toward his car. Hunter chuckled at the sight. She looked adorable: a diminutive elf lugging a sled through the snow. Throwing the car into park, he popped the trunk and climbed out.
“I’ll take care of your luggage,” he said, jogging toward the rear of the car.
“Don’t you worry, Carlisle,” she said with a glint in her eye. “I’ve got your back.”
Despite the honking of car horns behind them, Hunter allowed himself the luxury of ignoring them for a few seconds. Pulling Kara into his arms, he lifted her a few inches from the ground and held her. She loved when he did that. Petite and slender, she felt like a feather to anyone who tried to lift her. But Hunter visited the gym often, so Kara presented even less of a challenge for his athletic build and toned arms. Hearing her giggle made him grin.
She ran her finger once along his upper lip before he planted a kiss on hers.
“It’s good to be home,” she said.
Another horn shrieked behind them. The sound echoed amid the concrete surroundings and brought Hunter back to the moment.
“Door’s unlocked.” He shoved her luggage into his trunk and made his way back to the driver’s side. “We don’t want to keep Jerky waiting behind us.”
When he climbed in, he found her buckling her seat belt. Strands of her blond hair had gone astray in all the right places. She couldn’t look a mess if she tried.
Pulling out of the parking area, Hunter tapped his finger on the dashboard clock, which approached 6:30 in the evening.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I grabbed some sushi during my layover in Denver,” she said, then leaned toward him with a genuine, vulnerable longing in her eyes. “I missed you.”
Hunter’s mind raced back to his encounter with Jake earlier that morning. He caught himself bouncing his left heel at a nervous pace and brought it to a halt before Kara noticed. He gave her a quick glance, then returned his eyes to the road.
“Missed you, too.”
* * *
Hunter lived toward the eastern edge of Hudson, a suburban community situated between Cleveland and Akron in northern Ohio. He had grown up in this community, where he’d played on the high school baseball team and had run cross-country. Hunter’s career in sales left him with constant pressure and challenging goals. Living in Hudson lent a sense of familiarity and balance, the luxury of coming home to something he knew he could count on.
He rented a small home from a white-collar family that had relocated to London for two years as part of the husband’s career. Though the kids were several years younger than Hunter, he had known the family since his early teens.
Hunter followed Kara into his kitchen by way of an entry door from the garage. Kara set her purse on the kitchen table, removed her shoes, and wandered into the living room.
“You’re sure you don’t want me to order Chinese? We can have it delivered,” he called out.
“Thanks, I’m in good shape,” came her voice from the other room. “Just ready to relax.”
From a miniature wine rack he kept at the corner of his kitchen counter, Hunter grabbed an open bottle of cabernet sauvignon—Kara’s favorite wine to help her relax. He poured two glasses and carried them to the living room, where Kara had settled onto the sofa with her head tilted back and her eyes shut. Her hair splayed across the back of the sofa.
When she heard him approach, she opened her eyes and accepted her glass, raising it in toast-like fashion in appreciation for his gesture.
“You’re such a sweetie.” She patted the cushion beside her.
Hunter took a seat, settling into the sofa and closer to Kara.
The discomfort in his back had eased a bit. Hunter had played sports since childhood and had suffered a wide variety of sprains, pulled muscles, headaches and anything else imaginable. Pain is part of life, his father had always said. Walk through the pain. Let others complain, but you be the strong one. Hunter seldom talked about discomfort—external or internal—and, over the years, had developed a high tolerance for pain.
Aware his back issue wasn’t severe, Hunter had never gotten around to mentioning it to Kara. It hadn’t seemed worthy of a special remark and hadn’t made its way into the course of everyday conversation.
Just another secret, thought Hunter.
Hunter always held back little secrets in his romantic relationships.
He couldn’t put his finger on why he held himself back from someone else. Maybe it was his way of marking his territory or preventing anyone from venturing too deep into his psyche. Whatever the reason, he treasured his guarded space.
Within time, he suspected, women sensed he held something back. They seemed to have radar for that sort of knowledge. They could tell something was wrong but didn’t know why they sensed it. They would ask if he was okay, and he would tell them he was preoccupied with work. Women seemed to accept his response and regard him as a complex individual—still waters run deep, as the adage goes. They resigned themselves to the fact that they had entered a relationship with yet another male who seldom showed his emotions.
Hunter could see the trace of hurt in a woman’s eyes when she knew he only trusted her 99 percent.
But it wasn’t the woman’s fault Hunter didn’t trust anyone more than 99 percent.
Within that remaining one percent, Hunter guarded his personal torment, his darkest secret.
And he couldn’t confide in anyone about that secret. Certainly not with a woman with whom he was involved in a romantic relationship. Not as long as he made an honest effort to stifle his temptations and walk through the hidden pain.
Taking a sip of wine, Hunter reached for Kara’s hand and massaged her fingers with his free hand.
“How was New York?” he asked.
“I found a new line of purses I’d like to take a closer look at. I didn’t catch them until the end of my trip, but I’ll be back there for a few days next week and can follow up at that point. We’ve never carried this particular line in our stores. In the meantime, I’ll get some more demographic information from our marketing people to help me determine if the line is a good fit.”
Kara worked as a buyer for a national retail chain. With a focus on purses and jewelry, she traveled often, visiting major cities throughout the world, on a mission for the products her stores should carry. As a result of her travels, she and Hunter spent much time apart. Large blocks of time—a few days here, a week or two there. Hunter, by comparison, covered a large region of northern Ohio in his sales position and traveled by car. Kara’s frequent flyer miles were the envy of anyone who took the time to perform a few mental calculations. Most people dreamed of traveling to an exotic city as a capstone event, the vacation of a lifetime. Not Kara. At twenty-six, the same age as Hunter, Kara dreamed of seeing few cities. She had already visited them. While Hunter dreamed of discovering new places, Kara savored their familiarity while passing through. She spoke of Tokyo the way most Americans spoke of a local pub.
“How was work?” Kara asked. “Didn’t you say you had a big sales opportunity with an insurance company this week? How’d that go?”
Yes, he’d said that.
“It doesn’t look promising.” Hunter fixated on the television in front of them, which they hadn’t turned on. “In the lead-up to the demo meeting, their interest looked high, but they re-evaluated their situation by the time I got there.”
Kara leaned her head toward him, searching his eyes. “So where do you go from there?”
Though disappointed, Hunter pushed his frustration into hibernation. He refused to pull Kara into his pity. He resolved to let it go.
“I’ll find another prospect to replace them.”
“I know you’ve had a dry spell for a while.”
He rubbed her fingers again, then moved his hand over her shoulder blade and massaged her back with his thumb. He smiled. “No big deal. It’s part of the game.”
In truth, he wondered whether the floor was about to collapse beneath him.
Kara squinted a moment, as though to evaluate him in her pixie manner, then grinned at him. She set her wineglass on the coffee table, then lifted Hunter’s glass from his hand and set it beside hers. She peered into his eyes and held his gaze. For a split second, her pupils dilated, inviting Hunter into her world.
He wanted to feel drawn into her world. He really did. And he’d tried so hard.
Over and over, he’d tried to will it to happen; nevertheless, he couldn’t take that final step across the broad gulch he knew existed between Kara and him. Between any woman and him.
With a tender expression on her face, she ran the tops of her fingers along his cheek and leaned in for a kiss. Hunter closed his eyes and responded, but sensed an absence of involvement from his heart. In a flash, his mind flitted back to an image from that morning, the way Jake had studied him when it didn’t look like Hunter had noticed.
And in another flash, the memory vanished. Hunter smothered it, forcing it into hiding the way he would fold a sweater and shove it into a dresser drawer. He closed the drawer tight. Concealing such memories and feelings from others had served as his protocol for the last 14 years, since he was twelve years old.
Two light kisses before Kara hesitated. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Hunter hoped her question referred to his day’s professional loss and that she hadn’t picked up on his lack of romantic response. “Yeah, I’ve got plenty of other possibilities. Pipeline was my biggest and best, but I’ll find another one. In the meantime, I’ll start the day tomorrow by following up with other irons I have in the fire.”
Kara squinted again, then shook her head. “No, it’s not today. You’ve seemed, I don’t know, distanced lately. Everything’s okay?”
Despite his inner conflict, Hunter hadn’t faked his fondness for Kara. He harbored deep feelings toward her and felt comfortable around her. Without exaggeration, he loved Kara, in the sense that he cherished and cared for her in a profound way. He just couldn’t find a way to give his whole heart to her.
One piece short of a puzzle. The most critical piece, unfortunately.
Without a cornerstone, a building would end up lopsided or angled wrong, perhaps even implode.
A tiny rudder can guide an enormous ship. The flicker of a flame can set an entire forest on fire.
Sometimes little things matter. A lot.
But Hunter had had years of practice. He’d learned when he needed a surge of passion, he could incite it within himself, like drawing on a car’s reserve tank for fuel. The key, he’d discovered, was to relax and melt into the moment.
Hunter focused on Kara’s face. He felt intensity begin to rise and willed it into his stare. The moment the doubt in her eyes broke, Hunter discerned it. He laid his lips upon hers and kissed her deeply, as though to draw air from her lungs into his own.
With his hand on her arm, he felt her muscles relax as she closed her eyes and dissolved into their kiss.
Hunter brushed his lips against hers. He moved his mouth along her cheek, laid a kiss behind her earlobe, which he knew she enjoyed, then swept down to her neck. He slid his hand down to her waist, where he placed his other hand on the opposite side.
They shared one more kiss.
“Stop,” Kara gasped, then kissed him again.
“Stop what?” he whispered. Another kiss.
Kara pulled back and grinned. “We’d better stop while we’re ahead. The no-sex-before-marriage policy, remember?”
Hunter was a Christian and believed in saving sex for marriage. He held to the concept as a core component of his faith. And it wasn’t pious showmanship; he believed positive results would follow if he saved himself for another, giving himself to another as a gift. The concept served as an anchor for his heart.
But in light of his personal struggle with attraction—or lack thereof—to women, the concept of saving sex for marriage had also proven convenient. Not that Hunter had planned it as such; it had merely worked out that way. But it had brought him refuge over the years. By its nature, waiting revolved around time, and this particular wait afforded him an abundance of time to find his way out of his struggle.
Kara glanced at her watch. “I should head home anyway. I started typing up a summary on the plane and want to have it ready for tomorrow morning.”
“What about your need to relax after the flight?”
“I wish I could.”
She gave his arm a squeeze, got up from the sofa, and flicked her hair behind her shoulders. Hunter followed her into the kitchen, where she rummaged through her purse and retrieved her keys. As with all of her business trips, she had left her car in the second spot in Hunter’s garage. Airport parking lots made her nervous, the way people in a hurry tended to bang against car doors, and she preferred not to leave her car at her apartment parking lot around the clock.
“You could stay in the guest bedroom and save yourself time,” he suggested.
“I’m eager to get my bag unpacked and climb into my own bed. Thanks anyway, though.” She jingled her keys and shot him a wink. “I’ll lock the door behind me.”
Hunter had known Kara for years through a friend from church. A few weeks ago, when their relationship hit the five-month mark, Hunter had gone ahead and given her a key to his house. That way, if a coworker picked her up from the airport instead of Hunter, she could get her car. In the years Kara and Hunter had known each other, he’d learned that she wasn’t psychotic and he could trust her with a key.
Hunter kissed her good-bye. She walked out the door and, sure enough, locked it behind her. That made Hunter snicker. Yeah, she was cute, indeed.
Excerpt Copyright 2015 John Herrick