"How About Coffee?"
By Rachel Heffington"I will admit I had expected to find a man of your fame and social standing a bit more...complicated." Miss Harper raised an eyebrow and sighed, relieved to have the confession made.
He chuckled and leaned forward with the boyish, eager expression that always caught her off guard."You mean you hadn't thought to find me a man of simple wants and pleasures?"
Yes, that was it exactly--a man who could be satisfied with feeding pigeons in a city park was an oddity. She smoothed her skirt and shifted. "Tell me, Mr. Barnett, how do you endure the pretension, the shallow and petty motives of Society?" There was bitterness in her voice, and he observed her with a quiet compassion in his eyes.
"I never asked for fame and fortune--I never sought," he said. "I am a mere whim of these people: here today, gone tomorrow." He moved his fingers as if sprinkling chaff to the wind, then smiled. "Why should I care for the opinion of Society when society chose me itself? Let it raise me and lower me as it will. I am the same man it found me at the first."
Miss Harper contemplated him in wonder. He was transfixing, this man. Not handsome, but one never thought of that fact. He had everything she so desired: fortune, fame...friends. Yet he spoke as if he rather longed for the distant days of obscurity when--as she recalled him telling her--he'd lived in a shabby flat overlooking a prison yard.
She cleared her throat and pinched her lips together before speaking. "Mr. Barnett, let me make something very clear."
He nodded and raised his eyebrows, that puppyish furrow on his brow bringing a slight upward curve to her mouth. Her manner softened the tiniest bit. "I can guess why they chose me. It isn't because I've got talent or brains--it's so that if anything goes wrong with this project they can blame me and keep your precious reputation untainted."
He was hurt--she could see that and she wished at once she had kept her mouth shut. But Mr. Barnett only toyed with his necktie and fixed his gaze on the the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. He stole a few doubtful glances at her face and was silent. She tucked her hair behind her ear and touched his hand with a her tapering fingers. It was warm and real beneath her cold fingertips. How she wished some of that radiant life would ebb from his vibrancy into her own chilled existance.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Barnett. I shouldn't have--"
"Do you have so low an opinion of me that you think I would let them blame you?" His voice registered no anger, only sorrow that she thought so ill of him. "You think I would allow my mistakes to injure the reputation of an innocent person? Hang my reputation and social standing. I'd rather live in a slum than live as a dishonest scoundrel!" He was perfectly in earnest--every inch of him. His wiry blond hair flew every which-way and his grey eyes snapped blue fire.
"I didn't mean it to sound that way, sir," she said, throwing her hands up in the air and wishing he wouldn't look quite so desperate about the matter.
"But you thought of me so. Oh, Miss Harper, if you only knew how much I--" Mr. Barnett sprang from his chair, clapped a weather-stained fedora onto his head and shoved his arms into his coat. "Come on."
Miss Harper leaned back in her chair, marvelling. She had always favored handsome men, and this man was plain at best. She was not in love, she assured herself. Impossible, and what's more, improbable! Yet that foreign smile hovered over her pretty, pouting lips, and as she stood to put her own coat on, she caught Mr. Barnett's eyes, full of anxious solicitude. She laughed aloud.
"Then you aren't angry with me?" he asked with his customary frankness.
She shook her head, cheeks burning, eyes shining. Mr. Barnett cracked a grin and cautiously offered her his arm. She stuck a pin through her hat and took the shabby-coated arm with a shy smile. Mr. Barnett swallowed, his cheeks red and shiny as two good-natured poppies. He tried his voice once, then again. At last he threw the office door open to a pelting rain hammering the sidewalk beyond the awning. He raised his umbrella and led her outside where they were at once enveloped in the wet chorus of New York City in a rain storm. A cab flew by, splashing mud and water over Miss Harper's black stilettos.
"Oh dear." Mr. Barnett drew her closer to his side and stared at her shoes in dismay.
"Don't worry about it." She smiled reassuringly and laughed again, enjoying the strange exhilaration it brought. "But where on earth are we going?"
He shrugged and the gradual sideways spread of his grin began. "How about coffee?"