Editor’s note:Suspended Aggravation is an original, Wheeling-centric novel by Nora Edinger and is published exclusively through Weelunk. While some of the places mentioned in Suspended Aggravation are real (or nearly real), the storyline and most characters (with the exception of a few cameo appearances by actual city residents) exist only in the author’s imagination. For the backstory, read our Q&A with the author.
Location: Wild About Wheeling, Wheeling Island, 40.0706° N, 80.7331° W
Emotion: Hello from the other side.
Gabe heard the car tires crunching up the gravel road before he saw anything. Riverside Park was all but done. Wild About Wheeling was up and running. But, the road-paving equipment hadn’t quite made it yet.
Not that it really mattered. The kayakers and bikers didn’t care, and they were only doing two late-afternoon catwalk crossings each Saturday and Sunday given the program’s newness and the fact it was still winter. And, many of the park-goers, most of them families headed for the playground, came on foot. It had to be the reporter he was supposed to meet.
He hadn’t realized he had assumed all reporters looked at least a little like the characters in All the President’s Men until he caught a first glimpse of this one through the office window.
A leggy blonde who looked absolutely nothing like Dustin Hoffman — or even Robert Redford for that matter — unfolded from the tiny, powder-blue car now parked at the far end of the parking lot. She pulled a cavernous, hot-pink bag from the back seat and turned just enough so that he had a head-to-toe view of her slim curves.
He smiled reflexively. But, when the woman took off the oversized pair of sunglasses that she was wearing and flicked her hair off her shoulder with one hand, something caught in his throat.
“Mike, what did you say this reporter’s name is?” he managed to croak. Gabe could hear Mike rustling through desk papers, but he continued to stare out the window. He missed the puzzled look his cousin shot his way for this reason.
“Allison something,” Mike said. “Here it is. Allison Bennett.”
“Oh, boy,” Gabe sighed. Allison Bennett. Allie. His Allie. The Allie who still somehow possessed the ability to make him cringe with regret in the wee hours of the morning. Right here. Right now.
“Please don’t tell me that ‘oh, boy’ means what I think it means,” Mike sighed. “Gabe, I need the publicity. Good publicity. Please don’t tell me you’ve done something to this woman that’s going to mess this up.”
“I taught her how to swim,” Gabe said absentmindedly, unable to take his eyes away from Allie. She was talking on a cellphone now, gesturing toward the river and then writing something down on a notebook she’d placed on her car’s hood.
Mike sighed and rubbed one temple. “I just bet you did.”
Gabe swiveled to look at his cousin, confused for a nanosecond. “No! It wasn’t like that. I literally taught her how to swim. In high school. In the pool.” He turned back to the window, and his tone and volume went suddenly flat. “It didn’t end well.”
Now Mike was staring out, too, watching the woman head into the park building instead of toward their office. “Well, she obviously didn’t drown. So, I figure the ‘didn’t end well’ was in some other arena.”
“I kissed her. I shouldn’t have.”
Mike sighed and rubbed his forehead again. He headed back to the desk drawer where he kept pain killers. “Big surprise there, dude.”
Gabe glared at his cousin, but there wasn’t time for explanation. Allie was knocking on the screen door to the office and Mike was opening it and she was suddenly just there. Standing a few feet in front of him. After all these years. She was so close Gabe heard the soft intake of her breath as their eyes met. He suddenly needed more air himself. She was even more beautiful up close. This could not possibly be good.
“Allie … ” he began, an apology already forming on his lips. But, he didn’t have the chance to continue.
“Gabe Morelli!” Allie squealed. Then, she launched herself into his arms with such force that he had to brace himself against the desk behind him with one foot to keep them both from toppling over.
An angry fit or even a slap would have been easier to deal with, he thought for a wild moment. For the first time since maybe middle school, he truly had no idea what to do with a girl. Not that he had long to think about it. Just as he gave her an awkward pat on the back, Allie was out of his arms and smiling at him — from barely a foot away. She looked … well, he couldn’t quite put a name to the look on her face. It almost scared him.
“Blimey! I can’t believe you’re back in Wheeling!” she chirped. Her voice was cheerier and even more British sounding than he remembered.
“Is this your business?” Allie bubbled on.
“Yes. No. Well, partly,” Gabe said, still flustered by both the friendliness of her greeting and her proximity. She somehow smelled like sunshine and wildflowers. He gestured toward his cousin, who was also standing unusually close by. “It’s my cousin Mike who owns Wild About Wheeling. I’m just a partner in the catwalk tours part of that.”
She smiled, but said nothing. Talking more seemed like a plan. “My main job is working for DOH,” Gabe said. “I’ve been back in town for about a month.”
Allie squealed again. “Did you do it? Are you really a bridge engineer?”
Gabe smiled. She really did remember him. “Well, not just bridges. But, yes.”
“That’s wonderful.” Allie looked so pleased, Gabe wondered if she was going to hug him again. She didn’t. He was disappointed.
Mike cleared his throat, and Gabe began a belated round of introductions.
“Well, Allison, it was great to meet you,” Mike said, shaking her hand and heading out the door as soon as Gabe finished speaking.
“You’re not staying?” Allie asked, looking suddenly displeased.
“I need to check things at one of our bed and breakfasts. Felicity — that’s my wife — is short-handed today, and I want to make sure everything is OK there. Gabe will be the one doing the interview. If you need me for anything, I’ll be back at about 2 to get ready for the first afternoon tour. Or, you can call my cell. You have the number.”
“That’s the next tour?” Allie asked. “Our photographer will be shooting that. I still don’t know if he wants to be on it with you or to photograph it from below. I’ll call him again and then call you. Oh — in case I forget — this will be in the paper two Sundays from tomorrow.”
“I will definitely be looking,” Mike said.” Thanks again for coming up here.”
Allie turned her back to the door to again face Gabe. She couldn’t see the ridiculous eyebrow waggling Mike was doing behind her back — thank God. When his cousin went so far as to pantomime looking at Allie’s left hand — which Gabe had already noticed was bare of jewelry, thank you very much — Gabe had a sudden coughing fit.
“We’ll see you later, Mike,” he choked out, moving around Allie to shut the screen door and the interior door firmly behind his cousin. It wasn’t Gabe’s fault if the former clipped the guy’s heel in the process.
Gabe turned around, only to find Allie was no longer standing. She was perched on the edge of his desk, swinging her long, oh-so-shapely legs and looking at him with absolute devilry in her eyes.
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“OK, Morelli, let’s talk.”
Gabe’s eyes widened. Once again, he was completely unsure of how to proceed. This woman was throwing him off his game in a way no one had since … well, since she had, back when he barely needed to shave. “I’m sorry?”
She ignored his questioning lilt. “Sorry’s a good start, Gabe Morelli. You should be sorry. That was an awful thing to do to a 15-year-old girl.”
“I know,” Gabe said. He actually hung his head for a moment, thereby missing the quick smile of satisfaction Allie revealed. He didn’t miss the hint of warmth that crept into her next statement, though.
“But, don’t be too hard on yourself,” Allie said. “I figured out why you did what you did soon enough.”
That probably isn’t good. “What do you mean?” Gabe asked cautiously.
“Oh,” Allie said. “I went out with Brian Marsden at the beginning of my sophomore year.”
Gabe winced. Really, really not good. Brian Marsden had been one of the football players in the hallway that day — that awful, awful day. Gabe hadn’t been that nice of a guy in high school, true. But, Brian Marsden made him look like Mr. Rogers.
“Allie … ” He didn’t even know how to finish the sentence.
“Don’t worry,” she replied after a pause that stretched out long enough for him to imagine any number of unsavory situations. “It was one date. I walked out of the movie he took me to, for reasons which I have no doubt you are well acquainted.”
Gabe’s imagination ran even wilder, but Allie interrupted his worst-case scenarios with a chuckle. “It was just a kiss and a bit of a tussle. He followed me into the cinema lobby, hissing something about nobody walking out on him and how he should have listened to Morelli and that he’d make sure everybody else at Fort Henry High School knew not to waste their time with me. He followed through, I suspect. I didn’t date again until college.”
Gabe looked down again, but not fast enough to hide his grin of pure relief. “I didn’t mean it to go quite that far.”
Allie laughed out loud this time. “Oh, I think you did. But, believe it or not, I grew to appreciate what you did even when I was sitting home studying my U.S. history on Saturday nights. You were right. I was a bit too nice for my own good back in the day.”
“Allie,” Gabe said softly, looking at a spot on the wall over her shoulder. “I shouldn’t have kissed you. I’m … ”
“Please don’t say you’re sorry that you did,” she interrupted him. “I’m not.” Her words hung in the air. Allie took in a too-quick breath in what appeared to be surprise.
She wasn’t the only one. Gabe was so startled by her statement that he simply looked at Allie a long moment before answering. “I’m glad you still feel that way,” he finally said. “Being with you is a nice memory for me, too. Except for how it ended, of course.”
Allie suddenly extended her hand. He took it, not sure what she wanted until she initiated a shake not unlike two bankers closing a deal. “So, Gabe Morelli,” she said, “all is forgiven. Friends?”
“Friends,” Gabe agreed, watching the sudden flush that came to her face with a dawning of understanding. His smile widened. “I would absolutely like to be your … friend.”
At that, Allie popped off his desk as if it had suddenly caught fire. She whipped a notebook out of her enormous purse with similar speed and began interviewing him with such a barrage of questions Gabe wondered if he had only imagined her consternation.
A half-hour went by.
She was wearing him out. During a break in the grilling, he checked his watch and was relieved to notice it was well past noon.
“Let’s go to lunch,” he said suddenly, putting up an open hand in front of his face as if to deflect her most recent question.
Allie stilled. “Lunch?”
“Yes, lunch. Can I take you to lunch? Mike wanted you to see another part of Wild About Wheeling, anyway. The food at the Sandwichery is good. We’ll have more time to talk.” Gabe looked Allie up and down. She was practically sparkling in her little dress and her ridiculous shoes — a real girlie girl. He couldn’t resist throwing down a challenge he knew she wouldn’t accept.
“You won’t be able to take notes once when we’re out on the catwalk, after all,” he said.
He waited for the glint of alarm he knew so very well to appear in Allie’s eyes and wasn’t disappointed. Ah, there it was. Oh, yeah. She might have started this new game, but two could play it. Gabe walked to her side of the desk and took her hand, pulling her up out of her seat until they were nose to nose given the extreme height of her heels.
His eyes locked with hers, and Allie’s back stiffened like a wary cat’s. But, she said nothing, even when a smile began to twitch at Gabe’s lips. He was right. It had never been the water that scared her in the pool. It was knowing — or at least feeling — that there was nothing between her and the bottom. There was no way this woman would ever cross the Ohio on a 2-foot-wide plank.
“Let’s go, African Queen,” his old nickname for her coming to his lips unbidden. Gabe still held her hand as they walked to his truck. This was going to be good.
INSIDE THE STORY:
• Allie, like the lead female character in each of my books, drives a “powder-blue” Cooper. The color is an homage to the convertible driven by the fictional Nancy Drew — whose mysteries were a favorite childhood read. The car itself was, oddly enough, inspired by Weelunk Managing Editor Phyllis Sigal, who drove by my kitchen window while I was writing my first novel, Dune Girl. I hadn’t met Phyllis then, but her little speedster made me suspect I would like her. I was right.
• Fort Henry High School doesn’t exist — it’s a stand-in for Wheeling’s mix of public, private and parochial schools. Fort Henry, however, is 100 percent real. Located in what is now Wheeling’s downtown — the colonial fort was the site of the last battle of the American Revolution. Its establishment marks the beginning of a city that celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2019.
• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.