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.
Family business or not, they were lucky to find a seat.
Location: The Sandwichery in Market Plaza, 40°04’09.0″ N, 80°43’23.6″W
Emotion: Reunited, and it feels so good.
Allie scanned the crowd while Gabe secured the last open spot. Every other table at the Sandwichery was filled with what were likely Williams Lea workers coming off or starting shifts designed with international office-service customers in mind.
Glenn Elliott, the mayor, and Robert Herron, the city manager, were there with a couple of men in suits. Developers, no doubt. The Wheeling-Pitt Steel building?
Note to self: Check this out on Monday.
There were a couple of Neoprene-clad river kayakers in the dining room, as well. The kayakers were so paddled out they were only one step removed from horizontal. She glanced around again. The office workers didn’t look much livelier.
It was a typical enough crowd for Wheeling, but the company was unusual and the restaurant wasn’t her go-to — Later Alligator. Allie couldn’t quite focus on the complicated, hand-lettered menu. When Gabe ordered a bacon/blue-cheese burger, steak fries and a small salad, she impulsively requested the same — calories, schmalories.
“I like real food,” she said in response to his open astonishment.
He smiled. “It appears to like you, too,” he said, giving her an appreciative and unhurried look from across the tiny table. “You’ve grown up quite nicely.”
Allie wasn’t shocked. She knew Gabe well enough to anticipate his odd mix of frankness and flirtation. But, she was a little surprised. It had been a long time.
She sat up straighter than ever and tried to appraise him as boldly. She couldn’t manage more than a couple quick glances. She had already noticed Gabe had grown up pretty “nicely” himself.
His hair was darker and longer than it had been in high school. She liked the way it curled around the edge of his collar, not so much a mullet as a style a surfer might wear. There was a hint of beard. Maybe not shaving was a weekend thing. And, he now carried the full musculature of manhood. Grown-up Gabe Morelli was definitely more dazzling than the boy version.
She quickly looked away from his amused grin when he caught her eyes returning to his face and fished into her bag for a notebook and pen to hide behind. Gabe flipped the notebook closed as soon as she laid it on the table, however. Then, he took the pen from her fingers and replaced it with his own hand.
“We interviewed for an hour, Allie. You already know enough about the business to run it yourself,” he said firmly.
Allie just looked at him. She wasn’t used to an interview subject telling her when to stop, but she had to admit Gabe was right. She wasn’t used to holding hands on the job, either, but decided to let that go, as well. They were old friends of a sort, after all. She supposed it was OK if he held her hand. If he wanted to.
“OK. What do you want to talk about, then?” she asked.
Gabe smiled in a way that made her suddenly wish she hadn’t asked such an open-ended question. He turned her hand so that her fingers were flat against his palm and touched her bare ring finger with his thumb. “This, for starters. I’m surprised you’re not married and living the Woodsdale-style life, either here or somewhere else. You know, at least a couple of kids and a minivan. You seemed like the type.”
Allie wanted to pull her hand back onto the safety of her lap, but didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d gotten to her. She was that type. He was right, again. It was annoying.
“Is there an ex-husband?” he continued. “A fiancé? A jealous boyfriend who’s going to be wanting to clean my clock for even asking?”
That last bit made Allie smile in spite of herself. “None of the above,” she said.
Gabe clearly wasn’t buying it. He just looked at her, using the very technique she often employed during interviews. Rats. It worked for him the same way it worked for her.
“I was engaged a while ago,” she finally offered.
He looked at her some more, his face free of any expression. There must have been truth serum in the iced tea, Allie thought fleetingly — right before she told him way more than she intended.
“Simon and I met when I was in college and he was in med school,” she said. “A couple of months before our wedding, he did a short trip to Africa for Doctors Without Borders.”
A long strand of bells on the door jingled loudly as the kayakers left. Allie stared after them a moment, just long enough to take a deep breath and make sure her voice stayed calm. “He didn’t come back,” she continued.
“Wow,” Gabe said after a long pause. His fingers tightened around hers. “That’s really terrible. I’m so sorry.”
Allie immediately realized Gabe thought Simon had been taken out by Ebola or some other tragic fate. “No,” she clarified. “He didn’t die. He … well, I guess … he just loved Africa more than he loved me.”
Gabe was looking at her even more intently. She finished the story in a rush. Stupid iced tea truth serum or whatever it was.
“We broke things off in as friendly a way as possible. He’s still there. In Africa, I mean. He met another doctor from France and married her. Their son calls my parents ‘mimi’ and ‘poppy.’ They all see each other quite frequently. It can be a surprisingly small continent when you’re in the aid business or ministry.”
There was no pause before his reply this time. “Why didn’t you go to him?”
No one else had ever asked Allie that. Not Simon. Not even her parents — who still hadn’t quite gotten past their disappointment that she didn’t.
And, again with the truth serum. “I guess I loved Wheeling more than I loved him,” she said quietly. “It’s home.”
Gabe looked at her so searchingly, Allie wanted to look away, pull away. Somehow, she couldn’t.
“Good,” he finally said.
Allie was saved from needing to respond to that by the arrival of their food. But, she was so flustered by their conversation that it didn’t quite register that he had taken her other hand, as well, and said a quick thanks for their meal. What he’d done finally sunk in, in the middle of a nibble to her first steak fry. She looked up at him in amazement.
Gabe Morelli praying? Whaaaat?
“What about you?” Allie finally asked after she had thoroughly enjoyed her meal. It had taken her that long to recover her composure enough to speak again.
“Do I like the food?” he asked playfully. “Yes, it’s very good.”
Allie smiled. “You know what I’m talking about.”
Gabe laughed. How was she to know it was not so much at what she was asking as because he’d noticed she had not only polished off every bite of the giant burger, she’d made a pretty good dent in the salad and fries. She did like real food. A woman who actually ate — he appreciated the novelty.
“OK, African Queen — no wife, ex-wife, children, fiancée or girlfriend — jealous or otherwise,” he offered warmly. Then came a real zinger. “I haven’t dated in two years, in fact.”
Allie wasn’t sure who was more stunned at what he said, she or Gabe. He looked a bit dumbstruck, but her astonishment was apparently enough encouragement for him to give more information.
“Um … I started going to church a couple of years ago,” he said, clearly not liking the tack their conversation had taken one bit.
“Gabe! That’s wonderful!” She squeezed his hand, which, for some reason, was again joined with hers. She didn’t even remember him doing that. Strange.
“Yes, it is wonderful,” Gabe said slowly. “But, I’m still pretty new to the whole living-like-Jesus thing. Not dating for a while seemed … ” He finished the sentence with a blush instead of words.
Gabe Morelli. Praying. Blushing. How utterly amazing.
Allie squeezed his hand again. “Good,” she said without pause and they both looked at each other for a brief moment, with more than a touch of surprise. Finally, Gabe picked up the check and headed for the cash register, still holding Allie’s hand.
Allie turned to him as they walked out the door. “I have a confession, Gabe. I suspected you would be at the interview. When I was setting things up with your cousin and my editor I figured out you were back in Wheeling and involved with the catwalks. I’m sorry I messed with you. That wasn’t very nice.”
Gabe gripped her hand more firmly and she could actually feel the increase in her pulse. “No worries. I figured that out back at the office,” he said. “Confession on my part, too — that’s why I mentioned going out on the catwalk. I have no intention of taking you there. I’ve known about the whole nothing-under-you fear thing since high school.”
“I’m going anyway,” she said impulsively. No, no, no. You didn’t just say that!
“You don’t need to.”
That’s right. I don’t need to. There is no way. No. Way. Yet her mouth betrayed her. “I want to, for the sake of the story,” were the words that actually came out.
“OK,” he said, drawing the two bare syllables out as if he expected her to change her mind while he was speaking. She didn’t. She had no idea why.
His hand made a sweeping motion that ended with a finger pointing at her shoes. “You can’t go like this.”
“I have other clothes in my car.”
“Including real shoes?” he demanded.
Allie nodded like an idiot.
Gabe smiled so broadly the edges of his eyes crinkled. “Then, let’s go.”
They were so intent on each other, they didn’t even notice his cousin Mike and his wife, Felicity, watching them with an equal level of focus from across the dining room. Gabe did, however, catch a glimpse of Felicity’s questioning face through Sandwichery’s window as they headed toward his truck, parked across the plaza.
He shrugged as a reply. Felicity mouthed something at him, moving her lips in an exaggerated fashion.
“Your dating ban is sooooo over,” his cousin-in-law said. Gabe could read her lips.
Apparently, Mike could too. Gabe saw his cousin’s shoulders were actually shaking with laughter. He gave a mocking salute and kept walking. Then he drove off with the woman he least expected to see again at his side.
INSIDE THE STORY:
• Williams Lea is the largest employer in downtown Wheeling. As it offers business support services (such as the proofreading of legal documents) to companies around the world, its shifts go round the clock.
• The Ohio River is navigable by the largest of freight barges, but it is also a popular place among local residents who boat recreationally. Landlubbers can alternatively bike, walk or skate much of the local length of the river (which was home to pirates in the city’s early days!) on the paved Wheeling Heritage Trail.
• 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.