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.
Allie hung her dress on a hook inside Wild About Wheeling’s tiny office bathroom and tried to change into her other clothes without injuring herself. This was no easy feat in a room in which even the sink was so small that the tap was placed to one side of the basin instead of at its back.
Location: Wild About Wheeling, Wheeling Island,40.0706° N, 80.7331° W
Emotion: Let it go, let it go.
If she’d been thinking, she would have just asked Gabe to wait outside and dressed more comfortably in his office.
Of course, the last half hour or so provided ample proof that she wasn’t thinking. At all. And, there was no indication she would be anytime soon. Undressing down to her knickers while knowing Gabe Morelli was right outside the door wasn’t exactly conducive to clear reasoning, for one thing.
How on earth did I get into this mess?
She had set out for this interview with well-researched story goals and a finely tuned sense of humor about their past. For several days, she’d played through various surprise-it’s-me scenes in her mind, imagining turning the screws just a bit to make a high school mean boy feel at least a bit sorry for what he’d done. Finding a new Christian instead of the somewhat-worn-around-the-edges lothario she had mentally prepared for had thrown any plans she’d had out the window, however.
And, then, a lunch that felt suspiciously like a date? Followed by facing one of her biggest fears in his company — on their own private little tour of the catwalk?
I must be crazy.
That’s what she thought. The thought was so vivid she almost said it out loud. But, whatever misgivings she had, it didn’t stop her from completing her change of clothes and lacing up her sneakers.
Gabe Morelli is right outside the door. What’s a girl to do?
“See? You’re not going anywhere.”
Gabe tightened the last pieces of Allie’s full-body harness into place — being careful to touch her as little as possible in the process. “I’m sorry,” and a great lunch weren’t enough to restore the camaraderie they once had shared. He wasn’t going to push it, especially since she was already freaked out about being on the catwalk.
He saw her glance worriedly at the point where the cables attached to the bridge and rushed to reassure her. “Even if you somehow fell, you wouldn’t drop more than a few feet,” he said in what he hoped was a cheerful tone. “The wires and the harness would stop you. This is in no way a ‘do not tempt the Lord thy God’ type of activity.”
Allie gave him a tight smile, but, her face and neck were chalk-white peeking out of the pale blue fleece she was now wearing over slim-fitting cargo pants. He smiled. He couldn’t help himself. He’d been a boy for far too long.
“It’s not even 100 feet down to the river,” he said mischievously. “This is nothing like being on our catwalk at New River Gorge. That one’s about 900 feet up. According to the tourism people, that’s 219 black bears standing on each other’s backs. Or, 109 kayaks stretched tip to tip. Or, 146 mountain bikes stacked wheel to …”
“Gabe Morelli! Stop it straight away!” Allie shouted back at him at some point. At least that’s what he thought she said. He kind of lost track the moment she finally, finally looked him straight in the eye for more than a split second.
But, her words, all of them punctuated with exclamation marks, finally sunk in. “I absolutely do not want to do this and you know it!” she said. “I’m going to do it anyway! So, let’s get on with it!”
“OK,” he said, mostly chastened. “Would you rather hold the wires on both sides or hold my hand with one hand and one wire with the other?”
“Your hand, please.”
“I won’t let you go,” he promised.
“That sounds uncomfortably familiar.”
“Yeah. Well …” Gabe shrugged ruefully and led her out onto the catwalk before she could change her mind.
At first, Gabe made the mistake of keeping his back to her, one arm extended behind him to hold her hand. When he turned his head to check on her about a quarter of the way across the expanse, he frowned in surprise. She was suddenly acting like a Wallenda.
“Allie! Open your eyes! And put your other hand back on that railing wire!” Gabe twisted around so that he could watch her. That meant he was now making the crossing while walking backward. He’d been out on the catwalk so many times, he didn’t care. “We’re strapped in. We’re fine.”
As soon as he said the words, however, they were suddenly not fine. One second, they were walking face to face, or more like forehead to nose as Allie was now in trainers instead of those ridiculous heels. The next second, a spectacular blast of wind swept them off the catwalk like a broom.
They jerked to a stop.
Gabe, who had tested the harnesses this way more than once, was shocked to be suspended in the air without warning. But, he instinctively and instantly swung one arm onto the platform and grabbed the sleeve of Allie’s fleece with his other hand. That was enough to stop the swirling at least.
Operating in something close to autopilot, he swung one leg onto the narrow decking and pulled himself into a sitting position, still holding Allie’s sleeve and trying to figure out how to get her back on safe footing using only one of his arms. He had to hold the railing with his other arm to keep himself stable.
She was slim, for sure, but tall enough to carry significant weight. Plus, she was so stiff with fear that he couldn’t get that great of a grip on her. “Allie! Hold onto me.” He watched her face. Nope. Not going to happen. So, Gabe opted for the element of surprise.
He rose to his knees, held the wire railing with one hand and bent low to pull Allie against him with his other arm as well as he could. Then he kissed her so hard that he knew he was bruising her lips. He didn’t really care. Desperate times. Her body went soft just long enough for him to pull her flush against his chest and roll her onto the platform with him in a single, swift motion.
Neither of them heard the whistles or the wild applause that came from people who had filed out of offices and restaurants and were watching from both sides of the river. They certainly didn’t see the several thousand dollars worth of professional camera equipment that was pointed their way. They were far too intent on returning to solid ground, practically sprinting off the catwalk in their haste.
Gabe unstrapped them both as soon as they made it and pulled Allie far from the river’s edge. “Are you OK?” Allie nodded, but she collapsed into his arms with a soft cry the very second he opened them to her. Gabe held her so closely it was hard to tell where he ended and she started. And, that is how Mike found them what felt like hours later.
“What on earth happened up there?” Mike yelled before he was all the way out of his SUV, which was parked with abandon, the door still hanging open, at the traffic barrier marking the downtown entrance of the bridge. “I was driving into the parking lot when I saw you fall. It looked like something hit you.”
“I don’t really know,” Gabe said, reluctantly loosening his hold on Allie. “I think it was the wind. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Is she OK?” Mike mouthed.
Gabe nodded and pulled just far enough away from Allie that he could see her lips were already lightly swollen. He traced the lower edge of her mouth with his thumb and spoke quietly enough that only she could hear him. “I’m sorry, Allie. I wasn’t trying to go all #MeToo. It was the only way I could think of to get your … attention.”
“It’sfineI’mfineJustakissDon’tworryaboutit.” Allie said in a nearly unintelligible rush. She stopped and touched her lips with her own fingertips.
Then her eyes widened and she backed rapidly out of his arms to stand several feet away from him. “Mike, can you take me back to my car? It’s back at your office. I’m done here.” Allie’s voice sounded panicked. Gabe knew the tone well.
Mike looked at Gabe for direction. Gabe shook his head in frustration and gestured toward Mike’s SUV with one hand. His unexpected reunion with Allie Bennett was clearly over and, once again, things weren’t going to end well.
Allie practically jumped into Mike’s vehicle with nothing but an exchange of waves with Gabe. He could practically hear the, go, go, go, that was clamoring in her head as they drove away.
INSIDE THE STORY:
• This chapter was particularly fun to write as it was a retelling of Suspended Aggravation’s opening scene — from Gabe’s point of view this time, rather than Allie’s. How would a man like Gabe perceive these moments on the bridge? How would Allie interpret them? I knew it would be different. So, where did I look to write their reactions? My own marriage, of course! Talk about Mars and Venus. Happy silver anniversary, Bruce!
• When I first wrote this manuscript, the Me Too Movement had not gotten rolling. To avoid making this scene sound even remotely like assault, I edited very carefully and decided to cap that off by bringing the “me too” hashtag right into the dialogue. This kiss is but a kiss, readers. I promise.
• 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.