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.

CHAPTER 9

Location: The Wheeling Tribune, 40°04’42.8″N 80°43’28.1″W

Emotion: Hello, is it me you’re looking for?

Simon’s early-morning phone call set the tone for the day.

Once Allie got to work, her desk phone rang and it rang continually. The only break from phone duty throughout the morning had been finishing off a sweet spring-romance series she’d been writing with a story about John and Kim Tankovits, who met at the White Palace skating rink as teens and were now celebrating 30 years of marriage.

Well, that, and making a quick trip over to the City-County Building for some court records. Where she had set off the metal detector with her underwire bra. Again.

Sigh.

Most of the calls weren’t from news sources, or even the occasional irate reader she sometimes fielded.

Oddly enough, it seemed every talk show in the nation wanted a closer look at the “Bridge BAE’z,” as she and Gabe were now apparently being called by both social media and the sort-of-real thing. She turned every one of them down. There was simply no way she was going to go on TV to talk about kissing.

Really.

Finally, another call she hadn’t expected came. It was from an acquaintance at the state Division of Tourism and the information the woman shared made Allie’s mouth tighten into a thin line. Her face was still grim as she hung up her desk phone. It will still grim when another call came in, this time on her cell.

She pressed her forehead into her palm and said “hello” without even checking who was calling.

“Mornin,’ African Queen,” Gabe said, his voice full of its characteristic warmth and humor.

Grim fled so fast it was pathetic.

“Good morning,” she heard herself chirp, her stomach actually fluttering in response to his greeting. She turned away from her co-workers, who had looked up in interest at the sudden change in her tone.

“I really enjoyed last night,” he said.

“Me, too.”

Allie heard kissing noises behind her and whipped a piece of wadded up paper over her shoulder toward the culprit. “I’m wounded!” some smart-mouth wailed.

“Just a second, Gabe.” Allie stood and turned around to glare at the room at large. She pressed her thumb over the voice hole on her phone. “People: Is there not a fire somewhere or a corrupt politician who requires your attention?”

She ignored their laughter as she stalked out of the office to stand in the too-small parking lot just outside the newsroom’s back door, where the smokers usually lurked in a huddle. Thankfully, none of them was here at present. “OK. I’m back.”

“Would you like to go to lunch?” Gabe asked. “And, keep in mind that ‘maybe’ is not an acceptable answer to this question.”

Allie giggled. Actually giggled. She was 27. Good grief. “Yes. I only have an hour, though.”

“Me, too, but I’ll already be in town because of a meeting at the City-County Building. More stuff with the bridge project. Can I pick you up in front of the paper at noon?”

“That would be great.” At least she hoped it would be.

♥♥♥

Location: A downtown picnic bench, 40.0700° N, 80.7243° W

Emotion: Going on a picnic, leaving right away.

Gabe couldn’t help but smile as he observed Allie’s open appreciation of the picnic lunch he’d gotten up at 5:30 to prepare. Totally worth the trouble.

“I can’t believe you did all this!” she squealed, practically bouncing in her seat at the downtown table to which they’d walked.

He shrugged as if he regularly hauled out things like wicker baskets, plaid tablecloths, silverware, stoneware plates and bandana napkins. Never mind that he’d had to unpack several of the moving boxes that were still in the garage in order to unearth such stuff. He’d been eating straight out of various pots and pans for the last month.

“Mmm-hmm,” Gabe said, enjoying a bite of the muffuletta he’d chosen as the lunch’s focal point. Ham. Salami. Tangy, spicy sauce. It could have used a few more hours for the seasoning to blend, but it wasn’t bad. “Italian men cook.” Italian men also know that girly-girls like things like early-season strawberries and pretty glass bottles of sparkling water. He’d brought those, too. He’d thrown in a can of generic soda for himself.

Gabe didn’t bring up the phone calls until Allie was contentedly crunching one of the chocolate-covered almonds he’d also tucked into the hamper. He smiled again. It really was nice dating a woman who was willing to admit that she ate. But, feeding Allie wasn’t the only thing on his brief agenda.

“So,” he ventured. “Have you been getting requests from TV shows, by any chance?”

Allie’s eyes widened. “All morning,” she sighed.

Gabe reached across the table to brush away a stray fleck of chocolate that lingered on her lower lip with his finger. “What did you say to them?”

“What? Oh … I said ‘no,’” Allie looked nervously at Gabe. “What did you say?”

“The same thing, of course.”

“Gabe, I also got a call from a friend of mine at the Capitol complex. They really want us to do a show or two for the tourism publicity bump. You know how West Virginia is — all for one and one for all. I think they might even call your boss.”

“There’s no ‘might’ about it. They already did.”

Gabe leaned his chin onto his hand so that his mouth was partly covered. Between that and the dark sunglasses they both wore, he hoped it was difficult for Allie to tell how pressured he was feeling because of that particular phone call. One month on the job and the fact that an actual bridge was involved in the photo had not been helpful to his case when he’d refused his boss outright.

His efforts at concealment didn’t work. “Is he wanting you to do this?” Allie asked pointedly.

“Yes,” Gabe admitted with an inadvertent sigh. OK. That was way too clear of a signal of the day’s stress than he wanted to send.

“I’ll go on TV with you if that will help,” Allie said, reaching across the table herself this time to take his hand.

Gabe smiled and laced their sun-warmed fingers together. “I know you would, African Queen. I love your kindness. But, I still don’t want to. I’ve already told my boss it’s not going to happen.”

There was a long pause. Gabe chastised himself for being so free with the word “love.” That was a bit much, even in this context. But, Allie seemed to recover quickly if that was the problem.

“This is your job, Gabe,” she said. “A new job. I don’t want this to mess things up for you.”

He sighed again. “Allie, there is no way we can talk about a kiss on a TV talk show without it turning sleazy. You’ve seen those shows. There’s nothing wrong with our relationship, but it will look like there is by the time they’re done with it. I don’t want that. Not for you, especially, but not for me, either.”

“Well, it’s not like we’re Jay-Z and Beyoncé,” she suddenly giggled. “This kind of interest should go away soon.”

“Let’s hope so,” Gabe said, starting to pack up their lunch. “I need to get back to the office.”

“Me, too.”

“Hey, how interested could people possibly be in an engineer and a reporter from small-town West Virginia?” Gabe joked as they walked back to the newspaper. He’d managed to secure a parking place right out front by some miracle. “There’s bound to be some Hollywood star doing something scandalous soon enough. That’s what people usually want to see.”

Neither of them realized what a lovely picture they made as they walked back to the paper’s front door — the picnic basket draped over Gabe’s left arm, the fingers of his right hand entwined with hers, their smiling lips meeting in the lightest of kisses as they said goodbye.

The paparazzi pointing a lens out of the van across the street from the paper certainly did, however. And, a few hours later, anyone who indulged in the tabloid side of the Internet did, too.

INSIDE THE STORY:

• John and Kim Tankovits are a real Wheeling couple who won the Weelunk contest, ‘”How WEE Met,”  for their cute-meet story. Their inclusion in Suspended Aggravation is actually part of their prize, which also included a Valentine weekend at Oglebay Resort and Conference Center. Thank you for sharing your story, John and Kim! READ: How WEE Met Winners: First Meeting Was a Real Ice-Breaker and watch their video here.

• There was a time not long ago that picnicking in downtown Wheeling was not a thing. The recent installation of tables and seating, green spaces and public art has been part of an ongoing revitalization that has downtown workers out and about whenever the weather is fine.

• If you’ve noticed the season seems to be floating inside this story world, you are correct. Suspended Aggravation started in February — both in terms of posting and content — because winter photos were the only ones possible as we went into production. To keep the right-here, right-now feel, the story will continue to follow the time of year rather than strictly adhere to its own timeline.

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• 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.

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