TITLE: The Edge of Weakness Apr. 30 13
By Mindy Wood
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The Edge of Weakness
By Mindy Ragan Wood
Charles Masterson stood in the dusty attic of the Texas Metal Works factory peering through yellowed papers among stacks of boxes. Elizabeth Hilden pretended that she didn’t see him watching her. It was becoming a habit. She had also routinely ignored the lingering closeness of his body beside her at her desk, his carefully guarded gaze, and the slithering rumors that whispered of his real reasons for hiring her.
Chuck, as everyone called him, was anything but just the boss. He looked more like one of the guys in the shop than the king of the castle. The owner of the company appeared common enough at first sight, preferring to suit up in jeans and a plaid button up shirt every day. And yet, he carried himself with power, a commanding presence that is known regardless of what a man is wearing.
Elizabeth, Eliza as she was called, was also powerful in the way that every beautiful young woman can be to a man who is caught between boredom and middle age. Blonde, petite and shapely, the magnetism of Eliza’s own grace was alluring even without seductive intentions.
Eliza guessed her boss couldn’t be more than forty-five, with lines along his face that showed laughter and worry beneath the waves of black and silver streaked hair. He was not thin but he was fit, of ordinary build and average height. He was not handsome; but he was attractive. He was not personable; but he was approachable. He seemed down to earth on the surface but to his depths was deeply proud, even arrogant. Many nights, Eliza lay awake perplexed by the enigmatic attraction she felt. There was something about him that drew her to him and its ever-growing power frightened her.
He began going through a box just across from hers. “Here it is,” he said, clearing his throat unnecessarily. “I think this is the file we’re looking for. You might check that box too,” he nodded at a box beside him. Eliza moved toward him and just as she passed behind him, she brushed her hand on his forearm to get closer to the box. His jaw set, his face colored and she regretted it. She was so flustered, she couldn’t remember what file they were looking for and blindly searched for anything that would trigger her memory.
“You were looking for the Tulsa files,” Eliza sighed with relief. “Here they are.”
As if she had offended him, he seized the folder without looking at her and started thumbing through it. “I’ll need you to stay a little while, maybe 20 minutes. I’ve got to get out of here by four and everyone’s leaving for the party now. Can you do it or do you need to get to Madeline?”
Eliza gulped hard. “No, I…I can manage. I have a sitter until 5:30 every day anyway. It won’t take me long to get ready for the Christmas party. I..”
“Fine,” he mumbled and moved past her. “Meet me downstairs in my office and we’ll go over it.”
With that he left her standing there, stunned. One minute his searching eyes beckoned her and the next his smug self-control forbid her. Was it a game? While she cautiously kept her distance from her boss, she wrestled with her desire to conquer that disdain and be the one in control. It would be easy to turn the table on him, using her sexuality to gain the upper hand; but she also knew from experience that never really wins any woman true respect…or a happy ending.
She stopped in the doorway of his office to see him seated at a table with an armless chair close to his. Normally the chair was at the opposite end, far from where he always sat. She felt a twinge of anger at what appeared to be a trap, another game.
“If you’ll put the file here next to mine,” he began without looking up, “we can compare the files side by side and try to find any inconsistencies. The contract we sent and the one they sent back was not the same and we should be able to find that discrepancy somewhere between the two files.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” she sighed with chagrin at her foolish presumption. Eliza squared her shoulders with a little more confidence and slapped the file on the desk but the moment she sat down and felt him close to her, she felt the tension turn up. She glanced to her right, where he was seated so closely to her that her thigh was nearly touching his left.
“First organize the file by date of emails and fax transmissions,” he began without looking up at her. “Then you can read it off to me while I compare what’s here.”
Eliza began organizing the file but a slip of paper fell upon his lap. “Oh I’m sorry,” she said and placed her hand upon the paper just as he started to take it himself. His hand fell upon hers. Neither of them moved. “I…I…” Eliza faltered.
To her embarrassment he grasped her hand and peered directly into her green eyes. She forced her hand from his and rose from the table, knocking her chair backward. “I…I’m so sorry…I suddenly remembered that I forgot….”
With icy calm he dismissed her, “That’s fine. I can finish this up after the party if I don’t get it done here. See you later.”
She left the office, running to her car as soon as she was out the door. Confusion and fear and shame overwhelmed her as she fumbled for the keys. She sat in the car and let herself cry, with her head against the steering wheel. She didn’t want to seduce a married man. She didn’t want the rumors of a poor single mother and a middle aged executive’s affair to come true. She wanted a good man, in the right way, in the right time. As the complexity of his desire and the mystery of his cold control tried to cast its spell, Eliza clung wearily to virtuous resolve. Sin is always costly and she knew what price it would cost them both. Though wisdom called to her and judgment warned her, Eliza did not know what she would decide.
The Christmas party started at 7:00 and though she was tempted to stay home, Eliza decided to go and pretend nothing had happened. She wouldn’t be able to face him next week if she didn’t show her face tonight. The more she thought about the incident, the madder she got. She chose the only little black dress she owned in her scant wardrobe and pulled the snug velvet over her curves. After she tucked her feet into matching heels, Eliza looked in the mirror and smiled with satisfaction. An emerald rhinestone hair comb and matching earrings lit up her green eyes. “Red lipstick will do for this occasion,” she said with her chin up. “I’m the one in control tonight.”
When she arrived, Chuck’s wife was at the door to greet her husband’s guests and see them to the party inside. When Eliza walked up, she sucked in the cool night air calmly and held her head high. “Hello, you must be Eliza,” smiled an attractive brunette woman in a festive, candy cane nylon dress. Annette, who was from old money, was obviously not a woman without taste but she was beginning to show her age. Eliza hoped his wife had too much dignity to resent it.
“Come on in, I hope you can find more fun here tonight among the wives than all the crass men you have to put up with in that office. Chuck says you handle yourself pretty well being the only woman on staff in sales office.”
“It’ll be nice to mingle with some women for a change, let me tell you.” Eliza lied. She knew the wives would probably snub her. A younger, attractive woman is never a welcome thought among older wives. Like an unspoken scourge, youth and beauty could be a curse among insecure women and among men, it could cast a powerful spell.
Eliza was amidst about twenty-five people who were chattering away and enjoying their food. She scanned the area for her boss but he was nowhere to be found. She looked back at Annette. Several times she had observed her boss and his wife and it was clear she seemed to love her husband. Eliza regarded her as a true society woman, the kind of 80’s debutante who had appeared to hold onto the traditions of the past but secretly embraced the passé morals of the decade to which she spent her youth. She couldn’t help but compare herself to Annette. Eliza was anything but a redneck-woman but compared to Annette she was definitely backward. She decided not to think about how different it would be if she were to take Annette’s place.
Before anyone could pay her much attention she walked to the first set of French doors that led outside and decided to eat lone and think. Just as she reached the veranda, she could hear Chuck and his foreman talking outside along the sidewalk.
“So then what happened?” the foreman asked.
“A paper fell on my lap and she tried to grab it,”
“Oh man. No you didn’t. Tell me you didn’t let that opportunity pass you up!” he laughed. Eliza couldn’t move and dared not breathe. She was close enough to hear every word but completely concealed by evergreen shrubs.
“She didn’t give me a chance to think it through,” he said lowering his voice. “She was embarrassed, jumped up and took off.”
“Yeah, but you and I both know she wants…”
“Yeah, I know. But I know better than that, although I can’t say the same thing for you, Bob.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
The two men walked back into the house and Eliza began to tremble. Was he playing a game with her? While she knew he was attracted to her, did he pity her? What else could he have meant when he said he knew better than that? The insulting inference that she was trying to play him into her hands incensed her. Even worse, like a spoiled child with a cheap toy, he was idly toying with her. Instantly she despised him for that snobbery, the insolent presumption of the higher classes. He was using rumors, common male bravado, to prop up his ego. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks as the insult and arrogance engaged an irrevocable fury.
After a few moments, she wiped the tears from her eyes, took a deep breath and waltzed back into the room ready for action. Almost effortlessly, she slid into the role of seductive prowess she had once known so well and found Chuck’s eyes upon her. Like a sleek panther, Eliza stared him down and smiled as she glided across the room. She kept her distance, never averting her gaze from his as she forced him to watch her every move. She paused at the French doors, looked back and disappeared outside.
It was just cold enough to see the warmth of her breath in the moonlight as she faded into the woods scarcely beyond the lights of the house. She felt strangely warm without a coat but the iciness of a woman’s reproach was as chilling in her heart as the night air. With a bitter smile she watched a dark figure approach her.
Chuck stood uneasily before her but with his usual command of himself, he tried to sound disinterested. “Did you need something out here, Eliza?”
“I think you know what I need Charles,” she smiled and stepped a little closer.
“Charles?” he faltered.
“I’ve never liked the name Chuck and I won’t call you sir tonight.” Eliza slid her hands beneath his sports jacket and pressed herself against his chest. “We’re not at work are we? No one is watching us. No one is here to whisper what we both know is true.”
He wrapped his arms around her shoulders but just as he bowed his head to kiss her, Eliza put her hand over his mouth and laughed quietly with the cruelty of a mad mercenary. She pulled away from him before he could say a word and glowered at him with her arms crossed. Seeing him taken aback thrilled and emboldened her even more. This was her game now. “So it is true, isn’t it Charles? All the rumors, all the talk about the real reason you hired me. Why don’t we just clear the air and get it out in the open. What do you really want?“
Chuck’s resolute quiet forced her to be silent and the shadow of chagrin upon his face made her hesitate; but his manner quickly changed as he crossed his arms and stepped closer. “You’ve tipped your hand too quickly, Eliza,” he finally said. “Tell me; is it easier to be angry with me?”
“I have every right to be angry with you,” she seethed. “What do you want? An affair? Or am I just something pretty for you to look at? You know, I don’t know what’s worse,” she glared at him with scornful smile. “The fact that you’re attracted to me but you’re too proud to pursue a poor office clerk, or the pathetic reality that you’re content with the rumors that prop up your aging ego.”
“I didn’t think you were the type to listen to gossip but there’s always some truth to every rumor that runs around Eliza.” He drew so close to her that she could feel his breath upon her face as he looked down at her with narrowed eyes.
“Don’t pretend anything with me! I’m not pretending tonight although I have been pretending with you all along. I’ve pretended I don’t want you. I’ve tried to ignore the fact that since day one, you’re in my mind every night when I close my eyes and the reason I’m disgusted with my day when you’re not in it.”
With that he pulled her hands from her arms and pressed her to his chest. Her heart beat violently as his declarations disarmed her. “You may pretend you’re too much of a good girl to want a married man, you may pretend to despise me and pretend to be angry with me but we both know the truth, so give up the charade Eliza,” he snapped. “ I’ve never been afraid of power struggles and I’m not afraid of it now. You have just as much power over me as I have over you and you know it. As to my injured ego or my midlife crisis, I’ve never felt more confident in my life. Yes, Eliza. I want you. You know it. I also know you want me. If you care to resist me anymore, that’s up to you.” He pressed his lips to hers and locked his arms around her waist. He kissed her again and again until he placed his hot face in the cool softness of her neck. She did not return his affection and gently pulled away from him.
“No?” he asked quietly from behind her.
“No,” she whispered, catching her breath.
“Eliza, why? Are you going to stand here tonight, lie to me, make a fool of me? Is that what you planned?” he demanded, growing angry at the thought.
She turned around. “I didn’t plan anything except that I refused to let you intimidate me and confuse me another minute. I realize now… that you were just trying to control yourself. The tension has boiled between us so long without relief but I…I can’t give you what you want, what we both want.”
Chuck cocked his head to one side. “What you want? So you admit that you’re in love with me?”
Love? Suddenly those words challenged the truth in her and made everything clear. This was anything but love. “I’ve never met a man like you. You’re not really handsome and you’re at least twenty years older than I am; but there is something about you that drew me to you almost as soon as I started working for you. I feared you. I even revered you. That kind of respect can seem like love. You know,” she smiled and looked away. “Whether a woman wants to admit it to herself or not, a powerful man can be very attractive. I think I realize now that I admire you more than I could ever love you.”
Chuck put his hands on her hips and she sucked in a quick breath. “You’re telling me that my touch disgusts you, that you don’t want me to…”
“Please don’t,” she whispered and pulled his hands away. “I love your confidence and your calm and the way you command yourself but I’m not in love with you any more than you are with me. There is a strong attraction between us and I can’t deny it but why has been the question. Yes Charles I’ve wanted you. I wanted the safety of your power and the security of your wealth. I wanted your protection and the affection of being cherished and adored by a man who is entirely taken with me. But this isn’t love Charles!” she pleaded. “The excitement, romance, the passion is only a shallow part of what I want. I want the love that lasts beyond it. I’ve never been loved like that; the love I see in couples who don’t have to say a word to each other; the love that can’t be put out by years of sadness, regret or even the hundred irritating things about each other that will never change. That’s what I want and that’s not what this is. You don’t love me. Can you honestly say all these years with your wife has been a waste; that you’ve never loved her or cared for her?”
“You don’t know anything about my marriage and I’ve never even said a word about how I feel about you until tonight. Is it fair to say that you can’t be in love with me a year from now? That we would never have that kind of love? You’re not being fair, Eliza,” he demanded.
“Yes I am. I’m being fair to myself and to you…and to your wife. And to the man, whoever he is, that God has meant for me to marry. Do you think God would mean me to take a man who belongs to someone else? We’re not animals, Charles. We can choose what we do with our feelings.”
Charles crossed his arms and looked at the ground. For some time they were unable to speak, as they listened to the wind blowing the last of the leaves that had fallen in the woods. With a softness she had never seen in him before, he turned her shoulders to face him and caressed her face with his hand. “I would worship you.”
“You can’t worship what you don’t know,” she said looking at him. “And you don’t know me. You never will, not the way you know Annette. You see something you want, you see something that you imagine to be real but it isn’t. You would never understand me. I would never understand you, not the way your wife does. For all your wealth and position, you could be a knight in shining armor to me but I would never be the queen of the castle your wife is to you now. We’re from two different worlds and we’re going in two different directions. I would only embarrass you and you would only hurt me and hate yourself for doing it. And I would hate myself for dishonoring God and disregarding your wife.”
“What do you care about my wife?” he demanded in a whisper.
“But why shouldn’t I? Can’t you see how selfish this is? How ugly adultery is? Deep down, I think you love her and even if you didn’t, I think we both know you have no real intentions of leaving your wife.”
He looked away sharply but grabbed her hand. “I think you’re getting ahead of things. All I know is that I’m in love with you. I was going to ask you to quit your job. I couldn’t go on at the office like this and so I found a job for you at an attorney’s office. From there,” he sighed, “I guess I figured we would take things as they come and see what happens.” He fished a hotel key out of his pocket. “I was also going to give you this key to the most expensive hotel in Dallas and fly us there later tonight if you would have agreed. Don’t tell me you can you resist roses and champagne?” He looked at her with imploring eyes and drew her to his chest. “Don’t say no,” he said kissing her neck. “Take the key.”
Eliza let him kiss her before she stared up at the man who she knew would make her a mere mistress. The intoxication of his passion was being offered to her like the finest wine brimming in a crystal goblet and yet, it mocked her. With a smile, she held out her hand and took the key. A look of elation lit up his face. He embraced her and kissed her cheek. “Meet me at my car outside at 10:30,” he whispered in her ear. “I’ll follow you home and then you’ll come with me. Don’t bother with packing any clothes, I’ve already taken care of that.”
Eliza only smiled and said, “I’ll be in after you. I don’t want anyone to see me with you so quickly. Oh, and Charles I will take that job.”
“You can start Monday at Bullens and Associates,” he said and then left her in the dark.
Before she could second guess herself, she went to her car and raced to the nearest grocery store. After she purchased half a dozen roses and a small card, she returned to the party and managed carefully to hide it under her coat. She was almost trembling with excitement as she put the flowers under the kitchen sink. All the food had been served, so no one was in the kitchen. It was 10:15. Eliza shed her coat, tossed it on a kitchen chair and made her way into the living room. Chuck looked relieved to see her mingling with the others as he watched her every move. Finally he found his wife and was telling her goodnight. Eliza bit her bottom lip. “God, please let this work.”
Chuck stood by his new cherry red Miata waiting. It was 10:37 and he was beginning to think she’d changed her mind when he saw someone coming. It was his wife. To his horror, he looked around for Eliza but she was nowhere to be seen. Perspiration dampened his face and he started to duck behind his car but it was too late.
“Chuck!” she exclaimed and threw her arms around his neck. “Honey, what a romantic thing to do!”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he smiled, trying to look coy.
“Really? You’re going to play it off like it’s no big deal? Please. I knew something was up! You’ve been acting so strange the last couple of weeks and then you give me this fishy story about leaving for a business trip? This close to the holidays? Whatever. Eliza handed me the roses and the note right on the dot at 10:30,” she smiled and hugged him. “I was worried you might have left. I know how crazy you get about being on time.”
Chuck winced and hugged Annette, considering the irony in how well his wife knew him, just as Eliza had said. “What did the note say?”
Annette pulled away from him and asked, “Didn’t you tell her what to write?”
Chuck, “Sure I did. I just wanted to make sure she got it right.”
“It just said, ‘A woman can resist anything, even roses and champagne, except a man who truly loves and understands her. You’re the affair I’ll never stop having, the woman I’ll always love. Meet me at my car at 10:30.’ That was it. I’m not exactly sure what the roses and champagne were about but it was sweet.”
In rare form, Chuck lost his composure with a gasp. “Chuck, are you ok,” she pulled away from him. “You’re sweating. Are you hot out here in the winter?”
“No,” he fumbled his reply, “no, no it’s just that I ran out here after…after I saw that you were coming.”
“Well you can’t run now,” she whispered and kissed him.
Chuck thought about Eliza and all she had said those last moments in the woods. He recognized happiness in wife’s eyes but couldn’t remember the last time he had been the cause of it. “No. No I won’t run now.”
Eliza watched from behind a nearby tree and smiled.
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