"Next time you call, I’ll be in.”
The words had come back to her, and they were beginning to haunt.
Waiting for Elliot to call was a bit like waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was uncomfortable. Because part of her was dreading it.
"Something bothering you, Cath?" Jenny Aaronson asked as Catherine speared a shrimp off her luncheon salad.
Catherine shrugged. If she couldn't confide in Jenny about Elliot, there really were few others she could confide in.
"Elliot Burch,” she stated flatly.
"Elliot?" Jenny's dark eyebrow went up. “Now that's a name I haven't heard you say in a few months. You two back on again?" Jenny asked.
Catherine twirled her food. "That's just it. We aren't. But if he thinks we are, it might be my fault."
Plastic explosives. She'd asked the man for plastic explosives. However was she even going to explain? To anyone?
And he'd given them to her.
"You're usually not unclear about that kind of thing. I thought you left him out in the cold. The famous Catherine Chandler cold shoulder." Jenny was descriptive, as she spooned soup into her mouth.
Now it was Cathy's turn to raise an eyebrow. "I have a famous cold shoulder?" she asked.
The brunette swallowed and wiped her mouth with her napkin.
"Legendary. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I just mean that for the most part, when you're done with a guy, you're done. Tom Gunther still has frostbite. And there have been others." Jenny wisely decided not to bring the name "Stephen Bass" into the conversation.
"Sometimes it's necessary." Catherine's mouth turned down at the corners. "Sometimes it's self-preservation,” she added.
"Is that what leaving Elliot was? Self-preservation?" her friend asked, curious.
"Kind of," Cathy vacillated. "He wasn't right for me. Wasn't who I thought he was. I’m not sure."
"But you're going to meet him again?" Jenny asked, puzzled.
This wasn't like Catherine. Historically, when she broke things off with a man, they did not remain “friends” afterward. Cathy didn't usually like that kind of confusion, in a relationship. She was an intensely loyal friend. But when things didn't work out romantically, she was not the sort to keep hanging around, or keep a hopeful swain hanging on. If Cathy had a virtue in her dealings with men, it was that she was very unambiguous.
"I have to take his call. I said I would," Cathy replied.
"He pressured you?" Jenny asked. She knew Elliot Burch's reputation. Everyone did.
"No. Matter of fact it was kind of the opposite. I ... needed a favor. So I went to him." She now regretted having brought up the topic. They were moving into dangerous territory. Territory involving Vincent.
"That job of yours is going to be the death of you." Jenny said, reaching an incorrect conclusion about why she would need to see Elliot.
The waiter brought their check and Catherine realized she didn't really want her picked-over food. Or more time at the table. She reached for her wallet.
"That isn't helpful. And it's my turn to treat for lunch."
Jenny shouldered her purse. Lunchtime had flown by. "Hardly seems fair. You barely ate."
Cathy laid cash on the table. "Let's just say I'm on a streak when it comes to making “off deals” then. See you at the play next week?"
“You know I wouldn’t miss it.” Jenny gave her a hug of thanks and a good-bye kiss on the cheek.
Elliot loosened a grey tie, knotted a navy blue tie, then changed it for a red one. Red was a “power color.” The one he wore when he wanted to look strong, look in command. He changed back to the blue. It wouldn’t do to come across as too intimidating. Then he wondered if he didn’t want the red one after all.
Damn it, he wasn't even in the same room with her and she had him in knots. And in this case, the name of that knot was "Windsor." He tugged impatiently at the constricting cloth.
She said she'd be in. She said she'd accept my call. That does not mean that things are all right, between us. And we're damn sure not back where we were.
But he'd loved where they'd been. Loved it. Or if not love, exactly, he'd... liked it very much. He’d … valued it.
Wooing Catherine Chandler had been an adrenaline rush. Elliot had been addicted to adrenaline rushes since the first time he'd worked demolition on an old hotel that had had to come down to make way for an office building. The sound of the explosion, The sight of the old edifice coming down, the noise as the floors pancaked on each other from precisely set charges, the smell of the dust... Tear down the old. Put up the new. Both had their ability to please.
Only creating long-lasting edifices gave him more pleasure than spending time with Catherine had. Only replacing what was decrepit with what was shiny and beautiful made him smile more. They were different flavors of pleasure, but they were all “pleasure,” still.
He’d been successful in re-making himself. Successful in his business ventures. Successful in aligning himself with people who could further his goals, both personal and professional.
And then there'd been Cathy.
Shining and beautiful. New. Composed. Elegant as the diamonds that winked in her ears and twice as expensive-looking. She was a long way from the gum-popping street girls Stosh Kasmarek used to whistle at, when he was a teenager. Also a long way from the social climbers and beautiful pretenders who thought the right dress was all you needed to fit in, in certain circles.
He knew better.
Elocution exercises to get rid of his Polish accent, endless books and tapes on how to dress, how to act, when to speak, and what to say in certain social situations, long hours with a tailor ... He'd done all of it, and much of it twice, just to make sure the stain of "Stosh Kasmarek" was eradicated from his presence.
Back in the beginning, he'd spent a good deal of money he'd barely made, yet, becoming Elliot Burch. If there was a virtue in that, it was that he could spot the real deal when he saw it. Cathy Chandler was certainly that. She knew he was a self-made man. She just didn't know how “self-made," considering.
She said she'd be in.
She'd come back into his life, bearing an impossible list of things, and he honestly didn't care "for what." The detonators and other supplies had been a means to an end, for him. A way to break through that stubborn wall she’d erected. After dozens of phone calls (fifty? Had he really said “fifty?”) he’d found a way to see her again.
She’d been desperate about something. He didn’t need to know “what for,” not yet. He just needed to know he could give her what she’d wanted, and she’d repay him in kind. They’d made a deal.
She could have blown off the doors on city hall with the stuff he’d handed over to her if she'd wanted to. He honestly didn't care. He cared that it meant they were speaking, again. That was all.
He hadn’t caused her distress. But he was eminently glad he could relieve it.
He'd given her a few days to think about things.
Be disarming. Keep it light. She'll expect you to come on like a wrecking ball. She knows you have the advantage. Don’t push.
It was 4:30. She'd still be at work.
He crossed from the mirror in his private bathroom where he’d been changing the tie and punched out her number on his desk phone.
A click and he knew she'd accepted the call, accepted him.
Good. Step one. Now for step two.
"Elliot?" She sounded busy. Rushed. Of course she did. She was in that damn office of hers. The one where she was just another one of Joe Maxwell’s foot soldiers in a war nobody could win.
"Cathy. Hope I didn't catch you at a bad time." His tone was one of easy charm. That tone had made him millions.
"Well, I'm heading over to the court house to file some paperwork before they close up for the day..." She was probably telling the truth. But it would effectively cut him off if he simply let her go.
Step two. "Ah. We have similar schedules, then, very busy. I'm leaving for business concerns overseas. Something's come up."
There. That should put her at ease. Let her think he was leaving town.
"Oh?" She schooled his voice so that it didn't sound hopeful. Either that or the desk drawer he heard slam really was an indication that she was swamped. His lady had manners. Impeccable ones, even when she was harried.
"Thing is, I thought we might just talk. Over a quick dinner, if that's all right. I promise not to bombard your office with a catered meal, this time." He smiled into the phone, referencing his earlier faux pas, in their relationship. "I can't make a late evening of it. I still have to pack." He tacked on, letting her feel as much in control of the situation as she could.
Come on, Cathy. Let me in.
"I see… Let me check my calendar..." He knew she was stalling for time, trying to reach a decision. He could all but sense her nervousness through the phone. He knew her hand was covering the receiver as she considered what to do. It was now after four thirty. She damn sure knew if she already had dinner plans or not. There was no need to check a calendar.
"I'm clear." Her voice came back on the line. "Meet you at six?"
The tightly coiled tension in his long frame relaxed. Got you.
"Five thirty is better if you can. My schedule is a little tight. Bernardo's?" Bernardo's was near the Met. They'd had coffee there, one of their first nights together.
"Fine. That would be fine, Elliot."
He smiled a smile of triumph. Step two complete. On to step three.
"Shall I send a car for you?" he asked, knowing she'd refuse. Driving her own car would give her no way to leave, when she chose to.
"No. No, I'll drive."
"Good, then. See you at five thirty."
He arrived ten minutes late on purpose, knowing she'd be on time. Businessman's trick. Always let your opponent stew a little, before you moved in.
He knew he looked handsome in a deep navy suit and Italian loafers. He'd gone with the blue tie.
"My apologies. Loose ends at the office that needed tying up. Please tell me I haven't kept you waiting long," he said, approaching the white linen-covered table where she'd been seated.
"Barely long enough for me to order a glass of iced tea," she allowed his tardiness with well-heeled grace. He bent to brush her cheek with a greeting kiss, lightly. The waiter pulled out his chair.
In their first time together, he'd been clearly in charge, and this would have been a time when normally, he'd have ordered one of the house's rarer wines, and two glasses, to impress her.
But this was not their first time, and he knew better than to order an expensive vintage with the expectation that she'd follow along and drink it. There were repairs to be made, here.
"Vodka martini, two olives. And let's see what you have on the menu," he nodded politely (as opposed to dismissively) to the waiter.
"Very good sir. Madam." The white jacketed man who'd seated Elliot left to fetch his drink.
"You look lovely," he complimented sincerely, knowing she'd come straight from work, rather than gone home to change. It didn't matter. Her peach blouse was high-necked and elegant, and the cream colored skirt and jacket she wore with it made her look delicate, and beautiful. Like the old-money heiress he knew she was.
He glanced at her glass of iced tea, knowing she’d ordered it, rather than alcohol, because she felt like she needed to be in control. Smart.
"Thank you," she acknowledged, glad when the waiter handed her the long menu sleeved in embossed leather.
Cathy took in her attractive companion. His blue eyes were piercing as ever, and he was elegantly handsome. A gold signet ring cuffed his finger, and a Rolex rode his wrist. He looked wealthy, and dashingly vibrant. He looked like Elliot.
She lifted the menu to have a way to hide her expression, lest she betray how nervous she was.
"Relax, Cathy. I promise I don't bite." He said it as the waiter rushed back with his drink.
Her green eyes met his, frankly. "I'm not so sure about that."
He set down the menu and ignored the drink. "I know. And I know a meal is not going to change things, between us." There. That should put her at ease. "But I also wanted you to know that I really didn't know what was happening, what lengths my attorney was taking without my permission."
It was the truth, inasmuch as Elliot had never given specific instructions to his employee.
Catherine gave him a measured look and realized she believed him. Partly. Maybe more.
"What did you tell him? 'Get me that building, no matter what it costs?'" She knew there was a loophole, somewhere. Men like Elliot always seemed to have one.
"Something like that, probably. Something he took too far. I wanted to buy them out. I was willing to spend a good deal of money to do it. I don’t deny that, and never did. I'm not saying I'm innocent, Cathy. Just that I'm not as guilty as you made me out to be. I'll have the veal marsala."
The last was for the waiter as he collected their menus. "And I'd order for the lady, but I truly doubt she wants me to. See? I'm teachable."
He confused her, both with his honesty and his complexity. On the one hand, Catherine sensed that at least part of this was some sort of act. On the other hand, he'd been unerringly forthright, so far.
"I'll have the same," Cathy said, extending the leather bound menu to the waiter.
She sat back and regarded him for a long few beats. He was smooth. Polished. Impeccably dressed. And there was a bit of a pirate underneath his tan, and they both knew it. There was more to him than met the eye, and again, that was a thing they were both coming to understand. He didn’t mind that she knew it. He only wanted her to reach the conclusion most likely to bring her back inside his orbit.
"Is there a verdict?" he asked, acknowledging her open perusal.
Catherine considered the question. He'd helped her. Helped her when she'd needed it. Unknowing, he'd saved Vincent's life. If there was a verdict, that would have to weigh heavily in his favor.
"You aren't on trial." She twisted her tea goblet a little. "I'm sorry if I made you feel like you were."
There. The hatchet was buried. Of course, any misstep on his part might cause it to come up again, but she was done with being dismissive of him, of longing for the exit. For the moment.
"Thank you," he said sincerely. "You're very gracious."
"I don't know about that," she returned.
"For a rich kid who's still trying to prove herself, you are." He referred to the night they'd met, when she'd told him so much about herself. She realized how little he'd told her, really.
"It occurs to me you let me chatter on while you mostly just nodded in agreement," she stated.
"I was meeting a beautiful woman who was incredibly fascinating. Incredibly rare. I didn't talk about myself because it's already a subject I'm acquainted with." He ran the olives around the rim of the glass.
No, he didn't talk about himself, his background, where he'd went to school, or the various other sundries that make up “first-time meeting conversation.” But he had talked about what he loved. New York. The city. His business.
"You like to build things. You like the city." She told him what she knew. "And you like art, but you don't mind giving it away." He too, was fascinating, in his way. His next words surprised her.
"I don't actually care for art. I collect it in order to give it away," he revealed.
Her eyebrow rose, curiously? "Oh? Really!"
Ah, good. Her guard was coming down as her curiosity came up. Very good. Step three is going well.
"Art is beautiful, but it doesn't serve the purpose the building that holds it does. It's a lovely form of self-expression,” he elaborated. “But when a man is cold, or needs a place to work, or to raise his family, he'll trade a Van Gogh for ... for the things I build." He saluted her with his glass and took a careful sip.
"I don't think the two can be compared the same way," Catherine said, but realized she'd just come to understand him a little more.
And I don't think they can be compared any other way. There are the things you can use and the things you can't, Cathy.
"Maybe." Was all he said in reply.
"The things you build. So they give you pleasure? Not just the profit from them, but the things themselves?" She was trying to discern him.
More than you can possibly imagine. More than anyone can imagine. Anything that gets me above and away from those docks brings me pleasure, princess.
"They do. Too much, sometimes, and I'll admit that. My vanity is more tied up in what I build than probably in anything else I do." One day I'm going to build a tower that scrapes the sky. And I'll put my name on it. And I'll live in it and never think about those docks again.
The waiter brought their meal and interrupted their conversation. The plates were served and goblets of water poured. Elliot waved the hovering man away.
"I want to build things, Catherine. Make the city better because I can, let them know I was here because I was. Make money, but build things. Things people use. Things that help them grow their fortunes, help them live. I know doing that makes me a rich man. I admit there's a little of my ego tied up in every project I undertake.” He watched her closely, gauging her reaction to his description of himself.
“Is the law like that, for you?” he asked. “When you win a case, don't you feel... victorious? Like you've done something good?" He deftly switched the conversation from him back to her.
"I do. I admit it," she smiled slightly for the first time, laying a napkin across her lap.
He smiled back at her. "Good. You should."
"And I'll throw you in jail if I ever catch you cutting corners. Just so you know." It was a friendly warning. Almost. She was letting him know she knew who she was sitting with, even though things were settling themselves a little, between them.
"And I'll richly deserve it," he deflected, being his most charming. "At least I'll have the honor of being convicted by the most... beautiful. No, don't say ‘beautiful.’ She knows she's beautiful. Say something else. "stubborn district attorney in Manhattan."
"Thank you again." She accepted his praise with another small smile. He knew he’d chosen the right word, that it gave her pleasure.
She picked up her fork and began eating, as did he. He made no further attempts at conversation, knowing his silence on a certain subject would let her tension build. It did.
Half way through the entree, she finally couldn't bear it any longer.
"You haven't asked me," she said.
He speared a piece of veal. It was delicious. "Asked you what?" he asked, knowing full well 'what.' Step four. Put her at ease about the list.
"What I used it for. The things I asked you for."
He was dismissive in the extreme. "Oh. That." He chewed, swallowed, and wiped his mouth with his napkin.
"I figure you had your reasons. Here's another way we're different. I don't think I need to know everything there is to know about you." I just figure I'll find out in time. "I'm sure you didn't do anything evil with it. That's enough for me."
Catherine relaxed, visibly. She felt completely disarmed.
"Thank you. Again." Catherine was aware she was saying that to him a lot, this evening. Also that she might just be able to enjoy the rest of this meal, after all.
"You are welcome. And Cathy, if you ever do want to tell me, you know I'm here. If you never do..." he lifted his jacketed shoulders in a shrug and kept his eyes down to his plate, pretending interest in another piece of meat.
"You're kind to offer. And I hear the cheesecake here is to die for," she said, deflecting his request that she confide in him. He nodded.
"I hear you're right." He checked his Rolex, knowing he'd get no more out of her, and he'd smoothed things over with her as far as they would be smoothed. It was a victory. He would take it. "But I've got a plane to catch very early and some things to see to."
"London or Paris?" she asked, as he signaled for the check.
"Neither. The islands. Some things I'm looking into." That was the truth, though he wouldn't actually be down there until next week. If he saw her in between times he'd just say his business was unexpectedly delayed. It happened.
The waiter came over and took his card. "You could stay,” he offered. Have dessert if you want.”
"No, no thank you. I have things to do myself," she said, setting her napkin beside the plate. "I'm ... glad we could see each other Elliot. Even if it was on the run. This was lovely."
"It was. I'm glad we could sort things out, Cathy. I'm not a bad man, you know." He believed that about himself. Perhaps because in some ways, it was true.
Catherine looked at the very complex person across from her. In another life, she'd have found him compelling, even as she understood the risk of him. He thought far more than he said. And he wanted far more than he let on.
Then again, so did she. So, likely, did everyone. Yet...
He was so different from Vincent. And in some ways, so much the same. They both liked to build, to create safe places. But Elliot's ego was tied to that in a way that Vincent's never would be. Vincent's sense of generosity, of purpose, came from an entirely different wellspring. If they both kept some thoughts to themselves, Vincent was by far the more open of the two. He never had a hidden agenda.
Still, Elliot had helped her. When she’d asked. Because she’d asked. And that really did count for something.
"I'm glad we could sort things out a bit, too, Elliot," she said, realizing it was true. Their last parting had left a raw place inside her. Not just because she'd been falling in love with him at the time, but because she now realized what an incredible mistake that had been.
"Safe flight. Be well," she said, standing. He did the same and gave her a light hug of farewell and the obligatory kiss on the cheek.
"You too, Cathy. Be careful, catching the bad guys." She smelled like something expensive that he didn't know the name of. He'd have to find out what fragrance she wore. Just because.
"And you have fun catching whatever it is you catch, Elliot," she smiled at him and collected her purse.
You. Maybe. One day. He thought it so clearly he almost said it aloud.
"I will," he promised.
He watched Catherine Chandler walk out of the restaurant and away from him, knowing she was going back into her life, and that it was a life he was forbidden to follow her into, for now. He pocketed his gold card and left a decent tip for the waiter as he scrawled the signature of a name he hadn't been born with on the check.
A name he wasn’t born with, but one he'd made mean something, in this city. In this world. He knew Stosh Kasmarek would never have had a chance with Cathy Chandler. But he had the feeling Elliot Burch, with time and patience, just might.
He'd wait and see. He had time.
But in the meantime, he really did have pressing business concerns. There really were things in the islands that demanded his attention. He checked the watch again. He'd have some phone calls to make, once he achieved the privacy of his penthouse. Skyscrapers weren't the only things Elliot Burch knew how to build.
Sometimes he built governments.
Elliot wound his way through the well-heeled guests he was very much a part of, but would never be entirely comfortable with. These were not “his people.” His people drank too much and swore too much and saved too little. They wore a pair of pants to death and stretched leftover meals to the breaking point. His people didn't know what wine to order or what time the stock market closed.
His people didn't build things.
But he did. He'd built a bit of a bridge today. Or at least he'd begun repairs on one, with Catherine.
It was time to turn his attentions to building something else. A small island nation, perhaps. Maybe one that would get bigger, with his hands on it.
He'd have to see.
He loosened the blue tie as he waited for the doorman to hail him a cab. Blue had been the right choice, for the evening. It had been a waste of time to consider any other option.
He had no concrete plans regarding when he would see her again.
He just knew it would happen, eventually.
Step Five. Keep being Elliot Burch.
Elliot Burch had phone calls to make, and deals to seal, and a tower to finish designing. A skyline to change. A business to expand. A life to expand. He was a busy man. One who would not let too much time go by before he saw Catherine Chandler again, one way or the other.
“The next time you call, I’ll be in.” She’d let him back into her life. She’d kept her promise and allowed the former Stosh Kasmarek to treat her beautiful self to an expensive meal and light dinner conversation. He’d built a bridge, the image came to him again. He was content with that notion. It wasn’t a skyscraper, true. But it hadn’t had to be.
He wondered idly when he should call her next, and realized how little it mattered. No matter when that was, no matter when he saw her again, by chance or on purpose, he’d be subtly in control of the situation. Not because he was a bad man. But because Stanley Kasmarek, Jr. had controlled nothing and no one, and Elliot Burch knew how terrible a life that got you.
The yellow cab pulled up to the curb and the door was opened for him. Its dark interior would take him where he willed it. That’s what cabs did. That’s what lives did, if you were clever, and knew how to direct them.
Time to get on with things. Time to get on with being Elliot Burch.
“The next time you call I’ll be in.”
He’d never doubted it.
No matter where you are in the deals you make, I wish you love.~ Cindy
Illustrations supplied by the author