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A Rose Among Thorns

A MAN NAMED JESS













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Sophie McAllister stood three back in the line at the supermarket in Toledo, Ohio. Ryans fever was back and he was beginning to turn fussy. Sophie had missed work again after her son had awakened in the middle of the night with a bad cough he had developed the previous day.

Now here she stood in the line at the supermarket growing tired and weary. She rocked Ryan up and down in her arms to quiet him. Lines of stress appeared across her ivory face. She needed formula and diapers but wasnt sure how she would pay for them.

The line moved up and now she was closer to the cash register.

Sophie became nervous and agitated. She hated times like these. It seems they came often for her these days. The more she tried to get ahead, the more behind she fell.

Sophie worked as a receptionist during the day. The pay wasnt great, but its all she knew how to do. She worked part-time behind the counter at a deli making sandwiches. She hated the job but it provided her evening meals when she worked and for her that was something to treasure.

Sophie had learned to treasure the small things in life. After Michael had left her when Ryan was only an infant, she had done nothing but struggle with finances and stress. Sometimes she had thought about giving up. It seemed the easiest thing to do. Her family was miles away in Orlando. How she had gotten herself in this mess, she would n

The line moved up once again. She began emptying the contents of her basket onto the conveyor belt. It rolled forward and the cashier began to ring up her purchases.

Ryan began to cry. It was loud and deep from the lungs. His face was flushed. The cashier glanced up at Sophie as if annoyed with her. Again Sophie bounced Ryan in her arms, patting him soothingly on the back. But he continued to wail.

When the cashier was through ringing up the diapers, the formula and the few other items Sophie needed, she said, That will be thirty-two dollars and sixty-two cents.

Sophie bit down on her lip, turning her eyes away, clutching a twenty in her hand.

Im sorry, she began to stutter, All I have is a twenty.

The eyes of the cashier held no sympathy when she spoke. Her voice held the drone of sarcasm. Well then, you will have to return some of these items.

But you dont understand. I need them.

Ryan screamed his protest. Sophie stood with pleading eyes, but it didnt seem to do any good. The cashier continued to stare down at her as if unconcerned Isnt there something you can do? Sophie asked, raising her voice above the boom of Ryans outburst.

Yes maam there is, the cashier replied. She reached inside the bag and started removing the items to which Sophie had just purchased. She started removing the items from Sophies tab.

Sophie began to panic. What are you doing? she yelled over her sons incessant crying. I need that stuff.

The cashier continued her job, her eyes leering down at Sophie. Look lady, if you cant afford to buy this stuff, then you must leave.

But my baby is sick and hungry, Sophie pleaded. What am I suppose to do? The cashier only shrugged uncaringly.

What is going on here?

Sophie whirled around to the voice from behind her. It was deep and masculine. When she turned she never expected to encounter the warmest brown eyes you would ever see. But she did. For a moment she was speechless.

The man stared down at Sophie, not with shame or disgust, but with an earnest sincerity that she had not seen in a very long time. She wore a gray tattered sweater and her long brown hair hung around her face in matted tangles.

Before Sophie could reply to the mans question, the cashier answered for her. This woman was trying to purchase these things for her baby, but she didnt have enough money.

I get paid tomorrow, is all Sophie could say.

The man smiled down at her, his eyes gentle and assessing. It felt strange to Sophie, the way he seemed to be drawn to her. Suddenly she was conscious of her appearance. She felt ashamed and embarrassed. She wanted the earth to open up and suck her into it.

I tell you what, the man began to say in a sweet lilting way. I will pay for your things, if that is all right with you. His eyes never left Sophies, as he reached inside his wallet and began removing some bills. If you will give me your address, I will be glad to come by and get the money tomorrow after you get paid.

Stunned and speechless, Sophie stood with her mouth propped open. For a moment tears sprung to her eyes. You . . . you would do that for me?

The man winked, then set the money down on the counter. Baffled and amazed, Sophie did not know what to say. She thanked him, gave him her address, then he was gone.

She watched him walk away until he disappeared out of sight, leaving her with a feeling of euphoria. She gathered up her son in one arm and her groceries in another, then she too was gone.

The next evening the man stood outside Sophies apartment. His visit was unexpected, for he had not taken the time to call her before coming.

Once again he could hear the baby crying. But over the crying he could hear Sophies voice screaming out. You cant fire me, she was saying. I need this job.

There was silence then, My son is sick. In a day or two hell be fine.

He heard the phone slam down, then what he thought was weeping. He waited a moment, then rang the doorbell. Sophie tore open the door, her eyes lit with anger. What do you want? Sophie asked in a harsh manner.

Upon seeing the handsome brown-eyed stranger, she froze. Once again she stood with her mouth agape, her eyes shrouded with disbelief. Oh, I am so sorry, she apologized. I wasnt expecting you. I . . . I

The man she decided, tall and dark, was quite handsome. His eyes were set deep, his cheeks were lean and sloped at a disarming angle. Tonight he had the rough edges of a beard showing through. He wore a dazzling walnut-colored suit with a dark brown silk tie. The suit fit him as if it had been tailor-made for him.

Well, he said softly, may I come in, or do you plan to keep me standing outside your door all night?

She blushed, ran her hands through her hair, then stepped aside. Please come in, she said sweetly.

Before he stepped inside, he reached to the side of him, and then bent down. When he came back up he was holding two paper bags full of stuff. He stepped inside Sophies apartment, set the bags down and turned to head back out. Unexpectedly Sophie had closed the door. He found himself running nose first into the hard surface. Stunned he stumbled back.

Embarrassed, Sophie ran to his side, cupping his face into the palms of her hands. Oh, Im so sorry, she said breathlessly.

The man seemed to tower over her. Sophie had to crane her neck to look up at him. He appeared to be mesmerized, for his eyes turned dark and he held her gaze without blinking. Before she knew what was happening, he raised his hand and began to stroke the silken strands of her hair.

Youre hair is beautiful, he murmured.

She took a hard swallow, stepped backwards to put space between her and this lethal stranger. She tugged the tattered gray sweater over her chest, nervously looking about the room.

Whats in the bags? she inquired, trying to calm the racing pulse that beat in her chest.

Oh, he said, theres more, outside. Want to help bring them in?

Sophie could not, of course, say no. Silently she went to the hallway and peered out. There must have been twenty or thirty bags of stuff strewn down the hallway. Flabbergasted she turned to him and said, What is all of this?

Its for you and your son, he acknowledged, thrusting first one bag, then another into her arms. I would have brought more, but this is all I could fit into my car.

I dont understand, is all she could say.

You dont have to understand. He smiled that disarming way of his. Just be grateful.

Oh I am, she exclaimed, but what is it? She peered inside one of the bags.

I brought you food and diapers, and formula. His eyes gleamed over her body from head to toe, stopping at her face.

He watched her a long time, as her eyes beamed with joy. I guessed that you were a size seven. I hope that I was right.

She laughed, not understanding. Why do you say that?

At last all the bags were brought into the house. The man closed the door behind them. The winter is coming on soon, and it looked as though you might need a new coat. So I bought you one.

You what? she asked with a disbelieving snicker to her voice.

I bought you a coat. He struggled nonchalantly, then moved to one of the bags. He started digging through it casually. I bought you several things, to be truthful. I hope they will fit. I hope you will think I have good taste, as I have never bought clothes for a woman before.

Sophie couldnt say a word. She could do nothing more than stand there, with tears streaming down her face. After a moment, she turned her back on the stranger burying her face in the palms of her hands.

Hey, hey, hey, he said, moving up behind her, clutching at her upper arms to move her around to face him. He put his finger under her chin and pushed her face upward to look at him. Why the tears? he asked.

I cant accept this, she answered in a voice that cracked from her sob.

Sure you can, he responded back. Look, he said, reaching inside a bag. I made lasagna for us tonight. I thought we might sit down together and talk while we have dinner.

Sophies chin was warm where the strangers hand had touched. It left behind a warming sensation. She found herself dazzled and perplexed.

Why would you want to have dinner with me?

She waited breathlessly for his answer.

Because Ive never met a woman quite like you before.

Sophie mumbled something, but her back was to the stranger and her words came out muffled.

He scooped up the rest of the things he had prepared for dinner and headed, with hands full, to the kitchen.

I cant have dinner with you tonight, Sophie confessed, her voice soft.

For a moment, the stranger was taken aback. Why, are you expecting your boyfriend.

Sophie blushed and looked toward the ground. No, no boyfriend, she replied.

Good, he said back. I thought I might have to ring his neck, if that were the case..

Why?

At Sophies puzzled frown, he laughed. Because you obviously need help here and if there were a man in your life, and he wasnt helping you out, I would find it very hard not to want to punch him out. He paused for a moment. Now, why cant you have dinner with me tonight?

She smiled up at him, her eyes glazed over with a sudden urge to kiss this man. Because I dont even know youre name.

Oh thats simple, he stated. Moving to the kitchen counter he began unwrapping the nights dinner. My name is Jess. At least thats what my friends call me.

He glanced over his shoulder to see the small boy sleeping on a pile of blankets on the floor. My names Jess. Well, thats what my friends call me, anyway.

After a few minutes, the two of them moved to a small table. It was old and there were many scratches across the surface. One of the legs wobbled when Jess sat down, but he barely seemed to notice. They began to eat in silence.

The silence seemed to drag on. It was awkward for Sophie, as it had been a long time since she had entertained a man.

She found that she could not take her off of this man. Nor could he take his eyes off of her.

It was more than one time that he had caught her staring at him over her plate of lasagna.

She could only blush and turn her head away.

She began to eat slowly at first because she did not want Jess to know exactly how hungry she was that day.

It was her first time to eat at all that day, and she was ravenous.

But not only was she hungry, she was tired as well. She was sure that Jess could tell and it bothered her. She had never cared before what a man thought of her. Now she did.

With this man, she truly cared.

Sophie took larger portions and found she was very pleased with this mans talent in the kitchen.

Again the silence continued, then Sophie heard the resonance of his voice fill the room. So, you were fired tonight?

Sophie dropped her fork against her plate instantly. With startled eyes, she looked up at Jess. She saw, in his expression a deep concern for her as a person. There was no laughter, only a serious intent to know more about her. She was, however, confused as to how he might have heard about the job. Howd you know that?

I overheard outside the door, just before I rang the bell.

Sophie proceeded to eat. Its no big deal really. I hated the job.

Jess paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. Why is that?

It was a part-time job making sandwiches. I mean, how much talent does that take?

Jess grinned. I would think alot. I mean, he said jokingly, there must be a hundred ways to make a bologna sandwich.

Sophie erupted in laughter. It made her eyes shine.

You should do that more often?

Do what more often?

Laugh, Jess said. Its a wonderful sound.

Sophie took the last of her lasagna and swallowed it down. As you can see, I havent had much reason lately to laugh.

So what do you do for a full-time job? Jess asked out of no where. It took Sophie by surprise. She didnt know what to say.

I work as a receptionists. Again, another one of those jobs that dont take much talent. As you can see, I am a somewhat inexperienced person.

Jess reached into his front coat pocket and extracted a small white card. He stretched out his hand and offered it to Sophie.

She reached for it and her fingers touched his slightly. She pulled away quickly, glancing at the face of the card. Harvard Mechanics. Harvard J. Dalton, owner.

I have a friend who owns this company. I know hes in need of a good receptionist. From what I hear, he pays very well. I will call him for you and tell him youll be by in a few days for an interview.

Sophie snorted in disbelief. Are you sure. I mean, I dont have much experience other than answering the phone.

And making bologna sandwiches. His eyes twinkled with merriment. Im sure youll do just fine. How about on Friday at 9:00 oclock? Do you think youre son will be well by then?

Oh, yes. Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you.

Sophie could not believe what was happening to her.

She walked Jess to the door.

Once in the hallway he turned to her and stared down into her face. It seemed that in just a short span of time, he had managed to erase all the lines of stress and fatigue. Now her eyes were bright and hopeful. He held her gaze for a long time. He was heady with excitement and breathless with anxiety. After a moment, he bent his head down and gently touched his lips to her cheek.

Thank you for a lovely evening, he said, as he backed away and headed down the hall.

It was several long seconds before Sophie could will herself to close the door and put an end to the evening. She wished it could have gone on for ever and ever.

When Sophie arrived in front of Harvard Mechanics, she was a bit nervous. Her hands shook and she began to sweat.

The shop was huge. All kinds of cars were lined up in neat rows. The smell of gasoline wafted through the air.

She entered through one of the garage doors. A man in a navy blue mechanics uniform greeted her with a friendly smile. May I help you? he asked.

Sophie hoped she looked all right. She had chosen a black skirt and a blue knit sweater from the selection of clothes that Jess had given her. Yes, she responded. Im looking for Mr. Dalton. He should be expecting me.

The man grinned mysteriously while his eyes seemed to dance with mischief. Oh yes. He is. Ive never seen someone so anxious about an interview before. The man whirled on his heels and headed across the garage.

Mr. Dalton is anxious about the interview? Why? Maybe I should go.

Oh no maam. Mr. Dalton would skin me alive if I let you go.

They came to a door. The man put his hand on the knob and turned it. When it opened, standing there across the room was none other than Jess. He was in the middle of adjusting his tie when he froze. His hands were trembling.

Silently the man closed the door to leave them in privacy.

Ms. McAllister, good to see you again.

I dont understand, Sophie said quizzically. I was suppose to be meeting Mr. Dalton.

You are. He fixed his eyes on her and winked. Im Harvard Jess Dalton.

I thought I was coming here for a job interview, she said, sweeping her eyes across the room.

And I intend to give you one, he said honestly. I dont hire just anyone. Just those I think can handle the job.

Then, I guess I should sit down and start answering questions.

Sophie made it through the interview without bumbling over her words. During the series of questions that Jess had posed on her, she found that she liked the man very well.

He offered her the job, making more than she did working two jobs before. She was looking forward to her first day on the job.

Her hours woul be from nine to six Monday through Friday. She couldnt believe her good fortune. It seems miracles happen when you least expect them. She found hers in a man named Jess.

















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