LOVE A LA CARTE (Chapter One)
Long and slender in her tailored pencil skirt, Grace Lyndon stood on her executive desk, balancing in her fine designer heels, reaching for a burned-out light bulb in the fixture above her.
"You know there are people employed here specifically to do that sort of thing," Monic said, still in her lab coat as she marched into the open door.
"By the time a work request is made and someone gets around to it--" Grace removed the old bulb with her fingertips and began twisting in a new one.
"You're risking your neck, you know."
"I don't like to be in the dark."
The new bulb came on.
"Well," Monic said. "Now we know how many flavorists it takes to change a light bulb."
Old bulb in hand, Grace jumped from the desk, knees bent, landing expertly. "So you're here to mock me?"
"No--to pump you for information." A mischievous grin grew on Monic's face. "About tonight. About your third date with this guy."
"Stop." Grace tossed the old bulb in a garbage can and sat in the high-backed chair at her desk. "It's just dinner."
"A dinner date." Monic plopped down happily on the sofa and placed her feet up on the coffee table.
"A working dinner."
"You're having a lot of working time with someone who has very little to do with your work."
"He owns the orchard where we're doing some testing."
"Honey, the equipment is doing the testing."
"We have things to go over."
"I'm sure you do."
"Stop!" Grace worked to convey a mature tone to her voice that suggested she was not interested in such things, but the slight flushing across her fair face gave away her thoughts.
"I'm just saying."
"You're just teasing."
"Hey, a farmer does not leave his orchard right before harvest unless there's a very good reason, and a third date is a very good reason."
"He's in town to pick up supplies."
Monic raised an eyebrow, a peculiar little gesture that she reserved specifically to needle those close to her. "Well, isn't that convenient."
"Why does everyone think that two human beings consuming food in each other's presence constitutes courtship?"
"Single people don't eat together unless they're talking about sex or thinking about having sex with each other."
Laughing, Grace shook her head. "Where do you get this stuff?"
"I'm married, and married people make a highly committed avocation out of vicariously preoccupying themselves with the dating lives of their single friends."
"You didn't think I was keeping up with the intimate details of all things Grace just because I care about you?"
Grace sighed. "Just think what you could accomplish if you used your powers for good."
"Just keep the date and afterwards you better text me, descriptively and slowly."
Hearing stifled laughter, Grace and Monic looked up to see Grace's assistant standing in the door.
"Emma, have you met Farmer John?" Monic asked.
"No I haven't, Dr. Jain." Emma knew that wasn't his name, of course, but she knew who they were talking about and enjoyed being in on the fun. "But I've spoken to him--and he seems very nice."
Grace was well aware that the comment was directed at her. Despite all the playful banter, it was nice to know how much these women did indeed root for her.
"I've got Herb Weiss' assistant calling for you," Emma said.
"Put him through." Grace sat up straight.
"Right away." And Emma was gone.
Grace picked up a stack of manila folders on her desk, tilted them up and tapped them three times on the desk, neatening them. Then she laid the stack down smartly, patting the "To Do" file on top as though she were putting a child to bed.
Monic draped herself over the sofa like a chenille throw, watching Grace put on her work-self. Legs fit and strong crossed under the desk, Grace wore a ginger silk blouse that matched the tone and luster of her hair, and a pair of pearl earrings that accentuated her soft features, cheeks high and smooth, lips full. To most, she looked simply like a beautiful young executive dressed for work; but it was the kind of outfit, only someone close like Monic would notice, which was chosen quite thoughtfully.
Realizing she was being observed, Grace turned her head, focusing on Monic with one eye the way a shooter takes aim. "What?"
The computer chimed as a video-call came in and Monic just continued to sit there observing contentedly.
"What?" Grace's cinnamon-brown eyes widened.
"You look fabulous."
Another chime and before Grace could speak, her finger took over, popped her mouse, and a tense twenty-five-year-old in an expensive suit appeared on her screen.
"I have Herb Weiss for you." It was a pronouncement, a command to sit and wait.
Monic laced her fingers behind her head, kicking back. "Boy, your office is exciting."
"Grace!" a gruff voice boomed from the computer as the massive bulbous head of CEO Herb Weiss filled her twenty-seven-inch monitor.
"Good evening, Herb."
"Did you know that Nova Scotia looks like a big rabbit's foot?"
"No, I can't say I did." Preparing herself for whatever kind of curveball was coming her way, Grace adjusted the volume. "What's that noise?"
"The Lear's engines. We're still climbing."
"So...what, you're looking down and taking a little ink-blot test from up there? Checking your state of mind, Herb?"
His teeth sparkled as he grinned. He liked this girl. "Rabbit's foot. What do you think that says about me?"
"That you're lucky."
"So you're calling me from the air to discuss dinner?"
"I'm calling you to discuss your life, specifically the next eleven hours of it."
Monic could see Grace's expression tighten as a corporate flight attendant on screen handed Herb a soft drink in a crystal glass.
Cubes of ice clinking, he put his fat nose over the glass, inhaling as if the bubbling cola was a fine scotch. "High fructose corn syrup. I love that bouquet." He took a satisfying gulp. "Best sweetener in the world, if you ask me."
"Can we get back to the discussing of my life?"
"Yes. Let's." He took another sip. "Our East European bottlers are in the final stages of financing their new plant which will support our new beverage line. But before the investors in Beijing write the check, everyone wants to taste a sample of the product."
"Which will be ready in three to four weeks--as we've discussed."
"Change of plans."
"Change of plans?" Grace didn't like where this was going.
"Well, you don't think I'm flying over the Pond 'cuz I got a sudden hankering for Hungarian stew? Grace--I need you on this."
"You want me to cram a month's work into one night?"
"Indeed I do."
"You want me to design a new beverage flavor overnight? I can't adhere to the kind of standards I require working like that."
"Every fragrance and flavor company in the free world--hell, in the entire universe-wanted this account. Every flavorist that ever sniffed a scent strip wanted it. And you nailed it, young lady. Not because you're a perfectionist or an artist or even just hard-working, but because you're wired to get what you want. That's the kind of professional you are. That's the kind of person you are. You're just like me."
The room was silent, save for the low hum of the jet engines coming over the video call. Monic leaned way forward on the sofa, breathless.
Grace crossed her arms. "I won't do it."
"Yes, you will."
Jaw setting, eyes squinting, Grace prepared for a fight. Monic recognized that expression and it made her nervous. She jumped up, motioning wildly: This is the most powerful guy in the business and you better not say something stupid here!
Herb remained nonplussed. "Yes, you will." He took another sip, crushing a hunk of ice between his gold-crowned molars. "And not because I'm giving you an order, but because it needs to be done. And you know it."
He was right. She did know it, and it ate her up. There would be no factory without funding, and no funding without a new flavor sample. Would she do it? Could she do it? Monic stood at the desk looking over the backside of the monitor, hands down and open, waiting for a reaction from Grace.
"That may be, Herb, but, well, you know how the song goes about always getting what we want, the operative point being that we can't."
"Oh, I like to make my own music. And I'd like you to sing along with me."
"Tomorrow," he sang out. "Tomorrow by six A.M I need it, I need the work from you. Eastern Standard Time." And humming and clinking the ice in his glass, he tapped a key and the screen went black.
"You can breathe again," Grace said to Monic.
"This is why I so prefer being a simple food scientist. Test tubes rarely pressure you."
Grace just swung in her chair, thinking.
And Monic knew exactly what about. "So what are you gonna do about your date with Farmer John?"
A man's voice spoke up. "Farmer Dylan."
Monic and Grace turned to see Dylan standing at the door.
Emma stood right next to him. "Dylan Jackson is here to see you, Ms. Lyndon."
"Yes, I see that." Grace smiled openly at Dylan, an instinctive expression she couldn't have helped if she'd wanted to.
"Nice office," he said, his dark eyes looking only at her, not the office.
"Yes--very brightly lit," said Monic. Her analytical brain at work, Monic fixed her gaze on Dylan. He struck her as one of those guys she'd seen in apparel catalogs, tall and square as only a catalog-man can be--in easy-fitting blazer and khakis, at once ready for both a night in the city or the downing and chopping of a large tree. But the expression he exchanged with Grace was real and present, and charged in a way that clearly revealed a caring, soulful individual.
Grace caught Monic staring. Then she caught Emma staring. Both tried to express their grand approval with silent looks and effusive gestures. Grace looked and gestured back for them to knock it off! All of which, of course, was picked up by Dylan.
"Hi," said Monic finally, wanting to be introduced.
"So I see you've met Emma," Grace said.
"Had the pleasure a few moments ago."
"And this is my colleague and often nosy friend, Monic."
Southern gentleman that he was, Dylan nodded graciously. "Ladies."
"So you've left the farm with harvest approaching pretty much any moment now?" Monic asked, true to form.
"Well, the fruit's about ready, and there is a storm tracking up from the Gulf, but I'm monitoring everything very closely." Of course he should be with his apples but he wasn't going to pass up another chance to be with Grace! Could this smart woman in the white coat tell how head over heels he was falling? Was it showing on his face to everyone, or just her? "You know about farming?"
Monic opened her mouth, but before she could start talking about all the things that she knew, which included things Grace preferred to keep private, Grace grabbed his arm.
"Would you like a tour?" Grace asked, and before he could answer, she hauled him out of her office.
Their shoes clicking together in harmony along the chic limestone tile, Grace and Dylan moved together down the corridor of the corporate office.
"It smells good in here," Dylan said.
"Yes, lots of good work today." Raising her nose ever so slightly, Grace sniffed the air. "Lab Seven's developing a popcorn seasoning for a movie chain. They were popping cases of corn in there all day."
"Love that smell."
"Me too." Continuing on, Grace detected another scent in the hall. "You smell that?"
Stopping, Dylan did. What was it? "I know that."
"Lab Eight is working on a fragrance for a major consumer cleaning product."
He sniffed again. It was a scent he knew very well, but couldn't articulate.
"It's the smell of rain," she said with a sly grin.
"Yes! A rain shower... just starting...hitting the ground on a steamy summer day."
She heard the childlike passion in his voice, saw it on his face, and just loved it. "One of my favorites. Really transports you."
Moving along, they came across another fragrance in the air, barely discernible. "Okay, this I definitely know," he said.
Dylan turned briskly, following the scent to an oversized steel door before them.
"Go ahead," Grace said, extending a hand.
He pushed open the heavy door and walked into Flavor & Fragrance R&D Lab Nine.
"Wow," said Dylan, actually taken aback at the sheer wonder of this room.
Grace stepped in behind him, thoroughly enjoying sharing her world.
The room was surprisingly large, but it was broken into separate areas with different furnishings and various types of lighting that imparted the sense of numerous spaces. In the center were rows of high steel tables, many shiny and bare, others covered in a variety of computers, beakers, lab equipment, and curious high-tech devices. Several tables in an area to the side were covered with neat lines of small marked vials, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of them--tiny containers of industrial fragrance--presumably every one known to man.
On the other side of the room, through huge glass windows, Dylan could see a kitchen, replete with several massive Sub-Zero refrigerators, sets of professional series Viking stoves and ranges, all manner of commercial quality appliances and cookware and cutlery, the kind of dream equipment one only sees in high-end restaurants or magazines. Double swinging doors led into the kitchen.
And in the far back of the commodious space, there was a plush living room--deep velvet club chairs, a couple well-upholstered love seats, several handcrafted wood tables, all sitting on an island of lush carpeting--a place for clients to lounge and sample products.
"Caramel," Dylan said. "That's the scent." He pointed to a large beaker on a table near one of the walls. "And I believe it's coming from over there."
"Yes. Caramel. You've got a very good nose."
"Thank you. Coming from you, that's quite a compliment."
"And in fact, that's my work you're smelling. This is my project lab. I've been developing a series of flavors for a new beverage line and I've been working with caramel today."
"Knocking off Coke?"
"Studying it. And very good reference." Grace was impressed that he knew one of the primary flavor components of the so-called secret formula.
"I'm from Georgia. Momma put it in the baby bottle."
"Well, this isn't going to be a knock-off. I have some ideas and...let's just say this is going to be even better."
This place really was amazing, as was she. "You may have the world's coolest job, you know. Right up there with Willy Wonka."
"Yes, and thank you for reminding me. Because on days like today, I tend to forget."
"Well, I was getting to that." Oh, how she regretted having to break a date with this guy. "I just got hit with a last-minute assignment and I have to stay here and work tonight."
"Something like that. I'm sorry."
He nodded, looking around again. "At least you'll be well-fed while you're working."
"Yes, that is one of the great benefits of the job, lots of food around. Pretty much anything you want in those fridges." Grace motioned toward the corporate kitchen.
Dylan looked that way too, through the glass, assessing. "Why don't you let me make dinner for you?"
"That's a very nice offer, but--"
"Seriously. You cooked an amazing meal at my house the other day. It's the least I can offer. Do your work. I'll cook for you."
"What? Afraid of my cooking? Oh ye of little faith."
She laughed, and then allowed herself a moment to absorb the sight of this comfortable, rugged man standing in her high-tech workspace, her things all around--this man who she'd just met a few days ago, who she was really just getting to know but somehow felt like she'd known her whole life. And he was asking to spend time with her, to cook for her. One thing she knew for sure, everything felt better when Dylan Jackson was around. "You sure you don't mind?" she asked.
"My pleasure." He took another look over at the kitchen. "Now there are a few things that I know I can pull off. Anything in particular you'd care to order? Dinner is a la carte."
And again, that unrestrained smile appeared on her face. "Surprise me."
"I suspect I can do that."
She did too. "Okay."
Over the next hour or so, they said very little to each other but were very much together. Having discovered a cache of prime grass-fed tenderloins, Dylan worked in the kitchen at the sprawling gas range, engaged in one of his favorite activities in life, grilling filet mignons.
On the other side of the glass, in the lab area, bottles and beakers and chemicals all around, Grace worked at a high steel table. Things didn't seem to be going as well for her as they were for Dylan. She mixed an assortment of additives in various fruit juice bases, sniffing test strips, testing sugar levels with a refractometer, occasionally tasting, but she could not design a flavor profile that satisfied her. She hated operating under this kind of pressure, but was grateful tonight to have company.
While Grace worked with a plethora of artificial compounds, Dylan worked with the most basic of natural ingredients. Flipping the plump filets, he stirred another dish with which he had a real level of comfort: grits. Perhaps not a classic side, but something he knew he could nail. He looked for salt and was overwhelmed to discover about thirty different kinds. Shrugging, he chose a Himalayan variety and tended to the meat.
Grace took a sip from a test tube. It was fine. Nice complexity, decent balance of sweetness and acidity, good mouthfeel. It mixed well with the green-tea base. Most people would slurp this stuff down like so much Fruit Punch Snapple and never notice that it was just fine. But she knew she could do better. Something was missing, though Grace couldn't find the inspiration to discover it.
Dylan threw together an impromptu salad with some romaine and an odd lot of fresh vegetables he found in one of the refrigerator bins. Occasionally exchanging glances with Grace though the glass windows, he loved the idea of cooking for her, really, of caring for her. Coming across some dried cherries that just looked too good to ignore, he tossed them on the plates with the steaks; then, backing through the double swinging doors, he carried the two hot plated dishes to the living room area where he had set placemats and tableware on a coffee table.
"Dinner is served," he called out, putting the dishes down.
"That smells incredible," said Grace as she joined him.
"Sit." He motioned toward one of the velvet club chairs, in which she plopped down. And he sat in the one across from her, their supper before them. The area was lit dimly in halogen pools, and by the three flickering votive candles that Dylan had found and set out.
Dylan waited for Grace, who looked not only impressed, but also grateful. She picked up a fork and knife, and cut into the juicy cherry-covered filet. Her eyes, locked with his, filled with bliss.
"Oh," she said. "You are a multi-talented man, Dylan Jackson."
"I'm a simple man who likes to grill."
"Simple." She looked again at the lovely plated meal before her, and then took another wonderful bite. Sublime. "Sometimes I feel like I lost simple."
"Looked like things weren't going so well over there tonight."
Strangely melancholy, she ate and spoke at once. "Lost it in a maze of chemicals and corn syrup stabilizers. I mean, when did a lemon become lemon flavoring?"
"How long have you been feeling this way?"
"For a while now; I just didn't know it. Honestly, something happened a few nights ago when I bit into your apple. Something became clear to the point where I can't ignore it--put into relief all that is good, all that is real." She took another bite of the meal. "Oh, this is so good I can hardly stand it." And then she laughed. "You realize you've ruined me? The flavor of your apples has ruined me."
"I can't tell you how much that means to me."
"That you've made my life impossible?"
"That someone else feels the same way. That someone else gets it. Seriously. My neighbors think I'm crazy. I have an entire crop sitting out there right now, storm off to the west, the entire future of the farm, literally, on the line. Everyone else has picked. But I refuse to do it until--"
"Yes. Until it's as good as it can be."
"All the good things in life are the simple things, and I think that gets lost when you cut corners. I understand that in business certain things are necessary, but how do you valuate the taste of a fresh orange pulled from the cooler and peeled with sea-salted hands in August? How do you put a cost per unit on a hunk of black Crillo chocolate taken at midnight with the last sips of wine when all the guests have finally gone? What do you do when you've found a perfect apple?"
"You test it, replicate it, and share it with others."
"Yes. Yes, that's right."
"I'm glad you're doing that, Grace. I'm glad my apple inspired you. And I'm glad it found you."
She looked away, afraid that if she kept his gaze, he'd see all the things underneath the conversation. But she knew that he saw it all, of course she knew it, and she took a deep breath and went back to him, and the truth about what was indelibly between them was all there.
Dylan put down his fork and leaned forward, close to her.
"Grace, it would be nice if life came to you like a fixed menu. Someone skilled taking great care to give you only the absolute best of things, paired together just right, so that while everything might not be to your liking, generally it all works out quite well in the end. But things aren't like that. Right? Life is by and large a la carte. You do the best to pick what you think is best, these great simple things, but the truth is you never really know what's gonna come out. And that's scary. Sometimes something that sounds really good turns out to be quite terrible. But sometimes...sometimes it's pure magic. I think love is like that."
"Love a la carte."
Dylan leaning forward over the candles, connecting with her, the aroma of his simple incredible meal upon her senses, commingling with the emotions churning in her heart, the savory grilled cherries working their way into her--and suddenly, she had an idea.
With a gasp, Grace jumped up. "Wait here."
And before Dylan could even speak, she ran off, back to her work area.
Dylan sat up straight in the velvet club chair, lifting his head, watching Grace working over at the high steel table. Then she bolted over to another table, located and retrieved a particular bottle, and went back to her work area where she quickly but meticulously mixed up a potion. She smelled it, tasted it, and then, excitedly, returned to the living room area and Dylan.
"Try this," she said, extending a glass beaker to him.
He looked at her a bit suspiciously. What did she have here, exactly? Then he smelled it, rich and fruity, mouth-watering. And he took a big sip, and then broke out in a huge smile.
"Cherry," he said.
"Yes! Ripe essence of cherry, imbued with savory sweetness--delicious, right?"
He took another huge swig. "Better than delicious. Perfect."
"I know!" And it was--a perfect flavor, inspired by the meal, stirred by the company.
"Congratulations," Jake said.
And without thinking, Grace threw her arms around him and gave him a hug. "Thank you."
She pulled back, but he did not entirely release his arms from around her. His hands gently on her lower back, moving slowly down to her hips, he held her, their faces close, his eyes on her lips, hers on his, and he began to move towards her, when his cellphone rang.
Dylan jumped, his hands sliding, then reached for his phone in his jacket pocket. He retrieved the phone, but fumbled with it, pushed the speaker button.
"Dad?" said a ten year-old voice.
Grace moved back, standing, sighed deeply, and smiled.
"Hi, Carter," he said.
"Dad, when are you coming home?"
"Is everything okay, honey?"
"Yes, Gladys is putting me to bed. But I want you to tuck me in when you get home. Okay?"
"Of course, honey."
"When are you coming home?"
Dylan looked at Grace as he spoke. "Soon."
"But you go to bed now, and be good for Gladys. Okay?
"Dad, did you see Grace tonight?"
"Yes I did."
"Good. Were you nice to her?"
Grace put her hand to her mouth, enjoying this.
"Yes, I was nice to her."
"Good. I like her."
Dylan continued looking at Grace as he spoke. "I do too, honey."
"Good. Tuck me in when you get home. Don't forget or I'll know."
"I won't forget. Now go to bed. I love you, Carter."
"I love you too, Dad."
Dylan clicked off the phone, stood, and put it back in his jacket pocket.
Grace remained silent, standing near him, uncertain of what would come next.
"You know," Dylan said finally, "there's what looks like a killer chocolate cake over there. I was hoping to try it."
"I know. Me too."
Again, a moment of silence as each tried to surmise what the other was thinking.
"But I've got a daughter."
"And I've got a deadline."
They faced each other, toe to toe.
"Think the cake might keep?"
"Definitely," said Grace, nodding, looking into his eyes. "Definitely will keep."
And Dylan tipped his head ever so slightly, a good-night gesture, filled with the promise of things to come.
LOVE A LA CARTE Copyright © 2011 by Jeffrey Stepakoff