On a Day Like That

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Back in college, Peggy Grantwood had always had Chuck pegged as a kindred soul, just as shy as she was. That, she believed to this day, was as good an excuse as any why they’d never been more than casual friends.

But she knew the real reason was Mark and Alex. Peggy’s longtime crush and his ex of accursed memory.

Even so, she was delighted when Julie told her Chuck was in town. “He just got his teaching certificate,” Julie explained as she finished off her cocoa, “and I guess a French teacher at Kennedy went on maternity leave. I just ran into him at the supermarket the other day.”

“No kidding!” Peggy allowed a girlish sigh, relishing how close she and Julie had become in the six long months since graduation, both of them having settled in the city a hundred miles or so from their rural campus. Her neighborhood wasn’t the best, but the coffee shop where she met with Julie once a week was a cosy oasis in the dead of winter. With the news about Chuck, it felt cosier still. “Such a sweet guy. You know, I didn’t know you knew him, Julie.”

“Everyone who knew Mark and Matt knew Chuck,” said Julie, who like herself had been on the periphery of Mark’s wide circle of friends. “The token mature guy, remember?”

“Mark wasn’t that immature.” Peggy had no idea why she still felt compelled to defend him, but she did.

“Oh, come on, Peg! I know you liked him — no offense, but everybody knew it — but he and Matt were a couple of little boys. Chuck would’ve been a much better catch, you know. And now he’s here!” She took out her phone and wrote Chuck’s number on a napkin.

Peggy took the napkin. “Thanks,” she said. “But I don’t think he likes me like that.”

“Oh, he’s just shy, you know that,” Julie said. “And, you know, he had a thing for Alex.”

“I’m not Alex, am I?”

“The exact opposite,” Julie agreed. “But after she got done slaughtering Chuck’s heart, he probably never wanted to bother with any of Mark’s exes again.

“Mark and I never dated,” Peggy reminded her friend. “Not for lack of desire on my part, but…”

“No offense, but everyone knew,” Julie said. “Especially Chuck. Look — he told me not to say this, but he asked about you.”

“Did he?” Peggy saw no point in hiding her delight at that news. She felt like a schoolgirl with a crush, but after so many lonely nights lately she didn’t much care. “Mark always did say he said the nicest things about me. I just wish he’d have said some of them to me.”

“Give him another try, Peg.”

Peggy looked at the napkin again, and then back at her friend. “Mark really was a silly little boy, wasn’t he?”

“Him and Matt both,” Julie said. “And I think they thought of you as their kid sister, to tell you the truth.”

“What makes you say that?” Peggy demanded.

“Didn’t you ever hear their joke about your initials? They said you were rated PG.”

The joke still stung three days later as Peggy was cooking dinner, even as her heart was flying with anticipation of Chuck’s visit. Mark was history, gone to Asia to teach English, and there was no sense in kicking herself anymore for what had already failed to happen between them, but rated PG? Did he really think she was that innocent?

The lasagne was bubbling nicely in the oven, and Chuck was due any minute now. Time to change clothes. Perhaps, she mused, she ought to take the opportunity to show Chuck, at least, that she wasn’t that innocent.

She stepped out from behind the kitchen island to her wardrobe, one of only two pieces of furniture she’d gotten around to buying yet (her beloved queen size bed being the other), and rustled through her dresses. It was too cold for most of them, but the knit black and white one her mother had given her for Christmas would do with tights underneath.

As Peggy lay the dress on the bed and went to the curtain to draw the curtains, she realized it was definitely a night for tights no matter what she wore over them. The old building was drafty and she felt an icy chill well before she got to the window. When she got there, the usually busy downtown corner below her was deserted, with only one man sliding down the shiny sidewalk in the freezing rain that glistened in the air and on nearly every surface. She hated to think of Chuck having to drive or, worse yet, walk back to his shared apartment uptown.

Perhaps, she realized with a pleasant twinge as she pulled the curtains shut, he would just have to spend the night.

There was just enough time to change her clothes and find her black flat shoes before buzzer rang. Peggy ran to the door and picked up the intercom phone. “Hello?”

“It’s Chuck! I’m half-frozen but I’m here!”

“Come in!” She buzzed him in.

Whether it was paranoia or newly-learned street smarts from living in this neighborhood, Peggy set her hand on the doorknob but didn’t open it, much as she longed to. She looked through the peephole, her heart pounding — it had only been seven months and he’d sounded just the same as ever on the phone, but they’d been lonely months and she’d kept so much to herself. Recalling her promise to her father, she didn’t even unlock the door until she saw him.

He had time to knock twice before she could unlock the door. “Chuck, welcome!” she said, stepping aside to let him in. She ached to hug him, but his coat was drenched. So was the bottle of red wine he’d brought, and which he handed to her with his first hello.

“Sorry about this,” he said, unzipping the coat and doing his best to take it off without getting anything wet except the floor.

“Don’t be! I’m just glad you made it over here safely. And thanks for the wine.” He was just as gorgeous as ever, his light brown hair cut shorter than he’d usually worn it in college, and dressed in a lavender button-down shirt she remembered fondly. “Your shoes must be soaked, take them off!”

“I’ll be terribly underdressed, won’t I? You look beautiful, by the way.”

“Thank you, and better underdressed than sitting there in wet socks all evening!” She pulled out one of the bar stools for him. “Let me bring my electric heater over here. Your pants will be dry by the time we finish dinner.”

He sat down and pulled off his socks, and she took them to the bathroom to hang on the shower rod. “This place has steam heat, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” she said. “So the second thing I bought after my bed was this heater.”

“Nice place,” he said as he watched her retrieve the heater from the foot of the bed.

“Nice of you to say that, Chuck,” she said. “Believe me, I know what a pit this is!”

“No, it reminds me of the house I grew up in,” Chuck said. “Probably from about the same era. World War I? We had steam radiators, too. I remember learning to ignore the clanking of the pipes so I could sleep through them.”

“I haven’t gotten there yet,” Peggy confessed, “But like I said, sometimes the radiator doesn’t work anyway.”

She turned the heater on and Chuck welcomed the blast of warm air on his damp cuffs and bare feet. “Won’t that be awfully hot for you in those tights, though?” he asked.

“Well, maybe I like it hot, Chuck,” she teased.

Chuck laughed. “Wow, the city sure has changed you!”

“Oh, I wasn’t the demure little girl you thought I was before either, Chuck.” She pulled the lasagne carefully out of the oven and set it on the end of the counter. “I wasn’t really rated PG, I’ll have you know!”

“You knew about that!” Chuck laughed to hide his embarrassment, and set about uncorking the wine.

“At the time, no,” Peggy admitted. “But Julie told me about it the other day. Oh, and I’ve got a blast from the past for you!” She reached into the oven again. “Since it was too cold for salad…” She set a casserole dish next to the lasagne, full of green beans, carrots and peas with breadcrumbs and cheese on top.

“The three-vegetable bake!” Chuck exclaimed, recognizing a mainstay from their college’s dining hall. “God, four years of that, and somehow I miss it.”

“Me too,” Peggy said, settling herself in the other chair. “I never thought I’d miss being that busy, but some days my job is awfully dull.

“I hear you,” Chuck agreed. “I was just up there last week, you know, to meet with a student who’s interested in teaching next year. It was dark and wet out just like tonight, and walking past the dining hall while everyone was warm and dry in there and bonding with their friends…ouch.”

“You weren’t imagining them all dressed up like Catholic school girls, were you?” Peggy teased as she served them both.

“Oh no!” Chuck laughed. “Mark told you that, did he?” He remembered all too well his silly expectations back in high school about what college would be like.

“Only because he was surprised at it,” Peggy said. “Before you told him what you liked as far as women’s clothing, he…”

“Thought I was gay?”

“Oh, he did tell you?”

Chuck shook his head as he swallowed his first sip of wine. “No,” he said. “But I knew Alex thought that, so it made sense he would too.”

“Alex thought you were gay?” Peggy was confused. “Alex who was convinced you had a crush on her?”

“I did have a crush on her,” Chuck admitted for the first time ever. “But I mean, I got over it when I realized how selfish and manipulative she always was. You know? Always your best friend right up to the moment when you needed someone to lean on, and then she didn’t have the time of day for you.”

“Tell me about it!” Peggy said. “Did you hear what she did after that time I invited Mark home for the weekend?”

“She told me all about it,” Chuck said. “All about how disrespectful it was of you when she was still hurting from their breakup. Because it was all about her even then.” Another sip of wine and he continued. “I’m sorry, Peggy, that’s history. I shouldn’t trouble you with it.”

“No, Chuck, it’s fine!” Peggy said. “The way she led you on and always took you for granted — I mean, you did act kind of bitter about it, but no one blamed you for that. Alex had more ex-friends than anyone I knew. But about thinking you were gay…”

“Thank you, and yeah,” Chuck said. “All that time I spent trying to convince her I was fine with being just friends, but you know, being just friends still means being friends and she never did her share. So I finally give up and get on with my life, and that’s what she had to tell herself…”

“Right, it couldn’t be that she’d pushed you away, could it?”

“I’m sorry to go on like this about her, Peggy.”

“Stop apologizing!” Peggy touched his leg gently and then patted his back. “I get it. I’ve got regrets about Mark, too. Such an awful flirt.”

“And he was damn good at it,” Chuck said. “Take it from his most loyal wingman.”

“Is that why we never got to know each other better, Chuck? You knew how I felt about him?”

“I guess so,” Chuck said. “Once bitten, you know. But hey, that’s in the past. You heard from Mark lately?”

“Just a quick email here and there to say he loves Thailand. I can just imagine what his dating life is like there!”

“No kidding.” Chuck glanced out the window — the freezing rain was coming down harder than ever and there wasn’t a soul in sight in the street. “Gotta admit I wouldn’t mind being there right now, though.”

“I hate to think what the roads will be like.” Peggy longed to invite Chuck to stay the night then and there, but the words wouldn’t come out.

“I sure envy you having a place to yourself, and right downtown where you don’t need to drive anywhere,” Chuck said.

“Very funny!” Peggy said. “You know this neighborhood isn’t the best.”

“I’ve had friends who lived in worse, when I was a kid,” Chuck said. “Always figured I’d end up there myself if I went home after college. It’d be worth it to have my own space, though. Now here I am in a nice safe place in the suburbs, living over someone else’s garage.”

“Well, the place does have character,” Peggy admitted. “I’m just glad my parents haven’t seen it. They’d probably drag me back to the farm.” She took a deep breath. “Speaking of going back, Chuck, want to stay the night? It can’t be safe out there!”

“I’m so glad you asked!” Chuck sighed with relief. “I know it’ll be a little awkward, but…”

“It’s not awkward, Chuck, we’re friends! It’ll be just like a best-pals sleepover. Or didn’t you ever have those with your guy friends?”

“One guy friend at a time, yes,” Chuck said. Then he laughed. “But you’ll be the cutest guy whose floor I’ve ever slept on.”

Peggy laughed and poured a second glass of wine for each of them. “The bed is big enough for both of us, silly.”

“Are you sure you’re comfortable with that?”

“I’ve invited you, haven’t I?”

She made the requisite token protest when he offered to wash the dishes, then admired him in his rolled-up sleeves and bare feet at the sink as he scrubbed the casserole dishes clean. While he was busy with that, she went to the wardrobe and got out sweatpants and socks and an extra blanket for the bed, hoping he could fit into her clothes — he wasn’t much bigger than she was, she reasoned.

It took him a while to get the casserole dishes clean, but not nearly long enough to think of going to bed just yet. “Shall we finish the wine?” she asked when he finally dried his hands off. “And please, I got you some socks on the bed there. I feel chilly just looking at your bare feet!”

He laughed and gratefully helped himself to her socks, which stretched a bit much but did fit him. Then he returned to the now-spotless kitchen and clinked glasses with her.

They enjoyed the wine and talked deep into the night, both of them wondering just what would happen at bedtime but neither of them saying a word on the matter. They talked of everything else — of college and old friends and their hopes for next moves, and of course of Mark and Alex. Chuck told Peggy things he’d never told Mark about just why he’d fallen for Alex. “It was another day a lot like this, finals week sophomore year,” he recalled, “and I came by her room to drop off a book. She was getting over a cold and said come sit on the bed and let’s chat, and we talked for three hours.”

“And it was cold and miserable outside and you were warm and safe on her bed,” Peggy said with a knowing grin.

“And she was my best friend’s girl.” Chuck was as disbelieving as ever at his own mistake.

“You’re only human,” Peggy reasoned. “A day like that can make you fall in love.”

“Did you have a day like that with Mark?”

“I wish! I mean, no, that’s not how I fell for him. He was just always so bubbly and funny and confident.”

“I know. Believe me, I know!”

“You also know it’s just as well I never got together with him, don’t you?” Peggy asked.

“From what I’ve seen, yes. Not that it’s any of my business.”

“No, but I’m asking you, Chuck. You knew him best.”

“Yes, and I knew he was kind of immature and definitely not interested in a long-term relationship.”

“Were you?”

“With someone, yeah.”

That hung in the air as Chuck poured the last of the wine into each of their glasses. Peggy was feeling pleasantly tipsy, and the door was wide open. But she thought of him saying no and then spending the night here, and she held her tongue.

Perfect gentleman that he was, the first time Peggy couldn’t stifle a yawn, Chuck jumped up and said, “Okay, I’ll get changed in the bathroom.”

“Okay,” Peggy said. “I got you sweatpants, if they’ll fit you. Do you need a t-shirt, too?”

“I’ll just keep the one I’ve got on,” he said.

Peggy didn’t even bother trying to keep her mind out of the gutter as soon as he’d shut the bathroom door behind him. She undressed hastily, and giggled at the thought of not bothering with her nightgown and greeting him naked when he came out. But she was too cold to linger very long on that idea. She pulled her nightgown on, and then put her tights back on under it. “Ready when you are!” she called out.

Her sweats were short on Chuck’s long legs. But he didn’t laugh at her dowdy old flannel nightgown, and she returned the favor. “Sounds like the radiator isn’t working tonight,” he said, sitting on the bed to pull the borrowed socks back on. “Can we use the electric heater?”

“I usually turn it on just in case the radiator doesn’t start,” Peggy said, setting it at the end of the bed. “I’ll be right back. My turn for the bathroom.”

In the bathroom, Peggy wiped herself after peeing and wasn’t at all surprised to find she was wet. But that would just have to wait.

Chuck looked adorable in the glow of her bedside lamp, tucked into bed. “Comfy?” she asked.

“Incredibly,” he said. “Thanks for letting me stay over.”

“No one ought to have to be alone on a night like this,” Peggy said as she climbed in on the other side. She turned out the light and welcomed the orange glow of the electric heater at the foot of the bed. “I hope that won’t keep you awake,” she said.

“No, it’s beautiful!” Chuck said. “Romantic, isn’t it?”

Peggy laughed and couldn’t resist touching his hand under the covers. “Great minds think alike! I’ve told myself that so many times!”

To her delight, Chuck squeezed her hand back, and didn’t let go of it. “I do like the way you think, Peggy. Good night.”

“Good night.”

“And it was,” she told Julie the following week. “So nice to wake up and see him lying there beside me, you know?”

“I don’t get it, Peggy. You had him there in your bed and all you did was sleep?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Peggy said.

“Try me.”

“You’re not shy, like I am. Chuck, too, even if we’ve both worked through a lot of that.”

“Well, you’ve got me there,” Julie admitted. “But still, it was a golden opportunity to at least talk about it!”

“I know,” Peggy sighed. “But all I could think was, we had to spend the night together no matter what, because it was just too dangerous for him to try to get home. Imagine how awkward that would’ve been if he’d said no!”

“Imagine if he’d said yes, Peg.”

“I did,” Peggy said. “A lot, after he went home on Saturday.” She dissolved into giggles. “Once I had my bed to myself again!”

“Look at you, Ms. Rated PG!” Julie laughed along with her. “No, I think that’s sweet, Peggy, but the ice must be broken now! Can’t you ask him now that you had that night together?”

Peggy took a long sip of her tea, as good a way as any to dodge the question. When she swallowed and Julie was still looking expectantly at her, she said, “Yeah, I guess this is the twenty-first century and it’s no good waiting for the guy to always ask.”

“No offense, but he won’t,” Julie said. “It’s not fair, but he thinks it’ll end like it did with Alex.”

“He knows I’m not Alex!”

“But he knows you were just as in love with Mark as she was.”

“True,” Peggy said. “Was.”

“Doesn’t matter, Peg. You remember just how she wrung him out. If you want him to know you’re open to him, you’ll really have to lay it bare.”

Peggy burst into laughter. “God, I didn’t tell you about that!”

“About what?”

“When we were changing clothes, to go to bed, he was in the bathroom. When I got my dress off, just for a second, I thought about telling him I was ready. That would’ve gotten the point across, wouldn’t it?”

“And how!” Now Julie was laughing as well. When she saw Peggy had stopped laughing and had a thoughtful look on her face, she set her cup down. “Wait a minute, you’re not seriously considering…”

“I’ve had about enough of being rated PG,” Peggy declared.

“Peggy, come on!” Julie couldn’t help laughing a bit again. “I mean, Valentine’s Day is right around the corner.”

“Exactly.”

Peggy hadn’t yet decided just what to do about cornering Chuck on Valentine’s Day when he took care of that for her. She was just sitting down to dinner alone later that week when he called her. “Hey, sorry I’ve been a stranger,” he said. “I really wanted to thank you again for a wonderful night.”

“It was wonderful for me, too, Chuck. Anytime you want to come over, you know…”

“That’s another reason why I’m calling now. Maybe you’ve heard, that night I stayed with you, a couple of homeless people ended up freezing to death out there.”

“That’s horrible,” Peggy said. “But I’m not surprised.”

“Me neither,” Chuck said. “Anyway. The school’s running a canned food drive, and I’ve volunteered for next Friday night, as the faculty chaperone for the kids. If you want to come out and help…”

“I’ll be there! Then you can come spend the night here again. This time I’ll buy the wine.”

“I was thinking I’d like to take you out to dinner first.”

“You romantic, you. It is Valentine’s Day weekend, isn’t it?”

“Oh, gosh, I’d forgotten all about that! Sorry, Peggy. But I would still like to…”

“Didn’t I tell you to stop apologizing?” Peggy felt like banging her head against a wall. But she had an idea. “Chuck, it’s fine. I’d love that. Just bring a change of clothes over here, they might not let you in if you’re dressed like you’ve been out asking people for cans of food.”

“Perfect,” Chuck said. “I’ll be on the square from four to six on Friday. See you when you get off work?”

“It’s a nice short walk,” Peggy said. “I’ll see you there.”

“Great,” Chuck said. “With, you know, nothing implied. I always hated Valentine’s Day anyway.”

“Doesn’t everybody?”

As she hung up the phone, Peggy was as frustrated as she was lonely. But for better or worse, he had played right into her hands, and amidst the frustration she felt a delightful tickle building up inside her.

It was a long way to next Friday, and during that week-and-a-bit she lost her nerve and regained it a dozen times or more. When Friday morning finally came, that nerve was once again lost. But it was casual Friday at work, and she went ahead and wore the red sweater and jeans that she’d settled on and hoped she’d rediscover her resolve sometime during the day.

Happily, she did rediscover it, and was feeling deliciously pent-up when she walked the two blocks from her office to the square. She saw the kids, out and busy collecting the cans from well-wishers, before she spotted Chuck behind the table which was already laden with donations. But there he was, chatting with another volunteer, and she was nearly there when he turned and saw her.

“You made it!” he said, and he surprised her with a hug that she eagerly returned. “Thanks for coming out.”

“It’s a great cause, of course I made it,” Peggy said. She was tempted to add a schmaltzy comment about how she wouldn’t have missed seeing him again. But it was too public for that.

After a round of introductions to the student volunteers, Peggy set about helping sort the cans while Chuck thanked donors and tallied the donations. “They’ve got a competition,” he explained. “The homeroom with the most donations gets some extra credit.”

“That explains a lot,” Peggy said. When she’d finished sorting, she had her first chance to look around the plaza, which was still crowded with people leaving work. The lights of City Hall had come on although winter sun wasn’t quite gone, and the plaza was aglow with the pleasant combination. But, she noticed for the first time, there was no hint of the occasion. “Wow, no Valentine’s Day decorations, huh?”

“Who wants to remember it’s Valentine’s Day anyway?” Chuck asked. “Didn’t you always love to hate it?”

“Once I was old enough to not think boys were icky?” Peggy chuckled. “Yeah, I guess. But I mean, aren’t we a little old for that kind of angst, Chuck?”

“I don’t know,” Chuck said. “I’m glad to be here and working and all, but it’s kind of lonely, isn’t it? Who wants that rubbed in?”

“I guess,” Peggy said. But to her surprise, she only found her resolve growing stronger. “I’m glad you asked me here, anyway. I wasn’t looking forward to another lonely weekend. Especially not this one.”

“Oh, why pay any mind to what weekend it is at all?” Chuck asked.

“Why not?” Peggy challenged. “Aren’t you a romantic under all that cynicism?”

“I used to be,” Chuck admitted.

“You still are, really. You’re just a wounded soul.”

“Guilty,” Chuck said. “I mean, I’m not angry at Alex anymore, really. But I learned my lesson about happy endings.”

“With the wrong woman, anyway.”

“Right. Now if only I could spot the right woman next time!”

Peggy could not very well argue with that.

It was dark and getting colder when six o’clock finally arrived. Just as the clock was chiming, a van pulled up and a man got out, whom Chuck introduced to Peggy as Mr. Honshon, the football coach. “He’ll be keeping the cans and bringing them to the shelter tomorrow.”

“Is this the last shift, then?” Peggy asked.

Mr. Honshon grunted a yes. “Gotta get all those brats home for dinner, don’t you know?”

“Oh, quiet, you,” Chuck said. “They might hear you.” The kids were already coming to gather around him and turn in the last donations. As he tallied them, he thanked all the kids by name, and even asked them if they needed a ride home. To Peggy’s mild relief, none of them did.

Once the cans were cleared off the table, she helped Chuck fold it up and carried it to the van, where Mr. Honshon was waiting with the door open. “Thank you, little lady,” he said.

Peggy was gratified to see Chuck joined her in ignoring the comment, and picked up the backpack she assumed had his clothes to change into for dinner.

As soon as the coach had driven off, Peggy asked, “Mr. Honshon? Is that his real name?”

“Word around the faculty lounge is that it is,” Chuck said. “We all just figure if you’re born with a name that sounds that much like ‘hotshot’, you’re probably destined to be a football coach.”

“Glad I wasn’t the only one to think of that,” Peggy said.

“You’re not,” Chuck reassured her. “But any student who points that out to him is liable to be doing pushups for the rest of the class period. That’s the rumor anyway.”

On the walk home, they passed the restaurant Peggy had chosen for dinner. “You can see why I wanted to change clothes first,” she told him.

“That I do,” Chuck said, pausing to peer discreetly into the dimly lit establishment, which wasn’t too dim to reveal it was lush with tablecloths and leather seats, and patrons who mostly looked like they’d come straight from the office. And just a touch of pink and red décor marking the occasion. “I see they remember it’s Valentine’s Day,” he noted as they resumed the walk home.

“I promise that’s not why I chose it,” Peggy said, and it was true — she knew the place looked romantic all the time. “But I’ve got to admit it’s a nice touch. I hope you don’t mind!”

“I don’t,” Chuck said. “Like I said, I’m glad to have your company. I just hope it doesn’t make us feel, you know, uncomfortable at dinner.”

“It won’t.” Peggy didn’t know just how he’d react to her modest proposition, but she was confident if they did make it to the restaurant, he wouldn’t be worried about any pink and red hearts anymore.

“It won’t?” Chuck gave her a quizzical look.

“Nope.” Peggy laughed through her pleasant embarrassment, and let him wonder what she was laughing at.

“Oh, good,” she said several minutes later as they stepped into her apartment, which was quite warm for once. “The radiator is working today.”

“Does this mean no electric heater when we go to bed?” Chuck quipped.

Peggy only laughed as she took her coat off, to reveal her red sweater for the first time.

The symbolism wasn’t lost on Chuck. “You dressed up for the holiday, huh?” he said as he kicked off his shoes.

“I figured why not try to enjoy it a little?” Peggy said, taking his coat to hang alongside hers in the tiny closet. “You should, too, really, Chuck.”

“I remember my mother asking if I wanted to wear my red shirt to school on Valentine’s Day,” Chuck said. “Maybe third grade. But I wouldn’t, because I considered that shirt unlucky. I think I’d gotten in trouble a couple of times while I was wearing it.” He laughed, to Peggy’s relief.

“I had a red dress and I had no choice, my mother always made me wear it,” Peggy recalled. “Remember those stupid valentines you had to give to everyone?”

Chuck nodded. “My mother made me write one for every kid in the class. Now I’m glad she did, of course. No one should have had to go without any, you know?”

“God, that would be heartbreaking!” Peggy agreed. “Some poor kid always got just two or three, and one of them was from the teacher.”

“Now you see why I hate Valentine’s Day, then,” Chuck said, helping himself to a seat at the kitchen island.

“It doesn’t have to be that way now, Chuck,” Peggy said.

“Oh, it isn’t, of course,” Chuck agreed. “Now I mostly just don’t think of it at all.” He looked over at the bathroom. “Listen, if you want to shower before we go out…”

“I think we both should,” Peggy said. “I want to feel as good as I look in that place.”

“I like the way you think,” Chuck agreed with a smile. “Why don’t you go first and I can iron my slacks while you’re in there?”

“Well, we could do that.” Peggy swallowed her inhibitions as best she could and felt her face flushing. “But…” She took his hand and squeezed it playfully. “I was hoping you might like to join me in the shower.”

She had prepared herself for many reactions to her proposal — but not for the reaction she got. Chuck laughed and hugged her, and then backed off and looked her in the eye. “Very funny,” he said. “But come on, Peggy, I’m not Mark.”

“Exactly!” With the invitation on the table, she saw no option but to go for broke. “You’re not Mark and I’m not Alex, and it’s Valentine’s Day and we’re here, and don’t expect me to believe you didn’t feel what I felt the last time you were here!”

“Of course I felt it,” Chuck admitted. “I just figured, we never really got to know each other before…”

“All the more reason we should do that now,” Peggy said. “And I felt so wonderfully safe and welcome with you…”

“Welcome in your own home?” Chuck said. “I should hope so!”

“Oh, you know what I mean!” Peggy said. “Look, if you’re not attracted to me –“

“I am!”

“Really?”

“Really,” Chuck said. “I just wasn’t expecting…I mean, wow!”

“I wasn’t the one who said I was rated PG, Chuck,” Peggy said with a naughty grin. “Now, do you want to join me?” She stepped back and raised her arms so he could pull her sweater off if he wished.

“More than you can imagine,” Chuck confessed, and he stood up. “But before I help you off with that, something I really wanted to do that night…” He took her in his arms and squeezed her so tightly she was surprised it didn’t hurt. But it didn’t, it felt delightful and she returned the hug. She could feel him getting hard and she hoped it didn’t embarrass him, and even considered telling him how wonderful it felt. But the silence was too comfortable to break.

Peggy didn’t know how long he held her for. She didn’t care. When at last he pulled back, she held her arms up again.

Chuck gathered up the hem of her sweater, then paused with both of his hands clutching the fabric. “Are you sure you want to cross this line?” he asked.

“Chuck, I’m starting to get hot here!” she laughed.

Without another word, he pulled the sweater over her head. She was wearing a blouse underneath that buttoned in back, so she turned around and held her hair out of the way. “If you’ve got to ask again, so help me…”

“I don’t,” Chuck said. “Just can’t believe my luck, I guess.” He unbuttoned it while she did the same with her cuffs. “You were always so adorable and I wished we could be closer friends, but after…”

“Please don’t mention Alex.” Peggy turned around and pulled her blouse off, welcoming his hungry gaze at her breasts, still confined in her favorite bra — plain and white, but comfortable, and she’d been quite sure he wouldn’t mind. Clearly he didn’t. “I’m not her and you’re not Mark, remember?”

“You sure aren’t,” he said almost absentmindedly. Realizing a moment too late that he hadn’t said it to her face, he forced himself to look up.

Peggy laughed. “It’s okay, Chuck, admire them all you want. You’re going to be washing them in a minute, aren’t you?”

“Then I guess I’d better get you out of that bra, huh?”

“Please do!”

She was delighted to find she wasn’t embarrassed at all as he undid the clasp and set her breasts free. Once they were, she welcomed his hands on them and busied herself with undoing his belt and his jeans. “I think these are getting a little tight on you anyway, aren’t they?” she teased.

“And how.”

She unzipped his pants and pulled them down with his boxers in one go, and helped herself to a gentle squeeze on his hard cock. “So much for ‘rated PG’, am I right?” she cooed.

“Mm-hmm.” Peggy wasn’t at all sure he’d heard what he was responding to, for he was busy caressing her breasts in the most delightful way.

He ran his thumbs lightly over her nipples and she squealed. “Oooh, that tickles!”

“Sorry!”

“I didn’t tell you to stop, did I?”

Chuck laughed and resumed tickling her nipples, and also helped himself to their first kiss. They were still engaged in it when he let go of her breasts again. Peggy was disappointed until she realized where his hands were going, and presently she thrilled to the sensation of him unbuttoning and unzipping her jeans.

“Let’s get this off while we’re at it.” She unbuttoned his shirt as she kicked her jeans and panties off. “Hardly fair that only I’m naked, is it?”

“Not at all,” Chuck agreed, and he watched as she unbuttoned his shirt and pushed it off over his shoulders. She had just enough time to admire his bare body before he hugged her again.

“Oh, that feels amazing, doesn’t it?” The words were already out of Peggy’s mouth when she realized it made her sound like she’d never been there before. But Chuck wouldn’t care, she told herself, and she didn’t care to tell him about the drunk Hungarian guy she’d gone home with once in London.

She was right, he didn’t care. “Sure does,” he said, caressing her back gently. “Always loved that skin-on-skin feeling.”

So she wasn’t his first either. Not that it mattered in the least. She returned his fond embrace for a long moment. “I don’t want to rush you,” she said finally, “But we’ve got reservations.”

“I’m past ready to get you nice and clean anyway,” Chuck said, and they laughed and held hands on the short walk to the bathroom.

Peggy liked the water a bit less hot than he’d have preferred, but from the moment they stepped into the spray, the temperature of the water was the last thing Chuck had on his mind. Her skin prickled with excitement as she watched him work up a lather, and she was pleased but not surprised when he began by soaping up her breasts.

But the first thing he said did surprise her. “Thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“For inviting me to join you here. I never would’ve had the nerve to ask you otherwise.”

“No offense, but I know. I’m shy too, after all.”

“You don’t really look shy right about now, Peggy.”

“Neither do you!” Now they were laughing. “Seriously, though, Chuck, I’ve been thinking for a while, you were probably a better match for me than Mark anyway because of that. Like attracts like, doesn’t it?” She took the opportunity to rub some suds on and around his hardness, which left no doubt that he was attracted to her all right.

“Well, that’ll be clean, won’t it?” he said between gasps of pleasure.

“Clean isn’t the word that comes to mind!” Peggy boldly took one of his hands and guided it to her bush, which he eagerly soaped up.

“Gotta be careful about getting soap inside you, haven’t we?”

“How’d you know that, Chuck?”

“Read it in a book once. Shy, you know? But I read an awful lot of books about sex before I came anywhere near having any.” Dutifully he splashed water on his hand and rinsed the suds out of her bush. Once his hand was clean, he did just what Peggy had hoped for but hadn’t dared ask for: he slipped one finger inside her. “Mmm, just as warm and wet inside as out, I see.”

“Oh, that feels so good!” She grabbed onto his arm for balance, and welcomed his playful stroking on the inside and his thumb flicking about on the outside. The drunk Hungarian certainly hadn’t known this trick! “Oh my God, Chuck…” She squeezed his arm harder as his rubbing grew faster, and she could feel the most intense orgasm she’d had since she didn’t know when coming on. When it did, she yelped with joy and got a mouthful of hot water, which made them both laugh. “Thank you!” she threw her arms around him as he drew his hand away.

Then it was her turn to wash him, and she did so with great aplomb. She returned the favor for him, and a minute or two of soapy rubbing was rewarded with a splash of white on her belly. It was washed away before she could worry about where it might find its way to. “Sorry about that,” he said.

“Don’t apologize, I loved that!” Now she was on to rinsing him off. “I wouldn’t want you getting blue balls at dinner, you know.”

“Hadn’t thought of that,” Chuck admitted. “And thanks.”

The living room was pleasantly warm and dry, and Peggy got a kick out of watching Chuck iron his pants and shirt while she got her underwear and tights on. “I used to imagine this when I was just noticing boys,” she said from her perch on the edge of the bed. “Before I really knew about how sex worked, just getting dressed together seemed so hot. Of course,” she added, looking down at her scantily clad body as she stood up, “I never imagined I’d be comfortable like this with any man.”

“Boys were icky, huh?”

“Didn’t you think girls were too, Chuck?” Peggy welcomed his gaze as she pranced to the wardrobe.

“Only the ones who hated boys.”

“Fair enough.” She brought out a burgundy dress with a full skirt and frilly bodice. “Too Valentine’s Day for you?” she asked.

“Let’s say I’m over the Valentine’s Day hate after our shower, shall we?”

Peggy laughed, and read nothing into the fact that his fresh outfit — a blue shirt and dark grey pants — didn’t have a drop of red anywhere. He hadn’t been expecting this, after all.

She was slightly worried about feeling overdressed at the restaurant, but within a minute or two of arriving she felt at ease with the other well-dressed diners. Even so, she felt a bit like an impostor. “Gosh,” she sighed with a furtive look around.

“What’s up?” asked Chuck, who seemed as comfortable as he was thrilled to be with her.

“I’m a long way from the farm, that’s all.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“I grew up wanting to get out of there, so I guess not. I just feel like I’m just playing a part here.”

“I know the feeling,” Chuck said.

“Do you really? Aren’t you from the city?”

“A small city, yeah. But that’s not really what I meant. I was quiet and shy, and there was a whole lot of making me feel about three inches tall for that…”

“Oh, I can sure identify with that,” Peggy said. “So many stupid comments, even from my teachers. But you know…” She paused and sipped the first of her wine with a coy grin.

“I know what?”

“You and I haven’t had any trouble talking, have we?”

“Isn’t that a nice change!” Chuck let out a mild laugh. “Not like when we just had Mark in common, huh? He always did most of the talking.”

“Even then, I thought you came across as a really nice guy, Chuck. I just, well, couldn’t think of anything to say. How do you say, hey, you seem like a sweet guy?”

“Well, you just did, didn’t you?”

“And it only took three years.” Peggy reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “So, is this ‘a day like that’?”

“It was,” Chuck said.

“Was?”

“A day ‘like that’, the way I meant it, that’s when you realize you’re totally comfortable and safe with someone — I say that knowing I got Alex all wrong that way, but still.”

“And don’t you feel comfortable and safe after…just before we came here?”

“Completely. But that…well, it’s the next level up, isn’t it?”

“Okay, that’s fair,” Peggy allowed. “At least one level up!”

“Just remember one thing, if we’re going to be a couple,” Chuck said.

“Yes?”

“Nothing wrong with being quiet, but you don’t need to be quiet…” His voice dropped to a whisper. “In bed,” he finished.

Peggy laughed so hard she worried about drawing attention to them, having already been surprised at her own boisterousness in the shower.

The meal went by most agreeably, but Peggy felt another kind of hunger building up steadily throughout. She remembered from college that Chuck had a sweet tooth, and was pleasantly surprised when he asked first if she wanted any dessert. “I’m fine, thanks,” she said.

“Just the bill, please,” Chuck said. “In fact…” He got his wallet out and handed the waiter his credit card.

“Sorry, if you wanted some chocolate cake or something,” Peggy said.

“That’s not the dessert I’m hungry for,” he said.

“You naughty boy, you! And you were always so demure in public.”

“We’re the ones who burn the brightest underneath, I think,” Chuck replied.

“Couldn’t agree more!” Peggy was finding it harder by the minute to sit still.

Minutes later, as she hung onto his arm for the chilly but short walk home, she couldn’t resist asking, “So, do you still hate Valentine’s Day?”

“Are you kidding? This is just what I always wished for when I said I hated it!”

“I know what you mean,” Peggy said. “If only we’d both just let Mark and Alex alone…”

“Then we probably wouldn’t have ended up together now,” Chuck pointed out.

“Worth every minute of eating our hearts out for them, then, isn’t it?”

“Every last one!”

And there was no more talk of Mark or Alex once Peggy unlocked her door and ushered Chuck into her still-warm apartment. “No need for the electric heater, huh?” Mark asked, reaching for the light switch but then thinking better of it.

“I’m sure we can think of other ways to keep warm,” Peggy said, shutting the door. She drew a book of matches out of the kitchen drawer and lit a scented candle she’d bought earlier that day. “Just got this in case you said yes,” she said as the wick flickered to life and cast a warm glow throughout the room.

“In case I said yes!” Chuck repeated as he drew the curtains, with one last look at the frozen outdoors. “Of course I was going to say yes.”

“Then get over here, will you?”

Peggy stood between the kitchen island and the bed, framed in the glow of the candle, her arms outstretched. Chuck walked into them without another word, and their lips met. Peggy welcomed the sensation of him lifting her skirt up ever so slowly, and reciprocated by pulling his shirt out of his pants. Every lonely night in that very room for the past seven months, every time she’d missed college, every time she’d pined in vain for Mark, none of that mattered anymore. It all melted away in the delicious sensation of his hands under her dress, on her breasts, undoing her bra before he even had the dress out of the way.

“Let’s get this off you,” she whispered, and she pulled his shirt up over his head rather than bothering to unbutton it. Chuck unbuttoned the top button and let her pull it up, along with his t-shirt. As soon as it was off, he returned the favor with her dress. Peggy swung off her bra, hoping he’d be able to guess her nipples were itching to be kissed.

He did, and she soon found herself toppling onto the bed with him kissing and nibbling her into a frenzy. “Oh, my….” She closed her eyes and gave in to the wonderful sensation, but her hands did find their way to his pants, which she soon had unbuttoned despite a little fumbling about in her joy. By the time she got them unzipped, his hand had found his way between her legs and he was rubbing her clit gently through her tights and panties. “Oooh!” She wiggled her hips in response. “Get my tights off!” she ordered. “I want you inside me.”

Chuck paused and looked up at her with a playful smile? “When?” he asked, still rubbing the wet fabric in enticing circles.

“An hour ago!” She thrust her hips up and pushed her tights and panties down herself. At last, Chuck scrambled to his hands and knees at her feet and pulled them all the way off, and she spread her legs wide for him.

“I guess we’re not so shy anymore, are we?” he whispered, rubbing her thighs playfully.

Peggy reached down and parted her vulva with both hands. “Does that answer your question?”

Chuck laughed and climbed gently onto her. They kissed again, and he felt her grasping him in one hand and guiding him inside her. As he felt her enveloping him all the way, she let out a satisfied grunt. “Been dying for that for hours!” she whispered.

He responded, not with words, but with a slow and reverent push in and out, gazing down at her in serene amazement as she moaned with joy. She rubbed his sides now and again but mostly lay back and exulted in the wonderful sensation. “Chuck, this is beautiful,” she exhaled once. Nothing at all like that night in London, but she left that unsaid.

She wasn’t aware of him picking up the pace. But she was aware once he had done so, as she realized she was close. She’d never said it out loud with the Hungarian and she’d never imagined she would say it with any partner, but this was Chuck. Now she said it, in a breathless squeal. “Gonna come!”

“Do it!” he encouraged, picking up the pace some more.

This time she was aware of it, and she felt set free to moan louder than ever as she felt the first telltale stirrings deep inside her. Back in her bed on the farm, that was when she’d always known she’d pushed herself too far and there was no going back. As she came with a yawp of joy, she couldn’t imagine why she’d ever wanted to go back anyway.

Unlike the Hungarian, Chuck knew not to slow down. So she rode the crest of her orgasm for what felt at once like hours and no time at all. When it finally subsided, she was sure she saw stars on the ceiling.

She knew she saw Chuck grinning at her even as he continued his delicious flailing. “That was beautiful,” he grunted.

“Now you!”

“Come with me this time?”

“Please!” Peggy had never come more than once before, but now that looked easy. She rocked her hips playfully as he went on, and in no time felt herself getting close again. “Now,” she warned him as she once again felt the dam about to burst.

“Yes!” he said, and he tilted his head back and let out a loud moan of his own. Peggy felt him slow down, but not before she felt herself coming again.

He came to a stop at last, buried as deep inside her as he could reach, and Peggy grabbed at his buttocks to keep him there. “Oh, that’s beautiful, Chuck,” she sighed. “I’ve never seen a man come that hard.”

“It’s all thanks to you!” he said, helping himself to a triumphant kiss. He didn’t budge down below, and Peggy welcomed the chance to cradle him within for a bit.

She wrapped her arms around him and closed her legs even more tightly around him. “How wonderfully trite, to think we fell in love on Valentine’s Day, huh?”

“Oh, I was in love with you before today,” he said.

“Since when?”

“I really don’t know. Just, I always did admire you, you know.”

“Same here, Chuck. Just don’t ever tell me you hate Valentine’s Day again.”

“I won’t.”

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