Excerpted from Mortal Coil by Julie Eberhart Painter: The first “love scene” between our hero, Bill, and our heroine, Ellen, who have been working together to solve two murders in her work place. She’s a widow with a precocious ten-year-old named Patti.
~ * ~
There was nothing like physical activity to allay anxiety, so Friday afternoon, Ellen took off work early to tackle cleaning the kitchen and laundry room floors. She had only an hour left before Patti would come in and undo her efforts. She didn’t want her daughter skating around on the wet floor. Ellen had changed into old jeans and a loose-at-the-neck blue T-shirt. Her feet were bare.
Public radio was running a fundraiser, so she turned the living room stereo to the country western station—music to clean by. Ellen had opened the garage doors to take advantage of the warm, dry breeze blowing from the west. She danced around the kitchen, pushing the mop in time with the music. About half of the kitchen corners were now free of dirt, a testimony to what Millie would call Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She’d moved the kitchen table into one corner and stacked the chairs on top. A rap on the screen door alerted her to a visitor.
She unhooked the screen and motioned Bill inside.
“Watch the wet spots.”
“What are you doing?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard over the loud music.
“Cleaning the floor,” she said, raking the back of an arm over her wet forehead and wiping her hands on her jeans.
“Isn’t there an easier way?” Bill asked. “How about the old Irma Bombeck trick?”
“Any solution in a storm. What is it?”
“I’ll show you. Do you have any old towels?”
“You need to put old terrycloth towels on your feet and dance around the floor.”
“Well, I’ve got the music. Let’s see if I can get some towels.” She placed the mop back in the wheeled bucket she’d borrowed from maintenance and headed for the garage. All the old towels Patti used to wash the car had been washed and dried and left on top of Tom’s abandoned toolbox. Grabbing a handful, she came back into the kitchen.
“Demonstrate,” she said, handing the bunch to Bill.
He wrung out the mop and set it aside. Soaking and pulling the towels through the wringer, he handed them to her one by one. “Okay. Put a towel under each foot and dance like you were dancing, slide, two, three, four, slide...”
Ellen smiled. “Terrific.”
Just then the announcer went to a commercial. They stood there looking at each other waiting for more music. Ellen dropped two more wet towels and stepped on them. Bill shucked his shoes and socks and dropped his towels. The next tune was a bouncy number that set Ellen’s head bobbing.
“More like this,” he said, sliding and dipping in dance mode. “Ever do the Texas two-step?” Bill called over the twanging guitars.
“No. But I’ve seen the contests on TV.”
“It’s a lot of fun. When I was stationed in San Antonio, we used to go to a bar where they had a dance floor. I learned how to do it while my friends lost their money, and sometimes their drinks, riding the mechanical bull. Keep the towels on your feet and put your hand on my shoulder. Take my left hand.”
Ellen placed her hand on Bill’s shoulder. He encircled her waist. She took his hand; warm, wet fingers entwined.
"Okay. On the count of four.”
He crushed her against his rib cage, his big hand on her back guiding her. They started out. “Kick your heels when you turn. Centrifugal force will hold the towels on.”
They bopped around the large kitchen. Soon Ellen was swinging her hips, pumping her hand and feeling very good about floor cleaning.
The linoleum glowed, wet with the water their weight squeezed from the towels. As they came to the end of the number, Bill slid backwards and spun Ellen twice. Her footing gave way, and she headed for the floor. When she grabbed on tighter to break her fall, Bill lost his balance and came down next to her. The bucket rolled rapidly across the kitchen, hit the opposite wall and tipped. Water spread across the floor, making a dirty wave before it receded toward the lowest corner. The dampness crept up their splayed legs from heel to calf. They looked at each other and laughed.
“I can’t believe it.” Ellen giggled. “You kicked the bucket.” More laughter. And Ellen remembered that this was the first time in a long while that she had used that phrase without feeling guilty.
Bill, out of breath, heaved himself up and grabbed for Ellen’s wet hand. As he tried to pull her, he slid and crashed against her, his feet extended. He put his head on her shoulder and pretended to cry. “It’s your turn to save me.”
They were sitting on the wet floor screeching with hysterics, pushing and wiping their eyes, out of breath from exchanging puns, when Patti walked into the kitchen from the school bus.
“Mother! Who made this mess?”
Through giggles, Ellen tried to explain the new floor-cleaning technique, but she was laughing so hard not much came out.
Patti shook her head. “You two should grow up.” She picked her way between the puddles and headed down to her room, calling over her shoulder, “I hope you don’t think I’m going to clean that up.”
“The only adult in the place,” Bill said.
How did she get so... old? Ellen worried.
Bill smiled. “Let’s try to stand up. I think we’re on our own with the cleaning.” He got to one knee and stood cautiously, pulling Ellen to her feet. The next dance played in the background. “Tennessee Waltz.” Ellen threw the rest of the towels down toward the wet corners. Let the “Georgia rats” (opossums) that occasionally infiltrated the basement take a shower; she was dancing.
They mopped and danced, easing their way across the kitchen on shoes of towels. Having circumnavigated the kitchen, Bill reluctantly bent over, picking up the sopping linens.
“What do I do with these?” He asked holding the rags aloft.
“Toss them in the washer over there.”
He opened the louvered doors and dropped them into the top loader.
“Well thank you, I think. I’ll never look at the kitchen floor the same way again,” Ellen said, shaking her pant legs loose.
“I would hope not.” He grinned.
Another, slower tune, a mournful, country waltz, played from the stereo. Bill held out his arms. Embracing Ellen, he placed his cheek to hers.
His rough face sent prickles of excitement up and around her hairline. As they danced, he pulled her closer. Every beat, his heart throbbed through her ribs, seeking comfort. He nuzzled her cheek, working his way to her lips. She relaxed against him. He was holding her up, scrunching her T-shirt and the flesh of her back in his big warm hands. He pressed her against him, flattening her breasts into his chest. They kissed. He tasted of wintergreen, her favorite flavor. His pineapple aftershave steamed around her in the humid kitchen. She closed her eyes, enraptured by the moment.
“One more kiss?” he whispered. “Then I must get back to the station. I’m way past my lunch break.”
They kissed again, long and tenderly, exploring each other’s lips and mouths. Bill ran his hands down her sides and circled her waist with his fingers. She felt validated—
a woman again—in a way she hadn’t felt since Tom was killed.
Julie Eberhart Painter is the Champagne Books author of Mortal Coil, in which she practices both medicine and law without licenses, and Tangled Web, a story close to her heart.