She was dazzling. A brush through her hair, a simple dress just short of being too intense for lunch time, and a proud tilt to her head combined to make all of the attendants in the hotel take notice of her. He felt really good, being ignored for once.
They took a table on the veranda. He had a whispered conversation with the waiter and the menus were dispensed with in favor of the man's best judgement.
"You look lovely, Janet. I don't know much about color, but somehow your eyes are more expressive."
She dimpled. "I love the dress, but you shouldn't have."
He patted her hand for reassurance.
"Now. Tell me. What's your problem at work?"
She stared down at the bread plate. He reached over and tilted her chin back up.
"Now Janet, tell me who I am."
She brushed aside his hand. "Oh, you!" She recited, as if she had said it a million times, "You're my big brother and you have a right to take care of me."
"Right. So tell me what the problem is."
She sighed, playing with the butter knife. "You have to promise not to tell Mother."
"I know she means well, but if she thought I was in trouble, she'd be on a plane the same day. And I don't want that. I can take care of myself."
He waited, and then prompted, "Man problems?"
"Yes. No. Not really." Hazel eyes glanced up through her hair for a quick look at his face.
"It started with a man. No, maybe it started with my appointment."
"You know the 'Women in Engineering' thing. I've always wanted to work here. The projects are cutting edge. When an opening was announced, with a woman senior engineer as a mentor, and the promise of a full time job ... I jumped at it.
"But before I arrived, things had changed. My mentor had left for a new job, and while the company stood by its job offer, it wasn't the same. I was a kid no one wanted. It was nearly a month before I was assigned to any project. And even then, it was just minor things -- spell checking other people's documentation, stuff like that."
"You said there was a man?" he prompted.
A flash of anger crossed her face. "Yes. The lead engineer on the project I was finally assigned to."
"No. It wasn't him, and I won't tell you his name either. He didn't get into my bed. He just tried."
"Good girl. I take it there were repercussions."
"Oh, little things. He gave me a poor review, and every time there's any question about my work, he makes little jokes about 'Women in Engineering'. And the others laugh."
"Janet, now don't take this wrong, but can you do the job?"
"Ha! I don't recall it was you who got straight A's. It wasn't you who got all those scholarship offers!"
"Okay, calm down. You made your point."
She waved her hand. "Sorry. You touched a nerve. But yes, I can do the job. I've been doing it! I just don't get any recognition for the work that I do. I'm still just the part-time girl that gets handed the documentation jobs no one else wants to handle."
"So, what are you going to do about it, little one?"
She sagged. "I don't know if there is anything I can do."
He let out an exasperated sigh. He pushed back his chair and walked around behind her.
"Well, for one thing," he grabbed her shoulders and pulled them back, "your bad posture is going to be the death of you. Sit up straight, you have eyes that can kill, so use them."
He sat back down. She smiled at him tolerantly.
"And another thing," he said. "You are dressing to be invisible. That has to stop. Maybe you want to be just one of the guys, but that option isn't open to you. They already think of you as a woman, so make the most of it. If the jerk is slandering your engineering, he's probably casting doubt on your femininity, too."
With her head up, the anger in her eyes was all too clear.
He nodded. "Stand your ground. You're a talented engineer. With a little work, you should be able to play the people skills game much better than you have been."
She nodded, "I'll try. I don't know why I have to wait for your visits to see the obvious." She consciously straightened her shoulders.
The waiter and his attendants approached, carrying the trays for the next course.
Luncheon was done in a couple of hours, and they strolled down to the fountains, arm in arm, to settle their meal.
"I'd better get back to work," she said finally.
"Okay, but mindful of my advice to dress better, I do think you ought to return to work in the same clothes you left."
She suppressed a laugh, "Yes, I think you're right there. But where are they?"
"I had them sent up to the room." They headed for the elevator.
The door to the suite opened to a glorious view of the lake, framed in green from the hotel's elaborate landscaping.
He gave it a long look. It had taken him years to realize his place in life. There was beauty in the world. His duty was to admire it.
"Could you get this hook, please."
He turned. She'd removed the dress and was struggling with the bra fasteners. He pulled in a long, slow breath before he moved to help her.
He moved behind her, and released the hook. As short as she was, her hair was close enough to bury his face in.
"Janet," he whispered, "who am I?"
"Oh, you and that question! Did you forget your vows again, husband of mine?"
His eyes were closed, and he breathed in the sweet scent of her.
"Do you trust me?" His voice wavered a bit.
"Why? Do you have a suggestion?" she asked slyly. She turned in the circle of his arms. "Why don't you take off that coat?"
She helped him out of it, and started on his vest.
"Wait." He shook his head. "Come here." He drew her to the bed.
He held her tightly, reclined against the mound of decorative pillows. She reached for a button, but he shook his head.
"No. Let me tell you a story."
She laid her head on his arm.
"Once upon a time, a man fell in love with a girl. She thought she was in love with him, but she was wrong."
Janet stroked fabric of his vest, an admiring smile on her face. "This is for one of your television shows isn't it? I love it when you tell me your stories."
He continued, "She thought he was someone else."
She nodded, "He had another girlfriend, or a secret life as a criminal."
He shook his head, "No. It was a true delusion. She thought he was someone she had known all her life, but he had just met her. He could tell her the truth, but it would do no good."
She frowned, "How can he know, until he tries?"
"Because it's happened before, many times before. Everyone believes they know him. Strangers offer him money in seconds, women offer him love, and yet if he turns his back and walks away, all memory of his existence is gone as quickly as it had come.
"The girl believes she's in love with this stranger, but it will vanish like a soap bubble."
Janet puzzled through the complications. "But you say he loves her?"
"Yes." He gently pushed aside a stray wisp of hair that obscured her face.
"Then, how serious is the girl?"
"She cheerfully crawls into his bed."
"And then what? Does he get her pregnant? Ooh! She gets pregnant, but when she forgets, she thinks she's a virgin, but the doctor says no. A horror story!"
He kissed her on the forehead.
"No. Like I said, this time he loves the girl."
He shrugged. "When the moment comes that he holds her in his arms, in spite of the hammering of his heart, he knows her happiness means more than his own."
"And she'll forget him, when he walks away?"
He nods, and whispers, "Yes."
"Bummer. So what does he do?"
He tried to make the moment last forever. He held her close. He tried to soak up her scent, and her unconditional love.
"I don't know what he does."
He kissed her, and then pulled himself out of her embrace.
"But for one thing, he tries to do her as little harm as possible. He takes only a kiss.
"He'll put her safely back into her real life, and then walk away and never see her again."
"If he stays, he'll harm her. Best to let her find happiness like everyone else. Happiness she can remember."
He reached for his coat. She lay there, a thing of beauty that would crack the heart in a statue of granite.
"Get dressed," he whispered.
She nodded, "I was just thinking about your guy. Sad story."
He nodded, unable to speak as a wave of longing struggled to destroy his façade. He cleared his throat. "Do you need help with your hooks?"
Janet was back in her work clothes when they turned into the parking lot -- smiling and erect, she even made drab look good.
He noticed a pair of police cars at the main entrance and pulled up to the side entrance. "Go on in. I'll meet you there in a bit." She kissed him and hopped out. He watched her go in, feeling her evaporate from his cheek.
By the time he looked up, Kevin and the police were walking towards him. He pulled abreast and stopped the convertible. One by one, their faces sparked with recognition.
"Mr. Jefferson. Good to see you in town." The older policeman greeted him with a nod.
"Hello. I'm just in for a short spell. Is there anything I can do for you?"
The policeman was plainly uncomfortable. "Well, we had a stolen car report."
"Kevin? You didn't report it stolen did you? It's Tuesday."
Kevin actually slapped himself on the forehead. "Tuesday! Of course!" He turned to the police. "I'm so sorry. I totally forgot what day it is."
He gave the policemen a nod that it was okay, and tossed Kevin his keys. "It is really a nice car. Sorry gentlemen, if I've caused you trouble."
They left with little more than a grumble at Kevin. Kevin offered to loan him the car for another day, but he turned it down. He was done with it.
"Greg, close the door. I need to talk to you." Janet's manager looked up, startled for a second. Then he smiled.
"Yes, sir. I didn't know you were in town, or I'd have invited you to lunch."
"No time for that. I just got wind of a potential problem." He waited for Greg to close the door.
He lowered his voice. "There may be a sexual harassment claim if we don't take action immediately. I need to look at your personnel records."
It didn't take long. The official records were all on-line and Greg had the passwords.
Five minutes of reading pinpointed the engineer who had tried to take advantage of Janet. He found the bad review, and just a two-word edit changed it from damning to respectable. He edited the jerk's action plans to include mandatory sexual harassment awareness training, and added it to the recommended list for everyone else in the group.
As he worked, he explained what he did to Greg, and got his help making the system work. He knew Greg would forget, but he favored his own delusion that some hint of his actions would remain in the people he met.
At least, the computer changes were permanent.
Greg shook his hand and thanked him profusely as he left.
Janet's cube was several aisles over. He found a decorative planter in the corner and stood next to it where he could see over the tops of the maze of cubes.
Closing time. Janet stood up, but he could only see the top of her head. A minute later she stepped into the aisle. Is she standing straighter? He couldn't tell.
Her gaze swept his side of the room. There was no sign of recognition. At that distance, she was outside his influence.
She was gone.
He walked over to her cube, sat down in her chair, and opened the box that contained her new dress.
Rummaging a pen, he wrote a note:
"Stand straight, and use those killer eyes.
-- Your Secret Admirer"
He dropped the pen back into the drawer, and noticed a graduation photo. A year or two younger, but her shoulders were back, and her face proclaimed her ready to take on the world. He slipped it into his coat pocket and walked away.