The second week of school was quite a bit quieter than the first. With most of student orientation out of the way, college fairs had largely wrapped up and the attendees had started to settle into classes. The mood was still positive, though. Ninety degree weather meant everyone dressed light and the ready nearness of beaches made the campus feel like an extension of everyone else’s spring break.
Finn liked it. Not the heat especially but the bikini-clad spectacles everywhere more than made up for it. Particularly the one coming up to meet him.
“Amara, you look…” Finn paused dramatically, searching for the right word. “Positively breathtaking. Truly. I could take a picture of you and send it on to my mates back home and no one would believe me that I knew you.”
The effuse praise colored her tanned cheeks slightly. Amara’s short brown bangs did little to hide her pretty face when she ducked away from his gaze self-consciously. Finn just smiled until she looked his way and saw the expression. His confidence coaxed an answering smile in return.
“No Nate today?” she asked, looking around as the lunch hour rush started.
“Hmmm? Oh no, babe, you’ve been hanging with my roommates since we met, practically. Today, it’ll be just the two of us. What’s your fancy?”
“You don’t want McKinnon Cafeteria?” Amara said, surprised. “I didn’t bring my purse or anything.”
“Relax, babe, I’ll sort it. Come on then, I know just the place.”
He crooked his arm out. Giggling, Amara slipped her arm through his as he escorted her the way a gentleman in a tuxedo might escort a lady to a ball. He glanced down and noticed a Chinese character on her arm. ‘Light’. Intrigued, he filed it away for later.
“How’d your matches go, anyway? You never said last night.”
“Oh, I had bad luck.” Amara made a face and said, “I drew Jia in my first round. She shut me down hard, though I placed twelfth overall. I must have done way better against her than anyone else did.”
“Right, I forgot. I’m rooming with the first and second ranked girls.” Finn chuckled. “Strange, that. I think Nate was in the high twenties and I barely managed the top five until that Flynn bloke, the healer toppled me. Sadly, I can’t just pick up a person. I’ll learn, though.”
As soon as they cleared the campus, Finn signaled for a cab and quickly flagged one down. Tucking her in first, he slid in after and rattled off a street address that drew a puzzled look from Amara. Perfect. As the car started forward, she slid slightly against him. Even more perfect. Finn checked his phone and smiled slightly. Plenty of time before Ethics to eat and get back. Time to improvise a little.
The taxi pulled up at a stoplight just as Finn cast his thoughts out, searching and finding what he wanted. He popped the door open and sprinted to the sidewalk over the startled protest of both taxi driver and his date. Heedless of the spectacle, he slid to a stop right in front of a flower stand. Pushing a twenty into the hands of the somewhat bemused woman who ran the stand, Finn snatched up a bouquet of roses and just made the taxi door before the light turned green.
“You’re crazy!” Amara said, laughing with delight.
“Crazy for you, maybe. To be quite honest, I’m mad for you. Besotted even. Look at me, two weeks in America and I’m head over heels. Since doing somersaults in the backseat’s a bit impractical, though, please accept these instead.”
She took the proffered roses with due dignity and breathed their scent in deeply. Finn sighed happily. There was nothing more exquisite than a woman falling in love. Oh, it was still early days yet. But a slow pace just made the wait sweeter when it came to an end.
The taxi drove on and ended up over in Southeast Orlando. As the vehicle made its way up Kensington Shore Drive off of Lake Nona Shore Drive, Finn watched Amara’s puzzlement return. They’d passed up the usual food districts and were heading out into residential territory. The rich kind of neighborhood. When she met his eyes, he just shrugged mysteriously and her wonder grew.
At last, the taxi pulled up to the Lake Nona Golf and Country Club. Finn paid the driver and hustled Amara out of the car before she had a chance to fully process where she was. The car left them standing before the Lake Nona Clubhouse. Finn just waved her on without explanation. He smiled at the bemused look on her face. All was going exactly as planned.
The two of them made it to the docks without incident, though they drew looks from a couple of elderly golfers walking between holes on the green. Finn shrugged off the dislike and wariness he saw on their faces. He was a young black man with a young white woman. Though he’d never really dealt with race as an issue where he lived in England, race had peeked its head up several times during his stay stateside. Just one of the tradeoffs for an American education.
“Finn, what are we doing here?” Amara asked they walked along wooden blanks girded with rope arm rails stretched between wood posts.
“Something nice, I expect. Why, do you have somewhere better to be?”
“This looks like a members only place…”
Finn just waved a hand dismissively and stopped in front of a white pontoon boat bobbing slightly in the gentle waves of Lake Nona. Hopping in, he fished under one of the seats quickly. Sure enough, there were the keys he expected. He took a moment to examine the engine control before starting the boat up. Amara’s nervousness grew but she didn’t stop him when he unhooked the dock line and set them loose on the lake.
Despite the hot muggy oppressiveness of an Orlando summer, it was surprisingly balmy on the lake. The waters were shallow, dotted with vegetation but the lake proper was beautiful and shiny in the sunlight. Amara reclined in one of the pontoon’s well upholstered white couches and even started to relax.
At last, as they neared the center of the lake, Finn idled the engine down and set the boat to drift. He stepped away from the steering and paused before another couch, pulling open a compartment below the seat. Amara’s eyes went wide when he produced a picnic basket, topped with a card.
“You…you planned all this? Are you crazy? This must have cost a fortune!”
“A fortune’s nothing. Fortune’s easy when you’re fortunate like me. With a lady such as yourself, how could I be anything but fortunate?”
“Lay it on a little heavier, British boy.”
Still, her face glowed as she read the brief poem inscribed on the card. Finn took a seat next to her in the meantime and started to unpack small containers of prepared salads followed by a hearty, hot hamhock stew complimented with thick slices of cornbread. Two truffle chocolates were decorously covered on a refrigerated tray, a perfect desert on a day like today.
As they supped, Finn kept on a steady patter of small talk. Despite his best efforts, the beautiful brunette with the fetching tattoo on her arm gradually grew quieter and stopped eating. When he served her a truffle, she accepted but made no move to open it. Finn was perplexed…until he relaxed his mental shielding and tuned into the almost frightened cacophony of conflict in her mind.
“Well, that was lovely,” he said, nibbling on his truffle. “I think I might finish this on the way back, though. Shall we?”
Surprised, she moved a little away to give him room to rise as he removed his arm from her shoulders and stood up. Finn made his way to the wheel and turned the engine back on. They were well on their way back to shore when she finally worked up the nerve to talk to him.
“Is that it?” Amara asked.
“Afraid so,” Finn said with as much regret as he could muster. “Ethics isn’t too far away and I want to get there with time to spare. I’m so sorry if it didn’t quite meet your standards.”
“No, that’s not what I-” She hesitated, then rose from her seat and joined him at the steering. Slipping an arm around his waist, Amara leaned against him silently for a minute as the shore drew nearer. “Finn, I’ve never had someone go through this much trouble to impress me in my life. You can’t possibly tell me you don’t want anything out of it.”
“Oh, I very much did,” Finn said, nodding agreeably. “And I received it, babe, in full measure!”
“Stop being silly for a minute. Seriously, surprise drive to a lake? A boat? A delicious private picnic on waterfront without anyone around?”
“Sounds…nice?” he offered.
“You’re not gay, are you?”
Finn laughed. “Not especially, no. Though there was this one bloke-“
She punched him in the arm. But it finally broke the reserve, the fear he could feel in her mind. Amara at last realized this date didn’t come with any strings attached. Finn closed his eyes for a moment, basking in the sun as much as he basked in the growing radiance of her thoughts, of her joy. There was nothing quite like it.
“I’ve never met a guy who’d do all that without expecting something,” she murmured as Finn pulled up to the dock, killed the engine and set about securing the pontoon boat.
“It’s early days, Amara.” He hopped onto the dock and held out his hand, helping her to join him back on solid ground. “You’ve known me, what, a week and a half? We’re still finding each other out. Why rush?”
The joy he felt in her mind bloomed into full flower. Finn hid an inner wince, feeling a sudden abiding sorrow and sympathy for the fairer sex. What it must be like to worry like that, to always mistrust the motives of the opposite sex until they’d amply proven their intentions. He caught a few traces in her thoughts of more, of deeper memory and painful experience.
Finn withdrew respectfully from her mind, closing his thoughts behind the black impenetrable barrier he normally kept around his consciousness. Some things were best left private. Private and treated with kindness, tenderness and patience until they healed.
“Excuse me, can I help you two young people?”
Finn turned around to face a well-dressed middle-aged man whose demeanor and tone were practically poster board for a club owner. He put down his phone and shook his head. “No, sir. We’ve already called for a cab. Oh! You could do me a favor, though. Would you let Henry Kissinger know that we had a marvelous time borrowing his boat for our little day jaunt? It was awfully good of him to let us use it.”
“I expect Mr. Kissinger in this afternoon,” the owner said, his reserved concern thawing by an inch. “Who shall I say was grateful?”
“Oh, this is his niece here. I’m just a friend of the family. Finn Barnaby, at your service. Of the Birmingham Barnabys? From England? Haven’t heard of us? Blimey, that’s disappointing. Clearly we need to spend more time colony-side, renewing old family ties.”
Finn gave Amara a smile, amused by her fairly successful attempt to keep a straight face. Thankfully, their taxi arrived and they were on their way back to school. Once safely on the road, Amara burst into laughter.
“Remind me never to play poker with you,” she said, shaking her head in admiration. “I knew even you couldn’t just make all that happen. It was so nice I won’t judge this once but next time let’s stick to places we can actually afford.”
Finn shrugged and smiled. Then he picked up his phone and unlocked it with a stroke of the thumb. Tapping his contacts, he presented Henry Kissinger’s name to Amara’s startled scrutiny.
Where to go for next time, anyway? Good question…