The Val & Kit Mystery Series

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Missed Leap

“Mommy, did Daddy propose to you when you got married?” ten-year-old Emily asked me. We were driving home from her swim meet that her father had missed, yet again.

“Of course he did; why do you ask?”

“Because did you know that in a leap year a lady can ask a man to marry her?”

“A lady could ask a man any time she wants; she doesn’t have to wait for leap year.”

“No, it’s the law. Grandma told me. But did you ever ask another man to marry you?”

In 1984 I was twenty-two and sporting my recently acquired engagement ring given to me unceremoniously by David Pankowski. The diamond was a lot smaller than Kit thought it should be, and my mother claimed there was a large flaw in the stone (apparently visible only to her eagle eyes). But I loved it, and even though David had made no such request, I promised him I would never take it off.

Six months later, I broke my promise. I was in an elevator on the way out of my dentist’s office, when the car stopped on the fifth floor and Tom Haskins stepped in.

“Valerie!” he said, with great delight. “Are you tailing me?”

“Well, if I am, I’m not very good at it. Aren’t people supposed to stay out of sight if they’re tailing someone?”

He stepped in and stood close to me, shoulder to shoulder. Both of us faced the elevator doors. His reflection in the metal showed him to be smiling, and that was when I slipped my left hand into my coat pocket. With great dexterity, I slid my engagement ring off my finger.

“So, didn’t I just see you a few weeks ago?” he asked.

“Actually it was five and a half months ago.” Dammit, why go into half months?

“You’re kidding.”

“No. You were on your way to sign a lease to open a travel agency.”

His smile grew wider as he nodded. “Riiiight. And you were . . . let’s see . . . shopping for . . . ice skates?”

“Actually, I was looking for bridesmaid dresses. But close enough.”

“You had some big event planned, as I recall.”

 “Bridesmaid dresses mean anything? I was planning my wedding.”

“Oh.” Tom Haskins, who would later become my boss and one of my best friends, turned toward me. I turned, too, and even though there was plenty of space in the elevator, our faces were so close that if we had been actors in a French film, we might have kissed. “How’d it go?” Luckily, the elevator stopped, and as the doors slid open, Tom gestured gallantly with his right arm for me to exit.

“It hasn’t happened yet. Six weeks to go.”

“Ah.” He looked around the spacious lobby. “Got time for coffee? That place over there is pretty good.” He indicated a tiny coffee shop, and ten minutes later we were sitting at a table with mugs in front of us. “So where’s the ring?” He shrugged off his camel-hair coat, revealing an elegant dark suit jacket underneath.

“It’s being cleaned,” I lied, and if this didn’t make any sense, he didn’t question it.

I first met him when my older brother, Buddy, started bringing the teenage Tom to our house on a regular basis. Smart and funny, he teased me with no mercy, and I lapped it up. Later, we cemented our friendship, mainly during the summer before my senior year of high school when I was a part-time waitress and he was my best customer.

“So, this Pankowski guy. What’s he like?” Tom asked.

“He’s wonderful.” This from the woman who was hiding her fiancĂ©’s ring in her pocket. “And your wife . . .  Sorry, I’ve forgotten her name. She’s good?” I did know perfectly well that his wife’s name was Claire, that she was five foot three, born in Wyoming, and had a degree in music theory. Plus, she was gorgeous. Still, she was a complete stranger to me.

“We’re separated right now.” He took a sip of coffee and sighed, like he’d just discovered his lottery ticket had no winning numbers.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Tom, I didn’t . . . Buddy never mentioned—”

“No big deal.” Tom smiled, like he’d just buy another ticket. “She‘s going her way, I’m going mine. I never should have said yes in the first place.”

“You mean to the separation?” I put my ring-free hand on his arm, ready to dispense something wise and comforting. “Sometimes, it’s probably best to just let—”

“I mean the proposal. She asked me, caught me at a weak moment.”

“Wow. She asked you?” I pondered that for a moment, marveling at the chutzpah of the gorgeous Wyomingite.

“And by the way, Caldwell, you do realize this is a leap year, right?”

“Yes; so?”

“So, if you don’t do it now, you’ll have to wait another four years.” He had a naughty grin on his face, reminding me of the teenager I had found so irresistible. But I took my time answering, not willing to be led into a giant leap. “Okay, I’m assuming you’re running for election. Talk to me again in four years.”

He threw back his head and laughed his hearty laugh, taking a cigar out of a holder from his inside pocket. “You’re a piece of work, Caldwell. I hope Pankowski realizes how damn lucky he is.”

“So, Mommy,” Emily begged. “Did you?”

“Propose?” I mused. “Almost. Maybe I should have. Probably I should have.”

“Mommmm! Aren’t you listening? I asked if you remembered to buy corn chips.”