Keeley quickly parked her car and sprinted to the little dive where Clay had asked her to meet him. She was running late. Thanks especially to the one and only Brent Heatherton.
He’d called as she was rummaging in the back her closet, hectically trying to find something to wear. Apparently they had a potential buyer for the house who wanted to come and look right then. And like usual, Brent’s social affairs were far more important than hers; ergo, he expected her to drop her Friday night plans to show the house.
And she’d told him as much. Obviously, things only went downhill from there. By the time she’d slammed the phone down (and sort of thrown it across the room) it was six o’clock and she only had thirty minutes to change and get to the waterfront.
So twenty-eight minutes later, here she was, frantically running towards something that looked like a half-sunken tanker, adamantly refusing to text Clay that she was running late. I’m going to make it on time, I am going to be on time, I am—
“Hey stranger!” She halted suddenly as a deep tenor voice that was becoming very familiar to her ears interrupted her mantra. “Are you heading inside to that restaurant there?”
Keeley turned around to see Clay about thirty feet from her, wheeling her way with a cocky grin on his face. She quickly smoothed the wrinkles out of black Bermudas and ran her fingers through her curly-ish shoulder length hair, trying to look somewhat decent and as if she hadn’t been scurrying. Then she turned to wait for Clay. “Perhaps,” she replied with a smile.
“Good,” he smiled and when he did, Keeley noticed for the first time how his deep forest-green eyes lit up. “Because I am too and I just happen to need a date.”
She laughed, wanting to play along and say something clever back, but unable to think of anything. Attractive men did that to her, made her blabber and stutter like a middle-school girl on her first date. The only man she hadn’t completely frozen up around had been a man she’d met in college named Brent Heatherton. And that had ended really well.
So, she just stood there grinning like an idiot as she surreptitiously tried to kick a pebble out of her shoe.
She waited while Clay caught up with her, admiring from afar his nice-looking upper body, and not letting her eyes travel down to the parts was really wondering about. His sun-weathered skin looked especially tan with the baby blue Polo he was sporting with jeans. Keeley appreciated a man who could pull off jeans, not many guys these days could. “Hey there.”
“Hello Mr. Whitlow,” she answered back. She grinned and gestured to the parking lot, “We have got to stop meeting like this.”
Clay threw his head back in laughter, causing his shaggy hair to fall just a little bit in his eyes. “True that.”
Keeley let him lead the way and fell into step behind him as the path narrowed going towards the restaurant. It was sort of weird and awkward, towering over him and having to look down on him when they were talking. She watched his shoulders pump up and down as they walked and she could tell that he had some impressive muscles. I wonder if he ever works out?
But before her mind could go any farther and she could start to imagine a sweaty and shirtless Clay Whitlow in a gym, they reached the front step of the restaurant where there was a little step. Clay quickly popped a wheelie to get over it and grabbed the door for Keeley. She couldn’t help but notice that his legs bounced as little as he’d gone over the step; honestly, her stomach squirmed a little bit.
And that was enough to quickly snap Keeley out of her daydreaming; all the initial trepidation she’d felt when he’d first maneuvered out of the truck a week ago at the coffee shop returned. What the hell was she doing, voluntarily going on a date with a disabled guy?
Well Keels, you were attracted to him before, you think he’s hot now, so just try to forget about the wheelchair and don’t freeze up. That’ll just make things awkward. Oh God. She hoped this wouldn’t be awkward—going on a date with a guy in a wheelchair that she’d only talked to twice.
“So,” Clay said, interrupting her thoughts again. “Ever been here?”
“Nope,” Keeley answered looking around. They were sitting in a little dining room that was essentially only a screen porch on top of a cement slab with plastic chairs and tables. It looked like it took one weekend to build, nope scratch that, Keeley thought, more like one Saturday afternoon. Before she could make a comment though, she remembered Clay was an architect. Knowing her luck, she’d say something and he would’ve been the one to have designed the place or something. “I’ve actually never heard of this place.”
Clay’s jaw dropped open in surprise. “And how long have you lived in Charleston?”
Keeley grinned sheepishly. “About five years.”
Clay shook a scolding finger at her, but he was grinning. “Well, you’re in for a treat then,” he said as he grabbed two paper menus and a couple of red sharpies off the table. He handed one menu and a pen to her. “I suggest the oysters. But the shrimp’s unbelievable too.”
When Keeley simply stared at him and didn’t make a move to start ordering, he laughed again. “Go ahead and mark what you want on the menu. Just circle it, write your name, and then I’ll go give it to Rich.” He briefly looked down and circled what he was having. Then he looked back up, “It’s a pretty laid back place.”
She smiled, despite herself, and quickly circled the fried oysters and sweet tea. “Yeah, I can tell.”
Clay grabbed their menus and pushed back from the table. She watched as he made his way across the crowded dining room, sometimes grabbing the edges of tables to propel himself, and stopping briefly to chitchat with someone at almost every single one. He’s so outgoing, to be in his…situation, she thought to herself as he made his way to the counter. When he reached it a middle-aged man came out from behind the counter and leaned down to give him a bear hug. Keeley watched as they talked animatedly for a few minutes and then Clay handed the menus off and came back towards their table.
“That was Rich,” Clay said with a fond smile. “He’s an old friend of my dad’s. Helped him fix this place up.”
Good thing you didn’t say anything about it looking rough, Keeley thought wryly to herself.
“Actually, all Dad did was tell Rich how to connect the ceiling fans properly,” Clay added, as if reading her mind. He pointed above them to one of three fans in the restaurant and laughed. “The story of the restaurant’s history is much cooler than that, no pun intended.”
Keeley chuckled. Clay had a pretty decent sense of humor. “Man, you’re on a roll tonight.”
He grinned wickedly. “Tonight? I’m always on a roll,” he said leaning back and popping a quick wheelie. Keeley immediately turned ten shades of red, mortified at her faux pas.
Clay didn’t seem to mind a bit though, if the grin on his face was evidence of anything, he actually thought it hilarious. He continued with his story. “Anyways, what happened was back after Hurricane Hugo this huge shrimp tanker named ‘Richard and Charlene’ washed up here on shore, completely destroyed.”
Clay launched into full story-telling mode, his voice changing to suit to the ambiance of the story and his eyes twinkling. Despite herself, she thought it was adorable. “The spot where it came to rest is now the location of the restaurant. Rich and his wife Amy saw the potential in it and built the restaurant, officially calling it ‘The Wreck of Richard and Charlene’. But everyone really just calls it ‘The Wreck’ now. I still can’t believe that in five years, you’ve never been here,” he said shaking his head in disbelief.
Keeley shrugged, yet again unable to come up with a viable response.
“You know, you can’t call yourself a true citizen of Charleston if you haven’t eaten at The Wreck,” he went on as their food arrived, obviously trying to get a rise out of her. “Five years you’ve been living some—”
“Well damnit, I’m not a citizen of Charleston!” she finally exclaimed, not noticing the twinkle in his eye. “So that’s my excuse.”
Clay grinned a cocky grin and leaned back in his chair. Damn, even when he was annoying her and trying to flirt like a fifth grader he was sexy. She took a deep breath and scolded herself for letting her temper flare when all he was trying to do was joke around with her. Not knowing how to take a joke was something Brent had always criticized her for; it was one of the few critiques she received from him that she actually agreed with. “Not a citizen of Charleston?”
She looked at Clay who was still grinning across the table at her. Smiling sweetly and trying to regain some dignity she might have just lost, she went on, “I may have lived in Charleston for the past five years and South Carolina for the past ten, but my heart will always be in Georgia.”
Their food arrived then. As the waitress slid the oysters and shrimp on to the table, Clay asked “So, you’re a Georgia Peach then?”
“Born and raised,” she answered proudly.
“Hmn, I always liked peaches,” he said with a flirtatious and crooked grin.
Keeley wanted to say something clever back, but the only thing that popped into her head to say about South Carolina was “Yeah? Well, I always liked the Cocks,” and that seemed a little too suggestive. She settled with “Yeah, me too.”
Ugh. What a lame response. She should’ve gone with the Cocks one. But what if he hadn’t understood the Gamecocks reference? She laughed inwardly as she thought about how disastrous that could’ve been.
As they finished their seafood Clay continued to tell Keeley more history about the Wreck and about Charleston in general, most of which she already knew. But of course, she’d never tell him that. She’d lived in Charleston for the past five years—she’d done all the touristy stuff and was close to considering herself a local—especially now that she’d eaten at the Wreck—than a tourist anymore.
But she’d never stop him. Because honestly, Clay Whitlow was as nice to listen to as he was to look at.
They each finished up dinner with a bowl of banana pudding that Clay had proclaimed “Was just too damned good not to try,” and true to his statement, it was pretty amazing. When it came to time to leave, Clay quickly pulled out more than enough money to cover both checks. Keeley opened her mouth to protest as he did and he held up a hand. “Don’t you even suggest paying for your own supper.”
“But nothing. I asked you out on a date, so I’m paying. You ask me out on a date and then you can pay,” he said with chuckle. “Besides, aren’t you a poor grad student?”
Keeley laughed dryly and rolled her eyes, trying to keep a nonchalant exterior although her stomach fluttered at the word “date”.
“A poor and divorced grad student. Double whamy.” On a date and you brought up the ex-husband? Girl, you’re so date retarded sometimes, she chastised herself.
“Well, I rest my case then.” And he slapped the money down.
Clay waved to the man behind the counter as they left as he rolled over the small step out front, Keeley found herself a little surprised. Back at the restaurant, during dinner, she’d almost forgotten that Clay was in a wheelchair. She had pushed it to the back recesses of her mind, getting lost in his stories and enjoying his laid-back personality which was so extremely different than Brent's.
In fact, she had completely forgotten about the wheelchair until he backed away from the table just now.
It was close to nine o’clock by now but many of the shops along the waterfront and the pier were still open, so Clay suggested they take a walk. They made their way towards the pier, bypassing most of the tourist trap shops full of families and heading towards the weathered looking fishermen instead. They talked about mundane things as they walked: weather, SEC football, and their jobs. He playfully asked her to tell him about all those –ologies she’d mentioned in the parking lot.
“Well, anthropology is essentially the study of human cultures and civilizations, if you really strip it down. And then archaeology is a subfield of anthropology. It’s basically using artifacts, such as pottery, old jewelry, sometimes even bones and burial sites to identify aspects of cultures such as social stratification and notions of power, etc,” she answered.
“So do you dig for fossils and stuff like that too?” Clay asked eagerly. She could easily imagine him digging in the dirt. He had probably been one of those little boys she'd bet.
She nodded. “Sometimes. A lot of the time in the summer and on the weekends is spent on digs. But right now, I mainly spend my time grading atrociously written undergraduate papers and trying not to piss my weird office-mate off by scribbling my pen too loudly.”
Clay burst out laughing. “Does that really piss him off?”
Keeley grinned. “He once asked me if I could breathe a little quieter.”
Clay shook his head. “And I thought I had it bad, working with my dad and brother. They’re always stealing my silverware out of the kitchen and playing that damn Michael Bolton guy way too loudly.”
This time it was her turn to laugh. “So that’s what it’s like to be an architect then? Listening to a man popular with forty-year old women and getting your kitchen utensils stolen?”
“Yep, that’s exactly what it’s all about,” he replied without missing a beat. Then he chuckled. “No, really it’s actually a lot of planning. Planning and working out where to get materials from, planning and making sure our blueprints are safe and practical. Practically planning out an itinerary for the workers so none of the idiots nail their hands to a board or fall off a roof,” he rolled his eyes as if remembering something that’d happened. “Then once we’re done with planning we put it into action and go at it.”
“Sounds like a lot of planning,” Keeley deadpanned as they reached the end of the pier.
“Har har,” Clay replied, grinning. “It’s great though. Dad and Mark and I all have separate accounts we’re in charge of and the big corporate accounts we split. Divide and conquer and all that.”
“Sounds neat,” Keeley said as they stood and watched the water for a few minutes in silence. “I used to want to be an architect,” she said after a while.
Clay smiled. “Really?”
She nodded and laughed, still looking out over the water churning away. “Really. I used to draw little designs and plans for whatever household project my dad was working on—be it fixing the car or simply patching a hold in the water hose. Then I’d follow him around in the backyard with a clipboard and whistle, telling him where to go and where to put stuff. He used to call me Boss Keeley.”
Clay grinned widely. “Sounds like you were quite the little architect as a kid. You should’ve majored in that instead. You probably could’ve just skipped your practicum and gone straight to practicing,” he joked.
Keeley laughed again and then again they lapsed into silence, albeit a comfortable silence. Keeley leaned over the edge of the pier counting the shrimp boats that dotted the water. Finally she looked down at Clay, resting his arms on the railing. She realized he looked just like he had on facebook and decided that this was probably where the picture had been taken. Then she immediately felt like a creeper. She laughed inwardly and then broke the silence, “Well, I probably should be going soon.”
He looked up at her with an expression that actually looked as if he was a little disappointed the evening was over. But then the expression disappeared, replaced by one of his signature smiles and he glanced at his watch.“But the night is still young!”
She laughed. She’d probably laughed more tonight than she had in the past month. “Yeah, but I’ve got to get up early tomorrow and show the house. I promised Brent I would at nine tomorrow since I couldn’t tonight.”
Clay nodded in understanding. “Well, you have my number now if you need to keep up the façade from last week,” he said smiling.
Keeley grinned. “Thanks, but remember? He figured us out.”
“Oh! That’s right,” Clay said. “You know, I’d forgotten that.”
Keeley smiled and didn’t say anything, But she wondered if he’d really forgotten or perhaps was offering because he wanted to see her again. She hoped it was the later.
It didn’t take them any time to get back to their cars it seemed. Clay followed Keeley to hers to make sure she got in safely. Before she could get in though, he grabbed her hand. “I had a really nice time tonight. Glad we had to have dinner instead of coffee,” he smiled.
Her stomach fluttered again. “I did too. Me too,” she said as she gave his hand a squeeze. She leaned down and gave him an awkward hug. Hugging was awkward when one person was seated. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek to even it out.
When she stood back up, Clay was beaming. Keeley let go of his hand and opened her car door, sliding into the seat. Now she was pretty much eye level with him again; she liked it much better.
“Well, I’ll see you soon Keeley,” Clay said, gave her door frame a little pat and then spun around and wheeled back across the parking lot towards his truck. Keeley watched until she couldn’t make his figure out in the dark anymore and then cranked her car and headed home, replaying all the nights events in her head.
All in all, even with Brent calling her an hour before and ruining her good mood, the faux pas, the awkward hug, and even the wheelchair, she decided the date hadn’t gone bad. It hadn’t been a disaster at all.
She grinned and reached across the seat into her purse, rummaging for her cell phone—she had to call Jan and tell her the good news.