"DADDY! JESSIE!" yelled Kelly, from her mother's arms, as Lynn pushed her way into the Dusk to Dawn, to see Mitch hugging Jessie.
For once Jessie was actually happy to see Lynn arrive. The awkward pause seemed to be getting to Mitch as much as it was her. "There's Kelly," Jessie said, awkwardly.
Kelly rushed forward, flinging her arms around Mitch's legs. "Hi Jessie," she said, looking up at her, and smiling. "Can we dance s'more, huh, huh, can we?"
Jessie crouched down, stroking Kelly's long blonde hair, lovingly. "Sorry sweetie, maybe some other time."
Lynn looked like she was ready to spit bullets. "Mitch? I need to speak to you.. NOW."
"I'm gonna go have some dinner," Jessie said, ignoring Lynn. "If you'll excuse me..
Mitch switched his attention to his daughter, in an attempt to shove Jessie's words out of his mind. "Have a good dinner," he said, quickly, picking up Kelly and spinning her around playfully. "Come on sweetie pie, daddy will dance with you back in his office.."
Jessie smiled with relief, seeing that it was Betty and not Sally that had come to take her dinner order. "Hey girl," Betty said, in her great southern drawl, "what'll it be tonight?"
"Tell Eddie to gimme the biggest steak he has back there, still mooing, with a loaded baked potato. "
"Got it," Betty said, scribbling down the order. "Any appetizer?"
"Nope, that'll be it.."
"Okay, gimme a holler if you need anything else.."
"How about a drink?"
Jess turned around, hearing Nick's voice. "Hey Nick, how's it goin'?"
"Just great," he lied, hiding his annoyance. "Yo Betty, babe, can we get some drinks over here?"
Betty made her way back to their table, a look of annoyance on her face. "Sure," she said. Learn some manners, you bastard, she thought.
"A Bud for me," he said, "and you?"
"A Lemon Drop please Betty.."
"Right away," Betty replied.
"So, any reason for the cold shoulder back there?" Nick asked, adjusting his position, leaning back and sprawling his legs.
"What?" Jessie asked, noting the cocky stance.
"You were pretty affectionate the other night.." Nick frowned, having had no intention of letting Jess in on what he was feeling. He watched her now, trying to notice the slightest edginess in her body language, but he saw none. This just made him more annoyed.
"Nick," Jessie said, looking him right in the eyes. "The other night was fun. We danced, laughed, had a good time. Didn't we?"
Nick paused, letting Betty set down their drinks. Taking a big gulp of beer for courage, he continued, more subdued. "Sure we did. You're quite a kisser, you know that?" he flirted, turning the charm back on.
"That's very nice of you to say," Jess said. "Cheers," she added, downing the shot of vodka, and sucking on the sugar coated lemon wedge. "Ooh that's goood," she grinned.
Jess crossed her legs, letting the top leg start to swing nervously. Catching herself in the process, she forced her leg to keep still. Serves you right, she thought, averting her eyes, and glancing out the window. So they had kissed a couple of times.. what guy hasn't been guilty of that? Yet at the same time she wished with all her might that she had acted a little more sane that fateful night.
I gotta hand it to ya Jess, Nick thought, you're one cool chick. Most women he hit on fell quickly under his charm. But not Jess. No wonder she had two guys after her at once.. "Well I wouldn't say it if it wasn't so," he grinned. "Besides, it's nice to be.. friendly with people you meet on the workplace."
"Sure," Jess answered, taking some of the sugar off of the shot glass with her finger, and bringing it to her lips. "It's always nice to have friends on the job. I might as well work here, I hang out here so much."
What a little tease, Nick thought. Maybe she needs to be taught a lesson - shown how the big boys play.. Betty, with her usual perfect timing, appeared with Jessie's dinner, bringing a less than enthusiastic response from Nick. Maybe he would use that time to grill Sally, see what dish she had on the flirty Miss Reynolds.
"Well, I'll leave you to your dinner," Nick said, "bon appetit."
Jessie just nodded, as Betty laid her dinner plate on the table. "Finally," she whispered to Betty, as Nick left.
"I know. What a jerk.. and what's he doin' here so early anyway?"
"Search me," Jessie lied, knowing very well why Nick was there - to hit on her some more.
Nick pulled Sally into the employee lounge as she headed for the kitchen. "Hey! What are you doing?" she asked, almost tipping over the tray she was carrying.
sweet Sally, I just wanna ask you a few questions.."
Zach sat down in one one of the patio chairs out on the balcony of his apartment, a good stiff drink in his in his hand. Looking out over the twinkling lights of Fort Lauderdale below, he pondered his relationship with Jessie. Ever since college, he had been attracted to Jessie, for not only was she a looker - like most of the girls in his past - but Jessie was smart. Sometimes a little too smart for her own good, Zach mused, taking a sip of Chivas.
It had taken a lot of manipulation on his part to convince his father that it was HE and not Jess who was responsible for the success of the paper. Making sure that he paid his employees well, Zach had bought their loyalty. Many a night he had cursed his hormones and skirt chasing ways, for it had almost cost him deadlines. It had taken a lot scrambling, as well as begging to Jessie, who time and time again would save his ass, staying at the office late, making sure that the final edition of the paper was in by press time.
His employees, greedy bastards that they were, would keep their mouths shut, but the knowing looks he got the next day - especially from Jess - ate at him. Egotistical as he was, Zach believed that Jess, being the middle class girl that she was, should just be happy that a man of his statue would even give her the time of day. Smart or not, she should thank her lucky stars to have an influential man like him in her life. He couldnt help but wrestle with why she kept quiet, and didn't go to his father with what she knew. Why? He didn't know - or maybe he did. The woman actually must love me, he grinned, drinking some more scotch, smiling cynically.
That would be Jessie's downfall. Yeah, the sex was good, and his friends kept saying how lucky he was to have Jessie by his side, but no matter how many reassurances he got, Zach always thought he deserved more, and got more, whenever and with whomever he wanted. Jess would surely flip out if she ever got wind of Zach's frequent and expensive kinky evenings, spent in the company of his old wealthy frat brothers - the crème de la creme of society - where money was no object. Even if he had to fib on the company books for his 'play' money, Zach was always willing to hit the town with his pals, to the discretion of one of the city's best hotels, for a night of expensive booze and women.
He had to hand it to her, he never thought Jess would have the balls to walk out on him - it was a lucky break that the saucy little waitress at the bar had called him with the tip of where she was. Hell, she had even found out where Jess was staying. But even Zach knew when it was better to sit tight, and let his prey snare itself. When did you become such a bastard? Zach thought to himself. Maybe it was when Jess started to get too big for her britches, when her criticism of how he ran the paper became more and more frequent. How DARE she criticize him? Where would she be if she didn't have a job at the Wave, HIS newspaper? No where, he answered himself, back at some dirt water paper in the Corn Belt, that's where.
You're not as smart as you think, Jess, Zach thought. Tomorrow he would prove just how predictable her actions could be. Reaching into his pocket, a big smile came to his lips. He had tucked the box away, waiting for just the right time to pull out his ace in the hole. The ring was exquisite, sparkling in the light of the balcony. Three carats and a big chunk of his play money, it would be the best bait ever. Tomorrow would be the performance of his career. Tuxedo, candlelight, the works.. Jessie won't know what hit her, he grinned. The ring would seal his plans, setting into motion a chain of events that would catapult him to the top of the New York publishing world.
Zach knew he had to move fast. His father had called a week ago, telling him about how a major Big Apple society paper was going under due to bad management decisions. In his usual didactic fashion, he had told Zach that he would be moving him to New York, where he would really have a chance to 'prove his stuff' with the big boys. At first, Zach had resented his father's bullying, fighting the idea to move from Fort Lauderdale, where he was a big fish in a small pond. Yet, as his egotistical mind mulled over the idea, he started to see the merits of moving to Manhattan.
He would be thousands of miles away from the controlling arm of his father. That alone was enough to make it a tempting idea. But, there was more to it than that. By becoming head of a society rag in the most cosmopolitan city in the world, Zach would be gaining access to the power elite of American society - to people who invented the term partying. If night life in Florida was good, he could only dream of what it would be like in Manhattan.
The fact that
Zach had intercepted several letters to Jessie, offering her jobs on other papers across
the U.S. had only pissed Zach off. Jess was his. She would be at his side to cover any
blunders he might make. Mrs. Zachary Blair, trophy wife extraordinaire. "And she's
actually smart too," Zach laughed aloud. Tucking the rock back into the little black
velvet box, Zach finished the rest of his drink, and decided to go back inside. He had to
make sure there was no incriminating evidence for Jessie to find when she moved back in
tomorrow night. He needed his sleep anyway. Tomorrow would be a big day...
"You're what?" Cassie squealed with delight.
"You heard me Cass.." Jess said, applying the last of her makeup, as she wedged the phone under her chin. "We're having dinner tonight, at Chez Henri's.."
"Chez Henri's? Ooh la la! That's some big kissing up the Zachster's doing."
"Yeah, I guess.." Jessie said putting on her lipstick.
Jess felt like a schoolgirl on prom night. The anticipation was driving her crazy, so much so that she had decided to get dressed a few hours early, in case something terrible happened. Her plan was to have a few drinks out of the mini bar, and watch the sunset on the balcony to calm her frazzled nerves. Nothing ever calmed her more when she was tense then watching the sun dance on the waves of the Atlantic.
"Okay, dish girl!" Cassie urged. "What are you wearing?"
"Geez Cassie, you sound like one of those creepy guys on those phone sex lines or something," she giggled, standing back to survey her handiwork. "Okay, pay attention, because I'm only saying this once. I went back downstairs to the boutiques in the lobby, and found the dress to end all dresses.."
"What's it like? Tell me!"
"Not too short, maybe four inches above the knee, a deep red French silk.. think Audrey Hepburn style in the front, but with chiffon sleeves, you know, transparent.. but the kicker comes when I turn around.." She could hear her friend giggling in girlish delight over the phone as she continued. "The back is low cut, almost down to my butt, with a light draping of the same sheer matching chiffon draping down to there," Jessie laughed.
"Wow, you're bringing out the big guns yourself," stated Cassie.
"Gotta do something to get Zach's attention," Jess replied. "I'm wearing my hair up in a deceiving soft, loose looking French Twist that it took the stylist downstairs a good hour to get just so. Other than that I'm wearing the diamond stud earrings my folks got me for my graduation, nude sheer stockings, and a pair of matching red oh so high pumps that are gonna have me wincing in pain by the end of the evening. For once I'm wishing Zach doesn't wanna dance!"
"Jess, for goodness sake, take a cab. You wouldn't want the wind or the unforeseen puddle to ruin your look.."
"Are you nuts? Of course I'm gonna take a cab." Jessie sighed, her nerves starting to kick in again. "If the evening goes well, I'll just leave my stuff here, and come get it, and the Jeep in the morning."
"I hope everything goes great tonight, Jess, you deserve it.."
"I hope so too Cassie." Jess looked over at the bar, contemplating the calming effects that one of the miniature bottles of brandy could have on her butterflies. "Listen Cass, I'm gonna go. I need to relax, or I'm gonna puke all over the front of this dress!"
"Okay hon, call me tomorrow. You know if you need me I'm just a phone call away."
"I know sweetie, and thanks. Talk to you soon.. bye."
carefully, as not to wrinkle her dress, Jess kicked off her pumps, and padded silently
over to the bar for a shot of artificial courage..
Zach was running early too, but for his own set of reasons. Since his favorite source of 'I'm sorry bouquets' was right around the corner from the Dusk to Dawn, Zach decided to pull in and grab a drink. Even he, Mr. Macho, was feeling the strain of the evening, and all that was resting on it going as planned. Get real, he thought, looking at his reflection in the BMW's rear view mirror. Of course she's gonna accept. You're ZACH BLAIR! Strutting his stuff, to make even John Travolta proud, Zach entered the bar.
It was six thirty, and there was already a good crowd of people at the bar, all of whom turned around to gawk at the spectacle before their eyes. Zach could only grin, the expression in his eyes hidden behind a pair of Versace sunglasses. He looked good and he knew it, decked out in his latest Armani tuxedo.
Mitch stood by the jukebox, his back to the door, with Kelly in his arms, helping her choose some songs for them to dance to. But Lynn.. Lynn had to do everything not to keel over and faint. There was that guy again.. Zach.. JESSIE'S ZACH?!.. she fumed. All she could do was stand, rooted in place, stopping herself from leaping into the delectable man's arms. She glanced back at Mitch and Kelly, cursing Mitch for not being more like Zach.
Sally rounded the corner, her reaction much like Lynn's. "Wow," she gasped, pressing his tray to her chest.
At Sally's wow, Mitch turned around, sure to see some beach hunk being gawked at as he past the bar's front window. Nothing could prepare him for the sight of Zach - in HIS bar - dressed in the most perfect tuxedo he had ever laid eyes on.
"Mommy," Kelly said, noticing Zach herself, "he looks like the prince from my storybook.." All Lynn could do was nod.
"You don't look too shabby yourself, sweetheart," Zach flirted. "Can you do me a favor, get me something to put these in while I have a drink?"
"Sure thing," she answered airily, still amazed.
Mitch's heart constricted at his daughter's words, but he forced himself to finish punching in the song codes into the Wurlitzer, before he turned to Zach. "Don't you think you're a little overdressed for a beachfront bar?" stated Mitch.
"And who do we have here?" Zach asked, pinching Kelly's cheek.
Lynn jumped, taking the cue. "She's my daughter," she cooed, "and I think you're right Kelly, he does look like a prince.."
Mitch was ready to throttle Lynn, but Sally scurried back, anxious to get another look at Zach. "There you go.. Za.." Sally caught herself before she totally messed up. After all, she wasn't supposed to know who Zach was.
Yet the blunder wasn't lost on Zach, who gave her a quick, yet dazzling smile. So you're my little spy, hmm? he thought. Good to know.. "Thanks.. errr.." he paused, taking a moment to read her name tag, "Sally." Now that he added the waitress to his list of admirers, he turned his attention back to the three people next to him. Placing the roses in the makeshift vase, one of the bar's beer pitchers, he pulled a rose loose, and handed it to the delighted little girl. "For you Princess.."
"He called me Princess!" Kelly beamed, looking lovingly at the rose.
"I'm not staying," Zach chuckled at Mitch, in mock amusement, "just stopped by to have a drink before dinner."
Lynn followed Zach, who sat at one of the tables closest to the bar, setting down the rather large and cumbersome arrangement. "Oh? Business soiree?" Lynn snooped.
"Get me a scotch - Chivas - on the
rocks.. thanks Mitchell," he said, treating Mitch like the servant he saw him as.
"No my dear.."
"Lynn.." she answered, taking the moment to introduce herself to Zach while Mitch went for the drink. "I'm Mitchell's.. friend.."
Mitch begrudgingly poured Zach his drink, slamming the ice roughly into the glass. He smiled at Kelly, handing her some M&M's from behind the bar to distract her.
"Woho.. look at Mr. G.Q.," Angel chuckled, good-naturedly.
"Not now Angel!" Mitch groaned.
Angel lifted his hands at Mitch, palms up, in surrender. "Never mind.."
Nick came in, making as much of an inconspicuous entrance as he could, as he passed Zach's table, not even looking up at Mitch, the rest of the band in tow. Hmm, Mitch thought, glancing at his watch. They're ten minutes late..
Looking over at Zach, he caught Lynn doing her sweet little head tilt routine, the one she reserved for special occasions, when she was trying really hard to be attentive. He was of half a mind to spit in Zach's drink, or better yet spill it all over the drooling Lynn, 'by mistake,' to cool her off. No. Kelly was there. He had to think about her well being first. Angel was making up for his stupid remark, by sitting Kelly on the bar, and making a swan out of a bar napkin. This was his chance..
"Here's your drink," Mitch said, dryly, handing it to Zach, before pulling up a chair to sit between he and Lynn, Lynn kicking his shin in protest.
"Thanks," Zach smiled, "I'm gonna need this to get me primed for tonight."
"It seems that Mr. Blair has a really special evening planned," Lynn said, trying to pry the information out of Zach.
"A very special evening," Zach nodded. Zach stopped for a moment, enjoying the way Mitch seemed so ill at ease with the situation. You ain't seen nothing yet buddy, he thought. "Okay," Zach said, sipping his drink. "Why not? You're Jessie's friends, right?"
Jessie? Lynn's mind screamed. What does she have to do with any of this? "Err.. um, yeah, right sure.."
"I'm gonna ask you to share a toast with me," Zach said, waving at Angel. "Champagne, please.."
Angel nodded, going to the kitchen to get a chilled bottle of champagne. Mitch went over to Kelly, whom Angel had forgotten in his haste, more than happy to get out from next to Zach. "Pretty birdy," Mitch said to Kelly, gazing absent-mindedly at the napkin swan, as he felt the telltale knot forming in the pit of his stomach. Soon Angel was back with the champagne sitting in a wine bucket brimming with ice, Sally, carrying a tray full of champagne flutes.
"A toast, to bring me luck tonight, to make this night go as perfectly as I'm hoping it does," Zach announced, taking a glass from Angel. The evening was going exceedingly well already, Zach grinned. "Raise your glasses," Zach continued, Angel passing Mitch a glass of champagne, "in celebrating the best news I could ever share with anyone - well, other than Jess. I'm asking Jess to marry me tonight.."
Mitch's hand started to shake, forcing him to set it down on the bar, or risk shattering its stem in his hand. He pulled Kelly to him, hugging her tight, trying to block everything and everyone other than his daughter out of his mind. Kelly fidgeted in his arms, letting him know that he was holding her too tight. He loosened his grip, eyes staring blankly at the golden bubbles making their way to the top of the flute.
"Oh my..OH MY.." he could hear Lynn gasp. He even caught a glimpse of some movement out of the corner of his eye. But his gaze didn't shift. All he could do was lean against the bar for support, silent, the sounds of the bar buzzing in his ears.
It was Nick he had seen approach the scene, peering over Lynn, who had the open ring box in her hand, marveling at the way the stage lights were being fragmented into thousands of multi-colored rainbow prisms scattered across the bar's ceiling. This isn't fair, Lynn thought, this should be me, not a common little tramp like Jessie.
"Wow, some rock," Nick said, chuckling at the way Lynn was gaping at the ring. Interesting, Nick thought, scanning the scene. Mitch looked like his pet puppy had just died. Interesting..
"Well," Zach said, popping the ring box closed, and slipping it back into his
pocket. "I have to go. Wouldn't wanna be late.." He took the flowers out of the
pitcher, shook them off to remove the excess water, and turned to Mitch. "Thanks for
sharing my big new," he said, slapping him on the arm. "Ciao.."
The evening had gone splendidly, Jessie thought. Zach was dressed to the nines, and had offered her endless praise on how wonderful she looked. Dinner was perfection too, by candlelight - chateaubriand for two, with roasted baby carrots and new potatoes, a bottle of Merlot, brought in from France by Zach's dad on his last trip. Zach had even held her hand as they chatted over dinner, leaning over to kiss her on the sweet spot behind her ear. It was straight out of a dream.
As they waited for dessert, Zach suggested the idea of going on a trip. "How about we take some time off and go to St. Maarten.. catch up on our tans, amongst other things.. just me and you?"
Just me and you, Jessie smiled. She couldn't remember the last time he had said those words. "That sounds nice, sweetie," she smiled, gazing at Zach.
Zach could see
the candlelight dancing in Jessie's big hazel eyes, her love for him abundantly clear.
"It'll be our own little getaway, to get to know one another again.."
The whole evening Zach had apologized, again and again, from the beautiful long stemmed red roses, to the tone in his voice as he begged her for forgiveness. He reached up and caressed her cheek, a softness in his face she had almost forgotten could ever be there. Jess had already made up her mind to go home with Zach, when she saw him reaching into his pocket.
"It'll be a small token of how much I think of you, of how I need you in my life.. the perfect follow up to this," he said, taking out the ring box.
"Oh my God," Jessie said, raising a perfectly manicured, yet shaking hand, to cover her mouth. "Zach.."
"Don't interrupt me Jess, I'm on a roll here," he said, pushing his chair back, and rounding the table to kneel next to Jessie's chair. "Jessica Reynolds, my prize, my jewel, will you marry me?"
The rest of the people in the restaurant had realized what was happening, and turned their chairs around to face their table. Everyone had to be holding their breath because Jessie couldn't hear a sound, even the violin quartet in the corner had stopped playing. Everyone was poised to hear her response. She blinked in continued amazement as Zach set the ring box in the palm of her right hand, as tears began to well up in her eyes.
"Jess.. you're making me look bad here," Zach chuckled, "what do you say?" he asked, a little more urgently, holding his breath.
"Yes.. yes! I will!" Jessie half laughed, half cried.
The restaurant erupted into a cheer, the musicians resumed playing, the waiters continued on their way. In a dreamlike haze, Jess felt Zach reach for her hand, and slip the ring onto her finger, standing up, and pulling her into his arms for a kiss. And she clung to him, pouring every ounce of hope, every dream into the embrace, as she felt the tears rolling down her face. Please God, she prayed, the candlelight from the table looking like star bursts through her tear-laden eyes, let this not be a dream...
* * * * *
Copyright © 1998 Susana Audrain and Richard Tingle All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this novel or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by the U.S. Copyright Law.