Chapter Three

    Angel was right. She shouldn't be driving. But, as Jess watched the Honda's red tail lights disappear into the night, she realized that she shouldn't be THERE either. The vicodin she had taken at the hospital was starting to kick in, taking the edge off the pain in her right wrist, as well as draping a calming lull over Jessie's world. But even with the artificially induced calm she couldn't bring herself to go inside the high rise.

    Their apartment was on the penthouse floor, offering a spectacular view of Fort Lauderdale Beach to the south, downtown to the north. Yet Jessie couldn't have been prepared for what could be witnessed inside the actual apartment. How many nights had they fought amid amidst the expensive furnishing? Zach didn't care who heard, or what he broke, even Jessie's heart. How would she even get in? Jessie thought quickly, realizing that her keys were tucked in her camera bag back at the bar. Howard the doorman could get her into the apartment, but did she really wanna have to explain to him, as well as anyone else she happened to run into in the elevator, what had happened to her wrist?

daynitebar_gif.gif (198 bytes)Jess walked over to the pool, taking a seat on one of the loungers at the waters edge. I'll think of something, she thought, adjusting the back of the chair, so that she was reclined, and looking up at the night sky. What a night, Jess thought, leaning back against the fence surrounding the high rise’s property, and closing her eyes. Even with the effects of the pain killers, Jess’s mind kept going back to the one moment that she couldn't forget. The kiss she and Mitch had shared sizzled. From the way he had answered her back, Jessie was sure Mitch had felt it too.

    "Jess? Is that you?" came a voice from the darkness. It was Cassie, one of the other residents of the apartment tower, who Jess had befriended during one of her many workout at the building's high tech gym. They were all so busy that none of them even realized they even lived on the same floor.

    "Hi...just getting some fresh night air," Jess answered quickly, watching Cassie and her husband Ted approach from the marina, carrying a cooler and other assorted fishing paraphernalia.

    "I know what you mean," Cassie smiled, taking a seat by Jess, as she waited for her hubby to catch up. "It's cooling down nicely at night, but with no breeze. We night as well have been floating on glass." Cassie stopped, noticing the bandages on Jessie's wrist. "Jess? You okay? What happened to your wrist?"

    Jessie debated on whether she should tell Cassie the truth. What the hell, they were gonna find out soon enough. "Let's just say the evening didn't go as smoothly for me.."

    "Where's Zach? I'll kill him!"

    "Kill who?" Ted asked, setting down the cooler.

    "It's okay.. it's just a sprain. Besides, whatever they gave me back at the hospital has me feeling no pain," Jess giggled, laying back once again. "There's only one problem, I dunno if jerk for brains is back from his 'meeting,' and I left my keys back at the Dusk to Dawn.."

    Cassie seemed to instantly perk up. "Oh please," she beamed, "let me. I'll sweet talk Howard for the master key, and head on up to your apartment. Zach better not be there, that's all I'm saying. Meet me around back."

    "She just loves this kinda stuff," Ted teased, watching his wife head for the lobby of the building. "If there's something Cassie can't stand is a bully. I pity Zach if he answers the door."

    Within ten minutes, Jess was up in her apartment, and getting some of her stuff together. She and Cassie chatted, as she gathered some of her stuff into her old college duffel bag.

    "So where's the schmuck anyway?" Cassie asked, handing Jess her makeup bag.

    "Probably in some secluded little restaurant wining and dining the latest of his floozy crushes.." Jess stopped, walking over to the bureau, and pulling the calendar she had found in Zach's top drawer. "Candi Daniels," Jess groaned, tossing it on the bed by Cassie.

    Cassie chuckled, reading the little tidbits of information on Candi. "Candi's favorite color is pink, loves kids, and her favorite hobby is.."

    "I know EXACTLY what Candi's favorite hobby is. Why do you think she and Zach get along so well?" stated Jess, stuffing the last of her clothes in the bag.

    "I'm sorry, Jess. There's nothing funny about any of this." Cassie stopped, her mind coming across her next bright idea. "Hey, how about this. You come and stay with us for a while."

    "That's very sweet Cassie, really.."

    "No, I mean it. We can take the day off tomorrow, and go shopping. Run up some bills on his credit cards."

    Cassie and Ted were one of the few couples her own age that were actually happy. A self-made millionaire, Ted ran a successful yacht manufacturing business. Financially not needing to work, Cassie kept herself busy organizing fund raisers for local charities. Somehow they had found a happy medium, balancing work and play and married life.

    "Thanks for the offer, but I need to get farther away than across the hall for a while."

    "What are you going to do Jess?" Cassie asked, getting serious for a moment.

    "That is the sixty four thousand dollar question of the night," Jess sighed, zipping up her duffel. "My mind's a blur, and I’m feeling no pain, but my head is spinning.."

    "Well get this into that thick head of yours. You'll always have a place to stay with us. Anything you need, just call me, okay? You have our numbers.. cell, pager, home, work.."

    "Yup," Jess smiled, "all jotted neatly into my agenda book that's back with the rest of my stuff at the Dusk to Dawn." Jessie grabbed onto the handles of the duffel with her good hand, as the memory of what had happened in Mitch's office weaved into her drug numbed mind. First things first, she thought. "Okay, how about you drop me off at the bar? I can't drive right now, doctor's orders."

    "You got it, as long as you promise to call me, and let me know where, and more importantly HOW you are.."

    "Deal," Jess smiled.

    Thanking her friends once again, Jessie waved, and turned towards the bar. She could see only a few people left inside through the plate glass window, only a couple of hangers on lingering at the bar nursing the last of their drinks. She couldn't see Angel or Mitch, and could only hope that her luck would hold for the first time that evening, and she'd be able to sneak in and get her stuff unnoticed.

    Pushing the door open with her left shoulder, she slipped into the eerily quiet bar. Most of the chairs were already upturned on the table tops, even the juke was silent, the only bright light emanating from the large screen TV in the corner beside the bar. I may just make a clean getaway yet, Jessie thought. Resting her bag on a couple of stools, she slipped under the hatch counter to get to her stuff.

    Mitch was headed for the register to tally the night's take when he saw movement behind the bar, and froze. "Is there something I can help you with?" he called out, tentatively.

    Jessie stood slowly, not wanting to startle him any further. She smiled softly, seeing Mitch visibly relax. "It's just me," she said, breaking the awkward silence. "I forgot my stuff earlier.."

    For once, Mitch was at a loss for words. She stood there in front of him, looking frail, her bandaged hand making the retrieval of her stuff from under the bar rather tricky. "I know what you're after," he smiled, "no wonder the jar's half empty," Mitch teased.

    "I'll be out of your way in just a sec.." Jess said, fumbling, as she tried to grab her laptop, camera and purse in her one free hand.

    Mitch felt a tug at his heart, as he realized that Jess was pulling away from him. The calm ease that had always existed between them was gone now, replaced by a tentative, unsettled gap. You're never in my way, he wanted to say, but he couldn't. "Here, lemme help you with that," Mitch said, gently easing her stuff out of her already overburdened hand. "Now why don't you come over here and have something to eat, and relax."

    His words sounded good, better than anything Jess had heard all night, Mitch's soothing tone setting her at ease. "Okay," was all her tangled brain could muster. "Okay."

    Mitch met back with her at the booth, with a plate laden with an assortment of the night's offerings, including pasta, barbecue chicken, a little of everything for her to nibble on. "Dive on in," he chuckled.

    "You're gonna make me fat," she mumbled, as she started to take a little forkful here, another there..

    Mitch sat quietly, watching her eat, taking advantage of the silence to gather his own thoughts. Sooner or later (most likely sooner) the kiss would come up. Looking over Jess's shoulder he caught sight of the duffel bad he had missed before. Things were worse than he thought. The munchies had succeeded in bringing some of the color back into her cheeks, yet from her body language, Mitch could see that Jess was still out of it.

    "Any Oreo ice cream left?" Jess asked, setting down her fork.

    "Damn woman!" Mitch laughed, looking down to find an empty plate. "Sure, lemme go get you some."

    Angel appeared just as Mitch disappeared with her plate into the kitchen. "Hey sugar," he smiled, leaning up against the back of the booth. "Didn't think I'd see you again tonight. How ya feelin'?"

    "Like my head's full of cotton balls," Jess smiled, "but pain free.. well, til the la la pills wear off."

    "Seen Zach?" Angel asked.

    "No.. I was at the apartment just long enough to get some of my things together. Guess he's still at his 'meeting..' don't think I coulda handled another encounter with him anyway.."

    Mitch walked up, catching the tail end of the conversation. "Here's your ice cream, extra cookies and all," he said, setting it down before her.

    Jess took the long sundae spoon awkwardly in her left hand. "It had to be my right hand, didn't it," she sighed, shoveling some ice cream into her mouth to choke back the emotions threatening to rise again. From the corner of her eye she caught the looks Mitch and Angel had exchanged. "No need to worry, you two big mother hens. You know me, I always land on my feet."

    Angel was starting to get annoyed, noticing his two friends tip-toeing around the issue at hand. "Oh? And where do you plan to plant those pretty little cowboy booted feet of yours, hmm?"

    Mitch glared at Angel, knowing full well what he was up to. Up your butt, his mind screamed.

    Jessie picked at the ice cream, digging out the chunks of cookie, pensively. "Haven't really given it much thought," she said, matter-of-factly. "All I sorted out in my head thus far was coming back here to.. err... get my stuff.."

    "Have you forgotten you can't drive?" Angel asked.

    "No," Jessie pouted, hating the fact that she couldn't get into her Jeep and just drive and drive and drive..

    "I got an idea.."

    Oh here it comes, Mitch cringed.

    "Why don't you just stay with us for a while? Upstairs.."

    "US?!" Mitch exclaimed, dreading the word as it slipped through his lips. Now Jess would surely think he didn't want her there. But that wasn't it. Or did he? Experiencing his own sense of 'blender brain', Mitch just gaped as Angel took the bull very firmly by the horns. Thoughts of the mess that would great them upstairs making him cringe all the more.

    "Sure.. God knows WE have plenty of room," Angel said, widening his eyes at Mitch.

duffle1_gif.gif (9995 bytes)Before she had time to reply, Angel had carried her, bags and all, up the stairs to Mitch's loft. Directly above the bar, it was huge, no walls to encumber the wide expanse of the room. Jessie smiled, spying Mitch's big old couch at one end of the room, in front of the entertainment center. How many times had they crammed for exams on the soft, overstuffed couch? In another corner was Mitch's computer desk, surrounded by shelves stuffed with books and paperwork. Other than that, the only other major piece of furniture was Mitch's bed.

    "This is gonna be great," Angel beamed, "just one big happy family," he continued, dropping Jess's stuff on the couch.

    "Umm.. Angel? You can put me down now," Jess laughed.

    "Oh.. yeah.. sorry," he smiled, setting her down next to her stuff. Big guy that he was, his next concern was the kitchen. "You better have decent stuff in here Mitchell," he growled, opening the fridge "'cuz I'm real cranky without a proper breakfast."

    Jess curled her legs under her, feeling kinda insignificant in the huge loft, not to mention out of place. Alone for the first time with Mitch, after being highjacked by Angel, she forced herself to look up at him and say the words tickling at the back of her throat. "I'm really sorry about this.. he just made up his mind, and I kinda went along for the ride."

    "Yeah, I noticed," Mitch said, taking a seat next to her on the sofa.

    "I know how awkward this all must be for you, going from one unannounced guest, to two. I'll just wait til Angel falls asleep, and grab a cab to a hotel."

    Jessie had to fight to get the words out. It was late, and her whole body ached with fatigue. She could barely keep her eyes open, but forced herself to watch Mitch's expression, and accurately gage his reaction to her words..

    Mitch got up from the couch and took a few steps out, and turned his back to Angel and Jessie, his hands on his hips and eyes tightly closed, teetering on the back of his heels. God he hated how people could stare right at him when he was making decisions, like Angel or Jessie could, and always make him change his mind, mid thought, with just a look, or disapproving glance.

    Angel just shook his head and sighed, as Jessie leaned over from the couch to pick up her bags. "I can go right now.."

    "Out of the question," Mitch said, interrupting her in a matter-of-fact tone, as he turned around, and gave a small, warm smile to Angel. Jessie just sat there in confusion, as Mitch picked up her bags and carried them over to a closet off to the side of his bed. Jessie's eyes followed Mitch, still unable to believe his reaction.

    Jessie looked at Angel. "He doesn't want me to stay," she whispered to Angel, watching Mitch, trying to make sense of his actions.

    "Sounds like he wants you to stay to me," Angel whispered.

    "He's just being nice," she sighed, "with both of us here, it would be too crowded."

    Angel shook his head. "Plenty of room here angel. For all three of us."

    "I don't want to make things harder on you Angel."

    "How so?"

    "Mitch will complain, and complain.."

    "I have plenty of hangers here for you Jess," Mitch said, shoving all of his clothes on hangers off to one side of the closet, and looking back at his friends, noticing they were whispering.

    "I don't think he wants me here," she sighed.

    Mitch knelt down next to the couch and watched Jessie and Angel whisper back and forth a few seconds, before he leaned towards Jessie and whispered into her ear. "I want you here." Jessie looked over the couch's edge at him, smiling. "Please.. stay Jess."

    "You got the bed sugar," Angel smiled.

tv.gif (2677 bytes)The AC had the room nicely cool, but under the thick sleeping bag, Mitch was sweating. I can't stand any more of this, he thought, flipping the top layer off, letting the cool air rush over his chest. He looked up to the couch and saw Angel, feet hanging over the edge of the couch, his head laid against a pillow on the other end, the television screen was flashing in his eyeglasses, nothing but a white glow.

    "You still up?" Mitch mumbled.

    "Yeah, wrestling's on," he whispered.

    "Figures," Mitch chuckled.

    "You know me, I'm a night owl Mitch.."

    Mitch nodded, groggily rubbing his eyes.

    "Did I wake you?"

    "Nah, it was too warm for me in this sleeping bag"

    "Yeah, you were rolling around in there like a bowling ball," Angel said.

    "Is Jessie up?"

    Angel shook his head. "Nope."

    Mitch put his hand down on the hardwood floor. It was cool to the touch and slightly grooved. Forcing himself to sit up, he groaned as he stood up and looked at Angel, who was bare-chested. "Better not clog my drains you bear," Mitch laughed.

    "Yeah, well all I know is she better not use my razors on her legs!" Angel said with a smile.

    "You been watching this all night with no volume?" Mitch said, pointing to the TV.

    "Didn't wanna wake you guys up. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."

    Mitch looked over the couch to get a peek at Jessie, who was sleeping in his bed at the far end of the room. The windows were open, curtains drawn and gently swaying in the breeze. Soft moonlight was on Jessie's face, making her look like a princess, her back all shadowed.

    "I'm worried about her."

    "She'll be fine," Angel said, "she's a smart girl. I think she just needs some time to herself and a friend to look out for her."

    "A friend," Mitch mumbled.

    "Maybe more," Angel said, "she's here because you're a friend, Mitch. She could have left easily and not have been a burden on you.."

    "That would have been wrong of me to let her do that," Mitch said, "to let her walk right out, without any help."

    "That's why she's here Mitch. She could have gone to any of her other friends for help. But she's here," Angel said, pointing down to the floor for emphasize, "here."

    "Angel, I like her being here, but.."



    "I don't see a ring on her finger."

    "But he's a friend."

    "Excuses, Mitch. Are you saying he's as much as a friend to you as I am?"

    Mitch shook his head. "No, not like you, but he considers me a friend."

    "I'm sure Zach considers Jessie his girlfriend too."

    Mitch looked at Angel. He had a point. Zach took a lot for granted, and took advantage of people a lot as well. Mitch was always kind and considerate. He looked at the couch Angel was laying on again and thought back to all the nights Jessie was sitting on that very same couch with him. All the times he looked at her, and just wanted to say something, do something, anything. But just never could. Shoulda, coulda, woulda, he thought.

    "It's not what he considers you that should matter, but how he treats you." Mitch looked over at Jessie. "I'm your friend Mitch, because you treat me like one and Jessie’s your friend because you treat her like one." Angel heard Mitch sigh, as he continued. "And maybe she kissed you because you treated her like something more."

    Jessie moaned, and rolled over in her bed. Angel and Mitch bobbed their heads over the couch and saw hers slowly start to sit up in bed.

    "She's up!" Angel said, dropping his head back to the couch, and closing his eyes. He put his finger to his lips shushing Mitch.

    Mitch slowly slid back down, and put his face to the floor, covering it with an arm, one eye peeking out. He watched as Jessie rolled over again in bed, and then brought herself fully upright for a few seconds, shaking her hair with her hands. Putting her legs over the side of the bed, she slowly got up.

    Angel closed his eyes tight, as he heard Jessie approaching, hardwood floor creaking beneath her feet. "Shh," Angel whispered, as he watched Jessie cross over to the bathroom.

    Mitch kept a watchful eye on Jessie, noticing the way her hand slid up and down the wall for a few seconds before she finally flicked on the light with a loud click. Angel's eyes closed once more, but Mitch kept watching her, his one open eye hidden. The bathroom light flooded into the rest of the loft. Stretching her arms above her head, her white nightshirt slipped up, just above her behind, pulling up to the small of her back as she stretched.

    "Wow," Angel whispered, as his eyes widened to the sounds of her moans as she stretched.

    Mitch nodded, his eyes still on Jessie. She was wearing modest undies - white, with what looked like a lace edging, nothing fancy or to sexy. Mitch was disappointed, or pleasantly surprised, he didn't know which. He'd always envisioned Jessie as a simple woman, and yet, always had imagined that she would wear something fancy, sexy, that Zach would buy her. Mitch's eyes wandered down her legs, closing for a second as he thought of just how muscular they were, long, slender, sleek, but muscular in a sporty way, like a cheerleader's. Her feet bounced back to the ground, her heels making a slight sound as they landed. Leaning over the sink to turn on the faucet, her curves were fully exposed.

    "Oh man, I can't take this," Angel whispered, rolling over. "I swear," he mumbled, "sometimes I think they do this stuff because they KNOW we're watching."

    Mitch ignored Angel, and just kept watching Jessie, never having seen this much of her before, in such a candid situation. He looked up her legs, in complete admiration at their beauty, a small grin crossing his lips, seeing her rear so prominently displayed. He shifted his gaze to her side, to see if he could see up her nightshirt - no dice, no flat stomach to sigh over, no breasts to look at. Mitch found himself feeling like a young boy, just discovering a Playboy in his dad's top drawer, and in a way felt kinda bad that he was watching Jessie. His mind went back to how often he had dreamed about her when they were in high school, and yet, during the last few years he had viewed Jessie strictly as a friend. Well, not really.. he still thought about her in that way, just not as often.

    "Just friends," Angel whispered.

    Mitch was lying to himself again. He always thought of her as more than a friend, he just had become better at lying to himself about it, disguising it.

    Jessie turned around, and Mitch closed both eyes, just in case, as she turned off the lights. Walking past them, she headed downstairs to the bar. Mitch sat up and looked at Angel. "Where is she going?"

    Angel shrugged. "Damned if I know."

    Both Angel and Mitch looked towards the stairs. "You know Mitch," Angel said, "sometimes, just because a girl runs away, it doesn't mean she doesn't want to be followed."

    "Whatever," Mitch mumbled.

    The room suddenly started to hum, music coming from the bar below. Mitch sat for a second, as Angel stared at him. "I'm going to see if she's ok," he said, getting up.

    Angel laughed as Mitch as he looked for a shirt to throw on before heading downstairs. "You do that Mitch!" he laughed, "you do that."

* * * * *

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.


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