Chapter Twenty Five

    Krystal picked out Sidís car before they even got to it. It had to be Sidís car. Shining in the light of the street light, the black Plymouth Roadrunner looked to be in mint condition, lovingly maintained. The car a man drove said a lot about the kind of man he that drove it, and Krystal already knew that her date held tightly onto old fashioned ways, like treating woman with respect, a nice change of pace from most men nowadays.

    Sid walked ahead of her now for the first time, long enough to unlock the passenger seat, gallantly motioning for her to get in. "After you, pretty lady. Your chariot awaits.."

    "Thank you," Krystal beamed, getting in. She could feel the coldness of the long leather seat through the sheerness of her dress, and smiled. She could even detect the scent of leather cleaner. How sweet of him to go to all this trouble just for their date. Old cars, she thought. How many times had she piled into cars just like this one with as many of her friends that would fit? "Nice car," she said, breaking the silence.

    Sid joined her in the car, and wondered if Krystal was just being polite. Most women werenít into cars like men were. "Thanks," he said, joining her, and turning on the car, the vehicle responding with a loud smooth purr.

    "Donít see many of these on the road anymore."

    "Nope," he answered, meeting her gaze and smiling. "Not too many people willing to put in the effort to keep one of these babies up and running in good shape. Betsy only gets the best."

    "Your baby, huh?" Krystal grinned, "sounds like someone loves his car. Howíd you choose the name Betsy?"

    Sid grinned. "Actually, it's the same name my dad called his car. She kinda reminds me of his old reliable Plymouth"

    Krystal shifted position on the seat, inadvertently sliding closer to Sid on the seat. Resting her hand on the cool leather, her eyes widened in surprise. The independent type, she was used to taking care of herself, making herself happy. So when she found herself wondering about just how roomy the front seat really was, how well they could really get to know each other on that big wide seat, Krystal realized Sidís kind attention was getting through her usually tough outer shell.

    He had pulled out of the parking lot, but the proximity of Krystalís hand to his leg wasnít lost on Sid. Shifting the car into drive, he reached over, covering her hand with his. With conviction he hadnít mustered in years, Sid began to speak before he lost his nerve. "Krys, we need to talk.."

    Uh oh, Krystal thought. Could he have gotten the wrong idea? "Sure," she answered, quickly.

    Sid waited til they had gotten onto the highway before he continued, giving himself a chance to gather his thoughts. The last thing he wanted to do was ruin things by saying the wrong thing. But there was one difficult topic theyíd need to air out if they were to have any decent chance of making this work between them. Krystal had waited patiently for him to speak, but he could tell that she was getting anxious by the way she had folded her arms across her chest.

    "Unlike some guys, I donít mince words," stated Sid, clearing his throat, "in my book, honesty is the best policy.."

    "I couldnít agree more," answered Krystal, thankful that the silence was broken. "Whatís on your mind?"

    "Mitch."

    "Mitch?" Krystal asked, taken a little off guard.

    "Yup, I know how much heís liked you over the years. Hey, whatís not to like.."

    "Thanks.."

    "But as we both know Mitch isnít a very decisive guy."

    "No, heís not. You saw what went on back at the bar."

    "Donít get me wrong, this isnít rag on Mitch night. Heís my best friend. But that doesnít mean that Iím gonna wait around til he makes up his mind about things, especially you.."

    Krystal turned to face Sid. "Have you and Mitch been talking about me?"

    "Yes we have. We get along pretty well most of the time, but lately heís been pissing me off. Iím not judging him or anything, but I donít see the logic in him chasing after Jessie since sheís engaged to Zach and all. We both know that itís too late for him to make his move. If he didnít do it before, he lost his chance now that she accepted Zachís proposal."

    "Maybe itís easier for him now that itís safe since Jessieís unattainable."

    "Maybe. But I also know that I wonít stand by and let him keep us in the wings waitiní either.."

    Krystalís independent streak bubbled to the surface again. What did these guys think she was, some prize for them to fight over? "Weíve talked about this before. The last time it came up was when Lynn came back into his life, and he found out he was Kellyís father. Mitch and I are friends. In my mind thatís all weíll ever be, since the last thing I need is a boyfriend who doesnít know his own mind. Jessieís the one heís always loved anyway, and look how far thatís gotten."

    "Thatís exactly what I think. Mitch is my friend and all, but he has Kelly to think about, and even though he wonít come out and say it, even now heís stuck on Jess. I refuse to let him keep me from getting to know you because of our friendship or some kind of lame male code. Youíre way too nice a girl to keep on the back burner like that."

    Krystal felt her heart start to swell. It had been too long since she had a man in her life, much less one that was able to freely express his feelings.

    "Whyíd you think I said yes when you asked me out?" Krystal smiled. "I like you too," she said, scooting up next to Sid and taking hold of his arm. "Iím glad we had this talk. Mitch is a good friend Ė to both of us Ė but we need to get on with it."

    Sid turned, kissing Krystal sweetly on the head, breathing in the flowery scent of her shampoo. "Itís settled then," Sid replied, "if youíre willing, we can try our hand at.. courting.."

    Krystal bit her lower lip to stifle a giggle but it was no use. "So weíre courtiní you and I?" she laughed.

    "Well Iím not one to beat around the bush when Iím interested in a woman. I try to do things right when I date someone. "

    If we're meant for one another, then by golly Iíll do what needs doing!"

    "So," Krystal giggled, "you gonna call my father and ask his permission to date me?"

    "If thatís what it takes, maíam, if thatís what it takes.."

    Now it was Krystalís turn to blush.


Jess was laughing hysterically at how Phoebe (who couldn't carry a tune worth beans but thought she was Tammy Wynette) tried to sing "Stand By Your Man. What was even funnier was that Phoebe was doing it so sarcastically you knew it was the last thing she would wanna do if a man was cheating on her.

    "This is NOT a country western bar," Mitch insisted.

    "Yeah, I know, I saw how you ran that pretty little cowgirl of yours outta here," Phoebe joked.

    She had picked up one the scattered energies he had bouncing all over the place when both Krystal and Jess were talking to each other. Mitch sobered up for a moment realizing what a jerk he had been to Krystal. She didn't deserve that. Hell, if she and Sid had a chance of happiness, who was he to stand in their way? Damn that Sid. He sure didn't waste any time since last time they talked.

    Phoebe's stepped down from the stage and put her arms around Mitch's neck. "Sweetie, you're gonna hafta decide who you really want and get on with your life if you expect to be happy in this lifetime.."

    Mitch put his hands around her waist and swung her around. "Okay, how about it. You and me take off somewhere," he teased.

    At Mitchís last remark, Phoebe put her hands on his chest and pushed herself back out of his grasp. "Hold on there! Youíre not gonna get ME in the middle of this too!"

    Mitch was stunned. In the middle of what? he thought. Damn these women. They were all driving him crazy! Mitch got up quickly, and stumbled over to the bar. "Lemme have another shot of After Shock," he barked at Betty.

    "Mitch honey, donít you think you.."

    "No! I donít think Iíve had too much to drink. This is my own DAMN BAR," he said, slamming his hand on the bar with frustration.

    "I didnít mean.." Betty started to say.

    "I know," Mitch interrupted, approaching Betty. "Iím sorry, I didnít mean to snap at you." Mitch stepped behind the bar and poured himself another shot. "Excuse me while I go in the back and chill out for a few."

    Good. Maybe if he went into his office heíd plop down on the sofa and fall asleep. Itíd been a long time since sheíd seen him this intoxicated. Betty knew he had a lot on his mind, but all this booze and flirting with his female friends wasnít gonna help matters. Jessie should cool it now that she was married. Didnít she see the effect even the smallest flirtation from her had on Mitch?

    Betty walked over to give Jess and Phoebe their next round of drinks. "So how's that fiancť of yours?" Betty asked.

    "Haven't seen him around lately since he was showing off that huge ring of yours.."

    "He's in New York," Jess answered. "Which reminds me.." Reaching inside her purse, she realized she'd left in the Jeep. "Iíll be back Phoebs, I gotta call Zach before it gets too much later. He likes to get to bed early before an im-por-tant meet-ing," Jess joked, tripping over her own feet getting up from the table. "Betty, make my next one coffee!"

    "I hear that," Betty teased back.

    Jess clicked the keyless entry, deactivating the car alarm and unlocking the door. Glancing inside the car, she scanned the seat for her phone. Nothing. Leaning in, she stuck her hand under and around the seat. Bingo. Shutting the door, one click and the car was secure again. Good thing I have the Ritzís phone number on speed dial, Jess thought, calling Zach. Jess leaned up against a wall just outside the barís front door as she waited for the call to go through.

    "Good evening, Ritz Carlton New York, how can I assist you?"

    "Zach Blairís room please."

    "One moment."

    "Hello?"

    Jess almost dropped the phone when she heard the womanís voice.

    "Hello?" the woman said again.

    Freaked out, Jess dialed the hotel and asked for Zachís room again.

    "Hello?"

    "Zach?"

    "Hey babe. Sorry I didnít call you earlier. The dinner meeting ran late.."

    "What are you doing with a woman in your room?!" Jessie demanded, "how dare you.."

    "Woah Jess, what are you talking about?"

    "I called a minute ago and a woman answered the phone.."

    "Jess," Zach pleaded, desperately trying to regain control of the situation, "this is the first time the phone has rang all night.. I swear."

    Phoebe caught sight of her friend through the barís plate glass window. Jess was on the phone and she looked agitated. Great, what did Zach do now? she wondered.

    "I canít believe this," Jess stammered.

    "The switchboard must have screwed up and transferred you to the wrong room. I swear Jess, I love you. I wouldnít be away from you if it werenít for business. You believe me, donít you baby? Please tell me you believe me.."

    Jessie exhaled, trying to calm herself down. Zach sounded sincere as he pleaded with her. Heíd have to be nuts to try something now that they were engaged. "I believe you," she finally said.

Candi thought the whole situation was comical. She was sitting on the bed holding the receiver to Zachís ear so that he could talk since Zach was still shackled to the foot of the bed, grinning at him, drawing lazy circles in the plush carpeting with her right foot. He really had this groveling thing down pat. Submission must be in his blood, she reasoned.

    "And I love you sweetheart," he replied, breathing a sigh of relief. That was way too close for comfort. "Iíll show you just how much when I get home.."

    "Okay. I gotta go. I have a headache."

    "Okay babe, go take some tylenol and go to bed. Iíll call you tomorrow when youíre feeling better. I love you.."

    "I love you too. Bye."

    Candi reached for the phone, making sure to make extra contact, letting her bare bosom graze Zachís forearm as she leaned way over to take the receiver from him. "How sweeeeet," she kidded.

    "Shut up!" Zach bellowed, "you stupid BITCH! Get these things off me.. NOW!"

    "Okay, okay.. calm down, sheesh," she said, going over to her coat to get the key to the cuffs. "No need to get so bent out of shape."

    Zach flailed against the cuffs, his rage escalating at her flippant attitude. "Get me free or I swear.."

    "Hold still," Candi said, working to undo the first handcuff. "Geez, you didnít seem to mind this a few minutes ago.."

    "That was before you answered my phone like a fucking idiot," Zach spat.

    "Everything was fine til that little bitch called," Candi pouted, undoing the other cuff.

    Thatís when Zach backhanded Candi across the face. "Donít you DARE call my fiancťe a bitch, you cheap little whore," he snarled, grabbing Candi by the forearms and pushing her backwards roughly.

    "Ow," Candi flinched, "youíre hurting me!"

    "And Iím gonna hurt you a lot worse unless you get out of my sight, bitch!" Zach said, grabbing for his bathrobe.

    "Wait baby, letís have a drink and talk this through.."

    "Iím through with you," Zach announced, grabbing her shoes and coat from off the floor and tossing them at her.

    "Zach," Candi pleaded, trying to recover from an increasingly bad situation, "be reasonable. We were having a great time together, right?" she asked, cocking her head to one side and giving him her sweetest smile. "Let me stay and I promise Iíll wipe this right out of your head.."

    "Are you deaf as well as dumb?!" Zach yelled, ushering Candi to the door. "This evening is officially OVER!"

    Candi struggled to get her coat on as Zach slammed the door in her face. Not even she could pull this one out, not when Zach was so pissed. But sheíd be back in the saddle again in no time. Sheíd just had to regroup. One thing was certain. Sheíd get Jessie back for calling and ruining their night, but how? Hopefully her roommate Brenda would still be awake when she got back to the apartment, and they could figure it out.

 

    Their evening had gotten back on track from the moment they had left the bar, culminating in the high point that was their meal at Joeís Stone Crab, one of Miamiís finest long standing restaurants. Sid had gone all out, from ordering a wonderful bottle of white wine for their meal, to having one of the waiters bring over a perfect long stemmed red rose. Krystal was stunned. Never had she been treated with such loving care on a first date.

    "You really know how to win a girl over," Krystal smiled, taking a sip of wine.

    "Oh sure," Sid replied, hands smeared with crabmeat, "you know I care when I submit myself to this," he said, tugging on the plastic bib around his neck. "Real suave," he chucked, good-naturedly.

    Krystal looked up at him now, sitting there with that stupid bib on, fumbling with the stone crab, and knew she had hit pay dirt. He could kid around all he wanted, but she knew better. Sid had a big heart and was just waiting for the right girl to come along to pour it out to. Right then and there she made a vow to herself to make a wholehearted effort to be worthy of this manís affection.

    "Iím having a wonderful time," Krystal said, reaching over to take his hand, "but I donít want you going broke on my account. This place is fabulous but Iíd be happy talking over a good hamburger and fries.. Iím just a simple country girl at heart.."

    "Country girl yes," Sid interrupted, "but thereís nothing simple about you Krys. I wanted to make sure that our first date was special, so youíd know what a wonderful person I think you are. It wasnít a matter of wowing you with a pricey meal. This place has great atmosphere, and the best seafood in the state. So what if itís a little messy. Anything worth having takes work," he said, prodding at a crab claw with a tiny seafood fork, trying to dislodge a chunk of crabmeat.

    Krystal was floored, and found herself fighting back the flood of tears that were threatening to brim over. Sure she had anticipated having a nice evening, but nothing like this. It had been a really long time since a man had gotten to her this way, and it scared her. By opening her heart to hope, Krystal had entered dangerous ground. Letting herself care about Sid meant she had let him have the power to hurt her as well.

    "I agree," she smiled. "but next time dinnerís on me. It wonít be fancy but itíll be delicious."

    Momentarily slipping back into horny male mode, Sid let his mind descend into a more basal place, imagining Krystal, reclined on a pile of hay, dressed only in whipped cream. Shaking his head, he came back to reality. "Itís a deal. Just donít plan to get me anywhere near those horses you love so much. I hate them as much as they hate me."

    "Why? Horseís are so smart and graceful.."

"Let me this clear up for you. Picture me a million years ago, at one of those kiddie parties back when pony rides were what any self respecting seven year oldís parents had at their kidís party. Anyway, hereís me, a city kid, who, wanting to fit in, decides to join the rest of the paste eaters in riding the cute little ponies around the ring in Kenny Lawsonís backyard."

    "And?"

    "And? I get up on one of the little darlings. Well I guess he sensed I was scared because he started to buck and deposited me unceremoniously into a pile of fly laden pony poop!"

    Krystal busted out laughing. "Poor thing!"

    "You donít know the half of it! The other kids teased me til my mom came over to pick me up."

    "So you havenít tried riding again since then?"

    "Nope."

    "Lemme take you riding.."

    "Nope, not gonna happen.."

    "Why?" Krystal pouted. "Iím not some weekend carny pony peddler. Donít you trust me?"

    Sid sighed. She was a horse trainer for Godís sake. "Of course I trust you. But.."

    "No butts. Riding can be an exhilarating experience. If you have the right teacher showing you how to maintain the proper seat.."

    Oh geez, Sid groaned, feeling his hormones start to stir again. She wasnít gonna make it easy to say no..


   
Jessieís brow furrowed as she walked back into the bar, Triple Threatís playing barraging her ears. She made a beeline for the bar, reaching for the bottle of aspirin she knew Mitch had stashed there. Setting it on the counter, she slipped her keys into her purse, and stopped for a moment, looking down at her phone before she put it away too. Jessie clenched her teeth. She could still hear the womanís voice in her head. Hello.. hello.. Was Zach telling the truth? Had the switchboard at the hotel connected her to the wrong room?

    "Jess?" Phoebe said, coming up behind her friend. "Jessie? Hello?"

    "What?" Jessie answered, annoyed.

    "You okay?"

"Have a killer headache," she answered quickly, popping two pills into her mouth, their bitter taste spreading up her tongue as the aspirin started to dissolve, causing her to grimace. Wanting to splash some water on her face to help clear her head, Jessie headed towards the bathroom. "Be right back."

    Turning on the faucet, she cupped some cold water in her hand, and swallowed the pills, and splashed some water on her face. The coldness of the water on her face had soothed some of the tension away, and she sighed, running her finger through her long hair and brushing it out of her face.

    "There you are," Phoebe said, seeing her friend emerge from the bathroom. "I was getting worried."

    "Sorry about that Phoebs.."

    "Did you speak to Zach?"

    "Yeah," she nodded, leaning up against the wall for a moment, taking advantage of the quieter setting. "I called him.."

    "And?"

    "Some woman answered the phone."

    "Excuse me?" Phoebe said, emphatically pressing her fists into her hips, annoyed.

    "Whoever it was hung up. So I called back, and this time Zach answered the phone. I asked him who the hell had answered the phone before and he said he didnít know what I was talking about, that the phone had only rung that one time all night. I was pissed but he sounded so sincere, swearing up and down that he loves me and that he would never do something to jeopardize that. I dunno, what do you think?"

    Now it was Phoebeís turn to seethe. She had to fight really hard not to blurt out what she really thought of her friendís fiancť, but threw up her hands refusing to get into it.

    "Iím not even gonna go there Jess. I refuse to say anything on the grounds that I donít like Zach anyway. As far as Iím concerned nothing he has to say is true."

    "Yeah whatever," Jess quipped back at her friend, not too happy with her response.

    Looking away awkwardly, Jess noticed that the door to Mitchís office was partially ajar, a dim stream of light streaming through. Bold as day, she stepped towards his office. It had been a while since Mitch had disappeared and she wanted to make sure he was okay.

    "Mitch?" she said, rapping on the door lightly with her knuckles, "you in there?"

    Scanning the room, she searched for the source of the faint groan she heard. Walking into the office, she spotted him on the sofa, throw pillow pressed onto his face. Jess did some grumbling of her own, as she rounded the end of the sofa, bumping her shin on the coffee table.

    "Damn, canít see shit in here," she said, reaching over to switch on Mitchís desk lamp. "There. Thatís much better."

    Phoebe slowly approached the door, feeling awkward at eavesdropping on the two.

    "I know youíre under there somewhere," she smiled, tapping his leg for him to move over. "Now scoot over so I can sit down."

    He shoulda known that she would come. No matter what, Jess would always follow him and check that he was okay, even if it took a while, after even their biggest arguments. His own head was pounding, and knowing that the desk lampís light would only bring on further discomfort, all he could manage was to grumble an incoherent response from under the pillow.

    "Whatís the matter?" she asked, her tone soft and reassuring. "Címon Mitch, you can tell me. Weíre buddies.."

    Mitch sighed. If it only were that easy. "I just wanna be alone.."

    "Alone? Why? We were having such a fun time tonight. Mitch," she said, tugging on the corner of the pillow. "Will you look at me? Itís kinda hard talking to a pillow.."

    "There," he said, wincing when the light hit his eyes, "happy now?"

    "Iíll be a lot happier when you let me know whatís wrong.."

    She looked down at him now, her big hazel eyes twinkling in the lamplight, as she took his right hand in hers, and waited for him to speak.

    "Plenty is wrong. My headís pounding. It feels like someone took a sledgehammer to my temples.."

    "Yours and mine both," she sighed, turning, so that she could lean back against his torso. "We canít mix drinks the way we used to. We arenít as young as we used to be. Our bodies canít take it anymore."

    Mitch cursed himself, thoughts of another night when he and Jess had been alone after one too many drinks on that very sofa. He tried to relax, holding onto Jessís hand, and trying not to let their closeness to overcome his senses again. "I feel really old all of a sudden, yeah.."

    "But thatís not all. I know you. Something else is eating you."

    He wanted to tell her the truth, that he was glad that the innocent kiss on the stage had turned into something more, how even now he wanted to take her into his arms for a deep embrace, and just shut everyone and everything out if even for a moment. But how could he do that? Was he willing to risk losing Jess by telling her the truth?

    Jess could read the turmoil in Mitchís face. "Youíre not making this any easier for me you know," she smiled, "but okay. Letís play the guessing game.."

    Mitch could feel Jess tensing up. He wasnít being fair. She had come to him trying to be nice and help him feel better, and now he was acting like a obstinate child. "Iím sorry," he smiled, squeezing her hand, "I didnít mean to make you feel uncomfortable.."

    Phoebe closed her eyes so she could concentrate better as she continued to listen in, when all of a sudden she could see Jess and Mitch in her mind, having the exact same conversation, only this time it was in a completely different setting. Where are we? she thought, slowing down her breathing so that she wouldnít lose the vision playing in her head. She tasted sawdust on her lips, the sound of a tinny piano played in the background. The sepia colored world was definitely in the past, the wild west from the looks of it. Suddenly the vision blurred as quick as it had appeared, and she had to brace herself against the door frame to steady her balance. Phoebeís ears felt like they were filling with fluid, and she felt herself being sucked backward, ever backward into a blurry tunnel. The colors and tones of Mitch's office had started to swirl together and merge, pulsing before her. Opening her eyes, she knew what was happening, but her usual control was missing because of all the alcohol she had ingested. Damn it, she thought. Just as an image was forming and she was trying to get a grasp on it, she lost it, the sound of a cymbal crash bringing her back out of her trance-like state. I better go sit down and have a cup of strong coffee, she thought, backing away from the door of Mitchís office.

    "Wait a minute," Jess said, sitting up. "Donít tell me this is about the kiss we shared on stage?"

    "Okay, I wonít tell you that.."

    "Mitch!" she whined, "it was a thank you kiss between pals! Weíve kissed plenty of times.."

    Not like that, he thought, not enough for my liking.

    "Did it bother you that I kissed you?"

    Just like that she had managed to paint him into a corner, God bless her. "No, it didnít bother me. The kiss was fine."

    "Fine?" Jessie giggled. "You have quite a kisser there mister," she teased. "So we locked lips there for a second, so whatís the big deal? Whatís a kiss between friends?"

    Mitch search Jessieís eyes for any hint that she had felt the fire when their lips had met. But there was nothing there. She didnít see it. To her it had just been an affectionate kiss between friends. He was disappointed, but Jessís nonchalant reaction had gotten him off the hook.

    "I had too much to drink. Itís made me moody," Mitch said, sitting up.

    "Careful there slugger," Jess said, feeling her butt start to slide off the end of the sofa, "or youíre gonna dump me on my ass. Or maybe youíd enjoy that," she laughed, getting up. "Címon, letís forget this feel sorry for ourselves crap. I need to eat something to help settle my stomach or I wonít be able to drive home. Besides, Phoebs and I had a little spat. What better way to smooth things over than sharing a big caramel sundae?"

    "Sounds like a plan.."

    "So, then get up you big baby. What? Do you want me to pull you up to now? Okay.. címon.. ally oop," she said, pulling him up by the arm.

When Mitch and Jess came out they found Phoebe at the far end of the bar, nursing a cup of coffee.

    "Hey Phoebs," Jess said, walking back out into the bar, "Mitch is back in the land of the living and weíve decided that weíre gonna share a sundae before we head out."

    "Sounds good to me," volunteered Phoebe, "I could put a scoop of vanilla in this and call it a mocha supreme."

    "That doesnít sound half bad," Mitch piped in.

    Mitch caught the inquisitive look Angel was given him, and gave him a low hand signal to let him know everything was okay. Thankfully, the band had just finished their set, and a lot of the people were starting to leave. Quiet suited him just fine just now.

    Angel was talking to a pretty thing at the other end of the bar. That isnít like him, Mitch thought. Since Suzanne had died, Angel had shied away from any sort of contact with woman. Not a bad looker, the slender young woman looked to be of oriental heritage, with chestnut eyes, bigger than most Orientals, and glossy black hair that fell down to her butt. The ethnic print floral dress, so popular with the retro loving teens today looked stunning on her, the predominant red tones playing well against her pale skin, skimming her figure, a toned thigh showing through the high side slit of the dress. Man, he could do a lot worse, Mitch thought.

    Angel shook his head. "There just ain't no way I'm gonna convince Mitch and Jess that you're the new bookkeeper. Theyíre gonna think something fishyís going on since I hired you without even running it past either of them."

    "Well it seems to me, YOU own the bar not them," Gina replied, in a firm but subdued tone. "And besides, what does this Jess person have to do with anything anyway?"

    "Hell, she's the one who helped us straighten out the books when they seemed to be beyond repair. Sheíd be expecting us to have her do it again if we ran into trouble.

    "Well, I guess it's not gonna happen, Angel. So just get off your soapbox and either introduce me or I'll introduce myself."

    "Like I'm gonna let you do that!" Angel snapped.

    "No Angel," she corrected, "IíM the one who's going to let YOU do that!"

    Ginaís eyes seared into his and he had no doubt in his mind that she meant business. "I'll be right back," Angel said, lowering his voice, "just gimme a sec, okay?"

    Sally had watched the whole exchange, remembering the woman from earlier that day. Having overheard the entire conversation from the kitchen doorway, she knew something was definitely up, and she was gonna find out what. But Sally would play it cool, and stay on this broadís good side while things were still quiet.

    "Can I get you some more tea?" she asked sweetly.

    Gina was startled. "Oh.. sure, Iíd love some more," Gina said, forcing a smile, before turning back around, smile fading, focusing again on the group at the other side of the bar.

    "Hey, that looks pretty good!" Angel joked, eyeing the messy mug of French vanilla laden coffee on Phoebeís place mat.

    Betty had brought out the huge 5 gallon tub of ice cream, and Jessie was digging her spoon into it for another scoop. "Hey Betty, whereís the whipped cream?"

    "I'm cominí, I'm cominí.. I swear you guys are worse than my boys having a food fight."

    "Well if the lady wants to see a food fight, we can certainly oblige!" Mitch exclaimed, exuberantly.

    "OH NO YOU WONíT!" Betty replied. "Or Iíll tan your hides like I do my boys!"

    Mitch backed down real quick after that remark. Angel just chuckled. Betty always had a way of calming down any situation that seemed to be getting out of hand at the bar, and so matter-of-factly too. But he was sure that not even Betty couldn't handle what was to come up next.

    Sally wandered over to the gang. "Well I see this is lively side of the bar. Donít mean to rain on your parade but Iím beat. When are we gonna close up this joint? Itís after three!"

    "Canít close up yet, hon, thereís still a few people finishing up," stated Mitch. "Itíd be bad for business if we tried to hurry Ďem out the door."

    "Havenít they had enough already?" Phoebe asked. "Take that chick for example," she said, motioning carefully over at Gina. "Who guzzles ice tea at 3:00am? Thereís no way sheís gonna get to sleep.

    Okay, Angel thought, nowís as good as time as any. "Thatís no customer," he announced, casually, "thatís our new bookkeeper, Gina Malone."

    Mitch, Jess and Phoebe all choked on their ice cream all at once, gaping at Angel in total disbelief.

    "Our bookkeeper?" parroted Mitch.

    "Yup, I just hired her today."

    "You didnít need to hire anyone, Angel, I woulda continued to do the books for free," stated Jessie.

    "Thatís a real sweet offer, Sugar, and I thank you for the offer. But with your job at the paper and planning your wedding and stuff I thought you had enough on your plate to deal with.."

    He had been right to assume his friends wouldnít understand. Mitch and Jess looked at him now with hurt expressions on their faces. But there was nothing to be done other than try and make the best of an iffy situation.

    "Ginaís fresh out of business school so sheís eager to get her feet wet in the business world," Angel said quickly, "and I know I can count on all of you to help her feel at home. Gina, come over here. I wanna introduce you to the gang.."

    This was it. Her first chance to make a strong impression. Squaring her shoulders, she sauntered over to the group, proudly making sure she made eye contact with each of them.

    "Everybody, Iíd like you to meet Gina Malone. Sheís the barís new bookkeeper. Gina, this is my partner Mitch Williams."

    "Hi," Mitch smiled, extending his hand and smiling broadly, while trying to conceal his bewilderment. "Welcome aboard. Weíre a wacky bunch, but the Dusk To Dawn is a fun place to work."

    "Thatís fine," Gina answered, "Iím sure Iíll blend right in."

    "And this lovely lady is Jessie Reynolds. Sheís one of our regulars Ė canít seem to get rid of her," Angel teased, "so much so she even found time to balance our books."

    "It wasnít any bother," Jessie grinned, "weíre all good friends here."

    "Well Iíll handle the books now," stated Gina, "so you can concentrate on socializing with your friends."

    "And last but not least, this is another old friend, Phoebe Hayes. She knows Mitch and Jessie from back in high school."

    Phoebe groaned dramatically, trying to change the tone of the room. "Friend yes, old no, thank you very much," she laughed, "although Iím sure weíve been friends over many lifetimes.."

    "Youíre into New Age thinking, huh?" Gina asked, seeming unimpressed. "I think we have enough to handle in this lifetime to bother wasting time dwelling on the past."

    "Phoebe does very well for herself in this lifetime. Sheís a talented psychic.."

    Uh oh, Mitch thought, cat fight in the works? "Phoebs did psychic readings during our last party. Was a raving success too. A lot of the customers have asked for her to come back and do more readings. If she can work us in, Iím sure she could work her magic on our take.."

    "The bar gets a cut of her earnings?" Gina asked, her mind always on financial matters.

    "Yup," Angel chided in. "And it turns out to be quite a cut too. Sheís really good."

    "Maybe I could do a reading for you sometime," suggested Phoebe.

    "Maybe," Gina answered.

    "Okay," Angel announced, "youíve already met our wonderful waitresses, Sally and Betty, now letís take you in the back to meet the kitchen staff.."

    "Kinda snotty if you ask me," Jessie said, watching Angel and Gina depart.

    "Maybe sheís just nervous," suggested Mitch.

    Phoebe kept her mouth shut. It had been a long night and her intuitive sense wasnít anywhere near full strength, so she decided to reserve her opinion til she was more clear-minded. Maybe she could convince Gina to have a reading done..

    Back in the kitchen, Gina politely sat through the remainder of the introductions, including when Angel told her about Mark, the new busboy. Good, Gina thought. Mark her secret accomplice was in place and ready to work. The boy had enough good sense to ignore them, acting like the dedicated little worker bee, sorting dirty dishes into the dishwasher. Only after their new bossís back was turned did he look up and give Gina a quick acknowledging nod.

    All the pieces were in place for her eventual rise within the organization. Her first assignment out of college seemed easy enough, as long as she could manage to keep Angel in his place, maintain Markís true agenda under wraps, and keep Angelís pushy friends out of the way.


    Noticing that the Dusk To Dawnís interior lights were still on when they had driven back to the beach parking lot after dinner, Sid and Krystal decided to take a walk along the beach to avoid any further contact with the others in the bar. The perfect end to a perfect date, both enjoyed the quiet and moonlight, reflecting on the eveningís events.

    Taking a rest on one of the benches scattered along the edge of the sand, Krystal fought back a tired yawn.

    "Long day, huh?" Sid smiled.

    "Yeah. But it was worth it."

    Sid snuck a look at his watch. He had to get going soon or heíd risk pissing his new boss off by arriving any later to the station. Excusing himself on the pretense of going to the bathroom, Sid had called Johnny, and lied, saying he was having car trouble. Sure it was a risk to be pushing his luck so soon, but he was having a great time with Krystal and dreaded the fact that their evening would be coming to an end. He had made so much headway with Krystal, allowing her to see the real him, it would be a shame to lose his great new job and end up looking like a loser to her. Sid decided to wait before he let anybody, even Krystal, know he was a deejay. Once he built a stronger listening audience and grew more confident behind the mike heíd proudly tell them about what was one of the biggest accomplishments of his life.

    "I wholeheartedly agree," he replied. "But Iím kinda beat too.."

    "Walk me back to my car?"

    "Of course.."

    Their walk back to the car went way too quick. Holding hands as they went, Krystal snuggled up against Sidís side. "I had a wonderful time."

    "It was my pleasure, a pleasure Iíd like to have again real soon.."

    And with that he hugged Krystal close, holding her in his arms a few seconds longer than he usually would have, not wanting to let go. Slowly, ever so slowly, he reached down and cupped her face in his hands, and kissed her, lavishing in the softness of her lips, in her response to his kiss. Krystal pressed her body into his, looping her arms around his neck, feeling her knees start to buckle as Sid slid his tongue sensuously into her mouth, for a slow, deep, passionate kiss.

    Krystal moaned at the unexpected pleasure coursing through her veins, as she returned his kiss, massaging his tongue with her own. Better pull away, she thought, before things get outta hand. Sid was the real deal. Nice, honest AND a good kisser. Definitely a keeper. No need to rush things, she thought, there was always their next date to explore Sidís sensuous side even further.

    "Goodnight sweet lady," Sid said, his own heart pounding, as he stepped back to stop the wonderful kiss.

    "Night," Krystal answered, catching her breath.

    "Can I call you tomorrow?"

    Krystal grinned, and reached into her purse. Taking his right hand and turning it palm side up, she started to giggle. "You better," she laughed, writing her number on his hand. "There.. donít lose that!"

    "Never," Sid answered, into the darkness of the night, as he watched Krystal drive away.

* * * * *

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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