Never. Ever. No matter how on sale they are, or how your mother gushes over their life-like beauty, buy silk flowers for your wedding.
Spring comes. Love ends, but the flowers remain, mournfully woven into tabletop arrangements, taped to the tops of presents, pinned to curtains and the thousand other uses that come to a dissapointed, and haplessly sadistic would-be mother-of-the-bride.
She hated Gardenias. She hated duchess satin and, she thought as the odometer rolled over another hundred miles, she especially hated David Shields.
She should be thanking him, really. He was a cheating bastard who had saved the best years of her life by walking away, but he had humiliated her, and done it with a smug grin that she wished she could punch off his face.
He would probably punchher back, she reminded herself. Thinking of the awful nights she had spent believing that he loved her- that things were about to change- her eyes glazed over again with tears.
Two more miles.
And then she blinked. Where had that thought come from? She didn’t even know where she was going….or did she…? She had awoken from a dream one night and gotten in her car to drive away…She had fled the house without a note or an explanation. Fled the gardenias, fled the stamped but un-mailed invitations..fled David. Something had drawn her in way that she couldn’t quite explain. There was an image in the back of her mind- a charming inn nestled by the sea. Friendly faces that would greet her there….It couldn’t exist. It shouldn’t exist…but it was coming up on the right side of the road.
“Bartender, may I have an amaretto sour please- extra cherries.” Stephanie slid onto a barstool and looked nervously around the little tavern. She needed a drink- something stronger than amaretto- but she always started slow. Goosebumps travelled along her skin in response dual warning from her mind of “deja vu” and “something just isn’t right.”
“Here you go, love…” the man behind the counter said sweetly, in a lilting accent that she couldn’t quite place. She raised her eyes just high enough to acknowledge him, registering only that he had a pleasant smile and blue eyes, then she looked back at her hands.
“Extra cherries…” A man beside her said . “Can you tie the stems with your tongue?”
“My kind of woman.” Another, similar voice added with a hint of leer.
“Shut up, Sid.”A third voice added, disdain in his voice undisguised. “Leave the lady alone.”
At last Stephanie looked up….and she did a double take. They could have been brothers….possibly even twins, but the man who had spoken in her defense seemed far older than the rest. Each had pale blue eyes, keen features, and closely cropped hair.
Her defender caught her staring, and offered a sympathetic smile that seemed to say. “We get that a lot.”
“Jeffry Wigand…” he said, extending his hand. Stephanie took it, shaking only limply as she tried to hide her confusion. “First night at the nest?” “The- the nest?”
He shared a look with the other men. This was going to take a while. “The Crowe’s Nest…” He said, frowning…Didn’t she know why she was here?
He opened his mouth to explain some more when a trio of girls sauntered into the bar.
“We’ll take it from here…” The one who seemed to be in charge said, taking the woman’s elbow while the other two collected her luggage.
The trio of men simply nodded. “‘Kay, Peaches.”
Stephanie stopped a few feet away from the bar. “I haven’t paid yet.” She said quickly, and then, watching as their companions carried her bags into the night. “Are they stealing my luggage?” Two sips of the amaretto and already her mind felt hazy.
“No, they aren’t stealing them. They’re taking them to your room….we’ve been expecting you Stephanie….welcome home.”
Stephanie stood in front of the mirror, looking at her reflection. Was she dreaming? Hallucinating? Dead? All three possibilities seemed more likely than the thought that she was truly alive in this inexplicable place. She looked around the room – perfect. As though someone had reached inside her mind and found her most perfect sanctuary…a huge, mahogany sleigh-bed filled covered in feather matresses, and duvets covered in rich brown and claret brocade. Satin sheets that looked like molten gold. Heavy curtains that pooled on the deeply carpeted floor. Tobacco colored walls….The closet was filled with dresses and showes all in the perfect size. They were neatly arranged on their hangers and in their drawers- as though she had left them there herself. There was something else, too…Something elusive that she couldn’t put her finger on…Something- no, she told herself= *SOMEONE* waiting for her somewhere inside these walls…. She shivered, wondering again if she could trust her intuition.
She lifted her shirt over her head, tossing it to the floor and returned her attention to the mirror. It was still there. She reached forward to the glass and traced the large bruise that still covered the area along her right side from her waistband to her bra.
It was fading now. Almost gone…but real.
“Come in.” Stephanie called, without turning away. She continued to stare as the door clicked quietly open.
“Hi. Sorry to disturb you. Peaches thought you might be hungry since you didn’t come down for dinner. She-” The stranger took a sharp intake of breath. A beat. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.” It was a man’s voice. Jolting back to reality, she was painfully aware of the face that the upper portion of her body was clad only in a nude satin and black-lace bra. She lunged for her shirt, hiking it over her head before she turned.
And then she saw him.
A shiver ran along her spine.
It didn’t matter if the bruise was still there of not…she couldn’t be awake.
Stephanie shoved the shirt over hear head, a heavy blush settling over her cheeks. She looked at the man. He had a steady light-blue gaze. Didn’t he ever blink?- and closely cropped brown-black hair. He was wearing chinos a tie and a starched white shirt in a casual manner in such an offhand manner that he may as well have been wearing jeans….or a uniform. He seemed very still. Deep. Like a flat lake. She wondered what was going on beneath the surface.
“I….I fell….on a step.” She stammered.
“Yeah.” The man answered, his voice very tight. “Funny how boyfriends always leave their boots at the bottom of the stairs.”
He was still staring, and so she crossed her arms in front of her chest.
“Yes…well…” She chewed her lower lip. “Tell `Peaches’ that I’m not hungry. But thanks for the offer…is there a phone around here that I can use?”
“Yeah…there doesn’t seem to be one in here.”
“Not a lot of people call out.” At last he looked from her ribcage to her face. “Not a lot of people want to call out.”
“Well. I do.”
“Who are you calling?”
That was enough. Exasperation colored her face. “That’s not your business.” She grabbed her keys and stalked past him, not sure of where she was going, but hoping that a scene would at least make him go away.
“Wait.” He said, resting his hand on her arm. She sucked in her breath as a jolt of electricity surged involuntarily through her arm. She stared at him. Blinked, and then pulled her arm away.
“There’s a phone at the front desk.” He said calmly.
She nodded and started down the hall.
Bud White swallowed and watched her walk away.
Stephanie tried not to turn around as she walked down the hall. She could feel him watching her go. It should have freaked her out, but it didn’t. There was something odd about the man. As though he knew her already. As though he was somehow inside her head and knew what she was hiding. As though…. She shook her head. No sense getting sentimental. She wasn’t here to fall in love. She was here to fall *out* of love if she could manage it.
The lobby was crowded, but the desk was empty. At least she would have a semblance of privacy. Three couples and two stray men were ranged around a wide screen TV watching the Superbowl. The grey haired man from the tavern with his arm loosely around a lanky woman.
And two younger versions of the same man entangled in differing degrees with equally attractive brunettes. They didn’t seem to be cheering for a particular side.
“Wendy!” They called to as another girl strode into the room.
One of the girls wriggled to a sitting position in the hockey-jersey clad man’s embrace. “Where’s Max?”
“Pouting.” She replied, tossing her hair back over her shoulder and grabbing a bagel bite before slipping onto a bare spot on the floor. “He says it’s barbaric.”
Mr. Hockey-Jersey frowned. “You did explain to him that they don’t *kill* the losing team after the game, didn’t you.”
“Oh, he wasn’t talking about the football- it’s listening to `Nsync and Brittany Spears cover Aerosmith songs that he’s opposed to…”
Feeling the first smile in a long time cross her lips, Stephanie hurried past to the front desk. The desk was empty. Everyone was crowded in front of the TV, so she had a little bit of privacy to place her calls. One ring. Two. Three. Six. Twelve.
Where was he? Still at work?
No voice mail.
Maybe his cell phone was turned off. Maybe he was in the hospital. Maybe…
Maybe I’m just pathetic, she admitted to herself at last, hanging the phone up with a heavy sigh.
She sucked in her breath sharply, unaware that the stranger had been standing behind her.
“No…I….yes..I…I was just checking my messages.” She half-lied, still wondering why she wasn’t mad at him. “I…I didn’t have any.” She added quickly.
He nodded, his blue eyes boring into her soul.
“Want to watch the game?” He asked, tilting his head toward the TV.
“I could show you around, if you-“
“No, that’s not necessary.”
“Look…will you just give me a chance to talk to you for a minute.” He glanced at the TV entranced crowd. “If only to preserve my ego against everyone I know.”
She looked at her hands, considering the suggestion for a moment. What would it hurt, really? He seemed nice enough. Just because he asked, didn’t mean that she had to tell him anything. Her eyes roamed absently over the items arranged on the desk. Phonebook.
Notepad. Keys. Flower arrangement.
The sick bastards.
Abruptly, her smile fell. “I’m sorry, but I’m really tired.”
She chewed her lip again. “What time is check out tomorrow?”
“You aren’t leaving.”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement.
How much beer had he actually ended up drinking? Bud had lost count. All he knew was that he was crowded around a computer in Sid’s room with six of his other alter-egos, and that in itself was strong evidence of high intoxication.
“Oh! Oh! She’s getting out of the shower…pan right! Pan right!”
*Oooohhh…* The group made a collective sound of male admiration as the woman on the computer screen slid a slender leg from behind the shower doors, and then a shared cry of pain as she reached for her robe without stepping out.
“What’s that ?” John Biebe asked as the woman, her hair tucked up in the ubiquitous towel-turban, began to rub her heel with a scratchy looking sponge.
“A loofah.” The grey-haired man in their center answered.
A collective *ahhh*. The new visitor was one of the girliest girls to grace the Nest in a long time. It had been a damn long while since garters were left drying over shower doors. They were counting on Dr. Wigand, formerly married to a southern belle, as their expert on odd and inexplicable female grooming behavior.
“Now what is she doing?” One of the youngest men said, tilting his head to the side for a better view as she separated her hair into portions, spun it onto large blue cylinders, and then removed them. “Velcro rollers, East.” Jeffrey pronounced solemnly.
John nodded. He had recognized that one. “She’s adding texture.”
“What’s going on in here?”
The little band of men parted quickly, leaving Sid alone in front of the computer as the door opened.
The man in the middle looked like all the rest, but his mental presence was different. He was a leader. The alpha male. Everyone looked nervously at the resident computer addict to see what would transpire.
“Maximus.” He said thinly, trying not to sound overly surprised while covering, as much as possible, the monitor with his back. “We were just…just….” he looked to the others for help, but they were suddenly interested in recounting the third quarter.
The Roman squinted at the monitor. At that very instant, the robe dropped.
Sid swallowed hard and looked at the soldier, suddenly more afraid of the general than being discovered by Peaches. The man’s face was impassive. And then he crossed his muscular arms in front of his broad chest.
He met Sid’s eyes, and at last he spoke. “And to think, Sid….all this time we thought you were up here, playing that damn game…”
The gathering dispersed shortly afterwards, each man stumbling off to his own bed to sleep off the night’s festivities (or to begin them anew with their roommates). They chattered a bit about “the new girl”‘s “assets”. Bud tried to gamely smile. He knew that, to them, she was nothing more than cheesecake. Most of them were already in love- their participation in Sid’s little peep show had been alcohol induced, and he didn’t doubt that more than a few of them would guiltily regret their actions in the future. They had seen only her body. A nice butt and a pair of breasts.
Bud had only seen the bruise.
Why wouldn’t she tell him who had done it?
Why couldn’t she admit to him that she was hurting?
Why didn’t she know that they were connected?
He had to show her.
*knock* *knock* *knock*
Stephanie rolled over, putting the pillow over her head.
*knock* *knock* *knock*
Next time, she was definitely staying at a chain hotel. This was ridiculous. Ever since leaving the lobby she had been treated to a never ending parade of “Hi, I’m Tawny.” “I’m Kath, nice to meet you.”
“Friendly advice, keep your paws off John” and offers of cocoa and cookies from seemingly ever occupant of the little house. Finally, around midnight, it had tapered off….What time was it anyway? She glanced to the little clock beside her bed.
*knock* *knock* *knock*
With a loud sigh, she flung the pillow into the floor and stalked toward the door, pausing only long enough to yank her robe along her arms.
She looked through the peephole. Bud.
She sighed in frustration. Why couldn’t he understand that she just wanted to be let alone?
*knock* *knock* *knock*
It was no use. He knew that she was inside, letting him stay out there pounding all night would only cost her more precious sleep. Chewing her lip, she opened the door.
“Bud.” She said simply, standing behind the doorway in a position that said “I’m half-naked and don’t you dare come inside.”
Bud ignored it, walking past her to stand by the foot of the bed.
He shoved his hands into his pockets and looked at his feet. “Still here?”
“Still not hungry?”
She shook her head.
“Most of the girls I know eat every once in a while.”
“I doubt I’m much like the other girls you know.” She answered quickly, knotting the belt of her robe.
“You’d be surprised.”
Something about the earnestness in his voice made her look up, and she felt her stomach constrict tightly. Make him go…She screamed inside her head. Make him go now….
But instead of speaking, she heard herself tell him that yes, perhaps she was a little hungry and accepting an offer to go for a walk- if he’d just give her a minute to change.
“No reason to get dressed.” He assured her, not wanting to give her time to change her mind. “It’s a private beach, and all the other guys are sleeping it off….and the girls.” He shrugged. “They’ve uhm…you know, seen it all before.”
She shrugged and followed him out the door. “What are you going to feed me on the beach?” She asked, feeling strangely happy now that she’d agreed to come along.
She laughed athlete. “S’mores?” She tilted her head, studying his pale blue eyes. “I can’t picture you as the type.”
He shrugged. “Is that bad?”
She shook her head. “I like surprises.”
She followed him down the hallway to a pair of double doors leading out to the beach. As he had predicted, the grounds were deserted. There was an eerie beauty about the place. The moon was low and silvery, flashing brightly in the choppy waves of the sea, and sand reflected a ghostly white. The wind had picked up since she had arrived. Clouds were converging on the horizon, threatening a late night rain, but for now it was clear and cool. The wind whipped through the long grasses that poked through the sand, and it played with the hem of her robe, whipping the soft pink silk up around her thighs.
They walked in silence until they came to a ring of blackened sand- evidently the traditional bonfire location. Beside it, topped with limp sea-weed from a high tide, a cooler was buried in the sand, and Bud opened it, retrieving skewers, marshmallows, chocolate and grahms. Stephanie smiled at the conveniently placed container.
“So, this is a regular Sunday night thing for you?” She asked, teasing.
Bud stood up quickly. “No!” He said a little too strongly, then, seeing the playful sparkle in her eyes toned down his response.
“No…lots of us come out here. We got tired of running back and forth to the inn.”
“Ah…” Stephanie sank down to her knees in the sand, and Bud lowered the lid of the cooler.
“There’s a blanket around here somewhere…”
“Don’t bother.” She let the robe slide off her shoulders and spread it onto the sand. Then she settled onto one side, hugging her knees and looking out into the surging waves.
Momentarily abandon his task, Bud joined her.
“Still leaving tomorrow?” He asked after a long pause.
She nodded. Then noting his expression, added with a sigh. “I have to go…”
“My job…my family…my…..” She stopped abruptly and looked at her hands. “I have to go.”
To see if he will call you again? To face your stuggles all by yourself? There was so many things that he wanted to ask her- to tell her….but he sensed that the time wasn’t right. That it would be too easy to push her away.
“You could be happy here.” Was all that he said.
“I don’t want to be happy, Bud.” Her voice came out in a rush.
“I just don’t want to hurt anymore.”
He felt a pang in his chest as she began to tremble. “Just not hurting….it would be enough.”
There was silence again as she closed her eyes very tightly and tried to force back her tears. Bud sat like a statue, using every ounce of control to still his hands.
“What happened?” He said softly, when the shaking finally ceased. He reached forward to touch her hair.
She blinked and squeezed her eyes shut again. “You don’t want to know…it’s…” She sighed and opened her eyes back up. “I was jilted.”
“Jilted? As in…”
“As in groom runs away with a bridesmaid two days before the wedding and your entire life becomes avoiding people, returning packages and creating exciting desserts with unused wedding cake.” She said, not bothering to hide her resentment.
“As in…as in I never wanted to marry the bastard in the first place, but I wanted my happy ever after. I wanted to put on a white dress and smile and just….just…” She took a deep breath.
“Smile.” She said again.
She chewed her lip for a few moments, and then she turned to her companion. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to dump I just needed to vent.”
He smiled faintly. “I figured.” He said softly. Then, gathering his courage, he took her hand lightly between both of his own and rubbed it faintly. “You’re cold.” He whispered.
She blinked and a final tear dropped from her lashes to her cheek. “I’m okay.” She said with her lips, but her eyes asked to be held.
Bud went with the eyes.
“Who are you.” She whispered in a very small voice.
“I know, but…”
“A long time ago I was a cop.”
A shudder. “My dad was a cop.” A story there, he could sense it, but it would have to come later. He leaned forward and kissed her forehead tenderly.
“A long time ago I was hurt…just like you.” He lowered his hands to her waist again, drawing her toward him. “I can make it feel better.”
She held his gaze for a long moment. For an instant he thought that she was going to let go. That she would come to him at last, but instead of a soft kiss, the look faded into a hard smirk.
“Better in love, or better in bed?” She said, standing to her feet.
His mouth opened to answer, but no words came out.
“Because if it’s in love, Mr. White…I’m afraid I have to inform you that I am supremely screwed up right now.” She pursed her lips. “I’ve always been supremely screwed up…and if its in bed.” he refused to meet her gaze. “Well…you know where the room is.”
He didn’t move, but he finally met her eyes. The soft blue orbs were accusing, reminding him that it was an unfair way to repay his kindness.
“Go to sleep.” Bud said darkly. He picked up one of the marshmallows he had selected and tossed it into the waves. “And in case I don’t see you in the morning, Goodbye.”
“Good morning!” Stephanie rubbed her eyes, waiting for her contacts to moisten enough to make sense of the image outside her door.
Gradually, the blurs coalesced into a lovely, dark haired girl and the man she had dubbed “Hockey-shirt guy” the night before. What was the woman’s name….Tara? Tyler? Oh, Tina.
“Hello.” She said again, a little more awake. Where the heck was her robe? She frowned as she remembered that it must still be on the beach. “Can I, uhm…help you?”
“Are you busy today?”
“I…no…I mean, yes…I mean….I’m leaving.” She said quickly.
“Already?” The girl frowned, then she looked at her friend.
“But that isn’t possible…you haven’t met him yet, have you?”
“What?” What was she blathering about? It made no sense.
“We’ll meet you later.” Tina said quickly to her escort. They shared a brief kiss and, with a nod, he walked away. Before Stephanie could blink, Tina was inside her room, shutting the door behind her with a loud click.
Who were these people? Didn’t they have any concept of privacy?
“You can’t leave.” The tone was matter of fact.
“Because you haven’t found your connection.”
“The reason that brought you here…” She sat on the edge of the unmade bed. “The *person* who called you here.”
Unbidden, Stephanie’s thoughts turned to Bud. Her stomach tightened a little as she remembered the pain on his face- as though she had slapped him- triggered by her parting remarks.
“What do you mean?” Stephanie had no idea that she would get such an interesting answer.
The newcomer listened in near disbelief as Tina explained the magic of the Nest- the fact that all of the women in residence had been called there by one or another incarnation of RC. Of course, she had read the Nest stories on the list…but it couldn’t possibly be *real* could it?…but then, the man Tina had been with *did* look familiar. Her heart started beating a little faster. Too wrapped up in her feelings, she had dismissed the resemblances as flights of fancy-tricks of a tired mind and broken heart….
In the end, she merely sighed. If there had been a connection, she had blown it with Bud already. Lucky for him. He didn’t need to get involved with someone with so many problems.
“…and I think that I know who it is!”
Stephanie looked up again sharply as her attention was once again captured by the other woman’s words.
“Yes- it’s perfect. He’s been alone for so long…I think that you will get along just perfectly. Yes…I’m sure of it. Listen, why don’t you get changed and meet the three of us” That would be John, Tina, and the mystery man, Stephanie reasoned. “for a picnic.”
“Are you sure that he’ll come?” Her heart beat a little faster. Maybe Bud could forgive her. Maybe this could all be salvaged…Not that she wanted him to like her, she quickly reigned in her excitement.
“Oh, yes. We spoke to him this morning. He’s anxious to see you again. He said he didn’t feel like he got a chance to know you last night.”
Say no…say no…say no….a voice inside cried over and over again. It will be over too soon. He’ll go. You’ll hurt.
“Okay.” She couldn’t believe what she was saying.
“Okay?” Tina blinked as though she hadn’t expected it to be so easy. Then, regaining her composure, she simply smiled. “Well, okay then…we’ll meet in the lobby in an hour.”
It was the fastest hour of Stephanie’s life. She had so much to do, and so little time. She hopped on one foot in the shower, trying to shave and wash her hair at the same time, then dashing out to wrap herself in a soft towel and trying to decide what to wear.
That was a challenge. What would the weather be like? It was January, and she was sure that she had seen snow on the odd mountains outside her window. But then, the beach had been warm- almost balmy…and the gardens….
Frowning as she looked outside, Stephanie selected a simple sundress and, just in case, a sweater. She would be prepared, at least, if it grew cold. She didn’t want to wear slacks- too confining.
In a guilty place deep within her, she wanted to be sure that Bud got an eyeful of her legs.
At last, the hour was complete and, applying a final spritz of hairspray, she dashed down the carpeted staircase to the front room. There they were, Tina, John and….her heart rose, and then fell so quickly that she felt its impact in the pit of her stomach. It wasn’t Bud. It wasn’t even Jeffrey, her hoped-for second string. It was a man she had never seen, much younger than the rest. The same smiling eyes, but with less kempt hair and a lanky youthfulness completely missing from most of the men she had seen at the nest.
“Stephanie!” Tina said, smiling broadly. The object of the hail, tried to echo the look, if only to preserve appearances.
“This is John, of course.” She said, sliding her arm possessively around the waist of the quiet sheriff. Then she turned to the other man, holding the picnic basket and blushing furiously. “And this, Stephanie, is Andy.”
There was a beat in which they stood there looking at each other awkwardly. Behind her, she could sense Tina waiting for sparks to fly, but she was concentrating in not being too obvious in her disappointment. Andy? Who was that….eventually she remembered…one of the early films. A dishwasher who goes to live in some blind guy’s house….Wasn’t he gay? She puzzled, and then remembered that no, that couldn’t be *completely* true. Still, there were rumor and… “It’s nice to meet you.” A shy, expectant voice said, and Stephanie forced another smile.
“It’s nice to meet you too.”
The picnic was a disaster. Tina was certain that Andy was “the one”, and John seemed to agree with her. Almost the moment that the picnic had been spread, the sheriff and his cocoa-skinned girlfriend had disappeared to “look for berries” leaving the pair alone in awkward silence.
Stephanie had stared at him wordlessly, at first not noticing that, while he was staring also, it wasn’t with his eyes.
She frowned, sharply, drawing her skirt further over her legs. *Those aren’t for you, bucko* she thought tensely.
They both began to speak at the same instant. Falling silent simultaneously and staring at their hands. At last, Andy spoke again.
“You’re very beautiful.” He said softly, glancing again at her legs. “I like you a lot.”
Blunt. Actually, rather sweet. Still, ineffective.
“Thank you Andy. I appreciate that, but-“
“I know.” He said quickly, meeting her gaze timidly, then looking away. “I’m not the one.”
The sadness on his face was so palpable that she regretted instantly her candor. What would it have hurt to play along for a little while. She knew the feeling of rejection only too well.
Feeling embarrassed, she reached out and took her hand.
“I don’t think that there is a ‘one'” She answered, pushing back thoughts of Bud that came again.
Her companion merely shrugged. “There is. Just not me…” A sigh. “I’ll just keep waiting, I guess.”
He really did deserve someone special. She was surprised at how transparent his character showed, even after a brief conversation.
The whisperings about his…interest…in his blind friend were malicious rumors. He was merely truly and deeply kind.
“I’m sorry.” She said lamely.
“Don’t be.” He started to rise.
“Do you want me to walk you back”
Stephanie looked in the direction that Tina and John had gone.
“Don’t you think that we should wait.”
Andy rolled his eyes. “They’ll be *hours*.”
When she looked puzzled, he added. “The man takes pride in his work.”
Nodding, Stephanie followed Andy back down to the end. The silence was lass awkward now that they had cleared the air. Still, she was happy when they entered the lobby at last.
He turned toward the woman who had greeted him. “Hi Laura.”
Then he whispered to Stephanie. “She’s with Maximus.”
She made a little “O” with her lips. For a reason inexplicable to most women, she had always found the Praetorian Captain, Quintus, the most appealing character in the movie. Still, she would hardly kick the Spaniard out of bed…It wasn’t personal. Just, as recent events had vividly demonstrated, she was a lot more likely to fall in love with men who befriend evil emperors.
“Are you two…?” Laura asked, almost giggling with glee at the prospect of the pair being together. As the match to RC’s most popular incarnation, she liked to see the new girls hook up as quickly as possible.
“No.” Andy said quickly, his voice still a little pained. “We were just walking back.”
“Oh.” Her face fell quickly.
Don’t worry. Stephanie wished she could say outloud. Unless you have a room in the Tomas Arana Nest as well, you’re safe with me, but she merely smiled. “I think I’m going to go back and change….is there a gym here?”
Laura’s expression darkened a bit- the gym was a favorite haunt of her general. Then, she realized how uncharitable she was being. Maximus had been acting perfectly normal. Surely he would sense a new connection- she should give the newcomer the benefit of the doubt.
“Yes…right down the hall.” She pointed. “They just got a new elliptical trainer. I hear it’s really nice.”
“Thanks…I just need the treadmill.”
The two women nodded and Stephanie started up the stairs.
“No problem. See you around.”
A few minutes later, Stephanie had changed into her workout clothes. She wasn’t the type to jump around in a sports bra and tights. She had the sports bra, of course, but it was covered by a closely fitting grey T-shirt and loose boxing-style black shorts with grey stripes up the side.
When she entered the gym, she was pleased to find that it was deserted. Most of the equipment looked new. Free weights were in the center- she wouldn’t need those- and there were also a bank of Nautilis machines. There was a stairmaster (ugh.), a stationary bike with one of the new internet interfaces (she’d have to try that soon) and, at last, what she was looking for.
She stretched before climbing onboard the treadmill, punching in three miles and her speed. 5.2 mph. Not very fast, but ok. The best that she could do for now. Cranking up the volume on her headphones, she felt very far away.
What? Was someone talking to her. She quickly shut off the headphones and turned around.
“What?” She said aloud.
“I said, ‘I think you outran him.”
It was Bud White.
Stephanie pressed pause, jumping off the moving belt and turned to stare. Her heart was racing faster than when she had been running, and she was painfully aware of her sweaty T-Shirt and unkempt hair.
“I wanted to return this.” Bud said lowly, tossing the robe she had left on the beach over the rail of the exercise machine.
“Since you’re leaving today and all.”
“I’m not leaving.” Had she said that too quickly? Her eyes met his, but there was nothing to see. They were flat and depthless, like a murky blue puddle. “No today, anyway…or tomorrow.”
“Ah.” the corner of his mouth turned up in a smirk. “Another hot one with Andy?”
Was he jealous? She sighed and stepped down to the floor.
“No…Bud…” She shook her head in frustration. “Can’t we just start over?” She asked, abruptly.
“Over…you and I.”
“I thought you didn’t want to start to begin with.”
“I don’t, but it’s looking like I don’t have a choice.” That caught a smile, at least. “Come on. I’ll buy you a beer.”
“You drink beer?” He looked skeptical.
“No.” She admitted sheepishly, blushing a little. “I’ll buy myself a Diet Coke.”
Two hours later, Stephanie was feeling more relaxed than she had in weeks. They had gone to the Tavern- stinky gym clothes and all- and holed up in a corner booth. The place was deserted- it was still early- and they had plenty of time to get to know each other.
“You’re a lawyer?” He asked, wrinkling his nose in a way that made his eyes sparkle.
She shrugged. “I didn’t come on the bus did I?” Did he get the joke? She held her breath for a minute while she waited for him to laugh. “I guess not.” He admitted. “But, how can you do it….?”
“Try to keep criminals from going to jail?”
“- spend all day talking to other lawyers.” He waited for her smile as well, then added. “But yeah, how can you sleep at night knowing they kind of guys you set free.”
“Actually, I’ve never done any criminal work.”
“No. I work for a boutique firm mostly handles industrial environmental law.”
His eyebrows knit.
“You know…” she urged. “EPA permitting, administrative appeals, pollution control tax exemption, liability waiver…” When he still showed no signs of following her, she tried again. “If *I* were in a movie, I’d be the dark-suited big-city lawyer that advocates for the forces of evil.”
“Oh.” That, at least made sense. He laughed- the first real smile that she had seen since they came in the bar. “Maybe you should get Tina to fix you up with Sid.”
They shared another laugh and she looked at her hands, noticing that her drink was empty.
“Want another?” She asked.
“Nah….I’d better get going.”
Her face fell.
“Maybe…” He stopped, looking at his hands.
“You wanna get dinner at the hotel restaurant later? It’s pretty swanky. We could dance there too.” He looked up at last, worried that she would say “no”. “No strings attached.” He said quickly.
She nodded. “I’d love to.”
“Really?” he blinked, and the looked at the beer bottle.
*Slow down…* Stephanie urged herself, but it was no use. Her heart was racing a mile a minute as she prepared for her “date” with Bud. She hadn’t felt this way about anyone since…she pushed the thought away. She was going to enjoy herself tonight, damn the consequences. Maybe she was getting over Dave a little bit already, she hadn’t thought of him the whole time that she was with Bud.
She got ready very carefully, consciously selecting a retro look. She word a red, knee-length dress with a sweetheart collar and spaghetti straps, and gelled her hair into soft waves that fell almost over one eye.
Bud knocked on the door just as she was spritzing perfume on the backs of her knees.
“Wow.” He said simply as she opened the door.
She beamed, thinking the same thing inside her mind. Bud looked much as he had earlier in the day- the tie was different, and the shirt was freshly pressed, but otherwise it was a standard Bud suit. Still…there was something so beautiful about his smile- if he had been happier when they first met, she was certain that she wouldn’t be able to resist him for so long.
They walked down the hall toward the restaurant together, the backs of their hands brushing as they walked, but too timid to hold hands. They didn’t have to wait at the check-in stand- the maitre d’ already knew who they were, of course- he led them to a table in the far corner of the room.
“Who are these other people?” Stephanie whispered, leaning across the table toward Bud after they settled into their chair. The restaurant seemed to be bustling- peculiar since the residents of the nest were few.
“People from other movies.” He whispered back. “Some of them have magical places of their own. They come over here when they want a change of scenery.”
Nodding, she looked around the room more carefully. Her eyes landed on the back of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s head, and she blushed, remembering the hot affair that they’d had the summer before. *ah, the power of the force….*
“So.” She said, picking up the menu quickly. “What’s good here?”
“What do you like?”
She scanned the menu, alarmed not to see any prices. Working out the bill was always so awkward on a first date- and she didn’t really know if Bud had money. It’s not like he had a job anymore. Besides, what country were they even in. Did they take Visa Cards?
Seeming to read her mind, Bud offered. “Order whatever you want- it’s complimentary to Nest residents. Everybody pitches in around here to keep things going.”
She smiled, relieved. “In that case, I like the lobster.”
“Lobster it is.”
Bud ordered for her- she secretly liked how he took charge, even if the feminist deep within her was a bit piqued- then they both looked at the dance floor.
“Wanna take a turn?” He asked, cocking his head so that his blue eyes flashed in the candlelight.
She sat her napkin on the table and then took his hand. They were almost to the floor when she felt a tap on her shoulder.
“Stephanie?” It was the maitre d’
“There’s a phone call for you.”
She and Bud frowned simultaneously.
“A Mr. David Shields….”
Stephanie looked painfully between the maitre d’ and Bud. She could almost hear him screaming within his mind. “Let go, damn it, Let go….” But David’s hold was still too powerful, and she reached for the proffered phone.
She stared at it, the simple, black receiver seeming somehow menacing. She glanced upwards briefly at her date.
Stephanie was amazed at what she saw- she had expected angry, annoyance- but there was only a deep compassion- as though he were watching her cut herself with a knife from behind a glass wall- unable to help her no matter how loudly he screamed. The look, yearning as much as sadness, brought tears to her eyes.
She pressed “off” on the phone, gasping a little bit, surprising even herself with her decisiveness.
The maitre d’ arched an eyebrow, and she shrugged, embarrassed. “I…don’t want to….later….” she murmured, grateful when Bud merely waved the man aside, and led her to the dance floor.
The evening was early, but the little floor was already crowded. Underscoring the fact that this was a magical realm, most of the men in the restaurant seemed to be willingly taking a turn on the scuffed parquet, Bud and Stephanie were pressed into a dim corner before they found room to dance.
She was amazed by the gentle pressure of his hands on her back, the deep masculine scent of inexpensive cologne muted by his heat. She tore her mind away from the missed call. This was where she wanted to be, where she needed to be. They swayed in rhythm to the music for several songs, pulling apart only when Bud caught the server’s eye and realized that their soup had arrived.
The food was delicious, and she ate all of it. Free lobster. How was it possible? Now, if someone would tell her that calories didn’t count here, she would truly be in heaven. Bud seemed to be amused by her appetite, and then she realized that she hadn’t eaten anything at all for almost two days.
They lingered over dinner, talking small talk- work, the nest, their pasts..They did not leave until after eleven- for a quiet walk along the shore. The stormy weather of the night before had passed.
Now, the waves were small and smooth, the bright moon sparkling across the water. Bud led her to the pier, and they walked out, sitting on the edge, staring into the water.
“This reminds me of something that I did when I was young,” she said, speaking as the memory came back to her in a vivid flash.
“Some cousins and I snuck onto a private fishing pier in Florida…it was storming…”
She squinted down into the dark, calm depths. “When the lightning flashed, you could see all the way to the bottom- hundred of fish…then, there was another flash, and I saw a shark.”
Bud looked impressed. “A big shark?”
That made her back away from the edge of the pier a little-movie characters *did* have a strange way of coming to life around her. “Uhm…no….small….but it ate the fish. It was fascinating to watch….surprising that things had been so peaceful just a moment before.”
“We all gotta go.” Bud answered pensively.
The policeman shrugged and fidgeted with his hands. “I don’t know….” He sighed. “But probably…someday….when I’m forgotten.”
Stephanie felt tears prick at the backs of her eyes.
Obscurity- it seemed somehow crueler than human death- rejection coupled with annihilation…
“I won’t forget you.”
“Well, we have a little time, anyway.”
A little time. Stephanie turned her head and silently studied the features of the man who had been so gentle and patient. She knew, like the sea that stretched in front of him, that a violent, unpredictable nature lurked beneath his surface…but he was also gentle…kind…he *wanted* to be good and, in some ways, that was better than goodness that had been achieved.
He looked at her, sensing that he had been watched. “What?”
“Nothing…” She smiled, then she leaned her head forward. She kissed his cheek lightly. “Thank you, Bud White.”
“For not giving up.”
“You’re staying?” How could he be surprised? But the look of childish joy on his face was mixed with unmistakable astonishment.
“I’m staying…at least for a while.” She took his hand and leaned closer, wondering if she was actually going to have to close her eyes and pucker her lips before he took the hint.
At last, he got it. He moved forward slowly, brushing horizontally across her mouth, before meeting her head on, slowly building the pressure between their lips. When he pulled away at last, her heart was beating wildly.
“Staying.” He said again, a wide grin plastered on his face.
Feeling a little embarrassed, Stephanie looked at her hands. One more piece of business to attend to, she thought.
She wriggled her engagement ring off of her finger, the thin golden band resisting after so long in one place. She held it in the moonlight, watching the pale beams refract in the icy gem, and then she looked at her finger- at the thin stripe of white that remained.
She could keep it. There wouldn’t be any harm in it. Get it reset perhaps- into a necklace or, if she were ever heartbroken again, some really nice earrings….but that wouldn’t do. She didn’t want to look at it and remember.
She didn’t need to.
In a quick, awkward motion, she swung her arm over her head and flung the diamond into the swirling waves. The water rippled where it struck, and it sank instantly.
Stephanie’s slipped her hand in Bud’s and slowly rose to her feet.
“Let’s go.” She whispered softly.
Time to get on with the rest of our lives.