Joanie sat backstage, alone. All around her the hustle and bustle of show preparations were in full-swing. Stylists with clothing piled over their arms were racing around, orders were being shouted. It was total chaos. But in Joanie’s private corner in the stage-left wing, she was able to find a moment’s solace. Carlyle and Ruth had insisted on it. Jake had said nothing.
Oh, why did Peter have to do that? Joanie thought. She let her head fall into her hands, careful not to smudge her make-up but not really caring if she did. It had been one of the most embarrassing moments of her life – the unbearable silence that followed her reading that damn card out loud. Why did I have to broadcast it to the world? she had cried to Ruth and Carlyle after everyone else had left to find their seats. It was awful. She ran over the sequence of events in her head once again, the look on Jake’s face when she finished reading. He had turned a bright shade of crimson, tried to produce a natural smile as he said, “Wow, you sure do have some secretadmirer.” But he knew, and so did she. Joanie had taken his arm to steer him away from the crowd then, to grab a moment and try to explain, but he had quietly pulled away.
“Listen, Joan,” he said. “We’ll talk about it later. Let’s just get through this night, okay?”
She had nodded, in agreement and in defeat. She could feel the coolness coming from Jake, the hurt. It was at that moment Ruth came by to try to help smooth things over, but she only made matters worse.
“Hey Jo Jo, we should get you backstage. You’ve got a show to do.” Jake had looked at Joanie with pain-filled eyes.
“I guess Jo Jo is the nickname your closest friends…your loved ones call you. Who knew?” He was sullen and broken. Joanie felt sick.
“Well, break a leg,” he had said, eyes diverted, then gave her a little kiss on the forehead and walked away.
“Joanie? Joanie, there you are.” Joanie arose from her trance and looked up to see her friend, Ruth, standing before her with a brave, supportive smile on her face.
“C’mon girl, you can do this. I know you can. Hey, things have been worse, right? Just remember, Jake adores you. He’s just hurt right now, and can’t express it. You can explain everything afterward, but he’s right. You’ve gotta get through this evening.” Joanie took a deep breath.
“You’re right, Ruthie. Of course you’re right. Since when have I let a man run my life or ruin it?”
“Since forever, but never mind. It’s never too late to change.” She gave Joanie a hug. “Now get out there and watch those girls strut your stuff.”
The fashion show and awards ceremony lasted two full hours. By the time Joanie walked out of the Crystal Ballroom, where the event was held, and into the Grand Ballroom for the reception, she held two shiny bronze plaques in her hands, one for creativity in fashion design, and one for most accomplished new designer. She had done it.
With Carlyle, Ruth and Jake by her side, she walked into the Grand Ballroom to a round of applause. Flash bulbs blinded her and mics were thrust in her face. Too many questions were being asked all at once. She knew she had to carry on, charm the well-wishers, the press, but she was exhausted, and still very upset. Although he remained with her throughout, Jake was distant and formal. She desperately wanted to talk to him, to explain things to him, to be able to share her joy with the man who helped make all this possible, but things had drastically changed.
Jake disappeared while Joanie answered press questions and smiled for photographers. Carlyle and Ruth looked on proudly. Finally he returned with four glasses of champagne.
“Sorry to interrupt this photo-op, but our protégé needs a short break.” He looked at the cameramen, then at Joanie for the first time since their arrival, and winked. She breathed easier than she had for hours.
“Don’t worry everybody. She’ll be around later for more interviews. For now, we really appreciate your patience and understanding.” He smiled at the group gathered around them, took Joanie’s elbow, and guided her to a table in the corner, away from the throngs. They both knew that any peace and quiet they were seeking would not last long, but even a few minutes would be worth it.
“Listen, Jake,” Joanie began, but he cut her short.
“Shhh. Leave it for now, Joan, okay? This is such a special night for you. Let’s not ruin it.” Joanie sat stock-still. She needed to talk, needed to tell him how she felt.
“Ruin it? It’s already ruined, isn’t it?” Tears were forming in the corners of her eyes. She knew she had to control herself but she was so distraught by Jake’s change in attitude toward her that she could not pretend to be happy.
“Joanie, you’ve just won! You’ve won the two most prestigious design awards in the industry. For a newcomer, that’s huge. We have to let this go – at least for now.” Jake looked down at the half-full champagne flute sitting untouched on the table. He twirled it around by its slender stem, watching the golden bubbles dance around in the glass. After what seemed like forever, he looked up at her.
“Give me time, Joanie. I need some time. That episode out there in the lobby really took me by surprise, kind of hit me out of nowhere.” He paused. “I guess we still have a lot to learn about each other, and for that I can’t blame you for what happened. We’ve sort of plunged into this…this relationship rather quickly, and I am the guilty party.” He took a deep breath. “It’s just you’ve taken me by storm, Joanie Scott.” Jake cracked a shy, smile. “I…I’ve really fallen for you. I guess that’s why I’m being so sensitive about this.” His eyes turned back to the champagne, and he stopped talking.
Joanie didn’t know what to say. Goosebumps prickled up and down her arms. She reached out to take Jake’s right hand that rested on the table beside the flute twirling nervously between the fingers of his left. He looked into her tear-filled eyes and they shared a wordless moment that seemed to make everything right again. Relieved, and truly happy, Joanie grinned broadly. Jake picked up the glass and raised it in toast.
“To my shining star.” Their glasses clinked again, both of them shedding their burdens. Their natural friskiness was temporarily tempered as the effects of the earlier incident lingered. But despite, or maybe because of it, their bond felt stronger. Music filled the room and with a tender lift of her hand, Jake helped Joanie out of her seat. Together they glided onto the dance floor to the song Keep Breathing, by Ingrid Michaelson. Regaining confidence in their blossoming love, Jake twirled Joanie twice around before pulling her in for a close dance embrace. Cameras clicked and flashed around them but they took no notice, lost in the music. Joanie was in heaven. Months of hard work had awarded her well-earned success. Besides her talent, she owed so much of her accomplishment to Jake. Without his support, she truly would not have managed. She closed her eyes and drifted to the melody, listening to the lyrics and smiling to herself. Yes, she thought, just keep breathing.
Suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed, a deep baritone broke their spell.
“S’cuse me. May I cut-in?” She opened her eyes. Before her, handsomely disheveled, dressed in a navy double-breasted suit buttoned over a soft pink dress shirt, and a black necktie, stood Peter Thompson. Joanie reeled against the horror. Unknowingly, she backed away from Jake, and from Peter, leaving herself standing alone in the middle of a crowded dance floor.
“Did you get my flowers?” Peter asked coyly, moving toward her.
“What are you doing here, Peter? What were you thinking?” Peter glowered at her, a mischievous grin on his face. Some of the guests stopped dancing to watch this unexpected stand-off. Peter looked hideously out of place with his dated suit that was too short in the cuffs, his wide necktie, and his black oxfords, but he carried an air of confidence that hid any hint of awkwardness.
“How could I miss your very special night, Jo Jo? You didn’t think I’d be that self absorbed, did you?”
He reached out to touch her but she backed away. Frankly, Joanie didn’t know what to think, or do. She felt warm and slightly dizzy. Desperate for help and support, she looked over to Jake, but he was gone. Frantically, Joanie scanned the dance floor then glanced over to the table where they had been seated. His chair was empty, his jacket gone. Panic stricken, her eyes darted around the room, searching. Where is he, where is he?
“Jo Jo? Jo Jo, are you alright?” The room began to spin. Then all went black.
…Stay tuned…Chapter 12 will be posted next Tuesday, June 7th…
Other than it being extremely hectic, the week passed uneventfully. Joanie, of course, was more organized than she realized. The white stitching on the navy pantsuit looked classy, and the beadwork on the emerald evening dress, chic. All her other designs; the black, zip-up Lycra pantsuit, the brown and taupe striped bomber jacket with matching stretch mini-skirt, the black sequin bolero over a flaming red strapless silk midi, were in the final stages of completion before the pre-rehearsal fitting later that afternoon. And of course the body-hugging, toffee-toned cocktail dress with layered chiffon overlay in lavender, the event favorite, was being fussed-over by Allan, Joanie’s personal design assistant, who recently came on-board to help Sara and Brandy out. All her favorite models, those who Joanie had used many times in the past, were at the ready. Hair and make-up were lined up.
Joanie took a gulp of coffee and set the mug down beside her laptop, careful to place it on a stable surface. She didn’t need a spill and computer meltdown now.
“Wow, Jo Jo, this is the first time in weeks I’ve seen you stationary, and drinking your coffee while it’s still hot.” Ruth plopped herself down in the chair beside her friend. Joanie laughed.
“And it’s the first time I’ve seen you laugh out-loud in ages too. Good lord, what’s next?”
“C’mon Ruthie, give me a break. You’d be just the same way if you were in my shoes.”
“No. I’d be worse. So, what’s the deal for tomorrow? Is Mr. Perfect bringing you down here with his driver? You know, you’re not allowed to be here until show-time. Bad luck, or something.”
“His name is Jake, and yes, he’s bringing me. We probably won’t show up till just after seven. I want to wait until the place fills up a little.”
“Good idea. Be a little mysterious.”
The next morning Joanie awoke to grey skies and a light drizzle. She picked up the phone and dialed.
“I hope this weather isn’t an omen for how the evening is going to go,” Joanie said into the receiver.
“Now, what kind of attitude is that for a professional fashion designer to have on the day of the big event?” Jake reprimanded jokingly. “I like to think a black cat running across the road, or a person walking under a ladder is good luck, so a few clouds and a little rain should be considered excellent.”
“God, Jake. Are you ever a rotten person?” Joanie teased back.
“Ha ha. So, you know today is your last day operating solo for a while – I hope a long while. Enjoy yourself.”
“I plan to. Everything is ready. I don’t want to know if something goes wrong today. My team can deal with it.”
“Atta girl,” Jake replied jovially.
“I’m off to the spa, then to get my hair done, and time’s a wasting. I better get a move-on. See you at six?”
At five p.m. Joanie’s phone rang. Dabs of face cream sat upon her cheeks and forehead, and her hair was loosely wrapped around several large, foam rollers that bobbled when she moved her head. She was naked except for a damp, white towel secured over of her breasts.
“Hello? Hello?” It was quiet on the other end, then she heard a click.
At five-thirty her phone rang again.
“Shit,” she mumbled, as she ran to answer it. Her dress was pulled halfway up her body. One sheer black nylon stocking was on and attached to a garter, while the other one sat puddled around her ankle.
“Hello? Hello? Who’s there?” Again, no one spoke, and after a few seconds Joanie heard the familiar click of a phone being hung-up.
“I’d dial *69 to find out who’s pulling this stunt, but I don’t have the time,” Joanie said aloud to no one. “Damn them.”
She finished dressing, other than the back zipper and clasp that she needed Jake to do-up for her, and slipped on her Jimmy Choo’s buckling the thin gold strap. She touched up her make-up and applied fresh lipstick, running her lips carefully down her index finger to remove any color residue, then wiped her front teeth with a cotton pad. As she blotted, the phone rang again.
“Who is this? Why do you keep calling?”
“Hey babe, it’s me. I’m downstairs. Are you okay?” Hearing Jake’s voice, Joanie relaxed.
“Sorry, Jake. It’s just someone has been calling and hanging up. I thought that’s who it was again now. I really hate that, and I’m not in the mood for pranks tonight.”
“I don’t blame you. This is your night, babe. So, are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be. I’ll be right down.”
Joanie took one more look in the mirror, put her compact, lipstick and small perfume bottle into her clutch, carefully draped her faux-fox over her shoulders and stepped out of her apartment and into the elevator. On opening the double doors from the apartment lobby to the street outside, she was greeted by Jon, Jake’s chauffeur, looking smart in top hat and tails.
“Ms. Scott,” he greeted, bowing his head and gesturing with the sweep of his arm. He held the door of the white limousine open for Joanie to climb in. When she did, there sat Jake, all smiles, wearing nothing but a black bowtie, holding out a glass of chilled champagne. In his lap, covering just enough to matter, sat a silver ice bucket with a bottle of Moët & Chandon sticking out. He looked cold.
Joanie howled, took the glass from his hand and sipped. Bubbles tickled her nose and burned down her throat. It was delicious.
“This is scrumptious, and I’m not talking about the champagne.”
“Glad you approve but, despite the fun-factor, this is to be continued after our evening.” “Can we just have a little playtime?”
“Ha.” Jake placed the ice bucket on the mini-bar, revealing a frigid, limp non-erection. “Sorry to disappoint,” he said, looking dismally down between his legs. “But for now, if you don’t mind, I need to get dressed. I’m freezing.”Nonetheless, he leaned toward Joanie, burrowed his face into her neck and softly inhaled her scent. He felt the arousal instantly.
They arrived at the hotel as planned, just past seven. Now dressed in a classic black tux with satin waistband, Jake looked sexier than ever. He opened the black divider that separated the cab of the limo from the back seats.
“Give us a minute, will you Jon?” Then he discreetly closed it again. He pulled two boxes, tied with taupe satin ribbon, from the mini-bar fridge. One held a cream-colored rose wrist corsage, the other, a boutonnière of the same color.
“This is a very special day for you, Ms. Scott, and I am honored to share it with you.” He gently attached the wristlet around Joanie’s left wrist, picked up her hand and kissed it.
“I didn’t want to poke pin-holes into your gorgeous dress, or mess with your lipstick, so I’ll be kissing your hand a lot tonight. But just wait till the festivities are over, my pretty…”
Joanie hoisted the fitted floor-length gown up above her slender thighs to reveal black-seamed stockings held up by a red and black lace garter. She took his hand and ran it up and down her stockinged leg.
“I will be waiting, don’t you worry about that.” Jake bent down and kissed the warm, soft skin of her inner thigh, just below the lace garter, then sat back up. He composed himself, picked up their two champagne glasses and handed Joanie hers.
“Congratulations, to my shining star.” They clinked.
“I haven’t won anything you know, and I don’t know if I will. I’m up against stiff competition.”
“Do I care whether you win or lose? You’re still my shining star. Besides, you’ve won me, and I’ve won you. That’s all that matters to me.”
“Oh, to heck with the lipstick.” Joanie hiked-up her dress past her thighs, climbed onto Jake’s lap straddling him, and planted her lips on his. They kissed, long and hard. She could feel him getting aroused again so she continued, teasing just enough until he eased her away.
“Whoa there hot stuff. I’d love to keep going and forget we had an engagement tonight but…”
Jake leaned in for one final peck, while Joanie slithered off his lap and onto the leather seat. “All in good time, my pretty, all in good time.”
They arrived to a crowd of people milling around outside the hotel. Joanie was nervous. Jake had done a good job distracting her on the drive to the event, but now butterflies were fluttering in the pit of her stomach. Jake took her arm in his as they exited the limo, and proudly escorted her past the throngs into the front foyer of the grand Mark II. Once inside, it was all kisses and handshakes from the design team, waiting by the door. Ruth and Carlyle were there too, as was the press, anxious for an interview with the hottest new designer in this year’s awards ceremony – Joanie Scott.
Jake stood by her side at all times, shooing away the riff-raff, protecting his newest protégé. But it wasn’t just that. Jake was falling in love. He couldn’t yet admit it to Joanie, and now was certainly not the time, but Joanie had done something to him, and when he least expected it. He had realized weeks earlier that it wasn’t about the fashion anymore, or the prestige of discovering the newest designer bound for fame. He had realized she was something special, and he hadn’t even been looking. In fact, in all his years of being the aloof, man-about-town, keeping a safe distance from attachment or commitment or love, here he was, buckling under the spell of one dynamic, charming, beautiful temptress with a heart of gold. And he was not about to let her go.
“Ms Scott,” a woman’s voice called from behind. Joanie turned around to see a gigantic bouquet of at least two dozen white roses and a dozen lilies. She turned to Jake and smiled. Jake looked stunned.
“I wish I could take credit, darlin’, but I can’t. Is there a card?” Joanie looked and saw a small cardboard square attached to a plastic stick that poked out from among the flowers. She reached up to grab it, while Jake moved in closer so he could read it with her. Allan, Ruth and Carlyle squeezed in to close their tight circle off from the growing number of press that had descended on the group. Flustered and excited, Joanie read the card aloud:
To my Jo Jo. I’m so proud of you! Break a leg. I love you. xo
…Stay tuned…Chapter 11 will be posted next Tuesday, May 31.
It had been two weeks since Joanie had returned from Charleston. According to her mother, Joanie’s father was back at home and doing fine. She hadn’t heard a word from her brother Kevin or from Peter however, she had waited almost ten years to really talk to both of them, so she couldn’t be too expectant.
Meanwhile, Jake was showering her with attention. Fresh flowers were sent to her office every other day. Ruth was delighted, since Joanie could only fit so many vases on her desk at one time. Jake, or sometimes his driver, picked Joanie up after work each evening. Knowing how important it was for a perfectionist like Joanie to get her work completed swiftly and to the highest level of quality possible, Jake gave her a lot of space to work freely in his apartment, which was where they now spent most of their time. While she fussed over dress designs and detailed sketches, Jake cooked them meal after delicious meal; seafood pasta with tomato, bocconcini and fresh basil salad, braised pork chops with caramelized onions simmered in vodka, accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus with toasted almonds, or sautéed scallops wrapped in bacon, set atop endive tossed in a light olive oil and lemon dressing. They would eat late dinners so Joanie could finish her work before having a glass of wine, which, once she indulged in, set her into such a relaxed state that no work could be accomplished afterward. But Jake was patient and understanding. He knew that once she called it a night, she was all his.
There were four weeks left until the big design gala. With a back-log of work she had to catch up on at her day job, as well as deciding on the finishing touches on her chosen outfits for the show, Joanie was burning the candle at both ends. She was exhausted. It hardly felt like she had been home to Charleston at all because her life since then was so busy.
Early memories of her terrifying experience with Peter up on the knoll were now beginning to fade as Jake filled her thoughts by day and her body by night. Their lovemaking was otherworldly, much like her fantasies were. He knew where to touch her and how, was tender yet adventurous, and wow, could he kiss. Sometimes, when she was at work, balancing some Excel file or typing a letter to a client, thoughts of the previous evening would slip into her thoughts. Jake’s hand caressing her bare breasts, his soft lips erotically sucking her nipples, and those same eager lips devouring her own wanting ones, kissing and kissing…she had to shake her head to snap out of it before she had an orgasm right there on the spot. At the end of each day she could hardly wait to get back to his apartment and once there, she had to work hard to block him out of her mind as she worked on her design projects, in order to keep from tossing everything aside and giving herself to him completely. He seemed the perfect man, or at least the perfect one for her.
They kept up this routine, one they had fallen into almost too naturally and easily, and time seemed to rush by. Before Joanie knew it, there was only one week until the annual NYC Fashion Gala & Award Night. She could hardly contain her nerves. At work she was hopeless, forgetting meetings and missing deadlines. Luckily Carlyle supported her by lightening her work-load as best he could, and Ruth covered for her whenever she was available. Jake was as encouraging as ever and called her several times a day to tell her how wonderful she was. But still, Joanie fretted over every last detail. Unsatisfied with the first ones she created, two of her dress designs were still unfinished. She lost sleep over whether the stark white stitching to off-set the simple, navy two-piece pantsuit was best, or if the glass beadwork she had decided to have sewn into clusters around the empire waistline of the emerald satin evening gown, was too decadent.
“Darling, it’ll be just fine,” Jake had said, while trying to drag her back to bed later one night. “You worry too much. Remember, you never would have been chosen if your work wasn’t more than superb.”
But it was no use. No matter how Jake attempted to console her, Joanie was not to be convinced. Finally, at four a.m. the Monday before the gala, and after finding Joanie face-down on top of her sketches at the kitchen table, it was decided.
“Listen hon, why don’t you take the rest of the week off work and try to get a handle on things. Carlyle won’t mind. I think at this point it would be easier all around if you weren’t there. It’s just too much for you to manage your day job, your design projects and…” He paused.“Me”.
Joanie became quiet. Besides being worn out, she was torn as to what to do. She didn’t want to take time away from work, which seemed to be a good diversion right now, and she wasn’t a quitter, but she knew Jake was right. Something had to change.
“C’mon, let me take you home. It’ll be the best thing.”
Joanie looked at Jake, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. He put his strong arms around her, pulling her warm body into his, and rocked her back and forth.
“Don’t get me wrong, Joanie. I don’t want you to go. I love having you here, love what we’ve got going on together. But you are so stressed out. I just think lightening your load will really help you out, and that includes me. It’s just one less thing you have to think about right now. You’ve been going like a dervish since you arrived back from Charleston.”
She knew he was right. She hadn’t come up for air since she’d been back.
“Besides,” Jake went on. “The Gala is this Friday. After that, everything will be back to normal. Then we can relax and really spend some quality time together. Maybe we should take a little vacation when this is all over. What do you think?”
Joanie snuggled in closer to Jake, burying her head in his shoulder. It was times like this she couldn’t believe her good fortune.
“Oh, Jake, you’re way too good for me.”
“And you’re not good for me?”
Jake pressed his lips softly against hers, lingering there for a deliciously long time. When he stopped, Joanie reached up and pulled his face back down to hers. A rush of adrenalin raced through her veins as she kissed Jake long and hard, slipping her tongue into his waiting mouth. Before she knew it, Jake was on top of her. He lifted the silk slip she was wearing up to her breasts, and eased into her wetness deeply and rhythmically. The lace trim on the soft satin neckline rubbed against her nipples, making them hard and erect with pleasure. Joanie arched up to meet Jake’s thrusts. He moaned. Before she came, Jake pulled out. Slowly, teasingly, he reached his hand down between her legs. As his fingers groped their way down her thighs to find her juiciness, Jake leaned in and pulled gently on her nipple with his teeth, then twirled his tongue around and around. It was almost unbearable. She spread her legs wide so he could have all of her, and her climax was what he had hoped it would be. She cried-out in ecstasy. Her screams triggered Jake to cum, first inside her, then to complete his orgasm over her taut, heaving belly. Together they fell into a blissful half-sleep until they were finally wakened by the alarm. It was seven a.m..
“Well, some hot sex and a few more hours of sleep never hurt anyone, right?” He bent over and kissed her jaw-line. “C’mon baby, I’ll drive you home.”
Joanie stretched and yawned then looked over at Jake warily, still unsure of this new arrangement.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Jake said, rubbing Joanie’s rosy cheek with the back of his hand. “It’s only temporary. And if there’s anything you need, you know I’m only a phone call away. You can call me anytime. Otherwise, I’m staying out of your way till I pick you up in the Limo Friday night. And no! I don’t want to hear another word about it, understood? You need this time Joanie.”
Again, Joanie buried her face in Jake’s warm, broad chest and, as he wrapped her in his arms for one last embrace, she cried.
Stay tuned…Chapter 10 will be posted next Tuesday, May 24th…
Thanks to what Joanie considered a stroke of luck, Peter was called away on business that afternoon. He left without saying goodbye. Whether he really did have out-of-town business, Joanie didn’t know, or care. She was just glad he was out of the picture, and for the moment, out of her life, freeing her up to spend quality time with her dad and the rest of the family.
Kevin was waiting in the hospital room when Joanie arrived. He looked older and thinner than she remembered him, and had dark circles under his eyes. At first glance, Joanie barely recognized him, but as soon as he saw her, his face lit-up and the old Kevin that she remembered so well, appeared.
“Hello doll. How’s my favorite sister?” He leapt up from his chair and grabbed her in a full embrace. His smell was as familiar as ever.
“You mean your only sister! I’m good, Kevin. And how are you? God, how long has it been now, five years?”
“Six, but who’s counting, right?” Kevin chimed in, and they laughed.
“I guess it’s really been about ten when you think about it,” he continued.“Besides the two times I was passing through New York, I’ve always been MIA when you’ve come home, and that hasn’t been very often now, has it little sis?”
Joanie blushed, ashamed that she’d been so remiss all these years, feeling like she’d let her family down, all because of some silly drama that took place years ago. But it was more than that, she realized, thinking back. It was because of Peter. It had been all along. She shuddered, the recent incident still too fresh in her mind.
Kevin, Joanie and their mother spent the day together with Walt in his room on Ward C. He was livelier, Joanie felt, joking and laughing almost like he was back to his old self. But by evening he grew tired.
“Well, Dad, we’re going to go out for dinner, and leave you and Mom to some alone time. We’ll be back in the morning.”
Kevin leaned over the bed and gave his father a kiss on the forehead. Joanie started to tear-up. It was such a touching sight for her to see her brother and father, who she hadn’t see together for a long time, share this moment. But she wiped her eyes, not wanting to reveal her emotion to her Father. Clearing her throat, she said.
“I’ve only got a few days here, Dad, but if you keep improving at the rate you are, you’ll get home before I do,” said Joanie encouragingly.
Huang’s Noodle House, one of their old favorite haunts, was open and busy as usual. Joanie and Kevin walked in to see Mr. Huang and his wife still there, taking orders and serving plates heaped with Chow Mein, and steamy bowls of hot and sour soup. Although they seemed much older to Joanie, they still had the same skip in their step as they served their loyal customers. Clearly they enjoyed running the place. Joanie and Kevin ordered a bowl of wonton chicken soup each, along with a side of vegetable spring rolls, and two pints of Tsingtao beer, then settled in. They had some catching-up to do.
“So, where to begin,” Kevin said, trying to open a potentially awkward conversation with ease.
“You start,” replied Joanie. “I’m all ears.”
Kevin explained that he was working as a journeyman carpenter with another old friend of theirs, Johnson Briggs. The two had worked together for six years and had just recently decided to go out on their own, in partnership. They had made a lot of contacts over the past few years, he said, so business was already good, and building up quickly. He explained he lived just across the harbor in Mt Pleasant. It was quieter there, and he liked to go hiking in Yorktown State Park, which was nearby.
“So, do you still hang out with Peter and Clarice?” Joanie asked, baiting the hook.
Kevin took a moment to reply, and seemed to deliberate which way to go with his answer.
“Well,” he mused. “Actually I don’t see much of them anymore. We had a stupid falling out, so to speak. I’m sure it won’t take much for you to guess what that was about.” He waited for her to rip into him, and she did.
“Kevin, that was so long ago now, but what the hell was that about, anyway? I mean, really. That stupid move you made on Clarice broke our whole group apart. You and I haven’t spoken much since then, except at family gatherings. Doesn’t that bother you? It does me.”
She took a long sip from the bottle of cold beer on the table in front of her, which seemed to calm her down.
“Actually, I’m surprised you’re still here in the Charleston area after what happened.” Joanie paused. “What did happen anyway?”
Kevin looked away. Shame, and perhaps guilt was written in the expression on his face. Joanie reached over and took his hand. He squeezed it, but continued to avoid eye contact with her.
“Oh, Joanie, I don’t know what happened. I was young, and she just hypnotized me or something. I mean, we’d never seen the likes of anyone like that here in Charleston, not back in those days anyway. And let’s be honest, she was putting it out there.”
“I don’t care, Kevin. Peter was your best friend, and Clarice was his girlfriend back then. If she was the one instigating it, you should have let it be – you should have walked away. It was really wrong of you to respond to her the way you did. You know that, don’t you?”
Eyes averted, Kevin replied. “You’re right Joan, as always.” He paused. “Why has it taken us so long to talk about this, huh?”
“Because we’ve all avoided it like the plague, that’s why. It’s about time it got out in the open.” Joanie sighed. “Have you tried to talk to Peter, clear the air?”
Now Kevin turned to face Joanie, and replied emphatically. “No way! There is no way on god’s green earth that I can ever talk to him again, ever.”
“Whoa, is there more to this story than what I know?”
There was a long silence before Kevin spoke.
“’Fraid so, Joanie.”
“Okay, Kev, fess-up. What happened?”
Taking a swig of his beer, Kevin continued.
“Well, Joanie, you know that night at Joe’s? That was a long time ago, right? Well…me and Clarice…we started seeing each other, kind of regular-like, shortly after that night. Things got pretty hot and heavy between us. I had no idea it would happen that way, it just did.”
He waited for Joanie to say something, but she remained silent, so he kept talking.
“When Peter proposed to her, and she said yes, I backed-off, even though she wanted to continue. That’s when I moved outside of town into the Mount Pleasant area. I was trying to put distance between me and the whole affair, no pun intended. But after the wedding, she started coming around the house – my house – inviting herself over around suppertime, or sometimes she’d stop by early in the morning on her way to work. I didn’t exactly invite it, but I guess I didn’t exactly say no either. She’s pretty tempting, Joanie, and obviously I’m not one to resist temptation.”
“What do you mean, ‘she’s pretty tempting’? Geez, Kev, how long did this go on for?”
Kevin knocked-back the rest of his beer in one gulp and flagged down Mrs. Huang.
“Two more please, Mrs. Huang.”
When she was gone, Kevin turned to look at Joanie with full eye contact.
“It’s still going on, Joan.”
Joanie just sat there, looking at her older brother in total disbelief. She didn’t know what to say. For what seemed eternity, words were left unspoken as the reality of the situation sunk in. Two cold beers were placed in front of them by Mrs. Huang, along with their spring rolls. The beer was all they touched.
“Does Peter know?” Joanie finally blurted out.
“I’m sure he does, but he says nothing to Clarice about it. And like I say, I don’t see him anymore, or should I say, he doesn’t see me. That’s pretty telling, wouldn’t you say?”
“But Kevin, why – why do something like this that you know is so wrong? And why Clarice? I mean, maybe you know more about her than she lets on to the rest of us, but I don’t have the time of day for that woman.”
“Which question do you want me to answer first?”
Joanie just glared at her brother.
“Okay, okay. I know it’s wrong, but what’s also wrong is that they got married when they didn’t love each other. I don’t know why they ever went through with it. Even at the time, it was clear there was no chemistry, no connection between them. Peter just felt obligated, or something.”
Kevin took a deep breath, relieved to finally be unloading this secret he’d been carrying around like a monkey on his back for far too long. Opening up to his baby sister after all these years made him want to talk and talk, to finally clear the air once and for all. He knew this day would eventually come, and now it was finally upon them. Kevin realized he’d missed the relationship he and Joanie shared more than ever.
“What about Clarice?” Joanie asked, still prodding.
“She knows she never should have gone through with it – the marriage that is. She was young, and acted spontaneously – and foolishly, an insecure, young, frightened girl. You remember what she was like. But Joanie, she’s not like that at all, at least not anymore. Like all of us, she’s grown up. She’s smart and funny and very sweet and caring. She’s just never been able to show who she really is to other people because no one wants to get to know her. The Clarice they remember from back then is not the Clarice she is now. That was so long ago, but everybody hangs onto those memories.”
“Okay, Joanie, I’ll admit, Clarice is not the easiest person for people to get along with. She doesn’t put a lot of effort into changing the way people perceive her. Kevin sighed. “She just doesn’t care what other people think of her, and I admire her for that. All I can say is she’s not like that with me.”
“Right, ‘cause you’re special. You see an angel, while everyone else sees a devil.” Joanie kept on him, wanting to make her point, although she wasn’t even sure anymore what that point was.
“Oh no, don’t start with me. I have my own guilt about that night, but what’s funny is I don’t have guilt about what we have now. I don’t know why. Maybe because I feel our relationship has stood the test of time. I know we are meant to be together, Joanie, and whatever we have to do to have that, we’ll do.”
“What about Peter? Doesn’t he get a say?”
“He should have a say. Trouble is he ignores anything that points to trouble. Joanie, Clarice has tried so many times to talk to him about their relationship, has asked him if he’s happy, if they should seek help or get a divorce so they can both move on with their lives. You know what he says? He says he’s the happiest man on earth and doesn’t want a thing to change. Go figure that one out. Frankly, I think he’s messing with us. I think he’s getting his sweet revenge.”
Steaming hot bowls of soup, laden with noodles, Bok Choy, broccoli, chicken, and bean sprouts, were placed before each of them, while the spring rolls still sat untouched in the middle of the table. Their beer glasses were drained.
“Everything goes awright here, Mr. Kevin?” Mr. Huang asked, looking at the untouched spring rolls in the middle of the table.
“Sure, Mr. Huang, everything’s just fine. We’ll eat them, don’t worry. We love your spring rolls, don’t we Joan?”
Joanie nodded. Mr. Huang smiled. She stared at the soup that had been placed in front of her, as if waiting for something to happen. This was a landmark moment. Joanie felt what Kevin and Clarice were doing – had been doing all these years, was morally wrong, yet after hearing Kevin’s heartfelt confession, and being fully aware of Peter’s odd behavior, Joanie had to agree that no matter how poorly they had all handled things from the start, Kevin and Clarice were in love.
“So now what, Kevin? How is this situation going to play-out? I mean, you can’t just keep living a lie. Eventually someone is going to find out – someone has to find out if you ever want to move on, have a family, or lead a normal life. Geez, Kev, how do you sleep at night?”
“Not so great, but when I’m with her, like a baby.”
Stay tuned…Chapter 9 will be posted on May 17th. To read ‘Just Friends’ from the beginning, go to the tabs at the top of the blog site and start at Chapter 1.
Joanie’s phone rang six times before she answered.
“Hello, is that you, Joanie?” The voice on the other end of the receiver asked.
“Yeah,” Joanie replied groggily. It was six o’clock in the morning.
“Sorry to call so early. Hope I didn’t wake you. It’s just I hadn’t heard from you. I was worried.”
Joanie was quiet, trying to get her head around who might be calling her so early, unable to identify the voice on the other end. Then it dawned on her.
“Jake? Jake, is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me alright. Am I a complete idiot for waking you up like this?”
“Oh, no…no, not at all. It’s…it’s good to hear your voice.”
“Good to hear yours too.” There was a long pause before Jake spoke again.
“You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about you, remembering the first and, as it turns out, the only time we were together, the day I saw you off at the airport.”
“I suppose you mean that kiss.” She blurted unintentionally, as heat rose to her cheeks.
“Well, that and the great afternoon we spent together, before your bad news that is. But it’s true, that kiss has left me wanting more, I can’t deny it.”
Joanie didn’t know what to say. At that time, she had felt the same way. Maybe she still did. But it was confusing for her being back in her hometown, and being around Peter again. Despite his despicable behavior in the hospital waiting room, there were things she felt she needed to know, issues she had to get to the bottom of. Somehow Joanie didn’t think that was what Peter really meant to do, what the realPeter would do. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something wasn’t quite right.
“Joanie, are you still there?” Joanie gathered her thoughts. She liked Jake. Even though they had just met, and she had no personal ties to him, at least not yet, he didn’t deserve to be pulled into her back-story so soon.
“Sorry Jake. Yes, I’m here. I’m just tired that’s all. It’s been a bit rough since I arrived. You know how it is.”
“Of course. I’m sure it’s a lot to take in. I just wanted to hear your voice, that’s all, and to make sure you’re doing okay. Is there anything I can do for you, like give you a year’s extension on the fashion design deadline?”
“Yeah, that would do it, Jake. You’d be my hero then, that’s for sure.”
She laughed. “But seriously, do you really want my work?”
“I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t. How was I to know you’d be gorgeous, smart, funny, and single, as well as an ultra talented clothing designer? Actually, I’m hoping you don’t consider yourself single anymore.” Silence hung between them.
“I don’t want to be too forward, but I really like you Joanie. We had a connection, don’t you agree?” Joanie remained speechless. Jake continued, undaunted.
“Look, I understand you have to be in Charleston right now, but I hope we’ll be able to spend a lot of time together, beginning when you return. In the meantime, I hope you don’t mind that I call from time to time.”
Joanie felt another flush, flattered by what Jake said. However, she was confused, even hesitant, and didn’t really know why.
“I like you too, Jake,” Joanie played along. “But I have so much work to do for this Gala when I get home. I’m going to be working twenty-four-seven as soon as the plane lands. I hope you understand.”
“Of course I do, but everybody has to eat and sleep, don’t they? You take care of your designs and I’ll take care of Joanie. And I promise not to interfere. I just want to be with you, to get to know you…and shower you with kisses and some of life’s simple pleasures. Is that so wrong?”
Joanie thought for a moment.
“No, I guess not.”
“Okay then. Let’s leave it at that for now. I’m really glad I got a hold of you, Joanie. I have meetings all day and wouldn’t have been able to call you until later this evening. Listen, go back to sleep now, if you can. I’ll give you a call tomorrow, if that’s okay with you.”
“That’d be great Jake. Thanks for calling.”
Joanie placed the receiver back in the charger and plopped her head back into the soft feather pillow. She sighed. With less than an hour before her alarm was set to go off, Joanie decided to get out of bed, shower and head to the hospital early. Just as she rose, the phone rang again.
“Hey sugar, how you feeling this morning?” It was Peter.
Sugar? What was that about? Just when she was about to give Peter a piece of her mind, he spoke.
“So, are you up? I guess you are or you wouldn’t have answered, right? So, how long will it take you to get ready, because I’m on my way to pick you up.”
“Don’t say another word about it. I’ll be there in fifteen. No rush. I’ll just hang outside. Oh, and I picked up a latte for you. No sugar, just how you like it. See you soon, hon. Bye.”
Joanie was livid, but kind of grateful at the same time. She quickly showered and was ready and waiting outside just as Peter’s black SUV pulled up to the curb.
What’s with the gorgeous thing today?Joanie thought to herself, as she hopped into the passenger seat, avoiding eye contact. Peter gunned it, and they drove off.
“This isn’t the way to the hospital Peter. Where are we going?”
“Detour. I have something I want to show you. Don’t worry. We’ll get you to see Dad in plenty of time.”
“He’s my Dad, Peter, not yours.”
“Can you roll down your window just a notch, Joan? Peter deflected. “I love the fresh morning air out here.”
Joanie just glared at him. However, she had to admit the air was clean and crisp, and the scenery exquisite. Sunrise was Joanie’s favorite time of day. She’d always loved the countryside that surrounded Charleston. As they whizzed past giant oak trees and green maples, she felt comfort in the familiarity the landscape provided. They drove farther and farther from the city, into the wide open fields, then into the treed foothills. Peter took a sharp right onto a dirt road that wound up and around a steep knoll. When they reached the top he stopped and shut the engine off.
“Here we are,” he exclaimed.
“Here we are, where?” She asked, annoyed yet intrigued.
Peter opened the truck door and climbed out. He walked to the edge of a steep ravine that opened up to a breathtaking view of fields and waterways below. Hands on his hips, he took a deep breath. His chest bulged with pride, and a huge grin spread across his face.
By this time, Joanie had climbed down from the passenger seat and had joined him. She looked around. An entire world was laid-out before her, full of patchwork fields, forested hills, and winding rivers; full of life. Suddenly she was transported back to a time that was more important to her than anything she had ever known, a time from childhood when everything was perfect. Back when she felt a sense of security within her family, a sense of belonging to her community, and more than anything, a sense of freedom to be herself. It was a time when she flourished as a young girl, then blossomed into a young woman, and when a spark finally ignited between her and Peter. With remembered smells and sights, so many memories came flooding back.
“So…why are we here, Peter? What is this place and why are you showing it to me?”
“It’s ours – our place.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about this, Joanie. Remember, when we were kids? We used to climb up into these hills and build forts out of branches and boughs and whatever we could find? We spent hours hanging out, making plans for the future, just you and me and Kev. Those were the days, weren’t they?”
Peter moved toward Joanie and put a protective arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. He nuzzled his face into her neck, kissing her tenderly. She shuddered, but didn’t pull away, even though confusion stirred within her. His nuzzling turned more intense, and soon his lips met hers as they locked in an intimate embrace, hands groping, while a vast vista lay before them. Joanie’s head was spinning. She was so turned-on but knew this wasn’t right. Nevertheless, she couldn’t stop herself. Her mouth opened to let Peter’s tongue and lips explore her own. As she became more relaxed, he pulled her shirt up slightly, reaching for her breasts, latching on to her firm nipples and squeezing tight. Their kisses became more passionate. This was what she had always wanted, wasn’t it? For all these years she had wanted Peter, wanted him to want her as much as she wanted him, and now she was finally getting her wish. So, why was she second guessing this? As much as she wanted to fully succumb to Peter’s advances, a small voice in her head was saying no.
His hands felt around her body urgently now, reaching from her round breasts down to her stomach. He grappled with the button of her jeans, trying to undo them, trying to wriggle his hand down the front of them, unable to wait. He tore at her shirt, her waistband, pressing his body heavily into her. As aroused as she was, his increasing aggression frightened her. She pulled away, dizzy with confusion. He backed off, but it wasn’t long before he was trying to kiss her again, searching out her lips, her neck, working his way around her body. The more he kissed, the more frenetic he became. She wanted him, had wanted him for so long, but this didn’t feel right. Still, Peter was unrelenting. He thrust his hand down her pants insistently, reaching for the moistness between her legs. By now, Joanie just felt repulsion. She twisted and squirmed, and finally wrenched herself free from his clutches.
“Peter,” she gasped. “Peter, what are you doing? What’s the matter with you?”
He stood there, breathless, patient, hoping she would relax and come around again. When he realized she meant what she said, he composed himself, as best he could.
“Listen Joanie, I bought this place for us. Get it? You and me, we are meant to be together. All those years growing up, being ‘pals’, but knowing deep down there was more, much more. You know as well as I do. It’s just taken me this long to figure it out, but I did. So, last week I bought this place for us, to settle down here, in our hometown, together.”
Joanie stood silent, in disbelief. Peter moved toward to her again, coaxing her closer, drawing her in to him from behind, so she could face the spectacular view before them. She remained motionless, until Peter tightened his grip. Then she struggled to free herself, but he was too powerful for her. He forced himself up against her again, squeezing her, pulling her into him. Then he swung her around to face him with a power that startled her. His wet mouth came down on hers but she turned away. Instead, he found her neck and burrowed his head into it, then moved down toward her breasts. She fought to release herself from his grasp but she couldn’t. He was forcing her down to the ground. Her knees began to buckle under his weight. Her mind swam with confusion and fury. Finally, she screamed. It echoed down to the valley below, a cry louder than she thought she was capable of. It seemed to frighten Peter enough that he let go of her, as if he suddenly awoke from some crazy dream. He stood back, looking stunned and slightly ashamed. Joanie made a dash for the truck, but when she got there the door was locked. She ran around to the passenger side, but it was locked too. Through the Jeep window she could see Peter dangling the keys in front of his face, tauntingly. Joanie stood frozen, in place and in time. Her mind raced, as she tried in vain to think of an escape route.
“Hey,” Peter finally yelled to her. “It’s alright. I’m sorry, okay?” Slowly, he moved toward the Jeep. Joanie backed-up.
“C’mon Joan, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. I got carried away, that’s all. I’ll get you back to town, and to the hospital to see your Dad. I promise.”
She heard the click-click of the doors unlocking. Skeptical, but knowing it was her only way out of there, Joanie moved toward the vehicle and hopped into the passenger seat, sitting as close to the door as possible, her hand on the chrome door handle. Peter climbed into the driver’s seat, started the ignition, and skidded out of the gravel road, heading toward the main road. They remained quiet most of the drive back to town. Inside, Joanie was fuming with rage. How she wanted to talk to him, and tell him how she felt, that she was frightened, and so horribly disappointed, but she couldn’t find the right words. Peter was either too embarrassed to or too proud to say anything, Joanie couldn’t decide which. As they neared the city, and the hospital, she couldn’t restrain herself any longer.
“Peter, what’s happened to you? You are not the Peter I know and love, or shall I say loved.” She paused, noticing her hands and shoulders were trembling.
“I’m so angry right now, so hurt. How could you do this to me, to us? I should report you to the police, you know. I’m not kidding.”
Wind whipped in through Peter’s open window, flattening his brown curls against his left cheekbone. It felt colder now. Joanie wished he would close his window, but she let it be. Outside her own window, weeping willows and small oak trees grew lush and green along the roadway, while pink and white oleander bloomed on the median. The landscape, Joanie noticed, had changed from the wild, untamed foliage of the countryside, to the well manicured gardens and roadways of the city. Her heart was left back on the windswept knoll, a place she had loved since childhood, broken into a million pieces. Finally Peter spoke.
“I want you, Joanie. I’ve always wanted you. Don’t you see? We were meant to be together, since childhood. We knew it then, and we know it now. You know I’m right. Joanie, I can’t live without you, and I won’t stop until I have you.”
…Stay tuned…Chapter 8 will be posted next Tuesday, May 10th