Chapter Two

Chapter Two

A few nights later, Jessica found herself wanting to get her head examined.

She stood at a mirror, appraising her made up face and coiffed hair. Even though a part of her felt like an idiot for dressing up for a party, she had to admit that she looked damn good.

A car was going to pick Jessica up and take her to the party. Danie, Aidan, and his sister Marjorie, the guest of honor, were going to arriving with her, as they too were passengers in the rented car. She glanced back at the clock and found that it was almost time for them to be there, then turned to the mirror to make sure that she looked presentable.

The ringing of the doorbell shook her out of her reverie. She broke away from her reflection to answer the door.

Standing on her doorstep was a tall man with dark brown hair and awed brown eyes. He wore a tuxedo and his long hair was slicked back in a debonair fashion. Jessica grinned at him and held out her arms to hug him as the cool air and the sound of the car on the curb wafted in.

“Jessica,” said Aidan Bloom.

“Aidan,” said Jessica with a sigh, and they embraced.

Aidan was like a little brother to her and a great friend. She had the tendency to be over-protective of lost boys like him that came into her life via her sisters, and for Aidan, it didn’t go unappreciated or unnoticed. Jessica replaced the longing he’d harbored for his own sisters, and created a place in his heart for her.

Aidan stepped back to appraise Jessica. He looked awed. She looked resplendent in that dark teal dress that brought out the shade of her deep aqua eyes. Her auburn hair, tinged with glints of blond and red and so wonderfully chestnut, made a brilliant contrast.

“I’m flummoxed,” Aidan blurted. “I…just don’t know what to say…”

“Your speechlessness is enough, thank you,” Jessica assured him, feeling abashed at his response.

In the car, Danie stuck her head out the window and yelled, “Marjorie says you guys need to hurry the fuck up!”

Jessica’s mouth dropped open. Aidan groaned.

A posh, cultured English voice was heard from the back: “I most certainly did not say that. I said if they didn’t hurry, we’d be late.”

Aidan sighed and Danie proclaimed this version. “She’s your sister, you know.”

Jessica patted his chest. “And she means something to you, too, Bloom.” Aidan flushed as she grabbed her coat and keys, and locked up her house. “But we’ll talk about that later. Right now, we have a party to go to.”

* * *

When the Music Department Head of the Sakura School of the Arts arrived at the Selenity Ballroom with his wife, cameras snapped and photographers vied for their attention. Kevin dutifully smiled for them with Kristin beside him. Fans called out to him from behind barriers, and he gave them a smile, too.

He was used to this media frenzy. Kristin, however, while seeming demure, grinned and waved in her satin blue dress and her hair pulled up.

Once they were almost inside, a car pulled up to the curb. Fascinated, Kristin stopped to watch. The snapping reached a fever pitch as a tall brown-haired man in a tuxedo got out of the car and turned to hold his hand out for someone. That someone was the Countess Marjorie, wearing a black dress and glittering like a jewelry store. The petite countess reached up and kissed the man on the cheek and he rolled his eyes with amusement. They both turned as a slender, graceful hand with a jeweled wrist and an amethyst twinkling on her ring finger appeared, and the guy took it, helping a tall woman in deep purple out of the car.

Kevin recognized the woman. She had been at JCD Designs the night he and Kristin were shopping for the same event. The strapless, backless dress inspired envy and awe as the woman turned to the cameras and posed. She grabbed Marjorie comedically and they took pictures as the man helped the last person out of the car.

She was wearing dark teal and her auburn hair was pulled up, showing off her graceful shoulders and her neck displaying a modest diamond choker. She joined her female counterparts as the guy closed the door and the car left.

Kevin watched as they took pictures together. Marjorie and the woman in purple (her name was Danie, as he now recalled) posed together and included the guy and the woman in teal. The guy and the woman in teal shared a short conversation, and then she laughed and kissed him on the cheek.

“Countess!” called a photographer. “Over here!”

Marjorie dutifully turned. “Don’t forget my friends,” she drawled, as they clamored to get shots of her alone. Sooner or later, she obliged, and the others stepped aside to talk to reporters and give comments.

One of the ushers whispered to Kevin that it was time to go inside. Kevin tapped Kristin on the elbow and they entered the building. For some reason, Kevin found that he felt wooden. He didn’t want to think about why.

* * *

Once the Countess made her entrance, everyone stood and clapped, inspiring a smile from the Countess’s features. Jessica turned to her and smiled as everyone sat down and the four of them made their way to their seats. Jessica found that she was quite glad that her first outing in Gracia was this wonderful, not in its elaborateness, but in the company she chose to keep.

Aidan and Danie walked in front of them, talking in low voices about something Jessica didn’t care to know about but figured that she would later.

Suddenly Marjorie sighed as they sat down. “Sometimes I wonder why I get up every morning and go through all of this silly ceremony for a title.”

Jessica, sensing the tone in her voice, turned to her frowning. She was suddenly glad that the photographers had been left outside and would not be able to catch Marjorie’s despondent expression. But she listened dutifully as Marjorie continued.

“I would give this all up for another day with my husband,” Marjorie admitted.

Jessica nodded, sympathizing in a way. She didn’t know what it felt like to lose a love like that, but she knew that the process of getting over lost love in any case wasn’t easy. James Worchester had been a good man, and it had been a sad thing to hear that his life had been cut short in a car accident on a rainy night. Feeling like she had to console Marjorie, Jessica thought a moment before speaking.

“It warms my heart to hear that love means more to someone than jewels and titles in this wonderful day and age,” Jessica remarked. She looked to Marjorie. “I’m sure that one day you’ll get another day with James. A whole lifetime, perhaps.”

“A whole lifetime?” Marjorie sighed, considering the possibility in her head. “That sounds like Heaven.”

“You know,” Jessica commented, “I’m sure James is up there somewhere bragging about how his Marjorie looks tonight.”

Marjorie sniffed and smiled. “I hope so. I didn’t spend a fortune on this dress and these jewels so I could be overshadowed by all the other women in this damn room.”

Jessica could only laugh. It couldn’t be said that she lacked a sense of humor.

After Marjorie was introduced and made a salutary speech, dinner was served by formally dressed waiters. Jessica hardly paid attention to what was served because she was having such delightful conversation with Marjorie. Aidan and Danie contributed a little to the conversation when they weren’t having one between themselves. To be honest, Jessica didn’t want to know what they were talking about.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Kevin sat at a table with a few others including his wife, a redhead named Sophie, her balding date, and a dark-haired guy named Matt Chambers.

Sophie and her date (whose name Kevin didn’t catch) had not offered much interesting conversation. Sophie and Kristin were having a conversation about something that had Sophie tittering in high-pitched laughter. Matt (whose first name was really Ryan, but he insisted upon being called Matt) was telling a story about his former hometown that held Kevin’s interest.

Matt had started on the story when his date, a hazel-eyed blonde, had remarked, “You know who I miss? Jessica Thomas.”

“Oh yeah!” Matt’s eyes lit up in recognition. “I remember Jessica. Good ol’ Jess. She used to batter us boys in Audbone Heights to the ground whenever she had a chance.”

The blonde, whose name was Deborah, smirked at Matt. “And that was a lot if I recall correctly.”

An attractive black woman in blue who was sitting next to the blonde raised her eyebrows. “If I know Jess, it was probably all the time.” She turned to Kevin. “The stories we could tell, you would swear we were making them all up.”

“Either that or getting them from a Sweet Valley High book,” Deborah joked, even though she’d been fanatical about the books while she was in college. Suddenly, a thought came to her, and she placed a hand on Matt’s forearm. “Ry, you gotta tell him the story about the time she played runningback!”

Kevin’s eyebrows arched. “Okay, are you pulling my leg?”

“Oh no,” Matt responded, lips curved in mirth. “This woman is multidimensional. She’s ambidextrous. She can do anything.”

“Anything?” Kevin sipped wine. “Alright, tell me this grand story about this female runningback.”

“Well,” Matt began, “it all started one day my senior year when this guy suddenly died in some alley. He was one of those loner types, and there were rumors going around about him selling drugs. Then of course, there were those who thought he was a narc. Nevertheless, everyone was convinced that there was a murderer on the loose.”

Kevin frowned. “And this would have to do with this female football player because…?”

“Just wait a minute,” said the black woman. “That’s coming later.”

Matt looked at her in consternation. Kevin wasn’t quite sure if it was faked or not. “Rachel. Who’s telling the story here? You or me?”

With a sassy smile, Rachel remarked, “You know I could tell it better.”

Rachel and Deborah laughed as Matt tossed his napkin at her. Rachel promised she would be quiet, and Matt then turned back to Kevin.

“Anyway,” Matt continued, “so one day, Jess makes this grand entrance out of nowhere. She had graduated four years before, and she claimed that she had some classes that they suddenly realized that she needed.” Matt rolled his eyes and shook his head at this part.

“That’s bullshit,” Kevin commented, into the story.

“Exactly what we thought! But of course, no one was going to ask. People screw up all the time in this world. It’s almost like breathing. And besides, it was Jess, and we were so happy to have her back. If she’d been normal, she would have been graduating with us, but she was some kind of genius or something. But that’s for later. Right now, we need to get back on track.

“One day, at football practice, this skinny dude shows up saying he wants to try out for the team. It just so happened that our runningback had injured himself—an unrelated occurrence—and we were desperate for another. So the coach is telling us that we are going to have to replace Aaron Fabian, our former RB, when this skinny dude shows up. And you know how jocks are.”

“Petty, chauvinistic, and elitist,” Rachel supplied. Matt glared at her. “It’s scientifically proven.”

“Rachel darling, do you mind?” Matt asked. Rachel just smiled into her wineglass and went silent. Kevin had figured out that they were close enough to have their raillery down to a science. That sort of thing came with long friendship.

“So what happened with this mysterious hopeful?” Kevin asked.

“Well, the coach gave him a hard time, but we convinced him that we should give this guy a try. Why not? We didn’t have much else to do at the time.” Matt smiled to himself and shook his head. “I swear, it was like watching poetry in motion. In one play—”

Rachel waved her hand, causing him to stop. “Uh uh. Matthew sweetheart, we are not here to hear a play-by-play. Get to the meaty part. The crux of the story.”

Matt glared at her, then turned back to Kevin, who was trying not to laugh. “Do you see why you can’t tell these kinds of stories around women? They want conflict resolution and all that shit. Life ain’t like that.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “Anyway, the story is, after practice,” she told Kevin, “they went to the locker room. But their new runningback said that he’d rather shower at home, which was kind of odd since the locker room was closer”—she gave Matt a pointed look—“and you know how frisky men get in locker room situations, being a man yourself. It’s like an initiation process…or something.”

“It is not,” Matt countered, and decided to take back his story. “Let me finish this before she screws it up. So we leave him alone and do our thing.” He pointed a finger at Rachel. “And don’t you say anything.” Rachel put up her hands in a gesture of surrender and Deborah laughed. “Once we’re all showered and ready to go home, the usual thing we did was hang out at the local hotspot but one of the guys I was hanging around with had forgotten his wallet in the locker room and we had to go back.” Matt exhaled. “Man…we all went back, and boy did we get an eyeful!”

“What did you see?” Kevin wanted to know. “Come on, you can’t leave me hanging here.”

“Alright, alright.” Matt’s voice dropped to a hushed tone. Sophie and Kristin looked over, curious. Deborah and Rachel shared a knowing glance. “We walked into the locker room, and it was all foggy like someone was taking a shower, but there shouldn’t have been anyone in there because all the other guys had gone home.” He paused for effect. “Or so we thought.” He motioned for Kevin to come closer. “So we walk to the shower area, not knowing what we’re about to find. Benjamin—one of the guys with me—calls out, and then there’s this loud squeal. The shower door opens, and Jessica Thomas appears, wet, shocked…and naked.”

“He fails to mention that Jessica nearly clobbered them to ensure their silence,” Rachel broke in, earning another dirty look from Matt.

Suddenly a female voice came from above them. “I figured someone around here would be telling that story!”

Matt sat up quickly as if he were about to salute an army official and looked up at the woman in the royal purple dress with a charming half grin. He looked slightly sheepish. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t the gorgeous Daniella Thomas.”

Danie placed a hand on her hip. “Yeah, don’t try to charm your way out of this one—even though you are good at that sort of thing.” She shook her head in exasperation. “I can’t believe you are still telling that story about the time you saw Jessica naked. You are a man, you know that?”

“Well, I didn’t see anything worth telling about. She was hiding behind the door…jeez!” he added when Danie pinched him on the arm. “Sorry. I was just trying to entertain the new blood.”

Danie’s eyes shifted and rested upon Kevin. Then her eyes lit up in comprehension. “Oh! Now I recognize you. You’re that guy from the other night.” She smirked at him. “I see you’ve changed clothes. Did the sweat get to ya?”

“Do I even want to know?” Matt inquired.

Danie leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. “No Matthew darling, you don’t want to know.” She stood up straight and looked behind her. “I’m going to tell Jessica on you.”

“You are not. Come back here!” Matt cried as Danie sashayed away. She ignored him in pure Danie fashion. He sighed and Deborah patted him on the forearm. It offered no comfort. Jessica Thomas was about to kill him and there was no way around it.

A few moments later, the woman in the teal dress appeared. She stared at Matt with her hands on her hips. For a long time, she didn’t say a word. Matt pushed back his chair and stood with several pairs of eyes watching in rapt interest. He opened his mouth to explain when she just hugged him. Matt’s eyebrow furrowed but he hugged her back. Deborah and Rachel looked at each other again, surprised.

When she pulled away from him, she was laughing. “Did I scare you?”

Matt scratched his head, not knowing exactly what to say. “Well, you do have that effect on men, Jess…”

She punched him in the shoulder. “I hope so. Because if I catch you telling that story again—”

“Point well taken,” Matt interrupted. He didn’t want to hear what kind of threat Jessica would come up with.

“Good.” She noticed Deborah and Rachel behind him, and they had a mirthful, happy reunion. After complimentary comments were made about dresses and hairstyles and dates were made for lunch, Matt placed a hand on Jessica’s shoulder.

“Jessica, these are our table mates.” He gestured to Sophie and her date. “This is Sophie and her fiancé Jackson.” (So that was his name! Kevin thought.) Jessica shook their hands and Jackson commented that he recognized her name from somewhere, and she told him that she owned a restaurant with her cousin Cassandra Strattford. Matt resumed the introductions. “You know Deb and Rachel.” He gestured to Kevin and his wife. “And this is Kevin and his wife Kristin. They just moved here a week ago.”

“Oh!” Jessica looked to Kevin. “Well, Gracia’s not so bad, really. I like the place. I hope you guys enjoy it while you’re here.” She shook Kevin’s hand and tried not to let it show that something went through her, like a shock. She moved to shake Kristin’s hand. “It was certainly nice—”

Suddenly, Kristin gasped loudly, and Jessica took her hand back. When she had offered her hand, she had accidentally upset Kristin’s wine glass. The red liquid was settling into the part of the dress covering Kristin’s lap. Chairs scooted back in a noisy chorus. Kevin dabbed at his wife’s lap with a napkin while Jessica apologized profusely. Sophie offered to take Kristin to the bathroom to try to get as much of the stain out as they could. Jessica moved back, a little contrite.

“I hope that stain comes out,” she remarked idly.

Rachel patted her hand. “Oh Jess, it was an accident. It happens all the time during parties like these. She’ll be alright.”

Consoled a little, Jessica moved away from the table as a new song began. On the stage, a young woman settled behind a microphone in front of a smartly dressed band. Jessica recognized her as one of her little sister’s friends, Megami Takumi-Hill. The half-Japanese woman wore a sky-blue blue satin dress and her long dark hair flowed freely on her shoulders. As her friends mingled with other guests and people started to pair off onto the dance floor, Jessica felt a bit out of sorts again. She was used to swanky parties like these, but it had been a long time since she had been to one alone.

She felt a hand on her shoulder again, and turned. She found Kevin standing beside her, and she smiled.

“Would you like to dance?” he asked.

“Are you sure? You don’t want to wait on your wife?”

Kevin shook his head. “I think she’ll be okay for three minutes.”

Consenting, Jessica took his hand and let him lead her to the dance floor where other guests were dancing. Kevin placed a hand on Jessica’s lithe hip and she a hand on his broad shoulder. Megami leaned into the mike and began to sing as they started to sway in time with the music.

I make a wish every morning

Jessica placed her cheek against his. And took in his scent, a scent that was nothing like the last man she had danced with. Of course, that same man had cheated on her with a leggy secretary. Men. So predictable.

I say a prayer that you’re right here with me
Being alone is so boring
But it takes one to know one
I think I know you

I guess I’m just asking
Do wishes come true?

Jessica sighed and murmured, “Do wishes really do come true?”

Hearing her speak, Kevin frowned. “What? What did you say?”

Jessica moved away from his shoulder so that she could look him in the face. His eyes were dancing with amusement, but she could see that he was slightly concerned. What, did he think she’d lost her marbles? It was honestly too late for that.

She chuckled and shook her head. “I don’t know what I said, honestly. So let’s forget it.”

Now I found my heaven falling from the sky
Just like the music
True love never dies

Kevin peered into her eyes, giving her the feeling that he could see inside her brain right at that moment. “No, you asked if wishes come true.”

“Maybe I did.” She paused. “Do you think that wishes come true?”

I’m kinda shy but revealing
So lets do spins and roll around in my bed

Kevin hesitated before answering. “I do, actually. Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You don’t have to be wealthy and famous to have had a dream come true. That doesn’t mean everything to some people.”

But I can’t help this stupid feeling
I just want to know you
I think you know me

“But it’s security,” Jessica said. “The money is, I mean. Fame is a rocky place from which many fall due to inexperience and naivety. I don’t know how you’ve survived this long.” She added when he looked confused, “Yes, I know you’re a Backstreet Boy. My little cousin used to follow you guys like an ant follows a trail of sugar.”

Kevin laughed. “That’s comforting to know.” A question popped into his brain and onto his lips before he could stop them. “So what are your dreams?”

Now I found my wings – I can fly
Now I found my heaven falling from the sky
Just like the music
True love never dies

That was an awfully good question. She had never thought about what she really wanted in life other than family, security.

Love never dies
No it don’t, no it don’t

“Honestly,” Jessica replied. “I want nothing more right now than peace. That would make me happy.”

Kevin nodded, a look in his eyes that she couldn’t read and figured she didn’t want to. “Me, too, Jessica.”

Wishes come true
(Oh yes, they do)

Now I found my heart
I can feel for you
Now I found my wings – I can fly
Now I found my heaven falling from the sky
Just like the music
True love never dies

At that moment, the doors opened and Sophie and Kristin entered the room. Kristin’s dress sported a wet spot from where the wine spill had been, and she looked extremely perturbed. Knowing that she didn’t want to cause a scene, Jessica stepped back from her dance partner with a forced smile.

Just like the music
True love never dies

“Um, your wife’s coming back in,” Jessica told him. “Thanks for dancing with me.”

No it don’t, oh no…

Kevin lifted her hand from his shoulder and kissed it. She told herself that she was not trembling because this man’s lips made contact with her bare hand, but because it was cold. Or something. She was tired. Or something.

“It was my pleasure,” he told her, releasing her hand.

Jessica nodded in farewell, not trusting her voice to act correctly, and walked away from Kevin. She still felt that inexplicable sensation that she was not going to identify as trembling, because that would mean…something she didn’t want to deal with at the moment.

And it feels so real…

And Kevin watched her walk away, feeling half-intrigued and half-dismayed as Kristin came up to him and asked if they could leave.

 

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