Characters belong to Janet Evanovich, if you recognize them. This is an alternate reality / and Plum universe short series, (maybe), based loosely on the soundtrack for the movie the Big Chill. (but it has nothing at all to do with the movie!)
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxre-posted because dividers xxxx didn't show up! sorry 'bout that!
THE BIG CHILL
Strangers in the Night
I skid to a stop at the curb of the Performing Arts Center, and swung the door to my black Jag open. The valet, a bow tied kid of maybe twenty or so couldn't wipe the drool from his mouth fast enough as I slipped myself from the car and handed him my keys. I walked around to the passenger door, and played the gallant knight, opening the door and holding out my hand to Marina. She could always stop traffic, Marina could; and tonight was no exception.
It was almost nine pm; the sun had only just gone down on this, the first day of summer. We were here for The Summer Solstice Gala, whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. The night air was sultry; it hung heavy and thick. No surprise there, humidity and New Jersey go hand in hand. You would of course never know this by looking at Marina. She took my hand, smiled up at me, and swung her legs out in a graceful movement. The slit up the side of her skirt was almost indecent.
Her gown was the color of the sunset, with a flaming orange skirt that slowly turned fiery red by the time it reached the top of the plunging neckline which was edged with glittering crystals. She looked crisp, and sparkling; cool and collected, as always. It was no surprise to me that she was one of the best neurosurgeons in the tri-state area.
No, truth be told, she looked hot, on fire; but I guess she knew that too, based on the confident smile she boasted. Her hair was piled high, in some type of knot, that looked artful and happenstance all at once. I knew she had spent at least an hour having it arranged just so. Her skin was glowing and tanned, as if she needed enhancement to her rich mocha colored skin. With her make-up done as it was she looked exotic and alluring; as far away from the seriousness and precision of an operating room as one could get.
My tuxedo, on the other hand, felt like a sweat drenched rag. I hated the thing on a cool night; dressing up wasn't really my idea of fun. But I had promised I would escort her, as I was proud of her accomplishments, loved her for all she was worth and was, by all accounts, stuck in Trenton for another six weeks.
She took the arm I offered her, and squeezed it with gratitude. I knew we made quite the couple as we approached the entrance to the ballroom. We had been this route before, Marina and I, and we knew the roles we played. Neither of us cared for the game, but we played it well; too often for my taste, but we were successful. And that, she would remind me in the morning, as I regaled to her the horrors of the night just past, is how the game is played, little brother.
The music was too loud, and the scents of extravagant floral displays and too many perfumes competed with the distasteful aroma of another rubber chicken meal. The room was overfilled with patrons of the arts, matronly woman trolling the tables for men like me; (my sister called me eye candy!) philanthropists and the hoi-polloi.
Marina was whisked away by someone from the hospital almost immediately. She was off to do her thing, and chat it up with strangers; laughing and making it seem like it was their own idea to hand over a generous check to the Center for Brain Studies. She was good at this; this schmoozing, stupid bullshit. Ask the damn man to donate the money and save us from nights like these, I groaned.
I would prefer hand to hand combat in darkest Africa over being pawed over by outdated, dried up, disillusioned society wives who would undoubtedly swarm around me all night long. At first they will pretend fascination at my sister's astonishing career and success, and slowly, as they imbibe more alcohol they will begin to oh so indiscreetly proposition me, the handsome bachelor. They will worry over me and my lack of female companionship, and will twitter behind their hands at how they want to run their fingers through my hair, comment to one another on the shape of my ass, or breathlessly ask how many people have I killed; all to the end that they hope I will grace them with my presence in their bed.
Oh, anywhere else right now, indeed. I looked again at Marina. Her smile could stop time. Her laughter was like angels singing. I guess I better get moving along myself; it's a damn good thing I love her. And owe her my own life.
Tonight is game three of a good series between the Mets and the Red Sox, ya know? Mets are gonna go all the way this year, I can feel it. And yet, here I am, at another stupid fund-raiser, just so Dickie can be seen by all the right people. Damn stupid people. I mean, I guess I can't complain right? Free liquor, another new dress and a nice day at the spa….oh, if only Dickie would lavish that kind of attention on me for me, instead of to impress other people.
His boss's wife had asked we attend; this brain thing was a pet charity of hers, and she wanted us to be there. No expense was spared making me look hot and sexy, like Dickie felt I should look; and we arrived in his fully loaded Lexus. All window dressing. I drove a beater, because I couldn't afford anything more; I had to put my extra money towards the wedding that my mother and Dickie wanted us to have, to celebrate in the style he would like to become accustomed. Argh.
Of course, my parent's couldn't afford that kind of wedding. Valerie had only gotten married two years ago, and my dad was still paying it off. And Dickie, well, go figure; there's the one thing he wants to be traditional about. I live with him, we have sex, but the bride's family (in this case, little ol' me) should pay for the whole wedding.
And don't get me wrong. I want a gorgeous wedding too. What girl born and raised in Chambersburg, New Jersey doesn't? It's the lullaby sung to us at night, for chrissakes! But the entire wedding industry is currently on my shit list. Every blasted thing that has the word bride or groom attached to it has its price jacked up like crazy.
And the food tonight sucked. Two big ones for this nasty chicken dinner? I was glad I ate before I left. That made Dickie happy, because I left so much on my plate. Everyone saw what a dainty eater I was. It showed I cared about my figure. Score another one for Dickie Orr, he sure found himself a winner. Yeah right. I just preferred to eat real food, ya know?
After I listlessly nibbled at my dinner, we danced. I was wearing my 'last years Vera Wang great deal but I can say it's a Vera Wang' dress, and really cute FMP's. Dickie does share my interest in FMP's; I am never lacking in the shoe department. I liked this pair because I could squash his foot with the heel 'accidentally' when he stepped on my toes. If he tries to dance without counting time, he always misses a step and there goes my pedicure. Ballroom lessons have at least prevented things like broken toes.
My fiancé is what is generously called light skinned. In actuality is skin tone is similar to mine, but on a woman it's called porcelain and is desirable, but for a guy he's a bit pasty. His brown hair is thick and wavy, and he's considered generally handsome, I suppose. I guess I am supposed to be biased, because he is mine. I see other women looking him over as we dance, so yeah, I guess he's the catch of the year, or the day, or something. His tux was tight in all the right places, and he does look the part of the successful lawyer. Here's hoping! He's just my height when I'm in heels, and I guess we have a nice look about us together. It was no surprise to anyone when we announced our engagement; so really, all in all we are good together.
And he must envision future little Orr's or something, because he wants to marry me, Stephanie Plum, whose mother had long ago given up hope of teaching me the finer arts of being a housewife. Not for lack of trying. But once I'd set a few toaster ovens on fire and the motor of the blender was burned out, even Mom thought I should just aim high on the income scale and hope for a housekeeper. If Dickie can make partner, I may just get mom's wish! So, being the dutiful fiancée who dreams of a life larger than the waxy buildup on the kitchen floor, you can guess I am motivated to dance with all of Dickie's employers; heck I'll dance with anyone who will assist me in my desire to escape lifelong drudgery.
Tonight was dragging. Even for a fundraiser it was a long night. When I mentioned it to Marina, she laughed at me and told me to go find someone to play with. So, here I am, standing, waiting in the lobby, eyeing all the ladies as they move to and fro, and trying to find someone to entertain me. Hey, it was her idea!
I'm not uncomfortable in social situations. My parents had political and civic duties that allowed us to be exposed to the upper crust. I clean up well, I've been told, but my comfort level is somewhat strained around artificial people. Blame it on the training I'd received in the Army. I am able to spot phonies a mile away. And my radar, never off, could tell that the place was littered with fakes tonight. True, some of them may be genuinely nice humans, but they have their masks in place. Of course, I play the game well, as I have said, and I am never without my mask. I looked down at the empty glass I was holding. Shit, I don't recall drinking it. Ok. I'm cutting myself off. Sure sign you've had too much Manoso, when you don't remember drinking it.
Marina said tonight was successful so far. I was glad for her. This was her baby, the Center for Brain Studies. She fought long and hard to have it opened at Robert Wood, and she was largely responsible for keeping it running. It definitely cut into her time; her downtime that is, not her work time. She still kept her office hours and performed miracle surgeries, but when she wasn't in the OR she was trying to find ways to keep this center thriving. I could see her from my perch by the window, and watched her with pride in my eyes.
Damn it, I better go run interference for her; her jack-ass of an ex-husband, Dr. Jerk-off just walked over to her. "Dennison." There could be no mistaking my tone for that of friendship. That was my intention.
"I've been trying all night to dance with my sister…hope you don't mind the intrusion?" I growled at the man, my smile pasted firmly in place.
"Of course not." Roger Dennison spun on his heel and took off.
"Asshole," I heard Marina mumble, and then "Thank you Carlos." She put her arms around my waist, and looking up at me, smiled her gratitude.
"What are little brothers for, Rina?" I smiled back at her.
She grinned. "Stop that. All the women in the room are going to walk into something if you keep that up." I just raised my eyebrow at her.
"You owe me a dance, brother dear." I led her to the dance floor as a tango began. Dancing with Marina was almost too much of a sensual experience. She knew how to move her body. "Damn it, chica, you're my sister."
"Hijo, am I too much woman for you?"
All eyes are probably on us by now, I suspected. But still, to dance with her was magic. The woman was born to move. Latina enchantment. My laughter erupted as I dipped her low. "Of course you are, baby. You know it."
As I righted Marina the song ended; followed by a nice slow one. We stayed on the dance floor, moving together, talking, and just enjoying the night. She soothed me.
She has been on my case since I returned home from my tour to go out, meet someone, chill. But there's no way I am interested in getting involved with anyone. I was still reeling from my divorce. And that's stupid, because I hadn't wanted to get married, didn't want a kid, or a wife. No white picket fences and soccer practice for me. But strange as it was, it bothered me to be divorced. My failure was an embarrassment to me. I was not going to continue to screw up. I told her as much when I informed her I had put in for another 4 years. In 6 weeks, I was leaving for Fort Benning, Georgia, for Ranger school. I will not be a failure.
I had sworn to Marina I would fly straight before. When I was eighteen, she agreed to bail me out of jail, again, only after I agreed to get my ass in gear. She told me she'd drive me to the recruiting station of my choice or I could stay and face the music. Fuck, being in Juvie wasn't enjoyable, there was no way I was interested in being in the real penal system. She was tired of dealing with my ass, and I should know that my father would be disappointed. Not to mention my mother. That of course was the way she had always handled me. 'Mom, Dad, what would they say?' God I missed them. What would I have ever done without Marina? Or Celia. My two big sisters were my backbone.
As I spun Marina about, I was entranced by a fantasy in midnight blue. I felt my heart constrict. She was captivating. I stared at her over Marina's shoulder. Her hair was a soft halo glowing in the moonlight of her pale skin. Her gown accented her delicate beauty. Her eyes were wandering as she danced with a non-descript man, and they caught me staring. They were clear blue, and sparkled like the stars in the heavens. I was dancing with the sun, but was struck low by the vision of moonlit nights.
Our eyes locked. Shit.
"Ouch," Marina wiggled in my arms, "that was my toe. It's not like you to miss a step, Carlos." But I didn't really hear her. The woman's blue eyes were piercing my soul. They looked so joyless. They looked on us with something akin to envy.
Strangers in the night exchanging glances,
Wond'ring in the night what were the chances
we'd be sharing love before the night was through.
Dickie was mumbling something. But it didn't seem to require my attention, so I let my eyes wander while we danced. My mind followed suit. There were some really beautiful dresses tonight. I still had to decide, once and for all, what color I wanted my bridesmaids to wear. Our wedding was to be at Christmas, but I just didn't want to make it too holiday looking. Oh, wouldn't it be a shock if I chose black! I spotted a number of black gowns that were to die for. Of course, my mother would die if I were to suggest such a thing. Black at a wedding! Heck, it couldn't be worse than the sunny yellow I had to endure for Valerie. The soft pink I wore for my best friend Marylou's wedding was something a bit better with my skin tone, but oh, wouldn't black be daring.
And oh, wouldn't Dickie throw a fit. 'You need to be an example, Stephanie. I want us to be successful Stephanie. You need to conform, Stephanie.' Stupid. Why can't I be different? I wanted to scream. No one has ever appreciated the unique, I sulked, looking around. In a darker corner of the room a couple was dancing the proper way to this music. Not the stiff, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four that Dickie was counting out. Ah, that's what he's mumbling, it occurred to me. He's counting the tango! He totally misses the point of this dance. Mental head slap, Steph.
I thought the lady who was dancing had the right idea. She felt the music. And her dress, now that was stunning. I couldn't ever get away with that incredible sunset reddish color, not with my pale skin. But wow. Her face glowed, her smile was genuine. She really loved the man she was dancing with. Her eyes gave that away. And from the back he didn't look too bad at all. I caught how nicely his tuxedo pants accented his ass and grinned. I always did like a nice ass on a guy.
For the safety of my toes, I was glad that the tango ended and something more to Dickie's expertise began to play. We had to make face time here on the floor; he wanted to be seen by all his bosses. I would see him nod on occasion, almost checking off a list of men who needed to see him in his head. I guess I should be glad he was so successful already. His birthday was in two months, and he had told me long ago it was his personal goal to make partner by thirty.
And then, we'd buy a house! He wanted to stay in Trenton, but I wanted to go somewhere, anywhere else. But how could I complain? Twenty three years old, a decent job, engaged to a lawyer and about to be a homeowner. I should be happy. I bit my lower lip, chewing on it reflexively, wondering why I didn't feel as happy as everyone said I should be.
I drew in a sharp breath, suddenly stunned by the eyes that caught mine. The man dancing with the lady in red was watching me, and I felt a hitch in my heart. His eyes were almost black from where I stood. They pierced me with a look that said he knew my soul. He was perfect. Strong, chiseled face, dark skin, broad shouldered. I guessed Hispanic, although maybe Italian. His girlfriend was definitely Latina. Maybe 6 ft tall? His hair was very short; he had the look of the military about him; seriously built, the way he held himself. Confidence exuded from his very being. His eyes disturbed me. I tried to look away, but I felt compelled to continue watching him move.
Over his partner's shoulder he graced me with a smile that momentarily blindsided me. Ohmygod. He looked down at the woman, and gave her a sheepish grin. The moment was broken by Dickie spinning me away from that corner. All I wanted to do was to crane my neck around his, to witness the man with the woman, to see happiness.
Something in your eyes was so inviting,
Something in your smile was so exciting,
Something in my heart told me I must have you.
One of Marina's co-workers, an antiquated little man with a shiny head, interrupted our dance. "Everyone wants a piece of you, Marina," I whispered into her ear, getting a swat on the ass in reply. I gave her an evil grin and abandoned her to her fate. As I began to walk off the dance floor, I noted that the woman I had been watching switched partners and the man that I guessed was her date took off with a bunch of suits. I needed a good dose of fresh air. My heart was still pounding.
But instead of going outside, I made my way over to her side and politely interrupted the dance. The man acquiesced easily, but the woman looked stunned. I put my hand in hers, and my other around her waist, and I stepped right into the dance. She moved with me easily. She wasn't a natural born dancer, but I could see she enjoyed it. The tempo was just a bit too fast to talk to her. Which was just as well. What would I say to her, that my heart was hers? She'd take me for a fool. Or worse, assume I was a player and she was tonight's game.
My eyes wandered to our entwined fingers and I saw a hefty diamond ring. Shit. Her scent was heavenly. I pulled her closer than I needed to for the dance and I let myself bury my nose into her hair, breathing her into my soul. I knew I was being rude, invading her space, but I felt compelled to memorize her. I took a step back so I could look at her face again. She looked up at me at the same time, and I had to swallow the gasp that followed. She was beautiful. Her eyes close up were even more like starlight. They sparkled. Her lips needed kissing; they were so lush, deep pink and smooth. My pants grew tight as the thought of feeling her lips on me ran through my brain.
As the music ended, her date descended upon us. "Sweetheart," he called her. "There are some people I would like you to meet."
She turned toward him, still holding my hand. She smiled at me and I was lost. One hundred percent gone. "Thanks for the dance," she whispered and squeezed my hand before letting it go and walking out of my life.
I looked around as I left the ballroom, but they had both disappeared. Damn, she was haunting. I pushed open the glass doors and stepped out onto the plaza, and took a deep breathe trying to slow my racing heart. What happened in there? She had looked into my eyes and I felt overwhelmed.
I walked along the perimeter of the plaza area, trying to control my thoughts. You are leaving for a four year hitch in six weeks. You are not over your failed marriage. You don't want to get involved with someone now. She's engaged to someone already. I was pacing, ticking off reasons in my head why pursuing this was a bad idea. I watched people milling about on their cigarette runs, gathered together, laughing and partying. I stopped in a quiet corner and put my foot up onto the concrete wall, and rested my elbow on my knee. I stared out into the dark, looking for answers to the world's problems; or at least the answers to my dilemma.
Ten seconds of watching her and I felt the overwhelming desire to protect her, to comfort her, to make her smile. Two minutes in my arms, and…. Forget it Manoso. Move on, I told myself. I looked at my watch. Almost midnight. Wasn't this thing ever going to end? What I really needed was to get out of this monkey suit, and find a bar and get wasted. Things would look much clearer tomorrow, after I drank this vision out of my head. With that firm resolve, I decided to go find Marina and get the hell out of dodge.
As I turned to go back inside, the doors opened, and there she was. Her blue gown was illuminated by the moonlight, and she was laughing at something her fiancé said, as he took her hand and led her away. I was rooted to the spot, standing in the shadow of the building while I watched her fold herself into a Lexus. It seemed her laughter had stopped; the light in her eyes gone out, and her face was empty. She looked straight ahead, and it seemed her mind was elsewhere. As he pulled from the curb, I moved purposefully towards the entrance and Marina. I needed out of here. Now.
Marina obviously saw the intent in my stride because she excused herself from the group gathered around her before I had even reached her. "What's up, Carlos?"
Oh, I am so not getting into this with Marina right now. I chose to ignore her question. "Home? You need a ride? I've gotta get out of here."
"Hot date?" she grinned at me. My reputation was something less than angelic, I knew, but I was in no mood for her teasing. I glowered at her. "Gonna go get drunk and get laid. Or maybe I'll bypass the getting drunk part. But I can't take this much longer." I swept my arm around the room.
She tssked at me, and rolled her eyes. "Fine. Go. I can get a ride."
"Thanks, Rina." I absently kissed her on the cheek and spun around to leave.
"Carlos? Thank you for coming tonight. I know this isn't your favorite way to spend an evening."
"Oh, Marina. I'm sorry. You know I'd do anything for you. I just, well, I don't know really. I'm not in a good mood, and I don't really know why." Liar.
"Love you, Rina." My arms came around her waist and I held her close. She was so very special to me. I kissed the top of her head. "Behave" she mumbled, realizing it was a pointless but well meaning comment.
I was out of swatting reach before I spoke. "Si, mama." She hated when I called her mama, even though she had raised me since I was ten. I left then, smiling to myself.
Strangers in the night two lonely people we were.
Strangers in the night up to the moment when we said our first hello.
Little did we know love was just a glance away,
A warm embracing dance away and ever since that night we've been together,
Lovers at first sight in love forever.
It turned out so right for strangers in the night
Bert Kaempfert Strangers In The Night
I woke too early on Sunday morning, startled from my sleep by a dream. I lay with my back to Dickie, the covers settling around me like a cocoon, the sun pouring in through the window. My mind was swimming. The dream was disturbing, despite nothing really happening in it. The couple from the dinner last night, they were dancing on a glass dance floor, and everyone who was there stood around the edges of the room, all wearing white masks, and they clapped and clapped. And then the man, he danced towards me, and swept me off my feet. The floor fell out from below us, and the crowd all waved and cheered as we took off, dancing in the air, flying high. I had never danced to music like this before. I felt confident however that the man, that incredibly handsome strong man who took me in his arms, he would never let me trip or fall. Weird.
I thought about the reality of last night. It had been nice dancing with him. He seemed confident as we glided about the room. I liked the power I had felt in his arms. And his smile--- I saw his smile over and over in the dream, I realized…it was lighting up the room. I thought again how lucky that woman was. Oh, to know that Dickie thought of me the way it seemed the man had thought of her. I would love to be cherished.
I was not in a good mood. I didn't want to even think about having to go to dinner with Dickie's parents tonight. Stuffed shirts more worried about what everyone else thought. And their desire to be correct made my mother seem positively open and hippie-like in her outlook on life. I begged off, and he wasn't too happy. 'Sorry Dickie, I think I'm getting my period. I'm all crampy.' That stopped the conversation dead. He didn't like discussing bodily functions.
I curled up in bed, and tugging my blanket up around my chin, I clicked through channels for an hour, daydreaming. The man's eyes kept coming back into my head. His smile. I imagined his voice, although he never really spoke to me, after asking to dance. I was sure it had been a strong and confident sound. I think he had an accent; subtle, but there. I caught the happily ever after ending of The Princess Bride on cable, and my mind continued to stew. What must it feel like to have such happiness? What was lacking in my life? I must be missing some gene or something, some happiness gene. Everyone, I mean everyone, said I should be happy! I had a great man who loved me, a great future. What more could I want from life?
Sunday ended, and I went to bed depressed. Tomorrow I had to go to work, and I was still confused by all the emotions that were brought about by dancing with a handsome stranger. I need to talk to Marylou tomorrow after work, I thought. I'll have to call her on my lunch hour. Marylou could get my head straight. I stopped in the den, but Dickie was deeply involved in some brief for court in the morning, so he blew me off, and gave me a distracted peck on the cheek. Certainly not awe-inspiring or confidence inducing as far as letting me know I was loved.
I dressed with more care than normal Monday morning, because I needed to prop myself up. Couple of extra layers of mascara, and an extra spritz of perfume. I was really mopey. My mind was all knotted up. What was really the problem? The guy? The way the guy made me feel? A total stranger to me, he felt more connected and aware of me than anything I had ever felt from Dickie. How could that happen in a two minute dance? Or was it a sudden understanding that Dickie would never look at me like the guy had looked at the lady in red? Or was it something different. What did I want to do with my life? Was it this?
I settled in at the office, listening to all the chatter about everyone and their weekend. I didn't participate; rarely ever did, in fact. It felt like middle school sometimes, around the coffee machine. I liked my job most of the time. I was a buyer for Macy's. What girl wouldn't like that? I was low-level, but in the management track. I was proud of my job; Dickie thought it was fine till we had kids. After all he wasn't worried about me having a career; I really should be spending my time learning how to cook or entertain or something else exciting like that.
I was pouring over some wholesale pricing sheets when I got a buzz from Connie, the receptionist for our division. She squeaked into the phone as I picked up. "Holy shit, Stephanie."
"What?" I asked, trying to keep an eye on the line of print I was reading.
She sounded breathless. "You need to come here, Stephanie."
"There's someone to see you."
"Who?" I rolled my eyes at the phone. Sometimes I wondered if Connie knew what her job required. It seemed to me she was sure it involved painting her fingernails, and not much else. Oh, I shouldn't be mean like that. I loved Connie. She was one of the few girls here at the office that I enjoyed spending time with. She was a bit older, a bit shorter and a bit bustier than I was, and she was connected.
"I don't know," she whispered. It was like she was afraid to ask who was looking for me. Yeah, she definitely hadn't read the job description.
"Fine. I'll be right up."
I glanced at the clock. It was almost lunchtime anyway, so I shut down my computer and figured I would meet with my mystery visitor and then head out to Pino's for lunch. I grabbed my pocketbook, and then thought better of it. It might look rude if I greeted this person like I was trying to make a get away. I pulled my debit card from my wallet, shoved it into my jacket pocket, ran my hands through the mess called my hair, and headed towards the door.