CAROLINE AND THE PLAZA GALA
"Oh, wow! I can't believe it!" came the exclamation from the redhead behind the counter. She squealed, bouncing up and down. "This is soooo cool!"
The tall blond man eyed her from his side of their shared partner desk, his head staying level with the panel he was coloring while his eyes sauntered up to meet her petite form. "What?" he asked slowly, reluctantly... drawing out the word.
She held up a brightly colored flyer for him to see, the neon pink nearly burning his retinas. "Richard, look! Look!" She waved it in his face.
He made a face, furrowing his brow and pressing his lips together in a frown of annoyance, before snatching the piece of paper away from her. "I can't look at it if you keep thrashing it around, now can I?" he muttered. After watching her roll her eyes at his behavior, he turned his eyes to the flyer in front of him, his eyes scanning the bold, black lettering. When he was finished, he frowned once more and thrust the bright pink piece of paper back at her. "So? What's so special about this?"
She rolled her eyes at him again. "Richard, I've never been invited to one of these kinds of parties before! A gala for the nation's top cartoonists! And at the Plaza, no less!"
He shrugged. "You've been to the Plaza before, Caroline. Isn't that where that awards thing was held a few months ago?"
"Yes, but that was just a piddly little awards ceremony, Richard. This is a big party! With dancing, and drinks, and... there might be food, too!"
She glared facetiously. "You know, you're a poop."
He shrugged once more, rising to his feet and brushing past Caroline to move toward the coffee-maker, trying desperately not to let her light scent infiltrate his senses too deeply. "Caroline, I just don't see what the big deal is, or why it's so important that you go. I mean, what's the point? Just so you can watch the creator of Garfield 'cut a rug' alongside the guy that created 'Marmaduke', or what?"
"Richard, I just think it'd be fun to go." She grinned devilishly. "And you're coming with me."
He shook his head frantically, waving his hands like a baseball usher indicating 'safe.' "Oh, no..." he murmured, deep and low, making his way back to his spot behind the desk. "No, no, you are not dragging me to this little wining-and-dining brouhaha with you!" He sat down forcefully, as if making a valid point... and the momentum sent his chair rolling back a few feet. He frowned and reached for the edge of the desk, bringing himself close again.
"Brouhaha?" she mocked, wearing a silly, dimpled grin. "Come on Richard, when's the last time you went dancing?"
"When you FORCED me to go to that awards ceremony with you, when Dr. Do-Nothing wouldn't go."
"Joe had principles," she muttered, frowning at the mention of her philandering ex-boyfriend.
Richard rolled his eyes. "He also had to be to bed by eight o'clock because it was a school night."
Caroline shook her head in amazement. "You're never gonna let up about that, are you?"
He met her eyes. "What?"
"The age gap between Joe and I. You hated it from the beginning, and you never stopped taunting me about it."
Upon witnessing the hurt in her chocolate eyes, he glanced back down to the panel. "I just... I thought you could've done better."
She frowned thoughtfully, pursing her lips as she leaned one hand on the desk, placing the other on her hip as she eyed him skeptically. "That seemed to be your viewpoint on my relationship with Del, too."
He shrugged, biting back without thinking, "Hey, it's not my fault you make such bad decisions."
"Excuse me?!" Her eyes, which normally were so relaxing and soothing to gaze into, now flashed with anger... and Richard recoiled, wanting to retract his statement, but not knowing where to start. "I make bad decisions?! Well, I eventually broke things off with Del. I listened to you eventually, Mr. High-and-Mighty, He-Who-Knows-All about meaningful relationships!"
"Caroline, I'm sorry, I didn't mean--"
Her tirade overrode any apology he was trying to make. "And let's not forget that after I broke things off with Del, I went to see you and you'd already flitted off to Paris without so much as even a WORD! Or a letter!" Ignoring his grimace at the mention of a 'letter,' she continued. "Nothing! Just an empty apartment to greet me. How did you think that'd make me feel, Richard?"
"I... didn't know. I wasn't thinking that you--"
"Let's just leave it at 'you weren't thinking,' period," she snipped. "And yeah, y'know what? Getting into a relationship with Joe was a bad decision. I should've left it as a one-night stand, but it's not as if you, the big relationship-guru, were here to stop me! You were still in Paris. I needed somebody, Richard, and you weren't there."
"Wait, what?" Her last statement threw him off, and he held up a hand to halt her tirade. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, I needed to move on, Richard. You weren't there, and I needed to move on."
He furrowed his brow. "Why would you need to move on... from me?" His heart thudded in his ears, unable to believe they were having his conversation.
Caroline hesitated, her tirade having completely commandeered her control over the words that came out of her mouth. "I... uh..." She felt her cheeks flare with heat, and she moved away from the desk, going back over to stand behind the counter. She putzed with the envelope the invitation had come in. "I meant from Del. I had to move on from Del."
He kept his eyes trained on her form, too afraid to break the contact for fear it would turn out to be a dream, and he'd be dumped into waking reality... into a world where Caroline saw him as only her annoying, depressed friend. "Then why would it matter if I was there or not?" he asked softly.
"Because, you..." She finally met his eyes, and nearly gasped at the look in them. "Uhh..."
He slowly stood, wiping his profusely sweating palms on his dress slacks before slowly making his way over to her. "Caroline, you said you went to see me after you broke things off with Del. You said you needed somebody... and when I wasn't there, you had to move on."
Her heart bumped into her throat at the realization that they were now standing toe-to-toe, and she slowly dragged her eyes up his body to meet his. Richard shook his head. "That doesn't sound like you were talking about Del, Caroline."
"I was," she whispered shakily.
He shook his head again, bravely moving closer, his voice dropping low to match the willowy tone of hers. "You said you needed somebody..."
Her eyes slipped closed when she felt his hands reach her hips, squeezing softly, and she fought to regain control of the moment. Things were dangerously close to going too far... and she couldn't make another bad decision. She opened her eyes, finding her lips were now mere inches from Richard's. When he exhaled, his breath hit her lips, and she shivered. "I meant that I needed somebody to help me get over Del..."
"And how would I have helped with that?" he whispered, lips brushing hers feather-lightly as he spoke.
She gasped, her lips parting in response to the teasing caresses his left behind, and, in a final, desperate grasp for sanity, she pressed her hands to his chest, pushing him to arm's length. "As a friend," she whispered, voice still shaking as her body trembled. Her fingers, still resting lightly against his chest, itched with the need to unbutton his shirt... to explore his body. Her body trembled, her core aching for him... her hips still tingling with the ghost of his touch. She took a moment to swallow, to steady her voice. "I needed you here as a friend."
His hands, still in the air as if touching her hips, finally dropped back to his sides, dejectedly. "I see," he murmured, bowing his head so she wouldn't see the pain in his eyes.
"Richard..." She reached out to him.
"Hey! Care! I heard you squealing in here a few minutes ago!" Annie barged in, marching straight for the coffee-maker. She poured herself a cup, either ignoring or simply not noticing the electric stare passing between her friends. "What's goin' on?" She turned slowly to face the pair, watching Caroline drop her hand back to her side before glimpsing at Richard... going back to his side of the desk and packing up his things.
"Nothing," Richard snipped, keeping his back turned to the girls. He knew Caroline was still staring at him... he could sense it. But he couldn't bear to look at her right now.
Caroline sighed, finally tearing her eyes from his being to meet the questioning brown eyes of her best friend. She plastered on a bright smile, shrugging off Annie's inquiring glance between her and Richard... and instead directed the brunette's eyes to the neon pink flyer on the counter. "This is what I was squealing about."
"Oooh!" She picked it up, eyes scanning the piece of paper. "How cool! Cartoonists' gala at the Plaza?" She glanced up at Caroline. "How many people can you bring?"
Caroline chuckled. "Well, three max, but I think I'll just bring you. Bringing Del might, uh..." She shook her head.
Annie nodded knowingly. "Tarnish your image?"
She laughed. "No. It might embarrass me, though, if he spends his whole night wolfing down shrimp toast and spouting off cheesy pick-up lines to any women that may be there."
"Yeah." Annie made a face. "I hate cheesy pick-up lines." She then nodded thoughtfully. "Shrimp toast is good, though."
"You just behave when we're there," Caroline chuckled.
"Why not ask Dr. Doom-and-Gloom over there?" Annie asked, nodding in Richard's direction, who still had his back turned to the girls.
"Richard doesn't dance," Caroline sighed, for lack of the desire to get into a lengthier explanation of why Richard would not be attending.
"Hey, you got him to dance at that one awards banquet thingy." Annie shrugged. "Y'know, until your little Cub Scout showed up."
"Annie, knock it off!" Richard spat out, gesturing toward Caroline. "She doesn't like those jokes."
Annie shrugged defensively. "Hey, that's never stopped you from joking about that before."
He met Caroline's eyes, and, for a brief moment, she smiled at him. He turned his head away, her explanation of needing him 'just as a friend' still echoing in his head. "Yeah, well... Caroline doesn't like it, so I'm stopping."
"If I told you Caroline didn't like you, would you stop showing up here?" Annie joked, grinning widely... ignoring the jab in the ribs she received from Caroline.
Richard shook his head, gathered his portfolio and headed for the door. "Maybe," he murmured quietly, and tossed a pseudo wave over his shoulder before making a hasty exit, slamming the door behind him.
Caroline sighed, dropping her head to her chest, and Annie leaned against the counter. "Okay, so now that Dracula's gone, can I address that tension-y little moment I walked in on?"
Caroline shook her head, busying herself with tidying up the counter. "I don't know what you're talking about," she murmured, to which Annie rolled her eyes.
"Oh, please. You guys have got more repressed sexual tension than... than..." She made a circular gesture in the air with her hand, searching for the right comparison.
Caroline arched an eyebrow. "Than who?"
Annie finally shrugged. "Than David and Maddie." When Caroline chuckled, she tried again... "Mulder and Scully."
Caroline rolled her eyes. "Nobody has more repressed sexual tension than they do," she sighed, "And, on a side note, you really should get away from the TV more often, Annie."
"What was going on with you guys when I walked in here?" she demanded once more.
"Nothing," she sighed, "Let's go dress shopping for tomorrow night."
"Fine," Annie relented, "But only if you tell me what went on here with Lurch while we're out."
Caroline rolled her eyes, knowing she wouldn't be able to get out of it. "Fine."
"So that's it?" Annie asked in disbelief. "You just pushed him away, and didn't tell him the truth?"
Caroline rolled her eyes, setting her chosen dress up on the checkout counter before tossing her friend a look over her shoulder. "Well, I was going to, but then we were rudely interrupted."
Annie cringed. "Ooh. Sorry about that. I mean, if I'd have known..."
Caroline waved the apology away with a dismissive flick of the wrist. "Don't worry about it. I could've locked the door, but I didn't know we'd be getting into that discussion at the moment."
Annie shook her head. "Man. Why you haven't nailed that geek yet is beyond me... I mean, you're obviously dying to."
Caroline chuckled. "Because, Annie, it's about more than just 'nailing him.' It's about knowing that he feels what I do. Knowing that he loves me."
Annie rolled her eyes. "It's beyond obvious that he does. Even Del could tell you that Richie loves you, and you know Del's dumber than a bag of rocks."
"Still..." Caroline murmured, passing the cashier her credit card after being read her total. "I'd want it to come from Richard, and, even if he does love me, he's obviously not ready to tell me."
"Or maybe he's afraid to tell you," Annie reasoned. "I mean, if I were somebody like him, I would be." She nudged her. "Especially if the person I loved spouted off something about needing me just 'as a friend.'"
Caroline groaned, closing her eyes in agony. "God, I really messed stuff up, didn't I? I should've just been honest with him."
"Well... I don't think you really messed things up, but you should have been honest with him." She shrugged. "Richie scares easily. You know that, Caroline. You should know by now that, in this type of situation, you'd have to make the first move. Richie just won't do it."
Richard poked his head into the apartment, dropping his portfolio just outside the door. "Caroline?" he called, desperately hoping she wouldn't be there. "Caroline..."
Upon receiving no answer, he swung the door open and stepped inside, striding over to the counter. Caroline's words from earlier still taunted him, but he knew... he knew by her tone of voice and the look in her eyes that she'd needed him in a more than friendly way after breaking up with Del. Though his mind tried to get him to take the coward's way out and believe she only wanted a friend, his heart knew her words had been a fabrication. She loved him.
He reached for the neon pink piece of paper and allowed his eyes to scan the information before he slowly nodded, set it back on the counter, and headed for the door once more. Perhaps it was time to dig out that tuxedo one last time.
"Wow, look at this place!" Annie gushed, her sable eyes wide with wonder as she gazed at all the lush trappings of the ballroom at the Plaza. "Fancy digs."
Caroline rolled her eyes, smirking at her best friend. "Well, it is the Plaza, Annie."
"I know," she murmured in awe, her eyes still taking in the sights. After a moment, she turned back to her redheaded companion, brows furrowed as if something important was on her mind. "Open bar?" she asked.
Caroline chuckled at the pensive, hopeful expression on Annie's face. "Of course."
She nodded, patting Caroline's shoulder. "I'll see ya." And she wandered off toward the bar.
Caroline sighed, shaking her head at her choice of companionship for the evening. Perhaps bringing Annie was about as good of a choice as bringing Del would have been. They both would've abandoned her rather quickly. Bringing Charlie would've been out of the question. Once he'd spot all the hors d'oeuvres, he'd be gone. The only person that would have stuck by her would've been...
"Richard," she whispered, her eyes floating toward the presence in the ballroom doorway.
There stood Richard, decked out in a full tuxedo, wiping his palms on his pants while his eyes roamed the lush ballroom. Caroline's breath caught in her throat as his eyes settled on her, and all she could manage was a weak smile and wave.
Surprisingly, he smiled back... brightly, and she nearly did a double take at this. Richard, smiling? As if him showing up wasn't out of character enough... now he was smiling? As if reading her mind, he chuckled, making his way over to her. Her heart thudded in her ears. Without that sour look on his face, he was suddenly gorgeous.
"Hi," he murmured, drawing her out of her brief fantasy world as he stepped up to her, toe-to-toe... his normally dull and lifeless brown eyes suddenly sparkling.
"What are you doing here?" she breathed, nervously reaching up to putz with the spaghetti straps on her crimson, form-fitting gown.
"I felt bad about not being there when you needed me," he replied, "So I'm trying to make up for that, tonight." He smiled ruefully. "Although I'm well aware that three months of abandonment can't be made up in just one night."
Her eyebrow arched without her conscious consent. Depends on what else you have planned for tonight, she thought... then immediately scolded herself for such thoughts. He was just doing something nice for her. "No..." she whispered, still trying to form coherent, chaste thoughts pertaining to the man standing in front of her. "No, this sh-should be fine."
He smiled, his eyes subtly scanning her lithe body and gentle curves, coccooned in the tight red fabric of her dress... slits up both sides exposing ample amounts of pale, creamy flesh. He cleared his throat. "Has anyone told you how beautiful you look tonight?"
Caroline smirked. "Now I think you're just sucking up."
"Drink?" he asked, eyebrow twitching upward in question.
Caroline nodded, smiling. "Please. Thank you, Richard. I'll have a--"
He stopped her request with a sexy, uncharacteristic wink. "I know what you like," he said in a low, almost husky timbre, then called over his shoulder, "I'll be right back!"
She watched him walk away... his stride unusually confident, and she let out the breath she'd been holding since she spotted him, whispering, "Whoa..."
"Whoa!" Her statement echoed, in a more brassy voice, as Annie made her way back over to her, with two drinks in hand... her eyes directed over her shoulder, where Richard stood at the bar. "Is that Richie?" She took a sip of the appletini she held in her right hand. "Who knew that once a tux is involved, he becomes a fox?"
The left corner of Caroline's mouth curled in a smirk, and she settled her eyes on the blond wonder making his way back to her. "I knew..." she murmured.
"Here you are," Richard spoke up, wearing yet another devastating smile as he extended a glass of Merlot to Caroline. Upon taking a step back, he noticed Annie had been gaping at him the entire time. He frowned and quietly snipped, "Close your mouth, Annie. It's unflattering."
"Sorry," she muttered, shaking her head. "Just... damn. You look hot, Richie." She skipped her hand lightly down his arm, admiring the material of his tuxedo.
He quickly yanked his arm away, eyeing her warily. "How many drinks have you had?"
She smiled demurely, raising her appletini. "Just this one. And..." She extended the drink in her left hand to her redheaded friend. "I brought another one for Caroline."
Caroline grinned and took the glass, her eyes darting back and forth between her two drinks. "Wow. How drunk do you want me to get tonight, guys?"
"Depends," Annie grinned. "If Richie wants to have his way with you, then--"
"Caroline, let's dance!" Richard interrupted harshly, extending a hand to his auburn-haired beauty... waiting for her to set her drinks down before taking her hand. He nodded toward Annie. "Then we can leave Annie with all her alcohol."
Caroline threw him a dazzling smile, chuckling a bit at his quip, then gripping his hand tightly and allowing him to lead her out onto the dance floor, Frank Sinatra's "More" flooding through the speakers.
More than the greatest love the world has known
This is the love I give to you alone
Almost immediately, she found herself in Richard's arms... before she even had a chance to think about or analyze it. And, just like at the awards banquet, after a moment he'd warmed up to the slightly upbeat, swing tempo and was twirling her around the dance floor... that out-of-place, but utterly adorable smile still caressing his features.
More than the simple words I try to say
I only live to love you more each day
He wanted to laugh at how true the lyrics were to his situation with Caroline. Only instead of trying to say the words, he was bound and determined to actually say them this time around. No more writing letters... no more running to Paris... no more hiding behind sarcasm and indifference. He showed up tonight to make a change... what he hoped would be a change for the better.
More than you'll ever know, my arms long to hold you so
My life will be in your keepin'... wakin', sleepin', laughin', weepin'
"Richard, wow!" Caroline giggled.
He couldn't help but chuckle at the dimpled innocence of her smile. "What?"
"I can't believe you remember how to do this! And... you've actually gotten better!" She sounded truly amazed.
Longer than always is a long, long time
But far beyond forever you're gonna be mine
He shrugged. "It's like learning to ride a bike, isn't it? You never forget."
"You know how to ride a bike?" she questioned, grinning up at him, and he smiled, caught.
"Figuratively speaking," he murmured, and resumed twirling her about while Sinatra crooned an homage to Richard's love for Caroline.
I know I never lived before and my heart is very sure
No one else could love you more
During the instrumental break, Richard attempted to show off his best moves... praying he wouldn't accidentally send her flying into a wall or a table. But he kept his balance... he kept time and didn't fall out of step. And he beamed upon noting Caroline's affectionate, incredulous gaze firmly centered on him, and him alone.
More than you'll ever know, my arms they long to hold you so
My life will be in your keepin'... wakin', sleepin', laughin', weepin'
He ached to kiss her smiling lips... ached to dust feather kisses to those deep dimples in her cheeks... but he masked the desire with a chuckle. "You act like you've never seen a grown man dance before."
She blushed. "I'm sorry Richard, it's just... where is this coming from all of a sudden?"
Longer than always is a long, long time
But far beyond forever you'll be mine
"What do you mean?"
"What's gotten into you?"
I know I never lived before and my heart is very sure
No one else could love you more
He grinned, realizing he'd been awarded an opportunity to expose his inner feelings at least a little. As the song neared a close, he bent her back into a dip, his breath hitting her collarbone while he whispered, "You."
No one else could love you more
After the big band finish, the song disappeared, Norah Jones' bluesy voice fading in almost as quickly... settling the star-crossed duo in a stare.
It's not the pale moon that excites me
That thrills and delights me
Richard smiled, almost shyly, Caroline noted... and extended his hand in a silent request for another dance. Caroline smiled affectionately and placed her hand inside his, her heart palpitating as he gave it a gentle squeeze and tugged her toward him... pulling her into his arms as they settled into a slow dance.
Oh no, it's just the nearness of you
Seduced by the extremely slow tempo of the song, Caroline's eyes slipped closed as her head took up residence against Richard's chest... a barely audible sigh escaping when she felt his arm tighten around her waist.
It isn't your sweet conversation
That brings this sensation
She'd forgotten how wonderful it felt just to be near him... to feel the warmth of his body... to smell his unique scent. It lulled her into a sort of dream-land, where it was only she and Richard that existed in the world.
Oh no, it's just the nearness of you
Richard sighed, leaning his head on Caroline's... feeling her sink further and further into his body. He had to initiate the talk... he had so much to tell her, but... she felt so damn good in his arms, he didn't dare loosen his hold on her.
When you're in my arms,
And I feel you so close to me
He knew they had to talk... but right now, he didn't want to. So he did the first thing that came to mind. With one finger, he reached down and tipped her chin up... guiding her gaze up to his... and smiled as he searched her eyes, allowing them to flit to her lips briefly before finding her sable depths again. When she smiled back and threw a glance at his lips, he had the answer to his unasked question... and leaned down to kiss her.
All my wildest dreams came true
Caroline sucked in a deep breath through her nose... her mind screaming desperately at her knees not to buckle... but it wouldn't have mattered. Richard's arms had wound around her waist like a cord while he nibbled at her lips. There was no way she would've fallen.
I need no soft lights to enchant me
If you will only grant me
She swept her fingers through his wavy, sandy-blond hair, sighing against his lips as they softened... as the kiss grew less intense. When he threaded his fingers through her hair, she hummed against his lips, and pulled gently away. "Wow..." she breathed.
The right to hold you ever so tight
"My thoughts exactly," Richard whispered, searching her eyes with a new sparkle of love and hope in his own.
And to feel in the night, the nearness of you
Reluctantly, she broke their embrace and reached down to take his hand, giving the long digits a gentle squeeze within her own as she gazed into his eyes. "Let's go home, Richard," she murmured, and tugged on his hand in a silent request that he follow her.
"What about Annie?" he asked almost automatically, then grimaced inwardly while he berated himself for destroying their moment by bringing up the mouthy brunette.
"Oh yeah!" She tossed him a grin over her shoulder. "I kinda forgot about her, actually."
"What a shame," he remarked dryly, and settled a scowl on his face as they approached Annie... attempting to conceal the fact that his insides were currently bursting with happiness.
Annie grinned as they made their way over to her, watching Richard plaster on a frown. Did they think, once they hit the dance floor, they'd become invisible? She smiled slyly. "Hey, you guys," she drawled, her tone lilting... almost teasing. "What were you up to?"
"Dancing," Caroline shrugged innocently, and glanced to Richard, who nodded slowly.
"That was kind of the implication when I asked her to dance, Annie," he snipped, and upon noticing his hand still clasped with Caroline's, he dropped it and took a step back.
"Aah..." Annie continued to eye the pair warily, smirking smugly. She gestured to Richard's lips. "And uh... is that your shade of lipstick, Richie?"
His eyes widened, and he spun around quickly while frantically wiping his lips on the sleeves of his tux jacket. When he spun back around, he found Caroline smiling brilliantly at him while Annie laughed at his expense. "Caroline and Richie, sittin' in a tree..." she sang, "K-I-S-S--"
"Grow up, Annie!" he snapped.
"Aw come on, Richie, I'm just having a little fun with you. Relax. Honestly, I think it's great. Good for you guys."
"Thanks," Caroline smiled, and reached back for Richard's hand, giving it a squeeze. "We're actually gonna head out. Will you be okay here by yourself?"
"As long as the drinks are still free, I'll be just fine!"
Caroline giggled. "Okay, then. Richard, let's go home."
He nodded knowingly. "Yep... and talk?"
"Well..." She grinned devilishly, leading him toward the door. "Among other things."
"Gross!" Annie exclaimed, her face contorting in a grimace while her two friends just grinned at her. "Now I'm gonna have to get twice as drunk to forget that!"
Richard smirked, calling over his shoulder, "Well, Caroline's two drinks are still on the table, so start with those!"
She gave him a thumbs up as she watched Caroline drag him toward the door, and after they'd disappeared around the corner, she shook her head and sighed. "It's about damn time," she muttered, and finished gulping down the first of her three drinks.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: This fic has also been finished for quite some time. So long that I've forgotten whether anyone has seen it yet or not, lol. If you have, I hope you enjoyed it for a second time, and if you haven't, well... I hope you enjoyed it for the first time! Reviews are love, and thanks for reading :D