FIRST DANCE a Perry Mason story
DISCLAIMER: PERRY MASON does not belong to me. This is a work of fan appreciation, no profit expected, no infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is intended to be approximately 8 months after Della has started to work for Perry. It is not attached to any particular episode. It is loosely affiliated with another story of mine titled "An Early Late Night". That story, this story, and a third, "Resignation", are a sort of trio of my vision of the early days of Perry and Della. However, they are all self contained stories.
FIRST DANCE a Perry Mason story
Perry's irritation cranked up another notch. For what had started out seeming like such a great idea, it wasn't working out quite the way he had imagined. Ripping his gaze from the view of the couple, he latched it onto the drink in front of him and contemplated the events of the evening.
She had grasped hold of his arm. "Perry! You did it!" Della's smile beamed up at him, her eyes matching the pride and elation in her voice.
The courtroom had been full of sound; reporters clamoring for attention, hoping to get a quote, photographers bulbs flashing, all trying to capture the moment, some word or picture of the defendant or her legal counsel. The newly confessed killer crying as she was escorted from the room. A cacophony.
Perry looked at Della and smiled, "We did it." He corrected.
Paul Drake rounded the table, "Perry, man, that was something! I was worried there for a few minutes that it wasn't going to work." He stuck out his right hand, using his left to clasp Mason's upper arm, reinforcing their handshake. "Watching you pull this off was almost as good as seeing a prize fight." Paul offered his sincere admiration.
"Thank you, Paul. Couldn't have done it without your help." Perry stated the truth. He knew that his chances of succeeding with this case would have been zero without the work done by Paul and Della both. They made an unstoppable team. His chest seemed to fill with the winning, the feeling of them working together and overcoming the odds. Nothing else felt like that.
"Oh, Mr. Mason!" Gail Phillips cried out as she came toward him. Having expressed her relief and joy in the embrace of her husband, she now turned her appreciation toward her attorney. Perry smiled at the young socialite. She took his hands into hers and held them to her, tears brimming again in her eyes. "Oh, I just can't tell you..." She dipped her head, unable to continue. Recovering somewhat, she looked up at him, dropped his hands, then practically jumped at him, throwing her arms around his neck. He naturally used his hands to steady her, wincing a little as her squeal pierced close to his left ear.
Perry was keenly aware of his audience; Randall Phillips looked as delighted as he wife sounded, Paul a little startled and envious, Della wore what Perry thought of as her bemused, slightly sardonic face. He knew she would find some moment to tease him dreadfully about the scene and the probable pictures that would run in the newspapers. When Gail Phillips planted a kiss on his mouth before letting him loose, he started to dread, yet anticipate, that moment. He had come to appreciate Della's subtle, yet killer barbs. They had surprised him at first, but now he found himself disappointed when she missed an opportunity.
"Mr. Mason," Randall Phillips approached, shook Perry's hand with both of his. "I don't have words to thank you." The relief and sincerity were evident in his voice. His wife wrapped an arm around his middle and he easily draped his arm around her as she held on to him. Their joy at being together, Gail's life no longer threatened, was evident in their faces. Perry noted how Della's eyes softened as she watched them. He and Della had commented over the previous weeks about the obvious bond, the love, between their client and her husband. Perry had been particularly impressed with Randall's devotion to his wife, never doubting her. He had never once withdrawn from her, despite the obvious pressures. They had all come to genuinely like the young couple.
Congratulations, handshakes, hugs, backslaps, and kisses had passed all around as the bailiffs ushered the press out of the courtroom. At last the ecstatic couple prepared to leave. Paul cautioned them about the press, how they would be gathered at the exit. Perry and Della each commented about 'running the gauntlet'. Having benefited from following the advice of Mr. Mason, the young couple gladly followed his lead once more, making an escape via the exit on the holding cell level. The five of them piled into a cab just as the newspaper scouts spotted them.
Before exiting the cab in front of the Brent Building, Perry, Della, and Paul had all agreed to meet Randall and Gail at The Fountain Room, a new and very upscale dinner club. They had stopped at the Brent only to retrieve Perry's car, an excuse to give the couple some brief time alone as much as anything. Due to the delays, staged in order to gather what they needed to break their case, the day in court had run over well into the evening.
The trio had given their word that they would not stop in the office, but would collect the car and come directly to The Fountain Room. Protestations of being over worn and underdressed for the locale had been urgently pushed aside. Gail was adamant that they join them, she assured Della that her work suit would be fine for the evening and promised that she herself planned to do nothing more that freshen her lipstick. Randall assured the men that their suits would not be out of place, as so many people today had moved away from tuxedos, a fact they all lamented.
The excitement of the couple, along with the elation of having successfully pulled off their plan was more than any of them could deny. In short order, Perry, Della, and Paul were in the front seat of Perry's car, headed for The Fountain Room.
Now, here they were in the posh Fountain Room. Dishes from their late dinner had been cleared, leaving only drinks and candles on the table. The atmosphere was elegant, the company was festive, and Perry was growing more and more irritable by the minute.
They had arrived to find Gail and Randal surrounded by friends and family, all eager to help them celebrate Gail's freedom. Perry's arrival had inspired new rounds of applause and cheers. Everyone wanted to hear how the attorney had discovered the truth about the murder. He had quickly found himself the center of attention, having to satisfy their demands. Della and Paul had quietly faded to the edge of the crowd to watch. Eventually they had snagged drinks and fallen into a private bubble, trading teasing remarks as the gathered glitterati was awed by the great Perry Mason. More than once, Perry had looked their way only to see them with heads bent close or sharing a private laugh. It was nearly an hour before they all were able to politely take seats at the table which sat waiting.
As they gathered at the large, round table Perry was pleased when Della stepped in and took the seat to his right. Next to Della sat Evan Phillips, Randal's father, a handsome, widowed, wealthy California business tycoon who had made his first fortune in the Oklahoma oil fields. Stefan, a long time friend and business partner of Randal's was next, then Randal and Gail, the woman of the hour. Gail made sure to have Paul sit next to her; she said she wanted to honor them all, knowing how hard they had worked on her behalf.
Completing the company at their table were three others:; Gail's sister, Victoria, a year older, who shared with Gail the fortune left at the death of their parents when the girls were barely in their twenties; Drew, a second friend and business partner of Randal's; and Gail's dearest friend, Cynthia.
Various other friends and acquaintances were ensconced at other tables. Even during the meal, people continued to stop to offer congratulations and best wishes. It seemed nearly everyone who was anyone in the Los Angeles area was at the Fountain Room tonight and that most of them knew the socially prominent Phillips couple. Perry and Della had shared a few knowing looks during the meal. More than one previous case had brought unwanted attention to their dinner tables.
Conversation around the table had been lively and light-hearted, as befitted the occasion, and flowed with a natural ease. Perry had enjoyed recapping segments of the case when asked, but was more pleased to sit and listen to the other varied topics: Randal and partners' new business ventures, Gail's work in support of a school for hearing impaired children, Gail and Cynthia recalling close calls shared as college roommates, Victoria's recent travels to the far east.
Perry had noticed Della was particularly touched by stories of the school Gail spoke of and seemed enthralled by the tales of challenge and excitement Evan told of brining in a new well. He had also noticed that Evan, though a bit older, seemed to pay particular attention to Della and he suspected it was not just because he happened to be seated next to her.
Just as the dinner wine had been replace by after dinner cocktails, talk had returned to the murder trail and more especially to gratitude for the miracle Perry and his team had produced. As thanks were being repeated and in turn made light of, the orchestra had returned for another set. Impulsively, Randal had stood and moved behind Della's chair, saying with mocking formality, "I would be most pleased, Miss Street, if you would honor me with this dance." His eyes twinkled as he bowed low and took her hand.
Della had laughed and willingly accepted. Paul had followed suit with Cynthia and Perry had joined the game, asking Gail to follow his lead once more, as she had with his defense of her case.
That had been nearly an hour and a half earlier. The orchestra was still playing, everyone was still dancing and making merry. Perry was sitting, nursing a fresh drink and major frustration.
From the moment the first suggestion was made to join their client and her gang to celebrate, Perry had allowed a small dream to work its way from the back of his mind. He knew of the Fountain Room, of course, it was constantly in the society page news as the place to be seen. That had been reason enough for him to avoid the establishment. However, once the plan was set, he realized they would be in for an evening of excellent food and top notch music for dancing. It was the dancing that centered in the dream.
Perry had been unusually quite during the drive over to the dinner club. Della and Paul had kept up the conversation, with Perry adding just enough to keep them from noticing. He was much too occupied with his plans and Della's closeness, sitting next to him, worked to increase his expectations.
Dancing. Tonight, he would ask Della to dance. In the months since she had come to work for him, they had shared a good number of late night dinners, some in celebration and many more in deep, sometimes worried discussion of a case. On a few occasions, their dinners had been in places that also offered dancing. He had been tempted, those other time, to ask her, but had always held back. Dinner was one thing; dinner with a boss and secretary was acceptable, dancing was something else entirely. Dancing was more personal, intimate, especially when it was only two at dinner.
Tonight, though, Perry could look ahead and see the atmosphere of celebration they would encounter. They would be in a group of people, friends, well, acquaintances, and the dynamics would be different. Perry felt sure he would be able to pull it off without seeming presumptuous, without stepping over that invisible line between employer and employee. Female employee. Perry had felt a small smile play on his lips as he drove.
An hour and a half of dancing and he had not once danced with Della. He had danced. He had danced with Gail, who was lovely and light on her feet; with Cynthia, who was a little awkward, perhaps from being in awe of her partner; with Victoria, a very skilled dance partner.
Each time, though, that he started to ask Della, someone else had beaten him to it. Randal had kept her on the dance floor for a few numbers and, just as they were returning to the table, Evan Phillips had risen and intercepted them, inviting Della to join him on the floor. As they returned to the table, the orchestra had taken a short break.
Della and Evan had been in animated conversation upon their return to their seats and continued so for several minutes before once more joining in the general chatter.
Perry had been in the men's room when the orchestra returned to play and once more missed an opportunity. He enjoyed another turn of dancing with Victoria and then, at Drew's request, had traded partners and wound up once more with Cynthia. He noticed during this time that Della was dancing with Stefan, the young Frenchman who was one of Randal's partners.
The latest chance he had missed he blamed squarely on his good friend Paul Drake. Paul, who had been enjoying himself at dinner between Gail and Victoria, had spent much of his time sharing dances with Victoria and Cynthia and had apparently been introduced to a few more of their friends with whom he had also taken turns on the dance floor.
Then, having dropped his latest partner back at her table, he had swooped right in past Perry and claimed Della for the next dance. Perry couldn't believe it. How was it his timing was so terrible? He had never seemed to have such problems before. He had somewhat sullenly declined Gail's request to dance again and was glad when she and Randal reunited and took to the floor.
Now, here he sat, frustrated, unreasonably irritated with Paul, nursing his drink and watching as his friend and his secretary moved together to the music. He began to wonder if fate was trying to give him a message. The message he had decided to ignore tonight. Della Street was his secretary. He already had times at work when he had to pull his eyes away from her perfect legs and force his mind back onto his work. Perhaps dancing would just be playing with fire. The persistence of this thought only served to increase Perry's frustration.
The lawyer rarely drank much at any one time, but he welcomed the burn of the Scotch as it went down. Returning his glass to the tabletop, he was pleased to see Paul and Della heading his way, with no other member of their party in sight. He allowed himself a small smile. Just when he thought he had found his chance, Della reached the table but declined to sit, excusing herself to the ladies' room. She was followed shortly by the other female members of their group who approached their table in her wake.
As the men reclaimed their seats, Perry tried to join in the repartee. His mind, though, kept playing for him scenes of Della on the dance floor. Scenes of her with Randal or Drew played quickly, but others lingered. Scenes of her dancing in Evan Phillips arms, him smiling down at her, making her laugh; scenes with Stefan, moving lightly with the music; even scenes of her with Paul, his hand on her back, leaning down close to her ear to be heard, Della reacting to his words with apparent glee. Perry did little more than grumble responses when directly addressed.
Suddenly, he stopped even hearing the other men at the table. His seat provided him the vantage point of being able to see the women as they re-entered the main room. Hope dawned again with their approach. As he watched, he noticed something was different and, as he continued to look, he realized that Della had removed the jacket of her suit.
He knew she had been a bit self-conscious about her attire, regardless of the reassurances Gail had offered before dropping them at the Brent Building parking garage. He had briefly worried that she would decide not to join the group, feeling she would be inadequately dressed. Perry had been pleased to see that, while other women at the club were not in business suits, many were not in classic evening attire, but were more casually dressed.
Even in her suit, Perry had thought Della the loveliest woman in the room. She simply emanated a mixture of elegance and warmth that was unmistakable and he suspected many of the other men agreed. Now, Perry watched her approach and appreciated the difference. He had seen her wear this same suit to work a few times; it was a purple so deep it was almost black. With it, she wore a silk blouse of silvery lavender that fell in soft drapes at the neckline. The draping fell over the lapels of the jacket giving it all a very feminine, yet professional look.
The difference now, with her jacket removed, was an even more feminine appearance. The blouse had long sleeves which rested gracefully on her arms. The soft drapes of the neckline fell in such a way as to accentuate, rather than cover, her womanly attributes which were shown off nicely by the fit of the blouse. Perry noticed that more than one man's head turned in appreciation as she passed and he realized he had never before seen her in this suit without the jacket.
As the women approached, the men rose to help them with their chairs. Paul, who Perry noticed took his time looking after Della as she passed, invited Cynthia onto the dance floor.
As Della circled the table toward her own seat, Perry and Evan Phillips each stood, but Evan was faster and pulled her chair out from the table. Perry saw Della offer Evan a pleasant smile, then stop to place her jacket on the chair back. As Evan began to speak to Della, she turned from him and looked directly at Perry. Was it his imagination, or was she deliberately ignoring Evan's words and his hand at her elbow?
He was momentarily caught off guard, but ever fast on his feet, he recovered and grasped at his chance.
"I think this is our dance," his words came out with much more assurance than he was feeling at the moment. He no longer heard Evan Phillips speaking; he did not hear any of the other patrons. All Perry heard was the music as he held his breath.
He saw Della smile up at him. "Yes, I believe it is." She agreed as she turned toward the dance floor, her right hand gently sliding across his arm before she stepped out in front of him. Perry didn't miss a beat as he fell into step, guiding her with his hand at her back. He was sure he could feel Evan Phillips' eyes boring into him from behind and he silently cheered over his victory.
As they reached the floor, Perry focused all his attention on Della. He had seen her dance with the others during the evening and he knew that two of them were fairly smooth dancers. He was determined to show that he could hold his own in this arena. He shook off the thoughts that he was placing far too much importance to the entire situation.
The slightly increased pressure of his hand on her back was signal enough. She turned to face him, stepping in closer, taking his hand, allowing him to put his arm around her. He felt the smooth silk of her blouse slide over her back as he pulled her in, close, but not too close. She looked up and caught his gaze and Perry saw in her hazel eyes a look he had never seen there before. It was a look of anticipation and question. It was a look to which he would have to give some consideration.
As they began to move, Perry was pleased at the ease of it. Della seemed to follow his lead as if they had been dancing together for years. They seemed to fit together on the dance floor just as well as they did in the office and he enjoyed the thought. Then, looking down as he moved them gracefully around the floor, Perry nearly faltered.
He immediately realized just why Della always wore the jacket of the suit as his eyes caught a view that was pure delight. Those soft drapes of Della's blouse fell away much more without the jacket for support and the top swells of her breasts were clearly visible from his height. Pulling his gaze away from that temptation, Perry had to consciously focus on the dance for a few steps.
Della looked up at him, smiling. "I was beginning to think you weren't going to dance with me."
"Wha...?" Her voice pulled Perry back from his thoughts. "Well, I tried..." he cut short his justifications as he noticed the twinkle in her eyes. The same one he saw when she teased him about things like the effusiveness of a client or the wide-eyed looks he got from young reporters on the courtroom beat.
"You, Miss Street, are a much in demand dance partner." He turned them expertly, moving farther away from their table and Della flowed easily with every step. "I can certainly understand why. You would make any man look good on the dance floor." Perry smiled as he offered the compliment.
"Well, it's easier with some than others," Della admitted. "It's a pleasure to dance with a man who needs no help in that department."
She changed the subject, just as Perry once more smoothly changed their direction. "You were amazing today in court, Chief. You worked it just right. I was hanging on every question, even though I knew just what was coming."
"It wouldn't have worked; I never could have done it, without you." He reminded her. "You make me look my best out there." He thought he saw her cheek color rise a bit on hearing his compliment and he thought what a delightful mixture Della was. She was sophisticated, but without social guile, she was one of the warmest and most genuine people he knew, yet she seemed to keep a part of herself guarded. She was, without doubt, incredibly skilled at her work, yet she never made any indication she expected to be the focus of accolades. A smile played on his lips as he thought "Not even when she goes far beyond the normal bounds of her job description." Refocusing his attention on the woman in his arms, Perry determinedly filed his thoughts away for consideration at another time. At this moment, he wanted only to concentrate his complete attention on the dancing and his partner. After months of trying to engineer an acceptable circumstance in which he could invite his secretary to dance with him, he was not about to waste this golden opportunity. He determined to remember each step, every sensation.
They remained on the dance floor as the orchestra played the final three numbers of the night, including the slower, more sensual final number. As the house lights were dimmed Perry struggled to keep from drawing Della in closer to hold her warmly against his chest. His arms ached from the effort of fighting his desire and he distracted himself by cataloging every detail he could about their dance: the sound of the instruments, the feel of the silk fabric between his hand and Della's skin, the softness of her elegant hand in his, the scent of her perfume, the rich sound of Della humming along with the orchestra, the way it felt to sway in rhythm to the music with Della in his arms, no matter the space between them.
As the music stopped, Perry thought he heard a soft sigh from Della. She offered him a radiant smile before turning to move ahead of him to their table. Perry cataloged another lovely flash of the forbidden just as she turned.
Reaching their table, Perry and Della joined their companions of the evening in gathering their things, preparing to depart. Perry smoothly captured Della's jacket from the back of her chair. Helping her on with the jacket, Perry once more appreciated the tantalizing vision and he was overwhelmingly pleased to know that she had been wearing that jacket during all her earlier dances. So pleased was he by this knowledge, he barely thought to wonder at the timing of the jacket's removal. This was one more thing the Perry filed away for later consideration. He did notice that Della carefully fastened the jacket buttons as soon as she had slipped it back on. He did not miss the fact that Evan Phillips seemed to notice as well.
Their farewells were extended, flowing over to the exterior of club. Perry accepted the repeated expressions of thanks from Gail and Randall Phillips. He noticed that Paul made a gallant attempt, but was unable to swing a ride home with Cynthia, as she had driven with Victoria and Drew. Perry shared Paul's disappointment, but it was oddly mixed with a small sense of relief. Perry made a valiant attempt to stay next to Della throughout the goodbyes, he was keenly aware of Evan Phillips and of Della's delicate refusal of his offer of a ride. He did notice that Phillips took his time holding and kissing the back of Della's hand. His own jaw clinched a little upon hearing her laugh lightly in response.
Driving through the dark, nearly deserted streets, Perry at the wheel, Paul by the opposite door, Della between them, Perry joined in but did not initiate the conversation. He listened as Della and Paul reviewed the evening's events, sharing impressions of their new friends and opinions on the exclusive Fountain Room. Perry added some of Della's comments to his list of things to give close examination.
Perry would be awake still, hours later, as the sun rose spilling pastel light onto his balcony.