A salute to Captain Weirdo for her excellent beta efforts. I couldn't have done it without your help.
By E. Wallace
Della Street's languid stretch arched her into the warm streak of sun that crossed her bed. Her lashes fluttered as she sleepily focused on the clock on the nightstand.
"No, no, no!" she cried flinging aside the covers and scrambling out of bed. She rushed to the closet, struggling into her robe and slippers on the way. Flicking through the garments hanging there, she tried to remember the weather forecast on the radio last night. April had been warm this year, even for L.A. and was expected to continue that way so she selected a robin's egg blue shirtwaist dress to suit the season but left the matching cardigan behind. Stockings, bra, slip and underwear got tossed onto the unmade bed that was destined to remain unmade. The mystery of why her alarm failed after being carefully wound and set last night was a puzzle that would have to be solved later.
There was nothing important happening at the office since the day's appointments had been rescheduled when Perry left for Nevada last night on an urgent job for a client. Still, she didn't want anyone getting the idea that she was slacking off just because it was Friday and the boss was gone.
A good intention she promptly ruined by oversleeping.
The thought of Perry being out of town slowed her momentarily. They had been lovers a mere eight months, and she hoped that he... well, she wasn't exactly sure what she had hoped he would do today, but leaving her alone wasn't her first choice.
A glance at the clock - 8:19 - told her it was time to stop moping and start prioritizing. Taking a shower was a must; washing her hair and having breakfast were out. She would grab something at Clay's once she got to the office. Thank heavens coffee was manageable. The pot could be started while she called Gertie and perk while she was in the shower.
Della was so focused on her plan she was out of the bedroom and almost to the kitchen before she realized she could already smell coffee. The idea of an unknown someone in her apartment was unnerving, but she quashed the feeling as she realized they would hardly be making breakfast.
Then again, the only person who had a key to her apartment was in Nevada... wasn't he?
She peeked through the doorway to see Perry filling a cup on the tray that already held the morning paper and a red rose in a bud vase. Not wanting hot coffee all over him or her kitchen she waited until he set the pot down before saying, "You turned off my alarm."
He whirled around, jostling the tray and sloshing coffee into the saucer. "Well, I... I..."
The great Perry Mason, blushing and stammering like a schoolboy, was truly a sight to behold. Della advanced on him, hands on her hips and the sternest look on her face she could manage. "There was no business in Nevada, was there? Why did you lie?"
"I needed an excuse to clear the calendar."
She shook her head in dismissal of his argument. "It's your firm. You say clear the calendar and I do it. Why did you need an excuse?
The guilt in his eyes was replaced by a sly glee. "So I could sneak into your apartment, turn off your alarm, make coffee," his arms slid around her waist, drawing her to him, "and wake you with a kiss."
She held him off with her hands on his shoulders. "That's a lot of work for a kiss. All you had to do was ask." Finally relenting, she slipped her arms around his neck. "In fact, I remember a number of times when you didn't even ask."
"The kiss wasn't for me, it was for you." He kissed her tenderly. "Happy birthday, my darling Della."
Tears welled in her eyes. "You left... without saying anything," she took a breath, trying to steady her quavering voice, "I thought you didn't..."
All his conceit in his grand idea to surprise her crumbled as he realized he had hurt her instead. His arms tightened around her and she buried her face in his chest. "Of course I remembered your birthday. I'm sorry I made you believe otherwise."
"It doesn't matter now." She leaned back a bit to smile up at him, the tears on her cheeks turned happy now. "Since you went to such lengths to clear the calendar and keep me from the office, I take it you made plans for us?"
Perry kissed the glittering drops away before answering. "As soon as you get bathed, dressed and packed, we're going to Catalina. We'll spend the night there and be back here tomorrow afternoon in time for you to get ready for your birthday party."
"A party, hm?"
"You have a lot of friends, darling. I'm not the only one who wants to help you celebrate, but I wanted some private time with you first."
Her gazed flicked past him to the tray on the counter then back up at him again. "Will anything spoil if we don't eat right away?"
"I haven't started cooking yet, but why -" he broke off as she pushed his jacket off his shoulders and down his arms to land on the floor.
Pulling his head down to hers, Della murmured against his lips, "I'm not hungry for food."
It was after noon before they caught the boat for the hour long trip to Catalina. A favored location for film units almost since the day they began making movies in Hollywood, the island had quickly become a haven for film stars as well.
Decorum dictated separate rooms at the hotel, but Perry had made sure they were across the hall from one another. He tipped the bellboy, closed the door to his room and joined Della in hers.
Della was admiring the ocean view he had requested her room have, but she turned into his embrace before his arms fully encircled her waist. "Thank you for my flowers," she said nodding over at the nosegay of pink and white roses in a silver tussie-mussie holder sitting on the small desk.
Perry delighted in making her smile, and it was always the smallest gestures that made her eyes shine the brightest. "I thought they would be easier to take on the boat tomorrow than a vase full of long stems."
"Clever man," she praised, rewarding him with a kiss.
"Sorry there's no card, but what I wanted to say couldn't be dictated to a florist over the phone."
A couple of longer kisses later, Perry was finally able to ask, "So, what would the birthday girl like to do on her day in paradise? We could do some sightseeing or go shopping or just walk around the island."
Della kept one arm around his neck while the fingers of her other hand played in the vee of his open neck shirt. "Would I seem terribly slothful if I said I don't want to do anything more than sit on the beach?"
"The beach?" She undid two buttons of his shirt and slipped her hand inside making it difficult for him to concentrate. "Are you sure? The water's still too cold for swimming."
"I don't mind that. We've both spent weeks on end rushing from one thing to the next. Today, all I want is an umbrella and a couple of loungers so we don't have to do anything more strenuous than speculating on where the big ships are going and guessing what celebrities are on which yachts."
"We could get a yacht, and have people play guessing games about us," he suggested with a mock leer.
Her responding grimace of distaste had nothing to do with his actions and everything to do with his words. "Some of those people will be tipsters for gossip columnists, and it would make their year to get a story about Perry Mason romancing his secretary on a yacht. I'd much rather blend in with the crowd on the beach."
Perry hated it when the papers referred to her as 'his secretary' rather than by her name but it tore at his heart to hear her do it. He would do whatever it took to put a smile back on her face so if she wanted to be anonymous, then they would be anonymous. He felt there was a small flaw in her plan, however. "It won't be much of a crowd with all the local kids in school."
"So we'll blend in with whoever is there." She had read her Poe and knew it was easier to hide in plain sight rather than skulk around with a guilty air. "Besides, I want to conserve our energy for tonight."
Perry had a loose agenda in mind for the evening, but there was room for adjustment if she had her heart set on something special. "Tonight? What do you think we're doing tonight?"
"Oh, dinner, dancing in to the wee hours and making love until dawn," she batted her brown eyes at him then asked innocently, "unless you had something else in mind?"
It took all his self control not to carry her to bed that instant. "No, that sounds perfect. You get changed for an afternoon of sun and sand while I see about getting us something to eat since it's well past lunch and we never got to breakfast." He kissed her once more then reluctantly pulled away. "I'll be back in twenty minutes."
Della ran a taunting, temping finger down the center of his exposed chest. "Button your shirt, please. Nobody ogles you but me."
"Yes, ma'am," he complied with a chuckle, enjoying the husky possessiveness in her voice.
One of the benefits of traveling in the off season was having more hotel staff needing something to do so an umbrella, two loungers and a small table were quickly set up on the sparsely populated beach. One of the cabana boys got the idea of using an ice bucket to hold the carafe of lemonade the hotel kitchen had provided to complement the picnic basket complete with food, plates, napkins, glasses and utensils.
To their left in a well-spaced, meandering line, other similar umbrellas sheltered couples and groups. A few yards away to their right, a pair of mothers watched their preschoolers chase each other on the hard packed sand left behind by the low tide. As Perry had said earlier, it was too cold for swimming, but that didn't stop the children, two girls and a boy, from playing tag with the gentle, foamy waves.
Perry served up cold roast beef and potato salad while she poured the lemonade into chilled glasses.
"How long have you been planning this?" Della asked as she exchanged a glass for a plate.
"A couple of weeks. Frankly, I'm amazed I pulled it off; it's very difficult keeping secrets from you."
"I may not have known anything before hand, but if I hadn't been so panicked about oversleeping, I would have figured out something was up this morning."
"Because Gertie gets in at 8:00. If I'm not there and haven't left a message with the service, she starts tracking me down by 8:05."
"She's very conscientious."
"Yes, but she didn't call today. Either something was wrong with her - but then the service would have called - or she knew not to call. Therefore, she knew in advance about the prowler in my apartment who was turning off alarms, making coffee and plotting to steal kisses."
"Excellent deductions, Miss Street," he praised. "Do you have any idea how difficult it was to sneak into your room, turn off the alarm and then leave? You looked so warm and inviting in that bed that I wanted to crawl right in there with you."
"Well, at least you got there eventually," she quipped, laughing when he choked on his lemonade.
It was a perfect afternoon.
Had she allowed herself to do so, this was very much the way Della would have imagined them spending her birthday. Maybe not the beach, per se, but it was the feeling that mattered more than the place. The ambiance was so different from the office and courthouse that it seemed they were ten times farther away from Los Angeles than just the actual fifty-some miles.
As they ate, Della's mind was more on him than the conversation. She liked the way he looked in his open-neck, short sleeve shirt and casual khaki pants - relaxed and very sexy. 'It may be my birthday,' she thought, 'but I'm glad he benefits from it, too.'
"Ogling again, Miss Street?"
Pink tinged her cheeks at getting caught; bluster was her only way out. "Objection to the term ogling, Counselor."
"Overruled; it's the term you yourself used earlier."
"That was then."
"And now it's not ogling, it's... admiring."
"Well then, I don't mind confessing to committing my own share of admiring. In that lovely ensemble," he waved a hand to indicate her modest shorts, matching camp shirt and sunglasses, "you could easily be mistaken for a college co-ed rather than a seasoned confidential secretary."
"A college co-ed, hmm? I think that's a bit of a stretch, but thank you for the compliment. Now, what other goodies did the hotel pack in that basket?"
Well fed and relaxed, their conversation had dwindled away to easy silence when Perry heard her laugh softly. "What's funny?" he asked.
"Oh, I was just watching them," she indicated the kids who were using their tin pails and shovels to construct an edifice of lopsided mounds meant to be turrets, "and thinking that sometimes it's no fun being a grown-up."
The wistful words surprised him. "You want to build a sand castle?"
"Only because I've never done it before." Della answered in a combination of embarrassment and defensiveness.
"Now, how does one reach your advanced age without ever making a sand castle, Miss Street?" he teased.
She wrinkled her nose at him before explaining, "By being born and raised in the Midwest, Mr. Mason. Our seas are made of grass; not exactly castle making material."
Perry contemplated her for a moment then peered into the picnic basket and picked out a glass, knife, fork and spoon.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting tools," he said rising to his feet then pulling her up. "Let's go build you a sand castle, young lady."
Della put up a token resistance. "Perry, we don't have to -"
"Yes, darling, we do." She just managed to grab her wide-brimmed hat as he tugged at her hand to get her moving and led her to a spot on the edge of the sand still hard packed from the last tide. "The tide's already rising; we're only going to have about an hour or so but that's plenty of time to build a pretty decent castle."
The kids, intrigued by a pair of grown-ups playing in the sand, came over to watch as he showed her how to make a base. Perry immediately began soliciting their opinions about the height of the walls and the number and placement of turrets.
Then he put them to work constructing their vision.
Once the basic structure was complete, he and Della guided the small hands in using the utensils to create decoration, tiles for roofs, bricks for walls. The girls offered Della the rejects from their newly acquired seashell collections as additional adornments. They even added a princess made of driftwood to the top of one of the towers.
Della gasped as cold water splashed over her toes. She had been concentrating on carving windows into the turrets on the ocean side of the castle and hadn't noticed the tide encroaching farther up the beach.
Perry declared the castle complete and collected the tools they had appropriated from the picnic basket while Della helped the children round up their own pails and shovels. Out of habit, Perry took Della's arm as they all stood back to admire their handiwork... and wait for the inevitable.
The tide was rising, seemingly faster with every wave. Some came only to the very edge while stronger ones swirled against the side of the castle. In minutes, water was washing over the top of the walls.
"It's broke," one of the little girls said, pointing to a crack in the side of the structure. The next wave weakened the base enough for the ocean facing section to collapse, sending the princess diving headlong into the surf. The children clapped their hands and cackled with delight.
"Half the fun of building," Perry declared, "is demolishing. Go ahead, kids, it's all yours."
The children pounced on the castle, knocking it down with their hands and feet, all to the accompaniment of ear piercing shrieks.
Perry caught a glimpse of an odd expression on Della's face before she turned and walked back to their loungers. He laid a comforting hand on the small of her back as she began placing the final stray items in the picnic basket.
"Hey, what happened back there?"
"What do you mean?" she evaded his question and his questioning gaze.
"I mean, why did that sand castle falling down upset you? With the tide coming in, it had to happen."
"I know that." She pasted on a bright smile. "What shall we do for dinner?"
He let her change the subject... for now. "Well, as cozy as room service sounds, I brought my tux and you brought a fabulous dress so we need to show them off."
"Why do you think my dress is fabulous?"
"Because the dress itself doesn't matter," he kissed the tip of her nose, "you make everything you wear fabulous. Now, about dinner, where where would you like to go?"
"I don't know anything about Catalina so the hotel nightclub is fine with me."
Perry was pleased as that had been his first choice as well. "All right, the hotel nightclub it is. Why don't you go on upstairs while I return this," he indicated the picnic basket, "and see about dinner reservations?"
She nodded her agreement and they headed into the hotel. "Depending on when our reservation is, I might take a little nap. All this sun, sea air and construction has worn me out."
The very mention of sleep made Perry susceptible and a sudden yawn caught him by surprise. "I might do the same. I didn't realize how tired I am."
"If you accomplish your tasks quickly enough, you can join me. I like sleeping in your arms."
It was an enticing offer he wasn't about to pass up. "I'll be there before you can even miss me."
"I'll leave the door unlocked."
It took Perry only ten minutes to take the picnic basket back to the kitchen, make dinner reservations and return to Della's room where he found she had changed out of her beach clothes into a short, silky robe... and was curled up on the sofa, fast asleep.
Perry turned down the bed, picked her up and tucked her in all without rousing her. He knew from experience that a telephone would have her wide awake at the first ring but she could sleep through practically anything else.
He spooned up behind her, wrapping an arm around her waist to settle her against him. Tired though he was, sleep was slow in coming as he thought of all the things he wanted to do with her, for her. Little things like building a sand castle and big things like traveling the world.
Planning the big things would be easy; convincing her to let him follow through would be the hard part. When their relationship changed from business to romance, Della had been quick to set very definite limits as to what she would permit him to do for her. Dinner at the end of a long day was fine, but anything beyond that was met with politely firm resistance. She was determined to support herself without his help - aside from her salary, of course.
Eventually, the warmth of Della's body next to his and her slow, even breathing lulled him to sleep.
Their reservations were for nine o'clock which was almost early for them. No reasoning was voiced out loud when they decided on the hotel nightclub for dinner, but both votes were cast in favor of its proximity to their rooms. This was a night for romance and any taxi ride, even on a small island, was more time than they wanted to waste.
Their progress as they followed the maître'd to their table was tracked with a mixture of whispered speculation and open admiration. The female observers thought the attorney's dark good looks were enhanced by his custom made tuxedo, but Perry would have agreed with the male contingent who felt it was the brunette vision in ivory chiffon at his side that made him stand out.
Della wished everyone would stop looking at them. She didn't like being the center of attention.
Dinner with Perry had become a habit almost from her first day on the job. They were known by name at Clay's Grille in their own building, in most of the restaurants within a five block area and even a few further out. The only variation on the 'late dinner after leaving the office' was the 'early dinner before going back to the office'. The small handful of formal events they had attended had been either charity or bar association related and easily passed off as more duty than pleasure.
They kept their private life private, spending time away from work only with a few close friends or just the two of them. The gossip columns still printed speculation, innuendo and as many new pictures as they could get.
She usually managed to keep at bay the torturous thoughts of their romance destroying Perry's credibility and reputation, but it was difficult today. Today they were far from the office, far from Los Angeles with no case for even a token cover story. This was a romantic getaway... and it looked like one.
Perry, cognizant of her discomfort, was pleased to see Della relax a bit once they were settled into a secluded booth.
They discussed various entrées with the waiter before Perry settled on a T-bone steak while Della chose the smaller filet. Perry asked the young man to allow them some time for dancing.
"May I have the pleasure?" Perry extended his hand to Della.
Fifteen minutes later the waiter arrived with their shrimp cocktail appetizer just as they returned from the dance floor. He opened the champagne and filled their glasses with a flourish.
Perry raised his glass. "To Della, a very happy birthday."
"And it has been, thanks to you," she acknowledged. "I certainly never expected anything like this."
"Believe me when I say I never expected to spend the afternoon building a sand castle."
There it was again, the same odd expression he had seen down on the beach.
"Will you tell me now why you were upset earlier?"
Della was touched by his concern and vexed by his timing. She knew he wouldn't forget the incident but hadn't expected him to bring it up again over dinner. "It's not important," she said, turning her attention to her food.
"Anything that upsets you is important to me."
"It was just me being silly, nothing more."
Setting aside his fork, he reached over to cover her slender hand with his larger one. "Tell me."
She sighed and gave in. "I know I shouldn't let a thing like a sand castle collapsing spook me but I've never been in a earthquake that did real damage, and after Tuesday, it was rather a too vivid display of what could happen."
Los Angeles had been shaken by quakes and tremors in the time she had been working for him, although Perry couldn't remember her being overly disturbed during any of those times. Still, even native Californians had been unnerved when the city had rumbled with a 'small' tremor three days ago. Perry and Della had been in court where the proceedings came to an abrupt halt as water glasses danced, papers fluttered, and a gun that had been left too close to the edge of the evidence table skittered off, falling to the floor with a thud. The judge had called a ten minute recess for everyone to collect themselves.
The explanation was plausible, but he felt there was more to it... then he remembered the driftwood princess.
Perry reflexively adopted the same manner he used to put witnesses at ease in the courtroom. "Tell me about your first experience with an earthquake."
Della recognized the tactic and now that it was directed at her she understood why it worked so well. She couldn't help but respond to the soft spoken request. "Like I said earlier, I'm a Midwesterner. I've heard a good roll of thunder rattle a whole houseful of windows plenty of times back home. That does nothing to prepare a person to have a fifteen story building sway around them."
"I hadn't been in Los Angeles quite a year. I was in the library at my old firm looking for an obscure citation. The book I needed was part of a little used set on a shelf about half way up the bookcase. Suddenly everything started to shake. I was clinging to the ladder dodging books that seemed to be flying off the shelves. I ducked too far to one side and lost my grip."
"Did you fall?" There was a thread of fear - irrational as that was - in his voice he couldn't quite hide.
Della nodded. "Bounced off a couple of chairs on the way down, too - fortunately well padded leather ones." She lightened her tone hoping to lighten his suddenly somber mood. "I didn't break anything but I looked like a Dalmatian for weeks."
"That's why you rearranged the law library."
"I admit that not needing to use the ladder as much was a very welcome side benefit but the logic of putting the most used books on a more accessible level because I had taken on the majority of the citation pulling was the truth. My only real concern at the time was that I would seem presumptuous since I had only been working for you for three months. I had no idea it would take you a week to notice the change."
"I'm sure we were quite busy then," he defended himself.
"Nice try, counselor, but that brief slow period was why I had time to rearrange things."
Dinner arrived and their conversation turned to other topics.
They decided on another trip to the dance floor to work off some of their fine meal. Five songs later, they returned to their table to find the waiter cleared away their empty plates and opened the second bottle of champagne.
As Della sipped her wine, Perry placed a flat black velvet box wrapped in a white silk ribbon tied in a bow in front of her.
"What is this?"
"Now I understood the lack of experience with sand castles and earthquakes, but surely people give birthday presents where you come from," he teased.
"Of course they do, but I thought this trip... our time together... was my present."
"No, this trip is for both of us; anytime we spend together is to be treasured. This," he nudged the box closer to her, "is for you. Open it."
Della pulled the trailing end of the ribbon to release the bow then lifted the box's hinged lid. From a bed of black satin, she removed a silver locket engraved with an intricate design of vines and flowers, not on a chain but on a bar pin that bore the same pattern.
"It's beautiful, Perry, thank you." When she opened it, she found a watch, the face inverted for easier reading while being worn. "Beautiful and practical." Her appreciation was sincere but tinged with the faintest disappointment.
Perry, knowing she had been anticipating a photograph, reached over to open the locket wider, revealing the engraving she had missed in the flickering candlelight. It, too, was upside down as though for her eyes only.
So lucky to be loving you
She recognized the quote in an instant. Now the watch made sense, beautiful, loving, perfect sense.
"'Time After Time'," she said softly, her voice thick. "How many times did we dance to that when it was just another song?"
"And we weren't even dancing when it became 'our song'." His fingers brushed a shoulder left bare by the narrow straps of her dress. "Remember that night we were driving back from Santa Barbara?"
Della could dredge up the name of the client and the reason for the out of town trip if pressed, but what she remembered about that night had nothing to do with law. Her memories were far more personal...
The big convertible cruised smoothly through the clear, star lit night. It was nearly 1 a.m. and they still had an hour's drive ahead of them. They didn't talk much, letting the radio filled the void. Her head on his shoulder with his arm wrapped around her, Della felt safe and cherished and content.
When a new recording of an old hit came on the radio, Della found herself humming the intro, but it was Perry's baritone that carried over the girl singer's soprano.
"Time after time,
I tell myself that I'm
so lucky to be loving you.
So lucky to be
the one you run to see
In the evening,
when the day is through."
"I mean that, you know," he murmured, kissing the top of her head.
"That I'm lucky to be loving you... even luckier that you love me back."
At her sudden rush of tears, Perry pulled off the road then pulled her to him.
"Della?" His gentle voice brought her back to the present.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"I asked you what you wanted for dessert."
She didn't know - and she didn't care - if it was the memory or the wine that was fueling her boldness as she leaned over to whisper seductively, "The same thing I had for breakfast."
Her hand was resting on his thigh and she felt the muscles tighten under her fingers as he took a steadying breath before summoning the waiter to ask for the check. When it arrived, he didn't bother to look at it, just scrawled his signature and room number across the bottom. "We'll take the wine with us."