Cheryl Stansbury had no interest in attending the Nurse's Fundraiser Ball tonight, but the Quartermaines had made a deliberate move of making sure she had an invitation. She had to attend, for the sake of keeping valuable business partners happy, if for no other reason. Having the Q's as clients was probably the most influential thing in her decision making process these days, since business was now all she could focus on. The fallout from Olivia's shooting, Julian's faked death, and her failed relationship with Robert Scorpio sapped any life or energy she had for more than just surviving. Many of the local citizens had simply allowed the past to fall away, preferring to let Cheryl fade from their circle of friends, but there were some who still harbored active hostility. She fully expected to see at least one, if not several of those tonight at the party, and the idea was exhausting in itself.
Standing in the bedroom of the penthouse, she gathered what mental strength she could, and slipped into the navy gown she had selected for the evening. It was elegant, yet simply adorned. No need to look frumpy, she thought, but I don't feel like standing out, either. She had also specifically chosen this dress for the long sleeves, as it was New Year's Eve, and although the streets and sidewalks were clear of snow, it was still rather cold in New York. Checking herself one last time in the mirror, Cheryl brushed a few stray waves of light auburn hair into place. Then she was off, into the waiting cab for the short ride to the ball.
Alex Thomson had been in Port Charles a few weeks, preparing for a job in the spring for a new client. He already had the house designs ready, and they were finalizing details. He did not expect the job to take long once the weather broke, perhaps through May, but there were leads on much bigger opportunities he hoped would work out. The current client had, however, a lot of local influence, and had given Alex a ticket to the hospital fundraiser tonight. Cost of doing business, he figured, being expected at a formal event where he knew practically no one. Alex blew out a large breath, straightened his tie, and called the taxi service. Although he had a car, he chose to use the cab just in case. You never know how a party will come out, after all.
Halfway through the evening, Alex was wishing he had drunk too much. His client had found him quickly, and although they chatted briefly, there were many people to socialize with and he soon found himself on his own among a crowd of strangers. He had been approached several times by what he assumed to be young nurses looking for a dance. Alex was not unused to having women introduce themselves, and he attributed it to the fit condition he kept, as well as the latent Italian features inherited from his grandmother. Many women, he guessed, liked the black hair, green eyes and lightly tanned skin that had been passed to him from his father's family, although it was never something he allowed to inflate his ego. Accepting several invitations, more to relieve the boredom he felt, he found that none of the young ladies truly piqued his interest. Not that they were unattractive, but something was lacking. Alex found himself looking for escape routes more than once, and managed to locate a quiet corner near the windows, where he could quietly observe the world outside. He stood obscured by a short wall, invisible to nearly everyone, until another guest stepped quietly into an identical nook, at the opposite end of the window a few feet away.
The night had dragged on, and Cheryl was desperate for a break. She'd spent half her time talking business with clients who were in attendance, and the other half avoiding stares and glares from many of the other guests. Spying a hidden corner, she grabbed a champagne glass filled with punch, and stowed herself away from the crowd. Settling against the wall, she stretched a kink from her neck, and relaxed for the first time in hours. It was a few minutes before she realized that she was being observed. Not watched, but quietly noticed.
Alex was instantly fascinated with the escapee next to him. She was not what anyone would call a traditionally beautiful woman, but he could not stop looking at her. At perhaps five foot five inches she was far from statuesque, but alternately, filled the navy gown with a definite curve. He saw briefly a flash of grey eyes that he was certain could bedevil anyone if she had intended it. Alex saw her stretch slightly, and support herself against the frame of the wall just as he had done, sipping fizzing orange punch from a glass. He was mesmerized, sneaking looks and remaining as inconspicuous as possible. Unfortunately for Alex, she did not look as if she wished to be interrupted from the peace she had found at the window. The spell was only broken when she noticed him later, finishing the punch in her glass and setting it on the rail facing the large window.
He flushed mildly at being seen, but gave a very slight nod to her and stayed put. It was only fair he figured, that she should have the chance to assess him, as he had already done her. After a few minutes he straightened himself, and took the three steps over toward her. Without a word, he took the glass from the rail and disappeared.
Cheryl was surprised to find that even though this man had been watching her, it did not feel intimidating. There was something at ease about him, something calm, that felt reassuring. She was even more surprised to be a little disappointed when he just took her empty glass and left.
Alex wove his way through the crowd, doing his best to avoid any possibility of being snagged by one of the nurses lurking around. When he found his way back to the window nooks, his place had been taken by a middle-aged man making a call on his cell phone. The woman he was interested in, however, remained where he had left her moments before.
"You didn't look much like you wanted to go back out there," he said quietly, setting a fresh glass on the rail for her. "Can't say I blame you. Feels like there are vultures circling."
She smiled, ever so slightly. "You have no idea." Even in the dim light of the corner, Alex saw the sparkle in her unusually colored eyes. He could only imagine how impressive it would be if she were to actually smile or laugh. It was nearing midnight, and neither of them was much interested in joining the countdown mob. Once the confetti had fallen, Cheryl moved to make her escape at long last. "I think this is my opportunity to turn into a pumpkin," she said, eying the door.
"That could be interesting. Do you have an escort, to see you home?" he asked politely.
"Oh, it's only a few blocks. I was just going to walk," she responded.
"Would you allow me? I'd feel guilty allowing you to walk alone, this time of night."
"Really, it's fine, thank you."
"Please. I'll get you a cab, if you'd rather," he offered. She could see he was genuine, and finally relented, allowing him to go with her. They collected her wrap from the coat check, and set off along the sidewalk.
They walked quietly, Alex keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings. It would be naive to think there wasn't someone somewhere, who would easily take advantage a woman walking alone after midnight. Certainly there were those who would consider taking him on in addition. There were brief exchanges about the clarity of the stars, and smell of the cold air.
Soon they approached Duke's and Alex asked, puzzled, "You live in a club?"
A bit more of a smile. My god, she's amazing.
"No. There's a penthouse on the third floor. I live there," Cheryl clarified, as they walked through the double doors. The party inside was still carrying on, even though the buzz had worn slightly with the passing of midnight. Alex stopped with her in front of the elevator, satisfied with delivering her home intact.
"Well... safe and sound, then."
As the elevator doors shut, he heard her return, "Cheryl."
Two days later, Alex stepped out of Kelly's with his morning coffee, and came inches from running straight into Cheryl as she made her way in, for the same necessity.
"Hey," he said, realizing who he'd nearly collided with. "Good to see you aren't a pumpkin after all."
She rewarded him with a flash of a smile, "Must have been a temporary condition," and disappeared inside the restaurant.
About a week after the ball, as he sat at his drafting table finessing some details on the current project, his phone rang. Apparently the owner of Duke's was doing some renovations, and while they already had a set of plans, Alex had been recommended as a consultant.
"We've heard some good things from the contractor on Dr. Murphy's house, and the Boss would just like to see if you have any words of advice before we get started with the changes," Angel, the manager had said. So Alex had agreed to go over to the club and check the plans over.
He arrived around 1:00, and Angel found him looking the place over. "You must be Alex Thomson. Good to meet you. What do you think of the place?"
Alex did a quick appraisal, "Well, you've got a great space here. What are you planning to do?"
"Let me go get the plans, so you can have a look. Oh, but, the Boss wants to know what your fee is for the consult, before we keep you too long," the manager informed him, as he ventured to a small office, emerging with the sketches.
"I never did like charging for consults much. You have a decent kitchen running back there?"
"The best," Angel assured him.
"Well, if you can feed me something better than a cold sandwich, I'll call it even," Alex offered.
"I think we can handle that. Have a look, and I'll be back in a few."
Alex took a seat at the bar, and rolled out both sets of plans, new and old. It was only a second before Cheryl emerged from the elevator, and spied him there.
"Don't you work?" she teased lightly.
He looked up from the papers, and grinned. "I am working, I'll have you know," he demonstrated the plans in his hands. "What about you? Home, in the middle of the day?"
Angel reappeared with a menu for Alex to select his lunch. At the same time, Cheryl's stomach rumbled a bit.
"Oh, I forgot some paperwork this morning. Had to run back and get it for a meeting later."
Alex regarded her, and turned to Angel. "Think you can include the young lady here on my 'fee'?"
"Sure thing. It'll be good to see her eat something for a change."'
Cheryl countered, "Oh no, Angel, I can't."
"Sure you can. It's lunch, you're hungry... easy." Alex challenged, handing her the menu. Both men looked at her, waiting expectantly. Sensing no means to winning the argument, she caved and asked for a salad. Alex requested a bacon cheeseburger with fries, and Angel retreated to the kitchen with their orders.
"So, exactly what is it you're working on, if I may ask?"
"Oh," Alex said, extending his hand in introduction, "Alex Thomson, architect. Mr. Lavery wanted me to review some of the renovation plans for the club."
"Impressive. Duke doesn't trust just anybody, especially where the club is concerned," she noted, as Angel returned with their food a few minutes later.
"Ain't that the truth. But, there was so much chatter around about Alex here, we had to get him in to check things out. You two eat, and when you're ready to talk about the plans, just holler. I'll be in the back working," he said, and hustled off to see to some deliveries.
Alex shrugged, as if to say, 'No big deal' to the compliment he'd been paid by having Lavery call upon him. Seeing an opening, he fished for some details on his lunch guest. "And, if I may ask, just what kind of meeting are you having?"
Cheryl finished a bite of her salad. "Very exciting stuff. I'm doing risk assessment for a potential investments client."
"Wow, now that's impressive," Alex exclaimed, taking a bite of his burger.
"Really," she eyed him, with a note of sarcasm.
"Really. I tried to read a prospectus once. Anybody with the mind and focus to do that has me beat." His tone was honest and full of admiration. They had an easy conversation about her work and his, punctuated periodically by Alex pointing out details on the plans in front of him. Cheryl finished the salad, and Alex his cheeseburger. He picked fries off the plate, and noticed her sneaking some for herself, but said nothing. They spent about twenty-five minutes this way, when Cheryl checked her watch.
"Well, thank you for lunch, Alex. I think it's about time for me to get back to the office," she said, sounding just a touch disappointed.
"My pleasure, Cheryl. Good luck with the new client," he said, as she stood and made her exit.
Angel came back to the bar, carrying a case of beer, and began stocking the chillers under the counter. "Good to see her talk with somebody. Ms. Stansbury's had it kinda rough lately."
Stansbury. He filed the name away. "Yeah, I got that impression."
Angel replied, "Sometimes good people get mixed up in bad situations."
"Sometimes they do," Alex agreed, curious. "So, exactly what are you concerned about on these plans?"
Three solid days of snow fell, and on the fourth day it tapered to a slow, lazy pattern of fat, randomly falling white flakes. Cheryl cut through the park on her way to the office, figuring the way to be empty, and that she could enjoy the peace of the snow laden trees. When she reached the top stair to descend into the small courtyard, she saw a man laying on a bench below. A few steps down, she recognized the form before her.
"Alex? Are you ok?"
He looked up and sideways to see her. "Hi. Fine," he answered, with a bit of a dreamy smile.
"What are you doing? Aren't you cold?" Cheryl's concern was growing quickly.
Alex was enjoying himself too much to be worried over. "Shhhh. Isn't it beautiful? Listen."
She did. Then whispered, "I don't hear anything."
"Exactly." It had been a day past a week since they ate lunch at Duke's, and he was glad to run into her again. Alex swung his legs off the bench and sat up, motioning for her to sit as well. "Not one sound. It's like the world stopped, only not, because the snow keeps falling," he said quietly. Cheryl sat, and they said nothing more for the next twenty minutes. They allowed the silence to swallow them up, and watched in awe of the world.
A group of schoolchildren emerged into the park, disrupting the magic with their snow-day play. Cheryl turned to Alex and simply said, "Thank you." With a gentle smile she rose and continued to work.
"Hockey scores. More hockey scores," Alex complained, sitting at Kelly's counter with the Sunday paper. "When does baseball season start?"
"April fifth," came a voice from behind. He turned to see Cheryl assuming a seat next to him, and motioning the waitress for some orange juice.
"The lady likes baseball?"
"Don't tell anyone. It would completely ruin my reputation as a geek," she whispered conspiratorially.
Alex complied making a crossing motion over his chest to indicate a promise, "Not a soul. How did it happen?"
She accepted a glass from behind the counter, "I went to Columbia. Shea Stadium isn't far. Going to games became a good break from studying."
"I can't believe you played hookie," he said in mock surprise. "And, if I'm not wrong, isn't Yankee Stadium closer?"
She tried to hide a smile, "Actually, I did skip class once or twice, but mostly they were summer games, when I only had morning class. And yes, it is, but it was alot easier as a student to get Mets tickets than those other guys."
"I'm jealous," he admitted. "I had to watch on t.v. Not Mets games, though." His tone was slightly apologetic.
"Yeah, it was a little far to drive from Savannah to Atlanta for games," Alex said, waiting for the anticipated response. For Mets fans, there was no greater rivalry than the one shared with the Atlanta Braves.
"Oh, no," Cheryl feigned disappointment.
"I know, it's horrible isn't it? Maybe one day you can forgive me," he suggested.
She thought a moment, and offered: "Maybe. After we sweep the season series."
Alex sensed the challenge in her sly comment, and seized it. "Now, are you willing to back up those big words, or is it just talk?"
She sipped some juice. "Mmm. What's the bet?"
Appraising her and the situation carefully, he figured a course of action. "How about... lunch to the winner of each individual series. Location of their choosing." The strategy afforded for five separate lunches throughout the year.
Cheryl scrutinized him, then extended her hand to seal the agreement, "Deal. Hey, how am I supposed to collect? You know where to find me, but..."
Alex grinned. "You don't think I'd try to welch, do you?" he asked innocently, reaching over the counter for a pen. Writing his cell number on a napkin, he passed the information to her.
On cue, the phone in her jacket pocket rang. Pulling it out to check the caller i.d., she sighed. It was her sister, Tiffany. Again. Taking a deep breath, she excused herself from Alex. "I'm going to have to answer this, sorry." He tried to help, suggesting she let it roll to voicemail, but no luck. "She's already left three messages. If I don't answer now, she'll start calling the hospitals," and waved a little good-bye as she went outside to answer.
Feeling rather proud of himself, Alex finished the milk in his glass and stepped down from the stool. Not only had he arranged, in a roundabout way, to have lunch with her several times over the summer, he'd also managed to get his phone number into her hands. Whether she used it or not would be left to discover, and he would be forced to wait almost three months for the first 'payment', but all in all, a great morning's work. He left money on the counter, then turned to go. A voice from the corner table stopped him.
"Watch out for that one," came a drawl, contained within an Australian accent.
"Excuse me?" Alex was instantly on the defensive.
"The woman you were talking to. Trouble there," the man continued.
"I see. Well, thanks for your help. You'll excuse me though, if I make up my own mind about who is worthy of conversation," he countered, and walked away.
Cheryl finished the reports needed for Monday, and checked the last of her voicemail. There was nothing of urgent nature, and having cleared the emails from earlier, she decided to close up the office. It was not quite five, but there was no need to stay and she was tired of looking at the walls around her. The first week of February was clear, and the streets ran wet with melted snow. It was just warm enough to let the city breathe clear of white for the first time in nearly a month. To be honest, she was not very interested in going back to the penthouse either, having seen more than enough of that space as well. She mustered a little courage, and picked up the phone.
Twenty minutes away, at Dr. Murphy's house, Alex stood in an organized chaos of sawing and hammering, pointing out the latest updates to his client. The cell phone in his pocket started to vibrate, so he finished up with the Doctor, covered one ear, and answered. "Alex Thomson...sorry, what?" The sawing stopped momentarily, and he could finally hear. "Hi, that's better...yeah, absolutely. How about I pick you up at the club in say, half an hour?" Flipping the phone shut, he gave himself a quick onceover, brushing as much sawdust from his jeans and shirt as he could manage, and locating his work jacket on the nail where he had left it. Good as it's gonna get, he thought. He jumped in the grey Subaru, and went to get Cheryl.
The club parking was already starting to fill, with some patrons getting an early start on their weekend. He swung into a relatively close space, and made his way in through the growing crowd. She sat at the bar in a grey skirt and jacket, chatting with Angel and sipping a glass of water.
"Alex, long time no see," Angel greeted him.
"No offense Angel, but clubs really aren't my thing. I might have to come back for another one of those cheeseburgers though," Alex admitted. Looking at Cheryl, he smiled and said, "I definitely need to clean up, if I'm going to be seen with you. Ready?"
"See you later Angel," Cheryl voiced, slipping off the high-backed barstool. Alex held the door for her on the way out, and then again at the car. Once under way he remembered that a package was supposed to have been delivered at the rental house that he needed to check on. They pulled up in front of the well kept bungalow after about fifteen minutes through town, and Cheryl let herself out of the car.
"Hey now, you're my guest, you have to let me do my job," as he hustled to get the mail from the box and escort her up the walk. Sure enough, the package was there on the porch waiting. Alex unlocked the door, bowed as an invitation for Cheryl to enter, and snatched up the large packet before shutting the door behind himself. "Please make yourself at home. I need to make a quick call and then we can figure out the agenda, ok?"
She nodded quietly, taking in the place. It was not meticulously neat, but everything seemed to have a place. There was a large drafting table and computer in the corner by a large window, where some would have kept a dining room. A large leather sofa resided in the main living area, where a fireplace sat cold. There was a small entertainment center equipped with television, dvd and stereo units. She heard snippets of the short conversation while she waited.
"...yes sir, I got the materials you sent... I see... Ok. Sounds good... Well, I'll have a look at everything, and then give you a call Monday to go over what you're looking for, then... yes sir. Goodnight."
Alex finished the call, and looked to Cheryl. She stood in the middle of the room, rubbing her arms slightly, and hearing the silence from the end of his conversation, looked back at him. "So," he said, "What's your pleasure?"
He saw her blush a little, and duck her head before answering, "I don't really have anything in mind. I guess I just didn't want to stay home."
"Honest answer. I can live with that. I was figuring on cooking a little pasta and watching some movies I rented a couple days ago, before you called. How do you feel about joining me in that? Just hang out, talk, do nothing?"
She looked at him, briefly considering, and thought, You called him, for goodness sake. You must trust something about him. "Actually, nothing sounds like a nice change of pace."
"Perfect. First piece of business..." he said, stepping out to the porch again, and returning with an armload of firewood, "...can't have you cold all night." Alex got a nice fire going, not roaring but a quiet blaze that slowly heated the room more comfortably. "Second..." he declared, pulling off the long sleeved denim work shirt, revealing a tank style undershirt, "I'll be back in five minutes." Cheryl glimpsed something on his shoulder, but he was down a short hallway before there was an opportunity to ask.
True enough, Alex emerged from the hallway five minutes later, with wet hair and a fresh pair of jeans, finished by a black tee. He found Cheryl sitting at the kitchen island, browsing through one of his trade magazines. "I feel much more human now," he announced. "Hungry?"
He laughed easily, "Ok then, spicy or mild?" he asked, while digging out a large pan and stockpot from a cabinet.
"Spicy," she answered, enjoying the sight of him at work in the kitchen. "Can I help?"
"Sure you can. You are going to be on bread detail," he told her, grabbing a serrated knife from the block on the counter, and the loaf of Italian next to the refrigerator. He fired up the oven before handing the items to her, along with a cutting board. "If you would, about this thick," he indicated with a pinch of his fingers.
"Looks like you've done this a lot," Cheryl observed.
Nodding, "Since I was eleven. My Grandmother would never tolerate anyone not being able to make at least a basic linguine marinara. Would have been a family travesty," Alex revealed. She sliced as he cut roma tomatoes, garlic and onions. Soon the pan was doing its work, and he had the water boiling for the noodles. He took the fruit of her labors and lined the slices out in the oven to toast. "Thirsty? I have some sodas, water, and I think there's even a bottle of wine in there," he added, tilting his head toward the fridge.
"Definitely no wine, thanks," she responded quickly.
Alex caught the tone, and gave her a mildly quizzical look. "You're not one of those 'one drink and you're drunk' girls, are you?"
May as well tell him, she thought. "No, it's more of a 'one drink and she goes to the hospital' kind of things."
He froze and looked at her with obvious concern.
"I lost a kidney in a childhood accident. Most of the time I manage fine, but... drinking is pretty much not recommended. I can do it, but one glass is about as far as that goes."
Alex digested this information, and made a note to do some research on it later. "Okay then, no alcohol for Cheryl," and he let out a heavy breath. "Ready to finish the bread?"
"Show me what to do, master chef."
Alex removed the toasted slices from the rack and demonstrated on one, rubbing the slice of garlic into it, finishing with a light drizzle of olive oil. Then he went about draining the pasta, and tossed it into the finished sauce with some fresh herbs. Minutes later, he had a pair of bowls filled with steaming linguine, and Cheryl's crusty garlic bread on the side. Adding a 7-Up for her, and a Coke for himself, Alex sat across from her at the island to eat. He watched as she took a bite of the pasta.
"Oh my God, this is amazing." Delight shone in her eyes.
Alex smiled, and took a bite from his own bowl. They ate, exchanging small comments, until they were both stuffed.
Cheryl sat back, relaxing in the bistro chair. "I can't remember ever eating that much."
"I'll pass your compliments on to Grandmother," he said, and gave a little bow as he stood to clear the dishes. She moved to help, but he would have none of it. "You are my guest and guests do not do chores, thank you. Sit." He ran the water to wash up, and stowed the leftovers safely in the refrigerator. As he stood at the sink, Cheryl watched, leaning forward on elbows, with her chin resting in cupped hands.
She realized something, "I've figured something out. I think you know much more about me than I know about you."
Alex looked over his shoulder at her, hands immersed in the sudsy water, and replied easily. "What do you want to know?"
Her mind flashed to the mark she'd seen on his right arm, high and near the shoulder, earlier in the evening. Standing, she went to him at the sink and rolled the sleeve up over the tightly muscled arm to see exactly what was there. She found a tattoo approximately two inches across, depicting an eagle standing atop a globe, with an anchor behind it. Alex, meanwhile, attempted to ignore the tingling sensation her touch had left on his skin. He checked her reaction to see if she understood its meaning.
"How long did you serve?"
"Six years active, and two on reserve, no call-up."
She considered the facts, seeing a new side of him. So far, he had been calm, easygoing, funny. Now she understood there was a disciplined side, one that took every action seriously and with purpose. "Why the Marines, and not another branch?"
He nodded, a fair question. "A couple of reasons. One, the pay was a little better. Two, and probably more important at the time... I was raised to believe that if you do something, you do it the best you can. Better than anyone else. That's part of what the Corp is about." Alex finished washing, and left the dishes to dry in the sink. "The other answer, to what you haven't asked yet, is that I did it so I could afford to go to school and do what I really wanted," he said, looking and motioning to the corner where his work lay spread out.
Cheryl smiled, that he knew what her next question would have been, and also at the newfound knowledge of this man. "I'm very impressed."
"Thank you. Truthfully, I look at it alot like a job. I did it, but it's done, and I'm rather glad for it to be. I was never going to make a career of it. I like making my own decisions too much," he smiled. "Anything else?" It was an open question.
"Nope. Not today."
"How about this: We're both adults, right? And friends now... Let's just say that if you want to know something, you ask. Same goes for me, to you. If we aren't ready to answer a particular question, we just say so and that's the end of it. What do you think?"
She thought about it for a moment, and wondered about everything that had happened in the last year. There had been so many instances where just asking would have made life simpler, but instead there had been assumptions and suspicion. Almost as if traps had been laid, waiting for a mistake. "I like that idea."
Alex found the movies he had rented, and allowed Cheryl to choose. She claimed a corner of the overstuffed couch, and curled up while he stoked the fire with a fresh log, and then sat cross-legged on the rug next to her. They watched, at ease with one another, debating the accuracy of certain scenes, laughing, guessing the next sequence of events. It was a long movie and when the end rolled around, Alex thought about asking if she'd like to see another but caught her in a small yawn.
"Looks like the pumpkin may be making a return," he noted.
She gave a stretch, unfolding herself from the position she'd held on the couch. "Maybe so."
"It had to happen. It is a quarter after eleven, you know. 'Suppose I should get you home soon," Alex said, masking most of his disappointment.
Cheryl checked her watch, surprised. The evening seemed to have flown by. She turned to see him putting on his coat, reaching for the door. He disappeared but was back in a flash, shaking the cold from himself. Smiling a little, she said nothing.
"What?" he asked, worried that he'd done something strange.
"It's just been a long time since I've seen anyone so... courteous," she realized, having ascertained that he went out to warm the car before escorting her home.
Alex processed the comment, and could only assume one thing: "You've been hanging out with the wrong people, then."