It's done, it's done, it's done! A huge thank you to Michelle W, without whom the story would have stalled at chapter 10 and Thanksgiving dinner would have lasted until Valentine's Day. Stay tuned for 'The Mistletoe Incident'! ~ D

Chapter 12

He didn't call her until nearly one o'clock on Friday. She didn't answer. So he called a few friends and organized an early dinner and poker game. He spent the rest of the afternoon reading advance decisions, then changed clothes and left his apartment at just before five to meet the boys.

She called his apartment at five minutes past six. He didn't answer. So she called Janet and Evelyn and coaxed them into cocktails and take-out Chinese at her apartment followed by a late movie. She fell asleep ten minutes into it.

He called her at exactly three o'clock on Saturday. She didn't answer. So he pushed a stack of legal journals from the side table onto the floor and took a drive – a long drive – to the desert. But it wasn't as comforting alone anymore and he returned to Los Angeles, dropping in at his favorite neighborhood pub for a solo dinner, more dejected than when he left.

She called him at quarter past seven on Saturday night. He didn't answer. So she dumped the contents of her drawers on the bed and spent the evening sorting and re-folding pajamas and underwear and inspecting stockings for runners. When she came across three ribbons bejeweled with crystal beads she grabbed a pair of scissors, cut the ribbons, and dumped the beads into a decorative tin. But they made too much noise rattling around in the tin, so she dug into her closet and emerged triumphantly with a small, velvet lined wooden box. Then she spent an hour putting her closet back together.

Sunday morning Perry opened his door at half-past seven and grabbed the newspaper from the rubber mat. Settling himself on the couch with a pot of coffee and a fresh pack of cigarettes, he began working his way through the paper one section at a time, testing his own patience in a personal improvement endeavor.

He had just stubbed out his third cigarette and poured his fourth cup of coffee when the entertainment and gossip section presented itself. And there it was on the front page. And it was much worse than he could have imagined.

He spilled his coffee diving for the phone, his panicked mind momentarily unable to remember Paul Drake's agency number, then when remembered, his shaking fingers failed three times to dial it correctly. Ruth, the evening and weekend operator, recognized his barking voice and immediately put his call through to Paul Drake, who happened to be in his office.

"Paul!" he bellowed.

Paul Drake's voice, weary but calm came over the wire. "Don't worry, Perry. Johnson went over and snatched papers from every doorstep on her floor an hour ago."

"You knew an hour ago? And you didn't think it important enough to call and give me this tidbit? I told you –"

"Perry, you aren't the only client I work for," Paul interrupted him in that same weary voice. "I've been up for almost two days straight and I only found out myself a few minutes ago. Faulkner got wind of the pictures around six this morning. He said he called, but you didn't answer. Faulkner couldn't spare a man to high-tail it over to Della's apartment, finagle his way in and filch the papers until an hour ago. It's in your hands now. Fire me if you have to, but all Hell's breaking loose over here and your love life has to take a back seat. I wish you luck."

Perry stared at the receiver after Paul hung up, listening to the muffled buzz emanating from the instrument. He slammed the receiver down. It fell to the floor. He repeated the exercise three more times before the receiver remained in the cradle. Damn it. How could this have happened? The photos were supposed to have been suppressed. If he hadn't taken a shower first thing this morning he would have gotten Faulkner's call. But realistically all that would have done was put him in a blind panic two hours earlier.

He folded the gossip section of the paper and stood with a heavy sigh. Grabbing a suede jacket from the coat tree, he flung open the door to his apartment, slammed it behind him, ran down the hall, jerked open the door to the stairway, and pounded down nine flights of stairs to the parking garage.

Della sat on the couch in her robe, pajamas, and fuzzy slippers, a 'borrowed' newspaper lying on the coffee table in front of her.

She'd thought the phone call at eight-thirty was him. She hoped it was. Although packed with shows and fittings and writing thank-you cards to those who had purchased dresses (she'd written a special personal note to Valerie), the days after Thanksgiving had been empty without him. She'd wanted so badly to hear his deep voice so she could reconfirm why she was exhausting herself working for Estelle.

But it hadn't been him. It had been Janet, her good friend, solicitous yet indignant, offering to drive right over so her shoulder could be cried on. Della told her it wasn't necessary, that she would call later after she actually saw the photos, which she couldn't do because her newspaper was mysteriously missing. She looked up and down the hallway of her apartment building and saw no Sunday papers whatsoever.

She snuck down one flight of stairs and lo and behold! there were Sunday papers lying in front of almost every door. Feeling justified in doing so, she grabbed a paper from a universally disliked tenant and scurried back up to her own apartment before anyone caught sight of her in her jammies.

She lit a cigarette and studied the photos: the very nice picture of her and Perry exiting the courthouse the day she had kidnapped him to the desert just a week ago had been sandwiched between two not so nice pictures of Perry holding a zaftig platinum blonde in his arms, her ample bosom amply displayed. The caption read SECRETARY SQUEEZED OUT?. She could not bring herself to read the accompanying article.

Fifteen minutes later she was on her second cigarette and still staring at the pictures when the security buzzer jolted her from her trance. She let him buzz three times before enabling the door to open.

He didn't bother with the doorbell but knocked, calling her name in restrained desperation as he did so. When she opened the door, he pushed past her, spied the paper on the coffee table, spun around and enfolded her in a silent, crushing embrace, lifting her onto tiptoes and burying his face in her sleep-mangled curls.

"Care to explain?" she asked, her voice muffled by the soft suede of his jacket.

His hold slackened and her feet touched down flat on the floor. "I was hoping you hadn't seen them yet, that I could be the one to tell you. I had no idea they would be published like this, Della."

She extricated herself from his arms and made her way to the couch, where she seated herself cross-legged and indicated the gossip section on the coffee table. "My friend Janet called half an hour ago to alert me. Funny thing, Chief. My paper was missing. So were all my neighbor's papers. Do you know anything about that?"

Perry dropped into a side chair and ran his hands through his hair. "That was one of Paul's operative's hair-brained ideas."

She raised her eyebrows. "Paul and his operatives are involved in this? Why am I not surprised?" She adjusted her robe around her. "Who is she?"

"She's Paul's girlfriend's sister," he told her, lifting guilt-ridden, apologetic eyes to hers, which were strangely blank. "Paul invited her to dinner on Halloween so I wouldn't be alone. Remember – you had a headache so I went to the club by myself. Then last weekend when I was trying to prove I could be a big boy all by myself, he did it again."

"So I'm indirectly to blame for the pictures."

"Of course not. I'm explaining how she happened to be at the same club with me twice. She and her photographer ex-boyfriend set up stunts to bolster her acting career. She fell off a barstool on Halloween and I caught her. That's the first picture. Last weekend I stupidly asked her to dance. She stumbled and I caught her again. Picture number two."

"Fool me once," Della intoned, "shame on you. Fool me twice…"

"Shame on me," he finished ruefully. "I'm sorry, Della. I thought the pictures would only be published in Spicy Bits where hardly anyone would see them. I never dreamed some gossip-monger would do something like this."

She was quiet for a moment, picking at the fuzz on her slippers. "Is this what it's going to be like, Chief - if I don't say stop? Conjecture about your personal life, and - and…ours? Am I going to open newspapers every week and find pictures like this as you become more and more successful? I don't know if I want my picture taken anymore." She wouldn't cry. She would let him know how much this upset her, how angry she was that whatever was happening between them had surged into tawdriness so that small-minded people could live vicariously through his notoriety, but she wouldn't cry.

A lump of fear formed in his throat, cutting off all words. Her association with him had hurt her once before and she'd lost three inches of her hair to a crazed woman. He couldn't stand that it was hurting her again, that she had been publicly embarrassed, especially not now, not when he was so close to having everything he had ever wanted. He heaved himself out of the chair and knelt in front of her, took her hands in his and held them against his heart.

"I hate what this columnist did to you because of me," he said over the lump in his throat. He drew her hands to his lips and kissed the palms gently. "I can't guarantee that pictures of us won't be taken ever again, kid, whether outside the courthouse or at a restaurant or -"

"Or at a Bar Association function, or at the theater," she interposed. She already had three such photos tucked away in her dictionary, pictures of her with him, of him looking at her with more affection than an employer should. She pulled her hands from his and stared at her palms where the warmth and gentleness of his lips lingered. "It's nobody's business but our own what we do, together or apart." What about the upcoming events they were scheduled to attend together? How many photographers would be there to see who he escorted? How many woud lie in wait for their hands to touch or for an exchanged smile that could be misconstrued and misrepresented to a salacious public? All because a gossip columnist for the Los Angeles Times paired a nice picture of her and her boss with pictures of her boss in compromising positions with another woman. Did she really care that much about what people thought of her - people she didn't know and probably didn't care to know?

"You're so right. It is nobody's business but ours." His hands gripped her arms urgently as thoughts that she might leave him, might leave his employ and his life, exploded in his brain. She had a right to her privacy, a right to protect her reputation and not be embarrassed because she was his secretary. Because she was so much more than his secretary. "I need you, Della. I wouldn't be half the man I am without you."

Her eyes met his, those mesmerizing, amazingly blue eyes that of late held a tenderness she craved, and despite her resolve, tears spilled down her cheeks. She reached for him, sliding her arms around his neck and pulling herself up onto her knees to lean against his broad chest, her slight frame atremble with her own need for him. His arms enfolded her, engulfed her, and she knew without a doubt that no man had ever or would ever make her feel the way this man did.

He held her, devastated by her tears, the lump in his throat once again strangling him. She wept silently, clinging to him, her cheek pressed next to his. Finally he found his voice. "Please don't cry, Della. I can't bear it."

She turned her head and sought his lips in a kiss made salty by tears. Chaste by their recent standards, but once again abound with promise, the kiss was an eloquent reply to his fears. His arms tightened. "Oh, Della," he whispered when her mouth left his to explore his jawline. "I promise there won't be -"

She moved her lips back to his, this kiss more promising yet. "Hush," she scolded. "Don't spoil it."