Here it is, the concluding chapter. Yay! I apologize for not concluding it before my original deadline of Dec. 24, and then not on the revised deadline of Jan. 6. Thank you to everyone who has faithfully followed this tome, and a special shout out to Michelle who held my hand during unexpected rough patches and made invaluable suggestions to aid in the editing process. ~ D
Perry didn't let go of her hand as he escorted her to the table, released it only long enough to seat her and himself, and took possession of it again beneath the table.
"I apologize for being late," Della said to everyone, all of whom were still staring at her in blatant admiration and/or jealousy. "I had a bit of trouble getting here."
"We're glad you're finally here," Harvey told her with a twinkle. "Perry is misbehaving. Would you please take control of him before someone punches him?"
"You look amazing!" Pamela exclaimed with heartfelt admiration. She blushed slightly at her outburst. "Really Della, your dress is the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen. Every woman here turned three shades of green with envy when you walked in."
There was a round of awed agreement and similar effusive compliments from both tables. Della couldn't do much more than thank everyone before Perry tugged on her hand, demanding her attention once again.
"You're here," he whispered dazedly. He couldn't take his eyes from her face, from the face he'd thought he'd memorized, but it was very different from the vision in his mind and he began the memorization process all over again. How could she be so much more beautiful than he'd remembered?
"I'm here," she confirmed with a bit of amusement. "I have something for you." She gently pulled her hand from his and turned slightly in her chair. She held up a pink rosebud boutonnière.
He shifted his shoulder toward her and inhaled deeply as she leaned toward him, her gloved hands making quick work of pinning the boutonniere to his lapel and then patting the slick fabric. "Nice," she said approvingly.
"I bought it for you," he blurted and grinned at her when she lifted dancing eyes to his. "I mean, I bought it so I wouldn't look like such a ragamuffin next to you. Pamela is right. That dress is like nothing I've ever seen."
Her hand once again slipped into his hand and squeezed it. "That's because a good friend designed it especially for me to wear tonight," she told him with a brilliant smile. "I'll tell you about it later."
"Della, Perry may be an impolite dolt, but my mother raised me right, and when I see a lady without a drink, I offer to get her one." Art was standing behind Marion's chair, his hand caressing her bare shoulder. "What is your pleasure? All the other ladies are drinking martinis."
"She'll have champagne," Perry answered for her, and she smiled again at him. "And I'll let you get this round as recompense for disparaging my mother."
"I didn't disparage your mother," Art deadpanned. "I specifically disparaged your mother's son."
Infused with warmth from the champagne and her empty stomach filled with delicious food, Della settled back in her chair and sought Perry's hand beneath the table once again. He had refused to let go of her during the cocktail hour and she'd been forced to eat from the appetizer platter with her left hand. When the waiter placed her dinner plate in front of her she had disengaged her fingers from his to remove her gloves, long luxurious satin dyed to match her brown dress exactly, and attacked her food with unbridled enthusiasm. It was the first real food she'd eaten in thirty-six hours, since she'd missed dinner at the club the previous night, and there just hadn't been time to eat during refueling stops, or while Evelyn and Estelle worked their magic, and certainly not between disembarking the taxicab and checking her luggage with the hotel concierge. Oh shoot! The taxicab fare. She sat forward quickly and pulled her clutch across the tablecloth toward her.
"Ready for dessert or would you prefer a liqueur?" Perry asked. He had barely taken his eyes from her since her arrival, virtually ignoring the conversations zinging around and between the tables, being polite but short with anyone who stopped by to speak with them, unwilling to share his time with her.
She nodded. "I'd like some sort of decadent liqueur please. By the way, you owe this person five dollars." She handed him a business card.
He glanced at it and his eyes widened at the name printed in a bold face type. "Why do I owe the brand new District Attorney five dollars?"
"For my taxi. I'm completely out of money and this very nice man came to my rescue with an irate cab driver. What do you mean the new District Attorney?" She leaned toward him and peered at the card. "Hamilton Burger! I was in such a hurry and so distracted by the bellboy handling my luggage I guess I didn't look very carefully at the man or his card."
"And why are you completely out of money?"
"Because it took every penny I had to get here," she admitted, her eyes huge with naked honesty.
Perry considered her reply for several seconds. "I think we need to talk, young lady." He stood and put his hand on the back of her chair.
He took the lead, running interference, still holding her hand and pulling her through the crowded ballroom. Aware that every eye was on them, on Della, he moved with a quick purposefulness toward the commons area outside the grand ballroom, pausing at the entrance just long enough to chart a course for someplace private. He remembered seeing a door in an alcove on the opposite side of the commons area, between two massive, gaudily decorated Christmas trees and he made a beeline for it, Della still trailing behind, almost trotting to keep up with him.
But as they rounded one of the trees, she tugged insistently at his hand, and when he turned to find out what she wanted, her arms slid around his torso and she hugged him tightly. He wrapped his arms around her slender, silk-clad body and buried his face in her hair.
They stood between the Christmas trees in an alcove doorway for several long minutes not saying a word, merely holding one another. Then Perry sighed hugely. "You came home," he breathed, still a bit disbelieving, even though she was most decidedly real and warm and soft in his arms.
"Yes," she whispered. "I came home."
"But why? And how did you get here?"
"I turned in my ticket for a refund and chartered a plane. I had to come home." She realized she had said the same thing before leaving, but now it rang more true to her.
"Della, cashing in your return ticket wouldn't have been enough to charter a private plane." The thought of her emptying her savings account to fly home pained him. He splayed one hand over her tantalizingly bare back and moved the other to grasp her upper arm, holding her just far enough way to be able to peer into her beautiful face
"A check from my brother and cashing in my ticket chartered a private plane." She smiled up at him. "I have a lot to tell you." Beginning with the stunning act of compassion from her brother.
"I think you must have. And we'll have plenty of time to talk during the drive to Utah tomorrow." He laid two fingers across her lips when she would have protested. "Don't you dare say you have an appointment tomorrow, Della Street. We're going to Utah."
"My bags are checked with the hotel concierge. Are you packed?"
"As a matter of fact, I am. I had to do something to occupy my time today."
She snuggled against his chest. "I have a plan. Let's leave tonight. We can park in the desert somewhere and sleep in the car and have pancakes at some ramshackle diner by the side of the road." She thought it was a fitting bookend for the events of the past several weeks that had begun with a trip to the desert.
"Don't you think we're a bit overdressed for sleeping in a car? I wouldn't want that unbelievable dress to get ruined. Besides, the orchestra hasn't begun to play yet. I've been looking forward to holding you in my arms on the dance floor."
"Normally I would love to dance the night away with you, Mr. Mason, but I just spent the most awful four days with the most miserable people on the face of the planet and if we leave tonight it puts me that much closer to normal people."
Perry gave her a lopsided smile. "It must have been awful if you're looking forward to spending time with Bart."
She raised misty eyes to his. "You have no idea how lucky you are," she told him in a throaty whisper.
Perry gently laid her head back on his chest. "I'm aware of how lucky I am, baby," he said huskily, "and it has nothing to do with my brother."
Della fought tears with all she was worth, her face buried in his shirtfront. This was what meant everything to her. It had been worth it, what she'd done and what she'd said to her family at the country club. Los Angeles was her home now. Estelle and Evelyn and Janet, as well as the band of characters in Perry's orbit were her family. And this man, this perfectly imperfect man who held her with fierce tenderness, who smiled at her even when he was annoyed, and who made no bones about the fact he found her beautiful from the inside out, this man could very well be her entire life.
She tilted her head and tried to smile, but the tears were winning. His attempt at a smile was much more successful, which made holding back the tears even harder. Then she caught sight of something green and leafy hanging above his head and her smile blossomed hugely. His eyes followed hers and widened in amused surprise as she pulled him further into the alcove.
"Kisssssseee," she crooned softly. "Kisssssseee the girl."
This time he did.