Rory planned to stop in the office the next day, eager to know Cade’s reaction to her present but an interview ran late, leaving her barely enough time to get home and get ready. Meanwhile, Cade had left her a single phone message that evening: “It’s beautiful, Rory. Thank you. Give me a call.”
Unable to reach him, she left her own message: “I’m glad you like it. I should be in tomorrow afternoon if everything works out right. I’ve got some interviews in the morning. They should wrap up around one or so.” They hadn’t. She’d ended up tied up until nearly four.
Now, here she was with Alex, sitting on the couch trying to play polite and keep her attention on her guest and not on whether or not her phone would ring.
“Sorry I’m running so late. I’ll go get dressed and be down in a minute.” She tried to smile as Alex edged closer to her on the sofa. “Thankfully, the gossip columnists will forget me and my wardrobe soon enough when someone more exciting comes along.”
“I doubt that you’ll be forgotten,” Alex replied. The two sat just a few feet apart on her new sofa, and she wishing she hadn’t agreed to see Crake’s Mephistopheles with him. “You were stunning in that picture of us at the charity auction in the paper. You’ll see, no one will forget you, Rory. Your star is just beginning to rise.”
The polite thing to do was thank him for the compliment, but she didn’t. She was still annoyed at the way he coerced admission to the event, knowing that they would never turn him away. When his fingers touched her shoulder, she leapt up and walked over to the front window. Watching her readjust the draperies, Alex changed the subject. “You said you were thinking about freelancing. Are you really going to quit the magazine?”
Sighing again, Rory turned around to face him. “Look, Alex, this just isn’t working. I mean, I don’t think we should be doing this.” Again. At all. Ever. She watched a vein on his forehead pulse, saw his face change imperceptibly. Saw it harden, as if anticipating an argument.
“Really? And why is that?”
Because you want more then I’ll ever be able to give. Because I really don’t need you taking up space in my living room almost every time I turn around. Because I’m not Julie. Because I’m falling in love with Cade.
“Well?” Alex rose from the couch, covering the distance between them in three or four strides.
Eye-to-eye, just a foot apart, she forced herself to stand her ground. He wasn’t Paul. The last thing she needed was a relationship where she couldn’t find it within her to return the affection. “I’m only going with you for the sake of business. You want something more than that, something long term.”
“I never said that.”
“Alex, you admitted to crashing a charity event to see me. You sent flowers the next day. You’ve asked me out at least seven times since I buried Paul, and I’ve told you no six out of those seven. The only reason I went to the one with you was because I was going anyway. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t know what I want.”
“I know you want Julie back.”
“No, I don’t. Not anymore. She was a wonderful dream I had, someone I really didn’t deserve because I didn’t appreciate her. I just want to get to know you better. I can’t deny that I enjoy your company. Maybe we’re compatible, maybe we’re not. I worry about you. I’ve been wondering lately if you aren’t depressed, and need to see a doctor or something.”
Rory crossed her arms, trying to hide her mounting anger.
“Listen, don’t ruin tonight for us with what you think I’m not getting from you. Go upstairs and finish getting ready. We have two seats at this year’s hottest opera waiting for us, and it is opening night. Going there keeps us in the public eye, something we both need to keep in mind for our careers. You especially.”
Rory choked back a reply. How thick is this guy? How she wanted to tell him to lose the condescending tone and to take someone else! Take his mother, find another redhead, pay someone. Just not her. Not tonight.
“At least let me make the world jealous once more before we think about where this is heading.” He gave her a playful tap on the nose with his finger. “Don’t forget my reputation. I’m this town’s favorite bachelor. To be seen with a woman less than you would be a blow to my ego and take me off the society pages.”
“I’ll go get dressed.” Sighing, she gave in. He was right: tonight was business.
In her room, Rory surveyed herself in the mirror from head to toe, enjoying the way her new red dress fit, curving around her waist and wrapping snugly over her breasts, flaring just slightly above her knees. As she freshened her make-up, she decided again that Alex was right; they were good press for each other. But even though it was logical for her to be in the public eye, there had to be a better way than being seen with Alex. The fact that he didn’t seem to hear a word she said irked her as well. She forced herself to stop dwelling on it. She’d promised to go, and she would keep her word.
I expect he’ll approve. She twirled before the mirror once more, smiling at the way the skirt flared ever-so-slightly. I wonder what Cade would think? Eons ago, as an undergrad with a crush, she’d made it a point to dress for Richard. In the beginning, she’d even dress for Paul. Then she dressed to hide the bruises on her arms and around her neck. Pondering her bare neck, the smooth and unmarked skin, she realized that she’d never dressed for Cade. What he saw was what she was, and she liked the thought. Tonight she dressed for the photographers and those who penned the captions in the society column. No doubt Monday morning’s Scene would have a field day. She could just imagine it:
Local writer Rory Cullers painted the town red tonight in a lovely silk creation by Vera Wang. She and her escort Alexander Webster IV joined fellow art patrons at Friday night’s opening of Geoffrey W. Edwards’s opera, Crake’s Mephistopheles. The two were last together at the fundraiser for Halfway Home, and speculations about their status are rampant, but neither will confirm anything beyond the fact that they are childhood friends.
It was what the gossips always wrote – what the woman wore and what her relationship was to whomever was on her arm.
What would the gossips say if she took Cade tonight instead?
Rory Cullers ditched Alexander “Mr. Unexcitement” Webster IV and brought a new face to Pittsburgh’s arts scene. Cayden Ransome caused quite a stir among the ladies, but his eyes were for Rory only. Dare we say she held his heart for “ransom”?
She smiled at the thought and gave herself one more look in the mirror.
“Almost ready?” Always the perfect gentleman, Alex stood at the bottom of the steps and called up to her. Cade would have probably just bounded up the steps. Alex brought her flowers and told her stories of his court cases. Cade brought her bagels for breakfast and asked about her writing.
Stop it. Stop comparing them! Give him a chance. He’s a nice guy. It’s not like this is a date. But it was impossible to stop. It’s the dress. Red and brazen. That’s all. It made her think of dancing, of holding close to another, of the mating game that dancing itself often became.
You don’t look bad, you know. Squaring her shoulders, she smiled at her reflection. She’d put some weight back on since Paul’s death and liked the curves that came with it. You have to live a little, Rory. So he’s not Cade. It’s not like you’re marrying him. Tonight is about business, and tonight you look damn good. You’re allowed to enjoy life, you know.
When she came downstairs, she was in a cream-colored sheath dress of raw silk. The red dress, she’d decided, was for Cade. She wasn’t going to waste it on Alex. “Beautiful,” he said, studying her from head to toe before leading her to his car. “You look ravishing, absolutely ravishing. There’s something about a woman who leaves a little to the imagination. Much more attractive than those who flaunt it all – though I daresay, what you have is worth flaunting.”
Why am I doing this? He sounds like Paul, for God’s sake. The slam of the car door made her jump. A moment later, he was in the driver’s seat, still talking about her appearance.
“I love how you kept your figure. So many women fall apart when faced with everything you’ve been through.”
My husband abused me. Did you know that? It’s easy to stay slim when you’re miserable.
“You know, I also love how you stayed true to your marriage in spite of your late husband’s antics. You had the class and the sense to ride it out, to come out on top, so to speak.” Rory stared out the window, concentrating on the rain that had started to fall, and wondering if her career was worth this.
Alex cleared his throat. “Please, Rory, forgive me for sounding so awkward. You have no idea what it’s like to be with a woman as beautiful as you. I haven’t been in a serious relationship since Julie, don’t you realize that? And look what happened to me. I risked my heart, spoiled her, adored her, and she was taken from me.” He glanced over at her. “I’m not really in the mood for a heavy opera. I was thinking, what say we have some fun instead, go to the Strip District? Are you up for some music, maybe a bite to eat? Bar-Mart just opened. It’s supposed to be the hottest place in town.”
“Sure,” she said, relieved that he didn’t want to sit through Crake’s Mephistopheles either. Relieved, too, that she wouldn’t have to deal with another picture in the Scene column. As for Maggie, she’d tell her the truth and offer a review of Bar-Mart instead. Probably not the best decision, but it was better than facing his cronies and cameras. “Maggie’s been after me to review that place anyway, so I’m fine with that.”
“Always the reporter.”
“It’s what I do.”
“And you do it well. I haven’t said so, but I want you to know I appreciated the way you handled Julie’s story.”
“Thank you, Alex.”
When he looked at her, the smile he received warmed him. Perfect. Clearing his throat, he decided that tonight was the night. “There’s a box in the glove compartment, Rory. I bought it for Julie for her graduation and recently found it again. I thought you’d like it, since you two were friends and all. There’s no other meaning behind it, I swear.”
Rory opened the box to find a bracelet that matched the choker Julie had worn the night she vanished. Her hand trembled when she saw what it was. “I can’t accept this, Alex.”
“You certainly can. It was meant to be hers. I have no one else I want to give it to. Please, Rory, take it and enjoy it in her memory. You aren’t wearing any other bracelets, and this will dress you up a bit.”
Sighing, she acquiesced, unable to find it in her to deny him this morbid reminder. Just for tonight, she decided as she slipped the bauble onto her wrist. Tomorrow she’d put it in her jewelry box and forget about it.