“Look, here she comes now
Bow down and stare in wonder,
Oh how we love you,
No flaws when you’re pretending
But now I know she…
Never was and never will be
You don’t know how you’ve betrayed me,
And somehow you’ve got everybody fooled.
Without the mask where will you hide?
Can’t find yourself lost in your lies.”
“Everybody’s Fool” Evanescence
The gentle rubbing of one foot over the other was the first sensation Alessa registered in her waking mind. It was the same every morning, a gentle coaxing of herself from slumber by the sensuous pleasure of a foot-on-foot massage.
The second was the warmth of hands holding hands. Slowly, her brain began to tease out the sensations of herself, separating her hands and fingers from what was not her. Her eyes opened in languid stages, her focus sharpening in on the passive expression of the face that was inches from her own. It was a sight of beauty and strength, a reassurance. And for the briefest of moments, Alessa felt complete.
And then she blinked in alarm, a feeling of panic sharply running up her spine that such completeness should come from a source so transient and unreliable as Denton Ashbury sharply racing up her spine. Their hands were clasped between them as they both lay on their sides, curled in to face one another. He was apparently still asleep, his breathing deep and even. Cautiously, as though she were attempting to move through water without creating ripples, Alessa disengaged her hands and scooted out of the bed.
She stood next to it for several minutes, feelings of loss and fear and confusion warring inside her. And as warm and alluring as the bed had been, as comforting as his presence next to her was, falling for Denny was as fearsome as facing a ravenous lion. She knew she wouldn’t survive. Alessa grabbed her phone from the night stand and left.
When Denny at last heard the latch to the bathroom door quietly click shut, he opened his eyes. He stretched out his arm to lay in the empty warmth her body had left behind. He sighed, getting out of bed and putting a robe on. He admitted it was fanciful to imagine she would wake up and snuggle deeper into him, maybe ask him to kiss her. No, he lamented, it was only expected that she would withdraw the second she was able. He heard the shower go and so went ahead and ordered their breakfast and made another pot of coffee. He poured himself a cup and sat out on the balcony, enjoying the space of the gray cityscape, the call of gulls in the distance, the quiet murmur of Sunday morning traffic. From off in the distance came the chime of a church bells, playing out a melodic tune. And then he thought he heard a click that might have been a door inside the suite. Wanting to greet her, he got up and made his way inside, but she wasn’t there.
The door to the master was open, and when he walked in, the door to the bathroom stood open as well. Denny’s brow furrowed as he looked about the space, before calling to her. But she didn’t answer. And then he noticed that her dress, which had been laid over the back of a chair, was gone.
His focus snapped to the front door of the suite. He walked quickly to it, and peering out into the hall, listened for any indication she was out there. From around the far corner came another door shutting. Denny raced down the corridor in the direction of the sound. It was the stairwell door he had heard shut, he was certain. He yanked it open and almost immediately heard the footsteps pacing down the stairs. He could just see her slender hand on the railing as she skipped down. He jumped a few steps and gained half a floor on her before he called out.
She did, only to look up in the narrow space and reply, “Denny, just leave me alone. This is over.”
“Like hell it is,” he muttered as he picked up the pace, leaping two and three steps at time. She wasn’t exactly running from him, so he was able to overtake her on a landing between two floors, catching her by the arm.
“Where the hell are you going?” he demanded, confused and hurt and a little annoyed. She wouldn’t look at him so he kept on. “Our time isn’t up yet,” he managed to argue, though that was the least of his worries.
She finally looked at him, a sparking temper in her eyes. “Then we’ll just have to reschedule the remaining time. Though, in all honesty, it isn’t going to make a difference. I’m not dating you or sleeping with you or whatever else you want outside of working together.”
“Why are you fighting this so hard?” he growled. He stepped closer to her, his hand still around her arm as he wrestled with the desire to just subdue her with a kiss, pushing back the erratic primal need to conquer that he had once felt in a dark and cold alleyway.
“I don’t have to justify my actions to you or anyone,” she hissed furiously. “I’m not broken, Denny, just because I choose to live my life free of romantic entanglements,” she argued in a huff.
“But you want this. You want me.”
“I want a lot of things. We all do. But we make choices in this life, and sometimes we have to sacrifice things. But we’re fine. We survive, and we move on.”
“And just what the hell are you sacrificing us for? The guarantee that you’ll never be hurt or lonely or damaged? Trust me, Sweetheart, you’re already there,” he assured her cruelly.
Her eyes flashed a deepening blue, and he saw her jaw clench in indignant refusal. He now had her firmly pressed against the cold wall, his angry gaze on her pursed mouth. He wanted to brand her so that every move she took away from him would be like ripping off her skin. And so he did.
Alessa struggled against him as his arms tightened and his hard mouth descended upon her, and for a minute, she was able to resist, knowing to kiss him back would be to open the flood-gates of her desire. But it was a heavy thing to deny, and in his fiery persistence, her lips relented and became softer and more pliant, opening for his breath and tongue and passion.
She managed to miserably mumble his name into his mouth, pleading against him, against herself, to stop. But he seemed to only grow in furor, cupping her face, leaning his body dominatingly into hers. A hand gripped the back of her neck, fingering into her hair to hold her steady and open to his blazing mouth that bit and kissed its way down the smooth skin of her neck. Sparks were shooting through Alessa, but her moans carried undeniable tones of fear. She wanted him. But she didn’t want to want him. And when the spike of fear rose high enough, it empowered her to move, shoving her hands hard enough against his chest to create distance between them.
“Enough,” she rasped, panting heavily. “Denny, I don’t need this. I don’t want this. Let it end here. Please.”
“How can you ask me to stop? How can you expect me to give it up when I’ve never wanted anything this much? When I need you?”
“Needing someone is a dangerous place to be,” she argued, her breathing not yet under control. “I’m sorry you allowed yourself to imagine something could happen here between us, but I can’t do this. Not with you. Not with anyone. Whatever was between us,” she pursed her lips and shook her head, “is over. Leave it.”
She held his eyes as she took a step away from him, and then a step down the next stair and then the next. His gaze never left her, not even to get caught in the dazzling flicker of the gown draped over her arm.
His hands were grasped tightly on the railing as his eyes followed her down. He could feel the slam of his heart in his chest, its ferocity slightly moving his body in a rhythm. When her hand at last slipped from sight at the bottom, his grip tightened even more as he began to shake himself to and fro, working out the hot, angry energy to force her to stay.
Alessa was only a few steps into the hall when his furious bellow filled the stairwell and followed her as she fled.
Lou remained silent as she drove a distraught, sobbing Alessa to her home. When Alessa had begged her on the phone to come pick her up, Lou had wanted a thousand details, but a terse Alessa had simply snapped at her before apologizing and begging Lou to rescue her. And when she had pulled up to the curb, Alessa had emerged from a shadow along one of the exterior walls, jumped in without a word and promptly burst into tears.
Lou understood enough of Denny to assume he hadn’t done something horrendous, but she knew her friend’s distress was monumental. By the time they had pulled up into Alessa’s drive, she was only left with a few last tears, red eyes, and a deflated spirit. Without a word, she went to open the door, but Lou’s hand on her arm stopped her.
“What happened? What did he do?”
Alessa shook her head, but didn’t look back. She took a deep, shaky breath, and when she spoke her voice was hoarse and wet from her crying. “Nothing. Nothing happened.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit answer. I’m not daft, you know. Clearly, you spent the night with the guy, called me from the bathroom begging me to pick you up, and when I do you’re sobbing like a baby. Something happened. Please,” she entreated gently, “Alessa, you can trust me.”
She gave a mournful, throaty chuckle. “He wants me,” she shook her head uncertain, “he wants to be in a relationship. But I can’t. I turned him down.”
“But you didn’t want to,” Lou supplied knowingly. “You like him. A lot.” Alessa paused and then nodded. “Then why?”
She shook her head again and looked down at the rhinestones on her gown. “I don’t know,” she said in a voice breaking in despair. “That’s not true,” she amended and then sniffed her running nose. “I know why. I just don’t want to admit it.”
Lou frowned. “Why?” she prodded gently.
Alessa sighed. “Because, it’s the same reason he gave. And if he was right about that, then he was right about what it means if I don’t give him a chance.”
Lou paused too long in thinking about her answer, and Alessa seized it to stand up out of the car, throwing a, “Thank you for picking me up. See you tomorrow,” at her and then speed walking to her apartment.
Lou watched her friend ascend the stairs, and then, sighing, she turned her head to back out of the drive.
Alessa was wrapped only in her bath towel as she hit ‘send’ on the text for her sister. She had gotten out of the shower to see that Octo had sent her six texts begging to hear about last night. Alessa had replied about what she saw and the various events that had occurred, and left out anything mentioning Denny. Even thinking about him made her stomach churn.
She fell onto her bed, her long limbs sprawled out, half hanging off the corner, groaning with the thought of facing him in the office the following day. The phone was still in her hand when it rang. Thinking it must have been Octo calling to talk, Alessa answered without looking at the caller i.d.
“Hello, is this Miss Allen?”
She recognized the Queens accent immediately. She sprang up into sitting, startled and excited. “Yes, this is she.”
“Miss Allen, this is Mr. Schecter. How are you today?”
Alessa’s heart beat rapidly though she tried to stay cool. “I am very well, Mr. Schecter. How can I help you?”
“I was hoping, if you weren’t busy this afternoon, you would join me at my home for a late lunch. Shall we say one?”
“Yes, of course, sir. I would be honored,” she accepted with an awed expression. Schecter gave her his address and instructed her to come around back to the veranda. Alessa sat on the edge of her bed frozen, her mind momentarily free of the weight of Denton Ashbury.
With giddy excitement, she got ready, drying her hair and fixing it to fall in gorgeous waves. She kept her makeup minimal, but with a slight edge to make her eyes stunning. She donned a simple heather gray dress and a cranberry cardigan over it. She wore her favorite nude heels and finished her casual, but professional look with pearl earrings her grandmother had given her when she graduated high school.
Alessa perfectly judged the distance to the home that was just up the hill from China Beach and came to a stop in front of the address he had given her with three minutes to spare. The house was set back from the street, and, given the several different levels of the red tiled roof, she could tell that it was most likely built into the cliff overlooking the ocean below, with various split levels to accommodate the topography of the land. Its Spanish Mediterranean style was evident in the soft vanilla stucco of both the exterior of the home and the tall wall surrounding the property.
She found the wrought iron gate in the wall he had instructed her to use, and stepped inside a hidden, lush world of exotic wonder. The trees were native to that northern California area, and were tall enough to form a sort of organic cathedral ceiling, dappling the ground in cool shade. The abundant and beautiful vegetation was evidence that either a master gardener lived there or was paid handsomely to come tend to it. She heard the melodious wind chime before she spotted it hanging from a branch, swaying in the gentle afternoon breeze.
After absorbing the enchantment of it all, Alessa followed the pebbled walkway that would lead her down the path to the other side of the house. As she made her way down the clever stairway, she heard the sound of waves far off and breathed deep the ocean air. And then she emerged from the cool shadow of the canopy of trees and stepped into a clear, sunny expanse. The echeloned back yard was green and structured by retaining walls made of a similar hued stone as the stucco.
“Ms. Allen, hello!” the familiar voice called to her from behind sheer fabric that hung like a thin veil from the roof of the veranda. It blew in the gentle breeze as Schecter waved her over. He was dressed less formally than the previous evening, though he sported a bowtie and white, button-up shirt. As she ascended the steps up to the elegant porch, she saw a table laid out with a scrumptious looking brunch.
He ushered her in, inquiring if she had found the place easily enough and if she had recovered from the party the night before. He pulled a chair for her and then went to the door into the house. “Lorraine!” he called, and then a moment later a woman, probably in her late sixties, appeared carrying a crystal pitcher filled with something that looked like mimosa.
Mr. Schecter introduce her as his beautiful wife, to which the older lady chuckled skeptically, but still presented her cheek when he leaned in for a kiss. Alessa was mildly nervous, eating a private meal with the head of her firm and his wife, uncertain as to what had merited this special treat. But her nerves fell away as the conversation and company were equally convivial and pleasing. Gone were previous night’s demand for performance, and instead an ease and sense of kinship permeated her time there. The older couple was clearly very much in love, and their open displays of affection created a niggling under Alessa’s ribs.
When a pleasant hour and half had quickly passed, Lorraine got up to clear the table. And though Alessa offered to help, she was turned away and left to continue conversing with Mr. Schecter. There was some small talk about her current caseload until at last Alessa broached the subject that had plagued her from the moment of his invitation.
“Mr. Schecter, it has been a real pleasure visiting with you and your wife this afternoon. But, I must confess, I’d like to know what prompted you to call me?” she questioned honestly.
He chuckled at her straight-forward curiosity. “I have a beautiful garden. One thing in Queens I didn’t have growing up was a garden. Worked hard in a stuffy office most of my life, so when I came out here, I worked hard to make it a paradise. Hired a Chinaman who didn’t speak a lick of English, he still doesn’t, but somehow we managed. Come, let me show you my garden,” he offered, standing up and holding his hand out in invitation.
Itching for an answer to her question, now made more mysterious by his apparent dodging, Alessa pursed her lips thoughtfully as she stood and allowed him to guide her from the covered terrace. He led her through the rose garden that covered two levels of the tiered property. He pointed out some of the rarer and more valuable bushes, as well his personal favorites that had nothing to do with how others valued them. Some smelled divine while others were merely pretty.
“Ms. Allen, I asked you hear today because I had something personal to discuss with you,” he began nonchalantly as he stood over one rose bush, pinching off the dead heads.
She swallowed and focused on maintain the same casualness he displayed. “Really? And what is that?”
“I’ve been watching you for some time. And I’ll admit, you’re quite captivating,” he answered honestly, still preoccupied with the plant before him.
“And how exactly am I captivating?” she questioned, uncertain where the conversation was leading.
“Well, you are bright and dazzling. Hard working and beautiful,” he listed. “Ms. Allen, I’d like for you to meet my son David,” he stated bluntly, straightening himself up from the plant to look her squarely in the eyes.
It took her a moment to process his request. And then a thousand things hit her at once. “Mr. Schecter,” she said slowly, with uncertainty in her voice and eyes though her posture had become stiff, “is it appropriate for you to ask me that? Wouldn’t the security of my job put me under duress to agree even if I didn’t want to?”
Mr. Schecter only laughed at the question and turned to continue slowly down the path. He gave a thoughtful smile as he looked off the property and across the Golden Gate Strait to the land on the other side that was visible on that clear afternoon. “Ms. Allen, I’m not so modest as to think you don’t know anything about my career, so I’m sure you are aware that I don’t prevaricate to get what I want. I’m sure it must seem a little unethical for me to approach you like this, and maybe it is. But I’m a husband and father first, a lawyer second, and I’ll fight for them to get them the best.”
She trailed behind him slowly, her admiration slowly fading in wary light. “You see, my parents were immigrants fleeing Poland, so when they came to Queens, they had nothing. I grew up poor. So poor. The sort of poverty that makes a man hungry deep in the gut. A hunger that never goes away.
“It drove me to work myself endlessly. I slaved not only in school, but had a night job, saving money for college. I never stopped, my life spent just digging after that success. I was so afraid of being poor like that again. I became ruthless, heartless. I’d do anything to win, and it earned me advancement. I left my humanity back in Queens when I came out here at thirty-five to be a senior partner. I’d been here in San Francisco about ten years, an old bachelor by then,” he chuckled, his raspy voice filling the sound with genuine mirth. “But I met this beautiful woman who made me stop in my tracks. She made my heart stop beating.” He clutched his hand to his chest as he smiled like a happy drunk.
“She changed me, Ms. Allen. She made me desire more than just my successful career. She made me want life, all of it, and made the life I had worth living,” he gushed. “She restored my humanity. So, I did what I had to do to woo her. But the wooing is the easy part. It’s the keeping that’s the hard part. But because I consider myself blessed every day of my life to have someone who makes me whole, I have worked harder at keeping her love than anything else in my life. More than this garden. More than my career. I’d give it all away in a heartbeat.”
They were still ambling slowly down the path, making their way back to the gate in the wall at the perimeter of the property. They stood covered by the speckled shadows of the leaves overhead when he stopped and turned to her.
“And that’s why I’d fight for them, a hundred miles more than any of my clients. So you see, it may be a little unethical, at the very least a little unorthodox, for me to ask you to consider dating my son, but I can’t help it. It’s who I am.
“But, rest assured, you have nothing to fear from me. No reprisal should you choose to decline. It was merely a happy thought I had. My son David hasn’t dated anyone since his divorce almost five years ago. I love my son, Ms. Allen. I want him to be happy. And it would warm my old days to see my son find something wonderful like I have found. Someone to make him whole. Someone special like you.” He was smiling gently at her, no questionable intent in his shining brown eyes, only sweet sincerity and unabashed optimism.
Alessa felt her face warm and her heart beat in the ardor of his hope. The acid wash was back, coating her stomach in discomfort. She faked a gracious smile, hiding all that was crumbling inside. “Thank you, Mr. Schecter, for your interest. I am very honored, very flattered. I’m certain your son is a wonderful man, if he’s anything like you. However, I’m not available to date your son.”
He gave a chuckling half-smile. “Not available or not interested?”
She took a deep breath. “I honestly couldn’t say interested or not as I haven’t met him, but as it is, I’m not available. But thank you for considering me worthy enough for him.”
He smiled and gave a shrug. “One can always shoot for the stars. Well, Ms. Allen, if you ever become available, let me know and I’d be more than happy to introduce the two of you. Until then, that man of yours is a very lucky chap.” He opened the gate to let her out. They said their goodbyes until at last she walked away, buzzing.
She sat in her car for untold minutes, her eyes staring ahead, unseeing. And then she turned a guarded gaze to her phone. Her mind was too preoccupied to notice the thumbnail she slid between her teeth to chew it as she searched her contacts list. And then she punched his name.
It rang twice before he answered.
“Denny? I think we should talk.”