Category Archives: Chapter 06

Chapter Six

CHAPTER SIX

It was a little after one the following afternoon when Denny pulled up to the address Alessa directed him to. On the corner lot sat a dilapidated convenience store with boarded up windows and black graffiti scrawled irreverently across the faded blue store front.

“This is supposed to be a historical building? It was probably built in the seventies.”

Alessa looked back down at the open folder in her lap. “This is the correct address. Property description states it’s a turn-of-the-century building. Two-story. Priced at two-point-four.”

“Million? Turn of this century? Is one of the stories underground?” Denny asked disbelieving. “Come on,” he said at last, opening his door and getting out. Denny pulled out his phone and started snapping pictures, getting angles that included the street signs and surrounding buildings. He heard Alessa talking on the phone and could tell by her questions that she had dialed the development company on the sign announcing plans to build something else.

“Okay, great. Thanks for the info,” she spoke into her phone. She came to stand next to him as he peered between the boards on the windows. “Spoke with one of the managers at the development company. Plans are to make this into three commercial units. One an eatery, one a health food store. Said he didn’t know what the third one was. Thought maybe it hadn’t been settled yet.”

“Did he say how long ago the property was bought? Or when development would start?”

“Only that this building was to be torn down by the end of the month. They were still working on construction permits from city hall.”

“Well, I think we’ve seen all we can at this one. Let’s go to the next property,” he suggested, turning back to his car.

Alessa slid back in, again thinking about how luxurious the leather felt against her skin. Denny’s Audi sedan had been a surprise when he’d led her down into the garage and hit the unarm button on his key fob, the gray car’s lights flashing. She had assumed a flashy lawyer would have an obnoxious sports car. But there was nothing flashy about his. It was elegant and understated, and purred like a fat cat that just drank all its milk. She tried to tell herself to not fall in love with him simply because she liked his car, but it was hard to do.

Scolding herself, she flipped to the next file and punched the address into her phone’s GPS. For the rest of the afternoon they went from one property to another, and at each one discovered that no buildings were being renovated. They were all in various stages of redevelopment: at a few lots, dilapidated buildings stood, ready to be demolished; one old house was being razed; one had undergone fire and had yellow tape around it; two were vacant lots; and two others had new buildings going up. Denny was muttering to himself when he told her to get back into the car.

It was twenty minutes before they pulled up in front of the last property. A structure, outlined in a red steel frame was being erected. Construction fencing closed off the lot as there were several work vehicles parked around the building with workers in white hats busy welding, moving, talking.

“And what is this supposed to be?” Denny asked.

“A Jewish Temple. This is one of the older projects,” she commented as she looked at the notes.

“Obviously,” Denny muttered, scanning all that was going on. “What was the date on the burnt building we saw, and the vacant lot you went by?”

After looking back through her files, she scanned for the information. “A payment was made…three weeks ago for the burnt building and the vacant lot was just over two months ago.” She looked up to see his eyes calculating. “What are you thinking?” Just then her stomach growled. Denny’s face lightened.

“Tell you what, you’ve done an excellent job. Let me treat you to dinner; and I’ll share what I’m thinking,” he offered, no smile, but a playful glint in his eyes.

Alessa’s mouth was open to decline, but he cut her off. “Come on. Just dinner. Plus,” he said, his eyes turning back to her mouth, “we still need to talk.”

At his reminder of the growing complications of their relationship, Alessa groaned and looked back out the windshield. “Denny, there isn’t anything to talk about.”

“I don’t believe that.” He studied her a minute. “And neither do you. I’m not propositioning you, but we need to have a conversation. No arguments. Agreed?” he asked firmly, starting the engine. With something of a pout, Alessa nodded her head, but didn’t look back at him. When they were on the road, Denny called ahead to have his usual table ready for him, though she had no idea where he was taking her.

Then, fifteen minutes into their drive back, Alessa’s phone chimed. She pulled it free and read the text she had received. When Denny heard her sigh, he looked over and asked if everything was alright. She merely shook her head, not necessarily in answer, but simply indicating that she had something to deal with. She was dialing her phone and then waiting for the other person to answer.

“Hi, Shelly, it’s Alessa. Hey, listen, Cadence just texted me that she can’t spend the day with me tomorrow.” She listened for a moment, and Denny could tell by her repositioning herself, and the small noise she made she wasn’t happy with whatever was being said. Eventually she spoke again. “No, I understand, it’s just I think Cadence is disappointed. We’ve been looking forward to hanging out—no, of course I’m sure she wants to spend time with Gram, it’s only—no, I understand. Yeah, that’s fine.” And she hung up, a large and resentful sigh filling the air.

“Something wrong?” Denny nosed in.

Alessa only half shook her head. “It’s just my stepmom,” she said in a large sigh, and held up the phone as if the device carried the guilt of connecting her with others. “Cadence, my sister I told you about, well we were supposed to spend tomorrow together. She was going to spend the night. I was hoping I’d have her along to help me pick out a dress for that fundraiser Lou told me about. My sister has pretty good taste. Anyway, her mom said Gram—that’s Shelly’s mom—is insisting on taking Cadence out of town on a little mini vacation for the weekend.”

Denny could hear the resentment in her voice, the disappointment and anger. “I’m sorry. That sounds like a very disappointing situation.” He was silent after he offered her his condolences before deciding to breach the tension. “You sound as though you’re used to this sort of thing.”

Alessa gave a cold, cynical chuckle. “Funny, right? I have to be the most responsible adult I know—”

“Agreed.”

“And yet, I’m treated…but I really shouldn’t be surprised. It’s been like that from day one.” She stopped her explanation and looked angrily out the window.

Denny wanted to touch her, to rub her arm or pull her into an embrace. His chest was beginning to ache with his inability to console her.

She spoke eventually. “Well, she’ll only be their responsibility another four years and then off to college. If it’s somewhere local maybe she can visit me more often,” she stated, hoping she wasn’t setting herself up for continued disappointment.

They didn’t speak much after that, and almost an hour later they reached their destination. At first, Alessa assumed he was taking her to the office as they drove by their building, but he kept driving a few more blocks. After finding a parking spot, Denny held out his arm to her, indicating she was to start walking.

“Where are we going?”

“Bix. Ever been?”

Alessa shook her head.

“Well, they have the best oysters,” he sighed with a smile.

“Oysters?” Alessa asked with a small amount of trepidation.

“You’ve never had oysters?”

She frowned and shook her head.

He guided her down a wide alley. “How are you with sushi? I mean real sushi, not that cream cheese and fried shrimp stuff. Raw fish. You like it?” When she nodded, he said, “Well, then oysters won’t be too far of a leap. They certainly have a more intense flavor than tuna or salmon, you can tell they came from the sea. But I wouldn’t say they’re gross.”

He opened the door in the brick wall, and Alessa was momentarily taken aback by the restaurant teeming with life. He guided her to the hostess who seemed to know him. When he mentioned he had called earlier, she said, “Of course, Mr. Ashbury. We have your booth ready for you,” and with that she led them through the restaurant and up the stairs. Alessa was scanning all about her, enjoying what she saw. Sure enough, the hostess led them to the very last booth on the upper balcony, tucked away in the corner and as intimate as could be.

She could feel her anxiety rising, but calmed herself by reaffirming she wouldn’t tell him anything, she wouldn’t give anything away, and that she would masterfully steer the conversation to their case and deny anything else. She slid in, and when Denny slid in next to her, she readjusted her position to put a small amount of space between them.

When they were alone Denny spoke. “I know it may sound extremely misogynistic, but would you allow me to order for you? It’s only, there are a few things I’d like for you to try,” he explained.

Alessa didn’t know if she should interpret his request as sexist or thoughtful, and didn’t know if she should feel wary or flattered. But he seemed sincere enough and so she relented. After all, if he was treating her to dinner at his home, he would pick the menu there, so she chose to not be difficult. Then she thought of a compromise. “Could you give me your suggestions?”

Denny’s concerned expression broke into a gentle smile. He seemed to understand her dilemma. “Sure, I’d love to. First, as I said,” he began, pulling open their menus, “I think we should do oysters on the half shell. When our server comes, we’ll ask what they have tonight. Now, what would you like to try? The caviar on the potato pillows or the steak tartare? Both are excellent.”

Alessa read the description of both. “Raw beef?” she asked, slightly disgusted by the sound.

“Sweetheart, trust me, you can eat anything raw,” he stated, and then gave her a sideways glance before looking back at his menu. “You should try it. It’s my philosophy you should try anything you’re afraid of.”

Just then their waiter, who introduced himself as Mike approached. After greeting them, he asked what they would like to drink. Denny ordered glasses of the Sauvignon Blanc for the both of them, telling her it paired well with the oysters, and then made a recommendation for a few of the cocktails. He smiled when he heard her say she wasn’t really a drinker, but would try Denny’s first suggestion. The waiter left them to return to their conversation.

Alessa agreed to the try the steak tartare and then they looked over the main courses. Denny stated he wanted steak with the truffle fries.

“Don’t you worry about a heart attack?” Alessa muttered, to which he chuckled.

“Trust me, I have excellent cardiovascular health,” and smiled as if he knew some joke she did not.

After studying the menu, she at last decided on the chicken. Denny looked down at the menu, and then smiling and rolling his eyes, he leaned over to whisper in her ear, “It’s okay, you don’t have to get the cheapest thing on the menu. I can give you whatever you want.”

Alessa was stunned into immobility, his warm breath and sexy voice too intimate for her to ignore. Denny pulled away to look at her, aware of his effect on her. But before either could say anything, their waiter had returned with their drinks.

Denny ordered their starters and his main course, but gave her an indulging nod to allow her to order for herself. With a shaky voice, Alessa ordered the duck and creamed spinach. The waiter nodded, took their menus, and left them alone once more.

He watched her pick up her cocktail, her hand as trembling as her voice had been, and take a long gulp of it. “So no men?” he asked casually.

“Huh?” she asked, looking up with a confused frown.

“You’re not dating anyone, not in a relationship with anyone,” he clarified, also tasting his cocktail.

Alessa was silent, uncomfortable at the information he was keen on extracting. She studied her hands, feeling the edges of her nails for snags. “What is there to say?” she resigned at last. “I don’t date,” she stated, punctuating each word. “I don’t date so there isn’t anything to talk about.” She hoped her explanation would be the end of the discussion.

Denny was quiet only a second. “And why don’t you date?” he prodded gently. When she sighed, he continued. “It can’t be because men haven’t asked. Caplin’s evidence enough of that,” he remarked drily, “so that must mean that when they do, you turn them down. Why?”

She gave an exasperated sigh. “Because I have better things to do with my time. I’m busy, you know? I work nearly sixteen hours and usually most of Saturday. There is no time for someone. And before this job there was school. You don’t make it through undergrad in three years if you frivolously waste your time dating. And you don’t get early admission into one of the best schools if you’re lazy in high school. I’ve been busy working hard to be successful.”

“So does that mean you’ve never dated? Never had a boyfriend?”

Her look indicated she really didn’t want to talk about this, that she was annoyed with his persistence, but she answered anyway. “Yeah, I’ve had a boyfriend before.”

“A boyfriend? As in one?”

Alessa took in a deep breath and held it in apprehension. She knew she couldn’t keep from answering, knowing he’d strip the details from both experiences, so she decided to misdirect with the half-truth. “Kinda. Sorta. Yeah,” she equivocated, squirming uncomfortably.

Denny’s head cocked. “And just when did you date this one, lucky man?”

She felt some relief that he was following her line of answers. “He wasn’t a man,” she mumbled, taking another sip of her drink, but Denny heard her and for a split second thought she was about to say it was a woman, but she continued. “He was only sixteen, and I wouldn’t qualify him by calling him a man,” she clarified.

Denny was stunned.

“You’ve only had one boyfriend in your life, and it was in high school? At least, I’m assuming you were sixteen also, when you dated him.”

“Of course I was in high school. But I was fifteen. I’d had boyfriends in middle school, even in the fourth grade, but, you know what childhood dating,” she said with air quotes, “is like. They last a week and you just sit by each other at lunch. Anyway, I’ve answered your questions. Can we just drop this now?”

Denny was considering what she had said when their waiter brought their starters. Despite the growing intensity and shocking revelations of their conversation, Denny couldn’t contain his smile when he saw the oysters. For the moment, he allowed the conversation to be put on hold.

“Okay,” he instructed, “you have your various condiments—this one is my favorite, but they’re all good. You can have lemon, tobacco, whatever, but don’t try to bury the oyster’s flavor. I mean, you’re eating it so you should taste it. That’s why I like this one. It just brightens everything. Talk about bite. Now, take your fork, that’s right,” he coached, his voice matching his intent, watchful eyes, “now, open your mouth, place it on your tongue, and just hold it. Let it burst. That’s right,” he murmured and then smiled at the explosion of pleasure on her face as she tasted her first oyster. He even heard her little moan.

“Good girl,” his voice still low. “Oops, got some on your lip,” and with a free hand he reached up and slowly wiped her wetted lip, and then put his thumb in his mouth to suck off the moisture he had captured. Alessa’s body contracted when he gave a moan she more felt than heard. “I was right, wasn’t I?” he asked, noticing her blush.

Alessa nodded, her eyes flittering to him. “Yes, very,” she breathed when she swallowed.

“Now, try the Sauvignon Blanc. Tell me it’s good.”

Again, Alessa did as instructed and again agreed with his selection. Next he showed her how to eat the steak tartare, which she relented was good as well.

“Now, back to our discussion.”

“Denny,” she whined, “I really don’t want to talk about myself. Besides, I’ve answered all your questions.”

“No, you’ve merely made the topic vastly more interesting than I had ever imagined. Now I have ten times as many questions.”

“This isn’t fair. Why don’t you have to answer any questions?”

Denny smiled and ate another oyster. “Ask away. I’ll answer anything you want.”

“Really?” she asked, surprised. For a moment she was stumped but then begrudgingly admitted to herself she actually would like to know more about him. “No ring,” she observed, “so…girlfriend?”

“Nope.”

“Boyfriend?”

He chuckled and slowly shook his head.

“Divorced?” Again, another shake of his head.

“Well, why not?”

“You have to get married before you can get divorced,” he returned with cheek.

She narrowed her eyes in annoyance. “Why don’t you have a girlfriend? Why haven’t you gotten married?”

“Relationships, good ones at least, require work, and so far I’ve been pretty dedicated to my job.”

“So you’ve never dated?” she asked, mocking what he had said earlier.

Denny kept smiling as he stretched and leaned back further. “Well, I meet women, we…do what I need,” he stated delicately, “and we move on.”

“Do what you need?” she repeated with mild disdain.

Denny laughed. “Yeah. Sex. We have sex. There, is that phrasing more palatable to you?”

“I didn’t disapprove of your wording, merely the behavior you were describing.”

“What? Don’t like sex?” his eyes glinting with mirth and a dark dare.

Her mouth tightened before she skirted around the issue. “Isn’t sleeping around dangerous? Aren’t you afraid of catching diseases?”

Denny was slowly beginning to sober as he was piecing together what she was inadvertently saying. “Protection. It’s an easy habit. Plus, it’s not as if I sleep with a new woman every night. I wouldn’t describe myself as a man-whore.”

There was a pause when she had nothing more to say, nothing more she wanted to know. Denny’s gaze was becoming more intense, and he was staring at her, as if to compel her to reveal herself.

“Alessa,” Denny spoke calmly, drawing her wary eyes to him. “If you don’t sleep around, but you haven’t been in a relationship since high school, I’m led to come to two possible conclusions. Either a. you haven’t had sex since high school or b. you haven’t had sex at all. Which is it?”

Alessa opened her mouth in exasperation and made to answer several times, but each time stopping short of producing a sound. Denny could see the answer building up behind her lips as she shook her head as if speaking only in her mind. “Fine,” she gasped at last, making a gesture with her hands, “fine, I had sex in high school. It was awful, and I never wanted to do it again and so I didn’t,” she admitted and then finished off her cocktail. She could feel the effects of the alcohol and felt her cheeks warm. For once, she was thankful her pink cheeks weren’t because Denny was making her blush.

Denny studied her, his body half turned to her with his arm over the back of the plush booth. “Why awful?”

But pink cheeks weren’t the only thing the alcohol affected. Suddenly, she didn’t care if he knew, in fact, a little part of her wanted to be free of her secret. “I thought we were in love. All of our friends were doing it, even though I was just a freshman. I just wanted him to love me. And I thought it would be good, you know? I had all these feelings, I wanted him to touch me. I wanted to feel good, to have all his promises. But when it actually happened, I don’t know. It hurt. It was awkward. It was embarrassing. It was kind of gross. And the moment he was in, it stopped. All the sexual feelings I was having just stopped. He came before the pain even went away. Less than a minute,” she concluded morosely.

She took her wine glass and slowly twirled it back and forth, watching the last of the liquid remain motionless even though glass moved about it.

“It was one of the most devastating disappointments in my life,” she admitted with definite regret in her voice. “A week later he talked me into letting him try again, promising he would make sure I had an orgasm,” she laughed morosely. “But it was just as boring the second time. Either there was something wrong with me or the entire mystique about sex had been grossly exaggerated. Maybe it’s great for the guy, but for the woman? Waste of freaking time.” She downed the last of her wine and looked to the stairs, eager for the waiter to come back so she could order another.

“Alessa,” Denny began, but she cut him off.

“No, don’t try to change my experience for me or try to convince me I had somehow missed something that was there, because I didn’t. Besides, I dumped him the next day, was miserable for about a month while he spread rumors of me being a cold fish, threw myself into school, and never looked back. I was just thankful I’d figured it out before wasting my life chasing after something that didn’t exist.” A memory fluttered in her mind, but she managed to shove it aside, lock it away to keep up her resolve.

Alessa was relieved when the waiter brought their food. She ordered another drink, as did Denny, and dug in to her duck. The new distraction of their food allowed Denny time to contemplate everything she had thus far shared. Intuitively, he realized there was a disconnect in what she claimed and yet what she did, and eventually he began to wonder about her old penchant for writing erotica and why she ever stopped. But in order to discover the cause, he would have to confess to her his own marred past. And so, when he had made a considerable dent in his food, he braved what he had been holding back since she first walked into his office so many weeks ago.

“When you came for your interview, didn’t it feel as though we had met before?”

Alessa’s eyebrows drew down in suspicion. “Actually, yeah, it kind of did,” she cautiously agreed.

Denny’s mouth was tight for a moment before he took a deep breath and continued. “The first time you probably didn’t notice me. It was when you took those classes at Stanford. I was in your poli-sci class.” He gave a begrudging, half smile. “I was impressed by how intelligent you seemed, by your answers and your drive to impress the professor. And I thought you were cute then,” he admitted, a quick glance up at her before looking back down at his steak.

Alessa blushed, and though she didn’t want to, she couldn’t keep from smiling. “You did?”

“Yeah, but you were just a teenager so I didn’t bother.”

“Oh.” When he remained silent she asked him about the second time.

“What if I told you I have a history of acting like a jerk to you?”

She frowned. “I’m not sure I follow. When else have we met?”

Again he was silent, each step of his confession required a monumental reaffirming of his desire to be completely honest. “Do you ever play trivia?” he asked in a new direction of questioning.

Again she looked puzzled. “You mean like Trivial Pursuit, the game?”

He shook his head and downed his drink. “No, like trivia, quiz bowls, at pubs and stuff.” His eyes lifted to hers.

Denny could feel the immediate change in her, her body stiffening and her expression taut, and his gut tightened. She spoke slowly, cautiously. “Not really. Not for a long time. I played a couple of times with a group of girls I was acquainted with back in college.” They were both silent a moment before she spoke again. “Are you saying we met one of the times I was there playing?”

Denny slowly nodded.

Her expression screwed up in even more discomfort. “And you’re saying we interacted and you were a jerk?” she clarified, not wanting to believe her suspicions.

Again he nodded.

“The alley,” she breathed.

He gave one, single, solitary nod.

She was silent while she processed all the implications of his wordless confession. Denny watched in near anguish as a myriad of emotions passed across her expressive face. He saw shock, despair, anger, fear, and then guarded calculation. When she at last spoke, he began carefully rebuilding his bridge to her.

“Why are you telling me this now?”

He was thankful that she didn’t slap him or demand he get away from her, and to him, that was a welcome sign. “What I did was wrong, believe me, I regret it fully. I had too much to drink, and your team…well, they annoyed the shit out of me and I just wanted to punish the lot of you for winning. And you, you were just this aloof, unattainable ice princess and you didn’t even care you were single handedly beating us, beating me. And then I figured you must be cheating, you know, looking on your phone for answers.”

Alessa groaned at the mention of her phone, doubtless remembering when he had taken it from her. She put her forehead in her hand. “Denny, I really don’t want to talk about this.”

“Too bad, because this is exactly what we’re talking about,” he said firmly, scooting closer so they were touching, his arm still on the back of the booth. “I don’t get it. I checked you out. Checked your stories out,” he admitted, confirming her deepest fear. “Not only are you a good writer, but you were writing erotica. Fucking-hot erotica. How can you say you aren’t interested in sex when clearly you are. Or at least were.”

Alessa looked up at him, her angry eyes spearing him. She didn’t pay any mind to the fact she was practically nestled into his side. “That’s right. I was until I was nearly attacked in an alley and scared out of my friggin’ mind.”

Denny was quiet a moment. “Really? You stopped writing because of me?”

“What do you expect? You come out of nowhere in the middle of a dark alley to verbally abuse me, libel me, falsely accuse me of cheating, and then you steal my phone and discover my mortifying secret. Yeah, how the fuck do you think I felt?” she whispered harshly, her eyes shifting down the way to other booths to make sure no one overheard their conversation. “I couldn’t keep writing after that.”

“What do you mean?”

She gave an exasperated sigh and stared angrily across the table to the half wall partitioning them from the restaurant. “Did you read those stories?”

“Of course. How could I not? They were very good.”

“Did you notice what they were about? What their theme was?”

“You mean sex?”

“No, you idiot.”

“Oh, you mean the fact that they were about rape sort of stuff?”

“It’s called non-consensual,” she corrected. “Growing up in high school, in college, I thought that’s what I liked, that’s what turned me on. But when it almost happened, it made me sick. When I got home that night, I puked and couldn’t stop crying because I was so scared. I couldn’t sit at my computer and write any more of those stories. It just wasn’t the same. The only thing that was left after that night was nausea. It wasn’t a fantasy anymore; it was real. And I realized real life isn’t as good as fantasy sex. It’s a lie we build up because we need something, but it never does it for us. And so, after that, my lingering desires for sex effectively died. Real life is awful,” she surmised bleakly.

“Alessa, sweetheart,” Denny said, his heart breaking at what he had done. “It isn’t awful.”

“That’s what you think,” she intoned drily, and turned to finish off the second cocktail the waiter had brought her.

“Sweetheart, listen, sex can be uh-mazing. Now maybe you don’t turn into a crazed, sex maniac, but it’s about the best feeling, and not just the orgasm…all of it: connecting with someone, touching someone, having them touch you. Sex is the ultimate pleasure.”

“That’s a complete lie,” she refused to believe.

“If sex is such a lie, why the stories at all?”

The alcohol was coursing through her like a truth serum, but even that truth was too painful to admit to, too confusing and full of despair, and so, despite the pull to confess everything, she kept it back and instead glossed over it, giving more half-truths and general lamentations. Alessa’s expression was dismal as she looked into her empty glass.

“I tried to leave it alone. When I broke up with him, I did nothing but study. I thought I could get past it. But those urges wouldn’t leave, not when I was silent and still. So I turned to erotic stories. It started with romance novels, but as I got older my need seemed to morph, and I craved stories about, well, you know. And, of course, I put myself into the characters, no matter how much bullshit nonsense it was. It was my therapy, I guess. Living my fantasy from a safe distance. But after you and the alley, I couldn’t believe the lie anymore, that even though it wasn’t real it was just as good. So I stopped writing and just focused on school.” Denny didn’t miss her quiet tears that were rolling unannounced down her pink cheeks.

“Alessa, sweetheart,” he murmured, his arm dropping to nestle around her shoulders and pulling her a few inches closer. The moment his arm was around her, she turned into him so her head rested under his chin. He could feel the small shake of her shoulders though she didn’t make a sound. After a time, Denny lifted his hands to her face, cradling it and brushing away her tears with his thumbs.

He kissed her temple, comfortable and natural. When she raised no objections, he placed another at the side of her cheek, and then under her eye, and down along the side of her nose. His lips stopped just before they touched hers. He was staring at her when her eyes drifted up to his, red with tears dotted on her lashes.

“Alessa,” he whispered again, but she began to pull back, weary from it all.

He watched as she smoothed out her clothes and cleared her throat before reaching for her water glass. He saw the waiter coming and pulled out his wallet before he arrived. “Alessa, would you like any dessert?” he asked, though knew she would decline.

He gave the waiter his card, and the two sat in silence while the waiter took care of their bill. As soon as he returned they stood to leave, and Alessa was grateful Denny was behind her as she swayed on her feet. “I guess I don’t typically drink so much,” she mumbled in defense when his two hands landed on either of her hips to steady her.

Denny then took her by the hand and led her down the stairs, ready to grab her if needed. But Alessa made it to the door without incident. When they stepped out into the cool night air, she looked down at their joined hands, and when she lifted her eyes to his, Denny waited for her to pull away. She surprised him when, instead, she turned to head back toward the car, their hands still clasped.

Denny was lamenting how all her defenses would fall if only he could kiss her, when they passed a particularly dark section of the path. Suddenly, he had a plan.

“I know you think sex isn’t thrilling, but give me a chance to show you how good it can be. I know I can convince you in two minutes that sex, and all you’ve fantasized about it, isn’t overrated,” he challenged, pulling on the hand he was holding to bring them to a stop in the darkest shadow.

“Two minutes? Talk about premature ejaculation,” she muttered, to which Denny chuckled. “I’m not letting you sleep with me just so you can prove a point,” she replied incredulously.

“Hell, who said anything about sleeping together. Just kissing can be phenomenal. Didn’t you ever make out?”

“A couple of times,” she responded.

“Yeah, but you were just in high school, and if he was as bad as you claim, I bet he didn’t have kissing down either. Let me convince you; just a two minute kiss can change your mind; I know you want to. I know you’re attracted to me just as much as I’m attracted to you. Don’t try to deny it, you’re not a good enough liar. Besides, if you’re right and reality isn’t as good as fantasy, if there is nothing there, then what do you have to worry about?”

She leveled a hard gaze at him. “Okay, you got me. I’m attracted to you. But Denny, that’s where it has to end.”

“Why? Who made all these silly rules that are keeping you bound up? What’s their purpose? Because from what I can tell, you aren’t happy because of them. Not really happy.” He took a step closer. “Come on, Alessa, just one kiss. Let me convince you. Let me show you.” His hands were gentle on her as he pulled her tightly into him. “Just two minutes can change your life.”

“Denny,” Alessa sighed, her heart tearing in two. And though she wanted him to be right, she was just as frightened of that possibility as she was as if he was wrong. For if he was right, where would that leave her?

Holding onto a desire with no promise it would last.

“Just one kiss, Alessa,” he begged softly, his mouth but a whisper away.

She whimpered, caught and miserable, knowing that by the need for that one kiss he pleaded for, it would be her undoing.

One hand was cupping her face, his thumb rubbing over her parting lips. “One kiss.”

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