Category Archives: Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

CHAPTER TEN

“Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love.”
“Dance Me to the End of Love” Leonard Cohen

“And. I. Think. That. Will. Do it,” Lou announced slowly, placing the very last touch to Alessa’s face. “Well, what do you think?” she asked as she allowed her to look at herself in the mirror.

For a moment, Alessa only sat with wide eyes and slightly gaping mouth. “Um…wow,” she finally responded.

“Let me see,” Octo begged, and came round to view her sister who was sitting in the chair at the small table in her over-the-garage apartment. “Oh! Alessa! You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!” she exclaimed, awed by the dramatic look Lou had given her. “Oh, I wish Lou could do my makeup!” she nearly pouted, plopping down adjacent to her sister.

“You don’t wear makeup,” she reminded her sister. “You’re too young and far too pretty to need it.”

Octo raised an eyebrow at that. “I’m not near as pretty as you.”

Alessa laughed out loud, wondering if there was a modest gene that kept people from realizing the extent of their own beauty. “Be that as it may, I think you are pretty and know you will be beautiful. And your flawless skin does not need any makeup.”

Alessa looked back at herself, rubbing her lips together and scrutinizing Lou’s truly talented hand. “I gave you a nude lip so you don’t have to worry about reapplying every ten minutes throughout the night. Plus, with as dramatic as I made your eyes, it would have been too much to give you a bold lip as well,” she explained.

Alessa nodded her head, understanding and agreeing. “I’m quite impressed. Makes me realize how silly it was to think I could have done as good a job with what measly supplies I have,” she admitted, knowing now there was a reason makeup artists had so many utensils and shadows and blushes. For as dramatic as her look was, it didn’t feel or appear heavy. She knew she was beautiful.

She looked back over her hair, making sure nothing had fallen. Lou had taken a thick portion from near the front of her hair and given her a fat Dutch braid, which she then took back loosely with the rest of her hair to wrap up in a slightly messy and easy, heavy knot near the base of her head. Lou explained a simple, mildly deconstructed up do was best with the high collar of her simple gown.

Lou took off the towel she had wrapped around Alessa’s shoulders to keep her silver gown clean during the process and gathered up the last of her supplies. Alessa then offered her a glass of white wine while they waited for her father to pick up Octo and the hired driver to arrive for them.

“Will there be dancing?” Octo asked as they were all seated on Alessa’s two pieces of over-stuffed furniture in the modest sitting area of her loft-style apartment. The gangly teen girl sat on the large, round arm of the small sofa and leaned on her sister, her face pressed gently against Alessa’s hair and her fingers playing fleetingly with her sister’s.

“Sure,” Lou answered. “They hire a great string quartet every year. And people dance and mingle about.”

“Do you eat dinner?”

“Not a full course meal, no. But there’s tons of food passed around by the servers. You just grab what you want. And the best champagne,” Lou said with a dreamy smile. “Or should I say sparkling wine, since Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter uses Farella Vineyard wines exclusively. I think it is part of their agreement in representing the Napa vineyard. And do they make the best sparkling wine money can buy.”

Just then Octo’s phone chimed. She read the text and announced her dad was there. She grabbed her bag and Alessa escorted her to the door. As she gave her a hug, Octo whispered, “Sweep him off his feet so he bids for you. I want to hear about your date. Call me tonight?”

Alessa could only manage an indulging smile, telling herself she was not going to tempt Denton Ashbury to bid for her. “It will be too late tonight. I’ll call you tomorrow.” She kissed her little sister on the cheek.

“Bye Lou!” she called as she left out the door and hopped down the stairs.

Alessa stepped out on the small landing to wave at her father. She saw his hand out the window wave back, and when her sister was settled in the car, he backed out and left.

She hadn’t gone to her senior prom, using the state track meet that took place the same day as an excuse to turn down the few offers she’d had. And though she didn’t have a prom dress, she remembered seeing her father at her meet that day, waiting for him to ask who she was going with, what her dress looked like; would she send him a picture? But he never mentioned it, seemingly oblivious that all of teenagedom was currently absorbed in the single most exciting party experience of their lives. But not her. And because he’d never asked, he’d never known she hadn’t gone.

Alessa finished her white wine, hoping the familiar discontent in her chest would settle like heartburn after a Tums. Not twenty minutes later their driver also arrived, and together the two colleagues-turned-friends settled back and enjoyed the dark drive into the heart of the Financial District.

Every year, Lou explained, the party was held at the Banking Hall at the Bently Reserve. It was a classic space, and as the bank was one of Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter’s most intimate clients, the gala was another example of the very symbiotic relationship in the business world.

Despite the heavy Saturday evening traffic, the driver pulled up relatively timely. The moment Alessa spied all the dazzling lights lining the actual red carpet up the steps of the white-stone building, her stomach dropped and flipped and never seemed to settle. Lou, dressed in a gorgeous and playful lavender dress with yards of gossamer fabric and a neck line plunging nearly to her navel, had her face plastered to the window just like a kid. Tall white columns lined the front of the building, and streaming from them were long red banners announcing the event taking place inside. The entire display was about as much pomp as Alessa thought the occasion could bear.

And much to her immediate discomfort, Alessa noted a slew of photographers lining the red carpet, snapping widely at the many people ascending the stairs. “What are they doing here?” she squeaked, as their car slowed and queued behind a short line of others waiting to unload their passengers.

“The photographers? Alessa, this is one of the events of the season here in San Francisco. Hell, in the nation. This is Omniliance. These parties are legendary. And the crème de la crème are all here. They’re going to raise millions tonight. This is news worthy.”

Alessa tried to breathe out her anxiety, and attempted to convince herself that this was what it was to represent Fortune Five-Hundred corporations. It was a reasonable expectation that she would have to mingle with people who the public at large found to be of entertaining and news-worthy value. And tonight, she was going to fake her way into their ranks.

Eventually, their car stopped and two men stepped forward to open their door. As Lou was sitting next to the door, she was the first to step out, smiling for the snapping photographers. Alessa’s stomach was warning her that she was about to be sick, but she took a deep breath, refusing to fail. And when a hand appeared in the doorway to offer her assistance out, she scooted closer, took it, and stepped one black, satiny foot out onto the pavement.

She was nearly knocked over by the force of the bright lights firing rapidly at her until they all melded into one bright and constant light. She was looking down at the radiant glitter of her dress in the perpetual luminance of the cameras’ flashes. And then she looked up and braved a smile and tried to feign an ignorance of the photographers’ presence, instead focusing on Lou who was posing unabashedly. She took a few steps to join her at the bottom of the steps. Lou encouraged her to look at the photographers and smile, to which she did with a shy smile at first, but before long was smiling widely, unable to keep her embarrassment down. And whenever Alessa was embarrassed, she had a tendency to laugh.

“Okay, I don’t think I can stand anymore,” she whispered through smiling lips and clenched teeth. “I think I’m going to melt under all these lights,” she admitted.

Lou only laughed and, waving to the photographers, led Alessa up the steps to the entrance. In the main lobby of the grand bank was a gallery dedicated to all the projects the Ominliance Charity and Trust was dedicated to managing. Its interests were wide and varied, ranging from women’s rights in Middle East countries, to saving the rainforests in South America, to fighting global poverty, to providing aid to after-school programs in the urban areas. There were people assigned at each charity project booth to give a talk about the importance of their particular endeavor and, of course, to convince the patrons to donate as much as possible to it.

Alessa and Lou made their way through the displays, listening here and there as their interests were piqued. Lou was busy looking for her boyfriend who was supposed to meet her there, as well as any coworkers she’d be interested in talking with, while Alessa furtively kept an eye out for Denny, wondering if he had brought a date, and if he had, what her feelings would be about it.

Eventually, they made their way through the crowd and entered the massive and equally impressive hall where the main festivities were to take place. It was romantically decorated with long, curtaining swaths of endless ethereal fabric. Thousands of candles were placed around on various tables, and along the ceiling, up lighting glowed warmly to make the room feel like a space between heaven and earth, illuminated by an unseen lighting source.

People milled. People laughed. People moved as though part of a larger, swarming organism. The music was moving smoothly in the background just under the consciousness of the party-goers. Alessa and Lou found a group of colleagues who were speaking with some of their clients. The two women fit easily in. At some point, Lou’s boyfriend, Richard, arrived. His suit pants were skinny trousers. He wore a blue bow-tie that had teeny skull and cross bones on it, and his hair looked like it had been cut with a weed whacker and then heavily moussed to lay heavy and flat in a scarecrow mop top. Alessa also noted he had five hoops in one ear and too many in the other to count. She watched them a moment as they kissed and mumbled sexy-nothings to each other.

At last, Lou introduced her to him and the three chatted as a waiter came by to offer the group champagne. They continued speaking until the couple’s drinks were emptied and Richard insisted on pulling Lou out onto the dance floor. He mumbled something about being able to dance, even to dinosaur music.

Alessa was left alone as she watched them get swallowed up by the crowd, and then turned her back and downed the last of her drink.

“Careful there, don’t forget what happened the last time you drank too much,” Denny’s warm voice warned her teasingly.

Alessa spun with wide eyes, surprised at seeing him at last. Her heart gave a hard slam in her chest as she took in how handsome he looked. His black suit was exquisitely cut to his tall and athletic frame. The narrow lapel was in a shinier fabric than the rest, giving just a gleam of sophistication. He wore a black bowtie, that, even though it was crisp and perfect looking, she knew was not merely a clip-on, but had been tied by a skillful hand. And his hair, she noted, looked even more coiffed than was typical, as though he just came from the salon.

“Yes, well,” she breathed, trying to find her voice, “I would argue the amount I drank last time was proportionate to the amount of duress I endured.”

“Funny,” he mused, stepping closer to her so their conversation was more intimate, “I wouldn’t have considered you a coward in need of a little false courage to face any amount of duress,” he said shaking his own champagne flute before finishing it off. Quickly, he placed their glasses on a passing waiter’s tray and took two more. “And to clarify,” he added as he handed her a new glass, “I don’t think you endured anything. As I recall, we had a very pleasant time.”

But Alessa said nothing to his bait as he lifted his new glass to his lips to take a sip, keeping his glittering gaze on her all the while. “I must say,” he continued, “you look absolutely stunning,” he commented, making a point to scrutinize her intently. He loved the simplistic, yet glamorous gown she wore.

The sleeveless gown had a high collar that encircled the base of her neck, highlighting its delicacy, and the fitted torso perfectly accentuated her curves. The bodice of the dark gray, silk chiffon was solidly covered in inch-wide bands of sparkling silver, crystal beads, but as they ran down the torso and continued on down the skirt, the bands began to separate out to create heavy pleats so the silky fabric underneath could be seen. It also seemed, he thought, that though it was silver, it faded here and there into a darker hue to remind him of the Milky Way waving in a magical night sky.

“You are a dream made real,” he breathed poetically, momentarily lost at the difficulty of containing his attraction. Alessa couldn’t help but squirm under his gaze, her body feeling warmed just by the touch of his eyes. At last, Denny regained his senses and took pity on her. “Now, stop looking uncomfortable. I’m about to introduce you to some very important clients, and I want you to do what you do best.”

“And what is that?” she whispered, still burning from the desire and approval radiating from him.

He steered her to a group of distinguished looking people. “Dazzle,” he whispered in her ear, hitching the burn on her skin higher and creating an itch in her belly so deep and novel she struggled to not appear affected.

“Ralph, Gregory. Mrs. Landon, how are you this evening?” Denny schmoozed, taking the gentlemen’s hands and shaking them. “Will you allow me to introduce Alessa Allen, our newest, and I think most promising, associate.” He then went about the group introducing each person to her so she could shake their hands and give some sort of greeting.

“Promising, huh?” Mrs. Landon asked. She was a tall, stoutly woman with large gray hair that was in some puffed style atop her head. Her makeup was severe and her eyebrows were hilariously colored in solid black.

“Absolutely. Not only is she single-handedly leading my latest venture in the Korean market, she recently helped uncover an embezzling scam involving property around the Bay Area.”

“Really? That wouldn’t happen to be old Sloan, would it? I heard talk that he was in trouble for his latest methods of funding his redevelopment projects,” Gregory Lancaster spoke.

“We aren’t at liberty to say just yet,” Alessa answered smiling reluctantly.

“Aw, certainly you can let us in on it, can’t you? Just between friends?”

“Mr. Lancaster,” Alessa said with a smile, “if I were to tell you case-sensitive information, how can I earn your trust that I would keep your own business information confidential and not share it with all my other friends?” Her rebuttal left the older man with a begrudging smile, and the rest of the group chuckled.

“Tell us, Alessa, where did you go to school?” Mrs. Landon.

“Alessa graduated top of her class at Boalt House,” Denny supplied, seeing the cutting calculation in the woman’s eyes.

“Berkeley?” she asked, slightly taken aback.

“Absolutely, I loved it,” Alessa replied coolly, lifting her champagne glass to her mouth and looking around the room.

“Yes, but Berkeley,” the woman kept on puzzled.

“Is an excellent school. It prepared me perfectly for the Bar and to work at Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter.”

Just as Denny was to cut into the conversation, Alessa looked at the woman, as if trying to place her. “You aren’t Joanna Landon of the Landon-Hugh Charitable Trust, are you?” When the woman gave a very dignified, if not slightly smug nod to confirm Alessa’s suspicion, she continued on. “Did your trust not donate nearly two million to build the new wing at the library at Berkeley and stock it with rare anthropological volumes?”

“Yes, that is correct,” the woman smiled proudly.

“Then, I hope, ma’am, if you find Berkeley a worthy enough institution to give it two million of your dollars, you would find it worthy enough to train the lawyers that protect your and your trust’s interests,” Alessa concluded sincerely.

There was silence in the group as they looked at the matron of one of the wealthiest trusts in the state as she coolly dissected Alessa. “I do say, Denny,” she spoke at last, “this one has spunk. I have a feeling, regardless of your education, Ms. Allen, that you will make a fine lawyer with a tongue like that.”

Alessa swallowed while trying to hold onto her mild smile, not certain if she had been praised or chastised. She had a feeling it was a little of both.

Denny spoke up finally, trying to cut the tension by asking one of the men how his new yacht was performing. As the man carried on about it, Denny slipped a hand onto the small of Alessa’s back, meaning to comfort her, to praise her for standing her ground. It occurred to him to wonder how she felt for constantly defending her choice of schools, especially now that he knew she did it for personal reasons, and not for lack of ambition or academic merit.

“And what about you, Miss. Allen, do you enjoy sailing?” Gregory had asked.

Alessa gave a nervous, breathy chuckle. “Heavens, no.”

“Oh, really? And why not?” another one of the men asked.

She looked around the inquiring faces peering expectantly at her. “If I must admit to any weakness, I suppose it would be a fear of the open water. Of drowning.”

Denny narrowed his eyes at her, a wondering smile on his mouth. “I didn’t know that,” he stated.

“Denny, you should take this girl out on your boat and teach her to get over her fear. After all, such a perfect girl can’t be allowed to be afraid of anything,” Ralph, a portly, seventy-something CEO of a retail giant instructed as he smiled flirtatiously at Alessa.

“I’m not certain about that, Mr. Hyght,” she stated. “After all, every great hero has some hamartia. It’s what made all those tragedies so relatable. And as flaws go, I don’t consider not feeling comfortable on the water to be all that bad,” she concluded.

Denny chuckled and then excused them, giving some sort of explanation that he should introduce her to other clients who were lacking in entertainment. As he pulled her away, she stiffened slightly. “Entertainment?” she asked through clenched teeth.

“Absolutely,” he answered her, scanning the crowd. “You probably failed to notice, but most eyes in this room have turned to you more than once. It’s only right that I make sure to show no favoritism among our clients,” he explained as he led her along, keeping his warm and intimate hand on the small of her back.

“You make me sound like a new toy you’re proud to show off. And besides, who appointed you my tour guide?” she continued on in her petulant manner. She was tired of performing and she had been there only thirty minutes.

“I did. After all, you are mine,” he answered unaffectedly.

“What?” she asked sharply, glowering up at him.

“My associate. I hired you, so there is a certain amount of responsibility I have for how you reflect on the firm, not to mention the credit I get for being clever enough to hire you,” he finished with a wide grin. “Now, smile,” he whispered as he steered her to another group of people.

This time, they weren’t all strangers as she saw Jude in a breathtaking satin gown. The golden-beige fabric was draped over one shoulder, leaving the other bare. There were pleats and gatherings at asymmetrical angles making her highly reminiscent of a roman goddess. The only jewelry she wore was a wide, heavy gold band high around her bare arm. Her hair was long in its typical fashion, curling down her back.

She also noted in the group was a short, slightly round man who was balding at the top of his head. The white hair that ran round the perimeter was downy and longer than she would have thought was professional. He had a matching, thick mustache and thick glasses so his eyes appeared larger behind them than they really were. She had seen pictures of him frequently enough round the office to know he was the chairman of the board of Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter LLP.

Mr. Schecter’s pleasant, beguiling appearance belied the daunting fact that the senior partner had been the preeminent negotiation lawyer in the state, and quite possible the country, with candid and sometimes shockingly blunt tactics. He was shorter than she would have imagined, but the moment he spoke, his Queens accent was exactly as she expected. His Jewish heritage was evident in his eyes, his nose, and his voice and made her instantly smile. He was charm itself, and when they were at last introduced, she knew it was love at first sight.

“So you are the very talented Ms. Allen I have been hearing so much about. Ms. Macrae has nothing but the best to say about you.”

Her eyes darted to the tall and svelte Jude who stood with her champagne flute in her hand as though it were a glamourous cigarette holder. A golden eyebrow arched at Alessa, a smile playing just on the other side of her lips.

“I am so very pleased to hear it, Mr. Schecter.”

“And how are you liking working at our firm?”

“Very much. It is exactly as I had hoped for.”

“Finding enough to keep you interested?”

Alessa checked the impulse to look at Denny, knowing he was smirking at the answer that was doubtless at the front of her mind. Yes, she was very interested in what she had found at Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter, but she didn’t think that was the answer the old partner was after.

“Alessa has the best dedication to her case load I have ever seen,” Denny offered chuckling. “Puts the rest of us to shame.”

She barely held back the blush that was just on the inside of her skin, while struggling to ignore him and any unease he caused.

“And are you enjoying your time this evening?” a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair asked. Denny had introduced him as Peter McConnell, a member of the Omniliance board, and a client of her firm.

“It is certainly a gorgeous party, that can’t be argued,” she replied with a smile, hoping some amount of dazzle showed through to give her words credence.

“Any particular charities you are found of?”

Alessa was caught a moment as her brain quickly scrambled to form a suitable answer. After all, she didn’t generally donate to any charities. She wasn’t comfortable with the idea of handing over money to nebulous enterprises where the majority of her contribution went to overhead costs for running the charity, instead of addressing the actual purpose of the charity. But she knew of one that she had given money to in the past and would do so again in the future.

“The Alameda food bank I think is a very well-run institution. With your donated finances, they are able to buy fresh, whole foods and distribute them to populations who don’t have access to healthy food. Unlike other food banks where people simply donate food already bought, most often cans or unhealthy, easy-to-make dinners, this food bank pools the financial resources and can buy vegetables and such at whole-market price. That means the money you donate actually goes further than if you were to just buy some extra cans from your grocery store and donate them. They also run on a large volunteer basis so there is less over-head.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Mr. Schecter. “The poor are important to you?”

She opened her mouth but paused, daring to take a leap. “As cliché as it may sound, there are a lot of hard working people in the world who struggle to make ends-meet. And sometimes, it’s not so much that people are completely destitute despite their hard work, but that in spite of it, they can’t advance; there is no wiggle room to make just a five dollar gain a month. Organizations like the food bank are tools for people to make small steps up in the world.”

“But the poor will always exist,” someone commented.

“True, but so should generosity and the unflinching resolve to ease the lives of those around us,” she countered. “I’m not saying the food bank will end poverty for all time, but it will be a great benefit to some, and who knows what future Einstein or Schweitzer or Salk will have a chance to contribute to the world because they were supported by their community.”

“I hope I am not interrupting,” someone spoke from behind Alessa. She turned and smiled at seeing Hyun-Joong standing there smiling down at her.

“Denny, good to see you,” he greeted smiling at his friend, giving him a firm handshake.

“Hyun-Joong, glad you could make it. You know Mr. Schecter and Jude Macrae,” Denny said before introducing him to the other people standing around. Questions were asked and chit-chat was made, until eventually Hyun-Joong turned his attention down on Alessa.

“Actually, as nice as it is to meet you all, I came over to ask Ms. Allen if she would dance with me,” he said smiling.

Alessa smiled immediately, but then glanced at Denny to see his reaction. His expression was contained, with a mixture of amusement and challenge glittering in his eyes. Though it should have meant nothing, after all, she was attending the party for the very purpose of mingling with clients, she could feel the tension rising in him.

“Yes, thank you Mr. Park, I think a dance is exactly what I need,” she accepted with a smile, and as she placed her hand in his, she turned back to Denny, giving him a look of smiling defiance.

“You were having quite a lively conversation,” Hyun-Joong commented as he pulled her into his arms, leading their bodies to sway in time with the music.

“Yes, and thank you for saving me.”

“Saving you? It sounded as if you were doing quite well for yourself,” he commented, pulling her deep into the swirling crowd.

“Well, exactly. My purpose here is to prove that I belong. It’s all a big test, really, and quite frankly, I needed a break from being so damn clever,” she grumbled, tired of being forced to converse with strangers.

Hyun-Joong threw his head back and gave a shout of laughter. He knew she hadn’t meant to sound like a braggart, but that was exactly how she had come across. His arms tightened around her. “Well, in that case, I promise you don’t have to perform for me. Just be yourself and I’ll be satisfied.” His embrace was firm, and as Alessa looked up into his smiling brown eyes, she felt the light tingle of butterflies.

“Thanks. It means a lot to me. You know,” she said after she had given it some thought, “my firm has selected me to be one of the lucky participants of the date auction later this evening.”

“Actually, I did know,” he answered with a mock-calculating smile.

“You did? But how–“

Hyun-Joong pulled out the pamphlet for the fundraiser. “They have all the dates listed on here with a short bio. And a photo,” he said smiling.

Alessa raised her brows and rolled her eyes. “Of course. I just hope I don’t embarrass myself by not getting any bids.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” he intoned.

“And why not?”

“It seems as though you are to be the headliner.” When she gave him a puzzled look, he explained. “You’re going last. They always save the person they expect to get the most bids for last.”

“Good grief,” she moaned, “I really am nothing more than a show pony, or worse, a freak in a circus,” she mumbled miserably. “Still, it is a little scary to think about, knowing you could so easily be mortified by receiving no bids,” she mused.

“Will you allow me to put your fears at rest? It just so happens when I saw a date with you was being auctioned, I made certain I had seventy-five thousand transferred to my slush fund account.”

“Seventy-five?” she repeated flabbergasted. And then she was horrified. “Oh, Hyun-Joong, you cannot spend that much money on me. It’s too ridiculous. It’s a waste.”

“How is it a waste if the money is simply for charity’s sake? After all,” he murmured, pulling her a little more tightly, “you haven’t exactly promised me a date yet. This could be my only chance.”

Alessa could feel a reaction rising within her body, and was disconcerted at its presence. “Hyun-Joong, tonight’s date is merely for the sake of networking. To socialize and make connections within the business world. It isn’t supposed to be…personal. I wouldn’t want you to spend your money on false hopes.”

“You just smile as we dance, and leave the hopes to me.”

For the remainder of their dance he asked her about her dress, which led into a discussion about her shopping outing with her sister and Lou. When the music stopped, Hyun-Joong looked back to where he had taken her from and debated escorting her to the opposite side of the room.

“Enjoy the dance?” Denny asked from behind them.

They turned to him, Hyun-Joong’s arm slipping from her waist. “Yes, as a matter of fact. Alessa’s a great dancer.”

She gave a nervous chuckle. “I don’t know how I managed that. I really don’t ever dance. Must have been my partner,” she supplied, smiling up at Hyun-Joong.

“I’m sure that’s it. Well, as much as I hate to drag you away from your partner, I should introduce you to other clients,” Denny stated, holding his arm out for her. Despite the mild attraction she had felt towards Hyun-Joong, she didn’t feel threatened by him as she did with Denny, and so she was reluctant to part from the ease in his presence. She smiled at him in as she slipped her hand on Denny’s arm.

“Don’t forget your promise,” she called as she was pulled away.

“You have my word,” Hyun-Joong answered cryptically.

When they were some distance from him, with tens of people in between, Denny asked to what promise she referred. She was tempted to not tell him, to goad him with keeping secrets, but something inside thorned her to tell him. Maybe to let him know she was getting along well with one of his clients. Maybe to make him jealous that someone else valued her. Maybe to hear he wanted to bid for her. Maybe.

“He said he planned on bidding for me.”

Denny was silent.

“He said he was willing to go to seventy-five thousand.” When they were alone against a wall near the draping, sheer curtains that thinly veiled the city lights outside the window, Denny at last looked down at her.

“And you want to go on a date with him?”

“I told him the date for tonight was not the sort of date he was after,” she confided, though she wasn’t certain why.

“And what sort of date is he after?” Denny remained strangely calm.

“He took me to lunch one day. He asked if he could see me again. I told him that he was a client, and it was a tricky road to navigate dating a client.”

“That’s all that held you back?”

She could just discern a tightness to his voice.

“No. That wasn’t all.” She looked up at him, her eyes held by his sharp gaze. And as she blazed in the fire she saw there, all the attraction she had felt towards Hyun-Joong seemed to burn away. “Denny, I–”

But his hard mouth against hers cut off whatever she was going to say. His kiss was angry and she felt heartbroken that though they were kissing, they weren’t connecting. His firm hand on the nape of her neck held her to him until at last he yanked his mouth away to stare into her eyes. But he didn’t explain himself as she had expected. Instead he pulled away, taking her by the hand and mumbling something about leaving her with Macrae.

They wove through the crowd like a needle and thread; Denny was sharp and decisive in his movements, and Alessa trailed numbly behind wherever he led. They at last found Macrae in the midst of several distinguished looking men. They were all laughing at something she had said, but when Denny cut in, her eyes narrowed at Alessa.

“You’ll look after her, won’t you?” was all he said before he turned to leave her there under the supervision of Macrae as though she were a child in need of a babysitter.

Alessa was reeling by his behavior, feelings of mortification, indignation, and heartbreak all swirling wildly in a tangled maelstrom. Macrae put a soft hand on her shoulder, drawing Alessa’s attention back to her surroundings.

“Gentlemen, may I introduce Alessa Allen. She’s one of our new associates. She’s already made quite a name for herself.” Jude took turns introducing the young associate to the rich clients. Mild conversation was made until Macrae excused them.

She looped her arm through Alessa’s and led her to other groups of people mingling. The evening was interspersed with various presentations to highlight the many projects Omniliance was involved in followed by an auction of some category of items to raise money to support it. They auctioned vacation packages, cars, jewelry, paintings, and the affair was to culminate with the date auction.

Alessa felt somewhat brittle after her confrontation with Denny, of whom she hadn’t seen but glimpses here and there since. She spoke with Hyun-Joong again, but the conversation was empty and tense. She was asked to dance several more times, even gracing a very eager and not overly-subtle Josh Caplin with a song, and did her best to fake an interested and charming demeanor, though she assumed she failed miserably.

Denny had officially ruined her evening.

It was nearing eleven when Lou found her in a flurry of excitement. It was time to start the bidding for the dates the excited friend announced. Alessa’s stomach dropped as Lou ushered her to the far end of the room where all the participants were to meet. Even though she knew it was coming, Alessa somehow had managed to place it from her mind. But now that it had arrived, she was suddenly awash with endless doubt and fear and nerves.

The ten employees were split into male and female factions and seated on either side of the small stage that had been erected. One of Macrae’s assistance was there to organize them all according to the order they would appear on stage, and as Alessa took the seat on the end, she scanned the gathering crowd for Denny.

It was some minutes before the auction began, with Jude Macrae and a senior VP from Omniliance performing the small introduction, the niceties of the event explained by the VP and the guidelines for the dates delineated by Macrae. They at last turned the final auction of the evening over to the hands of the distinguished auctioneer who worked at the city’s finest auction house.

The first person up was a rather good looking young man Alessa had seen around the office. The auctioneer detailed that he was in the IT department, liked to play rugby, and enjoyed dancing into the early hours of the morning. Much to Alessa’s surprise, a woman, perhaps old enough to be his mother, made the final bid at fifteen thousand. There was a great amount of cheering and applauding as the woman stepped forward to escort her young date to the back of the room where all transactions of the night were being completed.

Despite her nerves, Alessa caught herself smiling a few times, and even laughing once when the auctioneer disclosed the current date’s secret obsession was volunteering for date auctions. By eleven thirty, only one man was left as Alessa sat alone on her empty row. When she realized she had crumpled the fabric of her dress up in her hands so much the rhinestone were making them sore, she immediately released the skirt and smoothed it out.

When she looked back up, she saw Hyun-Joong make his way toward the front of the crowd, his eyes on her, his mouth smiling reassuringly. Thus far the top bid had only been thirty-five thousand, and she was a little disappointed that she wouldn’t see just how much he was willing to pay for her. Her eyes still wandered over the crowd, and when she looked across the room, she saw him.

Denny was two people deep at the far side of gathering. Despite the distance and dim lighting, the intensity of his eyes was like a spike of heat driving straight through her. Alessa didn’t know how long she held his stare, but when the applause roared, she looked around and realized the auctioneer had called for her to come to the stage.

Alessa masked herself with a smile of charm and ease. She walked gracefully to the spot all the others had taken before her, shook hands with the auctioneer and turned to smile out over the audience. Her ears were trained to his words and she felt herself mildly blush at hearing all he had to say.

“Alessa grew up right here in the Bay Area, ran track for UC Berkeley, loves Korean food and oysters, and is the newest associate at Wiles, Meyer, and Schecter. She specializes in international business law, but finds the most enjoyment pretending to be Perry Mason.”

While the crowd laughed at her unauthorized bio, she shot Denny a quick, terse look, knowing only he could be responsible for sharing such personal information. But she quickly schooled her expression to smile pleasantly back at the crowd as the man got on with the bidding.

Much to her surprise, and everlasting relief, the bids instantly moved up, and quickly surpassed the thirty-five thousand mark. Alessa beamed at Hyun-Joong when he bid, but she couldn’t keep her eyes from drifting to Denny and watched as he only stood there observing the action but not participating once.

She didn’t realize she was doing it, but Alessa tried to console herself by assuming he was more than likely waiting until the end to bid. But eventually, when the bid reached fifty-thousand, only three remained and Denny hadn’t once given any indication that he was interested. Soon, it was down to Hyun-Joong and a man Alessa hadn’t yet met. She watched with growing anxiety as the bid crept ever upward to Hyun-Joong’s limit of seventy-five, and still Denny hadn’t participated.

She finally understood how much she had not only wanted him to bid on her, but to win the bid when she realized her stomach was knotted because she was waiting for him. And though the two bidders were to her center and right, she couldn’t keep from looking to Denny at the far left of the room, her eyes questioning.

“I have seventy-five thousand, do I hear eighty?”

Alessa turned her attention back to the action. She looked at Hyun-Joong who gave her a lopsided, sad smile and then he shook his head no.

“Seventy-five thousand once. Twice.”

The auctioneer held his hand high with the small wooden gavel in his fist. Alessa felt every muscle tighten. She refused to look at Denny again. And then an unpleasant jolt went through her as the hard little piece of wood banged down, declaring an end.

“Sold to the man in the blue suit at seventy-five thousand dollars, ladies and gentlemen!” And the crowd erupted. There was a bevy of movement, everyone stirring excitedly. Alessa stood frozen at the unexpected turn-of-events and attempted a calm smile as the nameless man with brown hair walked forward to the stage to collect his prize.

“Ms. Allen, it is very nice to meet you. My name is Jacob.” He stretched out his hand to assist her from the low stage.

“It is nice to meet you. Thank you–” but she was interrupted by a squealing Lou who nearly bowled her over in her zeal to hug her in congratulations.

“What did I tell you! They’d have paid a million dollars for you if they’d had it,” she boasted, nearly squeezing the life out of Alessa.

“I thought they were millionaires,” Alessa mumbled as she tried to extricate herself, but Lou squeezed on.

“You looked so gorgeous. You did amazing! Fantastic! I think that was the highest bid anyone’s received. Like. Ever!” she finally released her to smile brightly and then get introduced to the man who paid such an extravagant amount for a single date. “And who are you, then?” she asked, sticking her hand out to shake. “I’m Lou. I work with Alessa.”

“Nice to meet you,” he greeted politely, if not a little stiff. “I was just about to ask Ms. Allen if she would like to accompany me now so we can get ourselves checked out.”

Alessa was a little surprised at how quickly he wanted to leave, but nodded her head at any rate. “You already have a date in mind? I mean, something you want to do?”

“Actually, yes, if you don’t mind. We can discuss it in the car. I believe it is waiting out front,” he explained as they pushed their way through the crowd. Everyone was clamoring to speak with her, and he had to gently, but firmly place a hand on her arm. She heard a few comments about how eager he was to make good on his date, followed by chuckling.

Though he was polite, he didn’t seem too interested in her, and considering how much he had just paid, she was beginning to think his behavior odd. “And what do you do, Mr-?” she asked as they stood in line.

“Anderson, Ms. Allen. And I am involved in the supply side of the market.”

Alessa’s smile tightened as her eyes narrowed. “That is a little vague, isn’t it?”

“Generalization allows for a greater variance in what I do.”

Alessa chuckled. “Sounds as ambiguous as working for the mob.”

But Jacob Anderson only looked at her with a rather bland expression.

Somehow, this date for mingling was suddenly careening out beyond the parameters she could control. And so she kept trying to uncover the root of her suspicions. “I was quite surprised the bidding got as high as it did. Tell me, why me? I mean, had you planned on bidding on a me specifically, or was I just the last one and you didn’t want to leave the party alone?” she tried to ask with a teasing laugh.

“You specifically, Ms. Allen.”

Her forced laughter faded easily in the sobriety of his answer. They were at last to the table to check out. Alessa no longer felt safe with this man. He pulled a silver credit card from his wallet and handed it to the blonde sitting there to take his payment. Alessa opened her mouth to speak to the woman smiling in congratulations at both Mr. Anderson’s high bid and Alessa’s honor at such a price, but nothing came out as she immediately remembered she would be responsible for covering the cost of the bid should she choose to not fulfill her end of the agreement. And after all, she had nothing concrete to object to, no rules he had broken.

Suddenly she was searching around for Lou. “Excuse me,” she said to Jacob when she spied her friend, cutting off the blonde who was asking what fun they were going to have that night, and then dashed to Lou before he could stop her.

“I know it’s silly,” Alessa explained immediately without allowing Lou any chance to speak, “but I really don’t know this guy from Adam. I want you to text me every thirty minutes, so for a three hour date that should be six times by the time I get back to my home. I’ll just text you back a name of each of the shops we went to, how does that sound? So if I don’t answer or don’t text back only the names, then can you do something?”

Lou’s brow was furrowed. “Sure thing, but you really don’t think anything will happen, do you?”

“No, of course not, it’s only–”

“Ms. Allen, are you ready?” Jacob spoke from behind her.

She had been leaning down to whisper in Lou’s ear, and when she heard his voice, she straightened up, with a resigned look.

Lou smiled at her. “You’re just imaging things,” she whispered. “You’re trying to get out of it because you’re a stick in the mud. Now, go have fun!”

“Promise?” Alessa demanded undeterred.

“Yes, I promise,” Lou swore with an indulging shake of her head and smile.

Alessa tried to tell herself she was being dramatic as she turned with a tight-lip smile to Jacob. He held his arm out to her, and she slowly slipped her hand onto it. She was silent as they departed the main hall and walked back through the large, sunken lobby. Her eyes drifted over the many booths people were once again standing around discussing the various projects.

“It was very kind of you to pay such a large amount. The money will hopefully go to one of these good causes,” she mused.

“I didn’t pay anything.” They were outside, once again heading down the red carpet stairs to a line of black limos parked along the curb.

He stopped at one of them and opened the back door.

“What did you say?”

“I paid for nothing.”

“I don’t understand, how could you not–”

“It wasn’t my money, Ms. Allen. It was his.”

And then Alessa saw the hand reaching out from the dark of the car through the open door, waiting for her to accept.