The first time I saw her was memorable to say the least. She hurried across the piazza with her head in her handbag. A bum leaning on the fountain stuck his foot out, adjusting himself for an afternoon nap. She tripped, sending the contents of her bag and her coffee into the air. The coffee seeped through the bum’s newspapered head. He shrieked so loud it echoed off nearby buildings. She looked up from her tumble in an obvious daze, but she didn’t scream out in pain or yell at the man who had sent her sprawling across the concrete. She merely sat there staring at the guy as he scuffled away toward the trees.
The wind was light, but it was strong enough to blow her silk scarf onto my wingtips. I pulled my hands from the pockets of my tailored three-piece suit and picked up the multi-colored rag. She eyed me, then noticed the contents of her soft leather briefcase scattered in front of her. Men and women alike glanced down and sidestepped her on their way to something more important.
I couldn’t walk away. I was mesmerized by her composure, and by her eyes.
It’s not that they were the most brilliant color to exist on earth; it was the pleading look for help or understanding. Or a little bit of both. They were a golden brown, more brown than golden of course, and they sparkled when the sun hit them just right. Her hair was the same color, perfectly coiffed, not a tiny strand out of place even after falling to her knees.
I walked toward her, no sauntered was more like it. I kept sliding the scarf through my left hand, enjoying the subtle coolness of the fabric. By the time I got to her, she had already begun picking up her things and hastily throwing them into her worn bag. She only noticed me when I cast my shadow over her.
“Here,” I said, offering the scarf, “I believe this is yours.”
“Thank you,” she replied with a voice so soft the wind could carry it to the heavens. She ripped the scarf from my hand and said nothing else as she continued tossing her items back into the bag helter-skelter.
“Let me give you a hand.” I bent to my knee, reaching for an opened tube of bright red lipstick out of her reach. In silence, I helped her gather the rest of her papers and odds and ends. I chuckled at the amount of useless crap she carried with her.
I stood after we were done and offered her my hand. Her eyes held mine before she smiled. My knees weakened the longer I stared into them, but I managed to help her to her feet. She didn’t break eye contact as she ran her hands down her skirt to smooth the wrinkles.
“Thank you, Mr.….” she said holding out her right hand with a dignity I had never seen in a woman before.
“Hertford, James Hertford.” Her skin was softer than her scarf and I never wanted to let go. “And you are?”
“Bethany Marks,” she said as she raked her fingers along my palm, leaving a trail of goose bumps.
I cleared my throat as my hand went cold from the loss of her touch. “It’s a pleasure.”
“Again, I thank you for your assistance,” she said with the formality of an English queen.
She bowed her head before walking away at a clip. I was left with a feeling of contentment and a business card in my right hand. It had only her name and number in tiny gold italic script on the cream background. I raised it to get a better look at the numbers and was hit by the smell of vanilla bean. Closing my eyes, I inhaled and became lost in my own world. I don’t know how she slipped the card to my hand, but it was there and it felt like fortune had finally smiled on me.
The bum that tripped her bumped into me. He grabbed my arm before I fell into the fountain.
“Sorry,” he muttered before heading off into the crowd.
I glanced around, but she had already disappeared before I had an opportunity to search. Her presence lingered and I knew that this chance meeting had an effect that could only be positive.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The office buzzed as I strolled through. I smiled at Angela, Brittany, and Heather. The clerks were efficient and always there when I needed them. For whatever reason. Today, they seemed dull in comparison to my fresh memory of Bethany Marks.
I stepped into my corner suite and passed my assistant’s desk.
“Mr. Hertford,” Brianne said in her gravel-eating voice that never failed to make me cringe.
Turning on my heel, I stared at her with a raised brow. Brianne wasn’t my idea. My father hired her for me and wouldn’t let me fire her.
“If I let you choose, James, you’ll hire the prettiest girl you can find instead of the most qualified,” he’d said the day before Brianne started. She may have been an excellent secretary, but she was definitely nothing to look at.
“Mr. Marshall called. He wants to talk about a settlement,” she squeaked.
I snorted. “Marshall can kiss my ass. No way we settle. Get him on the line.”
Taking on the divorce of one of my mother’s oldest and dearest friends was not my idea of a blockbuster case. I planned on taking every penny I could get out it, regardless of the fact that Mira Houston cheated on her husband as many times as he banged his own hot young secretary.
I settled into my desk and pulled the business card out of my pocket. I weaved it through my fingers, waiting for Brianne to tell me Marshall was on the phone. When she did, I tugged the card too hard and cut my finger. Blood oozed out in round droplets. I stuck my finger in my mouth to suck it off and yanked the phone off the receiver to make Marshall crumble.
Every day for the next two weeks, I went to that fountain. The business card burned a whole in my wallet, but whenever I tried to dial the phone, something stopped me from hitting the last digit. It was like a force field not allowing me to complete the mission, a mission I’d succeeded at a thousand times with other women.
Food had no taste. My job felt more like I was going through the day-to-day motions. All I wanted to do was get back to that fountain on the off chance I might see Bethany Marks.
On the sixteenth day, my boss called me into his office.
“James, I don’t know what’s going on with you lately, but it has to stop.” He lit his cigar and leaned back into his tall leather chair that creaked under his weight. Mr. Tyler Carlson, my father’s partner in the firm, made his way to the top by driving hard and eating plenty. “You’ve been with us for two years now, son. Maybe it’s time for a vacation.”
I know better than to respond to these lectures.
“For crying out loud, boy, look at your suit.”
Impeccably tailored but a little wrinkled, I’ll admit, but not cause for concern, much less a vacation.
“You haven’t shaved.”
I rubbed the stubble on my chin. When did I shave last?
“Your hair looks like you haven’t washed it for a month.”
I ran my hand through my hair, feeling the left over greasiness of my high-priced gel. “And, quite frankly, you could stand to eat something. Everyone here is worried about you.” He sat up. The chair groaned as it snapped back to attention. “Give your case files to Morgan. She’ll handle everything while you take the next two weeks off. And I mean starting now.”
He slammed some files on his desk and stubbed out his cigar in a crystal ashtray. It was the end of the conversation on his part and should’ve been on mine.
“Mr. Carlson, my work…”
“Has suffered.” He glared up at me then his tense face softened. “The Houston divorce is evident of that. You haven’t bothered to return Russ Marshall’s calls in the last two weeks.”
Was that pity in his eyes? From Carlson?
“Go home, James. Then get on a plane and go to Miami or Hawaii or any place.” He waddled around his desk and clamped his hand on my shoulder. “Maybe see a shrink. Something’s going on with you, everyone here can see it. A fresh perspective may be in order.”
I let him guide me out of his office. Cheryl, his executive assistant, gave me the sad eyes. She usually reserved those for clients that didn’t have their cases go the way they expected. She looked away too fast and started typing too hard on the keyboard.
Elana Masterson was settled on the black leather sofa of Carlson’s outer office with her head buried in a magazine. I’d sat second chair on her lawsuit and done quite well in the courtroom as I cross-examined our client’s former partner. Elana wouldn’t even look at me. Cheryl must have been gossiping. It was the main reason Carlson kept her around after all these years. She knew everything that went on in the office. Problem was she also told everyone who would listen about things she had no business even hearing. I was surprised Carlson hadn’t lost a case because of her mouth.
The hall to my own inner sanctuary was thankfully clear. I fell into my chair and put my head in my hands. I needed to assess the situation. First, I wasn’t fired. Carlson wouldn’t and couldn’t fire me. Second, I did need a vacation. Third, he was right. There was a problem. Her name was Bethany Marks.
The mere thought of her sent me into zombie mode. Her eyes. Those glorious brown eyes that glinted like sunfire. Her image grew in my mind. However beautiful she was the first time I met her, she was more beautiful to me now.
There was only one solution. I had to see her again. I had to find her.
Since work wouldn’t interfere, the next two weeks were planned without another thought. And I didn’t wait to start my stake out. I dropped my files on Morgan’s desk and practically ran to the elevator.
The hot dog vendor knew my name by now. He had two dogs with relish and mustard ready as soon as he saw me. It was hot for a late September, but I didn’t rush home to change. I took my lunch to the bench under the tree. The homeless guy that occupied it wasn’t thrilled when I shoved his legs off so I could sit.
“You again?” He growled from beneath his newspaper. It was the same guy that had tripped Bethany Marks and almost knocked me into the fountain an eternity ago.
I ignored him. He sat up and stretched his arms. The stench almost knocked me over.
“You looking for that girl still?” He glared at me, but there was a hint of amusement in his eyes. He glanced down at my dogs.
I didn’t look at him as I handed over the smallest one. “What do you know about her?”
Through a mouthful of bread, he said, “She’s walking by the fountain right now. In the blue dress.”
He wasn’t lying. Bethany Marks strode twenty feet in front of me with all the confidence and grace of a Greek goddess. Her tan heels clicked at the end of the longest legs in the world. Her hair flowed behind her in waves on a non-existent breeze.
I couldn’t move. She was perfect and right in front of me, but I couldn’t move.
My new-found friend slid the other hot dog from my hand and shoved me off the bench. “Go get her, Tiger.”
I stumbled, but righted myself before falling on my face. The frozen limbs came to life. There was no effort on my part. My legs carried me to where she stopped to sit on the edge of the fountain.
“Mr. Hertford, I thought you’d forgotten about me.” She smiled and the sun seemed to dim.
I gulped. My mouth opened and nothing came out.
“I did give you my card. Funny, you never called.” Bethany Marks looked at my wrinkled suit and sneered. Shame colored my face. As she continued to inspect every inch of the failing me, she stretched her legs and stood. My hair had grown wild and she tucked a too long strand behind my ear. “Why did you not call?”
“I tried but…” My throat was dry. I needed water, a beer, anything to get the words out. This wasn’t me. I had no problem talking to this woman before. Or any other woman for that matter.
She laughed. The sweetness of it wilted the leaves on the trees. “Not to worry. Would you like to have a drink?”
My head felt like a bobblehead on the dashboard of a monster truck. “Yes.”
She linked her arm into mine and pulled me toward the street. We walked past the pub on the corner and into the alley. She pushed me against the wall and pressed her body to mine.
Her vanilla scented breath tickled my cheek. “I’m feeling a little hungry. Since you won’t give up…” Her chuckle melted my heart. “What would you do for me?”
“Anything.” My voice croaked.
She traced my jaw with her sharp nails. “Do you mean that?”
She leaned in and smiled before kissing me. Her lips tasted like a milkshake. My entire body craved every inch of her. I had no control. I needed more. My heart slammed into my lungs and stomach, trying to free itself. The pain was nothing next to the pleasure of her lips. I wanted to touch her back but my arms were glued to my sides. She moved her hands into my hair, holding my lips tighter to her own.
Then it changed.
I felt nothing.
My heart didn’t move. It didn’t beat. My lungs took in no air. I couldn’t even feel our bodies pressed together.
She pushed away and wiped the corner of her lips with the back of her hand. The beauty was erased from her face. Her golden brown eyes were the color of dirt. The flowing hair lay flat and unwashed against her shoulders. Even her bright blue dress was faded and dull.
“What…” I tried to speak, but I couldn’t feel the words forming on my tongue.
She smiled. Her teeth were coffee stained and sharp. Two arms wrapped around her waist from behind and she fell back into the homeless man from the bench. He nuzzled her neck and kissed her with the same passion I’d just felt seconds ago.
“What…” I tried again.
“Honey, did you make this one a mute?” The homeless man laughed. He shook his finger at me. “You should know better than to mess around with another man’s woman.” He kissed her and his hands slide up, covering her breasts. They sighed as they broke apart and he stared at me. “You’ll live, James Hertford. But it won’t be much of a life.” He laughed again and it sounded like a noose being tightened around my throat. “Your body will appear alive, but you are dead inside. Everything you were, a cold heartless lawyer, will remain. She took the love, passion, and what little was good in you. So, don’t worry. You won’t change.”
“Much,” Bethany added. She turned to him her husband. “Let’s go home, baby. We’ve both had plenty to eat.”
He lifted her over his shoulder and carried her down the alley. I stood there and watched. Unable to move or talk as my body shut down and all the emotions slipped from my mind.