Five years ago
Larke listened as the last set of footsteps left the office, the front door closing behind them. A few moments later, she slapped closed the folder she’d been thumbing through on the desk in front of her, and leaned back in her chair. She extended her left arm to allow the fluorescent light to catch the stone in her ring. It was a diamond of some cut. She wasn’t sure of the type and didn’t have the energy to have it appraised or research it. She should’ve been excited about this new venture in her life, forever as Mrs. Kenneth Richmond, but it felt as though something was missing.
She’d never been numb about love, marriage, and the sort. After playing “judge” with her stuffed animals, she’d always go home to an imaginary husband who’d take her coat, and who’d let her ramble on about the “atrocities” of her day ruling against Winnie the Pooh in the case of his wearing shorts. Life had seemed so difficult at eight years of age, but if only she’d known how truly simple it had been.
Kenneth was a good man. The people at his investment firm were all fond of him. At least, it seemed that way. She and Kenneth had gone to the same college, but had never crossed paths until a Girls on the Run event; his firm had been one of the sponsors. He’d spotted her first. Admittedly, had he not spoken to her, brought her attention to him, she wouldn’t have noticed him. Not with her friend turned assistant, Joni, and her brother there.
Never mind that.
She glanced over at the folder, thought about opening it, and decided against it. It had been a ridiculously long day. Plus, after the deposition in a few days, if all went well with their witness, she really wouldn’t need what was inside of it anyhow. She’d assumed she’d grow tired of litigating criminal cases, especially as her case files grew and became more complex, but it was one of the perks of being an Assistant US Attorney. She would have never gotten this trial experience, this ability to be right in the face of the law, sitting behind a desk in corporate America.
“Burning the midnight oil?”
She closed her eyes, counted to five, then turned. There he was, in all of his glory, dark three-pieced suit with the top button on his equally dark shirt undone, his tie hanging loosely around his neck. Joni’s brother. Joni’s damn fine brother with the blue eyes. What was she doing lusting after a man with blue eyes?
“More like the eight o’clock oil,” she answered, voice weaker than she would have liked for it to be. It was his spell. She couldn’t figure out if it was his gaze, his cologne, his…something, but he turned her into a different person whenever he was just close enough. He softened her, stirred her, heated places on her body that had never been lit.
“I was looking for Joni but I guess—”
“Yeah, she left a while ago.” Larke spun her chair so she was fully facing him. “Where are you coming from looking all fancy?”
His gaze fell to his outfit. The right side of his mouth pulled back. On another man, it would have been embarrassed smile. On this man, the allure almost seemed deliberate.
“I’m not used to suits.” He tugged on the lapels. “Close friend of mine, basically my brother, is getting married soon. I’m trying it out.”
Larke stood. “Not too many weddings under your belt?”
“None, actually. This is my first.” His eyes fell to the ring on her finger. “When did that happen?”
“Last night.” For some reason, she wanted to hide it.
“You and, what’s his name? Richmond?”
“That’s the one.”
His eyes lingered on the jewel. She imagined what a stone with his eye color would look like. Would it catch the light as his eyes were doing now, illuminating brighter than the diamond on her hand? The damn things seemed to almost twinkle, both deep and bright, studying her ring and making her wonder what was on his mind. She’d pay to find out.
“So, I guess it’ll be two weddings for you soon,” she added. “I’ll personally hand deliver your invite.”
He smirked, didn’t reply. With a different man, the silence would have meant he was upset about her recent engagement. All this time, he’d truly wanted her for himself. Her chest constricted at the thought.
“Don’t people dance at weddings?” he asked, meeting her eyes and nearly undoing her in the process. “Like, there are first dances and that sort of thing, right?”
She grinned. “You really haven’t ever been to a wedding? What about Joni and Curtis’? They’ve been married for a while.”
“They did the courthouse thing.”
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and scrolled. Soon, the sound of Miguel’s voice filled the space between them.
“What song is this?” she asked, swaying despite herself. “I’ve only heard Adorn so far.”
“It’s called Do You. I bought his album. Sometimes I go mellow, other times I go hardcore white boy.”
He reached out and she stepped into his embrace, muffling a laugh against his chest. Soon, it would be a year that they’d known each other. A year since she’d first laid eyes on him as Joni had volunteered him to deliver some of the heavier equipment for their Girls on the Run event booth. It had been long enough that she could justify two friends dancing was okay for a newly engaged woman, and that her thundering heart was not from finally being where she’d dreamt about being for months.
The beat picked up a bit and she swayed against him. He held her at arm’s length, twirled her, dipped her, impressed her with his moves. They laughed, her laugh hiding the fact that she was absorbing the lyrics, his scent, what this moment meant to her.
“Hardly an appropriate song for a first dance,” she giggled. “Is he saying ‘do you like drugs’ or have I been in this job too long?”
“It’s poetic,” he answered, expression teasing. “By the way, did you have anything in mind for your first dance already?”
She shook her head. “No, but I know Ken. He’ll go for something classical, refined. This…this is kinda fun. It’s contemporary. I’ve never considered dancing to something more modern.”
“Well then, maybe you should marry me, instead.”
She laughed…only because he did…and to hide what she was positive was the sound of her ribcage rattling at the uptick in her heartbeat.
“Maybe.” She tried to keep the shake out of her voice and succeeded. She didn’t need the embarrassment of him knowing she’d taken his joke as anything but a joke, even for a second. Not right now.
When the song ended, he pulled her in for a hug. She squeezed him in response. His embrace was gentle and perfect and nothing like she’d ever felt before.
He stepped back, let his arms fall to his sides. “I wish you all the best, Tapley.”
Either there was something, a hint of disappointment, in his voice or her fogged brain was playing tricks on her.
“Thank you. I really do appreciate that.”
He pivoted to leave. “I’ll be looking out for that invite.”
“And I hope you wear that suit.” She pointed at him. “It looks amazing on you.”
He smiled. “Amazing?”
“Actually, Tapley, let me walk you out. It’s late.”
She bit her lip. She didn’t want to say this. Oh God, she really didn’t want to say this. “Um…Ken’s actually picking me up today. We’re having dinner.”
His expression barely changed. “Oh yeah, the engagement.”
“Yeah. Celebrating and all of that.”
They both lingered. Seconds passed between them in dead silence. It was almost as if he had something more to say. She knew she had plenty to say, but the human body was a strange one. If there’d been no fear of shame or rejection, she would have told him right out what she thought of him, how she saw him. Where all this was coming from, she didn’t know, but her heart was standing on a ledge and he was waiting below. Hands clasped together and eyes up to the sky, it whispered only three words: “Please catch me.”
“Well, goodnight then, Tapley.”
She suddenly went so cold inside, her fingers curled. “Yes. Goodnight.”
He left then, sweeping through the office and out the door as quietly as he’d come in. And, before she knew it, she was sweeping after him, her four-inch patent nude pumps moving as swiftly as sneakers on the carpeted office floor.
When she pulled the door open, he was already all the way down the linoleum corridor and pushing through the exit. She kicked off her heels, hopping as she pulled them up into her grasp, and hurried after him with no hint of what she would say once she caught him. All she knew was, this would be her last chance to at least tell him that he made her heart beat like the drums at an African music festival she’d attended last year—a fast-paced rhythmic thump. He made her dream and wish and want to fold in half, clutching her belly to soothe the fluttering inside. She wanted to see what would happen, if he felt the same way, and maybe try with him. Even a failure with him was still paramount to success with someone else.
First, she thought her mind was trying to remind her of her engagement, her secure future, but no, he was there when she pulled the door open. He was still in his suit, tired from a long day at work, but smiling. It was the first time in a long time he’d smiled just because of her.
“What’s going on?” He pointed to her bare feet. “With how much money those shoes cost me, they should be able to hold up all day.”
She searched around, but there was no sign of Dez.
“Yeah, you’re right.” She answered, distracted. “You look happy to see me.”
“Well, actually, guess who just got formally invited to the White House Correspondent’s dinner? This is it, Larke. This is my in. Rubbing elbows with the Obamas, networking with celebrities…”
“Julien, it’ll never happen.” It was Dez’s voice, floating from somewhere in the night and right into her ears. “I don’t do relationships and if I did, it wouldn’t be with her.”
An invisible fist penetrated her chest, opened, and squeezed. She jolted forward, her fingers gripping the spot on her blouse that barely concealed the pain.
“I had the same reaction,” Kenneth went on. “I grabbed my chest too. I couldn’t believe it either. This will be great for me, Larke.”
“Yeah, great.” She stepped back through the door for the first time noticing the chill in the air. Kenneth followed, trailing her back to the office as he gushed about his new opportunity while she gathered her things with the enthusiasm of a robotic machine.
“Where do you want to go for dinner?” he asked as they headed back out.
Her head snapped up. “Um…I don’t know. La Chaumière? I could go for some crab.”
Crab completely smothered in champagne cream sauce. Drowning in the damn sauce.
“See, I knew you’d say that. That’s why I made us reservations at 1789. It’s our first dinner as an engaged couple, Larke. We have to try something new.”
She nodded and followed him to his car parked on the curb. She opened the back door, slid her things inside, and then made her way to the passenger seat. Once she was pressed against the cool leather, she sighed and leaned back. He got in beside her and she looked over. This was it. This would be life. It wouldn’t be a bad life. Stability would give her what she needed and help her get where she wanted to go. Her associates all knew Kenneth, loved Kenneth. He loved her. This was right.
“All set, future Mrs. Kenneth Richmond?”
They pulled off and she urged herself not to look back, not to look for where the voice had come from to see if he was still standing there. She’d heard him plain as day. She wasn’t for him. Her dreams of them had been wrapped in clouds of opium.
She took Kenneth’s hand and offered a smile.