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There was only a partially glimpsed flash of bright color across the room. It was immediately obscured by the intricate swirl of people moving about the enormous ballroom at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Jake was suddenly fixated, craning above the crowd for another glimmer of red, bright as a Christmas poinsettia.
“Hey, Jake, what’s wrong?”
“I thought I saw someone...” Jake was trying to peer above a sea of moving bodies.
“You do want that property? Very hush hush. A totally sweet deal.”
Jake nodded absently, still trying to see through the crush of people across the crowded room. He saw light from the brilliant crystal chandeliers overhead bouncing away again, as if in painful indignation from that ungodly red, and moved through the room like he was in a daze, excusing himself, smiling automatically and nodding at friends and acquaintances; hoping he was right, but not believing he could be. It was probably too soon. Still, he had never seen another person with such an outrageous hair color. Maybe Andrea was back.
Jake had to see, make sure for himself that he was not hallucinating; that it wasn’t some strange delusion because he hoped so much it was true. He needed to make sure she was all right, that the terrible accident which had broken her fragile body had not taken the spirit and soaring intelligence from a woman he thought of secretly as a Titan Sprite, just visiting earth from some long obscured myth.
The noise and heat seemed excessive and he felt like he was in a horrible nightmare as he pushed through the room a little too aggressively for perfect politeness. Jake was a tall man, with broad shoulders, and he usually had no trouble peering over a throng, but this was the annual Governor’s Ball in Los Angeles, a huge black-tie affair. Not only was it hot, crowded and noisy, but the odor of lavish perfume was obnoxious and cloying in the heated, frenzied atmosphere.
Jake stopped and stood back for a while, then moved forward more slowly. His eyes had not misinformed him. He recognized her from the back of her neck, which was fragile and white, with her hair gathered high on top of her head in some kind of elaborate, charming and fashionably messy hairstyle. He could feel himself smiling. Andy always had a pile of men around her. This was no exception.
Her nose had been broken, but he could see no sign of it when Andy turned sideways, laughing, to talk to someone. He watched her head move slightly, characteristically to the right, like she did when she was having a deep thought, and as if she could feel his gaze. Then she turned around.
Jake was thinking rather abstractly how strange it is that you know immediately when someone’s eyes meet your own. The way two tiny pinpoints clash, even in a noisy and crowded place, when there is immediate recognition. Andy’s mouth had become a perfect circle and her eyes widened. There was no mistaking her happiness. It was like the whole world smiled. Jake moved forward to take her outstretched hands. “I’d pick you up and whirl you around, but I’m afraid of hurting you.”
“Whirl away,” Andy said, holding her arms out. She was wearing a short golden gown made of some shiny material he guessed was silk or satin.
“You’re sure?” Jake asked as he put his hands on her tiny waist and lifted. He held her up and twirled her once and then lowered her feet to the floor gently, with extreme caution. She had broken her back in the accident. He noticed the group she had been talking to was smiling, like their happiness was contagious.
“I’m fine,” Andy said. “I’m so glad to see you… and I want to dance, right now.”
“So, you can dance, too?”
She nodded emphatically. Then she turned around and headed to the dance floor, as if there was no doubt he would follow. Jake smiled, thinking if he didn’t the male crowd behind him certainly would. He hadn’t seen Rolph yet, but he was sure the man was around here somewhere.
Jake held Andy cautiously, wondering how she seemed to anticipate each of his movements. He was clumsy on the dance floor with most partners, stepping on toes and crashing awkwardly against them. Andy moved with him and the music unerringly, like an unattached but linked part of himself. Luckily it was a slow dance so he could look down at that wonderful, bright hair just under his chin, which was dark red, glowing with radiant highlights, and see her glance up and smile. “Twenty letters over six months…countless emails. All the way to Valentine, Nebraska,” Andy said. “While not one word about business. I really appreciated that.”
“I was worried,” Jake said, falling back into their old pattern, trying to sound stern to disguise how alarmed he had been.
“Well, everything’s back in order now. So you don’t have to be so careful. You’re holding me like I’ll shatter into a million pieces.”
“It was so awful,” Jake murmured, pulling her a little closer.
She recited quickly, “Cervical radiculopathy...concussion... three broken ribs...a broken wrist...my right leg was broken...my nose, too. Luckily, I was unconscious for three days and missed most of the bad stuff. The doctor says I’m fine, now.”
Jake shook his head, looking down into her perfect features. Her gown didn’t cover up her arms or shoulders and the expanse of skin was white, smooth and without blemish. He would never have guessed that she’d had such terrible injuries by looking at her. She moved with grace, not as though there was residual pain, although it had been more than six months since the accident and since he had last seen Andy. “Seems almost like deja’vu. The last time I saw you was at a party.”
“I don’t remember that either, which is supposedly normal with a head injury. Was it as wonderful as this one?” Andy asked, waving the arm that had been on his shoulder with a gesture that encompassed the elaborate ballroom, with full orchestra and hundreds of guests in glittering formal attire.
“You didn’t miss much,” Jake said, smiling.
“Not when you were with Ms. Melancamp,” Andy answered tartly.
“I thought you didn’t remember,” he chided, a little amused.
Andy frowned thoughtfully, but he caught her quick, startled expression. “Well, I guess I remembered the pertinent information. Who are you with tonight?”
“You tell me that Rolph isn’t lurking around here somewhere, and I’ll tell you.”
“Touché.” Then she smiled at him again. “And it doesn’t matter at all, really. We should just get in your car and drive to Las Vegas. It would only take four hours, this time of night. They have these cute little chapels. Outrageously tacky...open twenty-four hours. We could get married and...” She faltered for a moment, perhaps at her own audacity, as she glanced up into his eyes. “Now don’t you start in again about how old you are. I know that look. Just because you were my teacher once.”
Jake pulled her closer. She was such a little dear, and it looked like his fears had been groundless. She was intact and precious as always. Smelling her clean hair and gazing at the healthy rounded body was reassuring, calming anxieties he hadn’t known were present. It was like a heavy burden had tumbled away, clearing his mind with gladness.
Jake laughed at her remarks about Las Vegas and remembered the first time he had seen her, as his student in advanced Real Estate Law. She had been getting her Broker’s License. The first thing anyone noticed about Andy was her hair, of course, but at that time it had been tied severely back in a ponytail. She didn’t wear any make-up to class and had appeared to be about thirteen years old, with her smooth scrubbed face, round blue eyes and naturally bright pink lips. He thought she must be a girl-genius, so young and taking the Broker’s course. He had been right about her mentality, although almost a decade wrong in the age department.
“There you go, leading me on again,” Jake said.
“If I keep it up, very assiduously, you’ll have to take me seriously, sooner or later.”
“You have lots of time to sow your oats.”
She smiled mischievously. “Jet setting is fun. I have to admit, I love traveling. My mother, though, had two children when she was exactly my age.”
“Well, Valentine, Nebraska,” Jake said. “It’s rural. People probably marry at an earlier age.”
“It may be isolated, but it’s a nice place. Especially for a home town. Rolph even liked it.”
“I guess Rolph is your perfect partner,” he said neutrally, although he knew she could see right through that one. He wanted to push this wonderful girl toward someone really nice and respectable, so he could stop worrying. The problem was, despite her sophistication and intelligence, Andy was a true innocent; sweet and kind and, although a canny business woman, much too naive.
She frowned thoughtfully. “While I was in Nebraska, recuperating from the accident, my priorities changed somewhat. Not that I mind luxurious vacations on Rolph’s yacht, but tell me about the party I can’t remember, six months ago. I just got back, today, and I’m trying to piece it all back together.”
“You said it was normal, not remembering,” Jake commented, a little worried.
“Concussions wipe out memories. However, I have strange flash-backs, and people are behaving oddly toward me, still.”
“I know the part you want to hear,” Jake said, sighing.
“Yeah, my wild exit.” Andy comically rolled her eyes.
“Okay.” Jake remembered that the party had been large, but not really as big as this one because it had been at the private home of a wealthy industrialist, Vincent Worthington, at the top of the hills in Beverly Hills. “You were wearing a blue dress, very low in the front and at the back.”
“That gown was a total waste after the accident, and it was my favorite,” Andy said glumly, nodding. “I’m not even going to mention my poor little car.”
Jake described the lavish sit-down dinner in the garden outside Worthington’s palatial residence, and the dance floor which had covered the pool.
“So no one would fall in, in a drunken orgy, like that last party at Vincent’s,” Andy commented, nodding and laughing. They both had been at that extended spree, a couple of years before. Jake had to pull two people out of the pool who were so drunk they were in danger of drowning. He had wrecked his tux in the excessive chlorine.
“Right. Then the weather started changing very uncharacteristically for September,” Jake went on. “There was thunder and lightning all of a sudden, so everyone went inside. The rain started slowly, but after a while it was coming down in buckets. The band moved into the ballroom upstairs and the party went on. I remember seeing you dancing there with Rolph and a few other people.”
“Did I dance with you?”
Jake nodded. “I lost track of you for a while.”
“So you had been watching me.”
He frowned at her severely because she looked so pleased. “There were several really obnoxious drunks there, Andy. Not only alcohol was passing around at the party. There were some very serious hard chemicals. The trend seems to be dropping nasty drug stuff into drinks when people aren’t looking. I wanted to make sure you were safe.”
“That’s really nice.” She was sincere and had a melting smile. He responded before he could stop himself.
“I didn’t see you for a while. The thunder was really crashing. Then, suddenly, all the lights in the whole house went out. Of course, pandemonium broke out. Women were screaming. It was probably just the wind knocking down a power line. Luckily, Vincent had back-up generators and the lights went on again pretty quickly.”
“That’s when I took off?”
Jake nodded. “Why were you driving your own car?”
“I was helping Vincent’s wife, before the party, so I arrived early. I wanted my own car, anyway.”
Jake could understand that. Rolph was always amusing when slightly inebriated, but not a person one would feel safe driving home with if he was at the wheel. Jake thought that Andy and Rolph must be lovers by now, but he pushed the distasteful thought away.
“That’s when I made my exit?”
“Come on. I heard it was pretty spectacular. ..scandalous even.”
“No, it was strange. You looked just stunned. Somehow, you had lost your shoes, and you gave a little shriek as you backed up into the ballroom. That’s when I saw you. Your face was white, like you’d just seen a ghost. I was close enough to see that you were crying. Your hair was down that night, but it was all messed up.”
“Oh, that’s much worse than I thought,” she murmured.
“You ran barefoot, right across the length of the whole ballroom and out into the hallway. I was concerned and started to follow you. I saw you running down the stairs and out the front door, into the pouring rain. By that time I was running, calling your name over the bannister. Rolph passed me on the stairs and shouted that he would take care of you. There were a couple of friends with him and they went out the door, too, so I thought they would catch up with you.”
He looked at Andy, “Does any of this ring a bell?”
She shook her head.
“Someone told me that you and Rolph had an argument, and to let it alone. I didn’t want to interfere in your personal life. I kept watching, all night long, but you never came back. Neither did Rolph.”
“The time sequence seems all wrong,” Andy said thoughtfully. “What time was it then?”
“They didn’t find me till morning. I must have been driving around for hours before the accident.”
“That is puzzling,” Jake remarked. “I tried to call you the next morning to see if you were okay. You never answered.”
“I was in my car, at the bottom of a cliff.”
“Must have been some argument, for you to have run off like that,” Jake commented.
“Rolph’s friend, Joe Morrow, was at the party. He explained what had happened when I regained consciousness, since Rolph had to go to France on a family errand. Joe said that Rolph and I had an argument. Seems that Rolph accused me of flirting outrageously at the party, so I told Rolph that he was very obviously staring down the cleavage of a little blond starlet. One with a black dress that she was hanging out of.”
Jake laughed. “I seem to recall the black dress, and the contents. I don’t remember the face.”
“It is odd, though. French people flirt all the time. That’s the way Rolph always behaves and I never take it seriously. I never seriously flirt, either.”
“No, you don’t. Maybe he was just a wee bit over his limit and said something that bothered you.”
“His friend, Joe, was lying.”
“I don’t know.”
“Rolph never told you?”
“He apologized, again and again, like it really was his fault. He came to visit me in Nebraska as soon as he got back from France. My parents loved him, of course. You know Rolph. He was kind and amusing and sat by my bed for hours. He even got me a new car.”
“You didn’t accept,” Jake said. There was no question in his mind.
“Of course not.”
“If Valentine Nebraska puts out people like you, I need to go there for some R&R,” Jake said.
“Jaundiced by nasty L.A.?”
Jake sighed, “Sometimes.”
“I feel like I’ve hit culture shock, too. The biggest topic of conversation back home, in Nebraska, was the terrible weather this year. It was the worse winter in thirty years. And so sad.”
“My father adores his cattle. This year there was so much snow we couldn’t get to the herds for weeks at a time to feed them. Not even by helicopter. The blizzards came one after another. Fifty cattle died from the cold. When they stop moving they freeze.”
“Cattle aren’t smart like buffalo. The buffalo will paw the snow away until they reach something edible, but the cattle just stand there and freeze, poor things.”
“Kind of puts things in perspective.”
“It does,” Andy said. “A few years ago, when my grandfather died, we couldn’t even bury him till spring because the ground was frozen solid. We never think of things like that in California. Right now, I’m feeling much too frivolous, dressed like this, at a grand party, after the hard times people are experiencing in the mid-west.”
“Do your parents need any help?”
Andy shook her head. “You’re wonderful, Jake, for offering, but they’ve been ranchers for over thirty years. They’re quite successful.”
Jake felt an insistent tapping on his shoulder, but he pretended he didn’t for a moment and gave Andy a little squeeze. He didn’t even look up. “How are you, Rolph?”
“Fine. I’m cutting in,” Rolph said, with his very French accent. Jake had to let her go. He tried to smile gracefully at the dapper dandy in front of him, with his lacquered hair and too sharp features.
As he was relinquishing Andy to her date, Jake wondered just what Rolph had done to upset her so much at that party, six months ago, because what Andy said was true. She really didn’t flirt. She seemed to overlook Rolph’s casual perusal of anything female that moved, even though the woman Andy had accused him of letching after had been behaving provocatively with every man at that party. The little blond starlet had even come on to him, with her tight low bodice pushing seductively against him as they danced. When they talked the woman had leaned backward, ostensibly so that she could look up into his face, but really so he could get a good look down the front of her dress. Jake couldn’t say he had been unmoved by the experience, but neither could he understand Rolph’s attentions to the blond starlet, when his date was just as voluptuous, and much brighter and more fun.
As Jake withdrew he heard Andy behind him, “We’re dressed perfectly, if you change your mind.”
He turned around. She was smiling at him over Rolph’s shoulder.
“Gold isn’t as pristine as white, but I don’t expect perfection,” Andy said. “Just think about it.”
Jake knew Andy didn’t flirt; she was absolutely serious about a tiny chapel in Las Vegas. “I only want the best for you, Andy.”
“So do I. I’ll always be saving the last dance for you.” She nodded at him solemnly as he gave her a smile and wave, walking away.
“What was that all about?” Rolph asked, smoothly moving her into a waltz as the music changed.
“I was propositioning him,” Andy said with a smile and an exaggerated sigh.
“Darling! Cherie! You must be more devious. You are transparent like a beautiful looking glass,” Rolph whispered in her ear, shaking his head in consternation. “How many times have I told you? A thousand times…a million?”
“At least that, Rolph. But I just can’t. He can see right through me. Jake would know exactly what I was doing and lose all respect if I tried to be coy or cute, or tried out my feminine wiles in some silly way.”
Rolph smiled down at her. “That man is stone, a statue, an imbecile, of course. And you, a red bombshell. That he doesn’t see the perfect match here, well, I have to wonder about that reputed brain inside the beautiful head.”
Andy was laughing as she always did with Rolph. She loved this man. He was her best friend and confidante.
“You’re sure he doesn’t occasionally switch?” Rolph teased nonchalantly. “I could be interested myself.”
“Very sure, Rolph. Look at his date,” Andy said, peering sadly over Rolph’s shoulder at the beautiful brunette Jake was drinking champagne with at the edge of the dance floor.
“Ah, non, non, non. You can never tell, Cherie. Just take a look at mine!” Rolph crowed triumphantly.
He had a point. Andy was perfect cover for the playboy whose father was the French Ambassador. Rolph protected his father and their aristocratic family from embarrassment by hiding his sexual orientation. Sometimes he went overboard and tried to act too macho, staring excessively at beautiful women. Those thoughts reminded her of the explanation that Joe Morrow had given Andy for her flight from the party six months ago, which had ended in a car crash that she could not remember. Evidently that supposedly good friend, Joe, didn’t know about Rolph’s preferences or he wouldn’t have made up such a silly story about her jealousy over another woman. If Andrea were to be jealous in Rolph’s behalf, it would have to involve a male.
Rolph’s friend, Joe, was trying to hide something from her. It was upsetting because, try as she might, the events prior to that accident just would not come back. Except in her dreams, and they were just awful.
Andrea was laughing at Rolph’s remarks, but her head was like a compass, with Jake at due north. She watched the nicest, handsomest and most inaccessible man she had ever known. The poor woman he was with tonight, with her classical long straight nose and beautiful shoulder length brown hair probably thought she was in a wonderful dream this evening. It would be just that, a passing dream. She would feel like a freight train had smacked her in the coming weeks, wondering what had happened, what she had done wrong. Jake rarely went out with the same woman twice.
End of Chapter 1
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