It was the dream again.
She knew it was because she felt the underwater quality to it, the unnaturally slow motion of bodies. She knew because she struggled to stop, but just like an undertow, she sank back into it once more.
They were in the airport. Victor was jiggling his foot while they waited, just as he always did when he had to wait. Jen laid her hand on his leg.
"Less than a half hour, darling," Victor leaned over to tell her. "We'll be out of here. Anywhere in South America you want to go, Jen. Do you think you'll like Rio de Janeiro? Next assignment I'll try for Europe. I know you want to see Paris…”
That was when the loudspeaker announced her name. Jen's stomach knotted as she went to the phone. Victor followed her, his hand touching her shoulder. Jennifer listened and began to cry.
"Victor—my parents," she managed. "Cee Cee says they're in the hospital. It was a car accident… Vic, I have to go to them."
Indecision chased over his face. Then, just as she had heard it over and over in her head, done over and over a million times before, she told him, "You can go. It's a new job and they wouldn't understand if you weren't there. I'll catch up as soon as I hear…”
"Is it bad?" Victor asked. "How are they?"
"I don't know. It sounds bad but Cee Cee doesn't have any real information yet. The girls are waiting in the hospital. Someone has to be there for them. They're just teenagers. Vic, I can't go now."
He hesitated. For him, this was the big moment, the big job as a photographer, the chance to finally leave. He had been waiting for this chance forever. He had been waiting for them to go together. She was the only other person who knew how desperate he was to escape at last and show everyone that he could do this. She tried to smile. They both knew what his decision would finally be.
The airline's crackling microphone announced the final departure for their flight.
"I'll call," he said at last and bent to kiss her, hard. "Give your parents my love. Call Jack to pick you up or get a taxi to the hospital. We'll sort it out as soon as we can. Don't worry. Jen, I love you."
"Victor, I love you too…”
She was almost awake now. This was where the dream always ended and she had to wake up, realizing that the worst thing in her life had not only happened, but she had to relive it over and over again.
Jennifer let out a deep breath as she woke and braced herself. Sometimes what came now was worse because then she knew she was awake. This part was true.
And then it came.
The hurt washed over her, just like when it hadn't been a dream. The pain was there—it never seemed to lose its intensity. But she hadn't known what was coming when she and Victor had made their decision, back when the scene in the airport had been real.
She struggled for sleep, even though she knew the dream and the questions would keep coming back again.
Abruptly, Jen got up. She couldn't go back to sleep and she couldn't bear to keep thinking. Throwing some clothes on, she decided to forget even trying for a normal night.
* * * *
Jen sat out on the porch with Poppy curled up companionably next to her. Who needed sleep when the night sky had bright stars and the evening breeze started to cool down the heat? It didn't matter if she was alone in the quiet. She didn't need anyone with her.
Despite what she didn't need, she smiled when the Lexus pulled into the driveway next door. Jack was home. He hesitated when he saw the porch light on next door. Obviously he wasn't in the mood for neighborly company.
Jen would have let him go on in and said nothing, but Poppy jumped up and ran over, barking furiously and wagging cheerfully, in her usual confused fashion. Jen stood up to wave and shush the prancing dog.
She felt a little embarrassed, as if she'd been spying on him. Of course that was ridiculous. Shoot, if she waited up to see him every time he came home late, she might never get any sleep.
He walked toward her. She saw the remnants of a tomcat grin on his face, saw in the way he walked that he hadn't been out late working. Or at least not working on anything to do with the firm.
"Nice night," Jen observed. "Too nice to sleep."
"Nothing wrong, is there, Jen?" Jack asked. He stepped a little closer as if to inspect.
What a nice guy. He was looking at her with genuine concern. He did care. Even if he was a ladies' man and she wasn't one of his ladies.
"No. Thanks for asking, Jack." She ran her hand briefly down his cheek. "Did you get lucky tonight?"
He shifted his hands to the back pockets of his jeans and didn't answer. Jen couldn't quite interpret the look on his face, but knew enough about his expression to hastily pull her hand back. The lazy amusement usually in his eyes wasn't there.
"Sorry. That was a little personal. I hope you did. I'm sure she did," Jen hastily changed the subject. "I guess I could use an early night myself. I need to get up earlier tomorrow if I'm going to beat you into the office."
"Try it." Jack was unconcerned as he issued the old challenge. "It hasn't happened yet. But you're welcome to make me coffee if you do get in first."
They shared a smile. The older partners had their secretaries and paralegals wait on them hand and foot. Fetching coffee was just one of the ways the secretaries had to defer to them. Jack had never even hinted she was anything but a professional, with her own work to do. It was one of the things she liked so much about him.
"If I do, be careful about what you find in the cup," she said. "Tomorrow, Jack."
* * * *
Her long brown hair was braided, the way it usually was. He wished it was loose.
Her thin T-shirt clung to her back. He wished she was walking toward him instead of away.
While he was at it, he wished her shirt was off. He could imagine her, hair partially covering her skin, concealing and then revealing her breasts. Her eyes, staring at him shyly, desire in them. She wouldn't be sure what to do about what she wanted. He could show her.
He felt the desire hit him again and braced against it. After all, it was nothing new. He could live with it. Barely.
She went inside, shutting the door firmly, the dog trailing obediently behind her.
Damn it, she'd done it again. Even after he'd spent hours in bed with someone else, she just had to look at him and he was twisted up with desire and despair and now this sick feeling of guilt. He didn't owe her fidelity. He didn't owe her anything but friendship. He gave her that unstintingly. Always.
Jack sank onto the porch chair where she had sat. He could smell her scent on the chair's pillow. Then he put his head in his hands.
"Hey, Molly." Jack prowled restlessly in the living room.
"Hey yourself, lady-killer," Molly responded as she bounced Vicky up and down. "Is that some fancy cologne I smell? Mmm, my heart is palpitating."
"Control yourself." Jack paused in his pacing to ruffle her hair. "I'm saving myself for your big sister. At least for tonight."
"I'm younger and cuter. Bet I have a lot more stamina, too." Molly mock-preened and then relaxed into a grin. "Anyhow, why don't you sit down for a while? You won't have enough energy left to take her out if you keep stalking around the house like that. Don't worry, tiger. We know the plan. I have the keys and everything. I'm just glad you're the one who is going to handle her first reaction to the birthday surprise."
He laughed and continued to walk around the room, randomly touching the framed photographs on the mantle. There were recent ones—of Vicky just after her birth, of Kevin in uniform. But he stopped by the one that had two laughing adults standing behind six kids. Jen, Kevin, Cecilia, and Molly held hands. The two teenage boys stood sheepishly to the side. He remembered how he and his best friend Victor had adamantly refused to hold anyone's hand, but were secretly thrilled to be included in the family picture.
"Were we ever that young?" Jack asked. "Lord, what an ugly adolescent I was! All pimples and skinny legs."
"Don't worry. You've outgrown it," Molly assured him.
"The rest of the people in the photo look good." Jack fingered the frame.
"Mom and Dad loved that shot." Molly followed him to the fireplace mantelpiece. "They always said they finally had their whole family in it."
"But that had Victor and me—oh."
When Daniel Turner and his wife, Nora, had died, half the city mourned, but Jack doubted they had grieved with the intensity he had. Even their real daughters and son couldn't have appreciated what having them as a surrogate father and mother had meant to him.
"They were gorgeous people—inside and out." Jack didn't look up from the photos. "I loved them to pieces."
"They felt the same way about you, Jack." Molly patted his arm.
Making a faintly embarrassed gesture with his hand, Jack turned to yell up the stairs, as he had so many times over the years. "Hurry up, Jen! We have reservations."
* * * *
Upstairs in her bedroom, Jen grinned. It sounded just the way it used to, when the boys would be anxious to go grab a pizza and yelled impatiently as they waited for her.
Even the living arrangements were almost exactly the same, with the girls all under one roof … herself, Cee Cee, Molly and now her darling Vicky. Her baby had a whole houseful of doting aunt babysitters. Only Kevin was missing, and that was by his own choice.
The slight jitters in her stomach eased. After all this wasn't a date. It was just dinner with Jack. He’d suggested it after being reminded of her birthday. Her sisters had probably shamed him into it.
"I'm going to check her first," Cee Cee called from outside the bedroom door. Then she strolled in to survey her older sister. She was carrying a skirt in one hand.
"Do I pass inspection, Mom?" Jen asked.
She wasn't entirely kidding. How a changeling like Cee Cee had been born into their casual family, Jen didn't know, but her opinion on how people looked mattered. With her sleek dark brown hair cut in a short blunt cut and her exotic green eyes, Cecilia Turner knew what looked good on herself and on others. She'd done some modeling and still had offers to go to New York for fashion shoots. So far Cee Cee had ignored the offers. Jen didn't know why, but no one dared ask much about why Cee Cee did anything.
"Jack, hang on," Cee Cee called again.
She turned to Jen and pushed a skirt into her hand.
"I suppose the shirt will do—it isn't too old maidish, but the skirt must go up a few inches," Cee Cee told her, calmly. "This isn't a business lunch, kid. Jack's taking you out to one of the best restaurants in town. Play it right and maybe you can go dancing afterwards."
"That skirt won't match my shoes," Jen pointed out, trying not to sound desperate. Cee Cee's skirts were fine for Cee Cee, but Jen didn't have the courage to wear something that would barely cover her butt and fit like a second skin.
"That's an added bonus." Cee Cee patted her a bit too sweetly on the shoulder. "I know you have some other shoes somewhere."
She stuck her head in the closet and pulled out another pair.
"My feet will cramp in those!" Jen protested. "Those heels are probably three inches high."
"You'll live." Cee Cee shrugged without sympathy. "And you'll live dangerously. Dress your age for once. Why look fifty-six when you are only going to be twenty-six?"
After a few more protests and some quick cosmetic touch-ups by Cee Cee, her younger sister pushed Jen in front of the mirror.
"Now you're ready," she told her.
Jen looked at her hair, put up in a French twist, stared at the possibly illegal skirt and blinked. She didn't look as stupid as she thought. Instead her legs looked impossibly long in the dark nylons and high heels, her shirt suddenly looked much sexier than she had ever imagined, and Cee Cee's makeup made her face look rather mysterious and alluring. This was an outfit Cee Cee could handle without a qualm. Maybe she could, too.
If she didn't fall off her high heels.
"I guess I do look like I'm ready for a night out," Jen finally admitted.
"And now you won't embarrass Jack. He's a sweetheart for taking you out for your birthday, but he has his standards, you know." Cecilia sounded like Jen was about three years old and was likely to get crayon marks on her clothes if an adult wasn't watching.
"Gee, thanks." Jen briefly thought of some of the gorgeous women she had seen Jack escort into his house next door.
She couldn't possibly match up to most of them, but she didn't look too bad. Besides, she wasn't going into his bedroom tonight. She just needed to look good for her own ego. Jen winked at the reflection in the mirror. She had to admit that her ego felt pretty good right now.
"Okay, Jack, she's presentable." Cee Cee firmly propelled her out of the bedroom and toward the stairs.
Molly stopped talking and Jack stood up as she entered the room. He looked her up and down for longer than she had expected. The silence lengthened.
"Am I okay?" Jen asked at last.
"You'll do," he told her, but there was a certain tone in his voice that made Jennifer grin.
"I look pretty hot, huh?" She smoothed her skirt.
"You'll do just fine."
"Then let's go, Jack."
* * * *
At the restaurant Jen paused for a moment after ordering, looking at Jack uncertainly.
"So what do you want to talk about?" she asked. "We can't talk about work, since that's too ordinary. Ditto talk about Vicky or the girls."
"How about how beautiful you look?" Jack offered.
"Well, as delightful as that would be, I think we might run out of conversation in a few minutes," Jen snorted.
"Oh, I think I could keep talking about you a little longer than that." Jack leaned forward over the table. "I've been known to go on at length about my date's charms. It usually works, too."
"I'm not that vain." Jen shook her head. "And as for what it works for—well, let's not go into that. I suppose I could reciprocate, though. After all, you look pretty nice yourself. That could drag the conversation out a bit more."
The waiter brought the wine Jack had ordered and Jen watched him taste it and nod. The waiter began to pour for both of them.
He never made a big deal of it, but Jack knew his way around expensive restaurants. Going to one certainly wasn't the big deal to him that it was to her. Still, it was incredibly nice of him to offer to take her.
"Kevin called to say he'd have some leave around Thanksgiving," Jen ventured. "He'll come home for the holiday. We haven't seen him since he left for overseas."
"How does he like the Army?"
"I guess the military suits him. I assume he's going to stay in it. He hasn't said anything to the contrary. It'll be great to see him again. I hope Molly and Cee Cee are nice to him."
"They're still angry?" Jack asked.
"Yes, I'm afraid so. What they expected of a twenty-year-old who hadn't even graduated from college, I don't know," Jen sighed.
"Maybe they're comparing his behavior to a certain twenty-three-year-old’s," Jack told her. "She did all right by her family. She always has."
"Thanks." Jennifer waved her hand in dismissal of the praise. "But let's change the subject."
"Here, have some wine. It's delicious and will give you a minute to think of a new subject for our conversation."
After sipping, Jen told him, "You're invited for Thanksgiving, of course, Jack. Do you have any other plans?"
Victor had no family and Jack might just as well not have, either. For years Jack and Victor had been part of the family gatherings. After the accident there hadn't been much of any family anything.
"You think I might want to join dear Mama and her latest in—Palm Springs, I think it is." Jack almost sneered. That was unusual. Jack normally maintained a grim silence about his family. "Or perhaps Daddy would want me down at the ranch in Texas with his trophy wife and the half-siblings. It boggles my mind that I have brothers and sisters who're a little older than Vicky. I guess it's no surprise Daddy seems to fear I might have too much in common with his wife. She's is a lot closer to my age than his."
"Jack." Jen put her hand on his arm. "I didn't mean it that way. But you know that for the last few holidays you’ve done things like go skiing or flown down to someplace sunny. You can come to our place if you don't have anything better to do. We'd love to see you."
"There could be nothing better than going to your place." Jack sounded sincere. "I like my ski trips and beach trips. I can't lie about that. But the only reason I haven't shown up recently is that I didn't think anyone wanted to celebrate."
"Well, maybe you were right," Jen sighed. "But I want to this year. I'm happy Kevin'll be back and Vicky's getting old enough to enjoy holidays."
"I want to see Vicky get mashed potatoes all over her face and see you cope with cooking a turkey." He smiled at her. "I wouldn't miss it."
"Oh no." Jen shook her head. "We have new rules. The visitors bring the turkey."
"There's a joke I could make now, but it's too obvious," he said.
"Actually, never mind. If I insisted on that, you'd just make poor Mrs. Beale fix it, wouldn't you?"
"Well, she is my housekeeper. I bet she cooks a great turkey. I could ask her."
"You make her suffer enough. I wouldn't demand that of her as well," Jen told him, loftily. "I don't know why she has stayed with you all these years."
Jack's smile softened. Ida Beale had been the housekeeper at his place since he was a boy. She had probably stayed with him for longer periods of time than both his parents put together.
"I don't know why she puts up with me, either. She probably enjoys the chance to scold me." He toyed with the fork on the table.
"Maybe I'll invite her over for Thanksgiving instead, seeing as she can cook," Jen said.
"Ah, and speaking of cooking, here's dinner."
Dinner was wonderful. Dessert was wonderful. Jennifer declined his offer of dancing afterward, being mindful of her high heels and the fact that they both had work tomorrow. Besides, with the look Jack had in his eyes—well, she was probably imagining things, but perhaps dancing wouldn't be prudent.
They strolled out to the parking lot with Jack holding her arm very correctly. His parents might not have been wonderful human beings, but they did manage to teach him wonderful manners. If the warmth of his hand, pressed firmly on her skin, felt a little too good, that was her problem.
The valet pulled up in a small Volvo. It wasn't new, but it was just as shiny as the latest model.
"Thanks." Jack tipped him.
Jen looked at him and said, incredulously, "Jack, how much've you had to drink? This isn't your Lexus."
"Happy birthday, Jen." He looked at her, a little defiantly. "Hope you enjoy your twenty-sixth."
Jen blinked. Suspicion formed. She blinked again.
"What is that?" she began.
"Your birthday present. Okay so it isn't midnight and your birthday yet. Sue me," he said.
"Who got me this?"
"I did. Cee Cee and Molly chipped in. Kevin sent some money also." His voice was very even.
"Why do you think I would accept such—such an expensive present?"
"We can get to the where and how questions later, Reporter Jen," Jack retorted. "But the why is easy. You need a new car."
"Do you really expect me to believe my kid brother and sisters actually could afford to put any real money into this? I know who paid for this, and Jack, I can't accept a present like this from you." Jen glared at him.
"Don't you like it?" he coaxed, holding out the keys.
"Of course. That isn't the point. The point is…”
"The point is that you had a piece of junk. Maybe you want to risk your life, but what about Vicky? Don't you remember your parents died in a car accident? This is a good, safe car. Don’t argue with me. You need one." Jack moved closer to her.
"Don't try to out-argue me, you—you lawyer." Jen reached to push him further away.
"Damn it, the point is…” He looked down and felt something crack inside him. She looked so fierce and so vulnerable with her lips trembling and eyes blazing. "The point is I want to give this to you and—oh, to hell with the point."
Jack bent down to do what he'd told himself would never happen. That long-kept promise crumpled up and blew away when Jen's face turned up to his, as if she craved the same thing he did.
Her breath caught as their lips met. That caught breath let her lips part long enough for him to slide his tongue inside. To explore the sweetness of her mouth for just a moment. He wanted that. He needed that. How long had it been since he first imagined what she would feel like?
She tasted just the way he'd fantasized. Better.
He might've handled it, kept things light and exploratory, pretended he just meant to keep her quiet a moment … but their tongues met. Oh. God. She didn't turn from him.
She should've slapped his face. Shook her head. Stepped back. He would've stopped with just a gesture from her.
Instead she made a small sound in the back of her throat. She trembled.
Maybe she was afraid.
Maybe she liked it.
He couldn't help himself. Jack found himself pulling her closer. Yes. He wanted her closer. He wanted to be inside her. He wanted to consume her.
He might not know what Jennifer meant by letting the kiss go on, but he knew what he felt. He'd been angry with her. Furious at just the idea she would refuse his gift. But now the fury was being overwhelmed by the way he always felt, deep down, around her.
Her fingers closed around his shoulders. She wasn't pushing him away. Oh God, yes.
He was hungry. Starving. He was turning into fire and she wasn't stopping him.
The kiss only took seconds to ignite. Punishing, passionate. Fierce.
Sweet, powerful, drugging…
He could feel a trickle of sweat crawl down his back. He was hard. Harder than he could ever remember being. Jen was soft. He wanted—
The old protective instincts fought one last time before he went up in flames. The rich desire sweeping over him was almost overwhelming, but he'd been careful too long. His last remaining sane thought shrieked a warning.
This was all wrong.
He stepped back fast, before he stopped thinking again.
"Take the keys, Jen," he said. "Damn it, you will accept this. Take it for Vicky, if not for yourself."
* * * *
Jen shook her head a little. What had happened?
After a kiss like that, to have him go back to the argument without missing a beat was disorienting. She couldn't even speak for a moment while he stood in front of her, seemingly unaffected.
"No," she told him at last.
Thank God she could remember what was going on. Remember and get angry.
She got up as close to nose to nose with him as she could—thank heaven she was wearing her highest heels—and very distinctly told him, "No."
"I towed your old car," Jack answered. "You'll have no transportation if you don't take it. My staff needs to come in on time. You can't rely on public transportation if you need to leave late."
"I rarely stay late." Jen's words were spaced evenly. She could hear ice forced out with each one.
For just a minute she could understand all the fearful respect he got at the firm from everyone else. He was ruthless when he wanted something.
Well, too bad!
"I'm the boss, honey." He crossed his arms. "You stay late if I say so or you're out of a job."
"So I take the car or lose my job? Who are you? The King of Siam?" Jen raged, the ice gone now, melted with the heat of her fury. "This is the most irrational, most illogical, most ruthless bit of maneuvering I've ever seen anyone try to do to me."
"I'll do what it takes to get you to accept that car," Jack said. "You know I've wanted you out of that heap you owned for years. It was junk when you had it in graduate school. It's worse now."
"You'll do what? Fire me, force me into submission by kissing me? Or would you try seducing me into agreement? I wonder."
"Is that an invitation? I'd love to take you up on that." He growled out the words from low in his throat and she saw his eyes shift down to her breasts. His hands bit into her shoulders as he pulled her near. They were so close that Jen suddenly realized he was aroused. She could feel him, hard and potent underneath that elegant suit. "Do you think I wouldn't? Couldn't?"
They looked at each other and Jen swallowed.
She'd never seen Jack quite like this. Angry, aroused, domineering. She wasn't sure how to respond.
Of course he had known how she would react to this all the while he had been playing charming host and all the while she had been enjoying herself, unprepared. Jen mentally took a step back and rethought what to do.
"Of course I believe you could, Jack," she said, quietly. "You're a very accomplished seducer. I've seen you at work for years. But you wouldn't. Not to me. Maybe we should stop being angry and work out a compromise."
"What do you have in mind?"
He wasn't backing off, even though they both knew, both could feel his aroused body pressed against her.
Was this some crazy plan on his part to win his argument? Whatever it was, her knees felt about ready to buckle. Steady. Maybe there was just a little too much passion here. They were both losing sight of the argument. Reason could work. Reason almost always worked with Jack.
"I'll take it on loan, Jack," she told him. "Since you were so kind as to get rid of my only other method of transportation, I'll have to accept. But I'll ask Accounting to take ten percent of my paycheck and transfer it to you every payday until I've paid you back."
"You want the entire firm to start wondering what the hell kind of blackmail I am into?" Jack stared at her. "Fine. If you must, you can pay me personally when you get your paycheck. Damn you."
Gotcha. Jen smiled. It meant less pay for her, but he was going to accept her terms.
"Deal," she responded, coolly. "You can stop looming over me now. Pig."
But she said it without as much heat. Getting the better of Jack in anything he set his mind to do—and he seemed willing to use any method to win this time—was rare. He didn't move immediately as he looked down at her.
"Deal." He frowned. "Mule."
* * * *
Gotcha. He had authority to issue up to an annual ten percent raise for his subordinates when and how he saw fit—any more was a matter for the firm to decide. But what he could decide, he would. Ms. Turner was about to get her annual raise next week.
And she was right to try using that reasonable tone of voice on him. They needed to use reason. If he didn't back off now he might do something really stupid, like fall to his knees in front of her.
He didn't even want to think about what he might do with her in that position.
* * * *
Jack stepped back and, in a courtly gesture, offered her the car keys. They smiled at each other, relieved the crisis was over and suddenly mutually amused.
"I'm afraid this means you'll have to drive home," he told her. "Luckily you drank less wine than I did."
"Get in the car, Jack." Jennifer clicked open the car door locks. "You're right. You obviously have had too much to drink. Since you're very concerned with vehicular safety as I can tell, we'll pick up your car tomorrow."
"Delighted, Ms. Turner." He moved toward the passenger side. "I just love having some big, strong woman take charge of me."
"I suppose you say that to all the girls," Jen murmured as she opened the car doors.
"Every single one," he agreed and folded himself into the passenger's side. "Go on. Take me home, baby. All the way home."
"You really are a pig, Jack." She then turned to kiss him squarely on the mouth. In gratitude, of course. "But such a sweet one."
He moved toward her. For just a minute she thought something more would happen and her breath stopped. Then he relaxed back into his seat and smiled.
"Just for you, Jen," he said. "I don't have to buy cars for all my women. You can be the exception."
She laughed and gunned the engine.
"You're definitely over being mad, aren't you?" He looked at her, slyly. "I mean, the girls told me what kind of car you had said you wanted. I did think about what you'd like. Right, Jen?"
"I wonder how fast a Volvo can go?" she taunted.
"Not as fast a Lexus, kid, so don't even think about trying to beat me to work," Jack said.
"So that's your nefarious plot?" She nodded. "Preparing to dock my pay because I come in late?"
"Don't think I won't." He smiled again. "Now try it out, Jen. I know you want to."
Jen drove sedately out of the parking lot and then let the tires squeal just a little bit.
"Jack, last night when the girls were talking about my birthday, you acted surprised," Jen remembered suddenly. "Did you actually arrange this all in one day?"
"Honey, guess what? I'm a lawyer."
"I've heard rumors to that effect."
"You know what lawyers are?"
"They're sneaky, conniving sons of bitches. Do you really think I would forget your birthday? We had this worked out for weeks. Cee Cee made the overseas call to Kevin. They all really did contribute to the car, Jen. To the whole scheme. The girls and I went out to the car lots to check out the best car for you. Molly drove the car here tonight and took a taxi home. Of course I masterminded the whole thing."
"I'll keep that in mind the next time I think I can trust you."
"You do that, Jen. You do that. Remember that I can't be trusted an inch. Not an inch."
"Jack, despite this being a sneaky thing to do, I really love you."
"I know, hon."
"Now hang on tight. We'll see how fast a Volvo can go."
"Hey, you weren't supposed to use this thing as a racecar!"
Laughing like a maniac, she stepped on the gas and the car sped off into the night.
* * * *
When she came home, still chuckling a little, she saw Molly was waiting up for her. Jen paused to make a face at her little sister.
"Things are okay, then?" Molly asked.
"Jack and I yelled at each other some, but yeah. You shouldn't have done it, you know."
"We know. Vicky is safe in bed. Good night." Molly exited hastily.
Jen smiled as she climbed the stairs, but she could feel the loneliness start again. This was her birthday. People started thinking about what they'd done with their life so far on their birthdays. She wasn't where she had planned to be by now.
Jen felt the tears begin to slip down her cheeks as she shut the bedroom door. She let out a slow breath. Now she had done it.
* * * *
It was night in the rain forest. The man who lay on the blankets on the rough floor opened his eyes.
It'd been a dream. There'd been an airport and someone crying. Someone he cared about.
Once again his mind fumbled. He saw the tears on her face. She was crying about her parents. Yes, her parents. There was something wrong with them. He could see her explaining the problem to him but he couldn't hear the words.
Then he heard his voice echoing in his head.
Jen, I love you.
Yes, her name was Jen and she was crying and she was beautiful and he loved her.
Then, suddenly, miraculously, he heard her voice in his head, replying.
Victor, I love you, too—
His body jerked, so abruptly that it jarred his leg. The pain made him grunt. It had finally happened. He had a name again. His name was Victor.
His name was Victor and he had spoken English to her with an American accent. He knew he could speak Spanish, because he had been able to make himself understood to the rubber tappers who housed him, but he had known his accent was not theirs. He knew part of it was that they were in a remote region and their Spanish was mixed with a much more native tongue. Now he knew the other reasons. He was able to speak Spanish but English also came easily to him. His Spanish came from a different country entirely.
His name was Victor, he was from the United States of America and his woman's name was Jen.
It wasn't much to remember after all this time. He wasn't even precisely sure how long it had been, since he had been out for so long after the accident and the rubber tappers were not exactly forthcoming with their information. Pieces had been coming back for months now but this was the first useful information he had remembered.
The gnawing worry in his gut, the worry he had refused to admit until it was now eased, subsided so abruptly that he almost jerked again. The remembered pain of the last time he moved kept his body still. It was going to be all right.
He had a home, he had a name—even if the last name eluded him for the moment—and he had a woman waiting for him. He was going to figure out how the hell to get back to where he came from. Even if it all didn't seem quite real to him yet, he knew that the images in his head came from a real place and time.
He just needed to wait it out a little longer. He was suddenly sure it was going to happen. He was going to get back. He wasn't going to be trapped here forever, wondering why he was here and who he was. It might take a while—he remembered he was near the Amazon but he wasn't even entirely sure what country he had landed in.
It seemed to be a rubber plantation on the very edge of the very isolated rain forest. It wouldn't be easy to get to an airplane and home. But he was that much closer to managing it now that his memory was returning. He pulled up the blankets and went back to sleep.
Maybe if he kept dreaming he'd be able to remember more.
* * * *
Jen woke up with a start. Oh God. The dreams were changing. Instead of the same one, over and over, about the airport, the dream had continued. Now she was imagining Victor alive. Of course he could be alive. He could be remembering who he was right now.
It seemed so real. She could feel his thoughts, see him in the jungle, desperately trying to remember his name, to remember her.
But she must be wrong. She must be so out of touch with reality she was creating a new one for herself. That meant she had to do something.
She'd only been pretending to herself all this time. Move on? She hadn't moved on. She was still fantasizing about her high school boyfriend, only now her fantasies had become dangerous.
She had to do more. Push herself to do more than just dream.
* * * *
"Jennifer Turner, are you sure?" Molly asked. "What's he like?"
"Please. You don't have to make it sound as if it's impossible." Jennifer was vaguely annoyed. "I'm not that unattractive."
"Two dates with two men in one week? Jennifer, I don't think you've ever done that in your life," Cee Cee pointed out.
She probably hadn't. The only "date" she'd ever had, or at least the only one she could remember that ever mattered, was Victor.
"I don't think Jack counts as a date." Jennifer dismissed the idea.
"A lot of other women would count him as a date," Cee Cee told her.
"Yeah, but I know Jack. I really want to know about this new guy." Molly wasn't going to be diverted. "I can't believe you're going to go out with someone you haven't known since high school."
"Yeah, well maybe she needs to go out with someone she hasn't known since high school. You know, like a normal person." Cee Cee gave the words her most sarcastic twist.
"Will you two be quiet!" Jennifer snapped. "I'm nervous enough as it is. His name is James. James Wystall. He's an attorney."
"Well, that figures." Cee Cee rolled her eyes. "Who else would Jennifer meet? She never goes anywhere but to work."
"Is he at your firm?" Molly asked.
"No, of course not. Our firm has a policy against employees dating each other. People have been fired for doing it. James' firm has a lot of work with our firm and we got to know each other while he and Jack deposed the same people. Anyhow, when I mentioned it was my birthday, he invited me out for drinks. It's all very simple. Got it?"
"Sure. I just never figured you would ever go out with anyone again," Cee Cee muttered.
"Shut up." Jennifer responded with as much dignity as she could.
Truthfully, she wondered if she would have even noticed James, much less accepted his invitation, if it hadn't been for her night out with Jack. The undertones of that evening had left her disturbed. She felt a little itchy. Achy.
If she could imagine making love with Jack after all these years, she must be ready to go out and meet a member of the opposite sex. Damn that kiss. She couldn't stop thinking about how good it had felt. It had been two years since she last had made love and she was now frustratingly aware of how much she missed sex. Not, of course, that she planned to try anything with James immediately. But maybe it was time for her to make a fresh start into the whole man-woman jungle.
"So what is this guy like?" Molly asked again.
"Well, he's a little older…”
"Probably around thirty-five or forty, I guess. He's in good shape, okay? Not heavy, umm, about medium height."
"N—no. Not really."
"Maybe a little."
"No! Now stop it, you two! I won't have you grilling him like—like annoying little sisters when he comes to pick me up tonight. He is a pleasant man who invited me out for a pleasant night at the Kennedy Center and that is all you two need to know. In fact, I'm starting to wonder if you needed to know that."
"What're you going to wear?" Cee Cee asked next.
"I suppose I'll wear what I did with Jack this week. Everyone seemed to think that looked good," Jennifer thought out loud.
"It might be too good for someone we don't know about." Her sister scowled. "Jack can handle it. I don't know if this guy can."
With that bit of help and encouragement, Jen decided it was no wonder she was so nervous when it came time for James to pick her up. The girls had spirited Vicky off since they explained there was no need to spring a baby daughter on a first date. Jen hesitated, then agreed. Otherwise that could involve explanations that she had no intention of making so soon. Still, it made her feel odd.
He arrived promptly. That shouldn't have been any surprise, but at the sound of the doorbell Jen almost dropped the perfume bottle she had been holding while she tried to decide if she should put that particular scent on.
She heard one of her sisters answer the door. Jen made a face. Now her sisters would be in position to ask questions of the man before he even got in the door. She put the bottle down and hastened down the stairs.
James Wystall stood as she walked in the room, smiling at her as he did. She relaxed. Everything was fine. Cecilia sat in the room, looking demure, as James bent to pick up his coat.
"It's a little chilly out," he said. "Let me help you on with your coat."
He said good-bye very nicely to Cecilia as they left. Jen thanked him as he opened the door for her. She told herself firmly, once again, that she was going to have a very pleasant, very grown-up evening with him. Very, very pleasant.
It was probably the knowing look on Cecilia's face that made Jen's heart drop as they left the front door.
* * * *
Jen walked into the house, head throbbing and mouth hurting from the fixed smile she'd had on her face throughout the evening. She opened the door as quietly as possible, then stopped. The light in the living room wasn't on just to guide her in. Her sisters were sitting up and—oh horrors! Jack was there, too.
"Well?" Molly looked at her, expectantly.
"We had a bite to eat at a very nice restaurant in the city and the play was very well done," Jen said evenly, refusing to meet anyone's eyes.
"And?" Cee Cee prompted.
"And then he brought me home." Jen turned away. "Here, let me take these shoes off. My feet are killing me."
She kicked them off, still refusing to meet anyone's eyes. The silence spread for a long moment. Jennifer idly fingered the flower arrangement she had put up on the coffee table. No one said anything still. She looked up.
"We talked about his job. We talked about my job. We talked about politics. He talked about golf. Eventually we stopped talking and went outside the Kennedy Center to see the view from the plaza. It was spectacular. He kissed me there—once, very lightly on the lips—since there were other people around. He asked me out again. I said I'd think about it."
"And will you?" Cee Cee asked.
"I doubt it. There, does that sum it all up for you?"
"I could have told you that whole scenario the second I looked at him." Cee Cee looked smug. "The man didn't have an interesting bone in his body. No sexiness at all. Face it, Jen, you're used to better."
"Stop it." Jen was suddenly close to tears. "I had to try, didn't I? What I was used to before doesn't count."
"I'll go make some tea." Molly moved away, sensing danger.
"And bring some aspirin." Jen held her forehead. "I can't stay up late at night any more. It just kills me."
"I'll get it," Cee Cee moved quickly.
Jen wheeled to look at Jack, who was still sitting quietly in the easy chair.
"Well, why did you have to check my date out?" For a moment the anger at seeing him here almost drove out the headache. "You know James. I suppose you'll claim you knew how it would turn out."
"Hey, Jen, I'm sorry you didn't get lucky tonight," Jack said, almost quoting her words back to her. "Hearing the post-mortem on the date almost gave me the chills. It makes me wonder what women tell their friends and sisters after I drop them off."
He stood up, his hands in his back pockets, smiling. The smile didn't quite reach his eyes, however.
"I was here because I needed to see you were all right," he told her. "I thought I knew how you would react to Wystall. I was more concerned how he would react to you. You're a very sexy lady. I'm glad you're starting to poke your head up out of the sand and take a look around at the world. But you need to start picking better men to go out with. You could do better."
"I appreciate your advice." Jen got the words out through gritted teeth.
"Now me, I wouldn't care if there were other people around if I wanted to kiss you." He stood there and watched her. "You'd just have to give me a look—one look—and I'd kiss you witless. I might not stop there, depending on the situation. But then I don't consider myself boring."
"No, you aren't boring. Sometimes you are boorish, however." Jen snapped the words out.
"Oh, I think I've been quite gentlemanly with you, Jen." Jack took a step closer to her. "When we went out, I was very restrained, wasn't I? I took my cues from you."
Why was she feeling more sparks than mere anger would create? Jen knew what the tingling awareness meant. It tightened her breasts. It weakened her knees.
Damn celibacy. She was finally losing her self-control. But why now? Why Jack?
"We quarreled in the middle of a parking lot," Jen reminded him.
"That was much more restrained than what I wanted to do with you." Jack looked grim.
"You did kiss me, Jack."
"I stopped. Don't I get points for stopping?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Jen said, crossly, and turned when Molly came with the tea and aspirin. "Thank you, Molly. I thought I was going to die from this headache."
"No, damn it, I don't suppose you do yet." Jack retreated a few steps. "That means, I'm afraid, that it's time for me to go home."
"Sweet dreams, Jen."
Jen gave a bitter laugh. If only he knew!
Cecilia came into the room, hesitantly, standing close to Molly as Jack left. The two of them looked at her, suddenly big-eyed and looking about as young as Vicky. The worst was that she wasn't sure if that was how they felt or they had decided to pretend to feel that way. Jen gulped her aspirin and sighed.
"You have something more to discuss?" Jen asked.
"I'm sorry, Sis," Cecilia said. "We're both sorry. You just—well, we aren't used to having you go off on dates and changing things. I guess it kind of shook us up a little. You've been really great to us when we try stuff out and like, well, when I go out with guys. We weren't very nice to you."
"Well, I guess it was an experiment for all of us." Jen could feel the headache fading just a little bit with the words. "It's too bad it didn't work out, but that's what an experiment is for."
"I think you should experiment more with someone else," Molly told her.
"I suppose I'll have to, if I ever want to get the hang of this dating thing." Jen smiled, ruefully. "It may be more trouble than it's worth."
"No, I mean one particular someone else. I think you should go out with Jack."
Jen saw Cee Cee's elbow graze Molly's ribs.
"Yeah, right." Jen laughed a little. "I think I should go out with a guy I've been friends with ever since high school, too. Friends are all we have ever been for years now. I think we should leave Jack alone."
"What's wrong with him? He's handsome, he's funny, he's rich, he certainly is sexy." Molly stepped away from her sister's prodding and glared at her. "Just stop it, Cee Cee."
"He is my boss, he was Victor's best friend and we have no interest in each other," Jen said, firmly. "I think those are plenty of good reasons. Besides, Jack deserves better than having me experiment on him, too. And much better than having two pesky little sisters prying into his love life."
"He wouldn't mind," Molly muttered and took another hasty step away from her middle sister.
"Well, I would. Enough." Jen stood up. "It has been a very long evening and I'm ready for bed."
"Well, it could've been worse." Cecilia was thoughtful. "You could've had old James in it."
Jen took a pillow from the couch and threw it at her. All of them started to laugh.
Then Jen walked up the stairs and to her daughter's crib. Vicky was sleeping, looking as angelic as a sleeping toddler could. Jen very lightly touched her dark hair. Vicky looked so beautiful and so much like her father, just as intense asleep as awake.
What was she doing, dating men she hardly knew and hiding her daughter from them? The whole thing was ridiculous anyhow. She didn't have time to meet some man, much less get to know him well enough to tell him the story of her crazy life.
Jen heard upraised voices below her and wondered what the girls were arguing about now. Cee Cee had certainly been trying to tell Molly something. Oh well, it hardly mattered. She would find out soon enough if it was important.
"Anyhow, baby, I know you're the important thing." Jen whispered to her little girl. "There's nothing else in the whole world as important."
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