December 24, 2007
At six p.m. on Christmas Eve, Karen Morgan once more stared at the bare, dark trees in Central Park as she waited in her empty suite at the Plaza for Howard to arrive. He had telephoned that he was on his way from the office, and he had reservations at seven at La Vache, a trendy French bistro ten blocks away. What was Stan doing that night, she wondered.
Knocking interrupted her thoughts. Why couldn’t Howard carry a key? He was such a baby: dependent on her, his secretary, his paralegal, and his junior associate. He was fully functional only in a court room.
To her surprise a messenger was standing at the door. He handed her a package that held two, blue Tiffany’s boxes and smiled. “Mr. Morgan wanted these delivered.”
“Thanks.” Karen took the package and sat down on the sofa in the living room. She pulled out identical boxes and stared at them for a moment. Howard never bought her more than one gift. She was too puzzled to wait for tomorrow. She’d act surprised when she opened them. Carefully she pulled the silver ribbon off of each one and looked inside. Identical diamond bracelets. Clearly one was meant for her, the other for someone else. But whom?
Probably Meg Atkins, the highly attractive blonde, twenty-eight-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears junior associate who was part of Howard’s litigation team. Apparently Meg didn’t mind spending Christmas helping Howard prepare for trial. Howard had mentioned that he had asked her and her husband to come to New York over Christmas because he needed Meg’s help. Karen wracked her brain to remember what the husband looked like. She’d seen him standing next to Meg at the Christmas party. He was about his wife’s age, an earnest, owlish tax attorney who worked in Warrick, Thompson’s pension planning section. Odds were he’d never know what the senior partner had given his wife for Christmas.
Karen had vague knowledge of Howard’s various affairs over the years, but this was the first hard evidence she had come across. She could confront him, but it would be pointless. He would deny it and claim the bracelet was to reward Meg’s hard work on the case. Even if she pointed out that it was professionally inappropriate, Howard would ignore her. He did what he wanted to do; he always had. What she wanted was inevitably irrelevant.
Besides, Karen thought as she wrapped the two boxes up again and put them back in the larger box they had come in, her feelings for Howard, if they had ever existed, had been extinct for years. The most horrible part of this discovery was not that Howard was sleeping with another woman. The horrible part was knowing down to the depths of her soul she didn’t care.
* * *
December 24, 2007
Stan lay in bed at two thirty a.m., wide awake. Terri had dropped off the minute her head hit the pillow. Thank God. He had been in no mood for sex that night.
They had played a Christmas party at the Hotel Del with Epic. Terri had looked daggers at Cat all night, and done everything possible to upstage her. In the process, she’d upstaged Marilyn, too. Bad move, he reflected. It was Marilyn’s band. At forty-five, she was highly sensitive to being shoved out of the spotlight by the twenty-somethings. Cat was smart enough to understand the politics and stay away from Marilyn’s toes. But Terri was determined to make her mark to impress Stan. She might not ever work Epic again.
He really hoped so. Marilyn had been so pissed she’d taken him aside during the first break to heap well-deserved blame on his head. Terri was his live-in. Why was he leading Cat on? Make up his mind, so the band drama would go away. Marilyn hated band drama.
Stan got up without waking Terri, who’d had too many pink martinis during the breaks. He went into the living room and slumped on the sofa. He looked around. The house was his, free and clear. He’d won it in Vegas on a lucky streak a few years back. He’d never expected to have a place of his own. He smiled because at last he actually had a home no one could kick him out of.
He knew he should tell Terri it was over. He looked at the sad, spare little Christmas tree slumped in the corner with a few presents underneath. Tomorrow wouldn’t be a good day for the news. But there was a deeper reason why he didn’t just tell her to pack and go.
When he’d met Terri, he’d become tired of the endless flow of women through the revolving door of his life. One night stands had gotten dull. The women on the chat lines predictably swooned over his profession and made conquest far too easy. He liked Terri’s spunk and determination to make it as a singer, and her complete oblivion to how cheap she actually was. He’d sworn he’d make it work even though he didn’t love her. Maybe even start a family. Well, no, not that. But he’d promised himself to stay with her, so he wouldn’t be alone.
He had never really been alone since he’d discovered how to charm women in his early twenties. And after he was widowed, they lined up to comfort him, each one determined to be “the one” to make him forget Deanna. But now he was sick of the compromise that Terri and all his relationships represented. He’d seen the real thing just a week ago. Tonight’s gig had been torture. Every time he’d looked into the crowd, he’d pictured Carrie’s face as she gazed up at him during the Warrick, Thompson party. And he’d have given twenty years of his life to see her in the crowd that night on Christmas Eve at the Del. What was she doing? He couldn’t imagine she’d been making love with that prick of a husband who likely couldn’t do it anymore anyway. Not wild, passionate Carrie Moon. She would never go to bed with a robot. Where did she live? He tried to imagine her house. She’d had a charming little condo in Del Mar back in their day. What had she created for herself and the prick? And then a thought so chilling swept through Stan, that he got up and went to the kitchen and poured himself a stiff scotch straight up. Children. He hadn’t asked if she and the robot had any. The thought split his heart in two.
How he hated Lara. No, it wasn’t her fault. He hated himself. He’d used Lara the way he was using Cat now. He knew his pattern, but he was powerless to stop himself. He couldn’t give in to love and lose control. If only he could, he’d have spent the last twelve years with Carrie.
* * *
The phone woke him at ten a.m. on Sunday. Lara wanted to take him to brunch at Croce’s. She’d sung there the week before and had been paid with, among other things, a gift certificate.
He told himself seeing Lara would put Carrie out of his mind. But it didn’t. She seemed so plastic and artificial and cheap in her tank top and thigh high skirt, as she rubbed her legs against him under the table at every opportunity.
He managed to ditch her after the meal, pleading the need to practice. He walked by the bay for a while, but the ache in his heart didn’t ease. He tried practicing. That usually took his mind off of everything. But it didn’t. He kept seeing Carrie’s face looking up at him in the darkness of the club.
By three, he wondered if she were at work. He looked up Warrick, Thompson in the phone book and walked to the Emerald Shaprey Center, whose six hexagonal glass towers loomed over him and West Broadway, like an army of transparent Titans. The elevators in the marble lobby were guarded by a man in uniform who told him that Warrick, Thompson was on the twenty-sixth, twenty-fifth, and twenty-fourth floors. But off-limits until Monday morning.
Awed and intimidated by the corporate grandeur that separated his life from hers, he wandered back to his loft feeling tired and defeated. He’d screwed it up. He didn’t realize how much he’d miss her. And he didn’t know how to unscrew it.
When he pulled out the keys to his front door, the scrap of paper with her phone number fell out. It was worth a try.
She answered on the third ring. His heart was in his throat. “Carrie, it’s Stan. I thought you’d be at the office.”
“I was earlier in the day.” Voice flat. She wasn’t going to make it easy.
“Look, I’m sorry for the other night. It was a rotten thing to do. I miss you at the club. Harry misses you, too. Could we get together and talk?”
Silence. He struggled to keep his breathing even and the anxiety out of his voice.
“You mean now?”
“Well, it’s my only night off. If you’re not working, I mean.”
He could picture her eyes in thoughtful mode. Were they gray or green or that haunting mixture of color that defied a label?
“I’m at home. I’m tired. I’ve worked all weekend. If you want to come by, we could go for coffee.”
“You’re in Del Mar, right?”
“Let me buy you dinner. I used to play a lot at Sambuco’s back in the day. The food’s good. We’ll get a bottle of wine and talk.”
* * *
The condos were typical, coastal narrow stucco two-story buildings, directly on the ocean. Expensive, he thought. Hers was painted white, and he found her end unit without any difficulty. He followed the path from the parking lot to her front door but paused just outside. The haunting lilt of a flute playing Brazilian samba stopped him in his tracks. At first he thought it was a recording. But suddenly the tune shifted from throbbing syncopation to a passage from Mozart and the Magic Flute, and he realized she was the source. She was experimenting, he realized. And she was a damned good musician. Better than he had ever guessed.
He wanted to go on listening, but eavesdropping felt wrong. He rang the bell.
When she opened the door, she took his breath away. He had never seen her in anything but a suit or a cocktail dress. She was barefoot, wearing jeans and a white t-shirt and holding the flute in her long fingers. No makeup, and all that magnificent red hair loose around her shoulders. She looked about nineteen. This was Carrie Moon, the musician. The lawyer had disappeared. The change was so dramatic he could not speak for about thirty seconds.
“You sound amazing.”
“I didn’t think you still played.”
“I just started again.” She stepped aside, to let him in, then led the way down the white-tiled entry way to her living room. He noticed the music stand facing the ocean, which would have been visible in daylight through the sliding glass doors that dominated the room. He took in the comfortable, white sofa and matching chairs. Soft, black mohair throws cuddled beside red and black cushions, inviting him to sit and nestle among them. The walls were covered with abstract oils with slashes of orange, yellow, blue and green. Although the room exuded money and taste, it was also charming and inviting. But she, of course, spent little time there he reminded himself.
“What’s that?” he pointed to the page of thick notes on the music stand.
“The first movement of the Prokofiev flute sonata.”
“Play some of it for me?”
“I’ve played for you,” he reminded her.
She put the flute to her lips and took a long breath. The haunting opening melody filled the room.
He watched her face as she played. She was happy the way she was at the club. And when they’d made love. The sharp sting of Lara and why he was here hit him. He wished for the hundredth time he hadn’t been so insensitive.
“You shouldn’t have given up music as a career,” he said when she finished.
She smiled but did not look at him as her long fingers twisted the silver joints apart, swabbed them out, and put them back one by one in the leather case. “Maybe not. But I did.” The profound sadness in her voice touched him. She went on, “You can want something too much.”
“You told me that on one of the nights when we walked by the bay.”
Her stormy green eyes suddenly met his. “Or someone.” She closed the flute case with a sharp click.
“Let’s go to dinner,” he said.
* * *
He reached across the red-checked table cloth, in the candle light flickering against the red brick walls of Sambuco’s and took her hand.
“You’ve already said that.” The wine was taking the edge off her anger and distrust. Her eyes were beginning to sparkle again. Stan hoped he hadn’t blown it forever.
“Will you come back to the club?”
“That depends. Tell me about her.”
“Didn’t Harry explain?”
“In your own words. Who is she? Why is she important to you?”
So she was going to make this hard. Well, he deserved that.
“I met Lara and Deanna in Las Vegas. They were show girls at Caesar’s Palace. I played their gig that night. They were roommates.”
“And when Deanna died?”
“Harry told you. Lara and I have been an item, off and on. We end up in horrible fights.”
“Deanna. Lara claims I don’t love her, that I just use her to avoid admitting that Deanna is really gone.”
“And do you?”
“Do I what?”
Stan studied their hands twined together. Then he looked back at Carrie and the auburn glow of her hair in the pale yellow light.
“I thought I did. Until –”
She waited for him to finish. When he didn’t, she repeated, “Until?”
“I looked down that night at Harry’s and saw you looking up at me from the second row.”
She smiled, her entire face alight.
“Come back to the club?” he repeated. “Play with us?”
A shadow crossed her smile. “I don’t know about playing. I’m not a professional any more. I don’t have time to practice enough.”
“You sounded fine to me.”
“Endurance. I can’t play for hours the way I used to.”
“You could still sit in on some tunes.”
She smiled. “We’ll see.”
He rubbed his thumb along their entwined fingers. “Carrie, there’s another reason I want you to come back.”
Her green eyes met his. “Why, then?”
He sighed deeply, and studied their joined hands before meeting her steady gaze.
“I play better since you’ve come. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s because you actually know what I’m doing. If it’s good, you know. And if it sucks, well, you know that, too.”
“What about Lara?”
“She’ll be back on a cruise ship in a month. She’s never here long. Look, you said you saved the club so that you could hear me play. What was the good of that if you don’t come back?”
“You have a point.”
* * *
He walked her to the door, wishing she would ask him in.
But she opened it with her key and smiled from the threshold. “Thanks for tonight.”
“Sure. And, again, I’m sorry.”
“Understood. You can stop saying that now.”
“Tomorrow night, then? At Harry’s?”
“If I can get away.” She smiled and began to close the door.
Disappointed, he turned away and walked up the path toward the parking lot and his car. Wanting her close to him throbbed in his veins. He could smell her hair and taste her lips.
He opened his car door but stopped and stared at her building. He heard the rush of the ocean onshore and smelled the fresh, night sea breeze. And he remembered how it felt to hold her.
He closed the car and locked it. His heart pounding, he retraced his steps and knocked.
When she opened the door, he swept her into his arms. Her mouth opened hungrily under his, and she hugged him hard to her. Then, without a word, she smiled, kissed his open mouth, long and lingeringly, and led him down the hall to her bedroom.
* * *
He slept intermittently. He lost count of the times they made love. He felt like a man rescued from death. He had never thought anyone could love with the fire and intensity that burned inside of her. He was afraid it would consume him and yet afraid that it would not. He wanted to be one with her in a way he had never experienced with anyone else. If she consumed him or he consumed her, he could never lose her. He slept and woke to her fire over and over until dawn.
The alarm went off at six a.m. He struggled awake at the unaccustomed hour.
She wrapped him in her long, soft arms and whispered in his ear. “You don’t have to get up. Unfortunately, I do.” She kissed him, long and deeply; and he wanted her with that throbbing desire that blotted out all rational thought.
But she rolled away, and seconds later he heard the shower start in the adjoining bath. He dozed and wished she didn’t have to go to work.
A little later, she bent over the bed, now dressed in one of her usual conservative black suits. Carrie was gone, and now she was Karen the lawyer again. But she gave him another one of those bone-deep kisses and caressed his cheek.
“Sleep, sweetheart. There’s no rush for you to leave.”
He pulled her down to him in one long, last, glorious kiss. “Tonight at Harry’s. Ok?”
The front door clicked behind her. He sank deeply into the sheets that smelled of her and sex. After a while he drifted off in the soft dark of early morning.
When he woke, the sun was streaming hard bars of light through the blinds. He opened his eyes and saw the time, ten a.m. He got up slowly, showered, and dressed, savoring the creams and lotions and soaps that attested to her feminine presence. She had left a note in the kitchen that coffee was ready to be brewed in the pot. He made a cup and sat on her patio, savoring the deep rich hazelnut and watching the changeling Pacific, first blue then green in the morning sun. He missed her. He never allowed himself to miss anyone. And he missed her, down to his soul. But a warning bell was already going off within him: their lives were so different. She was locked in those massive glass towers downtown while he was alone here by the sea.
The entire ebook of Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks is available for purchase at Amazon. com, http://www.amazon.com/Ride-Your-Heart-Til-Breaks-ebook/dp/B00RDJQB8Q. Deborah is also the author of the award winning novel,Dance For A Dead Princess, http://www.amazon.com/Dance-For-Dead-Princess-ebook/dp/B00C4HP9I0