(Missed some? Read chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15.)
Q: What kind of nut sounds like a sneeze?
A: A cashewwwww.
— Laffy Taffy Joke #12
"Rhonda?" Phelps repeated.
I watched in horror as he ran forward and tried—unsuccessfully—to lift the obscenely pregnant Rhonda into a twirl. Though he couldn't get her off the ground, he threw his arms around her neck and returned the hug she gave him.
"You look fat," he teased.
"Pay no attention to him," Rhonda advised me. "He's been incorrigible since we were children."
I must have looked as confused as I felt, because Ph— Elliot explained. "We're cousins."
Cousins? Well that explained the big bear hug. But that didn't mean that she was welcome in my bedroom. Or my house for that matter.
Of course, it wasn't really my house to begin with, and it wouldn't even be in my family for much longer, but that was moot.
“Rick called me as soon as he dropped you off,” Rhonda explained. “Said he though he recognized Elliot from the family reunion three years ago. And when I found out he was accompanying you, I rushed right over.”
All this happy coincidence was making me ill. "If you'll excuse me," I said rather curtly, "I need to change for dinner."
I shut the door on three bewildered faces.
Whatever actually happened that night in Gavin's office, I was not ready to forgive all the involved parties. Rhonda may have found herself a new man—a husband even, if the nine-month bulge and impressive solitaire were any indication—but that didn't mean she was entirely innocent.
What kind of secretary kneels before her half-naked boss, no matter the situation?
My shoulders slumped. I knew I had been rude. Mixed feelings about kissing Ph—Elliot, getting caught by my mom, and facing the woman responsible for breaking up my last relationship overwhelmed me. Definitely mitigating circumstances.
A soft knock roused me from my recriminations. I figured it was most likely my mother, or maybe Ph—Elliot.
When I called out, "Come in," the last person I expected to see was Rhonda.
"Lydia," she said gently as she closed the door behind her, "I'm sorry if my presence has upset you."
"It hasn't, really, it's just that,"—I fidgeted with the hem of my blouse—"it was a surprise."
"We used to be friendly. Before..."
I sighed. "Yeah, before."
"I never knew what happened." She stayed next to the door, as if afraid to venture too far into the room. "What happened between you and Gavin."
She glowed with the inner light of expectant motherhood. A woman ready to nurture, and willing to use that nurturing instinct on me.
"Actually, Rhonda," I confessed as I lowered onto the bed. "What came between us was,"—my brained screamed out the word you, but my heart knew the real answer—"me."
"I don't understand."
As I started to explain what I saw that night, what I thought I saw, Rhonda walked over to the bed and sat by my side. Tears came as I recounted how betrayed I felt at the thought of Gavin cheating on me. And with a woman I considered a friend.
"Sweetheart," she soothed, rubbing a reassuring hand along my back, "you know that never happened."
"I-it just looked that way," I sobbed, "I was so sure of what I saw."
Rhonda patted her protruding belly. "This little angel will be our third. I've been happily married, and fully satisfied thank you very much, for five years. I would never cheat on my Rick." She leaned in for emphasis. "And if he cheated on me, I'd chop off his wiener and throw it in the blender on puree."
She spread her arms and I turned into her hug.
The tears didn't stop. My heart hurt.
"Did I make a horrible mistake?" I asked.
"If you were that quick to judge, even in the most compromising of circumstances, there must have been something lacking in your relationship to begin with. No woman confident in her love and her man's love so readily believes he's cheating. If it hadn't happened the way it did, it would have happened another way. Your relationship just wasn’t right."
What she said made sense. I had always believed that if a woman has doubts about the man she's with, then he's not the right man. I had never wanted to acknowledge that I had doubts about Gavin. I wanted to believe that our relationship was perfect, that we were made for each other, that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we would be happy forever.
Gradually the tears dried up and I realized that what Gavin and I had was never a relationship. It was a façade. At least on my part.
He was the picture perfect boyfriend—two years older, highly successful, dangerously attractive, and willing to settle down. When I looked at him that was all I ever saw. A good catch—a cardboard cutout of the perfect man I could unfold and stand next to on social occasions.
Gavin was right; I had never really loved him.
I never even really knew him.
"How did my life get so messed up?"
"Sweetheart, everyone's life is messed up," Rhonda countered. She stood and pulled me to my feet. "Most just don't realize it. Now let's go eat, I'm starved."
"Lydia, you remember Dustin Davenport," Mom called out the moment I walked in the kitchen. She indicated the well-dressed man to her left. "He's a doctor."
I rolled my eyes—on the inside—and smiled at the Screech-grown-up replica. He wore a black Brooks Brothers suit with the Regis-style gray shirt and gray tie, but his frizzy black hair detracted from his classy look. Maybe if he got it professionally straightened and used a weekly deep conditioning treatment and—
I stopped myself.
Judging on appearances again, Dum Dum?
What good was coming to a life altering realization if you didn't let it alter you life? I was judging Dustin on the same superficial criteria with which I'd judged Gavin and everybody else.
This was not a path I wanted to continue traveling.
Forcing myself to relax into an open stance, I stepped forward with hand extended. "Hello, Dustin."
After five minutes of conversation that concentrated on his medical practice and his relationship with his mother, I knew this was not a guy I could be interested in. But at least I knew, which was a lot better than assuming.
We all know what assuming did, right?
Besides, I already had a compatible guy at my side for this party. Who, at that very moment, was buddying up with my dad at the grill on the back porch.
At that moment, there was nowhere I'd rather be than by his side. I gracefully made my exit and sidled up next to Ph—Elliot. His name was Elliot, and I was determined to remember that.
"Hey, Hot Tamale," he teased as I slipped an arm around his waist. "I was just thinking about you."
"Really?" I asked, knowing from the twinkle in his eye that he was full on fabricating.
"Yeah. We need more barbecue sauce."
He winked and I twisted out of his reach before he could pinch me on the backside.
"Just don't get used to this kind of service," I admonished. "This is a one-time-only return to Fifties mentality."
When I returned with the jar, I paused in the doorway to watch Elliot and my dad deep in discussion about the best placement of chicken parts on the grill. This was not a conversation I would have witnessed between Dad and Gavin. Gavin just wasn't a guy's guy.
He'd rather go to the symphony than a Yankees game. Preferred opera to Frisbee golf. And at this moment, I didn't know for sure which kind of guy I preferred.
Elliot—yes! got it on the first try—turned to me, that cocky grin spreading across those full lips. We shared a simple moment of connection as Dad concentrated on the chicken and Mom and Rhonda were in the kitchen chatting with the ever-growing number of arriving guests. One moment of knowing that, of all the people filling the house, he was thinking of me and I was thinking of him.
Feeling all warm on the inside, I marched across the deck and handed the bottle over.
"That's the last time you'll see me fetch, mister."
He reached out the take it, but I pulled away before he could. His brow furrowed in a petulant pout.
"I expect payment for services rendered." My boldness surprised me, but then again a lot of things were surprising me lately. Even with my dad standing not two feet away, I tilted my head back and offered up my mouth.
"Oh, you'll be paid." His voice was a predatory growl.
With the same lightning fast reflexes that must have saved his life on that Class V rafting trip down the Colorado, he snatched the barbecue sauce out of my grip, spun me around, and pulled me flush up against his chest.
"Here you go, Mr. V." He clutched my wrists in one hand and tossed the sauce to my dad. "Excuse us for a moment, your daughter and I have a payment to discuss."
Dragging me—well, not really, I went willingly—around the corner of the wrap-around porch, Elliot—gee, that name was really growing on me—led me to the isolated porch swing and lowered his graceful frame onto the seat. When I tried to take the spot next to him, he held me back, swung his legs up on the bench, and pulled me down on his lap.
Arms wrapped tightly around my waist, he set the swing into a gentle sway.
"Hmmm," I sighed, "this is nice."
Though the simple words didn't capture the depth of my contentment—with both the current situation and, for once, myself—they were all we needed.
“Nice,” he said, reaching around to turn my face up, “is not what I was going for.”
It wasn’t what I wanted either. With a wicked grin, I twist my torso and lifted my mouth. He didn’t close the distance, though. Instead, he held back the fraction of an inch from my lips.
He smiled. He did wicked way better that I ever could.
“Did you want something?”
Grrr. “You know what I want.”
Slipping my hand behind his head, I tugged his mouth towards mine. For a second he resisted. Then he relented and his hot lips brushed mine briefly before pressing harder and—
"Muses!" The lyrical call came from within the house.
With a instinctive reaction, I twisted back around and ducked down. My head thumped back against his warm, solid chest behind me. "Maybe he won't find us."
I felt Elliot's chuckle rumble through his chest and mine.
"He doesn't seem like the kind to give up easily." Elliot nipped at my exposed neck with quick kisses. "Maybe we should hide while we still can."
"Have you seen my muses?" I heard Ferrero ask, followed by a negative response from Rhonda.
"No chance," I answered, eyes closed and absorbing the sensation of his lips against my pulse. "The only way out is right past the open kitchen door."
Ferrero forgotten, I sank deeper into Elliot's welcoming warmth. If I closed my ears to the sounds of chirping crickets and televised football announcers, I could almost imagine we were hanging in a hammock over the turquoise blue waters of Tahiti. Cool breeze coming off the lagoon. Wind rustling the palm fronds above. Water lapping at pure white sands. Solar eclipse.
Blinking out of my reverie, I found Ferrero standing over us, a beaming smile on his tanned face as he blocked out the fading light of the setting sun.
"Here you are," he exclaimed. He grabbed my hands and pulled me up from the swing in one swift motion. "We have much work to do."
Just as quickly, I was unceremoniously nudged aside so Ferrero could tug Elliot up and toward the house. Looking back over his shoulder as Ferrero dragged him inside, Elliot silently pleaded with me to save him.
"Sorry, Sugar Daddy." I didn't even try to hide my grin at his distress. "A muse's work is never done."
How right I was. Except for meals, I scarcely saw Elliot the entire weekend.
After a relaxing weekend in the country—okay, so Westchester isn't exactly rural, but even L.A. feels like farmland compared to the urban density of New York—I found myself full up on inspiration and initiative and short on things to do.
With Dyllie sufficiently passed out after a weekend of squirrel chasing and ball fetching I headed for the workroom and worked on turning my industrious mood into jewelry.
Two hours later the phone rang and, since Fi is usually swamped at work, I figured it must be Bethany.
"Hi Beth," I said as I brushed some eraser crumbs out of my way.
"Hey sugar, what's shakin'?"
"Just working on a new design."
The line was silent for a few seconds.
"On Monday morning? Shouldn't you be at work."
Should was the operative word. I should be making sure KY Kelly was not getting too comfortable with my job. I should be doing my job. But Ferrero, Jawbreaker, and Kelly had seen to it that I stayed far away from my duties. Ferrero's exact words on dropping me off at my apartment Sunday afternoon were, "Channel your creativity. Meditate. Do nothing."
Do nothing? That wasn't in my DNA.
He had this absurd notion that I needed to "clear my creative chakra" before we went to Milan. Five long days of nothing but packing, meditating, and channeling. That was going to get old fast.
"Lydia?" Bethany prodded, reminding me that she had asked a question.
"Work doesn't really need me right now. Kelly's doing my job and Ferrero's focused on finishing up the Fall collection but won't let me do anything 'non-muse-like'. I'm bored."
I doodled absently as I spoke, unconsciously letting my mind wander through my pencil.
"You've never had so much free time to work on the jewelry before. How's that going?"
"Actually, it's going really well. In fact," shifting the phone to my other ear, I elaborated on the tangle of vines that appeared in my doodle, adding strategically placed red M&Ms, "I'm having a lot of fun. I have about a dozen sketches for the Spring Ferrero collection and the makings of some spectacular designs of my own. I feel like I have time to actually flesh out a design. To work it out until it's right instead of just good enough."
"Sounds like you're having fun." She paused, her hesitation reclaiming my full attention. "You've never gotten this excited about work."
"Listen, sugar. I know I keep saying I want you to go into design full time because I want your pieces in my shop, but that's only a very small part of the reason. I want this for you because you're talented and you are wasted in that number-crunching job. The only time I hear you really, truly happy is when you're talking about your jewelry."
We'd had this conversation several times. Even though she said it was for purely selfish reasons, I had always known that there was deeper meaning in her urging. Bethany didn't have a selfish bone in her polite, Southern-raised body.
"You need to quit your job."
I dropped my pencil and held the phone away, staring at the receiver. She never was one to beat around the bush much, but Sweet Saltwater Taffy this was more frankness than I was prepared to hear.
If for no other reason than I had been thinking the very same thing.
When I woke up this morning I bounded out of bed, took a leisurely shower, and made myself an indulgent breakfast of sparkling orange juice and a chocolate croissant. I sat at the breakfast counter in my candy-hearts jammies and let myself enjoy the unhurried peace.
For the first time in a long, long time, there was no weight of worry in the pit of my stomach. No dread over what might happen at work, if today would be the day Jawbreaker gave her position to Kelly. Or the day she found a way to have me fired for not really enjoying my work.
And the number-crunching? Calculating sales data, projecting sales, evaluating advertising expenditures. Maybe this was what I should expect with an econ major from Columbia, but that hadn't been my dream.
As an idealistic college student, I had dreamed of getting my degree in economics and pairing it with my jewelry design and starting my own business. But when graduation came around, the panic of not having a steady job with benefits struck and I bit the corporate bullet and took the job at Ferrero.
Steady. Benefits. Opportunity for advancement. And the prestige and cool factor of working at a couture fashion house.
I enjoyed the company and my coworkers—for the most part—and I let the idea of my own jewelry business melt away, like cotton candy in the rain.
Several years and a master plan later, the dream was but a distant memory.
But memories tend to flood back in when you have some free time. It started as a tickle at the back of my mind after filing the sketches for Ferrero into a portfolio and turning to my own designs. As I sketched out a necklace made from ceramic peppermint beads, the first teasing thought of what a good central piece that would be to a collection wiggled its way into my head.
Inspiration bombarded me and I now had plans for two dozen candy-themed pieces.
I could almost picture them on the "Must-Haves" pages of Lucky Magazine.
When the tinny sounds of my name repeated over and over reached my ears, dragging my wandering brain out of the land of daydreams, I held the phone back up to my ear.
"Lydia?" Bethany sounded almost desperate. "Lydia!"
"Yeah, I'm here."
"For goodness sake, why didn't you—"
"I think you're right."
"—say so...." Silence. "You do?"
Preparing for the biggest risk in my life, I held my hand over my eyes and said, "I need to quit my job."
Bethany's scream of joy was so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear for the safety of my eardrum. Thunk. Sudden silence from the other end and I listened closely, barely hearing a muffled, "No ma'am, not the lottery. A friend just made a very good decision."
After a few scuffling sounds, Bethany came back on the line. "Oh sugar, I am so proud of you. This will be the best decision you ever made."
My heart beat a sugar-high pace and adrenaline dashed through my veins, leaving my arms and legs feeling like Jell-o Jigglers.
"I hope you’re right," I said in a terror-weakened voice.
Why were the most important decisions always the most nerve-wracking?
"I promise," she replied, uncontrolled joy lifting her voice to a squeal, "you will be happier than ever. When are you giving your notice?"
The sooner the better, I almost said. Best get it over with before I lost my nerve.
But I had Milan to consider. And the Spring collection. I owed it to Ferrero—and myself—to finish what I'd already promised. Both Fashion Week and designing the collection accessories would be excellent experiences that I couldn't buy.
The sooner the better resonated in my mind. After so many years of delaying my dreams, I wanted to put them into motion as quickly as possible.
"After Milan," I decided out loud. "I'll still do the accessories collection, but I'll resign my executive position as soon as we get back."
"I couldn't be happier—" Beep-beep. "—you."
"I've got another call."
"Okay, call me—" Beep-beep. "—night. Bye."
"Bye." Click. "Hello?"
"Lydia?" the hair-raisingly sweet voice asked. "It's Kelly. Can we meet?"