(Missed some? Read chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23.)
Q: What did the ignition say to the car?
A: You really turn me on.
— Laffy Taffy Joke #133
Elliot hated attending these vacuous society events. Everyone dressed in clothes that cost enough to feed starving families for a generation, all in the name of raising money for some trendy cause on another. The choking stench of hypocrisy nearly overwhelmed him.
The only thing worse than attending one, was working one. Which he was doing tonight.
Some young, up-and-coming designer had hired a dozen professionals to model his wares at the event to show everyone how beautiful people looked in his clothes and to start the buzz about his new collection. Elliot felt like a walking mannequin.
Tonight would be the exception if some rich, bored housewife didn't come up, pinch him on the butt, and offer to buy his services for the night. Feeling like a gigolo once in a week was more than enough for him.
"Goo-ood evening," a nasal voice behind him drawled, just before a pair of over-manicured fingers grabbed a substantial chunk of his left cheek. "Who are you wearing tonight? Me?"
Pasting on his best toothpaste commercial smile, the urge to flee very near the surface but carefully concealed, Elliot turned to face his latest molester. "Good evening, ma'am. This is from Mario Max's new collection."
That wasn't what she asked, but that's what he offered. Besides, he knew the "ma'am" designation would send her into a middle-aged crisis call to her plastic surgeon.
Enough. No pay check is worth this demeaning and demoralizing experience.
As if he had any morale left.
Nearly a week back in New York, and he hadn't heard from Lydia. Though he tried to hold out hope that she just hadn't chosen yet, he had to at least accept the possibility that she hadn't chosen him.
"Aarngh," he groaned, rubbing his weary face and trying to keep that kernel of despair from popping.
"Something wrong, Sweet Tooth?"
Elliot spun at the sound of her voice, disbelief that she was actually here rendering him silent. He was so focused on the spark in her green-and-gold eyes that it took him a full minute to notice what she wore.
When he did, his jaw dropped.
"Like what you see?" she asked.
He took it all in. She stood at least four inches taller than usual in a pair of black stilettos. Her long, shapely legs encased in silky black stockings. Anything else she wore was concealed by the tan trench coat knotted tightly around her waist and buttoned all the way up to her neck.
Topping it all off, and diminishing everything else in comparison, was a platinum blonde, Marilyn Monroe wig.
Unable to form words—seeing the love of his life dressed like his every fantasy could sure render a guy speechless—he could only stare and hope he didn't drool.
"I'll take that as a yes," she said. One slow, seductive step at a time, she moved closer. "Wanna get out of here?"
He nodded, forcing out something resembling speech that ended up sounding like, "Yuh-hun."
"Good." Her voice dropped to a confessional whisper. "I can barely remain upright in these shoes."
That spurred him into action. A quick scan of the area revealed a blocked open emergency exit in the back. He took Lydia by the hand and headed that direction, navigating the overwhelming crowd and ignoring the jealous stares of men and women alike.
The exit led into a back alley illuminated by a million white Christmas lights. Several guests, needing their nicotine fix but not allowed to smoke inside, stood around looking fashionably rebellious.
Too many people.
Giving her hand a reassuring squeeze, he headed down the alley and around the corner, into the connecting side alley that happened to be—thank heavens—empty.
"Are you sure this is safe?" she asked when he finally stopped.
"Absolutely," he said. "This is a perfectly safe neighborhood. Cops patrol it all the time."
Okay, he made that up. But at the moment all he cared about was Lydia and talking to her, and if he had to throw out a little white lie so they could have that conversation right then and there, so be it.
"If you're sure..."
She sounded uncertain, but instead of fleeing she walked over to the brick wall and relaxed back against it.
"I'm sure." He stepped forward, his feet on either side of hers, trapping her between his body and the building, and cupped her face in his hands. "God, I've missed you, Lyd."
"I've missed you, too." Her watery smile, one of those magical ones women possessed and men never understood, tugged at his heart.
"What's with the getup? Not that I'm unappreciative," he quickly amended when her lower lip started to pout out.
"I thought a lot about what you said," she explained, "about me being a Marilyn, not a Norma Jean. And you're right. I am an atomic fireball."
As if to emphasize her point, she slid her hands into his hair and pulled him down into a searing kiss. Her lips opened over his and Elliot groaned into her mouth, welcoming her exploring tongue. He leaned more fully into her, pressing her deeper into the wall and kicking his feet between hers so he could step into the vee of her thighs.
Pulling back, eyes glazed and lips ruby-reddened from the kiss, Lydia grinned seductively. "See." One more quick kiss. "Firecracker."
"Good thing I used to be a Boy Scout," he teased. "I know how to start all kinds of fires."
Hands braced against the wall on either side of her head, Elliot watched her heavy breathing. He thought he could even see her pulse throbbing at the base of her neck, just above the collar of the trench coat. Their eyes met, and for several long seconds he searched her soul and she searched his.
In a low, serious voice, she confessed, "I love you, Elliot Phelps."
"Yeah?" Now that he knew his days of longing were over, he let his playful side take over. "Why?"
He never expected her to take him seriously.
"Because you inspire me. You make me feel like I can be so much more than I am. You make me believe I can strike out on my own and make a go at having my own jewelry and accessories line."
"Really?" he demanded, thrill racing down his spine in goosebumps. "You're not taking the job."
"Nope," she answered moderately, though he could see the excitement beneath the surface. "I am currently unemployed."
"Not unemployed," he insisted, picking her up by the waist and spinning her around. "You're an entrepreneur."
She giggled as he set her back down against the wall. "I guess I am."
"I'm very proud of you."
"Thank you." She pressed a soft kiss on his mouth. "I wouldn't have the courage to do this without you."
"I like that kind of thank you," he teased, kissing her back. "In fact, I could think of a few other ways you could thank me if you were so inspired. At least a dozen involving this trench coat."
Placing her hands on his chest, she held him back when he tried to steal another kiss.
"Actually, I came up with one on my own."
"Really?" he growled.
"Hidden somewhere on my person is a symbol of how I feel for you." She pushed him back a step, looked both ways down the alleyway, and tightened the belt on the coat. "Find it."
With a primal growl, Elliot lunged for her, his hands roaming every inch of her body. He had no idea what he was looking for, but he would find it or die trying.
"Sir," a booming voice ordered, accompanied by the bright glare of a flashlight, "please step away from the lady."
Elliot looked up to find a patrolman watching them from the mouth of the alley, a stern look of disapproval on his face. Deciding not to tempt fate or the NYPD, Elliot took a step back from Lydia, careful to first make sure she was fully covered.
"Is he bothering you, Miss?"
"N-no, officer," she stammered as she clutched the trench coat over her chest. "He, um, is... his advances are welcome, if you know what I mean."
"Yes, Miss." The fatherly officer actually blushed. "Then you should take this somewhere private before you get an indecent exposure rap."
"Right away, sir."
When the officer didn't move, Elliot took Lydia by the hand and walked out of the alley. Within seconds he had hailed a cab and given the driver directions.
"You cad!" Lydia jerked the wig off her head and used it to whack him in the back of the head.
Elliot rubbed his scalp, wondering what in a cloth and nylon wig could of stung his flesh. "What was that for."
"You never said cops patrolled the alley itself."
"I didn't know. How could I—"
He stopped himself when Lydia burst out laughing.
"That was the most excitement I've had since..." She pondered, still grinning. "Well, since that boat ride in Italy."
"I'm happy to be of service." Elliot tried to sound petulant, even as he knew he loved her even more for her absurd sense of humor. "Hey, where's that thing hidden, anyway?"
She mouthed an exaggerated oh before checking the driver's attention. Finding it on the road, she reached inside the coat, in the general vicinity of her cleavage, and pulled out a small, round, shiny green ball. He had no idea what it was, but when she reached forward and placed it against his lips he obligingly opened and let her drop it on his tongue.
"Mmm," he hummed as he sucked on the ball. "Sweet. Whad ith it?"
"An Everlasting Gobstopper."
Her eyes looked at him, expectant. This was a symbol of her feelings for him, that they were everlasting.
He grinned and spit the candy into his palm, depositing it in his jacket pocket before leaning in to kiss her confused mouth. "Then I'll just make sure it lasts longer than Ever."
Lydia sighed and sank into his side. "I'll hold you to that. Verbal contract."
The cab pulled to a stop in front of his building. They climbed out and Elliot paid the cabbie. He turned back to Lydia just as she was retying the belt on the trench coat.
"Did I tell you my first name isn't Elliot anymore?" he teased, taking her by the arm and leading her into the building. "I've changed it to Gobstopper."
"Because I'm Everlasting."
She laughed at his stupid joke; this was why he loved her.
"I hope so, I expect to love you for a very long time."
"Oh yeah," he replied. "In love, too."
He waggled his eyebrows and she smacked him with the wig. "Ha, ha, very funny."
"That's why you love me."
"Yes," she sighed in mock resignation, "I suppose it is."
"Now we need to come up with a new name for you. What goes with Gobstopper?"
"How about..." she whispered her suggestion in his ear.
"Naughty, naughty girl." Elliot swung her into his arms and bounded up the stairs to his apartment. Licorice Laces had never sounded so good. "I love candy."