Tori left the overwarm, smoke-filled room and escaped to the garden, wishing once again that she had never agreed to come to the party. She wasn't one for parties. She much preferred a quiet night out, or in, with one or two close friends and a few boxes of Chinese take out. Ordinarily she stood her ground and refused the invitations of well-meaning acquaintences who really had no clue as to what she liked or disliked. Tonight, however, she had been restless and borderline depressed and in a moment of weakness she had thought that maybe this time a party was just what she needed.
She should have listened to her instincts or at least driven herself, then she could have left without explanations or guilt at ruining the night for Beverly. As it was she felt duty-bound to stay a while longer when all she really wanted to do was shuck these damn heels and party clothes for bedsocks and her favorite nightie.
Patio furniture dotted the garden, most already taken by others seeking to escape the crush of bodies and the blaring music, so she retreated to a lone cement bench in the shadow of a weeping willow. Taking a seat, she dropped her evening bag onto the cement beside her and toyed briefly with removing her shoes.The thought crossed her mind that it probably wasn't in the best interest of safety to isolate so but at that particular moment she really didn't care. She just wanted solitude.
The night air was cool and fresh. She was sorely tempted to loose her hair from the confines of her improvised chignon but she could only imagine how the wild locks would look without a brush to tame them. As it was wispy tendrils were hanging in defiance about her small face. She blew at them as she settled back against the tree's trunk and closed her eyes.
She didn't know how long she sat there before she became aware of being watched. Her heartbeat sped up as she looked about in feigned nonchalance. For a moment her overactive writer's imagination had the upper hand as she envisioned all manner of abuse, but she was easily within shouting distance of several people if the need were to actually arise. She forced herself to relax.
A tall figure of a man seperated itself from the shadows beside her. She looked up, way up, and in the light of a distant light she could just make out the rugged lines of a handsome face. He was dressed casually in slacks and a short sleeved shirt open at the collar. She caught a whiff of male cologne. In his hand he carried a bottle.
"I'm sorry if I'm intruding." His baritone voice was a balm to her tortured ears.
"No, you're not." She'd meant to lie but she was surprised to find she spoke the truth. She wished she could see him more clearly. She was someone who valued what she could read in other people's eyes and she very much wanted to read his.
There was a moment of silence that should have been awkward but instead was companionable. She looked away as he took a sip from the bottle.
"I don't think you remember me," was his quiet comment, "but we met once before."
She looked back at him, surprised. "We have?"
"Yes. About a year ago. At Beverly's coming out party."
Tori remembered the party but for the life of her couldn't remember meeting anyone who looked like him.
"I'm sorry," she murmurred, "My memory isn't as good as it should be."
His teeth flashed white in the shadows, his smile seeming to light up his face. "That's alright." He transferred the bottle to his left hand then reached out his right toward her, "Joshua Banner."
She took his hand, the name ringing a bell of recognition in her mind. "Tori Simmons."
"The writer, I know."
She blushed, flattered. "Yes." Suddenly her memory opened up and she gasped. "Now I remember! You're an attorney. You work for Legal Aid helping domestic abuse victims."
His smile flashed again, "Among others. See, your memory is better than you thought."
"But..." she bit her lip to stop her errant tongue from remarking that he looked nothing like she remembered. He was roughly half the size he had been and obviously much more toned. He grinned as if he read her mind and she inwardly groaned with embarrassment, grateful the shadows hid her flaming face.
He seemed to take pity on her and steered the conversation away from dangerous waters. "I'm told you have a book coming out soon."
She looked away and nodded, "Yes, my second. I hope it does better than my first one did."
"What do you write about?" His head tilted to one side in sincere inquiry.
"Romance, actually. Mainstream."
"Ahh." He took another sip from the bottle. "A popular field. Have you always wanted to write romance?"
"I've always wanted to write, period. Romance. Adventure. Spy thrillers. You name it. I pay the bills by freelancing, by writing technical manuals."
She chuckled, "Don't be. They can be hideously boring."
"No, I mean I'm impressed that you are doing what you love. Not many people are so fortunate to follow their dreams that way."
She met his gaze in the muted light, "Are you? Following your dreams, I mean?"
He nodded, "In a way. I've always wanted to make a difference. To help people. So I guess you can say I am. May I sit?"
"Oh! Yes! I'm sorry." She made room for him on the bench and watched as he took a seat at one end. "How long have you been a lawyer?"
"Nearly fifteen years, give or take."
"Have you always worked for Legal Aid?"
"No. I actually started out in the DA's office but eventually I found that I could do more good working directly with the victims of violent crime so about seven years ago I made the move."
"And now you're happy?"
"Yes." He chuckled. "And poorer."
She chuckled as well and they settled into another companionable silence. Music continued to blare from inside the house as they watched couples come and go from the garden.
"I don't like parties much," she admitted, "Especially loud ones."
She saw him nod from the corner of her eye, "I'm the same way. I hadn't planned on coming tonight but I felt I needed to get out for a while."
"I'm glad you did." She blushed again, surprised at her temerity.
"I am, too," he replied, his voice like torn velvet in the dark.
They talked for a long time in the shadow of the willow, their laughter punctuating the conversation as they shared their life stories. Eventually the coolness of the night caused her to shiver and she realized the party was finally starting to wind down. She wondered absently if Beverly would be missing her. As if on cue she saw her friend walk out the French doors onto the patio.
"I guess she's ready to go," she murmurred, disappointed that their time together was coming to an end. They rose to their feet, smiling at one another. She extended her chilled hand and felt it engulfed in his warm one. "Thank you for keeping me company this evening."
"It's been my pleasure." For the first time she noticed the twin dimples at either side of his mouth and felt her heart speed in response. "Perhaps we can do it again sometime, like, say, over dinner?"
She was trying hard not to stammer and he grinned with obvious masculine satisfaction. "I-I-I think I would like that."
"Next weekend, then? Saturday?"
"Okay. Oh!" She opened her bag and withdrew a small card. "Here's my phone number. Call me and I'll give you directions to where I live."
He took the card, his fingers brushing hers one last time before they left the shadows and returned through the garden to the patio. Beverly watched them approach, her curious expression segueing into frank satisfaction as Tori fumbled through their introduction, but her voice betrayed none of the teasing Tori knew would be coming later.
The trio reentered the house where the smoky aftermath of the party promised a long day of cleaning to come. They said their good-byes to their hosts and the few remaining guests then made their way out the front door. Tori walked between them to Beverly's SUV, warmly surprised when Joshua opened her door and watched her slide inside. She murmurred her thanks then got lost in his eyes. Those eyes she now knew were a clear emerald green. The moment stretched endlessly until Beverly cleared her throat, bringing another blush to Tori's cheeks and she fumbled with the seatbelt as Joshua moved out of the door.
"Good night," he murmurred softly, "See you Saturday."
The door closed and he took a step back, lifting one hand in farewell as the women drove away.