Authors: Jennifer Harlow
"Rule one of popularity: never go to them, let them come to you," Lexie says, sipping her martini. "Give it a minute."
Not even a minute. Thirty seconds later, Rachel drags Danforth to us. Dan and I nod at each other. "Oh, my God! You came. Danny, this is Alexia, the supermodel. We met at Bitsy's ghastly party. And this must be your husband Brendan. We actually flew to Los Sangre to watch you play last week. Box seats, of course. You're like a tank. We're so lucky to have you on our team."
"Thank you," Brendan says.
Rachel lowers herself beside Lexie, eyes wide with excitement. "I'm so honored you came. Really. I was scared the last party you attended would sour you to the Galilee social scene. I don't know about you, but I was scared out of my wits! I'm not used to that sort of thing, unlike some," she says, glancing at me. I swear I could save a busload of children and nuns, and these people would still thumb their noses at me. "We had to take a trip to St. Barth's just to calm my nerves. My analyst thinks I might be suffering from PTSD. Are you?"
"I missed most of the fun," Lexie says. "I heard the shots and ran for the hills."
"How smart of you," Rachel says, touching Lexie's hand. "Wish I could have. My entire life flashed before my eyes."
"How dull for you," I mutter into my glass. She doesn't hear but Brendan smiles. "Have you seen Bitsy? Is she here?"
Rachel acknowledges me for the first time. "I invited her, of course, but I can't imagine she'd show her face here. Not after what happened."
"Rachel, she didn't invite KitKat there. It wasn't her fault."
"I'm sorry, but how do we know that? I mean, none of us suspected Grace Pickering of being in cahoots with Alkaline, but she was. And I heard Thayer lost millions when the deal with those Germans fell through. They're desperate for money."
"And I heard you had vaginal rejuvenation surgery." Everyone gasps. "Doesn't make me think you wore the thing out."
"How-I-I--" she stammers before standing. "You trash!" She grabs her husband and scurries away.
Lexie, being much more of a lady than I, waits until Rachel's out of earshot before bursting into laughter. Brendan and I chuckle right along with her. "That was freaking brilliant!" she says as she raises her drink. We all clink glasses.
Brendan spots one of his teammates, and insists we go over to chat. As Lexie checks her cell for the fifth time in half an hour, I spot a business associate I'm flying to Independence with in two weeks, and I excuse myself. I mainly come to this crap to network and "foster relations" as Justin called it. I watched him do it for so many years when it was my turn, I was practically a pro. About ten minutes into the discussion, all thoughts of health care reform flee my brain when I spy my ex-boyfriend twirling his new lady love on the dance floor. My mouth dries up.
I've seen Harry in person only a handful of times, but never with my replacement. He picked a good one. Bella Harding is cute with shoulder length blonde hair, big brown eyes, tan skin and curvy figure tonight in a pink flapper dress. She's also more age appropriate, early forties, but doesn't look it. I worked with her on a few cases. She's a good prosecutor. Very detail oriented. I must be staring because when the song stops, Harry zeroes in on me. He looks damn fine tonight in a dark three piece suit, spats, wire rimmed glasses, and fedora covering his brown hair. Shit, now I'm going to have to say hello. Where's a supervillain when you need one?
We meet halfway, smiling awkwardly when we stop. "Well, fancy meeting you here," I say.
"I'm friends with Rachel's mother," Bella says. "Nice to see you again, Joanna."
"Yeah, the last time was on the Fontanesca case three years ago? You kicked their asses."
"I had good evidence," Bella says with a smile.
Pleasantries over, it's awkward silence time. Harry breaks it after five seconds. "You look lovely tonight."
"Really?" I ask, examining myself. "Thank you. I had a supermodel makeover. Literally. I'm a work in progress." I immediately regret the words. He knows this better than anyone. I clear my throat. "You both look nice too. Very authentic. Though you should fix his tie, Bella. It's crooked."
"Oh," she says, adjusting it. "Thank you."
"No prob. Well, you two have fun. My dates need a save from Sparkle Cohen. It was nice to see you.
of you. I mean that."
"Thank you," Bella says, taking Harry's arm.
"Excuse me." I hustle away as fast as I can without being obvious, my smile falling with each step. I can't help it, I have to look back. Yep, bad idea. Harry pulls away from their kiss, caressing Bella's cheek as she smiles. God, they look so fucking in love. I'm glad, I really am, but I just wasn't ready for this, seeing how well they fit together. He's completely moved on. That realization stings more than a little.
Sparkle Cohen has been covering the Galilee social scene probably since the 1920s. Tonight she's in a huge white fur coat with her matching hair wavy in the style. "So, which is better? Galilee or Independence?" she asks Lexie.
"Guys, are you ready to go yet?" I ask.
"Hello, Joanna," Sparkle says.
"Sparkle. So, are you? I'm all partied out."
"I guess. We--" Brendan starts.
"No!" Lexie practically shouts. "Not yet." She checks her phone again and smiles brightly before returning the phone to her pants. "We-We haven't danced! We can't leave without dancing. Just a few more minutes, okay?"
"Fine. You enjoy your dance. I'm gonna get some air, okay?"
"Perfect! Sounds great. Air is awesome. Go get some. Go!" she says, shooing me away.
I raise an eyebrow. Okay. Whatever. I move through the open doors onto the veranda. More guests mill around chatting as sparklers flicker along the railing. I keep walking down the stone steps into the garden. Need some alone time. Even at night the garden is glorious with pristine hedges of holly. I continue down the pebble path until the music grows faint and I'm surrounded by a broken circle of flowers and hedges. With a sigh, I rest on the stone bench in the middle of the semi-circle with my back to the castle. A few people scamper around me like wood nymphs on their way from the labyrinth at the end of the path. Justin's old college friend Sam Martin and his wife nod as they pass. When they're gone, I take a deep breath. I seriously hate parties. After this one I'm on sabbatical. None until next year. Catty comments, watching ex-boyfriends suck face, booze all around is not my idea of a good time.
A stiff breeze blows, and I pull my wrap tighter. Wish I had gone the tux route too. I mean, she made me look beautiful, but no sleeves is--
"Are you cold?" a familiar voice asks behind me.
My heart thumps hard against my ribcage, and I spin around. Jem stands ten feet away looking breathtakingly good. His usually wild hair is parted to the side and slicked in waves. No glasses tonight either, so I can see that his curling eyelashes make his eyes pop, and he wears that tux better than anyone here. As I take him in I realize my mouth is slacked open, I snap it shut. He doesn't notice my reaction. He steps toward me as he slips off his coat. "Here," he says, holding it out.
I remove my thin wrap, and he glances at my scarred arm before I slip the coat on. "Thanks." It's really warm and smells like him, aftershave and antiseptic from the hospital. Better even than Old Spice.
"I-I saw you come out here," he says, self-conscious once again. "I-I just wanted to see if you were alright. I can leave if you want to be alone."
What a thought. "No, it's fine. I was just…I don't like parties. Never have."
"I-I don't like them either," he says, sitting at the far end of the bench. "I don't enjoy being out of my element. If-If I can help it. I-I have a hard time connecting with people. I-I never mastered small talk or any of the other social arts. I avoid social occasions as much as possible. I-I was tested for Aspergers when I was a child but didn't fit the criteria. The doctors finally threw up their hands and deduced my anti-social tendencies were due to my abnormal IQ, whi-which is a valid conclusion. And I…have no idea why I just told you all of that," he says with a chuckle.
"It's okay. If it makes you feel any better, I don't have the excuse of being a genius. I'm just a bitch," I say with a smile.
He doesn't smile back. "I don't think you're a…bitch."
"Give it time." He looks at me with pity. I pull the coat tighter around me. "So if you hate parties, why come to this one? Didn't want to snub the head of the hospital board?"
"That was one consideration, yes. At my last hospital I was considered less than a team player. Multiple personnel from the hospital are here whom I should foster positive relations with, if not for friendship purposes than for professional ones. This is as good a setting as any." He pauses. "You're the only person in this city I even remotely know."
"And I already like you, so you're wasting your time," I say with a smirk. His expression turns grave, and even in the dark I can see him blush. "So, why aren't you in there playing well with others?"
"I saw you come out here and wanted to check on you. You didn't return my call."
"I was embarrassed. I don't usually let people see me like that."
He's quiet for a second, then says, "You never have to be embarrassed around me."
I half smile. "Thanks." Time to change the subject before the weight of my crush crushes me. "You look very nice tonight."
He studies himself. "I suppose. Someone suggested I cut my hair, have a tuxedo fitted, and to wear my contacts tonight."
"Lot of that going around. My friend made me over too. Took hours."
"Well, it-it was worth it. You look ravishing." I raise an eyebrow, and his eyes double in size. "I-I-I-I didn't mean, I mean, I'm not going to
you. That, I mean--"
"I know what you meant. Thank you," I say with a chuckle. We're saved by a giggly Rose Franklin and a man who is not her husband as they run up the path from the labyrinth. They're oblivious to us because the man tosses Rose against the hedge and proceeds to feel her up not fifteen feet from us. As if this night couldn't get any more awkward. "Hi, Rose!" I say loudly.
With a gasp, she pushes the man away. "Oh! Joanna! I was just…" No lie comes. Instead, she grabs the man's hand and pulls him toward the castle.
"Say hi to your husband," I call as she flees.
"I know that man," Jem says. "He works in oncology."
"Well, now you can blackmail him into being your friend. See? Aren't you glad you came now?"
He smiles at that one, and I throw one back at him. Then we sit in silence just smiling for a few seconds. "Do-Do you want to go back inside? We--"
"Not yet, but you can--"
"No," he says, shaking his head. "I-I'm perfect here." Another couple come running down the path giggling and splashing their hooch on the gravel. "Well, maybe not
I stand. "Come on. I know where we can go."
He follows me toward the labyrinth. We stand side-by-side as he studies the plaque with a map of the circular labyrinth, all curlicues to the center. "Oh. It's a full recreation of the labyrinth built by Daedalus for King Minos of Crete to hold the Minotaur. Fascinating."
"I love getting lost in this thing," I say.
"Actually, that is a common misconception. It is, in truth, impossible to get lost in," he instructs me. "As you can see, it's unicursal. Unlike a maze, there is no complex branching. It's a simple path. One path. There is only one choice to be made: whether to enter or not."
I step to the entrance. "I know my choice." I walk inside. The hedges are about twelve feet tall with gravel underneath and lights every few feet. Imposing.
Jem runs to catch me. "If this is a true recreation, then it truly is a work of art," he says excitedly. "You know these have been around for a millennia. They were used by almost every civilization in group ritual or private meditation."
"Well, consider it. You're twisting, turning, attempting to find the center, the way out, but the way in
the way out. The path may be long, you may believe you're lost, but no matter what you are always on the correct course. There are no wrong choices because the path is already set for you."
like fate. It's a physical embodiment of a pilgrimage toward salvation. It's confusing, frightening, and as long as you don't let that fear paralyze you, in the end you will always reach your destination. As Socrates said, 'We thought we were at a finish but our way bent round and we found ourselves back at the beginning, and just as far from that which we were seeking at first.'" He notices me staring and turns sheepish again. "I'm sorry, I'm always doing that. Boring people with random facts. My brother called me, 'Mr. Know-It-All.'"
"You weren't boring me. Quite the opposite. I was just thinking I should bring some people from A.A. here. A lot of the tenants are the same."
"Which, if I may ask, step are you on?"
"I waffle between ten and eleven. Eleven has a lot of God talk but to me it means what this place does. Accept what's happened and move on. Some days are better than others."
"How do you mean?" Jem asks.
"Well, I just saw my ex-boyfriend sucking face with his new amazing girlfriend. Part of me felt like cringing, but the other is really happy they're together. He deserves happiness. Our breaking up was a hundred percent my fault. I wanted to push him away and did the one thing I knew would do that. He's such a good guy. I mean, when I was in rehab, he actually came to one of the group sessions. He didn't have to do that. He should have wanted me rotting in some gutter, and it made me realize I never believed I was good enough for him. I thought I had to save him from me, but in reality it was to save me from him. I had to end it before it got too deep. He never could really understand me. That I'd always feel less than around him. So I just have to accept that and move on. I still feel like a shitty person for wishing he'd join the priesthood. Or at least wait until I get a boyfriend that trumps his gorgeous D.A. girlfriend. Does that make me a bad person?"