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For Disclaimers see Chapter 1a
It was a beautiful day for golf, and crowds of anxious golfers flooded the Hazeltine Golf Course clubhouse. Lawyers, judges, politicians, industry leaders, and local celebrities were often seen on its luxurious links and in its rich facilities. At least two of the trio at the ninth hole preferred not to be seen at such a high profile place, but the third person insisted.
Stuart Chow adjusted the brim of his baseball hat to shield his eyes from the mid-morning sun. He was still jet lagged from the hastily planned trip from Hong Kong. Adding to his irritation was the fact that someone of his rank was sent to deal with such a minor problem. Stuart, however, realized that nearly any "minor" problem could be blossom into something major. Why else would Baba have sent he and his sister half way around the world to the Twin Cities?
Elizabeth Chow was listening politely to the tall man who spoke as he set down his tee.
"...So finally I tell the guy that Im not your average tourist and that hed better give me a better price on that camcorder. When he didnt respond, I told him that I was a personal friend of H.C. Chow..."
Stuart clamped down on his jaw to keep from blurting out a Chinese obscenity. He used my fathers name to get a discount? I dont know how you obtained this position. Are you stupid... or arrogant... or both?
"Junior, do you know the reason my father sent us?" asked Elizabeth.
Junior nodded then took a few practice swings as he spoke. "Yeah, I know that Mr. Chow is worried about the way things are going."
This guy plays dumb well. I see why he was given such a position. Beneath that sunny exterior is truly a ruthless, calculated player. He looks like...how do the Americans put it? Ah, yes...the boy next door. Very smart Baba. I now see why Junior is our point man here, thought Elizabeth.
Her brother wasnt in a reflective mood. "Father is worried about these arrests. Were losing a lot of product and the publicity isnt good for business," Stuart stated bluntly.
Junior stopped swinging his club and faced both Chows. His eyes went cold as he spoke flatly. "Mr. Chow does not have to worry about things here. Just as I have taken care of things in the past, I will take care of things now."
"And the missing product, Junior?" questioned Elizabeth.
"With the size or our operations, youre worried about a few kilos here and there?" Junior retorted.
"It shows signs of carelessness. A little bit of carelessness can become a huge problem. A problem, Im sure, for which you will not want to be responsible," Stuart reminded.
Junior resumed his swings again. "Does Mr. Chow express a lack of confidence in my skills?"
"Not at this point, but he is beginning to worry."
"Have I let the organization down in the past, Stuart?" He kept swinging and then bent down to adjust the depth of the tee.
"Thus far, no. But you have never faced this type of situation before. Father was wondering whether..."
"I knew exactly what I was doing when I joined the organization. Mr. Chow chose me over several others. He shouldn't have to wonder."
"All right Junior, I'll tell Father that things here will be...fixed. The next time we call, I expect that our supplies will be at normal level and the arrests will be down significantly. You know what you need to do," Elizabeth urged.
"Don't let us down. Don't let Father think he made a mistake when he gave you this position. Control your people, get the product back out there, and teach your grunts to be more careful," Stuart stated coldly, as he walked back to the golf cart and sat down.
"You still here Jody?" Amanda inquired, as she poked her head around the edge of the doorway and stepped into her friends office. Hands on hips, she began to grin as she looked around the room, noticing several new additions to the already chaotic décor. The room was hectic, wild even, but in an odd, comforting sort of way. Amanda walked across the hard wood floor until she was standing on a multicolored woven rug of southwestern design. She stopped, eyes flickering from one object to the next.
In the corner of the room was a short black marble table. Perched in the center, a lava lamp peacefully pulsed. No one in a million years would believe this is a psychologists office, Amanda thought as she brushed her fingers lightly over carved wooden animals, which were probably purchased at a local flea market, and stood proudly alongside crystal antiquities. Bleached wood bookshelves lined two walls of the room. Interspersed among the novels and reference books, were items familiar to an American childhood. A George Jetson thermos and an ever-trusty magic eightball were book-ending Grays Anatomy. Anne Rice was poised to frighten a Faberge egg. High on the wall opposite the entrance, a pigmy blow-dart tube crisscrossed a Japanese samurai sword. Amanda exhaled loudly and smiled. This room... is... just...so... Jody.
"Here to steal my treasures I see," Jody observed as she marched into her office and peered over Amandas shoulder. She immediately began to inspect Amandas pockets in case any of her "treasures" had decided to leave with the shorter woman.
Playfully slapping Jodys hands away, Amanda growled. "Enough all ready with the touching. You know I wont be pawed by the likes of you," she teased.
"Humph....you should beeee so lucky. Ill bet your new lawyer friend wouldnt get scolded for seeing whats inside your pockets." The brown-eyed woman grinned evilly.
Despite her best efforts to stop it, the blonde began to blush. "I only said I wouldnt be pawed the likes of you," she valiantly bantered back.
"Ouch! Now I rank below a lawyer? You really know how to hurt a girl." Jody plopped down onto the low, thickly padded love seat and looked up at her friend.
Her face suddenly lost all traces of the prior teasing. "Amanda, you do know what they call a lawyer with a shit-eatin grin on his face, doncha?" she asked seriously.
Amanda rolled her eyes but gladly played along. "No, Jody...what do they call a lawyer with a shit-eatin grin on his face?" She looked down at her stoic faced friend who was doing her best not to giggle out loud.
" A cannibal of course!" Jody exclaimed as she burst into laughter.
"Ha...Ha...Jody. Veerrrry funny," she stated seriously. But a second later she was laughing along with her friend. When the chuckling finally died down, Amanda turned away from Jody, who was still looking incredibly pleased with herself and her latest joke. Scanning the room, her eyes finally found and rested on Elvis, whose hips swayed rhythmically back and forth, and whose stomach heralded 11:50 am. Jody watched silently as Amanda began roaming the office again, stopping every so often to inspect a nick-nack. The older counselor didnt miss her partners glance at the clock.
"A little nervous, Amanda?" she prodded. It took her only a split second for Jody to realize her friend really was genuinely worried. Wow! I havent seen her fidget like that in a while. Jodys demeanor softened instantly. "Hey, its just a lunch date...not a death sentence...Itll be fun." Jody walked over and stood along side Amanda.
"I know," the smaller woman stated somewhat guiltily, head dropping slightly. With great effort, Amanda put a halt to her nervous restlessness and tried not to focus on the anticipation that was making her stomach upset. Jesus, Mandy...whats wrong with you? You dont even know this woman. Theres no reason to be so...so...freaked out. If you dont hit it off, youll never see her again. Nooo, that would be bad. Wouldnt it?
"Listen, my friend." Jody wrapped a denim-covered arm around Amandas shoulder and steered her back toward the love seat. "If shes not a perfect gentleman, shell have to answer to me. I have experience in this area, you know." Plopping back down onto the love seat in unison, both women giggled as they remembered their first meeting nearly 10 years ago.
At the time, it seemed completely logical. Join the Army National Guard. Pay your own way through school. Dont rely on Mom and Dad for every penny, youre an adult now. Time for start making your own way. But at the ripe old age of 19, there were plenty of times she didnt feel like being an adult, and as much she was enjoying this independence, she was a little surprised to find herself homesick.
Amanda sat down heavily on the slightly damp wooden bench in the dressing area of the women showers. For the millionth time she looked around in wonder. Okay, Fort Sam Houston, I gotta hand it to you. You may be old but you are beyond CLEAN. A wry smile crossed her lips, and dont I know EXACTLY how you stay that way.
With a groan she stood, then bent deep at the waist, stretching the tired muscles her legs, her body gradually cooling from the vigorous five mile run shed just completed. Slowly, she began to unlace her running shoes. Dead silence filled the air. Silence? Wow. Im actually alone, as in nobody but me. She chuckled to herself and considered that it had been several months since shed been completely and utterly by herself. She smiled, savoring the moment.
The biggest challenge for most new recruits seemed to be discipline, both mental and physical. But for some reason, Amanda found herself rising to meet both these challenges with little trouble. She was in good shape physically, even before she went through the rigors of boot camp. Now, with the slightly reduced physical demands of advanced training, she felt less soreness as her body was allowed to catch up, and accept the new demands she placed on it.
The mental challenges she encountered were more along the lines of accepting authority from sometimes "unpleasant" sources, rather than an actual intellectual challenge.
Shed been pleased to find out that a local guard unit had positions open in the medical field. While she couldnt exactly take courses in psychology, the field she intended to major in, at least her time in the military wouldnt be spent fixing trucks or shuffling paperwork.
"You have two choices if you insist on staying in the medical field, Miss." The handsome young recruiter had smiled. He knew he had her.
"Um...ok...but, Im just asking out of curiosity. I havent made up my mind yet...but...I guess you could explain my choices." She tried to look disinterested but shed already decided to join and she could tell the recruiter knew it too. I dont think Hollywoods gonna be calling you any time soon, Mandy, she mused. No wonder my cousins were always kicking my butt when we played poker.
"I think youd make a bang-up combat medic. And best of all, youll get to spend a few months of advanced training in beautiful San Antonio, Texas." He smiled, sensing victory, and cruelly played his trump card. "Have you heard of the Riverwalk? Its got the best shopping..."
You forgot to mention that Id have to drink a bathtub full of water today to keep from melting, and that I would have chigger bites on top of chigger bites! She thought wryly. Not surprisingly, thinking about her chigger bites suddenly made them itch. Scratching a particularly itchy spot slightly above her panty line, she grunted. God, that cold shower is gonna feel awesome. You know its bad when you cant even stand your own smell.
Amanda peeled off the last of her running clothes, stuffing them in a locker, grabbed her purple shower shoes and tolietries, and strolled into the slightly darkened shower room. Flipping on the lights, she walked to the farthest showerhead and began adjusting the temperature of the water. When the water ran lukewarm she stepped underneath, groaning loudly. Mmmmmm. This is HEAVEN. I have soooo been missing, peace and quiet and a perfect shower. Ahhh... Unsnapping the plastic case that held her soap Amanda began to lather her arms and legs. Leaning back, she wet her hair and allowed the strong spray to ease the tension in her shoulders and neck.
All good things must end, she thought as a husky redheaded woman entered the shower room, flinging her towel over one of the many unused showerheads. "Youre Greer arent you?" the woman asked with a thick Southern accent.
"Um...yes... Im Amanda." Amanda searched her mind. "Youre in 2nd platoon, right?"
The woman smiled broadly and began gathering the shower supplies she had laid out only seconds before. Looks like shes leaving. Oh well, she must have changed her mind. More quiet time for me, Amanda mused and gladly shifted her attention back to rinsing the sweat out of her hair. Eyes shut tight, she leaned back until the water cascaded down the back of her hair and across her face. Reaching out in the general direction of soap shelf, she began to feel around for the missing bar. Suddenly, the bar was thrust into her searching hand.
"Right...Rhonda." Jeesh, this entire place is empty and she decides to take a shower 2 inches away from me.
"So, what do you think of Fort Sam?" Rhonda inquired, eyes drifting from Amandas face and traveling down the length of her body.
"Well...I mean...its okay. Its my first trip to Texas and I havent..." Amanda stopped speaking when she felt an unexpected cool palm circle her wrist. Instinctively, she pulled her arm back.
"Looks like you got a little sunburned, Amanda." Leaning forward, Rhonda didnt stop until her shoulder was nearly brushing Amandas. A sly smile crossed her lips.
Amandas brow creased as she took a step backward in an attempt to regain some of her rapidly diminishing personal space. "You know Rhonda, this is a really big room and theres no need to...uh...feel like you have to be...ah...social or anything," she quickly finished.
"Its okay, Sugar. Im enjoying the company right here," she drawled, once again closing the small gap between herself and Amanda. "You know, darlin, Im from the area and Id be glad to show you some of the finer attractions." Her proper tone contrasted starkly with the plain leer that now graced her face.
The implications of Rhondas offer were crystal clear, even to Amanda, whose naiveté had been the subject of some rather extreme teasing since her arrival at Fort Sam. Swallowing hard, Amanda kept her gaze at her feet, suddenly extremely aware of her own nakedness.
"What do you think? We could..." began Rhonda.
"I dont think shes interested Rhonda, are you sweetheart?" interrupted the newest addition to the shower room. A medium sized, naked, brunette swaggered over to Amanda and Rhonda. Turning away from Rhonda, the brunette wriggled her eyes brows and looked pointedly at Amanda. A smile shaped her lips. "Well?"
Suddenly, Amanda, who was standing there in shock, realized she was supposed to say something. Duh... Mandy. "Oh...ah...right. I mean... no," she stammered. Okay, relax Mandy. Composing herself, she straightened her back, and projected a confidence she didnt feel. "Thats right. Sorry, Rhonda, Ive already been enjoying the best San Antonio has to offer," she replied suggestively as she leaned closer to the brunette.
The newcomers eyes widened. She hadnt expected Amanda to be that daring. She doesnt even look old enough to be out of high school. Go kid! She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.
"Far be it from me to interfere. It was nice talking to you..." The redhead looked to Amanda and then to the stranger. "Amanda," she drawled, all the while looking directly at the muscular brunette. "Ill come and shower later," she sweetly added. Turning on her heel, Rhonda quickly gathered her towel and exited the shower, leaving the other two women alone.
As soon as Rhonda was out the door, the newcomer backed away from Amanda, giving her some much-needed breathing room. Amandas relief was evident as she exhaled loudly.
"Thanks for coming to my rescue...er..."
"Jody. Jody Penbrook. No problem. When I walked in I could tell Rhonda was coming on a little strong. She bunks a few cots from me and apparently thinks her Southern charm is irresistible." Jody smirked. "It didnt look like you were interested. I hope I wasnt butting in too much. I..."
"No, no. That was great," Amanda blurted. "Im really grateful for the help. She kept trying to lay her hand on me and well...Ew." Amanda wrinkled her nose and made a face.
Jody burst into laughter. "Eewww is right. That ones sicky sweet," she added.
After a few minutes of light conversation, Jody turned off her shower and stepped near the entrance where she began to towel off. Turning back towards Amanda she thought for a moment then said, "Listen, Im heading over to the clubhouse for some beer tonight. Wanna come?"
Amanda turned off the shower nozzle and grabbed her shampoo and soap as she approached Jody. "Sure, but why save me from one wolf just to throw me to another," she teased as she began to dry her hair.
Jody rakishly ran a hand through her short dark locks. "You wish," she snorted. "Too bad for you, I dont lean that way, if you get my drift." She smiled broadly. "I just want some company to help me enjoy my 35 cent Coronas."
"Beer for 35 cents?" Amanda inquired doubtfully.
Brown eyes twinkled. "Why do you think I joined the military in the first place?"
Both women relaxed into laughter. Grinning, they made their way towards their clothes and a solid friendship.
"Yes, you would," Amanda replied confidently.
"Ok. Maaaybe," she hedged. Changing the subject, Jody brought them back to the present. "So tell me, where ya goin on this date?"
Amanda stomach lurched slightly as she looked up at Elvis, noticing it was just a few minutes before noon. "I was thinking D'Amico and Sons. We can walk there from here."
"Good idea. Itll give you a little more time to get to know each other."
Still sensing her friends tension, Jody tried to lighten the mood. "Did she have to be lawyer, though? You know what that shark did to me in the divorce," she grumped.
Bidding Elvis goodbye, Amanda focused on her friend. She sighed. "The lawyer didnt do anything but his job, Jody. Youre the one who decided to commit legal suicide by representing yourself." Amanda laughed, remembering the expression on her friends face when she read the divorce clause entitled "property division."
"How was I supposed to know Chester would go out and hire some slick mouth-piece to take me to the cleaners?" she protested. "Shit, Amanda. Im paying him alimony for Christs sake! What kind of man takes alimony?"
Rolling her eyes at her partner Amanda noted, "Well...I dont what kind of man would do that, But... I do know how we can spot the ones that do. Theyll be driving their ex-wifes car, living in her house, petting her dog, still hanging out with her friends... and..." she teased.
"Enough already!" Jody lightly punched the smaller woman in the shoulder. "Since when did you get so mean? Why, I remember when you were this sweeet, kiiiind-hearted..."
"Ms. Greer, are you here?" A velvety voice called from the waiting room.
Amanda immediately jumped up, straightening her skirt with one handwhile smoothing her hair with the other. "Do I look ok? I mean...its just a casual lunch," Amanda whispered nervously.
"Well, well, well. It looks like princess charming has arrived. Lets go inspect the goods, shall we?" Jody rose and turned towards the door, only to have Amanda grab her arm and stop her from exiting.
"Be nice!" she growled in a whisper.
"Just what are you implying?" Jody eyes went round in her best imitation of a precious moments figurine. The looked failed miserably. Giving up the innocent routine, Jody whispered back, "I just want to make sure her intentions are honorable. You know, freak her out a bit," Jody grinned mischievously.
"No thanks," Amanda whispered firmly. "I already have one father. Soooo I dont need another."
Jody relented. "Ok, Ill be good." Seeing Amandas disbelief, she hastily added, "I promise."
Satisfied, she released Jodys forearm and nervously straightened her hair once again. "Okay, lets go. Wait! Ill go first." Jumping in front of Jody, Amanda marched out of her friends office.
Claire stood in the middle of the waiting area gazing at the eclectic collection of watercolors that peppered the walls. Nice. She spun to look at another. I should get some of these for my new office.
Exiting Jodys office, Amanda approached Claire from behind. Claire was wearing a deep brown, linen pantsuit and casual leather flats. Shes definitely tall enough to forgo the heels, thought Amanda. Her raven hair hung loose and looked slightly wind blown. Thats different from how she wore it at the courthouse. I like this better. Boy... Amanda sucked in a nervous breath. Even from the back shes gorgeous!
Hearing footsteps, Claire turned around to see Amanda and Jody approach. Claire had selected a pale yellow, v-necked silk blouse to wear under her suit. Completing her outfit were a pair of diamond stud earring that sparkled in the light as she turned to meet Amanda and Jody head on. Stopping a few feet from each other, Claire and Amanda stood silently. Pale blue eyes twinkled as they took in Amanda.
The blonde shifted slightly, from one foot to the other, wishing shed worn anything else, had a different hairstyle, and a different figure and...
Without her permission, a nervous smile graced Claires lips as she observed Amandas fidgeting. She looks a wreck, Claire thought. Looks like Im not the only one whos nervous. Claire focused on lightly flushed cheeks. She doesnt hide her nervousness very well, does she? Oh well, if this career has taught me anything, its never let em see ya sweat.
Amanda suddenly stopped all motion and looked directly at Claire. Mossy green eyes met brilliant blue and held them. In response, Amanda felt a smile stretch across her face, mirroring the one on the darker woman. Neither woman spoke a word.
Sensing an impending moment of embarrassment, Jody broke the deadlock by thrusting her hand toward Claire. "Nice to see you again, Ms. Easton. I didnt introduce myself before. Im Jody Penbrook, Amandas business partner... and best friend," she added somewhat possessively as she shook the womans hand.
Claires eyebrow drifted up as she finally broke eye contact with Amanda and looked at Jody. Shes a psychologist? Claire starred at Jodys black corduroy pants and faded denim top. She looks more like someone whose about to work in the garden than a doctor.
Extending her own hand, "Im Claire Easton." A firm shake. "Its a pleasure to meet you."
Amanda came back to her senses and realized shed been staring again. Okay. Time to get a grip. Nice save Jody. I owe you one.
Turning her attention back to Amanda, Claire tried her best to keep a goofy grin off her face. God, how old am I? Straightening her back, she spoke softly as she looked down at Amanda. "Are we ready to go? Ill trust you to pick the place. I dont get down here too often."
"You bet. How does Italian deli sound?" Amanda reached into the closet to retrieve her purse. Suddenly, her stomach rumbled loudly.
"Im thinkin it sounds pretty good to you," Claire chuckled. Is she blushing? God, thats adorable! Wait...shes not a puppy. But, damn she is cute. "Whered you get the watercolors? Theyre fantastic," she said, mercifully changing the subject. Claire motioned toward one of the smaller pieces near the entrance to the other office.
"Actually," Amanda smiled, "that ones mine."
Both eyebrows lifted. "Mine as in you own it, or mine as in you painted it?"
"Well, both, I guess."
"Youre an artist?" Claire questioned, clearly impressed.
"I dont think Id go that far. Theyre just..."
"I keep telling her theyre great. Maybe she needs to hear it from somebody besides me," Jody interjected.
"Jodys right. Its really beautiful." I wonder if Ill see that blush again? Oh...yeah... here it comes.
"Thanks," Amanda replied as her face began to color. "I guess we should get going. D'Amicos can get kinda busy this time of day."
"Do you want me to drive? I had to park quite a ways down the street but..."
"I was thinking we could walk. Its really nice out today and its only a couple of blocks. I mean...if thats okay with you?" she hastily added.
"Absolutely. Lead on." Turning back to Jody, Claire extended her hand once again. "It was nice meeting you." A quick shake. Releasing Jodys hand, Claire made her way back along side Amanda. "Ready then?"
A smiling nod. "Lets go."
In two long paces Claire was in front of Amanda, opening the door. She gestured for Amanda to pass through. Amanda glanced back at Jody, both womens eyebrows raising simultaneously, in acknowledgment of the gallant gesture.
"Ill see you at 1:30 for that joint session with Mr. and Mrs. Berger," Amanda called to Jody as she exited the clinic. Without a glance back, Claire stepped out the door behind her.
Well...I dont know about the princess part but she certainly is charming. Amanda deserves that. Jody strolled back to her office thinking about Claire and Amanda and the frozen burrito she would be having for lunch. They did make kind of a cute couple.
"So tell me a little about yourself. All I really know is that youre a lawyer." Amanda asked, as she reached up and brushed back a windblown lock of hair. She noticed Claire was slightly behind her so she slowed down her gait. Amanda turned her head to look, waiting for a response. Nothing.
"Claire?" Is she still in there?
"Oh, sorry. I was just thinking about where to start," Claire mumbled somewhat defensively. Uh...oh. That didnt come out the way I wanted.
Frowning slightly, Amanda stepped down off the curb and onto the street. "This isnt a cross examination, Claire. I was just trying to make conversation. You..."
"No, Im the one whos sorry," Claire interrupted, worried she had already offended her date. "As if you couldnt tell, Im just a little nervous," she admitted.
She is? Couldve fooled me. "You dont look nervous," Amanda said skeptically, as she looked both ways before crossing the street.
Claire chuckled and jogged a few steps to keep pace. "Well, youll just have to trust me then. I dont date a lot." She paused. What the heck. "And ...I ...well..." A deep breath. "Sometimes things come out a little jumbled."
A large stagnant puddle stood between Claire and the curb. In one long stride she agilely jumped over it, landing gracefully on the sidewalk beyond. Turning, Claire saw Amanda hesitate before jumping across.
Claire extended her arm towards Amanda. "Here, Ill help you over," she beckoned.
Amanda looked at the puddle, her gaze shifting to both sides, as she noted she would have to maneuver around several cars in order to get around it. She looked back at Claire, who was waiting patiently, arm still outstretched.
"Okay. But dont blame me if I ruin that pretty suit." Amanda swayed back then leapt forward extending her right arm out far in front of her. Before Amandas back foot even left the ground, Claire could see she wasnt going to make it across. She immediately lunged towards Amanda and tightly grasped the outstretched hand. Pulling as she stepped back, Claire saw Amandas front foot land on the edge of the curb.
"Whoa, whoaa!!" Amanda squealed, arms flailing, as she tried to balance on the edge without toppling backwards. With another quick tug she was propelled forward, directly into Claires arms.
"I gotcha," Claire muttered as she pulled Amanda to her, twisting slightly she deposited the slightly rattled woman back onto her feet.
Amanda hesitantly cracked opened her eyes. I cant believe Im not on my butt, in the mud. Instead, she found herself in a comfortable warm space, wrapped tightly in strong arms. Hmm. She inhaled. She smells like roses. Amanda intentionally kept her eyes focused on the pale yellow blouse that was only inches from her face. I will not blush in front of her again. "What do you eat for breakfast? Youre a lot stronger than you look," she teased.
Looking down, Claire reluctantly opened her arms and began to untangle herself from the smaller women. Taking a small step backwards, she released Amanda. "Coffee." White teeth flashed. "The breakfast of champions," she bantered back.
The light teasing relaxed both women. Chuckling, they resumed their trek toward the restaurant.
"Well?" Amandas eyes drifted sideways, watching Claire as they walked.
"Well what? Oh, yeah...right." Claire cleared her throat formally. "My life in less than 30 seconds by Claire Easton."
"I didnt ask for the Cliff Notes version," Amanda protested. A sharply raised eyebrow greeted her comment. "Okay. Sorry. Go on, go on." Jeesh.
Claire lowered her arching eyebrow with a slightly smug look. Smiling, she continued. "Im a Twin Cities native, but I earned my undergraduate degree at Indiana University and my J.D. at University of Chicago. Im thirty-one years old and I live in Mendota Heights."
A few more steps. Silence... Amanda looked back up at Claire who was strolling along looking quite pleased with her revelations. Patience...be patient, Amanda admonished herself. Another two steps....Uggh! She couldnt help herself.
"Thats it? Thats all youre gonna say?" Amanda asked incredulously. Mentally rolling her eyes, shed make a perfect P.O.W.! "Dont talk my ear off or anything."
Claire knit her brows and scowled. "Id rather hear about you anyway."
Completely ignoring her companions statement, Amanda cocked her head slightly to the side. "Whats J.D. stand for? Ive always wondered."
"Juris Doctor." Claire replied, shifting her body to allow a small group to pass.
"Really?" Amanda questioned. "Then how come attorneys arent called Doctor? I mean, if you have an M.D. youre called doctor and if you have a Ph.D. youre called doctor, why not people with a J.D.," she reasoned.
Claires eyebrows disappeared behind dark bangs. "Is this lawyer joke?" She shot a stern look toward Amanda, causing her to gulp. "Cause if it is," her eyes narrowed dangerously. "I probably already know it," she finished with a grin.
"I can see youve got a twisted sense of humor." Amandas reply was casual though she was forced to admit she was relieved. Her guts still churned at the thought of truly upsetting her new friend. "Lucky for you I only know one lawyer joke." And I dont think Ill be telling that one, she smirked to herself.
Amanda abruptly stopped and motioned to the door on her left. "Here we are," she announced, her mood visibly brightening at the prospect of food. "I hope you like pasta, theyve got really great pasta."
The yeasty smell of fresh bread and the tang of ripe olives and vinegar wafted out as Amanda opened the door and they made their way inside. The deli was small and crowded, but not overly so. A line of customers snaked out from the cash register, running along the deli counter and stopping half way to the door.
After only a few moments of waiting and chatting, both women looked into deli case, Amandas eyes flashing from dish to dish. "Ill have the chicken pasta salad and sliced tomatoes," the blonde informed the bored looking young woman at the cash register. "And a pop," she quickly added. The cashier looked to Claire. "Ill have a roast beef sandwich and tea." The young woman nodded and started ringing up the orders as Amanda began to open her purse.
"I asked you to lunch, remember?" Claire nudged Amanda. Grabbing the two empty glasses the cashier sat on the counter, she thrust in them into Amandas hands. "Here, you take care of these and get us a table ok?"
"Okay." Amanda smiled. "But hurry up. Im starving!"
Claire looked back at the man at the deli counter, who was piling chicken pasta salad onto a shiny white plate. When his hands stopped, Claire leaned forward, gesturing towards his hands. Hey buddy," she glanced back at Amanda and chuckled indulgently, "you might want to keep going."
The early afternoon sun had disappeared behind dark clouds by the time both women emerged from the restaurant. Their conversation was more relaxed, each woman moving past her initial nervousness and easing into an almost familiar sense of camaraderie. The lunch crowds had thinned and traversing the popular street was much easier.
"Wanna see a picture?" Amanda asked excitedly, as she began digging through her purse. "This one is only a few weeks old, I took it at the park near my townhouse." Her pride evident, she smiled and passed the photograph to Claire.
Claire stopped walking so she could examine the photograph more closely. Pictured was a toddler standing in bright sunlight and perched on a wooden park bench. A laughing smile showed several small teeth along with a few toothless gaps. The childs reddish blonde hair was tussled and her cheeks were a rosy pink. She looked happy.
"It was still kind of chilly for a trip to the park but I couldnt resist. Cabin fever I guess," Amanda admitted, taking back the photograph and neatly zipping it in an inner compartment of her purse.
"She has your eyes." Claire used the neat segue as an opportunity to look directly into Amandas.
Amandas smile widened as she spoke. "Everyone says that. I guess...Well...I sorta see it too." She looked down at her watch. "Whoops, wed better hurry back. My 1:30 p.m. appointment should be here in about 10 minutes."
"How old is she?" Claire continued, curiosity driving her question.
"Shes already 19 months. I cant believe how fast time flies. But I think shes got a jump start on the terrible twos," Amanda offered wryly.
After a few more steps Claire abruptly stopped. Several seconds later Amanda realized she was alone. Looking back she saw Claire standing beside a large S.U.V. "Oh...is this yours?" I cant believe lunch is already over. That sucks!
"Yep......listen." A deep breath. "I had a really nice time and...er..." Crap! Shes gotta go, I need to say something...
"I had fun too." Amanda worked herself a little closer to Claire.
For an instant, Claire felt as though she would panic. Amanda was standing so close and she wanted to see her again but...
"Id like to see you again," Amanda said, lightly squeezing Claires arm.
YES!!! "Thatd be great." Thank God. Claire was hugely relieved. "Id like to see you again too. Here." Claire reached inside her jacket pocket and withdrew a business card. Checking her pockets she realized she didnt have a pen. Shit! She began to unlock her car door. "I just need to grab and pen and I can give you my home number and..."
"Here." Amanda thrust forward a pen. Claire looked up in surprise. "I was hoping youd need one," Amanda said impishly. The taller woman smiled and penned her home phone number on the back of the card. Handing back the card, she was surprised when Amanda immediately tore it in half. Taking back her pen, Amanda wrote on the now half card, and handed it back to Claire. "Thats my home phone and pager number. But Ill call you tonight and we can set something up, okay?" Her voice suddenly sounded a little insecure.
"Not if I call you first," Claire stated confidently. "I should be home after 7:00 p.m. Ill talk to you later then. Goodbye Amanda." Neither woman could keep a goofy grin off her face.
"Bye." Wow. That voice alone is enough to make me melt. The therapist watched as Claire got into the Explorer and drove away. After standing there for another moment lost in thought, Amanda looked down at her watch. "Uh...oh," she muttered, and began jogging the last block back to her office.
Pulling around the block, Claire caught a final glimpse of Amanda jogging back towards the clinic. Great legs! Opening her glove box Claire pulled out her constant driving companion, Gumby. Bending his flexible green arms and legs she expertly attached him to the top of her steering wheel and began talking.
"Things went ok, Gumby. She wants to see me again. Yeah, I figured I blew it about a million times but either she didnt notice or she was just being nice." Claire nodded as though Gumby had responded. "Youre right. She was probably just being nice. I did sound like a real dork. More than once," Claire snickered. "Considering what she does for a living, I think Id better keep you in the glove box if shes around. Can you imagine what she'd say if she knew I actually talked to you? Ill bet I could be an entire case study all on my own."
Claire amused herself by picturing her tall frame lying on a dark leather couch where a man with a clipboard answered her every observation with thickly accented German. "VERRRRY INNNNTERESTING, Ms. Easton," she mimicked. "Nope Gumby, I think youll be my little secret."
"When she passed over that picture, you could see in her eyes how much she adores that baby. No mention of the father though. I guess whoever he is, hes out of the picture." At least I hope so, she thought grimly. "I like kids...sort of. I mean, Ive never really been around many...even when I was one." Claire shrugged.
Her own childhood was normal she supposed. Her parents were kind but were largely preoccupied by with their careers. She was raised mostly by nannies. Being an only child, she grew up in an adult world. Consequently, she found herself not having much in common with her contemporaries. Rather than hanging around kids, with whom she felt uncomfortable, she simply preferred to spend time alone, reading or horse back riding. By the time she was ten she had acquired the necessary skills to "work a party" as her father put it. By the time she was fifteen, she was fully accepted in the same social circles as both of her successful parents. She was one of "them." Though she often wondered if "they" were aliens or some equally strange creatures. More than once shed had the distinct displeasure of fending off some of her parents more amorous associates.
Merging onto the interstate Claire hit the gas hard. Time to get back to work and figure out what the hell is going on. Please... please, dont let Amanda or her partner be involved. Claire and Gumby swung into the fast lane.
Expertly steering with one hand, she opened her briefcase and retrieved the ringing cell phone. "Claire Easton," she answered as she adjusted the phone, changing lanes once more.
"Hello Beautiful," the voice smoothly stated.
Recognizing the voice Claire grimaced. "Hello, Mr. Levine." I cant be disappointed its not Amanda. I only left her fifteen minutes ago!
"Please, after everything youve done for me, dont you think you should call me Aaron?"
"Is there something you needed Mr. Levine." Claire only partially hoped she'd kept the irritation out of her voice. Some guys just cant take a hint.
"I was hoping youd agree to have dinner with me tomorrow. Id love the opportunity to show you how much I appreciate your efforts."
Mommy and Daddy paying the bill was all the thanks I needed, Twerp, Claire thought. However, she replied, "that wont be necessary Mr. Levine. I was just doing my job."
"I insist. What time can I pick you up?" he persisted.
Claire was just about to tell him where he could shove his dinner when a light bulb popped on inside her head. This could be the connection I need. Aaron could lead me to information those stale files could never divulge. One dinner with the brat is a small price to pay if it helps me figure out whats going. Right?
Claire deepened her voice, fairly purring out her next words. "Alright, Aaron. I can see youre not the type of man to take no for an answer." She rolled her eyes and continued. "You can pick me up at 7:30 p.m., my secretary will fax you directions." A pause. "Oh, and Aaron?"
"I trust a well-connected man such as yourself, knows how to show a lady a good time." It was a statement not a question. Too subtle for the moron?
"Count on it, Claire. Im happy to see we think alike."
She could picture his smug leer. Yuck! "I will. Until tomorrow then..." Claire snapped closed the phone as she began pulling into her parking ace. What have I gotten myself into now?
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