The trip began so smoothly that I don't remember many details. I drove home from the office during the mid-afternoon, packed and my assistant drove me to the airport. She gave me a steady stream of information; people to call when I arrived in Chicago, meeting details and appointments, reservations and deadlines. All of this was downloaded to my PDA, and none of it would really require any active intervention on my part. Jenna, that's my assistant, knew I liked to hear it. The minutia of the trip was reassuring; nothing could go wrong on the flight because I had too much to do on the other end.
I hated flying but refused to surrender to the fear. That would be weak and I was not weak. Flying had changed my life but it would not control it. Besides, that was a different flight on a different airline at a different time. Marla's time. Her number came up and nothing could change that; Marla's number and that of the one hundred and thirty-seven other souls whose lives were snuffed out at the same instant as my wife's when the Boeing 737 they were riding pancaked into a cornfield in western Pennsylvania. She was 43, we both were; that was almost two years ago.
The aftermath was horrible. Horrible to share my grief with so many other families and for it to be so public; the images on the television news and plastered all over the newspapers. And then there was the guilt. Guilt because despite everything I said to family and friends and the platitudes I mouthed at the funeral, my marriage had been over for a long time when that jet imploded. The intimacy had been lost for long enough that I couldn't remember when it happened. I knew that in Marla's last seconds I probably didn't cross her mind.
I remembered clearing security on my trip of course. There was no forgetting getting half undressed and collecting your shoes and suit jacket and assorted metal objects from a plastic tub and wondering how in God's name any of this made us one iota safer.
I remember getting on the plane when they called the first class passengers. The last thing I wanted to do was board the plane early but I was in first class so that meant I got on first. Not boarding would be silly. So I walked down the ramp and settled into my seat and told the stewardess that I most definitely wanted a drink before takeoff; bourbon and what the hell, bring me three of those little bottles.
Then the coach passengers started to get on and that was a distraction. I could focus on them and hold off the terror that would grip me soon enough. Look at the faces. A strange, exotic array of faces, young and old, lovely and grotesque. There were beautiful teenage girls with their tanned bodies and hair in tiny braids with beads, fresh from the beaches of the Florida gulf coast. There were parents with children, wearing and carrying trophies from the amusement parks. There were businessmen and women hauling way too much luggage on board to avoid the wait on the other end.
Then came a face that was vaguely familiar, and the challenge to place it. Blonde hair, young enough not to be the spouse of a friend, cute in a serious-looking way; dressed in old jeans, worn sneakers and a huge, shapeless down coat. Probably not a social contact. A face that looked at me with a sudden flash of recognition and fear and then turned away praying not to be noticed. An employee, then.
"Excuse me. Do you work at TransDyna?" I asked. The girl stopped and faced me, looking trapped.
"Yes, sir... I mean Mr. Garrett. I'm Danielle Reston; I work in HR," she said. With this information my mind clicked, pulling up the necessary details.
"Right, you work for Bill Bardison. You helped with his presentation to the board of directors," I said. The woman blushed.
"Yes sir. I didn't help much though." She looked very pleased that I remembered her. By now there were a bunch of annoyed passengers piling up behind Danielle. I motioned for her to go ahead.
"We're holding things up. Good seeing you, Danielle," I said. She moved down the aisle and into the coach section, dragging a big maroon suitcase on wheels.
It had been good to see her. I felt calmer; the exchange forced me to perform, to slip into a familiar role. I was the CEO of a major corporation; I couldn't panic, there were too many people who depended on me.
Then the stewardess brought my bourbon and I drank all three shots. That helped too. I closed my eyes and tried to use the meditation techniques my psychiatrist taught me.
When the jet was in the air, I counted slowly to thirty. I read somewhere that 90% of all plane crashes happened within thirty seconds of takeoff. Marla's did. When I got to thirty I opened my eyes. I would survive this flight.
Thanks to the bourbon and the hectic schedule I'd been on for weeks, I fell asleep before the stewardess could serve the snack. When I woke up the plane was bouncing around pretty impressively and the guy in the seat next to me was grumbling. When the cobwebs cleared and I remembered where I was, I motioned to the first class stewardess.
"What's going on; where are we?" I looked at my watch; it was after seven in the evening. We should have been on the ground.
"There's a major storm around Chicago, sir. We've been diverted to Cleveland," she said, smiling pleasantly as though this was good news.
"Cleveland? What the hell are we going to do in Cleveland?"
"Wait for the storm to clear. I'm sure it won't be too long."
They held us on the plane for an hour in Cleveland, then the pilot told us we could get off and stretch our legs if we wanted to. Not a good sign. When I got into the terminal, the flight board showed 'CANCELLED' next to every flight heading west. We weren't going anywhere.
I called my assistant to update her. She was at home, but was used to being bothered there.
"Jenna. I'm in Cleveland. Looks like I'll be here for a while. There's a Marriott near the airport I think. Get me a room and start checking with the airlines on flight status. Oh, and start thinking about backup plans for tomorrow's meeting just in case. We should be okay, it's not until two."
The airport had little kiosk offices you could rent by the hour. Just a desk with a phone and a high speed Internet connection, plus access to a fax and copier. I got one and worked on my presentation for the next day's meeting. It was a critical one; pitching our case for a line of credit to cover a big acquisition we had in the works. The company we were buying was also based in Chicago, and the bankers were interested mainly because of their relationship to the target company.
At nine-thirty I finished and called Jenna again. She told me that she got me in at the Marriott. The bad news was that O'Hare was expected to remain closed until mid-morning, and that the storm that was clobbering Chicago was moving to the east, and was expected to reach Cleveland by dawn.
I went back to the gate to check on my luggage and was told that it had to stay on the plane. Some kind of FAA rule.
The gate area was still crowded. Passengers were reading and playing cards, and some were stretched out on the floor trying to sleep. Everyone looked bored except a young couple sitting in an otherwise empty row of seats. The guy was leaning over this little brunette who looked like she was maybe eighteen, cupping the back of her head with one hand while he tried to remove her tonsils with his tongue. She had an impressive rack, and judging from the way her nipples were pressing against her tee shirt she wasn't wearing a bra. The guy's other hand was shoved down the front of the girl's jeans. Her knees were spread wide and the pants were so tight that you could see the outline of his hand as it groped her crotch. All except the middle finger and I was pretty sure where it was.
This was such an impressive distraction that I nearly walked into the next row of seats, all occupied. I apologized to the woman whose foot I stepped on, then realized that it was Danielle Reston, the TransDyna employee who worked in HR.
She was trying to hide a smirk; she'd seen me staring at the impromptu tonsillectomy/cervical exam.
"Ms. Reston. I didn't see you there," I said, feeling very flustered. "I should have been paying more attention to where I was going."
"That's okay, it's hard not to stare," she said, then shifted nervously in her chair. She was wearing an oversized University of Florida sweatshirt. I nodded, trying not to glance at the young couple again.
"Why are you still here?" I asked. "There won't be any more flights tonight."
"I know, but there aren't any hotel rooms; I called all over," she said.
"Nonsense. I got a room at the Marriott an hour ago. You can't stay here all night."
"I didn't call there... but that's why everyone's still here. We've all been checking," Danielle said. "It's okay, really. This is fine." Instead of relaxing as we spoke, she seemed to be getting even more nervous.
"Get your things, Danielle. You can go to the Marriott with me; I'll get you a room," I said. She blinked a couple of times and then jumped up, obeying the order. She stuffed a novel back into her suitcase and struggled into the big down coat.
I led her through the terminal, stopping at the kiosk rental place to collect my topcoat and laptop case. In the ground transportation area there was another big crowd; mainly people screaming about their lost luggage. It took almost five minutes to find the limo driver that Jenna arranged, and then his towncar was parked a block away. It was very windy and a wet, clinging snow was falling. I apologized several times to Danielle, who just nodded and kept saying it was okay. After we got into the back seat of the towncar she started glancing over at me like she thought I might explode at any moment.
"Why are you going to Chicago?" I asked. Danielle didn't say anything for a second and then looked startled. I guess she realized I was talking to her.
"They need help going through employee files at the company we're buying," she replied. "I said I'd go so none of the girls with families would have to do it."
"That was nice of you," I said. I'd already noticed that she wasn't wearing a wedding ring. She had a blotch of what looked like green paint on the left leg of her jeans above the knee that she was trying to cover with her hand.
The snow was coming down harder now; big, wet flakes that weren't melting right away when they hit the windshield. The roads were still clear, but there was a thin, white coating on all the parked cars. The driver pulled to the front entrance of the Marriott and jumped out to open the door for us and then retrieved Danielle's suitcase from the trunk.
As we walked toward the registration desk a balding man with a thin mustache joined a cute Asian girl behind the counter.
"Mr. Garrett?" the man asked, forcing a smile. I nodded.
"I'll just need a credit card. The suite is ready for you."
He took my card and ran it through the machine. He handed it back with a card key. The badge he was wearing said he was an assistant manager, and that his name was Carl.
"I'll show you to the suite personally," Carl said. "Is this your only bag?" He looked at Danielle's lumpy luggage, which was listing badly on what appeared to be a defective wheel.
"No. This is Ms. Reston's bag. She'll need a separate room," I replied. Carl made a little snorting noise.
"That's quite impossible. We have no vacancies; we're booked solid all week. You're staying in the suite we reserve for use by the owner of the hotel and his guests. Your assistant prevailed on our manager to make it available," he said.
Danielle looked very uncomfortable, and had started backing away from the counter. I still had my wallet out; I opened it and thumbed through the currency so Carl could see the large bills.
"Surely there must be something. A room you reserve for the assistant to the owner, perhaps?" I asked, smiling. Carl swallowed hard.
"There's nothing. We even have guests sleeping on rollaway beds in conference rooms. There are several large conventions in town, and then with the weather..."
"That's okay," Danielle said. "I'll just stay down here." She motioned toward an arrangement of plush, leather chairs and couches on one side of the hotel lobby.
"I'm afraid I can't allow that; it's against hotel policy," Carl said, in a tone that made clear that he took his hotel policy seriously.
Danielle was blinking back tears, and was squeezing the handle on her suitcase so hard that her knuckles were white. I took a deep breath.
"This suite I'm in. It has two bathrooms, right?"
"Certainly. It's quite spacious and there's a couch that pulls out to a queen-sized bed," Carl replied, the fake smile back in place.
"Well, then. That settles it, Ms. Reston. You're bunking with me," I said.
Danielle had a look of abject horror on her face. "I... I couldn't."
"Of course you can. There's no other choice," I said, then turned to Carl. "My luggage is being held hostage by the airline. I'll need to have the clothes I'm wearing cleaned and pressed and returned to me by morning."
Carl looked at his watch; it was after ten thirty.
"Certainly, sir," he said. Paying over twenty-five hundred dollars a night for your hotel room had its privileges. He motioned for a bellman to take Danielle's bag and my laptop and led us to a bank of elevators. The suite was on the top floor, and 'spacious' didn't do it justice. It was over twelve hundred square feet, with a baby grand piano in the sitting room. There was a half-bath by the entrance and a full bath near a well-stocked bar. My bedroom was equally nice; there was another exit to the hallway and the bathroom had a large Jacuzzi tub.
By the time we finished the tour a housekeeper had finished making up the foldout couch, complete with a mint on one of the pillows.
"I'll send someone up for your clothes in a few minutes, Mr. Garrett. Will there be anything else?" Carl asked.
"I don't think so, Carl. You've been very helpful." I handed him a generous tip as he left. It suddenly felt very odd to be alone in the room with Danielle, and I could tell she felt the same way.
"Look, Danielle..." I began.
"Dani," she said, then paused. "That's what everyone calls me."
"Dani it is then. Anyway, you wouldn't happen to have something in that bag I could wear, would you?" I asked. There was a robe in my bathroom, but I couldn't sleep in that and didn't want to sleep in the nude with an employee in the next room. Dani thought about it, then brightened a little.
"Well, nothing fancy, but I have a shirt that's pretty big. I usually sleep in it. And I've got some gym shorts that I think might fit you. Is that okay?"
"That's perfect," I said. She unzipped her bag and rifled through it, producing a large tee shirt covered with dolphins and pair of purple satin running shorts. I eyed Dani's hips; they looked like about a 36, the same size I wore. She was taller than she seemed at the airport, perhaps 5'7", six inches shorter than me. I thanked her and retreated to my room to change. The shorts were a little snug but were better than nothing as long as no one I knew saw me in them. The big, thick terrycloth robe took care of that. By the time I came out carrying everything I'd been wearing, including my suit and tie, socks and underwear, there was a hotel staffer waiting for my laundry.
It was nearly eleven thirty, but after all the turmoil I knew I was going to need a little help getting to sleep. I found a bottle of decent chardonnay in the refrigerator and opened it.
"Would you like a glass, Dani?" I asked. She nodded.
"That would be great; thanks Mr. Garrett."
"You can call me Dave," I said. What the hell, I was wearing her satin shorts. I handed her a glass and sat at a small table near the bar. She joined me and took a big sip of her wine.
"I don't usually dress like this," she said suddenly, glancing down at the Gators sweatshirt and paint-spattered jeans.
"Don't apologize, Dani. It looks more comfortable than what I was wearing. Did you go to the University of Florida?"
"Yeah. I graduated ten years ago," she said.
"And you've worked for TransDyna since?" I asked. She shook her head.
"I worked for an accounting firm for a few years, doing HR consulting stuff. I worked mainly on a project for TransDyna, and then Mr. Bardison offered me a job when the project was over." She took another big gulp of the wine. I went over and got the bottle to refill her glass, then left it on the table. Dani looked like she was finally relaxing a little.
"Does your family live in Tampa?" I asked, searching for safe subjects.
"My mom lives in Jacksonville. I've got a brother who lives in Chicago; I'm going to visit him if we ever get there," she replied.
"I don't have much family either," I said. Dani got a pained expression.
"We were all really sorry about Mrs. Garrett, that was horrible," she said quietly.
"Thanks." I downed a big swallow of my wine, then refilled it. Dani was fidgeting with her glass; she had really nice hands. Long, slender fingers and nice wrists. Her arms were tanned, with a dusting of fine, blonde hair. It had been a while since I'd been alone with a woman like this, and it felt good. Dani wasn't as young as I'd thought if she was ten years out of college, but she had beautiful, clear skin everywhere I could see. She was pretty, even with her hair pulled unevenly into a ponytail and no makeup. She had big, lovely eyes that were an odd shade of blue. Like the sky in the desert.
"This was really nice of you, Mr. Garr... I mean, Dave," Dani said. "Letting me stay here. That bed looks terrific." She looked over at the made-up couch.
"Not a problem. It's been great talking to you, Dani." I looked at my watch; it was midnight. "But, I'd better let you get some sleep, you must be as tired as I am." I stood and drained my wineglass. I filled it, and then Dani's, polishing off the bottle. I picked up my glass.
"Goodnight, Dani. See you in the morning. Thanks again for the clothes," I said, then headed for my room feeling a little tipsy.
"Goodnight, Dave," Dani replied as I closed my door.
I turned on the television in my room and checked CNBC for the business headlines as I finished my wine. Nothing particularly encouraging; the economy had been moving sideways for a couple of years, held down by the huge deficits and a lot of stupid economic policy out of Washington.
The hotel had supplied a full range of toiletries, including a new toothbrush. As I got ready to climb into bed, I heard soft music coming from the sitting room. I opened the door to my room quietly and peeked out. Dani was at the piano, her back to me, playing a piece I recognized. One of Pachelbel's lesser known ones, but it was lovely; haunting and sad. I watched her for a couple of minutes, then closed the door again. Dani was still playing when I fell asleep.
I woke up with a start and checked the clock. Two AM. My room was empty and nothing seemed amiss. Then I heard a muffled thump from the sitting room. Listening for it now, I could hear someone moving around out there.
I looked out, but seeing what was going on didn't explain it. Dani was awake, and she was dancing. There was no music but she was flying around an open area of the marble floor like a gymnastics floor exercise. No, it was definitely ballet, and Dani was pretty good at it but she still slipped and fell every so often. That must have been what woke me.
She was wearing a small tee shirt with half sleeves and her panties and she was barefoot. Watching it was interesting but I was afraid she'd hurt herself and was worried about what the people in the rooms under us might think. I went back and got my robe and then went out to ask her to stop. As I crossed the room I was sure she'd seen me a couple of times but she didn't react at all; she just kept dancing. She was out of breath and had a strange look on her face, close to open panic.
"Dani! Ms. Reston!" I said, fairly loud but got no reaction so I repeated it at a near shout. She fell again, got up immediately and continued, but only for a minute. She stood for a long moment on the tips of her toes with her arms outstretched, back arched, and then sunk to one knee. She was bowing. Then she walked slowly to the edge of her bed and sat; knees together, hands folded and head down. The covers on the bed were thrown back and rumpled, Dani had to have been sleeping for at least a while before all this started. By now I was completely baffled, but it got worse when Dani started to cry. Quiet, racking sobs that made her slim shoulders shake.
I walked over and took her by the arm. "Ms. Reston. Is there a problem?"
She didn't look up but she did start to talk; it was a loud whisper really.
"I'm sorry Daddy. I did my best." She repeated it several times between sobs in a small voice, like a child. And now I knew what was going on. Dani wasn't really awake; it was like sleepwalking and this was some kind of awful dream. Marla had a nephew that did this a couple of times when he stayed with us, usually when he was sick or under a lot of stress. I knew that forcing Dani to wake up could be dangerous, so I sat next to her and put an arm around her shoulders.
"It's okay, Dani. You were wonderful; I'm very proud of you," I said softly in her ear. That seemed to help so I said it again. Now she was relaxing, her body melting against mine. Her arms slid around me, one of them inside my robe, which had fallen open. All I had on under it were the purple shorts, but I was sure as hell more fully dressed than Dani.
The little cotton top ended nowhere near her panties and even though those were a fairly modest bikini style, they didn't leave much to the imagination. They were pale pink and they had tiny bunches of what looked like cornflowers on them. There were fine, honey-golden hairs creeping out of one side of the panties at Dani's crotch, and the fabric was tucked into her pussy a little, pulled tight enough that I could tell where everything was. And that was only half of the problem. Her left breast was pressed against my arm, rubbing it as she shifted around and I could feel the nipple. Dani's breasts weren't big, maybe a B cup, but they looked pretty nice and were very firm, thrusting against the tee shirt at an upward angle, each coming to a soft, rounded point.
I was taking slow, deep breaths trying to control myself but I could feel my dick creeping down the leg of the purple shorts. Dani hugged me tighter, cooing, and spread her knees a little more. The edge of the first, pink fold of her labia was peeking out of one side of the panties now. The head of my cock was poking out into view and the shorts were tenting up. Shit! I started thinking about dead animals, tax audits, and car salesmen; and doing math problems in my head, anything to get my mind off the way Dani's mons looked through the panties. A nice gentle little ridge above her pussy, just slightly prominent, exactly the way I liked it. Slow, deep breathing; more math problems.
Ten minutes passed, and now I was pretty sure Dani was sleeping. If I could just get her to let go of me I could lay her back on the bed and slip away to my room. I put a hand on the side of her head and started to ease her back...
Dani's eyes flew open, alarmed and confused.
"Mr. Garrett! What..."
"It isn't what you think! You were having some kind of nightmare. I was only holding you to calm you down."
There was a quick spark of recognition in her eyes.
"I'm sorry; I do that sometimes."
"It's okay; I just didn't want you to hurt yourself."
We stared at each other for a moment, my hands on her shoulders.
"Um... Dani, you might want to move your arm," I said. She looked down; her left arm was inside my robe, wrapped around my waist. She yanked it away and we scooted apart on the bed. Dani pulled part of the covers over her panties and I rearranged my robe, then stood.
"Well, I guess you're okay now so I'll just go back to my room," I said, feeling very flustered. Dani nodded, her mouth hanging open just a little. I walked quickly into my room and closed the door without looking back. Shit. My dick was still half-erect; she had to have seen that.
Not that any of it was my fault; I was just trying to help. And who wouldn't have been sporting a woody? Christ, Dani was practically naked and had been rubbing her tit on my arm for fifteen freaking minutes. Damn, she had nice tits. And the rest of her was pretty fantastic too; really nice legs, muscular but long and smooth, very feminine. It had been hard to tell earlier, with that bulky sweatshirt and the loose jeans. From what I could remember from work, Dani didn't dress to show off her body there either. Conservative dresses mainly.
I was sitting on the edge of my bed and my cock was straining painfully against the satin shorts again. I could tell I wasn't going to get to sleep without a little self-help.
The next morning the hotel had my clothes back by seven. I just put on the slacks and dress shirt; it didn't look like I was going to need the jacket and tie. Snow was coming down like crazy, there had to be a foot and a half on the ground. I called Jenna and she confirmed my fears; Cleveland's airport was closed down and might not reopen until the next morning. The high winds were a bigger problem than the snow. In a bit of good news, she'd negotiated the release of my luggage and hoped to have it delivered in a few hours. I didn't tell Jenna about Dani, who was still sleeping soundly.
I waited until eight-thirty and ordered breakfast for two from room service, hoping that Dani liked what I got her. I put the robe I'd been wearing on the foot of her bed and went to my room to check my e-mail, knowing that the room service people would wake Dani when they arrived to set up.
The e-mail news wasn't good. The bank people weren't available again for at least a week if I missed the appointment, which was too late to do us any good. They didn't seem at all sympathetic about the weather problems. The next best financing option open to us was way more expensive, enough to wipe out a third of our profit over the next nine months.
When I went back out into the sitting room, Dani was up and already eating. Breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon, link sausage, french toast with real maple syrup, orange juice and coffee, and it looked like Dani was having some of everything. Her hair was wet, and was brushed straight back from her face; she looked great. When she saw me she stopped eating and started to stand. I waved her back and sat across from her.
"I shouldn't have started without you, but I was starved and stuff was getting cold," she explained. I had to smile; she had an orange juice mustache.
"I'm glad you started, Dani. It was mainly for you anyway. I wasn't sure what you liked so I got a variety," I said, pouring myself a cup of coffee and taking a small portion of the eggs and bacon. We both ate for a while.
"That robe fits you better than it did me," I said. She blushed, and I wondered if it was because she remembered the last time she saw me in it.
"I'm really sorry about last night, Mr. Garrett..."
"Dave," I corrected.
"Yeah, Dave. Anyway, I'm sorry. When I'm really tired or stressed I sometimes do this sleepwalking thing where I look like I'm awake but I'm still dreaming. It's kind of weird."
"Don't worry about it. I've got a nephew that does it," I said, then hesitated. "I'm sorry if I startled you by holding you like that, Dani."
"No, it was nice of you. Um, how long were we sitting there like that?"
I smiled. "Maybe twenty minutes." Dani blushed again.
"I heard you playing the piano last night; it was lovely. You're quite good," I said, pausing to refill both of our coffee cups. "Do you do anything else... like ballet?"
Dani's face dropped, and her color drained away.
"Oh, jeez. I wasn't dancing last night, was I?" she asked. I nodded.
"You were flying around in here like Natalia Makarova. I was afraid you were going to hurt yourself."
"It's been years since I had the dancing dream; thanks for helping me," Dani said. I was dying to ask what happened with her dancing; why she would cry and apologize to her dad, but I didn't. Dani seemed embarrassed enough as it was, so I changed the subject and told her about the problems with the bankers, and what Jenna told me about being stuck in Cleveland.
Just as we finished breakfast, my luggage arrived. I decided that since I couldn't do anything else I might as well go work out; the Marriott had a nice health club with a steam room. I pulled my exercise gear out of my bag and left the suite, telling Dani not to let anyone bother me unless it was about an imminent flight to Chicago.
After an hour on a stair climber, forty-five minutes of lifting and twenty minutes in the steam room I felt better than I had in days. When I got back to the suite, it was a hotbed of activity. A crew was moving furniture and setting up a conference room table and chairs that they must have gotten from another part of the hotel. Three guys were hooking up a video camera and extra lighting, along with a thirty-six inch television on a cart. Dani was rushing around supervising everything, wearing a crisp-looking navy blue suit and silk blouse.
"What the hell is going on?" I asked, addressing no one in particular. Dani came rushing over.
"Dave, I'm glad you're back. You've got an hour and a half to get ready. Is that enough time?"
"Enough time for what?"
"For your presentation to the bankers in Chicago. They agreed to do it by video conference at two o'clock." She was leading me toward my bedroom. A stack of files was on the desk, and a full outfit of clothes was arranged on the bed.
"I had the hotel people press the suit, well, the jacket and shirt. Nobody will see the pants. And I thought you would want some time to go over your files. Jenna told me which ones you'd need," Dani said.
"You were talking to Jenna?"
"I had to, she has all the contacts with the people in Chicago," she explained.
"Well, you get cleaned up and ready. I'll get everything else set up." Dani gave me a little wave as she closed the door to my room.
By the time I reviewed my files and got dressed, the suite had been transformed into a very business-like office setting, at least the part that was visible to the camera.
At two o'clock the big monitor came to life with real-time images of the senior officers of the Chicago bank. They seemed very pleased that I cared enough about the relationship to do the videoconference, and joked about the storm they'd sent my way. The business portion of the conversation was a bit less friendly, but still went very well. Far better than I'd hoped and ended with a commitment letter for the interim financing that they faxed to me for signature. When we signed off, the tone was almost warm and fuzzy.
"Wow. That went well," I said. Dani was beaming. During the call she'd been lurking offscreen, feeding me documents as I needed them.
"So it's okay that you couldn't go to Chicago?" she asked.
"Better than okay. Our face to face might not have gone nearly as well. For some reason they took our scrambling to keep this on track as a sign of good faith. It was a great idea, and I owe it all to you, Dani," I said, staring at her.
"I'm glad it worked out," she replied.
We took it easy that afternoon. Well, I did anyway. Dani took care of getting the suite put back the way it was, and I was glad when her couch was in place and made up as a bed again. It made the suite ours once more. We decided that we'd celebrate and have dinner at the hotel restaurant. I'd eaten there before; it was decent for a restaurant at an airport hotel.
Getting ready for dinner was exciting, because I was getting dressed in my bedroom and Dani was right outside in hers. It felt... intimate. I wore a sport coat and slacks, with an open collar. Dani wore a simple little black dress and she looked fantastic in it. I was proud to walk into the restaurant with her.
I ordered a nice bottle of Chardonnay because I knew she liked that, and we got the shrimp and scallop appetizer for two that came on a single plate with two forks. Dani really seemed to be enjoying herself; she laughed easily and often and I loved the sound of it.
Her dress seemed out of character for her; it was fairly low-cut, with thin straps that rode wide on her shoulders. In my opinion the upper chest is one of the most underrated parts of a woman's body and Dani's was exquisite. From her collarbone and the delicate little indentation at the base of the neck, down to the gentle, twin rise at the top of her breasts and the valley between that hinted at the cleavage below, Dani was lightly tanned with a light scattering of freckles.
We talked about the videoconference, and about Dani's job. She seemed a little uncomfortable talking about that, so I asked her about her family. She talked about her mom and the one brother in Chicago, and told me that her dad died when she was in college. She loved talking about him; they were apparently very close.
"That dream you had the other night, Dani. It was like you were performing; did you ever do that?" I asked.
"Yeah, when I was little. My dad was my coach and we went all over the country for youth competitions. I was pretty good and it was a big deal for dad."
Dani blinked a couple of times and then sighed. "I let him down."
"What do you mean?" I asked, hoping I wasn't pressing too hard.
"We went to Washington, D.C. for this big juniors competition. If I won it could've earned me a scholarship and an internship with a top ballet company," Dani said. "My dad was really excited. I was so ready; maybe too ready. But I fell three times in the first five minutes and the judges weren't even watching me by the end of my routine." Dani had a big tear tracing its way down her right cheek.
"I'm sorry, Dani. I shouldn't have asked," I said, then reached across the table to take her hand.
"No, that's okay. The weird thing is that I haven't had that dream since my dad died." She paused. "And when I woke up and you were with me I was surprised but... I felt really comfortable with you."
"I'm glad, Dani. I felt pretty comfortable with you, too," I said, thinking that this might be the understatement of the year. I was hoping that Dani would have another dream that night, and wondering what she would wear to bed. I was still holding her hand and she didn't seem to mind.
We were finishing our second bottle of wine and trying to decide on dessert when Carl the night manager found us.
"Mr. Garrett, I'm glad I caught you. With the weather clearing we've had some departures. I can offer Ms. Reston her own room on your floor for this evening." He glanced at Dani, who sat up a little straighter and put her hands in her lap. Carl had just a hint of a smirk on his face.
"That's... wonderful, Carl," I said, then looked at Dani. "Unless it would be easier for you to stay where you are; we've only got one more night."
"No. It would be better to move," she replied, staring at the table as she spoke.
Carl pulled a card key from his pocket and placed it on the table.
"It's room 1407, Ma'am. I'll have your things moved. Now, enjoy the rest of your meal."
We decided to skip dessert. The closeness I'd felt earlier had evaporated.
The next morning I packed and met Dani in the hotel lobby. The guy with the towncar was waiting to take us back to the airport. We didn't say much during the ride, but Dani looked terrific in a sweater and slacks and I told her so. She had her hair pulled into a bun that left her neck showing in back; I loved the little wisps of fine blonde hair that curled behind her ears.
The work Dani was going to Chicago for had been finished without her and it was Friday, so her boss told her she could come home. When we got to the airport I went to the counter to check my bags and ticket my return flight. Dani was standing behind me with her ticket.
"Ms. Reston will be sitting with me in first class," I told the agent, nodding at Dani, who looked startled.
"I'm sorry, but there aren't any upgrades available," the agent said with that syrupy, fake smile they all have.
"I'm not talking about an upgrade... Sara," I said, glancing at her nametag. "I'm talking about full fare first class. I suggest you bump the frequent flyer upgrade who's in the seat next to me back into coach where they belong." I gave her an equally syrupy smile and set my AmEx corporate card on the counter. Sara started pounding away on her keyboard.
"You don't have to do that; coach is fine," Dani said.
"No it's not. You deserve it, and besides this will let us talk a bit."
Sara handed us our tickets, 2A and B. As we walked toward the waiting area, Sara was summoning some guy named Gerald Cooper to the counter to cancel his upgrade.
Riding in first class was a huge treat for Dani, and the way she reacted made it special for me, too. The plane was leveling off for the flight before I realized that I wasn't nervous. I didn't even do my head back, counting to thirty thing. The stewardess fussed over Dani, bringing her breakfast before anyone else's. It was just scrambled eggs and bacon but Dani decided that it was 'grand', especially the orange juice in a real glass with a stem.
"Thanks for everything, Dave," she said as she finished. "This, and dinner last night. I can't remember when I've had so much fun." Then she yawned.
"Excuse me, I didn't get much sleep last night."
"Why not?" I asked, hoping I hadn't missed the ballet dream.
"I don't know. I kept thinking about stuff. Maybe I should've stayed on your couch," she said, then glanced at me checking my reaction. I just smiled.
"That would have been fine with me. It was awfully quiet without you."
Dani yawned again. I showed her how to recline her seat and the stewardess got her a blanket. As she fell asleep, Dani's head crept over and touched my shoulder. As I turned my head to smell her hair Dani pulled her feet up on the seat and turned a little, snuggling against me. I held my breath for a moment without meaning to, and then when I was sure she was still asleep I slid my arm around her shoulders and held her gently. I had some reports I was planning to read, but they just didn't seem that important to me.
An hour out of Tampa we hit some turbulence and Dani woke up.
"What's wrong?" she blurted. I kept my arm around her shoulders.
"Nothing. Just a little rough air. You're fine."