Vanessa had expected Baleville to seem smaller each time she took leave from the Corps. Somehow, it never did. Now, after nine months in the desert, seeing nothing but temporary camps and villages that barely even qualified for the name, it seemed impossibly huge and vaguely opulent.
Even stranger, they'd held a parade for her, Jenna Wilkins, and Doug Haley when they'd come back from the Gulf, like they'd done something particularly heroic while there. When her parents had asked if she'd liked the parade, she hadn't had the heart to tell them that, if you wanted to show a soldier gratitude, making them spend the day marching probably wasn't the way to start.
Since then, nearly every day seemed to bring at least one well-wisher out of the woodwork. They all wanted to hear war stories and seemed to think Vanessa was being modest when she admitted she had none. At first, she was worried that she was boring them, but she soon realized that they were coming not just to listen, but to see her. People had been surprised when she'd decided to join the Corps out of high school. In school, she'd been shy and quiet to the point of invisibility. People wanted to see what had become of her.
When they did see her again, many of them nodded as if seeing something Vanessa herself did not. She may be a good deal more toned than she'd been and have much shorter hair, but she hadn't changed much. It was her own secret disappointment that she still wasn't what she'd gone away to become--a Marine.
Sure, she'd done four years of active service, earning the rank of corporal. She was still in the reserves and, if she played her cards right during college, might even be an officer one day. But, she was still the same person.
Of all the people who had come to see her, the one person she was hoping would show up hadn't. When she'd realized that he probably wasn't coming, Vanessa had briefly been angry with him. But, that was stupid. He might not even know she was home or that she would like to see him. Hell, he might be married by now for all she knew.
She'd managed to make inquiries, keeping them as casual as possible. Vanessa had been embarrassed by her schoolgirl crushes when she was in school. That she would hold onto one as a grown woman was too much to admit to anyone. It came out in pieces. He still lived in Baleville and had opened a small martial arts studio downtown. Vanessa found no way to ask if he were married without her motives being too obvious for her own taste.
So far, all Vanessa had done was inquire. She'd had the information for two weeks and done nothing with it. Even now, staring at herself in the three-way mirror, she was still debating whether or not to go through with it.
She'd only come into town to reconnoiter his studio. Caught staring at the nondescript storefront by a student, she'd only ducked into the dress shop to make it look like she wasn't lurking. The shop owner had taken her by the arm and insisted that she knew "just the dress that would be perfect" for Vanessa. Staring at the woman who was guiding her to the back of the shop, Vanessa realized it was her former Spanish teacher, Mrs. Coleman.
Because it was easier than explaining, particularly to a teacher, Vanessa had tried the dress on. As she was undressing, she'd hatched upon a mad plan. Frowning at herself in the mirrors, she realized that it wasn't so much a plan as it was an old fantasy, edited for modern circumstances. The realization made her muscles tighten and her chest flush bright red.
"It's not that indecent, sweetie," said Mrs. Coleman. "It's really quite lovely on you."
Grateful to have the dress to focus on, Vanessa examined herself more closely. The dress was actually both indecent and lovely. Made of a silky navy blue material, it looked like it should be translucent, but wasn't. It covered her from neck to calf in the front, was slit up the side and practically non-existent in the back. Because of that, Vanessa was unable to wear a bra with it. The sensation of it rubbing against her nipples made them quite visible through the thin material.
Staring in the mirror, Vanessa laughed at the absurdity of it all, "This would be perfect for me if I were going to the Oscars. But, I don't know when I would wear it in real life."
"Every girl should have a dress like this if she can get away with it," said Mrs. Coleman. "You can wear it to any kind of formal event, like a graduation or a dinner party or a wedding if you want to show up the bride. With your figure and those bright, blue eyes..."
Vanessa frowned, "I have my dress uniform for that."
"Uniform?" asked Mrs. Coleman. "Wait a minute. You're Vanessa Kunzer aren't you? Girl, I didn't recognize you at all. You look so different--taller and toned and so much more confident."
Vanessa laughed, "I'm not any taller than I was in school--or any more confident for that matter. It's the dress."
Mrs. Coleman shook her head, "I noticed it when you were standing outside, staring across the street. I made this dress almost a year ago and have been looking for the right person to put it on ever since. I knew it was for you as soon as I saw you. I can't believe you're Vanessa Kunzer. You were a mousy, little thing in high school. Now you're..." She seemed at a lost for words. "Well, you're all grown up."
Vanessa thought that the older woman was just trying to flatter her to make a sale, but she couldn't bring herself to contract her teacher. So, she just smiled and said, "Thank you."
Now, it was Mrs. Coleman who laughed, "I can see you don't believe it. I tell you what. Why don't you take that dress, wear it somewhere appropriate, and tell me if you still don't see it?"
Vanessa shook her head, "I don't think I can afford..."
Mrs. Coleman waved her to silence, "I love making dresses like that, but nobody in this town ever gives me a chance. Wear it some place you want attention. If you like it, you'll be back for more."
Vanessa frowned again, "I couldn't..."
"You can," said Mrs. Coleman. "And, when you wear it, smile. You frown too much. You're much prettier when you smile."
Driven by the impulsiveness of the gesture, Vanessa had left the store carrying her street clothes and stashed them in the car. Glancing around the municipal lot where she'd parked, she shucked off her panties and added them to the pile of clothes. They would never work with the dress. It had to be a thong or nothing.
Three steps away from the car, Vanessa almost turned and ran. Wearing the dress and nothing else, she felt impossibly bold. In the field, modesty had often been a luxury, but she'd never been brazen about it.
Still, her feet drew her forward. She'd faced combat. She'd faced bombardment. She could face rejection.
The night was still warm enough that the air conditioning still came as a shock. She might have turned back then and there, but a chime announced her entrance and, in the second of hesitation, he was there, exactly as Vanessa remembered him.
"Nessa," he said, recognizing her immediately. "I heard you were home."
"Clay," she said, smiling. "It's good to see you. I'm surprised to see you didn't come by the house. Half the town has."
Despite Vanessa's attempt to keep reproach out of her voice, Clay grinned apologetically, "I just figured you'd be up to your elbows in people. I didn't want to intrude."
Vanessa laughed. That was just how she remembered Clay, too--unassuming and considerate to a fault, "You wouldn't be intruding. You're an old friend."
Clay looked around, "Where are my manners. I'm just leaving you standing here while I stare at... God, you look amazing." He shook his head as if to clear it, "Come on in the office." He came to her, gently taking her by the elbow and leading her through the studio.
Vanessa looked around herself as they walked through the half-lit room, "You look like you're doing pretty well for yourself."
Clay shrugged expansively, "I'm doing all right. There aren't a lot of students, but I've added a couple of other classes that I'm hoping will get it back in the black."
The office was barely big enough for the desk and three chairs. Clay went around to one side, indicating that Vanessa should sit. The chair was cool against her back.
Clay closed a series of folders he had open on his desk, sticking them in a drawer until the surface was clear except for a computer, "I was just catching up on some paperwork, but catching up with an old friend strikes me as a much better way to spend the evening--or at least, whatever part of the evening you intend to spend here. I guess you're headed somewhere."
Vanessa nodded, but winced inside. Of course Clay would assume she was going out. In her fantasy, she walked in the school, they said a few words and, overcome by lust for her, Clay dragged her to the exercise mat, tore her clothes off, and made love to her. What was she doing here? She'd never seduced anyone. She didn't know the first thing about how to do it.
If this were her fantasy, Vanessa would say, "No, silly. I wore this for you." But, her mouth would not open to utter those words. Instead, she nodded mutely, then added, "I finally got away from the house. I'm going to a club."
Clay raised an eyebrow, "Dressed like that? Alone?"
Vanessa wanted to scream. How could Clay look at her, dressed as she was, and revert back to the big brother routine? She wanted to say, "You could come with me and protect me." She felt the words forming on her lips, but they wouldn't come out of her throat. Instead, she heard herself saying, "Clay, I'm a Marine now. I can take care of myself."
.... There is more of this story ...