"Come on, Em. You should come to the party. Everyone's going to be there, and they miss you."
Emily Pearson closed her eyes and tightened her grip on the phone. "I don't know, Sharon. I'm really not in a party mood."
"Em, I know you miss him. I know it's been hard. But you can't hide forever."
"I'm not, I just ... I just don't know if I feel like it."
"Okay, you've given me no choice." Sharon adopted a no-nonsense tone and Emily had to smile. "I've been nice, given you lots of time, but I have to draw the line. If you're not at the party by ten o'clock, I'll come and drag you over myself."
Emily chuckled. "You and what army, McLochlan?"
"I've been working out. I don't need an army, you puny little thing."
"I've been taller than you since the eighth grade, Sharon. I doubt it's changed recently."
"Okay, okay, I had to try." Sharon sighed. "Em, seriously, please come. It's New Year's Eve and I hate to think of you in that apartment all alone."
"All right, all right. You've clobbered me into submission."
"Yay!" Sharon cheered.
"I'm not staying long," Emily warned her. "I'll just come over for a while."
"Fine. Great. You'll see, Em. Getting out and being with people will do you good. I bet you stay longer than you think."
"Yeah, yeah. I know. I'll see you there, okay?"
"Okay. Take care, Em."
"Thanks, Sharon. Bye."
Emily flipped the phone shut and leaned her head back against the wall. Why had she agreed to this? Sharon knew how she felt about going to parties, let alone parties that had mutual acquaintances from her relationship with Ben. It's all his fault I don't want to go, she thought.
She dragged herself back to her room to look for something to wear, composing a letter in her head to Ben as she often did. It helped her vent her anger, even if he'd never know.
Well, Sharon's convinced me to go to Chad and Liza's party. I don't want to, which I guess is weird after all this time. Remember how we loved to go to parties? How we loved New Year's parties most of all?
Here it is, a few hours before midnight. Normally, I'd be putting my hair up, probably in a French twist. Or more likely, begging Sharon to do it for me. Then I'd be choosing the right earrings to go with my dress. Not this year. I can't make myself care too much. I mean, I'm here, you're somewhere else—so who cares what I wear or how my hair looks?
It's all your fault, you know. I still get so mad at you. Can't figure out why I still love you. But I do.
Wiping away tears, Emily went to the closet. She did have a nice dress, one she'd bought to wear to a company function with Ben, but they'd never gone. It was still on the hanger, still in its plastic bag. She pulled it out and laid it on the bed.
He always liked it when I wore red, she thought.
The dress was lovely: a strapless, knee-length gown that she'd gotten for a song on a clearance rack. She remembered Ben laughing at her excitement as she tried to explain how she never found things that nice, in her size, on clearance. He'd been so sweet that day; he'd followed her from store to store in the mall, never complaining, and offering to buy her shoes to match the dress.
She didn't mean to let them, but more memories flooded back.
The day she bought the dress
"Ben, you don't have to buy me shoes." Emily rolled her eyes at him but smiled. "You don't like shopping to start with, and I know you despise shoe shopping. Go play at the arcade or something."
"That's okay. I figured I'd build up some boyfriend points." Ben Tyler grinned and his green eyes sparkled with mischief.
"Do you need boyfriend points?"
"It never hurts to have some in reserve." He shifted the dress to his other arm. "Come on. Let's see if you can find shoes as cheap as you found the dress."
She laughed and led him back to the shoe department. Biting her cheek to hide a smile, she examined several pairs with painstaking attention, watching out of the corner of her eye as Ben's expression grew more panicked by the moment. At last, when he looked like he might break out in a cold sweat, she ended the charade.
"May I see these in a size nine, please?" she asked the sales associate. The woman nodded and took the shoe into the back.
Ben's relief was visible as he dropped into a chair. Emily laughed as she slid off her black pumps. "You looked worried there, champ." She poked him in the side.
"I thought you were going to check the stitching on every shoe. I thought we'd be here for days." Ben affected a look of mock horror. "I was ready to make a break."
"You're going to lose those boyfriend points." Emily winked and then turned to take the shoes form the sales associate. She slipped them on and stood. "Oh yeah, I definitely like these." She walked a few steps back and forth, looking down at the shoes and trying to decide if they were comfortable.
The heel was thinner than she preferred, but not too high. The red would be a perfect match for the dress, and she loved the lacy look of the woven leather, and the straps that tied above her ankle. She stopped in front of a mirror and swiveled her foot to see it from another angle.
"Ben, what do you think?"
"I think they make your legs look great." He had come up behind her and she jumped at his voice. "Makes me think about how they feel when they're wrapped around me when I have you in bed."
"Ben!" Her voice was a shocked squeak and she felt the blood rush to her cheeks.
"Don't do that!"
"Do what?" His pitched his voice low, the way he did when he wanted to coax her into bed. "Think about how much I want you? How I love it when you walk naked to the bed, showing me those sexy legs?"
"Ben! Stop it!" She choked on laughter and embarrassment. "I need to pay for these."
"I'm not stopping you." He stepped back, but leaned forward again. "I want you to get these, then go home and try them on with the dress so I can see how quickly I can get you undressed." He nipped at her earlobe. "On second thought, just put on the shoes. I'd love to see you in just those shoes."
Emily made a strangled noise in her throat and pushed him away. Ben laughed and held his hands up in surrender.
"Go," she ordered, but not without a smile. "Leave the dress and go to the arcade or something. I'll find you."
"Oh, no." Ben grinned. "I'll wait by the door. We're going right home."
Emily shook her head and shooed him away. She took the shoes up, paid for them, and met Ben at the door. "Shall we go get some food?" Emily feigned nonchalance.
"Oh, I don't think so." Ben stared down at her. "Nice try."
He led her to the car and popped the trunk. Emily laid the dress down flat and put the shoe box in the corner, then smiled as Ben held the door open for her.
"I meant what I said about the shoes." He winked at her as she sat down.
Emily shook her head but a tingle of desire started in the center of her body and traveled out. She loved when Ben teased her like this. Before she'd met him, she'd always thought sex and love and romance had to be serious. Her parents were good people, but not demonstrative in terms of affection. Her previous boyfriends had tended towards the staid and somber as well, and she wasn't sure why she'd been attracted to them, now that she had Ben.
Ben wasn't anything like that. He was spontaneous and funny, and although she'd been startled by it at first, Emily had found she had her own spontaneous side and Ben was more than happy to help her explore it.
Back at the apartment, Emily took the dress to the bedroom and hung it on the back of the door. The phone rang and Ben called out to say he'd get it.
She heard him answer and start chatting; the talk turned to baseball. Must be his dad, she thought. The shoebox was on the bed and she stared at it, biting her lip.
After a while, Ben seemed to have finished talking—Emily didn't hear anything—but he hadn't come back to the bedroom. She took a deep breath.
"Ben? Could you come here a minute?"
"Sure, babe," he called. "Hold on a sec."
A ball of nerves formed in Emily's stomach and she ignored it. She waited for what seemed like forever until she heard Ben grab the door knob.
"What's up, sw—" Ben stared at her. "Wow."
"Do you..." Emily cleared her throat. "Do you not like the shoes after all?"
She stood in front of him wearing the red shoes she'd just purchased, and little else. She hadn't felt brave enough to wear only the shoes; she'd added a pair of white lace panties and a matching bra. Judging by Ben's expression, he didn't seem to mind.
"I like the shoes." His eyes traveled down her body, over her breasts, past her hips, and down to the red shoes, then retraced their path no faster than they'd moved before.
Emily thought she'd have to sit down, she felt so shaky. Ben had never looked at her quite this way before. He looked hungry and ... serious.
"You did this for me?" He stepped forward, eyes fixed on hers, and ran the fingers of one hand down her arm. Goosebumps appeared in the wake of his touch.
"Well, you..." She cleared her throat. "You did say you wanted to see me in the shoes."
"That I did." He came closer and she felt her body tense in anticipation. "And, may I say, you look fantastic."
Emily let out a nervous laugh. "I'm sorry it's not just the shoes, but..."
.... There is more of this story ...