"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..."
"I'm not. I like the bit of mystery." Ben smiled and stripped off his shirt. He pulled her to him and she was grateful for his arms around her waist and the heat of his body against hers. "Thank you, sweetheart. You look gorgeous."
"I was nervous."
"I know." He laughed and she felt the rest of the tension leave her body. He pulled back to look at her and stroked her black hair back from her face. "You don't have to be nervous with me, you know that. Not ever."
"I know. I don't mean to be." She looked into his eyes. "You like it, though, right?"
"I'm about to show you how much."
Emily smiled as he pressed his lips to hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held on as he crushed her to him and she let herself melt against him.
"This is really unnecessary," Ben murmured against her lips. She was about to ask what he meant when she felt him undo the strap of her bra. He coaxed her arms down and slid the garment off, growling in approval when her breasts pressed against his chest. Emily gasped and he thrust his tongue between her lips, tasting and teasing and urging her to do the same.
She did, answering his movements with her own and holding tight to his shoulders. He encouraged her with his hands, kneading the muscles in her back and his hands dropped down until they cupped her ass and dragged her hips against his. Emily breathed hard as she dropped her head for a minute and felt him, hard through his jeans as he rubbed up against her.
"I think you should take these off." Emily let her hands fall to the waist band of his jeans and tugged at the button.
"You are so right." Ben squeezed her hips and let his head fall back.
Emily dropped wet, hot kisses on his chest and he hissed in a breath. Still a little nervous, her hands fumbled for a moment on the zipper, but she took a deep breath and slid it down. She laughed when Ben cursed under his breath and shoved his pants and underwear down himself, kicking it to the side.
"Patience," she teased.
"Not when you're wearing those shoes and that underwear." Ben's eyes raked over her again and although she bit her lip, she didn't blush as she'd used to. "And you don't need the underwear."
"Oh!" Emily squeaked as Ben yanked the white panties down, going to his knees to slide them off over her shoes.
"God, Em, you are so beautiful." He pressed a kiss to her abdomen as he stroked her calves and she fought to stay upright.
He seemed to sense the problem and stood, then led her over to the bed. Keeping his lips on hers and murmuring endearments, he guided her to sit down and lie back. She shivered as he traced kisses over her stomach and then cried out as he snaked his tongue between her legs.
She clutched at the covers as he devoured her. His tongue slid through the slick folds of her sex, driving her crazy. He kissed, nibbled and sucked, finding the sensitive nub and flicking his tongue over it. She cried out as her first orgasm hit her, shaking as he continued to pleasure her. When she could think again, she reached down and put her hands on his arms.
"Ben, please. Please."
"Please, what?" He laid more kisses on her thighs, then worked his way up.
Emily could sense the tension in his body; he was teasing her but he wanted her, too.
"Please make love to me. I want you inside me."
"I thought you'd never ask."
He stood and urged her back on the bed so that he could stretch out over her. Emily loved that feeling, the heat and the strength of his body on top of hers. She wrapped her legs around his waist and he winked at her before driving inside.
"Oh, God, Em. You feel so incredible."
Emily couldn't speak as she held on to him, raising her hips to meet his as he moved inside her. She opened her eyes and saw him staring down at her, his green eyes focused on her face. He leaned down and kissed her, hard, and she matched each thrust of his hips and tongue with her own.
One of his hands moved along her side and down her leg, nudging her thigh higher and driving deeper. Emily dropped her head back as another orgasm raced through her body. When she came back to herself, she saw Ben had closed his eyes, a sure sign he was close and trying to make things last. His thrusts were shorter and harder and she cried out as she came again.
"Ben." She gasped out his name and framed his face with her hands. "Ben, let go." She kissed him.
He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight against him as he moved. She tightened her legs around his waist and came once more. It pushed him over the edge and he squeezed her to him as he gave in and let his release flood through both of them.
He rested on top of her for a few moments, then rolled to his side, taking her with him. "You should wear those shoes all the time," he told her, and they both laughed.
"Maybe for special occasions." She closed her eyes and ran a finger down his arm; he sighed and pulled her close.
"I love you, Em. So much."
"I love you, too."
Well, he doesn't love you anymore. Emily dashed away the tears that started to fall. It was ridiculous, she berated herself, to let thoughts of Ben affect her so much. He's the one who'd left, after all. No warning, just gone. Out of her life. And here you are, reliving memories that only remind you of how much it all hurts.
She turned on some music, hoping the sound would drown out the thoughts in her head. She opted for something loud, with no words, not wanting anything to remind her of times with Ben.
The phone rang as she was getting ready to take a shower. Suspecting Sharon of calling to check on her, she was relieved to see "Delacourt N" on the display.
"Hey, Emily. It's Neil."
"Hi, Neil. How are you?" She leaned against the wall, pleased to hear from him.
"Not bad. You?"
"Good. Listen, I heard you were going to Chad's tonight."
Emily rolled her eyes. "Word travels fast. Did Sharon call you?"
"No, I just—"
He sighed. "Okay. Yeah, she did. She was afraid you'd change your mind and wanted me to call and make sure you were still going. Plus I wanted to offer you a ride."
"I said I'd go. Does everyone really think I'd back out?"
"Well..." Neil hesitated. "It's not that. It's just ... we all know it's tough for you this year. But we're all your friends, and we're here for you. We just wish you'd take us up on it sometimes."
"I'm sorry, Neil." Emily dropped her head. "I don't mean to ... to freeze everyone out. I just don't know how to handle it sometimes."
"I know it must be hard, but isolating yourself won't help. Trust me, I've been there."
"I know." Emily took a deep breath. "Look, I am going, and a ride would be great. Pick me up at nine-thirty? Sharon gave me a ten o'clock deadline."
"No problem. See you then. And I'm glad you're coming, Em."
She sighed as she made her way to the shower. Neil was right, even if she didn't want to admit it. She had been hiding away, cowering, however one wanted to say it. It was stupid, too, she thought as she turned on the water. All of the people she'd known with Ben had been her friends as well. Depriving herself of their company and comfort was just an exercise in self-flagellation.
As the water ran over her, she composed another letter.
So here it is, almost time for the party. Neil's going to pick me up; I guess he and Sharon thought I'd back out. I guess I can't blame them, I've done it before. They weren't taking any chances this time.
I didn't realize I was letting my feelings show so much. I thought I was doing a good job of hiding them, but it turns out I've been wearing it all on my sleeve, however unfashionable that may be. But I was never one for fashion, was I?
I found the red dress, the one I never got a chance to wear for you, you idiot. You left before I could. This is usually such a glamorous evening for most people, and I should wear it, but it's not glamorous for me, not this year. I won't be drinking, or proposing toasts.
Remember when we went to Neil and Jen's party? We both drank too much and you started trying to make a toast but you couldn't get the words out. I had to drag you away, just about, and I was half-gone myself. I tried to make a toast but don't think I got five words in, I was laughing too hard. I swore the next day I'd never drink like that again, and I never did. You weren't any better off.
I hate remembering you like this, Ben. How you made me laugh, how you made me feel. It's not fair.
When the doorbell rang, Emily hurried over to open the door and smiled at Neil. "Hi. Come on in."
"Thanks." He stepped inside and Emily closed the door.
"I'm almost ready. Just need the shoes and earrings."
"Typical woman," Neil joked and Emily rolled her eyes.
"Seems to me we waited on you more than once when you couldn't find your lucky shirt and we were going to a hockey game."
"Touché." He grinned and put a hand on her shoulder, leaned down to kiss her cheek. "It's good to see you, Em. You look terrific."
"Thanks. You look sharp yourself." Emily blinked back tears as she took him in. Neil was not quite six feet tall, with wavy blond hair. He wore gray slacks and a navy blue sweater that highlighted his dark eyes. He and Ben had been friends for years, and it was Neil's former girlfriend, Jen, who'd introduced Ben and Emily.
Neil checked his watch. "Better leave soon if you don't want Sharon sending out the search party."
"Right. Just give me a minute." She nodded and went back to the bedroom.
You're doing fine, she told herself. You're just going to spend some time with friends. Something you should have done a long time ago.
The red dress hung in the closet, and the shoes were still in their box, buried under other boxes. She'd tried but Emily hadn't been able to make herself wear them. Instead she'd opted for her all-purpose dark green dress and black heels. After a check in the mirror, she walked over to her dresser to get her earrings. She remembered the day she'd bought them but refused to think more about it and walked out to the other room.
"Okay, Neil." She gave him a forced smile. "Sorry, ready to go now. Didn't mean to hold us up."
"You didn't." He shook his head, then studied her for a moment.
"Nothing. Just ... okay, I shouldn't, but I'm going to give you a chance to change your mind. Sharon would kill me, but like I said, I have a good idea of how you might be feeling, so I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to skip the party."
"No." Emily reached for her wrap and draped it over her shoulders. "I said I'd go, and I will. I can't..." She struggled, then huffed out a breath. "I get so angry, you know? I want to blame him, even though I know it's all on me. It's my own fault I haven't seen people or done things."
Neil squeezed her hand and she was surprised by the contact, and how good it felt.
"I know," he told her. "I know that feeling exactly. I always thought the worst part is that you want to tell people, but you're afraid they'll just make light of it, or tell you that you're being silly and it's time to move on."
Emily nodded; he'd described how she felt to a T. "Time to let it go," she managed to say.
Neil gave a short laugh and opened her door. "You know, that may have been the cliché I hated the most."
"I'm sorry if I said it." She locked the door after they'd stepped out and followed him down to his car.
"You didn't. You and Ben both had the sense not to say it."
Neil held the door for her and she slid into the passenger seat, careful to pull her dress aside so that it didn't get caught in the door.
"Tell you what," she said as Neil got in the driver's seat. "Let's make a deal. No clichés, what do you say?"
"Sounds great." Neil patted her hand and pulled away from the curb.
Emily stared out the window, idly toying with an earring.
The day she bought the earrings
Emily hummed as she made dinner. She'd taken the day off after a wild two weeks at work and had enjoyed every minute; the only drawback was that Ben hadn't been able to join her. A lazy morning had given way to a leisurely shower, a solo lunch at her favorite restaurant and a shopping trip at the mall.
She'd never been much of a mall rat, but since she wasn't under any deadlines, it had seemed like a fun idea. She'd enjoyed meandering by the stores, stopping in some she'd bypass on a regular day and checking out window displays. A pair of earrings in a store touting handmade jewelry had caught her eye and she'd splurged on the purchase. A few more errands had completed the trip and she'd come home to enjoy a quiet afternoon.
Now she was waiting for Ben and making his favorite for dinner, beef stroganoff. He'd been having as bad a time at work as she'd had and so she hoped she could help him de-stress.
"Hey, sweetie!" she called when she heard him come in.
He stopped and leaned against the doorway to the kitchen. "Hi." His tie hung loose around his neck. Emily took in his wrinkled shirt with the buttons half-undone, his tousled brown hair and the red around his tired green eyes, and smiled.
"You look exhausted." She went over and kissed him. "Go sit down. Want a beer?"
"More than anything." He smiled back and she heard him walk over and drop on the couch as she retrieved a beer from the fridge.
She walked over and held it out. "Here you go."
He took the beer. "You're a goddess."
She squeaked as he reached out with his other hand and pulled her down next to him.
"There, that's much better. God, I thought I'd never get out of there. I had visions of being trapped there, like in dreams where you're beating on the window but no one hears you."
She laughed. "I would have gone after you, I promise."
"I am so glad it's the weekend." Ben took a long swallow of the beer, then dropped his head back on the couch. "Tell me we don't have anything to do, please."
"Well, there is your mom's birthday party tomorrow."
"Oh, Christ." Ben gave a frustrated groan. "Shit, I haven't bought her anything. I forgot."
"I didn't." Emily grinned. "I got her presents at the mall. The new mystery book in that series she reads and a necklace I thought she'd like. I bought a card; you can sign it. The presents are wrapped. And I picked up some cookies to take to the party." She showed him the earrings. "These, too. I splurged."
"They're great. I'll buy you a dozen more pairs. Did I mention how you were a goddess?" Ben stared at her. "Because if I didn't, I will now."
"I made your favorite dinner, and picked up a copy of Holy Grail for us to watch tonight." She couldn't keep a triumphant note out of her voice. "And ice cream. But that's for me."
"If there is an entity above goddess, you're it." Ben leaned down and kissed her. "I'll feed you the ice cream."
Emily laughed, then gave him a teasing smile. "Pity you're so tired. I thought we might be able to do some ... other things tonight. But that's okay."
"Yeah." He paused. "Wait. What other things?"
She shook her head and got up, chuckling as she walked back to the kitchen. Ben followed.
"I'm really not that tired. I'm waking up, look at me."
Emily laughed harder.
"Seriously, Em. Now that I'm out of the office, I feel great. What other things did you mean?"
"Go get changed, Ben."
She resisted him, but it wasn't easy. He offered to do the dishes after they ate, to give her a shoulder massage, even to watch one of her favorite movies, Amélie. Emily stared at him after that, hands on hips.
"You hate that movie. It's French. You don't like any movie without robots, aliens, and things going 'boom.' Unless it's a comedy."
"I can learn to appreciate it." He looked at her with hope-filled eyes.
"No, I'm not. I'm anxious to spend some quality time with you." Ben stepped over and trapped her against the counter, one arm on either side of her. "I mean, the movie sounds great, but..."
"Excellent. I've been looking forward to it. Go sit down." She kept her voice firm, but it was hard to keep the smile off her face.
"You're killing me." Ben gave an aggrieved sigh.
Later they snuggled on the couch as the movie played, laughing at all the skits even though they'd seen the movie a few times each. When Sir Lancelot found the Castle Anthrax, full of young women ages sixteen to nineteen, Ben sighed.
Emily raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really?"
"Well, I mean, not as lucky as I am, of course."
"On the other hand..." Ben considered the situation. "They do offer spanking and oral sex."
"You just blew the save. You can sleep on the couch."
"Hey, if you want to be spanked, just say the word. I'm open to new possibilities."
"Pig. They're jailbait. You can sleep in the hallway." Emily giggled, ruining the effect of the words.
"You wouldn't let me." Ben nuzzled her neck and she squirmed. "You like having me in bed. You've said so."
"Well, I don't know. I can't compete with that." She gestured at the television, where Lancelot was under siege by the women and not fighting back with much conviction.
"Oh, yes, you can."
"Is that a challenge?"
Ben grinned. "I plead the fifth."
Emily pulled back, narrowed her eyes and made a decision. "All right, then."
Ben gave her a puzzled look as she urged him to stand up, then his eyes widened as she tugged his jeans down.
"Sit," she told him.