Rachel Kent stood at the glass counter just to the right of the restaurant’s vestibule. Without conscious effort, the twenty-two year old redhead smiled warmly at the lunchtime customers as they came in, welcoming them to D’Martini’s. It was a greeting she had perfected long ago, which was good, because putting on a happy face was the furthest thing from her mind right now. Instead, her thoughts dwelled on the question of how had she had gotten herself into the mess she was in. No, that wasn’t right, she corrected herself; she knew exactly how she had gotten into it. What she needed to figure out was, how was she going to get out of it?
How had the most innocent of decisions, she asked herself again, led to such an unmitigated disaster? It was a question that caused her to once more recall the events of the last twenty-four hours.
It was already ten minutes past the end of her shift, and Rachel had her coat on and was headed for the door. She’d almost made it when Clarence Winchester, the owner of D’Martini’s, stopped her and asked if she would mind doing him a small favor. Before heading home, he asked, could she drop off the morning receipts at First National Bank? He normally would’ve done it himself during his noontime walk, but one of the cooks had called in sick and he’d been too tied up to do so.
The truth was, Rachel had indeed minded, especially since not only was the bank a half mile in the wrong direction, but she was supposed to meet her boyfriend, Frankie, in less than an hour. But as much as she had wanted to say no, she knew she couldn’t afford to, and instead flashed her patented false smile, saying she’d be happy to help out. If only she’d been honest, she told herself, she wouldn’t be in her current predicament.
Life really hadn’t worked out the way she thought it would, back when she’d been head cheerleader and most popular girl at Darbyville High. Back then, she’d believed that studying hard and getting good grades was for those without active social lives. In her mind, it was enough just to get a passing grade.
And while she was willing to give college a try, if only for the partying possibilities, her track record in high school made her father a bit reluctant to foot that bill. As a compromise, he’d suggested she take out a student loan to pay her tuition, with the promise that if she managed to actually get herself a degree, he would pay it off when she was done. Otherwise it would be her responsibility to make restitution.
It was a gamble she hadn’t been willing to take, at least not back then, so she had passed on the offer. So while most of her classmates continued their schooling, Rachel went off to work. It never occurred to her that the road ahead wouldn’t be full of possibilities.
Her job here at D’Martini’s had been her fourth job since graduation, and the only one that she’d had for more than a year. Now, she wasn’t sure if she’d still have it at the end of the day.
When Rachel had reached the block the bank was on, she was confronted by a police barrier and a street full of fire trucks. The fire seemed concentrated in a building two doors down from First National, but it had caused all the businesses around it to close early, including the bank.
Rachel had considered for a moment whether she should take the money back to the restaurant. A glance at her watch, however, told her that would make her even later than she already was. The bank would be open in the morning, she reasoned, and she could make the deposit just as easily then. Such were the simple decisions, she would later realize, which could change your life.
Twenty minutes after she left the fire scene, Rachel met up with Frankie McManus, her boyfriend of the last four months. A mechanic at Petrocelli Auto, Frankie was not only drop-dead handsome, with a body the result of at least three days a week in the gym, but he was, almost as importantly, truly incredible in bed. Regrettably, the combination had also been enough for Rachel to overlook some of the twenty-nine year old’s faults.
As early as a month into their relationship, their dates had fallen into a predictable pattern, and last night had proved no different. Dinner and a movie, then back to her place, the over-the-garage apartment behind her parents’ house which her father had the nerve, in her mind, to actually charge her rent for. It didn’t matter that it was less than half what he would’ve gotten on the open market. Once there, it wasn’t long before the two of them were fucking each other’s brains out.
Several hours later, Rachel awoke and, as she glanced at the empty space next to her, she wasn’t surprised to find Frankie gone from her bed. More often than not, he tended to leave soon after they had taken care of business. Tossing aside the sheet that covered her naked body, she headed for the bathroom, but paused halfway there when she caught her reflection in the large, stand-alone dressing mirror that had once belonged to her grandmother.
The body she saw in the mirror was one that pleased her greatly, having changed little from that of her cheerleading days. Her breasts were just large enough to catch a man’s attention and firm enough that she could go bra-less when she chose to. Her hair was longer now then it had been back in school, coming down to just below her shoulders. The opposite was true of the hair below her waist, which had been reduced to a small, tightly trimmed patch. All the curves were still definitely in the right places, she liked to point out, and if she had wanted to try, she was sure she could fit into her old uniform easily enough.
Rachel was on the way back to bed when she noticed her pocketbook sitting on the kitchenette counter, despite the fact that she clearly remembered leaving it on the coffee table the night before. Concerned, she changed direction and checked the contents. Concern quickly turned to panic as not only was her wallet now empty, but the envelope with the restaurant’s bank deposit was gone as well.
Pulling her cell phone from the bag, she frantically dialed Frankie’s number, only to have it go to voice mail after what seemed like an endless number of unanswered rings. Frustrated, she left a message for him to call her as soon as he checked his phone.
An hour passed, and then two, until the glow of the morning sun began to appear in the window - and still no call from her missing boyfriend. Finally, just a bit after seven, there was a knock on the door and, after racing to it, Rachel pulled it open to find her bed partner of the previous night, looking somewhat worse for wear.
“Where the fuck have you been?” the furious redhead said without any preamble, not even letting him get into the apartment first, “and where the hell is the money that was in my purse?”
“Calm down, baby,” Frankie said as he turned on the charm that had served him so well over the last few months. “I borrowed it for a few hours, that’s all.”
“Borrowed it?” Rachel asked in disbelief. “For what?”
“My man, Jesse sent me a text that he was working up a game that I just had to get in on,” he said, a noticeable lack of concern in his tone. “I was just a few bucks short and I knew you wouldn’t mind. I’d have gotten it all back to you in the morning.”
“You thought I wouldn’t mind if you went into my purse and took money out of it?” Rachel asked in disbelief.
“Sure, we’re a couple, right?” he replied, causing Rachel to think that they obviously had different view of what their relationship entitled them to.
“There was a deposit envelope in my bag...” she started to say.
“Yeah, I was surprised about that,” Frankie said. “I didn’t think you had that kind of money.”
“Where is it?” Rachel further asked, deciding that was the important thing and she could deal with the rest of it all later.
It was only then that the confident expression on Frankie’s face changed.
“I’m afraid I ran into a little, unexpected problem,” he said after a long pause.
“What do you mean, a little problem?” Jessie asked, certain that she wasn’t going to like the answer.
“I sort of lost it,” he said in an almost unheard voice.
“You did what?” Rachel thundered.
“I was doing great, in fact I had to have been up at least five hundred,” Frankie said, “but then Billie Winslow, who normally can’t play cards for shit, drew an inside straight and took the biggest pot of the night. That little bastard was never so lucky in his life.”
“Are you telling me,” Rachel said in a slow and deliberate tone, still unable to believe what was happening, “that you took money, that in no way belonged to you, and you lost it in a card game?”
“That’s about it,” Frankie said with a shrug that seemed to say, shit happens.
“There was more than a thousand dollars in that envelope,” Rachel said, more to herself than to Frankie.
“Look, baby, I’ll make it up to you,” he said, again trying to turn on the charm. “I just need a few days, a week at most.”
“Frankie, that wasn’t my money,” Rachel said, the shock of it all sinking in. “It belonged to the restaurant, I was supposed to deposit it this morning.”
“Well, how the hell was I supposed to know that?” Frankie said, trying to claim some measure of innocence.
“You didn’t have to know it,” Rachel said. “All you had to know was that it wasn’t yours.”
Again, Frankie just sort of shrugged his shoulders, this time keeping his unspoken reply to himself. In the end, that was probably the best thing because, in his mind, he still couldn’t see that he had done anything wrong. He’d been on such a hot streak lately, it never occurred to him to doubt that he would have been able to double that money and replace what he borrowed before she even woke up.
Rachel took another long deep breath, trying to regain a measure of calm. Her thoughts began to shift to damage control, trying to come up with a plan of action. She might have been guilty of poor judgment in bringing the deposit back home, but everything after that really hadn’t been her fault. It was all a misunderstanding, really; all she had to do was have Frankie explain that he would pay it all back in just a few days, and that would be that.
“No fuckin’ way, babe,” Frankie unexpectedly said after Rachel explained what she wanted him to do, his tone becoming highly defensive. “What if that boss of yours calls the cops? I can’t take that chance.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t do that,” Rachel said, even though she didn’t know anything of the sort.
“You can’t be sure, people act differently when money is involved,” Frankie said, the irony in his words lost on himself. “And after all, you’re the one who didn’t make the bank deposit in the first place. If you had, then the money wouldn’t have been in your bag.”
Rachel just shook her head, unable to follow his twisted logic. As if it was somehow her fault that he took and lost the money.
“You know, the more I think about it,” Frankie said, “the more I wonder why it’s even my problem at all. In fact, maybe I never even saw that deposit envelope in your bag.”
“What?” Rachel said.
“Yeah, in fact, now that I think about it even more, I’m sure it wasn’t even there in the first place,” Frankie grinned. “You must’ve lost it somewhere else.”
“You miserable bastard!” Rachel cried out, slapping him across his face as hard as she could.
At first, Frankie didn’t say a word. He just stood there and rubbed his hand across the red mark Rachel had left on his cheek. Then, in a cold, unemotional voice, he showed a side of his personality that Rachel had never seen before.
“That was really dumb, bitch,” he said, anger in his eyes.
For a moment, Rachel was afraid that he might hit her back. Instead, he just turned and began to walk out the still open door.
“Wait a second, what about the money?” Rachel called out after him, her initial fear turning back to worry about the missing funds.
“Like I said, it’s not my problem,” he said, not even bothering to look back as he started down the staircase to the street below.
Rachel spent the next two hours trying to come up with an alternate plan, with little success. If she emptied out both her checking and savings account, she would still be about five hundred dollars short of what was missing. And of course there was the little matter of what she was going to live on if she did that.
She’d run down her list of friends, but none of them were likely to have that kind of money, all being in school or having jobs that paid no better than hers. There was always the possibility of asking her parents for a loan, but then she would have to explain just what had happened. Her father had never liked Frankie, and her trust in him would have been one more proof that she wasn’t capable of handing her own affairs. No, going to her parents for help wasn’t much of a solution either.
The clock on the wall finally said it was time to get dressed for work. She took a quick shower, then dressed in the black slacks and ruffled white blouse that all the hostesses at D’Martini’s wore. It was time to face the music, she thought, hoping it wouldn’t be a funeral dirge.
Uncharacteristically, Rachel was fifteen minutes early for her shift when she walked through the front door of the restaurant. She barely heard any of the good mornings of her fellow workers as she walked past them, concentrating instead on seeking out one worker in particular.
Finally, she spotted the short haired blonde coming out of the kitchen. Grabbing her arm, she pulled Heather Marks, who had been her friend since high school and had recommended her for this job, into the ladies’ bathroom.
“Careful with the arm,” Heather said as they came to a stop, “I might need it later on.”
The whimsical nature of her complaint faded as she watched Rachel take a moment to double check the stalls to make sure they were empty. Then she saw the look of concern on the redhead’s face.
“Rachel honey, what’s wrong?” she asked.
“Heather, I can trust you, right?” Rachel asked in turn.
The blonde replied with a look that said, do you have to even ask.
“I’m in trouble,” Rachel said, “big trouble.”
Heather listened as Rachel told her story, not saying a word until she was done. Her first words, however, were not what the troubled redhead needed to hear.
“I hate to say this,” Heather said, “but I can’t say I’m surprised. How many times did I tell you that no matter how good a fuck he was, Frankie McManus was trouble waiting to happen?”
“That doesn’t matter now,” Rachel countered. “What am I going to do?”
“I don’t think you have many options,” Heather offered. “Do you think you could borrow any money from anyone, your parents maybe?”
“No, I already thought of that,” Rachel quickly replied.
“Then the only thing I can think of is just tell Mr. Winchester the truth and hope he’ll let you work it out somehow,” Heather said.
“You’ve worked here a lot longer than I have,” Rachel said. “How do you think he’ll react?”
“I’m not sure,” she replied. “He’s always been a pretty good boss, but that can change real quickly when money is concerned and...”
Heather had stopped in mid-sentence and her expression suddenly changed enough for Rachel to realize that there was something she didn’t want to say.
“What?” Rachel asked.
“I’m not sure this is going to make you feel any better, but I just remembered something that happened a few months before you came to work here,” Heather answered.
Rachel listened, her own expression changing to one of even greater concern as Heather related how a hostess was once found to be taking money from the register. It was never much, a ten here, twenty there, and over all only added up to a few hundred dollars. But rather than just fire her, Mr. Winchester had called the police and had her arrested right here in the restaurant.
“Oh fuck!” Rachel exclaimed.
“But that doesn’t mean he would do the same with you,” Heather quickly said, trying to sound hopeful. “After all, you didn’t really steal anything, you just left it where someone else was able to take it.”
“I am so screwed,” Rachel lamented, no longer seeing much of a difference in that fact.
Long moments passed as Heather tried to think of what else she could suggest to her friend. Finally a course of action occurred to her - a desperate course, but the only one she could come up with.
“Do you want to know what I’d do if I were you?” Heather asked.
“I’d go into his office and tell him exactly what happened, be totally honest,” she began, then took a deep breath and dived in. “Then I’d tell him that I’d pay back every penny, giving him as much up front right now as I could, to show my good faith.”
Rachel found herself nodding her head in agreement.
“Then, and again, this is what I would do, I’d offer him something a little bit extra.”
“You mean like interest on the money?” Rachel inquired.
“Actually,” Heather said, pausing another long heartbeat before continuing, “I was thinking more along the line of offering to suck his cock.”
“What?” Rachel said in disbelief.
“Oh, don’t give me that ‘I’m so shocked’ look,” Heather shot back. “We’ve known each other too long not to admit we’ve both done worse.”
Rachel had to admit that, yes, she had more than once given a guy head for much poorer reason. So it wasn’t the act itself that was giving her pause; rather, it was the balding and overweight, fifty-something restaurant owner that she would have to perform it on.
“Well you wanted to know what I would do,” Heather said, noting the look on her friend’s face. “I’m afraid that’s the best I can come up with.”
Rachel took another few moments to think about what Heather had suggested. Yes, there had been incidents in her past that she’d now rather forget, but at the time all of them had seemed like the thing to do. Was this really any different?
“Do you really think he’d go for something like that?” she heard herself ask Heather, surprising both of them in that she was actually considering the idea.
“Well, I can’t know for sure, of course,” Heather replied, “but I have seen how he sometimes looks at the girls out there, especially you. I don’t think he’d ever make a pass at any of us, but if it was freely offered...”
“He might be receptive,” Rachel said, completing the thought.
“Besides, what have you got to lose?” Heather pointed out.
“Not much,” she admitted.
As the lunchtime crowd began to thin out, Rachel glanced back at the door leading to Mr. Winchester’s office. She hadn’t seen the owner so far today, but knew he had to be in, because one of the other girls had brought in the morning receipts a half hour ago.
Finally, it was time for her break and, summoning what courage she could, she headed toward the office door. She checked her appearance, then knocked on the door and waited for a response. It seemed like forever, but eventually she heard a muffled voice acknowledge her knock. Gripping the doorknob tightly, she turned it and stepped over the threshold.
As Rachel stepped inside, she saw the morning receipts spread across the desk and the tall chair behind it turned around towards the filing cabinet against the wall. Wondering if perhaps she had only imagined the barely audible voice a few moments before, Rachel cleared her throat to announce her presence.
“Do you mind if I speak to you for a moment, Mr. Winchester?” she then asked.
There was no reaction to her question at first, but then the chair began to slowly swing around. When it had reached the point where the occupant became visible, Rachel let out a small gasp of surprise.
“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind at all,” the woman in the chair said with a smile, “if he was here, that is.”
Rachel recognized the woman behind the desk as Audrey Stewart, the business partner Clarence Winchester had taken on two years before when he’d had a few financial difficulties. Two inches taller than her own five foot five, the woman wore her light brown hair in a rather short cut, one that sometimes led people to describe her features as handsome rather than pretty. Once you dropped your gaze below the neckline, however, there was no doubt that she was all woman. Nature had given her assets that even the most gifted surgeons could only hope to copy.
It was a surprise to find her here, as the usually silent partner normally only stopped by once or twice a month to check on her investment. The last visit had only been the week before.
“I’m afraid Clarence had a family emergency that took him out of town last night,” the thirty-three year old said, “something about his mother-in-law being ill. But if there’s any sort of problem, I’m sure I can take care of it.”
“There’s no problem,” Rachel quickly said. “I just wanted to talk to him about something, that’s all.”
“Good,” Audrey said in reply, “I always like to see things running well here at D’Martini’s.”
“It can wait until he gets back,” Rachel said as she started to leave, breathing a heavy sigh of relief at the thought that she’d just been granted a reprieve. She didn’t wish his mother- in-law ill, but Rachel hoped that her sickness kept Mr. Winchester away long enough for her to come up with a more appealing solution.
She had gotten as far as the door, when Audrey unexpectedly called out her name. Hesitantly, she turned around in response.
“Rachel,” Audrey said, “Clarence happened to mention to me before he left that he’d asked you to drop off yesterday’s morning receipts at the bank on the way home. I don’t see the deposit slip here; do you have it?”
Rachel paused as she tried to come up with any explanation other than the truth. When nothing came to mind, she reluctantly decided that she would have to go with that, or at least a selective version of it.
“I didn’t get to make the deposit,” she said hesitantly. “There was this big fire on the block and they closed the bank early.”
“I heard something about that on the radio this morning,” Audrey noted, “but didn’t realize that it was on the same block as First National. No problem though, just give me back the deposit and I’ll just add it to today’s receipts.”
“I ... I...” Rachel stuttered, wondering if she could lie convincingly enough to say she had left the envelope home in her apartment. With the weekend ahead of them, it might at least give her that much more time. “I don’t have it. I mean, I took it home last night and left it on my kitchen counter. I was running a bit late and I...”
“I see,” the older woman said, her tone still casual. “I would really like to close out the week’s books, though. Tell you what, it’s usually pretty quiet around here until people start coming in for the early dinner special. Why don’t you head home and pick it up? It shouldn’t take that long, and I can drop it all off at the bank on my own way home.”
The matter settled in her mind, Audrey turned her attention back to the papers on her desk, dismissing Rachel with a casual wave of her hand. It was only when she realized that the younger woman hadn’t left that she looked back up.
“Was there something else?” Audrey asked, surprised that Rachel hadn’t left.
“I really didn’t forget the money at home,” Rachel admitted after a short pause.
“I see,” Audrey said, putting down the papers in her hand and giving the girl her full attention. “Why don’t you have a seat and start from the beginning?”
Rachel sat herself down in the empty chair in front of the desk and, hoping for the best, told the truth and nothing but. At least up until the point where she came in this morning and had her talk with Heather.
“And obviously, that was what you had wanted to talk to Clarence about when you came in here,” Audrey said once Rachel had finished, to which the hostess nodded her head in acknowledgement.
“So it seems that we do have a bit of a problem after all, don’t we?” Audrey commented, rising from behind the desk and walking around to the front where she sat down on the edge next to Rachel.
Silence filled the room as she looked at Rachel, waiting to see if she had anything else to say. When nothing else was forthcoming, Audrey went on.
“I guess the question we have to consider now is,” she said, “whatever shall we do about it?”
“Like I said, I’m more than willing to make up the money,” Rachel repeated, “half now and the rest as soon as I can.”
“Yes, I understood that,” Audrey said, “but I really do have to consider how Clarence would want me to handle this. After all, I’m just a limited partner and it is his business.”
Rachel wasn’t sure she liked the sound of that.
“I suppose I could simply turn the matter over to the Sheriff’s office and let them sort it out,” Audrey mused out loud, “but that would be somewhat hard on you, wouldn’t it?”
Rachel thankfully recognized the question as rhetorical and didn’t make a stupid comment. She found herself holding her breath in anticipation of what Audrey was going to say next.
“No, this is going to take a bit of consideration,” the older woman said. “Clarence will be gone a few days at least, so it gives us a bit of time to think about what to do.”
Rachel saw a glimmer of hope in that statement.
“I am a bit curious about something, though,” Audrey said as she adjusted the skirt of the business outfit she was wearing. “You undoubtedly had a plan when you came in here, some line of thought on how to convince Clarence to let you work off the debt. Why is it that I have the feeling that there was more to it than what you’ve told me?”
With any chance of resolving the matter to her advantage resting on a razor’s edge, Rachel knew she had to be as truthful as possible with the woman just a few feet in front of her. The question was, how was she going to explain what Heather had suggested she do?
“Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t help but think that it was your intention to offer Mr. Winchester a bit more of an incentive than you explained a minute ago - one of a more, shall we say, personal nature,” Audrey offered, pointing out that she also couldn’t help but notice that there were two more open buttons on Rachel’s blouse than there had been when she had walked by the hostess earlier.
Rachel glanced down for a second and sure enough, an ample amount of cleavage was indeed visible, along with just a hint of the bra containing it. That she didn’t even remember undoing the buttons when she had checked her appearance outside the door didn’t bother her as much as the fact she’d been so lost in her concerns that she hadn’t even noticed Audrey walk past her. What else might she have missed?
“Since I haven’t heard an objection,” Audrey continued after allowing her what she thought enough time to do so, “I guess I can assume I was right in my supposition. That being said, I’m further curious as to what that incentive might have been. Or to put it more simply, just how far were you willing to go?”
“I was going to offer to blow him,” Rachel said with a bit of hesitation, deciding, in for a penny, in for a pound.
“I’d have been surprised if it was anything less,” Audrey said, a small smile on her lips. “Still, we are talking about a great deal of money here. What were you planning to do if he wanted more than you were offering?”
The question took Rachel a bit by surprise. She had considered that Mr. Winchester might be one of those men who were actually faithful to his wedding vows. In fact, one of the more hopeful scenarios she’s entertained had been that he would turn her down, but be so impressed by the offer that he’d let her off the hook. That he might ask for more hadn’t even occurred to her.
“I’m not sure,” she admitted honestly.
“I bet it never even occurred to you, did it?” Audrey asked, not needing a reply to know her answer.
Now that she was thinking about it, Rachel had to admit that, in view of the alternatives, there was indeed little she might not be willing to consider in order to get out of this fix.
Audrey waited another moment or two to let Rachel think about it, then added her own observation.
“Well, for what it’s worth,” Audrey said as she slid off the desk and began walking back around to her chair, “I think that if I was in your situation, with the very real possibility of the police becoming involved, I’d be willing to go pretty far to prevent that possibility as well.”
She paused for a second as she sat back down, then added.
“Also, for whatever it might be worth, I think that, had he been here, Clarence would’ve been impressed by your offer - very impressed indeed,” she said with a smile.
Behind that smile was the memory of having once had dinner with Clarence and his wife soon after having become partners, after which she had formed a definitely unflattering opinion of Mrs. Winchester. An opinion confirmed a few months later when, after sharing a few drinks one night, Clarence had shared the confidence that his wife had lost all interest in things sexual early on in their marriage and that, on occasion, he had turned to others for solace.
That her plan, however desperate it might have seemed, would probably have worked brought little comfort to Rachel. Now she was back at square one and she wasn’t sure what her next stop was going to be.
“You know, with the length you were now admittedly willing to go to in order to resolve the situation,” Audrey said, her tone reflecting an even stronger touch of curiosity than before, “I’m curious if, after you realized that the players in this little drama had changed, you entertained, even for a little bit, the possibility of making the same offer to me that you planned to make to Clarence?”
Audrey’s question caused the look on Rachel’s face to turn from disappointment to confusion - a change that made the older woman realize that she had asked her question under a false assumption. What was, she believed, common knowledge evidently wasn’t as common as she had thought.
“I’m sorry, I just assumed that you knew,” Audrey offered. “I’ve been called “that dyke bitch” so many times that it never occurred to me that you didn’t.”
Actually, Rachel had indeed heard a waitress once refer to Audrey in just those terms, but at the time didn’t take it literally. Evidently, she should have.
“Not the most flattering of terms, I’ll admit,” Audrey grinned, “but technically accurate, at least the first half.”
“Are you saying you want me to...” Rachel started to say as comprehension dawned. “You mean you want you and I to...”
Audrey let her consider the implication for a bit and then laughed.
“No, that was just my sometimes warped sense of humor coming into play,” she chuckled. “I guess that the latter part of that epithet is also sometimes true.”
“Then you’re not really a...” Rachel started to ask.
“No, I am most definitely a card-carrying carpet muncher.” Audrey grinned. “I guess I was just a bit curious as to what your reaction to the question might have been.”
For the briefest of moments, Rachel was uncertain whether she should’ve felt relieved or disappointed. She had never had any real curiosity about other women before, but in the few seconds that Audrey’s question had been out there, it had made her wonder.
During that same short interlude, Audrey herself had been taken aback a bit by her own reaction. Pretty as the girl sitting across from her was, Audrey knew from comments by other employees that she was as straight as an arrow. So why had she even suggested what she had? Especially since coercion had never been her style. More importantly, knowing what she knew, why had those few seconds when she considered the image of Rachel down between her legs produced a reaction both immediate and profound?
“So what do I do about the money?” Rachel asked, hesitant to bring up the question again, but finding it a safer topic than the one that had just flashed through her mind.
“I think that perhaps the best thing I can think of is to take the weekend to consider it,” Audrey replied, also a bit relieved to change the subject. “But not to worry, I’m sure we can work something out to everyone’s satisfaction. Contrary to what I said before, I’m really not a bitch - well, at least most of the time.”
“Thank you,” Rachel said, an intense sense of relief washing over her as she realized that this all might just work out after all. “Thank you so very much.”
She started to rise from the chair when the phone on the desk rang and Audrey reached out to answer it. Not certain if Audrey was done with her, Rachel waited to be sure.
“Oh no, that’s terrible,” Rachel heard Audrey say in response to something she had just been told by whoever it was on the other end of the phone conversation. “Of course I’m disappointed,” she continued after listening a bit more, “but the important thing is that you take care of yourself first. Don’t give anything else a second thought.”
The conversation went on just a bit longer, then Audrey brought it to a close. She seemed to actually forget that Rachel was there until the younger woman broke the silence.
“Bad news?” Rachel said.
“Of a sort,” Audrey replied, seeing no reason not to. “An old friend of mine is getting married up in Blue Ridge Junction tomorrow, and it seems my date for the ceremony took a fall last night and sprained her ankle rather badly. She’ll be okay but she’ll have to stay off it for the next few days at least.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Rachel said in sympathy, then, not even thinking that the question might be inappropriate, asked out of curiosity if the lady in question was Audrey’s girlfriend.
“No, I’m not seeing anyone seriously right now,” Audrey replied, thinking nothing of the question. “Jenna and I went to school together.”
“I’m sorry,” Rachel said, not really knowing what else to say.
“Thanks,” Audrey said, disappointment evident in her tone. “With the wedding tomorrow, I don’t know who I could ask...” she started to say, but paused as an idea flashed across her mind. “Rachel, do you have any plans for the weekend?”
Rachel was about to say yes, but realized that whatever plans there might have been had involved Frankie. It was going to take a bit of time, she realized, to remember that he was no longer going to be part of her life.
“No, I guess I don’t, not anymore,” she finally said.
“I don’t suppose you’d be interested in going to a wedding, would you?” Audrey asked.
The question hadn’t come as a total surprise, given the one that had preceded it, but it was still enough of one to give Rachel pause. There had been plenty of weddings that she’d gone to as just a friend, but they had all been with guys. She wasn’t sure how she might feel about being the plus one of another woman. Especially in light of that moment of uncertainly earlier when she thought Audrey was propositioning her.
Thinking it over, the young redhead felt a sense of debt as well as of trepidation. She obviously owed this woman, but at the same time, hadn’t it been doing someone a favor that had gotten her in trouble in the first place?
“Are you asking me to be your date?” Rachel asked, looking for a bit of clarification.
“I wasn’t really thinking of it like that,” Audrey said, “but I suppose that is what it would be. I’m really just looking for someone to go with me. It’s so awkward going to things like this alone.”
Rachel nodded her head in agreement, not that she’d ever had a problem getting a date to anything, at least not since she’d hit puberty. Still, she could imagine that it could be awkward indeed.
“Would I have to do anything special?” Rachel asked, not really sure why she had asked that or what kind of answer she even expected.
“Well, I supposed you might be expected to dance,” Audrey smiled. “It is somewhat traditional. But other than that, I guess all you have to do is have fun. After all, it’s a wedding, not a funeral.”
While Rachel took a few more moments to think about it, Audrey was considering that the invitation might in itself have been too impulsive. It wasn’t really fair to put this young woman on the spot, and she was about to say just that when Rachel unexpectedly said yes.
“I’d love to go,” she said, with enthusiasm that seemed a bit forced, but still genuine. “It sounds like it might be fun.”
What she didn’t say was that the deciding factor had been that, even if the ceremony and reception were as boring as hell, it had to beat hanging around an empty apartment all weekend, or worse, going out and having to explain to her friends how wrong she had been about Frankie. She would have to do that eventually, but better later than sooner - at least after she came up with a breakup story in which she wasn’t the complete idiot that she had actually been.
“Splendid,” Audrey said, her voice reflecting both pleasure and surprise at her response.
As Audrey gave Rachel all the details, she suggested that the younger woman take the rest of the day off to pick out an appropriate dress and such. She herself had packed her travel bag last night, but she appreciated that Rachel would need a little time to do the same.
This time, Rachel didn’t hesitate to rise from the chair and head for the door. As she did so, she had a momentary flash of second-guessing her decision. Did she really know what she was doing, going to a wedding as another woman’s date? Probably not, she told herself as she pushed that brief doubt aside, but it would hardly be the first time that had been true.