Authors: Bonnie Dee
What could be sweeter?
The striped orange fish suddenly disappeared in a swirl of fins, startled by who knew what. Jen smiled and settled back on the bench, feeling more relaxed already.
She knew that voice although she couldn’t immediately place it. Jen looked up at the man walking toward her. She blinked as her eyes adjusted from the blue-green glow of the fish tank to the even dimmer light in the room. Tall. Dark hair. A sort of catlike walk full of easy grace. Why did she know that walk, that black hair, that husky voice?
Then her eyes focused on his face and her pulse skittered like a dog’s toenails on a slick floor. She hadn’t seen Drake Malinson since their day in court three years before when she’d presented the plea bargain to the judge. He would have gotten out fairly recently, unless he’d been released earlier for good behavior.
“Drake. How are you?” She stood and held out her hand. Even now--how many years later?--memories darted through her mind like a nervous school of fish as he took her hand and shook it.
“Much better than the last time you saw me. Thanks for what you did.”
“Just negotiated a lighter sentence, that’s all.”
“No, that’s not all.” He didn’t say anything more but she
his appreciation. It was more potent than someone else’s effusive “thank yous” might have been. Drake always could say a lot with few words.
She felt her cheeks burning. Why was gratitude often harder to accept than criticism? “I’m glad you’re doing well. How long have you been out?”
“A year and a half. Early parole. I’ve got a job. Don’t love it, but it’s not terrible either.”
This was the first time she’d ever seen him in a suit. It was charcoal gray, inexpensive, but pretty sharp against his crisp white shirt. And the loosened tie around his neck added an element of casualness that was very sexy.
“What are you doing now?” she asked.
“You won’t believe it. Are you ready for this?”
“The guy most likely to live hard and die young is selling life insurance. Yeah, I’m
guy now. But I promise not to give you a sales pitch if you let me hang with you for a few minutes and watch the fish.”
“Be my guest. Sit down,” Jen said brightly, but she wasn’t feeling it. This was her decompressing time and she didn’t really want to put forth the energy of talking to anyone, let alone Drake. Their past history was fraught with strange coincidences and unexpected moments she’d rather not revisit right now. He always managed to disturb her calm waters.
She resumed her seat on the bench and moved her purse to make room for Drake.
His body seemed to take up too much space, even though not so much as an arm was touching her. His mere presence was enough to suck up all the available oxygen.
“Still like the dancing fish?” Laughter simmered in his voice.
“It’s soothing here,” she answered. “It’s my quiet temple, a place to unwind.”
“For me too. I come here and eat my lunch or at the end of the day to just be at rest. I’ve never been much of a talker and trying to sell shit people aren’t very interested in buying can be exhausting.” He grinned. “Drugs were way easier.”
“I imagine. Who doesn’t like drugs?” Jen smiled back, enjoying the banter that seemed to come so effortlessly to them even when they hadn’t seen each other for several years. What was it about Drake that put her at ease and ruffled her both at the same time?
As if intuiting her desire not to make conversation, Drake fell silent and gazed at the floor to ceiling tank in front of them. The quiet purr of pumps in the various tanks and voices in another room were all that disturbed the silence for several minutes. With someone else it would have felt awkward. With Drake, stranger though he might be after all this time, the lack of spoken words felt comfortable. Jen stared at the pretty sea creatures and allowed herself to be lulled into a meditative state.
“I’m working for the State Attorney’s office now,” she said after some time had passed. “It felt like the right thing to do. I couldn’t see myself, year after year, defending the guilty, not as a public defender or in private practice. So I crossed over to the other side.”
“I’m glad you were there when I needed you. Don’t ever think you didn’t do some good.” His voice was quiet. “I
changed, you know. Maybe you thought I wasn’t listening but I was.”
She looked at his profile illuminated by the azure light. “I’m glad. I’ve always hoped for the best for you, Drake. Since we were kids I thought you could do something great with your life if you tried.”
She could kick herself. The words sounded patronizing though she’d meant them with all sincerity. But Drake seemed to take them in the spirit they were intended.
“I’ve been trying to do something more meaningful than sell insurance. I talk about my time in prison in a youth-at-risk program. Kids like that are hard, but not as much as people think. If even one thing I say stops them from doing something stupid, it’s worth it.”
“Sounds like a great program.”
Thoughtful. Caring. She’d always believed there was more to Drake than met the eye. What would’ve happened if she’d given him the time of day back in high school instead of stealing a few kisses then pushing him out of her life? Maybe things would’ve been very different for both of them. But Jen wasn’t big on second-guessing. Life flowed the way it did and every experience was a learning one.
They were both quiet for a while longer. Jen was very aware of the man beside her, no longer the boy of her memories but maybe even more attractive to her. In her line of work, she knew what strength of character it took for someone to swim against the river of his life and change course. She’d never really known Drake, his likes and dislikes, his opinions and hopes and dreams, but she thought she’d like to take the time to get to know the man he was now.
“Have you been…?” “Would you like to…?” They both spoke at the same time then laughed.
“Go ahead. What were you going to say?” he said.
“I was going to make small talk, ask if you’d been back to Whitman since you’ve been out of prison. But I don’t really feel like talking about school days or people we used to know. I’ve been away from there a long time. I’m not that girl anymore.”
“I liked that girl. She was cute.” He leaned toward her slightly. “Still is. Very cute.”
And oh God, there went the burn in her cheeks. She changed the subject. “What were you going to say?”
“I was going to ask if you’d like to go out for coffee.”
His eyes gleamed in the subdued lighting and sitting this close she could see a dimple flash in his cheek. “Now or some other time. Whichever. I’d like to get to know you—the new you because I’ve heard you aren’t the girl you used to be.” She laughed. “All right, maybe there is still a lot of the old Jen left in me. Clearly I still get flustered when a handsome guy asks me for a date.” She raised her brows. “You
asking for a date, aren’t you?”
His laugh sparked an edgy tickling low in her belly. “Whatever will get you to go for coffee with me—two old friends catching up or an official date.” Jen tried to look at the situation objectively. Drake was a former client, a drug offender, a criminal, not the sort of person she could imagine getting involved with. On the other hand, “former” was the operative word. He sounded as if he’d changed. And he was only asking to have a cup of coffee after all. One date, if you could even call it a date, and that would be the end of it. Besides, hadn’t she grown up enough that she could finally stop seeing him as a personality type and accept him as a real person with flaws and strengths like anyone?
“Mm, this doesn’t look good for me.,” he said. “You’re taking a long time to think about it. Are you seeing someone?”
“No. Not right now. I was just thinking about whether now or later would be better for coffee.” She set aside her worrying and option weighing and just lived in the moment for a change. “I’ve got nothing going on the rest of this afternoon.” Or evening for that matter, but she wasn’t going to tell him that.
The dimple she’d never noticed before flashed again. “Good. Do you want to go now or spend more time here first?”
She considered. “Well, I haven’t seen the jellyfish yet. That’s one of my usual stops.”
“A visit to the aquarium’s not complete without seeing the jellies,” he agreed.
Drake rose and so did Jen, shouldering her purse and walking beside him through the building. She recalled another stroll like this, on the boardwalk by the river in early spring. Even now she could remember the sharp tang of marijuana smoke and the feeling of Drake’s cotton shirt warming her bare arms. Funny how out-of-the-ordinary moments could leave a stronger sense memory than habits repeated every single day of your life.
“What about you?” she asked. “You’re not seeing anyone, are you?”
“No one steady. Just dates.”
Meaning one night stands, she supposed. Did he imagine their coffee date might end up in the bedroom? He had to know she wouldn’t do that. But thoughts of two bodies thrashing together--sweaty, sticky, hungry--haunted and aroused her. Her libido was piqued by the idea of doing something impetuous. She’d been so caught up in work it had been far too long since she’d done anything with anyone at all. Why not Drake? It would be a fitting arc from first kiss to finally having sex together all these years later.
Drake stopped in front of a tank lit by black lights. In their purple glow, the jellies drifted like lacy, ghostly shadows, tentacles swishing lightly to propel them along. He seemed transfixed by the sea creatures and Jen felt foolish for thinking his coffee invitation was all about getting her into bed. What the hell was wrong with her?
She stood beside him, her excitement chilled, and lost herself in the jellyfish too, so soothing and peaceful.
“You know what I miss living in the city?” she said. “Hiking in nature. Not the jogging paths in the park but
nature with mud sticking to your shoes, mosquitoes attacking and poison ivy to watch out for.”
He chuckled. “Can’t say I miss the mosquitoes or poison ivy but I know what you mean. I used to practically live in the woods growing up. It was the only place I felt …
content, I guess. It was sure as hell better than going home. Sometimes I’d make a campfire and stay there all night. Now I can’t seem to find the time to even drive to a nature preserve and the hike the trails.”
A pang of sadness shot through her at his confession that he’d found the woods preferable to home. She’d always assumed Drake simply liked nature. As a girl, she’d never given any thought to other reasons he might have chosen to ramble in the woods or hang out down by the river.
“We should go sometime,” he said. “To the state forest. Take a picnic and spend the afternoon.”
Jen smiled. “I’d like that.” What was happening here? Was she agreeing to a second date when they hadn’t even finished the first one?
As if reading her thoughts—again, he said, “That sounded pushy, didn’t it? I meant as two people who both like nature. That’s all.”
“I know. It would be fun.” It was nice to have Drake sound uncertain for a change and for her to be the one to act casual.
She moved away from the tank and headed toward the entrance. It was his turn to fall into step beside her. They emerged from the womb of the aquarium into the light of day. Rain still drizzled from the gray sky but it had let up a bit in the time Jen had been inside.
“So what else do you like besides going to the aquarium and standing up for truth and justice?” Drake asked. “What kind of music or movies or food?”
“I have eclectic taste in music but generally acoustic. I like comedies and dramas, action movies--not so much. And I like exotic restaurants so I can feel like I’ve visited a foreign country.” She pulled the hood of her jacket up to protect her hair from the drizzle.
“What about you?”
“Classic rock. Comedies and action movies. Any food is good.” He turned up the collar of his suit jacket and hunched his shoulders against the rain. Soon his black hair was slicked to his head. He looked like a seal. Jen felt a crazy impulse to touch his wet hair.
He looked at her and for a moment she was pinned in place by those intense dark eyes that seemed to know so much more about her than minor things like taste in music or movies. Why did she always get the feeling that Drake knew secrets about her that no one else knew, perhaps including herself?
“I’m parked about a block over.” He indicated the way.
“My car’s right there.” Jen nodded toward her Prius. “But there’s a coffee shop not too far away. We could walk. Unless you don’t want to get wet.”
“I don’t mind the rain,” he said. “Kind of like your mosquitoes and poison ivy, it’s good to feel something real and visceral.”
? He continued to surprise her. Somehow she hadn’t imagined Drake would use or even know a word like that. But she was remembering the wild, school-skipping youth he used to be, not the man he’d become--whoever that was.
They walked down the sidewalk toward the neon coffee cup guiding them like a beacon. A clean well-lighted place on a cold, dreary autumn day. What could be more satisfying?