by Kim Pritekel
Annie and I stared, stunned, excited, worried, happy, curious, and just utterly elated. Caden looked a bit disoriented, but overall, she looked fine.
"I'm going to call uncle Michael and grandma." Annie picked up the bedside phone, and began to call. I sat beside my friend, my heart pounding with my relief.
"I cannot tell you how nice it is to see those beautiful blue eyes again." I smiled down at her, trying to keep the emotion out of my voice. She smiled weakly up at me.
"Thank you for staying."
"You got it." We shared a silent smile before she turned her attention to her daughter.
"Annie. Sweetie, come here." The girl handed me the receiver of the phone, and happily went to her mother's side, wallowing in the large embrace she found there.
"Hello?" I had no idea who she'd handed me to.
"Uh, no Mrs. Lodge. You were handed over to me. This is Laurel."
"Oh. Well, what's this I hear about Caden waking up?" I could hear the hope in Margaret's voice, though she was trying to maintain her usual distant demeanor.
"It's true. She opened her eyes a few minutes ago," Caden's doctor entered the room, looking like a proud father. "Dr. Gustov is here. I better get going. If you could let-"
"Of course I'll call Michael. I'll be there soon." And the line went dead with a click.
"That was interesting." I cradled the receiver, and leaned back against the wall as I watched the doctor examine Caden, looking into her eyes with a small light, asking her questions, Annie sitting on the bed holding her mother's hand, never leaving her side. I couldn't keep the smile off my face. I was glad I had come back.
Caden had been quiet for the last few days, since Troy had left the grounds. I had been disappointed in Michael. He had only asked him to leave, and had not even laid a single hand on him.
"You have to understand, Laurel, it's just not done that way here."
I didn't understand that, but whatever. If it had been my sister, I would have kicked his ass from here to Timbuktu. They wouldn't let me near him, I didn't get it.
Caden had refused to talk about it, or even tell me exactly what had happened. The only thing she'd say was that he had not raped her. So what did he do? Apparently something that was a no-no. I thought back to that night we had all gone out, trying to figure out how he'd gotten her away from us. We had driven to the restaurant, and then, that's right. Troy had stopped at the front door, complaining that it didn't have valet parking, and told Michael and I to get us all a table, and he and Caden would park. I hadn't liked it then, but had never thought he'd try anything.
Michael and I had sat waiting for nearly twenty minutes when they finally showed. Caden's face had been ashen, her eyes large and scared. My defenses immediately went up, and I stood, placing a hand on her arm, asking her if she was okay. She said she was, and sat down. Troy refused to look any of us in the eye. It was then that I knew, at least to a small degree, what had happened.
"Let's just move on, Laurel. It's not important."
We climbed our hill, side by side. I carried my sketch pad as usual, Caden carrying our lunch. I wasn't much in the mood for food, though. Hadn't been since that son of a bitch had tried to take advantage of my best friend. Why did men have to be such pigs sometimes?
"I think we should do something a little different." I turned toward the sound of Caden's voice, ripping me from my reverie.
"Well, the last few times we've done the drawing with my straps down." Caden stopped at our tree, and sat, spreading the blanket out. I sat across from her, opening the basket, curious to see what Antonio had sent this time.
"Mm. Meatball sandwiches." Maybe I was a bit more hungry than originally thought. I laid one in front of her, and one in front of myself, anxious to dig in. That was one of my most favorite meals in the world. "Oh, pie for dessert. I gotta say, I kind of like the guy." I grinned.
"Well, sure, if you like those young, foreign, good-looking types."
"Yeah, right." I snickered at the idea.
"Well, apparently one female in this family goes after that type." She studied the sandwich wrapped neatly in wax paper before her then shrugging with a smile at me. She suddenly got shy, real shy, and I remembered she'd never finished her sentence.
"So what did you want to do that was so different today?" I began to unwrap my lunch, my mouth beginning to water at the prospect of a meatball sandwich. The smell that met my nose was heavenly. She shrugged.
"Nothing. Never mind." She also unwrapped her lunch. With a shrug of my own, I bit into the soft bread, still warm. Pure ecstasy. I closed my eyes as I savored the taste on my tongue. When I opened them again, I was met with an intense blue gaze. "Ut?" I asked around my sandwich. She smiled and shook her head.
That would be our last session at the Lodge estate. Caden, Michael and I were headed back to school the following Monday. Caden and I to begin our junior year, Michael was finishing out his undergrad, then was to head off to get his MBA. He and I had gotten close over the summer, and I would miss him. He had asked me to take a walk with him one afternoon, and I had agreed. We had walked in silence, taking in the beauty of the grounds, Margaret's luscious gardens, soon to be gone for another year.
"I've really grown to like you, Laurel." Michael had finally said. I smiled.
"I like you, too, Goop. You're a really great guy."
"Yeah." He smiled, the cutest, shyest smile. He could be so adorable sometimes. Like his sister.
"I was thinking maybe you and I could get together over the year. You know, go out, maybe?" he looked down at me, hope shining in his eyes. I thought about his request for a moment, trying to decipher if there was anything to decipher.
"Well, I guess, sure. Go out and catch a movie, or something. Sounds fun." I hoped he meant just as friends, certainly he didn't mean as a couple?
He stopped, stopping me, turning me to face him, and lightly kissing me.
I stared up at him in surprise, not moving away, which I should have done, as he took it as an invitation. He put his fingers under my chin, lifting it slightly, and kissed me again, a bit deeper, longer. I gently pulled away before he could get carried away. He smiled at me, satisfied.
"Come on. Let's continue walking." I followed along side, not sure what to do.
I had decided not to tell Caden about the garden incident. I knew she was totally for the match, and didn't need her rooting Michael on anymore than he already was. I wasn't sure where I stood with him, but didn't think it was a real good idea considering his sister was my best friend and roommate, and if it didn't work out between us, I didn't want to chance losing her. I always felt that losing friends over a man was one of the worst things. Isn't hindsight great?
"Have you ever drawn someone nude?"
I nearly choked on my last thought as my eyes jerked up to Caden, seeing the curiosity shining in her eyes.
"A nude. Have you ever drawn a nude before?"
"Yeah. I took an entire semester of drawing the human form. Great class, by the way. Why? You want to be a nude model?" I chuckled, sipping from my can of Coke. She shrugged, looking shyly down at the ground, picking at a few strands of grass that were peaking over the edge of the blanket. "Caden?" she shrugged again.
"I don't know. I thought it might be the ultimate end of summer session for us. I mean, I know we both have terribly busy schedules this year, so our sessions will probably be stopped, and you'll be working more, so," she cut herself off and looked up at me, her eyes an incredible, vibrant blue against the intense green of the surrounding grass and trees. So beautiful.
"If you want to, Caden, I'd be more than willing. I'm sure it would be a striking portrait." She looked at me, hard and deep. I wondered if she could read my thoughts, my very soul.
"Okay." She nearly whispered. "Let's finish lunch, and we'll do it."
The doctors gave Caden a clean bill of health, and said she'd be able to go home the following day, provided she came back for her radiation therapy. She had another four days that week, then was finished for the month. Thrilled at the prospect, Caden was glowing.
Michael had shown up soon after Margaret had called him, flushed with excitement and relief. Their mother was yet a no show. She had told him that she had some business to take care of, then she'd be by. That woman made me want to scream.
Caden's room was a buzz with excited voices, laughter and kisses. I felt that it was not my place to be in such a family setting, so I quietly slipped out, needing some air, so I took a walk around the hospital. I wanted to think.
We both took our time eating lunch that day, I think both too nervous to rush into anything, wanting to wait as long as possible. I didn't know exactly how Caden felt at that time, but I was alive inside, ready, yet scared to death! Part of me realized that I may have been just a little too excited. But, I was an artist and any new sort of challenge was welcome and exciting. Yeah, keep telling yourself that, Laurel. Caden had captured my imagination from hello, and now I had the opportunity to put an actual, physical picture with that conjured image. To every good there was an equal bad, however.
We re-loaded our lunch basket with our trash, and stared at each other, stupid smiles plastered on our faces.
"This is stupid. Come on. Let's get started."
"Good idea." I smiled with a confidence I didn't feel. We had been roommates for two years, and, as expected, had seen each other in any manner of undress, but this felt different somehow. Caden was actually taking her clothes off for me, not just in front of me.
With a deep breath, I gathered my art supplies, and headed over to our spot. As I set up, she began to slowly disrobe. Her tank was the first to go, leaving her standing there in her shorts, sandals, and bra. Her skin was tan and smooth, and my fingers itched to touch it. As she shed the rest of the garments, I tried not to stare, but it was a difficult task to say the least. Her body was long and supple, and any human with eyes would look and be captivated.
"I've never done anything like this before. I feel strange." I finally raised my head from my sketch pad and smiled to try and calm her nervousness, my eyes trailing often down the hill toward the house, making sure no one was headed in our direction. All was clear.
"It's really not that bad. One time, when I was still in high school, I needed a few bucks, so I modeled for a local college class for the entire week of spring break." I smiled at the memories. I knew exactly what she was going through. Though I did have the advantage of not knowing a single soul in the room at the time, too.
"Really? How did you do?" Caden sat down, her knees drawn to her chest, arms crossed over her shins.
"Horribly. Well, that's not true. It took a day or two, then I did just fine. I realized that no one in the class was looking at me personally, just my body. It turned out okay."
"Oh. Well, that's good, I suppose. Did you enjoy it?"
"No." we both chuckled. "Just think of it this way. Your body will become a piece of art, something to be observed. I'm looking at it with the eye of an artist, not that of a person, if that makes sense."
"Yes. I guess it does." Caden took a deep breath. "Okay," she released it, slowly unfolding herself, like a flower in bloom. "Here goes the rest." She removed her sandals, placing them next to her neatly folded tank, then added her shorts, underwear and bra to the pile. With a deep breath, and not daring to look at me, she laid on her side on the grass, trying to find a position where the blades weren't tickling or scratching her bare skin. Finally settled, she held her head up on her hand, looked at me expectantly. I looked at her, trying to decide where to begin, but my mind not working with me as the human eye was taking over.
I took in the long legs, knees slightly bent, then up the sleek, supple thighs, strong from her daily jogs, and years of swimming, a dark thatch of hair. Her arms, also strong and toned, one laid out along her side, matching the perfect curve of her side and hip, the other under her, her head resting upon the palm. Her breasts were what caught my eye the most, so soft looking, full, perfect fit for a hand. I wanted to touch them, wanted them to fill my hands.
I shook myself out of my thoughts. I didn't need to be thinking of my best friend that way. But then I noticed the way her dark hair fell over her shoulder, partially covering one breast, the hollow of her throat, her shoulders, so beautiful and strong, her long neck, that incredible face.
Those lips, so full, the pink tongue snaking out to moisten them,
"Okay. Here we go." With a very deep breath I pulled my hair back into a ponytail, and began to sketch.
The night air was getting brisk, but I strolled around the streets of the hospital anyway. Probably not the safest place to walk, but I didn't care. I needed some air. I wondered if I should stay on now that Caden was awake, and we had spoken, she had made it through surgery okay. Did she still want me to stay? I could stay, but wasn't sure if I wanted to. Being back was bringing back things that I really didn't want to think about. Memories I had buried, had no reason to bring back. Can't cry over spilled milk.
I ran a hand through my hair, short now, with a sigh. I needed to call Carol. I had been in Boston for a week, and hadn't even thought about it. Wasn't too sure what that said about the status of our relationship. Hell, what relationship? We had sex and saw a movie once a week or so. Not much depth to it. All the same, I pulled my cell from my pocket, and dialed her number.
"Hey. How are you?" I found a bench near the ER entrance, sat down.
"Surprised. And yourself?"
"I'm okay, I suppose. I'm sorry I haven't called. Been one hell of a week."
"I'm sure. How's your friend?"
"She's fine. Just popped out of her three day coma this afternoon. I've been on awake watch this week." Carol chuckled lightly. I could picture her in her townhouse, curled up on the leather couch, her long brown hair back over one shoulder, her sweats pushed up to just below her knees before she'd pull them down again; cold, hot, cold, hot. I couldn't keep up with her internal thermostat. Never knew whether to bring her coffee or ice cream.
"Well, sounds like you've been a good friend." My brows narrowed as I heard the slight sarcastic edge to her words.
"Are you bothered by my being here?"
"Well, I think bothered is a bit of a strong word, but I guess I don't really understand what the point is. You guys are old college buddies, not life-long friends, right?" I shrugged, forgetting that she couldn't see me. "You haven't even seen her in some time. Hell, before this tragedy, I'd never heard her name."
"She needed me."
"Then like I said, you've been a good friend. Good for you." I hated that calm in her voice, the tone that was unreadable, casual with a kick.
I sighed, I did not need this.
"Look, I'm going to go. I just wanted to call and let you know what's been going on."
"When will you be back?"
"I don't really know. I've been thinking about that tonight, actually. I don't know. I'm not real sure what to do."
"Well, I'm sure you'll figure it out."
I was silent for a moment, suddenly very sad. "Why can't you just be a friend and listen to me, Carol? I need someone to talk to."
"Okay. Talk." Closing my eyes, I rubbed my forehead. I knew I'd be wasting my time and breath.
"That's alright. Look, I'd better get going. We have a three hour time difference here, and I'm getting tired. I'll give you a call in a couple days."
"Okay. Have a good night, Laurel."
"You, too. Night." I pressed the end button on my phone, and pushed the antennae down, looked up into the night sky, noting the way the orange lights that surrounded the grounds reflected onto the clouds overhead, giving the night an orange glow. It almost looked as if it could snow. With another sigh, I headed back into the hospital.
It was amazing, the sketch seemed to create itself, I was no longer involved with its production. The lines were clean and honest, Caden emerging from the page with startling realism. Every once in a while I created something that was beyond my imagination, beyond my talent, and that sketch was one of those.
Caden seemed to relax, her earlier hesitation behind her. She stared at me as she laid there, sometimes a slight smile curving her lips, other times she looked serious and thoughtful. I wondered what was passing through her mind, what was she thinking? Sometimes when I'd draw her we'd chat, talking about the picture, poses, or about the weather. Not that day. Silence, save for the birds above us in the trees. The world around us seemed to have stopped, leaving us be; just Caden, me, and my sketch pad. It was magical.
My eyes scanned over her, focusing in on the texture of her skin, trying to get it just right, the shading, the tone, the absolute flawlessness of it. It was almost like making love to her image with my hand and eye.
The spell was broken when finally she spoke.
"My mother wants me to get married." I glanced up, my hand stilled for the first time since I had started the portrait.
"That's what I'm supposed to do. She's never liked the idea of my going on to be a doctor. I feel like I'm stuck in some movie where the daughter of rich parents is sent off to finishing school. Perhaps instead of taking physics next semester I should take a class on balance, walk around with a book on my head."
"Just exactly what century is your mom in, anyway?" I resumed my sketching, trying to get the shading of her hair just right. Caden chuckled ruefully.
"I'm not sure."
"So who's the lucky guy she's got picked out for you? Isn't that usually the way it works? Some arranged marriage or something."
"I don't know." She looked down, began to pluck blades of grass. She looked so solemn. I wished there was something I could do. I knew her family put tremendous pressure on her and Michael. There was just nothing to be done or said. I continued to draw.
The elevator reached the third floor and the stainless steel doors opened with a whoosh. The floor was quiet, a single nurse typing on a computer at the nurse's station, her glasses perched precariously on her nose. I had the urge to run over to her and push them further up. Instead, I walked past her, and toward Caden's room. Visiting hours were long over, but the staff had been wonderful, letting us stay with Caden, or check in on her around the clock.
The Lodge family had gone, leaving Caden alone in her dark room, dozing. I stood in the door, watching her. Her breathing was even and strong, and she had much more color in her face then she had for too many days. She looked peaceful, and I didn't want to bother her. I needed sleep myself. It had been a long week.
"Good night, Caden. And good bye."
I sat on the bed in my hotel room, my packed bag at my feet, my airline ticket next to me. I stared at it, my finger tracing the United Airlines logo, trying to decide what to do. Caden had plenty of people here for her. What could I provide for her that they couldn't? I sighed, tossing the keys to the rental car up in the air, catching them in my hand again. Making a decision, I stood, grabbing my bag, and heading toward the door.
The streets were busy as I made my way toward Logan International Airport. The place was already pretty busy for the morning hour. I pulled up to the Hertz parking lot, and cut the engine, staring out through the windshield toward the office window of the rental place, not seeing it, my mind on Caden. Would she notice I was gone?
Over the week I'd been in Boston I'd become reacquainted with the Caden I used to know, but still had no idea what the Caden of the present was like. Did I want to know? Was it my turn to also make amends? I believed that was why she had called me to her in the first place. But nothing had happened to her, well, since she had finally woke from the coma, she was fine. Would be fine. Out of danger.
As I had traveled through our past together, I had come to realize just what she had meant to me all those years ago. But, the past was the past, and the past was long over. But, by calling she had inadvertently told me that it had been important to her, I had been.
I opened the car door, headed toward the office.
Caden quickly dressed as I made the last few touches on the drawing, then stared at it in awe. Part of me hoped she wouldn't want to keep it. I wanted it.
"How did it come out?" she crawled over to me, looking over my shoulder. We both stared in silence. I could feel her breath on my neck, making me shiver. "Wow. I can't believe that's me." She nearly whispered, disturbing the tiniest hairs on the back of my neck, making me shiver again.
"It is." I could feel her breasts against my back, pushing through the thin material of her tank.
"Is that how you see me, Laurel?"
"That's how you look, Caden. Beautiful."
A heat coursed down my spine, landing squarely between my legs. She created a constant heat around me that I could do nothing about. I ignored it.
"We'd better get back. Mother is having a dinner for us tonight." Caden moved away from me, her sudden absence creating an instant coldness on my back.
"Oh. I didn't know that. Is it formal?"
"I'm afraid so." Caden began to pack us up, making sure all of her clothing was in place. She smiled shyly at me. "I can't believe I just did a nude." I smiled back.
"Neither can I."
We got back to the house to find the servants running around, cleaning, decorating, preparing. Caden walked through the house as if she saw nothing unusual at all. I looked around in awe, the house looking more like a movie set than my best friend's childhood home.
"What's going on?" I whispered to her as we made our way up the stairs.
"Preparation." She said matter-of-factly.
"Oh." I thought about that for a moment before my brows drew again. " Preparation for what?"
"Us. The dinner party I told you about. My mother feels the need to show me off to all of her friends, and their sons. It's ridiculous, actually, but what can you do?" I stopped, stared at her back like she had two heads. What the hell planet was I on, anyway? Sometimes I really missed the old neighborhood.
Parked outside the hospital once more. I took my cell from the passenger seat of the Explorer to tell Carol what was the newest plan. As I waited, listening to the ring of her phone, I studied my unused plane ticket, hoping I had done the right thing. I didn't know. I had gone through the sliding doors of the airport, headed toward the ticket counter, watching hundreds upon hundreds of people walk past me, in groups or those alone, heading to their destination with the stern look of determination that seemed to be saved for the airport. I stared down at my ticket, and I couldn't do it. I couldn't leave Caden without seeing her one last time, saying goodbye in person. She deserved more than that.
As I expected, I got Carol's voicemail. I waited for the beep, then left her my message, telling her I planned to stay for a day or two longer, then I'd be home. After ending the call, I sighed again, sipping from my cup of coffee, the Styrofoam was thin, the cup nearly burning my hand.
"Damn, that's hot." Placing it back into the holder on the dash, I sat back in the seat, thinking. Today Caden was supposed to go home. I glanced at my watch; nearly eleven. Was she still up there in her room? I looked up through the windshield, up to the third floor of windows, dark to me. Just the glare of the early afternoon sun.
I started as Caden opened her bedroom door, a half dozen people already there. Caden walked in as if it was everyday you find an entourage waiting for you.
"Carlo! How are you?" she walked up to an older, extremely well-dressed man, his graying hair slicked back setting off his tanned skin and dark eyes.
"Hello, darling. How are you?" he kissed her soundly on the cheek, and turned to me, clapping manicured hands together, the gold pinky ring on his right hand gleaming in the sun coming through her windows. "And you, my love, must be the friend." He smiled, dark eyes twinkling.
"I guess so. Who are you?"
"I am Carlo. I have dressed the lovely Miss Caden since she was a child." He pushed up the sleeves of his gray suit jacket, walking around me in a circle. I followed him with glaring eyes.
"You want to tell me what the hell you're doing?"
"Laurel, don't. He's measuring you." I turned to Caden who was smiling at me.
"For the incredible creation I am going to make for you." Carlo answered, coming to stand in front of me again. "Very nice. You hove lovely lines, my dear. You'll look absolutely stunning in what I have for you." He turned to my friend. "Your mother was right, my love. She has wonderful eyes and the kind of body that I dream of dressing. I looked to Caden again for help. To my total chagrin she was standing back with Carlo, both tapping a finger on their chin, looking me over from top to bottom.
"I agree completely, Carlo. I can't wait to see what you make for her."
"Hello! I'm standing right here. You guys want to let me in on the joke here?" I was really getting angry then.
"Oh, sorry, my love." Carlo took a step toward me, placing a warm hand on my shoulder. "Come. Let's begin."
"Caden? Help?" she smiled, waving at me as Carlo led me toward the massive bathroom in her room so we could "begin".
I grinned to myself as I walked down the halls of the hospital. I had been so furious with her for putting me through that. But, even though I'd never, ever admit it to Caden, I had enjoyed Carlo immensely. He had been fun, and had put me at ease right away. Not to mention the dress he had created for me to wear within hours. Amazing. I hated dresses, but that night I had felt like royalty.
I reached Caden's room, found her up and around, dressed and looking great. She was alone, packing all of her belongings into the overnight bag she had originally brought with her. I noticed her entire head was still heavily bandaged.
"Hey." She turned, looked at me, an instant smile spreading across her lips.
"Hey." She walked over to me, taking me into her arms for a tight hug. "I'm glad you're here, though I must say I'm a bit confused." She pulled back from me, holding on to my shoulders. "Your hotel said you had already left. I thought you were gone."
I looked down, feeling guilty.
"Were you going to leave?" she took a step back from me, her hands going to the back pockets of her jeans. I nodded. "Why?" I looked up at her.
"Well, you have so many people here who love you and I just figured you didn't need me anymore." She stepped back to me, taking my hand in hers.
"Laurel, yes, I have my family, but I called for you for a reason. I wanted you specifically here." She hugged me again. "But I am glad you came back." She released me, walking back to the bed, picking something up, turning back to me. She held the collie, holding it close to her chest, stroking it's head. "You?" I nodded with a smile. "You remembered." Again I nodded.
"I saw him downstairs, and just had to buy him."
"Thank you. He's beautiful."
So are you, Caden.
"How are you feeling now? I take it you're leaving?"
"Yes. Finally. I'm so grateful, too. I yearn to get home, and be able to rest in my own bed, surrounded by my own things. Especially eat food prepared by my own cook." She smiled with a sigh. "Well, would you help me carry this stuff down? My cab should be here any minute."
"Cab? Why on earth would you take a cab?" what the hell was wrong with this family?
"Sure. Mother is off somewhere, and Michael had to head to the city for business this morning." She looked at me. "It's okay, Laurel, really. Not a big deal at all."
"You are not taking a cab home from the hospital after just having major surgery. Come on. My car's outside." I took her bag, and as many of the gifts people had dropped off as possible. "Let's go."
"Caden. Ready?" a nurse stood at the door with a wheelchair.
"All set." Caden happily walked over, and sat, smiling up at me. I smiled back, still my heart was heavy.
The nurse pushed the chair down the hall, me walking along side, Caden chatting about this and that. I listened, but didn't have much to say. I was just so happy to hear her voice, hear that she was okay, awake, and well. Plus I was still steaming over her family's lack of giving a damn.
The satin dress Carlo had fitted me into was formfitting, the color nearly perfectly matching my eyes. The hem reached to the floor, hiding my matching heeled sandals. My back was bare, the neckline a bit too plunging for my taste, but Caden said it was sexy, so I agreed. The strap wrapped around my neck, tying in the back, leaving my shoulders also bare. I was truly stunned as I looked into the full-length mirror in the bathroom. I had been transformed from tomboy into raving femininity in mere moments. My hair was swept up off my neck, piled on top of my head in some complicated style that would take me weeks to get undone. A woman had come in and applied a little make up. I looked like an entirely different person.
I walked out of the bathroom, the clothing police gone. Caden was the only one waiting for me. She stood near the armoire, applying lipstick. She saw my reflection through the mirror, and slowly turned, her mouth open, eyes trailing over my every inch.
"Wow." She breathed. "You look absolutely stunning." She walked toward me as I stood nervously, my fingers fidgeting with each other. She walked around me in a slow circle before coming to rest before me. She smiled with a slight nod. "Beautiful, Laurel. I'm speechless."
"I can relate." I said, looking her over. Her red velvet dress was strapless, her incredible shoulders allowed to be shown unobstructed, her hair also pulled up on her head. The dress fitted her incredible body perfectly, reaching her ankles to show her silver sandals, her toenails painted to match her dress and lipstick. I trailed my gaze up to her face, finally her eyes. The blue nearly glowed against the fiery color. We shared a smile and a deep breath.
"Our dates are waiting downstairs." She said, her voice quiet, almost hushed. I hadn't yet caught my breath, so I merely nodded. She turned and headed toward the door, opening it, giving me one more once over, then walked out into the hall. After a moment, I followed.
Caden looked out the side window, a smile on her face as she took in everything we passed, as if she'd never seen the city streets before. I glanced at her often.
"What are you thinking?" I finally asked. She didn't look at me, but instead took a contented breath, letting it out with closed eyes.
"Life. I'm happy to be here." She turned to me. "Did you ever think you'd be back here, Laurel? With me?"
"To be honest, no. I never figured I'd see you again." I looked at her, my honesty hanging in the air, heavy, but not painful. She nodded.
"Me, too. That always saddened me."
"Really? Why?" I stopped at a red traffic light, turning to her.
"I didn't want our friendship to end. I was weak. I know that now. I'm sorry, Laurel." I looked at her, not sure what to say. Did it really matter anymore? Could old wounds, long scabbed, mostly healed, be disinfected and bandaged? I wasn't sure.
"Thank you." The light turned green, and I drove on.
Music could be heard as we made our way down the stairs. I looked over at Caden questioningly.
"Mother brought in a twenty piece orchestra."
"Oh." Oh, god.
Caden led us to the ballroom, which I hadn't even realized existed. She explained that it was usually closed up, only opened for special occasions. The room was toward the back of the house, and was huge. The highly polished marble floors reflected perfectly the massive crystal and gold chandelier that hung ten feet above everyone's heads. The orchestra was placed at the back of the room, their boxed platform raised slightly. They played a light number, the white grand piano in the center of the players the main instrument heard.
I turned in a small circle, taking in everything. Gold and silver decorations were up everywhere, as well as Caden's name carved into an ice sculpture at the food table at the far end of the room. Several dozen tables had been set up around the room, the middle left open in front of the orchestra box for dancing. A hundred or so people were talking, laughing, mingling already.
"Oh, boy." I moved a bit closer to Caden, feeling so completely out of my element I felt a bit sick.
"You'll do fine. Just be yourself." She whispered to me, patting my arm reassuringly.
"Who are these people?"
"Friends of my parents, clients of my father's. Societies best."
"Oh, boy. You leave my side tonight, Caden, and I will hunt you down." She laughed quietly.
"Holy shit!" I hissed. "Is that Warren Beatty?"
"I wouldn't be surprised. Come on. There's Michael."
"Would you like to come in? I doubt somehow that you have a hotel room anymore." She smiled. I looked up at the Lodge house. "Please?" I looked at her. "I don't want to be alone right now." I looked deep into her troubled eyes, and nodded.
I helped her bring her things in, and we headed up to her old bedroom. Caden pushed the door open, stepping aside for me to enter. I looked around, amazed that not a single thing had changed.
"This house just does not age, does it?" I turned back to Caden. She smiled and headed for her bed, plopping down against all the pillows.
"Nope. I'm afraid not. It's a little creepy, isn't it?"
"Yeah." I walked around after setting everything down on the floor, looked into the bathroom, the massive bathtub with the Jacuzzi jets on the sides and bottom. The large separate shower and toilet stalls, their own little enclosed closets. "My god. I feel like I've stepped back ten years." She smiled at me as I sat on the edge of the bed. "You look tired."
"I am. That was a lot of excitement for me."
"I imagine it was."
"Am I keeping you from something back in San Diego, Laurel?" her relieved, happy expression suddenly turned serious, worried. She took my hand. "If you need to go back, I do understand. I just wanted to see you one more time. You know, just to apologize."
"For everything." She looked into my eyes, that intense stare that I remembered so well. I gently rubbed the hand that held mine.
"It's okay. The past is the past." She continued to stare for a moment before she nodded. "And, no. You're not keeping me from anything. That's the great thing about being your own boss." She smiled.
"Do you still draw?" surprised by the turn of conversation, I released Caden's hand, sat back a little.
"I haven't really drawn in years." She looked so sad it broke my heart.
"Oh. That's too bad. You're so wonderful at it."
"Why? Why don't you?"
"I don't know. I guess my attention went to the camera instead. I do some painting now and then, though. That's about as close to sketching as I get nowadays."
"I used to love it when you used me as your subject. Remember?"
"Yes. I do."
Michael walked toward us, looking incredibly handsome in a black tuxedo with white vest and tie. He looked so proud as he looked both of us over appreciatively.
"Ladies." He took a hand from both of us into his. "You both look absolutely stunning."
"Thank you, Michael. You look so handsome in that." Caden took her hand from his, and straightened his bow tie just a tad, patting his shoulder.
"Stop." He batted at her hands, grinning at me. "Laurel, I must say, I am completely bashful around you tonight. You are breathtaking." My face must have turned the color of Caden's dress. Never had I received such compliments.
"Um, thank you. You look really nice, too." He smiled, taking my other hand.
"I'm proud to be your date tonight." Now there's a surprise. I smiled.
"Me, too. What about Caden?"
"That would be my job." Caden and I turned, I nearly hissing. Troy walked up to us in a tux similar to the one Michael wore, one hand casually placed in his front pocket, the other holding a glass of champagne. "Hello, ladies. You both look lovely." He smiled charmingly at Caden, then at me. It took all I had to stay put, and not shove the heel of my shoe through his eye.
Caden looked at her brother questioningly. He shrugged. "Father insisted." He nearly whispered. "I'm sorry."
"Caden, Laurel, I must apologize. My behavior was less than satisfactory last time we met. It wasn't necessary." That same damn charming smile forced into my face. "So, I suggest we all put it behind us, and have a pleasant evening." Caden nodded politely, I said nothing, simply looked away.
"Well, shall we get a table?" Michael said. He was in the hot seat, and he knew it. He led us all to a table near the dance floor, both men holding our chairs for us. I felt ridiculous, but said nothing. I knew Caden wanted me to play along. I sat prim and proper, sure to cross my legs and all that. The table was round, and I was flanked by Caden on my left, and Michael on my right, stuck looking at Troy's mug right across from me.
The music stopped as someone tried to call attention to a long table near the front that I realized belonged to Caden's parents. Michael Lodge Sr. stood, tapping a fork to his wine glass. He was very handsome, his hair just beginning to gray on the sides added sophistication and maturity, his face relatively unlined and youthful.
"Hello, everyone, and welcome. I'm so glad you all could make it to our little get together." The crowd chuckled at his understatement. "As you all know, we're here to honor my little girl, and introduce her to you all. My little princess is heading into her third year of college in Pennsylvania, she's planning on medicine. I wanted her to follow me and her brother into business, or her grandfather into politics, but no, no. My daughter has her sights set on becoming the first doctor in the Lodge family. We're so proud of her. Straight-A student, top of her class. Let's hear it for my little girl, Caden!" he raised his glass, a round of here, here's echoing throughout the hall.
I turned to my friend, a smile a mile wide on my face, also so proud of her. To my surprise she was looking down at the table, her eyes squeezed shut, before she raised her head, avoiding my eyes, smiling at all the guests surrounding us, smiling, yelling out to her. She waved politely to the room, standing as she did so, then sat back down.
"That's wonderful, Caden." I exclaimed, leaning in close so she could hear me above the cheering. "I had no idea your father supported you so much." She turned sad eyes to me, more moist than usual.
"He doesn't. It's an act, Laurel. He abhors the idea." I pulled away, stunned, turning to Michael who looked down at his hands that rested on the table. Troy happily drank his champagne.
Caden was dozing peacefully upstairs in her bedroom, so I sat in the library next to the fireplace with a pad of paper Mildred had found for me, a pencil held in my hand. I stared into the flames, then looked down at the blank pad. Nothing. Couldn't think of a single thing to draw. The days when I used to carry around a sketch pad like most people do a wallet seemed so distant. Now I carried my camera around like that. I had brought it on the trip with me to Boston.
I set the pad down, and hurried out to my car, digging around until I found my camera case with my .35 mm Nokia. Plenty of film, I began to walk around the grounds of the beautiful estate. Endless photo ops.
I walked to the stables, leaning on the top rail of the fence, watching them run and play. There were only three horses, there used to be half a dozen or more. I wondered what had happened to them all. Their whinnies filled the brisk air, their breath and snorts coming out in little white puffs. I brought the camera up and began to snap, adjusting the lens to get some great close-ups, one bucking up on his hind legs, front legs beating the air. Incredible. I moved around, trying to get different angles.
Finally lowering the camera, nearly half a roll spent, I watched for a bit longer before moving on. As I continued to walk I saw our hill. With a smile, I headed in that direction. It would be nice to see it again.
I had obviously been in better shape at nineteen than I was at thirty. I chuckled as I reached the top, and was a bit winded. I am not getting older, I am not getting older. I didn't think my daily mantra was working so well anymore.
It looked the same, though the grass was yellowed from the coming of winter, and the trees were losing their leaves. I spotted our tree, and walked over to it, running back in my head to all the time we had spent there that summer. All the drawings I had done there, the bonding. I missed it. I hadn't really been close with someone like I had been with Caden since. It saddened me as I realized that. It seemed closeness like that was strictly reserved for the young; at that age people can still open themselves up for lack of life experience. You don't know of the hurt that it can bring. The end of innocence.
"How could you let this happen, Michael?" we twirled again, around and round the dance floor. I could feel the heat of his hand on my bare back, one of mine on his shoulder, our other clutched together.
"I didn't have a choice, Laurel. I swear. I tried to fight against my father brining in Troy, but he was insistent. What my father wants, my father gets."
"Even at the risk of your sister's safety?" he dipped me slightly, unexpectedly, I grabbed his shoulder for all I was worth, nearly digging my fingers right through the material of his coat.
"Don't do that without warning again or you'll find yourself singing soprano." I hissed once he brought me up again. He grinned and nodded, continuing to guide us around other couples. I looked over to our left, saw Caden dancing with Troy. She looked miserable as they were apparently chatting. Well, more like he was chatting, and she was nodding.
"Do you have any idea how good you look tonight?" I turned back to my dance partner with a grimace.
"I feel like an idiot."
"Well, you shouldn't. You clean up real nice." He smiled charmingly.
"Don't even try it, Michael. Give it up, man." With a boom of laughter, he dipped me again, me squealing like a little girl, beating at his shoulder.
Finally my prayers were answered, and the song came to an end. I hurried off the floor, to the door, needing some air. It had been cramped and hot on the dance floor, and it just felt good to get away from people.
The French doors in the hall were open, leading to a small patio with some chairs and a small table. It looked like the perfect place to go. I liked Gooper, but was inherently grateful that he did not follow.
I walked over to the waist high stucco wall that closed in the patio, resting my hands on top of it, raising my face up to the warm night air, the cool breeze a blessing.
"It's nice out here, isn't it?" I glanced over my shoulder to see Caden standing in the door, her hands clasped in front of her.
"It is. Care to join me?"
"Please? I wasn't sure if I should disturb you or not."
"That obvious, huh?" I turned to face her, leaning back against the wall. She stepped outside with a grin and a nod. "Well, I think my dance with Michael did me in."
"I understand that one." She rested against the wall next to me with a sigh.
"So are you having a good time?" we both turned to look out into the darkness past the property light. She snorted quietly.
"I would love nothing more than to leave the entire thing. It's a joke, anyway."
"Does your family have this sort of thing often?"
"Not involving Michael or I. My parents have parties like this all the time for one reason or another, but the purpose of this tonight is to get me out of school, and married. Quite the effort for an heir, don't you think?" I looked at her, stunned.
"I must say, though, Laurel, I can't tell you how glad I am that you're here tonight. I think I'd likely lose my mind otherwise." She smiled at me, gently bumping my shoulder with her own. I bumped her back.
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