Annabelle took a seat near the stage, stretching her legs and staring up at a bulbous crystal chandelier dangling directly over her head. She wasn’t sure if she’d been a Gigli
level flop or only a Cowboys and Aliens
level flop. This wasn’t a Jezebel.com crowd. Talking about informed and enthusiastic consent on college campuses would have been better than segueing into something more in your face.
As dessert tables with mini crème brulees were set up in front, she took a turn about the room, noticing the curves and scrollwork in the architecture and the wafting smell of creamy icing. Most people were coupled up, and their traditional fashions just didn’t do anything for her, but she texted her dad a detailed description of the architecture of the room, although his tastes ran more toward Frank Lloyd Wright.
An older man dressed in a shiny dinner jacket with chunky copper-colored rings approached her and said with a chuckle, “I’m thinking you’re new to our organization. You have to take it slow with us.”
She grinned, swaying to the big-band music coming from speakers camouflaged in potted plants. “I appreciate your indulgence.”
He was harmless. Didn’t stare at her breasts, only a glance, so she humored him.
“But, really, you weren’t so bad,” he said, his accent Russian. “Two years ago we had a New York feminazi. I almost walked out.”
“You have to watch out for those nazis,” said Annabelle. “I read somewhere they’re really bad.”
A fellow volunteer, whom Annabelle had met at the crisis center, caught her eye, and Annabelle waved her over. She was a middle-aged mother of three and a no-nonsense advocate for young victims. Annabelle had spoken with her previously about her work getting victims in touch with necessary social services and helping make appointments with attorneys. Annabelle hadn’t realized the woman, who dressed in a simple sheath, could afford to attend such an event. Perhaps she was independently wealthy, her kids in school all day, and she devoted herself to charity during her free time.
A small circle formed, several couples joined, and a rousing discussion of galas from years past took off. Resisting any wacky faces, Annabelle struck a pose, hand on her hip, all ears, taking in the conversation. A tall, high-voiced man across from her began talking about how big-budget movies were good for the economy, then complained about plastic surgeons charging too much. He and his bedazzled wife were producing a movie about the Fountain of Youth.
A man Annabelle couldn’t place approached her from the left. His suit was London-tailored, and he looked like a dapper British actor, but no, it was her unflappable doctor. She hadn’t set eyes on him since almost a year ago.
“Oh great. You again.” She turned to face him. A slight yet perceptible wariness showed in his expression, then vanished instantaneously, replace by a polite smile. His hair seemed darker brown, but not too straight, still a bit wavy and random. His dazzling blue eyes were just plain sexy in dim ballroom lighting.
“Hello, Ms. Montclare,” he said. “You’re looking well.”
“Well, hello, Dr. Fitzgerald. I was about to make a dignified exit, so you don’t have to worry about me making a pass at you.” She theatrically stretched her neck to the side, pretending to try to get a view behind him. “Where’s your girlfriend?”
“I enjoyed your speech.”
“No you didn’t,” she said, shaking her head.
“No, I did.” He adjusted his shirt collar with his long fingers. “It’s not an opinion expressed often, but I agree with what you said about how teenagers will use whatever technology they can get their hands on in their sexual explorations, and the trick is to stop shaming young woman for taking part. I particularly liked what you said about how few boys contemplate suicide when a naked picture is spread around school and girls must be allowed to hold their heads high and blow it off too.”
“Oh.” Breathless, she searched his expression for signs of condescension. He’d taken her unfocused ramblings from earlier and made them sound clever.
“Truly,” he said. “You have insight on the subject.”
Despite his pedantic air, her cheeks burned at the compliment.
Someone called his name, and he turned, greeting a young couple who handed him a photo of a child he’d delivered by emergency C-section a few years back. They obviously thought he could walk on water, and he didn’t do much to deny it except change color.
Members of the board of directors for the charity approached, including Ambassador Giuseppe, who spoke to Annabelle. “I wish you would have let us know a little bit more about your topic of discussion ahead of time. Not that we don’t appreciate your participation, but in years past we’ve learned that we should keep things light at this event. After all, it’s a celebration, a thank-you to our supporters.”
“The center advocates comprehensive sex education,” said Dr. Fitzgerald, jumping into conversation with the ambassador as if he knew her well.
“Yes, that is our position, but we don’t take stands on political issues at our events—”
“It was clear Ms. Montclare was giving her own opinions,” he said, not backing down. “I thought her talk was refreshing. To hear someone at one of these events say something that’s not totally expected was a treat.” His right hand hung in the air, motionless without being rigid, his skin and muscles sculpted from use.
The members of the board, including the Ambassador, began discussing the other speeches that evening. Dr. Fitzgerald motioned for Annabelle to follow him as he maneuvered a few steps away from the group. With a deep breath and a relaxed smile, he asked, “When did you start working with rape survivors?”
“I’ve visited the center a few times,” she said, not wanting to overplay her involvement or seem like she was asking for commendation. “They asked me to show up tonight and speak. How about you? Are you here representing the hospital?” Her underwire bra pressed against the flesh at her ribs. Her skin-toned thong had ridden up in the back, making her wriggle. Was he waiting for her to say something flirty?
“We do get a lot of forensic cases, but I’m not here for work. I’ve been involved with the East Coast branch since college. You know, we all have a friend or, uh, personal experience.” He studied her, a deep ridge between his eyebrows. “We all have something that inspires us to get involved.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean, but for me it’s not a personal
experience. I answered phones at a crisis hotline in high school. My parents made me.” His classic jawline and straight nose were undeniably appealing, but it was absurd to be attracted to him. Would she have been turned on if he had been her first gynecologist back east, touching her breasts to show her how to look for lumps when she went for her college freshman visit? “My mom and dad wanted me to get a taste of reality after my friends and I started voicing some rather far-fetched
“Should I ask?”
“About my opinions?” She bounced in her shoes. Maybe she should excuse herself for a bathroom run, freshen up, and apply lipstick. “Well, as far as I can remember, I told my dad it’s ridiculous to put teens on sex offender lists; only grown-ups can be hardened sex criminals.”
“Ah.” He nodded slowly. “What did you learn from your experience with the hotline?”
“I learned I might be right, actually. The law says everything comes down to age…and age difference, so often courts don’t decide on an individual case-by-case basis. Supposedly, a fourteen-year-old is never old enough for sex, but on the day of her sixteenth birthday you can do it with her legally, assuming you’re not more than three years older. To me, the cutoff seems arbitrary. When I was in high school, I knew some fifteen-year-old girls who could decide for themselves, thank you very much. If one of them had sex with a nineteen-year-old, it would have been wrong to charge him as an adult sex offender.”
“It’s a tricky issue. The line has to be drawn somewhere, don’t you think? There are people who aren’t very good at making these sorts of judgments when choosing a partner. I’m thinking of some twenty-something men I knew in college; they were rather desperate and insecure and needed to be threatened with jail time to ensure they didn’t pursue anyone under eighteen.”
Perspiration tingled her forehead, but it wasn’t hot in the ballroom. He was standing with her. Talking. Not leaving. Acting like he wanted to hear from her on such an important topic. “You didn’t answer my question about your girlfriend. Is she here?”
He grinned, saying nothing, staring into her eyes for a moment longer than comfortable. She blushed all over.
“She doesn’t want to meet me?” Annabelle asked, swaying coquettishly.
His expression turned smug. “That’s silly. What reason would she have for wanting to avoid you?”
Annabelle laughed out loud. “I forgot. I’m no threat when it comes to a catch like you.”
He slumped forward a little, bowing his head. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re being sincere or not.”
“Just assume I’m never for real.”
“But then there’s the whole metalevel where you joke about whether or not you’re joking.”
“It’s almost as if you think you’re on to me.”
“No. It’s you
who thinks you know me
,” he said.
Her heart thumped, warmth erupting in her belly, her thighs quivering. She couldn’t imagine another gynecological exam with him—despite several unstimulating follow-ups with Dr. Lo—but she could imagine kissing him, her mouth watering as she stared at his well-shaped lips. “Are you implying I’m a vapid pop tart?”
“I’ve heard you’re doing well, having a lot of success.”
“Did you Google me?” she asked with a simper.
“No. I didn’t feel right about watching music videos of you crawling around on the floor, as colleagues bid me, and honestly, I rarely watch movies or TV. I don’t own a television.” Even the flip of his wrist was arrogant.
“You’ll never know what you’re missing.” She twitched her eyebrows—they were so naturally blonde Stephanie called them invisible, but for that evening’s event she’d dabbed them with a light brown eye pencil.
“I suppose I’ll have to tolerate my pitiable situation.” He grinned with the slightest sneer, jutting out his chin.
“You really are a conceited ass.”
A huffing laugh escaped him as he glanced at the shiny parquet floor. “I have a limited amount of free time, so when I have a chance to listen to music, I prefer the LA Philharmonic.”
Ambassador Giuseppe approached Dr. Fitzgerald with a harried expression. “Sorry to interrupt. I need the doctor to sign off on some documents relating to an upcoming sexual assault working group.”
“Annabelle,” he said, finally calling her by her first name, “we should talk. I’m sure you would be a great addition to the after-school program in the fall.”
She nodded in acquiescence and watched his easy saunter as he escorted the elderly ambassador, turning his face to chat with her as his arm hovered behind her back. He had a stud profile, cut and masculine, cheeks a bit sunken.
* * * *
On her way out, Annabelle stopped in the front lobby to sign the program for a young lesbian couple in matching blazers and spotted Dr. Fitzgerald heading to the door. She called to him, “Good night.”
When she stepped outside, he was looking her way as he waited in line by the valet stand. He buttoned his earth-brown coat with his left hand and waved her over with his right. She meandered toward him, in no rush.
“Hey, listen,” he said, “there’s a diner by the old port that opens early. At sunrise, the whole area including the boardwalk is preternaturally calm.”
It was only half past one. Pitch-black outside. “You want to go to breakfast?” she blurted out with a twang.
“I’m off today. Are you busy…later this morning?”
“Well, well, well, how about this for an about-face.”
He stood tall, waiting for an answer, both hands dug deep into his pants pockets.
Spreading her arms, she ascended into a slow pirouette to prolong his wait, drawing attention from the crowd shuffling down the carpeted steps of the main entrance to the hotel.
Landing her turn like a professional, she asked, “What time?”
“Why not?” he asked.
Did it occur to him that he’d seen her naked from the waist down…and been flashed by her bare breasts when he checked her breathing after surgery? Before exiting the hotel, she had stopped at the woman’s lounge and checked herself out in the mirrors. Sans tight dress or push-up bra, she looked pretty with a soft touch of makeup and a slight sheen from her excitement about running into him.
He reached for her parking ticket, his fingertips brushing against her palm, then pivoted toward the valet dressed in tails and requested that her car be brought first. His decisiveness was potent in a way that was such a turn-on. The luxurious cashmere-like fabric of his suit jacket was inches from her touch, tempting her. Nobody who dressed as he did was alone on Saturday nights. His self-possession, his lack of hesitation, was similar yet different from his authority back at the hospital—and similar yet different from his hauteur when he dismissed her from his office.
“Uh, I’m going to have to ask you for a third time about your girlfriend,” she said when he finished conversing with the valet. “I heard you were living with someone?”
“Right. I don’t believe you know Lorraine, do you?”
“That’s why I keep asking.” Neither her courage nor her smile failed her. She would say what she wanted to say. Rocking from one foot to the other, she was nothing if not light on her feet.
“Perhaps it’s time you called Rochelle at the hospital…to catch up on things.”
It was true she hadn’t texted Rochelle in a while. It was over ten months since she had been rushed to the hospital in pain and almost as long since Rochelle first filled her in on his relationship with the professor of women’s studies.
“Anyway, I’m off on a serious errand,” he said. “I need to visit a former colleague who’s struggling with some personal issues.”
“At one a.m.?” she exclaimed.
“There’s a halfway house near the diner I mentioned. The middle of the night is when there are no AA meetings, and he’s having a bit of a crisis at the moment.” His voice was steady, no hitches. “So what do you say? Will you meet me afterward for breakfast?”
Few guys could pull off looking confident without overdoing the I’m-cool-and-unconcerned act, but she could tell it wouldn’t be awkward if she said, “No, I’m too tired.”
“I guess I can make it…on only five hours sleep,” she said. “I don’t have much planned for today, except the most boring meeting at noon to go over hair and makeup, so you better be entertaining.”