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Submitted by Steven ODell on 8 July 2007 - 11:39pm.

Chapter 3

Ted was fit to be tied and angry enough to spit fire. Denise was nowhere to be found; neither in the apartment, nor in any of the places she was prone to go when she sneaked out. She had not even reported to work in two days. Pacing the floor in his rage and wanting to hit something or someone, he knew instinctively that she would not be coming back. He also knew without question that there would be retribution for the humiliation he had suffered—he would see to that matter personally. No old man was going to show him up like that and just walk away unscathed. And no woman was going to disappear from his life without so much as ‘good-bye’. She would pay. Somehow, they would both pay. But first, he would burn everything she had left behind…and he would enjoy it immensely.

It had been three days since the incident in the diner. Denise could not get her mind off the chivalrous stranger that had quite likely saved her from genuine physical harm. She went to sleep thinking of him and woke each morning in her new apartment with his words ringing in her mind—'you can do much better.' He was right. She could do much better. She only wished that she had properly thanked him, instead of standing dumb as a post and letting him walk away, thinking her to be one. The doorbell now interrupted her reverie and Barbara, not waiting to be invited, pushed her way in and smiling from ear to ear, whirled about, taking in the entire room at once.

"Hey, this is awesome! I just love what you’ve done with the place", she said sarcastically. "When are you going to actually start unpacking the boxes? We didn’t move all this in for the fun of it, you know."

"Ooooooh, Baaaarb..." Denise whined pathetically. "I just didn't know how permanent this was going to be."

"What? Didn't know? You weren't seriously thinking of going back to that creep, were you?” Her hands were now placed firmly on her hips and she was quite evidently ready to deliver an effective scolding, should it be required.

"No! Heavens, no. I guess I just needed some time for it all to sink in."

"Well, you've had three days, so snap out of it, ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Life goes on." Denise could always count on Barbara not to indulge her when she wanted pity. Sympathy, even empathy when needed, but never pity. She was a get-on-with-it sort and wanted the same from her friends. And that was what Denise needed most right now.

"Okay, okay. Anyway, I had already decided that this morning, so lighten up a bit, alright?"

"That's my girl. Let's get cracking here—you have a house-warming dinner to get ready for and a special guest to thank for your rescue."
Denise stood open-mouthed, stunned and mute for a long second. "Wh…what? You can't be talking about that guy the other day. Barb, I have no way of doing that, much as I would like to."

“Well, I wasn’t going to tell you too soon, but the time has come for you to know.” Barbara partially turned her back to Denise and looking over her shoulder with a comic grin, patted herself on the back, as if to invite Denise to do the same. "Come on, right here…pat, pat. Go ahead."

"What are you talking about?" She couldn't help but grin back; Barb was so goofy-looking.

Turning to face her again, Barb stated, "It helps to have a friend...ahem…a very dear friend, who works in the license bureau.”

Denise’s eyes widened and she grabbed Barbara by the shoulders. "You didn't! You got his name? How?"

"You forget who you’re talking to here! While you were in your blind stupor…” She paused for effect and Denise shot her a look of pretended disdain. “…I sneaked a quick peek at the plate on the back of the car he was driving and the rest, as they say, is history. I ran the number and got his name, address and phone. Of course… you wouldn't be interested…not in a knight in shining armor…." She let the words trail off and shrugged her shoulders, her gaze wandering in mock indifference. The attempting to look nonchalant was unconvincing.

"Barbara, you sly dog, you! Thank you! Oh!…I have to get this place cleaned up. Help me!" She began to giggle as she opened a packing box. "Thank you, Barb—you and Paul, for helping me move...and for all of this," referring to this last exciting news.

Pleased to see her closest friend again beaming happily, Barbara threw her right arm across the front of her body, extended one foot ahead of herself and bowed in mock reverence. "You are more than welcome, m'lady."

Those were nearly the same words that her ‘knight’ had spoken to Denise on the day he had saved her from Ted, a real dragon if ever there was one. Both women began to laugh out loud, then bent diligently to the task at hand.

Denise thought to herself how silly she was, for several times she caught herself pacing back and forth, trying to recall what it was she had meant to do. This is crazy—get a grip, relax and just prepare the meal, she thought. Just prepare the meal! This was a man; an ordinary man, she told herself, but for some strange reason she was not convinced that it was true. He had captured her imagination in the same way that she had captured his, though Denise had yet to discover that last fact. Why couldn’t she seem to forget him? Was it just that she felt obligated to thank him? No, it was more than that; something more that escaped words. Where this would lead she knew not, but her heart told her that this was no ordinary man. Barb’s words brought her back to reality.

“Hey, Dopey! Focus!” She grinned wide and returned to her task. “You gonna be okay on your own? I still have to go home and get changed, you know.”

Ronald Jameson wondered as he tightened his tie, what would he say to her? He was confident and relaxed when he got out in public—at least he strove to project that image. It was a protection of sorts; a shield from the discerning eyes of others. The truth was that he had committed himself to being detached. It hurt less. Things were somehow different now. He had wished that he had taken more time and made certain that this woman...Denise…was protected every step of the way from the maniac that had caused her grief so recently. To see her home safely or whatever she wished. He had felt at the time that he needed to remain detached. It was his habit. But now he felt that maybe that was one time that habits were meant to be broken. I should have followed my instincts, he thought. He was inwardly thankful for a second chance. At the same time he was a bit frightened of his feelings--it had been so long since he had courted his wife. Besides, he knew he was not really over the loss. It had been too recent. Still, how could he turn down such a gracious invitation? He could not.

Ron tugged a comb through his hair and applied a cologne he hadn’t used in what seemed like ages—a subtle, yet masculine scent he hoped she would like. Picking up the box of chocolates and heading for the door, Ron found he was more nervous than he had been in a very long time. He laughed at himself—courting? Get a grip! This was a dinner. One time and it was done, that’s all. Be realistic. The thought suddenly disappointed him and he struggled to again muster a confident spirit. He secretly hoped it would be more than just one dinner, but knew no good reason why it should be.

At two minutes to seven, Ronald Jameson rang the bell and shook off his jitters. Be calm, he told himself. She just wants to say ‘thank you’ and then it will be over. There was a sad sense of finality in that thought and he was surprised that his heart again sank noticeably. Ron had little time to reflect, though, for the door opened almost immediately and there she was.

She was absolutely stunning! He held his breath, involuntarily. Ron had not thought before to consider her age, but he guessed Denise to be in her mid-thirties. He also estimated she was about five feet, seven inches tall—a full four inches shorter than his own height of five-eleven. Her eyes were more deeply brown than he had noticed before. Maybe it was the early evening light, but they seemed to draw him in. Her chestnut hair had lovely highlights in it that shone like stars in the subdued light of the doorway and her dangle-earrings had the look of those made in the middle-eastern countries—fine, delicate wire, twisted into beautiful patterns. She wore a simple, but beautiful black dress, sleeveless and of silky, loose-fitting fabric. It was gathered at the waist with a sash and descending in draped folds in all the right places and clinging attractively in all the others. Modest, but it appealed to him strongly. It was classy and dignified, sexy and mysterious, all at the same time. Ron had no idea of her size. He had never been very good at that. Not even with his wife. He just knew he had loved her and she was forgiving of his shortcomings and loved him back. He could tell that Denise was neither skinny nor overweight, but just right. That sounded so strange—who was he to decide which woman looked ‘just right?’ He only knew that here was a truly gorgeous woman. Wake up, he thought. Stop ogling and say something.

"Well, I guess it’s your turn to be silent", she said, beating him to the punch. She was strongly aware that he was studying her closely and she blushed, but it was more flattering and gratifying to her than it was uncomfortable.

"I’m sorry for staring. You just...uh…you look lovely." He grinned, shifting his eyes downward bashfully and shuffling his feet nervously.

She blushed again at his embarrassment and lowered her own eyes momentarily. "Thank you. Should I call you Ron or Ronald?"

"Ron, please." It was obvious that Barbara had told Denise that he would be coming to dinner, but he had been sworn to silence, so he said nothing of the meeting at his door that morning.

"Well, Ron, please come in." She stepped aside and swept her arm in a gesture of welcome. He saw now that her hair hung to the middle of her back. It was beautiful and he wished he could touch it, wondering why he had not noticed this before.

"I brought chocolates for after dinner. I hope that is okay."

"Oh, yes, thank you. That’s very kind of you. And I hope you don't mind that my friend Barbara and her husband Paul will be joining us. You met her the other day." Thinking twice, she regrouped. "Well, I guess we never actually met formally, did we?"

"She seems to be a good friend. Anyone else might have ducked and run in your time of need. She stuck by you."

Denise smiled. "Please, sit down—yes, she has been a friend for an awfully long time. My mother always said that you would have many associates in life, but very few true friends. Barbara is a true friend. She is like my own blood."

"My mother taught me the same thing." He hesitated a moment before continuing. "I haven't had a true friend in awhile; not since my wife passed away." Ron immediately felt that perhaps he should have said nothing regarding this, but it was too late to recall his words. He felt comfortable with Denise and had said the words before thinking that it might put her off to hear them just now. Or was he just unreasonably hoping again that she might also feel something for him?

Denise relaxed visibly, though, and Ron sensed it, opening up to this woman that he had just met. He could not explain why, but he felt instinctively that he could trust her. She was ‘comfortable’ to him. It was as if he were meeting an old friend that he’d forgotten he had.

Denise told him of all the years that she and Barb had been growing up together, from the time Barb’s family had moved in next door to her at the lake, through grade school, high school, college and of all the trouble they’d gotten into together. Mischief seemed to follow them everywhere, but they had avoided any real harm and had a great time in spite of it all. Then Barbara had found someone special and married. Denise had felt left out. Maybe that was why she had taken up with Ted—a companionship of convenience that had turned out to be not so convenient after all.

Denise seemed to weigh her words a moment before she spoke. "You make a woman feel very much at ease, Ron; do you know that?"

It was now his turn to blush and she was rather surprised at this, but found it charming as well—that a man who had come so strongly to her rescue just a few days before would now be tongue-tied and staring at the floor. She wanted to follow her instincts and cuddle closer to him, but not wanting him to be uncomfortable, she excused herself and went to get them something to drink while they waited for the others and sat quietly talking.

Upon returning with drinks, Denise stated, "I made my specialty for dinner tonight. There’s a lot of cheeses used in it, but Barb says that is somehow appropriate when it involves me—she says I’m ‘kinda cheesy’”. She laughed nervously. “I hope you like it". She brushed back her hair and averted her eyes briefly, pulling the corners of her mouth and slightly ducking her head in a way that told him she was nervous and this really was a special occasion to her.

He started inwardly, shocked and pleased that she would honor him so. Denise looked a bit like a young schoolgirl in her mannerisms, just for the briefest moment. Truth be told, he felt a bit giddy himself, but he liked the feeling. It seemed like forever since he had felt this way. This could last forever, he thought—just the two of us alone. He would have had no objections to that at all. It was not meant to be, however, for the bell rang and Barbara let herself in immediately, followed by Paul.

She brushed past an advancing Denise and went directly to Ron. "Hi, I'm Barbara and this is my husband, Paul".

Paul extended his hand to Ron. "Ah, the ‘knight in shining armor’ who rescued our ‘princess’ from the dragon. At last we meet." Denise had this little-girl-embarrassed look, coupled with an expression that seemed to mildly scold Paul, had he been looking in her direction to see it.

The two men exchanged pleasantries while the ladies took a moment to draw aside and speak in whispers and to giggle a moment. It seemed to Ron that Denise had a red face, but she acted composed when she again turned to the men. She was happy, he could tell, and that made him happy. Strange to feel this way for a girl he hardly knew. Girl? This is no girl. Yes, she was notably younger than he was, but he sensed somehow that she was more woman than he had ever had in his life. His wife had been rather retiring and private. This woman was…different; that was all he could say. He was more attracted to her than he had been even to his wife when they had first met. Denise saturated his senses. Her smile and even her embarrassment at the moment were completely charming to him. He was hopelessly smitten with her and he knew it.

The blush had subsided a little when Denise announced, "Okay, let me have your attention for a moment. I want to thank all of you for coming tonight to my house-warming dinner, for gracing my new home with your presence and warming it with your love." Barb suppressed a snicker that was not lost on Denise, who shot her a 'stop that' look. The blush that had been disappearing was instantly renewed. It was time to quickly change the subject. "Dinner is ready—shall we eat?"

The dinner was wonderful. Ron could not remember the last time that he had eaten a home-cooked meal other than his own. Certainly not one like this. Chicken Parmegian, broccoli Alfredo, candied yams, baked apples with ginger glaze for dessert, followed with the chocolates that Ron had brought. The conversation was warm, stimulating and at times quite humorous. In a strange way, Ron felt as if he were coming home for the first time in a long while. He was totally comfortable among these people that he did not know. The satisfaction of it all was as heartwarming as it was surprising.

Paul suddenly got up and went to the kitchen. Upon returning, he called for their attention and produced a bottle of champagne and four wine glasses. As he popped the cork and poured the drinks, he remarked, "I want to commemorate this occasion with a toast." He passed the glasses and then began, “To Denise—may her life be long and warmed by the affection of friends and lovers. To her new home—may it be full of friends when she chooses and lovers when she desires.” He put enough emphasis on the last word to cause Denise' mouth to drop open and to earn him the ready elbow from Barbara. Denise placed a hand over her mouth as women do when they are embarrassed, but recovered quickly. Paul grinned widely, casting a glance at Ron, who was also blushing again, then went on. "In short, may you always have the best of everything in your life…for none deserve it more than do you." This last was a heartfelt statement, the sincerity of which none could miss.

A hearty 'hear, hear' came from the remaining two and they raised their glasses to the toast. Being choked with emotion at the heartfelt intent of Paul’s remark, Denise silently mouthed the words, thank you, as through her moistened eyes she looked from one to another of her friends. Her gaze came to Ron, who was studying her with the air of a man genuinely smitten. She recognized that look and, flattered, she rested a moment upon his face, too, until Ron again raised his glass to her. She noticed he did not drink, but he politely responded to the toast anyway. Perhaps he doesn’t drink, she thought. There could be no faulting him for this and she took no offense, not after what she felt he had done for her. For the first time in ages she was truly happy and wished this moment would never end.

Just when all thought Paul was finished, he turned to Ron and, lifting his glass again, added, "And to you, Sir Knight, for aiding a damsel in distress—and in vanquishing a dragon, that our fair lady might begin anew." Again they raised their glasses.

Ron replied, "Please, you give me far more credit than is due. All this talk of ‘knighthood’ makes me uncomfortable, really."

He looked it, too, and Denise decided it was now her turn to rescue him. "Ron brought this lovely assortment box of chocolates. Who wants some?” she asked.

When all had finally consumed their fill at the table, Denise graciously proclaimed, "Thank you all for coming. We will have to do this again very soon; however, I have to work tomorrow and need to get some sleep tonight."

The party broke up quickly at this announcement and Ron, after bidding a farewell to Paul and Barbara, was the last to leave. He hesitated uncomfortably at the door for a long moment and finally took Denise’s hand as he had on the previous occasion, cradling it like a treasure in both of his own. "I hope you don’t mind that I did not drink tonight. I’ve seen too many of my friends get into trouble because of it. Truth is, I used to drink heavily at one point in my life. It only got me into trouble. It was the love of a good woman that got me out of it. So, please forgive me if I want to maintain some dignity for another good woman.” He smiled and fairly waded into her eyes with his gaze. “Denise, you have no idea how much I enjoyed this evening. I wish it would never end. You would do me a great honor if I may call on you again." His words were soft and genuine and he looked at her face with eyes that traced all about it as though he were memorizing every detail of her countenance.

Denise felt almost as though she were being worshipped. This man had a power over her that she welcomed with open arms. He made her feel safe. He made her feel loved and above all he made her feel important. Not as a possession to be kept, but a treasure to be cherished. He then lifted her hand and kissed it long and lovingly. Denise nearly melted into the porch upon which she stood. Her heart raced in her chest and her breathing shallowed dramatically. As he raised his head, she thought she could see the beginnings of tears in his eyes and he quickly said goodnight, more whispered than spoken aloud, in a voice tinged with emotion and then he hurriedly turned to leave. It was obvious that he was embarrassed to be seen crying, but it charmed her even more that he was so touched. She just stood staring after him until his car disappeared in the distance. This was a man not easily forgotten, she knew. What part he was to play in her life remained to be seen, but she knew without doubt that he would play a major part in her dreams this night.

A hand-written card came by messenger before the end of the next day. Denise opened it excitedly. Thank you for a truly perfect evening and meal. It was surpassed only by the company. It was signed simply, Ron. A warm tingle flooded her body and she gathered the card with both hands to her lips and nose, as though hoping to catch his scent. She had not felt this way in such a long time, and never with Ted. She reflected on that and then strongly shook it off as a thought too distasteful—one that might ruin a perfect moment. There was that word again—perfect. There was no other word for it.

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