Stretching as discreetly as possible, Francoise packed up her sheet music and turned her attention to cleaning and disassembling her flute and putting the three segments in their appropriate slots in her flute case. She had spent the evening with four fellow musicians, their quintet having been hired to provide the music at a holiday gala being held by one of the most prestigious law firms in Boston. As much as she had enjoyed playing with the group of talented musicians, she was ready to call it a night. Chatting idly with the group, she continued with her routine, one part of her mind already thinking of what else had to be done before she could sleep tonight.
She taught music at a college preparatory school in a tony suburb of Boston and had yet to review a slew of audition tapes submitted by spoiled rich kids who only engaged in anything artistic in order to fulfill their parents' wishes and to flesh out their high school résumés to insure their entrance to prestigious colleges. Though they always had the finest instruments money could buy, the students left a lot to be desired in the talent department. She faced the unpleasant task of choosing the best performers from amongst a selection of audition tapes she knew would be mediocre and recommending those students to the admissions board. Based upon their grades, artisanship, sports acumen, whether or not they had a gift for languages and a token display of "a spirit of volunteerism", as the school's brochure put it, the students would be evaluated by the board and granted or denied admission to the Plimpton Academy. It would probably be best if I approached this task with a slightly more positive attitude, she thought, otherwise I'll never make it through. Maybe I'll crack open a bottle of wine to ease into it... The mere thought of putting on her cozy fleece pajamas and relaxing with a glass of wine almost made her groan aloud with pleasure.
Glancing up to see if the others in the group had finished packing up, she loaded her music, flute case and collapsible music stand into her gig bag. Seeing that everyone was similarly stowing away the last of their gear, she unfolded her body from the hard chair, stretching again as she did so. Always a caretaker, and as the informal leader of the group, she liked to make sure everyone was on their way without incident before she left a performance venue.
"While you guys are finishing up, I'll just say good-bye to the host and collect our fee," she told the group, "Pete, could you keep an eye on my gig bag?" she asked the group's French horn player.
"French," he said, using her nickname, "I would gladly keep my eye on anything of yours, you know that," Pete replied with a half-joking leer. The truth was, he really did have a yen for her and had been trying to move their friendship into a more serious category for years. She always dealt with his salvos lightly, jokingly, never letting him get too serious about things.
"Keep your pants on, Pete, I'll be right back. Then we can leave."
French whirled around with her usual purposefulness and headed off to find the event planner that had hired their group for the evening. Despite the fact that the event planner was diminutive in stature, she should be easy to spot. She had flame-red hair cut in a modern bob, with sharp edges and loads of layers and a penchant for wearing bright colors and bold patterns -- at the same time. On most people, the hairstyle and clothes would look ridiculous, but on Phoebe Castleman, whom everyone called Fifi, they were just perfect. Wending through the stylishly black-clad crowd of partygoers, French kept an eye out for Fifi. As she looked around, she caught sight of a delicious looking man and her heart fluttered wildly in her chest, then sank like a lead balloon. He stood at the center of a group of elderly women. One of them had possession of his right arm and didn't look as though she would let go of him for the world; she was gazing up at him with adoration plain in her eyes. He looked completely at ease with the old ladies and seemed perfectly happy to remain in their company. Ugh, French thought, typical Aidan, sweeping the ladies off their feet. They'd better watch out for him, he's lethal.
French watched the little group for a moment longer, taking in every detail of Aidan's appearance. He looked a little thinner than when she'd last seen him and his hair was slightly longer than he usually wore it; it just brushed the top of his collar in the back and a dark lock of it fell forward to brush his forehead. He had acquired a deep tan, which contrasted with his already striking blue eyes. The longish hair and deep tan made him look slightly uncivilized even though he wore formal clothes. He is absolutely gorgeous, French thought. The grande-dames he stood with had unleashed their whole repertoire of flirtatious behavior on Aidan. Batting their eyelashes, cooing, giggling, blushing and giving him playful slaps on the arm... I could never resist him either, French thought with longing and a hint of irony, since it had been she who had ended their relationship. Just at that moment, Aidan looked up and caught her eye. The air was sucked out of the room. She could have sworn that time stopped and that they were the only people on earth. Aidan recovered first, gave her a lazy smile and a slow wink. French, hoping that her eyes had not revealed her feelings, gave him a quick nod and turned away. Yikes, she thought ruefully, feeling a frisson of heat course through her body, that was close. I'd better get out of here.
French redoubled her efforts to find Fifi. At last, Fifi was spotted holding court amidst a group of men and women, gesturing wildly, her face alight and mobile with expression. French joined the outskirts of the group, waiting for Fifi to release her captivated audience. In the two years she had known Fifi, French had come to realize that she was a people magnet; men and women alike were drawn to her. French figured it was because of her incredible energy, warm personality and her no-holds barred approach to life and people.
They had first met when Fifi had hired a group that French had been a member of to play a wedding Fifi was deep in the throes of planning. They had joked together about brides-from-hell, and French, like millions of others, had fallen for Fifi. They had become good friends since then, their paths often crossing in their lines of work. Fifi threw playing gigs French's way whenever she could and they often spent their free time together; either going out or staying in, cooking, eating, drinking good wine and enjoying each other's company.
After extricating herself from her group of admirers, Fifi zinged up to French and swept her into a dance accompanied by the dj-spun salsa that filled the ballroom and provided after-dinner entertainment for the celebrants. "It's all down hill from here! I'm free to have a little fun now. Grab a margarita and stay with me for awhile?" Fifi demanded rather than asked, in her usual manner, running her words together in her excitement.
"Feef, I'd love to, but I've got to listen to those audition tapes tonight," French demurred.
"Oh no you don't, it's Friday night for God's sake! Kick up your heels for a change! Don't be so boring and predictable and responsible, dammit!" Fifi argued, "Come on, one little drinky-poo and if you still want to go home, I won't argue -- you can just go," she wheedled.
"Fifi, I just saw Aidan over there. Did you know he'd be here tonight?" French asked casually.
"Well, you know his father is a founding partner of this firm, right? That must be why he's here," Fifi had the grace to look chagrined at having to explain what she knew would be difficult for her friend to accept.
"No, I did not know his father was partner in this particular firm. I knew he was a hot-shot founder of some firm, not this firm, Fifi!!" French said hotly.
"Well, I did know Mr. Conal was Aidan's father, but I didn't even know Aidan was in town. I thought he was still on assignment in some godforsaken place, so I had no idea he would be here! Please believe me when I tell you that. I'd never have hired your group if I had known," Fifi said pleadingly, "you know that, right?"
If French was honest with herself, she had to admit that Fifi would never intentionally have done something like this.
With a sigh, she conceded, "Yes, Fifi, I know. I believe you. I'd better go, I can't risk running into him and having to talk to him."
"What's he going to think if you go running off? If I were him, I would definitely think that you still had a thing for me..." Fifi baited.
"I don't still have a thing for him!" French denied, " and I've got to get home and listen to those tapes, anyway."
"Hmm, pretty quick to deny that, weren't you? I don't know, French," Fifi said calculatingly, "I think maybe you're not really over him."
"I am too over him!" French protested, then to prove her point she said, "Fine, I'll stay, if it makes you happy! One drink only, and you swear you won't give me any grief when I get ready to go?"
"Not even a little grief, cross my heart," Fifi said, crossing her fingers behind her back and secretly sighing with relief that her goading of French had actually worked. She had no intention of letting French go home early. In her opinion, French spent too much time being responsible and in control. She also thought French and Aidan were destined to be together and if they were too stupid to realize it, then she'd have to help them along.
"Whoo-hoo! Let the games begin!" Fifi whooped and zipped away to get them a couple of drinks.
French hoped she hadn't just made a decision she would regret. Fifi was notorious for her love of dancing, parties and enjoying herself. Which was why she was such a good event planner. Once French found her musician friends, she told them that she'd be staying for a bit longer and encouraged them to take off, or if they wanted to, they were also welcome to stay awhile. All of them opted to leave, except Peter, which she could have predicted.
"I can't leave a sweet little lamb like you at the mercy of all of these rich, hungry wolves, now can I?" Peter asked. "I'll stay as long as you want and then I'll see you home," he added gallantly.
"Peter, we live on opposite ends of town. It would be inconvenient for you to 'see me home' as you so quaintly put it," French said a little testily. The last thing she wanted or needed was someone, namely Peter, feeling obliged to take care of her. They were good friends, but if she allowed him to do anything for her, he would take it as a sign that she welcomed his advances. They'd traveled this territory before. "Besides," she added, softening her tone a little and hating herself for lying, "Fifi already offered to drive me home. I'll be OK."
"What would you say if I said I just wanted to spend a little time with you, just having fun?" Peter asked.
"I would say 'fine, I could use a little fun, but don't get any ideas'," French countered with a knowing grin.
Knowing better than to look a gift horse in the mouth, Peter conceded gracefully, but couldn't keep himself from admiring his view of her as he followed her back into the throngs of party-goers. They grabbed a couple of drinks and found Fifi on the dance floor. The music had switched from salsa to hip-hop, an interesting shift of genre considering the demography of the people present. Most of them wouldn't know or appreciate rap music if it bit them on the nose. Now, however, the dance floor was packed and an "I've had one too many martinis to care how silly I look shaking my rich (and in many cases old) white ass on the dance floor" vibe prevailed. Fifi was dancing with a group of people and when she spotted French and Peter, opened the circle to include them. French had always loved to dance and was at ease on the dance floor. Her confidence and grace only enhanced the beauty that she naturally possessed. She was tall and lean, with curves and muscles in the right places. Her skin was creamy bronze; people often remarked on how unfair it was that they had to go to tanning beds for hours to come even close to achieving the perfection of her complexion. The product of a white father and black mother, French had green eyes and wavy black hair. She was the perfect blend of her parents, in looks and character. Her father was a rich, uptight real estate mogul from one of Boston's wealthiest families. Her mother was from the West Indian island of Martinique, a department of France, whose inhabitants were carefree and hedonistic, enjoying all life had to offer with abandon. Having been raised by her mother alone, she had been disillusioned by the extreme highs and lows such a carefree existence could bring. She had cultivated a sense of reserve, tried to quash her innately passionate nature while maintaining a calm and cool demeanor.
After dancing a few songs, French gestured to the group that she was hot, tired and leaving the dance floor to get something to drink. Seizing the few minutes alone, she slipped outside to take in the frosty December air. Despite the fact that she was wearing only the sleeveless black silk sheath she wore when she played gigs, she wasn't cold. The air was refreshing, it stung her lungs and made her breath hitch. She crossed her arms and walked along the portico running adjacent to the ballroom.
Looking to her right, she noticed that the gardens were dressed in their most festive holiday garb. The evergreen bushes were adorned with twinkling white lights and festooned with velvet bows. A low wall fashioned from rounded river stones lined each side of the serpentine garden path. An old-fashioned lantern, flickering with real candles inside and decorated with bows matching those on the evergreens, marked the beginning of each segment of the wall. French strolled along the path, marveling at the exactness of the decorations. It always amazed her to what lengths people would go when planning and executing a social function, whether said function was a corporate occasion or a wedding. No matter how many years she made her living providing the entertainment for such events, she was incredulous when people went overboard with their spending on parties. The quiet of the garden allowed her a chance to process how she felt about seeing Aidan again. They had dated for about six months and broken up two months ago. She had been very happy when they were together. Too happy, she thought. She had been afraid of her feelings for him, knew that if she stayed in the relationship it would destroy her when they broke up, which they inevitably would. So she had broken up with him, thinking that the pain would be less if she did it sooner rather than later.
Growing up with her mother, she had learned that relationships between men and women were messy, dangerous things. French had seen her mother in the throes of despair over love affairs gone wrong too many times to count. She didn't want to be that vulnerable. She was fine by herself, she thought, without the complicated tangle of a romantic relationship. As a child, she had been the kid in class who had never colored outside the lines, had never broken any rules. She lived her adult life the same way; it made for fewer problems.
She began to feel the cold and it had the effect of bringing her from her reverie. She pivoted with her arms wrapped around herself. With her head down, she quickly headed up the path toward the ballroom. She looked up just in time to stop herself from crashing headlong Aidan. She lost her balance in the abruptness of halting and he reached out to steady her, cupping her upper arms with his warm hands. "Whoa, you almost mowed me down," he said, chuckling. His hands stayed in position on her shoulders, then slid down her arms so that he could take her hands in his.
"Sorry... I was, um, thinking," French said, feeling heat bloom under her skin, from both embarrassment and his close proximity.
"Were you thinking about me?" he asked in a low voice that made French feel another wave of heat wash over her. "I've watched you all evening and could never find a way to get to you. And here you are..."
"I saw you in there, you know, sweet-talking all of those old ladies," she said accusingly, "Don't try that stuff on me!"
He laughed, actually had the gall to laugh at her! She yanked her hands from his, thinking that he had presumed too much already and there was no way she'd stand here and listen to any more. She moved around him and was several feet away when he spoke.
"Hey, Legs, those were my mother's friends I was talking to."
She stopped in her tracks, feeling irritated that he'd gotten her riled up when she never got riled up. His mother's friends? And did he really just call her 'Legs'? She turned around slowly to face him. She would maintain her cool, apologize and leave.
"My name is Francoise," she said pointedly, "and I apologize for the misunderstanding. Good night."
"You don't owe me any apologies. And you know that I always loved your spectacular legs, Francoise," he stressed her name, calling her on her formality with him. "Have a drink with me?" he asked, moving closer to her.
"I've got to be going, but thank you, just the same," she said coolly.
"Hmmm, you've gone so cold; I like it better when you're angry," he said, moving closer and reclaiming one of her hands. "Stay for one little drink with me?"
"Jesus, are you kidding me?" she said irritably and opened her mouth to continue her set down of him when Fifi burst out of the door to the ballroom.
"Frenchy! There you are -- and you've got Aidan! Oh, my two most favorite people in the world, together at last! Is life good or what?" she gushed, linking arms with them both and leading them inside and to the bar. "He'll have a Chivas, neat," she told the bartender, "and we'll both have Cosmos."
"Fifi," French said, hating the pleading note in her voice, " I really need to go."
"Nope, you said you would dance and you barely danced at all!" Fifi retorted, "So, drink your drink and dance and have a good time!"
"Yeah," Aidan agreed, "Drink your drink and dance."
As luck would have it, a slow song began to play and Aidan took French's martini from her hand and set it on the bar. Taking her hand, he led her to the dance floor. French glared back at Fifi as he led her through the crowd onto the dance floor. Fifi just sipped her drink and wiggled her fingers in a little salute.
Aidan drew her into his arms and began to sway to the music. French tried to keep a formal dance hold, one hand resting on his shoulder and one hand in his, space between their bodies, but he drew her closer, placing her arms around his neck. French sighed and looked around the ballroom, feigning disinterest in their dance.
"You're beautiful when you sulk," Aidan said, his mouth close to her ear.
"I'm not sulking. Where do you get off with these crazy lines, anyway?" French asked, shaking her head with disbelief.
"I'm just a man who knows what he wants," he replied, "and I want you."
"I do want you," he said implacably, "I've thought of nothing but you for the past two months."
"You're just saying that because you're used to getting what you want. Since you can't have me, you're determined to prove to yourself that you can! Well, I'm not going to play the game, Aidan! I'm immune to you," she lied, "so say whatever you want, because it won't work!"
"We'll see," he said confidently, ending their conversation by drawing her closer to his tall, lean body. His ploy worked well, because French was struck dumb by how delicate she felt in his arms with his large hands on her, one at the small of her back and one caressing up and down her back. He was taller than she by several inches, even though she was five feet ten inches in her skinny high heels. She felt his well-toned body against hers, smelled him, that special Aidan-ness that always went straight to her head. She relaxed into the dance, deciding to stop fighting him and just enjoy the moment. He slid a hand up her back to her neck and gently pressed her head to his shoulder. She stiffened slightly, but relaxed as his hand stoked down her back again. When the dance was over, he took her back to where Fifi was at the bar, again surrounded by a group of people.