Jane Collins pushed her shoulder-length hair to one side, and retied the dark blue ribbon matching the piping on her dress. “You’d think by age twenty-two, I’d be able to control my own hair,” she murmured. Even if the rest of my life is a mess.
“Let me tie it.” Bert, a second father to her for more years than she could count, secured the hair ribbon around her brown tresses. The mirror caught his proud smile as he stood behind her. “You’re looking real pretty, and you’re going to a party. Don’t be mopin’ around here. Your ma wouldn’t want you to. Will, neither.”
Her mother had died almost a year ago. Jane sighed quietly. She knew her mother’s drinking had more to do with her death than the pneumonia. Her late stepfather’s life insurance had paid for her first three years of college, but she’d had to quit. She’d used the rest of the money to cover bills after her mother stopped working.
“Is your date picking up you and Marty?”
Jane nodded and brushed her hands down her dress to still her nervousness. She’d dated only a few times in college and not at all in high school. She’d opted to study, intent on getting good grades, something that pleased Will. Her mother, too, on days when she wasn’t drinking herself into a stupor.
Maybe I’ll meet someone nice. She wasn’t sure if Sean, her blind date, qualified. It might be nice to meet someone who lived in Evergreen, Washington, her—working, who wasn’t going to school.
A car horn sounded. Jane pulled back the curtains on the living room window.
“He’s here. See you later, Bert.”
“He didn’t come to the door?” Bert’s frown told Jane what he thought of Sean.
“It’s okay. I told him I’d be ready, and he’s later than he said.” She reached for her coat.
Bert pressed a tightly-folded bill into her palm. “In case you need a cab or something.”
“I won’t need it.”
“Take it. Don’t argue, have a good time. Tell Martha Joy hello. I’ve missed seeing her.”
“When did you say you’ll be home?” He looked out the window. “That his car with the scrape on the side?”
She shrugged. “Probably around midnight. We might go out for something to eat afterward. You don’t have to wait up, Bert.”
“Have a good time,” he repeated. The furrows on his forehead told her he would probably be up, reading, pretending that’s why he hadn’t gone to bed.
~ ~ ~
At the dance, Jane scanned the crowd, surprised she remembered so few of the people walking in the door.
“Just think, Jane: Our five-year high school reunion. Hard to believe it’s been so long since we graduated. Look at her!” Marty, her best friend, pointed to a woman in late pregnancy. “Jim told me Carole already has a kid at home. She looks ready to drop this one any minute. You’d think she’d have got married first. There’re the guys with our drinks. Let’s grab a table.” Marty led the way to a table decorated in the school colors. Sean took a seat near Jane and handed her a drink before dropping a hand to her thigh.
“You said you just wanted soda, but I had them give you a little drop of something extra. For the holidays,” he leered.
Jane sipped her drink gingerly. It tasted like it had more alcohol than soda and she set it back on the table. “I guess I’m not as thirsty as I thought.”
He grabbed her hand and pulled her onto the dance floor. “Then let’s dance.”
Sean was looking for a good time. He boogied enthusiastically, coaxing her to do the same. When she decided to return to their table after one dance, she said, “Go on and have fun. I’ll make sure no one takes our seats.” She gave him a quick smile that broadened when Marty returned to the table, holding a plate of hors d’oeuvres.
“You look great,” Marty said. “Wish I had your figure. Is the dress new?”
“No, I haven’t worn it in ages.” She’d tried to recall classmates’ names as couples strolled by or stood near the food tables. She leaned toward Marty. “Who’s that guy, the really tall one? He just came in. I know I’ve seen him before.”
“Chet Barton—remember? He got kicked out of school when we were juniors. In his senior year. Good thing his father has money. He ended up at some fancy prep school and then went to Whitman. Jim said he left school and worked at some lumber camp last year. I think Frannie brought him. Remember her—the cheerleader? Wonder if she slept her way through the Whitman football team. Or soccer. I think Chet played soccer at Whitman. She went there, too. Jim said she’s in grad school now. On the east coast somewhere. Who’d have guessed?”
Jane watched Chet saunter across the floor, chatting with several people until Frannie caught up with him. The redhead placed a possessive hand on his arm before Chet swung her around and headed for the dance floor.
His wavy black hair fell nearly to his shoulders. A scruffy beard called attention to his face. He carried himself with confidence, his long legs in those sharply creased Dockers, his shirt just snug enough to show off what Jane imagined to be a muscular chest. When he passed by their table with Frannie in his arms, his brown eyes held her gaze. Chocolate fudge, Jane thought when he smiled in her direction. Wonder if he’s as sweet. But he’d been kicked out of high school and then college? Must be bad news. Bert would never approve.
Sean ambled over to the table, holding two more drinks. “You two want some good stuff?”
Marty accepted a glass, took a sip and wrinkled her nose. “Rum and Coke. Yuck. Couldn’t you come up with something better?”
Jane shook her head when Sean offered her the other glass. “I’ll stick with punch.”
“Suit yourself.” He walked toward the cluster of guys standing around a large cooler, their laughter occasionally overheard above the music.
“He doesn’t listen, does he? I told him I didn’t want any booze.”
Marty sipped from her water glass. “I guess not.”
Jane rose from the table. “I think I’ll get some air.” Jane headed toward the main doors.
Halfway across the room, Sean joined her and reached for her hand. “I’m glad Marty and Keenan suggested we double-date. Except you’re not in much of a holiday mood. Is it me?”
She wanted to agree, but chose to be polite. “My mom died about a year ago. She’s been on my mind.”
“Sorry to hear that,” he mumbled. When Jane stopped near the entrance, Sean pointed. “You’re under the mistletoe. That means a kiss—for the holidays.”
She looked up. Before she could stop him, he deposited a sloppy kiss on her lips.
Her pulse jumped. “Hey, I didn’t ask for that.”
“But I did.” Then he pushed her into the alcove, out of sight of the crowded dance floor. He pinned Jane’s arms to her sides. “Been wanting to get close to you all night.” He kissed her again, harder.
Her heart pounded and she opened her mouth to scream.
But he took that as an invitation to push his tongue into her mouth, even as he slid a hand toward her breast.
She managed to angle her head away from his mouth and his boozy breath, and squirmed. He felt like an octopus, so many hands, so much groping. “Stop it!” she hissed. Her heart raced, her fear changing to anger. “Let me go!”
“Hey, now,” he said, his breath coming faster. “Never figured you for someone who wouldn’t put out. Don’t you take after your mother? Or maybe you want it rough,” He pressed his arm across her collarbone, pinning her to the wall as he pressed his body closer. “You’re pretty hot.” His other hand grabbed her small breast and squeezed. “I’m right. You do want it.” Sean pressed a leg between her knees, pushing her legs apart.
“No,” she managed to rasp before his head descended again.
She jerked her face to the side and his whiskers scraped her cheek. “Stop!” She opened her mouth to scream when Sean suddenly released her. He was abruptly swung around and Jane heard a low voice.
“Playing doctor, Sean?” A shadow loomed behind her date.
Oh, God. Not another guy. Jane pushed her dress down to cover her knees.
“Leave her alone.”
Sean was pressed against the wall, his feet barely touching the ground. Whoever held him there seemed to be using only one hand. Her rescuer shook Sean like an overgrown ragdoll.
“Why do you care?” Sean wheezed. “Or did you want her, too? I’ll share. Frannie told me all about you and Ken—at Whitman.”
“Old news. Not applicable.” Chet Barton poked Sean’s chest. Hard. “Can’t you find a girl who wants your paws all over her?” Chet shoved Sean against the wall again.
He squeaked in protest.
“Lots of girls here wouldn’t mind a kiss from you,” Chet continued. “Why bother with someone who isn’t interested?”
Sean slid to the floor. He rubbed his neck, rose from his impromptu seat, and sidled away.
Chet half-turned toward Jane. “You okay?” Before Jane could reply, he gave her arm a light pat.
Jane nodded, her face heating with embarrassment. The restroom. I have to … I must be beet red.
“Thanks.” Jane couldn’t look at Chet. She gave him a barely discernible shrug, and scuttled toward the well-lighted ballroom, her legs wobbly, her breath coming in small gasps. After getting her bearings, she escaped to the women’s room. When she returned to Marty’s table, she looked around for Sean. He was across the room laughing with his buddies, swaying off-rhythm to the music.
After the band announced a break, Jane waited for Marty to come off the dance floor. “I’m going home.”
Marty peered at her. “You look kind of funny. Feeling okay? Want me to get Sean?”
For an instant, she debated telling Marty about Sean then decided against it. After all, he was Keenan’s cousin. “No. He’s busy.” She pointed in the direction of the drinks table, where Sean was chatting with a woman in a red dress. “He won’t miss me.” She rubbed her skin where masher Sean—he was no kisser—had squeezed her arm. “I’ll take a cab. Talk to you later.”
She retrieved her coat, reached into her purse for her cell phone, and walked outside. Who knew I’d need Bert’s money?
What was it about guys who thought they could get what they wanted, even if the girl wasn’t willing? Jane’s junior year in high school, two basketball players had come up to her when she was at her locker at the end of lunch period. One had spun her around and pinned her arms while the other felt her chest and tried to put his hand down the front of her jeans. She was so surprised her voice came out in a frightened squeak as she tried to fend them off. She remembered trying not to cry when one of them fondled her breasts. Then Mr. Manning had intervened.
“What are you guys doing? You okay, Jane?”
She’d looked up and pulled her blouse straight. The boys had backed away, mumbling something before their laughter followed them down the hall.
“You boys get back here. We’ll have a talk. Jane go to your classroom. I’ll talk with you later.” The teacher gestured for her to leave.
She’d practically run to class and taken her seat in the back corner, near the windows. She spent almost the entire period waiting for her heart to stop jumping. She’d worried the rest of the day that the boys might bother her again, but they never did.
A sixteen-year old scaredy-cat then. Guess I haven’t changed much. But neither had the guys. Was that why she dated so little, because she didn’t trust boys? Her mother had warned her so many times with oblique little comments—statements that inferred guys only wanted one thing.
She might be six years older, but she felt no more confident than when she was in high school. She should have screamed, maybe even kicked Sean in the groin. She hadn’t needed to after Chet intervened. So embarrassing. He must think I’m a wimp.
Jane Googled the number of the local taxi company, made her call and stood on the porch peering into the misty rain coating the streets. Frannie opened the reception hall door, followed by Chet.
Oh, no. Maybe if I don’t look at him, he’ll keep going.
He glanced her way. “Waiting for a cab?” he asked.
Jane nodded, averting her eyes.
Frannie reached for Chet’s hand. “Come on. I don’t want to get wet.”
“Just a sec.” He turned in Jane’s direction. “We’ll give you a ride.”
She waved him away. “I already called a cab.”
He gave her a quick smile, grasped Frannie’s hand and headed for the parking lot.
A few minutes later, Jane jumped into the cab and gave the driver her address. But she couldn’t forget Chet’s eyes. And those cute dimples when he smiled. His hair. Dark, wavy, thick. He seemed nice, even though Marty said he had a bad rep, that he went out with a different girl every week. Jane’s heart did a jig in her chest. But he couldn’t be all bad, if he’d stepped in to help her when he didn’t even know her. Maybe someday, she’d have a boyfriend like Chet, someone nice, someone who didn’t try to take when she wasn’t ready to give.
“Let me off at the corner,” she instructed.
The cabbie opened the door for her. Even though the cost wasn’t that much, she gave the man the twenty dollar bill. “Merry Christmas!”
She picked her way between the puddles. Frannie, you have the best boyfriend. I wish I knew someone like him instead of that creep who tried to feel me up. She made a mental note to tell Marty about her boyfriend’s cousin. So much for blind dates. No way was she going on another one. She walked toward the duplex in the middle of the block where the porch light shone.
At the far end of the building, Bert emerged, his thick thatch of gray hair shining in the light. He must have been talking with Loren, their tenant. “You’re home early.” He followed her into their side of the duplex.
Jane went into her bedroom and flipped on her computer to check for messages about job openings she’d emailed earlier that day. No replies.
She glanced at the picture of her mother and Will on her dresser. Her first Christmas without them. It was just her and Bert now. And he had to find a job, one that paid enough so she could go back to college. The warehouse where she’d been working had given her notice. As of the New Year, she’d be unemployed.
When she snuggled under the covers, Sean’s boorish behavior haunted her. Other girls seemed to attract nice guys. Why couldn’t she? But she didn’t have time for a boyfriend. She needed a job.