In Red – No. 178

Sam nudged his elbow but Daniel kept his cup from toppling. “Watch it.”

White wine sloshed over the plastic rim like the words from his mouth and wet Daniel’s hand. When he started searching for a napkin, the ballroom spun, taking the crowded table, the throng on the dance floor, and the open bar with it.

Sam chuckled. “Sorry man, but you’ll never guess who just walked in.”

“Someone with a mop I hope,” said Daniel.

“That can’t be her.” Rick slouched against the table, making the stubby candles quiver, the dessert plates clink, and the pile of paper napkins tumble.

Daniel collected one, although if he’d asked his fingers, they might have denied his success. He dabbed at the drops while Sam belted the rest of his drink and dragged his sleeve across his mouth.

“She hasn’t changed a bit.”

“Who?”

Daniel swiveled to the double doors and the red of Amanda’s dress blinded in him with a sheet of scarlet. The hue hugged curves barely plumper than ten years before, but as he blinked his vision straight, he noted stiffer features, including a chin held out as if waiting for a knife to slice. Her gaze flicked around the room and Daniel fell into her periwinkle eyes.

Freeing one red tipped fingernail from around the cup and napkin combo nestled in her hand, Amanda wiggled in their direction. Her other arm and the aim of her feet, however, remained locked with the suited man escorting her into the reunion.

As they started a circuit about the ballroom, Daniel waved back.

“Guess she remembers you,” said Rick.

Sam scratched at his chin, as if his brain had migrated south and he could stimulate those synapses. “You haven’t seen her since the airport right?”

“No, the night before.” Daniel winced and fell back into his drink. “I never made it to the airport.”

“Right, right.”

Rick fumbled out of his chair and teetered on his feet. “I think I’m going to need another drink for this show.”

“Me too.”

Daniel’s knees refused to unbend and his ass stayed firmly on the chair’s thin cushion. Stuck in place, he stared into the dregs of his cup as Amanda’s heels rode over the inebriated conversations of those reconnecting after a decade of separate lives. He sensed her nearing as her route with the suit brought them about, her tangerine perfume curling into his nose and charging every nerve in his heart.

“Amanda.” Sam spread his arms wide and she unhooked herself from the suit for a swift embrace.

“I didn’t expect to see you here.” Her smile warmed her face.

“We got the whole gang for the most part.”

With a wave of his arm, Sam started her around the table and Amanda indulged everyone with quick hugs. Daniel noted the suit, or he imagined her husband by the golden band, eyeing her progress. When Madeline pulled her into a what’s-that-your-wearing exchange, the suit’s gaze drifted to the bar where a younger blonde dished out wine and liquor from a bottomless well supplied by alumni funds.

“Danny.”

The sound of his nickname broke his trance, and Daniel found himself towering over Amanda’s upturned face. Her smile faded a degree in the sudden silence.

The cup cracked in Daniel’s hand. “Hi.”

Her husband’s cough filled the interlude and brought a blush nearly as dark as her dress to Amanda’s cheeks.

“Guys, this is my husband Charles Wetherford.”

Charles used a single bob to acknowledge everyone, the product in his dark hair glistening like the faux crystal in the ballroom’s chandeliers. “I think I’ll grab a drink while you catch up.”

Amanda’s back stiffened as he started for the bar, the blonde’s smile beaming in welcome.

“Can I get you one?” Rick wavered but steadied himself on the back of a chair.

“No,” said Amanda. “I’m fine. We can’t stay long anyway, but I had to stop over.”

“I’m certainly glad you did.” Sam provided her with an obvious ogle, tingeing her cheeks a softer rose. “You’re looking great.”

“You too.”

“Bah.” Sam smacked his paunch. “But I know what’ll fix that.” He slung an arm around Rick and they turned to the bar together. “Don’t you go far.”

Amanda laughed and shooed them on. Meanwhile, Daniel felt the room expand. A spotlight seemed to shine on him when she swiveled on her heel.

“How…have you been? Married obviously.” Daniel motioned at Charles, who had tipped forward, engaging the bartender’s full attention much to the chagrin of Rick and Sam.

“Marriage happens on occasion.” Amanda sipped her drink and her voice cooled. “What about you?”

Daniel shook his head. “Not that there haven’t been other gir-women, but well, you know me.”

She nodded and the unspoken past squeezed his insides with every one of her breaths.

“I’m sorry.” The apology burst out of him and dangled like a tossed egg hoping to be caught.

She tipped her head, her eyes locking on, each a dart aimed for a bull’s eye. “For not showing up or completely vanishing afterwards?”

Daniel backpedaled until the table pinned him in place. “Both.” He cradled the cracked cup in both hands. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, I just couldn’t go through with it.”

“It was a trip, a vacation.”

“It was turning into more than that and I was what? 21?”

Her gaze narrowed. “So was I.”

“Maybe you were ready, I wasn’t.”

“Seems like you still aren’t.”

Daniel escaped into the fractured cup. “I haven’t run into the right girl.”

Quiet resumed and he waited for the clack of her heels to take her out of his life for the last time. The crowds murmured, laughter melded with music, and the moat around them remained uncrossed.

“A lot’s changed since then,” said Amanda.

Her face eased into the gentle curves he remembered and a warm flush having nothing to do with the wine and everything to do with her, washed through him.

“You still look as beautiful.”

A grin fluttered on her lips as she stared across the ballroom, her gaze latching onto something Daniel couldn’t see. He settled for her instead.

“I always liked you in red.”

“I remember.” She tapped the side of her cup, the clink of the diamond and matching wedding ring pinging like nails dropped on a metal floor.

Each absent clink shot into Daniel’s feet, sending impulses to step closer, to fill the decade-old distance his cowardice had created, to run forward instead of away. He tightened his grip on his cup instead.

“What else have you been up to all this time?”

Gratitude for the change of topic filled her dimples and draped her shoulders beneath their spaghetti straps. “I’m a producer now. I help make documentaries on all sorts of things. Animals to history.”

“Still teaching people then?”

“But easier than being in a classroom.”

She shuddered and the nights she’d spent trying to plan a curriculum or for a semester as assigned by her education classes surged into Daniel’s mind. He recalled coming to the rescue with wine and whisking her off into—

Another snap of his cup brought him back into the moment. Amanda cocked her head and he smothered the images of tousled sheets and pillows before she could spy them through his skull.

“What about you, Danny?”

“I lead expeditions.” He sank into the repetition of the explanation he’d been giving all evening. “Hiking. Rafting. Mountaineering. Adventure travel. You name the park or country and I’ve probably been there. Doesn’t pay much but it’s better than a desk.”

“Always on the move aren’t you?”

“I land every once in a while.” He eased onto the table’s edge. “What about the sui—ah…Charles?”

“Charles…”

She glanced at the bar where Rick and Sam had wormed drinks out of the blonde now free from her conversation with the tall, dark, Mr. Wetherford. He stood aside, chatting with another of the servers. Her neck arched with her tittering laugh harmonized with his deeper rumble, her eyelashes batting, her hand landing on his arm where he smothered it with his own.

Retreating, Amanda spun her cup in its napkin nest. “His family’s well off. They made a bunch of money in land development way back when so we’re set money wise.”

“That must be nice,” said Daniel, avoiding a clutch at the wallet barely taking up his pocket. “Not to have to worry about that kind of thing.”

“You’d think so.”

“Are you local then?”

“Most of my work’s in LA, although I’m in New York every other week it seems. I managed to squeeze in this evening between flights.”

“Where are you heading next?”

She scrunched her nose, revealing familiar thought-filled wrinkles. “Patagonia. Something about the glaciers.” Shrugging she waved off what she failed to remember. “I have it all in my planner.”

“Ever organized.”

“You have to be when you’ve got a crew of twenty, international borders, and experts who don’t seem to understand union rules or the 24 hour clock.” She sighed, the exhale longer than her legs. “I never seem to have enough time for anything.”

Charles’ shadow fell upon them and Daniel popped off the table. He straightened, but couldn’t manage to meet the wealthier man eye to eye.

“Sorry to interrupt, Amanda, but…” He tapped a gold watch Daniel imagined might cost more than his car.

Amanda nodded and her smile turned resigned. “Like I said, I squeezed this in.” Finishing her drink, she offered the empty cup and its napkin casing. “Could you take this for me?”

“Sure,” said Daniel, palming the rubbish.

“It was good seeing you, Danny.”

Other words fought for his tongue, ones to keep her here, ones to make up for the interlude his fears had brought on, ones to explain, to make amends.

“You too,” came out instead.

Charles offered his arm. “We’re going to be late.”

“I know.” Her features regained a chiseled line while Amanda looped her hand around his elbow. He had them walking away, leaving her waving over her shoulder. “Give the guys my best.”

“I will.”

Daniel watched them walk like two stiffened dolls across the carpet and through the ballroom’s exit. The crowd’s noise escalated as muted conversations resumed, the music thumped, and life regained speed and color. Rick and Sam’s lumbering return added stuttered steps and an argumentative tone.

Rick waggled a loose finger. “He was too hitting on her.”

“Maybe he was.” Sam dumped Rick into a neighboring chair but Daniel didn’t move when Sam joined his side.

“She gone?”

Daniel hefted the empty drink. “She left me her cup.”

“Cold.” Sam plucked the empty glass, releasing the napkin underneath. “Hey, looks like there’s something on it.”

Tearing his gaze from the doorway through which the Wetherfords had vanished, Daniel examined the abandoned napkin. A phone number in Amanda’s clean print had soaked into the nooks of the paper, making the edges fuzzy. The intent, however, seemed clear.

He endured another nudge from Sam. “You gonna call?”

“She’s married.”

“To a cheater,” said Rick as he cracked into a bottle of water.

Daniel swallowed hope twined with guilt.

“He was hitting on anything with breasts,” said Sam. He peered at the digits. “Maybe she just wants to talk, you know reconnect. The question is, do you?”

“I don’t know.”

“This from the one who punched a guy for talking about her ass?”

“I was drunk. And we weren’t even dating then.”

Sam crossed his arms. “You’re making my point for me.”

Tossing both cups onto the table, Daniel flatted the napkin between his trembling hands. “I might have trouble with relationships but I draw the line at affairs.”

“You’re just going to let her go again?”

“I did it once.”

Sam snickered. “And look how happy you are. How happy you both are.” Daniel glared, but Sam parried with a smirk. “I’m just staying second chances don’t come around all that often.” He tapped the napkin. “Yours, my friend, is staring you straight in the face.”

“Clear as day,” said Rick between gulps.

Daniel glanced at each of them, and then stared at the numbers. The paper seemed to soak up a little more ink, making the digits less distinct. He remembered a similar set on a coaster from one of the school’s neighboring bars. It’d taken him three days to buck up the courage to call her after that night. Putting these new numbers into memory, he figured ten years was long enough to wait.

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