"Why on earth did I agree to meet him?!" Jesse nervously captured each of her elegant sculptured nails between the thumb and forefinger of the opposite hand in turn to have something to do. "God, it was forty pounds ago when I last saw him. What if he's repulsed? Okay, stop it. You're still the same woman," and as she started to go into her litany of reasons why Alex would still like her she felt two firm gentle hands placed on her shoulders from behind.
Alex brushed his lips against her cheek and came around to face her in the lobby of the little Lincoln Park bistro. "Jess, it's so great to see you. You look wonderful," his blue eyes sparkled as he drew her into his arms for a hug. Jesse felt home. It felt so safe to be enveloped in the arms of the six foot man who'd been a closer friend than her ex-fiancÚ had been. She was startled by the intensity of the feeling and how much she wanted to be held by him as he released her to motion to the maitre-d'.
Keeping his hand at the small of her back, Alex followed closely behind her as they were led to a cozy wooden table with cream linen cloth and matching tapers. Jesse's mind played tricks again as she wondered what he was thinking with this clear view of her now ample backside.
Grateful to be seated, she quickly lifted a menu, only to be interrupted by Alex gently leading the top of the folder down. "I own this place, remember? I'm glad you find the menu so fascinating, but I'd rather we talk. I'd be happy to recommend something if you tell me what you like..."
His smile, so familiar in the angular face caused a nervous flutter between Jesse's breasts and she bit her lip to keep from running away. "Uh, salad?"
"Wonderful, how about artichoke heart salad. Do you still love artichokes, Jessie?"
She nodded and chuckled letting out a puff of air that dispelled some of her nerves. "Okay, and what about a main course?" Alex coaxed.
"I thought I'd just stick with salad..."
"...and not try any of Victorio's pasta? He'll come after me with a butcher knife! I've told him I was having a very special guest here this evening." Seeing the war behind her eyes, Alex teased on, "Jessie, if you're not hungry, please just order something to save me from the wrath of Victorio. If you don't like it, we'll hide it in the napkins like we did in Rankin Kitchen."
A burst of warm laughter bubbled up from Jess as the picture of Alex in the back of the college kitchen, hands full of napkins wrapped around Mrs. Promden's prune cobbler. "What a mess! I haven't been able to eat any kind of cobble in the past ten years," Jessie replied.
Alex grinned mischievously, "You'll notice there are no prunes or cobblers anywhere on my menu," and he held it up running his hand along the side of it like a game show model.
"Oh, Alex, I've missed you," Jess smiled warmly.
More seriously, Alex responded, "I've missed you, too, Jess. A lot." He reached across the table and cradled her hand in his own. Gently stroking the fleshy part of her palm his eyes focused on their connection, he asked, "Is this okay?"
Mutely, Jessie nodded.
"I've thought so much about you over the years," Alex's eyes met hers searching, only to be interrupted by their waiter with the bottle of pinot noir he'd preordered. "Marco," he smiled at the waiter who was offering the cork, "We can skip all of this. We both know the quality. Just pour, my friend."
"Yes, sir," the round faced Italian man replied. "Would you like to order now, or shall I come back?"
"We'll both start off with the artichoke salads and then for pasta..."Alex smiled expectantly.
Jesse shrugged, "Something with pesto?" she asked Alex.
"Excellent!" he chimed back. "Two of the chicken with pesto. Tell Victorio I recommended his most famous dish to the lady and your tip will reflect it!" Alex grinned winningly at the waiter who nodded vigorously and hustled off to do the owner's bidding. "Now, where were we?" Alex asked, and casting his glance from their still clasped hands to her eyes, he went on, "Ah, yes..." Jesse blushed at his obvious interest and he leaned in closer across the table, "God, you're beautiful when you blush." Naturally she turned all the redder as Alex said, "Jesse, I really blew it when we were kids."
"What do you mean?" she asked concerned.
"In college you were my best friend. I watched you date guy after guy and listened to you tell me how they mistreated you. I hated it, but I didn't know how to get you to stop thinking of me as 'one of the girls' or something..."
"Alex, I never thought of you as one of the girls!" She remembered the one night they had made love after college that ended their friendship. "I just got such mixed signals from you. I thought if you were attracted to me, you would have said something, done something. But I was attracted to you, and since you never showed any interest in anything but friendship with me, I figured that was that. And then that Halloween party..."
"I know, I was an idiot. I mean, with all the guys you dated, if you were interested in me as other than a friend, I figured you'd find some way to let me know. I didn't want to be rejected by you. You meant too much to me. And when you pulled back and weren't sure you wanted a relationship with me after knowing me all through college, I just couldn't take it." He let go of her hand to take several deep swallows of the red wine, his eyes now on the glass.
"Alex," she softly encouraged him to look at her, "I was scared. And I was confused because when I did say I wanted to try with you, you turned me down."
Marco laid the luscious salads before them and after Alex acknowledged him which sent him away, he stabbed an artichoke heart onto his salad fork and before raising it to his mouth he said, "Jessie, I blew it. I've never felt as close to another woman as I felt to you, as I still do feel even after all this time. Does that make any sense?"
Nodding slowly, up and down, up and down, Jessie replied, "Yeah, it does." She took a breather by nibbling the salad greens and complimenting him on how delicious it was. "Alex, we've had some of the most interesting talks together that I've ever had with anyone," seeing him nod in agreement as he munched his veggies, she went on, "but what we've really lacked is communication about what we feel for each other."
As Marco brought out the fragrant breast of chicken on fettucine with pesto sauce Alex nodded to the piano player we responded in kind and began playing Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful." "You're right," Alex acknowledged. "I've never been able to talk so easily with a woman and yet so tongue-tied when it came to the important stuff. I thought I'd get a little help from Ed."
"The piano player," Alex said just as Ed started singing the love song in a smoky voice reminiscent of the original recording. When Jessie cocked her head in question, Alex went on, "You are you know. I called you 'a cute chick' in college and you almost decked me."
"I did not!" she blurted back giggling.
"Well, you should have, because it's not true. You're gorgeous," seeing her eyes widen in surprise and then a flash of doubt cross them, he took her hand again. "You are, Jessie. You're one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen, inside and out."
Jessie gulped feeling conscious of how different she looked from college. She withdrew her hand and placed her elbows on the table, steepling her fingers and resting her chin on her fingertips.
"Did I say something wrong?" Alex asked concerned.
"You're seeing someone," he interjected.
"You're not attracted to me anymore now that I've lost my hair."
"No, and Alex, you haven't lost your hair!" she replied focusing on the shiny forehead that had widened by a good three inches since college. Purring with a hint of flirtation she added, "You know I've heard that receding hair lines are a sign of high levels of testosterone. Nothing wrong with that." Seeing him relax and then open his mouth to blurt another guess at her hesitation she put up her hand, "Give me a second here. You caught me off guard. You've obviously been thinking about this and you knew what you wanted to have happen..."
"What did you want to have happen tonight, Jess?"
"Alex, I had a fantasy it would turn out something like this," she whispered.
"Will you tell me some of your other fantasies?" he asked grinning wickedly.
"If you're a good boy," she teased back.
"Oh, I promise, I'll be a very good boy!" he snickered. His face sobered as he continued, "Jess, I can't do this casually with you. There's too much invested. I want to date you, and spend a lot of time with you, and if I'm completely honest, which I'm trying to be, I think you and should maybe get married. That's what I have been thinking about. I think marriage should be based on friendship and respect and love and lust and I've felt all those things for you. And it's lasted longer than a lot of marriages already, so that's where I'm headed here. What do you think?"
"I think you've gotten very brave and open in your communication," she deferred nervously.
"That's not an answer." he called her on the evasive tactic.
"You're right. And I can't do this casually with you either. Over the years, you've treated me better than any man I've dated. Why shouldn't we date when I know you're a wonderful man. Okay, since we're being honest here, I'm a little nervous because the woman you said you felt 'lust' for has a different body than the girl you slept with ten years ago."
"And so does the man. You're a beautiful woman, and if I ever get my hands on the person who gave you the idea that curves might make you anything but....I'll likely kill him." Alex pulled her hand back into his and asked, "So should we take our coffee and dessert here or upstairs?"
"My apartment," he smiled.
Jesse grinned and asked, "Will Victorio let you out of here before dessert?"
"We'll take it with us," and he stepped around to pull out her chair.