A/N Thanks, firstly, to Stratiotes for allowing me the privilege of writing within her universe. It's been fun! Secondly, to all of Stratiotes' readers – I hope that you will find my "versions" of the characters to be accurate to the rest of the story… and that you enjoy reading this "episode" of Flowing Brook 2 as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Please leave feedback!"Hey, Jess, you ready yet? Steven's gonna be here any minute now!"
"He's a guy, he can wait," replied an airy voice. Rhea Veldin grinned at her boyfriend Alex as she exited his sister's bedroom, pulling the door closed. He hugged her tight before releasing her and raising an eyebrow.
Rhea winked. "You'll be impressed with our efforts. She looks fabulous, although she's still kinda bemused by the whole thing."
"Yeah, well, it was Steven's idea I think. Jess isn't really one for dressing up."
"Perhaps, though I think you'll agree that she should do it more often when you see her."
"Ha–" The door to Jessica's bedroom opened, cutting off Alex's reply. His sister stepped out, smiling shyly as Alex's jaw dropped in astonishment.
"What?" she asked, exchanging a knowing look with Rhea, who let out an uncharacteristically girly giggle.
Alex swallowed. Jessica wore a shimmering, dark-green full-length dress that clung to her body, accentuating her slim figure and gentle curves. Glossy deep-brown hair hung to her shoulders in bouncy curls, and her pretty face was enhanced with just the slightest application of makeup, a touch of rouge on the cheeks and some eyeliner to bring out her sparkling emerald eyes. I've never seen her look so beautiful. "Erm... wow, Jess!" he murmured.
"Wow? Is that all you're going to say?" protested Rhea, jabbing him on the arm. "Do you know how long it took us to get your sister looking like this?"
Alex shook himself out of his daze and glanced at his watch. "Yeah, about two hours," he replied. "I've been all on my lonesome since we got back from town!" He smiled at his sibling. "It was worth the wait, though," he added, and his voice turned soft with pride. "Jess, you look amazing. Steven's going to go weak at the knees when he sees you."
Something – Concern? Worry? Alex wasn't sure – flickered in Jessica's eyes, and then it was gone. She glanced down at herself and seemed about to speak when the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it," said Rhea, giving her boyfriend a pointed look. She had also noticed the brunette's moment of hesitation, and felt that Alex would be the best one to investigate if something was troubling his sister. Although Rhea knew Jessica well, she couldn't match a lifetime of experience with her. Alex nodded gratefully to Rhea as she left to answer the door before moving to place his arms around his sibling.
"What's up, sis?"
She sighed, leaning into him. "I don't know, Alex. It's... well, all this." She indicated her dress. "All I suggested to Steven was that we meet up, you know, catch up after all this time."
"I thought girls like dressing up," said Alex, a smile playing on his lips. He was rewarded with a gentle thump.
"Not you too! That's exactly what Steven said when I protested!"
Alex chuckled. "Sorry." His tone sobered. "What's worrying you? So you're dressed up... so what? Besides, you look great."
"So you say." Jessica shrugged. "I... it just feels a little weird to be making all this effort for an evening out with a friend."
Her brother took a small step back to look into her eyes. "Hey, it's only Steven! You've known him for ages, right?"
"And you're good friends, yes?"
Another nod, and a smile. "Yeah, we are."
"So relax! Nothing to worry about."
"Yeah, I know." Jessica squeezed her brother tightly. "I love you, Alex. Thank you."
"I love you, too, sis," replied Alex, kissing her hair. He straightened. "Now, you can't leave Steven waiting all night. Go say hi."
– – – – – – – –
Rhea wondered why the two siblings were taking so long. As pleasant as Steven was, she didn't really have a lot in common with him other than their friendship with Jessica. Their conversation was drying up now that the usual pleasantries were over.
Rhea didn't turn, having recognised Jessica's soft mezzo-soprano. Instead she watched Steven's reaction, grinning as he, like Alex had just a short while ago, gazed at the tall brunette with a mixture of awe and astonishment.
"Wow," he breathed.
Rhea rolled her eyes. "You're as bad as Alex! Don't guys know how to say anything other than 'wow'?"
Steven barely registered Rhea's comment. His eyes examined Jessica from head to toe, taking in every ripple and curve as she stood quietly, her brother just behind her. For perhaps five seconds the silence stretched out, and then Steven spoke, his voice husky. "You look ravishing."
Jessica blushed amidst Rhea's delighted laughter. "See? Alex was right!" she told her friend.
"Right about what?" inquired Steven, raising an eyebrow at the South African.
Jessica shot Rhea a harried look before turning back to face Steven. "It was nothing, really," she said hurriedly, and indicated the apartment door. "Shall we?"
Steven glanced at her, then at Rhea, clearly wanting to pursue his question further. "Bu–"
He was interrupted by Alex's chuckle of amusement. "Come on, you two. I believe you have a reservation for 8, and it's almost quarter to."
Steven faltered for a moment, as if suddenly remembering his duty. "Indeed we do," he said, opening the door with a flourish. He bowed to Jessica. "My lady," he said grandly, "your chariot awaits."
– – – – – – – –
"You're in a good mood this evening."
"I have reason to be," replied Rhea, and snuggled closer to her boyfriend, a contended smile on her face. They were curled up together on the sofa in the main living area, having seen Jessica and Steven out the apartment. "I'm with my favourite American, and I've just spent a joyous couple of hours doing girly things and making my best friend look gorgeous – rather successfully, if I say so myself. Who wouldn't be happy?"
"I had no idea you liked that kind of thing so much."
"Neither did I! It was fun, though, just being with your sister. I haven't relaxed like that in a long time. And she's done so much for me, it was time I helped her out with something. The Lord knows I needed it. It's amazing how you forget your troubles when you're busy doing things for someone else."
"Yeah, I know what you mean."
"Hey, talking of troubles, did Jess say much to you earlier, when I went to let Steven in?"
"Not really, just that she was a bit weirded out by Steven's request that she dress up for tonight." Alex frowned in thought, his right hand idly stroking Rhea's hair as she leaned her head on his chest. She shifted position slightly and, sensing his concentration, waited in companionable silence for him to speak.
"Did you see Steven's reaction to Jess?" he said, after a moment.
"Of course I did! It was just like yours – he was so surprised he could barely speak!"
Alex grimaced. "Yeah, but... oh, I don't know. I didn't like the look he gave her."
"It was too... intense."
"I didn't think so. In fact I'd say it was quite a normal response for a guy." Rhea sat up to look into his eyes. "You know, Alex," she observed, "it is possible to be too protective sometimes. Don't smother her."
The doorbell rang before Alex could respond.
"That'll be David, I'll get it," said Rhea, throwing herself to her feet. While she let their friend in, Alex pondered his girlfriend's comment. Maybe I am just being paranoid. We can speak to Jess when she gets ba–""That'll be $20 please," said a voice, interrupting his thoughts. "A bargain, in my book. And I even got extra pepperoni."
Alex looked up into the smiling face of his friend David, whose crystal blue eyes sparkled with mirth. In his arms were two huge flat boxes.
"Pizza!" exclaimed Rhea happily, bringing out three plates from the kitchen. "Food fit for a queen."
"If you're the queen, what does that make us?" inquired David, quirking an eyebrow.
"Why, you're my loyal servants, of course!" She sat down, holding her head high. "Now feed me!" she commanded in a poor imitation of a posh British accent, and closed her eyes.
Alex glanced at David, who held up a sachet of hot sauce that had come with the pizza. Too good a chance to miss, the copper-haired youth mouthed. He opened the sachet and squeezed the contents onto a slice of pizza, which he passed to his friend.
"Open wide," said Alex, a smile playing on his lips as Rhea obeyed. He fed her a mouthful of pizza and leaned back to witness the results.
It didn't take long.
"Eww!" choked Rhea, almost spitting the pizza out. Her mouth was aflame, the potent spices in the hot sauce bringing tears to her eyes. "Quick, water!" she spluttered.
"In the kitchen, your highness," replied David, laughing as Rhea staggered to her feet and ran out of the room. She re-emerged a few moments later, her face flushed and her T-shirt damp where water from the sink had splashed. She glared at the two guys.
"Ha ha, very funny. I don't think I have any taste buds left after that."
"Sorry," said Alex most unapologetically, his green eyes twinkling.
"When you just shut your eyes like that, we couldn't help it," explained David. "It was too good an opportunity!"
Rhea grinned. "Yeah, well, thanks... I think. But you've wasted a perfectly good slice of pizza!"
"Maybe, but it was worth it just to see the look on your face."
"I'd like to see the look on your face when I–"
"Okay, let's stop there before someone gets hurt, namely David," interrupted Alex with a wink at his girlfriend. "Rhea, why don't you say grace for us, and we can eat – without the hot sauce."
She settled onto the sofa, curling up her legs beneath her. "Sure." The three friends bowed their heads and closed their eyes, David out of habitual respect rather than personal belief. "Father God, thank You for this food..."
– – – – – – – –
Jessica gazed out the car window as Steven brought the car to a stop, setting the handbrake with a click. In front of her was a long, low-slung building, its thatched roof and white walls glowing with diffuse lighting that beckoned visitors to investigate what lay within. She turned to her friend in curiosity.
"So where are we?"
Steven gave her a dazzling smile. "At The Clayworth Inn, the best-kept secret in – and out of – town."
"One of my workmates told me about it, he comes here all the time with his wife. You'll love it, it's real quiet. The perfect place for a meal together."
"Okay, cool." Jessica went to open the passenger car door, only to have Steven place a hand on her arm.
"Wait a moment," he said hurriedly, and quickly undid his own seatbelt, exiting the car in one swift movement. Jessica frowned in confusion as he rushed round to her side and then he opened her door, causing her to smile.
"You know, this really isn't necessary," she told him, accepting his proffered hand and easing herself out of the vehicle. Her long dress threatened to tangle itself around her legs, but she managed – somehow – to avoid a mishap.
"Sure it is," Steven replied gallantly, his eyes gleaming in the soft light spilling from the restaurant windows. Turning to the car, he locked the doors with a press of his remote before escorting Jessica into the restaurant.
– – – – – – – –
"We have a reservation for eight o'clock."
Jessica gazed at their surroundings, momentarily tuning out Steven's voice as he spoke to the waitress. Thick, dark wooden beams criss-crossed the ceiling, contrasting sharply with the brilliant white stone of which the restaurant was built. On the walls hung various old farming instruments and drawings of fields of wheat and rolling plains, giving the whole place a rustic, old-fashioned feel. Jessica liked it; it reminded her of her childhood, when she would spend hours with her paternal grandfather in his big garden. He had always been good with plants, and she had loved watching him work, weeding the flowerbeds and pruning his trees as he chatted about life, the universe and everything with her.
The waitress glanced down her list of names. "Ahh... Bewes?"
"Yes, that's it."
"Right this way sir, ma'am."
The waitress led them to the back of the restaurant, where they were given a table for two in a corner.
"Allow me," said Steven, pulling out Jessica's chair for her.
"Oh, thanks," she murmured absently, glancing round. They had plenty of privacy. "It doesn't seem very busy," she commented.
Steven grinned as he took his seat. "What did I tell you? It's a well-kept secret. Relatively few people know of it; those who do prefer to keep it hidden from the masses. Makes for a quieter meal out."
Jessica nodded and began an examination of the menu she had been given. "So, what's nice to eat here?" she asked presently.
"Well, I haven't actually been before, so I couldn't say from personal experience," replied Steven. "However, my colleague said the steak's a good choice, and his wife always has the chargrilled chicken."
"Hmm. The cannelloni look interesting. I'm quite a fan of pasta." She looked up to flash him a brilliant smile. "Choice, choices. Have you decided what you want yet?"
"Yeah, I'll go for a real man's meal. A 16oz steak, with chips."
"Okay, well I'll have... erm..." Jessica flipped back and forth through the menu. "Pasta... or chargrilled chicken with potato wedges? Um..." She bit her lip.
"Would you like drinks?" said a voice.
"Yes please," answered Steven, looking up at the young girl that had just appeared at their table, a notebook and pen in hand. "Two lemonades please, no ice."
"Two lemonades, okay. Are you ready to order your food now, or shall I come back in a moment?"
"Yeah, I'm ready. One 16oz steak with chips, well done. Miss Indecisive here is still trying to make up her mind. Jess?"
Jessica looked up, startled. She had been so absorbed in her task that she hadn't noticed the waitress' arrival. She glanced at Steven uncertainly.
"Know what you're having yet?" he asked her, his brown eyes twinkling.
"Erm, yeah, I think so." She turned in her seat. "I'll have... um... the lamb lasagne. No, wait, I'll have the chargrilled chicken and chips."
"Chargrilled chicken and chips," repeated the waitress.
Jessica flipped the menu page. "No, actually, make that the beef cannelloni. Sorry."
Steven chuckled. "You sure?"
She gave him a sheepish glance. "Yeah, beef cannelloni."
"Okay, one steak with chips, well done, one beef cannelloni, two lemonades, no ice. Is that all?" asked the waitress.
"Yes, thank you," replied Steven for them both as she gathered up the menus.
– – – – – – – –
"So how's the cannelloni?"
"Great, thanks," replied Jessica, between bites. The speed of service at the Clayworth Inn had been impressive She had barely finished describing her day to Steven when their waitress arrived, two steaming plates of food in her hands. "And your steak?"
"Yeah, really soft and tender, yet well cooked. Jim was right when he said this place did nice food."
"You want anything afterwards? I heard they do great New York cheesecake here."
She shook her head somewhat regretfully. Cheesecake was her favourite dessert. "No, thanks, I'm going to be full enough with this. I'll have another lemonade, though."
"Sure." Steven beckoned a waiter to their table. "Can we have two lemonades, please? Thanks."
Jessica leaned back in her chair a short while later, sighing in contentment. She reached for her glass and took a sip. "Mmm, that was good cannelloni. You know, Steven, you didn't need to do this. We could have just gone to a coffee bar or something."
"Hey, it's no trouble," he replied with a smile. "You're more than welcome. Besides, it's not often I get the chance to have you all to myself for an evening. I wanted to make the most of it."
Jessica looked up sharply as she caught a hint of... something in his voice, and their eyes locked. Electric fire ran up her spine, causing her to shift awkwardly in her seat, and then the moment was gone as Steven clinked his glass against hers.
"I propose a toast," he declared, winking at her. "To friendship."
Jessica nodded, her body relaxing. "To friendship." They drank.
– – – – – – – –
"Where are you taking me now?"
After paying for their meal they had returned to the car, Steven again opening Jessica's door for her. Now they were on the road, and she once more had little idea of where they were going.
Jessica glanced at him, noting the smile that played on his lips. He's enjoying this, she thought, her own mouth quirking in amusement. If she was honest with herself, she liked the suspense. It was fun not knowing what was next.
They turned a corner and she drew a sudden breath as the view opened up in front of them. She leaned forward in her seat, her eyes widening, as Steven parked the car.
"Wow." The town lay below, sparkling like a million jewels. In the distance a high-speed passenger train wound its way through the countryside.
"Hey, we're on Pixie's Hill," she observed after a moment of thought. "I didn't know there was a viewing spot here."
"Well done," said Steven in admiration. "How'd you do that?"
"Um... you see the three winking lights?"
"They're the three skyscrapers in town."
"Well, I know their positions, so I just pictured them on the map in my head and worked out where we must be to see them the way we do."
Steven chuckled. "I always knew you were smart, Jess. There's no way I could do that, my memory's nowhere near precise enough."
She shrugged, mildly embarrassed by the praise. "Alex and Rhea would love it up here," she remarked.
"I'm sure," agreed Steven, accepting the change in subject. "They seem to be pretty close for people who've only known each other a few months."
"Yeah, they are, it's like they were made for each other. Beneath that tough exterior, Rhea's soft as putty. She needs Alex's strength." Jessica's smile was a mixture of sadness and joy. "She's gone through so much, the poor girl. And Alex, knight-in-shining-armour that he is, couldn't help but respond to her unspoken cry for help. I'm not sure he realises quite how deeply he already loves her, but it's pretty obvious to me."
"They make a good couple." He gazed out over the town. "Jess," he murmured, "do you ever wish you had what Alex and Rhea have? You know, a relationship with someone you love and trust, that closeness and intimacy?"
She gave him a sidelong glance, but he kept his eyes on the expanse of shimmering lights. "I haven't really thought about it much," she said slowly.
"Seriously? You've always said you want to get married."
"Yeah, but at the right time and with the right person. Now's not the time to even be thinking of a relationship."
Jessica smoothed her dress over her legs. Where's this going? "I'm too busy, for one, with my new responsibilities. Secondly, Rhea needs me; she's had a tough time late–"
"She has Alex," Steven pointed out.
"Most importantly," she continued, ignoring his interruption, "I've always believed God will bring me and my husband-to-be together in His timing, when He knows I'm ready. I'm not in any hurry. Besides, first I need to deal with–" She faltered, berating herself for her slipup. He was sure to notice.
"You need to deal with..." he prodded, oblivious to or ignoring her sudden internal turmoil.
"Steven, you know what I was about to say," said Jessica quietly, clasping her hands together in her lap. Please. Not now."And you know that you have to stop running away from it, Jess!" he replied, turning to face her. She looked up at him. His eyes glinted in the half-light filtering into the car, and she had to resist an abrupt urge to brush away the strand of hair that had fallen over his face.
"Yeah, just... let me sort it out in my own time, okay?"
"In your own time?" he questioned, his voice softly insistent. "When will that be? You've been avoiding it for far too long. If you don't face it soon, it's going to eat you up. You'll never be able to move on, to put it behind you. It will haunt you for the rest of your life!"
Jessica slumped and twisted slightly in her seat, not wanting Steven to see the pain in her eyes. Please stop, she pleaded silently.
"Jess? Jess, look at me." He put a hand on her arm, coaxing her to turn towards him. Reluctantly, she obeyed. He sighed heavily. "Why won't you talk about it with me? I'm your friend, talking is what friends like us do."
He's right, you do need to talk, she told herself. And why not with him? He was the one you spoke to when it happened. Look how he's been there for you. Jessica took a shaky breath. But I can't... not now. Not here. It's too hard. "Please, Steven," she whispered. "just... I can't, okay? I'm not... don't..." She lapsed into silence, unable to find adequate words.
To her surprise he let go of her arm and leaned back, his posture relaxing. "Okay then."
Thank You, Lord! she prayed in relief. Steven flicked on the car stereo, the CD changer underneath the back seat whirring merrily to life.
"Hey, I love this album!" exclaimed Jessica, as an intricate guitar instrumental began to play. She closed her eyes, allowing the music to soothe away the tension she felt. It was always the same, every time. Whenever the subject of the attack came up her body would surge with adrenaline, tightening almost instinctively. It often took her a while to unwind when it happened, and she had been delighted to find that music had a marvellous calming effect.
She shifted into a more
comfortable position, her thoughts beginning to wander. Dear
Steven, he's been so gentlemanly with me tonight. And I do
enjoy his company. She wondered about his earlier comment on her
seeming lack of interest in a relationship. She hadn't been entirely
open with her reply, she admitted to herself. While she truly
believed what she'd said about God's timing, and she really did know
deep down that she wasn't ready yet emotionally to devote herself to
anyone in that way, there was certainly no lack of desire to do so.
If you're brutally honest with yourself, girl, you'll also admit that
there are days when you... envy Rhea's relationship with your
Steven.She recalled his mischievous smile and the way he so often popped in her office for a chat during one of her free periods. He must have my schedule memorised by now. He was attractive in so many ways, and a good friend, but Jessica refused to allow herself to entertain the possibility of anything more. It would be wrong. She knew the Bible's prohibition well, and accepted it without hesitation. Simply put, their lives were headed in opposite directions. Besides, it wouldn't work anyway. There was so much she wanted to share with him, but he simply wouldn't understand her faith, wouldn't be able to comprehend how it formed the underlying reason for everything she did, the passion that drove her in life. She had tried to explain her beliefs to him once before, but he'd just given her a smile and shrugged them off. With that kind of divide any relationship they might have tried would almost inevitably end in heartbreak.
"Something wrong, Jess?" Steven's voice made her jump. Her eyes snapped open to see him watching her intently.
"No," she answered, "why do you ask?"
"Well, you were frowning a moment ago."
Jessica smiled at him. "Oh, I was just thinking." As his face grew curious, she added quickly, "It was nothing much, honest."
Steven looked as if he was about to say something more, then thought better of it. He shrugged and returned her smile. "Okay."
She noticed the car clock in the central fascia, its luminescent hands glowing dully, and blinked. How time flies. Steven saw the direction of her gaze.
"Hey, I guess it's getting kinda late. You wanna go home?"
She nodded, stifling a sudden, unexpected yawn. "Yes, please."
"Your wish is my command," he quipped, and started the car.
– – – – – – – –
"You looked radiant tonight," commented Steven as he set the handbrake and sat back in his seat.
Despite herself, Jessica blushed again. She was thankful he couldn't see her clearly. "You looked pretty good yourself," she replied. And he had, with his midnight-black suit and crisp white shirt, not a hair out of place and his white teeth flashing in a picture-perfect smile. If only... She shut the troubling thought away with a tiny shake of her head. They sat in comfortable silence for a moment, and then Jessica put a hand on the door release.
"Wait, let me conclude properly, okay?" said Steven, unsnapping his seatbelt.
"I told you before, you really don't need to do this every time I get in or out of the car," she protested laughingly as he opened her door for her.
"Sure I do. Can't have me forgetting my manners right at the end, can we?" She took his arm as they walked up to the main entrance to Jessica and Alex's apartment complex.
"I'm afraid I can't walk you right up to your door," said Steven regretfully as Jessica hunted in her purse for her keys. He indicated his car with his free arm. "I'm not supposed to park there."
She smiled. "That's okay, I'll be fine." They reached the heavy steel gate, and she turned to her friend. "Thank you for this evening. It was lovely."
He grinned. "The pleasure was all mine, I assure you."
Jessica released his arm, and was about to push her key into the lock when Steven caught her hand in his. She looked at him uncertainly, her pulse beginning to increase as she felt his thumb gently rubbing over her fingers. His eyes were dark pools glinting in the dim light cast by the streetlamps, and she found herself sinking into their depths as their gazes locked. He's so close."Jess," he murmured, his voice thick.
She struggled for control as he drew nearer, her every sense seemingly magnified ten-fold. His shallow, even breathing whispered to her, and she could feel the soft warmth of his hand on hers with exquisite clarity. Her whole body tingled as she caught the scent of his aftershave, her eyes closing reflexively–
No.Jessica moved her head, and the kiss landed on her cheek. Her eyes snapped open, catching an almost imperceptible hardness that flickered across Steven's face. He abruptly released her hand, and she felt her cheeks heat.
He cleared his throat. "I'll see you on Monday," he said brusquely, nodding to her and turning back to his car.
"O-Okay," she mumbled, her mind and heart confused as she watched Steven drive away. What just happened there?Jessica stood by the entranceway, gazing into the night, long after the last sounds of the car had faded. Her heart ached, torn between longing and deep conviction. Alex. Rhea. I need to talk to them. Her shoulders drooping, she unlocked the gate and pushed her way through it, suddenly feeling very vulnerable.