Challenge: How do you really feel?
Universe: One much like our own
Frank steeled himself and got out of the car. The valet drove off as he ambled
into the Peterson Mansion. He followed the signs to the ballroom, and it didn't
take long for him to find the happy couple.
"John, it's been a long time! Congratulations!"
"Frank, good to see you! God, it's been ages. What have you been up to, you
Frank's shoulder stung a bit where Joe slapped him. Obviously, Joe
still works out. "Nothing much...", he replied.
They chatted a minute. John wasn't wearing his tuxedo jacket any more, but he'd
always looked so GQ in formal wear. He hadn't changed a bit.
"So," Frank asked, "how does it feel?"
"Great! It's the best feeling in the world. Things just feel right.
You know what I mean?"
"Yes, I can imagine." Just then, Cheri walked up. She was radiant, just as
he'd always imagined she would be on the big day.
"Frank, I'm so glad you could come."
"How could I miss it?" They held hands for a moment.
"You're looking really good, Cheri."
"You are too, Frank."
John cleared his throat. "Uh, Cheri, we need to greet our other guests. But,
seriously, Frank. Let's catch up later. I mean that!"
And with that, they left. Another missed opportunity.
The reception room was a misty sea of candles, made possible by tall mirrors
along every wall. The gold, ornate trim sparkled in the twilight, and the
women looked dazzling in their sequin dresses and jewelry.
The bar had long since lost its appeal, and Frank didn't feel like dancing to
the band playing all the regular standards up front. Besides, the dance floor
was crowded -- maybe twenty couples in all. Around the room at various tables,
relatives had quiet conversations, catching up.
This ballroom wasn't all that different from that cruise ship, Frank mulled.
His father looked so nonchalant when he handed Frank the cruise tickets. Round-
trip to Alaska, ten weeks of vacation bliss to reward him for getting straight
A's. Or maybe it was to avert a nervous breakdown. Thinking back, he bet Dr.
Laverly had a hand in it. Dad couldn't afford that kind of money. After all,
it had been... Frank made his way to the bar. Bonnie had just had her
accident right after midterms.
As he waited in line for his gin and tonic, he saw Cheri across the room. She
had matured some, but retained that smooth alabaster complexion and those
little dimples. She had been fresh out of high school, on "walkabout" as she
His heart ached when he looked back on that cruise. The scenery had been
spectacular, but the company was divine. He'd never been happier. He'd vowed
never to lose her like... Frank kicked himself. He'd promised himself when he
got the invitation that he wouldn't dwell on the past tonight, and here he was
doing it within the first ten minutes. "Settle down."
"I'm sorry." He looked up. The woman who spoke approached. Her black hair
hid under a bejeweled snood, which well complimented her sapphire dress. She
had dipped her head a little to catch his eye.
"I'm Annalise," she said, offering a gloved hand. He tried a trick from John's
book, scooping up her hand and lightly kissed it. "Charmed," he said, not
just because it was the thing to say, but her slight accent gave her a bit of
French mystique. Annalise smiled warmly. "Would you care to dance?" she
"Actually, I'm not much into dancing."
"It's all right. I didn't learn to dance well until I came to this country a
few years ago." She looked into his eyes, and he decided to forego his usual
He acquiesced, and she led him through the crowd to the dance floor. The band
was playing a slow song, which was good, because he could waddle in a circle
with the best of them. She grabbed his hand, and he winced a little.
"For such tiny hands, you really have a good grip!"
She smiled and her cheeks flowered into a becoming rose color. Looking at
their hands interlaced, he couldn't help but smile with her. John and his
"dating lessons" certainly wouldn't approve of his half-bitten nails, not to
mention his lackluster attire.
"I notice you came alone," Annalise began.
"Yeah. They had to invite me. I, uh, introduced them."
"I know, Frank." She won serious points by not asking him to regale her with
the story anyway.
She continued, "We've actually met before, at a birthday party a few years ago."
"I remember now." Her accent wasn't nearly as thick as before; it had thrown
him off. "You were that exchange student, staying with Cheri's family." The
girl in the station wagon!
"I'm pleased you remember me."
"I certainly do. I thought you'd gone back to France?"
"Actually, I liked it here so much, I became a citizen a few months ago."
Behind her, John was sharing an intimate moment with his new bride. He couldn't
"Congratulations," he said absently. "Look, um, I need to go."
"I'm sorry; I can't do this."
Frank pulled himself away and made straight for the bathroom. Once there, he
took a deep breath and held his face in his hands, but soon he reverted to
pacing back and forth.
He and John had been roommates in college. Cheri visited once or twice a
semester, but she attended college a few hours away. A&M had a better biology
program. John was a junior at the time, and he took his naive freshman
roommate under his wing. They were constant pals, helping each other in and
out of love. But they both knew deep down that Frank's long-distance
relationship with Cheri kept him from getting close. Then, there was that
damned ski trip!
"Get a hold of yourself, Frank! Remember why you're here." He forced himself
to unclench his fists. He stopped shaking so much after he splashed some water
on his face.
He was about to make sure his present was ready, but another partygoer started
to come in, so Frank abruptly dried his face and rejoined the reception. To
his surprise, Annalise was waiting for him in the foyer. She walked straight
over when he emerged.
"Frank, I'm really sorry," she said. "Can we sit and talk for a little bit?"
She gave him a beguiling smile, and he couldn't refuse. She picked a small
table near the wedding cake. She grabbed a small piece for both of them and
sat next to him. When she took her gloves off, he realized he was a bit warm
himself, so he unbuttoned his jacket.
Annalise was saying, "I feel bad. I know that you were really hurt by Cheri,
and we both thought you'd, well, moved on. I can see that you're still hurting.
Why did you come?"
Frank looked like he wanted to say something, but didn't, so Annalise continued,
"Sorry, how rude of me. I didn't mean to bring up a bunch of bad memories.
Tell me about what you've been up to. Did architectural drawing work out, or
are you doing something different?" She was looking him over now.
Slowly, she brought him out of his shell. He knew, of course, she was up to
something, but even after he'd begun to reveal little things, safe things, he
couldn't figure out what she was after. He didn't even say no to a second
piece of cake and a little champagne.
The room had gotten quieter, and he instinctively looked at his watch. It had
really been almost two hours! The reception was almost over, and he'd almost
lost his chance. He tried to politely excuse himself, but Annalise caught his
"Frank, I have a confession to make. I was really hoping to meet up with you
"What do you mean?" he said while locating John and Cheri.
"Ever since that party, I've been wishing that I'd been a little more forward.
I really like you, Frank, and I... Merde, this is awkward." He was looking at
her now. "I'd like to see you after the party. Would that be all right?"
He needed time to think, but he was fresh out. John and Cheri were as close as
they'd ever be. "This is it." He reached under his suit jacket and started
to draw the pistol out of its shoulder holster, but he felt Annalise's gentle,
naked hand on his, holding it in. She had shifted to face him, now almost on
"Frank, there's no need for that," she said, glancing at the gun.
He studied her face. She had a quiet grace about her, but now he saw a
strength in her soft features that he hadn't seen before. Her eyes searched
"How long have you known?"
"Your suit jacket came open while we talked. I thought maybe you'd become a
policeman or something, but I can see now that you're not."
"You can't stop me," he said, reaching for it again. She gently but firmly
grabbed his hand.
"Actually, I can, Frank." He tried to push her aside, but she deftly grabbed
his wrist, pinning his arm between them at an awkward angle. She exhaled
slowly, relaxed her hold on his arm, and her trembling faded.
"Look," she said. "I meant what I said before. Let's go get some coffee,
before this gets out of hand."
His plan was crumbling, but he couldn't decide whether this was a bad thing.
Annalise wasn't like the women he'd been dating. He almost remembered a time
when he could be friends with a woman.
"All right, but it'd better be mocha."