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Next Time Chapter 1

Chapter One

Carol—Lost

 

The sound of running water wakes me from a blissful sleep. Opening my eyes, I stare at the white swirled ceiling in room three-twenty-five in the Hotel Monaco in Washington DC. My body is naked, and I am sure I still feel kisses lingering everywhere as the taste and smell of Jac fills my senses. Never in my wildest imaginations could I believe anything or anyone could move me to such a passionate encounter. Yet, here I am, pulling back the soft, white sheet, letting my bare feet touch the richly carpeted floor, walking toward the bathroom, and opening the door. I can’t help myself. I want—no need—to feel her luscious body next to mine again.

 

How is this possible? How did I get to this place? Just ten days ago, I thought my life was complete. I was wrong.

 

 

It was just like any other Wednesday, or so I thought. I lean back in my chair, trying to block out the images of the abuse Connie Hanson has just shared with me.

 

Twenty-six years ago, I began working at the health department as a social worker, and I’m still here. From my earliest recollections, my father always told me to have a contingency plan along with a backup. I think that philosophy is what helps me survive my profession. Too many of my associates have become another statistic of a job with a very high burnout rate. How can someone survive the heartache and ugliness as a social worker without a backup plan? I never have taken on a case that surprises me and that is my redeeming quality. Now, I am the supervisor of a group of devoted social workers and trying to impart my father’s philosophy on them.

 

I am happily married to Mike who works for a large corporation that specializes in making light bulbs—I smile at the joke we share about the company where he works. College sweethearts, we married right after graduation and settled down in a little ‘shuttered house with a white picket fence.’ A year later our son, MJ, Mike Junior, came into the world and my role of wife and mother began in earnest. Two years later, when Kathleen was born, we became the perfect all-American family. I began working for the county health department when Kathleen began preschool and have been here ever since.

 

The kids are all grown up now, and Mike and I are once again getting to know each other. Mike Junior is a computer engineer who travels around the world installing and troubleshooting multimillion dollar computerized machines for hospital operating rooms. He and his wife Janet and their two children live an hour away. Yep, I am a grandmother…imagine that. Our daughter, Kathleen, is a psychologist living in LA with her husband, Richard Michelson.

 

I am thinking life is good on the day I meet Jac.

 

 

As with most of the working Wednesdays for the past twenty years, I am looking forward to having lunch with my friend, Evelyn Delarosa. After the grim pictures and details of the child abuse case and the ensuing meeting with the police, I am ready for a nice, relaxing hour away. The phone rings and when I hear Evelyn’s voice my heart sinks.

 

“Hey, we need to change the plans—”

 

“You’re not canceling on me are you? After the day I’ve had, I don’t think I can handle not going to lunch with you.”

 

Evelyn’s deep resonating laugh lets me know we’re still on. “Like I’d cancel on you today…it’s your turn to pay.” Clearing her throat, she continues, “I do have a bit of a problem though.”

 

“A bit of a problem? Yeah right, you never have a bit of anything. What’s up?” As long as I’ve known her, Evelyn faces life with gusto at a hundred miles an hour.

 

“We have visitors from DC, and I need to bring one of them along with me.”

 

I smile. Evelyn never does anything because she has to. I know there is more to the story. “So what’s the real reason?”

 

“If I don’t, this person will have to suffer through lunch with the exec and his staff.”

 

“Oh God, not that, by all means bring him along.”

 

“Her,” she corrected. “I’ll pay this week.”

 

“Now, Evelyn, you know how confused I get with whose week is whose. It will be my pleasure to pay for everyone’s lunch. It’s not often I get to rescue someone from the clutches of the county exec. I’ll meet the two of you at Vinny’s at the usual time.”

 

“Yep, later then. Bye.”

 

 

While walking toward the building, I can see Vinny’s is already teeming with patrons. Once I arrive at the door, I excuse myself past the crowd of people and enter the restaurant. Once again, I meet another group of waiting diners in a small alcove. The smell of tomatoes, basil, and garlic assaults my nostrils, and my mouth waters.

 

I smile when I see Gio waving me toward him. Giovanni and Anthony Vincent own the small Italian restaurant that Evelyn and I have frequented most Wednesdays ever since they opened ten years earlier. In fact, I recall that we were some of their first customers, and Giovanni and Anthony have never forgotten us. No matter how crowded they are, a decent table is always available for us.

 

“Hello, Lady, where is your friend today?” Gio asks. “I have a table ready for you.” He leads me to a table in a secluded corner. I can hear the other patrons who were waiting begin protesting loudly, to which Gio mumbles something that sounds like Italian cursing.

 

“She will be along, Gio. We have a third today, will that be a problem?”

 

“Of course not,” he says before telling the busboy, “there will be three here.”

 

The young man then brings another place setting to the table as Gio pulls out my chair. “Thank you.”

 

“My pleasure, Lady. I will send your friends back when they get here.”

 

I look around at the familiar atmosphere and, for the first time this day, I feel contentment as my shoulders begin to relax. In the distance, I see Evelyn’s short, greying head of hair bobbing in my direction.

 

Evelyn has always been the best dressed person I know and today is no exception. She has on a long dress with matching shoes and, of course, her jewelry is coordinated too. We first met when we both started working at the health department on the same day. She was the personal assistant to the Director of Health, while I was just beginning as a social worker. We had gone through orientation and shared a table at lunch and have gravitated toward each other ever since. I remember when I first saw her; she reminded me of Billie Jean King in stature and looks. Much to my surprise, I found out that she was an avid tennis player and still is all these years later.

 

An instant smile crosses my friend’s face when she sees me waving her over to the table.

 

“Where’s your DC visitor?”

 

“Right behind me, I hope. She and Gio were having a conversation in Italian, and he said he would show her to the table when they were through.” She smiles and winks at me. “She’s a looker and you know how Gio likes the women.”

 

Looking up, I see the owner heading toward us, talking animatedly to the most stunning woman I’ve ever seen. I’m sure I look like an idiot sitting here with my mouth open until Evelyn asks, “Is something wrong?”

 

I quickly regain my composure and say, “No, I think your visitor is on her way.” I nod in the direction of the two people who are about to arrive at the table.

 

“Here you are,” Gio says, as he pulls out a chair for the woman.

 

For someone who prides herself on never being surprised, the disarming smile and fond pat on the hand that the woman gives Gio, does exactly that. “Grazie.” That one word sends a shiver down my spine. I’m not sure if it is the sound of her voice or the way the word seems effortlessly to run off her tongue that catches my attention. The sense of dèjà vu is so overwhelming that I am certain I have heard that voice before.

 

“Carol, this is Jacqueline Reinhart, who is visiting us from the Department of Health and Human Services.” Even though my friend is trying to act as though it’s no big deal, I can tell the woman’s importance impresses her.

 

“Nice to meet you, Jacqueline,” I direct toward the woman whose blue eyes are fixed on me.

 

She holds out her hand and I take it, marveling at the softness and power. The touch elicits a pleasurable feeling spreading throughout my body and, in that instant, I know I want more.

 

“Nice to meet you too, Carol. Please call me Jac.”

 

Reluctantly, I let go of her hand. “Any special reason for your visit to our fair city, um…Jac?”

 

The same disarming smile she’d given Gio focuses on me. “I am getting together a team to see if we can streamline any of the social services we offer, both nationally and locally.” She turns toward Evelyn. “I am particularly impressed by the solid record of service this city is providing its citizens.”

 

Obviously, Evelyn was under the woman’s spell too, for I see her blushing for the first time in all the years I’ve known her. Evelyn acts as the liaison between the health department and the county executive’s office. It is because of the implementation of her plans that the department runs so smoothly.

 

“Jac has asked for a representative from our department to join her in DC next week. She’d like us to lend some of the ideas we incorporate to a national program modeled after ours and several other cities.” She reaches for her beeper that is lying on the table vibrating. “Sorry, I need to see what this is about.” She gets up from the table and moves away.

 

The truth is that I am glad for the chance to be one on one with Jac. How can I describe this woman? For that matter, how can a person objectively describe anyone who assaults their mind and body? She is taller than my five foot six inches. I guess she is probably around five eight or nine. Her shoulder length hair is light brown and has blonde highlights. The navy blue suit she is wearing accentuates her eyes, making them bluer. They don’t seem to be a true blue, and I wonder if they change when she wears different colors.

 

Her body is soft yet firm—if that contradiction in terms is at all possible. I feel sure that at one point in her life it was what one would consider a ‘killer body.’ Now, with time, it has gone a bit soft but still tempts quite a few, I am certain. I remember her walking toward me and how I noticed her long, shapely legs. She is breathtaking. I am wondering where that thought comes from when Evelyn returns to the table.

 

“Sorry, I must get back to the office. There seems to be a bit of an emergency that cannot be handled without me.” She narrows her eyes then shakes her head. “Jac, I will leave you in Carol’s capable hands until the meeting at two in the third floor conference room.” Evelyn gives us what I think is a beleaguered smile as she gets ready to leave. “You,” she says looking at me, “I will see later.”

 

As I watch my friend walk away, I find myself glad she’s going. How odd—I want this magnificent woman all to myself. I can feel my cheeks get hot with the thought and quickly lift the menu up over my face.

 

“They have a very good antipasto salad, if you are interested in something along that line. Also, they make a wonderful chicken-parm sandwich if you feel like being decadent.” I peer over the menu and see what look like amused blue eyes. “Is something funny?”

 

Her hearty, deep laugh makes my skin tingle. “Chocolate is decadent. I’ve never heard anyone refer to anything chicken as decadent.”

 

I can feel my face get hot with a blush, and I wish the table would engulf me.

 

Once again, that disarming smile brightens her face. “That’s cute.”

 

“Cute? What’s cute?” Please let a tornado swoop down and get me out of here, is the prayer I send up to the weather gods.

 

“You ladies ready to order?” says the harried voice of our waiter.

 

I feel my body relax with the words. “Yes, I’ll have a grilled chicken salad and a diet soda.”

 

“And what will you have?” the waiter asks, looking at Jac.

 

A wry smile crosses her lips. “I have it on good authority that your chicken parmesan sandwich is decadent.”

 

“Oh, yes, ma’am, it’s the best in town.”

 

Jac closes her menu and hands it to the waiter. “Then that’s what I shall have, along with a cup of coffee.”

 

“Good choice,” I say with a laugh. “I think a really good hamburger can also be decadent.”

 

Jac laughs again. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

When Evelyn left, Jac never moved so she is still sitting next to me, and I see her eyes fixing on me. They seem to be searching and dissecting my inner being. Finally, when the waiter brings our drinks, she looks away then speaks.

 

“I’m really glad that circumstances allowed us to have lunch together, Carol,” she says softly. “I’ve been studying social services departments all over the country for the past three months. The one here is, by far, the most outstanding for productivity and retention. I was especially impressed with your department. How have you managed to have such a high case-load ratio and such a low dropout rate of workers?” Her brow furrows. “Evelyn tells me that it was your revamping of the system that made all the difference.”

 

Again, I blush. “Evelyn is a good friend, but her claims are a bit over zealous. It was a joint effort on everyone’s part.”

 

“Would you mind sharing?”

 

“Not at all. It is very simple really. We figured out a man wrote the job descriptions.”

 

Jac’s face seems to brighten in surprise. “A man is responsible for poor social service practices? Just how did you figure that one out?”

 

It is obvious to me, but glancing at her ring finger and seeing no ring, I figure she might not understand. “Whoever wrote the job descriptions obviously has never done any hands-on social services work. Many job descriptions are written with unrealistic standards. Some are even substandard. I have often suspected that somewhere out there is a template of a blanket job description for all jobs. Besides, we all know men always have to go around the barn six times before going in the front door.”

 

She laughs. “You’re probably right on that one. So, tell me, what changes did you make?”

 

Now it is my turn to look deep into her eyes, because I want to know if she really is interested. Finding no discernable deception, I open my purse and take out a pen and a small notebook. I am now in my comfort zone and zealously answer, “Let me draw you a diagram of how we saw the problems and the remedies we came up with to correct them.”

 

Soon, our heads are together as I show her our plan while answering her thoughtful and knowledgeable questions. Our food arrives and goes untouched, our discussion occupying our mouths. Gio arrives at our table, startling us out of our intense dialogue.

 

“Lady, there is a phone call for you.” He holds out a phone.

 

“For me?” I ask.

 

“No.” He gives Jac the phone.

 

“Jacqueline Reinhart.” She sounds business-like in her tone and manner yet smiles when she looks in my direction. “I had no idea it was that late. I’ll be there in ten minutes.” Ending the call, she looks at me apologetically. “Do you realize it’s after two?”

 

I’m sure my eyes show my surprise. “Wow, I had no idea. We never touched our food.”

 

She reaches over and hesitantly touches my hand. “I enjoyed every minute.” Her hesitation seems uncharacteristic. “Do you think we could get together for dinner and continue our discussion and maybe even eat our food?” Jac looks at our untouched food and grins.

 

Something is happening to me that I can’t put into words. The thought of Jac leaving is just as overwhelming as the idea of seeing her again. “Why don’t you come to my house and have dinner with my husband and me?”

 

She looks away. “No, I can’t do that.” After putting a twenty on the table before getting up, she says, “Perhaps another time then.”

 

This turn of events dumbfounds me, so I quickly gather up my belongings and start after her. “Jac, wait up, I’m going the same way.” She turns and in that one moment, I am lost, truly lost.

 

“Come on then, I’m late.”

 

“Not to worry, I know a shortcut.” For some reason unknown to me, I take her hand and squeeze it. “So where are you taking me for dinner tonight?”

 

There is that disarming smile again. “Shortcuts are good, but sometimes it is the long patient way that is the most rewarding. As for dinner, it will be someplace special.”

 

Her voice seems laced with such sensuality that I am finding it hard to speak. “This way,” I say, tugging on her arm and pointing toward a side street. “This will put us directly in front of the building.”

 

 

While we are standing in a crowded elevator, she leans over and whispers, “I’ll stop by your office when the meeting is over and we can discuss dinner.”

 

I turn, look at her, and try to shake the feeling that we have met before. How can that be—we just met two hours ago. I watch as she exits the elevator, and I am not sure my knees will continue to support me. Once the doors close and she is gone, I lean against the cold metal wall wondering what is going on with me.

 

My mind is in a whirl with thoughts and visions of Jac, while I walk to and enter my office. I suddenly remember where I had seen her before and walk quickly to the stack of journals waiting for me to read. “I know it is here somewhere. Damn, which month was it? At last.” I pull out an issue. There on the front cover is a smiling Dr. Jacqueline Reinhart. “A Fresh Approach to Health Care Issues” is in bold letters under her name. Sitting at my desk, I begin to read the article when the phone rings. My stomach does a roll in anticipation of hearing Jac’s voice. No such luck. It is back to the real world, although I’m not sure I’ll be able to concentrate with Jac floating around in my head.

 

I check my watch once more and it is indeed after five and so far no Jac. My stomach has a sinking feeling as I fight with myself about what to do. Earlier at four I called Evelyn’s office only to find that she had left for the day. Distracting thoughts invade my mind. Evelyn’s leaving for the day makes it obvious that the meeting is over. Maybe Jac couldn’t find my office. I reject the thought as I come to the realization that she played me. She only wanted my ideas and, once she had them, I was history. What an idiot I am. Shit I know better, yet I fell for her line.

 

“Damn.” I get my things together and head out the door for home.

 

Once home, I rush around making dinner since waiting for Jac had made me late. I hear the door open and watch as Mike walks into the kitchen before he kisses my cheek. For a moment, the sting of the afternoon dissolves until Jac’s words creep into my mind once again. I’ll stop by your office when the meeting is over and we can discuss dinner. Fortunately, I am chopping onions so the tears in my eyes go unquestioned.

 

“Something smells good,” Mike says, as he sneaks a taste of a tomato. “I thought you weren’t going to be here.”

 

“Hey, keep out of that. It’s all I have and it’s for dinner. Plans changed, so here I am making your meal.” I know my tone is harsh and I am instantly apologetic. “I’m sorry. It has been a bad day and I’m running late.”

 

“No problem,” he says, as he begins sorting through the mail. “Want to talk about it?”

 

“Not right now. Maybe later.”

 

I turn and look at Mike as he leaves the kitchen and find myself mystified again by my reaction toward Jac. From the moment I saw her, I had the oddest feeling that we were somehow connected. It was as though she were a long-forgotten memory that was screaming for release. “That wasn’t me at lunch. It was someone else,” I mumble. That wasn’t me who found herself turned on by the woman. No way. Yet, just thinking about Jacqueline Reinhart sends all my senses tingling.

 

I let my defenses down and she used me. “Damn.” Tears stream down my cheeks, and I’m not sure I can stop them. “Shit.” Two hours with her and I’m shattered. I try to pull myself together by breathing deeply. I need to finish making dinner, but another wave of sadness engulfs my mind.

 

Mike returns from changing his clothes and, at last, I’m able to carry on in some other way than as if someone died. He sets the table and I put the final additions on the hastily made dinner. I think of the salad I left on the table at lunch and realize I haven’t eaten since breakfast. All of a sudden, I am ravenous and, after we sit down, I begin to inhale my dinner. Half-heartedly, I listen to Mike rattle on about his day and I realize this is what is real. This is what my life is about, and there is no room for anyone else.

 

Standing in the bathroom and looking at myself in the mirror, I wonder how I’ve let myself get to this point. Somehow, I let a woman named Jac enchant me in such a way that I began thinking about her sexually. That’s not who I am, yet here I am looking at myself wondering who it is I’m seeing. Is this the true me? Have I suppressed such feelings all my life? What is it about the woman that I found so appealing that I was willing to…what? I don’t know and that is the most disturbing thought I have.

 

I can’t remember ever feeling so emotionally drained, and I crawl under the covers of my bed finding some solace in the feeling of protection they give me. Tomorrow, I will face her with my armor in place. I won’t let her affect me like she did again.

 

I wake in the middle of the night, dreaming about Jac. A vision of her in my arms kissing me and caressing my body creeps into my mind and I want more.

 

Once again, I am lost.

 

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