The Sojourn was a noisy establishment, and Jessica had to shout to be heard. She knew the owner personally, having grown up with him. Tim waved to her from across the room. She returned his wave. It was, much as the name implied, a pleasant place to come and hang out with friends. Tim had been insistent on the name. He said he wanted people to feel like they were home; it worked.
Most of the patrons were regulars and stopped in here on their way home, just to say hi to a couple of friends. There was even a back room for private parties.
Tim had purchased the bar right after college. Then he converted it to more of a social hall when people in the area started becoming more health conscious, and began drinking less—although some people still did a major job of drowning their sorrows with liquor. There was a state of the art sound system—great for dancing, and a coffee bar claimed one whole corner of the room.
“Why don’t we find our way to the back and see if it’s a little quieter,” Jessica suggested. Amy could barely hear what she was saying, but she did make out the word quieter and eagerly followed her to the back of the room.
She greeted several familiar faces, stopping to shake a hand, or give a quick hug, before finally making it to their destination. It was somewhat less noisy back here, and they didn’t have to shout over the music.
The discussion centered mostly on each other’s work. Jessica was interested to hear about Randy’s successful business career. Amy showed an unnatural interest, and Jessica nudged her more than once.
Randy was a top executive in a major corporation on the West Coast. Both the girls were impressed that he had moved up the ladder so easily at the young age of thirty-five. He laughed when Jessica expressed this to him.
“I would hardly say it was easy. I started at the bottom. I worked part-time for the company as an errand boy while I was still in school. Gradually, I moved into the mail room. They eventually gave me more responsibility, and ultimately, I moved into a position as an assistant to the vice-president, where I once again ran errands.
“Persistence paid off, and thanks to Mr. Jacobson, who was about the only one who would listen to my ideas, I was classified as a consultant. As more and more of my ideas panned out, they put me in charge of a few small projects. Eventually, they gave me my own office and even my own secretary. Then one day, after years of grueling work and long, hard hours, I moved into an executive position on the board of directors. It was an eventful day for me, one that made my father proud.”
He glanced over at Amy. “I sacrificed quite a bit during those years. But now I can slow down a bit and take a little time for the finer things in life, which I seemed to have missed out on before.” His intention was clear and Amy blushed. “Perhaps you will allow me to begin right now?” He rose, and extending his hand to Amy, invited her to dance.
Jessica watched them approach the dance floor with a stab of jealousy. What had been meant for her was turning out so well for Amy. What a ridiculous way to feel. She had no more interest in Randy romantically than she did in the man sitting at the table next to her. She sat there wallowing in self-pity.
“Do you mind if I sit here? You look lonely.”
Jessica glanced up into the most capturing face she had ever seen. She glanced around, as if not really believing this man was talking to her, and yes, here were the sparks. They could not be mistaken. She couldn’t have experienced any more electricity if she had stuck her fingers in a light socket. Every nerve in her body screamed, her tongue wouldn’t work, and her lips could only mumble. She only stared back at him. He obviously was used to this kind of reaction when meeting the opposite gender, because he laughed.
“Yes, I am talking to you.”
Jessica, finally managing to find her tongue, muttered, “Sorry, I was just looking for a dragon.”
“Never mind.” She waved him off. “It’s a family joke.”
Standing above her, was a man with eyes the color of chestnuts, hair the color of straw, and a body so lean and tall, that Jessica had to strain her neck to see the top of his head. He was strong looking and had a rugged, cowboy look to him; yet, he appeared sophisticated at the same time. His skin was tanned from the sun. His voice was deep and authoritative. He was every bit masculine, and Jessica’s heart melted. It seemed an eternity before she could catch her breath.
“Your eyes are an interesting color,” she finally managed to say.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It was meant to be.”
“Do you mind if I sit with you?”
“Well, actually, I am here with my friends.” She gestured toward the dance floor. Neither Amy, nor Randy, appeared to be in the least bit of a hurry to return to the table. Jessica blushed.
“He was supposed to be my escort for the evening,” she said, frowning.
“I see,” he chuckled. “Well, his loss is my gain. Nevertheless, it doesn’t look as if your friends will be returning too soon. Is it okay if I keep you company for a while?”
She hesitated for all of two seconds. As tall and handsome as he was, she would be nuts not to encourage his pursuit. Besides, she was lonely and felt like an idiot sitting there all alone. Throwing caution aside, she motioned for him to take a seat beside her.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he offered.
“Thank you. I’ll have a glass of white wine. Tim serves an excellent house wine.”
He motioned for the server, and to Jessica’s surprise, he ordered two white wines.
“You’re a wine drinker? I thought men usually drank something a little more,” she paused, pondering the right word, “rugged,” she finally settled on.
This statement brought a burst of laughter from the man.
“You mean something like, I’ll have a beer? No, thanks. I suppose some men do like the ‘harsher’ stuff, but I prefer things that are soft and gentle.”
He smiled suggestively at her. She blushed at his open flirtation. She didn’t consider herself a beautiful woman, but she knew she was attractive. Suddenly she wished her height were a little taller than her five-foot-five inches, and her waist a little narrower than its twenty-two inches. She had always hated her hair. She wished its dirty brown look could have a little more gold in it. It was a strange color, not brown, but not blonde, either. All throughout her teenaged years, her mother had told her she was beautiful, and she was lucky to have such a unique hair color. Several people had commented on it, but she felt it was more out of curiosity and less out of admiration.
“My name is Brandon Phillips,” the stranger stated, extending his hand in greeting.
She smiled at him, offering hers in return. He had a firm grip. “I’m Jessica, but most of my friends call me Jessie.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Jessie. It’s a lovely name.” Her face reddened. “Do you live around here? Or are you just visiting?”
“Actually, right now I’m visiting. My mother and I grew up here. I went to school with Tim, he’s the owner, and probably half the patrons in this fine establishment.” He laughed and Jessica realized the oddity of what she had said. “What I meant is; I grew up here with my mother. Now I live in the city. I’m visiting her for the weekend. What about you?”
“I’m here on business.”
It was her turn to laugh. “What on earth kind of business would bring you to this hole-in-the-wall town?”
He smiled. He had such a radiant smile. He seemed to light up the table with it.
“Actually, I was passing through on business. My family owns a ranch about three hundred miles south of here. I was on my way to New York to meet with some of our distributors when the water pump went out in my truck. So I’m stuck here overnight.”
“So, you met Jason, then. He’s the best mechanic on the entire East Coast. I can assure you that you couldn’t have picked a nicer town in which to breakdown. The people here are incredibly nice, and quite hospitable.”
“So I’m finding out.”
She blushed as he stared hard at her. She didn’t know why she felt so pleased that he had asked to sit at her table, but she did. She picked up her wine glass. “Well, then let’s have a toast to strangers in broken pickup trucks.”
They touched their glasses together and their eyes locked.
“So, tell me, what kind of business are you in? Or do you mind me asking?”
“Don’t be silly. There isn’t anything Jessie likes to talk about more than her work.”
They were so involved in their conversation that they hadn’t noticed Amy and Randy approach the table. She looked up into Amy’s eyes, and blushed when she noticed the way she was smiling at her. She introduced her friends to Brandon.
“As I was starting to say, I’m a fashion photographer. I work in New York at Modern Fashions Magazine.”
“How fascinating, you must find that interesting work,” Brandon commented.
“I love my work,” she said proudly. “I consider myself somewhat of an artist, in fact. Nothing gives me more pride than to sit back and gaze at a finished piece of work. I get a real sense of excitement just knowing my work will be displayed for the world to see.”
“Well, you should. It takes a real colorful eye and a great imagination to make all those pictures turn into something productive.”
“You sound as if you know something about photography.”
“Not really, just what I learned in college. I never could maintain enough interest to do anything with what I learned. But I do admire those of you who can,” he added quickly.
“Nice cover,” she teased. “It has always been a passion for me. Besides, I get a chance to travel, somewhat, and I find that quite stimulating.”
She gestured toward Amy. It was the first acknowledgment that she was there since she had introduced her and Randy. “Amy and I are currently working on a summer layout for one of the biggest distributors in women’s clothing.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Do you mind if I ask whom you’re working for?”
Her answer came easily but with somewhat of a frown. “Mr. Phillip Stewart.” She watched as his eyes turned dark with anger. A chill went down her spine. “Do you know Mr. Stewart?”
He shook his head. “I’ve only heard of him. But I’ve heard he’s a scoundrel and not to be trusted. He’ll chew you up and spit you out when he’s through.”
She laughed as she envisioned this violent act before her eyes. “Not to worry, Brandon. We will not be working directly with Mr. Stewart. We’ll be communicating through his staff.”
“Nevertheless, it would be wise to stay out of his way. He is the craftiest weasel I have ever had the good fortune of not meeting.”
She took his meaning well, remembering the vile feeling she was left with after their last meeting.
“Well, anyway, thanks for the warning, Brandon. I have every intention of staying at least a dozen miles away from him.”
She proceeded to tell him about the problem they were having with selecting the location for the layout. He listened intently as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“I would love to help you out, but my mind draws a complete blank. It sounds as if you’re looking for paradise on a deserted island, but with civilization nearby.”
Jessie nearly popped out of her chair. “That’s it! That is exactly what we are trying to find.” Then her shoulders slumped back down. “But I’m afraid there is no such place.”
“Of course, there is,” Brandon said. “You just haven’t found it, yet.”
Amy yawned beside her, making her aware of the late hour. Her mother would most likely be worried about them. Not to mention the fact that Amy really needed to get some rest, considering they were up so late the previous night.
“I’m really sorry, but I’m afraid we must be getting home now. It’s been wonderful talking with you.” They all stood to leave.
“Will I have a chance to see you again?” he asked, hopeful.
“Sure. If you’re ever in New York give me a ring.”
She pulled a business card out of her wallet and scribbled her home number and address on the back of it. Then she handed it to Brandon. His hand lingered a little longer than was necessary. The touch made her heart flutter. She smiled demurely.
“I really must be going,” she apologized. She saw that Amy and Randy were already making their way to the door. She thanked Brandon for the drink and turned to leave. He grabbed her hand as she did so. She turned to stare into his eyes and nearly threw herself into his arms. He bent toward her and kissed her gently on the lips.
“I’ll call,” he whispered in her ear.
The kiss had been quick, but Jessica’s pulse raced with excitement. She was not a stranger to relationships with the opposite sex; she had a few boyfriends in her past. But this kiss was somehow different, soft and gentle, with a promise of another.
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