After several desperate phone messages, Kate had finally connected with her best friend on Sunday night for dinner at their favorite cheap Italian restaurant on the Drive. They sat huddled over a candle at a small red-gingham covered table in the corner of the dimly lit room. All Alexa wanted to talk about was Jay and his proposal, while Kate kept coming back to Simon and her reaction to him.
"I know how much Simon meant to you," Alexa said, pressing her hand over Kate's on the stained paper tablecloth. "But, Katie. That was years ago. Why are you freaking out now? Especially now that Jay has popped the question. Why does it matter anymore?"
"This is not just any guy, Alex. You know. Nobody ever..." Kate's stomach knotted into a hard fist, and her throat closed up, choking off her words. It's Simon. Kate lifted her large glass of red wine with a trembling hand and took another big gulp, filling her nose with the sharp, dark cherry aroma.
She had already drunk too much with dinner, hoping to take the edge off her creeping anxiety, but it had only made her foggy and confused. She needed Alexa's help to sort through the turmoil in her head. They'd been friends forever. Alexa had stood by Kate through the tough years of depression and counseling, and watched her put herself back together. Now Kate needed to figure out how to respond to Jay, and how to move forward with some kind of strategy to work this case, even with Simon there, like a shadow from the past, week after week, messing with her head. But Alexa didn't know the whole story. Filled with a vague dread, Kate looked up.
Alexa's cropped dark hair swung as she shook her head in confusion, her dark brows furrowed. "I know you had it bad for him, and I understand what it's like to get dumped by a guy you think is hot, especially when you're nineteen. It's happened to all of us. But... so what? What's so special about Simon that you're still hung up on him after all these years? Why can't you move on?"
Kate studied the pattern of pasta sauce splats and red wine arcs printed on the paper tablecloth. She ran her fingertip across yet another drip that slid slowly down the side of the bowl, and put her finger in her mouth to lick it off. Why? That was the question. She knew Alex didn't have the whole picture. Would it help if she did? She swallowed the lump of fear that formed in her throat.
"I can't seem to get past it. Being in the room with him, being able to see his face, his hands, hear his voice, look in his eyes, if I dare. It rattles me completely." Kate looked at her trembling hands, clenching them into fists. "I haven't had these anxiety attacks for years. Not since I went through my training."
"He’s just a man.”
“Not for me. That's why I'm questioning my relationship with Jay. Simon was everything I ever wanted. Beautiful, smart, sensitive, strong. He wasn’t one of those brutish, macho guys. And we had such a deep connection. If I wasn’t so messed up back then, I would have held onto him forever.”
“Well, if it's so bad, then don't do it. Drop the case. You've got plenty of others, you don't need the hassle."
If only it were that easy, but she had to work through this. She needed to face her demons and purge herself of the anxiety and self-doubt. “But I do. It's so complicated. I've got a few other cases open right now, but none of them are couples counseling and potential reconciliation. This one is."
"So?" Alexa shrugged, sloppily refilling their wine glasses. Drips splashed onto the table, splattering into a galaxy of purple starbursts.
"It's this award the society is giving me in January. It's huge. My professional success and reputation are built on my reconciliation methodology. Not only is this my fiftieth case, it's an excellent case study to present at the awards dinner. It's what they're expecting. I need it."
Alexa screwed up her face. "Can't you pull an old one out of your files?"
Kate tutted. "It's not the same. My ideas have evolved over the years. Going into this one knowing I'll be sharing my notes with my colleagues gives me the chance to record things..." she circled a hand. “Insights that occur to me as I'm working, specific moments when I use certain strategies and why. My own emotional responses to the dialogue. I've never written most of that down before. I usually just... do it."
"I see. But under the circumstances..."
Kate scrubbed her fingers through her hair. "It's more than that. I like this couple. There are multiple obstacles to reconciliation. Red-hot emotions. Interfering parents. Confrontational lawyers. It’s volatile. I'm afraid another mediator won't be as invested in reconciliation as I am, and my gut tells me I can get them through all that. I've already won their trust."
“Then what about telling him he can't stay. Get another lawyer to come instead."
Kate nodded. "I tried that. But my client is already bonded with him, and I don't think the other guy is available. I can't impose because of my own issues." Kate ignored the truth tugging at her consciousness like a stubborn ghost. She wanted Simon there. She was as fascinated by him as she had ever been. It haunted her. That was part of the problem. Perhaps that was all of the problem.
Alexa remained silent for a while, staring into her wine, avoiding Kate's eyes.
Kate's stomach clenched. "What? Spit it out."
“You’re rationalizing. It sounds to me like you don't want to get out of this. You're secretly thrilled to have crossed paths with Simon and you want more."
"Alex!" Her heart rate tripled, hammering against her ribcage. It was as though Alexa had read her mind. But it couldn't be true. She was miserable. Pushed and pulled. Sick with anxiety. “He’s married!”
Her eyebrows peeked up above her dark-framed glasses. “Is he?”
“Well, divorced, I think.”
Alexa tilted her head down. Her dark eyelashes lifted slowly, and her smoke-and-moss eyes peered intently into Kate's over her frames, narrowing, wordlessly challenging her.
"Okay. Yes! You know me too well." Kate swallowed. "But I didn't know it was true until this moment." She pushed her face into her hands, moaning. "Oh, my God. What's wrong with me?"
"Damned if I know. Especially with the delicious Jay waiting in the wings. What could you possibly gain by tangling with Simon again?"
"Nothing, nothing at all. I'm torturing myself. But..."
"There's more. And I can't avoid it."
Alexa's mouth quirked into a wry smile. "You gonna share that with me?"
Kate screwed up her face, diligently studying the Jackson Pollock emerging on the tablecloth. Tight bands of fear wrapped her chest, squeezing her heart until it fluttered like a dying bird, crushing the air from her lungs. Her head flushed hot as a furnace. Her voice, when it emerged, was a strangled whisper. "It means... it means I'll have to tell you a dark secret."
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