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Old 09-17-2010, 10:07 PM   #1
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The Next Best Thing - 24

This is a work of fiction - certain characters are non-fiction but have been written as I imagine they might be. None of this story is based on actual events.

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Daylight did not catch Raye by surprise on Sunday morning. At quarter of seven she was already out of bed and stationed in one of the white leather chairs in the bedroom’s sitting area, her legs curled underneath her. She had shielded herself against the morning’s chill with her favorite ratty old robe and was absently fiddling with the frayed edges of one cuff as she stared out of the room’s sliding glass door. Even in the early morning light, anyone who might have seen Raye would have immediately recognized that there was nothing inside or outside the room that held the attention of her red, puffy eyes.

The same continuous loop of images that had disrupted her sleep all night were still making their agonizing march in front of her glazed eyes as the morning light grew brighter: the instant she’d touched Adam’s hand as he’d extended it to lift her from the floor. The tender determination in his eyes just as he’d leaned in to kiss her. His long, elegant fingers tangling themselves in her hair. The way he’d breathed her name and made it sound like an answered prayer. How desperately she’d clung to him and had wanted to continue. How miserably she wished they had.

No – no you don’t, she told herself for at least the fourth time. First and foremost, Raye knew she was too principled, too self-conscious, and just too old fashioned to sleep with a man she’d known less than a month, never mind less than a week. Sandra always insisted Raye was just too neurotic to let go and enjoy herself, but Raye had never felt comfortable with the idea of being so emotionally and physically intimate with practical strangers. It was one area of her life where Raye absolutely refused to cave in to Sandra or be swayed by her litany of ‘helpful suggestions’.

God forbid I’d actually slept with him, Raye continued her train of thought. Firstly, I’d have been no better than any of the other tramps I always look down on for offering themselves to rock stars like human goodie bags. Secondly, this breakdown is a walk in the park compared to what I’d have done to myself if there had been full on “physical intimacy” – I’d have probably stopped him in the middle of everything because of mind-crushing guilt. As much as Raye didn’t want to focus on what she might have done, it was the one point that kept coming back to her. She certainly hadn’t been as willing to give herself up so quickly in her last good relationship, and she had been positive pretty early into it that they were meant for each other for life.

Benjamin Taylor Haley – the name floated through her mind like a slow rising mist. Raye hadn’t thought of Ben in quite a while; it was easier for her that way. Thinking of him just reinforced her self doubt about her ability to make good choices when it came to men. She and Ben had begun dating the year after Raye went to work at Cape Fear Claims. He’d been putting himself through night school by working for a courier service and their friendly banter during his regular visits to her office had turned to casual flirting and, eventually, an invitation to dinner. With his bright green eyes and conditioned physique, Raye didn’t understand why she should be so lucky as to attract his interest, but that didn’t stop her from accepting his dinner proposal almost before he’d finished making it. Their first date had been nothing spectacular – pizza at a local bistro, followed by a couple of ice creams and an easy stroll through downtown Wilmington – but their conversation had set Raye’s heart on fire. He was wittier, smarter, and more charming than she had ever imagined he would be from just their office interactions and he seemed completely smitten with her. Within a month, she’d learned he was absolutely amazing in bed; within six months, they’d moved into an apartment together. Flash forward a year: Ben graduated and was offered a great position with a Chicago oncology specialist. Raye had been speechless when he’d announced during dinner one night at “their bistro” that he’d accepted the position and was expected to start work within three weeks. She had managed to speak, however, when he’d knelt beside the table and presented her with a huge diamond ring, asking her to be a partner in his future and marry him.

She’d told him no. She thought they were too young and the strain of a new job, a new city, and a new marriage would be too much – it would be irresponsible of them to jump into a marriage. Raye remembered being pretty irritated, too, that he’d made all these plans for them without ever consulting her and had told him so. She understood when looking back on the whole picture that Ben had just been trying to do what he’d thought was best for them. He’d fought with her for almost two weeks to accept his proposal and the ring. Then, one evening, she’d come home from work to find the apartment empty of all Ben’s clothes and a handwritten letter addressed to her on the bed they’d shared. He’d told her that he needed Chicago, he needed her in his life, and that he wasn’t finished fighting for her, that he’d be returning to Wilmington in two weeks and he wanted to get things worked out. He was true to his word and things did get settled – though not to Ben’s preference. After two very late nights of talking and crying – from both parties – they realized their life had ended and that their very different lives were beginning. Ben wanted the excitement and opportunities that a metropolis could offer; Raye had her foot in the door with Jimmy and was certain he was almost ready to give her the chance to be an adjuster. If she moved, she’d have to start from the bottom again, in a much larger pool of fish. The Monday morning that Ben left with the remainder of his things, he’d kissed Raye more passionately than she’d ever been kissed before or since, told her he would never be the same without her, and then walked out of her life. They had kept in touch sporadically by email or the occasional weekend phone call for close to a year before the contacts became less and less frequent. Within eighteen months, the calls and emails had stopped entirely. The last Raye had heard from mutual friends, Ben was in Scottsdale, Arizona working for an exclusive cancer center, happily married and the father of three. She wondered, as she did every time he crossed her mind, if that should have been her in Arizona.

“If you were in Arizona, though”, she spoke out loud to herself, “you wouldn’t have been here to meet Adam.” But what did that mean, she questioned, refocusing on her present instead of her past. So she’d met U2 and they were all great guys and one of them, apparently, thought he was interested in her. So what? At this point, Raye wasn’t sure if she was attracted to Adam or to the image that she’d created over twenty-some years of idolizing the band. He was a real human being, with all kinds of annoying habits and personal quirks – he had to be! Her love affair with an idealized fantasy did not automatically translate into a healthy relationship with the real thing. Was she feeling a connection with Adam based on her theory of who he was or had she really being drawn into something unbelievably amazing?

Raye nearly jumped out of her skin when the alarm clock by her bed suddenly announced that it was 8:15AM. Her heart pounding, she walked to the nightstand and shut off the bleating alarm. Rolling her stiff neck from shoulder to shoulder, she stood for a minute or two by the bed, stalling. She absolutely did not want to be in the company of anyone else today and the longer she put off getting into the shower, the longer she could remain alone. Admitting to herself that she was just putting off the inevitable, she finally reached over and loosely straightened the bedclothes before shuffling off to the bathroom to begin her morning routine. Confident that with bed head, a red nose and puffy eyes, plus yesterday’s leftover makeup splattered across her pores that she must look like warmed over Hell, Raye looked into the bathroom mirror and confirmed her suspicions. Beyond the point of really caring, she just shrugged her shoulders as she loaded toothpaste onto her tooth brush and began working on her molars.

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Getting through breakfast was nearly unbearable. Her reluctance to come downstairs had ensured that Raye didn’t enter the room until well after everyone else was seated with their coffee or hot tea, nibbling on banana bread or blueberry muffins that Joy had pre-baked for them. Being the last one to enter the kitchen also guaranteed that she wouldn’t be able to avoid questions about her appearance.

While the eye drops she’d taken before starting her shower had helped reduce most of the redness in her eyes, they could do nothing for the puffiness of her eyelids. She’d tried placing a cool, wet washcloth over her face after leaving the shower, but if it’d had any effect at all, Raye couldn’t tell. She settled on blaming new cologne for causing the ‘allergic reaction’ that had her eyes swollen and her nose irritated. Just as with her deceit at dinner the previous evening, no one challenged her, but Raye still felt there was at least one person in the room who wasn’t buying her story.

When the topic of discussion finally turned to plans for the day, Raye actually felt some enthusiasm for the conversation. While Bono and Adam carried on a guarded chat at the table, Larry, Edge and Paul were gathered around the bar, asking Leo for his opinion on where they could find the best local steaks and the coldest bottled Guinness. It seemed Leo had announced before Raye came down for breakfast that Joy had Sundays off and that they would be fending for themselves when it came to meals for the day. Larry and Paul had decided between themselves that Sunday was the perfect day for making steak and Guinness pie and that Larry, the finest cook amongst them, would be the one to do the honors.

Raye noted that while Paul and Larry seemed to be the designated decision makers for the day, when it came to what ingredients would be needed for the pie, it wasn’t the gourmet percussionist who was rattling off a shopping list, but the Thinker of the group: Edge. Raye couldn’t help but smile a bit as she watch him methodically counting off the raw materials needed to create the dish of Larry’s (and Paul’s) choosing. Ever the voice of reason, Larry finally shushed Edge and announced they’d be best to just marinate some steaks and grill them later than go to all the trouble of steak pie. Leo quickly agreed, announcing that there was a wonderful little butcher’s shop just off the beach with afternoon hours and that he’d be happy to drive ‘the lads’ on a errand to collect the makings for their evening’s dinner – provided, of course, they didn’t mind staying incognito in the car while he actually entered the various establishments they needed to visit.

Raye wasn’t sure how Bono and Adam would react when they found out they’d not been included in these plans at all, but she didn’t have time to worry about that at the moment. Seeing the opportunity to put her plan into action, she addressed Leo from where she stood, by the refrigerator.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea, Leo – you could even give the guys a little tour of the island. And while you’re all out getting things for dinner, I have some errands that I need to take care of.”

“Why don’t you come with us, Raye?” Edge made the offer and looked to the other three for their support.

“That’d be splendid”, Leo agreed. “It would be no trouble at all to add your lists of shops to our road trip.”

Paul and Larry both voiced their support of the idea as well, but Raye was standing firm on her decision – she’d be striking out on her own today. Naturally, they were curious and wanted to know what she was up to.

“You say that like I’m so devious”, she told them. “It’s really nothing exciting at all.” Raye went on the explain that she wanted to get photos of some of the large live oak trees that were native to the area because she thought it’d be nice to add a few botanical elements to her finished project. There were several gorgeous specimens in a nearby public garden that she could go to; she went on to explain that she also needed to make a quick stop by her home to check her the mail and water her plants. Assuring the cooks that she’d not be gone all day, Raye saw that she’d caught Adam’s attention and he was watching her intently from across the room while Bono continued talking to him. Bono, noticing that Adam was looking past him now, stopped and turned in his seat to see what was so interesting. Looking back at Adam and following his gaze directly to Raye, she thought Bono actually gave her a disgusted look before he turned to face Adam again and resume their conversation, this time with a bit more waving of the hands than there’d been earlier. Raye’s self-consciousness went from zero to paranoid in .014 seconds, but she wasn’t interested for the time being in what she’d done to upset Bono – that issue would have to wait until she’d had more time alone to sort out last night’s issue.

Raye made her steak preference known to Leo – a seven ounce New York Strip – and asked that if they came across any Bulmer’s apple cider in their travels to locate Guinness that they’d do her the favor of bringing some back with them. Larry wanted to know what she knew about Bulmer’s and seemed impressed with her choice. She quickly explained that she’d worked a damage claim a year or so earlier at a small pub on the far side of Wilmington, owned by a native Dubliner. After she’d inspected the damage, she’d sat down at the pub’s bar to work out an estimate on her laptop and the owner had insisted on feeding her lunch. He’d produced a plate rounded with crispy golden battered cod and homemade chips and served it with a cold bottle of Bulmer’s that he’d pulled from a small cooler under the bar. He’d explained it was part of his own private stash, since he wasn’t able to find a regional beer distributor who could install and supply Bulmer’s on draft for him. Raye smiled to the group as she relayed her introduction to Irish hard cider and admitted that she enjoyed the first one so much, she and the pub owner had finished two more before she’d left his place.

Finally free to leave the kitchen and the house in general, Raye quickly returned to her room to grab her keys and purse. Anticipating the next few hours of solitude and the clarity she hoped they’d bring, Raye felt as she descended back down the stairs that a fifty pound weight had been lifted from her back. Popping her head in the kitchen to say good-bye before she started for the front door, Ray saw that Bono and Adam were no longer seated at the breakfast nook. Not dwelling on the fact, she told the remaining occupants of the room that she would see them in a few hours and began to make her way to the front door. Car keys in hand, Raye had just unlocked the deadbolt and was reaching for the door handle when she heard someone clear their throat from behind her.

“Ahem.”

Not really knowing who to expect, Raye turned in the direction of the sound, her right hand still resting on the door handle that was now partially behind her. Leaning against the back of one of the great room’s red leather chairs, his legs stretched out lazily in front of him, and her camera hanging by its neck strap from his left index finger, was Adam with a look somewhere between smugness and disdain.

“You’ll be needing this for those pictures… won’t you?”

The accusatory tone that dripped from his last two words nearly pierced Raye to the front door. It’d been an honest mistake. True, she’d originally made up the story about wanting some “botanical elements” in her project, but after she’d said it out loud in the kitchen, she’d realized the addition of some gracefully twisted live oaks, with their massive trunks and veils of Spanish moss would be a nice visual contrast to the portrait photos and would help give the finished product a nice atmosphere. She’d just been so intent on being alone, that she’d honestly forgotten to grab the camera before she headed out the door. She was certain she’d have remembered it immediately after getting into her Pathfinder.

She could see from the look on his face – which was growing darker with every passing minute – that she’d never convince Adam, so she just stared at the floor near his feet and uttered a meek “yes” in reply. He’d not moved an inch since she entered the room and he wasn’t making any obvious plans to do so now, from what Raye could see. Still, she wasn’t sure if she was expected to come and retrieve her camera or if Adam intended to bring it to her since he’d already been so kind as to remove it from its case. Growing irritated with the situation – how dare he use that accusing tone with her! – Raye let go of the door handle and intended to go collect her camera so she could finally be alone. But with amazing grace and speed, Adam was on his feet and moving toward her very doggedly before she could take step one. The velocity at which he was approaching took Raye by surprise and she literally backed herself into Leo’s front door as Adam barreled down on her. He stopped just short of her own feet and glared at her, his normally ice blue eyes now dark and intense.

“This is your second attempt in the last twelve hours to run from me. I have some thoughts on last night, too, and while you’ve denied me an equal opportunity so far, I will have my say about it, one way or another.”

With his right hand planted on the door just above Raye’s shoulder and her camera still held in his left, he loomed over her now, his face inches from hers. He spoke in a hushed tone, but there was no mistaking the intensity of his words. Raye couldn’t manage anything at first but to stand still as a post, blinking rapidly at him, with her mouth slightly agape.

“Uuuhh…” Raye tried to form some kind of response, but what could she say? She was trying to run from him for the second time in less than a day and she had denied him a chance to voice any opinion on their library incident. Raye knew a mutual exchange between them was needed but with freedom literally at the doorstep, she was determined that right now was not the time. She breathed deeply, held her head a little higher and pushed her shoulders back and mirrored his concentration with a resolve of her own.

“Adam, please”, she quietly but firmly started, “I can’t do this right now. Yes - we need to sit down and talk about it. And we will, I swear. But right now, I’ve got to get out of this house.” She looked at him plaintively and hoped he would trust her to keep her word. But it seemed that his tenacity wasn’t spent quite yet. Raye could swear she could see the wheels turning in Adam’s mind as he cocked his head to one side and processed her answer.

“You mean you have to get away from me, don’t you?”

Exasperated, Raye sighed before answering. “Not just you, Adam. I need to get away from everyone right now. I want to go work with my camera and have an opportunity to just think – I’ve had a very unusual weekend and quite frankly, it’s been exhausting for me; it’s much more excitement than I’m used to. I need a couple of hours alone to sort everything out. Now, may I please have my camera?” Raye made her last comments firmly, to try and convey to Adam that they weren’t really request – she was going to leave the house right now whether he liked it or not.

“I have your word that we’ll discuss this properly?” The darkness had gone from his eyes now, though he was still eyeing Raye suspiciously. “Today?” He slowly backed away from the door and offered Raye’s camera to her.

“You have my word. After dinner – is that acceptable?” She reached out to take her camera from him, careful not to touch his hand or let his touch her. That last thing she needed before leaving was to get distracted, or worse, overpowered by the gravitational pull his touch seemed to exert over her. It was nearly imperceptible, but as she took the camera, Raye noticed Adam wince. He’d seen her purposely avoid his hand.

“I suppose I have to accept your terms – again.”

There was no mistaking the hurt in his reply. Guilt nearly drove her to drop the camera, drop the pretension that she wasn’t madly attracted to him and throw her arms around him, begging for forgiveness. But the fear of ultimately being rejected by the beautiful creature in front of her was greater than the guilt of hurting him.

Raye opened her mouth to once again promise Adam that they would talk, but before she could utter ‘I promise’, he had turned and was making his way to the glass door and the deck beyond. Raye stood, taken aback, unable to believe that he’d just walked away and not given her the chance to say anything. The epiphany that it was exactly the same thing she’d done to him before dinner last night hit her in the gut like a kick to her torso.

She solemnly stepped out the front door, closing it silently behind her. “Touché, Mr. Clayton”, she whispered, as she made her way down to the driveway and her waiting vehicle. “Touché. Point well taken.” Sliding into the driver’s seat of her Pathfinder, Raye inserted the keys into the ignition and started the engine, then put the transmission into gear and pulled away from Lionel’s. As her CD player came back to life where it had stopped on Thanksgiving afternoon – in the middle of “Best of U2: The B-Sides 1009-2000” - Raye quickly reached for the car stereo and turned it off. Hoping it was a wasn’t a glimpse into her future she felt the first pangs of withdrawal as she realized, for the first time in her life, their music was the last thing she wanted to hear.
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Old 09-18-2010, 02:57 AM   #2
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Glaring typo. "Best of U2: The B-Sides 1009 - 2000" should obviously read "... 1990 - 2000" This is the kind of stuff that I find after it's too late for me to edit & it drives me INSANE.
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Old 09-18-2010, 11:40 PM   #3
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You think YOU have typo's? HA! I'm the worst...lol!

Anyways, gorgeous chapter! i can hardly WAIT for the "conversation."

...just jump his bones, Raye. You know you wanna!
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Old 09-24-2010, 02:53 PM   #4
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Great!!!!!! Just great!

Just love the sory and the way you write it. It´s really good the way you describe the inner thoughts she is having ...

Looking forward to read chapter 25
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Old 09-24-2010, 11:31 PM   #5
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Thank you... Chpt 25 is going up shortly.
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