When I received the swanky invitation to the Locksley’s dinner party, I almost chucked the lace card in the trash. The invitation was a mistake. The Locksley’s and I were not on good speaking terms. I’d dated one too many of their daughters and had been told by Mr. Locksley, in the most gentlemanly fashion, to scram. But I held onto the card, magnetizing it to the fridge. Mrs. Locksley phoned a week later, inquiring about my RSVP.
“So this wasn’t a mistake?” I questioned. “You really want me there?”
“But of course we want you here,” she answered. “Why wouldn’t we want you here? Richard—why wouldn’t we want Mr. Welker to attend?” Mr. Locksley mumbled something in the background. “Oh, no, of course we want you here,” Mrs. Locksley confirmed. “So, will you be able to grace us with your presence?”
My calendar lacked any pen strokes, so I agreed.
“Great. Formal attire, please.” And that was that. The line clicked.
Any Locksley dinner party was a ball. Women paraded in luxurious gowns, frosted in diamonds. Men wore tuxedos, polished hair pieces and gold cufflinks. You had to be "in" to get in, and, since I’d played my way into the Locksley girls’ hearts, I was in. It would be socially rude of Mrs. Locksley not to invite me, no matter how much she loathed me.
Upon arriving, the usual valet and butler greeted me. But I also noticed security guards patrolling the grounds. Curious, I slipped the valet a twenty and nodded toward the men with side arms.
“Are we in the company of royalty tonight?” I smirked, patting the valet’s coat.
His white-gloved hand simultaneously took my money and my keys. “Miss U.S.A., actually.”
I was intrigued. “Really? The pageant beauty? The blonde one?”
The valet smiled. “Yes, sir. The blonde one.”
“Well, isn’t that something.” I slipped him another twenty. “What a night, huh?”
I slid through security and stepped onto the marble floors in the foyer. A grand chandelier hung above, and two statues of Greek emperors stood on both sides of the room. I’d seen it all before—the crystal dishes, the mountains of flowers, the gold insets in the railings, the string quartet and the servers dressed as penguins. My eyes were eager to find Miss U.S.A.
From the moment I saw her, I wanted her. I wanted to be the one to sweep her off her feet and do all that princely crap girls swoon over. I adjusted my tie, praised myself for choosing the brilliant green one—it popped against the Prussian blue theme of the night—and strolled to the throng of losers surrounding the country’s most beautiful woman.
The men swooning over her were pitiful. Nobody stood out; no competition. I listened to her conversation with them, noted her attitude toward each and memorized every line that left her sultry lips. And I noticed an imperative factor: she was bored. Bored with everyone. Bored with the event. She looked like she’d been to a million of these grand balls. She sighed, looked past the drone talking to her, and twirled her glittery clutch.
I cleared my throat and moved in. Made eye contact. “Excuse me, could you please move. You’re blocking the pathway for Ms. Mariah Carey.”
Miss U.S.A.’s eyes widened. She looked offended, but she licked her lips and smiled. “Of course.”
“That’s it, just—” I scooted her to the side, “right about here. Out of the way.”
As I’d predicted, the crowd of goons around her dissipated in search of Mariah Carey, leaving a very insulted Miss U.S.A. behind. “I’m so sorry, Miss….” I let my words fall.
Her tongue curled in her mouth. “Beth Landice.”
“Right, Miss Landice.” I squinted. “The actress?”
“Miss U.S.A.,” she corrected, breaking eye contact. She smoothed her dress.
“Right, right. The beauty queen.” I tapped my shoes on the floor. Mrs. Locksley waved at me from across the room, and I smiled back and dipped my head.
“I’m sorry, and you are?” Beth slouched one shoulder, losing her perfectly straight stance.
“Me? Just a guy who can tell you’re bored out of your mind. Just a guy who’s looking for a good time. Hopefully with you.” I shrugged. Played it cool. My cards were on the table, and if I’d anticipated her correctly, she’d scoop them up and we’d get out of here.
Beth’s dazzling blue eyes looked me over. She smiled and shook her head. “I don’t even know who you are.”
“Let’s ask Mrs. Locksley,” I said, taking her by the arm. We wiggled through the crowd, and I cornered the host.
“Why, hello, Tony,” Mrs. Locksley said without an ounce of hatred in her voice. “So nice to see you again.” Her eyes darted from me to Beth and back. “I see you’ve met Beth Landice.”
“I have, and I must say, we’re really hitting it off.” I winked at Beth as Mrs. Locksley waved at another guest. “Would you tell Beth how I treated your daughters, Mrs. Locksley?”
Mrs. Locksley’s head snapped to attention. “Pardon me?
“You know, tell Beth how good I was to them. How I made them laugh, took them on all sorts of adventures, showered them with praises.” My words were dripping with cynicism, and Mrs. Locksley’s face grew shades darker with each syllable that left my lips. “And, go ahead. Tell Beth how I wouldn’t put up with any of their crap. I’m sorry, but I’m not made of money. By all means, I’ll go to great lengths to have a good time, but I’m not going to cater to every ridiculous request a Locksley woman throws my way. No sir.”
Mrs. Locksley’s face was as red as a sunburned nose. “Mr. Welker, that will be quite enough!”
Ah-ha! There was that suppressed antagonism. I smirked and waved a finger at Mrs. Locksley. “Oh, Mrs. Locksley. Gloria. Can I call you Gloria? I’m just so glad you invited me tonight.”
“Leave, Mr. Welker,” Mrs. Locksley demanded. She held out her arm, adorned in diamond bracelets, and pointed to the door. “Now." Then she whipped around and walked away. "I really thought we could be civil, really," she scoffed.
“Smell that snoot?” I said, turning toward Beth. I didn’t know how Beth felt in that moment, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about it. Best case scenario, I intrigued her. Worst, I was about to be slapped.
To my delight, Beth was trying to suppress a smile, and she was doing a horrible job.
I extended my arm. “Will you accompany me out? Blow off the glitz and arrogance for the night?” It was risky; I was being just as pompous. But maybe she’d realize that my arrogance stemmed from a different tree.
Beth glanced around. Then her fingers touched my arm. “I’ll have to ditch the bodyguards,” she whispered.
I swung her away from Mrs. Locksley and aimed for the study. “I just happen to know that there’s a back entrance to this place.”
“How convenient,” she replied, squeezing my hand.
The starry night sky glistened as I guided my Lexus on a secluded, snaking forest road. Illuminated by high beams, birch trees lined the road, bark as white as that of a vampire’s luminescent skin. The green foliage atop the white-skinned trees blurred as I whipped the car around corners.
Beside me, Beth rolled down her window and hung her tanned arm out, stretching her neatly manicured fingers in the breeze. Her tousled blonde hair blew gently, hair spray maintaining a tight hold of each strand. She’d bought a good product, I thought. The warm summer air poured into the car, and for the first time since being in a congested ballroom, I smelled her lilac perfume and drew a deep, anxious breath. The leather seat squeaked as she crossed her legs, the little black dress revealing her thighs. Her pink lips stretched into a smile, and she tilted her head toward me, tauntingly batting her lashes.
I had to summon all the willpower I had to regain focus on the road.
More ghostly trees smeared by. My foot punched the accelerator, but my eyes wandered back to the soft-skinned hand entering my peripheral vision. Beth giggled, reaching forward to turn up the radio. Mariah Carey’s high-pitched vocals shattered my eardrums. Ironic, I thought as I placed my hand on hers, stroked her knuckles and squeezed gently. She released the dial and let me bring her hand to my lips. I kissed her palm and my eyes roamed up and down her curves. She rested her head against the seat, sighing contentedly, arm still dangling out the window, glad to be free.
Again I glanced at the little yellow lines directing the car’s path. I braked for a tight curve and released her hand. She tickled my ear with her red fingernails and stroked the back of my neck. Mariah hit her career-defining high note, voice mellifluous and swanky. Beth mimicked Mariah’s hand motions, fingers popping an invisible scale beside her, up and down, up, up and down. A silly grin plastered my face, and I reached out and caressed her exposed knee. Her warm skin made my heartbeat spike, and I glanced at the speedometer and released the pedal a tad. Beth elevated her knee, and the black fabric slid back. My fingers leisurely glided beyond her knee until I felt the silky tip of the dress. With no opposition, I slipped curious fingers under the material. She let me hover there for a moment before grasping my hand and sliding it back to her knee. With a suggestive smile, she adjusted the dress and rubbed my forearm gingerly.
"Later," she whispered just as Usher started serenading us with his “Confessions.”
I released a tensely held breath and loosened my collar. Yes, later. Later I could venture beyond the hem of her silken dress. And later would happen sooner the faster I drove. Unfortunately, I’d chosen the long way home through the enchanting wood because I thought it would be more romantic. So I’d have to exercise patience. Beth hummed along with Usher, red pumps dipping to the beat. I couldn’t help but watch as the hem rose with each wiggle of her foot. The silk bunched around her waist, shining as it caught the glow from the cool blue interior lights.
“You’re simply beautiful,” I said as Usher began the song’s bridge.
Beth playfully swooshed her hair back and forth. “I know,” she said confidently, smiling. She reached out, touched my nose. “How long did it take you to come up with that little skit? How’d you know I wouldn’t blow you off?”
“I didn’t.” I took a deep breath. But thank God you didn’t.
“I’m so tired of all these fancy dinner parties and all these snobs with money and manners.” She bit her lip. “You were a very sweet relief.” Her fingers cradled the back of my neck. Played with my hair. She leaned closer. I could feel her breath on my neck.
My heart was pounding so passionately that the whole car seemed to rock with each beat. But it wasn’t from my heartbeat.
Suddenly, the car jerked violently and careened down a slope.
Before my brain could switch gears and process the situation, we smashed into a grove of those white-washed trees. Glass shattered. Metal crumpled. Bones snapped. Beth’s seat belt caught her, but her forehead plunged into the dashboard. She pulled away, blonde hair sticking to a bloody gash above her eyebrows. Jaw crooked, blue eyes bleary and confused, she opened her mouth to speak, but no sound arose. Steam hissed from the engine, the trees splintered and a branch fell on the hood with a thump!
Pain shot up my spine, and I tried to move to find relief, but my legs were jammed under the crumpled dash. The engine’s heat permeated the interior. Warm—once pleasant—air drifted through the windows and broken windshield. Shards of glass piled in my lap; a few stray pieces dug into my exposed flesh.
“Tony,” Beth whispered helplessly.
I shuddered, forcing my head to the right. Beth’s leg was twisted awkwardly, crushed under the dashboard. Exposed bone protruded from a dislocated knee. Blood poured from the head wound, covering her rosy cheeks in a more conspicuous red tint. Her eyes lazily opened and closed, and she moaned deeply, painfully. The silk dress still crumpled at her waist.
A flicker of light caught my attention. A puff of black smoke rose, and red and yellow flames appeared. Frantic, I pressed the “unlock” mechanism on the door. The bolts popped up and I slammed my shoulder into the door, pulling the handle in unison. The door creaked on its hinges, refusing to open. As the fire escalated, I screamed in horror and rammed my shoulder into the stubborn door one last time.
It fell from its hinges and I tumbled from the wreck.
“Beth! Get out!” I hollered, scrambling to my feet. My ankle snapped and I toppled into the grass. “Beth!”
I heard movements from inside the car. She was scratching and crying for a way out. Her words were jumbled, sobs increasing. The wind rustled the leaves in the trees around me as I gritted my teeth and forced myself up. Limping around the back of the car, I fell to the soft earth by her door and yanked on the handle. The door opened easily enough, but Beth was tucked underneath warped metal.
Blue eyes hysterical, her red claws grabbed my shirt, and she tugged me closer with the strength of a bear. “Pull me out!” she bellowed.
Without hesitating, I scooped her up and heaved her out with all my quickly fading strength. We collapsed backwards and she wailed dreadfully, fingernails digging into my shoulders.
I rolled her shaking body away and lugged her and myself from the wreckage. Her mascara smudged around her eyes and dripped down her cheeks, mixing with blood. As she coughed and gagged, I tried wiping her face clean, but the blood gushed uncontrollably from a deep cut. Glass, I noticed, was lodged in her skull.
“My leggg,” she groaned, voice deep and drawled.
My eyes wandered slowly down her trembling curves to the dislodged bone in her once perfect knee.
“Oh, God,” I murmured, gulping back bile. A sharp piece of bone was tearing through her flesh. “Oh, my God.” I rummaged in my slacks for my Blackberry. My fingers, numb from shock, dialed 9-1-1. I could barely tell the woman on the other end what had happened. “There’s been an accident… I don’t know where exactly… Highway 39? Please hurry….”
“Tony…” Beth wailed, grasping at my hands. Her breathing was shallow, hands as white as the birch trees around us.
All I wanted to do was cover up the mess. Cover her legs. Cover the blood. Urgently, I groped for the silk fabric and pulled it down. It reached just above the knee, above the bone. I pulled harder and the silk ripped, tearing diagonally from my fingers to her belly button. A tiny corner covered the shredded flesh. Against her protests, I tried to lengthen the dress, tried to cover her up. Hide her legs. Hide the horrific sight.
Why wasn’t there more fabric? Why wasn’t it longer? Why was the silk so flimsy?
“Tony, help me!” Beth whimpered, gasping for breath.
“I… I…” my mouth was parched, my ankle limp. Pieces of embedded glass burned my cheeks. I felt woozy. Bringing my hand to my mouth, I inhaled and grimaced at the stench of blood. Not my blood: her blood. It was everywhere, all over me and my suit. In shock, I grabbed my head to stabilize my vision. The blood clumped in my neatly trimmed brown locks. Beth coughed up more blood, and I balked. “I’m sorry, I can’t! I just can’t!” I tore away from her, away from her disfigured skin and body’s deformity. Never had I been so revolted.
Cell phone glued between my ear and shoulder, I crawled on bruised knees and sliced palms up the grassy incline, clumps of mud sticking to my slacks. My tie caught on my knee, and my head jerked to the ground. I tore it off and left it behind. When my hands touched the tar surface, I collapsed in relief. The tension leaked from my pores. I’d survived; the car hadn’t exploded. But it would explode and Beth would die if I didn’t find help soon.
The 9-1-1 dispatcher’s voice was calm: “We’re sending help, just hang on.”
I lost grip of the phone and it shattered on the cement.
Beth’s moans echoed through the surrounding wraith-like trees. I sat on the side of the road in darkness, fondling my ankle, gathering the courage to pop it back in place, if that was possible. I rocked back and forth, cursing my romantic intentions. The crickets chirped around me, and the light breeze dried the tears staining my cheeks.
I’d left her, possibly to die. Now, I waited. I waited for an explosion, the headlights of a car or the moaning to cease.
All the while, Mariah Carey’s squawking lingered in my memory.
When I finally wandered into my house early the next morning from the hospital, a firm hand grabbed my collar and yanked me into the shadows of my living room. Curtains closed, lights out, a burly man beat me. He tore off the bandages on my head and punched away.
The car accident hadn’t given me a broken nose, but this man did.
I don’t know who he was, but I have my suspicions. Beth and I’d snuck away from, I’d suspect, some pretty underpaid bodyguards at the Locksley’s mansion, and they were feeling the heat of failure. Essentially, I’d kidnapped Miss U.S.A. and totaled my car as she sat by my side.
She’d lost her beauty; I’d lost my pride. Maybe now the Locksley’s would think twice before inviting me to another ball, and I would think twice before charming a beauty queen.
Originally written in 2010.