Strange as Angels Dancing



Chapter 1: Big Ben

He counted silently in his head; one two, three, and 100 kilos were raised into the air in one swift movement. Five quick breaths and suddenly the weight lost their magical buoyancy and came crashing back to earth. Ben made a circle with his neck and head in order to prevent spasms and also loosened his shoulders by shaking his arms. One more he told himself and lifted the weights up for the twentieth time. All the men occupying the free-weight room watched with envy, admiration and plain fear. Ben Winters they whispered to each other and wary recognition skated around the room. No wonder, he's got the Winters' blood in him. But if he had the name he didn't resemble any of his brothers.

All the Winters men were thin, with narrow hips and somewhat narrow shoulders. They were known for their wiry resiliency and sudden bursts of energy. But Ben was broad shouldered and his back muscles plainly rippled from his neck to the small of his back as he released the weights to the floor. Veins were visibly pumping blood as they furiously tried to slacken the thirst of oxygen felt by the muscles. Ben was finally finished with his set, and tomorrow will be Friday, which meant he was going to the boxing gym. He joined one just out of curiosity and had the hell beaten out of him in his first round inside the ring. Determined to do better he stuck to his routine and within months his opponents had hard time trying to dodge his blows instead of giving theirs. He knew he was finally accepted to the club when his membership bill was the annual sum instead of the monthly due. That meant they expected him to stick around and actually preferred his presence. It was one of his proudest moments but like many he never mentioned it to his family.

He took his towel and trudged to the showers trying to think of an excuse to not show up at the art exhibition at Bauble. His mate Paul Halloway wheedled him into attending but Ben really didn't feel like going and ogling at artwork that was better left...undiscovered. Paul was also suffering from post-divorce trauma, which basically meant sudden disappearance of sex in his life. And like many once-again bachelors he discovered the grass was NOT greener on the side of the swinging single existence. Ben had to admit though he himself was feeling the lack of certain feminine presence in his world. His last girlfriend was more than a year ago and the breakup was traumatic enough for him to duck from meeting women for a while. It was only last night that he felt the twinge to actually try and get the phone number of a stunning redhead who was sitting only two tables away from him at dinner. Unfortunately he was eating with Jeb and it was the second Winters who walked away triumphantly with the much-desired digits. Ben would have held a grudge but he knew Jeb only too well and opted to be amused instead of annoyed.

The hot water did much to improve his melancholy mood and he stepped out of the showers feeling better. Then following his ritual he checked around to see if there was anyone else nearby. Seeing that the coast was clear he stepped on the very accurate water scale the men's locker room had. His weight hasn't changed, it was the same as it was for the last year or so. He gave a silent sigh of relief, he knew this habit was getting obsessive but there was nothing he hated more than to be ‘Big Ben' again. How he hated that nickname foisted on him by well-meaning but callous adults. ‘Big Ben' meant being fat and ungainly while being surrounded by gods like his brothers. ‘Big Ben' meant trying to not eat and still gain weight, day after day, year after year. ‘Big Ben' meant all the girls looked at you and called you their best friends while striking you out of their date-list. ‘Big Ben' meant looking at Jeb with his fashionable closet and making painful comparisons to your very unfashionable one. ‘Big Ben' meant everything he never wanted to be again.

Perhaps it was because of this train of thinking but Ben suddenly changed his mind and decided to go out and have a good time with Paul. And he was also determined to change the status of his love life if at all possible. With renewed determination he went home and searched through his closet looking for the best outfit to wear to such an occasion as a showing in a gallery. He found a nice ensemble that he hadn't worn in a while. A dark blue v-neck sweater with black pants and jacket. The deep cerulean color brought out his eyes and the black made him look slimmer. The cool autumn winds also told him that his outfit would be most appropriate, at least temperature wise. In less than thirty minutes he had Paul gabbing away in his car as the two headed towards London.

Bauble's affair was as pretentious as he feared. People talking about nonsensical things looking and admiring even sillier paintings and soon boredom preyed on him again. To top it off every woman was either taken or butch. Of course he could be totally wrong which wouldn't surprise him since he's been out of the circuit for a while. He turned around to dump his empty glass when a face caught his attention. And for a moment Ben wished he could paint for that face deserved to be preserved for the future to wonder. Her hair was black, not even one strand of lighter shade offended the midnight color. Her eyes were just as dark but her skin was pale with only a hint of blush on her cheeks. Her face was round but it came to a pointy end on her chin making it almost heart-shaped instead. Ben knew he had seen that face before, probably on the front of numerous London fashion magazines but it was even more breath-taking live than on some slick cover.

She turned her head to scan the busy room and her eyes were like shutters, taking everything in while her brain was furiously calculating out whatever formula it had. Paul's voice interrupted his reverie. "Don't even Ben. She's not worth it."

Ben turned to his friend, "You know who she is?"

Paul nodded, "She's a cow that's what she is. Her name's Beth and she was Mitch Henley's SO until she dumped him. From what I hear it was nasty and he's still not gotten over it yet. She's got razor for a tongue and..."

Ben smiled, "She dumped Henley? She actually told him to prey on someone else?"

Paul nodded frowning, "What's so funny?"

"Henley's a total b******. If she dumped him my friend it's sign of her good taste. Excuse me."

He made his way over slowly trying not to get her attention. She was just finishing off a conversation with someone and turned around to make her way through the room. Instead she bumped into Ben who had already strategically placed himself right at her path. "I'm sorry." She apologized and smiled at the stranger.

"It's quite all right. Probably the most exciting thing that happened to me so far in this dreary place."

The dark head leaned to the side in curiosity, "You don't like Faller's Portraits?"

Ben shook his head, "I'm afraid not. But then I'm no art critic though it looks like everyone else is. Let me introduce myself before I get any ruder. My name is Ben Winters."

The smile was wiped from her face and replaced with a false one. It was almost unnoticeable but Ben worked for the PR department in the Winters' firm and he spotted the change immediately. "I'm sorry did I say something wrong?"

"Winters, you are one of the brothers who run that investment firm?" He nodded slowly not realizing where the problem lay.


"Benjamin Frederick Winters." She uttered slowly.

He gave another nod, "That's my name. Why, don't you like Ben?"

"Ben seems so...friendly, almost common. Something the Winters men are not."

"That was uncalled for. What did we ever do to you?"

Beth's eyebrows fiercely knitted a sweater. "Jeb went out with my friend Sunny for all of three days. Then he dumped her via the answering machine."

Ben knew he was in trouble. Damn and blast Jeb and his bloody libido! "I'm not my brother." Was his feeble reply.

"Really? I'm sure womankind are all heaving a great sigh of relief right about now. Excuse me and by the way if you don't like Faller you should really leave. If you haven't noticed this whole showing is dedicated to him."

He replied, "I might. One thing though, could you tell me what this is all about?"

Beth turned to face him fully, "I coordinated ‘this' for my charity organization. A part of the proceeds from all the paintings sold tonight will go to our treasury and FYI, Faller's a dear friend of mine. And I personally think he's brilliant." Ben stared at the back of his female nemesis as she strolled away from him.

Well, the only way I could have done worse is to kill her family and plunder her village he thought sourly. She's beautiful though his id whispered to his wandering mind. And she did have wit not to mention a tongue to go with it -- definitely not a pretty trinket with pretty manners. Stop it, she'd rather go out with Henley again than spend another minute in your presence. But it was a losing battle for his common sense as Ben's curiosity got the better of him. It took him only five minutes to find out where she worked and lived. He didn't know what he was going to do with the information but he felt better having it.

Ben was in his bed and ready for sleep before one but the thought of the beautiful raven-haired witch kept him awake. He wondered if she was seeing anyone else in spite of reassurances from many friends that she was still single. A woman like that don't remain eligible for long in this world and he knew if he didn't act quickly someone else would snap her up. Flowers? Too common. A call? Too chancy, she might hang up on him. Message service? She'd laugh and think him a fool. Showing up on her front doorstep? Police. Bribing her doorman? Good idea. Did she have a doorman? That minor inconvenient thought was his last before sleep finally conquered his feverish brain.

Beth on the other hand didn't come home until almost three. The gallery was a minor success, but she was grateful for even small triumphs. It was her third gig since her breakup with Mitch and it felt good to know she still had the touch. Henley...she knew he spread horrible rumors about her but many disregarded them as the rantings of a bitter lover, which he was. She stared at the answering machine -- 49 messages. A spasm of pain went across the lovely face as she pressed the erase button. She was too tired to listen to them and she instinctively knew the originator of all those blinking lights. Beth fervently prayed once more that Henley would get tired and give up. She wasn't going to return to him and though she had told this to him over and over again he refused to listen to her. So the situation deteriorated to the point that Beth was seriously considering bringing in the police in order to handle her ex-boyfriend.

She put on an old T-shirt for pajamas and snuggled under the comforter. She loved the fall season best. The cool winds and the changing colors always made her feel festive and lively. But all she felt now was exhaustion and fear. Fear that she would wake up one night and see Henley sitting in her bedroom sofa. Fear that she would turn a corner and bump into him again. Out of reflex she tested her right arm. It was the latest casualty in her war of independence against Mitch. The last time they met it had turned into an ugly scene where he grabbed her arm hard enough to bruise it. The pain went away after a week and she was only able to use it to its full capacity since yesterday. She forced herself to think about something else and a pair of clear blue eyes drifted into the foray. Ben Winters she thought to herself finally allowing some luxury. Nice eyes, nicer bod, definitely a ‘hotty' as Sunny would say. But then all the Winters men were.

Beth met Sean few months back and thought him rather cold, abrasive and commanding. A man born for authority she remembered thinking, born to rule but not to share. Then there was Jeb whom she had the unfortunate luck of knowing far too much. And wasn't there another? The youngest named...Larry? She wasn't quite sure what his name was but knew that he was a surgeon working somewhere in London. Quite an accomplished family and all eligible bachelors. That ought to make them the top of her invitation list but she didn't have the stomach to deal with men who resembled Mitch Henley too close for comfort. One in her private life was bad enough but four in the public arena? She didn't hate herself that much yet.

Ben wasn't too bad though, he had the grace to blush when he realized how bad a mistake he had made. Insulting the hostess' friend was not socially acceptable behavior and the obvious interest in his eyes did make her feel rather giddy. It was good to know she could still rouse interest in other men, men besides Henley. But Ben was a Winters and they grew up in the same world as Mitch. She couldn't take the risk, not when she was still bleeding from the last one. With a deep sigh she turned the light off and forced herself to get some rest. He did have nice eyes...

She stared at the flowers sitting on her cramped desk. Henley had sent yet another two dozen white roses to her office. She tossed out the card and placed the flowers on the filing cabinet. Her admin asked, "You're not going to even bother to put those in a vase?"

Beth shook her head, "No, do you want them?"

June replied, "Not a chance sister. I want nothing to do with El Creepo. Why don't you report him Beth? He's making your life so miserable it's about time you paid him back."

She shook her head, "If I respond it will only encourage him. Let him run out of steam and I'll never have to deal with him again." June bit her lip, Beth's been saying that for months now and nothing had changed since the first day after the breakup. If anything the harassment was increasing in frequency and intensity. June was worried that one day the police will become involved in this sorry mess under the worst possible circumstances.

She had a private conversation with a friend down at the shelter last Saturday and the counselor was worried. "That's a classic story." GiGi said shaking her head. "Men like that never give up. They'll either wear down their victims or explode into violence. It's only matter of time before he does something quite rash. Make sure she's never alone with this Henley guy and if he does one thing out of hand call the police. That might sober him up, make him realize he's not omnipotent after all. She changed her locks since they broke up right?" June thought about that ominous question and felt fear travel down to her core. She liked Beth a great deal and was determined to see her safe, even if it meant facing Henley on her own. She wasn't stupid though, if it came down to that she would bring all her uncles to help her to straighten out the situation. The idea brought a smile to her face and lightened her mood.

Ben stared at the address and phone numbers written on a piece of paper. The morning meetings were dull as he expected but his one-on-one with Sean was anything but. "Are the pamphlets ready to go in Hamburg?" Sean asked as he flipped through what he assumed was the final artwork for the mailing.

"Not Hamburg, Cologne. It's cheaper to distribute from there. And here's the really final version of the pamphlet." Sean took one look at the cover and his jaw dropped open.

"I specifically said to not use this...this...whatever it's called."

Ben was ready for this battle; in fact he was armed to the teeth. "Sorry Sean but this is my job. I know the other was your first choice but it was frankly quite dull. If you want to present a new, more vibrant and active image of our firm this one's the way to go."

"It looks like some poster for one of those horrid American action films." Sean tossed out annoyed at the third Winters for going behind his back.

"And those American films make millions. We don't have to like it, hell we don't even have to condone it but whatever works, works. Anyway it rated highly with the younger active crowd in our last survey. Either way it's too late for you to do anything. There are over 5,000 printed and being distributed throughout Europe and here as we speak."

"You're costing me a fortune." Sean groused still unwilling to admit defeat. Ben smiled and gathered his material from the boardroom table that dominated his brother's office.

"PR is supposed to cost you a fortune. By the way I fired Cyber Muse. The web site wasn't hacking it and we're going to need to hire a new firm."

"That's fantastic news. So who's exactly keeping our site from being deluged?"

"It's not being deluged. In fact we're hardly getting over 400 hits a day. And that is incredibly sad for a firm our size and reputation."

"Oh please don't tell me you've hired bunch of drippy-nosed kids from some school!" Sean moaned and sat down hard on his chair.

"Yes. Two internationally renowned hackers and couple of what was the word...netgoddesses from Bristol. They're creating some sample sites for us to take a look at and I've scheduled for them to give us a presentation next Wednesday."

"I detest computers." Sean confided, "And they hate me with even bigger passion. The one in my house still refuses to let me log in."

Ben laughed, "It's not the computer's fault you lost the password. You still have no idea what it is?" Sean shook his head mournfully.

"Well brother, you either give in and call the Helpdesk or bring the stupid thing to one of the techs here in the office. Otherwise all you have is a very expensive paperweight."

Sean grunted, "I know I wrote it down somewhere. I'll find it yet." Ben shook his head in amusement and left the oldest alone to hammer out the finer details of running the investment firm. Ben sighed as he relieved the earlier meeting. He was actually expecting a stronger reaction from Sean and was very grateful that he was spared of his older brother's wrath. He looked at the paper in his hand and made up his mind to call. He didn't want to wait to have an ‘intimate' talk with her doorman. He dialed the number and Beth picked up the phone on the second ring. "Hello, this is Beth." Ben smiled unconsciously when he heard her voice.

"Hi, this is Ben." There was no response. "Ben Winters? We met last night..."

"Yes I know who you are, how did you get my number?"

"Would you like to tell me exactly what I've done that offended you so much?" He asked and Beth felt ashamed.

"Nothing, I have tons of work to do and all of them bothersome. How can I help you?"

"I was wondering if you wanted to go out for a bite to eat after work. Nothing fancy, just quiet place with some great food. Low on ambiance but great on calories."

She chuckled a little then lied, "I'm afraid not Mr. Winters. I have a portrait sitting scheduled for next few weeks."

"Portrait?" Ben asked his curiosity peaking. "Faller?"

"Yes, he's doing a portrait of me."

Ben whistled, "That's going to be very nice."

"Are you sure? Last night you told me you didn't like Faller's work at all."

"He would have to be a total moron to paint your portrait badly. Either that or he's into Cubism. Is that going on the market or is it a private matter between you two?" He didn't mean to but the last sentence reflected his unexpected jealousy very nicely.

"Neither. He's doing it for his own pleasure and exercise. He's only done male models so I'll be the first woman he's going to paint in his twenty plus years of his career."

Ben sighed, "Then it's not going to be sold to an adoring member of the public."

She chuckled louder, "Faller is not an easy man to be with. So I doubt that he has any adoring fans."

"What makes you think I was talking about the artist?" The silence that came from her end told him he went too far.

"I think I should go. I do have a great deal of work to do and you do too being a Winters' man."

"Why do you hold that against me? It's like a sin with you, I can't choose which family I was born into but my brothers aren't so bad and neither is mum."

"I'm sorry," she interrupted curtly, "But I have something that needs my attention right this minute. Good bye Ben Winters."

The dial tone on the other end told him the conversation was very much over and the brittle sound of her voice told him in more ways than one. Ben frowned, he should apologize but it would be best if he didn't call for now. The wise decision dampened his good mood and silenced him for the rest of the afternoon. Beth managed to push the conversation out of her mind until she was in her car. She took a deep breath; it wasn't fair, the way she treated him. The man was interested and all he was trying to do was strike up a conversation, a useless but a valiant effort nonetheless. In the past she would have been flattered and rather sympathetic, but after surviving Mitch all she wanted was peace and isolation.

What she didn't want was to return to her flat so she called up an old girlfriend and met her for a drink at the local pub. Jenna was already at a table and the two fell into easy conversation quickly. "How are you Beth?" The woman froze and slowly turned around to see Henley standing behind her chair.

"Who is your friend?"

She took a sip of her whiskey, "Jenna, this is Mitch Henley, my ex."

Henley gave a warm but tired smile, "Unfortunately that is true. Though I am trying my hardest to be otherwise. It's still nice to see you Beth." He leaned down and before she could turn away gave her a hard kiss. "Call me please."

Jenna stared at the broad back disappearing into the crowd at the bar. "Oh my...he's gorgeous! Where did he get those green eyes?"

"Probably from robbing poor people." Beth retorted sharply. Jenna's attention was grabbed by Beth's next act. She took her napkin and wiped her mouth as if it was touched by something filthy. It took Jenna exactly two seconds to figure out something was very wrong between her glamorous friend and one of the most powerful businessman in London. "Beth, tell me the truth. Is he bothering you?" Beth's eyes suddenly shifted away but Jenna saw the fear plainly written in them.

"He's more than being an arse isn't he? When you were going out with him you never called me. We stopped doing things altogether. I always wondered why...I thought it was because you thought that I wasn't good enough to hang around with you anymore. But that's not the truth is it Beth?" The raven hair shook from side to side. A thin voice came out from the slender frame.

"He won't leave me alone. He keeps calling and calling. I changed my number twice but he somehow finds out and it's almost non-stop at work. Oh G-d Jenna he's driving me insane. I'm terrified to walk at night now because I'm half-expecting him to be three steps behind me. I'm not crazy Jenna, I'm not being over-sensitive or hysterical. I'm telling the truth."

Jenna saw the desperation, the fear that nobody would believe Beth was telling the truth. She had known Beth for a long time, since College and one thing Beth never possessed was fear. But right at that moment it was coming off in waves from her best friend. Jenna leaned closer and took her friend's hands. "Tell me Beth. Tell me what that useless git's been doing to your life." Beth took a deep breath and began to tell her violent tale.

Mitch stared at them from the other side of the street. His form was hidden in the shadows created by the doorway. He crushed the dying cigarette butt with his hands. It was obvious that she wasn't going to go home alone tonight. Jennifer Dorset, he thought darkly. He remembered the pathetic b**** quite well. She was once Beth's closest friend until he came along. It didn't take much to cut her out of Beth's life but tonight it was a different story entirely. Now he was the one left outside and Henley didn't appreciate that at all. He took out the tiny velvet purse and opened it. A small thin band of silver fell into his palm. Around it three words were inscribed over and over. Vous et Nul Autre. He had a copy made from the original medieval keepsake which resided in the Victoria and Albert Museum. He beamed at the present he would have given her on her birthday. The words reflected exactly how he felt and Mitch was going to prove it, beyond a shadow of a doubt. You and No Other.


Chapter 2: Kitty Therapy

Beth looked at her desk then looked away in distaste. Another bouquet of flowers she didn't want. Then something caught her curiosity and she examined the flowers again. Obviously Mitch had asked for some advice because this was a total switch from his usual hothouse collection of exotics and roses. Peonies with their huge riotous petals almost dominated her whole desk. The color was rich lavender, almost purple and there was an unusual scent to them but she couldn't figure out what it was. She grabbed the proffered gift and threw it in the trashcan. She immediately began to feel better and started her day by taking care of the blinking button on her phone indicating messages. Mercifully most of it was work-related though Mitch left three. She gave a glance at her watch, not even eight. Did that man ever sleep? She thought with great irritation.

It was almost lunchtime when her phone rang. It was Ben Winters, again. "So did you get my present?" He cheerfully inquired. Beth drew a big blank, present? With horror she looked at the peonies now crushed under two coffee cups, three sets of unrecyclable documents and a half-eaten bun. "They're lovely." She replied lamely.

"Thank you. Mum loves to grow them and she brought me a whole bunch for some unfathomable reason. I thought you might appreciate them more." Beth closed her eyes and moaned silently. The scent that she detected earlier but could not name was dirt. Fresh dirt, which in turn meant fresh flowers in the truest sense of the word.

"They are lovely shade of lavender, tell me does your mother grow other flowers?"

Ben replied happily, "I have no clue. All I know is that she keeps winning prizes with her garden. I'm glad you liked them."

"Peonies are hardy flowers but they have short life after they've been cut. They're very delicate that way." Beth offered wondering if it was true. Because if he came by for an unexpected visit in the near future he would probably expect to see them squarely at the center of her desk. So she had to come up with a good excuse as to why they were nowhere to be found.

Ben was only too glad to find out she liked the flowers. Of course he didn't tell her that he asked Daphne to bring him some when she called to say she was dropping by. "So what are you doing for dinner?"

She sighed loudly into the receiver, "I am dining alone in my apartment."

"How about dining with me instead? If you want to eat in your apartment I'll be more than happy to comply."

She laughed a little in spite of herself. He did have the boyish charm that few Englishmen have. "No thank you Ben. I think I would like to spend some time alone."

Ben asked tactfully, "You are...single aren't you? I mean if you are seeing someone I don't want to be a bother."

Beth sighed, "I am seeing no one. I just came out of a relationship and I need a break, a long and necessary one Ben Winters."

"Mitch Henley?" Ben asked then waited in dread to hear another dial tone. Sometimes his mouth runs far too fast for his common sense to catch up.

"Yes, Mitch Henley. Our relationship wasn't a good one while it lasted and it's gotten worse since. But thank you Ben Winters for inquiring. I am deeply flattered but I am not on the market now for anything, including having dinner with you. Take care." The hateful ringing greeted his ear and he knew he lost Round Two. But somehow this one stung less than the first one.

Beth stared at the phone wondering why she replied the way she did. She should have lied and told him she was seeing someone which in turn would have guaranteed her some privacy. Why did she tell the truth? Because I am so tired of lying she finally admitted, especially to myself. She shuffled the papers and managed to read only the first paragraph for the next hour. If she had any energy she would have been upset with herself but as she was all she did was to become depressed. It was as if life wasn't going to let her forget the grievous fault of allowing Henley to climb into her bed.

One thing about good old Mitch, she finally admitted to herself was that he was a great lover. One that convinced her that she was the only person who mattered in his life. Beth closed her eyes and shook her head. That line of thinking will only get her into trouble. So she did the next best thing, she replaced Henley with Winters in her fantasies and that worked a lot better for both her sanity and her self-preservation. Five came rolling in and she walked to a cabstand to take a taxi home. She did have a car but she had taken the precaution of varying her route to her apartment. Something that she decided to do with great displeasure. It wouldn't be smart to make it easy for Henley to catch her in an underground car park or the Tube.

Beth walked through the lobby of her apartment when the receptionist flagged her down. "Miss Whitehead?"

Beth turned and answered, "Yes?"

"This came for you." She stood up and handed over a plastic bag drowning in savory aroma. Beth frowned but took the package and made her way to her apartment. She placed the take-out on the kitchen table and unfolded a slip of paper stapled to the brown paper bag.

I thought you might like Indian. But I wasn't so sure if you could take it as spicy as I do so the dishes are mild. Anyway enjoy.


Beth stared at the paper and tears slowly scarred the pale cheeks in spite of her best efforts to stop them from flowing. This was so patently unfair. Why couldn't I have met you before Henley? Why didn't you rescue me before Henley robbed me of my trust in people? Oh, don't come near me Ben Winters. I'm damaged goods now and you deserve so much better than someone like me. She took a big gulp of air and coughed violently. Obviously she was no longer even capable of crying properly. The frustration finally cracked the fragile self-control and she grabbed her purse and hurled it against the dining room door. The handbag opened and sprayed all its contents on the wooden floor. Still crying she grabbed the bag and started to collect the many useless things that haunted the leather present from her mother.

Wiping the tears from her face she took a plate and some utensils from the cabinets. She dumped the tasty rice and curry into the dish and began eating. It was more than delicious, it was almost heavenly and the food greatly improved her mood. Still dealing with her tumultuous emotions she finished the bittersweet meal. Then she debated whether to call him or not. Taking some courage she dialed his number and got his answering machine. The irony of the situation managed to bring a smile to her face. "Ben Winters, that was very presumptuous of you but also incredibly sweet. You got me flowers, you took me out to dinner. I think this constitutes as a date though I have yet to see your face today. Clever and somewhat twisted but I like that in a man." She laughed then, a light silvery sound that enchanted the listener who later got her message. "Thank you. That was very kind and thoughtful thing you did. Good night Ben Winters."

Ben sat there and played the message over and over again. How he loved to hear her say his name! And now he had it on tape so he could listen to it as often as he wished. The only thing he loved hearing more was her laughter. It was genuine show of happiness and surprise, something that made him feel like a god for no explainable reason. So it didn't matter much that he didn't see her today, she was right -- it was a date and she had a great time, and that was all that mattered to him.

Beth sat on the living room sofa and flipped through the channels. ITV was replaying the same drama again for the nth time and BBC was dull as usual. A small figure jumped into her lap and delicately pawed her way to the center. The beautiful Siamese cat purred contently as her master stroked her between the ears. "Well Jazz it looks like your mum got herself into some deep s***. Now what do I do? Besides shooting Henley right between his...never mind. The thought's too tempting and I might just do it to put him out of his misery." The cat purred even louder and curled into a snuggly ball. "Fat help you are." Beth uttered while loving the cat's lazy antics. "What if I did say yes to Ben Winters? But with my luck he'll be another Mitch Henley with muscles."

Beth shook her head and moaned into her hands. The cat yowled in protest as the much-desired petting stopped. Beth heeded the plaintive call and began stroking the cat again. "How do I know that though? I mean I didn't give him a chance to prove himself otherwise, I could maybe see him over a cup of coffee? And he must have heard the awful lies Henley spread about the question is this Jazz. Is he asking me out because he thinks I could do better than Mitch or because I'm as sexually perverted as Henley says I am?" The cat blinked her bright green eyes and stuck out her tongue in a yawn.

Beth laughed then, "Yes, I thought so too. Ben Winters doesn't exactly strike me as the deviant type but you never know these days." The cat stood up and made one circle on her lap then snuggled deeper into the lotus-positioned legs. "You know I could always bring him home and let you try him on for size." The green eyes stared at her with great intensity. "Of course if you like him he is definitely trustworthy yes?" The cat gave a soft meow and tucked her chin between her paws. It was almost a thoughtful pose for an animal to strike and Beth wondered if her cat wasn't really capable of understanding her ramblings and rantings.

"However if you claw his eyes out I should push him out the window eh?" The cat closed her eyes and went back to her nap. "Yes, the famous or shall I say the infamous Jasmine Test, I wonder how he'll do..." Beth thought as the cat's purring slowed down. The sound was incredibly soothing and she fell asleep on the sofa. It wasn't until dawn when she woke up disoriented. In spite of the fact that she slept on the couch she felt deeply rested and contented. She gave her cat a loving kiss on her nose and prepared for the day in far better mood than the evening before.

This Tuesday was like it was sent from heaven, at least for her. When she reached her office she discovered there were no calls from Mitch hounding her. In fact there weren't any flowers waiting for her either! Did he finally give up she wondered silently but hopefully. The afternoon was lovely enough for her to take her lunch outside - into a small and gated park, one of many in the city of London. She found an empty bench and sat down to enjoy the sun and the sound of birds singing in this beautiful fall day. So enraptured was Beth with the surroundings she didn't realize someone took a seat on the bench also.

"Beth?" The woman slowly turned to her ex-boyfriend. She almost lost her grip on the juice can in her hand.

"What are you doing here?" She whispered trying to see if there was anyone else near by. Unfortunately she found a bench secluded enough from any curious on-lookers and no one was in sight to help her in case he got out of control. Beth took a quiet breath and put on the coldest face she could possibly bring forth under the circumstances.

"I was hoping to catch you and take you out for lunch. I was wondering how you were doing and since I haven't seen you in a while..."

She interrupted in a lethally annoyed voice. "There is a reason why you haven't seen me Mitch. That reason is also why I haven't returned your phone calls. I don't understand why a man of your intelligence has problems understanding this but I said no once, twice and will keep saying it until either one of us gets married or comes out of the closet. Tell me Mitch, which part of the word ‘no' do you not understand?"

Henley replied, "We used to be great together. I know we ended it badly and I am willing to admit it was entirely my fault. I can be possessive and I can be an outright b****** at times but please don't say you don't care for me anymore. I don't believe it, not after what we've meant to each other. I still care for you, more than before I think because I'm starting to appreciate what you've given me. It's rather ironic but there is a truth to the saying that you don't know what you had until it's gone. Please talk to me Beth, sit with me and tell me how your day was. Let's try to work this out."

Beth saw a figure come around the hedges and to her utter relief it was a Bobby. The police officer saw the two and figured they were lovers having a serious discussion. But something made him look twice at the woman. Those dark eyes were trained on him, pleading for him to come over. It took Daniel less than a second to realize where he had seen that look before. His mother had the same gaze on her face as his father dragged her to the back shed for one of his ‘talks'. And that one ended up with her in the church's graveyard and his father serving a life sentence at North.

He took his time making his way over but all it took was three steps before the man turned his attention to him. Father, Daniel thought and his steps increased in length and speed. Beth stood up as the Bobby approached them and began walking towards the man. Henley also stood up but he didn't follow. Instead he stared at her back his frustrations seething above the surface of his control.

"Are you all right Miss?" He asked politely while noticing the pale face and pupils dilated from fear.

"Yes, thank you." She replied softly.

"Are you sure? Do you want to file a report or talk to someone?"

She stared at the young officer wondering if he was even twenty yet. "No, I'm fine now. Thank you. I was wondering if you could escort me to my..."

"It would be my pleasure." He replied and did exactly that.

Beth passed by the security desk and somehow managed to keep her calm for the rest of the afternoon. But she felt her heart race with every phone ring and figure that passed by her door. How long could she live like this? How long could she exist in anxiety and suspicion before Henley gets to her or she cracks under the pressure? Beth didn't quite figure out what Henley would do to her but she knew it would not be pleasant. His showing up today meant he was still tracking her, still stalking her around London. Beth wondered how his business was faring while its president was playing Psycho of the Year around town. She hoped fervently that it was doing badly, so badly that it would take his attention away from her at least for a little while.

Ben stared at his phone willing it to ring and when it did he nearly jumped out of his chair. "Hello?" He asked eagerly.

"It's Sean, do you have any feed-back about our mailers?"

Ben managed to hide his disappointment. "No, not yet. Give it about a week though. We should start hearing something around Friday."

"Fine, notify me immediately when they do come in."

"Will do." Ben replied lamely and hung up the phone. This is stupid, he berated himself. I've seen her maybe all of two minutes and talked to her for five and here I am, already reduced to a wreck. What is wrong with me? He asked already knowing what the answer was.

The sad fact was that he didn't believe a woman as beautiful and popular as Beth Whitehead could possibly see anything desirable in a man like him. He might have molted out of his Ugly Duckling shell but the scars were not as easy to erase. Other people might see Ben Winters as he is now but Ben saw himself reflected by a very distorted mirror, one that cracked under the pressure of bitter childhood. And one that hasn't been replaced nor fixed since. His self-pride if one could call it that was almost non-existent. He knew he was very good at work, he knew he could make his girlfriends happy but he also knew to never cross the unspoken boundary between the Beautiful People and the rest of the population to which he was a card-carrying member.

Beautiful People lived in their own world. Their lives were never scarred, and they were never ugly or fat. They were always gorgeous, always gifted and blessed. They walked through this earth unsoiled by the more petty things in life and they married each other -- a rule that he saw executed over and over again. They don't go out with ugly ducklings or once upon a time ugly ducklings. They don't go out with people named ‘Big Ben'. And they certainly didn't go out with men who could if they weren't careful become ‘Big Ben' again.

The thoughts pushed Ben into a spiraling black mood which worsened as the day drew to a close. She never called and he ended up packing it in at seven. He had to be the world's biggest idiot to think she would call him at work. And why the hell did he assume she had his work number? Because she has my home number he thought lamely. He dumped his briefcase in the sparse kitchen and took his homemade juice to his bedroom. He changed for the boxing gym and quickly left the quiet flat. He was beginning to like his place less and less. The quiet, the self-imposed silence was getting to him. And the more he thought about the beautiful and unattainable Beth, the less attractive his place got.

It was almost ten at night when he returned to his flat exhausted and still foul-tempered. His answering machine gave no release either. She still didn't call and he gave up. She'll never ring me he thought as he took his shower, she's not the kind to give chase. And why should she? After all there must be dozens going after her, and she could have the pick of the lot. Why would she settle for me when she could have anybody she wants? But something told him to check his answering machine one more time so obeying a sliver of hope he did.

To his sheer and unending dismay he realized he never replaced the tape which he took out the night before. Which meant nobody could have left a message. Cursing a streak of colorful obscenities he learnt in the ring he put in a 90-minute tape in the machine and kicked himself back to his bed. It was heaven's mercy because the truth was she never did call even though Beth picked up her phone no less than five times that night. But every time her finger hovered over the buttons she panicked and did another chore instead. So by midnight she had given up all hopes of calling him and curled up in her bed with Jasmine instead.

The cat sensing her stress acted playfully trying to relieve the tension in her owner's makeup. Beth smiled at the cute antics and played with the Siamese until the cat fell into its rest. Following its cue Beth gave up all hopes of doing anything for the night and finally fell into sleep herself. Ben waited up for another hour all the while knowing nobody in their right mind would call a near stranger after midnight. He wondered what she wore to bed, and more importantly what she didn't wear. He wondered if she had a nightly ritual that so many women have of putting on creams and lotions and washing their face with stuff from tubes, bottles and other paraphernalia that so fascinated and confused men at the same time. He wondered if she was a cotton woman or a silk type of gal. He came to the conclusion that she wore silk to bed. A woman like that would have silk lingerie, definitely. Then he wondered what her bedding was made of. That ended any hope of getting a decent night's rest for Ben Winters all the while Beth ensconced herself comfortably in her flannel sheets dreaming of blue eyes again.


Chapter 3: Liz Taylor

The owner of the particularly interesting shade of blue eyes was currently staring blankly at his computer screen. This was largely due to lack of sleep but the main cause was as the night before, a fairy-like woman named Beth. "Earth calling Ben Winters, are you there? This is Houston." Jeb laughingly said from the doorway.

Ben suddenly realized he was being addressed and looked at his older brother. "Sorry there, I was busy..."

Jeb snorted, "Yeah you looked it too. Here are some of the responses coming back from the mailing. Ben...Ben?" The third brother had drifted off again.

"Ben!" Jeb yelled and slammed down the paperwork.


"Ben, whoever she is, call her and get a date or something because you're not functioning properly right now. In fact..." Jeb grabbed the receiver and asked, "What's her number? And more importantly what's her name?"

"Put the phone down Jeb." Ben warned but was promptly ignored. "Put the damn..." Jeb stood up and walked to the office closet where Ben's jacket was hidden. He grabbed the wallet and began to go through it. "What do you think you're doing?" Ben cried out as Jeb triumphantly pulled out the well-thumbed piece of paper.

"Beth? As in...Beth Whitehead? Damn Ben, what have you gotten yourself into? Her numbe..." Ben made a grab for the note but Jeb swiftly ducked the move and ran behind the meeting table. "This is great! She's a babe brother and I think..."

"Well it's good to see the two of you take the family business so seriously." Sean commented in a deadly voice. Both turned to face him looking a little sheepish and worried. "I came by to see how the mailers were doing. Jeb, give it back. Ben, get your head out of the hole in the wall and do your work. And stop this tomfoolery right this moment."

"Sieg Heil!" Jeb cried out loud and Ben almost sputtered laughing.

"I am not amused." Sean replied calmly. "Well that's because you've been celibate even longer than Ben here." Jeb shot back and grinned as Sean got redder. Unfortunately by saying that he now had both brothers stacked against him. "Ben's got a new girlfriend, Beth Whitehead."

Ben shook his head, "No, no wait a minute she's not my..."

"Don't be so modest Ben, man if I had her as my bird I'd be singing her praises all over the place."

"You would." Sean interrupted then turned to Ben and said thoughtfully, "Beth Whitehead is one very accomplished woman. But I'm afraid I'm not on her guest list. We had a bit of a do few months back and I think I came off rather...well aggravating."

Ben looked at his saboteur of a brother, "What did you do Sean?"

The oldest managed to look uncomfortable and shrugged his shoulders. "She got me on a particularly foul mood and the conversation turned to Labor and Conservative Parties..."

Jeb clucked his tongue, "That's a real volatile topic. More so than the Middle East or the..."

"Shut up." Sean said wearily.

"And what are you howling about?" Ben turned to Jeb. "You're the one who's on her blacklist. You went out with Sunny, one of her friends for all of three days you randy goat." Sean's smug smile grew as Jeb became flustered.

"Oh...Sunny's a friend of Beth's? I had no idea, sorry there mate."

Ben rolled his eyes in mock frustration and sat back on his chair. "If I am to do any work today both of you need to leave me alone! Out." Ben said pointing at the door. Sean gave a rueful smile and exited followed by Jeb.

When they were both out of earshot they started talking immediately. "So he's going out again." Sean whispered to Jeb.

The second nodded, "Looks like it. I don't know how serious it is but knowing Ben he's probably lost his heart already."

"I don't know much about this Beth do you?"

Jeb crossed his arms across his chest and became serious. "She went out with Mitch Henley for a while and then dug a hole and banged his head with the shovel. From what I know it was a messy, painful breakup and Henley's still not over it."

"Henley's not over it?" Sean echoed in shock. "What did she do to him?"

Jeb replied, "I have no idea. All I know is he's still moping around following her like some lost puppy looking for scraps of affection. I guess she's the kind to leave casualties behind."

Sean's voice turned hard, "Ben won't survive a woman like that, not him."

Jeb put out a constraining hand, "Don't go charging in there too quickly Sean. You know Henley as well as I do and if she walked away from him better for her. Besides we don't know under what circumstances brought on the end to their relationship and it was in all likelihood Henley's doing."

Sean leaned back into the hallway's wall. "It doesn't matter whose fault it is. If this Beth's capable of reducing Henley to a begging pup think what she can do to Ben."

"So what are you going to do brother? Shelter Ben for the rest of his natural life? He's capable of handling himself, and it looks like we're too late to do anything anyway."

Sean gave an exasperated sigh, "Thanks for that Jeb."

"Sean, don't try to live Ben's life for him. He needs to live it on his own and that comes with bumps and bruises. All we can do is help him pick himself up afterwards and cheer him on for the next hurdle." Jeb replied as he entered into his own office. Sean stared at the second brother; sometimes Jeb's thoughtfulness surprised even him.

He would have been even more surprised if he stuck around and listened to Jeb's conversation with the youngest in the family, Lorien.

"Hey brother, want to hear some good news?"

"What about?" Lorien asked as he was taking his lunch four in the afternoon.

"Ben's got a new girlfriend."

"Really? That is good news, who's the lucky woman?"

"Beth Whitehead, know her?"

"Vaguely, she's a Society Princess if my memory serves me correctly. Beautiful though from what I've seen in the papers. She's a model isn't she?"

"Was, quit the scene when she was in her twenties. Somehow our Ben charmed her enough to get her into his corner."

"It's about bloody time." Lorien groused, "After Naomi I thought he'd given up on women for good. Are we going to meet her anytime soon?"

"I don't know; he's still shy about the whole situation. Who can blame him? Beth's not his usual flavor."

"Well let's hope for something a bit more permanent and lot less painful than Naomi. I still get gray hairs remembering their arguments. Why they stuck it out as long as they did I'll never know. Gotta go brother, take care and thank you for telling me the good news."

"Ciao Lorien." Jeb replied and hung up the receiver.

This unfortunate misunderstanding propagated through their society until one morning...Ben heard his phone ring. He blinked, Sunday and it wasn't even nine. He answered in a groggy voice, "Yeah?"

"Who the hell do you think you are!" Exploded from the other end.

Ben sat up and replied just as aggravated, "Who the hell are you?"

"This is Beth!"

His eyes opened not only at the name but the volume of her voice. "Beth, what's wrong? What happened?" He asked quite flustered and lost.

"I just got off the phone with Sunny and according to her and the magazine Dazed and Confused we've become an item! As it turns out the story originated from, here's a shocker, you!"

"Beth, that is a shocker. Sincerely, what are you talking about?" Ben asked now wide-awake.

"I am reading right now the current issue of D&C and it says we are a couple! Of course there are no pictures to back it up but here it is in black print."

"I have no idea where they got the notion." Ben explained, "But they sure as hell didn't get it from me Beth. I swear I have no idea what they're talking about."

"You're lying." She snapped back and Ben winced. He was, he remembered the disastrous conversation he had with Jeb earlier in the week. Blast that brother of mine...

"Well?" She asked waiting for a proper explanation.

"It might have come from Jeb." Ben finally said and closed his eyes in frustration.

"How does Jeb fit into this?" She asked succinctly.

"He found out that I was trying to get you to go out on a date with me and he mistook what I said to being that we are already going out. I've tried to correct him I swear, but obviously it didn't work as well as I thought. I am sorry Beth, I had no idea that this would cause such a problem with you."

Now Beth felt badly, she didn't want to stomp all over his ego but this could not continue as it is. Especially if Henley found out, then not only will he renew his attentions on her but target Ben as well. "Ben, it's not that the idea's repulsive to me but look at it from my point of view. I've just woken up to a ring from my best friend who proceeds to ask me questions about my new boyfriend when I just dumped another. I don't work that way, I need my downtime and this prank Jeb played on us isn't helping me. Please Ben, stay away. Just leave me in peace."

Ben closed his eyes and hung up the phone. This was so unfair he didn't know even where to begin complaining. Accepting the fact he wasn't going to get any more sleep he changed into his gym clothes and hit the weight room with renewed frustration. Now he knew he had no avenues to turn to. She had basically locked him out of her life and he saw no way in to that secret garden. So engrossed was he in his miseries that he missed Mitch approaching him.

"What are you doing with Beth?" The quiet voice interrupted his daydreams.

Ben turned around and paled a little, "Excuse me?"

"What are you doing with Beth? It is a simple question Ben. If it is too hard for you I would gladly paraphrase it or perhaps simplify the sentence?"

Ben's temper that was usually dormant rose to the occasion. "Here's a simple answer -- none of your business."

"It is my business. Beth is my business, and will always be my business. Her welfare is second only to none and I do not appreciate it when I see her name dragged all over the gossip column in some second-rate fashion magazine."

"That's funny because you had no problem when it was dragged right alongside yours." Ben replied matching sarcasm for sarcasm. He didn't like Henley before he met Beth; he liked Henley a lot less now. There was something terribly wrong with this man, something that sent alarm bells off in his head.

"Then take this as a fair warning, stay away from her. She was meant for better things than you Big Ben." The snide ending jarred Ben and all he could do was watch the jerk walk away. He had forgotten Henley knew his nickname, and why he had it. Cursing inwardly Ben increased all the weights by at least 15 kilos. Life just got worse, much worse.

Beth was making Nicoise Salad for dinner when her doorbell rang. She wondered if she remained silent would the intruder go away. "It's Ben, please open the door." She moaned and fed a piece of the Tuna to Jasmine. "I'm coming." She finally replied and begrudgingly opened the door. "What are you doing here? I thought our morning conversation said everything."

Ben stood at the doorway, "I wanted to talk to you about something that happened to me earlier. May I come in please?"

She hesitated but at the end decided to let him in. "Make it brief, I'm having dinner."

Ben took a cursory glance at the dinner table and nodded, "Will do. I got a visit from Henley this afternoon." Beth felt her knees almost give way at the statement, this couldn't be happening, this wasn't happening. "I don't know what happened between you two and I know I have no right saying this but please Beth, don't go back to that guy. Frankly he worries me and I don't think he's quite together in the head. The way he talked to me today was meant to scare me or at least discourage me from ‘going out' with you. Is everything all right between you two?"

She took a deep breath and lied. "It is very hard Ben, and you're right, the breakup between us has been one incredibly bad experience for all concerned. I think Henley has a hard time letting go of the fact that I am no longer his property." She saw Ben wince and managed to give a small laugh. "Oh yes, that's how he thinks about people like myself, property. Well, I had something to say to that and as you can see we have a mutual misunderstanding. Anyway I am no longer his concern and he is not mine. I do apologize for him upsetting you so. That was very unfair and rather underhanded. Are you ok?"

Ben smiled beatifically, "Can't touch me. I think he was trying to muscle me in the gym of all places. What he was thinking about I have no idea but it was amusing and annoying. And that is the only reason why I dropped by, I wanted to make sure you Don't mind me, I'm being mush-minded as Sean would say."

"Sean could say a great many things but that doesn't mean he actually thinks before he opens his mouth." Beth added sharply then blushed. "Sorry, I had an interesting conversation with your brother not so long ago and it's still aggravating to remember what he said."

Ben laughed, "That's Sean for you. He never pulls any punches nor wears kid gloves. But he's honest, always. Which can work against him at times but there aren't many of his kind left so I've grown to appreciate approach over the years. It's little wonder then we're mistaken for Germans eh?"

She giggled, "That and those blue eyes of yours. Tell me Ben, where did you get them?"

Ben managed to clamp down on his fluttering heart. "We're really old English family but we were the Invaders in the days of yore or so I've been told. I personally think one of my ancestors managed to seduce a Viking and kept the poor fool in love until she grew tired of him. But these eyes have been a traditionally male-only trait. The women have colors ranging from brown to even lavender if the portrait's correct."

"Lavender?" Beth asked sighing at the marvel of it. "That is truly unusual. I don't think I've seen true lavender eyes except for Liz Taylor's."

"You've met Liz Taylor?" Ben asked shocked.

"On couple of occasions. She's a real sweet woman, not shy but reserved. And why shouldn't she be? Her whole life's been one huge production by the media since she was seventeen years old. It's a miracle she didn't commit suicide before she turned twenty-one."

Ben whistled, "Watched her in National Velvet when I was a kid, I thought she was the prettiest girl I've ever seen."

Beth laughed again, "Oh dear, had a crush on Liz Taylor did we?"

Ben grinned sheepishly, "Something like that. You know, the impossible dream and all that psychological crap."

Beth sobered up quickly, "And that is what I am, correct?"

Ben knew he made a mistake, "I don't know Beth. After all you're the tele or the screen. You're standing right in front of me and I like that, a great deal actually. You're not an impossible dream, can't be because I can't get you out of my head." Now he knew he'd done it. She stepped back and turned polite again. All the previous warmth and friendless gone, and the intimacy they shared evaporated under his mistake.

"Thank you for coming by Ben and filling me on what happened earlier. My dinner is getting cold so..."

Ben gave a nod then walked to the door. "If you need anything Beth, just ring me."

She smiled, "I will but let's hope it doesn't come to that." Ben didn't respond and left the woman and her flat feeling sadder and more dejected. I don't understand why doesn't trust me he thought to himself. But then if her last experience was Henley it's a small wonder she hasn't shaved her head and hid herself in a nunnery somewhere.

Beth watched him get into his car from the window wondering if she should have invited him to stay for dinner. She shook the thought out of her head, better for all concerned if he's kept at a safe distance. Especially since now Henley's back to in full gear just looking to run over some hapless fool. She liked Ben and his thoughtful ways, having him injured by Henley would cause problems she would rather avoid. Her cat came out of the bedroom and wrapped itself around her leg. "Well, where have you been? I've been waiting for you to come out and test him you brat." She picked up the Siamese and stroked its back. "And there won't be a next time so you missed your chance little missy. Come on, let's have dinner."

Ben drove to Jeb's apartment in Notting Hill determined to wrap his brother around the nearest gaslamp like a ribbon. But by the time he reached Jeb's front door he lost steam. Ben was one of those people who couldn't hold a grudge to save his skin but he was still very upset with what his brother had done. Jeb opened the door and saw the third Winters scowling. "What did I do wrong this time?" He asked in a tired voice.

"You just blew all my chances at having a relationship with one Beth Whitehead. Who according to you and D&C is already my very eager lover."

"I thought she was." Jeb replied confused as he stepped aside to let Ben in.

"No she wasn't, not by a long-shot. And guess how she found out about our supposed hot and heavy affair? Her friend called her and told her all about it. She in turn read it from Dazed and Confused who printed up the ‘story' in their society section. This is the first time I've been in a relationship and the end of it without having the benefit of at least a kiss from my now ex-girlfriend."

Jeb sucked in his breath and squinted, "Oh dear, sorry."

"Oh dear my arse, do you have any idea how upset she was? My eardrums are still ringing and I think my neighbors have gone temporarily deaf. Jeb, next time you decide to talk about my non-existent lovelife at least give me some warning. Or even better, let me make up the fairy-tale so I could at least get in on the fun." Jeb repressed his grin but he couldn't prevent the corners of his mouth from turning upwards.

"Will do Ben, want some dinner? I made raviolis stuffed with shrimp and asparagus. And it's not fattening because I do the dish without the Romano cheese sauce."

"Now that's definitely a great way to say you're sorry." Ben replied happily taking off his jacket.


Chapter 4: Here Kitty Kitty Kitty

Beth went to work on Monday in a darker mood than usual. Her reaction to Ben's worry about her safety jangled her nerves and sense of fairness. In fact her behavior towards the man made her feel smaller every time she examined it. She debated whether to call him and give a formal apology. Meeting him was out of the question, especially now since Mitch was on both their tails with his usual psychotic fervor. June's voice interrupted her daydreams. "Come on Beth it couldn't have been that good."

Beth giggled then put her head on the desk and laughed out loud. "Oh June I wish." Then she laughed some more. Her admin stood on the doorway grinning. Now that was the Beth she knew and admired.

"So what's up? How was your romantic weekend? Did Mitch get run over by an errant 747 from Gatwick? Is that why you're soooo dreamy today? Or did you meet a hunk of a man who worships your very tiny toes? Give."

"What if I told you it was something like that -- not Mitch getting killed part though G-d knows I've been wishing for that for a while now. There's this bloke, and he's a real nice bloke know. Who knows actually? And there lies my problem."

"Ahh I see. You don't want another Henley right?" June surmised as she sat down.

"Definitely not. I don't think he is at least he doesn't come across that way. And he had the great luck of meeting Henley. Took it well though, at least from what he tells me. I don't think he's the type to get shaken easily."

"Do I know this mystery man?"

"Yes, you probably do. Benjamin Winters?"

"From the Winters Investment Group? Big guy, big shoulders, real nice tush and has those famous Winters' blues?"

"That would be Ben. Do you know anything about him?"

"Not much, just what I hear around you know. He's got a real sweet reputation, in spite of being one of the Winters' men. Very considerate, polite...not as cute as the youngest Lorien but he's not exactly cursed in the looks department either."

"You know the youngest?" Beth asked surprised to hear this bit of information.

"Oh G-d let me tell you Beth that boy's good enough to commit a felony for. He's a darling too and such a great dancer! I met him at a rave party couple of months' back and trust me I did everything to go back to his place but it just didn't work out. Sweeter than sugar and hotter than hellfire."

Beth laughed at the description. "Maybe I should aim for him instead. No, actually maybe I should look into joining a nunnery. It looks like that's about the only way I could find peace and quiet nowadays. But tell me what you know about Ben."

"PR dude over at his brother's office. He's a boxer too and has a pretty good amateur status in London at least. Works out like mad but you noticed that already." Beth remembered the way his shirt tightened over his shoulders. Yes she noticed that very quickly.

"Used to be the fattest kid on the streets." Beth looked at her informant, "What?"

"Ben used to be Big Ben. Some of the more crabby arseholes still talk about him as Big Ben. Whiners really, don't like coming second to the Winters' firm and more to point to Ben whom they used to torture when they were all proper Public School Boys. You know the type, b******* all of them. From what I heard he had some weight problems when he was a kid and was painfully shy about it too. Think for a second, brothers like Sean, Jeb and Lorien then there's Ben. Not only the ugly duckling in the family but...well you get the picture."

Beth closed her eyes, if there was a wall within an arm's distance she would have banged her head against it to stop the shame raging in her conscience. Ben was nothing like Mitch Henley. Ben was nothing like Sean. Ben was a great deal like her in many ways though he didn't know it. Suddenly everything she wanted to deny came back screaming inside her head. Ben worked for what he had, body and soul. What it must have taken to survive a childhood like that and still love his family. What ability to adjust, forgive then move on because a past filled with humiliation and ridicule wasn't worth holding on to. She was only too well aware of what happened to ugly and undesirable children in school. Though she was never rejected, never shunned by anyone she had witnessed much cruelty in the schoolyard and the dance halls.

"Beth did I say something wrong?" June asked worried about her friend.

"No you said everything right. I think I need to apologize to someone."

June smiled, "Hey at least you're willing to. Most don't even bother. Well, I'll let you get to it."

Beth mouthed a silent thank-you as her admin left the office. It would have been very easy to blame Mitch for this, for her crass behavior but she was neither a coward nor did she like to deceive herself. She treated Ben unfairly because she was scared, too scared to stick her head out of the hole and see if Ben was really a predator or not. So she treated him in a manner guaranteed to have driven away everyone but the hardiest or the dimmest. And somehow Ben didn't strike her as an idiot.

She dialed his number wondering what to say and how to say it. "Ben Winters here." She was surprised, Beth was expecting his assistant to answer for him. "Ben? I'm sorry I was going to leave message with your secretary."

"Beth? Hi! Oh Donna's kid got sick, ate something for lunch that his little buddy brought from his home. So she's got rest of the afternoon off."

"Oh dear, do they know what it is?"

Ben laughed quietly, "Yes unfortunately for the parents of the buddy they do."

"Well, what is it?" Beth asked curiosity overflowing.

"It was a ‘Happy Cookie'."

Beth frowned at the answer, "Is that some type of a brand?"

"No, well yes but not the way you think. The boy's parents are a bit...retro. You know, the 60's scene, free love, hippie music...some light recreational smoking."

Beth's jaw dropped open, "You cannot be serious."

"Yep. Their son sneaked in a couple of the ‘Happy Cookies' that his parents make and which are by the way very popular in the neighborhood and gave little Jason one. Little Jason ate it, but it didn't exactly make him happy. It made him very happy. So happy that the homeroom teacher had hard time controlling the child. It didn't take long before she found out the source of the good mood and there's some police involvement going on over at the academy right now."

Beth began giggling, in fact she was roaring with laughter though she should really be in a more somber mood, especially since little Jason had a Happy Cookie. Oh my G-d...what that homeroom must have been like!

"It gets funnier." Ben added grinning like a fool at his receiver.

"How?" She choked out loud.

"Jason being the generous boy that he is split his cookie with three others. Because Donna, bless her Christian soul taught the boy to share everything. Needless to say they got happy too. It's a bloody right mess over there now."

"But but...what did the child believe when he saw those green flecks in the cookie? That would have turned me off from taking a bite!"

"Well, little Robbie told Jason that it was thyme. And thyme being a good seasoning was actually the secret ingredient to his mom's cookie recipe."

Beth roared with laughter, she couldn't hold onto the receiver any longer and let it slip from her fingers. Perhaps it was all the tension she was laboring under but she needed to laugh badly and Ben's humorous tale let open a floodgate of emotions for her. Ben sat there smiling at the phone while he listened quietly to the woman laughing herself into a wreck. Jeb was watching him frowning, wondering if his brother needed some private help. Then shrugged his shoulders and walked away, whatever made Ben happy couldn't be that illegal.

"I'm so sorry Ben and I hope Jason and the other kids will recover from their experience soon."

"I'm sure they will. But Beth, why are you calling me?"

She took a deep breath, "To apologize for treating you so poorly before. Someone held a mirror to my face today and I didn't like what I saw. I figure I better change my attitude before I sour myself permanently. And I was wondering if you wanted to have dinner."

Ben sat up straight on his chair, did he hear her correctly? But how could he ask her without looking like the village idiot?

"Ben, is that a yes or a no?"

"Yes." He was hoping it was the right choice.

"Good, where do you want to go?"


"Ben, that wasn't a trick question. Is there a place you prefer to eat?"

"Yes, there's a great Vietnamese restaurant near my brother's house. Though Jeb's the best cook I know I don't think he's exactly open to taking reservations yet. When shall I pick you up?"

"How about seven, come over my place."

"Sounds lovely. I'll see you at seven then."

"Ciao and thank you for everything Ben."

Ben stared at the phone not comprehending what just occurred between Beth and himself. Yesterday, less than 24 hours ago actually she didn't want to see him. Now in about five hours he will be dining in public with the most beautiful woman in London. The switch frazzled his brain and ruined any chance of him working for the rest of the afternoon. Seven, that meant he had to get out of the office on time for a change. He stared at his keyboard and forced himself to concentrate. Then plowed through his in-box getting everything ready for his departure. He did not want to be hindered by Sean or his last minute requests. Not today.

God of Chance smiled on the third Winters and the brother made his break without anyone noticing his hasty departure. He roared to his flat, changed into very decent thread and roared to her apartment to find out he was already running late. Shaking his head in wonder he buzzed her door. "Come in Ben!" She cried out from within. Ben promptly obeyed her request and entered into a room which he was barred from only yesterday.

"Ben, I'm so sorry but I need to run down the corner shop and pick up few things. Could you wait?" She asked. Ben tried to reply however in spite of his valiant efforts he could not. The raven hair was swept back and put into a neat bun. But tendrils escaped from the pin's jealous grasp and floated around her face and neck. She was dressed simply, nothing too short or too small but it was obvious, even to the blindest that she could wear a man's jumper and still her beauty would come through. He nodded instead and sat down on her sofa.

"Thank you, I'll be back in five." She left the apartment and Ben was free to roam. He stood up and examined the many photographs decorating the room. What it must be like he thought, to be so beautiful, to have your grace so translucent through your skin. He examined her childhood pictures and saw the seed of the beauty that she is now. The round face with the pointy chin, the large dark eyes framed with remarkable lashes. Such perfection, all given to one human being. It was almost too much and rather unfair for G-d to have done so.

He saw her CDs lying around a flipped a few to read the covers. David Bowie? Not bad, he liked the chameleon a great deal and even had the Tin Machine works in his collection. Pink Floyd, Crystal Method...who the hell is Crystal Method? Some classics, quite a few jazz CDs too. All in all a varying but tasteful collection. He took a pillow from the armchair and tossed it onto the cream colored sofa. He sat down and laid back on it to take a break. Work combined with the anticipation of this dinner had tired him more than he thought.

Ben closed his eyes and dreamt about her, wishing she'd return sooner to him. Because of his dreaming Ben was woefully unprepared for what was going to happen next. The pillow underneath his head crawled. His eyes flew open in shock as the usually inanimate object moved away from him. Shouting in shock he tried to rise up from the sofa.

Jasmine was asleep, happily curled up in her favorite place on the sofa. The only thing that was missing to make her life a complete and happy one was her dinner, which her roommate was going to get. Jasmine was sure of it. So she slept content and blessed until this big rude and HAIRY creature came into the flat. First of all he smelled. And she didn't like the scent he carried on his body. Second, he was loud. Moving here and there, never stopping. He was also incredibly clumsy, he (she was sure it was male, no female could be this stupid) bumped into things, and made jarring noises. So distracting was this absolute stranger that Jasmine was beginning to wake up from her nap.

But the biggest insult to injury was when this creature threw a pillow on her! On Jasmine, whose only sin was sleeping at a spot that was hers! This could not be borne and she was roused to exact revenge from this intruder. As the big invader rose his head she stuck one of her paws with all its claws unsheathed from underneath the pillow. Contact. She felt her claws make a satisfactory scratch on the beast's neck and he howled to her satisfaction. She smiled, still hidden underneath the pillow. Let him lift it and he would be greeted with not just one but five sharp and pointy ends of the Siamese.

Ben took off his hand from the back of his neck. He was bleeding! What the hell was in Beth's apartment?? He grabbed the pillow and was greeted with a hiss. He stared at the cat, its fangs bared, its claws digging into the sofa. It looked mighty upset and he knew he was in for trouble. Suddenly it pounced off the cushion and disappeared behind the sofa. He stood frozen, what to do now? He had to go to the bathroom to see how bad the scratches were so slowly he stepped back his eyes scanning the floor trying to catch the wily Siamese before it attacked again.

She peered at him as the fool moved backward trying to avoid her. She knew better and slinked around the furniture until she was behind the enemy. She began to gear herself up and charged. She hissed making a loud and unpleasant sound as she wove her way right between his feet. The giant made some unfortunate moves with his nether limbs and she was rewarded with his crashing demise to the floor. Victory. Smiling contently she trotted to the bedroom and took her second favorite place underneath the bed. She licked her paws and her coat making sure she got rid of every scent the stranger left on her beautiful body. This was her home, her domain and she was very protective, especially of her roommate. She was feeling down lately and Jasmine was determined to cheer her up. And it wouldn't do to have this fool hanging about the place. He would only interfere with their quality time and Beth needed all she could get from Jasmine.

Ben wondered if he laid still on the floor would the cat leave him alone? He glanced around, no hissing demented feline in sight. He got on his knees and quickly made his way to the bathroom. He also locked the door behind him before treating his wounds. Cat, she's got a cat, no it was a wild miniature cheetah that somehow managed to fool Beth into thinking it was a domesticated pet. Ben washed and cleaned the scratches. Mercifully the cuts weren't deep but Ben knew when he sweat tomorrow at the gym it was going to sting like crazy.

"Ben, where are you?" Beth asked as she came back from shopping.

He took a deep breath and exited the bathroom. "Ready?"

She smiled, "Yes, let me put the food out for Jasmine. She must be hungry by now." Ben gave a weak smile and waited for her at the door. "Did you meet my cat?"

"Oh yes, we met. I'm afraid she wasn't in the best of moods."

Beth laughed a little, "That's because she wasn't fed but she's the dearest thing in the world to me." Ben moaned inwardly and wondered what Round Two was going to be like with Beth's pet, The Spawn of Hell.

The two drove to Notting Hill where the Vietnamese restaurant, Pandan was having a glorious time raking in the local clientele. They were seated at a table and soon the two were in deep discussion regarding what to eat. Beth was surprised to find Ben very learned about foods and spices. "Tell me where did you get this wealth of knowledge?" Ben flushed a little, he knew a great deal about food because it was always wise to know much about your enemy.

"Jeb, he cooks a lot and got me interested."

"Oh the second Winters Wonderboy. How's he doing?"

"Usual which is to say nothing too ordinary. But he's behaving tonight. He's escorting Megan Addelson, an old family friend to the Symphony. She's about the only one who can keep him in line."

"Oh what's her secret?" Beth asked amused and curious.

"She can beat him up and throw him in the closet. No, that was a bad joke. I don't know actually. Those two grew up together, thick as thieves. You should've seen them when they were children, it was like she was a sister to us because she was in our house more often than she was in hers. His best friend for almost...three decades now. Amazing, isn't it?"

"Megan...Addelson. Is she that attorney who married the famous artist from...I'm sorry I've forgotten from where. His name was Ion?"

"No, Ian. And yes that is her."

Beth regretted bringing up the subject, "I aologize, I just remembered what happened to them."

Ben answered, "It's fine. The accident was long ago. We're fortunate that Meggie came out of it alive. It was touch and go for a while."

"She looked wonderful to me the last time I saw her." Beth commented.

"Megan is incredibly strong and determined human being. One reason why our firm has her on retainer. I would not want to cross her path anywhere, especially in court. Here comes our order..."

The conversation turned to lighter and more pleasant topics as the two ate. For Ben it was like getting a reward he didn't deserve. For Beth it was taking a breath of air and remembering what it felt like before Mitch came along. For reasons intimate, personal and self-healing the dinner lasted well into the night and neither felt much like going home afterwards. So the two strolled the darkened streets talking about themselves and their lives. Measuring how different they were from each other yet trying to find connections, even tenuous ones so they could have an excuse to ring each other the next day to continue this night.

© 1999 Copyright held by the author.



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