Joanie sat backstage, alone. All around her the hustle and bustle of show preparations were in full-swing. Stylists with clothing piled over their arms were racing around, orders were being shouted. It was total chaos. But in Joanie’s private corner in the stage-left wing, she was able to find a moment’s solace. Carlyle and Ruth had insisted on it. Jake had said nothing.
Oh, why did Peter have to do that? Joanie thought. She let her head fall into her hands, careful not to smudge her make-up but not really caring if she did. It had been one of the most embarrassing moments of her life – the unbearable silence that followed her reading that damn card out loud. Why did I have to broadcast it to the world? she had cried to Ruth and Carlyle after everyone else had left to find their seats. It was awful. She ran over the sequence of events in her head once again, the look on Jake’s face when she finished reading. He had turned a bright shade of crimson, tried to produce a natural smile as he said, “Wow, you sure do have some secret admirer.” But he knew, and so did she. Joanie had taken his arm to steer him away from the crowd then, to grab a moment and try to explain, but he had quietly pulled away.
“Listen, Joan,” he said. “We’ll talk about it later. Let’s just get through this night, okay?”
She had nodded, in agreement and in defeat. She could feel the coolness coming from Jake, the hurt. It was at that moment Ruth came by to try to help smooth things over, but she only made matters worse.
“Hey Jo Jo, we should get you backstage. You’ve got a show to do.” Jake had looked at Joanie with pain-filled eyes.
“I guess Jo Jo is the nickname your closest friends…your loved ones call you. Who knew?” He was sullen and broken. Joanie felt sick.
“Well, break a leg,” he had said, eyes diverted, then gave her a little kiss on the forehead and walked away.
“Joanie? Joanie, there you are.” Joanie arose from her trance and looked up to see her friend, Ruth, standing before her with a brave, supportive smile on her face.
“C’mon girl, you can do this. I know you can. Hey, things have been worse, right? Just remember, Jake adores you. He’s just hurt right now, and can’t express it. You can explain everything afterward, but he’s right. You’ve gotta get through this evening.” Joanie took a deep breath.
“You’re right, Ruthie. Of course you’re right. Since when have I let a man run my life or ruin it?”
“Since forever, but never mind. It’s never too late to change.” She gave Joanie a hug. “Now get out there and watch those girls strut your stuff.”
The fashion show and awards ceremony lasted two full hours. By the time Joanie walked out of the Crystal Ballroom, where the event was held, and into the Grand Ballroom for the reception, she held two shiny bronze plaques in her hands, one for creativity in fashion design, and one for most accomplished new designer. She had done it.
With Carlyle, Ruth and Jake by her side, she walked into the Grand Ballroom to a round of applause. Flash bulbs blinded her and mics were thrust in her face. Too many questions were being asked all at once. She knew she had to carry on, charm the well-wishers, the press, but she was exhausted, and still very upset. Although he remained with her throughout, Jake was distant and formal. She desperately wanted to talk to him, to explain things to him, to be able to share her joy with the man who helped make all this possible, but things had drastically changed.
Jake disappeared while Joanie answered press questions and smiled for photographers. Carlyle and Ruth looked on proudly. Finally he returned with four glasses of champagne.
“Sorry to interrupt this photo-op, but our protégé needs a short break.” He looked at the cameramen, then at Joanie for the first time since their arrival, and winked. She breathed easier than she had for hours.
“Don’t worry everybody. She’ll be around later for more interviews. For now, we really appreciate your patience and understanding.” He smiled at the group gathered around them, took Joanie’s elbow, and guided her to a table in the corner, away from the throngs. They both knew that any peace and quiet they were seeking would not last long, but even a few minutes would be worth it.
“Listen, Jake,” Joanie began, but he cut her short.
“Shhh. Leave it for now, Joan, okay? This is such a special night for you. Let’s not ruin it.” Joanie sat stock-still. She needed to talk, needed to tell him how she felt.
“Ruin it? It’s already ruined, isn’t it?” Tears were forming in the corners of her eyes. She knew she had to control herself but she was so distraught by Jake’s change in attitude toward her that she could not pretend to be happy.
“Joanie, you’ve just won! You’ve won the two most prestigious design awards in the industry. For a newcomer, that’s huge. We have to let this go – at least for now.” Jake looked down at the half-full champagne flute sitting untouched on the table. He twirled it around by its slender stem, watching the golden bubbles dance around in the glass. After what seemed like forever, he looked up at her.
“Give me time, Joanie. I need some time. That episode out there in the lobby really took me by surprise, kind of hit me out of nowhere.” He paused. “I guess we still have a lot to learn about each other, and for that I can’t blame you for what happened. We’ve sort of plunged into this...this relationship rather quickly, and I am the guilty party.” He took a deep breath. “It’s just you’ve taken me by storm, Joanie Scott.” Jake cracked a shy, smile. “I…I’ve really fallen for you. I guess that’s why I’m being so sensitive about this.” His eyes turned back to the champagne, and he stopped talking.
Joanie didn’t know what to say. Goosebumps prickled up and down her arms. She reached out to take Jake’s right hand that rested on the table beside the flute twirling nervously between the fingers of his left. He looked into her tear-filled eyes and they shared a wordless moment that seemed to make everything right again. Relieved, and truly happy, Joanie grinned broadly. Jake picked up the glass and raised it in toast.
“To my shining star.” Their glasses clinked again, both of them shedding their burdens. Their natural friskiness was temporarily tempered as the effects of the earlier incident lingered. But despite, or maybe because of it, their bond felt stronger. Music filled the room and with a tender lift of her hand, Jake helped Joanie out of her seat. Together they glided onto the dance floor to the song Keep Breathing, by Ingrid Michaelson. Regaining confidence in their blossoming love, Jake twirled Joanie twice around before pulling her in for a close dance embrace. Cameras clicked and flashed around them but they took no notice, lost in the music. Joanie was in heaven. Months of hard work had awarded her well-earned success. Besides her talent, she owed so much of her accomplishment to Jake. Without his support, she truly would not have managed. She closed her eyes and drifted to the melody, listening to the lyrics and smiling to herself. Yes, she thought, just keep breathing.
Suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed, a deep baritone broke their spell.
“S’cuse me. May I cut-in?” She opened her eyes. Before her, handsomely disheveled, dressed in a navy double-breasted suit buttoned over a soft pink dress shirt, and a black necktie, stood Peter Thompson. Joanie reeled against the horror. Unknowingly, she backed away from Jake, and from Peter, leaving herself standing alone in the middle of a crowded dance floor.
“Did you get my flowers?” Peter asked coyly, moving toward her.
“What are you doing here, Peter? What were you thinking?” Peter glowered at her, a mischievous grin on his face. Some of the guests stopped dancing to watch this unexpected stand-off. Peter looked hideously out of place with his dated suit that was too short in the cuffs, his wide necktie, and his black oxfords, but he carried an air of confidence that hid any hint of awkwardness.
“How could I miss your very special night, Jo Jo? You didn’t think I’d be that self absorbed, did you?”
He reached out to touch her but she backed away. Frankly, Joanie didn’t know what to think, or do. She felt warm and slightly dizzy. Desperate for help and support, she looked over to Jake, but he was gone. Frantically, Joanie scanned the dance floor then glanced over to the table where they had been seated. His chair was empty, his jacket gone. Panic stricken, her eyes darted around the room, searching. Where is he, where is he?“Jo Jo? Jo Jo, are you alright?” The room began to spin. Then all went black.
...Stay tuned...Chapter 12 will be posted next Tuesday, June 7th...