Date: August 30, 1998, copyright to Red Soprano
Here 'tis. My contribution to the Archive Missing Scene Challenge. The title, of course, refers to Blair's reaction to Jim's buying some pretty new clothes for the young woman they helped out in the episode "Sleeping Beauty." Blair's wonder, amusement and obvious affection for his friend were so evident in the way he made this little comment, that it's become one of my favorite quotes from the show.
I suppose I should give you folks a Mary-Sue alert here. Trust me, it could have been far worse. I briefly considered being absolutely true to the title of the story and telling it from the POV of a fly. Fortunately, common sense prevailed. What would that have been, a "Fly-Sue" story?
Speaking of flies, Pet Fly and Paramount own The Sentinel and all of the wonderful characters that appear on that television series. Carla and Jo are mine. Lord only knows what I'm going to do with them when I'm done here. I expect they'll head off to where all good Mary-Sues go when they've outlived their usefulness. Poor dears.
Thanks so much to the kind Senfic List folks who responded to my "research" question regarding the fashion senses of our boys. It was most enlightening. Also, thanks to my beta readers, Ellenore and Debra. And many, many thanks to Cat for offering my stories a home on her page and for her kind and encouraging words.
OH, TO BE A FLY ON THE WALL
by Red Soprano
"Huh. There he is again."
"There who is again?"
"The cop that lives upstairs in the loft. He keeps walking by and looking in the window."
Carla looked up from the spring sweaters she was arranging on a clearance table and followed Jo's gaze to the front of the small boutique. Just to the right of the entrance was a tall man who stood staring intently at the window display. He was chewing thoughtfully on his lower lip and had a faintly perplexed look on his handsome face.
"Maybe he's waiting for somebody."
"Yeah, maybe," Jo said wistfully. "Just kind of looked like he was thinking of coming in." She sidled up to the other woman and asked nonchalantly, "So, what do you make of this guy, Carla?"
"What do I make of him?" Carla set aside the sweater she was folding and studiously appraised the man standing out on the sidewalk. "Hmm, let's see. Not much change since the last time you asked me that exact same question. He's his usual tall, good-looking self. Although today, I'd say he's developed a disturbingly intense interest in our window mannequin."
Abruptly, the man tore his gaze from the window display and peered directly into the store at the two saleswomen. His face reddened slightly and, with a brief, embarrassed smile, he turned and walked away.
"Oops," Carla brought her hand to her mouth to cover an exaggerated grimace of mortification, "do you think he heard me?" She waved her hand frantically in the air and started toward the front entrance, "Ah, c'mon back, I was just kidding!"
"Carla, don't do that," Jo reached out and grabbed her friend by the arm.
"What?" Carla grinned at her mischievously, "I thought you've been wanting to meet the guy."
"I never said that."
"No, girlfriend, you never say anything, you just pine away from a distance."
"I do not," Jo said indignantly.
"Yes you do." Carla returned to folding sweaters. She smiled apologetically at her friend, "Sorry honey, I really didn't mean to scare him away."
"Oh, don't worry about it," Jo sighed. "Anyway, I really doubt he heard you from the other side of the window. Although you were being incredibly rude," she scolded, jabbing her finger at Carla's shoulder for emphasis.
"Just being my own sweet self," Carla said cheerfully.
Jo strolled up to the store entrance and peered cautiously through the glass. Stepping to the side, she strained to look further down the walk which ran in front of the store. "Shoot," she muttered softly, "guess he's gone."
Carla stepped up behind her and draped a long arm across the smaller woman's shoulders. "I hate to tell you this, honey, but if a guy like that's hanging around outside our little boutique, chances are he's in the market for a present for the new woman in his life. Either that, or he's got a mannequin fetish. In any case, you are just fresh outta luck, girlfriend."
"I don't know, he could be looking for something for his mother or a sister." Jo cast a sideways glance up at the taller woman. "I haven't noticed him with anyone new lately, have you?" she asked hesitantly.
"Well, I did see a girl with him and his roommate this morning." Carla smiled at the slight pout this bit of information elicited from the other woman, and gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "She looked kinda young, though. Probably the little guy's new girlfriend. Sure is a scruffy-looking little thing."
"I wish you wouldn't say that about Blair. He seems like such a nice kid."
"Not Blair. The girl. Although it did look like she was wearing Blair's clothes. They had this twin flannel-denim thing going." Carla grinned indulgently at her friend, who was still scouting the sidewalk for signs of their elusive neighbor. "Now, let me think," she mused, "the last lady I remember seeing the big guy with was that redhead a few weeks ago."
"Who, Naomi? No, Carla, don't you remember? That's the roommate's mom. She came in the store and we got to talking, and she showed us that sweet picture of Blair when he was little."
"No, not her. Of course I remember Naomi. Jeez, the woman about talked our ears off. No, I'm thinking about that other redhead. The one we saw when we were here late, working on inventory."
"Oh, yeah, her." Jo scowled faintly.
"Don't worry. I don't think she lasted long. I haven't seen her around at all since then. Of course, it's not like we're here during prime-time viewing hours, you know. Doggone it, girl," Carla said, tapping her fist lightly against Jo's shoulder, "if we're going to catch up on the details of their love lives, we need to throw a moonlight madness sale or something."
"Oh, for Pete's sake, Carla, you make it sound like we're a couple of voyeurs down here."
"Nothing wrong with keeping an eye on the local wildlife. Especially when they're such mighty fine specimens. Mmm-mmm-mmm --"
"Don't drool, Carla. If you get the merchandise damp, I'll be forced to forget that you're my favorite employee." Jo gave her friend a fond pat on the arm and, turning reluctantly from the window, walked over to the sales register.
"Yeah, just don't forget I'm your only employee," Carla called lightly after her. "And your best friend. Not to mention I'm irreplaceable. And damn cute." With a self-satisfied smirk, she folded her arms across her chest and took over her friend's task of monitoring the activities outside the store window.
"So you keep telling me, sweetie," Jo responded absently as she pulled a stack of receipts out from under the counter.
"Jo," Carla said, without taking her eyes from the sidewalk, "if you want to meet the guy, just go up to him and say hello. He passes by here everyday."
"It's not that easy. He's always on his way somewhere or he's with his roommate. I can't very well burst out of the store and go running after him, can I?"
"Works for me," said Carla philosophically. "Ohmigod! Jo, here he comes again!" Carla rushed back to the clearance table and hastily resumed her sweater-folding task.
"What?" Jo looked up from the counter just in time to see the tall man stride back into view. This time, he appeared to be heading purposefully for the front door of the small boutique. As luck would have it, an elegant-looking woman in her sixties and two very talkative teenage girls approached from the opposite direction and arrived at the door at the same time he did. After a brief, awkward dance of etiquette, the man held the door open for the other three to walk in, then, looking slightly flustered, he allowed the door to close behind them and again walked away.
"Damn," Jo said, just loudly enough to earn her a startled glance from the eldest of her three customers.
"Aw, look, he's shy," Carla cooed, "that is so-o-o-o sweet."
Their new customer glanced back at the door to see the object of the ladies' attention, but the man was already out of sight. She smiled uncertainly and joined her two chattering shopping companions.
"Ooh, Nana," came an unpleasantly high-pitched squeal from one of the girls, "look at these. Aren't they cute?" The girls elbowed Carla away from the clearance table and proceeded to sift haphazardly through the sweaters she had just finished neatly folding and stacking.
"Let me know if you ladies need help finding anything," Carla said coolly as she walked over to her friend. She leaned on the sales counter and looked Jo directly in the eyes.
"Jo." She shook her head sadly, "Jo, Jo, Jo. What're we gonna do with you? You bought Colette's Boutique, what, six months ago? This guy lives right upstairs. And in this whole time, you've never even tried to meet him. Look, all you have to do is keep an eye out for him when he goes to the corner deli, then sort of casually go down there and kind of nonchalantly bump into him...."
"I've got a store to run, in case you haven't noticed," Jo said archly, thumbing through the stack of receipts.
"You're gonna end up an old maid if you don't start taking the initiative sometime."
"Carla, why don't you go help our customers and quit pestering me about my love life?" Jo suggested sweetly.
"I will, as soon as you get a love life," Carla responded just as sweetly.
"Uh, excuse me. Miss?"
The two women gasped in unison and turned to gape at their tall neighbor, who apparently had screwed up his courage sufficiently to come in, and was now standing less than two feet away. It wasn't clear which "Miss" he had addressed, but since he only managed a brief, awkward glance at Carla before he directed his gaze at Jo, it appeared he was waiting for a response from the shorter of the two women.
Jo gulped audibly and said, "Yes? Uh-huh? I mean ... what?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt, I was wondering about that dress in the window...."
Jo stepped from behind the counter, knocking the receipts to the floor as she did so. "Uh ... uh ... let's see ... uh...." she stammered inarticulately, alternating between looking toward the display the man was pointing to and bending down to pick up the pieces of paper. "Well, uh...."
"The tea-length sundress with the spaghetti straps?" Carla asked, coming to her dumbstruck friend's assistance.
"Uh...." the man hesitated, confused, "yeah, I guess. Is that the one with the little flowers all over it?"
"Yes, that's it. Pretty one, isn't it?" Carla favored him with a bright smile. "Isn't that a lovely dress, Jo?"
"Uh-huh, yes," Jo said, her voice cracking slightly, "very pretty."
"Jo, why don't you help this nice gentleman while I go set up dressing rooms for these two young ladies?" Carla breezed over to the two girls whose arms were quickly filling with items they wished to try on, leaving Jo to stare helplessly after her.
"Pardon?" Jo looked up at the man, a somewhat dazed expression on her face. She found herself staring into a pair of the bluest eyes she had ever seen.
"The dress?" he prompted politely.
"The dress? Oh yes, the dress. Of course."
Jo struggled to replace her "enraptured deer-in-the-headlights" look with a more professional demeanor. She cleared her throat and managed a meek, "What size?"
"Size? Well, let's see. She's about five-foot-five, between 110 and 120 pounds."
"Umm, okay. That helps," Jo frowned and struggled to estimate a size given this information -- a task that, under normal circumstances, she could have done fairly easily. "Ummmm ... let's see...."
The man offered her a hesitant, encouraging smile. Jo realized with dismay that her face was scrunched into a furious scowl of concentration. She quickly replaced this look with a more attractive, but no more helpful, smile of apology.
"I'm really sorry," she said, "you don't happen to know her dress size?" The instant this question was out of her mouth, she mentally berated herself for its inanity. 'Of course he doesn't know her dress size, you idiot. If he'd known her dress size, he would have told you her dress size -- and it's not like you have a chance with this guy. After all, he is in here buying a dress for a woman. Probably not his mom, 'cause if it was his mom, he'd have known the dress size. Men know their mother's dress sizes -- '
"-- your height and she's very slender."
"I said she's about your height and she's very slender. Are you alright?" The man gazed down at her, his expression one of warm concern.
Jo was absolutely convinced that she was going to defy all laws of physics and melt into a puddle, a great big messy one, right there on the floor. She took tentative step toward the front of the counter and found, to her great relief, that her knees still supported her, and her feet remained solidly encased in her low-heeled pumps.
"Yes! Yes, I'm fine," Jo forced herself to squeak out. "I'm sorry, I'm just a little preoccupied."
"That's all right. As I said, she's slender, like you, only she's not as, uh ... she doesn't have, uh...." It was the man's turn to be flustered again as his eyes flitted briefly to Jo's chest and away again. He tried to get his message across with a vague wave of his hand across the front of his own chest. "She's still kind of a kid, so she's not ... uh...." his voice trailed off lamely.
"You mean, she's not as busty as me," Jo finished helpfully, then blushed furiously at her own comment.
"Right." the man looked away, his face also turning red.
Jo managed a timid smile, the man's obvious lack of ease in this situation helping her to deal with her own shyness somewhat. 'Okay, Jo, he may be the most incredibly handsome creature in the Pacific Northwest, but he is totally out of his element in a boutique. You're the expert here. You can do this. You can help the nice man....'
"I think we have one more left in the size you need." Her voice came out sounding surprisingly calm and authoritative.
"And it just went thataway," Carla informed her cheerily as she rejoined them at the counter. She pointed to one of the two girls heading for the dressing rooms, the pretty sundress among the huge stack of clothes she was going to try on.
"Damn," Jo muttered under her breath.
"Well, what about the one on the, uh, you know...." the man glanced surreptitiously at Carla, "uh, the one the mannequin has on? Is that the right size?" he asked hopefully.
"I'm sorry," Jo said, her voice tinged with genuine regret, "our mannequins are teeny-tiny. That's a size three."
"Oh." he said, disappointment written clearly across his handsome face. "Too small, huh?"
"Probably, yeah. I'm really sorry," Jo said.
"No, it's my fault. If I hadn't dilly-dallied around outside for so long, I'd have already bought the darn thing by now."
Jo found herself oddly pleased by the man's use of the quaint term "dilly-dally." She smiled and said, "Yeah, I did notice you seemed to have a little trouble working up the courage to come in."
"That obvious, huh?" he grinned sheepishly. "Last time I was in a dress shop, it was to buy a present for my wife. Fortunately, I had the sense to keep the receipt so she was able to return it for something she actually liked."
"Your wife?" Jo asked, frowning in confusion.
"Damn," Carla piped up, "she hated the dress that much, huh?"
"Excuse me?" The man gave Jo's impertinent friend a quizzical look.
"Don't mind Carla," Jo said, trying to shoot daggers at her friend with her eyes while still maintaining a pleasant smile, "She has a very unusual sense of humor."
"It's what comes from being raised by savages," Carla added sweetly. "Jo, dear. Why don't you show Mr. Ellison our other dresses?"
Ellison looked vaguely startled, "I'm sorry, have we met?" His eyes narrowed slightly and, for the first time since he had entered the store, he looked Carla directly in the eye. "How is it you know my name?"
"Well, we haven't been formally introduced, but you are our neighbor, aren't you?" Carla asked innocently. "Aren't you that policeman that lives in the loft with that absolutely adorable and scruffy little anthropologist?" She ignored Jo's stern glare at her use of the word "scruffy." Without giving the man a chance to answer, she thrust out her hand, "Carla Bronson. Pleased to meet you."
Jim shook her hand, "Same here," he said, sounding mildly uncertain.
"And this lovely lady," Carla said, placing her arm around the shoulder of her thoroughly embarrassed companion, "is Jo Lindsey, my best friend and the owner of this fine establishment."
Jim held out his hand for Jo to shake. "Jim Ellison. Sorry I hadn't gotten down to introduce myself to you two before. My schedule's kind of crazy. You took over the store a few months ago, didn't you?"
"Uh-huh," Jo answered distractedly. "I think I should explain," she said hastily, anxious to disavow Ellison of the impression that she and Carla were the neighborhood busybodies, "the reason we know your name is because it's on your mailbox --"
"No, that's not why," Carla corrected her cheerfully. "It was Naomi," she informed Jim.
Jo closed her eyes and groaned softly in consternation.
"Virtual fount of information." Carla nodded appreciatively.
"Yes, I can imagine," Jim said ruefully.
"She came into the store one day and we got to talking. Lord, that woman can talk. She told us all about how she and this psychic friend of hers were helping you two out on a case. You know, that little girl that got kidnapped?"
"She told you all about that, huh?"
Jo winced at the irritated tone that had crept into Ellison's voice, but Carla babbled on, unperturbed, "She is so proud of that son of hers. She's a little confused about why he's working with a pi -- excuse me, police detective -- but she said she was -- now, how did she put it? 'Processing her feelings.' "
"She does that a lot," Jim muttered.
Jo uttered another soft moan and covered her eyes with one hand.
Carla continued, oblivious to her friend's discomfort, "She showed us the cutest little picture of Blair --"
"Hey, Miss?" came a demanding adolescent voice from the back of the store, "Miss, I need this in a size five, please."
Carla rolled her eyes in annoyance and glanced back to where a teenage arm was dangling a pair of plaid slacks around the corner of the dressing room door. "Size five? Yeah, right. Dream on, honey," she muttered and headed for a rack in the far corner of the store to get the requested garment.
Jo found herself utterly incapable of meeting the tall detective's eyes. "I'm sorry," she said shaking her head slowly back and forth, "I am so sorry. Carla doesn't mean anything by it, she just --"
"What picture?" Jim asked, cutting short her abject apology.
"Pardon?" She risked a tentative glance in his direction.
"What was the picture Naomi showed you? It wasn't that one with Blair sitting on the back of a toilet dressed in a superhero cape, was it?"
"Yes, that's the one."
Jim broke into a huge grin.
'Would you look at that smile,' Jo mused dreamily, 'and I thought his self-conscious, fish-out-of-water look was irresistible.'
"Oh, man, I can't wait to tell him," Jim chuckled, "He is absolutely gonna kill her."
"Oh dear. This isn't going to get Naomi in trouble, is it? She seemed like such a nice woman...."
"Don't worry, Ms. Lindsey. Naomi can take care of herself when it comes to Blair."
"Call me Jo," she said, with a shy smile. "I guess I shouldn't worry. Blair doesn't really look the type to resort to matricide."
"Not a mean bone in that boy's body," Jim agreed.
"Hey, Jimbo!" Carla called boisterously from the back, "you picked out that dress yet?"
Jim blushed faintly at Carla's somewhat inelegant reminder of the reason for his visit.
"Not yet, Carla," Jo answered testily, "we're working on it." She took a deep breath and looked up at Jim. "Well, Detective? You game? I promise I'll make it as painless as possible."
"I place myself in your capable hands, Jo," he said, smiling warmly.
"Mmm-hmm," Jo mumbled weakly, momentarily distracted by the mildly risqué image that comment brought to mind. "Well," she said, turning and walking quickly to the rack on the opposite wall, "we have a very nice selection of spring dresses right over here." She quickly located a dress in a flowing, pale green fabric and held it out for Jim to examine. "How about this? It's a similar style to the other one you liked, just a different fabric."
Jim nodded appreciatively, "Yes. That's very pretty." He lifted the fabric and let it flow lightly through his fingers. Jo was struck by how gentle his large hands appeared. In all the months she had been observing her neighbor, she had imagined him to be strong and aggressive, a man's man. It had never occurred to her to think of him as a sensual person. She found herself strangely touched by the tender smile that played across his lips as he brushed his fingertips over the soft, pliable material.
"The color's nice, too, isn't it?" she asked.
"Hmm?" Jim frowned. "Oh," he murmured thoughtfully, "it's light green." Abruptly, he let the fabric fall from his fingers. "Uh, Jo ... you know, I'm sorry, I don't think this one will work. It's nice, and everything, it's just that when I met this girl, she was wearing something this color."
"All right, sure, no problem," Jo said, a little confused. She returned the dress to the rack. "But, Jim, if she already owns something this color, don't you think that means she likes it?""No," Jim shook his head emphatically, "I doubt she cared for this particular outfit."
"Okay. Let's see...." she pulled a short-sleeved, waisted dress from the rack. "I like this pretty peach color."
"Uhhh...." Jim hesitated, then shook his head apologetically. "Sorry. It's pretty. It's just that it looks sort of like what a librarian might wear to a wedding."
Jo's eyebrows shot up in surprise. She studied the garment for a moment then said, "You know, what? You're absolutely right." She returned the dress to the rack and looked carefully over the rest of the selection for a few moments. Finally, she sighed and said, "Jim, maybe it would help if you told me more about this young lady. How old did you say she was?"
"I didn't. She's twenty, but she's sort of young for her age."Jo resisted the temptation to ask for details, despite her curiosity as to the identity of the mystery lady. A disturbing thought occurred to her, and she turned her attention back to the rack of clothes in front of them. "Hmmm...." She chewed on the inside of her cheek, her brow furrowed in concentration as she searched for the item she had in mind. Locating it, she plucked it from the rack and held it out to him. "How about this one, it's made from a similar floral print as the first dress you liked --"
"Whoa!" Jim's eyebrows shot up and he quickly took the hanger from Jo's hands and hung the tiny slip dress back on the rack. "That one's pretty short, don't you think? I'd like to get her something a little less revealing, you know?"
Jo smiled at his reaction. Well, at least if it turned out he was a cradle-robber buying something for some sweet young thing, he wasn't into "tarting" her up.
She grinned secretly and took another dress off the rack. It was a hot-pink jumper with a ruffled bib top. "How about this one?" she asked.
Jo caught the brief wince that passed over Jim's face before he skillfully covered his distaste with an expression of polite interest. "Umm ... well," he said tentatively, "I'm not really a big pink fan myself...."
"It's okay," Jo chuckled and rehung the dress, "I was just testing you. Sorry. I couldn't resist. I agree, that one's dreadful. I think Carla ordered those as a joke. I've actually sold quite a few, believe it or not."
"What if I'd actually liked it?"
"You wouldn't have. And even if you did, I wouldn't have let you buy it."
Jim smiled ruefully, "I'm sorry to be so hard to please here, Jo, it's just that this girl has really missed out on a lot of life. I'm fairly certain this will be her first grownup dress."
"So you want it to be very special."
"I want it to make her feel special," Jim said softly, and went back to eyeing the bewildering array of fashion choices before him, a look of earnest confusion on his kind face.
Jo mentally kicked herself for thinking that Jim's interest in this girl was anything less than honorable. 'Nope,' she thought, 'this isn't some jerk who needs a young trophy galpal on his arm to soothe his own insecurities. This is just a very nice man who wants to do something thoughtful for a young friend.'
"You really had your heart set on the dress in the window, didn't you?" she asked gently.
"Hmm? Oh, no, that's all right. It just caught my eye, is all. It looked like something I thought she might like. Listen, maybe I should get my roommate to help. He's better at this sort of thing than I am."
"Hah! Yeah, right!" Carla snorted, as she walked by with a load of garments to rehang. "Between the two of you, I'd say you're the one with the fashion sense. I like retro as much as the next person, but those bowling shirts he wears have got to go."
"I kind of like those bowling shirts," Jo said quietly.
"And you need to take that poor boy shopping for a jacket," Carla said over her shoulder as she began returning items of clothing to their appropriate racks. "Those oversized things he wears look like they come from the Salvation Army."
"Carla," Jo admonished gently, "did it ever occur to you that maybe they do? He is still a struggling student, after all.""I think the reason Sandburg likes his coats and jackets oversized is that he's a little sensitive to the cold," Jim said, coming to his friend's defense. In fact," he continued, grinning conspiratorially, "you should see this one hat he's got. It's all furry and it's got these flaps that come down over his ears --"
"Oh, you mean that Fargo hat?" Carla cackled gleefully, "Yeah, we saw him wearing it once. I thought Jo was going to pee her pants, she was laughing so har --" Carla caught the stern look from her friend and sobered immediately. "Oops, sorry. Didn't mean to make fun. Don't mention it to the little guy, okay?"
"That's all right. If it makes you feel any better, I had the same reaction the first time I saw him wear it."
"Where on earth did he get that thing?" Jo asked.
"Who knows?" Jim chuckled. "So, Carla," he asked shyly, "you think I've got fashion sense, huh?"
"Don't go getting a big head," she said with a sly grin as she returned the last item of clothing to its rack, "You still gotta do something about those white socks ."
"What's wrong with my white socks?" Jim leaned over and hiked up the fronts of his pantlegs to peer at the offending hosiery.
"If you gotta ask...." Carla's voice trailed off as she headed back to check on her young customers.
"Jim, please don't mind her," Jo pleaded, suppressing a chuckle. "I really do think she was raised by savages.""Ah, don't worry about it. Besides, I'm learning all sorts of interesting things today," Jim assured her good-naturedly. "In fact, since I've taken up so much of your time, I ought to buy something."
"Oh, don't feel like you have to --"
"No, really, I think it would be a good idea to get some other stuff for Stacey. She could probably use some shirts and pants. The hospital sent over a few things, but she doesn't have much at all in the way of clothes."
"It's a long story," he said, his tone clearly indicating that this was a closed subject. "You know what? I think I can guess at her jeans size, would that help? She's a size or two smaller than Sandburg. His jeans were kind of loose on her and I believe he wears a --"
"Oh, is she that girl Carla saw with you this morning? Blair's girlfriend?" Jo bit down on her tongue, realizing too late that, once again, she was coming across as the neighborhood busybody.
"No, she's not anybody's girlfriend." Jim's tone had taken on a no-nonsense quality. "She's just a poor kid who needs a little help. As I said, it's a long story."
"Okay," Jo said, averting her eyes to hide her embarrassment. "Umm ... well, let's see if we can't come up with a couple of nice outfits for her." She motioned for Jim to follow her over to a rack of casual slacks. Jim reached out and stopped her with a firm but gentle touch to her arm.
"Jo, I need to ask you a favor."
"Of course," she said, still unable to look him in the eyes.
"You and Carla seem to have a good handle on the comings and goings in the neighborhood."
"I'm really sorry, Jim. I know from the way Carla was talking, it seems like we have our noses in everybody else's business --"
Jim shook his head, "No, that's not what I meant. I just meant that you have a good view of people who come and go in the building. If you could do me a favor and let us know if you notice anyone hanging around that doesn't belong. And let me or Sandburg know immediately if anyone starts asking around about Stacey."
Jo didn't answer for a moment.
"I know it seems like a strange request, but there are some people who might want to hurt Stacey. Sandburg and I are keeping her under protective custody for a while."
Jo managed to look into his eyes. The bashful man who had entered her store a few minutes ago and self-consciously asked about the dress in the window was now gone and she found herself wilting slightly under the forthright gaze of a police detective doing his job. "Okay," she answered meekly, "we'll do whatever we can to help. And I promise I'll have a little talk with Carla. It seems she's never learned the art of discretion. I take it you want to keep the fact that this girl is staying with you a secret?"
"Just from the people who want to hurt her. I promise you, Jo, Stacey's temporary residence in the loft is purely innocent. Strictly police business.""Oh, pfssh!" Jo scoffed, dismissing his suggestion with an awkward wave of her hand. "I never doubted you for a minute."
"Of course you did," Jim said softly, "that's why you showed me that little mini-tart dress."
Jo could feel her face redden clear to her hairline.
"Don't worry about it," Jim smiled, "I admire people who have a suspicious nature when it comes to protecting the innocent." He continued to smile at her, but his expression changed from confident to bashful as he asked, "So, uh, you wanna help me pick out some girl clothes?"
Jo looked up into those ice-blue eyes again and allowed herself to bask for a moment under their earnest gaze. Life was full of surprises. This was a man she had watched for months from the sanctuary of her little store. All this time, she had been completely content to observe from a distance, her imagination filling in the blanks between her brief daily glimpses of his life. Now, here he was, in the flesh, and so different from what she had thought him to be.As she helped him to pick out clothing for the young woman in his custody, she realized that this man was so much more human than the one she had imagined while observing him through the benign barrier of her storefront window. Out there, he appeared unflaggingly confident and strong; an easy-going yet steadfast friend to his young roommate. Over the months, Jo had built up an image of him as a hero of almost unrealistically noble proportions. It didn't help that the man actually was somewhat of a hero in Cascade. Carla had gleefully pointed out the occasional news story mentioning the police detective's work.
A few weeks ago, after some particularly visible media coverage of a case in which Jim and Blair had been involved (one in which Blair had been injured during the rescue of a police captain in the woods north of Cascade), she had watched as Jim brought his friend home from the hospital. The young man was obviously tired and in considerable pain. She had looked on in amusement as Blair batted irritably at Jim's helpful hands and struggled stubbornly to get out of the truck and onto his crutches by himself. Despite the lines of fatigue etched clearly on his own face, Jim had remained silent and unfailingly patient as he firmly guided his recalcitrant young friend into the building.
He was a very fine man, indeed. And from what she saw of his life out there in the small world defined by the sidewalk that ran in front of her store, he appeared to have no faults, no weaknesses. But in here, inside her domain, it turned out that he was not the impossibly perfect hero she had made him out to be. In here, he was preciously insecure and vulnerable. He was endearing. He was real.
They were almost finished choosing clothes for the young lady when Jim spied a simple, but lovely, rust-colored top and hesitantly reached for it, saying something about how nice this would look with Stacey's hair. One of the teenage shoppers had seen it, too, and snatched it from under his nose with a barely civil, "Excuse me, you don't mind, do you?" The girl then carried her prize back to the dressing room, blithely ignorant of the oddly hurt expression on Jim's face and the stony glare on Carla's. Fortunately for the girl, Jo quickly located another top just like it and, waving it in appeasement at her fuming friend, managed to avert what surely would have been a bloody confrontation in the tiny dressing room.
Jo puzzled over Jim's passive reaction to the girl's rude behavior. How very strange that a man who could be so intimidating on the mean streets of the city was so easily put in his place by an obnoxious and aggressive teen in a boutique.
She wondered what it had been like for him on that day he decided to make his foray into the bewildering and unforgiving world of ladies' fashion; the day he had ventured out to buy a new dress for his wife. She imagined his shyness as he asked questions about sizes and styles. She wondered how long and meticulously he had searched through the racks, deciding on exactly the right garment for her. What had he considered while making this loving choice? Her hair color? Her personality?
The very idea that a woman could callously return a dress so painstakingly chosen with her in mind, made Jo's blood boil. If this man had come home with a dress he had chosen for her, Jo was certain she would have worn it, regardless of how it looked. She'd have worn it if it had been a potato sack. She'd have worn it even if it was something as hideous as that hot-pink jumper with the ruffles. Well, maybe not the hot-pink jumper, but, considering Jim's exceptional tastes in ladies' clothing, that wouldn't have happened, anyway.
When he'd finished picking out the clothes and she was helping him carry the items to the cash register, she felt strangely bereft. She knew that, when he walked out the door of her little boutique, the spell would be broken and he would no longer be this incredibly sweet and vulnerable man, but would become, once again, the strong, no-nonsense police detective she had glimpsed a few moments earlier. He would resume the life of an impossibly perfect hero in his world out there, while she timidly watched from the self-imposed confines of her own small world.
Jo came to the heartbreaking realization, as she had so many other times in her life, that she was incapable of doing anything to change this. She would not flirt, and to the exasperation of her outspoken friend, she would give no indication to this man that she was interested in him. Intensely shy people such as herself lived with the conviction that they should not venture into the world of heroes.
Even so, she found herself working very slowly as she rang up his few purchases, stalling for time by commenting on each item and trying to make small talk. He was polite, but obviously anxious to be on his way, now that his task was done. Jo finished up by boxing the items, wrapping them lovingly in tissue paper. As she was placing the boxes in a shopping bag, Carla breezed up and said, "Don't forget this!" With a flourish, she draped the delicate dress Jim had originally wanted across the counter.
"Carla," Jo hissed, glancing warily over her shoulder toward the back of the store where the young girls and their grandmother were still busily making a shambles of their inventory, "you didn't sneak this out of the dressing room, did you?"
"Of course not!" Carla looked insulted.
"What then?" Jo asked, genuinely puzzled, "She didn't like it? I can't believe she didn't like this."
"Are you kidding? She loved it. Until I complimented her on her taste and told her my favorite aunt has almost the exact same dress. Yep. Auntie loves to wear that pretty little sundress to Sunday school." Carla winked at Jim, "The little brat lost interest real quick after I mentioned that."
"Carla, you're terrible!" Jo whispered, mildly concerned that the young customer would realize she had been tricked and come forward to snatch the dress from under Jim's nose again.
"What? I didn't lie. I just didn't happen to mention that my Aunt Tiffany is a drop-dead gorgeous college coed ten years younger than me. It's one of those weird second marriage things," she said to Jim, by way of clarification.
Jim smiled warmly at Carla, then Jo. "Thank you. Both of you. You made this whole experience a lot less painful than I thought it was going to be. And Carla, thank you for getting my dress back."
"Hey, I'll bet that's a phrase you never thought you'd find an occasion to say," Carla quipped.
Jim chuckled, "Thanks again for your help, ladies."
"Well, that's what we're here for, isn't it, Jo?"
Jo didn't answer, but finished ringing up the dress with a secretive smile.
Carla nudged her friend with her elbow. "I said, isn't it, Jo?"
Jo ignored her friend's thinly veiled attempts to get her to flirt with the tall detective. "If any of these things don't fit, just have the young lady come down and we'll take care of her," she said pleasantly as she folded the dress into a nest of tissue paper and placed a lid over the box.
"Maybe you should come down with her, Jim," Carla suggested, "without both you and Jo here to keep me under control, I might try to sell the poor girl that pink thing."
Jim handed Jo a check for the clothing and took the shopping bag from her. He winked at the storeowner and said, "I think Jo is perfectly capable of keeping Stacey safe from your clutches, Carla. Thanks anyway. Bye, ladies," he said, heading for the door.
Carla stared after him in frustration, "Well, don't be a stranger, y'here?" She gave her friend another insistent nudge and gestured toward the man's departing back. "Say something," she mouthed in exasperation.
"Jim?" Jo's soft voice stopped him at the door. "For what it's worth, I think your ex-wife made a big mistake."
"Returning the dress you bought her. From what I can see, you have exquisite taste."
Carla gave her friend an enthusiastic thumbs up from behind the protective cover of the cash register.
"Really?" Jim asked, obviously pleased, "You really think so?"
"Well thanks, Jo. Thanks. That's really nice of you to say." Jim waved and stepped out of the shop.
The instant the door had closed behind him, Carla said wryly, "EX-wife, huh? If you ask me, returning that dress wasn't the only mistake that stupid woman made."
The tall man paused briefly outside the window and looked in at them, his blue eyes sparkling with good humor. He nodded, waved again, and walked on. As before, the women had the strangest feeling that he had overheard Carla's comment from the other side of the thick, pane-glass window.
The two ladies were silent for a few moments, staring at the now-empty sidewalk.
"So, Carla," Jo asked nonchalantly, "what do you make of that guy?"
All right. I have to do this. Mary-Sues are fine, so long as they don't hang around and wear out their welcomes. I have to admit, though, I did grow rather fond of my girls over the course of this story. For this reason, I feel obliged to tie up a few loose ends.
Just so you know, Jo and Jim went out on a couple of friendly lunch dates, but found that, other than both being two beautiful human beings, they had absolutely nothing in common. They remained good friends, but lost touch when Jo ran off with a Methodist minister she met on the internet (they were both fanfic writers for a sadly underrated but spectacular buddy-cop show). She now lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where she writes romance novels. Real bodice rippers, mind you. Her latest is called Moonlight Madness.
What about Carla, you ask? Well, she's quite successful. She is now top buyer for a large mail-order catalogue company in Oklahoma which specializes in casual-and sportswear. She heads up the bowling shirt division.
For those sharp-eyed, time-line sticklers among you, the redhead I referred to above was meant to be Sheila from 'Hear No Evil,' not Cassie. Also, the "weird second marriage" comment is obviously not meant to reference 'Neighborhood Watch,' which takes place many, many episodes later. It's sort of my own private inside joke. I never really understood why they made such a big deal out of the difference in Jim and Blair's ages in that episode. There's a 16-year age difference between my eldest brother and my youngest sister. She is only five years older than her nephew. No big deal. Just made deciding who sat at the kiddie table at Thanksgiving a little dicey is all.