Ariel sulked in the corner, stirring her Shirley Temple with the little cocktail straw. She pulled her blazer closed over her generous bump, but to no avail; it hadn’t fit properly in months.
She should’ve never come to the birthday party, but it was a corporate affair. Her boss had even hired a band and a photographer. Ariel sniffed. The audacity.
Ariel eyed the latter as she flitted around the perimeter of the party. The photographer was a striking woman with glossy, shoulder-length hair and full lips. She seemed to enjoy her job, laughing and talking with people as she snapped photos. Ariel found it rather charming.
Absently, she rubbed her belly and sighed. Not long now and she could slip out unnoticed . . . be back at her flat under the covers, her swollen feet freed from their shiny shoes. Not long now . . .
The click of a camera’s flash jolted her from her revelry. “Bloody hell!” she muttered, shielding her eyes. “You really shouldn’t do that, you know. Not without people’s permission.”
The photographer’s mouth turned down a bit, her stunning brown eyes wide and soft. “Well, I’m sorry love, but I’m supposed to get a few candids of all the guests.” She looked through the camera again. “Now pose for me, beautiful.”
Ariel put her hands up. “Absolutely not,” she said as she struggled to get up. “And I am certainly not beautiful.”
The photographer’s mouth flew open as she rushed to help Ariel to her feet. “Oh, but you are! You’re positively stunning! Pose for me for and I’ll show you!”
Tears stung Ariel’s eyes. She was tired, her feet hurt, and she had no time for this empty praise. Ariel was sick of pretty, empty words.
She shook her head, her full head of brown curls bouncing around her face. “Go shoot someone else,” she fussed. “I’m tired, I’m cranky, and in case you didn’t notice I’m very pregnant.”
The photographer smiled softly. “Hon, I noticed.” She lay a hand on her shoulder. “Please?”
And there was such earnestness in her eyes, she let her.
“I’m Gracie, by the way.” A delicate hand went out to take Ariel’s. “Gracie Americus.”
“Ariel Knowles,” Ariel muttered as she presented her hand.
Gracie brought it to her lips and pressed a small kiss there. She smiled. “Pleasure to meet you Ariel.”
Ariel’s mouth fell open a little, but she managed a small smile in return.
“Stand against the wall there dear, just for a moment. Now hold your belly . . . that’s it. Look down for me?” Gracie snapped a few photos at various angles, moving around Ariel’s body.
Then she asked her to sit. Gracie sat across from her at the table and snapped a few more. The band had kicked up now, playing a variety of songs, and the dancefloor was filling up. Gracie looked through the photos while Ariel sipped her Shirley Temple, leaning over to show Ariel the shots.
They were . . . lovely. Black and white shots of Ariel’s hands on her bump, shots of Ariel in profile, in the candlelight from the table, looking serene and nowhere near as miserable as she felt. A close-up shot of Ariel’s bump, like an eclipse, cresting the frame of the photo.
So Gracie was an excellent photographer.
Gracie turned, and her face was inches from Ariel’s. “See dear? See how beautiful you are?”
Ariel swallowed. “I think you’re just a good photographer.”
Gracie just smiled. The music swelled in her ears. She put her camera in the equipment bag and held out her hand.
“May I have this dance?”
Ariel stared up at her, not believing what she was hearing. “Don’t you . . . um, don’t you have to work?”
Gracie shrugged. “I haven’t taken my break yet. What do you say, Mrs. Knowles? You and the little one want to hit the dance floor?”
Ariel pursed her lips, looking away.
Gracie only smiled, her hand outstretched. “I know you’re tired. But have a little fun before you go?”
Ariel smiled in spite of herself, and took her hand.
Gracie helped her stand, and Ariel followed her as gracefully as she could to the dancefloor. She could feel the eyes on her immediately; it was enough that she wasn’t partnered, but here she was dancing with the photographer of all people.
Ariel’s bump settled against Gracie’s flat stomach like it belonged there, the baby kicking happily to the music. A flat foot pressed through Ariel’s belly, and Gracie felt it against her.
“Ooh, someone else likes dancing,” she said sweetly as she swayed along to the music with Ariel in her arms.
Ariel flushed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s hard not being in control of your own body.”
Gracie tutted. “There’s nothing to apologize for, hon. Nothing sweeter than the miracle of life.”
Gracie’s hands moved from Ariel’s shoulders down to her waist, squeezing a little. Her hands were warm, and she held Ariel like something precious.
“So,” she began, “I don’t mean to pry, but you came here alone. Where is Mr. Knowles?”
Ariel laughed bitterly. “There is no Mr. Knowles. There never was. It’s just me and the little one.”
Gracie nodded quietly before pulling her closer, the baby between them.
“Are you excited?”
Ariel frowned. “I’m scared to death.”
The music swirled between them, and the baby fluttered.
Gracie squeezed Ariel a little tighter.
“You’re going to do fine.”
Ariel sniffed, tears pooling in her eyes. “How do you know?”
Gracie hesitated. “I . . . don’t. But, I would like to. Know, that is. If you would let me.”
Ariel withdrew, tears spilling down her face. “Why?”
Gracie wiped them away with her thumb, her fingers smooth against Ariel’s face. “I want to get to know you better,” she said. “You and the baby.”
Ariel just blinked at her, not understanding.
Gracie laughed. “I like you, dummy. Do I have to spell it out for you?”
Then Ariel smiled, and they kept on dancing.
Jessahme Wren is a writer living in southwest Alabama.
She enjoys sharing her written works with others.