Chet tapped the table top in front of Roy and nodded towards the phone. The grin he sported confirmed Roy’s worst suspicions. Johnny was getting dumped again, and the Phantom was preparing for the attack. A low sigh escaped as Roy looked back at the newspaper. He tried unsuccessfully to ignore the barely concealed snicker emanating from the stocky Irishman. Marco and Mike grinned quietly at each other as they sat back to watch the show. Oh, Johnny, you’re in for it now.
Captain Stanley entered the room as Johnny hung up the phone. “What’s wrong, Pal? Bad news?”
“Yeah, Cap, that was Lisa. She just found out she’s scheduled to work the swing shift on Valentine’s Day.”
“Sorry to hear that, John. Guess that means you won’t have a date for the ball.”
A loud guffaw erupted from the direction of the table, and the two men turned in unison, looking for the source of Chet’s amusement. “What’s got in to you, Kelly?”
Rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands, Chet doubled over as another fit of laughter choked back his answer. “It’s nothing, Cap.”
Roy looked rather guilty as he studied the paper before him.
“What, Roy? What’s he laughing at?”
“Uh, Johnny, he’s . . well, he’s sort of amused at your circumstances.”
“Yeah, he thinks it’s rather surprising that you don’t have a date for the Valentine’s party.”
“Why’s that so surprising?”
“Well, you have been making sort of a big deal about the whole thing, and how you were taking out the prettiest girl, and the evening was going to be so special.”
Another burst of laughter followed Roy’s explanation, and the paramedic shoved at Chet’s chair with his foot. The look he shot at the fireman would have frozen most men in their tracks, but not the Phantom. He was out of control, and even Cap recognized the need to pull him back in line. His voice lowered several notches as attempted to warn the hysterical fireman. “Chet!”
The laughter quickly dropped off to a light cackle as Johnny turned back to Roy. “Yeah, but I did have a date. Lisa promised weeks ago that she’d go to the dance. I think she even bought a new dress. It’s not like she really dumped me or anything, she just had to work unexpectedly.”
Chet struggled to hold his glee in check as he wiped his eyes again. “Hey, Gage, what are you going to do with that corsage you ordered?”
Roy looked away in an effort to conceal his mirth. There was no use antagonizing the young man any more than necessary, Chet was doing a good job of that one his own. And Roy knew that he would have to work with his friend for another shift before the big party. He didn’t look forward to the ranting he’d be subject to if this whole thing got out of hand.
Johnny stood still for only a moment before turning on his heels and walking from the room. Stopping briefly in the doorway, he looked back at the still grinning Chet. “Don’t worry about it, Kelly. I will have a date for the dance. And you know any date I have will out class the girls you take out.”
With that final barb, Johnny strode from the room, intent on making his way to the dorm and the privacy the phone there would offer. He only vaguely noticed the burst of laughter from the kitchen.
“How’s it going, Partner? Have you got a date yet?”
“No, Roy, and I don’t think I’m going to find anyone now. Everyone I’ve called either has a date or has to work. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Well, why don’t you just go stag? You won’t be the only one there without a date.”
“Stag? Me, go stag at the biggest Firemen’s event of the year? You’ve got to be kidding, Roy! I’ve got to find somebody.” Johnny turned back to the address book he’d been studying when Roy walked in. Unfortunately, its pages had been examined several times, but no answers could be found there. Finally accepting the hopelessness of his situation, Johnny slipped the small book back into his pocket. “Maybe I’ll just miss the Ball this year. It’s not like it’s the end of the world, or anything. And there’s no law that says a fireman has to go to these things.”
Roy shook his head in surprise. “I can’t believe you’d even consider skipping it. You always have a great time and it’s all you’ve talked about for weeks.”
“Yeah, but that’s when I thought Lisa and I would be going together. It won’t be the same without a date, and I sure don’t want to have to put up with Chet’s laughing all night long.”
“Well, what about Joanne and the kids? You know they’re looking forward to the party, and Jennifer will be heartbroken if you’re not there. Don’t forget, you promised her a dance and she’s been practicing for days to get the steps just right. You can’t disappoint her now.”
Johnny shook his head sadly as he remembered the young girl’s excitement when talking about the party. “Okay, okay. I’ll go to the party. But I can’t go alone. I don’t think I could live with Chet’s teasing me about it for the next year.”
“Why don’t you come over to the house after we get off in the morning. Joanne can fix us some breakfast, and maybe she’ll have an idea of someone you can ask.”
“Thanks, Roy. That’s a good idea.”
Roy and Johnny met at the DeSoto house after work the next morning. Having called Joanne from the station, Roy knew that she’d be prepared for Johnny’s visit with plenty of pancakes, bacon and eggs. He sometimes wondered how someone as skinny as his partner, could manage to put away so much food.
“Joanne! We’re home.”
Pushing the door shut behind him, Johnny looked about the DeSoto house, conscious again of how at-home he felt here.
“Hi, honey.” Hurrying out of the kitchen, Joanne hugged Roy as he leaned down to kiss her.
“Hi, Johnny. Are you hungry?”
“Of course.” She grinned as the men trooped into the kitchen and settled into their seats. Joanne finished setting the platters of food on the table, and they hurried to fill their plates. Moments later, a small girl raced into the kitchen and onto her father’s lap. Giving his daughter a warm hug and a kiss, Roy tousled her hair as he sat her on the chair between him and Johnny. “Morning, Princess. How are you feeling this morning? Is your cold better?”
“Yes, Daddy, I’m much better now. And Mommy said that if I’m still feeling better by this afternoon, I’ll go back to school tomorrow and go to the Firemen’s Ball the next night. Okay?”
“Okay. If Mommy says so, it must be true.” Roy glanced over his daughter’s head and winked at his wife.
“Hey, Jenny Bean, don’t I get a hello over here?”
Jennifer giggled in response as she pushed out of her chair and into Johnny’s lap. “Good morning, Uncle Johnny. Why are you here so early?”
“Well, your Mommy agreed to feed me some breakfast. Wouldn’t want your Uncle Johnny to starve to death, now would you?” Johnny proceeded to tickle the little girl until her giggles had turned to hiccups.
“Alright, you two. That’s enough playing at the table. Jennifer, you go back upstairs and change your clothes right now. If you’re feeling well enough to be up running about the house, then you can get dressed and come down to eat at the table. Then after breakfast, we’ll take a look at the homework you need to catch up on.”
Jennifer nodded as she disentangled herself from Johnny’s grasp.
“You save my seat, Uncle Johnny. You know how I like sitting by both you and Daddy. Don’t let Mommy or Chris sit there, okay?”
“Okay, Jenny, your seat will be marked off limits for everyone but you.” Johnny smiled after the girl as she skipped away from the table, then ran up the stairs. “Guess she is feeling better. You won’t be able to leave her home with a sitter now.”
Joanne grinned happily as she set out another plate of toast. “I wouldn’t have felt good about leaving her anyway. She’s been more excited about this party than anyone else. I’m so glad the department has made this a family event. All the kids have such a good time. And Jennifer’s so excited about dancing at the ball this year. We even picked out a special dress for her to wear.”
Roy decided the time was right, and cleared his throat before asking for Joanne’s help.
“Jo. Johnny needs a little help. His date, Lisa, just found out that she has to . . .”
“Roy. Never mind.”
“What? What do you mean, never mind? You’ve talked about nothing else the whole shift.”
“It’s okay, Roy. I’ve figured out who to ask.”
“Well, what if she can’t make it? Why don’t you ask Joanne to suggest someone else, just in case.”
“No, it’s okay, Roy. I’m pretty sure that this other girl will be available.”
Roy shook his head in disbelief. He continued to ponder the mercurial changes in his partner’s temperament as he poured syrup over his pancakes. I’ll never figure you out, John Gage. Never.
“You mean he actually found a date? Someone really agreed to go out with him at the last minute? Who is she? What does she look like?”
“Whoa, Chet. I just said he has a date. I didn’t say I knew who it was. He’s being very tight lipped about this whole thing. And I’m not going to bring it up, anymore. Remember, there’s almost a whole shift left before the party.”
Chet shook his head, and then turned toward the apparatus bay where Johnny was busy checking over their supplies. “Hey, Gage. Heard you had a big date for the ball. Who is the poor, unfortunate girl?”
“Never mind, Chet. It’s none of your business.”
“Oh, but it is, Johnny. I have to know who to watch out for. I want to be available to help the poor girl out after you get through ruining her evening.”
“What makes you think I’m going to ruin her evening? She’s a wonderful girl, and I wouldn’t hurt her for the world.”
“Who is this goddess, and why haven’t you ever talked about her before?”
“Oh, but I have, Chet. You just haven’t been listening.”
“Well, if she’s so wonderful, how come you invited Lisa first?”
“Like I said, that’s none of your business. Let’s just say that things have a way of working out for the best.”
“Ahhh, come on, Gage. You just found somebody to fill in and wear the corsage. Admit it. This girl’s just a temporary fix to a bad situation.”
The two stood inches apart, neither willing to be the first to back down. Finally, the captain’s voice could be heard from his office as he finished his morning reports. “DeSoto! Gage! Could I see you two in the office? We need to go over the log book.”
Roy watched from the doorway as Johnny and Chet slowly moved away from each other. He knew how close they really were, even if the two of them wouldn’t admit it, but he did enjoy watching their constant sparing. Falling in behind his partner as they walked to the captain’s office, Roy couldn’t resist one last attempt at the truth. “So, who is she, Johnny? Can’t you at least confide in me? Is it someone you’ve dated before or someone new?”
“Oh, you’ve seen her around, Roy. I think you’ll recognize her. She’s not quite your type, but if you’re nice, I’ll introduce you to her at the dance.” Johnny grinned at his partner mischievously as they entered the office and found their seats. Cap just nodded at them as they picked up the logbook and began to work.
February 14th turned out to be a perfect evening for the Fireman’s Ball. The weather was very cooperative, cool but clear. The crew members, their families and guests were comfortable both inside the station and in the parking lot out back, where extra tables had been set up. The station itself had been transformed into a brilliant scene of pink and red decorations, interspersed with twinkling white lights. A band was set up in one of the corners and had begun to play, and a few couples were already beginning to dance.
This event was a tradition within the department, and each year a different station hosted the dance. It had become somewhat of a competition, to see which station could host the best party. This year it was Station 51 who had the honors, and the men from all shifts had put in extra time earlier that day to make sure the place was in tip-top shape. Now they gathered together as they looked over their accomplishments.
“Looks good, men. Even the Chief was impressed with your achievement. He said the station looks a lot nicer than 16’s did last year.”
“Thanks, Cap, we’re glad you like it.”
“Well, enjoy yourselves.”
Mingling amongst the crowd, Roy continued to watch for his partner. He hadn’t seen him since they’d gathered for one last look before the party got into full swing. But the only thing Johnny would tell him then, was that he hadn’t met up with his date yet. Roy wondered what kind of girl would meet her date at a dance when they didn’t know each other very well. Or, was it someone Johnny knew very well, and that’s why he felt comfortable enough to ask her to meet him instead of picking her up? Finally, Joanne strolled toward him and quietly interrupted his thoughts. “Roy, aren’t we going to dance tonight?”
“Sorry, Jo, I was just wondering about Johnny’s date.”
“Oh, haven’t you seen her yet?”
“Well, no, I haven’t. Matter of fact, I haven’t even seen Johnny for a while. Do you think he really has a date, or was he just stringing us along to get Chet off his back.”
“No, Roy, he really does have a date. He’s with her now.”
“Really? Where? Where are they? Have you met her? Who is she? What’s she like?”
“Calm down! Yes, I’ve met her. She’s a very nice young lady. She’s very personable and cute. And she simply dotes on, uh . . Johnny. I think they’ll both have a very enjoyable evening.”
“Hmm, you make her sound pretty interesting. I’d like to meet her. Where did you say they’re at?”
“I don’t know where they are right now, but I’m sure you’ll be seeing them later. I think I heard them mention something about dancing together.”
“Oh, well, okay. Where are the kids, anyway?”
“They’re alright. When I saw them out back a little while ago, they were having a good time.”
“Well, let’s dance then.”
Joanne watched Roy closely as he pulled her into his arms and they moved onto the dance floor. She enjoyed the time spent with her husband, but she barely suppressed a giggle as she caught him looking around the crowd. It wasn’t too hard to figure out who he was looking for. She just wondered what he’d have to say when he found them.
Johnny held her hand gently as they maneuvered through the crowd. Although they’d started for the dance floor earlier, it had been rather a long journey. Each couple along the way had insisted on being introduced to his date, and for those that already new the young lady, short bits of conversation must be exchanged before the couple was allowed to move on.
Finally they reached the edge of the crowd, and Johnny halted briefly as he surveyed the dancers. Off to his left, he could see Roy and Joanne. They made a wonderful pair and he watched them appreciatively. Turning back to his date, Johnny looked at her warmly. “Would you like to dance?”
“Alright. Let’s go over this way. It’s not quite as crowded.”
Johnny’s date nodded in agreement as they made their way onto the floor and joined the other dancers. Several people nodded at them and smiled. Johnny grinned happily back at them.
Turning to face his dance partner, Johnny carefully placed his hand on her waist and held his palm open for her hand. She placed her hand in his, carefully turning her wrist to avoid damaging the beautiful pink and red rosebuds clasped about her dainty arm. They moved in time to the music, he bending carefully towards her, his height somewhat of a contrast to her petite frame. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Yes, Johnny. I’m having a lovely time,” John’s date said in what she assumed was the proper, mature response for a situation such as this. “How about you? Are you still upset that Lisa wasn’t able to be here?”
“Well, I have to admit I was a little disappointed at first. But having you as my date has made this evening very special. Actually, I’m glad that Lisa couldn’t be here tonight. It’s given me a chance to spend more time with you.”
The couple turned gracefully as they continued to dance at the edge of the group.
Several times, Johnny glanced towards his partner, but each time, Roy was gazing at Joanne and seemed totally unaware of anyone else. Actually, Roy was trying very hard to look inconspicuous as he continued to watch for his partner. When he finally realized that Johnny had joined them on the dance floor, he strained repeatedly to see whom Johnny had brought to the dance. But each time he caught sight of his friend, it was to see the young man’s back and Roy could tell from his posture, that Johnny’s date must be somewhat shorter than her beau. Continuing his absent-minded conversation with Joanne, Roy subtly moved his wife closer to the elusive couple. He stretched and turned in his efforts to recognize Johnny’s date.
Suddenly, just as the music ended, Johnny turned to the side and looked up just in time to see the flash of recognition in Roy’s eyes. Joanne felt rather than saw the exchange, as Roy’s arms stiffened about her and a sudden coughing spasm seemed to overtake him. Shaking his head, he stared at the couple in surprise.
There in Johnny’s arms, feet planted firmly on top of his polished black shoes, was the elusive young date, Jennifer Lynn DeSoto.
Looking down at his wife, eyes twinkling merrily, Roy stuttered as he tried to control his laughter. “Did you know about this?”
“Yes, I did, and don’t you ruin it for them. She’s been so excited since Johnny asked her yesterday, and it was all she could do to keep from telling you all day today. So, you behave yourself, or I’ll threaten to punish you, like I threatened Chris.”
“What’s punishment was that?”
“Well, Chris is going to lose all television privileges and no bike riding for a week, if he so much as crosses his eyes at them tonight.”
“Hmmm, well, I don’t know that taking away my TV or my bike will really keep me in line.”
“Well, Roy DeSoto, I can think of other things I could take away that might get your attention.”
Roy’s wicked grin was answer enough as he hugged his wife and leaned down for a quick kiss. He whispered three words in her ear before pulling away. “I’ll be good.”
Joanne grinned back as they moved towards the small group that surrounded Johnny and Jennifer. Suddenly, Roy stopped as he saw Chet coming in from the back lot. “Joanne, I think you’d better come up with a threat for the Phantom. He’s on his way over here and you know he won’t skip a chance to go after his Pigeon.”
A quick wink was the only reply Roy got from his wife as she hurried towards Chet Kelly. Roy never knew what she said to the young Irishman, but whatever she threatened him with, it must’ve been enough to scare the fireman into submission. Chet was a perfect gentleman throughout the rest of the evening, and even cut in for his turn at dancing with Jennifer.
It was almost 11:00 when Roy heard a soft tapping on the front door. He jumped quickly from the couch where he’d been waiting patiently. Opening the front door, Roy grinned at the sight before him.
Johnny stood silently on the doorstep, loosened tie dangling from his neck, a sleeping Jennifer in his arms. The young man smiled warmly at his friend as he carried the young girl into the house and up the stairs to her bedroom. Joanne joined them as Johnny lowered the sleeping girl to her bed. “I’ll take it from here, Johnny. Thank you.”
“No, thank you, Joanne. This was the best Valentine’s Day I’ve ever had.” Johnny leaned carefully over the sleeping child and kissed her gently on the forehead.
His whispered thank you was not answered, but the sleepy smile on Jennifer’s face was thanks enough.
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