By Ellen Addie
It's been twelve years since Kelly Stewart worked in public relations for American Wrestling Entertainment; with a new career and a new divorce under her belt, she's not sure how she'll feel when she attends the gala reunion party. What Kelly doesn't count on is meeting again charismatic pro wrestler Randy Muldoon, also newly divorced. Their warm friendship of a dozen years before is instantly renewed, but Kelly is surprised to learn and finally admit that there was more between them. "Better Late" is about learning that those feelings you had about someone, long ago...well, he has them, too. And now they're both free to consider the possibilities.
"I can't even remember...is the party starting at seven or seven thirty?" Kelly muttered, searching for an open space in the hotel's crowded parking garage. "Oh, great, I'm already talking to myself," she said as she pulled into a spot. "Not too nervous, am I?"
Gathering up her purse and the invitation, she hurried toward the elevator. Kelly quickly glanced at her watch and rechecked the invite clutched in her hand.
"Party On With A.W.E.! Cocktails 7 p.m. – 8 p.m., Dinner 8 p.m. - ???"
"Okay, okay, so I'm a little late." She chastised herself out loud as she emerged into the opulent lobby at half past seven o'clock. At least it was going to be easy finding the ballroom; the chatter and laughter of hundreds of people echoed through the hotel corridors. And she heard music, too, probably a small combo. Sounds like the old company is doing this party up right. It was the least they could do, of course; so many people had been associated with American Wrestling Enterprises, and now here they were, finally about to go public on the Stock Exchange. A little thank you to the employees was certainly in order and much appreciated. Hey, at least I got an invite, Kelly congratulated herself; she'd left the company over twelve years ago but still kept in touch with several of her old colleagues.
How do I look? She made a quick duck into the nearest ladies' room for a quick once-over. Okay, so I'm not twenty-five anymore...hell, I'm not even thirty-five. She laughed quietly as she checked her image in the mirror, amazed to find herself in a skirt again. She hadn't worn one in a few years; her current routine teaching at the university didn't require much in the way of dolling up anymore, and that was fine with her. Still, she rather liked the way her legs looked in the swirling, above-the-knee black dress she had bought just for this party. Her new black shoes, strappy, sexy high heels, enhanced the shape of her legs and, to her surprise, were much more comfortable than they looked. Not bad for a forty-year-old English professor from the wilds of Maine, Kelly thought as she smiled at her image. She gave her wavy hair a fluff. Here I go.
One more turn, a few steps, and she was in the ballroom. A huge banner welcomed all the A.W.E. alumni, and she fervently hoped somebody still remembered her—or at least recognized her. Though she tried to keep up with the current roster of stars, those wrestlers who made it on TV the most often and sold out the arenas, she had to admit it had been a while since she had really followed the sport. As director of publicity for A.W.E., she had been a walking encyclopedia of the company's personalities, but that was a long time ago.
"Kelly! Oh my God!" It was a woman's voice, and Kelly felt two hands grabbing her shoulders and whirling her around. "I can't believe you actually came!" Kelly was thrilled to discover it was Sarah, her former assistant who now ran the public relations department.
"Sarah! You look wonderful!" Kelly gave her a hug and smiled warmly. "You know, I almost didn't show up. I'm not sure anybody will still remember me."
"Are you kidding? There are a bunch of us old-timers still kicking around." She laughed. "Somebody's got to know where all the bodies are buried!"
"That would be us." Kelly smiled in agreement. "Anyone here from my era?"
"Plenty! Come on inside; we'll find a table," Sarah said, taking Kelly by the arm. "I've already seen Super Sam and Tabonga the Giant holding hands, so guess who turned out to be gay, after all?"
"No! We were right all along," Kelly giggled. "We had gaydar before gaydar was cool, eh?" They laughed together. "Say, where's your adorable husband Ken, anyway?" she asked.
"He's a total idiot," Sarah smiled. "Couldn't wait to get here. I sometimes think that's why he married me, just so he could get backstage passes to wrestling," she joked. "He's off getting autographs." She rolled her eyes affectionately. "And how are you doing, anyway?"
"You mean since Nick and I split up?" Kelly shrugged. "Not bad. We were over. Really, we're both much happier now. We're actually friends."
"Well, don't worry, Ken and I will take care of you tonight!" Sarah assured her as they continued to wend their way through the crowd. Kelly spotted other familiar faces from the past—The Juggler, Sir Boss, The Black Fox, former grapplers who had been top stars years ago and who still worked in the arenas and the front office. The two women received hugs from several of the guys when they stopped to say hello. There was nothing quite like getting a bear hug from a 300-pound wrestler.
Kelly noticed the younger guys. If anything, the wrestlers were even larger and more toned than when she worked at the company. Each generation of stars seemed to get more superhuman-looking, and even in their street clothes, they were impressive. Or weirdly over-muscled, depending on your point of view. The whole body-builder type wasn't her thing exactly, but they were nice to look at just the same, even though she knew that it was often unsafe steroid use that made them that way. That particular dirty little un-secret was one of the uglier things about professional wrestling.
"Appetizers, ladies?" A young female food server offered up a tray of luscious shrimp as Kelly and Sarah halted, mired in the crowd.
"Yes, please!" they answered simultaneously and cracked themselves up.
"Now, if we can just make it over to the bar, we'll be doing all right," Sarah said. "Look, why don't you head over to one of those tables, and I'll get us something. Snag three seats. No sense for two of us to fight our way through. I'll find you."
"White wine is great for me, thanks," Kelly said, and they separated, Sarah peeling off to the side of the room while Kelly squeezed her way further forward. The crowd seemed to thin out here a little, but there was a lively group gathered around one of the tables just ahead. Kelly heard a familiar strain of devilish laughter, and her heart skipped a beat. It sounded like...could it really be him, her all-time favorite, her old friend "Rabid" Randy Muldoon?
She used to love it when the wrestler dropped into her office for a working visit, and sometimes just to hang out. Randy was crazy and hilarious, and they had hit it off from the very beginning. She hadn't thought about him for a while and suddenly became very nostalgic. Boy, I really used to like him, she remembered. Big crush...and I don't think I laugh enough anymore, she decided. Moving ahead, Kelly veered toward the opposite side of the crowded round table, positive it was Muldoon. She could make out some of his animated conversation as he held court.
"Don't worry about me—my book's coming out next month, and I'm in no hurry to get back in the ring just yet," she heard him say to someone. Kelly couldn't see him. Then for a split second, the wall of people parted, and she had a clear view of him just as his eyes swept over the crowd. He spotted her. "Kelly? Kelly Stewart? I can't believe it! Is that you? Get over here, would ya?" he called out, raising his arm in a wave and motioning to her. She managed to work her way around to his side of the table, happy that he recognized her but not wanting to interrupt his conversation.
Rabid Randy had a huge grin on his face, and as she approached, he rose from his chair to greet her. In his late forties now, he still cut a nice figure in his relaxed suit. He was a few inches over six feet tall, his tousled, sandy brown hair not showing much grey yet. Though he had put on a few pounds since his heyday in the ring and now sported a small stylish goatee, he didn't look too different from the charismatic wrestling superstar she had known back then. He had taken the sport by storm well over twenty years ago with his talent and that genuine and welcoming smile of his. His dark brown eyes sparkled at her, mischievous and lively. She stood in front of him and smiled, all at once aware of the rapid beating of her heart.
"Hi, Randy! I'm surprised you remembered me," Kelly said with a laugh as she held her hand out to shake his. Instead, he pulled her into an enthusiastic hug, squeezing her tight, his muscled arms strong around her. She returned it shyly, giving him a friendly embrace. Randy took her by the shoulders and held her away from his body, looking her over.
"I'd never forget you, Kel. You're holding up awfully well for an old broad," he kidded, smiling at her warmly. "What's it been, nine, ten years?"
"Would you believe twelve? And you look pretty decent yourself," Kelly said, returning his smile.
"Tell that to my orthopedist," Randy joked. "Hey, you know most of these folks, don't you?" he said, indicating the crowd. "You all remember Kelly, right? She used to run the P.R. department." Kelly said a round of quick hellos. She knew a lot of them from way back, and it was gratifying to see that they seemed happy to see her. "It's fun seeing everybody again," she offered, smiling, and stepped back, not wanting to intrude, but Randy kept a hand on her arm.
"Who are you here with?" he asked, his attention still focused on her.
"I'm on my own." She shrugged her shoulders. "I'm single again. My husband and I just split about a year ago."
Randy raised his eyebrows. "I didn't even know you were married."
"Oh, well, I guess maybe you wouldn't. It was a few years after I left the company." She brightened. "But hey, I just now hooked back up with Sarah, my old assistant, and she's off getting us something to drink. Is your wife here with you?"
"Not quite," he said, with a rueful little exhalation of breath. Randy held up his left hand and wriggled his fingers. "See, no wedding ring anymore."
"Ooh, I'm sorry," Kelly offered quickly. "I hadn't heard."
"Well, thanks. I'll tell you all about it later. Come on, you've gotta sit here at our table. There's plenty of room," he insisted. Kelly smiled; it was no use trying to decline. It was sure to be a lively evening at Randy's table. She was thrilled to see him again.