Paul Drake was following Perry Mason out of the rain-swept parking lot into the Bella Vista roadside diner and almost bumped into his friend as the lawyer came to an abrupt halt just inside the restaurant.
"Hey, careful, buddy," said the detective.
"Sorry, Paul," replied his friend, "it's just…." he waved his hand vaguely towards a table by the window occupied by a man and a woman deep in conversation. The man was about thirty, tall and athletic with fair wavy hair and the profile of Adonis. The woman was Della Street.
"Do you think we should go over and join them?" asked Perry.
His friend raised his eyebrows to heaven. "Perry, look at them! Do they look as if they want company?" The man held a coffee cup in one hand and with the other was tenderly stroking Della's fingers.
"There's an empty table over in that corner," said Paul. "C'mon! I'm starving! Let's eat!" The pair had set out early on this Saturday morning for a sea fishing trip, but a storm had rolled in and they had been forced to abandon their plans. It was the ever-hungry Paul who had suggested stopping off at the diner for something to eat on the way home.
Perry and Paul settled themselves at a corner booth and Paul perused the menu. "What are you having, Perry?" he enquired. "I hear the burgers here are particularly good….. Perrrry!" Paul waved his hand at his friend whose eyes were fixed distractedly on the couple by the window.
"Sorry, Paul, I'll..er..I'll just have whatever you're having."
Paul ordered for both of them then sat back with an amused grin on his face, watching his friend watching his secretary. "I've seen that guy before somewhere," observed Perry.
"Yeah, you're right. Isn't he the new assistant DA that started working in Burger's office a couple of months back? I've seen him around the courthouse a few times. Come to think of it, I saw him talking to Della in the cafeteria the other week. The day you had to make that flying visit downtown to check on one of the witnesses in the lunch recess."
"Do you think he had the audacity to ask her on a date?" mused the attorney, with his eyes glued on the couple.
"Given that it's Della we're talking about here, he would be a fool not to try his luck," observed Paul. "Half the unattached males in the entire vicinity of the Hall of Justice have tried, me included," chuckled his friend, "but Miss Street is remarkably choosy about who she goes out with."
"She has no business going out with someone from the DA's office," said Perry. "She's MY confidential secretary."
Paul laughed. "Will you listen to yourself? Della's a grown woman and can go out with whoever she likes. What you seem to forget is that she has a life outside your office. You don't own her. The poor girl needs a break from the hours you have her working."
Perry emitted what sounded suspiciously like a growl. He didn't stop to consider the reasons why he didn't like to see Della with another man. Paul was right. She wasn't his property. She was entitled to a private life, but he didn't have to like it.
When their order arrived, Paul attacked his food with gusto, while Perry merely picked at his. He was chasing a stray pickle round his plate with his fork when he saw the young couple rise, look over in their direction then head for their table. Both men got to their feet to greet Della and her companion.
"Hello, Perry! Paul!" she smiled. "I didn't expect to see you two here this morning. Do you know John Abercrombie? He works in Mr Burger's office. John, this is my boss Perry Mason and his friend Paul Drake."
The young man extended his hand. "I'm delighted to be introduced to you, Mr Mason. Della has told me a lot about you. I've seen you around the courthouse, of course. I'm a great admirer of yours. And pleased to meet you too, Mr Drake."
They shook hands then sat back down. "Were you and Della going anywhere special, Mr Abercrombie?" Perry asked, trying to sound as casual as possible.
"Actually we were planning a picnic up the coast but then this storm rolled in. We'll maybe just head back to town and take in a movie this afternoon. Tonight we're going dancing, right Del?"
Della smiled one of her dazzling smiles. The kind that made Perry Mason go weak at the knees. "That's right. I think we should be off now. Bye, Perry! Bye, Paul! Enjoy the rest of the weekend!" Perry's eyes were glued to them as he watched the young ADA place his arm round Della's waist and escort her out.
"Well," said Paul Drake. "He's well and truly smitten!"
Yes, but is she? wondered Perry.
The following Monday morning in the office Perry Mason was debating with himself whether to ignore the fact that his secretary had been out with another man, or indulge his gnawing curiosity. It was really none of his business what she did with her private life, but still…..
"Did you enjoy your weekend?" he asked as nonchalantly as he could.
"Yes, thanks," she replied.
"He seems a nice young man."
"Yes, he is."
"Are you serious about him?" The question was out of his mouth before he realised it. He could have bitten his tongue off, but he couldn't help himself.
"I don't think that's really any of your concern," she said slowly.
"No, you're right. I'm sorry!" Hastily he gathered up a pile of papers and began to study them assiduously. Nothing more was said on the subject, but Perry seemed to find it necessary for Della to work late almost every evening. About ten days later, Della approached her boss. "I hope you don't mind me leaving sharp tonight, Perry," she said. "John and I are having dinner at the Astra Club and I have to get ready."
"No, that's ok. I'll work on the files on my own tonight. You go and enjoy yourself," he replied, rather huffily she thought
Perry Mason worked late in his office that night worrying over a particularly knotty problem. It was a difficult case and he found he could not concentrate on the complexities of the affair. He needed someone to wrestle the problem with. He needed Della. After pacing his office floor for more than an hour, he lifted the phone on his desk. "Hello, operator. I would like the number for the Astra Club, please." He phoned through to the venue and asked to speak to Miss Della Street. Within a few minutes he heard Della's husky voice. "Hello, Della. It's Perry here. Sorry to interrupt your evening but I really need you here. I've just had a breakthrough on the Johnson case and I need you to write it up tonight while it's fresh in my mind. You don't mind, do you?"
"I'm sure Mr Abercrombie will understand. Can he drop you off at the office or will you take a taxi?"
When Della arrived at the office some thirty minutes later, she was not in the sunniest of humours. Perry felt slightly guilty at spoiling her evening, but at the same time rather smug that he had put a stop to her romantic date with the handsome ADA. What was wrong with him, he wondered. When had he become so devious? He found his mind often wandered to what Della and the young attorney got up to at weekends. Several times he almost asked, but caution made him draw back. But he did come to a decision about one thing. The Bar Association summer ball was in three weeks' time. He would get in first and invite Della to accompany him. There would be no impropriety as she was part of the Los Angeles legal world. Late one Friday afternoon he finally plucked up the courage to broach the subject. "Della…"
"Della, I was wondering if you would do me the honour of accompanying me to the Bar Association ball next month?"
She paused and looked at him, then a blush suffused her porcelain cheeks. "Oh, Perry, that is so kind of you," she smiled, "but John has already invited me to go as his partner."
Damn him! was Perry's immediate thought, but all he said was, "That's ok. I just wanted to take you as a thank you for all the hard work you put into running my practice, but I'm sure you'll have much more fun with the young and handsome Mr Abercrombie." He hadn't meant that to come out as bitter as it sounded. She looked at him curiously. "Thank you anyway for the invitation. I appreciate the thought."
The next three weeks passed with a slight air of tension in the office. On the few evenings when she wasn't working late, Perry assumed that Della was with John Abercrombie, but he did not deign to ask and she did not deign to tell him. The night of the ball arrived and Perry took his seat at a table among his legal friends with his partner for the evening, Jean Windsor, a recently divorced law school acquaintance with whom he had a long and platonic friendship. He found his eyes straying constantly to the table where Hamilton Burger and his wife and the officials from the DA's office were seated. He did not see Della at first, but then his eyes glimpsed her as she floated into the room on the arm of John Abercrombie. Her dress was made of iridescent taffeta, a deep copper colour with highlights of many different hues which reflected the chestnut tones of her hair. It was an off the shoulder design which displayed just enough of the swell of her breasts to set Perry's heart racing. She was enchanting. It took all of Perry's concentration to pay any attention to his partner or any of the other guests at his table. His eyes constantly sought her out as she danced with Abercrombie, Hamilton Burger and the other men from the DA's office. Finally he could stand it no longer. Jean was dancing with his friend Nick Scott, and Perry excused himself from the other guests at the table and headed for Della. "May I have the pleasure of this dance, Miss Street?" he asked holding out his hand. "If Mr Abercrombie doesn't mind, of course."
"No, of course I don't mind, Mr Mason," said the young attorney. This was not the first time that Perry had danced with Della, but tonight he held her closer than he ever had before. The tune was slow and dreamy, and he held her tight, breathing in the intoxicating scent of her hair. They didn't speak, and Della seemed to melt into his embrace. When the music stopped, he did not immediately release his hold on her, and for what seemed like an eternity they gazed into each other's eyes. "Della…." he said, then stopped. There was so much he felt he wanted to say, but this was neither the time nor the place and she was there as the guest of another man. Taking her arm, he thanked her politely for the dance and led her back to her seat. For the rest of the evening he watched in misery as she danced every dance with John Abercrombie and sighed deeply as he saw her leave with him.
He took his friend Jean back to her home but declined her invitation to come in for coffee and a nightcap. Leaving her apartment, he felt restless and took himself off for a walk in the cool night air. What was wrong with him, he wondered? Why did he feel so miserable? The answer hit him like a bolt from the blue; the reason why he had been so disconsolate for so many weeks. He was jealous; jealous of the young, handsome attorney; jealous of the man with whom Della Street chose to spend her free time; jealous that even at this very minute Della and John Abercrombie might be…No! No! No! He refused to contemplate that possibility! When had he fallen in love with her? He didn't know, but what he did know was that he couldn't bear to think of her with another man. He looked at his watch. It was after midnight, but he had to see her; to tell her. He ran back to where his car was parked and drove to Della's apartment. Never stopping to think what he would do if he found Abercrombie there, he rang her doorbell. He waited for what seemed like an eternity and then the door was slowly opened as far as the security chain would allow to reveal Della standing there in a silk robe.
"Perry!" she exclaimed when she recognised her boss. "What on earth are you doing here at this time of night? Has something happened? Is anything wrong?"
"Can I come in, please, Della," he said quietly. "We have to talk."
"Perry, it's late. Can't this wait till the morning?" she asked.
"No, it can't," he replied. "Please let me in."
She slipped the chain from its hook and stood aside to let him enter.
"Are you alone?" he asked.
"Of course I'm alone," she snapped. "Who do you think would be here at this time of night?"
"I thought that perhaps young Abercrombie…" He stopped as he saw the shocked look on her face.
"Perry Mason! Just what kind of woman do you think I am?" she asked indignantly, her hazel eyes flashing fury.
"I'm sorry, I just thought that you and he were…"
"And what if we are?" she demanded. "What damned business is it of yours?"
"Della…" He slumped into a chair and buried his face in his hands. "I just couldn't bear the thought that you…that he… Damn it, woman, I love you and I couldn't bear the thought of you and him together."
"You were jealous!"
"Yes! Yes! I'm not proud of it, but I am so in love with you, Della, that I can't think straight any more. The thought of you and him…it's been driving me insane. There! I've told you. Now feel free to kick me out on my ass," he said with a sad little smile.
"And why would I do that?" she asked, her voice low and husky.
"Because I'm a stupid, jealous fool."
"That you are," she said. "But you're MY stupid jealous fool and it so happens I love you too."
"What?" he asked incredulously.
"I said I love you, you idiot. I'm not saying I went out with John just to make you jealous, but the thought did cross my mind."
He pulled her to him. "Come here, you little minx. Have you any idea what I've been going through these last weeks?"
"Serves you right for being so jealous," she said, "but maybe the pain was worth it if it made you see sense in the end." She drew his head down to hers and brushed his lips with a tender kiss. He had to admit she had a point.