Caught in the Dark

I’m not crazy, I prefer the term mentally hilarious.

 

Angela was packing up her sexy secretary costume as a backup to her planned outfit for work. Her conservative but expensive bedroom was a distinct contradiction to the mass of sexy and naughty outfits she had laid out. The plan for tonight was a routine she had worked on all weekend, but options were always best when performing half naked for a room of unknown men.

Her neighbor Joshua flopped down on her bed with a dramatic sigh.

“Problems?” Angela held back a giggle as he sighed again. Her best and only friend loved drama and didn’t know the meaning of boundaries. When she moved into the condo next to the flamboyant drag queen they had bonded over a shared love for technology and his/her sighs always meant trouble.

“Explain to me again why instead of spending tonight clubbing with me you are taking your clothes off for ruffians to earn money you don’t need?”

Joshua was a tall, beautiful man with buzzed black hair, a toned body and a complexion models would sell their firstborn to have. His cream Stella McCartney gown looked fabulous against his sepia skin tone but was a little too short for his long frame. His makeup and hair weren’t done yet, which meant he stopped halfway into becoming Jojo to come talk to her. Angela liked him because from the first moment they met he ignored all of her many social inadequacies and just accepted her as she was. Well, mostly.

“Probably for the same reason a successful computer security specialist puts on a dress and killer heels twice a week and lip syncs for crowds of lusty gay men.” She flopped down next to her friend and kicked up her bare feet.

“No, sugar. I am an attention whore who loves picking up young men. You, despite your porcelain skin and rocking purple hair, hate being in crowds, blush at the words big cock, and can’t talk to a hot man long enough to lose your V-card.”

Angela felt her cheeks heating and smacked her friend with a pillow. He was right, though she wouldn’t admit it out loud. She had always been the brainiac, lost in books and her own thoughts. Raised by a workaholic single father, she had been a late life surprise which was more like a project to be managed than a child. When he died of a heart attack two years ago, it had been a wakeup call. One that said if she didn’t want to die alone, something had to change.

“I love dancing. Becoming Cami on stage is my way of finding my wild side.” She also loved losing herself in the sexy alter egos which came with stripping. She felt alive and powerful when she let her sexual side out to play.

“If you are looking for Mr. Right at a strip club, honey, someone done forgot to teach you some very basic facts about the types of men who frequent those places.”

“Someone done? Is that your Princeton education showing though?”

“Don’t get snooty with me, Harvard girl. At least they taught me men who like to shove cash in a girl’s G-string aren’t first time material.”

“I’m not looking for the man for the first time, yet. I’m looking for what I want out of a first time.” After her single disastrous failed attempt at a relationship when she was 19, she had given up. At 26, she had too many fantasies and until she decided which was right for her, how could she possibly pick a man? An equation with too many unknown variables just wasn’t solvable.

“Honey, I am the last man on this planet to judge having an alter ego.” Angela laughed because, Jojo, Joshua’s drag queen persona, was the southern belle of any party while Joshua was as California as a black man could be. “But you know most of the women at that club offer more than just dances. And I don’t want you to get hurt because some jerk mistakes you for one of them.”

She did know that, and to be honest, it was one of the many reasons she picked Darklights to work at. Hearing about actual sex could only help her research. Besides, their security was amazing, both physical and digital – it had taken her several days to crack it – and she had watched months of videos confirming that not once was a girl there harmed. The few men who tried to step out of line had left with very expensive medical bills in their future.

In the four weeks she’d been working there, she hadn’t felt pressured to do more than the two sets on stage and one private dance she agreed to. Angela even got to pick the customers she performed privately for from the requests and the bouncer always stayed in the room with her so there were no misunderstandings.

“I think it’s sweet you worry.”

Joshua gave an enormous sigh. “I guess I thought you would quit when I got you the internship at Vallier Technologies.”

“Why would you think that?” Angela was excited to check out the new company that was on the cutting edge of every type of security.

“At the time, I thought it was odd that you lived here and were stripping. I assumed it was for the extra cash flow.” Joshua rolled onto his stomach and gave her a hard look. “If you need more than they pay interns, I know I could get you a permanent position.”

Angela laughed, rolling to hug Joshua. “I guess you never Googled me.”

“No. Why? Do you have some scandalous videos out there?”

“Nothing like that!” She elbowed him and sat up. “Let’s just say I’m good on money for the next 100+ years. I told you why I was dancing.”

“I’m sorry, sweetie. I should have taken you at your word. You have to understand, a virgin computer geek stripping to find out what her inner slut wants, is a bit much. So why did you take the Vallier internship?”

Angela tried to put into words what was swirling in her head. She had done several internships, all at large tech companies, but by the time they offered her permanent employment she was bored. The idea of settling down and doing one thing for the rest of her life made her nauseous.

She had freelanced since she was 17 for the government and created and sold compatibility algorithms along with several other search and data mining programs. The profits from the sales had given her enough to live off the interest alone, even if she hadn’t inherited millions from her father.

“I like what they do for kidnapped people and their work in encryption is fascinating. Besides, I checked, the morality standards and non-compete documents I signed don’t preclude stripping as a side job. Actually, other than things that are illegal anyway, the company doesn’t even have fraternization policies.”

“Fine. You love me. I love you. Go get your freak on if that is really what makes you happy. I will just have to face my adoring fans alone, but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

Angela smiled at her drama queen of a friend. “You still want to carpool together tomorrow morning?”

“Of course! I can’t wait to see you in that cute pantsuit we bought. So ‘La Femme Nikita’.”

Although Vallier was a progressive company, Angela had decided to go more traditional for the first few weeks while she learned her way around. She loved her purple hair and crazy grunge style, but found people had a hard time taking her seriously. Maybe someday she would find the confidence to not care. Until then she would use clothes and hair like her favorite animal the chameleon did. Use them to blend into whatever identity she wanted to portray.

“And you can show the new girl around your technology empire.”

“Oh, it isn’t mine, but if Mr. Vallier even shows a hint of swinging that way, I will happily become the queen of his kingdom.” Jojo struck a regal pose and she couldn’t help but giggle.

“So not a scrawny geek?” Joshua liked his men on the big and buff side.

“You will get to meet him tomorrow he stops by every orientation. Then we can gossip about the unfairness of the genetic lottery he won on the drive home.”

Angela laughed, picking up her duffle ready for a night of letting loose as someone else at the strip club.

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Autumn Wind

Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1887

 Holden Tae Wyndd flopped back on the bed and drew the pillow over his head. Not that it could block out the yelling in the hall outside this room, at least not as long as the door was wide open. Damn, but he should have delayed leaving Denver one more day and taken the North Line.

The voices rose again, the one keeping his attention, though, was mostly begging and pleading. But it sounded nice with that lilting accent. He could risk it and cross the room to either close the door or grab his pants, maybe both. He peeked from beneath the pillow. Damn, that view, though. His line of sight was even with the prettiest arse he’d ever set eyes on. If only he could see it without the obstruction of that ugly nightgown.

“Mr. Salary, you will fetch the sheriff now.”

Tae sat up at those words. Judge Hooper was known for making his own law and applying it however it suited him. Tae went out of his way to stay out of his courtroom anytime something the agency did had him crossing the circuit judge’s path.

“This is America, you little tramp, we don’t do that here,” Hooper all but screamed, causing Tae to sit up and toss the pillow aside. Whatever the woman said, Tae missed.

“Sir,” that lilting voice cracked this time, “my family’s consent—”

“I’d wager you didn’t have their consent to spread your legs for a stranger, either,” the judge snarled, causing the girl to gasp.

“Now wait a damn minute,” Tae yelled from the bed in the room at the end of the hall. “The lady and I didn’t do anything either immoral or illegal, and you’ve no call to accuse her of such. It was nothing but an honest misunderstanding.”

“The sheriff, Mr. Salary,” the judge snarled, and with a glance toward Tae, Sal turned and fled down the stairs. “You can just make yourself comfortable in the jail until the next train to Yuma.”

“Sir, please,” the woman pleaded again. Hooper’s answer was the slam of his door. “If I’d a gun, I’d shoot you,” she snarled, coming back through his, no, her, no, his door, damn it. It was his room. She turned to glare at him, though the heat he might expect to see wasn’t there. “And why haven’t you dressed yourself?” She waved her hand at him, indicating all he had was the very corner of the blanket covering the very minimum of his person. And if she kept standing there, dressed only in that nightgown, talking to him with that delicious lilt, the corner wouldn’t be enough to cover anything.

“Look, miss,” Tae started, then had to tug more blanket over himself when she turned her eyes toward him. “It wasn’t nothing but an honest mistake and—”

“An honest mistake? An honest… it was nothing but a low down coward’s act, you sneaking in here and—”

“I didn’t sneak in,” Tae yelled and, getting to his feet, gave the woman her second full frontal view of his body. She spun away from him, but it took her a bit longer than it should have.

“You need to be dressing yourself, sir,” she said, her accent on the same full display as his rising cock.

Stalking across the room, he snatched his pants off the chair where he’d tossed them. That they landed there in total darkness was only a matter of habit. He always used this room in this boarding house when he stayed in Colorado Springs. Shoving his legs through, he tugged them up, wishing now they were the looser fitting pants he more often wore and not the denims he wore when the job required more physical labor. He had to adjust his cock twice in order to get the buttons done. Maybe he should stop staring at the woman’s arse.

“Look,” he said, grabbing his shirt and turning his back when he saw her look over her shoulder. “It was nothing but an honest mistake. I didn’t know Sal had anyone in this room. I always use it when I’m here and…” What else could he say? Nothing, given her sniffling.

“That judge out there is threatening to put me in jail because of your honest mistake. Prostituting without a license. Prostituting? Jesus, Joseph and Mary. I can’t go to jail,” she said, turning around to face him at the same time he turned to face her. “I don’t even know where Luma jail is. My freedom, and my reputation, are all lost because you didn’t think to light a lantern.”

“It’s you-ma,” Tae corrected the pronunciation, leaving off before telling her Yuma wasn’t just a jail, it was a hell hole of a prison.

“Yuma, Boston, Belfast, what matter does it make?” she snarled. “I can’t go to jail. If anyone needed to be arrested, it’s you, for all your slipping into a lady’s room,” she yelled, setting her fists at her hips which thrust out her heavy breasts. “He sent for the sheriff.” Her voice hitched up a notch with each of the last four words.

“No, Judge Hooper has a dislike for women,” Tae said with a sigh, “and he doesn’t care for me.” The look she gave him told him she understood that sentiment. Judge Hooper really didn’t care for anyone who entered his courtroom with a grasp of the law. Tae’d had the misfortune several times. It was one of the reasons he wanted to leave the Pinkerton Agency. No more having to testify. He was certain too, if the sheriff was getting roped in, this would only get worse. Local law didn’t care for Pinkerton men. There was a quiet war between the badge carrying men and anyone who thought to do their jobs for them. It was hardly like a badge prevented a man from being corrupt. It certainly didn’t prevent them from abusing the power some gave to it. Having a known agent in town always seemed to say to those carrying a badge that they were incapable of doing their job. Never mind Tae worked primarily on the rails, keeping the high valued passengers safe. He only went out on cases specific to one client served by the agency, in between making sure no one working on the train was setting it up to be robbed of payrolls or mail.

But he was all but done with that now. After years with Pinkerton, Tae was done running all over the country trying to catch thieves and outlaws who had the audacity to steal from the railway owners. He was done bringing someone to stand before a judge and jury only to see them strung up without trial. It was one thing to draw down on a man all fair like; it was another to gather up a mob and drag a man unable to fight back into the street without so much as one minute before an honorable judge. He’d given notice and was only still officially with the Pinkerton Agency to investigate some occurrence at a specific mine in the area he was headed to. He’d promised he’d stay on until he made Willow Springs and could look into the issue.

A loud sniff drew his attention back to the woman with her back turned to him again. Letting his eyes roam down her body, he didn’t miss the way the stiffness in her spine contradicted the slump of her shoulders. If she was defeated right now, she wasn’t going to show it. She’d a strength about her, though he suspected it was being tested at the moment.

“Miss?”

“I’m not going to get locked up because of your carelessness. I have someone to find and I’ll not be having him stay lost because you can’t light a match.”

“A husband?” Damn, but why did that thought disappoint? It wasn’t like he knew this female. Though, the more she spoke, the more his body reacted. It wasn’t at all normal for a woman to have such an effect on him. He was hardly an untried youth, and while he’d passed these last several months on the offers from the women at the boarding houses and saloons he’d visited on his way to Colorado, he knew he could find those pleasures easily enough. But if she was already married, Hooper couldn’t force them to wed. Though, knowing Hooper, he’d be quick to send her to the women’s prison for adultery.

And while her head shook, saying it wasn’t a husband she sought, her expression said whoever it was meant the world to her. Perhaps a suitor, come west ahead of her to make things ready. Or a man who only told her he was coming to make things ready.

“Maybe I should speak with someone. It was a mistake; nothing happened. I’ll see if I can get this worked out, and in the meantime, you can dress,” Tae told her as he reached back for his coat and turned toward the door. “This here’s a fairly respectable establishment. I’m sure Sal will explain it was a mistake. I’m sure the judge will understand. Maybe he was only upset by the screaming.” He offered her a smile, but she narrowed her eyes and frowned at him. He smiled again and left the room, hopeful he’d be able to get them both back on track. He’d certainly not done anything criminal; neither of them had.

***

Autumn Wild pressed her fingers into her temple, willing the pounding to stop. With the unexpected stop, she was still optimistic she’d find her brother. Patrick’s last letter came out of Freemount County. She could find Patrick and then work. She’d certainly no intention to return to Boston. Not if she was to remain under her cousin’s thumb.

Her position teaching music to Boston’s elite paid well, but respect for tradition prevented her having her own life and making her own choices. She’d given up her chance at marriage and family to ensure Patty got started well in life. Only he’d get started but never finish. It forced her to take a less socially accepted kind of work, to support them both. But a need to escape an extended family who wanted her out of their home, even if it meant a marriage of convenience, sent her westward.

The decision to find Patty came on the heels of Sean O’Hare, her cousin’s husband, informing her she’d be doing more than considering marriage. Mr. O’Bannon, a widower with a small house and five children was also owed quite the debt by Sean. What no one wanted to say was that Mr. O’Bannon also had a problem at the gaming houses and no ability to hold his drink. His first wife was often seen with a black eye or fat lip. He wasn’t just a scoundrel, he was a bully. Autumn had no intention of marrying him even with her welcome in her cousin’s house wearing thin. Leaving was simply the best option. Now she had to catch up to her brother.

She’d expected it’d only be a day or two more. But it’d already been months since she’d heard from him, and in that time, he might have gone anywhere, as he was wont to do. If she could locate him so he could claim her as his sister, she might avoid jail. But she didn’t know how to contact him.

But she wasn’t going anywhere at the moment. The fact she sat on her trunks which were no longer on the long gone nine o’clock southbound train said she might not be going anywhere soon. She took a moment to count them again, reassure herself her every belonging, especially those most precious to her, were still accounted for. She let her fingers trace the bright stickers still attached from when the trunks were put on the ship in what now seemed like a lifetime ago. Setting her elbows on her knees, she set her chin on her fists and turned to look at the majestic peaks rising up before her, some snowcapped, even in August, beckoning with the challenge of climbing to the top to look out over the world, to get so high that one’s fingers might brush the sky or pluck stars down from the heavens. And while the ocean had its own kind of beauty, this place seemed to be personally crafted by the creator to inspire. It could be a wonderful place to teach music. She could almost hear the way her bow would resonate against the combination of jagged, rocky peaks and softer rolling valleys.

She couldn’t guess what Patrick was doing to make his way. His last letter mentioned he might soon have what he needed to be completely independent, give them both a chance to be happy. She hadn’t been bothered he didn’t consider she enjoyed teaching music, would have used her savings to open a music school, had he not been steadily asking her for it. She rather hoped it would allow him the chance to find a good wife and settle down, to stay settled in one place, and care for his family as a good man should. Of course, she hadn’t thought she’d need it to escape a scoundrel.

A good man. She turned to look back at the group of men who’d been arguing fervently at the other end of the boardwalk for better than an hour. Normally, she’d be right in that fray, being more than capable of holding her own against scoundrels and rogues. Only the deputy standing behind her kept her from going anywhere. She could only guess what they discussed, given the members of the group included that judge whose outrage made this whole affair more than it was. Certainly, waking to find a man in her bed scared her, but she’d already armed herself with the club she’d kept under the bed by the time the owner of the establishment burst through the door followed by Judge Hooper. She’d have run this scoundrel off in good time. She’d only been distracted by the man’s fine form.

Shaking off both those memories, as they still caused a heat to rush through her lower body, she focused on the others in the group. Mr. Salary, who owned the boarding house, the sheriff, who was too willing to cow to the judge, a man she didn’t know but who seemed to stand firmly with the scoundrel who’d started this entire mess. And of course, the scoundrel himself. Again, heat flashed through her. She returned to considering what it might take to simply run off into those jagged peaks.

“Miss?” Autumn turned again to see the scoundrel and the man who’d stood with him standing next to her. She couldn’t even manage to frown at them now. The entire situation was absurd. She simply raised a brow to the inquiry.

“Miss,” the scoundrel called again, bringing her eyes back to his devilish blue ones. He cleared his throat and lifted a hand to tug at his collar. For all his bullishness this morning, he suddenly seemed rather uncomfortable.

“Pardon us for this… situation,” the second man said, looking as uncomfortable as the man next to him. She nodded, but that was all. “My name is Jim McParland, Mr. Wyndd and I work for Mr. Jason Gould—”

“The Roxbury Goulds?” Autumn asked. She knew the family in passing, from Boston. The man was a modern day robber baron, but his people were loyal enough.

“Yes, miss, you know them?” McParland asked.

“I’m familiar with them,” Autumn said, not giving out any information that may land her in worse circumstances. It was either love or hate with that family.

“Well, yes, as I was saying, Mr. Wyndd and I are employed through the Pinkerton Agency and it’s come to my attention that—”

“Fine detective work,” Autumn grumbled and watched both men flush red.

“It seems that due to unforeseen events, you’ve been quite displaced in your circumstances.”

“Unforeseen?” Autumn said, getting to her feet so these men weren’t looking down on her quite so much. Not that they still didn’t, given their height compared to hers. She’d have to stand on her trunk to really be eye level with at least the scoundrel. “It wouldn’t have been so unforeseen had Mr.,” she said, her voice growing louder, “Wyndd bothered to strike a match at least, before entering a room in a public boarding house without so much as a knock.” She folded her arms across her chest and tried to stare the men down. “Such great detective work, as the world has never seen, I’m sure.”

“Ma’am,” her scoundrel started. “I use that room habitually. The key was left at the desk, I’d no reason to suspect anyone was occupying it. It was quite late and other than… sleeping, nothing else occurred.”

Autumn wasn’t quite sure why the man worked not to grin as he spoke. She might sleep hard through, but she’d know if she’d been molested. “And as you and I know, none of that did anything to prevent what is happening to me,” she said, her voice tight as she tried not to start swearing, “Your nothing,” she hissed, stepping up to poke a finger in Mr. Wyndd’s chest, “will cost me everything. I’m heading to prison.”

“That’s not going to happen. That is… I…” her scoundrel started, then again worked his fingers around the collar of his shirt. “I mean I have, or I mean I might have—”

“Miss, an acceptable solution has been proposed if you’re of a mind to accept.”

Again, all she could do was raise a brow at them. She couldn’t even think what the solution might be.

“Miss… Wild?” She noted a bit more of that devilish confidence he had so proudly displayed this morning. “Miss Wild… if you might give consideration to an… my… offer—”

“Miss Wild, you need to marry Tae, and you need to do it before Judge Hooper boards the three-o’clock train to Denver.”

“For the love of God, Jim,” Mr. Wyndd shouted but stepped forward and, taking Autumn by the hand, stepped so he occupied her entire view. And damn, if the view wasn’t as dangerously beautiful as the one of the mountain range behind her. “Miss Autumn Wild, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

“Become your… you think I should marry you?” Autumn asked, even as the ringing started in her ears, making it a bit hard to hear what was said next.

“Ma’am,” Mr. McParland’s voice finally penetrated. “I’d like to assure you Mr. Wyndd is capable of ensuring your reputation and security as well as your financial stability. You’ll be well settled with him.”

Autumn stepped back and eyed the men suspiciously. “And I’m sure you’ll be expecting me to take your word on such matters as are pertaining to me self.” They both shifted uncomfortably. “You,” she waved her finger between the men, “who I don’t know from the pope, think I should take your word on how settled I’ll be finding me own self. Not even giving it a thought as to if I wanted to be settled at all. Jesus, Joseph and Mary,” she swore, spinning and pacing away a bit before spinning back to look at the men standing before her on the boardwalk. “The lot’a ye, want me to be believin’ in him.” She stepped up again and poked her would be husband right in the chest. “Trusting he’ll be doing right by me? On the spot? Without a proper courtship? Without the banns being read?” She set her hand on the top of her head. “He couldn’t even decide to light a candle and now you want to… Heaven have mercy on me soul.”

“Miss Wild, please,” Mr. Wyndd pleaded, though, again, he was fighting to not smile, maybe to not laugh. “I realize I’ve placed you in a terrible predicament, and I’m willing to do what I can to make it right. I ain’t going to make demands on you if you’re—”

“Well, how bloody kind of you,” she snapped, and the man lost control and burst out laughing. “What on earth are ye finding so funny?”

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Wyndd said, still trying to stop laughing. “I beg your pardon.”

“You’ll be beggin’ for your head if—”

“Your accent is just so—” he went on, even as the other man joined her in glaring at him.

“My acc—” Autumn started then slapped a hand over her mouth. Damn his bloody soul. She always did her best to speak like any other American, but despite living in this country for seven years, she couldn’t always suppress the brogue, especially when she couldn’t control her emotions. She should have tried to move out of the Irish enclaves in Boston.

“No.” Mr. Wyndd stepped up and took her hand away from her mouth, holding it in his. “No, it’s very delightful. I’ve certainly never enjoyed being called a fool as much as I’ve enjoyed you saying it.”

“You won’t be charming me,” Autumn started, only to clear her throat and remind herself to speak with more care. Still, for all the force she put behind that statement, she couldn’t deny the way his hand warmed hers. That hers was completely engulfed by his could be why, but when he stepped closer and she felt the heat leap from her hand to her stomach, she wasn’t as sure.

“If you’d allow,” he went on, more serious now, “I’ll do my very best by you for as long as there’s breath in me. Please, let’s find a seat and we can discuss the specifics. I promise I won’t do wrong by you.”

Looking around him at the judge, who was checking his watch, and the sheriff, who looked more than ready to have her as a guest in his jail, what choice did she really have? “Do not, sir, and you will wish for the ease of death had by Mr. Moses Worms.”

Still, she felt the need to protest the way it happened. It was barely more than a handfasting for all the ceremony done. Not even a man of the church was involved. The judge performed the wedding. All she was left with was the hope that once she found her brother, he’d be able to put an end to this blarney.

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Loving Leo

Shelby Beauchamp Davis looked over her notes once again. She was putting together the story of her grandmother’s girlhood right here in Boone, Indiana, and she was finding the story fascinating. To look back and get a peek of what her grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives were like was something she’d wanted to do for a long time. Her grandmother, GG, was more than happy to pass down the history of their family in a way that made it so real. Shelby had laughed, she’d been shocked, and she’d cried at the story so far. Her Gran had had two brothers, whom Shelby had never gotten to know; she’d met her Uncle Carl a handful of times, but her Uncle Bryce had died unexpectedly at age forty-nine, so her Gran’s stories were bringing them to life for her.

Shelby rubbed the small of her back and rested a hand on her pregnant belly. So far that morning, her baby had been active, as though he or she was growing eager to greet the world. It wouldn’t be much longer now, and Shelby and her husband, Sam, were counting down the days. GG smiled at her and gave her belly a gentle pat.

“How’s our little one today?”

“Trying to kick his way out, I think,” Shelby said with a chuckle. “If this baby is as active after birth as before, we’re going to have our hands full.”

Shelby and GG settled down in the library in front of a comfortably crackling fire, each with a cup of tea. Shelby arranged her notebooks and other supplies and then gave her grandmother an eager smile. “Are you ready to go on with your story, Gran?”

GG gave her a wink. “I had a good night’s sleep and a nice long dream about your grandfather, so, yes, I’m ready.”

“Okay.” Shelby leaned over and turned on the tape recorder. “Let’s begin.”

***

GG and Leo Beauchamp sat in the little Boone, Indiana church on Sunday morning, listening to the pastor speak to his congregation. Leo shifted a little and his leg pressed against his wife’s leg. She felt an immediate rush of heat that went straight to her groin and her cheeks turned pink. She sat just as still as she could, trying not to think of the effect her husband’s touch had on her. She nearly gasped with relief when the pastor asked them all to stand and sing a hymn. Leo was oblivious to her discomfort, she was glad to see, as she suspected that he might find it funny if he knew. Sometimes she wondered if the reactions of her body that had been unleashed on their wedding night were normal or if she was some kind of sex addict. And she knew her husband would find that funny. Her pink cheeks were not cooling off a bit and she threw her whole concentration into singing the hymn until she felt in control again. Until they were seated and she realized that her panties were just a little bit damp.

When the service was over, GG was sure the others around them could tell by looking at her what kind of inappropriate feelings were leaving her a little weak in the knees. She was seriously relieved that she had kept her coat with her instead of hanging it up. Leo helped her on with it and she gave him a bright smile. It took them a while to make their way through the congregation and finally out the door, after speaking to everyone they knew and shaking the pastor’s hand. Once out of the church, GG heaved a huge sigh and said, “Wow! I’m glad we’re out of there.”

Leo gave her a puzzled look and said, “I thought you liked going to church.”

Flustered, GG said, “Oh, I do…I just…never mind.”

One of their friends called out to them just then and took Leo’s attention away from what his wife was saying. The three of them talked for a couple of minutes and then GG and Leo went on to the parking lot and got into the car. They were going to Leo’s parents’ house for Sunday dinner, but they were going home to change clothes first and pick up the cake GG had made. They had settled into a routine of alternating weeks of Sunday dinners with their families. When they got home, Leo took GG’s coat and pulled her close for a long kiss. She melted against him, immediately aroused, as always.

“Now what did you mean when you said you were glad to be out of church?” Leo asked.

“Geez, you never forget anything, do you?”

Leo laughed. “I try not to. Come on; spill it.”

GG’s cheeks were pink again. “I just…I had sort of a reaction. Leo, how can you make me want to have sex just by pressing your leg against mine? And in a place like church?”

Leo burst out laughing. “Well, I’m not sure, but I’m not complaining. In fact, I consider myself to be a lucky man!”

GG stared at him in disbelief. “Leo, we were in church! And I was sitting there getting turned on. There must be something blasphemous about that. Isn’t there?”

Leo advanced on her with an evil grin. “Maybe we should do something about your shameful desires right now.”

“Oh my gosh, we’re going to your parents’ as soon as we change clothes!”

He nuzzled her neck and said, “We can be a little bit late.”

She tried to back away from him, but her traitorous body was melting under his hands. “Leo,” she said weakly, “we shouldn’t do this. And you didn’t answer my question about being turned on in church.”

Leo chuckled at her again and said, “Look, God created man and woman to give each other companionship and to procreate, right? That means God created the act of making love, right? So, it wouldn’t be appropriate to be groping each other while we try to listen to the sermon, but your feelings are perfectly natural and given to you by God. Feel better?”

GG stared at him, unsure of exactly how serious his answer was. “Are you telling me the truth, or just trying to make me feel better?”

“It makes perfect sense to me. GG, there’s nothing weird or abnormal about you having a healthy sex drive. In fact, it makes me love you even more if that’s possible. But we should get changed and get to my parents’ house. We’ll take this up when we get back.” He winked at her and let her go.

GG flashed her brilliant smile at him and scampered away to change her clothes. She was in her bra and panties when her husband came into the room and started to get out of his jacket and tie. The look he gave her was all it took to bring that rush of heat back over her body. She hurriedly pulled her jeans on and yanked a sweater over her head while he laughed at her. Leo walked toward her and she backed warily away, pointing her hairbrush at him until she realized he was just getting some casual clothes out of the dresser.

“I’m going to get my cake ready to go,” GG said as she escaped from the bedroom.

Leo joined her in the kitchen a couple of minutes later and stopped to admire the pretty picture she made, setting her applesauce stack cake into a cake carrier and snapping it shut. She took his breath away every time he looked at her. And it wasn’t just how she looked. He was utterly captivated by her spirit and her personality. She was impulsive and adventurous, as kind-hearted as it was possible to be. She was intelligent and endlessly curious, and she had a huge capacity for love and compassion. And, to top it all off, she was the sexiest woman he’d ever met. She was also stubborn, a bit spoiled, and willing to be sneaky to get what she wanted. She would grow out of those traits; he would help her along that path.

“Are we ready?” Leo asked.

GG gave him a smile and a nod and they were on their way. The house was full of the aroma of Claire’s pot roast and GG’s stomach growled at the tantalizing smells. There were hugs all around and Leo set about teasing his younger sisters while GG helped Claire in the kitchen. Charles was checking the TV listings, looking for the football game, even though he already knew. They all enjoyed a noisy dinner together, lively with conversation and laughter. They ate their fill, and then Claire and the girls cleared the table and GG carried her cake to the table. There were oohs and aahs all around and Claire gave a nod of approval at sight of the stack of thin layers of cake, each spread with GG’s mother’s homemade applesauce.

“It looks perfect, GG,” Claire proclaimed.

GG had been nervous about making the cake. She’d never done one before, but she had both moms to advise her and it had turned out well. Now, if it tasted as good as it looked, she could be proud of it. Claire cut the cake and they passed the slices around the table. GG watched Leo, holding her breath as he took the first bite. He tasted, then chewed, and then closed his eyes and swallowed.

“GG, this cake is delicious!” He got up from his chair and wrapped his arms around her in a bearhug. The rest of them erupted in laughter and cheers.

“Oh, thank God,” GG said. “I was so scared I wouldn’t get it right.”

“No worries, darlin’! You can make me one of these for my birthday, as a matter of fact.” Leo pulled her chair out for her and she sat down, beaming at the rest of them. There were more exclamations of approval over the cake and they all enjoyed their dessert. Charles even had a tiny second piece, claiming he still had a little coffee to finish and he really needed some cake to go with it.

The rest of the afternoon went by as usual, the ladies cleaning and loading the dishwasher, Leo and Charles taking out the garbage. The football game was on TV and the girls pulled out the Monopoly game, begging Claire and GG to play. After the game was over, they all said their goodbyes and Leo and GG headed for home. GG leaned her head on Leo’s shoulder and they discussed the day as they made the short drive to their little house.

“What are your plans for tomorrow, baby?” Leo asked.

“I’m doing my grocery shopping after I get my morning chores done and Mom gave me a recipe for a beef stew that goes in the oven for several hours. Katie gets out of school early tomorrow and we’re going to do our letters for the VA.”

“You’ll be busy. I’m taking a long lunch tomorrow because I have a job interview.” Leo turned the corner onto their street.

“You do? An engineering job?” GG looked thrilled.

“Yep, entry level transportation engineering and they specified veterans preferred, with the proper education.”

“Oh, Leo, that’s just the kind of thing you want to do!”

“I know, it’s one of the best prospects I’ve looked at so far. I have one of those feelings that this could be the one.” Leo turned to smile at her as he put the car in park in the driveway. GG threw her arms around his neck and gave him a heartfelt kiss. Leo kissed her back and said, “Let’s take this in the house, baby.”

They went in, and as soon as the door closed behind them, they were in each other’s arms, leaving the cake carrier right there at the front door. GG giggled as Leo ferociously growled while he nibbled at her neck and earlobe. He cupped her bottom in his hands and lifted her off the floor and she responded by wrapping her legs around him. A moment later, he tumbled her onto the bed and kicked off his shoes before joining her there. His mouth plundered hers while he slid his hands up under her sweater and cupped her breasts in his hands. He could feel the hard nubs through the lacy bra she wore and rubbed his thumbs over them, making her gasp in response. GG sat up so he could pull the sweater off over her head, leaving her long, dark hair tumbled around her shoulders. Leo drank in the sight of her, her lips swollen and her eyes dark with desire. He never got tired of looking at her and she bent her head a little, casting him a sultry look and slipping one bra strap down over her shoulder.

Leo chuckled and murmured, “You naughty little thing, you know what you’re doing to me, don’t you?” Her response was to slip the other strap down and cross her arms protectively under her breasts.

Breathing faster, Leo reached out and stroked the rounded mounds of her breasts, gently working his fingers under her arms until he could circle one engorged nipple between his finger and thumb. GG sucked in her breath, her eyes going even darker. Leo reached behind her with his other hand and unfastened the pretty lace bra. Only her arms were holding it against her lovely breasts. He leaned over and drifted his lips across the exposed curves and the cleft in between, darting his tongue down between them. GG was trembling and her arms loosened, letting the wispy lace slide down a little more. Her husband’s mouth followed it, working his way to the rosy tips she was vainly trying to cover. When he triumphantly closed his mouth over one swollen, sweet peak, GG arched her back and abandoned the bra, letting it flutter to the floor. She moaned helplessly as Leo’s tongue played, sending electrifying sensations skittering down her spine.

Leo took his time, lazily feasting on her swollen breasts and trailing little lines of burning kisses up and down the silky smooth skin of her torso and up her throat to her ear. Delightful waves of shudders rolled down her spine and left her covered with gooseflesh. Leo’s mouth drifted gradually down to her belly and he gave her a little nip just under her lowest rib. When he undid her jeans and pulled them down over her hips, she realized that she was already wet and more than ready for him. He dropped her jeans to the floor and then stood, watching her as he undressed. GG lay on the bed in only her panties, squirming a little under his eyes, unable to hold still with the way her every nerve was on fire with need.

“Leo, please,” she murmured.

“Please what, baby?”

“Please, I need you. I need you closer; I need you in me.”

“Oh, baby, do you have any idea how much I love you?”

“Yes.” She actually gave him a satisfied, feline little smile.

With a shake of his head, he lowered his head to her thighs and kissed the sweetly sensitive spot at the top of her thigh. His mouth burned through the thin lace of her panties and made her gasp with shock. He teased her, kissing the mound between her legs, the hollow at the top of her thigh, but refusing to pull her panties off. GG was panting with desire, bucking against his mouth and he finally relented and knelt to pull the offending garment out of the way. He feasted his eyes on her naked loveliness and knew he would never, ever get tired of looking at her.

“Leo,” she whispered and held up her arms for him. “Please come to me.”

With a little half-growl, half-moan, he joined her on the bed. His kiss was deep and rough this time, and when his hands roamed her body, she moaned with satisfaction. He wasn’t sure how she pulled it off, but suddenly he was on his back and she was straddling him. His rock-hard manhood was trapped between them and she reached down and stroked him, wringing a moan out of him when her fingers wrapped around him. She raised up a little and dragged herself up the length of him, her wet center against him until she reached the point where she could take him into her. She went slowly, inching down over him until she had taken all of him deep inside her. GG’s smile was triumphant as she rose slowly and then sank down on him again. She rode him, slowly at first, and then faster and harder.

Leo was lost; lost completely in the sensation of his wife making love to him. Their tempo quickened and quickened until he couldn’t bear it any longer. He flipped her over onto her back and drove into her as she wrapped her legs around him and rose to meet him.

GG felt like she was being driven into the heavens, waves of pleasure sweeping her higher and higher until she was crying out with each thrust. The room seemed to swirl with light and stars at the same time, and they exploded together in an exquisite climax, driven to the peak of sensation and rocked with shudders as they slowly came down. They clung together, quivering with little aftershocks of satisfied pleasure. It took a long time for their breathing to slow to normal and they cuddled together, so close that they were nearly one person.

“Leo,” GG murmured finally, “I love you. I love you with all my heart.”

Though it seemed impossible, he pulled her even closer. “My heart is yours, love. How did I ever get so lucky?”

“How did we ever get so lucky?” GG was nearly purring with satisfaction.

They cuddled together on the bed for a long time, moving only to pull a blanket over them when they grew too cool. They talked softly while they snuggled, talked about Leo’s job possibilities, GG’s letter writing to the VA patients, the home of their own they eventually wanted to buy, their plans for the future. Finally, they pulled on their bathrobes and went to the kitchen to polish off the rest of GG’s cake, washed down with cold glasses of milk. When they went back to bed, they cuddled under the covers, naked, and fell asleep in each other’s arms.

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The Wife He Adored

Lucy Arndt held her chihuahua, Juliet, close as she watched her best friend, Ellie, make her first speech as city manager. Ellie had been working toward getting that appointment, but not for two years when the current term expired, but the city manager before her had suddenly resigned, citing family and health reasons. Ellie had been pushed through by Mayor Shelia Lloyd and there were basically no dissenting votes from the council, who were probably relieved not to have to pay out thousands to do a search for a replacement. Who would have thought back in the day when Ellie was the only friend she had in the world, and she thought their lives would always run along the same path, that Ellie’s life would turn out like this?

Ellie had a fantastic husband, and a brand-new house where she was attending a housewarming celebration tonight. Lucy had watched the house go up, but hadn’t seen it at all the last month or so. Ellie wanted to surprise her with the final results. Now Ellie had a fancy new job and Lucy knew it was only the first step on her way up in the world. There would be no stopping Ellie, she knew. Her husband Mike seemed to support her in everything she wanted to do. Ellie was a lucky woman.

Flicking the TV off, she sighed and looked around her little house she had bought almost five years ago now. She loved her little house and adored Juliet. She’d had her about six months, since she’d found a new job and dumped – or didn’t dump – Max Sutherland. She’d grown to love his little dog, Gypsy, and well, she thought she loved Max too, till she found out that she was only a fling. An afterthought. No one to be considered unless he was in The Mood. Then he’d be calling. He never took her on a real date, and never seemed to care about her, unless he was in bed with her.

She’d had a hard start in life. One of eleven kids, now twelve, she’d heard, she was number six, and mostly forgotten. She wasn’t an older sister mom and she wasn’t a younger with an assigned sibling to care for them. On her own mostly, she floated through her life, trying to never cause anyone any trouble.

Her mom and Ellie’s grandma went to church together and she and Ellie had become friends. Often she was either at Ellie’s house or Ellie’s grandma’s house and doubted her folks even realized. Her mom did what she called homeschooling which was basically assigning them all a number of work book pages to do each week. It had been a joke as she realized when she and Ellie compared homework when they were both in 9th grade. Lucy had been appalled at what all she didn’t know, and worse yet, didn’t realize what all there was to learn out there.

Ellie’s grandma, a former teacher, had taken her under her wing and she had her GED and a spot in the same college as Ellie before Ellie graduated high school. Ellie’s grandma always told her how smart she was and that she could do anything.

Her parents had not been happy. Her only choice in life was to get married and have a large number of babies. Nothing more. That was fine if it was your choice, but it didn’t seem to be a choice, but a rule. She had left home right before she turned seventeen, on very bad terms and still missed her mentor to this day. Ellie’s grandma had passed away suddenly right before they both moved into the college dorm. She and Ellie both had lost an anchor and would always be closer because of their shared grief.

She loved college and kept changing her major so she could stay longer. She often worked two jobs while taking a full load and adored every second of it all. Managing to stay five years, Lucy ended up with a double major in business and accounting, and two minors in history and finance. College had been her first chance at a real life. She rarely got to see any of her siblings or heard anything from anyone but recently her younger sister, Moriah, had suddenly started slipping emails to her. Moriah was nineteen now and seemed to want help breaking free of the family and their restrictions. She would do anything for her, once she could figure out what to do, but right now, she had to get dressed for Ellie’s party.

Getting dressed, Lucy felt the excitement rise. She did enjoy a party and this was at her best friend’s house. She and her friend Jordyn were going to share an Uber out there, just in case they had too much fun. Ellie had said she could stay the night but she would Uber home. She didn’t want to leave her little Juliet that long, after all. Kissing the top of her head, she gently put the little dog on her bed, then went to the closet. “What should I wear, baby girl?” she asked. This month, her naturally dirty blonde hair was a golden blonde with pink highlights. She picked out a dusty rose-pink dress that fell to just below her knees, and beige sandals. Loose enough to be comfortable and fitting enough to make her feel good. So nice to have choices other than the ‘modest’ wear she and her sisters had to choose from. While her clothes still now were mostly modest, they were in bright fun colors. She wore pants and jeans and even a tank top when the mood struck her. It felt so freeing, even if she felt pangs of guilt now and then. Half an hour later, she ran out the door with her purse and gift bag in her hand. She couldn’t wait to see Ellie’s new house.

“Hi, Jordyn,” she said as she slid into the back seat next to her.

“Are you excited about the party?” her friend asked. “I had to take off work tonight to go to this thing.”

“I am very excited,” Lucy confessed. “I bet Ellie’s house is fantastic and I can’t wait to see how it looks.”

“I heard Miranda did a great job on it,” Jordyn said. “I’m looking forward to it, too.”

“Was your client upset that you had to take tonight off?” Ellie asked.

Jordyn shook her head. “Nah, I gave them enough notice. They went to St Louis for the weekend and are probably eating better than they would be at home.”

“I doubt that,” Lucy said. “You are so good. I’m surprised Ellie didn’t ask you to cater tonight.”

“She did. I said no. I wanted to just go to a party and not work for a change,” Jordyn sighed. “I so rarely get a night off, you know.”

“I know,” Lucy said. Jordyn was a private chef working for three families, cooking for them all two nights a week, but making them all three meals when she came over. One for that night and two to save for later. Then she occasionally catered parties like Ellie was throwing tonight and Lucy knew she really wanted to grow that part of her business. “I’m glad you get the night off.”

“Me, too,” Jordyn said. “I can’t wait to get there.”

“Won’t be long,” the driver said. “A couple more minutes.”

Lucy looked at all the cars lining the big circular drive Ellie had insisted on and was glad they didn’t have to worry about parking or hiking in dress shoes. She had a big turn out tonight. Her breath shook a little as she got out the car door. Max could very well, okay, would be there. It looked like a big party. Hopefully, she could ignore him, but if not, then she would act as if he meant nothing.

He’d been her first. The first one to break through her upbringing and convince her that sex outside of marriage didn’t doom you forever. Now she wasn’t so sure he was right, because she felt doomed, as much as she faked being happy. She thought it meant they were involved. A couple. He thought it meant he could come and go as he pleased. No romance. Nothing but a good time. She wanted more than a good time. So he did not matter to her. It was as simple as that.

Ellie and Mike stood at the front door as they came in. “Lucy, I’m so glad you are here. Thank you for coming,” Ellie said, then whispered, “That is my official greeting. But I’m really glad you are here. Go look around, tell me what you think and who Miranda is drinking with.”

Lucy giggled. “Will do, I can’t wait to see it and be your spy.”

Jordyn, she noted, was already at the canapé bar, probably judging the offerings. She was caring for her elderly mother who lived here in town, and Lucy knew that otherwise, Jordyn would be off working in a big city, in some big fancy restaurant. The woman had real talent, and amazing knife skills. What she could do with baked goods rivaled any on the TV shows she sometimes watched.

Now, she would have to check out the house and do a little reconnaissance on Miranda, the woman who had designed most of it, and who was a thorn in her friend Ellie’s side.

Gasping as she turned the corner into a big living room, she saw Max with Miranda. That was killing two birds with one stone, wasn’t it? Deliberately, she turned the other way and went wandering through the house, suddenly wanting only to be at home with Juliet. She could leave as soon as she wanted, she reminded herself. She had broken free from the rules of ‘should’ and ‘must’. But first she would check out the house. Because she wanted to and she could do anything she wanted to do.

One thing she really wanted to see was the double walk-in shower, and the other was the gazebo. Ellie had discovered Mike and Miranda having lunch together one day and the reason, she later found out, was he was making Ellie a gazebo with a koi pond beside it for a surprise Christmas present. Mike was nothing but perfect, wasn’t he? Why couldn’t she find a Mike? One day, probably, she assured herself. She had thought Max was a Mike but he was just a cad. Old fashioned as that sounded, it was what he was. A very handsome charismatic cad, but still.

She walked up the stairs to what she assumed was the bedroom area. After admiring the walk-in shower, she turned to go down to the gazebo before it got too dark outside. However Ellie met her halfway down the stairs. “Let’s go up,” she said.

“Sure,” she said easily as she turned around. “I saw your speech. I’m so proud of you.”

“Thanks for helping me write it,” Ellie said. “I couldn’t have been as eloquent without your help.”

“Ahh, anything for my best friend,” Lucy said as she followed Ellie into a small room, painted a lovely rainbow color. Like the hair she sometimes favored. “I love this room!” How had she missed it before? Too focused on the double walk-in shower, she guessed.

“Mike calls it the nursery, but I tell him that won’t be for a while yet. However, I want to talk to you about something and tonight seemed like a good time.”

“You can talk to me about anything anytime,” Lucy said.

“Well, this is a special thing. I apparently have to have an administrative assistant in my new job and well, I only know one, but she is the best one in town so‑” Ellie looked at her expectantly.

“Really, El? You want me to work for you?” Lucy didn’t know what to think. Sure, they had worked on the speech together, but that was friendship only.

Ellie shook her head. “I want us to work together. If I run for mayor in two years I need you there with me. If I go beyond that, I need you there with me. This is just a start of us and our journey. We have both been seeking something for so long, and I think we might have found it. I’ll send you over the job description tonight after the party and you can let me know soon.”

Lucy didn’t say anything, but hugged her close. The answer would be yes, but she’d be smart and look at the job description – and the salary – first. This sounded like a great opportunity though. Job hopping while fun and entertaining was getting old. She usually got bored with a job too quickly, and moved on to other challenges. Being very very good at her job made her easily adapt to any situation. This would be something new and different – city management would be rife with challenges. And if Ellie did go after the mayor’s job in a few years, well, what was more challenging than politics? She did love a challenge.

“I have to go back to the party,” Ellie said. “Talk soon. Love you, Lucy.”

Overcome with emotion, Lucy took a minute, then smiled, went downstairs and headed to the back yard. There was a small, paved path to the gazebo lit by what she called fairy lights on both sides.

She headed down to it, thinking hard on what Ellie offered. It could be everything she wanted. She had loved helping Ellie write her speech. She loved being an admin. But, it was hard working for family and that is what she and Ellie were. Making that distinction between employee and family might be challenging. Losing her best friend and almost sister over a job was not an option. She’d lost too many people in her family when she broke away from home. Something to think about because she never wanted to lose Ellie from her life.

Everything seemed to be covered in those gorgeous twinkling fairy lights in the back yard and she picked her way down the path easily. This was such a great thing for Mike to do for Ellie. Halfway down, she froze. Two silhouettes were in the gazebo already. One she thought she knew, but the other she recognized immediately. Her gut knew that build, the shape of those shoulders, that silhouette, and her heart felt as if it were being cut in two. Lucy turned and ran back to the house, dialing Uber on the way. She had to get out of here. Right now. Looking around the crowded room, she didn’t see Ellie or Mike to say goodbye and figured they would be busy anyway. Her heart pounded as she waited for her Uber, hoping no one would talk to her.

“Lucy!” No such luck.

“Hi, Joni, Hi, Beth, how are you?” Joni was Ellie’s brother’s next-door neighbor, and Beth was her reclusive sister. People rarely saw her, and often forgot she was around. She worked from home and seemed to hibernate there. Joni, however, was a bundle of energy. She taught middle school with a couple of her other friends, Shona and Izzy, and they all often went out together or got together. They had all been together for Ellie’s bachelorette party. Who played Candy Land at a bachelorette party? This group.

Lucy relaxed a little. She’d be fine with Joni till her Uber came. “We are good,” Joni said. “I finally persuaded Beth to come out of her hidey hole.”

“Oh, hush,” Beth nudged her sister in a surprising show of personality. Lucy had always considered her a mouse. “You know I love a house tour! This is a really nice house.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Lucy agreed. It looked nothing like her bright and colorful house and even less like the white-on-white houses they showed on the TV shows touting upgraded and modern. All she ever saw was cleaning, cleaning, and more cleaning. She liked Ellie’s more autumn-y feel with the colors. It looked like a subdued maple tree in the living room. The dining room had a huge farm table that seemed to hold at least a dozen people. The kitchen was amazing, with another table Ellie told her expanded to seat ten. She loved that kitchen. It even had pocket doors so people in the dining or living room didn’t have to look at her dirty dishes. Nice and very practical.

“Have you had the tour yet?” Lucy asked them.

“No, we looked around down here and were about to go upstairs. Want to join us?”

Lucy glanced at her phone. Half an hour till Uber came. “Sure! Wait till you see the walk-in shower! Is Hank here tonight?”

Joni nodded. “He drove us. Not sure where he disappeared to, though.”

“Well, it’s a big house, I’m sure he’s talking to someone somewhere,” Lucy said.

“Of course he is. Hank likes to talk,” Beth said as they walked up the stairs.

“That he does,” Lucy agreed. “You have got to see this room here,” she said as she opened the door to the room where she had recently gotten her job offer. The rainbow room enchanted her again, just like the first time she saw it. Lucy assumed it was all Miranda’s doing, she was an excellent designer.

“Oh, I love it,” Joni said. “It is so adorable!”

“Isn’t it? Who would have thought of doing something like this?”

“Miranda, apparently,” Joni said. “I want to see this infamous two people shower and the jetted tub!”

“They are amazing.”

The three of them wandered through the master bedroom and then the bathroom. Lucy peeked into the closet. Looked like Ellie had already started upgrading her wardrobe from upscale casual she usually wore to work, to some nicer clothes and even a skirt or two.

“Joni,” they heard Beth call from down the hall. “Come see this!” Lucy thought it must feel odd to have people come looking through your closets and bathrooms and things, but realized this was part of Ellie’s brand. She loved people knowing things about her and wanted to be accessible. Plus it was probably Miranda’s big reveal in town, too. She’d recently moved here to restart her business after a divorce. She hoped Miranda did well, the town needed new businesses. She did. Really.

Was that Miranda hugging, maybe kissing Max out in the gazebo? Why did it matter? They were both single and free and could kiss anyone they wanted to kiss. It meant nothing to her. Nothing.

Shutting the closet door, she left the bedroom as she heard more people coming in to check it out and smiled her Lucy smile as she walked by them. No one needed to know anything other than she was a happy airhead. Right? That was the persona she tried very hard to create and it mostly worked for her. Some people had seen through it. Ellie knew her inside out. But, most people just took everyone by what they saw. She liked that. It let her float through life.

She brushed past a group of people here in the hall, then stopped as someone grabbed her arm.

“Hello, Sunshine, I was hoping you were here.”

Max. Of course. Was he done kissing Miranda now? Her turn? Yeah. That didn’t work for her. “Why were you hoping I was here?”

He moved her to the side of the hall out of the line of traffic. The party was getting busy. Ellie knew a lot of people, apparently.

“I’ve missed you.” He smiled that easy Max smile and she frowned. She wasn’t falling for that again. “How is the new job?”

Lucy felt startled, how did he know? Oh, he meant the one she was working now, not the one Ellie just offered her. Shrugging, she said, “It’s fine. No one there thinks I’m a play toy to discard.”

Max winced. “I guess I deserved that.”

“Guess you do,” she agreed. “I have to go now. My ride is here.”

“Party is young,” he started.

“Party is done,” she said and yanked her arm out of his grasp. “Enjoy your life, Max.” Walking away, she felt proud of herself. She handled that very well. And she could so wait till she was in the Uber to cry. Just watch me walk away, she hummed as she walked down the steps. That would show Mr. Max Sutherland she didn’t care about him anymore. He could dump her and kiss someone else in the gazebo and she did not care. Not one little bit.

Lucy managed to slip out the front door without speaking to anyone and also managed not to cry till she got in the Uber. Tonight was just a win/win. She couldn’t wait to get home to Juliet.

***

Max frowned as he walked into work. Bryan was already there. He had just moved to town, following his spouse who was transferred to the hospital here in town. Apparently the spouse was a doctor of some kind, but they had yet to meet. They – he – had hired him after Lucy quit. He still didn’t understand why she quit. They had a good time, and it was over. Why did women have to take everything so personally? Bryan seemed to like to show up early and stay late and do a good job, which wasn’t bad, but Max was used to his early morning alone time in the office. But he liked Bryan. Not nearly as entertaining as Lucy, or as fun to flirt with, but still. The office ran smoothly, so there was that.

“Good morning, Max. Good morning, Gypsy,” Bryan said as they walked in. “I have the coffee made and ready for you. The notes from your meeting last night are printed out and on your desk. Mike is already in his office.”

“Thanks, Bryan,” he said. “Let me know when Shelia Lloyd calls. And when she does, no interruptions, please.”

“Will do,” he said. Max missed Lucy and her sass and giggles and how her antics made Mike crazy. That was a fun part. Amusing and fun and once he broke down her barriers, great in bed. The fact she thought it was more than fun and games wasn’t really his problem. Though it was because she didn’t want to play with him anymore. Everyone liked him. He had never had a bad breakup, they always stayed friends. Until Lucy.

His face was the face of their company, though really Mike was the brains. Mike was the one making the good investments and better decisions, but he was the one who went out and made the connections and got the groups to invest with them. Mike didn’t enjoy that as much. He was more of a one-on-one kind of person. He could hold a hand when the stock market went down, but he didn’t enjoy the soliciting of new business. They were a good team. Right now, he was working with the mayor to get not only her personal business, but the town’s investment business also. That would be a big coup to them. They had been working with the same company for years now, but with the city manager shake up, he thought now was a good time for a change, and just needed to convince them to go local.

He stuck his head in the office, “Hey, Mike you all recovered from the party Saturday night?”

Mike looked over from his computer, “Ellie was very pleased with the turn out. The bigger question is did you have a good time?”

Max walked in and shut the door. “Why is that the bigger question?”

“Well, according to my wife, who heard it from her best friend, someone was entertaining a certain lady in the brand-new gazebo I had built for me to have a good time in.”

“What?” Max looked at his friend. He needed to speak plain English.

Mike sighed. “Lucy told Ellie she saw you making out with someone in the gazebo.”

“What?” Max felt like a fool. He had other words at his disposal. He thought back and laughed. “Yeah. Miranda came out to the gazebo and apologized for what she did to me years ago. I told her she was fine, just behave, and gave her a hug.” He shrugged. “But if people want to think I’m a game player and was having a good time, well, who am I to argue?”

“Our business reputation,” Mike suggested. “We aren’t in college anymore. What would the mayor think if she thought you were making out with randoms in public? That you were someone she wanted to invest her money with?”

“Kill joy,” Max said as he went into his own office and sat down. Mike was right, though, he admitted. They had been a powerhouse in college, the two of them. Getting any girls they wanted. Playing at all the fun places. Mike had settled down though, after the Miranda debacle, and he, well, he really hadn’t. Miranda looked like she had moved beyond it too. She’d only been twenty, he reminded himself and took the break-up with Mike very badly, doing the stalker thing for almost a year after. When she couldn’t find or get hold of Mike, she turned to him. For the most part, he thought it was amusing, because it wasn’t him having to deal with it for real. But then he got tired of it, too, and shut her down. Not as effectively as Mike had, by turning her over his knee and blistering her butt till she promised to leave him alone forever.

Sure, he and Mike had scenes in the dungeons and at play parties, but he never thought about using any of the techniques in real life. Apparently Mike did. He’d worry about Ellie, but she was such a confident and seemingly happy wife, he really didn’t think there was anything to worry about. It was always mutual fun at the parties. What he did to Miranda was not consensual. However, it had done what it needed to do, but Max had a little issue with the delivery, so to speak. It just bothered him that Mike didn’t get consent for it. A little bondage and whipping between friends was one thing, but both people got something from it. All he’d done was punish and deter.

Mike tried to explain it like a traffic ticket. You don’t consent to the ticket but you take it and mostly try not to do it again. Max wasn’t sure he agreed with that.

His biggest problem right now, was what was wrong with Lucy? Why didn’t she understand playtime? Why did she have to get feelings for him? Why did he keep thinking about her?

Sighing, Max turned on his computer and sat thinking about the little airhead blonde while waiting for his phone call from the mayor.

***

Lucy smiled as she looked in the mirror. Blue hair matched her mood perfectly today. “I love it, Tasha,” she said.

“You always love it, Lucy,” Tasha said. “But I do think blue looks good on you.”

“You said that about the pink and green, too,” Lucy said.

“Peacock was my favorite. Maybe next month again?”

“Maybe,” Lucy giggled. “We’ll see how I feel next month. See you then, and thank you.”

Although blue had been her mood when she walked in the salon earlier, it really wasn’t right now. She just felt better. She had given notice this morning on her old job and would be starting her new one as the City Manager’s administrative assistant in a few weeks. It was going to be fun!

Then she walked out the salon door and saw Max leaning against his car and frowned. Why was he around? She’d had all she wanted from him at the party a while back. Maybe if she ignored him, he’d go away. Too bad she’d parked three blocks away and couldn’t flounce to her car, get in and drive away. What did he want? She walked by him and once again, he grabbed her arm.

“What do you want, Max?” she almost spat out at him. “I’m not taking off my clothes for you in the middle of town square.”

“That’s disappointing,” he said. “But actually, I’m here to apologize and buy you a forgiveness lunch.”

She kept walking toward her car. “What are you apologizing for?”

“How about we sit down over some good food and I explain that to you?”

“I am not certain I’m in the mood for good food,” she said, and kept walking.

“Well, I could buy you rotten food but you have to explain why you want that to the chef, okay?”

“Go away, Max,” Lucy turned and looked at him. He was a handsome man, for sure. About six-feet tall, dark hair and brown eyes with flecks of green, muscled and lean and dressed in his go to work suit, he was simply easy on the eyes. And oh, the charm. He just exuded it. He knew all the right words to say and very literally, much to her chagrin, charmed her out of her pants. Well, she wouldn’t make that mistake again. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice… he wasn’t fooling her twice.

“Lucy, come on. I know you want to eat. I’ll buy you sushi,” he coaxed.

“And not make fun of me for being vegetarian?” she asked.

“You don’t make fun of people on an apology tour,” he said.

Well, she was hungry, and she did like sushi and they made fantastic brioche there and well… “No. What good would it do? You are sorry. I get that. I’m sorry I misunderstood everything. The end.” She headed toward her car again. But she couldn’t resist one more toss over her shoulder, “Bet Miranda wants sushi.” And then finally, after what seemed like a million miles, arrived at her car. He hadn’t followed her, she saw. Good. She didn’t want him chasing her down the street. That is what she wanted. Him to leave her alone. And he was. Yay.

So why did she feel so let down?

***

“Mike?” She answered her phone, later that evening. “Is Ellie okay?” Why else would her best friend’s husband, who didn’t like her, be calling her? Something happened to her best friend.

“Yes, she’s fine. Lucy, I need your help. I want to do a small little dinner get together for her birthday later this week. We just had this big party at the house, and really, how many parties does one house need in a week?”

“One is plenty,” she agreed. “How can I help?”

“I was wondering, can you host a dinner for about eight or ten at your house as a surprise for her? I was thinking maybe getting Jordyn to cater? I’ll pay for everything, including your time. I hate to ask you but…”

“Mike, I’d do anything for Ellie and I’d love to host a dinner. Ten people max, you think? That is no problem.”

“Well, if Jordyn can cook we need to include her too, because we don’t want her feeling left out. But I will let you know as soon as I get the RSVPs back. I just needed a spot and an excuse. She loves going to your house and would never expect you and I would be working together.”

Lucy laughed. Mike had never admitted before she made him crazy. “True fact. I have room for that many. Are you going to talk to Jordyn and invite people or am I?”

“I’m going to do everything but host,” he said. “All you need is room to seat us all. Maybe a pretty table decoration or something?”

“I can do all that! I’m so excited. Thank you for including me in this.”

Mike sighed. “Basically you are my sister now, so I guess I need to get used to that idea, and you.”

Lucy giggled, knowing Mike thought she was a total airhead and that she made him crazy. Ellie thought it was hysterically funny and often teased her, threatening to tell Mike about her IQ. Lucy had sworn her to secrecy though. It was a little fun to make cool, calm, collected Mike crazy after all. “Okay, sounds good. I’ll try and tolerate you, too.”

“Thanks, Lucy. I’ll be in touch with details, time and menu and things. I’ll let you know if Jordyn doesn’t work out. Don’t forget this is a surprise.”

“I won’t forget!” Lucy hung up. Okay, something to look forward to. She needed to clean her house and Pinterest birthday decor and, yay! Something to take her mind off Max, which she had worried about since giving notice on her job. She’d taken a few days between the end of one job and the beginning of her next one to do some job research and brush up on a few skills. So it would be fun to plan a little party.

For the first time in a while, she felt like her old self again. Lucy smiled and logged onto her computer to see what kind of decor she could do. Hitting her email, she saw a message from her sister Moriah. Sighing in anticipation, she opened it.

Hi, Lucy! Hope things are going well there. Nothing has changed here. Mom and Dad are still doubling down on the rules since you left. I’m writing this from the library computer, so don’t know when I’ll be able to check for an answer. Mom is here with the littles for story hour. They are still pressuring me to accept Ethan’s proposal, but I’m not ready to get married and have a slew of kids like they all expect me to do. I know you have offered to let me come there, but I’m not ready to leave the siblings behind. Yet anyway. I just wanted to check in with you and let you know we are all good and miss you desperately. Love you. Moriah.

Lucy sighed and shut the computer. She’d have to answer her later. While she never regretted leaving the patriarchal lifestyle she grew up in, she did miss her siblings and hated she wasn’t allowed contact with them. She did not miss all the rules, the no choices – a woman’s place was in the home and nowhere else – the maxi skirts and the keeping sweet all the time. No one was allowed to show feelings if they were at all negative or uncomfortable, unless they were males. Boys will be boys after all. She was so grateful to have found Ellie and Ellie’s grandma who helped her find her way into college and her own life. But still. Sometimes…

Resolutely she opened her computer again and logged on to find decor for Ellie’s small intimate dinner party. This was going to be fun and she needed some fun!

 

 

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Laughlin

Suri

I gazed out to the sea, sighing in contentment, as I ground my feet gently into the forgiving sand, loving the feel of the gritty wetness. My nostrils flared at the robust and pungent blend of seaweed and salt emanating from the expanse of water. I surveyed my playground, my happy place, the sea.

As I stretched out my arms, the moonlight danced on my skin, catching me in its silvery embrace. I felt sexy and alive as the light danced on my body. I was hypnotized by the rolling waves cast in the light from the moon and stars overhead.

My journey had begun, like I assumed many others had, with an invitation. A co-worker invited me to join her at a yoga retreat. She sensed I was unhappy and wanted me to have a positive experience and meet her cool yogi crew in New York.

On a lunch break near the end of that transformational weekend, I was knocked out and kidnapped by my stalker husband. When I came to, I was tied to our bed back in our home in Boston. Edward became utterly unhinged, as he admitted to some pretty heinous crimes, including setting up a bevy of women at different locations around the country.

Edward admitted to millions of dollars in profits being skimmed from his father’s company and a warrant out for his arrest. With the knowledge of his impending arrest. Edward lost it and planned on shooting me and then himself. I guess he decided he couldn’t do time for his crime and couldn’t stand the idea of being alone, even in death.

Edward had been spotted dragging my unconscious body into his vehicle by one of my new yoga friends, Tsui. Stacey, friend and owner of the yoga studio, called the cops, and they in turn called Boston.

Stacey and Tsui raced from New York to Boston, putting the retreat on hold until the next day. They arrived and found me beaten but alive. After a quick hospital trip, they drove me back to New York to complete my weekend and graduate with the rest of the students.

I was so incredibly grateful to my new friends who had gone out on a limb for me. Meeting genuine people at the retreat almost made the previous two and a half years of hell worth the pain and humiliation I’d endured. But all that was behind me now.

I wanted a change. I wanted to start life on a new page and write my happily ever after. Following the kidnapping and Edwards’s subsequent death, the first year had not been easy, and I had not expected it to be. Stacey gave me the use of her tiny condo that she reserved for guest teachers at her studio. I took classes and did what she called karma yoga—when something is given for free, or in exchange for something. In this case, it was the use of her condo.

With no job, I was able to volunteer at her three-room yoga studio. At first, cleaning up and washing floors, helping with bookings and connecting the right teacher and student for private classes. I moved up, eventually becoming an instructor.

A few weeks ago, a fellow teacher and friend, Tino, had invited me to join him on a trip to Turkey. I guess he had assumed by accepting, I also agreed to sex, and when I had made it perfectly clear that I was not interested, he made it perfectly clear that we would go our separate ways.

Fine with me, it was more important to be happy than to lower myself to make others happy. I have done that too many times, and I wasn’t about to fall into that trap again. In fact, I had been quite irate at the idea of someone putting stipulations on our mutual travel after the fact. I felt like a newly enlightened yoga chick, and Tino’s attitude just didn’t fly with me.

Of course, I realized after I’d packed my stuff and found a cheap B&B by the beach that my irritation and condemnation wasn’t part of my newly made self, either. That’s why I had sought out the beach so late tonight. With everything quiet, I could spend some time in meditation.

I sat down and crossed my legs, resting the backs of my hands comfortably on my thighs. I imagined that my sits bones were like roots that descended deeply into the sand, creating a grounding effect. Then I spread my awareness, becoming more conscious of the earth beneath me and the subtleness of the air that sent tingles up my spine.

The breeze felt like the gentle caress of a lover’s hand. I wore a smile on my face, as I often did when I tagged into the subtleties that allowed me to feel the world around me so intensely.

I focused on breathing, my favorite breath of inhaling for five, holding my breath for seven, and exhaling for eight. I called it my anti-anxiety breath, and it only needed to be performed three times to reset one’s neurological center. Then I allowed my breath to become deep and natural.

My focus shifted to the subtleties of the breath, becoming aware of cool air moving in and warm air moving out. Each breath was fully circular in nature, with a beginning and an end. As I continued, I lost track of my surroundings, my breath now moving in time with the waves.

With my eyes closed, I gazed internally to the place above the bridge of my nose. It had taken a lot of practice to achieve perfect holding of this meditative gaze point. I had started with candle gazing, called Tratak, and eventually, I was able to imagine a candle flame in the center of my forehead.

Time passed. I couldn’t really say how much, as the intention was to get out of linear time and get into the life cycle’s eternal time. I felt sufficiently relaxed and centered within myself. My thinking moved to Tino and why I had been so offended by his actions and words. Beyond the obvious, I realized my reaction was because he’d hit a trigger.

I believed that being part of a more sacred community came with a set of responsibilities. I expected more from people. They were, after all, supposed to be highly evolved and beyond typical pitfalls. That was my mistake. I never should have assumed.

Then, he’d tried to control me with sex, something my ex would have done. That wasn’t the truth, though; that was my perception. What he’d done was made a huge assumption, and we weren’t on the same page. I took a deep breath, and when I let it out, I felt better. Then I thought of the more profound question—was I ready to get back in the saddle? Ready to date, or at least imagine being with a man?

|An image of a gorgeous, primal man flitted into my subconscious. The same face I had dreamt about before leaving New York. In my dream, he held me in his arms, a look of concern marring his brow. He was the most gorgeous mountain of a man I’d ever seen. Then, in the dream, I passed out, and in my bed, I woke up. When I shared it with my girlfriend Stacey, she had smiled and said I’d been sent a vision of my future.

Tino’s invite then seemed like the go light I’d been waiting for. I left New York and felt an eagerness for what was to come, to see new sights and maybe meet someone in Turkey. Well, if he was here, I hoped I’d meet him soon. I sighed and slowly moved away from meditation. I could feel the lateness of the night and knew it was time to get moving.

When I opened my eyes, I glanced down at my phone. It was after midnight and time to get back to my lodgings. I loved my alone time, but I doubted the wisdom of being on the beach at this late hour. I was packing up the few items left strewn on the sand when I heard a grunt.

Peeking over the log behind me, I saw three men on the sand about fifty feet away. Two were standing, one of them pointing a gun at the third guy, who was on his knees in the sand. They had chosen a spot that was dark, the buildings behind them shading their corner of the beach.

Crap! What do I do? If I shout and distract the bad guys, they will no doubt come after me. But I can’t let them shoot that poor man, no matter what he’s done, assuming he’s done anything. Maybe this is just a simple robbery.

I glanced above me, to the full moon overhead. In a moment, the few clouds in the night sky would pass over the moon, shading where I was hiding. I needed a distraction so I could run and hopefully the man being held at gunpoint could as well. I called the police, whispering as loud as I dared, and told them the general location, but I don’t know if they even understood me.

With the clouds almost in place, I grabbed a few rocks and stayed low, waiting for the perfect moment. From where I was hiding, I could hear the man on his knees. I assumed from his tone, he was begging for his life. I had no idea what he was saying, but anyone could recognize desperation.

The gunman cocked the gun while the other guy quietly threatened him, in what I recognized now as the Turkish dialect. They wanted information from the guy on his knees, but he wasn’t giving up anything.

Just then, the clouds overhead passed over the moon, providing me with an opportunity. I silently thanked Ganesh for providing me with his assistance and, in quick succession, threw the rocks over the men, hitting the stone pavement and a large garbage bin several feet behind them. As they turned, I ran for the boardwalk. I was almost to safety when I heard a shot ring out and men shouting.

I turned back in time to see the man who had been on his knees running down the beach in my direction, with the other two in hot pursuit. Damn man, why couldn’t he have run the other way? Behind me, more gunshots rang out, and a bullet ricocheted off a building to my right.

I was desperate as I ran, looking for an open doorway or anyone who could help me, as no sirens were coming to my rescue. At least I could say yardim, which meant help. I went tearing around a corner and saw an open bar. Being summer in Turkey, I ran straight in through the open patio, turning for the washroom, when I ran into a wall and would have fallen back onto the tiled floor if the wall hadn’t reached out and grabbed my arms.

I gazed up into the face of the most handsome man I’d ever seen. That figures, I probably just ran into Mr. Perfect, and now I am going to die.

“Please, help me, there are men with guns. I saw them; they were going to kill someone, and now they are chasing me.” I hoped I was imparting the same sense of urgency I was feeling.

The man said something in Turkish to the bartender, who nodded his head and began closing up shop while the wall ducked down the hall, his hands still wrapped around my forearms, propelling me out the back door.

We stood in the alley and heard the pounding of feet pass our hiding spot. More gunshots rang out, piercing the quiet. They must still be chasing the man who had escaped, continuing the chase no doubt farther into the beachfront community. I had been panting, more from fear than from the run. I almost died, I almost… I promptly passed out.

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The Sicilian’s Obsession

Katima

Cold. Dark. Tight. My breaths came in pants as I woke in a small, enclosed space, folded over myself. Where was I?

I cried out, “Daddy?” He would never let me stay in this tiny prison. I was his princess and he protected me from the fire-breathing dragons. At least that was the story he told me every night before bed.

A deep voice growled, “Shut up.”

The box shook and I shivered in fear. Muted voices trickled in from afar. I couldn’t catch my breath. The tears falling from my face threatened to strangle me as they dripped onto my thighs. I sobbed, harder and harder, until a small light infiltrated in from above me. I tried to lift my tiny frame, but something kept me pushed down. I kicked out, my tiny muscles no match for the contraption I was stuck in

I panicked and started to scream, “Daddy!”

I woke with a jolt. The familiar glow of my nightlight gleamed in the distance of my bedroom. I glanced at the clock on my nightstand—5:00 am. Every night for as long as I could remember, I had the same recurring nightmare. I tried to ask my dad about it, but he just said I had an overactive imagination. Here I was, twenty-eight years old and still having nightmares, no friends to speak to, no family, except my dad. I grabbed my Avengers shorts and slipped them on. Then I padded barefoot downstairs. I got started on coffee. Dad was on another business trip, so it was just me, alone in this big house. Always alone. I grabbed my steaming cup of joe and headed out to the porch. The swing was my favorite place to sit and watch the sun rise in the distance. Pennsylvania had the most beautiful sunrises. I relaxed and let my mind wander, loneliness setting in. If I was a more outgoing person, maybe I would have friends, a tribe, people I could lean on—something. Not that my dad wasn’t enough, he was just gone all the time. Of course, that was because he was CEO at Sweets Incorporated and trying to expand his empire. Dad wanted to leave something tangible for me when he died. Me? I didn’t want the company. I just wanted my dad. I stayed on the porch, watching the sun rise high above the horizon. Then it was time to get to work. I went inside and hopped into the shower, washing away the sweat from a fitful night’s sleep. I dampened my curls and squeezed conditioner through them then washed the rest of my body, leaving the conditioner in. My curls were dry, so I was going to throw them into a messy bun to keep them out of the way. I went through the rest of my routine, putting on a bare minimum of makeup. No one was going to see me anyway. I grabbed my Captain America shirt, a pair of old dark wash jeans, and my Chucks. I had nothing planned on my agenda for today, so there was no reason to dress to impress. The greatest blessing of being top scientist in your family’s company was you could dress the way you wanted.

I rushed out to my Mercedes Benz with fifteen minutes to spare. I hit the Starbucks’ drive thru, still surprised this small, sleepy town even had one. I scanned my badge at the lobby with only five minutes to spare. My PA, Rebecca, was already there, her foot tapping impatiently on the tiled floor.

She griped, “You were supposed to be here earlier.” I nodded my head in answer. She was always acting like she was my boss instead of the other way around. I still wasn’t comfortable speaking in public. The only person I could hold an intellectual conversation with was my father.

Rebecca went on, “Your dad needs you to call him ASAP.” She threw her golden locks in my face, causing me to sputter, waving my hand to get away from the strands. I headed into my office connected to the back end of my lab and dialed Dad.

He answered on the second ring, “Hey, pumpkin.”

I murmured into the phone, “Hi, Daddy. What’s up?” He sighed, which meant he was going to ask me to do something I was uncomfortable with.

“I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and you know I don’t like leaving you alone. So, I came up with a solution.” While he paused to gather his thoughts, I sat quietly, my mind racing over a mile a minute. Please, not another friendship lined by my father’s money. Those are the worst.

“I hired a personal bodyguard to be with you 24/7. I’ll be out of the country for a while and it would give me peace of mind if you were safe.”

I whimpered into the phone. My anxiety was creeping up on me like a lost lover, stroking down my back. “I don’t need a bodyguard, Daddy.” My voice was small to my ears, weak, feeble. Damsel in distress at her finest.

“Katima, after losing your mother, you know I need eyes on you at all times.”

Ugh, it was always the same guilt trip. My mother died when I was a baby, and it’s always been just Dad and me.

“You’re just being overprotective again, Daddy.” If I could get him to see that there was no threat, then surely, he’d call off his hound.

“If I say you need it, then you need it, Katima. No more arguments.”

I shut my mouth at his gruff bark. It wasn’t like I even tried to really argue with him, but Daddy has always been a bulldog.

His tone softened. “Anyway, he’ll be showing up at the lab to introduce himself. He’ll have access to the company, and to make his job easier, he’ll be staying at the house with you. Whatever he needs to make security better, give it to him.”

I closed my eyes, letting out a deep, slow breath. I could already feel the migraine brewing. My hands were shaking. I hated meeting new people. Daddy knew this and chose to have me do it anyway. If I was normal, lived on my own, and didn’t have these problems, I wouldn’t have to deal with this.

“All right, Daddy.” In the end, it’s just easier to give him what he wants.

He tenderly said, “Love you, pumpkin.”

“Love you too, Daddy.” I really did. I just wished things were different, that I was different. A daughter he didn’t need to watch out for, a daughter who was strong, resilient, a warrior, but I’m none of those things.

I gave myself some time to calm down after hanging up with my dad. No way did I want to face Rebecca in the middle of a panic attack. She would just make it worse. If she wasn’t such a good personal assistant and sometimes research assistant, I would have replaced her years ago.

A short while later, I was back under control and in my element. Today, I was working on a few recipes with our crystallization method. I was my own taste tester, so I always used fudge as my base. If I was honest, I was addicted to our fudge. I couldn’t get enough. Just as I was adding the first drops of liquified cayenne pepper and Gochujang, a Korean pepper paste I used to heighten spiciness, a tap sounded on the door. It swung open before I could say anything.

I snapped at the intruder, “Did you not see the freaking testing light flashing?” What was standing in front of me made the rest of my rant dry up in my throat. A tall man, dressed from head to toe in black, darkened the doorway. His bulging arms were lined with tattoos and I could see a few peeking out the top of his shirt collar. His combat boots were muddy. I already knew I was going to have to decontaminate my laboratory just from his mere presence. His dark fauxhawk had tapered sides and the top looked wet like he’d just stepped out of the shower. His dark tattoos were illuminated by his tanned skin, but it was his piercing green gaze that stopped me in my tracks. His eyes were hauntingly cold. My body started to shiver from their penetration.

I stuttered, “Wh-who a-are y-you?” My face scrunched up in a grimace upon hearing my own voice. I waited for his condescending attitude, or worse, his laughter. I could feel my face growing hot, waiting for his answer.

His voice was deep, with hints of an accent as he said, “Excuse me?”

My belly fluttered in excitement. I’m sure my face showed my confusion. I choked out, “N-no one is s-supposed to enter the l-lab while I’m t-t-testing.” My embarrassment was plain as day now. The more I stuttered, the harder I shook, anxiety riding my body hard. I was panting, and pieces of my curly bun had fallen around my face from being distracted by the new recipe. Now they stuck to my face with sweat as I spiraled downward inwardly. My humiliation complete, I wished the floor would open and swallow me whole.

***

Arturo

What fresh hell was this? A few days ago, a contract came through with an easy job. Security for the Sweets Incorporated princess of science. I haven’t been out in the field in a while and figured a change of pace would be nice. If anything got too hot to handle, I could always call in reinforcements, but I doubted this was a serious mission at all. Besides, I investigated her father, and it really seemed like a simple job. Babysitting duty, really. I figured I’d get in, hang around and get out when the contract was up, but Katima Sweets was absolutely not what I had prepared for. I was expecting a young, bratty princess, not this nervous looking angel. She was beautiful, petite, her dark curly hair thrown in a haphazard bun. It sat on top of her head like a beacon. She had on a lab coat with a movie t-shirt, jeans, and comfortable shoes. A minimalist, I liked it. Her glasses were overly large on her tiny face and I made a note to ask her if they were on purpose or for show.

I prompted, “Testing?” I had no clue what she was talking about.

She said tersely, “Yes.”

Confused, I said, “Your assistant said I could just walk in.”

Katima gasped, her hazel eyes wide with shock. She squeaked, “What?” I noticed she was very direct with her answers. Maybe her bumbling earlier was from nervousness.

I clarified for her, “I don’t know if you know what I’m supposed to do here, but I am supposed to be in the lab.”

She looked past me and asked, “Time?”

What happened to full sentences?

“It’s about lunch.” I checked my watch just to double check. My natural clock was never off. Katima started cleaning up her area, so I waited to see what she was going to do. The lab looked clean to me, but she grabbed a ton of supplies out of a small closet and started cleaning. I stood stoically for an hour just watching her clean from top to bottom. I had a feeling if I wasn’t watching her, she would grab a toothbrush and scrub the grout. Good thing I was here. She glanced up after hanging her lab coat up and looked surprised to see me standing in the same exact spot.

“L-let’s g-go.” She motioned me back and I, for one, didn’t want to make a mess after watching her clean, which was exhausting to look at.

“Are you heading to lunch, Ms. Sweets?” Katima’s PA was super friendly. I’m almost certain she was flirting with me when I entered the building. I looked at Katima, who held up one finger, whipped out her phone and then stared at her PA until the phone at her desk rang.

“Sweets Incorporated, Rebecca speaking.” She paused. “No, Mr. Sweets. I didn’t mean—” She was cut off and her whole face lit up like a tomato. She hung up and glared at Katima.

She said through gritted teeth, “I apologize, Ms. Sweets, for not checking to make sure you weren’t currently experimenting.” Her mouth was stretched into a thin line. Katima motioned for us to move forward.

I thought, oh, there’s the princess. It’s not her fault she’s a disappointment to me. For some reason, I thought she would be different from the little, rich princesses I usually watched over.

I sighed, “Want to go to Greta’s Diner downtown? I saw it when I was driving in.” Best to get to know her, since we’ll be spending all our time together. Katima nodded her head in agreement and I led her to my truck. We could have driven separately, but I wanted to dirty the princess up a little bit. She didn’t object, just climbed in, and off we went.

Not that I spent time with many women, but are they supposed to be this silent? I kept glancing at Katima when we got to Greta’s. She hadn’t spoken a word since we were in her lab. Our waitress was a friendly, older woman named Greta, and I knew that she was the owner from a glance. I really liked this small town, but there was something odd. I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I just sat back and did what I do best—observed. Katima hadn’t ordered anything. In fact, she never even touched her menu. But our waitress brought her an orange juice and side salad. She didn’t seem offended at all by Katima’s silence. Frankly, I was sick of her being rude.

I motioned to the waitress. “Shouldn’t you say thank you, princess?”

Katima whipped out her phone and I scoffed. What was she going to do, call her father? Her face flushed and she looked at the owner embarrassed. Good.

She sputtered, “Th-thank y-you.”

I turned to smile at the lady, but she was shooting daggers at me with her eyes. Me. I wasn’t the one who was being rude and couldn’t show gratitude for my every whim being satisfied without asking. We sat in awkward silence. I could see the wheels in her head turning. Meanwhile, I was studying her. She sipped her orange juice but hadn’t touched her salad yet. I vaguely wondered why. Greta brought my burger and fries out, slamming the plate down so hard, I was afraid it would break. She flounced back into the kitchen. I could see her motioning to the cook with her hands, complaining about me. This was really a weird town. Where I’m from, waitresses would’ve torn Katima a new one or at least spit in her food. I took a bite out of my burger, noting Katima picked her fork up. Maybe she had been waiting for me. If so, why didn’t she just say that? My charge had me more and more confused.

Greta came back out and handed Katima a receipt.

“I put it on your tab as usual, Katima, but only his meal. Earl and I agree that yours was on the house.” I shot a startled look her way.

She leaned forward and whispered loudly, “Next time, don’t bring the asshole, yeah?” She shot me another scorching look and stomped off.

I demanded, “What the hell was that?” Katima looked down at her plate and shrugged. “No, she acted like I did something to you.” I was outraged, outrageously confused. Katima was a spoiled brat. I think. I mean that’s how she acted. I watched her more as I finished off my burger, noting she never tried to strike up a conversation. Women loved to talk. My sisters would never just sit in silence. They were always regaling me with their stories. There was more to Katima Sweets than what meets the eye. And I was just the guy to find out.

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Amanda’s Daddy

Amanda watched as people gathered in little groups, a few peeling off to dance a polka as two volunteers happily played their tattered but well-loved instruments. She didn’t come to every one of these church socials because Mami was more and more often too weak to care for herself while alone. But not today, today was a good day and there were people to watch and community to participate in. But was she actually part of the community she so longed to join? It all seemed foreign to her, like something she ought to be part of, but couldn’t quite fit in. She’d been in this county her whole life and yet her friends were few and scattered.

Oh, my goodness! Who was the fellow coming into the room? He didn’t smile at everyone, he looked around as though assessing a disorganized army, ready to take charge or attack depending on what side he favored. He was greeted by Lucas Trundle, one of the community’s most eligible bachelors. The stranger didn’t have a woman on his arm, and he appeared to be friends with Lucas; did that mean he was unmarried and a bit of a reprobate like Luke?

Did it matter? Not a whit. He must be younger than Amanda by six or seven years. And, really, what could she possibly say to strike up a conversation? It was out of the question. She knew she was painfully shy—thus her retreat into this corner behind the potted blossoming orange tree. There was a chaise behind her, too isolated for the decent people to enjoy, but Amanda might take a seat there after a while and by scooching to the very end, she could observe without being seen. She’d taken that spot before and it worked quite well.

He was a joy to watch. So handsome and brawny. He filled out his proper jacket perfectly though the seams did strain at the biceps a bit. Not enough to draw attention to the cut of his suit, but just enough to catch her eyes and keep them on him. His light brown hair was parted on the side, and needed a bit of a trim, but was cared for and controlled. She couldn’t see the color of his eyes, but they were dark, she could tell that much. And he was tall, something over six feet if she didn’t miss her guess. He’d tower over her five-feet-two. But she had to quit putting herself in the picture. Especially since Jilly-June Barton had sailed over to him nearly immediately.

He bowed elegantly toward her and spoke few words, but Jilly-June nattered on as though it didn’t matter that he was barely listening to her. After a couple of minutes, he smiled – oh my goodness! – and excused himself to go talk to Lucas again. Lucas was focused on a group of young gentlemen, with whom the stranger shook hands. They formed a group, looking about for the right women to chat with.

The stranger looked over toward the orange tree as he was perusing the room and his eyes stopped upon her. Amanda lowered her gaze nearly immediately, but not before she saw that his enigmatic eyes were dark blue, like an endless sea, a mysterious sea with secrets in its depths. How she’d love to explore those white-capped intensities. Instead, she turned away and pretended to examine a rather poorly done watercolor on the wall a few feet away.

It was truly an ugly picture of a little boy sitting in beachside dunes, gazing out at some small waves. It looked like it was done by someone who’d never been to the sea, because it was nothing like the drawings she’d seen in books by people who really had been to the beach. But here in the desert, it was unusual to find a person with experience at the seaside. She, herself, had never been.

She was ruminating on this situation when she felt a presence next to her. She was about to turn to see who was invading her reverie, when he spoke. “Interesting picture.” Turning her head ever so slightly, she saw the stranger. He was standing right next to her, peering over her shoulder. She could reach out and touch him. Instead, she stiffened up and bit her lower lip. Was she supposed to respond to his observation? What should she say?

“Umm,” she murmured, completely at a loss for words. He smelled so good, too. Like sandalwood soap. They had it in the mercantile, far too fancy and masculine for her or her mother. What did that mean about the stranger?

“You know,” he said, his voice low and smooth, “it looks like the boy has two left eyes.”

It was true! The watercolor was so bad that the eyes were wrong! She giggled, then laughed, some of the tension broken. “I think,” she said, her voice a soft whisper between laughs, “he does.” He chuckled right along with her.

Then he did an extraordinary thing. He actually turned toward her and spoke in a conversational manner. “I’m Rocky Pascal,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Now, she really had to turn to look him right in the face. It would be incredibly impolite not to, even though it was difficult to do. What would he think of her—her oval face with freckles across the nose, her red hair – so unfashionable – and her undesirable green eyes? Oh, why couldn’t she be a blonde, with blue eyes, a heart-shaped face and perfectly pale skin! But then… he’d come over here, knowing she was a redhead, knowing she was unfashionable and a bit tatty with her best dress not sporting a train or broad and fulsome ruffle around the skirt. Jilly-June, with whom he’d spoken just a few minutes ago, was the picture of perfect femininity. Amanda was a drudge in comparison. And yet… here he was, talking to her and not to Jilly-June. Why?

“No, sir, we have not met,” she replied softly.

“What is your name?” He was patient, not showing a hint of frustration with her succinct answer.

“Miss Amanda Locke.”

“And what is Miss Amanda Locke doing hiding behind a tree while all these lovely folks are cavorting on the dance floor?”

“I-I-I’m—it’s where I feel comfortable.”

He tilted his head slightly, assessing her. Those dark blue eyes roamed over her face and she felt a blush coming on. To her surprise, he took her hand and pulled her toward the nearby chaise, plunking down behind the tree and patting the place next to him.

She didn’t know quite what to do. It seemed indecent to hide behind a tree with a gentleman. And yet, it was him and she was so attracted and so otherwise lonely in the room full of people. Amanda sat down.

“Very good. Now tell me about yourself. If you’re over here alone by a tree, there must be something going on with you. Are you just shy?”

She looked away and nodded.

Rocky patted her hand where it lay in her lap. “So beautiful and yet so distant. I’m intrigued.”

“There’s nothing special about me,” she told him, though she was absolutely thrilled by this attractive man calling her beautiful.

“No? I find that hard to believe.”

“I’m quite ordinary. There are much more attractive girls here. Why aren’t you talking to them?”

She caught his smile from the corner of her eye. “Because I’d rather talk to the prettiest girl in the room.” He took her hand in his and peered at it. “What happened to your hands?”

Withdrawing her fingers from his, she answered a bit defensively. “I run a chicken farm, Mr. Pascal. I have chores to do.”

“My apologies. You have a chicken farm?”

“Yes.”

“How enterprising. Are there many chickens?”

This conversation must be boring him to distraction. But it seemed like he wanted to talk.

“Yes, sir. A few over one hundred.”

“That’s quite a few! You must need a lot of help with that. I’m the assistant foreman at the Bar 2 ranch about half an hour east of here. We have a lot of steers to tend; it takes quite a few hands.”

“My labors are simple. I can manage them.”

He nodded toward her reddish, ragged hands. “I see.”

“My mother is sick. She can’t help anymore.” She made to stand. Maybe this was a bad idea. “I should be going home, in fact. My chickens need looking after. Please excuse me.”

“Very well,” he said, helping her to stand, though she didn’t need help. “I’ll accompany you.”

“Please don’t. I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded, her eyes not meeting his, though she could feel his gaze on her face. “Please enjoy the social. You have friends here with whom you should commune.”

“Fiddlesticks on my friends. This is my first social and my acquaintances are limited to those few ranch hands who are churchgoers, and Lucas Trundle. Lucas and I were neighbors when I was younger. I see those men all the time. But I don’t want to frighten you with my attentions. I realize I may have been too forward.”

Wouldn’t it be grand if he was just a little more forward and took her hand again? He did! He took it and bent over it with a small bow.

“It’s been my pleasure, Miss Amanda Locke.”

“Thank you, sir. Good day to you.”

He stood there as she walked away, kicking herself for cutting their conversation short, boring him. But what could a simple chicken farmer have to say to a sophisticated man like Rocky Pascal? He seemed far too sure of himself. And he was definitely younger. It made no sense. Perhaps he was a scoundrel and she should beware of him. She knew about scoundrels.

***

The next Saturday was a hot day in Northern Nevada, but there were chickens to attend to and a fox had been roaming around the night before. She’d gone out with her shotgun but had been unsuccessful in finding him. She did find a place in the chicken wire fence that needed to be mended before the fox found it and stole one of her birds and scared the others out of laying eggs. “Locke’s Chicken & Eggs” supplied the town of Stagecoach with their eggs every day, and she didn’t want to run short.

She’d taken up her tools and was heading toward the broken fencing when she heard a thudding ahead of her. What could be producing that noise? Whatever it was, the noise was loud. It couldn’t be good. She ran back into the house and got her shotgun. Mami was sound asleep, and hopefully would be all right even through a shotgun blast.

Approaching the rhythmic thuds cautiously, Amanda was amazed at a shirtless man pounding a fencepost into the ground. She’d known it was loose, but it was hard work getting those posts into the earth, so she’d put off seeing to them. She approached within shouting range. Pointing the shotgun would be pointless at this distance, and besides, the two-barreled weapon was heavy. “Stop there! Who are you and what are you doing?”

The brawny man turned toward her and reached for his shirt where it hung on the fence next to him. “Sorry, Miss Locke,” he shouted, donning his shirt, but leaving the buttons undone. His smooth chest was sheened with sweat and clearly he was used to hard work. His muscles attested to his strength.

But what she saw, looking into his face, stole her breath away. It was Rocky Pascal! What was he doing here mending her fence posts?

“Mr. Pascal! What are you doing? Why are you here?”

“I want your hands to mend, ma’am. I thought a little help might do the trick.”

He was still distant, so she didn’t feel threatened. “I don’t need help!”

“Yes, you do. Your farm is downtrodden. I can see your father or brothers are in need of assistance. I’m here to help.”

Should she tell him that her efforts were solitary? Probably not. “We’ll manage, thank you.”

He took a few steps toward her and she raised the shotgun. She was practically shaking with both a thrill that he cared to help, and some fear he’d come to do her harm. But then, if he meant ill, why would he be out here, so far from the house, pounding in fence posts? It did seem like an act of charity rather than a threat.

He held up his hands in a calming gesture. “Whoa there, Miss Locke. I mean you no harm. If you want me to leave, just say so. But it’s clear something needs to be done to help here.”

It was true; the farm was needing a man’s strength to do some of the chores. When her sisters had been here, it had taken the three of them together to do the things Amanda was now struggling to do alone. She lowered the shotgun. He took a few steps forward, but still kept a safe distance.

“Let me take this up with your menfolk. I’m sure we can come to some agreement. I don’t expect to get paid, but I would insist you stop working at men’s tasks.”

“Well… umm…”

“You don’t mean to tell me it’s just you and your mother?”

“Well… umm…”

“God damn, woman!”

“Mr. Pascal!”

“Excuse my language, but damn. I can’t believe you’re trying to do this alone. Why don’t you hire a hand to help?”

“Well… I-I– It’s just… My sisters helped before they got married.”

“You can’t afford help?”

She shook her head, feeling very stupid for not admitting it sooner.

“So they just left you here alone with your sick mother?”

Nodding, she lowered her eyes. It made her feel very vulnerable to admit it, but it was true. She had been made the de facto caregiver for her mother and the farm. She didn’t know what she was going to do when she got too old to do the chores. She was already thirty-two.

“Where’s your daddy?”

“He died when I was four. I don’t have a daddy and haven’t had for quite a while.”

“Well, from now on I will be your daddy. You’ll have to deal with me helping and making sure those hands of yours heal.”

“But–”

“No buts. We will do this. I can help and I’m going to.”

She put her free hand on her hip, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the strength of his personality. “Are you always so forceful?”

“Yes. I grew up in a home where the man was the one you reported to, even if you didn’t particularly like it or him. Do you agree to my terms? You get help, so long as you behave.”

“Behave? What does that mean?”

“Do what’s good for you and tell me when there’s something I can help with. I can’t help if you resist. I can leave now if that’s what you want. But I’ll tell you, your farm is going to go to rack and ruin before long and you’ll be left with nothing.”

He was right. But she’d been totally on her own for a number of years. Her mother had bossed her around for her whole life, so she knew what “behave” meant. But from a man? That would be a totally new experience. And what would it be like to have someone she looked up to like a father? A man who brought security, safety, and whom she could trust. Would he ask more than she could give? Would he be a tyrant?

“And I can quit this… um… relationship anytime I want?”

“Absolutely. I’ll stop helping when you say so. But be warned, once I stop, there will be no changing your mind. I will not come back.”

Did she trust him to do as he said? Why should she? Her instincts told her he was a gentleman. He spoke well and didn’t press her when she questioned his motives several times. “What do you know about chickens?”

“Virtually nothing,” he admitted. “I grew up in a city, and work on a cattle ranch. Chickens are something you eat.”

Well, he seemed honest. Maybe she’d have to teach him everything, but his brawn would be awfully helpful. She considered that brawn for a few moments. His shirt was still open, the sheen on his skin still persisted on the hot day. He was awfully attractive. How much was that influencing her consideration of his proposal?

Her sisters would be upset, but then, Amanda didn’t see either of them sending over their husbands to help around the farm. They were miles away. Still, once in a while it would be nice for them to visit just to put in fence posts and fix the chicken wire which always scratched up her hands because she was forever forgetting her gloves.

“Very well. I agree.”

“Good. I’ll finish this post and then address the ruined chicken wire over there.”

“I was just about to fix that.”

“Without gloves?”

It was a stupid excuse, but she tried it anyway. “I forgot them?”

“What else needs to be done?”

She gave him a short list, leaving out a few minor things she could do herself.

“And?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Considering the state of this place, I’m guessing there’s more than what you just told me.”

“Nothing I can’t do alone.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“You are awfully demanding.”

“Yes, I know I am. It’s what you need right now. Daddy, remember?”

“I remember.” And she’d dwell on it tonight while alone. It was quite the intriguing idea. “Very well, Daddy, there are a few more things, but really, I can do them alone.”

“What are they?”

Her list was short, but she knew a few of the things would be things that might hurt her hands and scratch up her arms, like repairing the roof of the coop which had been deteriorating steadily. But she’d repaired it before and didn’t get too scratched up or find too many splinters later. Her repairs had been somewhat clumsy though, and that’s why it needed to be dealt with again.

“Very well. I agree that a few of those things you can do yourself. There are daily chores which I can’t be here to do. That’s just the way it has to be. But I’ll be here every Sunday and Monday.”

“You will? Are those your days off?”

“Yes, I get two because I’m the assistant foreman. The foreman has other days off.”

It would be a lot to ask to have him come by on his only days off. When would he get time to rabble-rouse like the ranch hands did every payday? “It’s too much. You deserve some time to be with your friends.”

“I won’t be staying the nights, Amanda.”

Her face went hot. “Of course not,” she whispered, embarrassed to the core.

“All right, let’s get to this. Avert your eyes. I’m going to remove my shirt again. It’s damn hot out here.”

“Mr. Pascal, I’m not accustomed to coarse language.”

“I’m a ranch hand, Amanda. Believe me, I’ve gentled my language considerably for you. However, I’ll try harder. All right?”

She nodded. Her ears were afire from all the swearing, but so long as he was cognizant of her upbringing, there was little more she could demand.

“And would you please call me Rocky? That’s my name and I plan to call you Amanda. You may also call me Daddy, if you wish. It would remind you of the hierarchy you agreed to.”

It was so personal, but if he was to be her Daddy – at least in some respects – then this was reasonable. Why he wanted to forge this relationship she didn’t know, but it was set now. Maybe it would come to light later as they got to know each other better. This was so crazy. Oh my goodness! Her mother would be stricken dead at the thought of a strange man roaming around the farm. Of course, the woman was so ill she rarely went out of the house, but there were the windows and she did peer out of them on good days. Well, Amanda would have to deal with the discovery if it happened.

No, when it happened. Damn.

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Her Gentle Soldier

She met him at the door with a smile like he’d rarely ever seen before on anyone—open and warm, as if inviting him to find the joke where there wasn’t one yet.

“Ah, another victim has arrived, I see. Welcome, welcome,” she said as she stepped aside to allow him in, with a dramatic sweep of her hand. “Just leave your money where I sit—the tiara—and make things easy on yourself.”

Her broad grin and twinkling eyes got him to grin back at her when he wasn’t often readily disposed to it.

Then she offered him her hand. “I don’t think we’ve met before. They call me Princess here—since I hardly look like anyone’s idea of a princess, but I thoroughly enjoy all of the accoutrements. My actual name is Tabitha—Tabby—Soulia. And you are?”

He took it, engulfing hers in his still leather-gloved one. “Brae Samuels.” His voice was deep and quiet.

“Bray as in ‘the sound a donkey makes’?” she asked with a soft laugh as she closed the door behind him.

“No, B-R-A-E as in ‘no one but my mother ever calls me Braeden’,” he answered, shrugging out of his coat.

She took it from him—although it was very nearly as big as she was—as if it was something she’d done a thousand times before. She hung it up on the collapsible set of pegs that everyone in this part of the country had right by the door. He toed his way out of his winter boots, then sat down on the deacon’s bench to don the pair of construction boots he’d dug out of his knockoff LL Bean canvas bag.

Not many native Mainers—who didn’t work for LL Bean—could afford what Bean sold. Especially since they’d done away with their policy stating that their customers could return anything they’d bought there when it had worn out for a free new one of whatever it was. There was a time when buying a pair of boots from Bean’s made sense to culturally obligated Yankees, because not only were they so well built that your son might well inherit them, but when or if they did wear out, you could always get a free replacement for them. That kind of potentially generational investment only made financial sense to hard working Mainahs. But now, it was for the tourists and “from aways” to pay their exorbitant prices, with the understanding that when the item wore out, they were just going to have to pay what would undoubtedly be an even higher price to get another one.

Tabby was standing there, watching him, in a pair of neon pink knock-off Crocs, along with the warmest, but sadly also the ugliest, woolen socks she owned.

Constitutionally incapable of keeping the question to herself, she asked with great curiosity, “Those are your comfortable shoes?”

His, “Ayuh,” should have come from the mouth of a much older man. Brae stopped in the act of putting his other boot on and looked at her. He was so tall that he was seated, and yet he still wasn’t really looking up but rather more across at her.

“Each to his own, I suppose.” She shrugged. “I think most everyone’s in the den, whenever you’re ready.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Tabby forced herself to leave the little mudroom, made that much smaller by his physical presence in it. The fact that she did have to force herself to do so made her wonder why she felt she should stay. She was generally put off by men who were that imposingly large, so much so that she would usually have done her best to avoid him, even though she didn’t know this man. Her prejudice, and she’d long since baldly admitted to herself that was exactly what it was—was based entirely on his size.

Oh, she’d heard a bit about him, but they’d never been at the house at the same time, which wasn’t all that unusual, considering the relative rarity of these gatherings, as well as inevitably conflicting schedules.

Maybe it was the fact that she’d already had several shots of her favorite whiskey, and it was making her feel more expansive, although it had never done that for her prior to now. Maybe that was making it harder for her to squelch—or even just ignore—that rebellious, niggling, nagging little voice at the back of her head that was trying to get her to linger near him.

No, that wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do at all.

Tabby glided through the old, homey house with the homey feeling of an old friend, picking things up, empty beer bottles, dirty plates, and the occasional bong—of the glass, plastic, and apple kinds—and putting them where they belonged, bottles in the bag in the pantry/laundry room. She knew that Mason or Floyd—given the nickname from ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ because of his annoyingly classic good looks—Rutlege, who owned the house, kept a bag for returnables. She placed the dishes in the sink, although she refused to go as far as washing them, and the bongs on the counter, where, since there was still most of a bowl left in one of them, someone was likely to avail themselves of it, sooner rather than later.

A quick glance into the formal dining room—the one Mace always said his mother would never let him so much as breathe in when he was growing up, full of china cabinets and boxes of real silverware that were always saved ‘for good’, when ‘good’ never seemed to arrive—showed that the table, which sat eight comfortably, was piled high with food. Mason, as their host, was only expected to provide the venue and snacks. Bags of chips, pretzels and crackers with some kinds of no name dip would have been perfectly fine with all of them.

And there was some of that, yes.

But Mason was one of the better off of the friends—although he was far from truly wealthy—and he wasn’t about to only offer those things. But he also provided mini-lobster rolls—it was Maine, after all—shrimp cocktails, and Chex Party Mix, all homemade, and the latter of which he knew was a particular favorite of the princess, who couldn’t resist filling a paper bowl full of it on her way by.

He also provided, to one side, on his grandmother Pelky’s good pie crust table, ‘Waterford crystal’, which was red Solo cups, ‘fine linen’ in the disguise of a roll of paper towels for napkins, and ‘the good silver’—plastic forks, spoons and knives.

Everyone else brought a dish or snack of some sort, so there were restaurant sized pans of cheesy scalloped potatoes with ham, always Kent “Stinky” Miller’s contribution, or rather, his non-attending, put upon wife’s. There were also Lemon’s famous four-inch-thick lasagna and Poochie’s, also known as Leslie Terriault, wings, in two levels of heat, mild and ‘wish you were dead now and later’. By morning, only the mild ones would remain.

Others brought stuff for breakfast the next morning, which was much less demanding and heavy on carbs. There were boxes of Dunkin’s donuts, Stop and Slave’s blueberry muffins, maybe even pastries from Frank’s in downtown Bangor, and bagels, if the desserts they’d laid into the night previous—a three tiered carrot cake, courtesy of Mason taking up baking just for the fun of it, and a butt load of someone’s no bake cookies—plus bowls of candy that were strategically placed around the house—weren’t enough to cause them to need insulin already by then.

Mason had two microwaves set up to reheat the things that should be warm and two refrigerators to accommodate the truly staggering amount of beer they would consume in what would be—for most of them—just one evening, as well as a chest freezer in the mud room that was full of bags of ice, for those who weren’t into beer. There were sodas in those refrigerators, but they were utterly overwhelmed by the beer and used mostly as mixers.

And everyone brought a bottle, or bottles, of something—anything. The host was never expected to provide booze. To say that this was not a fussy crowd was to severely understate the situation. They would literally eat, drink, or smoke anything tonight that stood still long enough, so his grandmother’s sideboard was groaning from the collection of bottles atop it—everything from a good, Quebecois sortilege—to some very expensive vodka and everything in between.

Munching happily, Tabby made her way into the den, where, as she’d told him, most of them had gathered. She was accosted from behind and hugged, hard.

“Give us a kiss,” the owner of those strong arms demanded at her ear.

But Tabby just laughed. “As if! I have better taste in women than to kiss you!”

Still, she turned within the arms of her tall, impossibly strong friend, and instead hugged her tight, throwing her arms around the other woman’s neck and having to stand on her tiptoes to do so. “Lemon! How are you?”

“Better, now that you’re here!”

“I didn’t see you come in!”

“I cheated and came up from the garage.”

Tabby shivered, and it was no lie. “I’m amazed you lived to tell the tale.”

Lemon frowned deeply. “Me, too. That place is… disturbingly arranged. Some kind of combination of a prepper’s stockpile, Norman Bate’s basement, and the maze at the end of The Shining.”

Mason himself rose then, not in the least insulted to hear how she had characterized his basement, to greet the newcomer with a hearty hug, just as Brae entered the fray and his attention turned to the other man.

The two, who were of a similar size, shook hands in an act that, if they weren’t friends, might have—in another time—ended up as a contest between the two to see who was the stronger. As it was, it served as a way to pull each other close for a hard, manly hug, with lots of backslapping

“Hey, man! It’s good to see you! You’re back then?” Mason asked.

“No, I’m still in Afghanistan. This is a figment of your imagination, brought on by too much beer and weed.”

“I know you’re lying, because there’s no such thing as too much of either.” Mason turned to the rest of the group, announcing, “Hey, everyone, the general is here.”

Brae was immediately surrounded by three more men and two women, all of whom greeted him with the same amount of enthusiasm Mason had displayed, including Lemon.

When the crowd had dispersed, Lemon, whose real name was Sarah, leaned down to whisper in her ear, “So? What do you think of him?”

Tabby snorted. “Think of him? I just met him five seconds ago—although he did earn points for knowing that his name is a homophone for a donkey’s sound.”

Lemon reared back, as if insulted. “He’s not a homophone. I happen to know from a very reliable source that his sister is gay!” she deadpanned.

“Yeah, your wife is much more reliable than you are,” Tabby teased.

“I resemble that remark!” Her friend feigned offense.

“Yes, yes, you do,” she agreed, finding her way to a comfortable chair in the large, open room. The biggest component of area was the enormous stone fireplace that occupied almost the entirety of one wall, within which a warm blaze—which the men were routinely fantasizing about wanting to turn into a bonfire—burned merrily. There were several floor to ceiling bookcases, most of them filled with books various family members had collected over the years. Others contained every conceivable game—cards, board—every kind but video games.

Most people, not lacking for other forms of entertainment, didn’t even notice that there was no television anywhere in the room.

In front of the fire was what his parents—from whom he had inherited the house that had been passed down through generations—referred to as a sectional, which was actually several couches formed from armless loveseat bases, in which were hidden full-sized pull out beds—and corner pieces, along with enough easily movable, individual pieces. When all pieces were touching, it formed a square.

As it was, the pieces had been pulled out from there, leaving various gaps that allowed an ease of movement in and out of the highly popular area, along with the occasional table and lamp to break it up, and other tables that curved up and around the couch cushions—what passed for legs tucked away, up under the couches—so that there were always places for a drunk person to put a bottle or glass.

It was made for large parties, large people and the consumption of large quantities of alcohol. Overall, it was a dark room, but not uninvitingly so. It was kept that way deliberately, to encourage coziness and relaxation, and it inevitably achieved its goal every time they gathered.

The current group was a ragtag bunch, at best, but then they’d never really aspired to be anything but that. Some of them had grown up together, some had met in college, all had settled in the New England area, some closer to where they always met, some farther away. There were ten to twelve of them, in total, but they were very rarely altogether anymore. Some had moved away; one had died. The rest came as they could. Sometimes it was obligations of one sort or other that kept them apart, family or otherwise, others, it was simply the weather.

Some had had financial success in life, some had had successful marriages and families, few were lucky enough to have both. None of their lives were untouched by sadness, of one kind or another. But their friendships remained strong.

And, once a year, usually in the dead of winter when everyone needed something fun to look forward to, they all drove however many hours were necessary to congregate here. They were in the middle of the Maine woods, surrounded by pine trees and blueberry fields, by moose, coyotes, lynx, and eagles, to make as much noise in their revelry as they wanted to, knowing that there was absolutely no one to hear them for miles around. Not that there were any windows open in February in Maine, but there were always fireworks over the pond at the end of the evening—or rather, early morning—that, nonetheless, managed to insure that most of the folks in the unorganized territories around them, the ‘TRs’—Township and Range—would know they were there, regardless.

They did, occasionally, get together in the summer, but it was a much more subdued, family-friendly affair. They met on the Backside of MDI, near a particular harbor, where there was a free picnic spot with ample parking, a great view of the sunset on the open ocean that few—yet more and more as each year passed, they noted unhappily—tourons had yet to discover. There was also a fire pit, which allowed the men to indulge their pyromaniacal tendencies in relative safety, with the whole of the Atlantic Ocean available should things get out of hand. It was generally conducted in mid-August, when the women wouldn’t get too cold sitting around the fire at night, with the inevitable cool breeze—even then, blowing in off the ocean—and taking the Maine State Bird, the mosquito, with it, or, if they were unlucky, fog dampening everything and everyone in sight.

This time, there were eight of them—at last count. In the winter, few of their significant others wanted to make the trip, and that was fine by the rest of them. They would genuinely welcome anyone who arrived on the doorstep, but they were always happiest when it was just the core of them.

In one corner of the room, was a very large, round oak table that had been in Mace’s family for generations. In the middle of the table, sat several coin cups from casinos all over the States that had been collected by many of them over the years, and which might well be collectors’ items now, since everything was electronic in casinos nowadays. And each one of the ten of them in the center was filled to overflowing with change—silver only, no pennies.

That was the collective pot—formed from the first few of these gatherings and generously donated to by everyone who played over time —from which they would all play, shared among them. Each took a roughly equal amount in the beginning, until all the change had been distributed and, during play, taking a handful or two as needed. Hell, even pots that were newly won were readily shared among them. None of them—not even the poorest—came here for the money. It had come to be expected that when someone won, they would look around to see who at the table had the fewest coins showing and shared the wealth.

They played for the glory and skill of it, and of course, bragging rights—of trying to decide who, among their close friends, was bluffing or whether risking two aces up and one in the hole was worth it if someone might could fill the inside of the potential straight they were showing. Was their opponent too high to really know what cards they were holding? Too drunk? Too full and thus sleepy? Or were they just faking it so that their dear friend would fall for their bluff?

When they’d all settled around the fire, chatting in various small groups amongst themselves, everyone with either a bottle or a red cup full of something in their hands, it was Tabby who interrupted.

“Well, are we gonna gab all night like a buncha women, or are we going to play poker?” she prodded, rising to take her seat behind the tiara she’d put at the place she’d staked out, adjusting the gaudy crown on her head.

“Oh, God, she’s wearing the tiara. I guess there’s no hope for it now.”

“Damn straight.”

Everyone took their seats, the same places they always sat in, and without anyone saying a thing, they all made sure they had something in their cup or bottle before they did so.

When everyone was settled—drinks, snacks, and coins distributed—roughly—equally, what were usually the loud, raucous voices fell silent, and they all looked to Mason. He was the eldest of the group—although he hadn’t been at first—and he took his role seriously, raising his glass of what everyone knew would be cheap coffee brandy spiked with even cheaper vodka, and saying, “Here’s to those who are here tonight, but more so, here’s to those who have gone before us. To Sully.”

Everyone echoed, almost all of them with tears in their eyes, even the men, as they clinked their glasses together, “To Sully!”

“And here’s to those dear to us who were unable to attend, as well as those loved ones who made it possible for the rest of us to be here.”

“To everyone we miss and love!”

“May they never meet,” Lefty murmured, only to be smacked hard by Lemon, who was sitting next to him.

“That’s husbands and boyfriends,” Tabby informed him.

“Oh, is that what it’s supposed to be?”

Beer bottles clinked with rocks glasses, clumped against the ubiquitous red Solo cups, and even tinkled against Lemon’s fancy-schmancy martini glass, which was the size of a small tub.

They used to end the toasts by slamming their drinks down on the table, but that ended when Lefty—who used to be Angel, because he was far from it—Pat Dawson, sliced his right hand open when his glass broke and he had to be rushed to the nearest, which was to say an hour away, hospital, for stitches.

It was Mace who opened the games by saying, “Play ball!”

They drew for who would deal. Low card became dealer and got to pick not only the game variation, but also which deck they would use to play. They had everything from Harley Davidson cards to Star Trek cards to puppy and kitten cards, to nudie cards—male and female, of course. They were all equal opportunity offenders. And it was the men who hated using the cards with pictures of naked men—and bitched more about it—than the women ever did when their situations were reversed.

So, when Tabby won the draw, that was, necessarily, the deck she picked.

Every man around the table groaned loudly at her choice—except the general.

“Five card draw, jacks or better to open, and tens and fours are wild,” she said as she began to distribute the pictures of nude men to her friends, while Floyd put a shot of something amber and a pipe into the pot. The winner could take the shot and smoke the pipe or designate someone else to do either or both. Usually, the least altered person at the table was the smart choice.

For his part, Brae didn’t care which variation of the game they played, or with what cards, either, for that matter, especially not now, when it wasn’t the game his mind was occupied by.

He took another sip of his beer, trying to ignore his brain and work on getting buzzed enough to really enjoy the game, having found he played better when he was half in the bag—as his eyes flickered—unexpectedly, unconsciously, and unwillingly—to the hands of the woman who was standing across from him, the deck of cards still in her left hand.

The princess who’d greeted him.

And his eyes kept wandering to her many times over the course of the evening. The more he saw her, every time he heard her laugh or make some self-deprecating remark just to laugh at herself, along with everyone else, the more he liked her.

But for some reason, he found his rebellious eyes drawn to her multiple times throughout the night—when she laughed triumphantly and flipped over cards he’d paid to see, to reveal a full house that gained her a lot of his money, when she spoke quietly to Lemon, who was on her right, and when she rose to get herself another whatever it was that she was drinking and made sure to ask everyone whether they wanted her to get them anything while she was up.

She ended up returning with a tray held at shoulder height, like a barmaid, handing out drinks and bowls of snacks as if she did it every night, and again, there was a smile on her face as she did so.

“All right, you scurvy seadogs, this is the one and only time I’m going to do this for you, and don’t forget to tip your waitress generously, or I have it on good authority that she won’t hesitate to spit in your drink—or on your Cheetos, either!”

There always seemed to be a smile on her face, or at least in her voice—even when she lost, badly, and was down to about a dollar twenty-five.

And he was surprised to realize how depressed he was to notice, early on, that she was wearing rings that marked her as another’s, and that should have been the end of it for him.

Normally, it would have been.

He didn’t poach—never had, never would.

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