Friday, August 31, 2012

Taking Today Off. . . Sorry. . .

Hi, everyone.  I know I've been doing pretty good with keeping the story going, but today I'm taking a day off.  My little man turns 3 tomorrow, so I've been trying to plan a fun day for him.  

On top of that, it's been a rough week.  Those of you who are local know all about the tragedy at the high school on the first day of school.  For the people out of town who may not know what happened, I'll summarize briefly:

During the first lunch period on Monday, a 15-year old boy opened fire (2 shots total) in the cafeteria.  A 17-year old special needs boy was hit in the back by the first bullet.  The second bullet was fired into the ceiling as a guidance counselor wrapped the shooter in a bear-hug.  The school was evacuated, but classes resumed the next day.
I guess the thing is that you really don't think of this stuff happening in your area.  This area has always been considered safe.  The community is friendly, and proud.  This sort of thing is something you read about in the paper, or watch on TV.  

My week continued on a just-not-having-a-good-day sort of path.  Squeezing writing in has been difficult to impossible.  And it could just be that I'm physically and mentally exhausted.  

I promise to be back on schedule for next week.  Thanks for being patient.  Have a great Labor Day weekend.

Oh, yeah.  And. . .

I'm PROUD to be a GATOR!
Sing we ever PERRY HALL!  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Chapter 16 (part 1)

At home, Lynnette was sitting on the front porch with Michael.  Confusion crossed her face when we pulled in.  And when Dominic climbed out of the car, her puzzlement mingled with concern, drawing her to her feet.  She set her book down and crossed the porch to meet us.

“Ella?  Is everything okay?”  She glanced at Dominic.  “Where’s your car?”  Her voice dropped as she added, “And why are you so late?”

The sigh that escaped my lips was better than the tears that bullied my inner strength as the sturdy walls I had built around my life began to crumble once again.  With my worry for Cassie, I had forgotten about calling Lynnette to fill her in.  “Cassie’s missing.  We fought Saturday night, and I left her at the bar.  In the parking lot.  She hasn’t answered her phone, and she didn’t come to work today, so I went to her house.  But she didn’t answer.  My car is there.  I need to get the key and take it to the police station so we can check inside.  Can you stay for a while longer?  Do you mind?”

She wrapped me in her arms, the soft scent of her flowery shampoo seeming much to cheery for the situation.  But her embrace was strong, supportive in so many ways.  She had been there for me through many breakdowns over Michael.  She would be here for me through this.  “Of course I don’t mind,” her silver-bell voice tinkled in my ear.  “You take as long as you need.  I’ll make dinner for Michael and Allison.  Better yet, I’ll order Allison and I pizza.  You can heat it up whenever you get home.”  She released me from her grasp to look into my eyes.  “I hope everything is all right, but don’t drive if you’re upset.”  Her eyes turned on Dominic.  “Who are you?”

Ever the gentleman and professional, Dominic held out his hand for her to shake.  “Dominic Sterling.  I hired Mrs. Boothe, and her assistant, to help me with the computer system in my store.  We had a meeting this afternoon, but. . .”  He let the words hang.

Lynnette shook his hand.  “Lynnette Rogers.  I’m Mr. Boothe’s nurse.”

Even with the pressure of the situation, I could tell she was checking him out.  While I couldn’t really blame her, I didn’t like it.  But I had no right to feel that way.  Especially with my husband sitting in his wheelchair on our front porch.

Looking up at Michael, I decided I’d better go tell him the story.  He had a right to know since Cassie was his friend, too.  And he was probably wondering what the hell I was doing with another man.  

“Hey, honey,” I said, leaning in to give him a kiss.  “Are you doing okay today?”

His nod was so slight the average person would’ve missed it, but I had learned to read his responses to my questions.  

“Good.”  I pulled a white whicker chair around and sat down to face him.  Fear flitted through his beautiful blue eyes.  “Honey, I think something’s happened to Cassie.  I can’t reach her on her phone.  She didn’t come to work, and she didn’t answer her door after work.”  Through his expressive eyes, his worry was palpable.  “That’s Dominic Sterling,” I said gesturing toward the car and following Dominic’s lead with the story.  “He’s hired me and Cassie as consultants for his store’s system.  When I explained about her, he insisted on helping.  It’s probably better if I’m not driving.  Just in case.”  

Again he nodded.  Then he gestured for his paper and pen.  I put the pad on his little tray attached to his chair and helped him grip the pen.  Then he wrote in his kindergarten handwriting:  Find Cassie.  U happy me?  

The tears spilled when I read it.  “Of course I’m happy with you.  I love you.  And I’ll find Cassie.  She’s probably just really sick.”

He smiled his crooked smile and gestured for a hug.  I obliged, hugging him as tight as I dared.  

“I’ll be home as soon as I can, okay?  Lynnette is gonna stay.”  I kissed him on the cheek.  “I love you, honey.”

Minutes later Dominic and I were pulling into the parking lot at the police station with Cassie’s house key.  We went to the desk and asked for Officer Brecky.  The plump woman placed a call and told us to sit and wait.

An agonizing three minutes passed before Officer Brecky walked out from somewhere in the maze of desks and offices in the back.  We stood as she approached.

“Mrs. Booth,” she greeted, giving me a nod.  “You brought the key?”


“Let me get my partner.  You two can follow us back to the residence.”

“Okay.”  I nodded, and she returned to the labyrinth of personal office space.

I hated waiting again while precious minutes slipped by.  What if Cassie was hurt?  Or worse?  Every minute counted.  Even those five that it took Officer Brecky to return with her partner.

“Mrs. Boothe, you remember Officer Carwahl?”  Brecky re-introduced me to her partner, reminding me of his name.

“Yes.  Officer Carwahl.”  I shook his pudgy hand.

Brecky was good.  She knew I wanted this over with.  “Let’s go,” she said.

Dominic and I followed the cruiser back to Cassie’s house.  My heart raced in my chest, terrified of what we might find.  Or not find.  Trying to calm myself, I closed my eyes and took measured breaths, concentrating on the in-out-in-out of the act.

When we got to the house, everything seemed the same.  The officers made Dominic and I wait on the porch while they checked the perimeter again.  Then Officer Brecky held out her hand and asked for the key.

Having dug it out of my purse while they were checking the yard, I dropped it onto her palm.  The late afternoon sun shone on the silver, and glittered in the scales of the tropical fish keychain.

“You should wait out here until we make sure it’s safe inside,” she said in that lip gloss tone.  

Nodding once, I sat on the blue floral cushion of the porch swing while the officers first knocked, then called, then announced their intent.  The door opened with the key, and they stepped inside.  Hands on their weapons.  

Carwahl’s scratchy voice called into the silence that oozed from the gaping door.  “Ms. Wade?  This is Summerville police.”


Brecky tried a friendlier approach.  “Cassie?” she called.  “Cassie, there are some people here who are worried about you.  If you’re here, we need you to come out so we know you’re all right.”


Again with the waiting.  It felt like hours before the two officers finally came out again.  I stood so fast, the swing bounced on its chains and whacked the backs of my legs.  I stumbled forward, but Dominic caught me before I fell on Brecky.

The woman sighed.  “We didn’t find anything.  No sign of forced entry or violence at all.  No Cassie.”

Monday, August 27, 2012

Chapter 15

Chapter 14 (end of)

“Who is he, Dominic?” I asked, my voice carrying an edge that wasn’t there only seconds before.  

He didn’t answer right away.  Just stared out the windshield, a muscle twitching in his cheek, his eyes swirling with his thoughts.  

I let his silence draw out for a couple minutes before I snapped his attention back into the car with me.  “Dominic!”

He jumped a little and turned to me.  “Sorry,” he said turning back to watch the road.  “If it’s the same guy, I met Luke when I moved to town.  Business meeting.  He’s the advertising editor for the paper.  Very professional, but on a personal level I wouldn’t give him a second glance.  He’s just bad news.”

“Bad news,” I murmured, chewing on it.  Going through the events of the night in my head.  “Do you think he’d go after Cassie?”

“Not tonight.  You left with her.  But I wouldn’t put it past him if he ran into her alone.”

His words gave me goosebumps.  I pulled my phone out of my purse and dialed Cassie.  Her voicemail picked up, so I left a message asking her to call me.  As Dominic said, I was pretty good at reading people.  And I had read Luke right.  I was pretty certain that Cassie would get over her anger at me by the time the alcohol wore off in the morning.  

Chapter 15

When Cassie hadn’t called me by lunch time, I tried calling her again.  Again, I left a message.  Maybe the effects of the night before were hitting her harder then me.  Maybe she was still stewing about the Luke incident.  Deep within her she had a stubborn streak that sometimes wouldn’t allow her to forgive and forget easily.  

She didn’t call all day, but I occupied myself with chores around the house, taking care of Michael, and picking up Allison from her friend’s house.

But Monday morning Cassie didn’t show up for work.  As her direct supervisor, it was my job to call her.  

The phone never rang, but went straight to her voicemail.  “Cassie,” I began.  “This is Ella.  It’s nine-thirty Monday morning.  We miss you here at the bank.  I hope you’re okay.  Please call me.”

Had she come down with something over the weekend?  I was afraid something had happened to her, heavy with guilt about leaving her alone in the parking lot at the bar.  

The day wore on with no word.  By twelve, I had decided to stop by her house after work to check on her.

At quarter after three, I pulled up to Cassie’s end-unit townhouse.  Her car was parked in its usual spot.  I walked up the stairs to her porch and rang the doorbell.  After several minutes without a sound, I knocked on the door.  Hard.  When Cassie didn’t come to the door, I really started to worry.  

I walked around the house and pounded on the back door, but still got no answer.  I scanned the windows to see if I could yell for her, but none were open.

Then a neighbor came home.  I ran to the man, who took in my panicked behavior and stiffened.  “Sir,” I said, trying to sound calmer than I felt.  “Do you know Cassie?  In the end house?”

He nodded in answer.

“Have you seen her since Saturday?”

He frowned in thought, his brow crinkling.  “No.  Can’t say that I have,” he said in a surprisingly feminine voice.  “Is she okay?”  His gaze scanned me.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.  But I haven’t heard from Cassie since Saturday night.  It’s not like her not to call back.  And she didn’t show up for work today.”

“Oh.  Would you like to try calling her from my phone?”

“Would you mind?  Maybe she’s just still pissed.  Maybe she’ll answer to someone else calling.”

The man brought his cordless phone out to the porch, and I called Cassie again.  Straight to voicemail.  No ringing.  No answer.  I hung up the phone.  

“No answer?” her neighbor asked.

“No.  I’m going to make a few more calls.  If you see her, can you please ask her to call me?  My name’s Ella.”

“Ella.  Okay.”

“Thanks,” I said, turning back toward Cassie’s house.  

Ignoring the comfort of her cushiony porch swing, I sat on the concrete steps. I didn’t know what to do.  I knew I should call somebody, but who?

Dominic was the first person that made sense.  He knew, or at least had met Cassie.  He also knew the mysterious man Cassie had been enthralled with the last time I saw her.  I hoped and prayed to a god I wasn’t sure of that she was all right.  If anything had happened to her, it was all my fault for walking away from her Saturday night.

“Hi, sexy,” Dominic’s smooth tone did nothing to calm my frayed nerves.

“Dominic.  I can’t get a hold of Cassie.  She won’t answer her phone.  She didn’t come to work today.  And she’s not answering her door.”  My breathing was picking up, my voice climbing in pitch.

“What?  What do mean?  Are you at her house now?”

“Yeah.  Her car’s here, but she’s not answering.  I don’t know what to do.”

“First, you need to calm down.  Breathe, Ella.  Slow, deep breaths.  You can’t think straight if you’re panicked.”  He spoke in a slow, calm tone that seeped through the line and helped me settle down a fraction.  When my breathing was more regulated he continued.  “Does she have any family you can call?

“No.  Her parents are both dead, and she doesn’t have any brothers or sisters.  I don’t know about cousins or anything.  She never talks about any.”

“Should I call the police?  It’s been over twenty-four hours.”

“How about if you meet me somewhere.  A coffee shop, McDonald’s.  Anywhere.  I just think you should get away from her house for now.  We can call the police from there.”

“But what if she comes back?  Or out?  Or what if she’s laying on the floor, injured?”  I was starting to panic again.  “I can’t just leave her, Dominic.”

“You’re not leaving her.”  He paused.  “Okay.  Tell me how to get there.  I’ll come to you.  You can call the police in the meantime.”

A heavy sigh escaped my lungs.  “I think that’s better.”  I gave him directions and hung up.  Then I dialed 9-1-1.

When the police showed up thirty minutes later, Dominic had already arrived.  He was walking the perimeter, looking for anything suspicious.  With his background, he had developed an ability to spot signs like that.

I sat on the porch steps with one of the two officers, telling Saturday’s story and how Cassie had failed to show up for work that day.  She took notes diligently, but for some reason I had doubts that the case would be taken seriously.  Still, anything was better than nothing.

When I told her that I had a spare key to Cassie’s house, she asked why I hadn’t gone in.  “I don’t have it with me,” I told her.  “I can go get it if you want.”

“I think that would be better than us breaking in,” she said in a voice like strawberry lip gloss, sugary-sweet with a barrier designed to entice and protect.  “How long will it take you to get it?”

“Maybe twenty minutes.  I live in Church Hill, so. . .”

“Okay.”  She seemed to think it over.  “We can’t just wait around here for you to get back.  However, the circumstances surrounding Cassie’s disappearance will qualify the case as suspicious.  I’ll take what we have back to the station and get started on the paperwork.  When you have the key, come to the station and ask for me.  We’ll come back together.”  She handed me her card and stood to meet her partner.

I followed her down the steps, reading her name on the card.  Officer Samantha Brecky.  She had told me upon arriving, but I wasn’t really paying attention.  Names seemed so trivial at the time.  I tried to commit her angular features to memory so I would recognize her later.

Dominic and the droopy-eyed, muffin-top officer came around the corner of the house, meeting me and Officer Brecky in the small green square that was the front lawn.

“Nothing that shows any sign of breaking in,” the male officer said.  “What did you get?”

“Sounds suspicious.  Mrs. Boothe has a key to the dwelling.  She’s going to go home to get it and bring it back to the station.  I’ll come back out with her to check inside.”

“We’ll both come.  You never know what you might find inside.”  I didn’t like his intonation.  Like he hoped to find something worth a story in the paper, some recognition for him.  His voice ground in his throat like he smoked two packs a day.  An observation driven home when he lit what must have been the third cigarette I’d seen in his hand in the half-hour since he’d arrived.

After assuring Officer Brecky that I would bring Cassie’s key to the station as soon as possible, the two officers drove away leaving me with no answers and a much deeper trepidation.  

Dominic’s arm draped around my shoulders as we watched the cruiser drive up the hill and turn left out of the neighborhood.  “Let’s go get that key,” he said squeezing me lightly.  He tried to sound positive, but there was a dark cloud lurking in his timbre.  

I didn’t say anything, just started trudging toward my car.  But the arm across my shoulders steered me toward the Mustang.  I didn’t have the courage to argue.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Chapter 14

“What the heck was that about?”  Cassie threw up her hands in exasperation.  Still, as pissed as she was at me, no swear words would exit her mouth.  It amazed me.

I sighed.  “I don’t know.  That guy just rubbed me the wrong way.”

“Well, I was having a good time.  The one time I have the attention of a gorgeous guy, and you have to steal my glory.”

Whoa.  That pulled me up short.  “Steal your glory?  What are you talking about?”

She whirled on me, the alcohol in her system fueling her fury.  “You were jealous that Luke picked me over you.  I know you wanted his attention.  You didn’t want to stay if you were getting any of it.”

I shook my head at her, squinting my eyes in confusion.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  You’re drunk.  Hell, we’re both drunk.  And you’re not making sense.”

Again, her hands flew into the air.  “You always get the attention of the guys when we go out, Ella.  Now you’ve got Mr. Dreamy hanging all over you, and you still can’t stand it that a hot guy wanted me instead of you.  Why can’t I have just one, huh?”

“Hey, if you want Mr. Danger-rolls-off-me-in-waves in there.  Go for it.  He just creeps me out.  There’s something about him, I don’t know.”

“I haven’t had a man in two years!” she interrupted.  “Two years!  Oh, it’s been a year for you, but at least you get the attention with your blonde waves and blue eyes.  Not to mention your body.  You can have any man that walks in, but you get jealous when one wants plain Jane Cassie.”

“Cassie. . .”

“No!  Just because your husband is an invalid and can’t satisfy you anymore doesn’t give you first pick of the rest of the men in Summerville.  The rest of us women have needs, too.”

“Needs?” I yelled back.  “You think this is about my needs?  How dare you throw your piddly, carefree life in my face like it’s so hard to be you.  I have needs, too, but I don’t act on them because I’m tied to a man I love.  And just because he can’t give me what I need. . .”  Tears stung and pooled in my eyes, blurring my vision.  This had gone way too far, and I was done.

I turned and walked away.  Around the corner I dug in my purse for my cell to call a cab.  I knew Cassie didn’t mean the things she said.  Not really.  But that didn’t make the hurt any easier, and, while I had never left her before, she was on her own tonight.

Walking toward the street to meet the cab I kept my head down.  And walked smack into a hard, broad, and unyielding male body.  Strong arms caught me in my drunken stumble caused by the impact, keeping me on my feet.  

“Whoa there.  You okay?”  Smooth and sweet melted chocolate drenched my ears, flooding my inebriated defenses.  I looked up into Dominic’s face, his concerned smile dazzling me.  

“Dominic?  What are you doing here?” 

“I came for a drink, but it seems I’m taking you home instead.”  He wrapped his arm around my back and steered me back toward the parking lot.

Not wanting to fight with anyone else tonight, I leaned into him and went willingly.

He helped me into the car.  Then he sat on the doorsill and draped his arms around me.  “What’s wrong, Ella?”

A sob wracked me.  “I had a fight with Cassie,” I told him, dabbing at my eyes.  

“What about?”

“A guy.”  He tensed.  “It was stupid, really.  Some hot guy was hitting on her, but he gave me the creeps so I wanted to leave.  She blew up on me in the parking lot saying I was jealous because she was getting the attention for once, and why couldn’t I just be happy with having you hanging on me?  But she went too far.”  I knew I sounded dejected.

“How did she take it too far?”  His voice was soft enough to show his concern, but laced with tension.  

“She brought Michael into it.  She called him an invalid, and said that I think I get first pick of the men in Summerville.”  I buried my face in my hands.  “I attacked her back, but I couldn’t deal with it.  I walked away because she’s right.  I have needs and Michael can’t help me with them.”

“That’s doesn’t make her right, Ella.  That was a low blow on her part.”  The hand kneading my thigh was helping to ease the stress of the fight.  

“I don’t think I have first pick of anyone,” I continued.  “I don’t even want anyone else.  She has self-esteem issues.  She was just projecting.”

“Now you’re turning psychologist,” Dominic chuckled.  

“You know what I mean,” I whined.  

“Yes, I do,” he conceded.  “But I have a question.”

I looked at him, waiting.

“You really don’t want anyone else?”  His eyes pleaded with me to tell him otherwise.

“Dominic. . .”  I leaned close to his face, breathing in the spicy aroma of his cologne.  My hands rested on each of his cheeks.  The rough sensation of stubble on my skin distracted me, and I had to stop myself when began caressing his jawline.  I took a stabilizing breath and met his eyes again.  “Dominic, you can’t include yourself in that.  You’re different.  You know I want you, but it’s just not possible.”  

I punctuated my words with a tender kiss on his forehead.  Then each temple.  Each cheek.  My lips becoming more pliable with each warm touch.  My lips found his mouth last, capturing the soft flesh and melting into it.  

It was beyond my control, drunk as I was.  Stressed as I was.  Needy as I was.  That kiss was my cure for everything that was going wrong.

But Dominic pulled away after a too-brief moment of delicate passion.  

“Not like this, Ella,” he sighed, shaking his head.  He didn’t have to say why.  I understood.

I flopped my head back on the seat.

The warmth and weight abandoned me as Dominic stood and shut the door.  When he climbed in the driver’s side, he asked, “Do you want to talk about Cassie?”

I took a deep breath and blew it out in a heavy puff.  “There was a guy sending drinks to our table.  When he came over, he asked Cassie to dance, but I got bad vibes from him.”

“You already told me that.”

Ignoring him, I plunged on.  “Well they danced.  I could tell by the way he touched her he only had one thing on his mind.  When they came back I told Cassie I wanted to leave.  I was probably a bit of a bitch to the guy, but. . .”

“He gave you the creeps.  I know.”  He smiled at me.  “You always were a good judge of character.”

“Yeah, well, Cassie was pissed about the whole thing.  She said I couldn’t handle him choosing her over me.”  I gave a sarcastic snort.  “Like I care.  She just has issues with her self-image.  She always has.  Tonight she turned it on me.”  Sitting there, thinking back on it, I wondered if maybe Cassie’s eruption had been lurking under the surface of our friendship.  If maybe she resented me because she saw herself as substandard.  

“But the guy chose her over you.”  Dominic pulled me out of my musing. 

“Yeah, but she thinks that’s the reason I wanted to leave.”

Silence seeped around us.  Each of us examining what we knew.  I leaned back, closed my eyes.

With hesitant resolve, Dominic asked about Luke.  “So tell me about this guy.”

“Like what?  He had dark hair.  Dark eyes.  Obviously worked out.  He was hot.”  I said it casually, like it was no big deal.

“But you thought he was creepy.”

“Hot guys can be creepy, Dominic.  He made me think of the devil.  Like if Satan walked the streets as a man, Luke would be him.”

“Luke?”  His sharp tone had me looking at him.

“Yeah.  That was his name.  Why?”

“No reason.”  But his tense posture said otherwise.  

“Think you know him?” I asked.

He glanced at me.  The look in his eyes turned my blood to ice.  Oh yeah.  He knew the mysterious Luke, all right.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Chapter 13 (part 2)

Another round of drinks was served.  In unison, we turned to look at the man who was being so generous.  Or so obviously trying to get lucky by getting a woman drunk.  He was walking toward us with a casual purpose.  Every woman he passed tried to touch him or get his attention.  The man oozed sex appeal in his snug black jeans and blue silk shirt.  His dark hair fell over his forehead on one side, looking almost like a model.  

He could be the devil, I thought as I watched him approach.  He had the look and presence for it.  And there was something about him that oozed danger.

His presence proceeded him as he slid between me and Cassie.  His gaze raked me from head to foot and back again before turning fully to my friend. 

“Hi.  I’m Luke.”  He held his hand out to shake Cassie’s.  Her blush engulfed her entire face, making it seem as if a red light was shining on her.  The woman was a bit shy, but I’d never seen her blush that fiercely.  

She glanced at me before meeting Luke’s gaze.  “I’m Cassie,” she offered as she shook his hand.  For some unknown reason she gestured toward me, “This is Ella.”

“Ella,” he drawled slowly.  “What an elegant name.”  His eyes burned into mine, pools of hot coffee splashed with honey.  My inner party girl cried take me home while my inner child screamed in terror.  Something about this man wasn’t right.

Cassie had tucked inside herself when he turned his attention to me, so his next words caught her off guard.  “But I like Cassie.  It sounds fun.  Carefree.”  He played with a loose strand of her hair.  “Are you fun and carefree, Cassie?”

Warning bells pealed.  I shook my head at her, my eyes pleading with her to end this.  Now.  

She didn’t even look at me.

“To an extent,” she replied.  Cassie would normally shun a man approaching this way, but the alcohol was bolstering her nerve.  I had to get her away from this guy.

“Let’s dance,” he said, pulling her from her seat before I could run interference.  She waggled her fingers at me, grinning from ear to ear as he led her to the dance floor.

The waitress came back then.  “Likes your friend, huh?”


“Yeah, I’d be jealous if a man like that chose my friend over me.  That is one fine piece of meat.”

I looked at her then.  “Do you know him?”

A frown touched her lips as she shook her head.  “Nope.  Never seen him before.  I’d definitely remember him.”

I turned away to watch Cassie and Luke dancing.  Their bodies were molded together, his lips to her ear as he ground himself in the curve of her hip.  While Cassie seemed to be enjoying his attentions, it made me sick.  He didn’t even know her, and he was essentially dry humping her leg like a dog.  

After a while they came back to the table flushed from their exertions.  Cassie was glowing.  Luke was devouring her with his eyes.  

Plopping down on the stool, Cassie took a deep swallow of her drink.  “Luke’s new in town,” she huffed. 

“Oh, yeah?” I said in his direction, hoping I came off as friendly.  “What brings you to Summerville?”

He flashed me a devilish smile.  “Business.”

My eyebrows rose, waiting for an elaboration.  When none was forthcoming I asked, “What sort of business?”

Cassie caught my tone and gave me a what-are-you-doing? look.  Luke didn’t seem to miss my meaning, either.  His face softened, the dangerous edge diminishing somewhat. 

“Well, Ella.  I’m not at liberty to disclose the specifics of my position, but suffice it to say that I am a private investigator of sorts.”  

If I hadn’t seen the razor edge earlier, I would’ve left it at that.  Well, I did leave it at that, but only as far as questioning him.  Luke frightened me.  There was just something about him that told me to run.

I searched his features, then locked eyes with him.  “Cassie, I think it’s time to go.”

Her movement behind Luke showed her aggravation, but I wasn’t going to let her stay while I escaped this man’s presence.  Breaking the stare-down, I looked at her.  “I just want to go,” I said, pleading with her through my eyes.

Luke looked from me to Cassie, and back again.  “Did I do something wrong?” he asked.

“No.  I’m just getting tired.  Too much to drink.  I’m not as young as I used to be.”  Hoping I was believable, I turned puppy eyes to the handsome man next to me.  

“Well then,” he pulled a card from his pocket and handed it to Cassie.  “Give me a call sometime.”  The smile he gave her with the card eased the fact that I was ripping her away from him.  He turned the smile on me, then.  “I’ll take care of your tab.”

“That’s not necessary.”

“I insist.”  He leaned closer so only I could hear his words.  “I’m obviously the reason for ending your evening earlier than planned.  It’s the least I can do.”

I looked into those deep eyes again.  I could see why Cassie was so enthralled.  Maybe I was being stupid, but I didn’t care then.  This guy was what every author and director typed their deadliest vampires after.  He was sin wrapped in flesh.  Maybe it was Dominic getting to me in more ways than I realized.  Normally I’d play the game with this man, but not tonight.  Ghosts seemed to haunt me with him there.

“Well, okay.  Thanks,” I said, taking Cassie’s hand and pulling her toward the door.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Chapter 13 (part 1)

The next night, Cassie and I went out for drinks.  She wanted dirt.  Every last granule.  

“He is absolutely gorgeous, Ella,” she said for the hundredth time.  “Not that I would impose on your territory,” she made quoting motions with her fingers, “but if you don’t want him. . .”

“Cassie.”  It was an exhausted warning.  I was tired of talking about how hot Dominic was, and how she’d love to have a guy that hot falling all over her.  If she made a move on him, it would hurt our friendship.  I knew it.  So did she.  Yet she insisted on drooling over the memory of her brief encounter with him.  But who was I to burst her bubble?  I was married to another man, and Dominic hadn’t been in my life for over fifteen years.  He was not my territory.

The waitress brought us another round.  The sixth whiskey went down with fire-edged razors, but the resulting warmth that bloomed in my core was welcome.  Allison was at a friend’s house for the night, and Lynnette was staying over to help with Michael.  She was very understanding about my much-needed night out.

“I’m sorry, Ella.  You know this stuff loosens my tongue,” Cassie said, resting her hand on my arm.

“It loosens everyone’s tongue,” I retorted.  “But you’re forgiven.  This time.”  I pointed a finger at her.  “Just don’t let it happen again.”

Her teeth snapped at my finger in a playful ritual we had developed when one of us pointed at the other.

“I will tell you, though,” I said leaning in toward her in a sloppy version of telling a secret.  Cassie leaned in toward me to share the secret.  “The man can still kiss like the devil,” I said.  

The tall stool almost flipped over, Cassie sat up so fast.  “You kissed him?”  Her drunken state amplified her reaction.

“Shhh.  Keep your voice down.”  I glanced around, but the bar was too loud for anyone to hear us.  

Cassie had the grace to duck her head in embarrassment as she frowned and scanned the crowd, too.  “Sorry,” she said.  “Why didn’t you tell me that before?  That should’ve been one of the first things you told me.  What’s wrong with you?”

“I needed a few drinks in me first.  Oh, but girl.  This man has my system sparking in ways I haven’t felt for years.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she said with a roll of her eyes.  “I wanna hear about this kiss.  When did it happen?”

“Yesterday.  When he was showing me his office.  He shut the door and gave me those sexy I’m-gonna-eat-you-alive eyes.”  I closed my eyes, remembering.  “Then he just walked over and kissed me.”

“Did you kiss him back?”

“That wasn’t really an option.  When a man like that kisses you, you kiss back.  Your body doesn’t give you a choice.”

The waitress brought us another round then, but we hadn’t ordered it.  She placed a shot glass and mixed drink in front of each of us, explaining that the amber liquid was the Jack we’d been drinking.  The reddish-orange cocktail was called a Ruby Red Slipper, and consisted of cranberry vodka, orange liqueur, and red grapefruit juice garnished with a lime.  

“Who sent these?” I asked her.  

“The man in the dark blue button up sitting at the end of the bar to the right,” she said.  “Dark hair, goatee.”  She glanced over at him and added, “Gorgeous.”

Cassie and I both turned to find this mysterious hunk.  He stood out like fully grown man in a room full of toddlers.  We held up our shot glasses to him, and he held his up in response.  Clinking our glasses together, Cassie and I downed the whiskey and slammed the glasses on the table.  After a thank you wave, we turned back to each other.

“Holy cow,” Cassie exclaimed.  “I think Dominic’s got some competition.”  She giggled in her drunken state, fanning herself and sneaking another peak at our mysterious benefactor.

“You can’t have competition if you’re not in the game,” I retorted.

“Oh bull, Ella.  He’s in the game, and you know it.”  She waggled her eyebrows.  “I think he’s playing hardball, what with that kiss and how he’s got you stumbling all over yourself.”

“I am not stumbling.  Besides, maybe that guy is after you.”

“No way.  Men prefer blondes to brunettes.”  Cassie always started with our hair when she compared us.  Next would be my tanned skin versus her paler complexion.  Then on to how everyone loves blue eyes so much more than brown.  

I decided to stop here there.  “He can see you better, Cassie.  So you must the object of his fascination.  He certainly isn’t buying us drinks because he can see the back of my blonde head.”

Her cheeks turned rosy.  

Friday, August 17, 2012

Chapter 12

“What do I need to know about her?” I asked as we walked across the lot.  I had the key in my hand, my thumb stroking the curves on the plastic.  If I couldn’t release my sexual frustration the usual way, this was the next best thing.

“Not much.  She’s new, so no quirks.  The box is small and tight.”  He shifted his eyes at me, an impish grin gracing his face.  “Clutch is smooth.”

The click of the locks interrupted him as the parking lights lit up.  Looking at him, I smiled.  “She’s new.  I got it.”  I opened the driver’s door, slid into the seat, and closed the door leaving Dominic standing outside.

Smooth, black leather kissed my skin as I slid my hands over the steering wheel.  The shifter was wrapped in more leather.  I let my fingers trail along the lacing on the edges before gripping it.  A perfect fit.

The key slid home.  The engine purred to life.  I pressed the auto-down for the window and leaned my arm on the sill.

“Hey there, handsome.  You looking for a ride?”

Dominic’s smile glowed.  “You offering?”

“For now.  But I can’t promise I’ll take you where you wanna go.”

“What the hell?” he said as he walked around to the passenger side and climbed in.  “Let’s go.”

I drove around the empty lot to get the feel of the car.  New clutches could be tricky since you couldn’t always feel where they engaged.  They did, however, offer a bit more room for shifting.  This Mustang was built for me, though.  She slid from gear to gear effortlessly.

Once I had the feel, I stopped and turned to Dominic who sat watching me.  “Can I drift her?”

He seemed to think about it, but he knew I’d find a way to do it anyway.  “Two times,” he said.  “One each way, but not on the road.”

I answered with a smile, immediately tightening my grip on the wheel as I flew through the gears.  As we neared the curb at the end of the lot, I pulled the emergency brake and cut the wheel.  The rear of the car slid around, tires screaming.  I dropped the brake and rode out the fish tailing until the car was straight again.  Then I did it on the other side of the lot.

“Feel better?” Dominic asked as I rolled to a stop.  And even though he was holding the door in a white-knuckled grip, he was also grinning from ear to ear.

I smiled back, stroking the wheel and shifter with slow movements.  “A little, but I need more.”  With that, I dropped the clutch and peeled out of the lot.  

Once on the road, I drove at a respectable rate.  I didn’t want my drive dampened by an encounter with a traffic cop.  

Radio turned up, we drove with the windows down and jammed like we were eighteen again.  We cruised down the highway, where I felt more at ease pushing the speedometer up to eighty.  I took us north about thirty miles before exiting and taking the twists and turns of country roads home.  Speed and agility.  Oh yeah, it felt good to have that power at my command.

As we rounded a sharp turn with cow-dotted fields on both sides, Dominic turned the radio down to barely a whisper.  He didn’t say anything, but I was thankful for the respite from the blaring music.  I reached over and turned it off.  It was nice to just ride through the countryside with nothing but the sound of the wind blowing through the windows.

The clicking of the passenger seat drew my attention.  Dominic had reclined.  He laid there, a slight grin touching his lips, soft hair dancing in the wind, eyes hidden behind those dark glasses.  The fire the had engulfed me earlier--the one brought under control by the drive--flared once again.  

My eyes devoured him inch by inch as I was able to steal glancing while driving.  He knew what he was doing, but I was powerless to restrain myself.  A girl can look, after all.  That’s what movie stars are fro, right?  Innocent pleasure.  But this was far from innocent, and it had the potential to drop me deep into the bowels of treachery that I loathed in others.  I had to watch my step.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Chapter 11

When we got to Between the Lines, he took me inside and showed me around.  He showed me the children’s section in the back corner.  It held the promise of spectacular attractions designed to fuel the desire to read.  He showed me where each genre would be shelved.  The magazine room, if you could call it a room, would hold more titles than anyone in Centerville or Church Hill had ever seen in one place.

The last place he showed me was his office.  It was an impressive space, beautifully furnished with a stately mahogany U-shaped desk.  The desk had shelving filled with manuals that wrapped around the back corner.  A computer was in the corner facing the door, and a big, comfy-looking leather chair sat behind it.  On the side wall, on either side of the window, was a pair of book shelves that matched the desk.  They were also full, but with books that looked to be of personal interest topics.  That, and novels.  

At the sound of the door clicking closed, I turned.  Dominic was standing by the door looking at me with smoldering eyes.  He approached slowly, taking each step with calculated timing.  

“Dominic,” I said as he stopped in from of me.

“Yes, beautiful?”  Gently, he slid his index finger along my jaw line, lifting my chin so I had to look into those lethal weapons.  

I couldn’t speak.  He had me now.  I was his prisoner without being chained.

He smiled as he lowered his head.  “I know I promised I wouldn’t do this.  But I can’t help myself,” he said in a smooth half-whisper.

Then his mouth was on mine.  It was tender at first.  Almost like testing the waters.  When I didn’t pull away, he went a little deeper.  He pulled my body into his, and I went willingly.

I wrapped my arms around him, letting myself drown in his kiss.  Kissing him back.  

Our lips parted, and as the kiss deepened our tongues danced a dance long forgotten.

From the very core of my being a flame burst forth and engulfed me.  Every inch of my body tingled.  I buried my hand in his hair as he did the same to me.  My other arm wrapped tight around his body.  I couldn’t get close enough.

Dominic was the one to pull away first.  He leaned back and asked, “Are you sure, Ella?”

That stopped me.  What was I doing?  What had I been willing to do in the intense heat of that moment?

I closed my eyes, and gave a slight shake of my head.  When that didn’t clear the haze, I shook it a little harder.  Then I looked back at Dominic.  

“Yes.  And no,” I said with a sigh.  “Yes, I want you.  Yes, I needed that kiss.  But I can’t, Dominic.  I can’t.”

It hurt so badly.  I hadn’t kissed a man in so long.  It had been even longer since I’d slept with a man.  It was so hard to stop once it had been started.  Tears stung my eyes.

Dominic hugged me tight.  “I’m sorry, Ella.  I shouldn’t have done that.  I’m so sorry.”

I let him hold me, and I held him.  I started crying.  It came freely, and it felt good.  So much tension, building up since the accident, was being released in those tears.  It was a cleansing I had needed for a very long time.  

I don’t know how long we stood there like that.  It didn’t really matter, not then.  

The ringing of my phone broke the spell.  It was Cassie.  I fumbled the phone open on the fourth ring.  “Hi, Cassie.”

“Ella?  Where are you?  Robert keeps asking when you’re coming back.  I don’t know what to tell him.  When are you coming back?  Or aren’t you?”

“What time is it?”

“It’s two o’clock.  Where are you?”

“Two o’clock?  Oh my God.  I’m at the book store.”  I looked at Dominic who mouthed sorry and grimaced.

“What are you doing at the book store?”

“Getting a tour.  Look, tell Robert that I won’t be back in.  Tell him I just called and something came up with Allison at school, or something.  He never asks for details, but if he does, just make something up.  OK?”

“OK.  Is everything all right?”

“Yeah.  I just lost track of the time.”

“You sound upset.  Have you been crying?”

“A little.  I’ll talk to you later, Cassie.  I gotta go.”

“OK, but I’ll be calling if you don’t.”

“I know.  Bye.”  I closed the phone before I heard her goodbye.

 Dominic rubbed my arm.  “You OK?”

I sighed.  This day was just full of twists and turns, ups and downs.  I was on a true emotional roller coaster.  “I’m OK.  Just overflowing right now.”  I sighed again.  “I probably look like a raccoon.”

“Actually, you don’t.  You look beautiful.”

I started to protest that he was bias or just saying that to make me feel better, but he held up his hand and shook his head.

“Don’t.  I’m not bias or just saying that.”  I looked up at him.  How was he able to read my mind like that?  “You are beautiful.  Your eyes are red, but that just makes their blue even brighter.  Your cheeks are flushed.”  He took a step back, taking my hands in his.  “You’re beautiful.”

I chuckled and shook my head.  “Whatever you say.  But I’m still gonna check for myself.”  I pulled my compact out of my purse.  He was right on a couple things.  I didn’t have raccoon eyes, my eyes were red, and my cheeks were flushed.  I wasn’t beautiful.  I looked like I’d been crying.  I decided that was all right because I wasn’t going back to work, so I had all afternoon—well, half of it anyway—to look normal again.

“You probably have to get back to work,” I said, looking out the window.

“Well.  I don’t think they really need me this afternoon.  The day’s almost over anyway.”  He squeezed my hand.  “Besides, I’d rather spend the rest of my day with you.”

I looked up at him.  That was all I really wanted right then, too.  But that was putting it mildly.  I almost wished he hadn’t stopped kissing me.  I was so far gone at that point that he could have thrown me on the desk, and I’d have gone willingly.  

I almost wanted him to do that now.  I was in a deep state of sexual need, and I wasn’t sure I could handle it.  The desire was almost foreign to me, and I wanted it satisfied.

He must have seen something in my eyes that told him just how keyed up I was because he leaned in over me, stopping only inches away.  I could see the need and desire swimming in his eyes.  From this close it was enthralling, as if his eyes wove a spell, holding me there.  “I am sorry, Ella,” he almost whispered.  “But at the same time, I’m not sorry at all.  I needed to taste you again.  And now that I have, I want more.”

My breathing was becoming shallow.  My heart was beginning to race.  My body was starting to melt from the heat of the fire he had sparked deep inside.  I took a tiny step backward, and bumped into the desk.  I was trapped between the unyielding mahogany behind me and the unrelenting heat emanating from the man in front of me.  I couldn’t move.

Dominic leaned into me so his cheek brushed mine, the fine stubble sending shockwaves through my body.  He took a slow, deep breath through his nose, his chest pressing against me as it rose.  His lips brushed my ear as he whispered, “You smell so good.”  He took another deep breath and exhaled a sigh of pleasure, his breath thrilling my senses.  “I could just eat you up.”  He nipped my ear before pulling back just enough to trail his tongue along my jaw.  

My chin lifted of its own accord, my head tilting slightly away from him, giving him access to my bare throat.  He took what I offered, kissing his way from just under my chin down my throat to my collar with moist, tantalizing kisses.  I closed my eyes as his mouth caressed my skin, and his hands caressed my back.  

 He continued to kiss my throat to the side, then back up to my jaw.  He kissed along my jaw, curving the line so when he reached my mouth, he was at the corner.

He ran his hand up my back to cradle my head.  Then his lips were on mine again, but he didn’t kiss me.  He danced his lips lightly over mine, making my lips tingle and my mouth water.  He was teasing me.

“Dominic.”  His name was a weak plea on my lips, breathed out on a sigh of pleasure.  But I backed it up with my hands on his chest, pushing him back.  “We can’t.”

A groan escaped him as he pulled away, his eyes rolling to the ceiling.  “God, Ella.  This is torture.  Maybe we should get out of here.  Go for a drive?”  The corner of his mouth curled up  in a devilish grin.  “I’ll let you drive.”

I snatched my purse off the desk.  Any reason to get out of his office was good, but driving the Mustang was great.  “Let’s go,” I said with a maybe a bit too much enthusiasm.