I received the call around eleven o’clock that Sunday morning. I had to work that day because we were implementing a new program into the computer system at the bank I worked for. The caller-ID read Church Hill Hosp and the phone number listed below. I gave a questioning look to the small team working with me before answering.
“Hello. Church Hill Bank and Trust, how may I help you?”
A man’s soothing voice came through the line. “May I speak with Mrs. Boothe, please?”
“This is she,” I said as I gave another questioning look to my team.
“Mrs. Boothe, I’m Dr. Sanchez at Church Hill Hospital. I’m afraid your husband and daughter have been in an auto accident. I’ll need you come to the hospital.”
I collapsed into a chair, the telephone receiver I held in my hand started to slide from my grip. I tried to ask the doctor how bad they were, but I couldn’t speak. My jaw moved up and down, but my lips and tongue were immobile and my throat made no sound.
Cassie, my assistant, took the phone from my hand. “Hello?”
“This is her assistant. May I help you?”
“This is Dr. Sanchez at Church Hill Hospital. I need Mrs. Boothe to come to the hospital right away. Her family has been in an accident.”
“Oh my God.” Cassie fumbled a bit, but quickly became the strong and steady assistant I needed her to be. “Where do I bring her?”
“The ER. I’ll be waiting. Just tell the nurse at the desk you’re there to see me. They will know the situation.”
“We’ll be there in ten minutes.” Cassie hung up the phone and grabbed her coat. Then she helped me to my feet and held my coat so I could just slip it on.
I don’t remember the ride to the hospital. It seemed like hours, though it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. Cassie kept reassuring me that everything was going to be OK, but I don’t think I believed her. How could I? The doctor hadn’t said they were alright. He just said to come right away. And I had a terrible feeling that I was losing one or both of them.
Cassie threw her keys to the valet at the ER entrance and pulled me through the automatic doors. We approached the front desk where an overweight nurse sat filling out paper-work. She looked up at us.
“Can I help you?” Her tone was a little irritated, as if she was tired of dealing with people’s “emergencies.”
“We’re here to see Dr. Sanchez,” Cassie demanded. “He’s expecting us. Last name’s Boothe.”
The nurse seemed to understand the urgency. She stood and came around the desk. “Of course. Follow me.” She swiped her ID card and the doors opened to admit us into the ER.
We walked briskly down a corridor and entered through a door labeled Emergency Surgery. My heart sank at the sight of the sign.
Dr. Sanchez met us on the other side of the door. “Mrs. Boothe, please have a seat.”
I sat in the chair he indicated. He sat in the chair next to me and turned to face me. Cassie sat on my other side and held my hand in hers.
He looked me directly in the eyes. “Mrs. Boothe, your husband and daughter were in a very bad accident. They were hit at high speed by several cars. Their car rolled.” I squeezed Cassie’s hand. “Your daughter suffered a broken arm and a minor concussion, along with a few scrapes and bruises. She is fine and will recover with no long-term damage.” Here he paused and looked at Cassie before meeting my eyes again. “Your husband was not so lucky. Both of his legs and one arm were broken. He had several broken ribs which punctured his left lung. He also suffered severe head injuries and some internal bleeding. We need to helicopter him to a shock trauma unit. He is being prepped now. You may see him before he leaves, but I need to warn you that he is unconscious and disfigured. I recommend that your friend stay here and two nurses escort you to see him.”
I nodded in agreement as Cassie helped me stand on my wobbly legs. The nurses came, each taking a hand, and escorted me to where Michael lay on the stretcher awaiting the helicopter.
Something died inside me when I saw him. My legs no longer supported my weight, and I could feel the nurses holding me up as they guided me to my husband’s side.
I didn’t recognize him. If I hadn’t been told that the body in front of me was Michael Boothe, I never would have known. His sandy hair was matted and caked with blood. The handsome face that I knew was swollen with reddish-purple welts, and covered with deep cuts and lacerations. Both of his eyes were swollen shut to the point that it was hard to believe there were eyes there at all. His lower lip was torn and a tube came out of his mouth and attached to a respirator.
But the worst of it all was the left side of his head. As I got closer, I saw it had been shaved and a temporary-looking drain came out of a flat area about two square inches in size. That was when I knew my life would never be the same.
I was convinced he would die. If he didn’t, then surely he would be as good as dead. An injury like that must have caused a tremendous amount of brain damage. And that wasn’t his only head injury.
The staff wouldn’t let me touch him, so I leaned as close as I dared and whispered, “I love you, Michael. Don’t you leave me. I need you. I love you.”
With tears streaming down my face, I watched as they wheeled the man around whom I had woven my life out to the waiting helicopter. It felt as if they were slowly pulling the last vital thread of my being away from me.
We had a nurse come to our home every day to help me with the medical procedures that were necessary to keep Michael healthy and free from infection. Drains had to be cleaned, dressings changed, and small amounts of physical therapy performed. He was not on life support, I never would have allowed that, but he was very high-maintenance.
On top of him I had to deal with Allison. Her cast was due to come off in one week, but we were still struggling with her short-term memory. Though it was slowly coming back, the concussion had done its damage. She was a trooper, though. She tried so very hard to regain what she had lost. I think it was her young age that helped her deal with it as well as she did.
Watching her father go through the pain and suffering while I did my best to help them both took a toll on her. She knew her Daddy would never be the same. That he would be confined to a wheelchair and on medications for the rest of his life. She did her best to help me.
I lived like that—an invalid husband and an emotionally scarred daughter—for a year. Then something happened that tilted my new life on its side…again.
One year later
Spring was finally starting to push winter out. I had been waiting for this change of seasons for what seemed like ages. Now the bite was gone from the air, the breeze carried a warm scent and the trees were starting to bud.
I had been working as the manager of the IT department for the largest bank in the area for a few months. Just after our first Christmas and New Year with our new life I was offered the position in the heart of Summerville. It came with a raise that almost doubled my current salary, and a company car. (That was nice because it kept the miles and maintenance down on my own car.) There was one stipulation to me taking the job. Cassie came with me. She knew how I worked, and we made a good team. The bank accepted the condition.
It was because of this new job that I was walking down Summit Street in Summerville on that fateful Thursday afternoon. I had left work early, and I decided to spend the early spring day shopping the town’s high-end boutiques. Sometimes it just feels good to splurge a little. Summit Street was Summerville’s answer to Rodeo Drive.
There was a new song on the air waves that reminded me a bit of my earlier life. Before the accident, before Allison was born, before I had ever met Michael. The voice singing the tune was deep and gravelly. The words caused my mind to reminisce.
That song was stuck in my head this particular day.
I came out of a shop after purchasing a cute shirt and skirt for Allison, and as I entered the flow of people on the sidewalk, a familiar scent teased my nostrils. I sniffed the air lightly. Then, not even realizing what I was doing, I turned and followed my nose down the street.
I never lost the scent. It was like a cartoon where one character is led to something, usually a trap, by following the aroma of food. Only I was following the scent of a man.
Just past the used-book store, the smell disappeared. I stopped and turned in a circle, looking for something I wasn’t sure I would recognize. Then the used book store caught my eye.
I rushed to the door and pushed it open. As I entered, the musky smell of the old books flooded my senses. Mingling with that smell was my luring scent. The man had entered this store.
It was perfect. If I had been following the man from my past, he would have entered this shop. He wouldn’t have been able to resist the words written so long ago. They would have pulled him in here with the mysterious power they had always held over him.
But it was impossible that I could be following that particular man. I was in central Pennsylvania, and he was in California. Well, that was the last place I knew him to be. (Although that was more than fifteen years ago.)
I began to browse the shelves. I enjoyed reading, so I thought I might buy myself an old classic while I was in here. As I drifted through the upper levels of the four-story shop, my original motivation for coming here escaped me. Eventually I came to the Attic, as a sign designated the fourth floor.
This was where the really old books were. Most of the books on the shelves were falling apart. A sign posted at the door read: please do not handle the books unless you are a serious buyer.
A strange sensation overcame me in this room. It was an anxious feeling, yet I felt totally at ease at the same time. Objects with history always seem to have this sort of effect on me. But it wasn’t just the books. I could sense someone else in the room. Then, as I milled through the shelves, I smelled him.
The scent I had followed down the street and into this store was now here with me. My senses heightened, and I slowly crept past the rows of book-covered shelves toward the back of the room. I stopped at the second to last row and entered, feigning interest in the books.
The man with the familiar aroma was on the other side of the shelf. I could smell him as I stood there taking in the perfumed air deeply through my nose. I allowed the scent to take me back to a time when life wasn’t so complicated.
I could see his handsome face with the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea in the background. I closed my eyes as I fell deeper into the memory. The warmth engulfed me.
I don’t know how long I stood there like that, but a sharpening of the man’s scent brought me back. I opened my eyes to find him standing there gazing down at me with sea-green eyes. His thick brown hair was wind-blown, his skin sun-kissed.
I couldn’t look away from that beautiful face. I had dreamt about this man. He haunted me in my sleep.
My jaw must have dropped, though I can’t be sure. My entire body went numb, and I couldn’t speak.
A slow smile spread across his face. My God, he was beautiful when he smiled. Then again, he was beautiful before he smiled, too. His eyes gleamed in the sunlight slanting through the windows. It was like looking into the depths of the sea, and I was drowning without ever jumping in.
“Lord Byron,” he said, indicating the book I held. “I like his style. But you seem more like a Poe fan than Byron.”
His deep voice flooded my system, almost sending me into overload. I practically melted at the sensual tone resonating from his beautiful mouth. My mouth actually started to water as I gazed up at him.
He chuckled at my paralysis, sending me further into my stupefied state.
“Hey. You OK?”
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. I was not OK.
He asked again, this time gently grabbing my upper left arm with his warm, masculine strength. His eyes held genuine concern.
And it was that tender touch that broke the spell, had me dropping everything I held and throwing my arms around his neck. I lost myself in his wonderfully strong and gentle embrace. Burying my face against his neck I inhaled deeply and allowed his essence to flood my system once again. Tears filled my eyes, and I held him tighter as he lifted me off my feet and squeezed his soul into me.
“Oh, Ella, I’ve missed you so much,” he breathed in my ear.
“I missed you, too,” I whispered.
We held each other for a short eternity, and when he set me on my feet again, I wasn’t sure I could stand. I took a small step to steady myself. “What are you doing in Summerville?” I asked, my voice shaking slightly with emotion.
“I was doing some research, and I found this place.”
“Research for what?”
“A couple things. The retail chain I work for offered me a new store of my own, so I started looking for good areas. Summerville seemed like the perfect place.”
“I don’t get it. Why would you pick a small town like this? It’s not exactly big chain friendly.”
“Book stores do well anywhere.”
“Book stores? You mean Between the Lines? That’s your store?” I was surprised. That store was due to open in about a month. I was anticipating its grand opening.
“Yup. That’s my store. I think it’ll do well in this area.” He seemed very confident, almost cocky. But I guess he had a right to be. After all, he had supposedly hand-picked the location for this latest addition to the nation-wide chain.
“Yeah, but you were always the beachy, blue-seas type. And we’re far away from the ocean. What’s the other reason?” I was very interested in why this beach-bum hunk would want to settle in a town nestled in the middle of the Pennsylvania mountains. The only water around here was lakes and streams.
“I’ve out-grown my beach-bum phase,” he said as if he was reading my mind. “There’s good fishing, hiking, and skiing here. If I don’t get away from the beach, I’ll never grow up. And I need to grow up. Being the general manager of a store like Between the Lines is a huge thing. I don’t want my care-free lifestyle screwing that up for me.”
“So you’re done with the party life? Are you sure that’s what you want?” When I had known him, he partied every hour he was awake. That was one reason why we had drifted apart. I was grounded and he wasn’t.
“Yeah. You can only party for so long before it catches up with you. I started to notice that I was getting older, but the bar crowd was staying the same age. It made me think that maybe I needed to re-evaluate my life.” He shrugged. It seemed that he was still trying to get over this drastic change.
Trying to change the subject, or at least soften it up a bit, I asked if he wanted to get some coffee and catch up. I knew a great little café down the street that had good food and even better coffee.
I replaced the Byron book I had been planning to buy, and led the way down the busy street to the café. One time Dominic tried to take my hand, but I told him no. As much as I craved his touch, it was inappropriate.
We sat at an outside table and ordered our drinks and sandwiches. “I still don’t understand why you came to a place like this. Partying aside, it’s cold here. We have snow on the ground practically all winter,” I said.
“Like I said. I’ve grown up. I’ve also developed a passion for skiing. I love the seasons, though, so farther north wouldn’t suit me.” He smiled at me with that grin that could melt the iciest of hearts. “Now I have another great reason to stay.”
“Really.” I gave him a curious look. “And what might that be?” I asked, though I had a pretty good idea what the answer was. I just wanted to hear him say it.
“Do you really have to ask?”
I smiled at him. “I don’t think so, but why don’t you tell me anyway. Just to be sure.”
His smile broadened and a blush came to his cheeks, but he reached across the table and took my hand in his. “You’re the reason. You know that. I thought I’d never see you again, Ella. I have longed for this moment for what seems like an eternity. Now that I know you’re here, I’ll never leave.”
While I had known I was his reason to stay, I never thought his feelings would still run so deep. It was obvious that the man was still in love with me. Now I had the horrible task of breaking his heart.
“Dominic,” I squeezed his hand and looked directly into his soft green eyes as I spoke his name for the first time in so many years. “I’m married. I have a ten-year-old daughter.” I didn’t want to tell him that he couldn’t just walk back into my life after all those years because it would hurt him. And it would be a lie. He could come back to me anytime. I’d take him one way or another. Just to be near him I felt like a void in my soul had been filled.
“I figured that,” he said with a shrug. “But just being near you again is enough. Even if we’re just friends. I need your presence in my life, Ella.”
“You never cease to amaze me Dominic. You show up in Summerville, PA claiming to be opening a book store…”
“I am opening a book store,” he cut in.
“That’s not my point. I haven’t seen you in over fifteen years. And yet you sit here telling me that you can’t live without me. What about before, Dominic? What about the effort you stopped putting into our relationship? I may have walked away, but you can’t say I didn’t try.”
He sat there quietly. I allowed him time for the words to sink in. “I deserve that,” he said with sullen conviction. “You’re right. I didn’t try very hard at the end. But I was young and stupid. All I wanted to do was party, and I never thought about the consequences.”
I nodded slightly in agreement. “What happened that night, Dominic? What happened that night you never went home?” The pain of our last night together was coming back, and I didn’t want to feel it. I tried to push it back down, but it wouldn’t go and I could feel the tears stinging my eyes. However difficult it was, I kept my gaze on his, determined to be strong in the face of my old pain.
“I was caught,” he said simply. “The cops pulled me over just before Bridgewater. I had a good bit of weed and coke on me.” He tried to shrug it off. “I spent some time in jail, of course, but I had a good lawyer. He got me off on technicalities over the paperwork.”
“You never called.” I tried to hide the hurt in my voice, but I don’t think I was successful. “I never knew what happened to you. No one told me. They just told me to forget about you. I found out what happened by reading the paper, Dominic.” Tears flowed freely down my cheeks.
“I’m sorry, Ella.” He scooted his chair around so he was sitting next to me, and held both my hands in a firm, steadying grip. “I thought that was best for you. Really. I didn’t know how long I’d be locked up.” He brushed the tears from my cheeks. “I’m so sorry. I know now that I was wrong. And I know I’m too late, but please believe me, Ella. I loved you. I thought I was doing what was best for you under the circumstances.” He dropped his head to face his lap and was quiet for a minute. “I loved you, Ella.” A shuddering breath escaped him. Then he met my eyes again, tears falling freely from the green depths of his. “I love you still.”
It was my turn to hang my head. So many thoughts and emotions were swirling through my mind and body. I shook my head and said, “I’m married. I have a daughter.” I took my hands from his and wiped my face. “A year ago I thought my world was going to crash and burn. But I survived. We survived. All of us. Michael and Allison and I. Life isn’t what it used to be, but we survived.” I looked up at Dominic. “And now you come waltzing back into my life, and I feel it up-ending all over again.”
“What are you talking about? What happened a year ago?”
I looked past him, taking in the people filling the café. He let me take my time. Then I took a deep breath and looked back at him waiting patiently. “Michael and Allison were in an accident on the interstate. Some kid and his girlfriend came on way too fast and hit them.” I looked away, trying to tell the story without bringing the pictures back. “Michael’s car rolled. The kid ran into the embankment. He and his girlfriend were killed instantly.” I looked back at Dominic, his face filled with concern. “They had so much cocaine in their systems, the coroner was amazed that their hearts hadn’t exploded.” I just sat there and let the impact of that basic fact sink in.
“Anyway, Allison had a broken arm and a minor concussion.” Again I paused, though not for effect. This pause was for strength. “Michael was flown to a shock trauma unit. He had several broken ribs, two broken legs, a broken arm, a punctured lung, severe internal bleeding, and severe head trauma. They removed his spleen, part of his liver, and part of his intestines. His skull had been crushed on one side from hitting the window.” I took another steadying breath.
Dominic had reached out to hold my hands again. Tears were flowing steadily from my eyes, and every so often he would dab at them with his napkin. “You don’t have to tell me,” he said softly.
“No. I want to. I need to tell you. You’re not from here, so you didn’t read the paper and come running to offer your condolences. I need someone to only hear my words, not the media’s. I don’t want you to pity me. Just help to give me strength.” He nodded.
After another deep breath, I looked again into those green eyes and continued my tale. “Michael is now confined to a wheel-chair. He can’t speak very well, though he learned to write somewhat with his left hand, so he communicates through a combination of the two. It’s like a child that’s just learning how to talk, but has the mind and emotions of a grown man. He has only part of one lung and is on oxygen therapy. It’s almost like he had a stroke, ya know? He can move his left side, but it’s very limited. His food is pureed and I feed him with a spoon.”
I sighed some of the stress out of my system. It felt good to talk about it with Dominic. After the initial shock had worn off, the only person who really stuck by me was Cassie. I had the pity of everyone in Church Hill, but I didn’t want or need pity. I just needed companionship. Dominic would give that to me. I was sure of that.
“Enough about my complicated life.” I waved a hand as if to clear the air. “Tell me about your store. I’ve been waiting for it to open. It seems like it’s taking forever.”
“Tell me about it.” He rolled his eyes. “Building a new store is a lot more complicated than I ever imagined. There are so many hoops to jump through. But, thankfully, I have corporate to step in when I need them. They get things done. We’re working on the finishing touches now. You know, all the interior stuff. I’m looking at opening, hopefully, in about two to three weeks. I have a management staff, and we start hiring for the regular positions next week. Know anyone who needs a job?”
“As a matter of fact, Cassie said her friend was thinking about looking for a new job. I’ll send her your way.”
“On a more personal note, I’d like to give you my address and phone number,” he said. “And maybe get yours in return?” He pulled a business card out of his pocket while he asked the waitress for a pen. On the back he wrote his address and phone number. “I live in Church Hill,” he said as he handed me the card.
I looked at his angular handwriting and then at his handsome face. “You live two blocks away from me and Michael.”
His beautiful smile graced his features again. “Really? That’s great. You’ll have to introduce me to your family. If that’s okay of course. I can’t believe it. We’re neighbors…in a sense.”
When the waitress laid the bill on the table, he picked it up. He laid down the money for the bill and a tip. Then he stood and, always the gentleman, offered me a hand. I accepted graciously, and allowed him to help me to my feet.
“I took the bus here from the store. I can just catch it back.”
“Nonsense,” I said, taking his hand and leading him into the garage. “I’ll drive you to the store. There’s no reason for you to ride that stinky bus.” I felt his grip melt into mine as he fell into stride. It was a wonderful sensation that I hadn’t realized I’d been missing. Michael couldn’t hold my hand anymore, not like he used to, and I never realized the intimacy of that simple gesture until now.
When I chanced a look him, he was smiling at me. I quickly looked away and tried to ignore the fluttering of my heart. The thought and feel of Dominic had my cheeks flushed. I could feel the heat. I knew he could see what his presence was doing to me.
I dug my keys out of their assigned pocket in my purse and pushed the “unlock” button on the remote.
“That’s your car?” Dominic asked with a tone of awe in his voice. “Wow. You must really be doing well for yourself.” He smiled and became playful. “Either that, or you’re in debt up to your eye balls.”
“It’s actually a company car,” I said, opening the trunk of the deep blue BMW and tossing my bags inside. “I would never buy something like this. It’s way overpriced.”
“I bet you don’t mind the bank buying it for you, though.”
We climbed into the car. “Hell no. I love this car. I love it even more since I didn’t pay for it.” The engine turned over smoothly with a soft roar before settling into a purr. I let it warm up for a few minutes while Dominic sifted through my music selection.
He picked a CD and slid it in. I put the car in first and crept out of the garage. At the exit, I waved my card to open the gate and turned onto the street.
We crawled through town, and I asked Dominic if he minded if I took the long way to the store. Of course he didn’t. So I cut through a few back streets, making my way to the main road that was the life-line for Church Hill. I felt like driving so I was going to take the really long way.
Turning onto the road I smiled and said, “Hold on. We’re gonna have some fun.”
“Thrill me, Baby,” he said, gripping the door a little tighter.
I shifted into second and made the turn. Winding each gear to its most efficient RPM, I shifted smoothly, flying through the gears as the car sped down the road. We took the turns with ease and precision. I could feel Dominic looking at me, but at 80 miles an hour, I didn’t dare take my eyes off the road. Anything could happen. Michael was proof of that.
The car slowed as I turned onto a twisting country road for a more leisurely drive. That’s when I finally glanced over at him. He was grinning from ear to ear.
“What?” I asked.
“You’ve still got it,” he said. “After all these years, you’ve still got it. I must admit, I am surprised. After what you told me about Michael and his accident, I never would have thought that you would still drive like that.”
“I don’t do it very often. Sometimes I just get the itch to go. When it comes, I have to scratch it. I’d probably go crazy if I didn’t.” I looked at him again and smiled. “When you need speed, nothing else will do.”
“You always were my best driver. Even if I didn’t want you to drive.”
“Yeah, well, that part of my life is long over. I don’t think about it, and I don’t talk about it. I put it far behind me and moved on. So if that’s why you’re here, tell me now.” I didn’t want him bringing our past to the surface. We were young, reckless, and without a care in the world. Those things combined made for a very dangerous lifestyle. I counted myself lucky to have survived and turned my life around without any repercussions. Michael knew little about that chapter in my life, and Allison would never know unless she started heading that way. I had become a different person since the last time I saw Dominic. And I was hoping that he had changed his ways, too.
Pulling the car off to the side of the road, I turned to look at him. As I turned he placed his hand on mine over the shifter and gently squeezed. Then he met my eyes. That was enough.
“I’m not that person anymore.” He said it simply, though he needn’t have said anything at all. “If you want to talk about it, that’s fine. If you don’t, that’s okay too. But please, Ella, don’t hold it against me. I learned my lesson the hard way.” He shrugged and added, “Maybe I needed to.”
“You wouldn’t let me drive that night,” I said.
“I needed you to drive. Something told me otherwise, though. It was better that you didn’t.”
“You may never have been caught if I’d been driving.”
“Maybe. Or maybe we’d’ve both been caught. Things happened the way they did for a reason. I knew that when they cuffed me. That’s why I cut you off. I thought that maybe some higher-power was telling me I was no good for you. You deserved better.” He looked out the window. “I loved you, but I let you go. I had to.” His head dropped and his voice became tighter. “Losing you was the hardest part of the entire experience. I never quite healed from that wound.”
I didn’t know what to say. He was telling me he felt something that I also felt in some deep part of my heart. A part of me had always been his. Now he was telling me that a part of him had always been mine. After all those years, we still belonged to each other.
I tried to change the subject. “So, you never married?”
“Not once.” He shook his head. “Every relationship after you failed miserably. I found myself comparing each one to you. None of them could measure up, so I’d end it after a couple months. It wasn’t fair to string them along just to satisfy my primal urges.”
The reaction those last words caused in me was shocking. It made me sick with jealousy and remorse. Why, I couldn’t understand. The thought of Dominic with another woman had never hurt like it just did. In fact, that was one reason why we were so good together in the past. Our primal urges, as he put it, had ruled our lives. To put it mildly, we were wild. Besides, I was married to Michael. I shouldn’t have felt that way about any other man.
I pulled back onto the road trying to clear my foggy head. There were emotions stirring in me that I hadn’t felt since the accident. Not the least of which was desire.
Silence invaded the car on the ride to the store. The air inside was becoming stuffy, so I rolled down the windows to freshen it up. One time, Dominic asked if it was ok to crank the music up. I nodded in the affirmative, and the music became loud enough to push my thoughts away for the time being.
The man drove what was clearly a customized new Shelby-GT Mustang. That piece of machinery had to cost at least 80K. The sleek, black body with its gold race-stripes hunched low to the ground. The 18-inch polished wheels glistened even with the fading light. The windows were dark, adding to the smoothness of the vehicle as a whole.
I stopped my BMW and pulled the emergency brake. I never took my eyes off the Mustang as I climbed out of my car. This car made my mouth water with its sheer impression of power. I wanted to touch the smooth black body. I wanted to slide behind the wheel and feel the power of the engine beneath me, vibrating through my hands as I gripped the wheel and shifted from gear to gear. I longed to feel how tight she was on the road.
“You wanna drive her, don’t you?” Dominic’s question drifted through the bubble that had encased me at the sight of his car. All I could do was nod slightly. My eyes ran the length of the car as I turned my head to look at him. When I met his eyes, he was grinning from ear to ear, apparently enjoying the lust he must have seen in my scrutiny of the vehicle.
A smile spread across my face at the thought of driving the only American muscle car never taken out of production. She had to be fast. She had to be tight. I longed to feel her power, but not now. “I really need to get home,” I said as I turned back to the car again. “But I’ll take a rain check on that offer.”
“Whenever you like. Of all the people I know, you’re the only one I’d let drive her.” He had walked up to me and slipped his arm around my shoulder. It was amazing how right and wrong the situation felt. His arm fit my body so well, so comfortably, and it felt right in some deep part of my being. It felt wrong because of Michael. My mind was spinning in inner turmoil. What I really needed was to get away from Dominic and clear my head.
“Thanks for the offer.” I turned to face him. “It was really great to see you again.” I didn’t want to leave him, but I had to go home. The nurse would be waiting with Michael and Allison.
“Hey. It’s not like we’ll never see each other again. I live here, remember?” He wrapped me in a hug. “Can I see you tomorrow?” The question breathed into my ear sent shivers down my spine and need coursing through my blood.
“I don’t know Dominic. Friday’s a long, busy day at the bank, and I usually take Allison out to dinner. I’ll call you later tonight and let you know.”
“I look forward to it. I’ll be sitting by the phone, so don’t leave me hangin’. Let me walk you back to your car.”
“My car’s right here,” I said giving him a look of humorous suspicion.
“I know. Why do you think I offered? I don’t have to walk far to get back.” This time he laughed heartily when I gave him a light punch on the arm. Then he opened my door for me, and I climbed in.
Before he closed it, I looked up at him and said, “It really was good to see you.”
With one arm propped on the roof, he leaned down so we were face to face. “It was good to see you, too,” he said. Then, without warning, he leaned in and gave me a quick kiss, mouth to mouth.
It happened so fast I didn’t have time to react. But if I had, I don’t know if I would have pulled away or leaned into it. There was a brief, but very hot, spark when our lips touched, and it scared me.
He closed the door and I started the car. When I glanced through the open window, I couldn’t look away. I was compelled to watch him as he walked to his car. The wind caught his hair and played with it. I could see the muscles in his back and arms moving under the soft cotton of his button-down shirt, which tucked into the waist of his faded blue jeans and allowed an uninhibited view of his tight rear. The man still had the build of a twenty-year-old man. That and the brief brush of his lips stirred an intense desire deep in the very pit of my being.
I pulled away with a wave as he closed his door. I didn’t want to hear the Mustang’s engine when he started it. The need the car stirred in me had me hovering on the edge as it was. Hearing it could push me over. To block out the sound I rolled up the windows and cranked the radio. Then I took off through the empty lot and headed for home.
Lynnette, Michael’s nurse, wasn’t upset at my lateness. I explained to her that I had run into an old friend and lost track of the time. She understood. Besides, she was paid well by both our insurance company and me. I paid her in cash, so the insurance wouldn’t know how much I paid her. She looked after Allison for me on the days I ran late, so I felt I owed her the extra income.
On this day, I was running so late that she had made dinner for everyone, including me. All I had to do when I got home was heat up my dinner and relax with Allison and Michael before we all went to bed. Lynnette’s generous gesture in making dinner and helping Allison with her homework had me thinking, and not for the first time, that I should maybe ask her to be our live-in nurse. Michael would enjoy it since he absolutely adored Lynnette. He was also her only patient.
She was twenty-seven years old and lived in an apartment in Summerville which she shared with a couple. The apartment was theirs, she just lived in the extra bedroom and helped pay the bills. She had mentioned that she wanted to get out of there, and I had been thinking it would be nice to have her around more. For a small decrease in pay, I would offer her room and board. The only bills she would pay would be her cell phone and car payments. And she would, of course, get a couple days off week as usual.
I had run the idea by Cassie a couple times. She seemed to approve the notion, saying it would give me more freedom to do things with Allison and by myself. That fact couldn’t be denied. With Lynnette living with us, life would be so much easier—for me and for Allison. I decided then that I would ask Lynnette in the morning.
The phone rang, interrupting my thoughts. The caller ID displayed Cassie’s name, and I picked up the handset. “Hey,” I said with a bright tone.
“Hey, yourself. What’s up?” Cassie’s young voice bounced back over the line.
“Not much. I’m just relaxing with everyone before bedtimes start.”
“Oh…” There was something to the way she drew out the sound. Like she was up to something, or thought I was. “So, what did you get into on your afternoon off?” She definitely thought I was up to something.
“Nothing much. I went shopping on Summit Street. Had some coffee at the café.” I went into the next room to avoid talking over the TV and bothering Michael and Allison. “I got home a little late, but Lynnette made dinner for Michael and Allison. Even had some for me to warm up when I got home.”
“You had to warm up your dinner? Geez, Ella, how late were you?” Again her tone held something that sounded like she was trying to get something out of me without prying too hard.
“Late enough. You know, it made me think about asking Lynnette to move in.”
“You’ve been toying with that idea for a while, Ella.”
“Yeah, but this time I think I’ve decided to do it. She’s so good with Michael and Allison. And Michael loves her. I just think it would work out for the best for all of us.”
There was a pause on Cassie’s end.
“What?” I asked.
“I talked to Sissy this evening.” Another pause
“She thought she saw you today. At the café. With some gorgeous guy she didn’t recognize.”
“I was at the café with someone. His name happens to be Dominic. We were good friends a long time ago.” I thought about how it might look to someone who didn’t know the situation. It certainly wasn’t good. “You know that new book store that’s opening just outside of Summerville?”
“Yeah. What does that have to do with the café?”
“Dominic is the GM for that store. I guess maybe he’s the owner of the branch, too. Regardless, that’s why he’s here. Between the Lines transferred him here for the store.”
“OK. But that doesn’t explain how you know him. So spill, Ella. And I want all the juicy details.”
I sat quietly for a bit, thinking about what to tell her. How much should I divulge here? Cassie was my best friend, but there were aspects of my past that I never wanted to relive. I wasn’t proud of the person I had been. That was why I had become the responsible mother and wife. Cassie knew nothing of who I had once been. How would she react if she found out?
“I’m waiting, Ella.” Her sweet voice brought me back. I decided to tell her just enough to get the idea of who Dominic was.
“Dominic and I dated a long time ago. A very long time ago. I met him while I was still in high school. He was four years older than me, but we hung out with the same crowd. We got really close, really fast. And we stayed that way until I was twenty-three. Then we went our separate ways. I graduated college and moved up here. I never saw him again. Until today.” There. That should be enough to satisfy her hunger.
Silence drifted over the line. I heard her take a breath and let it out. Then the interrogation began. “Well that certainly is the long and short of it, isn’t it? Ella, you told me nothing. So you used to be an item. So what? I have lots of those. I want details, Ella. Details.”
“Like what?” I sighed. I should have known better than to think a vague history like that would quench her thirst. The woman thrived on the lives of others. Not so much gossip, just sort of living vicariously through her friends in certain ways. Her adolescence had been terribly bland, and so she was fishing for information from mine.
“For one, why did you break up?”
“We just went our separate ways is all.”
“Oh, come on. Tell me.” There was an excited undertone in her voice that compelled me to give her at least the basic truth.
“I was graduating. He went to jail.”
I could hear her jaw drop over the phone. “He went to jail? For what?”
“It doesn’t matter, Cassie. He got locked up, and I moved away. It was best for both of us.”
“OK, OK. So you won’t give me the details. Tell me about today. Is he the reason you were so late getting home? What happened?” The anticipation was killing her. That was quite obvious.
“Nothing happened. We ran into each other in a book store, had some coffee, and went for a ride. That’s it.” That was the gist of it, but the mere thought of the day’s events had my pulse racing and my head reeling.
“Did he kiss you?” My God, she was like a school girl.
“No, Cassie! I can’t believe you would even think that!” My fingertips brushed against my lips unconsciously as I felt the brief heat of his mouth flash and fizzle. I fiddled with the business card in my pocket. I pulled it out and studied the phone number and address he had scrolled on the back in his smooth, masculine print. “He lives here in Church Hill. Two blocks away, in fact.” My vision became fuzzy as my eyes relaxed their focus on the card I held in my hand, and my mind drifted back to that afternoon. Unconsciously, I rubbed my thumb over the black ink.
“Two blocks away? Wow, Ella. What’s up with that?” She had gone from excited school girl to suspicious friend in the blink of an eye.
“Nothing.” I found myself defensive when her tone broke the trance I had been falling into. Suddenly I felt the need to end the conversation. “Cassie, I gotta go. I need to get Allison and Michael to bed. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, OK?”
“What’s up, Ella?”
“Nothing. I just have to go. It’s late. Allison needs to get to bed, and so does Michael.”
“OK. Call me if you need anything, alright?” She sounded concerned.
“Yeah. OK. See ya tomorrow. ‘Night, Cassie.”
“Good night.” The phone went silent. I turned off my handset and sat in the quiet of the room trying
to gather my thoughts.
I had to call Dominic.
I leaned in and kissed him on the forehead. For the first time several weeks he tried to wrap me in a hug as my body hung over his. Deeply moved by the gesture, I helped him by leaning closer and kind of propping his arms up with mine so they would drape over my back. He gave me as much of a squeeze as he could muster and said, “Uv-u,” in my ear.
“I love you too, Honey,” I whispered back. I gave him another kiss, this time on the lips, and turned out the lights.
Once I was sure Michael was resting comfortably and Allison was at least lying in her bed, if not sleeping, I went into the kitchen to get a hot cup of coffee. It wasn’t my habit to drink coffee at night, but I felt I needed it—why not add to the jitters I was already feeling? Then I gathered the phone and a blanket and headed out onto the porch where I nestled onto the swing and dialed the number scrawled on the business card.
He picked up on the third ring.
“Hello?” Even through the phone his voice melted my bones.
“Dominic. It’s Ella.” For some reason I was giddy as a school girl at the thought of talking to him. Because my stomach had suddenly gone into knots, I set my coffee down on the side table.
“Hi, beautiful. I was beginning to think you wouldn’t call.”
“I had to get Allison and Michael to bed. And Cassie called.”
His response was casual enough, but I could tell he was a little worried. “Oh. Is everything OK?”
“Everything’s fine. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I’m just making sure you’re not in trouble because someone might have seen us together. I don’t want
to cause you problems.”
His simple presence caused me problems in so many ways. “Well, somebody did see us, but it’s not a big deal. I explained who you are…in a vague sort of way. Cassie will be prodding for more, of course, but I can handle her.” I brushed it off with a wave of my hand.
“Well, good then. So we can talk about simpler matters. Like dinner tomorrow night?” He sounded both hopeful and confident at the same time.
“Dinner…” I hadn’t thought about it. Hadn’t passed even a fleeting moment’s thought about his request to see me the next night. “I haven’t thought about it, Dominic. I’ve had so many things going on since I got home. I usually take Allison out to dinner on Friday’s.”
“You mentioned that. I thought I could take both of you out. Then I could meet her.”
I hesitated over it. “I don’t know. What would she think? A strange man taking me and her out to dinner? It’s not like she doesn’t know what’s going on around her. She may be ten in actual years, but she’s a lot older than that mentally, Dominic. She grew up fast after the accident. Maybe too fast, but I didn’t know how to help her stay young. Truth is, I probably needed her as much as she needed me during that time. Now even.” I pressed my hand to my eyes and shook my head. “Maybe it’s wrong. I don’t know. But we are each other’s strength, and I don’t want to throw anything off balance.”
“Ella, that’s fine. I’m not trying to throw your world out of whack. I just want to see you. I need to see you. And I want to meet the lucky man that snagged you up, and the beautiful daughter the two of you made.” He paused.
I don’t know if he was waiting for a response to that, but I couldn’t respond. How do you respond to a statement that is at once romantic and incredibly blunt?
“Lunch, then,” he said. “If you’re not ready for me to meet your family, let me take you to lunch.”
“Lunch.” It seemed simple enough. Then again, there could still be repercussions. “People will talk, Dominic. I’m not so worried about that personally, but professionally…” I trailed off, thinking that he would understand.
“We’ll give it a front. Say I’m taking you out for a business lunch. You know, trying to persuade you to help me set up the computers for the store. It’s believable.”
“It is.” I thought about it briefly. “Cassie would know better. But, like I said, I can handle her.” I thought about it some more, turning the idea over in my head and trying to look at it from every angle. Then something occurred to me. “Robert might not like it very much.”
“He’s my boss.”
“Oh. Well, I can say I’m just looking for an outsider’s opinion of the company’s system, and I was told you were the best. No threats to your current employer, since my company doesn’t know I’m having you look at it.”
Wow. He seemed to have all the answers. It was as if he’d been thinking it through while he waited for my call. “OK. Lunch, then. Do you have a place in mind, or do I get to pick?”
“I know where I want to take you. How long can you take?”
“I can take as long as I need or want. I put in enough hours throughout the week to take long lunches.”
“Good. It’s a date.”
“Not a good term, Dominic,” I said with a bit of a lecturing tone.
“Maybe not, but I’m not taking it back. When it comes to you, Ella, I’ll take what I can get.” His voice became soothing, sensual. “Like this phone call. I really didn’t think you would call, but I hoped you would. I hoped you would more than I’ve hoped for anything in a very long time. I wish for you, too. I wish I could hold you again, like I used to. I wish I could taste you.” He took a shuddering breath. “God, Ella, I want you so bad. Even after all these years, I still want you. But this time it would be different. I would take my time with you and savor every kiss, every touch.”
Oh, my. I was completely speechless. And his words, I found, were stirring a desire in me that had lain dormant since the accident. I was human, after all. My sex life had been abruptly and violently ripped away from me. Now this incredible man from my past was awakening sexual desires I feared I would never again satisfy. And he was doing it without laying a hand on me. His soft words had become like whispers on my skin, making me shiver so that I pulled the blanket up to my shoulders. I wanted more, but I knew he had to stop.
“Dominic, you can’t talk like that. I can’t see you if you do. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us.”
“But you like it, don’t you?” he asked teasingly in his gravely whisper.
“It doesn’t matter if I like it. It’s wrong, and you can’t do it.” I was trying to firm, but softly so.
“What’s wrong, Ella? Is it my words, or your reaction to them?” He was still being smooth. There was no accusation in his tone. “You deserve to be touched as a woman. You deserve to be admired in all your natural beauty. That’s what I want to give you. I love you, Ella. I’m sorry if it’s wrong. I can’t help what I feel.” He didn’t sound apologetic. He sounded almost hurt, disappointed. “I’ll try to behave myself and not touch you, but I can’t make any promises. I think you’re denying yourself more than you’re denying me.”
“I realize what I’m denying. But, no matter what desires I may have, I am married. Just because Michael can’t give me things that a normal woman wants, and thinks she needs, doesn’t give me the right to go find them elsewhere.”
“You might as well vow celibacy.” He suddenly sounded irritated. “I’m not saying to go to bed with me, though God knows I’d savor that. I’m just telling you that you deserve to have a good sex life. Have you even talked to Michael about it? Do you even know how he feels about what you’ve given up for him? For all you know he hates himself because he feels he’s keeping you from happiness, no matter how much you love him. He may worry that you’re already having an affair. Are you, Ella? Have you?”
“How dare you.” It was my turn to be angry, and my voice simmered with the bile it stirred. “You know nothing about me, Dominic Sterling. You know nothing of the woman I’ve become, the life I lead. I would never, have never cheated on my husband. I am a loyal and honest wife and mother.” I had to struggle to keep my voice down.
“Calm down. Calm down. I was just trying to point something out to you. I’m sorry. I did it the wrong way. I meant nothing by it.” I heard him sigh through the line. “I don’t want you angry with me. I couldn’t stand that. Look, Ella, it’s like I said. I’m happy just to have you in my life again, whatever role you play. But I don’t want you to be the angry ex. And I don’t want to be the one who splits a happy marriage.”
I paused and let his apology take root before I spoke. “Apology accepted. So, lunch tomorrow, and we’ll talk about you meeting my family. I just need to figure out how to tell them who you are.” I was about to end the call, but something else popped into my head. “Oh, you’ll need to meet Lynnette, too.”
“Michael’ nurse. I’m going to ask her to move in with us, but I can explain that over lunch.”
He put on his sexily intrigued voice. “A live-in nurse, huh? So, is this Lynnette single? Maybe she and I could have a go since you turned me down.”
It got the reaction I knew he was going for. I was instantly jealous. “Yes she’s single. And no, you can’t have a go with her.”
“Why not? You have me all kinds of turned on, but I can’t have you. So, maybe I can have a little bit of Lynnette.”
Why was he doing this? Was he trying to prove a point? “She’s too young,” I said simply, hoping that would be enough. But deep inside, I knew better.
“There’s no such thing as too young. Unless she’s jail-bait, of course. But I doubt that if she’s a private nurse. Is it maybe because you’d be jealous?” His mocking tone had me on the edge. He had me.
“OK. So what if I am jealous. Isn’t that to be expected? After all, you were mine just a couple minutes ago.”
“Well, it’s nice to know I can stir that kind of emotion in you, beautiful. But don’t worry your pretty little head. I’ll leave Lynnette alone. I’m waiting for you. How ever long it takes, I’m waiting for you.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Dominic. You can come by around eleven-thirty, twelve o’clock.”
“I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait to see you again. Sleep well, and sweet dreams.”
“Good-night.” I hung up the phone and laid it on the table next to my untouched coffee. I sat there on the porch swing staring out toward the quiet street. Very few lights were on in the neighborhood due to the late hour. Only the soft halo-glows of the old-fashioned street lamps lit the darkness of the night.
Sitting there lost in thought, I lost track of the time. When I finally went inside to get ready for bed the grandfather clock was chiming one. I poured my untouched coffee in the kitchen sink and rinsed the mug.
I undressed and slipped into my nightshirt. Climbing under the covers with Michael, my mind was on Dominic and our lunch date the next day. When I finally drifted off to sleep my dreams were graced by Dominic’s unyielding presence. For the first time in a long time I awoke with memories of sweet dreams.
Friday morning I told Robert about my lunch date. I explained the story using enough vague details to keep suspicion and questions to a minimum. I told him who Dominic was, professionally, and what he wanted me to do. I also explained to him that I was doing it off bank-time and making no extra money for my consultation. He seemed all right with it.
Cassie was the next problem. She wanted to go to lunch so she could try to dig more details out of me about this mystery man. Lunch at Mo’s was always her favorite place to get the good dishes on what was going on. So, I was left with the task of letting her know that the mystery man was taking me to lunch, and she would have to wait for any juicy tidbits.
I also had to do this without the ears on the walls hearing me. It’s funny how word travels so quickly through a company. In no time I could go from a simple business lunch with a private client to having a secret meeting with a company that wanted to hire me, or worse, to having an affair.
That was the problem with working with mostly women. They can’t seem to mind their own business. And if they happen upon some information, it gets told to everyone they see, and the story grows taller and more twisted the farther it gets.
So I told Cassie as soon as she suggested lunch, which was the moment she saw me. I stood and walked around my desk to close my office door. Then I turned and faced her.
“We can’t have lunch today, Cassie. I know you want more info, but not today. OK?”
She looked at me for a moment, studying my face as if she were trying to read my mind. Then her school-girl giddiness began to bubble. Her eyes grew round as a smile spread across her face. “You’re having lunch with him.” It wasn’t a question. “Oh my God. You’re having lunch with him. Does anyone else know?”
“Robert knows, but as far as he’s concerned it’s a private business client seeking an outside opinion. I’d like to keep it that way.”
“So, am I gonna get to meet him?” The enthusiasm she exhibited was almost contagious. I had to struggle to keep my composure in the face of the young girl trying to burst through my friend’s skin.
I smiled a smile that felt like it would split my face in two. “Yes, you’ll get to meet him. But please try to keep it professional. OK? I don’t want anyone else sticking their noses in. This is complicated enough without gossips fabricating their own versions of the truth.” I knew when it came down to it I could count on Cassie.
If there hadn’t been a problem with the server, that morning would have been the longest on record. As it was, the server kept my morning going. First it went down, but that was thankfully before the bank opened. Then, it decided to lock out certain computer stations so that we could only have two tellers open. On a Friday, that’s not a good thing.
But those problems were minor compared to the adrenaline that started pumping through my system around quarter after eleven. Every time I heard the door open I was looking through my office window into the lobby. And with every minute that passed, my anxiety grew. You would’ve thought I was going on a hot date with Johnny Depp, or something.
I pulled my hand mirror out of my desk drawer and checked my hair and make-up. Cassie caught me doing it and closed the door on us.
“You need to chill out, Ella. You’re getting yourself all worked up. It shows.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I know, I know. I can’t help it, though. Oh my God, Cassie. If you only knew what this man does to me.”
“I’d like to know, but you’re not telling.” She stopped talking when my eyes went to the window as the door opened again. My expression must have shown that Dominic had just walked in, because she turned to look, too.
If I was on an adrenaline rush before he walked in, then the sight of him sent me into an overdose. I got so hot—like a hot-flash. I was suddenly very nervous as I turned Cassie to me and asked in an almost panicked voice, “How do I look? Do I look okay?”
She took me by the shoulders and pushed me down in my leather chair. “You look beautiful, as always. Now chill out before you hyperventilate. I’ll let the man in when he asks for you.”
I could see a teller pointing toward my office when Dominic spoke to her. I also noticed how she watched him as he crossed the lobby. So did the other tellers. But it wasn’t suspicion I saw in their eyes. It was lust.
Cassie had already left my office and taken her seat at her desk just outside. When Dominic approached her and spoke, he gave her his warmest, most winning smile. He held out his hand to shake hers, and she obliged, standing so as to be more professional. Then she turned and came to the door with Dominic on her heals.
I took a deep breath as the door opened. Cassie, in her infinite wisdom, took her time with the process. She also stepped in first and introduced him before letting Dominic enter. She was giving me the time I needed for a few more breaths.
As Dominic walked in, smiling his I’m-gonna-melt-you-to-the-core smile, Cassie backed out waving her hand as if to fan herself from extreme heat. I couldn’t respond because I was too enthralled with the man standing before me.
I had decided to make it a professional meeting within the walls of the bank. I stood, walked around my desk, and held out my hand to shake Dominic’s. “Nice to see you again, Mr. Sterling.”
His eyes flickered, but he didn’t miss a beat. “And you, too, Ms. Boothe.”
He took my hand to shake it. I all but melted at his touch. We had to get out of the bank, quick. If we didn’t, people would know this wasn’t as innocent as it seemed. I could feel it.
“Shall we have lunch?” he asked in that subtly sexy tone.
I slipped into my jacket and grabbed my purse. Dominic opened the door for me and we walked out together. I could feel the eyes of every bank employee on me as we left.
We walked to his car. The Mustang couldn’t be his only car. He had to have a practical one as well, but there sat the smooth sex-appeal of the muscle car. I had the impression he brought it because he knew what it did to me. I walked around to the passenger side, but when I reached for the door, he smoothly slipped in front and opened it for me. He waited until I was seated and closed the door.
He slid in behind the wheel and turned to me with that smile. “You ready to go for a ride?”
I tried to be indifferent by shrugging my shoulders a little and saying, “Sure.”
Sliding the key into the ignition, he turned it and let the engine roar with a slight press of the accelerator. I felt the smile. Mine and his.
I heard the soft bump as he put the car in gear. Being the ever-so-professional businessman, he left the bank lot at a respectable speed. When he pulled up to the red light at the end of the street, I turned to look at him.
He wore dark sunglasses, but I could tell by the set of his jaw what was on his mind. And it wasn’t lunch. I turned back to the windshield and pressed my head lightly against the headrest.
The opposing light turned yellow, then red. Dominic slid the Mustang into first. I waited.
I barely saw the light change to green before he dropped the clutch. The car banged into second, chirping the tires as they tried to grip the road with the gaining speed. Third, fourth, fifth. In less than ten seconds we were flying down the road at eighty miles an hour.
I closed my eyes and let the speed carry me away. As the speed sank into my bones and the music invaded my consciousness, I felt all my problems being swept behind me.
Dominic drove for a while with nothing but the music for company. He seemed to realize just what I needed—even if I didn’t—and he gave it to me freely. No questions asked. I had always loved him for that.
When he started slowing down, I opened my eyes. We were climbing the winding road that led to the top of Elk Mountain. The trees were budding tiny shoots of vibrant greens and yellows. I hit the button for the window and breathed in the mountain air. It was so fresh and clean. I laid my head back again and just let the air whip around me as we climbed. It was a beautiful ride to the top.
Just before we reached the summit, I turned to look out Dominic’s window. There was a spectacular view of the valley below, aptly named “Lookout Point.” I never saw the view. My eyes came to rest on the man sitting next to me.
At one point in my life, he had been my world. I would have gone into the depths of Hell and back for him. Now he was back, and it was like we never skipped a beat. The chemistry between us caused fireworks for everyone to see. I longed to feel his lips on mine again, to drown in the depths of his beautiful green eyes. Most of all, I needed him to wrap me in his arms and tell me everything would be all right.
I watched him as he brought the car over the last rise and into the parking lot of the Elk Horn Restaurant. I watched him as he pulled the emergency brake and turned off the engine. I watched him as he turned to me, taking off his glasses to reveal his most deadly weapon.
Our eyes locked, and in the confines of the car the air began to grow thick. We sat there gazing at each other in perfect silence. Then something changed within those green depths, and he smiled and took a deep breath.
I thanked God for small favors as he climbed out and shut his door, taking the brief moment alone to beat at the mental stardust clouding my mind. When he opened my door, he offered his hand to assist me. I took it, relishing the instant melding that was at once strong and gentle.
But I wasn’t there on business, or a romantic date. I was a little uncomfortable with Dominic spending that kind of money on taking me to lunch. This was supposed to be a friendly meeting, not a date. Well, he did say he would take what he could get, I thought as we walked to the door. Maybe he’s gonna try to woo me with extravagance.
The maitre-d opened the door and greeted us as we approached. “Good Afternoon, Mr. Sterling. Mrs. Boothe.”
“Afternoon, Charles,” Dominic replied. I glanced over at him. How does he know Charles?
“Charles,” I said, nodding to him. He beamed at me as I walked through the door.
“We have a table reserved for you on the balcony, as you requested, Mr. Sterling.” He led the way across the fairly empty restaurant to the French doors that stood open to the balcony overlooking the valley. Outside he crossed to a table that sat apart from the others. It was in the far corner next to the railing—best view in the whole of the Elk Horn.
Charles went to pull my chair out for me, but Dominic stepped in. “I’ll take care of Ella. Thank you, Charles.” And he helped to seat me as the maitre-d placed the menus on the table. I noticed an odd look flash across the waiter’s face as he bowed out. Was it curiosity, satisfaction? Surely it was simple curiosity at seeing me here with another man.
Michael and I had be regulars at the Elk Horn for years before the accident. Since then, Allison and I had continued going, though less frequently. Charles had questioned me about finding another male companion.
And, about that, how in the world was Dominic familiar with the staff here? I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Since we were virtually the only people in the place, they probably knew who he was by the time of our arrival. And knowing Charles’ name? Dominic had always been good with names. He probably remembered it from when he called to make the reservation. I decided not to ask because it didn’t matter.
I picked up my menu and browsed the lighter fare. Dominic was perusing the wine list. After deciding on a soup and salad meal, I closed the menu and turned to gaze out over the valley.
My mind felt simultaneously foggy and extremely clear. I was vaguely aware that someone else was at the table with me as I breathed in the clear mountain air. It went deep into my lungs and penetrated my soul—always the cleanser of my spirit. My eyes followed the small flocks of birds darting from the canopy only to dive back in. It felt good to be up here, above everything that was cumbersome in my life.
An odd sensation began to infiltrate my peaceful little bubble. It was warm to the point of almost creating real heat. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and focused on it, turning my head in the direction from which it seemed to emanate.
When my eyes opened, I was taken captive by the deep green pools that were
Dominic’s eyes. We sat there, lost in each other, for what seemed like an eternity. Yet it wasn’t long e
nough. It could never be long enough.
“You are so beautiful,” he said in an almost dreamy voice. He reached across the table and took my paralyzed hands in his. “I could watch you all day. Every day.”
I pulled my hands free, though with some mental effort, and dropped my head. “I wish you wouldn’t talk like that. I mean, thank you, but really. It’s not fair to either of us.” I looked back up at him.
Who was I kidding? The only thing that kept me from jumping him right then and there was Michael. I loved Michael, but that wasn’t what held me back. Loyalty and honor held me back. And, let me tell you, that was some powerful loyalty and honor to keep me from him. I wanted him like nothing I had ever wanted before. And I knew he could see it.
“Ella, I told you before. Just to have you in my life is enough. I won’t try anything. I’ll deal with any urges you may arouse.” He flashed that sexy, mischievous grin.
Wow. That stung. Images of him and Lynnette… I decided to play the game. “Deal with them however you wish,” I said in smug tone.
He curled his finger at me in a “come hither” gesture. I leaned forward across the table, and he met me half-way. He looked right into my eyes and, in a voice dripping with sexuality, said, “The way I wish has just been denied to me.” Then he puckered his lips at me in a quick gesture that had me melting.
I sat back in my chair. “I have to go back to work, you know.”
“What are you saying? That you’d be willing to help me deal with my urges otherwise?”
Our waitress approached the table then. Dominic turned his charm onto the young woman, causing roses to bloom on her round cheeks and girlish giddiness to tinkle in her laugh. I enjoyed watching him practically bring the girl to her knees.
We gave our orders, choosing the same meal with iced-tea to drink.
Once the waitress had gone, I looked at Dominic. “You’re something else. You know that?”
He looked at me innocently and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do. That waitress was all but falling over herself because of you.” I watched that smile of his spread slowly across his face. “See. You know what I mean. You turn on that charm of yours, and you can have anything you want.”
“Not anything,” he said with a serious tone. “I can’t have you.”
“A minor technicality. What you don’t know won’t hurt you. It’s better that way.”
He sat back in his chair, a puzzled look on his face. “What does that mean? Does that mean I could
have you if I went about it the right way?”
I shook my head, knowing this was killing both of us. “It means that no matter what I may feel toward you, nothing will ever happen. I would never cheat on Michael. Never. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances.”
It was his turn to shake his head. “I’m not asking that of you. I keep telling you that.” He paused and looked me in the eyes. “Maybe you’re just trying to convince yourself that you won’t cheat. Maybe you’re afraid of your own feelings for me.”
I looked away. It felt like he had pried my darkest fear from the depths of my sub-conscience, and I hadn’t realized it until just then. Maybe he was right. Maybe I was trying to convince myself that I would never cheat on Michael. The fact was, I was lonely. Michael was a wonderful husband, but he could only give me so much. I needed adult companionship. I needed conversation. I needed—or wanted—a sexual relationship. I was only human, after all. Until Dominic reappeared in my life, I didn’t know I was missing all of that.
He took my chin and tilted my head up to face him. “I’m not going to push you, Ella. If you come to me I won’t turn you away, but I won’t push you to that.”
Just then I saw the waitress coming with our drinks and salads. Saved by the server! I thought as I pulled away from him.
We both leaned back so she could put our plates and drinks on the table. I watched as she served Dominic. He smiled up at her, and her cheek-roses bloomed again. “Can I get you anything else?” She asked Dominic directly, as if he was sitting alone.
“Nothing for me, darling,” he smiled at her. Then he turned to me. “Ella, do you need anything else?”
The waitress stepped back half a step and looked at me. I smiled up at her, secretly admiring how smooth Dominic had been in reminding her that I was there, too. “No, thank you.”
She nodded her head, and took her exit. It was a practiced move, utilized by all of the servers at the Elk Horn.
When she was back inside the still-empty restaurant, I looked at Dominic. Then I laughed.
“No. I just love watching women react to you. I don’t think you really know the effect you have on them.” When he started to interrupt, I held up my hand to stop him. “You know that you affect them, and you can turn it on at will. But I don’t think you fully understand the way it really affects them.”
“Well, then, why don’t you enlighten me?”
I started picking at my salad. “Let’s start at the bank. When you walked in the door, every woman in there was drawn to you. They all kept working, but they were intensely aware of your presence.” I left out what his entrance did to me. “Cassie was fanning herself when she left my office. Just now, with the waitress. All you did was smile at her, and she was putty in your hands. She totally forgot I was here.”
He raised one eyebrow. “And just how do I affect you?” His voice was silky, like satin on my skin.
“You know how you affect me, Dominic.”
He laid his fork down, folded his hands, and leaned toward me, elbows resting on the table. “Actually, I don’t have any idea. When I saw you yesterday, I thought it was obvious. Now, I’m not so sure. You’re warm and cool at the same time. You look at me like you might never look away, but there’s a distance in your stance.
“Tell me, Ella. How do I affect you?”
Was this the time to be totally honest, with Dominic and myself? Or should I tame it down to save both of us the pain it could cause? I wasn’t really sure. As I sat there staring into his eyes, I decided to tell the truth.
I dropped my gaze, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. When I looked up again, his eyes were swimming with so many emotions my heart nearly exploded.
“You make me want again. I want to hold you in my arms. I want to feel your arms around me, pulling me so close like you’ll never let me go. I want to breathe in your scent. I want to feel your lips pressed against mine. I want to get lost in your presence and forget the outside world exists.”
I paused to find the right words. “You make me feel things I haven’t felt since before the accident. Desire. Passion. Longing. Lust, even. It’s like you’ve awoken my inner woman that lay dormant.
“I can’t have you. I won’t have you. And it tears me apart. It’s painful to sit here with you, but I don’t want to be anywhere else. You’re here now, back from the grave in a sense, and I need you on so many levels it scares me.”
I turned and looked out over the trees. “That’s not to say that someone else wouldn’t have come along and stirred these feelings eventually. I’m human. It was bound to happen at some point.”
Turning back to Dominic, I continued. “You make me crave companionship, too. It’s so hard to go home every night and not have anyone to really talk to. I mean I can talk to Michael, and he understands, but he can’t hold a conversation with me. He can’t really give his opinion or thoughts on something in a back and forth way, you know? I need that. I talk to Cassie almost every night, but it’s not the same. I miss those intimate conversations. The ones that start on the sofa, or in the kitchen and carry through to the bedroom at bedtime.”
I stopped there and turned back to the view again. I had said it all in a fairly concise manner. Saying it made it that much more real—made the need that much more powerful.
We sat that way, in silence—me staring out over the mountain, Dominic watching me—until the waitress came back with a bread basket and our soup.
She was much more serious this time. Perhaps she sensed the change in the mood, perhaps Charles had said something to her. Either way, she set the food down, asked if we needed anything else, and then graciously took her leave.
I began stirring my soup in a methodical way to cool it down. When I looked up at Dominic, he was sitting there watching me. He hadn’t touched anything, and he looked extremely solemn.
“What?” I asked.
“That was very honest. I don’t think I was really expecting that depth of honesty. I’m sorry I’m causing you pain by being here. If you want, if it’s better for you, I can leave you alone after lunch. I’ll let you go again if that’s what you want.”
I scrutinized him across the table. He meant what he said. He would let me go again. But that’s not what I wanted. Now that he had come back, it would be worse if he left again.
“I don’t want you to leave, Dominic.” I reached across the table and took his hand. “I don’t want you to leave,” I repeated as I squeezed his hand. “I need you now.”
I immediately regretted my last words and actions. It came across as desperate and needy. I tried to pull my hand away, but he gave it a gentle squeeze, and the tenderness in his eyes relaxed me enough to give up without really trying.
He brought our joined hands to his cheek and rested mine on the light stubble on his face. “I won’t leave.” He turned and kissed my hand. “I’ll be here in whatever aspect you need.”
When he released my hand I went back to picking at my soup and a piece of bread. I didn’t really eat because I had lost most of my appetite. Hunger for the man across from me had replaced the hunger for food. I was quiet for a while, just watching my soup as the spoon swirled through it.
The waitress came back and asked how everything was. Dominic, using his warm and friendly voice, told her it was fine and that we didn’t need anything else, just the check. She nodded and left.
When she brought the check back, Dominic put the money in the bill-fold, folded his napkin on the table, and pushed his chair back. I watched him stand and walk around the table to me. He helped pull my chair out, then offered his hand to help me stand. I took it.
As we walked out of the restaurant, I looked around at the empty tables and remembered something. I stopped, and still surveying the vacant area, I said, “The Elk Horn isn’t open for lunch.” I turned to Dominic. “The Elk Horn doesn’t open until four.”
His eyes betrayed nothing as he shrugged his shoulders. “I have connections.”
Connections? How did a man fairly new in town get connections that opened a restaurant like the Elk Horn early? Or, more accurately, for a private lunch for two? Did he use money? His status as the new owner of the big chain opening soon? Just how did he pull this off?
He could tell the questions were swimming in my head. He probably even knew what those questions were. I stood there just staring at him, waiting for answers.
Charles came bustling through the restaurant from the kitchen. “Mr. Sterling. Mrs. Boothe. I trust everything was satisfactory?”
“Oh, yes, Charles. Everything was beautiful,” Dominic said looking up at the man. “Ms. Boothe and I were just leaving. She has to get back to the bank.” This last he said with a smile for me.
I noted that for the second time today he called me Ms. Boothe, not Mrs. I wondered if it was intentional. Was he trying to tone down my married name, or was it just a formal habit from the corporate world?
“Well, you two have a wonderful day. It was nice to see you again, Mrs. Boothe. We’ve missed having you as our guest. I hope we’ll be seeing more of you in the future.” Charles smiled at me. But I saw his glance at Dominic. He was glad I had come here with another man. He was hoping I had found someone to fill the void left by Michael’s accident. I couldn’t fault him for feeling that way. Not really. Charles and the other management had been almost like a second—business—family to me, Michael, and Allison. I had questioned his excitement when we arrived. Now I had my answer.
“Thank you, Charles. We’ll be back,” Dominic said, and he rested his hand on my shoulder and gently turned me toward the door. His arm draped across my back as we walked out.
He held my car door for me again. And again, I had to take the time for a few deep breaths before he climbed in on the other side.
We drove half-way down the mountain before he spoke.
“Maybe lunch was a mistake.” His voice was so serious.
I turned to see his eyes, but I was blocked by those dark glasses he wore. Damn those glasses.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, now I have to take you back to work.”
“So, I don’t want to take you back. I want to spend the rest of the day with you.” He shrugged. “Rest of the night too, truth be told.”
“Dominic, don’t. I have to go back, especially after this morning. God only knows what that crazy server might be doing.”
“I know. I know. But that doesn’t mean I can’t want.” He paused. “Can I take you by the store for a couple minutes?”
I thought about it. “I guess so. We haven’t been gone that long, and I already have more than forty hours in this week. Let’s go to the store. Your store,” I corrected.
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.
“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.
“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.
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 preceded 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.
“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.
“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.
“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 15When 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 s
he 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.”
“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.
Chapter 16At 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.”
The world shrank around me. Random memories of happy, carefree Cassie collided with memories from our fight. All of that crashed into the brick wall of what to do now. I couldn’t even form the question to ask Officer Brecky. But I didn’t have to.
“We’ll need you to come back to the station so we can get more information from you,” she told me. I nodded, tears beginning to spill from my eyes.
I was offered water-cooler water in a flimsy paper cup while I sat opposite Officer Brecky at her desk. Dominic sat in the stiff chair to my right, leaning forward, elbows on knees, as if he was ready to jump in front of me if I needed defending. He was offering what he could to support me without giving away our true relationship.
Brecky asked an endless stream of questions about Cassie. They stared off as basic inquiries. What did she look like? Any identifying tattoos or birthmarks? Who were her other friends and family. Where did she work? What was she wearing the last time I saw her? That led us to the events of Saturday night. Each question seemed to lead to three more, and she took fluid notes in thin, slanting cursive as I answered. Her tape recorder sat on the desk in front of me, the little gears behind the plastic turning slowly as we talked.
When the questions turned to Luke, Dominic added his thoughts on who he might be. Luke had given Cassie a business card, but I never saw it. I didn’t know his last name. But I could identify him if I saw a picture.
“If it’s the same guy I’m thinking of, his last name’s Ritter,” Dominic told Brecky. “He’s the advertising editor for the paper.”
Brecky’s pen dipped and spun across her legal pad. “I’m sure I can find some photos of the Luke Ritter for Mrs. Boothe to look at,” she said. She looked up at me, and I noticed for the first time that her eyes were a piercing emerald green. She was striking, really. An exotic beauty with olive skin, highlighted hair styled in a fun Halle Berry-type pixie cut that accented the angular lines of her face.
“Do you remember what Luke was wearing that night, Mrs. Boothe?”
I sighed, and gave her the best description I could. When I was just about finished, I remembered something. I noticed it in passing that night. But now, as I sat there trying to recall every detail of the man, this one little tidbit knocked at the door of my subconscious asking to be set free.
I sat up straight and gripped the desk, Brecky’s eyes searching me. “He had a tattoo,” I said. I turned to Dominic and repeated myself, maybe hoping for a response. “He had a tattoo.”
Recognition sparked in his eyes. That was both good and bad.
Brecky’s eyebrows rose. “Can you describe this tattoo?” she asked.
My eyes closed, trying to pull the image to foreground of my mind. But there wasn’t much to go on. “It peaked out form under his collar on the back of his neck. Black ink. Tribal, maybe. I could only see a little bit.” I opened my eyes to see Brecky writing on her pad again.
“Mr. Sterling, can you tell me if the Luke Ritter you referred to earlier has an identifying tattoo like the one Mrs. Boothe described?”
He looked at me out of the corner of his eyes, then faced Officer Brecky. “He has a black, tribal tattoo on his upper left arm. It covers his shoulder and across the bottom of his neck.” When he looked at me again, cold dread flooded my body. Luke Ritter and the Luke from the bar were the same person. And I got the feeling that this went deeper than I knew. Deeper than Officer Brecky probably suspected.
I got home late. Lynnette was sleeping on the sofa, so I covered her with a blanket, turned the volume down on the TV, and headed to bed. Work was going to be rough the next day.
Chapter 17Robert and I had an impromptu meeting in his office to discuss the Cassie situation, as he called it. He wasn’t insensitive. He just didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t blame him. If our positions had been reversed, I would have been the same way.
He agreed to give it a week before calling a temp agency. But he didn’t like the idea of not having Cassie there to help me. He knew how vital she was to my work. She kept things organized so I could work on the more complex issues that came up. He wanted me to at least have someone to keep my schedule and screen my calls for me. One week would be like Cassie going on vacation. No big deal.
But it was a big deal. Because Cassie wasn’t on vacation. She was gone. And it felt like I’d never get my friend back. I drifted through the days on autopilot, doing what was necessary to keep the bank and my home running somewhat smoothly.
I called Officer Brecky every morning and every evening. It must have been annoying, but she was very considerate. She had tracked down Cassie’s cousin in Tennessee, but he hand’t heard from her in a few months. They weren’t very close. More of the big holiday type family, but even that had faded since Cassie’s parents died. She had no other family that could be found.
Luke Ritter was indeed the same Luke that we had met at the bar. His record was clean, and even though the cops were watching him, his routine never changed. He never gave any indication that he had anything to hide.
When Officers Brecky and Carwahl called him in, he had given a statement of his account about Saturday night. It pretty well matched my own. And he claimed not to have followed us out to the parking lot, choosing to stay inside and dance some more. The only problem with his story--and it was a minor one--was that no one could vouch for him. He was alone that night, and nobody in the bar knew him. Even the waitress who had been drooling over him couldn’t remember when he left because the place was packed.
Dominic became a constant in my life, offering the support that Michael was unable to give. He came by every night after Michael and Allison were in bed. We would sit together on the porch and talk about random things. He was just trying to keep my mind off of Cassie and the investigation. It didn’t work.
Monday of the second week, Robert called a temp agency approved by the corporate office. They sent three young women to be interviewed that day. Robert and I interviewed them together to save time. And, after each one was over, I locked myself in my office and cried.
We both agreed that the second interviewee, a girl named Beth, was the best candidate. She had experience, good references, and a pleasant personality. She would start Wednesday. That meant I had to spend some time at Cassie’s desk locking up her personal things and setting up her computer to take an additional user without allowing Beth access to anything she wouldn’t need. After all, she was only a temp. Cassie would be resuming her position very soon.
When Beth showed up Wednesday morning, she came baring coffee. “I didn’t know what you like, so I grabbed a little of everything.” Her voice rang like choir bells in a church a Christmas. The melodic tone soothing my raw nerves.
“Thank you, Beth. Please, come in my office.” I followed her through the open door, closing it behind me. “You can put the coffee on the desk. You really didn’t have to go to the trouble.”
“Oh, it was no trouble, Mrs. Boothe,” she practically sang. “I go right past the coffee shop on my way here. I stop for myself, so I figured I’d get you one, too.” I could tell that she felt sorry for me. It wasn’t her tone or mannerisms, but the sad look in her eyes.
“Please, call me Ella,” I said, walking around to my big leather chair on the other side of the desk. It was a relief to sit. The tension my body had been carrying was exhausting. “I’ll show you your desk, and we’ll go over your duties in a bit. But first I want to discuss the reason you’re here right now.”
Beth sat a little straighter, feet and knees together, hands folded in her lap. Every bit the picture of the proper young lady from any era. “Mrs. Boothe. I know the reason you need to fill the position. And I understand the temporary status. You don’t need to go into details. It must be difficult.”
“Please call me Ella,” I repeated wearily. “I realize you know the story. Everyone in a hundred mile radius probably knows. But, I need to emphasize to you that Cassie Wade is my friend. I don’t want to hear gossip about what’s going on. And I don’t want to hear anything about how you’re just a temp, and do I think you’ll be hired on permanently, and other such stuff.”
If it was possible, her rigid back went even straighter. “Ella,” she said carefully, “I would never pester you or anyone else about my position. That is unprofessional. I also do not participate in office gossip or banter.
“You see,” she went on, “I prefer temp work for just that reason. My skills are such that I’m never out of work very long, and my husband is a wealthy man. I don’t have to work, but I like to keep busy. I appreciate you giving me the chance to help you out. You can count on me to keep a professional appearance and attitude. And I will do my best to keep office talk out of your office. That is, I’ll stop rumors before they can reach your ears.”
Maybe I had misjudged Beth’s age because she seemed wise beyond her years. Besides that, she didn’t look old enough to have a wealthy husband. Unless she was a gold digger who married some rich old man in the hopes that he would die soon. I caught myself drifting away on that tangent and reeled my mind back to the current time and place.
I relaxed a little. “Okay. I appreciate that,” I told her. I leaned forward and reached for the coffee cup. “As for my coffee, I like two sugars and a splash of cream.” I popped the lid off and added the desired amounts to the black liquid, stirring it with the long, thin straw.
“While this cools, let me show you the desk where you’ll be working.” I stood, and Beth followed me to Cassie’s desk. I showed her how to set her password and turned my back while she did. Then we went into the schedule and other things that Cassie helped me with. Beth took notes the whole way, but she was also doing it as I showed her, too. And she proved to be very adept with the work.
I did the phone last since we started with the computer. Beth wrote down the greeting I asked her to use, and got her first chance to use it a few seconds later.
“First Bank of Summerville. This is Beth. How may I assist you, today?” The bell tone of her voice would soften even the angriest of patrons, though we didn’t have many. I stood back and observed as she wrote on the pad designed for the purpose of noting phone calls. “Okay, Mr. Sterling. Please hold while I see if Mrs. Boothe is available.” She punched the hold button and replaced the receiver, turning to me for approval.
I smiled. “Very good, Beth. I think you’ll do fine. I’ll take the call in my office.”
She nodded as she thanked me, turning back to her monitor and beginning to explore a bit more.
With a small breath of relief I returned to my office and closed the door. As I sat down, Beth transferred the call to my phone. It was a pleasant surprise to find that she seemed right at home with the equipment.
I picked up the phone. “Ella Boothe.”
“Hey, beautiful. How’re you doing?” Dominic’s voice always calmed me in some ways while exciting me in others. And, even through all the stress, this time was no different.
“I’m still here,” I said with a sigh.
“Who was that girl with the voice that answered the phone?”
“Girl with the voice? What does that mean?”
“She had a nice voice. Sexy and sweet at the same time. Beth? That was her name, right?”
“Yeah. Beth. She’s my temp for now.” I knew he was trying to lighten the situation, but I wasn’t really in the mood.
Either he wasn’t catching on, or he was that resilient. Or he had a death wish. “Well, if sweet and sexy Bath is screening your calls, I’ll have to call more often.” I could hear his smile through the line.
“Well, sweet and sexy Beth is married, Dominic.” I practically snapped at him. “So, back off.” Okay, I did snap at him. But I didn’t want to play his try-to-make-me-jealous games. I wanted his full support. I wanted to feel like he was there for me no matter what. Because I felt like he was all I really had.
“Easy, Ella. I’m just playing. Listen, I’m going to come by and take you to lunch. Just something simple. Maybe the cafe?” He sounded hopeful, but I wasn’t sure about leaving Beth on her first day.
“I don’t know, Dominic. I’ve got Beth here, and it’s her first day.”
“Well she gets lunch, too, right? Just take yours at the same time. Tell her when to be back, and I’ll make sure you’re back before that.”
“All right. Meet me at twelve. Just come in to the office.”
The man had to be given credit for his punctuality. He walking through the door at exactly twelve. My door was open, so I listened to Beth greet him in her polished professional manner before showing him in.
“Beth, you can take lunch now,” I told her. “Just be sure to be back by twelve-forty-five.” She nodded and backed out, closing the door on her way.
I noticed that she picked up the bank phone and made a call. It was short, maybe a quick call to her husband to tell him she was going to lunch. It was a perfectly normal gesture, but for some reason I felt a deep part of my subconscious questioning it. When she hung up, she gathered her things and left for lunch. I shook my head a little and turned to the strong presence of the man who refused to be ignored.
“Well, Mrs. Boothe, shall we attend to lunch?” He turned on his sweetest smile. The one that could melt the ice around the coldest of hearts.
“When you smile at me like that, how can I say no?” I smiled back and shook my head at him. I grabbed my purse and waved him to the door. “After you, Mr. Sterling.”
Lunch was uneventful. Dominic and I avoided talking about Cassie’s case, sticking to the impending opening of his store.
“So, I’m wondering. Will you do one of those things where you open officially, and then throw a big grand opening sale two weeks later?” I asked.
He shook his head, his brow crinkling with his frown. “No. I never understood that. A grand opening should be when the store opens, not weeks later. There will be a huge grand opening celebration and sale the weekend the store opens. No waiting around.”
I glanced at my watch. “Oh no! It’s twenty of one. I told Beth to be back by quarter of. I need to get back.” I began cleaning up, but Dominic put a hand on mine.
“Let me,” he said, picking up where he had stopped me. His movements were efficient, and the table was clear in thirty seconds. As he walked back from the trash can, I stood, and we headed back to his car.
He held the door for me, but he crouched beside me instead of closing it. His hand found my thigh as our gazes locked. “Ella, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything that’s going on with Cassie. I’m sorry for stirring up old emotions and feelings, especially when you have to deal with Michael’s problems everyday. I know I told you that just having you in my life was enough. . .” He drifted off, dropping his gaze. “It’s not enough. I can’t be this close to you and not have you. Even just a little bit. I know you said that Michael is coherent, but he can’t give you what I can. Please let me try to make you happy.”
So many emotions tore through me I was lost, spinning helplessly in the whirlwind. So I grabbed on to one of the stronger ones as it sped by. And I lashed out at him. “Are you kidding me, Dominic? Are you seriously dropping this on me now? You’re timing is impeccable. My life is a shambles for so many reasons, and you want to complicate things more than you already have? What the he--”
He crushed my tirade with his hungry mouth. His lips were sweet from the soda he’d been drinking. He wasn’t kind. His tongue forced it’s way into my mouth, tangling and fighting with my own. The weight of his assault had me pressed against the seat, unable to fight back. Unwilling, too.
When he finally let me breathe again, I pushed at his chest. “Why do you keep doing this? It’s not fair, Dominic.” I started pulling the seat belt across my lap. “Now, I have to get back to work before Beth. Although she’s probably already there. Great first impression from me. I can’t even stick to my own time limits.”
He didn’t say anything, just closed the door and slid behind the steering wheel. We drove back to the bank in silence. Before I got out, he covered my hand with his. “Just think about it, Ella. That’s all I’m asking.”
I looked him in the eye, slipped my hand from his, and got out without a word.
Chapter 18At the end of a long second week without Cassie, Officer Brecky called me at the bank. I had matched photos of Luke Ritter with the man Cassie and I met in the bar. It was him, all right, and Officer Brecky was calling to give me the rundown on just how powerful this man was.
“He has more connections than any newspaper editor I’ve heard of. I mean, connections are part of the job description, but this guy.” Papers shuffled in the background. “This guy has all your typical political connections, but he’s also involved with the mafia. He was even arrested on drug trafficking charges in Miami.”
My heart stopped beating. Miami? “Was he convicted?” I asked with my heart in my throat.
“No. The reasons for his release aren’t exactly clear, but it seems to have been paperwork issues.”
“Is that his only arrest? Was he charged with anything else?”
“Yes, that was his only arrest. There is a brief mention of illegal firearms in the very beginning, but it disappears after the first page. There isn’t even a mention of it being a dropped charge, so it could have been a mistake.
“Oh, yeah,” she added. “He was married a couple years ago to a Madeline Sloan. She was arrest and served time for drug charges in her early twenties. It appears, though, that Ritter took a liking to her while she was serving because she got new representation in the form of his top-dollar lawyers. They got her sentence reduced so much that she only had to serve another month before being released. Ritter married her two years later. She would be twenty-eight now. He’s forty.”
“Wow.” My head was buzzing. I had so many questions, but I needed to keep everything straight. There was a legal pad in my top desk drawer. I had no need for it, really. Just seemed like I should have it. I pulled it out now, grabbed a pen from the holder, and started grilling.
“How long has Luke been here? Where is Madeline from? Where was she arrested? Does she have any family in the area?” I was short-handing the questions as I asked them. And I looked out the window at Beth when I asked the last one.
“Slow down, Mrs. Boothe. Let me just tell you what I know.” Brecky took a deep breath and released it before going into the details I was looking for. “Luke Ritter has residences in several states. Possibly even different countries. The man has money and power. He moves around a lot. He purchased his home here five years ago. He seems to have met Miss Sloan shortly after that. She’s from the Philadelphia area, but has been here for about six years as far as I can tell. She was arrested here, and served her time here. Somehow, Ritter met her while she was still in prison, and his lawyers got her sentence shortened. They were married two years ago. She doesn’t have any family in the area, since she’s from Philly. From what I can tell, she’s the troubled one in her family. No one else has any violations. Could be that’s why she moved away.”
I wrote feverishly as she talked. Then another question popped into my head. “Officer Brecky, did Madeline keep her maiden name when she married Luke?”
Beth’s phone rang, and she answered. She pulled out her pad for phone notes, tore the top sheet off, and wrote as she listened to the receiver.
“Yes, she did.”
Beth hung up. But instead of putting the paper in the in-box for me on her desk, she slipped it into her purse. She wasn’t the type I would expect to take personal calls at work, but everyone had things that couldn’t wait.
“Mrs. Boothe?” Brecky’s voice cut through my daydreaming.
“Yes. I’m here. Sorry. What were you saying?”
“I told you that I’ll contact you again when I have more information. You need to take a break. Go home and spend time with your family. Let me worry about finding Cassie.”
“Thank you, Officer Brecky. I just might do that.” I hung up and started gathering my things. It was F
riday, a long day, but things were running smoothly. I felt confident leaving Beth alone.
I picked up my purse and walked out of my office, locking the door behind me. Beth turned when she heard the click.
“Oh. Ella, are you leaving?” she asked.
“Yeah. I need to get out. I’m going home to spend some time with my husband before Allison gets out of school. I’ll see you Monday.”
“Okay. Have a good weekend. Oh! I almost forgot,” she called, as I turned away to leave. “Mr. Sterling called. He asked for you to stop by the store on your way home. Something about a glitch.” She shrugged her shoulders to show she had no more information.
I sighed. “Okay. Thanks. Have a good weekend, Beth.”
She just smiled and waved. And she picked up the phone as soon as I was out the door.
Between the Lines was in the final stages of preparing for the grand opening. A huge banner hung under the large cursive letters spelling out the store name announcing the weekend of the celebration and sale. I walked through the front doors and headed to the back where Dominic’s office was.
As I passed through the store, I passed employees stocking the shelves. They all watched me as they worked, probably wondering who I was. Just before I reached the hall leading to the back, a stack of books falling startled me. When I turned, two young women--girls really--were giggling over the fallen stack with Dominic smiling behind them.
“Girls, you need to clean this mess up. And make sure none of those books were damaged.” He was authoritative in a friendly way, and I could tell the girls were enjoying his presence. I stood and watched until he looked up and saw me.
Surprise colored his face, quickly followed by joy. “Ella! What a surprise.” Looking down at the girls again, he told them, “You two get this taken care of. Putt any books damaged by the fall in a separate box. I’ll be back to check on you in a bit.” The girls looked saddened by his departure, each of them giving me a once-over to see who was taking their eye candy away.
“Basking in the glory that is the adoration of young women, I see.” We turned toward his office.
“Always,” he smiled, slipping his arm around my waist and giving a squeeze. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be working?”
“I left early after talking to Officer Brecky. She gave me a lot of information. There was no way I could stay, so I came here.”
We entered his plush office. He shut the door and offered me his cushy leather chair, which I gladly took. He sat on the desk in front of me. “Why did you come to me?” he asked with a devilish grin.
I looked at him, confused. “Beth told me you left a message asking me to stop by after work.”
He cocked his head a bit. “I didn’t call today. I’ve been too busy getting the store together for next weekend,” he said. “I’m glad you came, though. It’s always good to see you.”
“You didn’t call today?”
He shook his head.
“Huh. Maybe she just got it mixed up with another day. Who knows. She’s good, but still learning the ropes at the bank.” I shrugged it off, not caring. It was good to be out. And even though I wanted to get home to Michael before Allison got home, it was good to see Dominic.
As if sensing my resignation, he slid off the desk and walked behind me. His strong hands found my shoulders and started massaging the stress away. He soothed the muscles in my back and shoulders for almost ten minutes while I leaned forward, my head resting on the desk. But, business was business, and we were wrapped up in a missing person case, so when my cell rang I wasn’t surprised. What surprised me was that Dominic’s phone rang at the same time.
He took his out in the hall while I pulled mine out of my purse. It was Officer Brecky. Hitting answer, I put the phone to my ear with hope and dread battling for dominance in my stomach. “Hello?”
“Mrs. Boothe, this is Officer Brecky.” Uh-oh. She was using that lip gloss voice, and that scared me.
“Hi, Officer. Do have news?” I held my breath while she paused.
She took a deep breath. “I think you should come to the station, Mrs. Boothe. We need to talk, but it should be in person.”
Dread won the battle. My mouth went dry as a boulder settled in my stomach. This sounded bad. Very bad.
Then it got worse. “Maybe you should have Mr. Sterling drive you,” Brecky added.
Horrible visions swirled through my head. Cassie’s body in a ditch. Cassie weighted down at the bottom of some mountain lake. Cassie lying behind a trashy motel, her brains painting the wall behind her.
My voice shaking, I simply said, “Okay.”
I hung up just as Dominic walked in. The look on his face said he had gotten the same type of call, probably from Carwahl. He took my hand as I stood to go. No words were needed.
Chapter 19The two police officers sat on one side of the table while Dominic and I sat on the other in the small room I imagined was used for interrogations. We had just given the tale of our true history to Brecky and Carwahl, who had listened and taken notes on the finer points.
“So, you think Ritter came here for Mrs. Boothe?” Carwahl asked Dominic in his gruff voice.
“I don’t know. He may have found her and moved here with that intention, but left her alone after seeing that she had no more ties to me. When I showed up, all bets were off.”
My irritation at the interrogation without getting any information in return finally pushed the shock away. “I’m sorry,” I interrupted. “What does this have to do with Cassie’s disappearance?”
Brecky looked at me with something more than sympathy. “Mrs. Boothe, we’re concerned that Mr. Sterling’s history with Ritter may be the motive for Cassie’s disappearance. And that you may be his next target if that’s the case. This goes deeper than some guy taking a woman to use for his pleasure and disposal. That much is obvious.
“When we realized that you hired Ritter’s wife through his temp agency, the alarms went off,” she said.
“Wait. What? I hired his wife? Beth is Luke Ritter’s wife?”
“Yes. Madeline Elizabeth Sloan is married to Luke Ritter.”
Elizabeth. Beth. Beth was her middle name. And Ritter owned the temp agency, so falsifying certain details, like switching names around, was no problem. She had been keeping tabs on me.
“There’s more.” Carwahl’s voice grated its way into my thoughts.
“We found Cassie today,” he began. Brecky gave him a look that told him to shut up.
My heart stopped. “You found Cassie? Is she okay? Can I see her?”
Brecky reached across the table and took my hands in hers. Her eyes were so sad my heart started breaking before she spoke. “We did find Cassie. But you can’t see her.” The pause while she searched for her next words was agonizing. She squeezed my hands. “Mrs. Boothe. Ella. Cassie’s dead. She was either murdered, or she took her own life. We’re not sure yet.”
I started to crumble, but Dominic caught me. “It’s okay, baby,” he whispered in my ear. “You’re okay. I’ve got you.”
Again the cheese grater voice of Carwahl scraped its way in. “Mrs. Boothe, we still need to talk to you,” he said without feeling. Like I could just turn off my emotions to give him the answers he wanted.
But Brecky played interference. She slid a box of tissues in front of me then turned to her partner and signaled for them to leave. “We’ll give you a few minutes,” she said softly.
As soon as the door closed I pulled away from Dominic. “How could you?” I yelled as I wailed on his solid chest and arms with weak fists.
He let me hit him a few ties before catching my wrists in a gentle grip. “Ella, calm down. I didn’t know what Luke was up to.”
“Bull shit! You knew who he was. He didn’t come to you for business reasons. Not the for the store anyway. You told me you were through with all that shit, Dominic. Now you dragged me back into it. My best friend is dead! I have a family. Are you so selfish that you don’t care about anyone else’s life?” He held my wrists the entire time I yelled at him.
When I pause to refuel my lungs for more ranting, he let out a heavy sigh. His voice was soft and quiet. “Ella, I didn’t come here to drag you into the past. And I am done with it. Mostly. Now you know I rolled on Luke when I was arrested. But what I didn’t tell you or those cops is that I’m kind of still on the case. I don’t work for the FBI officially, but they compensate me for information I can gather.
“When Luke turned up here, I started watching him again, but from a distance. I was still in Miami. Then I found out you were here, and I realized I had to move. The FBI was able to arrange for the new store and my position. I didn’t expect to run into you. Not right away.”
He released my wrists and held my face in his hands. “Ella, I do still love you. That’s why I came. I had to protect you. I think Luke is after me. He’s using you as bait. He used Cassie as bait for you. This man is ruthless. He’s extremely dangerous and very powerful. We need to work with the police, but I think it would be best if you took your family on a vacation. Get out of town while I try to tie Luke down and get him to make a mistake.”
Tears streamed down my face. I hand’t thought it was possible for my life to get any crazier, but I was so very wrong. “Dominic, I can’t just up and leave. Allison has school. Michael has medical issues. It’s not like I can just wheel him into the airport and buy a ticket.”
There was a knock on the door, and Officer Brecky came in. She was alone. “Hi. How’re you doing?” she asked gently.
“As good as I can be, I guess.” I pulled a tissue from the box and wiped my eyes and cheeks.
“There is more information that we need to tell you. It won’t be easy.” Her eyes never left my face.
How could it get any worse? What on earth could she possibly add to the chaos tearing through my life that could make things worse?
“We found Cassie at your house,” she said.
I felt my eyes go wide, the blood drain from my face.
“From what we can tell, Cassie shot and killed Lynette White, your husband’s nurse.”
Panic began to take over. I didn’t want her to keep talking. I wanted to push rewind and go back to before all this started. If I did one little thing differently, everything after that would change. Right?
But officer Brecky kept talking, “She also shot and killed Michael.” Here she stopped. I wasn’t sure if she expected me to react, but I couldn’t. I was all out of reactions.
The world slowed to a crawl. Brecky’s voice became a drone, the words drawn out and fading until they were incomprehensible. The room tunneled into a pinprick of light.
Sweet emptiness surrounded me.
Chapter 20My mouth was dry. I had to wake up to get a drink, but I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of the deep hole I had fallen into. My mind grasped at the edges of consciousness, trying to pull the weight of my thoughts out of the hole.
Then the fumes invaded my senses. Ammonia. I gasped and woke up like a gun shot went off in the room. The broken stick of smelling salts was still being held under my nose, and I pulled away from it.
Looking around, I realized I was on the floor of the interrogation room. Dominic held me propped against him while Brecky stood to the side. A paramedic was kneeling next to me, the offensive smelling salts in his hand. He began to check my vitals and ask questions about how I was feeling. Once he was satisfied, he offered a paper cup filled with water.
After downing the water I turned to Brecky. “Allison,” I said, the panic rising again. “My daughter will be getting off the bus at four.”
She stooped down to my level. “We sent a car to her school. She will be kept there until you can pick her up. But, Ella, you won’t be able to stay in your home until the investigation is completed. A few days at least. We need to get you and your daughter the things you’ll need for a week’s stay in a hotel. Can you give me a list of items and the locations?”
Still dazed from the news and fainting, I gave her a weak nod. She and Dominic helped me to my feet so I could sit at the table and write a list. The problem was that I knew I had to leave, so I wasn’t sure how much to pack. I looked at Dominic for help.
“Three t-shirts and a sweatshirt, each,” he began. He took the pen and paper from me because my hands were shaking so bad I couldn’t write.
“I’ll leave you alone for this. Just open the door when you’re ready for me.” With that, Brecky stood and left the room.
Dominic relaxed a little. “Okay. T-shirts, sweatshirts, one pair of shorts and pants for each of you. Underwear is small, so you can take five each if you want. Three pairs of socks each.” He looked at what I was wearing. “You’ll need sneakers. Do you know what Allison is wearing?”
“She should be wearing sneakers. She wears them every day, and I think she has gym today.”
“All right. You’ll need your bathroom stuff like hair and tooth brushes. We’ll get travel toothpaste and use hotel shampoo. Are there any meds you need?”
I shook my head. “No, but Allison needs her Buzzles. She can’t sleep with out her.”
He wrote Buzzles on the pad. “Now, where is all this stuff inside your house?”
I gave him the location of every item, giving specifics for Allison’s clothing so she would at least be in clothes she liked while we were hiding out. Or running. We added things like cell phone chargers and Allison’s Nintendo DS, although the cell phones would probably get tossed along the way if we had to run. I told him where to find duffel bags for each of us as well.
“I’ll take you to get Allison. The cops’ll probably have you pick up your stuff here, but it may take a while. In the meantime, you and Allison should stay with me. I know my house is secure. I’ll feel better if you’re with me where I can protect you.”
Again, I nodded. I wasn’t sure about staying at his house, but I was too overwhelmed to argue with anything.
We opened the door and Officer Brecky came back in. Dominic gave her the legal pad with the supply list.
“Thanks,” she said to him. “Ella, we’ll get this stuff together as soon as possible. I’ll take care of it, myself. If I can’t find anything, I’ll call you on your cell.”
She turned back to Dominic. “I assume she’ll be with you?” she stated more than asked.
He nodded. “Yeah. I’ll take her to the school, then to my house.”
Concern crossed the woman’s face. “Do you think your house is safe? If this is Ritter, and he’s after you a hotel may be better. We can have a car stay outside your house if you want.”
“That would probably be a good idea. I do think my house is safe, though. I have a very good security system that includes surveillance, so I would feel safer with Ella and Allison there.”
Brecky conceded, although she didn’t seem too keen on the idea. She escorted us to the door of the station promising to call soon.
After a silent trip to Allison’s school, I climbed out of the Mustang and trudged up to the door. I rang the bell, gave my name, and was buzzed in. My heels clicked on the tiled floor, the sound echoing in the emptiness. Echoing through my soul.
Allison was sitting at a desk in the office reading a book. She stood when I entered, “Mom!” But I held up a hand for her to wait. She didn’t know about her father, but I had to inform the school that she would be out for the next week. At least the next week.
I leaned close to the secretary. “Can I talk to you in private, please?”
“Sure.” She walked around the desk and led me down a short hall to a conference room. I closed the door.
I couldn’t speak right away. It seemed that voicing the truth out loud solidified it and made it real. Until now, it was still just a horrific dream.
“Mrs. Boothe? Is something wrong? The police showed up here and asked us to hold Allison after school until you showed up. Do we need to know something?” I could never remember this woman’s name. Why? Her words were spoken gently, but they yanked on the tattered edges of my life.
I sat in a chair at the long table and cradled my head in my hands. My voice was quiet, but pained. “Allison’s father died.” There. Straight to the point. The quicker the needle went in, the less it hurt, right? Wrong.
I felt the woman plop in the chair next to me. Her hand fell like a feather on my back. “Oh, no. Mrs. Boothe, I’m so sorry. You take all the time you need. I’ll help Allison get her things.”
I sat up, startling her. I wouldn’t fall apart here. “No. I’ll help her. She’ll be out for at least the next week. If you can gather her school work, I can pick it up at some point. Right now, I just want to take her home.”
We stood at the same time and walked back to the main office. I thanked the secretary as I walked to Allison. “Hi, baby,” I said stooping down to hug her. “Let’s go home.”
My little girl had gone through enough tragedy in the past year or so to know when to ask questions. “Okay, Mom,” she said, and kept quiet until we walked out the front door.
The sight of Dominic’s car broke her silence. “Wow, Mom. Look at that car.”
Smiling down at her, I asked, “You like that car?”
“Yeah.” Her voice was awed.
“That’s our ride, baby. It’s a friend of mine’s car.” I opened the door and pushed the seat forward for Allison to climb in the back. As she buckled up, I slid in the front and turned around to look at her. “Allison, this is Mr. Dominic.” I gestured toward him before turning to him and saying, “Dominic, this is my daughter, Allison.”
He smiled his best smile. “Hello, Allison. It’s nice to meet you. Your mom tells me you’re very smart. Straight A’s. And first chair flute in the band, too.”
My modest little girl flushed at the praise. “Hi, Mr. Dominic. It’s nice to meet you, too. I like your car.”
“Thank you. Maybe I’ll teach you how to drive it when you’re old enough.” He smiled at her again, then turned to look at me. “You ready?”
Well that was a loaded question if I’d ever heard one, but I nodded. “We should pick up dinner,” I said.
Dominic shook his head. “I have food at home. I think it’s best if we just go there.”
“Okay.” I needed to ease the tension in the car, so I pulled my visor down and flipped open the mirror to reflect the back seat. “How was school, Allison?”
“Good. We started a new unit in science today. And I got my test back for the last unit,” she said with typical ten year-old boredom.
“What did you get on your test?” I asked, although I knew the answer.
“An A.” So matter-of-fact, because she knew I knew. She always got A’s.
“What was the percentage?”
“One-hundred and eight percent,” she said with a shrug.
“One-hundred and eight percent?” Dominic joined in with enthusiasm. “Is that all? What happened?”
Allison giggled. “Mr. Dominic, that’s a really good grade. Better than perfect. I got all the answers right, plus the extra-credit question.”
“Oh! Schew!” he replied, holding his hand to his chest in mock relief. “For a second there I thought it was like one was the best, ‘cause, you know, first place is number one. You had me scared there.”
Allison was all bubbles. “No, silly! That’s only for sports teams and things like that. One-hundred percent is the best grade you can get. Plus extra credit, of course.”
“Of course,” Dominic said seriously.
I couldn’t help but smile. The two of them hit it off right away with no awkwardness at all. That was good, considering we were going to be staying with Dominic for a while.
When we pulled in Dominic’s driveway, I felt Allison’s hand on my shoulder. “Mommy? Where are we? Why aren’t we home?”
I unbuckled my seat belt and turned to look at her. “This is Mr. Dominic’s house, sweetie. We’re going to eat dinner here, and afterward you and I will sit down and talk. Okay?”
“Okay,” she agreed, still confused.
We ate a modest dinner of pork chops, macaroni and cheese, and green beans, although I mostly pushed the food around with my fork. When we were finished, Dominic stayed in the kitchen to clean up while I took Allison into the living room. I wasn’t at all sure how to approach this. In fact, I was terrified, and I hoped Allison couldn’t read it on my face as we sat next to each other on the sofa.
“What’s going on, Mom?”
Taking a deep breath to stoke my courage, I took her hands in mine and looked into her eyes. “It’s Daddy, baby. Something’s happened to him.” Tears welled in my eyes and spilled down my cheeks.
Her innocent blue eyes, so like her father’s, took in the emotion on my face, and I watched the realization dawn deep within and give birth to a rising despair that bordered on panic. “What happened to Daddy? Is he okay?”
I squeezed her hands in mine and shook my head. “No, baby. He’s not okay. Daddy passed away today.” I couldn’t say died. That word was too harsh. Too raw. And I didn’t want to tell her he had been killed. That was far to profound for her precious little heart to handle.
She sat there staring at me for what seemed like hours. Her mouth opened and closed as the information clicked into place and her brain allowed her to accept what I had said. “Daddy’s dead?” Her voice broke on the question, and I folded her in my arms.
“Oh, baby. I’m so sorry.” We sat there on Dominic’s sofa wrapped in each other’s arms, and cried. We cried for a long time.
My phone rang, and I pulled an arm out to answer. “Hello?” My voice was rough from the tears.
“Mrs. Boothe, it’s Officer Brecky. I have your belongings. Can I bring them by?”
“Oh. Yes. You should talk to Dominic for directions. Hold on.” I helped Allison stand up, and we walked out to the kitchen together. I could see the sorrow in his eyes as he took in our disheveled appearance. “She needs directions,” I said, handing him the phone.
I turned around and guided Allison back to the other room. “Do you want to watch TV?” I asked as we sat back down.
“I guess so.” Her voice was soft as she snuggled against me.
We watched cartoons for a while, then switched to a Disney movie. I avoided the news channels for fear of seeing the image of our house, police lights flooding the peaceful street, plastered on the screen.
I heard the knock on the door and Dominic answering. He carried the duffel bags Officer Brecky brought into the room. She followed him.
“I’ll take these upstairs to the guest rooms.”
I lifted my head. “Put them in the same room, please. Allison and I can share a bed.” I squeezed her as I said it.
“All right,” he said with a slight nod before turning to walk up the steps.
Brecky sat in a chair by the sofa. She was good at reading people, so she could tell that Allison knew something of what was going on. “How are you doing?” she asked me.
“Hanging on,” I said, turning my attention to her. “This is my daughter, Allison.” I gave her another squeeze. “Allison, this is Officer Brecky. She’s working on Aunt Cassie’s case.” I said the last with a pointed look at Brecky. Allison doesn’t know, my eyes said, I don’t want her to know.
Her voice was soft when she spoke to Allison. “Hello, Allison. I know you must be having a really hard time right now. I’m very sorry for everything you’re going through. But, you have your mom, and she has you. That’s what’s important now.
“I want you to know that you can always call me if anything’s wrong.” She pulled out a card and handing it to Allison. “Keep this in your pocket. If you or your mom are in trouble, you call me. Okay?”
Allison took the card and looked at it. She tucked it in her pocket and snuggled closer to me. “Okay,” she said in a mousy voice.
“I found everything on your list, Ella. I hope you’re okay with the shirts I picked.”
“Anything is fine for now. Thank you so much. For everything.”
Dominic came back down the stairs and joined us, sitting in a chair opposite Brecky.
I kissed Allison on the top of her head and asked, “Are you okay staying with Mr. Dominic while I talk to Officer Brecky?”
She mm-hmm’d faintly. “I’m just going to go in the kitchen,” I told her.
I stood with reluctance at leaving her, but I had to know what the police had found. If they found anything.
In the kitchen, Brecky and I sat at the table. “Your house was pretty clean. We’re focusing on two scenarios right now. The first is that Cassie was forced, either physically or emotionally, to shoot Lynnette and Michael, and then shoot herself. The second is that a third party shot Lynnette and Michael, then forced Cassie to shoot herself.”
“How do you know Cassie was forced to shoot herself?” I asked.
“The gunpowder residue on her hands indicates that someone else was holding the gun hand when it was fired.”
I hung my head, shaking it back and forth very slowly while I digested this pit of information. “Cassie wouldn’t have shot Michael. We’re like family to her.”
“You’d be surprised at what people will do when pushed beyond their limits,” Brecky said.
I looked into her eyes. “If Cassie shot Michael, she would’ve shot herself without having to be forced. That’s just who she is. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself.”
Those emerald eyes flicked back and forth between mine, studying. “Okay,” she said finally. “That would mean someone else did it, then forced her to hold the gun while. . .” She trailed off, perhaps realizing that going into detail with me wasn’t a good idea. Nor was it necessary. I understood perfectly what it all meant. Cassie’s kidnapper took her to my house, killed my husband and his nurse, then forced Cassie to hold the gun while they pointed it at her head and pulled the trigger. Whoever was behind all this, or their hired muscle, was one sick bastard.
Brecky and I sat looking at each other in silence for a long moment. Then she heaved her shoulders in a deep sigh laid her hand on mine. “Call me if you think of anything that could help us. And call me if you need anything else. You’re comfortable here with Dominic?”
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be? I’ve known him a long time.”
“I know, but time has a way of changing people. You haven’t seen him for what, fifteen years or so? Y
ou don’t really know him anymore. He could be a totally different person now.”
“I know. And I’m counting on that. I’m a different person than the girl he knew way back when, and I hope he’s made similar changes to his life. But I trust him. Mostly. Right now I trust him to keep me and Allison safe. That’s all that matters.”
We pulled away from each other at the same time, sitting back in our chairs and looking at different things around the room.
Brecky stood first. “Well, you know how to reach me if you need to.”
I stood with her. “I do. Thank you for everything. You’ve been a huge help.”
We walked back to the living room to find Allison curled up on Dominic’s lap, sound asleep. Officer Brecky shook both our hands, and I walked her to the door.
“Good night, Officer Brecky. And thanks again,” I said as she stepped out the door.
“Good night, Mrs. Boothe.” She gave a slight bob of her head to acknowledge my thanks. Then she turned and walked to her cruiser.
I held the screen door so it would close quietly, shut the front door with the same care, and made sure it was locked tight before heading back to the living room. The sight of my baby girl sleeping so peacefully on Dominic’s lap caused more turmoil in my heart. That she trusted and felt safe with him eased my worry about her rejecting him and his help. But it also scared me. She had only just met this man. He was a stranger to her, yet there she slept. Would she trust other people as willingly?
I decided that we needed to have a talk in the morning.
“Do you want me to carry her up?” His voice was soft silk as he whispered to me.
“Would you mind?” I whispered back. “She’s too big for me to carry up the stairs.”
“Not at all.” He moved slowly, being careful not to wake her as he repositioned her into his arms. With impressive strength, he stood with Allison in his arms. I followed a few steps behind as he carried her up the stairs and down a short hall to a door on the right.
I pulled the comforter and sheet down so he could lay her on the bed. Then I took off her shoes and socks and covered her up. The duffle bags were on the bed, and I dug into hers looking for Buzzles, her purple stuffed bunny. I found it tucked to the side, and inwardly thanked Brecky for making sure it was easy to find.
Soft yellow light sent a warm glow through the room without flooding it with light when Dominic turned on a small table lamp sitting on a dresser in the corner. The room was a pale blue color with white accents. A white wicker chair sat by the window by a small stand of the same material. It was a cozy room, and bit of a surprise in the home of a bachelor.
I went to the bed and sifted through the duffle Brecky had packed for me. I found a soft t-shirt to sleep in. My toothbrush was packed in a cosmetic bag with dental floss and my hair brush. Brecky had really gone beyond what I had expected. I turned to Dominic.
“Can I use your toothpaste?” I asked in a whisper.
“Yeah.” He left the room, and I took the opportunity to quickly change my clothes before following him down the hall.
I knew he had gone into the master bath in his bedroom, but I stepped into the large, green and blue bathroom at the top of the stairs. The light was bright, but soft, allowing an honest view of my disheveled appearance in the mirror. I looked horrible. My eyes puffy and red, my skin pasty.
I rested my hands on the white porcelain counter, leaning my weight on them as I rocked forward to look myself in the eye. “What are you going to do, girl?” I asked my reflection.
The woman staring back at me didn’t answer, but I knew what she would do. She’d do anything she had to do to keep he daughter safe. Anything. And deep down she knew the eventuality of that. The consequences of her younger life were being paid by the family that she had built and grown. It was her duty to end it.
Dominic came in, laying a tube of toothpaste and a set of towels on the counter. His eyes found mine in the mirror, a deep sadness in them. Then he rested his hands on my tense shoulders and slid them down my arms and up again in a comforting movement.
Tears that had been waiting for hours began to pool. When the first one spilled down my cheek, his arms wrapped around me, the subtle roughness of stubble on his jaw scraping my sensitive skin as he hugged me.
“I’ll help you through this, Ella. We’ll get through it together.”
I closed my eyes and let the tears fall. My shoulders hitched with the first sob, and he turned me in his arms. Wrapped in the warmth of his embrace, I let loose the grief eating at my heart. He let me cry until my eyes dried out, holding me in silence the entire time.
When I finally pulled my head up, I asked him the same question I’d asked myself. “What am I going to do, Dominic?”
His arms released their hold. His hands gripped my arms, and he looked me in the eye again. “We’ll figure it out,” he said with determination. Resting a finger under my chin, he added, “We will get through this, Ella. I won’t let anything happen to you or Allison.”
I gave a meek nod.
He kissed my forehead. “Get cleaned up so you feel better. There’s a towel and washcloth here so you can shower. I’ll check on Allison. Come downstairs when you’re finished, and have a nightcap with me. Then we’ll go to bed.”
“All right. Thanks.”
Dominic was sitting on the sofa with his legs stretched out down the length of the cushions. A floor lamp provided a circle of light as he read his book, and a bottle of blushing wine and two empty glasses waited on the coffee table. He smiled when he saw me.
“You’re looking a little better.”
“I feel a little better. Thanks,” I said as I sat on the warm cushion where his had just been.
He pulled the cork out of the bottle and poured us each a glass of wine. I took mine, thanking him, and downed half of it in one swallow. I knew I couldn’t get drunk, but I longed for the sweet relief the pink liquid offered. That, and I knew it would help me sleep.
Dominic didn’t say anything as we sat drinking our wine. We sat in silence through two glasses. “Thanks you for doing all of this,” I said as he poured my third glass.
He set the bottle down and looked at me as he handed me my glass. “You don’t have to thank me, Ella. I’m just glad I’m here to help.” His eyes dropped, and he looked sheepish. His hand found my knee, squeezing lightly. “I’m so sorry. I can’t help thinking that this is all because of me.” He found my eyes again, pain, sorrow, and something I couldn’t identify swimming in the green depths. “I’m so sorry.”
I sighed and put my hand over his. “Dominic, you have no control over other people’s actions. From what Officer Brecky said, Luke Ritter may have been watching me before you ever came here. It may be that your presence pushed him to this, but that’s not your fault.”
He looked down at our hands. “It feels like it’s my fault.”
“Unless you ordered the hit, it’s not.”
His head snapped up, those eyes drowning in the agony my almost-accusation incurred. “You can’t possibly think that of me?” His voice cracked with the question. “Ella? You think I could do something like that?”
I looked at him over my glass. Maybe the doubt showed in my eyes, but I had to be honest. This relationship, whatever it may be, would depend on honesty and trust. “I really don’t know Dominic. But the fact is, my life was going along perfectly fine until you popped up. About two weeks ago. Now my husband and best friend are both dead. Murdered. Along with my husband’s nurse. All three of them had no clue as to my past, and how you fit so nicely into it. Now I fear for my ten year old daughter’s life, along with my own.”
“Ella. . .”
“No, Dominic. You asked. You listen.” I took a gulp of my wine before continuing, the sting boosting my conviction. “You admitted that Luke Ritter may be after you, and using me and my family to get there. But you haven’t told me why, specifically. You also mentioned that you work as a correspondent for the FBI, and that’s why you’re here tracking Luke.
“You’ve only given me bits of information. Enough to appease me while I deal with the rocketing chaos you’ve brought to my family.”
I took another swig, and plummeted on. “I want to trust you, Dominic. To be honest, I need to trust you. I’m not naive enough to think Allison and I can make it through this without your help. But you’re gonna have to give me reason not to run. And you know I will if I feel I have to.”
He took a deep breath and blew it out through puffed cheeks while his hands ran through his hair. Then he downed the half glass of wine sitting on the table. When his eyes met mine, I was shocked at the turmoil of emotions swirling in the green depths, each fighting for dominance.
I braced myself for the blow. I could tell whatever he was about to say went deeper than anything he’d told me yet. A lot deeper.
“When you left me, Ella--when I was arrested--I was in deep shit. If I didn’t cut a deal, give names, I was going away for a long time. So that’s what I did. I had a good lawyer, and with the names I gave, he was able to get me off with a much lighter sentence. It was all kept away from the media because the names I gave brought in the DEA, ATF, and FBI.”
My mouth fell open. “Oh, my God, Dominic.”
“Yeah,” he said, simply. “Anyway, the FBI offered a deal that would mean no jail time if I worked with them in helping to take those guys down. I took it.
“Luke was one of those guys. I rolled on him, then was instrumental in his arrest in Miami. Needless to say, he’s got it in for me. I’m sorry that you got caught up in this.” His eyes showed his sincerity as he reached over and laid his hand on my knee.
“Who was Luke in Miami?” I asked.
“He was Big Ben’s boss’s boss,” Dominic said as he refilled our glasses.
“Holy shit.” It came out as a whisper from the shock of the information. “I didn’t realize the chain went that far. I though Big Ben’s boss was the top.”
“Yeah, well, I tried to keep you away from those top guys. Ben was bad enough, but he had a thing for you, so I knew you were safe with him. The guys above him in the ring were dangerous. I didn’t want you near them. Ben knew that, so he kept you away from them, too.”
“Did you roll on Ben?” I asked. While Big Ben, as we called him, was into some bad stuff, he was a nice guy. I liked him.
Dominic’s head fell, and he swirled the pink liquid in his glass. “I did.” His eyes found mine again. “But then he rolled on his boss, Dave. There were a few other top guys, too. And then there was Luke.
“As you can imagine, Luke had the best lawyers in Florida. He got off with a minimal sentence, but somehow he found out who gave his name.
“When he was arrested, I left. I couldn’t leave the country, but I was under FBI protection, so I had the freedom to go anywhere within the lower forty-eight. I chose the middle of nowhere, Montana and stayed there until I was offered a job with Between the Lines. The feds got me the job, they wanted me more in the thick of things again. I was valuable to them for the information I could get, but I was always dispensable because I was a felon.
“The main reason they wanted me back on the East coast was because Ben had been killed, execution style, and Luke Ritter had disappeared as soon as he was out of jail.”
I refilled my glass again, emptying the bottle. The warm fuzzy blanket the wine wrapped around me made it easier to deal with all this information. “He killed Ben,” I said.
“After about a year, my connections lead me to Luke here in Summerville. A little more research also showed you were here. My gut told me it wasn’t a coincidence, so I told the agent I deal with that I had to come here. He helped get me here.”
“Corporate was looking in the area for a location for a new store, so the FBI helped them pick and had me placed as the GM. They helped me get the house, too.”
I put my empty glass on the table and rubbed my face. “Geez, Dominic. This is a lot to take in.” I looked up at him. “On thing I don’t get, though. Why did Luke get married? Wouldn’t that tie him down and make him vulnerable?”
“They’re not really married. Luke has a lot of power. He had the marriage document forged so he wo
uld look more normal.” He made quoting motions in the air. “Beth is more like his secretary and one of his spies. An employee with benefits.”
“How long did you know who she was?” I was suddenly mad at him for not telling me. If he knew I was in danger, why didn’t he say something?
“I just found out yesterday. Like I said, Luke is powerful. The papers were totally legit within the state’s system. It took federal resources to find the fraud.”
“Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?” I asked, my tone accusatory.
“Because I didn’t realize the full extent of the role she plays for him. I really thought she was just his secretary. I didn’t know she was on his higher pay role.” He sounded like he was berating himself internally for being stupid.
I reached out and touched him, laying my hand over his on the plush arm of the chair. “Dominic, it’s not your fault. You can only do so much.” I squeezed his hand before letting go. “But I wish you would have told me all this when you first came to town. Maybe certain things could’ve been avoided.”
“I know, but I wasn’t sure if you were in danger at first. I also wasn’t allowed to tell you anything. The FBI didn’t even want you to know I was here, but that was inevitable. It’s a small town. You would’ve found out sooner or later.”
I yawned. “Sorry. It’s been a long day.”
“Yeah. You need your sleep. I’ll go up with you.” He stood and held out a hand to help me up. When I was on my feet, he hugged me again. “I really am sorry, Ella. I didn’t want any of this. And I hate that you’re hurting.”
I hugged him back, squeezing tight. Hugs were such good medicine. “I believe you.”
His body relaxed at my words, and I felt his breath rush through my hair.
I followed him upstairs and to the room I would share with Allison. He walked in with me, checking as I did to make sure she was all right. It warmed my heart. As I climbed under the covers, he leaned down and brushed his lips over my forehead in a gentle caress. “Good night, Ella,” he whispered in my ear.
“Good night, Dominic,” I whispered back.
The door didn’t click as he shut it, but the light from the hall peeked underneath until he turned it off. The room became dark, but as my eyes adjusted, the light beachy colors almost glowed.
I wasn’t sure how long I laid there trying to push the days events to the back of my mind so I could sleep. Eventually the sweet darkness that is dreamless sleep enveloped me.
Chapter 22I woke up to the pattering drum song of rain on the window. Allison was still sleeping beside me in bed. I stroked her blond waves, and ran my finger along her jaw in the most tender of motherly touches.
Leaving her to sleep, I left the room as quietly as I could and headed downstairs to the smell of hot coffee.
“Morning, beautiful,” Dominic said, a bit too perky for the hour. Definitely too perky without coffee.
But, since I was his guest I bit my tongue and returned his greeting. “Morning.”
“There’s a mug by the pot and sugar in the second smallest canister.” He knew not to talk to me too much before that first cup. I was a badger in the morning. Not cute and cuddly, and always ready to rip into anyone who messed with me in any way. That included talking.
I sat at the table with my steaming cup and pulled a section of the morning paper Dominic was reading in front of me. But I didn’t read it. I didn’t want to see what news might be in there.
The latest copy of People magazine plopped in front of me. “Thanks,” I said to an all too understanding Dominic. Sometimes I swore he could read my mind.
“Sure. The paper is safe, though. I pulled out the news section, but even still. . .” He took a sip of coffee. “Ritter runs the paper. It’ll only be a short blurb so it doesn’t draw too much attention. May have facts altered, too.”
Dominic’s phone rang. The land line. For some reason, a chill went down my spine. I tried to listen as he talked, but he was too quiet. When he came back to the table, there was a sense of urgency in his movements.
I watched him for a brief moment before my curiosity took over. “What’s up, Dominic?”
“That was the FBI agent,” he said without looking at me.
I waited a beat, but no more information came. “And?” I prompted.
Now those sea green eyes met mine, and what I saw in them terrified me. “We need to go, Ella.”
I packed the small amount of things we had unpacked while Allison still slept. Then I gently shook her. “Allison. Honey, you need to wake up now,” I murmured in her ear.
She stretched, her eyes fluttering open. Lucky for me, my baby girl was a morning person--pleasant and easy to wake. “Mom?” Her voice still scratchy with sleep, she looked a me and then glanced around the room. “Are we going home now?”
“No baby. But we have to leave. Mr. Dominic is coming with us. Get dressed quickly. We’ll stop at wherever you want of breakfast.”
She hopped out of bed and ran to the bathroom. Back a minute later, she stripped her pajamas and slipped on a t-shirt and jeans. “What’s wrong, Mom? Are we taking Mr. Dominic’s car?”
Leave it to a ten-year-old to ask two so opposite questions back to back. “I’ll explain once we’re on the road, and after you’ve eaten. And, yes, we’ll be in the Mustang.” I tossed her night clothes into her duffle bag. “Do you want to carry Buzzles, or pack him?”
“It’ll be easier if I pack him, won’t it?” It was more statement than question. My girl was intuitive, and her fairly recent past had forced her to grow up way too soon. Combine that with her sharp intellect, and she definitely knew something was up.
We met Dominic by the front door, bag and keys in hand. “You ladies ready?” he asked in a jovial tone that belied the true nature of why we were leaving.
I helped Allison climb in the back seat, asking, “Where would you like to stop for breakfast, sweetie? It has to be drive through.”
She buckled her seat belt and dug in her book bag, pulling out the novel she was reading for class. “Um. Can we do McDonald’s?”
“Sure, baby. Anything you want.” I flipped the seat back into place. The book bag had slipped my mind. It was good that she would have other things to do besides play video games. And it would give a sense of normalcy to an otherwise very abnormal situation.
A police cruiser pulled up, blocking the driveway. Officer Brecky climbed out of the passenger side, and Dominic met her halfway to the Mustang. The angle of his body--very straight and rigid--said confrontational, so I closed the door and waited by the car, watching.
“You taking them somewhere, Mr. Sterling?” Brecky’s tone was firm and almost menacing as she stood with her hands on her hips, the right only an inch from her pistol. If she hand’t been in uniform, her voice edged in cold steel, she could’ve been having a casual conversation.
“Yes, Officer. Allison wants McDonald’s for breakfast, so I’m treating. Then we’re taking a leisurely drive. The girl loves my car, and since she can’t go home, I thought it would be better to take her for a ride than coup her up in a strange house.”
He was way too good at this twisting the truth stuff.
Brecky shifted her emerald gaze to me. “You okay, Ella?”
I shrugged. “As good as I can be, considering.” I was surprised to find that under pressure I was pretty good at skirting the truth, too. I didn’t lie, but I didn’t give any information, either.
Brecky took note of it. “Uh-huh,” she said, a corner of her mouth pulling back to show she wasn’t buying any of it.
She turned back to Dominic. “Don’t go far, Sterling. Ella may trust you, but I don’t. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a suspect in all of this.”
I couldn’t see his face, but the sound of his voice told me Dominic had turned on his charming smile. Not that it would work on the cop. She wasn’t the type that melted for guys like him. “Officer, I don’t want to step on your toes, but Ella and Allison are under my protection. The person giving me orders outranks you quite a bit. If he tells me to fly them to Paris, I will.
“Given the people being investigated, I think you’ll find the case stripped from your desk very soon. Possibly today.”
He sighed and ran a hand through is hair. Dropping his voice so I had to strain to hear him, he added, “Look Brecky. I like you. You’re a good cop. But this goes way over your head. I’m working for the FBI on this. It’s why I’m here to begin with. I care about Ella very much, and if my boss tells me to take her and Allison and go, that’s what I’m gonna do.
“You’ll get more information when they come to collect your files on the case. If I’m not mistaken, you like Ella, and you won’t give this up easily. So, consider this a warning. The FBI is coming, and they will confiscate your records. If you want to stay on this, cover your bases. They won’t work with you on this one. It’s too big.”
She let the information set in, then gave a slight nod, glanced at me, and said, “Take care of them, Sterling.” She turned and walked the short distance back to the cruiser. When the door had shut, she gave me a little wave while Dominic walked back to the Mustang.
We both climbed in, and I watched the neighborhood where I had raised my little girl roll past for what could very well be the last time. Tears stung as memories flooded me.
All too soon we were at the McDonald’s drive-through ordering egg McMuffins, hash browns, coffee, and orange juice. We headed for the entry ramp to the interstate while I helped Allison poke the straw into her juice.
Church Hill and Summerville were behind us in a matter of minutes.
Chapter 23We were heading west on I-80. Dominic obeyed the speed limits. Allison read and played her DS in the back seat. I stared out the window, willing my mind to go blank.
The soft, melted chocolate of Dominic’s voice invaded my attempts. “I want to stay on eighty till lunch time. We’ll find a little town to eat lunch and get a map. When we have a map, we make a more educated decision on our route and destination for the night.”
I turned from watching the world go by and fixed my eyes on his face. He looked relaxed. Except for the muscle jumping in his cheek. His head turned, those green eyes locking with mine just long enough before going back to watch the road. His hand found my knee and squeezed.
“It’s gong to be okay, Ella. We’ve done this before. Not to this degree, but still, we’ve done it just fine. I’m more skilled now. More informed. And I have the feds backing me up. I have the locations of safe houses throughout the country. We can use them if we have to, but we’ll be okay. I won’t let anything happen to you two.”
I was glad he included Allison when he said that. I didn’t want to have to keep reminding him that she was there, too. “I believe you. But that doesn’t make it easier.”
Four hours of driving, with one short stop for a bathroom break and stretch of the legs, had all three of us ready to stop to linger over lunch and some small town USA main street shopping.
We had left the westbound interstate near Akron, Ohio to take a more scenic route heading southwest along OH-3. Along the road was a low, red building that looked like it might have spent the first part of its life as a large chicken coop. The sign out front indicated it was the Iron Pony Saloon. Under the name was the declaration of “Best Prime Rib in Ohio.”
Dominic pulled into the worn and cracked parking lot, parking at the far end of the building near the ramp that led up to the door. There were only a handful of vehicles in the lot, mostly dirty trucks. But then again, we were in the middle of nowhere. There probably weren’t more than twenty vehicles in the surrounding area, and most of them were probably dirty trucks.
“This place looks good for lunch.” Dominic said, eyeing the building. He turned to me and Allison. “What do you think?”
Allison was looking around. “Where are we?” she asked.
“The Iron Pony Saloon,” Dominic provided with a big grin. “Sign says they have the best prime rib in the state. Wanna see if it’s true?”
I watched her think it over. Then she smiled at him. “Are you buying?”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. “Does it matter who buys?” I asked her.
With a shrug, she said, “Well, if Mr. Dominic drove us all this way for the best prime rib in Ohio. . . and if it’s a date sort of thing. . . Then, yes. It matters. He should pay. The man pays on a date.” She was very confident in her answer.
And, of course, Dominic humored her. “Well, beautiful, since you put it that way, I guess I’ll be paying for my date. But what about your mom? Do I pay for her, or does she pay for herself since you’re my date?”
A giggle bubbled from Allison’s throat, and she gave him a playful shove. “Silly! Mom is your date, not me.”
Shock at what she had said choked my laughter in my throat. “Why would I be his date, honey?”
Her blue eyes met mine. “Well. . .” The word drug out. “You need to go on dates, Mom. Daddy can’t take you out anymore, but you still need to go. I think Daddy would want you to be happy.”
“Oh, baby,” I cried as I wrapped her in my arms over the console. Tears fell while I held her. My little girl was wise beyond her years, and, while it was refreshing in someways, it broke my heart in others.
I gave her a big squeeze and pulled away, wiping the tears from my cheeks. “Let’s go try this famous prime rib,” I said, and we piled out of the car.
The meal was good, if the atmosphere was something I’d rather not expose my daughter to again. But the food filled our empty stomachs.
Heading off the road we had been traveling, we came to the small, backwoods town of Lakeville. It was picturesque, especially given the spring season. The trees were just unfurling their leaves in bright yellow-green hues. The fields were plowed, the freshly turned earth a rich umber, ready for planting.
The aura of the town insisted that visitors feel at ease, and it was working it’s magic on me. The air wa
s warm and fresh as it whipped in through my open window. The place just felt right.
I turned to Dominic as he slowed his speed. We were entering the main town. “We should stop here if we can. Maybe there’s a motel or something.” His eyes questioned me when he glanced my way. “I can’t explain it, but I think we should stop here. If we can.”
“We could still drive through the afternoon,” he said, not arguing exactly. More like he was pointing out something that I’d failed to notice.
“I know. But I think it would be better to stop somewhere quiet. Somewhere inconspicuous. Somewhere where life isn’t so different.” I hoped he caught my meaning.
“Mommy? What does inconspicuous mean?” came Allison’s sweet voice from the back.
“It means not obvious, baby,” I answered her.
“Oh,” was all she said before resuming her game.
“Here, Dominic,” I said as I eyed an opportunity. “Stop at the little store. I’ll run in and ask if there’s lodging anywhere.”
He pulled into the lot. The little building looked like a photo from the 1950s come to life. Even the colors were faded into muted tones of their original appearance.
I climbed out of the car, telling Allison I’d be right back and walked into the store. The photo scene played out inside, as well. Complete with an older man behind the counter wearing a white button-down and black slacks, his round glasses perched on the middle of his nose.
“Afternoon, m’am. Can I help you with anything?” he asked with a bright smile. The strength of his voice surprised me.
“Actually, I was wondering if there might me a place to stay around here?” I returned his contagious smile.
“Well, there’s no hotels, if that’s what you’re wantin’. But there is a bed and breakfast down off Spring Run Road. Bubblin’ Brook Inn, it’s called. ‘Bout a half hour ride from here.” He slid his thin body onto a stool, waiting for my reply.
“That sounds like just the place I’m looking for,” I said with a smile. “Do you have a map I can buy?”
He pointed a wrinkled, age-spotted finger at a small rack at the far corner of the counter.
I scanned the selection, and picked up the state map. After a quick glance, I found the maps for the county we were in and the two closest counties. It seemed Lakeville was at the northern end of the county and just below the point where two other counties intersected. Better to be prepared with four maps, than lost in the middle of a cornfield in no-man’s-land, Ohio.
I paid for the maps and took written and verbal directions to the bed and breakfast. Then I thanked the man with a friendly smile and went back to the car.
“Okay,” I started as I buckled my seat belt. “Go right out of the lot. We’ll follow this road for a few miles, then make a left on Slater Lane.”
“Where are we going?” There was a bit of irritation in Dominic’s voice. He didn’t like not being in control. Or not having information he thought was important, at least.
“The Bubbling Brook Inn. It’s a bed and breakfast off the beaten path. There probably won’t even be any other guests. But mostly, it’s quiet and hidden away. We can at least stay for tonight.” I left no room in my tone for him to question me.
Twenty-five minutes later, we were greeted by a large white farmhouse with a sign proclaiming it as the Bubbling Brook Inn. The rich blue shutters matched the gingerbread tucked into the points of the roof and beside the pillars of the oversized wraparound porch with its wide stairs. It was quaint. And perfect for hiding out, if only for one night. Staying at a place like this would also give Allison some semblance of normalcy.
We were greeted by a pleasantly plump older woman with graying hair wearing an apron covered in a lilac print and a big smile. “Hello, folks. Can I help you?”
I stepped forward. “Do you have any rooms for the night?”
“But of course. Please, come in.” She held open the screen door and led us into the foyer. “I’m Rose. My son, Teddy, and I run the Bubbling Brook.”
It was not an overly decorated room, as some public foyers tend to be. Rather, it felt like a home.
She went to a modest desk and pulled out a book I presumed to be her register. “We are completely empty for now, so you have your pick of the rooms. If you’d like two, so the girl has her own, I can do that, too.”
“No. We’d rather have one room with two beds if you can,” I said. I wanted Allison with me at all times.
“All right, then. I have just the room. The fee is one-sixty-five per night.”
“Okay. Do you take Visa?” I started to pull out my credit card, but Dominic stayed my hand and shot me a look.
“We’ll just pay cash, Miss Rose.” His charm worked on the woman.
“That’s fine, too,” she said smiling up at him.
He pulled his wallet out and handed her one-eighty in twenties. “Keep the change incase we decide to stay another night.”
I rolled my eyes at him because he was wooing this old woman who was already more than willing to help us out. But he just couldn’t resist beguiling her.
We gathered our bags from the car, and Rose led us up the stairs to our room. There was a twin bed in one corner, and a queen in the center of the opposite wall. Handmade Amish quilts draped over the mattresses, and picked up the soft yellow tone on the walls.
I tossed my bag on the queen bed, alongside Allison’s, claiming the larger bed for us and leaving Dominic to the twin. He caught my eye as I sat on the edge of the bed, letting me know he understood the meaning in my actions.
Allison went to use the bathroom in the hall, so I took the opportunity to ask the question nagging at me. “How much do you have?”
His eyes met mine and held. “Ten grand.” He studied me as I leaned back on my hands, taking in the information and what it indicated about our situation.
“You were ready to run.” I paused, scanning a stony face that revealed nothing.
“I have to be ready to go off the grid at a moment’s notice. It’s part of being involved with the feds like I am. Yeah, I was ready to run. I’m always ready to run.” So matter-of-fact. Almost cold.
“You think Ritter can track my cards?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him.” He sat next to me on the bed. “Look, ten grand should be more than enough to get us through this and back home. But if it’s not, I have stashes I can access. We just have to keep enough to get to one. I don’t think we’ll need it, though.”
Just then, Allison came galloping into the room. “Mommy! Mommy! There’s horses out back! They have horses!”
It eased my heart to see her so overjoyed at such a simple thing. I jumped off the bed, joining in her infectious excitement. “Let’s go see them,” I said as I grabbed her hand and let her pull me out of the room and down the stairs, leaving a baffled Dominic still sitting on the bed.
We were so loud going down the stairs, it brought Rose out of the back. “What’s all the excitement?” she asked.
“Horses!” exclaimed Allison, practically jumping up and down.
“She must have seen your horses out the bathroom window,” I explained. “She loves horses. We were going to walk around to see them.”
“I’ll do you one better,” Rose said, taking off her apron. “I’ll walk around with you. Introduce you to my Teddy. He’ll let you ride one, if you want.” She beamed at Allison, and I thought my daughter would explode with delight.
My hand found her shoulder to help keep her spirit firmly on the ground. “You have to calm down, or you could scare the horses.”
Her heels found the floor in obedience, and she walked calmly between me and Rose around the house. I heard the screen door close as Dominic followed.
As we entered the barn, Rose called out, “Teddy! We’ve got some guests. I’ve brought them out. . .”
“All right, Mama,” a deep and rumbling voice called, cutting Rose off. Teddy came out of a stall toward the back, and my hormones kicked into overdrive. He wore a blue plaid button-down with the sleeves ripped off. Dirt clung to dark skin glistening with sweat, wrapped around strong muscles and sinew. His hat was the trendy type worn by the hottest country singers of the day. And his dirty blue jeans hugged his hips and thighs. The strong line of his jaw peeked from under the shadow hiding the rest of his face.
Leaning his pitch fork against the stall door, he walked the aisle to greet us. “Howdy, m’am,” he said to me as he pulled off his leather glove and offered me his hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Teddy.” I gave him my name, then he turned to Allison. “And who might you be, little lady?” he asked her, tipping back his hat and stooping to her level.
She giggled. “Allison.” Her hands were clasped in front of her, and she twisted back and forth in a classic timid motion while her eyes stayed on the ground.
“Nice to meet you, Allison. I’m Teddy. Would you like to meet my horses?”
Teddy stood. “Well, all right, then. They’re all outside, so come with me.” He took her hand and led her to the back of the barn and out the door. I followed closely, Dominic at my side. Rose had gone back to the house.
The warmth of Dominic’s strong hand enveloped mine, his fingers sliding between my own. Our pace slowed as teddy helped Allison stand on the bottom rail of the fence, pointing out the horses and naming them. Leaning down, Dominic whispered against my ear, “I’d wonder if you didn’t react to a man like that, but I’d like to be the one on the receiving end of your hormonal rage.”
“Dominic.” My tone scolded him, and I dropped his hand. Hanging on the fence next to Allison, I asked her, “Which one is your favorite?”
She pointed to a gleaming white horse. “Her name is Princess. Isn’t she pretty, Mom? She could be a unicorn!”
Ah, the simple delights of a young girl. I turned to Teddy, “Could you take us for a ride?”
“Sure can,” he said with enthusiasm. “Just lemme finish that last stall, and I’ll get ‘em tacked up.” He hopped off the fence and strolled back into the barn, picking up the pitch fork as he went to finish his chore.
Less than two minutes later, he came out carrying four lead ropes. He handed one to each of us and opened the gate. “Allison, you can get Princess. Just hook the lead on the hoop under her chin. She’ll follow you in like a puppy. Miss Ella, you can take Romeo. He’s the red dun over there.” He pointed to a tall horse with a coat the shined golden-red in the sun. “Sir,” he said to Dominic, “you get Rocky.” He pointed to a stocky buckskin off to the right.
“You can call me Dominic,” he said as he walked off, his stride and tenor indicating he wasn’t thrilled with the situation. I had no idea why, Dominic and I had gone horseback riding lots of times in our youth.
I watched Allison walk with Teddy to get Princess. He helped her hook the lead onto the horse’s halter and showed her how to lead her. Then he went off to collect his own horse. Romeo was a sweet boy. It was obvious how he got his name.
We gathered at the gate. Teddy led the way through, and closed it behind Dominic. Tying each horse to the fence, he went to get the saddles and bridles while we brushed the already clean animals. I enjoyed watching him tack up each horse, muscles rippling beneath his bronzed skin.
When he helped Allison into the saddle, she giggled with glee. Then he came to give me leg up. I didn’t think I needed it, but Romeo was a big boy, and I enjoyed watching Dominic’s irritation. So, I accepted Teddy’s linked hands, placing my left foot in them and swinging my right leg over the saddle as he lifted my weight effortlessly.
I stole a glance at Dominic astride Rocky. His body was tense as he watched me, and the horse stepped back and forth under him in response. But he looked good up there. I flashed him a smile, and he relaxed a bit.
“Y’all ridden before?” Teddy asked, swinging onto his strawberry roan.
“Dominic and I have,” I answered. “Allison’s been on a few trail ride type things, but no serious riding.”
“All right, then. Good to know. Follow me. Allison first. Dominic last.”
We fell into line as he led us along the fence line toward the spring-fresh forest at the end. For a while I just enjoyed the peace of the area, the joy of my little girl riding her “unicorn,” the sway of the horse beneath me. I let it wash over me until the horror of my life began pushing it’s ugly reality back to the forefront of my thoughts little by little, and tears rolled down my face. I wiped them away as we passed through the trees.
The trail followed the creek, but a little while later we exited the trees into a large meadow. Teddy turned around and spoke to Allison. “We’re gonna trot. All you gotta do is hold on to the horn on the saddle. Princess won’t let you fall.” He lifted his head and met my eyes. I nodded my okay.
Romeo didn’t like being at the back of the pack, so I trotted up beside Allison. The exhilaration on her face was enough to keep the evil at bay for a while longer.
Teddy turned to me. “You can lope ‘im, if you want, Miss Ella. Just stick to the edge of the field.”
I trotted up next to him. “Please just call me Ella, Teddy,” I said before giving Romeo his head and squeezing him into a lope. The wind blowing on my face, whipping my hair into tangles behind me, I leaned forward and urged the horse to go faster. I could hear the hoofbeats of another horse behind us, but my steed was fast. A quarter horse built for racing that famous quarter-mile.
I pulled up at the corner of the field, allowing Dominic and Rocky to catch up. I beamed at him, and he returned it. “Race ya!” I yelled, giving Romeo a swift kick as I leaned forward again.
They stayed just behind us, but kept pace. As we rounded the slight curve of the tree line, I slowed again. We were far ahead of Teddy and Allison trotting along. I let Romeo walk, and Dominic had Rocky fall in beside us.
“You know, I was serious about what I said back at the barn,” he said with a smile.
I patted my horse’s neck. “You here that, Romeo? Apparently you’re not the only Romeo around these parts. Although you do have better moves.” Here I turned to look at Dominic, giving him a devilish grin.
“Out done by a horse,” he dramatized. His eyebrows quirked at me, and one corner of his mouth turned up. “And possibly by said horse’s owner, too,” he added.
“Oh, he is yummy. No doubt.” I looked down the field toward the other two riders for good measure. “And he’s great with Allison. She adores him.” I let it hang in the air. No matter my attractions, too much was already screwed up to go screwing around even more. Still, it was fun to play. Healthy.
After our long trail ride, we helped Teddy untack and clean up the horses. Allison took the opportunity to learn all she could about horse care, which made me think I might be looking into lessons when we got back home. If we went home.
While she trailed after Teddy, helping him with the born chores, Dominic and I sat in the hay stacked in the open corner of the barn. The earthy smells of horse, hay, and manure grounded me. I leaned back against the bales behind me and closed my eyes.
The feather touch of Dominic’s finger trailing up and down my arm was hypnotizing. I drifted into a half-sleep state, aware of my surroundings, but seeming to float at the edge of a dream. Fingers pulled gently through my hair. A soft caress along my jaw, over my lips. Enticing. My lips parted, and the touch deepened. My tongue snaked out to wet the tingling skin. Feathers slid down my neck, lifting my chin to the side. Warmth dotted where the feathers left, starting at my collar and slowly creeping up to my ear.
He took my earlobe into his warm, wet mouth, tugging gently. Large, gentle hands cradled my head as his lips danced along my jaw, leaving a trail of sweet expectation. That warm thumb teased my parted lips before his tongue traced desire along the curves. Then his mouth was on mine. Gentle, kneading lips pressed their possession on my own. And I accepted that possession willingly, opening my mouth to devour him, wrapping my arms around his strong back. It had been too long since I’d felt him this way.
“Michael,” I murmured into the kiss.
And that ended my dream. As the warmth pulled away from me, my snapped open to find Dominic staring at me. His eyes wore the pain of a broken heart. He turned from me and stood.
I grabbed for him, catching his wrist. “Dominic,” I said, my voice rough from my light slumber and the shock of dream versus reality. He stopped, but didn’t turn. “Dominic, please. I fell asleep. I was dreaming. Please. Don’t be angry.”
He sighed. “I’m not angry, Ella. I understand. A lot’s happened in the past couple days. In your heart, you’re married to Michael. I shouldn’t have pushed you. I’m sorry.” He tugged lightly at his arm, and I let go.
“Please don’t go,” I said in a low voice. “Please. Don’t leave me.” Until the words were spoken I hand’t realized I felt that way. But there it was. I had grown accustomed to having Dominic there. He had become my rock, on which I leaned when I needed support. In the past forty-eight hours I had lost everything but Allison, and Dominic had been there for me through it all. Despite what I said about him possibly ordering the hit on Cassie and Michael, and despite how Officer Brecky felt about him, I realized that I trusted him wholly. That was why I was there, with him, instead of hiding out in a cop-appointed safe house.
Chapter 24We drove into Lakeville for dinner, choosing the diner over the one fast food restaurant in town. Allison babbled on and on about the horses, and what she had learned from Teddy. Dominic and I sat quietly listening to her. It was nice that she monopolized the conversation. That way I wasn’t required to talk as much, and when I did, I was talking to her.
After we had our ice cream dessert, we stopped in the little market for some provisions before heading back to the inn. We would be leaving in the morning, and I wanted to make sure we had snacks and drinks to last through the morning, at least.
Allison sprawled on the bench on the front porch of the inn, playing her DS while Dominic and I sat at the other side. Me lounging on the swing, him in the chair at my feet, leaning back, his feet kicked out to stretch his legs.
“Tomorrow, we should head east,” he said.
Surprised, I shook my head. “East? But that would just lead us back to the trouble we’re running from, wouldn’t it?”
He shook his head, his soft brown hair dancing with the movement, his eyes serious. “If Ritter came after us, he would’ve sent someone south and west. South, because that’s where he knows us from. West, because it’s logical to run that direction from the east coast.”
“What about North? We could’ve headed into Canada,” I pointed out.
“Too difficult to cross the border now,” he said. “The point is, we are safe at this point. Still in the northern part of the country, but far enough south to avoid a west-bound scout. And far enough in the middle of nowhere, too. Ritter would also expect me to stay in more populated areas where we could blend in with everyone else.”
“You seem to know him pretty well.”
“I told you, he’s been on my radar for a while. I’m supposed to know him well. That’s one reason I’m still alive, Ella.”
I took a deep breath and huffed it out hard. “Okay,” I said. “Where do we go when we head east?”
He picked up the Ohio state map from the battered wooden table beside him and unfolded it. “I think we can head east along this road.” He points to the map and traces his finger along the yellow line of what is probably a moderate road--not too highway, and not to country. The trail of his finger dips up and down with the curves of the road. “We’ll follow it till we get to seventy-seven. Then we can head north up to the Lake Erie and take ninety back into Pennsylvania.”
Heading back into the state we had just fled seemed a folly to me, but Dominic had the experience, so I would go with him.
He must have sensed my apprehension. “We’ll stop somewhere in Ohio tonight. But we’ll do it after we reach the lake. Tomorrow we’ll cross into Pennsylvania and travel along the northern border. Then we’ll head back toward home, but we’ll stay outside of Summerville and Church Hill. Ritter will be watching our houses, the bank, and the store.” He closed up the map and fixed his sea-green eyes on me. “There’s a safe house in the mountains just north of Church Hill. We’ll stop for food and such on our way down, and we’ll stay at the cabin until things clear up.”
“How do we know when that is?” I asked, the skepticism clear in my tone.
He smiled at me and squeezed my ankle. “The FBI will let me know. It shouldn’t take more than a week or two.”
“A week or two?” It came out as a harsh whisper. My eyes popped wide, then narrowed. “What am I supposed to do about Allison’s school? She’ll fall so far behind. Maybe I can call. . .”
“No,” he cut in. “You can’t call the school. We don’t know if Ritter has some way of getting information from them. We need to stay disconnected.”
“There has to be something,” I said, almost pleading with him. Then it hit me. “Allison?” I called to her across the expanse of the inn’s porch.
She looked up at me. “Yeah?”
“Did you bring your text books with you?”
“Yeah,” she said, puzzled.
“Do you think you’d be able to do some extra school work if we can’t get back home for a while?”
My too-old-for-her-age ten year old sat up, looking at me down the length of the porch. Then she stood, walked over to me, and sat in the chair by my head. I sat up in response. “Mom? What’s going on? We’re in the middle of Ohio. There were cops when we left home. And Daddy’s dead. What’s going on?”
The questions I had been dreading, and, yes, avoiding, finally came to smack me in the face. I didn’t know how to handle this, but In knew I had to try.
“Well, honey. . .” I paused, not knowing where to start. “Daddy was killed by a bad man.” The pain and terror that slashed across her face stabbed me in the heart. I took her hands in mine as the tears welled in both our eyes. “This man took Daddy from us, and he took Aunt Cassie and Lynnette, too.” I tried soften the blow as much as I could without leaving out details she would question later. “We left with Mr. Dominic because this man may come after us, too, and Mr. Dominic can help keep us safe.
“But, you’re going to miss some school. Maybe a week. Or two. So I need you to do what you can with what you have. Read your text books, and answer the questions.”
“But some of my teachers give papers with different questions,” she said with concern.
“Honey, that’s okay. As long as we try to keep up, you’ll be fine. You’re a smart girl. Given the circumstances, I’m sure that your teachers will accept whatever you turn in.”
I could tell she had questions, but she didn’t want to ask. I helped her ask. “Do you have any questions, honey?”
Her eyes flitted to Dominic and back to me. “Did the police send Mr. Dominic to help us?”
“No. He works with the FBI.”
“Why is the bad man after us? What did we do?” The pleading in her voice broke my heart all over again.
“We didn’t do anything, sweetie. The bad man doesn’t like someone that I’m friends with, so he’s using us to get to that person.” It felt like a good explanation--honest, but lacking specifics that weren’t necessary for her to know.
Should’ve seem that one coming. I dropped my gaze to the wooden planks of the floor, trying to figure out the answer. Dominic saved me.
“You’re mom and I grew up together, Allison. The bad man is really after me because I put him in jail a long time ago. When I found out he was after your family, I came to help.”
He gave her the details without letting on to our personal, and criminal, history. In fact, he made it sound like he was the good guy in the past.
Her blue eyes flicked back and forth between me and Dominic, her sharp brain trying to put it all together. Finally, they landed on me. “So he’s your friend from when you were little?”
“I was a teenager when Mr. Dominic and I were friends,” I told her.
“Okay. So, was he your boyfriend?” It was genuine curiosity a little girl would have about her mother’s younger years.
“For a while,” I said.
“Is he your boyfriend now?”
Whoa. What? I sat back like she had slapped me. “No,” I clipped. “Honey, I’m married to Daddy. I love Daddy.” I angled my head toward her to emphasize my meaning.
“I know, Mom,” she said in a tone that said she understood way more than she was supposed to know. “But Daddy can’t hug you, or kiss you, or make you dinner, or take you on dates.” She stopped there like I should understand the deeper meaning of what she was saying. And I guess I did, but I could accept that my ten year old was saying it.
I was at a loss on how to handle the situation. I looked at her for what seemed like an hour before breaking the gaze to examine the horizon. Taking a fortifying breath, I looked back to Allison. “Honey, I appreciate your concern. And, yes, I do miss those things that I can’t share with Daddy anymore. But that doesn’t mean that I”m going to get a boyfriend. Marriage is a sacred union, and I would never break the vows I made to Daddy.”
“I know, Mommy. But I think Daddy wants you to be happy. He asks me sometimes if you’re happy.”
My voice caught as I asked, “And what do you tell him?”
“I tell him you are. But I think he worries that he can’t make you happy like before. Remember how you used to turn up the radio and dance around the living room? And how we used to go to the go-cart track in the summer? And remember family movie night when you guys would snuggle up on the couch and I’d fall asleep on the floor?”
Tears flowed freely down my face as I chuckled at the memories of our happy family. “I remember all that, baby,” I said pulling her to sit next to me so I could wrap her in my arms.
“Daddy can’t do any of those things anymore. I think it makes him sad.”
We sat there, and she let me cry over her. I cried for the life we lost with the accident. I cried for the loss of her innocence. I cried for the loss of my husband and best friend. And I cried for the crazy path life had pushed us down now. For her part, Allison sat there and held on to me with all her heart.
“I love you, Mommy,” she murmured. “I think we’re gonna be okay.”
We sat there, my daughter and I, huddled together on the creaky porch swing while the sun faded below the horizon, painting the Ohio sky in brilliant purples, oranges, and reds. We didn’t talk. We just held each other, giving each other the strength we needed to persevere.
It was only when the vibrant hues had washed away to the smokey color of dusk that I realized Dominic had left us alone.
We found him stretched across the twin bed in the corner of our room. He hand’t turned down the quilt and sheets, and his shoes were still on his feet as they hung off the side of the bed.
He propped himself on an elbow when we entered. “You two okay?” Genuine concern laced his so
ft words. It showed in his eyes as they found mine.
I warped an arm around Allison’s shoulders and gave her a half-hug. “Yeah. We’re okay. Just. . . Well, you know.”
“Yeah.” He sat up and swung his feet to the floor. “I think we should get to bed soon.” He walked over and took Allison’s hand. “But first, a bedtime snack,” he said leading us out of the room.
“Oo! What is it?” Allison wanted to know.
“All good things to those who wait,” he said with a smile.
He lead us back downstairs to the little parlor just off the foyer. There on a small serving tray was a glass of milk, a pot of coffee with two mugs, and a delicious-looking crumb cake. “Milk, coffee, and. . .” He cut a slice of the cake, flopped it on a plate, and handed it to Allison with great flourish. “Apple crumb cake.”
Allison’s eyes were huge. “Oo! Thank you Mr. Dominic.” She took the offered fork and sat down in a chair.
“Don’t thank me. Thank Mrs. Rose. She made it.” He set her milk on a coaster on the table next to her, his face split by his smile. He was thrilled with her reaction, and the joy the two of them emitted was catching.
After cake and milk, we headed upstairs to bed. Since we were the only guests, we tramped around in our pajamas while going through out nightly routines.
I sat in bed with Allison, reading on my phone while she drifted off. Well, I pretended to read. There was no way I could sleep at that point. And it made it that much more difficult when I looked across the room and saw Dominic propped up against his headboard, watching me.
When I was sure Allison was asleep, I slid out of bed and went to Dominic.
Chapter 25He put his phone on the bedside table as I climbed onto the foot of his bed. I leaned against the wall and curled my knees up to my chest. Arms around my legs, chin resting on my knees I didn’t look at him, though I could feel his gaze burning into me.
The air was electric with the tension between us.
“I don’t know what to do about you,” I said after a stretch of silence. I lifted my gaze to be caught in the nets his green eyes cast for me. My head was spinning with emotions, drowning me until I wasn’t sure which way was up.
The corner of his mouth curled up. “Well,” he said, folding his hands over his stomach, “I don’t know how to help you with that, except to say that I’m here if you want me. But you already know that.”
I took a deep breath and blew out slowly. Releasing my legs from my hugging arms, I tilted my body toward him, laying with my head cradled in my hand. The fingers of my other hand skimmed up his jean-clad leg, from his bare ankle to just below his knee and back again. My eyes following the motion, I brushed the soft skin below the hem, tracing a crescent around the top of his ankle.
“Ella.” My name drew out on his lips, a rumbled warning spiked with lust.
“Hmm?” Still immersed in my roiling emotions, and slowly succumbing to the more lascivious of said emotions, I sounded as I felt: dazed.
It took a moment longer, but I snapped out of my reverie and pulled my hand back. Looking up at him I meant to apologize, but the words caught in my throat at the sight of him. The mellow glow of the night light cast him in muted highlights and shadows, softening his features. The feathers of his hair fell across his forehead in a ready-for-bed tassel. His eyes were dark with desire, and a muscle twitched along his stubble-shaded jaw.
I was fighting myself. One part pushing me away, back to the big bed where my daughter slept. Another pulling me up the length of his legs to snuggle up to his strong, warm body full of so many promises. I needed grounding. I laid my hand on his leg and watched as his eyes went molten.
Wrong ground, Ella, I scolded myself.
I let go of my inhibitions and crawled up the bed into his waiting arms. He pulled me close as I snuggled in next to him. Arms wrapped around him, my head on his chest, I inhaled his musky scent. His fingers combed through my hair with gentle strokes, teasing nerve endings that had been neglected for far too long. My walls were crumbling under his touch and the need to feel like a woman again.
I luxuriated in the soft sensation that his fingers gave as they danced lightly around my ear, down my throat, along my collar. He swept my hair back, and I felt his warm lips caress my neck. The kisses lingered as his mouth moved over my skin, causing my spine to arch with pleasure. I turned in his arms, granting access to my throat, my jaw . . . my parted lips.
As he kissed my exposed throat, I licked my lips. A soft moan escaped on my sigh. Dominic swallowed it as his mouth found mine in a kiss so warm, slow, and deep it brought tears to my eyes. I let myself drown in the tender passion of that one simple act. Relishing sensations I had coveted for so long.
Soft skin blanketed the raw strength of his hand as it slid under the hem of my shirt. Fire erupted on my skin beneath his touch. But he kept his hand low, stroking side to side across my stomach with the only need being skin-on-skin.
I rolled into him, pressing my chest against his as I came to my knees. The hand on my stomach slid to my back, and his other arm came around me as I wrapped my arms around him, pulling him deeper into the kiss.
He broke free of my hungry mouth to run his tongue along my jaw. Stopping at my ear, he nibbled and suckled. “Ella,” his whisper was rough with need. “We can’t do this now. Allison.”
I moved my lips to his ear and teased as he had done to me. “We’re just kissing, Dominic,” I whispered back, trying for a lacing of sensuality.
He moaned at my breath tickling his ear. “You’re torturing me.”
I pulled back and took his face between my hands. Looking into his eyes, I murmured, “It goes both ways, Dominic.” My forehead fell to his. “I’m as tortured as you are. But if this is going to happen, it has to be slow.” I straddled his hips, pushing my core against him. Nuzzling into his neck I whispered, “I want what you want. But I’m not emotionally ready. I feel so guilty.”
He held me tight. “I understand,” he whispered. “We can take it slow.”
“Lay with me?” I said, pulling away to look at his face and stretch my legs.
“Of course.” He stood and helped me climb under the covers. Then he stripped off his jeans and slid under with me. He laid on his back so I could cuddle in close, my head resting on his shoulder, my arm draped across his broad chest. As I curled into him, my leg came across his hips.
“Mmm. Be good, Ella,” he moaned into my hair.
I squeezed him closer in response, using my whole body. His arms cradled me as best they could in that position. “Ahh,” he sighed. “I always loved the way you cuddle in. Like you can’t get close enough.”
I lifted my head a bit. “Dominic? Do you have a gun?”
“Yes, I do.”
My head fell back to his shoulder. “How many? Do you have one for me?”
His sigh was heavy. “If you need it, yes. I have one for you.”
“What is it?”
“El. . .”
“I just want to know what I have at my disposal. Should I need it,” I assured him.
Another sigh from his kiss-swollen lips. “It’s a nine. A Baby Eagle. Holds fifteen rounds.”
That brought my head up. “A Baby Eagle? Really?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry about it now. Go to sleep.”
I didn’t argue, and let him help me relax by playing with my hair. As I drifted into a blissful sleep, I heard him whisper very softly, “I love you, Ella. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Chapter 26I woke in the sweet warmth of Dominic’s arms. He had curled toward me in the night, our arms around each other, my leg nestled between his. My face was buried in his chest, and his musky scent surrounded me. I took a deep breath and snuggled closer to him. He responded with a sleepy moan, his arms pulling me in.
But we couldn’t stay like this. Allison was sleeping in the other bed, and we needed to get moving.
I stretched and rolled out of the comfort of Dominic’s strong arms, waking him in the process. His fingers grazed my cheek in a soft caress. “Morning, beautiful,” he murmured in a deep voice, thick with sleep. The smile on his face was catching.
“Morning,” I returned softly. “We need to get up. I need coffee. And food.”
“Ah, yes. Me too.” He stretched beside me then rolled to sit at the bed’s edge. He leaned forward and picked up his jeans from where they pooled on the floor.
I curled around him as he pulled them on. “Thank you for last night.”
He turned to fix his eyes on me. “You don’t have to thank me. I didn’t do anything.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Just sleeping next to you, feeling your arms around me, was more than you know. Michael loved me, but he couldn’t give me even that for over a year. I didn’t realize how much I missed it.”
He bent down and laid a gentle kiss on my temple. “I’m glad it made you happy.” He stood, sliding out of my arms and leaving me feeling empty again. “I’m going to go shower before we head down to dinner. Why don’t you work on getting Allison up? I’ll be back in ten.”
“All right.” I slid out of bed as he closed the door behind him. Padding over to the big bed, I laid my hand on Allison’s shoulder. “Allison. It’s time to get up, sweetie.”
She moaned, rolled, and stretched, her eyes fluttering open. “Mom? What time is it?”
I glanced at the clock on the nightstand. “It’s almost eight. Mr. Dominic is in the shower. When he’s done, I’m going to take one. Then it’s your turn. Once we’re all cleaned up, we’ll go down for breakfast. Okay?”
“Yeah,” she said as she sat up against the headboard, the quilt pooling at her waist. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
“O-kay,” I drew out, pondering where I could take her since Dominic was in the only one I knew of. “We’ll go downstairs and see if there’s a bathroom down there.”
We were in luck. There was a powder room at the end of the foyer, under the stairs. We both made use of it, then climbed the stairs back to our room. I laid out clothes for each of us while we waited for Dominic to return.
He walked in a few minutes later. The sight of him made me pause. His hair was damp and tousled, the results of a good towel-dry. His skin was glowing from its cleansing, but he had left the stubble on his jaw, giving a rough sexiness to his look. Snug black cotton hugged his chest and shoulders, falling over the waist of his jeans. His feet were bare, as I would expect from this former beach bum. He looked good enough to eat, and if Allison hadn’t been there. . . Well. . .
To pull myself away, I grabbed my clothes and headed for the shower. It felt good to have the hot water sluicing down my body. After I had cleaned up, I turned off the hot and cranked the cold. The shock of the frigid water, gave me and extra jump start.
There was no hair dryer, and I had left my brush in the room, so I toweled my hair as best I could. I checked my face in the mirror and was immediately thankful for my natural coloring that denied the need for makeup. I buttoned up my blue gingham shirt, and slipped my legs into my jeans. I opted for the bare foot look, as well, but more because I had a desire that would be better fulfilled with bare feet.
Avoiding Dominic’s eyes as I stepped into the room, I shooed Allison down the hall to get cleaned up. I started digging in my bag for my brush.
As soon as the bathroom door clicked, Dominic was pressed up behind me, his lips at my ear. “You are trying to kill me slowly, aren’t you?” he growled.
I froze. Afraid to move for fear of spiking my already too-keyed-up libido to dangerous levels. The steady pulse of his shallow breathing was pushing me to the edge, though. “Dominic,” I said soft enough to keep my chest from expanding too much. “You need to back up.”
“Because.” It was all I could offer as a reason. Weak. Wanting. Just like me. But it worked, and he backed away, allowing me to continue searching for my brush.
“Okay. I get that,” he said with resignation.
“Ah-ha!” I whipped the elusive brush from my bag and went to the vanity mirror to do what I could with my hair.
Allison came back looking refreshed and beautiful. I had her check to make sure everything was in her bag, and we headed down for some much needed coffee and food.
Mrs. Rose had a true country breakfast waiting for us. I helped myself to homefries while Mrs. Rose cooked me an omelet with bacon, sausage, and ham, smothered in cheese. The morning was brisk, but we ate on the porch anyway.
Dominic joined me and Allison, sitting in the chair next to me. “A bit chilly for flip-flops, isn’t it?” The question was aimed at me and my mostly bare feet. It was also edged with something that might sound fatherly to someone else, but I knew it was more of a warning against my thoughts and future actions.
“Yeah, well. . .” I trailed off, not wanting to state my reason for wearing the scant shoes with Allison right there.
But just then she said, “Mommy, can I eat inside? I’m cold.”
“Of course, honey. But stay in the parlor until I come back in, okay?”
“Okay.” She gathered her plate and juice glass and went inside.
Once the door shut behind her, Dominic invaded the quiet. “So?”
I sighed. “I wanna drive,” I said without looking at him.
“Well, that’s obvious. Why else would you wear flip flops in this weather?” He picked up his coffee and held the steaming cup in front of his face, staring out at the landscape. I started to wonder if he would say anything else about it when he put the mug down and fixed his eyes on me. “You can drive. But we won’t be doing that kind of driving. There’s no way.”
“I get that, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. If we’re heading back toward home, the chances of a run-in increase. No matter what you say, that’s how I perceive it,” I said, holding up a hand in defense. “I’m a better driver than you, so I’m driving. And if we run into trouble, I want to be barefoot. You know that.”
When we were younger, and I drove Dominic’s runs for him, I always drove barefoot. I felt more in tune with the car that way. That meant I was more confident without shoes between me and the machine. I had a natural ability when it came to driving. An ability that kept me and my cohorts out of jail whenever I drove.
I needed that confidence for the next leg of our trip or I might chicken out and hunker down at the Bubbling Brook Inn indefinitely.
His hand found mine as I reached for my coffee. “I understand, Ella. But you being barefoot puts me on edge. Like you’re expecting trouble.”
We finished our breakfast, said goodbye and thank you to Mrs. Rose and Teddy, and headed back to the state road that would take us home in our roundabout way.
It was nice to be behind the wheel, to be in control. The Mustang rumbled around me, welcoming my gentle, knowing touch. It felt right sitting in the driver’s seat. My flip flops were tucked under my seat, my bare toes caressing the pedals. I cared nothing for the radio, and let Dominic play with the limited choice of stations.
Allison sprawled across the back seat, her nose buried in her book. It amazed me that she could be comfortable like that with the hump of the drive shaft through the middle of the seat, but that was beauty of youth.
Nobody talked. Each of us isolated within our own little world inside the car. But, inside my little bubble, I couldn’t help worrying about what waited for us up the road. The farther north we went, the more constricted I felt.
I followed Dominic’s plan to take seventy-seven up to the lake at first. But a nervousness came over me on the highway. I got off in Canton and took a more scenic route. It was just as straight, but being a smaller road that went through towns it took longer.The timing didn’t matter much since we were staying in Ohio for the night.
“Check your mirror, Ella,” Dominic muttered, almost under his breath.
A quick glance at him showed his gazed trained on the side-view mirror out his window. He jaw was clenched. Not good. I turned to mirror by my head.
About a quarter mile behind us was a nondescript, dark blue Chevy sedan. It could be nothing. We were on a long, straight road that was a connecting line between several towns. Still, the fact that Dominic was on edge put me on edge.
“I think you should turn off. Just to make sure.” His eyes never left the mirror.
I turned right at the next road that intersected our path. It was a narrow, two-lane road that wove between freshly plowed fields while bobbing and dipping over gentle hills. It was a peaceful little road. A nice family ride in the country type. Except for the dark blue Chevy that appeared in my rearview as we crested another hill.
I found another little road on the left and took it. One should never jump to conclusions, so I was making sure. This road made a sharp S-turn about a hundred feet down, cutting off our view of the intersection. The road was too twisty for me to keep a good watch behind us. That was Dominic’s job. He watched the side-view and pulled down the visor to watch the vanity mirror as well.
My nerves were bunched in knots as I waited to know if the car was still behind us.
“Allison, honey. Make sure your seat belt is tight, please.”
She sat up straight and cinched the belt tightly over her lap before pulling the shoulder strap as tight as she could get it. She didn’t even question me.
The road made another sharp turn then dipped into a deep valley. We were blind to what might be behind us, but it was a comforting thought to know that they would be slowed down as much as we were by the geography. More even, considering the difference in the cars. However, we were also blind to what lay before us since we had never been down these roads before.
We came to a curve where two other roads joined this one in a mutated Y shape. Not knowing if the car was still behind us, I took the hard left onto the first road. I hoped that we would disappear in the bends and valleys before the other car could see us. If it was even there.
This road, however, curved a bit before straightening out and climbing a hill, placing us in plain view. A glance in the mirror showed that we were visible even from the road we had just left.
And there was the dark blue Chevy. It slowed as it approached the intersection. Then it stopped. Reversed. Turned to follow us.
Dominic looked at me. “You know what to do.” His voice held confidence in my ability to get away. Then he turned to Allison sitting behind him. “Keep your seat belt on, but try to stay low. Your mom is the best driver I know, but these roads are twisty and we’ll be going fast. If you curl up in a sideways ball, you’ll be fine.”
I heard her shuffling around to do as he said. “Like this?” came her somewhat squished voice.
“That’s perfect.” He smiled at her before turning back to the front and tightening his own seat belt. “Go, Ella.”
I dropped the car from fourth to third gear and pressed the accelerator, launching us forward. As the gear wound out, I shifted with a sidestep, not lifting my foot from the gas. The Mustang hunkered down to the road as we approached the top of the hill. The other side was a gentle slope that curve to the right. It would have been an easy turn at the speed limit, but as we crested the hill close to sixty miles per hour the car’s wheels left the road for a full second. A second was eternity in a flying car. Timing was imperative. I lifted off the gas slightly, held the wheels straight, and waited for impact.
The jolt from landing barely had time to slam the body to the ground before I yanked the wheel and slid the car around the turn. The tires squealed like pigs a slaughter as the rear of the car raced the front end around the turn. I feathered the gas as we slid. When the road straightened out in front, I pulled the wheel around again, stomping on the accelerator as the car lined up straight.
We were on another long straight stretch, but I wanted off this road. I stared at the farm up ahead, trying to see if the driveway was paved. We would leave tracks in gravel, dirt, or grass. The entry looked to be a dusty gravel, but luck was on our side in the form of a tractor rumbling around and kicking up dust.
I took the chance and pulled in slowly. As I the car behind the large barn, the tractor gave further aid. The farmer pulled up behind us, blocking us from any travelers on the road.
“Allison, sit up,” I said, trying not to snap. She obeyed immediately.
A hulk of a man climbed out of the tractor and walked around to my door. I wound the window down.
“Can I help ya, miss?” My eyes tracked up the round flannel-clad belly to a kind face weathered by a lifetime working the land. Greying hair poked out from under the man’s green John Deere hat.
“Yes, sir. We’re looking for the interstate.” I smiled at him, hoping I could keep in here long enough for the sedan to pass us by so we could go back the way we came.
He leaned down and looked at Dominic and Allison before returning his sun-bleached blue eyes to me. “Yer a long way off, miss.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” I said in a dejected tone. “Could you point us to a store where we can get a map?”
“Well, yer best bet is to go back the way ya came. Go right at the stop sign. That’ll take ya to the main road. Goes north and south. Jus’ head the way ya wanna go. You’ll find a store either way.”
“Okay. Thank you very much.” Inside I heaved a sigh that he was sending us the way I wanted to go. It had been a gamble. Through the slats of the barn, I noticed the Chevy going up the road. The speed of the car indicated they were looking. But when they sped up just before cresting the hill, I knew they hadn’t seen us. Still, I had to haul ass to get back before they realized we ditched them.
The tractor rumbled away, and I backed out from our hiding place behind the barn. I pulled out slowly, hoping that the tires didn’t leave dusty tracks on the asphalt. Once we were out of sight of the friendly farmer, I pressed the accelerator to speed our progress. Allison tucked back into her ball without being told. Good girl.
We whipped around the turns in the opposite direction. It was good that I was blessed with a sort of photographic-tactile memory when it came to driving. If I drove a road once, I drove it a hundred times, allowing me to have the confidence of one familiar with the terrain. I knew where to feather the gas, where to drop gears.
Then end of the road came into sight, and I scanned for other cars, fully intending to run the stop sign if I could. Luck was on our side. I skidded the car around the turn and back toward the larger four-lane road we had been traveling before the drama.
“Get out the map. Get us to the interstate so we can put some pavement between us and them,” I told Dominic.
“What if that’s not the only car?”
“We’ll take it as it comes. Best way. You know that.” The main road was looming in front of us. “Which way?”
Dominic scanned the map. “Go right. Then about a mile up, turn left.” He was good with a map. Great team we made: me driving, him navigating. We’d always worked so well together. I trusted every direction he gave. He trusted every crazy swing of the wheel I made.
Once we were off of the main road again, I slowed down. I didn’t want to draw attention to us. The car stood out well enough without driving like the devil was chasing us. Even though he was. Damn those gold stripes on the black paint. Why couldn’t Dominic have picked a solid color? Even a less distinguishable stripe pattern? I squeezed the wheel until my hands ached with the effort, trying to expel my frustration.
Just over thirty minutes later we were merging onto the interstate. I would put some distance and time between us and our pursuers before getting off and taking a less traveled road. I pushed the needle to seventy-three miles per hour. The limit was sixty-five, so I was safe from being pulled over as long as I kept it under ten over.
At the third exit up from where we go on, I got off. Dominic checked the map and directed me to a smaller road that paralleled the road we had been on earlier. It was a two-lane road, and much less traveled than the main route.
“I think we should go to the safe house now,” I said with a glance in Dominic’s direction. His face revealed nothing as he stared out the windshield.
His silence was unbearable. “Dominic? Any thoughts on that?”
He looked at me, the green of his eyes swirling with indecision. He was afraid. That scared me. The Dominic I knew never showed fear, even to me.
I took a deep breath. “Okay. Do we have to use that safe house? Is there another one we can use?”
“We need to ditch this car.” He was curt. His way of dealing with the situation, I guessed. “When we get to a more populated area, drop me off. I’ll get us another car and meet you at a place we pick. Then we can drive somewhere out of the way and leave the Mustang there. Without tags.”
“What about the safe house, Dominic?” I pressed. “Can we use another one?”
“I don’t know, Ella,” he practically barked at me.
My head snapped to look at him. Something was off. And it had warning sirens screaming in my head. A quick glance at Allison sitting behind him told me she was paying attention, but pretending to be engrossed in her game. I wouldn’t get into anything in front of her. She had been through too much already, and I had a feeling it was only going to get worse.
So I drove in silence for another hour when we came to a small town that was much bigger than the towns we’d driven through until then.
Dominic pointed to a large grocery store with a full lot. “Pull in there, and make a few passes through the lanes.”
This was heading in a direction I didn’t want to take. Running was one thing. Committing a felony was another level entirely. I didn’t want Allison involved in something like this, but there wasn’t much choice. Dominic was right. The Mustang had to go.
We drove up and down the lanes while Dominic cased the vehicles in the lot. He pointed to the back row. “Drop me off back there.” He pulled out the map, and we decided on an intersection to meet at in twenty minutes. This whole thing rubbed me the wrong way. I had a bad feeling about it that didn’t have anything to do with stealing a car. It was more about Dominic and the way he was acting.
Leaning forward, he pulled a thin black leather wallet of some sort from the glove box. Then he reached under the seat and pulled out a holster, complete with the butt of a .40-caliber Smith and Wesson pistol sticking out. I knew what it was because it was the same gun he’d had all those years ago, lovingly cared for.
He caught my eye as he slid the holster onto his belt where it would be in plain view of anyone who saw him. The look he gave me said not to ask questions. I didn’t. Just watched as he climbed out and shut the door. Then I drove away without looking back.
I found a fast food restaurant and pulled through the drive-through, ordering lunch for Allison and myself. We parked in the back of the lot to eat. Then I searched the car.
I dug through the trunk looking for hidden weapons or anything that might indicate there was something else going on that I wasn’t aware of. Under the thin, grey carpet behind the wheel well I found a .22-caliber rifle. The entire gun was black, like it was for sniping. Except the caliber wasn’t right for a sniper rifle. But Dominic had always preferred the chrome barrels to black.
Allison climbed up front while I checked under the back seat. I found another pistol under each seat. One was a .45, the other a .44. “Allison, do not reach under these seats at all.” I left no room for questioning.
“Okay, Mommy,” she answered, her voice sounding timid and slightly fearful.
“It’s okay, baby,” I said looking up at her. “You should know there is a gun under your seat. So, if you lose something, let me know and I’ll get it for you. Okay?”
“Climb on back here, so I can check up front.”
I found the Baby Eagle under the driver’s seat. Apparently, Dominic had known I would want to drive and was prepared to oblige. I pulled the clip out, checked the chamber, then ran my hand along the barrel. The black metal was cool under my fingers. The textured rubber grips rubbed my palm. The weight of the weapon felt good in my hand. Familiar.
Sliding the clip back into place, I slid the gun back under the seat. Turning to Allison, I told her, “Buckle your seat belt, sweetie. We have to go meet Mr. Dominic.” I turned back to the front and fastened my own belt before starting the car and pulling out.
I felt better knowing more of what the odds were. At least I knew what I had at my disposal, and where to find it should I need it.
We reached our rendezvous point before Dominic, so I parked in one of the three lots facing the intersection.
Five minutes passed, and I began to get antsy. Dominic wasn’t usually late. After ten minutes, I started to worry. What if he got caught? Or worse, what if he tried to steal the wrong person’s car? We were in the sticks, after all. I wouldn’t have surprised if most of the people in the area carried a gun just because. What if he ditched us?
Seventeen minutes after we were supposed to meet, a dark blue Toyota Camry pulled in next to us. Dominic was driving. He signaled for me to follow him, and we headed in the general direction of nowhere.
I followed him for about thirty minutes before we turned onto a dirt road. The road wound through a forest. Several smaller roads, if that were possible, branched off intermittently. Eventually, Dominic turned down one of these roads, and we drove until we found an out-of-the-way pull-off.
Dominic had me park the Mustang as deep as I could get it. When I turned off the motor and climbed out, I couldn’t see the road anymore. Good.
I popped the trunk and helped transfer our bags from one car to the other. I wondered what Dominic would do about the guns since he hadn’t told me about them, but he surprised me. After Allison was tucked into the back of the Camry, he pulled the weapons from their hiding places.
I stood in silence as I watched each gun come out of hiding and get a once-over before he handed them to me. When he pulled out the Baby Eagle, he looked me in the eye for the first time since we’d parted ways. “Here’s your gun,” he said handing the weapon to me and taking the others. “Go in the woods and shoot a couple rounds to get the feel of it.”
“Do you have more rounds?” The one thing I hadn’t found was more ammo. But, if it came to it, we’d need more than what the clips held.
“Of course,” he said with a shake of his head and slight smirk.
I nodded and walked into the trees. About twenty yards in I stopped and looked around for a good target tree. I wanted big and not to far. About fifteen yards to my left was a fat oak trunk. Perfect.
I clicked the safety off, loaded the chamber, and held the gun in front of me with both hands and arms bent. Looking through the sights with both eyes, my focus started at the back of the pistol and traveled down the barrel to the target tree trunk. Blowing my breath out, I squeezed the trigger.
The gun kicked a bit, my wrists and bent elbows taking the shock before settling the sights back where they started. I squeezed out three more in succession, forgoing the breathing exercise. After all, in the heat of battle I wouldn’t have time for worrying about my breathing.
Walking the distance to the target tree, I checked out the pattern my shots had laid out. It was a tight circle the size of a half-dollar.
Content, I headed back to the cars and found Dominic switching out the license plates. He put the plate from the Mustang on the Camry and hid the Camry plates in the trunk. He looked at me with a glowing smile.
“Well? How’d you like ‘er?” he asked.
“Accurate. Easy sights. Not too much kick. It’s a good gun.” I began to close the distance to the car, and he stood. “Thanks,” I added softly. I leaned in and gave his cheek a tender kiss. “I feel better with this.”
“Good.” His arm wrapped around my waist and pulled me close. His warm breath fanned my ear. “It’s hot to see you with a gun in your hands again.”
I pushed against him. “Don’t get used to it. This is only for necessity. I don’t want a gun in my house.” Oh, but it felt so good to hold it, fire it. I had been raised with guns in the house, taught how to shoot when I was just six, but when I left Dominic and the outlaw life we had lived, I left my love of guns behind, too.
“We should get going,” I said to change the subject. “I’ll drive.”
After much weaving through back roads, we ended up back on the main road we’d been following before the craziness began. I drove the forty-miles-an-hour speed limit for a few miles, but we were going too slow. Something told me we needed to get out of Ohio. Now.
At the next light we came to I got in the left turn lane.
“What are you doing?” Dominic asked.
“I want to get on the highway,” I said, stepping on the gas when the green arrow lit up. I straightened the car out onto what proved to be a road the same size as the one we’d just left.
“Why do you want to get on the highway?” He pulled out the map as he questioned me.
“I just do. Do we have to stay in Ohio tonight? Can we go to the safe house now?” I looked at him when I said it. I wanted to see his reaction. Something was off, and I needed to figure it out as soon as I could.
Looking between the map and the road, he answered, “Yeah, I think that would be a okay. A day ahead of schedule should be fine. This road connects to the highway, so we can stay on it,” he said, folding the map and storing it in the glove box.
Once we hit the highway, I kept our speed at seventy-two again. We rolled north, putting the chaos and insanity behind us, and heading into who knew what. I was apprehensive. While I had decided that I trusted Dominic, he was acting strange.
A day ahead of schedule? What did that mean?
I understood ditching the Mustang, and thus stealing another car. I understood why we hid the Mustang. Going to a safe house made sense. Even the round-about way of getting there made sense.
What I didn’t get was why Dominic seemed so set on a schedule. Yes, he had agreed to skip staying in Ohio for another night and heading straight to the safe house, but still. We were running from a notorious drug lord. Why have a schedule? Wouldn’t it be better to just go on instinct?
I was listening to my inner voice, at least. It said run. My intuition was telling me to get out of this state. It was also questioning Dominic, and that made me nervous.
An hour later we were crossing into Pennsylvania. According to Dominic, we had between four and five more hours of driving through southern New York and back down into Pennsylvania before we reached the cabin in the mountains that would serve as our safe house. I hoped that the new car and our speed would leave Ritter’s henchmen behind.
At a highway rest area we made a pit stop. The thing with Dominic acting strange was nagging at me, so I told Allison to wait in the car while we talked.
We stood ten paces in front of our newly acquired vehicle under a tall oak bursting with vibrant green shoots. I wasn’t sure how to approach the subject without sounding like I didn’t trust him, so we stood in silence for a full minute before he leaned on the tree and asked the loaded question.
“What’s up, Ella?”
I studied his face. The stubble on his jaw was more than just a shadow after at least three days without a shave, but it suited him. His windblown hair danced around his face in the slight breeze kissing the air. Then there were those eyes. Those green pools of endless depth that consistently fell into without hope of surfacing.
I was falling again, and I gave my head a shake to clear the fog that crowded my thoughts. I took a deep, bracing breath and looked right into those eyes. “What’s up with the schedule?” I asked. “Why do you seem so set on following a set timeline for this little escapade?”
He broke the eye contact and looked off to his right, back toward the brick building of the restroom area. “The safe house has a schedule.” His eyes came back to mine. “They told me when I could take you there, and I’ve never gone against what they tell me. I’m not sure what we’ll find when we show up early. Hopefully it’ll just be empty, and we can move right in.” He shrugged. “But I honestly don’t know.
“I’ve had safe houses available to me whenever I’m helping, but I’ve never used one. I always just kept moving, ya know?” He reached both hands for me as if to take my arms, but I stepped back. His eyes questioned me, expressing the hurt my pulling away caused him.
“Dominic. . .” I paused and dropped my eyes. “Something’s not right, here. Something doesn’t feel right.” I took a breath that raised my shoulders as I shook my head slowly, still trying to sort through everything.
I looked around the rest area. All around us, people were going on with their everyday lives. A family on vacation walking their dog. Two young girls, about college age, on a road trip. A man on a business trip, his blue button down loosened at the collar but still tucked neatly into his pressed slacks.
Then there was us. Dominic, Allison, and I were anything but normal at this point. Newly reunited ex-lovers, one with a murdered husband and friend, running from a cold-blooded man, with a ten year old girl in tow.
Looking back at Dominic, I asked, “Who are they?”
“They?” he repeated, sounding confused.
“Yeah. Who are the people putting us up this safe house?” I made quotations with my fingers.
“The FBI. I told you that,” he said with incredulity and a lift of an eyebrow.
“Yeah. Well. . .”
He pushed off of the tree. “You don’t believe me? What, you think I’m on Ritter’s payroll?” His tone hardened with the imagined accusation, and he took a step toward me. “Is that what you think, Ella?”
We stared into each other’s eyes, each trying to read the other’s deepest thoughts and suspicions. Dominic’s gaze was guarded, but the hint of hurt flickered in their depths.
“Ella. . .”
“No. You have to hear me out on this,” I interrupted, holding up a hand. “This has been shady from the beginning. Look at it from my side. You appear out of nowhere, intent on winning me over. You obviously have money, but your ruse as a store manager doesn’t explain the amount of money you have at your disposal. Then my best friend disappears, only to be found dead, at my house, along with my husband and his nurse. Michael, who was confined to a wheel chair and couldn’t even take care of himself.” Tears rolled freely down my face at the thought of Michael. I fought to remain in control of my emotions. I couldn’t risk raising my voice in such a public place.
Taking a fortifying breath, I pressed on. “Now my ten year old daughter and I are on the run with you. You seem to be following some sort of set schedule, but I can’t figure out why. Then we have to ditch the car and steal another. I get losing the Mustang. Conspicuous and all. But my ten year old daughter is riding in a stolen vehicle.” I gestured behind me to where Allison surely sat watching our little exchange from the relative safety of said stolen vehicle.
Then something else clicked in my mind. I stood a bit straighter as the idea formed into a solid, reasonable thought. Crossing my arms over my chest, I continued my rant. “You had me leave you while you acquired another car. And you were almost twenty minutes late for our rendezvous. For all I know, your car could’ve been bugged or had a tracking device that you knew about. You’ve been acting strange ever since we were chased.
“Unless I get some answers, I have a mind to call Officer Brecky to come get me and Allison. We can wait for her here.”
Emotions warred with each other for placement on Dominic’s face and in his expressive eyes. He was definitely hiding something, but whether I had called him out on the right subject remained to be seen.
He glanced around. Indicating a picnic table off to my right, he asked, “Can we sit down?”
My hands fell to my sides as I studied him again. Then I shrugged and walked to the table, sitting so I could see Allison in the car. Dominic sat across from me.
He fiddled with his hands nervously, staring at them while he seemed to think through what he would tell me.
I waited as patiently as I could.
Finally, he looked up at me. “You’re right. I haven’t been completely honest with you.” He raised his hands in a defensive gesture. “That’s not to say that I’ve lied to you. I just haven’t told you everything. I can’t do it now. Not here,” he said looking around the moderately active rest stop. “You also have to understand that my hands are tied to a certain extent. This is the FBI’s case. I merely help them in return for compensation. There are things I’m not allowed to tell you because, technically, I’m not supposed to know either.”
“Let me clear something up for you, Dominic.” I leaned forward across the table, my eyes burning into his. “I don’t give a damn about what the FBI says I can and can’t know. My little girl is running from a notorious and very powerful drug lord who obviously deals in illegal firearms, as well. Now, maybe I’m not the perfect innocent virgin here, but I’m tending to blame you for the state of my family right now since we were doing just fine before you came waltzing in.”
A heavy sigh blew through his lips. “I deserve that. But you have to agree that this isn’t the best place to talk about this. Anyone could be listening. The safest place is in that car.” He jerked a thumb in the general direction. “Yes, my car was being tracked. I found the chip while you were ogling Teddy the cowboy at the bed and breakfast.”
“How do I know that car doesn’t have one? You had it for almost forty minutes before we met up. For all I know, you put one on it and met with someone to give them the new tracking information.” I buried my face in my hands. “Look, Dominic, I want to trust you. And deep down I do. But my first priority is Allison and keeping her safe.” I lifted my head. “You need to assure me that she is safe with you around before we go any farther.”
He took my hands in his. “How can I do that, Ella?”
“I don’t know, but you’ve gotta give me something.”
His eyes lifted to the tree tops as he thought. Blowing out a breath that feathered the hair draping his forehead he said, “I’m not supposed to tell you this. At all. But, the FBI actually used you as bait for Ritter.” At my questioning look he continued. “They knew Ritter wanted me, but I was giving them too much valuable information in other areas to use me to draw him out. So they found you. With your history--our history--they were confident that leaking your whereabouts would pull him to you. It worked,” he said with a shrug.
“They used me as bait. Without even so much as a courtesy call?”
He gave a you-know-how-it-is look. “They are the government. They pretty much do what they want.”
I leaned forward again. Still holding his hands, I gave a little squeeze. “My gut trusts you, but I know there’s more to this. We’ve been here too long, and I’m starting to get itchy, so we’ll go with you. For now. But know that I expect more answers at a better time.”
I stood, and he followed me back to the car. We had to find a town with a grocery store, then we were heading into the mountains, and hopefully to safety.
Chapter 28The road twisted back on itself like a snake coiled to strike as we climbed through the mountains. Asphalt gave way to gravel, gravel gave way to rocky dirt as we went deeper into the forest, the trees wrapping their protective branches over top of us as we drove.
Dominic was reading handwritten directions while I kept track of the distance we traveled after each turn off. He peered through the windshield, scanning the left bank of trees. “How far have we gone?” he asked.
Glancing at the odometer, I told him, “Three point seven miles on this road.”
“Okay. The driveway should be coming up on the left. . .” Suddenly his hand snapped to the window, pointing. “There. It’s gotta be that little road right there.”
Looking in the direction he pointed, I saw what looked to be no more than a wide deer trail. “That little road?”
I made the left turn onto a road that wasn’t quite wide enough for a car. It was pock marked with pot holes, and the side was washed away in one spot, forcing me to drive the car into the brush on the other side. My eyes flicked to Dominic. “Good thing we ditched the Mustang,” I said as we hit another divot.
“No kidding. I’d be in tears by now,” he replied. “The cottage is the only house on this road. The directions say it’s half a mile in.”
“Great.” I knew my tone lacked enthusiasm. Driving fifty feet on this road was wretched. I wasn’t looking forward to a full half-mile.
Not soon enough a building came into view. It was small, and looked to have been built by hand out of trees cut from the surrounding forest. It had a porch reaching the entire front width of the cabin. A fieldstone chimney climbed one side.
We climbed out of the car, and Allison and I gathered groceries and luggage from the trunk while Dominic went to unlock the door. We met on the porch.
“I need to go fire up the generator and turn the power on,” Dominic told me.
I was confused. “Generator?” I looked to the roof of the cabin. No power lines. I looked to Dominic. “But we didn’t get any gas for a generator.”
He started walking around to the back. “I was told this one runs on diesel, and that there’s a large tank that should have fuel in it. The agent I work with said he would make sure we had fuel.” He disappeared around the corner of the cabin.
A minute later, the sounds of a motor trying to start polluted the quiet of the woods. After four tries, the generator’s motor roared to life, decimating the tranquility completely. So much for a quiet getaway. Surely that thing was loud enough to be heard from the road.
We walked into a large common room of sorts. Just left of the door was a beat up oak dining table and chairs. Dated, yellow metal cabinets and appliances lined the left wall to form a galley kitchen. To the right, two sofas formed an L shape with a coffee table in front. The horrid olive green color was checked with a dirty white, giving the fabric the look and feel of a colorful burlap sack. An ancient console television graced the right wall, and lurking in the far corner was the black iron hulk of a wood stove.
It was freezing inside, and I assumed it wouldn’t get any warmer. The trees overhead blocked all but trickles of sunlight, and we were at a high elevation. This place would probably feel air conditioned in the sweltering heat of summer.
I nodded in the direction of the stove. “Is that our heat?”
“Apparently,” Dominic answered. “I didn’t see a furnace in the cellar.”
“Great,” I said with a roll of my eyes. “Well, why don’t you go find the wood pile and start a fire. Allison and I will put the groceries away and check out the sleeping area.”
“Sounds good,” he said, and walked outside.
Allison and I got to work hauling the groceries inside and finding a place for everything. The fridge wasn’t cold, yet, but we had bought two bags of ice to help chill it faster. Allison found the flatware in a drawer and pots and pans in the cabinet below. I found dishes in the cabinet just above her discovery.
Groceries stored and essentials found, we took our duffel bags and headed through the small opening at the back that lead into what I assumed was sleeping quarters. A small landing revealed stairs leading down to the cellar and three steps up to a raised bedroom of sorts. There was a queen bed on each side of the short stairway, both stripped bare.
“I hope there are sheets and blankets,” I said more to myself.
Allison answered. “What about that chest?” She pointed to a worn cedar chest tucked into the corner of the room.
I smiled at her. “Good eye, sweetie.”
Opening the chest immersed us in the musty cedar odor of bed linens and pillows that had been stored for a long time. We began pulling out sheets and blankets, searching for something that didn’t smell quite so bad and felt soft enough to sleep on. After about ten minutes we had picked what we thought were the best options and made the beds.
By then, Dominic had trundled a small stack of wood to the stove a was attempting to start a fire. He looked up at us as we came back into the room. “I’ve got a bunch stacked out on the porch so I won’t have to go so far next time. There’s a huge pile out behind the cabin.” He turned back to the open stove. “Now, if only I could get a fire started.”
“Have you tried paper?” I asked.
“I couldn’t find any,” he confessed.
Glancing around the room, I didn’t see any either. “I’ll go get some kindling. We’ll start one the old-fashioned way.” And I headed out to the woods to gather small sticks.
The woods encroached on the back corner of the cabin, so I went there to start my collecting. I wandered in a few yards before crossing a deer trail. My gaze followed the trail to where it disappeared over a small hill. It’d probably be a good idea to know these woods a little better. Just in case, I thought as I picked my way along the trail.
At the top of the hill, the forest stretched in front of me. A maze of hardwood trunks and shrubs. Off to the left, in a small gully, looked to be a stream. A patch of tall pines lined the opposite bank and extended along the side of a much taller hill beyond. Boulders dotted the hills, creating what appeared to be cave-like holes in some places.
I mentally mapped the area and committed it to memory. Once Dominic had a fire going, I’d bring Allison with me to explore further. After our run in with the other car, I wanted to know our options for hiding. We may have been in the middle of nowhere, but nerves were still on edge. My intuition kept poking me in the ribs to keep alert. I didn’t feel completely safe.
There was something else I wanted to go over with my daughter, too. It frightened me to even think that it might be necessary, but I would feel better once it was done. I would feel that she was safer, too.
With a pile of sticks in various sizes bundled under my arm, and a handful of tiny tinder, I headed back to the cabin.
A few hours later, we had a blazing fire heating the thick iron of the stove and radiating warmth through the room. We had eaten grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and were lounging on the sofas. Allison stretched out on one, playing her video games. Dominic and I occupied the other, sitting at opposite ends with our stockinged feet mingling on the middle of the three cushions.
“I cooked,” I said, and pointed at him. “You get to wash.”
“Okay. That’s fair,” he replied with a stretch. “I’l do it in a little while.”
“I want to keep this place clean and ready to leave at a moment’s notice, so wait too long.” I looked at Allison engrossed in her game. “I want to take Allison out to explore the woods soon.” My gaze fell on Dominic’s green eyes again. “I want to know the land as best as we can. Just in case.”
His look sobered from the relaxed glaze that he had taken on. “I get that. Maybe we should all go together.”
With a shake of my head, I said, “No. I just want the two of us to go. I need to go over some other things with her, too. If you want to explore, go right ahead. But not with us. Not this time, at least.”
His eyes swam with concern and a touch of sadness. He stood and reached for my hand. “Come talk to me a minute.”
I slid my feet to the floor, and took his hand. He pulled me to my feet and led me into the sleeping quarters, never relinquishing my hand.
Sitting side by side on the worn patchwork quilt Allison had spread over one bed, Dominic turned to me. “You still don’t trust me, Ella?”
I sighed, looking at my hands in my lap instead of meeting his intense stare. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Dominic. But, there’s still a lot we need to discuss.” Hesitating, I lifted my eyes to his. I thought I was prepared for his wrath at my lack of trust. I wasn’t prepared for the look of utter betrayal that filled those green depths. Maybe I was wrong to doubt him? But it wasn’t just for me. Allison came first. That meant I had to question everyone and everything.
And something still didn’t feel right with this whole situation. A piece of the puzzle was in the wrong place, or turned so it didn’t fit right. And, because I couldn’t figure it out, it was me and Allison against the world. For now.
We didn’t say anything to each other for a long minute. Then, at the same time, we both spoke the other’s name. We half smiled, and Dominic said, “Go ahead.”
I took a deep breath and let it out, ruffling my hair. “I want to go over some things with Allison in case something happens and she has to defend herself. That’s all, really.”
Concern flooded his features as my intentions dawned on him. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said with conviction. “I need to know she will have the best chance if anything happens to me. Or you.”
“Okay. You better get going then. It’ll start getting dark soon, and it’ll get darker faster up here.”
I stood to leave him. “Thanks for understanding. Will you be going out, too?”
“Probably.” He shrugged. “Hey, there’s a flash light on the table. Take it incase it gets dark on you.”
“Okay.” I left him sitting on the bed.
Tapping Allison on the shoulder pulled her out of her video game daze. She twisted her head around to look up at me as I stood behind her. “What’s up, Mom?”
“Let’s go for a walk,” I said.
Ever the obedient child, she sat and put her shoes on right away. “Where are we going?” she asked.
I had collected the flashlight from the table and was putting my own shoes on. “Just a walk through the woods. I want to make sure we know the land in case one of the bad guys finds us here.”
The immediate tension in her body revealed what I had feared. She felt safe here. It wasn’t that I didn’t want her to feel safe. It was just that I wanted her to know that the possibility of being found was still there.
She followed me out the door, but I stopped her on the porch. “Wait here a minute. I need to get something.” I went to the car and reached under my seat.
Sliding the gun into my waistband at my back, I pulled my shirt over the weapon and signaled to Allison. She bounced off the porch and skipped to me as I walked toward the deer trail I had followed earlier.
After exploring the growth of pines for a few minutes, I realized it wasn’t particularly protective should we need to hide. The trunks were bare from the ground to about twenty feet, and because they were ever greens, nothing grew beneath them.
We followed the stream toward the rocky outcroppings I had seen from the hill where I gathered sticks. We were heading upstream. The water was cold, and the stream was a few feet wide in most places. We had crossed at a spot where the water diverged onto two paths before meeting again farther downstream, forming a small island in the middle and making it easier to cross.
But the bank got rocky as we started into the hilly area. Allison and I picked our way along slowly and carefully. The last thing we needed was an injury. Once we were deeper into the small valley carved by the running water, I started examining the rocky outcrops. I chose two to start our exploration.
“Allison, we’re going to climb up to those rocks.” I pointed at our first target.
“Ok,” she answered, hopping from a shaking rock onto stable terra firma. Her eyes followed the direction I was pointing. From this angle it looked like quite a climb, but my little girl was active and agile. I had no doubt she could do it. I wasn’t so confident about my own ability, however.
We started up the hill, forging a trail through the trees and craggy rocks. Half way there we encountered what appeared to be a sheer cliff, though it was still a leaf-littered forest floor and devoid of rocks. Scanning around, I headed for the far side of the verticality at an angle. I put Allison in front of me as we turned to climb straight up the rise. Using the small trees growing on the lesser slope for hand and foot holds, we made it to the top.
We were now above the boulders that I wanted to explore. “Stay back there,” I told Allison as I walked out onto the outcropping. I moved slowly, testing the rock beneath my feet as I placed them. To my right was a slight step down. I took it, and kept climbing so my path twisted back to lead me into a small cave formed by the huge boulders.
It was just big enough for two people to stay hidden. If I poked my head up, I could see the roof of the cabin not so far away.
“Allison?” I called.
“I want you to come down here just as I did. You’ll see the path if you move slowly.”
“Okay, Mom.” I heard her first footfall on the boulder above.
“And be careful,” I added as pebbles tumbled down to my right. I listened to the sounds of her feet scraping on the rocks, her breaths huffing out as she worked to get around to the entrance.
At last she was there with me. It was snug with the two of us in the small cave, but we were able to make it work so we could both be hidden and poke our heads up to see.
I pulled the Baby Eagle out of my waistband and unloaded it. I looked Allison in the eyes. “I’m going
to teach you how to use this. You need to pay attention. It’s not a toy, it’s a deadly weapon.”
“I know what it is, Mom.” Her voice was tight with fear and apprehension.
I blew our a heavy breath, puffed cheeks and all. “Okay. This is the safety.” I showed her the small bar that moved up and down. “If you can see red, the safety is off, and the gun will fire.”
She watched intently. “Okay. Red means fire,” she said almost to herself as a way of committing the information to memory.
“This is how you load it.” I pulled back the slide and released it. “It’s a semi-automatic, so you only have to do that once. Once you’ve done it, all you have to do is pull the trigger.” Aiming the gun at the stream, I pulled the trigger. It clicked to expel the nonexistent round. “Here. You try,” I said, handing her the gun.
She took with reluctant confidence turning the weapon over in her hands to examine it. I let her take her time. She had to comfortable with it, or she wouldn’t be able to use it if she had to. After a minute of looking it over, she flipped the safety on and off again. Then she pulled the slide back and let it go.
“Make sure you aim it in front of you and at the ground a little bit away before pulling the trigger.” She did so, jumping a bit when the gun clicked. “Good. Now try it a few more times before we put bullets in it. I want you to be comfortable.”
Her eyes betrayed her excitement as she familiarized herself with the pistol. There was a power that guns offered, and even a ten year old girl could feel it vibrating through the metal. Hell, I had felt it when I was four years younger than Allison when my father first let me shoot a rifle.
She clicked the sequence over and over, until it was clear that she felt at ease. Her blue eyes met mine, sparking with anticipation. “Okay. I’ve got it,” she said in a matter of fact way.
“All right.” I took the gun back and slid the clip home. “I’ll shoot first. Hold your ears and watch
I loaded the chamber and took aim at the stream. Allison’s gaze was glued to me as I flicked the safety off and squeezed the trigger.
The blast was deafening as it rocked our small hiding place, leaving my ears with a terrible ringing. But I squeezed again to show her that it would fire without reloading. Instant headache.
I put the safety back on and waited for the ringing to subside a bit so I could hear Allison when she spoke. Her eyes were huge circles of black-fringed white with pools of blue in the center. I smiled at her.
“Okay,” I said after a minute or so. “Your turn.” She took the gun with trepidation. “Don’t be afraid of it now. Respect it. Don’t fear it. If you fear it, you won’t be able to shoot.”
She took a deep breath and blew it out. “Okaaay.”
I positioned myself behind her so I could cover her ears. “Keep both eyes open. Take a breath and blow it out, then squeeze the trigger. Don’t pull. Squeeze. Rest your arms on the rock in front of you, and aim at the stream.”
I could feel the tension in her small body, but I knew telling her to relax was a waste. She would only relax with experience. I pressed my fingers over her ears. The pistol floated in the air in front of us. Turning it slightly, she flicked the safety. “Red means fire,” she muttered. Righting the gun into position, she aimed at the stream. I felt her take a breath and blow it out.
An ear-splitting BOOM resounded through the woods. Water splashed far below where the bullet hit the water. I lifted my finger from her right ear. “Again,” I told her before closing off her hearing.
I relived the deafening roar of the pistol’s report for the fourth time in the tiny cave. It was all I could take.
“Flip the safety on, and let’s get out of here,” I said, deafened from the ringing in my head. “We’ll practice somewhere where my head won’t explode every time you shoot.”
After emptying two clips between the two of us, it was clear that Allison was a natural with a gun. Our designated target tree was riddled with bullet holes. All within an area the size of a man’s chest. That was all that mattered. If she was using this gun in the near future, she’d hit her target. But I prayed she wouldn’t have to.
Chapter 29We were tramping around in the woods and shooting at trees for an hour and a half, and when we returned Dominic glanced at me before turning his attention to Allison. “So? How was it?”
She gazed up at him, her eyes glittering with exhilaration. “It was awesome! Mom said I’m a natural. Did you know she was six when Gampy taught her how to shoot? But she shot a rifle. I only got to shoot a hand gun. But I hope she’ll teach me to shoot a rifle, too.” It all tumbled out of her mouth so fast I could barely understand her.
My hand fell to her shoulder and squeezed. “Allison. Stop. Let’s not forget the other lesson we learned.”
Her excitement fell a few levels, and she dropped her eyes to the ground. “Yes, Mom.”
Dominic looked up at me, his expression solemn. Then he stooped down to be at eye level with Allison. “And what was the other lesson?” he asked her.
Her blue eyes found his, the twinkle diminished but still sparking. “Mommy taught me how to shoot in case the bad guys come. I need to know how to protect myself if I have to.” She stared at her fidgeting hands. “If I have to shoot someone, I aim at his body.” Her voice dropped as she said it, the hope that she would never have to commit the act pushing through.
Dominic gave her a smile meant to boost her up. “Well, let’s hope that never happens. Now, who’s hungry? I’ll cook.”
We ate a substantial meal of white rice smothered in beef stew. The stew was from a can since we didn’t want to spend excess time cooking, but it was fabulous to sit down and eat as a family considering we’d been eating in restaurants for several days. Even though Dominic wasn’t part of my dwindling family. But he fit nicely into the gap that had been widening since Michael’s accident.
Allison was the first to head into the bedroom. “Mom?” she called through the open doorway. “Can I sleep by myself tonight?”
I looked at Dominic who gazed back with amusement. Walking to stand in the doorway, I asked her, “Why do you want to sleep alone, honey?”
The mischief in her grin was not lost on me. “Well, I just thought that you might want to talk to Mr. Dominic for a while after I go to bed. If you sleep in the other bed, you won’t have to worry about waking me up.”
“Well, Mr. Dominic is sleeping in that bed, but I can sleep on the sofa if you want to sleep alone.”
A little air leaked out of her bubble. “But it’s a big bed. You could share it.”
Unable to hide my smile at her matchmaking attempt, I shook my head at her. “Get ready for bed, Allison. I’ll handle the sleeping arrangements.”
I went back and sat next to Dominic on the sofa. “She wants us to share the other bed so she can have that one to herself.”
He was all Cheshire cat as he grinned at me. “I’m okay with that. In fact, I’d enjoy that very much.”
“I bet you would.”
“I bet you would, too,” he whispered in my ear.
An electric pulse shot through my body from where his breath kissed my skin. I leaned away just enough to turn my face to him, my eyes finding his smirking lips before tracing the planes of his face to drown in the green oceans of his eyes. He was so close. Just a breath away. My mouth hungered for a taste of his. Just a wee little tidbit of the sweet nectar.
The look in his eyes told me he wanted the same thing. But I wouldn’t do that with Allison still awake in the next room.
It bothered me that she was so accepting of the romantic role Dominic could play in my life. I was glad that she accepted him, but her father had just been killed. Why would she push me toward another man? Why wasn’t she angry and upset over this whole situation?
It occurred to me that maybe my little girl was just much more resilient than I knew. Life had handed her one hell of a lemon basket, and most of them were rotten when she got them. Yet, here she was, picking through basket, tossing the lemons beyond salvation, and cutting the bad spots out of the others to make the flavorful lemonade she could fashion.
She came out of the bedroom in her pajamas and gave me hug and kiss. “Goodnight, Mom.”
“Goodnight, baby. Sweet dreams,” I said hugging her back.
To my surprise, she then gave Dominic a hug. “Good night, Mr. Dominic.”
He chuckled as he returned her embrace. “Good night, Allison.”
We sat on the sofa for about an hour after Allison went to bed. We didn’t talk, just cuddled against each other. His fingers combed through my hair, calming me. When they began to skim my sensitive neck and throat, I sighed and stretched for more.
I felt his breath against my ear. “Lie on the floor, Ella. On your stomach.” Understanding his intent, I complied. His weight settled just below my rear as he straddled my hips. The strength of his hands massaged my shoulders, working out the tension of the last few days. He worked down my back, up again. Down my arms.
When he returned to my back, the breadth of his hands spread wide, his finger tips reaching around to my sides. The touch became tender, a sensual brush over the cotton of my shirt as he grazed the curve of my breasts. Drawing lower, he tugged the hem of my shirt up to expose bare skin.
Heat flared where his skin scraped my own. My muscled clenched in response, but as he skimmed over my back in a lazy caress a different sort of tension took over. I felt his weight shift. Then his mouth was at my neck, kissing just below my hairline. He worked his way to my ear, flicking his tongue before sucking the lobe between his hot lips.
I rolled beneath him, catching his mouth with mine. The kiss was leisurely. I was in no hurry to jump in the sack with Dominic. It was exquisite just to be kissed, touched by a man. And this man ken precisely what I needed.
A hand found my breast and massaged tenderly, teasing the silk of my bra under my shirt. A leg moved between my own, pressing against my body. I pulled my free leg up and around his waist, pulling him into me, forcing his need to press against my body. The fire between us raged, turing sweet desire into hungry need. We rolled together, groping, trying to get more contact through the barrier of clothing between us.
Dominic pulled his shirt off, and I traced the hard lines of his body. Needing to taste, I sat up and flicked my tongue over him, my lips joining in as I suckled. He pulled my shirt over my head, leaving it as a blindfold and pinning my arms behind my head. The moist heat of his mouth surged through me as it fell on the top of my breast.
But when he reached around to free them of the restraining bra, I flipped my shirt back down. However much my body screamed at me for stopping him, my mind wasn’t quite ready for the intensity.
An understanding pain filled his eyes as he gazed at me. Then he pulled me into him, wrapping me in a bear hug and groaning into my hair. “You’re killing me, Ella.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” I busied myself with straightening my clothes. “Maybe we should just go to bed.”
A heavy sigh escaped him. “Okay. Will you at least sleep in the bed with me?”
Turmoil tugged me in two directions, but my need to be comforted through that turmoil was stronger than the desire to remain distant and the lust. “Yes,” I said in a tired voice, and I walked into the bedroom.
In a gesture that was pure compassion, Dominic wrapped himself against me in the bed. I fell asleep in his arms.
As the glow of dawn was just beginning to push through the inky night, a thump outside woke me. Dominic sat up at the sound. He looked down at me, fear sparking in his fully awake eyes.
I propped myself on an elbow and listened. In the distance another low thud sounded. Dominic and I
stared at each other. Those were car doors.
Throwing off the blankets, we moved through the cabin in silence. Through a small slit between the curtains we spied two figures moving in different directions through the trees. A car began bumping its way down the drive toward the cabin. As it approached I thought it looked remarkably like the Chevy that had given chase back in Ohio, and my heart began racing.
Dominic and I moved away form the curtains so the driver wouldn’t see us. I headed to the bedroom and woke Allison, urging her to be silent and quick in dressing. I had slept in my clothes, and so went to arm myself. I made a quick holster for the nine using a scrap of a torn sheet and slipped it through Allison’s belt loops.
Her eyes shone with fear as I tied the gun securely to her hip. Whispering, I told her, “Someone’s here. I don’t know who it is, so I want you to hide in the basement until I come get you. Find a good hiding place that’ll be hard to find. Don’t make a sound. Don’t come out, no matter what. If you need the gun, just pull this,” I indicated an end of the fabric strip tucked into her front pocket. “It will untie the belt and you can use the gun. You remember how to, right?”
She nodded. “Red means fire. Both eyes open. Squeeze, don’t pull. Aim for the body.”
Her matter of fact repetition of the basic rules broke my heart. My little angel was again taking a huge step in the growing up process. And once again she was taking a step she should never have to take at her tender age. A step I wished she never would’ve had to take.
I handed her a flashlight. “Only turn this on if you need it.” My eyes searched hers before I wrapped her in my arms and squeezed. “I love you, baby.”
“I love you too, Mommy,” she whispered back with tears in her voice.
Leading her down the stairs to the basement, I opened the wooden plank door. Bending down, I gave her another tight squeeze. “Remember,” I whispered, “Only come out for me.”
“Okay. Mommy? I’m scared.”
“I know, baby. I’m scared, too.” I kissed her. “Now, use the light to find a good spot. Then shut it off until I come for you.”
When the flashlight switched on, an exterior door was illuminated. I stayed her hand with the light shining on the door. “If anyone comes in through there, don’t move or make make a sound. If you feel in danger, leave through there. Go to the little cave we found and hide there.”
I hugged and kissed her again. “Don’t worry, baby. We’ll be okay.”
She just nodded and swallowed visibly before moving into the dank basement.
I closed the door, climbed the stairs, and slid Dominic’s .44 into my waistband. He pointed to the rifle by the window in the bedroom. There I wouldn’t be visible from the living area, but I’d be able to see both the front and side of the cabin.
I watched through the window as a man climbed out of the car. He was short, but beefy, with a slight paunch at his middle. His head was bald, but whether it was nature’s doing or clippers, I couldn’t tell. The black long-sleeve shirt and blue jeans were nondescript. He could be anybody.
The confidence in his step as he approached the cabin, however, indicated that he knew exactly where he was and what he was doing. Maybe he was part of the FBI team that put us here. If so, what was up with the men sneaking through the woods?
When he stepped onto the porch, he disappeared from my line of sight. Seconds later, a knock sounded on the door.
“Yeah?” Dominic’s voice was hard, less of a question than a demand for the knocker to identify himself.
The answer from the other side of the door was muffled to my ears, but Dominic answered with another question. “What’s the password?” he demanded.
Password? There was a password? Why wasn’t I aware of this password? I listened as the muffled voice answered, the click of the door opening indicated he got the answer right.
“Bill,” Dominic said in a low voice. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to make sure you got here and had everything you needed. The tank for the generator was full?” He sounded young, but there was something in his voice that didn’t quite mesh with his nonchalant words. He sounded tense.
Dominic’s tone changed to match Bill’s. “Yeah. Everything’s fine. Still doesn’t explain why you’re here, though. You’re not supposed to be here. That’s the point of a safe house, Agent Jennings.”
The edge in Dominic’s voice screamed trouble. If this Agent Jennings wasn’t supposed to be here, why was he?
“Where’s Mrs. Boothe?” the agent asked.
Dominic didn’t answer right away. I listened to his foot steps track around the other room. As he approached the doorway, he spoke. “I’m not ready to have her come out yet. I still want to know why you’re here.”
That was my indication to stay put. I stole a look out both windows, trying to see if I could identify the other men’s locations. It was a futile effort. Unless they were wearing hunter orange, I’d never be able to pick them out of the trees. They could’ve been anywhere by that point.
I sat on the floor beneath the window, pistol at my back, rifle across my lap. There was nothing for me to do but wait and listen. I hoped that Allison was okay down in the darkness of the basement.
Jennings’s voice floated through the doorway in a soothing wave. “It’s okay, Sterling. We got Ritter, so you guys can come out and head home.”
Silence from Dominic.
“Why do you look like you don’t believe me?” Jennings asked.
Dominic’s voice was stiff, edged with doubt and distrust. “This wasn’t how we agreed you’d notify me. You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Yes, well. . .” Jennings didn’t finish the thought.
After a long, strained silence the door opened, and Dominic said, “I think you’d better leave, Bill.”
A gruff humf preceded the closing of the door.
I watched through the curtain as Bill Jennings walked to his car. Pausing at his door, he looked through the trees to his right. Following his gaze, I found the first of the two men hiding in the woods. The guy wasn’t far from the front door, but he perched in a tree so that a quick glance around leaving the cabin wouldn’t reveal him. He was armed with a sniper rifle, and didn’t acknowledge Jennings’s glance.
When the agent looked off in another direction, I did the same. The second of the men was off in the distance with a clear sight of the cabin door. The scope on his rifle flashed in the morning light as he sighted Jennings. Both men were in full camo.
When the agent drove off down the drive, Dominic returned to the bedroom. “There’s at least two snipers out there,” he murmured in my ear.
“I know. They’re both out front. Is there a back door in the basement?” My heart was racing. If there wasn’t a back door, we’d have to sneak out a window. And that was counting on just two men watching. If there were more scattered around the back, we were done for.
Dominic thought for a few seconds. “I think there might be a small door. More like a crawl space or root cellar. Let’s check it out.”
I opened the basement door, and Dominic turned on a flashlight. “Allison?” I called in a loud whisper. “Sweetie, it’s mommy.”
She didn’t answer, but I heard a shuffling noise off to the right. Dominic swung the beam of light toward the sound. More shuffling, but no visual. My heart started racing. Something wasn’t right.
I grabbed Dominic’s hand and moved the light along the floor. In the back corner, behind a floor shelf, the toe of a large boot peeked out. That was not my little girl. I kept the light moving so the intruder wouldn’t know we’d seen him. There was no sign of Allison. I hoped she was on the other side of the stairs, and not in the hands of the enemy.
Tugging his sleeve, I pulled Dominic’s ear next to my mouth. My voice was no louder than a breath as I whispered, “I’ll look for Allison on the other side.” He nodded. Handing me the flashlight, he used the beam to illuminate his hands as he gestured that he would go after the man hiding in the back. While I didn’t want him to risk the danger that surely waited in the dark corner, Allison came first. I did not intend to leave her alone and terrified.
I left Dominic standing in the dark and crept to the other side of the basement with the flashlight. I didn’t call her name. She wouldn’t answer, and I couldn’t be sure there wasn’t yet another man on this side of the stairs.
I moved slow, letting the flashlight trace the perimeter of the room. I looked under the decrepit furniture that had been stored for who knew how long. In my search, I discovered the small door Dominic had mentioned. I was blocked by the edge of a dresser, but I thought I’d be able to wriggle it open enough to squeeze Allison and myself through without making too much noise.
If I found her.
Then, way back in the farthest corner, I saw her small hand on the floor. It disappeared when the light hit it. Creeping closer, I acknowledged that I still couldn’t talk to her, so I used the light to let her know I was coming. I stopped in front of her hiding place, crouched down, and put my hand where she could see it.
When she grabbed my fingers and squeezed, my heart about burst. I tucked my head into the tight spot she had found and smiled at her. Indicating she should keep quiet, I gestured for her to come out.
Once she was free, I wrapped her in my arms and shed silent tears of joy and gratitude. My little angel was safe. Losing Michael had been hard. Both times. But when I thought my baby might be in the hands of my enemy. . . I couldn’t live without her. She was what I lived for everyday.
Loud shuffling sounds came from the other side, and I paused, listening. I heard a grunt, then the sounds of struggling. It was time to leave. Using the sounds of the skirmish to hide our escape, I opened the door and Allison and I squeezed through.
We were under a small overhang that shielded us from the view of anyone hiding nearby. Of course, it would also hide them from us.
“Are you okay?” I whispered to her.
She nodded in response. “Someone came through the outside door,” she whispered back.
I squeezed her to me. “I know, baby.”
The crack of gunfire from inside the basement spooked us. Allison yelped, and my hand flew to her mouth to mute her cry.
“Okay, Allison. Listen carefully. I want you to crawl as fast as you can through the woods. Go over that rise, and stay on the other side of that boulder.” I pointed to the hill that ran alongside the cabin and a massive boulder embedded in it. “Once you get over, head to the cave. Stay low, and zig zag. Hide behind whatever you can. Use the gun if you have to.” I hugged her to me again. “I’ll come find you. I promise.” Pressing a hard kiss on her forehead, I said, “Now go. I love you.”
She took off through the trees, low to the ground like she’d been playing army her whole life. She did well with using small shrubs and fat trees to hide her body from the view of the cabin. Once she disappeared behind the boulder, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see her anymore.
I waited for a couple minutes after she slipped behind the rock, then I turned to reenter the cabin and whatever waited in the dark of the basement.
Chapter 30Using the line of light allowed by the open door, I scanned the basement room. Empty. I closed the door as quietly as I could with the surrounding furniture, wincing at the scraping of the wood on wood and the click of the latch. All was quiet inside. Pulling the pistol from my waist, I slunk through the room toward the stairs.
I was terrified to round the corner. My fear paralyzed me for endless seconds before I snapped out of it. Dominic was somewhere in this inky gloom where just minutes earlier a gun had sounded. He could be injured. Or worse.
I took a chance and stole a peek around the wall, but all I could see was blackness. I didn’t know what to do. Should I use the flashlight and check the other room, or should I just get up the stairs? I was torn.
If Dominic was all right, why wasn’t he waiting for me here? Then again, if he was the victim, why wasn’t the bad guy waiting for me here? The unmitigated stillness was baffling.
After an eternity, I made my move. Peeking around the corner, I squeezed past the wall and tiptoed up the stairs, my .44 leading the way.
I was met with more silence. I checked under the beds first before grabbing the rifle from where I stashed it under the mattress. Another peek through the curtain revealed the two snipers still at their posts. Scanning the trees in the distance, I noticed what looked like Bill Jennings’s car parked way off down the entrance road.
If the guy in the basement was Jennings, then all three of the men we had seen were accounted for. If not. . . Well, I didn’t want to think about how many men could be out there.
I checked the side window. Perhaps I was a bit careless with moving the curtain. Just as I saw the flash of another sniper’s scope, the window shattered and fire lit up my left arm. The report came a second later.
I couldn’t help the cry that escaped my throat as I twisted back on the bed. Pistol still in my right hand, I clutched my arm just below the wound. The bullet had torn through the flesh and muscle below my shoulder. It wasn’t a through-and-through shot, but it wasn’t a grazing either.
I laid there on my back, lower lip clenched between my teeth in an effort to take away from the pain searing my arm. It did no good. I tried to remain still and quiet, but it was difficult not to rock with the pain. I risked rolling on my right side, and curled into a ball.
Blood was soaking my clothing and the comforter at a rapid pace. I needed a tourniquet, but I didn’t think I could make one myself. Blackness began to swim into my vision as I looked around for an adequate strip of cloth.
Pounding behind me. Where did it come from? I struggled to hold onto consciousness.
“Ella? Oh my God. Ella!” The voice was distant, foggy. Heaviness sank the world at my back. I sank with it until a pinching pressure squeezed my shoulder.
“Ahh!” The cry tore from my lungs, the pain bringing me fully awake again, though my vision was foggy at the edges. I looked up to see Dominic’s face hovering above me, his eyes darting from mine to the wound in my arm.
“Stay with me, baby,” he said.
Baby? He never called me that. Maybe it was the stress of the situation. But that simple word turned my thoughts to my baby.
“Allison.” It was a creaky plea meant to implore Dominic to take care of her if anything happened to me. But I wasn’t going to give in easily.
“I need to wrap the wound, Ella,” he said, ignoring my one word appeal. He bunched up the comforter and held it to my mouth. “Here. Bite down on this.”
Obliging, I opened my mouth and let him stuff the blanket in. I bit. Using a strip torn from a sheet, he bandaged my shredded flesh while I howled into my gag. When it was done and the tourniquet was doing its job, the pain began to ebb.
Dominic wiped the sheen of sweat from my face. As he stared down at me, his eyes pooled. He wiped the tears away and helped me sit. “We need to get out of here,” he said, his voice husky.
I shook my head. “These men aren’t gonna let us leave alive, Dominic. I need to get to Allison, and that means we have to fight.”
“Can we go the way you sent her?”
I looked at the shattered window and shook my head. “If that guy had been there before, he would’ve seen us. He would’ve had a clear shot as soon as we stepped out the door.”
“The guy in the basement is dead. It wasn’t Jennings.”
I sighed, both for Dominic having to kill a man and for the knowledge his information provided. “I saw Jennings’s car out on the road. The other two men are still at their posts. That means there’s at least one more than we knew. Probably more.” I looked at him. “Who is Jennings?”
Dominic rubbed his scruffy face with his hands. Hands that were covered in my blood. When he pulled them away, he looked to be painted for war. How appropriate.
“Jennings is the agent I’ve been working with all along. I guess he’s on Ritter’s payroll, too.” He sounded defeated. He had a right to be. The man he’d been working with to take down Luke Ritter, ultimate drug lord, had been batting for the other team. Dominic had been duped. Nothing more than a pawn in the chess game between Ritter and the FBI. Hell, the DEA and ATF were probably hot for the scumbag, too.
I squeezed his knee gently. “It’s not your fault, Dominic.”
He looked at me. “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be here,” he said. “It’s my fault your family’s been torn apart.”
I didn’t argue with him because he was right. His presence brought this turmoil back into my quiet life and shattered it from the inside. I didn’t want him to beat himself up over it, but this was not the time to point that out.
I changed the subject back to the current situation. “We need to pick off the men we can see from inside. They have no idea who’s alive and who’s dead in here.”
“But we don’t have the firepower to snipe them if they’re far away,” he interjected. “The .22 is the most accurate gun we have for distance, and it won’t go as far as that guy out by the road.”
“Well, maybe if we can get the guy right out front, and the bastard that shot me, we can slip out the back. Maybe shooting his buddies will draw him closer.” There was a chance. But first we had to get the other two.
I didn’t want to go near the blown-out window. I thought about how to get a shot at the guy on the side. My gaze lifted to the ceiling. “Is there an attic?”
The roof peaked side to side, so a vent would give access to the side of cabin. The same side as the window I was shot through. It was worth a try.
In the corner of the kitchen we found a hatch in the ceiling. It took some effort, but we were able to pull it down. Dominic stood on the counter and poked his through the opening, using the flashlight to cut through the dark.
“It’s empty,” he said looking down at me. “And it looks like there’s a vent on each side.”
“Good.” I handed him the rifle. “Slide this up, then you can give me a boost.”
He took the gun. “There’s no way you’re going up there, Ella.” His tone left no room for negotiation. But I wasn’t negotiating. In order to do this right, we both had to go up. Besides, I wanted to take out the son of a bitch that shot me. Payback. . . It’s a bitch.
He climbed down from the counter. “Maybe we should each take one. I’ll go up in the attic, and you take the guy out front.” He paused, studying me with a fatherly gaze. His eyes raked my face. “You’re really pale, Ella. I know you want the guy who shot you, but I don’t want you up there.” He stroked my face with his knuckles. “If anything happened to me, you wouldn’t be able to get down by yourself. Then what would happen to Allison?”
I jerked away from him, the movement making me dizzy and proving his point. The bit about Allison was really and unfair ploy. True, but unfair. I saw the logic in his reasoning. Sighing, I conceded his point. “Okay. You win. But you have to help me get set up.” I grabbed a glass and filled it with water, then swallowed sixteen-hundred milligrams of ibuprofen. The bleeding had been slowed, but I would pass out from the pain if I didn’t take something. Turning back to Dominic, I said, “And of course I’m pale. I was shot, Dominic. I lost a lot of blood.” Maybe I was bit brusque, but my nerves were stretched beyond their limits.
To Dominic’s credit, he didn’t acknowledge my tart tone. Leaning forward, he planted a kiss on my forehead and lead me back into the bedroom. “Do you think you can hit that guy with your pistol?”
“Oh yeah. He’s right at the top of the hill,” I said as I peeked through the curtain again. I met Dominic’s green gaze. “You shoot first. Hopefully that will distract him enough for me to get a clear shot.”
He just nodded, his eyes drowning in turmoil. He buried his hands in my hair and pulled my face to his, pressing a hard kiss to my lips. “We’re gonna get through this, Ella. And then I’m gonna make it all up to you and Allison.” Then he turned and left the room.
I heard him scrambling up into the attic space a minute later. His body slid across the ceiling behind me. A few more shuffles and bumps gave the impression that he was building up something to rest the rifle on. The less the barrel poked out of the vent, the better. One thing in Dominic’s favor was the darkness up there. His scope lens wouldn’t reflect any light back to the sniper.
My heart was pounding. From my injury, and from the anticipation of the imminent showdown. The fast it thumped behind my ribs, the more blood I would lose. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to hold my head up. Dominic had to be quick.
Long seconds ticked into endless minutes. The black haze began pushing it’s way back into my head, fogging the periphery of my vision. But I kept my eyes trained on the man in the tree at the top of the hill.
A thought occurred to me then. If that man turned around, he’d have a clear view of the cave where Allison was hiding. She should be laying low, completely invisible from the ground. But from the trees? I wasn’t so sure. I couldn’t take that chance. My bullet had to be on target the first time.
The explosion from the attic startled me, and I flinched. The man in the tree was more surprised than me, the boom nearly knocking him off balance and out of the tree.
I took aim and fired. But the clouds edging into my vision threw my aim off. The bullet hit him in the shoulder. He toppled backward, feet over head, landing on the ground with an audible thump. If I had any hopes that the fall would dispatch the camo-clad brute, alleviating me from putting a bullet through his heart--or head--they were dashed when he moved.
Trying to push himself behind the tree he had been perched in, the man struggled to pull his weight with his good arm while dragging his weapon with his now dead right arm. I hoped he was right handed.
Placing him between my sights again, I took a deep breath and blew it out. Then I squeezed. The second bang deafened me, and my world went black for an instant.
Seconds later the light swam back to me through the depths. Everything was blurry, but I could make out the limp form of the sniper. His head was propped up on the tree trunk at an odd angle, his body lying prone on the leaf litter he blended with so well. I had no idea where I hit him, but he was definitely dead.
I turned to find the man out by the road. His methodical movements indicated he was searching for the shooter. Well, I wasn’t going to give him a chance to blow my other arm to bits. Or any other part of me, for that matter. I ducked away from the window, rolling onto the bed on my back as I fought to hold on to my consciousness.
Dominic bounded into the room. “Did you get ‘im, Ella?”
I couldn’t see his face through my closed eyelids, but I imagined him gazing at me on the bed, pale and seemingly unconscious. Or dead. I could feel his fear overtake his excitement.
“Ella?” His weight sank onto the bed. His hands felt my face, by pulse, and examined my entire torso. Looking for wounds? Then they returned to frame my face again. “Stay with me, Ella.”
“Mmmm,” I moaned. Talking required too much energy. As did opening my eyes. But I wanted him to know I was still with him.
“Are you hurt anywhere else?”
I moved my head side to side an infinitesimal amount, and thankfully Dominic picked up on it.
“Okay. Good.” He sounded lost, like he didn’t know where to go from here.
Strengthening my resolve, I opened my eyes and found his gazing down at me. He looked as lost as he sounded. “I’m okay. Mostly. Tired. Gotta get to Allison.”
I tried to sit up, and Dominic surprised me by helping. I thought for sure that he would insist on me staying here while he went for Allison. But he had no idea where she was, so I had to go.
We reloaded the guns and headed back to the basement. To keep the door quiet, Dominic wrestled the dresser blocking it out just a bit. The small amount on one side was exponential on the other, and the door opened wide enough to slip through without any added noise from scraping furniture.
We moved slowly, Dominic following my lead. I crawled on the ground, putting much effort into avoiding my injured arm. The painkillers were beginning to kick in, and with the adrenaline pumping through my veins, I felt virtually no pain. Unless I leaned on the arm.
The two of us slipped behind the boulder on top of the hill with no problems. Once there, we rested. Dominic took the opportunity to scan the woods looking for more snipers. We had at least one more man to contend with, but I was betting on two or more. I didn’t think that Agent Bill Jennings would be the type to sit in a tree and wait. Besides, he had been in street clothes when he came to the cabin. While it was possible he had changed into camo, I didn’t think it was probable. He didn’t seem the type to do the dirty work, preferring to step in at the last minute, after his men took out the heavy hitters, so to speak.
Dominic came to sit on the leaves beside me. “How’re you doing?” he murmured, looking at my wound.
“I’m okay.” I waited till his gaze met my eyes. “I’m scared, Dominic. There’s at least one more sniper out there. And I’m betting that Jennings is waiting until he thinks it’s all clear before he comes.”
“I know. I was thinking the same thing.” His gaze moved out into the woods again.
“And what about Ritter?” I added. “If Jennings is working for him, then he know where we are. It’s obviously a set up.”
Dominic shook his head slightly. “I don’t think Ritter would get his hands dirty at all. He’s more of the bring-me-a-report type.”
I took a deep breath and blew it out. “Well, I need to get to my daughter. And then we all need to get the hell out of here.” I rolled onto my hands and knees again. “Let’s go.” Dominic fell in behind me.
It felt like it took decades, but we finally reached the bottom of the hill below the cave. We were crouched behind a thick bush. I needed to rest before attempting the climb. Looking up the incline, it was daunting. If it wasn’t for Allison hiding in the cave near the top, I knew I’d never be able to make that climb. But the love and willpower of a mother should never be underestimated. I would go willingly into Hell’s inferno to protect my little girl.
The crunch of leaves underfoot froze me in place. Dominic and I stared at each other. The green of his eyes was lit with fear. The footfalls were slow, calculated.
Dominic decided to take a chance, and lowered the .22 to peer through the dense shrub. Sniper, he mouthed. I brought my fingers to my ears as the rifle’s safety snicked off. Seconds later, the blast rocked the valley we huddled in.
Sitting back on his heels, Dominic released a heavy breath. He rested the rifle on the butt, and leaned it against his shoulder. His face held tension that aged his sculpted features a few years.
I laid my hand on his knee and squeezed. When he turned to me, his eyes were a hurricane of mental pain.
Dominic may have had a past twisted up with drugs and illegal firearms. He may have been involved in brutal fistfights when he was younger. But he had been young and stupid, caught up in the lucrative underground business and the power it could bestow. The few fights he had been in were the results of him being attacked by disgruntled underlings, and he never went over the line, doing only enough to defend himself. He never pursued a grudge.
Deep down, the man had a good heart. He loved people and went out of his way to help out his friends. Hell, all those years ago his instinct had ensured that he went to jail instead of me. When it came down to it, Dominic would put his own life on the line to save a stranger, so the fact that he’d shot and killed two men today was eating away at his soul.
I felt the torment from killing a man, too. But my circumstances were different. I was fighting for the life of my child. Only my own death would stop me from laying to rest those who intended to harm her. Knowing that the man I shot wouldn’t have hesitated to do his job, which obviously entailed killing all three of us, I had no regrets in taking his life.
Dominic leaned down, his lips against my ear. “That wasn’t Jennings,” he whispered.
I hung my head. We had at least one more person to contend with. One more person hiding out there in the woods with no way of knowing in what direction the danger lay.
I looked around slowly, scanning the terrain, the trees. Then, taking a fortifying breath I pushed to my feet and began the arduous trek up the steep incline. Only a few feet up, my arm started throbbing. My breathing became shallow and labored, and was sweating profusely. Using the trees scattered across the face of the hill, I pulled myself along with my right arm. My legs were burning, and my vision was beginning to haze, but I was nearing the top.
Once there, I collapsed on the ground panting, fighting to remain conscious. Dominic dropped on his knees beside me, pushing my hair from where it clung to my face and covered my eyes.
“Jesus, Ella. What the hell are you doing? You’re gonna kill yourself.” The words were harsh, but his tone was distraught.
“Allison.” It was all could get out. The exertion of talking required too much energy. I closed my eyes and tried to fight the blackness again.
Dominic’s hand patted my face. “Ella. Stay with me, Ella. I need you.” He turned my face to his when I opened my eyes. “I don’t know where Allison is. I need you to find her. Stay with me. For Allison.”
The concern and fear etched on his face confused me. Allison should be at school. It was the middle of the day. And what a beautiful day it was. Spring’s warmth was pushing through the last remaining tendrils of cold left by winter. The trees were covered in bright green buds where their new leaves would unfurl in a week or so. Birds were singing their songs as they returned to their summer homes or passed through on their way farther north.
Then I looked at the sky. It should’ve been bright blue, but I saw only a dark face surrounded by blinding white light. The rays spoked out from behind the man’s face like the light of Heaven behind an angel. Was he an angel?
Oh, my God. I thought. I’m dying. Who’s gonna take care of my baby?
I was vaguely aware of the angel calling my name. It seemed so distant. Like he was miles away instead of right there in front of me.
Everything started to fade. The world turned grey and gradually darkened to a black so dark terror instantly wrapped its cold fingers around my heart.
I must be dead. I mused. I’m dead, and the angel left me here. And there’s no one to care for Allison.