INSEGNAMI AD ADMARE (The Education Series)

Intrappolata in un matrimonio senza amore, la trentenne Caroline Wilson si trasferisce a San Diego perché suo marito ha ottenuto una promozione. Sentendosi sola e smarrita, Caroline fa amicizia con un giovane surfista del posto: Sebastian Hunter. Sebastian prova qualcosa di più che semplice amicizia per Caroline e approfitta degli incontri sulla spiaggia per avvicinarla e trasmetterle ciò che prova. Tra i due scocca la scintilla dell’attrazione e l’affetto si trasforma in un amore proibito che li minaccia entrambi, perché il ragazzo ha solo diciassette anni e Caroline è divisa tra la cosa giusta da fare e i suoi sentimenti per lui.

 

Published by Delrai Edizioni

Graphics by Chiara

 

 

 

 

The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball

For the first time, I’ve written a historical short story, set in Regency times, 1815. I have to admit to a great love of Jane Austen, so I hope you recognise something of her tone.


Rue des CendresBrussels

June 15th, 1815

My dearest sister,

Be assured that I am well, lately arrived with my party at Rue des Cendres. You were quite right to tell me to pack my French dictionary, for now I can tell you that we lodge in the Road of Cinders – is that not amusing?

Crossing the English Channel was quite shocking as the seas were excessively violent, but I will not worry you with how wretched I felt, because all is blue sky and sunshine now we have arrived.

It is a queer house indeed, but I am told that there are so many officers of note in Brussels, that even a Duke must lodge where he may – is that not shocking! But! There is a wonderful ballroom (you can be sure that I investigated that at my earliest opportunity). It is a large and airy room – at least one hundred feet long and I suspect more – on the ground floor on the left of the entrance, but connected with the rest of the house by an ante room. I believe it was used by the coach builder from whom the house was rented. Imagine! It was full of carriages before we arrived, but has now been wallpapered with a pretty trellis pattern of roses. It has been used for games of battledore and shuttlecock when the weather keeps the family indoors. But what fun it would have been to sit on hay bales and stroke the noses of the horses in between quadrilles! I’m sure you think me fanciful, but how amusing and such laughter would surely have ensued.

Georgy (as dear Georgiana has asked me to call her, as I am here at her invitation and her particular friend), says that we will attend Reviews, as well as ride out with her sisters to visit other families who have settled in Brussels. She says that there is a plethora of concerts, aplenty of picnics, dozens of dinners, assemblies, and dances which fill the Richmonds’ diary. Balls are held two or three times a week!

My room is delightful and overlooks la rue. Her Grace had originally thought to put me at the rear of the house which would be quieter, certainly, but think of all the scenery and excitement I would then miss. I argued my case vigorously and she relented at last, so now I may gaze over all the fine officers and their mounts, as they lead their brave soldiers through the streets.

I suppose there must be a battle, everyone says there will be, but it’s hard to imagine even though one sees Hussars in their green jackets, Dragoons in their red coats with golden helmets, and the mysterious Brunswickers in their black uniforms, whom I consider the most dashing of all.

You must think that I have not a thought in my head but officers and frivolity, and I assure you that is entirely the case! But I must pause a little to remark on the food, which I know you will enjoy.

Her Grace is a most charming host and we dine on white soup every afternoon. Then one might find four or five different meats on the table: Pigeons, Venison, Chyne of Mutton and Snipes. Even the servants have two different types of meat per person. I can also report that I have eaten my first artichoke, a queer, theatrical vegetable that tastes somewhat like French Beans (of which there are plenty and served with every meal). There is a choice of hot dishes and of course syllabub. They are vastly keen on fruit as it is said to prevent scurvy.

But here is just come the most exciting news – Her Grace is to host a ball tonight! Now the Duke of Wellington has returned from Vienna he will set about making ready the troops. Lord March, Richmond’s eldest son, is aide-de-camp to the Prince of Orange, and the two younger brothers George and William were also to be involved in the fighting in a similar capacity.

I am so happy here that all I need is my dear sister to make it perfect. But as you are not, I must describe everything to you in detail. Starting with my dress for the ball tonight.

I had thought I was equipped for a night with the ton, but Georgy would have me choose a gown of hers – and pretend that we are sisters! Although she has six of her own, she prefers my company at all times.

My hair is to be dressed close to my head but with curls and twists to the side of my face. I have not yet decided whether to wear a toque or a bandeau. I have eschewed the turban as one becomes quite warm when dancing, and I intend to dance at every opportunity. There will be more gentleman than ladies, to be sure!

The bodice is wide but short, the waistline is quite high, and there is now trimming that adds volume to the shoulder, enhancing the horizontal effect. I do think it suits me remarkably well.

The correct attire for gentlemen is knee breeches, white cravat and chapeau bras (which here is called a ‘bicorne’ hat), and of course one must stand in a dégagé attitude, with his fingers in his waistcoat pocket. His neck-cloth must be beyond rebuke, and must have cost him time and trouble to arrive at such perfection. Such nonsense! What is a mere ‘mister’ when there are Captains and Majors to be met with?

But I must leave off now and go about my toilette. Oh sister, wish me must joy as I wish you!

PS I am grateful that our poor, patient governess Madame B., managed to shoehorn some French into my dull brain, for it means I am able to converse with Her Grace’s lady’s maid who speaks nothing but French, and I am able to instruct her how to dress my hair.

June 16th, 3am

Even though the hour is late or maybe very early, I must write to you, but please forgive my ink blots and crossings-out. My heart is so full, I can barely write or mend my pen. Tonight I danced with Lord Hay. His name is James. Do not you think it the most gentlemanly, the most noble of names? Indeed, I think he is the superior of all men.

His father is the 17th Earl of Erroll, a scotch title, but an ancient one, so that is not too awful. Happily, the family home is Woodbury House in the county of Bedfordshire, a fine estate of several hundred acres – I not know exactly how many for one cannot remember everything when one dances a cotillion.

But I must, I must talk of Lord Hay. He is a dashing and merry youth, full of military ardour, and so handsome, just as a young man ought to be if he possibly can. I’m sure when the time comes, he will acquit himself with great honour.

He is only an Ensign in the First Foot Guards but fully intends to earn his spurs (as he told me with great delight). He is aide-de-camp to General Maitland, a good sort of man, not quite ancient although I believe he is approaching forty, but dear sister, you will forgive me for saying that he was not wholly pleasant company. He seems to think that cricket, of all things, is the most superior sport in the world, and he would hardly talk of anything else. Yet, it must be cricket and only talking of cricket could bring anything like animation to his plain features. But my dearest James says that the General also began as a lowly Ensign and look where he is now!

Do you not think I would admirably suit the life of wife to a military man? I think it would suit me vastly well. The excitement of moving from place to place, always novelty and new acquaintance. Yes, I think I could wish for nothing more.

Oh, I have so much to tell you! I met the Duke of Wellington! I was quite afraid at first, but Georgiana is not at all afraid of him and her family have known him forever. Indeed, she rides out with him most days. She says he has a very wicked sense of humour! I would not have thought that of such a spare, austere sort of man. But apparently our lodgings are on the site of an old laundry house from the 1600s, so the Duke has nicknamed it ‘The Wash House’. Such a naughty, teasing man! I thought I should die laughing!

The great Sir Arthur (as dear Georgiana and all the other sisters call him) arrived rather late to the ball, but then he said to Lord., “Hay, you are a lucky fellow, to see such a sight as the French Army in your first battle.” Such peculiar attention from such a great man. I was quite overcome on his behalf.

Oh, Agnes! If only you could have been with me to see my triumph tonight and shared with my happiness. Lady P. says that H. is quite besotted with me, and is you know, she is never wrong, as she has often told me herself!

And can you guess what happened next? Nothing would please Lord Hay better than that he would dance with me a third time!

But then he looked most serious and said that rumours had begun to circulate that the French were close by at Quatres Bras near the village of Waterloo. When the Duke of Wellington heard this, we were dancing, but Georgy went to him to ask about the rumours. He said very gravely, “Yes, they are true; we are off to-morrow.”

This terrible news was circulated directly, and while some of the officers hurried away, my H. insisted on staying with me so we could dance again, and said he did not care if there was no time to change his clothes and he would happily fight in his evening costume so he could spend another moment with me! Was that not gallant? Was that not kind? I hardly dare tell you everything that I feel.

His Grace remained calm and collected as is his wont. At dinner he sat with Georgy and Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, and all night he received messages about the French movements. At one point, he requested a map from Her Grace’s husband, the Duke of Richmond, and they retired into the library with the other Generals.

Wellington stayed at the ball until half past two, and then H. would go with him. He said goodbye to me most ardently and respectfully and said he hoped very much that he would see me again after the battle. My heart is very full.

Georgy went with her brother to his house in the grounds to pack his belongings and bid farewell. She, her sisters and her mother parted with painful goodbyes.

We huddled together for comfort until Her Grace insisted that we retire so we would be fresh and awake to welcome back our brave soldiers on the morrow.

The rain has been rattling against the windows ever since and I cannot sleep for an unpleasant sense of foreboding. Oh my dearest sister, I wish with all my heart that you were beside me and could assure me that all will be well.

I passed a wretched night as you may guess, and breakfasted in silence. Everyone is worried and our nerves are frayed.

Oh my dearest A, something quite serious and alarming has occurred. My heart now trembles for another reason. We can hear the canon! They say that Napoleon’s artillery is feared across the world, and I think it must be so. when I think of my dearest, darling James sent into the fray, into the very heat of the moment, such a brave young man, I tremble so. But I do think that after this terrible battle is over he will make me an offer! He has much has said so! How can I possibly contain so much joy, even in the midst of such alarm?

I will write again when the outcome is confirmed.

Your affectionate sister,

Honoria


I hope you enjoyed this epistolary style short story set on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Lord Hay was a real person and the ball itself took place, as described.

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The Lilac Cadillac

The Lilac Cadillac, an epic love story at a time of war by Jane Harvey-Berrick

“Amazingly beautiful and powerful”
“Heart-wrenching and poignant”
“I have no words to tell you how beautifully this is written. You give the whole war new meaning for those who didn’t live through it. This story is epic.”
“Better tell readers to get that box of tissues out ready”


Two women, two lives, divided by an ocean – and a secret hidden for 75 years.
London, 1939, Sylvia marries her sweetheart, Harry, in the days before he’s sent to war. It will be four, long years before she sees him again.

In 2019, Fiona McCloud is struggling to make ends meet in her small Iowa town but has big dreams of a more glamorous life. In private, the plus-size woman fantasizes about being Marilyn Monroe. In reality, she’s a part-time hairdresser and beautician at the Cedars Retirement Village.

Fiona’s favorite resident is 97 year-old Dolly. The world thinks Dolly is disgraceful, with her octogenarian lover and addiction to fast cars.

And then there’s Joe Fox, the sulky and sensual gardener, a Native American with flowing black hair and wary eyes.

When Dolly decides to take a road trip to Las Vegas, she persuades Fiona and Joe to come with her. They don’t know that Dolly has an ulterior motive, or that this journey will change their lives forever.


Release week ~ ONLY .99 pennies.
Registered price ~ $3.99


© 2021 Jane Harvey-Berrick
All rights reserved.

PROLOGUE

Life is a journey. That’s what they say, isn’t it? We’re all traveling toward some unknown destination, not knowing when or where we’ll stop, when we’ll pick up passengers or wave goodbye to others.

We grow up, we grow older, and the direction of the journey changes. Sometimes we choose our path and sometimes our path chooses us. But sometimes, just occasionally, someone else picks a different path for us, and we’re traveling down it before we even realize.

What happened to me is a combination of all these things: two very special people who changed the course of my life. And a large, ugly and uncomfortable car, a lilac-colored Cadillac.

It really was ugly. But I ended up loving it, because … well, it’s a long story.



Extract 1

I was seventeen years old when the war started. So much a child, but believing myself an adult. I was Sylvia Edwards then, of course. I remember sitting in our drawing room as Father twiddled the dial on the wireless set, trying to find a clear signal. Usually, he huffed and puffed and made quite a meal of it, but that day the silence was profound.
When he found a signal, he glanced at Mother, an unspoken message passing between them, then he lowered himself heavily into his worn leather armchair, clamping his pipe between his teeth. He carried that pipe everywhere but never lit it—Mother hated the odour of pipe tobacco, but when I think of Father, he always has that pipe.
The wall clock in its rosewood cabinet ticked quietly, the sound of my childhood, the hands creeping forward, unaware, as I was unaware.
Tick Tock. Tick tock.
11.05am.
Tick Tock. Tick tock.
11.10am.
Tick Tock. Tick tock.
11.15am.
Nobody moved and I hardly dared to breathe.
My hands were knotted together, the knuckles white and strained when the radio crackled to life and a man’s voice rang out from the Bakelite box.
“This is London. You will now hear a statement by the Prime Minister.”
Although I could hear perfectly well, I leaned forward and imagined Neville Chamberlain sitting at his desk in front of the contraption that would broadcast his words to a waiting nation. A thin, austere man, I pictured his neatly combed salt and pepper hair; the thick, bristling moustache that hid a narrow upper lip; the formal wing-tip collar and black morning tie that reminded me of an undertaker.
Then Britain’s Prime Minister uttered the words that were to change our lives forever.
“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning, the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
Stunned and silent, we listened to the rest of the Mr. Chamberlain’s speech. But the waiting was over and certainty smothered us: we were at war with Germany.

 



Extract 2

“Hello, I’m Fiona, your cosmetologist. It’s nice to meet you, Dolly.”
Her hand felt cool and frail in mine, and I could see the blue flush of veins beneath the fragile skin.
“Hmm, and who are your people?”
“I’m sorry?”
“Your family, your parents. From whence did you originate? Or did you spring fully formed from the waves like Venus?”
Was she teasing me? Commenting on my too-generous curves? My cheeks flushed and I felt as if I was standing in front of the bullies at high school again.
I stared back, determined to keep smiling if it killed me.
“Well, I completed my cosmetology certification in Cedar Rapids, but I was born right here in Strawberry Point…”
“You poor girl.”
“I’m very happy here,” I said stiffly.
“Are you? You don’t look happy. You have an appearance of suppressed disappointment; an air of sadness, one might say.”
My jaw shut with a click. Her summary was uncanny and I didn’t like it.
“I’m very content, thank you, ma’am,” I lied. “Now, how may I help you today?”
“Polite,” she muttered, as if I wasn’t standing in front of her. “Do you have aquamarine nail varnish? Someone told me once that it matched my eyes. They reminded him of the sea in summertime, you know.”
“I believe I do have that color,” I said, reaching for two pots of nail polish. “Would you like metallic or just gloss?”
“Marvelous!” she smiled, her watery eyes lighting up. Then she glanced at Tracy. “You may go, my dear,” she said regally. “But perhaps a spot of tea for my guest.”
“Actually, just water would be fine, thank you.”
“Nonsense! Hot tea is far more refreshing—it sweats the heat out. Evaporation—basic physics.”
“Oh!” I said, somewhat taken aback and wondering whether I should remind her it was February. “Okay, I’ll have black tea with a slice of lemon, if you have it, please.”
Dolly smiled approvingly. “Good girl.”
Tracy grinned. “Same for you, Dolly?”
“Yes, thank you, dear.”
Tracy left the door open as she went to make tea, and I wondered if that was for Dolly’s benefit or mine.
I prepared everything I needed for a manicure, starting by soaking her hands to soften the cuticles, but as I turned to fill a small basin from her attached bathroom, she ordered me back.
“Turn my chair to the window! Hurry!”
“I’m just getting some water and…”
“Be quick, girl!” she snapped, sounding more agitated now. “Open the window!”
“But Dolly, it’s freezing out there—you’ll let out all the warm air.”
“Open the window, I tell you!”
I hurried towards her, opening the window and feeling the fridge-like shiver of winter as I tugged at her heavy chair, angling it so she had a view of the backyard. Her whole body seemed to quiver with anticipation. Surprised and a little breathless, I followed her gaze.
“That’s better,” she said, her body relaxed but alert. “We’ll be able to see now.”
I peered out of the window, wondering what we were supposed to be looking at. All I could see were wide, snowy lawns and empty paths, abandoned by residents for now.
Her bony hands knotted together and she strained forward.
“We’re just in time!” she said, her voice hushed with excitement.
All I could hear was the wind whistling through the bushes outside and the distant sound of the groundskeeper’s tractor-mower.
“What’s going on?”
“Patience, child. You’ll see.”
I sat on the footstool opposite her, growing impatient and glancing at my watch as I shivered. I didn’t want to fall behind on my first day. If I didn’t start on Dolly soon, I was going to end up rushing my other appointments or risk being late for my shift at the diner.
I slipped my coat back on and wrapped a blanket around Dolly, although she didn’t seem to notice, so rapt was her attention.
Then I heard the throaty roar of the tractor-mower coming closer until it stopped thirty yards from the window. When the engine was turned off, the sudden silence seemed amplified.
“Why are we watching the groundskeeper?”
“That’s Joe Fox. He’s an Indian.”
“I think you mean Native American,” I corrected gently.
Dolly gave me a fierce, amused look.
“When Tom Mix was a movie star and Wyatt Earp was writing his dreadful little books, I was a child, and we called Joe’s type ‘Indian’,” she said. “And no one was offended.”
I bristled in silence, knowing it wasn’t worth the effort to give a lecture on political correctness. Besides, Dolly scared me a little, with her sharp, beady eyes and sharper tongue.
Her gaze had already returned to the window, so I did the same.
The man named Joe Fox jumped from the mower and pulled off the bandana that held his hair from his eyes. Then he whipped off his coat and sweatshirt, tossing them onto the seat of the mower. He was naked from the waist up, and even from this distance, I could see goose bumps. In one final, graceful movement, he shook his hair loose, until it cascaded down his back, shining like a crow’s wing, a waterfall of gleaming black.
He turned in our direction and Dolly sighed. “That is a very fine sight indeed.”
I had to agree. He had the high cheekbones of his race, his amber eyes slanting slightly, and his skin was a flawless, burnished bronze across his muscled chest, the ridges of his stomach perfectly defined. He wore a leather bracelet on his left wrist, faded jeans, and heavy work boots.
Joe Fox was beautiful—no other word would do.
He closed his eyes and raised his hands above his head, tilting his face toward the watery sun. Then he began chanting, the words unfamiliar in a language I didn’t recognize.
Hairs rose on the back of my neck.
He couldn’t possibly hear me, but it seemed wrong to speak loudly.
“What’s he doing?” I whispered.
“Praying,” Dolly answered simply.
I turned to watch, enthralled as his chest rose and fell with each sound, the cold air turning his breath into clouds, the rush of unknown syllables pouring from him. I felt as if I should look away from this private moment, but I couldn’t. There was something so primitive, so ancient, something that connected Joe Fox to a people who had once ruled this vast land.
And then the moment was over. For a second, his shoulders slumped. But then he pulled on his clothes, pulled back his long hair with the bandana across his forehead. He climbed onto the mower, and disappeared in a roar of diesel and slush.
Dolly and I followed him with our eyes until he was out of sight.
“Now, wasn’t that worth being a little late for?” she asked, her voice wistful.
Still speechless, I nodded.



Extract 3

At 10.55am, I wheeled Dolly to the entrance of Cedar Court where Kelly, Tracy and several more of the care-givers waited to say goodbye. When they saw her, they started to clap.
“You look lovely, Dolly,” said Tracy. “We’re going to miss you. Norman is heartbroken.”
“Ah, men,” said Dolly with a smile. “A woman should always leave them wanting more. Besides, why would I want a wrinkly old man when the road ahead could offer a veritable youth of 80?”
Tracy bent down to give Dolly a hug, and then the other care-givers crowded around her. In a few short months, Dolly had become everyone’s favorite. Despite the joyful moment, I felt a twinge of sorrow—Dolly was so full of life and yet it was inevitable that her light would soon be dimmed forever. I pushed the thought away: I needed to be more like Dolly and live in the moment.
“Where’s your ride, Dolly?” Tracy asked, glancing at me.
At that moment, the throaty growl of the Cadillac’s engine could be heard coming down the long driveway. As it drew closer, I saw that the top was down. It looked as full of glamor and excitement as Dolly could have possibly wanted.
Whatever else I might think of Joe Fox, he was a great mechanic. I still couldn’t stand him but I’d admit that much. I thought wistfully of the rust-bucket that was my car.
“Oh my goodness, is that…?” Kelly began, then started to laugh and clap as Dolly beamed at her care-givers.
I stood by proudly as Joe Fox pulled up next to the entrance and jumped out of the Cadillac.
“Holy cow, Dolly!” he grinned. “You look like a … hell, I don’t know. What color do you call that?”
“Lilac, young man,” she said regally, but smiling widely. “Fiona colored my grays to match my car.”
I had, I really had, and it was one of my proudest moments as a cosmetologist, dying Dolly’s wispy white hair a fetching pale lilac. Her nail polish coordinated, too, of course.
“It’s freakin’ awesome,” he laughed.
“Fiona’s finest hour,” Dolly smiled in a pleased, cat-like way, patting her lilac locks.
Joe Fox glanced at me and I thought I saw the smallest glint of something like approval. But I couldn’t be sure.
Kelly and Tracy were watching open-mouthed as he helped Dolly into the passenger seat. I went to buckle her seatbelt, but there wasn’t one; and I realized with a sinking sensation that the Cadillac had been built before seatbelts were thought necessary. I hoped Joe Fox was a good driver.
He brushed me out of the way as I went to help him load Dolly’s heavy suitcases into the trunk. I watched without comment, but it was going to be a long two weeks if he continued to treat me like I wasn’t worth talking to, and my pleasure in his approval of Dolly’s colorful hair vanished.
You’re doing this for Dolly, I reminded myself.
When I hopped into the back seat, I did enjoy the surprised faces of the Cedars’ staff. I wondered if I should pretend I was just getting a ride into town, but in the end I decided that the less I said, the less I’d have to lie about later.
In that moment, with the sun glinting off the Cadillac’s polished paintwork, those iconic shark fin tail details in sharp profile, we started our journey to Las Vegas, the City of Second Chances: 1603 miles, 28 hours of driving, and the open road ahead of us.



Extract 4

Harry proposed over rock buns and a pot of tea at the Lyons’ Corner House.
“Look, Sylvia, I know you’re terribly young and we talked about waiting…”
He’d taken me by surprise, and I gripped the rock bun so hard, it disintegrated between my fingers and I had to sweep the crumbs onto my plate.
Harry smiled. He was used to me being clumsy and he loved me anyway. He reached out across the table and took my hand, holding it gently.
“Dear old thing,” he said, his warm brown eyes shining with affection. “You are my sunshine, you know that, don’t you? And you’d make me a very happy man if you married me right away. Would you, darling? Would you do me the honour of becoming my wife and making me the happiest man on earth?”
I was shocked and happy and joyful and worried, so many emotions blossoming inside me. My hand flew to my chest as a wave of colour rose in my cheeks. It was happening. It was really happening. I’d thought about it, of course. What young girl doesn’t daydream about her beau? Imagining a beautiful white dress, a veil, rose petals scattered in her path, and the man of her dreams standing tall and handsome, his heart an open book as his eyes proclaim his love. And yet I’d thought this day was years away, but the horrid war changed everything. It was all anyone talked about now.
But none of that mattered when the man I loved was declaring himself on the opposite side of a red-and-white tablecloth laid for afternoon tea.
“Oh, Harry! Of course I will!”
He squeezed my fingers once more. “Thank you, darling. You’ve made me so happy, and I promise I’ll do everything I can to make you happy, too.” Then he released my hand. “And I’m awfully glad you said yes because I popped into an old Jewish chappie’s shop in Hatton Garden and bought you this.”
His fingers fumbled as he produced a small velvet box, and inside rested a gold ring with a single diamond, glittering in the electric lighting.
I held my breath as he slipped it over the fourth finger of my left hand. It was the loveliest thing I’d ever seen in all of my 17 years. I watched with fascination as it threw sparkling rainbows across the whitewashed walls.
“Do you think you can arrange a wedding in a week?” Harry asked, his expression earnest. “Mater will help. She adores you almost as much as I do,” and he gave me a boyish smile that turned my insides to jelly.
“Oh, gosh! I don’t know. I suppose I can.”
“Lots of chaps are in the same position so I expect the Registrar might be a bit busy,” and he gave me a reassuring grin.
My smile wobbled. It wasn’t what I’d imagined. A Registrar wedding seemed a shameful, hole-in-the-wall affair, suitable only for divorcees and unfortunate women who were P.W.P.—pregnant without permission.
“Oh, darling,” he sighed, “I know you have your heart set on a church wedding and all the lovely nonsense, but there’s simply no way we’d be able to do all of that in a week.”
Perhaps he saw the tremble of my lips for it seemed as if his own heart cracked with love and pity and guilt.
“I tell you what, when I get back from giving the Hun a jolly good thrashing, we’ll have that big bash you’re after. We’ll … we’ll have a super do at the Lythe Hill Hotel, and invite all our friends and all the family we can stand. Oh, Sylvie, darling, I’d give you the moon and stars if I could!”
I brushed away my tears and blew my nose with a handkerchief. It wasn’t the wedding that was important but the marriage.
“Of course, Harry. I’m just being silly. I’ll talk to Mother and…” I gasped suddenly. “What about Father?”
Harry gave a smug smile. “I asked his permission last night after I took you home from the picture house. He even opened a bottle of sherry for me. I think he likes me a bit more now I’m about to go and do my duty for King and Country.”
“You’re terribly brave,” I said, thinking he looked awfully dashing in his brand new RAF uniform. “But I wish you hadn’t volunteered. I’m going to miss you dreadfully.”
“I’ll probably be a terrible pilot and end up in Bognor instead of Berlin,” he chuckled, but I didn’t smile.
It was all too horribly real. And he was leaving so soon.
“Oh, Harry!”
“You’ll write, won’t you?” he asked, looking suddenly serious. “I’ll count on letters from home.”
“Of course I will. I’ll write every day.”
He touched the ring on my finger, his eyes filled with awe and wonder. I wanted him to always look at me that way.
“Mrs. Harry Woods,” he breathed, testing my future name and smiling longingly.
“I can’t wait to be your wife,” I said.
I meant every word.
“Shall I book a room at Lythe Hill for the wedding night? I know that’s not much of a honeymoon, but I promise I’ll take you somewhere the first leave I get. What do you say to Devon? I know you like sea-bathing.”
Heat bloomed in my cheeks and tears pricked my eyes. To spend the whole night together as husband and wife. He really was the most wonderful, thoughtful man … fiancé. He’d be a marvellous husband, I was sure of it.
I felt so lucky, so terribly thrilled and grown up. I wondered if I should take up smoking to make me look older. But then I was cross with myself for being so silly and superficial. Harry was going away to fight. Not all soldiers came home whole, even though they were all heroes. That’s what Mother said.
“You will be alright, won’t you, Harry? Everyone says that Hitler is a frightful bully and spoiling for a fight.”
“Silly old thing,” he said, smiling at me fondly. “I’ll be home by Christmas.”


Why I wrote this story

In part, this book was inspired by the incredible stories my late mother told me about her time working for Britain’s Air Ministry during the Second World War, and my late father’s experiences in the Fleet Air Arm. Not only that, but when my mother went to live in a nursing home, I met many other nonagenarians who had done amazing things in their youth. And it made me sad to think how often those stories disappear when they’re gone. I heard heartbreaking and inspiring stories about lives lived during terrible times.

But I also wanted to show how incredible these lives were, and yet how my mother was happy to live in the moment and enjoy every day. As the character Dolly says to Fiona,

“You can’t be careful all your life – what would be the point of living?”



Boot Camp Spa


Do you remember the Freshman Fifteen? When emotional eating and late night snacking made even your sweatpants feel unpleasantly snug? I was way past that, another dozen pounds past that. My eyes blurred with self-pity. This was not where I’d expected to be at 34. Starting over.

Brian was the one who’d cheated—repeatedly, it seemed—during our ten year marriage, but he was the one who’d gotten the house because he earned enough to pay the mortgage by himself and had a shark of a divorce lawyer to help him on his way. I’d traded my lovely home with a shitty apartment on the wrong side of town, added nearly thirty pounds (take a bow, Ben & Jerry’s), and custody of our nine year old cat, Winston.

And Brian also had the brand new relationship with a girl who’d just graduated college.

I’d been replaced, and he’d updated with a newer, sportier, slimmer and prettier model. I had frown lines and newly gray hairs. Brian had a smug expression and air of satisfaction.

I hated my life. But I hated him more. He’d stolen my smile.

An older woman looked across with concern in her eyes.

“Are you alright, honey?”

Oh God, kill me now, because the kindness of strangers surely would.

“I’m fine, thank you,” I sniffed, giving her a watery smile.

She frowned, her eyebrows pulling together.

“It’s very hot in this train car. You shouldn’t be standing in your condition.”

Before I could understand or appreciate her words, she scowled at the row of men sitting reading newspapers or fiddling with their cell phones.

“And not a gentleman here who’ll give up his seat for a pregnant woman,” she said loudly, pointing at me.

Flames of humiliation scorched my cheeks, sucking heat upwards like a forest fire, as one of the younger men leapt to his feet.

“Ah gosh, sorry, ma’am. Please, have my seat. My wife said that being pregnant was like carrying a baby elephant for the last two months.”

Tears fell from my eyes and my voice wobbled as I thanked him and the older lady. I slumped into the seat as I let my hair fall across my face, attempting to hide my misery.

Six months of separation plus five months of divorce had led me to gorge on muffins and cookie dough ice cream, feeding my unhappiness.

I wasn’t pregnant, I just looked it.

At least I had my vacation to enjoy. Not that I could afford to go anywhere, but my wonderful sister had booked me into a spa hotel—a whole week of lazing by the pool, massages, manicures and pedicures, hair and makeup sessions, a couple of Zumba classes—it sounded amazing and I couldn’t wait.

I needed to re-boot my life in so many ways, and this was the week I was going to start. I knew I needed to break the pattern of negative and self-loathing behavior. I knew I needed to stop the emotional eating and late-night snacking (see above), and I knew this was my chance for a clean slate—healthy eating and taking care of myself. Perfect. Almost perfect. I wish Ella could have come as well, but this was her special treat for me. And she was taking care of Winston while I was away.

I looked up the hotel on my phone, just to sigh over the beautiful grounds, the luxurious rooms with king-size beds with Jacuzzis in the attached bathrooms, and the Bien-être Spa. Le Sigh.

The Amtrak train was crowded when we left NYC, but as we headed further north towards the Adirondacks, city commuters gradually disgorged, until I was one of just a handful of people who got out at Elizabethtown.

At the exit, a man was holding up an iPad that had my name written on the screen in large letters.

“Ms. O’Connor? Hi, I’m Patrick from Clover Hill Hotel. Is that all your luggage?”

He was a good-looking guy in his twenties, with one of those gym-buff bodies that women like me admired from afar but would never have the chance to get to know up close and personal.

He picked up my suitcase easily, even though it was pretty heavy, and I wondered why guys always carried suitcases when they had perfectly good wheels. Was it a macho thing? Then I decided to stop being so negative and just be thankful he was carrying it for me.

The town was quaint with an eclectic mix of buildings, from the stone-built train station to Art Deco offices, and the towering Gothic spires of a church we passed, plus lots of taller, modern buildings.

Patrick pointed out several more sites of interest before turning west.

Tall pine trees edged the road, mixed in with the brighter colors of deciduous trees, and I opened the window to breath in the fresh air.

As the car climbed higher, the foothills became steeper with fewer buildings, until we finally swung through a graveled driveway with sweeping lawns on either side.

The spa hotel nestled into the lee of a hill, and as Patrick opened my door, I stood in awed silence admiring the view of the valley below and the mountains above.

“Beautiful,” I breathed out.

Patrick grinned at me. “I’ve worked here two years and I’ve never gotten tired of it.”

In the distance, I could see a row of green camouflage tents, and wondered if they had a bunch of Scouts camping here this week. I shuddered. I had nothing against camping—for other people—but as hot showers and flushing toilets had been invented, I was all in favor of having these wonderful facilities in the form of an attached bathroom. Roughing it was not for me. Nope, no way, no how.

Patrick carried my bag into the lobby, smiling at the receptionist in a way that made her cheeks turn pink. I didn’t blame her—he seemed like a great guy. And I refused to be jaded. I still believed in true love, even if it wasn’t going to happen to me.

“Hi, I’m Becky. Welcome to Clover Hill Hotel and Spa.”

“I’m very happy to be here,” I said honestly, handing her the booking form which my sister had emailed to me.

She took it with a smile … which faded rapidly as her eyes scanned the document.

“Um, Ms. O’Connor, we have a small problem with your reservation.”

My stomach sank. “What sort of problem?”

 

* * *

Josh Lander eased his Lexus down the off-ramp of the I-87 and felt a huge weight fall from his shoulders as he started the last part of his journey. It was just the break he needed to clear his head, and he felt grateful to his business partner for arranging this week away.

Yeah, he’d almost refused to go, but Dylan could see that he needed some downtime, even if Josh refused to recognize that working 16 hours a day, seven days a week wasn’t healthy.

They’d plowed everything they had into their tech startup, but the difference was Dylan had a wife to go home to; Josh had no one. Not even a cat. And his houseplants had died because he’d forgotten to water them. Since Veronica had dumped his ass a year ago, there hadn’t seemed much point in being at home.

His life was eat, sleep, run, office, repeat. And sometimes he didn’t remember to sleep or eat. Running was the one place where his mind could be free, the one place where he could just be—and the place where he’d come up with the idea for their insanely successful app six months ago.

Strange, that’s when Veronica thought she’d like to have another try at their relationship. He’d declined, reminding her that she’d told him he was wasting his time working in IT because he was ‘a dumb grunt with a great body but no brains’ and that he should have stayed in the army.

She was right about one thing: he missed the friendship of his lifer-army buddies. He missed the camaraderie and shared hardships.

Dylan was his friend from high school and they’d been friends for more than 20 years. He managed the marketing side of their business and before he’d gotten married, he and Josh had always had one vacation a year when they met up to go wild camping.

Josh smiled to himself at the thought of Veronica sleeping in a tent or not wearing makeup for a week. Why the hell had he ever thought they’d be compatible? Oh, right, he hadn’t. He’d just been lonely and wanting the kind of relationship that Dylan and his wife Valerie had.

As he drove, he watched the scenery changing, the air so clear, he could see for miles.

He’d never been to this part of the Adirondacks before, and although it wasn’t wild camping, it was close enough. Dylan wanted Josh to get the break he desperately needed, but he wanted him to have a phone signal, too. This had been the best compromise.

Finally, he arrived at the hotel where the bootcamp was taking place. A whole week of dawn runs, military-style drills, survival training, and civilian-friendly assault courses. He was particularly looking forward to the mud-biking and cross-country BMX-ing. There was a chance to learn archery, too, something he’d always wanted to try.

Josh was glad to climb out of his car and stretch out his spine. At 6’ 3”, he needed a car with plenty of room, but even the Lexus had started to feel cramped after more than four hours driving.

He carried his bag to the lobby to check in, and saw a cute, curvy brunette staring at the receptionist with an expression of horror.

“What do you mean my sister’s gotten the wrong week? What do you mean the hotel is closed?

“Uh, we’re not exactly closed,” said the receptionist, her face bright red. “Our bootcamp is open this week. We’ve … uh … we’ve reserved you a tent…”

“A tent? You mean sleeping outside?”

Josh couldn’t help smiling at the look on the brunette’s face. He was pretty certain she’d be turning around and driving back home any minute now.

“Is at least the spa open?” the woman asked weakly.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, it’s being renovated along with the rest of the hotel.”

The woman groaned, and Josh began to feel sorry for her. She looked so beaten down.

“So, bootcamp this week, huh?” she sighed. “What exactly does that mean?”

As the receptionist reeled off information about the ‘invigorating’ cold water showers, the ‘exciting’ abseiling opportunities, and the ‘back to basics’ menu, the brunette seemed to shrink into herself.

“I can see if we could reschedule your stay for later on in the year?” the receptionist offered.

Then the brunette stood up straighter. “You know what? I’m going to stay,” she said, shocking the heck out of Josh who would have bet good money that she’d have walked away. “I came here to try new things, something different: what can be more than different that a bootcamp, right?”

Josh found himself wanting to high-five her. If Veronica had been given the wrong booking, she’d have been screeching up a storm by now, promising to sue the hotel, the reservation agent, and probably her own sister, as well.

The receptionist handed the brunette a brochure about the bootcamp.

“I just need to check-in this gentleman,” she said, smiling at Josh, “then I’ll have someone walk you over to your tents, if that’s okay with you, Ms. O’Connor?”

“Sounds great,” the brunette said, obviously trying to sound enthusiastic.

Josh grinned at both women. “Yep, sounds good to me,” he said, and smiled at the brunette. “Josh Lander, nice to meet a woman who’s willing to give bootcamp a try.”

“Oh!” she said, sounding surprised. “Thank you, I think. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m Mimi O’Connor.”

He took her hand in his, trying his level best to keep his eyes fixed on her face, not on her amazing rack.

“Well, Mimi O’Connor, I think this week is going to be something to look forward to.”

She smiled back at him shyly. “I think you’re right.”

Was it too early to tell her that he was looking forward to getting down and dirty? He was really looking forward to this week.

 

THE END


I hope you enjoyed this short story. If you’d like to read them first, you can sign up to my monthly newsletter → HERE

 

And you might enjoy a story about another bbw in the romcom I wrote with co-author Stu Reardon: GYM OR CHOCOLATE? (He’s all about the gym, I’m all about the chocolate!). It’s on Kindle Unlimited.

 


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Bettiquette


This was not the kind of assignment I’d expected when I joined the FBI. It had been my dream job ever since I was a kid and I’d done everything to make it happen; I’d graduated my four-year degree course in Public Health with Honors, and completed a Masters in Cyber Security before serving five years on the front line with NYPD. I always took my job seriously. Always. Until today.Being chosen for the permanent personal protective mission for the Attorney General, Arthur Lucretti, had seemed like a step up. Sure, I also protected his wife, Laura, and their daughter, Sonia, but I had not become a Special Agent to protect Betty.

She looked up at me expectantly, her eyes soft and inviting as she licked her lips. Then she put her paws on my leg, reaching almost to my knee as her tiny tail wagged enthusiastically.

“Aw, she likes you, Sam,” smirked Aden, a guy I’d once called my buddy but now I called a raging asshole.

“You volunteered me for this detail, jerkoff?” I grumbled, scooping up the little mutt with one hand.

He didn’t even bother to deny it.

“You look so cute, Lockford,” he laughed out loud. “I’ve gotta get going—the big dawgs are heading to the UN today. You have fun at the doggie spa.”

He strode away and jumped into the black bucar with the other agents assigned to the Attorney General, and I watched as the four-car motorcade streamed out of the AG’s mansion.

I looked down at Betty who was staring up at me with googly eyes.

“Can I shoot him?” I muttered. “Or do you think that would affect my chance of promotion?”

Betty buried her head in my arm, so I took that to mean that shooting my partner wasn’t a great idea. She was probably right.

It took me nearly ten minutes to figure out how her to put her harness on. She sat patiently, her eyes soulful and her little pink tongue hanging out of her mouth as if she was laughing at me. Hell, everyone else in the Bureau would be laughing their asses off right now if they could see me, so why not her, too?

When I’d finally gotten her into her harness, I attached it to a seatbelt on the backseat of my black sedan, made sure she couldn’t wriggle free, then put the address for Pippa’s Pet Spa into the car’s GPS.

Traffic was light, so we made it there in good time. I pulled up outside, automatically ticking off my mental checklist of the surroundings: no snipers on the rooftops, no one acting suspiciously, no parked cars with the engines still running, no one obviously carrying a concealed weapon—unless I counted myself, and with what it had cost me to have this coat made-to-measure, I sure hoped no one could tell I was carrying.

I lifted Betty off the backseat and clipped on her leash. She hurried to the patch of grass outside the pet spa and proceeded to do what little dogs have to do.

“I hope you’re going to pick that up,” said a woman while Betty continued to hunch over with her eyes closed in concentration.

I wondered how long she’d been holding that in and how it was biologically possible for one small dog to poop so much.

“Uh…”

“There’s no such thing as a poop fairy, you know!”

The woman pointed to a sign that threatened me with a $2000 fine for not picking up after my dog.

“Um, I don’t have a bag,” I admitted, frowning at Betty.

“That is very irresponsible of you,” the woman huffed. “Lucky for you, I take animal welfare seriously,” and she thrust a bright pink plastic poop bag at me.

I wondered why someone who didn’t have a dog carried poop bags. That was definitely suspicious. My eyes narrowed as I gazed at a curvy redhead whose eyes were hidden behind enormous sunglasses.

She was right, of course, and I was kicking myself for not being fully prepared for this assignment, even if it was a shitty one: literally.

I muttered my thanks and put my hand inside the plastic bag so I could pick up Betty’s still warm log. I was astonished how much the little rat managed to squeeze out. I was pretty sure she was laughing at me again. I wouldn’t blame her.

I dumped the bag in the trashcan and realized that the woman was still watching me. Did she think I was going to take it home for a souvenir?

“This is Betty, right?” she smiled. “My new customer. I’m Pippa, by the way, your furologist. I’m also a dog lover, pet magnet and magnate, owner of Pippa’s Pet Spa.”

I was taken aback by her waterfall of words, but managed to nod and agree that this was indeed Betty.

“You’re so cute!” she said, scooping Betty up and kissing her long, furry nose. “We’re gonna make your daddy very happy, aren’t we!”

“She’s not mine,” I grumbled. “I’m just … looking after her.”

“Oh, that makes more sense,” she said, pushing her sunglasses up to her hair and revealing a pair of bright blue eyes.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t look like a dog daddy.”

“What the heck does a ‘dog daddy’ look like?” I asked even as I realized that asking her to carry on talking was probably a bad idea.

“Covered in dog hair and wearing dog walking clothes is one clue,” she grinned at me. “Prepared for poop, definitely!” and she wagged a finger at me. “And ya know, generally someone who enjoys their dog’s company.”

I looked at Betty; Betty looked at me, yawned, then snuggled into the woman’s arms.

The woman, Pippa, laughed gently. “You learn a lot about people in this job.”

“Really?” I said, not very interested.

“You, for example,” she said, smiling out of the corner of her mouth, “I’m going with … secret service.”

My eyebrows shot up. “What makes you think…?”

“It’s the haircut,” she nodded with certainty. “Your hair says ‘cop’ or ‘soldier’, but your suit is expensive and probably tailored to hide the fact that you’re carrying, we live in D.C., home to a thousand Feebs. Plus, you have that whole ‘I’m too serious to smile’ vibe. Works for you though.”

Only a decade of training stopped my jaw from landing on the floor. But I was definitely getting a refund from my tailor.

She grinned, knowing that she’d nailed it.

“Is there anything dog hair doesn’t stick to?” I grumbled, brushing a few stray hairs from my suit.

“Sure,” she said with a smirk. “Dogs. So, Mr. Tall, Dark and Dangerous,” what is it that Betty needs today?”

I frowned. Betty’s requirements hadn’t been given to me. I felt a twinge of annoyance that once again I was unprepared.

“Don’t you have that in your appointment book?”

She gave me a thoughtful look.

“Well, with a new customer I’d usually suggest starting with a deep cleansing bath, blow dry, fur de-shed, clip or trim—although that’s not needed in Betty’s case—ear clean, paws and claw treatments, and finish off with a pet friendly designer fragrance.”

I goggled at that last bit of intel. “They make perfume for dogs?”

She laughed. “Well, yeah! Where have you been living?”

I shook my head. “In a parallel universe.”

“See! You do have a sense of humor! You’d better tell me your name—I might not remember it though; I’m better at remembering pets’ names.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” I muttered. “Sam Lockford.”

“Well, Agent Lockford,” she said mischievously, “come on in to my pets’ emporium of pleasure.”

“You take your job very seriously,” I said, not bothering to hide my sarcasm.

As she put Betty on the ground, holding the leash tightly, she opened the door and threw me a hard stare.

“I do. Pets are not toys—they’re living, breathing, sensate creatures. If you make the decision to have a pet, then you should darn well make sure that you’ll love them for life.”

Her face was stony and I realized that I’d insulted her. I tried to backpedal fast.

“I can see that you love animals, so you’re in the right profession.”

“I am,” she smiled, taking the olive branch I’d offered. “I used to be a Kindergarten teacher.” She looked thoughtful. “This is quite similar in some ways,” then she flashed that smile again which I couldn’t help but return.

“Now, Betty,” she said, turning back to the little squirt. “You’re going to have a lovely time. Come this way, young lady.” She waved at the receptionist. “Bryony, this is Agent Looksgood. He’s Betty’s uncle.”

“It’s Lockford,” I mumbled to myself. “And I’m not her uncle.”

The receptionist smiled. “Don’t worry about it—all her clients get the personal touch. Do you want to come back for Betty in a couple of hours?”

“Two hours? It’s going to take two hours to shampoo a five-pound dog?”

“It’s not just a shampoo; Betty is booked in for a full spa treatment. Can I get you a beverage?”

I grudgingly accepted a black coffee thinking that this was a helluva waste of my time. I started reading emails on my phone and catching up with Bureau business when a woman clutching a Gucci purse in one hand and a sad looking Pomeranian in the other, stormed into the salon and marched up to Bryony.

“I paid $95 for Rosie Van Tutti’s spa treatment and that’s double what I was quoted. I want a full refund immediately.”

“Ma’am, I’m so sorry to hear that. Let me check,” Bryony said politely. “Yes, I can see that is the price we charged, but I’m looking at your paperwork and the price is circled. I believe these are your initials are next to it. Did you initial the price?”

“I don’t know! You probably did that.”

Bryony looked annoyed now and I didn’t envy her dealing with people like this, but she was doing a good job of staying calm, even though the old crone had just outright accused her of lying and forgery. One charge of slander and counting.

I sat up and paid attention as Pippa came back into the room, her expression polite but determined as she stood at Bryony’s side, examining the documents.

“Ma’am, I’m Pippa Beresford, the owner. And my colleague is correct—the paperwork that you signed when you came exactly matches the amount you were charged. And I can assure you that we charge by AKC standards for breeds.”

“It’s not what I was quoted over the telephone!”

“Ma’am, these are your initials.”

“Well, I want a refund—you cut my Rosie!”

Pippa looked startled.

“I was the groomer for Rosie, and I don’t believe I cut her. But we have a veterinarian on call, and I will certainly pay for any treatment required.”

The woman inflated like a rooster. “I don’t want a vet! I want my money back!”

“Ma’am, if your dog is injured and bleeding—”

She deflated a little but was still blustering. “It’s more of a red patch of skin than a cut. But you did it!”

“May I look?” Pippa asked, holding out her hands for the Pomeranian.

“You may not! You hurt my dog! I will tell all my friends not to come here.” She paused. “But if you refund my money, I won’t say another word about it.”

“Well, then we have come to an impasse, ma’am,” said Pippa, stroking the dog before dropping her hand. “Because I’m not going to refund your money without seeing the dog or a veterinarian seeing her. If she is injured, you want help for her, don’t you?”

The woman glared, clutching her dog so tightly that the poor thing squirmed. Then her eyes fixed on a poster hanging on the wall.

“Satisfaction guaranteed, that says, and I am not satisfied! You will refund my money or I’ll tell everyone about your fraudulent charges! You don’t know who I am! I will ruin you!”

I could see that Pippa was starting to get worried, and for reasons that I didn’t want to examine too closely, I wanted to help her.

At that moment, a sopping wet Betty, covered in soap suds came trotting out and sat by my foot, staring up at me. I swear she was trying to hypnotize me into helping. Then she let out a loud yap and growled at the woman.

Decision made, I stood up, towering over the Gucci troll, Pippa and Bryony.

“Special Agent Lockford, ma’am,” I said, flashing my badge and letting her see a peek of my sidearm, “and I have to tell you that return fraud is a serious offence. You claimed that this dog has been cut and she clearly hasn’t. You’re attempting to obtain a service that you had no intention of paying for—that is a serious crime: a misdemeanor conviction can lead to up to a year in a local jail, while a felony conviction can lead to multiple years in prison. Federal charges can lead to 10 years or more in federal prison. Defamation law is an equally serious offence, and do I need to tell you what the punishment is for threatening to libel this woman’s business?”

The woman gaped at me, utterly speechless. Then she turned around and swept out of the salon, passing another customer on her way in.

“Don’t go into that dog groomers, they have armed bouncers now!”

“We take the security of our customers’ pets very seriously,” said Pippa to the new customer.

The Gucci woman left looking shell-shocked, and Pippa turned to grin at me.

“Do you want a job?”

“No, the world of pet grooming is too scary,” I said, returning her smile.

She sighed and shook her head. “Most of our customers are lovely, but some people are so rude!”

“I know, right,” said Bryony joining in. “No manners, no etiquette.”

“You mean ‘Bettiquette’,” I grinned, picking up Betty in my arms and letting her little wet body snuggle against mine.

“Agent Looksgood! I think you’re a dog lover after all!”

“I have many secrets,” I grinned at her. “How about I tell you some of them over lunch?”

“I think I can work you into my schedule,” she smiled, blushing a pretty pink. “Is Betty coming, too?”

I looked at Betty and Betty looked at me. “Do you know a dog-friendly restaurant that Betty might like?”

“Funny you should ask that because I do.”

And when I looked down at Betty, I could swear that she winked at me.

 

THE END


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Wake the Elephants


Spring is my favorite time of year because that’s when our traveling carnival goes on the road. I hate wintering in Arcata ‘cause it’s boring and there aren’t any kids my own age. There’s only my brother, Con, to talk to, and Mr. Albert. He’s a capuchin monkey, Mr. Albert, I mean, not my brother. It’s more fun talking to Mr. Albert.We live with Dono, our grandfather, but the carnie folk are our real family.

Our last show of the year is always Labor Day and then all the shows are winterized. A bunch of carnies go to Florida because the weather is warmer so you don’t have to keep your animals in a stable—Dono says stabling is expensive. He’s always worried about money. He says people don’t come to traveling carnivals like they used to because they want to go to theme parks like Disney World. Sometimes he stays up drinking with the other carnies and they get to saying that the carnival is dying and we gotta do new things to keep the rubes coming. I’ve got a ton of ideas but they think I’m just a kid.

In the winter, we live in a cabin. I called it a shack once and Dono got so mad, he clipped my ear, which means he hit me but good. I always called it a cabin after that.

Anyways, we don’t go to Florida for winter. We always stay in California because it’s near Mom. She’s in a special home for people who can’t take care of themselves. She never talks much when we visit but sometimes she says my name. She was real pretty and still has long hair. She smiles when I brush it sometimes. It’s kind of a lopsided smile because her mouth doesn’t work properly on one side, but it’s still a smile.

But come spring, we hit the road. We always meet up with other carnies in Wichita since it’s halfway between California and Florida.

We do a tour going up through Iowa and Wisconsin, hitting Minnesota in the summer, then South Dakota and Wyoming, finishing back in California. There are a lot of the same shows each year and my favorites are Jude and Mabel. Jude does a show as the Human Ostrich where he takes challenges from the rubes to swallow stuff then sicks it up again—stuff like cigarette lighters, keys, even lightbulbs, but that’s pretty dangerous if the glass is really thin. It’s a cool act. Mabel, his wife, is a Popeye, and she can do this gross thing where she pops her eyes out then puts them back in. Someone always faints—it’s awesome.

I like Sid the Clown, too, and sometimes Con acts as his shillaber: that’s carnie speak for someone who pretends he’s one of the rubes to get them spending their money. Rubes are what we call people who aren’t carnies. They’re not like us—our home is the open road, that’s what Dono says. People like us aren’t made for four walls.

When we’re on the road, we live in our RV. Dono has the bedroom, so Con and I sleep on a pull-out on the floor. If it’s hot, I sleep outside. I don’t like being shut in anywhere.

My job is to get Jacob Jones ready. He’s my pony and my best friend after Mr. Albert.

I’ve seen a lot of places. I’ve been to Chicago and Las Vegas, walked through Times Square and swam in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. I like the Grand Canyon but my favorite place is Carhenge. That’s in Nebraska. It’s a huge wheat field, and they’ve got all these cars have been planted in a circle and stuck in the ground. They’ve even got a ‘62 Cadillac. And they’re all painted gray to make them look like they’re made of stone. It’s awesome.

My brother’s real name is Falcon and mine is Kestrel. He says we have dumb names and he hates being a carnie. He can’t wait to leave. When he says stuff like that I get a funny feeling in my tummy because even though he’s a douche, I don’t want to be left with Dono by myself. But Con says he wants to get a job where he earns a ton of money and can buy a big house to live in. Houses are stupid—they don’t go anywhere. But he’s always reading books so he can go to college and leave us.

I’m too dumb for college or even high school, that’s what Con says, and I guess he’s right because I can’t read. I’m going to be eleven next year and I can’t read more than my name. So what? There’s a ton of stuff I do real well. I can ride Jacob Jones bareback and do loads of stunts like somersaults. Dono taught me and his dad taught him. He says our family on his side are carnies from way back and his grandfather spoke Shelta. Dono calls shoes ‘guilimins’ and clothes are ‘tugs’. We have other words that only carnies know: games are ‘joints’, a food stand is a ‘grab’, and rides are ‘poppers’. It’s like a secret language than only carnies speak.

Dono doesn’t allow grifters because it gives carnies a bad name, and anyone who steals another carnie’s poke is dead meat. We get a lot of gazoonies joining the carnival, some of them are college students who think it’s going to be an easy job, but it’s not. On show days, we all have get up real early to feed the animals, then they’ve got to be exercised, but not too much because they’ve got to be ready to perform. And all the tack needs to be cleaned and polished or mended, because it gets a ton of hard use. Costumes have to be washed and mended, and you gotta check your stock of pancake, especially for the ladies and trapeze artists—you want the audience to see your eyes, even when you’re fifty feet up in the air and they’re sitting in the cheap seats. You gotta make sure your props are all working. You don’t want your show going belly up because the props aren’t in the right place. Dono would knock me into next week if I screw up like that.

Performing in front of an audience is the best thing ever. Then I’m not a dirty carnie, but someone who makes them laugh or clap or scream when they think I’m going to fall off Jacob Jones (I never do, I only pretend to fall off).

After I’ve performed, I have to walk the ponies to cool them down, then get them cleaned up for the evening show. We used to have a blacksmith travel with us, but Dono couldn’t afford it anymore so we have to know where all the blacksmiths are on the road in case Jacob Jones or one of the other ponies throws a shoe.

My other job is to walk around with Mr. Albert, and the rubes pay a dollar to get their picture taken with him.

“Kestrel!”

That’s Dono yelling my name, so I make quick because today is our first show day in Abilene. The advance man had gotten the posters put up before we arrived, and last night we were hitting midnight before all the jobs were done. The Ferris Wheel was the biggest job and only the most trusted carnies work on that. One bolt outta place and you got a lot of dead rubes. Bad for business, Dono says.

“Go wake up the elephants, Kes!”

We have this huge ride where the cars are in the shape of elephants, so waking them up means setting the ride a-going.

I grin real big because ‘waking up the elephants’ is carnie speak meaning that we’re ready to open the carnival.

“Roll up! Roll up! For the greatest show on earth!”

 

THE END


Kestrel is the main character in The Traveling Man (Book 1) and The Traveling Woman (Book 2), the first two books of the Traveling Series. He also has a supporting role in Roustabout (Book 3) and Carnival (Book 4).

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Garbage Man


I woke with a start, not a gentle coming to, the awareness of hot water ticking through the radiators or the sound of my self-timer coffee machine. It was a jarring thud, a hammering of the heart, and the realization that I was late.

I could hear the garbage truck moving down the street and I’d forgotten to put out the trash last night. It had been so cold that I’d decided to leave it to morning. Now I was regretting that decision: I was late for work, late for my breakfast meeting, and late for the damn garbage truck!

Tossing back the duvet, I shivered in the cooler air, lunging for my bunny-ear slippers and robe, then dashing to the kitchen to grab the black trash bags.

Muttering to myself, I slid back the deadbolt on the front door, unhooked the chain and ran into the snowy street, my slippers sliding in slush as my breath steamed. I skidded to the sidewalk while icy blasts of Arctic wind cut through my thin robe and silky pajamas. The winter weather was frigid and unforgiving.

The garbage truck had nearly reached my house, the team of three men were shouting and laughing at each other as they raced down the road: who could go the fastest, who could lift the most bags, who could clear their quadrant in the shortest space of time. 

I tossed my trash bags onto the sidewalk pile, relieved I’d gotten here in time: another minute and I’d have missed them. My hands were already numb as I hurried back to the front door and … what? No! 

I shoved on the door, rattling it uselessly, but it had shut firmly behind me as I’d run out with the garbage. I didn’t have my phone and most of my neighbors had already left for work. Annoyance turned to dread as my whole body shook with cold.

I heard the garbage men’s voices fading into the distance and I whirled around.

“Hey!” I yelled after the garbage truck. “Wait!”

I slipped on black ice, my feet flying up in the air as I slammed down onto a mound of snow. 

I lay winded, numb and ice-cold.

“Woah, you okay?” called a voice.

One of the garbage men was hurrying back towards me, his breath billowing in small puffs of vapor as he ran. A knit cap was pulled low over his ears and a thick scarf wrapped around his mouth, so all I could see were a pair of bright blue eyes, clouded with concern.

I blinked twice then struggled to sit up, my bare hands sinking into snow.

“Just gotten the w-wind knocked out of m-me,” I admitted breathlessly.

“You want me to call 911?” he asked, his voice muffled by the scarf.

“No, I’m f-f-fine,” I grimaced. “Just f-f-feeling like a f-f-fool.”

He reached down to help me up and my robe fell open. I shuddered as the icy wind whipped it around my knees, aware that my pajamas and slippers were wet through.

“Not the best clothes for January in New York,” he said, shaking his head.

“N-no? I m-must have gotten it confused with June.”

He gave a soft huff of amusement then unzipped his heavy coat and hung it around my shoulders.

“You d-don’t need to do that,” I said, giving the lie to my words as I snuggled into its wonderful warmth. “I’m really s-sorry, do you have a cell phone? I’m locked out so I need to call a locksmith.”

His eyes crinkled as if he were smiling although it was hard to tell with the scarf covering half his face. 

“I’ll see if I can get your door open,” he said. “Aren’t you usually at work by now?”

My eyebrows shot up. “How do you know that?”

He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Most Thursdays, I seen you leaving for work. Office job, right?”

I felt bad that I’d never bothered to notice the men who collected my garbage every week.

He turned and yelled to his friends. “I’ll catch up with you. I’m helping a damsel in distress!”

There were several rude shouts that were mostly lost in the sound of the truck moving further down the street.

“I’m sorry that I’m holding you up.”

He shrugged. “Garbage ain’t going nowhere.”

He looked at my door, rattled it a few times then lifted his long, muscular leg and aimed a hard kick just above the lock.

Twice more he slammed his boot into the wood until the frame splintered and the door flew open.

“How did you know that would work?” I asked, surprised but pleased.

“Misspent youth,” came the reply, and I felt sure that he was laughing at me. “You need to get a better security system for your door.”

“I see that!” I said, glancing at the shards of wood scattered on my porch, “but then I’d still be locked out.”

“If that hadn’t worked, I’d a broken a window,” he said with a smile in his voice.

“I’m … impressed!” I laughed, my teeth chattering. “Should I be worried?”

“Not about me, but you definitely need a better lock.”

I stepped into the warmth of my house and rather reluctantly handed him back his coat. 

“Well, thank you. For everything. I really appreciate it. I’ll call you next time I want to break into my own home.”

He slipped his coat back on and lifted his fingers to his cap, saluting me in a wonderfully old-fashioned gesture.

“Anytime!”

Then he jogged off down the road to catch up with the garbage truck.

I watched through the window as my knight in work boots disappeared from view.

 

By the following week, the snow had cleared and the temperature was a balmy 40oF. This time, I was ready for the garbage truck. I’d decided to tip the man who’d helped me … but I didn’t even know his name.

I heard the garbage truck trundling down the road, and I recognized the man who’d saved me. He was wearing the same knit cap as before, but this time I could see his face as he waved and jogged towards me. Those bright blue eyes were matched by a wide smile and a very handsome face. 

“No pajamas today?” he asked with a grin.

“Yes, but they’re under my suit,” I deadpanned.

“Saves a few minutes at bedtime,” he nodded sagely, making me laugh.

“I just wanted to thank you again for last week,” I said, more serious now. 

“It was nothin’,” he said with an easy smile, and I thought I detected a slight southern accent.

“It was to me. So, I’d like you to have this,” and I handed him an envelope with five crisp twenty-dollar bills.

“What’s this?” he asked, without taking the envelope.

“To say thank you,” I said, still holding it in front of me.

“You already thanked me,” he said, his smile gone. “’Preciate it.”

He turned to leave.

“Wait … I didn’t mean … I thought … maybe you could treat your colleagues to coffee after your shift? Or … donate it to your favorite charity?”

His mouth was a flat line, but the tightness around his eyes lessened.

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll do that,” he said, taking the envelope and stuffing it in his back pocket.

I felt completely confused. I thought he’d be grateful, happy to have an extra hundred bucks, but instead I’d offended him. And I was way too young to be called ‘ma’am’. 

“I’m sorry. Can we start again? My name’s Alicia—my friends call me Lissa. And I’m very grateful that you saved me from becoming an ice sculpture last week.”

“Jake,” he said, giving a small smile. “Nice to meet you, Lissa.”

I smiled back. “Well, I’d better get to work. See you next week, Jake.”

“Me, too. That garbage ain’t gonna haul itself.”

And he grabbed my two black trash bags and jogged after the truck, laughing at something his friends shouted at him.

Again, I watched him until he was out of sight; my Sir Galahad-of-Garbage. 

 

That evening after work, my department was out celebrating a big win. I worked as a lawyer for a record company, and we’d taken down a major pirate music site that had been stealing from artists for years. We were finally inching forward as the law struggled to keep up with cyber-criminals, and our team leader Donald, Senior VP, was taking us out to celebrate at a nearby pub.

“Alicia?” he prompted me as a server arrived to take the orders.

“Half a Guinness, please, and the Scallops.”

As soon as I placed my order, I headed for the ladies’ room, but heard someone calling my name.

“Lissa.”

I turned my head and found myself staring up at a grinning Jake, standing with a group of men his age.

“Jake, hi! Are you having dinner, too?”

“Nope, just standing here to keep out of the rain.”

“It’s not raining,” I said stupidly, then heard the laughter bubble out of him.

“Haha, very funny,” I smiled. 

“You with the bunch of suits?” he asked, nodding at my colleagues sitting around a corner table.

“Yep, celebrating a big win at work today.”

“Congratulations!”

“Thank you. But maybe you’ll let me buy you a drink now—I definitely owe you.” 

I phrased my question carefully, remembering the last time I tried to thank him.

“Nah, I’m good, thanks,” he said, raising the glass of soda in his hand. “I’m just about to clock on and the boss don’t approve of the staff drinking at work.”

“You’re a barman, too? One job isn’t enough for you?”

He gave a lopsided smile. “The money’s good and it’s more like socializing than working.”

His friends were eyeing me curiously. “Hi, I’m Lissa,” I said, holding out my hand.

Looking surprised, Jake introduced me, then we stood awkwardly staring at each other.

“Well,” I said, “I’d better get back to my colleagues. Good to see you, Jake.”

“You too, Lissa.”

He said something to his friends then ducked behind the bar to serve a couple of women whom he seemed to know by name. I guessed he was that kind of guy—friendly with everyone and everyone’s friend. But when the brunette touched his arm lightly, a shot of irritation flared through me. Something that felt an awful lot like jealousy.

I watched him from the corner of my eye as he worked, his smile easy, his blue eyes sparkling, his biceps bulging as he pulled pints, his ass nicely filling a pair of jeans. A peaceful energy flowed from him as if he had no worries and he’d found his place in the world. It was a contentment that was absent from the cutthroat world of high-stakes law.

I’d just finished my meal when he came over.

“Hey, Lissa. Good scallops?”

“The best! Thank you.”

“Not wearing pajamas today?” he challenged.

My colleagues looked at me inquiringly.

“Thanks for mentioning that,” I laughed, then turned to explain. “I locked myself out of my house last week when we had that heavy snow, and all I was wearing was pajamas and a robe.”

“Don’t forget your slippers with the rabbit ears,” he grinned.

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, let’s not forget my sartorial slip. Jake was passing and helped me break into my house so I didn’t die of hypothermia.”

We chatted for another minute then he had to get back to work.

My friend, Amy, nudged me. “A hot, sexy barman, huh? Nice.”

“I didn’t know he worked here.”

“You should ask him out. A quick fling with someone like him would blow your cobwebs away,” she smiled. “It’s not like you’d have to date him. I mean, he’s not your usual type.”

Two days later, I hurried home from work. It was late, as usual, and I was looking forward to a hot bath with a glass of wine and a good book.

I scooped up the mail on the doormat, tossing the bills and mailshots onto the kitchen table, when I noticed a handwritten note.

Hi, Lissa,

I don’t have your number so I’m doing this the old fashioned way. Can I buy you a cup of coffee sometime?

Jake

And he’d scrawled his phone number at the bottom.

I smiled to myself. The last few dates I’d been on had all been with other lawyers, and they’d ended up feeling more like networking opportunities than anything romantic. There hadn’t been any second dates.

But this…

I decided to take a chance.

Coffee sounds good! I’m working late all week, but Saturday or Sunday morning?

He texted back right away.

Saturday morning would be great. There’s a coffee shop three blocks from you. Bean Vault, you know it? 10.00?

I was still smiling as I replied.

He was sitting in a window seat waiting for me when I arrived. I was on time so he must have been early. It made a change from dates with men who were always running late as if their time was more important than mine.

He stood up when he saw me and pulled out a chair.

I could get used to this, I thought.

He ordered our coffees then sat back in his seat.

“Have you rescued any more damsels in distress lately?” I asked.

“Nope, only you. Did you get your door fixed?”

“I did. And I’ve had a security keypad installed instead, so I can’t lock myself out again.”

“Smart move,” he smiled. 

“So, other than rescuing me, working with the sanitation department and being a barman, what do you do in your free time?”

He shrugged. “Fishing with my buddies when I can. In the summer I help a friend with a lawn care business…”

“Three jobs?”

He nodded. “I like keeping busy.”

“What do you do to relax?” 

“Same as most guys: drink beer, watch TV, X-box, and I like fixin’ stuff. Taking it apart and see how it works.”

“What sort of things?” I asked.

“Anything really: engines, clocks, and I do woodwork.”

“Did you go to school for that?”

He laughed. “Nope. School and me didn’t get along so well. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, so I just started fixin’ things that broke.”

I was intrigued. I was part of a throwaway society: when my laptop failed, I bought a new one; when my cell phone didn’t work fast enough, I upgraded. I didn’t sew buttons on clothes or darn them, even though my grandma had taught me how.

“What do you do?” he asked. “I overheard some of your friends’ conversation in the bar so I’m guessing you’re a lawyer?”

“Yes, my specialty is legal strategy in the digital age—music and e-media: Cyber law. When you saw us the other night, we were celebrating a change in the law which had allowed us to take down a pirate site. Musicians get their work pirated all of the time and it’s so common, no one thinks much about it, but to a musician, that’s their livelihood.”

“You really care about your work.” 

“I do,” I said simply.

He nodded. “I know most folks wouldn’t think hauling trash is much of a job, but it suits me. I help clean up the streets. No responsibility, no one gets hurt.”

My eyebrows shot up and he shrugged. “Army for seven years. I like an easy life now.”

He was easy to talk to, thoughtful and funny. And he was happy. He had no ambition, no wish for a bigger house or a better car, no need for foreign travel. He liked his life and spent one week every summer in a rented cabin in upstate New York and the other week of his annual vacation visiting family.

He spoke to his parents in North Carolina every week, and his married sister was a police officer with three kids in Raleigh. He admitted that he’d followed a woman to New York, but when it hadn’t worked out, he’d stayed.

“I like working outdoors,” he smiled. “And sometimes I get to rescue beautiful strangers.”

I liked him. I liked the way he talked, I liked his philosophy of life. So when he asked to see me again, I immediately said yes.

One coffee date turned to lunch, and then the next time we saw a movie and ate popcorn. We took cold walks in the park and warmed up with creamy hot chocolates. After we’d been seeing each other casually for three weeks, he invited me for Valentine’s Day dinner at his house.

I couldn’t wait.

“You look different,” said Amy on Monday morning. “Did you get your hair tinted?”

“No.”

“New lip gloss?”

“No.”

She crossed her arms. “Dating a new guy?”

“Could be.”

She smiled in triumph. “Anyone I know?”

“The barman we met in Neary’s a couple of weeks ago.” Then I took a deep breath. “And days he works for a sanitation company.”

“Oh!” she said surprised. “Doing what?”

My smile froze on my face. “Hauling trash.”

“Excuse me?”

“He’s a garbage man.”

“You’re kidding?” she laughed uncertainly.

“Nope. He likes working outdoors.”

“So, he’s between jobs? This is just a filler?”

“No, he’s been there four years now.”

“You’re just having fun with him, right?”

“Yes, we have fun. But I really like him, Amy.”

She seemed lost for words; never a good sign in a lawyer. 

“Jake seems like a nice guy,” she said at last, speaking cautiously. “But…”

“I knew there’d be a but.”

“Come on, Lissa! You can’t be serious about him. You’re a Harvard graduate, one of the top attorneys in cyber law—he hauls trash for a living.”

“I get that we’re coming from different places…”

“When you dated Rob, he dumped you when he found out how much more than him you earn.”

“Okay, I see what you’re saying.”

“Do you? Guys get weird about women who earn more than them. But that’s not the only thing: you’re ambitious and he’s … not.”

I sighed. “When we’re together, it’s good. It’s great, in fact. He may not be ambitious but he’s content. Do you have any idea how restful that is? To be with someone who’s happy with who they are?”

“Just … don’t get in too deep.”

But what if I already was?

“And,” she said, staring at me seriously, “you still want to make Junior VP, right?”

“Yes, of course.”

She gave me a pointed look but didn’t say anything more.

Then her phone rang and she was off, calling over her shoulder that we’d talk later. I stared after her, thinking about what she’d said. It made me angry and sat at the same time. But she had a point.

Later that day, Donald reminded me that our team was having an away-weekend at the end of February as a thank you for all our hard work, and that we’d be staying at a spa hotel overlooking Saranac Lake.

“Bring a date!” he said. “We could all use a little down time,” and he patted my shoulder.

I thought all week about whether or not to invite Jake. I hated myself for hesitating, but I had Amy’s words whirring through my mind. She was my friend and she meant well, but Jake was the man I was dating. There was no one else I wanted to ask.

On Valentine’s Day, Jake made me dinner at his house. It was a small, one-story house with a tiny back yard, and rather worn around the edges; but it was clean and tidy, and he’d decorated his kitchen with paper hearts. It was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for me.

The meal was wonderful: spicy shrimp paella with a shop-bought chocolate torte—both my favorites.

“So, there’s something I wanted to ask you,” I said as we lay curled up on his shabby sofa after dinner.

“Uh-oh! Sounds serious,” he teased.

“I have a work thing next weekend, in the Adirondacks, and I’d like you to come with me.”

He studied my face. “You don’t sound too sure about that?”

I tried to laugh it off, but he was too smart not to hear the hesitation in my voice.

“You might find it boring,” I hedged. “A bunch of lawyers talking shop in between spa treatments. But there’s snowshoeing and snowmobiles, as well.”

I felt the tension in his body and sat up so I could see his face. 

“We’ve had fun the last few weeks, yeah?”

I was suddenly hyper aware. “We have.”

“But meeting your work colleagues, that’s a big deal.”

“You’ve already met them,” I pointed out.

“It’s not the same thing. I’d be there as your date.”

“That’s why I’m asking you.”

He rubbed his forehead. “They’re going to wonder why you’re with a guy like me.”

“A guy like you?” I echoed.

Frustration filled his face. “A guy who earns $13.33 an hour. You earn more than that in a minute. You know who I am and what I am. Is that going to bother you?”

“Where is this coming from?”

“I’m never going to earn a ton of money. I can’t look after you that way. I’ve seen where you live, your new Beamer in the driveway.”

“Good grief, Jake! This is the twenty-first century. Have I asked you to do that?”

He grimaced. 

“I’d rather be with someone who likes me for who I am,” I said softly. “Because I like who you are.”

He met my gaze. “I’m okay with where I am in my life. But I can’t afford to give you fancy things. You deserve a guy who can do that.”

My expression stiffened. “I don’t know who you insult most with that comment, me or you. If I have to find a partner who earns more than me, frankly I wouldn’t have very many people in this city to choose from. I look after me, Jake. I don’t want or need your money. I like you for you. And that’s more important to me.”

He shook his head slowly. “You say that now, but these things become important.”

I breathed in deeply. “I didn’t realize that money mattered that much to you.”

“It doesn’t!” he shot back.

“Then you think that it matters to me? You assume I’m so shallow that I can’t like you for yourself?”

“I don’t think you’re shallow,” he said quietly. “But can you honestly say you’d be happy in five years or ten years with a guy who hauls trash for a living?”

I looked away, choosing my words with care.

“The first day I met you, I knew what you did for a living. The day we had our first coffee together, I knew. The day we first kissed, I knew. When I slept with you, made love with you, I knew.” I took a deep breath. “When I fell in love with you, I knew who you were. There are no guarantees in life, Jake. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now.”

He met my gaze, staring at me, reading my face, looking for any flaw in my words, any sign that I didn’t mean what I said.

“You make a good argument,” he said quietly, a small smile lifting his lips.

“I’m a good lawyer,” I answered.

“Do you still want me to come with you next weekend?”

“I do.”

“Then I’ll be there.”

“Thank you,” I said, relief filling me with warmth.

“And everything else…”

“We’ll figure it out.”

I smiled as I reached out, holding his work-roughened hand in mine. 

“Happy Valentine’s Day.”

 

THE END


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Attack Dog


I was an ugly son of a bitch, I never doubted that. I’d been an ugly baby, repellent as a kid, and as an adult, I was uglier than sin and meaner than a snake. I was an attack dog in human form. I had a face that even a mother couldn’t love—mine sure as hell hadn’t. She let me know every damn minute of every cursed day that she couldn’t bear to look at me.“If you’d been hit in the face with a skillet, then run over a few times it wouldn’t make you look any worse—it mighta helped.” That was her on a good day. So when I say that I’m a son of a bitch, I mean that literally.

What does an ugly, skinny kid do? He makes sure he’s meaner than the biggest bully in the schoolyard. When he pulled a fist, I pulled a knife; if he pulled a knife, I pulled a gun. That last one finally got me sent to juvie. Best thing that could have happened to me: three square meals a day and my own room—damn near heaven.

I made sure that I stayed in juvie until I was 18 and legally allowed to make my own way in the world.

When I got out that last time, I had a ready-made business opportunity waiting for me: selling steroids to body builders in gyms. I’d gotten big while I was biding my time. All my free hours were spent turning my body into a machine. But I’d seen what ‘roid rage looked like and I was smart enough not to sample my own product more than a few times, but the gym rats who were my customers looked at my muscles and thought it was down to chemicals. Stupid fuckers couldn’t tell the difference.

I had dense muscle mass, but I was fast. I could zip in three jabs and an uppercut while my adversary wondered what freight train had just hit him. And maybe a dude who didn’t know me thought that my shattered cheekbone, broken nose and chipped teeth were because I wasn’t a good fighter: wrong. Each scar was a bet I’d won after the Prez put me up against four other MC gangbangers at a time. You could call it my party trick. The Prez even had a human ear hanging up in his office that I’d bitten off in one of the fights. Won him a chunk of change, too.

The day I patched in with the Jackals of southwest Colorado was the proudest of my life. Being with them was finally finding a home, if your home is a bunch of crazy mofos drunk off of their asses and high on life. My brothers were wild, wanting nothing more than a few dollars in their pockets and all out mayhem. Prez kept them on a tight leash, managing to screw some work out of them when he needed to. We ran the drug trade in the area and kept standards high. Our customers knew that our product was quality, and a reputation like that is worth having. We didn’t touch no people trafficking, and gun running is for suckers. The DEA knew about us for sure, but on the whole, they left us to keep the peace. We had more manpower and boots on the ground than they did.

So when the Wolverines MC out of Utah came at us, I was the one the Prez unleashed on them. We’d just had a showdown coupla miles out of town by Lake Nighthorse. I buried six of ‘em using my fists and a knife. 

I smiled at the memory, then frowning when blood welled out from my split lip. I was also nursing a long slash down my forearm which was currently dripping onto the floor of Durango’s Emergency Room.

I watched, fascinated, as the blood pooled on the floor, darkening around the edges as it began to dry. Prez had been pissed that the Wolverines had gotten the jump on us while the club’s doc was out of town. Usually, Doc Medley fixed me up, or sometimes I did it myself, but I’m left handed and that was the arm that had been gashed with an axe. Even with a chunk of flesh hanging off of me, I’d grabbed that axe and left it in a Wolverine’s skull. But I’d been around enough hospitals to know the drill. My wound was an avulsion: a partial tearing away of skin and the tissue beneath. Kinda messy and hurt like a bitch. It needed internal as well as external stitches and some strong antibiotics.

The ER was crowded, pretty much standing room only, full of Friday night drunks, two teenage Utes from the nearby res who’d been sniffing gasoline and passed out in town, a heavily pregnant woman with four little kids hanging off her, an old lady with a broken hip from slipping on ice, and the usual leftover chunks of humanity who shoulda got better insurance for a private hospital.

I was pissed to be here waiting. The staff all avoided me and they were probably taking bets on who’d get the short straw and be landed with me—in other words, a doc who wasn’t scared shitless just by looking at me or…

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

A woman was staring at me, but even so, I looked over my shoulder to see who she was talking to. When I was certain that her words were directed at me, two thoughts crossed my mind: she was sexy as sin; and, what kind of dumb bitch wears sunglasses indoors at night?

I grunted, which could have meant anything but she took it as an affirmative. 

She sat down carefully, tossing me a quick smile. It felt weird. Women crossed the street to avoid me, and the only pussy I could get had to be paid for. Even the Club whores had to be ordered by the Prez to go with me. So I was stunned when this woman turned to me and smiled.

“Sorry,” she said softly. “It was the only seat available, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered you.”

I grunted again, mesmerized by her hands as she laid them carefully in her lap. The fingers were long and slim, the nails short and unpainted. Her skin looked soft, and I wondered what hands like that would feel on my body.

“Are you injured badly?” she asked.

What a fucking inane question—half my arm was hanging off.

“I can smell blood,” she added.

“What are you, some kind of fucking vampire?”

She laughed lightly, not the least offended. “Yes, but only on Fridays.”

“It is Friday,” I said stupidly.

“Oh dear, then you might be in danger from me,” she chuckled.

Was she crazy? She was a tiny little thing, less than half my body weight, and about as dangerous as a wet paper bag.

“You’ve got some balls, sweetheart,” I said, her ease in my presence squeezing a speck of respect out of me.

“I think you’ve got that the wrong way around,” she laughed. “You sound big.”

“I sound bi—?” 

And then I understood. This chick was blind. It explained the sunglasses indoors and explained why she’d sat next to me. Hell, she probably didn’t even know that she was beautiful. Fate sure is a twisted bitch.

“Nope, five foot two and a hundred pounds,” I said, my voice sounding like I chewed on gravel and brushed what was left of my teeth with sand.

“Now I know you’re teasing me,” she said. “What kind of man does that to a blind woman?”

Damn if she wasn’t laughing at me.

“Can I ask why you’re here?” 

“Why the fuck are you here?” I spat, my usual mode of speaking.

“Apart from being blind?” she said, raising one eyebrow.

“Uh, yeah. Apart from that.”

“I ran out of my asthma medication. I thought I had a spare inhaler, but it’s empty. And cats make me wheeze.”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “So stay away from cats.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that—I have two: Angus and Flora—they’re Scottish cats.”

“You’re nuts, lady,” I grumbled.

“I’m blind and asthmatic and now you’re calling me crazy. That’s not very nice.”

She was still smiling, but I decided to disabuse her anyway.

“No, I’m not nice.”

“Yes, you are.”

I blinked, confused. “No, I’m not.”

“Are.”

“Not.”

“Are so.”

“Jesus, what are you? Five?”

She giggled and the sound shot through me like water off a glacier, shocking me awake. Had a woman ever been so comfortable with me that they just sat and giggled? No drink, no drugs, no trying not to look at my face, just freaking giggling?

“I’m sorry,” she said again. “It’s so boring being in the ER again.”

“You come here a lot?”

“Isn’t that the kind of thing you’re supposed ask in bars?” she laughed. “But to answer your question, yes, I’m here a lot. I’m always bumping into things or tripping over flagstones, even though I use a cane. Or slipping on the ice—God, I hate January. What about you, is your second home in the ER, too?”

“Not usually, although I’ve seen a lot of medics over the years.”

“Are you in the military?”

“Something like that.”

“Why are you here tonight?”

“Got an axe in my arm.”

Her face was horrified. “Oh my God! Are you okay? No, of course you’re not okay, but they’re not rushing you into surgery either, so I guess it’s still attached. It is, isn’t it?”

I sighed heavily, but inside I was smiling. “Nope, I’ve got it in a suitcase on the floor next to me. I thought they might be able to staple it back on.”

“Why did you put it in a suitcase?”

I burst out laughing. “I tell you I’ve got my arm in a suitcase, and that’s your question?”

“It made you laugh,” she said, looking pleased with herself. “I’m Emily Evans.” She held out her hand then paused. “You’re supposed to shake hands and tell me your name now. Hello? Are you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

Reluctantly, I shook her hand, a tiny delicate thing in my massive paw. The comparison was almost obscene. But it was so normal. I’d never had much normal.

“Why won’t you tell me your name? You must have a name? What do your parents call you?”

“I don’t have any.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Well, what do your friends call you?”

“What does it matter?”

She smiled. “If we’re going to be friends, I should know your name.”

“We’re not friends.”

“Not yet. But we’re in the ER on a Friday night so we’ve got plenty of time to get to know each other.”

“For all you know I could be an axe murderer,” I said, which was kinda too close to home, but I was completely exasperated by Little Miss Sunshine.

“Oh, I don’t think so. An axe murderer would tell me that he sold encyclopedias door to door, then invite himself over to my apartment. Besides, you’re nice: I can tell.”

“You’re dead wrong, lady.”

“It’s Emily, I told you.”

This time I spoke sincerely. “I’m not nice, Emily. You should steer clear of a guy like me.”

“But if I do that, how will we ever be friends?”

“You’re not listening to me!”

“Oh, you’re wrong there,” she said, suddenly serious. “I’ve been blind since I was four years old—my hearing is acute to compensate. But more than that, I’ve had to learn to listen to what people aren’t saying. You’d be surprised, but there are people out there who’d take advantage of a blind woman.”

I felt my anger rising. What kind of bastard would do that? This woman, Emily, she was the kind of person that a man should protect. But I knew that there were a lot of sick predators out there who preyed on the weak. I didn’t like that she would be the target of anyone like that.

“I know, shocker, right?” she went on. “But I know that you wouldn’t do anything like that. I practice putting people into three groups: first, users and takers—that’s not you, by the way; second, lost sheep—that’s people who always end up being needy because they’re incapable of standing up for themselves; and third, there’s the rest of us—the almost good. That’s you and me.”

Her philosophy of life amused me and saddened me at the same time. I doubt she’d ever met anyone truly evil, someone who didn’t have a soul. I had, and you could see the emptiness—the hole right through the middle of them where their humanity should be.

“Hey, Dog. Ain’t you been seen yet?”

I looked up to find T-Bone strolling towards me and cursed my luck. He might have been a brother but the guy was a raging asshole.

“Sure, but I was enjoying sitting here and dripping blood on the floor so I thought I’d stay a while.”

“I can see why,” he grinned, glancing at Emily. “Nice titties, sweet little mouth just made to suck a man dry.”

I felt Emily tense next to me.

“Leave her the fuck alone,” I growled, but T-Bone just grinned at me.

“Aw, fuck! She’s a blind chick!” he laughed. “I guess that’s why she ain’t running at the sight of yo’ ugly ass!” 

I didn’t give him another warning, but hit him so hard with a right hook, that I heard his jaw pop out.

“Ow, muvverfugger!” he howled. “You’fe brogen m’ fuggin’ face.”

Prez prowled up behind us, reading the situation with one glance. “Get the fuck up, T-Bone. I sent you here to see if Dog was ready, not to join the line.”

“He hi’ me!” T-Bone protested.

“’Spect you had it coming. Now fuck off outta here.”

T-Bone skulked away, his angry look telling me that there was unfinished business between us. I didn’t care—I could take him any time, and I knew that I was more valuable to the Jackals than him.

Prez’s assessing gaze took in Emily sitting upright and pale next to me, her knuckles white in her lap.

“Dog, you call when you ready to ride. Me and T-Bone need to have a little hablar, you dig?”

“Sure, boss,” I muttered.

 He gave Emily another long glance, then left as silently as he’d arrived.

I didn’t think she’d talk to me after that, but I was wrong.

“Those men are your friends?

“They’re … people I work with.”

“I didn’t like the one called ‘T-Bone’.”

“Good call. I don’t like the motherf— I don’t like him either.”

“But the other one, the quiet one, he was scary.”

I glanced at her again, realizing that she hadn’t been wrong about her gift of sizing people up. Prez didn’t talk a lot, but when he did, you listened. Or the chances were you’d turn up dead. I figured T-Bone was heading that way. Fucker couldn’t keep his pie-hole shut. 

“Are you … are you in a gang?”

I gave a quiet chuckle. “It’s a motorcycle club.”

“Oh.”

She thought about that for a minute and I found myself missing her non-stop chatter.

“What do you ride?” she said at last. “A Harley?”

“No, a Norton. You’ve been watching too much TV,” I laughed, then stopped abruptly.

“Oh, don’t worry about saying things like that,” she said breezily. “People say it all the time, ‘I see what you mean’, or ‘watch what you’re doing’. It’s just a figure of speech—it doesn’t bother me.”

“How…?”

“How did I lose my sight?”

“Yeah.”

“The technical term is optic nerve hydroplasia. It means that there’s a deficiency of optic nerve fibers. Sometimes it’s brought on by a mother drinking during pregnancy. Since my mom plowed her car into a lamppost when she was five times over the limit a few months after I was born, I’d say that was a fair guess.”

“Shit. I’m sorry. That why you wear sunglasses?”

“No, it’s because I don’t like people staring at me.” Then she started laughing. “Sorry, I’m not making fun of you. Much. I wear sunglasses because the way I look freaks people out.”

“Fuck,” I said quietly. “I know what that feels like.”

“Do you?”

I laughed harshly. “The way I look scares the fuck out of everyone.”

“Not me,” she smiled.

This woman. I had no clue how to talk to her. But damn if I didn’t like it.

“Anyhoo,” she continued, “it all worked out for the best, really. I was raised by my aunt and she’s amazing. You’ll love her when you meet her. Everyone loves Cassy.”

“Wait, what? Why am I meeting your aunt?”

“Oh, well, we live together, so when you pick me up for our date, you’ll meet her.”

“You’ve got some spunk, Emily, I’ll say that for you. But I never asked you out on no date.”

“But you were going to, I just saved you some time.”

Her smile faded slowly as I cleared my throat.

“I don’t date.”

“Do you mean you don’t date, or that you don’t date blind girls?”

“The first. I don’t date.”

“But why not? Apart from the fact that your friends are assholes?”

I laughed sadly. “Can’t argue with that. My friends are definitely assholes.”

“But you’re so nice,” she said.

“Back to that. No, I’m not.”

“Why do your friends call you ‘dog’?”

I sighed. “I’m the MC’s fixer, their attack dog. The name kinda stuck.”

Her mouth turned down. “But you’re so gentle. How can you be an attack dog? Can I touch you? I see best with my hands.”

I was so stunned that I didn’t react when she reached up to touch my face. Her hands were as soft as I’d imagined as she ran them across the scars on my cheeks, my broken nose, thick beard, shaved head and split lip. I winced slightly.

“Sorry,” she said quietly. “Does that hurt?”

“No.”

Then her hands traveled down my chest, across my waist and back up to my one good arm.

“See, I was right about you,” she said. “You’re strong and gentle.”

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t think of a time when anyone, a woman, had touched me like that.

“What’s your real name?” she asked, nudging me gently.

“You don’t need to know,” I said gruffly.

“I’d like to. Well, anyway, you know mine. I’m in the phone book, by the way—Hillcrest Apartments.”

Just then a nurse with a clipboard came up her, glancing warily in my direction. “Emily Evans?”

“Yes!” she said brightly. “That’s me.”

The nurse took Emily’s elbow and I watched them walk away, an almost overwhelming need to follow them, to hear Emily’s voice again, which shocked the hell out of me.

I heard the nurse whisper to her. “Was that man bothering you?”

“Which one?”

“The ugly one you were sitting next to.”

“Oh, you must be thinking of someone else,” she laughed. “He’s my new boyfriend, the handsomest man I’ve ever met.”

My mouth fell open, then tipped up into a huge smile.

 

THE END

 


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