Chapter 2.5

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“Zip.” Archer nodded to the final addition to our group. “Nice of you to show up.”

Phoenix shrugged, “Hey, kids don’t give a flyin’ fuck about plans and schedules. Ya know?”

“Yep. Phone broke?” My roommate could never put aside the squad leader that had to maintain discipline in the air.

“Sorry, mom. I’ll text ya next time,” Phoenix rolled his eyes and grabbed a pool cue from the nearby rack, eyeing the length for warp. He set the first aside, critically examining a few others before making a selection and vigorously polishing the tip with the electric blue chalk cube.

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I still hadn’t heard the story of how he ended up with the call sign Zippo, although I knew most of the others by now. Pansy’s whimsical name led to the moniker “Sweet Pea,” and as the only female among the pilots I suspected the “Pea” was a euphemism. Archer’s nickname, “Jammer,” stemmed from his initials, J. Archer Maslow. He stubbornly refused to tell me his first name, insisting that he’d been called by his middle name since birth. They affectionately dubbed the fourth member of the squad, Jude Katz, Judy.

“Where the fuck is Judy, anyway?” Phoenix asked, waiting for Archer to rack the billiard balls.

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Archer snorted in response, “Little boy’s room.”

“Actually,” Pansy chirped from her girlfriend’s lap, interrupting their whispers and giggles. “You missed him sneaking out the side door with some guy.”

“Yeah, you were distracted by some legs. He’d’a done been nailed and back by the time you noticed.” Naomi added as the couple shared a mischievous glance.

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“We’ve been debating who Ruthie should let take her home,”  Pansy tittered. “I think she’d look hot with yellow dress!”

“What? With the glasses?” Zippo asked, scanning the dance floor between shots.

“Nooooo! The brunette with the cardigan!”

“Stop! Guys! Dick, you need to be thinking dick!”  Naomi interrupted. “You like blondes?” she asked slyly. “White suit maybe?”

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I followed the line of her gaze and couldn’t believe my eyes. I immediately dismissed the dandy in the white suit as a Gatsby wanna-be playboy and far too reminiscent of Vanderburg. But the woman whose hair he’d just seductively tucked behind her ear? I’d seen enough pictures to instantly recognize Lina Lancaster. Could it really be that easy? Could I actually get that lucky? I started mentally sifting through strategies for picking up some information on my case tonight.

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“No, not my type at all.” I demurred to my group. “He looks taken anyway.”

Pansy squealed, “Omigosh, Ruth, it’s another preggers! See! You thought you’d be the only one out!”

“Yeah. Imagine that.” I braced my hands on the edge of the chair to help push myself to my feet. “I think I’ll get some water. Anybody else want anything?”

I sidled up to the bar as closely as my burgeoning body allowed and requested a bottle of water. I thought about the best way to approach Lina while I waited.

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“Sorry about them.” Archer cut into my thoughts, leaning back against the bar in a way that made his shirt strain to contain his broad shoulders. “They didn’t mean to get under your skin.”

“They didn’t. I just have a lot on my mind.” I answered honestly. I understood that inclusion in the squad’s shit talk signaled acceptance. At least, of what I’d let them know about me. I looked down at the bar, suddenly remorseful that my so-called friends didn’t even know my real name, much less anything about my life before. They’d happily accepted me as a young woman running from a bad situation without  worrying themselves with the details.

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“You don’t really seem to be having fun, though. How ’bout dancing? Maybe if I let you stomp on my feet a while it’ll take your mind off everything.”

I stared at him, incredulous. “Stomp on your feet? You don’t seem to think much of my dancing!”

“I guess you’ll just have to show me,” he challenged with a smirk.

I sighed and glanced at the bartender listening to a guy in an argyle sweater. I wanted my bottle of water. I wanted to say no just because I’d been told what to do my whole life and contrariness had become second nature. Then I remembered the disappointed look on his face earlier. That’s the only thing my mother made sure I knew I was good at, disappointing everyone. “You’ve really made up your mind that I’m going to have fun tonight.”

“Yes ma’am,” he grinned with an exaggerated drawl.

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Between the change in my center of gravity and my heels, I felt off-balance and awkward. Instead of the light brush of fingertips, I gripped Archer’s hand to steady myself.

“See, you aren’t even doing too bad. You haven’t even stepped on my toes yet,” he joked.

“Liar!”

“Whaaaaat?” He grinned and lightly brushed the top of my shoe with his foot. “Oops! Sorry about that!”

“You did that on purpose!”

Archer laughed, and answered “You got me.” I laughed along with him, my self-consciousness fading with each step.

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I absently watched the lights and bubbles as we slowly twirled, my mind quiet for once. The songs blended into each other as I relaxed. As the rest of the world faded I became more aware of the gentle pressure of Archer’s hand on my hip and the grip between our palms. He was faintly smiling. Not his megawatt beam, but a little lopsided upturn of his lips that I couldn’t pull my eyes away from.

“You okay?” he asked.

Suddenly heat rose up my neck and burnt my cheeks. I had to get away. “Yeah, I just, uh, you know, um, have to pee.” I dropped his hand and threaded my way through the crowd to the bathroom.

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I didn’t dare splash water on my face and ruin my makeup because then everyone would be on my case about something being wrong. I settled for pressing my cold hands against my flaming cheeks. Hands that were just…

Oy vey, what am I thinking? He just feels sorry for me and was being nice. And then I go and stare at his lips like some kind of stupid teenager. Cut it out! I tried giving myself a stern talking to in the mirror. Don’t ruin it! You’ll have to find another roommate if you make everything awkward! 

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I rubbed my hands under the cold water as if I could rinse my faux pas down the drain with the soap. Suddenly, the door burst open and a blonde, obviously pregnant, waddled in complaining loudly.

“God, my back and feet are killing me! Why did I let you talk me into this?”

I cut my eyes to her and looked back at the rest of the room in the mirror. Was she talking to me?

A second voice sounded from the hallway. “Really, Yoyo? You know you didn’t want to sit at home.” Then she came around the corner and I knew I had a rare window of opportunity.

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“Besides,” Lina continued, “if you’d come to prenatal yoga like I keep telling you, all your back problems will go away!”

“So that stuff really works?” I asked, turning to face the newcomer. “I’m so miserable by the end of the day. I just want to lie on the sofa.”

She eyed my belly before she smiled condescendingly and rambled over yoga’s benefits like a BuzzFeed listicle. She seemed so enthused, I wondered if she taught the class herself. Hasty introductions and a bit of small talk later, I had plans to meet them in a couple of days at the gym.

 

 

Chapter 2.4

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The patterns of the days in the journal Eli had given me were unnervingly familiar: spa days, yoga, and parties punctuated with empty charity work and events where Lina would play arm candy for her aging partner.  Other than the specific dates and times, it told me nothing about the girl I didn’t already know intimately about the life of a socialite. I’d given up my family, my home, even my name to escape it, but Lina had sought it. Chased it. Given herself to an ugly old man for it.

I used to hear my mother laugh about girls like her. She’d say “they all want a sugar daddy until daddy wants that sugar!” The desperation that would drive someone to those depths didn’t seem so funny anymore.

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How had age and station made my family’s plans for me any different or less desperate? Less pathetic? Oh, right, supporting my parents’ political ambitions to eliminate the monarchy made me a patriot instead of a whore. Please.

I remembered how I felt the last time I was with Sebastian. The oily memory of self-loathing rose like bile in my throat. Never again. I would never degrade myself like that again.

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The click of the door and shuffled footsteps interrupted my pity party.

“Hey, I’m going out with the squad,” Archer said from the door. “You wanna come?” He started to ramble when I didn’t respond right away, “Pansy has a plus one. So it’s not like you’d be some third wheel or something. Fifth wheel. Whatever.”

He just stood there waiting for an answer while my mind raced with how to politely say no and which excuses I’d used recently.

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“Out?” I turned back toward him. “Wow. I, uh. I already took off my makeup. And I’d have to redo my hair. And. Um. Stuff.”

“We got time. Not leaving for a couple of hours. Pansy’s idea. You know. Girls. Plus Zippo’s wife won’t let him out until the kid is tucked in,” he pleaded.

“I…” I stopped. He had already known what I would say. He’d planned this. He’d had answers ready. “You know I’m pregnant, right?”

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“Yeah. I remember,” he said.

He sat down on the corner of the bed and I scooted as far away as I could, pressing the pillows into the wall.

“But you aren’t dead. You only leave the house for work! I’m worried about you. You’re young, just like the rest of us. You should come out and live a little and not turn into some kind of hermit. Or cat lady. No cats!” His words ran out of steam awkwardly and he looked away and fidgeted.

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He’d babbled through the whole conversation. He usually only did that when he was upset or nervous. I felt a pang of guilt.  He’d been so patient with the repairs on the house. I still had to go buy that shower head I promised, and replace the horrendous tile in the kitchen. He fussed over me like a mother hen sometimes. Now I’d hurt his feelings.

“If it means that much to you, I’ll go.” I said quietly.

He rewarded me with his wide smile, the one that I’m sure he had no idea was so dazzling. I’d never seen him act anything other than oblivious to the way women swooned over him.

Women other than me. Women who maybe deserved him. I reminded myself that my heart and my baby still belonged to Lance. I was certain of it.

 

Chapter 2.3

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I met with Eli Vokoban at his home in the most upscale neighborhood in town.  Glancing around, although his furniture bore the detailed look of expensive fine craftsmanship, he had very little in the way of decoration. It seemed that he hadn’t allowed Lina to make her mark on the home they shared. Of course, I hadn’t met her and didn’t know if she cared as little about such things as I did. Archer had certainly spread his belongings all over the common areas of my house, and I knew he had more tucked away that the dilapidated dock house couldn’t accommodate.

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“I have to admit, I really didn’t expect Detective Steel to send someone quite so….” Vokoban abortively began and then paused, probably looking for the least offensive description, “young. Ms…?”

“Colton,” I smiled. After so many months and countless introductions, the fake name rolled easily off my lips. “Since we’re both pregnant, I have a unique opportunity to gain Ms. Lancaster’s trust without raising suspicion that I have ulterior motives.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. It certainly makes you a safer bet than your usual P.I., at least with Lina,” he joked and I saw it: his awareness of the differences in their ages and the insecurity that plagued him.

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I raised an eyebrow and asked, “Oh?”

“She likes the attention, says it makes her feel powerful. She doesn’t act on it. Usually.”

“Is that what makes you suspect you aren’t her baby’s father?”

“I’m certain I am not.” He paused again and I distinctly thought he felt uncomfortable talking to a young woman about a sensitive issue bluntly. He rubbed the sparse hair at the back of his head and glanced at his shoes before venturing, “I have always been extraordinarily careful with my sexual partners.”

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I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at the delicate dance of sensibility. I knew more about Lucky Palms’s seedy affairs than anyone. I found their games and lies straightforward in comparison to the world of intrigue and betrayal I’d come from. “I see. Is there anyone in particular you think she might be seeing? I find that most people have a pretty good idea what’s going on, but don’t want to admit it to themselves without concrete proof.”

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“Lina flirts with almost everyone. Not in front of their wives and girlfriends, but anyone is fair game to her when backs are turned. That’s what makes it so hard to pinpoint.”

He pulled his leg up into his lap, plucking nervously at his socks. As his posture shut down and he broke eye contact, I realized that he wasn’t on the level. He had a secret about Lina, subconscious knowledge about her boyfriend, or the mysterious business Detective Steel hungered to know about. My trick was digging out which without losing his tenuous trust.

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“Fair enough.” I answered. I needed him to think I trusted him. “What can you tell me about her routine and habits?”

He passed me a faded notebook. I flipped through the notes written in careful flowing script, without closely examining the dates and times yet.  I noted the cheap quality of the paper in contrast with the surroundings; Vokoban cut corners when he could. The ink decorated the pages in bold, even strokes with small, tightly spaced letters and words in an economic shorthand.

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“This will be perfect. I’ll find inconsistencies and figure out when and where to observe her best.” I wanted to look through her things, especially her phone, but decided that could wait. The journal should give me more than I needed to pin down Lina’s lover’s identity. “I’ll be in touch.”

“Thank you, Miss Colton. I look forward to hearing what you come up with,” he said, regaining his confidence. His brief moment of vulnerability had passed, and his public facade shifted back into place. Fake mask to fake mask, we shook hands in silent agreement that delving into his girlfriend’s private affairs was, after all, only business.


Previous – Chapter 2.2

Chapter 2.2

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Nobody in the police station blinked anymore when I walked in, knocked on Don’s office door and tilted my head to the side to peer through the blinds. The chairs in front of his desk sat empty and he looked over the top of his coffee cup to wave me in.

“Morning, Don,” I said, easing myself between the door, desk, and chairs carefully to balance the watermelon weight of my pregnant belly. “So…”

He stood and interrupted the question before I could ask it, “No, Ruth, nothing on your John Doe. Can we just skip the interrogation and get to this new case?”

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I winced at how predictable I’d become, but still let out the breath I hadn’t meant to hold and wiped my palms off on my pants. “Yeah, that’s fine. Watcha got?”

Don walked around to sit in the other visitor’s chair instead of facing me across the desk. He leaned toward me with a smirk and I knew it would be a better case than identifying a vandal or calling out a cheating dirtbag. He glanced toward the window and continued once he saw no one watching.

“Have you heard of Eli Vokoban?” he murmured conspiratorially.

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I hid my smile behind my hand. “Of course, I mean, I couldn’t tell you exactly what kind of business he’s in, but he’s wealthy and his temper with waiters is nearly legendary around here.”

“The thing is, nobody really knows, and there are a lot of rumors. Now his girlfriend is pregnant and he has suspicions. That’s where you come in…”

“Great,” I huffed, rolling my eyes and shaking my head , “more of the same who’s screwing who.” Over the months, I began to think nobody in Lucky Palms managed to keep their dick in their pants.

“Ostensibly, yes, working for Eli to figure that out, but if you happen to maybe come across anything about his business dealings in the course of your investigation. Well, it would be a big help.”

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I bit my lower lip and nodded, excitement and concern vying for control of my thoughts. “Will it be safe? You know….” I trailed off, half-pointing toward the fetus squirming against my bladder.

He grinned, his celebrity white teeth offering the reassurance I sought, “Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s mostly just keeping your eyes and ears open, and going through things like you normally would to find out who’s Lina’s baby daddy. Nothin’ you can’t handle.”

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I licked my lips and shifted in my chair before asking, “This job, the compensation, it’s pretty good? I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up before….” I shrugged, shaking my head and thinking my pregnancy made the rest obvious. It galled me to have to ask about the money and need to sit on every penny like a dragon brooding over her hoard. I used to spend more at the day spa in an afternoon than I made for all the sweat I put into any single job.

He waggled his eyebrows and nodded, “Oh, it’s better than good. It’s ungodly how rich old codgers throw away money like farts in the wind! Hell, it’s more than I made in a year when I was a rookie.”

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He waited for me to think with his cop poker face on, but his eyes told me he already knew I would take the job. “Don, you know that bedroom face doesn’t work on me!” I teased, “I’ll do the job though. If there’s any dirt on Vokoban, I’ll dig it up for you. All legal evidence.”

“Thanks so much, Ruth, you’re my go-to girl.” He said rising smoothly to pluck a post-it from his desk. “Here’s all the info for your meeting with Eli.”

We went over the details before he dismissed me. He had a knack for cutting to the chase and letting me handle finessing the client. I didn’t expect any trouble from Vokoban. He fit the type that my father used to invite to his fundraisers to a tee, and I knew how to wrap that around my finger while keeping my distaste to myself.

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I dawdled as I waddled to the library to see what background I could dig up on Eli Vokoban and his wayward girlfriend.  I stopped at the fountain locals quixotically called the wishing well. One of the few oases in Lucky Palms, I visited often and made my own callow wishes that I pretended were prayers. To what or to who, I hardly knew, but they always went the same.

I dug in my pocket for a penny, brushing the lint off when I found it. I closed my eyes and pressed the coin to my lips with only one thought resonating through me. Let him be alive. I flicked the coin into the fountain, watching the flash of the copper before it plunked into the rippling water. Let him be alive.

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Previous – Chapter 2.1

Epizeuxis Epistaxis Excuses

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“Shit. Shit!” Blood colored my fingers when I wiped my nose, just as I feared. “Could you give me a napkin?”

“Huh?” Victor grunted, not looking up from his phone.

“Napkin,” I snapped and pinched my nose with my fingers.

“Yeah, yeah, calm down.” He plucked a few napkins from the dispenser and passed them my way without even looking at me.

“Thanks,” I said. I dabbed at the blood that dripped from my nose. The flimsy napkins started to look like red and white cow print. “Excuse me, I need to go to the ladies’ room.”

“Yeah, ok, I’ll be here,” his thumbs wiggled tenderly over the face of his phone. He didn’t notice my plight.

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I kept the lower half of my face covered on the way to the washroom.

A waitress paused on her bustle back to the kitchen to ask, “You okay, miss?” with furrowed eyebrows and fake concern.

“I’m fine. Thanks.” I was fine. I always said I was fine. Even and especially when I was most certainly not fine.

I held my nose in the dingy diner washroom until the bleeding stopped. I tossed the bloody single ply napkins in the trash and dampened some coarse paper towels to clean the blood from my face.

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I preened in the chipped, blurry mirror. I could barely see myself, but I managed. Hair. Fixed. Lipstick. Fixed. Face. Fixed. Polite smile that said nothing had ever happened. Fixed.

I dodged waitresses bearing trays of fried food, coffee, and pie back to the counter where my date waited. The moonlight blue light from his phone washed over his face.

He retrieved his credit card and receipt from the plastic tray, but left the waitress’s lime green pen. He stood up as I sat down. “Your dad wants me to come in and help with some new evidence. You know how it is with cops, right. Right?” I didn’t need his epizeuxis to see through his excuses.

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He tucked his wallet in his back pocket and laid his hand on my shoulder. The other already reached for his front pocket and waiting car keys. The gesture gave me a sense of deja vu. How many times had Daddy done the same thing?


 

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“You can handle dinner and the little ones, can’t you, Amanda? I’m counting on you.”

“Of course, Daddy. I know what to do.”

“I’m sorry,” he said it so many times it stopped meaning anything. “You know how it is. I have to go when work calls. None of these yokels know how to handle even the most minor kerfuffle.”

“Yeah. I know.”


“Yeah. I know.” I said, this time to Victor, playing the demure daughter I’m sure Daddy had promised.

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He walked me to my car. “I had fun. We should do this again,” he said. He shut the car door as I buckled my seat belt. He was the gentleman my father would have approved of. Wasn’t that why he set us up?

We went out, but our eyes never met. It was like we never met. He never saw me.

Chapter 2.1 – Coming Back to Life

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“So, I closed that case today.” I told my roommate, Archer, as I grabbed some juice from the fridge. The brutality of Lucky Palms’ heat had lessened after Spooky Day, but temperatures still matched summer highs in Hidden Springs.

“Uh-huh,” he grunted in reply.

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I struggled not to ogle him as he worked out. Shirtless again, he only bothered to put one on for going out in public.

“Anyway,” I continued, “Emi’s instincts were right on. Richard’s a total dirt bag.” I didn’t think he could hear me over the energetic instructor blaring on the TV, but I was mostly talking to myself. “I feel sorry for the little girl, Cricket. And kind of guilty. You know.”

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“What? Why?” Archer asked. It seemed he had been listening after all.

“I think Emi’s going to divorce him and the kid’s just caught in the crossfire. She’ll never see her dad the same way. Disillusioned while she’s so young. Probably happier not to know the truth,” I said. I sometimes wondered if I would’ve been happier if I’d ignorantly let my mother pull the puppet strings.

“Not your fault he can’t keep his dick to himself.”

“I guess. I dragged it all out in the open though.”

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Of course, it wasn’t really the Irwins I was thinking about, but Lance and our child. I had considered honesty the best policy, especially since my old life was laden with so many lies. Recently, I wondered how much of the truth to eventually tell. How much information would satisfy natural curiosity? How much would just hurt my innocent kid and where was that line?

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I finished hydrating and sat in the good spot on the couch that the vent blew directly on, still overheated from gallivanting around the desert. For the hundredth  time, I started to brood about how to be enough all by myself. No father. No grandparents. Just me. At least I wouldn’t have to start completely over again if the past caught up to me. I had a stash of cash under my bed and bags packed, ready to grab and go.

I realized Archer had said something to me and I had missed it.

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“I’m sorry, what was that?” I asked, flustered that I had spaced out.

“Did they pay you this time, or just more pro bono? ‘Cuz I was thinking it would rock if you could get rid of that hideous tile in the kitchen.”

“The kitchen?” I had managed to get the air conditioning and broken balconies repaired, but hadn’t significantly improved the fix-er-upper I bought when I first came to town.

“Yeah.”

I considered my nest egg of emergency money, maybe it had grown enough for me to splurge on the house a little. It would all come back in equity, assuming things went well enough for me to have the leisure of selling instead of just running.

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“You’re swollen again.” He said, sitting down and inspecting my feet. “Did you think about taking time off to get ready for the baby like we talked about?”

I could feel the disapproval rolling off him like it used to waft from my mother. It distracted me from thinking about being touched by a half-naked man.

“I was going to talk to Donovan at the precinct tomorrow,” I said noncommittally. I checked in with Officer Steele for John Does matching Lance’s description every few days. None had appeared so far, but I worried anyway because a body had to be found first and then compared. I also intended to ask for a new case, but I had gotten better at telling people just enough to satisfy their curiosity without letting them pry.

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“Emi gave me enough to tile the kitchen and probably even the downstairs bath.” I admitted to change the subject and keep him off my back about maternity leave. I wouldn’t have been able to pay the bills in the beginning or improve the house at all if I hadn’t taken in a roommate, the least I could do was keep him happy with the place. “Okay?”

“I’ll give you a foot rub if you throw in a new shower head.”

“Deal.”

“A rain head with a detachable hand shower?”

I laughed. How could I say no to that face? “You can come with me and pick it out.”

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“I’d like that,” he said.

I felt suddenly self-conscious to have my feet in his lap while wearing a skirt. His sweet, earnest nature deserved better than someone filled with secrets and another man’s child. Archer reminded me of all the things I could never have. I retreated upstairs with a hasty joke about pregnancy and frequent urination.

“Ruth, you’ll ask for help if you need it? Right? And no more scaffolds?”

I remembered how he had freaked out when I repaired the crumbling balconies and had all but taken over my project. “Yeah, yeah. No more scaffolds,” I agreed. Silly man. I didn’t need a scaffold to tile a kitchen and the last thing I wanted was help.


Chapter 1.9 – Cold as Ice                      –                                 Chapter 2.2

Unexpected

Things had been going so well for Archer lately. He’d been promoted at work and moved in with a cute girl who didn’t seem to mind his tendency to stick his foot in his mouth. It was just his luck that shit would suddenly go so horribly sideways.

It started one morning with inexplicably tight pants. By the time he got off duty his gig line jigged like the Mississippi from the massive bloating. He thought a little time on the treadmill would sweat off the water weight, but it hadn’t even made a dent.

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Which was why, on his day off, he was up at the ass crack of dawn trying to squeeze in a some cardio before his roommate woke up. She hadn’t acted any differently since he’d ballooned, but seeing chipmunk cheeks in the mirror was a huge mind fuck.

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He was suckin’ wind and sore as shit by the end, but a quick peek in the mirror showed the sit-rep nearly unfucked. He had just enough time to wash off the stink and soak his aching muscles in a delightful bubble bath before lunch.

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Suddenly, the abdominal cramps twisted through him like the tornado that took Dorothy to Oz. Funny, the leftover waffles he ate for breakfast hadn’t seemed bad, but he felt like he could crap a thermite grenade and couldn’t help but groan. Loudly. There were light footsteps in the hallway and then his roommate’s voice right outside the door.

“Archer? You okay, buddy?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he growled, clutching his stomach and trying not to scream like a little bitch. “Maybe just some fuckin’ privacy?” The last thing he wanted was for her to see, hear, or smell the massive shit storm he felt coming. God, he’d never get to nail her after that.

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“Whatev-” she started to say.

“Oh, God!” he howled uncontrollably.

“Dude, let me take you to the hospital!”

“No, really, I’ll be fine,” he growled through clenched teeth.

“Don’t be an asswipe! Let me help you!”

“No, don’t come in!” He made an O with his mouth and tried to breathe through the cramps. “It’s just a little…. ugh… oh… stomach virus.” The pressure was incredible. He just knew that any minute the diarrhea would erupt. Explosively. Why couldn’t she just walk away from the door?

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“Honey, I really don’t think…”

“Holy fucking shit! Aaaaaaaaagh!”

“Archer! Archeeeeeeeeeeer!” She banged on the locked bathroom door.

Agony gripped him like a vise and he was surrounded by strange glowing sparkles. He found himself spinning in the air and then dropped to his feet, holding an infant with putrid green skin, the pain gone as suddenly as it began.

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How the fuck was he going to explain this?


This was Archer’s original look that, frankly, wasn’t enough for me be over Lance. If I’m not over him, how can Ruth be over him? I had to do some serious thinking about what could accomplish that and Archer got major plastic surgery that really helped.

Outtakes

Some specific to the immediate updates since the last outtakes, and some extra that I don’t think ever got put up or just like.

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How you really socialize with your BFF.

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“Ouch! Can somebody get me a neck brace?”

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Red light usually means stop.

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How about more sunset and less sloppy jalopy?

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Too much!

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Be cool. Act casual. Not like you have gas.

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Sebastian gets waylaid on the way to the bar.

I tried making them have a real argument, but the interactions were a little over the top.

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“You look stressed, maybe you should get a massage.”Screenshot-178 (2)

“I don’t need a massage!”

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“Grrrrrr!”Screenshot-173 (2)

You can’t be mad at me!Screenshot-176 (2)

Really, can you resist this face?Screenshot-143

“Damn. I hate it when you’re right!” Okey, so this one is a pose, it was just too much raised eyebrow from this angle.

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The twist even I never saw coming. WTH is going on in the screenshot save? Mrs Cohen getting around is what. Screenshot-157 (2)

Apparently, she does have some boundaries. Actually, it’s that she initiates outgoing romance and rejects incoming. So bossy.

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In the land of magical, gravity defying ponytails….

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“Watchu talkin’ ’bout? I still got it in a ponytail.”

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And not in a ponytail. You aren’t supposed to be in Ruth’s bedroom. “I’m an actor! You gonna make me put on some clothes and leave? I didn’t think so.” You know, you’re right, why don’t you go take a bath. So I locked him in the bathroom while Ruth did posing for story pics in the bedroom. With the bedroom door locked too, because even though there are other TVs and computers, the ones in there are the ones everyone wants to use.

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“It was bitchy of you to send me down here.” I know, but look how hot you are!

Really, I had tons of fun with Lance.

Taking selfies:

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Struggling to pause at just the right time to get what I was trying to show:

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Sometimes it was too sweet,Screenshot-54

or a little too vulnerable,Screenshot-57

and sometimes I felt sorry for Lance wondering if he would ever be on bottom again.

Learning to do posing, here’s the first one I ever did:

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And sometimes getting carried away with it…

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Getting different perspectives of the same moment.

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And seeing what happened next.

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And always wanting just one more picture.

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Chapter 1.9 – Cold as Ice

I slunk away from the Vanderburg estate the next morning feeling completely ashamed of myself. Sebastian had humiliated me in the past, but did he really deserve the lies and manipulation I had heaped on him? Shouldn’t I rise above repeating the same behavior I hated? How had I sunk so low? I knew then that I didn’t have it in me to follow through with the rest of the plan. In fact, I owed Bash the truth, which left me in worse straights than before.

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I locked myself in my room. I wondered about Lance. Had he gotten away? I feared for him and not knowing gnawed at me. Why had he slept with Francisca so quickly? Did he care for me at all? He had seemed to until I found out he’d already moved on. I knew that when photos from the club last night hit the press I would seem guilty of the same. Did he have his reasons too? So many questions swirled through my head, but no answers added up. I realized that thinking about him only distracted me from finding a solution to my own predicament, but I found myself at an impasse.

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The butler knocked on my door that evening to let me know that Sebastian had come to visit me. I hurriedly dressed, prepared to see him and come clean about what I had done, but when I heard my mother speak to him I stopped in my tracks like prey that caught wind of a predator. Their words carried up to me perfectly, and at first I only intended to wait until she exchanged pleasantries and walked away, but I soon discovered that she had much more interesting things to say.

“Do you think she’ll see me? I expect she’s pretty steamed that I took advantage of her when she was drunk.” Sebastian asked.

“She’s upset about something, but damned if I know what. She’d be so much easier to control if I could understand what goes on in that head of hers,” Mother answered then continued, “Francisca had great luck in convincing her to go to you. Do you know what she said?”

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My mind reeled with the news that both of them clearly knew where Francisca hid, kept her secrets, and had even recruited her to my mother’s cause. Or their cause? I kept listening to try to learn the depth of their involvement.

“She didn’t say how she managed, but she did tell me something that concerns me,” Sebastian began.

“What is it?”

“I don’t like the thought of Ruth carrying some vagabond’s love child. What will the press say? Can’t you talk her into getting rid of it?”

Mother’s laughter rang out like a bell. “Of course not! That’s my little insurance policy! You should have seen her face when I told her I’d adopt it. Once I control that baby, Ruth will be firmly under my thumb.” I barely managed to restrain myself from gasping out loud.

“What about the father? Do you think he’ll make trouble?”

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“See if Francisca can work her magic and convince him to terminate his paternal rights. Then make sure he leaves town, I want him as far from my daughter as possible.”

They didn’t say anything else important after that and I crept back to ease my bedroom door shut slowly and carefully. My heart pounded as I tried not to make the smallest snick as the latch caught.

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The thoughts and questions stormed around my head like lightning, never striking the same place twice. Francisca’s betrayal cut me to the quick, I never thought my oldest and best friend would throw me under the bus. I had to acknowledge that her need for silence and privacy made her a perfect candidate for Mother to blackmail. I couldn’t afford to ask her about it though. That left me with absolutely no one that I could trust.

Well, maybe just Lance, but between breaking things off and public displays of affection with someone else I had done a pretty thorough job of burning that bridge. I didn’t expect Sebastian to enforce the exile gently either, and that was squarely my fault. Staying as far away from me as possible maximized Lance’s safety. I couldn’t in good conscience ask him for help.

I paced around my gilded cage, feeling angrier with every step. I considered an abortion so I could eliminate Mother’s hopes of control and get my Peace Corps tour back on track. However, I would return to the same mess in two years time, and she would have had opportunity to hatch another plan that I would be in the dark about. I needed a more permanent solution, and felt more desperate than ever.

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I stayed up all night, fruitlessly. When morning came, I thought getting out of the house might help me find some clarity. I visited the day spa for a massage, and came out feeling a little more tranquil. It didn’t clear my head as much as I had hoped.

“How quickly you forget your pauper, when you catch a prince.” I would have recognized Lance’s voice anywhere. The ice in his voice pierced me. Tears stung my eyes and my heart galloped, then unreasonable rage suddenly coursed through me.

I whirled to face him. He leaned against the side of the building, beautiful as ever, his jaw clenched in a hard line. It infuriated me even more to care that he saw me looking like hell after jags of crying and sleeplessness. I advanced on him with my fists at my side. “You should talk.” I hissed. “It took you less than a day to bed another woman.”

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“That was nothing,” he said, nonchalantly flipping a golden coin.

“What’s good for the gander is no good for the goose? So you came to throw my mistakes in my face?”

He blinked at me and frowned. I’m not sure what kind of reaction he expected, but spitfire must have missed the mark.

“You don’t look well this afternoon,” he observed.

“What do you care?”

“What do I care? That’s a good question! I should have left you in that God forsaken cabin! One night! One shot! And rolling on my way without a care in the world!” He turned and rested his forehead on his arm against the wall.

“You should have!” I threw my hands in the air. “Neither of us would feel a thing! I wouldn’t be stuck here! I wouldn’t be…” I cut myself short, unable to finish the sentence.

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He leaned over me, almost in my face, so close, but not touching me. “Say it. I already know, I heard it all from Darcy, or whatever she wants to call herself.” I recognized Francisca’s pseudonym. He seemed to change the subject mercurially. “I don’t know whether I should admire your balls or be insulted that you think you’re more of a man than I am! Keep me safe? Do you know how ludicrous that is? I can take care of myself!”

“Then do it! Walk away! Go!” I flung my arm out, pointing into the distance.

“I will. She offered me a deal.” He rocked back on his heels. “And all I have to do to get safe passage off this cursed mountain is sign a paper.”

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“Paper?” I repeated suspiciously.  What lawyer did my mother have in her pocket to get contracts drawn up overnight?  

“Your friend explained it all, so your prince can adopt the baby and you can have your perfect little family. She said it’s what you want.”

My mind raced around the dizzying plans, counters, and betrayals within betrayals. A helpless feeling replaced my anger and closed in on me like water over a sinking ship. “So you have your deal,” I sighed forlornly, “what’s holding you up.”

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“I just… I don’t know.” He paused, staring at his toes. “Something didn’t sit right. It runs contrary to everything you ever told me. Does a baby change the game that much?”

“Not really, it just runs out the clock. I had two years to think about what to do when I got back. Now I’m not leaving, and there’s so much more going on than I thought.” I leaned against the wall and he joined me. “I’m happy, in a way. I love it already, and I love that it’s a piece of you. I just don’t know how to manage all the craziness in this town.” We stood side by side and silent as the sunlight slowly faded.

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“Do you trust me?” he finally asked.

I looked at him and he read the question on my face.

“Enough to hear my way, at least?”

I nodded.

“We both run, but in different directions. I don’t know where you go. You don’t know where I go. That way…” he trailed off and I understood. I couldn’t betray his location to Jewel, and he couldn’t reveal mine to my mother.

“I wouldn’t know where to go.”

“The gods roll the dice then, with a random chance no one can try to use logic to find you.”

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“What would I do? Attending my dad’s parties doesn’t exactly translate into any kind of skill I’d care to market.”

“You’ll have to learn, uptown girl, and at least you know how to roast a hot dog on a fire.” He grinned. “Would it really be so bad to get a chance to see what you can accomplish on your own?” He half teased and half dared me with one eyebrow raised.

My eyes narrowed and I tried to think. Could I really just walk away from my parents? From my home town and everyone in it? From Lance? Would I ever see him again? The unknowns and questions seemed to assail me from every side, bringing panic with them. My heart hammered in my throat, cutting off my breath. Lance cut through them all with a hand on my forehead, brushing away my fears as easily as he did my stray hairs. I drank in the sight of him in the sunset, his eyes a steely glitter in contrast to the golden light.

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“Here,” he began, “take my French angel, maybe she’ll bring you good luck.” The coin he had flipped before appeared in his hand from nowhere.

I stared at him curiously for a moment, then reached out to take the offered coin. His warm hands closed on mine and he pulled me upright.

“Come on.” He said, leading me by the hand to the street and hailing a cab. I huddled close to him on the ride to the airport without speaking. Inside, he closed his eyes and swirled his finger in the air a few times before he jabbed it at a map. “Do you see where to go?”

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“Yeah,” I answered.

He dropped his hand and opened his eyes. We faced each other and so many things ran through my head I had no idea which to say. He cupped my face in his hands and kissed me one last time. My senses roared to life, the taste and feel of him speeding along my veins. I clung to his shirt, oblivious to the rest of the world. When our lips parted, our eyes met. “We’re in the hands of the fates now,” he whispered.

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I paid cash for a ticket and got on the plane. I didn’t know if I would ever see him again, or where the chips would fall, but he had slipped me an ace to play under the table, and I was feeling lucky.


Thanks so much to JoAnne65 for letting me borrow and abuse poor Lance to be Ruth’s baby daddy. I loved every minute of him!

Read about Lance’s adventures and the truly epic Kobayne legacy at The Continuing Story of the Kobaynes


Chapter 1.8 – Vanderburg      —       Chapter 2.1 – Coming Back to Life

Chapter 1.8 – Vanderburg

Screenshot-331Get up! How could I possibly move? Get up! I clenched my teeth and swallowed hard. One last rough wipe across my eyes and I struggled to my feet. Hat. Sunglasses. Don’t run, act casual. I meandered down the stairs and pretended to look at the displays. Fake it until you make it. Finally, I made it to the car, to my parents’ house, to the front door closed and locked behind me. I leaned back against my bedroom door as I shut it behind me.

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I changed into some comfy pajamas and sat down at my desk to make a list of my options.  I had barely written anything when the door opened and my father stuck his head in the room.

“Hey, Peanut, how did it go at the doctor’s?” he asked.

“Dad,” I said hesitantly, “I… I don’t want to talk about it.”

He paled and stepped all the way in the room, still in his suit. He leaned against the desk with his arms crossed. “You know, I’ve always said that when you don’t want to talk about it that’s probably a sign that you need to talk about it.”

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I sighed and stood up, only to flop onto one of the chairs in front of the TV. He followed and sat in the opposite chair, leaning toward me with his elbows on his knees.

“Let’s hear it,” he ordered with fatherly authority.

“I’m grounded, I didn’t get clearance,” I stalled.

He saw through my ploy. “I figured that out already. Question is: why? You know we’ll be here for you for all the…” he paused to look for the word that would upset me the least, “treatments.”

“No, it’s, it’s not that. I’m…”

He let out a loud sigh of relief I hadn’t realized he’d been holding in and relaxed into the chair. He interrupted me to say “Thank goodness! God, I don’t think I could go through that again.” He rubbed his hand across his brow. “What is it then?”

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I stared up at the ceiling, suddenly nervous and embarrassed. I couldn’t look him in the eye. What would he think of me? The demands of his political career had kept us from being close, but ever since my illness he had treated me like a porcelain doll that could easily break, not like a person. I felt like his idea of his daughter differed greatly from the rebellious reality, and the truth would shatter all his illusions. It is what it is.

I took a deep breath, “Dad, I’m pregnant.” I closed my eyes to hold in sudden tears. I didn’t want to see the disappointment written on his face.

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He laughed nervously and I sat straight up to stare at him. “Wow, I never thought I’d hear you say that! I thought… I mean, I didn’t know you were… Who’s the…” He couldn’t seem to finish a sentence before jumping to another idea and I could feel my eyes growing wider and wider. He patted my knee. “You know what, it’s okay, it’s not something that going to kill you. We’ll deal with it.”

I burst into tears. Again. I wondered, how do I get off this emotional roller coaster? My father patted my shoulder awkwardly.

“There, there,” he said. “It’ll be okay, you know what? I’ll get Mom, she’ll know what to do.” He stood up to leave the room, but I grabbed his hand as he passed.

“Daddy, what do you think I should do?” I asked tearfully.

He sighed and ran his other hand through his greying hair. “You’re going to have to make your own decision, Peanut, and I’ll support you in it as best as I can.”

So much for fatherly advice, I thought as he flat out ran to get my mother.

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I heard her heels pounding up the stairs, even knowing she came, I couldn’t help but jump when she burst into the room. I didn’t so much fear her response as dread the inevitable criticism and harsh words that I knew would follow.

“Is it true?” she demanded as she came to an abrupt halt just inside the room.

I froze and stared at her wide eyed for a moment before stammering, “Mother! I… well… you see…”

“It’s a simple yes or no question, Ruth,” she said as she advanced across the room. “Is what your father told me true?” She finally stopped a foot from me, her hands gripped my shoulders firmly and her intent gaze bored into me.

I broke the look by dropping my head to examine my toes. “Yes,” I whispered, “I… I’m sorry. I know I’m ruining all your plans.” The persistent lump re-appeared in my throat and brought a knot in my stomach with it this time.

“Damn it! If you had just done what I’d asked you’d have it made! But, no, you had to go screwing around with some nobody!” she shouted.

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As usual, my mother managed to bring out the worst in me. I brushed her hands off my shoulders and pointed a finger at her. “You should be happy for me! All this time, I thought I would never have a baby, that no one in their right mind would want a wife who couldn’t give him a family! This changes everything for me!”

“Oh, God! Please tell me you aren’t planning on doing something even more stupid and running off with that son of a bitch!”

I hadn’t really meant to imply that I would elope with Lance, but I felt so angry and desperate to deny her the control over me she wanted. “Maybe I will! That would make some fantastic headlines! Governor’s daughter goes on the lam with scoundrel! Maybe we’ll escape to some exotic island and you’ll never have to worry about me messing up your plots again!”

“God damnit, Ruth! I forbid it! You’re clearly not ready to be a mother! What kind of life would that be for my grandchild?”

“Just fine! Being a bum would be preferable to being your pawn!”

“Would you listen to yourself? What would you do for money? For food? Have you lost your mind?”

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Of course, she was right, and I didn’t intend to do any of that anyway, but I also had no clue what I should do. I didn’t trust her advice either. I sighed heavily. I pressed my hands to my temples, all the screaming had taken its toll and my head started to pound.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” I almost chanted, struggling to suppress the urge to cry again.

She put her hand on my shoulder again, gently this time. “Why don’t you go stay with grandma until the baby comes? Then your dad and I will adopt it and you won’t have to worry about how to take care of it. You can just get on with your life.”

I looked at her, confused. “You want to take my baby away from me?”

“I just want what’s best for you both.”

I turned away and shook my head. “I’m so tired, and my head hurts. Can I just sleep now?”

“Sure, honey, we’ll talk about it again in the morning.” She gave me one last awkward pat before she left the room.

I didn’t know what to do, but I sure as hell knew there was no way I would let my mother take my innocent baby to manipulate and to replace me in her intrigues.

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I woke, nauseated, early the next morning. I decided to visit Fancisca to get some support and advice from my best friend. She seemed to take forever to respond. Just when I lost patience and started to sadly walk away, she answered the door in her bathrobe.

“Ruth!” she said, surprised. “Hey, come in. Do you want coffee? I’ll make some.”

We exchanged pleasantries and eventually sat down to talk in her living room.

“I guess you’re here about Lance,” she ventured.

I looked at her askance, “Yeah, but how do you know about that?” I questioned.

She stared at the coffee table guiltily. “Well, your pictures were in the paper, and I was so upset because I had met him at the Spring Festival and you snatched him out from under me. But you didn’t know, so it’s okay, and then he came by here last night and told me all about how you rejected him. He was so sad, and I just wanted to help him feel better and…” she trailed off, a flush rising on her cheeks.

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I leapt to a quick conclusion. “Oh my God, Franny! You slept with him!” I shouted.

“Hey, you broke it off, you have no grounds to be upset!”

I stood up and started pacing. “Damnit, I only did that so he wouldn’t stick around town! Didn’t he tell you about the trouble with Jewel?”

Her eyes widened. “No. What trouble?” She looked a little pale, as if she would be sick. She didn’t need unwanted attention to reveal her identity.

“It’s complicated! I was only trying to keep him safe. And me. And…” I flopped back down on the couch. “That’s what I really came here to talk about, Francisca, he knocked me up.” I shook my head and stared into space.

“What?! How? I thought…”

“I thought so, too, so I didn’t even think I had to take any precautions, but the doctor said she ran the test twice.”

“Oh God, what a mess! What are you going to do?”

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“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“What did your mother say?”

“She wants to take my baby! You know, they tried and tried and never had another, so it’s like some kind of warped dream come true for her.”

“Isn’t that what they did in the old days? To hide the scandal?”

“Yes, but I can’t let that happen! What if I never have another one, either? I can’t let her take it! I just don’t know what to do.” I sighed. “It’s just too much for me to handle alone, Franny. Trying to protect Lance and me from Jewel, and now from my own mother, too. I don’t know where to turn.” Tears ran silently down my cheeks again.

She came to sit next to me on the couch and hugged me. “We’ll figure something out.” We didn’t talk for a few minutes while I cried on her shoulder. Finally, she spoke. “Ruth, I think I have a plan, but you’re going to hate it.”

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“What is it?” I asked.

She stood up and went to look out the window, toward town. “Jewel, really, can’t touch you. Your parents have too much money and power for her to take on. But to fight your mom, that’s a different story. You have only one way to go over her head.”

I knew in which direction her thoughts pointed, and I didn’t like it one bit. I didn’t have any other ideas though. Lance couldn’t afford to waste time helping me, and probably no interest in doing so. Evidence suggested I had meant less to him than I had thought. I pushed that painful thought away to deal with later. I needed to focus on taking care of my little one by any means necessary, even distasteful ones.

Francisca laid out her plan and told me exactly what to do. “I always liked the idea of us being sisters,” she finished. I sighed. What other choice did I have?

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“I was surprised to get your call,” Sebastian said as he slid onto the barstool next to me. I had already ordered myself a drink before he arrived, he wouldn’t know I hadn’t had any alcohol.

I turned my head toward him with a smile. “But you came,” I put my hand on his. “I wasn’t sure you would.”

“How could I stay away? Nobody else can understand how much I miss my sister, but you’re her best friend. You’re right here in the trenches with me.”

I looked away and guzzled my pretend drink, signalling the bartender to get me another of the same. “I miss her like crazy. I thought, wherever she is, that it might make her happy if I forgave you.”

He ordered a beer and played with the bottle while we talked. “I never planned to run out and cheat on you that way. I was just a kid, too, you know. It was too hard to say no when they’re all so determined. It took me a long time to realize that it had nothing to do with me, really.”

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“I understand. All those girls hope for a Cinderella story and think throwing themselves at you is the way to get it.” I stared at my drink in hopes it could keep me from rolling my eyes at his sense of entitlement and my own hypocrisy. I couldn’t decide which I found more revolting. 

“Yeah,” he agreed.

I exhaled in relief, he seemed to be buying it. “Have you learned how let them down yet?”

He laughed. “Sometimes,” he shrugged. “I can be a little more discriminating. But I don’t really have any reason to.”

I sighed loudly for effect and downed my drink again. “Oh, Bash, how long do I have to wait for you to grow up?”

He looked at me side eyed. “I seem to remember you enjoying your freedom, too, Roo.”

“Yeah, as it turns out, I feel differently when I find out I’m nothing more than yet another notch on someone’s belt. I’d like, just once, to mean something to someone. You know what I mean?”

He shook his head, “Are you losing touch with your independent streak? Turning into a girly girl?” He laughed at his own joke.

“Whatever.” I pushed my glass away. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Let’s just dance and let it all go.”

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He loved to dance, and I knew it. We moved together, closer and closer, as the night went on and I pretended to get progressively more drunk. Closing time finally came and the proprietor threw us out.

I wrapped an arm around his neck and faked a stagger and a slur. “My mother’s gonna kill me, she’s still pissed off at me.”

“Come home with me,” Sebastian wrapped an arm around my waist. “You can sleep in Francisca’s room, she wouldn’t mind.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yeah, it will be fine. I’ll be a gentleman.” He lied, but I pretended to let him play me. I walked a fine line, neither too hard nor too easy to get.

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He drove me back to where he still lived with his parents. I clung to him on the stairs as if afraid to fall. We giggled and he hushed me. Just like old times, only he didn’t have to connive to get me alone. He showed me into Francisca’s old room.

“Help me get this,” I said, raising my hair with one hand and pretending to flounder at reaching the back of my dress with the other.

He breathed loudly and heavily on my neck as he pulled down the zipper. Only the chain kept the dress from sliding to the floor. Predictably, his mouth closed on my neck and his hands slipped across my bare skin, around to the front to paw at me.

“Bash, no, I can’t…” I feigned resistance. My heart pounded and I suddenly had misgivings. Years ago, the first time around, he would have had me thrilled and melting, but I this time anxiety gripped me. I wondered what was wrong with me.

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“Baby, it’s been too long since I had you.” His lips moved up my neck to suck on my earlobe. One of his hands drifted down as he ground his hips against me. I could feel how badly he wanted it. “It used to be so good. I always took care of you, didn’t I?”

I turned around to face him, letting my dress fall, and wrapped my arms around his neck. “You’ll break my heart again.” I said softly.

“I won’t,” he promised before kissing me hungrily. That, at least, held true. He couldn’t break what I couldn’t give him.

I didn’t feel at all the way I thought I would. I got no relief from finally doing what everyone seemed to think I should, no familiar longing, no sense of homecoming. His hands and lips should have had me quivering, but my heart pounded from nerves, not lust. I told myself, It’s only a few minutes. I closed my eyes and pretended to be somewhere else.


Chapter 1.7 – Out of Time    —    Chapter 1.9 – Cold as Ice