Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thursday's Featured Sleep Over Novel (11/14/13)


(Faces of Evil #3)




Agent Jess Harris is back in another thrilling installment of Debra Webb's Faces of Evil series.

Jess is ready to start the next chapter in her life as the new deputy chief of Birmingham's major crimes division. But with her first love, Chief of Police Dan Burnett, acting as her new boss, it looks like Jess won't be able to put the past behind her that easily.

Jess has decided to focus all of her attention on work when a celebrated ballet instructor is found dead by one of her students. Though Jess's instincts tell her otherwise, the death is ruled an accident, and the case is assigned to another division. Still, Jess can't shake the feeling that there's more to the story, and her investigation leads her into the worlds of Birmingham's gang culture and its powerful elite.

Now Jess's investigation has dug a little too deep, and there's a target painted on her own forehead. Will she be able to solve the crime before her own life is in jeopardy?

Cotton Avenue, Birmingham, Alabama
Monday, July 26, 2:45 p.m.

I need an estimate on time of death as soon as possible."
The young doctor who Jess suspected was new to Jefferson County's coroner's office shot her a look from his kneeling position next to the victim. "Chief Harris, I just got here. There's an order to the steps I'm required to take."
Definitely new. Once he'd played his part at enough crime scenes he would understand that there was nothing orderly about murder.
Jess rearranged her lips into a smile that was as far from patient as the harried expression on the inexperienced ME's face. "I'm well aware of those steps, Doctor, but"—she glanced down the long center hall to ensure herself that Sergeant Harper was successfully keeping the potential witnesses away from the French doors and windows that overlooked the mansion's palatial gardens—"I have six little girls out back who are in various stages of hysteria and their mothers are chomping at the bit to take them home. I need time of death so I can question them with some reasonable grasp on the timeline we're dealing with here."
Before their mothers got any antsier and decided to lawyer up, Jess kept to herself.
The fact was she had heard enough rumors about the typical dance mom mentality to understand that once the shock of this tragedy wore off, things would change. Not only would lawyers be called in but the ladies would close ranks to protect whatever secrets they felt compelled to keep, particularly if those secrets carried any ramifications whatsoever on their daughters' placement on the food chain of this exclusive dance studio.
Technically, Jess was supposed to ask if they wanted to have their attorneys present during questioning, but mere technicalities had never hampered her before. With the level of panic among the girls as well as their mothers when Jess first arrived, who would be surprised if she failed to ask if one or more wanted their attorney present?
Unmoved by Jess's explanation, Doctor What's-his-name shifted his attention back to the victim sprawled in an unnatural manner on the unforgiving marble floor. "Like I said, there are steps. I'll get to that one momentarily."
Jess pressed her lips together to prevent saying something she would regret. What was it about this younger generation that prompted such flagrant disrespect? She hitched her bag higher on her shoulder. When she was his age, early thirties she guessed, Jess would never have sassed her elders. She wouldn't do that now, for pity's sake. The notion that she was nearly a decade older than the ME was considerably depressing, but it was a reality she'd learned to deal with since whizzing past the dreaded forty milestone.
Whoever said that sixty was the new thirty was so very full of crap. Forty wasn't even the new thirty.
Well—she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose—there wasn't a thing she could do about getting older. The insolence, however, she refused to stand for. Just because the still-wet-behind-the-ears ME was cute didn't mean she intended to ignore his attitude. "Excuse me ..." He gazed up at her with egregious reluctance. She lifted her eyebrows in question. "Doctor ...?"
"Schrader. Dr. Harlan Schrader."
"Well, Dr. Schrader, I understand you have steps, but if you would kindly just get your little thermometer out of your nifty bag and give me an approximate time of death I promise I'll be out of your way." She propped her lips into a smile she hoped wasn't too blatantly forged and added the perfunctory magic word, "Please."
"Okay." He held up his gloved hands in a show of dramatic surrender. "I'll do that right now."
"Thank you, Dr. Schrader."
Jess stepped to the door and surveyed the activity beyond the official vehicles cluttering the cobblestoned drive that encircled the massive fountain in front of the house. The historic mansion sat in the middle of seven elegant and rare acres. With any luck the towering oak and pecan trees with their low-slung branches prevented street traffic from identifying the official vehicles ominously gathered. At the street, BPD uniforms guarded the gated entrance to the property in an effort to keep the curious and the newshounds at bay once word hit the airwaves. Having the press show up in droves, and in this posh neighborhood they definitely would, complicated any investigation. Frankly, she was surprised the impressive residence didn't come with its own private security team. Oddly, there was no security, not even at the ornate, towering entry gate, and no housekeeping staff—at least not today.
The crime scene techs had already documented the scene with photographs and video. Prints and trace materials were being collected now in hopes of discovering some sort of usable evidence. Sergeant Harper had gotten the call from BPD's finest at one forty-eight. He and Lieutenant Prescott had rushed over without mentioning that as of today they were no longer assigned to Crimes Against Persons. Suited Jess just fine. Sitting on her laurels until a case was assigned to her new SPU, Special Problems Unit, wasn't how she'd wanted to start off her first week in the department.
Then again, foul play had not been established in this case as of yet. Jess considered the position of the body in the foyer next to the grand staircase. It appeared the victim, Darcy Chandler, had fallen over the upstairs railing to her death. Or she'd jumped. Either way, her death was, to their knowledge thus far, unaccompanied and obviously of a violent nature. An investigation was standard protocol.
When she first arrived Jess had followed the techs up the stairs and checked the landing. Her attention wandered there now. The hardwood floor was clear of debris and substances that might have posed a trip hazard or made it slippery. The railing didn't meet the height criteria for current building codes, but with historic homes, and this one dated back to the mid-1800s, features like the railing were grandfathered in. A good thing for those who appreciated history, not so good for Ms. Chandler.
The only odd aspect of the scene Jess had noted so far was that Ms. Chandler's very expensive fuchsia-colored Gucci pumps, which exactly matched the elegant sheath she wore, sat next to the railing on the second floor. The careful placement gave the appearance that she had removed the shoes and positioned them just so as if she feared scarring her favorite pair of designer shoes while taking her fatal dive. Judging by the meticulous organization of her closets as well as the pristine condition of the house in general, the victim was unquestionably a perfectionist to some degree. That could very well explain the decision to remove and set aside her shoes. Maybe. But in Jess's opinion the shoes merited a closer look.
"I would estimate time of death," Dr. Schrader announced, drawing Jess's attention back to him as he checked his wristwatch, "at between twelve noon and one."
Less than two hours before the arrival of the BPD. "Thank you, Dr. Schrader."
The glance he cast her way advised that her gratitude was not appreciated any more than her pushy approach had been. She'd have to find a way to get back in his good graces another time. Maybe a gift certificate from one of the trendy shops in the Galleria would do the trick since the polo, sports jacket, and stone-washed jeans he wore could have been stripped right off the mannequins adorning the storefronts of said shops.
Right now, however, a woman was dead and that was Jess's top priority. She could make nice with Dr. I'm-Too-Sexy-for-Manners later.
Armed with the vital piece of information she needed, she headed for the French doors at the end of the long hall that cut through the center of one of Birmingham's oldest and grandest homes. She squared her shoulders, cleared her throat, and exited to the terrace that flowed out into the gardens designed by some master gardener who hailed from England. And who, according to a bronze plaque that boasted the bragging rights, descended from the gardener of the royal family.
Only the rich and self-proclaimed fabulous would display the pedigree of the guy who cut the grass and watered the roses. Where Jess lived she was lucky if the guys who wielded the lawn mowers and weed whackers spoke English much less shared their pedigrees. That information would likely get them deported. Not that Jess minded one way or the other as long as the job was done properly. Considering she spent the better part of her formative years in a carousel of foster homes, she wasn't one to judge.
Sergeant Chet Harper met Jess just outside the grand doors. "I don't know how much longer Lieutenant Prescott can keep the girls calm and their mothers compliant. One's already demanded to know if they're suspects."
Jess resisted the urge to groan. "Thank you, Sergeant."
Prescott, the girls, and their mothers were seated in the butterfly garden. As soon as Harper had called, Jess had instructed him to see that the girls did not discuss the incident among themselves or with anyone else. Not an easy task. Particularly once the mothers had started to arrive and to demand to see their children. The girls all had cell phones and had called their mothers while the assistant teacher called 911.
Guess who showed up first? Not the police or EMS. Which guaranteed the scene had been contaminated repeatedly by little fingers and feet as well as curious and horrified mothers.
God, she didn't want to think about it. Whether a murder had occurred or not, the scene should be handled with the same vigilant protocol.
"FYI," Harper added with a knowing glance above his stylish Ray-Bans, "Andrea insisted on calling the chief."
Jess did groan this time. Andrea Denton, Chief of Police Daniel Burnett's stepdaughter from his last failed marriage and a survivor from the first case Jess had worked with the Birmingham Police Department scarcely two weeks ago. Funny, this was the third case Jess had supported since returning to her hometown and Andrea had been a part of all three. The poor girl apparently had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I suppose he's coming," Jess commented, trying valiantly not to show her disappointment. There was nothing like having the boss watching over her shoulder on her first official case as a deputy chief. Even if the boss was Dan—a man with whom she had a difficult-to-define off-duty relationship. Leaving the bureau and returning to her hometown was supposed to have uncomplicated her life. Not.
Clearly she had been delusional to believe for one second that she could exist in the same city, much less department, with Dan and avoid complications.
"He is."
Marvelous. "Any luck locating the husband?" Darcy Chandler, the one and only daughter of one of the city's most noteworthy families, was married to some apparently equally famous Russian dancer, now retired and teaching ballet classes to the children of Birmingham's who's who. "What's his name again?"
"Alexander Mayakovsky," Harper reminded her. "Haven't located him yet. His cell still goes straight to voice mail."
"Since this is where he works, he's obviously not at work." Frustration and impatience creased Jess's brow. She consciously forced the lines away. She had enough wrinkles, all of which had taken up residence in all the wrong places on her face. Not that there was a right place, she amended. What she didn't have was the vic's husband. The worst part of working an unattended death, whether accidental, suicide, or homicide, was informing the next of kin.
"Go to the vic's parents. Maybe they'll have some idea where he is. Get as much information as you can before you give them the bad news." As coldhearted as that tactic sounded, it was the only way to glean coherent information in a timely manner. And when a person died some way other than by natural causes, he or she deserved a timely investigation. Since Darcy's parents hadn't shown up, there was reason to believe unofficial word hadn't reached them yet.
That would change very soon.
"Yes, ma'am."
Harper went on his way and Jess steeled herself for entering foreign territory. "You can do this," she murmured.
As she approached the mothers, their prepubescent daughters clinging to their bosoms, all six women started talking at once.
Jess had interviewed every manner of witness and person of interest, including more than her share of sociopaths and a handful of psychopaths, but she'd never dreaded conducting interviews more than she did at this very moment.
Children absolutely, completely, and utterly unnerved her. Give her a run-of-the-mill serial killer any day of the week.

Debra Webb

Debra Webb was born in Scottsboro, Alabama, to parents who taught her that anything is possible if you want it badly enough. She loved telling stories and began writing at age nine.


(March 26, 2013)

Thursday's Featured Author (11/14/13)

Hers to Command

(Verdantia #1)



For some, existence without their mate might seem like the end of their world...
...for the members of Verdantia’s Tetriarch, it would be.

Conte Camliel Aristos deTano, Ari, has long spurned the marriage forced upon him. His contractual bride, Princess Fleur Constante, the beautiful future queen though young and inexperienced, is willing to risk everything, including her own sanity, to save her planet.

The inhabitants of the sentient planet, Verdantia, are poised on the precipice of extinction following a brutal invasion by an off-world, nomadic horde. Verdantia’s capital, Sylvan Mintoth, must have its failing energy shield restored, or the planet is doomed. The Elders know the shield can draw energy from only one thing ~ a very arduous and grueling coupling of two specific people who were pre-chosen by the planet Herself and promised by prearranged marriage contract.

Verdantia draws strength from the duo, but the sentient planet whispers to Ari that a third is necessary ~ Ari’s aide de camp, Visconte Doral deLorion, an angelically handsome, skilled assassin who silently surrendered his heart to Ari long ago.

The trio struggles to make this surprising partnership harmonious, pushing through pride, scars of past abuse, fears of inexperience and distrust. To save Verdantia, they must overcome their individual weaknesses and realize their full potential. Only the Tetriarch and their combined synergy, can harness Verdantia’s immense power to shield its citizens from invasion.

Solar date 4633

      Wind gusted against the camouflaged campaign tent. The creak of stretched canvas and squeak of straining rope made an ever-present accompaniment to the soughing of the evergreens outside. Verdantian Supreme Commander, High Lord Ari DeTano, adjusted the lantern light to better illuminate the huge topographical map covering one taut canvas wall. Ari raked impatient fingers through his dark hair as he studied the large red squares indicating the location of entrenched enemy squadrons relative to his elite Verdantian cavalry and League of Federated Planets’ ground marines.
      Red squares ringed the capital, Sylvan Mintoth, the last populated area still protected by a sigil tower.
     “Doral, we will mobilize to attack on their eastern flank, here at Gryphon’s Dell and here, at Haversome Ferry, as soon as we receive confirmation 3rd Regiment Light Horse is in place.”
     He bridged a thumb and index finger to his temples and rubbed slowly. “On that other matter, don’t create an inter-planetary incident, please. Thanks to the LFP, we fight with hope for the first time in three years. We must have proof there is a traitor among them. We cannot alienate them.”
     Doral glanced up. “Without doubt, the League of Federated Planets’ support has changed the outcome of this war.” Doral’s quiet words competed with the outside sounds of the active military camp. “Regardless, the LFP harbors someone who works against us. I will find proof and eliminate him.”
     Ari eyed him and gave an inward scoff at his continued inability to remain unmoved at the presence of his attaché. Tall and lean, blond and blue-eyed, the reserved young aristo oozed sensual allure and elegant, predatory grace. Doral fit in with the rest of his staff like a panther among tabby cats. Assigned to him for over a year, Doral's deceptively angelic, masculine beauty concealed a lethal assassin and master spy. Ari trusted and respected his taciturn, intensely loyal, junior officer as he had no other in his life. I want him. I cannot have him.
     After years of brutal hand-to-hand fighting, the Verdantians were winning the battle of attrition to regain possession of their planet. In the past year, the strong support of the LFP’s forces had reversed the fortunes of war.
     As a battleground, Verdantia thwarted an army outfitted with high tech. Nothing worked. The energies from the vast underground diaman pipes neutralized technological devices. The crystalline deposits emitted a bewildering combination of electro-magnetic and harmonic energies and rendered any form of technology or communications devastatingly unreliable. Verdantia possessed only one planet-side spaceport located in an area devoid of the diaman pipes.
    The planet, herself, stripped warfare to its most elemental. It pitted the strength of man against man. Mounted cavalry and foot soldiers fought armed with sabers and crossbows, battleaxes and pikes. Barbaric, brutal, hand-to-hand fighting determined the outcome of each battle. It was savage. It was archaic.
      With a growl of frustrated anger, Ari crossed his arms over his chest. “We have re-taken the Silveterra and Guardo sigil towers. If they were operational again we could cut off the Haarb’s main supply route. Damn them to the seven hells for their butchery. Without a female partner I can’t work the magicks required to restore the diamantorre.”
     Doral reacted with uncustomary heat. “After the wholesale slaughter of our women, I hope hell reserves a special place for the Haarb.”
     Ari pushed back his grief, an exercise he had perfected through constant repetition. He mourned for his slain brothers and sisters, for the enormity of Verdantia’s loss. Generations of men and women carrying the most elite magickal bloodlines lay heaped in unmarked, mass graves. Grimly, he eyed the map where constellations of black stars indicated whole towns and estates emptied of their populations, either dead or enslaved.
     “Stop! Halt!”
     The sentry’s loud cry drew his second in command to the door of the tent. Doral pushed the heavy canvas flap aside and stepped out before looking back over his shoulder. “A L’anziano courier-rider. Yannis Melcom.”
     Ari joined Doral. The flickering light of hissing torches revealed a disturbance.
     “High Lord! High Lord!” The small, grizzled rider threw himself off his staggering horse and tried to muscle his way through several stout guards. He had brutally used his horse. The raw-boned black swayed on his feet, his head dropping inches from the ground as his sides heaved, sucking air into tortured lungs. With an awful groan, the animal's knees folded and he buckled to the dirt.
     “Let me go! Let. Me. Go! I bear an urgent message for the High Lord.”
     Ari knew him – and Jox, his horse. This cursed war. It takes everything dear. First the old man’s wife, now . . . “Let him through Sergeant Major. I know this man.”
     The aged, weather-beaten rider staggered to within a few feet of him. “High Lord, I carry an urgent message from Elder Patricio. I must speak with you immediately.” He glared belligerently at the crowd gathered. “It is for your ears only.”
     Doral glanced at Ari. “I’ll be out here if you need me, and I’ll see what can be done for the horse.” Doral had been with him long enough to know he would want the animal saved, if possible.
     He nodded tightly and motioned the messenger toward the tent. “Inside, Yannis.” Holding back the tent flap for the old rider and indicated a campstool. “Sit before you fall in front of me like your horse.”
   Tears streaked through the dust caked on the old, grizzled rider’s face. Yannis covered his face with a trembling hand. “Ah, my Jox. Please forgive me. Forgive me, lad.”
     He understood Yannis’ heartache. A horseman to the soles of his riding boots, the adolescent Ari had focused his dreams and passions on continuing his family’s proud heritage. For generations, the House deTano had bred the finest of purebred horses. For him, the dream would never be. Elder Patricio, the head of the L’anziano, had seen to that long before the Haarb arrived.
      Crossing to a low table, he poured a cup of water. “Here, drink this.”
     Accepting the clay cup from Ari’s hand the old rider downed its contents. Visibly pulling himself together, Yannis wiped his dirty face on his even dirtier sleeve. In an urgent undertone, the messenger forced words through dry, cracked lips. “Your Lordship, you must be in Sylvan Mintoth by this time tomorrow. The sigil, the diamantorre, is failing.”
     Ari regarded him sharply. “Say that again.”
    “Sylvan Mintoth’s sigil is failing. Elder Patricio requires you to perform the Great Rite. Your Lordship, it is Sylvan Mintoth! You must go.”
   Ari turned away, slamming the water pitcher to the table. Patricio has some self-serving reason for summoning me. Magisters deGregio and deFlores reside at Sylvan Mintoth, both capable of performing the Great Rite. How like him to use the one reason I cannot ignore. The High Enclave and the palace cannot fall to the Haarb – not now. Damn the man to the seven hells. I must go.
     “Yes, I will go.”
      Striding to the opening, Ari jerked the flap back and motioned for Doral to join him.
    “Doral, pack my saddle bags with my travel kit and tack up Grey. Have him ready in fifteen minutes.” He could read the question in Doral’s steady gaze.
    “Sylvan Mintoth’s diamantorre, the sigil, fails. Patricio summons me to perform the Great Rite. I think a single rider stands the best chance of remaining undetected infiltrating the Haarb lines. I will ride alone.”
The muscles in Doral’s jaw tightened at Ari's quietly murmured words. His blue eyes became arctic. He nodded curtly. “High Lord, what weapons?”
     “I carry my poniard.” Ah, that did not sit well.
   “Sir, you cannot ride out armed with only a dagger. It is suicide. The Haarb's elite divisions ring Sylvan Mintoth. They continually patrol the entry gates.”
    Ari felt a smile barely move his lips. “If my presence is discovered I am a dead man no matter how well armed. I shall just have to be very clever.”
     Doral's level stare challenged him. “I will ride with you.”
     “And risk both of us?” He shook his head rejecting Doral's statement. “Just do as I ask.”
     Doral’s were eyes bold with displeasure. “As you command – sir.” The honorific was slow in coming.
    He watched Doral’s rigidly silent departure. He wouldn’t put it past the man to follow him anyway. I don’t know why I pretend to give him orders. Shaking his head, he turned back to the old rider “So, Yannis, who will partner me in the rite?”
     The grizzled old man shifted uncomfortably and mumbled something under his breath.
     “Speak up, man. I can’t hear you if you mumble.”
     “Princess Fleur Constante.”
     Of course, our Principessa Royale. Ari’s fists clenched and unclenched. “Manipulations, plots and schemes, the hallmarks of Elder Patricio. Why am I even surprised?” Taking a deep breath, he let go of his anger.
     Crossing the tent, he began to strip, donning dark colored riding clothes. He raised his head and regarded the elderly rider.
     “Yannis, stay in my tent and recover before you go back to Sylvan Mintoth. Ask Doral for anything you need. You may take one of our remuda mounts for your return.”
     “Thank you, High Lord. But if my Jox can be fit to travel in a few days, I would not part with him. I’ll lead him back on foot if I must.”
     Ari looked up sharply.
     The old rider shrugged in apology. “He is all I have left, sir.”
     He had pulled on his dark, long sleeved shirt, black leather leggings and riding boots. The addition of his hooded black cloak completed his transition into a dark wraith. Hearing the messenger’s words, Ari’s closed expression softened. “I expect to see you and Jox at Sylvan Mintoth in a few days, Yannis. May the Goddess shine her glory on you.”
    Ari strode through the door flap and crossed the yard to where Doral held his gray gelding, saddled and ready to travel. “You are ever efficient, Doral. What would I do without you?” He smiled his thanks and stamped down much warmer feelings that surfaced unbidden.
     “You would manage – sir.”
     Doral’s clipped statement drew another wry smile from him. “Perhaps, but not nearly so comfortably. You take good care of me, Visconte. I notice.”
     “On the rare occasions you allow it, my Lord.” Doral looked off, grim.
     Swinging up easily onto his horse, he gathered the reins into one hand. As Grey sidled with pent up energy, he stroked his dappled neck. “You have a very important job to do, my fellow. I need all the strength and speed you possess.” He caught Doral’s eyes with a quick nod. “You are my acting commander, Visconte.”
     He turned Grey toward the eastern reaches and Sylvan Mintoth and touched his heels to the horse’s flanks. The well-trained mount lept forward as if the demon-wolves from the seven hells of Jurossa nipped at his heels.
     Doral felt the old rider move to stand next to him. Together they watched horse and rider fade into the brightening east. Yannis turned to Doral.
     “Will he reach Sylvan Mintoth in time?”
     He tore his gaze away from Ari.
    “Have no doubt old man. That horse of his will die for him.” He couldn’t help his snort of self-derision. Looking back toward the direction of Sylvan Mintoth, his eyes strained for one more glimpse. “And he is surrounded with men just like his horse.” 

Patricia A. Knight is the pen name for an eternal romantic who lives in Dallas, Texas.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tuesday's Featured Sleep Over Novel (11/12/13)

The Boyfriend

(Jack Till #2)


Jack Till, who has retired from the LAPD after a respected career as a homicide detective, now works as a private investigator, comfortable chasing down routine cases while visiting his 24-year-old daughter, Holly, who has Down Syndrome. But when the parents of a recently murdered young girl, about Holly's age, ask for his help when the police come up empty, Till reluctantly takes the case.

It was discovered after her death that the victim had been working as a high-class prostitute, and the police are content to assume she was killed by a client, common in such a dangerous line of work. Yet as Till digs deeper, he realizes that the victim is just one of several young female escorts killed in different cities in the exact same way -- all had strawberry blonde hair, and all were shot with a 9mm handgun in the sanctity of their apartments.

Till must find his way around the tawdry and secretive online escort business, and decode ads placed by young women who all use false names, sometimes advertise using other women's pictures, and move from city to city every few months. Yet when Till is finally able to catch up with the killer, he finds that the man he's after is far more dangerous and volatile than he ever could have imagined. As the body count rises, Till must risk his life to find this seductive and ruthless killer whose murderous spree masks a far deadlier agenda.

Since Catherine had met Joey two months ago, it seemed she’d never had enough time for the amount of living she wanted to do. But today she wasted nearly twenty minutes standing on the sidewalk outside Ivy at the Shore waiting to have lunch with two friends from college, Caitlyn Raines and Megan Stiles. They arrived together in Caitlyn’s Mercedes, a car Catherine thought of as not a real Mercedes. It was the type that was no bigger than a Honda, but it had a three-pointed Mercedes symbol in about five inches of chrome.

Seeing the other two come together in that car started things wrong for Catherine. She’d had to drive alone from the Valley. There was the hint that they had been together for some time and shared information, and that they would be able to talk about her on the way home afterward, or even go on to continue their afternoon without her.

They were the sort of friends who had not been friends out of affection or admiration of one another’s good qualities. They had all been attractive—two of them hot, in the argot of that time and place.  Caitlyn had been the Scots-Irish girl with coal black hair and blue eyes, big breasts, and an undiscriminating smile, and Megan was the tall natural blond, so they had both been sought-after, but Catherine had not. She had been born with strawberry blond hair, a face that was pleasant but not striking, and eyes that were hazel, not blue. They had all done the work in high school that was necessary to score well on the standard tests and get them certified as college material.

At UCLA they had all pursued impressive-sounding academic programs that were genuinely demanding and edifying but were not designed to lead to any sort of future compensation. They had met in a freshman dormitory and been selected together for pledging at Sigma Tau Tau, a sorority filled with young women of similar promise and limitations. Their friendship had been dictated by the situation, the role they were doomed to play in that place. They had competed against each other for three more years.

The competition was unavoidable. If you were in a university program you had a grade point average, whether you wanted one or not.  And to refuse to divulge yours was an admission that it was lower than someone else’s. And when you went to parties or university social events, it was always painfully obvious who was of great value to the opposite sex, and who was the second choice, and who was the one being settled for by the boy who was shortest or a little bit chubby.  These were primal competitions of the crudest sort. The males were choosing on the basis of the females’ pure mating potential. Although the males had no idea that was what they were doing, they chose in absolute sincerity. In general, by the time males made any sort of approach they had already been drinking. Nuance was lost. They looked, and they wanted. Or they didn’t want.

Catherine’s few victories in this competition were due to a particular, odd circumstance. Megan Stiles, the tall blond, was actually over six feet tall in bare feet, a woman whom some short—or even average—men wouldn’t approach. She was a golden prize, but it took a man with a great deal of confidence to believe he could interest her.  So there were evenings when she stood around a lot, surreptitiously looking over the heads of not quite suitors and hoping for somebody of the right height to come into view.

Caitlyn too had her solitary evenings. She had a loud voice, and a louder laugh, so on a couple of occasions a man who had immediately drifted toward the black hair and the white skin and the seductive shape seemed to drift away, his ears battered by the voice.

Usually Catherine had won the GPA and academic achievement events in the competition, but lost the social and romantic events.  Having Megan and Caitlyn show up together reminded her of all of those disappointments, and she wished she had said she was too busy for lunch today.

“Hi,” she said as they let the valet take the miniature Mercedes and Caitlyn slipped the car check into her wallet.

“Been here long?” That was worse than being late. It showed Caitlyn knew she was late, but didn’t plan to apologize.

“Not too long,” Catherine said. “I got here right at twelve-thirty.”  Twelve-thirty was the time of their reservation, and the time they’d all promised to be here.

Caitlyn and Megan leaned in and delivered air kisses. Catherine hoped that her perfume and hair smelled as fresh and floral as theirs, but she couldn’t tell what they thought.

“My God, Cathy,” said Megan. “It’s been how long? At least two years.”

“At least,” Catherine said. She had arrived at UCLA seven years ago having never been allowed to be anything but a Cathy. She had made a conscious decision to be a Catherine. The refusal of her friends, her supposed sisters, ever to respect or even acknowledge the change had always infuriated her. She’d been sure it was a competitor’s ploy to rattle an opponent. If there was a group photograph, she would always be identified as “Cathy” Hamilton. If there was a roster or listing of names, one of her friends would alter it to make her “Cathy.” At one time, if they had greeted her this way, she would have said, “Actually, it’s Catherine.” But she found she had outgrown that, as she had outgrown them. “Shall we go in?”

She held the door and let the others inside. For an instant she hoped they would see some hint of irritation on the face of the maître d’—some disapproval for being half an hour late. But no, as long as they looked the way they did, they would be permitted to behave the way they wished. He was delighted to lead them to an excellent table where they had a view across the street at the ocean, and his other customers had a view of them.

They sat in the light, airy atmosphere of the restaurant and ordered the things that the ocean suggested to the appetite—crab cakes and sole and swordfish, which they ate the way they had eaten in college, sparingly, only tasting, with no bread and salads with no dressing.  They drank iced tea unsweetened. The bit of caffeine-helped burn off weight, and heavily iced drinks made the body use calories to warm them to body temperature.

Caitlyn said, “Well, here we all are, divorced and unattached almost four years after graduation.”

Catherine had never been married, but she felt no reason to correct her.
“I thought surely you two would be the first ones in our class to have it all and do it all.”

Megan gave Caitlyn a sly look. “I thought you’d be the first one to do it all, anyway.”

Caitlyn gave a little slap to Megan’s forearm. “I hope you meant that in some nice way.”

Catherine said, “How is the movie job?” Caitlyn said, “That was two jobs ago. The whole world got laid off two years ago, not just me. I decided that if studio work was that precarious, it wasn’t for me. I was taking a low salary and working insane hours, thinking I would pay my dues and then move upward.  And it wasn’t fun, either. It was always, ‘Get this one on the phone,’ or ‘Messenger this to that one.’”

“What are you doing now?”

“I’m thinking about going to get an MBA.”

“Ah,” said Catherine, nodding as though she agreed that was a sensible thing to do, although she didn’t. “How about you, Meg?”

“I’m getting ready to open a business.”

“What kind?

“Fashion. I found an opportunity to get some things made cheaply downtown, so I’m doing my own line. I should be ready in the spring.”

More concrete plans that weren’t concrete. Their plans were always specific instead of true, because that was how they had learned to lie.  She knew that if she pressed either of them for details they would invent as many as she could listen to.

Megan made it Catherine’s turn. “And how about you? Are you still in school?”

“No. I’ve been working as assistant to a lawyer whose clients are all businesses. It’s pretty dull. No interesting details of divorces, no suspenseful criminal cases. It’s all just agreements between companies— four copies, signed and countersigned, then filed in the client file.”

“Oh my God, Cathy. You poor thing. How did that happen to you?”

“I had been looking for over a year, and didn’t find anything. I needed a job. There was no other choice. I had to pay my rent and live while I looked for something else, then tried to keep up with my expenses and put a little away.” She laughed. “It’s not like I went to prison. I’m  getting through hard times. When it’s over I’ll look some more.”

They looked at each other. “Good luck.”

Catherine could see that they thought she was making a mistake. To  be an unemployed fashion consultant or unemployed business owner  was better than being a secretary. Better to be something pretentious  and never get a chance to work than to let go of the illusion—the  pose—that they were better than other people. She could see them  moving her down the hierarchy in their minds.

Caitlyn and Megan talked through the rest of the lunch about “losing”  their husbands. She knew that was a lie, like most of what they  said. Women didn’t “lose” husbands, they threw them away. Only  later did they realize what they’d done, and some of them regretted it.  What they regretted was losing the person who had supported them,  but that wasn’t what they felt. They felt the loss of a world where they  could behave in any way they liked, and there would never be any  consequences.

Caitlyn prided herself on being a “spoiled bitch,” and had once  owned a T-shirt that said so in sequins. Catherine wondered what  Caitlyn would think of a man who had a T-shirt that said, “Overbearing  Ass.” It became clear that they’d both lost romantic interest  in their husbands after a year or so, and, as Caitlyn put it, “stopped  acting like a little concubine or something.” So the husbands had  moved on, and found somebody else. Caitlyn had made up a story  about how men were selfish and went after every new woman.

Catherine didn’t know if that story ever happened or not. Probably  it did. But it had never happened to anyone she knew. The woman  had simply turned off the affection like a water faucet. Then she  devoted herself to the house, though she didn’t clean or maintain it;  the children, though she saw them for only a couple of hours a day; her friends; and her activities. Sometimes there was an enterprise of  some kind, an almost-business the women conducted, but usually  not. They didn’t give much thought anymore to their husbands, so  their husbands were “lost.”

Catherine didn’t worry about Megan or Caitlyn. They would find  more husbands. They had already learned that it was possible to make  a lot of money in a divorce, and the quicker the divorce came after  the wedding, the easier the money. If the dissolution of the marriage  came really fast, there was almost no emotional investment lost, and  their assets—smooth skin, thick hair, a good figure—sustained little  depreciation.

Catherine took the check. There were a couple of feeble murmurs  that started as a mild protest, then shaded into unenthusiastic thanks.  She had done it because she had heard things in the conversation that  she’d recognized as signs of money trouble. She too had once used  Caitlyn’s “I’m too busy to take a job.” It meant she couldn’t find one.  And Megan’s “My ex-husband is late with the check” meant more  than late. Catherine didn’t care anymore, and so she didn’t begrudge  them their lies.

In her profession, she had heard a lot of excuses like those. There  were very few girls who hadn’t gotten started because whoever was  supposed to be supporting them had stopped.

She went outside with Megan and Caitlyn and exchanged the  usual hugs and near-miss kisses that they had traded since freshman  year. She was acutely aware of the way the three of them looked on  the sunlit sidewalk in front of Ivy at the Shore. As they were at this  moment, three young women who were sophisticated, graceful, and  just reaching the late peak of their beauty, they would have made a  wonderful painting—one head light blond, one strawberry red, one  coal black. As the valet parking attendant brought the little runt of a Mercedes  and the other two got in, Catherine waved. As she watched  them drive off along Ocean Boulevard she thought how nobody in  LA called the place where the land met the ocean “the shore.” And  then, without consciously turning her thoughts in their direction,  she found herself deciding she would never see those two women  again. Everything she had ever wanted to know about them she had  known before graduation. Now, four years later, they were the same,  as they would be forever.

There was no reason to see them again. She handed the valet her  parking receipt, and he ran off to get her car. He came back with the  sleek black Mercedes S600. She had felt glad she had arrived first so they  hadn’t seen the car. Because they were Megan and Caitlyn they would  always assume she’d arrived on time because she drove an old Nissan  or something, and not a car that cost five times what Caitlyn’s had. She  heard a set of police sirens just as the car stopped and the valet got out  and opened the door. She listened, and decided they were moving away.

She drove along Ocean Boulevard toward the end of Montana so she  could get back into west LA. It had been a long lunch. It would be after  three by the time she got home, and four by the time she was ready to  work. She took out her phone and listened to her messages on the speaker.

The first one was an “I can’t help thinking about you all the time”  call. She recognized the voice. Billy? Bobby? It was that kind of name.  He was sweet, and kind of handsome. She would return his call when  she got home. There was an “I saw your pictures on,  and I thought I’d call and see if we could work out a deal.” No, she  thought. If you saw the ad, you saw the prices. Nothing to work out.  “Hi. It’s me, George. I’ll call later to make an appointment.” George  was in his sixties, older than her father. But he was exactly the kind  of regular that made girls rich. He was a widower who missed his wife and loved women. The old ones were gentle and patient, much  easier on the body, and George gave her big tips.

She drove into the short driveway and waited while the heavy iron  gate rose to admit her, then drove in, pressed the button to close it,  and swung into her parking space. Catherine stepped to the inner  door and went up into the first-floor lobby. There was a thick carpet,  so her high heels made no noise. She stepped into the elevator, and  went up to her apartment.

When she walked in, she could sense he was in the bedroom, even  though he was very quiet. It sounded as though when he’d heard the  door open he had stopped to listen to be sure it was Catherine. “Hi,”  she said, and stepped into the bedroom.

He smiled. “Hi.” He had a great smile—boyish and unguarded,  and yet there was a sly, knowing look in the big, beautiful eyes that  revealed he was a really bad boy. It made her want to jump on him.  She stepped toward him and saw he had a gym bag half open on the  other side of the bed, and he had folded clothes inside.

“Are you leaving?”

“I think I’ve taken enough advantage of your hospitality. Thanks,  Catherine. Thanks so much for putting up with me.”

“And for putting out with you?” She shrugged.

His smile renewed itself. “That too. No, that especially.”

She stepped closer. “I forgot to tell you the meter was running.  You owe me seventy thousand roses. Just kidding.”

“If I had that much, I’d be happy to give it to you,” he said. He sat  on the bed and put something else into the gym bag.

“Did you find an apartment?”

“I’d never move out for that,” he said. “I finally agreed to take that  job in Phoenix. I’ll be back from time to time on weekends, and the  job will end in the late spring.” “Okay,” she said. “Sounds fine.”

“It gets a little hot for construction around then, and the jobs taper  off.” He reached down, picked up a nearly empty two-quart plastic  bottle of Pepsi, took a drink, and offered it to her.

As she looked at him it was unbearable to imagine the Phoenix sun  shining down on a construction site, ruining his unlined, beautiful  complexion. She accepted the bottle, took a drink, and handed it  back. “Ugh. That’s real. I thought it was diet.”

He took another deep draft, emptying it; set it down; then went  back to packing his gym bag.

She walked into the bathroom and took off her new skirt, then  the expensive silk blouse. “Will you send me your phone number  and address?”

“Of course. But you’ve already got my cell number and e-mail.  Those will always be good.”

While Catherine was in the bathroom he took a roll of duct tape  out of his bag and tore off a long strip. He reached in again and pulled  out a Beretta M92 pistol. He pushed the muzzle of the pistol into  the neck of the big plastic bottle and taped it there. He said, loudly  enough for her to hear, “I also plan to see you whenever I can get  back for a visit.”

“Make sure you call a couple of days ahead. I’d hate to have you  come and be too busy to see you.” She regretted having said that. It  had just been a way to sting him for leaving her.

“I will.”

She came out of the bathroom barefoot, dressed in a bra and a  thong, passed by him, and stepped to her closet to hang up her lunch  clothes.

He stepped close behind her, raised the pistol and the plastic bottle,  and pulled the trigger. There was a smothered pop sound, not much louder than their voices. The second shot was slightly louder because of  the hole in the bottle, but still not enough to worry him. He watched  her collapse onto the carpet, then touched her carotid artery. Dead.

He went back to searching the apartment. In-call escorts didn’t  have time to rush off to the bank every time they accumulated a lot  of cash, and they couldn’t deposit big sums anyway. At least Catherine  couldn’t. She had no way to explain to the IRS where she was getting  more than two thousand dollars a day. He had found about thirty-five  thousand in the apartment while she had been out with her friends  today. Predictably, she had hidden it in her bedroom. He wished he  could search the rest of the apartment thoroughly, but the moment  he had pulled the trigger, he had given up that option. It was already  late afternoon, and as he took her purse from the bed and pulled out  the cash in her wallet, he could hear her cell phone buzzing.

While he’d searched the apartment he had been cleaning it too.  Now he stopped searching and turned to cleaning in earnest. Lately,  he had become extremely careful about the way he left a woman. He  made certain that there were no fingerprints, hairs, or fibers. There  were people in this world who were too dumb to think of all the devices  that were able to prove that a person had been somewhere. He  always cleaned out the drains—even opening the traps where there  were hairs in the pipes. He vacuumed the floors and the furniture,  emptied the canister into a trash bag, and took the bag with him. He  laundered the sheets, pillowcases, and blankets. None of the women  he left had ever given her apartment a more thorough cleaning than  he had.

He knelt behind Catherine’s body; unclasped the gold chain around  her delicate white neck, carefully freeing a couple of strawberry blond  hairs from the clasp; then went to her right ankle and unclasped the  matching anklet. He put them into his pocket. He picked up his gym bag, set it on the bed, unwrapped the duct  tape from the gun, and removed the bottle. Then he put them into  the bag, zipped it shut, and went to the bedroom door. He looked  back once. It was a shame. She was so much more beautiful than she  knew, and so kind. He picked up his trash bag, went out to the hall  door, stopped there and listened, then opened it a crack and looked  out to be sure the hall was clear. He locked the door and walked out  the front entrance toward his car.

Once he was on the road, he felt confident. He knew that if the cops  found a man’s hair, prints, or clothing fiber in Catherine Hamilton’s  room, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. There were probably  forty guys a week leaving physical traces of themselves in that apartment,  and none of them had any lasting relationship with her.

She had been very pretty, with bright catlike eyes and that strawberry  blond hair. She’d had her hair done in a salon that was full of  movie actresses who were still perfect specimens and hadn’t gotten  famous enough to have the hairdressers go to their houses yet. She  had fitted in. She was one of those girls who had started taking money  for sex because it was so easy that one night the temptation had just  pulled her in. She never took drugs or even drank, so that wasn’t even a  small part of her decision. She had gone to college, and she was smart.

She had been seduced by arithmetic. If she had been a lawyer, she  could have charged clients about four hundred an hour, and given  back two hundred and fifty on office rent, taxes, secretaries, and student  loans. Instead she charged three hundred an hour, and about  once a month she’d buy some new thongs and thigh-high stockings.  She’d told him once she liked men well enough close-up, so the job  hadn’t been a huge chore.

Selling sex was a profession that put girls in a position to control  men—promising, teasing, coaxing. It made some girls jump to conclusions. Because they could manipulate men so easily, they imagined  they must be smarter or stronger. A lot of them died of that.  Catherine had been wiser. She had lived within the bounds of reality,  not getting overconfident or foolhardy, and not taking anything for  granted.

Her only problem was that she had run into him. She had liked  him and let him sleep in her apartment for a few weeks while he was  in Los Angeles doing a job. He had told her that when the job was  done he would move on. He hadn’t told her that the nature of his job  made it necessary that when he moved on he would have to kill her.

As he got on the eastbound freeway he accelerated rapidly and  changed lanes to place his car behind one truck and in front of the  next. In a minute, by gauging the speeds of the other cars on the  freeway and inserting his between two of them to his left, he found  the perfect speed in the perfect lane and relaxed. He did not think of  Catherine again. She was gone.

Perry is the author of 20 novels including the Jane Whitefield series (Vanishing Act, Dance for the Dead, Shadow Woman, The Face Changers, Blood Money, Runner, and Poison Flower), Death Benefits, and Pursuit, the first recipient of the Gumshoe Award for best novel.

(March 5, 2013)

Tuesday's Featured Author (11/12/13)

Sea Glass Island

(Ocean Breeze #3)



With her two younger sisters heading for the altar, will Samantha Castle exchange old dreams for new ones? Lately she'd rather be on the North Carolina coast with family than in New York with agents and actors. Though she vows not to let her teenage crush on Ethan Cole influence her decision, it's hard to ignore her feelings for the local war hero.
Ethan lost more than his leg in Afghanistan. He lost his belief in love. Even being surrounded by couples intent on capturing happily-ever-after won't open this jaded doctor's heart. It's going to take a sexy, determined woman—one who won't take no for an answer.

Samantha plunged a spoon into a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia, then sighed as the decadent ice cream melted in her mouth. Guilty pleasures like this were about all that kept her going these days. With enough Ben & Jerry's came hope that her acting career would pick up. A positive attitude had helped her to weather tough times in the past, after all.
It was getting harder and harder to believe, though. The silence of her phone lately had been deafening. In late spring, she'd had a minor role in a prime-time TV show that filmed in New York, but it hadn't led to other opportunities despite the enthusiasm of the director and the producers. Fall season shows were back in production, but she'd received none of the promised job offers, not even for bit parts.
She hadn't had a single callback for a commercial in weeks. If it weren't for her job as a hostess at a high-priced Upper East Side restaurant, she'd be in the most serious financial trouble she'd faced since coming to New York over fifteen years ago. Even with that, she'd had to dip into her savings already.
Though her sister Gabriella had mounted a terrific PR buzz campaign for her back in the spring, its effects had worn off in weeks, rather than months, and now, once again, she was struggling. She'd worn out her list of contacts. But with everything going on in Gabi's life these days, Samantha hadn't felt she could ask for more free publicity assistance. Gabi was adjusting to being a single mom and trying to work things out with the very patient man in her life, who'd agreed to postpone their own wedding until after their sister Emily's in a few weeks.
Ever the optimist, Samantha had survived discouraging times more than once since arriving in New York just out of high school as a fresh-faced girl with stars in her eyes. This dry spell, however, was the worst she could recall. More disturbing was that now it came with pitying looks from other actresses up for the same roles. Her once exuberant, supportive agent had started dodging her calls, then parted ways with her. His replacement, though enthusiastic, hadn't gotten promising results.
Samantha had been in New York long enough to read the handwriting on the wall. She was thirty-five, and while still beautiful, she was past her prime. Parts that once would have been hers for the asking were now going to women in their early twenties. It didn't seem to matter that the casting call was for someone her age, or even older. At the same time, she wasn't quite old enough for the burgeoning niche for older actresses. There wasn't enough optimism in the universe to counter that harsh reality.
When her phone rang, she lunged for it, which told her just how desperate she'd become. She didn't like the feeling.
"Samantha, hey. I'm so glad I caught you," her youngest sister, Emily, said, as if finding her at home was a rarity, rather than commonplace these days. "We need to talk. Now that Gabi's had her baby, it's time to get serious about my wedding. It's just around the corner."
Despite her generally sour mood, Samantha smiled. "Does Boone have any idea you weren't always serious about the wedding?" she quipped. "Remind me, when is it again? Sometime next year?"
"Very funny. It's less than a month away."
"That soon?" Samantha teased.
"Soon? This has been forever in the making. How long were Boone and I apart? Years and years. We need to make up for lost time."
The excitement in Emily's voice was wonderful to hear, Samantha thought, trying not to envy her. She and Boone did deserve this long-delayed happiness.
"When are you coming to North Carolina?" Emily prodded. "You have to have another dress fitting, not that you ever gain an ounce. It's more of a show of solidarity with Gabi, who's still fighting baby weight. And there's the bridal shower Grandmother and Gabi are throwing, then the rehearsal dinner. I'm thinking we need a bachelorette night, just us girls. I want you here for every minute. This is going to be the absolute best summer the Castle sisters have ever had in Sand Castle Bay."
"I wouldn't miss any of it," Samantha assured her. "After all, wasn't I the one who predicted last August that you and Boone were going to get back together?"
"Yes, you demonstrated amazing insight, but it wouldn't be the first time that some irresistible part came through at the last second and you bailed on me. My college graduation comes to mind."
"Well, there's no way I'd bail on your wedding," Sa-mantha reassured her. The likelihood of a plum role being offered was abysmally small. Besides, she'd never let Emily down after promising to be her maid of honor. The fact that Emily had even asked had come as a surprise. Their relationship had been tainted by some kind of sibling rivalry she'd never understood, but her sister seemed to be sincerely trying to leave that in the past.
"I'm driving south the day after tomorrow," she told Emily, not mentioning that the wedding was providing the perfect excuse to leave New York behind during these depressing dog days of summer. "I'll be there to do whatever you need."
"Are you bringing What's-his-face with you? The guy from the network or the producer? I lose track."
"Truthfully, so do I," Samantha admitted. "There's no one I'd want around for an occasion as important as my little sister's wedding."
There was a faint hesitation on the other end of the line and then Emily asked slyly, "Not even Ethan Cole?"
Samantha's heart did a predictable little stutter step. "Why on earth would you bring up Ethan? He's ancient history. Not even history, come to think of it. He never even knew I existed back in the day."
"Aha!" Emily said triumphantly. "You do still have feelings for him. I told Gabi you did. She thinks so, too. Our powers of observation are every bit as good as yours when it comes to romance."
"And you got that from my asking why you mentioned him?" Samantha inquired irritably, hating any possibility that at her age she could be wearing her heart on her sleeve for anyone to detect. Especially when the man in question probably wouldn't even recognize her if their paths crossed.
"I got that from your wearing his old football jersey around the house the whole time you were home after the hurricane last summer," Emily responded. "And, amazingly, it disappeared after you went back to New York. I'll bet it's in your closet up there right this minute."
"It is not," Samantha retorted, glancing down at the gold-and-green jersey she was currently wearing. So what if she still harbored a not-so-secret crush on the star quarterback from the high school? Three years older and surrounded by throngs of local girls, Ethan had never once noticed her back then. She was a summer kid, not even a blip on his radar. She seriously doubted he'd discovered deep feelings in the intervening years just from spotting her in some detergent commercial, and that was even assuming he knew it was her.
"You know he never married," Emily said casually. "And he and Boone play golf together. Boone's asked him to be in the wedding."
Samantha's stupid heart did another of those annoying little telltale hop, skip and jumps. "Not on my account, I hope."
"Of course not," Emily said. "But he is Boone's best man, which means you'll be seeing a lot of him."
Samantha groaned. She'd expected this sort of matchmaking from her grandmother, who'd actively campaigned to see that Emily and Boone were reunited and had done her share of manipulating to see that Gabi wound up with Wade Johnson. Samantha had been certain, though, that Cora Jane would show a little more respect for Samantha's ability to find her own man. Then, again, there wasn't much evidence that Samantha had made any particularly good choices up to now. The men she'd dated had been seriously lacking in staying power.
"Did Grandmother put you up to this?" she asked testily.
"Up to what?" Emily replied innocently. "I told you, Boone and Ethan have been friends forever. Their families go way back. It makes perfect sense that he'd want Ethan in the wedding."
"I suppose," Samantha conceded.
"Gotta run. I love you," Emily said. "See you soon."
"See you soon," Samantha echoed.
Suddenly going back to Sand Castle Bay for her sister's wedding had gotten a lot more interesting…and maybe just a little dangerous.
Gabi held Daniella Jane in her arms, rocking her gently as she studied the color in Emily's cheeks.
"Well, did you find out whatever it was you wanted to know when you spoke to Samantha?" she asked.
"Oh, Samantha still has it bad for Ethan, all right," Emily replied with a smirk.
"Which means you intend to meddle," Gabi guessed.
"Well, why not?" Emily inquired, reaching to take the baby from Gabi's arms and cooing to her. "Grandmother does it all the time."
"And gets away with it because she's Cora Jane and we love and respect her," Gabi reminded her. "You and Samantha haven't always seen eye-to-eye on things, not that I've ever understood why that is."
Emily made a face that had the baby gurgling with what could have been delight…or a dire portent of something else entirely.
"I know that's all on me," Emily admitted. "And the worst part is that I honestly don't remember when it started. If I was going to feel this competitive nonsense, it should have been with you. We're the driven, ambitious ones. Or at least you were until you turned all mellow and had this beautiful baby. She's the one and only thing good to come out of your relationship with Paul the slimebag. Now you've fallen madly in love with Wade, and as much as it pains me to see, now you're just plain sappy."
"Hey, I have a thriving art gallery with a dozen temperamental artists working on-site. I'm trying to turn that into a tourist destination," Gabi protested. "I haven't exactly slacked off. I just redirected my goals."
"Yeah, yeah," Emily said. "You're missing my point. I can't figure out why I've always had this thing with Samantha, but I honestly do want to put it behind us. It's past time. I don't want any of those old lingering feelings to spoil what should be the happiest time of my life."
"Amen to that, and asking her to be your maid of honor was a really sweet gesture," Gabi said. "I know how much she appreciated it."
"It doesn't exactly make up for the way I've treated her over the years, as if her sole role in life was to annoy me." She tickled Daniella, then grinned as the baby squirmed. "Lordy, but she's cute. I think I want one."
Gabi laughed. "I have a hunch Boone will be more than willing to cooperate, but you might want to get this wedding behind you first."
"First, Boone and I have to be in the same place at the same time if we're going to make a baby," Emily grumbled. "He's checking in on all his restaurants on his way here from Los Angeles."
"So you'll be apart how long? A whole twenty-four hours?" Gabi teased.
"Two days actually," Emily replied with a dramatic sigh.
Gabi laughed. "You are pathetic. You were apart for years before you reconciled. Even after you got back together, your work kept you in different cities for quite a while."
"And now I'm spoiled," Emily conceded. "With Boone in Los Angeles with me while I work on those safe houses for abused women and families, I've discovered just how amazing living together can be. I had no idea I'd adapt so quickly to having someone in my life 24/7. Add in B.J. and instant motherhood, and it's been the most incredible few months ever."
"It really is wonderful to see you so ecstatically happy," Gabi told her. "It's great that you and B.J. formed this immediate bond. Not every stepmother is so lucky."
"Believe me, I've heard the stories," Emily said. "How about you? I can see what a contented mom you are, but what's the scoop with you and Wade? Why hasn't he moved in here?"
"As broad-minded as Cora Jane may be, I don't think I want to test her limits by suggesting that my boyfriend and I live together under her roof. Wade and I are committed to working things out. That's enough for now."
"You're really happy?" Emily asked, studying her worriedly. "Staying here in Sand Castle Bay is what you want? And the gallery's enough for you?"
"I have more than a job here, Em. I have family and a wonderful man and that little munchkin you're holding. My life is full. I don't need a ring on my finger just yet. I certainly don't need to go back to the stressful, demanding life I was leading in Raleigh. Besides, I think Dad would stroke out if I hit him with another wedding bill right now. You haven't been here when Grandmother's handed over the invoices for yours. Poor Dad's just grasping the reality that weddings don't come cheap, especially with a daughter who has very expensive taste."
"Hey, I'm not the one who insisted on inviting half the state of North Carolina. You can thank Dad and Grandmother for that. Boone and I would have been content with family and a few friends."
"So you say now," Gabi said, "but I never heard you putting up much of a fuss as the guest list grew and grew and started to include half of Los Angeles."
"Well, it is what it is now," Emily said blithely. "Let's get back to Samantha. Any idea what's going on with her? She didn't sound all that happy when we spoke just now. Is her career faltering again?"
Gabi winced. "I'm ashamed to say I haven't given it much thought. I've been a little distracted lately."
"Understandable," Emily said. "She hasn't asked for your PR help, has she?"
"No, but she wouldn't. I had to badger her into letting me help a few months ago. It seemed to be effective, so I guess I just assumed that things kept on snowballing. In a good way, that is. That's how it is sometimes, one job leads to another, but I shouldn't have taken that for granted. I should have asked," she said, feeling guilty.
"Why? Not everything is up to you to fix," Emily said, an oddly defensive note in her voice. "If Samantha wanted help, she could have said something. That's her way, though. She just suffers in silence, then resents it when nobody jumps in to save the day."
Gabi regarded her younger sister with dismay. "That's not true, Emily. Samantha's not like that. Why would you even say something so cruel?"
Emily looked taken aback by Gabi's vehemence, then buried her face in her hands. "Because I'm mean and spiteful," she said in a small voice, then lifted her gaze to meet Gabi's. "What is the matter with me? I always see the worst in her, even when she's done nothing wrong."
"It's times like this when I really wish Mom were still around," Gabi said softly.
Emily blinked back instant tears at the unexpected reference to their mother, who'd died several years ago. "What does Mom have to do with this?"
"Maybe she would understand why you have this attitude toward our big sister. Dad certainly wouldn't have any idea. He was oblivious to everything going on at home when we were growing up. I doubt Grandmother was with us enough in the early years before Mom died to know the root of the problems between the two of you."
Emily sighed. "And it's increasingly obvious that it isn't something I can just wish away. These careless, hurtful words just pop out of my mouth sometimes, and I have no idea why."
"Then dig deeper and figure it out," Gabi advised. "You and Samantha both mean the world to me, and I don't want to be caught in the middle. I want us to be sisters, in every positive, loving sense of the word, okay? In fact, in my dream scenario, you and Boone eventually settle back here and Samantha marries a local, too, and we all live blocks apart so our kids can grow up together."


(May 28, 2013)

Life's Too Frantic

So I haven't been around to blog since late November early December, I hope you all are doing well. I am keeping busy wi...