Friday, August 9, 2013

The Mind of a Writer - Reviews

I believe that everyone who has ever taken ink/text to paper/screen, has at some point wished they became that overnight success that we sometimes hear about. This phenomena of success is like a lottery. The wins are regular enough that every one of us hopes that if we get 'in it', then perhaps we might just 'win it'. Unlike the lottery, where you sit at home watching the news only for the numbers, the anxiety of being a writer doesn't end when the final ball drops.

I have been dabbling in writing as long as I can remember - and I have a remarkably long memory. It started when my preschool teacher told me that the eight letter word I'd painstakingly learned to spell was nothing. I had known how to spell the moment I learned my ABCs. A whole world opened up for me then, and it's been playing with my nerves ever since.

You see, having started to write at such an early age, I have grown very familiar with the elation - almost a high - of burning the candle at both ends in order to create something people might enjoy. Sigh! Sometimes I tell people, every writer is just a little bit manic. Personally, the moment I say a work is complete, I go from this extreme excitement to an almost paralyzing horror at just the thought of actually putting my work out there. And when I finally brave the masses and allow others to see the world I spent the past two weeks or so in, another part of me spends the rest of my life sitting on the edge of something waiting to see if the work is enjoyed.

At first, I used to think there wasn't enough of me to keep this up. Since then, I've learnt that I am a self-healing creature. For every piece that is given away, a new one replaces it. However, the process would be much easier if I received feedback. Reviews are a writer's sustenance. It tells us what we are doing wrong. What we are doing right. If our readers like our style. And most importantly, reviews tell us if readers think the story we have to tell them is worth the grind that we put into it. Please have compassion when you purchase a book. Take the time to drop a note of either encouragement or criticism. Perhaps you might drop even a little of both. It goes a long way to soothing that part of us writers that sit on the edge biting our nails after we've poured our hearts out to the world.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Kellie's Style - Reckless Prudence



By now, most of you were introduced to Kellie in 'Reckless Prudence'. Her simple, classy style made her stand out from among the pool of women in Nathanael Wright's bar. Though at the time this short story was created, I didn't really have an inspiration for Kellie's outfit, I eventually had to figure out her fashion style.

Kellie is a forty year old single woman. Her struggle to success is that of many women, and she has recently reached a state where she can afford the finer things. Everything about her appearance reflects the point she is at. Kellie's not a barhop, though she'll take up the challenge if it's given. Instead, she goes out with friends, or alone for some personal time. She's the single friend who might misbehave, but she'll never give the details; and she's the friend that a married woman can hang out with and not feel pressured to mimic. Her view on life is that people will always do what they want to, so leave them alone. While she is not judgmental, if prodded, she'll lay it out straight. Kellie is funny, elegant, and enjoying the prime of her life. In 'The Wright Choice', she is willing to gamble a bit when the odds are in her favor.

For those of you who don't get lost in all the details that makes up a story, I've assembled items that I imagine Kellie wore that night in 'Reckless Prudence'. Perhaps it will give you a sense of her style when you read the continuation of her and Nathanael's story in 'The Wright Choice'. If not, perhaps it might inspire your outfit for that special night out.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Truth About Fiction

The truth is, this writing thing is no joke. Initially, I believed it would be easy to publish as an indie author. The fact is it's a lot of work. All the responsibility of getting my work written and edited, a cover created, everything published, and public relations is all on me. I haven't even really started yet.

Maybe in a few months I'll have this down to an art. But, for now, there are things I am forgetting. I've got bugs that need fixing, and glitches that I need to take a wrench to.

In a recent phone call with my mother, I was belaboring the woes of being an online presence. Do you know what she told me? My mother who barely uses email? My mother said that I should keep pushing. All roads take time and effort to build, and by the time I get to where I want to be, I'll be able to navigate back and forth easily. God, I am so glad I have this fount of wisdom to tap into whenever things get tough.

I am seriously missing my mother right now.

Drawing the Lines Released

Some women appear crazy to the world, but they're actually very sane. I like to think of myself as something of a gypsy, and conventional living is like a badly tailored suit. I can't even get my arm into it.

Corvette Mercedes Ford is as unconventional as they come. She has been best friends with Brody Andrews for nearly thirty years. That's a long time for friends to realize they were made for each other. Brody is sick to death of being dumped because Corvette is in his life. His solution? Date Corvette. She can't break up with him because of herself. So, he sets out to convince his best girl that friends could indeed make amazing lovers.

Drawing the Line was first published on Smashwords, but is now available at Amazon, Nook, Kobo, and other platforms. As usual, the price is $1.99 per copy.

Please enjoy an excerpt from my next novella 'The Finish Line' below.

Excerpt
Prologue

Some part of her consciousness was telling her that she should be angry. That she should be hurt. Some part of her screamed that she should be grateful that Hilliard had left her bed before she had awoken to the inevitable awkwardness. Yet, as she gripped the note that bore his sprawling script, she was numb. 
“Alexanna, thank you,” it read. “Just wanted to say goodbye. Hill.” 
“Thank you,” she mouthed the words as she climbed from her bed. She would not think about how she had reached out for her one time lover this morning, only to find the curt note which was written on a sheet of her own stationery. She would not think about the fact that he'd spelt her name wrong. It was Alezanna, not Alexanna. The one time she'd done something so foolish the guy didn't even know her name. She couldn't really say much because she didn't know his full name either. All she knew was that he was Hilliard. Maybe if she'd written a note she would have misspelled his name as well. She should forgive him for a slight she had no right to feel. But today wasn't the day for that. 
Tomorrow. 
Tomorrow she would think about this; but today she would think only about how she was going to crawl out of her bed.




Chapter 1

A month to the day later, Alezanna was again sitting in the conference room of Griffin Hill International Bank when a sudden bout of nausea propelled her out of her chair. Desperately, she searched but there was no bin or bathroom in sight. Mortified at the thought that she would spew the contents of her stomach on the plush blue carpet of the bank, Anna ran into the hallway, jerked open the nearest door on her right and rushed to the bin beside the desk. Dimly, she was gratefully aware that the floor in this room was wood instead of carpeting. 
There was something about the sight and smell of vomit that made Anna continue to heave and retch even after she had nothing left to spew. When someone thoughtfully gave her a bottle of water and instructed her to rinse her mouth, Anna thought the powerful hands were divine. And when the stranger knelt behind her and held her stomach tight until it stopped rebelling and her gagging was controlled, she decided even if he looked like a beast she would love him forever. When he gallantly lifted her to the plush executive chair and put a damp kerchief on her brow, before removing the bin and himself from the room, Anna began to bawl. Her tears began as a result of embarrassment over her weakness, but rapidly morphed into a much more treacherous emotion.
It was as if a dam had broken and all the grief that she had been unable to express over the past six months had somehow found an outlet. She folded her hands on the desk and sobbed bitterly into them, blinded by her heartache. The gentle hand that brushed her hair and back seemed vaguely familiar, and that made her cry even more. For the first time that she could ever remember, Anna cried. She cried for the curt note Hilliard had left her. She cried for her mother who had died of a heart attack while driving eleven years before. And for the father who, after fifteen years as a boxer, perished from an aneurism in his brain not long after her mother's death. But, she cried mostly for the beloved grandfather who had raised her, and succumbed to colon cancer only six months ago. 
Though Lorin Dux had left all his earthly possessions to his granddaughter, his sole valuable possession amounted to a crumbling tower in the middle of a sea of exclusive hotels. And now, Anna was sick and puking all over the bank that she was trying to borrow from in order to retain and upgrade said tower. This bug that had been bothering her for weeks now wasn't going anywhere. She’d have to go see the doctor. And pay him. Finding the funds for that would require her to not only milk a stone, but make cheese from dust, because everything she had was tied up in that hotel.
“Alexanna, come now. Whatever it is cannot be so bad as that.” Tenderly, Hilliard brushed her hair from her brow. He had been staring out the window thinking about Alexanna Dux when the door to his office was abruptly shoved open. At first he had believed the intruder to be his assistant returning rather quickly from his smoke break. That was until he’d heard the retching and had turned to inquire about Kevin’s wellbeing. Imagine his surprise to see the woman who occupied his thoughts claiming cruel ownership of his trash can. 
Now, he felt her shoulders tense as she recognized his voice. She looked up. Her expression of acute disbelief was swiftly replaced with horror. 
“Come, sweetheart,” he said gathering her close and pressing her face to his chest. Somehow, she had found him, but he did not understand why she was reacting this way. At first she fought his hold, but by measured degrees the fight seemed to go out of her. She melted into his chest and cried like someone who had lost everything she held in the world. Instead of releasing her, he held her closer. 


It was another five minutes before Anna was able to compose herself. Hill was there with his soaked gray shirtfront and now wrinkled jacket, pouring a cup of coffee for her. “I’m sorry, Hilliard. I don’t know what came over me.”
He looked at her over his shoulder. “Looks like you needed to tear up for a bit,” he said easily, trying to pass off her crying as nothing. Depositing the Blue Mountain brew before her, he settled into his chair across the desk. “Want to talk about it?”
Anna’s eyes flared wide. “No.” Nervously, she shredded the napkin he had given her. Somewhere along the way she had lost the kerchief. The scent of the coffee was making her nauseous again.
Taking note of her agitation, Hill sought to distract her. “No? Did you just happen to wake up this morning and decide it was a good day to make a mess of my office?” He knew he sounded snide, but he had a big problem with Anna. It was as if she was covered in a diamond shell that was extremely appealing on the surface, but he knew that the true gem deep within was equally untouchable because of that beautiful shell. "If you wanted my attention, all you had to do was ask." 
When he had first seen her, her aloofness was something to be conquered. It had taken him long hours of observation to learn the best way to approach her and not be treated with cool indifference. She must have been feeling weak that night, because he'd taken one chance, and won the woman he'd wanted more than any other woman in his life. He'd convinced himself that if he put everything he had into making love to her, she'd loosen up and he would get to see who she really was. The only thing he'd discovered was that, even when he was inside her, this woman had not been completely with him. It was the reason he'd given up and left the next morning. 
He'd even started begging. Him! He'd begged for her to touch him in return before she'd gingerly reached up and passed her hand over his shoulder, her face turned away. If he had not stood in her bathroom after disposing the condom, and seen where her wetness remained glazed on his upper thighs, he might have convinced himself that he’d only been jerking off to a cold fantasy. Still, he'd gone back to bed and tried again. And again. Finally, her aloofness had become unbearable to him. Wanting to just be with her, he had drawn her close while she slept. Even unconscious, she'd resisted - isolating herself on the edge of the bed. 
She was gorgeous, but she was ruby trapped in ice. So why couldn't he get past that night? Or the morning after when he'd sat on the edge of her bed and watched her sleeping in the pink and gray light of dawn. Hill had sought in vain for the words to explain what she did to him internally. Whatever it was, it just was. There were no words to define a feeling that left him so powerless. And so, he'd left a brief note and hoped their one-night stand would become a forgotten regret.
It hadn't.      
“Your office?” Anna queried. “This is where you work?”
Hill’s lips quirked. “And live. My home is at the top of the building. But, I also spend a lot of time in New York and London.” It also helped that the bank was named for his grandfather and him, Hilliard Griffin III. “It is good to see you again, Alexanna.”
She groaned and covered her face. “I have to go.” As she rose from her seat, a knock sounded on his office door.
“Come in.”
“Excuse me, Sir.” Kevin Luckly poked his head into the office. “Mr. Campbell’s appointment did not show up. He asks if you would prefer to meet with him now rather than this afternoon.”
Pulling herself together, Anna lurched to her feet. “I’m sorry. I was supposed to meet with Mr. Campbell, but -”
The scent of her sickness still permeated the air. With a wave of his hand, Hill stayed Kevin's progress into the office. “Kevin, Alexanna and I are old friends. She ducked in to say a quick hello.”
“Will Mr. Campbell still see me?”
“I believe so, Ma’am. If you would give me a few minutes, I’ll make sure.”
When Kevin left the room, the door quietly clicking closed behind him, Hill turned his full attention to her. “May I ask why you were meeting with Jon?”
Anna met the beautiful gray gaze. For years she had read about ‘dove gray eyes.’ She had always thought people referred to the color and not the soulful gentleness in them. When she’d met Hilliard a month before at the blues club where she moonlighted as a singer, Anna had been caught by the kindness that seemed to come from his soul. Hill’s deeply set eyes were soft-gray and framed with long, spiky lashes. Though his entire package was desirable, from his tightly waved black hair to the soles of his six foot five frame, and the leanly muscled body of an athlete, Hill’s greatest appeal was his eyes. They made her want to trust him, to confide in him, and to lean on his strength.
“No.” A vise clamped over her heart as she remembered the note he'd written her after their one night together. That had stung. And he hadn't even spelled her name right. Obviously he had not wanted her to contact him, nor did he want to contact her because he had neither left nor asked for a phone number. Why did he now act as if they were “old friends?” 
“Look. I'm sorry for the mess." She waved her hand to where the trashcan had been.
"No. It's okay." He studied her broodingly. "Why were you so sick? Rough night?" Hill wondered if she'd taken someone home with her as she'd done with him, but quickly dismissed the thought. She was too cool for that.
Anna saw where he was going with his questions and shrugged. "Hilliard, thank you for everything. I'll say goodbye now.” 
How she relished saying the words back to him. As she departed without looking back, Anna did not see him wince at her recitation of his parting words. Outside his office, she stopped at the desk next to the door and was told Mr. Campbell was still willing to meet with her. She ducked quickly into the employee restroom before going to the meeting. She wouldn’t go begging for money - if that was what it came to - with vomit on her breath.


Anna arrived at home strangely exhausted. Mr. Campbell had not given her any idea of what he had been thinking. Instead, he had listened to her proposal to restore The Flamboyant Grand Hotel and to pay off the debts left by her grandfather with the loan he would grant her. Her grandfather’s illness had eaten away at their finances terribly, so that what remained of Anna's inheritance from her parents was only enough for her to stay four months ahead on the bills, and pay the property taxes for the year. Still, four months isn't much when time is measured in cash.
With a sigh, she stripped off her shoes, skirt, shirt, and bra on her way to bed. Everything stayed where it fell, in a trail to her bedroom. Collapsing onto her bed, she picked up where she had left off in Hill’s office. It seemed that when you hit rock bottom, all you could do about it was have a good cry.




Chapter 2

The pounding was insistent. The phone was ringing. Groggily she reached out to answer. “Hello.”
“Alexanna?” 
“Yes?”
“It’s me. Hill, I mean.” His voice sounded strange. 
The pounding continued. Anna smiled into her pillow at the caress of his voice in her ear. “Hi, Hill. What's up?” 
“I am at your door right now. Can you open it?”
In her grogginess, she had allowed herself the brief fantasy that they were together as a couple and this was a loving call. Reality intruded on that fantasy when she realized Hill would never come over, nor would he be whispering into her ear when she woke. That snapped her out of the dream haze, real quick. She 'squinted' her eyes, wincing when the glue of stale tears pulled at them. The incessant pounding on her front door turned into a playful rat-at-tat. “You’re outside?”
His chuckle was a sweet sound. “Yes. That's me knocking.”
“Oh.” He remembered my address? Then she asked the only the only reasonable question. “Why?”
Hill paused. “Do I need a reason?" When she didn't immediately answer he said, "We need to talk.”
Anna went to the bathroom to wash her face. “We’ve already said all that we needed to say to each other.”
We haven't said anything at all, he thought. That's the problem. “I also wanted to see you. See how you're doing.”
“Your concern is touching.” Her tone didn’t sound touched. Anna peered at her reflection in the mirror. It seemed as if no matter how many times she washed her face, her eyes wouldn’t open fully. “Look, Hilliard. I have to go.” She was only wearing briefs, her hair was a tangled mess, her eyes were swollen and her face puffy. “I can’t see you right now, and I assure you that I did not intentionally run into your office. I'm not hunting you down. So it's safe to say we can forget we knew each other.”
Hill rested his arm on the doorframe and leaned his forehead against it. He had known she did not want to see him, but he had expected to at least get in the door. That she would at least listen. He wasn't experienced with women who made him work for it. Sure, she'd been an easy lay, but he suspected something must have been going on with her that night, because this woman was hard in everything else. “Would you go to a late dinner with me, then? After work?” 
“I’m not hungry.” Anna belted her robe around her waist then went to the living room to pick up after herself. 
“Are you aware that I can see you moving around in there?”
She glanced up at the frosted glass front door. “I know, and I don’t care. Goodbye, Hill.”
“Pete’s sake Alex, stop saying ‘Goodbye.’” he snapped angrily. 
Choosing not to correct his chosen nickname, Anna twisted her lips to the side. “Why Hilliard, if you don’t like me saying that word, then you should probably leave before I can say it again.” Anna stood directly on the other side of the glass door to confront his silhouette. 
“No.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself. Goodbye, Hill.” Anna hung up the phone and deposited it on the table beside the front door. Steeling herself against another urge to cry, she went into her bedroom to prepare for work. She swore she wasn't normally a crybaby, but with all the stress she was under, the outlet was quickly becoming her favorite form of free therapy.




Anna arrived at The Jelly Roll just in time to change into her costume and hand Eddie her music. The bandleader was surprised that she had chosen new songs. Dressed in a long, beaded black gown, with her hair piled into a high bun, and her ears dripping with jet stones, she was a vision. As she stepped onto the platform, she knew that her outfit was over the top, but years in the spotlight had taught her that if you gave people the glamour they desired, they didn't look beyond the immediate impression. As long as her face was stunningly beautiful with the aid of skillfully applied makeup, no one would suspect that she had spent most of the day retching, feeling miserable, and deeply unhappy.
When the applause died down, Anna spoke, “Not many of you know that my grandfather passed away six months ago.” Her voice was husky and smooth. “My parents and I lived with him when I was little, and after they died, we took care of each other. My grandfather was more than a grandparent to me. He was my best friend, my brother, my father and mother. He was my treasure. The best thing I had in this world.” Her voice softened tenderly as she thought of him.
Anna paused, remembering burnt macaroni, and fly-fishing, a paddled bottom, and bear hugs. Tears slipped from her eyes, and she quickly dashed them away. “Until tonight, I was unable to sing for him in memoriam, but I’m ready now.” She gave the audience a tight, hopeful smile. “Father - that’s what I called him. Father would always sit in that seat there.” Anna turned. For the first time in a month, she faced the seat that her grandfather used to listen from, the self same seat that Hill had occupied on that fateful night. She gasped when she saw who occupied the small two person table. Hill was there, gray-eyed and beautiful in a dark sweater and t-shirt. She regrouped quickly, the only evidence of her discomfiture being that initial gasp. “Tonight, I just want to sing for him. If you would indulge me, please.” Her guileless smile encompassed the entire audience. “I would appreciate it if you permitted me sing a final goodbye to my truest love.”
Someone in the audience shouted, “Sing your blues, girl!”
The strings intro to If You Go Away/Ne Me Quitte Pas fell like crystal notes on the floor. At the familiar sounds something in Anna broke away. Her voice, husky yet clear, enchanted her listeners. She sang as if she had only four minutes in Heaven to tell her grandfather of her love for him, and the loneliness since he'd left. Tears streamed down her face, but Anna did not care. Never mind that her mascara was waterproof. The mask she had painted on for the audience stood no chance against the emotion behind her song. Her grandfather had taught her that true love was not vain enough to care about appearance. True beauty was steadfast and sincere.
Hill listened in amazement. Four months before, when a friend had brought him to The Jelly Roll for the first time and he had heard Alexanna sing, he had been enraptured. Her voice was deep, almost mannish; smooth and heavy like thick folds of silk being pulled through the ocean. That voice had instantly become his addiction. Even after their one night together, it compelled him to return to the club for the four nights per week that she performed. The club always brought new acts, but this virtuosic singer - marketed simply as Anna - was the main act; and he suspected that people returned, not for those new musicians, but for her. He certainly did. It still baffled him that he had chosen to leave what had become his customary post in the darkest corner of the blues club, to sit front and center in the same chair in which he had been sitting on that night they got together. 
Finally, he knew why he had gotten her attention that night a month ago, and why she'd acted out of character in taking him home. Something in him regretted that she would forever associate him and that seat with sadness of her grandfather's passing. 
He wondered if that reminder was why she had been so cool during their lovemaking. Because, even as he tried to convince himself that their one night was nothing but an unremarkable tumble, he knew that it had been far more for him. She might have been almost aloof, but for the first time in his life, Hill had made love to a woman. Another part of him believed it was fate that pushed them together. He'd been a fan for months now, but destiny had pushed him to that table on a night when she'd needed someone. She was like Sleeping Beauty, trapped in a crystal coffin, and despite his instincts to run away from what was obviously an enchantment, he wanted to remain. To revive her.
She looked at him, but also through him as she blindly sang. It was as if he was not occupying the chair and he knew then that she was singing only to her late grandfather. It didn’t matter that it was Hill sitting in that chair. If she’d sang so soulfully for anyone but her grandfather, he might be jealous. As it was, he was already jealous that someone other than himself, even a memory, could move her so completely. Her grandfather might be her treasure, but the moment Hill had laid eyes on her, she had become his private obsession.
When Anna arrived at the lyrics, “But if you go, go, I won't cry, though the good is gone from the word 'goodbye',” she blinked away the haze of sorrow and really looked at him. Her voice changed. Hardened, in a way. On the final notes, she lifted her head higher as if to say, “Damn you and the world! I don’t need you.”  She dared her love to leave, singing "Ne me quitte pas…Ne me quitte pas… Ne me quitte pas," even as her voice begged for her beloved to stay. Tragic. Emotional. Alive. For this one song, she was the living loving the eternally lost. 
Slowly, as the song came to an end, as if her soul was reluctant to retreat behind the glamour of ice, he saw that defiance retreat and wished for even her resentment of him to return. 
For months he had been just another member of the audience. Then the night he had chosen to sit there, Anna's song had been ‘You Can’t Tell The Difference After Dark.' The song was quirky, and she’d left the stage to mingle with the audience. Somehow she had ended up sitting on his lap and crooning to him, hiding her brittleness behind raw talent. That night, her long, dark locks were netted and pulled into huge, sexy victory rolls, like some femme fatale from another time. 
Tonight her hair was dyed crimson and pulled into a bun high in the back of her head. She’d studded the bun with tiny, glittering jet. This made her look like she had a halo, which was a curious mix with the devilish black dress that she wore. He had yet to see her look the same way twice. She was like hothouse blooms, always evolving, ever stunning. By her very nature fragile.
Sometimes, she looked as thin as a reed in long, cuffed trousers and a crisp blouse. Other times, like tonight, she was the quintessential vixen with the type of curvaceous body he’d thought had disappeared halfway through the last century. Though her skin was dark as molasses it had a golden glow, as if the sun itself could not help but wake up and kiss her under the stage lights. She overwhelmed him. Her breasts were too large, her hips and buttocks too thick, and her legs miles too long. The secret of her body was her toned abdomen, smooth and tight despite the lushness of her figure. She was super-model sized, larger than life, and the ideal he had only discovered when he'd first heard her sing. 
Hill looked at the leg revealed through the slit of her dress and groaned to himself. He remembered the fruity taste of her inner thighs and damned himself a thousand times a fool for running away on the morning after. He should have remained in her bed and worked harder to make her feel. When a woman didn’t know how to make love, only a coward or a fool didn’t take the time to teach her.
Hill sat, willing to wait the entire evening to speak with her. Absorbing the beauty that could not be typecast. She had the strangest, most arresting eyes. They were dark, large and slanted like a cat’s. He fancied her lashes were black feathers framing them. Her nose was straight and long, widening at the nostrils. But it was her lips. Heaven help him, her mouth was wide and full, her lips thick and pouting. She always looks as if she’s just been thoroughly kissed, he thought to himself, and wants another. Despite her appearance, and the discomfort tenting his slacks, Hill saw that she was no longer really there at the club. 
With a new song, her soul had fought back against the walls of her forced self-restraint and prevailed. Tonight, Anna had become something more than just outstanding talent. She had become a diva. Her voice had become something more, and had he truly run away from their night together, he would have missed this opportunity to witness her evolution. Now he understood that the voice that he appreciated so much, had only been that - an impressive abstract, that was still more than enough for her to achieve superstardom. Tonight that voice had become the sole outlet for the feelings her reserved nature kept bottled inside. Tonight, she had become a legendary performer. 
Reluctantly, he dragged his gaze away from Anna to look at the people seated around him. Cocktail napkins had become kerchiefs, couples pulled their chairs together to form loveseats, the bartenders stopped tending, and the members of the house band just closed their eyes and played their hearts to Anna's tune - the music gradually softening to a faintly echoing backdrop to her vocals. 
Thinking quickly, he pulled out his cell and recorded the rest of her performance. He scanned the audience. He scanned the band. He caught the birth of an angel.




It was two hours later before Anna finished singing. Afterwards, she changed into her waitress uniform and went out to clear tables. This was the way she picked up extra cash as patrons tipped her for their drinks, but mostly for her show. Since she'd started working here as a waitress, and had been given a chance opportunity to sing, Anna also chose not to burn her bridges behind her. God forbid anything should go wrong with her voice, management wouldn't have a reason to fire her because of her dual value to them.
 Tony Rascall was on stage wailing like a hound at a full moon, but he played like Jimmy Hendrix’s dreams. Anna blew him a kiss in passing and the Rascall winked at her. At the end of her performance, he'd whispered, "Don't think I want to go out there tonight, kid. Not after that show you just put on. Righteous!"
Hill witnessed their brief interaction with displeasure. He glared at the other man from his seat in the dark corner - where he'd retreated once she'd gone off the stage. Alexanna was not working this section of the club, but he could see her clearly from his vantage point. He almost felt like a stalker.
It was another three beers and a shot of whiskey, approximately four hours, before she finished working. He was leaning against her car door when she came out laughing. She and the Rascall had their arms wrapped companionably around each other. They stopped when they saw him, and Hill heard the other man ask if she would be alright. 
“I believe so. I know him.” Once before, she had allowed herself to see Hilliard as something he really wasn’t. “I’ll see you later.” Tony kissed her cheek and hugged her before he settled into his car. She knew he wouldn’t leave the lot until she was safely in her own vehicle and driving away. 
“Hello, Alex.” Hill pretended a nonchalance he did not feel.
Anna stood ten feet away from him. “Anna,” she said, distracted by the pale light of his gaze.
“What?” he responded, confused.
“If you must shorten my name, then you should know that I prefer Anna. Alex was my father.” It was terrible that she had slept with this man, given him a piece of herself that no one else had, and he did not know her name. They had never exchanged more than first names, and had botched even that. “My name is Alezanna Dux. Alezanna with a 'z' instead of an 'x'. Lastname D-U-X.” She fitted the car key between her fingers as a weapon, just to be cautious, then folded her arms across her chest. 
“I know your surname.” Hill studied her wary pose. Was she afraid of him? “I asked Jon Campbell. Are you any relation to Alex Dux, The General?”
She nodded. “He was my father.” 
Hill nodded. Her father had been a great boxer who had died much too young. “My name is Hilliard Collis Griffin, III.”
Stunned, Anna gaped at him. “Griffin as in Griffin Hill Bank?”
“I was named for it, and it was named for my grandfather, the original Hill Griffin.” His cheek twitched from embarrassment. He knew what it was like to have her legs propped on his shoulders, but until he’d called Jon and asked about the woman he’d met with, he had not known Alex's - no Anna’s - full name. It was then that he realized she probably didn’t know his name either. Or was she just pretending ignorance and wanted to lure him in order to get him to grant her that loan. After all, of the ten offices along that corridor, why had she barreled into his? Hill studied her expression. No. Until this moment she had not known who he was. Nor, depressing as it was to admit, had she cared.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” she groaned as an awful premonition swept over her. Anna pressed a hand to her throat and made a beeline for her passenger side door. “Would you please go away, Hilliard?”
“Would you have dinner with me tomorrow night?” he asked, ignoring her desperation. Even as a part of him wanted to turn around and never look back, he was drowning for her. Hill could have any woman he wanted, but beyond all reason he had been obsessed with this woman from the moment he'd first heard her voice. Then, fatalistically, he'd seen her. He’d tried to wipe Anna from his mind, but the more he pushed her away, the worse things got. She was like a mistletoe, planted firmly in his side. 
Anna climbed into the car via the passenger side and quickly locked the door behind her before scooting over into the driver’s seat. “A month ago you left me a note. At the time you didn’t bother telling me your name or offer to share a meal. Look,” she leveled her gaze on him through the protective barrier of her car window, “whatever you’re offering, I don’t want it. You have nothing that I need,” she glared at him scornfully, “nor anything I want. Do what I did and forget anything ever happened between us. Now, I’m going to say ‘Goodbye’ again, and please, let this be the last time.”
He was beginning to really hate that word. It was as if she waited to see him just so she could practice pronouncing it in that particularly irritating tone. “If I have nothing that you want, then why were you at the GHIB?” Wanting to lash out, he bent and faced her through the barrier of the window. “Who’s to say you did not find out who I am, and plotted that whole scenario in order to try and get me to give you that loan?”
When the engine of her twenty year old Corolla gunned to life, he knew he had gone too far. Anna did not look left or right as she drove out of the parking lot. Tony Rascall’s car started up and pulled out behind her. He suspected, as he watched the tail lights of her car disappear around a corner, that she did not look back at him either. 




Anna received a call from Jon Campbell’s secretary the following day to arrange a meeting with the loans manager. The next morning, she was again directed to the conference room at the other end of the hall from Hill’s office. She could see Kevin seated at his at his desk, and wondered how she could have missed seeing him that terrible morning. This was Hilliard's workplace. If she wasn’t so desperately in need of the loan she would have cancelled her application rather than chance meeting him again. 
The nausea was even more frequent now. Sometimes it seemed that all she had to do was open her eyes in the morning to feel queasy. Wisely, she’d made an appointment to see her doctor that afternoon. Perhaps it was food poisoning, or she’d caught the flu. Everyone knew illnesses got worse overnight, and this illness usually faded by early afternoon. The same week of what she now referred to as the ‘unfortunate incident’ with Hill, she’d woken at three in the morning in a rush to kiss the porcelain. Since then, her body felt as if she’d been working overtime on a chain gang. At first she’d thought the bug would pass on, but now that she was a full thirteen pounds lighter, Alezanna admitted to herself that it was time to see the doctor. 
Someone had requested that a trash can be left near the door of the conference room. Probably Hill. 
Hill?
Anna groaned and collapsed into her chair. Frantically she pulled out her calendar and checked the dates. “Six weeks!” It was a full six weeks since her last period. Tony had given her three condoms when she’d first gotten the job. Though she had never had occasion to use them before, Anna had kept them around and eventually used them with Hill. The last one had broken, but they hadn‘t realized until it was too late. She didn’t need to go to the doctor to find out what was wrong with her. She was pretty sure he would tell her she was about a month pregnant. "Great! Just add some lighting to the pouring rain."


For the second time in three days, Anna stumbled out of the conference room and barged into Hill’s office. This time a protesting Kevin was at his station. He scrambled to his feet and followed her inside, but at a curt nod from his employer he zipped his lips and backed out, closing the door behind him. 
“You selfish bastard,” Anna rushed over and slapped him hard across the cheek.
Hill’s cheek stung from the blow, but he ducked just in time to avoid another one. Something had drawn her out of that cool shell. “What has gotten into you, woman?” He grabbed her hands and pulled her forcefully to his chest. 
“You told him to deny my loan didn’t you? I rejected you and you told Mr. Campbell not to give me that loan.” Accusation blazed from her eyes. “Didn’t you? What did I ever do to you that you would actively seek to make my life miserable, Hilliard?”
“Anna,” he pressed her face to his chest and kissed her brow despite her struggles to be released. “What are you talking about, Anna? The only things I asked Jon for were your last name and your phone number." Even that admission was embarrassing. He'd slept with her and walked away without her phone number. Even the most casual strangers exchanged more than they had that night. Right now however, it seemed prudent not to mention he'd learnt her full name by reading her file and proposal. Because of that, he could list the reasons why her loan was denied, but he'd had nothing to do Jon's decision. "Nothing more. I did not interfere with your loan application.” He held her tightly to his chest until she stopped struggling.
Anna stepped back, more subdued now, and as if in a trance walked out of his office. Jon Campbell had denied her application. She’d failed her grandfather. “I can’t do this.” 
Seconds later, Kevin rushed to his door. “Sir, the young lady has collapsed in the hallway.”
Hill never knew such panic as he felt when he heard those words. Racing out of his office, he felt his world tilt on its axis. There was Anna’s prone frame lying on the blue carpet. 
“Anna. Wake up, sweetheart.”
“Hmm…” As if she were caught in a thick fog, Anna heard her name being called. She heard the worry in the caller’s tone, but could not answer.
“Anna, darling. Open your eyes and look at me.” Hill alternated between pressing the damp cloth and warm kisses over her face. “Come on, baby. Just open your eyes. I have you,” he crooned softly. 
“Hill?”
“It’s me, sweetheart. I’ve got you.” 
Anna’s eyes fluttered open, and widened as she realized where they were and what must have happened. Shame overwhelmed her and she burst into tears at finding herself so vulnerable once again. Three times now she’d cried in his presence. That thought sobered her almost as quickly as she’d begun crying. She never cried.
“Shh, darling. Everything’s going to be alright.” Hill murmured into her ear as he carried her into his office. 
“I can walk.”
“I know that, but you obviously can’t walk right now.” 
His tone was comforting, but his mollycoddling was grating on her nerves. “Put me down, Hilliard.”
Instead of doing as she asked, he strode over to the gray linen sofa near the window, and sat with her on his lap. “Have you seen the doctor, Anna? First you are sick all over my office, and now you’re fainting in the halls. How long has this been going on? Are you eating properly? You look like you’ve lost weight. You look like hell, in fact.”
Anna slid off his lap into the seat next to him. “I’m fine. Just a little bug, but thanks for telling me of the 'fact' that I look like hell.” For every question he delivered, she had a snappy response.
“Press 'Pause' on the attitude for a few minutes,” he brushed aside her last complaint and looked at her soberly. “I know that you are taking your grandfather’s death hard, but you can come to me if you ever need someone.”
Hmm! That’ll be the day. “Thanks for the offer.” She stood on wobbly legs. “I’ve got to go.” 
Hill rose also and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I think you need to see a doctor.”
“I’ve got an appointment to see one today.”
“Good.” He rocked back on his heels. “Call me, and let me know how you’re doing.”
Anna lowered her brows and looked up at him as if questioning his sanity. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that this was none of his business, but if the doctor confirmed her suspicions, it would most likely be his concern as well. She wasn't foolish enough to think she could raise a child on her own when she could barely afford to keep a roof over her own head. If all was right in her world, she might have tried something like that. But all wasn't right. And she'd need Hilliard if worse came to worst. 
“I don’t have your number” she said instead.
Hill colored. Six foot five inches of shrewd business sense and steel athleticism, and he was blushing. How strange to realize that he had never given her his number. His decision had been deliberate when he'd first walked away from her. At the time, he'd thought to put her out of his system. But, he’d hoped that when he had called her earlier this week, Anna would have saved his number. “I called you two days ago.”
“I deleted it.”
Nodding, he studied her stubborn profile. Okay, Hardball. “Let me write it down for you.” Reaching to his mahogany desk he picked up his business card and began writing his cell-phone number on the back. 
Anna waited until he returned with the card. She took it. “You know, if you’d given me your number a month ago, I would have accepted it and ended up calling you, even knowing you wouldn’t call me.” She tapped the card with the tip of a finger and studied the bold blue numbers. “Now, I find that I don’t want your number. In fact, I wholeheartedly regret getting involved with you, even if it was just for a few hours.” 
“Damn it, Anna! Are you going to hold that against me forever?” Hill found himself wondering if she was worth the constant reminders of his mistakes where their relationship was concerned. Relationship? Is that what this is? “I can’t express just how sorry I am about that, but I had hoped we would be able to move beyond it. Or do you have the market cornered on bitterness?” Why am I even apologizing for her being cold?
“Bitterness?” Anna’s eyes flared, but her tone was mild as she said, “I am not bitter, Hill.” She threw his card on the top of the dark surface of the desk. “What I am is tired. Right now, I have a lot of things on my mind and the last thing I need is another distraction. Maybe if you’re still available in a few years, when I'm not so 'bitter', I might stop to linger; but for today, I don’t even have the time for this conversation. If I need you I'll know where to find you, but I'm hoping I never will.” Something in his expression caused her heart to soften. Reaching up, she caressed the cheek that bore a reddened handprint. She should never have struck him. “It seems as if every time I say ‘goodbye’ to you, we see each other again. How about I say, ‘I’ll see you around’? Maybe we‘ll never cross paths again if I say that instead.”
“Keep on saying goodbye then.” Hill picked up the card again and dropped it into her purse. “Call and let me know that you’re okay. And maybe, when you’re ready ‘I’ll see you around.’” Then he pressed a lingering kiss to the corner of her mouth and watched as Anna walked out of his life. 
He tried to convince himself that he respected the fact that she had a lot going on and was at least being honest with him about it. A new relationship between them could only be another complication. She didn't want complications, and he didn't want drama. It was good for them to part ways.

Jackson's Mark Released

'Jackson's Mark' was originally published at Smashwords.com. It is sold at multiple ebook marketplaces such as Nook, Kindle, Kobo, and more. The standard price for all my novellas is $1.99. This particular novella is a personal favorite.

Originally, I did not intend for it to be a part of a series. But, as I'm just starting out, things are still just falling into place. Therefore, while I wrote 'Jackson's Mark' as the first completed novella in the Love's Choice series, it is actually the third book in. The series is about a group of friends who find love. My order of publishing on this series is all jacked up, but I'll sort myself out in time.

The novellas, their main characters, and their order in the series has been listed for you. They will appear as follows:
Reckless Prudence (Nathanael and Kellie: the prequel) Book 1 - Available free
Jackson's Mark (Jackson and Marcia) Book 4 - Available
The Chef's Choice (Peter and Emille) Book 2 - to be released mid August, 2013
Claudia's Rule (David and Claudia) Book 3 - to be released early September, 2013
The Wright Choice (Nathanael and Kellie) Book 5 - to be released late September, 2013
I expect that the next series will be released with more order.

Please enjoy this excerpt from 'Jackson's Mark'.

Excerpt
Chapter 1

"I'm going to go ghost on TimeLine from now on," Marcia promised, dusting the crumbs off her fingers before crossing her heart.
Claudia coughed. "Ghosting? Is that some new App that I haven't heard of yet?" She took another bite of her lunch, and before Marcia could answer, said, "I swear, if another twelve year old becomes a dot-com millionaire in one month, I'm just going to roll over and die."
Marcia chuckled. "The older folks are taking away our Social Security, and the kids are monopolizing the cash. At this rate we'll be living under a bridge by the time we're fifty." 
"True that!" Claudia laughed. "But tell me about this ghost business. What has Timeline done to you this time?"
Both incensed and embarrassed, Marcia sought a way to name the source of her ire. Only one word summed up her trouble. "Jackson."
Claudia's brows shot high. "My brother, Jackson?" 
"Yes." Jackson was the cousin that Claudia's parents had adopted as their own when he was fifteen. Three years older than the girls, Jackson got along famously with his sister. His relationship with Marcia however, was another story. The decade and a half that they'd known each other was filled with legendary battles. Marcia was over the whole 'war-with-Jackson' agenda; but he had developed more experience in pushing her buttons than he had invested in his chosen career - a career that he was extremely passionate about. Apparently, old habits were even harder to kill if you actually enjoyed them. 
"What did he do?"
Marcia looked away from her friend. "Have you logged in today?" When Claudia shook her head 'no', Marcia exhaled loudly. "I posted a few recent pictures last night. Close-ups."
"Oh, yes!" Claudia exclaimed. "The portraits. I saw them just before I logged off. Jackson couldn't possibly find anything bad to say about them. They were gorgeous!" But, Claudia knew her brother. Jackson was notoriously excellent at insulting Marcia.
"Your brother," Marcia growled in a frigid tone, memories resurrecting her anger. When she was calm enough to speak clearly, she continued, "Your brother saw the photos and decided to comment."
No further words were necessary, as Claudia's expression moved from curiosity, to worry, to horror. 
"He didn't!"
"Oh, yes. He did!" Marcia emptied her glass of champagne in one gulp. "Hear this," she said, pulling out her cell-phone and logging into her page. "'Marc,'" She scrolled and squinted. "No matter how I tell him that M-A-R-C spells Mark and my name is Marcia, he insists on using that dreadful nickname. 'Marc,' he says. 'Nice pic. Congratulations! Looks like you've lost a whole other person since I saw you last.'"
Claudia coughed wine through her nostrils. "He didn't!" 
"I just read it to you!" Marcia shoved her phone under her best friend's nose. "I swear Claudia, if I didn't love you before he came along, I'd have stopped being your friend the moment your mother brought that scruffy mutt home."
"Well, what did you do when you saw it?" Claudia asked eagerly. Whatever Marcia had done was bound to be good. But, since Marcia had refused to continue the feud with Jack after the Fiasco of Last Thanksgiving, her responses to his antics were now a little boring.
Marcia scowled. "I deleted the post of course." Her look said anything less would be uncivilized. "I've got six hundred guys on Timeline thinking that I am and have always been a size two. Now he comes along and ruins it." Her scowl deepened. "Worse still. He didn't let it end there."
"Hold on! I've got to see this for myself." Claudia pulled out her own phone and logged into the social networking site.

"Marc, nice pic. Congratulations! Looks like you've lost a whole other person since I saw you last." - 19 hours ago
Comment removed - 19 hours ago
"Thought I just posted something on here." - 19 hours ago
"Polite sms." - 19 hours ago
"Hey, Marc! Remember this pic?" - 19 hours ago
Tag removed - 19 hours ago

"See what I mean?" Marcia growled. "He's got them thinking I'm an overweight transvestite."
"Haha! You guys are hilarious!" Claudia crowed. "Which pic did he post?"
Marcia glared at her. "Your family has a way of finding the most inappropriate things funny."
"Come on. Tell me. Which picture did Jack post?"
"The one of me at the county fair," Marcia reluctantly confessed.
"Which county fair? We've been going to them since we were twelve."
Wincing, Marcia admitted, "The one from last year."
Claudia's eyes widened in horror. "No!"
"Yes!"
"No! I refuse to believe it. Jackson isn't that insensitive. He didn't post the…"
"He did! He posted the chili eating competition."
Fingers moving rapidly, Claudia tapped in to Jackson's page. She was laughing uproariously through the first three photos, causing all the eyes in the trendy tapas bar to turn their way. On the fourth photograph however, her laughter died a sudden and brutal death. 
"I'll kill him!" she roared.
"Why?" Marcia asked, a sly smile on her face. "Did you get to the fourth photo? The one of you covered in three alarm chili, and shoveling even more into your mouth? Or is it the one of you holding the pot from Firehouse No.9, and the giant two hundred dollar prize check? Is that why you plan to kill him?" she mocked.
"It's not funny," Claudia wailed. "It's all over Timeline. As long as these photos are posted on his account, mutual friends will see it."
"I tried to tell him to take them down, but he's being Jack the Jerk."
But Claudia was lost in her own torment. "Everyone will see them," she whimpered. "David will see them." And that was the most tragic part of the entire horror story. Claudia's latest boyfriend was a 'friend' of her brother's. 
Marcia could empathize with her friend. Claudia had won the chili eating competition five years in a row. She was proud of the trophies she'd acquired over the years, but that didn't mean any woman worth her salt would want her boyfriend knowing about those pictures. It was why Claudia had skipped out on the fair this year, and why she'd decided not to go home to Peachfield, Texas for Thanksgiving. 
Knowing her friend's dilemma, Marcia waved her hand and ordered another round. "Don't worry about it Claudie. We'll get back at him, someday."
Miserably, Claudia looked up at her friend. "How? We can't post any embarrassing photos of him. He wouldn't care. And besides, he's disgustingly handsome," she wailed. "Even with chili on his face." 


Chapter 2

"You are the lowest of the low," Marcia announced, marching into the manager's office of Jackson's Mark. 
She'd obviously surprised the owner of the steakhouse by entering his office unannounced, but he didn't show it. Briefly, he glanced up from the paperwork he'd been poring over, and seeing who had invaded his sanctum, promptly turned to work on the computer. 
"Judging by the way you 'unfriended' me last night, I thought you wanted to put a permanent end to our association," he murmured silkily, head bowed to hide his slight smile. "The last thing I expected was a visit. I feel special."
"You're something special alright. A special jerk! Do you know that Jack?"
Sighing as if she was a pest who would not leave until she had his full attention, Jackson gave her just that. Marcia had a very specific way of saying his name that always  got his attention. He leaned back in his chair and focused the full wattage of his pale green gaze on her. "You might as well have your say."
Not one to ever hesitate in telling Jackson off, Marcia took a seat across the desk from him and immediately launched into her tirade. "You're always acting like a selfish child! Who does something like that? I mean, it's bad enough you embarrass me in front of everyone I know. People who know us know about the feud. But to put up that photo of your own sister… That was the icing on the cake. It's a wonder Claudia didn't have a heart attack when she saw it."
"What's so bad about putting up a photo of a good memory?" he asked, folding his arms across his chest. "You've been gaining and losing extra baggage for years, and Claudia's been proud of her participation in that contest for as long as I can remember. She didn’t enter it this year because she thinks David wouldn't like the girl she is deep down. But, from a man's perspective, Claudia's a much more interesting girl because of that contest."
"You're her brother. Your opinion on what makes her appealing to a guy isn't trustworthy. You put up a picture of her looking like a pig, for all the world to see. That was definitely not kosher."
"If either of you had bothered to look, you'd have noticed that only a very select few have access to those pictures."
"I don't care if it's only you who has access to them," she wheezed in agitation. "You should never have posted them. It's embarrassing!"
"I assume the one of you with the pot tipped to your head is also embarrassing?" he asked mildly. Lethally.
Marcia closed her eyes and prayed for patience. "Have you taken them down yet?" The posting had been up for over twenty-four hours by now, if he hadn't. She'd driven an hour out of her way to talk to him.
"Oh? You should have called if you wanted me to." Jack folded his arms over his chest.
"Jackson," Marcia said, as if she was talking someone down from a roof, "don't you think you should take them off your page?"
"Why should I?"
"Should I call my lawyer?" she snapped, losing patience.
He coughed out a laugh. Marcia was so mad she was vibrating. "You can call whoever you want."
"Jack, don't do this. Claudia's freaking out, and you've single-handedly killed all my dating prospects."
"Not all of them."
"There's nothing to be gained from ruining our lives any further," she continued, having not heard his quiet comment. "I'm not going to fight with you any more. People get hurt, and you never learn. Take down the photographs."
"On one condition."
"No conditions. It's my legal right to ask you to remove those photographs from your page."
He leaned sideways in his chair to look behind her. "I see neither the law or a representative of it with you. And it is my right to post photos of my experiences, even ones you happen to have shared." Settling comfortably back into his chair, Jack steepled his fingers in front of his chest. 
"It's also my right to shoot you with that pistol in your desk, but I'm going to be kind and not retaliate because you specialize in annoying me. Take them down."
"Two conditions."
"Jackson, this is between you and me," Marcia growled, folding her arms across her chest and taking on a mulish expression. "Don't take it out on Claudia. She's an innocent, and she really likes this guy."
"Three conditions."
"Fine!" Her hands flew into the air. "What do you want?" If he was going to keep upping the ante, she was better off stopping him here. There was no telling what he'd want her to do. Wash his car? Stand outside wearing a bright green check sign around her waist while waving customers to Jackson's Mark? That would be the ultimate in humiliation. 
"You agree to three conditions?" he asked, attempting to hide his surprise at her unresisting capitulation.
"I agree, protesting duress, to fulfill your three conditions if you agree to immediately remove all photographs of your sister and me from your Timeline page, and to never post another hereafter."
He shook his head. "No. That won't work. I'll only agree to never post another embarrassing picture of you."
She rolled her eyes. "Your judgment on what is or isn't embarrassing has proven to be flawed too many times for me to trust it now. And no calling me Marc. Never again. Not. EVER."
"Fine," Jack sighed. "Any time I think about posting a picture of you or Claudia, I'll run it by you for approval. And, I'll only call you Marc when we're alone. It'll be our secret." The way he whispered the last pledge was just a hair's breadth shy of scintillating.
"Not even around family?" she inquired suspiciously. 
"Only when we're alone," he promised softly.
Since they were hardly ever alone… "That works for me." 
For a few seconds, he just sat there, staring at her thoughtfully. His measured expression made her uncomfortable, and he knew it - judging by the slight curl at one corner of his lips.
Marcia squirmed. 
At first she started wondering what he was looking at. Jackson had this way of just staring at her as if he was looking at every little line and pimple on her face. It was because of that look that Marcia had spent a good fifteen minutes touching up her makeup in the car before coming inside the restaurant. Everything about her was in order. Her hair was newly brushed, even if it had a kink from the ponytail it had been in for most of the day. And her clothing was neat, because you didn't come to the Mark wearing jeans and a t-shirt. All in all, Marcia was presentable, and she knew it. She'd dressed this morning for this meeting, expecting to be under Jackson's inspecting gaze. 
She'd also come prepared to launch an intimidation maneuver of her own. 
Slowly, she allowed her gaze to rove over his features. Tall, dark, and handsome were the basic descriptions a person would use for him. But, Jackson was so much more than those basic three. His pale green eyes, for example, were fringed by long, spiky lashes. His broad forehead and angled jaw could have only been described as sculpted - evidence that God was indeed a master artist. Jack had always been big and rawboned, the muscular tendons of his forearms - revealed by the rolled sleeves of his white shirt - was proof positive of his strength. His physique was his best asset, it being the tapered musculature that women were genetically designed to desire. If she could find one fault in him, it would be his nose. Once upon a time it had been straight, but during a game of touch football about eight years before, her brother had stiff-armed him and it hadn't been the same since. The damage hadn't been enough, in Marcia's estimation, because the slight bend in his nose only drew attention to the perfection of his full lips. He'd inherited them from his father, she knew because Claudia's mother also had fuller lips. What Marcia liked best though, was the divot line marking the center of the bottom lip, making the glossy surface look like a plump, delectable, lickable…
She blushed, her eyes bobbing to his Adam's apple then to his eyes as he cleared his throat. 
"Like what you see?" he murmured silkily.
Guilt at being caught admiring him caused her face to heat even more. She glanced away. "You started it. Do you like what you see?"
The corner of his mouth curled even more. "I wonder what you'd say if I answered that question honestly."
For years now, when he wasn't doing something to annoy her, Jackson never missed an opportunity to try and draw her into flirting with him. Marcia had never indulged him, and she wasn't about to start now. "What are your three conditions, Jackson?" she asked impatiently. 
He got up from his seat and took his time strolling around the desk. Willfully, he wedged himself between her knees and the back of the desk, leaning against the edge and forcing her to push back her chair and look up at him. Suddenly, Marcia felt like a rabbit trapped in its hole with a fox nosing at her door. She waited, expecting him to ask for a month's worth of housecleaning. Or maybe a kiss. I really need to stop looking at those lips. 
"I'd like you to spend Thanksgiving with me."
"Can't. I already told my mom I'm not coming home for Thanksgiving. I'm not driving all the way to Peachfield for one meal. It's not in my budget. Claudia and I are planning on being there for Christmas though."
"I didn’t say anything about Claudia or your mom. I said, 'with me.' Here. In Austin. Just the two of us."
"Why?" she asked suspiciously.
He folded his arms once more, and lowered his brows menacingly. "Why? Because I already told my folks I'll only be able to make it home for Christmas."
"Why not invite Claudia and David then?"
"David has plans for Claudia."
Marcia's brows bounced at that bit of news. "Does Claudia know that?"
"Maybe," was his mild reply, "if you were busy on Thanksgiving, Claudia would stop making plans for the three of you, and David would be able to get on his with agenda for the two of them." He gave her an ironic look. "Couples come in pairs, you know."
She squinted at him. "Do you know something I don't know?"
"I just told you something you don’t know."
Marcia leaned back then decided to scrape her chair a little further away from him. "Fine. I'll spend Thanksgiving Day with you, but I'm not cooking. And if Claudia isn't engaged at the end of the day, I'm coming after you."
"I'll be waiting," he promised. "But you should remember…"
"Remember what?"
"Our family celebrates three days of Thanksgiving."
She froze. She had forgotten that. The Coles celebrated with the main meal on Turkey Day, followed by Bone-in-Soup Day, and finally Recovery. It was a tradition that Marcia had liked, and had been taking full advantage of since she'd been a girl. The Cole's house was the place to be for the two days post Thanksgiving. Well, considering that her mother's annual attempts at being Susie Homemaker usually failed, the Cole house was the spot on Thanksgiving Day too.
"Since we're not going to be spending the holiday with your family-" she began, only to be cut off mid-sentence.
"Since I'm still a member of my family, it is my duty to keep the tradition going. You're spending three nights at my house."
"That's not fair. We'll eat each other alive."
Wryly, he replied, "I can only hope."
She chose to ignore that little comment. "That's two conditions."
"That's one condition. You're spending Thanksgiving with me, ergo, you are bound to honor my traditions. Anything less would be rude."
"You've been my nemesis for years. You shouldn't be surprised that I am rude."
"Condition two," he said, not brooking any further arguments. "Every weekend for the next three months after Thanksgiving belong to me."
"That's some messed up math. You're adding conditions to your conditions, Jackson. There's nothing fair in that."
"That means, no work. No play. No nothing, unless you're by my side. And only if I agree to you devoting your attention to something other than me. That means, if a month has five weekends, all five belong to me."
"Have you seen the price of gasoline? I don't have the money to be driving back and forth between here and San Antonio."
"I'll take care of it sometimes. And sometimes I'll come spend the weekend at your house. But, you're going to have to make sacrifices to be with me, Marc."
Her eyes opened in dawning awareness. "They say you should never tell a crazy man he's insane. But that's just ridiculous, Jackson! You've got about ten conditions you're trying to lock me into, and that's not fair."
"My third condition is this. Since I am a fair man, and you can be sure that I might embarrass you from time to time but I'll never do anything to really hurt you, I reserve the right to punish you in any way I see fit. This condition becomes effective immediately, and lasts until Thanksgiving Day of next year."
Oddly, the way he said 'punish' caused a trail of gooseflesh to rise along Marcia's spine. She couldn't conceal a small shiver. Her annoyance grew when his smile widened in acknowledgment of her response. "I'm not a child, and you can't punish me," she protested childishly. "What? You're going to spank me if I decide to spend all day in bed instead of being at your beck and call?" Too late, she realized how provocative her words sounded. And that she'd told him her strategy for how she planned to survive three days in his company.
"Oh," he said with one of those side grins of his where only one side of his mouth moved sexily. "I didn't stipulate any reasons for punishing you, did I? Well, I'm going to give you something to control so I don't spend the next year spanking you every time we meet." 
Glaring in mute silence, she waited.
"If for any reason, by word, deed, or thought, you cause me or anyone else around us to think you don't enjoy my company, I'll punish you. So, control your mouth. Control your actions. Control that evil glint in your eye when you're looking at me."
"I don't have to do this. You're no longer my 'friend', and -"
"No. But I'm about to be something else entirely."
"I'll just tell Claudia that David's planning to pro-"
"David's planning to what?"
"Propose. She'll keep the secret."
"The way she kept the secret about that professor who took your class to Spain?"
"She didn't!" Marcia gasped.
"I think his name was Professor Ira Rosenba-"
"Shut up!"
His eyes gleamed. "If I wasn't a good man, Marc, I just might spank you for that. But, I'm going to be fair and give you some time to let this all sink in."
"Claudia's going to want to wait until he prop-"
"I never said he's going to propose."
"But you implied it."
"But I never said it. And if you say anything to Claudia now, she's just going turn David's house upside-down looking for a ring."
She hated how he sounded so reasonable. "I don't care about the pictures. I don't need to sacrifice myself at the Altar of Jackson Cole to get them off your page. I'll just file a complaint to Timeline against you."
 "No. You won't sacrifice yourself for some pictures, but you'd sacrifice yourself to keep Claudia happy. She doesn't want David to see those pictures. And as far as she knows, he hasn't seen them yet. One click of a button and poof! Claudia's worst nightmare becomes a reality."
Marcia swallowed. Claudia was the best friend a girl could have, but… "So, I'll have to live through my worst nightmare to keep my friend happy?"
Jackson grinned fully now, showing a mouthful of straight, gleaming white teeth. "Precisely."
"Fine, Jackson. But when our month is-"
"Three months."
"Two months."
"Four months."
"Three months."
"Three months."
"When our three months are over, I don't want to see you again until next Thanksgiving. And take down those pictures. Today."
"I took them down the moment you walked through the door," he replied, bouncing his brows playfully. Her scowl deepened. "But, what if Claudia and David get married between three months from now and next Thanksgiving?" he asked sweetly.
"What about it?" 
"Chances are, I'll be the best man, and you'll be the best girl. Won't we have to dance with each other?"
Abruptly, Marcia stood up and yanked her purse onto her shoulder. "I'm having a club steak for dinner. On your tab." 
Still leaning against the desk with his arms folded, Jackson watched her depart. For all of two seconds, he thought about joining her for dinner in the restaurant, but swiftly nixed that idea. She was free to eat alone this time. Their tentative contract wouldn't officially start until Thanksgiving Day. Tonight, he needed to go about his business as if she was just a shadow at her favorite table. 




Everything She Wants Released

'Everything She Wants' is now available for sale at Smashwords, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and a whole host of other sites. My work is originally published at Smashwords. The price remains the same at $1.99.

In this novella, Amaryllis Brackenridge-Ashley is tired of waiting at home for her husband to come creeping through the dark of early morning. In the year that they've been married, he hasn't so much as touched her, much less slept next to her.

Orion Ashley might have been blackmailed into marrying the ugly duckling heiress, but he doesn't have to touch her. He plunges himself into his work, ruthlessly multiplying his assets over the course of their marriage. When he receives a call that his wife had injured herself, Orion rushes to Amy's side ready to devote himself to her. But, no amount of charm and civility can soothe his swan's feathers, leaving Orion with only one option - he goes caveman at a charity ball.

 Please visit any of the aforementioned marketplaces to purchase your copy of 'Everything She Wants'. You are welcome to enjoy the excerpt below.

Excerpt
Everything She Wants

Chapter 1
Six nights. Six nights in two weeks. They weren't weekend nights either. It wasn't as if he'd gone out with the boys and failed to keep track of the time; or that he was working on some big project and had worked through the night. It might have been easier if she'd lost him to his job or his masculinity. It might have been easier if she'd had him to lose in the first place, but it wasn't easy to wait in a dark room for him to come home at four in the morning smelling like a clean fresh spring and newly applied deodorant. 
The door to the bedroom opened. She lay in the dark, regulating her breathing to the even rhythm of sleep by sheer force of will. Something heavy tumbled to the ground, the dull thud followed by whispered curses so colorful she was surprised that the room didn't light up. A few more thuds, this time from his walk-in closet. She knew his routine now. He'd change into sweats. The ugly pair with the tight cuffs that she'd long ago decided were his specially designed version of 'repel-a-spouse.' Then, he'd go into the bathroom and ease the door closed before turning on the light, as if she wouldn't wake with goose bumps at the sound of him brushing his teeth and gargling. After that, his final steps were the same thing he'd been doing even on the nights he stayed at home with her. He'd ease out of the bedroom, turn on the living room television, and bunk on the sofa until it was time to get up at six o'clock for his morning run. 
Tonight, she was going to change his agenda, even if it meant that neither one of them got any sleep. She was nobody's doormat, and she'd be damned if she was going to be the only miserable person in this house. 
The lights in the bathroom went out. The door opened and his shadow passed across the wall, doubling like a dark phantom on the surface of the mirror before he made it to the slightly ajar door. 
"You don't have to sleep on the sofa," she said into the darkness.
"Amy!" he hissed in surprise. "I'm sorry if  I woke you. I needed to use the bathroom."
"You don't have to sleep on the sofa, and you can turn on the TV if you like. I won't bother you tonight." She leaned up on one elbow and turned on the bedside lamp. Sure enough, he was wearing the repellants. "Just sleep in the bed." She didn’t look past the familiar, the parts that were just enough for her to recognize her husband. If she looked any deeper something inside her might break. 
"It's okay," he hemmed. "The sofa is more comfortable on my back than the bed." It was a bold-faced lie. The overstuffed sofa was two feet too short, and its back was so thick it covered most of the seat. 
"Orion," she said softly, reasonably. "Just lay down beside me and go to sleep. The bed's big enough for two, and I've taken the hint. I won't touch you." From the incredulous expression on his face, she knew she'd disarmed him with her promise. 
"Amy," he said hoarsely.
She cut him off by sitting up and swinging her legs over the side of the bed. "I see. You'd prefer to have the bed to yourself. I'll take the sofa then." Not giving him a chance to respond, she grabbed her pillow and started out of the room. 
"Amy, I didn't mean - "
She didn't have to say anything. He lost his breath on his own as he caught a full glimpse of what she was wearing. 
"Goodnight, Orion."
"What are you wearing?" he croaked. 
In the doorway, Amaryllis stopped to glance down at the soft pink, chiffon and lace nightgown. Considering that her husband had never touched her, she should have stopped wearing them at some point already during their year of marriage. But, pretty nightwear was as much a part of her character as the crimson waves of hair that had made her famous. As usual, one strap had fallen off her shoulder, so she reached and pulled it back up. Not usual was the peek-a-boo draping of the chiffon, and the suggestive knotting of the lace that hinted, but never quite revealed what was beneath the surface. Until that moment, Amy hadn't thought of the nightgown as being suggestive. It was just a pretty thing, ankle-length with multiple layers of fabric. She'd worn it before, but Orion had been avoiding their bed for so long it had become just another nightgown.
"I'm wearing what I always wear to bed."
Seeing the strangled expression on his face, Amy sighed and retraced her steps, stopping at the foot of the bed. The matching negligee was draped over the gray comforter. As she covered herself with it, she could not help but reflect on the day she'd bought the thick quilt. 
It was the first decorative item she'd ever chosen for her household. Normally, she hired a decorator to make the choices, but not wanting her new husband to come into an overly feminine home, Amy had purchased the pale gray comforter. She'd had the walls of their bedroom repainted from rose pink to ash white. She'd replaced all her filigreed white furniture with heavy mahogany pieces that followed almost austere lines. The only things she'd refused to discard were the white, lace-trimmed pillows and cushions, and the crystal chandelier hanging over the middle of the sitting area. 
I've made so many changes for him. 
She glared at the comforter. Hmm! Comforter indeed. It was more of a husband to her than the man she'd so foolishly bound herself to. Giving one final tug on the belt of the negligee, she schooled her features into that neutral, pleasant smile Orion seemed to prefer she wear. Showing emotions only made things worse. They made him even more distant, tense, and uncomfortable. Not that she cared how he felt anymore. She didn't care about anything but not messing up her home life. As a famous heiress, she had enough problems under the public eye with the paparazzi constantly armed and waiting for her to slip up. 
Head tilted just so, so she wouldn't have to look directly at him, Amy made her way past her husband. 
"Amy." He stopped her with a hand on her wrist. "Use the bed. I'm already used to the sofa."
"No. You've been on that sofa for months now. Have a good night's rest." She gave him that neutral smile, patting his hand where it covered her wrist. "If I don't like the sofa, I've got nine other bedrooms to choose from."
His eyes widened. "No. Don't sleep in another bed. This is where you belong."
She dared to show a little bit of teeth when she smiled at him this time. "I bought it as a marriage bed, Orion. It was always meant to be shared by us as a couple." She saw his wince, heard his indrawn breath and the trembling in her own voice; and by sheer will forcibly calmed the mad pulses of blood pushing through her veins. "In the eleven months that we've been married, you've never slept there. I decided it could only be fair if I slept on the sofa sometimes so you can have a decent nights sleep every now and again."
Orion's hand tightened on her wrist. He forced a smile of his own, swallowing the lump in his throat. "I'll share with you."
"But you won't sleep comfortably."
"Amy-"
She tugged her hand away. "Look. You can have the bed three nights a week."
"I beg your pardon?" he asked with feeling.
"Goodnight, Orion."




Chapter 2

Six o'clock couldn't come quickly enough. Orion would go for his hour-long run, returning just as their housekeeper Gloria arrived for work. 
Amy almost pounded the stuffing out of her pillow. It was impossible to find a comfortable spot on the sofa. She'd moved to the armchairs, but they were too delicate for a comfortable doze. The lounge in the sitting area of their bedroom suite was more comfortable, but Orion had never chosen to spend the night there. Instead, he'd slept on this punishing sofa every night over the duration of their marriage. If nothing else had convinced her of his feelings, or shortage thereof, his reluctance to even share a room with her in the name of comfort did. 
She'd loved him once. Enough that, though she'd seen small signs of his lack of interest in her before their wedding, she'd gone ahead and married him anyway. His reluctance to kiss her, she'd called bashfulness. His annoyance when she bought him gifts, she'd called pride. His insistence that they wait until they were married to consummate their relationship, she'd called gallantry. 
Now, reclining on the sofa, Amy recognized it all for what it was. Hate. For some reason, despite his hatred of her, Orion Ashley had married Amaryllis Brackenridge - and it wasn't because of her fortune. Beyond basic living expenses, he hadn't taken anything from her. In fact, though she was far wealthier than he, Orion had taken on the responsibility of maintaining the household using his own money. When he'd asked how much she would need for personal expenses, Amy had seen how he swallowed when she'd recounted her shopping bill alone. Using his version of that same pleasant expression - that she hated - to hide his dismay, he had promised her at least twenty thousand dollars a month and had fulfilled his word. Once he'd left that day, Amy had breathed a sigh of relief that she had been prudent enough not to recount her travel and entertainment expenses to him, and that he hadn't asked how much she spent annually. 
His workdays had become even longer over the following months; but, once he'd made his first ten million, Orion had increased the amount of her pin money by another ten thousand a month. It had taken him less than a year to go from a net worth of six to twelve million dollars. The media, and her father, assumed that Orion's wealth had expanded so dramatically because of her backing. No one but the four walls of their house knew that her husband barely spoke to her unless it was to ask if she needed a drink whenever they chanced to be out in public together.
Amy turned over to pound her pillow once more, and promptly fell off the sofa. She hadn't slept a wink while he'd been out last night. Now she wouldn't get a wink before the sun came up and it was time for her to pretend she was the loving wife. Frustrated and resentful, she got up and tiptoed into the bedroom.
"Amy?" 
She froze. "It's me. Go back to sleep."
"You want the bed back?"
She couldn't pinpoint his location in the darkened room, but could make a fair guess that he wasn't near the bed. "No. I just need the bathroom." As her eyes adjusted to the dimness, he shifted. She watched as he emerged from the alcove, drawing slowly closer. He had been sitting on the lounge. Wow, she snidely thought. All this time I thought he didn't know it was there. "I'll just be a minute, then I'll be out of your way."
"Amy-"
She ducked into the bathroom and began scraping through her makeup bag for Morpheus-in-a-pill. Earlier, because she'd wanted to get in a fight with him about being out all night, she'd decided not to take the sleeping pills. But, when she'd come face-to-face with Orion, Amy had chickened out. She'd picked an easier confrontation, but she still needed the pills if she was going to rest. In her state of mind, she doubted the prescribed 'two' pills would put her to sleep. She'd need some shut-eye before Gloria arrived. Three pills might send her into dead sleep for a while. She'd wake in two hours, and go about her day as usual. On the counter was a bottle of red wine - the remnants of her time spent soaking alone in a hot bath the night before. She knew better than to do it, but right at that moment, she needed all the help she could get to forget just how much her husband despised her. She needed to forget she was an untouched woman; a chaste wife. 
Unable to swallow more than one pill at a time, she poured herself a glass of wine and drank it down with the first pill.
 Then she followed that with another glass.
And another.
If she didn't flush the toilet, Orion would wonder why she had come into the bathroom. He might think she'd invaded his resting place in a foolish attempt to get his attention. He might think all sorts of things, but she didn't want him to think she had come in here for anything other than a quick pee. As long as she had breath in her body, he would never know that she needed to see a therapist regularly because of him. Amy flushed the toilet, washed her hands, and used the opportunity to rinse the bittersweet flavor of the wine from her mouth. Before opening the bathroom door, she turned out the light. If he'd gone to bed, she wouldn't disturb him. It was a straight flight of about twenty-five steps - and maybe a quick left if she miscalculated - from the bathroom to the doorway. 
She opened the door, intending to rush to the exit, and bumped headfirst into a wall. 
"Oomph!" Orion wheezed, his arms locking around her shoulders.
Drawing back, Amy covered her face. She didn't know what hurt more, his chest or her nose. 
"You okay?" he asked, releasing her with one hand.
From the chafing noise of fabric on flesh, she guessed that he was rubbing his chest. "Yes, I'm fine. I'm sorry. I didn't expect you to be standing there. If you're okay, I'm all done in here, so I'll get out of your way now." She darted around him, cursing the fact that she'd lost count of whether she'd taken three steps or five out of the bathroom. 
The bathroom light snapped on, and in the dim glow she could see her exit just under twenty feet away.
"Amy, we need to talk."
She froze. With her back turned to him, she asked, "About what? I said you can have the bed tonight."
"About us."
She knew what was coming, and something inside her began to wither. Inhaling deeply, Amy breathed life into that part of herself. She was not a woman who had married only to be divorced. She was too young to be a divorcee. She was too loving to be cast aside. If she had to spend the next fifty years being miserable in her marriage, she would. But, she would not be the one that was abandoned.
"I don't want to know, Orion," she softly replied. "I don't want to know when it began; how long it has lasted, or if you think it will ever end. I don't want to know where you've been spending your time; with whom you've been spending your nights; or who made the first move. As long as you remain discreet, I won't care." 
Amy turned her head to the side, not quite trusting her full on expression, but wanting to look at him - even peripherally - when she said, "I don't care. But, what I do care about is being humiliated publicly. If you divorce me, the press is going to have a field day. And you owe me, Orion. You owe me for marrying me, for accepting my heart, when you knew you felt no love for me and never could. I was not designed for divorcement. You knew from the very beginning that I expected to marry for life. That my intention was to love you for life." 
Arms shaking, she raised her hands to her chest. "You should never have married me, but you did. You owe me for the lies, and for pretending. You owe me that much loyalty for keeping my mouth shut when I could have left you months ago with only an annulment. No one's going to believe an annulment now. And those who believe it, will laugh at me. I'll be the woman whose husband couldn't love her, much less bring himself to lust after her. 
"Do you remember what they called me, Orion?" Sadly, she shook her head. "Only four years ago, I was the ugly duckling. It's in their archives! They won't have to look too deep to remember I was the 'Brackenridge Beast'; that they actually recommended I have reconstructive surgery on my face. I have had enough humiliation to last me the next fifty years, and I will NOT go through that again." Trembling, she turned once more to fully face the door. With her back to him, she said, "Keep your secrets, Orion. And guard them well. Because if any word about your nocturnal activities becomes public, I will break the bank to destroy you and her. So, go ahead and give your love to whoever she is. I'm content to keep your hate."
She never looked at him, so she never saw the anguish and shame that washed over his face. She wouldn't have cared even if she had seen them. She had said her piece and left to find oblivion on the sofa.




Chapter 3

Two hours later, after waiting impatiently for a glimmer of light on the horizon, Orion left the bedroom suite to go on his morning jog. He spotted an arm extending past a chair and rounded it to look down on his wife. Amy had the sofa, the carpet, nine other bedrooms, another living room, and a study to choose from. But, she'd chosen to spend the night on the cold marble floor. 
If he had been a better man, he would have insisted she continue to sleep in the bed. But he'd been reluctant to cause a scene. He still needed her to remain calm until he had acquired thirty-three million dollars more in liquid assets. Thirty-three million dollars more and he could be a man in his own household. Thirty-three million dollars more and he could start his life over with nothing but the clothes on his back. 
Squatting beside her shoulder, he brushed a crimson curl from his wife's brow. She hadn't lied. From her birth until as recently as five years ago, the media had referred to Amy as a beast in hiding. And when she'd reemerged three years ago as the new face of fashion, the media had gone for her gullet. There was rampant speculation as to whether the beast had taken the advice of a columnist who had recommended that Amy's parents - both billionaires - spend their fortune on reconstructive surgery for their unfortunately faced daughter. 
Skeptics still believed she'd had surgery, but Orion knew better. As one of very few children invited to the Brackenridge home whenever Amy was in residence, he had been fortunate enough to know her as a child. She was sweet, and generous in her love. Amy had been so insulated by affection that she had never been made aware of what the public thought of her. 
It wasn't until one day, after she had laughed at him for tumbling into a pond during a garden party, and he had retaliated by reading a tabloid in her presence that she had discovered that she was anything less than a beautiful princess. Nine year old Amy had seen a picture on the cover of the tabloid of her and her mother playing on a beach in Saint Barths. Excitedly, she'd grasped the magazine from his sixteen year old self and began to read. Orion had observed with a smirk on his face as Amy read the writer's suggestion that her mother "leash the Beast and put it back in its cage". 
It wasn't anything she did that had suddenly wizened him up to his cruelty - because even as a child, Amy had possessed an inner-strength and generosity that he couldn't help but admire. Sure, her features had briefly crumbled into something homelier than the less than pretty girl he'd known. But, it wasn't that break in her expression that had made him realize that prior to that moment, Amy had had absolutely no idea what the media was saying about her. She'd always defensively declared to him that she was "a pretty princess", but he'd thought she'd known and was fighting back against his teasing. He'd honestly believed that showing her that tabloid would be about as embarrassing to her as falling into that pond had been for him. 
For about two seconds, she'd let him see her heart breaking. A single tear, was all it took for him to never want to see that devastation on her face again. Two seconds of pain, and a single tear, and she'd looked up at him and must have seen the horror on his face. Amy had immediately schooled her features into a cool mask. Her smile was just so. Her brows were just so. Her head was tilted just so you could never quite catch a full on view of her facial features. That moment, when Amy had happily sought him out for company, and had excitedly grabbed the magazine from his hand, was the very last time he'd seen true joy on her face. 
He lied. He'd seen the expression twice more. She hadn't heard the bitterness in his throat and mouth as he'd proposed. In her happiness, she'd forgotten to hide the Beast, and had given him a glimpse of how truly beautiful she was. And on their wedding day, after she'd posed with the right smile, and the right expression, in the right angle to appear most beautiful, Amy had run into the bedroom she'd designed for them and had forgotten to be "the Regina of the Runway", and the "Swan of all Socialites." She had been a bride, welcoming her groom with open arms. And he had pushed her away. 
That night, only twenty minutes after they'd left their wedding reception, he'd told her in his coldest voice - because Amy's love would let her believe nothing less - that he would never touch her. That she was nothing but a means to an end for him. That she should be grateful he had married her. "Because who could ever love a beast, much less bed one." 
Orion closed his eyes, and pulled his hands away from her hair. Not once in the eleven months that they'd been married had he caught even one glimpse of the most beautiful version of Amaryllis. All he needed to do was pick up a fashion magazine to see the fashionista and model now known as Amaryllis Ashley. And any about-town features he could pick up showed the heiress, patron, and philanthropist Amaryllis Stewart-Brackenridge Ashley. It was nearly a year since he'd seen Amy, the girl he'd married. Though Orion knew he'd done nothing to deserve to see her smile, he had grown more bitter and more resentful because of its absence. 
Judging by the vitriol with which she'd told him off in the early hours of the morning, Amy had also grown bitter and resentful. But, she'd never shown it. No. Until he'd asked for a moment of her time, Amy had never let him see beyond the beautiful mask. And even when she'd spoken her mind, she'd kept her back to him and her body cloaked by the shadows in the darkened room.
She shifted in her sleep, a pained moan escaping her lips as she attempted to move the arm that was pinned beneath her. Orion felt shame for what he had reduced such a beautiful woman to because of his hatred for her father. Amy deserved none of this. She deserved to sleep in her own bed. She deserved a husband who could love her. And if he could not give her his heart the way a husband should love his wife, the least he could do was wear a mask of his own. The same way she pretended to the world and to him that she was a happy woman, he could pretend to the world and to her that she was the love of his life. 
He hefted her into his arms, and in her vulnerability, he saw her face full-on for perhaps the first time in nearly a year. She wore no makeup. Her face was relaxed in sleep. Anyone seeing her now would know that this was no surgically created beauty. Time had made Amaryllis beautiful, but kindness and gentleness and love had made Amy stunning. The world paid millions to photograph the beauty their beast had become. What would they do if she ever truly smiled at them? He swallowed his shame and fear as he took her back to the bed she'd been sleeping in alone for the duration of their marriage. 
Orion laid her down in the spot he had slept in, and pulled the covers that he had thrown back over her, tucking her in snugly. He stole a kiss on her pale lips, noting the coolness of them and thinking that her stillness was almost unnatural. 
If he started tonight, to make up this past year to her, would she let him? He doubted it. Amaryllis had it in her head that he'd been cheating on her, and though she refused to divorce him, infidelity was the one thing she wouldn't forgive. He had lost her trust a long time ago, but he could try to regain it. Better she think he was cheating for now, than for her to know the whole truth.




Chapter 4

"Mr. Ashley?"
"Yes. Who am I speaking to?"
"It's Gloria, sir. Your housekeeper."
"Right. Gloria. What can I do for you?"
"It's Mrs. Ashley, sir." Gloria might have whispered the words, but there was anxiety in her voice. She sounded terrified.
Orion looked up from the computer screen he'd been studying. "Amy? What about her?"
"She won't wake up, sir!"
Breathing a sigh of relief, Orion sat back in his chair and wiped his face. "She's just tired, Gloria. Amy went to sleep around four this morning. She probably just needs a few extra hours."
"Nooo," the woman's voice trembled uncontrollably.
Orion could picture her shaking her head on the other end of the line. 
"Mrs. Ashley is almost always up at seven. She doesn't sleep in, even when she doesn't sleep. And if she sleeps in, she always wakes up when I take her coffee. This morning, I shook her, and shook her, but she didn't wake up. So I gave her a few more hours. But she's not moving. I want to call an ambulance, but I don't know if I should, so I called you. She's so cold, Mr. Ashley."
That got his attention. Orion glanced at the clock on the monitor. It was after twelve. He'd been working non-stop for five hours. Amy was a morning person. She'd quicker be up and about during the morning then nap in the afternoon, than the other way around. He remembered the coolness of her lips when he'd left her at six, and how she hadn't moved from her spot in the bed even after he'd returned for a shower at seven. By the time he'd left for the day, Amy hadn't even stirred from beneath the blankets. He might not know much about his wife's nocturnal habits, but even Orion knew that when he left for work in the mornings, Amy was always sprawled across the bed so that Gloria didn't know that he never slept with her. 
"My car! Front doors!" He shouted as he blazed past his secretary. "Did you call Jacob?" Orion asked, already racing past startled executives and their assistants. "Gloria! Did you call Jacob?" The elevators were taking too long. It would probably take him longer to run down fourteen flights of stairs, but he'd be doing something that would take him one step closer to Amy. Just as he pushed open the door to the stairway, the elevator dinged OPEN. He rushed inside, used his key to lock it for personal use, and pushed the button for the lobby. 
"No, sir," Gloria answered. "If anything has happened to Mrs. Ashley, I thought it would be personal and decided to call you first."
"I'll be there in five minutes, Gloria. Call 9-1-1." Orion couldn't remember if his feet touched the ground after that. The elevator opened into the lobby, and he spilled forth like a bat out of Hell. His car pulled up out front, and instead of waiting for his driver to open the door for him, Orion took the driver's seat and gunned the engine, leaving his baffled driver standing on the curb in front of the building. 
 He must have been driving at a ridiculous pace. The stop and go traffic downtown almost sent him into cardiac arrest. His heart was far ahead of the speed his vehicle could go. After blasting his horn through a third stoplight, Orion jumped his Bentley up onto a wide curb before plopping it back onto the street. He didn't know at what point the officer began to chase him, lights and alarm blaring in slow motion to their rate of propulsion. He must have been going over a hundred miles an hour for most of the drive because though Orion didn't make the normally twenty-minute drive in five minutes, he pulled up outside behind the ambulance exactly eight minutes after he'd hung up on Gloria. Thankfully, the gates had been left open for the ambulance, otherwise he might have driven them down. Orion was halfway up the stairs when four police cars pulled up behind the Bentley. 
"Stop!" an officer shouted.
"My wife!" and he was gone, disappearing into the cavernous house. He raced past the paramedics, the last to arrive, but now leading the way. "Amy! Amy!"
It took two officers and his head of security Jacob, to drag him away from Amy's side. He watched, aging an eternity as the technicians worked on his wife. 
"Mr. Ashley, do you know if your wife took any-" 
"What? No! Amy's as healthy as a horse. Doesn't do drugs or anything like that. She might drink a glass of wine, but…" he shook his head. Why were they talking to him when they should be fixing whatever was wrong with Amy? 
"Sleeping pills," a small voice whispered. All eyes turned to the housekeeper. "Ms. Amy sometimes takes sleeping pills. She's good about putting them away, but they were on the edge of the tub this morning."
"Are they still there?" one of the men asked.
"Yes."
Jacob kept his boss restrained as one of the paramedics went into the bathroom. 
When the man returned, his expression was grim. His voice was low as he recounted his findings to his partner. 
All Orion heard were words like: "thirty-day supply" and "new prescription"; "five days ago"; and "sixteen left". The final blow was the word "overdose." 
He heard his voice as if it was coming from inside someone else. "Amy! Amy!" The officers were speaking to him, but he couldn't hear past the blood in his ears. They held on to him, but he couldn't feel past the pain in his chest. Then he was on the ground looking up. And a haze of red became brighter and brighter until he could not see.  




He was lost to himself until the following afternoon when he awoke to find his wife whispering with a nurse at his bedside.
Her first words once they were alone were hoarsely whispered. "You okay?" Unsteadily, Amy rose to her feet and peered down at him.
He nodded, barely able to trust his voice. He couldn't remember how he'd gotten here in a hospital bed. The last thing he remembered was seeing the paramedics working on Amy and knowing that the world had stopped turning. 
"You?" he croaked, his throat feeling as if it had collapsed onto itself. 
She bit her lip, but nodded. "I didn't take an overdose, Orion," she said. "I must have sleepwalked and taken more pills. The dosage is two per night as a mild sedative. I took more than I should have, but I wouldn't have tried to kill myself. I must have been walking in my sleep. Jacob said he saw me out on the veranda around nine o'clock in the morning, but I don't remember. The doctors think I was sleepwalking." If she said it enough, he might not hate her as much for having caused him a heart attack. 
It was a mild one, but it was a heart attack nonetheless. He could have died, and it would have been because of her. Considering that he already hated her, he must now be feeling an epic hatred for her. Especially after she'd refused to set him free.
"What happened?" He licked dry lips.
"The doctors will come and talk to you in a minute." 
She patted his fingers and he saw where needles were taped to the back of her hand. He rolled his eyes, forcing them to follow the tubes up to the clear bag on the wheelchair behind her. What he could remember of her words replayed in his mind. Sleepwalking. Sedative. Kill myself. If he'd had the energy, Orion would have wept.
"I'm going to go now."
With the little that he had, Orion clasped her fingers before she could step beyond his reach. "Stay." He licked his lips again. "Stay."