Sunday, August 4, 2013

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.


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 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.”
“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. 
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. 
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. 
“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.

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