A waning moon, p.18
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       A Waning Moon, p.18
 

           Bliss Addison
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  Seemingly undeterred by her lackadaisical approach to fitness, he ushered her to the elevator.

  Inside the six-by-six mirrored cell, she saw a man running toward the elevator. Using the man’s timing to her advantage, she banged the close door button repeatedly. “Someone's coming,” she said over her shoulder. “With any luck, we won't have to share the elevator.”

  She hammered the button with her index finger one more time and the doors slid slowly toward the middle.

  She jumped to Whit's side when a hand slid between the panels and forced them apart.

  “Close, but no cigar,” Whit said in her ear.

  She looked up at him, hoping to gauge the level of his displeasure for her ungracious behavior. He seemed more amused than perturbed. Stronger measures were required if she wanted to prove she wasn't the woman for him.

  On the fourth floor, Blossom walked alongside Whit, keeping time with his lengthy stride. He unlocked the main door, flipped the light switch, and continued walking. Wordlessly, she followed him through the dimly-lit hallway.

  At the doorway to his office, he stepped aside and ushered her inside.

  She looked around. His office impressed her. Under other circumstances, she would have commended his choice on the tasteful decor. She was certain his clients felt secure in his capable expertise. If she ever needed a lawyer, she'd seek his assistance.

  “Perhaps you might be more comfortable sitting on the sofa in reception?”

  Blossom would not accept his suggestion. “I'm fine,” she said and sat on a chair at the front of his desk. “Carry on like I'm not here. There's no hurry.”

  It had occurred to her he brought her here to boast his accomplishments and to put on a show. That wasn't the case, she noted now as he judiciously read through his messages, returned calls, checked his calendar and left instructions for his secretary. His manner was cordial and his tone pleasant and without airs.

  She needn't have worried Whit had lost sight of his missing sister. Here was a man who possessed the ability to juggle many aspects and events at one time and never, for one minute, forget any detail, no matter how minor. His office had not only inspired her, but he had, as well. She could easily fall in love with him.

  Blossom recovered from her mental lapse and continued with her plan to dissuade him from loving her. She would only bring him misery and Whit was too nice a man to be hurt.

  In the parking lot of McDonald's, Whit opened the car door for her.

  "Would you like to go somewhere for a drink?” he asked.

  “Sure.” Her response popped out of her mouth before she remembered the charade.

  Within seconds, they became one of a thin stream of traffic flowing from the city. In a flash, they were cruising along the highway, alone it seemed, until the occasional oncoming car approached them and passed them by, their headlamps temporarily blinding their vision.

  At the main entrance of The Blue Flamingo, Blossom pointed to a plaque nailed to the cedar siding near the door.

  Whit read it out loud, “This is a smoking establishment.” He laughed.

  “Damn I left my pipe at home.”

  Blossom felt frisky and enjoyed Whit's company whether she wanted to admit it or not. “Do you always do what the law says?” She wanted to know he could push the envelope if need be.

  “Always.”

  She nudged him in the ribs. “You don't go outside the line not even the tiniest bit?” She measured an eighth of an inch with her thumb and forefinger.

  “Not even.”

  She saw him cover up a grin. “I bet.”

  With Whit at her side, they entered the bar. The nicotine-stained walls of the bar virtually vibrated from the boisterous crowd.

  She led the way to two unoccupied stools at the bar.

  “Name your poison, little lady,” the bartender, a lanky, hollow-cheeked ex-biker type said.

  “A beer. Whatever you've got that's cold and hold the glass.”

  Ex-biker turned to Whit and jutted his chin, wordlessly asking for his order.

  “I'll have the same,” Whit said.

  In the mirror facing the bar, Blossom watched the couples on the dance floor gyrate to the strains of the Rolling Stones streaming from the jukebox in the corner.

  She turned to Whit. “Something you want to tell me?” That question asked by a woman mostly always caught the man off guard. This time was no exception.

  Whether Whit had something to hide or not still remained to be learned. She watched the blood drain from his face. A sure giveaway of guilt.

  “No. Why?”

  “Come here often?” she asked, running her hand down the length of her ponytail.

  He shook his head.

  “You do know this is a gay bar, don't you?” She tried not to giggle but did.

  “Uh-huh.”

  “You're just full of surprises, counselor.”

  He swallowed, stuttered and stammered something unintelligible, then made gestures unfamiliar to her until finally raking stiff fingers through his hair.

  “Could you repeat that a little louder, please?” When she noticed the flush creeping up his neck, she bumped his hip. “Sorry. I couldn't resist. What's the real reason you wanted to have a drink here?”

  The bartender brought their beers.

  Whit slapped a bill on the counter and told ex-biker to keep the change.

  She patiently waited while Whit satisfied his thirst.

  “The fellow who we think abducted Mary Ellen —”

  “Baleman.”

  Whit nodded. “He may be gay if we're to rely on our informant.”

  “Your informant Trevor Kiki Malloy? The guy who Baleman beat to within an inch of his life?”

  “And here I thought you weren't paying attention.”

  So much had happened in the three days since then, that day seemed in the distant past. Recalling how unnerving it was for her coming face to face with the man she thought had stalked her, goose bumps broke out on her forearms.

  “Ah,” she said, her mind drawing a blank for a flippant comeback. She felt her face warm with embarrassment. He smiled. The man was a good sport, she gave him that.

  “Getting back to Baleman, you hoped to find him here.” She watched him peel back the label on the bottle and roll it between his fingers.

  “Yes. Lyron and Ian are checking out the other gay bars in town.”

  She nodded, again and again, adding and subtracting points like she had lined him up as a potential husband. “So you took me here on pretense. You really didn't want to have a drink with me. You needed me on your arm so no one would think you're gay. You're killing me.” She meant the last part playfully. Instead, the words came out sounding genuine. “Why didn't you just tell me your plan?”

  “And risk having you say no? Not a chance.” He turned and looked directly at her. “I really do want to have a drink with you, just not here. In fact, I don't want this evening to end.”

  She stared at him, studying, searching and analyzing. He appeared sincere.

  “Two birds with one stone, so to speak.”

  “This was a mistake.” He took a long swallow of beer, then set the bottle on the counter with a thud. “Let's go.”

  She hurt his feelings, she realized, wondering how a man secure with himself could have his ego bruised so easily. She put a hand on his arm and stopped him. “We're here. Why don't we stay?” Just then, someone at her back tapped her shoulder. She turned and looked into the black-lined, heavily mascara-ed eyes of a woman wearing a black leather bustier and matching pants.

  “Yes?” Blossom asked, staring at the serpent tattoo on the woman's neck, then at the piercings through her nose, upper lip and eyebrow.

  “How about a dance, sugar?” Body Piercings struck a wooden match against the side of her leg and lit the cigarette dangling from her bottom lip.

  Blossom shifted from foot to foot, wondering if a negative answer would instigate a fistfight. Whit came to her rescue. “She's
with me.”

  “Your loss, man.” Body Piercings flipped him the bird, dragged hard on her cigarette and walked away in a puff of charcoal smoke.

  Blossom heaved a sigh of relief. “Poor sport.” She drank greedily from her beer and, to her embarrassment, belched. “Excuse me.” Her eyes watered from the acidic bile rising to her throat. She placed her fingertips against her lips and burped again, this time more delicately.

  Unable to look him in the eyes, she turned toward the crowd and stared. A man dressed in a long, black overcoat and wearing a trilby walked across her line of sight along the back wall. He looked vaguely familiar, then she remembered.

  “That man.” She pointed. “That's the man who hit me over the head the night before last.”

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  “A man hit you?” Whit said so loud patrons of The Blue Flamingo stopped what they were doing and stared at them.

  “Yes, and he's right back there.”

  He followed the direction of her outstretched finger. He couldn't wait to get his hands on the man who dared to lay on a hand on her. Look as he might, only women stood in his line of vision. “I don't see him.”

  She stood on her toes and scanned the back of the room, then turned and looked around the bar. “I don't see him now, either. I've been thinking a lot about him lately. My mind is probably playing tricks on me. I'd really like to smack the guy upside the head like he did me.”

  “Are you sure he's not here?”

  “Yes. You seem skeptical. Don't worry. I wouldn't just let him get away.”

  “If you're sure.”

  “I am.”

  A thought struck him. “You said this happened the night before last? It's the night you went missing.” Everything that happened that night clicked in his mind. “You and Ian kept this from me. Why?”

  The noise in the bar seemed to increase twofold in volume and the patrons, gyrating to the rhythm of country songs, proved a distraction for both of them. He took her by the arm. “Let's talk out in the car.”

  As they walked across the frozen snow-packed ground of the parking lot, their exhaled air coming in white puffs from their lips, she looked up at him and smiled. His stomach rose to his throat.

  He loved looking at her. Truthfully, he loved everything about her. She gave him one of her lopsided smiles, which he knew was not entirely reserved for him, but it would be, and given time, she’d have eyes only for him, as well. He hadn’t been sure she wanted to go out with him tonight or whether she was coerced into the date by Ian, but whatever the reason, he'd decided it didn’t matter. He would establish a friendship and progress from there.

  The forever relationships stemmed from friendships.

  What was he thinking? Something was happening to him. He should be angry with her for her dishonesty and yet all he wanted to do was take her in his arms and tell her everything would be all right.

  Had he thought of her so much, consciously and unconsciously, since the time he set eyes on her on campus all those years ago that he needed to apply all his strength into not jumping her, right here, right now?

  He never — ever — lost control, or came near to losing control, and never lost sight of reality. He pressed the point of the Beemer's ignition key into his sweaty palm. Get a grip, Hawkes. Now before you do something you'll regret. She doesn't feel for you what you feel for her. Not yet. It's too soon. Give her time. Be patient.

  That sounded very adult of him. And very astute. Probably the best advice he ever gave himself.

  Still, though, he wanted to act on his feelings and be damned the consequences. Even knowing the rights and wrongs of actions, he had to fight mind against body.

  His hand, swinging at his side, connected with hers. At the contact, she stopped. She peered into his eyes. “Did you say something?” she asked.

  He nodded. “I'm sorry.”

  She shook her head. “For?”

  “For this.” He took her in his arms. She didn't resist. He inclined his head and looked into her eyes.

  She leaned into him.

  Her breath, warm and beery-scented, mingled with his.

  He had no expectations or preconceived notions, but the kiss, if he had allowed himself the liberty of fantasizing, would have surpassed anything his mind could have imagined, he was sure. Too soon, the kiss ended, but before she could move away from him, he brushed his lips against hers.

  His body, searing with desire, put up a convincing argument to deepen the kiss. No, the gentleman in him screamed. Stay in control. Remember your advice to take it slow.

  “Hmm.” He rubbed his lips together, savoring the kiss. “That was nice.”

  “Spectacular.”

  Her voice, he noticed, had taken on a mechanical tone. He opened his eyes and looked at her. She enjoyed the kiss as much as he did. The proof was clearly etched in her facial expression, in the softness of her skin and the dreamy look in her eyes. But not only that, she liked him as well. Why was she trying to keep her feelings from him?

  With a squint and a grin, she said, “B minus for foreplay, an A for technique, and an A plus for delivery.”

  He threw back his head and laughed. He was so in love with her.

  From the first time he’d set his gaze on her on the SJU campus, he’d envisioned his life, his future, with his red-haired beauty at his side. True love, he believed, had no limits, and no appropriate time to strike. It just did, sometimes when least expected, and at the most inopportune of times. He shouldn’t be as happy as he was now, not with Mary Ellen's abduction hanging over his head like a lead balloon ready to drop, but he couldn’t help himself. He felt rejuvenated, his faith in luck, destiny, the stars and the planets, restored.

  He noticed Blossom’s face clouding over and knew she readied herself to tell him something he would not like. For fortification, he gave her one last hug, smelled the peaches in her hair one last time and opened the car door for her.

  After he settled behind the steering wheel, he turned to her and asked, “What's the matter? What are you trying so hard not to tell me?”

  She swallowed, hard. He recognized what she had to say would come with great difficulty. He also sensed she needed to bring whatever it was out in the open. “Take your time. I'm in no hurry.”

  Her fingers pressed a pleat in the denim of her jeans.

  To set her obviously worried mind at ease, he said, “There isn't anything you could say that would shock or surprise me.”

  “Seen it all, huh?” She half-laughed. “Don't be so sure.”

  By all that was holy and judicious, her giggle should have caused the little hairs on the nape of his neck to spring to attention and shout: Warning. Dangerous curve ahead.

  “I'll take my chances,” he said.

  “Okay. You asked for it, but don't say you weren't warned.” She blew out a breath and said, “Ian and I have not been completely honest with you.” She paused and watched him, apparently awaiting his reaction — his negative, angry reaction.

  “Uh-huh. I now.”

  She cocked a brow and jutted her chin.

  “What?” He smiled. “Did you think I wouldn't find something suspicious in the two of you just happening to show up on my doorstep with an improbable story in the middle of the night after one of the worst snowstorms of the winter?”

  “You're angry.”

  He sensed, not that she would admit as much, that his feelings mattered.

  “I'm not angry.” How could he be when the woman of his dreams literally landed in his lap after years of pining for her? Love was about understanding, trust and forgiveness. It was all he could do not to lay his hand on her cheek and feel the heat of her life beneath his fingertips.

  She searched his face and looked into his eyes.

  He answered her unasked question. “I knew if I turned you away, I wouldn't see you again. Don't ask me how I knew.”

  She relaxed into the seat, looking straight ahead.

  “Now, why don't you tell me how you
and Ian were not completely honest.”

  She cleared her throat. “Long ago, a long, long time ago, my morally corrupt great-granny Aggie Drummond slept with a man by the name of Milton Higginbotham. It turned out his wife, Hesper Higginbotham, was not only a vindictive woman but one who dabbled in black magic.”

  Whit listened intently, occasionally being sidetracked with the way her lips moved and how her expressive long-lashed green eyes could hold him captive. He let her tell her story. Questions would come later. In lieu of a legal pad, he mentally wrote key words on the yellow-lined pages he imagined: the Curse, Ian-slash-Pendexter, tenants, great-granny, Rose, Lawrence, Olive, granddaughter Jennifer Lamb, God, prayer-vigils.

  “And now I have only a few days to live if we don't find a way to banish the Curse. So there.”

  Her story was too outrageous not to be believed. He faltered some over the idea of a curse, thinking there had to be a logical explanation for everything that happened to Blossom over the years. That was his pragmatic self speaking.

  On the other hand, on occasion there could not be proved a rationale behind an occurrence of bad luck. Even in this technological advanced world, people guarded their luck by not tempting fate. He who knocked on wood and avoided walking under a ladder could vouch for it. If ever a story needed a happy ending, Blossom's did. He wanted to take her in his arms and tell her everything would work out and have her believe it. She would probably laugh or leave and he would never see her again.

  Knowing she suffered with this curse hanging over her head, knotted his stomach. He saw in her eyes and heard in her voice that loss, betrayal and failure had eaten away at her self-esteem and little by little weakened her will. He came to a quick decision. For however long she had on earth, he would give her what the past years and beliefs had robbed from her: fun, enjoyment and laughter.

  Looking straight ahead and massaging her temple, she said, “Laugh if you want.”

  Throughout his career, he had heard many fabricated stories, a few as outrageous as Blossom's tale. With experience and a keen ear he’d learned to differentiate truth from fiction. A human lie detector, he prided himself on thinking.

  Her life would be his life.

  With what little he knew of her struggle, she had persevered. Day after day she fought.

  Her end would be his end.

 
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