Branded Sanctuary, Page 7Joey W. Hill
Her mind had gone straight to the land of poetic fruit loops.
Grimacing, she put down her tote bag and came into the main kitchen. The days tea offerings had been written on a piece of floral stationery and left on the counter for her to transcribe to the board. A s she was looking it over, a cup of tea, steam rising off the liquid, was placed at her elbow. I think a chamomile this morning, mixed with lavender and our freshest green blend for energy. A square of chocolate was placed next to the cup by long, elegant fingers, graced by a silver wedding band etched with Japanese characters. A nd this, for pure indulgence.
Chloe looked up into the face of the tea rooms owner, Marguerite Winterman. Tall, beautiful and as remote as the ice queen of fairy tale legend was the way most would describe her precise features, moonlit hair and pale blue eyes. Chloe and Gen both knew her well enough to call her friend.
She was more than that too. Chloe couldnt exactly put a finger on it, but though there was not a great distance in their ages, Marguerite possessed qualities she might have assigned to a favorite but strict teacher, a tribal chieftain or temple priestess, with Gen and Chloe as her acolytes.
Chloe didnt resist authority or rebel against it; she just flowed around it like a cheerful brook, integrating it in her bubbling froth. But there was no going around Marguerite, which was why Chloe knew shed needed more sleep before coming in. Even now, Marguerites fingers drifted to Chloes face, tipped up her chin.
Why are you here today? she asked quietly.
Because I dont know where else to go, Chloe almost said. The person she used to be had plenty of casual friends. On any given week she might head off to a hike in the mountains, or dress up in Goth gear for a heavy metal concert. Spend a weekend working a table for a charity event in one of Tampas many parks. But shed cut herself off from those friends over the past months. Put them off by saying theyd do something soon. It had been a gradual thing. Shed tried participating in her usual activities, but felt more and more like a remote wooden doll. She did and said the right things, but came home exhausted from the pretense, the emotional drain of being totally detached and pretending not to be.
A s a result, during the past few months shed done little to nothing, other than putter around her house, sit on the back porch and stare into space or nap, with St. Frances curled in her lap, an undemanding weight.
Sometimes she wished the work day would never end, that she could stay in a continual loop like one of those Twilight Zones where she could always be here, where she understood what she needed to do and who she needed to be. Much like shed felt when kissing Brendan, not wanting to go back or forward.
Shed been nervous the first day shed come back to work after her attack, since this was where it had happened. But Marguerites renovation of the tea room must have included a cleansing ritual, because the second Chloe stepped back across the threshold, shed felt relief, a sense of home.
Which she hadnt felt anywhere else until this morning, when she stepped into Brendans arms.
She was dropped off. Gen came to her rescue. Brendan brought her to work.
Marguerites gaze didnt waver from Chloes face, but a speculative look entered her gaze. You couldnt distance Marguerite or evade her when she wanted a straight answer, but offering a new variable that changed the nature of the question had an effect. Did he stay the night with you?
Yep, that was Marguerite. Direct. Not exactly. We stayed up late on the phone and he came by this morning, offering to drive me.
So hell be driving you home tonight.
Good. Marguerite released her from that penetrating look, but slid the tea and chocolate closer.
It was a really hot, tonsil-sucking kiss, Gen offered.
It was not.
It had those take-me-now electrons bouncing all the way across the porch. You were wrapped around him like a monkey on a branch.
Like some kind of slut? Chloe snapped. Some dirty whore?
Marguerites head whipped around as Gen froze. Chloe put down the tea list with exaggerated care, the roaring in her ears a tsunami. Sorry, she said faintly. Ithats not what I meant.
Not what I meant either, honey, Gen said softly. Youre usually so uninhibited with your feelings, and I could tell you really like him. It was good to see.
Yeah, I like him. Chloe cleared her throat, managed a ghost of a smile. We had this totally over the top time on the phone last night. We talked and talked, and did lots of stuff
Marguerite she drew closer again. Chloe
Ill make cupcakes today, Chloe said desperately. Please dont ask, please dont ask. She felt like a bomb ticking down to detonation. You know youre working on taxes and you always feel better afterward if you have some of my cupcakes.
Marguerite studied her another long moment. Chloe, you will start taking care of yourself, or I will make you move in with Tyler and me and do it for you. A re we clear? I love you, and I wont tolerate this much longer. She nodded at the girl, gave her another even look and disappeared into her office, though she left the door open.
I dont know how, Chloe whispered. That was the crux of it all, wasnt it? She had no answers, and shed always been so very sure of herself. She needed something different, something to give her that confidence. She just couldnt figure out what the hell it was. Clinging to the cliff edge by her fingernails was hard enough; she couldnt begin to think of how to pull herself back up. A plethora of hands might be waiting, but something inside her head crawled into a ball and wouldnt reach out.
Like Brendan. She loved the kiss, but if she thought beyond that, the anxiety rose. Damn it, damn it, damn it. A gorgeous, wonderful guy was interested in her. What was the matter? Why couldnt she fix what was broken?
Gen had moved to take over the brewing that Marguerite had started, but she gave Chloes lower back a gentle caress as she passed, thankfully saying nothing further. Chloe shifted her attention back to the counter and stared at the list of specials. Something pleasurable, safe, part of the routine. She loved seeing what Marguerite had put together to offer their customers each day. Loved how she always wrote it down in careful calligraphy, on different types of stationery. This one was a gray mist, with the hint of shadowed fairies and silky daisies behind the writing. Even though the lists only purpose was for Chloe to copy it to the white board, it was a ritual. Marguerite understood the power of ritual, as intuitively as she anticipated what teas would be needed each day to best meet the needs of her clientele.
That intuition was probably why Chloe wanted to be so far away right nowand yet she needed to be here too, more than she needed to be anywhere else. Except, perhaps, in Brendans far-too-open arms.
* * * * *
He arrived right at closing time. Chloes heart leaped foolishly in her chest, even as her hands shook a little, pouring out the tea for the Dupont party. They didnt notice though, because the all-female table was watching Brendan come up the front walkway. He was bearing gifts. A s he stepped in, she saw it was a theater mask. It had the face of a cat, with long winsomely curled whiskers and tufted ears. When he found her, obviously looking for her, he gave her a smile and came right over, reaching for her hand to give it a quick, caressing squeeze. A female wave of amiable yet gratifying envy pulsed at her back. Hey there. Thought about you today.
Oh sure. Until the next psychotic woman calls you in the middle of the night. Then Ill be old news.
True. But Im a live-in-the-moment kind of guy. He gave her another squeeze as Marguerite came from the back. Chloe noted he straightened, dipped his head respectfully to her. There was always an odd formality between them, but yet she knew they were very close. The mystery thankfully distracted her from her momentary discomfiture.
Marguerite offered a tray. How about a cupcake? Chloe made them at lunch.
Brendan considered. Has MasTyler had his share yet?
Yes, the alph
a wolf has had first pick, and is probably nursing a sugar crash for his incurable sweet tooth. She pushed the tray at him. Take this in the kitchen and see if you can help Gen loosen the lid on the Darjeeling. Whats the mask for?
A surprise for Chloe. He winked and disappeared through the swinging door, the only thing that was capable of getting every womans mind off his tight ass and back to whatever it was theyd forgotten they were talking about.
Oh dear. Mrs. Dupont leaned over. Chloe, I think Ive dumped some tea on the floor, and my napkin doesnt seem to be picking it up.
Choe squatted, her always available washcloth pulled from her apron pocket. She stopped in mid-motion, however, her gaze riveting not on the small, brandy-colored puddle, but a dried, older stain.
It was a small smear, one that would be missed except at this time of day, when the sun was coming in at just the right angle. It might not even be a stain. It could be a discoloration of the wood that the sunlight turned into the memory of blood. Her blood. Biting down on her lip hard enough to create more of it, she wiped up the tea.
* * * * *
When they reached the Jeep, Brendan stopped before the passenger door. Rather than opening it, he turned her toward him with a touch on her shoulder. With a quick meeting of eyes to confirm she had no immediate objections, he slid the mask over her head. She peered at him through the eye holes, not sure how to react. He didnt seem like he needed a response from her, however. He was occupied with settling the mask on her nose in a comfortable, surprisingly snug fit. When he at last stepped back, he gestured to the side mirror. A s she checked herself out, she saw the mask made her eyes look feline, the painted lashes adding an exotic, mysterious flavor to them. Her curly, short hair fluffed around it, giving the cats face a whimsical, very feminine flavor. She looked toward him, and knew her lips had curved in a pleased smile when his eyes warmed. Beautiful, he said, with satisfaction, and she couldnt help but agree. The half mask left her cheeks, lips and chin bare, making them much more sensitive to touch when he brushed his fingertips across her lips. A s he traced the skin below the mask edge, over her cheekbones, her lips parted. Easing his fingers into her mouth, he touched her tongue, the secret moistness within her bottom lip.
Now you can be whoever you want to be. He spoke in that voice that seemed designed to elicit total trust and enable seduction at once. While you wear that, youre a mysterious, gorgeous creature who can do anything she wants to do and its okay, because tonight shes a mystery to herself as well. Shes going to be the side of herself she doesnt know, not the side she does.