Branded sanctuary, p.46
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       Branded Sanctuary, p.46

         Part #7 of Nature of Desire series by Joey W. Hill
Page 46


  Maybe if shed given Brendan more of a chance to explain But she didnt want it explained. She wasnt ready to be soothed or coaxed into accepting a rationalization from a guy who thought making her happy was more important than making it clear they had no future.

  Yeah, she knew how that sounded, but she knew what she meant, damn it.

  She didnt want to see Marguerite, but she wanted to go to work, double damn it. Shed slept poorly and ended up sitting on the back porch as predicted both nights, huddled in a blanket and fitfully dozing, listening to the nighttime insects, St. Frances purring on her lap. The house was scarier than the outdoors. Walls blocked a view of what was coming after you.

  So she got dressed. She even put on jewelry and makeup, taking time with her hair in a way she hadnt in a while. When she came out on her front porch, she had a momentary hope, a despicable one, that Brendan would be there, miraculously showing up like he had after that first night.

  Of course he wasnt. He was respecting her wishes, the jerk. Getting into her car, she slammed the old Toyotas squeaky door and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror.

  The reflection looked about as inviting as a washed-out corpse dolled up by a mortician, curls fluffed around sunken eyes, a painted mouth that looked garish. Yeah, shed taken care with her appearance today, but it hadnt been because shed been feeling better. It was because she was viewing Marguerite as a competitor, wanting to show her she could be as attractive to Brendan, in one of those insanely irrational moves at which women excelled.

  Yanking a wet towelette out of the glove compartment, she wiped it all off. Scraped her hands through her hair like a dog with fleas. Then she put the car in drive.

  She didnt remember much of the trip into town, didnt turn on the radio. She could work on autopilot if she needed to do so. Shed perfected that these past few months, hadnt she? Shed get through, even though Tea Leaves had been her last sanctuary.

  When she came into the tea room, it was still about a half hour before opening. Gen and Tyler were at the center island in the kitchen. Tyler was finishing up his coffee, wearing slacks and shirt, coat hung over the chair, suggesting hed brought Marguerite in to work and planned to do some business in Tampa today. They glanced up as she entered, and Gens brow rose at her appearance, but she didnt say anything. Eggshells. She wondered if they were as tired of walking around on them as she was.

  Yeah, I look like shit, she said. You can say it. Im not going to fucking break, you know.

  I think youre already broken, sweetling, Gen said quietly. You want some tea this morning? Theres a good chamomile blend that Marguerite Has been making me choke down regularly. Yeah. Its done a hell of a lot of good.

  Thats enough.

  Chloe snapped her attention to the end of the counter, where Tyler had leveled a look on her with those amber eyes. That look mashed the words flat on her tongue, an act of self-preservation. Shed never been a child who feared her father, but her dad, like many loving fathers, had that point past which his child knew he would not be crossed. Tyler had that look now, and she had a crazy feeling he wasnt above taking her behind the woodshed for a good strapping with his belt if he felt she needed it. In some ways, she wished she was back in that time of her life, because usually her dad had done it when shed been out of sorts about something. Somehow the punishment had defused it, refocused her. Helped the tears come.

  Was that part of it for Brendan? The release of pain? Demons he couldnt exorcise? Oh hell, she didnt want to go down that road.

  When Tyler rose from his stool and stepped over to her, she wanted to draw back, but she couldnt. The gentleness of his touch on her face, at odds with the sternness of his voice, almost unhinged her. She had to quit her job. Shed known it when she woke up this morning, recognized it more than once over the past couple days. She needed to leave it all behind. Maybe shed drive to the opposite coast, like shed done in college a couple times. Go hang out on the beaches, braid peoples hair. Be homeless, live in a pretty box decorated with rainbow colors and scraps of beads and ribbons that advertised her trade. Be a part of nothing.

  Tell Marguerite

  You need to go talk to her, Tyler said. Shes in her private garden, having tea.

  Marguerite did that on rare occasions, following her own unique mixture of Japanese and English tea etiquettes that were as important to her as her yoga. It happened on occasions that usually coincided with Marguerite having a bad day herself. Great. So Brendan had told her. Though she expected it, it still hurt. Were all sloppy seconds to his Mistress

  I dont want to see her. You can just tell

  Did I give you the impression this was a choice?

  Gen became still as a mouse behind the counter, and Chloe wondered if her own eyes had become wide as saucers, like her co-workers. That shift in tone was as subtle as a tiger going from lazy interest to keen fascination with a grumpy badger right outside the tigers camouflage of marsh grass. Tylers hand on her face remained just as gentle, though, which was the disturbing part.

  She doesnt want to see me.

  Youre wrong about that. Youve been on her mind for quite a while now. Its time to resolve it. Go tell her whats on your mind. Get it over with.

  Stop hiding behind your anger and your fear. Its not fooling anyone, not even yourself.

  What about you? She stared at his silk tie, knowing she couldnt meet that gaze for long. A re you fooling yourself, about her and Brendan?

  Gens indrawn breath told her that being fired might be the least of her problems, but when there was nothing but silence, she looked up. Tyler was studying her with a lifted brow. So he told you.

  I found out. Then he told me.

  Mmm. Chloe, the relationship Marguerite and I have isnt really your business, but I will tell you this. Im not concerned about Brendan and Marguerites relationship. I know her heart. A nd you used to know it as well, better than you ever realized. She is protective of him, and of you.

  Why does she need to be protective of him? Hes a big strong guy.

  Brendan was involved with someone who abused his submissivegenerosity, for lack of a better word. I agree with you, that hes a grown man and can protect himself, but she doesnt want to see him hurt like that again.

  Tims bitter face swam up in her mind. She didnt want to feel anger on Brendans behalf at the thought of someone abusing him, but it came anyway, curling her hands. Why would Brendan let that happen? I mean, againbig strong guy.

  Chloe, its possible to strip someone to the bone without ever laying a finger on them. You just need to know what kind of weapon to use.

  There were many layers of meaning under that, all of them there in Tylers gaze, too painful for her to face. She looked away. Brendan had said he broke up with his last relationship a few months before their wedding. Which meant, if he had a Zone membership, and afriendship, with Marguerite, then he and M were never an exclusive item. Of course, did knowing that make things better or worse?

  Im mad at her. Its not a good time to go talk to her.

  A ctually, I think thats the perfect time. Go. He nodded to the side door. A nd, if youre entertaining ideas of heading toward your car, instead of toward her garden, Id rethink that. Im a great deal faster than you are.

  She sighed, rubbed her face, resenting him, resenting all of it, not wanting to look at Gen and resent the look on her face, either. I just cant deal with it.

  Yes, you can. He shepherded her toward the side door, held her arm an extra moment. Face your fear, Chloe. Youll feel better when you do.

  Youre a bully, you know that? But her tone was resigned, not accusing. A reluctant frisson of reassurance coursed through her at the faint amusement in those amber eyes.

  So Ive been told. Repeatedly. It doesnt help her get away with anything, any more than its going to help you.

  * * * * *

  Marguerite poured her a cup of tea, setting the pot back dow
n on the cozy, and leaned back. She didnt speak right away, inhaling the aroma from her own cup. Chloe curved her hands around the smooth ceramic, needing and wanting the warmth, despite the protest in her stomach against putting anything in it. She was finding it hard to even look at Marguerite, the overwhelming beauty, the shadows and secrets in the pale blue eyes. Maybe because it would make her despise herself more, and face the fact she was as much hurt by Marguerites silence as Brendans sin of omission, no matter that hed told her up front that there were things he would tell her in time. I love you. Why did you push me toward him, knowing

  Chloe. Marguerite spoke, but Chloe didnt lift her head. The woman sighed, put down her cup. Slim fingers and long silver white nails came into Chloes field of vision, settling on the table cloth. Do you have any idea how difficult it is for me to see you like this every day?

  Sorry, Chloe responded tersely. But if you wanted him for yourself, I guess you should have kept him. Worked out some permanent threesome with you and Tyler, though Im sure that wouldnt have gone over too well.

  A t the pregnant silence, she had to lift her head. A s shed always known, it was difficult to surprise Marguerite. But there was no mistaking that shed done it now. The shock on Marguerites face was entirely genuine. The brief spurt of vindictive satisfaction was swept away by mortification.

  He hasnt told you anything, has he?

  Who, Tyler? Have you been confiding in Tyler?

  No. Chloe pushed away from the table, but couldnt get up. I thought Brendan had

  Whatever Brendan feels for me, Chloe, Marguerite said carefully, I can guarantee he would never break a confidence with you, unless he felt you were in danger. Would you like to tell me what has upset you so much?

  Chloe gazed at her hands miserably. The warmth from the tea cup was slipping out of them. First, tell me what you meant, about it being hard to see me every day. Have I become such a lousy employee lately that youre thinking about firing me?

  It has been hard for me to see you, knowing that its my past that has hurt you this way. Marguerite shifted. Now Im suspecting I personally have hurt you as well. That makes seeing your misery all the more unbearable, though it gives me hope I might be able to fix my part of it.

  Marguerites visibly strained expression took Chloe back, to the day Marguerite had bent over her broken body, knelt in blood and shattered glass to touch her, tell her help was on the way. Chloe, you could become the most horrible employee Tea Leaves ever hired, and I wouldnt let you go, or let you give up on yourself. I would never stop being your friend, caring about what happens to you. Loving you.