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Sunday, December 30, 2018

A taste of "Renovating the Billionaire."

   The bus ride to the prison in Fishkill and back provided reading time for Jess Lennox. She settled into a window seat and prepared to read. A man slid in next to her. Jess pulled the book closer. Feeling his stare, she squeezed up against the glass.
   “You visiting a relative?” he asked, eying her up and down.
   She nodded. The last thing she needed was some chatty, middle-aged man hitting on her.
   “My wife. Shoplifting. Minimum security.”
Jess ignored him and kept reading.
   “It gets lonely with her gone,” he continued.
Anger bubbled up in her chest. Damn it! She worked hard, and this trip once a month was her only time off.
   “Your boyfriend in the slammer?” he asked.
Her patience evaporated like water boiling on the stove. Jess slammed the book shut and faced the insensitive clod.
   “My mother. She’s in for murder. She killed my father. They say murderous tendencies run in families,” she said, shooting him the meanest glare she could muster.
   The man paled, nodded once and pushed to his feet.
   “I can see you don’t want to be disturbed,” he muttered and headed for another seat. Jess smiled and opened her novel If I Loved You.  Totally absorbed by the story, tears formed in her eyes as she identified with the trials the characters endured.
   Jess ate up love stories from the library by the dozen. Romance books kept her believing that things could work out, that life could get better—and happiness did exist. When the bus pulled up to the Pine Grove stop, she scooted past the annoying man, down the steps, and ran for her car.
She stowed the book in the glove compartment until her next visit and put the vehicle in gear.
    The story stuck with her. What would she do if she ever met a man like Chaz Duncan? Would she even recognize his good heart under his arrogant attitude? With a short laugh, she figured she wouldn’t. Jess hated egotistical men, men so in love with themselves they couldn’t see anyone else.
   She’d only met one man who had cracked her hard veneer. Chip Matthews won her heart in high school. He’d taken her virginity then, too. But she didn’t care. He had provided respite from the anger, fighting, and hostile atmosphere in her home. He’d been her refuge.
   Pulling into the parking lot of Java the Hut, she turned off the car and plucked a dollar bill from her purse. Inside, an iced coffee-to-go waited on the counter. Marge, the waitress, looked up. Jess picked up the paper cup and slid her buck across the shiny Formica. She shot a small smile at the older woman and headed back to her vehicle.
   Next stop, the old mansion on Route 113. She turned on the radio and cranked up the volume to banish the reality of how many more trips she’d make to Fishkill over the next fifteen years. Taking the winding road that hugged Cedar Lake refreshed her spirits.
   There it was, in all its glory. Way below ramshackle, the 1825 four-story mansion stood with whatever pride it could muster. All the windows were broken and there were bare spots on the roof, including one large hole—providing entry for a variety of wildlife.
When she was only eighteen, Jess had stumbled on the house and fallen in love. Minnie West, the old woman who owned it, had invited her in for tea and cookies. Jess gained entry to every room by volunteering to sweep and dust. Including bathrooms, there were forty rooms in the mansion.
   The third floor resembled a rabbit warren of tiny rooms only big enough for a single bed and small dresser. Jess guessed those were the servants’ quarters. At the end of the floor was the longest staircase she’d ever seen. It went straight down from the top floor to the kitchen.
   Minnie chatted about the history of the house and how, years ago, she’d raised her nephew there. The older lady didn’t go on much about him, and he never visited—at least not when Jess was around. As time went on, Jess noticed the house sink further and further into disrepair. When she asked Minnie about it, the woman had explained.
   “Oh, I have money, but I spend it on saving animals. A house is just a thing. Animals are alive. So many need help, you know. I do what I can. I give to several shelters.”
   While Jess agreed with the worthiness of the cause, she doubted the wisdom of putting it ahead of upkeep for the old house. Years passed, and Jess had less and less time for visits. Providing for her brother and herself had become more than a full-time job. She and Minnie lost touch.    
After studying cooking in high school, Jess had become a pretty fair baker. She eked out a meager living baking and selling her pies to restaurants, shops, and hotels. She conjured up a dream of buying the fixer-upper from Minnie for a song, repairing it, and running a bed and breakfast.
  One day while spying on his big sister, Will had discovered her secret. He promised not to tell anyone and vowed that he’d fix it. He told her that new paint, hammer, nails, and a ton of elbow grease could restore the splendor of the mansion. Jess believed every word.
From that day on, they had shared the secret.  Jess sold her cakes and pies while Will did odd jobs and a bit of carpentry when he could get it. They worked toward making the dream come true.
   When Minnie got too old to take care of the place, she moved to an assisted living facility several counties away. Year after year, Jess spied the weather-beaten for sale sign staked in the front lawn.
From time to time, a real estate agent brought someone by, but they left quickly. The only one with a vision for the decrepit house, Jess smiled every time a car carried away someone shaking their head and wrinkling their nose.
   A few pangs for the dotty old woman who had lived in the mansion tweaked Jess’s heart. She’d waited patiently for the old woman to put the building up for sale at a rock-bottom price.
   Now thirty, with Will a sturdy twenty-five, she figured they were ready to take on world’s biggest renovation and make her dream come true. Even after such a long wait, Jess had never given up on her dream. She simply baked her pies, did odd jobs for folks in town and kept house for her and her brother. They put away a few bucks when they could and waited.
Today she circled around back, eying the snarled weeds, wiry brambles, and tree stumps in the backyard. Jess planned where she’d plant her garden. Fresh veggies and herbs would make her food better than anyone’s for miles.
   She found a patch of grass and lay down, staring at the pitched roof and the top floor that, in its day, had cooks, butlers, and maids filling its rooms. As she picked at a weed, she made a mental list of the seeds and plants she’d buy when the place was hers.
   The clouds cleared, and the sun shone down. Jess believed in guardian angels. How else had she and Will survived without parents these past twelve years?
   She glanced around. Something wasn’t right. Jess sat up. What was missing? The “for sale” sign had disappeared. She picked up her phone and called her brother.
   “Haven’t you heard? Old Minnie West finally kicked the bucket,” he said.
   Jess put down her phone. Did this mean that her time to buy the place had come? If that was true, where was the sign?

To find out what happens next, pre-order the book, releasing on January 15, here:


Saturday, December 29, 2018

An author doesn't usually admit...

I don't know what it is about a heroine who has a hard lilfe and struggles to survive. There's something appealing about a strong woman like that, she speaks to me. Maybe I identify with her as I've had some pretty tough places in my life, too. 

Jess Lennox, the heroine in "Renovating the Billionaire" is like that. As I wrote the book, her grit, stubborness, determination --whatever you want to call it -- spoke to me. I felt her exhaustion, her fear, her sense of responsibility. She meets life head-on, no matter what comes down the pike. Her salty language and tough demeanor never fool me. I knew from the start she was a marshmellow inside. Look at her relationship with her younger brother? She'd do anything for him. 
It's not difficult to admit how taken I was with Jess Lennox when I sat down to write her story. (And it's as much her story as it is Stryker's.) Who wouldn't be? Who wouldn't admire her guts, her drive to survive on her own? She wins your heart and you're rooting for her. 
Sounds good, right? Like an easy peasy story that should roll right off my fingers? Uh, no. "Wait a minute," you say. "You just got through saying how in tune with her you were." And that's all true. But when it came to giving her a happy ending, giving her what she wanted, I struggled. 
I knew what she had in mind, but I couldn't figure out a way to get it to her. Not one that would be believable. And, if you know me, you know that the credibility of characters is paramount. 

So I paced. And I pondered. And I put it off. And I kept writing, hoping it would come. And hoping, and hoping... 

I've never had this much difficulty with a happy ending. Does Jess get what she wants? I can't say. If you truly need to know, you'll have to read the book. 

You can pre-order it here: 

For those who don't know me, I never ever give away the ending. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


   Get rid of the house and sell the land. Bulldozing the broken-down mansion billionaire Stryker Alexander West inherited solves an annoying problem. Busy launching a new venture, he doesn’t have time to waste on sentiment. Getting a permit to take down the historic building should be a slam-dunk. But Stryker comes up against a stone wall in the form of Landmark chair, Jess Lennox.
   Supporting her brother and juggling a hard life, Jess refuses to approve the permit to take down the old house. No way will she let arrogant, wealthy Mr. West destroy her dream. Unwilling to accept defeat, Stryker’s confident he can prevail.  He insists staying in town is about winning and has nothing to do with heat from a determined blonde.
   Too stubborn to budge, Jess holds fast, struggling against her attraction to her worst enemy. Will the winner of the battle lose at love? 

A Pine Grove novel (book 3) is a stand-alone that takes place in the small town of Pine Grove. Here are a few excerpts:

“Do you mean to say that you are landmarking that house?” he asked.
“Damn right I am. Of course, I will give it further study. But as of right now, my recommendation to the Town Supervisor is that no one bulldoze that building.”
“But it’s decrepit. It’s falling down,” the stranger argued.
“Nope. It’s completely stable. And it dates back to the early 1800’s”
“That building now belongs to me and I’m planning to take it down.”

Jess’s heart skipped a beat. Sweat broke out on her forehead. Take it down? Destroy her home, her dream? No way!
“Think again, Mister. No one’s touching that house unless it’s to fix it up.”


She’d fought against the odds every day for the last twelve years. No reason why this should be any different.

“Listen, sweetheart, blocking the destruction of that old pile of junk isn’t a good idea.”
Bristling, she pushed past him, shoving him out of the way.
“Really, honey. Do the smart thing. Sign the demolition permit.
She turned, fire spitting from her eyes. “I’m not your sweetheart. I’m not your honey. And I don’t give a damn how many people bow to your money and power. I’ll never, and I mean never, change my mind. I’ll never give the okay to sign a permit to destroy that charming old place. So get over yourself and get out of my way.”
“We’ll see about that,” he said, a mocking smirk slapped across his face. He grabbed her arm and whirled her around. “If someone gets hurt in that old place. I won’t be responsible. It needs to come down before something bad happens.”
“No one’s going to get hurt in there. Hasn’t happened yet.”
“Look. I’ve destroyed men a whole lot bigger and stronger than you. So get out of my way.”
“Maybe you’ve destroyed men bigger, but not stronger. And you’re the one who needs to get out of my way,” she said, placing her hand on the truck’s door handle.
He stood so close to her, she could smell his spicy aftershave and feel the warmth of his breath. What was she doing, noticing his broad shoulders and perfect scruff? The man was a menace, a power-hungry monster with no taste and no regard for history or beauty. Still, there was something about him, drawing her. Her nipples tingled. She raised her gaze to his.
“Is there something about the word ‘never’ you don’t understand? Now move your sorry ass before I call the police.”
He jumped to the side with a slight bow to let her pass.
“This isn’t over, blondie. Not by a longshot.”


Read the entire first chapter for free here:

Or pre-order the book now. Release date is Jan. 15, 2019

Unpredictable Love and Break My Heart are on sale in honor of  a third book joining the series. Find them all here:

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Jean's Christmas Bookstore

It's that time of for others. But be and elf to yourself and pick up some great books! My little bookstore showcases books I have already read (or am currently reading). These are all books I've read by my favorite authors. They are wonderful! In fact, most of them have my reviews right there for you to check out.  Come browse and snag a few for yourself. In alphabetical order, by author's name:








Note: I am currently reading this one and am hardly able to put it down to do this blog! I'm loving it. 























Thanks for stopping by. I hope you found books that intrigued you enough to buy. These are all well done. I enjoy sharing the love with talented authors. Happy reading to you, and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

Monday, November 5, 2018

SNEAK PEEK - BLIND LOVE - Now and Forever Series, book 3 - Chapters 1 & 2

Blind Love, one of my favorite books, with three love stories, is almost 300 pages of suspense, tension, passion, and love across three age groups. My first older man/older woman romance!

A bit about he book:

Peter Caldwell, Art History professor and pianist meets Lara Stewart, ballerina and it’s instant hate. Bickering, window slamming, and other hostile acts are more likely to summon the police than Cupid.

Lara, now blind had been beaten and left for dead. Can she dance if she can’t see? The obnoxious piano player next door, so full of himself, is driving her crazy. Prince Charming? More like Prince Annoying. Lara shuts him out of her life.
Obsessed with the one woman he can’t have, is Peter doomed to face failure for the first time in his life? Can a gorgeous, charming, womanizing professor win the heart of a stubborn, blind ballerina who has locked the door to her heart and tossed away the key?

Get a "sneak peek" of Blind Love -- chapters 1 & 2 -- 33 pages --with no obligation. 
Chapter One

When half a dozen people get off the train from New York City in tiny Willow Falls, New York on a Wednesday afternoon, it’s a big crowd. The group arriving this day was an unusual collection of men and women.
Callie Caldwell, a beautiful woman with chestnut hair and big blue eyes, paced on the train platform. By her side was Jason, her energetic seven-year-old, jumping and skipping, unable to contain his excitement at meeting his only grandfather and uncle for the first time. Kitty, Jason’s younger sister, a pretty child with her father’s black hair and her mother’s soulful blue eyes, followed her big brother, imitating his every move. The train wheezed then crawled into the station.
Waiting impatiently for the father-in-law and brother-in-law she’d never met to step off the train kept Callie in motion. With no family of her own, she hoped they’d accept her and maybe even love her.
“Do you think Peter will like teaching here?” she asked her husband.
“Like it or not, he’s here for a year. Signed a contract.”
“What about your dad?” Callie straightened the bow in Kitty’s hair.
“He might miss teaching but he’ll love the kids.”
“We’ll keep him busy.” Callie’s gaze searched the passengers as they stepped off the train. “Do you see them yet?”
“Relax, they’ll love you,” Mac whispered, bending his six foot two inch frame down to her five foot three.
She smiled at him and gripped the hands of her two children tighter. Her husband leaned over and brushed her lips with his. Then Callie spied two men separating themselves from the crowd. Mac waved then joined them. The man with stone-gray hair was tall and handsome. A drop-dead gorgeous, much younger man stood by his side.
When they turned to face Callie, she noticed they all had the same intense blue eyes. After an eight-year separation due to teaching jobs in different parts of the world, the men were not embarrassed to hug each other. When they approached, excitement propelled Jason into his grandfather’s arms.
“Grandpa, Grandpa!”
“You must be Jason,” the older man said, laughing and hugging his grandson while trying to keep his balance. Peter came over and extended his hand to Jason, who ignored it and threw his arms around him.
“Uncle Peter!”
Peter, blond like his late mother, laughed, his devastatingly handsome face breaking into a charming grin. The three men, all well over six feet, looked like human trees clustered around the small children and Mac’s short wife.
“You must be Callie,” Sam said, giving her a big hug, “I’m so happy to finally meet you.”
“Sam,” she muttered, closing her eyes briefly while accepting his embrace. She liked him right away. Kitty, shy like her mom, hid behind Callie’s skirt, peeking out at the men.
“And you, young lady, must be Kitty,” Sam said. He crouched down to be eye-level with the pretty child.
She nodded, her face serious. Sam put out his big hand, but Kitty shrank back. Callie picked up the little girl and inched closer to Sam. When she got close enough, Kitty moved from the safety of her mother’s arms and gave Sam a quick peck on the cheek. He laughed with delight as the child hid her smiling face in Callie’s shoulder.
Peter came over, introduced himself and gave Callie a kiss on the cheek. He ran his eyes up and down her lovely face and curvy body. He raised his eyebrows and turned to Mac with a slight nod.
“How did you ever get such a beautiful woman to marry you?”
“Beats me. I ask myself every day,” Mac said, making Callie blush. He put his arm around her shoulders, picked up a big suitcase and headed toward the car.
On the drive to Peter and Sam’s rented house, Jason and Kitty could hardly sit still. Excitement bubbled up inside Callie too as the car whisked past familiar sights. She opened a place in her heart for her new family members.
Mac pulled into the driveway of the small three-bedroom house he’d rented for Sam and Peter. The wood-frame building was on quiet James Street, an avenue filled with neat row houses, close together on small, well-tended properties.
The modest house was painted a warm, medium blue with white shutters and trim. Flowering shrubs softened the angles of the front windows. The lawn was tiny but perfectly mowed and the brick path was symmetrical. Flower boxes graced the upstairs windows and hedges lined the small driveway to the right.
Now on leave from Vaal University in South Africa, Peter was in Willow Falls to teach the Survey of Western Art course Marcia Wilton had taught before going on a year’s sabbatical.
Sam had retired from teaching at Vaal. He’d come to meet Mac’s new family. Callie hoped he’d stay in Willow Falls and live nearby. Since losing her parents at sixteen, Callie had attempted to build a happy family. She hoped Sam and Peter would be new additions.
While the men carted luggage into the house, Callie took a long look at Peter. He was even more breathtakingly handsome than Mac. Peter’s nose was perfect, his naturally blond hair was straight, thick and slightly long, his lips had the right shape and fullness. She smiled. Kissable but masculine. Just like Mac. His shoulders were broad, his arms muscular and his hands square with long, slender fingers. Callie preferred Mac but she was surprised by Peter’s looks. He’s thirty-four years old and never married? Surely it must be his choice.
When they walked into the house, Peter went straight to the piano in the living room.
“A Woodruff upright! Thanks, Mac.”
“It wasn’t easy to find a house with a piano. We expect music in this place.”
Peter sat right down at the instrument situated against the wall by the window and did a few arpeggios to see if it was still in tune.
“How is it?” Sam asked.
“It’ll do just fine,” Peter said.
Jason and Kitty entered the room when they heard the music. Peter began singing. Jason ran to the piano and slid onto the bench next to Peter and clapped along. Kitty, hesitated at the door, looking for her mother. Callie nodded to the shy child and the little girl slowly wandered closer to the sound, stopping half-hidden behind a potted plant to listen to the song. Callie wandered in with Mac, who put his arm around her shoulders. She slipped her arm around his waist as he bent down and kissed her when no one was looking.
“I could sit here and play all day, but we better get unpacked.”
Peter got up with Jason to move the suitcases into the bedrooms, then they returned to open boxes, delivered a week ago, stacked in the living room. Shy four-year-old Kitty stuck close to her mother, but she was caught flirting with Peter once or twice, which made everyone smile.
“Cradle robber!” Mac laughed at his brother.
“Now the mother…” Peter said, raising his eyebrows and looking at Callie.
Mac stopped, brows knitted, a frown on his face as he shot Peter a hostile look.
“Don’t go there. My wife is off-limits.”
“Possessive aren’t you?”
“And jealous too, and I like him that way,” Callie said, giving Mac a kiss.
“Dad and I are going to take the kids for ice cream. Do you want to come, Callie?” Mac asked, shepherding Kitty and Jason toward the door.
“I’ll stay here and help Peter get set up,” she said, opening a box.

* * * *

Mac walked around to the driver’s side of the car and patted his pockets, no keys. He remembered last seeing them on the front hall table. He tip-toed quietly into the foyer so Callie wouldn’t know he’d forgotten them. He stopped when he heard the soft purr of Peter’s voice. Mac inched his way to the arch leading to the living room and peered into the room, moving back to remain unseen.
“You’ve been married awhile, Callie. Isn’t it time you took a lover?” Peter asked, sidling up to her.
Mac held his breath but couldn’t stop listening.
“Oh, but I have a lover, Peter,” she said, holding his gaze.
Mac froze. His stomach knotted.
“You do?” The surprise caused his voice to rise an octave.
“He absolutely sizzles.” Beads of sweat formed on Mac’s forehead.
“Does Mac know?” Peter raised his eyebrows.
“I don’t think so.” She turned away from Peter and Mac could no longer see her face.
“I don’t suppose you’d tell me who it is,” he asked, leaning toward her.
Callie whirled around to face him, a broad grin on her face.
“It’s Mac. He’s hot, Peter. So hot…I couldn’t possibly, wouldn’t ever need anyone else. Your brother is an absolute pistol in the bedroom.”
Mac’s cheeks puffed up. He quietly emitted a silent sigh of relief and smiled.
Peter laughed loudly.
“You passed the Peter Caldwell Loyalty Test with flying colors.” Peter walked over to an open box needing unpacking.
“You know what I could use?” Callie put her hand on his arm.
“What?” He reached into a box then stopped.
“A brother. I don’t have one of those,” she said, blinking back tears.
Peter hugged her.
“You’ve got one now,” he whispered.
Mac slipped out the front door and returned to the car to find Jason and Kitty pelting Sam with questions.
“Grandpa, do you eat hot dogs in South Africa?” Jason asked him.
“Grampa, do you eat…ice cream?” Kitty asked, imitating her brother.
“Grandpa, do they have lakes in South Africa?”
“Grampa, look, I have a boo boo,” Kitty said, sticking her hand out.
Sam was laughing as the children fought for his attention.
“Okay, enough,” Mac said, “Five minutes of quiet time.”
The children quieted down and sat back. Sam shot his son a look of admiration.
“They listen…impressive.”
“I’m as surprised as you.”
Mac put the car in gear and backed out of the driveway.

* * * *

Rex Vesson, a burly man in a sleeveless T-shirt that showed off his muscles and tight jeans carried his small suitcase the four blocks from the train station to a small, neat house with a well-kept yard. He was sweating from walking in the warm May sun when he finally reached his cousin Alan’s small house. He took a deep breath of the fresh country air and let it out. Relief washed over him to be out of New York City and safe in Willow Falls.
Alan answered Rex’s knock with a cool glass of iced tea.
“Hey, Alan. Long time, no see.”
“Come on in. You only have one suitcase?” Alan stepped aside.
“I…uh…left too quickly to pack much. Spur of the moment, you know? Besides, clothes and crap I can buy here, right?” He entered the house.
“Don’t lie, Rex. You’re running away.” Alan closed the door behind Rex.
“Come on. I don’t give a damn, but at least be honest about it.” Alan shrugged.
“There were reasons why I left when I did.” Rex licked his dry lips and stared at Alan’s iced tea.
“I’ll bet. Whose wife were you screwing?”
Rex laughed.
“Nothing like that. I’ve got a new business.”
“Lucrative?” Alan raised his eyebrows.
“I do all right. I worked in security at The Hideaway. It’s a nightclub in Harlem. Pretty exclusive.”
“Exclusive and they employed you?” Alan sat on the sofa and crossed his legs.
“Very funny. Yeah, they employed me.”
“You were a bouncer?”
“Yeah, so?” Rex sank into a comfortable chair.
“Doesn’t pay much, does it?”
“It does when you watch famous people coming in with women who aren’t their wives. It pays even more when it’s famous guys, ball players, politicians, coming in with other guys.” Rex smirked.
“Isn’t the club public?”
“Not every room. Even the so-called public rooms, you need pull to get in.”
“So you’re a blackmailer too?” Alan sipped his iced tea.
“Hey, Alan, I’m thirsty. Got any more iced tea?” Rex asked.
“Sure, sure. A long thirsty train ride, one step ahead of a lot of important, pissed off people. I guess you did need to get out of town.”
“It pays good, though.”
“I’ll bet it does.” Alan returned from the kitchen with a tall glass of iced tea and handed it to Rex. Rex took a big gulp before continuing.
“Meaning I can pay you rent, Alan.”
“How long do you plan to stay?” Alan settled into a comfortable chair and sipped his drirnk.
“It depends on how good business goes here. This is a pretty small town. Can’t be too much going on here, if you know what I mean.”
“You might be wrong. For a blackmailer there are secrets everywhere.”
“True. This might work. Its never-ending money no matter where you live,” Rex said and laughed.
“Don’t get any ideas about blackmailing me, okay?” Alan said, nervously.
“You doing something I should know about?” Rex asked, his interest piqued.
“I lead a quiet, academic life.” Alan shook his head.
Rex looked at Alan’s face with new interest. Alan was definitely hiding something.
“Where’s Beth?” Rex asked, his eyes searching the room.
“She took off with a grad student about three years ago.”
“Too bad. Or are you a busy bachelor?”
“I don’t date much. Not many women here I’d be interested in.”
“Where does a bachelor go here to get some action?” Rex asked.
“The local strip club, The Wet Tee Shirt might be a place to start.”
“Ever been there?”
“A couple of times.” Alan coughed.
“Can you get laid there? Chicks got good bodies there?”
“They’re okay.”
“Only okay? What…you into guys now?” Rex asked, raising his eyebrows.

* * * *

“No, no, after a while, they all look the same.” Alan crossed his legs.
Alan did fine getting laid. Pressuring failing female students to sleep with him for a good grade worked. Maybe he was into a type of blackmail. He provided a service for payment. Tit for tat, he laughed to himself. He was a merchant of grades, with no income tax to pay on his gross receipts.
“Hey, Alan, they are all the same. Topless joint might be a good place for me to work.”
“It’s the closest thing we have to a nightclub here.”
“Come on. Let’s grab dinner, on me. Maybe afterward, we can swing by this joint and check out the babes,” Rex said, clapping him on the back.
“Sure, Rex.” Alan looked at Rex’s pumped up body and a wave of envy swept over him, the first time he ever felt jealousy instead of pity toward his cousin.
Rex had been a scrawny, awkward kid, not good in school and couldn’t fight, which got him beat up regularly after school. His father took off when his mother gave birth to him, leaving his two older sisters holding him responsible for their father’s departure and hating him for it. His mother was too tired to have much time or affection left for him.
Alan remembered his cousin as a bit of a crybaby. Not anymore --Rex sure had come a long way from those days. Seemed like a man who could take care of himself. Alan made a mental note not to annoy his cousin. He feared Rex’s retribution would be a lot worse than getting a time-out when he was a kid.
As they got in Alan’s car to head to a restaurant, he made plans to either help his cousin to settle down in Willow Falls and have his own life and leave Alan’s alone. Or to help Rex get out of town.
With Rex nosing around, Alan would have to play it straight arrow for the next semester. He frowned to think his juicy little student sex slaves would have to wait. He might be reduced to buying some tail from a girl who danced at The Wet T-Shirt. The idea repulsed him. But not nearly as much as Rex finding out what he was up to and blowing the whistle on him.
Why couldn’t his nosy cousin simply return to his blackmail business in the City and leave Alan’s little fun and games alone? He ground his teeth. Damn it, why did Rex have to get off the train here? Why didn’t he ride all the way to Buffalo? Or Canada? Anywhere but here.
Then it hit him. Blackmailers have their own secrets, beside the fact they are robbing a ton of people with threats. Alan would simply have to dig and dig until he found out Rex’s secrets. Then he’d be able to make deal with his cousin and ship him back to the Big Apple.
The idea relieved his mind. He sighed as he pulled into a parking space. Cousin or no cousin, Rex’s stay in Willow Falls was going to be short –if Alan had anything to say about it.

* * * *

Across town on North Main Street
Marcia Wilton approached the steps of Willow Falls Medical Center. Her tired eyes noticed the cheerful colors of the spring flowers in window boxes. She walked up the steps of the large brick building slowly. Her husband, Jay, was back in the hospital. He had been fighting cancer for five years and now was losing the battle. Marcia went every day. The pain of seeing her handsome, athletic husband wasting away was intense.
The doctor told her he thought Jay would last six months, so Marcia had taken a sabbatical from her position teaching art history at Kensington State to be with him.
“It’s spring outside,” Marcia said, walking into his room to find him standing at the window.
Jay trained his gaze on her and offered a wan smile.
“Any flowers up yet?”
“Tulips. Don’t know what’s coming up at the new house.”
Marcia and Jay had been married for nine years. They’d waited to have children, but by the time Marcia was thirty-three and ready, Jay had been stricken with stomach cancer and neither he nor Marcia could think about anything else. They pooled their strength and fought the disease with everything possible. Two remissions, then the cancer returned and spread. Jay was brave, stoic at times, but now he was resigned.
“You didn’t eat?”
“Nothing tastes good.” Jay shifted his weight from one hip to the other.
“I brought corned beef today. Try some.” Marcia held half a sandwich out to him.
He took three bites and stopped. Fifteen minutes later, Jay dozed off.
Marcia took a bite of the sandwich but could barely swallow it. She took out a crochet project and began work. She often crocheted or read when he slept.
Occasionally she brought a special treat from the Jewish Bakery to tempt him to eat. They would share it and reminisce about the last time they ate chocolate babka. Often there’d be procedures, baths and other events cutting her time short. It didn’t matter if she left early because there was nothing waiting for her at home.
Their families rallied around them at first, but year after year of hope then despair, hope then despair wore them out. Now at thirty-eight, Marcia had no children to provide comfort, and her family, who lived far away, had gotten on with their lives.
Jay’s mother found it devastating to visit him, but she made the two-hour bus trip once every week anyway. His brother and sister lived on the west coast, too far away to visit. Death frightens people, Marcia reminded herself when she felt angry and deserted.
After an hour, Marcia packed up her project, kissed Jay’s forehead and left him sleeping fitfully. The tap-tap-tapping of her heels on the hospital corridor echoed her feeling of loneliness as she made her way to the front door.
The bright sunshine mocked her heavy heart. She got in her car and drove, almost by rote, to the small house on First Street she and Jay had rented for the past three years. They had owned a lovely big house on Fillmore in the posh Linden Lake section, when Jay was well and working as the head accountant for Valley Country Club and Resort. But Jay hadn’t worked in the past three years. He was on disability, which didn’t bring in enough money, even with Marcia’s teaching, to keep the big house. Marcia made only enough at the university to pay the rent on the small house.
Johnny Novacek, a young man born in America from immigrant Czech parents, was their landlord. Johnny had bought several small rundown houses, fixed them up with the help of his father, Jakub, and rented them out to support his wife and two young children.
When she got home, Marcia put “Let It Be” by The Beatles on the CD player and made herself a strong vodka and tonic. Some days, she pulled out their wedding pictures or pictures of wonderful, sexy vacations on the island of St. John where she and Jay made love on deserted beaches and swam in the clear aqua waters of the Caribbean. When Jay first got sick, Marcia started scrapbooks to help her hold on to their life together.
The longing for her old life with Jay ached in her chest. He was so full of joy in the old pictures, always smiling. They used to laugh all the time, because everything is funny when you’re young, healthy and madly in love. She couldn’t laugh anymore so she put away the pictures and scrapbooks and poured herself another drink.
Even picking up a lamb chop, Jay’s favorite meat, at the grocery store reduced her to tears, or hearing his favorite songs on the radio. She cried when she awoke in the middle of the night, reaching for Jay in the empty bed. She cried when she opened the closet and saw his clothes there. Marcia had cried for months. She couldn’t cry anymore.
She watched only sports on television because she didn’t need to concentrate. It took a supreme effort simply to get the bills paid each month. Sometimes when an attractive man with brown hair and warm eyes came on the television, she remembered how much she adored making love with Jay and touching his strong swimmer’s body. He was a good lover, frisky and mad for her. But they hadn’t made love in almost three years. She didn’t remember the last time and at the time hadn’t realized it would be their last.

* * * *

Back at the house, Peter took a piece of paper with a phone number on it out of his pocket. He picked up his cell phone and hesitated.
“Who do you still know here?” Callie asked.
“Bianca Trieste. An old girlfriend.”
“How old?” Callie unpacked a box of books, lining them up in an empty bookcase.
“From eight years ago.” Peter put the phone down and instead pulled shirts out of a suitcase and put them in a pile on the sofa.
“We were almost engaged.”
Callie stopped what she was doing and listened.
“She was the first woman I ever loved. I asked her to marry me and she turned me down to go to Europe on a modeling trip.”
He opened another box and took out a fistful of notebooks.
“And you still want to talk to her?” Callie asked, moving several books onto a new shelf.
“I think so,” Peter said, stacking the notebooks on the credenza behind the sofa.
“Haven’t put it to rest?” Callie said, unloading another box of books.
“Guess not.” Peter collapsed a box and placed it on the floor, then took another.
“Is that why you’re not married?”
“Maybe. Maybe I haven’t met the right woman yet.” Peter sat on the floor, sorting a third box of books into two piles.
“Have you been in love since Bianca?” Callie handed two empty boxes to Peter.
“Love? No.” Peter laughed but his smile didn’t reach his eyes.
“Call her. Eight years is a long time to carry a torch.”
“There have been plenty of women to replace her…can’t seem to move on,” Peter said, standing up and knocking down boxes.
“You’re a chick magnet, if ever there was one.” Callie blushed at the frankness of her statement.
“It has its downside too. For once I’d like to start off differently with a woman.”
“What do you mean?” Callie put another empty carton aside and stopped to look at him.
“I’d like to meet someone who didn’t…who wouldn’t…” Peter waved his hand in the air, unable to produce the words.
“Someone who wasn’t attracted to you by your looks first?” Callie finished for him.
“I’m not God’s gift to women or anything, but I’d like to be me first.”
“Good luck, Peter.”
“When do we get to see the Caldwell Mansion?”
“Right after we pick up a rental car for you and Sam.” Callie stacked a handful of books on the coffee table.
“Call him Dad, or you’ll make him feel like a stranger. Rental car? Crap. You drive on the right here.”
“Don’t you?” Callie raised her eyebrows.
“The left. Crap, means I’ve got to drive. Dad’ll get us killed.”
Sam and Mac followed the children in the house.
“I’m driving, Dad.”
“Good, ’cause I haven’t driven on the right in years. Wouldn’t want to kill everyone on my first day,” he said with a chuckle.
Peter shot Callie a knowing glance as they herded the children back to the car.
After picking up the rental, Peter and Sam followed Callie, Mac and their kids to their house for dinner. It was nine-thirty p.m. before Callie and Mac got the kids settled in and gave directions to Sam and Peter as they ventured back to their house on their own. Callie stood at the living room window, holding the curtain open a little to watch them drive away.
“It’s wonderful to have Sam and Peter here. I already feel like they’re my father and brother.”
“I’m glad.” He came up behind her and put his arms around her.
“You must be happy.”
Mac kissed her neck, then brushed his lips lightly up to her earlobe.
“I’m glad to see Dad and Pete. But now, I’m happy to see you. In fact, I’d like to see more of you,” he said, easing her shirt up.
Callie turned around and fell into his arms for a passionate kiss.
“I’d like to show you what an absolute pistol I am in the bedroom,” he whispered in her ear, cracking a big smile.
“Mac Caldwell! A pistol? You were listening in today?” Callie smacked his shoulder lightly.
“I came back for the car keys.” He shrugged innocently.
“You heard our whole conversation?” Color flooded her cheeks.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Callie.”
“But you overheard me talking about you.”
“The things you were saying…” Mac said, reaching under her shirt unfastening her bra, “…were soooo nice,” he said, sliding his hands around to cradle her breasts.
“Mac…” she said, closing her eyes and leaning her forehead against him, her breath coming faster.
“What, baby?” he said, his eyes closed.
“It’s all true. You are my lover,” she said, unbuckling his belt.
They undressed and left their clothes in a heap on the living room floor. Callie ran her hands up his hard chest, through the soft black hair and around his neck. His hands slipped down her back to rest on her firm behind and pull her closer to him. She kissed him, opening her lips to his tongue. Mac picked her up and carried her into the bedroom, pushing the door closed gently with his foot so as not to wake the children.

Chapter Two
Mac stuffed the family, including Sam and Peter, into their SUV and drove to their small place on Lake Onondaga in Pennsylvania for the weekend. The house had one wall of glass overlooking the water and connected, through sliding glass doors, to a deck which jutted out far enough to double as a dock. With a big sectional sofa surrounding a large fireplace in the living room, their home was comfortable for a crowd both in summer and winter.
Sam had given the house to Callie and Mac for a wedding present. He and his late wife, Ellen, spent several happy summers there before she died. When they arrived, Sam was the first one out of the car. He stood looking at the small building as tears pricked his eyes.
“This was Ellen’s dream house,” he said to Callie. “She’d be so happy to see us all here together…and with grandchildren. A wish come true…”
She gave his hand a squeeze, then stuck the key in the front door lock and turned it.
“It’s our dream house too…Dad,” she said.
He smiled at her as he reached for his handkerchief. After wiping his eyes, he took Callie’s hand and held it as she opened the door and they walked in together.
“Dad’s become a bit mushy in his old age, Pete,” Mac observed, hiding his mouth with his hand.
“He’s always been mushy, Mac,” Peter replied.
“God, I hope we don’t get mushy at his age,” Mac whispered.
The kids ran into the house. Jason took possession of Grandpa’s left arm while Kitty hung on his right.
“What about Uncle Peter? Who wants to show him the lake?” Callie asked.
Kitty, who’d flirted with Peter most of the way in the car as she’d claimed the seat next to him, piped up, “Me!”
“It figures,” Mac muttered.
“Mac!” Callie said, punching him lightly in the arm.
Jason took Sam’s hand and Kitty took Peter’s when they all went down to the lake. Sam pointed out the landmarks he remembered on the way, like the tree where he and Ellen watched a hawk nesting and a field where deer grazed.
“We go fishing here all the time but never catch anything. Do you know why, Grandpa?”
“No idea, Jason.”
“Uncle Peter, Uncle Peter,” Kitty called, motioning with her hand for him to join her wading into the lake.
Peter took off his socks and shoes and rolled up his pants. Kitty kicked off her sandals and took his hand.
After dinner, when both kids were tucked in bed, the exhausted adults sat down on their deck and opened a bottle of wine and lit candles.
“I’d like to make a toast,” Sam said. “To Callie and the kids. Mac, your wife and children exceed my expectations by a mile. Long life and love to all.”
They all raised their glasses. Callie started to cry.
Sam, Mac and Peter all reached into their pockets and pulled out handkerchiefs for her at the same time, which made her laugh.
“It’s a Caldwell tradition, Callie. Ellen insisted we all carry handkerchiefs,” Sam said, smiling.
“Callie cries when she’s happy, so I’m always ready,” Mac said.
“Especially in the bedroom, right, Mac?” Peter teased.
“Don’t go there, Pete,” Mac warned.
“Boys!” Sam threw a stern look their way. “They’re always teasing each other. I hoped they’d have outgrown it by now,” Sam said to Callie, looking pointedly at Peter.
“What? I’ve got to show him I missed him, don’t I?” Peter asked with an innocent shrug.
“I’m so happy you’re all here. Peter, what was Mac like as a boy?”
“Well, Callie…”
“Don’t believe a word he says. He was jealous of me,” Mac said.
“Jealous? Of what? A nerdy guy who couldn’t talk to girls?”
“I didn’t waste my time talking to girls.” Mac sat back, taking a sip of wine.
“Like you were some big make-out artist or something?” Peter made a face at his brother.
“I did all right.”
“You did? At what age did you do all right with girls?” Callie asked.
Mac blushed and clammed up. Peter laughed.
“His first girlfriend was Jenny Simmons. He was fifteen,” Peter volunteered.
“What happened between you and Jenny?” Callie raised an eyebrow.
“Pete, keep quiet. You don’t know Callie, she’s like a private detective and prosecuting attorney rolled into one. You give her a little bit of information and she’ll dig out your entire sexual history.”
“She can’t with me. It’d take a hundred years,” Peter said, laughing.
Mac laughed too. “If Callie wants to know something about you, she won’t stop until she has it…and then some.”
“You make me sound like a bloodhound,” Callie said.
“Well, babe, sometimes the resemblance is uncanny,” Mac said, laughing.
“Looks like you’re not going to need any handkerchiefs in the bedroom tonight, Mac,” Peter snickered.
Mac got up and punched Peter playfully in the arm. Peter grabbed him in a headlock and the men started to wrestle.
“Mac! Peter! Cut it out!” Sam yelled.
Callie got busy pulling lamps and tables out of their way as the two tall men rolled around on the floor.
“Boys! Stop!” Sam yelled and got up. He pulled at Mac, then Peter. Finally, they separated, breathing heavily and looking at each other. Mac was rubbing an elbow and Peter was stroking his temple. In a minute they both burst out laughing.
“After all these years, it’s still a draw,” Sam said, shaking his head.
Peter went over to Mac and gave him a bear hug.
Mac smiled at him and ruffled his hair. “Welcome home, shrimp.”
“Shrimp? He’s taller than you are, Mac,” Callie said.
“Now he is, but he wasn’t always. It took him years to catch up,” Mac said.
“These two were a handful, Callie.” Sam laughed. “I guess they still are.”
“I can handle them,” she said, smiling.
Saturday became a busy day at the lake with fishing and not catching anything, looking for bear tracks, coloring, reading and swimming with Jason and Kitty. Peter fit right in, playing with the children and helping cart food in and out of the kitchen. The children charmed him and kept him laughing, much to Callie’s delight.
Callie worried the physical affection she shared with Mac might make Peter feel left out or jealous, but he smiled when he caught them exchanging a quick kiss or loving embrace.

* * * *

“Can’t get enough, huh? Don’t you ever pass her without touching?” Peter asked his brother.
“If you had a woman like her, would you?” Mac piled plates together.
“Guess not. You’re lucky.” Peter picked up the salad bowl.
“Damn right.” Mac carted the plates into the kitchen.
“Didn’t know you were such a touchy-feely kind of guy, Mac. Always thought of you as…stoic, I guess,” Peter said, popping open two beers in the kitchen and handing one to Mac.
“It’s Callie. Just can’t keep my hands off her.”
“I can see why,” Peter replied with a chuckle.
“Watch it, Pete,” Mac warned, raising his palm to his brother.
Peter put up both hands in a gesture of surrender. “Joking here. Your first marriage wasn’t like that?”
“Got that right. Callie is different. Never met a woman like her.” Mac turned to look at his brother as he took a healthy swig of his beer.
“Wish I could have her cloned,” Peter said.
“I hope you find someone like her, too, shrimp and settle down. It’d be good for you.” Mac put his hand on Peter’s shoulder and looked him right in the eye.
“Maybe I will. I’d like to have what you have here.” Peter nodded once at Mac then turned to leave the kitchen.

* * * *

When Mac and Callie retired at nine thirty, he took a bottle of wine and two glasses up to bed. Sam took a book into the living room. Peter was restless. The darkness of the lake was broken by the light of a full moon. A cool breeze with a hint of fresh lilacs enticed him outside, so he went for a stroll. He walked down the deck to the lake and thought how romantic to be on the lake in the moonlight with a special woman.
He turned away and went to the left of the house. Curiosity about what was behind it sent him down a narrow path leading from the house to the water meter on the side and beyond. Past the building he stopped to look up at the moon and spied the small deck attached to the master bedroom on the second floor. He saw a tiny table, burning candles and a wine bottle. And Mac and Callie.
They were drinking from wine glasses and undressing each other. Although he knew he should leave, Peter was transfixed. Mac pulled his T-shirt over his head. Then he took Callie’s shirt over her head and off. He reached around and unhooked her bra, freeing her breasts. Peter couldn’t see much of Callie except for a little in silhouette because the moon was behind her and Mac was in front of her. The shadows hiding her body from his eyes relieved him of guilt from spying.
Callie unzipped Mac’s pants and pulled them down. He slid her shorts off and then her panties. She pulled his boxers down. They stood there facing each other naked in the moonlight. Callie reached up to touch his face. Mac stepped back a little to look at Callie, then he took her in his arms and kissed her and kissed her. Peter could see Callie’s hands disappear in Mac’s hair. Then Mac’s face moved down to Callie’s neck.
They broke to finish their wine. After the wine was gone, Callie stepped toward Mac, running her hands up his chest. He couldn’t see Mac’s hands, but suddenly Callie was pulled in closer to Mac and they kissed again, Mac losing one hand in Callie’s flowing hair. Then Mac dropped down to his knees and put his arms around Callie, burying his face in the shadows where her breasts were. Callie threw her head back, her hair blowing slightly in the soft, warm breeze. She ran her hands over Mac’s shoulders and bent her head down to kiss the top of his head.
Mac stood up, blew out the candles and picked up Callie. He carried her through the narrow door into the bedroom. Unease about spying on the lovers ate at Peter, but the scene was so loving, gentle, and sweet he couldn’t pull himself away.
When they went in, Pete returned to the house.
“Tea, Pete?” Sam asked, pouring from the kettle.
Father and son sat down outside on the deck.
“Callie is perfect for Mac, don’t you think?” Sam asked.
“He was lucky to find her,” Peter said.
“And those kids…they’re fantastic!” Sam said. “Give you any ideas, Pete?”
“I’d like to have what Mac has,” Peter confided.
“Sure you don’t want to continue tomcatting around?”
“I’d settle down quickly if I found a girl like Callie.”
“Not because you want to do what your older brother’s doing, but because you want a family?”
“He has a good life. They’re not tired of each other, they don’t fight or bicker…they love each other.”
“Their kind of devotion is a rare thing. Your mother and I were close too. I hope you find it, Pete, I’d like to see you happily settled.”
“What are the chances of finding another Callie in a hick town like Willow Falls?”

* * * *

Back in Willow Falls, the nightlife was beginning to heat up as Alan drove Rex to The Wet Tee Shirt. It was six o’clock and the place was filling up. It was dark but Rex saw an empty table close to the stage.
“Let’s get a drink here and then have dinner somewhere else. The food here probably sucks,” Rex suggested.
Alan agreed. After they ordered drinks, the music started up again and the girls, who had been on break, came out and began to dance topless.
Rex watched as a brunette and a redhead gyrated. He couldn’t decide which to approach, so he made eye contact with both. The redhead looked bored and spying Rex staring at her didn’t do much to change her attitude. But the brunette smiled back at him. He looked her over carefully and liked what he saw. She would be perfect, if she were cooperative. He’d come back after dinner, when he could ditch that stiff, Alan. Then he could move in on her.

* * * *

Across town in the hospital, Jay was restless.
“We should’ve had children. Now you’re going to be completely alone.”
“Hush. It’s fine, Jay.”
Marcia tried to listen and be sympathetic to his feelings, but her emotional reserve was stretched to the breaking point. Her nerves were raw; she hung on to sanity by a thread sometimes, waiting for her beloved Jay to die.
On this beautiful day in May, she got home to the frame house with brown shutters and cream shingles at about six in the evening. The front door was unlocked. She entered cautiously, ready to dial 911 on her cell when she saw him. A tall, strange man was in the kitchen, fixing the sink. She jumped, fear in her eyes.
“No, no, so sorry, sorry,” he said in broken English, raising his hands, smiling and shaking his head. “I fix sink. Johnny’s father, Jakub.”
Marcia exhaled a big sigh of relief. The sink had needed fixing for a week at least. Jakub looked to be about fifty years old. He was about six feet and broad-chested, wearing a blue work shirt and jeans. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to reveal large, firm forearms. His short hair was a warm brown, going to gray. His face, weathered by time and the elements, had even, handsome features including warm brown eyes. Marcia determined he was no threat.
She poured herself a strong vodka and tonic, looked through the mail and switched the television on to the ballgame with barely a nod to Jakub.
Jakub worked for another fifteen minutes, then put everything back together. On his way out, he looked at the television and asked, “Yankees?”
“Mets,” she replied and managed a small smile.
“Finish tomorrow. Goodnight.”
Marcia made another strong drink, ate some cheese and crackers then climbed up the steep stairs to the bedroom, took her clothes off, fell into bed and passed out.

* * * *

At midnight The Wet Tee Shirt was still rocking. Rex walked in after dropping his cousin at home. The place was dark. There was canned music and two busty women were pole dancing topless. Men were drinking, talking, and ogling the dancers.
Rex sat down near the stage and ordered a beer. Being in the mood for sex, he watched the women with interest. At The Hideaway in Harlem, where he worked for eight years as a bouncer, he only dated waitresses and kitchen help. He rarely had time to connect with other women because he worked six nights a week. He managed to score enough sex to stay reasonably satisfied, but Rex had never been in love. He was thirty-five years old, lucky in blackmail, unlucky in love.
“Wadda ya have?”
Rex looked up to see a topless waitress there to take his order. His gaze slid down her body like a snake, openly evaluating her breasts and hips. She stifled a yawn.
“Scotch neat. You dance too?”
“Sometimes. Not my night tonight. Be right back.”
Rex had a lonely childhood. He’d missed having a father and had gotten angry at being pushed around by his sisters. He put a stop to it when he was fifteen by knocking his oldest sister, Hazel, onto the kitchen floor once. They left him alone after that.
The waitress returned and put his drink on top of a small, square paper napkin.
“What’s your name?”
“Mary. I’m not available. Sorry.” She hustled away, her dark hair swinging, her breasts bouncing.
Rex had gone into the army after high school and learned discipline. The army taught him how to take care of himself and build up his body. He’d matured and acquired some self-confidence. When he got out, he was a new man on the outside, cunning, muscular, able to defend himself and take what he wanted, but on the inside he was still the frustrated, neglected child whose heart grew callous.
One of the dancers recognized him from earlier in the evening. She flashed him a smile and he returned it. He evaluated her body and hair, liking what he saw.
Rex looked good. He’d had his nose fixed, paid for a good haircut and bought the most popular clothing styles. He wanted to create an image, become a babe magnet. Although he was only five foot nine, he was powerful. His light brown hair and washed-out eyes were nondescript, but he made a decent first impression, especially with women. Though he wasn’t the smartest guy in school, he became wise in the ways of the world working at The Hideaway. Rex learned how to pick up girls. Underneath his impressive pecs was a stone-cold heart hardening a little more with every disappointment, every year of crushing loneliness.
He looked around, hoping to see a “help wanted” sign at The Wet Tee Shirt but there was none. He didn’t notice any bouncer on the premises and wondered why. He figured to use one of the dancers to get the information he needed. He could probably get a job at the topless bar through her too. The redhead danced with more confidence than the brunette. He picked the dark-haired dancer, figuring she’d be easier to manipulate as she had already smiled at him.
At break time Rex caught her eye.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he offered, smiling as he pulled out a chair for her.
He looked good enough, clean and trim, but it was pulling out the chair for her that seemed to catch her eye.
“I’ll be back,” she said, then reappeared in a top so skimpy as to be almost non-existent.
She sat down at Rex’s table.
“What are you drinking?” he asked, trying not to stare at her chest like other men.
“Raj knows,” she said, nodding to the bartender.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Deena. What’s yours?”
“I’m Rex. Nice to meet you, Deena.”
Deena smiled at him and picked up her drink. Rex wore a sleeveless shirt to show off his impressive arm muscles. He knew he looked good. After a glance around the room, he knew he looked better than the other patrons and he wasn’t a fat slob, rude or staring at her chest.
Rex covered her hand with his and kept it there. He wanted to show her he was different. He wasn’t interested in gawking at her breasts or trying to get her into bed, he was interested in a business partnership. If they happened to fall into the sack together…well, that was an added benefit.
“When do you get off?” Rex asked, putting his empty glass down on the table.
“Why?” Deena asked, downing the last of her drink.
“I’d like to take you to dinner. Is there a nice place here open late?”
“You new here?”
“I rolled into town a few days ago.” Rex rested his elbows on the small round table.
“How long you planning to stay?” Deena narrowed her eyes at him.
“Depends upon how my business goes. If it goes as I planned, indefinitely,” he said, sitting back in his chair.
“What business are you in?” Deena lit a cigarette.
“Why don’t we discuss it over dinner tonight? Do you have plans?”
“The only plans I have are to go home and fall into bed…alone.”
“Good. Then tonight you can do something different.”
“You mean fall into bed with you?”
“Maybe just dinner?” Rex asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Okay. Dinner it is. Where are you from?”
“New York City. What time should I pick you up?”
“This joint closes at one a.m. Go home, take a nap.”
“Naw. I’m fine. I’ll be here at one.”
“No nap?”
“Not unless it’s with you, Deena.”
“Yeah, Mr. Smooth. Okay. Pick me up at one,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette and standing up.
She noticed that Rex stood when she got up. It was eleven-thirty, that meant he had an hour and a half to kill. He ordered another drink and watched Deena dance. He liked looking at her body while he plotted his strategy. It’d work better if she got him hired here. Rex sat back and smiled to himself. Perhaps this podunk little town wasn’t so bad after all.

* * * *

In the neat house on James Street, Peter worked on his lecture then took a break to work on a Beethoven sonata, a new piece he’d been practicing. He began and after a minute, stopped. Then he started again. Then stopped.
He was having trouble with the beginning, when he heard a female voice scream, “Keep playing! Why are you stopping?”
Peter ignored it, figuring the woman wasn’t talking to him. He started again. Again he heard the voice coming through the window.
“Hey, you with the piano! I’m talking to you. Keep playing!”
Peter stopped and started again. Again the voice.
“You’re driving me crazy playing the same thing over and over! Finish it!”
Peter got up and went to the window. About twelve feet away was the window of the house next door. The shade was drawn, but Peter knew the screaming woman was on the other side.
“I’m practicing! This isn’t a concert, lady,” Peter hollered back.
He sat down again and purposely played the beginning over and over until he heard the window next door shut with a bang. That will shut her up. He went back to practicing until Sam came in and told him lunch was ready.

* * * *

Sharing a house with Peter and listening to his music, reminded Sam of Ellen. He still missed her and when he heard Peter playing her favorite tunes, his heart lifted for a moment as if she were there with him. Their friends had envied them their strong, loving relationship. Sam and Ellen had been married over thirty years; she was his best friend and his lover. They had a peaceful, warm, sexy relationship. When she died, his world collapsed.
He had not been at Vaal University long when he lost Ellen to a virulent strain of pneumonia that swept through her body quickly. Ellen was a talented pianist and the inspiration for Peter. When his son played Ellen’s favorites, if Sam closed his eyes, he could imagine she was still there.
Sam had become a pretty good cook after Ellen died. He cooked, and Peter taught. They each had their own bedroom. The set-up seemed fine, but Sam wondered what would happen when Peter revved up his social life. He didn’t look forward to strange women at breakfast every Sunday morning, maybe every Saturday morning too. Sam hoped Peter would fall in love and get married.
The more women Peter had, the more restless he became, and hence more women. Sam didn’t approve of Peter’s womanizing but he didn’t say anything. His son had to find his own way.
After lunch, Peter went back to the piano and noticed the window across the way was open again. Maybe the woman had gone out. He started in again on his sonata. This time he got halfway through, stopped and started again. He played halfway through and stopped. Then he concentrated on one section, playing it over and over.
“You’re driving me bonkers! If Beethoven is too hard for you, try Brahms!”
“Shut up!” Peter yelled and continued to play the one section over and over again until he heard the window slam shut. Good.
He played for another hour. Then he got up to get a glass of water.
Peter came back to the piano, barely glancing out the window. He saw a young woman from the back. So that’s the bitch. He noticed she wore a leotard and footless tights. The grace of her shoulders, the curve of her hips and the roundness of her small bottom piqued his curiosity. He started to play the same sonata noting the sound of the shade coming down rapidly, then all was quiet. He played it all the way through. When he finished, he heard applause.
“Not bad for an amateur,” she called out.
Peter was furious and slammed his window shut. Sam chuckled but left the room quickly when Peter glared at him.

* * * *

The next day Sam received a call from Mac.
“Dad, I need your help.”
“What can I do?”
“Jim Caterson, the head of our English department, is taking care of his niece. She was attacked in New York City a couple of weeks ago and beaten up pretty badly and has come to stay with him. She’s suffering from temporary blindness and can’t live on her own. She can’t be alone all day and Jim can be only be home part-time. I need someone to read to her or keep her company for a few hours every day so he can work. Could you help us out, until she can fend for herself?”
“Sure, Mac.”
“The best part is…she lives right next door to you.”
Sam ran his hand through his hair. “Which side?”
“To the left of your house.”
Sam thought a minute. Was she the girl Peter had a running feud with? Uh-oh.
“I’m glad to help. What’s her name?”
“Her name is Lara Stewart. She’s twenty-six and nice looking from what I’ve been told, so please keep Pete away from her, okay?”
“If she can’t see him, that’s half the battle. When do I meet her?”

* * * *

The window next door was closed when Peter started to practice. As he stumbled on an arpeggio and paused, he heard it slide open. He shifted his focus to the part giving him trouble, playing it over and over again. He waited for the nasty comments from next door, but they never came, so he continued to play the same part over and over again.
“You’re doing it again! Play it through!” she yelled.
“Too bad!” he shouted.
“Maybe you should try Chopsticks!”
Peter played Chopsticks three times to annoy her.
“Enough! Enough! I give up,” she yelled.
Peter smiled at her defeat. He took a deep breath and went back to practicing the Beethoven piece.
Next door, the window and shade were up. Peter heard crying and stopped playing for a moment. He switched to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a sad piece, calculated to annoy her. She went to the window.
“Very funny! Very funny!” the young woman screamed, her voice shaking. She banged down the window so hard the glass rattled. The window bounced up, leaving it open about four inches. Peter could hear everything.
“What’s going on here?” an unfamiliar female voice asked. Peter heard soft crying in the background. He stopped playing.
“Look, you can’t fall apart, Lara. Don’t be a baby. Stop crying. Pull yourself together and get your life back on track. Return to New York where you belong. I can’t baby you all the time. Grow up.”
Peter heard the clomping of heavy footsteps and the slamming of a door. Turning on the seat, he peeked through the opening of the window, and saw the back of the girl in the leotard as she lay curled up on the floor, crying softly. A pang of guilt stung his heart as he neared the window. Watching her struggle to get up, reaching for a wall or chair, her hand flailing blindly only to find nothing but air and crash to the floor again, intensified his feeling. She sat up on the floor, swearing, then crawled on all fours over to a chair and pulled herself up and in.
“Where’s the music?” she called out the window in an unsteady voice.
Peter sat down and played the Beethoven sonata all the way through.

* * * *

Sam knocked on the door of the well-kept gray and white house next door. A woman about thirty-five years old, with short brown hair and an annoyed look on her face answered.
“I’m Sam Caldwell. I’m here to see to Lara Stewart.”
“Come in, Dr. Caldwell. I’m Fran, Jim’s fiancĂ©e.”
When Fran barged into her room, with Sam following close behind, the young lady he assumed to be Lara was slumped in a chair.
“Lara, you have company. This is Dr. Sam Caldwell,” Fran said.
“Doctor, like in medical doctor?” The young woman asked, sitting up straight in her chair.
“I’m an ornithologist…a PhD, Lara, not a medical doctor.”
Lara stood up to greet him. Sam reached out to take her hand. When their fingers met, she screamed and shrank back.
“Sorry. I forgot to tell you…Lara can’t be touched.”
Sam peeked out the window and saw Peter there, listening. He hadn’t told his son where he was going.
“I’m sorry, Lara. I didn’t know. It won’t happen again,” he said in his deep, soothing voice. He looked at her battered face, neck and legs and his heart melted. She was an attractive young woman, about five foot six, with a ballet dancer’s slim body. Her glossy, fluffy, brown hair had red highlights that glinted in the light from a bedside lamp.
Sam was impressed with her beauty. She had slightly full lips, a perfect nose, and a delicate jaw line. He guessed her skin must have been flawless before the attack. Her breasts were full, her bottom small and well-toned. Her legs were trim and strong. She was stunning but fearful.
“I’ll leave you two,” Fran said as she made a quick exit.
“I’m here to read to you. Or would you prefer to talk?”
“What would you read?”
“How about the newspaper? Then we can talk about the news and what’s going on in town.” he suggested, pulling a folded paper out from under his arm.
“You have a nice voice, Dr. Caldwell, like my father,” she said, smiling.
“Please call me Sam,” he said. “Where is your father?”
“Both my mother and father were killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.”
Silence filled the room as Sam looked down at his hands.
“Did you bring a newspaper?” she asked, positioning her face in the direction of his voice.
“Shall we start with the front page? Do you want to get comfortable?”
Lara nodded and stood up from the chair.
“Please tell me where the bed is.”
Sam directed her. Lara felt her way around the wall and sat cross-legged on the bed, hugging a pillow. He walked over and pulled the coverlet up to her hand. Lara arranged it around her shoulders.
Sam read the first words from a story then glanced at the window. He saw Peter move to the side and heard the beginning of his Beethoven piece.


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