Carlene Shuler Brown
Big Mike seized Ray Taylor by the throat. “You’ll pay me or I’ll take it out of your hide. Nobody stiffs Big Mike.”
Ray backed against the wall, trying to get out of his reach. “But . . . but, I don't have that kind of cash.”
Bart Armstrong watched Ray tremble all over as he looked around the smoke-filled room at the men sitting at the table. One man blew smoke in Ray’s face and Bart could see that the stench stung at Rays nostrils. He was enjoying every minute of it.
Ray coughed and said, “Please, Big Mike, give me another chance, I’ll come up with it somehow.” Everyone in the room held their breath, waiting to see what Big Mike was going to do next.
Bart spoke up. “Hold on a minute, Big Mike, let me talk to him and see if we can work something out.” Big Mike looked at Bart for a few seconds, let go of Ray, and walked back to his seat. He continued glaring at Ray as Bart walked him over to the corner. “Would you be willing to work for me to pay off your debt?”
Ray held his hands up in a praying position., “Yes, oh yes, I’ll do anything.”
Bart turned back to Big Mike, “I'll pay his debt.”
Bart knew they had cheated at the card game, and he knew that Ray’s daughter, Alicia Taylor, would be livid if she found out her father been gambling again. He had plans for Ray, and then Alicia would be his. She had spurned his advances up to this point, but she'd do anything to keep her father out of jail . . . even marry him. Bart knew he couldn’t have planned it any better.
The day went along smoothly at Doctor Bryant’s medical office for Alicia, with one patient after another. She loved being his nurse, as he was so kind to his patients, and to her. They usually closed early on Fridays, but when it was about time to close down for the day, the phone rang again.
“Phone call on line two,” Susan Bailey, the receptionist, called down the hall to Alicia. Susan was a perky little blonde and really made things fun for everyone in the office. She was just a people person. And she was Alicia’s best friend.
As the petite blonde came closer, she whispered, “It's Bart again.”
Alicia picked up the phone. “What do you want, Bart? I told you I won’t go out with you and I'm busy.”
“Your father is in trouble, and if you don't want to see him go to prison, you'll see me. Come to my house tomorrow and we'll discuss it. 214 Gardenia Lane.”
Before Alicia could answer, he hung up. She looked at the phone blankly. Susan walked into her office just then to tell her she was leaving for the day. “That was strange.” She looked at Susan, while still holding the phone. “He wants me to go to his house tomorrow to talk about my father.”
Susan put her coat on a chair, went to Alicia’s desk and took the phone from her and put it on the cradle. “As your best friend, I’m telling you, don't go. He has something up his sleeve. I just know it. He’s been harassing you ever since he came to the clinic with that cut on his arm.”
Alicia looked at Susan, a puzzled look on her face. “But he said my father could go to prison.”
Now it was Susan’s turn to look puzzled. “What does that even mean? Your father’s a good man, and there’s no chance of him going to prison. Bart is talking nonsense. He just wants to get you over there so he can beg you to see him.”
“I have to see what he’s talking about. I can’t imagine what he would know about my father, but whatever it is, I think I can handle Bart.”
“I certainly hope so. Bart gives me the creeps, and you would do good to stay away from him.” Susan picked up her coat, put it on and proceeded to walk out the door. Alicia gathered up her things and left the office as well.
Driving home, she began to remember things about Bart. He’d been trying to get her to go out with him for months, and she constantly refused him. She didn’t know much about him except for the couple of times he came into the office. He had light brown hair, worn slick back, a medium build, not too tall, and always dressed in expensive suits. The scent he wore wasn’t repulsive, but she didn’t care for it either. There was a mysterious air about him . . . always so secretive. She remembered his cold gray eyes that had a chilling effect when he looked at her with that piercing stare. His mouth was set in a thin hard line, and even when his lips attempted to curl into a smile, it never seemed to reach his eyes. He wasn’t someone she wanted to go out with.
She arrived home to find her father sitting in his favorite beige corduroy recliner watching television. This was where she found him every day for the last few weeks. He came to live with her after her mother died, but he looked so much older than his fifty-four years.
Alicia put her coat in the hall closet and walked into the living room, “How was your day, Dad.”
She found her cat, Fiona, lying on the windowsill, catching the last rays of the sun. “Hi Fiona,” she said. “Have you been a good girl today.” She picked her up, and went to the couch to sit with her father for a little bit. She tried talking to him but he seemed so depressed lately and barely talked, so she finally went to her room to read before starting supper.
When she got supper ready, she called out to her father, “Come and get it while it’s hot.” They ate in silence. She worried about her father because he had been unusually quiet lately. She wanted to hear him laugh again and it had been weeks since she’d heard laughter from him. He was depressed and she didn’t know why. Later she cleaned the kitchen and went to her room, leaving her father in front of the TV . . . as usual.
Alicia got into bed with the latest book she was reading. She smiled as Fiona slid through the crack in the door and jumped on her bed. She purred and rubbed herself against Alicia, then curled up in a ball beside her as she read. But she couldn’t concentrate on her book. Why did Bart think her father would go to prison? What could her father have possibly done? And how would Bart know about it? She put her book down, snuggled up with Fiona and drifted off to sleep.
* * *
Early Saturday morning, Alicia found the address and drove through the huge iron gates and down the winding, tree-lined driveway until the Armstrong mansion came into view. The large, two-story mansion was impressive, with huge white columns across the front of the porch. Beds of azaleas lined the front of the house. No doubt they would be glorious in the spring when they were in full bloom. The grounds were expansive, and immaculately groomed. There was a rose garden on the left side of the house next to a sunny terrace. Little bits of color showed up around the terrace–probably crocus and snowdrops, because it was a little early for other flowers to be blooming yet.
She parked the car in the circular drive at the front of the house. As she got out, she pulled the soft knit scarf close around her neck against the cold wind and pulled her coat tighter around her. She walked up wide circular steps of gray and white marble that led to the porch. On the porch were white wicker tables and chairs sitting in the sun like they were awaiting guests to sit and sip on lemonade. As she stepped up to the front door, a man in a dark suit opened it before she got a chance to knock. He stood there stiffly, as if he had too much starch in his collar and greeted her curtly. “Come in, Miss Taylor. Mr. Armstrong is expecting you.”
As she stepped inside, her eyes scanned the surroundings. She was impressed at how grand it was. In the center of the room, there was a massive crystal chandelier hanging from the vaulted two-story ceiling. Under it, a glass table held a large crystal vase filled with elegant, long stemmed white calla lilies. The dark green marble floors provided a stark contrast to the white marble pillars throughout the entry way. To her right, a wide, curved stairway led to a balcony upstairs, with exquisitely carved wooden banisters, shining brilliantly as if freshly polished.
“Your coat ma’am,” said the butler. He helped her off with her coat and scarf and placed them over his arm. “Right this way, Miss Taylor. Mr. Armstrong will see you in the library.” He led her through the entry and opened the heavy oak double doors into a large, wood paneled room and gestured for her to walk inside.
The first thing she noticed was Bart’s scent as she went in. It permeated the room and she tried not to scrunch up her nose. Massive bookcases were on each side of the room. Comfy looking ivory sofas with soft, puffy cushions were in front of them. A huge mahogany desk was at the far end. Two chairs, with what looked to be expensive fabric, sat in front of the desk. She noticed the large, arched windows behind the desk with French doors to the side leading out to the terrace.
When she reached Bart, she glared at him, seated on the other side in a large brown leather chair.
“Tell me what this is all about, Mr. Armstrong.”
“Call me Bart, please.” He gestured for her to sit down. “If you’ll have a seat, I'll explain it to you.”
With a sigh of resignation, she slid in one of the plush burgundy chairs across from him.
“I'll get right to the point, Alicia. You see, your father came to the club one night and got into a high-stakes poker game with some friends of mine. He lost twenty-five thousand dollars to Big Mike. Your father got extremely upset and admitted that he didn’t know how he was going to pay it. I consoled him and said I'd fix it with Big Mike.”
Big Mike. Where had she heard that name before? Oh, yes. She remembered hearing some of the guys in the hospital lab that hung around the riverfront talking about him. From what she’d heard, nobody crosses Big Mike.
She looked at him, her eyes cold as icicles as she spoke. “So, did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Fix it with Big Mike?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Then why did you call me over here?”
“Because your father owes me now.”
“This is ridiculous, Mr. Armstrong. If my father couldn't pay Big Mike, how do you expect him to pay you?” She stood up and leaned over the desk, her eyes narrowed. “Is it money you want from me? Because if it is, I might as well tell you that I don’t have that kind of money either.”
Heat bathed her face as she fought back tears, and rage ran though her body like a tidal wave. She didn't know whether she was angrier at him, or her father for gambling again after he’d promised her that he wouldn’t.
Bart put his hands on the desk and stood up. He leaned forward, glaring at her, his eyes dark and menacing. “Sit down, Alicia, and I'll tell you what I want.”
Startled by his tone, she sat back in the chair.
Bart straightened up, stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked over to stand in front of her. His voice softened. “I don't want your money, Alicia. As you can plainly see, I have plenty. I don't need any money from you. I want to make a deal with you.” He knelt in front of her and took her hand in his.
She immediately snatched it away from him. Being that close to him made her skin crawl and she wanted to run away. She snapped at him, “What kind of deal?”
“I’ve been trying to get you to go out with me for a while now. And you have refused.” His lips curled into a smile, but the coldness in his eyes betrayed him. He held out his hand. In his palm rested an obnoxiously huge diamond ring. “I want you to marry me.”
Her eyes opened wide as she sucked in her breath. She glared at him, speechless. She jumped up, knocking him aside. Her heart thudded in her chest like a drum. “Marry you? Are you crazy? Of course, I won't marry you. You must be out of your mind to think I would agree to marry you.”
As she turned to leave, Bart jumped up and caught her by the arm. He looked at her with a sly grin. “Then your father will go to prison.”
With furrowed brows, she turned to meet his gaze. She jerked her arm out of his grasp. “What do you mean my father will go to prison?”
Bart walked to his desk and turned the computer monitor around. “Watch the screen and I'll show you what I mean.” He picked a flash drive up, plugged it into the computer and hit a couple of keys.
On the screen she could see a man from the waist up, walking toward a table with a briefcase in his hand. Placing the briefcase on the table, he opened it and slowly unrolled some velvet material to reveal exquisite diamond jewelry. He unrolled another one with more beautiful bracelets, necklaces, pendants, rings and earrings, all set with sapphires, rubies and sparkling emeralds. A man then opened a briefcase that was already on the table and the camera panned over to it. It was filled to the brim with stacks of money. She watched in horror as the camera panned out to show her father roll up the velvet with the jewels, close the case, and hand it to the other man, showing him only from the waist down. Her father then closed the case holding the money and carried it out with him. The camera followed him as he got into the back seat of a black car and they drove away.
“In case you didn’t realize it, Alicia, the jewelry was all stolen.”
Turning to face Bart, she clenched her fists so tight that her fingernails dug into her palms. Her breath squeezed off in her throat. Her heart hammered in her chest and she swayed from side to side. Dizziness struck, and tears welled up inside her. She collapsed sideways into the chair, resting her head on folded arms. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks, staining the expensive fabric on his chair. How could her father have gotten involved with stolen jewelry?
She looked up at him and cried out. “How did you get him to do that?”
Bart grinned as he handed her a tissue. He sat on the edge of the desk in front of her and folded his arms. “I simply told him that if he would work for me and Big Mike for a few weeks that he could forget about the debt. He didn't have the money, and he was especially adamant about not wanting you to find out what he'd done. He had no choice but to agree. Then, it was just a matter of taking video of him showing the jewels and picking up the money. I have enough to send your father to prison for a long time, as most of the stolen jewelry is recognizable.”
He reached over on his desk and got the whole box of tissues and handed them to her as he continued. “And, if you will notice, no one can be identified except your father.”
Drying her tears as best she could, she looked at him, trying to quell the throbbing veins in her neck. “And where did he get all of this jewelry.”
He stood and put his hand on her shoulder. “That doesn’t concern you. But if you agree to marry me, I'll put the flash drive away where it won't be found, and no one will ever see it again. You'll want for nothing. I'll buy you expensive clothes and jewelry. Anything your heart desires, I'll buy it for you.”
She slumped back into the chair. She was at his mercy. She couldn’t borrow any more money to pay him back. She was already strapped. Her father would go to prison if she didn’t do as he said. What else could she do?
She looked at him with stone cold eyes. “Ok, I’ll marry you.”
Outside, she got in her car and turned the key in the ignition. She drove about a mile, then pulled over to the side of the road. She carefully put the car in gear and turned the engine off. Then she cried. Tears of pain and sorrow ripped her throat. She was being forced to marry a man she loathed. She hated men. All they ever did was hurt her. She’d tried so hard to stay away.
But she wasn’t giving up so fast. She dried her eyes and started the engine. With a heavy heart she continued the drive home. She’d find a way out of this mess. She had to.
Skipping Chapter 2
At seven-thirty, Alicia walked into the club and looked around for Bart. She checked her coat but kept her grandmothers’ silk shawl thrown around her shoulders. She didn't feel quite so uncomfortable now, as it helped to hide the tight, low-cut dress he'd told her to wear. At the last minute, she’d remembered to put on the huge diamond engagement ring he had given her. He would be furious if he hadn’t been able to show her off to everybody wearing that rock.
She saw him over at the bar, engrossed in conversation with a couple of unsavory looking men. She started toward him, when Jack, a big muscular man that worked for Bart came from behind and took her arm, leading her to a table against the wall.
“The boss said for you to wait here for him.” He seated her, then turned back to his duties.
The Riverfront Club was the nicest in town, and she’d heard that Bart owned it, among several other businesses along the riverfront. She figured it was probably also a front for his illegal business deals as well. Her thoughts were interrupted by her name being called out.
“Alicia, darling.” Bart smiled as he leaned down to kiss her on the cheek. “Here you are, looking ravishing as usual. Are you ready to go and greet our guests on the boat?”
She attempted a fake smile in his direction, stood and muttered under her breath, “Ready as I'll ever be.”
He escorted her out to the limousine and opened the door for her. “You really are incredibly beautiful tonight.”
Saying nothing, she bent down and got in the car. She had her hair pulled back in a barrette and wore plenty of makeup with lots of mascara on her long lashes as Bart had suggested. She had to learn how to pick her battles with Bart. She looked up and found him standing there looking at her. “What are you staring at?” Alicia asked as she settled back into the plush leather seat.
“You,” he said. “My beautiful Alicia.” He closed the door and walked around to the other side to slide into the limo beside her and reached for her hand. She jerked it away and placed it in the crook of her other arm, out of his reach.
“Don't be like that, Alicia. I'm giving you everything I can to make you happy.”
She turned and looked at him with a frown. “You would make me happy if you gave me that flash drive with those videos of my father.”
“You know I can't do that. You wouldn't marry me if I gave it to you.”
For a split second, the sad look in his eyes almost made her feel sorry for him. “Then you can't make me happy,” she snapped, and turned away from him. “You can blackmail me into marrying you, but you can't make me like it . . . or you.”
She knew her words stung. And she was glad. She meant every word, and she wanted to hurt him for forcing her into this marriage. She loathed him for doing this to her and to her father. They rode the rest of the way to the yacht in silence.
The boat he talked about going on, was more like a floating nightclub where she found out he frequently had lavish parties. It certainly was one of the most elegant boats she had ever boarded. The food was delicious and there was plenty of it. It could be quite enjoyable if only the people on it were more likable. The alcohol flowed all night and people were drinking and getting drunk. She was drinking ginger ale, but nobody knew it as she pretended to be drinking too.
Big Mike was there making himself known. He was a big, hunky guy, still seedy looking in an expensive suit in spite of the impression he was trying to give. His henchmen were always close at hand and catered to his every whim. He gave her the creeps the way he looked at her with his small, dark, beady eyes–as if they could burn a hole right through her–so she tried to steer clear of him all night.
Bart enjoyed showing her off to everyone, and she smiled and played nice for him. But these were not her kind of people, and she couldn’t wait for the night to be over.
* * *
The next morning, Alicia walked into the office not knowing what to expect. Dr. Bryant had deliberately rescheduled all of his patients so today would be spent meeting with the new doctor. He said he intended to come in the office for a few weeks more, as an advisor, until Dr. Rhodes got acquainted with the patients. He wanted the new doctor to know all about them in order to treat them adequately. That’s just the kind of doctor he was, she mused.
When Alicia got her first look at Dr. John Rhodes, her heart did a little flip-flop and she forgot to breathe for a couple of seconds. He was standing in Dr. Bryant’s office going over some files, and she couldn’t take her eyes off of him. Susan came up from behind and pushed her down the hall before he could notice Alicia staring at him.
“That’s right, honey.” Susan looked at her with knowing eyes. “Tall, dark, and handsome are totally inadequate words to describe that drop-dead gorgeous man. And he’s not wearing a ring. If I weren’t madly in love with my Tim, I wouldn’t waste a skinny minute going after this one.”
Casting a quick glance at Susan, Alicia smiled and went back to her office, intending to catch up on her work. She tried in vain because he was all she could think about. So, she decided to go talk to Susan, and maybe get another look at the new doctor. She rounded her desk and walked out in the hall, right into the arms of Dr. Rhodes.
He held her out at arms-length. “Hey, what have we here?”
She looked up into dark chocolate brown eyes that danced with laughter, and the most beautiful dimples she had ever seen. An electric sensation went up her arms where his hands touched her, and her breath caught in her throat. She reached up and brushed a strand of hair away from her face and stepped back, out of his arms. The awkward pause was embarrassing, so she was grateful when Dr. Bryant spoke up and made the introductions. He didn't even try to keep his amusement over the collision out of his voice.
“Dr. Rhodes, meet my nurse, Alicia Taylor. Alicia, Dr. John Rhodes. I wanted you two to have a close relationship, but I expected it to be a more gradual process.”
Alicia smiled and felt her face warm while Dr Bryant laughed heartily at his little joke.
“Alicia, would you acquaint Dr. Rhodes with the rest of the office while I make a few phone calls.”
“Of course, Dr. Bryant. I’ll show him the filing room first.” Alicia led the way down the hall and walked into the small narrow room, with two rows of floor to ceiling shelves filled with files on one side, a long table on the other, and a copier at the end against the back wall. She hoped he didn’t notice her quickened breathing as she showed him around and was surprised that he couldn’t hear her pounding heart. She tried to steal glances at him as she showed him their filing system, but more often than not, she'd find him looking back at her. They moved to the office lab where she was showing him their equipment when Dr. Bryant stuck his head in the door.
“If you two don’t have any other plans, I thought we’d go grab a bite to eat.” He smiled and winked at me. “My treat,” he added.
Susan was standing behind him with a big grin on her face. “And it’s so nice and warm outside today, that I thought we should eat at that little outdoor café down the street and soak up a little sun while we’re at it.”
“That suits me fine.” John gestured toward Alicia. “How about you?”
“That sounds great.”
They got their coats and walked out together. Alicia was busy fussing with her scarf so they lagged behind the doctors as the four of them walked down the street to the cafe. Since the doctors were engrossed in office talk, Alicia pulled Susan back a little more.
“Susan, how am I going to work in the office with Dr. Rhodes? I'm so nervous around him I can barely breathe. I don't know what's got into me, but I've got to get hold of myself.”
Susan threw back her head and laughed. “I knew you'd have to be dead not to fall for that guy. And ha, I was right. But it also appears that he's a little smitten with you too. I saw the way you two keep stealing glances at each other, then look away as if you weren't looking.”
“But Susan, I'm engaged to Bart. I can't be interested in another man right now.”
“And why not? It's clear to me that you don't really like Bart, so I can't for the life of me figure out why on earth you agreed to marry him. Just break it off with him.”
“You don't understand. I can't.”
Susan stopped, placed her hands on her hips and turned to look straight at Alicia. “You're right. I don't understand. So, tell me why you can't break it off with Bart. Dr. Rhodes is more your type, and you'd be crazy not to go after him.” Susan's face softened into a sweet smile as she continued, “And I don't think it would take much for you to catch him either.” She turned and pulled on Alicia's arm to step up her pace. “Come on, we have to catch up with the doctors.”
It was a beautiful sunny day with just a nip of coolness to the air, and Alicia started to feel her tensions melting away. Dr. Bryant found a nice table in the warm sun, and they all sat down and ordered.
When their food came, they talked as they ate their burgers and fries, and she found that she was enjoying herself in a way that she hadn't in a long time. She began to realize that her work and taking care of her father hadn't left much time to make many friends. Susan was the only real friend she had made since moving here. Of course, most of Susan's time after work was spent with her husband, Tim, and their precious twin girls. They did go shopping together sometimes. Or they would have an occasional 'girls slumber party' together when Tim would take the twins and stay overnight with his parents to give Susan a break. Susan would return the favor and give him a night out with the boys. They were always thinking of each other and trying to make each other happy. They were so perfect together. Could I ever be able to have something like that?
Hearing her name broke the concentration with her thoughts and she looked around the table to see them all staring at her.
Susan laughed. “Boy, you were really lost in thought there, I thought I was going to have to get my dad's tractor to pull you out.”
“I'm sorry, what were you talking about?” Alicia reached for the ketchup and so did John. Their hands touched, and Alicia jerked back as if a bolt of electricity struck her, knocking over her glass of sweet tea. She jumped up just as the tea poured over the edge of the table and into her hands. John jumped up and grabbed extra napkins on the table and began to sop up the tea before it made more of a mess.
“I'm so sorry, I'm not usually so clumsy.” Her face flushed with embarrassment and tears were welling up in her eyes. “Excuse me. I need to go wash my hands.” She turned and ran inside the cafe to find the bathroom.
Susan followed her. “Alicia, it's okay. It's just a little spilled tea. Dr. Rhodes should have it all cleaned up by now.”
Alicia washed her hands and dried them. Then, she put her face in her hands and sobbed, “Oh, Susan, I'm so embarrassed. What must he think of me?” She grabbed a paper towel and dabbed at her eyes as the tears overflowed again.
Susan leaned back against the wall and folded her arms as a sly grin crossed her face. “I think you can do no wrong in his eyes. From the way he looks at you, he thinks you're beautiful and wonderful.” She stood up straight, raised her hands and fluffed Alicia's hair. “So, get your gorgeous self back out there and act like everything is fine . . . because it is.”
After giving Susan a quick hug, they walked back out to the table, sat down and continued eating their burgers. John had everything cleaned up like it never happened, and a fresh filled glass of sweet tea was sitting at her place. They carried on their conversation like it had never been interrupted. And for that, Alicia was grateful.
Every time she glanced at John, he'd be looking at her. So, she tried to not look at him. That wasn't working very well. If she didn't look at him, she could feel his eyes on her, so then she had to look at him to see if he was looking at her . . . and he was. She felt like a schoolgirl with her first crush.
Exerpt from Chapter 4
Alicia rang the doorbell again, impatient that he was taking so long to answer the door. She was about to leave when he opened the door.
“You’re here.” He glanced around outside, grabbed her hand, pulling her inside and closed the door behind her. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t expecting you right now.”
He was dripping wet and had a towel loosely tied around his waist, showing off a lean, well-toned body with broad, muscular shoulders and chest that tapered down to a narrow waist and hips. His dark, wet hair had droplets of water running down, forming rivulets through the hair on his chest.
She sucked in her breath, staring at this magnificent specimen of a man standing in front of her . . . hoping he didn't notice.
“You’re early. I just stepped out of the shower.”
“I, uh, can see that,” she managed to get out. She watched his eyes dance with amusement as she looked up and down his wet, almost naked body. She looked down at the files in her hand so he wouldn’t see how flustered she was. “I’m sorry. I decided to bring these on over and finish my work tomorrow.”
He gestured toward the sofa and started walking toward his bedroom. “Have a seat while I throw on some clothes and I’ll be right back.”
“But . . .” She started to object, but he had already walked out.
Alicia perched on the edge of the soft leather sofa and ran her eyes over his living room. The tasteful, masculine touches of natural dark wood, beautiful antiques and leather furniture in browns and beige suited him. A flash of color surprised her in the next room. Her eyes rested on a beautiful crystal vase filled with fresh red tulips. She got up and walked into the dining room to get a better look. The vase of tulips sat on a white lace tablecloth beneath a beautiful crystal chandelier. It revealed a side of John that she hadn't expected. Her lips curled into a smile.
“Masculinity with softness,” she whispered. “I like that.”
“Did you say something?” John walked into the room, wearing a white t-shirt that hugged his muscular body and a pair of loose jogging pants that rested low on his hips. His hair was still damp and tousled from being dried with his towel. He looked so handsome, but boyish at the same time. Her heart skipped a beat just looking at him.
“I was admiring the flowers,” she said as she sidled past and walked into the living room. “You have a lovely house.”
“Thank you kindly, ma'am. It does show some of my mother's influence, such as the antiques and fresh flowers. She instilled a love of fresh flowers in me and if they're not here, I miss them. I’m a frequent customer of the local flower shop.” He turned on some music and motioned for her to sit on the sofa. “I'd like to go over this file with you, if you wouldn't mind.”
The quiver in her voice betrayed her nervousness. “Of course, Dr. Rhodes.” She sat close to the end of the sofa, picked up the file and put it in her lap as he sat next to her. He smiled as he reached over and took her hand in his. Her heart fluttered at the touch of his hand to hers.
“Alicia, I may be Dr. Rhodes at the office, but outside of the office, I'm John. Is that okay with you?”
Their eyes met, and the intensity of his gaze sent a shock through her. Her face became hot as she looked into dark pools of chocolate.
“Of course, Dr. er . . . John, she stammered.” His closeness was suffocating her and she fought to regain control of her senses. What was it about this man that turned her into a mass of nerves?
Soft music played in the background as John shifted the file from under her hands and opened it. After fingering through a few pages, he pulled one out. “Ah, this is it. Can you tell me more about Mr. Pike? There’s more to these symptoms than he’s telling me.”
Alicia looked at the page in his hands. “Well, I know that he’s been very lonely since his wife died two years ago. Maybe his loneliness is causing some of his ailments.”
He thought about that for a minute. “That could explain it.” Then, John’s face lit up as he looked over at Alicia. “Maybe we could introduce him to Mrs. Young. She told me that she’s been kind of lonely since her husband died too.”
Alicia began to relax as they talked about matching up Mr. Pike and Mrs. Young, and laughing about how they would do it.
A new song started playing and he looked at Alicia, “Oh, that's one of my favorites.” He stood and reached for her hand. “Dance with me.”
Startled, she reached out and took his hand before she realized what she was doing. She sat there in a daze as she looked up into his sparkling eyes, one brow raised, then his dazzling smile–complete with a dimple in each cheek. Resistance was futile. As she stood up, he pulled her into his embrace, his arm curling around her slim waist. She placed one hand on his shoulder and the other into his waiting hand. She breathed in his fresh clean scent, and the heat emanating from his body clouded her senses. Her heart beat against his chest so hard she couldn’t believe he didn’t hear it. She could barely breathe, and her knees were like rubber. She stiffened in his embrace.
John whispered in her ear as he moved with the music. “Just relax, Alicia. Move with me.” He pulled her closer, his chin resting against her forehead.
She tried to relax, listening to the music, moving with him around his living room floor. Finally releasing her fears, she closed her eyes, and let her body melt into his like butter in a hot skillet. Ooh, he felt so good. Holding her with those muscular arms. She didn’t know that being in a man’s arms could feel this way. If this was a dream, she didn’t want to wake up. She just wanted to stay in those strong, warm arms forever, dancing, breathing in his maleness.
Suddenly, she came to her senses and realized where she was. She stiffened, looked up at him and stammered, “I . . . I have to go”, and reluctantly pulled away. She retreated and started gathering her coat. “I . . . I have to get supper for my father. I'll see you in the morning.” She scurried out before he could say anything.
Exerpt from Chapter 5
“Antiques. Hmm, what a strange place for an antique shop.” The door was open, so she walked to the edge and peeked inside. She called out as she stepped through the arched doorway. “Hello, is anybody here?”
The room was dim, lit only by the light coming in the door and several dingy windows along the top of the room overlooking the alley. She glanced around as she breathed in the musty smell of aged wood. Walking over to a tall, handsome cherry secretary, her hands caressed the rich wood as her fingertips followed the crevasses in the intricately carved design along the front. She ran her hand across the smooth hard surface of an old marble washstand that was cold to the touch. Alicia shivered and turned around. In the back of the room was a darkened stairway leading up to a closed door at the top, and next to the bottom of the stairs was another doorway on the right. An unsettling feeling grew within her that she shouldn't be here.
A prickly sensation washed over her skin as she tip-toed over to the door next to the stairs. With a timid voice, she called out again as she peeked around the corner. “Is anyone here?” She looked in wonder when she walked into the room and saw the delicate crystal lamps and porcelain vases sitting on gorgeous antique dressers and buffets. Sunlight filtered in an overhead window and shimmered through the crystal teardrops of a multi-tiered chandelier. The room took on a tranquil quality as the light cast shadows on the antique lace covering a dresser below. As she got to the other side of the room, she heard a man's voice coming from the front of the shop.
“I’ve told Elizabeth not to leave the door open.” The door slammed shut, and she froze.
“Who’s Elizabeth?” The voice was sharp, demanding and edgy.
“My sister. She lives upstairs, but she won't bother us. I told you we’re alone, so quit worrying. Nobody’s going to see us here.”
“You know how important it is that no one is able to connect me with you, don't you Bart?” When the other man spoke, his words were slow and drawn out in a deep voice with a chilling tone that made her hair stand on end.
Alicia stopped dead in her tracks. Bart? What's he doing here? Gripped with fear, she tried to calm her racing heart. Frantic to find a place to hide, she spotted another door at the back of the room. Sheer will forced her feet to move as she crept to the door and made it into the small room. It was piled high with boxes with only a small window on the side. Carefully making her way to the back, she found a space between the boxes and some shelves along the back wall. Slipping behind the boxes, she got about halfway through when she tripped. She grabbed at the shelves to catch herself.
Oh God, please, they can't find me.
She held on to regain her balance, and the shelves moved forward a little. She pulled again, and they moved some more. She looked behind them but there was nothing but darkness. Waving her arm around behind the shelves and beyond, she didn’t feel anything, and realized there was no wall there. It was too dark to see for sure, but she sensed there was something beyond in the darkness.
The voices were coming closer. Starting to panic, she squeezed behind the shelves, tapping her foot out in front of her to make sure she didn’t run out of floor, and slipped into the darkness. She felt a handle on the other side and pulled it toward her, closing off the light.
Oh God, please help me. I have no idea where I am.
Trembling with fear, she took her hand off the handle and pressed her back to the side against a hard wall as she fished in her purse for her cell phone to use the light. Then she remembered. The phone. Oh, my gosh. I have to turn the ringer off on my phone before it rings. Her breathing was coming in quick breaths now, and her heart was pounding hard as she fumbled to find the button on the side to turn off the ringer before Bart and that man realized she was here. She found it and turned it off. Relieved, she placed a hand over her heart and her breathing began to slow. She let out a long sigh of relief. There, it’s done.
Suddenly, her thoughts turned to her surroundings. Where was she? Standing in the quiet darkness she imagined all kinds of creepy, crawly things in there with her . . . wherever she was. The air was stagnant and cold with a stale musty odor, like it hadn't had any fresh air or seen a ray of light in years. She turned on her phone display, hit the flashlight icon, and surveyed her surroundings. She let out a sigh in relief. Well, it’s certainly not as bad as I’d imagined.
She stood on a wooden platform with steps leading downward. Fascinated by her discovery, she started down the steps to see more. There appeared to be a small room carved out of the earth on the right side, and a tunnel going out almost straight ahead, with a curved rock wall on the left side.
She looked at her phone and saw her battery was low. “Oh, that's just great, my flashlight won’t work for long now.” She went to the bottom of the steps and sat down, afraid to go beyond the steps in case her phone died and she couldn't find her way back. She sat there shining the light on the curved rock wall, studying all the interesting sizes and shapes in the rock formations. She noticed a large diamond shaped rock, bigger than the rest, and probably heavy too. That must have been hard to get in the wall, she mused.
She wondered what Bart was doing here? And why did that man not want to be seen with him? She had to find out about Bart’s underhanded dealings so she could get something on him and get that flash drive.
Her phone died, and Alicia was in the dark again. She’d been down there for a while, so surely, they should be gone by now. She turned around and blindly crawled up the steps to the platform at the top. Facing the back of the shelves, she ran her hands over them until she found the handle and pushed against it, while listening for voices. She didn’t hear anything. It gave a little more and she was able to squeeze out and shove the shelves back into place. She made her way around the boxes into the next room. Making sure she was alone, she walked back to the door leading to the alley, peeked out to make sure no one saw her and stepped out, closing the door behind her.
* * *
“Where have you been?” Susan greeted her from the desk. “John’s in with his next patient. Candice covered for you on that one.”
Alicia put her phone on charge and pulled the files for two more patients. “Sorry. I tried to take a shortcut and got lost.”
Susan’s smile turned to curiosity as she stood and pulled something from Alicia’s hair, just along her hairline. She scrunched up her nose. “Where? In an attic?”
A cobweb. She ran to the mirror and looked at her reflection. She wiped out the rest of the cobwebs and let out an awkward giggle, shrugged her shoulders, gave Susan a sideward glance as she wrinkled her nose, then whispered, “I’ll tell you later.”
Excerpt from Chapter 6
When she arrived at Susan’s house, she got out, opened the back door, picked up her bag and Fiona and slammed the door with her hip. Tim opened the front door as she came up the walk.
“Hi beautiful.” He always called her that, and Susan didn’t mind as she was his ‘sweetie pie’. She knew Tim only had eyes for her and her two girls. He really was a keeper. He took Fiona and held her high over his head. “And how are you today, Fiona?” He brought her down into his arms and ran his hand over her head. Fiona, loving it, meowed in response.
Alicia put her bag down and took off her coat and scarf, hanging it on the coat rack. “Hi Tim. Where’s Susan?”
“She’s getting the twins ready to go to my parents with me.”
Susan walked in from the girls’ bedroom, herding the kids in front of her and giving them instructions. “Now you be sure to give Grampa and Grandma a hug and a kiss for me.”
Tim gathered the kids, put on their coats, and gave Susan a kiss.
“Bye, Aunt Alicia,” the twins said as they each hugged Alicia and went out the door. They were thrilled to go to their grandparents for a sleepover and Tim enjoyed spending quality time with his parents. They all waved goodbye and went out the front door, running to the car.
It was Susan’s turn to pick up the pepperoni pizza and ice cream on her way home, so she was ready for their girls’ night. They changed into their pajamas and went to the kitchen. After they piled their plates with pizza, they poured themselves a coke and climbed on the living room sofa, each sitting cross-legged.
Susan finally broke the silence. “What was the phone call from Bart about today?”
“He wants me to go to a party in Savannah with him.”
Susan frowned as she turned to Alicia. “In Savannah? What’s in Savannah?”
“I don’t know, but I guess I’ll find out. He says he has business in Savannah and he’ll deal with it at this party. It’s at an old Southern hotel, and he bought me a gorgeous red dress and some beautiful jewelry to wear, so it appears to be very fancy.”
Susan laughed. “Well, don’t forget about us regular folks while you hoity toity around with the rich folks.”
“I don’t know,” she scoffed. “I may forget about all you little people when I get back.”
Susan laughed again and put a little piece of her pizza on the coffee table for Fiona to eat. Fiona sniffed at it, licked it a little, then turned around and jumped in Susan’s lap to be petted. “Fiona, you’re such a finicky cat. I thought you’d like my pizza, but I guess you don’t want to get pizza sauce on your fluffy white fur. You’re such a princess, just like your mother.”
Alicia placed her hand over her chest in mock surprise and feigned indignation. “I am not a princess. I’ll have you know I don’t have a princess bone in my body. I’ll even put a pea under my mattress to show you I can’t even feel it.”
Susan fell over on the couch laughing. “I just read that story about the ‘Princess and the Pea’ to the twins the other night and they loved it.”
The movement scared Fiona, and she jumped over into Alicia’s lap. Alicia ran her hand over Fiona to calm her, as she struggled with whether or not to tell Susan about what she saw in the alley.
“Susan, I want to tell you something.”
“Is it about you coming back to work with cobwebs in your hair?”
“Yes, it is. I found an old antique shop and Bart came in. He had another man with him. I hid in an underground tunnel so he didn’t see me. I don’t know what they were doing there, but that other man’s voice was really creepy.”
Susan’s eyes about popped out of her head, and her mouth gaped open. She sat straight up on the couch, pulling her legs up under her. “What? An underground tunnel? Oh my gosh, Alicia. And Bart was there and you hid from him? Tell me more.”
Alicia told her everything that happened while Susan sat there in astonishment.
“If Bart was there it couldn’t have been good, Alicia. And that other man? You’re playing with fire, and that kind of people don’t care about hurting you.”
“I know, Susan, but I couldn’t help it.”
“What about the underground tunnel? What was down there?
“I don’t know yet, because my phone died. It looked like a room on one side, and a tunnel. I want to go back when my phone is charged and take a better look around.”
“Oh, Alicia. You don’t know what you’re getting into. It could be dangerous.”
“I’ll be careful, but I want to see what’s down there. It could have something to do with that flash drive I’m looking for. Maybe it’s down there. I have to find it.”
Susan turned to Alicia with a questioning look. “What flash drive?” There was a long pause.
Susan got right to the point. “Okay, Alicia, you have to tell me what’s going on. Why are you marrying Bart? I know you don’t want to, so don’t even try to tell me you do. And what’s this about a flash drive?”
Susan had that serious look on her face and Alicia knew what was coming. She’d been dreading it, but she had to tell her why she was marrying Bart.
“Susan, you have to promise that you won’t tell a soul if I tell you.”
“I promise, now give.”
“He’s blackmailing me.”
Susan sucked in her breath and looked at Alicia like she had instantly grown two heads. She sat, dumbfounded and speechless for a minute, then let out her breath in a rush. “What? Are you kidding? Why . . . how . . . what have you done?”
“I haven’t done anything. Bart got my father in a card game and he gambled a lot of money . . . and lost. Bart paid his debt, and to pay him back, he got him to deal in stolen jewelry. He taped him doing it and will send it to the police if I don’t marry him.”
Excerpt at a Medical Convention in Savannah - Chapter 8
The next morning, they all went to class at eight-o’clock. They had classes all morning and didn’t break for lunch until twelve-o’clock. Alicia met John after the last class and they went down to the dining room to have lunch about twelve-thirty.
Alicia got in line in front of John. “These classes are wonderful, and I’m learning so much.”
“I’m enjoying them too. I know we’ll be working better as a team after this, and I really appreciate you coming with me.”
Their lunch was buffet style so they could pick and choose what they wanted. Alicia really liked this as she was a little picky about what she ate. She saw John put some asparagus on his plate.
“You like asparagus? Ugh, I hate asparagus.”
Alicia put some cooked carrots on her plate.
“You like cooked carrots? Ugh, I hate cooked carrots.” John laughed. “Well, we’re sure finding out a lot about each other. This is much different than the lunch we had yesterday with all the southern comfort food. I liked that a lot more.”
Alicia smiled as she put a glob of mashed potatoes on her plate. “Well, lucky for you, I do southern cooking at home. It’s how I learned from my mother. I’ll have to cook for you sometime.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” He looked at her and flashed those gorgeous dimples. “And I man a mean grill. I can grill anything and make it taste good.”
Alicia smiled at him again. “Well, we should get along very well then.”
They ate and talked with the others, and before long, it was time to go to the next class. They had one other class, at two-o’clock. This one was together for an hour and a half. Then they were free for the rest of the day so they could have plenty of time to get ready for the dinner/dance tonight.
* * *
Alicia showered and washed her hair. She wanted to look extra special tonight. She never got a chance to dress up and she wanted to make the best of it. She dried her hair and fixed it swept up into a loose mass on top of her head. There were tiny wisps of curls gently falling down around her face and neck. Then she applied her moisturizing creams and makeup, a little more than usual but still a natural look. She did try a beautiful red lipstick that matched her dress. She blotted it so it wasn’t so stark, then put on a layer of gloss. It was perfect.
The red dress came next, and the ruby and diamond jewelry that Bart had given her. The long white gloves were the finishing touch, along with a spritz of her lightly scented perfume. Fully dressed, she looked in the full-length antique mirror. It was hard to believe it was her. She was absolutely glowing. She looked like a Princess, waiting for her Prince.
There was a knock at her door. When she opened it, John stood there gazing at her with his mouth wide open. “Ohhhhh,” he sighed. “You’re beautiful.” He stood there staring at her. “You look absolutely radiant.”
Her face warmed as she looked up at him, then looked back down. “Why, thank you, and you’re looking rather dapper yourself.”
“Are you blushing?” Smiling, he took her chin with his fingers and raised it. “I didn’t think women actually blushed anymore. I mean it, Alicia. You really are stunning. I can’t believe you’re going to be with me tonight. I’m the luckiest man here.”
She turned to pick up her clutch and closed the door behind them. On the way to the ballroom, Alicia was walking on air. She was on the arm of a magnificently handsome man. She was the lucky one.
Excerpt from Chapter 13
Alicia got her coat and purse and went out to John’s car. They drove to the antique shop but parked on the street beside it and walked over to the end of the alley.
“There he is, loading the truck again, John.”
“Watch them and I’ll bring the car to the side of this building. When they leave, we’ll follow them and see where they take them.”
When the guys finished loading the truck, Bart got in the truck with them and they left.
John became anxious. “Get in the car, Alicia. We don’t want to lose them.”
They jumped in the car and Alicia called her father and told him she would be home late again and to eat without her.
It was a long drive to Savannah, but John and Alicia made plans along the way. When they got downtown, they watched as the truck pulled in the back alley to the jewelry store. John parked along the side street, where they could watch.