Dangerous Entanglements

The First 6 Chapters

Chapter 1

        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.”

       “But . . . but, I don't have that kind of cash,” Ray said.

       Bart Armstrong was watching and enjoying every minute of it. He 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 was stinging Rays nostrils.

        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?” he whispered.

        Ray held his hands up in a praying position and said to him, “Yes, oh yes, I’ll do anything.”

        Bart turned back to Big Mike and said, “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 a plan for Ray, and now 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 couldn’t have planned it any better.

                                                                                            * * *

        The next day went along smoothly at Doctor Bryant’s office for Alicia, with one patient after another. She loved being his nurse, as he was always so kind to his patients, and to her. 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. 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,” Bart said. “Come to my house tomorrow and we'll discuss it. 214 Gardenia Lane.”

        Before Alicia could answer, he hung up.

        Susan walked into her office to tell her she was leaving for the day. Still looking at the phone, Alicia said, “That was strange.” She looked at Susan. “He wants me to go to his house tomorrow to talk about my father.”

        “As your best friend, Alicia, I’m telling you, don't go. He has something up his sleeve. I just know it. He’s been trouble ever since he came to the clinic with that cut on his arm.”

        Alicia looked at Susan with 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 can handle Bart.”

        “I hope so. Bart gives me the creeps, and you would do good to stay away from him.” Susan put on her coat and proceeded to walk out the door. Alicia gathered up her things and left the office as well.

        On her way home, she thought about Bart. He’d been trying to get her to go out with him for months. And she’d been refusing 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, and was 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 had come to live with her after her mother died, but he looked so much older than his fifty-four years.

        “How was your day,” Alicia asked.

        “Fine,” he answered.

        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 petted her for a minute, then went in the kitchen to start supper. When it was ready, she called out to her father, “Supper’s ready dad. Come and get it while it’s hot.”

        They ate supper in silence and 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. Fiona slid through the crack in her door, jumped on her bed and curled up beside her while she tried to read. Fiona was s so loving, and Alicia loved her nearness.

        But she couldn’t concentrate. She put her book down and held Fiona close. Why would Bart think her father would go to prison? What could her father have possibly done? And how would Bart know about it?

                                                                                  * * *

        Early Saturday morning, Alicia 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, because it was a little early for most flowers to be blooming yet. 

        She parked the car in the circular drive at the front of the house, got out, and pulled her soft knit scarf close around her neck in the crisp, breezy air. Wide circular steps of gray and white marble led to the porch. 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 it over his arm.

        “Right this way, Miss Taylor,” he said. “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.

        Bart's scent permeated the room as she went in. There were massive bookcases on each side, and a huge mahogany desk at the far end. Two burgundy chairs sat in front of it. Large, arched windows were behind the desk with French doors to the side leading out to the terrace.  When she reached the desk, she glared at Bart, seated on the other side in a large brown leather chair.

        “Tell me what this is all about Mr. Armstrong.”

        “Call me Bart, please . . . and if you will have a seat, I'll explain it to you.”

        With a sigh of resignation, she sat down in one of the plush chairs across from him.

        “I'll get right to the point, Alicia. You see, your father came down to the club one night and got into a high-stakes poker game with some friends of mine. To make a long story short, he ended up losing 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, she knew that nobody crosses Big Mike.

        “So, did you?” she asked.

        “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?” Alicia's eyes narrowed as she stood up and leaned over the desk. “Is it money you want from me? Because if it is, I might as well tell you right now that I don’t have that kind of money either.”

        Her face flushed as she fought back tears. She was furious. She didn't know whether she felt more anger toward him, or for her father for gambling again after promising her that he wouldn’t.

Bart put his hands on the desk, stood up and 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, put his hands in his pockets and walked over to stand in front of her.

        “I don't want your money, Alicia.” His voice was softer now. “As you can plainly see, I have plenty of money. I don't need any money from you. I want to make a deal with you.”

        He knelt on one knee in front of her and took her hand in his. She immediately pulled it away from him as she snapped. “What kind of deal, Mr. Armstrong?”

        “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 pulled out a gorgeous diamond ring and held it in front of her.   

        “Now, I want you to marry me.”

        Stunned, Alicia jumped up again, knocking him over. Her face turned a crimson red and her eyes shot daggers at Bart.

        “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 stood up and caught her by the arm and said slyly, “Then your father will go to prison.”

        She stopped abruptly and turned back around to meet his gaze; her brows furrowed quizzically. She jerked her arm out of his grasp.

        “What do you mean?”

        Bart turned the computer monitor around on his desk. “Watch the screen and I'll show you what I mean.”

        He picked up a flash drive off the desk, plugged it into the computer and hit a couple of keys.

It started out showing the back of a man walking toward a table with a briefcase in his hand. He put the briefcase on it, opened it and took out a roll of velvet material. The velvet was unrolled to reveal exquisite diamond jewelry. Another one was unrolled with more beautiful bracelets, necklaces, pendants, rings and earrings, all set with sapphires, rubies and sparkling emeralds. Another briefcase was already on the table and the camera panned over to it. When the briefcase was opened, it revealed 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 another man, showing him only from the waist down. Then Ray carried the case holding the money with him and got into the back seat of a black car and drove away. The video kept going, showing only the face of her father, but in another location with different jewelry... then another one, and another one.

        “In case you didn’t realize it, Alicia, the jewelry was all stolen.”

        Turning back to face Bart, she clenched her fists so tight that her fingernails dug into her palms and her breath squeezed off in her throat. Her heart beat heavily in her chest and she swayed from side to side. She was about to pass out. She collapsed sideways into the chair, resting her head on her folded arms over the padded chair arm. Tears rolled down her cheeks, staining the expensive fabric on his chair. How could her father have gotten involved with stolen jewelry?

        She cried out in despair, “How did you get him to do that?”

Bart tried to hide a smirk on his face as he handed her a tissue, then sat on the edge of the desk in front of her, folding his arms in front of him.

        “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. Therefore, he had no choice but to agree. Then it was just a matter of taking video of him picking up the money for the stolen jewels. 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.”

        Tears ran down Alicia’s cheeks as she looked up at him. “And where did he get all of this jewelry.”

        “That doesn’t concern you,” Bart said.

        He stood next to her, putting his hand on her shoulder.

        “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, Alicia. Anything your heart desires, I'll buy it for you.”

        He promised her everything that day, except the only two things she really wanted . . . that flash drive and her freedom.

                                                                            Chapter 2

        Alicia was quiet at dinner and her father was too. She spent all weekend in her room thinking about what Bart had told her and wondering how her father could have gotten himself in that position. Now she understood why her father was so depressed lately. Did he even know the consequences of what he’d done? She couldn't tell him she knew he had gambled again. She wanted to throttle him . . . and at the same time, hug him and keep him safe. Breaking his promise and gambling again was the very reason she had to marry Bart–only her father could never know that. He would be devastated if he ever found out how much she was sacrificing to keep him out of prison.

        At least, she managed to get Bart to agree to put off the wedding until June by telling him it was always her dream to be a June bride. It was February now, so she only had a few short months to find a way to get that flash drive and get out of this wedding. Until then, Bart had her right where he wanted her.

        On Sunday, a car drove up and a man came to the door with a package for Alicia. She took it to her room and opened it. It was from Bart. In the package was a black cocktail dress and an expensive diamond necklace and black onyx ring. She tried on the dress, but it was too tight and showed a lot of cleavage.

She fell on the bed and started crying. Fiona jumped up on the bed, rubbing up against her, trying to console her. She sat up and hugged Fiona to her.

        “What am I going to do, Fiona?”

        Fiona splayed out on her back and Alicia absentmindedly rubbed her belly. Fiona loved it and purred with contentment. She looked down at her beautiful fluffy white cat while petting her.

        “How can I possibly find that flash drive, Fiona?”

        She had to find a way to get out of this marriage, but where would she start?

                                                                        * * *

        On Monday, Alicia told Susan that she was going to marry Bart, and showed her a very large diamond ring on her finger. She wasn’t very happy about it though.

         "What? But why?” she asked.

         “Because–I want to, and that's all I'm going to say. Don't be asking me questions because I won't answer them.”

         “But,”

         “No buts, I'm not answering your questions. I'm going to marry him and that's that.”

         “What happened when you went over to his house on Saturday?”

         “He asked me to marry him.”

         “But why did you agree to it? I know you don’t like him, and this doesn’t make any sense to me. You wouldn’t give him the time of day before you went to his house.”

Susan tried to think of all the possibilities. “Was it for his money? Wait. No, I know you, Alicia, and you wouldn’t marry him for his money. Wait . . .  does it have anything to do with what he said about your father going to prison? What was it? Tell me.”

         “Don’t ask any questions, Susan, because I’m not answering them.”

         The phone started ringing so Susan had to go back to her office. She didn't know what else to say to Alicia anyway.

         Susan’s voice came on the intercom, “Bart, on line 2.”

         Alicia picked up the phone, “I’m busy Bart, what do you want?”

        “Meet me at the Club at seven-thirty tonight. We're going out on the boat with some friends. And wear that sexy, black dress I sent to your house yesterday. I want to show you off.” 

        “But Bart, I tried it on and that dress is too tight. I wouldn't feel comfortable wearing it.”

        “Alicia, I told you I would lavish you with pretty things, but when I tell you to do something, you will do as I say.”

        Detesting that tone he took with her, she wished she could lash out at him. Instead, she found herself furiously tapping her pencil on her notepad as she took in a long, slow breath and let it out again, fighting to keep her composure. The hostility in her voice was obvious as she snapped, “I don't want anything from you Bart . . . except for you to leave me alone.”

        Bart laughed. “Now, how would that look, seeing as we're getting married in a few months? We're happy little lovebirds, remember.” His voice had a menacing tone to it as he continued. “Now do as you're told or you know what the consequences will be. Remember . . . be at the Club at seven-thirty, and doll yourself up for me.”

        “Why . . . the jerk hung up on me.” She slammed the phone down and ran into the bathroom, almost colliding with Susan in the hall. Her eyes stung with tears and her throat tightened as she tried to fight back the sobs. After a couple of minutes, Susan knocked on the door.

        “Alicia, are you all right?”

        She opened the door for Susan to come in. “I can't cry now,” she said. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “I have to see patients.”

        Susan put a comforting arm around Alicia’s shoulder, but she couldn't hide the animosity in her voice when she spoke. “I can’t for the life of me understand why you’re marrying that creep. I know you don’t love him. Good Gosh, Alicia, you don’t even like him.”

        Turning toward the mirror, Alicia dabbed at her eyes again, trying to wipe away all traces that she'd been crying. She gave her auburn hair a quick brush through, watching it fall into waves around her shoulders. There was sadness in her voice when she finally spoke.

         “I’ve told you I can’t explain it to you Susan, but I’m going to marry him–and that’s all there is to it.”

         Susan’s voice softened – the way Alicia had heard her when she comforted her beautiful three-year-old twin girls. “I can’t stand to see you hurt like this, but I can’t help you if you won’t tell me what’s going on.”

         Alicia put her brush back on the shelf next to the mirror. “You’re just trying to help, and I love you for it, but no one can help me with this. It’s something I have to handle on my own.”

Susan threw her hands up in frustration, and sighed. “If you won’t tell me what this is about, I can’t help you.” She was fuming as she turned around and walked out.

         Alicia put her hands on the edge of the sink, looking into the mirror. She straightened up to her full height and said with a determination she didn't know she had, “I can handle this. I have to . . . because I have no choice.”

                                                                               * * *

        Later that afternoon, Dr. Bryant gathered all of the staff in his office.

        “A new doctor will be coming in next Monday to take over my patients for me, as I’m finally going to retire. I’ve talked about it for a while and I’m finally doing it. The new doctor used to live here so he knows a lot of the patients. I’m going to stay around for a couple of weeks to see that the transaction goes smoothly, and shouldn’t affect the other doctors in the office. Does anyone have any questions?”

        Susan piped up. “How old is he?”

        “He’s about 30. He went to medical school and then did a stint in the military for a while. I hope you will all give him a warm welcome. Now, if there’s no more questions, get back to work.”

        Walking back to her office, she talked with Susan about Dr Bryant.

        “He’s a kind and compassionate man, but he’s getting old and tired and should have retired years ago. I’ve been his nurse since I moved to South Carolina, and we’ve become close, but I’m glad he’s finally retiring.”

        “Me too, I only came to work here about three years ago but I love him too. It’s going to be strange having somebody else to work for.”

         Alicia called the next patient back and Susan went to answer the phones. 

                                                                             * * *

        After lunch, Susan wandered in Alicia’s office, as it wasn't time yet for the answering service to send the calls back to the office. Susan was a perky little thing and really made things fun for everyone in the office. She was just a people person. And she was Alicia’s best friend.

        Susan sat on Alicia’s desk as she played with the ringlets in her blonde hair. “What do you think the new doctor will be like? I certainly hope he's as nice as Dr. Bryant.”

        Alicia squinted her eyes, looked at her for a minute and thought about it. “I don't know, because Dr. Bryant is the only doctor I've ever worked for.” Alicia started gathering the files for the next patient. “We’ll have to work with him anyway, no matter what he’s like.”

        Susan sighed, “I hate to see Dr. Bryant go, and I really hate breaking in a new doctor,” Then with a twinkle in her eyes, she perked up and looked at Alicia.

        “What if he's good looking and single? Do you think you would be interested?”

        Alicia glanced at Susan and chided her with a sideways grin. “An office romance? Really?”

        Susan pouted like a little girl that didn’t get her way. “But I want you to find somebody and settle down like me and Tim. You're a beautiful woman Alicia, and you deserve a good man.”

        Alicia laughed. “If I was all tied up with a man, who would you get to babysit with those beautiful twin girls of yours.”

        Susan scrunched up her nose. “Yeah, that would be a bummer, wouldn’t it? I need you at my beck and call, so maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea.” She laughed and tossed her blonde hair back.

        Alicia turned around and sighed as her tone changed to somber. “Besides, I’m engaged to Bart now,” she said.

        Just then, the calls started coming in again and Susan went back to her desk to answer them.

                                                                               * * *

        Alicia left the office at 5:30 and stopped by the store for milk. When she got to the house, she found her father sitting in front of the tv.

        “How was your day,” she asked.

        “Fine,” he answered

.

        “I have a date and we’re having dinner out. I’m going to put a casserole in the oven for you, and I bought milk for cereal if you want a snack later.”

        “That’s fine,” he said. “Wait . . . you have a date?”

        “Yes, is that so strange?”

        “Well . . . yes. You never date.”

        “I do tonight. In fact, I might be dating more often.”

        “Well, that would be nice,” he said.

        Fiona was lying on the couch. She gave her a quick pet and Fiona thumped her tail back and forth. She went into the kitchen, got a casserole out of the freezer and put it in the oven, then went to her room. She really didn’t want to wear that black dress Bart had bought her, but she had to do what he said . . . for now.

She took a quick shower and got dressed. While standing in front of the mirror, looking at her reflection, Fiona had come in and sat in front of the mirror watching her.

        “This dress is way too tight and shows too much cleavage Fiona,” she said. “I need to fix that, but how?” 

 

        Fiona meowed at her. “Of course, Fiona, my grandmothers’ antique silk shawl. You’re so smart.” She found her grandmother’s shawl, threw it around her shoulders, and modeled it for Fiona, then picked her up and hugged her. She put Fiona down, put on her coat and started for the door.

        “The casserole should be ready now, dad. I might be late getting home.”

        Ray got up and went to the kitchen to take the casserole out of the oven.

        “That’s fine, you just have a good time. I’m glad you have a date. You haven’t gone out in a while . . . except with Susan.”

        Alicia walked out the door wondering what was in store for her. How would Bart treat her, and would she have a chance to figure out where he hid that flash drive?

                                                                                   Chapter 3

        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 have been 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 in the club, came from behind her and took her arm, leading her to a table against the wall. 

        “The boss said for you to wait here for him,” Jack said. He seated her, then turned back to his duties at the door.

        The Riverfront Club was the nicest in town, and Bart owned it, among several other businesses along the riverfront. 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,” he said as 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 walked around to the other side and slid 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. “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.

                                                                                      * * *

         Alicia walked into the office. Dr. Bryant 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 adviser, until Dr. Rhodes got acquainted with the patients. I guess he wanted the new doctor to know all about them in order to treat them adequately.

         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.”

        While laughing heartily at his little joke, he asked 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 tried stealing 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.” I said.

        They all got their coats and walked out together. Susan and Alicia 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 going on with 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.”

        “You're right. I don't understand.” Susan stopped, placed her hands on her hips and turned to look straight at Alicia. “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 started walking again. “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. 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 realized 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 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?

        “Alicia.”

        Hearing her name broke her concentration with her thoughts and she looked around the table to see them all staring at her.

        “What?”

        “Boy, you were really lost in thought there,” Susan said. “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 got up and grabbed the 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 into the bathroom. “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 dabbed at her eyes with a tissue before the tears welling up in them overflowed.

        Susan leaned her back against the wall with her arms folded in front of her 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.”

        She gave Susan a quick hug, and they walked back out to the table and sat down. 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.

 

                                                                                     Chapter 4

     The first couple of weeks passed quickly for John, and he settled into the routine of the office. Dr. Bryant was still there to help, but pretty much stayed out of the way in his office. John's last patient of the day had canceled, so he knocked on the door to Dr. Bryant's office.

         “Come on in, John. You don't have to knock.” John walked in and sat in the chair in front of Dr. Bryant's desk and looked at him with furrowed brows. “I need to talk to you about Alicia.”

         Dr. Bryant leaned back in his chair, his face breaking into a huge grin. “Ahhhhhhhhhhh, I've been waiting for this.”

         “Waiting for what?” John asked.

         Dr. Bryant leaned forward and rested his arms on his desk. “For you to talk about Alicia, of course. Spill it. I'm listening.”

         Taken aback, John hesitated for a second, then blurted out. “I can't get a handle on Alicia. At times she seems friendly and other times she's withdrawn and cool toward me. I don't know how to read her.”

         “You like her, don't you? I mean, really like her.”

         Surprised, John looked up at him. “You can tell?”

         “Of course, I can tell.” He laughed and shook his head. “Son, you've been walking around here like a love-struck teenager. I'm surprised you've been able to diagnose your patients so well.” He grinned at John. “I've checked to make sure, and you're doing fine.”

         “Is it that obvious? She's beautiful and I can’t help staring at her. I don't know what's happening to me, but I can't help it.

         Dr. Bryant nodded. “I know how you feel John, but I'm long past knowing how to help in a situation like this. I’m way too old and been married too long.”

         “And what about her personal life?” John asked. “Susan told me that Alicia is engaged to be married, but then Susan says that Alicia acts like she doesn't really like the guy. It doesn't make any sense to her, but Alicia won't talk about it. Also, she doesn't wear an engagement ring. Don't you find that strange?”

         “Yep, I sure do. But I don't know the answer to any of those questions. She won't talk to me either. I know something's not right with that, but I can't figure it out, so you're on your own there, son.”

                                                                                  * * *

        John left the office and went home, still thinking about his conversation with Susan and Dr. Bryant. He walked into the house and threw his keys on the table by the door. That’s when he remembered a file he wanted to bring home – but had left at the office. He had never been so forgetful. Alicia was really doing a number on him. Then he remembered that Alicia had to pass within a block of his house on her way home, so he checked his watch. She may still be there. He pulled out his phone and dialed the office, relieved when Alicia answered.

        “Hey, I’m so glad you’re still there. I wanted to go over Sarah Peterson’s lab results tonight, but I left her file at the office on my desk. Would you bring it to my house on your way home?”

        “Sure, it’ll probably be another hour before I leave though.”

        “That's fine, thanks. I’ll see you in an hour.”

        John put his phone on the sofa and opened his mail, throwing away the junk mail and filing the rest. Then, he walked into the bathroom, threw off his clothes and jumped in a hot, steamy shower. He just stood there letting the hot water stream over his body. Thinking about Alicia, his heart started racing. I have to get a grip on myself. I'm a professional and I have to behave like a professional. But all he could think about was her. Her flawless skin. Her thick, auburn hair flowing down over her shoulders. Her dazzling green eyes. Her full, sultry mouth. Her . . .

        The sound of the doorbell interrupted his thoughts.

        Alicia stepped up to the door of his house and rang the bell. She wondered what was taking him so long to answer the door when he finally opened it. He glanced around outside and then pulled her inside, closing the door behind her. His dripping wet body was naked except for 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 dripping onto his body, 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 looked around 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.” He walked over to the stereo, turned on the 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 and put her hands in her lap on top of the file. John came over and sat next to her. He smiled as he reached over and took her hand in his.

         “Alicia, I may be Dr. Rhodes at the office, but outside of the office, I'm John. Is that okay with you?”

         Her heart fluttered at the touch of his hand to hers.. She looked into his deep brown eyes. “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 they talked about the file John had requested.

       “I think there’s more to the symptoms than the patient is relaying to me,” said John. Alicia told him what she knew about the patient's family and history. She began to relax as they continued to talk about office matters.

         “Oh, that's one of my favorites,” John said. 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 her face flushed with warmth. The heat emanating from his body clouded her senses. She could barely breathe and her knees were like rubber.

         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. Her heart beat against his chest so hard she couldn’t believe he didn’t hear it. She closed her eyes and her body melted into his like butter in a hot skillet. He felt so good. If she was dreaming, she never wanted to wake up. She wanted to stay in his warm, muscular arms forever.

         Suddenly, she stiffened and looked up at him. “I have to go,” she stammered, 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.

 

                                                                                     Chapter 5

 

        Driving home, Alicia bit her lower lip. How she could let herself get so close to John. She told herself she’d never get close to a man again. But she couldn’t help but think about how it felt in his arms, so warm and safe. When she got home, she fixed a quick supper for her and her father. As usual, they didn’t have much to talk about and Alicia was glad. After she cleaned up the kitchen, she escaped to her room with Fiona and flopped on her bed.

        “How could I let that happen, Fiona.”

        Fiona hopped on the bed with Alicia, rubbing against her, then curling up into a ball. Alicia thought of nothing else but dancing with John. She petted Fiona as she thought of being in John’s arms. It felt so good and she wanted to be there again.

        But she couldn’t. She had to marry Bart. He hadn’t called her all week and she was glad. She never wanted to see him again.

                                                                              * * *

        On Sunday, Bart sent a man to her house with a package. She took it to her room and opened it. It was a gorgeous red dress. She tried it on while Fiona watched, and it fit her perfectly. It was strapless, fitted to the thigh, then flared out with layers of chiffon flowing to the floor. She felt beautiful as she twirled around the room in it. Then she opened the smaller boxes to find a necklace, bracelet, earrings and a ring with rubies and diamonds that were exquisite. A ray of sun came in the window and she held them up and watched them sparkle. She never even dreamed of owning something so beautiful.

        “I wonder where we’re going, Fiona, to wear something as gorgeous as this.”

        Then her heart sank. It was from Bart, and she despised him. She didn’t want to go anywhere with him. But she had to find that flash drive, and he wasn’t giving her any clues. She’d try to find out something when she saw him again.

                                                                                  ***

        After lunch the next day, Alicia was walking back to the office and spotted an old alley. She was about half way through when she saw an old shop. The wooden sign above the door was weathered with peeling paint, so she could barely read what it said.

        “Antiques. What a strange place for an antique shop,” she said.

        She looked around at the other buildings and the cobble-stoned alley. 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.

        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. She slipped behind the boxes and was about halfway through when she tripped. She grabbed at the shelves to catch herself.

        Oh 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. She waved her arm around behind the shelves and didn’t feel anything. There was no wall behind the shelves. Too dark to see for sure, she sensed there was something beyond there.

        The voices were coming closer. She started to panic, so 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. Feeling a handle on the other side, she 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 hard against the wall behind her 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 as she fumbled to find the button on the side to turn off the ringer before it rang and allowed Bart and that man to realize she was here.

        There, it's done. Her breathing slowed and she let out a long sigh of relief.

        Then, her thoughts turned to her surroundings. Where was she?

        She stood in the quiet darkness and 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 mashed the button to turn on her phone display, turned on the flashlight and surveyed her surroundings.

She sighed 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. At the bottom of the stairs was a wall covered with large rocks.

She looked at her phone and saw her battery was low. “Oh, that's just great,” she muttered. She stopped at the bottom of the steps and sat down, afraid to go any farther in case her phone died and she couldn't find her way back. She sat there shining the light on the rock wall in front of her, studying all the interesting sizes and shapes in the rock formations, some large and some small.

        What was Bart doing here? And why does that man not want to be seen with him?

        Her thoughts were interrupted when her phone died and Alicia was in the dark again. I've been down here a while. Surely, they're gone by now.

        She turned around and slowly crawled up the steps to the platform at the top. Facing the back of the shelves, she ran her hands over it until she found the handle and pushed against it, while she listened for voices. She didn’t hear anything, so she pushed a little more until she squeezed out and pushed 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.

        When she arrived back at the office she began to relax. She got the files ready for the next patient and led her into the room.

        “Phone call on line two,” Susan said. “It's Bart.”

        Alicia walked into her office and took a deep breath. Her pulse quickened at the thought that maybe he saw her leaving the antique shop earlier. Her hand shook as she picked up the phone and pressed the button for line 2. With an aloofness that belied her anxiousness, she finally spoke.

        “What do you want, Bart?”

        “We’re going to a party Saturday night in Savannah.”

        Relieved that he hadn’t seen her at the antique shop, she relaxed.

        “In Savannah? That’s about a couple of hours from here.” Alicia said.

        “I know, but I have business with these people and I want to show you off. I sent you a red dress and ruby and diamond necklace and earrings to wear. I also got a ruby ring and bracelet to match. You got it, didn’t you?”

        “Yes, I got it.”

        “A car will come to get you at 5:30 and take you to Savannah.”

        “Why will a car pick me up?” Alicia asked. “I won’t be going with you?”

        “I have to go early, but I’ll be there when you get there.”

        Bart never said bye. He just hung up, and that irritated Alicia.

        She sat there looking at the phone in her hand. What kind of business could Bart have in Savannah? She wondered if it had anything to do with his jewel smuggling business?

                                           Chapter 6

        Alicia smiled at Susan, “Well Susan, it’s been a busy week, but I’m ready to close up for the weekend and start our ‘girls’ night out’ we’ve been planning. How about you?”

        “I’m all for it, and the doctors have all gone so it’s just us left.”

        Alicia locked up, went home and warmed up some leftovers for her father to eat. Then she packed a bag and picked up Fiona to take to Susan’s.

         When she arrived at Susan’s house she reached in the back, got her bag, and picked up Fiona.

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’.

        He took Fiona from Alicia 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 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.

        Susan had picked up the pepperoni pizza and ice cream on her way home. They were ready for their girls’ night.

        They changed into their pajamas and started eating the pizza while watching tv.

        Susan broke the silence and asked Alicia, “What was the phone call from Bart about today?”

        Alicia frowned. “He wants me to go to a party in Savannah with him.”

        Susan looked at Alicia with a furrowed brow. “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. He bought me an elegant red dress and some gorgeous jewelry to wear, so it appears to be very fancy.”

        Susan laughed. “Well, don’t forget 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 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 jumped in Susan’s lap to be petted.

        “Fiona, you’re such a finicky cat. I thought you’d like my pizza. 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. “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 the other day.

        “Susan, I have to tell you something.”

        “What is it?”

        “I found an old antique shop and Bart was there with another man. I hid in an underground tunnel so he didn’t see me, but he’s up to something. I just know it. That other man’s voice was really creepy.”

        Susan’s eyes about popped out of her head, and her mouth gaped open as she sat up on the couch, pulling her legs up under her.

        “What? An antique shop, and an underground tunnel. Oh my gosh, Alicia. And Bart was there? Tell me more.”

        Alicia told her everything that happened while Susan sat there astounded. She couldn’t believe what Alicia had just told her. If Bart was there it couldn’t have been good. If he was up to something, she wanted to know about it.

        “What about the underground tunnel? What do you suppose is down there?

        “I don’t know. I want to go back when my phone is charged and take a better look around.”

        “Be careful, 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.”

        “Okay, Alicia.” Susan had that serious look on her face and Alicia suspected what was coming. She’d been dreading it but she had to tell Susan why she was marrying Bart.

        Susan got right to the point. “Why are you marrying Bart? I know you don’t want to, so don’t even try to tell me you do.”

        “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 was speechless for a minute.

        “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. 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.”

        “Oh my gosh, Alicia, that’s terrible. What are you going to do? You have to call the police.”

        “I can’t. He’ll turn over that flash drive and my father will go to prison. I have to find it, but I don’t know how. Maybe it’s in that underground tunnel.”

        “I know. Why don’t you tell Dr. Rhodes? He’ll help you. He’s been asking about you. He’s confused, and I didn’t know what to tell him because I didn’t know what was going on.”

        “No, I can’t. I told you because you’re my best friend, and I had to tell somebody. I can’t deal with this on my own. I don’t know what to do.”

        “You have to tell Dr. Rhodes.”

        “No, I can’t. I can’t tell anybody.”

        Susan sat there for a little bit, confused, not knowing what to say or do after that revelation. Finally, she jumped off the couch like she had a plan.

        “Let’s get ice cream,” Susan said. “I’ll get the spoons.”

        Alicia, happy that the conversation about Bart was over, followed Susan into the kitchen. Alicia scooped ice cream into the bowls and Susan got the spoons. They walked into the living room, sat on the couch with their feet folded under them and watched movies and ate ice cream until they couldn’t eat any more. Fiona ate some ice cream too, then curled up in Alicia’s lap, purring until she fell asleep. Susan fell asleep next on the huge sectional sofa, so Alicia moved Fiona over and laid down and drifted off to sleep.

 

                                                                             * * *

        The next afternoon, Alicia went home from Susan’s and started getting dressed for the event in Savannah as Fiona watched.

        “This dress is beautiful, Fiona. And the jewelry he bought is exquisite. It must have cost a small fortune.” 

        She walked by the window, and watched the jewelry sparkle in the sun. “They really are beautiful. I could never afford something like this.” Fiona meowed as Alicia sighed.

        She put her hair up in a French twist and placed a pretty comb in the side. She looked in the mirror at her reflection and was awed by the gorgeous dress. She smiled at her reflection.

        “I look like a princess, don’t I, Fiona? So, maybe I am a princess after all.”

        Then her smile turned into a frown as she sighed.

        “But I hate my prince.” Fiona meowed again.

        Alicia looked out the window and saw the car waiting for her.

        “Well, time to go. I’ll be back before you know it.” She gave Fiona a quick pet, gave her father a hug and told him she’d be back soon. She walked out the door to the car.

                                                                              * * *

        When she arrived in Savannah, she got out of the car and entered the old hotel. A beautiful curved staircase led to the room where the party was being held. She entered the grand interior that had the appearance of old Southern charm. She looked around the room and was instantly mesmerized by its beauty.

        Tables were graced with lace tablecloths, set with beautiful porcelain tea cups and plates to the side of the dance floor. There were candles on each table, giving a nice warm glow to the room. The window coverings were massive, in gold and burgundy, and they flowed from the ceiling to the floor. The room was hauntingly beautiful, and reminded her of the old Southern grandeur of days gone by. The orchestra was playing soft, soothing music while people were mingling around talking and finding their tables.

        She spied Bart talking to some men and walked over, coming up from behind him. He was talking about a shipment on Wednesday and loading the antiques. As she stepped up beside him, he stopped in mid-sentence and turned toward her. He smiled and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.

         “Alicia, darling, come and meet my friends.”

         She knew she made quite the entrance to the other men, and was enjoying it. He introduced them, and she smiled, playing the part gracefully for Bart. In a while, he seated her and went back to talk to the other men.

         After talking with some of the people at the table, she realized how different these people were from the ones on the boat. They were older and classier, like they came from old money. She actually enjoyed talking to them and getting to know them. She’d never been around really rich people before–and these people were rich, but they were also nice.

        Bart came to the table and their meal was served. The food was delicious, and the tea and dessert made it sublime. She was having a really nice time.

        “I have to go back and talk business with some men,” Bart said. “They’ll be dancing soon, and you can watch. I’ll be back.”

        The orchestra started to play a waltz, and an older gentleman come over to her and asked, “Would you care to dance?”

        She looked for Bart and saw him talking to some men, so she smiled and took his hand.

        “Of course, I’d be delighted.”

        She was glad she had taken ballroom dance lessons and would regularly go to the dances when she lived in Savannah. She loved dancing and didn’t realize how much she missed it.

        Pleasantly surprised that the older man could dance the waltz perfectly, they twirled around the floor, not a care in the world. She hadn’t danced the waltz in quite some time and she loved every minute of it. So, dancing around the floor with this gentleman with such grace was thrilling.

        When they finished the dance, he escorted her back to her table and bowed.

        “It was a pleasure to dance with such a beautiful woman. You have turned the eyes of all the gentlemen here.”

        “Why, thank you. You’re a wonderful dancer too, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

        When a foxtrot started playing, another gentleman came over and asked her to dance. Thrilled at the prospect, and since Bart was still enjoying the conversation of the men he was talking to, she accepted. She enjoyed him as much as the first gentleman. They danced all around the floor, having tremendous fun.

 

        Then, she danced the rumba with another man, much younger. The gentle swaying of her hips and the slower tempo gave her a sensual feeling as she moved around the floor. She was in her element, and having a fabulous time. The men kept coming and she danced every dance. She couldn’t remember when she’d had this much fun.

        Bart finally came over to the table and her mood changed.

        “Did you finish your business?” she asked.

        Yes, and I watched you dance too. I didn’t realize you were such a good dancer, Alicia. I never learned to ballroom dance, even though my sister taught it. I could learn if you’d like.”

        Her eyes were cast down at the floor and her tone was cold as she spoke. 

        “That’s up to you. It’s fun.”

        When the last song was being played, Bart looked at Alicia, then stood and held out his hand.

        "Would you dance with me, Alicia.”

        “Of course.”

        Reluctantly, she got up and took his hand. They swayed back and forth to the music in a slow dance since evidently, that’s all Bart knew to do. Alicia just wanted it to be over.

        When they walked out of the hotel, Bart got in the car with her on the ride home.

        “Did you have a nice time, Alicia.”

        “Yes, I did.”

        “There will be many more nights like this when we’re married,” he said.

        She looked at him with a cold sadness in her eyes.

        “I don’t want to marry you Bart.”

        “I know. But you’ll learn to love me.” He pled with her, his voice softer, willing her to give him a chance. “I’ll give you everything you could possibly want, and I’ll treat you like a queen. I’ll do anything for you, Alicia.”

        “Then give me that flash drive.”

        “You know I can’t do that.”

        She turned away from him and didn’t respond after that. After a few more attempts at conversation, he finally gave up trying.

        On the long ride home, she thought about what he said about a shipment on Wednesday and that he would get the antiques loaded. What did he mean? And how were the antiques involved in his jewel smuggling business? She would have to find out.

Contact: Carlene Shuler Brown

email: carlenesb@aol.com