The Witness

Cara Lawrence drained the last of the martini and slid the shiny stemware away from her. A little world to itself, the elegant glass on its clean white napkin. A little white square with a world on it. She wanted to go there.

The muscles in her neck relaxed. God, she needed this. She’d chewed the inside of her cheek raw, driving mile after mile across land colored in faded shades of brown, tan, gray. Scraps of bleached vegetation. Peaceful in a desolate way. Like her.

At some point, she had redirected the air conditioner vent away from her face and slipped into a reverie. She could be anywhere in any time. Not much traffic on the highway. Cactus dotted the landscape. Finally, as late afternoon started to quench the outside glare, she’d been able to smile.

Now, not so much. Much as she needed her senses on full alert, she also needed a break. She sighed, not carried away, not in a different world. That man lurked in the back of her mind, dark and threatening. Looking at her intently as if he could read her mind. She wasn’t good at hiding her thoughts. He knew.

Not many people remained in the dim hotel bar, but it felt good to be tucked into this corner booth at the back of the room. Everything about the place comforted her, the scent of leather upholstery, the clatter of glassware, the faint drone of the television above the bar blending with distant voices, the bartender, a couple of nearby people talking. Facing the door, she could see anyone who came in. Not that he would come in. She was seven hundred miles away in another state. There was no way he could have followed her here.

But she felt like he had. That feeling crawled up the back of her neck like he was watching, waiting. For what? Why did it matter what she knew? Wouldn’t he fare better leaving her alone no matter what heinous act he committed?

A short laugh rolled up her chest. Fucking ridiculous, Cara. What the hell is wrong with you? She’d never been this paranoid. All this terror built on the flimsiest of evidence, a few minutes of unexplained noise, a brief encounter…so what? He’d been polite, said he was sorry, left her alone. A killer wouldn’t have done that. Would he?

She hadn’t seen anything anyway, not really. She saw him go in, heard a loud noise like gunfire. Maybe it wasn’t gunfire. Maybe the sound didn’t come from where he went. Maybe he just went in and came back out. Maybe leaving the door open didn’t mean anything. She drained her glass, satisfied that between the hearty chicken-fried steak dinner and a couple of strong cocktails, she’d have a good night’s sleep.

Okay, most of the dinner had stayed on her plate.

She wanted to sleep, a deep restful sleep with no restless half-awake time lying there, listening, waiting. Resisting the urge to have a third drink, she slid out of the booth, dropped a generous tip on the table, and walked across the room. Her legs hadn’t recovered from being in the car all day. And the day before. Walking felt good. A long walk in the twilight would feel fabulous.

No. He might have followed her. She had been his only witness. He would want her gone.

Cara got to her floor gripping her door card. If she had a Xanax, she’d take it now. She kept seeing the guy’s eyes, pale gray in a weathered face. A face that had seen a lot. And that scar. How many regular guys had a scar on their cheek?

How much of this was being off balance from the breakup with Travis?

A cluster of young men stood at the ice machine, talking and joking.

“I need your help,” she said impulsively, aware of the absurdity of what she was about to say. “Someone is following me,” she continued, thankful the young men looked at her with concern. “I’m afraid to go to my room,” she continued. “Would you help me get my bags, maybe let me sleep on your couch?”

The young men glanced at each other, all of them tall and athletic. Surely they’d defend her, if it came down to it.

Had she gone mad?

“Sure, lady,” one of them said. “Charter,” he said, straightening his shoulders and sticking out his hand, his valor ready. “Besom, Hank, Jason,” he said, waving his hand at the others.

“Charter, nice to meet you. I’m Cara.” Maybe she was drunker than she knew. What did they think about this, really? What the hell was she doing?

It was a brilliant plan, she decided as they closed her room door and walked with her to their suite. A rugby team. That explained it. Did it mean anything to her that their bodies radiated youthful male exuberance? Maybe she would give herself to them, yield up her flesh to their exploitation for however many hours they would have her.

What if she offered and they declined? After Travis, could she endure another rejection? Oh hell yes, this would be exactly what she needed to get Travis out of her mind forever. Travis hardly mattered now that she had a murderer on her trail.

What was she thinking? First she was thinking a murderer was on her heels and now she was imagining sex with a sports team. She shook her head. Did therapists have nervous breakdowns?

Maybe first thing tomorrow she’d look up a local therapist and try to get a session. Stay here long enough to get her head on straight. This whole thing with Travis had wrecked her equilibrium. Everything had been tossed in the air, years of shared goals, combined assets, promises about the rest of their lives.

She’d been a damn fool. And then she had to go and witness a murder. Or not.

Charter and the other boys jostled each other, joking back and forth as they walked down the hallway. She couldn’t believe she had invited herself to sleep on their couch. Or especially that she contemplated having sex with them. They probably had their pick of countless females younger and more attractive. What could they possibly gain from sex with a freaked out thirty-something woman clearly in diminishing grasp of her sanity?

Well, of course, they didn’t know that. The most obvious point was that they probably hadn’t thought about sex with her at all. They were upstanding young men, dedicated to their sport and their team, doing a favor for a stranger. She straightened as she hurried along behind them.

No one could say, actually, that she was losing it. Everything she thought could be true. She was intelligent and intuitive. There was something about that guy. He knew she knew what he’d done.

“Our team has six suites down this hallway,” Charter said. “So if we piss you off, you can check in with some of the other guys.” He grinned and the corners of his green eyes crinkled. His hand ran through short hair as he closed the door behind her. The room smelled of men, slightly sweaty, spicy. The television blared and she wondered if she would get any sleep at all.

“We’ll turn in pretty soon,” he said, as if reading her mind. “Game tomorrow, so no late crazy stuff.” He leaned slightly closer. “Tomorrow night, that’s when things will get wild. You’re welcome to stay around, if you want.”

He paused, his eyes searching. Oh, my god. He had thought about it. Her breath caught. She knew what he wanted to know.  Hell, she wanted to know too. How do you tell someone about a fear formed on so little basis? How do you explain something that makes no sense? She leaned up and brushed a soft kiss across his startled lips.

“Thanks, Charter. You can’t possibly know how much I appreciate you taking me in. Thank you.”

She watched him react, a slight blush, the inevitable thought of whether she wanted him, what he should do, if anything, in response. So young, so beautiful with his lean muscular body, perfect in so many ways. Her fingertips longed to smooth over his tanned skin. His scent filled her nose. If they had been alone, if she wasn’t on the run …

She stopped herself. Was she on the run? From what her marriage had become, from Travis and his selfish ways, yes, most assuredly. From the crazy incident this morning, something that even now at the brief memory, gooseflesh ran down her arms? Yes, that too.

But she was running toward something, too. A new life. On her terms.

She shook her head and gave him a thin smile. “Sorry, don’t mean to intrude. I’m just feeling worn out. It’s so good to feel safe. I’ll take the couch and get out of your way.”

He watched her with the eyes of an older man. Maybe that meant he felt desire. She had no energy to speculate. The day and the alcohol swept over her like a leaden blanket, and all she wanted, now, finally as she dropped her shoes, snugged her cheek against the pillow, and stretched her feet to the armrest at the far end of the couch, was to disappear into oblivion.

Sometime in the night a disturbance roused her. Light from the parking lot rimmed the heavy curtains and illuminated the room. Snoring, a cough. Someone moving around. Her head fell back onto the pillow. Probably someone going to the bathroom. She waited to hear the flush to know the coast was clear for her own trip to the toilet.

Sleeping forms reassured her as she returned to the couch, glass of water in hand. If her circumstances hadn’t been so completely bizarre, she would have been amused, even pleased, to be sleeping amid a room full of young men.

How long had it been since she felt the pleasure of men, their predictable ways with food, rest, entertainment. Simple and yet exquisitely complex, each one of them a world of contradictions and needs that would probably never be fully met. And yet so irresistible, sweet and funny and tender in so many ways. Nothing like Travis with his demands.

The pillow sweated her head and she couldn’t get comfortable. Alcohol did this, gave her that early crushing slide into sleep then later kept her awake. She lay on her back, forearm over her forehead as she wondered if the man in the truck had lost all his charming male attributes. What if anything did he still have in common with these young men? Not that she knew, really, anything about these young men. She turned to her side, pulling at her rumpled clothes.

She wanted to take off her clothes and lie naked on the soft upholstery, receive Charter and the rest one after another until their semen filled her like a warm flood. Let them kneel at the altar of her body, lavish her with their mouths and hands, spear into her with their hot cornucopias. They would fill her up and all her lines would vanish, her empty places, her loneliness and fear. There would be no place left untouched, no shadow not illuminated. Whispering, groaning, they would yield their youth and plenty to her age and hunger until she had been restored, reborn, resurrected.

“Cara.”

She felt his hand on her foot. Charter. His weight dented the couch where he sat by her knees. His hand ran up her leg.

“Yes.” Her voice barely penetrated the thick silence. His breathing told her everything — shallow, fast. Her legs eased apart, welcoming his hand to her thighs as he eased his way upward.

She sat up and pulled her shirt over her head. The bra fell to the floor, exposing her breasts to the cool air. Her nipples shriveled to hard knots, more from the certain knowledge that he would touch her than from the air conditioning. She lifted her hips to let him remove her skirt and panties then lay in blissful quietude as his hands explored her.

He wore nothing but a towel, she realized, now that her eyes had taken a cat’s sight in the dark. He leaned over her, his torso rippling with honed muscle, his thighs parted. She slid her hand onto his thigh where fine hair bristled her palm. Tense, hardened, his body arched over her.

“I want you,” he muttered, bringing his lips to her mouth. “Can we do this?”

“Yes.”

His mouth grazed over hers, his tongue explored gently. His hands brushed her breasts, her belly. Asked permission, discovered, got his bearings. How many young girls had felt his touch? She smiled into his kiss.

He drove himself into her, plunging in short hard lunges like a coiled spring, like iron, like a lion stalking and running and leaping on its prey. His mouth on her neck, biting. His back bowed, his hips tucked. Her fingertips brushed over the soft skin of his taut buttocks. Tears of relief burned her eyelids.

She swallowed her shouts, her screams, her groans of pleasure. Short gasping huffs escaped her in the last seconds as his motions peaked, his heat burning into her with long trembling ejaculations. Maybe the sounds were as much his as hers, their muted voices as mingled as their bodies.

As much as if she heard his words, she knew his thoughts. They echoed her own, whether they had done the right thing, whether the other person was satisfied, what to say or do now that it had happened.

None of that matters, she said back silently. We did what we did. It was good and that’s what counts.

He returned to his bed. She dressed in silence then lay quietly, waiting for dawn. It’s my life now, she thought, smiling into the dark.

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What she wants…

The profile of his wide shoulders was unmistakable, the way his neck turned. Shock tore through Tyler. She wheeled around to face the direction they’d just come and grabbed at Ronnie’s arm.

“Come on,” she hissed.

“What the…” Ronnie’s dark eyes flashed as she glanced around.

Crowds thronged the big parking lot and sidewalks, clustering in friendly mobs at each of the farmers’ market colorful canopies flapped in the breeze over booths where tables overran with bright yellow squash, deep red tomatoes, onions with long green tops, heaps of okra and green beans, baskets of apples, peaches, grapes. Fresh cut red and yellow zinnias, giant pink and white lilies, sprays of white baby’s breath and blue cornflower, daisies and sunflowers brimmed from tall cylinders. Bunches of aromatic herbs sent their fragrant scent into the warm sunshine—basil, sage, chives, many more that Tyler couldn’t name.

Children ran by laughing, and for a moment, Tyler felt suspended in time, like she no longer stood there frozen but had somehow floated into the air and hovered over the scene like a gliding bird. Ronnie squeezed her hand.

“Ty?”

“L-Lee,” she managed. “I’m sure it’s him. My god.” Tyler forced herself to take a breath. Her skin felt tingly, like her whole body had gone numb.

Ronnie peered around, and Tyler jerked on her hand. “Don’t look. He’ll see you.”

“Where the hell is he?”

“Back there, halfway down,” Tyler tilted her head briefly. “Don’t look, damn it. Let’s get out of here.”

“Hey, calm down. You’re acting like you’re in high school or something. What’s the big deal—I thought you were over him.”

A flush spread up Tyler’s neck and her cheeks were on fire. The big deal. She could hardly form words, let alone imagine trying to stand in front of Lee Hatfield with his blue-gray eyes staring down at her. She swallowed and stifled the impulse to run. Instead, she forced her feet to move, one step, then another, until she could put as much distance as possible between them. She shouldered through a crowd gathered around a pancake stand. The scent of maple syrup cloyed in her throat sending more unwanted memories racing through her mind.

Ronnie tugged on her arm as she walked beside her. “You’re not solving anything, you know. If he wants to see you or talk to you, he’ll find you no matter how many times you escape.”

“No,” Tyler shook her head, her jaw clenched. She stopped at the crosswalk, staring intently at the traffic signal willing it to change. “Anyway, he doesn’t want to see me. I just can’t have it look like I want to see him.”

“You do want to see him, silly. It’s written all over you.”

“See?!” Tyler stared again at the light. More people gathered, waiting to cross to where all their cars were parked. Another crowd had gathered on the opposite side. “He’ll know. I can’t do this. I should have known this was a stupid idea.”

“What, going out? Damn it, Tyler, you can’t hide forever.”

The light would never change. She was trapped here, and any minute he would be standing behind her, whispering in his low rumbling voice. His hands would grip her shoulders, her waist, and her body would soften, and his mouth would lower toward hers. She closed her eyes as tears welled in the corners. Her lip hurt, and she realized she’d bitten it so hard she tasted blood.

Like magic, the light finally did change, and they were swept across the wide boulevard with the rest of the crowd. Gravel crunched under her feet as they neared Ronnie’s white compact sedan. Ronnie stopped and rested against the back of the car, peering up over her sunglasses.

“You’re ridiculous, you know. There’s nothing in the world you want more than Lee Hatfield. You know it and I know it.” She waved her hand as Tyler started to protest. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re still being ridiculous. I wanted to spend the morning over there, buy some veggies, have some pancakes. Now I’m over here at my car way too soon.”

Tyler crossed her arms. “Fine. I’ll stay in the car. You go over there and do whatever.”

“No, hell no, you might stroke out if you thought I’d see him, maybe talk to him, tip him off about how you really feel.”

“No. You wouldn’t dare.” Tyler stood straight, pulling her long dark hair back from her face and twisting it over her shoulder. A faint breeze stirred over her neck. Insanely, it felt like Lee’s lips brushing her skin, and her nipples instantly puckered. Unbelievable.

“No,” she repeated inanely. No to the avalanche of emotion cascading through her body. Just the sight of him. She shook her head.

Ronnie swore darkly and flipped the car door locks before yanking open the driver’s side door. She rested her foot on the side rail and stared at Tyler across the top of the car. “Let’s go,” she said in a resentful tone.

“Maybe it wasn’t even him,” Tyler muttered, brushing a loose strand of hair back from her cheek. “Maybe it was just somebody with the same kind of body and hair color.”

“Right,” Ronnie said, her face contorted into an expression of disgruntled impatience. “Maybe it wasn’t. Why couldn’t you think of that while we were still over there? I could be eating pancakes right now. I’m starving to death.”

“I know.” Tyler sighed and looked up. A few white fluffy clouds drifted across the bright blue sky. “I’m sorry. It probably wasn’t him.” She scuffed her loafer in the gravel. “Look, seriously, I’ll hang out here at the car while you do whatever over there. I’ll watch people. Bring me some pancakes.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Ty, you’re starting to piss me off. Why can’t we both go back over there and do what everyone else is doing—you know, walk around, see friends, smile, buy stuff, eat? You think I’ll have any fun knowing you’re sitting over here in the damn car?”

“Can’t.” She shook her head, feeling the panic rising again in her throat. “I’ll be fine.”

With a few choice words, Ronnie slammed the car door and stalked off across the lot. Tyler sighed and remained leaning against the car watching Ronnie merge into the waiting throng at the street crossing. Stupid. Selfish. Coward. She couldn’t argue that she was all those things. But it had taken months to get over Lee. Okay, she wasn’t over him. But at least she was eating, although her clothes still hung loose around the waist. And sleeping, although some nights she sat up in bed holding her breath, his touch fresh from her dream, her heart pounding in her chest.

It was what she had to do to survive.

***

Tyler sat in the hot car with the front doors open to coax a slight breeze across her. Sweat pooled between her breasts and under her arms. This truly was one of her more absurd moments, she admitted to herself. First, she didn’t know for sure it was Lee. Second, even if it was, why couldn’t she just take the chance of seeing him, and if she did, have the composure and self-confidence to calmly say ‘hi’ and go on with her business? It wasn’t like he’d make a scene in public.

And if he did somehow say something pointed, she could always walk away.

But why go through it? Why risk standing close enough that his scent could swell in her nose and make her pulse flutter? Why struggle to keep her eyes from roaming over his gorgeous face with its stubborn jaw, his chest, those damn arms with their ropey muscles and bulging biceps? She licked her lips and realized the flesh between her legs had swollen.

“Damn it!” She flung the door open and heaved herself out of the car to pace in the gravel. Her hands clenched and unclenched, dangerously close to seizing the first thing she could find and throwing it hard against some large inanimate object. She wanted to cry so badly, but hadn’t she shed the last miserable tear already? Imaginary buckets of salty tears loomed in her mind.

“Ty.”

The low voice caught her completely by surprise. She jumped a foot and uttered a muffled shriek. Her breath came fast and blood pounded in her ears. No, this cannot be happening.

“Sorry,” he laughed, “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Forcing herself to straighten, Tyler brought her gaze around to meet his eyes. Damn those eyes, blue or gray or somewhere in between, only today they were blue as the sky. His words barely penetrated the drumming of her pulse. She tried to form words, but her mouth felt like it was stuffed full of cotton.

“I thought it was you,” he continued. “Do you know how many times I’ve tried to find you?”

She shook her head, still unable to speak.

“Months, Ty, ever since…” He cleared his throat and looked around. “What the hell, anyway? What happened?”

He stepped closer. All the memories she had worked so hard to erase flooded back into her mind, Lee with his rough laugh, his teasing touch as he melted her into submission. Lee with his powerful body poised over her, waiting for her to beg. His mouth and hands in all her secret places, pleasing her and bringing her to the edge. Forcing her to fall into an oblivion of absolute perfect joy.

Then newer memories. She stiffened and stepped back.

“What happened? I wised up, Lee.” Her voice sounded far away. “I found out about Gloria and the rest of your hidden world. Did you really think you could keep all that a secret?”

His eyes searched her face. “Christ, Ty, is that why…? All this?” He shook his head. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“What’s to say? Once I knew, I couldn’t un-know.” She swallowed around her dry throat. “I did what I had to do.”

“If you had asked…”

She cut him off, growing more angry by the second. “Ask what? How you could tell me you loved me and still see other women on the side? What’s there to ask, Lee? Damn you, anyway.”

His stare burned into her. The sun baked the top of her head and for a moment, she wondered if she really would stroke out like Ronnie said. This had to be some kind of bad dream. Lee couldn’t really be standing here three feet away, pretending she was the one who’d done something wrong. The idea of it sent a new surge of fury through her.

“Look,” he said, leaning toward her. “Let’s go somewhere, let me explain. I need you to understand.”

“You need?! Get real. Why do I care what you need?”

“Okay, sure.” He dropped his head. “What do you need, Ty?”

Her jaw fell open. This really had to be a freaking dream. “Seriously? Do you really think I’m going to stand here and tell you what I need? Or that I’m going to stand here one second longer and tell you anything?” She whirled around and began walking away. She didn’t know where she was going, except away from this man and everything they had shared and everything inside her that still wanted him. To the end of the earth.

She heard him seconds before she felt his big hand grip her arm to spin her around. He loomed over her, shadowing her face with his tall form and the dense whirlwind of unruly blonde hair that caught in the breeze. His mouth crushed hers, and she inhaled in the shock of it, drawing his familiar musk into her nostrils. His lips tormented her, demanding a response as his tongue darted against her lips and probed for entry. Spears of pleasure shot through her, pleasure and pain, fear and need.

His hands found her waist and pulled her tight against his hard chest. The bulge at his groin thrust against her swollen mound, and there was nothing in the world she wanted more than to yield, to open herself for the divine pleasure of Lee’s body against hers.

“Ty, I dream about you,” he whispered, tracing a line of kisses along her cheek and down her neck. “We have to figure this out. Please.”

“No!” she said, her body suddenly rigid. This was what she couldn’t do, wouldn’t do. She tried to pull away as a fresh wave of tears burned her eyelids. “No no no.”

He gripped her arms. “I’m not letting you go. You’ll disappear again.”

“Let me disappear!” she cried. “I can’t be what you want.”

“You are what I want,” he insisted with a gruff voice. “I can explain Gloria, whatever else you think you know. Just give me a chance.”

For a moment, Tyler wavered. Maybe she had been too quick to decide. Maybe what she knew wasn’t the whole story. Still, she had seen them with her own eyes, Gloria’s luscious body spread out naked on the bed, Lee half dressed, his head between her legs. Later, the short sharp words that Gloria used to tell her, pointedly, about the multiple obligations in Lee’s life that Tyler had never known. How could she have been so dumb, so clueless? Why hadn’t he tried to explain?

It didn’t matter now. She pulled herself free from Lee’s grip and twisted her hair together behind her neck.

“Leave me alone,” she said slowly, putting a cold edge to her voice. “It’s over and you know it.”

He shook his head, his gaze lingering on her face with an expression of disbelief. Against her will, she saw pain in his eyes, regret. She hadn’t ever noticed the lines spreading from the corners of his eyes, or the creases along either side of his mouth. He looked like he’d aged, or maybe he’d always been this way. Neither of them were exactly young.

But to see his face, now, with his expression etched in the lines, caught her off guard, and she wanted to wail in grief. If not Lee, who? If not now, when? Was her life going to trail off into a gray future of solitary evenings and distant memories of happier times?

She shook her head and turned. More than she could consider. Not her problem. As she took the first few steps back toward Ronnie’s car, she wiped at the tears that somehow had drifted down her cheeks. He walked behind her. She heard his steps in the gravel.

She waited beside the car again, shading her eyes with her hand as she hoped feverishly for Ronnie to appear. He stood a few feet away, his jaw pulsing.

“It’s not over,” he said finally. “There’s too much you don’t understand. But I’ll leave you alone. For now.”

His stare burned into her, his eyes saying things that registered deep inside her, and as she watched him stride across the parking lot, as his form grew smaller in the distance, the cord that connected them tugged at her heart.

November 15 release

His to Lose 6x9 copyHis to Lose. Sequel to Hers to Choose.

Dan Cannon hasn’t really recovered from his experience with Bryn McClure. Except now she’s Bryn Cannon, wife of his cousin Alex. At first, the three participated in an earth-shaking threesome. He still wakes from dreams of touching Bryn, being next to Alex, all of them naked, sweating, panting.

Now nothing but him in his silent condo staring out over the skyline of St. Louis. Work at Cannon Company. Daily contact with men who fucked his former wife, the lovely Cathleen. Bitch.

If he could just focus on work. But there is no peace, not even in the multiple building  projects under construction or the daily furor of calculating, supervising, promotion that streams across his desk. That would be Dan Cannon, CEO.

Barely hanging on.