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.
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?”
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.