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Mr. Mysterious in Black















S. Ann Cole








Mr. Mysterious in Black

by S. Ann Cole



Copyright © S. Ann Cole 2014



License Notes



SMASHWORDS EDITION





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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.



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Dedication





For Vyjanti,

My light at the end of the tunnel…

All that, and more.



Table of Contents







Dedication

Appetizer

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

About the Author

Acknowledgements

Keep Up With Ann


Appetizer



Peace of Mind

by S. Ann Cole





I saw her,

Sitting by the riverside—

Her eyes closed,

Her smile ever so bright,

Her head under a crown—

A crown of lilies…

Peace of mind.



I saw her again,

Dancing in the rain,

Her smile was the same,

No one could disdain.

She danced as a child,

Placid, meek, mild…

Peace of mind.



Ah! Here she is,

Sitting on a swing,

She sways to and fro,

Her golden strands the wind blows.

Yes, her smile is the same,

Her countenance remains.

Peace of mind.





Prologue



He was tired.

Dog-tired.

His heartbeat was just beginning to recover from a sweaty engagement of breath-ragged, hair-pulling, nail-scraping pleasure mere minutes ago, evening out and lulling him onward into the soothing darkness of sleep.

Unfortunately, he was yanked back from the calling darkness by the feel of soft feminine hands accompanied by flutters of kisses sliding along his chest. He reluctantly opened his eyes to the annoying realization that the treat of the night was still in his bed.

Yeah, he really was tired, because he usually saw to it that the source of his fleeting pleasure got lost the moment he found his release.

His eyes skidded over the olive-skinned, platinum blonde making a meal of his chest, and his brain struggled to remember her name.

She was a bank investor. That’s all he could remember about her, because he hadn’t been interested in what she had to say when she’d blabbered on (and on) earlier at the Gala. He’d merely paid attention to her curvy figure and the long, toned legs accentuated by six-inch heels that compelled him to spend a few hours in exploration.

He tried again to recall her name…Lacy…Lucy…Lisa... Ah hell, he didn’t know and he didn’t care.

Nameless Blond pressed her plum lips against the middle of his chest and murmured in a sultry voice that caressed him in places he really preferred to remain inert at the moment, “I want more.”

A sigh flowed from him as he mentally kicked himself for almost falling asleep with a woman in his bed. “I’m done. Get dressed. Moore will take you home.”

The covers flipped back with a simple flex of his muscular arm, and he swung his feet to the red carpeted floor. With the heels of his hands, he rubbed the weight of sleep from his eyes. “Oh, you were great, by the way. Thanks.”

The protesting muscles of his limbs told him just how exhausted he was. And as he wrestled with sleep, he detected no movement from Nameless Blond. Turning, he directed his stare at the blond-haired creature whose green eyes shone with tears as she clutched the black silk sheet over her bosom.

In a controlled voice, one straining against anger, he asked, “You don’t understand English?”

Thanks?” she asked, voice breaking. “That’s it?”

Closing his eyes, he pinched the bridge of his nose. Telling a woman to leave more than once had never happened before, because he wasn’t normally this tired. And when he wasn’t tired, he was everything akin to a whirling dervish. So, when he gave a command, women usually sensed the peril of questioning him and elected not to argue. “Pretty much. Thought you understood what this was.”

When she just sat there still, staring at him, he full on glared. “Listen, girl, whatever the hell your name is, you need to get your ass up, and go.”

Recognizing his seriousness, Nameless Blond hopped up from the bed and scrambled around on the carpeted floor, retrieving her clothes.

Appeased, he got up and strolled over to the floor-to-ceiling glass window of the hotel room, staring out at the bright city lights of Chicago. The weak shade of light from the corner lamp silhouetted his tall, muscular frame in the darkness as he stood stark naked and pensive before the window.

One by one, he cracked his knuckles, trying his damnedest not to think of her.

He failed. Knuckle cracking no longer worked as a distraction.

How much longer? How much longer will it be before I can regain the missing half of my soul?

With every thought of her, his heart ached like a curse from hell. The heart-wrenching fact that the hands now caressing her weren’t his, that the lips kissing hers weren’t his, that the body making love to hers…oh dear god, it’s as if a bullet was left lodged right in the center of his heart, killing him slowly, painfully, surely.

No. His fingers curled into mighty, determined fists at his side. No. He could tolerate it no longer. He needed to reclaim what was his. It was time he informed Cali D who she really was to him. That she belonged not to Cali D, but to him. And if that disgusting piece of shit tried to rebel, he’d give the son of a whore a torturously painful ending.

No more chances.

A faint click of the door handle pulled him from his malevolent thoughts and he turned to see Nameless Blond standing there, her green eyes glistening as she wished him, “Goodnight, Mr. Nelson.”

He gave a chin lift to the open door, wanting her to be gone already.

The profound guilt he always felt after sleeping with someone who wasn’t her, never allowed him to be…nice to these innocent women. His usual reaction to the pang of guilt he felt along with the frustration of not having her, was to take it out on the woman present.

Made him an asshole, but he couldn’t help it.

Nameless Blond gave him a sad smile and teetered away, the door closing silently behind her. Her green eyes were ridiculously alluring, had pulled him in. But alluring as they were, he favored seductively brown eyes. A crooked smile danced on his lips. Cognac-brown to be exact.

The shrill of his cellphone broke through the silence, and he went to scoop it off the nightstand. A glance at his caller ID had him slightly panicking.

“Ralph, at this hour?” he growled into the receiver. “Please tell me she’s okay.”

“Yes, Mr. Nelson. She’s sound. But…”

“Out with it, Ralph!”

“She took a job at Secre X, Sir.”

Secre X? Tico’s Club?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“The hell’s she doing there?” he barked. “Say bartending. Please.”

Ralph paused for a moment, then, “No, Sir. She’s stripping.”

As if he’d been touched with livewire, his entire being became fully awake, eyes wide, weariness gone. Anger boiling. Things were getting out of hand. “Her job at the Bistro, what happened?”

“She lost it a week after her split with Cali D.”

His chest suddenly felt vacant, heart dropped to the pit of his stomach. “She…She never went back to Cali D?”

“No, Sir. Seems she’s serious this time around. And it’s smart timing, too. ‘Cause the Cubans are out for his soul this time.”

“Then why the fuck am I just hearing of all this? That she never went back to Cali D or that she lost her job? What am I paying you all for?”

“I’m sorry, Sir. We’ve been trying to reach you for the past few weeks, but we kept getting your assistant. And you gave us instructions not to leave messages about this matter with anyone. So…”

Fuck. For the past six weeks he’s been doing some heavy traveling, being a work addict and all. Hell, he should’ve known all this.

A sick feeling lingered. If she had to pick up a job at Secre X, then that meant she was in need. She was hurting and in need.

She shouldn’t be hurting when he could so easily take her pain away. She shouldn’t be in need of anything when she already had it all.

“When did she start?”

“Tonight, Sir.”

Perfect. “Go get Tico to phone me. Now.” He began pacing the length of the room, his fingers raking through his hair repeatedly. “And from here on out, every goddamn move she makes, I. Want. To. Know. Got it? Doesn’t matter how busy I am, don’t stop calling until you get through to me. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good. I’ll reschedule my plans here in Chicago and jet out first thing in the morning. I expect a full report of everything that’s taken place within the last month.”

His fingers trembled as he disconnected the call and sank to his knees, dropping his head in his hands.

My sweet, brown-eyed girl, what are you doing to yourself? I’ve waited too long, haven’t I?

Seven years too long.





Chapter One

Iridescent rays danced across my partially nude body as I wrapped my long, bare legs around the cold stainless steel that was my fortress at the moment. Imbibing a half bottle of Coffee Patrón within a two-hour span was proving to be a really, really bad idea. My mind was a vortex, my vision turbid, and my bones liquefied.

I opened my eyes and regarded my onlookers who all bore lascivious smiles, waving their green bills aloft. All were wealthy and powerful businessmen with wives either forty pounds heavier than when they'd first tied the knot to do justice to any sexy lingerie, or simply, the thrill was gone.

As I slithered to the center of the stage, I noticed through my blurry vision Mr. Mysterious in Black was present. Ensconced in his rented booth and alone as usual, he regarded me intently. The word I’d use to describe him was…‘odd’. He never danced with anyone; merely sat in his booth all night and stared at me, watching my every move. Sometimes I got the insane thought he was some sort of serial killer who preyed on vulnerable women. If such was the case, it would be a complete waste.

I’d never seen him up close because I consciously kept my distance from him, and club lights do have the tendency to make anyone look good. But if my distant inspections didn't lie, I'd say he was one wickedly hot sonuvabitch. All dark-haired, square-jawed and high levels of intensity. Viewing him up close was necessary to be certain, though. Not like that's ever going to happen.

With alcohol-fueled bravery, I winked at him, flashing a coquettish smile. His response was a disapproving scowl and the haughty averting of his eyes.

Ouch.

Was only trying to be nice tonight, for once, because I was drunk. And his ass should’ve been glad for it, considering the innumerable times I refused his requests for private dances with me, persistent as he was. No way was I going within a foot of him. He was too...intimidating, if that were the better word.

And strange.

He only dressed in black and no one seemed to have any info on him—well, at least they said they didn’t. It was as if they feared him or something. Thus, I nicknamed him Mr. Mysterious in Black.

I snaked tortuously up my stainless steel fortress, closing my eyes and allowing myself to float away on the waves of Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana, feeling like a Dirty Sadie myself. But the alcohol wasn’t enough to keep the reality away. The reality of why I’d gotten this drunk in the first place. Why I’d subjected myself to this ‘job’, and was now so disoriented.

Feeling like breaking Tico’s arbitrary rule given only to me, I awkwardly tried to take off my bra. At the undoing of the first hook, I lost my grip and went spiraling to the floor. Sprawled in a heap on the stage, I was too soused to even attempt lifting a finger, so I just laid there, listening to Michael Jackson scream like a bitch in my ears, telling me how dirty I was. For seconds, minutes, or hours, maybe, I remained sprawled on the stage, until I felt hands holding my arms and legs, and my body being rescued off the stage.

Soon I felt something soft and plush beneath me—the couch in the dressing room, I assumed. I flicked open my eyes and blinked rapidly, trying to focus on my surroundings. Catching a familiar form, my eyes tentatively traveled up to the Stygian, glowering gaze of my pissed-off boss. His wavy blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and his black muscle-shirt stretched helplessly over his fully matured brawns. Tico was a big man. A really big man.

"What the hell’s wrong with you tonight, huh?" he growled.

Unable to form a coherent sentence, I groaned. My eyes darted around the cluttered room. Bright round bulbs lined above rows of make-up mirrors; each had a fully or half-naked girl seated in front of it painting prettier faces over their original ones. Feathers and fluffs and bras and various dance costumes were strewn about, as dancers milled in and out. Pleased to find no one was paying attention to Tico and me, I relaxed.

Failing to meet his angry glare again, I said, "I just fell on my ass straight from a pole, Tico. Have some pity on me, will you?"

"You fell because you were trying to defy me. I told you: do not remove your bra!!"

"It's an enigma why this rule applies only to me," I said in indignation. "How the hell am I supposed to make money? I'm not allowed to dance with anyone and I'm not allowed to go topless. So what’s the point of me being here?"

Tico looked frustrated. “You don’t need the money. Why do you think you need to be here?"

I stared blankly up at him as if he’d spoken a distinct language. Uh, let's see: because I lost my job merely a week after dumping my good-for-nothing-but-trouble drug dealer of a boyfriend. Had difficulties getting another job. Student loans—debt. My mother's ailment—debt. Three months’ worth of rent owed to Brenda, in which I'll be out on my ass if I don't have her rent by the time she’s back from her excursion—more debt.

I closed my eyes and swung an arm across my face. "I won't even attempt to answer that, Tico."

Tico sighed. "It's only ‘cause I gotta keep my mouth shut, Sadie," he gently removed my hand from my face and looked down at me with an I-know-something-that-you-don't-know expression. "But trust me, you don't need to be here. This job’s not for you."

"No, it's definitely not for me. I’m with you on that. But I do need the money."

Tico grunted in frustration just as a cocktail waitress strolled in with a glass of ice and a bottle of Club Soda. Taking the tray from her, he poured the Club Soda into the glass and sat next to me on the couch, bringing the glass to my lips. "Drink."

Without hesitation I drank, because frankly, I hated being drunk. I needed nothing more than to head home and fall into a deep sleep. "Thanks.”

Tico smiled his signature panty-dropping smile "My pleasure, Sadie." He leaned over to whisper, "Just don't forget me." He revealed that I-know-something-that-you-don't-know expression again, got up and left with a backward glance.

What the heck was that supposed to mean?

As my thoughts tried weaving through my intoxicated brain about Tico's inexplicable behavior, familiar arms wrapped around me, and I relaxed into it. "Thanks, Kash. I needed that."

"Sadie, I know you got some awful news tonight, but I can assure you, Patrón is nobody's friend," Kash said, her brown eyes sincere, her caramel skin glowing. "Plus drinking and working don't mesh well. You'll start out doing things that’s just not you, then end up regretting it in the morning."

I merely gave a "hmm" in response. Far too inebriated to take a lecture.

"Let me help you get dressed and take you home. You seem a little out of it. Sleep is the only thing that can help right now."

No argument from me.



After getting dressed and gathering my things, I let Kash steer me through the club towards the exit. Tico popped up in my line of vision.

"You're leaving?" he asked.

"Yes, Tico. I can't even stand straight. What do you expect? Am I restricted from leaving the club, too?"

"No, you're not,” he replied with a roll of his eyes. “It's just that, you-know-who is demanding a dance with you again."

"Tico, the guy...makes me wary. I'm not going within an inch of him. The fact he's been so insistent on getting a dance with me all week is creepy. Are you sure he's not some Lifetime movie predator type? He's always dressed in black. What if he's one of those cult people who likes to slaughter for the rush of it?"

Tico flung his head back and laughed out. "No, Sadie. I know him very well and he's nothing like that. He's not a member of the club either. He just started showing since you began working here a few days ago. Clubs are not his sort of...thing. His presence here is because of you."

"But, why? How does he even know me?"

Tico shrugged, but the expression he wore told me he knew much more than he was letting on, and I was too lethargic to even think about deciphering anything at the moment.

"Tell him I said no, and he should leave me the hell alone. He’s creeping me out." I tugged on Kash's arm prompting her to move with me. Tico gave a reluctant nod and gave us way.



I was rocked awake from my short-lived sleep when Kash pulled up outside my apartment. "What time is it?"

"Just a little after midnight." Shifting in her seat, she turned to face me. "You're gonna stop, aren't you?"

"You know me too well," I mumbled. "There's no point if Tico keeps acting like this."

"Yeah, Tico's behavior is a bit out of character when it comes to you. I’m thinking he wants you to quit and get with that scary dude in black who watches you like a damn hawk."

"Nope. Not gonna happen. The guy’s a weird one. I mean, he stares at me all night, but if I smile at him, his face gets all serious and disapproving. And then he sends Tico to ask me for a dance? He's just...ugh, whatever."

Kash laughed.

But I didn't, because the joke was lost on me. "I'm not sure what the hell I'm gonna do now. Dancing onstage had looked so easy." I managed a short laugh. "Yet I couldn't even last more than four nights.”

Kash reached over squeezed my arm. "You are strong, smart and fearless, Sadie. You'll figure it out. You always do."

Opening the car door, I clambered out, swaying. The alcohol still had me off-balanced. Kash rounded the car and came to my rescue, propping my arm over her shoulder. "I got you."

Kash didn't want me to quit working at the club, but that hustling was just not for me. At some point in my life, I knew I would look back and ask myself, "What the hell was I thinking?"

Tucked away on the thirtieth floor of a skyscraper, Secre X was a private and exclusive members-only gentlemen's club, where only elite businessmen—mostly married and bored—were admitted. It had no more than about thirty members and each member rented their own booth. Tico made loads from those guys.

Making use of an inherited and honed talent, I sometimes designed and sold costumes to dancers. Kash was one of my regular customers, so I'd stopped by Secre X one night last week with a few pieces she’d ordered. She'd been onstage when I arrived so I took a seat by the bar and watched her performance while I waited. It was at that moment I became like Eve who’d bitten into that deceivingly promising apple; the vast amount of money Kash made onstage had been a deadly temptation for a broke ass like me. Easily, I’d convinced myself with a list of more pros than cons, that it was the easiest and quickest way to pay off my debts. Those thoughts were propelled by Kash's encouragement. However, it didn't take long for me to realize one needed a carefree psyche or a completely inebriated mind to get through a few hours in that kind of gig.

Kash halted with me on my doorstep. "The owner of Narcofax, Sadie. He’s coming to see you tomorrow night, remember? That’s at least a thousand bucks guaranteed. Show up at work tomorrow, if only just to see him."

True, that gray-headed man did give big tips. “Maybe."

Taking my bag, she searched around for my keys, retrieved them and opened the door. "And remember if you want anything at all, don’t hesitate to ask me, okay?"

With a nod of acknowledgement, I stumbled across the threshold, closing the door behind me.

"Looks like someone's had a busy night. You're shitfaced."

I glanced up to see Kelsy and Tevin cuddled up on the big black couch in my living room, watching me in amusement.

"You two shitheads still here? Don't you have a home?" I grumbled as I walked rather clumsily over to the leather recliner in the corner and plopped down in it.

"You left us watching Gone with the Wind, girl. You know that movie lasts, like, twenty hours and day. We were just about to leave anyways," Kelsy said, popping her gum. "You're back early, though. How was your night?"

"Shitty."

Kelsy Mitchell watched me through big, green eyes, her long, dark hair stylishly pigtailed with red hair ties, her bodacious figure swallowed up in one of Tevin’s oversized sweaters. She’d been my best friend, confidante and everything in between for five years. Polar opposites, though. She was from an affluent upbringing and I was from an impoverished, dysfunctional, screwed-up family.

But Kelsy loved me for me; shared in my tears and laughs—though laughs, for me, were a luxury. That, along with the fact I could be used as an excuse to her parents so she could date my ride or die thug of a friend, Tevin.

Tevin was unacceptable, ineligible, absolutely not the son-in-law Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell would approve of. He was quintessentially the kind of man all women should steer clear of. Tevin Trouble was what I called him. Trouble with a capital T. But I couldn’t lie though, I adored the curly-haired, Hispanic hombre like a brother. And the respects were reciprocated.

At just over six feet he was athletically built with a unique Spanish swagger to him. He had a large heart-shaped tattoo with massive wings on his arm, and all three of our names were etched in it.

"Just imagine, you own a house with five bathrooms," I slurred, wagging a lazy finger at Tevin. "And you," I slurred to Kelsy, "have enough money to buy one with twice as many bathrooms. So, tell me again why you guys spend more time here where I actually share a bathroom?”

On their own, my eyes closed down, my limbs feeling heavier by the second. "Should just let y'all pay the damn rent when Brenda gets back from New York. Lizards."

"We wish you'd actually let us pay the rent," Tevin snapped, his words all curled up with that Hispanic accent.

I ignored him.

"Come on, Sadie. You're stressing yourself out over things we can help you with easily. Nothing's wrong with accepting help sometimes," Kelsy joined in, her voice a warm, fuzzy blanket of compassion.

"I don't want your money. Neither do I want your pity. Didn't you guys say you were leaving?"

"Stubborn as always," Tevin said, shaking his head. "C’mon, babe. Let's go."

Their steps neared me, and then I felt their kisses on my cheeks. "G'night, pony. See ya in da’ morrow," Kelsy whispered.

The soft click of the door seconds later confirmed their leave.

Unsteadily, I got up and headed to my room, launching myself onto the bed without undressing.

Oh shoot...

It didn't matter how stoned I was, there was one thing I had to do before I met up with sleep. Reaching over to the nightstand, I retrieved my old, tattered bible and opened to where it was bookmarked. With the weight of sleep anchoring down my lids, the words on the page blurred, but I strained nonetheless and repeated the highlighted words of Proverbs; words I'd been reading every night for the past six years:



Oh God, I beg two favors from you; let me have them before I die.

First, help me never to tell a lie.

Second, give me neither poverty nor riches.

Give me just enough to satisfy my needs.



As the last of the words slurred from my lips, my eyes instantly grew heavier and sleep rolled in.





Chapter Two

Slim sunrays streamed through my bedroom windows, obnoxiously bright, warm on my skin, coercing me from sleep. My eyes opened reluctantly, squinting, both from the intruding sun and from the immediate headache that pounced me.

Hangover.

Today would be a lethargic, mood-swinging day, I could tell.

Slipping out of bed, I dragged myself to the bathroom. My reflection, a horror show, stared back at me in the mirror; cognac irises surrounded by lashes like palm tree leaves, a heart-shaped face disastrously mascara-blotched and lipstick-smeared. Twenty-six inches of chocolate brown ripples tangled in knots. I looked like death.

Deciding on a long, hot shower, I stripped down and hopped under the steaming stream. Almost instantly, my muscles began to relax. Tossing my head back, I let the water beat down on my face, the heat stinging my already sensitive skin.

I. Am. Such. A mess.

The tragic and unexpected news I’d received last night still had me a bit on edge. Though, why I was “shocked” by this news, I couldn’t tell, because this was a long time coming.

A month. That’s how long it’s been since I broke up with him. A month. And now, just like that, he was gone.

It was divine intervention that, at just the right time, I’d mustered up the courage to leave him without looking back. Because there’s no question in my mind that as soon as the tough got going, I would’ve ran right back to him.

I always did.

When Tevin brought me the news last night about him, my ex-boyfriend Cali D, being murdered in his house, I’d momentarily lost it. Even though I’d grown sick and tired of the selfish, insensitive bastard, I’d still spent a great deal of my life with the guy, so learning of his brutal murder did hit me something fierce. Cali D was never the ideal man, but he was there for me at a time when I was lost.

Yep, shitty as my life was right now, there’d been a time when it had been far worse.

What if I'd never left him? Watching boxing on Tuesdays was a ritual for Cali D. And I no doubt would've been right there, cuddled up in the theater den with him watching boxing, and just like that the assailants would’ve burst in and killed us both. I could have been dead.

The thought alone was jarring.

Sad he had to go that way. I never loved him, no, not even an iota, but Cali D was all I’d known for six years. Rough, tough, hardcore love. Drugs, guns, death, cynicism and disloyalty.

Cali D had been my shoulder, my refuge, and an oasis in the desert since that time I could no longer torture myself with thoughts about—thanks to my retrograde amnesia. Back then, I was heartbroken, vulnerable and weak, and Cali D was a timely distraction. But I never, ever let myself love him. Never cared to share my heart with anyone.

And since Cali D was easy not to love, I'd stayed with him. Many times, when he became overwhelmingly possessive, I’d leave him, but always went back eventually, fearing having to start all over again; or worse yet, meeting someone better and falling in love with them. I didn't want to love. Some unknown force wouldn’t allow me to. So staying with Cali D seemed safe—safe only where my heart was concerned, not my life.

That’s why I’d drank myself into oblivion last night, to numb it all.

After showering, I spent over thirty minutes blow-drying my hair, struggling to school my overly long and unruly curls. Then I rummaged through my closet of self-made apparels and snagged an outfit: a pale green, squared-neck, flared dress made for Spring, to go with some light yellow loafers. My overt penchant for colors was a secret to no one. I couldn't help it; I love bright colors and I cannot lie. To complete my outfit, I grabbed my oversized Givenchy handbag--black with yellow straps.

The bag was a gift from Cali D. But I made my own clothes. I was good at it. So, yeah, I wasn’t a complete waste of space. I was good for something.

Designing was my vice.

After snatching up everything I needed, I stuck my ear-buds in, fetched my iPod and put Pink's Crystal Ball on repeat. Pretty damn apt for my crappy life right now. There were a million cracks in my crystal ball.

Wrestling the emergent feels of depression into submission, I bounced out of my apartment, tipped my head back to soak up some of the warm, early-March sun, inhaled deeply, and then commenced my walk to Starbucks.



I found a corner-seat in the back of Starbucks. Invisibility, I craved it. Taking a sip of my espresso, I closed my eyes and hummed in appreciation.

The time, 9:25am. Ten o'clock would be appropriate enough to visit Miss De'Lacy. That gave me a few minutes to catch up on this Laura Kinsale novel I've been trying to finish for the past two weeks. Retrieving my paperback of Flowers from the Storm from my handbag, I flipped open to the bookmark page and dug in. Despite his impediment, I was utterly in love with the hero Christian Langland. But overly disgusted and annoyed with the heroine, Maddie.

"Wouldst thou likest..." I mocked at the pages.

A stifled chuckle sounded from above, startling me. My eyes drifted from the pages and upward, where they collided with a curious pair of warm brown ones. A tall, ashy-blond haired man—a rather handsome man, by the way—was hovering over me, his lips twisted to suppress a grin.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi," I echoed. "Can I help you?"

"Yes, you can. I'm in a rather awful mood today and could really do with some company. Care to lend me yours? "

"Sorry. I'm afraid my mood mirrors yours. My company would only worsen your mood. Plus, unlike you, I desire no one's company. Not even my own."

"Already we have one thing in common. That's got to be a sign."

His grin was charming, his voice soothingly melodic. Clad in a charcoal suit with a crisp white shirt and shiny black shoes, he resembled every bit the confident businessman. He looked...expensive.

"My mother taught me never to talk to strangers," I quipped, bringing my book up to my face as a sign of dismissal.

It was ineffective.

Mr. Handsome chuckled and took the vacant seat opposite me. "My mother taught me the same thing. That's two things we have in common so far."

"Okay, um, you're annoying me."

He tipped his chin toward the book in my hand. "More than the character you were mocking in that book?"

That elicited an involuntary giggle from me. Oh hell no, I didn’t think anyone could be as annoying as Maddie.

"Yes," I lied.

He grinned wider, eyes fixated on mine, making me shift uncomfortably. "Your beauty, it’s stunning." Then his brows crinkled speculatively, and something unfathomable flitted across his face.

I didn't acknowledge his compliment.

He was obviously as determined to sit there as I was to ignore him. As long as he remained quiet, we’d be good. I brought my book up to my face and resumed reading. 'Christian went out on the battlements when he wanted to be alone...'

Mr. Handsome did indeed remain quiet, seemingly lost in thought. Despite his earlier proclamation of being in an awful mood, it was paradoxical to his cheery demeanor. Now, he wasn't looking somber per se, but something was definitely troubling him. Not that I cared. I lowered my peeking eyes and carried on reading.

Then he broke the peaceful silence. "I'm Devon."

My eyes peered over the top of my paperback. "Oh."

"Do you have a name?"

Irritated, I slammed my book shut, about to say something peppery, when I noticed his expression was different from what it was earlier. He was no longer amused or thoughtful, but earnest.

I blushed a little. No, I wasn’t attracted to him, but that look was...

"Sadie," I answered. "My name’s Sadie."

"Sadie," he whispered my name absentmindedly, lost in thought again. What's going on with this guy?

Freaked, I checked my cell phone for the time and noticed I'd stayed well past ten o’ clock.

Stuffing my paperback and iPod back into my handbag, I swung it over my shoulder and made to leave. My movements pulled Devon from his reveries.

"Sadie, hold up."

On a heavy sigh, I halted and looked up at him with a raised eyebrow.

"You…you are exquisite. I didn't expect—” he stopped short and his brows furrowed. "I'd like to see you again."

What did he expect me to do at that clichéd line, swoon at his words and say: 'Oh, any place, Devon. Anytime.'?

With a snort, I walked off.

He jogged to my side. "Sadie, please. Can I have your number?"

"No."

"Okay, I'll give you mine."

“Sure.” There was no hesitation, because I knew I wouldn’t be calling.

Devon frowned at my easy acquiescence. Running his hand along the sides of his jacket, he shrugged. "Don’t have a pen or cards on me now. Let me put it in your cell phone." He watched me closely, waiting for my response.

Oh God, the man just wouldn't give up.

Sighing, I retrieved my cellphone from my handbag and passed it to him. He punched in his number, passed it back to me, and then narrowed his eyes. "Can I trust you'll call me?"

"Yeah." I muttered and strode off. “Whatever.”

"Was nice meeting you, Sadie," he called after me.

The feeling’s definitely not mutual, Devon.







****



Miss De'Lacy opened her front door with a glowing smile and luminous gray eyes. Her chestnut hair was wrapped in a neat coiffure and her smooth and radiant features belied her late forties’ age.

She enveloped me in a warm hug. "Sadie, how are you doing, darling?"

"I'm fine, Miss De'Lacy. How's everything?"

"Oh, you know, we're just taking it one day at a time."

A small lump formed in my throat when I asked, "How is she?"

Miss De'Lacy's face fell. "She's diminishing. I don't know why, but her body doesn't seem to respond to the meds anymore."

I pinched my eyes shut and willed away the surfacing pain.

"I think she’s lost all hope and wants to go," she continued.

Miss De'Lacy was the sympathetic Christian neighbor from my childhood. Shortly after my mother had gotten infected, she'd slipped into depression and set our uninsured house to flames, in an attempt to kill herself. Fortunately, she was saved—from the fire. We were left homeless, clothes-less, penniless; and I was only eighteen then, slowly recovering from a brutal head injury. Clueless, but I’d had to make the decisions since my mom had shut down completely and abandoned her motherly duties.

In came Miss De'Lacy who'd altruistically offered to look after my mother until I could afford to do so myself. I’d reluctantly agreed. Shortly after, I began waitressing at a bistro while studying fashion design part-time in college. Then I met Cali D, who’d been substantial enough to help stabilize my life.

Retrieving a white envelope from my handbag that contained my earnings for the week, I handed it to Miss De'Lacy. "For the month. It's short one hundred. I'll get that for you by Monday."

"Sadie, I know you've lost your job and I told you I could wait," she said sternly.

"I know, but I have this now so…take it."

Miss De'Lacy pursed her lips and unwillingly took the envelope.

"And here's her meds for another month." I rubbed my sweaty palms down the front of my dress. "Can I see her?"

"Of course, darling," Miss De'Lacy gently chided. "She's your mother."

At my failed attempt at a smile, Miss De’Lacy walked off and I followed her through the charming three-bedroom house, cluttered with trophies and pictures of her children and grandchildren, and her husband who’d passed away from cancer two years ago. Miss De’Lacy was a kindhearted woman who did good deeds only because it brought her contentment. Yep, some people were like that.

She led me out into the backyard where my mother sat inert on an iron bench, vacuously staring off into De'Lacy's blooming, flamboyant garden.

She was more pallid and meager than she’d been the week before. Her hair, once a bountiful bundle of curls that mimicked mine, had dwindled into limp looseness. My heart wrenched. The woman was disappearing before my very eyes.

Theresa Francé used to be as beautiful and vibrant as the bright yellow roses behind her. But just as a rose’s beauty fades with the progression of time, so Theresa's hue has faded by life's capricious phases.

I sat down next to her on the bench, but she didn't move, as if she didn't even notice I was there. She was doing this to herself. Not the disease. She was the one giving up instead of fighting. There were many people in the world HIV-positive, just like her, but they still lived happy lives.

"Hi, Mom," I whispered.

No answer. No acknowledgment.

"I miss you, Mom. I miss talking to you. I miss us designing and sewing together. I miss hearing you laugh. I miss your smile. I miss you," I told her softly.

More silence ensued.

The tears pooled in my eyes. "Can you please just fight? Can you not lose hope and just try? It doesn't have to be like this."

I sat with my fingers entwined, just hoping to hear her voice. The sweet, sing-song voice I haven't heard in so long.

But all she did was stare blankly into the garden, not a word. I heard birds chirping. Tree leaves shaking. The soft, almost inaudible cooing of the wind. But not my mother's voice. I waited. And waited. And waited.

With a resigned sigh, I closed my eyes and started to get up. Another day tried. Another day failed.

But then I felt her cold hand rest tentatively on mine. She still didn't look at me, though, even as she croaked, "Sewing…I miss that, too. I miss life. And I miss you."

With my free hand, I frantically wiped my tears away, then placed it over hers. "You have life. You do. Choose to live. Please. I love you. I’ve missed you. You're all I have. Please don't leave me, Mom."

She looked down at my hand covering hers then shakily lifted it to her face, placing my palm flat on her cheek.

"Warm," she said, wistfully. "You are warm. You live." She then lifted her other hand and placed her palm on my cheek. "Feel. Tell me. Am I not cold?" Her brows furrowed as she said this and I closed my eyes and leaned in to her touch.

I wouldn't answer and say what she wanted me to say. That her touch was cold. It was, but she still lived.

"You see, honey? I'm already dead," she whispered, her voice frail and forlorn.

"No, mom!" I cried. "You're not. I can warm you. God can heal you. Please, choose life."

Eyes vacant, she just watched me. "God?"—Slowly, her head shook from side to side— "God gave me a husband who cheats. A husband who beats. A husband who infects."—She cocked her head and regarded me—"God gave me sickness so he could heal me? God gave me life so he could take it back? Is that love, darling, or is it a tease? Tell me."

What? Theresa never talked like this. No, we never cursed God. Ever. "Don't speak like this, Mom. It's wrong. You know it’s wrong."

She blinked at me. Once. Twice. Three times. And with a steely resolve, she brought her gaze back on the garden. She was done talking. And I decided not to force her anymore. She had given up, completely, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about that.

Tentatively, I laid my head in her lap, relieved when she didn't push me away. Moments later I felt her fingers in my hair, raking gently through the stubborn curls. A small smile swept across my face.

I miss her so much.

We stayed like that for a while, and I allowed myself to drift off into a weary, sorrowed sleep. Induced by my mother's weary, sorrowed touch.





Chapter Three

"The guy just wants one dance, Sadie. Just one dance."

"I said no, Tico!”

Tico was getting on my last nerve. He’d been up my ass all night trying to get me to agree to a dance with Mr. Mysterious in Black.

"Why are you so insistent on this?" I asked on a lifted brow. It was so out of character for Tico.

"Because he's being insistent. As much as I'm annoying you, he's annoying me," Tico said through a heavy breath.

My hands settled on my hips. "Okay, so he's a nuisance. Throw his ass out, Tico! Problem solved."

His beefy chest jerking, Tico laughed heartily at my nonsensical suggestion, his white teeth brightened by the psychedelic club lights. "I can't, Sadie. He's the—" he stopped short, frowned, and placed his hands on my shoulders. "Just one dance. I'll pay you."

Pay me? Dude's that desperate? I laughed out involuntarily and Tico gave me a quizzical stare.

"Okay. One dance." I wagged my index finger in his face to emphasize one dance.

Tico gave a bit-lip grin, his eyes gleaming. "One dance is all it'll take."





Deep breath in. Deep breath out. I sent a silent invocation for the DJ to play a really short song, because I sure as hell wasn’t looking forward to dancing with this man. Begrudgingly, I entered the booth of Mr. Mysterious in Black to find him tapping away furiously on his cell phone. He didn’t seem to notice my entrance. Seem, being the keyword.

"You requested a dance?"

He was absorbed in whatever he was doing on his phone. Sending an email? Texting a lover? Who cared?

Then he spoke without lifting his head, his attention directed fully at his phone screen. "Sit."

His commanding tone stood firm against the flowing music of the club, and I just stood, aghast. "Look, Sir, I don—"

"Sit, Sadie." He shot me a brief, quelling stare, shook his head, and resumed typing.

I could only stand and stare, stunned at the way my name rolled comfortably off his tongue. He uttered it with such ease, the way a person who knew every dirty little thing about me would. In a way only a person who said my name frequently would say it. With familiarity and intimacy. How did he even know my name?

I'm going to kill Tico.

Lost in thought, lost in the strangeness of the man, I sat down on the red, leather banquette next to him, being sure to keep my distance. There was something about him that made me apprehensive. Though I wouldn't dare let him see that.

I surreptitiously checked him out, and found my distant assessments had been on point: he was hot. His dark hair dashed messily across his forehead, giving him that model-type essence. About two days of stubble shadowed his face. Oh, what stubble on a man's face does to me.

His jaw was acutely squared and angular, and his lips, oh his lips, were too pink to grace a man’s mouth. I estimated him to be no older than thirty. I leaned in for a closer look, wishing the booth lights were a tad more revealing. I wanted to see the color of his eyes. I wanted to be able to admire him further...

Mr. Mysterious in Black suddenly glanced up at me and I swallowed noisily, feeling like a child who'd just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. A ghost of a smile whispered across his disconcertingly sexy lips, and with his eyes locked on mine, he slipped his phone inside his jacket pocket.

Why did I feel so warm all of a sudden?

I averted my eyes and fixed them on the bottle of Grey Goose Vodka sitting on the table, minding its own business.

"The song will end soon," I weakly said, "I agreed only to one dance."

"I don't want a dance, Sadie. I just want to talk."

I found the courage to raise my eyes to his face. "It's Strawberry for you, not Sadie. And I'm not interested in talking."

He leaned towards me, both his palms pressed flat on his thighs, and fixed his hard, implacable gaze on mine. "It's Sadie for me. It will always be Sadie for me," he claimed, staring unblinkingly at me, searing me with his gaze.

Refusing to be intimidated by him, I stubbornly tried holding his gaze. I really tried. But my will was overridden by his. Aiming for indifference, I waved my hand in a dismissive gesture. "Whatever, weirdo."

He blinked, looking vaguely amused, then snorted. "Strawberry," he mocked, shaking his head at the word.

"I'm still not interested in talking. So I think we’re done here."

Shooting to my feet, I made to leave but was halted by his heated grip on my wrist. "Please. Sit and talk with me."

His urging hadn’t arrested my movement, my body stopped of its own volition at his touch. A touch that jolted through me like a live wire, and felt so...familiar. I glanced down at his hand gripping my wrist, then back at him. Confused.

"Please," he repeated. His voice pleaded but his expression was impassive. How did he manage that?

"Okay," I acquiesced. Because to be honest, I didn't really want to leave—couldn't leave after feeling his touch. It clutched me not only on my wrist, but other places as well...deep down within me… awakening vestiges of eradicated emotions. Who was he?

"And what do you wanna talk about?" I asked, aiming for casual.

"You.”

"Me? What about me?"

"For one, I despise seeing you on that stage. It...It pains me," he confessed.

Why?

"Oh, really? Then why the hell are you here, Mr. Prudery? Is it not to watch half-naked women wrap themselves around a pole?"

His faced scrunched in disgust. "No. I don't do strip clubs. I'm here because of you."

What? What did that even mean? "You're not making any sense. Do you know me from somewhere?"

He ran a hand through his mass of dark hair, clearly deliberating over his response. Hell, that one move had me squirming. Evading my question, he said, "Tico tells me this is your last night."

"Yes," I confirmed.

"And what’s your intentions for employment after this?"

"That's for me to worry about."

What was I going to do for employment, though? My bills? My responsibilities? Heavens, I didn’t want to think about any of that right now. In the hope of temporarily decimating my worries, I reached for the bottle of Grey Goose Vodka to fill my glass. But Strange Guy placed his hand over mine to stop me. And there was that electrifying feeling again. Now I really needed that drink.

"No. No alcohol."

"Look, mister, you don't know me, you don't own me, you can't tell me what to do," I sassed.

"Telling you what to do is not my aim. I've seen the calamities you cause when you drink." He smirked, making jest of my mishap the night before.

Sulking like a teenager, I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms. Such was most certainly out of character for me. Oh, this man...

He looked amused again. "What do you enjoy doing with your free time?"

His gaze was so penetrating, I couldn't help thinking he was trying to tell me something with his eyes. What did he want me to see?

"Fashion design, reading fiction sap, and listening to Pink."

Turning sideways, he took on a relaxed position by bending one leg up on the banquette seat, resting his elbow on the top edge of the banquette and placing his chin in his palm. "Interesting," he considered. "Do you have a portfolio of your designs?"

"Um, no. I've given up the thought of making it a career. Landing a solid job in the field has proved impossible in this crammed city. Now it’s just a pastime, or design on demand."

"So what have you thought about doing career-wise? Well, other than this." He waved his hand toward the stage, then raised his eyebrow at me in the most unique way. It’s so far up and perfectly arched. That's...hot. Smoking hot!

Trying to focus on the conversation, I cleared my throat. "There's nothing else I'd love to do second to designing. But I have to take whatever comes along. Designing is all I know. I acquired my Bachelor’s in fashion design two years ago and had thought about going for my Master’s, but after not being able get anywhere in the field..." I shrugged. Hard work doesn’t always pay off.

He didn't censor me as I'd expect him to. Instead, he offered, "I know a designer. He owes me a great deal of favors. He has a grand fashion house here. I'll talk with him and get you an interview. In the meantime, you can put together a compilation of your designs and create that portfolio."

Why would he do that? He didn't even know me. "Okay Mister, whoever you are, I believe in saving myself—and others’—time. And pain. People tend to lie to themselves even when they know the truth. I don't. You want something from me. What is it? Tell me and I'll let you know whether I can grant it or not. The kindness and gratuity isn’t necessary. Trust me, it'll save us both a lot of time if we're straightforward with each other."

He did that damned thing with his eyebrow again.

Trying not to squirm, I quickly continued, "You either want a fuck buddy, a relationship, a submissive, or someone to tether you up and spank you red to feed some sick proclivity of yours."

Unamused, he just stared back at me with guarded eyes. My instinct told me he was schooling his irritation.

His serious stare intimidated me to my very core, and I was finding it hard to breathe. I wasn’t someone who feared easily, possessing an intrepid, unyielding personality that, at times, could be considered foolhardy, if I was being honest with myself.

But this man...

He closed his eyes, inhaled slowly, then exhaled. "Just one thing," he voiced in a quiet tone. "Only to be your friend."

That answer was unexpected and...disappointing?

"Is that too much for you to give, Sadie? Is my answer time-saving enough?" he asked, tilting his head to the side.

Feeling awful, my eyes dropped to my drink on the table. Maybe he was really just trying to be kind. Maybe. "No. That's fine. We can be friends."

Could I really just be friends with such a deliciously tempting man?

"Good. So will you allow me to get you the interview?"

"Yes."

"Good," he repeated, appeased. "I'm glad you've come to your senses and decided to leave this God-awful place. I feared I'd have to drag you out of here myself." He murmured the latter more to himself than to me.

I would've questioned that addition, but I'd already come to the conclusion the man was like a giant Rubik’s Cube. If we would eventually be friends, as he requested, then I'd stealthily try to decipher him myself because I didn't trust he would be truthful if I asked.

"It was a means to an end."

"An explanation is not needed, Sadie. Judging is Jesus' job, not mine. You've worked for less than a week and already you're quitting. That says plenty."

He uncurled his leg from the banquette and leaned forward to take a sip of his drink, then directed his gaze out to the dance floor. I took the opportunity to devour him with my eyes, good-looking sonuvabitch that he was.

He dropped his head in his hands and began rubbing his temples with his thumbs. Something was wrong. Did he remember I was still beside him?

He spoke before I could ask. "I heard you had an accident and your car was totaled. Do you have a ride home?"

Tico is such a blabber! I'm going slit his freakin' tongue. "Yeah. My friend, Kash, always takes me home."

He nodded, and a minute later he turned his head to face me. His impassivity was superseded by some other expression I couldn't quite discern. Care? Concern? Compassion? "Are you okay otherwise?''

I nodded.

"In every way, you are okay?"

I nodded again.

"Are you sure?"

Jeez. What's it to him? I figured it was time to leave. Being around this man was much too muddling. And the fact I desired him prompted me to question my sanity. I nodded yet again in reply then stood up. "I should get going."

His mouth opened as if to object but then he evidently resigned himself. "Yeah. Okay."

Taking out his wallet, he withdrew seven crisp one hundred dollar bills and handed them to me.

"No. This is too much," I protested. I wasn't going to charge him.

"No. It's not. You've been good company. Besides, seven is my favorite number at the moment."

Huh? "I haven't even given you a dance. We've been—"

"Just take the goddamn money and don't argue with me," he snapped.

Shell-shocked at his tone, I glowered at him, unable to speak.

He ran a hand through his hair again and softened his expression. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "Look, this is what I want to pay. It's not too much. In fact, it’s too little."

"And if I don’t’ take it?"

"Then I'll find some other way to get it to you. You can either take it from my hands now or get conned into taking it from someone else’s. And by then it will be doubled."

Someone else like Tico, I'm sure.

I glared at this unorthodox male in confusion before capitulating. What an odd, odd man. And one who's too damn hot for his own good.

As I made to leave, I realized he hadn't asked for my number. Given his inexplicable familiarity, I considered the possibility he already had it, but I decided not to risk the opportunity of a job interview. "You don’t have my number."

He looked up at me through his too-long lashes, and for the first time since I’d been here, he fully smiled. A disarming, I-can-make-you-cum-like-this smile.

Disappointment jabbed at me. It'd been a millennium since I've been so magnetically attracted to anyone. But this man wanted only friendship. And on top of that he scared the living daylights out of me, and confused me to the point where my brain protested.

"I'll give you mine," he said smoothly. He reached inside his jacket pocket for a business card and offered it, but suddenly pulled it back with a frown. "Never mind, just type it in your phone as I say it."

I shook my head at his umpteenth bewildering action for the night, took out my cell phone and transcribed the numbers as he said them. It was when my phone prompted me for a name that I realized I'd been chattering with the man, agreeing to friendship, accepting favors and lusting, all without knowing his name. "Um, I didn't get your name?"

Smile number two was even more beguiling. He leaned forward with his palms flat on his thighs, just as he'd done earlier, fixed his eyes on mine, and breathed, "Natalio."

And I couldn't, for the life of me, command my eyes to leave his. Why did he say his name like that? Hope-filled and promising. This man is...I don't know.

Once again, I couldn't shake the thought he was trying to convey something with his eyes. But what? I shook my head to clear it, entered his name and saved the number. My ears were not oblivious to his heavy sigh as he leaned back on the banquette.

Unable to utter another syllable to this mystifying man, I exited the booth and strolled with purpose through the lights-flashing, music-pumping club. Resisting the urge to look back at the perplexing Mr. Mysterious in Black who wanted only to be my friend.





Chapter Four

I was clothed in white. All-white. And there was a crown of lilies upon my head. I was standing on a river bank, gazing at the cascading waterfall. The sound was heavenly and the skies above me were clear. The weather couldn't have been more temperate. Whiter than snow were the clouds, and the sky was the bluest blue. The water splashed the river bank, asking me to trust it. So I stepped from the bank and into the river. It was soothing, and clear. Very clear. I stared at my feet in the transparent water, then wiggled my toes. Whisperingly, the water responded. It pleaded for my trust, and I yielded. I waded deeper into the cool river water, spread my arms and fell back. The river caught me, assuring me of its virtue, and sent me afloat. Away I floated, dressed in all-white, my arms spread wide...


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