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Friday, November 7, 2014

Slack Friday Feature #1: Blond Cargo, Tim Cratchit’s Christmas Carol, Branded


SLACK FRIDAY: NOVEMBER 28, 2014

Avoid crazed shopping crowds! Keep calm and carry on at home with these great Merr-E Holiday Treats from Pocket Star eBooks!



Tim Cratchit's Christmas Carrol: The Sequel to the Celebrated Dickens Classic

(November 17, 2014; $1.99) by Jim Piecuch
Fiction/Holidays/Romance/Historical/Victorian
In A Christmas Carol, evil Scrooge was shown the error of his ways by three helpful ghosts and vowed to become a better person. Bob Cratchit and his family benefited most from Scrooge’s change of tune—but what happened after the goose was given, and Scrooge resolved to turn over a new leaf?

Tim Cratchit's Christmas Carol shows us Tiny Tim as an adult. Having recovered from his childhood ailment, he began his career helping the poor but has since taken up practice as a doctor to London’s wealthy elite. Though Tim leads a very successful life, he comes home at night to an empty house. But this holiday season, he’s determined to fill his house with holiday cheer—and maybe even a wife.

When a single, determined young mother lands on Tim’s doorstep with her ailing son, Tim is faced with a choice: stay ensconced in his comfortable life and secure doctor’s practice, or take a leap of faith and reignite the fire lit under him by his mentor, Scrooge, that fateful Christmas so many years ago.

Excerpt:

Dr. Timothy Cratchit emerged from his Harley Street office shortly after six-thirty in the evening. He was surprised to find that the yellow-gray fog that had blanketed London for the past week had disappeared, swept away by a biting north wind. He paused for a moment to gaze up at the stars, a rare sight in the usually haze-choked city. Then, pulling his scarf tightly around his neck, he walked quickly down the steps and along the path to the curb, where his brougham waited. The horses, a chestnut gelding and another of dappled gray, stomped their hooves on the cobblestone pavement. They made an odd pair, but Tim had chosen them for their gentle nature rather than their appearance.  As the doctor approached, his coachman smiled and swung open the side door. The coach’s front and rear lamps barely pierced December’s early darkness. 

“Good evening, Doctor,” the coachman said as Tim approached.

“Good evening, Henry,” the doctor replied. “How are you tonight?”

The coachman, who was tall and lean, wore a knee-length black wool coat and a black top hat, his ears covered by an incongruous-looking strip of wool cloth below the brim.

“Cold, sir,” Henry replied. Tim grasped the vertical rail alongside the carriage door and was about to hoist himself inside when he heard a shout. Stepping back from the carriage, he turned to his left, toward the direction where the sound had come from.

The gas lamps along the street penetrated just enough of the gloom to allow Tim to distinguish a figure hurrying toward him. As the person drew nearer, Tim could see that it was a woman, clutching a dirty bundle to her chest. Thousands of poor women in London made a meager living sifting through the city’s dustbins for usable items and selling them for whatever pittance they could fetch. The bundle this woman cradled so carefully probably contained an assortment of odd candlesticks, worn shoes, frayed shirts, and the like. Still, this was not someone who would normally frequent Harley Street.

“Wait a moment, please,” Tim told the coachman, resignation in his voice. He was eager to get home, and too tired to wait while the woman unwrapped the bundle. He reached into his trousers pocket, found a half crown and two shillings to give her so that she would continue on her way.

When the woman came to a stop in front of him, Tim noticed with surprise that she was young, perhaps twenty years old. She was small, not much over five feet tall, clad in a tattered dress covered by a dirty, threadbare gray blanket that she had fashioned into a hooded cloak. Her dark brown hair was matted in greasy clumps, and a smudge of dirt smeared her right cheek.  Her face, though it was beginning to show the premature wear of a hard life, was still quite pretty. She stood with her brown eyes downcast, silently waiting for Tim to acknowledge her.

“Can I help you, miss?”

“Thank you for waiting, sir,” the woman said, still struggling to catch her breath. “I was hoping that you could take a look at my son. He’s very sick.” She tugged back a corner of what appeared to be a piece of the same blanket that constituted her cloak to reveal the face of an infant.

Tim suppressed a groan. It had been a long day—all his days seemed long now—and he was eager to get home. “Come inside, please,” he instructed the woman. To Henry he said, “This shouldn’t take too long.”

Unlocking the office door, Tim went inside, lit a lamp, and then held the door for the woman and baby to enter. Inside, the woman gazed at him with an earnestness that aroused his sympathy.

“I’m very sorry to bother you like this, Doctor. I didn’t mean to come so late, but I had to walk all the way from the East End, and it took longer than I thought,” she explained. “I never would have found your office yet, except that a kind old gentleman asked if I was lost and then pointed me to your door. A friend of yours, he said.”

“Well,” Tim replied in a reassuring tone, “you’re fortunate that I had to work late; I usually close the office at six.”

The woman shuffled her feet uneasily. “If it’s too late, sir, we can come back tomorrow.”

“No, no, that’s all right. Now tell me, what is the matter?”

“It’s my Jonathan, sir. He’s been sickly since birth, and now he’s getting worse,” she said. Tim noticed that her eyes were moist.

“Let’s take him into the examination room.” Tim led them in, lit the lamps. The woman laid the child on the table and pulled back the blanket and other wrappings. Tim was shocked to see that the boy was not an infant—his facial features were too developed—but he was clearly undersized, and Tim did not dare hazard a guess as to his age.

“How old is the little fellow?”

“Three last summer, sir.”

Tim studied the boy. His eyes were open, brown like his mother’s, and though they gazed intently at Tim, the little body was limp. No mental defect, but something physical, and severe.  Tim placed a thumb in each of the tiny hands.

“Can you squeeze my thumbs, Jonathan?” he asked. The boy did so, feebly.

“Very good!” Tim said. Jonathan smiled.

“I didn’t know who else to go to, sir,” the woman explained as Tim flexed the boy’s arms and legs. “There’s no doctors who want to see the likes of us, but then I remembered you, sir. You took care of me many years back, when I had a fever. You came by the East End every week then, sir, and took care of the poor folk.”

“I’m sorry, but I treated so many patients that I can’t recall you, Miss, ah, Mrs.—”

“It’s Miss, Doctor. Jonathan’s father was a sailor. We were supposed to marry, but I never seen him since before Jonathan was born. My name’s Ginny Whitson.”

It was already clear to Tim that the child, like his thin, almost gaunt mother, was badly malnourished. That accounted in part for his small size. Tim also noticed that the boy’s leg muscles were extremely weak. Jonathan remained quiet, looking at the strange man with a mixture of curiosity and fear.

“Does Jonathan walk much?” Tim asked.

“No, sir, never a step. He could stand a bit until a few weeks ago, but now he can’t even do that. I think it’s the lump on his back, Doctor.”

Tim carefully turned the boy over to find a plum-sized swelling along the left edge of his spine at waist level. He touched it lightly, and Jonathan whimpered. “How long has he had this?” Tim asked.

“I didn’t notice it till a year ago, sir. It was tiny then, but it’s grown since. In the last month or so it’s gone from about the size of a grape to this big.”

Tim hesitated. He needed to do some research and then give Jonathan a more thorough examination before he could accurately diagnose and treat the boy’s condition. He did have several possibilities in mind, none of them good, but there was no sense alarming Ginny prematurely. After she had swathed her child in the bundle of cloth, Tim ushered them back into the waiting room, where he studied his appointment book.

“Can you come back at noon on Saturday? I’m sorry to make you wait that long, but I have some things to check, and it will take time.” Ginny nodded. “I’ll see then what I can do,” Tim said.

“Oh, Doctor, thank you so much,” Ginny blurted, grateful for any help regardless of when it might come. She shifted Jonathan to her left arm, and thrust her right hand into the pocket of her frayed and patched black dress. Removing a small felt sack, she emptied a pile of copper coins onto the clerk’s desk.  Most were farthings and halfpennies, with an occasional large penny interspersed among them.

“I know this isn’t enough even for today, sir,” she apologized. “But I’ll get more, I promise. I’m working hard, you see, sir. Every day I go door-to-door and get work cleaning house and doing laundry, and save all I can.”

With his right hand, Tim swept the coins across the desktop into his cupped left palm and returned them to Ginny. He was touched by her attempt to pay him, knowing that she must have gone without food many times to accumulate this small amount of money. Her devotion to her son and effort to demonstrate her independence impressed him.

“There isn’t any fee, Miss Whitson. I’ll be happy to do whatever I can for Jonathan at no charge.”

“But I can’t accept charity, Doctor,” the surprised woman answered. “It wouldn’t be right, taking your time away from your paying patients.”

“We all need charity in one form or another at some time in our lives,” Tim said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for a great act of charity long ago, and as for taking time away from my paying patients, that may be more of a benefit than a problem. Come along, now, and I’ll give you and Jonathan a ride home.”

Tim locked the office door and escorted Ginny and Jonathan to his coach as tears trickled down her face, picking up dirt from the smudge on her cheek and tracking it down to her chin. Jonathan began to cry soon after the coach got under way, and Ginny comforted him with a lullaby, one that Tim remembered his own mother singing to him. When the child finally fell asleep, both remained silent, afraid to wake him. Once they reached the narrow streets packed with sailors, beggars, drunks, and an assortment of London’s other poor wretches, Ginny asked to be let out. Tim knocked twice on the roof, and Henry reined in the horses.

As she was about to step out of the carriage, something she had said earlier occurred to Tim. “One moment, Miss Whitson. You mentioned that someone directed you to my office. Do you know who he was?”

“No, Doctor,” she replied, “and he didn’t say. He was an old gentleman, thin, with a long nose and white hair. Neatly dressed, but his clothes weren’t fancy, if you know what I mean, sir.”

Tim bade her good night and watched as she walked down the sidewalk, past gin mills and dilapidated rooming houses. She soon turned into the recessed doorway of a darkened pawnshop and settled herself on the stone pavement. Tim briefly thought of going back to find out if she even had a home, or if she was going to spend the night in the doorway. Fatigue slowed his thoughts, however, and by the time the idea took root, the carriage was a block away and gathering speed.

Tim lay back against the soft, leather-covered seat cushions, pondering which of his Harley Street neighbors had directed her to his office. Most of them would have ignored such a woman, or ordered her back to the slums. Her description, though, didn’t fit any of them. He shook his head, trying to remove the cobwebs from his tired mind. It must have been someone else, someone he just couldn’t recall in his fuddled state. No sense wrestling with the question, he concluded.

During the long drive across town to his home in the western outskirts of London, Tim tried to relax. It had been another in a seemingly endless string of days filled with consultations and surgeries. Tim had arrived at his office at five-thirty that morning, half an hour earlier than usual, to prepare for a seven o’clock operation on the Duchess of Wilbersham. She had been complaining for weeks about pain in her left shoulder, which she attributed to a strain that refused to heal. Since she never lifted anything heavier than a deck of cards at her daily whist game, Tim doubted the explanation, and several examinations showed no sign of any real injury. The duchess had a reputation as a hypochondriac who sought treatment for her phantom ailments from the best doctors in London, then bragged about how she managed to maintain her health by not stinting on the cost of good medical care. To placate the pompous woman, Tim had finally caved in to her demand that he operate to repair the tendons and ligaments she insisted had been damaged. Because the surgery was minor and the duchess, with good reason, abhorred hospitals, Tim performed the operation in his office, which was equipped for such tasks. A small incision and internal examination verified his suspicion that the duchess’s shoulder was perfectly sound. When she awoke, with more pain from the surgery than she had ever experienced from her imaginary injury, along with sutures and an application of carbolic acid to prevent infection, she swore that the shoulder had not felt so well in ten years. Tim wondered if she would be so pleased when the effects of the morphine wore off.

“Just give the doctor that bag of coins I asked you to bring,” the duchess had ordered her maidservant. “I won’t insult you, Dr. Cratchit, by asking your fee, but I’m sure there’s more than enough here to cover it, and worth every farthing, too.”

When Tim’s clerk opened the leather pouch, he found it contained one hundred gold guineas. Tim could not help contrasting the way his wealthy patients tossed gold coins about with Ginny Whitson’s offer of her pathetic little hoard of coppers. The thought stirred memories of his own childhood, when pennies were so scarce that he and his brothers and sisters sometimes had to roam through frigid alleys to scavenge wood scraps to keep a fire burning on winter nights. It was on one such night when he lay awake, shivering on his thin straw mattress, that he overheard the conversation that changed his life.

“I’m to get a raise in salary,” his father murmured excitedly, trying not to wake the children.

“I don’t believe it,” Mrs. Cratchit declared. “That old miser would die before he parted with an extra farthing.”

“It’s true, dear,” Bob Cratchit insisted. “I’ve never seen Mr. Scrooge like that. We sat for an hour this afternoon, talking. He asked a lot of questions about our family, Tim in particular.”

“I’m surprised that he even knew you had a family, Bob.”

“I was, too, dear, but he seemed to know a good bit about us. Why, from a few things he said about hoping we had a good Christmas dinner, I think he’s the one who sent the turkey yesterday. Who else could have done it?”

“Well, I hope you’re right, Bob. I’ll not believe any of it until I see the proof.”

Tim smiled at the recollection of his mother’s skepticism. She had always been the realist in the family, Bob the optimist. Tim had shared his mother’s doubts. She and the children had despised Ebenezer Scrooge, blaming his greed for the family’s struggles. But with his stomach filled to bursting with turkey left over from Christmas dinner, Tim dared to hope that his father was right, and that old Scrooge might truly have undergone a change of heart. After all, it was Christmas, a time when good things were supposed to happen.

The sudden stop as the carriage arrived at his front door shook Tim from his reverie. He was out the door before Henry could dismount from the driver’s seat and open it for him, a habit that Tim had observed left his coachman more amused than chagrined.

“That’s all right, Henry,” he said, waving toward the carriage house. “You and the horses get inside and warm up.”

Entering the large, well-lit foyer, Tim was greeted by his maid. Bridget Riordan was a pretty Irish girl, with long, flaming red hair pinned up under her white cap, numberless freckles on her cheeks and small nose, and green eyes that always seemed to sparkle with happiness. She took Tim’s top hat, coat, and scarf. “Dinner will be ready in a half hour, Doctor,” she announced, “so you can rest a bit if you’d like.”

“Thank you, Bridget,” Tim replied, watching her walk gracefully toward the kitchen. He loosened his cravat as he climbed the stairs, thought briefly of skipping the meal and going directly to bed, and decided that he could not afford the luxury since he had a long evening of work ahead of him.

As usual, Tim dined alone. At the time he had purchased the large house, Tim had expected that he would one day need the space for the family he hoped to have. However, the demands of his practice and the memory of his one previous and unsuccessful attempt at courtship kept him from actively pursuing any romantic interests. Now he sometimes wondered whether he would spend the rest of his life a bachelor, without the happiness he had enjoyed as a child in the crowded and bustling Cratchit home.

Solitary meals in the cavernous dining room always seemed to dim Tim’s pleasure despite the hot, tasty food that Bridget prepared. When he had hired them after buying the house, he had often insisted that she, Henry, and William, the gardener, join him in the dining room. But the trio had been servants since their childhood, and their previous masters, who had not shared Tim’s lack of concern with class distinctions, had impressed upon them the idea that it was improper for servants to associate with their master outside the scope of their duties. The dinner conversations had been stilted, with Tim trying to make conversation and Bridget, Henry, and William replying in monosyllables punctuated by “sir.” Tim had quickly given up the experiment, yet he still could not help feeling a pang of sadness, mixed with a bit of jealousy, every time the sound of their friendly conversation and laughter in the serving room rose high enough for him to hear. Still, he admitted that all three servants had warmed to him over the past two years, and had grown more willing to engage him in informal conversation. Perhaps one day they could dine together without the awkwardness of his previous attempts, he thought.

Shortly after nine o’clock, Tim retired to his upstairs study. There each night he reviewed the next day’s cases, looked up information in his medical books that he might need, and, if time permitted, read the most recent scientific journals to keep up to date on the latest advances in medicine and surgery. At one time he had contributed his share of new knowledge to the medical profession, but for the last several years he just could not find the time to do so. He really didn’t have the opportunity, anyway. How could he devise innovative treatments, he asked himself, when most of the patients he saw, like the duchess, had nothing seriously wrong with them to begin with?

Having finished his preparation for the next day’s work, Tim drew out his pocket watch. Not quite half past ten. He reached across the wide mahogany desk for the latest issue of the Lancet, which had lain unread for more than a week. Tim pushed it aside. It would have to wait until he had researched Jonathan’s condition. Tim walked over to the bookcase, scanned several volumes, removed a reference book, and returned to his chair. The coal fire that Bridget had stoked was still burning strongly; he would see if he could find confirmation of his suspicions regarding the boy’s problem, or alternative, less dire diagnoses, before retiring. Balancing his chair upon its two rear legs, he put his feet on the desk and opened the volume.

Tim did not know how long he had been reading. It seemed he had gone over the same paragraph a dozen times without registering the information in his mind when he felt how cold the study had become. He glanced toward the fireplace, where a single small log emitted a parsimonious warmth. The room seemed dark—looking over his shoulder at the gas lamp, he was surprised to see only a candle in a tin wall sconce, flickering in a chill breeze that came through a cracked windowpane. Strange, Tim thought, he was certain Bridget had closed the curtains. And when had the window broken?

His eyes better adjusted to the gloom, Tim turned back toward the fireplace. His surprise turned to shock when he looked down at his legs and saw that the new black trousers he had been wearing were now coarse brown cloth through which he could see the outline of his legs, withered and weak. The elegant marble of the fireplace had been replaced by cracked, ancient bricks. Leaning against them was a crutch. His childhood crutch.

Tim stared at the hearth, baffled, for how long he did not know. Then he started to get up, reaching for the crutch, only to find that his legs were so weak he could not stand. He gazed at his extended right hand. It was that of a child. He leaned back in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and when he looked around again, he was back in his own comfortable study. The gas lamp burned brightly, the fire still blazed in its marble enclave. There was no crutch to be seen. He flexed his legs. They were strong. He shuddered, perplexed at what had occurred. Although he was quite sure that he had not fallen asleep, he reassured himself that it must have been a dream. Not surprising, considering his thoughts about Jonathan, and the unavoidable realization that the boy’s plight reminded him so much of his own childhood illness. Tim stood, uneasy, and dropped the reference book on the desk before heading to bed.

Standing over the washbasin, he poured water from a pitcher into the ceramic bowl. He wet a washcloth and rubbed his face. Even in the light of the single gas lamp, he could see the creases beginning to form on his forehead, the dark circles under his blue eyes. A few strands of gray were sprinkled through his blond hair. He thought he looked at least a decade older than his thirty-two years. Combined with his short stature and thinness, Tim reflected that in a few years he would look like a wizened old man.

Too much work, that was the cause, he thought. Unpleasant work. And now he also had to do something about Jonathan Whitson, who had what was likely a malignant tumor. A boy not yet four, probably sentenced to death by nature before his life had a chance to begin. Five years ago, Dr. Timothy Cratchit would have tackled the child’s case enthusiastically and with optimism. Now he was reduced to performing fake surgeries to placate hypochondriacs.

Ginny Whitson had met him years earlier, and believed in his abilities. He only wished that he shared her confidence.






Blond Cargo 

(October 20, 2014; $5.99) the second Jack Bertolino thriller by John Lansing
Thriller/Mystery/Private Investigators
Blond Cargo is the highly anticipated second Jack Bertolino installment from New York native and now Los Angeles author John Lansing. This gripping eBook from the former writer/producer of Walker, Texas Ranger and Co-Executive producer of the ABC series Scoundrels continues the story that began in The Devil’s Necktie.

Jack Bertolino is back…in the sequel to John Lansing’s bestseller The Devil’s Necktie!

Jack’s son, Chris, was the victim of a brutal murder attempt and Vincent Cardona, a mafia boss, provided information that helped Jack take down the perpetrator of the crime. Jack accepted the favor knowing there’d be blowback. In Blond Cargo, the mobster’s daughter has gone missing and Cardona turned in his chit. Jack discovers that the young, blond mafia princess has been kidnapped and imprisoned while rich, politically connected men negotiate her value as a sex slave. John Lansing taps into the real life world of cops, crime, drugs and murder in Blond Cargo to deliver another sizzling whodunit.
Goodreads | Amazon 

Excerpt:

Jack Bertolino moved briskly down the polished terrazzo floor of the American Airlines terminal at San Francisco International Airport. He walked past travelers who were deplaning, waiting to board, eating, drinking, and queuing up at ticket counters. Through the windows on either side of the crowded terminal he could see a line of Boeing MD-80s and 737s.

Jack had his game face on. One thought only: take down the manager at NCI Corp who was dirty.

Todd Dearling had been hired as one of five project managers, developing a new generation of semiconductors meant to challenge Intel’s control of the market. Yet the new engineer was plotting to steal the proprietary architecture for the company’s most advanced technology and sell it to an Argentinean competitor.

Jack had done a thorough background check on Dearling and found no skeletons in the man’s closet, no gambling issues, no drugs, no priors; it was greed, pure and simple. Cruz Feinberg, Jack’s new associate, had arrived in Silicon Valley two days prior and wirelessly inserted a program onto Dearling’s iPad while the stressed-out manager was sucking down his daily chai latte at the local Starbucks. Any text or e-mail sent to or from Dearling was cloned and sent to Cruz’s laptop. A piece of cake to pull off for the young tech whiz. Jack was being well paid to catch the thief in the act—let the money and the technology change hands, and then drop the hammer.

Todd Dearling had made reservations at the Four Seasons Hotel in East Palo Alto. A car would be waiting at SFO to ferry his Argentinean counterpart to the suite where the exchange was scheduled to take place.

Jack had booked Cruz into that same suite two nights earlier, where he had set up wireless microcameras and wired the room for sound, to be routed to the suite next door, where Jack’s team would document the crime.

Jack lived for these moments. Outsmarting intelligent men who thought they were above the law. Badge or no badge, Jack loved to take scumbags down.

Ten minutes ago, Flight 378 from Buenos Aires had flashed from black to green on the overhead arrivals screen. Dressed in a gray pinstripe business suit and wheeling a carry-on suitcase, Jack walked toward a limo driver stationed near the exit door of the international terminal. The man held a sign chest-high that read emilio bragga.

Jack reached out a hand toward the driver, who was forced to lower his placard, shake Jack’s hand, and make quick work of grabbing up Jack’s bag. Jack headed quickly toward the exit, explaining to the driver that he was traveling light and had no checked luggage.

As soon as the two men exited the building, Jack’s second employee, Mateo Vasquez, dressed in a black suit, moved into the same spot, carrying a sign that read Emilio bragga.

Jack and Mateo had once been on opposite sides of the thin blue line, Jack as an NYPD narcotics detective, Mateo as an operative for a Colombian drug cartel. When Jack busted the cartel, he made Mateo an offer—spend thirty years in the big house, or come to work for the NYPD as a confidential
informant. Mateo had made the right choice and Jack had earned himself a loyal operative when he became a private investigator.

Thirty seconds later, the real Emilio Bragga walked up to Mateo, stifled a yawn, and handed off his carry-on. He was short and stocky with a rubbery face.

Buenos días, Señor Bragga. I hope your flight was acceptable?” Mateo asked deferentially.

“Barely. First class isn’t what it used to be.” Bragga’s accented English was spoken in clipped tones. “Take me to the First National Bank. I have business to attend to.”

Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of business, Mateo might have added, but refrained.

Jack arrived at the Four Seasons, generously tipped the limo driver, and hurried up the elevator to the suite where Cruz was waiting. Once Jack stripped off his suit jacket, he joined the young genius by his array of monitors.

“They should make these baby ketchup bottles illegal,” Cruz said as he tried to pound the condiment out of the room service minibottle of Heinz. Growing frustrated, Cruz shoved a knife deep into the viscous ketchup and poured a heaping red mound onto his fries. Happy with the results, he chowed down on three drenched fries before wiping his hands on his jeans and returning his gaze to the computer.

“It looks like he’s getting ready for a date,” Jack said as he took a seat. Cruz kept his eyes trained on the four screens corresponding to the four different camera angles of the room they were covering.

“Guy’s squirrelly,” Cruz said, biting into his cheeseburger.

They watched as Todd Dearling twirled a bottle of champagne in the ice that had just been delivered from room service, along with a tray of finger sandwiches and crudités. He was a slight, pale, middle-aged man with thinning hair that he kept nervously brushing back off his forehead. He shrugged out of his tweed sports jacket, but when he saw the sweat stains in the armpits of his blue dress shirt, he slid it back on. He hurried over to the thermostat near the door, appearing on a new screen, and turned up the air.

Jack checked his watch and then his phone to make sure he was receiving enough bars to communicate with Mateo. “I’m getting a little nervous. You?” Cruz asked before sucking down the last of his Coke. He crumpled the aluminum can with one hand and executed an overhand dunk into the bamboo trash bin.

Cruz’s mother was Guatemalan, his father a Brooklyn Jew who founded Bundy Lock and Key. That’s where Jack first met him. Cruz, who took after his mother’s side of the family, looked taller than his five-foot-nine frame. Darkskinned, intelligent brown eyes, a youthful angular face, and at twenty-three, he could still pull off the spiky short black hair.

“I’ve got some energy going,” Jack said, “but it’s all good.  You’d have to worry if you didn’t feel pumped.”

Just then Jack’s phone vibrated and the number 999 appeared on his text screen, code for It’s a go. Mateo and Emilio Bragga had just pulled up to the front entrance of the Four Seasons Hotel.

“We’re on,” Jack said with a tight grin.

In another minute, a loud rap on a door made Cruz jump. “Is that here?” he asked, and glanced over at the door to their suite.

“No, it’s next door. Great sound, Cruz,” Jack said, trying to keep his newest charge calm.

Jack and Cruz watched as Dearling’s image moved from one screen to the next, went over to the door, unlocked it, and ushered in Emilio Bragga. The man of the hour wheeled his carry-on across the white marble floor, pushed the retractable handle down into the bag, and gave Dearling an unexpected bear hug, lifting the thin man off his feet. Once the blush faded and he had regained his composure, Dearling was all smiles. He could smell his fortune being made. “First, tell me you have them,” Bragga said brusquely, his smile tightening.

“I have them and more, Emilio. There are even some preliminary renderings for the next series of chips. Consider it goodwill,” Dearling said.

He lifted the champagne bottle out of the melting ice with a flourish, dripping water onto his dress shirt. “A celebratory drink and then business.”

“No, business first,” Jack said.

“No. Show them to me. Now,” Bragga ordered, his voice unyielding.

“Now we’re talking,” Cruz said to Jack, barely able to control his excitement.

The next knock was more subdued than the first, just a quick double knock.

“That’s here,” Jack said as he slid out of his chair and opened the door. Mateo was thirty-nine years old, tall, handsome, with striking gray eyes, long brown hair, and a thousand-dollar suit. He beamed at his old friend as he walked in, bumped fists, and moved into position behind Cruz, eyes trained on the computer screen.

Emilio Bragga placed his carry-on luggage on the couch as Dearling pulled a slim buffed metal briefcase from behind the table and snapped it open on the tabletop. Inside was a series of blue, red, silver, and gold flash drives, seated in foam cutouts next to three bound technical binders.

Bragga leafed quickly through one of the binders, visibly relaxed, and placed it back inside the case. He looked at Todd Dearling and nodded his head. Then he smiled.

“This is the money shot,” Jack said. “Make it the money shot.”

Emilio Bragga walked over to the couch, ceremoniously produced a key, and opened the lock. The sound of the zipper ratcheting around the circumference of the bag got everyone’s full attention. And then Bragga flipped open the canvas top.

Two hundred and fifty thousand, in crisp, banded hundred-dollar bills. Jack’s team could almost hear Dearling’s breath catch in his throat.

“You see those appetizers?” Bragga said, gesturing to the tray of crudités. “That is what this is.” He turned his gaze to the thick stacks of money like it was nothing. “Antipasto…before the meal.”

The two men shook hands. The deal was consummated. It was all gravy now, Jack thought. He would contact Lawrence Weller, CEO of NCI, who would have Bragga quietly arrested at the airport and Dearling picked up outside his condominium, thereby avoiding any negative publicity regarding the security breach that could affect the value of NCI’s stock.

“Start taking sick days as we get closer to the rollout date,” Bragga advised. “Then you’ll take a forced medical leave. I’ll set you up with a doctor in San Francisco who’s a friend. He’ll recommend you spend a month at a local clinic torecuperate while we launch and beat NCI to market. Six months later and with two million in your account, you’ll give notice and head up my division. Did I ever tell you how beautiful the women in Mendoza are?”

Bragga’s speech was interrupted by another knock on the door.

“Room service,” a muted voice said.

“We’re good,” Dearling shouted as he moved toward the door while Bragga instinctively closed the lid of his bag, covering the money.

Jack gave his team a What the hell? look. “Who are these jokers?”

“Complimentary champagne from the management of the Four Seasons,” intoned the muffled voice.

“Don’t open the door,” Bragga hissed.

“Don’t open the door,” Jack said at the same time. But Dearling had already turned the handle.

Three men dressed in navy blue blazers with gold epaulettes pushed a service cart draped with a white cloth into the room with a bottle of champagne in a silver ice bucket and a huge bouquet of flowers in a crystal vase. “Three men on one bottle,” Jack said as he pulled his Glock nine-millimeter out of his shoulder rig and headed for the door.

“We weren’t the only ones who hacked his computer,” Cruz intuited.

“Don’t leave the room,” Jack told him over his shoulder. He quickly exited the suite, followed by Mateo. Cruz nodded, but his wide eyes never left the computer screen.

The lead man pushed the cart toward Dearling, but instead of slowing down, he muscled the cart up against the timid man’s waist, picked up speed, and forced him to backpedal across the room. Dearling’s eyes bugged, his face a mask of terror. The flowers and champagne tumbled off the cart, and the crystal vase shattered on impact. The champagne bottle exploded. Flowers and glass and water and bubbly flooded the slick stone floor. Dearling’s body slammed into the television set on the far wall; his head whipped back and splintered the flat screen. Glass rained down on the Judas as he slid to the floor behind the cart.

Bragga placed himself in front of his bag of cash and took a gun barrel to the side of his head. The gash spurted blood, drenched his shirt, turned his legs to rubber, and took him down onto one knee. The gunman made a fast reach past him for the bag, but Bragga grabbed the thug around one thigh and tried to bulldog him to the ground.

“I’m gonna shoot you, you dumb prick,” the gunman grunted, rapidly losing control of the situation.

“So much for keeping it on the QT,” Jack said to Mateo as he kicked the door open and followed his gun into the room.

The third uniformed man spun as the door smashed against the jamb and Jack’s fist exploded into his face. The man’s head snapped back, and blood streamed out of his broken nose. His arms flailed, and his gun was suspended in midair for a split second before the man and the gun hit the floor.

The man who’d pushed the cart turned his weapon on Jack, who fired first, blasting the man in the shoulder. The force of Jack’s bullet propelled the gunman’s body backward onto the cart before he flopped to the stone floor, landed on his shoulder in the broken glass, and cried out in pain. The gun discharging in the close confines of the hotel suite stopped the action. The room smelled of cordite, the only sounds heavy breathing and Todd Dearling’s whimpering. Mateo picked up the third man’s pistol and covered Jack’s back.

Jack turned his Glock on the second man. “Give me your gun or your friend’s going to bleed out,” he stated with extreme calm.

Before Jack could take control of the weapon, Bragga stripped it from the gunman’s hand and smashed him in the temple with surprising violence. Then he swung the confiscated Colt back and forth between Jack and Mateo, stopping them in their tracks.

“Nobody move and nobody follow,” Bragga said as he half-zippered the suitcase with one hand and picked up the carry-on bag.

“Drop your weapons,” he ordered Jack and Mateo through clenched teeth as blood continued to drip down the side of his face. They complied, knowing he wouldn’t make it as far as the lobby. Bragga walked around the couch on unsteady legs, muscling the heavy bag. His eyes bored into Mateo, the “driver” who had betrayed him, and ordered him to clear the doorway with a sharp wave of his gun barrel. Mateo took a half step to the side, gave the short man just enough room to pass, and pistoned with his full two hundred pounds of muscle, leading with his elbow and hitting Bragga in the back of the head, just above the neck. The Argentinean went down hard.

The overstuffed bag bounced on the floor, the luggage’s zipper split open, and a green wave of banded hundreds cascaded out onto the polished white Carrara marble. “That was a cluster fuck,” Jack said with disgust as he picked up his Glock and surveyed the carnage in the suite. Mateo collected the fallen weapons, grabbed a towel off the wet bar, and used it as a compress to stanch the first gunman’s bleeding wound. He was all business. “Call 911 and have them send an ambulance,” Jack said to Cruz, who he knew could hear him over one of the multiple microphones.

“That was insane.”

Jack turned around and found Cruz standing, wild eyed, in the hall directly behind him.

“Call 911 and lock the door. Did we get it all?”

“I copied Lawrence Weller and you on your cell, iPad, and laptop.”

“Good man,” Jack said.

“No, really, you, Mateo . . . man.” Cruz shuddered as he pulled out his cell and dialed the emergency phone line. Jack was not one normally given to second-guessing, but at the moment he found himself seriously questioning his new career choice as a private investigator.

Muttering a curse, Jack holstered his nine-millimeter, crossed the room, and proceeded to snap plastic flex-cuffs on the broken assembly of thieves.




Branded 

(December 15, 2014; $5.99) by Colette Auclair
Fiction/Romance/Contemporary/Nature-Animals-Horses
The third lighthearted romance in Colette Auclair’s award-winning Aspen Valley series, Branded will take readers on a wild and dreamy ride through the beautiful valleys and mountains of Colorado. Professional, polite, and pearl-wearing, dressage rider and resort consultant Cordy Sims is the last person anyone would expect to initiate a weekend of debauchery. And yet, that’s exactly what she does after meeting a handsome stranger at an Aspen resort. Agreeing that they’ll leave personal details at the door, they indulge in a memorable weekend of carnal recreation. On Sunday night, Cordy doesn’t want to leave this charming, seductive man, but she must play by her own rules. 

On Monday, Cordy sits in a meeting at the ad agency that’s hired her as a freelancer, and her professional and personal worlds collide. Turns out agency owner Jack Cormier looks just as good in the boardroom as he did in the bedroom. Forced to work together, Cordy and Jack can’t ignore the chemistry that crackles between them, or the deeper feelings that have developed. But secrets and scars from their pasts may prove too formidable, even for a love that’s as powerful as it is unexpected.
Goodreads | Amazon  
Excerpt:


Sometimes things aren’t what they seem, but it seemed to Cordy that indeed, there was a man in a tuxedo riding down the chairlift in Aspen. And he was probably drunk, which meant she wanted nothing to do with him.

It was exactly six-thirty-two a.m. on May 16, four hours before the lifts opened. She stood there, panting and staring. He was floating toward her, one arm slung along the back of the chair and a foot, also in formal wear, perched on the seat. The bands of his unfurled bow tie fluttered in the breeze.

My first morning in Aspen and already there’s a guy in a tuxedo. Talk about a town living up to the hype. The app on her phone beeped, telling her she’d logged five miles and could begin her cool-down. After this run, she would officially begin her part-work, part-leisure long weekend. She shook her head and started across the black-diamond run, which without snow was steep but hardly treacherous. As usual, she imagined how Marcas, her horse, would handle it—her dressage horse wasn’t the world’s best trail horse, but she still wished he were here with her. It would be fun to explore the mountains from his back. Maybe she’d have him shipped to Colorado, if she ended up staying longer than a few weeks.

“Damn!” the man said, bringing Cordy back to the present. What, you just realized you were riding a ski lift the wrong way? Cordy thought as she kept walking. She looked up the hill in time to see a silver cylinder hit the grass. It bounced and tumbled down the ski slope, winking in the sun. Remarkably, it stopped short, wedging itself between two small nearby boulders with a muffled metallic clink.

“Excuse me, darlin’,” yelled the man.

Darlin’? Cordy looked up. She was not this man’s darlin’, but she was the only one around.

“It seems my shaker and I have parted company. Could I trouble you to fetch it for me?”

He had a Southern accent. “Why do you have a martini shaker?”

“I was making martinis.”

Silly me. “On a ski lift?” He was passing overhead so she had to crane her neck to see him.

“Last evening. If you could just recover it, I’d be eternally grateful.” He half-turned to face her as he glided by.

“Where were you making martinis?”

“Top of the mountain.”

“For mountain goats?”

She thought he grinned. “Will you please get it for me? It has great sentimental value.”

She had to yell pretty loud now. “Then why’d you drop it?”

“Could you bring it to the hotel bar?”

“When?”

He shouted something, but she couldn’t make it out. What an idiot, to drop a martini shaker. What an idiot to have a martini shaker on a chair lift. Still, it was an interesting turn of events, and a good omen for this new chapter in her life. Quirky. Not exciting, but unusual. She made her way down the slope and plucked the shaker from the boulders. It was dimpled from its fl ight, but she could make out the engraved initials JCL.

Who are you, JCL? “Guess I’ll fi nd out later today,” she muttered. “If he isn’t too drunk to remember.”

She looked down the mountain and saw that the man had neglected to jump off the lift and was headed back up.

Wow. He’s super drunk. She didn’t particularly want to have another shouted conversation, so she jogged into the trees, out of earshot. Still, she heard his voice.

“Take care of that shaker, darlin’!”

Cordy couldn’t remember if she’d ever been to a restaurant bar as it opened. It made her feel so . . . pathetic. Occasionally she’d lingered over a late brunch and been around when the dinner service began. But this? Nah.

It wasn’t every day you had to return a martini shaker to a man who shouted to you from a ski lift. A handsome man. Scratch that—a handsome drunk. He might not even make it here. She’d have a cocktail and if he didn’t show by the time she’d finished, she’d head back to her room, because she had better things to do—those notes on the Pinnacle Resort weren’t going to write themselves.

Setting the shaker on the bar, she picked up the cocktail menu. The thirtysomething bartender materialized before her, a dime-sized portion of a darkgreen tattoo peeking above his starched white collar. His light-brown hair kept to itself, a disciplined wavy mass Cordy found appealing. He angled his head and indicated the shaker.

“We’re a full-service resort. We have our own shakers, but if you insist . . .”

What? She followed his gaze. “Oh! I’m returning that.”

“So you’re the one.” He raised his chin.

“I didn’t steal it!” The bartender laughed and after a beat, Cordy felt her cheeks relax. “Oh. You’re kidding.” Lighten up, Cordy! “What I mean is, the owner is coming to get it.”

“Looks like a nice one. Would you like me to wipe it off for you?”

“No,” Cordy said quickly and too primly. She didn’t want to do that clumsy drunk guy any favors because she felt put-upon as it was. It was her own fault—no one forced her to retrieve the shaker—but she resented him all the same. “It’s fine as is.” She was waiting for a stranger for whom she’d done a favor. She should feel good; instead, she felt . . . owed. May as well enjoy myself while I wait. And act like a “real” guest. With that in mind, she went for decadent and ordered a champagne cocktail. To counter her immediate guilt, she followed with a respectable and nutritious Cobb salad. She gazed at the entrance to the bar one more time, noting the dark-wood backdrop and the paintings and fabrics in the oranges, reds, and purples of a mountain sunset. Then she pulled out her leather notebook and Cross pen and began to write her initial impressions of the Pinnacle Resort at Aspen.

Thirty minutes later, as her cocktail neared its logical conclusion (she was an admittedly slow drinker) and her salad was gone, Cordy had mellowed. A smattering of other customers had come in, which Cordy calculated was average for fi ve o’clock on a Friday in the off-season.

The off-season. Her favorite phrase because it had given her a dream career that allowed her to make a good living, own and show a horse, and travel around the world. She had become a go-to professional for how to make more money in the off-season. She could look at a resort, no matter where it was, and come up with ways to make hay when the sun didn’t shine, as it were. For Cordy, it was akin to taking a meh horse and making it a wow horse. She used to think anyone could see the off-season potential in a resort, but she accepted that she had a knack, though she was still reluctant to believe the hype heaped on her by happy clients. After working for a company that ran several resorts around the world, she went out on her own. Pinnacle was her first project as an independent contractor, but the winter resort wasn’t her client. A small Aspen ad agency that was trying to impress Pinnacle had hired her to overdeliver and wowthem. She was a surprise bonus, and her recommendation could be the tipping point.

Or that’s what the agency was banking on. She thought they were overly optimistic, but they were paying her well, so she’d give them their money’s worth.

She had already completed a page of bullet points after being at Pinnacle for less than twenty-four
hours. Not bad.

Was someone playing a piano? As Cordy looked around, a lock of shiny wheat-colored hair fell in front of her face. As she shoved it behind her ear, she saw a fresh champagne cocktail in front of her. “Excuse me,” she called to the bartender, who rushed over. “I didn’t order this.”

“It’s on the house, madam.” Did management know why she was here and was trying to impress her? As though she were a secret shopper or something? “Really? Why?”

“A gentleman came by and bought you a drink.”

“That’s impossible. I don’t know anyone here.”

“Begging your pardon, but that’s what happened.”

“Who was it?”

“He didn’t say,” the bartender replied as he wiped the bar.

“Where is he? I ought to thank him.”

“He left.”

“What did he look like?”

The bartender filled his cheeks with air and puffed it out. “Dark hair. A little taller than me.” He shrugged in defeat.

That didn’t help. If it was the martini guy, surely he would have taken the shaker.

The bartender spoke. “I’d say you have a secret admirer.”

“Right.” She said this merely to confirm she’d heard him because her attention was back on the music. What is that song? I know that song. And where is the piano?

Oh no. No. No no no no no.

“Excuse me, again,” Cordy said. “But where’s the piano?” She struggled to sound polite and not distressed.

“Just behind that tree,” he said, nodding toward an impressively leafy plant in the middle of the room that stretched to the ceiling. Cordy threw back a mouthful of her complimentary drink, dabbed her lips with her napkin, and took a breath before striding to the hidden instrument.

The man’s hands were sure and efficient as they transformed the keys into a gorgeous melody. Playing was muscle memory for him; that much was obvious. He rocked gently to the rhythm as though in a trance, oblivious to her or even that he was in the middle of a restaurant. If she weren’t in such a strange mood, she would have appreciated his talent and artistry. But the only thing she wanted to do was stop him.

“Excuse me,” she said.

No response.

She stared for a moment, willing him to look at her. The mental energy she expended could have bent several spoons, possibly a spatula. Or a shovel. He kept going, damn him. “Excuse me!” she said, louder this time.

He looked at her. Mildly. And literally didn’t miss a beat.

She was pretty sure it was the martini shaker guy. Of course. Because this was inconvenient, too. Maybe he didn’t recognize her. After all, he’d been flying overhead and three sheets to the wind when they’d met more than ten hours earlier. She sighed, flicked her hands at him, and said, “Could you maybe skip over this song and play something else?”

He shook his head and a few strands of pin-straight brown hair flopped into his eyes. “I’m sorry; I can’t hear you. I’m playing the piano.”

God. She spoke louder. “Yes, I know. I was wondering if you could play a different song?” He continued playing all those damned notes she hated, while conversing—of course he was—he was a professional, what did she expect? It wasn’t even multitasking for him, it was his job to chat up diners while playing. “This is a great song. Cole Porter. What do you have against Cole Porter?”

“Nothing, but—”

“This is part of my warm-up. I always play ‘So In Love.’ ”

It seemed he was embellishing the tune just to annoy her. The golden buzz from her vintage cocktail had turned on her and was making her grumpy. He continued, “Have you ever heard the words? They’re beautiful.” Then, to add musical insult to emotional injury, he started over and sang softly, so only she could hear. Her own private concert from hell.

His voice was as smooth as a premium liqueur and his accent—Southern and lyrical—disappeared. Still, hearing a declaration of a searing love come out of this man’s mouth only made her feel terrible. What did Cole Porter know? This kind of love doesn’t exist except in songs. I should know. Her throat ached, her cheeks heated and, lo and behold, she was about to cry. This wasn’t going to happen. She clamped down on her unacceptable emotional response, leaned toward him, and said, “Please.” “I’ll finish—”

She blurted, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars to stop.”

He kept playing. “You abhor it that much?”

She rolled her eyes. “A hundred bucks to do less. Come on.”

“Deal.” He finished with a flourish, held out his hand with its long, strong fingers, and raised his eyebrows at her.

“I don’t have that much cash on me.” She folded her arms under her breasts.

“You should have thought of that before you bribed me to stop.”

“I’ll leave it with the bartender.”

“George? He’s a confirmed kleptomaniac. I’ll never see a red cent.”

“I’ll leave you a check, then.”

“I’m sorry, darlin’, but traditionally speaking, bribes are cash only.” He whispered, “You don’t want it to be traced.”

“It’s not a bribe. I made it worth your while to stop playing. Think of it as a tip.”

“Pourboires are usually given as an expression of appreciation.”

“Pourboires?”

“Tips. Why did you want me to stop? That was a whole lot of hatred aimed at poor Mr. Porter’s classic.”

Cordy sniffed and looked at the far wall over Martini Boy’s head. “I’d rather not say.”

“All that hostility can’t be good for you. Why don’t we discuss it over a . . . champagne cocktail?”

She knew her face betrayed her—her eyes widened, her eyebrows shot up, and her mouth opened a little more than usual. There was a reason she wasn’t a professional poker player or counterintelligence operative.

“No. Thank you. I should go.”

He tsked and shook his head. “I would’ve never taken you for a welsher.”

“I’m not—Don’t worry, you’ll get your money.”

His full lips kicked up at the corners, making him more appealing than she cared to admit. It was the
kind of appealing that made her want to stick around.

“As I see it, you owe me a hundred dollars and my martini shaker. Which I thank you for returning, by the way. It’s another reason I need to buy you a drink. In fact, I hardly think a drink’s enough—after all, that shaker is very important to me. I believe I owe you at least a dinner. Would you do me the honor of having dinner with me this evening, Miss . . . ? It is Miss, correct?” He didn’t need to know her name or her marital status. Not with that appealing smile chipping away at her defenses. “That’s very generous of you, but I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We don’t have to be friends. I’m sure you have plenty of friends. I’ll give you your hundred dollars, you can take your shaker—it’s right there on the bar, safe and sound—and we’ll go our separate ways. It’s not necessary to have dinner. It’s not necessary to have drinks or coffee or . . . anything. We had an encounter, then a business transaction, and that’s all. Besides, you can’t leave your shift—as you pointed out, you only just started playing, and the cocktail crowd is going to want their Gershwin as a backdrop for their scintillating conversations.”

She looked at the top of the upright. “Hey, where’s your brandy snifter? You’re good. A guy like you could make a lot of . . . pourboires.” She gazed at his face just in time to see it brighten. He didn’t smile, but his lips twitched and his eyes lighted. She was on a roll and it felt good. “After you’re done with your Harry Connick, Jr. stint, surely you have a few martinis to make, don’t you? Or do you only bartend on top of the mountain with your friends the goats?”

He swiveled on the piano bench to face her.

“Honey, your drink’s getting warm, and that’s a tragedy.” He stood. He was taller than she’d predicted. He had six inches on her, easy. She didn’t like that she had to look up to him now, after getting to look down at him this  hole time. “Let’s go rescue that drink,” he said, and turned her with a finger on her shoulder. That finger then breezed the small of her back, propelling her toward the bar. “And careful about speaking ill of mountain goats,” he said as they walked. “They’re integral to the ecosystem here, they please the tourists, and they’re remarkably rugged, graceful, nimble creatures.” He pulled out her barstool for her. Cordy thought about dismissing his gesture, but decided to finish her cocktail. He amused her, and that was worth a few more minutes of her time. “I didn’t say anything bad about goats. I called them your friends. What does that say about you?” Plus he was easy on her eyes. He had great hair—the dark brown of a horse’s deep bay coat, and glossy—with regular features, a nose straight and assertive as a dressage whip, wide, dark eyes, full lips…A woman could do worse. He was elegant, yes, but oh-so-unavoidably masculine. A dangerous combination, but perfect for temporary scenery at a bar in a ski resort in Aspen.

She sat. He stood. He sipped her drink. “Hey!” she said.

“Just as I feared. Too warm.” He beckoned the bartender.

“George, the lady is in dire need of another champagne cocktail, if you will. This one is tepid. And I’ll have one as well.”

“It was fine,” Cordy said.

“No, it wasn’t. There’s nothing worse than warm champagne.”

“I can think of something worse.”

He sat, then looked at her, and his gaze was so focused, she felt there must be a red laser dot on her nose. Her pulse actually kicked up a notch. “And, pray tell, what would that be?” This had to be what an impala felt like when it knew it couldn’t outrun the lion.

“Impertinent pianists.”

“Come now, was I really that bad?”

“You weren’t exactly cooperative. You could’ve stopped when I asked the first time.”

“I assure you, under the right circumstances, with the right woman, I can be the very picture of cooperation.”

Cordy shifted on her barstool. Where was George with her cocktail? And why was Martini Boy with her and not at the piano? Normally she wouldn’t have asked, but her experience with him had been anything but normal. “Don’t you need to get back to the piano? People are starting to fidget.”

“They’ll manage,” he said, looking around the room. “Would you be so kind as to hand me my shaker? I’d like to inspect it for damage.”

Cordy handed it to him and noted his clean, flat, broad nails rounding out his capable hands. She also felt their fingers touch for a fraction of a second.

“Yeah, so, about that. What was up with that?”

“What was up with what?”

“You dropping it. If it means so much to you, shouldn’t you have been more careful?”

“People drop things all the time,” he said, turning the shaker as he examined it. “It’s an international habit.”

“Clumsy people drop things. You play the piano like a dream, so I’m guessing you’re not usually clumsy. All that hand-eye coordination and everything.”

“You give me an immense amount of credit. I hear Van Cliburn had an embarrassing and expensive habit of dropping crystal.”

Who was this guy who talked like he’d just stepped out of 1920? Cordy was slightly surprised he was in color and not black-and-white like an old movie. Nobody really talked like this. He was putting on an act. He had to be. Well, two could play at this game. She was going to say something out of character. Their drinks arrived and Cordy took a good long sip. She furloughed her internal editor, the one who kept her scrupulously polite, then looked at him.

“Why were you in a tux riding the ski lift the wrong way and carrying a martini shaker at six thirty in the morning?”

He grinned and took a few swallows of the water George had given them with the drinks, making her wait. He set the glass down and licked his lips. “Earlier in the evening, I attended a party that demanded formal wear.”

“What kind of party?”

“A formal one.”

She beetled her brows at him. “It went on until sunrise? At your age? Were the cops involved? You can tell me. After all, it’s not like we’ll see each other again.”

“Now that would be a tragedy of epic proportions.”

“Trust me, it’ll be fine.”

“Doubtful.”

“Was it a wedding? Which would be unusual on a Thursday, but not unheard of.”

“No.”

“Graduation? Bar mitzvah? Barn raising?”

“You’re not going to guess the occasion. Have you considered the possibility that I might just enjoy dressing up?”

“Oh!” Was this code? Was he telling her he was gay? Which would be great, because they could pal around and she wouldn’t have to worry about getting involved. She would never have guessed, but these days, with straight metrosexuals around every corner, her gaydar was unreliable.

“Oh?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Oh.”

“What does ‘oh’ mean?”

“ ‘Oh’ means ‘oh.’ ” She couldn’t tell him what she was thinking. Even her absent editor returned to keep her silent.

“ ‘Oh’ means ‘oh,’ huh? All right, then. Since you were so kind as to return my shaker, I’m not going to press you for an answer.”

“Now we’re even,” Cordy said, feeling positively cocky. “You didn’t answer my question and I didn’t answer yours. Let’s just enjoy our drinks, okay?”

“Absolutely. Whatever you prefer.” He tipped his flute to clink with hers, sipped, then paused. “Hmm.”

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing. Just hmm.”

“What?”

“You won’t tell me what ‘oh’ means, but you expect me to tell you what ‘hmm’ means?”

Cordy went for the chink in his armor. “It would be the gentlemanly thing to do.”

“If that’s what you think. I was thinking how it’s curious that a woman such as yourself is here alone.”

“What makes you think I’m alone?”

“That would be because you are.”

“Why?”

“You’re in a resort town, at a resort. Most guests come with at least one other person. In your case, I would expect you to be here with a man. A significant other of some sort. Spouse, boyfriend, fiancé—”

“Don’t say that word.”

“Fiancé?”

“Yes. Just . . . don’t. Or I’ll take that shaker and throw it off a cliff.” Cordy smoothed her hair behind her ear and stared at the bubbles zipping to the surface of her drink. Why did he have to say that?

“I promise not to say ‘fiancé’ anymore. If you tell me why I can’t.”

She felt like Martini Boy was squeezing her windpipe.

“I can’t. Okay? It’s a . . . thing.” The words choked out. He must’ve noticed because he nodded and didn’t argue. She wished she was one of those people who could laugh and make light of it, but in this case, she couldn’t. “Excuse me for a moment. I’ll be right back.” She reached under the bar to snag her purse from the hook. Purse hooks under bars were a godsend. More points for Pinnacle. Martini Boy stood. More points for Martini Boy.

“Will you be back?” he asked, and sounded concerned.

She slid off the stool. “Yes. I need to use the restroom.”

By “use” she meant “regain my composure, then figure out what I want to do next and if it involves you.” 

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