Chapter Twenty Seven

    "Where is she?" the photographer groaned, looking at his watch one more time. It wasn’t the first time that the arrogant Miss Daniels had kept people waiting. On the contrary, being late was her trademark. Michael Gold was a consummate professional, his shoots running like a well-oiled machine. Resting his sunglasses atop his head Gold scanned the set for Candi. None of his employees could meet his gaze, knowing full well that once their boss planted his fists on his hips that yelling wasn’t far behind. The last thing any of them wanted was to call attention to themselves, so they busied themselves fine tuning the lights and any other loose end on the set.

    Luckily the shoot’s sponsors hadn’t arrived yet, so this bought them some time. Question was how much?

    Sweat was starting to gather along his hairline, and Michael wiped it away impatiently with the back of his hand. He was one of the best in the industry, damn it, and had more than paid his dues. He didn’t have to put up with this shit and super model or no super model he decided then and there to ring Candi’s neck if she ever showed up. Taking a seat again behind his camera, he caught sight of his assistant, Linda, shattering wildly into her cellphone.

    “Well? Where is she?!” he bellowed, frustration wearing away at his patience.

     The agent’s eyes widened in protest against his raised voice. “No idea,” he stated, “I’ve been trying to get a hold of her for the last hour. Nada..”

     One of the extras sighed loudly and stood up. “Same old shit,” she sneered, grabbing her purse, “the chick gets famous and she turns into another high priced bitch. Well I’m outta here. I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

     Another model followed suit. “Screw this. If we hurry maybe we can make the Hilfiger shoot downtown..”

The tension hung thick in the air. One of the remaining models pulled out a cigarette and puffed on it nervously in an attempt to relieve the stress. Candi’s agent was as pale as a ghost, barking into his cellphone as he hid behind one of the back drops.

    The photographer watched the models leave without a word. He couldn’t really blame them since Candi was almost two hours late. Michael Gold found a target for his anger higher up on the totem pole, fixating on the fear in the agent’s voice like a rabid pit bull. “This is all your fault!” Gold bellowed, aiming an accusatory finger at the stunned man. “You’re her agent! You should know where she is at all times! You can rest assured this is the last time the little bitch wastes my time!”

    “I’m sure Candi’s on her way. She must have had an accident or something..” he stammered, backing away as he continued to dial away on his cellphone. 

    “Really Michael,” the last remaining model laughed between puffs, “you didn’t expect anything better from Candi, did you? This is par for the course for her.”

    She was right and he knew it, but he couldn’t let on. It was all he could do to keep some sort of control over a rapidly unraveling situation. “I don't need to hear your smart mouth Toni.”

    Toni’s leg swung back and forth under her tall director’s style chair. “Well, you don't need this aggravation either.” That’s it, she thought. Stroke the photographer and maybe your patience will pay off. Toni could see it now. In a desperate attempt to save the shoot, Michael Gold would give her Candi’s gig before the sponsors arrived. Word would spread in the industry circles that Toni was a lifesaver and Candi was a flake, and her career would get a much needed shot in the arm.

    Michael nodded. “Another few minutes and I'll be smoking again."

    “Why wait?” Toni smiled, offering Gold a cigarette. “I hope you don't mind lights..”

     Carlos shook his head. “At this point I don’t care what they are as long as they burn.”

     Just then a woman entered the staging area through one of the back door. Dressed in a long trench coat, dark glasses, with a scarf pulled over her head, she paused a moment taking in the scene. Great. Michael smoking was not a good sign, and taking a cigarette from Toni no less. She had arrived just in time. Slipping in unnoticed, she quickly crossed over to Michael, tapping him on the shoulder. “Michael, I need to talk to you for a sec..”

     It was the first cigarette he had had in months, the newfound smoker’s buzz clouding his senses. “What?” he said, annoyed at having his buzz interrupted. Inhaling deeply, he turned, blowing smoke up into the intruder’s face.

     Toni was also annoyed. This was the most attention she had gotten from Michael in months and this person in a trench coat was ruining it. Wait.. was that Candi? “Hey..”

     Realizing that Toni had recognized her, Candi put herself between she and Michael, her back to Toni.

     “We need to talk,” stated Candi, more urgently now, as she lowered her glasses and met Michael’s gaze.

     “Good lord, what happened?” he gasped, reaching up to pull off the woman’s sunglasses and revealing Candi’s black eye. " he said as he reached out and pulled her glasses off revealing Candi Daniels' black eye.

    Sensing a juicy development, Toni shot up from her chair, almost dropping her cigarette. She was right. It was Candi, and with a shiner no less!

    “I don't think makeup will cover that,” she grinned.

    “Don’t you know cigarettes give you wrinkles?!” Candi spat.

    Michael gritted his teeth. She did have a good excuse, this time, but where did that leave him? he thought, turning Candi’s face to him to check how bad things really were. Tilting her face into the lights, he ran his fingers across her cheek.

    “Ow!” Candi complained.

    “Toni’s right. We can cover your bruise but your face us swollen and nothing can hide that.” Michael shook his head. “What happened?”

    “I really don't want to talk about it,” Candi said, stomping towards the back in a huff.

    “I need another cigarette,” Michael said, dropping his sunglasses back down onto the bridge of his nose to hide to anger and frustration burning in his eyes.

    “Sure thing,” Toni said, sounding sweet and accommodating, motioning to the cigarette pack on the chair, “take as many as you like. Hell, take the whole pack, I have another one in my purse.”

    “Thanks Toni,” Michael smiled, “you’re a life saver..”

    “Anything for you hon,” she grinned.

    Things are definitely looking up, Toni thought, walking back towards the dressing rooms. Making sure that Candi was in her private room, she reached for her cellphone, her new pack of cigs and headed for the back door for a smoke and some privacy. Come on.. answer, she thought, taking a drag on the cigarette. She was almost ready to hang up when she heard the manly voice on the other end.



    “Yeah, this is Jared. Who the hell is this?”

    “It’s Toni, Jared!” she snapped, “and if you stop acting so self absorbed I’ll clue you in on something that just might make your millennium.”

    “Okay babe, so spill..”

    Toni’s lips curled into a devilish grin. “Only if you promise me some good press for a change..”

    “Toni, you’re a smart girl. You know any press is good press,” quipped Jared, grabbing a pen to take some notes. “You’d be surprised how many people call me asking me to make things up just to get their names in the paper..”

    “Don't gimme that crap Jared. You want an exclusive or not?”

    “This had better be good..”

    “Candi Daniels just got to the set – we’re shooting a spot for Diet Coke – anyway she got here two hours late and when she finally showed she arrives looking like some cheap Ingrid Bergman/Casablanca imitation – you know long coat, dark glasses..”

    “Yeah so? The woman has bad taste in clothes.. is that it?” Jared asked, tapping the pen on the phone.

    “Not even close. She’s got a shiner. Probably from her latest lover,” Toni said, in a suppressed whisper.

    “A shiner? Really, how nice,” he laughed, taking down some notes, “latest boyfriend I assume. The girl gets around..”

    “She sure does. I can’t remember seeing her with the same guy twice.”

    “Any ideas who it might be? A sports star, actor maybe?”

    “Not a clue. Could be Mike Tyson from the look of that black eye,” Toni giggled. “Hey, if you get down here quick enough you may be able to snap some decent shots. Besides, you may get an added bonus of announcing the name of the latest hot commercial”

    “Sure thing,” Jared lied, knowing full well the only way Toni would get any press from him was if he caught her doin’ the photographer in the makeup trailer. “Where you at?”

    Jared motioned to one of his young photographers to come over as he jotted down the address.  “Candi Daniels,” he said, covering the receiver, “black eye,” he said, ripping the page out of the pad and handing it to the photographer. “I need close ups so we can positively ID her. Make sure to get in tight on the shiner.”

    “My pleasure..”

    “Jared? You still there?”

    “Yeah, I’m here..”

    “Am I gonna get to see you?”

    “Now why would you wanna see me?” Jared teased, knowing full well where Toni was headed.

    “For my thank you,” she answered, coyly. “Who you sending over to take the pictures of Candi?”


    “I could get him in as one of the catering people, so he can get right into her dressing room..”

    “That’d be great babe.”

    “Now if you come down here and thank me in person, I could do one even better..”

    It wasn’t the first time Toni had handed him a scoop, Her last tip had landed him an exclusive on two super models were having a cat fight backstage at a fashion show. All he had to do in return was mention her name in his column, or snap her picture at a club to help further Toni’s career.

    Jared had a weakness for pretty women, what good looking, red-blooded American male didn’t? That’s what he kept telling himself. So if an evening ended with a roll in the hay with a beautiful girl, who was he to complain? Jared had bedded a wide assortment of pretty women – models like Toni, actresses, even a few wild socialites. He was a player, and both he and the women he slept with knew it, so no one really got hurt from his little tristes. On the contrary, in most cases the women Jared slept with remained his friends, willing to feed him tips in exchange for being mentioned in his hot, nationally syndicated column. It was his column people read to keep up on who was hot, where they hung out, what they did (or whom) and what clothes they wore. A mention in Jared’s column could do wonders for a person’s career, let alone their ‘cool quotient.’

    “Do tell..”

    “It’s been a while since you’ve taken me out..”

    Toni was gorgeous – tall, with long legs that went on forever, natural light blond hair and cornflower blue eyes – it would serve Candi right to lose the Diet Coke commercial to Toni since she was much more All American looking anyway. And he had to give her this much. Her leads were good and their pay back sessions in bed suited Jared’s horny nature just fine, for the gal was just enthusiastic about furthering her career as she was about having a good time in bed.

    “This is true. SO.. tell me.. how are you gonna make it worth my while?”

    Toni peered around, making sure no one was around before she continued. “What would you say if I told you I could get you Candi’s cell phone number?”

    Candi’s cellphone number.. Jared thought. Interesting. With Candi’s number, Jared could do some serious snooping, and dish up some serious dirt. “I’d say don’t work too hard..”

    “Why not?” Toni smiled.

    “Because you’re gonna need some of that energy for later.”

    Just then one of the crew called out to Toni, letting her know she was wanted on the set. “Listen, I gotta run they need me on the set.”

    “See ya after the shoot..”

    “See ya then..”

    “Daddy?” Kelly asked, as she leaned on the bar and scribbled with crayons on the drawing pad Mitch had bought her.

     “Yeah, hun'?” Mitch replied, wiping down the bar.

    “Will you read me bedtime story tonight?”

    Mitch stopped, leaning forward to kiss Kelly on the forehead. “Of course I will. Which one, precious?”

     “I don't know,” she replied, scribbling away some more, “can you make one up?”

     “I can try precious,” Mitch chuckled. Making sure Kelly was occupied, looping circles on the paper, Mitch made his way over to where Gina and Angel were standing.

     “The better the condition of the cooling unit the least likely it’ll be that we'll have problem with it in the future,” argued Gina, tapping the pen on the papers before her emphatically.

    Angel's brow was furrowed as he looked at Gina. “I don't know, it looks fine to me,” he sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Do we really need a new one?”

    Gina nodded. “Eventually.” Gina rested her weight on the heels of her hands atop the papers and coolly stared Angel in the eyes. “You could fix the old unit again and again til it finally gives out, or you could buy a whole new walk in freezer and save yourself a lot of heartache and money in the long run. It’s up to you..”

    If that were only true, Angel thought, angrily. Gina was putting on a diplomatic front, but when it came down to it she had him by the short and curlies til Angel got himself out from under the mob’s oppressive thumb.

    Mitch couldn’t help but notice how uncomfortable Angel was, and although he was all for equality for men and women in the workplace Gina was starting to get on his nerves.

    “Since when does the accountant make spending decisions for us?” Mitch said to Angel, under his breath, his back to Gina. “I say we show her who still wears the pants around here..”

    Angel was about to protest but Mitch cut him off. “You’re right. It IS up to us to make the decision,” Mitch said calmly, looking right at Gina, “I that’s why I had one of my friends come over to check the freezer. Hank?” he continued, waving his friend over.

    Hank had witnessed the whole interchange from his seat at the table across the way, and was forcing back a smirk. “Lemme check things out,” he said, pushing past Gina, “we’ll know better once I have a look.”

    Gina glared at Mitch and made a hasty exit, her twitching jawline betraying the emotions boiling inside her. 

     “Woah, somebody’s ticked,” chuckled Angel.

     “Ya think?” added Mitch. “Hold down the fort. I gotta get back to Kelly.”

     “No problem,” answered Angel.

     But that was just it. There was a problem – a big one. Angel knew he had to deal with Gina, but he had to watch his step. Overstep and there could be dire consequences. Mitch had bailed him out this time, but sooner or later he would have to stand his own ground unassisted, feeling out of control was driving him crazy. Just when he started to feel things were going back to normal the rug was pulled out from under him once again. Gina had disappeared into the back offices and was out of the way for the moment. Looking back towards the bar he noticed Mitch who had sat down to join his daughter at drawing. The worst part of the whole mess was not being able to confide in his friend.

     Mitch had stood by him many times in the past, even when he came running back from his failings in New York. He would understand.. Regret was now a normal part of his existence. It was the endless questions that stopped him from opening up to his friend. What consequences would there be if he confided in Mitch? And what about Kelly? By bringing Mitch into all this, would he be putting the little girl in danger?

     “You have to stay in the lines Daddy!” Kelly laughed, pulling the crayon out of Mitch’s hand.

    How safe were any of them now that Gina was living amongst them? This is wrong, Angel thought, but what the hell can I do about it now? What could he say let alone do to fix things? Angel knew things had to change before they got even more out of control. Gina presence was a constant reminder of how trapped he was, and in his gut Angel knew this was just the beginning of his troubles.

    Gina was seeing red, her Italian blood threatening to shine through it was all she could do to stop herself from heading back out into the bar and ripping Mitch a new one. But she knew better. Sure, Angel’s partner had thrown a wrench in her plans, but it wasn’t over yet. She wouldn’t let some clueless fool ruin her chance to shine in her boss’s eyes. Gina smiled, a plan materializing in her sharply devious mind. By letting Mitch’s pal try to fix the rapidly deteriorating freezer she would through their suspicions off. The smile on Gina’s face broadened as her scheme came to fruition in her mind. Maybe she could inconspicuously push the two men into buying a new freezer from a appliance repairman she would ‘pick out of the Yellow Pages.’

    “God you’re good,” Gina said allowed, gazing at her own reflection in one of the picture frames on Mitch’s desk, as she sealed the plan in her mind. They thought they had won the battle when in fact they were getting closer and closer to losing the war.

    As cocky as she was, Gina couldn’t help throwing her weight around, and decided to head back out front, not wanting the two men to think they had chased her off.

    Sally was standing in front of Angel as she passed, heading for the kitchen and a quick talk with the repairman.

    “Can I get you something?” Sally asked. “Hello? Earth to Angel?”

    “No hon, I’m fine,” Angel said, snapping himself out of his daze.

    “Okay, if you’re sure. You just let me know if that changes,” she smiled, reaching out to squeeze his hand, “I’m gonna go grab a few things from the back.”

    Sally couldn’t help but wonder where Angel had gone when he had zoned out, and turned to check on him again but he was already gone. Maybe she could get him to open up to her. Who knows, maybe she could help. Sally pushed the swinging door to the kitchen with her shoulder causing it to fling open, grazing Gina who was on the other side.

    “Whoops, sorry,” Sally smiled. Not! she thought.

    Gina gave Sally a forced smiled and turned her attention back to Hank.

    “So, you really think it’s worth pouring money into this old heap?” Gina asked, looking at the exposed motor the repairman was checking out.

    “Sure it’s old but I wouldn’t exactly call it a heap. They don’t make units like this anymore.”

    Sally bit her lip as she noticed Gina peering at the innards of the freezer as if she actually knew what she was looking at. “Looks pretty sophisticated to me..”

    “It is,” Hank said, “it may need some maintenance but treat it right and you’ll get many more years use out of it.”

     “Time will tell,” Gina replied, crossing her arms defiantly.

     Sally rolled her eyes at Hank. Turning, she smiled, sweet as syrup. “Pardon me.”

     Gina huffed. “Yeah..”

     “Feels cold enough in here to me,” stated Sally, matter-of-factly, and departed as quickly as she had appeared.

     Back in the bar, Kelly squealed when she saw her mother enter the front door. “Mommy!”

     “Baby!” Lynn answered, picking Kelly up and kissing her hair.

    “Hey Lynn, what’s the occasion?” Mitch asked.

     “Emergency family business,” Lynn said, as she sat Kelly back down on the stool.

     “Something wrong?”

     “Mother as usual.”

     “Oh, in that case I'd love to help but..” Mitch laughed, backing away.

     “Actually, you can help Mitch,” Lynn interrupted, “I think it would be best if Kelly stayed here with you for the time being.”

     “Sure, that’s no problem,” Mitch said, reaching over to run his fingers lovingly through his daughter’s hair. “She's here for the night anyways, another day or two would be nice.”

     “I can stay with Daddy for longer?” Kelly perked up.

     Lynn patted Kelly's back. “Of course sweetie!” she said, as she leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Well,” she added quickly, “Mommy’s gotta go love. Be a good girl for Daddy,” she added, blowing Kelly a kiss.

     “But Lynn..”  Mitch said, starting to follow her out.

    “Thanks a bunch sweetie,” Lynn said over her shoulder, “Kelly will love you more for it!” Lynn said, flying out the door.

     All Mitch could do was stand in place, stunned, a puzzled expression on his face. “Damn, that was wierd.”

    “Must be a full moon,” Sally said, as she walked by.

     “Huh?” Mitch asked, clueless.

    “Come on Sid,” Krystal said, as she tightened the saddle with a gentle tug.

 Sid’s shook his head, causing the smoke from the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth to float up into his eyes. “I’m having enough of a time fending off these carnivorous dive bombing bugs!” Sid said, swatting away the battalion of mosquitos flying formation around his face.

     “Maybe it has something to do with the color of your clothes,” Krystal giggled. Poor Sid. Dressed in his usual all black, Krystal was sure the mosquitoes would drain what little color he had left in his pale skin. “Weren’t you a Boy Scout as kid?”

     “I’m a city kid, remember? The closest I got to the country was watching Dukes of Hazard on tv.”

    Krystal was certain they would have a good time once she got Sid in the saddle. But how? She would have to pull out the big guns.

    “Please?” Krystal pouted, batting her eyelashes at him.

     “No way Krystal! I told you, you're not getting me on one of those beasts.” As if it understood, the horse began to shake its head, scratching at the ground with its hoof and snorting its disdain.

    “See?!” Sid said.

    “Come on Sid, its not a beast, its a horse.. they’re very noble animals,” she said, stroking the horse’s neck, “look at all the famous people who have ridden horses throughout history.. knights, kings, generals..”

    “Christopher Reeve, George Custer..” Sid mumbled under his breath.

     “They're beautiful, strong animals,” Krystal said, trying to reassure him. “You aren’t afraid of him because his size are you?” she joked. Okay, so questioning his manhood was kinda low, but she had tried everything else she could think of with no positive results.

     “It’s just an animal,” Sid said, very unconvincingly, taking a step towards the horse, “I’m not afraid of him. But what if I fall off? I mean that’s a long way down.”

     “No helmet needed here,” Krystal teased, giving Sid a noogie with her knuckles. “Besides, I have a surprise waiting for you down the trail a ways.”

     "A surprise?" Sid asked, sounding more than a little skeptical.

     Turning her back to Sid, Krystal mounted her horse. “Uh huh,” she said, “follow me and see for yourself.”

    Sid hesitated for a moment. “Good horsey,” he said, slipping his left foot into the stirrup, then pulling himself up onto the saddle. “Giddyup,” he said, smiling when he caught sight of Krystal’s beaming face. 

“I'll be gone for just a few days,” Lynn stated aloud. Lynn always talked to herself when she had something was weighing on her mind, as if verbalizing her thoughts could somehow lighten her mental load. “Won't be more than a few days,” she grunted, struggling with the cumbersome suitcase, her long nails made negotiating the zipper a difficult proposition. Finally pulling it open, Lynn flung it open, shoving the clothes she had piled on the bed into it. Lynn struggled to swallow the tight knot in her throat 

    She hated lying to Mitch, not that it ever had mattered before but she felt lucky when Mitch said it was okay to have Kelly stay with him. Not that he should mind since he had missed out on the first few years of her life. Kelly was one thing, she was definitely another and Lynn didn’t wanna push what little luck she was having. She could be a real bitch when she wanted to – had been one to Mitch many times in the past, and Lynn realized the favors she could ask from Mitch were numbered. Kelly just happened to be her little blond ace in the hole. “God, when did I become such a bitch?” Lynn asked aloud. Maybe if she hadn’t been so eager to mess with other people’s lives she wouldn’t be in such a damn mess now.

Lynn grabbed the first clothes she came across, tossing them into her suitcase as an anxiety attack threatened to wash over her. Usually very adept at getting what she wanted out of life, Lynn hated the fact that she was running away. Seeing the pile of clothes, Lynn stopped, putting some things back since she was only going to be away a few days. Besides if worse came to worse she could buy some new clothes on the road. Oh how she hoped that things didn’t get any worse. Nick would relish the fact that he was chasing her out of town. Damn Nick. What’s the old saying? Don’t write checks your ass can’t cover? In her case it wasn’t her ass, but an overzealous libido. Sure, Nick was a great lay, but was a piece of ass worth a world of trouble? The answer was a resounding no. Nick was trouble, and after their last encounter Lynn knew he’d be looking for her to dish out some more of the same.

    It was only recently that Lynn had decided where she was running to – Key West – far enough away for breathing room yet close enough to make it back if Kelly needed her. Kelly.. What was she thinking getting involved with the likes of Nick when she had a young daughter to take care of? For the first time in a long time Lynn was glad to have Mitch in her life, no matter in how limited a capacity, for she knew if anything ever happened to her that Kelly would be safe.

    The goosebumps that climbed up her arms intensified as the was a loud, startling knock on her hotel room door.  Oh my God, Lynn thought, just about jumping out of her skin. She knew it was Nick – no one she knew knocked like that. It wasn’t a friendly sounding knock, but an insistent one, that demanded attention. Heart pounding, Lynn lifted the suitcase, hands trembling, and shoved it under the bed, her mind reeling as she struggled to decide where she could hide.

    “Lynn?! Open up!”

    Blood pounding deafeningly in her ears, Lynn started to panic, knowing that Nick wasn’t going to leave. The thought of calling the police crossed her mind but she quickly dismissed the idea, for it would only make matters worse, especially since Nick could finger her as his accomplice for her participation that night in the motel room.

    All hopes of Nick leaving because of someone coming to check what all the racket was about faded when she noticed that the knocking was getting more forceful. Some four star hotel, she thought, covering her mouth to muffle a cry of fear, he could be killing her and no one would notice. Stop it Lynn! she thought, shaking the dire images from her mind. Think damn it!

    Closet? No, way too obvious, plus there was no lock. Under the bed? There was no room since her suitcase was there, plus if he did come in – which she was sure he would – she couldn’t risk him hearing her fear instilled  labored breathing. Balcony? She could scream her head off if he found her there.. who was she kidding? Some maniac was pounding and yelling outside a room and no security had bothered to come check. Besides, knowing Nick he’d be the kind to toss her over the balcony railing.

 Then it came to her – the shower. Grabbing the bottle of scotch she had purchased earlier to calm her nerves, Lynn checked to make sure her suitcase wasn’t visible, she grabbed her purse and padded silently across the plush carpet to the bathroom. You can come in Nick, she thought, but it you think you’re gonna get me without a fight you’re nuts. Lynn would do what she had to, if it came to that, to survive, be it clobber him over the head with the heavy bottle, or smash it and slash Nick with it.

    “Lynn!” Nick yelled once more.

    Lynn climbed into the shower, pulling the curtain closed behind her. Crouching down, she grabbed a bath towel and pressed it up against her mouth to muffle the sound of her breathing. She held her breath, straining to hear Nick when her eyes caught sight of her cell phone peaking out from corner of her purse. Lynn started to calm down, realizing that she had a life line. Or did she? Who could she call for help? She didn’t have any friends.

    Outside her hotel room an anxious Nick decided to try a quieter way to achieve his goal. Either the bitch wasn’t there or she wasn’t answering. Either way he was getting in. Pulling his self made lock-picking kit from his back pocket, Nick proceeded to pick the lock. Before anyone ever chanced by, Nick was in the hotel room. The first thing he did was check the dresser. Good, her clothes and the brat’s are still here. She couldn’t have gone far, reasoned Nick. Rifling through her drawers, he searched for anything he might steal, like money or jewelry and was annoyed when he didn’t find anything. Lynn was too smart for that, probably stashing  her good loot in a safety deposit box downstairs.

    The sun streamed in through the part in the curtain, luring Nick to the sliding glass doors behind it leading to the balcony. Now this is living, Nick thought, clicking the lock on the door open and stepping outside to take in the ocean view.

    In the bathroom Lynn had heard the telltale click of the door. Thank God she had opted to hide in the shower. It was a pretty safe bet that the last thing on Nick’s mind would be washing his skanky ass.

    This is the life, Nick thought, going back inside. Taking off his jacket, he scanned the room, opting to pour himself a drink from the mini bar. Soon, he thought, soon it would be him living high on the hog like Lynn. Might as well get comfortable while I wait, he thought, taking a seat on the plush sofa and reaching for the remote for the oversized tv. Nick couldn’t help but laugh, a sinister smile crossing his lips. She’d be mighty surprised when she got home and found him waiting for her.

    What the hell could be taking Todd so long? Jared thought, pacing, his blue eyes flashing, like the facets on the lead crystal glass that held his double shot of whiskey. Not even the big swig of Chivas he had just swallowed could mellow his mood. Toni, bless here heart, had come through once again, although he had let on while they had spoken on the phone. This could be one of his juiciest scoops in months, and it was all Jared could do to stop himself from beeping Todd again. Mr. Walking Hormones had probably strayed on the set, flirting with the multitude of pretty girls. All Jared knew was that Todd better not have blown his cover or he would personally see to ringing his college, skirt chasing neck.

    Temper, he thought, checking his reflection in the mirror while he waited. Wouldn’t wanna ruin the look. Dressed in an impeccable black Versace suit, Jared Drake looked hot and he knew it. The dark suit only called attention to his dark, shortly cropped, back swept hair, and contrasted against his bright crystalline blue eyes. It fit him like a glove, his broad shoulders appearing even broader, tapering to his gym-honed waist. Damn, if I was a woman I would do me, he thought with a chuckle.

    Jared had decided to take Toni somewhere nice since the beautiful blonde had handed him a tip that could pay off big time. Self serving snake he was, but one thing he could never be accused of was being a stinge. People who came through for him got very well compensated, be it in cash, tickets to the hottest club, sports event or concert, or a one on one evening with the high living Mr. Drake himself as would be the case with Toni tonight. She deserved it, and as they had before, the two would have a great time capped off with a night in one of New York’s exclusive and private hotels, just like the one Candi Daniels had been spotted in. 

    Setting down his drink, Jared ran his fingers through his hair, leaning into the mirror to stare at his own reflection. Years of battling up the social ladder tooth and nail showed in the expression in the cunning young man’s eyes. Through the years of doing whatever he had to, establishing himself as a go-getter, willing to go the extra mile for a story or a shot – an accurate one at that – caused the upper echelon to accept Jared into their circles, regardless of the fact that many times they hated him for serving up the hottest dish in town amidst his usual who’s who and what’s hot column. Jared knew this very well, and it made his carte blanche access even more sweet. Everything he did served a purpose, a means to an end, from kissing ass to putting on the illusion on interest in the droning chatter of the rich and bored. Game face on, Jared moved amongst them comfortably, his sharp mind taking notes, the farther in he got the better the gossip.

    Downing the remainder of his drink, Jared tried Todd’s cellphone number again. Nothing. For his own sake he better be stuck in traffic, Jared thought.

    “Debbie, I want you to call Hollywood Edition. Todd’s running late and we’re gonna be cutting it close, but make sure to tell the segment producer that we’re get them the pictures and copy to them before air time, via email.”

    Jared flipped his cellphone open again and dialed Toni’s number.

    “This better be Jared..”

    “It is,” he grinned. She was made, probably figured he was a no show.

    “Where are you?” Toni asked, wiping off the last of the makeup from the photo shoot. “You better not be standing me up..”

    “Now would I do that to you?” Jared answered, pouring on the charm.

    “You better not or you won’t get the gift I have for you,” she warned, getting serious.

    Excellent. Candi’s cellphone number could provide endless leads for new stories. “Take it easy sweetheart,” stated Jared, softening his tone, “I’m just running a little late, that’s all. As soon as Todd gets here I’ll head on over to you. Where do you wanna meet?”

    Toni smiled, settling down, realizing Jared wasn’t welching out on his promise. “Well, I have to go back to my apartment to change..”

    “You want me to pick you up there?”

    “Sure, I’ll leave word with the doorman to let you in. I’ll stash the key under the doormat,” Toni smiled, visions on a pre-dinner encounter with the hot writer in her shower. “Just come on in when you get there.”

    “Great. See you in a bit.”

    Uptown, Candi was back in the lobby of the Ritz, trying to blend in. She was in a foul mood, the reasons mounting by the minute. Zach’s backhand had been the catalyst for a run of bad luck, starting with losing the Diet Coke gig to Toni Benson. The bitch had savored every minute of it too, from the moment she had spotted her black eye, to when Michael had informed Toni she would be filling in for her for the commercial. Toni was added to Candi’s shit list, right behind Zach and the poor makeup artist who had failed to camouflage the big swollen bruise above her right eye.

    Not even oversized dark glasses could mask the emotion in the young woman’s face as she dialed frantically on the hotel’s courtesy phone. “Come on baby, be in,” she whispered, tapping her high heeled foot, feeling the tension rise inside her with each ring. Had Zach really meant what he said last night? She hoped not. Dressed in classic black from head to toe, today would be a total one eighty from the disaster of last night. She would be the perfect lady, from her immaculately coifed hair down to the fever in her heart.

    It couldn’t end this way, she fussed, Zach would get over it, he always did. After all he could never resist me, right? she thought. What could make things different this time? Hearing the phone ring some more, it hit her. Jessie. It had to be. His fiancés reaction at having her answer the phone must not have been good. Damn it! Now he was too busy kissing up to Jessie to even think of her. I’m not giving up that easy, Candi thought, slamming own the phone. Big fish like Zach didn’t come around every day – the man who could give Candi everything she ever wanted.

    Candi walked over to the front desk with a newfound sense of determination. “Good evening,” she smiled, “could you please tell me if Mr. Zachary Blair is in?”

    “I could ring his room ma’am, if you like,” the uniformed man said, flipping through the guest ledger.

    “No,” she sighed, “that won’t do. I’ve been calling his room and there’s no answer.”

    “Would a message suffice?” he suggested, politely.

    “Yes,” Candi smiled, an idea surfacing, “just tell him Ms. Daniels was by for an appointment that can’t.. no won’t be rescheduled..”

    “Got it,” the man said, eyes widening when he realized who he was talking to, “anything else?”

    “You can start with wiping the drool from your chin!” stated Candi, departing in a huff.

    The shock of finding the photographs had tapped Jessie out. Several hours of crying and a pounding head from all the worrying and wondering had exhausted her. She awoke hours later, her pillow still wet with tears, to the deafening silence of the apartment. The first thing she did was hide the photographs in a garment back in the back of her closet where she was sure Zach wouldn’t stumble across them.

    Deciding that she wasn’t helping matters by laying around feeling sorry for herself, Jess decided to take a shower. Maybe the water could help wash away the overwhelming emotions she was feeling and help her think clearly. Turning the water on cold, she stepped into the oversized shower, placing herself directly under the pounding stream of water. Tilting her face upwards, she swept her long hair back, her hand skimming the stitches along her hairline. Although it no longer hurt physically, Jess was still experiencing the scar’s psychological effects.

    The doctors reassured her that there would be little to no scarring after the stitches were removed, but she couldn’t help fretting about it – not because of her own vanity but because of her fiancé’s. Zach had even gone so far as to ask the doctor to perform further plastic surgery than what they had initially done in the emergency room. In fact he had insisted. His actions back at their apartment hadn’t helped her concerns, since Jessie noticed how he was avoiding mentioning her injuries, let alone looking at her scar or bruises.

    Jess let the cold water wash down her back, wishing it could sweep away all the dark thoughts in her mind – the struggle of not knowing what happened the night of the accident and what had caused it, and now the incriminating photographs and demand for money. Her accident had started a negative chain of events that were threatening to totally unnerve her. Usually her circle of close friends would be Jessie’s lifeline. That’s what was so scary. For the first time in her life she felt utterly alone.

    Jessie was still agonizing about what really happened that fateful Halloween night, struggling to remember what had happened to her. Who could have done these things to her? The Wave had run a series on the dangers of clubbing, and Jess couldn’t help remember the night she danced with a college aged guy back at the bar. Had the young man she had danced with at the Dusk To Dawn felt snubbed and humiliated enough after his encounter with Zach that he had exacted revenge on her by pouring something in her drink? Did anything she say or do lead him to think she wanted to do more than dance with him?

    A chilling fear, her only constant companion over the last few weeks washed over her, and Jessie felt herself start to come unglued again, her knees giving way, as she forced herself to breath deeply, her body starting to shake. Reaching for the knob, she turned it, warming up the water. Could it have been Mitch? Jessie thought, remembering the night they came so close to crossing the boundary between friendship and passion. Did a crazy night of booze and partying give him the bravado to force himself on her?

    Jessie leaned against the back wall of the stall, crying, the knob pressing painfully into her already bruised torso. Braving the questions had opened a tidal wave within her, the possibilities scaring her even worse. Stop it Jess, her mind screamed, don’t be crazy. Toughest of all was contemplating that Zach had anything to do with what had happened to her. Jess squeezed her eyes shut but it was too late. The thought had already broken free. Could this be some sort of sick ploy on Zach’s part to call off their engagement? Could he have gone this far in attempt to teach her a lesson after accusing him of being unfaithful?

    “NO!” her mind screamed, feeling her knees buckle under her, and crumbling to the floor onto her knees.

    At that very moment, Phoebe sat bolt upright on her couch. Sensing something was terribly wrong with Jess, she grabbed her purse and car keys and bolted out the door. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up on end as she felt the sensation of Jessie being unable to breath, just like she had during the past life regression.

    The hot water beat against her face, and Jessie gasped, trying to catch her breath. Reaching up, she leaned slammed her hands against the knob, turning off the water.

    Mustering all her will, Phoebe called out to Jessie in her mind. Hang on Jess. You’ll be okay, she thought, running towards her car. Spotting a pay phone, Phoebe dove her hand into her purse, searching for change. Finding it, she picked up the receiver and fumbled to dial Jess’s number. “Jess, pick up.. come on Jess..” Phoebe pleaded, overcome with fear. Phoebe’s hand went instinctively for the amulet she wore around her neck, and she prayed for a peaceful light of protection to envelope her friend.

The pain of kneeling on the cold hardness of the shower’s tiled floor cut through Jessie’s psyche, causing her to rise, steadying herself before opening the shower door. Through the wall of steam that escaped, Jess fixed her eyes on a glimmering light that beckoned her through the mist and out of the shower. A little calmer now, she walked towards it, realizing it was one of the candles Phoebe had given her. She had lit it earlier testing the calming effects Phoebe had professed it to have.

     For the first time in hours Jessie smiled. Phoebe, her true blue friend. But the smile soon faded as she remembered how they had parted. Her words about Zach had stung. Grabbing a towel off the closest rack, Jessie wrapped it about herself and sighed, taking a seat on the counter. Things were definitely out of whack when she wasn’t on normal terms with her best friend. At that moment Jessie realized that things had to change. She wasn’t sure how, but what she did know was that losing her friend would only make her situation all the worse.

    It was the only time in her life that she questioned telling Phoebe about her latest problems. Always her conscience, Jessie realized that Phoebe would want to tackle the blackmail threat head on, Zach be damned. So telling Phoebs would be out of the question. Jess had enough on her mind to add choosing between her fiancé and her best friend onto the pile. What was it Phoebe always said? Where there’s a will there’s a way? She was right. It was up to Jess to get her own life back in order, not anyone else.

    She couldn’t talk to Zach about any of it. Financially he was very supportive, yet when it came to any deep discussions that would threaten his world and how he wanted it, Zach was very unapproachable. Already livid about not being able to sue the Dusk To Dawn, bringing up the night of the accident would only stir things up between them, and that’s the last thing she needed – more turmoil.

    Grabbing another towel to wrap around her head, Jess thought further on things. Discussing her insecurity about her looks would also be a sore point. Zach had always prided himself on having what he felt was the perfect girlfriend to complement him and his lifestyle. Physical imperfection was going to be a tough enough issue to work through, mentioning any sort of weakness on her part would be totally unacceptable. And the photographs.. Zach could never find out. That would be the clincher that would end things between them. The mere suggestion of infidelity or impropriety would send Zach into a jealous rage. He would never understand. He wouldn’t have it getting out that his fiancé had some lurid encounter topped off with a blackmail threat. He wouldn’t have it and she couldn’t let him find out, not if she intended their marriage plans to go forward as planned.

    Then there was Mitch. They had shared so much in the past and Jess knew he wouldn’t turn his back on her as her fiancé would. But he was her best male friend. How could she burden him that way, especially after how she had let her thoughts betray him? She would have to fix things herself, starting with mending the rift between she and Phoebe. Jess walked back into the bedroom, stopping at the night table to call her. Not much for modern perks, Phoebe didn’t have an answering machine, so the phone just rang and rang incessantly. She must be out getting some air, Jessie thought. Not a bad idea. Maybe that’s just what she needed to see things more clearly, and with that she headed for the closet to get dressed.

    Krystal couldn’t believe the fun she was having with Sid. At first glance he seemed like such a stuffy person, even cantankerous at times. Giving him the chance to prove otherwise by going out on a date with him had proven to be one of the smartest decisions she had ever made. In doing so she had been able to meet the man deep inside, who was an intriguing blend of sensitivity and bravado.

    Sid was willing to go the extra mile, riding a horse that he was obviously deathly afraid of. Once in the saddle he managed to keep his wits about him, keeping his cool no matter how hard the horse tried to unnerve him. Krystal snuck looks at him as they rode down the trail, chatting pleasantly, smiling at the sacrifice he had made for her. It was so rare that a man she dated racked up points so quickly, and Krystal fought not to read too much into it. But it was gonna be a battle since she could already feel her walls sliding down. Why else would she have gone all out for a romantic surprise picnic?

Sid blushed when they arrived at the spot where Krystal had laid out the picnic. It was a beautiful spot, under an expansive oak tree, right by a lake. “Wow,” he smiled, “is this my surprise?!”

    “Like it?” Krystal smiled, warmly, pleased at his reaction. She turned away, surprised at the thought that entered her mind, as she herself started to blush. What he didn’t know is that she just might be his dessert.

    “Nobody ever did anything like this for me before,” stated Sid. “Get me off this thing!” Krystal laughed, dismounting to help Sid get off the horse. “I don’t want this big guy biting me!”

    “Hang your legs off the side,” she grinned, offering him her hand for stability, “and just slide right off on your butt.”

    “What butt?!” Sid laughed.

    Long legged as he was, it wasn’t much of a slid and soon Sid was standing inches from Krystal, laughing. “That wasn’t so bad,” he grinned, “down is way easier than up.”

    “You’re covered in horse hair,” she said, sweeping her hand along his shoulders, lower to his sides and back, and lower still to his butt. Looks like a pretty nice butt to me, she thought.

    The afternoon was going better than she could ever had hoped for, with Sid being his usual gentlemanly self, opening her beer for her, refilling her plate, and best of all listening to her talk, really listening, not just nodding blankly to humor her. He even asked questions about how she had gotten into the horse business and acquired her ranch, trying to get to know her better.

    “I’m really impressed with you Krystal,” Sid said, taking another forkful of potato salad, “you’re an amazing woman, not only independent but a business owner as well. Pretty impressive.”

    “Thank you,” she smiled, feeling the heat spreading across her cheeks.

    “I can’t figure out why someone like you would even bother with someone like me,” he said, reaching in the picnic basket for another sandwich.

    Krystal set down her plate. “Why do you say that?”

    “I mean I’m not exactly well off. Nothing fancy..”

    Krystal’s heart swelled. Why was he so down on himself? Didn’t he realize any woman would be lucky to have him? “I don’t want you talking like that ever again,” stated Krystal, getting serious. “You’re a wonderful, kind guy that works hard and that’s all that matters. Don’t let me hear you talking down about yourself again, or I’ll just have to..”

    Sid stopped, hearing the pain in her voice. It dawned on him that Krystal really did care. “Or you’ll what?” he interrupted, choking back the unexpected knot in her throat.

    “Or I’ll just have to spend a really long time beating it out of you,” she answered, getting right up into Sid’s face, and caressing his cheek.

    Sid’s heart pounded at the softness of Krystal’s touch, the devilish Sid deciding to go for broke. “Is that right,” he whispered, brushing a soft kiss across her lips. “Prove it.”

    Now it was Krystal’s turn to be taken aback, and she let out a soft moan. “Try me.”

    “I intend to,” he answered, pushing the paper plates away, and pulling her closer to him. “I’m poor,” he said, placing her on his lap, and tilting her head back for a passionate kiss.

    Krystal beat Sid’s back with her fists. “Liar,” she moaned, their kisses deepening, her tongue massaging his.

    “My life’s a wreck,” he groaned, littering her face with kisses, feeling Krystal dragging her nails across his back before pulling him close.

    “The ride’s about to get a lot more bumpy,” she hissed, licking and nibbling his ear.

    Too many months of loneliness caused Sid to lose his resolve, as he took Krystal’s face in his hands, kissing her more urgently now. “I’m ready if you are,” stated Sid, taking her breath away with a deep, deliberate, sexy French kiss. His kiss went on forever as he felt her melt in his arms, tilting her face up, her body begging for more.

    Sid forced himself to take his time, exploring, enjoying every inch on Krystal’s body. Slowly, his lips trailed down her neck, his long fingers leading the way, stopping to undo the buttons on her shirt as he continued to kiss.

    It was all Krystal could do to lay back, her senses overloaded. I must be dreaming, she thought. But she wasn’t. That was the wondrous part of it all – she wasn’t dreaming! It was a wonderful man in her arms, not a pillow, and if he wasn’t careful he and his incredible lips and hands would push her over the edge. “Oh God, Sid,” she moaned, as he slipped his hand beneath the right lacy cup of her bra, caressing her breast, lowering his lips to tantalize her rock hard nipple. Overcome, Krystal wrapped her legs around Sid, threading her fingers through his hair, and held on for dear life.

    Unbeknownst to Krystal, Sid was also in sheer wonder of his good fortune. It would be so easy to ravish the beautiful woman beneath him. Her skin was so soft, smelled so good. She was coming alive under his touch. His patience had paid off, her shirt open to her waist, and was devoting painstaking attention to breasts when something went wrong.


    Sid’s shriek cut through Krystal’s pleasure haze. “Sid?” she asked, worried she had hurt him somehow, “what’s wrong?”

    But before he could answer, Sid shot up, as carefully as he could, so as not to crush her. He looked down at the stunned Krystal, looking up at him amazed, and pointed to his feet. “ANTS!” he yelled, swatting at the intruders, “they’re biting meeeeee!”

    All Krystal could do was laugh, bellyaching squeals of laughter, as she watched Sid performing a little jig trying to get the ants off. “Sid!” she chuckled, catching her breath, “the water! Dunk your feet in the lake!”

    Sid ripped off his shoes and socks and made a mad dash for the water’s edge. “I’m..really sorry..about this Krystal,” he yelled back to her, more than a little disappointed.

    “Don’t be silly,” Krystal smiled, walking towards Sid while buttoning up her shirt, “our date was great.. an adventure to say the least, right?”

     Sid was upset. Setting on a rock at the water’s edge, Krystal could tell he was disappointed by the slump in his shoulders. “Hey,” she said, turning Sid’s face to hers, “you were great. WE were great,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “Now let’s go back to my place so I can put something on your foot..”

    * * * * *

Copyright © 1998 Susana Audrain and Richard Tingle  All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this novel or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by the U.S. Copyright Law.

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