The Blood of the Everlasting

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Chapter 2

The nurse wheeled me out the front doors to the hospital. Grant was standing next to his big black truck, chuckling. Grant drove a big black giant 4x4 truck that looked like it could climb mountains and leap tall buildings with a single bound, et cetera. His truck would smash my puny car and eat it for breakfast, if it had a mind of its own. Except I smashed it all on my own last night.

“Don’t you dare say anything,” I warned. I jumped out of the wheelchair, grateful to be on my own two feet again. Whomever it was that long ago masterminded the wide-spread humiliating policy of escorting people out of hospitals in wheelchairs ought to be shot.

He opened the passenger door with a flourish. “Need any help up, or are your legs working again?”

I swore under my breath. “Hospital policy,” I said tartly, as I clambered up into the cab of his behemoth truck. “Everyone gets the same five-star treatment. That’s what we pay the big bucks for.”

He climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine. “Seat belt,” he ordered. I strapped myself in, and he drove off, leaving the hospital behind us, much to my relief. “Let’s get you some breakfast, I bet you didn’t touch that hospital food,” he said.

“Not a chance in hell,” I shuddered. “Wild horses couldn’t make me eat hospital food.” Grant laughed. I sniffed. He smelled rank. “Did you have to break up a fight between Pierre and your neighbor’s dog again?”

“No, why?” he asked absently as he drove.

“You smell like cat and wet dog.” I wrinkled up my nose. Not the most pleasant of combinations.

He shrugged nonchalantly. “I probably need to wash my jacket.” We sat in comfortable silence while he maneuvered his truck through town. The greenhouse opened at ten, but we had two employees – Milly Stanton and her daughter Ida – who generally opened for us. Milly was a sweet, grandmotherly type of a woman, and her daughter Ida was a little slow, but sweet. Milly took care of Ida. They lived together, and had worked for us for a couple of years. Grant and I found them both to be ideal employees and just generally nice women, and were glad they were sticking around. For the first couple of years we had a hard time getting employees to stick around, and we had both been working long, exhausting hours. As the cliché says, good help is hard to find.

Grant took me to the Pancake House. This had to be my absolute favorite place to eat breakfast, but it was a gut buster of a place. I made a mental note to go to the gym after work. If one wanted to eat the calories, one had to be willing to pay the price, I felt. I worked hard to keep my petite physique. The hostess led us to a booth. The rich smells of food surrounded me, and I inhaled deeply, taking them in. My mouth was already watering before we sat down. The scents were crisp and lively – bacon, maple, sausage, muffins, pancakes… I could identify each, and then some. Oh, but it felt good to be alive.

I grinned at Grant. He cocked his head to the side, arching his brow, and smiled back at me. The waitress brought us coffee and took our order. I ordered my usual vegetarian omelet, which came with a stack of pancakes on the side, but from the Pancake House I expected nothing less. Oh, the coffee smelled good. I wrapped my hands around my mug and inhaled with a sigh. I took a sip, and the nutty flavors were rich on my tongue.

“Ah, life is good,” I said with a smile. “Now, what’re we going to do about health insurance?” I asked.

He sighed, sipping his coffee. “You know as well as I do how expensive it is for small businesses.”

“Yeah, but don’t we owe it to Milly and Ida? What if something happened to one of them?” I shook my head. “I’d feel so guilty.” Grant nodded in agreement.

“Isn’t your brother an insurance salesman or something?” I asked. I took a swig of my coffee, savoring the rich flavors. “God, this is good coffee!” I exclaimed.

Grant looked at me oddly. “Rhi, my brother is a welder, and you know that. Are you sure you didn’t hit your head hard?”

I rolled my eyes and waved my hand dismissively. ’Whatever. I’m fine. A cousin, or something then, I seem to remember you mentioning something about insurance and a relative,” I murmured. I felt utterly fantastic, and life was glorious, I couldn’t have hurt my head too bad. I mean, I would know, wouldn’t I?

“Ah,” he said, nodding. “My uncle sells life insurance. Hardly the same thing, but I’ll ask. He might have some ideas.”

“Perfect,” I said with a grin. Our food finally arrived and I dug right in. The egg and all the vegetables – the broccoli, tomatoes and mushrooms, all smothered in copious amounts of cheddar cheese with an extra helping of salsa on top – exploded in my mouth with a riot of flavors. “Oh my,” I breathed, after my first bite. I took another, savoring the intensity of each tiny morsel. “This, Grant,” I said around my bite of food, “Is by far the best omelet I have ever had.”

He laughed. “You’re just glad it’s not hospital food,” he teased, as he cut into his chicken-fried steak.

I shook my head and swallowed. “I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday, seeing as how David decided to drop the bomb before I could even order dinner.” I took another bite. I rolled my eyes back, swept away by the utter perfectness of the meal. “You have got to try a bite,” I said, shoving my plate towards him. There was nothing like a brush with death to make a person appreciate breakfast, I decided.

I savored every bite. Grant kept looking at me oddly. “What?” I demanded. “I’m hungry, and this is delicious. Quit watching and eat your own food!” He did.

We drove south towards the greenhouse after paying up the bill. I insisted on leaving an extra tip in gratitude for the best omelet ever before leaving. Grant rolled his eyes at me.

The parking lot at the Botany Bay Organic Greenhouse and Nursery, right next door to Puget Sound Park, held a few unfamiliar cars. That was a good sign, it meant customers. Customers this early on a Thursday was always a positive. I smiled seeing the green neon sign heralding the name. Part play on words, part an oddball marketing attempt, and part my love of Star Trek, I loved the name. Grant did, as well, and customers seemed drawn to us because of it. I headed inside, a bounce in my step. It was a glorious day in the Pacific Northwest. The sky was a clear blue with traces of clouds off on the horizon, the air was a balmy 50 degrees, life was beautiful, and I was alive.

Four years of higher education, and I chose a career where I worked in dirt with my hands, I thought ruefully. I loved it, though. Pencil pushing was for lazy people.

I’d met Grant in high school, when his family moved into our neighborhood. We had both gone to U Dub – or the University of Washington, as a non-local ignoramus would say. He started a couple of years before me (which makes sense since he’s a couple of years older than me). It had been a convenient choice, just a few miles from home. I loved Seattle, why would I want to leave it? I majored in botany (hence my unrequited infatuation for my greenhouse). Grant finished his Masters in ecology. I quit school after my parents died; it was just too much to deal with anymore. Grant and I bought a greenhouse after that. It turned out to be the best form of grief therapy. Grant’s parents, like typical retirees, had migrated to Florida, while we played with dirt every day.

I looked around me fondly, at the expanse of fresh green growth that surrounded me. The greenhouse was my favorite place to be. The smells of fresh aromatics filled my senses, and I loved it. I waved to Milly and Ida at the cash register in the back, who were ringing up customers purchasing their own private jungles, as I skipped down the aisle past the house plants near the front, through the aisles of flowers and vegetables, past my herb section (my favorite place inside my favorite place), towards the back of the greenhouse, towards the employees-only section. I had hanging flower baskets to assemble. Grant busied himself with a new supply of strange looking tropical plants. I didn’t understand his obsession for plants that were rated for zones far too delicate for the Pacific Northwest, preferring hardier plants that needed little supervision. I pulled on a fresh apron and grabbed my tools. Ida must have done the wash, as the shelf was stacked with clean aprons again; last night the dirty laundry pile was overflowing, but this morning the clean apron stack was growing.

I strode to the shop sink, a gleaming expanse of industrial steel that stretched along the back wall, with counters deep enough to accommodate two 1020 trays and long enough to seat five rows of them. It was early March and spring was in the air. Grant and I aimed to be ready for our customers when they came charging through our doors demanding hanging baskets bursting with flowers. Or, at least, I liked to imagine they would come charging in with demands; it sure would make paying our bills easier. I loaded the stainless steel counter up with trays of young flowers, and got to work. It was a repetitive job, but a pleasant one. I lined the wrought iron baskets with Spanish moss, filled them with soil, and carefully transplanted the flowers inside. They would hang in the back nursery for another couple of weeks to mature before being sold.

As I carefully began loading the first basket with soil, I frowned. Something was off. I sniffed the dirt. Definitely off. “Grant!” I shouted. “This new soil is too alkaline, who did you order it from?”

“What?” He poked his head inside the door.

“The dirt,” I said, sifting my fingers through the bag, and holding a handful up to my nose. I sniffed it closely. “The pH is 8. Who supplied it? Bring me some peat moss would you?”

“Uh, Rhi, maybe you should actually check the pH before messing with it,” he suggested. “You can’t smell pH.”

I looked up at him. “What, are you telling me you can’t smell that? It’s obvious! Bring me that pH meter if you don’t believe me.” I waved my hand out expectantly, like a surgeon waiting to be handed a scalpel. He handed me a pH meter off the shelf next to me, and crouched down beside me. I turned it on and stuck the probe into the soil. It registered an 8. “Believe me now?” I said, looking up at him pointedly.

He shook his head, a strange expression in his eyes. “That’s… well, ok.” Speechless, he dragged a bag of peat moss over to where I knelt on the floor.

“Good lord, I think I know my dirt,” I grumbled. “Just because you’ve got a graduate degree doesn’t mean I’m clueless.” I began grabbing handfuls of peat moss and mixing it in with the soil.

“Hey!” Grant grabbed my wrist to stop me. “Don’t just go mixing it willy nilly, you’ve got to measure it!”

I glared up at him. “I know what I’m doing,” I snapped, twisting my wrist free. I threw in another two handfuls until it smelled right, and then mixed it thoroughly. “6.5,” I said. “Test it if you don’t believe me.” I folded my arms tightly across my chest.

He did. “6.5,” he said, reading it off the meter. He looked worried.

“Alright then,” I said. “Don’t try telling me how to mix my soil,” I growled at him. I shoved the bag away and grabbed two more to mix.

“What are you snapping at me for?” he asked. “Maybe coming into work today was a bad idea.”

“You don’t tell me when I can and can’t work,” I spat. I tore open the next bag of soil and added peat until it had a pH of 6. Different types of plants called for different levels of pH. I tested it with the meter, giving Grant a dirty look as I did. He stepped back.

“Look, Rhiannon, I’m not trying to tell you how to do anything, but I think after an accident like yours last night, you’re perfectly entitled to take a few days off,” he said softly. His blue eyes looked concerned. He seemed tense.

“Yeah, it was a rough night. I got dumped, I totaled my car, but I don’t need any time off! Your concern is not helping.” I sighed exasperatedly. “I’m fine,” I muttered, gritting my teeth in annoyance. “Just leave me alone so I can get some work done.” Wide eyed, he quickly stepped out of the room, leaving me to my bags of dirt. I think he was relieved to get out of there. I busied myself balancing the rest of the bags of soil, and organizing rows of baskets.

My good mood from the morning had evaporated into annoyance. Sometimes Grant tried to parent me, and I couldn’t stand it. I was perfectly fine, I didn’t need to take time off, and I knew full well how to balance pot soil without his interference, and I resented that he had tried.

I walked down the street towards my home. Grant had offered me a ride, but I turned him down. I felt bad for snapping at him, and figured the fresh air ought to do me good. I checked my watch – it was a Swiss military dive watch that was a gift from my father before he was killed, and I treasured it. It was just after 6 p.m., the sun was setting on the horizon, but the air still held the warmth of the day, and the sky was still clear. The five short blocks to my house seemed to vanish all too quickly. Just breathing in the sweet spring air seemed to clear my head and bring back my loving-life mood. I smiled and sighed in pleasure.

I saw movement out of the corner of my eyes. I turned to look, but there was nothing to be seen other than my neighbor’s house. I shook my head to clear it. Maybe I did bump my head harder than I thought.

As I turned into my driveway my phone rang. It was Kat’s zydeco tune. Yanking it out of my bag I flipped it open. “Hey kitty cat!” I answered. “How’re you?”

“Just leaving the office,” she replied. “I’m picking you up at 8 and we’re going out,” she declared.

I laughed. “On a Thursday?”

“Yes ma’am, after last night, a night out is just what the doctor ordered. Wear something sexy, we’re going to cut loose and dance!”

I grinned. Kat was a horrible dancer. “At least I won’t have to worry about single guys mobbing us on a Thursday, that’s the last thing I want right now.”

“Oh, Rob and I will beat them off with a stick if we have to,” she laughed. Rob was her boyfriend of four years. “See you at 8!”

I shook my head and headed inside. I lived in the same house I was born in, on the shores of Arbor Lake Park on the southern outskirts of Seattle. I had inherited it when my parents died. It was a two-story Tudor revivalist home, cream in color with a dark brown half-timbered facade, hopelessly outdated with fixtures and dark oak cabinetry from the 1970’s that I hadn’t bothered to replace since they all still worked fine. I had never lived any other place, and couldn’t imagine wanting to, the home was so full of wonderful memories.

I went inside to make myself some dinner in my kitchen. I loved my kitchen. It was still 100% original, with the dark oak cupboards and oak floors polished to a high shine with age that I had grown up with, as was most of my house, except for the boiler, which I had replaced after the “great boiler blowout” of 2007. The home was all mine, and I loved every inch of it. Two stories, 3 bedrooms, two bathrooms. I used the master bedroom now, which took up half the upstairs. I replaced all the bedroom furniture after my parents died, because trying to sleep in their bed with their furnishings was too morbid for me. Upkeep on the older home was a minor expense I was happy to take care of, and I was grateful I had no mortgage to worry about. Most of my money was tied up in the greenhouse, which kept me blessedly solvent, but I wasn’t exactly rolling in the lap of luxury. My parents had paid off the home before they were killed, so I inherited it outright, with equity.

I grilled up a steak, medium rare, and tossed together a light salad. Dancing with Kat and Rob was an acceptable alternative to going to the gym, I reasoned with a smile as I sat down to eat. I cut into my steak and took a bite, savoring the tender flavors. I stared at my plate as the pink juices fanned out from the slice of meat. Why did I cook my steak medium rare? I hate medium rare steaks. It was bleeding all over my salad.

My doorbell rang. “Come on in!” I shouted down the stairwell, as I struggled to yank on my boots. Kat was early, and I was running late. I heard the door open and close. “I’m upstairs!” I shouted, zipping up my boots. I stood up and checked myself out in the full-length mirror.

“Wow, you hot mama!” Kat said from the doorway.

I turned to her and grinned. “You like?” I was wearing knee-high black stiletto boots that made me feel tall, and a slinky little black dress. Sure, I was overdressed for a Thursday, but dammit, I deserved a good time, and I was dressing accordingly. I had even painted my short nails a deep red to match. I couldn’t keep a manicure to save my life, but for a single evening I was willing to try.

She nodded her head in approval. “Dressed like that, I think we will have to beat the guys off you with a stick, even on a Thursday! Hell, I might have to even beat Rob off of you,” she grinned. Her short vivid red hair was spiky and trendy, 10 different shades of fake. As far as Kat was concerned, a girl who started to go grey at the age of 18 was allowed to have any shade of hair that she wanted. I had seen her go through no less than a dozen since then. The red suited her, though. She wore tight jeans and a red halter top, and tall red heels to match.

I laughed, and we headed out.

Rob let out a low whistle of approval as we stepped into the car. He was always so complimentary, and I loved him for it. Kat was one of the luckiest women I knew for having him. She held a masters degree in genetics and worked for a local pharmaceutical research firm, and he was a biochemist for the same company. That they got to work together was a bonus I had never experienced, but it must have been good, since they were still together, and going strong.

Rob and Kat took me to a new club in downtown Seattle near the waterfront called Splash. It was flashy and trendy, covered with brushed stainless steel accents and plasma welded artwork. There was a water fall behind the main bar, and fish tanks built into the walls. For a Thursday night, it was pretty busy, which spoke to the fascination my generation had with anything new and trendy. Most of the patrons seemed college-age, which reminded me that U Dub rarely had classes on Fridays. I felt a little old suddenly. At 26 I was hardly old, but being surrounded by college students on a Thursday night gave me that feeling. I decided to just ignore it completely and enjoy myself. There was a spacious dance floor, which was half full of people grinding to the thumping music. Two pool tables occupied a corner of the open floor, separated from the dance floor by a stainless steel pony wall decorated in sea green neon waves.

Kat and I found ourselves a booth with a U-shaped bench that wrapped around a table tucked behind the pool tables while Rob got us drinks from the water fall bar. He set them down on the table with aplomb, a beer for him, and cosmopolitans for us. “Who’s game for pool?” he asked with a grin, picking up a cue from the adjacent rack. Although the music was pumping so loud I could feel the vibrations in my teeth, I could hear him with crystal clarity. Great acoustics, I thought.

“No way, Rob, you’re not going to sucker me in to that again.” Kat crossed her arms and shook her head. Rob liked to think he was a pool shark. While he was good, he wasn’t that good. Kat, however, was, but she knew better than to stomp him at his own game. Fragile male ego, and all that. It was a false illusion of male superiority she let him keep, because she probably wanted to get laid tonight. I knew that from past conversations. Apparently he moped too much when she won.

“Oh, come on.” He turned his gaze toward me. “Well, Miss Rhiannon, what about you?” he challenged. “Or are you chicken?” I rolled my eyes and shook my head. I was horrible at pool, and he knew it. “Tell you what, if you beat me, the next round is on me.” He smiled winningly at me.

“Oh, all right,” I said with a long suffering sigh, standing up. I took a long draw on my drink, grabbed a cue, and dusted the end with chalk. “You rack, I’ll break.”

With a grin, and an extra bounce in his step, he popped quarters into the table, and racked the balls. I leaned over the table, feeling my skirt riding up the backs of my thighs, knowing full well that whoever watched was getting quite the view. Normally that idea would intimidate me, but tonight I got a little thrill out of thinking about it. “I’ll have you know,” I said as I set the cue ball behind the head string, “Kat’s been giving me private lessons.” I stuck my tongue out at him. With that I busted the rack with a powerful break shot. Balls went spinning chaotically, bouncing off the rails. I saw numbers 9 and 11 sink into pockets, before the balls finally stopped rolling. I looked up at Rob and arched an eyebrow. “Looks like you’ve got solids,” I told him with a smile.

“Yeah yeah, lucky shot,” he called back.

I shrugged, and sauntered around the table, taking in the positions of the balls. For once the game actually seemed to make sense to me. I could see the angles and geometry of the shots I’d need to take as clear as day, as if a light bulb had gone off in my head. I sunk a ball with a bank shot. I split a cluster and sunk two more in opposite corners.

Rob whistled approvingly. “Nice one, Rhi.”

I raised my eyebrows in astonishment. “Wow, that was pretty cool.” I maneuvered to the other side of the table, and picked off my remaining balls one by one with an accuracy I had never before known; usually I considered myself lucky to sink half my balls before losing the game, including scratching the cue ball at least once or twice.

I stood up straight, a triumphant grin on my face. Rob just stared at me in astonishment. “When has Kat had time to give you lessons?”

“No way,” Kat shouted from the table. “She’s doing this all on her own!”

I just looked at Rob and shrugged. “My lucky day, I guess.” I swept my gaze across the table. “8-ball, side pocket,” I announced, and took aim. I had lined up a perfect straight shot. Rob knew he had lost even before the ball crashed into the pocket, ending the game.

I let out a little whoop, as Rob’s shoulders sunk in defeat. Kat jumped up, hugging me. “Rhi, that was awesome! I haven’t seen anyone break and run in ages!”

I was exultant, giddy, and utterly astonished. I jumped excitedly. “I can’t believe I just did that!”

We climbed back into the booth excitedly. Rob followed behind us. “That was very cool,” he admitted. “You must have had your Wheaties this morning.” He shook his head.

I laughed out loud. “I do believe you owe me a drink,” I said with an ear-splitting grin on my face. I finished off my cosmopolitan while Rob wandered off to the bar again, and Kat congratulated me on my lucky game.

“So what happened with David?” she asked me while we waited for Rob.

I frowned and shrugged. “He said I was too intense, and took issue with my dirty job.”

“The bastard,” she exclaimed. “And it took him two months to realize this? What a jerk!”

I nodded my head in agreement. “He wants a lazy princess who has perfect nails and won’t deign to get her hands dirty. I wasted two months on that poor excuse of a man, too!”

Rob brought me back a beer, with a smirk on his face. He knew I liked wine or fru-fru sweet sugary concoctions, and that I hated beer, but I was in too good a mood to take issue with it. He slid into the booth next to Kat.

Kat took a sip of her drink. “Men are pigs, Rhi,” she told me with a knowing look on her face.

I gave her a shocked look. “Hey, be a little nicer, you’re sitting next to one!” I took a swig of my beer. It was slightly bitter, but surprisingly tolerable, all in all, with a rich, nutty undertone. My recent brush with death seemed to have made everything smell and taste better.

“Oh, he knows,” she said, patting him on the shoulder.

Rob nodded his head. “It’s true, we are.” I let out a peal of stunned laughter at his candor. “The truth of it is, Rhiannon, most men like to keep things simple, they don’t like complicated women they can’t understand. You need to find an exception to that rule, and David obviously wasn’t him. Men are problem solvers by nature, and you’re just one big complicated problem to solve.”

I didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult. “Uh, gee, thanks,” I said dryly, and took another pull on my beer. It slid down my throat, cold and oddly satisfying.

Kat elbowed him hard. “Cut it out with the backhanded compliments, Rob,” she chided.

“I – I mean a complicated problem like a fascinating brain teaser to solve, not like a burden on your shoulders kind of a problem,” he backpedalled.

I felt someone brush against my arm. “Speaking of problems,” came a deep baritone voice from above me, “I was wondering if you could help me with one.”

I turned and looked up, into one of the most perfect faces I had ever seen. There stood a man, with deep-set chocolate eyes – soulful, I think they called eyes like that – underneath straight black brows, a wide chiseled jaw, high prominent cheekbones, a narrow nose, the most sensuous pair of lips I think I had ever witnessed, and a mop of deep black hair that on anyone else would look shaggy but on him looked casually chic. His pale skin contrasted sharply. He wore faded blue jeans and a finely woven soft white button-down shirt underneath a black leather blazer, and I got the impression that the outfit must have cost a pretty penny. I could only imagine the tight tall body that lay hiding underneath those clothes. His soulful eyes tore into mine, and those sensual lips slowly curled into an equally sensual smile, and my pulse instantly sped up reflexively in response, and my palms started sweating.

“Hello,” I said to him, feeling suddenly gauche and brainless. Hello? That’s the best I could come up with? And since when did I feel as nervous as a canary locked up with Pierre just because a man smiled at me? I gulped. I might not get out very often, and I might not date a lot, but I sure as hell know how to flirt a little better than that, didn’t I?

“Well hello, tall dark and gorgeous,” Kat whispered approvingly into my ear. I elbowed her.

His sensuous smile widened, showing a perfect set of pearly white teeth. The man must use Crest white strips, I decided. I smiled back, feeling my brain return to me, although my pulse was still pounding in my ears. “What problem might that be?” I asked him, smiling back and cocking my head to the side coyly.

“I, ah, seem to have found myself the recipient of two drinks instead of one.” He held up his hands, each of which bore identical glasses of a dark red wine. “I was wondering if you would be so kind as to take one off my hands.” His deep voice seemed to reverberate in my soul. His voice held the hint of a faint accent I couldn’t quite place. He reached his hand out, arching an eyebrow inquiringly.

“Oh, of course,” I said with a little giggle. I took the proffered glass from his hand. My fingers brushed up against his. They were ice cold, and I swear a little jolt of electricity passed between our fingers, shooting straight through me to my very core.

“Scoot over,” Kat hissed, yanking on my arm. I turned to look at her, and she gestured with her head for me to make room for Mr. Hunka-hunka Gorgeous Manliness.

I swiftly complied, scooting to make room next to me. “Would you like to sit down?” I invited him, flashing him one of my winningest smiles.

He nodded his head, and sat down with such languid grace that it was as if he poured himself into the seat.

Rob eyed me. “Do I need to get out my stick?”

Kat laughed. “He’s only joking,” she told our new booth mate. “He promised Rhiannon to beat guys with a stick if she wanted.”

“Rhiannon,” he said, savoring the feel of my name on his tongue, as he watched me, and only me.

My breath caught in my throat. “My, uh, mom was a big Fleetwood Mac fan” I explained with a little lame shrug.

He nodded approvingly. “Rhiannon is the Welsh goddess of the moon and fertility, did you know?” He sipped from his wine. I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off of him, and I watched the muscles in his jaw and throat flex and shift as he swallowed.

I nodded with a smile. “I’ve read stories.” I picked up my wine glass to eye the wine. It appeared inky black in the dim light. Sniffing it, I caught hints of orange, currant, and cloves. I took a sip, and found it to be a rich, full-bodied wine, and slid across my tongue with velvet sumptuousness.

Kat stuck out her hand to shake his. “I’m Kat, and this here is Rob,” she introduced.

He shook both of their hands firmly with a curt nod to each. “I’m Lucas.”

“Well, Lucas, what brings you here on a Thursday?” Kat said, trying to keep the conversation flowing.

He smiled and looked down. “I own this place.” He looked up at me from underneath his lashes, a hint of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “How’s the wine?”

I laughed. “The owner conveniently found himself with an extra glass?” I teased. “Delicious.”

Lucas smiled. “Extra glasses are occasionally a pleasant convenience.” His dark eyes flickered over my face, taking in every inch. My stomach did a little flip-flop at his attention.

I turned my head, feeling unusually shy all of a sudden, and I felt myself blush from the tip of my head to down underneath my dress. I pulled my hands into my lap.

He let out a low chuckle, and slipped a hand down to cover mine. His hand was large enough to cover both of mine. His skin was cold but soft, and at his touch a delicious shiver went down my spine, and I let out an unconscious gasp, looking up at him.

He winked at me, like he had felt it too. Feeling my shyness leave, I winked back at him. He squeezed my hands underneath his.

Kat, witnessing this unspoken exchange between us, cleared her throat. “Well, if you will excuse us, Rob and I are going to go try out that dance floor of yours,” she said to Lucas. “Good luck!” she whispered in my ear. “Let me know if we need to pull out that stick.” She kissed me on the cheek, and dragged Rob out onto the dance floor. The music thumped, pounding out a rhythm that seemed to race with my pulse, as I sat there holding hands with a virtual stranger, behavior that was utterly out of character for me, but after the last couple of days, I was feeling a bit reckless.

I scooted down the bench a bit further, taking advantage of the empty space, and turned in my seat so I could face Lucas a bit better. I took another sip of the dark wine, savoring the medley of flavors. After one cosmopolitan and half a beer, the wine was probably going to go straight to my head, but I didn’t care.

We made small talk.

“So how occasionally does the owner conveniently find himself with an extra glass?” I flirted.

“Oh, you don’t really want to know the answer to that,” he said evasively. He leaned back against the seat, making himself comfortable.

I laughed. “Yes I do, I want to know what I’m getting myself into here!” I lifted my wine glass to my lips, and stared at him over the rim as I took a drink, daring him to be honest.

He arched his eyebrow and smiled knowingly. “And what are you getting yourself into here?” he shot back.

I lowered my head, and my hair fell across my eyes. He reached out a hand and brushed it out of my face, tucking it behind my ear. His fingertips grazed my jaw, causing a rash of goose bumps to course from my neck all the way to my waist, and my all my nerves tingled.

“You tell me,” I replied, trying to keep my voice even, not wanting him to know the effect he was having on me. I didn’t react this way to strangers, honestly I didn’t! But this man positively oozed pure animal magnetism, and it was turning me into a quivering pile of girl flesh. I finished off my glass of wine, my hand unsteady with nervous tension as I did.

He cocked his head, looking at me curiously. “Hmmm,” he murmured, brushing a hand across my hair. “How about I tell you in an hour or so?” My stomach did another flip flop at that comment. He stood up, and reached out his hand towards me. “Dance with me,” he said. It wasn’t a question, it was a command, and with compliance that bordered on compulsion, I took his hand and let him lead me out onto the dance floor, where Kat and Rob were grinding to the rhythms, along with a few dozen other sweaty bodies.

Lucas danced with the same casual sensual grace that he seemed to do everything with. I found myself imagining what else he did with casual sensual grace. His body flirted with mine as we moved to the rhythmic beats pouring out of the speakers. Flashing lights whirled above us. Anonymous bodies crowded around us, and the smell of flesh and sweat sent my head reeling. Lucas didn’t even touch me as we moved in uncoordinated synchronicity, but his penetrating eyes left me feeling completely exposed. We only danced two songs, but it might as well have been ten or twenty. The distance was actually making me ache.

Finally I reached out and grabbed him, pulling him close. We stopped moving, and just stood there on the dance floor, as people whirled around us. His body was hard and unyielding against mine. My nose came right up to his adams apple, as I stood there in my four-inch heels against him. I inhaled deeply, absorbing his scent. He smelled of leather and iron and… something else I couldn’t identify; something delicious. I licked my lips. My heart was racing. My breath was hot in my chest. I looked up at him and caught him watching me with utter fascination.

Suddenly I realized I was supremely thirsty. I pulled myself reluctantly away from him. “Let’s go sit down,” I breathed. “I need a drink.” He led me back to the table and I swiftly gulped down the rest of my beer to quench my palate. I smiled with a satisfied sigh.

“So are you ready to tell me yet?” I asked him with a grin. I was feeling utterly fantastic, every nerve was buzzing. Was it the alcohol, or Lucas, or just my newfound joie de vivre? I realized I didn’t care right then.

He eyed me curiously. “Tell you what?” He slid in next to me again.

I smiled and shrugged coyly. “What I’m getting into, of course!”

“That’s my little secret,” he said mysteriously, with a wink. I rolled my eyes.

Kat and Rob pulled up to the table, breathing hard and laughing. From the scent of them, they were having a great time. I had never noticed scents to be to telling before.

“What’s going on?” Kat asked, as she sat down. She fanned herself to cool off.

“I was just about to ask the beautiful Rhiannon if I could see her tomorrow,” Lucas said, picking up my hand and looking at me.

My heart skipped a beat. “Um, lunch?” I squeaked out. Stupid stupid! A gorgeous man was asking me out, and I suggested lunch. Ugh! I could have slapped myself.

He shook his head. “I’m not available until the evening. And lunch is so unimpressive,” he replied, kissing my fingers.

Kat laughed. “Please impress my friend! She needs an impressive man for a change.” She leaned over. “Way to go,” she whispered in my ear, nudging me.

He looked at me with his deep, deep gaze. “I was thinking of the opera.”

Rob snorted, and Kat laughed. I just grinned. “Oh come now, you can’t possibly tell me you actually like that pretentious charade?” I teased. I’d never been to the opera, actually. No one had ever asked me.

He shrugged. “Not particularly, but I’ve come to realize that women love the romance of the opera, and that being willing to do something I don’t like in order to impress a beautiful women earns me… what do they call it… brownie points?” He smiled slyly.

“Rob, take notes,” Kat ordered. “That is the smoothest, most brilliant idea I have ever heard, and I demand that you take me to the opera one day!”

Rob looked like he’d received the death sentence. I just laughed. I looked back at Lucas, who was watching me carefully. “I accept,” I said, “But only on one condition.” I held up my finger. “We also have to do something I might not like that you do, so I can earn some brownie points, too.”

Lucas laughed in delight, a devilish expression on his face. “I know just the thing.”

Rob nudged Kat. “Take notes, woman! I will if you will.” Kat snorted.

We chatted and laughed for the next hour. Lucas was charming and gracious. He treated us to another drink. Kat and Rob decided it was time to leave after that, I begged off, telling them I’d take a taxi, so they left without me, leaving me blissfully alone with Lucas.

Lucas offered me a ride home. “How else will I know where to pick you up tomorrow night?” he explained with a smile.

I accepted, gleefully. I wasn’t ready for this night to end yet! Sure, I was buzzing on alcohol, but I was feeling too fantastic to call it a night so soon. It was getting late, and the bar was getting more rowdy and noisy by the minute.

“Let’s go,” he ordered. He held out his hand, and pulled me up to my feet. With his hand at the small of my back, he steered me towards the back of the club. “I’m parked out back,” he murmured into my ear. Just as we were about to exit the bar, one of the bouncers stepped in front of us.

“Lucas, Mark needs you at the door.”

I heard him curse under his breath. “Can’t you handle this without me?”

The bouncer shook his head. “Some drunken customers are causing a scene.”

Lucas swore and turned to me. He handed me a set of keys. “It’s the black Porsche, go out and wait, I’ll only be a minute.” He and the bouncer turned and strode off.

I swung open the door and found myself in an alley. Cars were lined up and down the side of the building towards the main street. There was a delivery truck, and a dumpster overflowing with white bags of bar trash and empty bottles. I rolled my eyes. Ever heard of recycling? I thought. I turned towards the row of cars, and began walking down the alley looking for a black Porsche. It was the last car, on the corner of the alley and the street.

I shivered a little as I walked towards it.

I only made it another two car lengths before a group of four men turned the corner towards me. I stopped in my tracks nervously.

They were dressed all in black. Two of them held baseball bats. One pulled a large knife off of his belt, and the other had a pistol. I took one giant step back. “Hey baby, what’s your hurry?” called out the one with the gun. He sneered.

Panic welled up inside me as I walked backwards. “I don’t have any money on me,” I shouted. I held out my purse, hoping they would just take it and leave me alone.

“Who says we want your money?” he leered. And with that, all four of them broke into a run. I turned in terror to run away, but they were faster.

“Help!” I cried out, but it was nearly midnight in downtown Seattle, and there was no one around to hear me. The music thumping from the club swallowed up my cry. I crashed to the pavement as one of them jumped on me with a flying leap.

Rolling over, I struggled, kicking out all my limbs and screaming. The man punched me in the face. It made my vision spin. My eyesight shifted red, and I let out a roar. I was furious, and as adrenaline kicked in, things seemed to switch to slow motion. I mustered up all my strength, and threw the man off of me. He slammed into the side of the building, and slumped to the ground. I growled, and jumped on the next guy, pummeling him in the face. “Who the hell do you think you are?” I shouted. Someone yanked me off of him, and I reached behind me blindly, grabbing the man by the wrist. With a quick twist of my arms, I was underneath him, and I flipped him over and off of me. He landed with a satisfying crunch onto the pavement. I turned to the last punk with a snarl. He swung at my head with his bat, but I ducked, and yanked the bat right out of his hand, thrusting the handle into his face. He fell back with a cry of pain. I think I broke his teeth, and that was a very satisfying feeling. I grinned fiercely at him.

“What the hell is going on?” shouted Lucas, running up behind me.

With fear and pain in his eyes, the man with the broken teeth grabbed his mate lying on the ground, and the one slumped into the wall, and they stumbled their way back out of the alley. I crouched down to the fourth, punching him once more in the face for good measure. “Who are you?” I shouted. I grabbed him by his collar and shook him. “What do you want?” I screamed at him. There was blood on my knuckles. I licked them, the metallic tinge heady in my mouth. I let out a low growl. “Don’t you ever touch me again,” I snarled, punching him in the nose.

“Rhiannon,” Lucas touched my shoulder. “He’s knocked senseless, let him be.” His was the voice of reason in my fury-spun red-tinged madness. I sucked in a ragged breath and held still. I didn’t stop him as he pulled me to my feet, and off of the perpetrator. I stood up slowly, trembling as the adrenaline drained from my limbs, leaving me spent and scared and shivering.

I looked up at Lucas. His eyes were black, his expression unreadable. “They…” I gasped. “They were going to kill me!” I let out a dry sob.

He wrapped his arms around me fiercely, holding me tight. He whispered gently, calming me until my shivers subsided, and I felt like myself again. “You are safe, no one is going to hurt you, calm down, it’s alright.”

Finally, I pulled away from him, and looked around at the alley, taking in the scene. “There were four of them,” I whispered. “They jumped me before I could get to your car.” There was blood on the ground, and I spotted two teeth sitting near the baseball bat I had dropped. I look up at him. “Oh Lucas, they could have stolen your car!” I told him, wide eyed. “We should call the cops.” I limped over and knelt down beside the unconscious man. Was he the one with the gun? I had no idea. My ankle hurt, and my face felt bruised. His face looked far worse, though. His nose was bleeding and crooked, and both of his eyes were beginning to swell up. I had never hit anyone before in my life, and here I was, staring at the bloody evidence of my first fight, and I felt sorry for the man. I hadn’t meant to hurt him, I only wanted to stop him.

Lucas knelt down beside me. “And tell them what?” he said sharply. “That you were jumped by four guys behind my bar and beat them all off single-handedly, leaving one senseless? Think they’ll believe that?” He rifled through the man’s coat pockets.

“What’re you doing?” I shouted, grabbing his hand. It was wrong to steal from the unconscious! Even if he had intended to steal from me, I drew a line at returning the favor.

“I’m looking for ID,” he explained. “Check his pants.”

I did. His pockets were empty. The man was a mystery. We stood back up again, surveying the situation. “Whoever they were, it seems you’ve scared them off,” he said. I ran my hand through my hair, relieved.

He grabbed my arm, turning it palm up. “Rhiannon, you’re bleeding.” He stared at my forearm, where a three-inch long gash was dripping blood down to join the splatters of blood on the pavement. I stared at it in fascination. It didn’t even hurt, I hadn’t even noticed it.

“It must have been the guy with the knife,” I said. I looked up at him. His jaw was clenched tight, and his eyes were deep, impenetrable pools of blackness.

“Do you think I need stitches? I hate hospitals,” I muttered; two trips in as many days was the last thing I needed. He turned his dark gaze to stare into my eyes, and for a moment the world seemed a million miles away as I lost myself in his eyes; they spoke of hidden promises of pleasure and danger, and a shiver ran down my spine. Without taking his eyes off me, he ran one hand along my neck, his fingertips grazing my skin delicately. With his other, he ran a finger along the length of the knife slash on my forearm. He lifted his finger, coated with my blood, up to his nose and sniffed it. Then he licked it. He rolled his eyes back up into his head, and stepped away. He turned away from me, but I could see a shudder run through his back. I looked down at my scratch, confused, fascinated. It seemed to have stopped bleeding; I guessed I didn’t need stitches after all.

Suddenly Lucas spun around, and grabbed me by the shoulders roughly. “What are you?” he hissed at me, staring intensely into my eyes.

“I… I’m just a gardener,” I squeaked.

He let me go, and stepped back, composing himself. He scrutinized me carefully, his jaw tight again. “When I first met you, you smelled like sunshine. Now you smell like…” he trailed off, shaking his head, his eyebrows furrowed. When he looked up at me again, his charming smile was back once more, “You are a puzzle, Miss Rhiannon. One I shall have great fun solving.”

With that, he helped me into his car. “But what about the guy?” I said, as he closed the door.

Climbing into the driver’s seat, he replied, “He’ll wake up on his own, I’m sure, and probably think twice about trying to mug defenseless women in alleys again.” He squeezed my hand, and we took off.

He drove his expensive car recklessly fast, like a man without a care in the world. And were it any other night I probably would have luxuriated in the heated leather seat that just begged for me to melt into. But after two life-threatening nights in a row, that was just about the last thing on my mind.

I gave him directions, and before very long he was pulling up into my driveway. He helped me out of the car and walked me up to my door. “Well,” I said, not quite sure what the proper way to say good night was when gorgeous men dropped me off at my door after a terrifying encounter with would-be muggers. Had Miss Manners ever written a protocol for that? “What time should I expect you tomorrow?” I smiled at him.

He smiled approvingly. “6:30 sharp.” He kissed my hand. Then he grabbed my head in his hands, and stared directly into my eyes, his dark eyes penetrating into me like spikes. “Now I want you to go inside, lock all your doors, and go to sleep, and for gods sake don’t invite me up, because I don’t know that I’d be able to manage to stay such a gentleman.” There was hunger in his eyes. I trembled, but nodded mutely, and did exactly as he said.

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