Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Willing and Able (Binary Stars Vol. 3) by Jenna Byrnes and Jude Mason

Colt Willing drove his Harley into the parking lot of a busy Stop and Save Grocery. He walked the big machine into a space backwards, so he could keep an eye on people coming and going. A fast getaway was another advantage, but that hadn’t been an issue, yet. Bustling food stores at the dinner hour seemed to be the perfect cover. Harried working stiffs scurrying in and out rarely paid him much notice.

He turned off the key, killing the grumbling motor noise. After glancing around the parking lot, he settled back on the smooth seat and waited.

This is the worst part. If something was going to happen, it would happen now. Nervous energy zipped down his spine and fluttered around in his gut. He forced himself to ignore it.

A nice looking blond guy wearing jeans and a button-down shirt approached him. He smiled at Colt pleasantly, but his eyes remained strangely blank. “Have you seen Roberto Montoya?”

Colt squinted and studied the man for a moment. For security’s sake, someone different showed up every time. He was continually surprised how clean-cut the people appeared. Go figure. He rattled off the expected response, “Not since yesterday. He mowed my lawn.”

The man pulled an envelope from his back pocket and held it out.

Colt grabbed it and looked inside. He didn’t bother to count the large wad of cash, he never did. No one had shorted him, yet. Heads would roll if anyone tried. He dug inside his worn leather jacket and drew a pack of cigarettes out, which he offered to the stranger. “Smoke?”

The tall blond rolled his eyes and accepted the pack. He scanned the lot from side to side quickly and without another word, strolled away. His ass, accentuated by tight jeans, faded from view. In a matter of seconds, he’d rounded the corner of the brick building and was out of sight.

Colt shook off the image. Nice ass or not, he’s not my type. Colt didn’t care for blonds. His ideal catch had dark hair on his head and his chest, with another patch curled around the base of a long, thick cock. The mental image caused his dick to spring to life, hampered by the confines of his own tight jeans.

Two quick stops and he’d head back to the dive he called home, and the handsome hunk waiting there. A tingle ran down his spine and he squirmed, wondering if Jonathan might be in the mood to scratch his itch. The big, strapping guy definitely knew all the right places to scratch.

Colt tucked the envelope deep into the lining of his jacket. He fired up his bike and revved the engine. A look in either direction and he pulled out of the parking space and continued right out of the lot.

He needed to drop the money off to his supplier and let him know the latest shipment of drugs, tucked neatly into the pack of smokes, had been delivered. Then he had a call to make. He’d find a pay phone for that. Cell phones could be monitored too easily.

A few blocks away, he pulled into the parking lot of the Royal Towers apartments. The rundown, old, single-story building looked neither ‘royal’ nor much like a tower. He smiled. Every time he was there, the same thing crossed his mind.

Some rough-looking teenage boys played football in the middle of the drive. Colt scowled and maneuvered his bike around them. Not one of them had budged an inch for him. Tough neighborhood.

He parked next to the cherry-red, Mustang convertible, which belonged to the man he was there to see. No one messed with Ramon De La Hoya’s car, and Colt figured his bike would be safe by association. He’d never forget the day Ramon told one of the neighborhood kids, “Anyone touching my car will find his balls hanging over the mirror like a set of fuzzy dice.” The boys had never put Ramon’s threat to the test.

The Hispanic thug liked to tell anyone who’d listen about how he was related to the boxer who shared his last name. Colt knew he was full of shit. Oscar De La Hoya might not be a saint, but the guy had class. A former world champ, he’d started a charitable foundation to help underprivileged kids get an education. Ramon was a low-life scum, who dealt with underprivileged kids by threatening to cut off their balls.

Cole knew Ramon would never succeed at anything that took effort or ethics. He was a common shyster who associated with others of the same breed, and one day, he’d be taken down by someone exactly like himself. Despite the ‘family loyalty’ bullshit mobsters wanted people to believe, Colt knew there was no honor among thieves. Everyone in this business understood. The knowledge was something you either lived with, or died with.

He tapped on the door to apartment number six. There was scuffling on the other side and a muffled, “Who is it?”

Colt replied in a cheesy Mexican accent. “Roberto Montoya.”

The door flew open and Ramon motioned him in. “Get in here, you stupid son-of-a-bitch.”

“Is that any way to talk to someone bearing gifts?” Colt entered and Ramon closed and locked the door behind him.

The darker-skinned man peered out the window and looked both ways until he was apparently satisfied. He mopped his brow with a checkered handkerchief and turned to Colt. “You got it?”

Colt smiled and pulled the envelope from inside his jacket. He passed it over and watched Ramon remove the money and count the stash. “It’s all there.”

“I know, I know. You always say that. But I say, you’re too goddamned trusting. For some fucking reason, you don’t believe everyone is out to screw you.”

Colt shook his head. “Just funny that way, I guess. It’s all there, right?”

“Yes, it’s all there.” Ramon’s voice oozed disgust, but the tone was nothing new. Typically nervous and ill-tempered, the wannabe goodfella seemed to be waiting for someone to double-cross him. That would give him a reason to blow the person’s head off with the Glock he kept tucked away in his belt.

Unfazed by Ramon’s sneer, Colt watched him peel off three hundred dollar bills and hand them over. He tucked the rest of the money and the envelope into the lining of his suit coat.

Colt pocketed the cash and adjusted the waistband of his jeans. Rather than continue giving Ramon shit, despite how much fun it was, he needed to get serious. “I’m free tomorrow if you want me to go with you to Nigel’s place. If you’d like a hand picking up more stuff, that is.”

Ramon scowled. “I can handle it. Meet me at Tubby’s tomorrow night, at nine, to pick up the next order. Oh, and I might have a special delivery address for you. I’ll let you know.”

The change in protocol raised a red flag. “What do you mean, a special delivery address? I like doing things the way we have been.”

“Yeah, well, sometimes you have to suck it up and do what you’re told. Mix it up some. We don’t want people to start noticing you.”

“I’ve used different grocery stores every day this week. Nobody’s paid me no mind. The cops in this berg are fucking stupid.”

“Just do it. Humor me, for fuck sakes. Cops may be stupid, but even a blind pig finds an acorn every once in a while.”

Colt chuckled. “Blind pig. Good one. Okay, I’ll humor you. And if you change your mind about Nigel—”

Ramon waved a hand. “Yeah, I got it. You’ll go with me if I need some help. I’ll let you know. Now beat it.”

“See you tomorrow.” Colt waved two fingers by his temple in a mock-salute, and left the apartment. Out of habit, he scanned the sidewalk in both directions. No one was around. Even the kids playing ball had disappeared.

He tossed a leg over his bike seat, kicked off the stand and fired up the engine. Now, to find a pay phone. Nothing close by. He headed home the long way, zigzagging up and down streets, until he spotted a phone-from-car stand in front of a convenience store and pulled in. Colt inserted two coins and dialed the number from memory. While he listened to the other end ring, he rolled his shoulders to work out the kinks. To say it’d been a long day would be an overstatement. It’d been a long couple of hours. Sometimes the stress tied his muscles into knots.

“Gibson’s Dry Cleaning,” a man’s voice answered.

“I need to talk to Mr. Gibson. I want to file a complaint.”

“Gibson here. File the complaint in your ass.”

Colt laughed. It wasn’t exactly the standard response, but after all these years, he knew his former partner, D.J. Able’s voice as well as he knew his own. “What the fuck? No one’s paying me any respect today. I just gave a nice chunk of cash to the last guy I saw, but did he appreciate it? Hell no.”

“Everything go smoothly with that?”

“Yeah, piece a cake. I tried to get him to let me go with him tomorrow, but he wasn’t crazy about the idea.”

“He still trust you? Because if he gets suspicious, you know what the fucker will do.”

“Yeah. Shoot first and ask questions later. Nah, we’re okay. He still trusts me. I just can’t come across too eager.”

“Think he’ll take Jonathan with him to pick up the stuff?”

The hair on the back of Colt’s neck bristled. Ramon had taken Jonathan to Nigel Caprice’s estate several times. Caprice was richer than God and thought just as highly of himself. So far, no one had been able to pin the drugs flooding the streets to the, seemingly, legitimate self-made millionaire. Jonathan had seen some of the deals, but he wasn’t spilling much information. It was like the mob held something over Jonathan’s head. They controlled him in a way Colt didn’t understand. No matter how hard he tried, using all the detective skills he could muster, Colt hadn’t been able to get diddly squat out of the handsome, hunk of a man.

Sexual Healing: Too Shy by D. Musgrave

Marianne watched Jean and Michael walk hand-in-hand across the parking lot. She felt an enormous sense of pride for helping the couple discover their shared sexuality. But more than that, she was proud of them for taking the risky leap and trying something they’d only fantasized about.

After locking the front door, she turned off the lights in the foyer on her way through her office into the Suite. She straightened the room and put clean linens on the bed for the next session.

Her thoughts went to Sophia. She would likely be the next patient to visit the Suite. The image that came to Marianne’s mind was the same one she’d had since it became clear why the woman was unable to climax. A big reason for her block revolved around her deep-seated shyness about her body; she was unable to relax and let herself go.

Marianne looked at the pile of pillows on the bed and imagined Sophia lying back against them, completely naked, her knees in the air and her fingers exploring her pink pussy lips. She knew for Sophia to reach that level of comfort, she’d need a lot more than just a booklet with pictures. Marianne had to show her it was safe and healthy to give herself pleasure. Sophia had to be pushed to the next step. If she waited for the woman to be ready, it might never happen.

Closing the door to the Suite, Marianne left the room and went to her office. Her attention was drawn to the light flashing on the message waiting button on her office phone.

As she expected, it was Tony, her boyfriend of six months. He was checking in to see when she was coming home. She grinned because she knew he wanted to know when she’d be home so he could have dinner ready for her.

They’d met in Dallas. She’d been there for a symposium on advanced sex therapy. He had a booth in the guitar show the next building over. Looking back, it seemed like a huge stroke of luck that her colleagues had literally dragged her to the music show on the last night of both conferences. Little did she know that she’d not only meet Tony, but that he was from her home town. They hit it off so quickly and were so compatible in so many ways, there was no other way for her to describe it other than destiny. He liked saying that they had a resonance like a finely tuned instrument matched with a supremely talented musician. She liked that.

She listened to his smooth, husky voice on her machine twice. The second time because she was too lost in the sound of his voice to pay attention to what he’d said. His last line made her chuckle. “Don’t make me wait too long. I might have to start without you.” He meant eating dinner, but she pictured him naked, hard and pleasuring himself on their bed as she stood in the doorway watching his fist slide up and down his thick shaft.

The phone buzzed twice before Tony answered breathless. That only added to the mental images coursing through her mind. “Hey, babe. It’s Mary.”

“How’s my little humbucker?”

“Good.” Marianne smiled as she shook her head. She remembered the first time he’d called her that. She thought he’d called her his huckleberry, but found out it was a vital part of an electric guitar, and to him, she made him work. It was corny, but it was their private endearment. “I’m just about ready to leave the office. Is there anything I need to pick up on the way home?”

“Maybe a bottle of wine. I made lasagna and breadsticks with Cesar salad.”

Not only was he great with his hands, but he was a good cook too.

“Sounds divine. I’ll grab a bottle of Merlot and be home in about twenty minutes.”

“Sounds good. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

Honey Eater by Laura Gill


Still no sign of them.

Staying away from the damaged walls, Merope set three platters by the makeshift hearth in the courtyard, covered them to keep off the flies, and sat down to wait. She’d been doing that all day: waiting and trying to calm fraying nerves until her gut roiled. Rusi kept her company, but there was only so much the servant girl and her grandmother Nona could do.

After today, she would no longer have a twin brother.

Aftershocks continuously jolted the ground. Dust clouds wreathed the hills where the shaking dislodged dirt and loose stones. Once the initial temblor passed, the women had braved continuing shocks and falling plaster dust and debris to fetch cooking utensils and blankets. Merope watched the grapevines tremble as the wooden stakes vibrated, and behind her the house rattled with each shock.

It made no sense. The sacrifice was supposed to appease Poseidon, not arouse his anger.

Sunset drew deep purple shadows on the flanks of Mount Juktas. A slight breeze brought some relief from the day’s heat. Merope dreaded going to sleep alone that night as much as she feared going back inside the house. “Where do you suppose they are?”

Poseidon’s sanctuary, located around Juktas’s northern slope, was an hour’s brisk hike from Archanes, which was nestled along the mountain’s eastern slope. Father and her two siblings should have come back that afternoon. Samnos would need the proper rites. Merope had his shroud ready, and Father had arranged for the magistrate to open the local tomb to receive the body.

Nona’s gnarled hand patted her arm. Whenever Merope needed a mother, the old woman stayed beside her. Now she needed Nona more than ever. “It’s too late to go looking for them, girl. Eat something and rest. There’s still so much to do.”

A warm summer night allowed fearful townsfolk to sleep outside. Merope slept fitfully, rousing at the slightest noise. Last night, she’d cried until her tears ran dry. Now she lay numb and sick, curled on her side with the old woman’s arms around her. It should have been her on the sanctuary altar. Losing a daughter would have been easier for her father to bear.

Predawn light saw her up and reheating the remains of last night’s supper. Rusi emptied the latrine vessel. Nona woke slowly, her joints creaking. “Ah, no one’s come.”

“It’s been too long.” Merope stared into the chickpea mash. Worry killed her appetite. Anguish made her nauseous.

“Maybe they took your brother to the king.” Rusi looked hopeful. “It’d be a special burial, wouldn’t it, Mistress?”

Yes, let that be it. “Would they have gone without letting me know?” Somehow, she thought not. “I have the shroud and oils.”

Perhaps the Minos had decided otherwise. Merope wasn’t a priestess, and tending such a special offering would be a sacred duty. It made perfect sense for the king to provide the linen and unguents. Since they were distant cousins, perhaps the Minos would even give Samnos a finely decorated larnax and a burial place in the royal tomb. “I hope they remember me for the funeral.”

Father should have sent word. Someone should have come to see whether the house still stood and whether she and the servants were all right. No one came. Her neighbors, preoccupied with their own troubles, couldn’t tell her anything when she ventured out to ask.

Her disquiet told her it was wrong.

Sunrise lengthened into midmorning. Rusi swept the dust from the entryway. Yesterday’s quake destroyed the brand-new lily fresco facing the household altar, and left hairline cracks in the plasterwork around the door lintel.

Merope breathed a sigh of relief as she gathered the clay votive figures in her apron and brought them outside to place alongside the libation bowl. “Poseidon isn’t damaged.” Above all, she dared not offend the Earth-Shaker. “But they’re all dusty. They need to be cleaned so they can receive their offerings.” Her father would be extremely angry to find the household gods broken or neglected through his youngest child’s carelessness.

Servants weren’t allowed to fetch ritual items, so Merope brought oil and wine, and went to the well herself.

Upon returning, she paused long enough to cleanse the gods and pour the daily libation before heading out again. “I’ll go up to the sanctuary myself and see what’s keeping them.”

Rusi ran after her. “Mistress, you can’t go alone! At least ask a man to go with you.”

It wasn’t safe for anyone to venture unprotected into the countryside these days. After the first large earthquake struck months ago, more temblors followed. Too many people were now homeless and desperate. Merope hated the delay, but as she rounded the house to the courtyard where old Augeas supervised the other workers, she reminded herself how her father and siblings would scold her if she didn’t take precautions.

Augeas agreed to accompany her. Anxious neighbors were starting to call. By now, everyone wanted to know why the god’s priest and his acolytes hadn’t come home yet, and why Poseidon was still angry. Hadn’t the sacrifice taken place? Poseidon’s sanctuary was situated in a remote location, and with so much clean up work in town, no one had ventured around the mountain to see for themselves what the delay was. Obviously the neighbors expected Merope to go.

Rockslides made the route hazardous. While the sanctuary was well maintained, its remoteness meant no one had bothered with the track for years. Merope’s calves ached and her side burned as she struggled up the steep way. Sweat poured down her face. How had her father managed with the cart? Had there been an accident?

As the sun climbed higher and grew hotter, she regretted forgetting her wide-brimmed hat. Augeas kept his wind, even venturing ahead. “There might be a cool breeze up there,” he urged.

Juktas’s summit towered four hundred meters above the long, isolated spur on which the sanctuary stood. Gales had pockmarked the rugged terrain to give the place its name, Caves of the Wind. In the river valley below sprawled a town and the palace of Knossos on its hill. A week after the great quake, Samnos had brought her up here to show her the damage. Sanctuaries and multi-storied apartments alike had collapsed. Even the aqueduct bringing water from Archanes to Knossos had broken.

On a clear summer day, a person standing on the spur could look out as far as the port at Katsambas. Beyond, the deep blue sea stretched across the northern horizon. Her father once explained how the lonely site with its gales and commanding view of Knossos and the sea pleased the god.

Up ahead, Augeas froze, then started running. Fear lent Merope energy, and spurred her after him; she heard Rusi stumbling to catch up behind her.

As the road curved around to meet the temenos, the sacred enclosure, she should have seen the sanctuary’s blinding white plaster fa├žade with its red bands. Instead, smoldering ruins brought her up short, and for a long, breathless moment she stared in disbelief. A colossal force she knew all too well had brought down the roof.

Rusi gave a little scream. “Mistress, where are they?”

Just outside the temenos, Merope saw the cart. The family donkey, still tethered to its hitching post, lazily browsed the grass for forage.

“Polemos!” Augeas’s shout reverberated off the steep slopes. “Eumenes! Ismene!”

No one answered.

Merope choked back nausea. They’re still here. She made it as far as the temenos entrance before Augeas seized her around the middle to hold her back. “The fire’s still burning.”

Caught in his powerful arms, she pummeled at him with both fists. “Let me go! They might be trapped inside!”

Augeas roughly turned her around to face the devastation. “Smell that, girl!”

Smoke so acrid it singed her throat and made her eyes water. Coughing, retching for air, she caught the whiff of charred flesh.

She remembered how several neighbors pinned under the rubble had burned to death after the first quake. Her eyes stung. Expecting to hear screams, she heard only the hiss of smoldering timbers and the wind rustling through the tall grass.

Willed to Love by Michelle Houston

Ashley leaned back in her chair and tipped her head, subtly wiping the tears that were welling in her eyes. As various family members filed into the room and claimed seats, she made sure not to meet anyone’s eyes. She wasn’t wanted, and she knew it. Nervous, she twisted the simple gold band on her ring finger, waiting until the lawyer decided to finally start telling everyone what they got in the will.

The chair next to her creaked when weight settled in to it, and a firm hand clasped over hers startling her. Looking up into her soon to be ex’s warm eyes, she found herself unable to look away. Her heart ached with the need to collapse in his arms and cry out her pain. His paternal grandmother had been the only person in his family that had accepted her, had made her feel welcome. Now the grand lady was dead, and Ashley was surrounded by hostility. She could only imagine what Devon’s family was thinking, wondering why she was present.

In fact, Ashley was having that same thought.

“She loved you, you know?”

Pinching her trembling lips together, Ashley nodded. The sympathy in Devon’s voice was almost her undoing. He had lost his grandmother, and here he was trying to comfort her. How she loved him.

Glancing around the room though, she saw the curled lips and flared nostrils, the squinted eyes and the gazes that wouldn’t make contact. His family hadn’t changed their opinion of her and she doubted they ever would.

Her inability to provide him with an heir was only one of the reasons. As the thought entered her mind, a flash of pain followed. Pulling her hand away, Ashley broke eye contact and curled into herself, the way she’d had to after her pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Devon had been out of the country, and she’d been alone, surrounded by people who didn’t give a shit about her.

Two days she’d lain in a hospital bed before someone thought to let his grandmother know what happened, and she’d had to be the one to call him and let him know that she had miscarried.

“Well, since everyone is here, I guess we can get started.” As the lawyer started pulling papers out of a briefcase, those that were milling around the room settled into available chairs or leaned against walls. Only the warmth coming from next to her where Devon sat kept her in her chair.

She didn’t want to be there, but the lawyer had insisted that her presence was vital. But as he droned on, detailing the dozens upon dozens of bequeaths to various family members, Ashley was giving serious consideration to sneaking out when her name was called.

“And to my grandson Devon and granddaughter-in-law Ashley, I leave my house, the remainder of my trust-fund from my father, and a variety of jewelry and other personal items that are itemized, on the condition that they spend three months together in the house before perusing their divorce further. Should they decline, they both forfeit the right to anything from my estate. Should they agree, then all previous bequeaths to any member of the family are conditional upon their agreement to support Devon and his wife’s attempted reconciliation. Any attempt to convince them not to reconcile, now or in the future, will be seen as an automatic forfeit of claim to any part of my estate, as well as an agreement to reimburse the estate for anything previously accepted.”

Ashley almost giggled at the sudden silence. The old adage about a pin dropping came to mind, momentarily cutting through her grief. Devon’s grandmother had been big on speaking her mind, using old age as her justification. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that her will reflected her personality.

“In addition, should Ashley agree to spend three months with Devon, an additional settlement for her, including property for an artist studio, has been arranged regardless of the outcome of their attempted reconciliation.”

Ashley felt like a clamp had wrapped around her heart. Devon’s grandmother knew all of her hot buttons, and just where to push to get what she wanted. But despite the incentive, Ashley didn’t know if she would be able to do it. She still loved Devon with every fiber of her being, and the idea of spending three months ‘working on their marriage’ was enough to rip out her heart.

She desperately wanted to reconcile with him, but the same thing was holding her back each time—his family.

“What do you say Ash?”

Looking into his blue eyes, she wanted to scream yes. His firm lips, slightly parted, begged for her to kiss him. Her pulse raced remembering the last time they had made love, just months before. It had been the night before he left on his business trip.

She had stripped for him, shy about the changes to her body, emboldened by the desire she had seen in his eyes. His mouth and hands had worshipped her, caressing her curves and the slight budge of her belly. Her breasts responded to the memory and grew heavy. Sitting there at the reading of his grandmother’s will and getting aroused wasn’t her idea of a good time, but Devon had always had that effect on her. She could be doing almost anything, and he could get her pulse racing.

Ignoring everyone else in the room, she focused on him. According to how the will was worded, the family would be complete idiots to interfere now, and Ashley knew them to be anything but idiots. Many of them had gone to Ivy League colleges, and currently ran their own businesses, or were firmly planted in the area of politics.

Cold, yes. Idiots? Not by a long shot.

“I know this means a lot to you Devon, since it is part of your inheritance. But do you really want to do this?”

Devon’s eyes clouded with pain, and Ashley almost broke down herself.

“You’re the one who walked out on me Ash, not the other way around. Remember?”

She remembered all too well: the painful decision to leave, despite how much she loved him. The atmosphere they had lived in was emotionally poisonous and he wasn’t willing to just walk away. She had tried to make him see how much she hated living under his family’s thumb. Losing the baby had been her breaking point.

So she had packed up and left him, taking only her cherished belongings.

And now the one person she had loved in his family was pushing her back into the situation, but with a twist. None of the family could reject her, or push Devon to leave her. She would be permitted as part of the family, even if not welcomed. But could she survive such a situation? Would her creativity, her passion for art, and her love for Devon survive?

“I am also instructed to give you this before you decide.” Ashley glanced away from Devon to find the lawyer holding a sealed envelope out to her. Hands trembling, she reached for it, and had to read it three times before she could make sense of it. When she did, the enormity of the situation hit her like a cement truck.

Carefully she folded the letter and put it back into the envelope, then tucked it into her purse. Looking the lawyer in the eyes she told him, “I agree to the terms of the will.”

“Very well then, here’re the keys to the house and please, call on me if you have any questions. As for everyone else, that does it. There are a few more bequeaths, but they are for household staff, some of the charities Mrs. Monroe worked with, and so on. Nothing I am sure you wish to be bothered with.”

Judging by the speed at which everyone left the room, the lawyer was right. Ashley also had a suspicion that no one else caught the irony in his tone either. Then again, a quick glance at Devon confirmed that he had gotten it. His lips were pressed so tightly together they were turning white. Not from anger though, judging by the faint shaking of his shoulder, but from trying not to laugh.

Excusing herself, Ashley stood and moved to the doorway, Devon fast on her heels.

“Ash, wait.”

Keeping her back to him as she twisted her hands, holding herself together by sheer willpower, she told him she would be gathering her things and meeting him at the house in a few days, where they would begin their three months together.

“I’ll drive you.”

“Devon, I—” Her voice cracked and she had to take a deep breath, then another, and another. His hand, so firm and gentle, settled on her shoulder, silently offering her comfort that she wasn’t sure she could handle. She just wanted to get away from everyone and lick her wounds.

“I need some time. This is a lot to take in, and I just need some time alone.”

“I—” Now it was his turn to pause and clear his throat. “I didn’t ask Nana to do this, but I’m glad she did. I’ve missed you Ash.”

They stood silently for a few moments before the warmth of his hand left her shoulder and she could hear the soft thud of his steps down the hallway, moving away from her. Forcing one foot in front of the other, she headed in the other direction, not stopping until she was in her car.