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Excerpt from “Untitled Fantasy”
(All rights reserved – copyright Tamara Clarke, May 2018)
The days grew shorter, the nights colder, and it was nearly Halloween when she dragged herself to the diner for another early morning shift. Talon was there working the grill as she walked in. He shot her a grin and a wave with the tongs in his hand. She smiled back and pulled her apron on.
The morning flew by and she didn’t notice the man who walked in during the lull in the breakfast rush. She wouldn’t have noticed him at all, except that Mabel asked her to help while the older woman cleared the counter.
“I know it’s not your section.”
Chloe laughed and waved one hand while digging in her apron pocket for her scratchpad. “Don’t worry about sections, Mabel.”
The older woman smiled back and carried the stack of dirty dishes to the back. Chloe picked up the coffee pot and walked over to the booth at the end where the lone diner sat.
“Good morning, sir. Would you like some coffee?“
“What in the name of the Balance is coffee?“
Chloe started, her head snapping up and coffee sloshing out of the pot onto her hand. It burned, she could feel the heat turning her skin red but she couldn‘t move. Dark eyes met hers and her mouth dropped open.
She didn‘t know him, had no memory of his face or voice from court. He was tall, lean, and his fingers were long and tipped with blunt nails. His hair and eyes were dark, his skin a pale contrast, and the delicate black chain around his neck stood out. As he shifted on the bench, the small medallion at the end of the chain slid from behind his woolen jacket collar. Chloe’s eyes narrowed on it, trying to make out the symbol on it but he distracted her with movement.
His eyes dropped to her hands and he frowned. “You seem to have burned yourself.“ He reached out and pressed his fingers to the skin on the back of her hand. Tingling cold swept across her hand and she gasped when the burn receded. He withdrew his hand and looked into her face again. “Better?“
“You…“ Shaking all over, Chloe set the coffee pot down before she burned herself again. “Who are you?“
He cocked his head to one side, like a bird on a fence. “I am Bran.“ His eyes fell to her name tag. “And you are Chloe.“
Her breath left her in a whoosh and she lifted a trembling hand to the tag. Chloe was the name she‘d taken when she‘d run away, not the name he would have known her by. Was it possible he wasn‘t here for her?
“Um.“ She looked over her shoulder, saw Mabel and Stuart arguing by the coffee maker, watched a truck driver down the last of his coffee at the counter before standing. No one was looking in her direction. No one felt the temperature dropping, or noticed the two of them in the corner. She turned back to the man seated before her. “May I take your order?“
Again, his head cocked, and Chloe swallowed hard. She remembered in a flash why she recognized that expression. Many shifters picked up the traits of the animals they bonded with, often revealing them while in human form. This man was one of the Ravens.
Scared, but struggling to remain calm, Chloe reached for her pad and pen. If he hadn‘t bowed and scraped to her yet, maybe she could get through this encounter and flee before he realized who she was.
“I shall try the oatmeal and berries.“ His accent was formal and foreign, all while being more familiar than Chloe cared to admit.
“This coffee.“ He pointed at the pot still resting on the table. “Is it good?“
No. The coffee they served here was over-strong and bitter to Chloe. She‘d always preferred lighter roasts, or hot chocolate, or mint tea, but she shrugged at his question. “It‘s normal coffee, I guess.“
He looked uncertain but shrugged his shoulders after a moment. “I‘ll have some, please.“
She nodded and poured him a mug, relieved that she did it without another burn. She really didn‘t want him touching her again. The seconds-long contact they‘d had still lingered on her skin, and she could feel other things within her stirring at the memory. Like the rules about showing their powers outside their realm. What was he doing here?
“I‘ll be back with your order.“ Chloe fled to the back, unsure if she even told Talon the order of oatmeal.
She rushed into the storeroom and closed the door behind her, swathing herself in darkness for several long moments, until the light from the kitchen filtered under the door. She sucked in a deep breath, then another, and another, until she felt calm returning.
Whether he recognized her or not, it couldn‘t be a coincidence that a Raven was here. So few of their kind crossed over and there couldn‘t be a greater reason to do so than finding her.
She‘d stayed in Winter Haven too long. All her other stops had lasted months, sometimes only a few weeks. She‘d always kept moving, always looking over her shoulder as she boarded buses and trains to unknown destinations, knowing that if she‘d choose a spot, the people in town would get to know her. They would have thoughts of her in their minds. And if they did that, he would be able to see her there.
She‘d been in Winter Haven for ten months and three weeks. It was too long. Her thoughts and feelings had been dominated by her affection for this small town in the little mountains of Vermont. It was quiet, friendly, cool through the summer and so familiar in the winter. She‘d let herself believe she could stay, had thought about staying even with all her worries over Talon, and now, a Raven sat in the diner.
Mabel‘s voice startled Chloe out of her self-recrimination. She rubbed her face and walked out of the storeroom.
“Sorry, I was…“ Chloe gestured over her shoulder. “Looking for something.“
Mabel didn‘t blink, just breezed past her to the sink. “A big group just came in. I‘ve given them coffee but can you go take their orders? Stuart is going to help Talon for a bit and I‘ve got to get some dishes done or we won‘t be ready for lunch.“
Chloe nodded. “I‘ll take care of it.“
All she wanted to do was get in her car and drive as far and as fast as she could. She should. She didn‘t owe this diner or the owners anything. Except… they had taken her in and given her a job when she was a perfect stranger. And this Bran, whoever he was, while free with his powers, hadn‘t given any indication that he was there for her. So maybe she‘d be safe for a few more hours.
She turned back to the storeroom and closed the door. As it swept closed under her hand, something made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. The kind of feeling that usually preceded something horrible.
Maybe she wasn‘t as safe as she thought.
As she turned, she realized an eerie silence had settled over the place. The chatter from the dining room was gone, and there was none of the customary clatter of cutlery on dishes. Apprehension knotted Chloe‘s stomach as she turned. There was Stuart, at the grill, reaching with his spatula for the sausage patty resting there. But he wasn‘t moving. His arm was outstretched, his face a wrinkled expression from the heat of the grill. The fire underneath spit and sputtered as grease dripped onto the flames. Talon and Mabel were nowhere in sight.
Then there was the sound of shattering glass, and a cry, cut off abruptly as if someone had muted the sound halfway through. Chloe whirled around, her heart in her throat. Her eyes went to the back door and she wanted to flee, to get as far away from there as possible. An image of Mabel’s smiling face flashed through her mind and she knew she couldn’t just leave.
She had no way of knowing what was going on out front, but she knew she needed something in her hands that she could use as a weapon. A small paring knife sat on the counter nearest her. She’d never been good with weapons of any kind, but it would have to do. She grabbed it and crept towards the front dining room.
From the entrance to the kitchen, she couldn’t see much, only the familiar shadow of the front counter, and that first stool in the row. As she got closer, she heard a sound. Brow furrowed, she paused and held her breath. Not that it helped. Her heart was pounding so hard it was a wonder she heard anything over the sound of that. But then she heard it again, a dripping, like that of a leaky sink. Summoning as much courage as she could, she crossed the threshold to the front dining room and took in the scene.
The large group of customers that Mabel had mentioned were seated at the big corner table to Chloe’s left, bodies and hands frozen in a tableau of conversation. The older couple she’d been helping were just finishing their meals, forks halfway to their gaping mouths. And a half dozen other patrons were frozen just the same, food half-eaten, coffee spilling as they stopped lifting their mugs halfway to their mouths, bodies straight with laughter caught halfway from their lips.
Chloe jerked at the sound to her right and swung the knife in Bran’s direction. “Wh-what?”
“Get down. He’s here for you.”
Chloe’s lungs seized and she felt the eyes on her then. Turning, unable to breathe, Chloe’s eyes swung to the front door of the diner, all glass, and the creature sitting outside.
He shouldn’t be there. A wolf, yellow eyes all but glowing, sitting on his haunches, was as out of place in Winter Haven as a Raven. And yet, here they both were. That was when Chloe noticed the snow falling. It already coated the ground outside the diner, blotting out every inch of concrete and asphalt of the sidewalk and parking lot.
Chloe had been a fool for too long. She’d never been safe here. And why was he just sitting there? Why hadn’t he come inside?
“Do you have another way out of here?”
Chloe couldn’t tear her gaze away from that of the Wolf. He was enormous, bigger than most Wolves she’d known before she’d run away. His fur was a steely, mottled grey color, with darker fur around his head and face.
Chloe started, the old manner of address no longer familiar. “You know who I am?”
Bran’s expression didn’t change. “Why do you think I’m here?”
She’d known it the second Bran had touched her. She swallowed and tried not to look at the Wolf again. “There’s a back door.”
Chloe knew there was a good chance other Wolves were surrounding the place but she led the way back to the kitchen. She let out a scream when something heavy banged against the front door, rattling the bell overhead.
“Quickly.” Bran hurried her along.
She turned the corner, along the shelves of bread and buns, and pointed to the back door. “There.”
“Come.” Bran grabbed her arm and pulled her forward.
There was another rattling thud against the front door and the ominous sound of glass cracking.
“They might be waiting out there.” Chloe managed to get the words out as Bran reached for the door.
“We know for sure he’s out front.” Bran glanced at her. “I think he’s here alone.”
“Why?” Chloe wanted to lock herself in the storage room and never come out. How was she in this nightmare after all these years? She’d been so careful. Until she wasn’t. She darted a glance at Stuart, still frozen, leaning over the grill. She’d been a fool.
“Why would he have come alone?” Chloe scowled as the thud sounded at the front again, along with more glass cracking. “Who is he? Who sent you?”
“Questions and answers later, yes?” Without waiting for her agreement, Bran punched open the door and hauled her into the swirling blizzard.
The cold should be shocking after the heat of the kitchen. Chloe didn’t feel the wind, or the icy bite of snow as she stumbled after Bran. He pulled her along, his grip surprisingly strong. Chloe clutched the little paring knife she’d grabbed and fought to stay on her feet.
In seconds, they were out of the parking lot of the diner and sliding down the ditch towards the road behind. The snow was wet and Chloe yelped as she slid, her backside going down.
Bran muttered an oath and pulled her to her feet when they reached the bottom of the slope. They ran along the street, Chloe staring at the ground so she wouldn’t fall again. Somewhere in the distance behind her, a howl pierced the muffled quiet of the snowstorm.
“What?” Bran didn’t even look back as he spoke.
“It’s not winter.” Chloe felt herself grow short of breath, the longer they ran. “How is it possible you’re both here? You shouldn’t have had the power to cross.”
“I’m not from the Winter Kingdom.”
Chloe’s head jerked around to stare at him. No. All the Ravens she’d known had been of the Winter Kingdom. He was lying. Or if he was telling the truth, what was he doing helping her? Because she was damn sure that Wolf had been sent by Winter. She planted her feet, slid a good yard or two, before she managed to yank her arm from Bran’s hold. He whirled, reaching for her again.
“No!” She danced out of his reach. The Wolf howled again, the sound closer. “Who sent you?”
Bran’s eyes flashed. “We don’t have time for this.”
Chloe agreed but she didn’t know if she should run off with this non-Winter Raven, or take her chances with the certain-Winter Wolf.
“Eamon sent me.”
For a second, Chloe was swept back in time by the flood of memories the name invoked. She swallowed with difficulty and blinked several times. “Eamon is dead.”
Bran stepped close, his dark eyes boring into hers. “He is not. He sent me here to bring you home.”
Chloe didn’t believe him. She’d watched Eamon fall. She’d seen all the blood before he’d ordered her to run. “Which home?”
She could tell Bran was losing patience. She supposed she was lucky that he wasn’t from the Snow Eagle family. He’d have been able to shift and carry her off, protest or no. As a Raven, he wasn’t nearly strong enough.
“Eamon’s. Now let’s go.”
The Wolf howled, the sound much closer, making Chloe’s hair stand on end. She debated for a nanosecond before grabbing Bran’s hand and taking off at a dead run.
They ran across the road and Chloe noticed for the first time that the cars on the road were all stopped, engines running but not moving. The traffic lights flicked through their sequence but no one crossed the roads or moved. Snow pelted the few pedestrians out on the sidewalks and they didn’t notice, or react in any way.
“How is this possible?”
You don’t say. Chloe could have laughed at the simple way Bran explained the tableau of Winter Haven.
“There’s no way we can outrun him.”
“We just need to get somewhere safe.”
Chloe knew there was no such place. She wanted to cry, but her lungs wouldn’t allow it. She gasped as Bran twisted down a narrow alley, her feet slipping in the snow. As she lifted her eyes to the end of the alley, she realized the mistake Bran had made.
“This is a dead end!”
Bran didn’t reply. He dropped her hand and turned to the brick wall of the building to their left. There was a fire escape and he reached for the ladder. Chloe didn’t hesitate when he gestured for her to precede him up the ladder. They clambered onto the first landing as the Wolf reached the mouth of the alley. Bran reached down and hauled the ladder up, out of the reach of the Wolf as he approached.
Chloe let out a breath as she watched the massive shifter close in. They had a safe lead again but she had no doubt he’d find a way to follow them up the building. He might have his reasons for staying in wolf-shape but he could easily turn into a man and climb as they had.
Bran hurried up the next section of the fire escape. Chloe bent over the railing to get another look at the massive Wolf as he circled the alley some twenty feet below. He paused and lifted his head, his yellow eyes narrowing on hers. She gasped and yanked herself from the railing, stumbling up the ladder behind Bran. Her shin hit a step and she let out a cry, knowing she’d drawn blood.
A moment later, a rumbling growl echoed through the alley and the Wolf barked.
Chloe froze at the next landing, looking down again. He was circling, his eyes on her still, the hackles on his shoulders standing tall.
“Hurry!” Bran urged from above.
Wincing in pain, Chloe pulled her gaze from the Wolf and went up the fire escape with Bran. They climbed all the way to the top. Chloe rolled to the roof, her breath burning in her lungs from all the exertion. Bran landed with a graceful move and continued forward, searching the rooftop.
“What are you looking for?” Chloe asked when she was able to draw breath again.
“It’s there.” She pointed to the steel door on the far corner. “But I’m sure it’s locked from the inside.”
He stopped beside the big steel door and clutched the pendant at his throat while he waved his hand in a move Chloe recognized. The air shimmered, bent, wind rushing past her face towards Bran, and the doorway he’d been referring to opened wide.
Tears filled her eyes and she started to shake her head. She couldn’t go back. She’d given everything, lost everyone close to her, in order to flee that other place. It had been almost ten years. She didn’t know how to do anything but run.
Bran turned to her and held a hand out. “Come.”
Ten floors down, the Wolf howled, a ragged, urgent sound that prickled all over Chloe’s skin. What was it about that shifter?
“No.” Chloe couldn’t get her feet underneath her. She shuffled back until the brick ledge pressed into her back. Through the falling snow, she saw Bran frown and walk towards her.
“Eamon needs you.”
Even the mention of her former guardian didn’t move her, though her heart thrummed with grief.
“You don’t know what you’re asking me to do.”
He stopped and crouched before her, his dark eyes soft. “I do.”
Chloe shook her head, dropping her gaze. “No.”
“I was there.”
Her eyes snapped back to his. “What?”
“The day they stormed Eamon’s palace. I was a kitchen boy. I saw the guards cut down, saw them attack Eamon, and you.”
Chloe clapped her hands to her face, the knife she’d been holding all this time falling to the snow without a sound. “No, no, no…”
“I saw what they did and I was there after you disappeared, after they finished looting the palace, and left.” His hand came down on her shoulder. “I was the one who found Eamon and the others.”
Chloe’s shoulders heaved. It was too much. She’d been alone, living in a fantasy of freedom that she should have known wouldn’t last.
“You must.” Bran’s hold tightened and, before she knew it was happening, he had her off the roof and in his arms.
She gave up the struggle, watched the doorway loom larger with each step Bran took. When the wind rushed against her face, bringing all the long-forgotten scents of dried leaves and crisp apples, something snapped inside Chloe.
Bran’s foot crossed the threshold and she dug her thumbs into the soft part over his collarbone. He cursed and his hold on her dropped. She rolled away from the rushing doorway and gained her footing enough to kick Bran in the stomach, sending him stumbling back through the doorway.
Muscle memory led her then, and she lifted her hand in a sharp gesture to close the door, power zinging up and down her arms. In the split second before it closed, the snow stopped falling. It lifted instead, rising in a white cloud around her. Wind battered her from all sides and Chloe almost lost her grasp on her power.
All at once, it was over. She fell to her knees in the spot the doorway had been a second ago, her body protesting the hard landing. The rooftop was wet, but the cushion of snow was gone. Down below, several horns honked and distant shouts rose from the street.
Whatever spell had been wrought was broken. Without knowing how, Chloe knew the Wolf was gone too. If Bran had been telling the truth, and the Wolf had been the from Winter, then he’d probably taken the storm with him when he went.
Chloe dropped forward, her palms landing on the damp surface. She sucked in breath after breath, drawing air in deep and pushing it out. She stayed that way for a long while, struggling to wrap her head around everything that had just happened.
Excerpt from “Reflections on Ice”
(All rights reserved – copyright Tamara Clarke, May 2017)
As she stalked away from Tapley‘s, Cassia jerked the open sides of her jacket closed in front of her. It was late January in Dallas, when the weather could be really good or really bad. At the moment, it was pretty good, so she wasn‘t cold, but she did feel the need to wrap herself up after that disastrous evening.
What had she been thinking? Speed dating? She shoved a hand through her hair when a breeze brushed it in her face.
Mostly, she‘d been shocked to even find a speed dating night. She‘d thought for sure that it had been edged out long ago by dating websites and apps, but she‘d figured it would be the quickest and safest way to possibly find a date for her friend‘s wedding in March. Then the night had started, and she‘d known after the first conversation that it wouldn’t work.
With a sigh, she slid her hands into her pockets and stopped at the corner of the intersection to wait for the light to change.
She turned at the sound of his voice and frowned to see Dylan Samuels jogging up to her. “Why are you following me?”
He looked surprised by her sharp tone. “I’m not following you.”
“I was in the bar, and now I’m here, and you just came running up to me. That’s following.” She turned back around as the light changed. Starting across, she didn’t look back to see if he stayed or left. At the other corner, she stopped, and looked over her shoulder. There was Dylan, striding up to her again.
“Now you’re just being weird.”
“Look, I’m not following you.” At her pointed look, he scowled. “I’m trying to apologize for back there.”
“For what? Lying about who you are?” Cassia shrugged and shoved her hands deeper into her pockets. “I don’t care what little games you were playing.”
“I wasn’t playing a game.”
“Look, you don’t owe me an apology.” Cassia faced the pedestrian sign across the street, willing it to change. “I wouldn’t have given you my number anyway.”
His laugh was strained. “Oh really? You knew who I was but wouldn’t have give me a chance?”
She shook her head. “I don’t date athletes.” Which was a bald-faced lie. She’d dated football and baseball players all her life. You couldn’t throw a rock in Texas without hitting someone who’d played something in their life, or was still playing.
“That seems awfully judgmental.”
She met his eyes, saw the smirk on his face, and wanted to kick him in the shins to make him leave her alone. She didn’t need this. The whole night had been a disaster, and she just wanted to get to the Lone Star Diner across the street for a slice of pie and some coffee.
“I suppose it is. So why are you still here?”
He shrugged, looking uncertain. “Maybe I wanted an excuse to get the hell out of there.”
When she glanced his way, he wasn’t looking at her. He was eyeing the bar half a block back, frowning, his mouth pursed tight. While he was distracted with his own anxiety, Cassia studied his profile, and decided he was even more attractive in person than on TV, with his short brown hair, and bright blue eyes, the late-day stubble on his cheeks and chin, and the way he towered over her five-foot six inch frame by a good eight inches. Her curiosity was growing, the longer they stood there, waiting for the light. What was a hot-shot hockey player doing at a speed-dating night? And why was he looking so upset over the whole thing?
I’m going to regret this. But then again, it wasn‘t the first time she‘d taken pity on someone who looked so down in the dumps. She pushed out a breath. “Do you like pie?”
He gave her a startled look. “Pie?”
She pointed across the road at the twenty-four hour diner. “I’m going there. You want to join me?”
“I thought you wouldn’t have given me your number.”
The light changed. “I’m still not, but you look like you had about as much fun as I did at Tapley’s. I know pie is the only thing that‘ll salvage this night for me now.“
When he didn’t respond, she shrugged and started across the street. A few seconds later, she heard his lengthy stride catch up and hid a smile when he walked with her up the diner steps. He held the door open for her, and she thanked him as she walked in.
She sat at the end of the counter, on her usual stool, and he perched on the one next to her.
An older lady, her hair in a grey ponytail, walked down to the end of the counter. “How y’all doin’ tonight, darlin’?”
Cassia smiled as the woman poured her a hot cup of coffee. “Oh, don’t ask, Sally.”
Sally clucked her tongue and turned her smile on Dylan. “And you, sugar? You want a coffee?”
She nodded and poured him a mug as well. Then she set down a menu for him, and touched Cassia’s hand. “I’ll get your pie, darlin’.”
Dylan glanced at her as he reached for the sugar canister on the counter between them. “So you come here often.”
“Is that a question?” She sipped her coffee. Black, strong, and hot. She loved it.
They didn’t speak until Sally returned with a slice of pie. “It’s cherry today, darlin’.”
“Thank you, Sally. You’re a life saver.” Cassia grabbed the fork and dug in, ignoring Dylan’s look.
“And you, sugar? What can I get you?”
Dylan looked at the pie, quickly disappearing from Cassia’s plate. “I think I’d like to try the pie, ma’am.”
“Sure thing.” She returned in a minute with another slice of pie. “Enjoy.”
For several minutes, the only sounds between Cassia and Dylan were the clinking of forks on plates, and the sloshing of coffee in their mugs.
“That was possibly the best piece of pie I’ve ever had.”
Cassia smiled at Dylan’s assessment. “Sally is an excellent cook. I’ve been coming here since I was a kid.”
“Did you grow up in this neighborhood?”
Cassia nodded, and watched as he added a bit more sugar to his coffee. “Gross. How can you drink it like that?”
He shrugged and sipped some more. “I like it.”
She shuddered. She liked her sweets but coffee was meant to taste like coffee.
“Listen.” Dylan swiveled on his stool to look her in the eye. “I want to apologize for before. I didn’t mean to lie about who I am.”
“You don‘t owe me an apology.“
“I do.“ He let out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. “I don‘t want you to think that this is something I do, trolling bars and telling lies to the women I meet.“
She lifted her eyebrows. She may have accused him of that, but that was because she‘d been so thrown by the sight of him sitting across the table from her. She had a tendency to blurt out her thoughts without giving them a proper vetting.
He started to speak again, but Cassia cut him off. “Look, Dylan, I‘m sorry if I was rude before, but you really don‘t owe me an explanation.“
“You weren‘t rude.“ He let out a short laugh and his eyes darted away. “I honestly didn‘t think anyone would recognize me.“
She believed him. He wasn‘t what you‘d call a superstar, like Tristen Sturgess, or the captain, Jake Brown. As a defenseman, Dylan Samuels probably enjoyed a lot more anonymity than his teammates. If Cassia hadn‘t been a lifelong hockey fan, and a fan of the Dallas Stars, she wouldn‘t have known who he was either. It was his bad luck that she did.
“I‘m sorry if I ruined your night.“
He brought his eyes back to her face and shuddered. “God, no. The night was terrible before I met you.“
She let out a short laugh and nodded. “It was awful, wasn‘t it?“
He looked startled by her laugh but smiled anyway. “I couldn‘t wait to get out of there.“
“Is that why you chased me down?“
“No.“ His smile disappeared. “No, I didn‘t mean to chase you.“
“It‘s fine. I‘m just giving you a hard time.“
He nodded but his face was lined with a frown and he had his shoulders hunched up. As she watched him, he glanced her way, eyes widening, before his gaze darted away again.
What was his deal? Cassia sipped her coffee, her eyes narrowed. In her experience, professional athletes were confident, talkative. Womanizing. She shook the thought from her head and turned to face him. She was still curious, more so now that she‘d spent more than ten minutes with him, and she let her thoughts free.
“So, Samuels. What‘s the deal?“
“What‘s a guy like you doing at a speed dating event?“
His expression closed up even more and the tips of his ears turned pink. “Uh… would you believe me if I said it was a dare?“
Cassia studied his face for a moment before shaking her head. “No.“
He blew out a breath. “Well, I can‘t think of anything else. So let‘s move on.“
“Are you kidding?“ Cassia let out a short laugh. “You‘re going to explain why you were there and why you were lying about who you are.“
He met her narrowed eyes with his own and she smiled to see some of the confidence creep back into his face. “You first.“
She was about to refuse. To tell him to take a hike. But she‘d been the curious one and had only invited him to the diner to pry. Tit-for-tat, she supposed. “Fine. I‘ll tell you and then you‘re going to fess up.“
Excerpt from “Sugar and Ice” – Work-in-Progress
(All rights reserved – copyright Tamara Clarke, February 2016)
Rafe found an apartment a few days after his arrival in Montreal. It was near the arena in a modern building where five other players had apartments as well. He spent his following sporadic off-days collecting furniture, linens and dishes. He tried not to remember how much easier this had been with Ellie.
The team had a few short road trips, and then as the first month of the season rolled into the second, they had a lengthy home stretch. Without much besides hockey to occupy his time, Rafe would head to the arena on game days far earlier than he needed to. The arena had a large team lounge, and he’d make a snack before sitting down to read the newspaper. It was a little old-fashioned these days, but he liked reading a real newspaper and smelling the pages as they turned in his hands, rustling all the while.
He snapped it open one day before a game with a satisfied sigh. A few more players trickled in and out of the lounge as he sat there, reading every section of the paper. Then he reached the lifestyle section and almost set it down. He didn’t care much about the latest in Montreal gossip. But he held on to it and scanned the headlines. Turning the page, a picture caught his eye and all the breath left his lungs in a whoosh.
Sitting forward, his hands tightened on the edges of the paper, crinkling it. He didn’t care. He couldn’t take his eyes from the picture. It was Ellie. His Ellie. She looked happy, her eyes squinty from smiling so wide. Rafe swallowed hard and took in the rest of the picture after a moment. She wore a chef’s smock of some kind and her hair was pulled into a loose braid that hung over one shoulder. She stood in front of a glass case filled with pastries and cookies and other desserts.
Why was she in the newspaper? Rafe managed to pull his gaze away from her face to scan the headline. ‘Local Restaurant Review: Sweetest Desires.’ The review wasn’t long, as it wasn’t an actual restaurant, but it was clear the reviewer was impressed and rewarded the patisserie four out of five stars.
Rafe’s gaze went back to Ellie’s face. She looked happy. Of course she was. This bakery was the manifestation of years of her dreams. Rafe was so proud of her and was so disappointed that he hadn’t been there to share it with her. Not that he would have any right to. She’d made that clear years ago when they’d separated.
Someone dropped onto the couch beside him and he glanced over to see Braden smiling in greeting.
“Something good in there, Rafe?” Braden jerked his chin at the paper in Rafe’s hands. “You look intense.”
Rafe shook his head and folded the newspaper together, setting it on the table. He stared at it for a moment, wondering if anyone would notice or care if he took it with him when he left later.
Braden slapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, Rafe. Big game tonight. You want to work out before warm-up?”
Rafe nodded and cleared his throat before speaking. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
The workout and game versus the Ottawa Senators did little to erase the thought of Ellie standing in front of her bakery, smiling for that picture. At the end of the night, he went back to the lounge and took the newspaper, which he wasn’t altogether sure was a good idea. He took it home and sat on his couch for hours, staring at her face and missing her.
Sometime around dawn, he threw the newspaper aside and covered his face with his hands. What was he doing? He’d been fine for years now without her. Then one sight of her sweet, smiling face turned him back into he wreck he’d been when he’d first left Montreal. It made him mad. Mad at her, and mad at himself.
With a groan, he went to bed.
Hours later, he woke up, still not in the best of moods. The newspaper sat there on the floor where he’d left it, mocking him. He tried to ignore it but couldn’t. With a muttered oath, he scooped it up, his eyes scanning the address at the end of the article. Then he got dressed and left his apartment.
Sweetest Desires wasn’t far from his building so he walked. The air had a bite to it, and he pulled his collar up when a cold wind swept along the sidewalk. The oncoming winter was perfect for Rafe’s current mood.
Then he spotted the sign on the sidewalk, a chalkboard listing today’s special of something called Pumpkin Perfection. Rafe smiled in spite of himself, his steps slowing as he approached the storefront.
He looked up at the big sign over the wide front window. The letters were huge, done in a deep purple color with floral embellishments on either end. His gaze dropped to the front door in time to see a couple walk out hand-in-hand, each holding a clear container with some orange frosted confection inside.
He looked back to the door and squared his shoulders. He could do this. He was an adult. So was she. And neither of them could go the rest of their lives pretending the other didn’t exist.
He reached for the door handle and walked in, flinching at the bright tinkling sound of the bell hanging above his head. The smell was the first thing he noticed. It was rich and sweet, and warm enough that he had to take his gloves off. Then he saw the glass display case and felt his heart twist at the familiar sight of so many favorite desserts.
Movement behind the counter on the other end caught his eye and he looked up as Ellie came out from the back. She had a smile on her face and whatever she’d been about to say died on her lips. For a long moment, they stared at each other.
Rafe was struck by the sight of her. She was as beautiful as ever, even with the wisps of hair escaping her braid and the mottled flush in her cheeks. He could tell at a glance that she’d been stressed about something before his appearance. His fingers itched with the desire to touch her and he shoved his hands in his coat pockets to erase the sensation.
“Hello, Ellie.” Rafe took a few steps closer to the counter, and to her.
He watched her throat work as she swallowed and he tried to smile. He wasn’t sure if he succeeded.
Rafe took another step closer. “How are you?”
She stared at him, not speaking.
Rafe’s smile became genuine at that. “Cat got your tongue?”
“What are you doing here?”
Her tone was less than welcoming and Rafe’s smile slipped. He shrugged and gestured at the display case. “I saw your review in the Gazette and wanted to see the place.”
Ellie looked at the case to her left and seemed to relax a degree. “Would you like to try something?”
Rafe blinked. Did she really think he’d come to buy a cupcake? He shifted on his feet and glanced at her before looking back to the goods on display. “I’m pretty sure I’ve tried all these at some point or another.”
When he looked at her again, the flush was higher in her cheeks.
She twisted her hands together in front of her. “You’re probably right.”
She offered him a wobbly smile that did things to Rafe, like make him want to leap over the counter and hold her. He knew that smile, knew she was all torn up inside and putting on a brave face. He hated that she felt like she needed to do that with him.
A tense silence fell between them and Rafe didn’t know where to look. The expression on her face cut him deep and he had no idea what to say to make it better.
She gathered herself first, the shaky smile gone. “Rafe, why are you here?”
Rafe let out a breath and shook his head. “I wanted to see you, Ellie.”
She stiffened at his words. “Why.”
The word was flat, more of a demand than a question. Rafe bristled at her tone. “Whatever happened six years ago, I still care about how you’re doing.”
“In six years, you’ve never dropped in on me to ask.”
“I haven’t been in the country, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“How could I forget that?”
Rafe clenched his teeth together to keep from snapping. In minutes, they’d gone right back to where they’d left off.
“Look, if you’re not here to buy something, perhaps you should go.”
Rafe narrowed his eyes. “Is that what you want?”
She met his gaze with her own steady one. He could see her jaw was set and that familiar stubbornness was in her gorgeous blue eyes.
“You want me to walk out of here and never come back?”
“Why break the pattern now?”
Rafe drew back, feeling like she’d thrown something at his head. He saw her expression change as she realized what she’d said and watched his reaction. Her cheeks flamed and her mouth turned down at the corners.
“I’m sorry, Rafe.”
Rafe tried to speak but his throat tightened for a moment. He looked away and cleared his throat. “Yeah, me too.”
He looked back to see her head hanging and her shoulders hunched. While he stood there, wondering what to say to turn this around, he heard her draw in a sharp, shaky breath and knew she was on the verge of tears.
Hating himself and angry with her for letting it go this way, Rafe jerked his gloves back on. Fine. If she wanted him to go, he’d go.
“See you around, Ellie.” And he left.
Eliza stood frozen to the spot as Rafe walked out of the bakery. She didn’t lift her head until she’d caught her breath and knew she wasn’t about to burst into tears anymore.
The door rang and for a split second, Eliza’s heart leapt, thinking it was Rafe again. She looked up, half-expecting to see him walking in.
“Hi!” Amelie rushed in with a smile. “Sorry, that took way longer than I thought it would.”
Eliza felt disoriented for a moment as her employee hurried behind the counter. Then she remembered that Amelie had had to duck out for a bank appointment. That was why Eliza had been covering the front end. It hadn’t been a big deal, being their slow time on what was turning out to be their slowest day of the week. Eliza didn’t mind getting out of the hot kitchen every now and again. At least, she hadn’t, until Rafe had walked in.
“Did I miss anything?” Amelie came back to the front after dropping her coat and purse in the office. She wrapped an apron around her middle and headed over to check the display case. “Some of these are looking low. Should I refill them?”
Eliza didn’t hear her at first. It wasn’t until Amelie touched her arm that she looked over. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
Amelie smiled. “Has it been a long day, Eliza?”
She didn’t know the half of it. Eliza managed a smile and shook her head. “I’m fine. What did you ask?”
Amelie pointed at the half-empty tray of macadamia cookies. “Should I refill?”
Eliza glanced at the clock on the opposite wall. They’d be closing in less than two hours and it was their slow day. “I don’t think so. It’s getting late. Just make sure the boxes and bags are stocked up and we should be fine.”
Amelie nodded and started to do as Eliza asked. Eliza watched her for a moment before glancing at the door again. Then she told herself not to be foolish and walked to the back.
Nola was there, rolling some cookie dough for the chocolate and cherry pinwheel cookies. They were rolled and formed every day before closing and chilled overnight, then sliced and baked in the morning.
Eliza watched her work and twisted her fingers together. Her encounter with Rafe played over and over in her head and she was ashamed of how she’d reacted. Rafe’s sudden appearance had shocked her and she’d said some thoughtless things.
In all her daydreams of the day she’d see Rafe again, she had never acted as she had today. Seeing him had surprised her and she’d love to blame her reaction on that but she couldn’t. She didn’t even have a phone number where she could reach him to apologize. She rubbed her cheek, still feeling heat there from her embarrassment earlier.
“Are you all right, Eliza?” Nola’s voice broke in her thoughts.
“I’m fine.” Eliza shook her head. “Just tired, I think.”
Nola smiled, her chubby cheeks pink from the heat of the kitchen as well. “Well, no wonder. You’ve been here every day since we opened and I know you spend your day off every week coming up with more recipes.”
Eliza smiled at that. “Is Julien telling tales again?”
Nola laughed and eased the cherry layer of cookie dough over the chocolate layer on the wax paper spread out on the work bench. “Julien would never tell tales on purpose but he does talk an awful lot.”
“That’s very true.” Eliza slipped onto the stool at the end of the workbench and watched Nola roll the two layers of cookie dough together. “You have a real knack for that, Nola.”
Nola beamed at the praise and patted the ends of the long roll before wrapping the wax paper around it. “Thank you. That means a lot coming from you.”
“How are your business classes going?”
Nola let out a groan as she turned to put the cookie roll in the cooler. “Awful. I feel like such a dunce sometimes.”
“You’re not a dunce.” Eliza smiled at the term. Nola was a young woman but spoke like an eighty-year old. She didn’t even think Nola owned a television. She never heard her talk about modern movies or music. “You’re just a dreamer.”
Nola shook her head. “That’s a nice way of saying my head is in the clouds.”
“Has someone else said that to you?”
“Not lately.” Nola sighed and grabbed a washcloth to clean the workbench before she started on another cookie roll. They offered two types of pinwheel cookies, the chocolate cherry and a strawberry cream one.
Nola started on the strawberry cream mixture and Eliza helped by gathering a few ingredients from the storage room. As she set the mixing bowl on the table, she had to turn away to hide a yawn.
“I saw that.” Nola’s tone was teasing.
Eliza turned back with a guilty smile.
“Why don’t you go home?” Nola measured out some sugar and tossed it over the cream cheese in the bowl. “Amelie and I can close up. You look exhausted.”
Eliza narrowed her eyes in a mock glare. “That’s a nice way of saying you look like shit.”
Nola burst out laughing and Eliza joined her a second later.
“You know, I think I will go.” Seeing Rafe had rattled her and she knew she’d be useless for the rest of the day, short as it may be. “You’re all right with closing up?”
Nola nodded and shooed her out of the kitchen. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Eliza grabbed her things from the office and said good-bye to Amelie before heading out the back door to the alley where her car was parked. The cold air slapped her in the face and she shivered, hurrying to do up her jacket. It wouldn’t be long before the snow arrived. She hurried to her car and was grateful the heater had no issues getting started today.
She drove the short distance to her house but instead of going to her own back door, she went through the garden to Maribel and Julien’s house. She knew Julien was at a meeting with their printers about some menus and Maribel should be home. She’d been away on one of her business trips until that morning and wouldn’t be going back to her office until the next day.
“Eliza!” Maribel looked up from her paperwork at kitchen table when Eliza banged through the back door. They rarely knocked on each other’s doors before entering, the result of so many years of being friends and neighbors. “What a surprise. It’s so early.” Maribel glanced at the clock over the stove and back at Eliza. She took in Eliza’s expression and stood up. “Oh no. What’s happened?”
“Rafe came to the bakery today.” Eliza said it without preamble, needing to get it out and share with someone.
Maribel ushered her further into the kitchen and told her to take her coat off. “I’ll put some water on.”
Eliza smiled. Maribel’s answer to almost everything was tea. She may need more than tea later but for now, she needed to stop shivering.
“What was Rafe doing at the bakery?” Maribel came back to sit with her at the table, shuffling her papers together and stacking them to one side.
“I’m sorry.” Eliza watched her moving the paperwork. “Were you working?”
Maribel waved a hand in dismissal. “Don’t worry about it. Tell me what happened.”
Eliza did, everything coming out of her in a rush. The whistle on the kettle blew and Maribel hurried over to pour the boiling water into two mugs. She added tea bags and urged Eliza to keep going.
“That’s pretty much it,” Eliza said when Maribel brought her one of the mugs. She cupped her hands around it and let out a breath at the stinging heat of the porcelain. “He left and didn’t come back.”
Maribel sat beside her and set her mug on the table. “How do you feel, Eliza?”
Eliza let out a short laugh and shook her head. “I don’t know. Half of me feels like I imagined it and the other half is mad.”
“Mad at him?”
“Yes. No.” She clapped a hand to her head. “God, I don’t know.”
They sat in silence for a bit, Maribel patting Eliza’s arm and the tea steaming in each of their mugs.
“How did he look?” Maribel’s quiet question broke the silence.
“He looked good.” Eliza lifted her head, her cheeks warming at the memory. “So damn good, Maribel.”
Maribel bit her lip but Eliza could see the mirth dancing in her bright green eyes. A moment later, she couldn’t contain herself. She started to laugh and Maribel joined her. They dissolved into giggles until Eliza wiped away tears.
Yes, Rafe had looked good. He always had, to her. With his dark brown hair and dark eyes, that crooked smile and the way his beard wouldn’t grow in properly around the scar on his chin. She knew the shape of his broad shoulders and recalled with perfect clarity how she would fit against his chest, with her head under his chin, as if they’d been crafted for each other.
Her heart broke again and she choked on a sob. Before she knew it, Maribel had her in her arms and was rocking her. She spoke in French, soft, kind words meant to comfort, but Eliza didn’t register it.
A short while later, they were sprawled on the couch in the other room, watching a bad horror movie. Julien found them there and exchanged a single glance with Maribel before announcing that tonight he was craving Chinese food. Then he stayed out of their way as he ordered the food for delivery and tidied up the kitchen to make room for it.
Eliza knew all this went on around her and squeezed Maribel’s hand in thanks. She watched the movie and ate the Chinese food and walked home in the dark to her empty house. She didn’t cry again but her sleep was restless, filled with dreams of Rafe.
Excerpt from “Cold as Ice” – Work-In-Progress
(All rights reserved – copyright Tamara Clarke, January 2015)
It was dark when Alexis Jenkins’ plane landed in Raleigh. She waited in her window seat as the plane emptied and played with the straps of her purse. When she realized what she was doing – a nervous habit she’d always chastised Mina for – she flexed her fingers and tossed the strap over her shoulder. Then she drew in a deep breath and stood up to follow the last of the passengers off the plane.
The terminal was quiet as she moved with the crowd from her plane towards the baggage claim. They must have been the last flight arriving for the night. Alexis clenched her fingers on the strap of her purse and kicked her chin up another inch. She found comfort in her usual stance and straightened her spine when someone glanced her way.
She tried to remind herself not to be nervous. She’d been planning this move for months. She’d talked it over with her dad and Mina. Even her younger brother, Adam, had thrown in his two cents. They all agreed that it was a big change but she was very lucky to have this opportunity at so young an age.
Young, she thought and smiled. She’d be thirty before she was even settled in her new home and certainly didn’t think of herself as young any more. Still, she was forced to agree with them. In her line of work, thirty-year old gallery managers didn’t often get jobs as museum curator’s assistants.
A smile tugged at her lips. I’m just a bundle of surprises.
A man passing by glanced at her and in a reflexive gesture, she replaced the smile with her usual sober expression. The man blinked and moved on without another look. Alexis wilted. She watched the man move towards another woman. They spoke in low tones before he placed his hand on her shoulder and leaned close to kiss her temple.
A spike of envy went through Alexis and she brushed it off. She hadn’t moved to a new city in a new state to find a man. She’d come for an exciting new job, to perhaps further her education and to make a name for herself.
She knew if she kept reminding herself of that fact, she might succeed in convincing herself.
With a sigh, she found a luggage cart and took a spot next to the baggage carousel where she waited for the track to start turning. Once she’d gathered her five-piece set, she wheeled the cart outside to where the taxis were waiting.
The museum was putting her up in a hotel for the first week since the condo she’d bought wasn’t ready yet. She’d get the keys for the condo on the following Sunday but for now, she was a resident of the Umstead Hotel.
I suppose I’ll have to look into getting a car, too, Alexis thought as she walked through the sliding doors. She’d had no need for one in Baltimore. Her workplace had been within walking distance of home. She had most of her wardrobe with her now for her short stay at the hotel. Her father and Adam would be driving up with the big rented truck full of her other belongings and her furniture in another week, once her condo was hers.
She should be stressed about all the changes in her life and she supposed she was, but it was tempered with a buzz of excitement that she hadn’t felt since she was a kid. She smiled as she recalled the thrill of high school graduation and a nearby taxi-driver all but jumped to attention.
“Can I help with your luggage, miss?” he asked.
Alexis blinked and nodded. The cabbie helped her load her luggage into the trunk and she slid inside the back seat.
“The Umstead Hotel, just off North Harrison.”
The driver nodded and eased into the traffic filing away from the airport.
Alexis settled back in her seat and stared out the window for the short drive. As the driver pulled up in front of the hotel, a valet hurried out to assist with her luggage. Alexis gave the young man a grateful smile. She hadn’t realized until then just how tired she was. From start to finish, the day had been stressful, to say the least. She was looking forward to a long bath and a soft bed.
After the valet left her alone in her room, she stood in the center and looked around. It was very nice, comfortable and modern without being ostentatious. She would get along fine here until her condo was ready.
She tossed her purse on the dresser and picked up one of her suitcases. She set it on the bed and unzipped the top flap. Pulling a couple smaller pouches out, she took her toiletries to the bathroom and stared down at the bathtub.
Of all her habits, her greatest indulgence was long, hot bubble baths. She’d go all out, with candles, fine wine, and a good book. Then she’d cover every inch of her body with one of her favorite lotions and snuggle up in bed with a good book.
She fingered the standard issue hotel towels and sighed. They were better than the average hotel but still not as good as her own set. She also didn’t have candles or a fine wine. But she had a book, her own fuzzy terry-cloth robe and slippers, and there was a mini-bar. With a smile, she set her things down on the bathroom counter and went back to her suitcase to find everything she’d need.
Her life might have changed as she knew it, but she at least had her few comforts.
In another few minutes, she had most of that suitcase put away – everything she’d need for the next week – and she stripped before donning the bath robe she’d packed. She wiggled her feet into some old slippers she’d packed and looked around. She spotted the wet bar and walked over to see what they had to offer.
“Hmm.” She frowned as she leaned down and gazed at the tiny bottles. She wasn’t much of a drinker but she’d make an exception tonight. It’s a special occasion, after all.
She pulled out a couple bottles and eyed them before setting one on the bathroom counter. Then she grabbed the ice bucket and her key card and slipped out into the hallway. If she hadn’t been so tired, she might have cared more about walking through a hotel with nothing on but a robe and slippers. She padded on quiet feet to the end of the hall, where the vending and ice machine room was and just about jumped out of her skin when a man stepped out of the room in front of her.
“Oh, sorry about that, miss,” he said in a deep baritone.
Alexis drew up straight, clutching the ice bucket to her chest. Miss? She almost glanced over her shoulder to see if he was talking to someone else. “I-it’s fine,” she replied with a weak smile. Oh God, did I just stammer?
She had and with damn good reason. The man was over six feet tall and positively dwarfed Alexis, who wasn’t short or dainty by any stretch of the imagination. He was dark-haired and the shadow on his face was more two-day old stubble than the lighting. He wore a hotel bathrobe and nothing on his feet. At her embarrassing stammer, a grin spread across his face and Alexis felt her breath catch. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen such a handsome man.
Alexis blinked and drew herself up to her full height, color flooding her cheeks. “I beg your pardon?”
His smile dimmed at the sharpness in her tone and he gestured at the bucket in her hands. “Ice. You need ice, princess?”
Oh. “Oh, right.” She dropped her eyes to the bucket and took a step to move past him, shaking herself free of the memory that had come to mind at his words. “Yes. Excuse me.”
He nodded and leaned against the door, holding it open as she walked inside the little room. She glanced up at him and offered another weak smile. His grin returned and thick lashes drooped over his eyes, mesmerizing Alexis.
Alexis nodded as she moved to the ice machine and lifted the lid. She heard his deep chuckle as she dumped a scoop of ice into the bucket.
“You won’t tell me your name, princess?”
“I didn’t think you were asking.” Alexis stood up and faced him.
They eyed each other in silence and Alexis fought down a smile that was threatening. He laughed again and stepped back to hold the door open for her. They took a few steps down the hallway, soon realizing they were in neighboring rooms.
“I could keep calling you princess but since we’re neighbors, I think real names might be better.” He stopped and faced her when she paused at her door. “I’m Jared Marshall. And you are?”
She bit her lip and smiled. “Alexis Jenkins.”
“Nice to meet you, Alexis Jenkins.” He leaned against the wall next to her door, still grinning at her. “Are you here for business or pleasure?”
“You’re very direct, aren’t you?”
He laughed and shook his head. “Why waste time? At my age, I’ve learned that patience is not one of my virtues so I find it’s best to get to the heart of things as soon as possible.”
“Sound philosophy,” Alexis murmured and fiddled with her room key. “What happens when you meet someone who won’t acquiesce?”
His eyebrows shot up and his grin turned sly. “I have yet to meet such a person.”
“Hmm, interesting conundrum then.” She took another step and slid the card into the lock. Propping the door open with one hip, she turned to look at Jared. He was standing very close and that was when she caught the whiff of alcohol on his breath.
Figures, she thought, any elation she’d felt draining away in an instant. Every man needs to be drunk to deal with the likes of me. She managed another smile anyway. “Good night, neighbor.”
“Good night, princess.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask why he was calling her princess. She pushed the thought away as she walked into the room and shut the door behind her. For a long moment, she leaned back against it, clutching the ice bucket in her hands. Then she pushed herself away and turned to lock the door.
Her bath and the tiny bottles of liquor awaited. That was all she had and all she’d need. For now.