Fiction Friday: Curve Ball

Happy New Year! It’s been a whole year of Fiction Friday. We have a few weeks left of Curve Ball, then I’m not sure what will be next. Maybe another of my practice novels that will never be published…? I hope I don’t have any more of those, but I probably do. Sigh… Here’s to 2011!


Chapter Twenty-Eight

Cami stared in horror, bile rising in her throat. She ran to the sink, barely making it. Mortified, she turned back to the others. Absolute silence resonated as everyone gaped at the brown and tan feathers scattered on the table around the sparrow. Grant leapt to his feet, grabbed the envelope and swept the bird into it. Petey tried to grab the package, then sank to the floor with a disgusted sigh as Grant threw it into the trash.

“Who-” Peg didn’t finish her question. They all knew the answer.

“I hate this!” Cami cried. “This is sick, just sick. What’s next?” She wanted to lay her head on the table and sob.

“That’s it.” Grant strode to the phone, and then stood holding the receiver. “I don’t know who to call. Not 911. And Detective Bermudez will have more useless platitudes.” He slammed the phone into its cradle and moved to gather Cami in an embrace. She longed to collapse and cry, to break down and wail. For a moment she relaxed into his arms. But only for a moment. Then she stuffed those emotions back into their box and spoke in a still shaky voice. “We have to get it out of the garbage. The police will want to see it.”

Grant stared into the trash container before pulling the envelope out and taking it back to the laundry room. He returned as Cap picked up the phone and stepped out the French doors onto the patio. Cami could see him talking, his face somber.

She looked up at Grant. “There’s no way this is one of my students, or anyone at the center. No one I know would do such a horrible, despicable thing.”

Grant stared at her. “You still don’t get it.”

“Get what?” Surely he wasn’t going to keep insisting a kid would do this?

“This is someone who knows you, and you know him. But when you see him face to face, he’s only showing you what he wants you to see. This evil is his true self.”

“If you’re right then I have to second guess my feelings about everyone I know. If I can’t trust my feelings, I have nothing left.” She looked away as she realized what she’d said. It was the first time she’d ever admitted that to herself, never mind out loud.

“Cami – you don’t mean that.” She’d forgotten Peg still sat at the table.

“If I’m so easily fooled and manipulated, then I can’t trust myself to know truth when I hear it.” Cami folded her arms across her chest.

Mr. Andrews came back into the kitchen and hung up the phone.

“I called Mongoose.”

“Do you think that’s necessary?” Peg’s tone was aghast.

“Great, Dad, thanks,” Grant said.

“Who’s Mongoose?” Cami asked.

“A buddy of Dad’s, from the Navy,” Grant answered. “He’s former PSYOP.”

Cami stared at Cap. “What do you do in the Navy?”

He smiled reassuringly. “I’m just a logistician. I make sure personnel get where they’re supposed to be when they’re needed. I’ve made a few friends along the way. Mongoose is retired, but he’s a consultant now, specializing in kidnap and hostage negotiations. I caught him between jobs, he’s on his way here.”

“I don’t think I need anyone like that,” Cami said. Did she? But it was nice of Cap to call a friend and ask a favor for her. “I appreciate the offer and I know you mean well, but-”

Grant interrupted. “Just meet with Mongoose. That won’t hurt anything, will it? At least tell him what’s going on and get his perspective on it.”

As Cami considered, her head waggled. It would be a waste of time, but if it would make Grant feel better, she could spend an evening talking with his friend. “I guess it’s okay.”

“Great.” Grant hugged her, while Cap looked at her with appraising eyes. She returned his gaze, not sure he was just a logistician.

Peg brewed more tea. The strong flavor and shots of caffeine helped them spend the next twenty minutes pretending everything was normal. The light knock at the front of the house was a relief. Cami felt the tension drop as Grant opened the door.

Cami had been wrong in her presumption about this old friend of Cap’s. Mongoose was slightly taller than she was, and had some overlap of his belt. She’d visualized someone tall and lean, the proverbial soldier of fortune. This man looked like her Uncle Manny: brown hair a little long on the collar, and a coffee stain on his sport shirt but he carried himself like a soldier. Straight back and firm hand shake.

He greeted Cap, Peg, and Grant who stepped to Cami’s side.

“This is Camille Henderson. Dad called you about her problem.”

“Yes.” Mongoose held her hand for a moment as his eyes bore into hers. She involuntarily looked to Grant for reassurance, he nodded and smiled back at her.

“Miss Henderson, it’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Vic Aldrich, but please call me Mongoose. Cap says you need help. Tell me about it.”

Cami sighed and looked at the others. “I’m not convinced you can do anything.”

“At least tell me what happened. To not talk after I’m here would be a waste of Cap’s phone call. If I don’t have any ideas, I’ll be honest with you.” Mongoose didn’t even look at Cap who didn’t seem insulted.

“I guess it won’t hurt.” Cami sat down again at the kitchen table. She forced herself to sip the tea, cold now, but it gave her hands something to do. “There have been some odd things happening that could be explained by a stalker if my life were a ‘Movie of the Week.’ But I don’t believe anyone I know is capable of all this.”

“Like what?” Mongoose sipped from the cup Peg placed in front of him. She seemed to know what he would want without asking. Peg and Cap leaned against the counter behind her interrogator. Grant looked from Cami to the three people across from her then pulled a chair out and sat next to her as she began to talk. His arm rested against the back of her chair. She drew a deep breath, feeling better with him beside her.

“Some phone calls at first. Anonymous cards and notes. Then my car was vandalized. Today I opened my mail and a dead bird fell out. A little sparrow.” Cami shuddered as she remembered the still form tumbling out of the envelope.

“When did the calls start?”

She knew this one. “February.”

“So three months? Give or take.” Mongoose had not changed position or moved his eyes from hers since he started asking questions.

“I guess so.”

“And the notes?”

“Definitely Valentine’s Day. I thought, and still think, they were anonymous students.” She had to look away, he was so intense.

“You’re a teacher?”

“I‘m actually a painter. But I do teach art enrichment at the Agua Vida rec center.”

“Has anyone ever boxed you in?”

“What do you mean?”

“Obstructed your way out of a room, so you felt trapped. Or blocked you inside a parking space.”

“Well….” A few weeks ago, she took Petey to the beach for a run and returned to her car to find it hemmed in by an old wreck. She’d waited an hour for its owner to return and move it. Just as she gave up and called the police, two kids from church had showed up and pushed it out of her way. She’d thought nothing more of the incident. She told the story now, her earlier fear returning. She folded her arms across her chest, to hide the shaking.

“Which kids?” Grant asked.

Mongoose’s eyes narrowed as she breathed in and debated whether to evade the question. Something in that dark gaze compelled her to answer with the truth.

“Kyle and Anthony.”

Grant’s left hand gripped her arm. “And you’re just now remembering that?”

“I never connected it with the phone calls. And I still don’t.” She shook her head and looked at Mongoose. “I will not accept that this is one of my students.”

“I understand.” He leaned back in his chair and took another sip from his mug. “Let’s talk about something else, get acquainted. How long have you known Grant?”

“Years.” She forced a smile. “We went to Woodrow Wilson High together. But we met again a few weeks ago. And you?”

“Since he could toss a ball up in the air. He’d stand in the backyard for hours, throwing and catching. He missed a lot more in those days than he does now.”

Cami unfolded her arms and leaned back in the chair. She glanced at Grant who was looking at Mongoose with a mystified expression. Cap and Peg still stood behind their friend. Cap’s arms were folded across his chest, while Peg’s hands were on her hips. They exchanged a glance before Cap raised his chin at Grant.

“What’s going on?” Foreboding crept up Cami’s spine.

Mongoose frowned before answering. “Grant doesn’t like to be reminded of those days before fielding grounders became second nature.”

“Cap said you retired from the Navy.” They weren’t simply getting acquainted, but she would play along.

“I do consulting work now, mostly in the area of negotiations.”

“Like ransom demands?”

“Sometimes. Usually it’s boring corporate contracts.”

“What’s PSYOPs?”

“Psychological Operations.”

“Was Cap?” Maybe the change of subject would distract him.

Mongoose smiled at her. “Cap’s a pencil pusher.”

“I resent that.” The pencil pusher spoke up.

“You can resent it, but you can’t deny it.” Mongoose’s eyes never left Cami’s as she shifted in her seat, exposed and raw. Could Mongoose see into her soul? Looking like he could read her thoughts, he leaned in his chair, tilting so far back he looked at Cap and Peg behind him.

“How much longer are you gonna sit behind that desk anyway?” Mongoose asked his friend.

“Two more years. You know that.”

“Tell me about Kyle and Anthony.” The legs of his chair hadn’t touched the floor when Mongoose’s question snapped Cami’s attention back to him. She jumped.

“Is this a negotiation?”

“You tell me about your students, I’ll tell you anything you want to know about the Andrews family.”

Cami considered. Kyle and Anthony weren’t stalkers, so this could be a way to persuade Grant she was right. And she’d learn a little more about him and his family in the meantime. “Deal. You go first.”

“I asked you a question. You answer and you get to ask one.”

“They’re both seniors at Woodrow Wilson High. Kyle is smart, he’s applying to PAC-Ten schools, and he plays baseball. So does Anthony, but he’s not in Kyle’s league. Where did you meet Grant?”

“Okinawa. He was three and partial to a droopy, dirty stuffed animal he called Mr. Bear.”

“Hey.” Grant stood up from beside Cami where he’d been watching their interplay. “I didn’t agree to this.”

“You’re collateral.” Mongoose’s eyes never left Cami’s. “Do you know Kyle’s and Anthony’s families?”

“Kyle goes to my church. I met Anthony’s mother at a Christmas party at the rec center.” She cast her mind around for a topic to distract him with. Then she saw her mail still on the table and the corner of the collectibles catalog gave her an idea. “Who was Grant’s favorite super-hero?”

“Peter Parker. Is Kyle’s family intact?”

“Are his parents still married to each other? No. Is there a sport Grant isn’t good at?” Cami relaxed a little.

“He can’t bowl and he stinks at croquet.” Mongoose stood, walked to the stove, and filled his mug with hot water. “Kyle is your stalker.”

“You got that from a few random questions?” Her ease disappeared and a gnawing disquiet took its place.

“I am a professional.”

His confidence mocked her and suddenly Cami wanted nothing more than to leave the room. She got to her feet.

“It’s not Kyle,” she said with certainty. “Or Anthony. Or any other student.”

Mongoose crossed the room with a quickness that belied his sloppy appearance and took her hands in his.

“Miss Henderson, I don’t mean to sound flip, but I am a professional. I’ve been doing this for a very long time. If I tell you some things about Kyle, and they’re true, will you consider the possibility?”

Cami stared into his eyes, then felt Grant’s gentle hand on her shoulder.

“I know you don’t want to believe it, but you need to know the truth,” he said. “I promise, whatever it is, I’ll be here.”

Grant’s certainty concerned her. Would he keep his promise, even when it turned out he was wrong and it was a psychotic stranger? She ignored the doubt about Kyle that had gone from tapping on her consciousness to running at it with a battering ram of reason and logic.

Grant stood behind her chair, waiting. He’d been so patient. Would he get tired of her stubbornness? And of her?

She sat with a resigned shrug. “Okay. Convince me.”


Fiction Friday: Curve Ball

I also did some research on stalkers to get some of these details right.


Chapter Twenty-Seven

Grant stood, hands on hips, the sling on his right arm askew, as he delivered the lecture. He looked down, sorrowful at having to speak so strongly. “I’m disappointed in you. I expected better.” He shook his head. “I want to trust you but you’ll have to earn that back.”

Petey’s shoulders drooped, like he understood Grant’s words and was sorry. Grant pointed into the laundry room the dog had destroyed. “Who’s going to clean that? You tore up some of Cami’s mail. You scattered the food she brought. That was supposed to last all week. What happened to the wimpy dog we all know and love?”

Petey stood and shuddered, like he was shaking off the reprimand and getting ready to ruin the rest of the house. “Am I going to have to keep you confined to one room? I don’t want to treat you like a two-year old, Petey. But I will if you insist.”

Grant exhaled, blowing out irritation as well as pent up air. “After telling me her story yesterday, she’s going to be fragile today. She’ll need me to be supportive, which will be hard if I’m mad at you.” Now he was talking to himself, instead of Petey. That dog was on his last nerve, pacing and moping. The demolition of the laundry room when Grant had been busy activating yeast and measuring flour finished off his patience.

Petey stared at him, as if wondering what Grant was so concerned about. “Okay. I need to start the figasa dough rising and Cami will be here any minute. Can I trust you to stay out of trouble?”

Petey flopped down on the kitchen floor, but kept an eye on the laundry room, as if he didn’t want whatever was in there out of sight. Grant poked his head in as well, but the vision of the slobber-encrusted floor, scattered dog food, and mangled envelopes sent him back to the kitchen. Figasa first, clean-up next.

He set the bowl of dough on the island as the doorbell rang. Finally. He wiped his hands on the towel slung over his shoulder as Petey clambered to his feet and rushed to the entryway.

“Who is it, Petey? Is Cami here?” The dog whined, getting louder as Grant moved closer to the front door. Grant fumbled with the doorknob and dead bolt as Petey’s distress increased in proportion to how long it took to get the door unlocked. Grant finally opened it to Cami waiting on the porch. Petey hurled himself at her, crying with what could only be joy.

She dropped her purse as she buried her face in his neck. Grant waited for her to stand and greet him, but she sat on the floor and continued to pet Petey.

“You must be feeling better,” she said to him.

“He’s fine,” Grant said, more of an edge in his tone than he’d intended.

“Is something wrong?” She finally looked up and met his gaze.

He took a deep breath. Get a grip. “Let’s say he’s been waiting impatiently, and it’s contagious. He’s glad you’re here. I’m ecstatic.”

She flushed, and he set his teeth. She hadn’t even made it all the way inside the house and he’d already managed to stir her insecurity. Maybe he should have lectured himself rather than the dog. How could he convince this woman she was special? She saw herself as damaged but to him, she was uncommonly sensitive and compassionate. He’d seen it in her interactions with Anita at the laser tag arcade, and with Ellen Spencer.

She returned her attention to the dog. Exasperation continued to nibble at him as he offered his left hand. “Let’s go into the kitchen.”

She took his hand and pulled herself up. He wrapped his good arm around her in an embrace. She was stiff, not at all the woman who’d left last night. He smothered a sigh, released her, and led the way into the kitchen. “I’m making figasa and it’s almost done rising.” He indicated the table and chairs set in the bay window overlooking the golf course. She dropped into a chair and Petey set a paw on her lap.

“I know, sweetie,” she said, rubbing his muzzle. “I miss you, too. How is Grant treating you?”

“Better than he deserves. Orca, on the other hand….” He let his voice trail off. He needed to tell her about the destruction, but a few minutes of chatter would help ease into it.

“Is that cat mean to my boy?” She continued running her hands over the dog’s nose and past his ears. “What’s he done that’s so awful?” She sounded defensive and he spoke quickly to let her know how annoying Petey had been.

“Besides the constant whining and pacing and looking for you? He got into the bag of dog food and treats you brought over yesterday and tore it all up. You had some mail in there, too. My laundry nook looks worse than the locker room after a double header.” He filled the stainless steel teakettle with water and set it on the stove. He turned the burner on, then leaned against the island, legs and arms crossed in front of him.

“He’s not being intentionally bad,” she said. “He’s been through a traumatic experience. He’s in a strange place. With a cat and without me.” She wrapped both arms around the dog’s head, as if protecting him from any more danger.

Petey huffed with contentment. Or victory. Grant wasn’t sure which. “I know, and I’m trying to be understanding.” But you haven’t seen the floor in there, he thought. Better change the subject. “How was the luncheon?”

“Interesting.” Her voice lightened. “I met your replacement’s wife. Ellen put me between her and Yvonne West.”

“Did you do something to tick her off?” He forced a chuckle to lighten the atmosphere. “Ellen is the most even-tempered person I know.”

“She put me by Melinda Wrightson because we were both new but she forgot about the whole replacement thing. And, someone had to sit by Yvonne.”

“Lucky you. Did you get coerced- I mean volunteer for anything?”

“I had lectured Melinda about saying no to things she wasn’t interested in. And since she was listening to every word, I had to practice what I’d preached.”

“Good for you.”

“The whole day seemed weird though.”

“How?” The kettle began to whistle. He poured the boiling water over a Lipton tea bag and set the mug in front of her. “Sorry, I’m out of Raspberry Delight and Lemon Passion.”

“This is great, thanks.” She cupped her hands around it. “I’m not used to all the designer clothes and everyone’s perfect looks. I felt seriously out of place with paint under my nails instead of polish on them, hair that takes up a whole extra seat at the movies, and no initials on my purse.”

Curious, he asked the obvious question. “Do you want that stuff?” He hadn’t thought a Rolex or Jag would impress her.

“I never did. But looking around today, I started to see how people get sucked into the mindset where it matters what name is on their clothes. I didn’t like it.”

“I don’t care what name is on your stuff.”

“I know. And I love that about you.”

His neck got hot. She had to have realized what she’d said because she was staring intently into her tea. She took a gulp from the mug, and then turned red as it must have scalded her tongue.

A timer went off and he grinned, turning his back to hide it. “I want you to finish that thought in a minute.” He ducked out of his sling as he moved around the center island and brought the heavy ceramic bowl from the counter. He sprinkled flour on the marble slab, then tipped out a mound of dough. A soft cloud rose. Setting the bowl aside, he plunged his fist into the middle of the mass and began to knead.

“Is it okay for your shoulder to be doing that?” she asked.

“Just like some of my exercises.” It did pull a little, but no worse than therapy.

She moved to a stool and watched as he folded the top half of the dough down, pushed it into the bottom half, shifted the whole thing a quarter turn and repeated. They talked about the luncheon as he worked.

He had already sprayed a large baking sheet with olive oil. Keeping the dough cradled in both hands, he slipped it onto the pan, then working from the middle out, he pressed with both fists, spreading the soft dough until it covered the pan. He finished with a brushing of more olive oil across the top, pricked it all over with a fork and then a sprinkling of coarse salt. It would later be served warm with sliced salami and wedges of dry jack cheese.

“350 degrees for thirty minutes.” After sliding it into the oven, he began washing the bowl and other dishes.

“Let me do that.” Cami stood and took the dishrag from him.

“I’ll never argue with a lady who wants to do dishes.” And who felt at home in his kitchen.

They traded spots as she finished the washing. Twenty minutes later, she put the last dish away.

“Let’s sit,” Grant said. Finally, the chance for a few minutes alone with her.

The doorbell rang. Great. Petey looked up, found Cami, and laid his head down again.

“If it’s not you, he’s not interested.” Grant went to the entry and opened the front door. His parents stood on the porch.

They walked in, Mom practically in the middle of a sentence. “-thing smells good.”

“I just put figasa in the oven.” He returned her hug and cocked his head toward the kitchen.

“I’m such a good mother.”

He laughed out loud. “How do you figure that? Not that you aren’t.”

“I must have done something right to raise a son who will bake for his mother.” She saw Cami as they entered the kitchen. “Never mind. Now I know who you’re baking for, and it’s not your mother.”

“I didn’t know you were coming,” he protested.

“Nice try. Hi, dear.” She hugged Cami who stood and shook Dad’s outstretched hand.

“We dropped by to see how your therapy was going.” Mom bent over to scratch Petey’s head. “Is this the invalid?”

“That’s him,” Cami said. “He’s feeling much better. But he had me worried.”

“What’s this about a stalker? Grant told us a little bit.” She sat at the kitchen table and Cami joined her.

Uh oh. Grant leaned against the counter next to Dad and tried to send a message via body language. Don’t be a military problem solver. Just listen. Don’t give her any reason to get mad at me for telling you.

“Someone has been watching and following me.” Cami recapped a few events of the past weeks.

“Are you okay?” Mom asked.

“Physically, I’m fine.” Cami paused before continuing. “Mentally and emotionally, I have good days and bad.”

“I don’t wonder.”

“It’s a student.” Dad spoke at last.

Grant shot him a glance. “Wait a-” he said, ready to argue.

Dad silenced him with a glance, like when Grant was eight and had skipped a scout meeting for a trip to the batting cage with a friend. But he wasn’t a kid and Cami wasn’t Jimmy Farris with a stance problem. He tried a different tactic. “Why do you think so?”

“It adds up. Sounds like most things have happened during non-school hours.”

“But couldn’t it be someone from a job site? Or the rec center?” Cami asked.

“Could be. But there’s an immaturity to the vandalism that screams ‘adolescent.’ Antifreeze is readily available. If it were an adult, he’d take pride in using something harder to get hold of. Like cyanide or strychnine. To prove he’s serious.”

Alarm clouded her eyes. “But you’re talking about kids.”

“Now, Cap,” Mom said, “don’t go scaring her with speculation.”

“Evil can be found at any age.” Dad hadn’t moved, standing like a sentinel next to Grant, arms folded and intently focused on Cami.

“I know that’s true.” She searched her tea mug again.

Grant’s timer went off and he moved to the oven. Maybe a distraction would help. “Petey hasn’t been fed yet, Cami,” he said. “Do you want to do it?” Then he remembered the state of the laundry room. He hadn’t had a chance to clean it up after Petey’s rampage.

“I’d love to.” She stepped into the adjacent laundry room where she’d left the sack of supplies for the dog last night. Sounds of dismay came from her direction.

He moved to the doorway as she glanced around. “Hard to know where to start, isn’t it?”

“I am so sorry. I had no idea.” She grabbed the broom leaning against the washing machine and began sweeping up kibble and bits of shredded flyers and envelopes. Petey trotted in and nosed at the mail. “Bad dog.” She glared at him and he sat with what sounded like a sigh of disgust.

Grant backed up. “Leave it for later,” he called. “Just feed him and come back in here.” He shot Dad a look, trying to tell him she needed tenderness, not tough love. And not a military debriefing. Dad looked right back.

Mom asked Grant about his shoulder as Cami returned with a scoop of dog food that she deposited into the navy blue ceramic dish with Petey’s name on it in white script.

“Getting stronger every day,” he answered, watching Cami sit and sort through the stack of bills and letters.

“I just want to throw the junk away,” she said, flipping through it and setting most of the stack aside. At the bottom was a large padded envelope. She looked it over, then shrugged and ripped open the end. Tipping it, she shook the contents onto the table in front of her.

A scream died in her throat as a dead bird tumbled out.


Fiction Friday: Curve Ball

The movie scene is based on real life. My husband and I watched Master and Commander  and after the ship’s doctor operated on himself, Dave said he was just as manly and strong and macho, then he could barely get up out of his chair. He’d worked outside all day and got stiff and sore. I laughed and knew Grant would say the same thing.


Chapter Twenty-Six

Grant served Cami dinner and they spent the evening watching an old western movie on television. All during the show, she gave Grant sideways glances. Yes, he was still there. His jaw clenched during the action scenes and she had to force herself not to reach out and try to smooth away the tension. Finally, the closing credits rolled and she stood and stretched.

“Someone who can operate on himself,” Cami said, referring to a scene from the movie. “Now that’s a tough guy.”

“Reminds me of myself,” Grant said as he unfolded his stiff right arm and tried to stand. “Ouch. Can you give me a hand?”

Cami’s laughter woke Petey from a doze. He sniffed, relaxing as he confirmed her presence.

“I don’t like the thought of you driving to Paige’s by yourself,” Grant said.

“I’ll be fine. No one knows I’m here or where I’m staying.”

“What are you doing tomorrow?” He extended his right arm over his head and leaned left.

“That luncheon at Ellen’s, remember?”

“Oh, right. Are you coming to see Petey?”

“I thought I’d swing by after. Is that okay?”

When Grant didn’t answer, she looked at him. Here it came, she was sure. How would he say it, that he never wanted to see her again?

But he was grinning and then he winked. “It’s great.”

“You stinker.” She laughed, not sure if she should be relieved or outraged. Gratitude won though. He felt okay with it all enough to tease her.

Cami leaned over the dog and ran her hand along his muzzle. Petey’s soft nose comforted her as much as her nephew Austin’s blankie did him after a bad dream.

“I’ll take good care of him.” Grant read her mind.

“I know.”

She picked up her purse and moved to the front entry. Petey followed. Grant snapped the leash on the dog’s collar and opened the door. Man and beast walked her out.

“Thank you again,” he said.

“What for?”

“For trusting me and sharing your story.”

“It was scary.” She hunted for her keys, thankful for an excuse not to meet his gaze. Was she ready for whatever came next?

He seemed to sense her emotional retreat because he cupped her chin in his left palm and brushed her lips with his thumb. “And I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you.” She wanted to kiss him, to feel his lips on hers. Instead, she grabbed her key chain, clicked the alarm off and climbed into the driver’s seat. “I’ve got to go. Thanks again for dinner. And Petey, and - ”

“Enough of this mutual thanks society we’ve got going here. Call me when you get inside Paige’s. And if I haven’t heard from you in fifteen minutes, I’ll come looking.”

She waved goodbye and backed out. Glancing in her rear view mirror before turning the corner, she saw him watching from the driveway.

The next morning, as Cami drove to the luncheon, she called Grant to check on Petey and got an update. Everything was fine.

She parked in front of the Spencer’s home a little early. Sitting in front of the sprawling ranch house, she wondered what she was doing there. She’d been so preoccupied with Petey that she’d accepted without thinking about it. So, why did Ellen invite her?

A few minutes later, she asked Ellen that question as they walked onto the back patio where they’d had dinner a few nights earlier.
“A couple times a year I invite all the wives and steady girlfriends of the players to lunch or tea. Joe makes friends with the athletes and I do the same with the women. You’re a new friend and I wanted you here.” Ellen threw an arm around Cami’s shoulders and hugged her. That was so sweet. Cami hugged back, and they stepped onto the patio.

Cami helped Ellen arrange centerpieces on tables and light tiki torches scattered amongst the shrubbery. The back yard had been transformed into a tropical oasis. The waterfall sprouted hanging ferns, and bright flowers floated on the pool. Hawaiian music could be heard over the sound of falling water.

“Did you do all this yourself?” Cami asked.

“Most of it. We usually do luau-type parties, so I’ve been collecting decorations for a few years. I rent extra tables and chairs and the linens. My sister is a caterer, and it’s easier to pay her to do the food than try and do it myself. We hire teenagers from church to serve.”

“It’s a set from South Pacific. Just gorgeous.”

The French doors opened and Yvonne West joined them.

Ellen greeted the wife of the Coyote’s General Manager. “Yvonne, so nice to see you. Have you met Camille Henderson?”

“I believe so. Grant Andrews’ latest, isn’t that right?”

Cami flushed and looked for a hole to fall into.

“Yvonne, you make it sound like Grant’s a sailor with a woman in every port. He’s not into the groupies, you know that,” Ellen said.

“Of course. I was only teasing.” Mrs. West accepted Ellen’s rebuke with grace. She extended her hand in Cami’s direction. Cami took it, but the other woman’s refusal to firm her grip into a real handshake told Cami the apology was for Ellen’s benefit.

“Please forgive me, Miss Henderson.”

The perfunctory words toppled Cami’s already fragile composure. Her eyes filled and she looked away. “Certainly.” She excused herself and escaped into the bathroom where she leaned over the sink to splash cool water on her face.

“What a hateful woman. See if I ever help her with one of her precious literacy programs.” Speaking quietly into the mirror helped. She blotted moisture from her cheeks with one of Ellen’s guest towels and stared at her reflection. Wisps of hair were already curling in the warm humidity of the backyard.

Great. She didn’t need this, especially after the last few days. Stress over Petey, the talk with Grant last night and now this … woman. Cami gripped the edge of the sink and stared at her reflection. You can do it. Go out there, smile, make some small talk, eat lunch. And then get the heck out. After touching up her lipstick, she returned to the battleground, er… party where more guests had arrived.

That was odd. Both Cinda and Delia stood by the pool. Cinda’s husband was a player, but why was Delia here?

“Hi Cami,” Delia said as she walked by.

“Um, hi?” Cami heard the tentative tone and cleared her throat before continuing. “How are you?” But Delia had turned away to continue a conversation with a redhead in a strapless green sundress.

Relieved from the need to make nice, she looked for Ellen. If Cami could keep busy helping with hostess duties, she’d be saved from any more forced socializing.

Ellen emerged from the house with an ice bucket.

“There you are,” Cami said. “What can I do to help?”

“Put this on the table with the drinks.” Ellen gave her a quizzical look.

“Glad to.” Cami smiled brightly as she took the container to where tubs of iced drinks sat.

“Can you believe she still hasn’t hired extra help for this?” Cinda dug around in the bright plastic container, pulling out cans and dropping them back in, not finding what she wanted.

“What do you mean?” Cami asked.

“Every year Ellen has all the women over. And every year we’re fending for ourselves, having to dig through these tubs like dogs looking for bones. All I want is a diet soda. You’d think she’d hire a bartender, Joe makes enough.”

“Well, I like it. It feels comfortable. Just like Joe and Ellen.”

“Oh yes, they’re comfortable all right.” Cinda found what she was looking for and walked off, flinging drops of ice water from her fingertips.

Cami set the ice bucket on the table and rearranged the colorful plastic cups, mixing up the tropical shades into a mosaic of turquoise, purple, yellow, and orange. She also took a moment to dig through the ice and make sure an assortment of drinks was near the top. As she chose a can and popped it open, she looked around at the other guests.

There sure were a lot of designer labels here. More than she’d ever seen in one place. Hmmm. She wondered if there were enough initials on purses to anagram into other words. Lots of F’s, D’s, B’s, and C’s. Not enough vowels to do anything with though. She amused herself for a moment, seeing the scene at a boutique clearance sale. The redhead would sucker punch Delia for a hobo bag. Oh, get real, she sighed. These women didn’t need to worry about sales or outlet shopping.

Ellen stepped outside and asked everyone to find her seat. Place cards were on the tables and Cami found hers between Yvonne West and a young woman she didn’t know. Great. She picked up her place card and thought about switching it, but she’d been seen. Forcing a smile, she replaced it in the pineapple wedge holder and introduced herself to the stranger who had watched her predicament.

“Pleased to meet you,” came the reply. “I’m Melinda Wrightson.” She spoke so softly, Cami had to strain to hear her.

“Are you married to one of the players?” Cami asked.

“Larry Wrightson, the new shortstop. And you?”

“I’m dating the old shortstop.”


The silence echoed louder than the chatter surrounding them.

Cami sipped from her glass. She shouldn’t be here. And why did Ellen seat her next to this woman? Well, she’d eat and leave. She could excuse herself and say she had to get back to Petey. “Thank you,” she said to the teenager who set a plate in front of her.

Mrs. West leaned across Cami to introduce herself to Melinda. They continued to chat as if Cami were a blank spot between them. She tried to pretend fascination with the chicken on her plate.

Yvonne questioned Melinda about her interests and what charities she was involved with.

“None right now,” Melinda said.

“Well, you must.” Her tone brooked no argument. “I have a foundation that promotes children’s literacy. I’d love to have you join us.”

“I’ll have to think about it.” Her voice had a slight drawl that made her sound easy-going, but Cami detected steel beneath the non-committal words.

“Don’t think too long. It’s an important cause.”

Melinda turned her attention to her plate, and Yvonne switched conversational focus to her other side.

“I was warned about her.” Melinda’s voice was low and Cami wasn’t sure she’d heard right.

“Pardon me?”

Melinda smiled as she swirled the iced tea in her glass. “Larry told me to beware of her. I guess he heard something.”

“Aren’t you interested in literacy?”

“I’m not against it.”


“I’m not a committee-slash-fundraising kind of person. I volunteer in my daughter’s classroom, that’s what I enjoy.”

“Then that’s what you should do.” The gnat of annoyance buzzing around her all morning became a circling vulture and she spoke louder than she’d intended. “Your daughter is more important than any anonymous foundation.”

“It’s hard for me to say no. And I have a feeling Mrs. West isn’t used to hearing that word.”

“It’s a skill you can learn. Like bowling. The more you use it, the better you get at it.”

Melinda smiled. “I’m a terrible bowler.”

“But if you went every week, wouldn’t you get better?” Cami took a bite of mango from the fruit salad.

“I guess.” Melinda shrugged.

“So start saying ‘no’ once in a while, to practice.”


“Very good.” Melinda was sweet. It wasn’t her fault her husband had been given Grant’s job. “Where are you from?”


“Grant told me the triple A team had sent their shortstop up.”

“I’m sorry about his injury. How’s he doing?”

“Really well. Larry better not get too used to the job. Grant intends to be back.”

“Larry knows that. Baseball is very tenuous. Because in spite of being a sport, it’s a business first.”

“I’m still learning that.”

Melinda and Cami continued to chat while finishing their lunch. Teenagers in black slacks, white shirts, and leis served the coconut cream parfaits as Yvonne West aimed her crosshairs at Cami.

“How about you, Miss Henderson. When will you be joining my foundation?”

“I’ve given it a great deal of thought, Mrs. West. But because of my job and other personal commitments, I’m going to have to say not at this time.”

“Your job?”

“I work full time.”

“But won’t you be quitting that?”

This woman didn’t get it. “Why would I?” Cami asked.

“Because your first priority should be Grant and his career and how you can best further it.”

“Grant understands I have a career also.”

“Because you’re only a girlfriend and not a wife, it will be overlooked. But if you marry Mr. Andrews, you will be expected to do your part.” Yvonne managed to look down her nose as she buttered her sweet Hawaiian roll. “It’s very important that all members of the Coyote family are committed to charitable work in the community.”

Maybe saying she already did “charity” work would get Yvonne to back off. “I appreciate that, Mrs. West. But I will be giving to the community by teaching art enrichment at the Agua Vida Community Center.”

Yvonne’s face relaxed, the sudden vulnerability softening Cami.

“I truly believe in the good work we do. The ability to read is vital for the basics of life. We ensure that people are able to fill out job applications and take driver’s license tests.”

“I believe in those things too,” Cami said. “But I support them in other ways.”

Yvonne sighed. “It really is important to the front office that everyone in the Coyote organization be active in the community. I may apply that pressure up front, but it exists behind the scenes as well.” She rose from the table and Cami watched her approach Ellen to say good-bye.

“I guess I got off easy.” Melinda watched Yvonne cut a path to the door.

“Did you take notes? I was polite, but I stood my ground.”

“You’re my new hero.”

Cami laughed. “I don’t know about that, but since I just lectured you, I had to stay firm.”

Melinda excused herself as Ellen slid into Yvonne‘s seat. “What did you say to the grand dame of the Coyotes?” she asked, picking up the scattered red napkins.

“That I can’t serve on her literacy foundation.” Cami leaned back and finished her iced tea.

“I’ve never seen her that way, like she was-” Ellen paused, seeming to search for the right word. “Thwarted. She believes passionately in her foundation, but she also enjoys the power it gives her over some of the rookie women. I don’t think she’s used to being denied.”

“Probably not.”
“And I’m so sorry for seating you next to Melinda,” Ellen said, looking stricken. I was thinking that you were both new to the team this year. It never occurred to me until now that her husband took Grant’s position.”

“It’s okay. I like her. But why did you seat me by Yvonne West? I felt like Daniel tossed into the lions’ den. What did I ever do to you?” She smiled to show she was joking. Mostly. “And Delia?”

Ellen raised her eyebrows. “Where Cinda goes, Delia goes. And someone had to be next to Yvonne.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“I know she can be overbearing, but you handled her great.”

“I don’t know about that.” Cami set her napkin on her plate. Could she get out of here now? She was anxious to see Petey. And Grant, she had to admit. He’d had a night to think on what she’d said about her past and Patrick. Would he still accept her? Or had he changed his mind?

More women approached to thank Ellen as the luncheon broke up.

Cami busied herself blowing out candles and gathering up soiled linens. Ellen’s caterer sister came outside to ask a question about leftovers. Cami finally said goodbye and escaped back to her Tahoe.


Fiction Friday: Curve Ball

I read a lot of books and did quite a bit of research so Cami’s situation and response were authentic. I’m still not sure I got it right.


Chapter Twenty-Five

Cami felt Grant’s grip on her shoulder tighten. “Because of what he did to you?” he asked, his voice deepening.

“No.” She relaxed into the embrace. Could she do this? She’d never told the whole story except to her therapist. And then she’d been plagued by nightmares for weeks. But Grant had been loving and kind and patient. He deserved to know the whole truth. And if it changed his feelings about her- well, she’d have to take that risk.

“After college I moved back to Agua Vida and tried to figure out what to do. An art degree isn’t a ticket to lots of job offers. So to put some food on the table, I took a couple of jobs doing walls for friends, they referred me to their friends, and pretty soon I had a business. I met Patrick on a job. He was the staff architect for a contractor in Agua Vida and he designed a remodel of an old Victorian into a bed and breakfast. I painted some murals in a couple of the rooms. And beautiful borders of roses with-”

Grant nudged her and she forced herself to leave the Victorian hearts and flowers.

“Anyway, he asked me out to lunch one day. I thought it was business. You’ve seen how I look at work. And he’s-” She paused again. How to describe Patrick was always a conundrum, now more than ever. “Well, he’s not as tall as you. And everyone thinks he’s gorgeous.” She didn’t say he made Tom Cruise look like another frat boy.

Grant shifted, jostling her a little. “You don’t have to be tactful. Just say he’s Mr. Perfect. It’s okay.”

“He’s attractive on the outside,” she admitted. “And I couldn’t believe he was interested in me – the frizzy-haired painter at the job sites.”

“I can believe it.” Grant hugged her close again. “You’re gorgeous when you work, paint in your hair and on your nose.”

Dismay struggled with hope. If he thought she was attractive in work clothes, would he ever act on that attraction like Patrick?

She searched for something to say, but Grant spoke first. “Enough fishing for compliments,” he said. “Did you start dating after the lunch?”

“Yes.” Talking about Patrick’s looks was hard enough. Talking about him, his temperament and personality was the hard part. She sent up a Help Me prayer. “And as we got more exclusive, Patrick got more possessive. He didn’t like me spending time with my girl friends, and if I talked to another man, even for work, he went crazy. And he said it was my fault, that I dressed too provocatively and flirted. But I didn’t, I swear I didn’t.” Her voice rose with passion. Grant had to believe her.

“I know.” He sounded sincere. “Sweatshirts and jeans are your style.” He patted her shoulder and she drew a ragged breath.

“I learned in counseling that it wasn’t about my clothes at all, it was a control thing. But when you’re in that sort of relationship, the abuser twists things.” She dug in her pocket for the packet of tissues she always carried to wipe up paint smears. Her nose was starting to run, she must be allergic to something here. Yes, something like male tenderness, a cynical voice inside said.

“Did anyone else see what was going on?”

“Paige was going crazy, trying to warn me. Our singles group was watching a video series on relationships. I had bruises from her elbowing me in the ribs whenever control issues were mentioned.”

“Then what happened?”

She closed her eyes. “We went to a good-bye party for one of his co-workers.” She paused as her memory banks took over. She could almost hear Celine Dion belting out The Power of Love from the stereo system. And smell the beer mixed with pepperoni.

“Patrick starting drinking. I didn’t want to drive home with him so I asked around for a ride. A guy I knew from a job offered to take me home. When I told Patrick I was leaving, he cried and apologized and begged me not to go. He gave me his car keys and said I could drive myself, but just please don’t leave with anyone else. So I told my friend that I wouldn’t need a lift after all. I went into the room where the coats were and Patrick followed me.” She shuddered and her eyes filled with tears. This was too hard. “Grant, I can’t.”

He squeezed her shoulder again. “I won’t hurt you.”

“I haven’t trusted my feelings for a long time. Because I thought Patrick was harmless. I thought everything wrong in that relationship was my fault. I was stupid about everything.”

"You're not stupid. Why would you think that?”

“I didn’t know what an abusive relationship looked like, much less that I was in one. I learned about enabling later. I guess I should have paid more attention in that college Psych class.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“And I was naive. I didn’t know nice girls get hurt, too.” She swallowed a sob.

“What happened when Patrick followed you into the room?” His voice had become quiet and his body still.

Tears rolled down her face. “He pushed me down on the bed and-” She took a breath to steady her voice. “He kept telling me it was my fault, that my skirt was too short and my blouse was too tight, that I was forcing him to do it. By the time I realized what was happening, he’d… raped me.” She breathed in and counted to five like she’d been taught. The breaths were shaky but even. Her words seemed to echo in the silence.

As they sat, the sun cast shadows on the wall in front of them. She watched the dust motes hover in the light. Was Grant going to tell her to leave? What would she do with Petey? She held her breath. What if he told her he couldn’t care for someone so careless? He didn’t seem to be that kind of man, but one thing she’d learned was that people didn’t always behave how you thought they would. Or should. She reached in her pocket for another tissue to blow her nose.

Grant didn’t move, except to shift his arm and hold her closer. His hand cupped her elbow.

“I wish I’d been there for you.”

She shook her head. “I was so ashamed. And frightened I would get pregnant or a disease. I couldn’t tell anyone what happened, not my parents, not Paige. I believed him that it was my fault.”

“What did you do?”

“Patrick passed out, and I ran out of the house and drove myself home.” There, she’d told the whole story. And with only three sodden tissues clutched in her hands.

“That’s not the end,” Grant said. “I mean, what did you do about Patrick? Did you call the police?”

“No. I -” Why couldn’t the phone ring and save her from having to tell the rest of it?

“Please, Cami,” he said. “How can I help if I don’t know it all?”

She swayed a little, spent by the emotion but forced herself to keep talking. “I spent the first hour in the bathtub. Then I went to bed. And I stayed there for a week. My family thought I was stressed and overworked. Patrick called a few times, but I said I was too sick to talk to him. He got a ride to come pick up his car. He sent flowers and a big stuffed animal.” That was why she hated roses. She’d pulled all the bushes out of her yard when she first moved into her house. “I put the flowers in the garbage disposal and threw the bear away. My mom figured it out.”

“She did?” He sounded puzzled.

“She came to my apartment and said she knew everything. She didn’t, but she guessed a lot of it. She drove me to the police station and I made a report. Then she took me to the doctor for a pregnancy test and blood work and cultures to check for diseases.”

“Good for her. And for you.”

“It was my word against his. And without enough evidence to prosecute, the D.A. filed it in the abyss. I decided to move away, make a fresh start somewhere else. Before I did, Patrick was involved in a hit and run accident. He’d been drinking again and he killed a young mom and her little girl. I wanted to die too, when I heard that. A woman my age and her two year-old daughter, dead because of me.” Her voice rose on the final word.

“Because of you?” He shifted on the couch to face her again. She searched his eyes for any signs of disgust or revulsion, but saw only puzzlement.

“He had me convinced that all the problems in the world, but especially his, were my fault. And I was messed up enough to buy it, to think the stress of the rape charge drove him to drink. I started seeing a counselor who helped a lot. ” As hard as all that had been to learn, those therapy sessions had been sliding-into-first-easy compared to this. Now she faced a major league pitcher with a yardstick and was trying to hit it out of the park. Grant would never think of her the same.

“I’m crazy about you,” he said, then paused to look in her eyes. “But I’m pretty sure you don’t control other people’s foolish decisions, like drinking and driving. Or Madonna’s movie career.”

She tried to smile at the joke and achieved a small one that pulled at her damp cheeks. “One of the biggest lessons I took away is that the world doesn’t revolve around me. Human nature is pretty ego-centric, and we think others are more interested in us than they are.”

“I see that a lot in my world,” he said. "Athletes aren't known for their humbleness."

“I had a student once at the center, a pretty girl. She got a hair cut and she wrote an essay about her feelings that day. She asked me to proof read it. She didn’t like how her bangs turned out and she said people in other cars were laughing at her as she drove home.”

“You’re kidding.”

“That’s extreme, but it’s an example of how people, especially teenage girls think.”

“What happened after the hit and run?”

“The police found him when he tried to get his car repaired. He was so arrogant, to think he’d get away with it. He was sentenced to fifteen years.” She spread her hands on her knees, stretching out her fingers. “He’s not out yet. So, I’m sure he’s not the stalker, but it would be so convenient if he were. At least I’d know who it is.”

“You decided not to move away?”

“I’d be letting him win. And I couldn’t think of a place far away enough from the memories.” She paused as she remembered returning to work and finding a new apartment. There was gossip and some whispering at church, but after a couple of weeks everyone seemed to move on and find other things more interesting. “I stayed in counseling for a while. A few guys asked me out, but I was afraid they would try to continue what Patrick started. I insisted on only group dates, so I was safe in a crowd.”

“Then you met me?”

She smiled. “Something like that.”

“You said you learned about being self-centered. What else?”

She breathed deeply. “I learned God is in control. That’s why I can talk to you about trusting him for the healing of your shoulder. I really do believe that He works out everything for our good. Like Romans 8:28 says.” And not to trust anyone with my safety. But she couldn’t say that one out loud.

He hugged her close. “I’m proud of you.” He loosened his grip and rubbed her arm. “Thank you for telling me.”

“No, thank you.”

“For what?”

“Not asking me to leave.”

“Why would I do that?” He sounded bewildered.

“Because you didn’t want to see me anymore. You might think I was… damaged goods and …” She couldn’t finish the thought.

“Cami, what happened was not your fault. You didn’t bring it on yourself and I would never blame you. Do you understand?”

“My head does but my heart is afraid.”

“You’ve been living behind alarms and pepper spray for too long. You see danger everywhere because you want to be justified in retreating from life.”

“I don’t -” But he was right.

“What can I do to convince you that I’m sticking around?”

“Maybe you have.” She smiled as her heart lightened. “I’ve spent two years being on guard and I’ve forgotten what a nice guy is like.”

“So no more thinking I don’t want you here. In fact, I still wish you would stay with me, but I’d never force you to do that. Or anything else.” His voice grew stronger as he spoke.

“Thank you.” It came out as a whisper.

“The bathroom's down the hall.”

“What?” That was a weird way to change the subject.

"I think you're gorgeous, but you probably want to go splash cold water on your face or something."

Oh, not a subject change, just a hint. "I've been crying for an hour, there is no way I look like anything except a boiled shrimp.” She wiped her cheeks dry. “Puffy eyes, splotchy skin, runny nose. That is not a pretty sight."

“It is to me." He looked deeply in her eyes and what she saw there convinced her against all reason. "Now, I’m grilling chicken breasts and vegetables for our dinner. And tossing a green salad. Do you want potatoes or rice?”

“Rice, please.” Her voice was a little louder, but still tentative.

“Come keep me company in the kitchen after you do the splashing thing.” He stood and pulled her up from the couch. He continued to wrap his left arm around her a moment longer, then nudged up her chin so he could look into her eyes. He kissed her forehead before letting go and heading into the other room.


Fiction Friday

I thought it made a good quirk to have Grant be a cat guy instead of a dog person. Hmmm… in my current work in progress, the hero is also a cat lover…


Curve Ball

Chapter Twenty-Four

Grant stared at the ceiling instead of sleeping. His shoulder throbbed and he’d already taken a pill that refused to dull the pain. Trying to carry Petey into the vet’s office had been a mistake. The strength he’d diligently built up in the last weeks had drained away as Petey slipped from his grasp. Grant rolled onto his left side and pulled a pillow close to his body for his right arm to rest on.

A black shadow leapt onto the bed and crept towards him.

“Hey, Orca.” Grant rubbed the cat’s head and listened to the purr. “You’ve been fed and you have fresh water. What else do you need?” The cat ducked and butted his head into Grant’s hand. “Just some affection, huh?”

“Oh, no.” Grant sat up straight. “I forgot to ask Cami about lunch Saturday.” The numbers of his bedside clock glowed, 11:43. “Should I call?” They hadn’t had a late night phone chat before. Isn’t that what couples do? So it would be a new element in their relationship. Orca continued to rub and purr which Grant took as an assent.

He dialed Cami’s cell number.


He knew by the warmth in her voice that she’d checked her caller ID and recognized his number.

“Hope I didn’t wake you.”

“No. I should be exhausted but I can’t sleep. Paige and I talked for awhile, trying to remember when all this started.”

“Any luck?”

“The phone calls started in February, and I also got some unsigned Valentines with odd messages. I thought one of my friends was playing a joke on me, but now I’m not sure.”

“The more pieces you can put together, the quicker we find and stop this guy.”

“I need to ask you another favor.”

“Name it.” He’d wrestle crocodiles if it would help her trust him.

“I can’t keep Petey with me here at Paige’s.”

“Technically,” he said, lowering his voice, “that’s a favor you’d have to ask Orca. I’m not sure he’ll agree as easily as I would. If it were up to me, that is.”

“Will he take a bribe?” A lighter note crept into her tone. Was she finally relaxing enough to joke with him?

“He’s been known to accept offerings of tuna or scrambled eggs with cheese.”

“How about caviar with crème fraiche?”

His heart skipped. A definite joke. “Did I mention that’s only step one?” Maybe he could lighten her mood and make her forget the day. From the phone call that morning, to Petey’s narrow escape, and her near breakdown.

“Now I’m in for it.” He could hear the smile in her voice. “What’s step two?”

“Frequent visits to keep Petey out of Orca’s hair. Literally and figuratively.”


He leaned back into his pillow. “Then I have his authority to accept the deal. When should we expect him?”

“Will you be around in the morning?”

“Except for therapy.”

“I’ll call you after I talk to Doctor Lorenzo,” she said. “It’s late, so-”

“Hey, I almost forgot why I called. Ellen Spencer is having some of the players’ wives and girlfriends over for lunch on Saturday, and she’d like you to come.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She paused. “I would love to, I like Ellen. But I can’t think that far ahead right now.”

“I’ll let her know you’re a maybe. She’ll understand.”

“Thanks. I better get some sleep. You should, too.”

“I will.” Too bad he couldn’t keep her talking all night. But there was nothing he could say that wouldn’t scare her off. He settled for a simple parting. “Goodnight, Cami.” He waited for her response.

The silence lingered until she finally spoke, her voice wistful. “ ‘night.”

Encouraged, Grant hung up the phone and returned to his back, to watch shadows inch across the ceiling. And think about a certain auburn-haired artist.

Cami dozed fitfully until she heard Paige in the shower at 5:15. She gave up hope of any sleep and wandered into the kitchen to start Paige’s coffee and the kettle for tea. When Paige entered a few minutes later, she stopped in her tracks.

“Who are you, and what have you done with my friend?”

“Very funny.” Cami sat at the small table in the nook, waiting for the kettle to whistle.

“You haven’t seen this hour with the letters AM after it in how many years?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“When will you call the vet?” Paige poured herself a bowl of cereal and leaned against the table while she ate.

“Not till eight.”

“I’ve got appointments all day, and a mystery shop tonight. Will you be all right?”

“Yes. I’ll work till noon, then pick up Petey if he’s ready. Grant said he’ll keep him.”
“Good.” Paige rinsed out her bowl and put it in the dishwasher while wiping down the sink and digging in her purse, a vision of multi-tasking.

“What’s your shop?” Cami asked. She loved hearing about Paige’s stealth shopping. Being paid to eat and shop sounded like a dream job, but it paid little, not even minimum wage when you factored in driving and reporting time. Paige had started in college to supplement her living allowance and she still accepted a periodic job, just to keep her foot in the proverbial door. Because of her careful analyses and reports, she occasionally got to shop a gourmet restaurant or stay at a resort as a reward. So she still did fast food and casual dining reports.

“Dinner at the Waffle House. Yum.” She sighed. “Make yourself at home, here’s my spare key.” She tossed it to Cami and was gone.

Later, as she wrote a check to Dr. Lorenzo, Cami realized Janis’s coffee shop job would help cover the vet bill. She breathed a prayer of thanks Janis had approved the final result that gave her enough to pay the total without a panic attack about making her house payment. Of course, the cost didn’t matter as long as Petey was okay.

Doctor Lorenzo came out of an examining room to give Cami the final instructions for the dog’s care. “He was definitely given antifreeze. The plastic bone had pin holes so it really soaked it up. Ethylene glycol is extremely toxic and by the time symptoms manifest, it’s usually too late. Your quick thinking with the hydrogen peroxide and rushing him here saved his life.”

“I’m so glad he’s okay. I can’t thank you enough.”

“Hydrogen peroxide has to be fresh to work. If you’d used an opened bottle, he might not have survived.”

Cami’s mind flashed back to shopping at Target when she’d placed the brown bottle in her red cart, next to the fabric softener. “I happened to pick some up a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t know why, but I guess God did.”

“Here are instructions for his care. Basically, keep him quiet for a few days, make sure he has plenty to drink. Bring him back on Monday, for a quick look-see. I expect him to fully recover.”

Cami tucked the sheet of paper in her purse, and waited for the aide to lead Petey out.

“Hi, boy.” She squatted in front of the dog and hugged his neck. Hot tears stung her eyelids. “I missed you.” His tail swayed gently and he licked her cheek. She clipped the leash onto his collar and led him outside.

Several minutes later, he was loaded in her car. He didn’t want to jump in by himself. And the adrenaline rush fueling her the day before was gone. Finally, a combination of lifting, pushing, and coaxing got him stretched out across the back seat.

As she drove up the freeway toward Newport Beach, she kept glancing in her rear view mirror at the dog. His eyes were closed but his breathing held steady.

Once they arrived at Grant’s house, she rang the bell before unloading Petey. If Grant came and said hello to the dog, it might help Petey adjust to his temporary quarters. And her to seeing Grant for the first time after their late night phone call.

The door opened and Grant stepped out. “Hi.” He embraced her and all awkwardness flew away. She hugged him back.

“Hi, yourself. He’s still in the car, can you help me get him out?”

“I’ll try.” But once Cami opened the car door, Petey lumbered out by himself. He stood and moved his gaze from one of them to the other.

“Easy as sliding into first.” Grant shut the door and led the way back to his front entry.

“He must be feeling better, it took me forever to get him in there. And you don’t slide into first. Even I know that much.”

“That’s why it’s easy,” he said. “What do we need to know?”

Cami repeated the vet’s words and gave Grant the directions for Petey’s care. She’d brought his favorite food and some treats, as well as the huge plaid pillow he slept on. She’d stopped by her house long enough to pick up those things, her mail, and more clothes for herself.

“I started some chicken marinating for dinner. Can I interest you?” Grant asked, leading her into the great room.

“I’d love to. I didn’t want to impose, but I hoped to stay for a while and help Petey get used to you and Orca. Thank you so much for keeping him.” She moved to the kitchen and set the bag of food and treats on the table.

“We’re glad to have him. Orca promised to behave himself.”

“I read a quote recently that said, ‘After scolding one's cat, one looks into its face and is seized by the ugly suspicion that it understood every word. And has filed it for reference.’ Will Orca hold a grudge against you for allowing Petey into his home?” She walked back to where Petey sat at Grant’s feet and rubbed his ear.

“Probably,” Grant said. “My favorite cat quote is, ‘Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea.’ I don’t think Petey needs help learning to relax or I’d offer to help.”

“You’re right.” Cami sat on the leather couch and tucked her feet under her. The dog ambled over and with a groan of fatigue, collapsed on the floor near by.

Grant sat in his recliner and pushed back, raising the footrest. “Did you call the police about all this?”

She sat up straight. “I forgot! What time is it?”

Grant glanced at his watch. “Only a little after four. You can try Detective Bermudez.” He flicked the wooden lever on his chair, stood, and went to the kitchen. He returned with a cordless phone.

She dug in her purse for the officer’s business card, then took the phone and dialed the number. She stood to pace while waiting for the connection. Grant sat back down, on the sofa this time, and ran his hand over the dog’s head.

“You scared us, buddy. Who gave you the toy? You can tell me.” Petey rolled onto his back and lifted his front legs into the air, forcing Grant’s hand to his chest.

Cami watched them while listening to the police line ring before an automated announcement picked up. “He’s gone for the weekend,” she said.

“Leave a voice mail.”

Cami talked into the receiver, telling Detective Bermudez the details of Petey’s poisoning. She disconnected and stood, not sure what to do. Sit next to Grant? Take his place in the recliner? Stand and pretend to look at the view?

Grant patted the couch beside him. “Have a seat. I’ll start the salad in a bit. How’re you and Paige getting along?”

Cami sat and leaned her head back. “Fine, so far. Of course, it’s only been about fifteen hours. We couldn’t room together in college. Hopefully we’ve both matured enough so we can last more than a day.”

“You’re always welcome here.” He shifted on the couch to face her, his eyes wide, his expression sincere.

She steeled her heart not to fall for a line. “I appreciate that, Grant. But I can’t stay with you.” She tucked her hair behind her ears and hoped he wouldn’t press her. She didn’t want to get into another theological discussion and be reminded of their different views.

“Are you afraid of what people will say?”

“Partly maybe. But mostly because it wouldn’t be right.”

Grant wrapped his good arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “Cami, I’ve been wanting to ask you something.”

Her heart froze. “What?”

“Can you tell me about that night with Patrick?”

She stiffened. Her immediate response was to refuse, but Grant continued talking, as if anticipating a negative reaction.

“I’m not asking to cause you pain by bringing up bad memories.”

“Then why?” She forced herself to speak in a calm voice in spite of the knot that always formed in her stomach whenever Patrick was mentioned. The only thing worse than being stalked was reliving that spring evening two years ago.

“I care for you and I want to learn everything about you. Your likes and dislikes. What hurts you and what makes you laugh.”

Tears welled, but he couldn’t see them since her head was tucked into his shoulder. She’d never known a man to be so gentle. He’d done everything to prove himself. She wanted to trust him. Could the chain-link around her heart be pried apart? Even a little?

He continued, almost reading her thoughts. “I should know these things if we’re going to have a real relationship. Not just one where you need help and I rescue you. That means talking about tough things.”

She gulped and nodded. “I haven’t talked much about this and never to a man. I’m not sure how.”

He adjusted his shoulder under her head and stroked her arm, as if warming her from a chill too deep to reach. “But I think you need to, for us. If there’s going to be an us.”

“I want to try,” she said softly.

“I’m glad.” He shifted and tilted her chin with his good hand. He looked into her eyes, then brushed his lips across hers. She didn’t pull away and he kissed her again, longer this time. When he moved away, her heart beat wildly. Could he feel it?

He leaned back into the couch again, holding her close against his side. “This might seem far fetched, but is it possible Patrick’s your stalker?”

She sat up straight. “I never thought - ” She started to rise, but dropped onto the couch again. “That would explain some things, but I don’t think so.”


“He’s in prison.”