Here’s the excerpt I’ve been including with all my free short stories. It’s the entire first chapter, and I think it ends on a pretty good cliffhanger. Hopefully you’ll agree, and find yourself intrigued. If that doesn’t work, maybe the cover will…
Hope you like it, I worked very hard on it! Now, about that excerpt…
One Night Standoff
Chapter 1: Summerview
The first thing I heard upon entering the bar almost made me change my mind. I wanted a drink, needed a drink, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted/needed one badly enough to deal with that song. I’ve never been able to escape it, even to this day. No matter where I go, someone will eventually advise me (their voice painfully off-key) to Take the 5 to the 805/Exit at Mira Mesa Drive/And you’re almost there/I’m almost there… Sometimes I regret the fact that the directions to my first Los Angeles apartment rhymed so perfectly, or regret the fact that I made them rhyme, put them to music, recorded them and became a star with them because it all means that I will always, always remember how to get somewhere I don’t want to go. That night of all nights I needed no reminder, and I was this close to leaving.
But then it hit me: the man singing my song was brilliant. The bar was dingy and deserted, and karaoke night was obviously a complete bust, but he stood alone on their pitiful excuse for a stage and owned it like he was in a stadium and just… I can’t explain it. He sang my song like he understood it better than I ever did, sang it like he knew it, sang it like he was inside of it. The way he wrapped his smooth tenor voice around every word, he somehow made them sharp and cold and used them to hurt me more than I had ever used them to hurt myself. And it was so strangely appropriate, so strangely perfect, because I had written it about my mother and here I was, back in Westerville, for the specific purpose of burying her.
It suddenly seemed like fate to me, and I wanted to kiss my younger self for rhyming those stupid directions into a half-decent song and deciding it sounded pretty good, maybe people would listen to it. They’d inadvertently directed me to the perfect distraction, directed him to take the stage and sing out his sorrow, directed me to comfort him and thereby myself. By which I mean I decided on the spot that I would seduce this man, take him to my mother’s house and hope that he would do things to me that would make me forget myself for awhile, things that were possibly illegal in Ohio (it is a fairly backwards state, after all). He certainly looked capable of it.
His skin was pale and golden, his body slim and lightly muscled like that of a swimmer, his face a harsh, beautiful combination of planes and angles, thin lips, high cheekbones. I could easily imagine myself touching him, caressing the deep dimples framing his mouth and burying my hand in his softly curling hair. My fingers flexed as though I was already threading my hands through those waves, learning their texture, holding on to him, and I felt a pull I can’t explain, something I’d describe as magnetic if I dealt in clichés. But there was something.
This is important, because without that pull, without that something, this whole story would be nothing more than a mildly amusing joke: Norah Castle walks into a bar… I didn’t choose him because he was singing my song, or even because he was handsome. I chose him because I couldn’t do otherwise, could only allow myself to be drawn to him, and everything else was inevitable. But I didn’t understand those things then, simply told myself that his brilliant rendition of Summerview was reason enough to take him home, and the fact that he was kind of pretty was a nice bonus.
At this point I should probably add that I’m not completely full of myself. It’s not like I believed I could just point to him, make a come-hither gesture and he’d react by come-hithering. I will say that I’m well known and reasonably easy on the eyes, which would have made it a slam-dunk, if I’d entered the bar as the glamorous singer I usually am. Norah Castle could make a come-hither gesture and the entire bar would react by immediately come-hithering. But I was in disguise and doing my best to keep a low profile; I had no desire to be stalked by an Ohian (Ohio-an? Well, someone from Ohio anyway) paparazzo, if such a thing existed, who would snap some pictures which would inevitably end up 1) making me look fat, and 2) on the cover of some tabloid along with the headline Norah Castle’s Private Pain.
Hello, it’s not private if it’s a banner headline on a glossy magazine, but I know from personal experience that it’s still just as painful, and my desire to avoid such a disaster made this new project a challenge. Could I seduce this gorgeous, talented man without the trappings of fame I’d become so used to, without the haute couture and expertly applied makeup, without any makeup at all, in fact, just bare skin and glasses and my hair tucked under a thrift-store cabbie hat? Could anyone look at me and, seeing plain, unremarkable Honor Castlereagh instead of Norah Castle, desire me? It seemed impossible, but everything I’ve done in my life should have been impossible, too, so that didn’t deter me. The real challenge was accomplishing my impossible goal without him realizing my true identity (which is a weird way to put it, come to think of it, because Honor Castlereagh is the name I was born with and when did it start to feel like an alias?). It was dangerous. It was stupid.
It was brilliant; I was distracted already.
All of this makes me sound very jaded, very calculating, and I suppose I am to an extent. In my line of work, it’s impossible not to be. But this decision wasn’t like that. It was just me, alone and lonely and so sick of the thoughts chasing around and around and around in my head, searching for a way to turn them off, and really you’d understand if you’d been there, seen his face, heard his voice. I cannot imagine the kind of willpower it would have taken me to walk away. More than I had.
So I didn’t. I sat down at the bar and ordered a French 75 (which they had no idea how to make, of course, so I just gave up and asked for a gin and tonic) and listened to him, watched him as he brought my song to an emotional crescendo and then to a lilting close, and tried to strategize. My success with this was minimal, distracted as I was, and in the end fate took care of it for me. My chosen victi- no, conquest- handed the microphone off to the MC and made his way to the bar with a combination of confidence and care that suggested he was Drunk, with a capital D, then made the fateful choice to slide onto the stool right next to mine. Not on purpose, or at least I don’t think so, but either way the outcome was the same, and I couldn’t have orchestrated a more perfect setup.
I panicked internally for a moment, running through my disguise. Hat? Check. Glasses? Check. No makeup? Check (pity, really). So far no one had recognized me, but then I’d only spoken to the bartender so that didn’t mean much. At this moment, I almost changed my mind (Am I insane? But I want him. What if he recognizes me? But I want him. What if he sells his story to the tabloids? But I want him…). As I was debating with myself, I glanced over and noticed the way the light limned his profile. He was breathtaking, I am not even kidding, but that wasn’t enough to affect my decision. No, for the first time I realized that the way he’d been singing my song, the anguish and grief that had pierced me so deeply, had been an expression of his own feelings; I could see them on his face, deep below the surface of his apparently neutral expression. And just like that, I made up my mind.
“You were great up there,” I said, smiling, and it might not have been the most brilliant opening line but it was honest at least, so that’s something.
He turned to me, and the full intensity of his eyes, of the emotion in them, struck me without warning. Looking into them, I didn’t just hurt for myself, I hurt for him too. I could see the effort it took for him to mold his lips into a smile, but once it was in place it almost seemed genuine and I was impressed.
“Thanks. It’s been a… Kind of a crazy week.”
I nodded. “I know all about those. Can I buy you a drink? You look like you could use one.”
“I’ve had too many,” he answered, then added, “or not enough. Both. Yes, I’ll take a drink, but I’m buying. How does that sound?”
I smiled at him, no real effort required. “That sounds perfect.”
“I saw you when you walked in,” he began after ordering our drinks, “I thought it was funny that you look so much like Norah Castle when I was singing that song… You probably get that a lot.”
My stomach clenched uncomfortably with nervousness and guilt, and I reminded myself that withholding information isn’t the same thing as lying. “Yeah,” I answered, not quite able to keep the dryness out of my tone. “I do.” Which was completely true, of course; I get it all the damn time.
“You should be flattered, she’s beautiful. And her voice! And she can write… I could go on and on about her.” His smile didn’t look forced at all now, and I was suddenly in the strange position of being jealous of myself.
“Sounds like you’re taken, maybe I’m buying the wrong guy a drink,” I teased.
The boyish grin slid from his face, and he looked down at his hands. “Maybe you are,” he responded quietly. “Or would be, if you were buying.”
Interesting. I decided not to say anything, see if he’d give any more information, but the silence began to hang heavy between us. “I’m sorry,” I said finally. “Did I say something wrong?”
“What?” He looked up at me like a man just coming awake, and I realized that his thoughts had been far away from the bar and the two of us. “No, no. It’s not your fault, I’m just… You know. It’s been a-”
“Crazy week, I know,” I finished. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I don’t know, seems like pouring out all my troubles might not be the most effective seduction technique,” he answered wryly. “Not that I’m trying to… You know what I mean.”
I didn’t, really, just hoped he meant the opposite of what he’d said, but I matched his tone with the twist of my lips, an almost-smile. “Let’s just assume I’m already seduced, shall we? Tell me about it. Might make you feel better.” Might take my mind off myself.
He stared at me intently, searching for something, and for a moment I was afraid again, ostensibly that he’d see through my disguise, but really I think I was just afraid because I should have been, because I could tell he was dangerous to me. At any rate, he just pursed his lips and nodded. “I left my wife a week ago,” he murmured, so much pain in that one short sentence, and I glanced automatically to his left hand. There was no ring, but I could make out a pale line, an inverted shadow where a ring had been until very recently.
“For good or just for awhile?” I asked, feeling a little put off. It hadn’t occurred to me that he was a married man, and for all I knew he could be faking for sympathy. But no; I remembered the way he sang, and the devastation hiding in his face, and I believed him.
“I think it’s for good,” he said, and then stopped like he’d surprised himself. “I think it’s for good. Oh, god. I didn’t even… I didn’t realize it until now, until it was the only thing I could say.”
“What happened?” I placed my hand on his shoulder, feeling his warmth and wanting to enjoy it but working hard to make my touch comforting rather than flirtatious.
He gave me a defeated look. “It’s a long story.”
I wanted to laugh but didn’t want him to think I was laughing at him. “I have no pressing engagements at present.”
He took a deep gulp of his beer, either for the taste or the courage, and considered his words carefully for several moments. “We were going to have a baby,” he whispered finally. “She told me we were going to have a baby, and I thought… I was so happy. I’ve always wanted kids. I’m a teacher, actually, and I couldn’t stop imagining how wonderful it would be to have my own to teach.”
At first I was distracted, imagining the kind of havoc that would have ensued if he’d ever been my teacher, but then the overall impact of his statement hit me. I looked at him with a mixture of horror and pity, telling myself not to ask the obvious question because surely the answer was obvious too. In the end I couldn’t help myself. “Did she… I mean, did something happen with the baby?”
He laughed suddenly, a bitter sound without humor. “Yeah, something happened… It’s not mine. For the last seven months I believed we’d be a family and now… She says she’s in love with the father.” I caught my breath at his statement, utterly shocked by the cruelty of it. And this is coming from someone who works in the recording industry; my standards for that kind of thing are understandably high. A betrayal of that magnitude… I couldn’t imagine the kind of person who could do that to anyone, let alone someone they’d once loved.
“She said she wasn’t sure she should leave me, thought I might be a better provider for her and the baby,” he continued, and I tried once more to picture his wife, a woman who could say something like that, say it to this man’s face. The words must have struck with the force of a physical blow, a backhand he never saw coming, a final vicious strike, insult to his injuries. I knew they must have because I could hear utter defeat in his voice. “But I guess she changed her mind. God knows I can barely provide for anyone on my salary.”
Raising his beer to his lips once more, he drained it, then stared down at the bottle like a gypsy reading tea leaves, desperately trying to see the future. It was an impulse I could understand. Sometimes I would stare into an empty bottle and wonder if there was even a future to see. I didn’t share this, however, because it’s not the kind of thing you say out loud. Instead I turned to him and touched his hand. It was long and elegant, artistic somehow, and I could feel the bones and tendons under his smooth skin as I stroked it. He felt both powerful and fragile, as though his bones were hollow, as though if I grasped hard enough they would break. But there was heat there too.
“Do you want to get out of here?” I murmured, moving my hand to the underside of his wrist, caressing him with clear intent.
Our eyes met, and his were dark and tortured and just like mine, really, just like mine if I bothered looking in a mirror. I wondered if he could see that, then thought it didn’t matter. “Yes,” he breathed, expression serious. “Yes I do.”