Can your past dictate your future? Shivering Heat by Tressa Morris Hern shares a sneak peek of her novel Shivering Heat.
SYNOPSIS/BACK COVER BLURB
To the casual observer, Elyse August has it together, but there are secrets behind her bright smile.
She’s beautiful, ambitious, and a good student. But the reality is that unless she finds meaningful employment soon, she’s going to be forced to move back home. She also struggles with the memory of a past trauma that few know about. The memory of that night is never far from her mind, and the burden of keeping it at bay wears on her. She is prone to snap from carefree and happy one moment to paralyzed by fear in the next. It’s exhausting.
Five years ago, she and her boyfriend, Alex, were attacked and brutalized during a home invasion. Their attackers were after something; this wasn’t a random crime. She’s still dealing with open wounds in her soul from that horrifying experience. She survived the attack, but their relationship didn’t. After being abandoned by her boyfriend, she struggles to trust.
When she meets the magnetic Reid Jamison, successful architectural consultant and philanthropist, she’s tempted to put her past behind her and try again. Her best friend, Penne, encourages her wounded friend to go for it with the handsome Reid. Soon, Elyse and Reid are on an erotic adventure to experience desire, jealousy, loyalty, and big business within the Blysse Building in Chicago.
Can this drop-dead-gorgeous man help her forget her past—or will private demons destroy any chance at happiness at his side?
Five years ago, spring, Chicago suburbs
The stinging bite of winter was still in the air as Alex and I walked through the quiet Chicago neighborhood that I called home. It was the end of March. His hands were warm around mine.
“Should we go have something hot?” Alex walked around me. He was feeling playful as he hopped backward in front of me and stopped.
He put my hands between us and lightly kissed my neck. The wetness of his kiss combined with the icy chill in the air made me shiver. He nuzzled my ear. His nose was cold. “Your hands are cold. Let me warm you up. I have a few ideas that I think you’d like.” His lips covered mine in heat.
“Alex Mason, are you hitting on me?” I bit his ear.
“Yow. I need to take you out in cold weather more often. It makes you frisky. If you are agreeable, yes, I am hitting on you.” He held my face and warmly kissed my neck. “Hitting on is such a negative phrase. I don’t like it.”
I began to melt in his arms. “How would you put it then?”
One of his hands went to grab my ass, while the other pulled my neck to his gentle assault with his lips.
“I’d like to think of it as seductive persuasion.”
We took each other’s mouth. “Yeah, that is a good way to put it.”
We were coming up on our house. It was the house I shared with my college classmates Sam and Penne.
Alex was a handsome guy. We had been dating for almost a month. He was charming, flirtatious, and funny. He would probably be the life of any party. I met him through Sam. He and Sam were both taking an architectural design and concept class.
“How would you like me to warm you up, Elyse?” Alex purred.
“Hmm, I don’t know. I cannot for the life of me think of anything.” I giggled as he defiantly stopped in his tracks, acting like his feelings were hurt. He turned me into him and squeezed me tightly, gripping my ass just before we walked to the front door. He kissed me and brushed the hair out of my face.
After he opened the door, I walked in to set my bag on the chair by the front door. I heard yelling and turned to see three masked guys rush into the house. I screamed, and one of them grabbed my mouth and shoved me into a dining-room chair. His finger brushed against my teeth. He tasted like salty, sour metallic dirt. I could see Alex clearly. He was hit in the back of the head. He fell forward to the ground and writhed as he was swiftly kicked hard in the ribs. The one who kicked him was laughing. Alex had blood on his mouth. I couldn’t tell if it had come from the kicking or falling to the floor.
“Alex!” I screamed as loudly as I could, hoping someone would hear me. I felt like I was in a dream where I tried to scream and nothing came out. I was in fact making noise.
“Go check the back,” the one who had grabbed my mouth, whom I called Stink Bug, told Laughing Hyena. He grabbed the duct tape, quickly ripped a piece off of the roll, and slapped it over my mouth. I could still see that there was one more taping Alex’s feet. He then taped his hands behind his back. Alex’s eyes were closed. I hoped that he was only unconscious. I was fighting the chair, trying to make it hop. I thought maybe I could break it. What the hell was going on? I began shaking and sweating. I fought against the restraints.
Just seconds earlier, I was being kissed tenderly. Alex was flirting and charismatic. Oh God, I hope that he’s alive. How hard did they hit him? What do they want? Oh God no, not me! Their voices were muffled somewhat from the knit masks. I twisted and turned, struggling to get away. I couldn’t get close enough to head-butt the one closest to me. I had seen that work in the movies anyway. He had my wrists pulled around the back of the dining- room chair. I tried to twist out of his hold, but it only burned my skin when he held me more tightly.
“Stupid bitch! Stop fighting me,” Stink Bug said. As he said it, he slapped handcuffs on my hands and ratcheted them down tight. I yelled out, but I knew no one could hear. It only sounded like a stifled moan.
Laughing Hyena was in the back of the house. Stink Bug began repeating the question “Where is it?” He tightened the cuffs even more. He stank badly. His breath smelled like onions and liquor. His jacket reeked of cigarette smoke and body odor.
“I can make this hurt a whole hell of a lot more, bitch! Where is it?” He yanked my hair back, forcing me to look at his masked face. His eyes were dark brown and green. I would guess he was the leader in this tiny Lord of the Flies gang.
“Muck ooh!” I’m sure they got what I was communicating. My eyes were tearing up, but I wouldn’t cry.
The one who had taped Alex came a little closer to me. “Too bad we don’t have more time. She is one hot, feisty mess.” He sounded as if this was a game. His voice was playfully gravelly and low. He must think he’s some kind of lover. Casanova came up even closer, so close that I could smell the stench of stale smoke on him as well. He had tried to mask it with some kind of cologne that only served to make him smell like bad fruit. He bent down and whispered in my ear, “Too bad we are in a hurry. The things I could do to you.” He ran his palm over my breast. I wouldn’t look at him. My stomach wrenched, and it was all I could do not to throw up.
“Shut the fuck up, idiot,” Stink Bug said. “Let’s get down there and help. These two aren’t going anywhere.”
They both took off down the hall, and Alex still lay there. Feathers began floating out of my and Penne’s rooms. The bastards had cut up our pillows? Fucking assholes. I had paid dearly for those feather pillows. What did they want? I could hear glass breaking in Sam’s room. I heard a loud crash. Had they knocked over his dresser? I could hear wood splintering. It was quiet all of a sudden. A few still moments passed. Laughing Hyena started again.
“Come on! Come on! Let’s get the fuck out of here. The dumbass taped it to the bottom of a drawer!” He was laughing hysterically in a high-pitched voice. He wouldn’t stop laughing. His high-pitched yelps were hurting my ears.
Alex started making noises, and Hyena kicked him hard in the chest. When he still fought, he was kicked in the head by Stink Bug. Casanova leaned down and smelled my neck. I tried desperately to move away from him.
He moved closer and inhaled deeply, smelling my hair. “I’m going to dream about you tonight, baby. Maybe I will visit you sometime. Hmm? How would that be?”
I swallowed hard. They left, leaving the front door wide open. I was drenched in sweat and tears. The icy air chilled me to the bone.
It had been five years since the robbery. I had taken a break from classes soon after, trying to get a grip on what had happened. The idea that I was carefree and happy one moment and full of fear and terror the next was something I was having trouble adjusting to. I went back to my parents’ for a while and felt safe there. I didn’t go out. I didn’t engage with anyone.
After a few weeks, my mom suggested I see a therapist. The end result was that he felt that I was suffering from a form of post- traumatic stress. He thought that taking some self-defense classes might help pull me back into my life and that I needed to interact with people. I decided to compromise and took some psychology courses.
I didn’t date. I tried to go out with a few guys but always pulled back at the idea of real intimacy. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to date. I just felt like it was unfair to anyone who might want more. Physical closeness was a major problem. I just couldn’t do it. What guy of college age didn’t want to be physical, at least by the third date? It was a waste of time, and I didn’t like the guilt.
Penne and I still shared a small house across town from the one we three had shared when the robbery had occurred. None of us wanted to stay there after that day in March.
Sam decided to get an apartment closer to the heart of the city and his father’s business. When it came to light that it had been architectural plans of Sam’s that had been stolen, he couldn’t help but feel responsible for bringing the robbery to the house.
Alex had survived. He had had a concussion that left him in a coma for a time and with some broken ribs. I never heard from him again. I had stayed by his side until my parents came. He had woken up the next day. I was abandoned and bereft. I thought for sure that he would find a way to reach me. No word ever came. Life moves on whether we are ready or not.
* * *
I was at the Blysse Building in downtown Chicago. I had been looking for a permanent position for three months. The human resources office was on the fourteenth floor. I sat on a comfortable couch and took a deep breath. I had some time before my scheduled interview. I was hopeful but fully aware of the struggle I might have. My student loans were going to be due soon. If I didn’t get employed, I would need to find somewhere else to live. I thought of all the places that I had applied to and where I would apply to next. Where could I apply to next? I just needed one small break. God, please, just one small break. It was then that I saw him.
He was leaning against a conference-room wall wearing a deep-blue suit with one leg casually crossed over the other. He stood with two other men, waiting. More suit-attired men and women were arriving and carrying on quiet conversations. His jacket was undone, and I could see that he had a trim waist. His white shirt was modestly unbuttoned at his neckline. His shoulders were broad. He was impressive. His skin was suntanned, and his eyes were framed in dark lashes. His hair was deep brown, almost black. It was messy but urbane. Wisps of wavy hair fell over his forehead, and his eyes smiled when he spoke. He was casually speaking to his colleagues. He looked at one of the men before him, picked up a folio, and patted it. He held it in his arms and smiled. He looked proud and exuded confidence. He was in control.
This man wasn’t pretty; he was striking. Strong chin and defined lips—he was eye candy to savor. Mouth-watering, lip-licking, butterflies-in-the-groin hot. He raised his right hand to swipe at the hair that fell across his brow and turned to see me looking at him. I immediately felt hot and electric. My breasts flushed, and my nipples tightened. Heat rose up the back of my neck, making me shiver. I had been caught with my hand in the cookie jar. He uncrossed his legs and stood straight. He must have been at least six feet tall—six one, maybe?
As he stood, he slowly turned his face toward me. Our eyes met. Flashing a big, beautiful grin, he winked at me. My heart leaped, and my breath caught. I held his gaze and shifted in my seat. I grabbed the edge of the sofa cushion and leaned forward. My body would say yes to anything he’d ask.
The pull that I was feeling was in complete contradiction to the triggers that went off inside me whenever anyone tried to get close to me. It was as if a shift in the atmosphere had occurred. He was a delicious magnet. I needed air. I was burning up with heat flushing my skin in waves.
I needed to get a grip. I was there for an interview. I needed this job. I needed any job. But I couldn’t stop looking at him. He returned his attention to his companions and said something and then turned to look at me. His expression changed from one of flirtatious amusement to one of a ravenous hunger. He was predator. I shook. Holding my breath, I was the proverbial deer, and he was the headlights.
A small group of older-looking, well-dressed gentlemen with one or two assistants each came from the elevator and flowed into the large conference room. He followed the remainder of men and women, and just before entering the conference room, he looked back to find me still watching him. The heavy door closed with a sharp clicking thud, shutting me out and putting fire to the curious need in my veins.
What the heck was I thinking? I shook my hair back and tried to cool off by blowing air down my top. I ran my fingers through my hair, trying to induce fresh thoughts in my fevered brain. I stood and brushed the front of my skirt with my damp palms. I paced, trying to walk off the edge of restlessness in my legs. I noticed that rich burgundy overstuffed couches had been placed on the opposing walls of the conference room. I should have been concentrating, not looking to where he had been standing.
“Elyse August?” A piercing call from the human resources office pulled me from my reverie. I needed more time. I fisted my fingers tightly, released them, and rested my palms on the tops of my thighs. My hands were still damp from both nervousness and excitement. I wore a black fitted skirt and a silver silk blouse. I felt mostly confident. I can do this. I stood when she walked toward me, and I shakily smiled before taking a deep breath. Showtime.
“Yes.” I was led into a smaller waiting room by an assistant dressed sharply in a pristine charcoal suit and designer heels. She wore her strawberry-blonde hair in a nicely arranged twist with pearl drop earrings. Guessing, I would say she was in her early forties.
“It shouldn’t be too long, Ms. August. Ms. Nichols should be almost finished with her previous interview. May I get you something to drink?”
A double of whatever you have sounds perfect.
“No, I’m fine, thank you.” I cleared my throat. “You know, on second thought, some water would be nice.” I rubbed my hands together and took in a deep breath.
“Here you are.” She handed me an ice-cold bottle of water. I took a drink and rested the bottle at my neck for a second. It felt like opening the freezer door to feel the cold rush of air after a run. I sat going over my educational attributes in my head, trying to remember the short-term internships I had been granted and the work I had accomplished. I took a cleansing breath to calm my nerves. I had heard of the Blysse corporate offices building from my advisor in college. DePaul University had a renowned record for helping students obtain substantial employment after completing a master’s degree in business. My concentrations were in marketing and socioeconomics.
A young man came out from an office to the right. He was conservatively dressed. He looked my way and nodded. Competition? He was handsome, thin. He looked younger than me. That could be good or bad. I decided not to think about competition, even though three months of applying to various places hadn’t panned out yet.
A few minutes later, I heard a voice come out of the office. “Elyse August?”
“Come on in. Let’s get this party started.”
She was tall and slender. Her dark-brown hair was cut in a sassy short style that complemented her nicely. She wore a light- pink turtleneck sweater. It looked scratchy to me. I absentmindedly put my hand to my neck.
“Have a seat. My name is Grace Nichols.”
I sat in the cozy chair closest to the window. I set my things in the seat to my right and glanced out the window to my left. A light fog was rolling into the city and hanging in between the tall buildings. I suddenly felt cold.
Ms. Nichols sat. Her desk faced the opposing seats with the window to her right. Her office was simply decorated in light- blue walls and taupe furniture. There were few personal items on her desk. She had a small framed photo of herself and a pretty blonde woman with a small vase holding six cheerful bright-yellow daisies. I wanted to concentrate on the cheerfulness of the daisies and not the dampness that was settling over the city. Hope.
“Elyse, I have looked through all of the information that you’ve provided. I also requested your GPA from Bridges College, which you attended. I haven’t received it yet, but I have a feeling that it wouldn’t affect anything one way or the other. It all looks good, but tell me—what made you pick a business degree?” She drummed her fingers on her desk.
I had not thought of that question being asked. I sipped at my water and cleared my throat. I scrambled in my mind, trying to formulate an answer.
“I … uh, well, business has always appealed to me.” Oh God, that was a stupid reply. I wrung my hands and tried desperately to appear confident.
Grace Nichols tilted her head and flipped through one or two pages in front of her. “I am curious about this time where you weren’t actively in college. Did you have a change of heart about your choice of major?”
“Oh, between my third and fourth year at Bridges College? I did take some time.” I hesitated to answer, wanting to pick my words carefully. “My family suffered a loss.” I didn’t want to go into detail about the robbery. The statement wasn’t totally untrue. I didn’t want to risk an anxiety attack by being brutally honest. I looked down.
She paused for a few minutes. My stomach knotted in the quiet moments of her judgment.
“At the moment, there are a number of different job opportunities within the Blysse Building and the various corporations that use this particular resource office. The only problem may be your lack of experience.”
As I looked out the window once more, I noticed that it had started to rain. Fuck, that isn’t a good thing to say. “Lack of experience” was a wet blanket on a cold afternoon. I felt sick. I told myself to breathe.
“So what do you feel are your strengths? You obviously have the brains, but what do you want to do with them?” She toyed with the pen on her desk, clicking the tip up and down in rapid succession.
I suddenly had the desire to run out of the building. If I didn’t get a paying job soon, I might have to move back to my parents’ house, and that was something that I had no desire to do. Visit, yes. Live with, no. Not to mention the stress it would put on Penne.
I leaned forward and rested my clasped hands on the desk. “My concentrations were in socioeconomics and marketing. I also have an interest in psychological studies. I almost finished with a minor in psychology. I am open to doing anything that would be strengthened by my degrees.” Even if it’s working in the mail room.
“Are you saying that you may be interested in using psychology?” Grace Nichols started clicking her pen again. It made my skin itch.
I shrugged my shoulders and gently declined. “Well, yes and no. I think I would be happier using my business knowledge. My interest in psychology came from a desire to better understand human nature in general. I thought it might shed some light on some of the marketing aspects needed. While psychology gives a broad field of information, I feel the specificity of business and economics is what does it for me.” I finally felt that I had answered with some degree of confidence.
She looked down her thin nose at me. “What specific skills can you bring to an employer?”
The daisies on her desk were no longer speaking to me. In fact, they had their petals covering their mouths. I felt like a speck on the window. “I have been part of two or three internships that were team oriented. I am well versed in a number of programs. I helped design a model building program and also a comparative program. In the comparative program, I was the lead in the planning and developmental aspects. I may not be able to type eighty words a minute, but I can do some computer programming.” Oh no, did I just say that out loud? Shit!
After a few long moments, Grace Nichols clicked her pen a few more times and quickly leafed through the papers in front of her.
“Honestly, Elyse, I don’t foresee any major problems. I am sure there will be some interest in using your particular strengths. The lack of real-world experience could be a plus or a minus to you. Let me run your package by some of the managers of the various corporations and get back to you. Is this number still good?”
“Yes, it is,” I said as I began to stand. She stood and offered her hand.
“It was very nice to meet you, Elyse. I’m not sure how long it will be before you hear anything. Someone will contact you either way.”
I smiled a shaky smile, but I was standing straight and proud. That was something my father always insisted upon. “Thank you so much for your consideration.”
She gave me an infectious smile, and I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t completely honest. I turned and left her office.
I pulled my hand-me-down Jeep Cherokee into the drive of our modest rental house, noticing that the roses were in definite need of pruning. The small perennial gardens at both sides of the front steps needed some attention as well. Bulbs would be peeking above ground soon—that was, if I hadn’t ignored them to the point of desertion.
I unlocked the door, not even bothering to check to see if it was locked because I knew, whether Penne was home or not, the door would be locked. There are things a girl just knows to do, and locking your doors is one of them.
Penne Cates had been my roommate and best friend since the beginning of college at Bridges. She was a quirky, no-nonsense kind of girl. Some of the things that she said were so bold. It was as if her mouth had no filter. She once argued with a professor about his misuse of identify on an exam. She got the points on the exam reinstated. While Penne was petite and curvy, I was a bit taller with a slightly more athletic frame. We could share some clothes, mostly tops. Her hair was shoulder length. She wore it in a cute, sassy layered cut. It was light brown and sometimes blonde in color, while mine was medium brown and long.
Penne’s wide blue eyes looked over her current book interest, and she pursed her lips. “Hey, girl, you made it home. How did it go?” She waited a moment while I set my things on the catch-all table inside the door. “Well?”
“I think it went all right, at any rate.” I plopped my keys aside and threw the latch on the door lock.
Penne forcefully closed her book. “Come on. You have to give me more than that!” She tilted her head. “Don’t make me come over there!”
I laughed at her as I kicked my heels off and contorted myself into my favorite old chair. Laying my aching neck back, I breathed in a deep breath, and as I exhaled, I gave a high-pitched sigh.
“Well, the human resources office at the Blysse Building said they would circulate my package around.” Just as the words left my lips, I knew I was in trouble.
Penne gave me an up-down eye stare, starting at my breasts. She raised one eyebrow. “Circulate your package? Well then, I guess the chances of you landing a job will be pretty high. What do you think? Will they be calling for your services?” She flirtatiously batted her eyelashes at me.
“Geez, Pen!” I threw the nearest thing I could find at her, which happened to be a box of tissues. “What has gotten into you?”
She hopped up and headed to the kitchen. “No one has gotten into me recently. That may be the reason. Want anything while I’m in here? I’m getting hungry, but I thought I might have a glass of wine.”
“Yes, me too, please. I am sure that I have seen the most beautiful man on earth. I don’t even know how to explain the feelings I was having while I looked at him. I mean not just beautiful—sexy, masculine. He was the complete package.”
Laughing, Penne set the glasses of wine on the coffee table, carefully sliding her book out of the way. “You never lose your cool. At least not in public.”
I reached for the cool wine, anticipating the taste. I set the glass against my forehead. It felt refreshing. “He made me feel like I had caught fire. My chest and neck were so hot that I’m sure I was pink. He caught me looking at him, and then he smiled and winked. Minutes before my interview.” I brought the cool glass to my lips and slowly sipped, playing with the rim of the glass.
Penne took a sip of her wine. “Did you go over to him?”
“Hell no! I was trying to think about the interview. He was hanging out with his other colleagues in the hall. I wasn’t about to do anything but sit there and squirm. Pen, I have never, ever reacted to the mere sight of someone like that. Do you remember those cartoon characters that would smell something really good, like pie or a chicken baking? They’d float through the air like they were hypnotized to the source? That was me. That’s what I felt like. I was a mess, and I still had my interview to go through.”
“I have never heard you describe meeting someone like that. Did you look for him after your interview was through?”
“No, but I did notice the meeting was still going on, so I walked farther down the hall and peeked into a door with a glass panel. He was standing in the front giving a presentation. He had his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up a couple of times. Just thinking of him standing there, confident, oh, does it to me again.” I thrust my arm out toward her. “Look, I have chills.”
Penne raised her eyebrows. “So, what was so chill inducing about him?”
I took a deep breath and revisited the few minutes of time I had sizzled with wanton desire. I leaned toward Penne. “Did you hear anything I said? I wanted to be with him, under him, on top of him. But I also wanted to run. It was a chemical thing. I had absolutely no control, and that scared the living hell out of me.”
I stood up and walked around the living room a bit. “It’s hard to put into words.” I tilted my head, trying to pull his beautiful face to the forefront of my mind. “Well, his eyes were direct and seeking.”
Penne set her glass down. “Wait, wait, what do you mean by ‘seeking’?”
“I guess the few seconds he looked at me, after he caught me staring, he looked, I don’t know, interested, curious? Does that make any sense?”
Penne’s eyes rolled as she took a hearty drink of her wine. “I’m just not getting the whole chill deal you have going.”
“Look, I was instantly attracted to him. I thought that the lust at first sight, Cupid’s arrow myth was something made up for romance novels and lovelorn teens.”
“Hmmm,” Penne mused. “What color were his eyes?”
“I couldn’t tell from where I was, but I think they were brown. He was tall and broad-shouldered.” I thought to myself for a minute. “Had a great build. Masculine but beautiful. I have never thought of a man as beautiful, but he most definitely was.”
“Hair?” Penne requested as if she were ordering a sandwich.
“Dark brown, wavy. Sexy, carefree style, not uptight.”
Penne sipped at her wine. “Wow, how long were you staring at him? That’s quite a description.”
“He was casual but business. You know, like he was accessible, not arrogant. Confident.”
“Ha! Accessible!” Penne snickered. “Probably accessible to every red-blooded female in the building. He was probably grinning at you because he caught you checking him out. That’s funny.”
“Hey, I thought you were on my side. I don’t even know the first thing about him. He may not even work in the Blysse Building.”
Penne raised her hands. “Lighten up there, E. Just yanking your chain.”
I must be an idiot. Getting worked up over someone I haven’t even met. I sighed deeply at the thought of never laying eyes on him again. A gut-wrenching pang hit my core. It was pain. It was arousal. It was lust. I had never felt these sensations. I could feel a ripping conflict before me—the fear of being touched, held, or controlled by him and the need to satisfy those very desires.
My groin pulled and rolled, tickling like a roller-coaster ride. I finished my wine in one swallow. I felt the urge to put myself out there. I needed to step out of my comfort zone. I wanted to feel that surge of adrenaline that I had felt earlier. “Let’s go get something to eat.” Had he made me feel this brave?
Penne perked up at the thought. “Ooh, how about a drink or dinner or both? Then more drinks. It is Friday. Let’s call Sam and see if he wants to join us. Are you all right with that? I mean, do you feel like being sociable?”
“Yeah, I think so.” I took a deep breath. I did, and I was surprised about that.
“It could be fun,” Penne added as she slid into her room. “I’ll call Sam,” she said as she leaned out of her bedroom door.
Sam, Penne, and I had known each other from the beginning of college. We met at Bridges our freshman year. He was a lot of fun to hang out with and a great judge of character. If he saw something out of place, he sized it up, and I had to say I agreed with him most of the time. He was, as my parents would say, a pulls-no-punches kind of guy. If Sam didn’t like you, he would tell you.
“I’ll go change then.” I decided on slim jeans and a comfortable, fitted tee. Slip-on shoes would be fine. No need to get dressed up. If any dancing was involved, my feet would still love me.
Penne emerged from her room, hopping on one foot while she slid shoes onto her small feet. “Sam can’t make dinner, but if we decide to have some drinks, he wants us to text him.”
“Why can’t he make dinner? Let me guess—work?” I flipped my hair upside down, trying to fluff it up some.
Penne paused to put a pair of blue stud earrings in. “Well, he did say he was busy but didn’t elaborate.”
I slipped my shoes on. “He hasn’t gotten in touch with us for a while, has he?”
“No, he hasn’t.” She ducked into the bathroom.
Sam Matthews was about six feet tall and solid with a lean, muscular build. He had a tawny complexion with blond to light- brown hair. His eyes always stood out first and foremost to me. They were stone blue, not gray. I had never looked at him like he was boyfriend material, like available. We were always just close friends.
Penne came from the bathroom and grabbed her purse and jacket.
Penne huffed a deep breath. “Ready? Let’s go! I’m hungry.”
I grabbed my things. “How about sandwiches and beer at Sandie’s?”
Penne quickly turned to face me. “Sounds great. Do you want to drive, or do you want me to drive?”
I spoke up. “I’ll drive, but if we meet Sam for drinks later, we’re going to have to cab it.” I took a deep breath. Here goes nothing. I hadn’t gone out to eat in ages.
Penne flipped the outside floodlight on and locked the dead bolt.
The rain that had covered the city earlier had cleared, and the sky was dotted with gray clouds in front of a violet sky. Penne was quiet while I drove to the restaurant, which was on the outskirts of the city.
It was crowded at Sandie’s. I took a deep breath before leaving the car. We were going to have to wait for a table, so Pen and I snatched two seats at the sports bar. The restaurant was decorated in sport themes and athletic memorabilia.
Inside the bar area were small, soft Nerf-type balls that you could shoot into a centrally located basket. Some of the customers were pretty good at it. Penne giggled.
“Hey, if I hit one of those guys in the head with one of those, do you think he would let me take him home and have my wicked way with him? That one over there is cute.”
I turned to see her staring at what was the backside of a pair of Levi’s draping a waist of thirty and an inseam of thirty-four or thirty-five. It was hard to tell. He was bent over playing air hockey with a friend. “Have your wicked way with him? Some of the things that come out of your mouth … You can’t even see his face.” I rolled my eyes.
Penne sipped her beer and smacked her lips while doing a shimmy in her seat. “Well, I really like what I can see. I love tight jeans. Yum!” Penne could be so outgoing that I often thought I was on the outside looking in at her life. I felt a little jealous. She had no worry, no care of what anyone thought of her.
I took a small sip from my glass of beer. What I pictured with Mr. Chills was more than sex. I wanted to smell and taste him at the same time. Maybe it was just sex. I wanted to see what was under that dark-blue suit. I wanted to run my tongue over his neck and claim him like the car commercial where they lick the car and it was theirs. This could prove challenging since I hadn’t been touched and hadn’t been able to touch in a long time.
Penne wildly waved her hand in front of my face. “Uh … E? Earth to Elyse! Still with me?”
“No, not really.” I laughed, and she playfully slapped me on the arm. The waitress called out Penne’s name. “Pen, party of two.”
It had been a long time since we had been to Sandie’s, but thank goodness the menu hadn’t changed. Penne had decided on the turkey melt, her favorite. I chose the pastrami with pickles. Our sandwiches were scrumptious. They made a good pastrami using toasted buns and the best-tasting pickles. I would need to run an extra mile for these calories.
Penne moaned. “Gosh, I love these turkey melts. They should be illegal. Cheddar and jack cheeses, all melted and gooey. The roasted green chilies, smoked turkey, avocado. Yum. I’m starving.”
Penne was doing some wicked things to that sandwich. She caught some dripping cheese with her tongue as she held her sandwich high and tilted her head back. An avocado slice was beginning to slip off of the sandwich, and she sucked it into her mouth, licking and smacking her lips. She had some sauce on her upper lip, and she swiped at it with her finger and put it into her mouth.
To my left were two men who had been laughing loudly. They had ceased their conversation and leaned across the table saying something that they didn’t want to be overheard. I tried to get a better look at them without being too obvious. The one directly across the aisle from me was dark-haired. He rested his chin on his clasped hands and tilted his head to the left, looking sheepishly at our table. They were both young, casual, wearing jeans. The one directly across from Penne had sandy light hair, and his eyebrows were peaked while he was gazing at her. The dark-haired one definitely worked in the sun. He had changed position and was resting easily on his left arm, leaning and enjoying Penne’s every movement. Sandy-hair gulped his beer and casually reclined into the booth with his thumbs tucked into his pockets. Laid-back. He was transfixed, watching Penne enjoy her food. Both men were muscular and weathered.
“Pen, stop eating it like that!” I urgently whispered to her. “You have two guys across the aisle enthralled with your, uh, tongue action.”
“Well, you get your Mr. Chills and I get this delicious melt. Thank goodness for avocados.” She paused and then turned her head to the right and looked at her captivated audience of two.
Penne held their gaze and then looked to her sandwich, turning it and nipping at the crust. I was embarrassed but couldn’t help but smile. She was seducing them with a sandwich. She slid her tongue between the buns, catching anything that might be trying to slip from her hands. When she knew she had their full attention, she smiled and gave them a saucy wink. I glanced discreetly at them. Penne bit down hard, rolling the sandwich over in her mouth. She licked her lips with gusto and sucked on her fingers.
The two men cringed and hissed through their teeth. Mr. Laid- back sat straight up and pulled his knees closer together while his friend just smiled and hung his head down in disbelief.
I stared at Penne. “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t just seen it. My roommate has gone off the deep end.” I pulled a pickle slice from my sandwich. I looked at it, studied it. “Nope, I can’t do it.” I just popped it into my mouth instead of taking advantage of it with my tongue.
Penne tilted her head to the left and shrugged her shoulders. “Well, it’s Friday and I’m way overdue. I am so horny.”
The sandy-haired laid-back guy stood and turned away from us. Pulling his wallet out of his back pocket, he adjusted a little. After laying some bills down on the table, he slowly turned and stepped toward Penne. He only smiled and waited for her to acknowledge him standing there. When she looked up at him and smiled, he stepped closer.
“Hi, doll. Is it all right that I call you doll?”
Penne looked up at him, batting her big blue eyes. “Maybe. I’m not sure about that yet.”
“My name’s Max. If you don’t mind that I speak freely in front of your friend …” He slowly leaned down toward her neck, waiting for her to disagree with his action. He breathed in gently and softly said, “I fucking love the way you ate that sandwich.”
Penne cleared her throat, shook a little, and clasped her fingers, intertwining them on the table. She took a deep breath. “If you liked that, then …” She put her index finger up and reeled him in closer. She breathed in, smelling him, and said, “You would love what I can do with whipped cream. Anything creamy, actually. Chocolate, caramel.”
“I have no doubt.” He raised his eyebrows.
I’m sure my jaw hit the table. My roommate, the temptress. I felt like I was a peeping Tom. They were sharing this moment, and I didn’t belong. I finally broke the interlude. Penne’s eyes were glued to Max’s.
Max’s friend approached the table and introduced himself to me. “Hey, I’m Mark.”
“Hi, I’m Elyse. The sandwich-whisperer here is Penne.”
Penne gave her hand to Max, winking. “You can call me doll.”
Mark smiled and looked away from his friend. “Would you ladies care to go into the city, maybe do some dancing? Maybe have a few drinks?”
* * *
We decided to hit a hot spot in town called The Next Step. The place was huge. Thank goodness we didn’t have to wait very long. Inside, it was dark except for vivid revolving colors bursting in time with the heavy beats. The dance area was highly polished teak, deep brown. The tables were a light-gray marble with veins of silver that seemed to move under the different colorful light features. The guys offered to buy us a round of drinks. Penne and I both decided on a salty dog. I was going to suffer for it tomorrow. Between the salt in the sandwich and the salt on the rim of my drink, I would be wearing sweats tomorrow.
Penne tilted her head longingly. “He does have a nice ass.”
I looked toward the bar as the two of them walked away. I agreed that they both did have fine-looking backsides. “Which one are you complimenting, Pen?”
“Oh, Max, of course. I swear when he bent down and whispered in my ear, my body temperature rose just like the small hairs at the nape of my neck did. He smelled sweet and a little salty. Two of my favorite flavors. How is it possible to feel that hot and get goose bumps at the same time?” Penne ran her hand over the back of her neck.
“Penne, is everything about food with you?” I knew exactly what she was talking about. I had felt that very thing earlier. Shivering heat. “I have to admit you’ve impressed him.” I just smiled at how audacious Penne could be. “What do you think they do for a living?”
Penne pursed her lips. “I don’t know. I guess we’d better find out. Maybe they work for the mob.” She made her eyes wide and smiled.
“No need to be sarcastic. I am serious, Penne. We need to find out about them. We have just met them. I know I’m sounding overprotective but—”
“I know! I know!” She sighed and tilted her head back. “I guess getting lucky tonight would be way too accommodating for me. I guess I would come off looking a bit too easy.”
I leaned in close to her. “Look at it this way, my oversexed, horny friend, if he’s really interested, maybe you can get lucky more than once. Make him wait a bit. We need to be careful, Pen.”
She sighed in frustration. “I know, but I have decided I am going to have fun tonight, even if I’m hitting the sheets by myself. We haven’t gone out in a while.” She quickly added, “By the way, I’m proud of you, E. You are stepping out of your zone. I think it’s good.”
Max came to the table first and sat across from Penne, smiling as he slid her drink to her. Mark sat across from me and offered me mine.
“Thanks for the drinks, guys,” Pen and I chorused.
“Ah, very welcome, ladies,” Mark offered. Max was still staring at Penne’s mouth. She licked at the salt around the rim of her glass. The girl was shameless.
Mark glared at his friend. “Don’t let us interrupt the two of you.” Mark smiled at me. He turned toward the dance floor and then back to me. “Elyse, would you like to dance? It doesn’t look like they are in a talking mood.”
I looked up toward the ceiling and smiled as he reached for my hand. I can do this. I stood. I felt a little shaky. He allowed me to walk first, and he stepped in behind me. It was only a short distance to the dance floor, but he placed his hand on my lower back and I jumped. I was a little startled.
He pulled his hand away. “I’m sorry. Did I offend you?”
“No, it’s all right. You’re fine. I just haven’t been dancing in a while.” The song was a bump-and-grind beat, and a lot of the couples around us were feeling every beat and sexy saxophone riff. I loved the saxophone when it was slick and sassy.
“So, what line of work are you in, Mark?” I tried not to yell but had to in order to be heard.
“Construction.” He began to move closer to me, and I fought the flighty feelings I was having. He was three or four inches taller than I was and half again as wide. He was strong. He moved closer, and I almost put my palms against his chest to push him back. He gently put his arms around my waist, resting his hands. I instinctively put my hands on his shoulders. I couldn’t feel any give in his skin. He was hard, and heat radiated from his chest. I felt stiff. I was trying to look natural, but I did not feel natural. I was a little offbeat. I could remember a time when dancing close to a hard body like his would have made my mouth water.
Mark stilled for a moment. “Elyse, you have no reason to fear me. I am just enjoying the privilege of dancing with a beautiful woman.”
Humor, we need humor. I nodded. “Thanks for that. I have to say you can dance. If my feet don’t get stepped on, then your chances of getting another dance improve.”
He threw his head back and laughed. “I’ll certainly try to not step on your feet then.”
I relaxed a little and allowed my hips to sway closer to his. He was ruggedly attractive. Closing my eyes, I could feel the texture of deep-blue trousers and a crisp white shirt. My mind was defying reality. I took a quick breath in. Chills raced up the back of my neck. I took a deep breath and tried to relax into Mark’s hold. I tossed my hair over my shoulder, trying to shake the image of earlier and trying to let myself have some fun. I tried to concentrate on the man in front of me. I shimmied closer to Mark. He spun me out and then back to his hard chest. Stepping to the side, he put his right leg between mine. Oh my but he was muscular!
In one swift move, his right arm cradled my lower back while his left hand gently supported my neck. He dipped me quite low. He was very strong. I almost threw my arms out to catch myself, but he had me. I could feel it. I could feel him. Maybe I shouldn’t have shimmied so close to him. His arousal was hot and full. I could feel the heat at my inner thigh. He’d brushed my groin as the dip ended. Even through his sturdy blue jeans, I felt the hardness of him. I was happy that I had worn jeans. The feel of his erection on my bare thigh would have been too much. I wanted to get away from him. It was too much. Is this over yet?
Mark looked into my eyes, and as he did, all that I could see were hungry eyes framed by dark lashes and a wisp of the unruly hair of a man I did not know. I was being dipped on the fourteenth floor of the Blysse Building and laid down on a plush burgundy couch. I felt the magnetism from earlier. It was him. I shook a bit, trying to gain control of my thoughts.
Mark turned me to go toward our table. “How was that?” he asked with his eyebrow raised.
Wide-eyed, I stared into his face, into Mark’s face. “You have the prettiest green eyes.” It was the only thing that I could think to say.
“Pretty?” Mark asked, sounding curiously offended.
“Yes, pretty.” I studied his face. He looked quizzical. “All right, sexy then. Does that sound better to your male ego?”
He laughed. “Yes, yes, it does. Much more manly.”
We went back to the table. Penne and Max weren’t there. I spotted them on the dance floor, moving together much more intimately than Mark and I had. Max was pressed quite snugly along Penne’s petite curviness. Her cheek rested on his chest. She pulled back from Max and reached for her pocket. She cupped her ear to answer her cell. She headed back to our table, and Max followed. She mouthed, “Sam,” as she pushed her cell tightly to her ear and stood a few feet away from us.
Max was grinning at Penne.
“So, Max, you are in construction as well?” I interjected.
Max looked at Mark and said, “I hope you haven’t been telling stories about me. Making me look bad?”
Mark gave a deep-throated chuckle. “You don’t need my help to do that, bud.”
Penne sat and declared that Sam was on his way. The men at our table tried to shrug it off, but I could tell they were uncomfortable adding a fifth wheel.
Max bristled. “Who’s Sam?”
Penne looked to me, and I looked at Max. “He’s a friend from college. Well, both college and business college.”
Penne chimed in. “Yeah, we had invited him to dinner as well, but he was busy so he wanted to meet for drinks if we decided on that. And here we are.” Penne flipped her hair from her eyes.
Max took a drink of his beer. “Ooh, I like her sassy style.”
Mark crossed his arms and leaned back, stiffening. “Did you date him?”
Penne was reaching across the table, playing with Max’s fingers.
I looked to Mark and shrugged my shoulders. “No, actually.” I paused, thinking his question was a bit forward. I sipped my drink and decided to elaborate. “We met in college, and the three of us shared a house then. Later, we all decided on business majors, so we’ve just always stayed in touch, for the most part. Although we haven’t seen Sam in a month or so.”
Mark nudged me with his shoulder. “So, business school? What do you want to do?”
“I want to be in marketing somehow. Not sure where I will wind up. In fact, I just had an interview today. That’s why we came out to celebrate. Not sure if I have anything to celebrate yet. I sure hope so. I desperately need to be employed.”
Mark nodded his head in understanding. “Yeah, it seems like everyone is having a difficult time of it lately. Even if you get a degree in a given field, the jobs just aren’t there.”
I clasped my hands tightly. “I guess I am hoping for a small miracle then, because it if doesn’t happen soon, Penne and I will be looking for somewhere else to call home.”
Mark and I were in a discussion about current movies while Max and Penne were on the dance floor again. I saw Sam come in through the front. He was scanning the room left to right when he made eye contact with me.
He walked up in front of our booth. He spoke to me but was staring at Mark. “There you are. Where’s Pen?”
I pointed toward the dance floor. “She’s dancing with Max.”
Sam tucked his chin in. “Who’s Max?” he questioned rather assertively, as if he knew everyone who might come into contact with Penne and me.
Mark stood and offered his right hand. “He’s my friend and coworker. I’m Mark Pullman.”
Sam leaned in to shake hands with Mark. “Sam Matthews. Nice to meet you.” Sam slid in across from me and scooted in just as Penne and Max were coming back to the table.
Penne plopped down and scooted in next to Sam. She gave him a hug. Max’s eyebrows shot up. “Sit down, Max,” Penne said as she greeted Sam. “Sam Matthews, this is, Max … I’m sorry, I didn’t get your last name.”
Sam snickered, shooting a disapproving look at Penne. She glared back at him.
Max smiled as he put his hand in front of Penne. “Connors, Max Connors.” He shook Sam’s hand.
Sam looked away from Max and Penne and turned his attention to me. “E, where did you meet these guys? I mean, how do you know them?” he unabashedly asked. I could smell the testosterone beginning to get thicker in the air.
I was feeling a little annoyed at Sam. “Actually, we met at dinner. They were at Sandie’s when Penne and I were.”
Penne’s cheeks flushed a little. “Anyone ready for another drink?” she asked and nudged Max. “I’ll buy this round.”
I patted Mark on the shoulder. “I’ll go with you, Pen. Wait up.” Mark slid out of the booth and stood, offering his hand to help me up. I was uncomfortable taking his hand. It seemed far too romantic a gesture. I reluctantly took it, not wanting to be rude, but I was thinking that he might be trying too hard.
Penne faced the table of three men. “Is a pitcher of beer all right with all of you?”
A resounding “Yes!” chorused from the table as Penne and I stepped closer together and walked away from the table.
Penne sighed. “Did you feel that?”
I huffed. “The playground, boy angry, he got the ball thing? I don’t know if it was very smart to have Sam show up when we kind of picked these two up. Well, I have to say that, technically, you picked them up.”
We both laughed.
Penne giggled. “Yeah, who knew having carnal knowledge of a turkey melt could have that kind of power? Truly, it surprises me that Sam would react that way.” Penne shrugged. “Do you think he’s being a little strange?”
I turned and looked toward our table. “I don’t know, maybe a little like a big brother.” I looked behind the bartender to a drink list on the wall. “I think I am just going to have some water.” I puffed air into my cheeks and mimicked a blowfish.
Penne laughed. “Yeah, I agree. My jeans are pinching a little.”
We ordered, and the bartender said someone would bring the pitcher of beer and waters to our table.
Penne turned and looked toward the back and sides of the dance floor. “Where’s the restrooms?”
The bartender pointed behind us and to the right.
It was nice to get out of the crowded bar area. It was cool in the restroom, but it smelled too sweet and flowery.
Penne fluffed her hair and dabbed at her eyes. “What do you think of Mark?”
I took a deep breath. “He’s very attractive. Kind.”
Penne crossed her arms in front of her. “No chills?”
I tilted my head and raised my eyebrows. “Nope.”
Penne shrugged. “Oh well. I think he likes you. Are you ready to go back out there to the din of hungry males?”
I brushed my hair back and straightened my jeans and top. “Sure.”
As we approached our table, Penne slowed and then stopped. “Uh-oh, that doesn’t look good.”
“What?” I looked to our table just in time to see Mark jump up and grab Max’s forearm. Sam looked angry and was standing and leaning toward Max with both palms on the table.
Mark pulled Max back from the table and said, “This is not the time or place, man!”
Penne’s eyes darted from Max to Sam. “What’s going on? What? What happened?”
Sam moved out from the booth and stepped away. “Your new friend here is the son of the man who I believe is trying to take over my dad’s company.” Sam reached out, palms forward. “Sorry, Elyse. Sorry, Penne. I didn’t want to ruin or affect your evening, but I need to go. Now. Before I do something that I wouldn’t want you girls to see.”
Mark continued to restrain Max as Sam turned to leave, rolling his shoulders before ducking out of the door.
Max yanked his arm from Mark. “I’m fine, Mark!”
Penne sat on the edge of the booth. “I just don’t understand.”
Max placed his hands gently on Penne’s shoulders. “Penne, I am so sorry about that.”
Penne, confused, squinted her eyes and shook her head. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”
Max stepped back just a little to give Penne room. “Evidently, your Sam, Sam Matthews, is the son of David Matthews of Matthews Architecture and Construction.”
Penne chimed in. “Yes, we are aware of Sam’s family business.”
“A company my father is looking at acquiring in order to incorporate it into Connors Construction. Rumor has it Matthews is having financial problems.”
I stepped up. “Oh shit! You have got to be kidding.” I looked at Mark, and he made no motion to argue. He shrugged his shoulders as his lips turned up on one side. “I thought there were some concerns with the Matthews, but I didn’t think it was this serious.”
We sat and tried idle chatter while the guys had one more glass of beer. If Sam had wanted to open up to Penne and me, we missed the opportunity. Sam would never talk about personal problems to mere strangers. He could be hot-tempered, but I had never seen him react that way.
“Penne, I think we should probably go. It feels like the evening needs to come to an end. I’m pretty tired. It really has been a long day.”
Penne looked at me. “Yeah, I agree. Sorry, guys. Max, I really enjoyed the evening, but I think it’s best to call it for now.”
Max cupped Penne’s cheek with his palm and kissed her sweetly on the lips. “I definitely want to see what you can do with whipped cream.”
Penne cooed, “You are definitely getting the go-ahead for a redo.”
Mark put his hands in his pockets, grabbing his keys. “Are you girls all right to drive? We can take you home and help you to get your car later, tomorrow sometime.”
I was tempted to take him up on his offer. “No, it’s all right. I’m good to drive. I really didn’t have a lot to drink.”
We exchanged cell numbers and headed out.
As we neared our car, Mark once again placed his palm at my lower back. I fought the urge to swipe at him. I shouldn’t feel so strongly against a simple gesture, should I? I needed to get these urges under control.
Mark stopped and turned to face me. “Elyse, thank you for a memorable evening. It was really a pleasure meeting you and Penne. I am sorry about the incident between Connors and Matthews.” We looked toward Max. He was holding Penne’s chin up by the tip of his finger and kissing her upturned lips. They looked smitten. I stepped back and smiled at Mark. I felt guilty. I couldn’t help the fact that the only male in my line of sight was one who had erased the fear and replaced it with shivering heat.
Penne and I were both quiet on the way home. I was still thinking of what had happened with Sam at The Next Step. He had been out of touch lately. I was concerned, but I also needed to stay focused on getting a job. I hoped that I would hear from Blysse sooner rather than later.
I spent the weekend weeding in the flower beds and pruning the rosebushes. It was a pleasant, mind-numbing activity. I could be in my own skin and reflect. The first part of the week, I decided to clean and organize closets and kitchen cabinets, willing my cell phone to ring. I was anxious to hear from anyone from the Blysse Building about any possible employment.
Mark had called midday on Tuesday, asking me if I’d like to have lunch or take in a movie. I told him I would love to. I needed some distraction from all of the worrying. Mark and I wound up at the lake and found a popular pizza stand. It only offered pizza three different ways, but it was classic.
Penne had been busy at her job at a new agency called Flare for Air, which was a radio-based company putting together catchy slogans for different local products.
I hadn’t seen much of her since Friday night when we went out. Getting out and going for a walk was a great distraction. Mark had kept his distance at lunch, and we had idly chatted about the weather and some of the people milling around the shoreline. I was getting the feeling that perhaps Mark was settling for a friendship rather than a romance. Neither one of us spoke about it.
Wednesday morning, I got a call from Grace Nichols asking me to a second interview. “Yes!” I yelled and punched the sky. I sent Penne a text.
“I have a second interview!!!!”
“Friday @ 2.”
I wanted to celebrate. I felt as if a ten-pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I was getting closer. It wasn’t a sealed deal, but it was something. I decided to go to the market and pick up some steaks. I loved to cook when I had the chance. Baked potatoes and a simple green salad would be delicious. My cell rang as I put the groceries in the refrigerator. It was Penne.
“Hey, should we try and reach Sam again?”
I thought about it. I had tried to reach Sam since Friday night but had not gotten a response. “Sure, sounds nice. Pen, would you stop by George’s and pick up some wine. I forgot to get it while I was at the store?”
“Sure, I’ll call Sam too, unless you want to?”
“No, go ahead. I’m busy playing with my food.”
“What about Max and Mark? I mean, if Sam can’t make it?” Penne paused. “It could be fun.”
“Okay, sounds all right. Have you and Max been … communicating?” I went out of my way to sound flirtatious.
“I have to admit that we’ve been doing some verbal and nonverbal as well, communicating, that is.” She laughed a throaty giggle.
“Just let me know which way it goes so I know how many steaks to marinate. Oh, and get some beer too, just in case.”
The call ended, and I pulled some spices out of the cabinet to season the steaks with.
Penne sent me a text saying she had called Sam and we would only need four steaks. A half hour later, I heard the pinging of the front door. It must have gone off three or four times.
“Opfen upf !” I heard a muffled cry. Peeking out the tiny security window, I saw Penne with her keys hanging out of her mouth and grocery bags in her arms. I opened the door. “What is all of this?” I took the keys out of her mouth.
“Gee, thanks. I’d rather you take a bag of groceries.”
I took a bag from her and shut and locked the door. “I only asked for wine and beer.” We walked into the kitchen. “I wanted to make guacamole,” she said with pride. “You know how guys are. Stomachs are bottomless pits.”
“I got the steaks out, so I’m guessing Sam said no?”
Penne shrugged. “He didn’t answer his cell, so I left a message.”
I put the beer in the refrigerator and left the cabernet out on the counter. “Uh-oh, you had better cancel. If Mark and Max are coming over, Sam isn’t going to want to see them. Not with the business trouble his dad is having and also thinking Connors had something to do with it.”
Penne pulled some large serving bowls down from the top cabinet and dumped in a bag of tortilla chips. “I really don’t care what Sam thinks. He’s been strange for weeks. It’s just not like him to be so closed off. Secretive even.”
The potatoes were baking. Penne had finished her guacamole, and it was chilling.
“I think we are set.”
Penne smiled. “I think so too.”
Mark and Max showed up sharply at six. Max had a small paper grocery bag, and he handed it to Penne.
“Oh, it’s cold.” When she looked inside, she giggled, and then she slapped him playfully. “So, what is this for?”
Max leaned in and whispered something into Penne’s ear so only she could hear.
Mark followed me into the kitchen and asked if he could help me do anything. “The steaks are room temperature now. How hungry are you guys?”
“I could eat.” He grinned.
“The grill is just out that door if you could fire it up. Oh, and feel free to grab a beer out of the fridge if you’d like.”
“Sounds good. I’m going to take you up on that offer.” As he went to get a beer, I got a better look at the muscles in his arms. He was in admirable shape. He either worked out regularly or worked hard lifting and carrying while working. Not everyone had muscles like that. I felt a pang of guilt for looking at his build, but I quickly brushed it aside. No harm in looking.
In the living room, I could hear Penne laughing and Max growling like a bear. I liked Mark, but I wasn’t as enthusiastic about him as Pen was about Max. I had thought our lunch Tuesday had kind of reset our relationship. I just needed to be careful not to send mixed messages until we got it out in the open.
The Adonis at the Blysse Building had somewhat hijacked my mind. I sprinkled some kosher salt and cracked black pepper over the steaks and carried them out the back door. Mark had the grill heating, and I set the platter down on the small side table.
“Your backyard is nice, Elyse.” He took a swallow of beer. “By the way, how do you like your meat grilled?”
“I like mine medium rare. And thank you. Yeah, it’s been a bit ignored, but I’ve been trying to spruce it up a bit.” I stood with him for a minute in silence, looking at the different bushes and trees.
Mark set the lid down over the steaks. “Penne? Well, medium, or rare?”
“Oh yes, I’m sorry. Medium rare.”
“I’m going to go back in and check a few things. Is there anything that you need?”
He stepped away from the grill and looked over the backyard. “Nah, I’m good. Thanks, Elyse.”
I pulled the guacamole out of the fridge and gave it a stir. I dipped a tortilla chip into the dip. It was perfect and creamy. “Guac is delicious, Penne!” I yelled from the kitchen as I crunched another chip.
Mark brought the steaks in and set them on the counter. “Thanks, Mark. The steaks look fantastic.”
He grinned. “You’re welcome. I have to admit, I do know my way around a steak and a grill. Everyone wanted medium rare, right?” Mark yelled so Penne and Max could hear.
Max yelled out from the living room. “Mark, did you overcook the meat again?”
Mark was laughing. “No, Max, yours is rare.” Mark snickered. “He falls for that every time we grill.”
We carried plates, knives, and forks to the dining room table just outside of the kitchen. I brought the salad, and Mark placed the baked potatoes in a bowl and brought them to the table.
“Who wants what on their potatoes?” I went back into the kitchen.
I heard, “Butter” from Max and “Sour cream,” from Penne.
Mark looked at me. “I like both.” He did say that a little flirtatiously. Maybe flirting was all right? Just playful? I brought the chips and guacamole out to the table, followed by the sour cream and butter. It was finished. “It’s ready. Come and get it.” I poured myself a glass of cabernet and took a deep breath.
* * *
“This is so good, Elyse, all of this, really good.” Max cut into his steak.
“I made the guacamole.” Penne stuck her finger in it and put it to Max’s lips. “It’s spicy, like you.”
Max sucked it off of her finger.
“Are they always like this?” Mark asked me.
“This is the first time that I’ve seen them together since our night out. My guess would be yes.” We smiled at each other.
After dinner, we decided to watch a movie and relax in the living room. Penne and Max took the love seat while Mark sat on the couch closest to my chair. We agreed to watch the first Die Hard with Bruce Willis. Action was better in mixed company.
It turned out it didn’t matter. Penne and Max were using the love seat for all of its worth. Penne all but disappeared in Max’s embrace.
Mark huffed. “Geez, get a room!”
Penne broke the embrace. “A room, I have a room. And it’s all mine.” She grabbed Max’s hand and pulled him toward her bedroom door. He wasn’t fighting at all.
“Don’t forget my surprise.” Max went to the kitchen, and as he came into the living room, he was shaking a can of whipped cream on his way to Penne’s room.
Mark got up. “Dude, hold up.” He spoke to Max for a minute and then turned back to me. “Hey, Elyse, I’m going to call it a night. Max brought his ride, so … I have an early appointment tomorrow.”
“Thanks for coming over and sort of celebrating, not sure if we have anything to really celebrate yet, but thanks for coming over.”
“Thank you for the delicious dinner. It was nice to have a relaxing meal with friends instead of always going out.”
I noticed he used the word friends. Mark put his arms out and gave me a hug. He stepped back and looked at me, his green eyes searching. I felt bad that he didn’t see what he wanted to see, maybe even what he needed to see.
He kissed me on the cheek. “Have a good night, Elyse. I hope you get the job. I would bet on the fact that you will.” I began to think that Mark and I still needed to talk.
Tressa Morris Hern moved to Tennessee after achieving her degree in psychology in California,. While pursuing her passions of gardening, reading, and of course writing, she focuses on the most cherished part of her life, her family. Her favorite quote: “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” —Seneca, Roman philosopher.