Novel Excerpts

THE GOVERNOR’S SONS

Prologue
Clarkstown, Capital City of a Southern State
Summer, 1965

Don Clay hoped to be home in bed in just a few more hours. Last night he’d covered a riot across the state line and gotten cut on the wrist by flying glass. That had cost him three hours in the emergency room, plus a good night’s sleep. As he drove his red ’62 LeMans to cover another story, Clay glanced at his watch and caught a glimpse of the barbed wire like stitches holding the laceration together. His skin felt sore and tight, but he shrugged off the minor discomfort.

Clay, a Negro and seasoned reporter, had taken several lickings and kept on ticking just like his Timex, and the trusty Nikon strapped around his neck. The camera had been blasted from his hands when he’d been fire hosed in Birmingham covering a march back in ‘63, but he’d been lucky enough to retrieve it undamaged.

Clay took one last puff from his Kool cigarette before tossing it from the car window. As he drove over the Manchester Bridge, he could see Friendship Fellowship, the colored church, situated comfortably across the Coleridge River in a little hamlet surrounded by oak trees. It only took a few moments to cross the Manchester. It was a steel beam bridge about the length of a football field.

This evening’s NAACP meeting was scheduled to begin shortly at Friendship Fellowship, and Clay looked forward to a peaceful event, the only excitement being black Civil Rights leader Harland Hall’s presence. He pulled into the parking lot at the side of the church. About a dozen automobiles were there when he arrived, but Hall’s car wasn’t among them.

Clay stepped from his Pontiac and walked toward the church, his feet crunching over the gravel. When he casually glanced in the bridge’s direction, a bright flash of flames caught his eye, then a loud blast erupted rattling the church’s stained glass windows. Two old colored ladies fell to their knees in the parking lot. They clutched each other screaming. Clay felt his lanky frame shaking, then smelled smoke and saw a slight haze in the air while a young woman and her child ran to take cover behind a car. After gathering his senses, Clay realized that the blast had come from the bridge.

Four men and a woman came running from the church to see what had happened. But Don Clay knew. A fresh rush of adrenaline surged through him and he forgot all about sleeping.

“Somebody call the police!” he yelled. “I’m a reporter from the The Crier!” Clay ran toward the bridge, stopping every few moments to snap pictures. With Harland Hall expected at this evening’s event, that explosion could mean only one thing.



Part I: Kitty’s Price

Chapter 1
Joy Hope, a Small Southern Town
Summer, 1936

Ash Kroth pushed open the swinging door on his way to the kitchen, but stopped in midstride. Moments earlier, he’d finished his morning run through town and removed his sneakers, leaving them on the sprawling front porch of the family mansion. Then he’d come inside and followed the aroma of ham and biscuits. Ash had been hungry only seconds ago, but now he wasn’t thinking about food at all.

He saw a Negro girl on a step stool, one he’d never seen before. She was a young woman. Ash was 23. She appeared a few years younger, and wore the light blue dress of a domestic. Ash’s gaze lingered on her shapely legs, then worked its way up. Ash’s brother, Heath, handed her a large crystal platter.

The kitchen was large; Heath and the girl were at the opposite end. They hadn’t noticed Ash yet, but as the girl rose on tiptoe, and her dress inched higher, Ash couldn’t help but notice more of her. He strode in a few more paces, still unseen by them.

“Mother likes all the dishes washed the night of her parties, but she doesn’t mind them not being put away ‘til the next day,” Ash heard his brother tell her.

“Is this the last thing we need to put up?” the girl asked. Heath told her it was. “It’s a good thing you and your brother are supposed to do this. Aunt Izolla would probably fall and break her neck trying to reach these cabinets.”

Heath smiled as the girl tucked the platter into place. “Mother’s planning on hiring a new live-in maid, she just hasn’t found one yet that she likes.”

Ash was hot and sweaty from his run and the whirring ceiling fan and open windows did little to relieve the heat from a hot oven inside a hot house in June. Ash ran a hand over his thick auburn hair to smooth it a little, then grabbed a dish towel from the counter to wipe his face and neck.

He glanced down at his gym shorts and tee shirt for a moment, feeling self conscious. But he didn’t need to be spic and span for the new help, and besides, Ash thought, he wouldn’t mind if she saw him with his muscled physique partially exposed.

The girl had had no trouble reaching the high cabinet shelf. Ash guessed her to be around 5’ 4”, but she almost lost her balance after she closed the cabinet door.

“Careful, Catherine.” Heath held out his arms. “Let me help you down from there. We don’t want you getting hurt your first day on the job.”

“Oh, Mr. Heath, I thank you kindly.” The girl, Catherine, placed her hands on Heath’s broad shoulders.

He lifted her from the stool. “You’re light as a feather.” Setting her on the floor, he said, “You hardly weigh a thing.”

“Aren’t you sweet? And I hear you’re smart, too. Aunt Izolla told me you’re a resident at the hospital, in—I think obstetrics. Is that right?”

“Why yes, indeed.” Ash noticed his brother’s chest puff out at Catherine’s flattery.

Instead of hiring poor white girls, Mother preferred genteel Negroes from the respectable colored part of town. And this Catherine was pretty, with large dark eyes that sparkled, and soft looking cocoa brown skin.

“She said your brother’s smart, too.” Catherine smiled sweetly at Heath. “But I bet he’s not half as good looking as you are.”

Heath grinned. “Well, Ash is the runt.”

Ash became jealous of the easy banter between them. Heath was older, bigger and taller than his little brother, and he referred to Ash as wiry. Heath also had a three inch advantage over him that he never tired of pointing out. Ash was slim from running, and muscular with the broad shoulders of a swimmer, but he was only 5’11 ¾”. Despite this, he claimed to be an even 6 feet.

Heath’s frame was broader than Ash’s and at 26, Heath’s brown hair was streaked with premature gray. To the ladies, this hardly diminished his attractiveness; according to some, it only enhanced it.

Izolla, the family cook of over 25 years, said Heath had a kind face, because of his pleasant smile and gentle brown eyes. But she’d accused Ash more than once of having a touch of devilment painted brightly across his countenance.

She’d said that his boyish dimples couldn’t counteract the mischief in his hazel eyes. And “that widow’s peak along with those slightly pointed eyebrows conjures up the very image of Mephistopheles himself!”

Regardless of her smart remarks, Ash considered himself just as good looking as his big brother, as well as a formidable rival in the art of flirting.

“Why’s a pretty girl like you wasting time talking to an old man like him?” Ash smiled, approaching them. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Upon seeing him, Catherine smiled, and her eyes widened slightly in what looked like surprise. Ash figured she didn’t find him to be the homely runt she’d expected.

They shook hands while Heath introduced them. “Catherine, meet my little brother, Ash. And Ash, this is Catherine Mae Wilkes, Izolla’s great niece. She and her sister, Betty Jean, are gonna be working here this summer.”

“So, you’re the infamous Mr. Ash. Why, I’m pleased to meet you, sir.”

“Let me guess,” Ash said, “‘infamous,’ according to Izolla?”

“That’s right, sir. Aunt Izolla raves about Mr. Heath, but she says, in her opinion, you’re the devil’s assistant.”

Ash shook his head as a sly smile curled his lips. “Now, Izolla would say that about me, wouldn’t she?”

Catherine gazed back at Heath. “Mr. Heath, does your brother always walk around looking like this?”

Ash looked down at his clothes. Maybe he should have showered and dressed. He hadn’t expected to be made fun of. In his defense he said, “Well, I take exercise every morning by going for a run.”

“Wearing that?”

“These are running clothes.”

Catherine grinned. “Oh. I just thought you just wanted to look like a fool.” Heath had just taken a sip of coffee, but almost spat it out as he laughed. Then Catherine tipped her head and eyed Ash strangely. “So, why is it that you—take exercise?”

“And don’t drink coffee,” Heath said before taking another sip.

Ash felt his cheeks burn. Being ridiculed by Heath was one thing, but he hadn’t expected the new girl to act as his accomplice. “I went to a lecture series on health and nutrition at the YMCA a few years back--it changed my life.”

“So,” Heath said, “he doesn’t eat chocolate cake, banana pie, or anything else that makes life worth living.”

Catherine clicked her tongue. “Now, that’s a shame. Aunt Izolla didn’t tell me he was crazy, too.”

The oven timer buzzed and Ash was thankful the distraction that would spare him further harassment.

Catherine used a red pot holder to take a baking pan from the oven, then placed it atop a hot pad on the counter. With a spatula, she removed a biscuit to a small plate, then gently pried it open with a knife.

“Now, Catherine’s a long name.” Ash frowned. “Can I call you something for short?”

Catherine lifted two slices of fried ham with a fork from a platter, and placed them in the biscuit. “My mama used to call me Cathy. She loved Wuthering Heights. Just like your mama.” When she said this, Catherine smiled at Heath, and he smiled back. “Mr. Heath told me that’s how he got his name, too. But I never liked the sound of Cathy all that much. For something short I like Cat better. Mr. Heathcliff, do you want two biscuits?”

“No, one’s good, Cathy.” Heath winked.

“Yeah, he’s getting pudgy around the middle,” Ash said, resentful of his brother’s Wuthering Heights exchange with her.

“Oh, Mr. Ash,” Catherine admonished, pulling a roll of wax paper from a drawer, “there’s certainly nothing wrong with the way your brother looks!” She tore off a length of wax paper, wrapped the biscuit, and then handed it to Heath.

Ash ignored her comment regarding his brother’s looks. “Cat sounds like an animal to me,” he said. “How about Kitty, can I call you that?”

“That’s a baby animal!” Catherine laughed. “But I’ll tell you what, Mr. Ash, you call me anything you want, as long as it sounds nice.”

“Then Kitty it is.”

Heath glanced at his watch. “I need to eat on the run and get to the hospital.”

“Good,” Ash said, “it’s about time.” He studied Kitty’s face as she put the wax paper back in the drawer. Thick black lashes framed her luminous brown eyes, and her lips were full and sensual. He wondered what it would feel like to kiss them. A light blue bandeau pulled her chin length tresses away from her face. Her hair, a kinky curly mass, appeared luxuriantly soft and puffy. Ash felt almost compelled to touch it.

Kitty looked toward Heath as he started to leave. “You have a good day, now, Mr. Heath.”

“Thanks, Catherine. You do the same.” As he walked out the back door at the rear of the kitchen, he yelled over his shoulder, “See you later, runt!”

Kitty tried not to laugh but couldn’t help it. “I’m sorry, Mr. Ash.”

“Shucks.” Ash smirked, and his eyes dropped to the floor. “Go ahead, laugh all you want.” Gazing at Kitty again, his smirk widened to a smile, then he propped himself against the counter next to her. “So, Miss Kitty Mae Wilkes, tell me about yourself.”

“There’s not really much to tell. I’m at Maretta University, the colored school over in Cherrywood. So’s my older sister, Betty Jean.” Kitty opened a large metal pot simmering on the back of the stove with the pot holder. After the steam escaped she stirred the hot grits inside with a wooden spoon. “I just turned 19, and I’ll be a sophomore in the fall. Betty Jean will be graduating next year.”

After she closed the pot and placed the spoon on the white spoon rest next to it, Ash said, “What are you studying?”

“Elementary education.”

Ash nodded his approval. “Teaching’s a good choice.”

“I thought about being a nurse. That’s what my sister wants to do. She’s in Maretta’s nursing program. I like helping people—but I hate science. And all that blood—I just can’t take looking at it.”

Ash laughed. “I’m not cut out for medicine either. But I did teach for a while, right after I graduated from Clemson three years ago. I taught agriculture at the high school; also coached the football team. This summer I’m still doing a little teaching. In the evenings, a couple times a week, I teach adult reading classes.”

“Aunt Izolla told me all that, but she also said you’ll be going to law school this fall.”

“That’s right. I decided to go into politics. It’s only natural.” The Kroths were descended from a large land holding family of wealth and political prestige. Ash leaned close to Kitty and smiled. “You know, since before the Civil War, the Kroth men have been known as crafty lawyers and shrewd politicians. And one of these days, Miss Kitty Mae Wilkes, I’m gonna be the governor.”

“Oh?” Kitty put her hands on her hips. “And how’s that Mr. Ash?”

“I’ve got it all worked out. Law school’s gonna take me three years, so my sights are set on the 1940 election. That’s when I’ll run for superintendent of education. I know I can do a better job than the old geezer that’s doin’ it now. He keeps getting elected, but if I run, I know I can win.”

Kitty laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“Just why do you think you can win? ‘Cause you’re young and good looking?”

“No.” Ash grinned. “But I can make a better budget and improve the schools. Schoolhouses need modernizing and physical education programs need to be instituted. And I also want--”

Kitty interrupted him. “You’re mighty confident. Why not just run for governor to begin with?”

Ash smiled. “Because I gotta start small and prove myself. Later I’ll run for state senator—then the governor.”

Kitty raised one eyebrow. “And then the White House.”

Ash sensed her sarcasm. “Hey, the sky’s the limit. Think big and you can do anything!”

“Especially if you’re a Kroth.” Kitty walked to the sink and pulled out a damp dish cloth. Wiping crumbs from the counter, she said, “Your grandfather was a governor, and your daddy worked for that other governor everybody called ‘The Torch.’”

“But, Kitty, if you work hard and apply yourself, you can do anything. Anybody can.”

Kitty didn’t say anything as she finished wiping the counter and then rinsed the cloth.

Ash hesitated as he tried to read her thoughts. Times were hard; anyone who wasn’t rich was struggling. And he knew all about the other problems Negroes faced every day.

Maybe Kitty realized his plan for modernized schools didn’t include the colored ones. But he’d make sure all colored children in the state received a decent education. Separate but equal; that’s how things were supposed to be in the South. But they weren’t. However, Ash rationalized, life for Negroes was a far cry from days gone by.

“Kitty, times aren’t like what they used to be. Everybody can get an education--and education is the key to success.”

She took a deep breath. “Now you know--” she began, but stopped abruptly. Her brown eyes flickered. They just missed sparking when she remembered her place.

But Ash wanted to hear what this Negro girl had to say, and see just how far she’d go. “I’m listening,” he prodded.

Kitty only smiled. “It doesn’t really matter what I’m thinking.” She glimpsed up at the clock over the stove and gasped, “Oh, no!”

“What’s wrong?” Ash asked. He watched Kitty quickly turn on the heat under a large cast iron skillet.

“It’s almost 8:00. Aunt Izolla said that’s when your daddy likes to eat.” Kitty frantically pulled open the silverware drawer and grabbed a knife. She used it scoop a large glob of butter from a soft hunk on a saucer near the stove. After shaking the butter into the skillet, she looked at Ash, worried. “And she said to scramble the eggs as soon as the biscuits finished baking.”

Kitty rushed to the icebox and pulled out a bowl. She stood looking at it for a moment as though unsure of what to do next. “These are the eggs. They’re already beaten and ready to scramble. But I—I was hoping Aunt Izolla’d be back by now ‘cause—I can’t cook!”

Ash laughed. “You can’t cook? Does she know that?”

“Yeah,” Kitty said, moving to the stove. “But she said anybody can scramble eggs.”

When she started to dump them into the skillet, Ash stopped her. “Wait a minute!” He reached for the bowl. His body touched hers as he took it from her hands, and he lingered near her a moment longer than necessary. “The pan’s not hot enough yet. See, the butter hasn’t even finished melting. Just wait a little while. And then,” he set the eggs on the counter, “I’ll cook ‘em.”

“But—”

“I don’t mind. I was a Boy Scout. I’ve scrambled eggs over an open camp fire many a time.”

Kitty exhaled, relieved. “Thank you, Mr. Ash.” She walked back to the icebox and pulled out a pitcher of orange juice, then filled three small glasses on a tray. “I better put this juice on the table and start setting out the food. Aunt Izolla’s gonna kill me when she comes back.”

“I doubt that,” Ash smiled, “but she might kill me.” He poured the eggs into the skillet and they began to sizzle. Maneuvering them with a metal spatula, he asked, “Where is Izolla, anyway?”

“She wanted to show Betty Jean a few things around the house. She showed me everything when I first got here, but Betty Jean was late. She was feeling sick and almost didn’t come at all.”

Heavy footsteps plodded down the back stairs, then stopped abruptly at the rear kitchen entry way. Kitty quickly grabbed the tray of juice glasses and headed for the dining room, but before she reached the swinging door, her great aunt’s commanding voice bellowed.

“Hold it right there!” Izolla yelled. Kitty froze but didn’t turn around. Izolla eyed Ash at the stove. “Just what’s going on in here? Mr. Ash, your mama’s payin’ good money for my great nieces to work here this summer. She ain’t payin’ them to watch you cook!”

“Izolla,” Ash smiled, “I’m just helping out. Besides, Kitty said she can’t cook.”

Kitty still hadn’t turned around. But when Ash saw her shoulders hunch and her head drop, he almost laughed.

“‘Kitty’?” Izolla frowned.

“She said I could call her that,” Ash explained, scraping scrambled eggs onto the platter with the ham.

“Humph,” Izolla snorted. “Turn around, Miss Cat.” Kitty slowly turned to face her aunt. “Cookin’ ain’t medicine and you don’t need no law degree to scramble eggs!”

“But Aunt Izolla,” a small voice said from behind the large woman’s frame. Ash was caught off guard by this seemingly invisible presence. He looked hard at Izolla, waiting for something to appear. Moments later, a young girl emerged from behind her.

The girl’s skin was fair like Izolla’s, a light honey brown, but she was thin and petite, shorter than Kitty. Her wavy black hair was shoulder length and she wore it tied back in a ponytail with a pink ribbon.

“Cooking’s like chemistry,” the girl said quietly. “And Catherine hates any kind of science.

Ash eyed this girl a little longer than necessary because she wore the thickest glasses he’d ever seen. When she looked down, he realized he’d been staring. Ash averted his eyes, then moved toward her politely. “How do you do, miss?”

“This here’s Mr. Ash,” Izolla said as they shook hands. “This is my other niece, Betty Jean. And she can cook.”

Ash noticed Kitty bristle. “Aunt Izolla,” Kitty said, “Mr. Ash just offered to help, that’s all.”

Ash flashed a charming smile. “That’s right, Izolla. No harm in that, is there?”

“Don’t you need to shower and dress before breakfast?” Izolla snapped.

Ash jumped to attention. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Well get on outta here so we can get to work!” Izolla grabbed the wooden spoon from the stovetop. Dried grits were plastered to it. Shaking the utensil in Ash’s direction, the fat on her upper arms jiggled furiously. “And look here, Mr. Ash! You behave yourself around my great nieces.”

“Now, Izolla,” Ash said smoothly, “I’m always a gentleman.”

“Even though you’re grown,” she moved toward him a few paces, still wielding the spoon, “I’ll use force if I have to, to control you, incorrigible as you are!”

Kitty laughed. “Aunt Izolla, Mr. Ash seems perfectly harmless.”

“You don’t know him like I do,” Izolla smirked.

“Now I resent that, Izolla, I’m harmless as a fly.”

“Then get on outta here ‘fore I swat you!”

Ash left the kitchen still remembering the slight touch of Kitty’s body next to his.


Chapter 2
Three Weeks Later

As Ash began to climb the back porch steps, Kitty opened the back door. He stopped. Her presence never failed to send a surge of electricity through him. It was still early morning and Ash had just driven home from swimming laps at the country club. He hadn’t seen Kitty at all today. As she descended the stairs, he moved aside to let her pass.

She held a basket in one hand and smiled. “Hey, Ash,” several days ago she’d stopped calling him Mr. Ash when no one else was around. “I’m off to pick peaches for a cobbler Aunt Izolla’s gonna bake later.” She stopped inches from him at the bottom step. “But I think she and Betty Jean just want me out of the kitchen since I can’t cook.”

Ash didn’t say anything. In his mind, he was too busy peeling off her clothes.

Smiling, Kitty cocked her head to the side. “Cat got your tongue?”

“No—course not. I’m never at a loss for words.”

Kitty laughed. “I know.” She turned on the ball of her foot and strode away.

Ash watched her go. He continued watching as he backed up the steps. He dropped his gym bag on the porch, still gazing in Kitty’s direction. She walked slowly as a gentle breeze blew the skirt of her dress gracefully around her legs. It would take Kitty about five minutes to reach the peach orchard. It was behind the mansion, hidden beyond a large cluster of oak trees.

The Kroth’s white clapboard house, freshly painted with shiny black shutters, sat on a low sloping hill. The mansion was surrounded by three acres of land scattered with white magnolias and pink crape myrtle. Ash’s father owned about a thousand more acres up in the northern part of the county worked by sharecroppers.

Ash could still see Kitty off in the distance. He jumped down the six steps by threes and began following her. The air was fragrant with honeysuckle and magnolia, and except for a slight rustling of leaves, all was quiet. When he called to her, she appeared not to hear him. But he wondered if she really could.

Kitty--Cat—both names suited her because she liked to toy with him as a cat plays with a mouse—before killing it. But being near her wouldn’t be dangerous, Ash reflected, if he could keep his feelings out of it. He knew the emotions that stirred inside him weren’t right.

A dalliance with a Negro girl should be kept at that—a dalliance, with no emotional attachment. However, it was already too late for Ash. He told himself he shouldn’t be out here looking at her—following her. But he couldn’t help it.

“Kitty,” he called again. This time, she glanced over her shoulder and smiled, but then looked ahead and kept walking.

Ash gazed at her, thinking how sensual she was. Her walk, her smile, her voice all jarred his senses to oblivion. From behind, he watched the simple blue dress sway alluringly about her hips. She strode with a straight back and head held high. Her strides were queenly, yet seductive.

Ash, wearing khaki pants and a mint green sport shirt, began jogging. When he finally caught up to her, Kitty said, “What are you doing all the way out here?”

He smiled. “I thought you needed help.”

“You certainly like helping me.”

“You got a problem with that?”

They held each other’s gaze for a few seconds. “I don’t,” Kitty said, “but what about your daddy? He doesn’t mind you not working five days a week in his law office this summer?”

“No. Two days is good enough.”

“But two days isn’t enough to keep you out of trouble.”

“And I’ve got my teaching twice a week.”

“But you’re still around to cause mischief during the day since you teach at night! So just how adults are in those reading classes?”

“About a dozen, but there should be more. Some folks are too ashamed to admit they can’t read.”

“Well, I think what you’re doing is right admirable.”

“It’s necessary,” Ash said. “In this day and age, there’s no excuse for illiteracy. Now see, when I’m governor, I’m gonna put some reading programs into place. That way, everyone’ll know how to read in this state. Knowledge is power.”

“Especially…”

“Especially what?”

“Nothing.”

Ash knew what she was thinking, “Especially if you’re white.” But he didn’t force the issue. It was true.

They walked silently for a few moments. “Guess you could say I’m taking it easy this summer. Once I’m in law school, then start politicking, I won’t have much time to call my own. So I hope you don’t mind me—helping you out, since I’ve got some free time on my hands.”

“Oh, I appreciate your help; seems like you know everything. From drying dishes to hanging linens on the clothesline, you’re an expert. And no matter what I do, you’ve got a lecture on how to do it better.”

Ash stopped walking, then grabbed Kitty’s arm with a tug. Unable to move, she stiffened. Her eyes widened as though afraid.

“What was I giving you a lecture about a few days ago—that time when you teased me?” Ash asked.

Her lips parted slightly, but she said nothing. Ash released her arm, then shoved his hands into his pockets. Kitty’s stiffness disappeared. She smiled and relaxed.

“So,” he returned her smile, “you know what day I’m talking about, don’t you? Mother off at her Tuesday bridge luncheon, Izolla and Betty Jean gone to market, and you and me—alone—washing dishes.”

Kitty looked down for a moment, then grinned. By the look on her face, Ash assumed she was blushing. But her dark skin prevented him from knowing for sure. When Kitty began walking again, Ash followed.

“You were talking too much. I wanted to shut you up.” She winked.

“Yeah, and when you reached to kiss me, I lost my train of thought. One second you act like you wanna kiss me, then the next you pull away. Why’d you do that?”

Kitty hesitated. “Because you stopped talking, and—and because Aunt Izolla warned me about you.”

“What’d she say?”

“That sometimes you don’t act as gentlemanly as your brother does. So—I was just testing you,” Kitty said coyly. “You passed.” She moved her basket from one hand to the other. “When I pulled away, you didn’t try to make me--change my mind.”

Ash took a breath to speak, but before he could, Kitty changed the subject.

“Well, today I’m just picking peaches. I doubt there’s anything you can teach me about that.”

Her tone almost seemed a challenge. “Are you kidding?” Ash said, as they approached the small orchard. Peaches hung invitingly from the branches and the smell of ripening fruit wafted through the air.

“When I was growing up, we lived out in the country, and Heath and I had to do chores right along with the Negroes that worked our land. My dad made sure we showed them the same respect we would anybody else. Respecting others, no matter what—that’s one of the best lessons Dad ever taught me.”

“So what lesson do you suppose you can teach me about picking peaches?” Kitty asked.

“Well, since I grew up cultivating peasches, and have a degree in agriculture--”

“Oh, Ash!” Kitty laughed. “Stop talking! I’ll just pick one—then you can give me a lecture.”

Kitty gazed up into the glossy leaves. Ash watched as her slender arm rose to pluck a peach. Even this innocuous action oozed sensuality to him.

“Think fast!” Kitty tossed the peach to him and laughed. He almost missed, distracted by a hint of lace peeking from the neckline of her dress. “Is that a good one?” she asked.

Ash squeezed the fruit, then smelled it. “Not bad, but not perfect. When you pick peaches, they need to be firm, with a little give to ‘em. And they should have a deep, sweet peachy smell.”

“Well, I figured, since that one had rosy red skin, it’d be just right.”

“But rosy red skin doesn’t mean it’s ripe enough to pick.” Ash took the basket, placed the peach inside, then set it on the ground. “What you want to look for instead is a deep yellow background color.” He looked up and then pointed high above them. “Like that one.”

Kitty tried to reach the peach he indicated to but couldn’t. “It’s too high.”

“Now it’s not,” Ash said, grabbing her by the waist and lifting her up.

Kitty laughed, as she was hoisted into the air. After she pulled on the peach, snapping it free from the branch, Ash slowly lowered her to the ground. Kitty held the peach between them, but Ash didn’t remove his eyes from hers.

Now that one looks perfect,” he said, still not looking at the fruit. “But the best way to test it—is to taste it.” Ash took the peach from her hand, then touched it to her lips.

Kitty held his gaze and took a deep, sensual bite. Juice burst from the peach, trickling to her chin. Ash brushed it away with his thumb, then licked the juice from his finger. “Now it’s my turn,” he said, before she could eat any more. “You don’t mind if we share, do you?”

Kitty smiled, shaking her head. “I wouldn’t dare deprive you of something this good. It’s sweet.”

Before Ash bit into, he said, “And it feels just firm enough—and I can see how juicy it is.”

They ate the peach together, the only sound between them soft laughter. After they finished, Ash threw the pit aside into the soil.

“I reckon we can’t test each one now, can we?” Kitty smiled.

“I reckon not.”

Silently, they picked peaches until the basket was filled. When both reached down to pick it up, their heads collided.

While they laughed, Ash rubbed his head and said, “I’ll carry the basket!”

But when the laughing stopped, neither of them moved. They looked into each other’s eyes. When Ash bent to kiss her, this time Kitty let him. He slipped his arms around her waist, pulling her against him in a firm embrace. When his kiss deepened, Kitty encircled her arms around his neck. But after a few seconds, she gently pushed him away.

“Aunt Izolla’s probably looking for me about now. We need to head back.”

Ash hesitated. He wanted to keep kissing her. And he wanted more than that—and even more than that. Anything he’d say now wouldn’t make sense, so instead he just grabbed the basket. They walked toward the house without a word between them for several moments.

“So, who’s Russell?” he asked.

“Russell?” Kitty laughed. “How’d you hear about him?”

“I heard Betty Jean tell Izolla how much he likes you.”

“Oh.” Kitty smiled slyly.

“So?”

“So what?”

“So—who is he? Are you talking to him?” Ash demanded.

“About what?” She batted her eyes.

“You know what I mean! Are you seeing him?”

“Oh,” she sighed, “kind of.”

“Kind of? You either are or you aren’t!”

“Well, Ash--that’s really none of your business, now, is it?”

As Kitty casually strode ahead, she left Ash behind, smoldering.




Escape: Book One of the Unchained Trilogy

Chapter 1
Wilmington, North Carolina
1856

I can do this...I can do this...Lori repeated the words to herself as if willing them to be true.  Under a brightly shining moon, she stood on the back porch of Rebecca Taylor’s home and slipped the strap of a filled canteen around her neck.  Lori tucked it to one side, then reached for the worn leather satchel at her feet and did the same. The cornbread and salt pork wrapped inside would last for about three days.
      
Miss Rebecca was dead now, leaving Lori with no alternative but to run.
      
You’d be a fool to try!  Don’t even think about setting off on your own, you’ll never make it!  Lori forced Daniel’s protests from her mind, instead hearing the cicadas and crickets chirp around her.  Daniel couldn’t stop her because she refused to be dragged off to Dancing Oaks!
      
This was her one chance at freedom.  Don’t go...you can’t...Again, Daniel’s words played through her head—and this time, also her heart.  For a moment, Lori hesitated.  Her feelings for Daniel were silly.  He was Miss Rebecca’s son, yet why had he been so adamant about her not trying to escape?  He’d tried to convince his uncle to free her—but that hadn’t worked, so now Lori was taking matters into her own hands.
    
I can do this, she told herself once more, and I won’t get caught, I can do this.  Seeing the glimmer of fireflies, Lori wondered, could she really?  She was terrified.  However, was she more terrified of trying to escape, or of being forced to work on a plantation?      
    
Lori started slowly down the steps.   It would take about three hours on foot to reach Laid Low Farm.  She knew the way.  Miss Rebecca and her family were abolitionists, and Daniel had taken Lori with him several times to Laid Low to give food to the runaways.  Of course, they’d always traveled by wagon, but Miss Rebecca disapproved of Lori going at all.  She’d said it was no place for a lady. 
      
Laid Low Farm was where the fugitive slaves hid.  There was a whole community of them living near its swamp land.  Lori figured she could hide there for a short while, then head off to Canada. 
    
She trembled.  As Lori stepped from the last porch stair to the grass, her eyes watered.  Why did Miss Rebecca have to die?  Lori thought angrily.  She was supposed to take care of me.
      
After inhaling deeply, taking in the scent of magnolia blossoms and the ever present odor of the manure muddled through the streets, Lori began to run.  This was no time for tears.  Holding the canteen and satchel close to her sides to keep them quiet, she pushed herself through the thick humid air.  Perspiration began seeping through her kerchief and calico dress as she darted behind the large houses lining Walnut Street.    
     
Once beyond the houses, she’d come to the woods, from there she could travel safely to Laid Low.  Lori felt the warm night breeze press against her face.  If Miss Rebecca hadn’t died, she wouldn’t be in this predicament, but Lori would manage to get herself out of it and live in freedom.  That’s what kept her going, built her determination and infused her with confidence. 
      
Wearing brown brogans on her feet, Lori ran swiftly, feeling magnolia branches and azalea shrubs brush against her arms.  But at the sound of a barking dog, she stopped abruptly.  Afraid and deflated, Lori realized she’d only made it past the third house down from Miss Rebecca’s.  There were two more before she’d reach the woods.
      
Hearing the ground grinding of wagon wheels and the plodding of a horse’s hooves, Lori knew it was the patrollers.  Her heart began racing even more rapidly than it already was.  Paid weekly by some in the community, patrollers drove slowly and carefully each night, surveying the area for runaway slaves.  Lori found a large azalea shrub in a clearing between the houses and crouched behind it. 
     
For three nights she’d stayed up late listening for the patrollers.  They usually made rounds about one a.m.  But now it was past two.  From behind the houses, she could hear male voices over the jingling of reins as they came closer down the dirt road out front.

“Why’d Elmer bark?”  She heard one of them say.  “It’s quiet and I ain’t seen nothin’.”
     
“Maybe we’d best get out and take a look,” another man said.
      
Lori’s trembling turned to shaking.

“Maybe not.  He ain’t barkin’ no more.  Besides, he ain’t all riled up like usual when there’s a nigger runnin’ loose.”
     
“The dog was barkin’ at somethin’.”
    
“Well, there usually ain’t no problems ‘round these here parts.”
    
“There’s always a first time for problems.  Niggers is always itchin’ to run, even if they’s treated good.”
    
Lori heard what sounded like two large feet hit the ground. One of the men must have jumped from the wagon.
     
“I’m gonna take Elmer and have me a look around!”
      
“Git back up here, Travis,” the other man yelled.  “We already got a late start!  There ain’t no niggers runnin’ loose here, but we just might find us some near the O’Reilly place.  His niggers is always running off on account a how much he beats ‘em.”
      
“But I just got me a feelin’.”
      
“Last time you had you a damn feelin’ it was the clap!”
     
“Shut up!  I’m gonna have me a look anyway!”
      
“Then go alone, but don’t take the dog!”
     
 “I’m takin’ Elmer!”
      
“But there ain’t nothin’ out there, and the damn dog’s just gonna waste time pissin’ on everything!”
      
“Fine—I’ll go alone!”
      
Lori could see the bright flame of the patroller’s torch as he moved from the front of the street, on through the clearing between the houses.  Lori sat still and quiet, holding her breath.  But she prayed a strong silent prayer for God’s angels to protect her.
      
For a moment the man hesitated, lifting the torch higher.  Lori could see his hat brimmed silhouette clearly through the shrub.  Slowly, he began walking toward it, crushing grass beneath each heavy footstep.  When he reached the shrub he stopped.  Lori began to feel the warmth of the flame as he leaned down.
      
“Travis!” The other man yelled.  Travis turned toward his partner’s voice.  “If you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, there ain’t nothing back there to see!”
      
The man, Travis, then walked away from the shrub cursing.  “I’m comin’!”
      
As the man walked away, Lori exhaled.  The canteen slipped a little. Lori clutched it quickly to stop it from making noise.  But her slight movement rustled the shrub, creating enough of a sound to send the man back running.
      
“I knew it!” He yelled.  “I got me one!”
      
Lori had no time to flee.  In only seconds the man was behind the shrub.  He still held the torch in one hand, and with the other, yanked Lori so hard, she felt as if her arm was pulled from its socket.  But the pain didn’t faze her.  She was too frightened, although not too scared to fight.
      
“Let me go!”  Lori tried to disentangle herself from the patroller’s grasp.  With her free arm she clawed at his chest, and then kicked his shins.  He was skinny, not too tall, and reeked of moonshine. Determined to get away, she kept fighting.
      
“If you don’t stop squirmin’ around,” the patroller said lowering the flame toward her skirt, “I’m gonna take this here torch and light your dress.” 
      
Lori stopped struggling at the thought of being burned alive.  By this time the other man approached, dragging along a lazy looking bloodhound.  The man smiled upon seeing Lori, the flame reflected blackened teeth.  He dropped the dog’s leash. “We can have us some fun with this one,” the man said as the dog relieved himself near a tree.
     
“You first, I wanna watch.”  The torch man pushed Lori to the other patroller who immediately grabbed her around the waist and lifted her from the ground. 
      
Lori kicked, screaming, “Get off me—you filthy, drunken trash!”  This man was skinny too, but stronger, and the smell of alcohol on him more pungent.
    
The man laughed as he put a large calloused hand over Lori’s mouth.  “Got us an uppity nigger here!”  Lori continued screaming, despite the rough smelly hand on her face.  “The more noise you make,” the man said over her protests, “the uglier this is gon’ get ‘fore we haul you off to the jailhouse!”
      
A gunshot rang through the air.  The dog yelped and ran away.  The man holding Lori put her down, but didn’t release her.  Another shot fired.  This time the bullet kicked up dirt by the torch-bearer’s foot. 

“Sheeit!”  It was so close he jumped.
      
“What are you doing with my slave?”  An angry voice called from the darkness.
      
“Just doin’ our job, mister!” said the man with the torch.
     
“We done caught your nigger before she run away!”  The other patroller still held Lori, but she’d ceased struggling, relieved to be rescued.
      
The torch reflected Daniel’s face, angrily creased by the sight of the patrollers mishandling her.  He carried a lantern in one hand.  Shoving the pistol in the back of his trousers, Daniel said, “Let her go.”  The man holding Lori roughly pushed her in Daniel’s direction.  She ran quickly to him, but stopped just short of throwing her arms around him. “I’ll handle things from here—gentlemen.”
      
Daniel grasped Lori’s arm brusquely and led her away.  He didn’t say anything as he dragged her back to his mother’s house. 
      
“Daniel, I—” 
      
“Shh…don’t say anything,” Daniel whispered. “You’ve already created enough commotion for one night.  We’re lucky Uncle Elijah sleeps so soundly.  When I left the house, I could hear his snoring all the way from the second floor.  And hopefully, if the neighbors heard anything, they only thought it was the patrollers—doing what they’re paid to do.”
      
Once at Miss Rebecca’s back porch, Daniel finally dropped Lori’s arm, then placed the lantern on the steps.  He looked at her for a long time, but said nothing.
     
“I’m sorry—” Lori began softly.
      
Daniel crossed his arms.  “And I’m glad that’s all you are!”
      
Lori’s eyes widened and she put a finger to her lips.  “Not so loud,” she reminded him, then rubbed her aching arm, realizing how painful it felt.
     
 “They hurt you!”
      
“I’m fine.”
      
“You could’ve been raped, imprisoned—or even murdered by those drunken fools!”  Daniel said in a loud whisper.  “So I’m glad you’re just sorry.”
      
Lori looked down.  “I am sorry.”

“What were you thinking, Lori!  You promised me you wouldn’t try to run away!”
      
“I was desperate—your uncle’s never going to let me go!  This was my last chance!”  Tears welled in her eyes.  “I didn’t tell you—because I knew you would’ve tried to stop me—or maybe even insisted on coming with me, half cocked as you are sometimes!”
      
“You’re right.  And if you’re determined to do this—I’m going with you to protect you.”
      
“No!  They’ll kill you!”
     
“Lori, you only got three houses away before the patrollers found you.  An escape takes a lot more planning than this.  You have to promise me you won’t try something this harebrained again.”
     
“Harebrained?  How dare you insult me.”
      
“I don’t mean to insult you, I just want to keep you alive.  Lori, I don’t want anything to happen to you.  Just be patient with me and—”
      
“Patient!  Master Elijah’s been here since last week to help close up your mother’s estate but he hasn’t changed his mind about me!”
     
“Lori!  I’m trying—you have to believe me!  I’m doing everything I can!”  Daniel reached for Lori’s hands and held them tight.  “I promise you’ll be free one day—just promise me you won’t try to escape on your own again.  Lori—I couldn’t live if—just promise me, okay.”
     
Lori held Daniel’s gaze for a long moment.  She knew in her heart she could never live without ever seeing him again—and for that reason, Lori promised she wouldn’t try to escape again.




Chapter 2

The next morning, Lori tiptoed to the drawing room where Daniel spoke with Master Elijah, Miss Rebecca’s brother.  In only a short while, Lori would be leaving Miss Rebecca’s for good, along with Daniel and Master Elijah for Dancing Oaks, Elijah’s rice plantation.
    
 Lori reflected that Miss Rebecca had passed away only three weeks earlier.  She’d been fine that morning, but then something terrible happened.  ”Lori,” Miss Rebecca had called, “I need you!”  Lori ran quickly from the other room, shocked to see Miss Rebecca clutching her head.  “My head—it feels like it’s about to explode!”  Lori stood frozen as Miss Rebecca cried, “I feel like I’m not here!”  Then she’d fallen to the floor. 
    
It took Lori a few moments to gather her wits and find Daniel.  But when he saw his mother—he knew she was dead.  She was pale; her eyes were open, but rolled back in her head.  And when Daniel placed a small mirror under her nose, it didn’t fog up.
    
Daniel cried.  Lori had never seen him cry, and it unnerved her.  For a while she’d watched him silently, as he knelt next to his mother weeping.  Lori didn’t know what to do.  But after a few moments, she stood behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder.  He immediately turned to her, still on his knees, and grabbed her around the waist.  Then he’d wept into her skirts.  For a long time, Lori just remained there, stroking his hair.
    
The full impact of Miss Rebecca’s death hadn’t really hit Lori until the next day.  Now, as she approached the drawing room, Lori said to herself, if only Miss Rebecca hadn’t died before—but she stopped that thought, ashamed by the resentment she’d felt since Miss Rebecca had abandoned her by dying.   She didn’t mean to die, Lori reminded herself for the umpteenth time as she inched closer to the entrance of the drawing room. 
    
Peeking inside Lori saw the large space, now devoid of furniture.  Elijah stood in the middle of the room with his back toward her.  He faced his nephew, who was standing in front of the white marble mantle holding a small velvet pouch.
    
Lori’s heart pounded strongly as she looked at Daniel.  His black hair was thick and wavy, and his eyes a deep set brown.  Lean and muscled, he was well over six feet tall, and his chiseled face was perfect, like the statues of Greek and Roman gods she’d seen in Europe.
    
“Uncle Elijah, I appreciate the locket,” Daniel said, “but I still believe Annabelle should have it.  She’s your daughter and she’s getting married soon, so since it’s—”
    
“I know it’s supposed to be handed down as a wedding heirloom,” Elijah interrupted, “but Annabelle’s got more jewels than a crown empress.  Your sister said she can’t pass it down to her children, because she doesn’t think she’ll ever have any.  And I think she’s right.  She and James have been married for a long while with no babies, so it looks like Sarah is barren. 
    
“She gave the locket to me for Annabelle, thinking it would be fitting because of her upcoming nuptials, but my Annabelle’s a spoiled girl.  When Sarah got married, your mother handed it down to her, and now, since Sarah’s ready to pass it on, I’d rather you have it than Annabelle.”
    
Daniel opened the pouch and took out the heart shaped locket.  It was gold,  encrusted with diamonds and rubies.  While he gazed at it, Elijah said, “That locket was my grandmother’s.  Annabelle wouldn’t appreciate it.  So you just keep it, and give it to the fine young lady you’ll be sure to marry one day.”
    
For years, Lori had seen Miss Rebecca wear the trinket around her neck before she’d given it to her daughter.  Now Lori imagined how painful it must be for Daniel to think of his mother wearing it, knowing he’d never see her again.  But Lori’s mind quickly flitted from Daniel’s pain to her own, as she wondered when he’d bring up the topic of her freedom again.
    
Daniel placed the locket back in the pouch, then put it in his pocket.  Elijah smiled.  “So, no more arguing about that?”
    
“No, Uncle Elijah…not about that.  But Lori’s well being is another matter.”
     
“For the last time,” Elijah said, raking a hand through his graying curls, “I want to make it clear how things are gonna be for her at Dancing Oaks.  I know you’re concerned, but—”
    
“I am concerned because she wasn’t treated like a slave here!”
    
Elijah hesitated.  “Your mother was lenient on the girl, wasn’t she?  Treated her like one of her  paid servants.”    
    
“Lori was treated even better than that.  She was more like...”  Daniel trailed off, as though unsure if he should finish his sentence.
    
“Like what?”
    
“Like—like family.”

 Elijah said nothing for a moment as he drew in a long breath.  “Now, Daniel,” he began slowly, “we all have servants that we’re close to.  They can seem like family, but they know never to cross that line between black and white. God knows we’re supposed to keep separate—and we all know our places in life.”
    
As Lori hovered near the door frame with her face partially obscured, she continued to gaze at Daniel.  He couldn’t see her, but that was just as well.  He wouldn’t want her to know that he still hadn’t made any headway regarding her freedom.  Lori eased away from the drawing room, no longer able to see inside, but she continued to listen.
    
“Uncle Elijah, I’ll give you five thousand dollars for Lori!” Daniel said.
    
“Boy, money’s not the issue here and—”
    
“I’ll double it then!  Ten thousand dollars for her freedom.  You’re a businessman, Uncle Elijah.  Just think of all the investments you could make.”  
    
Lori was amazed at her worth to Daniel.  Her heart beat so hard she thought it would burst, even though the thought of being sold like a prized cow was rather humiliating. 
    
Miss Rebecca had died a very wealthy woman from the family inheritance she’d received, plus her husband’s success as a merchant.  After his death a year earlier, she’d made the shrewd decision to sell his business, increasing her already sizable fortune. 
    
“The answer’s still no!”  Elijah said firmly.  “You’re only eighteen and talking like a fool! You don’t need to be squandering off your inheritance over some darkie.”
     
“But Uncle Elijah—can you at least give me a reason why you won’t sell her to me?”

Lori peeked in the room again, just long enough to see Elijah adjust his trousers over his girth. “There’s no need for me to justify moving my property to my plantation.  She’ll have food, a place to sleep, be with people she knows—”
    
“Be in bondage!  My mother wouldn’t want things this way for Lori!”
    
“Dern it, boy!  I’m sorry Lucinda ever gave your mother permission to bring that little darkie here in the first place!  After her mother died—all that pickaniny did was cry!  Only time she seemed happy was when your mother visited.”
    
“You should have sold her to Mother then!” 
    
“Boy—don’t be telling me what I should have done!  Lori wasn’t supposed to stay here long as she has.  It was only supposed to be for a short while; long enough for her to get over her mother’s passing.  And she’s stayed way past that time—a good ten years!  So you ought to at least be thankful for that!”
    
“I am thankful, Uncle Elijah!  But Mother—”
    
“Your mother knew Lori wouldn’t stay here forever!  Now,” Elijah sighed exasperatedly, “she’ll be treated just fine at Dancing Oaks.  She won’t be living in the cabins, she’s gonna be inside working as a housemaid.  And she’ll share an attic room with one of the other girls.  Those surroundings won’t be strange to her.  Before she came here, she used to live up there with her mother.”
    
Lori remembered her cramped attic room. Even as a child, it had seemed small to her.  The heat was stifling in summer and the cold near freezing in winter. 
    
“She’ll be fine,” Elijah continued, “and she couldn’t ask for more.”
    
“Except her freedom!” Daniel exclaimed.

Lori had heard enough.  Slowly, she walked up the three flights of stairs from the foyer, then wandered down the hall to her old room, a safe haven of lavender walls.  Miss Rebecca had loved Lori like her own child.  She’d even given Lori her deceased daughter’s bedroom.  Miss Rebecca had said, “perhaps God gave you to me to help ease the pain of losing my little Mary.”   
    
From Miss Rebecca, Lori had learned to speak properly, and to dress and act as a lady.  Although Master Elijah and his wife, the wretched Miss Lucinda, were under the impression that Lori worked as a housemaid, alongside Miss Rebecca’s paid servants, they were mistaken. 
    
Being treated more like a sister to Rebecca’s other children, Lori had even traveled abroad with Miss Rebecca’s family.  And in Europe, she’d been treated no differently than anyone else. 
    
But to keep in place the charade of Lori “working as a maid,” Miss Rebecca had Lori serve tea whenever her brother’s family visited.  And to prevent any suspicions regarding her upbringing, Miss Rebecca had privately instructed Lori to discreetly disappear for the remainder of her relatives’ social calls.  However, Lori was convinced that those brief glimpses of her by Lucinda, had caused the woman to hate her. 
    
Lori never wore a servant’s uniform, but instead dressed in beautiful clothes.  She carried herself as if she were no less than a princess.  “A lady,” Miss Rebecca had said, “imagines herself as a princess.”  Gazing down at her pink cotton dress, Lori smoothed the thick, unruly waves of hair she’d managed to style into gently padded rolls puffed over her ears with a chignon swirled in back.  

She was a year younger than Daniel.  Lori knew this, because Miss Rebecca  remembered the year she was born.  Miss Rebecca had liked Lori’s mother, who’d been a housemaid for Miss Lucinda, and she’d remembered when Lori’s mother had given birth.
    
Since Lori was close to Daniel’s age, Miss Rebecca had seen to it that the school instruction Daniel received from a tutor was given to Lori, as well.  Miss Rebecca had instilled in Lori the importance of an education.  She’d even encouraged her to become a teacher.  But now a future as a teacher seemed impossible, Lori thought, because she was doomed to live as Dancing Oaks chattel.
    
Miss Rebecca had promised Lori her freedom, but it had to be in the form of an escape, since Master Elijah refused to free her.  But Miss Rebecca hadn’t planned the escape yet.  It wasn’t to happen until next year, and it was to be carefully orchestrated and safe.  That’s when Miss Rebecca had arranged for Lori to attend Oberlin College.  College was an unimaginable dream for a slave like Lori.  But now it was a dream that would never happen, because Master Elijah was here to collect his property.

Daniel and his sister, Sarah, had decided to sell the house, and whatever items not sold at auction were to be given to Uncle Elijah.  When Daniel had told him that he’d planned on moving to Ohio to live with his sister, and that Lori would go as well, provided Elijah free her, his uncle had objected.
    
Putting down his beefy, black booted foot, Elijah had said, “Now don’t you go forgettin’, boy—freein’ her isn’t somethin’ I plan on doin’!”  Then he’d eyed Lori condescendingly, his lips sneering beneath a thick graying moustache.  She could tell he didn’t approve of her familiarity with Daniel.  “Miss Lucinda’s got plans for you,” he said. 
    
Lori didn’t like the sound of that.  And later, when Daniel wasn’t around, his uncle had swaggered up to her, with his large protruding belly bursting from under his vest.  “Look here, Missy,” he’d said, spittle flying from his mouth, “don’t you even think about runnin’ away.” 
    
That memory brought Lori back to the present, yet she wiped her chin thinking about Master Elijah’s spit landing there.  Feeling listless, she drifted to a small round window near the corner of her room.  She peered out from it for the last time into the hot hazy air suspended on Walnut Street.  Soon she’d be leaving for the Cape Fear River to catch the steamer for Winnabow, where Dancing Oaks awaited her.    
    
From the window, Lori studied the live oaks draped in Spanish moss.  But at the sound of Daniel’s boots on the heart pine floorboards, her breathing ceased.  His steps were slow and steady.  When he stopped at her door, Lori took in a deep breath and turned to face him.   He was handsome like a prince, and she wished they could run away together.  To Mexico, to Europe, to Canada—to any place the color of her skin wouldn’t matter, and to any place she couldn’t be owned as property.
****
     
“Lori,” Daniel said softly, “we have to go.”  Tears glistened on her dark brown skin.  At one time she’d loved to smile, and she’d smiled at him often with her brown, almond shaped eyes.  She’d loved to laugh, too, but since his mother’s death, Lori hadn’t smiled much and she’d hardly laughed at all.  
    
“I know.”  Lori dropped her head and began to cry.  “Daniel, what’s going to happen to me?”  He quickly walked to her and put his arms around her.  “You promised me,” Lori wailed, “you said I’d be free! But now I’m going to Dancing Oaks—and it’s all your fault!”
    
“Lori, I’m sorry—I’ll make everything all right.” His embrace grew stronger.  “I’ll do everything I can to set you free, but you’ll have to trust me.” 
    
Lori pushed him away slightly to look up into his eyes.  He towered over her tiny frame.  “Trust you?  When I’m supposed to be hauled off to your uncle’s plantation as property?”
    
Daniel felt the hot burn of tears, but managed to hold them back.  Despite this, Lori must have seen his eyes well. 
    
“Daniel, I’m sorry.  I know I can trust you.  You’re the only person I can trust.  Forgive me.  I’m—I’m not in my right mind.”
    
“It’s all right, Lori,” Daniel said quietly.  His brother had been murdered a little over a year ago, right before his father died from consumption.  Now his mother was dead and he’d failed Lori.
    
“It’s not all right.  With all you’ve been through—I’m ashamed of what I said.”
    
“Don’t be ashamed.  I know you’re afraid.”
    
“Oh, Daniel, I am afraid—I’m trapped!  My life is at stake and I have no rights.  What if—what if they do sell me—but not to you?” 
    
Daniel pulled her close once more. “I won’t let that happen.”   
    
“But you can’t stop them.  I’m their property.  They can do whatever they want with me!”  She cried.
    
Daniel continued holding her, and said softly, “I promise, Lori, I won’t let them sell you.  You’re going to be free—somehow.  But I can’t figure out, for the life of me, why Uncle Elijah’s being so stubborn about this.”

Lori closed her eyes and nestled her head in Daniel’s chest.  “I wish I could stay right here…forever,” she murmured quietly.  After a few moments, Lori said, “Daniel—I think the only reason your uncle won’t free me is because of your Aunt Lucinda. 
    
“When I was a little girl—I was afraid of her.  After my mother died, I cried a lot.  She used to—slap me—to make me stop.”  Daniel stroked Lori’s cheek, as she looked into his eyes again.  “Miss Lucinda’s bitter—and I think your uncle will do anything to make her happy.  She’s probably the one who’s insisted on keeping me a slave.”
    
“Lori, Aunt Lucinda doesn’t like anybody!  She’s an old sour puss—that’s just how she is!”
    
“But Daniel—I think she resents the way I carry myself—the way I speak—the way I dress.  I think—that if it weren’t for her, your uncle would’ve freed me a long time ago.”
    
Daniel didn’t respond right away.  “Maybe so,” he said.  “But no matter what, Lori, we’re going to get through this—as long as we have faith—and hope.”  

“Daniel!” Elijah’s booming voice called up the stairs.  “It’s time to catch that boat!”
    
Daniel caressed Lori’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, Lori, things will be fine,” he assured her.  “Uncle Elijah said you’d be treated well, and I’ll make sure of that.        
    
“Daniel—the slaves at Dancing Oaks—they call your aunt—Cap’n Cindy.  I don’t want to live on her property or be her property any longer than I have to.”
    
“Lori,” his grasp tightened on her shoulders. “I don’t know how long you’ll have to stay there.  I’ve let Uncle Elijah believe he’s talked me into living at Dancing Oaks for a year before I go off to college in Ohio.  I have a feeling he wants me to forget about leaving North Carolina at all, so he can teach me how to run a plantation, then manage another one he wants to buy.  Of course, that’ll be after he convinces me that slavery isn’t all that bad if you treat your people right,” Daniel added sarcastically.
    
“But, Lori, the only reason I’ve agreed to live at Dancing Oaks is to protect you, and I have no intention of either of us staying there for a year.  I don’t know how long it’ll take for me to get you out of there, but right now we’re just going have to make the best of it.” 
    
When Lori looked down, Daniel put his fingertips under her chin, then lifted her pretty heart shaped face to his.  “But I do know this—if I can’t come to some kind of amicable agreement with Uncle Elijah, I’ll steal you away from that blasted plantation myself!”
    
This brought a slight smile to Lori’s face. “You’d do that—for me?”
    
“Lori, I’d do anything for you.” They held each other’s gaze, then leaned close as if to kiss.
    
“Daniel!”  Elijah bellowed once more, breaking the intensity between them.
    
“We—I’m coming, Uncle Elijah!”
    
“And just where’s that girl!” Elijah yelled, his tone suspicious.
    
Daniel paused, then shouted back, “I’ll find her!”  He lowered his voice, then took her hand.  “Lori, we’d best get going.” 
    
“Lord help us,” she murmured quietly.            
   
“He will,” Daniel said, as he led her from the room.



Masquerade: Book Two of the Unchained Trilogy

Prologue
Spring, 1889

As the train rhythmically chugged along, Lavinia Taylor Hargraves clutched the thick yet flaccid arm of her new husband, Vernon Hargraves.  The heat from the train ride and the bitter smelling dust didn’t faze Lavinia.  She was too busy thinking about Vernon’s future plans for her.  He owned the prestigious  Hargraves Theater in New York, as well as the esteemed Hargraves Players theatrical troupe.
      
Lavinia sat next to her husband on a green velvet loveseat in his private rail car. She’d just finished reading the script of Hidden Splendor and placed it on the black walnut end table next to her.  Lavinia would debut in that play this fall, and she couldn’t wait!  Vernon had carefully read through the script with her, yet afterwards he’d fallen asleep.  That had given Lavinia a chance to glance through it one more time. 
      
“Mrs. Hrgraves,” one of Vernon’s servants, an Irish girl, approached Lavinia in prim and proper black attire.  She bowed slightly.  “Dinner will be served in thirty minutes.”
     
 This maid suspected nothing, Lavinia thought triumphantly, while suppressing a giggle.  The thrill of a white servant kowtowing to her, as if she were a rich and powerful white person—which she was now masquerading as—was only too exhilarating!
      
Lavinia raised her head in a confident air of superiority.  “Very well, then.  Thank you.”

The maid returned to the car’s dining room, leaving Lavinia alone with Vernon once more.  She’d need to wake him soon.  Moments later, however, Lavinia forgot about rousing her husband for the evening meal.  Instead, she reflected on Hidden Splendor, not the play itself, but the title.  It was so fitting of her circumstances.  She’d successfully escaped from California, and would now find the hidden splendor of New York!  
      
Gazing at Vernon, she took notice of his black suit.  The color of mourning he wore was rather symbolic.  It represented the death of her old life.  Lavinia wore purple.  She remembered her mother saying that purple was the color of royalty, and right now, Lavinia felt resurrected as a queen! 
      
The locomotive swayed as it went around a curve.  Vernon’s bald head lolled to the side.  He snored, drooling from the corner of his mouth.  Moving her eyes from him, Lavinia gazed at the car’s elegant furnishings, varnished mahogany wall paneling, and the heavy red drapes trimmed in gold brocade.  Then she peered  from the window at the mountainous terrain and barren landscape under a setting sun of orange, pink and gold.
      
Good riddance, California, Lavinia said to herself.  So what if her father was a powerful white man because of his land and money?  Her mother was nothing but an ex-slave, and because of that, Lavinia’s life had been ruined.  Even though she looked white, Lavinia would never be thought of as anything more than Negro, and she was too pretty and too smart to stand for that!
      
She wouldn’t miss her home, and she certainly wouldn’t miss her parents—they’d never understood her, nor her dream of becoming an actress!  And Lavinia would never forget the hurtful things they’d said to her before she’d run off with Vernon!
      
Vernon’s character didn’t matter to Lavinia, and neither did his age. She was seventeen, and he, fifty-four, yet he’d appeared in California as if by magic to rescue her.  Now, not only would he make her an actress and star, he’d give her a brand new life in New York—as white.


Chapter 1
Two Years Later
New York City, 1891

“So, Melinda, what did you think of The White Company?”  Andrew Standish asked his beautiful female companion.  They dined at Sherry’s in New York City, at 37th Street and Fifth Avenue, and had just finished a sumptuous meal.  Andrew had had filet de boeuf, and Melinda poulet en casserole, while both enjoyed baked Alaska for dessert.  
      
On their table sat a low centerpiece of red roses next to a slim lamp with a scalloped shade of frosted glass.  Crystal chandeliers glimmered from above suspended from ornately carved ceiling beams, while triple armed wall sconces glowed from large scrolled columns.    
      
The soft gas lights enhanced Melinda’s innocent beauty.  Diamonds glistened at her ears, and the beaded pink silk she wore complimented the rosy hue of her skin.  Her chestnut hair, swept up with a fringe of bangs in front and tendrils at the sides, shimmered with gold highlights.     
      
With every little movement, her beaded gown and earrings twinkled shyly like distant stars in the night sky.  She reached for a cut crystal goblet and took a sip of wine.  Andrew knew she enjoyed Chateau Lafite Rothschild, so he’d ordered a bottle.  But since he rarely drank, he’d only nursed one glass through dinner.
      
Andrew Standish, dressed in white tie and tails, was one of New York City’s most eligible bachelors, and Melinda Jennings was a lovely, intelligent girl, a graduate of Miss Porter’s School, and the daughter of a banker.  Andrew had met Melinda not long after her debutante ball.  He’d called on her once before, although he couldn’t remember when.  His brother Julian liked Melinda, and said she was perfect for Andrew because she was a level headed girl—but she wasn’t Lavinia Hargraves.
      
Melinda smiled, glancing briefly at the red roses, then, with a well manicured hand, smoothed the white linen tablecloth.  Aside from the delicate bone china coffee cups and matching water and wine goblets, their dishes had been cleared away. 
      
Over the hum of soft conversation around them, silverware clinking gently on china, and the melodious sound of a Schumann quintet for piano and strings, Melinda said, “I love any great adventure novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed The White Company! To me, it is one of 1891’s best books.  I couldn’t stop reading it,” she laughed.  “I devoured all three volumes…”
     
 As Melinda continued talking, Andrew pretended to listen interestedly. Although beautiful women were at his disposal, he seldom called on the same one more than once or twice, because as far as Andrew was concerned, his heart belonged to Lavinia Hargraves.
     
 Andrew realized his eyes had wandered to one of the elaborately carved columns when Melinda said his name.  An MIT educated architect and contractor, he’d been studying the scroll work while thinking of Lavinia. 
      
“Andrew,” Melinda said again, slightly annoyed this time.
      
“Yes, Melinda,” he flashed a charming smile, “you were saying?”
      
“I was asking what you thought about the book.”
    
 “It was a fine work and very…”  Andrew trailed off when he saw Lavinia Hargaves and her husband enter the restaurant.  Melinda glanced over her shoulder when Andrew’s eyes veered past her. 
    
 The head waiter escorted the couple to a table.  Lavinia was a sheer vision to behold as she strode by the mirrored walls among the admiring gazes, stares and gasps of Sherry’s theater-loving patrons.
      
“Lavinia Hargraves,” Andrew said in awe, “not only is she the greatest actress in New York, she’s by far the most beautiful.”
     
 Her hair was twirled high, intertwined with jewels, and she wore a sequined lavender gown with thick tufts of feathers surrounding her bare shoulders and hemline.
      
“Her dress seems rather vulgar to me,” Melinda said. 
    
Melinda’s shoulders were covered by capped sleeves and she lacked what it took to create truly breath taking cleavage.  Ignoring her he said, “My friend Justin Glass, the theater critic, says she’s the greatest actress since Sarah Bernhardt.  He wrote a glowing review of her last performance here back in November, The Taming of the Shrew.  Did you happen to see her in that production?” 
      
“I was with you when you saw it!  You’d called on me that evening!”
      
“Oh, yes, Melinda, of course.  Wasn’t she magnificent?”
    
 Melinda sighed, frowning.  “I suppose she was.” 
      
“I haven’t seen her perform since then, and with her spring tour approaching, I won’t see her on stage again in New York until May.  I’ve never seen a finer actress.  If I were an actor,” Andrew said, “I’d like to play Petruchio to her Kate.  I’ve never seen a more stunning creature.” 
      
Melinda sat back, crossing her arms.  Her diamond earrings refracted the light, scattering a small shower of light beams across the table. 
      
“The very presence of Lavinia Hargraves never fails to electrify me—uh—I mean—all those around her,” Andrew said awkwardly, noticing his dinner companion’s disgruntled expression.
      
Melinda’s cheeks burned red.  She stood up and the sudden movement made her beaded gown glitter angrily.  Andrew rose with her.  Keeping her voice low to prevent a scene, she said, “Andrew, I’ll see myself home.” 
      
“Melinda, darling—I—I…”
      
“You needn’t see me to the door,” she hissed sharply.
      
“I’m sorry,” was all Andrew managed to say, as Melinda turned to go—yet he really wasn’t sorry to see her leave.  When he sat down again, he watched Lavinia slowly, and a bit seductively, remove her long lavender gloves.  Then she acknowledged those she knew with a slight bow of her head, as a queen might acknowledge her subjects.
    
He’d fallen in love with her two years ago when he’d first seen her perform in Hidden Splendor.  She’d become a star that night, and Andrew had decided that one day she’d become his wife.  He just hadn’t known she was married at the time. 
      
Her last name was Hargraves, he’d seen that in the theater program, but Andrew had assumed that the young girl was perhaps a great niece, third cousin, or other family relation.  After the production, however, he was rather sickened upon discovering the truth. 
      
Vernon had married her in secret, and not “unveiled her” until her first starring production.  At the close of opening night performance Andrew had attended, Vernon, himself, had introduced Lavinia to the audience as not only his stunning new discovery, but his wife.  So, Andrew had resigned himself to the fact that he couldn’t marry her—at least not yet. 
     
 Stars attended after theater meals of fowl and wine, called bird and bottle suppers during the theater season, and Lavinia and Vernon usually went to Sherry’s, Delmonico’s or one of the other restaurants in the nearby Broadway hotels.  To find out exactly where they’d go, Andrew would bribe one of the stage hands.  But when Lavinia dined out during the off season, he had no way of knowing where she’d turn up; tonight he’d been lucky, and luckier still, now that Melinda was gone. 
      
Gazing toward Lavinia, Andrew finished the last of the Chateau Lafite in his glass.  Then, savoring the wine’s delicate flavor and appreciating its almond and violet aroma, he slowly drank two more glasses.
      
Unencumbered by a female, and emboldened by the wine, Andrew decided that he’d make the best of an opportunity.  He’d have a chance to meet Lavinia, and be only mere inches away from her.  He summoned his waiter.  Andrew knew Vernon through real estate business, and as a patron of the arts, Andrew had made contributions to the Hargraves Theater.  Tonight he’d manage to wrangle an introduction to the old man’s wife. 
****
Once seated, Vernon gazed proudly at Lavinia while she nodded regally toward their acquaintances.  Her sequins sparkled and flashed along with the diamonds dangling from her ears and the crystals twirled through her raven hair.  The frothy feathers surrounding her shoulders made her appear as Venus beginning her rise from the sea foam.
      
Lavinia was his prize, and he’d made her a star.  Vernon had spoiled his young wife and invested time and money in her career, perhaps at the cost of neglecting Carrie.  He sighed, feeling guilty about his daughter.
     
 “Carrie should have come with us tonight,” he said.
    
 “You asked her.” Lavinia smiled tightly, nodding toward an actress friend. “But she chose not to.  It’s not your fault that your daughter detests being around people.  And besides, Carrie feels only a mere shadow in my presence.”
      
“Well, regardless of how she feels being out with us, or you in particular, she needs to get out more,” Vernon said. “That would help lift her spirits.”
     
 “She needs to get out more,” Lavinia smirked, “so she can find a husband, if that’s even possible at her age.”
      
“Now, Lavinia, don’t—” Vernon began, but he was interrupted by the appearance of a waiter in a short white jacket and black bow tie.  He carried a bottle of wine. 
      
“Pardon me, Mr. and Mrs. Hargraves,” the waiter said, “a gift, compliments of Mr. Standish.”  He glanced across the restaurant in Andrew’s direction.  Andrew tipped his wineglass toward the Hargraveses, and they nodded in return. 
      
The waiter held one hand under the bottom of the bottle and rested the neck in his forearm.  With the label facing Vernon, he read, “Lacryma Christi, vintage 1889.”  After uncorking the glimmering red wine, the waiter served it to Lavinia and Vernon, then discreetly disappeared. 
      
Lavinia fingered the heart shaped locket around her neck, then leaned toward Vernon.  “So just who is that Mr. Standish,” she asked.  Vernon grunted a response that she barely heard.  “What did you say?”
      
“He’s one of our theater’s biggest contributors,” Vernon said coherently this time, but he provided no further information.
      
Lifting his glass to his lips, Vernon peered in Standish’s direction.  Vernon guzzled the wine like grape juice just as the younger man stood up and began walking toward him.  It was bad enough that Standish had given them wine, Vernon thought, but now Standish was headed to their table. 
      
Vernon could deal with Standish on business terms, but with Lavinia by his side, he’d rather the young man keep his distance.  Vernon was worth a few million, but Standish was worth several more.  He was also trim, over six feet tall, and sturdily built.  His skin was fair, his hair a thick auburn, and his eyes sea green.  With his aquiline nose and strong jaw line, Standish had the good looks of an actor, along with a winning smile and natural charisma.  
     
In addition, he was a gentleman, born in England, the son of a duke.  But Andrew didn’t use the title.  He’d been in the states since childhood and considered himself a New Yorker through and through. 
      
Aside from being a theater lover, Standish didn’t engage in the same kind of fun that Vernon enjoyed.  Standish didn’t gamble or smoke, and with the exception of a little wine, he didn’t drink.  He rode a bicycle for recreation, boxed, and even had a gymnasium in his West side brownstone.
     
 As Standish approached, Vernon tried to exhibit the calm disposition of a confident old man with a beautiful young wife.  However, he couldn’t help but feel self conscious about his thinning hair, bulging stomach and the twenty plus years he had on Standish.  Both men wore white tie and tails, but Vernon’s protruding front made him look more like a penguin.  Sucking in his gut, Vernon stood to greet him. 
     
 “Andrew Standish,” Vernon said, forcing himself to sound gregarious.
      
Standish shook his hand.  “Vernon, it’s nice to see you this evening, and,” his eyes met Lavinia’s, “your lovely wife.  I don’t believe I’ve ever met her.”  Vernon grimaced slightly, then introduced them.  After kissing Lavinia’s fingers, Andrew said, “Mrs. Hargraves, I must say you’re not only the most beautiful actress I’ve ever seen, but also the most brilliant.
      
“Why, thank you, Mr. Standish.”  Lavinia glowed in the wake of Standish’s admiration.  “My husband tells me you’ve made contributions to our theater.  And just what do you do?”
      
“I own real estate throughout the city, as well as Truelove and Standish Contractors.”
      
“I see...and you build what?” Lavinia asked. 
      
“Skyscrapers, exclusively.  I’m going to rebuild this city with steel,” Standish said confidently.
      
Vernon observed his wife as she gazed at Standish, and he wasn’t pleased.  It wasn’t just the man’s looks and breeding that threatened him.  But upon learning of Standish’s wealth, Lavinia’s emerald eyes didn’t merely sparkle, they ignited. With each bat of her lids, the flame grew brighter.  And he didn’t like the way Standish looked at Lavinia, either.  His eyes watered, not with tears, but carnal hunger.
      
“Do forgive my manners, Mr. Standish,” Lavinia said, “thank you for the wine. It’s quite good.”
      
“I’m glad you’re enjoying it.  Lacryma Christi is my favorite and I chose that vintage because that’s the year you became a star.”
       
 “Oh?” Lavinia glanced at the bottle.  “So it is.  Well, do tell me, what does Lacryma Christi mean?”
      
A low laugh rumbled in Vernon.  “You may not want to know,” he grumbled under his breath.
      
“Tears of Christ,” Andrew replied.
      
The glow left Lavinia’s face.  Her eyes widened slightly and the flame died down in them.  Vernon watched as her once beaming countenance darkened.  He knew what she was thinking:  Her Bible toting parents were convinced she’d burn in hell for becoming an actress, and now she was being reminded that Jesus was even crying over her decision.
      
“If you’ll excuse me,” Lavinia said, stiffly.  She stood up and left the table, her sequins creating a flurry of flashes and flares.
      
As she walked to the ladies room, Vernon smiled satisfied, feeling triumphant, while Andrew was left dumbfounded.   With a look of confusion he said, “Did I…” but Standish seemed unsure of exactly what to ask.
      
“Thanks again for the wine, Standish,” Vernon said, dismissing the younger man with a slap on the back.  “Now you have yourself a nice evening.”


Revelation: Book Three of the Unchained Trilogy

Prologue
New York City
Summer, 1912

Dearest Gabe,
     
I hope you, Father, Aunt Olivia, and our adorable little brothers, Jason, Gregory, and Jonathan, and Grandmother and Grandfather are doing well.  I could not wait to write to you, because I can hardly contain my excitement about what I am planning to do today!  Do not think me daffy, but I cannot tell you, at least not yet, although I wish I could.
     
You see, if I do tell you, you might tell Father, and he might disapprove.  It is scandalous enough that I am going behind Mother’s back!  I am not doing anything particularly bad, yet it is daring, to say the least!  I will explain everything to you once I have executed the deed, and then told Mother, at which time, I will face the music!
     
I am fourteen now, or rather, we are fourteen, and Grandmother has often told me of the difficult times she endured while raising Mother.  I have been good, Gabriel, and I know you are aware of that!  I do, however, want to spread my wings, as they say, and see what the world has to offer! 
    
I will write soon to tell you all about what happened.  I send my love to you and the family!

Yours affectionately,
Selina

A gentle breeze swept through the enormous windows, filling Salina’s sizable bedroom with the scent of gasoline and soot from the automobiles and elevated trains that roared outside.  The soft wind tousled the fringe of bangs that covered her forehead.  Sitting at her Queen Anne desk, Selina folded the letter she’d written to her twin brother.  She’d lived with her mother for six years now, still in the elegant brownstone at Central Park West and Eighty-Sixth Street that had originally belonged to her father.
     
Selina missed Gabe, as well as the rest of her relatives in California.  Sometimes, she even wished she could live there with them.  She had such happy memories of the four years she’d lived out West, and that was before all the new siblings had arrived.  Now there were so much family—and so much love.  But Selina had to think practically, that’s what Mother always said. 
     
Life in New York wasn’t bad.  Selina had Brigid, her nurse since birth, and even her mother for most of the year.  Stuffing the letter into an envelope, Selina reflected that the life she’d lived here was better than the alternative Mother had explained all those years ago...

    
“...Don’t go back to California with your father, darling... If you do, he’ll send you off to a boarding school in France—where no one speaks English...”

     
That was one of three reasons Mother had used to convince Selina to stay in New York.  Another was the practical one...
    
“You being here, living in New York—that’s the best possible thing for you.   You may not completely understand why, but you will one day.   I promise you, Selina, your life here is better than it ever could be in California... It’s not so much the living in New York that matters.  It’s you being with me...being white... 
    
Mother wasn’t really white, but she looked white.  Selina addressed the letter while thinking about the unfair treatment of Negroes she’d seen first-hand on several occasions.  On the streets, she’d heard them casually referred to as niggers, or laughed at behind their backs. 
     
Selina had heard all kinds of rude comments spoken by unsuspecting individuals in all walks of life, from the hired help to her physician. In all honesty, she was relieved not to be known as Negro.  Gabe, on the other hand, was too dark not to be mistaken.  His honey-hued skin was the same color as Aunt Olivia’s, which, according to Mother, was disadvantageous.

“You must always keep the Negro part of your background a secret,” Mother had said to Selina. “Never tell a soul.  If you lived out West with all those colored relatives of yours, you couldn’t very well hide the fact that you’re colored, too.   It’s best to forget about them.  Don’t visit them, and pretend they don’t exist...”

Selina sealed and stamped the letter.  It was easier being white, she rationalized, but she wouldn’t give up writing to her relatives in California, even if Mother didn’t approve.  Gabe was there, her brother—her twin—for heaven’s sake!  And the three boys that Father and Aunt Olivia had had together.  The little boys didn’t know Selina, since she’d never gone back to California to visit, but she hoped that one day they would, at least through her letters.  From the pictures she’d seen, one of them looked white, the youngest...and she wondered if someday, he’d ever make a choice. 
     
Selina thought of her grandparents...they were in California, too.  She still couldn’t believe that her grandmother had actually been a slave—and that her grandfather, a white abolitionist, had fallen in love with her and helped her to escape.  Such a romantic story, Selina reflected wistfully, and unfortunately, one she could never share with anyone...
     
California was so far away, she mused, gazing at the California address...no one would know, aside from her relatives there, that she led a so-called double life.  Although Selina never visited, she loved her family too much to forget about them.
     
And she very much loved her father.  He wasn’t Negro...but Mother had accused him of...of those terrible things.  That was the third reason that had motivated Selina to stay in New York.  But as Selina had grown older, she sometimes had doubts.  Did Mother want to turn her against him?  After all, Father had divorced Mother, and then married Aunt Olivia—Mother’s sister. 
     
Yet Selina did remember something...something that had happened long ago...when the pocket doors had been locked.  She hadn’t seen anything...but what she’d heard alarmed her...

“Oh!” Mother screamed.  “Not my—”
“What the devil is wrong with you?” Selina heard her father say.
“You don’t have to yell at me, too!”Mother cried. “Stop it!  Stop torturing me!”  

Selina sighed, pushing away that unpleasant memory and instead focused on the present.  She stood from her desk and walked to a full length mirror.  Oval shaped, it stood alone near her dresser.  Selina smoothed her pink day dress.  It was trimmed in lace at the collar, and also the sleeves that reached just below her elbows.  The cotton fabric, gathered at the waist, fell in two tiers, one stopping at the knees, and the other at the ankles, allowing a glimpse of the white stockings she wore with white pumps.  
     
After adjusting the long dark curls that tumbled down her back and shoulders, Selina put on a wide brimmed straw hat, decorated by a thick sash of pink that matched her dress.  At five feet, five inches, Selina was a few inches taller than her mother, as well as reed thin and shapeless, in her mother’s opinion.  Nevertheless, Selina was pleased with her appearance.
     
Many said she was the spitting image of her famous mother, but Selina didn’t believe that.  She thought of herself as nice looking, but she hardly possessed the breathtaking visage of Lavinia Standish.  Selina started for the bedroom door, but quickly ran back to her desk to retrieve the letter.  She’d mail it on the way. 
     
Mother had said Selina would have more opportunities living in New York, and a big one had recently presented itself.  Regardless of what Mother would think of this particular opportunity, Selina would take advantage of it!


Chapter 1

“You did what!” Lavinia screamed.

“You heard me, Mother,” Selina said.  “I went to 11 East 14th Street to the—”
     
“Biograph Studio,” her mother finished the sentence, crossing her arms.  “So you lied to me?  Told me you were going shopping with a friend.” Lavinia’s green eyes bore into her daughter’s with steely disapproval.  “I thought I’d raised you better than to go scheming behind my back.” 
    
Selina looked down, ashamed.  “I’m sorry, Mother, but if you’d known I was going there, you never would have let me.”
     
“You’re right!” Lavinia’s alabaster skin flushed pink.  “I can’t even get you to perform onstage with me.  Why in the world would you go to that—that Biograph abode?”
     
“It wasn’t my idea.  I don’t even know if I really want to act.  But last week, at the end of season party you gave, Mr. Barrymore teased me about my stage fright.”
     
Which Barrymore?”
    
  “Lionel.  You told me to stay away from John.”
     
“I’m glad you remembered.  He’s quite the lech, that one.”  As if remembering a lewd encounter with the man, Lavinia tightened the green silk lapels of her kimono-like dressing gown over her bountiful bust.
     
“But he’s sooo handsome,” Selina oozed dreamily, “especially in profile.”
     
“Keep your distance from him!  Now, young lady, go on.  Just what did Li-o-nel say?” She enunciated each syllable with dramatic emphasis.
     
“He said that I might like making moving pictures because there’s no audience, aside from the camera crew and the director, and no lines to memorize.  He said I’m photogenic, and just the right age to play a heroine on camera.”
     
“Is that so?”  Lavinia asked skeptically.
     
Selina couldn’t help but feel a tad smug.  She possessed the glow of youth without makeup, unlike her maturing mother.  Laughing, she said, “Mr. Barrymore told me not to tell you this, but they’d love to use you in their pictures.”
     
Lavinia’s brows rose and a slight smile lit her face.  “Oh, they would, would they?”
     
“But you’d have to play a grandmother.”
     
“What?!”  Lavinia’s eyes nearly popped. 
     
Selina knew this would irk her mother, but she couldn’t resist.  Mother, the talented actress Lavinia Standish, star of the stage, was now forty.  Almond-eyed, and still extraordinarily beautiful, with striking cheekbones that had only become more prominent with age, Mother was convinced that with the right make-up and stage lighting she could still play ingénues. 
     
Last season, with her long dark tresses tumbling down her back, she’d performed the role of Juliet.  While the critics loved her, Selina thought her mother appeared absolutely foolish masquerading about as a teenager.  However, she’d kept that opinion to herself.   
     
“Calm down, Mother,” Selina said.  “It’s because of the lights they use in the studio.  They make the faces under them look decayed or dead, so even eighteen-year olds look too old to play heroines.  But at fourteen, my age is just right to play one.  So, anyway, Mr. Barrymore suggested that I go to the studio with him today so he could introduce me to the director there, a Mr. Griffith.”
     
Lavinia’s chin rose and a scowl darkened her face.  “I’ve heard about that horrible man,” she sneered.
     
Selina blinked, wide eyed.  “He was very nice to me.”
     
“Well,” Lavinia huffed, pointing a finger in her daughter’s face, “I heard that he auditioned a couple of sisters for a crime drama by chasing them around the room with a loaded gun.  The man’s insane!  He fired it at the ceiling to see if they could act!”
     
Fed up, Selina put her hands on her hips.  “There are no words, so reaction is everything in pictures.”
     
“Selina,” Lavinia shook her head in despair, “you don’t understand... How can you have drama—true drama—without the spoken word?  Now, darling, you should have told me you were going there so—”
     
“So you could’ve stopped me?” Selina interrupted.  “Mr. Barrymore was about to tell you, but I knew you’d hate the idea and wouldn’t let me go.  So I convinced him not to say anything.”
     
Disgusted, Lavinia clicked her tongue.  “I have no idea why Lionel works on those awful flickers in the first place!  It’s a tawdry trade.  Poverty and a lack of success are what drive actors to become a part of that shabby theatrical underworld. 
     
“I fail to see why a legitimate actor from such a distinguished and prestigious acting family would dare defile himself that way.  Flickers are a disgrace to our profession and an indignity to our art! I would never stoop to perform in them, and I’ll have no daughter of mine engage in such refuse!”
     
Selina dropped her gaze to the floor for a moment.  “But, Mother, may I please just try.  Mr. Griffith liked me!  He said I’d be just right for a heroine in a story he’s written.  He’ll start shooting it in the next couple of weeks, so he needs an answer from me by the end of tomorrow.”

“Selina, you want to do something that only actresses who’ve befallen hardship or terrible misfortune would ever consider doing,” Lavinia said, concerned, “and then, only out of necessity.”
    
“Mother, because of the publicity I’ll generate as the daughter of the famous Lavinia Standish, Mr. Griffith said he’d pay me $275.00 a week.  I’ll have a starring role.  So please, Mother, just let me try.  I only want to make one picture.”
     
“Darling—you’d practically be—prostituting yourself.” 
    
“Please,” Selina begged.  “And didn’t you tell me that you argued with your parents about becoming an actress?  I only want to try the flickers.  I’m not like you.  You were driven to act.  I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do with my life.  But I would like to go to college—and not just to find a husband.  Grandmother says that an education—”
     
“Forget about what your grandmother says!  I know what’s best for you.  You’re naïve, and not the least bit resourceful.  You don’t need a college education.  With your looks, darling, you needn't worry about a thing.  Beauty gets a woman much farther than brains any day, and one day—you’ll marry a nice young man—who happens to be wealthy.”

Selina had heard all of this many times before.  “Well, before I ‘marry a nice young man who happens to be wealthy,’ can I at least try one picture?  Please?”
     
Lavinia didn’t say anything for several moments.  “Will Lionel be in the cast?”
     
“Yes.  He’ll play a priest.”
     
Sighing, Lavinia threw up her hands dramatically.  “Fine.”  
     
“Oh, Mother,” Selina embraced her around the neck, “thank you, thank you, thank you!”  
     
Lavinia pulled from her daughter’s arms, then firmly held her shoulders.  “But you’re only doing this once!”     
****
     
“All right, let’s get started!”
     
Selina nearly jumped at the sound of director D.W. Griffith’s booming voice.  It reverberated across the set, which was actually the parlor of the Biograph Studio brownstone on East 14th Street.  The spacious room was hot and stuffy, smelling of sweat and cigarette smoke.  An oversized electrical fan stood propped in a corner whirring and wobbling, attempting to cool things off. 
     
The parlor was filled with velvet furniture, and its walls decorated by paintings and mirrors.  Yet, it was also populated by actors and a movie camera and crew.  And mounted from the ceiling were strange looking tubular lamps that held very long brightly shining bulbs.   
     
Selina chided herself.  She should have been used to Mr. Griffith’s powerful voice by now.  He kept things moving at a brisk pace, keeping his actors and crew on a grueling schedule from nine in the morning until eight at night. 
     
A skinny prop man, with shirt sleeves rolled up, rushed around placing props as needed.  Fresh flowers in a vase were set on a center table with an open book positioned next to them, and a letter was placed on an end table by the sofa. 
     
The cameraman, wearing a bow tie and golf hat, was with his assistant and the electrician.  They stood by the large black camera discussing the best angle to film the upcoming scene.  To Selina, the camera, balanced on a tripod, looked like an animal with a snout and two large mouse ears. 
     
“Pardon me, dearie.”  A stout matronly woman bustled past Selina toward a piano in the corner opposite the fan.  She’d play mood music once the shooting began. 
     
Three male actors, two in suits and one in a butler’s uniform, stood waiting, ready to begin filming.  They’d been talking, smoking and ogling a young actress new to the set.  She was perhaps a year or two older than Selina, and dressed as a maid.  The girl stood yards away from the male actors, reading a paperback novel.  At the sound of Griffith’s voice, the actors stopped talking and extinguished their cigarettes, but they kept their eyes on the new girl. 
     
“I want to finish this project today,” Griffith shouted, “so we can start grinding out another sausage tomorrow!”
     
“Sausage, indeed,” Lavinia muttered.  She stood by her daughter’s side.
     
Selina was grateful that this was her last day of shooting.  Her mother, convinced that the Biograph lair was nothing but a den of iniquity, had insisted upon accompanying Selina each day in order to protect her.  If any of the male actors, to whom Lavinia referred as low-life riff raff, so much as glanced in Selina’s direction, her mother cast them a look that guaranteed a painful and immediate death.
     
But Lavinia’s presence was only the tip of the iceberg.  Selina had to wear what felt like a pound of makeup during each shoot.  The heavy white face, applied over her entire face, was made from cornstarch, flour, shortening and glycerin.  Lipstick colored her mouth, and a black pencil liner rimmed her eyes and brows.  Selina applied the makeup herself, which was a difficult process, but removing it with cold cream at the end of the day was even harder.
     
When Selina started for her assigned place on the set, Lavinia gently clutched her arm.  “Just a moment, darling.”  She adjusted her daughter’s bangs. “Now, your hair is perfect.  But in all that makeup,” she lowered her voice, “you look like a ghoul.  If you’d let me help you with it, you wouldn’t look half as ghastly.”
     
Selina tried not to roll her eyes.  “Mother, this makeup is for moving pictures; it’s different.  How many times do I have to tell you that?”  She turned away impatiently, just in time to see Mr. Griffith approaching them.  Selina smiled. Even though the director was a stern taskmaster, he seemed a paternal presence to her. 
     
“Selina,” he said, kindly, “you’re doing a fine job.”  A tall thin man, Mr. Griffith was a native of Kentucky, and his speech laced with an easy southern cadence.  Despite his long face and hooked nose, Selina found the dark-haired man attractive, in a fatherly way.  She guessed him to be in his early forties.
     
“Before we start shooting,” Griffith said, “I want to explain exactly what I’m looking for.  Your heart is breaking.”  He pounded his chest.   “Look as sad as possible; cry while you read the letter.  You’re in disbelief; through your tears say ‘no, no...’  Your beaux is telling you he’s fallen in love with someone else and—”
     
“Mr. Griffith,” Lavinia interrupted, stepping between them, “I’ve thoroughly coached Selina on this scene, as I have every one before it.  She’s well prepared and needs no further instruction.  I showed her exactly how I would play the scene myself—that is, if I’d lost my tongue!”
     
Selina wanted to die, but Mr. Griffith, ever the southern gentleman, merely bowed slightly to her mother.  “Mrs. Standish, I do appreciate you working so diligently with your daughter.  I’m sure she’ll perform perfectly today.”
     
“Just as she has every day for the past week,” Lavinia said.
     
Smiling tightly, Mr. Griffith took a deep breath. “Yes, ma’am.”
     
As he strode away, Selina said, “Mother, this is his picture!  He’s the director!”
     
“Well, I’m Lavinia Standish, and I know more about acting than he ever will.”
     
“Places, everyone!” Griffith commanded.
     
Selina obediently walked to her place.  After sitting on a velvet sofa near a fireplace, she picked up the letter. 
     
Before Griffith could start the camera rolling, there was a pop, followed by the sound of breaking glass.  Selina grimaced, inhaling the bitter smell of something burning.
     
“Ah, jiminy!”  Griffith exclaimed. 
     
One of the long light bulbs suspended from the ceiling had popped.  Soft tiny balls of silver escaped from it and began rolling across the hardwood floor.  The young actress, dressed as a maid, immediately knelt down to play with them.  Curious, Selina headed for the balls, as well.  Griffith told everyone that filming would be delayed until the electrician replaced the light bulb.
     
Before Selina could bend down to touch the shining little spheres, her mother stopped her.  “Selina, that was a mercury-vapor lamp that popped, and those balls are mercury. Stay away from them.”
     
Selina stared at her mother, amazed.  “How did you know that?”
    
“I asked questions.  On my first day here I did a thorough investigation as to all of the equipment used to make these dreadful flickers.”
     
Selina sighed.  She’d spread her wings, although in her mother’s shadow, and she’d experienced the making of a moving picture.  Once had been enough, as far as Selina was concerned, but at the end of the day she’d have one week’s pay of two-hundred and seventy-five dollars that she’d earned herself!



From Cad to Cadaver: A Black Ops Detective Agency Mystery

Chapter 1

“Traceee, babeee, you are one hot mama!” Dr. Terrance Jackson says to me.
    
But how can I be a baby and a mama at the same time, without literally being a “baby mama?”  Which I am not! Which brings me to another question:  Why did I agree to go out with this clown in the first place?  Oh, yeah, that’s easy.  I have no life.
    
“That little black dress,” Terrance goes on, “hot, baby; looks like it’s painted on in high gloss!”
    
Okay, so my dress is a little form-fitting but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it looks painted on.

As Terrance’s wolf eyes continue to rove over me, I say, with a pronounced lack of luster, “You don’t look half-bad, yourself.” And actually, he doesn’t.  He sports a simple black tux with black bow tie on his weasel-thin frame. 
    
“Hey, you like this?”  Terrance sweeps his hands over his tux.  “Vera Wang, baby.  It takes a woman to dress a man!  Tracy, baby, before we go, I need to ask a favor.”
    
“Anything, if you’ll stop calling me Tracy, baby.”
    
He laughs.  “You’re a funny one—no, you’re unique!  There’s only one Tracy Black.”
    
“Not if you look in the White Pages.”
    
“Seriously, Tracy, baby, here’s the favor:  Don’t tell anyone you’re ex-FBI.  All my partners are gonna be seated at our table tonight, and I told them I’d be bringing the real deal—a real FBI agent.”
    
I’m speechless.  At one time, I was a real life agent. 
    
Terrance has just arrived at my apartment, and this evening he’s taking me to a black tie gala at Queen City University Hospital where he works as an orthopedist.  The guest of honor is a Saudi sheik whose son attends the university.  After an automobile accident six months ago, the son had surgery at the university’s hospital that saved his life.  To show his gratitude, said Sheik donated like a gazillion dollars for a new medical research facility.
    
“It’ll just be more exciting that way,” Terrance continues, “you know with our special Saudi guest and his entourage, I thought it’d be fun to have people think I’m bringing along a spy just to keep an eye on things—you know Arabs, terrorists.” He laughs.  “My brother’s gonna be there too, and he’s the only one who knows you’re not still FBI, but I told him mum’s the word on that.”
    
Disgusted, I cross my arms and sigh. “Terrance, I could get arrested for impersonating an agent.”
    
“I’m not asking you to impersonate one, just don’t tell anyone you resigned from the Bureau.”  He gives me that smarmy smile of his, then offers the crook of his arm.  He escorts me to his silver Saab, a Swedish car that has some type of mysterious prestige.  Any time he passes another guy in one, they give each other a signal that implies how special they are. 
    
Terrance once told me, “Every black man working has a BMW, get it? Black Man Working,
BMW; but only a fortunate few have discovered the wonder of the Saab.”  Whatever.
    
Once at his car, he opens the door for me, saying, “Our carriage awaits.”
    
And the evening is off to a lovely start.  NOT!
    
In Cincinnati’s black female community, Terrance Jackson is a good catch, a very good catch and he knows it.  He’s a doctor, a black doctor, and good black men are at a premium—“good” meaning well educated and lucratively employed.  I’ll put it another way, NOT a PhD in Philosophy slinging burgers at Wendy’s.  We’re talking MBA at Proctor and Gamble or an M.D. in a practice. Since there are so few “good catches” in the black male market, the available ones tend to play the field and put off commitment indefinitely.  Like Terrance.
    
He understands my relationship issues, so he knows not to expect anything from me in the realm of intimacy.  He met me a couple of years ago when I was living out of town and visiting back here at home for Christmas.  He’s my Aunt Constance’s orthopedist.  She introduced us.  I think she had hopes that we’d get married or something.  “You’ll love him, Tracy; he’s a doctor and good looking!”  She’d gushed before I agreed to her setting us up.  Regardless of his profession, and his easiness on the eyes, marriage is not gonna happen.
    
Aunt Constance wasn’t exaggerating about his looks.  Even though he’s on the thin side, and not quite six feet, he’s somewhat handsome.  His skin is about the shade of cinnamon, he wears a thick moustache, and his penetrating dark eyes are heavily browed.  He’s kind of like a cross between a Libyan terrorist (not that I’m obsessed with terrorists) and a weasel.  That’s the second time I’ve compared Terrance to a weasel. Go figure, but if the shoe fits...
    
He has a passel of women.  Now that I’m living here in town, he’s trying to add me to his collection.  He doesn’t ask me out that often, since he knows he can’t expect anything, but every once in a while he’ll call.  I’m like a game to him—a challenge he’s trying to conquer.  He won’t—believe me.  So why do I say yes whenever he does ask me out?  I guess it’s nice to feel desirable once in a while.  When your life’s in the pits like mine, you’ll put up with sweet talking nonsense that means nothing.  After all, under my surly exterior, I am a girl.
****
    
So here we are in one of the dimly lit ballrooms of the Queen City University Hospital Banquet Center, seated at Table Five.  It’s summer, so the decor is gold and white.  White linen and gold lame tablecloths and chairs draped with white fabric and sashed with thick gold ribbon.  Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and the carpet is thick and plush; an Oriental rug motif with a series of interwoven vines and flowers, in gold, turquoise green, blood red and pale pink.  The room murmurs with conversation and smells like a hazy mix of coffee, chicken and steamed vegetables.  
    
There must be about seventy-five tables here, and they’re filled with bigwigs from the hospital and the university.  A dozen people are seated at our table; Terrance’s partners in his orthopedic practice, along with their significant others.  As he introduces me, I replay all the gossip he passed along in the car ride here.
    
“Dr. Harold Savage and his wife Marion, Tracy Black,” Terrance says, as he begins introductions.  Dr. Savage is civil but doesn’t smile.  He wife is quite the opposite; very friendly with a lovely smile—and she’s wearing a beautiful sequined peach gown. Scoop on them, they’re newly separated.  Apparently Savage is a jerk; Marion’s only here as a favor.  She’s from well connected money and people like her.
    
“Dr. Lisa Chu and her husband Len Goldberg,” Terrance goes on.  Scoop on them, nothing juicy; he’s an attorney and he thinks she’s too hard on their kids. They have two girls; one plays piano, one violin.  They’re good enough to play on the professional concert level and they’re only nine and eleven years old.  Apparently Len told Lisa to chill out and stop being such an Asian mother.
    
I’m introduced to two more male partners and their wives, no scoops on them, but the last partner I’m introduced to is another woman.
    
“And this is Dr. Dana Simmons,” Terrance says.  Scoop here, she’s not seeing anyone at the moment and she’s gay.  But her date for the evening is “...Mr. Phil Jackson,” Terrance says, “my brother.”  Terrance told me earlier he thought his brother would enjoy this evening’s event, so he talked Dana into inviting him. He’d also said, “Gotta keep Phil out of trouble.”  But when I’d asked him to explain that, he’d only quipped, “Just a joke, Tracy, baby.”
    
I’m seated next to Phil.  He’s actually better looking than his brother; they share the same complexion and facial features, but Phil has no moustache.  His eyes are larger and his brows aren’t as heavy.  He’s also bigger with broader shoulders—not weasely built like his brother. 
    
Perhaps it’s my imagination, but Phil seems to regard me warily...in addition, he has an eye-tick, and whenever I try to talk to him, he only provides one word responses.  Terrance is on my other side and he speaks enough for three people, so no loss that Phil is a dud in the conversation department—or maybe Phil’s just suspicious of me and doesn’t want to reveal too much about himself because he knows that I’m a private investigator.  Who knows...? Gotta keep Phil out of trouble... Maybe he does have something to hide.
    
I take a quick glance at everyone seated at our table.  Aside from Phil’s behavior, I don’t notice anything strange immediately.  But then I see that the jerk, Dr. Savage, is scowling.  His wife, or soon to be ex-wife, Marion, is seated on Terrance’s opposite side.  She and Terrance are yukking it up quite enthusiastically, and Savage does not appear pleased about this.  Terrance is basically a jerk, too, but at least he’s got charm.
    
I gaze around the room.  This is a high security affair.  All hospital and university staff were instructed to wear their IDs.  All guests were issued lanyards with our names and an individual barcode.     
    
The Sheik’s safety is a big deal, and since metal detectors were deemed inappropriate and demeaning for this crowd of elite professionals, gorillas are stationed at each exit instead.  Okay, they’re not really gorillas; they’re just very large security personnel, huge, hulking men that must weigh a minimum of two-hundred and fifty pounds each.  Others are stationed at random points outside the ballroom.  They’re all dressed in dark suits and wear sunglasses. 
     
Yes, the room is dimly lit, but they’re wearing shades so people won’t know where they’re looking.  This way, they can see more of everything without letting a suspect, or any persons involved in suspicious activities, know they’re being watched.  I was a cop before I joined the FBI, from which I have since resigned, and I’m only twenty-eight; but more about my sorry life and new career as P.I. later. 
    
When I walked in the room with Terrance earlier, I saw someone I knew; my neighbor, Dr. Omar Shaloub.  He’s lives across the hall from me.  He’s Egyptian and teaches chemistry at the university.  I’ve noticed suspicious meetings in his apartment on Friday nights.  Possible terrorist activity has yet to be proven, but I’ll be keeping an eye on him. Right now, however, I need to stay focused on someone else. 
    
Our table isn’t far from the guest of honor’s table, and there’s a young guy with the Saudi entourage who bears an uncanny resemblance to Muhammad Ibrahim Rahim, a Saudi terrorist on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list.  I worked on that case up until my resignation.  I’ve seen pictures of that joker with and without facial hair, with and without glasses, bald and with a full head of hair.  The more I look at this guy, the more I’m convinced it’s him.  He’s in his late twenties with a slender frame.  This evening he’s clean-shaven.  His eyes are black, his jaw-line prominent, and his face sharp-planed.  His thick dark hair appears matted with gel to keep its waves in place.
    
This is a black tie affair.  The three older Saudi men at the Sheik’s table are dressed in traditional Saudi garb, full length loose white garments with long sleeves called thawbs, and white pants beneath them, called sirwals.  Over that they wear mishlaws, gray cloaks trimmed with gold embroidery. White cloths, or ghurtras, are on their heads held in place by igals, those ropes that look like doubled black rings.
    
The five younger men, including the one I’m keeping watch on, are in Western attire, mid-night blue tuxes with silk lapels to be exact. What if the Sheik and his entourage are imposters?  What if they’re all terrorists? Then again, what if they’re not, but they’re unaware that Rahim is?  What if Rahim’s here to blow us up to kingdom come? 
    
Cincinnati’s not exactly an ideal place for a terrorist attack.  I mean—it’s not like we’re known world-wide for much of anything aside from our chili, so I guess that’s a good thing.  But what if this guy wants to show us that as Americans we’re not safe from terrorism anywhere, not even in a mid-western town that can boast of not one, but two professional sports teams that suck? 
    
And blowing up this particular locale would make an extremely strong statement. This room is filled with some of the best in Cincinnati’s medical community.  If we’re obliterated, along with the hospital, and other attacks are planned throughout the city, medical care will be compromised.
    
At peak alert, my adrenalin is pumping. I sit up straighter.  Rahim is looking at his cell phone.  He’s sending a text, maybe he’s not working alone. I uncross my legs as I see him standing up. He’s still looking at his cell phone.  He’s heading to one of the banquet room exits.  I smoothly excuse myself from my table.  I follow him, deciding that I’ll distract him; throw him off his game.  Once he leaves the banquet room, I’m not too far behind him.
    
“Sir,” I call.  He ignores me.  “Sir!”  He’s still ignoring me and walks into the men’s room.  This is a matter of national security, and in moments I’m in there too... 


Chapter 2

By the time I fling open the men’s room door, Mr. Saudi Terrorist is at the urinal.
    
“Miss!” he says surprised and embarrassed in the midst of expulsion. “You’re in the wrong lavatory.”
    
“I know where I am, and I know who you are!”
    
“What?”
    
The rest room door opens behind me.  I turn to see one of the gorillas just before he grabs my arm.  “Come with me, Miss.”  He’s a tall, rock solid blond, at least six feet.  His hold is hard and forceful as he yanks me from the men’s room.
    
“Do you know who that is?” I protest, then lower my voice, “That’s Muhammad Ibrahim Rahim.”
    
Blondy says nothing as I’m escorted to a narrow hall beyond the restrooms.  There waits a crusty looking gray-haired man of about sixty-five, retirement age.  He’s not as large as the other primates; medium build, approximately five-feet, ten inches.  Bags are under his red-rimmed gray eyes, and his face is etched with wrinkles.  His badge says Cecil Hathaway, Queen City University Hospital Security Supervisor.
    
“Security Supervisor; thank, God!” I say. “I used to be a special agent, and the man I followed to the rest room is on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list!”
    
Blondy drops my arm, but Crusty Cecil acts like he hasn’t heard a word I’ve said.  Instead, he gazes at my guest lanyard. “Tracy Black,” he says in a gravelly voice, then to Blondy, “Who’s she with?”
    
Blondy scans my guest barcode into a hand-held device. Crusty is no doubt tech impaired.  “Dr. Terrance Jackson,” Blondy says.  “Table five.”
    
“Did you not hear me?” I say to Crusty.
    
He squints, looking at me.  “All right, young lady, who do you think the guy was that you followed to the rest room?”
    
“A terrorist; Muhammad Ibrahim Rahim.”
    
Crusty instructs Blondy, “Look up that name on your gizmo.”
    
Blondy enters the information into his iPhone and in moments shares his screen with Crusty.
    
Both men study the phone, then look at each other as though contemplating what to do next.  Finally, confirmation!  It’s a good thing I’m here tonight; I’ll help these suckers get this show on the road.       
    
Crusty moves his eyes to mine.  “Miss Black, are you absolutely sure about this?”
    
“Yes!  And the sooner you guys stop shuffling your feet, the safer we’re all gonna be.”
    
The two men eye each other again.  “Show her,” Crusty says to Blondy.
    
The blond man shows me his iPhone.  The Rahim that looks back wears glasses.  He’s also bearded with longer hair curling upwards in a four inch Fro—and he’s about thirty pounds heavier. 
    
“That picture is the most recent one,” Blondy says.  “Taken two months ago.”
    
His hair is longer, but the same texture, and even with those glasses, I recognize his eyes.  But with the extra weight his face is filled out, causing a significant difference in his appearance.  “Okay...so um...two months... He got a haircut and he could’ve lost the weight since then... You know, Jenny Craig or something.”
    
Crusty and Blondy exchange glances. 
    
“You were FBI?” Crusty asks.  I nod.  “Put her name in that thing.”
    
I’d rather they didn’t do that, but...
    
After a few seconds, Blondy says, “Remember that mall shooting in Atlanta last year?” Then he shows his phone to Crusty.
    
Reading the screen, Crusty says, “Oh yeah... So she was the off duty agent involved when things went to hell.”
    
Great, so much for my credibility.
    
Crusty crosses his arms and gives me an intimidating stare, then says to Blondy, “Where’s Parks?”
    
“Mountain biking accident this morning. She’s recuperating from surgery.”
    
“Damn,” Crusty says.  “She was the only female on security detail tonight.  She get a fill in?”
    
“Yeah, but it’s a guy.
    
“Great.  Crusty leans close to Blondy, lowering his voice in an effort to keep me from overhearing.  “Since hospital security...” Crusty mumbles, “...that sexual harassment issue last year, we can’t... Somebody not connected with the hospital... Get one of the security consultants.”
    
In between snippets of incoherence, I catch enough of what Crusty said to understand that hospital security was involved in a sexual harassment case.  So since there’s no female security tonight, he wants one of the gorillas hired just for the evening and not permanently affiliated with the hospital, to deal with me.
    
Blondy speaks into a tiny microphone on his lapel.  “A.S. 6, report to Area One.”  
    
“Look here, Miss Black,” Crusty says, “you were wrong about that man, and—”
    
“He may be a chunky monkey in that photo, but—” 
    
“And because of what you’ve done,” Crusty continues, “you got no rights at the moment—”
    
“You’re all just a bunch of rent-a-cops!” I say.  “I’m not under arrest, and besides I haven’t done anything except try to save—”
     
“We need to make sure anyone who’s acted suspiciously toward any of our special guests is subjected to a security screening.  Now you following that man into the men’s room is the same as what’s gonna happen to you, so don’t try pullin’ any of that female harassment crap!”
    
“What?”
    
By now, a second gorilla appears.  Seeing me, his pace slows.  With his sunglasses, I can’t read his eyes.  He’s bigger than the blond gorilla; this one teeters way over six feet with broad shoulders.  His hair is dark and full.  Although his face is obscured by shades, from what I can tell, he’s very good looking—hot; strong jaw-line, GQ chin and cheekbones.  Not that this is the time to be thinking about that, it’s just that being human and female, I can’t help but notice. 
    
Crusty dismisses Blondy to go get Terrance, then directs a command at The Hot One. “Pat her down.”
    
“Oh, come on!” I protest.  “Do I look like a threat?” My eyes move from Crusty to The Hot One.   

“I’m not nearly the threat of the man I followed to the bathroom!”
    
The Hot One hesitates, but Crusty barks at him, “What are you waiting for?”
    
“Oh, right,” I say, “pick on the black girl.” Might as well play the race card. That usually scares white people.
    
As The Hot One moves forward, Crusty says to me, “Turn around, and put your hands on the wall.”  
    
“No!”
    
“Get her hands on the wall,” Crusty instructs The Hot One.
    
Using strong, but gentle force, The Hot One quickly turns me around, grasps my arms, then places my hands against the wall.  
    
I yank free.  “Get your hands off me, you big ape!” I circle to face him, giving him an elbow strike in the rib cage.  He doesn’t wince, but he does step back slightly.  I catch a glimpse of the high-end Sigsauer beneath his jacket.  It’s pressed against his side, held in place by a shoulder holster. 
    
“If you don’t cooperate,” Crusty says to me, “this situation’s gonna be out of our hands and you’ll go straight to the cops.”
    
“At least the real cops would know what to do in this situation, because you guys aren’t good for much of anything!  Maybe if I got a box of doughnuts you could guard that.”
    
Crusty sighs. “Do what you have to do to pat her down.”
    
Perhaps offended by my doughnut remark, The Hot One uses twice as much force this time, which is probably only about a tenth of his strength.  Now when he pins my hands against the wall, despite my efforts to get him off, I can’t move.
    
“Okay, okay, I give!”
    
The Hot One clears his throat. “You’ll have to, uh—”
    
“I know the drill,” I interrupt, “I used to be a cop.”  I widen my stance, to spare him from telling me to spread my legs.
    
I’m wearing black stilettos with my Ralph Lauren black dress (both items were on sale at Marshall’s).  The dress, gathered down the front, is a size four that clings to every curve.  The Hot One gingerly pats his hands from the sides of my breasts, to my waist, to my hips.
    
“You’re hardly touching her,” Crusty says.
    
“All due respect, sir,” The Hot One replies, “her dress...”
    
“Yeah; tight; I noticed.  Do a better job when you move down below; no telling what she might be hiding above that hemline!”
    
I glance over my shoulder just in time to see The Hot One’s face flush.  Regardless, don’t tell me he’s not enjoying this assignment. 
    
“Sexual harassment, racial discrimination, partying while black...” I mutter as The Hot One kneels down to search my lower half.  I’m not wearing hose.  At least I used a new razor and slathered on that Crabtree and Evelyn English Honey and Peach Blossom Body Butter that Aunt Constance gave me for my birthday last month.  Little did I know that this evening, a strange (and very hot) man would be groping my legs.
    
The Hot One slides his fingers on my bare skin from the ankle of my right leg up to my thigh.  He stops.  I glance down to see him gazing up at me, as if to say, I trust you’re not hiding anything beyond this point.  I smirk and turn away.  Thankfully, I’m not goosed.  He goes no further on that leg, and then repeats the motion on my left.  His hands stop moving when he feels something more than just my flesh. 
    
Great.  No surprise he’d find it.  Maybe I should have turned it over from the start.  In a situation like tonight’s affair, I’m never without a piece on my person. 
    
The Hot One slowly pushes up the stretchy fabric of my dress, revealing my black lace holster, complete with a tiny pink bow on top.  A black tie affair calls for a dressy holster—what can I say?  The Hot One studies the holster a second longer than necessary, then eases my five inch .38 Prescott Ruger from the inside of my thigh.  He’s chivalrous enough to pull my dress back down, then stands up. 
    
While he depresses the clip release, Crusty says, “That packs a wallop.  You got a permit for it?”
    
“Of course, I do!” 
    
By now, The Hot One has cleared the firearm, leaving it in safe mode, and dropped the clip in one of his jacket pockets and the piece in the other.  “My compliments.  Good choice of pop,” he says quietly.
    
“Right,” I snort.
    
“Cuff her and bring her down to Room One,” Crusty says.
    
I wince as The Hot One cuffs my hands behind me.  “Sorry,” he says knowing the tight metal digs into my wrists.  “Wish I didn’t have to do this,” he adds softly.
    
“And stop being so nice to her.”
****
    
Room One is at the end of the hall.  It’s a small office only large enough for a desk and two uncomfortable straight back wooden chairs.  Crusty sits behind the desk and The Hot One parks me in a chair that faces the old man.  The Hot One then steps behind me.  I glance over my shoulder for a second and see him stand by the door.  Like I’ll try to make a run for it.  Right.
    
“We’re gonna wait here for Dr. Jackson,” Crusty says.
    
I stand up angrily.  “Aren’t you gonna do anything about that man?”
    
“Sit down!” Crusty says impatiently.
    
“Make me!”
    
Crusty looks beyond me, and in seconds I feel the strong hand of The Hot One on my shoulder.  He shoves me back down.
    
“He might look different, but that guy—”
    
“Had to take leak,” Crusty interrupts.
    
I stand up again. “I had to follow him because—”
    
“He’s not who you think he is!” Crusty says.  “For all I know, you were just stalking him for some delusional reason.”
    
“Despite those extra pounds in that photo, he’s the same man!” I’m pushed down once more by The Hot One.
    
“He’s with Sheik Khalim’s party,” Crusty says, “and it’s our job to see that the evening runs smoothly.  They say all you black people look alike, so you ought to sympathize with the A-rabs, because they’ve all been accused of looking like terrorists.”
    
I spring to my feet.  “You don’t get it!  He is a freaking terrorist!”  The Hot One forces me down a third time.  I am really pissed!  I turn to him. “If you do that again, so help me, I’ll—”
    
“Traceee, babeee!” The office door rattles open and Terrance walks in escorted by Blondy, who’s then told by Crusty to return to his post.
    
“Dr. Jackson,” Crusty says, “thought you were with orthopedics.”
    
“I am, Cecil.”
    
Crusty looks at me and laughs without smiling, “So where’d you find that one, the Psych Ward?”
    
Instead of defending my honor, Terrance laughs along with the old man and says, “She must not have taken her meds today.”
    
Feeling betrayed, I look from Terrance to Crusty. “I am not on any meds!”
    
“Claims she was a cop,” Crusty says, “and I read about one of her...uh...escapades as an agent.  Bottom line, she’s convinced one of the guests with Sheik Khalid is a terrorist.  The man’s his nephew; she followed him into the men’s room; confronted him while he was taking care of business; his schlong on full display at the urinal. You’re gonna have to keep your woman under control, Dr. Jackson.”
    
“I am not his woman!”
    
“Any more strange behavior from her,” Crusty goes on, “and both of you will be asked to leave.”
    
“I completely understand, Cecil,” Terrance says, ingratiating himself.
    
“Un-cuff her,” Crusty says to The Hot One.
    
I stand up.  As my hands are freed, I’m too humiliated to care if we get blown to bits or not.  But
I want my Ruger back.  I swirl around quickly to face The Hot One and hold out my hand.
    
“What, Miss?”
    
“My gun, you moron!”
    
“Whoa,” Terrance says to Cecil, “I didn’t know she was packing.”
    
The Hot One hesitates; his shaded eyes appear to look in Crusty’s direction.
    
“Give it back,” Crusty says, “but not the clip.  That’ll be returned at the end of the evening. Little girls don’t need to be playing with big boy toys.”
    
I bite my tongue to keep from screaming.
    
“Sure thing, Cecil,” Terrance says, as The Hot One hands me my firearm.  “Maybe I should hold onto that.” Terrance reaches for it, but I smack away his hand and snatch it from The Hot One.  “I suppose we’ll—uh—be on our way,” Terrance says awkwardly.  As we start for the door, he adds, “Cecil, I’m really sorry for any inconvenience we’ve caused.”
    
“Just hold tight to her leash, Dr. Jackson.”
    
I want to maim old Crusty, but I’ll settle for kneeing The Hot One in the groin for feeling me up (even though he tried to be polite about it), taking my gun, and pushing me into that chair so many damn times!  As I pass by him, he backs away from my flying patella just in the knick of time.
    
“C’mon, Tracy, baby,” Terrance chides, “no need for violence.”
    
Terrance and I leave the room together and walk back to the banquet hall.  On the way, he says, “Tracy, security isn’t your job tonight, it’s theirs.” He motions his head toward one of the gorillas stationed nearby.  “And they have it under control.”
    
“Oh, shut up, you jerk!  You’re the one who wanted me to pretend I was still an agent!”
    
“Is that what you were doing?”
    
“No! But that man—he looked just like one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists, and I wanted to be sure we’d all make it through the evening alive.”  I let out a breath.  “Maybe I was mistaken, but you could’ve defended me.”  I’m not one to cry, but right now I feel close to the verge of tears.
    
“Tracy, the last thing I need to do is lose my job trying to defend somebody security thinks is delusional.”
    
“Fine, Terrance! Then just take me home!”
    
“Tracy, baby...how would that look?  C’mon, stay—I’ll owe you.”