I’m a little nervous about sharing her already, simply because I’m still revising and layering like mad as I write. I don’t know how “erotic” this story will really end up being–it’s more about impossibly complex relationships, what home means, and how the characters see each other.
For now, this is the opening section of Vicki’s story, subject to heavy revision. Vicki is Conn’s (Dear Sir, I’m Yours) and Victor’s (Hurt Me So Good) sister. There are still a few minor [notes] that I’ll figure out later (place names).
It didn’t snow very often in Dallas, TX, but when it did, everything came to a halt. Walking carefully on the icy sidewalks, Vicki Connagher paused at the deserted intersection. Shivering, she drew her coat tighter with her free hand. What a stupid idea. She should have just stayed in tonight instead of braving terrible roads and the chilly night for a few groceries, even though the store was only three blocks away.
Just one more block, she told herself, trudging across the slushy road. Snow still fell thick and wet, dulling the usual noises of the city. The hot cocoa was going to taste especially good tonight. She’d bundle up on the couch in her favorite quilt and stay up all night watching cheesy horror movies. It sounded like a blast, if only she wasn’t alone.
But she was alone, miserably alone, and so she knew she’d end up working downstairs all night to avoid the emptiness of her apartment. She still had to come up with one more evening gown design before the gala.
Her foot slid out and she fell with a curse that would have brought Mama with a bar of nasty soap to wash out her mouth. Getting wetter and colder by the minute, she muttered, “Not even chocolate is worth getting out in a freak Texas blizzard.”
“Are you all right?”
The male voice startled her, but she quickly recognized him as a street artist, Jesse. She’d bought several of his charcoals and dropped a few bucks in his hat every time she was over by the park, which unfortunately, she hadn’t seen in months. Not since she’d quit her job at Wagner & Leeman. “I’m fine. Nothing hurt but my pride. How are you, Jesse?”
Beaming that she remembered him, he helped pick up the canned beans that had escaped her shopping bag. Despite the ragged clothes and general grime, he was a handsome young man. He managed to appear so wholesome and down-to-earth that she’d instantly liked him from the start. “Haven’t seen you around [park] in a while.”
“I quit my job and started my own business. Corporate life got to be too much for me.”
“I’ll say.” Chuckling, he handed her the last can, and then shyly pulled a small square out of his bag. “I made something for you.”
She held the folded paper up to the streetlight. On the front, he’d used watercolors to paint dozens of butterflies, laid on top of each other in carefully detailed layers so the entire page was covered in wings. Inside, he’d written a simple message: Happy birthday, Vicki.
“Sorry, I know your birthday was months ago, but I didn’t know where you’d gone.”
“Oh, Jesse, thank you. How did you know?”
He smiled and shrugged, shifting the strap of his back higher on his shoulder. “I overheard you tell your friend that you were planning a special dinner with your family for your birthday. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop; you were standing behind me while I sketched. Anyway, I’ve got a few new pieces you might like. Come over to the park when you get the chance.”
“I will.” She stared down at the card, thinking about how many weeks he’d carried it in his bag, protecting it from getting torn or dirty, hoping to see her. He’d made her a card, when some of her best friends hadn’t remembered her birthday at all. “Thank you, Jesse. This really means a lot to me.”
He tipped his battered, lopsided straw hat, gave her a another smile, and turned to head down the street. Alone. His skinny shoulders hunched against the cold.
Vicki had built all sorts of reasons that he was on the streets in her mind, but she’d never had the courage to ask him. He only had on a jean jacket, no gloves, and the knapsack tossed over his shoulder, exactly how she’d seen him countless times. Everything he owned in the world was in that bag.
Immediately, he turned around and came back, his eyes wide and hopeful. It was too dark and gloomy to make out the remarkable turquoise shade of his eyes, but she remembered. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Do you have someplace to go?”
“Oh, sure.” He nodded, but she didn’t like the way he ducked his head. “Don’t worry about me. Just come over to the park when you get the chance. I miss seeing you.”
She took the last few steps toward her building, her mind screaming all the reasons it would be stupid to ask him inside. She was alone. He was a man, bigger and stronger than her even if she had a few years on him. She had a damned good security system on both the shop and her apartment upstairs, but if he chose to overpower her, she wouldn’t have a chance to call for help.
She didn’t really know him at all. He was homeless, for God’s sake, and had probably seen more crime and violence than she’d even dreamed of despite working all those years as a defense attorney. But there was something undeniable in his eyes, a deep, soul-piercing light that she couldn’t forget. Without saying a word, he managed to reach inside her and tug, hard, amplifying her guilt and worry. It wasn’t her fault that he was homeless, but it would be her fault if he froze to death tonight.
Putting on her best formidable cast-iron face that had intimidated many a shady character into providing better testimony, she turned and faced him squarely. “If you promise to behave yourself, you can come home with me tonight.”
His eyes flared wide with horror, which instantly made her feel better about asking him. His mouth opened, but it took him several times before he could say anything. “Oh, no, ma’am. That wouldn’t be right. I just wanted to make sure you were okay—it didn’t even occur to me that you might… No, please, I couldn’t.”
“I couldn’t sleep a wink if you were freezing out here all night.” She opened the door to the shop, her key immediately disabling the security system, and flipped on the light. He hovered behind her, staring at the warmth and shelter longingly. “I’m making a huge batch of chili and cornbread.”
His shoulders shook, stiff and reluctant, but he didn’t move closer.
“What I really wanted was hot cocoa; that’s why I went out tonight before the weather got too horrible. Not cocoa from a mix or powder—I want the real thing. I’m going to make some first.”
“With real milk?” His voice sounded hoarse. He took a step closer, but kept his shoulders down, hunched, as though he were trying to make himself smaller and less threatening. “And marshmallows?”
“Real milk, real chocolate,” she promised. “But I don’t have marshmallows. I think they’re disgusting. Come on in, Jesse. I’m not the world’s greatest cook, but I can make a mean pot of beans.”
He hung his head, one hand fisted on the strap of his bag so hard his fingers were white. “I’ve been in trouble before, ma’am, but I haven’t been arrested in more than five years, and I’ve been clean since. Call one of your old contacts in the police department and check up on me.”
She was surprised at his willingness to share his unsavory past—and a little disconcerted that he knew so much about her from the few times they’d talked so casually. “I can do that. I should also warn you that my very mean and much bigger older brother could be here in minutes.”
Leading the way through the long tables stacked with fabrics and trim, she flipped on another light. Now I know why my security guy insisted I have a separate system for my upstairs apartment. “I set up this place so that my seamstress could sleep over when we’re on a time crunch. There’s a bed, clean linen, and a full-sized bathroom.”
Jesse risked a quick glance at the room but otherwise kept his head down, his shoulders so tight that he was as short as her, when she knew he was actually several inches taller. Lightly, she touched his arm. He flinched, but at least his head came up. She was struck again by the intensity of his eyes, so clear and innocent despite the harshness of his life.
“Are you sure?” He asked, his voice shaking. “I didn’t mean–”
“I’m sure,” she smiled, gently squeezing his arm. Lord, he was so thin, just bones and tight wiry muscle laid over the top. “Look around on the shelves in the closet—I think I stuck some of my brother’s old clothes in there. Take a shower and come upstairs when you’re done. I’ll have the cocoa ready in no time.”
“My full name is Jesse Dean Inglemarre and I’m twenty five. Check me out. If you’re not comfortable, tell me to leave. I swear on a stack of Bibles that I’ll leave immediately, no questions asked. I won’t ever bother you again.”
He was several years older than she’d guessed, although still five years younger than her. She smiled to put him at ease. It felt right, so very, very right, to help him. “You’re not bothering me.”
Solemnly, he stared into her eyes, searching her face, even though he didn’t ask. Why me? Why are you doing this?
How could she explain it? Sometimes after a particularly bad trial, the only bright spot in her day had been walking through the park to see what new drawing he might be working on. On this cold, lonely night, he was a welcome surprise. “There’s just something about you, Jesse.”