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Chapter One: Suspicious Minds
Vail Russo stomped into the office, slamming the door behind her. Oliver Braun, her boyfriend, bristled. She halted in front of his desk and ground her fists into her hips to keep from hitting him. "Tell me it's not happening again, Oliver."
Oliver's mouth slouched open. A look something like apprehension intermingled with mock innocence glazed his eyes. "What's happening again?"
"Drop the act. You're not that stupid, Oliver." She swallowed hard, furious with herself for being so trusting. Her voice lowered almost to a growl. "Are you seeing her?"
Shrugging, he pursed his lips and gawked back at her with wide eyes. "Who?"
"If you weren't seeing anyone, wouldn't you just say no?"
Oliver sighed as if he were in the clear. He brushed his tie down against his chest. "Okay, Vail, I'm not seeing anyone."
She leaned forward as if to emphasize her next bomb. "I have friends in IT."
Turning his face to a sidelong angle, he splayed his hands as if waiting on a football pass. "And?"
"I'm through talking. Time for you to fess up."
He remained as still as a picture for a moment. A handsome man. Mid-forties. Tan. Bulldog neck. His hairline had receded so much you could have projected a movie on his forehead. He thumped his elbows on the desk behind which he sat and began kneading his temples. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I'll just forward the emails. You need to get your things out of my house tonight."
"Not that I mind you seeing my emails, but they are private. And there's not a damn thing in them to suggest ... an affair or whatever you're grasping for. Bring 'em on."
She'd hoped that a bluff--and a surprise attack--would make him crumble. But if she knew anything about Oliver, it was that he usually stayed cool under pressure. It was one of the things that had attracted her to him. True to his nature, he continued lounging in front of her and raising his eyebrows as if to say: ball is in your court.
"Should have expected this." She felt vacant inside. If nothing else, she could not let him turn the tables. In her gut, she knew he'd slipped out on her. "You didn't tell me that Chelsea Myers was a part of your boy's night out last night."
"It didn't seem worth mentioning."
"You invited her. I saw the email."
"I invited a lot of people."
"She was the only woman."
The volleys of emails between Oliver and Chelsea that Vail's friend had snuck to her were suggestive at best. Vail had nothing except her intuition. However, her intuition had warned her about Oliver's first indiscretion. "All right ... forget the emails. I just don't think this is working anymore."
Oliver lolled his head to one side and blinked slowly. "Why would I cheat? We're not married. I've..."
"Don't remind me. Three and half years, and you still can't commit."
"Vail, we've been through this."
"And I've been through this. Remember Candace?"
"I didn't know if you and I were really a couple back then. We only went out three times."
"No, you just used that as an excuse. You purposely fucked me twice and left me hanging."
"And then I realized that I wanted to be with you."
Her arms went limp. Debating with him was like pushing a boulder up a ladder. "Just hanging around at my house is not what I call being with me."
"I don't want to talk." She spun on her heels and headed for the door that she had just tried to tear off the hinges. If she didn't get out of there, he'd do that adorable thing where he bows his head and rolls his eyes up to look at her with a mischievous smile and eventually make her question herself. Damn his charm. "Get your things tonight."
As she barreled through the threshold, he kept calling after her.
Screw that. She wouldn't allow him to play damage control.
And who else would she pass on the way to the elevator except Chelsea Myers? The girl, barely out of college, thin as a pencil with pouty lips, just happened to be sauntering toward Oliver's office. Vail remembered her twenties and how thin she had been. Not that she didn't have it going on still. She knew that she could stun men with her olive skin and exotic eyes. And her twins always summoned sneak peeks. Over the past few years, her hips had filled out to a size nine regular. Vail loved her body, but she couldn't help but notice how men's eyes seemed to dart to the twigs. Chelsea wouldn't return Vail's gaze. Instead, she made an awkward turn into a row of cubicles, bowing her head which stood out like a gold lighthouse. Vail grumbled before stomping onto the elevator.
Getting Oliver Braun out of her life would be like separating sweetness from sugar. The data storage company they both worked for was burgeoning. And she and Oliver, loved by the top executives, would have jobs for quite a while. Vail hit the lobby button and thought about how she would have to continue interacting with him. But now was the time for her to get him out of her life, if she wanted to do it on her own terms.
It crossed Vail's mind to take the rest of the day off. She had plenty of vacation, and her boss often gave her comp days because she was such a workaholic. Pride shut down that notion, however. An emotional day wasn't about to squeeze her out of her duties. A breather--one that allowed her to get outside for a good half hour--felt like a better option. Vail got off the elevator and exited through the main entrance.
She inhaled the sweet fresh spring air of Austin, Texas as it breezed past. Her company's building, located in a business park, overlooked a small pond and a jogging path. However, the park bustled from the scattered activities of a Dark Arts Festival. Booths and tents dotted the hillside. The sounds of wooden flutes whistling out some medieval composition flew by with the wind. Papier-mâché ghosts and goblins stared at the visitors. Vendors dressed in robes and capes tried to entice the onlookers. Vail had forgotten about the eccentric carnival. The pond would have been a great place for some meditation, otherwise.
With no other options, she decided to go down and browse the weirdness anyway. One of the things she loved about Austin was its rich culture. Cowboys, hippies, conservatives, liberals, white collars, blue collars--this city had so many walks of life, and they seemed to fit just right together.
As she strolled along the flower beds that led to the park, the thought of time wasted in her relationship with Oliver hurt the most. Three and a half years. She was thirty when she met him. In spite of his mediocre looks, he had a larger than life personality that could attract just about any woman. Classy, witty, ambitious, he had so much more going for him than the slackers she'd been with before. In a lot of ways, though, he was like a kid. Each day was like a ride in an amusement park to him, and it seemed he would never allow anyone to burst his bubble.
Vail began weaving through the crowd of the festival. Troubadours strolled around, playing lutes. Acrobats and entertainers gave free shows. Vail stopped by a mystic's tent and marveled for a moment as the heavy woman with pigtails read tarot cards for a Goth who kept popping his knuckles. Folding her arms across her chest, Vail broke away from the tent and snickered to herself. I wonder if she could tell me if Oliver will get the message.
If she hated Oliver, this breakup would be much easier. As the smell of onion rings triggered her hunger, Vail realized that she needed to make some kind of drastic change, so Oliver would really feel her new direction.
A thundering voice blared into her right ear. "Look at that beautiful lady!"
Vail turned to see a guy sitting on a stool controlling two puppets. This puppet master who looked like a teenager had such a genuine, twinkling smile that it almost took Vail aback. He had a Caesar cut and a long-sleeved navy T-shirt and jeans. The dummy on his right arm had exaggerated muscles in its chest and arms, and a square jaw with a brunette pompadour. The other puppet, a girl, had a librarian look: wig tied up in a bun, glasses, blushing face. The puppet master was front and center on a small stage flanked with rust curtains.
The librarian puppet eyed Vail up and down. "Yes ... she looks very sad."
The female voice roaming out of the puppet master sounded so real and opposite of what could come out of a teenager. Vail's jaw dropped. "Just having a bad day." She studied the puppet master's face. Was he even over sixteen?
The buffed puppet--Vail kept thinking he looked like a caricature of Adonis--tilted its head and crooned, "What do you say we turn this day around for you? How about I buy you a drink?"
Vail realized that the beautiful lady comment had been the voice of Adonis. She laughed. "Sorry ... but, uh ... another guy is the last thing I need right now ... especially a puppet."
"Oh..." The librarian reared her head back as if she'd been around the block a few times. "Man trouble. They're such swine, aren't they?"
"No ... not really." Vail was astounded at the puppet master's command of voices. The Adonis had a bass register that would slide up seductively on certain words. The librarian had an airy flute sound with a staccato phrasing reminiscent of a British aristocracy. It was hard to believe that the kid could alternate between styles so easily. She also hadn't spotted his throat or lips moving one tiny bit. Vail looked the puppet master in his cheery blue eyes. "Hope you don't mind me saying this, but you're too good to be hanging out at a festival. You should be in Hollywood doing voice-overs or something."
Adonis said, "She's not having trouble with men. Look at her ... she's hot."
The librarian leered at him. "Just because she can attract them doesn't mean they understand her."
Impressed with this kid's insightfulness, Vail gave him a coy grin. "You don't really fit in with the rest of the crowd, either. I mean..." She gestured around at the adjacent booths. "Everybody else is in wizard hats and Druid clothing. Why the plain old T-shirt?"
The librarian said, "Maybe he simply does what he likes, no matter what others think."
Without missing a beat, Adonis added, "Now, that's what I'm talking about." He leaned toward Vail again. The shadows grew long on the puppet's face, and it looked as if it raised an eyebrow. "How about you, pretty lady? Are you getting what you want out of life?"
A sensation like the rush of jumping off of a cliff overwhelmed Vail's nerves for split second. She didn't know if she'd just had a caffeine reaction, hunger craving, or small anxiety attack. Okay, this is getting too weird. The puppet's prompt and an odd tingling down her back suddenly made Vail want to take inventory of her desires. Stymied by the puppet's conundrum, Vail, for lack of any other response, smarted off, saying, "Hey, if you know a better way, sign me up." She flicked her fingers at the teenager in a half-hearted wave. "Remember what I said about Hollywood."
Navigating through the crowd, heading back towards her building, she heard the librarian call out, "It's all you, girl."
Vail snickered to the remark in a weak effort to forget the bizarre puppet encounter. For some reason, though, she felt as if she needed to prove the stupid little dummies wrong. She had conquered in her career and was damned proud of it. And that's all she could come up with. Making matters worse, the heat seemed to kick up a notch. The tingle down her back was growing in intensity. Like a cat, she had an overwhelming urge to brush up against something. A massage or a long bath sounded positively fabulous. For the first time in years, Vail didn't want to return to work. If her keys and purse weren't still in the office, she would have just gotten in her car and flown.
"Pay whatever it costs to have the roses delivered by noon," Oliver told his assistant through the phone.
A knock on his office door. Now what?
Chelsea Myers barely opened Oliver's door and slipped in. He admired her long legs for a moment, and then forced a smile as he met her eyes. "This isn't a good time, Chelsea."
She leaned against the door to latch it and studied him with zero expression.
Oliver sighed. With Vail's explosion that everyone all the way to the capital could hear, Chelsea no doubt cared less if this minute was convenient for him. She knew exactly how to get to the top.
With a tilt of her head and a snooty raise of her eyebrows, Chelsea asked, "Does she know?"
Shaking his head, he replied, "But the more you hang around, the more she'll suspect."
"She broke up with you."
Temporarily, Oliver thought. That probably wouldn't be the best response, though. He could accept Vail's ending the relationship if needed. After all, Chelsea, with legs up to her neck, tits like cantaloupes, and a luscious mouth, would probably stick around a while. But he did have a special bond with Vail, whether she felt it or not. And there was no need to limit his options. So he dismissed Chelsea's declaration. "It doesn't matter."
Keeping her hands behind her back, Chelsea stalked forward. "That's what I'm worried about. If you have nothing to lose, that little favor I did for you last night isn't going to buy me much. I don't take dictation like that for just any guy."
"I don't forget the people that hook me up." This much was true. Loyalty had gotten Oliver to the executive director level. However, he wished Chelsea possessed a little more professionalism in tandem with her fellatio talents. "I'll start the buzz for your promotion. It's as good as done."