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By Dana Pratola
Pelican Ventures, LLCCopyright © 2011 Dana Pratola
All rights reserved.
Tessa kept her eyes closed. Physically, she stood at the bathroom sink, her hands curled around the sides of the basin. In her spirit, she occupied that place where utterance slipped through the thin veil separating this world from the other. Where speech fell on holy and unholy ears alike. Where words were transformed into power. She was in prayer.
Head bowed, Tessa prayed first for her brother, Dominic, then her father and mother. After several minutes she paused, but the urgency intensified.
Her skin care routine abandoned, she went into her room and fell on her face at the side of her bed and with great distress, prayed in the spirit as she had nearly every day for the past two months. As though a life depended on it. She didn't yet know whose, only that it was a man and that whatever his need, time was running short.
When at last she felt the burden easing she took her Bible and notebook and sat cross-legged on the bed. She perused familiar passages and listed any verses that came to mind. There was nothing mystical in the process itself, but it helped her focus, hopefully revealing what God might want to show her.
"Can't You tell me who I'm praying for, Lord?" she asked. "Is it someone I know?"
Some moments later Tessa felt directed to turn to a specific though unfamiliar verse in the twenty-seventh chapter of Job. She ran a finger down the fine paper of the page, stopping at verse nine. "Will God hear his cry when trouble cometh upon him?" she read aloud. From there she turned to a verse she'd read the day prior in Psalm thirty-four. "This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles."
She knew before asking, "He won't cry out for himself, will he?"
So it fell to her to be his voice. But try as she might, she couldn't think of what to say.
It didn't take long to see the problem. She was trying to use her reasoning to grasp the situation and as a result grew more confused. Confusion was not of God.
She commanded the devil to stop messing with her thoughts, then began to pray in earnest for blessings, health, and protection on the man's behalf.
Strength to withstand.
The words came unexpectedly, an urgent impression on her mind. At last she had a bearing.
* * *
An hour later Tessa flipped her chestnut braid over her shoulder and wiped an already spotless countertop. The task was intended less for cleanliness and more to help drive away some of the lingering consternation from her prayers. Like every other time God led her to pray for this certain individual, she knew the victory attained in the spirit realm was only advancement toward a goal and not the goal itself. More prayer would follow, and more victory.
Meanwhile she would make herself useful to Dominic. He kidded about her neatness, but cleaning was the way she'd relieved stress for most of her twenty five years. Besides, it was sweet of him to let her move back in until she found another apartment, so she would earn her keep with fresh laundry and scrubbed floors.
It also helped fill her time. The routine of practicing law twelve hours a day hadn't allowed for sudden stops, and relearning the art of relaxation was proving harder than expected. She'd never excelled at it to begin with.
When the wall phone rang she wiped her hands on a dishtowel before answering. "Silano residence."
"You can just say hello," Dominic said.
"It's more formal my way."
"Just say hello," he repeated. "Listen, I have a friend coming by. He'll be staying a few days. That OK with you?"
Tessa switched the phone to the other ear. "It's your house."
"It's yours, too."
She smiled, knowing he meant it, but wishing he didn't always sound so apologetic when he spoke of his ownership. Yes, their parents had given it to both of them, but Tessa's heart wasn't in the place like Dominic's, so she'd signed her half over to him, and that was that. It shouldn't be so hard for him to accept.
"I don't want you to be uncomfortable," he finished.
"Why would I be uncomfortable? The more the merrier."
"You say that now."
She couldn't tell if he was joking but giggled anyway. "He isn't a convict, is he?"
She could hear Dominic tapping something. Probably the end of his pencil on the steering wheel of his police cruiser.
"Gunnar's not very social," Dominic said. "Set him up in Mom and Dad's room and leave him be. I'll try to get off early."
Tessa hung up, more baffled than concerned by her brother's ambiguous description of the houseguest. He had a lot of friends, but she'd never heard mention of Gunnar. Must be a new guy on the force.
She smirked when the phone rang a moment later. It was just like Dominic to see if she would answer her way or his.
"This Dominic's place?"
The voice was male and impatient, and she deliberated whether to tell him.
"Can I —?"
"Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm — who are you?" she returned.
"What's the address there?"
"The address, the address. Dom's expecting me. He forgot to give me the house number, and his cell is off."
Dismayed that this churlish man was Dominic's expected friend, Tessa reluctantly gave him the address.
"Great. I'm — what the —"
Tessa's eyes widened as she listened to the man yelling at someone on his end. Something to do with a bike, breaking body parts, and a hospital. It was a little hard to piece together since his profanity was quite fluent. She'd never considered some words could be used in that particular order.
"Be right there," he said in a slightly calmer tone.
Only after hearing a click in her ear did Tessa realize those last words were directed to her.
Dominic could have expanded about his friend. Not very social? He was positively hostile!
Twenty minutes later the ground began to tremble. It started as a low vibration, building steadily until Dominic's Sports Legends Bobblehead collection threatened to leap from the shelves of the cherry wood cabinet in the living room. Tessa ran to the front window.
Turning into the drive was the loudest motorcycle she'd ever heard. At least she assumed it was a motorcycle, it looked like none she had seen before. The entire contraption, from the end of the lashing, curved tail to the tip of the spitting, forked tongue was matte black with barely a hint of green. Beneath legs poised to lunge, the tires appeared to devour the pavement. It was hideous, and at the same time, mesmerizing.
Stunned, she watched it stop inches from the front steps. The rider, a virtual extension of the machine in matching black, mercifully shut off the motor and let down the kickstand with a clever movement of his foot.
Gunnar, no doubt.
She had been practically immobilized by that dreadful sound, but now she could move again, Tessa didn't want to. Even as she watched the man dismount, letting the machine crouch onto the metal stand, she knew she should go to the foyer to welcome him properly, but a bewildering rush of panic kept her feet planted.
As he raised his hands to take off the helmet, she closed her eyes and sucked in a deep calming breath. When she opened them, he was gone. Though she didn't see his face, she had a hunch it wouldn't be friendly.
She heard the front door swing open, then shut with a bang. Solid boot heels struck the hardwood of the foyer in perfect sync with the thick thudding of her heart.
He was walking in her direction, and if she didn't move soon, would discover her frozen there like a rabbit in crosshairs.
Finding that idea worse than her fear, Tessa strode toward the foyer. Why should she be afraid of a man just because he'd been a little short with her on the phone and rode a motorcycle that looked like a demon? Just because he was ill mannered and didn't knock before entering someone's house didn't make him a savage. He was a friend of her brother.
Of course, her mind countered, he hadn't known the address, so how good a friend could he be?
Tessa pushed away her misgivings and swung around the doorway and into a human wall. She teetered for a second before landing hard on her butt.
From her seated position, her gaze moved up from scuffed biker boots and black pants. A matte black helmet dangled in front of her face and drew her gaze up the arm of a scarred leather jacket. She couldn't help noticing that shoulders filled the doorway.
She guessed right about his face. Definitely unfriendly. Eyes dark as a night sea glared down at her from beneath slashing brows, and an unsmiling mouth offered neither apology nor ease. What she didn't expect was his hair. There wasn't any, only the suggestion of it on a well-shaped head.
He made no attempt to help her, which surprisingly did more to bolster her courage than undercut it. He was a startling sight, but she would not be unsettled in her own home.
Tessa got to her feet and held out a hand, wishing she'd inherited her mother's ability to fabricate a smile on cue.
"Hello. I'm Tessa," she said in a voice belying her nerves.
The man didn't take her proffered hand, though in an impatient gesture, elevated the helmet a little in minor acknowledgement. She put her hand down and skirted past him.
"This way," she said.
He followed her to the front of the house, heels drumming close behind, his eyes hot on her back.
She fought an inexplicable urge to run straight out the front door.
"Where do I put my bike?" he asked, when Tessa turned to lead him up the stairs.
His voice, rich and authoritative in person, sent an odd tingle along her spine.
Tessa moistened her dry lips before she spoke. "You can bring it around back," she said, her gaze alighting on him momentarily before looking away. "On the side of the house by the shrubbery is fine." She managed to point in the general direction.
He shifted his weight, but didn't speak, waiting it seemed, for her to look at him.
She did. She could all but feel his penetrating eyes and was struck with the foolish notion he could absorb her thoughts. In that case, she needn't worry since she couldn't reasonably form any. Had he asked another question? Had she answered the first one?
When he turned from her and walked out, Tessa released the breath she'd been holding. "Stop it," she chided herself. "He's only a man."
It was true, but this time when the horrific noise began, Dominic's Bobblehead collection wasn't all that quaked.
As he rode to the side of the house Tessa hurried to the dining room windows. The machine was fascinating, but the man held her eye. As intimidating and strange as he was, she couldn't deny she found him unusually attractive.
Gunnar set the bike on the stand then swung his leg over and stood beside it. When he removed his jacket, revealing the form fitting gray shirt beneath, Tessa's hand automatically went to her throat. Muscles bunched in his back and arms as he unhooked the elastic cords securing a black duffel bag to the seat.
He set the bag on the ground before lifting a flap on a saddlebag, and removing a length of shiny silver material. With a deft motion, he snapped it out into the air and covered the bike before crouching to fasten it near the back tire, then the front.
Tessa ducked away from the window as he made his way to the front of the house, and at the sound of the door opening and closing, she tried to look busy, making a task of aligning the tablecloth.
"Where's my room?" he asked from the doorway.
Tessa gave the tablecloth a last tug. "That was quick."
Gunnar shifted his jacket and duffel bag to the opposite arm.
"That's some motorcycle," she said.
"It's ... unique."
He returned an impassive stare.
Tessa considered herself an even-tempered person, one who went to great lengths to avoid confrontation, but this man was trying her patience. Best to show him his room and be done with him.
"Excuse me," she said and nudged past him to walk to the stairs. She didn't hear him behind her and looked back to find him in the same spot. "Are you coming?" she asked, this time without consideration to courtesy.
Her room and Dominic's were upstairs on the right, and between them the door leading to the attic. Passing it, Tessa wished she could isolate Gunnar up there, but Dominic said to put him in their parents' old room at the end of the hall. It made sense, taking into account his size and the fact that the attic held a single bed. But the thought of him sleeping so close to her brought no solace.
She entered ahead of him, her gaze shooting around the room. Although she hadn't been in here in years, everything looked pretty much the way she remembered. A solid blue quilt draped the queen size bed, with hand stitched throw pillows marching single file across the top. The lead crystal lamps and silver alarm clocks stood on their bedside tables, all polished and gleaming. Everything as it should be.
"This room gets great light." Tessa doubted Gunnar cared, but something needed to be said. "Make yourself at home. There's a sun porch downstairs and a library if you want to read," she continued, as he flung the duffel onto the chair-and-a-half that stood between two east facing windows. "If you need anything —"
"If you need anything," she began again, "ask Dominic. I'm sure he'd love to help you." She could almost feel the heat when his gaze whipped to hers.
"I said I won't need anything."
Her lips bowed in what hopefully would pass for a smile. "It must be wonderful to be so autonomous."
She thought the corner of his mouth tugged in response, but those near black eyes narrowed a fraction, long enough to distract her. When she lowered her gaze again his lips were fixed in an unyielding line. She must have imagined it.
"I hope you enjoy your stay," she said, wiping an undetectable speck of dust from the dresser top. "Dinner is at six. You're welcome to join us."
In the hall with the door closed behind her, Tessa clenched her fists. Oooh! How could she let him provoke her? He was obviously in the habit of intimidating people, but she shouldn't have let her control slip. She'd dealt with worse than him — attorneys no less — and held her own. If he wanted to take her on ...
Dominic's friend, she reminded herself. There was no need to score a point or stand her ground. She would take Dom's advice and leave Gunnar be until he left in a few days. She made a conscious effort to relax her hands.
* * *
Gunnar retrieved the bottle he kept in his duffel bag and lowered himself to the edge of the bed. How did he end up here? Not just in this room with matching mahogany furniture, plump pillows and frilly wallpaper, but in this frame of mind. He was a fool to believe he had a grip on things, however briefly.
He opened the bottle and drained the amber liquid in two long pulls before tossing the bottle and cap back in the bag. Dragging a pillow into position, he fell back on it. Each corner was adorned with a gold silk tassel. He could appreciate craftsmanship, but everything in this room screamed look-but-don't-touch.
Dominic didn't mention his parents were pretentious snobs. He didn't mention Tessa either. Now that was a look-but-don't-touch woman if ever he'd seen one. How could it be possible she and Dominic were related? Maybe he was adopted.
Gunnar gave the tassel a brush with his finger and closed his eyes, hoping to sleep. Better, to never wake up.CHAPTER 2
After vowing never to return to this town, Tessa found herself standing in line once more at the small Italian grocery store. Funny how things didn't always work out as expected. Her career was a perfect example, she thought, glancing at the Law Coffee poster hanging below the deli counter glass.
Rather than grow to love her job as her father had assured her she would, she had only become stressed and disillusioned. She recalled with disturbing clarity the day she finally accepted that the law had less to do with right versus wrong than with shifting blame for profit.
Almost as sad was the day she realized law had never been her passion but her father's. That should have been incentive enough to quit more than a year ago. Sometimes tenacity was a bad thing. She might be there now if not for other circumstances.
Excerpted from The Covering by Dana Pratola. Copyright © 2011 Dana Pratola. Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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