This week, I'm continuing with my PI novel, Personal Business. As you'll recall in the last chapter, Holden was checking out the fancy hotel that his ex manages, owned by his father-in-law. This week, we find out how he reacts to the sighting. Enjoy!
I didn't know he could still affect me like this. Here I was sure that seeing him would do nothing to me, have no effect on me, because this is nothing but business, pure and simple. I've got a job to do, and I'm doing it. It's been over fifteen years since he broke my heart. I'm a big boy now, and I got over him a long time ago.
Yeah, keep telling yourself that.
Even from a distance, even after all the years and all the heartaches and the multitude of nasty names I've called him and the curses I've rained on him and his progeny, should he ever have any, he still makes me rock hard at the mere sight of him because obviously my cock has no sense of either decorum or timing.
Damn. This business just got personal.
I feel a tug on my arm, and I'm drawn from my own little slice of Hell and back to reality by the short brunette at my side. "Looks like everything's kosher now." She grins at me and for a split second I think she's talking about me and him, but how could she possibly know about us; then I realize that she's talking about the situation with the bride and her daddy. She licks her lips at me in a way too obvious manner—subtlety is not this girl's friend, not even a passing acquaintance. "It's time for the toasts. Save me that dance, handsome." She stretches up without warning and tries to lay one on me, but luckily her aim is faulty and her lips collide with my cheek instead, with a soft smack; she doesn't notice as she pivots and wobbles off to the head table, to my immense relief.
I need a drink and I need it right now.
I thread my way through the guests, like I'm wading through the middle of a cattle drive; they're responding to the universal call for attention—a spoon being clinked against a glass. I don't have to look to know it's the father of the bride; he seems to be the man in charge here. Between him and his daughter, they seem to wear the pants in this relationship; as far as I can see, the groom is there as an obligatory placeholder, because you can't have a wedding without one. I suspect they would if they could.
If I were one of the invited guests, I suppose I'd be heading to my seat too, despite the fact that listening to congratulatory toasts, wedding or otherwise, is boring at best, and decidedly cliché and banal, and often painful. Who am I kidding? I'd still be headed toward the bar, but perhaps without quite the same sense of urgency.
Blondie's still there. He seems surprised to see me, since everyone else is headed toward the watering trough. Guess he thought he was going to get a respite from pouring draft beers and mixing cocktails, handing out the occasional bottle of soda pop. Guess what? No rest for the weary. Especially those who serve the public in the form of dispensing alcoholic refreshments.
"The same?" he queries, giving me a bland, yet calculated look. If he remembers what I ordered, I'll be flattered, but I'll also be surprised. Maybe he's a more astute observer of the human condition than I had him pegged for.
Either way, the answer's no.
"Just the Jack. Neat. And make it a double."
If I expected a comment or a question, I'm wrong, 'cause he does neither. Simply turns around, picks up the bottle of Jack Daniels—I see he does remember that I drink black label—and a clean glass, and pours, sight gauging it rather than using a shot glass. When he starts to replace the bottle on the back bar, I reach out and arrest his movement, gripping his arm lightly but firmly.
"Might as well leave that, I aim to have a few."
He nods and settles the bottle back onto the bar. I release his arm, grab the glass and bolt it, letting it burn all the way down. "Another, please."
I bolt the second one as well. "Tough night?" he asks. I detect a trace of human kindness beneath the professional veneer, but he might as well save it, I'm not in the market. Or in the mood.
"Just thirsty." My eyes meet his and I dare him to make something out of my words, almost challenging him. He doesn't take the bait.
"Another?" is all he says. I nod and he does his thing. Suddenly he hands me one of the bar napkins. What, am I drooling or something. He motions to his cheek, and then I understand. The evidence must be in plain view. I take a swipe at it, and it comes away reddened.
Either I'm a slow drinker, or the toasts went down quicker than I expected they would. Maybe they didn't have anything particular to say, or maybe these people find it as boring as I do. For whatever reason, someone seems to have cued the band, because suddenly they've broken into "Unchained Melody", and the happy couple has taken their place on the dance floor while friends and family look on in loving adoration.
Like watching a ten car pile-up before the accident's even happened. Knowing it's going to happen, just not knowing when or how. At least that's my take on it, as viewed through the bottom of a glass of whiskey. No, I'm not drunk by any means, just cynical.
Happily ever after is the perfect ending that everyone strives for, the belief that nirvana can be ours if we only try hard enough. That finding the right person is a simple matter of X + Y = eternal bliss and the boogey man will never come knocking at your door. But there is no true happy ending, not in the real world. It's a temporary state of grace, granted a couple until reality sets in. It's mortgages and kids, and figuring out how to pay the bills, how to keep up with the Joneses, how to be yourself when your spouse is trying to mold you into his or her idea of what you should be. After the honeymoon—if the euphoria even lasts that long—the masks come off along with the gloves; faces are revealed, and suddenly you realize the person you thought you knew was not really that person at all.
Doesn't mean I don't still want it—I'm just realistic about it, that's all. Doesn't help that I'm not at my most optimistic at this moment, either.
"I'm going to take a quick break. Want anything before I go?"
I shake my head, and for one irrational moment I'm half afraid he's going to ask me if I want to go with him, but he doesn't, and I get over myself, and the moment passes. I glance toward the dance floor. Mr. and Mrs. Just Married have been joined by Mr. and Mrs. I'm Paying For This Shindig, and a few others. I raise my glass to them. "Mazeltov." And then I drain it.
The first dance ends to the obligatory polite applause, the second begins, but I'm taken aback a bit when I hear the familiar strains of Kenny Chesney. I hadn't expected that. The music goes straight to my heart, and I'm suddenly feeling too maudlin for comfort. I need to shake this feeling or I'm never going to make it. And fucking up this job is not an option.
Maybe I should clear my head, gain a fresh perspective, and start again.
Naturally Jeremy's nowhere to be seen. What, did I expect him to hang around? It's only reasonable to assume he's got things to do. Things that don't involve hanging around someone else's wedding. Well, good for him.
Dammit, how could I have forgotten that I told a certain someone I line dance? I don't remember my words until they come back to haunt me; she's hanging on my arm and dragging me out to the dance floor. I dart a quick glance at Blondie, who's just walked out from behind the bar; he shrugs and offers me a quirky smile, as if there's something in the situation he finds amusing. It certainly doesn't amuse me.
She keeps tugging at me, and although I'm a lot stronger than she is, my daddy raised me not to fight with women so I just go along with her for now; I'll ditch her as quickly as humanly possible. I clap one hand on my hat, just so I won't lose it, and then we're lining up and the music pulls me along, and I fall into the steps naturally.
Nothing overly complicated; it's still early after all. Just something for the band to warm up on. A few simple shuffles, a little jazz box, and some grapevines for good measure. I think this little gal's drinks are catching up with her. She's less than coordinated, and she slides right when she should be sliding left; we collide smack dab in the middle. Not fazed in the slightest, she grinds her hip against mine, like it's part of the routine. Or maybe she's practicing to be a hoochie coochie dancer. If so, she needs a lot more practice, and a whole lot more coordination. And a lot less coochie.
I try to push her into an upright position, so she can get with the program and fall back into step, but she doesn't seem to be so inclined; in fact, she seems to be under the mistaken impression that she and I are joined at the hip—if not a bit farther south—and I damn near stumble when she slips her leg in between mine. She giggles, as though she's just done something extraordinarily cute, and I firmly, but gently, pry her off of me, and back into her own space. I'm half tempted to tell her we don't even play for the same team, but before I can start to get the words out, a large ape in an ill-fitting suit comes out of nowhere; he sweeps her away from me as I cheer the arrival of the cavalry. My relief turns sour when he plants himself in my path while I'm trying to finish my grapevine, and his eyes are flashing and somehow I don't think he's about to thank me for anything any time soon.
Oh Lordy, this night's going just getting ten kinds of ugly, and it's far from over.
"Whaddya think you're doin'?" He pushes his lantern-jawed face close to mine. I remind myself I'm working, so I need to play nice, no matter what.
"It's called line dancing, maybe you've heard of it?" So much for the diplomatic route.
My wit sails right over his head; why am I not surprised?
"I saw you before, talking to my Darcy, and I don't like it." He narrows his beady little eyes until they almost disappear into his face, and then he growls at me in that alpha male way some guys think is intimidating. I don't happen to be one of them. I just find it ridiculous, to be honest.
"You're standing in my way." I try to be polite, but he's making it hard. When he doesn't budge, I give up and grapevine to the right instead.
He doesn't take the hint; he places his bulk in my path again. He's disrupting the other dancers now, what few there are. Grumbling, they pull back and re-form, leaving a gap around us as though they're afraid we might be catching; they continue to dance, out of harm's way. The song is by Keith Urban, whom I happen to like. Even if Lester McCann isn't doing it justice. This is just plain getting annoying.
"If you want to dance, you're going about it in the wrong way," I venture cheekily. "And you're asking the wrong person."
"What? Do I look like I'm a faggot to you?"
Oh damn, did he have to say that?
"Mister, look." I'm barely keeping myself in check now. At least I don't come out with the first words that pop into my brain, something along the lines of 'no self-respecting faggot would have you'. I tell myself I have to try to get through to King Kong that this is not the smart way to go before one of us does something he'll regret. And it won't be me.
"I don't have any problem with you, or you me, so please don't go there, okay? Go be with your lady and have a good time, why don't you?"
I can see the confusion in his eyes—he's trying to sort out whether I'm gay or not, or if I think he's gay or not, and if I'm gay then why is he bothering with this fight, and as that convoluted bit of logic temporarily occupies both of his brain cells, he doesn't have the wherewithal to continue to argue with me. So he grunts something in his native tongue, and I think that maybe things will just blow over and I'll slip out the door and see if I can locate Jeremy and do what I'm being paid to do, which sure as hell doesn't include getting into a fight in the middle of a wedding.
Just when I think everything's going to work out for the best, and I'm taking a step toward the door, then of course that's when everything goes to hell in a hand basket. That's the unfortunate moment when the little lady who's the cause of this mess chooses to add her two cents to the equation, as though the devil's just sporked her purple-bowed ass with his pitchfork and told her she needs to speak up and put a crimp in the situation.
"Oh Jim, you always spoil everything. Leave my cute cowboy alone!"
Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know this won't go over well, and it sure as hell doesn't. He hollers something unintelligible and takes a clumsy swing at me and I duck, giving up any attempt at dancing, which I really hadn't wanted to do in the first place. But that's beside the point. Nobody with an IQ in the single digits is going to tell me what to do or when to do it.
I don't return his punch. First, it didn't connect. Second, I have the advantage, despite being not as bulky as he is, because I'm lighter on my feet, and I have a bit of training in self-defense. Nothing formal, just stuff I've picked up over the years. And third, he's drunker than I am.
So much for line dancing. Everyone's stopped now, although the band plays on, oblivious. They're playing Billy Currington now, too slow for line dancing, more of a two-step kind of number. Under other circumstances I wouldn't be averse to cuddling up with a cute guy on the dance floor. But not here and not now.
"Dance with your woman," I suggest. "It's a great song."
"You dance with her if you want her so badly," he cries, rather illogically, and while I'm pondering what exactly I should respond to that that'll make any sense, he charges me like he's seen way too many old Three Stooges shorts, and he thinks he's the bull, and I'm the stupid matador with the bull's-eye painted on my back. I manage to step aside when I see him rev up his engine.
Unfortunately, the best laid plans are often destroyed by harmless but clumsy idiots, as some fool proceeds to demonstrate when he bumps into me and pushes me straight into the bull's path, and he lands on top of me and he and I both go down in a heap.
At that point, he simply attempts to pummel me with brute force and while I'm pinned beneath his weight, there isn't a whole lot I can do. At first I concentrate on avoiding his blows, although I feel some manage to connect, mostly in the vicinity of my face. And although discretion is the better part of valor, my motto is don't fuck with me, and I ball up a fist and strike him sharply upside his head. Once, then twice, while attempting to get him to move his bulk.
That finally gets his attention and he shakes his head as if I've just rung his bell. I manage to push him back off of me far enough that I can half sit up, but the clumsy fool grabs at me again; he manages to tear the button loose that's holding my jacket closed and it falls open and damned if he doesn't spot my holster and gun. I've got a license to carry, but I don't like to advertise the fact that I do.
Of course he can't be quiet about it and starts screaming that I've got a gun, which sets off a hundred other screams, some of them female, and the whole place begins to panic as if he's just uncovered a nest of terrorists that are about to blow everyone in the place up in order to strike a blow against democracy.
I scramble backwards, trying to get away from this unmitigated cacophony and rise to my feet and get the fuck out of Dodge while the getting's good. Way not to draw attention to yourself, I castigate myself, thinking maybe taking this case wasn't the best idea I ever had. I don't seem to be able to put it on quite the level of business that I need to in order to maintain proper objectivity.
In other words, he's already got me making a jackass out of myself, and he hasn't said a word directly to me. This is all the result of getting a glimpse of his handsome face. I hate to think what I'd do if I had to confront him or, heaven forbid, talk to him.
We're both on our feet now, and confusion reigns as people grab me, grab him, grab each other.
"What's going on?" an elderly lady demands to know in a high pitched voice. She's standing beside the bride, who's in tears, and her father's looking right at me like I'm the devil incarnate, but he doesn't step any closer to me than he can help, no doubt having also caught a glimpse of my piece. What I don't know is that he must have called security, and that's why he looks so smug, but I figure it out when two guys in cheap imitation blues, sporting embroidered names, grab me. One twists my arm behind my back; the other applies a chokehold that leaves me speechless. Together they wrestle me out of the ballroom, and into the hall, dragging me between them.
I can barely breathe, and I can't free the arm that's beginning to throb like a son of a bitch, which if he keeps on like that is likely to come out of its socket. At least then I can charge the bastard with assault, but I'd rather it not come to that. They snatch my gun and throw me bodily into the elevator. I hit the floor hard, but at least I can take a breath now, as I lie there, clutching my arm and taking great gulps of the stale air; it has a sweaty smell that must be them, it sure can't be the hotel. At least I hope it isn't.
I'm guessing they're going to physically escort me to the front door and make sure I leave the premises, and I've already decided that for tonight that seems to be the way to go—once I get my weapon back—until I notice that rent-a-cop #1 hasn't pushed L for Lobby, but 5 instead. What the hell?
I try to collect my thoughts in the short interval between leaving the third floor and arriving at the fifth. I back myself into the corner, using it as leverage to get to my feet, careful to avoid using my bad arm. Gingerly I feel along my aching jaw. I can taste blood; when I get home, I'll have to check my teeth, just to make sure they're all there. I think he missed my eye, but my cheekbone feels bruised. I shake my head to get my hair out of my eyes, just as the doors open into a large and stunning white and gold room filled with elegant furniture and expensive sculptures. These aren't like the modern crap downstairs, these look like maybe they're Greek or something; not that I know a whole lot about art. But I know a nude male when I see one, and a nicely hung one at that.
"Look," I try to reason with the two goons. "I have a permit, I can show it to you—"
"Shut up," rent-a-cop #2 snarls. He grabs the lapel of my poor abused jacket, and yanks me from the elevator in the direction of a dark wood door that lies on the other side of the room. I stumble on the plush carpet, falling against a white brocade sofa with satin pillows.
"Be grateful we haven't called the law on you," the first one adds. At this moment, I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. Probably not, since I know most of the cops on the force, and they know me, and they'd probably tell these two posers the same thing I've told them—that I've got the right to carry and to leave me the fuck alone.
Whatever they have in mind, I don't think I'm going to like it, but right now I don't see a way around it, though I'm thinking about it. At least I'm trying to.
Maybe the Neanderthal downstairs scrambled my brains more than I realized, or else I'm not as quick on the uptake as I'd like to think. As they haul me to my feet again, my eyes fall upon the gold lettering on the door, and I actually read them, as it dawns on me just where I'm heading; where they're taking me.
Where else? To the manager's office. Duh.
Just as I think that, the door opens, and a figure stands there, looking finer than a body has a right to. He glances at me, glances at them, then stands back.
"Bring him in," he says, motioning with one hand.
If anything, his voice has only improved with age, gotten sultrier, and acquired a rumble to it that was lacking before. Maturity, I guess. Or fine living. All I know is that I'm about to come face to face with the ghost of long lost loves past. A little more up close and personal than I bargained for when I decided to come here tonight.
Or was this what I was secretly hoping for?
to be continued