Anna Devlin shoved her apartment door open, hurrying down the hallway, past the living room. “Hey, Sarah, I’m just back to get the stupid paperwork. I can’t believe how absent minded . . .” Her voice faded as she took in the scene before her. Naked as the day they were born, her fiancé Robbie, and Sarah, her roommate and best friend, were entwined on the sofa. Both seemed shocked into stillness as they stared at her, mouths agape, eyes wide.
Anna saw, but her brain didn’t register. With black dots dancing in front of her eyes, she slowly sank into the chair across from them.
“Get up!” Sarah shoved Robbie’s shoulder with the heel of her hand.
Jolted into awareness, he scrambled to his feet, whatever passion they’d been sharing sadly deflated.
I can’t believe I’m noticing that right now.READ MORE
“Anna, I’m so sorry.” Sarah snatched her clothes scattered on the floor, dancing around as she attempted to dress herself.
Robbie pulled on his boxers with shaky hands, then held his palm toward her. “I know this looks bad, baby, but let me explain.”
Anna slapped his hand away, lowering her head between her knees. Taking deep gulps of air, the dizziness slowly left her, replaced with anger so deep it coiled from her midsection, raced past her thudding heart, straight to her face. “How dare you?” Her whispered question stopped all movement from two very guilty-looking people. The two people she loved and trusted more than anyone in the world.
I’m a fool.
“Sarah, let me talk to Anna−alone.” Robbie continued to stare at Anna as he rubbed the back of his neck.
Sarah chewed her lip, her voice shaky. “Maybe I should . . .”
Sarah grabbed the rest of her clothes, then scurried away, her pink bikini panty bottom flashing like a neon sign.
“Honey . . .” Robbie moved toward her.
Anna studied him, this man she almost made the fatal mistake of marrying tomorrow. The dizziness had passed, but a cold lump of fury settled in her middle. “How long has this been going on?”
“This is the first time, I swear.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I think it was the stress, you know, the wedding, your hearing coming up—”
Anna vaulted from the seat as if it were a trampoline. “Don’t you dare drag my hearing into this, offering you an excuse for screwing my roommate.”
He flinched as if she’d slapped him. “Now, sweetheart . . .” He extended both hands in supplication.
“Get away from me.” She backed up until she was flush against the wall, her arms wrapped tightly around her midriff. “Do you really think I believe this is the first time? How unlucky for you that I caught you the first time.”
“Anna, please, let me explain.” He attempted once more to reach for her.
She jerked back. “I said, leave me alone.” How could she have missed this? And here she’d been so happy her fiancé and best friend got along so well. She snorted. A little too well, it seemed.
Anna tugged at the multi-stone diamond engagement ring, then threw it in his direction. “I’m out of here.” The shock on his face as the ring bounced off his chin enraged her further. He had the nerve to be surprised. He really did think she was a complete idiot.
She stormed past him, toward her bedroom. Across the hall, the sound of crying drifted from behind Sarah’s closed door. Anna hesitated briefly, glancing in that direction, then taking a deep breath she entered her own room.
The bulk of her clothes had already been sent ahead to Robbie’s apartment. Anna grabbed the small beige valise alongside her bed. Her mind still struggling with what she’d just witnessed, she brushed her arm across the top of her dresser, sweeping everything into the case.
Thank God for numbness or she’d be screaming and throwing things. The best she could do was get away from here as quickly as possible. Her fingers fumbled as she attempted to close the valise. After finally snapping it shut, she reached for the matching suitcase packed with her honeymoon clothes, then headed for the door.
She turned, eyeing the ivory lace wedding dress hanging on the closet door, pressed and ready for tomorrow. What a mockery of her dreams. Blinking rapidly, she reached the living room as Robbie fastened the last of the buttons on his blue chambray shirt.
“Anna, honey, we really do need to talk.”
Her hands clenched and unclenched. “Get the hell out of my way, Robbie Fletcher.”
“Wait. You can’t just run off like this.”
If she gripped the handle of the suitcase any harder, she’d likely break it. “I can and I will. Now get away from the door.”
He moved aside and reached for her shoulder. “Just let me talk to you. Don’t do this, Anna. Don’t run out on me. We can postpone the wedding.”
She shrugged his hand away, her eyes wide with incredulity. “Are you serious? Surely you don’t think I would marry you now?”
“I love you. Can’t you at least give me a chance to make it up to you?”
She rolled her eyes, and shifting her purse over her shoulder, gripped the doorknob. She hesitated for a moment, her once snug world completely out of balance. It had all happened so fast.
“I’ll call you.” He stood feet apart, his hands on his hips.
“No. You won’t call me.” She fumbled in her pocket and withdrew the small black cell phone; threw it against the wall. Small pieces of plastic rained down, the battery flew out and bounced along the floor.
Robbie ducked as if he thought she meant to hit him with it. “Wait a minute. Where are you going? Won’t you at least tell me that?” His arm swept out. “This is your apartment.”
“No.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “This is Sarah’s apartment. I have no intention of spending another minute here.”
He licked his dry lips. “How can I get in touch with you?”
She shook her head. “You can’t. Goodbye, Robbie. Tell Sarah I said so long, and thanks for everything.”
Anna slammed the apartment door shut and shouted, “Hold the elevator, please.” A man’s hand shot out to stop the door’s movement as she raced to the car. Once inside, she dropped her suitcase, valise, and purse at her feet.
I will not cry. I will not cry. I will not cry. The bastard isn’t worth it.
A week-long pity party had turned Anna’s motel room into a dumpster. Even to the extent that it had begun to bother her sensibilities. Empty Quarter-Pounder containers, Big Gulp cups, and greasy pizza boxes were strewn on the other bed, the dresser, and floor. She’d been coming and going at such odd hours, the maids were never able to get in to clean the room. Work and cry by night, sleep by day. Her mantra.
Her job as a bounty hunter prevented total withdrawal from life. She’d ventured forth to snag a few FTAs, but otherwise spent her time clicking the TV remote and eating day-old pizza. One morning, she’d whiled away a few hours before she was able to fall asleep listening to a talk show host take questions from listeners who wanted advice on romance. Hah! Only her twisted sense of humor had stopped the urge to zap the ‘off’ button.
Anna kept the drapes drawn, the darkness comforting. If this continued, she would qualify for the soon-to-be vampire club. Good. Maybe she’d track Robbie down and bite his neck. Or other parts that would be more painful.
She’d growled at her boss, Lenny, when he asked why she wasn’t on her honeymoon. She snapped at the girl who screwed up her Starbucks non-fat, triple decaf espresso, sugar free caramel syrup, low fat whipped cream, latte over ice. What was so hard about that?
Lying on her bed, arms crossed over her middle like a corpse, she studied the rotating overhead fan and thought about her life. Two words−it sucked.
Despite that fact, it was time to get her ass up and back to the business of living. An apartment was first on her list. She’d given hers up and stayed the last few weeks with Sarah, unwilling to actually move into Robbie’s apartment until they were married. She was old fashioned that way. Geez, a lot of good that had done her.
Now, Anna mentally ticked off the list. Her law enforcement career was in the toilet since she’d been forced from the department after making sexual harassment charges against her sleazy partner. She had no place to live, and her fiancé—ex-fiancé—had found her so wanting, he had been cheating right under her nose before they were even married.
Men. She’d had her fill of them. Her father who had never stuck around, her partner who couldn’t believe she didn’t want to jump into his bed, and her erstwhile fiancé. She briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a nun, but that solution wouldn’t work since she was Baptist. When she remembered to attend church.
With a sigh Anna balled up the Subway wrapper and tossed it near the overflowing wastebasket. Before she started this new life of hers, she’d take a short trip to Kansas and visit Tia Rosa, her only living relative and her mother’s youngest sister. Cozily ensconced in Millville’s happyland for dementia sufferers, Rosa Perez spent her days entertaining patients and staff with stories where she always had the starring role. That she got these stories from old movies didn’t matter to her audience. Everyone loved Tia Rosa.
After a lengthy shower, Anna slathered her body with lotion, whipped her wet hair into a French braid, then donned her last clean pair of jeans. She quickly packed her dirty clothes, shoved her personal items into her purse and headed for the door.
“I’m checking out.” Anna slid the plastic card key across the counter toward the pimply young man in a blue blazer and charcoal slacks. She peered at his name tag. “So, Mark, what day is this?”
His lips moved in a slight smile at what he must have assumed was a joke. When she continued to stare at him straight-faced, he coughed and mumbled, “Tuesday.”
“And the date?”
Mark glanced at the wall calendar. “June 27.”
She thought about asking him the year to see his reaction, but decided to give the kid a break. “Can you get my bill, so I can be on my way?”
“Oh. Yeah, sure. Hold on.” His fingers flew over the keyboard, the clacking of the keys the only noise in the lobby. Anna took her debit card out of her purse and placed it on the counter. A quick check of her wallet revealed a little over a hundred and thirty dollars. With the couple thousand in her bank account, she would be good for a few weeks before she had to take another FTA assignment.
God, she hated being a bounty hunter. When Gerard Butler did it in the movies, it looked cool and fun. And reading all those Stephanie Plum books gave her the idea she’d be holding off hot guys falling all over themselves to get into her pants. She grimaced. It was hard, demeaning, and tedious work. But it paid well.
She scrawled her name across the bottom of the charge slip, then crammed her copy into her wallet. “I’m, ah, afraid my hours didn’t allow for the maids to come into my room, so there’s quite a bit of a mess in there.” She pulled two ten dollar bills out and slid them across the counter. “Pass this onto the maid who gets stuck doing my room.”
“Sure.” Mark took the money and Anna headed toward the door. She squinted, her eyes tearing from the brightness. It had been days since she’d seen sunlight, with nighttime being the best time to catch law breakers. She slipped on her oversized sunglasses and eyed her trusty Dodge Charger waiting for her, gassed up and ready to go.
“Hello Tia Rosa.”
The older woman, her silver and black hair pulled into a tidy bun, peered over the top of her eyeglasses and broke into a smile. “Oh, hello, dear. How nice of you to visit.” She patted the bench where she sat under a tall maple tree, its pale green leaves waving just enough to make their presence known.
Anna joined her and bussed her cheek with a quick kiss. “How have you been?”
Tia Rosa took her glasses off and fiddled with them, peering into Anna’s eyes. “I’m wonderful. Now tell me your name, dear.”
“Tia Rosa, it’s Anna. Your niece.” A pang of sadness washed over Anna. Her aunt’s memory had deteriorated significantly over the last year.
“Oh, of course. I always forget that, don’t I? And who is your mother?”
Anna smiled gently, and took the older woman’s hand. “Your sister, Maria.”
Rosa clapped her hands in excitement. “Oh, goody. Did Maria come with you?”
Anna closed her eyes and shook her head, the pain fresh each time her aunt asked the question. “No. Maria died two years ago.”
Tia Rosa’s face collapsed and she fumbled in her skirt pocket for a tissue. “Oh, goodness. Why didn’t someone tell me?” She patted her nose with the tissue. “Maria was my favorite, you know.”
And my favorite, too.
All her life it had been just Anna and Maria Devlin. Patrick Devlin stuck around until Anna was about two, according to her mother, then left one day to get gas and never returned. Lest Maria be so bold as to notify the authorities, he called her soon after and told her he needed time to think. A unique endeavor, no doubt. They never heard from him again.
When Maria succumbed, much too young, to breast cancer, Anna’s devastation at her loss could have easily explained why she’d eventually taken up with Robbie. He’d made her feel wanted, loved. Until a week ago. She shook away the thoughts.
Anna took her aunt’s trembling hands in hers. This happened each time she visited. Her aunt would ask for Maria, and when Anna told her she was gone, she would cry all over again. This would have to be her absolute last visit. Seeing her wasn’t worth the pain she caused this dear woman.
Anna wrapped her arm around Tia Rosa’s frail shoulders and squeezed. Every time she came, the woman seemed thinner. Almost as if she wasted away to nothing. Tears formed in her eyes, remembering all the good times she’d had with Tia Rosa. All the fascinating places they’d gone together when Anna was growing up. Being Rosa’s only niece, with no nephews either, she’d spoiled her sister’s daughter shamefully. And Anna loved it. And loved her.
They visited for a couple of hours, Tia Rosa telling a story—with her as the heroine—that sounded remarkably like Gone With the Wind. Twice she interrupted her tale to ask about Maria, then fumbled with her tissue and cried each time.
Anna helped Tia Rosa up from the bench when it became apparent the encroaching evening air chilled her. They strolled into the nursing home where Anna left her in the care of a cheerful aide. She hugged her aunt, knowing it would probably be the last time she’d see her. The visits were becoming much too painful, for both of them. Tia Rosa would forget her the minute she left the building.
An immense sadness washed over Anna as she drove from the nursing home grounds. I’m so alone in this world. Tears rolled down her face as she drove aimlessly around the town. Finally pulling herself together, she checked into another nondescript motel, dumped her belongings on the floor, and flopped onto the bed. Within minutes, she was fast asleep.
The next morning, dressed in the same jeans and a yellow halter top, Anna sipped from the lid of a cardboard coffee cup, and after taking a quick turn out of the motel parking lot, directed her car toward the highway. She glanced at a Native American store at the entrance to Route 83. For some inexplicable reason, she pulled into the parking lot as if a magnet drew her, and killed the motor.
She chided herself for this indulgence, since she needed to return to Tulsa, but something about the place called to her. Well, she would just make it a quick stop. As she exited the car, she once again ran through the list of things she needed to get done before her reinstatement hearing in three weeks. In that bit of time, she had to find an apartment and furnish it, since she’d sold everything before her wedding.
Wedding, hah. I hope Sarah and Robbie are happy with each other. NOT.
She also had the nasty task of contacting the snake so she could get her things back from his place. If she was wise, she’d leave her revolver at home. Her service piece had been returned when she’d left the department, but she always kept a gun on her, handy to have when dealing with some of the lowlifes in her job.
The soft tinkle of a tiny bell greeted her as she entered the store. She gawked like a tourist. The place was amazing. Shelves were packed with trinkets, wooden carvings of warriors and Madonna-like women. Colorful paintings of scenery, and portraits of stern looking men, their faces brown and deep-lined, took up one entire wall.
To her left, an old-fashioned wooden counter held bowls and dishes of jewelry, earrings and bangle bracelets. She took in a deep breath and savored the scent of incense. The aged planks under her feet creaked as she slowly moved up the aisle, almost as if she’d entered a church, or shrine of some sort. Light shone through a window, catching a prism, casting tiny spots of light over a rack of soft-looking suede shirts and long, gaily-printed skirts.
Somewhere from the back of the room, a haunting melody played and coaxed her forward. Anna felt as though she’d stepped into a magical world. A place where there were no troubles, no anxiety, no disappointments. An older Native American woman, with two long gray braids resting on her shoulders, sat on a metal folding chair at the back of the store, weaving strips of colorful cloth. It appeared she was working on a rug. She looked up at Anna, nodded, and gave her a gap-toothed smile. Anna grinned back.
“Can I help you with something today, lady? Or are you just looking around?”
Her melodious voice wafted through the air, adding to Anna’s sense of inner peace, the first time she’d felt that way since her discovery at Sarah’s apartment. She scowled as all the anger came flooding back. Why is it I’m more angry than heartbroken?
The old woman tsked and shook her head. “No bad thoughts here, lady. Come, sit with me and rest for a while.”
Despite knowing she should be on her way, Anna found herself lured to this woman, so she took the chair next to her.
“I see this is not a good day for you,” the woman stated as her fingers worked in and out.
To Anna’s ultimate mortification, a slow trickle of tears started, the drops landing onto her jeans like the beginning of a spring storm, leaving tiny dark circles. Inhaling a shuddering breath, she covered her face with her hands as her body shook with sobs. All the hurt and humiliation of losing her job, her fiancé, and her last relative in the world crashed down on her like a perfect emotional storm. The woman hummed softly and continued to weave her rug while Anna cried for all she’d lost.
After several minutes she took a few deep breaths, then wiped her cheeks with the back of her shaky hands and glanced sheepishly at the woman. “I’m very sorry. I don’t usually lose control like that. But it’s been a difficult few weeks.”
The woman nodded and continued with her work. “Do you search for the wrong things, Anna Devlin? Is that why you are so unhappy?”
Anna’s head snapped up. “How . . . how do you know my name?”
The old woman never looked up from her work. “I know much about you, lady.”
A shiver raced down Anna’s spine, and the skin on her arms broke out into goose bumps. She should get up and run for her life. The woman was crazy.
“No, Anna. I am not crazy.”
Oh, my God. She’s also a mind reader. Anna moved to get up, but the woman stopped her with a brown, wrinkled hand. “You search for inner peace. Your heart aches with memories of abandonment. You long to be loved, respected, and cared for.”
“I can take care of myself,” Anna snapped.
The older woman’s eyes met hers for the first time. Black like lumps of coal, but warm and compassionate. “You look for the wrong things, and in the wrong places. Has that brought you happiness?”
Anna’s shoulders slumped. “I keep messing things up.” Her head jerked up. “No. I don’t keep messing things up. People keep disappointing me. Correction. Men keep disappointing me. First my bastard of a father, then my partner, and now my ex- fiancé.”
The woman tucked her hands in her lap and watched her, her obsidian eyes almost reaching into Anna’s soul. “They did not disappoint you. You looked to them to make you whole. You need to search within. You must feel the respect and love inside yourself before you can expect it from others.”
“I don’t understand.”
The old woman stood, and Anna noticed for the first time the tattoo of a multi-colored star on the wrinkled skin of her neck.
“Come. I will show you where you can begin your journey to peace.” She shuffled along. Anna jumped up from the seat and followed her into the sunshine. They walked around the adobe building until they came to an area in the back, where acres of land stretched before them. The hum of traffic from the highway and a jet roaring overhead broke the early morning silence and stillness of the prairie.
The woman pointed to a small rise. “Go to the other side of the hill. There you will find the chair of peace. Sit in it for a while. Perhaps you will find your answers.”
This is nuts. Either she belongs with Tia Rosa at the happy farm, or I do for staying here and listening to this.
The woman placed her hand firmly on Anna’s lower back. “Let your questions disappear. Take a rest. Breathe the air. See what your inner voice tells you.” She nodded toward the hill. “Go, lady.”
What would be the harm? She’d go over the hill, check out this ‘peace chair,’ sit there for a while and be on her way. Anna walked a few steps, then turned to the woman. She was gone. Strange.
Dust billowed under her sandals as she trudged up the hill. Despite it being early morning, the beating sun on her head created trickles of sweat to roll down her face. The back of her calves pulled and her breath came in gasps. Am I that much out of shape? Better hit the gym once I’m settled.
“Oh!” The word burst forth from her lips. She raised her hand to shield her eyes and take in the beauty before her. A delightful oasis sat smack in the middle of the prairie. A sense of tranquility swallowed her up at the sight of lush green grass, two small flowering trees, and a beautiful marble chair. The old Indian woman knew what she was talking about.
On closer inspection, the chair had to have been carved from one huge chunk of marble, as no seams were visible. She ran her fingers over the smooth surface. The high back and armrests could have easily accommodated a giant of a man.
The marble felt cool to her hand, not yet having absorbed heat from the sun. Anna rested in the chair, leaning back against its coolness, inhaling the sweet smell of flowers floating on the air. Yes, definitely a place for peaceful reflection.
Her mind wandered. Truth be told, it had been a good thing she’d caught Robbie and Sarah. What a nightmare marriage to that philanderer would have been. She took in another deep breath. Yes, one day she would find a man who respected her as an independent woman, but would love and cherish her. Unlike her father. What she’d been chasing after, a man who would not desert her, physically or emotionally. She inhaled once more. Robbie had proven not to be that person.
Would she ever find such a man? She closed her eyes at the satisfaction of another fathomless breath of flower-scented air. She tilted her face up toward the sun, the warmth enveloping her, freeing her mind.
Anna’s eyelids flickered as she yawned and stretched. Goodness, she must’ve fallen asleep. She grinned. This was truly the peace chair. Her sleep had been deep and refreshing. Maybe she could ask the old woman where to buy a chair like this one. She chuckled, and feeling better and more in accord with herself than she had in ages, headed back to the adobe store.
Her mind occupied with plans for an apartment search, she hadn’t noticed the absence of the squat adobe building until she’d walked almost a half mile. She looked around, her brows furrowed. She must’ve walked in the wrong direction when she left the oasis. Shrugging, she turned and headed back to the crest of the hill.
The oasis was no longer there. She spun around, making herself dizzy, her heart pounding in her chest. For miles in every direction the only thing stretched before her was prairie. No adobe store, no parking lot with her familiar blue car sitting there, no entrance to Highway 83 to Tulsa, no peaceful oasis. She pinched herself. Nope, not dreaming.
What the hell?COLLAPSE