Land of Bourbon and Bluegrass

Welcome to the website of Author Jennifer Bramseth

Author: Jennifer Bramseth (page 1 of 3)

Free Reads, a Giveaway, and a Bourbonland Update!

First–Free Reads and a Giveaway!

Check out the June FREE Reads & Giveaway 6/19-23! Our Romance Authors are offering over 30 books… (including me)…

Most of them are FREE for a limited time. It’s just our way of thanking our loyal readers.

Even better, we’ve pooled our funds to offer an awesome giveaway! Enter to win a Kindle and Amazon Gift Cards just for subscribing to our newsletters or following us on social media.

 

Here’s the link to the June FREE Reads & Giveaway:

http://lovekissedbookbargains.com/2017/06/16/june-free-reads-giveaway/

 

Second–Bourbonland Update!

Notice of Appeal, Bourbonland Book 2, will be released on Friday, June 30, 2017 on all major platforms. You can find buy links here.

 

Third–Free Download Link for Stave and Hoop–the complete novella!

If you’d like to have all of Stave and Hoop (Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2) all in one place, you can get it here via a BookFunnel link download. It is still up on my blog in seven parts, but I thought newsletter subscribers might like to keep a copy on their preferred reading device.

 

I hope you find some great new authors via the free reads. Good luck in the giveaway.

As always, thanks for being a reader.

 

Jennifer

STAVE AND HOOP-Part 7 (Conclusion)

Stave and Hoop

Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2

Part 7 of 7 (Conclusion)

Buy links at the end of this post, along with a Kindle giveaway, Bits about Bourbon,  plus links to the Box Sets (Box Set II is FREE right now).

***

Tending to the brokenhearted was as natural to Coraleigh as breathing.

Granted, she didn’t do a very good job of it when it came to self-care (see: emotional disaster aftermath from suddenly deceased husband not to mention former lover/best friend/neighbor/guy she was obsessed with).

But when it came to others, she honed in on pain like a bat on a mosquito over a farm pond.

Easy. Natural. Undeniable.

So off to scoop up Candace that day.

Her friend was still having difficulty dealing with her mother’s death. There had been a period over the summer where Coraleigh had kept in touch with Candace by text, phone, email. She’d sounded increasingly better, brighter.

But then her buddy had hit the proverbial wall around Labor Day. Coraleigh wondered what had happened, racking her brains for some connection that might trigger a terrible relapse of grief.

But her mother’s birthday had been in February; Candace’s birthday was in December. Nothing special or milestone-worthy she could come up with to make sense of it.

But death and its nasty little chaser, grief, didn’t play that way. Like love, it abided by its own rules and logic wasn’t involved.

The day could not have been more perfect. Late summer Saturday morning in September. The trees still sported full canopies of mostly green leaves but wore a certain aura of tiredness, little flecks of yellow nipping at the edges. The sky was clear and humidity just a bit lower than in high summer—but not by much. A native could sense the slight change, could sense the advent of a new season.

Since Candace was the one in need—not that she’d admit it, or that Corrie would directly tell her the same—she was going to her friend. It had been a while since they’d met in Bardstown, and the trip to the Bourbon Capital of the World was a quick forty-five-minute drive from Woodford County.

The appointed spot was not the Old Talbott Tavern, the most recognizable landmark other than Federal Hill itself, but a bistro downtown that, according to Candace, was cozier and had great burgers. Fine with Coraleigh. Better space to talk intimately. And she’d been craving a burger.

Whenever she felt overworked and tired and her body got pissed at her (which happened a lot), it had two ways of telling her to get it together. The nasty way was through stress-induced headaches. The more benevolent method was through some rather basic, unremarkable food cravings.

Burgers. Peanut butter sandwiches. Chocolate milkshakes.

It was like she was pregnant or something—

Ugh. Strayed into that territory again.

Her own ill-fated pregnancy hadn’t proceeded to the point where she’d had cravings, at least such that she could remember. Hell, she hadn’t even known she’d been pregnant until it all fell apart. And while she’d felt exhausted and sickly for the few weeks leading up to the miserable experience of her miscarriage, she couldn’t recall pining for certain foods.

She idly wondered what she would crave if pregnant or if she’d have them at all.

But that line of reasoning presumed she’d find herself in the family way again someday, which was looking increasingly unlikely as the years passed and her work burdens added up.

And because the only one she’d ever consider—

Then she was right back into that troublesome landscape of memories, desires, and things-so-not-going-to-happen.

Coraleigh parked on the street, easily whipping her small sedan into a parallel spot. She had to hunt for a while to find an open place even though it was a Saturday; the sidewalks were bustling with people and traffic approaching nuisance level. This was the weekend prior to the biggest event in the town for the whole year: the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. That multiday event didn’t officially kick off until the upcoming Tuesday with the Balloon Glow, but the crowds milling about on the streets of one of Kentucky’s oldest cities were harbingers of the hordes of visitors to come.

The dark interior of the restaurant, known as The Mash Tub, was a stark contrast to the bright day outside. Coraleigh had to wait a few seconds and blink rapidly before her eyes adjusted to the change.

Of course the place was done up with bourbon motifs everywhere. Coraleigh wondered whether the locals ever got tired of the theme, and wanted to throw up something completely different, like a Hawaiian or Western-cowboy motif. But since she was smack in the middle of bourbon country, that seemed highly unlikely.

Candace was already there, having secured a table for them in a corner against the front window. There were a number of diners already present, but Candace’s choice afforded them a modicum of privacy.

After hugs, sitting down, and the exchange of typical remarks about the weather, a server appeared with water, giving Coraleigh the chance to scrutinize her friend.

The woman was in a bad state.

Flat affect beyond the flare of happiness upon seeing each other. Color pale to gray. Even her hair looked deflated. Lifeless.

“So.” Coraleigh put her arms on the table and leaned in, trying to pull Candace in.

“So.” Candace looked down.

Not the response she was hoping for.

“Is work okay?”

“Yeah… it’s different somehow this school year. Of course, I don’t get to talk about it with Mom. Or anyone, really.”

Her eyes wandered until they were staring out the window. And the only thing out there and across the street was the police station and some shops.

Candace was so out of it that Coraleigh wondered if she got up and left whether she’d notice.

“Are you getting any help?”

Candace’s head snapped back. “What?”

“Therapy. Grief counseling. Anything.”

“Oh… yeah. Still doing that.”

“It does help,” Coraleigh said. “Still going after losing Russell.”

“When… when do you think you’ll stop? Sorry, that was out of line.”

“No, no, I get where you’re coming from. I’ve wondered when I’ll get back to my normal. But I realized that there is no going back. I have to get used to where I am now, with what I have, and not… with those I can’t be with…”

The last words were choked out.

“Corrie, I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have…”

“Shouldn’t have what? Needed a friend when you’re feeling down?”

The two gripped hands across the table.

“I wish I lived close to you and Jessa,” Candace said through a sniffle.

“Yeah. That’d be great. But we’re supposed to be grown-ups now. No pizza parties, junk food, staying up late to watch bad movies.”

“I don’t want to be a grown-up anymore.”

“Any chance you could move up to Frankfort to be with your dad?”

They released hands and sat back.

“I’ve got a really great job here. And I have my own house. Hard to just pick up and move, especially since my dad will likely be back in Bardstown after he serves his term with Governor Cassidy.”

“What? Doesn’t he want to run on the ticket with Cassidy for reelection?”

“Not that,” Candace said, suddenly finding great interest in the precise alignment of her silverware.

In a low, nearly menacing voice, Coraleigh asked, “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Too late.”

Candace sighed in exasperation, her eyes again focused out the window. “I can’t believe this isn’t something you’ve already heard.”

“Then if it’s in that category of political gossip, please enlighten me for my own benefit.”

At this, Candace laughed. “So everyone knows but you? Typical to keep the subject in the dark.”

“What. Aren’t. You. Telling. Me?”

“I’ve heard… and I can’t believe that my father hasn’t… that the party doesn’t want him on the ticket next time. That they consider him a liability since the next election is supposed to be a hot one. They have someone else in mind.”

Candace’s chin lowered, and she looked up at Coraleigh.

“Wait… me? No… Candace, I’m not interested in that at all. And I’d never go behind your father’s back—”

“I know that, Corrie,” Candace said softly. “But this is the talk. And talk has a way of sometimes becoming reality.”

“Not if I have anything to do with it.”

“So they don’t get you. Maybe they’ll persuade that asshole Vansant to run instead.”

Coraleigh snorted. “Not bloody likely. He wants the top job. He’d see it as a serious demotion to go from congress to lieutenant governor. Not going to happen. And I don’t think he’ll primary Cassidy. Those two don’t like each other, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a healthy respect for the power the other holds.”

“But the problem remains. They want my dad out. And, bless him, he’s working his ass off. Doing everything and more Cassidy tells him to do. It’s like he’s still auditioning for a role that he won. And God, does that piss me off.”

“I can imagine.”

“So I’m not moving. He’ll be back, sooner or later. Sooner, most likely.” Candace tilted her head, considering Coraleigh in a penetrating gaze. “How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Keep it together?”

Coraleigh picked up her water, sipped, and carefully considered her answer. “I don’t, at least not all the time. Nobody can.”

Candace raised an eyebrow, wry smile spreading over her face. “So you fall apart at regularly scheduled intervals? Like putting them on your calendar?”

“If it were only that easy. The truth of it is, at least for the past several months, I guess I’ve just been in a survival mode. And like your dad, I get immersed in my work to give myself a much-needed distraction.”

“But how long can anyone keep up that kind of distraction?”

Coraleigh moved the tip of her finger around the rim of her water glass, looking down into its icy depths. Even though they were talking about the bare, raw emotion of grief, she felt like a fraud.

Because Candace was assuming—like almost everyone else—that the grief she carried had one very precise origin.

And that was a big, fat, ugly lie.

She couldn’t share the complete burden of loss, even with her best friend.

Only one understood it. But it wasn’t truly shared in separation and silence.

“I guess I’ll find out. I’ve heard that other things come along to occupy those places in your life that were left empty,” Coraleigh said.

“But nothing can ever do that.”

“I didn’t say completely fill them, totally replace what was lost,” Coraleigh said. “And over time, I guess the best we can hope for is a continuing distraction. Until that distraction becomes a new normal that doesn’t make us feel so… so…”

“Miserable. Vulnerable. Lost.”

Coraleigh crossed her arms and leaned on the table. Smiling, she shook her head, a sense of silliness and weariness coming over her. “I was going to say something like ‘rediscover our joy.’ And here I thought that being around politicians most of the time was a drag. Look at us! Aren’t we the happy pair?”

“Not today.”

“Let’s improve that mood.”

“How?” Candace asked.

“Duh. Where are we? Food, girl. And I am hangry. So tell me what’s good here. It’d better be the burgers.”

And indeed that was the case.

They both ordered burgers that were too big for anyone other than a wrestler or linebacker. But Coraleigh managed to eat over half of hers (specially dressed with spinach, sharp cheddar, and lots of mayo) and Candace did almost as well polishing off her own.

Coraleigh perused a dessert menu as plates were removed.

“Please tell me they have milkshakes here.”

“I don’t think so, but there’s a diner across the street. We could go over there and get shakes to go, then do some window shopping.”

Coraleigh put the dessert menu down with emphasis. “And there’s the Candace Keane I know and love.”

After the bill was paid (Coraleigh’s treat, despite Candace’s protests), they were out on the street and in the heat of the day, albeit their path was at least partly shaded by the buildings and store awnings.

“Shop first or milkshake first?” Candace asked.

“Milkshake first, of course. And if they don’t have chocolate, you’re going to have to bail me out of jail today after I commit a few felonies. Unless you know some nice, sympathetic officer, perhaps or the chief of police.”

“Ah… sorry, no.”

“No chocolate?”

“No, no—no allies in the police department.” She pointed across the street to the main station.

“Then I’ll have to be restrained if disappointed,” Corrie said as she slipped her arm in Candace’s. “Lead the way.”

Fortunately for the continued law and order of Bardstown, Kentucky, not to mention for the continued state of Coraleigh’s personal freedom and active law license, the diner Candace had raved about did have the basic chocolate shake. She got lots of whipped cream, multicolored sprinkles and small sugar cookie stuck in the top. No cherry. Not a fan.

They got them to go and went outside to a bench in front of the eatery. The things were huge, and Coraleigh found herself regretting not getting a table inside or eating at the counter to enjoy the monstrosity in a massive frosted mug. But at least being mobile meant they could window shop if they wished.

Candace got strawberry; the treat seemed to have given her new life.

“When was the last time you did this?” Coraleigh asked.

“Had a shake? Or out with a friend?”

“Both.”

Candace draped her arm over Coraleigh’s shoulders. “Too long. Thanks for coming down today. I needed this.”

“We both did, sister.”

Coraleigh wanted to get started on the shopping, but Candace pointed out that most of the stores wouldn’t allow them to bring the shakes inside.

“So that’s a downside of this.” Coraleigh took a draw on the straw stuck deep into her shake.

“Not to mention the calories…”

Candace’s voice trailed off, her focus shifting from Coraleigh to something behind her.

“Yeah, just in town to finish selling the place…”

A tall, vaguely familiar man was speaking with two police officers, all of them headed into the diner. The man held the door for the officers, and as he did so, turned to them. His pleasant demeanor faltered, but he nodded, and headed inside with his companions.

“Hey, wasn’t that—”

Candace turned her face into her milkshake, stirring it with her straw. “Yeah. That guy you saw me with at the restaurant this past summer. Former police chief.”

“Oh, yeah.  So… I guess that date went nowhere for you two,” she ventured.

“You got that right—I mean, he’s nice. But I knew he was leaving. It was like saying goodbye. I’ve known him for years.”

“You said he’s not the chief here any longer?”

“He resigned. Took some job up in Louisville recently.”

Coraleigh looked left, to the traffic circle in the middle of town. The center contained the old Nelson County Courthouse; beyond it were the Tavern and the old jail. Historic, beautiful, charming.

“Odd that he’d want to leave here. This place is the perfect small town—outside my own, that is.”

The milkshakes were killed and paper cups thrown in a nearby trash can—which was of course a used bourbon barrel. The stamp on the side, DSP-KY-230, indicated it came from Distilled Spirits Plant 230, or as Coraleigh knew, Jim Beam just up the road at Clermont. Every distillery had its own special number. She was familiar with the numbers for the big ones since she was on an agricultural subcommittee that occasionally dealt with issues relating to the bourbon industry.

Coraleigh peered down the street, spotting a sign for a place called Shaq & CoCo. “That looks interesting. What do they sell there?”

No answer.

Candace was stock still, looking into the diner.

“Candace?”

After another frozen moment, her friend shook herself and fully turned her attention to Coraleigh.

“What? Oh, that store? Lots of stuff, from furniture and socks, to clothing and jewelry. It’s one of the places I wanted to show you today.”

And just like that, Candace’s inner emotional switch was flipped.

Coraleigh hooked arms with her friend, walking away from the diner and into the hot sun. The notion that Candace was damaged and suffering was hard to bear. She wanted to help, wanted to take it all away for her, would bear it herself instead if she could.

But pain was an individual experience.

As was the choice to let the sunshine back in.

* * *

He’d hated the job, the city, his apartment. The grocery store was too small, the streets crowded and close, and even the sky seemed an off color of blue.

Ting had tried to talk himself out of the idea that it wasn’t working out. He didn’t like walking away from anything.

But he had been miserable.

His coworkers had been nice enough. But they weren’t that friendly. And there had been some instances where he’d felt left out of things simply by being the new guy—and the guy from the sticks.

They hadn’t called him names or otherwise obviously mistreated him. But he’d not fit in.

No invitations for lunch or dinner after work, for example. Little chatter about personal life, what happened on weekends, about family.

No connection.

It was nice being around his parents again, but it wasn’t as though he could or should completely rely on them for companionship.

He’d wondered if the break with Candace was the source of the disquiet. Because being apart from her—even though they’d only been together a few weeks—had been a new definition of torture for him.

So now he knew what it felt like to be in love.

And now he knew what it felt like to have a broken heart.

But the loss of her hadn’t been what had been sticking in his craw—at least that’s what he told himself. He just hadn’t fit in. And he knew himself well enough to know that. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. Not his for taking a chance. Not everyone around him for not acting in a way that didn’t meet his personal expectations.

Only at it a few weeks, he’d decided life was too short to be this unhappy.

So he’d tapped the one resource he had. The one resource he didn’t want to rely upon. But he couldn’t be picky.

To that end, he’d sucked up what pride he’d had left and called Gray.

And Gray being Gray, the man had delivered.

He had a contact in the Franklin County sheriff’s office. Apparently a number two was needed, the previous chief deputy having retired and the remaining deputies all too green to take over as second-in-command.

It was perfect. The pay would be good, the setting familiar.

Smaller town than Louisville, for starters. That was important. More affordable and, with its historic bent, would feel like his old normal back in good old Nelson County. Still wouldn’t be Bardstown, but it wasn’t like he could go back there easily. The city council had hired a new police chief with whom they were perfectly happy and didn’t seem to have any inclination to leave.

Besides, he’d finally sold his house.

First day on the job that warm late fall day, he got down to the basics. Duties, weapons, meet and greet all the folks in the office.

They all smiled at him, all seemed genuine.

Like knew like.

When he was drawn into his boss’s office after making the rounds that first morning, he knew he was in for the low-down on how things really operated.

“Drugs are a big problem. Get ready to deal with a lot of junkies,” Sheriff Dicken said. A short, stout, ruddy-faced man, he had absolutely no hair on top of his head and seemed annoyed with everyone, no exceptions.

“What about state government? I suppose it’s different because of that element?”

“Exactly. They’ve got the state police—headquarters are here as well as Post 12. But we’re closer physically to the capitol than either of those sites. And then there’s simple manpower issues and costs. We get paid a nice bit to do security up on the hill,” he said, referring to the physical capitol building as well as the executive mansion.

“So we cover stuff for the state troopers.”

The sheriff shrugged. “They say it makes economic sense for the state. For us, the same. So we have a memorandum of understanding. We provide security on a fairly regular basis for the executive mansion and for the governor and first family as needed.”

“Sounds interesting. Do we provide security for any other officials?”

“Rarely. Only as a backup plan. Oh, sometimes we do security and escorts for the lieutenant governor and family—and that means his daughter, his wife is deceased—but that’s not very often. Might be called upon to do security for a few state officials during Derby.”

“Anything going on today?”

“As a matter of fact, there is. You get to jump right into it. There’s a bill-signing ceremony out at the state wildlife preserve at the western end of town.” The sheriff shook his small bald head. “Not sure why the state troopers can’t do it. The post is out that way, for crying out loud. But I won’t complain. It’s money in our pocket if they want to turn down the job.”

“Will you be there?”

“No, but I’m sending you and Crawford,” he said, referencing one of the other deputies Ting had met only minutes earlier. “There will be some armed state and wildlife officials there as well, but discreetly. Even though they have law enforcement powers, sometimes people get freaked out when they see them acting like security. There, they just look like they’re supposed to be there, which is the truth. But that only means you guys will be necessary in addition to the regular executive security detail. It will only be the governor, lieutenant governor, and a few members of the legislature. Supposed to last only an hour, but you can count on doubling that, considering all the politicians who will be there.” The sheriff shook his head. “Crazy to set something up outdoors in November, but looks like they got lucky and it’s a nice day. Last I looked, it’s in the seventies out there. Go figure. At least the heat will make the thing go quick.”

After a fast snack, a cup of coffee, and trip to the loo, Ting and Deputy Crawford were on their way to the western part of town, with Ting riding shotgun. He wasn’t going to get the privilege of actually driving a cruiser, he figured, until he’d spent more time on the job. These people had to trust him. Even if he was nominally number two in the office now. He could respect that. Although technically he was their superior, it was much more important as the new coworker to get along and develop good relationships. He had to earn it.

Crawford was nice enough. A bit reticent, likely not sure whether he could share stuff with the new guy yet, sizing him up. Ting was okay with that. Came with the territory.

So he sat back and enjoyed the relative quiet in the drive out to the nature preserve even if it was stuffy in that cruiser.

Ting didn’t share his new boss’s assessment of how long the thing would last. A bunch of suits were not going to stand out in this hot weather any longer than they absolutely had to, and they’d get through the speechifying and the photo ops lickety-split. He’d be out of there in an hour, tops.

After Crawford parked, he led the way through a visitors’ center, which fronted the property.

“They’re doing it out at the back of the property, near that pond. Course it couldn’t be closer, inside, and air-conditioned,” the man griped.

Ting knew the destination. When he had been the police chief in Bardstown, he’d chaperoned elementary school kids to this very spot on a field trip. The children had been studying different ecosystems, with a focus on ponds, swamps, and streams.

And at the back of this nature preserve, there was a pond with a covered viewing dock built over it.

Why were they having the ceremonies there? Granted, it was flat, confined, and covered—but it was also small.

Surely they’d have something different—

But he was proven wrong. As he came down a small paved path that led to the water, a din of voices rose. The group came into view as he rounded a corner choked with thick bushes.

There on the bare planks of the covered dock, which was bounded by sturdy railings to prevent anyone from tumbling into the water, politicians and other supposedly important people mingled about in small groups.

“Where do we go?” Ting asked.

“You just stay here. Got to go find the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s personal bodyguards. They’ll let us know what to do. If they follow standard procedure, they’ll probably just keep us where we are.” Crawford looked around. “I can’t imagine that there’s going to be a crowd  other than officials and maybe state employees.”

Even though all these people were likely very standoffish due to their nature and position, this experience was still a million times better than anything he had done in Louisville.

And that was because it was simply not the big city.

Louisville liked to think of itself as the biggest small town America, but his experience proved otherwise. It was, in fact, one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. If one enjoyed urban living, it was a nice place.

And that’s why it wasn’t perfect for him.

This was where he felt at home. Out in the country. Even though this was a staged event, there was an undeniably bucolic aspect about it.

Hell, these people might even be friendly to him.

He scanned the crowd, wondering if he could spot the governor, or even his old adversary, now lieutenant governor—

He stopped thinking.

Stopped breathing.

Wondered whether he had stopped existing.

Grief wrapped his whole being in a spasm of pain, and he was sure he had to be on death’s doorstep.

Because he’d just seen Candace for the first time since they’d broken up—if that’s what it could be called.

The morning after their one glorious night together, he’d dropped her off at her place in the middle of the day.

They’d made love all through the previous night, getting up once to eat that cheesecake.

And yes, she’d fed him every bite.

And after she’d done that—neither of them with a stitch on—he’d pulled her right into his lap, Candace straddling him, and they’d made love again.

It was the best night of his life.

But it was followed by the worst morning.

They’d kissed goodbye quickly in her house. He’d come so very close to telling her he loved her, but didn’t. And he’d wrestled with that failure for the past several weeks. Maybe it would’ve changed things between them.

But he’d walked away, and as the door had closed behind him, he could already hear her crying.

Ting positioned himself next to a tree to watch her, just out of her line of sight. He didn’t want her to see him if that possibility could upset her—although he realized it was arrogant to assume his presence could cause her any level of consternation.

She was with Senator Boyle. And then it clicked. According to the little bit of information he had managed to pull from Crawford on the drive out, the senator—one of Candace’s best friends, according to her—had been a sponsor of the bill in question, and Candace’s father the proponent of it in the executive branch.

Crawford reappeared from seemingly nowhere. He looked annoyed, with a scowl and tense brows on his thin, pained face.

“They want us up there on that damn platform.”

“Why? You said they’d prefer us to be out here.”

“That would fit with their usual preferences about things like this, but I don’t think they counted on one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“All the bugs. People are getting eaten up by mosquitoes because it’s so warm and they didn’t expect that. And apparently the governor’s bodyguard himself is scared to death of all the dragonflies zipping around here.”

“He told you that?”

“No, the governor did,” Crawford said with a smile.

So much for the crack security forces guarding the state’s chief executive.

Yet now he had to go to the platform. Where Candace was.

He couldn’t avoid this. He couldn’t avoid her.

His jaw was so tense as he made his way to the platform that the waves of a headache were already lapping at the outer edges of his awareness.

Ting kept to the periphery but with his eye on Candace. Yet he needed to concentrate, his focus on the lieutenant governor. Crawford had taken the governor, and had moved to the opposite side of the deck, slightly behind the core dignitaries.

There was a moment where he thought he might get through it all without being spotted. He was behind the crowd and had eased past Candace without her spotting him.

But a loud squawk from behind him put that idea to rest.

The crowd turned as one to see a large bird taking flight from a tree stump sticking out of the water, having apparently been disturbed by the noise and movement.

When he turned back, Candace, who was a mere handful of yards in front of him, had him in her sights.

Lips parted, eyes fixed, she clearly had not expected to see him. And after the shock ebbed, those brows knit together in confusion as she looked him up and down in his new sheriff’s uniform.

Which, as uniforms went, didn’t look too bad on him.

From her continued stare, Candace shared that opinion of his attire.

Senator Boyle tapped Candace on the arm, trying to get her friend’s attention. When it didn’t work, the senator followed Candace’s stare to him, then to a few people nearby.

Something Senator Boyle said finally grabbed Candace’s attention, and the duo turned around. Someone—he thought it was the local mayor—went to the podium, and the program and speechifying got underway.

Lord, it was a lot of talking.

The park superintendent did the introductions. That was the only short part of the whole damn thing.

Then the local state representative. The state botanist. Finally the lieutenant governor.

And true to form, Doug Keane just did not know when to shut the hell up.

He wasn’t a bad speaker. That was the truly sad thing. Ting had heard him speak enough back in Bardstown at every fish fry, barbeque, and barrel-stacking race to know that.

But he didn’t know when to end it. That’s what made it bad.

He watched as the crowd grew restive. People shifted on their feet. Scratched their necks. Swatted at bugs.

There was a nice silver lining to the long-windedness.

He got to watch Candace, even if only was from the back as she sat.

It was still a mighty nice view.

That light blue dress clung to her in all the right places and right ways.

And the seat she was in didn’t have much of a back to it. Her posterior was pressed up against it, her form nonetheless perfect in his eyes.

And trigger the memories of that form without clothes…

Damn.

This was not the place for a stroll down memory lane, although a certain part of his body was more than up for the ride.

He tore his eyes away and chose the fattest, grumpiest-looking man in the crowd to focus on. That worked to a certain extent to keep his mind off the woman mere feet away in distance but eons away as practical matter.

The signing ceremony itself began, the governor giving only the briefest of comments. Smart man.

He posed for photos behind a table covered with a white cloth. The press closed in, getting the video and stills. He made a comment to a dark-haired man who seemed to hover about him; guy must be his chief of staff.

Senator Boyle was the last speaker. And, bless her, she was short and to the point.

The event broke up, and the governor was out of there like a shot. Ting thought this odd; even though there were a lot of politicians around, there were also constituents in the form of state workers and a few locals who had come to the event.

As a result of the governor’s quick and, in Ting’s opinion, rather rude, departure, the group formed into smaller clusters. At the center of those groups was the lieutenant governor, Candace, and Senator Boyle.

He knew he was going to have to say something to Doug Keane. They had too much of a history to for him to just ignore the guy. Ting didn’t think that Doug had seen him and was intentionally snubbing him. The lieutenant governor at that moment was in his element. Working the crowd. Talking to people he knew, greeting them, catching up. Meeting new people.

It was quite the contrast to the governor, who had left without so much as a fake smile.

Clearing his throat and pulling up his gun belt, Ting strode over to where the trio stood talking with a couple of uniformed state park workers.

At his approach, the lieutenant governor looked up. At first recognition didn’t sink in. A few blinks later, Doug Keane’s face blossomed with recognition.

“Tingley? What are you doing here?”

Ting offered him his hand. “Just wanted to say hello, sir. And I’m the chief deputy sheriff here in town now.”

Doug took the proffered hand and shook it, then introduced him to Senator Boyle.

“Hello again, Chief—I mean Deputy Tingley,” she said.

“You two know each other?” Doug asked.

“I was cross-examined by the senator once. Not something I’m likely to forget.”

“Wish I could’ve seen that,” said the lieutenant governor.

And then there was the mild greeting from Candace. But he did get to shake her hand. Got to touch her.

“So it didn’t work out in Louisville?” asked the lieutenant governor. “Heard you went up there.”

“I decided I wanted something different. Big city life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.”

“I can certainly understand that.” The senator nodded in agreement with the lieutenant governor. “Well, I hope you like it here. Frankfort has a small-town feel, just like Bardstown. Although it will never be home, will it?” And he turned to his daughter.

“No, it will never be home,” she concurred.

Candace cast a quick sly glance at him, making his heart shatter. And here he had thought the pain couldn’t get much worse.

“Are you living here in Frankfort now?” Ting asked Candace.

Candace shook her head. “No. Still at home in Bardstown. But I come up to the capital on occasion for events with my father. And with my friends.” She tapped the senator on her arm.

A reporter and photographer prevailed upon the lieutenant governor and senator for an interview and photos. When those two looked back at Candace with apologies, she shooed them away and said she would wait on them in the corner of the platform.

Then he was left alone with Candace, and he was not going to waste the chance.

“You look absolutely amazing.”

Her mouth dropped open a little bit in surprise, but then she broke into a smile. “So do you. That’s a very nice uniform.”

“I thought I saw you admiring it.”

“And I imagine you were admiring my dress when I had my back turned.”

“Guilty as charged.” He shot a glance over to her father. “He’s really enjoying himself. It was good to see him. And better to see you.”

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out in Louisville.”

“I’m not.”

“Why?” she asked.

“I’m going to like this job.”

“How long have you been there?”

“Today’s my first day.”

“So how do you know if you like it yet?”

“Because on my first day I got to see you. And from what I’ve been told, we do security for some state events. And you can bet that I’ll be the first signed up if there’s any ghost of a chance you’ll be there.”

She shifted her weight to lean toward him. “Maybe I need to listen to my father then.”

“About what?” For a moment he thought that they’d been outed. That her father knew. But if that had been the case, Doug Keane would not have been so pleasant just moments ago.

“That I need to come up to Frankfort more and do some events with him. He’s lonely, of course. On one hand, I feel the obligation to support him. On the other, I don’t want to be a substitute for my mother. She did some of those things with him.”

“It sounds like he needs you, Candace. You should listen to him. And that’s not the selfish part of me saying that.”

She said nothing, and he measured the seconds by her breaths.

“I miss you, Adam,” she whispered.

His name…

“God, so much…” He could not tear his eyes from her now that he was in her presence.

She swallowed, licked her lips, and looked around. The public nature of the conversation suddenly unnerved him as well.

“Could we meet sometime?” he asked.

“I don’t know, but—”

“Candace? Ready to go?”

Her father was waiting for her with Senator Boyle and his personal bodyguard.

“It was good to see you,” she said in a voice loud enough that others could hear.

And yet it was the unspoken message in the volume that he heard.

No.

Or was it maybe someday?

“Maybe I’ll see you around the capital city,” he said.

The smallest, saddest smiled played across the lips he loved.

“I really hope so.”

So it was the latter message…

Watching her go made him feel like the blood was being drained from his body. And he had to wonder if he hadn’t made a mistake by indulging in their little romance.

Because it had blossomed into the biggest and most painful thing in his life.

* * *

Corrie’s nudge to her ribs alerted Candace that, yes, there was a wider world outside the troubled one inside her throbbing head.

Inside the same body that housed her breaking heart.

“You all right? Heat get to you?”

“Yeah, yeah. Sorry. Tired.”

“So how’s Chief—I mean Deputy Tingley? Saw you talking to him while I was occupied with your father.”

“He seems to be happy to be here.”

“I could tell.”

Candace side-eyed her friend. “He’s a nice guy,” Candace said, choosing not to confirm Corrie’s suspicion. “But he and my dad just didn’t get along. Long history there, unfortunately.”

Corrie nodded. “That can be rough. Especially if you happen to like the guy.”

“And how would you know? You have experience in that area?” Candace snapped before thinking the better of it.

Corrie’s face became stone, and she looked straight ahead. “More than you know.”

Candace cringed, inwardly as well as outwardly. In a lame attempt to be sarcastic, she’d just trampled her best friend’s feelings. How stupid could she be not to remember Corrie had lost her husband just months earlier? And the way she had eloped—maybe that had been a bone of contention in the family.

“Sorry, that was awful of me—”

“Forget it,” Corrie said, waving her hand but still not looking at her as they walked together, entering the visitors’ center. “But let me give you a piece of advice. If you find yourself in that situation—and you don’t need to say a word about Deputy Tingley—just remember that denying yourself something otherwise perfectly legal, desirable, and normal, just to keep someone else happy is not a recipe for your own long-term happiness.”

“You have a way making the complex sound simple. And I mean that as a compliment.”

“And you make me sound so smart.”

“You are,” Candace said.

“Not smart. Experienced. Life is a tough teacher.”

“But you have to be smart to pay attention to the lesson—and apply it.”

Corrie laughed and put her arm around Candace’s shoulder. “You give me far too much credit for being a good student.”

As they exited the other side of the visitors’ center where a limo was awaiting them, Candace was silent as she began to reconsider her reluctance to be by her father’s side at events like these.

Ting’s promised presence made her willing to test Corrie’s teaching.

He had helped her start to heal after losing her mother.

Now she needed to start to heal after losing him.

And the best way to do that was to someday reclaim what she had lost.

Him.

 

Buy links for Stave and Hoop

 

 

Afterword and Bits About Bourbon

 

Say Hello to Candace and Ting

This novella was a way to introduce you to more Bourbonland characters and keep up with Corrie and Clay.

Candace and Ting will be getting their own book—eventually. But maybe another story before that.

Candace will play a prominent role as a supporting character in a Bourbonland book before she gets her own (with Ting, of course).

The bourbons Candace drinks—Elijah Craig Single Barrel, Henry McKenna fifteen-year bottled in bond, Four Roses Single Barrel, and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked—are all bourbons I’ve had the happy privilege to enjoy. I’d recommend them to anyone.

 

Bardstown

I figured I needed to make some of my characters come from this famous Kentucky locale. I love going here as a day trip—especially to the Old Talbott Tavern.

And there is nice downtown shopping. My favorite store is mentioned in this novella—Shaq & CoCo.

 

Melucci’s

Melucci’s, the restaurant where Candace and Ting go in Frankfort only to find Corrie—and Candace’s father—is referenced in Cedar and Cinnamon, Bourbon Springs Book 5. When Harriet and Goose are in Frankfort, one of the restaurants they briefly consider patronizing is this one. It is not mentioned by name but described as a fancy, white-tablecloth kind of place. But Goose only wanted a sandwich.

Melucci’s is modeled after a real restaurant, Serafini’s, which is directly across the railroad tracks from the Old Capitol in downtown Frankfort, Kentucky.

 

Poston’s

The real-life version is called Ricardo’s in Versailles, Kentucky. Like Poston’s, it is housed in an old train station. Great steaks, burgers, and hot browns. And they do have a fine bourbon selection.

 

Lucy and Georgina Davenport

Harriet and Goose’s twins. They are born at the end of July, about four weeks after the birth of Oscar Cain in Sharp Practice.

Harriet’s prediction or taunt at the end of Cedar and Cinnamon comes true. When Goose teased that they could have twins and name them Parker and George, she countered with the possibility of twin girls.

Lucy is named for her grandmother (Goose’s mother); Georgina is the variant of George, who was actually Bo and Hannah’s great-grandfather (Parker was Goose’s). Harriet and Goose couldn’t figure out a female version of Parker, so they went with Georgina (which Bo and Hannah loved).

 

The Kentucky History Center—again

We went there with Harriet and Goose in Cedar and Cinnamon, and now we’re back (and so are they).

There is a mosaic on the floor of the main hall of the center with the outline of Kentucky. And the hall of portraits of the governors is real as well, leading to the large meeting room in the back of the facility.

 

Another Bourbon Springs Couple

Did you spot them in Melucci’s?

 

Corrie’s T-Shirt

That Y’ALL T-shirt really exists.

 

The Kentucky Supreme Court

We go back to the courtroom—if you read Water of Life (Bourbon Springs Book 9), you might recall the scene where Cara Forrest gets sworn in as a judge of the court of appeals.

I’ve been in the courtroom many times, including once where I was the lawyer behind the podium like Clay London or Elizabeth Minton, facing the justices.

 

Bourbon stuff!

I feel like I’ve been remiss in not not posting a few goodies lately, so here goes. I can recommend Woodford Reserve bourbon balls. I can drive to the grocery store in ten minutes and get them–or the distillery itself. If you’re not so lucky, check them out on Amazon.

Also, I wanted to recommend a nice little bourbon cookbook. This writer is a foodie originally from Louisville, so she really gets bourbon. This is a book of desserts.

 

 

What’s Next in Bourbonland?

There’s a lot of Bourbonland coming this year.

Read the descriptions and find buy links for these upcoming works (links take you to the book page on my website).

Notice of Appeal (Bourbonland Book 2) (releasing June 30, 2017) with Justice Leo Labrot and Milla McCracken. The very early part of this book overlaps in time with Stave and Hoop.

 

Leo and Milla will be major characters in Backset (Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #3) (releasing summer 2017).  This novella that takes place right after the end of Notice of Appeal.

 

Where the Fire Is Hottest (Bourbonland Book 3) (releasing late 2017). This is Maisie Chaplin’s book–sister of Miranda from Toast and Char (Bourbon Springs Book 8).

 

Barrel Proof (Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #4) (releasing late 2017). More Corrie and Clay–plus a visit from some Bourbon Springs folks.

 

 

Bourbon Springs Box Sets

Last–all books are now in box sets–and Box Set II (Book 4-6) is FREE right now! (click on images to go to page on my website to learn more)

Box Set I

 

Box Set II

 

Box Set III

 

 

Giveaway!

 

I’m participating in this giveaway, The Series Finder! You could win a home library or a Kindle loaded with books. The idea of the giveaway is to get readers like you acquainted with other series. Some books are free, others are discounted. Check out the offerings and the giveaway–and good luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Jennifer Bramseth. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotation in a book review.

 

STAVE AND HOOP-Part 6

Stave and Hoop

Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2

Part 6 of 7

 

 

Pain was a bitter testament to love.

And yet it was not a judgment he would ever seek to avoid—unless it would be by ultimate reconciliation.

But that was never going to be his fate when it came to Corrie.

And yet here he was, actively seeking to be at the periphery of her presence yet unseen, simply to provide himself with that all too temporary surge of joy, only to have it tempered by the reality of separation.

And he had to wonder why she had put herself in the same position—or if she really had. Because he had rarely been more shocked than to see her at his oral argument a few weeks earlier.

Why had she been there?

It couldn’t be for the case. That was boring enough. Did she have her own case with similar issues? That likelihood seemed extremely remote.

But that conclusion could mean she had only been there because of him.

And that was a conclusion neither his heart nor head could rationalize.

So what did he do with facts that made no sense?

If he had his lawyer hat on, he would’ve kept digging. He would’ve kept researching, would’ve kept asking questions until he got to some semblance of an answer or resolution. Maybe it would be imperfect or incomplete, but he sure as hell wouldn’t have been intellectually and emotionally paralyzed.

Like he was now.

Because untangling the mysteries of the psyche of Coraleigh Boyle was something he would never be intellectually or emotionally equipped to undertake, much less actually accomplish.

And yet his own curiosity had burned: Why had she been there?

No answer.

So what had been his response?

He fretted.

He thought, obsessed, tapped out dozens of texts to her only to push that damned little cursor backward, never sending them.

But he eventually settled on doing the same to her.

It seems that they were going into mutual stalker mode, all declarations and promises the previous December notwithstanding.

Proof of such failure rested in his plan for the day: going to see her speak at what had to be the dullest thing on earth next to an oral argument before the state supreme court.

He was going to listen to Senator Coraleigh Boyle speak at a continuing education program to a bunch of lawyers for the better part of the day.

If there were a lifetime achievement award in the legal world for boredom, that kind of event would be most deserving of the accolade.

So that made it all the more pathetic that he was going there.

He didn’t need to. He didn’t have any interest in the particular topic because it wasn’t in an area he practiced—education law. He didn’t need the credits that were required every year to keep his license—he already had those in spades.

She was the only attraction.

The venue was the Kentucky History Center in downtown Frankfort. He had been to the museum many times, enjoying the remarkable relics of the Commonwealth’s unique history. At the back of the facility was a large conference room.

A space much larger than the courtroom in the capitol, a room where he could hopefully disappear into a corner as Corrie had attempted around a month earlier.

It had been a month since he’d seen her.

At least in person.

He’d checked her senate page on the web, official Facebook page, Twitter.

Stalker.

He’d stared at pictures of her at various senate subcommittee meetings. At town halls in her district. At the opening of a business in Woodford County.

The best—and most shattering—was a picture of her standing in the middle of a field, posted on her public Facebook page. Behind her was a field of sunflowers, and the post was to celebrate the beauty of summer in Kentucky and to encourage people to get outside and enjoy it.

The image was mesmerizingly beautiful. But not because of those flowers in the background—a perfect wall of yellow, green, and black standing guard behind her like an army of sunshine armed with arrows of joy.

The perfection, the loveliness had been Corrie.

She had looked so happy.

Wearing only a bright blue T-shirt with the phrase Y’ALL in bold white all caps and a battered pair of cutoffs, she was smiling, shading her eyes with her hand, and looking off to her right.

He had known exactly where that picture had been taken.

Because he could see those sunflowers from Heddenfield.

Hell, he could see them from his room. Every morning. Every evening.

That sunflower field covered about an acre over at Traveler’s Rest.

He’d noticed that the ground had been prepared earlier in the spring and wondered what was up. That site had traditionally been left open to grasses; the crops grown on the estate—corn and soybeans—were on the far side of the Boyle acreage along with the fields for livestock.

So over the course of the warm spring months into the heat of high summer, Clay had watched those plants grow until a carpet of yellow dotted with black had been unfurled in the middle of perfect fields of Bluegrass.

After seeing that image of her—and saving it—he’d tried to stop checking her social media.

That did not happen.

And that’s how he learned she was speaking that day. It was right there on her official page as a state senator, complete with convenient link to sign up for the program.

He had registered then and there.

Even though he’d known he had a court date on that date. No matter. It was just motion hour—his motion to merely get a million-dollar judgment on summary judgment. The law was completely on his side, and the client would be deliriously happy to finally get some vindication in that damn case. And that client would love him. It was that woman’s nature to make him a hero for everything he did, win or lose.

Whatever.

He’d get it bumped another week or two or have someone from the firm stand in for him. And all the better because it was down in Craig County before Judge Richards.

Not that he minded the judge. She was perfectly professional.

It was going back to Bourbon Springs that pained him.

That encounter with Corrie at The Cooperage would haunt him for the rest of his life.

It had gotten so bad that when he had to go to court in that area, say to Van Winkle County, he’d drive out of his way just to avoid driving through Bourbon Springs.

All because of what had happened there nine months ago—

Damn

That reminder again. The thing that was always at the edge of his awareness every time he looked at a calendar and noted the month.

Right now they could’ve been waiting to be parents.

Or maybe that baby would’ve already arrived.

Was she thinking about that this month?

Probably not. Why the hell would she want to have a child with the likes of him?

And yet there in the hospital she’d said she was sorry…

Clay squeezed his eyes so tight it hurt. Not to stop tears. Not to block out the memories.

Although it helped with both of those problems.

He did it to focus. Clear his head.

He was sitting in his car in the parking lot across from the History Center. Once more, the train tracks that sliced through downtown Frankfort were right in front of him. Separating him from Corrie.

But this time he wasn’t going to watch her from across a darkened street. He was going in there.

Thankfully, the topic meant he was unlikely to run into anyone he knew. Education or school law was a niche in which he’d never practiced, and he wasn’t sure that anyone in the firm had ever done any of that work. From what he understood, the kinds of attorneys who would be present that day would be lawyers for local school boards and those representing teachers or other school employees against said school boards. Typical administrative law kind of stuff. He did a smattering of that work, but his heart was in litigation. And that’s where his father expected him to be as well. Much more lucrative.

So even if he had a hankering to do something different, he’d just have to keep on hankering since dad still called a lot of the shots when it came to firm politics and privileges.

And how he hated that.

But today he got to play a little hooky from his lawyer daytime job even if under the guise of going to a talk about the law.

Entering the building, Clay moved to the left, over the mosaic of Kentucky spread out over the first floor of the Center. Then down a hall containing portrait after portrait of Kentucky governors. The first one he came to was the sitting chief executive, Governor Cassidy. And as he walked farther he knew the last one he would see.

Isaac Shelby.

He stopped at the portrait of Kentucky’s first governor.

There was Corrie but not in the flesh. The faintest of resemblance, but it was there, about the eyes and cheekbones. That manifestation of genetic connection reaching through two centuries.

Blinking, he looked back to Governor Cassidy’s portrait at the other end of the hall, the spot where the current governor’s image was always displayed.

Those familiar eyes would be on both extremes of this corridor someday.

A tired, stressed voice distracted him.

“Yes, oh, sorry…”

A woman at the registration desk ahead had her hands full and was trying to do far too much.

In that she had two very tiny babies in carriers on the floor, a purse slung over one shoulder, and a packed, heavy diaper bag over the other.

And that diaper bag was slowly slipping off and about to land on one of those super tiny babies…

Clay lunged just at the moment the woman cried out.

“Got it,” he said.

“Oh, thank you.” She swallowed hard in relief. “Here, go around me. I’ll go on inside and then register.”

“Why don’t you finish while I hold your items?” Clay offered. “No trouble at all.”

“Thank you,” she sighed.

The dark-haired woman transacted her business as Clay studied the babies.

Very small. Couldn’t be more than a few weeks old. And yet this woman was here.

“Do you need any help?” he asked once she had finished checking in and had a name badge and small clutch of papers.

“Oh, my husband will be here in a sec. He’s parking the SUV.”

“With all due respect, ma’am, please let me assist you until he arrives. Let me take those bags so you can get your little ones. It would be my honor.”

“I… well… Thank you.”

They shuffled out of the way of the other attendees arriving to register. Clay took the bags, the woman hoisting the carriers onto each of her arms.

He followed her into the meeting room, where she headed for the back corner opposite the door.

Which was where he had wanted to sit, alone and unregarded and with the perfect view of the door to watch the comings and goings.

The woman positioned the babies on the floor in the tight corner. Clay wondered why she had chosen to haul all that equipment inside along with the children, considering that her husband could have toted some of that load inside for her after he parked the vehicle. Then he knew why she wanted to do it all herself: she didn’t want to be parted from her children and the things she considered necessary for their care.

Examining her features, he noted dark circles under her eyes. There was a slight hunched form, and the hint at exhaustion was evident. He was looking at a very new mother.

“Thank you again,” she said, looking up at him with a weary smile. “And I don’t even know your name.”

“Apologies,” Clay said with a bow. “Clay London. I’m very pleased to meet you.” He offered her his hand.

She took it and with her other hand tucked an errant strand of long dark hair back into her bun. “Harriet Hensley.” She shook his hand. “I’m the attorney for the Craig County School Board. If you have any idea where Craig County is,” she said with a laugh.

“Ah, yes,” Clay said, internally stomping on the memories of the place. “Bourbon Springs. I know exactly where that is. Do you need anything? Water?” He gestured to a table along the back wall where basic refreshments had been set up for attendees.

“No, no. And I can’t thank you enough.” Harriet looked down at her still-sleeping babes. “And as you can probably surmise, I am currently on maternity leave from my job.”

“Congratulations.” Clay looked at the door. “You say your husband will be here as well? So he’s an attorney?”

Harriet laughed. “No, he’s not an attorney. He just didn’t want me making this trip all the way up here on my own with the children.”

“That’s admirable. Unless, of course, you feel those attentions unwarranted.”

“Even if I did,” she said with a shrug, “he’d be here anyway. Just the way he is. Frankly, I can’t believe I’m here myself. Lucy and Georgina are only about three weeks old, but I didn’t want to miss this. There are so few programs exclusively on school law. I had to bring the twins along because I couldn’t go off and pump in a solitary room. I mean, that would completely defeat the purpose of coming to this program if I ended up missing large portions of it.”

Clay blinked. “I’m sorry?”

She pointed to the children. “I’m nursing them. Quite a job with two.” She let loose a long exhale.

Good Lord, what endeavor. She had brought along her newborns to keep them fed while she tried to educate herself. That was either crazy or admirable.

Well, maybe they weren’t mutually exclusive concepts.

“So do you represent a school board or teachers?” Harriet asked.

“Actually, I don’t represent either. I’m just here to… investigate.” His eyes began to scan the room for signs of Corrie.

“Now’s a good time to get into this area. Several school board attorneys are retiring throughout the state. Lots of opportunities.”

One of the babies began to fuss. Clay thought this his cue to leave his new acquaintance and go check in. He took his leave of her, with Harriet once again profusely thanking him as she bent over and unbuckled the squirming child from its carrier.

On the way out, he passed a hulking man with dark hair wearing a deep red polo shirt with some kind of embroidered logo on the front left chest. Ruddy-faced and bit wild-eyed, he carried what had to be another diaper bag.

Made sense. Twins needed twice as much, right?

He was almost about to point Harriet out to him when the husband spotted his family and made a beeline for them in the corner. While Harriet had been frazzled—and with good reason—her husband seemed on the verge of panic. Maybe this was the first time the group had been beyond the confines of Craig County.

Their first family road trip was to a legal seminar. There was something to tell the kids someday.

Clay smiled to himself as he returned to the registration area. That kind of family road trip was just the kind that he and Corrie would’ve had–

He hissed out a long breath, his train of thought coming to a screeching, wrenching stop in his mind.

And of course as he took two steps into the check-in area, Corrie just had to be there.

A man at the registration desk was greeting her with all smiles and handing her a name badge and packet of materials. She reciprocated his warmth with a bright face and kind words and took the materials from him.

Clay darted to his right, away from the main entrance to the meeting room since he knew that was the direction in which Corrie was headed. He had a decent vantage point to observe her, Corrie having been delayed entering the room by running into an acquaintance who appeared to be talking the senator’s ear off.

Dressed in a simple black suit with low-heeled shoes, Corrie was wearing a royal blue blouse. The color brought to mind the irreverent T-shirt he’d seen her wearing in that picture online. Her expression was much the same as in that photo: happy. As she spoke with the woman who had forestalled her entrance to the meeting room, her features were animated, betraying no hint of annoyance at delay. Perfect politician. Or, more likely, just a very nice person indulging another’s loquaciousness.

Clay could’ve lurked in the corner and watched her for some time. But then a familiar man appeared at Corrie’s side; she threw her arms around him and planted a kiss on his cheek.

He knew who that was: Ball Lawson, one of Corrie’s fellow state senators. And like Corrie, he had lost his spouse within the past year, in his instance to a small aircraft plane crash.

And just as he had when he’d witnessed the beginning of the reunification between Corrie and Russell back in December at that conference, Clay was gripped by two impulses.

Fight or flight.

In December, he had chosen to flee. It had been too painful to watch from afar what was happening. Perhaps on some level he had known or feared the future unfolding before him—a future in which he had no part.

So maybe today he would go all testosterone-jacked-up on a man that Clay’s primitive brain had identified as a thief, rival, and threat. That man needed to be wrenched away from the woman no one on the planet was even worthy of looking at, much less touching—

Breathing deeply, Clay willed his civilized inclinations to assume control.

These emotions, urges—they were not like him. Unfamiliar and frightening, they threatened his self-control, a notion he could not process. A result he could not live with. He had managed his feelings for so long that to finally lose a grip on them was unreal and terrifying.

Because the truth of it was he was stalking the woman he loved but could not have. She had made it clear to keep away.

But she hadn’t kept her part of that bargain.

This was not right.

Why was this happening now? He’d been mildly obsessed with her—no, in love with her—for years, his brief marriage acting like a faulty pause button on his damn heart.

Maybe it was simply the passage of time. They were getting older. Chances wasted, thrown away. And if he had to admit it to himself, there was some part of him that told him—no, screamed at him—that he and Corrie were meant to be together and that would, by God, happen someday.

And that was politely called a fantasy. More accurately, a delusion.

Maybe he should just go…

Her laugh pulled him from that idea.

Corrie went inside the meeting room, her original companion on one side and that state senator he wanted to throttle on the other. She hadn’t seen him.

His feet seemed to follow of their own accord.

Corrie of course made for the front of the room, where a long, white-draped table was atop a platform. She picked her way through the room, getting stopped at almost every table. Clay stood near that water table and watched, scanning the vicinity for a place to sit.

And then the keening cry of an infant split the chatter-filled air.

Corrie’s head snapped around, toward the corner where Harriet and her husband had set up Camp Baby. Her stare was just a few seconds too long to be the product of mild interest.

So he had his answer about whether she thought about the loss. About what could’ve been.

And somehow, instead of increasing the pain from that shard of grief that was always sticking in his gut, her reaction relieved him. His sadness was reasonable because it was mutual.

Someone tapped Corrie on the shoulder, and her attention was sucked back to the people around her, the purpose of her presence, reality.

Not the what-could-have-beens.

Oh, yes. She was enduring the same turmoil, the same questions.

And yet they would not, could not come together to ease that burden of loss by sharing it. Because of the expectations of others and the fear of their reactions if those expectations were not met. Invisible bonds that kept them trapped and apart.

Even if things were different—where the eyes of parents and others were not upon them—there still wouldn’t be any guarantee that Corrie would succumb to his rather feeble charms.

But he’d sure as hell give it a try. At least he’d be free to ask.

But he wasn’t. His mother’s situation was getting worse. And that meant his father’s was getting better.

Clay crept to an unoccupied round table near the window, a few yards ahead of where Harriet was stationed. She smiled as he sat and he nodded, sitting with his back to the light. Good little hiding place he’d found as it turned out.

Corrie wasn’t on the podium. As his eyes flitted about in search of her, a swell of concern rose in his chest. He wanted to be able to keep an eye on her so he could duck away if—

“London?”

Clay jerked so hard in his seat that his elbow hit the window to his left. He cursed and immediately regretted it upon seeing the quite unexpected arrival at his table. He hopped to his feet.

“Justice Labrot. A pleasure.”

They shook hands as a messenger bag slipped off Leo’s shoulder and onto a seat.

“And to you, my friend, I will always be Leo. At least when we’re talking by ourselves.”

“Which we are not, considering we’re in a crowd of a few hundred people, rather than the bourbon bar down the street.”

“May I join you?”

“Be my guest. And tell me what brings the court to this event. Are you a speaker? I didn’t see your name on the agenda.”

“Not a speaker,” Leo said as they sat. “Just here for some education about education. I saw that there are a few school and education cases on the court’s docket as well as some petitions for discretionary review. I’m very unfamiliar with it all. I didn’t want to dump this task on the clerk – that’s really stretching it since I really don’t have a clerk right now.”

“Don’t tell me that the court’s budget is in such bad straits that a justice can’t get a clerk.”

“Oh, no, it’s not that,” Leo said, looking up at Clay. “It’s just that the position is vacant and I haven’t had any time yet to find a new one. But forget my staffing woes and tell me what the hell you’re doing here. I never knew you had any interest in this area of law.”

“As you said, just trying to educate myself about education. I’ve heard,” he said, with a glance over his shoulder to Harriet, “that some school boards across the state might be in need of new representation soon.”

“Of course. Always looking for new opportunities. Always a great rainmaker.”

“Thank you. But I endeavor to be known as a better lawyer than rainmaker.”

“Oh, I can confirm that is true. Without giving too much away, my colleagues were most complementary of your oral argument recently. I watched it back in chambers on the monitor. Hell, you even had Justice Knott laughing. And that’s not an easy task. Anyway, I have an ulterior motive for being here. Just like you, I suspect.” Leo smiled, his chin dropping to his chest, giving him a conspiratorial mien.

Clay felt himself pale, a pricking of skin creeping up his face and neck. “What?”

“Sad as it may sound, I bet you’re here just because you can be. Because you wanted to do something different. Break out of a rut.”

“There’s some truth in that.”

Clay turned. Corrie’s glossy, dark hair was immediately recognizable, even in that thicket of people at the front of the room. Everyone wanted to talk to her.

Leo continued, “Another reason I’m here is because I’m going to do a program myself in Bourbon Springs on Saturday. Been a while since I’ve spoken so I thought I might get the feel for it again…”

Leo talked. All Clay heard were those words again: Bourbon Springs.

A few people drifted to the table to interact with Leo, and Clay found the changed dynamic unfamiliar but comfortable. Prior to Leo’s appointment to the court, Clay had been the one sought by others at events like these. Leo had been the polite, charming, reticent friend at his side. But getting a gig on the state’s highest court had switched those roles.

Clay didn’t care. Leo deserved everything he got and more. He was a hard worker and damned brilliant. And his family history—Well, there was one even sadder than Clay’s own.

As the speakers began to take their seats at the front, attendees likewise sat. As for Clay and Leo, they remained the only ones at their table, and Clay was happy for the relative solitude in the midst of a crowd.

The proceedings got underway.

Clay was surprised to discover the first panel was highly credentialed. The state education commissioner, along with several distinguished professors and other educators spoke at length in a panel discussion on… something.

Again, Clay could not concentrate for concentrating on Corrie.

And the continuing sounds of those babies behind him.

It wasn’t that the children were at all loud or disruptive. But the smallest noise from one of them acted like fingernails on his emotional chalkboard. It didn’t help that Harriet and her husband were taking turns standing up and walking around with the babies to soothe them after a feed.

And, yes, he could see Corrie’s head turning in the direction of those noises from time to time as they echoed throughout the high-ceilinged meeting room. If she saw him during the glimpses she was taking of the kids, he could not discern that she had identified him. All the better, considering what was gnawing at their consciences.

After a monotonous hour and a half of speaking, the first panel ended.

And then it was time for Corrie.

Actually, it was a panel discussion about important legislative changes over the past year or so, with a look ahead to new proposals. In checking at his agenda, he saw that the other state senator was on the panel as well. His ridiculous, unreasonable jealousy and resentment at the man’s presence was reduced, rather like the heat of a stove burner. It was still there, just not as dangerous and searing.

If Clay had seen her speak recently, he could not remember it. The instances which came to his recollection were old law school memories where they had to make presentations in a seminar or mock trial.

Even then, Corrie had possessed a presence that stirred him.

Now, seeing her standing before a large crowd, gently lecturing and educating on a complex topic, was enthralling.

Yeah, he was easily entertained. Needed to get out more.

So he took his pleasure where he could, even if it originated in a lonely nerd world.

His little stalker party was therefore going quite swimmingly well, being able to watch Corrie but not be spotted—until Leo just had to raise his hand and ask a question. Since the man was easily identified, everything stopped so deference could be paid to his position by acknowledging his inquiry.

And of course it was Corrie, the panel moderator at the podium, who called on him.

“Justice Labrot,” Corrie said, shading her eyes much as she had done in that picture of her in the sunflower field. “I can barely see you, but I think that’s you.”

Leo stood and waved. “Senator, I’ll stand so you can see me.”

“I’ll do that since you’re a justice,” she quipped back. Corrie descended the platform with a microphone. “And since you’re all the way back there, you’re going to need this mic so we can hear what you—”

Clay’s eyes met hers.

Corrie stopped in her tracks and dropped the mic.

A nasty reverb sliced through the room as the thing hit the floor and the crowd cringed and moaned.

Leave it to Leo to step up. The newest justice moved speedily in front of Corrie, bending low to scoop the mic from the floor. It looked like Leo was falling at her feet.

Or maybe that’s just what Clay imagined himself doing.

Not here, not today. Not even tomorrow or that year. But someday.

The image was vivid, precise. But also another fantasy.

A cascade of apologies tumbled forth from Corrie as Leo patted her shoulder reassuringly.

“Sorry for all the trouble.” The still-live mic picked up Leo’s utterance.

“I think I need to say that since I caused the trouble,” said Corrie.

Leo kept the mic and asked a very convoluted question to the panel, remembering to also address Corrie, who stood by his side.

Clay took the opportunity to study everything about Corrie’s appearance. Her hair, so dark yet shiny in the sun streaming through the window right next to them. The rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. And he could tell that she was attempting to calm herself, noting the few long inhales and exhales. The shape of her suit and the way it was cut and flattered her form.

And damned if that brief reflection on her physical form didn’t dredge up all kinds of images of the body underneath her rather plain clothes.

He shut his eyes and swallowed hard. Images of her figure flashed through his consciousness like the fluttering and jumping of an old reel film.

Their time in Bourbon Springs…

Their getaway at that state park…

The last time—although they hadn’t known it—at The Seelbach…

When his lids slowly opened, she was looking at him from the corner of her eye.

And there, on that perfect face he saw in every dream, was the faintest of smiles. A smirk. A grin.

Then it was gone.

Leo handed the mic to Corrie. He returned to his seat, and she picked through the tables back to the podium.

Had he imagined it?

Of course he had. Trick of the light. Trick of the mind. Fantasy. Dream. Delusion. Not real.

She sure as hell was real at your oral argument. Real as real could be. Not a figment of your imagination.

And you spoke to her.

The rest of the meeting was a blur. He wouldn’t remember a damn thing about the entire experience.

Well, there would be one thing.

While Clay had expected to learn something at this conference, he hadn’t expected that he’d discover that Coraleigh Boyle didn’t hate him. Maybe actually liked him.

And that had been well worth the price of admission that day.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Jennifer Bramseth. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotation in a book review.

Exclusive preorder link for Stave and Hoop. The novella will be released on Amazon, Barnes and Noble/Nook, kobo, and GooglePlay on May 16 (no preorders).

STAVE AND HOOP-Part 5

 

Stave and Hoop

Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2

Part 5 of 7

 

 

Leaving Littleham, they drove west into the setting sun. The sky was a tangled melt of fuchsia and orchid, blending into the deepest indigo. Her emotions were reflected in the heavens, a mixture of excitement yet calm, anxiety but acceptance.

Because they would have this night, and it would be enough.

It would have to be enough.

He was driving, of course. The bourbon had given her a nice buzz but had not completely dulled her mind and certainly not her body. And although Ting was trying to project an aura of assurance, his tight grip on the steering wheel failed to match his façade of confidence.

This far beyond Littleham, there was nothing except farmland, dotted by homesteads, more livestock per square mile than people.

They were headed into essentially the middle of nowhere, her curiosity increasing with every passing mile. This patch of Kentucky was devoid of quaint bed-and-breakfasts, of resorts, of out-of-the-way yet charming hotels.

He’d better not have fibbed about that camping thing.

Finally, Ting began to slow the vehicle and signaled a right turn.

And right onto one of the narrowest country roads she’d ever seen. Well, at least it was paved.

“Where in the world are you taking me?”

“Patience. You’re about to find out.”

“Yeah, but by the time we get there, I’m not going to be able to see it. It’s getting dark.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not far. And you will be able to see it. The moon’s out.”

Ting was as good as his word. Within the next few minutes, they were turning onto a gravel driveway which gradually sloped upward. Even though the night was closing in she could tell that the hill that they ascended was mostly cleared, with a few scattered trees serving as insufficient windbreaks. With the nearly full moon overhead, it was as though the sun had slowed its slumber to keep the landscape illuminated especially for them.

And then their ultimate destination came into view.

She gasped.

“Oh my…”

Before them was a towering log structure. To call it a mere cabin would’ve been an extreme disservice to its monumental size. Candace could discern a wraparound porch and a pointed, pitched roof. It looked like a ski chalet had been plucked off some mountainside and dropped into the middle of Kentucky.

Ting pulled right up to the front door and killed the engine.

“It’s a hunting retreat,” he said, answering the question she held in her head. “Got invited out here once to hunt. The place encompasses almost a thousand acres. Deer are as common around here as birds in the sky.”

“Let me guess. You were the guest of the gentleman we encountered back at the restaurant, weren’t you?”

“Yes and no. This retreat doesn’t belong to him, although it does belong to one of his best friends. He brought me along once a few years ago.” Ting looked across her at the cabin. “Never thought I’d be back here. But it’s out of season for hunting pretty much anything right now, so I called in a favor and got this place for us.”

True to form, Ting came around the car and opened her door. Every time he had done that, she had always noticed that Ting’s eyes had never left her face. His gaze had never wandered down to her exposed legs and thighs, and she had worn her fair share of skimpy shorts and skirts in his presence.

Keys jingled on a ring as he searched and found the one he needed. The lock turned with a faint click, and he opened the door for her.

The first impression of the cabin was not visual–it was quite dark–but olfactory.

That smell…

The lingering earthy aroma of a thousand fires greeted her, wrapped itself around her, making her welcome. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she spied a massive fieldstone fireplace to the left. It almost made her wish that it was cold outside. They could build a fire and cuddle in front of it… or maybe more.

But there would be no cozy winter retreats here for the two of them. Or anywhere.

Ting turned on a light on a small table behind her, then took her hand and walked her into the living space. As they entered, automatic lights popped on, revealing the expected cavernous quality of the interior.

Everything was done in rustic fabrics and brown leather. The walls were rough-hewn logs, the pitched ceiling with exposed timbers. Contrasting with the primitive theme was the kitchen on the right, with a myriad of stainless steel appliances winking in the low light.

If this place was a thousand acres with a home on it—which had to be several thousand square feet in size—the property had to be worth millions.

But she knew the value of the real estate wasn’t the reason Ting had chosen to bring her here.

It was for the unique solitude. For the memories.

But something was missing.

A bedroom.

“Where’s the rest of it?” she asked and then turned around. “Oh, I see.”

To the far left just before the fireplace was the bottom of the staircase. It wound behind them and up to the second floor, creating a balcony viewing area where one could enjoy the view through the two-story high glass wall at the back of the lodge.

“Stay here,” Ting said. “I’m going to bring our bags in.”

He gave her a kiss on the cheek before leaving.

“Where would I go?” she muttered to herself after he was out of earshot. “And why would I want to leave?”

She glanced at the kitchen, thinking that she needed to go in there to get the fork she would need to feed Ting his dessert. She also wondered about the Garnet Center Cut and his promised special bourbon. Would it already be in there? She was tempted to peek but decided to let the surprise wait and for him to have the pleasure of the revelation.

Despite her assurance that she would stay still, she was irresistibly drawn to the back porch. She pushed the door open and went outside.

With a gas grill that seemed as large as a micromini car and a fleet of teak patio furniture, the back porch was several rooms in itself.

But in keeping with the somewhat minimalist theme, there were no potted plants or flowers cascading from baskets hanging overhead.

Such adornments were unnecessary considering the spectacle before her.

Moonlight bathed the soft, shimmering fields and hills before her, broken by wandering creeks. It was the same familiar landscape that was so common to the area, the same view they enjoyed over and over during the drive to Littleham—or anywhere in this area of Kentucky.

It was not forest, yet not open fields. But they were close enough to a wood that she heard the distinctive call of an owl, five soft hoots in a row. And there were other sounds too. A cacophony of summertime insects. And a noise that sent a shiver down her spine–a coyote.

She was so enthralled that she didn’t hear Ting come out onto the porch. His light touch on her shoulder made her jump.

“I see you can’t follow instructions. You wandered off from me.”

“I just couldn’t help myself. It’s so beautiful.”

“I can’t say as I blame you. Just wait until you see it in the daylight. The sunrise here is incredible. I don’t think we’re supposed to have rain overnight, so it should be perfect. As is this.”

He handed her a drink.

“This is my bourbon surprise?”

“It’s our bourbon surprise.” Ting held up a glass he had for himself. “Well, we share the pour. I put it over ice. Hope you don’t mind. I thought that since it was so stuffy and hot, you’d like it colder.”

“Ice helps open the flavor,” Candace allowed.

“Take a sip, and tell me what you think.”

Candace brought the glass to her face and nosed it after swirling the contents. She then held it up to the light emanating from the house behind her, trying to assess the bourbon’s color and get a good look at the legs.

“Deep color. At least I think so. A little difficult to tell in this light.”

Ting did not sip his own and waited for her to conclude her analysis. “If I’m expecting you to guess what this is, I suppose it’s only fair to confirm you’re right about that color.”

“Are we playing another game?”

“Not sure. Considering that I’ve got almost everything I could’ve wanted, not sure I see the value in playing a game.”

“Almost everything?”

With his free hand, Ting brushed her cheek. “Very close to everything.”

“I think I’d better hurry up and drink this bourbon so we can get down to that dessert business.”

He nodded. “That dessert business is very important.”

Candace sipped, taking a very small amount to awaken her taste buds. As usual, the sensation was intense and shar but eminently pleasurable. She thought she detected a sweetness, which surprised her, given the dark color of bourbon.

Her next sip was longer and more generous, the spirit coating her tongue as it slid into her body and blossoming into a lovely warmth in her chest.

Her original assessment of the bourbon’s sweetness had been correct. And that led her to another conclusion.

“This is a dessert bourbon.” As she said this, Ting took his own long sip, his eyes never leaving her face. “And aren’t you the clever one? A dessert bourbon to serve with the dessert I’m going to feed you.”

Ting shrugged. “Not planned but a happy coincidence. Can you identify it?”

Taking a few moments to ponder, Candace reasoned that he would likely not select a local brand. He was trying to surprise and stump her, so he probably went outside the known and expected expressions from Bardstown.

“At first I thought this might be Weller Antique. But I think it’s too sweet.”

“So what’s your guess?”

“How many guesses do I get?”

“Since when playing a game, as many as you like. But I do hope it’s not too many. Because I’d like to go inside soon and start working on that dessert.”

Candace looked down into her glass and sniffed the bourbon again. Another sip.

“Woodford Reserve Double Oaked.”

Ting raised his glass to her. “Got it in one.”

They stood together on the porch, sipping and chatting about mundane things like how the main grocery store back home had recently moved items around, causing confusion and complaints, and the delay on a road project which was causing a lot of traffic problems at the exit near the highway.

There was a solace and shelter in these ordinary bits of chatter, manifestations of  nervousness, anticipation, and anxiety. She could feel the sexual awareness crackling between them as though it were an electrified net. But despite the trepidation in confronting the unknown in her new lover, her excitement far outweighed the reservations.

And of course the bourbon was helping in that regard.

As another quintet of owl hoots punctuated the night, Ting put his empty bourbon glass on the railing. And gave her the most searing stare he’d ever favored her with.

So this is how it began.

She swallowed as he moved in closer, her lips parted, waiting for his kiss.

The coolness of the glass in her hand was the only other thing of which she was even remotely aware as Ting lowered his mouth to hers.

The kiss was deeper, hungrier, than ever before. Instinctively she arched close to him, and he gladly accepted the invitation to intimacy by wrapping an arm around her waist and pressing her body directly against his.

And was he ever ready for dessert. His whole being was telling her that—particularly a certain reaction he was having to her presence.

Sighing into the kiss, she broke first, dizzy from lack of breath as well as buzzing from the bourbon.

And because of him.

Damn.

She’d completely fallen for Adam Tingley.

And who wouldn’t, really?

But leaving. Off limits.

This was not the moment to cry.

So of course she did.

“Hey…” He pulled her a little closer, held her a little tighter.

“Sorry,” she said, wiping away tears with her fingers. “Just… realized how much I’m going to miss you. How I wish… things were different.”

His lips flattened, and his jaw tensed. “Yeah.”

Taking a deep breath, she batted away the sadness.

Then she finished her bourbon, throwing it all back.

After she licked her lips, Candace said, “Ready for dessert?”

Not wasting any time, Ting took her by the hand and led her back into the cabin. He locked the door behind them. No more nighttime lingering on the porch.

Ting took her glass to the kitchen, placed it in the sink, and opened the fridge.

“I thought it should be refrigerated, so I put the cheesecake in here,” he said.

“Is that the dessert you really want, Adam?”

With his hand on the door and slightly hunched, Ting froze, the light of the fridge throwing his form into stark relief. And Candace just stood there smiling, smirking, waiting.

He slammed the fridge door shut, crossed the space between them with a few long strides, and looked down her body, breathing hard.

“I’m sure it’ll keep until breakfast.”

He cradled her head in his hands and kissed her, at first soft, light, but soon building to something intensely needy for them both. It was as though they’d picked up right where they’d been outside, and soon she was again pressing herself to him. The feel of his chest, the tight muscles of his torso, the power in his legs—and other places—

“To hell with this.”

He scooped her up into his arms so fast she almost fell out of his grasp headfirst, but he caught her.

“Not a lot of practice at sweeping a woman off her feet, huh?”

“No. I’ve never wanted to do it before.”

“Oh, that’s a really good answer.”

“Don’t praise me yet,” he said, hoisting her until his grip was more secure. “Still need to get you safely upstairs.”

It was no trouble at all for him. And God, what a delicious sensation: holding on to Ting’s neck as he effortlessly toted her, her head against his chest, so secure in his arms.

He didn’t bother with the lights and took her straight to the bed. After gently placing her atop it, he stood back, hands at his side.

Nervous.

Just like her.

She rolled to her side and propped herself up on an elbow. “Don’t tell me you don’t know what to do.”

“Not the problem. I don’t know where to start.”

“Paralysis by analysis. I tell my students to just do something. Get it started.”

“I can assure you that I am not suffering from paralysis in any part of my body at this moment.” He took a step forward as to prove his point.

Yeah, those pants in front were wonderfully tight.

“Are you going to go easy on the dress? I seem to recall a threat about it.”

“Maybe you’d better do the honors.”

“Don’t trust yourself?”

“Nope.”

She rose up on her knees on the bed, then turned around. “At least unzip me.”

For several seconds, she didn’t think he was going to honor her request. Then she felt the tickle of his fingers on the nape of her neck, and the zipper was slowly pulled down.

The dress fell away from her back, loose on her shoulders.

Then he started on her hair, pulling the pins from her bun.

“Maybe I should’ve done this first.” Sweeping her hair away, his lips went to her neck.

As she responded by putting her hand against his head, Ting kept his own hands busy.

By unclasping her bra.

In moments, with the dress bunched around her hips and her bra tossed aside, she was nude from the waist up, her back against Ting’s still-clothed chest. His mouth at her neck, his hands moved forward, over her hips, slipping under her panties and splaying across her lower tummy ever so briefly before moving up to cup her breasts. He swept his thumbs against the underside, causing her head to fall back against him as she moaned.

She heard him inhale deeply as if he were trying to regain some measure of control.

But she wanted him unleashed.

Candace fell forward on the bed, then rolled away until she was standing on the other side.  She stepped out of her dress, giving him his first look at her bare chest.

Another shuddering breath later, he was stripping off his own clothes.

Candace was treated to Ting’s striptease for her. His eyes never leaving her, he peeled away with swift determination all his clothes until he was left standing in boxers. And he made no move to remove them.

Thinking he might be waiting on her before completely baring himself, Candace hooked her thumbs under the elastic of her panties.

“Wait… I’d love to have the honor of taking those off you.”

“That has to be the most polite way anyone has ever said I want to get you naked.”

A low, throaty laugh rolled out from him as he came around to her side of the bed.

Ready for her.

And God, was she ready for him.

The physical aspect of their relationship was something she had too long denied. She’d thought through the early days of simply going out for ice cream or milkshakes they might leave it at that or just some kissing.

There had been some point, a realization, when she knew it would not be so simple.

But he was the best-looking, most polite, and sexiest complication she’d ever seen.

Turning to pull down the covers, Candace inexplicably felt her confidence leaving her. It wasn’t that she was suddenly possessed of doubts or that the desire to make love to Ting had left her. Far from it. She wanted him.

But not what came after.

They were about to not only cross a physical line but an emotional one as well. They had been headed for this moment for weeks, and she had willingly come along. But now that they were here, the sureness of their separation sliced through her like a dull blade, and her chest ached.

This was the feeling that she had been trying to outrun these last wonderful weeks with Ting.

Just like she’d tried to bury the grief of her mother’s death.

“Candace?” Ting had placed a hand on her shoulder.

Gently he turned her around, and on his face she could see the same mixture of desire and regret that was coursing through her body.

But he did not give her time to indulge in sorrow.

In one sweeping, claiming kiss, Ting rescued her from that extreme and brought her to the safety of his presence and touch. With one hand at the base of her neck to cradle her head and the other at her waist, he possessed her. Her body responded, blossomed, and was ready to experience him.

He slowly moved her onto the bed, onto her back, and was soon above her. Candace splayed her hands across the taut muscles of his back, pulling him closer, inviting him to consume her.

He accepted.

The panties came off.

Candace parted her legs wide for him as his hand found her folds, his mouth moving from her neck to her breasts. She was vaguely conscious of moaning his name, which produced a growl. She’d never made a man do that.

Her leg came up against his as her hands moved down to peel his boxers from—

He was… large.

And she just went for it.

With a shaky but greedy hand, Candace wrapped her fingers around Ting’s length. He reacted as though stung or hit, freezing and then uttering a string of curses.

“Wait… just… wait…”

He reached for the table next to the bed and snatched something from the surface.

Ah. Protection.

“Snuck up here before bringing me that drink, did you?” She watched as he opened the packet and slid the sheath over himself.

“Yep. Didn’t want to be interrupted—at least too much—at this moment.”

A kiss. Then he pulled back.

That awestruck, openmouthed gaze he lavished upon her as he entered her was a vision she would never forget. Candace knew it would comfort as well as haunt her the rest of her life.

She opened her legs wider, then wrapped them around him as he began to move against her.

Her initial impression of his size was wrong.

Not big.

Huge.

She’d never been filled like this before.

Or was there something different about him? Something she was attributing to this union that went beyond the physical that made it feel—

Yes. That confirmation that she had fallen in love with him.

The desperate, exquisite realization was a relief, a benediction to these weeks of tension and dancing around each other.

His thrusts became faster and deeper, and a delicious friction bloomed between them. She latched her legs behind him, the instinct to keep him inside her so primitive and strong. Candace’s head fell back into the pillow when Ting managed to hit some spot deep inside her. Then she bucked against him when she felt his hand between them.

It was all so fast, the fall into oblivion, the elation, the pleasure rocketing through her body. The delight of surprise was short-lived as Ting came, another growl erupting from him but this noise so much louder, primal, beautiful.

But the next sound was the best she’d ever heard.

“Candace…”

Her name on his lips, murmured against her neck as Ting fought against completely collapsing upon her. Not that she would mind.

Her palms swept up his arms and across his back, coaxing him to relax against her. He  responded, gravity gradually pushing him down, his weight a welcome blanket.

“So that’s what we’ve been missing all this time,” she whispered.

And that was what she already missed.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Jennifer Bramseth. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotation in a book review.

Exclusive preorder link for Stave and Hoop. The novella will be released on Amazon, Barnes and Noble/Nook, kobo, and GooglePlay on May 16 (no preorders).

STAVE AND HOOP-Part 4

Stave and Hoop

Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2

Part 4 of 7

 

 

They weren’t going on a second date.

Nope, this was more like their sixth date.

He was counting all the times they had met for coffee or lunch in the past month. Those encounters had all been out of town at tiny spots along the highway or back roads. Nothing fancy, nothing very long. Barely managed to get in a decent kiss unless they went behind some conveniently located bushes or parked cars somewhere remote afterwards and made out like teenagers.

And oh, did he ever want more than that. More than hurried encounters. More than a few weeks.

He thought Candace did as well.

That’s why she’d been putting off the official second date. It was going to be a big deal.

And, he realized, she’d been delaying the inevitable.

Their goodbye.

Because he was gone the first of September.

His resignation had been submitted to the city council days after their first date. And to his surprise and pleasure, there had been a small outpouring of sadness over his departure to the big city. A few council members had even privately lobbied him to stay, but he politely declined.

He was in a relationship with an expiration date coming at him fast. He hated it but was going to enjoy it while it lasted.

And, yeah, maybe it was stupid in this day and age to worry about the expectations and prejudices of others. Like small minds in a small town.

But Candace had to go on living here.

He didn’t.

She had a father she adored, who was still hurting from losing a wife. She didn’t want to disappoint him by hooking up with—

Wait. No. They had not hooked up in that way.

Well, not yet…

Anyway, he cared about her in the sense that he wanted her to be happy. And if keeping whatever it was that was going on between them a secret did that, so be it.

And besides, maybe he’d come back someday if it didn’t work out in Louisville.

Reputations were a thing easily lost, something to be carefully cultivated and protected.

And if he could come back to Bardstown and she was still unattached—

Shut. That. Down.

There was no future in this for either of them.

But damned if he didn’t want it to be otherwise.

So tonight was the big not-really-second date.

Likely the last one, since he was leaving the next week. His house was up for sale, and he’d already found an apartment in Louisville. No way he could afford anything the size of what he had in Bardstown. And how strange it was to regret that fact when he’d been so excited to get the hell out of town.

Now that he was leaving, things became cast in a pre-nostalgic glow of bittersweet, anticipated loss.

Candace was the brightest gem in that basket of beautiful sadness.

But tonight he just wanted to see her glowing. Preferably in moonlight. And in a new dress.

Or better, out of it.

Yep, she’d told him she’d gone and bought a new one. Wouldn’t tell him anything else.

And he hadn’t told her about where they were headed that evening.

Only that she needed to pack her overnight bag.

That had been a bold move, as she was fond of saying. And Ting had expected to be completely shut down on that suggestion.

Instead, as they’d shared bad coffee in a fast-food joint in some forgettable locale, she’d smiled rather than thrown her cup of java in his face at the idea.

So one night with Candace.

Then goodbye.

That day of the purse-snatching when he’d asked her out he’d gotten it wrong.

He’d been sure she thought he was going to break his heart.

Now he was sure it was the other way around.

They were taking her car—no Bardstown city police cruiser was appropriate for this outing. But he had insisted on driving. It wasn’t the macho thing in him—well, not much. It was the cop part of him. He had the need to drive. It was like a survival instinct.

And he also liked the idea because he hoped to watch Candace fall asleep again.

That time on their first date when she’d nodded off during the short trip between Frankfort and Versailles had been a wonder to watch. Why did he like seeing her sleep?

Maybe because he’d imagined watching her do that very thing in his arms.

The coordination was the same as their initial outing. She drove to his house. When she arrived, he didn’t wait for her to come to the door, going directly to her vehicle with his overnight bag stowed inside a box for concealment purposes.

God, she looked incredible in that V-necked pink dress with her hair up…

There still wasn’t any good explanation for why they should be going off together all dressed up on Saturday night, but he hoped that the word scrawled on the side of the box would throw people off the track.

“Are my eyes playing tricks on me, or did you have the word evidence scratched all over the side of that box?”

He closed his door and fastened his seat belt. “Your eyes are perfectly fine.”

“So your bag is in that box?”

“It is. And if anybody saw the box, they might think we’re just off on police business, wouldn’t they?”

Candace snickered. “Yeah, sure—business. And here I am, letting you take me off to parts completely unknown. Overnight, at that.”

He thought he detected the slightest bit of apprehension in her voice. Then again, he was nervous as well about the night.

“Still time to back out of this.”

“Not on your life. I’ve been looking forward to tonight. Besides, I promised you this.”

They got back on the Bluegrass Parkway and headed in that familiar direction–northeast.

Candace asked, “So we’re headed back to Frankfort?”

“You want to make this another guessing game?”

“Maybe. You want to talk stakes again?”

“Considering that I got exactly what I wanted out of the last bet, not sure what else I can ask for. Except for a wonderful evening. And that’s already guaranteed.”

“It is?” she asked.

“I’m with you, and that’s more than enough.”

She sighed and put her head back on the seat. “Adam Tingley, if I’d had any idea how romantic you are, I would have given in to this a long time ago.”

“But I never gave you the chance until a few weeks ago when I asked you out.”

“Maybe I would’ve asked.”

They weren’t long on the parkway, turning off at Exit 42.

“Okay, I’m really curious now,” she said. “Bourbon Springs?”

“We haven’t established we’re playing a game.”

“Ah. Okay. I say we are. And stakes are…”

“Stakes are that we get to decide what the other eats for dessert,” he declared.

“Oh, I like that. A lot.”

“And the winner feeds the loser the dessert.”

“In the restaurant?” Her tone indicated that could be a no-go for her.

“Or maybe we could get it to go. Take it back to… our destination for the night?”

“Which you haven’t told me about.”

“I’ll give you a hint.”

“Yeah?”

“We won’t be camping,” he promised.

“Better not damned be in this dress.”

“I would do nothing to imperil the beauty of that dress.”

Even though he would love to rip it off her and—

Candace gripped the door with one hand and the dashboard with the other. “Whoa!”

He’d veered a little onto the berm.

“Sorry,” he muttered sheepishly.

“Keep your focus on the road, chief. And here I thought you were the safe driver.”

“It seems I have met my match—a true distraction.”

“And so much for not doing anything to put my dress in harm’s way.”

“Hopefully that wasn’t the last time that dress will be endangered tonight.”

Silence.

Oh.

“I… said that out loud, didn’t I?”

“You sure did.” Candace had her hands clasped tightly in her lap and stared straight ahead.

With one hand on the wheel and the other one over the lower part of his face, Ting instinctively and futilely tried to cover his embarrassment.

“Candace…”

Unlatching her hands, Candace brushed away nonexistent lint from the smooth expanse of the pink dress, taut across the tops of her thighs.

“Actually,” she said, keeping her eyes down, “I got this dress on clearance. Really great price at a little boutique in Shelbyville. So although I am rather fond of it, we’re good if the dress… meets with an unfortunate accident.”

She brought her eyes to his. No doubt he looked like an idiot with his mouth hanging open.

Eyes back on the road, chief.

“Maggioli’s. In Littleham. That’s where we’re going for dinner,” he blurted.

“Oh, I’ve always wanted to go there. I’ve heard it’s… Wait… You didn’t even give me chance to guess.”

“I just surrendered—I mean forfeited,” he said.

“So this means I get to pick your dessert. And I get to feed it to you.”

The simple statements outlining the stakes in her teacher voice had him on the edge of arousal.

Nope. Not the edge. He’d plunged headlong over that cliff already.

He shifted his weight—and other things—in his seat.

He wasn’t looking at her, but Ting could almost feel her smiling at him.

“I’m going to enjoy feeding you. Provided our accommodations are acceptable,” she added.

“They will be.”

Approaching Bourbon Springs, they both got a strong dose of mash aroma before passing through the town and then turning on the road south to Littleham. He’d been this way before, so when he peeled off Ashbrooke Pike going in a southwesterly direction, he knew that they were in for the twisty-and-turny leg of their trip.

But he took it easy on the road. Last thing he wanted was his date with an upset tummy and taking to bed without him.

Especially since this was the only time they’d have the chance to be together like that.

This dinner, while ostensibly celebratory, was really a goodbye. And they both knew it.

She hadn’t said it outright, and he didn’t expect her to. When she’d accepted the invitation not just to dinner but an entire night with him, it had been with the mutual understanding that this was a one-night stand kind of deal.

Well, that wasn’t exactly correct. They’d been going out—on the down-low—for weeks.

It had all led to this.

And then it would be over.

That was clear. He’d hinted at keeping up something between them after his move, but Candace had shot that down as an unworkable long-distance relationship.

It was completely doable. Louisville wasn’t that far away, around an hour, depending on traffic and conditions.

But physical distance and constraints weren’t the real obstacles. Those of the mind were the problem.

There was a small parking area beyond Maggioli’s, and Ting maneuvered the car into the drive. To his surprise, he found a valet service, learning that it was a new thing the restaurant had been offering. That hadn’t been one of the features he’d noticed on the restaurant’s website.

Because he had researched this place. He wanted to make this a very, very special night.

He’d known exactly how long it would likely take to drive here. He knew the wines, bourbons, salads, entrees, coffees offered. He’d even called his buddy Snipe Callaway, the Van Winkle County sheriff, to get recommendations on the best meals the place offered.

And good thing he had an extensive knowledge of the dessert menu. He was hoping that there would be cheesecake tonight—and that Candace would choose that as the treat to feed him later.

Later…

That was another well-planned part of the evening.

The walk to the restaurant proper was a short block away, and he felt like a king with Candace on his arm. She nestled into his body, the physical contact between them a comfort as well as stimulating.

Per his request when he had made the reservations, their table was secluded. They were led by the maître d’ to the back of the restaurant where a small round table was ensconced in what could be described as an alcove, painted black. Privacy more or less on three sides, with the view facing out into the heart of the restaurant.

He declined anything alcoholic when offered since he was driving.

“Garnet Center Cut on the rocks,” she said.

“Sorry, ma’am. We’re out.”

That rather did piss him off. This was supposed to be a fancy place, and he’d checked on the bourbon, making sure they had it. But not to have the exclusive bourbon made just up the road? Unforgiveable.

“Elijah Craig Single Barrel, same.”

The server nodded and disappeared.

Candace smiled, her eyes slowly roaming the environment.

“This is really nice. Thank you. It is… a bit public, considering how we’ve been darkening the doors of out-of-the-way places.” Her eyes darted to the front of the establishment, a spark of apprehension there.

“I don’t think we’ll be seen. We’re miles away from home, and we have this private table. I made a special request for one.”

Water was delivered for him, then her bourbon.

God, he loved a woman who drank bourbon. Nothing against beer, wine, or other spirits, but there was just something so perfect about a woman drinking Kentucky’s perfect product.

Especially the perfect Kentucky woman sitting across from him.

“Any chance we have bourbon at our ultimate destination tonight?” she asked.

“What kind of host or date would I be if I said no?”

“Definitely not the man I’ve come to know and—”

She stopped short, as did his heart.

“I… have a surprise bourbon as well as Center Cut at the—where we’ll be tonight,” he stammered as her face reddened.

Candace put down her drink, which she’d had close to her face as though trying to hide behind it. “How did you know I loved Center Cut?”

“I didn’t. Just a guess.”

“A hunch.”

“Maybe I know you better than I thought.”

She stared at him for an uncomfortably long period. “Yeah, I think you do.”

Their server returned, and they ordered. With the promise of salads being delivered in the very near future, the server slid the menus from them and swept away.

Candace rose, excusing herself, and Ting was completely on his feet before she was. The swift motion seemed to pleasantly surprise her, so he took it up a notch.

He took her hand and kissed the top.

“Please hurry back.”

And he meant it. He didn’t want to be parted from her any longer than absolutely necessary on that night.

The last night.

Smiling, she brought her other hand to his cheek. “If I’d only known…”

As she walked away, he felt so not like a gentleman as he took in the vision of her body sauntering across the open space.

And he quickly sat when thoughts of seeing that body in an unclothed state later popped into his mind.

He’d been denying himself those fantasies for the first few weeks of whatever it was they’d had together. Because he’d originally never entertained the idea that it would lead to—well, where it was leading that night.

In Candace’s absence, Ting entertained himself by watching the diners and servers. The dining room was full, and he was grateful that he had been lucky enough to get a reservation at a decent time that night. Who would’ve thought that a tiny town like Littleham would boast a restaurant like this? But he’d heard of the place for years, always wanting to try it, but never having the excuse to do it. Candace had given him that excuse.

And, come to think of it, he guessed it went both ways because she’d told him that she’d always wanted to come here.

The look on her face when he had told her there would be Garnet Center Cut at their destination flashed into his mind. They really were on the same wavelength.

Dreaming about Candace was momentarily pushed aside as Ting became fascinated with a couple that had entered the establishment. A tall, dark-haired man with a dark-haired woman on his arm beamed at each other. They must have been a known commodity in the community, because they were stopped at least three times on the way to their table by other diners offering greetings.

When they reached their table in the center of the dining room, an obvious place of honor, the man pulled the chair out for his date and helped her up to the table. He kissed her temple once she was in her chair, and her left hand reached up to sweep across her date’s cheek.

Ting saw the flash of a large diamond ring. They were on no simple date. That was a married couple.

They leaned in, whispering to each other. From Ting’s point of view, he had a better look at the man’s face.

The guy was completely happy, completely enthralled, completely in love—

With a jolt, Candace’s words of just a few minutes earlier slammed into his reality:

…the man I’ve come to know and—

Could she really have meant that? Or was it just a throwaway line, something she’d toss at any acquaintance and friend?

As for himself, he knew the answer.

He could easily fall in love with her. Hell, maybe he was already there.

But it really felt like they were on the edge of that. That with just a little more time they would discover that place.

But time was not something they had.

And the stupid thing was that even if he’d backed out of the job he’d taken in Louisville, the result would likely be the same.

They wouldn’t be together. So they had to enjoy it when they were.

He was so absorbed in such thoughts that he didn’t spot what should’ve been a very familiar form and face creeping up on his left.

“Ting?”

It wasn’t Candace’s voice. Nor her scent. He could already identify that, after only being around her a few weeks.

Ting turned in his seat, steadying himself for the face he expected but didn’t necessarily want to see.

Damn. Why did he have to be here? And if he saw Candace—

“Gray?” He threw his napkin on the table and rose.

“Good to see you.” Congressman Gray Vansant immediately stuck out his hand for the obligatory handshake. Tall, thin, with short gray hair and sharp, angular facial features, he looked like he’d been chiseled from granite. “Have a date, I see?”

“Ah, yes…”

How was he going to get rid of this guy?

“Don’t worry. Won’t bother you long. But tell me—when do you leave for Louisville?”

Of course Grey knew his business. He had relied upon his benefactor’s recommendation to get the job up there in the first instance. Nonetheless, it still unnerved him that the man was so entwined in his professional life. And, apparently, his personal life as well. Witness the fact that he was unwillingly intruding on what Ting had wanted to be an evening completely alone with Candace.

“First of September,” Ting said. “Still have to sell the house though. That’s going to be tough in this market.”

“Give me the name of your real estate agent, and I’ll pass the listing on to a few friends of mine.”

At this, Ting felt a surge of genuine gratitude. “Thanks.”

“So, looking forward to leaving behind the small-town life for the big city?”

“Getting used to the idea.”

Gray raised an eyebrow. “You don’t sound that excited.”

“I am. But I’m also anxious. Big culture change for me.”

“That can be hard since you’ve been in Bardstown so long. But didn’t your parents move back to Louisville several years ago?” Ting nodded. “Well, that’s good. At least the family ties will be where you’re going and there won’t be anything to keep you tied to—”

As though fate had chosen to prove the opposite point Gray was attempting to make, Candace reappeared at that moment.

So much for the man asking him a question and leaving him alone.

Gray must have seen the change in his demeanor, Ting’s eyes lingering over Gray’s shoulder as his beautiful companion joined them. Gray turned and glimpsed Candace upon her arrival.

“So… your date?”

Ting was at a loss for words, his mouth open, unable to even stutter out a response.

“Yes, I’m his date,” Candace said, stepping forward to answer the question herself. “I lost a bet with him. Long story.” She stuck out her hand. “And how do you do, Congressman?”

Oh, Ting liked that. Candace taking charge of the situation, trying to push back Gray and his asshole-dominant demeanor—and the hell away from their table.

Gray took the hand extended and lightly shook it. “Good evening, Ms. Keane. A pleasure to see you.” A pause. “That must’ve been some bet.” Neither took Gray’s bait to elaborate, and a stillness grew among the three of them. “Well, then,” Gray said after clearing of his throat. “I should leave you two to it. Ms. Keane, Chief Tingley.”

Gracing them with a nod of the head and a well-practiced smile, the Congressman left and disappeared into the reception area.

Ting remembered his manners as Candace stood there rather frozen and looking in the direction Gray had gone. He pulled her chair out and she took her seat.

Candace smoothed her napkin on her lap, looking down. “Of all the people we would have to run into…”

“So he knows we’ve been out on a date. Big deal.”

She looked up, frowning at him in disbelief. “We’re talking about Gray Vansant. He’s not stupid.”

“One date doesn’t make gossip.”

A noise somewhere between a laugh and a contemptuous grunt erupted from Candace. “Don’t kid yourself.”

“He doesn’t gossip.”

“The best politicians trade in information, do they not?” she countered.

“I’m not so sure about that. What about your friend, Senator Boyle?”

“Okay, point made,” Candace acquiesced. “She’s the soul of discretion.”

Dinner was unsurprisingly fabulous, from salad to main course. And he was happy to see that Candace not only finished her bourbon but ordered a second, a Henry McKenna fifteen-year bottled in bond.

Not because he wanted her liquored up for later. In fact, that was exactly what he didn’t want.

He was happy because Candace was enjoying herself.

Even if they left this night with bittersweet memories—which was looking like a given—he would have the recollections of her sitting back in her seat, long lovely legs crossed, favoring him with languid looks as she savored her bourbon.

That would be a picture he would always keep with him.

“Dessert,” she said once the dishes of the main course had been cleared. “Anything you can’t eat, like you’ve got an allergy?”

“Not to my knowledge. But I’m otherwise at your mercy.”

She cleared her throat and shifted in her seat. “Let’s get a menu.”

A menu was duly obtained from the server, with an offer of seeing the delicacies on a tray.

“No need,” Candace declared. “We want the double-bourbon, double-chocolate cheesecake. And to go, please.”

The server nodded and took the menu. “And you, sir?”

“Oh, she just ordered for me. She’s going to feed it to me later.”

Candace’s eyes bulged. The server blinked and stammered.

“Ah… I see. So… nothing but the cheesecake?”

“That’s it,” Candace said in a clipped tone.

The server disappeared, and Ting burst into laughter.

“That was so worth it just to see the look on your face.”

“Worth it so much that you might be feeding your face by your own little self later?”

“Hey, we had a deal.”

“I thought I was the winner. So I can decline if I wish.”

“Does that mean I get to pick the dessert instead and feed it to you?”

Turned the tables on her.

Oh. A smirk.

“I think not,” she said with faux archness. “Maybe I’ll have to think of an appropriate punishment for such… such…”

“Such what?” he asked in a low, husky voice. “And… punishment?”

That sounded like that schoolteacher thing again.

Oh man. He wanted to get that dessert and get out of there as fast as they could.

Or maybe to hell with dessert. He had bourbon and snacks at their ultimate destination.

“For such a bad attitude. You have quite the smart mouth.”

“I think I like the way that sounds, Ms. Keane.”

“Do you?”

“Indeed.”

“I think I’ll still get that dessert and make you eat it. Just to get you to be quiet.”

“There are other ways to quiet me.”

“Perhaps. But I doubt that what you have in mind would truly keep you quiet. Or me, for that matter.”

She polished off that bourbon, her eyes fixed on him. And damned if he didn’t feel himself burning up, blushing, under that stare and in the wake of her words.

God, it was more than past time to get out of there. But it wouldn’t be polite to tell her to finish her drink.

And in fact, when the server returned with the boxed treat, she indeed ordered another. This time it was Four Roses Single Barrel.

“Remember—I have some back at the ranch, so to speak.”

“I doubt I can get a to-go cup for this,” she said, raising her glass. “But worry not. I can hold my bourbon.  And I’m rather enjoying watching you as you watch me, wondering when you’ll be served your special dessert.”

Okay, that had to be the bourbon talking.

Except her stare wasn’t wobbly. Her eyes were fixed, not red. The hand that brought the water of life to her lips was steady and strong.

“Want me to ask for that to-go cup?” he finally asked.

Her head tilted, and the smirk returned. “That would have to be an open container, would it not, chief?”

“I might be willing to overlook certain niceties of the law in this instance.”

“Well, I’m not. And not just because I’m having fun teasing you—yes, I know exactly what I’m doing. But I don’t want anything to ruin this evening. And getting pulled over by one of your fellow law enforcement officers and then stumbling into trouble is not what I want to happen to you—consider the new job, after all, right?”

“So drink up.”

She did, throwing back the rest of the bourbon.

Rising, she declared she would meet him in the reception area after availing herself of the facilities.

He stood so fast he barely had time to grab the napkin in his lap. Not that he cared whether it fell to the floor. The fact was that he needed the thing to cover a rather burgeoning condition.

“Don’t forget that cake,” was the last thing she said before leaving him.

Not. A. Chance.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Jennifer Bramseth. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotation in a book review.

Exclusive preorder link for Stave and Hoop. The novella will be released on Amazon, Barnes and Noble/Nook, kobo, and GooglePlay on May 16 (no preorders).

STAVE AND HOOP-Part 3

Stave and Hoop

Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2

Part 3 of 7

 

 

“This is going to involve bourbon, isn’t it?”

“How’d you guess?” she asked.

“Being in central Kentucky, it’s always a possibility. But the big clue was the sign that said this exit leads to three different distilleries.”

After only being on the highway for ten minutes, Candace had taken the first exit off the road at Lawrenceburg, going north.

“So can you make another guess where we’re going?”

He smiled. “What do I get if I get it right?”

“You really like playing games, don’t you?”

“Sometimes.”

“You’ve already got that extra date with me,” she said.

“And I’ll take anything else I can get when it comes to you.”

The admission startled her, but the honesty did give her a little thrill. And Ting just kept on grinning.

“Then our stakes will be ice cream. But you have to guess right now. And only one guess.”

They were at the bottom of the exit ramp, and she lingered, knowing there were no cars behind them and that soon he would be able to determine their destination by the road she took.

“Ah… Wild Turkey?” he ventured.

“Wrong. Four Roses.”

“They sell ice cream there? And this late on a Friday night?”

“In the summers their café stays open late on weekend nights to sell sandwiches and treats. We should have plenty of time.”

“I didn’t know they had a café there.”

“Recent thing. The distilleries in Bardstown could learn a thing or two from them. I heard Four Roses got the idea from Old Garnet. They’ve got a large café down there in Bourbon Springs. Food and ice cream are supposed to be incredible. I’ve been wanting to go test their wares myself.”

They were at the distillery in less than five minutes after getting off the Parkway. The parking lot behind the main building and where the new café was located was nearly full, and Candace had to hunt for a few minutes for a spot. After she found one, Ting once again helped her from her vehicle, and they entered the bright yellow building holding hands.

She’d always loved the architecture here. Spanish Mission style, sunflower yellow splashed across the exterior walls everywhere, and terra cotta tiles on the roof. The motif had been extended to the new construction, giving the grounds an elegant, consistent look.

Four Roses had crafted a sweet little sandwich shop and ice cream parlor. The tables had those chairs with wrought iron heart-shaped backs, the seats covered in yellow vinyl to match the booths along the wall to the right. The menu behind the counter was written in a multitude of colored chalk, with food scribbled in red or pink and ice cream in yellow or white. Hand-drawn clusters of roses edged the board. And on every table was an emptied Four Roses Single Barrel bottle, each holding four long-stemmed deep red roses. If it hadn’t been for the smell of freshly baking bread and cookies, she was sure that the scent of the flowers would’ve occupied the entire diner.

They examined the menu as they waited in a long line. As time passed, Candace saw that they were not going to be able to find a seat inside the diner. They’d have to go outside to enjoy their treats.

They both got the same thing: a waffle cone with bourbon-vanilla ice cream, topped with a drizzle of hot bourbon caramel. Ting paid, since he’d lost the bet.

Outside was almost as busy as inside. The picnic tables and benches were fully occupied.

“Guess we’ll have to stand around and eat, unless you want to go back to my car and sit,” Candace suggested.

“And that would be a shame on a night like this. Too lovely.” He stared at her as he finished the sentence ,and a light breeze brushed a strand of hair into her face.

“You just don’t want to get back in the car because that means going back to Bardstown and the end of this.”

“Yes and no.”

She took a lick of her ice cream. The bourbon-vanilla-caramel mixture almost made her moan out loud.

Then the look on Ting’s face told her she had actually done that very thing.

“Sorry, but this is really good. And tell me what you meant with that yes-and-no comment. Teachers don’t like a vague answer.”

“I meant that you were right about my not wanting to go back to Bardstown.”

“Figured.”

“But you were wrong about that other part.”

“What other part?”

“Tonight’s not the end of this, Candace.”

To hear him voice her hope took her breath away. She tried to hide that fact with brashness.

“You’re suddenly a mighty bold man, Mr. Tingley. Or should I say chief?”

“Whatever you want call me, Ms. Keane.” He looked over his shoulder across the parking lot. “As I recall, there’s a patio around the far side of the distillery visitors’ center. Care to go over there?”

She peered in the direction he had indicated with a nod of his head, seeing no light coming from that area nor any human activity.

She took his hand. “Lead the way.”

The patio was a completely deserted circular pavilion. Around the circumference of the concrete slab were three large gas grills spaced equidistantly from each other. This place must be the spot for special event cookouts—she could almost smell the burgers and steaks. Bourbon barrels cut in half were placed around supporting pillars, petunias spilling from their depths and saturating the air with a sweet, spicy scent that always made her think of her mother. She had planted the flowers the first chance she could after the danger of frost and always in pink.

“Such a happy color,” her mother had insisted. “And the world needs plenty of happy.”

That had been the first time that night Candace had thought of her mother.

She’d gone for hours without dredging up memories. As Candace fixed her eyes on the ebony fringe of the tree line across an open field beyond the pavilion, an unfamiliar mixture of relief and guilt washed over her.

“Candace?”

Ting was standing next to a chair he’d pulled out for her from a table.

“Sorry. I just… I like the flowers.”

She took the seat, and Ting pulled up a chair next to her. Then the silence took over; her mood had irrevocably altered.

Yet as more reminiscences of her mother flooded her, she didn’t feel sad. And that had been her standard operating procedure over the past three weeks. Everything was a reminder of the loss. Scents, images, sounds—the world of the past so easily conjured for sadness in the present.

But she’d just passed several pleasant hours without the burden of grief.

And that was thanks to him. He had filled that space for her.

Had he known she needed this? An escape, a diversion? They’d not gone near the subject of her mother’s death over dinner, instead talking about work, the upcoming school year, and his new job in Louisville.

Of course he’d known.

And when the chance had presented itself—a date and a chance to do a good deed wrapped into one, Adam Tingley was not about to resist the call of being The Nice Guy.

His arm rested on the table, and she placed her hand on it. The skin was warm, the muscles oh-so-hard and smooth.

“Thank you.”

Surprised, he started in his seat, but then smiled. “What did I do?”

“You’ve shown me a wonderful evening. You’ve… taken my mind off things. Nothing has been able to do that for a very long time. Except you.”

He laughed in a self-deprecating, endearing way, and she knew she’d hit him where it hurt—his ego. She’d complimented him and he was uncomfortable with it.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you just told me I was special.”

“I did just say that, Adam.”

The use of his proper name changed something between them. No longer was she in a cocoon of grief or self-important worries about what other people thought.

And all she could see was him sitting next to her, looking at her like he wanted to throw his ice cream away and devour her instead.

His eyes scanned the area, then came back to her.

“Give me your cone.”

“What? Why?”

“You trusted me up to this point. Keep trusting me to find out.”

She handed it over, the paper wrapping still tightly coiled around the cone.

He rose and took a few steps over to the nearest planter full of cascading petunias. Turning first to smile at her, Ting bent and stuck the sharp tips into the soft potting soil.

“Why’d you do that?” she asked.

He returned to stand before her, holding out his hand.

“I’d like our hands to be free for our first kiss.”

Her hand slipped into his as she came to her feet.

“You are a bold one tonight,” she whispered.

He brushed a thumb across her lips. She shuddered.

“You’ve given me reason to be.”

His hand came to her cheek, and in that split second she tried to recall the last time she’d been kissed.

And then the answer no longer mattered.

He lowered his mouth to hers. He was strong but soft. So eager yet scared.

As she responded, she melted into him, falling against his body, her arms wrapping around his waist as one of his hands gingerly rested on her hip.

Ting pulled away, his fingers sweeping over her cheek.

“Nice for a start,” she said.

And then she felt herself burning up with embarrassment and… What was that other feeling?

Oh. Lust.

Yeah, that was good old-fashioned jump-in-my-pants-and-other-parts lust right there.

“Is that another way of saying you’re abandoning your ice cream?” he asked.

“I’d like another taste of the dessert right in front of me, thank you very much.”

Suddenly she was flat against him, pulled into his body by his strong arms. His mouth, previously so tentative and even respectful, now became demanding, desperate, greedy. He towered over her, moving her back against the chair, bending her over as he kissed her lips, cheeks, neck.

And all Candace could do was wither under the attack.

When he’d finally released her and they fell apart, Candace looked upon him with eyes anew.

The man had made her weak in the knees. Unsteady on her feet. Punch-drunk.

“Wow…”

The simple but heartfelt comment made him grin broadly and hold her even closer.

“I think I’m going to like this game we’re playing,” he said.

“Me too. But how long do we get to play it?”

The grin faded, her words cutting through the happiness. “If you want to stop, I’ll understand. I don’t want to put you in a position where you feel uncomfortable or obligated to go on the second date with me.”

She put a hand on the back of his head, relishing the feeling of the short yet smooth hair under her fingertips.

“I’m an adult, and I’ll play this game as long as it’s fun.”

Even though she sensed the endgame was not going to be fun at all.

Ting shook his head. “I can’t do this if it’s eventually going to break your heart.”

She laughed just a little; it was all she could muster.

“Ting, it’s already broken. I just lost my mother. I saw her slowly fade and suffer miserably. I gained hope, lost hope, gained it again only to have it ultimately stolen from me when she died. We thought as late as a week or so before she left us that she was going to make it. Being with you has helped me forget all that horror and pain. You can’t hurt me any more than I’m hurting right now. There’s nothing left in me to break.”

His eyes searched her face and Candace was close to unleashing a torrent of sobs. Desperately wanting him to kiss her again, she closed her eyes in invitation and as a barrier to tears.

Yet instead of feeling the anticipated and much desired brush of his lips against hers, she was swept into a strong, tight hug. Once more that night she melted into him, the warmth of his body and his soul wrapped around her, protecting her, if only until time ran out on their game.

* * *

If not for the meeting with the governor that afternoon, Coraleigh wouldn’t have bothered coming into her capitol annex office at all. But she had left some reports there instead of taking them back to Traveler’s Rest, and she needed to review them before diving into deep education policy discussions with Governor Cassidy and his chief of staff, Gil Humston.

Even though it was a perk of her position, she didn’t care for her physical office. The place was sterile and devoid of anything remotely resembling taste to the point where it felt like a fallout bunker than professional space. She deemed it unnecessary since she had a perfectly respectable office back in Woodford County, cozy yet adequate, and easily located by her constituents since it was in an old house on Main Street.

Uncharacteristically, Coraleigh had kept the front door of the office locked that day, since she didn’t have any administrative support and she needed to focus on digesting the reports. Cassidy was widely known as a charming rogue, to the point of being flirtatious. But that exterior hid his true personality when it came to his governing style: a total policy wonk. The man had an astonishing grasp of the ins and outs of state government, and Coraleigh knew she’d have to be on her toes for this encounter.

Her computer finally booted up and she checked her email. She moved all constituent emails into a special folder; she would respond to those when she had more time, most likely later in the evening at home when she could login remotely. She deleted spam (she didn’t need to jump-start her weight loss, didn’t care for any “free” vacation options, or need help in the bedroom, thanks), made an appointment for lunch next week with her cousin-in-law, Nina Cain, and sent a thank-you to the secretary of state’s office for help with a research request.

Then a reminder popped up:

Oral argument—10 a.m.

Hell. She’d forgotten about that.

It wasn’t her oral argument. If it had been, she wouldn’t have needed to put a reminder in her calendar about it. The stress of such an experience would’ve been the only alarm clock she needed.

She had never argued before the Kentucky Supreme Court but had a feeling that day was coming soon with a few cases she had in the pipeline. Few things could make her feel fear, but the thought of standing before seven robed justices as they picked apart her arguments as she tried to make a case for a client was one of them.

Coraleigh pulled up the court’s website and navigated to “Oral Arguments Calendar” in the right column. Another click on the month took her to the schedule for that week.

The PDF opened, and she scrolled down to that morning’s arguments.

There was only one.

Samson v. Jupiter Communications

Breach of contract. Damages. Discretionary review granted over six months earlier. Appellant got adverse results at the trial court and  intermediate appellate level.

She’d read the briefs. Hard to figure out exactly why the supreme court was interested in the case. The players were big—a businessman and a large regional corporation battling over some public relations contract that went awry—but the issues were pretty ordinary.

She suspected the court might’ve granted review due to the parties. As in big campaign donors. Jupiter Communications just happened to be owned by a friend of Gray Vansant, the congressman everyone expected to run for governor when Cassidy termed out, even though Cassidy was only in his first term. People could see the future sometimes even if it was years away and the road leading to it littered with campaign as well as dollar signs.

And yet that’s not why she was interested in the case.

Very few likely took note of the attorneys. But she had the moment she’d seen the oral argument schedule for that month (she was on the email list, being the law nerd she was).

Attorney for Appellee: Clay Maddox London

Seeing him a few weeks earlier at the restaurant had been jarring. They hadn’t laid eyes on each other since Russell’s funeral, and that encounter—if staring at him longingly across a gravel parking lot after her husband’s funeral could be called that—was a moment she wished she could completely erase from memory.

Then she could’ve sworn he had been outside that restaurant that evening, looking across the street and into the windows where she had sat consoling Doug Keane. That poor man. He was completely shattered by the loss of his wife. She couldn’t say quite the same thing about losing Russell. And that made her feel awful. They’d been headed for another break—this time involving lawyers instead of merely harsh words and tears.

She never should’ve married on the rebound. Russell never knew that, of course. He’d thought they’d just gotten together after another temporary falling apart and that this time they’d stay together forever just because they happened to get married.

But what had occurred during that short time Russell had been out of the picture last fall had produced heartache she’d carry for the rest of her life.

And now she was sitting there thinking about actually going to watch the man who could so easily dredge up such painful memories?

Could she do it? Could she sit there and watch as a dispassionate legal observer?

The idea was laughable.

And she didn’t know whether she could hide herself well enough from Clay’s line of sight. The courtroom wasn’t that big. She didn’t want to be a distraction to Clay. Even though she was aware he was a seasoned appellate advocate, she feared her presence could make him lose focus.

Selfishly she still wanted to go.

If only there were a way to see how full the courtroom was before she entered. That way, she could just sneak in the back and—

The idea blossomed in her head, and she was out of her chair.

After locking up the office, she headed outside to cross the street to the capitol. She could’ve used the connecting tunnel between the buildings, but the lovely summer’s day beckoned.

The quickest way into the capitol was straight across, of course, but having a small cushion of time, Coraleigh wandered to the right. A detour through the capitol rose garden on a day like this was required.

It was rare that she got to visit the garden—being too busy was really a poor excuse not to enjoy it. Tea and floribundas erupted in color through neatly aligned rows. Her mother would’ve approved of the display. Athena Boyle loved any kind of rose, and had her own garden behind Traveler’s Rest.

Well, she had in the past. Now confined to the care facility, the only roses her mother enjoyed were the kind brought to her from Traveler’s Rest rather than those in bloom outside.

Coraleigh didn’t linger long and traipsed across the street, taking the mansion side entrance to the capitol. A glance in the direction of the governor’s residence showed her that the roses in the garden fronting the house were also in full bloom.

If only her mother had had the chance to be First Lady. The number of rosebushes would’ve tripled over there.

Inside, she flashed her ID badge at the state troopers holding down the security checkpoint. They waved and greeted her by name. She wasn’t sure who they were, so she stopped, shook their hands, and got their names. They seemed shocked by the attention.

She made her way to the clerk of the supreme court’s office on the second floor.

And directly across from the thick wooden door that was the entrance to the courtroom.

“Hi, Senator Boyle! What’s up?”

“Hi, Mellie,” Coraleigh greeted the deputy clerk. The two had gotten acquainted a few months earlier when Coraleigh needed an answer on a technical issue when filing a brief. “Elise around?”

Mellie shook her head. “Madame Clerk is not here. Court’s about to open.” She pointed to the video monitor on her desk.

“Ah, yes. Court Week. Arguments today. Justice Labrot sitting for the first time?”

She moved to the side of Mellie’s desk and peered at the monitor. The courtroom was reasonably full, which surprised her. She spotted Clay and her heart did a nervous jump; he was at counsel table, back to the gallery, materials spread before him. A legal warrior preparing for engagement.

“He’s already sat on a few but not this one. He’s recused.”

Coraleigh pretended not to know the case and got the info from Mellie. She then announced she’d go and watch the argument as a matter of professional curiosity.

“Have fun,” Mellie said. She thought she caught a bit of an eye roll as she left.

Coraleigh checked the time on the clock jutting out from the wall above the courtroom entrance.

Two minutes. The justices were about to go on the bench. Now or never.

She grabbed the brass doorknob, the state seal deeply engraved on the surface, and entered. Staying close to the back wall, she kept her head down but eyes to the front of the chamber. When she took a seat in the most remote corner under a window, Clay turned as someone reached over the bar and tapped him on the shoulder.

And in that moment, his eyes strayed to the corner, his face tensed—

“All rise.”

The small forest of people stood along the benches, and every head whipped to the front of the courtroom. The clerk, Elise McNabb, had just entered, the justices following.

Elise opened court with the standard admonishment and prayer, concluding with the command that all be seated.

Chief Justice Helen Nolan addressed the attorneys.

“Ms. Minton, Mr. London,” she said, causing both to rise immediately. “As you are aware, Justice Labrot has recused on this matter since he was Mr. London’s law partner until his recent appointment to the court. He will take no part in the resolution of this matter. Now that we have that on the record, we shall proceed. Ms. Minton, as counsel for appellant, you have fifteen minutes. How much time do you wish to reserve?”

The argument began.

As good an attorney Elizabeth Minton was, and Coraleigh knew of her reputation although not the woman personally, it was clear from the first question that her client was not in a good spot.

And that the case itself—the facts, the issues—was monstrously dull.

Good faith, bad faith. Breach and notice. Damages. All those law school terms were tossed about as legal word salad, leaving her decidedly peckish for something more substantively interesting.

So Coraleigh tuned out and focused on Clay.

She could see his back and sometimes his profile as he studied his adversary, then looked down to scribble a note.

He was so familiar, so engaged in the moment.

“Ms. Minton, your time is up.” The chief justice looked to Clay. “Mr. London, you may proceed.”

Clay went to the podium without a look behind him. He placed a thin three-ring binder of notes on the lectern before him, addressed the court, and launched into his argument.

Coraleigh had never seen Clay in court. She had never practiced against him or had any dealings with him as counsel in any matter.

So to see him in his element, using his wits and words and in full command of his considerable legal talents, was a gift.

He was respectful yet forceful. When the questions inevitably came from the bench, he expertly answered or deflected them. Where Elizabeth Minton’s presentation had been professional but ponderous, Clay’s performance was more akin to a well-trained and flexible dancer, moving deftly from topic to topic as his examiners peppered him with questions designed to throw him off track.

Like that would ever work on him.

He even had the most cantankerous jurist, Justice Knott, a hardened former prosecutor from eastern Kentucky, laughing as he admitted one of the weaknesses in his case.

“You realize, Mr. London, that should this court be divided due to the recusal of your former colleague, the decision of the court of appeals will stand? Your client will prevail?” Justice Knott asked.

“Indeed I am, your honor.”

“So I guess it’s fair to say that if those circumstances come to pass, you will be most pleased to celebrate your law partner’s success?”

“I am most aggrieved that I have lost such an excellent law partner, but happy that this court has the benefit of the best legal mind of his generation in Kentucky.”

“By that logic, Mr. London, you have just excluded yourself from that lofty pedestal,” chief justice said, looking over her glasses at him. Several justices laughed.

“Well, I should. I have no illusions that, even though I was in the same firm as Justice Labrot for far too short a time, I will ever be in the same league when it comes to his brilliance. And if he should unexpectedly retire from judicial and legal endeavors, much to the detriment of all, I still would never approach being worthy of his mantle. For what it’s worth, the only other lawyer who could possibly give Leo a run for his money–excuse me Justice Labrot. Old habits die hard.” The justices laughed at this correction. “Anyway, the only other lawyer of my generation who could come close to challenging your new colleague in terms of skills, brains, hard work, and compassion is sitting in this courtroom. But I digress.”

The justices scanned the room in some confusion. Heads in the gallery swiveled, including her own, but found no obvious candidate to match Clay’s description.

Then Coraleigh realized Clay had meant her.

As Clay resumed his argument, she hunched into her seat, futilely attempting to make herself invisible and disappear into the corner of the courtroom.

Why the hell had she taken the risk to be there? Even though not all the justices had spotted her, she was sure that the chief justice had noted her presence.

“Mr. London, your time has expired. Thank you.” The chief justice nodded to him, and with a quick thank-you, Clay retook his seat. Elizabeth Minton once again went to the lectern and finished her argument.

“Thank you, counsel,” the chief justice said, cutting off Elizabeth in midsentence. “The court will take all this under advisement and issue a ruling.”

The justices rose as one, causing everyone else in the courtroom to rise a millisecond later.

“The Supreme Court of Kentucky is now in recess,” the clerk announced as though that wasn’t obvious to all.

The court snaked out the door behind and to the right of the bench, Elise following. Once the door shut and all signs of black robes were gone, a visible wave of relaxation rippled through those remaining in the courtroom.

Coraleigh immediately retook her seat, seeking the camouflage of bodies between herself and Clay.

Nonetheless, she was able to snatch peeks of him as he shook hands and chatted jovially with Elizabeth Minton.

There was the very picture of professionalism and collegiality: two lawyers who had just gone to battle before the highest judicial authority in the state, zealously holding forth for their clients, yet now engaged in the pleasant chatter that flowed not only between professionals but mature adults. It was this image that the public had difficulty understanding, believing that attorneys who so behaved were colluding against their clients’ interests. In fact, it was the mark of excellence in the practice of law. People should want attorneys who got along rather than those who practiced Ramboesque and scorched-earth style. Those lawyers made the profession look bad and tended not to get as good results for their clients as a more pleasant and calm demeanor did.

That was Clay in a nutshell. Smooth. Self-possessed. In control.

Except when it came to how they interacted personally.

No, the friction, passion, and energy between them had never allowed for pleasantness and comfort. Experience and the expectations of others had created a much more perilous landscape between them.

A landscape that was now barren and silent.

The crowd began to disperse, seeping through the one courtroom entrance through which she had entered around an hour earlier. It appeared that the parties had not attended the argument, as Coraleigh could not spot anyone sitting behind the bar behind the massive counsel tables with whom the attorneys had intimately conversed at the conclusion of arguments.

Elizabeth was gone.

But Clay remained.

A young man in an ill-fitting suit appeared at counsel table beside Clay and helped him pack up his materials. The man had every mark of a law clerk, or perhaps a very green associate. But Clay did not delegate the entire task to his fresh-faced assistant, instead pulling his own weight to pitch in to get his materials in order. Not every attorney would do that, and a flush of admiration—no, it was another feeling—bloomed in her chest.

By the time Clay was packed up and ready to go, the courtroom was empty of observers and there wasn’t anyone between herself and Clay to even partially obscure her from his view.

The clerk or associate took charge of Clay’s two stuffed and cumbersome rolling briefcases. Clay nodded to the guy, placed a hand on his shoulder, and dismissed him.

When the kid was gone, Clay and Coraleigh were the only ones left in the courtroom.

Yet they weren’t alone.

The courtroom video monitors were on in the clerk’s office. And from what she knew of the court’s interior workings in their conference room behind the courtroom, there were monitors back there as well.

“To have an audience,” Clay began, his voice shocking her as he stared straight ahead and not at her, “is always a compliment. But to have an audience of those one respects is an honor.” He turned, looking directly at her. “And it is an honor I will never deserve.”

A tense smile was visible on those painfully familiar features, his head bowed.

Then he straightened, turned away, and strode quickly from the courtroom.

Once alone, Coraleigh struggled with why she had come, why she had stayed, and what she was feeling.

She blinked, the entire courtroom snapping into focus as through a lens.

The reasons, the feeling—it was all right here in front of her in exquisite, painful relief.

She was alone.

As well as lonely.

And yet it felt as though the world was watching her in her not-so-splendid isolation.

A thing on a pedestal, admired, talked about, observed, just like a bust of a long-ago justice that graced the back of the courtroom.

Coraleigh didn’t bother wondering whether Clay was outside in the hall waiting for her.

Her heart knew he wasn’t.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Jennifer Bramseth. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotation in a book review.

 

Exclusive preorder link for Stave and Hoop. The novella will be released on Amazon, Barnes and Noble/Nook, kobo, and GooglePlay on May 16 (no preorders).

 

 

STAVE AND HOOP-Part 2

 

Stave and Hoop

Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2

Part 2 of 7

 

 

So this was what passed for throwing caution to the wind. At least for her.

Black linen pants, turquoise twinset. Pearls. Flats. Hair up in a messy bun (not to be sexy but because she was lazy). Light makeup.

And driving to pick up Ting. For their first date.

No.

Only date.

He was leaving, moving to Louisville, around an hour away. She was happy—a relative term—in Bardstown.

But tonight they would not be in the heart of their old Kentucky home, but traveling northeast to the state capitol for dinner. There was a chance she might be recognized, but doubted it. And she knew her father wasn’t around; she’d checked his calendar. He was on some trade trip to Canada.

Now she was off to pick up her date.

Date.

Hadn’t had one of those in a while. Like about a year. Dealing with her mother’s illness had been all consuming for her and her father. No personal life beyond the core family.

And it looked like it would remain that way for the foreseeable future, tonight being one very brief exception. She just didn’t have the energy to do much more than simply survive. As she had expected, going through her mother’s personal items that afternoon had been draining.

The oncoming school year was something she was looking forward to just to get back into a routine. With her mom gone, she had been left adrift, no structure in her life. Some might find that liberating. She had found it terrifying.

Ting’s house was a small ranch out beyond the eastern edges of the town. His neighborhood was older, which meant that the lawns were bigger and sprawling. Few neighbors. But that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be prying eyes.

She pulled into the driveway and immediately spotted him sitting on his front porch. His arms were splayed across the back of a patio couch, and he had one leg crossed over the other, ankle to knee.

As Candace put her car in park, he popped up from his seat. She immediately took notice of his attire.

Sports coat over a simple white dress shirt. Pressed khakis.

Clean and simple. As she had predicted, perfectly presentable.

“Waiting on me?” she asked as she approached the porch.

Ting had moved to the front step, standing slightly above her. “Didn’t want to risk it that I wouldn’t hear the doorbell when you arrived.”

“How very conscientious.”

She turned and made for her car, but he touched her arm, stopping her.

“Even though you’re the driver, allow me to show off some of my good manners and open your door for you.”

She smiled and pressed her key fob to unlock the vehicle.

After he had done his gentlemanly duty, Ting rounded the car and got in the front passenger seat.

“So where are we headed?” he asked as his seat belt clicked. “I know we’re not going somewhere here in town, but I’ve been racking my brain trying to guess where you might be taking me.”

“I’ll give you three guesses.”

“What do I get if I get it right?”

“So our game has stakes?” she asked.

“Every game has stakes, if only the satisfaction of getting it right.”

“But you seem like the kind of guy who isn’t satisfied with such meager spoils.”

“It depends. Right now I’m just enjoying being with you. That might be enough.”

“I don’t think so. Because you were the one who brought up the idea of stakes.”

“Point made. So what are we playing for?”

“If you guess correctly,” she said slowly, “I’ll buy your dinner. We hadn’t discussed that detail of our outing.”

“Since I did the asking, I always accepted that the bill for dinner would be my responsibility. So I don’t think I can agree to those stakes. Can we do something else?”

She side-eyed him, not sure what to make of his assumption or insistence that he would pay for the meal. Nonetheless, she was not inclined to argue the point.

“Well, what do you suggest?”

“If I get it right, without any hints or clues from you, you’ll agree to go out with me again.”

So he was playing for much higher stakes. Should she call his bluff?

“That presumes, beyond the unlikely situation of your getting it right, that this date will not be a disaster and that you’d want to call me on that bet.”

“I’m willing to take my chances. What about you?”

Could this conversation be any more filled with double meanings?

“Okay. Deal. Three guesses only. And no help. Those are the terms.”

“Got it.”

Candace turned onto the Bluegrass Parkway, the main highway between Lexington and points southwest. She went to the northeast.

That was a clue.

“So we’re not going to Elizabethtown or Louisville,” Ting reasoned, which were in the opposite direction.

“Was that one of your three guesses?” she asked.

“Hardly. Just talking all this out.”

Silence descended as Ting fell into thought, giving her the further chance to study him with short, furtive glances.

There was nothing remarkable about his attire, nothing she had previously overlooked. But as they sat there together in the silent hum of travel, she was again reminded that he was exceptionally handsome man. And she had to wonder why, in his midthirties, someone as nice and well-positioned as a small-town chief of police hadn’t found another to share his life with.

Then again, that kind of thinking presumed that everyone was expected or required to romantically pair up with another. It was that same outlook that fed the cult of the One True Love.

And Candace wasn’t sure she bought into all that.

While it would be nice to find someone who shared her interests as well as captured her heart, she also wasn’t going to delude herself that she was destined for that kind of match. Nor did she believe it was essential to her long-term happiness.

“I think I’m going to have to hold off on making my guesses. The longer we travel, more dining destinations will be eliminated as possibilities.”

“Like what?” she asked. “Or are you just too timid to make any guesses?”

“It’s not fair that you’re taunting me.”

“Maybe bad sportsmanship, but I don’t remember such conduct being prohibited by the rules.”

“That kind of talk makes you sound like a lawyer.”

“I think you just insulted me,” she said, although with a laugh.

“No, just relating an observation.”

She looked sideways at him and caught him doing the same to her.

“I suppose you have plenty of interactions with attorneys. Have to deal with them in prosecutions, right?”

“Yes. But not as much as I used to. When I was just an officer, I had to testify in a lot of cases. As chief, my duties are more administrative.”

“Today’s little foot chase and arrest being the exception. We’ll both be witnesses if that case gets tried.”

“True enough. Just how do you know so much about the law?”

“I don’t. But one of my best friends is a lawyer.”

“From around here?”

“No. Lives in Woodford County. Coraleigh Boyle. You know, the state senator.”

“Yeah, I’ve met her.” The note of disquiet in his voice was clear.

“How?” she asked. “And just so you know before you answer: she is one of my closest friends from college days.”

“When was the last time you spoke with her?”

“Oh… well… other than my mother’s funeral and the few days after, I couldn’t say. And isn’t that awful? Here I am claiming she’s one of my nearest and dearest.”

“I’m sure you’ve been… preoccupied,” he said, treading lightly. “But that gives me courage for what I’m about to say.”

“Be careful. Remember what I said about this date becoming such a disaster that you wouldn’t want a second one.”

“Again, that would mean I’ll guess correctly as to where we’re going.”

“So tell me how you met Corrie.”

“About six months ago, she was representing a kid on a misdemeanor charge in district court. It was one of those rare instances where I did have to testify. I’d caught the kid with a can of spray paint, walking away from freshly painted graffiti behind the cathedral. Charged him with vandalism. He claimed he had just come upon the scene and had picked up the can to throw it away. I didn’t believe him.”

“Corrie got him off the charge, didn’t she?”

“She sure did. Tried it to a jury, and they found him not guilty. Even though it was some misdemeanor juvie case, that was the most intense cross-examination I’ve ever been put through. But no hard feelings.”

“Doesn’t sound like it. Seems like it’s a bit of a sore spot for you.”

“Maybe it is. Because I happen to know the kid had been previously convicted of the same offense.”

“But you never actually saw him using the spray paint?”

“That was the very question that Senator Boyle asked me. My answer is the same: no. And now I’ll repeat what I said before. You sound like a lawyer. You’d make a good one.”

“You also said I’d be a good politician. So stop with compliments. Being a high school history teacher is plenty excitement for me, thanks.”

The miles passed, and they fell into another silence. Not because it felt awkward or contrived but because they had relaxed in each other’s presence.

And as they moved along the gray ribbon of asphalt, the scenery was more than sufficient to distract and even enchant.

Moving northeast, the low hills receded, and the land unfurled into the fields of the Outer Bluegrass. Out this far from the center of the state, the landscape was not the same as that depicted on postcards of perfect thoroughbred horse farms, with stallions roaming on emerald pastures amidst a weave of black plank fencing undulating across fields.

But to her, it was all the more beautiful for its contrasting charms. This more untamed milieu always made her feel comfortable, a signal she was close to home.

They had almost made it to the Kentucky River when she exited the highway and headed due north.

Ting said, “Frankfort. We’re eating in Frankfort.”

“I think I should count that as a guess.”

“No fair. I didn’t even mention a restaurant.”

“You’re really into this fairness business, aren’t you?”

“Who isn’t interested in being fair?”

“Don’t make me out to be the bad guy here,” she said.

“I’d never do such a thing. Especially after you agreed to go out with me. But I note  you didn’t deny we’re going to Frankfort.”

“No comment,” she said.

“Too late for that. I sensed it. I’m a cop, remember? I can read people.”

At this reminder, Candace shifted in her seat. Ting noticed that too.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to creep you out. Can’t help it sometimes. I’m always on alert, I guess.”

“That must get tiring.”

“Sometimes. But having been in law enforcement for so long,  it’s second nature.”

“So you couldn’t stop if you wanted to?” she asked.

“Not sure. Haven’t tried.”

“You’re a tightly wound guy. What do you do to relax?”

“You saw it. I was out for a run this morning. Also like to hike. But reading is good too.”

“Are you an introvert?”

“Of course I am. Surprised you didn’t know that.”

“Why would I know that?”

“You’re one as well—damn. There I go again,” he said.

She laughed. “It’s fine. Besides, we recognize each other, right?”

“I suppose. But mostly I thought you’d know I was an introvert by how long it took me to finally ask you out.”

“I never attributed the lack of an invitation to your being an introvert, Ting. I thought it was you simply being a cautious man with a high-profile job in a small town. You’re the police chief. I’m the daughter of the former mayor, now the lieutenant governor. You two didn’t have the best relationship. Deciding you didn’t need certain complications in life was a mature decision.”

“You make me sound reasonable rather than cowardly.”

“Watch it. You’re lumping me in with the cowards.”

She kept her eyes on the road but could tell his head was turned to her. Maybe mouth open too.

“I refuse to believe you’re a coward, Candace.”

“And I refuse to believe the same of you.”

He reached for her hand and held it on top of his thigh.

“Hard to drive that way,” she said. “Might need that hand.”

He released it. “Sorry.”

“That didn’t mean I didn’t like holding your hand. Just so you know.”

“Thanks for the clarification.”

“You’re the one sounding like a lawyer now. And… since we are getting close to our destination, it is time for those guesses,” she said.

“Frankfort… Frankfort… not too familiar with that town,” he muttered to himself.

“You have to guess. Or you forfeit.”

“Not going to do that.” He paused. “Well, the only place I know that takes reservations is Melucci’s. Went there once after I testified before a legislative subcommittee with other local law enforcement about the need for jail reform. Across from the Old Capitol.”

A long pause. She didn’t look at him but smiled.

“Don’t take me anywhere fancy next time. I don’t want to buy a new dress.”

“Wait… you mean I got it?”

“Yep. In one.”

“And you’re really agreeing to go out with me again?”

“I made the bet in good faith, and I’ll keep my word,” she said.

Ting scratched his chin. “So you do play fair.”

“It seems you have discovered the truth about me.”

“Then if you’re that honorable, will you do me another honor?”

She briefly glanced at him. “Another honor?”

“The first was going out with me tonight,” he explained.

“Please. But what is this other honor?”

“Buy that dress. Or at least wear your best one. Because I do want to take you to a fancy place.”

Unwillingly, the image of the last time she had worn her best dress popped into her head.

Her navy-blue silk sheath. She’d gotten it a few years earlier to wear to a friend’s wedding. Made her look great but was comfortable, and was easy to accessorize. The perfect dress-up dress.

Except she’d worn it to her mother’s funeral.

Maybe she should burn the thing.

“I think I might buy a new one. Not for you, mind you,” she added quickly. “But I do need something. My best dress—well, it’s… got a stain on it I can’t get out.”

The stain of painful memory.

“We don’t have to do fancy—“

“No, that’s fine. I’d like to dress up for dinner.”

Traffic picked up a little as they approached the capital, and conversation dwindled as Candace had to navigate only marginally familiar roads. And then there was the incessant road construction from which the town always seemed to be suffering. Lanes closed, signs up and blinking warnings, orange barrels and cones stretching for miles.

And not one worker in sight.

As they wound into the heart of the small city, chatter focused on the weather and complaints about the construction. She wanted to ask him more about his move, but reasoned dinner would provide that opportunity and kept her curiosity locked up for the moment.

Parking was plentiful near the restaurant, although confined to parallel spots. She expertly managed to slip into a curb space between two other vehicles.

Ting was out of the car in an instant, walking to her side, opening her door.

This was nice.

While it had been quite some time since she’d had a date—or even any kind of steady boyfriend (and that had been at least two years ago, come to think of it), those other guys were…

What, exactly?

How was Ting different?

He held out his hand to help her from the car.

She took it, and he gently pulled her to her feet.

Ting then made sure she got to the sidewalk first and, keeping her between himself and the street, offered her his arm.

She took it.

Ah, yes.

Ting was a gentleman.

They were about a block away from the restaurant. Across the street, Broadway, which was split by railroad tracks, was the Old Capitol grounds. Behind them was the Kentucky History Center, where she brought her class of seniors every spring on a much anticipated field trip.

And since her father had become lieutenant governor, they also got to stop at the capitol across the river for a special reception. In the past, he had welcomed students to his mayor’s office, but she had to admit being able to have a private tour of the building and going up into the dome was a nice perk.

They approached the restaurant, first passing a large window where a private party appeared to be living it up. A titter of laughter resonated through the glass pane as they passed.

The tiny reception area inside the restaurant provided a complete view of the entire space except for part of the bar to the far right and that private room they had passed. The place was packed, and Candace wondered where their table might be.

She gave her name, and the hostess frowned as she looked at her tablet computer.

“I don’t think we’re quite ready for you yet, Ms. Keane. I’m so sorry. If you could please wait.”

And off she went before Candace could answer.

“That doesn’t bode well,” Candace muttered.

“Maybe they just have to get the table cleared.”

“I hope so because I was looking forward to the hot brown here.”

“What about the hot brown at the Tavern?” Ting was referring to the dish as offered by the Old Talbott Tavern, a Bardstown landmark.

“Oh, it doesn’t hold a candle, of course. But—”

She was stopped short by a very familiar woman with chin-length black hair, emerging in the main restaurant area from that party room in the back.

The two locked eyes at once, the familiar drawn to the familiar.

“Candace?”

“Corrie?”

Coraleigh Boyle, the very woman they had briefly discussed on the trip up, wove her way amongst the tables to the reception area. The two friends embraced eagerly.

“What are you doing here?” Candace asked.

“Dinner with an assortment of state officials,” she replied, pointing over her shoulder. “It’s like a buffet of elected folks. Why don’t you two join us? Your dad’s back there—”

What?

“Yeah. Just a small dinner with a few legislators and cabinet members. Governor’s not there, of course. I think your dad asked me here because he was feeling sorry for me. And it’s true I’ve been a bit of a hermit since… well, lately.”

Corrie had become a widow only a handful of months earlier.

“I thought my dad was in Canada,” Candace said, looking up at Ting.

“Nope, he was there last week,” Corrie informed them. “He’s been in there telling us all about his trip. I… ah… came out to get a bourbon at the bar.”

“He’s been talking your ear off, that’s what. No wonder you want to escape,” said Candace.

“So come to the bar with me—both of you—”

“Oh, sorry. This is Ting—I mean Adam Tingley.” Candace placed a hand on Ting’s shoulder.

“Senator.” Ting extended his hand, and Corrie took it.

“Chief! I remember you!”

“I should think so since you tore me to shreds.”

“Not from my point of view. You were cool, calm, and collected. Not to mention the local law enforcement star since you were the chief. Thought you had that jury in the palm of your hand.”

“That was you, senator.”

“So you two up here on a date? Want to join us?”

“Ah, no—I mean about joining you. But thanks. Didn’t know my dad was back from Canada,” Candace said, speaking rapidly. “I don’t really want to… um…”

“I get it. Just wanted a quiet place to go. Bit of privacy.” Corrie nodded, and her bobbed, dark hair bounced around her face.

“Not going to get it here,” Ting said.

“Do you mind if we go elsewhere?” Candace asked him.

“Not at all. As long as you still say I won that bet.”

“What bet?” Corrie asked.

“You won it,” Candace said to Ting, ignoring Corrie for the moment. “But where to go now? I’m not that familiar with Frankfort.”

Corrie opened her mouth and got out, “What about P—”

The initial eagerness in Corrie’s eyes died as she focused on something behind Candace.

Turning, she saw that a man had just entered the establishment. He was vaguely familiar—and her brain told her that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Tall, dark-haired, and thin yet with a certain muscularity about him, the newcomer swept his ebony eyes to Corrie. He held her gaze for a few moments, then stalked away to the bar.

“Who was…?”

“You should go to Versailles,” Corrie interrupted.

“Versailles?” Candace asked.

Corrie blinked several times and focused on Candace and Ting. “Absolutely. We have a great restaurant there called Poston’s. It’s in a converted train station, and they saved as much of the original fixtures and surfaces as possible. The hardwood floors are original, and they even have an old blackboard that the station used to note the departure and arrival times of trains. Great steaks and even a decent hot brown.”

“Only decent?” Ting asked.

“I mean, it doesn’t measure up to the one at The Brown Hotel, or certainly not at the Tavern,” Corrie said with a nod to them. “But it is awfully good.”

“I think I’m sold.” Ting looked to Candace for agreement.

“If Corrie recommends it, we can’t go wrong.” Candace pressed her lips together, struggling with whether or how to say the next thing. “Do you mind not telling my dad that you saw us? I hate to ask that, but I’m just not in the mood for questions should he learn that the two of us,” she said, gesturing to Ting and herself, “were out and about.”

Corrie’s eyes darted to the bar and back. The man who had entered was sitting there and looking over his shoulder in their direction.

“Don’t worry. I won’t tell. We’re all entitled to keep certain things to ourselves.”

After a fleeting hug and quick goodbyes, Candace and Ting departed. As they crossed Broadway and the train tracks that split the street, Candace realized that when they left, Corrie had not proceeded to the bar to get her drink.

“Tell me why we’re crossing the street instead of walking directly back to your car?” he asked.

“Because I don’t want to pass that window again and risk my dad seeing us, that’s why.”

Candace stepped up onto the curb, and they found themselves directly in front of the Old Capitol, the limestone building bathed in bright light and glowing like a pearl in the broadening twilight. “Besides, it’s a nice night. An extra bit of a walk won’t kill us.”

“Indeed it won’t.” Ting took her hand.

With a smile, she said, “Making the best of things, I see.”

“I have to take these chances while I can.”

She glanced back to the restaurant. “I can’t believe we actually ran into her after talking about her. Then again, I shouldn’t be that surprised. Corrie’s already well known in the capital. And a dinner at the best restaurant in town with other officials is exactly the kind of place she’d be. I should’ve expected to run into someone in this town.”

“And did you see who else we ran into or at least saw?”

“Are you referring to that man who came in when we were talking to Corrie?”

“Yes. That was Clay London.”

That’s why he looked familiar!”

And that also explained Corrie’s reaction and why she didn’t proceed to the bar to get her drink. Running into that particular former friend naturally had put her off.

“You know him?” Ting asked.

“Only by reputation through Corrie.”

“I’ve met him a few times. Gray introduced me to him at Fancy Farm last year.”

Fancy Farm was a huge political picnic in far western Kentucky, a tradition in the Commonwealth’s politics.

“He didn’t seem to recognize you.”

“That’s because the only thing he was looking at was her.”

When they arrived at her car, Ting asked, “Would you like me to drive?”

She was tired, so she handed over her keys with appreciation. Ting did his gentlemanly duty again and helped her into the car, and then they were off again.

Once in the warm confines of the car, the claim of sleep was too much to resist. She nodded off, only to awake when they arrived at the restaurant in Versailles.

And she was all apologies.

“How rude was that?” she asked as they walked in together.

“Not at all. And better for me to drive us here than someone sleepy.”

Inside, it was just as Corrie had described. They sat in the bar, replete with televisions broadcasting baseball games.

Neither of them had anything alcoholic to drink, although she was craving a good bourbon. And the temptation was great: an entire wall of bourbons, some rare, was at the back of the bar, several bottles on prominent display.

Taking Corrie’s advice, they both ordered steaks and were not disappointed. Candace was ravenous; the nerves and tiredness had really done a number on her.

But if she was a bit of a wreck, Ting was the opposite. Or good at hiding it. Perhaps he felt a certain confidence knowing that he was going to get at least one more date out of their deal.

And what exactly was their deal?

Two dates and then… it was over?

That had to be the plan. That was the only plan.

Even though she wished circumstances were different.

“Dessert?” he asked. “They have a bourbon-chocolate cake.”

“Oh, not sure…”

She wasn’t thinking about the cake. She was thinking about him.

And how she would truly miss him.

He’d been a fixture in the community for years. First as an officer, then as chief.

And maybe he’d been a fixture in her mind as well, as though she expected him to always be there.

But why?

Why would she care? Why would she miss him beyond—

“Candace?”

His face seemed to be right in front of hers, even though he was across the small table. The look of calm concern, the light blue eyes…

“What?”

“Would you like to get dessert? That cake looks good.” He passed her the small laminated dessert menu, complete with a huge color picture of bourbon-chocolate cake—bourbon courtesy of Wild Turkey.

“Oh my, that’s far too much.”

“We could split it.”

The trace of eagerness in his voice was endearing. He wanted to extend this encounter. So did she.

But she had a better idea than cake. “Let’s get out of here. Go for a walk somewhere. Get some ice cream or sorbet.”

“I like that. But I don’t know this area. Where could we go?”

“Hmm. It’s not exactly romantic, but I have an idea.”

“Anywhere with you tonight is romantic.”

The long look caused the heat to rise up from her chest. And a distinct flush crept across Ting’s otherwise pale features.

He broke first, looking for the waitress, who was nearby. After restroom trips and paying the bill, they were back on the road, this time with her behind the wheel.

She drove straight through town and then hopped back on the Bluegrass Parkway. The same road that would take them home.

“Don’t tell me we’re headed back to Bardstown just yet,” he said, clearly disappointed.

“I’m not about to tell you that. We’re off to get ice cream. You’ll like it. Trust me.”

* * *

Either by accident or design, he could not keep away from Coraleigh Boyle.

And the damn thing was that Clay didn’t know whether that was a good thing or bad thing.

Since she had told him more or less to get the hell out of her life, he had now seen her four times.

The first had been that conference where she waltzed away with that idiot right in front of him. He wanted to think she hadn’t seen him. Because if she had, that little display with Russell just days after she’d ended their affair would’ve been nothing short of cruel. And he didn’t like to think she was  capable of cruelty.

The second time was when he had made a complete and utter ass of himself by getting far too drunk at the former chief justice’s retirement party. True, he’d had his reasons for imbibing too much. First, that had been the first and only time he had seen Corrie out with her husband. So he drank to numb himself. The second, and more charitable reason for his inebriation, was that his basketball team had just won an important victory.

But the truth of it had been seeing Corrie there and married—and so obviously unhappy—had been far too much for him to bear sober. And that was saying something, given his abilities to master his emotions.

The third time had been her husband’s funeral. He wasn’t sure what had possessed him to go; his presence there was, he knew, not expected or welcomed. But he knew she had to be in pain. That was a call he could not resist. When he’d seen her there outside the church, talking with family and friends, it had taken every bit of resolve he possessed not to go to her and hold her and not let her go.

Because even though part of him did want to comfort her, the needy and vulgar part of him told him she was free. Unattached. His to claim.

But he’d walked away that April day. April was indeed the cruelest month.

And now, tonight, the fourth time. All he’d wanted was a decent bourbon at the best bourbon bar in Frankfort. He needed one—or maybe more—after a long and grueling trial down the street.

He hadn’t gotten the results his client wanted, but it was probably the best outcome he could’ve reasonably expected. It was a minor miracle that he’d gotten the change of venue out of Louisville; that really had been the thing that had saved the client from a more serious homicide conviction. Manslaughter was nothing to sneeze at, of course, but it sure as hell beat a murder rap. And Clay had no doubt that if the matter had been tried in that city along the river, the client would be looking at number of years in prison rather than a handful. Local people tend to hold local folks accountable—and be damned hard on them.

And he also had no doubt that if that damned detective hadn’t lied through his teeth on the stand, his client would’ve had a shot at acquittal. That asshole had made up stuff that just didn’t make sense when it came to some of the facts surrounding the case. Even though Clay had crossed him hard and thought he had thoroughly impeached him, the jury sided with the detective. That was always a risk with any witness. Sometimes to show them for the liar they were—or at least to reveal a faulty or inconsistent memory—the lawyer ended up looking like the bad guy instead of the liar on the stand.

There were too many stories about that detective; he didn’t have the best record. Complaints of brutality. Improper use of equipment. Insubordination. But having a relative on the Louisville city council probably went a long way toward shielding the guy from serious disciplinary action.

Another good thing about not having to try the case in Louisville was that he didn’t have to stay there. He hated the town now. Too many memories.

Living there with his ex-wife had been pleasant enough until the end of the relationship. Finding her cheating on him in his very own home rather did taint his whole outlook about the former marital residence (they had sold as soon as they could, because he wasn’t going to keep the damn house) and, by extension, the town.

And the London family house in Louisville didn’t hold any happy family recollections for him. Even though his mother owned the home, his father tended to inhabit it, staying away from Heddenfield. So Clay avoided that residence. Time spent away from his father was time well spent.

So an overnight at a downtown bed-and-breakfast in historic Frankfort was a reasonable solution, even a bit of an indulgence. It allowed him to go out and get a good dinner and, as he was doing at that very moment, treat himself to some damn fine bourbon.

His mood, while a bit on the dour side, had not been truly bad, despite the long and rather unsuccessful day.

Until he’d laid eyes on Corrie.

It was stupid, but he felt abandoned by her, and God did that ever hurt.

In truth, she owed him nothing. But their final break had been so brutal. He’d been torturing himself over the past months, wondering whether but for the miscarriage if the relationship would’ve continued.

But how could they have done that? Even though they’d been successful at keeping their affair a secret, their time together during those all-too-short weeks late last year had made him realize he was more in love with her than ever.

But he’d been too stupid to see until the very end that she was right there with him.

And that’s what ultimately pushed her away.

The possibility that they could’ve had a child together but had no plan beyond hooking up from time to time?

And his failure to tell her that he loved her despite having every chance to do so?

When Corrie had considered those facts, regardless of her own feelings, no wonder she dumped him. She was a rational woman who, while passionate, would always be led by her head rather than her heart.

And good for her.

But not so good for him.

The bartender kept eyeing him. Only natural since he was on his third bourbon. He was going to have to give it up soon that he wasn’t driving. As for now, he would have to sit politely and quietly and not give any indication of just how drunk he was.

Because he was sloshed. He hadn’t eaten and was tired—both brain and body. Bad combo.

He’d only planned on having one, maybe two. Then when he’d seen Corrie, the amount of brown water suddenly required to get through the evening had increased considerably.

It was a pattern and a dangerous one. Whenever he found himself dwelling on her—which was far too often—the first chance he got to be alone with a bottle of bourbon saw him indulging. It was a bad practice, and he began to fear that the weakness was in his genes. Addiction had a genetic quality one could not always outrun.

Rather like one’s troubles.

“Garnet on the rocks.”

The familiar voice, so unexpected, snapped Clay out of his self-pity.

“Mr. Humston, good to see you tonight.” Clay extended his hand to Gil, his former law partner, now the chief of staff to Governor Cassidy.

“Wha—Clay?” Gil blinked a few times then offered his hand to Clay, and they shook. “What the hell are you doing here? Spying on us?”

Clay brought his glass to his mouth and looked straight ahead. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” For once, this was true.

“I just happen to be back there at a small dinner party with the lieutenant governor and a bunch of other self-important people. Can you tell me that your presence here is mere coincidence?”

The bartender delivered Gil’s drink, the glass making that soothing thud on the wooden surface of the bar. The recipient nodded his thanks and immediately took a long appreciative sip.

“That’s exactly what I’m telling you. Had a trial here in town and I’m done.” Clay eyed his companion and frowned. “So just how did you escape the goings-on back there? It sounds like the kind of gathering where you wouldn’t want to miss a moment of anything.”

“I’m here because I have to be, not because I want to be.”

“So you mean to tell me the governor’s back there?” Clay asked.

Gil sipped and took his time before he answered. “Although the governor was supposed to be here tonight, he sent his regrets—and the lieutenant governor and me—at the last moment.”

“I do hope nothing is wrong. Is he away with family?”

“The first lady and the kids are at the beach. He… took some time off.”

Lots more was going on there than Gil could say, and the man was angry and itching to say more. But Clay wasn’t going to put his friend on the spot and ask too much.

“I think I must take issue with your description of your dining companions as self-important. Because when I entered this establishment, I glimpsed Senator Boyle. I wouldn’t lump her in with the majority of narcissistic politicians, unless she has undergone a significant personality change recently.”

“I didn’t mean to include her in such a motley crew. But just how would you know about her personality and whether it recently changed? No love lost between you two, right?”

Clay threw back the remainder of his third bourbon. “All too true. But one need not be personally acquainted with the good senator to have heard of her angelic disposition and altruistic tendencies.”

“Spoken like a true cynic.”

“So who else is back there?”

“Let’s see. In addition to Senator Boyle, the lieutenant governor, the chief justice and Leo Labrot—”

“Leo’s back there? Haven’t seen him since he got sworn in. Man’s a ghost now that he’s on the bench.”

“He’s only been a justice for a few weeks.”

“And why is he here tonight?”

“Chief justice’s invitation. She wanted him to get used to a bit of the life in Frankfort. His first Court Week isn’t for two more weeks.” Gil pulled out his phone. “I bet he’d like to sneak away for a bit.”

As Gil tapped away, Clay ordered his fourth bourbon—and a hamburger. Time to get something in his stomach besides Kentucky ambrosia or else risk his gut burning up on him. And also so the bartender wouldn’t cut him off.

About a minute later, another familiar face appeared in the bar. Clay rose from his barstool onto unsteady legs.

“Mr. Justice Labrot,” he said, extending his hand and trying not to weave on his feet. “An honor to see you.”

The two men shook hands.

“Still so strange to hear myself called that. So what are you up to, London?” He looked Clay up and down. “A little worse for wear tonight?”

Clay explained that he’d had a trial that day, and Leo remembered the case, Leo having been his law partner only a few weeks ago.

Clay and Gil persuaded Leo to join them at the bar whereupon the justice immediately ordered a bourbon.

Clay swung his head in the direction from which Leo had come. “Conversation back there getting a bit boring for you this late into the dinner hour?”

“Let’s just say I needed a break,” Leo said, loosening his tie. “You won’t hear me say a bad word about the chief justice or Senator Boyle.”

His bourbon was delivered, and Leo took to it surprisingly quickly.

That dinner back there in the private dining room was more tiresome than the polite Leo Labrot would admit.

Clay’s hamburger arrived, and he dove in, ravenous for a big chunk of protein. He was usually a fairly light eater but whenever work really stressed him, he found himself going for the caveman kinds of food. Steaks. Burgers. Bourbon.

“And Senator Boyle,” Leo said, shaking his head. “She’s back there being all solicitous and sympathetic to the lieutenant governor. I guess they are in an exclusive and sad club, both of them having lost spouses so recently.”

“You could throw in Garner to that club as well,” Gil said.

“Not sure he belongs anymore. He got married last month,” Leo revealed.

“What the hell?” Gil said. “He lost his wife only in October or November, right? But you’re telling me he’s already found someone new?”

“Not someone new. Someone old. Well, not exactly old but from the past,” Leo said.

“You mean to tell me he and Nina Cain got back together?” Clay asked.

Leo nodded. “Yep. And you’ve just proven you know everyone’s business, London. Even those you don’t like.”

“Especially those. But since when did I have to prove or disprove the extent of my trivial knowledge about anyone?”

“To maintain that reputation of knowing something about everyone, no matter how trivial,” Gil answered instead.

Leo took a sip of his bourbon as he laughed at Gil’s spot-on assessment. “They got married in a field or something a few weeks back. Just family from what I heard. It all sounds kind of crazy, but I’ve met Nina and she’s great. I’m happy for them. Nice to know people get a second chance to get it right.” Gil suddenly finished his bourbon and asked for a second as Clay choked on a bite of his burger. Leo, standing between them, patted Clay on the back. “But I can’t even avail myself of second chances, seeing as how I live like a monk more or less. At least lately.”

“That’s a polite way of saying you’re a law nerd,” Gil said out of the side of his mouth without turning his head.

“And he has reached the ultimate law nerd level. A justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court.” He raised his glass to Leo. Gil’s second bourbon was delivered at that moment, and the two clinked glasses in front of Leo’s face before imbibing.

“How much have you two had?” Leo asked, looking from friend to friend.

“Not enough,” they said in unison.

“Wrong answer,” Leo said.

“I can’t wait to hear you tell me that from the bench as I stand in the well of the court someday,” Clay said.

“Don’t need to be a psychic to know that’s in our future.”

“I’ll likely be hearing it in a few more weeks but from your colleagues and not you. I’ve got an argument at the court. You’re recused, of course, since it was a firm case.”

“I’m sure I’ll get my chance to embarrass you sooner or later,” Leo said.

Clay straightened his spine, trying his best to don a mask of indignation. “I am perfectly capable of embarrassing myself without any assistance, thank you very much. As conclusive proof of that factual assertion, I point to my abhorrent behavior at the former chief justice’s retirement party.” Leo laughed, but it was an uneasy face of amusement.

Clay ate and listened as Leo and Gil chatted, learning that Leo had yet to pick his new office in the capitol and that Gil was going on a family vacation in a few weeks. He sounded miserable at the prospect, and Clay could guess why.

Because Clay and Gil weren’t just former law partners. They’d been related by marriage until recently. Clay’s ex-wife  was sister to Gil’s wife, Leslie. She had struggled with substance abuse for a number of years. That had been an open secret in the firm. His former in-laws, the Rowans, had tried to cover it up and cover for their daughter for years.

Gil had given his wife plenty of second chances, from what Clay knew.

Second chances. How many of those had he had with Corrie?

And then that damned urge for bourbon consumed him again. Dare he get another—

“Clay?”

He turned to see Leo staring at him.

“What?”

“Just saying I have to get back to the party. Unfortunately.”

Once more with the handshaking and good wishes and all that crap that passed for warmth between professional men. He liked Leo and Gil. But he didn’t know them that well beyond the professional world, although he’d likely count them among his best friends. And that was a rather pathetic commentary on his quality of life.

Clay gripped the new justice on the shoulder. “Good luck, Leo. You’re going to be a great addition to the court. But do me a favor.”

“And what might that be?”

“Stop living like a damned monk and just live.”

To his great credit, Leo was not offended and laughed heartily. “It’s not as though my social horizons are about to expand. In fact, they’ve shrunken considerably.”

“Then get more creative about where you look,” Clay advised.

“And what about you?”

“Me?”

“Sitting here drinking with two buddies after a trial on a Friday night? Surely you have better things to do with your time,” Leo said.

“I most certainly do not. Being with friends is an honor I would never denigrate. Besides, my lifetime allotment of romance has been expended.”

“I doubt that. But if that is true, you’ve just saved yourself a lot of heartbreak as well,” concluded Leo.

If only that were true.

Leo and Gil returned to the other room, leaving him completely alone the bar. How odd for a Friday night, but he relished the solitude. To a certain degree.

He finished his burger and the only other drink he requested was a glass of water. The bartender gave it to him with an air of relief.

Outside, it was humid yet comfortable, a light breeze sweeping away the weighted stickiness of the summer air. At that time of year, the light in the sky simply would not die until after ten o’clock; it was a few hours until the sun surrendered completely to the horizon.

And what did he have to look forward to?

Going back to the B & B and crashing? Watching some mindless television or playing with his phone until sleep claimed him?

Fun times.

As he had no other place to go except to sleep in a lonely room, he found the grounds of the Old Capitol beckoning him, and he responded. Once across the street, he turned back to look at the restaurant. The windows glowed along the darkening streetscape and he could see several empty tables in the main dining room. Dinner was winding down.

Except in that back room where Leo and Gil had returned. The party continued there.

He strolled away from the main entrance to the Old Capitol grounds to get a better peek into the window, hoping that—

She was there.

Corrie was sitting right next to the window, giving him the best view he could hope for in the twilight. Across from her was Lieutenant Governor Keane, looking hunched and tired as a new widower had every right to be. His head was bowed as he spoke, and Corrie nodded as she listened. When he stopped, she said something.

And the man laughed.

So she was an angel. She could relieve the grieving of their sorrow, if only for a passing moment. That quality had the touch of the divine.

Her head turned, and she stared out the window into dimness.

Had she seen him? It wasn’t so dark that it was impossible.

Clay knew he’d been spotted as the voyeur he was when her gaze lingered in his direction.

Walking away from the scene and out of her line of sight, he headed for his solitary room, comforted and tortured by the vision of her, wondering when he might again glimpse her to reignite such wonderful agony.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Jennifer Bramseth. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotation in a book review.

 

Exclusive preorder link for Stave and Hoop. The novella will be released on Amazon, Barnes and Noble/Nook, kobo, and GooglePlay on May 16 (no preorders).

 

STAVE AND HOOP–Part I

“But desire recognized desire, especially when denied.”

Here’s another free read for newsletter subscribers–the serialized version of Stave and Hoop, Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2.

Say hello to Candace and Ting, two characters new to the Bourbonland world.

***

Foreword

Terminology

Staves and hoops are the elements that create a barrel. They  craft something exquisite—the vessel which holds the water of life, aging it until it becomes something new and wonderful—bourbon.

But they also bind, contain, and restrict—at least until the time the beautiful thing that has been crafted is ready to be released.

 

Author’s Note Regarding Bourbonland Series Chronology

This novella takes place shortly after the end of Sharp Practice (Bourbonland Book 1) and during part of the following book, Notice of Appeal (Bourbonland Book 2). There are no spoilers in this work for Notice of Appeal.

Stave and Hoop

Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2

Part 1 of 7

 

It had been exactly three weeks since her life had changed forever.

Outwardly, everything was the same.

Same job.

Same clothes, hair, makeup.

Same house and car.

Same friends.

But heart and soul? Those were different matters entirely.

Because three weeks ago to the day her mother had died.

The breast cancer could not be kept at bay and eventually Georgia Keane had succumbed at the age of sixty. They’d had hope until that last horrible week. Or maybe that had been her father and herself being unreasonable, in denial, unable to cope with the reality of unthinkable loss.

Candace had been holding her mother’s left hand, her father her right as her mother passed.

Then there was the funeral. Lovely and inspiring, appropriate for the wife of the lieutenant governor of Kentucky. Her father had been devastated, nearly inconsolable for about a week. But then somehow he’d cleared the worst of the grief and struggled back to work and to the state capital. Governor Cassidy had recently dumped some task force about taxes on him and being the dutiful second, Doug Keane had thrown himself into the endeavor, the distraction of work pulling him from the hell of heartache.

As for Candace, she hadn’t completely fallen apart like her father.

But she also hadn’t bounced back like he had. She never would.

And three weeks later, instead of getting back into the swing of things, instead of being buoyed by the support of her colleagues and students at the high school where she taught history (even though it was summer break, they had been there for her), she found herself adrift.

Counseling helped. But it could only do so much.

Only time was going to help. She’d hoped being with her dad would take the edge off, but no such luck. Since he’d gone back to Frankfort, she’d only seen him a handful of times since the funeral.

Corrie had been there for her. Jessa as well.

At the visitation. At the funeral. And Corrie had remained a few nights after, staying in the home Candace had grown up in. The same home she’d brought her friends to when they’d been sorority sisters at Centre. Those fun weekends were now as distant as the ancient history she taught her students.

But Corrie lived and worked an hour away. Candace couldn’t expect to lean on her so hard in days and weeks ahead. That woman had her plate full, practicing law and serving in the state senate.

And as for Jessa Mercer, while she’d been at the visitation and funeral, she was consumed with her work for the state parks department and trying to prevent a horrible development happening over in Perryville that would partially destroy the historic site. Jessa had refused to use their friendship to lobby her father. It would’ve been futile anyway, since his influence in so many matters was limited.

It hadn’t been that long ago that they’d all been in college together. The only worries they’d had were where they were going to grad school and how they were all going to stand being separated. Corrie and Jessa had gone to the University of Kentucky—the former at the law school and the latter in the history masters program. But Candace had gone to the University of Louisville to get her master’s in education.

They’d all stayed in touch, but nothing matched the closeness of college.

Maybe she was just being immature and pining for more carefree days. Indulging in the pleasantness of the past to momentarily take away the pain of the present. Nothing wrong with that.

Unless it kept you from moving on.

Which was exactly where she found herself.

Because sitting in the municipal park in Bardstown watching the ducks peck at the surface of the water was not helping her get on her with life even if it was a lovely Saturday morning in July.

Candace liked to come here and walk; it was one of her favorite places in town.

When her father had been mayor, he had spearheaded the development of this site. The land had been an abandoned dump, but he’d seen the potential in it when others had failed to do so. She had no idea how he’d gotten the city council to go along with the plan to buy and convert it to a public space, but they’d given in to their super-civic-minded mayor. The problem came later when the money hadn’t been there—as had been promised—to clean up the site and improve it. Candace had never been sure what had happened, but was certain that Gray Vansant, their congressman, hadn’t been straight with her father about the availability of federal funds. Her father had never discussed specifics, but she’d heard the rumors around town. Gray had either promised too much and failed to deliver or, worse, had backed up on the offer, fearing Doug was a rival for his seat. Whatever had happened, the men had fallen out—and they had at one time been good friends.

Her father had suffered adverse political consequences—the city council became dissatisfied with him, prompting little political battles about other issues. And he’d even drawn an opponent in the mayoral race, something that hadn’t happened in his sixteen years in office. He’d won but only after the fortuitous intervention of state and private foundation grants funded by the local distilleries to help with the project. Candace strongly suspected Corrie’s hand in the whole affair, even though at the time Corrie hadn’t been elected to the state senate yet. But she still pulled plenty of strings.

The morning heat became stifling, but still Candace sat watching ducks and admiring flowers. The daylilies were in full bloom, and they naturally reminded her of her mother. She’d planted them all around their house outside.

The memory triggered another.

A bouquet of fragrant stargazer lilies, Candace’s favorite.

The bouquet in question had been at her mother’s funeral. The sender had not sent a card.

He hadn’t needed to. She knew. And appreciated the support.

That had made her feel so guilty. Because Ting was a nice guy.

Always opened a door for her.

Always nodded and said hello.

Always had a smile.

And on those occasions where they were in some public place—a restaurant, city hall, the sidewalk as the Fourth of July parade passed—his eyes always ended up locked with hers even if only briefly.

Solid. Dependable. Sexy.

But also the chief of police who hadn’t always gotten along with her father.

His support had come from the council members. And from Gray Vansant, who had given him his first job as security head for one of his campaigns.

But being her father’s daughter, she couldn’t touch him with a rickhouse-length pole.

Even though she’d been sorely tempted.

She suspected he felt the same way, even though he’d never asked her out, never made a move, never said or did one untoward thing.

But desire recognized desire, especially when denied.

The heat of the day shimmered in the distance across the pond, and swarms of bugs hovered over the water’s surface. Time to get in that walk before it got completely miserable.

With a grunt, Candace rose from the bench, stretched, and put in her earbuds. But no music was forthcoming. She’d forgotten to charge her damn phone.

So her walk would be accompanied by the sounds of nature instead of the soundtrack from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II. Yeah, that was a bit on the macabre side. As far as mood boosters, it just wasn’t one. But wallowing in sadness had a certain comfort from which she found it hard to extricate herself.

Very few people were around that early, and the relative solitude was nice. It allowed her to review a mental checklist of the stuff she needed to get done that day, which was substantial.

Her father had tasked her with going through her mother’s items and taking what she didn’t want to charity. The probate was to be simple enough—her dad got everything with the exception of her mother’s jewelry and small bequest of funds to herself.

Candace couldn’t blame him for not wanting to pick through his deceased wife’s personal effects. He’d given Candace carte blanche to take whatever she wanted—and there would likely be some clothes Candace ended up taking—but the task itself promised to be taxing physically as well as emotionally.

The rude clatter of Canadian geese mildly roused her from thought, but Candace kept her mind on her mental checklist.

Except the noise wasn’t coming from any waterfowl. That was yelling. Screaming. Angry voices right behind her—

Candace spun on the spot.

Several yards away, a man was running at her, full bore, his face contorted in fear and determination, something held closely against his body.

“My purse! Stop him! Stop him!”

The perp was going to run right past her.

Well, not if she had anything to do with it.

Candace hopped off the walking path and found a downed tree branch, the detritus of the previous evening’s storm.

As the thief closed in, she held out the branch a few inches above the path.

Then things went all cartoony and in slow motion.

As the robber glanced over his shoulder at his pursuer, the branch perfectly snagged his foot. He tumbled, going airborne, losing the purse as he flew, and falling hard on the path ahead of him.

He hit the asphalt with something between a crunch and a scrape, a muffled scream escaping him.

A woman soon came upon the scene, stopping a few yards back when she saw the criminal splayed over the ground. She looked at Candace, then to her purse.

“He tripped.” Candace smiled and pointed to the branch.

The woman laughed as she spotted her handbag. She jumped over the branch and scooped it from the ground.

Then the purse-snatcher started to stir. He pushed up quickly from the ground, his face a bloodied mess. A sneer rippled across his ugly visage when he spotted Candace, then the woman from whom he’d stolen. He gave every appearance of an animal about to strike.

So Candace whipped out a tiny pink device from her pocket.

The loser didn’t see it since he was focused on the victim and the purse. As he lunged toward his quarry, the woman screamed. Candace slid back the safety cover and pulled the trigger, causing tiny darts to fly from the Taser and land on her target.

The guy made a noise like he’d been punched hard in the gut, then doubled over and collapsed like a house of cards, twitching and grunting.

“Nice shot.”

Candace cursed and the woman screamed as they both turned to see the very man Candace had been thinking about just minutes earlier.

Bardstown chief of police Adam Tingley was standing right behind them.

The chief placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Ma’am, are you all right?”

“Yes… yes. This lady right here,” she said, weakly gesturing toward Candace, “managed to stop him.”

The chief looked at the branch on the ground, then smiled at Candace. “Tripped him, huh? Why did you do it?”

“He stole her purse. She was screaming. Just doing my duty as a citizen.”

Ting proceeded to step over the branch and hunched over the thief, who remained on the ground and unable to move.

“Aw hell, it’s you, isn’t it, Butch? Didn’t you just get out on parole? Or are you on probation? Never mind, I know you can’t talk ‘cause she zapped you good.”

Ting helped retrieve the little projectiles that had exploded from her Taser.

“Nice device. How’d you get it?” He handed the darts back to her.

“Can’t you guess? State police insisted on it since I’m the lieutenant governor’s daughter and all,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Like anyone would care about that. But I humor them and carry it around. I think it makes my father feel a little better about my safety.”

Candace put her Taser back together as Ting called for backup on his cell and then briefly interviewed the victim.

“I’m sorry, ladies, but I’m afraid I have to ask you to stick around for a while. You’re both obviously witnesses. I’m gonna call an ambulance to get our suspect here checked out, as well as you, ma’am,” Ting said, nodding to the woman, who was quite shaken.

Ting led the woman to a nearby bench as she clutched her purse to her chest. Candace took a few steps back, keeping a wary eye on the now–restrained assailant, who was slowly recovering from the nasty jolt Candace had delivered via her little pink monster.

Two ambulances and a sheriff’s deputy arrived within minutes.

“You shouldn’t have done it, you know. Dangerous to try to stop someone like that,” Ting said as the EMTs first tended to the assailant.

“I thought I did a damn good job.”

“You did, but that’s not the point. Still dangerous. But that’s not to say I don’t admire what you did.”

“And how is it you’re conveniently on the scene?”

“Not out on patrol, I can assure you. Just out for a run.”

He was dressed similarly to her, in T-shirts and a shirt and shorts, along with running shoes.

She’d never seen him out of uniform like this before.

The shirt was a little too tight across that broad chest. The shorts a little too snug and high.

Damn, those thighs—

Deep breath and look away.

“Can’t you get my statement here? Do I have to come back to the station?”

Ting scratched the back of his neck, and she noticed that the tiny black hairs of his close cut were now sprinkled with flecks of gray. “I suppose so. But I don’t want to make you uncomfortable if you don’t want to be alone with me. Even though I certainly wouldn’t mind the chance.”

She stared at him in shock. Did he just make a move?

“I—no—it’s not that at all. I never meant to give you that impression.”

“I’ve most definitely gotten that impression. But I also believe you’re sorry.”

Ah. So he didn’t think she was being cruel. Maybe just hard to get? Aloof? Clueless?

More like seriously sexually frustrated.

Did he sense that?

Oh God… he had just made his move…

“Thanks for the lilies,” she said, turning away quickly and staring toward the ambulances.

What the hell to say to him? She’d never really thought about the possibility that he might actually say something to her after all these years—

“I’m sorry about your mother, Candace. I was at the funeral. I don’t know if you saw me.”

Keeping her stare on the ground, she said, “No, I didn’t see you. Then again, it’s all a blur. Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise.”

As the awkwardness ate at her, she shifted her weight. She wished he would just get her statement so she could go. Or think. Or move.

“So now what for you? Going to move up to Frankfort with your dad?” he asked.

“No, this is home. My life is here. And someday my dad will no longer be lieutenant governor. He’ll come right back here to Bardstown to retire. And the sooner the better.”

Ting turned his whole body to her, his face screwed up into confusion. “That sounds like you don’t want him to be on the ticket with Governor Cassidy when he runs for reelection.”

“If I had it my way, no. I miss him. I want him back here. But it’s not up to me. And I would never presume to ask him not to run.”

“You told your dad how you feel?”

“My, aren’t we full of questions today?”

Ting took a step backward from her. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to pry.”

His whole tone had changed in the face of her throwing up that emotional barrier. Now he was all business. He pulled out his cell phone and said he’d get her statement down with what he had, no need to go to the office, although she’d have to come in later.

They retreated to a shaded bench where he got the particulars from her, and Candace regretted getting short with him. She felt like she’d slammed the door in his face just as he had knocked and pushed it open ever so slightly.

Ting handed the suspect off to his subordinate and escorted the victim to his cruiser. Candace followed, feeling somehow responsible for the woman’s well-being even though she hadn’t gotten the lady’s name.

As they reached the car, the victim slid into the front seat and turned to Candace.

“Thank you.  You didn’t have to do that for me, and I appreciate it. You put yourself on the line. Scary.”

“Yeah, it was a little bit. But also kind of fun to catch a bad guy.”

“I think I’m going to have to get one of those Taser things,” the woman said.

Candace removed the thing from her pocket and stared at it in her open palm. “It did come in handy today, although I suppose I’m going to have to tell my father that I used it. He’s not going to be happy to hear that story.”

“Your father?” The woman squinted at Candace, recognition dawning in her eyes. “I know you… You’re Candace Keane, Doug’s daughter. The lieutenant governor’s daughter!”

“Yes, but that’s hardly an accomplishment.” She patted the lady’s hand.

“But what you did today certainly was,” Ting said.

The woman nodded. “I’ll say. May I at least shake your hand?” She put out her hand in a tentative manner.

Candace just stared at it blankly for a few seconds. She wasn’t the politician in the family. But her good manners did kick in and they shook. She learned that her new acquaintance was Mary Totter, a former neighbor who had known her parents when they had lived in another neighborhood before Candace had been born.

“Pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” Candace said.

“The honor’s mine, dear.” She smiled up at Candace with a beatific glow.

After Ting shut the cruiser door, he turned to her. “Looks like you’ve got a fan. And a voter, should you ever run for office.”

“Perish the thought.” They both laughed. “Look, I’ll come back to the station now to finish up my statement. I can walk there.”

Ting’s face tensed in skepticism. “You sure?”

“Of course. Remember—I can take care of myself.” She held up the Taser.

“That you can. See you back in town.”

As she walked toward town in the full heat of late morning, Candace realized that she had just quite willingly made the effort to see Ting.

The idea didn’t bother her at all.

And instead of going directly to the police station, she headed home for something first.

* * *

What the hell had gotten into him?

He finally put his big move on Candace Keane—the most veiled, awkward, mild acknowledgement of attraction—only to embarrass them both.

Yet in the end, miraculously, she had responded.

After dealing with Mrs. Totter and seeing her out of the office, it was Candace’s turn to complete her statement. She was out in the waiting room at that very moment.

So what was he doing?

Sitting in his office, fretting and wondering what to do next.

Because he’d never actually gotten her alone for any length of time. And the brief moments in the park where they were talking out in the open certainly did not count.

But being with her in a confined space?

Oh man.

He’d watched her for years, kept her on the edge of his mind and heart all that time while he’d butted heads with her father and the city council took his side in every little dispute, whether he’d asked for it or not. Amazingly, Candace rarely had had a boyfriend to his knowledge. And he’d know something like that in a small town like Bardstown, especially when it came to someone like her, the daughter of the former mayor and current lieutenant governor.

If only…

But he knew where the lines were. And so did she.

Stupid rules of decorum and propriety and crap like that still held sway in small towns and small minds. And Candace, being painfully aware of not so much her place in this world but her father’s, would care about those attitudes. Especially her newly widowed father’s attitude.

But things were about to change for him.

Time to move on.

He’d tired of the squabbles and politics. The small-mindedness and self-righteousness.

When Gray had called and given him a heads-up on a command spot in the Jefferson County sheriff’s office, he’d jumped on it. A year ago—hell, even six months ago—he would’ve thanked Gray and forgotten about the prospect.

But now he was itching to go, to escape.

He was originally from Louisville, only coming to Bardstown in his teens when his dad had been transferred by one of the bourbon conglomerates to a local office from company headquarters in the big city. He’d always felt the outsider since. Locals called him a transplant, a label that was supposed to be humorous. But it carried the sting of rejection in how it was used in conversation and in the speaker’s tone. At its heart, it was an insult coming from the insular.

He was announcing his resignation on Monday. The council would be disappointed; they had always been supporters. As for the locals, the reaction would most likely be mild interest not in his departure so much as his replacement.

And he would also be leaving Candace.

So what did he have to lose when it came to finally asking her out, just the once?

Not much. Maybe rejection.

But what about her? What if she came along for the ride?

Local and paternal disapproval. Not the easiest things to live with.

But that would be her choice if she chose him.

No harm in asking, right? Worst-case scenario was he got a no.

He fetched Candace from the waiting room and escorted her to his office where everything was polite and professional. He’d prepared a statement for her to sign and she reviewed it quickly, the document meeting with her approval.

Words about the weather and other mundane matters passed between them. Yes, so hot right now. Of course we could use some rain. And what a story she’ll have to tell her students on the first day of school.

She stood. He stood, nearly knocking over his desk.

Don’t let her go.

Say something.

Anything.

She needs this as much as you do.

This is it.

Go for it.

She was in the doorway, hand on the jamb. Smiling, nodding. Goodbye had to be on the tip of her tongue—

“Have dinner with me tonight.”

He braced himself for rejection, even laughter. But Candace merely stood there, frozen in the doorway of his office, eyes wide. They were so big that he could fully appreciate the deep blue color of them even from across the room in the dimly-lit space.

“Ting, I really appreciate it… but I don’t know if it’s the best idea…”

“In my book, it’s the best idea I’ve had in a long time. Maybe the best idea I’ve ever had.”

Her hand dropped from the door and she turned her body  squarely to face him.

And here it came, he could feel it, the building rebuff.

Don’t let her say it…

“It could be the last time—well, the only time—you get this chance.”

She tilted her head and squinted at him. “What does that mean?”

“It’s not that I’m arrogant, it’s just that I’m practical. The truth of the matter is that I’m going to resign my position here in Bardstown next week. No one knows, except now you. I’m going to the sheriff’s office in Louisville. I’d appreciate it if you could keep that quiet until the formal announcement on Monday.”

“Oh. I see. I’m… sorry to see you leave.”

“So have dinner with me, Candace. Just this once.”

The twitch of the mouth, the swallowing, the deep breath all gave away her internal struggle. And for the first time in her presence, he felt empowered, emboldened. No longer the would-be suitor at the fringes of her world but the man right in front of her making her a very specific offer.

An offer that she wanted to accept.

“Not here in town,” she said.

Success.

“Of course not. So can I pick you up, or do we need to drive separately?”

In other words, did she care if anyone saw him picking her up? Since she’d already nixed anywhere in town—

“Pick me up at my place. Or do you want to me to come to yours?” she asked.

Okay, this was veering into territory he did not expect at all.

But that wasn’t to say he didn’t like it.

“Come pick me up. Wait—are you a safe driver?” he teased.

“You have the tools at your disposal to check my record, Chief Tingley.”

Oh God, she was flirting with him.

“So I do.”

“Or you could just trust me,” she said.

“I think my trust will be well placed.”

She took down her long blond hair, which had been in a ponytail, and put it up again.  The movement brought her breasts up and—

Stop.

“So where do we go?” she asked.

“I’ll let you decide.”

“Very well.” Candace moved and turned back into the doorway. “Casual dress. Five-thirty. No cologne.”

“Allergies?”

“Something like that. Anyway, be on time. I’ll make reservations for us somewhere.”

“Then that means more than casual.”

“Not necessarily. And I have no doubt that you’ll be perfectly presentable, wherever we go.”

“I won’t be late.”

“Better not be.”

She left, the aroma of fresh laundry in her wake—

She had been wearing a different shirt than the one she’d had on at the park. Candace had gone home to change.

For him?

He shook his head, laughing to himself that she’d gone to that trouble—until he realized why she’d told him no cologne.

For the same reason he’d now remember that light, clean scent of hers.

Aromas were powerful memory triggers.

And she was expecting them to make memories that night. Memories that someday could be painful to recall.

So Candace Keane was expecting him to break her heart.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Jennifer Bramseth. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotation in a book review.

***

Exclusive preorder link for Stave and Hoop. The novella will be released on Amazon, Barnes and Noble/Nook, kobo, and GooglePlay on May 16 (no preorders).

 

SHARP PRACTICE–a milestone and some thoughts

I just realized that when Sharp Practice releases on March 28, 2017, that will be the tenth book I’ve published!

There’s lots more Bourbonland on the way–Single Barrel and Sharp Practice are just the beginning. I’ve been writing a lot this winter–books as well as short stories and novellas. This series is tied together just like Bourbon Springs–and you’ll get to see Bourbon Springs characters from time to time.

Welcome back to the Land of Bourbon and Bluegrass… welcome to Bourbonland.

All About SINGLE BARREL

In a newsletter I sent out in November 2016, I wrote about the transition from the Bourbon Springs Series  to Bourbonland and the characters in the novella Single Barrel. For those that did not see that newsletter, here’s more information about that story. Most of this was taken from the newsletter, but I have updated it for this post.

Although the cover doesn’t show it, the story does take place during the holidays (from approximately mid-November through early January).

First, don’t read Single Barrel before you read Water of Life. Spoilers!

Now, a bit of background for you about the novella.

There are two couples featured, one you’ve seen, one you haven’t. Timewise, this novella overlaps with the last third or so of Water of Life (and, again, the novella does contain spoilers for that book).

The new couple (and they are front and center here, in the first scene, and have the most page time) will appear in the new series I am writing for release beginning next year.

That new series will be called Bourbonland.

Even though Water of Life is the last Bourbon Springs book, I didn’t want to stop writing about Kentucky.  I wanted to expand beyond the confines of Craig County while connecting the worlds.

That’s what Bourbonland does—in name and in the stories themselves.

Characters in the new series will not be located in Bourbon Springs, but in other towns in Kentucky—although there will be trips back there. And characters and couples from the previous books will make appearances in the new series.

The Epilogue of Water of Life features the first couple from Book 1 in the Bourbonland series. That book will be entitled Sharp Practice (this phrase pops up in Water of Life).

The new couple in this novella, Coraleigh Boyle and Clay London, will eventually get their own book in the Bourbonland series (they are not the couple in Book 1 of the Bourbonland series).

Why did I write about Coraleigh and Clay now? They showed up. Again.

Let me explain.

A few weeks after Angels’ Share released in July 2015, I was on a plane home from a legal conference. By that point, I had actually written all nine Bourbon Springs books (they were not edited or formatted; that took lots more time), and I was already thinking about the next series.

On the plane, Coraleigh and Clay appeared in my head as characters. They were just there, in the opening scene of their book, and I wrote a substantial part of the first chapter of their book. They popped up a few months later; I wrote a bit more about them, but not much, and saved that bit of writing as well.

They showed up again in October 2016, demanding more. Sometimes characters do this to me. They show up and want attention (Rachel and Brady did this to me to start the whole Bourbon Springs series). I have learned to respect this phenomenon as a writer and just go with it. In fact, I stopped writing one of the Bourbonland books to write this novella (because Corrie and Clay would not leave me in peace—but I didn’t mind).

And, minor spoiler or warning: Coraleigh and Clay’s overall experience in this story is angsty, but they will eventually get their happily ever after. What they go through in this story will hopefully make their journey even more satisfying.

The couple you already know does have a happy story; if you read Water of Life (which you should read prior to reading Single Barrel to avoid spoilers), there is no big reveal here about them, only some more (and fun) detail about certain events in their lives.

And of course the end matter contains information about bourbon and Kentucky.

 

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