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).