NOT SO SOUTHERNLY, SOUTHERN CHARM **CHAPTER 1-7**

Southern Charm

CHAPTER 1

 

Cars that were filled to the brim with dried up, half-eaten burritos from Taco Mwahna, cups with more mold than some cheeses, and empty packets of ketchup, made, Caro thought, the car she was currently riding in the actual moving violation. Not her compact, super clean, super sporty, cherry red Pocket Rocket. And just because she didn’t pay a few- five to six if she had to guess- speeding tickets, old ratchet face, Judge Leblanc, suspended her license faster than she could say the words- mood swings. Now she was stuck hitching a ride with her third cousin, twice removed, and all she could think, other than Becky’s shoes completely missed the mark if they were supposed to match her outfit, was that she would have to endure what she imagined road-kill to smell like for the next couple of months. Seriously though, who wore fluorescent yellow hills, black pleather pants, and paired them with the ugliest shade of orange on a sweater? Her cousin. Becky. 

Becky didn’t notice the light shifting from green to yellow, then immediately following, to red, but Caroline did. She pushed her hands out swiftly, slapping them onto the dash board, locking her arms, and screaming, “Becks, light, watch out,” while praying her last minutes on earth were short and painless. The semi that was approaching the four-way would unfortunately slam into the right side of the car where Caroline happened to be sitting. Apparently, and a really good thing, the trucker saw what was going down too, but instead of breaking, he laid on his horn and accelerated, and for some odd reason, Caroline thought, it seemed to make the entire situation slow down and seem ten times scarier and drawn out. Becky acted like she had everything under control, of course, and somehow answered Caroline’s plea by flipping off the driver for scaring her into burning her rubber, while slamming on the breaks, dramatically screeching to a stop at the light, and doing this all at the same time. The trucker blazed through the light still laying on the ear-splitting horn as his wheels continued on their path. Becky, on the other hand, threw him another bird, a silent one, for him to take with him on his trip wherever he was going. Caroline, well… she was feeling sick…and little murderous.  

Becks, smacking on her gum, said, “Gawd, I hate truck drivers like that.” She shook her head, and then remembered what she wanted to show off to Caro earlier.

 

“Omigod Caro, check out the new hills.” Still parked at the stop light, Becky was able to pull her leg up enough to show off said tacky hills. “They’re awesome, right? I mean, these bitches just won’t quit.” Becky loved to throw phrases around that weren’t relevant to any conversation.

Ever. 

Taking a deep, calming breath, “Yea, I saw those babies. Do you really think it was wise though to wear them with that sweater? Might be a bit much is all I’m saying.” She was thinking it was more like a fashion collision with U-G-L-Y. 

 Running her hands through her bangs, taming the beast as much as it would allow in the August humidity, she blew herself a kiss, happy to be alive, then slapped the visor closed and stared straight ahead. It was amazing how a brush with death could really wake a person up. Not to mention her nerves- tattered and torn- she didn’t realize the light switched back to green and that they were already moving again. As far as she knew they were still having show-and-tell day for the worlds foulest shows, but hey, what did she care at this point. Instead of hyperventilating all the way to work, she decided to scout road signs instead. That way she could calculate how much longer she would have to keep her throat and nasal passages closed before getting to the office. She giggled a little, with the death threat under way, she didn’t mind joking to herself that being hit by a huge semi might be a better and quicker way to die than having to endure the smell that was burning the little hairs right out of her nose. Stay out of my mouth road-kill-smell, she continued chanting to herself as the car raced down the highway. 

“You know, you should let me take you shopping while you’re doing your time you little law breaker.” Becks joked. 

Huh? Not. Gonna. Happen. Don’t hold your breath, she thought, or better yet, do. “Maybe next week okay? I’m swamped at work right now. Plus, mama and daddy put me on house duty while they’re upstate. You know how they are about the house.” She shifted her feet, cautiously trying to locate the floor with the tip of her shoe, having no luck whatsoever. 

It’s not that she didn’t like her cousin, she did, but they were just never that close. And she didn’t understand people who had as much money as Becky’s family, yet were too lazy to take care of their belongings. I mean, the last time they all got together at the Tates’, the house was beyond messy. Dirty clothes were strung about everywhere, dishes in the sink with food caked on so long it was practically super glued to the plates, and what’s worse, they didn’t even pretend to make excuses, or try to hide any of it. Can you say…hall closet. The only time it was kept clean was when the housekeeper was on duty and that was never often enough. 

Caroline shifted her foot one more time in an attempt to get comfortable. Wait, was that a- used condom that just touched my toe! She wondered furiously at herself trying to come up with plausible reasons for not getting off her ass and paying those damn tickets sooner. While scolding herself for that mishap, she was also horrified by the thought that her big toe could possibly be in possession of an STD. Okay, calm down. Music, she thought, and then punched the buttons on Becks’ radio for the programmed stations. A smile settled on her face when some familiar words greeted her: 

‘“This ain’t love it’s clear to see

But darling, stay with me

 

“Why am I so emotional?

No it’s not a good look, gain some self-control

And deep down I know this never works

But you can lay with me so it doesn’t hurt”‘

 

As quickly as the smile appeared, it disappeared. If those lyrics didn’t sum up her behaviors after her last disastrous boyfriend, none would. She was the reason someone ever coined the term “playing the field”. 

But before that relationship ended, she knew that she did everything she could within her power to hold on to him. She put forth all the effort and genuinely wanted to spend time with him, as much as possible in fact. The problem of no effort was on his part. It wasn’t that she felt she had to be near him all the time, but if she was honest with herself, she did get to a place where she lost her own identity, and if she wasn’t with him, she was consumed with wondering where he was at all times. She learned, the hard way of course, that that’s what happens when you stay with a man who cheats on you, a “one-time only” mistake, or not. How could she ever trust what he said? How could she believe him when he was out, swearing to only be with the boys, promising he wasn’t doing anything wrong, or going anywhere that wasn’t on that damned pre-approved list she made for him? The answer was, sadly, she couldn’t. And the day she realized she had become that clingy, list-making, wildly obsessed girl that if today would make herself present would get bitch-slapped. Unfortunately for her, and the doomed relationship, it was O-V-E-R. Why did she feel the need to spell four letter words in her head all the time? She didn’t need to emphasize to herself how ‘over’ they really were. Oh boy did she already know. 

 She wasn’t ashamed to admit that her sanity and dignity were a little late getting to the party, but because in the end she found the courage to walk away, she learned to accept her past mistakes and grew from them, or so she had hoped. It had yet to be tested since she hadn’t had a real boyfriend in six months. She was counting the days. 

She rolled her eyes at her thoughts. It’s not easy to close the door in the face of a two-year relationship, but some things just couldn’t be tolerated. So running to different men for comfort? Maybe not the smartest thing, but sometimes it just couldn’t be helped. Not everyone was cut out to be alone. At least that’s what she told herself. 

“Hellooo. Earth to Caro.” Becky waved her jeweled, meaty, bed-tanned arm back and forth to get her attention. “Come back to me,” snapping fingers in Caro’s face, “come on, get out of there,” referring to Caro’s headspace. 

“Yea. I’m present. Sorry. Don’t know where I went.” Anxiety mounted as she thought about how she would balance her job and social life without a driver’s license over the next couple of weeks. 

“Well get outta that head girl because we’re here.” Becky swung the car around the circle drive, pulling up to the front of the office building where Caro worked. 

She picked her purse up off her lap and pulled on the door handle, pausing, she turned back to Becky, “Thanks for the ride. And I’m sorry if I was distracted. I really do appreciate the lift.” She shifted her legs into exit position before the car even came to a halt. When she did finally step out, some papers, napkins, and a couple bags dropped from the car’s passenger side along with her finely heeled feet. She sighed, and bent over to pick them up. If she was caught on camera littering in this parking lot, they’d fire her ass quicker than Becky could take a turn on two wheels. Employees like her came a dime a dozen and they would not hesitate to let her go, she thought with some resentment. Egos on the twelfth floor seemed to get their jollies by ruining other people’s lives, but again, what did she know, she was just a clerk. 

Color exploded in her cheeks from the rogue trash that had peppered the ground. Once it was packed away back in Becky’s car, Caro decided to make a run for it as she took a quick glance around her feet for any strays she might’ve missed. And of course, a florescent pink sticky-note on the bottom of her frickn’ heel. What was it with Becks and all-things-florescent? She pulled the stupid thing off, crumpled it, and gave it a toss back in the direction it came from. At this point the only word that came to her mind was ‘ridiculous’ and she laughed out loud. If she couldn’t laugh at herself in situations like this one, she’d be in trouble because she often found herself right where she was…as Queen of Dorkdom. 

 Smiling, she waved to her cousin, yet again, as she closed the car door, maybe a little harder than was necessary.

CHAPTER 2

 

New Orleans Board of Hoteliers. The big, bold, block letters were proudly stated near the top of the twelfth floor building. Its frame certainly wasn’t the biggest in town, but definitely ranked the most powerful. From rich hotel owners, board kings- their lawyers- art dealers, and other wealthy business owners of the French Quarter- combined- made the NOBH a powerful nation in and of itself. If you were a business owner, especially if your business was in hotels and food, you didn’t want to cross those particular players. If you didn’t have their approval, or your business plans weren’t in line with theirs, you were cut to the quick, no questions asked. Your business wouldn’t be allowed to advertise with the others, your name would be left out of tourism pamphlets, you would basically go unrecognized, non-existent. Tourist would be strongly urged to visit other hotels, to make purchases with other, more “reputable” store owners, and to dine with other, finer restaurants that the NOBH would suggest. They persuaded by using power- money- that is, and by pressuring local proprietors with their own special brand of bully tactics. These mom and pop shops couldn’t stand up to that kind of influence, so usually they did as they were told. NOBH men and women, were a mafia of the wealthy, upper class New Orleanians who had the city at their fingertips, and controlled most cash-flow in and out of the city. 

Caroline ran-walked to the front door, composing herself as she approached. She noticed a suit in her peripheral and prayed it didn’t notice her ungracious exit from the car moments ago, but since her hands were full she was hoping he’d at least hold the door open for her. 

No such luck though. Figures. In he goes, out she stays, no door holding for Caroline. 

 She reached the door with full hands and blew her bangs out of her face. What was that saying about hope, she thought, you can hope in one hand… she dug deep for the rest of the phrase…and something in the other? No, that wasn’t it. Oh! It was something about a bird in your purse and a glass house? Wait… that didn’t sound right either. 

 Good with catch-phrases and quotes…not so much. Either way, with the right attention, she’d come up with something really clever and give that prick a good what-to-for. She was going to #handsomeprick all over Twitter-verse when she got to her cube. Mess with me and see, she thought. Clever is my middle name buddy. She giggled at her dramatics as she walked to the stairwell, humming the words, handsome prick, handsome prick to herself with a pleasant little beat that put some pep in her step for the three-story climb up to her floor. She considered taking the elevator, but she needed to work off the chocolate bread that she had for breakfast.   

She inserted her key-card when she got to the door that kept her from her floor level, waited for the green light to flicker, and looked up so the system could do facial recognition. When she saw her employee photo and name appear on the screen, she counted a quick one and two, the door clicked, she pushed, and walked through. Finally. Employees almost had to leave the house early just to get through security and be at their desk on time. 

It was impossible to get away with anything around there, everyone knew that. Getting to work late, and sneaking to your cube- not gonna happen. Caroline found that out the hard way. All floors were monitored, via their very large, very expensive, security system. Employees, ones who worked on floors one through five weren’t even allowed the ignominy of clocking-in with the other corporate monkeys of the world. All other floors did what they wanted when they wanted, and were never questioned. Any time regular employees entered and exited the building, their time was automatically generated from the security system, and sent to payroll-processing. And don’t even think about getting more than your scheduled thirty-minute lunch break. If you got held up in lunch lines, depending on whether it was tourist season or not, and were late getting back to the door- consider yourself docked. 

 And of course it didn’t matter that you got to work early and was actually doing work before your shift was even scheduled to start. You were paid according to your assigned schedule. No overtime unless pre-approved by the Uppers, and who wanted to ever request anything from them. No one, right? If you couldn’t complete your grueling tasks at the office, you took your load home. End of. 

Every floor held different classifications of employees. Levels one through five were the hard-working people who actually had a job. Levels six through eleven were third parties who catered to different community needs that the twelfth floor instructed. And finally floor twelve housed criminals with careers, making and banking the money- as they liked to say. 

 As Caroline moved from side to side, dodging frantic expediters, office managers, secretaries, clerks and receptionist, she finally made her way to her own, decorated-with-care, cubicle that was littered with artwork and framed photos. Her cubicle was constructed of material screens, but she didn’t mind because she had her own space. Privacy was a joke, really, but complain she would not. In this economy, she was grateful just to have a job and thanked God every day for her blessings.   

Her parents wanted to put her to work for the family business, but she didn’t want that, hence her employment at NOBH. She was there for the experience as she crept her way closer to her real passion- the art world. She could’ve wasted her time, and her parent’s money on university, but instead she applied for work in NOBH’s art department and with the help of some of her parent’s connections, she was now gainfully employed. 

 She wasn’t an artist, she just appreciated the art itself. She knew there were plenty of majors for art like history, restoration, common knowledge and so forth, but that’s not what she wanted. She just wasn’t the school type, or so she reminded herself every time she complained to herself about her job. 

 She liked to mingle and talk, discussing the elements and composition of different pieces. She tried taking a couple of classes, but she never was good at the whole attendance thing, and when she did make it to class, trying to focus was her own personal hell. Having that problem for as long as she could remember, that is, not being able to focus, she was only able to concentrate on anything when it involved the actual work of art. It just spoke to her, it absorbed her. When it came to viewing, she didn’t so much think as she did feel. So naturally, her job duties at NOBH placed her right where she wanted to be- talking to local artists, helping them place their pieces in prominent hotels, restaurants and galleries, and she was always on the lookout for new up and comers, and of course reporting NOBH’s profits from the artists they’d placed with different galleries in the quarter. 

“Thought you were going to be late there for a minute, part-timer.” Her cube neighbor thought Caroline’s business was her business for some reason.

“I’m here. As you can see.” She hung her purse on a hook and put her salad in the mini-fridge that was stored under her table. 

“I can see. You do realize that if you’re late, you’ll be docked thirty minutes.” 

Duh. “Yes, Julie, I’m aware of the rules. I have been working here, for what, six months longer than you have?” sarcastically she asked the last part of the question. That’s right nosey bitch, take that. NOBH was a kill, or be killed type of environment which Caroline learned the quick, but hard way. 

Julie put her hands up, surrendering, not caring a bit that she was being called out. “I’m just worried. You seem to be running later and later all the time. Mr. Dickerson was up here earlier looking for you. Of course, I told him you were in the powder room.” 

Of course you did, she thought as she reminded herself over and over that this woman was not to be trusted. 

And the powder room? Who says that anyway? “Thanks, I’ll give him a call once I get settled in.” And by “settled”, she meant figuring out what he could possibly want to discuss before she called him. He always put her on the spot with the most random questions that weren’t even relevant to her job, or his, but he talked down to her when she couldn’t produce the response he wanted. Too bad she didn’t have her Tarot Cards, or her Magic Eight Ball. She’d really show his ass then. 

She picked up the receiver, hit extension 5241, and waited. 

“Dickerson.” he practically yelled. 

“Mr. Dickerson. This is Caroline.” 

Silence. 

“Sorry. Caroline Booty.” 

Silence. 

“You were in my cubicle looking for me earlier, sir. Third floor.” 

He sighed heavily. “Yes…Ms. Booty. Need to see you in my office, immediately.” 

“I’ll be right there si-“ 

Dial tone. 

The monotone sound mocked her while she seethed. Did he really just hang up on her while she was in the middle of talking? How rude could he possibly be? She filed some folders that were put on her desktop in her bottom right drawer and slammed it shut, the second door slam of the day mind you, and it’s not even lunch yet. She stood, straightened herself, with a couple of fuck-off breaths, and then took off. 

Today’s Forecast: Scary.  

After Caroline did the dog and pony show with her employee key card, she waited for the Administrative assistant to admit her access, knowing good and well the woman knew exactly who she was, and only made her wait behind the locked, glass door for her own pleasure. Power trips must be contagious on that floor.

“Have a seat. Mr. Dickerson will be with you shortly,” she said not even bothering to glance up at Caroline.

What, no coke and a smile?

“Shortly” ended up being an hour and forty-five minutes later, and while Caroline tried to control her flaring attitude, it was hard. Man was it hard. Mr. Dickerson did say immediately on the phone, and it sounded urgent, of course. As she waited began stressing out over the reports, with deadlines, that were due that morning and cringed. She really could have used her time a little more wisely, not that it was her fault…Dickerson was to blame… and boy was Dickerson a dick.

She heard the phone ringing on the desk. As soon as the call was disconnected, Mrs. Power Trip informed Caroline that she could enter. She tapped on his door and waited for acknowledgment.

“Enter.” was his one word command. Caroline cringed, and did as commanded. She entered. 

CHAPTER 3 

“You want a double or single, sweetheart?” Francisco, the bartender at the Royal House oyster bar and restaurant asked Caroline as she took her seat, front and center. After the day she had with her boss it took her less than one second to decide; she raised her hand putting up two fingers to indicate her preference. If she didn’t get that drink soon, she was going to elbow the lady next to her in the face. Ouch.

Seemingly, she didn’t grasp the intensity of her tattered nerves until that notion.

The impatient woman next to her was older, but very pretty and well kept. She had short-cropped, grey hair, cobalt blue eyes, and laughed like a hyena. Wowza, boy did she laugh like a hyena.

 One thing was for certain though, the woman had some work done. Her skin may have been too tight in some areas, but still, Caroline thought it was nice when older women cared enough about themselves to maintain the upkeep- she was certainly going to. We’ve got one body, one vessel, and we should make little tweaks here and there as we age to ensure we look and feel our best, if that’s what we, as women, want to do, of course. At least that’s how she’d always viewed it. Certainly don’t go all Joan Rivers or anything, but a little injection here, laser, or nip-and-tuck there, wouldn’t kill anyone, right? 

Besides the woman’s impatience, her real problem seemed to be with her self-importance, and desire to inform the bartender, as well as every non-caring patron at the bar, that she expected plenty of liquor, and the good kind, not the amount that they would give a gullible tourist, but the amount that they would give a local. Apparently tourists were blindly trusting, with no taste buds, and locals were savvy, all-knowing, with super spidey-sense taste buds. Hmm. Maybe they could agree on one thing, but that was to be determined after the woman’s one-sided conversation was over. “Make it strong.” the hyena insisted. She was getting ready to inform the bartender that she could detect a bad hurricane using only her sniffer, when she re-routed and instead stated where she hailed with just two words. “Baton Rouge.” Like that was supposed to explain everything about her drink preferences.

The tip of Francisco’s right eyebrow greeted his hairline. Apparently he didn’t have to actually speak for you to know what was on his mind. He asked her to repeat herself to make sure he had heard the woman correctly, calling her sweetheart, of course, as he called every woman.

 Caroline could only guess that men were under the impression that the word sweetheart made all women feel special, but how could it when they addressed every woman that approached with the same endearment.

Men are stupid, not tourists, Caroline thought.

 Everyone prayed that Francisco would make the drinks quickly and send Mrs. Red Stick home. He was aware of the temperature of his bar at all times amongst his patrons, so instead of conversing back, working the tips jar, he quietly made the drinks, barely listening while she chattered away. Then it dawned on Caroline what he was doing. She decided that she would tip him extra tonight in hopes that it would help make up some of the difference that he was sure to get shorted.  

Hyena woman was still going on and on, and when her voice started to sound muzzled, Caroline noticed that she was left-leaning eavesdropping, and it nearly caused her to fall right off the stool. Actually, by the looks of it, she very well could have pitched a tent right in the woman’s lap had she been sitting, too. It made Caroline question- had she stopped talking once? Nope, not even to take a breath. Simply amazing. But Caroline had to start minding her own, so she righted herself quickly, looking sheepish, because she had been caught, sniffed at, and turned away from by the woman who realized that Caroline was eavesdropping like it was nobody’s business, but hers. Caroline decided to behave and began punching her straw up and down in her drink while she contemplated her day and she intended to end it. She felt kind of lame because of the fact she was so interested in what that damn lady was saying. It was definitely a reflection of the day she’d had. Usually she stayed to herself and never worried what others around her were saying. No matter, the woman was loud and there was no mistaking the accent, she was definitely from somewhere nearby. Did that make her automatically interesting? Hell no. Aggravating? Decidedly so. So Caroline sipped on.

The drinks were placed on the bar, all six of them. They were picked up and passed over the woman’s shoulder to her expecting husband, higher power help his poor soul, who dutifully passed them back, one by one, to the rest of their herd.

Drama done. Thank you, God. Now leave.

Another drink was placed in front of Caroline, nearly at the same time, so she sipped onward toward a better day. And since she had nothing better to fill her brain space with, she gave loose-lips a couple more minutes of reflection. The truth of the matter, what was really bugging her, was that if the woman truly were local, her drink preference would not be a damn hurricane. She repeated to herself, would not be a hurricane. They never were, ever. It was basically an insult to even suggest such a thing- oh the scandal, she reflected sarcastically and giggled.

 Caroline was feeling a little heated, to say the least, from her four-minute mental rant, and decided it was time to stop listening in on other peoples conversations all together, seriously, just stop. She also promised herself that she would cut back on her people-watching addiction. Okay, she probably wouldn’t do that, but she would definitely put it on the list of “maybes” for next year’s New Year’s Resolution. Wait, didn’t she just tell herself that she never listened in on other people’s discussions to begin with? She would cut out more time later for rumination on that matter. Right now, she just wanted a Randy-dandy buzz.  

So bad day at work with no lunch break? Sazerac. Hangover in the morning? Bloody Mary. You get your nutrients and a fresh new feel-good all at the same time. And the Royal House made the best. Not only did you get the usual garnishment of celery, onion, olive, but here you got Cherry Tomatoes, and little balls of Mozzarella on your stick, too. Yum. Caroline sipped on still, then sat back and relaxed to the jazz that was playing in the background, making note that she didn’t know who the singer was. Glancing toward the door, she first saw the silhouette, did a double-take, and then saw that she recognized the man-queen from this morning when he basically slammed the doors in her face instead of holding them open like a gentleman would’ve done. Yep, she was more than familiar with the rude beast in the suit that just walked in to her favorite after work spot. Great- wonderful- yay.

Caroline wasn’t sure what her next actions said about her self-esteem, but she had the biggest urge to slink low and duck under the bar. Why though? She hadn’t done anything wrong. He was the one that left his manners by his bedside that morning. She started swearing that no matter how cute the guy was, she would not egg on conversation with him, bat her eyelashes, and she most assuredly wasn’t going to hide under the bar like a scaredy-cat. She really needed to eat something and stop sipping. The little circles she was doodling on her napkin started mingling with the feeling in her head. They were both so spinney, she thought lazily. It was like a little spin-top that just kept spinning and spinning like a little spinner.

 Oh crikey.

 “Hey, Franky-boy, can I get a menu when you get a sex, I mean, get a sec, please?”

Acceptance would be the first step to getting past the facts. Yes, she said that, and yes, her face was beat red and everyone knew why because they heard her slipup, too.

“You know, the coffee demi-glazed pork-ribs over grits with asparagus is pretty tasteful.” Porter said as he took a seat next to Caroline at the bar. Smirking because of her previous word disaster.

“Pretty tasteful?” she mocked in a haughty voice.

“Yes, it really is a great dish. Trust me.”

She mulled over the other selections, but as she read the short, but unique menu, none of them sounded quite as delicious as the first one that seemed to roll right off Mr. Suit’s tongue.

“Francisco, I’ll have what he” she pointed with her thumb in the direction of Porter…“suggested. You know, the pork-rib, coffee-glazed thing.” She slid the menu back across the bar. “Thanks doll.”

“Oh, and no more Sazerac. Just water for me from here on out.” she amended quickly before Francisco was out of earshot.

 She could feel the Suit watching her even in her staggered state with her iffy peripheral. She turned to him, “Can I help you with something?”

“What?” he shrugged. “A guy can’t peek at a beautiful, zealous woman that he’s sharing an enjoyable spot with for the next hour?”

“Umm, no, a guy most certainly cannot. Especially when this,” she pointed to herself, obviously really into finger pointing that afternoon, “Beautiful woman doesn’t even know the guy’s name who is staring at her. Its creepy.” she fake shuddered for effect.

To her surprise he looked good and shocked. “My apologies. I thought we shared a couple of great nights a few months ago. At least you looked pretty pleased the next couple of times that I saw you in the board meetings.

 But since it’s so easy for you to forget me, I’ll tell you again. My name is Porter Charge. And may I say it’s lovely to meet you…again.”

She wanted to slap him. Never, ever, had a man been so forward, or joked with her that way. Her mom always blamed it on her demeanor. She told her that it scared men away, it was ‘off-putting’ were the words her mother used. “Sorry, but we were never introduced in any meeting…ugh, or otherwise, which you’re already aware of. And I may have dropped off a report, coffee, possibly some scones, in one of your meetings, but your name was certainly never passed on to me. By the way, what kind of name is Porter Charge?” she slapped a hand over her mouth. She was starting to remind herself of a certain hyena that she’d met earlier in the evening.

“The kind my mother gave me. You don’t like it?”

“No! It’s not that. It’s just…it’s unique.” She said and giggled at the same time.

Caroline heard a shrill shrieking kind of laugh. “Oh damn. Not her again.” she looked over her shoulder and cringed.

When Porter turned to look in the direction that Caroline was staring at in mock horror he asked, “I give, who’s the woman that you’re giving the death stare to?”

“Oh, she’s from Baton Rouge. If you want anything to drink, I suggest you order it now because her list is long enough to roll out the door.”

Porter, slight and quick, gestured for another drink with his hand. Then turned in his chair and stared at Caroline, this time she wasn’t complaining, or smarting off. Instead, he found her staring back. A long comfortable minute fell over them while they studied each other’s features. Caroline sensed a warmth in him that wasn’t there before, like an emotion that felt familiar, a good conversation over coffee or tea, rocking on a porch swing.

 Stop.

 Caroline had no idea where her brain was going with that, but she was making him sound like some kind of sentimental item a person couldn’t get rid of, or a really good friend that when was home, felt like they had never left. When in fact, he was the exact opposite. He exuded power, money, attitude, swaggering through day to day life so as everyone who met him knew it. Still, she thought, there was something different about him.

For some reason, Porter’s enduring stare turned into a “dirty tourist” stare, or at least that’s how she was interpreting it. Wait, what was happening?

“So why are you staring at me like I’ve got a rash on my face?” she put her chin in her hand and leaned closer.

“You know, I could ask you the same question. And I wasn’t looking at you like you’ve got a rash. I was thinking that I saw you strutting around town the other day with a short, country-looking skirt on, and some cowgirl boots. Was that you, or just a sexy vision that I had of you?”

“Puhlease, the only thing I know about country is that is starts with a C and ends with a Y. And you didn’t see me strutting anywhere, so you can get that vision, or whatever it was, out of your head.” She poked the bear a couple of times in his shoulder to make sure she got her point across, but all she got was a whiff of his cologne. She wanted to focus on how men were all jerks, all a bunch of egotistical walkers, the good ole’ boy society, but she couldn’t get her mind to move passed the fact that Porter had the biggest, brownest, warmest eyes she’d ever seen. She took a moment to relish, then mentally slapped herself back to reality where Porter ruined her determination to dislike him by placing his hand over hers, in a gentling, sincere, yet prevalent all-at-the-same-time kind of way…damn again, she thought. She was ruined and so was her determination.

The restaurant was getting more crowded by the moment and Caroline found herself scooting closer to Porter, silencing the overwhelming buzzing in her ear, making the space between them more personal. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt so alive. With another decision made, she was going to enjoy the moment, the night even, no matter how much she regretted her actions in the morning. This was a perfect example of her ‘playing the field’ problem. She needed a therapist, she thought for a moment, but then as that thought crossed her mind and left, her forehead began to grace his cheek, and he slowly pulled her in closer. Her smile couldn’t be helped.

“Should I call a cab for you?” he whispered in her ear as he cradled the back of her head.

“I was thinking that I would stay a while” she said, then asked, “You?”

Then he smiled, too. “That was the plan country, but now I’m thinking that maybe we should get you home.”

She thought about that for a moment…a moment longer…one more moment.

 “Ok, yes…you’re right. I do have work in the morning and so do you.” Nodding in agreement, he scooted his bar stool back, pulled out his wallet to close both of their tabs, and then slid his card to Francisco. “Please add Ms. Adder’s tab to mine.

All three of them looked back and forth at each other in a moment that seemed to linger and stall. Then, as soon as the word “who” shyly left Francisco’s mouth, Porter, Caroline, and Francisco, all at the same time, came to the same conclusion. Porter had the wrong girl.

Porter again said, “Ms. Adder.” as though to make himself, and everyone else, believe that was who he was sharing space with and trying to pay the tab for.

A bit of anger began to flare up in Caroline, like really flare, then it burst into flames.

He was the one who just popped in from out of nowhere, came to her local bar, flagrantly attempted to flirt her pants off, almost succeeding…almost, she noted as an afterthought. Now he’s going to call her by another woman’s name, in front of everyone – everyone being the three of them – and try to play it off like he still believed her to be the woman known to him as Ms. Adder? Come on you friggin a-hole, really? Beyond embarrassed, beyond pissed, she was now seeing her hands wrapped firmly around his southernly, tanned neck and literally choking the sexy right out of him.

The only thing she could think to say, “I told you we never met, Porter.” Then she stood severely, as straight-laced as she could possibly withstand, then turned and walked out of the bar like the New Orleans primadonna that she always imagined herself to be. As soon as she got to the door, she stumped her heel on a piece of the old wooden door frame.

Oh yes, she did that.

Caught off balance, she flew to the right, grabbed hold of the entire door frame, half her body inside the bar, the other half flapping about outside. In an attempt to right herself, a huge splinter from the frame plunged into her hand, and for Caroline, that was the final layer of cheese on the lasagna. Huge tears sprang to her eyes and she let go of the frame, falling, and screaming “holy frick”, all at the same time. Thank baby, Catholic Jesus that the tall, chubby man was there to break her fall.

She only thought she was introduced to Humiliated a few moments prior. But she feared she was mistaken. From the look on Porter’s face, she knew he saw her entire catastrophic death-by-door-frame episode. He practically leapt from the Hostess booth, out the front door, and grabbed her arm to help her stand before his feet ever touched the sidewalk.

            Oh hell no.   

She was not going to be rescued by this prick.

Caroline jerked her arm back so hard that she almost lost her balance again. “Don’t you dare touch me.” she yelled at him with a bit too much of the dramatics.

 Everything was a blur and happened so quickly, she didn’t know if he asked her, or she asked him, or if he just grabbed one, but before she could respond to anything, he swiftly plunged her into a cab and then followed right beside her on the backseat.

“Where’s your car parked?” the question was not put to her politely.

He waited.

He continued to wait.

Hard head. He asked again, “Maybe you didn’t hear me, where’s your car?” that time he put the question to her as though she were touched with something and couldn’t quite understand plain old English.

“I didn’t ask you for help. I don’t have to tell you anything. And in case you don’t remember what happened a few moments ago, you’re with the wrong girl so, please, leave…me…alone.”

 Now she was getting angry again, and, he noticed, redirecting. Why? Who knew, but he’d decided one thing for certain and that was that he’d let her figure out the car thing for herself tomorrow when she was a little less inebriated and a lot less temperamental. “Can you at least give the driver your address?”

After she belted out her street address, she donned her normal position – arms crossed, mouth closed, eyes and head straight forward.

An hour later, he realized, she lived a little outside of the city in an antebellum home framed by huge Oak trees. How, he wondered, could she afford a place like this on her salary? He didn’t dare ask because he already knew the answer, she could never swing this place on her own. No way. Maybe she was married and had lied to him? That sounded about right. Just like a female to play the victim when in reality she was the one playing him. And her husband!

Then the car came to an abrupt stop and the driver cleared his throat. He could sense the tension in the car, and whatever was going on, he didn’t want any part of, he just wanted his money.

A fire-hot burning sensation brought Porter back to the backseat. She’d pinched him, he realized. Her superior attitude was somewhat impressive, earlier in the evening, but he was ready for this trip to be over. He couldn’t believe that she’d pinched him just now. He looked up at her in surprise, ready to jump on her for what she did, but then he realized by the look on her face, that he must have grunted his disparagement of her marital status aloud because the look she was wearing at that moment was worse than the one she gave him when he called her by the wrong name. He felt terrible, he really did, but it was an easy mistake. She really did look just like another woman that he used to see on occasion a long time ago, and he would have apologized, but she ran out of the bar before he had the opportunity. His actions were an innocent mistake. This little vixen was straight up ruthless. She was married for God’s sake. And probably to a man two to three times her age if the expensive home were to explain anything.

 He reached in his wallet, then stopped, this wasn’t a one-way, he remembered. “You have to drive me back to my car he notified the driver. We’re just dropping this one off.” He pointed to Caroline.

Again with the pointing.

Caroline didn’t argue. She wasn’t going to pay the fare if he didn’t ask her to, screw him. He made the kind of money that she’d never bank and if it wasn’t for his rudeness, she’d have hung around later and caught a ride back home with her cousin, Becks, never requiring the need of cab ride.

 Shit! Becks!

 She flew out of the car, slamming her third door for the day. She ran up the drive, the straps of her heels in hand, Tears running down her face, and never looking back.  

CHAPTER 4

It brought him so much joy, the way the sun was setting. He clapped his hands together quickly and danced in a circle – so full of excitement. It cast the perfect glow over the rooftop that he planned to have in holy, powerful flames later that evening. His creation would be beautiful, intense – one of his finest he was sure, and then giggled uncontrollably with glee. What was more, he would show the NOBH that they weren’t as powerful as they liked to think of themselves, but mainly he was doing it to be closer to his first love – the flames – so melancholy at first, then they like to give a good tease as they dance and grow from the gasoline that he’d nurse them with. Oh, the only thing that could make this dance better, would be if his darling flames would lick the flesh of some sad soul. The smell of burning flesh…a little lagniappe to his already-perfected show…a flawless performance that no one could contain.

Skipping around the perimeter he proudly pored the gasoline, not missing an inch. Then he stood back and lit a rock wrapped in cloth that was also soaked in the fire-starter. Laughing violently, he couldn’t restrain the merriment that dominated his body. He gave the rock a good toss through a window. As soon as the glass broke he fell to his knees, out of site, so he could watch the exquisite show that only he would orchestrate. 

**** 

It’d been a beat since Becky and Caroline spent a night partying together, so Caroline – still buzzed from her earlier incident- decided that that night was the night they’d make up for lost time. Turns out Caroline losing her license was having some benefits because she couldn’t recall, ever, feeling close enough to share a story with Becky like she’d done earlier when she explained the Porter ‘mishap’. She was so angry with Porter that she thought she couldn’t contain it. But a few laughs and drinks with her cousin would put her right back in the game, and next time she ran into him, if there was a next time, she was going to act like their earlier encounter meant nothing to her, and in fact, never happened.

So that may be a tiny lie- what of it? She knew she was turning a corner of some sort because she had this high-on-life feeling as soon as she finished her shower. It had to be the fact that she was moving on from today’s embarrassments. She was completely over him and any feelings that may have temporarily taken over her brain. She was right as a dirty martini with extra olives.

“What are you thinking of?” Becky asked concernedly.

“Nothing.”

“Yea right, don’t you mean Porter? Becky laughed.

Caroline threw a pillow in Becky’s direction. “Are you dressed yet? I’m ready to get out of here”

“Duh, look at me. I look great, do I not?” She was pulling the hem of her skirt outwardly, making it smile, and shifting back and forth on her legs as she admired her strange attire in Caroline’s standup mirror.

“What’s wrong with being fashionably late anyway? No one really goes out until ten o’clock. Plus, I don’t want to get all hot and sweaty before the gorgeous men show up, so just have a glass of wine and work on your lacking skills in the mirror.”

“What lacking skills? I think I’m pretty talen-”

“Flirting.”

“What?”

“You heard me, FLIRTING.” She repeated, annunciating the T by clicking her tongue to the top of her pallet.

“I hate to burst your bubble princess Becky, but my flirting skills are on point. I just don’t flaunt them all over every man that passes through my peripheral like some people I know. It’s called restraint. You should practice it sometime.”

“Geez, growl much? We’ll have to pick this conversation back up after we’ve had a few drinks. Pre-buzzed-conversation-Caroline is obviously not your forte either.

Caroline dramatically rolled her eyes and stalked to the front door. She jerked it open, waited for Becky to proceed, and when she didn’t budge, Caroline swept her arm dramatically through the doorway like she was ushering out a queen. Becky hated when Caroline treated her as though she acted hoity-toity and Caroline knew that. She also knew that her ‘bitch’ skills were on point since Becky stomped out the front door and hauled ass to her car. She always was one who could dish out a hard time, but turn the tables on her with a little sarcasm? Yea, she would schedule an entire day just to pout about it. She was spoiled that way and Caroline knew it. As she got in Becky’s car she realized that she would have to tolerate ‘snarky’ all the way to the bar. Such was life at times.

The moment they paid the cover to enter the bar, she felt a pair of eyes on her. She looked up to see none other than Porter Charge stalking her with his eyes. He looked angry, feral almost. She couldn’t imagine what he had to be angry about, but she was going with her earlier plan – act like he didn’t exist. But God, he was sitting there all arrogant and gorgeous. Ugh! She hated him. He stood from the VIP table he was occupying with a few other ladies – of course he was- and started to approach her in a prowl-like manner. She cringed and took off for the ladies room. As she began to open the bathroom door a hand above her head slammed the door closed.

“You’re not going anywhere Country. I know you saw me.”

“So what? I don’t care that you’re here in this bar sitting VIP with a bunch a floozies.”

He rolled his eyes, “We need to talk. Now.”

“Umm…We have nothing to say to each other Porter.”

He grabbed her by her arm, “On the contrary, we do.”

He led her down the hall toward the exit. She turned to tell him that she had to let her cousin know that she was leaving, but as soon as she attempted to turn, he gave her a little nudge in the direction of the door. She didn’t know why, but she didn’t argue. If she were honest with herself, she wanted nothing more than to be alone with Porter, screw the mistake he made. She wanted this man like she’d never wanted anyone.

Once outside, neither said a word to the other. He hailed a cab, and when one stopped, they silently entered, still not speaking to the other. After a short ride through the city, she couldn’t stand his scrutiny any longer.

“Porter, what’s your problem? If anyone has the right to be angry here, it would be me, not you.”

“Where’s your husband tonight, Country?”

“Stop calling me that! And what are you talking about? I don’t have a boyfriend much less a husband.”

Porter laughed loud. “Sure sweetheart, and I guess that big home of yours was a gift from Santa.”

She kicked him in his leg. Hard.

“Ouch!” He grabbed his leg, “If you kick, bite, or pinch me one more time, you’ll regret it. I promise.”

Oh, she was loving this moment. The man was so absurd. He was pissed because he thought she was married and stepping out on her husband. She had the mind not to tell him the truth, but she wanted him so badly.

“Porter, if you could tuck your arrogance in for one moment, I’d tell you how I live in that big house. And no, it wasn’t a gift from Santa, it belongs to my parents…who happen to be out of town. I’m house siting Porter.”

Silence.

Still silence.

He turned to look at her, “Your parent’s house, huh?”

Yes…my parents. John and Kathy Booty. I grew up there and can prove it all though I don’t see why that would be necessary as I shouldn’t have to prove anyth-“

He grabbed her roughly and brought her in to his space, teasing her with an almost kiss, then, oh yes, he did, he started kissing her like she’d never been kissed before. She felt the pressure all the way to her toes. One minute they were arguing, the next minute they were…arguing, then they weren’t. She wasn’t sure what exactly was happening to her, but she knew without a doubt that they had chemistry.

She looked out of the window as they started to pull around The Lakes right outside of the city. She should have known he’d have an over-the-top house here. Suddenly she felt nervous and wasn’t sure if she could go through with it. But what was it? She didn’t know what the man’s intentions were. Oh la, she knew exactly what his intentions were and she was more than ok with it.

“Are you going to ride around with the cab driver all night, or you going to get out and come inside with me?” Porter asked sarcastically.

Apparently, they’d pulled up to his place already and he’d paid the driver because he was standing outside of the car holding his hand out to her. She didn’t even realize that the car had stopped.

She took his hand and let him pull her from the car as she slid across the seat. He pulled her in close to him, grabbed both sides of her face. Looking down into her eyes he asked, “are you ready?’

She couldn’t speak, so she just nodded and turned as he followed her in.

He reached around her waist to unlock the door, while his other arm was locked firmly around her midsection. She couldn’t move and she didn’t want to. The door was open, but they hadn’t entered yet. He was standing behind her, his mouth inching closer to her neck. Then she felt his breath on her ear as he whispered, “It’s time”, and pulled her through the door, shutting it quietly behind him. He wanted to take things slowly and do it right, but her scent was calling to him and he knew that she wanted him just as badly as he craved her. Since first meeting Caroline, something about the way she smelled, looked, the way she breathed and sweat…melted him. Their chemistry was tangible and he craved her like no other woman that he’d been with. He was an expert at reading women and he knew that she felt the same way, too. He turned, looking down at her with questioning eyes. Caroline knew what he was silently asking her, and showed her approval by reaching for his face, bringing his lips to hers, finally initiating the exploding moment that they both knew would begin the evening’s first exquisite torture.

She stepped back and began to unbutton her top for him. Momentarily stunned, and not wanting to miss anything, he leaned one arm against the wall, hanging lazily above his head, and watching every inch of her as she undressed. He removed his own clothing, and was done standing on the sidelines viewing her – wanted to touch. He stalked his way to her, put his hand around her neck and pulled her into him kissing her quickly and roughly. She pulled back and moved behind him, kissing and biting him on his broad shoulders, and then made her way back to his front and resumed biting, sucking and kissing his lips- as he did the same to her. Both wanting the other so intensely their mouths fought to gain more ground from the other- the urging and needing so intense that neither was able to get enough.

He placed his hand around her left thigh and lifted her leg, wrapping it around his waist- her right leg joining the left around him. He backed her up to the wall, his mouth never leaving hers, and hers never leaving his. Holding out as long as he could he walked her to the bedroom – his eyes burning with passion and with her legs still wrapped tightly around him, he dropped them to his bed, entering her as they landed. 

****

Fire Chief, Dan Pearson, still couldn’t believe what he was looking at. One of the buildings in the Warehouse District had burned to the ground. Nothing was left, but at least he was familiar with the address. He knew that the building was owned by the NOBH and he knew this was no accident. He could smell gasoline all over the place. What he didn’t know was if it was something that one of their people did, or just some random arsonist. The truth would come to light eventually. His record was stellar when it came to finding a pyromaniac. And that’s exactly what this place reeked of. 

CHAPTER 5

Another day down, Porter was exhausted and ready to get back to his house on the Upper Lake. The night before with Caroline was beyond what he could have ever imagined. He couldn’t believe that he was falling for someone so quickly, but there was something strangely unique about her. Sure, he’d have his hands full – that much he knew – but she was his Hope Diamond – rare and priceless- and he wanted to possess and keep her for himself, always.

 As he neared the end of Main Street, where he would take the road up the hill toward his house, he began to think of the type of girl she was, and in doing so he realized she wasn’t the type to accept just any offer. So he decided he was going to take his time and think of something like her, something unique and beautiful, then he’d let her know how he felt. Then it would be up to her to decide where they next took things. If he had his way though, or any say in the matter whatsoever, he knew exactly where he was taking her…

Since he lived in The Lakes community where people could easily commute to and from the city within minutes, and were also afforded beautiful views, one of his favorite things to do in the evening was to retire to his office, stand in front of his floor-to-ceiling windows, and watch the sun set on the city and the lakes, simultaneously. Although houses, condos, and small businesses were perched all around the lower lake, as well as the larger lake up the hill, Porter was still able to enjoy peace and quiet due to the denseness that the trees and hills offered each home. It was a glorious little haven where people could enjoy the serenity of nature and reap the benefits of a picturesque town life as well.

 As the sun set, he played some of his favorite jazz music and drank his two knuckles of Scotch before sitting at his desk to finish up any unresolved cases that he had left over from the day. He preferred to work on his tougher cases from the comfort of his home office where he could analyze each situation separately and in a private environment. Out of all the cases he was made to deny this week, he was reminded just how greedy and dirty the company had become. He understood that every small business couldn’t always get funded, but the NOBH was so political that regular New Orleanians weren’t getting the startup that they required for their businesses. The locals understood New Orleans. It was a part of who they were and when they were able to showcase their individual flare and style… it was a big aspect of what made the city so rare and also drew in and kept tourism alive in the city. And in a sense, by denying some of these businesses; the NOBH was essentially killing New Orleans culture.

 Someone had to steer the company back on the right path and he was just the man for the job. For now, though, he had to lay low and play their games until certain facets were brought to light. So for now, he’d do as was instructed, and act in an advisory role on which accounts he thought were fundable. Running the entire company was not an option for Porter. He would be too far removed from his real passion- keeping the city breathing its music, arts and unmatched cuisines. And the best way that he could do that was from right where he was – running the New Orleans Small Business Funding Department from within the NOBH.

As he pulled his papers out to review, and taking a seat behind his desk, he recalled one case that he thought was worth approving- more than any that he’d come across in a long time- but at the end of the day, the NOBH denied it. It was then his job to report the answer to the requester, who in this situation was a man named, Terry Tucker. He was very passionate about the loan and his business – almost too passionate, Porter recalled, but then what was too much passion when it came to making your dreams come true? All he knew is that when he gave the man the unfortunate news, he reacted in a way that Porter never witnessed before. He truly felt bad for the man.

As he was moving on to his next loan applicant, the doorbell rang. Not expecting any visitors, he was slow to get up and answer the door. Then the knocking grew louder and beat harder. Then he heard the Fire Chiefs voice calling out to him. He got up and went to the door to see what his long-time friend wanted.

“Porter, I’m so glad you’re here”, the Fire Chief breathed heavily.

Porter put his hand on the man’s shoulder, urging him to come inside, and said, “Dan, come inside, whatever is going on, we’ll figure it out.”

Dan felt terrible having to come see his friend about the fire. He knew that Porter had nothing to do with it, but it was his job to inspect all evidence and interview all suspects.

“Did you hear about the fire in the Warehouse District last night? It was one of the NOBH buildings. If I’m not mistaken, one that was connected to your department.”

More than astounded, Porter stood staring and contemplating what he’d just heard. “No, Dan. Actually I had a short day. I guess I left too early before the rounds were made my way. Was anyone hurt?”

“No one was in the building. Look man, I have to tell you that at this time; you’re a suspect. A pair of your cufflinks were found on the premises.”

Porter laughed. That’s all he could do because the notion of him burning a building down was ridiculous. “And how do you know these cufflinks belong to me, Dan?”

“I know because I recognize them and they’ve got your initials on them. Porter, man, they’re yours. I haven’t reported it yet. Personally, I think you’re being set up, but if we don’t find the real bastard who did this, I’ll have no choice but to turn the evidence over to the police. There was also a couple gas cans set up perfectly next to the cufflinks and I’m willing to bet if we swept for finger prints, we’d find yours.”

Porter nodded, “I understand.” He shook Dan’s hand, “Thanks for coming to me first.”

Starting to get nervous Porter was pacing his office trying to figure out his first move. Dan pulled out a piece of paper with names scribbled all over it. “What’s that?”

Dan straightened it out as much as possible. It was folded up in his back pocket and he’d been sweating in the sweltering August humidity. “I’ve got a list of names of NOBH employees who are absent today. I thought I’d start there.”

Porter grabbed the list. “Let me see that”. The list was in order of floor then by department. He noticed that Caroline’s name was on the list. “You can take off Caroline Booty’s name. I can tell you it wasn’t her.”

“Really? Caroline and Julie Tucker were my number one suspects. They’re both from the same floor, never been absent, yet they’re both missing this morning and didn’t call in.”

“You mean Julie Matheson, not Julie Tucker.” A creeping feeling was making its way down Porter’s arms and legs.

“No, I meant Tucker. Matheson was Julie’s maiden name. I’m not sure how she got through Human Resources without not having to change it.”

Porter was definitely having fits at that moment. “What’s the address that you have on Julie? Is it in the city?”

“No, it’s weird she lives in a rural part of New Orleans. I’d never have guessed that about her, which is also why I want to question her.”

“We’ve got to go now, Dan. We just rejected a man named Terry Tucker for a business loan and if I’m right about this, then Julie Tucker is Terry Tucker’s wife and they’ve got my girlfriend.”

Dan didn’t acknowledge the girlfriend part. He just nodded and they both ran for the door.

CHAPTER 6

As frightened as Caroline was, she couldn’t stop thoughts of Porter from infiltrating her brain- even though she was tied to a chair, covered in gasoline, and choking fiercely. Her lungs were on fire from the mixture of the fumes and her coughing fits. Her wrist and ankles were bleeding from where they tied her too tight and too roughly to the chair. She knew somewhere in the back of her head that it was silly to think that Porter would rescue her, but she had to hold on to something, or her fear would completely incapacitate her. If anyone were to get her out of this mess it would have to be her, so she was going to have to somehow keep her wits about her.

She turned her head frantically to the right and then to the left, as much as her restraints would allow, to try and figure out where she was, but again, she recognized nothing, and knew only that she was in a dark, old warehouse in the Warehouse District. As she thought about that, tears rained down her scuffed, dirty face. There was no way anyone would know where she was or how to find her. She coughed again as she tried to call out, but her voice was hoarse and the words she wanted to scream barely touched her lips, leaving her feeling even more hopeless. She tried again, then cried out as her cracked, dried lips started bleeding. There was no hope.

She attempted to think back on how she got in this situation in the first place, but the last and only thing that she remembered, before waking up in Terry and Julie Tucker’s trunk, was approaching the NOBH building to start her day of work. She remembered a cloth approaching from her side peripheral, then snaking around her face, she remembered a strange smell, then nothing…blackness. After that, she woke as she was jerked from the trunk of the car by her hair and legs, then dragged into a warehouse. Although she was blindfolded, she could still see the structure of the building. That’s how she knew what area she was in, which in no way made her feel better, but at least gave her a clue as to how and where she was going to die, she thought frantically.

 If you’re going to be kidnapped, the last place you wanted to be taken was to the Warehouse District. It was lined with old building after older building– with some occupied, but most not- and the area was dense with the empty metal buildings. If someone even realized that she was missing, how would they even know where to start looking for her? Chills once again racked her body as fear took over. She’d never been so frightened and mistreated in all of her life, she noted sadly, and this had to be one of the worst things that were ever going to happen to her, if she even lived to have more experiences.

The fumes became too much. She felt her eyes rolling back in her head. She tried to stay awake and call out one more time, but her strength was declining and she was losing consciousness quickly. She knew this was it- she was dying. Her head rolled down and to the right as Porters name left her lips one last time.

Porter was a mess. He wasn’t sure if they’d wasted time going to Julie Tuckers house or not. They did find an address to a place in the Warehouse district, but what on earth would she be doing there. What did that have to do with the shop that Terry wanted to open? All he knew was the more time that went by the worse it was for Caroline. He could feel her in his arms, smell her hair and feel her soft skin. He wanted her back with him so badly that he would kill the two people responsible for this if she was mistreated in anyway. He knew deep down that he’d do it, and so did his friend, which is why Dan kept such a close trail on Porter. He wasn’t going to let his friend do anything that would land him in jail. This had to be handled the right way, so that they all walked away from this…except for the Tuckers. They’d spend the rest of their days in prison where they belonged.

As they carefully approached the address they’d found on a scribbled piece of paper in Julie’s empty kitchen, they started preparing themselves for the takeover. Porter and Dan both pulled their weapons. Porter signaled to Dan for them to split up and meet around the back of the building. So they did. Porter went right, Dan took the other side. Porter moved quickly, gun raised, finger on the trigger, and resting in his left palm. He was ready to take out Terry Tucker, and Julie, if he had to. He would have no qualms about shooting the woman if she played any part in hurting his Caroline.

As he was nearing the back of the building he came upon an unlocked door. He knew they were supposed to check the parameter then meet in the back, but he couldn’t pass up that door knowing that Caroline could be in there. He entered. And not a moment before the door closed behind him, a shot was fired, missing his face by only a few inches. He ducked and ran for cover behind some metal shelving that was close by.

“You’re so predictable, Porter” Terry screamed out, then laughed.

Porter fake-laughed.

 “Come on Terry. Are all the dramatics really necessary? We can revisit opening your shop. Just let Caroline go. She’s innocent and had nothing to do with the decision that the NOBH made. And I know you know that.

Come on…what’s your end game? Let’s work this out together. Can we do that Terry? Work it out together?”

“Sure Porter, we can do that. I’ll let you help me.”

Porter sighed with a sense of relief he had never experienced before. The only thing…woman…on his mind was Caroline. He’d do anything to get this maniac to turn her over to him. Anything.

“So here’s my deal. You’ve got two choices, Porter. One: I can burn the east end building and rescue the lovely Caroline right as her flesh is melting from her skin, or two: I can burn it all and leave her for the fire to lick and play with until there is nothing left of your little lady.”

Nausea took over. “That’s not a deal and you know it. I won’t help you unless I get her back unharmed.”

Filled with fury because he didn’t like when his kindness was thrown back in his face, Terry fired off several shots, one bullet hitting Porter in the shoulder. He felt the hot searing pain in his shoulder, but didn’t have time to tend to it as Terry was suddenly standing over him, gun pointed in his face.

“All you had to do Porter was give me the account and none of this would have happened. This is your fault you know. When Caroline dies she’ll have you to thank for it. Too bad you won’t be able to witness her pain. That’s how I had planned for it to go down anyway, but things don’t always work out according to the pla-“

Porter heard the next shot fired and thought momentarily that he was taking his last breath when Terry dropped his gun and fell to the ground beside him. Taking short, huffing breaths, they began slowing until he was no longer breathing at all.

“I couldn’t let him do it.” Julie cried. I thought I could, but I couldn’t go through with it. She put her head down and Porter took that moment to lunge for her lower extremities and pull her down to the ground with him. She struggled, but was no match for Porter’s strength. Her muscles finally relaxed and she quit trying to escape his hold and just wept.

Porter didn’t feel bad for the woman. In fact, he would make sure she served time for her part in the kidnapping just as soon as he used her to get to Caroline.

Dan appeared, standing over both of them. “Way to meet me in the back Porter. I heard the gun shots, but couldn’t find a way in. You scared the hell out of me man.” He pulled Julie off the ground, put her in hand cuffs, then gave Porter his hand and pulled him up.

“Julie here is going to show us exactly where Caroline is.” Porter said, then nudged her. “Aren’t you?”

Julie was racked with sobs, but she nodded her consent anyway.

Pulling up to the warehouse, Porter was shaking with fury when he saw the run down building they had her locked in. The building looked like it could collapse at any minute and only God knew what kind of mold and other toxic chemicals were in there with her.

As soon as the car slowed enough, Porter jumped out of the car and took off for the open entryway. He screamed for Caroline as soon as he was in range, but he heard nothing in return. He checked the entire first floor then took the rusted metal stairs two at a time until he reached the second floor. There were holding areas in every direction. He was making circles trying to figure out which direction to go in. The longer she was locked in, the longer she was in danger.

Porter looked right and saw that one of the hallways appeared to veer off into one large room that was caged in and covered from floor to ceiling with crates. He didn’t know why, but something was telling him that that was where she was. He took off again. It was dark and musty. As he ran through cobwebs he wondered what Caroline was enduring and he wanted Terry to die all over again.

As he reached the cage, he screamed out. “Caroline. Baby, it’s me.” He tried to open the gate, but it was locked. He tried to pry it open, but the lock wouldn’t bust. He called down to Dan to bring up an ax, but he had no intention of waiting. He saw Caroline tied to a chair, head down and barely breathing from what he could tell.

He started to climb the gate wall. He reached the top, flipped his legs over, then let go and dropped until his feet met the cement ground. He felt a sharp pang in his shoulder when he landed, but he didn’t let that stop him. He ran to her and stopped in outrage once he was beside her. She was soaked in gasoline, and bleeding from her wrist and ankles where they tied her to the chair. He checked her pulse. It was beating, but barley. He didn’t know how she was breathing at all with such strong fumes. He ripped off the ropes and jerked her from the chair. He quickly took off her blouse and skirt and put his t-shirt on her. He picked her up and turned for the gate to find Dan approaching with Julie and the key in hand. Porter wanted to kill the woman. He looked at Dan and said, “Call the police and have Julie brought in now. Just get her out of my sight.”

The door was barely unlocked and Porter was pushing through it with his shoulder. He ran down the stairs, Caroline in his arms, and headed straight for the car to take her to the hospital. He didn’t know the extent of her wounds, but he knew that she needed medical attention immediately.

He thought he felt a little movement from his bundle. He looked down to see Caroline open her eyes for one moment and mumble, “Porter.”

Despite the situation, he smiled and pulled her in closer. 

CHAPTER 7

If Caroline had to choose one place to be holed up while recovering, she would have chosen to be with Porter at his amazing home on the Upper Lake. Luckily, she didn’t have to make that choice…he made it for her. Not only did he decide for her, he insisted that she stay with him. And even though she had bruised arms and legs, looking like she got into a fight with an eighteen wheeler and lost, she was still glowing like a star because of Porter. He went out of his way to make her feel beautiful and welcomed in his home. She smiled thinking just how “welcomed” she felt. He waited on her hand and foot. And while the man was actually from New York, he was full of southern charm and she was enjoying every minute of it.

It’s not as though she expected him to do everything for her, she was quite capable of feeding herself, but again, he insisted. He made sure she took her breathing treatments on time every day, he ran her bubble baths and washed her back.

 She had to admit it was pretty nice, and where a serious relationship would have normally scared her into having multiple flings at once, when she was with Porter she hadn’t even considered running into another man’s arms. In fact, she spent most of her time undressed in bed, or undressed on his private deck overlooking the lake, or undressed in the kitchen getting familiar with his counter spaces and table. Now that she reflected on the last couple of weeks, she was even familiar with the man’s hall closet. He definitely had no problems in the sex department and she was doing no complaining. They would make love for hours it seemed, they’d break to eat something, then they’d start it up again. She couldn’t be more content with a man.

She adjusted the blanket that was lying across her legs while she lounged in one of his comfy double-seated, royal blue Adirondack chairs on the deck. She was exhausted from not sleeping the night before, but she couldn’t bring herself to miss the sun rising over the lake. It was the most picturesque, serene view that she’d ever seen and it brought tears to her eyes every time that she saw it.

 She thought she was being silly for crying so much lately, but she couldn’t help it. She was overly emotional from everything that had happened to her. Porter told her that it would take time, to be patient with herself, but she was ready to get back to her life…with Porter, of course.

She heard the door open and close, and another smile appeared on her face. It was Porter with their morning coffee. He placed their identical mugs on the table while he sat down and leaned back to snuggle closer to her. Once he was situated, he placed her coffee in her hand, then kissed her cheek. “You had nightmares again last night and didn’t sleep well.” He stated plainly, not asking, letting her know that he was aware that she was still struggling. He kissed her hand then held it in his own. “Caroline, I will never let anyone hurt you again. If I have to follow you around every day just to make sure of it, I will.”

            She giggled, but sobered quickly because she knew he wasn’t joking and she wanted to reassure him. “I know you would baby, but you don’t have to worry. The nightmares are getting better.” She lied, and Porter knew it because he woke every time she sat up in the middle of the night crying.

And she knew that, too. She shivered and turned away from him. “It’s just I keep replaying that day in my head. I don’t want to, but I can’t help it. I keep thinking how I was so stupid, not paying attention to anything going on around me, and because of that I was abducted in broad daylight. I was so weak that I couldn’t even protect myself. I feel so stupid.” She sniffed and another tear fell from her eye. Porter placed his hand gently under her chin and made her look him in the eye when he said, “Caroline, listen to me. You did nothing wrong. What happened to you wasn’t your fault. It was the Tucker’s fault. And Terry paid for it with his life and Julie is paying for it in prison. You have nothing to be sorry for nor should you feel guilty, or weak. You’re strong because no matter what they did to you, you’re surviving and moving on with your life. You’re the most courageous woman that I know. I love you, Caroline.”

She put her forehead in his chest and took in his scent. “And I love you Porter. I don’t know how I’d be doing any of this without you.” She proclaimed, then laid her cheek on his chest.

“Well you don’t have to worry about that because you have me and I’m not going anywhere. Do you understand that?”

She nodded her understanding, then rolled her head to his shoulder. They both sat there in silence, enjoying the feel of the other while watching the sun rise.

A couple of hours later they came up for air and Porter decided it was time that they got out of the house and take that leisurely drive that he had planned. He also planned a surprise party for Caroline with her family and it was scheduled for that night. Her mother and father were shocked to learn what happened while they were away on vacation, but grateful to Porter for taking care of their daughter when they couldn’t be there. They all agreed that a family party would be a good event to help Caroline get back on her feet. Her cousin Becky on the other hand cried hysterically every time that she and Caroline’s family had visited his home over the last few weeks. Porter thought he was going to have to limit their visits because Becky would get too worked up and in turn would get Caroline worked up.

While Porter was more than happy to keep Caroline to himself, he knew it was time for them to introduce themselves as a couple and let other people into their very happy bubble. He also knew Caroline was starting to feel trapped and he wanted her to get some fresh air beyond his deck. When he mentioned taking the ride, she immediately brightened, then a split second later a frown appeared on her face, but she agreed that she needed to get out of the house. Porter smiled, but hid it because he knew exactly why she was pouting and what he was about to do.

She was strapping up her last sandal when Porter put his hand out to help her stand, not that she needed help standing, it’s just the way that he was. She took his hand and followed him through the kitchen and out of the back door. Once the house was locked up, they started toward his car. When they approached the passenger side he opened the door for her, but instead of her sliding into the seat, he did, and then strapped on the seatbelt. He was smiling like a loon and she was looking at him like he was a three-headed monster.

He tossed her the keys, and as she grabbed them at the last minute, she noticed him pulling something out his wallet.

Her license.

She was dumbfounded.

He actually spoke to Judge Leblanc and got her license reinstated and all of the charges dropped. The judge was a good friend of Porter’s and once he explained what happened to Caroline, and of course the free lunches for a month that he promised, Caroline no longer had to go to court and pay for her many past-due tickets. She was so happy that all she could manage was a squeal. “I thought you might be ready to get this back.” He joked smugly then placed the license in her hand. She stared at it with wide eyes and a goofy grin. He enjoyed doing things for Caroline, especially surprising her, and damn did he score big. She was definitely surprised. She made the most adorable, loving faces when he did things for her and he was actually starting to crave the looks she made.

She climbed into the seat with him, straddled him, and promptly planted short, sweet kisses all over his face. He accepted them with a laugh and then said a muffled, “You’re very welcome, sweetheart,” against her lips.

 

 

THE END

 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. miasraum says:

    I like your words:-)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much!

    Like

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