Atlanta's still parked atop the National League East by 6.5 games. Things look so good for the Braves right now, I don't wanna jinx things by commenting, so enjoy this quote from one of my all-time favorite Braves, Hammerin' Hank Aaron, instead:
“Well, it took me 17 years to get 3,000 hits in baseball, and I did it in one afternoon on the golf course.”
Speaking of jinxes, here's the end of Guarding the Line, Chapter 8. Verity has returned home after a night spent with Michael, to find an unwanted guest. A double-long post this week, to make up for being a slack-ass recently. <grin> In my defense, it's damn hard to write when half your keyboard doesn't work, but I finally found a Bluetooth model I love, after buying and returning a few. Posting Chapter 9 as well, to make up for having no post last week.
“Have you heard of e-mail? Telephones even? Dropping in is so last century.” Vee couldn’t decide what made her angrier, the fact her mother had dropped by unannounced, or that Adrienne had taken the liberty of finishing her damned jigsaw puzzle while she waited. The huge eggshell stood on its wide end on the table, completely reassembled, though she’d broken it in hundreds of pieces and had just begun to sort them out on the table.
“Verity Lavender, where on earth have you been? I’ve been here since dawn.”
Just fucking wonderful. No telling what she snooped into. Vee took a deep breath to prepare for the tirade she knew would be next. “I was at Obsidian last night. Sage needed a bartender.”
Her mother rose to her feet, swaying dramatically, hands clasped to her throat. Such a drama queen. If Vee hadn’t been so pissed off, she’d have laughed aloud.
“After all the trouble that little bitch got you in—twice—I’ll never understand why you lift a finger to do anything for her.”
Still in a temper after her confrontation with Sage, the last thing she wanted was to defend her sister to her mother. But if Adrienne had waited half the night, she clearly had nowhere to be. Better help her with that. “So, you came just to visit? You’re not here to check and see if I found your ring yet? You’re over Him now? You hold what Sage did against her, even knowing he’s done worse? Grow up, Mother.”
Adrienne flung out her arms. Verity almost peered around, looking for the director. She felt stuck in a bad soap opera. “If I have the ring, I can help him, Verity. For the sake of the Goddess, he’s your father. It’s in the prophesy.”
If she lived to be three thousand, Verity was never going to understand why women put themselves through the things they did for an unfaithful man. And when was the last time a prophesy came to pass?
“He uses people, Mother. He uses you, he uses Sage, and he uses Rosemary. He uses their mothers. He uses all his other women as well.” That last sentence was going too far, since she had no proof there were other women, but, damn it, she was tired of listening to this crap.
“Don’t you see ? If you’d been the one helping him instead of Sage, he wouldn’t be where he is now? That idiot should be barred from practice for eternity. If you meant to get involved, why not help Him in the first place?”
Her mother had no use for Sage or Rosemary, but she still expected Vee to forgive the father that had betrayed them all in so many ways.
Slinging her purse at a chair, she battled to keep her tone even.“Wasted words, Mother. We’ve been through this many times. Sage needed help at the club last night. Bartending is not a big deal. I stayed overnight at the apartment. Which brings us to why you’re here?”
“For the ring, of course. Have you found it yet? Time is of the essence.”
Her heart leaped into her throat, but she didn’t see any sign her mother knew she’d found the ring. No, if Adrienne thought she had, she’d have turned up sooner, or gone to Obsidian and made a scene. Thank the Goddess I left that damn thing in the car. Now that she knew what kind of ring Adrienne had been on about, her mother’s drama made more sense. This had nothing to do with a prophecy and everything to do with Adrienne wanting to slap that fidelis ring around Rex Hin’s—yeah, anyway. Glaring at her mother, she demanded, “Why is time of the essence?”
“Verity, I need that ring. You must find it, and soon. I’ll keep checking with you, dear. Now, give me a kiss and I’ll get out of your way.”
And, with the kiss came knowledge she’d rather her mother didn’t have. Adrienne’s brows went up and a knowing smile curved her lips. “Verity, darling, a man? Now that you’re back in circulation, I’ll tell Stone. He’s been asking about you, you know.”
Fabulous. This was going from bad to worse. “Good-bye, Mother.”
Verity prepared herself for a dramatic exit, and wasn’t disappointed when her mother threw open her front door and turned into a brightly-colored parrot.
“I guess a seagull is just not you?” Heaving the front door with all her strength, Verity took satisfaction from the loud bang and wrenched the lock. The thick bolt shot home, not that a lock was worth a damn at keeping her family at bay. What she needed was an ogre. Or a dragon. But the pet food bills….
She stalked to the kitchen and grabbed the bottle of wine. Of course, the wine opener evaded her. What could it hurt? “Bottle mine, share your contents divine and give me access to the fruits of the vine.” The cork began turning, rising at a sedate pace. Verity hoped no vineyard worker tripped and stubbed his toe on a rock…or worse, due to her impatience.
She believed the natural world found ways to get even when its laws were circumvented and didn’t care who paid the price. Her views were akin to those of Buddhists who refuse to kill any living thing, and not widely shared by either side of her family tree, but Verity respected the power of her magic. It made sense that such a force could have a backlash, like any other kind of power.
She stripped off ripping off her clothes and raced up the stairs. Opening the French doors leading off her bedroom, she plopped onto the chaise lounge on her balcony and tipped the bottle to her lips, still fuming. She was the family doormat. Part of the reason was her half-breed status, but she suspected the others took advantage of her beliefs, sensing she’d never turn her magic on them. The wine fueled her anger even as it relaxed her deliciously sore limbs.
By the time she reached the bottom of the bottle, her decision had been made, or one of them anyway. If Sage kept that damn man for herself, she was going to turn her into whatever it was parrots ate, just to see if the Fates would fuck with somebody besides herself for a change.
Mike stood in the shower, enjoying the feel of the hot water pummeling the back of his neck. He rolled his neck and shoulder muscles, knowing the tightness he’d been battling for the last several days was gone. The last trace of tension disappeared the minute his bat connected for a double in the fourth inning, clearing the bases and tying the game. Just like that, his slump was over. His home run in the eighth to put the team ahead had been icing on the cake. He hadn’t been able to resist giving his manager a look of smug satisfaction. When he’d gotten to the field today, Wade told him he wasn’t in the evening’s lineup. Mike had to argue hotly to get into the game.
This was why he played, why everybody played. You lived for those moments when you beat the odds, overcame the physics, the lights, the noise from the crowd, your own tension and past failures. His teammates were talking about going out to celebrate. In the midst of the argument about where they were headed, he got a wink and a nudge from Victor. The big lug actually looked like he knew some kind of secret.
“What?” Moving past the stocky catcher, he yanked open his locker. “Ouch! Shit!” The cut was little more than a scratch, but blood welled in his palm.
Victor held out a box of the stick-on bandages he wrapped around his fingers so the pitchers could see when he flashed the signs between his thighs. “Dude, I told you. That little bartender. She changed your luck, right?”
And just like that, Mike knew who he wanted to celebrate with. Waving away the band-aids, he grinned, but didn’t give the details his buddy was obviously expecting. “Maybe I was just due.” Spying the small jar of ointment reminded him to baste his tat, and by the time he’d rubbed the thin coat of gel into his arm, the scratch was barely visible. He gave the two reporters stalking the room their expected sound bites while he dressed, then dashed out the clubhouse door.
Luckily, the guy on the door at Obsidian turned out to be a fan. The overgrown hunk of beef was named Eldon. The guy sported a shaved, ebony head and muscles that had to come from steroids, but he recognized Mike, and offered to let him in without a membership, but since he was planning to ask the owner for a favor, Mike didn’t think sneaking in was the way to get on the sister’s good side. It took Eldon a few heartbeats to figure out who Mike needed to see. Mike tried not to exhale too loudly, or talk too fast. “Dude, her name’s Sage. Five-seven, five-eight, good figure, brunette, green eyes. Has a smoking hot sister named Vee, looks a lot like her, except blonde, who bartended the other night in the VIP lounge?” Two thick creases appeared between Eldon’s blank brown eyes. Eldon thought his request over for so long, Mike wondered if the guy was doing downers, too. “Signs your paycheck?”
Finally, the bulb in Eldon’s mental closet flickered. “Oh, you mean Miz Alexander, the owner. Only her sisters are allowed to call her Sage.”
He’d played ball with guys like Eldon, thick slabs of beef with air for brains. Clapping the man on the shoulder, Mike covered his vexation with a big smile, as though Eldon had discovered the cure for cancer. “Yes! That’s exactly right. My bad, dude. Miss Alexander is the person I need you to call her for me, Eldon. Thanks.”
When Sage appeared, Mike wondered momentarily whether Eldon might be Catholic, because the guy looked like he was going to hit his knees and genuflect. Sage waved Mike in immediately. “That didn’t take long. We might have to see about getting you a membership card.” She gave him a heated look, running her hand from the part on her hair, lingering over the curves accentuated by a cropped silver top and finally let her palm rest on the hip of a short black velvet skirt.
He missed Eldon already. The music was so loud inside the club, he head to lean closer than he liked to be heard, though he felt he was shouting.“I came to ask you for a favor.”
She moved her hand back to the area just over her low-cut top. She placed her free hand on his arm, pulling up on her toes and pressing her body against his. “In that case, come to my office and we’ll have a drink. I rarely grant favors sober.”
Mike suppressed impatience, noting the bouncers who appeared out of nowhere to clear her path through the crushing crowd around the dance floor. One of the men, a pissed-off looking man with black eyes and a braid of equally-black hair down his back, kept giving Mike the evil-eye over Sage’s head. The trip seemed to take half an hour, but they finally gained the hallway to the offices. The sound level dropped enough so his heart could choose its own beat, but not enough to allow for conversation. At the entrance to the VIP bar, one bouncer peeled off, but the angry-looking one pulled Sage aside. He bent his head, placing his lips to her ear, but his eyes never left Mike. This guy was even bigger than Eldon. Sage ran her hands over his abs before shaking off his grip. She didn’t grab Mike’s arm again, he noted gratefully.
A final turn brought them to the elevator. Mike couldn’t help but stare at the gleaming door and the jolt of longing surprised him. He could almost smell Verity’s subtle perfume.
Sage paused beside the closed door to the room on the opposite side of the corridor. “I need to take care of something. Make yourself comfortable. Help yourself to the bar. I’ll be back in just a minute.” She unlocked the door and flipped on the light. He stepped inside warily. She pulled the door closed behind her. He heaved a sigh of relief. He’d had his share of aggressive females, but there was something about Sage’s touch that made him feel …freaked out and antsy.
There were chairs in front of the desk, but to his left, he spied a seating area. Stepping into the large space, he realized the office was much larger than he’d seen from the hall this morning. He absently rubbed the tattoo on his arm out of habit, but the spot felt much better after two applications of the ointment—or maybe it was just time for the damn thing to heal, but he didn’t miss the maddening itch. The sensation was replaced by an equally maddening low thrum of desire for the woman he’d come to find. Hurry up, Sage. Could he be lucky enough for her bodyguard to accompany her into the office? He much preferred the man’s version of aggression.
The desk was positioned in front of the door, but to the left, the room opened up. Floor-to-ceiling windows like the apartment upstairs, also draped in black. Through the glass, he could see another huge balcony, provoking an involuntary grin as he continued to look around. There was a chaise lounge large enough for two, also upholstered in black leather, and opposing the roomy couch were two similar chairs. He spied the bar, but the huge painting hanging over the antique-looking cabinet was more captivating. He stepped around the desk and got closer.
The frame was carved from dark wood, and a brass light curving over the top showed the work off to advantage. The painting was of three women. They stood barely apart, arms linked, in a field of flowers in the middle of a heavy forest. All were dressed in white, flowing gowns decorated with gold threads, gowns that bared their arms and touched the ground. He easily recognized Verity and Sage, but was amazed to see a third woman with identical features. She had red hair and blue eyes, but otherwise, the three could have been triplets. Each woman wore a circle of flowers on her head like a crown, capping luxuriant hair cascading to their waists, the way Vee’s did. Sage had cut her hair sometime after the painting had been done; the black cap now barely brushed her shoulders.
The painting looked very old, like their clothes, something out of another century, but neither Verity nor Sage appeared to have aged a day. The artist had taken great pains to capture their faces. The talented hand had caught the look of naughty mischief in Sage’s eyes, as well as the dreamy look in Verity’s. The sister unknown to him appeared to be challenging the artist, so commanding was her expression. The gowns they wore were gauzy, revealing as much as they concealed. They could have been goddesses of Greek mythology he’d studied in school. Helluva unique family portrait.
He heard the door open and looked around. Sage stepped into her office and laughed when she saw where he was standing. “I see you’ve figured out there are three of us.”
“Yeah, this looks old, but it can’t be. You and Vee look exactly the same, not a day older. What’s the other sister’s name?”
Sage crossed the room to stand beside him, a bit too close beside him. “We call her Rosemary, unless we’re mad at her. What would you like to drink?”
He took half a step back. A slight frown creased her brow. “A beer, if you have it.”
“If I’d known sooner you were the beer type, I’d have brought one from the bar. How about a brandy instead?” She was already setting up two snifters, so he nodded his assent. Since it was clear Sage didn’t plan to get in any hurry, he took a seat in one of the chairs. She handed him the heavy crystal glass and sank down into the other chair. He took a sip. Rich, smoky flavor exploded on his tongue. The brandy was excellent, better than any he’d had before, and he complimented her on it.
Her eyes flickered as a secretive smile played across her lips, disappearing quickly. “Thank you. The vintage is very old. So, what sort of favor are you here to ask?”
Uncomfortable with the look in her eye, he got straight to the point, swirling the liquid in his glass. “I was hoping you might give me Vee’s number. She, uh, fell asleep so fast this morning I didn’t have a chance to ask her for it.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You didn’t think to leave her your own?”
Damn, she was going to be difficult, he could see it in her eyes. “I prefer to be the one doing the calling, at least in the beginning. Besides, I didn’t feel right digging around in your drawers for something to write on.”
Sage chuckled, and took another sip of her brandy before answering. “Old-fashioned, are you? That’s right up Vee’s alley. She’d never have called if you’d left your number, you know. Frankly, I’m still in shock that she acted so daringly last night. I’ve never known her to spend the night with a man she’d just met. Unless you two met somewhere else?”
He remembered Vee didn’t want her sister to know about the tattoo. It wasn’t as if they’d had much of a conversation or gone to dinner after getting inked. He kept his face deliberately blank as he met her intense scrutiny. He had no idea how close the two were, but the look in Sage’s eyes was making him angry. The way her gaze traveled from his face to his crotch and back was more than curiosity, it was invitation.
“Never laid eyes on her until I sat down in the VIP bar. But, I would very much like to see her again. I’d appreciate your helping me out. It’s a simple request. I promise I’ll not harass her if she doesn’t want to see me again.” He gave her a determined look. “Something tells me she might be glad I called.”
Sage seemed to find something about that statement very amusing. Her lips curved in a manner he found insulting. She shifted in her chair and rearranged her legs, causing her short skirt to slide up her thighs. “Verity has her own ways of dealing with stalkers. I’m not in the least worried about that. Are you sure she’s the sister you want? After all, we’re both here now. Who knows what Vee’s doing tonight?”
Stubbornly, he kept his eyes on her face. “I’d very much like to call Verity.”
He looked up as the office door flew open, expecting to see the man that had given him the evil eye earlier. Instead, he was surprised to see the red-headed sister, outfitted in tight black leather pants and matching lace-up bustier, covered by a see-through, flaming red top. Her hair was still the length it’d been in the portrait, but unlike Vee, she wore it unbound. The coppery mass seemed to snap and crackle around her torso, and the look on her face made him long for his bat…just in case.
“Well, Sage, Axel is very upset that you’re in here with another man. Shame on you.”
Sage lowered her eyes and sipped again from her glass. The third sister closed the door behind her and strode across the room, yanking open one of the doors on the bottom of the cabinet, revealing a small refrigerated space.
Finally, Sage spoke. “Axel is far too possessive. Mike, this is Rosemary. Rose, this is Michael Reardon. He plays some kind of game…for the Braves, I think. He’s here to ask me for Verity’s number. Should I give it to him?”
Rosemary slammed the door and turned. Lifting a bottle of the house water to her lips, she leaned against the bar and eyed him dispassionately. Sage straightened her skirt, he saw out of the corner of his eye. “Hello, Rosemary. Nice to meet you.”
Rosemary ignored his greeting, snapping at her sister instead. “Why don’t you give it to him, then? I need to use your apartment, Sage.”
Sage batted her eyelashes. He clenched his hand around the snifter, wanting to snap her little neck. “Oh, dear, now if I let you have the apartment that causes a little problem for our friend Mike. Verity told me she might be persuaded to see him again, but only if I’d loan her the apartment. They borrowed it last night but he neglected to get her number before he left this morning.”
This announcement prompted Rosemary to turn eyes on him with a great deal more interest. “I thought Verity was doing the purity thing. What’s it been, at least three years now?”
“I guess she drew the line at a thousand days penance. Do I give in to your needs, or hers?” Sage was still looking at him with an invitation in her eyes, in spite of the new sister’s contemptuous glare.
Mike had just about enough of Sage. He put down the drink and stood, ready to leave. He could get her number from Thane. “Look, all I want to do is invite her out for a late dinner, and it doesn’t have to be tonight. I’d appreciate you giving me her number. If not, I’ll be leaving. Thanks for the drink. Nice to meet you,” he said with a nod in the direction of… was it Rosemary? He really only gave a damn about the sister who wasn’t present.
Rosemary didn’t mince words. “Sage, stop being a bitch. I know exactly what you’re doing. If the man wants Verity, I suggest you get past it. Here, let’s just call her.”
Stomping to the desk, she yanked up the receiver from an old-fashioned desk phone, still scolding her sister. “Why do you taunt Axel? You know what a bad mood he gets in when you do this. Either put him out of his misery or stop screwing with him.” She glared at an unrepentant-looking Sage. “Hello, Verity? This is Rose. I’m calling from the club. Someone’s here for you. You better speak to him before I have to declaw Sage. Mike, I think she said his name was.”
She held the receiver out to Mike, who wondered if they were planning to listen to the conversation. Rosemary seemed to be insisting Sage join her in the hallway, he saw to his relief.
“Michael?” Hearing her voice both soothed and inflamed him.
A few minutes later, and a great deal happier, he opened the office door to find both women involved in a heated discussion. “Stone’s going to be mad when he finds out, Rosemary,” he heard Sage hiss.
Rosemary looked Mike straight in the eyes as she responded to her sister. “Verity has the right to make her own decisions, Sage. You know her mother’s crazy. Besides, since when are you on his side?”
“You know it’s not that simple, damn you.”
He hesitated, wondering how private this argument was. Neither seemed to care what he overheard. He took advantage of the break in the argument. “Sage, can I go out the same way I did this morning? It’s closer to where I parked. And Rosemary, nice meeting you and thanks for making the call.”
“See you around,” Rosemary replied carelessly, turning her attention back to Sage, who now appeared hell bent on ignoring him.
“Of course, you remember which door?” Sage muttered after getting the hard look from the other woman. Still ignoring him, she put the key into her sister’s outstretched hand and turned on her heel, leaving him standing there with Rosemary, who continued to stand with her back to the wall, her expression a bit friendlier now that Sage was gone.
He had a few minutes to kill. “I couldn’t help overhearing. Vee has a different mother than you two?”
“We each have different mothers, Mike. Now, take my sister out to dinner, or ask her for a tour of that private beach of hers. It’s about time she had a little fun. Glad I could help, not to mention save you from becoming a tool for Sage’s raging jealousy. I’m sure she took the opportunity to proposition you?”
“You caught that? I was about to give up and leave.”
The red-head snorted. “I keep waiting for Verity to kick her little ass, but I’m beginning to think I won’t live long enough to see that. Sage is insanely jealous of both of us, but Verity in particular. Why she’s our father’s favorite is beyond me.”
Mike thought that over a minute, and realized what was bugging him. “But, you all look about the same age…” He had no idea how to put his thoughts into words, but a knowing smile lit Rosemary’s face, and her blue eyes lost most of their frost.
“Oh, He’s quite the rogue, our father. Believe it or not, we were all born on the same day of the same year. Verity’s the youngest, though, by two minutes. If you can’t guess, Sage is the middle sister, born one minute after me.”
That statement nearly blew his mind. He had no idea how to respond. “Who is this Stone guy Sage is so worried about?”
“Last I heard, he was ancient history. If you’re smart, you won’t speak his name to Verity. Especially if you want to see that beach of hers. Feel free to tell her I mentioned it.” Her wink was accompanied by her push away from the wall, and again, he felt his senses go on his alert. His heart rate rocketed, but she turned away, taking the sense of danger with her.