The elevator doors swished open, and Jessica stepped out into the busy hallway of the first-floor nurses’ station. Nancy, the head nurse, waved her over. Her dark hair, woven with streaks of gray, was pulled tightly back into a ponytail, and mocha-colored eyes crinkled at the corners as she smiled. Nancy set the phone on the desk. “Jess! There’s a call for you.”
Jessica frowned. “Who is it?”
Nancy shrugged. “No idea, he didn’t say.”
Jessica lifted the receiver to her ear. “Hello? This is Jessica.”
“Jess?” a deep, shaky voice choked out.
Jessica nearly dropped the phone. “Granddad? Are you okay?”
“Yes. Ah…Eve and I would like you come for dinner tomorrow night.”
Jessica squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath to gain her composure. “Granddad, you shouldn’t call me at work.”
“I couldn’t get you on your cell phone.”
She shook her head in frustration. “So leave a message.”
“You don’t call me back when I do that.”
“I wonder why,” she grumbled.
“Will you come?”
Jessica rolled her eyes. “For dinner?”
“I don’t think so.” Jessica leaned against the counter, bumping against the pillar next to it. She couldn’t stop her quick intake of breath as she smacked her upper arm, right where she’d just gotten a flu shot.
“We are all the other has left, Jess.”
“You’re forgetting about Mark.” Jessica scowled as she tried to rub the pain away. “And you have Evil.”
“Don’t call her that. You don’t know her.”
“I know her well enough.” She chewed the inside of her cheek to keep from swearing, her arm now throbbing. “Look, I have to go.”
“You have to forgive me at some point. After all, your grandmother has.”
“Nice try. I’m busy tomorrow. I’ve made plans with Hailey.”
“Bring her along. I’ve always liked her.”
Jessica groaned. “I’ll ask her. But no promises.”
“Very good. We’ll see you tomorrow. Six o’clock.”
Jessica dropped the receiver back on the cradle with a clatter. Nancy handed her a chart and raised an eyebrow. “Who was it?”
Jessica rubbed her arm. “My grandfather.”
Nancy nodded to Jessica’s arm. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah. I just smacked my arm.”
Nancy grimaced. “Want me to look at it?”
“Nah, I’m sure it’s just tender from the shot.” Jessica blew away a red curl falling across her forehead. “Tell me about this patient,” She said as she pulled her hair back into her scrunchy.
* * *
Travis Wade turned his head and stared at the naked form of the buxom blonde lying next to him. She’d offered him a meal and a place to sleep, or not sleep, as the case may be. He’d taken her up on it, not that it made a lick of difference. He was still Private Travis Jonah Wade, 69th Infantry Regiment, Company F, listed as deceased in the army records, and on the run from who the hell knew. He wondered if he’d ever sleep again.
Dragging his hands down his face, he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the mattress. How low he’d sunk in the last year couldn’t be measured. He’d joined the army at eighteen, looking for a chance to escape Glens Falls, NY. His life firmly laid out in front of him, and his future set—or so he thought. He’d left his childhood home, his little brother in tow, and promised to fight for the Union. His faith in God and man had been unshakable.
He pushed away his memories. He couldn’t relive them…wouldn’t relive them.
He stood and pulled his long underwear on. Sidling to the window, back against the wall, he peered out into the early morning. A fresh snowfall greeted him, and he watched the oranges and yellows of the rising sun wash over the ground.
“Come back to bed, soldier,” the widow whispered, drawing his focus.
“There’s nothing I’d like more.” Travis chuckled without humor. “But I can’t stay.”
“Of course you can.” She sat up, letting the sheet slide from her body. “I’ve been so lonely since my husband died.”
Travis stepped away from the window and pulled his shirt and pants on. Slipping his feet into a piss-poor excuse for socks, he tried to fold the material around the holes before stepping into his boots. “I can’t. I have to meet someone.”
The blonde wrinkled her nose. “Who could be more important than me?”
Travis smiled and shrugged into his warm coat. “No one, sweetheart. Just a man who’s waiting for an answer to a question I have no intention of answerin’.”
“Will you come back?”
He stood and made his way to the bed. “I’ll do my very best,” he lied. If he had his way, he’d never come back. Leaning down, he kissed her cheek. “Now, where’s the horse you mentioned?”
“In the barn. She’s real old, but she’ll get ya to where you need to be.”
“I appreciate the hospitality.” He kissed her, lingering until he heard her sigh. He’d perfected the seduction of the mouth, using his skill when he needed something from a woman. It worked every time.
Without a backward glance, he left her bedroom and slipped from the house. He found the horse where she’d said it would be. His heart dropped at the sight of the nag. Old didn’t begin to describe her. He checked her teeth and sighed. Patting her neck, he ran his hands over her body. She seemed sound, even if she was well past her prime. “Well, girl, can you survive long enough to get me to Harrisburg?” The horse nudged his shoulder. “All right. All right. I’ll take a chance.”
He tacked her up and led her from the barn. Her thick coat would help with the cold, but he added an additional blanket to pad the saddle just to be sure. He mounted her and moved her toward Harrisburg…and he hoped, safety.
* * *
“Jess, it’s going to be fine.”
Jessica turned from the mirror and raised an eyebrow at Hailey. “My grandfather’s up to something—or, Eve is, anyway.”
The girls stood in the master bathroom of Jessica’s grandmother’s house, readying themselves for dinner with Jessica’s grandfather.
Hailey shook her head, her short brown hair swinging across her cheeks. “You don’t know that. Maybe he’s just trying to reconnect.”
Jessica faced the mirror again and leaned forward to apply mascara. “You’re always so quick to accept the good in people.”
“You make it sound like that’s a bad thing.”
Jessica shrugged and shoved the mascara wand back into the tube. “People lie, Hails, and there’s something off with Evil.”
Hailey giggled. “I can’t believe you call her that.”
“Look, your granddad left your grandma after fifty years of marriage and married the affair. It was awful, but your grandma’s happier than she’s ever been with her new man…living in Italy, for Pete’s sake. Plus, we get a free place to live out of the deal. If she’s moved on, don’t you think it’s silly to continue to hold a grudge?”
“Not sure. Ask me after dinner.”
Hailey laughed while Jessica checked her appearance. She’d pulled the front and sides of her long red hair away from her face and secured it with a simple clip at the back of her neck. She sighed. Her hair was ridiculously curly and impossible to control, but she was sick of the heavy bun she wore while nursing, wanting something a little different for tonight.
She wore a tight but comfortable pair of khaki pants, dark brown boots, which she’d replace with killer heels later, and a chocolate-brown sweater with a zipper that opened just enough for her lace cami to peek through. Although she didn’t consider herself busty, she had enough for an attractive cleavage and felt, all-in-all, her choice of sexy and functional would work well for her tonight. The plan being to eat dinner, make a quick exit, and then hit the new club in downtown Harrisburg.
Hailey layered on clear lip-gloss and then faced Jessica. “Are you going to wear heels?”
Jessica nodded. “Later.”
“If you do, I’ll look ridiculous.”
Hailey was referring to Jessica’s height. At 5’10”, she was taller than most of the men she met, and definitely towered over all of her girlfriends.
“You’ll look great, Hails,” Jessica argued. “You always do.”
Hailey wore black tights with a plaid mini-skirt that showcased her sexy “runner” legs, and leather boots with a four-inch heel that zipped to her knees. Her cream turtleneck hugged all the right curves, and she’d curled her light brown hair just enough for bounce.
She crossed her arms. “Right now, I’m only three inches shorter than you. If you wear heels, we’ll be back to our seven-inch span.”
“Which ultimately helps you,” Jessica pointed out. “I’ll look like a big oaf next to you.”
Hailey giggled. “Big oaf, my butt.”
Jessica shoved a scrunchy in her pocket and sighed. “Okay, I’ll nix the heels.”
Jessica’s phone buzzed, shaking the eyeliner pencil next to it. Her brother’s name came up on the screen and she pushed the answer button. “Hey, Mark! Long time, no hear.”
“Hi, Jitterbug. Sorry. Tour’s been crazy.”
Mark groaned. “Yes, really. Just because you don’t like his music doesn’t mean he’s not good…or popular.”
Mark was currently on tour with Shaunessy, a multi-million-selling pop star. Jessica personally didn’t get it. Her musical tastes bent toward something heavier, but her brother was an incredible dancer, and hard rock bands didn’t have much of a place for dancers…at least not of the male variety.
“Well, he’s no Justin Timberlake.”
Mark laughed. “No, but he is a friend of J.T.’s.”
Jessica nearly dropped the phone. “Shut up.”
Hailey waved her hand and grinned. “Say hi.”
Jessica smiled. “Hailey says hi, but I want to know more about his friend J.T., and when I’ll get the chance to meet him.”
Mark chuckled. “Tell Hails “hi.” And if you play your cards right, you might get to meet him when they do the summer tour together next year.”
“Nuh-uh! They are not.” Jessica leaned a hip against the bathroom counter.
“Limited shows in limited cities, but yes, it’s true. I’m doing double duty in the performances.”
“Have I mentioned how glad I am that you’re my brother?”
“Not for a very long time,” Mark droned.
Jessica brushed some blush onto her cheeks and grinned. “Well, consider it mentioned.”
“Good. In that case, I need a place to crash.”
“What? When?” Jessica dropped the brush onto the counter. “You’re visiting?”
“Yep. We have a one-week hiatus. The first show on this leg is in three weeks in Pittsburgh, so I thought I’d just come to you and then meet everyone in time for show rehearsal.”
“That would be amazing. I can’t wait to see you!”
“Me too. I should be there the Monday before Thanksgiving and I don’t have to leave until the following Tuesday.”
“Yay. We can hang out and then join the Mulligans for Thanksgiving.”
“Perfect,” Mark said. “I should go, Mandie’s waving me over.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to you soon. ’Bye,” Jessica said and then hung up the phone.
“Mark’s coming?” Hailey asked, a quiet sigh escaping her mouth.
Jessica raised an eyebrow. “Is your heart pitter-pattering?”
“Yep. Among other things.”
Jessica tapped the phone against her palm. “Thanks for that. I hope your mom won’t mind an extra mouth to feed.”
“Are you kidding me?” Hailey giggled. “She adores your brother…almost as much as I do.”
“I’ve never understood you crushing on him.”
Hailey rolled her eyes. “He’s gorgeous, you just don’t see it.”
“Maybe not. My grandfather’s probably going to want to see him too…but he can do that without me. Tonight’s going to be enough for me.” Jessica sighed. “I guess we should go.”
“It’s going to be fine, Jess.”
“I hope so.”
The girls made their way downstairs, grabbed their outerwear, and took off for dinner.
* * *
Jessica’s grandfather was a large man and his Italian heritage contributed to the fact he looked years younger than his age. He greeted Jessica with a warm hug, and although he appeared to have lost weight since she’d last seen him, he seemed in good spirits.
Eve was more than twenty years her husband’s junior and could only be described as the perfect trophy wife. Dark hair, dyed to perfection and pulled back into a stylish bun, drew focus to an elegant neck adorned with a triple strand of pearls….a “gift” from Jessica’s grandfather, no doubt. Eve drew Jessica into an awkward embrace, and her tiny frame made Jessica feel as though a skeleton were hugging her.
“Have you heard from Mark?” Jessica asked her granddad.
She filled him in on Mark’s travel plans and once the niceties were over with, the group gathered in the dining room. Eve had employed a chef for the special meal and dinner was delicious, and surprisingly uneventful.
“Did you hear about the vet clinic being robbed?” Jessica’s grandfather asked.
Jessica shook her head. “I didn’t.”
She tried to listen to her grandfather as he gave a play-by-play on the stolen drugs, but she found herself thinking about her brother’s visit and the potential of meeting Justin Timberlake instead. She did manage to smile and nod her head from time to time, in an effort to appear interested.
Then he started in with the Cary landslide already evident in the mayoral polls, despite the November election being a few weeks away. Jessica grimaced. She fully intended voting for whoever ran against Cary, but didn’t know who that would be. The opposing candidates seemed to be dropping like flies, and since the Carys held political offices from the west coast to the east, she didn’t know if anyone could win against them anyway.
Eve set dessert in front of her and smiled. “Your grandfather said you love chocolate. I hope you’ll enjoy this.”
Eve’s smile never quite reached her eyes, and it made Jessica nervous. She shivered. “Thank you.”
Eve delivered dessert to Hailey and then stood next to her husband and slid an arm around his shoulders. “Would anyone like coffee?”
The three of them nodded and Eve made her way back into the kitchen. Jessica’s grandfather reached over and patted her hand. “Thanks so much for coming, Jess. I’ve missed you.”
“It’s been a nice visit, Granddad.” Jessica forced a smile as she studied his sunken eyes and grayish pallor. “How are you, anyway? You look tired.”
“I’ve been a little under the weather. Nothing to worry about. Eve’s takin’ real good care of me.”
Jessica shared a concerned glance with Hailey. As nurses, they could tell he was more than “under the weather.”
“Why don’t you come down to the hospital tomorrow,” Jessica said. “I’ll take some blood and we can see what’s going on.”
Her grandfather shook his head and took a bite of dessert. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“Yes,” Eve added, a frown flickering over her face as she stepped back into the dining room. “He’s got a cold. It’ll be over in a few days.”
That was when Jessica saw something she couldn’t ignore. Fear in her grandfather’s eyes. Pure and unadulterated fear.
“Cream?” Eve held the creamer up, drawing focus back to her.
Jessica nodded. “Yes, please.”
Eve poured the cream and then took her seat. Jessica watched her grandfather as she sipped her coffee. Something was wrong. She just didn’t know what. She blinked, her eyes growing heavy.
“Wow,” Hailey said and then yawned. “I’m suddenly really sleepy.”
“That’s a surprise,” Eve said. “The coffee’s not decaf.”
Jessica couldn’t focus. Eve took a dainty bite of a cookie…not the chocolate pie everyone else had just eaten. “Evil, why are you not eating the shoklit,” Jessica slurred. She rubbed her eyes, forcing herself to focus on Eve.
“Me, dear? I don’t like chocolate.” Eve rose to her feet and made her way to Jessica. “Perhaps you should lie down. Why don’t you come with me?”