My breath caught in my throat at the sight of her standing in the doorway of my apartment. She wore a simple light grey dress, fitted everywhere except for the cowl neckline. Light blush applied to the apples of her cheeks highlighted her already dramatic cheekbones. Long, dark eyelashes framed impeccable eye shadow while I hardly knew how to apply mascara. A thin belt drew my eyes to her waist, down to her narrow hips, and to the bare olive skin where the bottom hem of her dress ended just above the knee.
We hadn’t seen each other in the days between now and when she’d surprised me at the bar where we’d first met. I still had to give my friend Rich a hard time about ganging up on me like that, but in reality I owed him big. When I’d left Embarrass, hurt and betrayed and confused, I never thought I’d see this woman ever again.
“Are you ready?” she asked, sounding impatient. I wondered if she was as nervous as I was. Her voice was audibly tense, but her features didn’t give anything away.
Of course I was running late. Every other day of my twenty-eight years on this planet I had been on time—awkwardly early, even—but on the day it mattered the most, I was rushing around my apartment, frazzled and verging on sweating. I blamed it on the clothes. Living in Afghanistan had been the biggest trial of my life, but on a military base in the middle of a godforsaken desert wasteland, at least I’d never stood in front of my wardrobe, panicked about if my outfit matched.
Julia cleared her throat. “You’re not off to a very good start, dear.”
“I can do better.”
She arched an expectant eyebrow, and her lips, stained with ruby-red lipstick, pulled into a smirk. “Oh, really?”
My hands circled her waist, and I dipped my head to kiss her perpetually red-painted mouth. Her body stiffened and initially resisted my advance, but when I swept my tongue across her lower lip, I felt her body react, sagging and melting into mine. It was tempting to linger and see how far she’d let me carry on, standing in the open threshold of my apartment building, but I pulled back before either of us could get too carried away.
I really wanted this date.
Her eyes were closed, mouth slightly parted.
“Hi.” My voice sounded rougher and lower than my usual tone.
“Hi yourself,” she replied, caramel-colored eyes finally fluttering open.
“You look gorgeous,” I complimented. “As usual.” I allowed myself a second, indulgent look, taking my time as my eyes swept over her figure.
She looked down at her dress. “I spent all morning debating what to wear since you’ve refused to tell me what we’re doing or where we’re going.”
She tried to sound annoyed with me, but the small smile affixed to her lips told me she was pleased with my compliment.
Technically, it had been Julia who’d asked me on a date, but I’d pestered her for far longer, so we’d compromised that I would plan the day provided she got to drive. I only had my motorcycle, and even though the Minnesota summer weather was still beautiful, there was no way I was going to get Julia Desjardin to straddle the back of my Harley-Davidson Sportster.
A girl could always dream though.
“Come on in,” I said, opening the door wider. “I’ll just be a minute.”
I heard Julia’s heels on the wooden floor as she entered and the soft click of the door closing behind her. I inspected her shoes—black stilettos whose heels she probably considered to be of reasonable height. “Are you gonna be okay to walk in those?” I asked.
“That depends,” she posed. “Are we climbing a mountain today?”
“Then I’m sure I’ll be perfectly fine.” Her eyes scanned my small apartment. “Do I get the grand tour?”
“Living room, kitchen, dining area,” I said, pointing in the general direction of each space. “There’s a bathroom and bedroom in the back.”
My new apartment was small, but clean and functional. It had come partially furnished, which included a bed, kitchen supplies, a cocktail table with four chairs, and a couch and coffee table. I hadn’t been stateside long enough to really accumulate much more than a flat screen TV and a laptop; the former was perched on one of my packing boxes in the living room and the latter was on the dining room table. I also hadn’t completely unpacked the boxes my parents had shipped me that contained my limited belongings. For now they remained stacked in my bedroom closet or in a corner of the living room, one item unpacked at a time as I had need for it.
I had no art on my walls, no movie posters or photographs to display. In fact the only thing I’d hung up since moving from Rich’s couch to the one-bedroom apartment had been the dream catcher Julia had bought me after witnessing the worst of my nightmares one night. I had no headboard, just a bed frame and a queen-sized mattress, so the dream catcher hung on the wall from a nail that the previous tenant had left behind.
A playful smile found its way to Julia’s mouth. “What? No tour of your bedroom?”
I shook my head hard. “Not if we actually want to leave sometime today.”
Julia’s smile turned into a pout, but I refused to be distracted. “I’ll be right back,” I announced, leaving her behind.
The only bathroom in my apartment was connected to the bedroom. It was no larger than the toilet, sink, and tub, but I was only one person and I didn’t require anything more. Privacy still felt like a bit of a luxury. I’d gotten used to sleeping in barracks and using communal bathrooms. It was admittedly awkward to have to traipse through my bedroom just to go to the bathroom, but when I’d originally leased the place a little under a month ago I hadn’t been thinking about guests or convenience. I’d been a tenant in the building before my move to Embarrass, so I was familiar with the structure and its neighborhood. But more importantly, I’d needed to get off of Rich’s couch for the good of our friendship and to salvage my sanity.
I inspected my reflection in the mirror above the sink. I smoothed my hands over my long, blonde hair to tame the unwanted flyaways, which were more stubborn than usual because of the day’s humidity. I straightened the neckline of my green sleeveless shell so it fell evenly across my collarbone. I’d chosen the top because its color complimented my eyes. I stood a moment longer in front of the mirror. In a shirt and skinny jeans, I was underdressed compared to Julia, but that was nothing new. I’d have to be wearing a prom dress to trump her wardrobe. When we’d first met her clothes had made me feel inadequate; they were a visual reminder that we came from different worlds. But stripped bare of the costumes, we weren’t all that different—stubborn, proud, and mildly damaged.
When I returned from the bathroom, I discovered Julia sifting through an overly large stack of mail that had been dominating my dining room table since I’d moved in. I hadn’t bothered leaving a forwarding address when I’d moved to Embarrass, and the property manager had been too lazy to send the mail back to the post office.
She didn’t stop flipping through the letters and magazines or even have the good grace to look embarrassed that I’d caught her digging through my things. Instead, she plucked an envelope from the top of the pile and waved it in front of me like a fan. “Do you know you have envelopes here dated from back in June?”
“Yeah.” I rubbed at the back of my neck. “I gotta go through those one of these days.”
I didn’t tell her that I hadn’t been paying attention to my new incoming mail, either. The mix of my mail with that of the previous tenant’s overwhelmed the table. It didn’t matter to me, though. I ate most of my meals at my coffee table. But intuition told me that if we continued to date, Julia wasn’t going to let that fly.
Her eyes narrowed at me. “I’m half tempted to make you sort through this mail right now,” she warned. “Who knows what kind of bills could be racking up late charges and ruining your credit score.”
“You wrongly assume I have any credit to ruin,” I countered.
Something flickered across Julia’s features, something akin to horror.
Her reaction made me laugh. “I’m kidding, Julia. But you really don’t have to worry about this,” I said, gesturing to the mountain of unopened mail. “Other than my motorcycle payment, I don’t have any debt. Uncle Sam took care of that for me.”
“Well that was awfully generous of my tax dollars to pay for your steady diet of pizza and beer,” Julia quipped.
“My thoughts exactly,” I said, grabbing my wallet and sunglasses from the table, “which is why tonight, you’re going to let me pay for everything without protest.”
Her jaw unhinged as she readied her complaint, but I hustled out the front door before she could assemble her closing statements.
We traveled in comfortable silence from my apartment door down to the front of the building where her black Mercedes was parked.
“What’s in the bag?” she asked, gesturing to the military-issued backpack slung over my right shoulder. I didn’t own much that didn’t use the Marine’s digital camouflage pattern.
“It’s a secret.”
Her upper lip curled. “I hope you didn’t pack an overnight bag, Miss Miller. Need I remind you, this is only our first date, and I’m not that kind of girl.”
“Oh, I know you’re not,” I said, laughing.
In my experience though, she was that kind of girl. After our initial meeting at a bar in Minneapolis, she’d shown up unannounced at my Embarrass apartment and had practically forced her way into my bed—not that I’d minded at all. But I’d never challenge her on that, especially not on the cusp of our first, official date.
I climbed into the passenger side of the luxury car. I didn’t know how long she’d had the vehicle, but the interior still smelled new. The leather seats creaked as I buckled my seatbelt.
“Take a right out of the parking lot and go left at the second light,” I directed her to our destination.
I drummed my index fingers on the dashboard as she followed my instructions.
Julia’s eyes were focused on the street in front of her. “Nervous about something, dear?”
I made a noncommittal noise and stared straight ahead. Being in her presence still knotted me up. She was classy, refined, and beyond beautiful. I wondered if I would always feel this nervous around her.
I pointed towards the entrance of a parking lot. “This is the place,” I announced.
“Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden,” Julia read aloud as we pulled into a paved lot. “Is this the date?”
“Maybe,” I smiled.
Julia parked the car and turned off the engine. “So now what?” she turned to me. “A picnic in the park?”
“Do you think me that predictable?”
“Predictable? No. Sentimental? Yes.”
“Sentimental?” I echoed, aghast. “Now you’re calling me soft?”
“Perhaps ‘romantic,’ would have been a better choice of words. You strike me as the kind of woman who brings flowers to a date and holds doors and pulls out chairs.”
“I didn’t bring you flowers,” I pointed out, practically pouting.
“Only because I picked you up, dear, remember?”
My stubbornness had me rallying to come up with a defense until she leaned across the center console and cupped the side of my face with her hand.
“And I adore that about you, Cassidy,” she said softly. The pad of her thumb stroked along my cheek. “I’ve never felt so cherished and protected as when I’m with you.”
I cleared my throat, equal parts taken aback and startled by the affectionate words. “Well, uh, good,” was all I managed to come up with.
She quietly laughed at my reaction and her hand left the side of my face. “Come on, Miss Miller,” she said, opening the driver side door. “We have a first date to attend to.”
Julia stood beside me, hands clutching her purse, as she stared in disbelief. “Mini golf?”
“Still think I’m predictable?” I gloated.
Until I was reinstated with the city police, I was on a limited budget. But I still wanted our first, official date to be memorable. I also wanted to avoid locations where previous suitors might have tried to woo Julia, and I didn’t want to do something out of my comfort zone—I wanted to have a good time, too. The firing range seemed a little too aggressive for a first date, and bowling would have been too pedestrian for Julia. Mini golf on a course that resembled contemporary pop art, however, seemed like the perfect blending of our two personalities.
I was actually a pretty good golfer, lesbian stereotypes aside. When I was in the military, we had a lot of idle time on base in between directives. If I wasn’t playing cards with my friend, Terrance Pensacola, I was using the surrounding desert as my personal driving range. I hadn’t played miniature golf since I was a teenager, but I trusted that muscle memory would eventually kick in.
I reached for the wallet in my back pocket. To my surprise, Julia didn’t shove her way to the front of the line or make a fuss about me wanting to pay for both of us—she must have still been recovering from the reveal of the unexpected date activity.
I rented two putters and golf balls from a pimple-faced teenaged boy who eyeballed Julia in her grey dress with keen interest. I couldn’t tell if he was checking her out or just curious about her fancy outfit. It was probably a little of both.
I held my hand open to let Julia pick which color ball she wanted to be—blue or red. “Ladies’ choice,” I said.
When her fingers closed around her choice, a small smirk affixed itself to her painted smile. “I hope you’ll keep any comments about blue balls to yourself, Miss Miller.”
Her unexpected words caused a snort to bubble up my throat and escape out my nose. “Honestly, my brain didn’t even go there.”
Julia ran her hand over her face. “Good Lord,” she muttered. “You must be rubbing off on me.”
I flashed her a bright smile. I normally liked to make jokes of the low-hanging-fruit variety, but that was too obvious a setup, even for me. “And, I’m not touching that with a ten-foot pole.”
We walked up to the first hole, which was titled Putt Pong. Each of the course’s holes had been designed by an area artist. Putt Pong looked like a putting green with ping-pong paddles half-buried in the artificial turf.
“Do you want to go first?” I offered.
“Is this the part of the date where you teach the helpless woman how to do something sports related?” Julia quipped.
“I would never put the words ‘helpless’ and ‘Julia Desjardin’ in the same sentence.”
Her ruby red lips twisted. “Good answer.”
She stepped onto the putting green and set her ball down. Aiming, she laced her elegant fingers around the handle of her putter as she bent over the club for her approach. I couldn’t help myself; my eyes drifted to the way the material of her dress tightened over her backside.
“Eyes on the ball, right?”
I coughed and jerked my gaze away from her luscious ass. My hand reflexively went to my hair, and I raked my fingers through my loose curls. “Right,” I choked out.
Her club swung backwards like a pendulum and connected soundly with the blue golf ball on the forward pass. I watched with wide eyes as the ball avoided the first few ping-pong paddles and each subsequent obstacle until it clattered into the far hole—a hole in one.
“What the hell?”
Julia flipped her golf club over as if to use it for a walking cane. “My father used to take Jonathan and me golfing at the Embarrass Country Club every Sunday morning when weather permitted. Mother went to church and my father had his own ideas about observing the Sabbath.”
“Is there anything you’re not good at?” I marveled.
Her brow furrowed and the cocky smile on her face faltered. “Dating.”
I had been nervous about today, too. We’d hung out numerous times, just the two of us, and sometimes not even in each others’ bed. But I’d worried what might change between us if we affixed a label to this thing we were doing. If we officially called it a date, would we self-destruct?
My hands went to the delicate bones of her wrists, which were clenched around the blade of her golf club. “Then I guess we’ll have to help each other out in that department.”
I watched as one corner of her mouth tilted up, and I knew I’d said the right thing.
The next hole, Let’s Be Frank, consisted of an obscenely large hotdog and bun, complete with a yellow squiggle of mustard down its center. Julia went first again. She leaned over her club, eyes focused on the little blue ball. I should have known she would be hyper-competitive, even over a game of putt-putt.
My eyes raked over the lean muscles of her exposed arms and to the drooping neckline of her dress, which offered scant view of the skin beneath. She was overdressed, almost comically so, surrounded by families with yelling children. In her shoes, those same shoes whose stiletto heels sank into soft green grass, I would have felt wildly out of place. But not Julia; I’d never met someone so comfortable in their own skin as she.
I realized I was coming dangerously close to being in love with this woman. And we were only on our first date.
She looked up suddenly from her putt. “What?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t say anything.”
“You had a strange look on your face.”
“Sorry. I was thinking about work.”
It was a small lie, but my status with the Minneapolis Police Department was never too far from my mind. My therapy had been going well—productive was the word my psychologist had used. Normally I was loath to open up to strangers, but I had a goal this time around. I needed to get back on the force as soon as they would let me. The alternative was grim, and in the long run, probably detrimental to my mental health. Throwing me back onto a beat would be haphazard, but I couldn’t sit around in my apartment killing beers and playing Madden forever.
We played through the remaining holes fairly quickly. Julia was under par on every hole, but for once I didn’t lament being trounced in a competition. I had a pretty wicked competitive streak, but I didn’t mind losing to Julia. I’d somehow won her affections. It didn’t matter to me if I ever had another victory.
After returning our rented golf clubs and retrieving my backpack from her car, we walked hand-in-hand, fingers loosely entwined, to an open green space close to the iconic statue of a cherry perched on the end of a spoon.
“Did you know that the artist for this piece was actually a husband and wife collaboration?” Julia asked, gesturing to the iconic sculpture. “The wife chose its design because the geometry of the Walker Gardens reminded her of Versailles and Louis XIV’s exaggerated table manners there.”
“Lemme guess,” I chuckled, “you took art history classes in college.”
She smiled innocently. “Naturally. I signed up for everything my father thought was a waste of time.”
The second reference of the evening to her father brought a frown to my face. My ego and sense of righteousness had been injured when Julia had defended her father in court rather than support me. I had tried to put myself in her shoes to understand that decision, but high heels had never been a comfortable fit for me.
As quickly as my mood shifted, I tried to mentally shake it off. I was determined to have a good time with her tonight. There would be time to heal later.
I dropped my backpack onto the grass. “I hope you’re hungry.”
“Oh yes, that vigorous round of miniature golf has left me famished,” she teased.
I unzipped my backpack and pulled out an old bed sheet. I wasn’t fancy enough to own a proper red-and-white checked picnic blanket, so I had to make do with what I had around in my apartment. Julia watched with curiosity as I unfolded the sheet on the grass and proceeded to produce dinner. I had managed to fit a veritable smorgasbord of cured meat, cheese, bread, and fruit into my backpack.
“That backpack is like the clown car of backpacks,” she observed as I laid out the food on the blanket.
“I got really good at packing in the military,” I explained.
“This looks really lovely, Cassidy. Thank you.”
I cleared my throat, still unaccustomed to niceties and compliments. “It’s just some stuff I picked up at the grocery store,” I dismissed.
While Julia settled down on the blanket, elegantly tucking her long legs beneath her, I pulled a small box of white wine from my backpack.
Julia’s eyes darted around when she saw the container. “Alcohol out in the open?”
“I think we can break the rules just this once,” I said, pouring a generous amount of wine into two red plastic cups. “Besides, the worst any cop is going to do is ask us to dump it out. Only a real prick would write a ticket.”
Julia accepted the proffered beverage. “I had no idea you interpreted the law so liberally, Officer Miller.”
“Just don’t tell my boss,” I winked.
“Speaking of which, any news on getting reinstated?”
I took a small sip of the white wine. I preferred beer, but I hadn’t had room in my bag for a six-pack. I wasn’t that efficient of a packer. “I met with the Inspector yesterday.”
The city police department had never had to deal with a situation like mine before. Technically, I’d taken myself off of active duty—it hadn’t been the result of an internal affairs investigation or some disciplinary action. But at the same time, they couldn’t very well return a gun and badge to an unstable police officer. It put my commanding officer at the Fourth Precinct, Inspector Garnet, in a tough position.
“And?” Julia pressed.
“The plan is to have me redo my probation period. Seventy days of supervised duty, continued therapy, and then I’ll be officially reinstated.”
Most police departments across the country used something called the San Jose field training model to observe and assess new officers after they’d graduated from the academy. The San Jose police department had come up with the system back in the 1970s, hence its name. I had been through the process before when I’d been hired directly out of the police academy, so I knew what to expect.
I would be assigned a senior officer as my Field Training Officer, or FTO. Over a seventy-day period, my FTO would fill out a daily observation report, or D.O.R, which assessed twenty-nine gradable tasks, including things like my attitude, appearance of my uniform, relationships with other officers, knowledge of protocol, and my overall performance. My FTO would rank those tasks on a sliding scale of 1—unacceptable—to 7—exceptional. If I received a rating of 1 for two consecutive training days, my underperformance would be forwarded immediately to the Inspector. I didn’t anticipate any hiccups, however. I had passed easily and without issue through my rookie probationary period, and I expected nothing less from round two.
The only major difference between my true rookie year and now was that I wouldn’t have to redo my fitness test. I actually wouldn’t have minded that though. Since returning from Afghanistan, I’d probably gotten a little soft around the middle. My eating habits hadn’t helped the cause and all exercise was easy compared to what I’d experienced in boot camp, especially the Crucible—a forty-mile march that required carrying over sixty pounds of combat gear.
Julia swirled her wine around in the plastic cup before taking an experimental sip. I was sure her palate had become accustomed to far more expensive wines than what I could offer. “That sounds reasonable. Or am I wrong?”
“You’re not wrong. It just means I’m a rookie all over again.”
Julia made a humming noise. “I can relate to that. It’s been taking some time to feel comfortable in my new job as well, building a rapport with co-workers and the judges and prosecutors with whom I’ll be in contact.”
In a short amount of time, Julia had gone from Embarrass City Prosecutor to her father’s criminal defense lawyer to being a public defender for a Minneapolis non-profit group.
“Do you like it so far?” I asked.
“They’re not exactly crime of the century cases,” she dismissed.
“I know that, but do you like it?”
“I took the job because I needed to get out of Embarrass,” she said in earnest. “I don’t see it as a forever job, but it’ll do for now. And, to be quite honest, since my clients’ cases are fairly routine, it’s afforded me the opportunity to look into a custody trial about my mother.”
Julia’s mother, Olivia Desjardin, had been diagnosed with dementia. The way Julia told it, she hadn’t been the same since Julia’s brother Jonathan, another returning veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, had taken his own life.
I’d only seen Julia in the context of her mother twice—once tending to rose bushes at her home, and the other when her mother had wandered off in the middle of the night—but even from those brief interactions, I knew Julia loved her mother deeply. Leaving Embarrass and her mother had probably been the hardest thing she’d ever done.
“So how does that work?” I asked. “Getting custody of someone?”
“The judge first has to declare my mother as unable to care for herself anymore, and then he’ll appoint a guardian. The incompetency is the easy part,” she said. “Determining if my father or myself will be appointed her guardian is the real issue. Unfortunately, the process strips her of many legal rights, but it’s the only way I can get her away from that man.”
“Do you need me to testify?” I offered. “Kind of like an expert witness?”
“No, dear, nothing like that. Her doctor in Embarrass sent ahead his recommendation, and I also have the paperwork from when she wandered away from the house and you and David helped us find her. Those are all official documents, which in many cases are more reliable than personal testimony.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Not unless you’re an expert in family law, I’m afraid. I’m actually having to relearn a lot about custody and family law myself. I haven’t had to really think about it much since law school.”
“You don’t have to do that as a public defender?”
She shook her head. “Family law is largely civil cases. As a public defender I’m still working in criminal law, but they’re mostly for minor infractions—DUIs, petty theft, drug possession,” she listed off.
“So all the people I arrest,” I chuckled.
“I suppose so,” she said, looking thoughtful.
I could have remarked that it wouldn’t have been the first time she’d gotten a release for someone I’d arrested, but I kept those comments to myself. Hers was a complicated familial situation. I knew enough not to bring up the topic of her father despite my burning curiosity to know how he was getting on. She’d told me he had resigned as mayor and had returned the funds he’d embezzled from the city, but that told me nothing of how the people of Embarrass interacted with him at the grocery store.
But I didn’t want to spoil our official first date with such serious conversation topics. I’d save those for the second date.
At the end of the evening, we stood outside of Julia’s apartment door. She had offered to drop me off at my place on the way back from the park, but I hadn’t been ready for the evening to end. I had my arms clasped loosely around her waist while my mouth slowly explored hers. She tasted sweet like the white wine we’d had with dinner. When she bit down on my lower lip, I couldn’t help the groan that slipped out of my mouth. I felt her smile against me, knowing she’d always had the upper hand when it came to being intimate. I was just trying to keep up.
She pulled away from the kiss, but stayed close enough to tuck an errant lock of hair behind my ear. “I have to thank you for today,” she said in that low rasp that I would never get tired of hearing. “If you had told me this morning I’d actually enjoy playing miniature golf, I would have called you a liar.”
“It must have been the company,” I grinned.
“Or maybe it was all that winning I did,” she countered with a smirk.
I leaned in for another lingering kiss, ready to erase the cocky, triumphant look from her face, but she rested her palms flat against my clavicle and gently pushed me back. “I warned you earlier. I’m not in the habit of doing more than kissing on a first date.”
I blinked, not quite trusting that I’d heard her correctly. “You were being serious about that?”
“Quite.” She folded her arms across her chest and her lips pressed together. “Thank you again for a lovely evening, Cassidy. Do be safe on your way home.”
The door to her apartment shut with her inside, and I stood—dumbstruck—out in the hallway. I stared at the door and the gunmetal 8C that hung at eye level. I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t that I had been expecting sex, but I certainly hadn’t anticipated being sent away so soon or so easily. She’d said she’d enjoyed our date, but her dismissal indicated I’d blown it.
I could hear the sounds of mumbled conversations and television sets coming from adjacent apartments, but nothing from the apartment directly in front of me. After a long, uncomfortable moment, I turned on my heel to head toward the elevator. The night was still early, and I contemplated calling Rich or one of my other friends to meet up at our usual bar—until I heard the sound of a door opening.
“Giving up so easily?” Julia’s musical tone mocked me.
“Oh, thank God,” I breathed.
Strong hands fisted in the front of my shirt and roughly pulled until I had no choice but to tumble into Julia’s apartment. The door slammed behind me, and a wave of pain cascaded down my back as I found myself being forcefully pressed against the backside of the door.
“I’m a little disappointed, Miss Miller,” she remarked. “I thought you’d be more persistent.”
I bit my lower lip. It was ludicrous, but every time she addressed me with such authority and formality, my legs turned to Jello. It made me wish I were back on active duty already so she could call me Officer or Detective Miller like when we’d first met.
“You like making me work for it, don’t you?” I posed.
“Is that a real question?”
I shook my head. “No.”
My eyes swept around the interior of her apartment. I had yet to see the inside of her new place. The front room was spacious with an open floor plan. A large panel of floor-to-ceiling windows provided a stunning view of the city skyline. The floors were a dark wood, but most everything else in the apartment was some shade of white with a few metallic accents. I didn’t recognize any of the furniture as being from her grandparents’ mansion in Embarrass, not that I’d taken full inventory.
I spied a few large potted plants—red rose bushes—that perfumed the air with their distinct scent.
“Are those from your grandparents’ house?” I asked.
One of the first moments I’d begun to see Julia as mortal and not the Ice Queen everyone in Embarrass believed her to be was when she’d taught me how to prune the roses in her backyard.
She nodded. “I thought it important to bring a piece of my home with me.”
“Charming,” I remarked.
“That’s my line, dear.”
“Don’t worry.” I flicked my tongue against the outer shell of her ear. “In a few minutes you won’t be able to form complete sentences.”
If possible, she leaned even more heavily into me. Her chest pressed against mine and she continued to clench the front of my shirt in her balled up hands. “You sound awfully sure of yourself.”
I shrugged. “It’s not being cocky if it’s true.”
“Bedroom,” came her one-worded directive.
She released the front of my shirt and grabbed one of my hands instead. It was a good thing I was young and elastic as she jerked me down a hallway, presumably in the direction of her bedroom. I inelegantly stumbled behind her, my toes nearly clipping the backs of her heels.
She dropped my arm when we reached her bedroom. The room was larger than my own, but not by much. It was significantly smaller than her bedroom at the mansion, but elegantly decorated in the white and black theme found elsewhere in the apartment. The furniture was wooden and stained a rich, dark color. The head of the queen-sized bed was covered in those useless decorative pillows. Soft off-white carpeting sank beneath my feet. It would be a welcomed detail once the temperatures plummeted in winter.
Julia sat down on the end of the bed and crossed one leg over the other. Her stiletto-covered foot began to bounce. “Strip.”
“Did I stutter, Miss Miller?” She shrewdly regarded me beneath thick eyelashes. “Or is there something about my request that has you puzzled?”
“It sounded more like a command than a request,” I observed.
The tip of her tongue appeared between her red lips, and she slowly swabbed it across her full, lower lip. “And here I thought you were adept at taking orders, Marine.”
The new title had me arching my eyebrows.
“How about a game instead?” she proposed. “The rules are simple enough—I remove an item of clothing, and you have to return the favor. A little tit-for-tat, if you will.”
“Or tit for tit,” I snorted at my own joke.
She reached for the hidden, side zipper of her dress. The sound of metal teeth being released echoed in my ears. “Just make sure you don’t fall behind,” she throatily warned.
I abandoned all of my stand-up material. My eager hands went to the front of my jeans, and I unfastened the top button. The zipper followed.
Still seated on the edge of the bed, Julia inched the bottom hem of her dress up her smooth, nylon-free thighs. The action showcased her olive-toned legs, but it also provided enough room that she was able to slip out of the top half of her dress. She peeled away the soft fabric until it bunched at her waist. Beneath the light grey dress she wore a nude bra whose demi cups hugged her pert breasts. My eyes went immediately to the tops of her breasts and to her femininely muscled abdomen.
My silk sleeveless shirt had small, difficult buttons up the front. I loosened the top two, which gave me room to pull the garment over my head without having to toil with the remaining buttons. I shook out my curls until they fell softly against my bare shoulders.
Julia’s fingers reached under the skirt of her fitted dress, and with a little maneuvering, she was able to pull her underwear off while the bottom half of her dress remained in place. The beige, lacy undergarment was discarded onto the floor.
“Your turn,” she husked.
I closed my eyes and shook my head hard. “Oh. Right.” I’d gotten distracted already.
I licked my lips and continued to disrobe. I stepped out of my ballet flats and shimmied the tight denim of my skinny jeans over my hips and down my legs until I stood before her in only my bra and underwear.
Julia’s heated stare silently regarded my near-naked body. But although she unabashedly inspected me, it didn’t make me feel self-conscious. I knew she liked what she saw. I had been blessed with natural high metabolism, and after leaving the military, I had continued to work hard to maintain my fitness even though the police academy hadn’t required the same physical discipline as being a soldier had. A decade of military service had filled out my lean, nearly gangly teenage body into the sinewy, strong woman who now stood before her.
“Come here, Marine,” she beckoned to me.
I took a few steps forward. I’d always been good at following instructions.
“On your knees.”
I dropped down in front of her and settled between her splayed thighs. I was thankful for the plush carpeting beneath my kneecaps that provided a semblance of cushion, certainly more than if the floor had been hardwood.
My hands immediately gripped her bare thighs. I ran my palms up and down the smooth, muscled skin, gently squeezing her flesh. Each time my hands slid up her legs, it pushed the bottom hem of her dress higher and higher up her thighs until her naked sex came into view.
I didn’t require additional instructions.
I pushed the skirt of her dress higher up her thighs, and her legs parted wider for me. I ducked my head and licked the entire length of her slit, pausing to circle her clit with the tip of my tongue. Her early arousal was heavy on my tongue, and I greedily breathed in her heady scent. I heard her quiet sigh when I took her clit into my mouth. One hand fell to the top of my head and the other to my right shoulder in encouragement. Her red lips parted and perfect white teeth gleamed.
She palmed her breasts over the material of her bra and squeezed. I watched her fingers spread to take a hardened nipple between her pointer and index fingers. She manipulated her own nipples to stiff peaks and quietly groaned as she continued to pinch the sensitive buds over her bra.
The muscles in her legs tensed and twitched. I held her still with solid hands resting on the tops of her thighs as I worshiped at her altar. She released a loud breath when I slid one slender finger between her folds and twisted inside her. A second finger joined the first, but I didn’t move them. I let her enjoy the fluttering of my tongue against her clit while my fingers filled her. The quiet sighs and moans that reached my ears spurred me on.
Eventually she grew impatient with my light touch, like I knew she would. Her grip on the back of my head tightened, and she began to move her hips, simulating my fingers moving inside of her, until I had no choice but to fuck her back. Her hips wouldn’t stop. Her stomach became almost concave as she writhed on the bed. Her hips rolled and bucked, never ceasing in their undulating motion.
She fell backwards onto the bedspread, and I moved with her. I rose to my feet in one fluid motion, my mouth and my fingers never losing contact. Her backside lifted off the bed and her thighs gripped my ribcage as I sank my fingers deeper and harder into her. Each time I bottomed out I heard the air escape her lungs.
With her back arched off the bed and her shoulders pinned flat against the mattress, she was at the mercy of my plunging fingers and eager mouth. I manipulated her sensitive clit, rolling it back and forth with my tongue while I repeatedly drove my first and middle fingers inside her.
“Oh, God,” she moaned. “Oh my God.”
I could feel the wetness pooling between my thighs just from the moans and words of praise tumbling from her lush mouth.
Her thighs seized tighter around my ribcage as she continued to cling to me. I curled my fingers inside of her and rubbed the spongy area of her G-spot.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she chanted between clenched teeth.
Julia released an unexpected howl of pleasure. The noise was such a surprise, I nearly stopped fucking her. But I had the good sense to continue moving my fingers and licking her clit until her orgasm subsided.
The pressure on my ribs alleviated as she eased her thighs apart and came to recline on her back on top of the mattress. She draped one arm over her eyes while I stood expectantly at the end of the bed, waiting for her assessment.
“Good God, I needed that,” she approved.
I allowed myself a cocky smile.
She moaned in satisfaction and covered her face with both hands. While she continued to bask in the afterglow of orgasm, I leaned over the bottom of the mattress and lightly lapped at her exposed clit.
Her hips jerked as though she’d been shocked. “Too much,” she hissed. “Too sensitive.”
I stuck out my lower lip. “But I’m not done,” I pouted.
Julia pulled herself up to a seated position. “Sit,” she instructed, patting the space beside her.
I settled down on the bed.
She was awfully fond of those one-worded commands that night.
Somehow, she was able to regain her feet. She stood at the foot of the bed and stripped away the rest of her clothes, shedding her bra and the dress that had become like a cotton hula-hoop around her waist.
She stood completely naked before me. I couldn’t help but reach for her, only to be lightly swatted away.
“Your turn,” she purred.
She wrapped her fingers around my ankles and tugged, causing me to slide down the mattress. No longer in a seated position, she was able to crawl on top of me and hover above my reclined body.
Her hair fell into her eyes.
“You’re so beautiful,” I murmured. I swept a defiant lock of raven hair away from her face.
She tucked her lower lip between her top and bottom teeth. “Don’t be getting soft on me now, Marine.”
“No, ma’am,” I replied.
Her fingers hooked beneath the waistband of my underwear, and I was only too happy to lift my backside off the mattress to help her guide the undergarment off my body. The bra came next. She swept the twin straps off my shoulders and softly kissed the skin they’d been hiding.
I sucked in a sharp, surprised breath when she tugged down on my bra, not bothering to unfasten the clip in the center of my back that held the garment together. My breasts heaved almost obscenely over the tops of the push-up cups. Julia toyed with one nipple with the tip of her tongue, drawing lazy circles around and around the perimeter of the spongy nub. I groaned loudly when she finally sucked it into her mouth. Her open mouth was warm and wet and her tongue continued to rub my nipples back and forth. She captured the aching nipple between her teeth and tugged. My hands went to the back of her head, and I threaded my fingers in her dark, glossy hair.
“Please, Julia,” I pled.
She looked up at me, eyes smoldering in the dim lighting of her bedroom. “What is it, dear?”
“I need you to touch me.”
“But I am touching you.”
“I need you to touch me down there.”
She left my breasts and pressed her mouth to my hipbone. “Do you mean here?”
I squirmed beneath her tongue and teeth. “A little lower and to the left.”
She slid farther down the mattress, grabbing my left leg as she moved. She maneuvered my upper thigh so my hips fell open, exposing my center to her even more.
“Is this what you wanted?” she asked as her lips ghosted against my kneecap.
My body produced an impatient whine. “Julia.”
She smiled and slid her hands up my inner thighs, stopping just as her fingers reached the area where my legs met pelvic bone. Her fingertips moved in small, light circles, nearly petting me. I was swollen and wet and ready for her.
She trapped my clit between her thumb and middle finger and pinched. The pressure on my clit, but nowhere else drove me crazy. Her concentrated touch felt good, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
Her fingers slid over my pubic bone, bisecting my pussy lips, and entering me on the down stroke. Up and down she manipulated me, spreading my arousal from my pelvic bone to my slit. She did this over and over until I thought I might explode—but not quite. I was impossibly wet. Even in the dark room I could see my arousal coating her fingers.
A third finger joined the second, causing me to gasp from its intrusion. My body gradually adjusted to the addition, and my hips began to thrust in time with her movements. I could hear the wet slap of my sex each time her fingers penetrated me.
I moved my hips faster still. At some point she stopped moving her hand entirely, until I was fucking myself on her fingers.
“That’s it,” she murmured her approval. “Use my fingers to get yourself off.” I watched her face and her dark gaze focused on the juncture between her hand and my pussy. “Make yourself cum, Cassidy. But know that it’s my fingers bringing you so much pleasure.”
My wanton desire—the intensity of my need—was a little embarrassing, but she didn’t taunt me by uselessly pointing out how badly I wanted to cum.
Sweat beaded on my brow. I could feel the faint trickle of sweat on my flexing abdomen. My body began to produce quiet grunts of exertion.
“Keep fucking yourself,” she rasped. “If you want to cum, don’t stop.”
I didn’t stop.
We lay naked in bed, partially covered by the bed sheets. Julia sat upright with her back resting on the padded headboard while I reclined beside her on my stomach, a little farther down on the mattress.
I traced a lazy finger around the perimeter of her bellybutton. ”Promise me something?”
She rolled a lock of my hair between her fingers. “What’s that, dear?”
“Promise me this won’t ever change.”
The fingers in my hair stilled. “You’re going to have to be a little more specific.”
I pressed my chin to my breastbone so my hair fell in front of my eyes like a curtain. “The sex. Don’t … don’t …”
“Use your words,” Julia prodded.
I took a deep breath. “Don’t take it easy on me.”
A meticulously groomed eyebrow arched on her unlined forehead. “Is that so?”
“You know, because it’s already mind-blowing,” I rushed out in embarrassment. “And if it’s not broken, why fix it?”
She made a noise, but kept any additional comments to herself.
Her fingers traveled to my naked back where she traced along the long lines of my war wounds—the visible ones, at least. “Is this okay?” she asked.
Besides doctors, Julia had been the only one to ever touch my scars.
“Does it feel strange?”
“A little,” I confirmed. “It’s like I’ve got bandages in the area surrounding the scars. The skin feels pulled tight, and yet I can’t really feel much of anything.”
“I’ll stop if you don’t like it,” she offered.
“I always want you touching me.”
+ + +
We’re sitting in the rubble of what used to be the kitchen in our safe house. Everything is caked in a thick layer of concrete dust and sand. Bright blue sky has taken the place of the ceiling.
I don’t know where the buzzing sound is coming from. The I.E.D. blast left my radio intact, but there’s no reception, no messages coming in, which means no messages going out.
Over the past few days, Pensacola’s wounds have started to emit a rancid smell. We don’t talk about it. His eyes are closed, and he quietly groans while he sleeps.
Amir’s awake though. He’s always awake. He smiles his sickly sweet grin. He speaks to me in his native tongue. I’m not fluent, but I’ve spent enough time in country that I can understand the gist of his message: You’re going to die out here. You’ll never see your family again. I’m ready to greet Allah. Are you?
I wipe at my eyes. They’re sunburned and sting from sand and grime. It’s certainly not from emotion.
+ + +
Julia stirred beside. With some difficulty, I raised my head from the pillow just in time to see her roll out of bed. I must not have moved all night as I slept. My neck was stiff and my left arm was asleep. The buzzing noise from my dream had bled into the morning.
“Wassthatsound?” I mumbled. It was only my imagination, but the salty, dirty taste of sand was in my mouth.
She slipped into a short silk robe and cinched the fabric belt around her waist. “Breakfast.”
I rubbed at my eyes. If I had had a better grasp of the situation, I would have protested her answering the door in such minimal clothing, but my thoughts were still on the dream from which I’d just awoken.
I heard voices coming from the front of the apartment. I recognized Julia’s low, melodic tone, but the second voice belonged to a stranger.
I didn’t have the luxury of slipping into pajamas. All I had were the clothes from the previous day. There was an extra robe suspended on a hook on the back of Julia’s closet door. I pushed my arms through the arm holes and tied the sash tight at my waist. The robe was slightly longer than the one Julia had put on, but the elegant covering was too fancy for my style. Unfortunately, Julia didn’t own flannel or terrycloth.
The voices in the front of the apartment had ceased by the time I left the back bedroom in search of Julia. I found her in the heart of the apartment. Her kitchen was large for a one-bedroom living space, but I knew she loved to cook, so its size had probably been a big draw. Connected to the kitchen space was a breakfast nook, half of a hexagon with floor-to-ceiling windows, just large enough for chairs and a table for two.
“What’s all this?” I asked, surveying the spread.
A little wheeled cart was piled high with breakfast foods. There was two of everything. Two hard-boiled eggs. Two English muffins smothered in jam. Two coffee cups. Two bowls of vanilla yogurt and granola.
My eyes narrowed in confusion. “Room service in an apartment?”
“It’s a condo,” she corrected. “But it has many services similar to a hotel—valet parking, concierge, meal delivery,” she listed off. “My monthly HOA fees are nearly the same as my mortgage payment.”
“And here I thought I was fancy because my apartment has a doorman,” I remarked.
“Sit,” she instructed. “Eat.”
Not having to be told twice, I sat in one of the chairs in the breakfast nook and grabbed an English muffin from the tray. She would probably censure me or at least roll her eyes, but I ate half of it in one big bite.
Julia picked up a white teakettle from the serving cart and poured black coffee into two porcelain cups. “How did you sleep?”
“Like the dead.”
She set one of the cups and its saucer in front of me. “Did you have any dreams?” The question should have been innocent—normal morning conversation—but with us, the question was heavily weighted.
I chewed on my lower lip. I didn’t want her to worry about me, but I couldn’t lie. “Yes.”
Her shoulders went rigid. “Scantily-clad women fawning over you, I hope.”
“No such luck.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked gently.
“I’m okay,” I insisted. And I was. I’d had far worse nightmares. “Nothing happened. We were just in the desert.”
“I worried I might make you dream.”
“I called you ‘Marine’ last night. Only afterwards did I realize that might not have been a smart decision.”
“The dreams happen, Julia, with or without you,” I shrugged. “You make it better though.”
“When I get to wake up beside you, yeah.”
She brought her coffee cup to her mouth. Her lipstick was mostly rubbed off, but her lips were still a pleasant pink color even without the extra paint. The morning sun shone through the windows of her breakfast nook. The bright rays reflected off her hair, making it look almost iridescent. It reminded me of the feathers on a raven or a crow, but I kept those thoughts to myself. I doubted Julia would consider a comparison to a bird to be a compliment.
“God, you’re beautiful,” I marveled. I hadn’t meant to speak aloud, but my mouth always seemed to be one step ahead of my brain.
Her head dipped, and she ran her hand through her hair. “I’m a mess.”
“The most beautiful mess I’ve ever seen,” I remarked in earnest.