8 страница

I liked her. Classy and hard-working. Not sure what I’d do with a pink outfit, but maybe Katie would approve. If she ever spoke to me again.

I said good-bye to the crew and gathered my stuff to head home. As I walked past the office, I saw that JJ stood in the doorway, ranting at Carl.

“Yes, I’m familiar with your differences with Ms. Beauhall,” Carl said diplomatically. “But I’m sure she’s just tired like the rest of us.”

“Jesus,” JJ barked. “Before I found out she was a dyke, I thought she must be 8 страница giving it up for you, but dude. She’s a menace, and you aren’t even getting any nookie.”

At the word “dyke,” Carl turned to me, a look of shock on his face. Another Kodak moment.

I just shrugged and walked past them. I was not going to argue with the idiot, and Carl was a big boy. I’m sure Jennifer would explain it all to him. I just wanted to go home.

Of course, before I made it through the door Sawyer’s lackey stepped in front of me.

“Pardon me, miss. My name 8 страница is Mr. Philips,” he said, his accent nonexistent, his manners faultless. “Mr. Sawyer would like to have a word with you about the sword you used in tonight’s theatrics.”

“Theatrics, or histrionics?” I asked with a smirk.

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Mr. Philips said, nonplussed. “My employer is a man of considerable power as well as compassion. I’m sure a few moments of your time could not be so hard to share.”

“Tell your boss,” I began, but a shadow fell across my heart then. A touch on my arm sent a chill running 8 страница down the back of my neck, down my spine, and into the soles of my feet.

“It’s quite all right,” Frederick said at my left ear. “I appreciate Mr. Philips’s civility and candor, but I’m capable of speaking to a pretty young woman without his assistance.”

Mr. Philips bowed, literally bowed at the waist, and stepped away from us before turning on his heel and walking around the office and out of sight.

For a moment, I saw myself following him, running after him, no less. Anything to avoid that hand on my arm.

“My dear 8 страница,” he said, his voice warm and moist on my ear. “I so rarely want something as badly as I want . . .” He paused, sliding his hand up my arm to my bicep. “My, but you are a strong one,” he said, squeezing my arm.

I spun around then, fed up with his games. “Don’t you ever fucking touch me again,” I said, pushing him by the shoulder. He stumbled back a step and anger flashed on his face. “You’re scum of the worst sort,” I shouted.

Carl pushed past JJ and stumbled out of the office, sputtering. “Now 8 страница, hang on a minute,” he said.

“See,” JJ said, hot on his heels. “She’s a psycho.”

I didn’t even glance at them, they were so inconsequential at that moment. All I could see was that feral look on Sawyer’s face.

“You are a bottom-feeder,” I said, feeling my courage surge upward. “You prey on the weak and the fearful. And I for one do not believe your pandering, simpering act for a moment.”

“Sarah,” Carl bellowed. “That will be quite enough.”

“No one touches me without my permission, Carl. I don’t care how much 8 страница money he throws at you.”

Carl stopped next to Frederick, his mouth hanging open, like he’d never seen me before.

“And,” I said to Sawyer, “if you lay a hand on me again, I’ll give it back to you in a box.”

Before Carl could react, before JJ could add his stupid retort, and before Frederick could twist that feral grin onto his face again, I pushed past them and stormed out of the studio.

All hell broke loose behind me, but I kept on walking, the clip-clop of my boots echoing down the corridor. I 8 страница slammed the fire door open and stood aside as it ricocheted back to close with a bang.

The night was clear. Stars winked down from the heavens. I leaned back against the brick building and let my breath settle for a moment. But only a moment.

I wanted to be well away from the studio before any of them thought to come after me—away from the yelling and threatening. Just to be gone before I learned who the real monsters were.

Twenty-three

I TOSSED AND TURNED THE REST OF THE NIGHT. AT FIRST I had a nightmare about 8 страница a giant man-eating pink bunny.

This triggered a trip to the bathroom, a glass of water, and a quick pace of my apartment. It was a short trip. I only had the one bedroom and a living room/kitchen combo.

Once I’d slipped back to sleepland, I spent some quality time running from my family and friends as they took turns being horrified about who I’d become, or laughed at me for being such a prat.

When the weak sunlight began to slip between the blinds I knew I was done, but I fought it 8 страница. The garbage truck backing up to get our Dumpster was the clincher. The incessant beeping, followed by a floor-rattling crash as the idiot operator slammed the now empty metal box down onto the parking lot, insured I wouldn’t sleep again, maybe for days.

I arrived at the smithy early, wearing my sunglasses and drinking a triple espresso mocha latte. Nothing like caffeine and sugar to kick-start your day.

I slipped Gram in the safe with my other swords, just to keep her secure for the time being.



I spent the morning making shoes to replace the ones we 8 страница used over at the Circle Q. Julie quizzed me on the different techniques I was using to temper the steel, and I left out the blood of my enemy. I didn’t figure she’d find that an acceptable business model.

After I finished the shoes, she had me work on making a chain. Chains are delicate work and force you to use much more control than I used on a shoe, or one of the swords. Not that I was wild with the hammer or anything, but one of the key things she always told me 8 страница was to learn to feel the metal, understand the weaknesses and strengths in every piece, every blow. She was very Zen about the whole endeavor.

She let me place the order for another ton of coal, and check if we needed more propane out in the big tank by her house. By buying gas for her place and the smithy at the same time, she got a better deal, and they split the bill for tax purposes.

I filled out several forms, made three phone calls, and was balancing a pencil on my upper lip while leaning back as 8 страница far as I could go in her ergo-enriched office chair. I would have had the new record, too, if she hadn’t dropped an envelope on my head.

Some teachers . . .

“What’s this?” I asked, sliding out of the chair, grabbing up the pencil, and sliding over to the door so she could sit down.

“How am I supposed to know?” she said, picking up my order forms. “Most people would either look at the address, or open it.”

But of course. I looked at the envelope, and there was no address, no stamps or other postal marks. Just my 8 страница name, Ms. Sarah Beauhall, in thick black script.

“No address.”

“Noticed that,” Julie said with a smile. “Delivered by courier.”

I tapped the envelope against my forehead and looked at her. “Pretty odd, don’t you think?”

She initialed my order forms and set them in the to-be-filed pile on the corner of her desk.

“Oh, fine,” I said, sliding my little finger under the envelope flap and ripping it upward.

She didn’t even turn. Just tapped on the keyboard of her laptop and began entering records into her accounting program.

I peeked inside, then 8 страница tilted the envelope on top of her desk.

Julie glanced over as three pieces of paper slid out: a bill of sale made out between Frederick Sawyer and Sarah Beauhall, a smaller envelope, and a check for fifty thousand dollars.

Heat flushed across my chest, a brushfire of anger. “That son of a bitch.”

“Jesus, Sarah. This is a lot of money,” Julie said, holding up the check.

I picked up the bill of sale. “He wants the sword.”

“Is that all?” she said, looking at me over her shoulder. “One sword. That’s a lot of scratch for a 8 страница hunk of metal.”

“Not just any hunk of metal,” I said. This was beyond slimy.

“What’s in the other envelope?”

I opened it and pulled out a letter.

Dear Ms. Beauhall,

In the off chance the cashier’s check isn’t enough incentive, I can sweeten the pot with a recent acquisition.

Give me the sword, of your own volition, and I will add in my stake in Flight Test, Ltd.

In case you are wondering, I have already acquired several hundred thousand dollars of debt incurred by Mr. Tuttle. These would, of course, be a further 8 страница stake you could have in this little movie venture.

Please consider these options. Mr. Philips would assist in having the documents notarized and filed with the proper authorities. I assure you, this letter is contractually binding.

Yours,

Frederick Sawyer

I handed the letter to Julie and walked out into the shop. I fired up the propane and began heating a longsword form I kept on hand. I let the metal get white-hot before I started hitting it for all I was worth. Fire, strike, turn. Repeat.

The reverberation of the hammer on the steel felt good. Each jolt 8 страница pushing aside the anger and the fear. Nothing was as it seemed with this man. Any offer this good had to be a lie. What was so important about this sword?

Of course, hadn’t Rolph already explained it all? But if I believed that Rolph was a dwarf, and Sawyer a dragon . . . If this sword was Gram, really a magic sword . . . what I needed was not a big fat payday. I needed a rubber room.

Julie came out of her office with the papers in her hands and watched me. I hammered and hammered, fired and turned.

Finally, I stuck 8 страница the metal into the rain barrel we kept to cool shoes, and the roughly hewn blade split with a loud, echoing pop and a cloud of steam.

“Nice,” she said. “Ruined it.”

I turned, dropped the broken hunk of metal into the waste bucket we kept by the anvil, and placed the tongs and hammer on the table. Then I took off my gloves and laid them on top of the tools.

“I can’t take it,” I said, leaning against the table. “It’s too good to be true.”

“Sarah,” Julie said, stepping to the back of the workbench 8 страница. “This is a cashier’s check. You can cash it with no contractual obligation.”

I laughed. “Of course, but you and I both know I won’t. Sawyer could, I would bet my life on it, but I can’t.”

“Dishonest?” she asked.

“Dishonorable.”

She pulled the papers through two fingers until she hit the corner, then she turned them and began sliding them through her fingers again. She repeated this at each corner, watching me, her face a mask.

“It’s just a sword,” she said. “You could buy a house, or start your own smithy.”

There were 8 страница many things I could do. Hell, just not having to worry about money every single week would be a blessing. But at what cost to my soul? Never bargain with the devil, my da would say. No matter how good the terms.

“I’m not ready for my own smithy,” I said, pointing at the waste bucket.

“True,” she said with a smile. “But it would make a lovely nest egg for when that day comes.”

Tempting . . . very, very tempting. But wasn’t that the point?

“He’s a predator, Julie. Flatter and take, obfuscate and pander.”

She shrugged 8 страница. “He’s a businessman, a little less ethical than you prefer, but the offer sounds like everything you’ve dreamed of.” She walked around the side of the workbench and stopped at my side. “Sarah, this is a lot of money.”

“Yes, you’ve said that.”

She nodded. “So, what is the problem, exactly?”

How did I explain this to her? She couldn’t feel the fear, or sense the danger just by me telling her. This was at the animal level, the crocodile brain. This man would kill me if I stood in his way, or 8 страница likely do some other dark and purely undesirable things to me beforehand.

“I have to trust my gut, ya know?”

She watched me, waiting.

“He’s a scumbag. In my heart of hearts I think he tortures puppies and worse.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Puppies?”

I shrugged. “That’s all I got.”

The silence stretched between us, neither moved, until we heard tires crunching into the gravel drive. She placed the papers on the bench beside me and patted them. “Sleep on it,” she said. “Don’t do anything rash.”

I scooped up the papers and jogged them into alignment. “Okay 8 страница.”

She walked out to greet the customer, and I put everything back into the envelope and tucked it into my messenger bag. I’d think about it overnight, sure, but I highly doubted my opinions of the man would change in that time. I started to sweep the shop when Julie came in with one of the hands from Circle Q. It was Jack Marlowe.

“One of their horses has a limp,” Julie said, coming into the shop. “Jack here was out picking up some supplies for the ranch, and asked if I could come out and take a 8 страница look.”

“One of the ones we worked on yesterday?” I asked.

“No, ma’am,” Jack said. His voice was more tenor than bass, but it had a sweet drawl, more Okie than Texan.

“Good,” I said, relieved to have the distraction. “I’ll get our gear into the truck.”

“No need,” Julie said, giving me the strangest look. I think she actually crossed her eyes at one point, trying to get me to get with the program.

“Oh . . . okay,” I said, catching on, finally. “I’ll woman the fort, as it were.”

“Don’t mean to 8 страница impose,” Jack said. “It’s just, well . . .” He pushed his hat back and rubbed his forehead. “Mrs. Campbell is a mite upset about this one. Blue Thunder is one of her prized high-steppers.”

“I’ll just get a few things and follow you in my truck,” Julie said to Jack.

“All right,” he drawled. “Anything I can fetch for ya?”

Julie almost giggled. I could see it in her face. She knew it too, and turned it into a cough. “No,” she said, patting her chest and coughing again. “I’ll only be a minute. Why don’t you head 8 страница over to the grange and get what you need. I can meet you and follow from there.”

“Sounds good,” he said, tipping his hat in my direction. “Afternoon, miss.” Then he turned to Julie and smiled a whole faceful of teeth. “I’ll see you over there.”

Julie didn’t move. Hell, I’m not sure she breathed until we heard the pop-pop of his tires on the gravel. When she let out her breath she giggled a little twitter and turned away from me.

“You okay there, boss?” I asked, not bothering to hide my own smile 8 страница.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, grabbing her hoof doctoring kit. “Oh, don’t forget to order the coal and the propane,” she said, and was out the door with a bang. I stepped over to the screen door and watched her scamper to her truck. Scamper, I say. For a moment I thought I’d giggle myself. He was a cutie, but Jiminy Christmas.

I returned to the shop and began putting things in order, deliberately not thinking about the envelope in my pack. What would Katie say about that much money? It was more than she made 8 страница in a year teaching, and almost twice what I made at both jobs combined.

A house would be nice. A place to call my own. And a smithy someday. I could feel the place around me, the power it contained. These walls absorbed it, squirreled it away. Every job, every moment we worked here, fire and forge, hammer and anvil, fed the smithy. It was Julie’s, but I was allowed to play here, to soak in the overwhelming sense of creation and strength.

If I had my own smithy, I could call the shots. I could make 8 страница armor, even. No time with the horses, but imagine learning to forge plate. I dreamed of the delicate work needed to shape a helm. Someday.

Katie would love it.

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard from her. I checked my cell, then logged on to Julie’s machine and checked my e-mail. No messages. No mail, no angry voice mails, nothing.

I’d close the shop at four, like we advertised, and head home alone. Katie likely needed a few days to come around. I’d give her some space.

Yep, that’s what I 8 страница’d do.

I checked the voice mail a few more times, just to be sure.

Twenty minutes later I called her cell.

No answer.

I left her a message, and then called her apartment where, guess what. She didn’t answer. I knew she had to be at school.

But I did leave another message. Don’t get your knickers in a twist. It was nothing sappy. I debated on the merits of groveling and begging, but went for nonchalant. Smooth.

“Katie, hi. It’s me, Sarah. Just want to talk. Been a weird few days. You wouldn’t believe 8 страница what’s been happening. Call me, ’kay?”

Same message on both phones. I couldn’t be more lame if I’d written it down and read it from a script. At least I didn’t whine.

Then I wondered if I should have apologized. Damn. I could call the school and leave her a message. Or I could call out to Black Briar. Deidre would know where she was.

Instead I scurried around, trying to stay busy, trying not to call and leave another message.

E-mails. I hadn’t sent an e-mail yet. Within five minutes I’d 8 страница solved that problem. Three e-mails later, each one more desperate than the last, I shut down Julie’s computer and sat pounding my head against her desk.

I gave up and spent the last hour filing invoices that Julie never got around to. Then I straightened her office, more nervous cleaning than protracted need for order. Quite the contrary. I craved chaos in most things. Well, music, mainly. I’d really like it if my love life were more orderly, but that didn’t look like it was going to get there any time soon. And knowing that 8 страница it was mostly my fault didn’t help matters at all. I just kept puttering around the office in a mad attempt to keep my mind off the check, and the fact that Katie wasn’t returning my calls. Yeah, that sure helped the afternoon crawl by.

Twenty-four

BEFORE I LEFT THE SMITHY, I PULLED GRAM’S CASE OUT FROM beneath the workbench and opened the safe. I pulled her from the safe and held on to the pommel, letting the comfort of it roll over me. Something about how it fit my hand gave me a sense of 8 страница completeness. Must be artist’s pride, I thought as I lay her in her case.

As I snapped the lid closed, I decided what I really needed was another coffee, and maybe a cruller. Looks like I’d be doing some research at Monkey Shines before heading home.

Of course, on a Friday night, they were out of crullers, so I had to settle for an orange-banana muffin. The coffee was up to their regular standards, and I grabbed a fat comfy chair near the back with a little table for my laptop.

I was anxious 8 страница to see what secrets the Interwebz could give up on our Mr. Frederick Sawyer of Portland, Oregon. I had the fuel, I just needed some quality online time.

I slipped on my headphones, cranked a little Dream Theater, and fired up my browser. Rich people got lots of press, I found. Philanthropist, entrepreneur, socialite.

It seems Mr. Sawyer was last known to be in the company of a buxom blond grad student named Trixi Smythe. He was photographed dancing with her at a fund-raiser just this week.

She was dressed like one of the staff, instead of a 8 страница date, but you could just never tell with college students. I figured she was twenty years younger than him if she was a day.

Of course, he looked just a bit older than Julie. Younger woman, older man. Nothing going on here, move along.

The muffin just wasn’t doing it, orange and banana, what was I thinking? Better to get one of their killer peanut butter brownies.

I paused the music, took out my earbuds, and locked my computer screen. I could see it from the counter, and we were all adults here. I’d be between the laptop and 8 страница the door. Anyone touching it would enjoy a knuckle sandwich. Part of me hoped someone would try.

The place had filled up, so I asked the accountant on the couch to watch my stuff while I went to the powder room.

When I came out, the line was no shorter, but I really wanted a brownie. I fought my way forward through a pack of college kids and worked my way around to the end of the line.

Then I heard the laugh. Now, when you’ve been in a relationship with someone, when you’ve tickled them until they 8 страница couldn’t take it anymore, when you’ve listened to them talk because you loved the sound of their voice, you knew instantly when you heard it.

Katie was in the crowd. I turned around looking, and spied her standing near the pickup station. Must have missed her when I swam upstream of the college kids. Man, I was glad to see her, and to hear her laughing.

Then I saw Melanie.

Katie had her hand on Melanie’s arm and they were laughing together. And in that moment I lost it.

“What the hell are you doing here 8 страница with her?” I asked a little louder than publicly acceptable.

Katie stopped laughing and Melanie looked around, confused at the shift.

“Sarah?” Katie asked. Her whole demeanor slammed closed and caution flags sprouted all over the place.

“I’ve tried to get ahold of you all day,” I said. “You can’t bother to return my calls, but you can go out for coffee with . . .” I waved my arm at them, crazed, I knew, out of my gourd with jealousy, but it was one of those moments when I couldn’t stop myself. “. . . Her?”

I knew I 8 страница was being an ass. Part of my mind sat back and evaluated the entire scene. Hysterical young woman verbally accosts her friend and lover because she was laughing with her old lover, whom I knew to be a much better fit for said girlfriend.

Seriously . . . therapy could be in order.

But that didn’t stop me from putting the second foot in my mouth and ranting like a complete fool.

“Does Dena know you two are out together?” I asked, stepping past the stunned coffeemongers. “Or are you two sneaking around behind her back, too?”

“Don’t be an ass 8 страница,” Katie hissed.

Melanie grabbed the coffees that had just come up, and mumbled apologetically, “I’ll find us a table.”

Then she skulked off to the back of the shop, leaving Katie to suffer my wrath.

“Have you lost your mind?” Katie asked, squaring herself up in front of me and crossing her arms over her chest.

Okay, she had her book bag, which meant she likely had just come from school. Melanie could’ve just met her here. But I wasn’t buying it.

“Color me stupid,” I said, feeling the engine picking up steam. “What do 8 страница you expect me to think? You here, with your old lover. Not bothering to even tell me.”

“Oh, Sarah,” Katie said, her voice softer and full of pain. “This is so far over the top.”

“Over the top?” I asked. “I’m not the one sneaking around.”

“Oh, for God’s sake. It’s a coffee shop. It’s not like this is a no-tell motel.”

“Was that your next stop?”

Katie’s face flushed red. For a split second I thought I’d hit it correctly, then I realized I’d finally crossed the line. She wasn’t chagrined 8 страница, she was pissed.

“You need”—she took a step toward me—”to back”—and another—”the fuck”—she punched me in the shoulder—”off!”

I stumbled back, more surprised than anything.

“Fine,” I said, feeling the tears pushing against the back of my eyes. “I see how it is.”

I pushed past her, the coffee shop blurring as tears welled into my eyes. What was wrong with me? Maybe I had lost my mind.

I grabbed my laptop, slamming it shut, and shoved it into my messenger bag. I left the orange-banana muffin and the half-empty 8 страница mug o’ coffee on the table and turned, dashing tears from my face and slinging the bag over my neck and shoulder.

“Sarah, wait,” Katie said, one hand held out.

“I don’t need this,” I said with a hiccough.

The cool air of the early evening began to dry the tears on my face as I made my way across the lot to my trusty hatchback. I fumbled the door open, slung my gear inside, and jumped in.

As I roared out onto Redmond Way, I saw Katie in my rearview mirror, standing in the middle of the parking 8 страница lot, her hands shoved into her pockets.

Twenty-five

MELANIE SAT AT THE TABLE SARAH HAD SO ABRUPTLY ABANdoned. She had their coffee on the table, and sat back with a worried look on her face and a manila envelope and several loose papers on her lap.

Katie collapsed into the overstuffed chair and let her head drop into her hands. Sarah had totally flipped out for no reason.

“You okay?” Melanie asked quietly.

Katie looked up, brushed a tear from her face, and picked up her coffee. “She’s under a ton of pressure.”

“Uh-huh 8 страница,” Melanie said, picking up her own coffee. “I’m guessing she melted down after the shower, then?”

Katie thought back with a smile. “She was quite surprised, and Deidre, the evil wench, set the whole thing up. She knew Sarah was overloaded and needed a bit of unwinding.”

“I remember her not-so-subtle hints,” Melanie said, sipping her coffee.

“Sarah’s just not comfortable with this whole thing,” Katie said. “She’s only been out for a little while.”

“Little while?” Melanie asked.

“Well . . . the first time I kissed her, I thought she was going to punch me in 8 страница the face.”

“Interesting reaction.”

“Yeah,” Katie said, nodding. “I just stood there, watching her face. I could tell she was having an argument with herself.”

“How’d that go?”

Katie shrugged. “When she didn’t react, or leave, I reached out and touched her face. She flinched but didn’t pull back. So I leaned in and kissed her forehead, whispering how beautiful she was.”

Melanie leaned back and sipped her coffee.

“I could feel her melt in my hands. Then it was like a switch was thrown. She became the aggressor, practically ripped my clothes off.”

“She wasn 8 страница’t rough? Angry?”

“God, no,” Katie said, waving her hand. “She was very tender. Urgent, and fumbling, but caught on pretty quickly.” She smiled, thinking back.

Melanie leaned forward and put her hand on Katie’s knee. “So, you were her first?”

Katie nodded.

“She hasn’t had time to adjust. You and I, we knew early.”

“High school,” Katie said, nodding.


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