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Текст книги "Consequences"

Автор книги: Aleatha Romig

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Текущая страница: 2 (всего у книги 36 страниц)

Catherine entered, looked around, and shook her head. “Ms. Claire, let me get that cleaned up. You will end up cutting yourself.”

“I believe I already have.” Claire held out her hand. Very tenderly, Catherine led Claire into the bathroom and removed the crystal. She then cleaned and bandaged her hand. When they returned to the suite, the evidence of the previous night was gone. The suite was clean, no overturned lamps, no scarves, and the vase was gone. Sitting on the table was a tray of food.

Claire walked to the table and obediently ate her breakfast, alone. An overwhelming feeling of desperation filled her. She was trapped. She was all alone. And she didn’t know what to do. She decided to take a shower, and hopefully, she would think of something.

  The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool. —Stephen King

 Chapter 2

Five days earlier . . .

The day filled with meetings served its purpose. First he met with the station manager, then endless hours with the sales team listening to budget reports followed by proposals. Truthfully, these meetings didn’t usually warrant the attendance of the parent corporation’s CEO. Judging by the way WKPZ’s executives fell over themselves to justify every expense and augment every proposal, they demonstrated that they at least had the common sense to recognize this visit as extraordinary. Truth be known, Anthony Rawlings didn’t give a damn about the two-bit television station. It already served its purpose. If he closed it tomorrow, no sleep would be lost. However, the meetings showed him that the station is profitable. And given the current state of the economy, profitable is good. When he returned to the main office, he would assign a team to investigate an impending sale. Wouldn’t that be great if he could reap both personal and monetary benefits from this acquired station?

After the conclusion of the meetings, he agreed to a social outing with the new station personnel director and his assistant. If they knew anything about him, they would realize this was completely out of character. His acceptance of their invitation came with one stipulation: they must go to the Red Wing. He’d heard it had the best fried green tomatoes in Atlanta, Georgia.

Thankfully, the two associates had families that were awaiting their return. After sipping a Red Wing signature beer and consuming a portion of the fried green tomato appetizer, Mr. Rawlings insisted that they take leave and spend time with their loved ones. He thanked them for their devotion to WKPZ and listened attentively to their personnel plans. However, if he were questioned under oath, he wouldn’t be able to recall one word they said. His attention was focused on the brown-haired, green-eyed bartender. She was scheduled to start her shift at four o’clock, and he knew she would be here. As soon as his associates left, he texted his driver and informed him that he would be at the Red Wing until late. Then he casually walked to an empty stool at the end of the bar, near the wall. It reduced the probability of anyone striking up a conversation by 50 percent. He would have preferred 100, but damn, you can’t have everything. The only object of his conversation and attention would be the smiling young woman on the other side of the shiny, smooth bar.

“Hey, handsome, do you need another beer?”

Anthony lifted his gaze to look into her emerald eyes. He had a handsome face and knew after many years of practice exactly how to use it. However, at this moment, his smile was genuine. She was finally talking to him. It had been a long lonely road, but the destination was finally in sight. “Thank you, I would.”

Sizing up the remaining contents of his glass, she asked, “Is that one of our custom wheats?”

“Well, yes, it is the La bière Blanche.” She smiled sweetly and hurried away to fill him another glass. When she returned with the amber liquid, she efficiently removed his empty one and replaced it with the full glass and a fresh Red Wing napkin. “I would like to start a tab.”

“That would be great. If I could have your credit card, I will start one right away.”

With that, Anthony opened his Armani jacket and removed his wallet from the inside pocket. He had so many things he wanted to say, but he had all night. Her shift wouldn’t end until ten, and he planned to spend the evening sitting right there. Handing her his platinum Visa, he watched as she read the name.

“Thank you, Mr. Rawlings. I’ll return this to you in a minute.” Her smile or expression never wavered. She turned away toward the cash register. Anthony sat back against the chair with a brief moment of satisfaction. She didn’t know who he was. This was perfect.

During the next few hours, Anthony observed as Claire chatted and flirted with customer after customer. Her attentions were friendly and attentive, but never overtly personal. Some of the customers were greeted by name as they found their way to an empty seat. Many knew her name before she could introduce herself. Anthony assumed they were regulars. Both men and women appeared pleased to have her wait on them.

She moved nonstop, clearing away empty glasses and plates and replacing them with more of the same or checks in need of payment. She wiped the shiny wooden bar and smiled even when a comment deserved a strong retort. After so much time watching her from afar, being this close gave him more of a rush than securing a multimillion-dollar deal. Perhaps it was the knowledge of what is to come.

After tending bar on and off again for years, Claire Nichols knew how to read people. More importantly, she genuinely liked the little quirks that made them real. For instance, take Mr. Handsome sipping his La bière Blanche. He’s been watching her for the last few hours like a lion sizing up its prey. She judged that he was at least ten years her senior but hid his age well behind that perfect smile, dark wavy styled hair, and amazing brown, almost-black eyes. Claire smiled a secretive smile. She was watching him too.

“What time do you get off?” His voice resonated strong and husky through the noise of the bar, patrons, and music.

“Now, Anthony, isn’t that what you said your name is?” Claire’s chatty work tone contained the slightest of a Southern drawl, the kind of accent you pick up from being around it so much. Her roots in Indiana with a mother that taught English wouldn’t allow her to drag out those syllables too far, unless on purpose.

Smiling a devilish grin and flashing those sensual eyes, he met her gaze. “Yes, that’s correct. And if I recall, your name is Claire.”

“And even though I’m flattered, I don’t usually see my customers outside this esteemed establishment.”

“All right, what time do you get off? Perhaps we could sit in one of those booths, right here . . . in this esteemed establishment . . . and talk? I would like to know more about you.”

Damn. He was smoother talking than any of the regular Joes that sit on these stools. And now that his silk tie was in the pocket of his Armani suit coat and the top button of his silk shirt was undone, his casual business persona was incredibly sexy.

“Now tell me again what brings you to Atlanta. You aren’t from here are you?” Claire said, leaning against the bar.

“Business, and no, but I think I am the one who wanted to ask the questions.” His tone contained a playful quality and at the same time was focused and controlled. Claire’s intuition told her that he was used to getting his way. Something made her wonder if that was what made him successful in business, because his appearance definitely said success, and if it transcended to his personal life.

Claire listened and watched as Anthony’s eyes glistened. He was tall. Now that the coat had been removed, she could tell he was muscular, with wide chest and firm waist. Most importantly, his left hand had an empty fourth finger. Claire definitely wouldn’t go there. Against her better judgment, she decided she wanted to answer those questions.

“Okay.” She smiled charmingly. “But I will’ve been standing behind this bar for six hours straight. I can’t promise I will be the best company.”

“Then I take that as a yes? But did you tell me the time? Or am I still waiting for that answer?” She found herself absorbed in his eyes.

“Yo! Hey, sweetheart, how about you give us some service down here?” Claire’s attention suddenly was pulled away from the hold of those amazing eyes. The asshole down the bar needed more Jack and Coke. She started to walk away. Anthony reached for her hand, which was resting on the bar, only inches from his. His touch was warm and made her skin tingle. He didn’t ask again, but his expression did.

“At ten, I get off at ten.” She removed her hand from under his, shook her head, and walked down the bar, smiling to herself. She needed to find out what the asshole wanted.

The deep red vinyl seat of the semicircular booth situated on the edge of the dance floor tried unsuccessfully to imitate fine upholstery. Music filled the air, too loud and too fast. In Anthony’s mind, it was the perfect inducement for them to sit close in order to hear each other. He also had a bottle of the Red Wing’s finest cabernet sauvignon. Looking at his watch for the hundredth time, he read the hands as they said 10:30 p.m. It was then that he saw Claire walking across the empty dance floor toward his booth.

This was definitely a night for out-of-character behaviors. Not only did Anthony Rawlings usually not fraternize with regional associates, he also never waited for anyone. Under any other circumstances, he would have been up and gone by 10:05. His friends, associates, and employees all knew his obsession with punctuality. But tonight was different. As Claire eased herself into the booth, she smiled a fatigued grin and apologized for the delay. There was a problem with the cash register, but all is well now.

He gently touched her hand. Momentarily, he became transfixed by the contrast—his large and hers small. “I was beginning to wonder if you were standing me up.” His grin hinted toward levity. “But since I could see you across the room, I hoped I might still have a chance at friendly conversation.” Claire’s exhale and upturned lips told him she was relieved. Was it because he was still waiting or merely that her shift was complete? “Perhaps we could have a glass of wine, and you could enjoy sitting instead of standing.”

“I believe that would be very nice.” Anthony poured the wine and noticed Claire’s expression relax. The transformation occurring before him was from bartender into the real Claire Nichols. He watched as she took the glass, placed her lips on the rim, closed her eyes, and relished the thick red liquid on her tongue. Anthony fought the urge to think too much about her actions.

“So what’s a classy girl like you doing waiting on stooges like us?” Anthony’s rich voice refocused Claire’s attention. Her eyes twinkled with emerald lights as she turned to face him.

“Why, Anthony, I do believe that self-deprecating statement was a compliment to me in a way.” Her tone held that Southern accent that was far from her native Indiana cadence. He only arched his eyebrows, waiting patiently for an answer. Claire shook her head and fell into his charm. “I’m an out-of-work meteorologist. My news station was bought about a year ago. In their infinite wisdom, they decided I was no longer needed, so this,” she said as she glided her free hand open above the table “is my new glamorous life. Don’t knock it. It pays my student loans as well as multiple other bills.”

His laughter was deep and nonjudgmental. “Wouldn’t you rather be doing the weather thing than this?”

“Of course, but honestly, this isn’t so bad. I have some great friends here. There is always something going on, and I meet nice people like you.” Claire took another sip of the wine and leaned a little closer. “So that’s my story in a nutshell. Sir, it is your turn. You said you are here on business. What kind of business do you do?’

“I am actually involved in many businesses. I came to Atlanta for an acquisition, and some associates convinced me to come here to your esteemed establishment to try the world-famous fried green tomatoes.”

“Oh, they did. Did you?”

Anthony nodded. “Yes, I did.”

Claire’s snicker caused her to look down into her glass. “Did you like them?”

He likewise looked into his glass. “No, I don’t believe I am destined for Georgian cuisine.” Claire’s laugh made him look up. “Why are you laughing?”

“Because I think they are awful! Every time someone orders them, I want to whisper, ‘No, don’t do it.’ It is just that they are so . . .”

“Slimy?” They both said together and laughed. The conversation progressed effortlessly. She asked about his acquisition. Would his trip be successful? Anthony was honestly surprised at her depth and knowledge. It was a shame that her news station had not kept her on. She deserved so much better than tending bar. Of course, that was what he told her. They discussed her career opportunities. Since Anthony was involved in multiple endeavors, he offered the possibility of assistance with more profitable employment. Claire thanked him for his offer, but doubted his ability or desire to truly assist her.

“You know, your destiny could be as simple as an offer and a signature away.” He channeled every deal he ever made, which would be more than he could count or recall. Placing a napkin on the table, he drew her attention to the center design. “Just imagine if instead of the swirly lettering saying ‘Red Wing’ it was blocked and read ‘Weather Channel.’”

The bottle of cabernet sauvignon was almost empty. Claire closed her eyes and did as Anthony said, she imagined. Exhaling audibly, she said, “That would be wonderful. It would be the offer a meteorologist dreams about.”

Closing in on the deal, he said, “Well, Claire, if this napkin were that contract”—

he reached for a pen in his breast pocket and wrote at the top of the napkin “Job Contract”—“would you be willing to sign? Would you really give this all up for a job offer?”

She didn’t blink. “In a heartbeat!” Removing the pen from Anthony’s hand, she signed “Claire Nichols” next to the bar’s insignia.

About midnight, Claire thanked Anthony for the lovely company and explained that she was very tired from her long day and needed to get home. “I will be in town for a few more days. Perhaps I could call you for dinner? It isn’t proper to offer a lady alcohol and no food.”

“Thank you. I’m honored, but I believe I will chuck this up to my brush with an amazing gentleman and go on with my glamorous existence. I fear that the Weather Channel will not be contacting me anytime soon.”

Although her refusal surprised him, he didn’t let it show. In the long run, it wouldn’t matter, but he would play into her chastity. “I truly understand, dangerous man from out of town tries to learn your secrets and offers to help you with your aspirations. You are wise to keep your distance.” Although his grin had sinister written all over it, he assumed she would detect the facade.

“A girl can’t be too careful. Truly, I am honored, and I don’t think you seem that dangerous.” She began to scoot out of the booth, but he caught her hand. Their eyes met, and he bowed his head to kiss the back of her hand.

“It was wonderful to meet you, Claire Nichols.” With a smile, she retrieved her hand and slowly slid from the booth. The next minute, he was alone. He took the pen, signed his name, and wrote the date on the same napkin. He carefully folded it and placed it in the pocket of his suit jacket. Then he pulled out his phone and texted his driver: “PICK ME UP NOW.” He always used full words. Text language was a joke. Closing his eyes, he thought, Yes, my acquisition is going quite well. Thank you for asking.

  To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking—forward. —Margaret Fairless Barber, The Roadmender

 Chapter 3

She contemplated her situation as she ate. She didn’t take the napkin discussion seriously. Anthony probably expected that. She didn’t prepare to move from her Atlanta apartment or even consider the possibility. His recollection of a document that legally bound them was a complete surprise. Claire’s gut told her it wasn’t legal, but what recourse did she have to fight from this room? She searched high and low for a telephone, computer, or some way to call for help—nothing.

She actually thought she would walk out of this twisted nightmare. However, it wasn’t a nightmare, twisted or otherwise. It was her reality, and her mind searched for a way to survive and escape.

Claire relished the warm oatmeal, fruit, bacon, perfectly brewed coffee, and juice. She devoured every ounce, even checking twice for more coffee in the carafe. Yesterday she hardly ate. She was thankful that starvation wasn’t part of his plan.

Standing to go to the shower, she moved carefully, experiencing the same aches and pains of the day before, except intensified. Claire wasn’t sure if she wanted to see herself in the mirrors as she cautiously stepped into the generous bathroom and slowly approached the dressing table. The reflection that looked back was scary. Her hair messed and tangled, and her face sported various shades of red and blue. The worst image had to be her lips, looking as if she had received Botox injections. This time, there were no tears. Instead, she stared and considered.

Grandma Nichols told her more than once she was an unusually strong young woman. In Claire’s mind, Grandma was always strong. Grandpa’s work in law enforcement took him away from home, and Grandma never complained. Instead, she was the heart of the family—always there for everyone and often giving advice such as, “It is not the circumstances that make a person a success. It is how that person responds to those circumstances.” Grandma believed every situation could be made better by the right attitude. Claire dropped the robe. Looking at the vision in the mirror, she believed Grandma never anticipated a situation like this.

After the shower, Claire decided to not dress appropriately in expectation of an Anthony visitation. If he were to walk in her suite, he would find her in jeans, a T-shirt, and fuzzy socks. Furthermore, there would be no makeup and no hair primping. It may be a small act of rebellion, but Claire didn’t have many rebellious options, and every bone in her body told her to fight. She tried to fight during the past two nights, but that didn’t work out well.

Entering the grand closet/dressing room, Claire realized that she hadn’t truly appreciated all it had to offer yesterday. First, she began to look for underwear but remembered that it didn’t exist in any of the drawers. So Claire searched for jeans. There were multiple pairs, different shades of blue with different leg styles. Wearing jeans must not break any rules; if it did, they wouldn’t be there. The brands she read on the labels she had only seen in stores like Saks: Hudson, J Brand, and MIH. She never in her life tried jeans like these on. They were soft, amazingly comfortable, and fit perfectly.

Now she wanted a T-shirt. Feeling a chill as she removed the robe, she decided a sweater would be better. The choices were countless and fashionable. She decided on a Donna Karan pink fuzzy cashmere sweater. Before putting it on, she looked for a bra. Apparently, bras were against the rules too because she couldn’t find one. However, she did find a drawer full of various colored camisoles; she chose pink.

Searching the drawers and cabinets of the closet was like a treasure hunt. Still rummaging for fuzzy socks, she found multiple drawers of lingerie. The silky black and red negligees in multiple lengths reminded her of a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. Finally, she discovered socks. Claire couldn’t comprehend that all of these lavish and extravagant clothes belonged to her. Truthfully, she didn’t want them.

Driven by curiosity, she read the labels on the evening dresses: Aidan Mattox, Armani, Donna Karan, and Emilio Pucci. These dresses alone could pay her rent in Atlanta for six months. Fleetingly, she wondered about last night’s dress. Its tag would remain a mystery. It disappeared when the room was cleaned.

Next she inspected the shoes: pumps, sandals, boots, and slip-ons—all with four-inch heels or more. The brands were equally as high-priced as the dresses: Prada, Calvin Klein, Dior, Kate Spade, and Yves Saint Lauren. Never really a shoe person, Claire usually wore casual footwear, Crocs and sneakers—rarely heels and never that high. Of course, every pair was her size.

Her mind slipped back to high school. Ten years ago, she would have done anything for a closet supplied like the one in which she stood. Back then, her sister helped her fit in despite her parents’ modest income. Emily took her to consignment shops, bargain-hunted, and shopped sale racks. It worked. She was part of the in crowd, wearing the right clothes, shoes, and carrying the right purse. As she turned slowly and took in all the clothes, she wished she didn’t have the closet or any of the memories.

She heard the beep, and the suite door opened. Her heart raced. Who was here? And how long had she been in the closet? Stepping into the suite, she saw lunch being delivered by the same young man that brought dinner the night before. Claire hadn’t notice last night, but he appeared Latino. She asked him about the food. He smiled and said, “I bring Ms. Claire lunch.” She asked about Catherine, if she would be coming up. He replied, “I bring Ms. Claire lunch.” Other questions seemed senseless. Claire smiled and thanked him for the lunch.

Each response and smile the young man offered was unaccompanied by eye contact. Claire thought about his job, bringing her food. Obviously with the lack of makeup, he could see her bruises. Hell, he opened a locked door to bring her food. What did he think of her, of the situation? The idea of seeing her plight from someone else’s perspective weighed heavily on her chest. Sadness intensified at the realization that she once again was completely alone.

Instead of going to the table, Claire sat on the sofa and wrapped her arms around her knees. Staring into the fireplace, she contemplated turning it on. Time passed without record. She didn’t remember sleeping. Her position didn’t change. The unbearable quiet and isolation combined to create a kind of time-and-space continuum. It was after three on the bedside clock before she moved from the sofa. It was then she realized that the food remained on the table, untouched.

The subtle glow from behind the curtains reminded Claire that she hadn’t looked out the windows since she awoke yesterday morning. She checked for a means of escape the first night, and everything was locked tight. But then it was dark, and she couldn’t see past her own reflection.

Of the multiple golden draperies, the largest covered a section of wall near the sitting area. Claire moved toward it, looking for something to pull to make the draperies move and reveal the secret of the other side. After minutes of searching, Claire found a switch. She lifted the switch. The draperies opened and revealed tall French doors leading to a balcony.

In her hysteria the other night, she didn’t notice that these were doors, not windows. She definitely didn’t see the balcony. Her mind raced with possibilities: maybe from the balcony, she could climb down. Alas no, the French doors were locked and bolted. The key was nowhere to be found. Claire had a good idea who possessed it.

The view beyond the doors revealed a massive uninhabited countryside, for miles only trees—thousands and thousands of trees—on very flat land. Once she stopped seeing the magnitude of unpopulated land, she realized that the trees weren’t green, and the earth wasn’t red. When she and Anthony made their contractual agreement, they were at a bar, the Red Wing, in Atlanta.

What she saw from her locked balcony doors didn’t look like Georgia. She yearned for her home in Atlanta. Even though she wasn’t from there, her career path had taken her to WKPZ, a local affiliate out of Atlanta. That path started with a major in meteorology at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Being born and raised in Fishers, outside of Indianapolis, college in Indiana was expected. Her dreams almost ended when both of her parents tragically died during her junior year. Miraculously, she received a scholarship. That, with her student loans and bartending, allowed her to continue her education. After graduation, her path took her to a one-year unpaid internship in Upstate New York. Being in the weather business, she should have realized how much she would hate the weather in Albany. However, it was the ability to live with her sister and brother-in-law that made the offer easy to accept. Recently married, Emily and John were very willing to help Claire any way they could. Emily taught school, and John recently started practicing law with an esteemed firm in Albany. Since the two were high school sweethearts, Claire knew John most of her life. Living with them was easy. In hindsight, maybe not for the newlyweds; but for Claire, they were her only family.

When the offer came toward the end of her internship for WKPZ, Claire willingly followed her path to Atlanta. She figured the Vandersols needed some time alone, the weather was better in Atlanta, and the job was everything she prayed for. As the years continued, she learned more and more about the business, earned respect, notoriety, and a growing income. The station manager told her more than once that her willingness to learn and work made her a rising star.

The path hit a roadblock in April of 2009 when WKPZ was purchased by a large corporate network. Claire wasn’t the only person to lose her job. Actually, over half of the veterans and most of the interns and assistants were let go. By then, she had student loans, an apartment, car and credit card debt. Honestly, that credit card and bartending kept food on the table while she looked for new employment. She considered leaving Atlanta. But she liked the city, the climate, and the people.

In Atlanta, she could depend on indigo blue skies and rusted red dirt. The vision out her window was black and white, like an old photograph. The ground, trees, and grass were colorless. The cloud-covered sky hung low and endless. The word that came to mind was “cold.” She could be in Indiana, Michigan, or anywhere in the Midwest. They all looked alike. She hated the winter, the darkness, and the lack of color. Now she was staring at it through the windows of her prison.

Claire wondered if she should have opened the drapes. Her discovery made her situation direr. If she wasn’t in Atlanta, where was she? And how did she get here? She looked at the stupid switch and considered shutting away the bleak outside world. It wasn’t helping her attitude. Claire decided the switch didn’t help her attitude or the non-English speaking servant, the expensive clothes, or the lavish surroundings. She was being held prisoner by a crazy man who somehow believed that he now owned her. Her location, luxurious surroundings, fancy clothes—none of it mattered. She could have been in a cinder block cell. She was still a prisoner, and the stupid stuff wouldn’t help that.

As hours and days passed, Claire had nothing to do but think. She mostly thought about escaping, fantasizing about running through the massive wooded scene outside her window. In her fantasy, salvation was through the trees. But she couldn’t get outside the room, much less to the trees. After a few days, in a moment of heated desperation, Claire took one of the chairs from the table and tried to break the panes of glass on the French doors. The damn chair bounced off the glass. She searched the suite for anything heavy. The closest thing was a thick book. Even with repeated strikes, it had no effect on the windows.

The hours and days spent alone made her yearn for the hustle and bustle of the Red Wing. She wondered about the regulars and her coworkers. Had anyone reported her missing? These thoughts usually resulted in tears and a headache. In an attempt at self-preservation and sanity, she began to think about the past. Was there something in the past that led to this?

Liking Earth science and weather, meteorology seemed a natural choice. She loved the unknown. As a teenager, she experienced her first tornado. The power and unpredictability of the storm fascinated her. It exhilarated her to watch warm and cold fronts collide. She loved to learn more about it and the whys. The computers could help you predict the weather. But it is such a small part. Why do some fronts stall and create floods when days before the models predicted only an inch of rain? How can a warm sunny day suddenly turn stormy? She wanted to understand it better, to control the outcomes in some way, perhaps minimize its destructive forces. But now a degree in meteorology was useless.

Near the end of March . . .

He’d been in the apartment on multiple occasions. Thankfully, this would be his last visit. Looking at his TAG Heuer watch, he knew the movers should be there in thirty minutes. He slowly walked around the small rooms. Starting in her bedroom, he surveyed what remained of her belongings. Everything else, the clothes and household items, had been placed in boxes labeled for donation. The full-sized bed was stripped. Only the mattress, boxed springs, and frame remained.

On top of the dresser were the items Anthony pondered. There were pictures in frames, indicating some sentimental attachment. He knew most of the faces. Some he’d seen in person. Others he learned about through whatever means necessary. There was a picture of her grandparents in one of those cheap frames labeled “Grandparents.” Then there was an old picture of Claire with her sister Emily and their parents taken in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. If he had to guess, Claire was about twelve or thirteen. There was a close-up of Claire and Emily at Emily’s wedding. He would have known the location even without the evidence of Emily’s veil. He remembered the day. It was hot and humid, even for Indiana. The last was a more recent photo of Emily and John sitting on a sofa.

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