A sea of shouting people, moving together like a many-headed serpent, surrounded the car. Alicia covered her mouth with a hand as tears burned her eyes and cheeks, and her nose ran.
“I can’t even see the entrance to the underground parking.” Exasperation and a little fear tinged her stepmother’s voice as she gripped the steering wheel. “How on earth am I going to do this?”
“For God’s sake, Ogden,” her father’s deep voice rumbled next to her as he spoke into his cell phone. “Get the police out here. Now!”
Alicia couldn’t hear what was said on the other end, but her father flipped his phone closed with a harsh snap. His heavy arm around her shoulders weighed on her like an albatross. Voices outside of the car ran together into a sibilant threat marked with the vicious thumps of fists against the tempered windows.
“Pam, baby,” her father said finally. “When we get out, you lock the doors and stay in the car, no matter what. Wait right here for either me or Ogden to come back for you.”
Five minutes later, Ogden James, a stocky, congenial security guard at her building, opened the door from the outside on her father’s count. The wave of bodies threw it open wide, and Alicia wondered if it might snap off its hinges. More of the tower’s security team pressed forward, creating a small pocket of space for them.
Her father got out first, and then he covered Alicia’s head with his jacket and pulled her out.
Concrete and men’s shoes were all she could see as strong hands led her from both sides. She needed those hands, because she hadn’t eaten in days and felt as if her muscles had atrophied. She couldn’t stop shaking, and she couldn’t stop the play of the day’s headlines through her mind.
Her father didn’t follow her inside, despite Alicia’s pleading. He turned at the door, faced the hoard of reporters, photographers, and maddened fans. For a moment they paused, but then suddenly, the many-headed serpent struck.
“Blair! Blair! Blair! Will you press charges? Does Tommy Touhy think he’s above the law? Did you threaten to kill Tommy Touhy? Did you know that your daughter was being assaulted? Was your daughter sexually assaulted? Is the rumor true that Playboy has offered fifty million dollars for an Alicia Langerud exclusive? Did Touhy take your daughter’s virginity? What were your daughter and her boyfriend quarreling about? Did you know that Anna Sui has been inundated with orders for that exact gold dress? Alicia has a beautiful heart; do you think Tommy deserves it? Do you think she deserves it? Was America’s sweetheart raped?”
* * * * *
When Blair finally stepped into the luxury suite he’d helped his daughter choose years before when she moved out on her own, he was happy to see that she sat calmly, talking softly with his wife. She had been silent for the past twenty-four hours.
He raised an eyebrow at his wife, who gave a slight shake of her head, cautioning him against pressing his daughter for answers. After nearly two hours standing in front of the paparazzi, taking them all on for his daughter, he did not want to put her through what he’d just experienced.
But he had to know.
Pam’s eyes saddened before she slid away from her stepdaughter, allowing Blair the lead.
Giant, sea-blue eyes looked up at him, and in them he saw more despair than he could handle.
“You have to explain.”
Six months later.
Outside, the world froze.
Dragging a roller bag behind her, Alicia Langerud stepped into the building, noting that warm air tried its best to greet her, to lure her into a sense of safety and relief. But she didn’t stop shivering. Not until she cleared the lobby, saying a quick hello to the staff at the desk. Not until she got on the elevator after waiting until she could take one alone, even with the odd stares. Not until she rushed out of the elevator when the doors opened for fear of being trapped in the box if someone else rushed on.
Not until she soundlessly slipped into the loft did the warmth overcome her, beating at her body until she was tired of fighting and willing to breathe again. She turned the knob of the door before closing it ever so carefully and gave thanks that it made no sound. With a gentle touch, she engaged the lock and reset the alarm. One more furtive glance out of the peephole assured her that the hallway remained empty.
She allowed herself two moments to breathe, another for her muscles to relax.
After slipping off the glittery black flats, she rolled her feet over the cool surface of the polished travertine floors. Wrapping her keys in her palm to keep them still and silent, she set them delicately in her handbag. She checked her watch. It was a little after eleven, but that didn’t mean anything. Good Lord, they kept strange hours.
Without making the smallest of noises, she made her way barefoot through the living room to the den. After dropping her bag and coat off, she turned on the television, keeping it very quiet. In the kitchen, she only switched on the light above the stove. It was dim and barely visible outside the room.
Already a parcel of jasmine tea sat out on the counter with agave nectar and cream that was still cool to the touch. Taking great care, she rinsed the teakettle then put it on the burner. She leaned against the counter with her arms wrapped around her body, staring at the towel hanging through the handle of the refrigerator. She tried to keep her mind blessedly blank, devoid of this maddening mix of panic and fear and melancholy, at least until the water was hot enough to steam, but not hot enough to make the kettle whistle.
After making tea, she went back to the den with her mug. The oversized, brown suede sofa welcomed her to curl up with a coverlet. After a sip and sigh, she flipped through channels, trying her best to avoid cop shows, fashion shows, entertainment shows, horror movies, and shows about serial killers. This left her to watch a comedrama about two couples who left the corporate world to run a bed and breakfast in New England. The show was all right but not particularly engaging. Just like Alicia wanted it.
After only fifteen minutes, she found herself yawning and setting her mug down. Another fifteen and she snuggled deep into the cushions of the sofa, barely able to keep her eyes open. Just before she fell asleep, she smiled wide. She smiled because she knew she was going to sleep. She knew she was going to sleep because, finally, she was safe.
* * * * *
Her body felt tight, crushed in a viselike grip, or rather forced by electricity or adrenaline into painful rigor. And then the blows started. Bone-cracking punches to her chest over and over again until she realized she was being stabbed. A knife the length of her forearm, as wide as her fist, with a deathly sharp blade, digging, digging until it unearthed her heart.
Alicia screamed, jumping so high she ended up sitting on the back of the sofa, her feet in the seat and her hands out defensively before her. Then when she got a good look at the tall, broad-shouldered man in front of her, she clutched at her heart, its beat painfully trying to normalize, and gasped, “Holy Hell!”
“I didn’t mean to scare you, sweetheart.” Her father came forward and took the hand over her heart. He pulled her from the sofa into his arms. That sense of safety came back, and Alicia stifled a sob. She had to get a hold of herself.
Casting a furtive glance at the TV, she was cosmically thankful for the handy excuse. “I’m sorry, Daddy. You know how I am with scary movies.”
Her father looked at the screen and shook his head. “Why were you watching one in the dark by yourself?”
Alicia shrugged. “I’m almost twenty-seven. I figured I could handle it.” No need to tell him that she’d fallen asleep watching something different and completely non-threatening.
“Well, I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean to startle you.” Blair Langerud pulled her forward again and squeezed her hard. He kissed her on the forehead then padded barefoot toward the kitchen.
Alicia sent up a silent thank you that at least he’d bothered to put on some pants.
“I came down to get me and Pam some tea,” he called. “I caught the light from the TV and figured you were in there.”
“What time is it?” she mumbled as she absently rubbed her eyes.
“Don’t rub your eyes so hard. You know better. You’ll have even darker circles than you’re bound for in the morning if you break those tiny capillaries under the fragile sk—” He stopped himself. “Old habits,” he explained. “It’s after two.” He disappeared behind a corner, easily navigating his home in the dark.
Alicia reached over and turned on a lamp before following her father into the kitchen.
“Why are you even up? I was quiet.” She ran her fingers through her tangled mass of hair. She had put it in a bun earlier but had never been able to sleep with it bound and had probably dismantled it in her sleep. She yawned, but her mouth snapped shut when she realized her brawny, unflappable father was…blushing. “Gross, Dad. I don’t want to know.”
Blair chuckled. “You’re right. You don’t.” He put the kettle on then leaned against the counter as he studied her. Lately, he’d been studying her this way a lot. Maybe it was her imagination, or more likely guilt, but she thought she saw disappointment in his eyes. “But what I want to know is what brings you here…again.”
“Oh, ahem…” She cleared her throat. “I…ah…don’t know, you know. I guess I just miss it here. I miss you guys.”
His piercing blue eyes, beneath slashing white and blond brows, were like lasers. She felt as if he were scanning her invisible bar code and learning everything there was to know about what she wasn’t saying. He opened his mouth to press her, probably to ask why his grown-ass, soon to be thirty-year-old daughter kept sneaking into his house when she thought he and his wife were sleeping. But they both turned their heads toward the soft sound of footfalls.
“Blair,” a deep, feminine voice that sounded either sleepy or passion-filled drifted into the kitchen. “Baby, forget the tea. Get a bottle of water and come back to bed.”
“Pam, hon, Alicia’s here,” he called back, cutting a glance at his daughter.
Alicia put a hand over her eyes and shook her head, hoping that her stepmother did not appear in the kitchen naked. It was a risk she took sneaking in there at night, but it hadn’t been enough to keep her away. She just felt so damn comfortable in her childhood home, and so safe when she was close to her dad.
“Oh hey, Alicia,” Pam murmured as she made an appearance. Not naked, even if her tank top and shorts were a little skimpy for a very voluptuous woman approaching fifty. Thank God for small favors.
Pamela Lane had married her father only six years before, but in truth, she had been the only mother Alicia ever knew, and Alicia loved her dearly. Granted, she could do with a little less knowledge of her parents’ sexual antics, but she couldn’t fault them. They were both beautiful people—Blair, a tall, muscular, blond and blue-eyed Norse god; Pam, a tall, curvy, long-legged Nubian queen—and they couldn’t seem to keep their hands off each other. Alicia appreciated their love, but damned if she actually wanted to see it all the time.
Blair accepted a quick kiss from his wife when she came to his side and laid a light hand to his chest. Then they both turned to Alicia, and she felt awkward for a completely different reason.
“What’s wrong, darling?” Pam asked softly. That woman was like the Juggernaut Psychiatrist. No one could get away from her. One couldn’t resist eventually blurting out all their problems to her. It never failed.
“Nothing,” Alicia answered too quickly, with too much light and air in her voice.
Pam didn’t dispute her words, but she didn’t let it go either. She just stood there silently waiting, her heart open and ready to take on whatever burden Alicia would release to it. For God’s sake, she started to tear up and didn’t know how to stop this nightmare from unfolding.
As she stood there, she watched Pam pat her father on the hip. Reluctantly, he turned off the burner and grabbed a bottle of water out of the fridge. He eyed his daughter but left the kitchen without his tea. Alicia could hear him heading back upstairs.
“You had tea earlier?”
“Well, let’s have a glass of wine, then.” She leaned down to the wine rack and reached for a dark bottle before shaking her head. “I keep forgetting that you don’t like red.” She walked over to the refrigerator and removed a large, corked bottle of Liebfraumilch. It was Alicia’s favorite, even if her dad called it “baby wine.” Pam uncorked the bottle and poured glasses for them both.
She followed her stepmother back into the den and curled up on the sofa with her arms around a pillow and the chilled wine in her hand.
“Alicia, you know your father loves you.”
Alicia turned her head with a small, jerky movement, her eyes burning and a lump forming in her throat.
“And you know I love you, too. You’re one of my favorite people in the whole wide world.”
She nodded, still unable to look at Pam.
“We accepted that you were a grown woman, but we never wanted you to move out by yourself. You wanted to. And even though we worried, and we still worry, you’ve done fine on your own for all these years, or…ah…mainly on your own.”
Alicia licked her lips that had gone so dry they stuck to her tongue.
“But you’ve been here so much lately, especially since the…well, you know. We’re worried. And if you want to come back and stay here, you know we won’t mind.”
Alicia took a long sip from her wine glass, hoping it would stabilize her as she was dangerously close to tears, again. She was always crying these days.
“Please tell me what’s going on with you. I thought we all came back from that mess six months ago, but you haven’t been the same since, especially lately.”
She wanted to spill it all, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t worry them or frighten them, and she didn’t want them to handle the fallout when they went public—and they would.
Silent, she nodded her head and covered her face with her free hand. After a second or two, she felt the wine glass taken from her, then the pillow.
Alicia’s eyes watered.
“You miss Tommy,” Pam guessed.
Alicia broke. Her shoulders slumped, and an ache that ranged from her back to her chest made it impossible to breath. Pam put her arms around her shoulder and pulled her close. Alicia hugged her hard and sobbed into her shoulder. Hot tears ran in rivulets from her eyes, her nose congested, and her throat went raw from emotion.
“No matter what happened,” Pam whispered, “we know he loves you. That’s why we ignored all the rumors and hype. That’s why your father and I stood beside you both. Nobody knows the two of you better than we do. He caught the worst of it, that’s all. He loves you.”
Alicia cried even harder. Her body convulsed with an ugly and uncontrollable hiccup. “He doesn’t.”
“He does,” Pam insisted.
“N-no he doesn’t!” Alicia argued, finally finding her voice. She argued because no matter how much she wanted things to be different, Tommy didn’t love her. He’d been so angry after what she’d done. He’d said such hurtful things. She argued with Pam because she loved him so desperately, and she’d buried the pain of it for so very long. But more importantly, she argued because if she confessed to the devastation of being abandoned by the love of her life, she would never have to tell her parents about the true horror stalking her every step and every breath.
© Aubrey Leatherwood
Author: Aubrey Leatherwood
Publisher: Cobblestone Press
Genre: Erotic Romance
Supermodel Alicia Langerud and Detective Tommy Touhy have unfinished business. Their break up six months ago was ugly, nasty, and fodder for gossip and speculators worldwide. Everyone wants to know what the Bad Boy did to break America's sweetheart's heart. Only they know the truth behind what happened that night... and one reporter who holds their livelihoods in his hands.
Even worse Alicia has started receiving disturbing messages from a stalker. A stalker bent on curing her of her "heart disease." Frightened for her life, Alicia must rely on the man who once drove her away to save her life.