Jessica Ray is a smart woman, in control. As she falls quickly in love with a charming writer, she is unaware of his dark side or the compulsions that drive him. The illusion of their perfect romantic affair is soon shattered by the reality of his dark obsessions. ElizaBlazeBooks.com
Jessica Ray was a smart woman. She’d graduated high school at sixteen, completed her undergraduate degree in two and a half years, and was working for the federal government. An employee of the Department of Defense, she’d spent the last five years in a male dominated field, developing software programming for highly classified FBI and NSA operations. As a developer, she had an uncanny skill for creating intuitive programming, reducing redundancy, and encrypting for foolproof security. Several of her projects had garnered recognition from higher in the department, and her career ladder was secure, a path to a long and lucrative vocation deemed vital to the war on terrorism and the hopes of any number of citizens who had been the victim of a yet-to-be solved crime.
True to the stereotype, she lived a fairly solitary life, the cost of being career driven and motivated to succeed. With the exception of a few colleagues at work and a female friend from university, with whom she shared the occasional drink, Jessica was content to spend her evenings reading or engaged in an endless series of indie-produced documentaries from around the world, a glass of wine nearby. Comfortable in an easy solitude, she shared her house with two tiny dogs, both of a rare breed native to South America called the Xolo.
In the last year, however, Jessica had begun to think about finding a serious companion. A few of the men in her office were involved in relationships, and she had started to imagine what it would be like to share her life with someone similar. Of course, she’d noticed a few things she’d liked about her programming partner. A couple of years younger than her, he was witty and sarcastic with an intelligence that matched her own. Although he, too, was involved with a woman he’d dated since college, she’d grown to anticipate their banter, and admired his dedication to his work. She could envision being with a man like that. Aware of her growing affections, she knew too well the risks involved in an interoffice affair, both personal and professional.
It was with no trepidation, then, that she approached daunting task of finding a suitable mate. Rational and observant, she approached the task much as she would have approached a search for a new position in her career field. She researched dating websites, joined several special interest groups, entered a continuing education class in web design, and pinned new outfits that advertised a casual-but-chic feminine ideal. She accepted numbers, went on innumerable first dates, and looked for the meaning behind the words of her would-be-suitors. Tell-tale warnings of sexism, egotism, or the hint of an abusive personality resulted in a decisive end to communication.
It was with a sense of growing disenchantment that she had accepted her most recent date. She had a clear idea of what she wanted, innumerable examples of what she couldn’t accept, and slim hopes that Micah Hayes would make the cut. She had yet to meet him, and though she was doubtful, he came with good recommendations. In fact, her university friend Della, anxious to help, had arranged their meeting. She had known Micah a few years, having met him at a writing convention in D.C. She indicated that Micah was good-looking, had a sparkling sense of humor, and produced one of the most eloquent prose styles she’d encountered in his critically acclaimed essays on the human condition. Ever a rationalist, it was the artistic personality she was unsure about. While she respected Della’s creativity and admired her dedication to her work, she often found that talking about their daily lives was difficult, their divergent fields a hindrance to talking shop.
It was with this thought at the forefront of her mind that she entered the restaurant where they had agreed to meet. Typically, to ensure she had a relatively short first encounter with a date, she liked to meet for coffee early in the day. She always made plans in the hours just after, so that she could make a graceful exit, any excuse she made to part ways genuine. For this particular foray, she had made an exception. With Della having provided her with some background, and having had the opportunity to do some research to verify that he was, indeed, unmarried with no criminal history, she had agreed to dinner.
The restaurant was small and intimate. In the historical district of Charleston, it catered to a high end crowd of young professionals and moneyed tourists. The lights were turned low, candles placed at every table, and imitation gaslight sconces scattered artfully about the place. The tables were of a highly burnished dark wood, and the tabletops sparked with the reflective light of candle glow and the wavering ambiance of the sconces. Crystal glassware, multifaceted, and silver utensils from a bygone time twinkled about the room. The low murmur of conversations bubbled around her, and the tinkle of ice in glasses, forks against plates, provided an almost musical aura to the place. In truth, the ecstatic crescendo of some joyful orchestral composition, perhaps Vivaldi or Mozart, was just audible, the climbing notes of some talented flutist perfect in the dimly lit foyer.
Jessica waited patiently to be seated, pleased with the old-world charm of the place. One of the oldest cities in the country, peninsular Charleston boasted a unique historical district. Business offices and shops housed in centuries old buildings, colleges, and elaborately ornate old hotels were crowded about the downtown area. Where driving was a challenge, due to the lack of readily available parking, throngs of tourists and students marched in streams down well-lit sidewalks lining cobbled and brick streets that were authentic to the seventeenth century.
Anticipating the walk and the heat, she’d dressed well for the occasion, choosing a high-waisted coral skirt that flowed to just above her knees topped with a sleeveless blouse in a stripes of navy blue and cream. She had accessorized with a heavy gold statement necklace that mimicked the linked chain of an anchor line, a blue purse monogrammed with the image of an anchor, a thin leather belt, and braided leather sandals. She had pulled her hair up, allowing her sometimes stubborn curls to fall where they would from the crown of her head, a whisper of bangs fringing her face. Simple pearl earrings of a lustrous cream, two coats of mascara, and perfunctory swipe of lip balm completed her look. Full makeup was not an option in the humid heat of a summer evening in the coastal Carolinas.
Furthermore, she liked to present a fairly authentic version of herself in the event of a date. In truth, if she she’d attempted to do a complete and elaborate makeup style, she probably would have failed miserably. The many steps involved had always dissuaded her from any real interest in learning that particular skillset, which seems not to have had too much of an impact on the course of her life. She smiled inwardly at this thought as the maître d’ approached, touched her elbow, and guided her with an uncanny grace to be seated.
As they approached the table, set discreetly into a private alcove near the rear of the establishment, Jessica noted Micah was already seated. Like a true gentleman, he rose to greet them, placing a chaste kiss on her left cheek before pulling out her chair.
“It’s wonderful to meet you,” he said. “It seems as if I know you already. Della had so many great things to say that I’ve been looking forward to tonight. I hope you can excuse my enthusiasm.”
Smiling, he eased into his chair, took a sip of water, and leaned back waiting, with an air of expectation, for Jessica to settle in. She placed her purse strings over the back of her chair, smoothed her skirt over her knees, and squeezed a bit of lemon into the glass of water that had been placed before her.
She took the opportunity to glance over his face, noting that he had the charming good looks of decades past. His was not the chiseled, hard planed face of the models favored by the fashion moguls today, but was reminiscent of the wholesome good looks celebrated in the mid-nineteenth century: genial, high browed, with full cheeks and a strong jaw. His smile revealed beautiful teeth, a sensuous curve to the upper lip, the barest hint of a dimple on his left cheek, and a cleft chin. His hair, too, was a barely-tamed tumble of rogue dark blonde curls. Unlike hers, however, his eyes were not the blue or green typical to the tow-headed. His were the warm brown of dark chocolate, coffee beans, and polished mahogany.
Pleased with the look of him, Jessica studied the menu. At his suggestion, she settled on the evening’s special, blackened grouper with pineapple and mango chutney. Paired with a dry Pinot Gris, the dish was one that had put this restaurant on the map. Chatting as they waited for their meal to arrive, they were both delighted to learn that they each enjoyed touring the city as if they were first time visitors to the place. Locals to the area, it seemed, were sometimes oblivious to the past, a rich history that spoke to the struggles of peopling a new nation. Old pirate stories, subterranean prison cells, the enormous wealth that grew about this port city, sanitation problems that came with population growth, tales of treason, and the rise of patriotism, the passions of the Civil War, and the coming of industrialism to the south.
As they finished their meal, one that was, by any standard, beautifully prepared and presented, redolent with the taste of the sea and the south, they headed out to join a walking tour of the downtown area. Although it was growing late, several tours were still available. As they walked, listening with half an ear to their guide, they each felt a sense of growing ease with the other.
For her part, Jessica had found no yawning void he refused to cross. He talked openly of his childhood, of past relationships, and of his current struggles. A writer at heart, he had found that it was not easy to support himself by the written vocation alone. He had recently begun to teach classes for aspiring young authors and found that he often grew frustrated with his students. Young and lacking real-world experience, their writing styles were often idealistic and lacked the depth of human experience he believed brought a story to life.
She found his voice pleasant, and decided that, although she’d typically been more cautious, she would enjoy getting to know this man. Engaging and intelligent, he was charming in a way that was unique. Unlike a typical date, he didn’t spend a lot of time promoting himself. He offered no rationale as to why his last relationship had soured, didn’t discuss the “problems she’d had with his success,” her “clinginess” or his desire to “explore what’s available” as had so many others.
As a woman, hearing innumerable men find fault with an ex-girlfriend to explain their prior romantic failings didn’t always sit so well with Jessica. Neither did the implication that their most recent affair might have ended due to the lure of what any other potential woman might have to offer in comparison. As such, Micah’s straightforwardness was refreshing, and his unapologetic approach to the facts of life indicated, to her, a self-assuredness and sense of security in his ability to navigate the circumstances of his life that was rare.
As the tour wound to its end, Micah, being every inch a gentleman, offered to see her to her car. It was a fairly long walk to the parking garage, and the hour was approaching midnight. While small groups of students still roamed about the area, on their way to and from pubs, bars, and parties, Jessica was grateful for the offer. Even in the most affluent of areas, there was the potential to be victimized. Over the years, several college women had been attacked, some the victim of rapes and others subject to stabbings, robberies, and, in one frightening instance, abduction. While it was probably unlikely, there was no reason not to be cautious. A woman walking alone, late in the night, could potentially pose the perfect target for a would be attacker, emboldened by drinks, tantalized by frequent flashes of leg, the hint of cleavage above the glow of sequins in dark dance clubs, angered by rejection or driven wild by unfulfilled lust. Thinking as much, she was comforted by his presence. They walked in a companionable silence, hands linked, their pace not quite meandering, but leisurely.
“I just want to say that I’m really glad to have met you. Della might have told me about you sooner…,” Jessica murmured as they neared the car.
Pleasantly exhausted by the wine, the meal, and the long walk, she leaned against the driver’s side door as she searched her purse for the keys. He smiled in response, and placed his hand over hers, pushing her purse gently to her side. Leaning in, his hips just grazing hers, he placed his lips gently to her forehead. Surprised by the sweetness of this gesture, a warmth spread quickly through her and she tipped her head back expectantly.
She was rewarded with the gentlest of kisses. His lips, soft and smooth, brushed hers and then lingered. Still, barely breathing, she allowed the fullest of sensations to sweep through her. The deep yearning, the heat spreading though her midsection, and the warm caress of his breath barely stirring the hair around her face. This chaste kiss, just the touch of lips, was erotic beyond any other kiss she’d experienced, his desire not animal, not the primal grind of body against body, but the need for union, deep and reverent.
Minutes later it seemed, the sharing of breath and heartbeats intimately between them, he pulled away, plucked the keys from her purse, and opened the car’s door. Willing herself out of the dreamlike state induced by the kiss, Jessica slid into the driver’s seat and accepted her keys.
“Goodnight,” he said, with the slight curve of smile. “I’ll give you a call tomorrow evening, if you’d like.”
“Yes, do,” Jessica laughed. “I think I would be offended if you didn’t.” She eased the door shut, placed the key in the ignition and started the car. In the rearview mirror, she watched as he walked away, his gait easy, hands tucked jauntily into his pockets, tie askew. Smiling, she placed the car in gear when he was lost to sight, navigated her way out of the dimly lit garage, and headed home feeling like a high school girl with a crush.
It was nearly two in the morning when she pulled into her yard. She’d left the side light on, and had no problems fitting the key in the lock, thank God. Too many times, she’d come home after dark, the house completely black, and struggled to get in. Although the neighborhood was nice, a little slice of heaven in the suburbs, she had seen one too many episodes of the true crime shows to ever feel completely comfortable. Add to that the fact that she worked every day on elaborate programming to track criminal clues that ranged from fingerprints to DNA samples found at still-unsolved crime scenes, and it wasn’t hard for her to understand that sometimes motive, in the sense that there was a reason a crime had been committed, did not always ring true for the victims involved. Crime was sometimes random, and almost always ruthless.
Max and Xena, the closest thing to children she thought she’d ever have, came barreling into the kitchen, jumping frantically against her legs, wriggling with delight at her return. Smiling, she walked to the living room, kicked off her shoes, and folded herself on the couch. She allowed both dogs onto her lap, kissing and petting them each, talking to them in a soothing voice.
“Did you miss your mommy, sweet little puppies?” she cooed, as Xena rolled onto her back, paws covering her eyes, and squirmed in the sweet way she had since she was a puppy. Jessica obliged her, patting her chest and briskly rubbing her exposed belly. Jealous, Max, rubbed his head against her side, much like a cat, his little growls and gruff barks meant to get her undivided attention. Laughing, she scruffed his coat, paying special attention to the sides of his neck and under his ears. Delighted with the attention, he darted off the couch, made a dashing run about the living room, and returned to her lap in a single acrobatic bound. Astonished at this rare display, she laughed, giving him an approving little pat on the head before she rose, calling them both through the dining room to the back door to let them out into the fenced back yard.
That done, she headed up the stairs and to her bedroom. With a feeling of relaxed contentment, she breathed in the scents of lavender and jasmine that rose aromatically from a diffuser on the bedside table. Pulling open the middle drawer of the dresser, she selected a slip-like gown, light and silky, perfect for this hot night. After a brief shower, steamy at first, then cool to finish off, she rubbed herself dry and pulled the gown over her head, nearly ready to call it a night. Thoughts of the kiss she’d shared with Micah surged up, unbidden, as she’s soaped herself during the shower, then again, as she padded quietly down the stairs to call the dogs indoors for the night. Pushing the thoughts away, she opened the door and called them each by name. Once inside, they followed obediently to the laundry room, both settling into the basket she’d filled with plush blankets to make their bed.
Upstairs again, Jessica selected a book from a bookcase filled to the brim with a variety of good reads, histories and the studies of ancient cultures, mysteries, suspense novels, and a smattering of classic horror. Though it was definitely late, later by far than the time she typically went to bed, she didn’t believe she would be able to fall asleep just yet. As before, when she was showering, images of Micah came flooding into her mind’s eye, and the book was intended to keep her distracted. Always been the most rational of women in the past, this powerful attraction was something new, alien and strange, but intoxicating. Following the adventures of Stephens and Catherwood as they searched for the lost cities of the Maya deep in the rainforests of the Amazon, she eventually drifted into sleep, the book open on the bed before her, bedside lamp glowing brightly across the pillows.