LOVE, Interrupted

A novel

Richard looked at the beautiful woman that he had just made the one and only Mrs. Richard Lindhardt not more than 8 short hours ago.  She is so beautiful, everything that a man could hope or wish for in a spouse. Gorgeous.  Intelligent.  Cultured.  Career oriented.  Independent.  There was no way that he could let this one get away.  He reminisced about the first time he saw her.  She was an airline stewardess.  He was with someone then.  But as fate would have it, 3 years later there she was making a presentation and bidding for a contract to manage his company’s finance department.  God truly must have meant for this woman to be his wife.  What are the odds of crossing his path twice?
Richard hadn’t been completely honest.  He knew that Natalia was hurt from her first marriage and wanted to take things slowly.  But the truth is, Richard had spent three years in counseling and therapy and church to prove to Natalia that he is serious about his commitment to her.  He wants a family with this woman.  And he wasn’t sure just how much longer he could wait now that they’ve finally made it official.  He decided not to spring it on her right away, but definitely within the year.  He’d simply tell her that he’s had a change of mind and simply can’t understand the point of waiting any longer.  By this time next year, she’ll either have had his child or be expecting.

Natalia lay next to the man she married and listened to his heart beat in time with hers.  This time had to be real.  And although Natalia hadn’t been completely honest with Richard, she was sure that this man loves her more than anything.  And whatever else is secondary to that.  There were some things that just didn’t seem necessary to disclose until a woman is absolutely sure that the man loves her unconditionally.  Perhaps she’d never tell him her innermost secret.  I mean, why?  He loves her regardless.  He told her that several times.  He told her that there was nothing she could say or do that could make him not love her.  So why should she ever have to tell him that she could never have children? She had bought herself some time by insisting that they take the marriage slowly in the beginning.  He won’t be asking for children for at least 5 years.  By that time, she’ll have come up with another excuse.  Perhaps early onset of menopause.  She felt as though she were being unfair to him.  But she looked forward to spending the rest of her life making it up to him.  And she drifted off to sleep counting the ways that she would.

 Their story

Richard prepared breakfast for his new wife.  Only a light breakfast of poached eggs, toast and orange juice.  He was helping her watch her weight. And enjoyably so.  He moved about the kitchen humming and feeling happier than he has known himself to ever feel his entire life.  This moment was comparable to when his old man bought him that ‘ 69 mustang that he’d been wanting for graduation.  But that was when he was still just a kid.  Now he’s a grown man with a beautiful wife to share the rest of his life with.  He arranged the food neatly on the plate, along with a beautiful bud vase adorned with a fresh picked lily that he paid the bellhop extra to find.  He placed the items on a serving tray and headed in the direction of their bedroom.  As he turned around, he caught a view of the sunrise over the water.  It was an ideal honeymoon moment.  Knowing that the sunset would be equally as romantic, he made plans to make love to his wife on the beach for the evening.  Miranda had definitely set things right by suggesting Nekker Island for the honeymoon. After Natalia had explained to him the reason she was coming across as a hater, all was forgiven. And allowing an extra weekend stay on her had put her back into Richard’s good graces.  The place was fabulous.  And they were sure not to be disturbed since the policy of the resort was that all electronic devices, including cellular phones, had to be checked in at the front desk.  There would be no distractions.  Only he and Natalia in wedded bliss for 10 days.    
Natalia lay sleeping so peacefully.  Richard sat the tray on the corner of the nightstand and gently brushed her hair from her face.  He kissed her forehead, nibbled on her ear and whispered, “Good morning, Mrs. Lindhardt.”  Natalia smiled and opened her eyes.
“Good morning,” she swooned as she put her arms around his neck and pulled him into her embrace before suddenly leaping from the bed and running to the bathroom.  Richard was startled. 
“What’s wrong!?!”  He heard the water running and was about to rush into the bathroom before Natalia reappeared in the doorway.  “Nothing but that morning breath,” she sputtered in between brushing her teeth.  Richard laughed, then gave it a second thought and checked his own breath. 
“I’d better join you.”  Within a few moments, they were done practicing proper oral hygiene.
“Now, how about a proper morning greeting?”
“Why certainly, Mr. Lindhardt.”  Natalia wrapped her arms around her new husband’s neck and engaged in a sensual, passionate kiss.  “How was that?”
“Now that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout, right there.  Yeah, I look forward to more of that.  Now come on.  I got breakfast waiting for you.”
“You ordered room service already!”
“No, woman.  I cooked.  Got you some poached eggs.  Some toast – lightly buttered.  And some freshly squeezed oj.  All made with my own loving hands.”
“Ooo,  now don’t go starting things you can’t keep up.  Remember what the therapist suggested.”  Natalia playfully shoved a piece of toast in her hubby’s mouth before spreading jam on the rest of it and topping it with a poached egg. 
“Yeah, and I can’t wait to work on some of those bedroom exercises the therapist suggested, too.”  They shared more kisses.  “How’s your breakfast?”
“Well, of course you’re no gourmet chef.  I mean, how much skill does it take to toast some bread and poach an egg?”
“Ahh, wait a minute now.  I didn’t want to take you too fast.  I got to gradually expose you to my talents.  I can’t just show you all my bag of tricks… you know, I can’t just BAM! Spring it on you like that.  It would be too much for you to handle all at once.  Besides, I’m helping you watch that figure that my hands and eyes relish.  I don’t want you getting accustomed to such delectable meals that you get all fat and bloated….uh, not that I would love you any less.”
“Excuse me!  Well, thanks for your support, honey.  But you be sure you hit the gym every day, too.  I don’t want those muscles and brawn turning into mush, either.  Gotta keep it tight!”
“Yeah, it’s like I told you.  Those bedroom exercises… did you bring the book?”
“No, but we’ll definitely have lots of fun trying to remember what we read before we get back to the states.”  Natalia finished her orange juice and pushed her tray aside.  She maneuvered behind her husband and repositioned him. 
 “Are you ready for my wedding gift?” She began to massage her husband’s shoulders and gently nibble on his neck.
“Ummm, what else could there possibly be?”
Natalia reached out past the bed and into her Louis Vuitton travel case that she had kept beside her bed.  Enclosed was a small box wrapped in lavender paper and adorned with a purple ribbon.  She palmed the box and twisted her body again so that it was hidden from view.
“Close your eyes and turn around,” she instructed Richard. 
Richard was smiling from ear to ear.  His heart rate sped up ever so slightly, totally clueless about what gift Natalia could possibly have to surprise him with.
“Open your eyes! Ta-Da!”  She whipped the neatly wrapped box around and presented it to him with both hands. 
“Now, what could you possibly have in that tiny box for me?  Cuff links?  We got wedding bands…You just gave me a watch for my birthday…”
“There’s no way you’re going to guess.  And remember, sometimes huge surprises can be found in the seemingly unlikeliest of places.  Go’ head!  Open! Open!”
Richard tore the wrapping off without a second thought.  He removed the top from the box to reveal a beautiful golden keychain  embossed with the symbol of a sailboat and engraved with the words” Lindhardt” followed by their wedding date.  On that keychain were 4 gleaming keys.
“Oh my god,” Richard sighed.  “What have you done?”
“Those, my love, are the keys to a brand new 50 ft Sea Ray Sundancer awaiting your command at the pier just beyond the grove.  Last one there has to reel the anchor.  Natalia turned to make a dash for the bathroom, but Richard caught her by the ankle and pulled her back on the bed.  He hovered over her and stared into her eyes.
“There are no words… thank you doesn’t seem to be enough.”
“No thank you required, lovey.  You’re mine.  This is how I intend to spoil you every day of our life together.  Now, let’s cruise!”
“Wait.  I have to give you the gift I got for you.”  Richard phoned the guest quarters and gave instructions to deliver the package to the room now. “
“Richard, you know I can’t wait.  What is it?” 
“No, you’ll have to wait. I’ll tell you right now, it won’t top this.  But we’ll have a plethora of birthdays, and Christmases, and anniversaries… and Valentine’s for me to get more creative with my gift giving.”
“Sweetie, this isn’t a competition.  What did the therapist say? “We are different sides of the same person who are complimenting each other.’  There’s no ‘one doing more than the other.’ Remember?  We each give 110%.  ‘50/50 is a partnership, not a marriage.  So if we –“
“Okay, okay. Okay!  Damn, I was listening but you were memorizing.  Did that cat write a book or something?”
“Not to my knowledge, but had he I’d be first in line to buy.  He’s very good.”
“Yes, and very expensive!” Richard sarcastically chimed.  Just then the bell rang.  Richard slid on the lounge pants he had placed on the chair beside the bed last night and slipped on his house shoes to answer the door.  “And I’ll bet he probably bought his wife a yacht with all the money he made from us these past 3 and a half years.”  He opened the door and retrieved a medium sized square box neatly adorned in colorful wrapping.  He handed the bellhop a five dollar bill that was in the pants pocket from tipping at check in before closing the door.
“Babe, close your eyes.”  He rounded the corner into the bedroom and saw Natalia sitting in the middle of the bed with her eyes squeezed shut and a big grin across her face.  He gently sat the box on the bed.
“Okay.  Take a look.”
Natalia opened her eyes and gaped at the box, much larger than she had anticipated.  She lifted the top and peeped inside. 
“Awww.  Richard!  Awww!”  She carefully reached inside the box and pulled out the most beautiful snow white lhasa apso with a yellow ribbon tied about the neck.  Attached was a small box with a card.
“What’s this?”  Natalia asked as she removed the card and box, puppy in hand.  She opened the card first.
“Richard, this is so sweet and so thoughtful.”
“Open the box.”
Natalia slid the lid open and gasped at the 3 ct tw dia solitaire earrings surrounded by 5k platinum.  She tucked her bottom lip in as she looked up at her husband.  Her eyes began to water.  “This is by far the sweetest gift I’ve ever received.  I love you.”  They embraced and kissed again, interrupted by the puppy squirming for air.  They shared a laugh.
“Well, what shall we call him?” Richard asked as he began to undress and retreat to the bathroom for a shower.
Natalia gently returned the puppy to the box and set it beside the bed.  “I’ll have to give it some thought.”  She had to elevate her voice to be heard over the sound of the running water.  She decided to quickly undress and made a dash for the bathroom shower door.
“What about Boner or one of them cute little dog names like that? Whoa!  Umph, glad you decided to join me.”
Without another word spoken, the two of them ravished each other, unselfishly giving to each other all the pleasures that each was known to enjoy.  Wedded bliss conceptualized and intricately acted out, detail by detail.  
Richard collapsed, breathless next to his wife.  He looked at her with sentiment that could not be expressed in mere words.  He wanted to laugh to himself thinking how gift giving always seems to heighten lovemaking.  Gratitude expressed in the rawest, most superlative human form.  Yet, he couldn’t take his eyes off of his wife.  She lay with hair soaking wet, her head resting on the shower wall, eyes closed.  Richard was in awe. 
“Natalia, look at me.”
She slowly turned her head in the direction of his voice before opening her eyes.  Richard pushed the wet hair from her moistened face, and wiped away the residue of his excitement having peaked from her lips.
“Natalia, I have come face to face with my dreams.  You are all I could have ever wished, prayed and hoped for.”
“I know that, lovey.  You’ve told me so many times.  And you are everything to me.”
“Listen.”  He placed a finger over her lips to quiet her from speaking another word. “I’m glad to hear you say that, but I want you to listen to what I’m saying.  Baby, to be this close – as close as any man could hope to be to something he wants so much – to not take it to the next level and bring all my dreams into reality is pure torture.”
“Richard, before you go any further –“
“No, hear me out. You are so much to me.  You mean so much to me.  Please, it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience for us to start a family now.  Why wait?  We’re both financially secure.  There’s really no sense in waiting at all.  We’re not getting any younger, by far.  Now, I know you want to wait and do more travel and work towards those goals that we set.  But would a baby- a living, breathing product of our love and commitment to one another- would that hurt or hinder us in any way? Hm?  The answer is no.  Never.  I was thinking we could consider…”
Natalia instantly tuned out the rest of his conversation and was trying desperately to maintain control of her emotions and facial expressions.  She wanted to keep her composure so as not to ruin the moment completely.  After all, he was baring his soul to her at this moment. But inside she was boiling with fury, anxiety and disappointment.  Fury because of all the time spent discussing this in counseling and therapy that he has so selfishly and so soon disregarded.  Anxiety because of the panic and worry that she hadn’t bought herself nearly as much time as she thought.  She didn’t want to tell him the truth about her.  Not now. Not later. Not ever.  Never.  Disappointment because there seemed no way around it.  She would be forced to continue to lie.  And as the therapist often reminded them, secrets are always a main ingredient in the recipe for divorce.  Secrets about our honest feelings.  Secrets about who we really are on the inside.     Secrets about who we have been in the past. 
“…and baby all I ask is that you give it some thought and let’s reconsider.  Please don’t deny me this.  I can promise you that you won’t be in this alone, Natalia.  I’ll be there every step of the way, from the moment of conception right through graduation and beyond.  I know that’s a lot to lay on you.  And I know that there’s no way I could ask for an answer right now.  We’ll talk about it a little later.  Take all the time you need.”  Richard cupped his wife’s face in his hands and again kissed her ever so gently.  “I love you so much.”  He exited the shower.  Natalia sat there, stunned.    
“Hey,” she called aloud.  “There’s another gift under the bed.”  She got up and began to rewash herself.  “I won’t keep you in suspense this time.  It’s an outfit to wear on the yacht.  It’s got a captain’s hat and the socks, too.  Can’t wait to see you in it!”  She sounded so happy, but tears were streaming down.  She hated dealing in lies.  Lies.  That’s what destroyed her in her first marriage.  Panic was creeping over her.  She simply refused to put herself through anything of that sort again.  She had to protect herself at all costs.  Perhaps she would fake a bad fall.  Stuff like that happens sometimes.  She could say anything, and she would.  Anything but the truth.  And to soften the truth, she’d suggest adopting a baby.  But there was still plenty of time for that later.  Natalia had no intent to become tied down with a baby anytime soon.  Richard probably meant well with all his promises of support, but Natalia knew better than that.       

The morning was perfect for sailing.  Richard was gawking at the controls and caressing the interior like a child at Disneyworld.  They hoisted the anchor and were cruising and enjoying the currents in a matter of minutes.
“Ah, baby, this is just too much.  I never expected…. never imagined…”
“I love it.  You are totally caught by surprise!”
“To say the least.”  Richard extended his arm beckoning his new wife to join his side.  Natalia lowered herself from the railing and wrapped both arms around his waist, his broad chest and shoulders towering over her and engulfing her small frame.  They sailed until Richard suggested they lower the anchor and enjoy the ocean air and scenery.
“This yacht has everything.  There is absolutely no need to return to shore.  The fridge is fully stocked.  Great selection of wine.  Even right down to the first aid kit.  When did you have time to do all this?”
 “As much as this yacht cost, you better believe that the salesman stocked it.  All I had to do was put a few articles of clothing in the closets for us.  They even came with a set of towels for showering.  Uh, and did I tell you there’s a washer and dryer below deck.  Flat panel HDTV…. Nothing but the best for my hubby.”
“Baby, I have to ask.  How much this set you back?”
“This is my gift to you.  Don’t ruin it talking about how much stuff cost.”
“Ok, so you gonna make me google, huh?”
“I’m gonna find out.  You should just save the trouble and tell me.”
“Well, actually I got a great deal on this because one of my former pilots from the airline I worked for has a family business.   And remember when I started shaving money from the wedding budget?  I’d decided that this would be the gift I wanted for you and was rearranging my pennies.  So, there was actually no huge monetary loss.”
“Baby, look at me.”  Richard gently lifted her head so that his eyes met hers.  “This is the best gift that I’ve ever received.  There aren’t words to express my gratitude.”  They shared a passionate kiss, so much so that Natalia was lightheaded like she had never been before.
“Yeah, you keep thanking me like that and –“
“-and we’ll be returning to the states with more than a new puppy to look forward to raising.  I know we had breakfast, but I want some of that fruit that I spotted in the fridge.”  With that, Richard retreated below deck, leading his wife by the hand.
“I think I’m gonna change into my bikini.  I’ll meet you back up on deck.” 
“Ah, yeah.  Do that.”
With that, Natalia was en route to the opposite end of the yacht where the sleeping quarters were.  She pushed play on the sound system.  Smooth old school R&B filled the hollowness of the yacht, masking the sound of the waves from the ocean.  Separated from the kitchenette by the lounge area, she shut herself in the lavatory and let out a scream.  Richard was already getting on her nerves with his implications of impregnating her.  And she noticed how he had begun calling her “baby” all of a sudden, too.  What is supposed to be a wonderful start to a life of love was vastly becoming more of a test of her patience, and she was now hoping for a timely return to the states.  Getting back to the responsibilities of life would definitely put this issue on the backburner.  Natalia was sure of it.  After touching up her makeup, she slipped out of the lavatory and went to the dresser to retrieve her bikini.  It was a skimpy two piece with thong bottoms that was embellished with an anchor in the center of the brassiere and chain links on the hips of the bottoms, perfect for the occasion.  Once dressed, Natalia studied herself in the mirror to make certain that the bikini complemented the features she wanted to accentuate.
“Oh, my God.  Girl, we ain’t never leavin’.”
Natalia was startled a little, but kind of expected he’d check on her before returning to the deck.
“You like?”
Like? Whew, turn around for me, baby.” 
Natalia pivoted and sashayed, then shook her rump in her hubby’s direction, the whole time counting how often he was using that word.  Richard ogled her with a smile.
“Now don’t get too excited.  I’ve got a show for you tonight.”
“A show. This must be heaven.”
Natalia couldn’t wait to try the routine she’d been practicing on her husband.  These are the extras that he didn’t get a taste of while they were dating.  Had to have a bag of tricks to keep the marriage interesting.   But this is the honeymoon after all, and the perfect setting for unforgettable lovemaking.  If only Richard would stop hinting all over the place about having a child.  The more he hints the more anxiety he’s creating.  Natalia was perfect at pretending not to be bothered, but inside she was cringing.
They both returned to the deck, hand in hand, Richard carrying the tray of fruit and cheese.  Natalia noticed that he must’ve ran upstairs before coming to check with her because there were two champagne glasses and a bottle on ice.
“Kinda early for champagne, Mr. Lindhardt.  You trying to get me tipsy and take advantage of me?”  Natalia looked at Richard with a naughty girl smile as he sat the tray down and began to pop the bottle of champagne.  She could tell he was turned on, so she gave him even more visual stimulation.  After having poured her a glass, she sashayed over to the lounge, her short honey-coated frame seeming elongated as she stretched her body and propped up on her elbows, tilting her head back so that the wind caught her hair just right.  She looked at Richard who had her undivided attention and erotically sipped champagne before inviting him over to share by pouring it over her body.  Richard was receptive to her insinuation and didn’t miss a beat joining her, first tasting the champagne from her lips before moving to the pit of her neck.  Natalia gave a whimper and whispered her approval and encouragement, commanding him to move further.  He raised his head and looked at her.  She bit her lip and reached to untie her brassiere, exposing her breasts.  Richard moaned with excitement at seeing her naked flesh, as if they’d not just made love in the shower only moments ago.  He followed her lead and cupped her breast with one hand while ravishing the other.  Natalia purred with pleasure, continually rewarding him with her sighs and moans of approval.  She removed his hand from her breast and guided it toward her valley below, moist from the champagne.  He snatched down her thong.  She helped him remove it by kicking it off with her heel.  He massaged and she thought she would lose her mind, his strong hands kneading her warm, moist flesh.
“Oh, Richard, that feels so good.  Don’t stop.”
With that, Richard lifted his now fully unclothed bride from the lounge chair and carried her to the mat at the front of the deck.  He didn’t care who might be watching.  He was going to make love to his new wife right there, in the middle of the ocean.  He eased her ever so gently on the mat and positioned himself beside her, tracing her body with his fingertips, her face cupped in his right hand.  She began to undress him, first removing his shirt. Then she unbuckled his pants and saw his masculinity swelled, erect.  She needed him to lift himself so that she could slide his pants down, but he refused to move.  He was teasing her, making her wait. 
“Come on, I want you now.  Don’t tease me like this.”
Richard had a smirk on his face.  Natalia realized that he had taken the upper hand.  She was now the one anxious with anticipation.  Richard rolled her over and in one graceful move had managed to remove his pants and hover over her, nude.  She peered down at his erection, now fully visible.  What a man.  Her man.  All hers alone, forever.  She reached to feel his hardened flesh and guided it to where she wanted him to be, the champagne beginning to cause their flesh to gel together.  He obeyed and entered her, letting out a whimper at her warmth as he penetrated deeper and deeper.  Natalia arched her back and began to grind with him, driving him to sink deeper and deeper with each thrust.  She reciprocated by contracting and tuning her body to the rhythm he was setting.  He began to moan louder and whisper his passions in her ear.  She caught his earlobe and gently sucked, then slid her hands to the small of his back, pushing , encouraging him to give her his all.  Then she forced him on his back and mounted him.  Richard was enjoying every moment.  He readjusted himself comfortably as Natalia began her dance, slow at first then gradually gaining momentum.  He gripped her thighs and forced her down in rhythm.  She called out, no longer in moans and whispers, but cries of pleasure that filled the air in tune with the music.  Richard could no longer suppress his euphoria as ecstasy began to course through his veins, seemingly flowing through him and into his bride.  He cried out.  His cries blended with Natalia’s as they increased the pace.  He looked at her as she dominated him.  Up and down, faster and faster until their rhythm no longer made sense.  They were two lovers wild with passion and excitement.  Natalia’s body shifted in such a way that found that spot where Richard could no longer contain himself.  A grunt escaped his lips that let her know his pleasure had reached its pinnacle.  She began to peak, but couldn’t arrive in time with him.  He had ejaculated, but she continued, determined to release the desire that had taken over her body, her senses, her being.  She increased her rhythm and he cried out from the extended sensations, wanting her to be pleased but not sure if he could stand it.  He tried to lift himself, but she forced him back down and became like a mad woman grinding and riding atop his flesh, wet with perspiration.  Over and over she bounced and contracted until finally the tingle that was soon followed with an eruption of rapture was coursing through her body.  She collapsed over his body.  He held her firmly, panting.  She sucked the salt and perspiration from the pit of his neck and trailed her tongue up to the crevice just behind his ear before sucking his earlobe.  He stroked her backside and pledged his undying love to her.  And there they lay, limp and naked in each other’s arms before drifting off to sleep in the middle of the ocean.

“This is the single most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed.”  Natalia was awestricken by the view of the sunset from the ocean.  “This is even more breathtaking than watching from the aircraft.”  The two of them had awakened and clothed themselves.  They were en route to return to shore for the evening festivities. 
“Yeah, this is a moment I’ll never forget.  Something we can share with our children and grandchildren.”
Damn, he sure knows how to ruin a moment was what Natalia was thinking.  But her hope rested in their return to the states.  That would put some other things on his mind.  But for the moment, they cooed and caressed each other, enjoying the romantic ambience that nature had provided for them.
Once they reached shore they were showered and changed to partake of the evening festivities.  Natalia had on a flattering white bodice with a long white print sarong and gladiator sandals.  Her petite 5’4 frame gave an alluring silhouette, her hair pinned up and back loosely with tendrils that cascaded gently caressing her shoulders and framed her face.  There were tiny beaded accents throughout her mane of curls.  She wore minimal cosmetics, only a little tinted moisturizer, lip gloss and shimmering powder to enhance the natural glow of her honey-coated complexion.  Richard’s rich, milk chocolate skin appeared powerful against his fitted white spandex mock neck short sleeved shirt that boasted his abs and musculature.  He had on matching white trouser shorts that showed off his toned bottom.  He completed his look with a white belt and straw colored sandals.  They were the ideal couple, like models from a magazine, and the picture of health, happiness and prosperity.  They walked hand in hand toward the grove close to where the boat was docked, Richard’s 6’5 frame towering over Natalia.  Once there, they noticed that there were quite a few other couples who seemed to be just now arriving.  They grabbed a quaint little candlelit table near the center.  The grove was intimately decorated with subtle lighting from paper lanterns.  There was a fire pit in the center with islanders tending the roasting while the entertainment encircled and danced about.  Once Natalia was seated, Richard continued to the bar to get drinks.
“’Cuse me, ma’am.  I don’t mean to be rude, but have you ever been on one of them reality shows or somethin’?”  Some thin man with a mouth full of gold teeth and dark glasses on at this time of night had taken an opportunity to ask a question while Richard had his back turned en route to the bar.
“No, no I haven’t.”  Natalia didn’t even completely turn around to get a good look at the man. 
“Sorry, just thought I’d seen you on one of them shows with my girl.”  With that statement, curiosity got the best of Natalia and she coolly spun around to come face to face with his date who was in fact a reality television star.  Natalia recognized her from the commercials because she didn’t watch reality television.
“Oh, aren’t you… Pandora, is it?”
“Yeah, yeah.  That’s me.”  Natalia gathered from her dialect that she was in fact as ghetto fabulous as she appeared on the show, so she cut it short. 
“You look much prettier in person.  Good to meet you.”
“Yo, is that your dude that just went to the bar?  Girl, he fine for real.  Where you find him at?”
Natalia was a little uncomfortable and didn’t want to carry on a conversation.  She didn’t want to be rude either.  “We go way back, been together a while.”
“That’s like me and Amaretto too girl.  I know it look like I was datin’ other dudes and stuff on the show, but that’s just show biz.  Girl, folks think that stuff for real.  Them hookers back home was callin’ my man like,’dude, I know you and Pandora done broke up ‘cause she on the show all up under Spade’ and this one and that one.  But my baby know that shit aint for real.  That’s why he held it down for me til I finished makin’ that money and now we here.”
“Um-hmm.  Well, it was nice chatting with you, but-“
“And girl, this place ain’t even all that.  Shoot, we ain’t comin’ back here no mo’.  All that money – cause this cost us a grip- and they go’n tell us we can’t have our cell phones and comin’ to our room talkin’ bout the music too loud.  Hell, how it go’n be too loud when it feel like we on the durn island by ourselves.”
“How long have the two of you been here?”
“Since Friday, but we go’n go on and leave in the mornin’ cause I can’t take too much mo’ of this.  We coulda went to Freak Nik or somethin’ if this all this place ‘bout.  Hell, we coulda had mo’ fun startin’ our own block party!  Ain’t that right, baby?”  Pandora and Amaretto high-fived.  Pandora was getting louder.  “Cause you know how we do it.  We do it big, don’t it, baby!”
Natalia stood and continued smiling so as not to offend.  “I’m gonna go to the little girls’ room.  It was nice talking to you-“
“Ooo, let me go wit’ you cause I gotta use it, too.” Pandora took her makeup bag from her purse then swung it in Amaretto’s lap.  “Watch my purse, Ret, til I get back.”
 Pandora was up and strolling alongside Natalia before she could dissuade her.  In one smooth motion, Pandora had locked arms with her and was guiding her towards an area adjacent to the bar.  Natalia could see that Richard was there waiting for the drinks.  “Girl, the bathroom over here.”  As the distance between them and their tables increased, Pandora lowered her tone.  “Whew, you don’t know how I’ve been wantin’ to get away from that fool.  Ooo, he get on my nerves so bad.  Now, what kinda fool would stick around after seein’ all that shit that went down on tv?  Hell, I wanted Spade ass for real.  I mean, you saw how we was datin’ and I was all over him and shit and he was all up against me.  Girl, afterwhile you forget them cameras even there and, shit, it wasn’t nothin’ for us to be kissin’ and… you saw that part where I was all over his…”
“No, no I didn’t.  I don’t watch the show.”  They were in the restroom.  Pandora started finagling with her hair and clothing, looking in the mirror.  Natalia occupied one of the stalls.
“Well, I woulda dumped Ret ass for real, but Spade had a girl back home too and he was like, he can’t drop dat chick cause she just had his baby and would hit ‘em up for all kinds of crazy child support if he leave.  But jus’ between me and you – and don’t be leakin’ this out to the tabloids or whatever- we still plannin’ on meetin’ up and gettin’ our shit on, you know.  If his ass was available, hell, I’d drop Ret ass wit’ the quickness.  I jus’ stay wit’ ‘em cause he been wit’ me the longest and we don’ went through a lotta shit so I know he ain’t jus’ wit’ me ‘cause of the loot, ya know what I’m sayin’.”
Natalia exited the stall and was washing her hands.  “Girl, I feel you,” she uttered, speaking on a level she felt Pandora was comfortable with.  Pandora took that as a personal sentiment.  She cocked her head to the side and smiled at Natalia’s reflection in the mirror, gold and diamond encrusted tooth gleaming.
“You see, that’s why I knew I’d like you.  Real talk.  You real people, girl.  I like you.  And know what?  You cute enough to be on reality tv, too.  I mean, you ain’t go’n make as much as me of course til you get a few tapin’s or whatever done and if you test well- girl, that’s what they call it when they want to know if folks will watch you on the show and stuff.  But… you can give me yo’ number and I’ll put in a good word for you wit’ the studio and maybe you could take my place one day cause I can’t be doin’ reality tv forever, real talk.  I got plans.  I wanna be in one of them T.D. Jakes movies ‘cause I know by him being a bishop and all he ain’t gonna screw me outta my money.  ‘Cause, girl, don’t you know them folks tried not to pay me all my money.  I thought I was go’n have to straight call up da hood on they ass ‘cause I don’t play ‘bout my money…”
Pandora continued talking nonstop.  She had a skin tone that reminded Natalia of coffee beans and stood a little taller than Natalia, about 5’9.  She was ghetto fabulous personified with tattoos on her fingers, arms, neck and wrist- and those were the ones that were visible.  Her hair looked overly weaved, if that were possible and she was wearing too much jewelry, and it was big.  She had on some skinny jeans and a baby doll tee with stiletto mid-calf boots, kind of not what one would consider a first choice on this sandy grove.  Her makeup was heavily applied for this time of night.  She seemed to be not much older than 21, if that old.  Natalia giggled to herself at how Pandora had commented that Natalia wouldn’t make as much money as her.   She wished her best friend Miranda could’ve been here to witness this.  They would have a good time laughing it up talking about it back in the room.  But as entertaining as Pandora has been, Natalia was planning her escape.
“…and that’s why I need my dag gon’ phone ‘cause I don’t want him to think I’m iggin’ him or nothin’ like that.  Girl, you just don’t know.  I luv dat man.  But, I guess it is what it is.”
“Pandora, I really have enjoyed chatting with you.  But, you know how men can be.  I’ve just got to get back to my hubby.”
“Oh, you a newlywed! Ahhh, that’s so cute. Y’all doin’ the whole honeymoon thang.  Awww!  Congratulations!”  Pandora was hugging Natalia .  Natalia gave her a couple of superficial pats and put some distance between them. 
“Careful, I don’t want to get make up on all of this white, at least not this early in the evening.”
“Ooo, yeah.  Girl, you know what …I could hook you up with some fashion consultants too that could help you do somethin’ wit’ yo wardrobe, too.  And tighten up that weave, ‘cause I know how it is     when -“
“Pandora!  I have to go, sweetie.”  Natalia was losing patience.  She clearly startled Pandora who kind of jumped back and batted her eyes in astonishment.
“Well, dag, you ain’t have to yell and all dat.  I heard you.  You gotta go, dag.  Well, look I can’t give you my number ‘cause I don’t be givin’ my number all out like dat.  I mean, no offense I think you cool and all, but I don’t know what might happen, you know.  And the next thing you know all kinds of folks callin’ my phone ‘cause you let them use your phone or whatever and they got my number.  So, you just give me yo’ number, okay.  And I’ll remember to call you when I get some info for the next season or whatever because, just between me and you, they talkin’ ‘bout droppin’ Baby Girl ‘cause don’t nobody really like her, but you ain’t heard that from me.”  Pandora gave Natalia an elbow and a wink like they were somehow besties and she had all the inside info to share.  She tore off a paper towel and took out a lipstick.  “Damn, this my Chanel.  Oh, well.  Mo’ where that came from.”  She gave the items to Natalia as if to imply that she use the lipstick to write her number on the paper towel.    With some degree of hesitation, Natalia took the items while simultaneously trying to think of a way to avoid sharing contact information.  She wrote down some numbers.
“Now, this number may go straight to voicemail, but leave a message and I’ll call you back.”  Natalia handed her the paper towel and lipstick.  She lied so coolly that she was even impressed with herself.
“K.”  Pandora was looking over the number, trying to make sure it was legible. “What’s yo name again?”
“Natalia…” Pandora spelled out Natalia’s name on the paper towel, rehearsing the phonetics. “N-E-T-A-L-Y-A.”  She looked over the paper towel again as if checking over a test before handing it to the teacher, then folded it up and placed it in her cosmetic bag along with her Chanel lipstick.
“K, look.  I can try to get you in or whatever, but you gotta loosen up, for real.  You seem kinda sudditty.  You know,kinda bougie.  Now once they get you some fashion consultants they’ll get you some real gear and get you outta them generic clothes, but I think you got potential, real talk.”  Pandora was nodding her head as if Natalia had genuinely met her approval.
“Thank you, Pandora.  It’s been a pleasure.”  This time Natalia was walking AND talking instead of trying to end the conversation the right way.
“Ok, girl.  See you.”  Natalia had already exited the restroom and caught a glimpse of Richard about to leave the bar with a tray.  She rushed over behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Where’d you go?  I was almost worried when I didn’t see you sitting at our table.”
“You would not believe! Trust me.  I was held hostage by a ghetto diva.  Let’s just stay on this side of the bar.  What’d you get us?”
Richard returned the tray to the bar.  “I ordered you a painkiller.  Got myself a JD on the rocks.  And we got some buffalo wings to gnaw on.  That’s with your blue cheese dressing, of course.”
Natalia grabbed a wing and dipped it in the dressing.  “You remember that commercial that comes on advertising this reality show where one girl says to the other  ‘you’re aggravating me,’ and the other girl responds ‘advertising you.  What you talkin’ ‘bout?  I ain’t even tryin’ to ‘advertise’ you.’”   Richard and Natalia laughed in unison at Natalia’s impersonation of a ghetto diva. 
“Oh, yeah. Yeah.  The one that usually comes on during the basketball games.  What’s it called? Platinum Bodies?”
“Nah, I think it’s like ‘Ghetto Diva Bling’ or something like that.”
“Yep.  That’s it.  Where the girls fight over dude who left both of them or something.”
“Exactly.  Well, guess who that is over there.”Natalia used her chicken wing and casually pointed out Pandora and Amaretto who were on the other side of the bon fire.  Richard was squinting but trying not to noticeably stare. 
“Oh, that’s… what’s her name…?” They chimed in unison, “Pandora.”  Wow, what are the odds of running into her here?  What was that like?”
“A mess, please believe me.  She talks without breathing.  I swear her sentences were devoid of punctuation- no commas, no periods…just one long train of words one after the other.”  Natalia chuckled.  “You ordered the perfect drink for me after listening to that broad… a painkiller.”  They shared another laugh and continued their drinks and appetizers. Richard removed Natalia’s drink from her hand and sat it on the bar.  “Dance with me.” With that he whisked her closer to the fire and they began a slow sway, her hands wrapped about his neck.  His clasped around her tiny waist. 
Staring deeply into her eyes, he pressed her body closely against his firm body.  “Thank you for today.”  Natalia closed her eyes and smiled, laying her head on his chest.  “You were equally as responsible for those moments of paradise.”   She removed one arm from around his neck and traced his pecs before lifting her head to meet his lips.  Their moment of intimacy was abruptly interrupted.
“Ooo, I can tell y’all newlyweds.  That’s so cute.”  Natalia and Richard swung around to come face to face with Pandora and her man.
“Oh, hon this is the lovely young lady I was telling you about that I met while you were getting the drinks.  Richard, this is Pandora and her boyfriend Amaretto.  Pandora, Amaretto – my hubby Richard.”
“Yo, what’s good, dude.”  Amaretto reached over and extended a fist to Richard who freed a hand to return the gesture.  “Nothin’ to it, man.  You got it,” Richard responded.
“Yo, I was tellin’ yo wifey ‘bout how fine you are,” Pandora interrupted.  “You remind me of my ol’ dude I got wit’ before me and Ret hooked up time before last.  Shit, but he wasn’t quite as fine as you.  You doin’ the damn thang, aint it?”
Natalia was taken aback.  No this ghetto-cheap tramp heifer wasn’t trying to push up on her hubby right in front of her and her man.  Pandora was rubbing her stomach in such a way that her baby doll tee was rising up to expose that she wasn’t wearing a bra.  Must’ve bought herself some breast with some of that money.
“Careful Pandora.  I am a jealous woman.”
“But you know what tho’, it ain’t even gotta be all like that.  Ret understand, don’t it, baby?  We can all be friends, know what I’m sayin’?”
“Absolutely not.  Good bye, Pandora.”
“Well, like I told you, you gotta loosen up to get on the show.  So, I don’t think you’ll be right cause you gots to learn to be more flexible.  But I’ll keep yo number just in case they need like a alternate or somethin’.  No hard feelin’s, you know.  It’s just the bizness.”  With that Pandora and Amaretto retreated to the opposite direction.
“You know what, I’m glad they left quietly cause I thought I was going to have to jack that brother.  I know his eyes were probably all over you behind them dark shades.  Hell, who still wears shades at night anyway?”
“Can you believe the nerve of that girl?  You know what, even if we did get down like that they couldn’t be too safe scouting all out and in public like that.”
“Let’s not waste much more of our night on that.  Where were we?”  With that, they were wrapped up in each other’s arms once more and were lost in the moment together.
“With the exception of that minor encounter, it’s going to be hard to leave this place.  I have you all to myself.  Once we get back to the states it’ll be the hustle and bustle of the workplace and that never ending career ladder you’ll resume conquering.  I’ll have to get back to meetings and reports and the ‘infrequent’ frequent travel.  We’re going to really have to rely on what the therapist has suggested to make sure that nothing – not the work, the stress, the day to day hum drum- nothing begins to form that wedgie that he liked to talk about (they giggled together) between what we have and feel for each other at this very moment.”
That was music to Natalia’s ears.  She actually would have stopped him earlier from bringing up work on the honeymoon, which was a definite no-no per the therapist.  But with all his insinuations about having a baby, and against their predetermined timeline, she decided she’d hear him out and let him paint a picture of what their lives would be like with such demanding careers and crazy schedules.  Adding a child to that equation would only further complicate things.  But she didn’t mention that.
“I totally agree.  But let’s not continue to mention the work that we both know is waiting for us back in the states.  We have another 9 days. Mmmm… and 8 yummy nights… to focus on setting the stage for the remainder of our lives.  I love you, Richard.  More than just from my heart.  I love you from a place in my soul.”
“Yes, as I do you.  I know we can make it work, together.  So let’s promise each other –“
“Richard, we’ve no need to make anymore promises.  We’ve taken our time and have made the commitment to share our lives together as one.”  With that Natalia slid her hand up her husband’s shoulder and gently glided it up to cup the base of his head.  She stood on her tippy toes and placed gentle kisses upon his lips.  Not another word was spoken.  They danced enveloped in each other’s arms underneath a blanket of stars as if they were the only two there.  And each night was the epitome of raw, unbridled passion manifested.  Each day they created new memories.  And so it was every day like this, 9 days and 8 nights.

One year later

“Richard!  The dog!”
“No way, I took him out yesterday!  Your turn!”
“I can’t, Richard!  I’m already gonna be late as it is.  And I haven’t prepped for my presentation that is first thing this morning.  Please!  I’ll make it up some other time.”
Without another word, Richard went to the mudroom where Yoshi’s crate was kept.  Before even taking two paces inside he knew they wasted too much time.
“Ugh, Talia, babe… he’s already used it.  Cleaning this up will make me later than I can be and I have the longest commute.  Nope, babe you’re gonna have to take care of this.  I’ll let him out so he can eat, but you got crate duty.”
Natalia came running through the kitchen and slid into the mud room, donned in her stockings, house socks, skirt and camisole, half her rollers still in her hair. 
 Richard stood up and spun around.  He glanced at Natalia and laughed before grabbing his brief case and making way for the back door.  As he slid past her he gave her a peck on the cheek.   He looked at the dog, then back at Natalia before laughing again. 
“Probably should stop feeding him that gourmet stuff and just do the dry dog food.”  Richard continued to laugh.  The back door slammed and she heard the garage door elevating.  Natalia just stood there disgusted that her snow white lhaso apso’s underbelly was covered with brown poop and urine.  Happy to see his owner, he ran and jumped up on Natalia, ruining her pantyhose and just about to saturate her skirt with puppy poo and urine. 
“Ooo, you!”  Natalia reached for the leash and fastened it to his collar before affixing the leash to the door knob.  She slid the doggie bowls closer so Yoshi could eat from where he was.  “Aww, my floor!”  Life would be so much easier if Richard would just agree to get a part time maid for the mornings and evenings.  But he was right.  The only thing she really wanted the maid to do was watch after the dog.  She didn’t like the idea of someone else laundering her clothes because of how expensive they were.  She didn’t want someone else using her kitchen more than she.  Neither of them were that bothered by the bed being made or not.  There was the dusting that would be a big help if someone else did it.  And of course bathroom cleanings.  And the hardwood floors.  But basically the maid would only be a nanny for the dog.  Richard was such a miser.  The single deciding factor against the maid was honestly that neither of them trusted another individual to have that kind of access to their home.
She made a dash for her boudoir and retrieved another pair of pantyhose from her dresser.  Then she noticed the dog poop on her skirt and made another mad dash to the closet and snatched another skirt from the hanger.  After what seemed a “wonder woman” spin she had changed and was yanking rollers from her hair.  She grabbed a pair of shoes, her purse, keys, coffee and briefcase and made a bee line for the back door.  Yoshi would have to make due until she returned because she was already going to be 10 mins late for her 8:45 am presentation. 
“Dogs, gotta love ‘em.”
As could be expected, the commute was that much slower.  Seems like all of Schaumberg was 10 mins late.  She parked her car in her designated parking space, double clicked her remote keyless entry and was seconds away from entering the Chatham and Associates building. Natalia sped past the doorman and into the foyer.
“Morning, Mrs. Lindhardt!” 
“Thank you, Omar!”
Next was the receptionist on the main floor.  “Good morning, Mrs. Lindhardt.”
“Hey there, Ginger!”  Natalia grabbed a donut from the dozen that Ginger had on the ledge, stuffed a piece in her mouth and skipped toward the elevators just in time to catch one going up.  She slid in not a moment too soon.  Guy knew to push 12th floor. 
“Running late again, Natalia,” Guy teased.  He had been the elevator operator the entire 7 yrs she had worked for The Helping Professionals Enterprises.  He was an elderly gentleman that reminded Natalia of a grandfather.  “Did that puppy get you again?”
“What else?  Seven years of timeliness going down the drain at the fault of one little snow white lhaso apso puppy that my new hubby thought would be such a cute wedding gift.  Ugh!”
“You’re just gonna have to get up earlier and tend to that pup.  Ain’t no other way around it.”
“Guy, if I get up any earlier it’ll still be daylight in China.”  They arrived at the 12th floor and Guy extended an arm to motion that they exit the elevator.  “Have a good day, Natalia.”
“You too, Guy!”  Natalia whizzed through the 12th floor lobby and entered the double doors to her office suite.  She buzzed by the receptionist.  “Any messages, Tulip?”  Tulip had been her only receptionist.  And for the seven years that they’ve worked together, Natalia had been promising herself to get to know Tulip a little better.  She was pretty, but always quiet and kept herself isolated.  Her work was without question, though.  Natalia had the utmost confidence in her.
“Yes ma’am.  Your 8:45 a.m. has been rescheduled for Thursday at 9:30.  The 9:30 has been bumped down to 10:30 and that leaves you having to either work through lunch or –“
Natalia stopped in her tracks and spun around.  “8:45 cancelled?”
“Yeah, Brett called and said he was going to be too late and to just reschedule.”  Natalia threw her head back and started to chuckle.  “What time is my latest appt scheduled for on Thursday?”
“1:30 with Sasha and Turley.” 
“Then I’ll plan to leave immediately after that, so cancel whatever and keep that open.”
“Oh, Natalia.  You asked me to remind you of Miranda’s television debut at 11 a.m.  Channel 38.” 
“Thanks, Tulip.  Again please, at about 10:45.”
Natalia entered her office and plopped down on her sofa.  She reached in her purse and pulled out her high heeled leather pumps, then took off her ballerina flats and placed them inside.  After hanging up her jacket, she slipped on her pumps and gave herself a once-over in the mirror, tousling her hair to fluff it up a bit, since it couldn’t get any more out of place.  She smoothed her hands over her waist before walking over to her chair.  The time was now 8:55.  Quite by surprise, Tulip showed up at her door with a huge cute stuffed doggie and a box containing a long-stemmed rose. 
“For you,” she quietly whispered as she handed the items to Natalia, who had the biggest, brightest smile on her face.  “No wondering who sent them.”
“Thanks, and could you pull the door up a bit, please.”  Natalia extracted the card from underneath the ribbon.  It read:  Yoshi’s sorry, with a cute little smiley face drawn.  Her first instincts were to call and thank Richard, but she knew he was in a meeting also.  She placed the card over her chest and spun around in her chair.  “Mmm, isn’t married life wonderful!”  Thoughtful little things like this are what kept Natalia feeling like she had finally gotten it right… and in love.  She sniffed her rose and placed it in the bud vase from the last rose Richard had delivered not long ago, sitting both it and the doggie on a table for her occasional viewing pleasure.  With that, her workday began.

Richard backed out of the driveway still laughing at the way the morning had begun.  In all honesty, he had more than enough time to clean up the mess and feed the puppy.  But he just didn’t want to do it any more than she did.  Once he got on the highway, he phoned ahead to his secretary and told her to have something nice delivered to Natalia’s office, something with a stuffed animal – a stuffed dog.
“…Yeah, and put something on the card like ‘Yoshi’s sorry.’  Yeah, put that.  Okay.  Thank you,Pasha.  I’ll be there a little before 10.  If anybody calls, just take a message.  Alright.”  
Richard disconnected the call from his Bluetooth.  Knowing Natalia had crate duty also gave him more than enough of a lead to avoid any incidental run-ins.  She had suggested that they carpool after they realized that they were trailing each other for a good part of the way.  And really, that made all the sense in the world.  Richard had the longest commute, but it wouldn’t have been nothing to make that exit and those couple of turns to drop her off in front of her building.  But Richard just felt that was too much time being spent with her.  True enough, they were still newlyweds, and still very much in love.  But Richard had already invested a lot of time and energy –and money- into relieving her insecurities, and he was afraid he would start getting tired of her.  I mean, it was bad enough making them talk to a therapist and all that going to church, which wouldn’t have been so necessary had she not been afraid and messed up from that first marriage.  But he had to draw the line somewhere.  He just had to keep some space for himself somewhere, or he would lose his own identity trying to console her and ease her anxieties.  Plus, he knew that once she got pregnant she wouldn’t be so insecure anymore.  She’d be preoccupied with the baby to take care of and wouldn’t depend on him so much to make her feel wanted and loved.  Not that he would slack up on his commitments.  But he could only do so much.  Why was it taking so long anyway for her to get pregnant?  Richard knew she had this 5 yr plan or whatever, but he also knew she wasn’t taking any birth control either.  What’s more, she was taking vitamins that were supposed to increase risk of pregnancy with that folic acid.  And he had been letting loose in her every time, never held back.  So why wasn’t she pregnant yet?  He made a mental note to bring it up at dinner.
Within minutes he was out of traffic and entering his favorite spot to get a massage.  The parking was private.  The rooms were private.  Everything was just such that you could hideaway and not have too much worry about anyone knowing where you’ve been. 
“Welcome, Mr. Lindhardt.  Your room is waiting for you.”
“Good morning, Elle.  You look beautiful.” 
Elle dropped her head blushing as Richard strolled on past her to his usual room.  Usually she escorts clients to the back and shows them to their rooms, but Richard was a faithful VIP customer.  He’d been coming there so long that he was beyond familiar with how things work. 
Richard opened the door to room 28 and began to unfasten his necktie.  Before he could even close the door Dachanel came up and whizzed past from behind him. 
“Pardon, sir.”  Dachanel was tall with an athletic build.  She seemed to be Black, Asian and Native American.  Today she was wearing her Asian bob wig, along with a silk leopard print robe that stopped about midcalf. 
And how are you this morning?”  Richard spoke sarcastically, as if to imply that she didn’t greet him to his satisfaction.
“Doesn’t matter how you are now.  What matters is how you’ll be when I’m done.”  Dachanel shut the door and assisted Richard with removing his tie, then his shirt.
“Now look, don’t be snatching the buttons off my shirts like you’ve been doing.  My secretary having a hard time sewing them things back on.”
Dachanel seemed to unfasten Richard’s belt and pants in one smooth motion. 
“How do you do that?” Richard always exclaimed, fascinated each time. 
Dachanel looked down and then up at Richard with a grin.  “Glad to see me, huh.”  She shoved Richard onto the masseuse chair and made her way to his excitement, doing what she knew he appreciated most.
“Ahhh, you have no idea.”  He let his head fall back and rested his hand on Dachanel’s head, setting the pace he wanted by gently pushing her head down and up again.  “Yeah, that’s it right there.  Definitely glad to see you.”


Natalia was in the kitchen putting the final touches on dinner when she heard Richard pulling into the garage.  The table had already been set.  There was smooth jazz blaring from the ipod docking station.  Rick Braun, Richard’s favorite.  Natalia grabbed the candle lighter and gave the dimmer a quarter turn to the left before lighting the candles she had placed on the table.  Richard unlocked the door and called out for her not taking notice of the ambience.
“Natalia!  You will never guess what-“
“I’m in here!” Natalia interrupted, calling out from the dining room.
 Richard placed his briefcase beside the door and removed his coat before making his way to the kitchen.
“The partners are reworking the comps for this year and-“Richard’s sentence was lost when his eyes focused on his wife scantily clad in a black negligee with matching wrap and high heels.  He then looked at the dinner table.  “Now, how are we supposed to get through dinner with you dressed like that?”  he playfully questioned as he made his way around the kitchen island to get his hands anywhere he could get them as long as they were on her body somewhere.   He began to kiss her neck.
“Ah, ah ah, Mr. Lindhardt.  Dinner before dessert.”  Richard looked into Natalia’s eyes with a sternness that let her know he wanted her.  Natalia kissed him on the lips, slow and sensually, before escorting him to his seat.  She massaged his shoulders and temples for a few seconds before pouring the wine and joining him.
“Tonight we have filet mignon with asparagus spears, baked potato, salad and French rolls.”  Natalia was gathering the dishes one by one and neatly arranging the food on Richard’s plate.
“How did you have time to do all this?”  It made no sense to him how she could get all this done unless she took off work early even with a shorter commute.
“I make time for what matters the most to me.  How was your day?”
“Better now.  The partners had some wonderful idea to cut back on comps in effort to try to shave off some costs.  So, now we’re having to justify our bonuses beyond what they consider a standard – get this- $500.”
Natalia got up from her seat and took a dinner napkin, smoothed it out and neatly tucked it over her hubby’s shirt.  She took another and seductively covered his lap.  He was being pampered and in pure bliss.
“Now, that shouldn’t be difficult for you love.  You do so much beyond the job description duties as it is.”
“Yeah, and they’d better recognize-“
Richard couldn’t concentrate because of how Natalia was bending and showing all that he loved of her body while she was cutting up his steak.  She fed him and completed his sentence.
“what a wonderful investment that they have in you because you are marketable, baby.  Many other companies would love to snatch you up, especially their competition.”
“This is true.  This is true.  Babe, this steak is the bomb.”
“No, you haven’t had ‘the bomb’ yet.  I’ve got a fondue pot and some fruit for dessert.  Just my way of saying ‘thank you’ for the thoughtful little things that you do to make my day brighter.”  Natalia placed the knife and fork on Richard’s plate so he could finish his meal while she prepared to eat.
“Miranda’s first taping aired today on channel 38.  She was phenomenal.  Well-spoken.  Articulate.  Knowledgeable.  I’m so proud of her.  And the show was both interesting and entertaining.  Had a nice spin to it.  She’s going to do well.  I know it.”
“That broad,… eventhough she’s back in my good graces, I just really don’t believe the sister is wrapped too tight with all that hoopla that she had to go through with that cat.  She found another man yet?”
“Randi isn’t looking for another man at this point.  She’s focusing on her career as she should be.  I think she’s lucky to have gotten out of that mess without it being more complicated than it already was.”
“Yeah, at least she didn’t have any kids or any-… by the way, are you taking some sort of birth control?”  Richard noticed a change in Natalia at the mention of kids, so he decided to try to play it off.  “Because looking over the project dates and agenda that the company has set forth for the coming year and into the next 3 years, it’d be kind of bad timing for us to get pregnant right now.”  He was giving Natalia a kind of sideways glance to check out her reaction while eating his dinner.
Natalia was relieved to hear him say those words, and hoped that she didn’t noticeably exhale a sigh of relief.  But hearing that he didn’t want kids for at least the next 3 – 4 yrs was definitely music to her ears.
“Well, babe I’m actually not on the pill or anything right now.  I’m, uh, using one of those inserts that you don’t have to think about each and every time you have sex.  So, now I know that I should probably take better precautions to keep us from having any surprises within the next few years.”
“Good thing you haven’t gotten pregnant already.  I mean, I’ve been lettin’ ‘em go and nothing’s happened yet…  Has it?”
“Of course not, silly.  If it were you’d be the first to know, right after the doctor and myself of course.”  Richard kept his eye on Natalia, trying to pick up on any hint of dishonesty.  It would be difficult to discern of course because Natalia didn’t want kids right now and Richard knew this. But she seemed to not be telling him the whole truth. 
“These women these days.  I swear, you never know what you’re gonna get.”  Richard was referring back to their conversation about Miranda.
“Uh, excuse me.  These ‘women.’  It was Isaih who screwed everything up, Richard.  It wasn’t Randi.”
“Yeah, but babe you can’t deny that the defense made a pretty good point in the case.  I mean, really, how could she be married to that cat and not know he was a little coo coo unless she had to be a little off herself.”
“Richard, you’re talking about my best friend.  Perhaps we should change the subject.  This is supposed to be a romantic evening and you’re killing the vibe here.”  Natalia was clearly unappreciative of his comments and lack of empathy. 
 “You’re absolutely right.  No need to waste time talking about that when your man has some real news to talk over with you.”  With an excited glow about his face, he placed his fork on the plate and adjusted his position.  “I ran into Councilman Ford this morning.  He happened to have brought up that job I did for him a couple years ago.  Remember?  The grant and contracting for that community development deal?”
“How could I forget?  I helped you with all the details.”
“Yeah, well…He invited me to lunch.  Said he had some ideas he wanted to kick around and was interested in my input.  We had lunch at Shrapnel’s. And-“
“My goodness, Richard.  Why do you eat at that place?  Nothing about the name sounds appetizing at all.”
“I know.  But the food is decent.  Could you just listen, please?”
“Go ahead, honey.”
“He expressed his gratitude for the project and commended me on how well put-together it was and executed in such a timely manner.”
“Richard, is this going somewhere?  My steak is getting cold,” Natalia teased Richard who loved to sing his own praises a little too often.
“Long story short.  He’s planning to move.  Got a better gig.  And thought none other than…….. Uh, Umm…. Drum roll, please…”  They simultaneously tapped their fingers on the table to mimic a drum, adding sound effects by rolling their tongues.  This went on a few seconds before Richard finally pantomimed the cymbal crash.  “yours truly should run for his position.  Now, what’cha think about that?!”
“City Councilman?  Richard Lindhardt?  I thought those were elected positions?  I mean, can he just appoint you to that position?”  Seemingly bewildered and reluctant to share her feelings, Natalia gave somewhat of a puzzled grimace without expressing her true sentiment.
“Oh, come on Talia.  You know how this stuff works.”  Picking up on his wife’s vibes, Richard deescalated.  “Yes, it’s an elected position, but of course Councilman Ford’s supporters were such fanatics of his that whomever he gives the bid to will undoubtedly get their votes.  This is something I was excited about.  I mean, this puts us on a whole other playing field, you know.  A whole new level.   I want your support, but seems like you don’t fancy the idea.  What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking… it’s really gonna be … I don’t know…. kind of….strange….being the wife of … COUNCILMAN RICHARD LINDHARDT!!!!”  Natalia leapt from her chair and into her hubby’s lap.
“Girl, you had me going there for a while.  Glad to know you’re in this with me, babe.  ‘Cause I’m going to need you to help with every aspect of the campaign.  You know I can’t do this without you.”
“You got it!  Whew! My man!”  With that Natalia reached for hers and Richard’s wine glasses.  “Glasses raised!  This is to you not only gaining momentum in the corporate world, but now preparing to rise into social and political forefronts!”
“Yeah, yeah yeah!”  They sipped wine simultaneously.  Richard put is glass down first.  Tomorrow Councilman Ford is supposed to email me all the forms and paperwork that I’ll need to complete.  He suggested that I begin making appearances more often so the voters can become familiar with my face.  Election day is over a year away, and he’s going to work til his term ends, but quite a few others have had their eye on that spot and will undoubtedly be vying for that seat as well.”
“I’m so proud of you, baby.  This is exactly what I expected of you, so much promise and ambition.  And having a child right now would only-“
“Having a child would make things fall into place perfectly where that’s concerned.  Think about it.  When a community looks for a leader to represent them, they want someone who they can identify with, someone with common values.  Having a family would paint the perfect picture of a family-oriented representative with the best interest of the community at heart.”
“This isn’t something you’re thinking of doing full time, is it?  Because, I’m confused.  One minute you’re talking about projected goals for Windham and Associates that will keep you tied up for the next 4 yrs.  Then you turn around after mentioning the bid for city councilman and start describing how a family would perfect that whole ideal candidate image.  What are your priorities, Richard?”
Glad to have kept Natalia off, Richard continued to be elusive so as to keep her guessing.  “The fact of the matter is that I do want us to begin our family, Talia.  Work will always be waiting.  And I can’t emphasize enough to you how very disheartening it is to think that my wife doesn’t love me or have enough faith in our commitment and what we have vowed to each other to want to have my child.”
“Richard, you know that is NOT the case!”  Richard had pushed all the right buttons with Natalia by the way he phrased that comment.  She was all about commitment and lasting devotion.  So to hear him speak against what he meant to her or how serious she regarded their love for each other was secondary only to blasphemy.
“Well, then it’s about time you tell me what exactly IS the case, Natalia.”  Richard had momentum going now and was picking this fight to perfection.  Truth is, he wasn’t much in the mood to make love to her as would be expected from this evening of romance.  And although he had real issues about Natalia’s hesitations, he had already had his fill of pleasure for the day, and didn’t like to be intimate with his wife after having been with another woman on the same day.  He spoke emphatically and rose from the table, pushing her off his lap.  “There is nothing most women want more than to get married and naturally have a kid.  Hell, that’s all some wives need to feel as though they’ve got their man pegged.  But you…you do just the opposite.  You talk all this game about not wanting to be hurt.  And how you want to make sure that I’m in this for the long haul.  Yet each and every time I say something about starting a family, you retreat.”  With that, Richard threw his hands up and made way to the bar in the adjoining room.  He poured himself a brandy.  Natalia stood watching him walk away, speechless, tears forming because she longed to tell her husband the truth.  She was aching inside, remembering that the therapist had warned her about keeping secrets and telling lies.  Uncertain about how much longer she could put the truth off.  Feeling cornered.  But then betrayal swelled up inside, remembering all they had discussed.  They had a 5 year plan.  He wasn’t supposed to mention starting a family for at least 5 years.  But he started at the honeymoon.  And honestly, that had left Natalia walking on eggshells every since.
“Richard, your degree of selfishness and lack of consideration is what’s putting me off.  Remember, dear heart?  We discussed this.  The conversation went something like, ‘let’s take our time and enjoy our lives together before starting a family.  Let’s take about 5 years to save and do all the things we would like to do without adding the responsibilities of parenthood to the equation.  And after we get that part out of our system, then we’ll start our family.’  So you see love, I haven’t sprung any surprises on you.  YOU are the one who is high-jacking this marriage.  YOU are the one who is placing his wants ahead of what we agreed upon.  I’ve been completely honest with you.  Seems you’re the one with the ulterior motive.”  Natalia gave him a look that could cut through steel.  She removed her heels and exited toward the bedroom.  “Good night, love.  And forgive me, but I’ve suddenly lost every ounce of desire I had for you for the evening.  The couch is waiting for you.”  Natalia slammed the bedroom door.
“I’ll be damned if I’m made to sleep on the couch in my own house!”  Richard hurled the liquor glass across the room, frustrated that Natalia had gotten the best of him.  He marched to the door, grabbed his coat and keys and was peeling out of the driveway as soon as the garage door was elevated.
Natalia sat on the side of the bed in tears.  She and Richard had just had their first real fight.  And he left.  He actually left the house.  Where in the hell could he possibly be going?  She thought about calling Miranda to talk things through.  But she didn’t want to put a damper on her day with such a sour note after having had such a successful airing earlier.  Besides, Randi as she affectionately called her was bound to still be at the viewing reception the network hosted in honor of her first televised broadcast.  Natalia chuckled to herself thinking that she would have opted to take Miranda up on her invite and attend if she had known the evening would’ve turned out like this.  She picked up her phone and called her next best girlfriend, who answered after only the second ring.
“You two come up for air, huh?”  Blythe always answered her calls as if the conversation had already begun.  Caller Id always gave away who was on the other line.
“The honeymoon is definitely over.  Has been for quite some time.”  Natalia sniffled, but felt better just having someone to console her.
“Oh, your first lovers’ quarrel!  How cute is that!  Imagine how much fun the makeup sex is gonna be!”  Natalia was giggling, feeling better already.  She had a bag of tricks for that too.
“This was definitely not part of the plan.  I had on my negligee that you gave me.”
“With the stilettos.”
“Ooo, la la!”
“Candlelit dinner.”
“Jazz and wine.”
“And the man starts talking about kids again.”
“Ooo, one romantic evening de-romanticized!”
“I told him to sleep on the couch.  He ends up storming out of the house.”
“Wow!  Major backfire!”
“It’s just so unfair.  It seems I’ve been dancing around this subject and trying to dodge it, walking on eggshells.  He just keeps coming.  I mean, like we never discussed what our intentions were beforehand.”
“That’s a man for you.  Always all about them.”  Blythe wasn’t your typical white girlfriend.  She stood about 5’8 with an olive complexion and dirty blonde hair.  She had a body that was petite and small framed, but curvy, more so than one would expect.  She spoke perfect English except when relaxed and chatting with her friends.  When she was surrounded by friends her speech and dialect was so much more relaxed that just listening to her would never give you a clue of her race.  Natalia always wondered why she never seemed to have a boyfriend at any given time for the 3 years she’s known her.  Then she always attributed it up to the fact that being an air traffic controller probably kept her from having a schedule that gave way to dating.  Still, there were lots of really attractive pilots and other airline personnel that she could’ve hooked up with.  In the end, Natalia assumed that Blythe had more going on than she was willing to share.
“It’s only been a year, Blythe.  And-“
“And it never feels good when there’s a disagreement.  But it isn’t the end of the world.  It just feels that way right now.  The two of you will make googley eyes at each other, have mad, passionate, buck wild makeup sex and continue with your happily ever afters.”
Natalia was now laughing aloud. 
“Oh, is that laughter I hear?  Well, well well.”
“Indeed it is, thanks to you.  Oh, did you happen to catch Randi’s debut televised broadcast?”
“Doesn’t that girl look great on tv!  I’m so jealous!  I was thinking about asking her if she needs something like an assistant or something so Vanilla Ice could spot me on tv and come lookin’ for me, girl!”
“You are too silly.  Of all the men, why Vanilla Ice?  Nobody’s heard from him in I don’t know how long.”
“We like what we like.  What else can I say?”
 Natalia heard the doorbell chime in the background.  “You’re expecting company this evening?”
“Yeah, my sister is supposed to roll through and pick up some stuff.  How are you feeling now?”  Blythe didn’t want to hang up unless she knew Natalia was feeling better.
“I think it’ll be fine.  There’s still a candlelit bath with rose petals waiting.  I’ll just have to enjoy it alone.  Say hi to Mache for me.”
“Call me tomorrow and let me know how things turned out, okay?”
“Good night.”
Natalia hung up with a smile on her face.  Nothing like friends to shine a light on an otherwise seemingly hopeless situation.  Her next thought was to maybe call Richard and invite him to return home so they could put this evening behind them and put things back in proper perspective.  The therapist had always cautioned against going to bed angry at each other.  “The next day would be waiting with negative energy, further weighing on the relationship,” he would say.  She grabbed one of the workbooks he’d assigned and retreated to the bathroom.  Deciding to keep the atmosphere soft and serene, she disrobed and poured the champagne that was chilling beside the tub to sip on while reading through the workbook.  After what seemed about an hour, she clothed herself and lay down in bed to await Richard’s return, her final thoughts resting on how she would make this evening up to him. She peacefully drifted off to sleep.

“I might as well break her from that mess now,” Richard thought to himself as he sped away from the house.  “I will never sleep on the couch in a house that I pay the mortgage on.  Never.”  Richard was a little angry, but not nearly as furious as he had pretended to be.  He had done things Natalia’s way for all that time before they were married.  But there were some things that he simply was going to have his way that she needed to be clear about right now.  And sleeping on the couch was a no-no in his book.  If she starts throwing tantrums, she should be clear about the possible consequences.  He turned some corners and was contemplating going to a night spot he once frequented before he and Natalia became more seriously involved, but decided against it.  He was trying not to go where he knew he really wanted to be.  Where he had been only two nights ago.  Where he had decided he wouldn’t go again.  But Natalia had made it too easy for him.  And so, he drove about 15 minutes away to 740 Walker Ln.  The car was parked outside the garage.  Someone was home, always alone.  There was always an open door arrangement for him here.  He drove around the house to the rear where there was additional parking.  Soft lighting illuminated the bedroom window.  There was talking that wasn’t coming from the tv.  Richard just shook his head and scoffed at himself.  “I’ve got to stop doing this.  This is so foul on so many levels.”  Still, that didn’t stop him from ringing the doorbell.  She opened the door much quicker than he had expected and motioned for him to come in.
“Were you expecting someone?”  He sounded a little jealous.
“Why, yes I was,” she cooed, as she turned towards the kitchen.
“And who might that be?”  Richard eased the door closed behind him and wrapped his arm around her waist.
“Oh, an extremely fine man of about 6’5.  Broad shoulders.  Milk chocolate complexion.”
Richard was kissing the back of her head.  Her hair smelled so good.  “And, uh, just what are you expecting this gentleman for?”
“I have something that belongs to him.  Something I’d like to give him.”
“And what might that be?”
She placed her hands over Richards.  She guided one hand up to her breast and positioned it so that his hand was cupping her breast.  She took the other hand and slid it down to allow him to feel the warmth that he had created, the warmth that would become a fire only he could quench.  Richard savored her eroticism before spinning her around and gently pressing his lips to hers, exchanging sensual nibbles and kisses.
“I was hoping you’d come here,” she whispered between their displays of affection.
“How did you know?” he asked.
“I just got off the phone with your wife.”
The alarm clock jarred Natalia from a deep sleep that could only have been achieved through too much wine and champagne.  Her head was still spinning a little, and throbbing, but not really hurting.  After reaching over to stop the alarm, she lay there for a moment to prepare herself to rise. 
“Richard, babe… it’s time to get up.”  She lay there a few seconds more.  No movement from the other side of the bed.
 “Come on, babe.  You drink hard liquor.  Don’t tell me that little bit of champagne and wine got to you too-.“  Wait a minute.  It was all coming back to her now.  The romantic evening.  The news about Richard’s plan to run for city council.  Talk about having a baby.  The argument.  Richard left.  Natalia sat up in bed in bewilderment, a panicky feeling mixing with the change of the flow of blood through her body.  He didn’t come back home???  She ran to the bathroom.  There had been no use of the shower.  His toothbrush hadn’t been used this morning.  She ran through the house and opened the door to the garage, not thinking, hoping that there would be some evidence that his car had been there.  But there was none.  She closed the door and slid down the other side of it, crying hysterically.  She thought she just might faint from the current of emotion overtaking her body.  This had never happened before.  They’d not ever had an argument before.  He leaves and stays gone on the very first one.  This can’t be good.  What should she do?  What would her therapist suggest?  How could she make it through a workday like this?
 Natalia picked herself up off of the floor and ran to check the answering machine.  No messages.  She snatched her phone from the docking station.  No messages there either.  Not even a missed call.  Speed dialing Richard like a mad woman, she had to consciously remind herself to breathe.  There was no ring.  The phone went directly to voicemail.  She disconnected the call and hurled the phone across the room.  Luckily, it landed on the couch.  “No. No!  NO!!” she was yelling while holding and shaking her head.  “This isn’t happening!”  As much as Natalia wanted to resolve things between she and Richard before the start of the day, she went into survival mode, realizing that there was just too much to get done to totally withdraw from life at this moment.  As she prepared for work, she made a mental note to remind Richard of what the therapist had told them.  It was advised that they never spend a night apart without both of them agreeing to that.  He had just bailed on her.  Leaving to clear your head is one thing.  But spending the night away from home was another issue all together.
Navigating the morning in something resembling a blank fugue, Natalia was barely able to paint on a smile and give the impression that nothing was wrong.  This had been the first time in the nearly 6 years she and Richard had been together that he had negatively affected her in this capacity.  She had almost forgotten what it feels like to be heartbroken and despondent, and that’s what terrified her.  Time seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace.  And Natalia resisted countless urges to phone Richard.  Tulip gave a soft knock at the door just around time for lunch.  Natalia cleared her throat and took a quick swig of water. 
“Come in,” she chimed with a weak but raspy voice.
Tulip entered with yet another gift, this time a small square box and a card.  “For you,” she whispered as she passed the items on to Natalia.  “I’m so incredibly jealous.”  She spoke barely above a whisper that appeared to go unheard.
“Thank you, Tulip.  Close the door, please.”  Natalia resisted the urge to comment how things aren’t always what they appear to be.  Her’s and Richard’s relationship appeared to be that of no faults.  If only she knew about last night.  Tulip did as she was told.  Glaring at the items Richard had delivered to her, Natalia was host to a plethora of emotion.  She slowly slid the lid of the box back to uncover a beautiful diamond encrusted gold pendant in the shape of a key suspended by a dainty 18” gold necklace.  The jewelry gleamed at her, all shiny, sparkling and new.  Just as their marriage had been before last night.  Instead of feeling glad about his effort to reach out to her, there was more of a feeling of disillusionment and angst.  She placed the opened box on her desk and unsealed the card.  Not bothering to read the preprinted message, her eyes focused on the words he had scribbled at the bottom. 
“Let’s not do this again.  Dinner tonight at Ruth’s Chris.  6 p.m.  With love, Rich.”
Let’s not do this again.  Let’s not do this again.  She let the phrase resonate with her.  Let’s not do this again.  She could feel resentment awakening inside of her, feelings that were the result of emotional terrorism coming from her husband.  She sighed with despair.  Placing the card and gift aside, she returned her attention to the work that she had piled on her desk.  Then she remembered that she was about to have lunch.  Feeling a bit confused and unable to concentrate, Natalia phoned the therapist and asked if she could squeeze into his afternoon schedule.  Once his receptionist confirmed that he could allot her 30 minutes she grabbed her purse and coat and was out the door. 

Being with Blythe was so much different from being with Natalia.  Blythe allowed Richard to go wherever his passions took him.  Their sex was uninhibited, limited only by the imagination.  Of course he knew it was wrong to be doing one of his wife’s best friends.  But when he was with her, there was no regret.  He honestly felt no regret.  Natalia had too many rules.  Too many issues.   She tried not to seem constrained with their lovemaking, but she was.  She could put on all the sexy lingerie there was and prance around naked, but actually fulfilling a man’s desire was so much more than catching an eyeful of scantily clad or naked flesh.  One thing that kept Richard puzzled was why she would never let him taste her.  Most women would welcome such pleasure.   Natalia would gladly extend such foreplay, but refused to receive.  As crazy as it seems, Richard enjoyed pleasing women that way.  Nonetheless, he loved Natalia.  There was no doubt about that.  But love wasn’t a factor when he was with Blythe, only raw unbridled passion.
“Richard, it’s 2 a.m.”  Blythe had been lulled to sleep by the gentle waves of the old-fashioned waterbed she still had in her guest room.  To her surprise, he was still awake.
“I know.”  He rolled over and cradled Blythe in his arms. 
“What’s wrong?  Conscience eating at you?” 
“Nah.  I was just thinking about my yacht.  The movement of the waterbed reminds me of sailing my yacht.”
“You’d better get back home.  There’ll be enough explaining to do coming in at this hour.  Good thing you live not too far away.”
Richard rubbed Blythe’s arm and placed his other hand behind his head.  “I ain’t going back there tonight.  I’ll just tell her I slept at a hotel or something.”
With those words, Blythe nestled herself deeper into Richard’s embrace.  The both of them returned to sleep in moments.

 Richard arrived at work an hour and a half early to use the showers in the full sized gym that the company provided.  He’d always kept an extra suit there and other clothing to change into should the occasion present itself, as it had done in this case.  After having cleaned himself up, he retreated downstairs to the eatery that was housed in the building for breakfast.  The area was already buzzing with other people who were arriving to begin the workday.  As he stood in line awaiting his turn to order, he realized that he hadn’t powered his phone on.  He was hesitant to do so because he wasn’t ready to talk to Natalia, but he needed to check his email for any contact from Councilman Ford which made it worth the risk.  Once he powered it up, he was a little disappointed to see that there was only one missed call and no voicemail awaiting.  That call came this morning.  He had been gone since about 7:30 last night and Natalia had only called him once just this morning.  For the first time Richard had actually considered that Natalia could’ve had another love interest also.  He began to engage in negative self-talk.  How could he be so chauvinistic?  But then he quickly shook those feelings.  Natalia wasn’t having an affair.  It’s more likely that she just fell asleep after the fight and was awakened by the alarm this morning, then realized he wasn’t there.  Yeah, that’s what happened.  No way she’s seeing someone else.  With that he ordered breakfast and retreated to his upstairs office.
The morning had been a breeze for Richard.  Now he had lunch with Councilman Ford to look forward to, so that they could begin to plan their strategy toward putting Richard in office.  As he was preparing to leave for lunch, his secretary brought in the necklace he’d ask her to pick out and the card for his approval.  He scribbled some words on the bottom without reading it and told her whatever she chose would work just fine.  He gave her instructions to send the gift and get a total of what he’s charged thus far.  Richard wanted to make sure his spending wasn’t out of control.  He was sending Natalia gifts just about every week, twice this week.
Councilman Ford was already seated with his assistant at J. Alexander’s.  As Richard approached the seating area, he was excited about the possibilities of taking Councilman Ford’s place.  He sized Councilman Ford up.  He was what one would call a ”man’s man.”  Impeccably groomed.  Clothing and suits always sized and cut to perfection.  Deep baritone timbre in his voice.  Always about the business.  Kept company with only the most beautiful of women. Connections with the elite social class. Respected by his peers and the public at large.  It would be fair to say that Councilman Ford was what all men strived to be when they grow up.  Richard adjusted his tie as he neared the table and made a mental note to put a better looking suit on standby at the office. 
“Councilman Ford,” Richard extended his hand to give a firm handshake.
“Ah, Richard Lindhart,”  Councilman Ford stood to shake Richard’s hand.  “You remember my assistant, Keagan.”  Keagan stood to shake Richard’s hand before they were all seated.  Keagan wasn’t dressed nearly as pristine as the Councilman.  He had on a gray suit that looked secondhand, white shirt and cheap tie.  It could’ve been that standing next to Councilman Ford seemed to cheapen his appearance, as it had also done for Richard.
“I hope this meeting wasn’t too much of an imposition on you.  I took the liberty of having the waitress bring an extra glass of water.” 
“No imposition at all, sir.”  Richard took a drink of water.  He was feeling nervous.
“Good.  Then I’ll get right down to business.  My secretary emailed the forms to you this morning that you’ll have to complete to run for office.  Have you had time to familiarize yourself with them?”
“I glanced over them, but haven’t had an opportunity to comb through them as of yet.  I’ll make some time to-“
“That’s quite alright.  You just got them this morning.  That’s understandable.  I had Keagan bring an extra set so you could read over them now just in case.”  Keagan extracted some documents from his portfolio and handed them to Richard, who pretended to read over them while continuing to listen. 
“I know how confusing the forms can be and I want to make this process as easy as I can for you, after all you are the chosen one.”  Councilman Ford gave a hearty chuckle.  Richard was trying to hold his own, but he could tell that the Councilman was accustomed to taking charge.  “Look over those.  Now, of course the forms aren’t due for quite a while, but it is of extreme importance to answer each question properly.  Do you understand what I’m getting at?”
“I believe so.  Yes, sir.”
“There are some questions on there that can get a little tricky to answer.  The political game is a whole new world, Richard.  It can be very tricky to navigate.  I think it’d be a great idea if you fill those forms out with the responses that you think are best.  Give the completed forms to me or Keagan, no one else.”  Councilman Ford gave eye to eye contact and spoke those words emphatically.  “We’ll review and revise as need be.  Don’t worry about the filing.  We’ll file the forms for you.  That would make things that much easier for you.  No sense in having you worry about that because your plate will be full with other things, like engaging your public.  Makes sense?”
“Absolutely, Councilman Ford. “
“Good.  Now how soon can you get those completed and returned to me?”
“No later than tomorrow evening, say around-“
“How about we plan on Thursday.  I’ve got a lot going on, Richard. You could either bring them by my office or I could have Keagan come by yours and pick them up.  Sound good?”
“Yes, that’ll work just fine.”  Richard took another sip of water.  His palms were sweating.
“Which one, Richard?  Are you going to pick them up or should I have Keagan run by to get them from you?”  Councilman Ford was laughing, but there seemed a hint of sarcasm.
Keagan saved the moment.  “Ay, man.  It’d be no problem for me to drop by your office and get them.  I think I have some business over that way, so I’ll be there around 2.  Is that good with you, my man?”
“Yeah, that should work for me.”  Richard deplored this feeling of subordination that was overcoming him in the company of these men who clearly had an advantage over him in that they were way more familiar with the game than he.  He was willing to allow himself to feel inferior now, but he planned to learn all he could as quickly as he could so as to sharpen his image and become a heavyweight in the game also.
“Great.  Then we’re all good.”  Keagan signaled for the waitress to come to the table.  Within seconds she was there, as if she were on standby waiting that table personally.  “Daisy, I think we’re ready to order.  The Councilman and I will have our usual spread, but hold off on the desserts this time.  Bring an extra plate for Rich-.  Oh, Richard, my man, you don’t have any allergies or anything like that do you?  Any restricted diets?”
“Oh, nah.  I’m good.  Whatever you guys have.”
“Good.  Thank you, Dais.”  The waitress smiled at Keagan and went to retrieve their order.
“Richard, now would be a good time to ask questions.  If I remember correctly, you don’t have much experience with city government and politics?”  Councilman Ford eased back in his seat.  He had become well spoken from interacting with the public at various speaking engagements.
“Nothing like how you’ve been doing it.  I’ve helped campaign a time or two.  But my actual experience holding an office doesn’t span much further than 10th grade student government.”  All three men gave a hearty laugh that eased a great amount of Richard’s anxiety.  Councilman Ford reached inside his breast pocket and took out a cigar and lighter.
“Do you mind?  Have one?”  He extended the items to Richard, who declined. 
“Nah, you go right ahead.”
Councilman Ford lit his cigar and returned his lighter to his breast pocket.  “Richard, I’ve been in this business a great many years.  Have had the opportunity to get to know hundreds of thousands of people both a part of the community and those that work higher, larger branches of government.  I said that to say that…there is no limit to what you can achieve at this simple starting point if you have the charisma and people skills.  Because contrary to what you may think, the people will vote not so much for the best candidate, but the candidate who makes them feel best, feel valued… hmph, feelings.”  Councilman Ford gave a quiet titter.  “I’ve had the opportunity to elevate to higher positions… District Supervisor…State Representative…but I chose to stay right here.  Now, after 25 years, I’m preparing to pass the reins on to you.  Keagan here isn’t man enough for the job.”  Councilman Ford laughed.  Keagan just eyeballed Richard with a grin.  “What we’re looking for is someone who will continue to represent the people, but not let the people take over. Do you get my drift? You can only say yes so many times before you become a pushover.  Now,… I don’t’ have any qualms about your leadership experience because I happen to believe that great leaders are made, not necessarily born.  And I don’t want to intimidate you.  But things can get pretty ugly.  Know what I mean?  This business can seem a lot like mud wrestling.  But if you’re up for the challenge, with some help, you can win. That having been said, are there any skeletons in the closet that we should know about?”
Richard sat for a moment with a look of guilt about the face.  Councilman Ford and Keagan gave each other a look, having quickly picked up on his vibe. 
“Don’t get me wrong.  We all have things that are private, and should be kept as such.  Come on, we’re men.  There’s always a problem that won’t go away. Or will with a little help.” Councilman Ford was making gestures with the hand holding his cigar, causing the smoke to dance about.  He and Keagan glanced at each other again.
Daisy returned with appetizers of fresh bread and pot stickers, along with 3 plates, 3 glasses and a pitcher of Bellini tea.  She poured their drinks and gave a sideways smile to Richard before leaving.  She hadn’t spoken a word.  Richard was beginning to wonder if she were mute or couldn’t speak English.
“That question kind of caught me off guard.  I wasn’t prepared to have this talk at lunch.”  Richard wasn’t sure how much information he should divulge.  He didn’t want to hang himself before he even got started. 
“That’s absolutely understandable.  Take some time.  It’ll definitely come up again, believe me.  The key is in how you handle it.  Now, if you try to keep your secrets they could destroy you. Because it doesn’t matter if you were jacking off at the photo of a six year old on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the pitch black of night during a power outage, somebody knows what you did and is prepared to use that against you.  But if you play your cards right, you can stand your ground and remain on top.”
The gentlemen began to relish the appetizers.  “You know, these little things are really delicious.  I’ll have to ask Urva to make some.”  Councilman Ford was munching and sipping tea, having seemingly lost interest in Richard.
“So Rich.. or is it Rick?”  Keagan was weighing in on the conversation.
“I prefer Richard,” he playfully replied, trying not to be too formal.  He hated when people abbreviated his name without permission.
“Ok, Richard, what kind of gig you got going at Windham & Associates, man? 
“I basically do a little of everything, now.  But my title is actually Vice President of Marketing and Recruitment.”
“Impressive.  What kind of dollars we talking about?” 
“Lower end of a six figure income.”  Not wanting to give up too much about himself, especially with the energy he was getting from Keagan, Richard decided that he would save the occasion to get better acquainted for another time when he and Councilman Ford were in choice company.
“Not too bad.  Not bad at all.”  Keagan drank water and joined in munching on the appetizers. 
Richard was thinking he really didn’t need Keagan’s approval or validation, but he didn’t want to seem catty.
“This run for office ought to supplement your salary nicely, Richard.  Hefty disposable income to increase your 401K, ante up your investment portfolio, turn a couple of real estate deals…What kind of investments do you have already?”  Councilman Ford rejoined the discussion. 
“Right now, only the company retirement and savings.”
“Do smart things with money, Richard.  And you’ll never be broke a day in your life.  This is a good opportunity for you.  I gather from your wedding band that you’re married, and haven’t been married very long at that.  What does your wife do?”
“She works with a management company, deals mostly in bookkeeping and finance.”
“How long have the two of you been married?”
“We’re approaching our one year anniversary, but have been seeing each other for about 7 years.  How did you know we’d not been married long, though?”
“I’ll give you maybe another 2 years before you start forgetting to wear that wedding band.”  They all 3 laughed in unison.  Councilman Ford interrupted their laughter with another question.  “Children?”
“None yet, but-“
“Don’t rush into having children.  Take your time with that.  Trust me.”
Richard was growing tired of the questions and decided he’d take his turn doing the asking.  Deciding to engage Keagan first, he turned in his direction. “Keagan, what’s your chosen career?”
 “I’m an attorney.  Have a modest practice of my own.  I also contract and assist with clients like Councilman Ford here that keep me on a retainer and a short leash.”  Councilman Ford and Keagan laughed.  “But as he was telling you, the money is decent.  Increases your earning potential, along with quite a few other ‘undisclosed perks.’  You see this?”  Keagan extended his arm to expose a gleaming gold and diamond Rolex.  “This was a little birthday gift from our favorite Councilman here.”
Richard thought to himself that the Councilman could have more appropriately invested those funds in a better suit for his boy.  Doesn’t make much sense to be sporting an expensive watch with a second hand suit on.   But you have to have established a certain rapport before cracking jokes like that in the company of these kind of men. 
“I don’t see a wedding band.  Am I correct to assume that you’ve been married for at least 3 years or more?”  Keagan and Richard shared another laugh.  Daisy returned to the table with their entrees of porterhouse steak, baked potato and house salad.  She moved quickly and returned to the kitchen.
“That steak is medium rare, my man.  I hope that’s ok.”  Richard nodded his approval and proceeded to eat his meal.  “But to answer your question, I am married.  8 years.  No children.  My wife hasn’t a chosen career.  She’s a socialite selling Avon.”  Councilman Ford chuckled, then sucked his tooth as he extinguished his cigar and began to cut his steak. 
“And I, too, am married Richard.  Lovely wife of 18 years.  5 children.”  Councilman Ford took a bite of his steak.  “Mmm. Delicious.  Like butter.  Good each and every time.”  He savored his bite of steak before continuing.  “But unlike you and Keagan, Richard, this is my third marriage.  After the second, divorce just becomes too complicated and too expensive.”
Richard was slightly taken aback by the Councilman’s transparency.  Then he kind of felt more comfortable seeing as how there was no need to continue pretending. 
“Divorce can almost ruin a public service career, Richard.  I had married for love the first time.  The second was for lust.  But the last time I was a little wiser.  I had to consider my career and goals, my image.  I married a woman who knew how to put things in proper perspective.  That’s why this partnership is the most convenient for the both of us.”
“Partnership?  You make it sound like a business deal.”
“And nothing more.  With benefits.  I almost caught a terrible backlash among the black voters for having married a white woman.  Hell, I wouldn’t have been bothered much by that, but when you consider the demographics of the community, not having the black vote would have placed me dangerously close to losing the election, especially with two slanderous divorces.  It took a lot of convincing and compromising to regain their favor.  I’ll not put myself in a position like that ever again.”
Richard took another bite of his steak before realizing the time.  “Umph, gentlemen it has been my pleasure lunching with you guys, but I have to get back to work.”  He used his napkin to wipe his mouth and rose from the table.  “Councilman Ford, I look forward to learning all that I can from you.  Thank you for considering me.”  He and the councilman shook hands before Richard turned his attention toward Keagan.  He reached across the table and shook his hand as well.  “Keagan, I’ll look forward to seeing you Thursday.  You could get my contact information from Councilman Ford, but I happen to have a contact card here.”  He retrieved a business card from his wallet and handed it to Keagan.  Cell’s on there, too.”  Richard threw a couple twenties on the table and a ten for the lunch and tip.  “Thanks, gentlemen.”  He waved and retreated for the door.
Once he was out of earshot, Councilman Ford turned to Keagan.  “I think he’s perfect for what we have in mind.  Just married.  Money-hungry.  Power-hungry.  This shouldn’t be complicated at all.”
“My sentiments exactly.  Do you think we should do the good guy/bad guy?  Or should we just blindside him?”  Keagan seemed to get an adrenaline high from planning what strategy to take.
“Let’s not sever our standing.  With the blindside, there are no enemies.  Just a good idea gone wrong.  Besides, we have to find out who he knows and what connections he has.  We don’t want this thing blowing up in our faces.  Let’s keep tabs on him.  But by no means be seen at any public functions with him or give the impression that he’s on our team.  Keep him at a distance, easily deniable.”  Councilman Ford removed his napkin and relit his cigar while easing back in his seat.  “This should be pretty interesting.”  He and Keagan  continued to lunch and talk.

Richard had a good overall feeling about the meeting he’d had with the Councilman and Keagan.   He hopped into his car marinating on the wisdom that Councilman Ford had shared with him, and couldn’t wait to explore options regarding the use of disposable income.  His first instinct was to phone Natalia and share his hopes with her, but he remembered that they had not yet made up.  He was feeling so good, he decided to begin to rectify that immediately.  He dialed his receptionist.
“Windham & Associates.  Mr. Lindhardt’s office.”
“Pasha, what time’s my next meeting?”
“Um…3:15 with Nelums and Lang.”
“Good.  I should be back in plenty of time for that.  If anyone calls, take a message and call me on my cell.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Lindhardt.”
“Thanks, Pasha.”
Richard stopped at the florist and picked up a box of rose petals before continuing to the house.  He’d hoped that Natalia had decided to go to work.  He didn’t think of that earlier when he sent her the gift.  But she wasn’t home.  He entered through the garage door entrance and called out a couple of times.  No answer but Yoshi barking.  After entering the bedroom, he sat the box of rose petals on the bedside table and first removed the bedding.  Fumbling through the linen closet, he finally found the white satin sheets that they’d received as a wedding gift.  He made the bed to perfection, with military corners.  Then he scattered the rose petals about.  A glance in the bathroom revealed that Natalia had apparently made plans to continue the evening in the bath from the looks of the empty champagne bottle, glasses and rose petals that hadn’t been cleaned up.  “Well, next time she’ll think twice about telling me to sleep on the couch,” he sighed.  But realistically, he was feeling so full of promise that he was beginning to think he seriously overreacted last night.  After having retrieved some candles from the foyer table, he arranged them just so and placed the candle lighter nearby.  This way, all they had to do were be lit just before bed, after their romantic dinner at Ruth’s Chris of course.  Not long following, he was back in his car and en route to work.

Natalia’s therapist sat patiently and quietly listening to her every word as she recanted details from their disagreement the night before. 
“…and, he just bailed on me.  He didn’t come back home.  Then at lunch he sends a card with ‘let’s not do this again’ written on it.  I kind of feel like I’m being emotionally high-jacked, because we talked about this.  No kids for at least 5 years.  But he keeps pressing me about it.  He just won’t let it rest.”
“Natalia, the answer isn’t in being upset with him for not having held his end of the bargain.  You haven’t been completely honest in the first place.  Five years from now the problem will still be there because you didn’t tell him that you can never have children.  Can’t you see how this secret is beginning to take a corrosive effect on your marriage?”
“I… I can’t tell him.  Not now.  I don’t see why he should ever have to know.  And… it isn’t like I’m ruling out children altogether.  I am willing to adopt.”
“Natalia, what you’re saying is still your compromise.  You aren’t being fair to Richard.  Richard has to have a say in this as well.  And the fact is that you married him under false pretenses.  You knew he was under the impression that you would conceive, as most healthy couples expect to do.”
Natalia sat in silence.  It was difficult to argue with the truth.  The therapist was accurate.  There was no way around it. 
“I can’t deal with this right now.  Could you just write me something, please?  I have to get back to work.”
“You’re aware of my policy regarding things like this, Natalia.”
“I know.   But honestly, I thought I was going to have a panic attack after I awoke and Richard wasn’t there.”
“How about we discuss it more a little later.  You have to return to work and I have another person to see.”
Natalia gathered her things and thanked the therapist for seeing her on such short notice.  And although she was tempted to call the office and cancel her afternoon slate, she really felt much better.  She tried to keep anger about all the things that she had given up for Richard from consuming her.  And now there was this whole city councilman thing that he’s so excited about.  He’d taken this on and she didn’t seriously make him feel the least bit guilty for having done so.  He’d never asked her how she feels about the whole thing.  The truth is, Natalia hated the public eye and shied away from the spotlight.  She wasn’t at all looking forward to the added publicity from voters who’ll feel that they own a piece of you because they voted for you.  The phone calls.  The public engagements.  The lesser degree of privacy.  But she faked her support because he wanted to do this.  He was pressing her about having children ahead of schedule. Too many things were beginning to revolve around Richard and what he wanted.   Even if she had told him that she couldn’t conceive and they’d made plans to adopt in five years or so, he’d more than likely be trying to do that ahead of their agreed upon time also.  Natalia began to consider that perhaps she should just give in and fake a really bad fall or something now.  That way Richard could get the whole idea of impregnating her out of his head.  Then, he could take time to seriously consider if he would like to adopt or not.  But enough of that for now.  They were to reconcile their argument at dinner.  And if he tried to talk to her about having children tonight, she would definitely begin to put a plan into action.  There was simply no other way to move on with the rest of their lives and salvage their marriage.  Yes, that seemed the perfect way out.  With that, Natalia was satisfied that she would never have to spend another night without her husband.    

Planning dinner at Ruth’s Chris for 6 p.m.  was perfect.  The two of them would meet up for a nice intimate dinner.  They’d make up for that silly argument that kept them apart last night.  And most of all they’d return home together and consummate their marriage all over again.  As Richard pulled up in the parking lot, he noticed that Natalia’s car was already there, with an empty space right beside her.  He parked and was inside in no time.  The hostess showed him to the table.  Natalia wasn’t there, but her coat was.  She must be in the restroom.  Perfect.  He pulled out the gift that he’d stop and gotten for her before returning to work from lunch.  This one he’d selected perfectly, with help from the jeweler of course.  It wasn’t an expensive one, but he felt the proudest about this one not only because he picked it out himself, but because it was a gift that he was certain Natalia would consider the most thoughtful.  He placed the beautifully decorated box on the table to welcome her back before powering off his cellular.  He powered it back on again when he considered the possibility that Councilman Ford might try to contact him and instead changed it to vibrate.
Natalia was already putting her plan into action.  She checked the time.  It was just past 6 p.m.  She always knew Richard to be punctual, so she decided to not be sitting at the table when he arrived.  That’d add to her scheme.  She decided that she’d first seem a little melancholy.  Knowing Richard, he had a gift.  So, she’d perk up just a little bit after having received the gift no matter how she really felt about it.  Then, if he started bringing up having a child, she’d agree that they should begin trying.  “After all, putting it off isn’t worth the stress it’s causing us” is what she’d say.  She rehearsed the line.  Had to sound just right.  Hopeful, sincere, loving.  But then, she would begin to feign an ever so slight degree of pain.  If Richard asked her what was wrong, she’d say that she had a really bad fall.  To reel it in even more, she’d say she fell running through the house like a mad woman after she awoke this morning and he wasn’t there.  “But it’s nothing, I’m sure” she’d reassure him.  Then she’d suggest that she switch from the regular “multivitamins” that she was taking to something with a significant amount of folic acid to increase their chances of conceiving a healthy baby.  She’d even fake being pregnant, since that would only go on for about a few weeks, or the end of the first trimester at the most.  But there’d definitely be no baby.  Any number of things could go wrong.  Happens every day in this world.  Pregnancies fail.  Some women never conceive again.  Just what she’d attribute the miscarriage to Natalia was unsure of for the moment.  But it would end any hope of any future conception.  And she’d be done with this from now on.  Natalia looked at herself in the mirror as she touched up her cosmetics and smoothed down her formfitting wrap dress.  She played with her hair a little and shook her head at the woman she’d become.  At the woman her husband had driven her to become… scandalous, manipulative, scheming.  As soon as this ordeal is over, she’d return to the pensive, loving woman that he knew her to be.  But his incessant talk of having a baby had been an act of war, albeit unbeknownst to him.  She sprayed on a bit of fragrance and practiced her look with her reflection before exiting the restroom.
Richard saw Natalia round the corner.  They caught sight of each other.  He looked at her and felt guilty for the first time for having stayed away the entire night.  She was beautiful, and wearing that dress he liked that showed off her curves.  “Damn, what was I thinking?” he mumbled aloud.  He stood to welcome her to the table.  Once she saw him rising to his feet, she picked up her pace.  They embraced.
Natalia inhaled as she held her husband tight.  “It feels like we’ve been apart so long. You smell so good.”
Richard held on, not caring who might be watching.  “I didn’t realize how much I missed you until just now.  I’m so sorry.”
Natalia looked up in her husband’s eyes and whispered, “Let’s not do this again.”  She elevated herself to her tippy toes and pressed her lips against his.  After what seemed like the longest moment, they sat side by side.
“Richard, what could this possibly be?” she said referring to the gift on the table, pretending to be taken by surprise yet again.  “I’m already in love with the necklace you had delivered this afternoon.”  Natalia clasped the diamond encrusted golden key between her fingers and tugged at it on its dainty chain.  “You keep doing this and we’ll be arguing each time I want this kind of attention.”  She leaned over and kissed him on the jaw before picking up the box and removing its beautiful wrapping.
“This gift is the one I’m the proudest of because I think it’s the most thoughtful.  Besides, I’ve got a long way to go before I catch up with you and that yacht you gave me as our wedding gift.”
Your wedding gift.  And this isn’t a competition.  Remember what the therapist said.  This is a –“  Natalia lost words as she looked at the beautiful bracelet Richard had selected.  It was a silver bracelet with a brilliant shine and clasp, the kind that charms purchased separately are added to.  A beautiful gold locket was already affixed.  “You were absolutely correct.  I love it.”  She removed the bracelet and lay it on her wrist.
“Here, let me help you put it on.”  After assisting her in securing the bracelet on her small wrist, Richard stared into her eyes and whispered his sentiment.  “Now you posses a symbol of what you are to me, the lock and key to my heart.”  They shared a long kiss. 
“I love you so much,” Natalia whispered as she wiped away the residue of her lipstick. 
“I love you, too.”  Richard stared into his wife’s face.  “Why do you look so pale?  Is everything alright?” 
With a small grin Natalia replied, “I had a fall, but it’s nothing to be concerned about.”  She rubbed the side of his head and caressed his cheek.  “Let’s eat.”

The two of them walked out of the restaurant hand in hand, behaving more like teenagers in love than a married couple.  Richard had been more charming than Natalia had remembered in a long time.  As a matter of fact, being with him like this made Natalia realize that there were some things that they’d lost as a couple over the years.  The simple things like this, they were almost nonexistent.  Sure she had his affection via roses and cards and jewelry and gifts.  And they shared intimate moments at home.  But just this school-girl crush kind of feeling was what she’d not felt since they were courting.                                                                    As they arrived to their car, Richard took his spare key and unlocked her door.  He opened it and took her hand to assist her inside.  He bent over to kiss her one last time.  “Last one home has to get on top.”                                                                                                                                “Mmmm.  I’ll give you a headstart, baby.”  They shared another kiss.  Richard closed the door and skipped to his car.  Within what seemed like minutes, he was opening the garage door, he and Natalia almost bumper to bumper.
They were barely able to close their car doors before they were all over each other.   Richard was groping and loosening her clothing, warming her body with kisses.  Natalia removed his tie and jacket.  The heat emanating from his body and the scent of his cologne intensified her desire for him.  With each breath she craved to feel her naked flesh pressed against his.  She unbuttoned his shirt and felt the firmness of his pecs and abs.  Those broad shoulders.  Her hands slid up and rubbed the back of his neck, a trail of clothing now being strewn from the garage door entrance to the bedroom.  Richard thought that he would light the candles as he had planned, but he couldn’t pry himself away.  Within seconds they were collapsed on the bed.  And so their night went, reunited and re-consummated once again.

“Last night was perfect.  Girl, we were like young lovers.  It was magical.  There was no talk about children.  We only concentrated on each other and how we never want to spend another night apart like that again.” 
“You are glowing!  I’m so happy for you!”  Blythe’s face was beaming with support and what seemed utter happiness.  Beneath her façade she longed for the next time when she would be the warm body laying next to Richard, meeting his needs, pleasing him as only she could do as he had told her countless times.  Listening to Natalia was somewhat nauseating. But she continued with her superficial expressions of joy that her friend had reunited with her man.  “So what are you going to say the next time he does ask about having kids though, Natalia?  You know it’s going to come up again.”
Natalia gave a somber look that clued Blythe in to her descent from cloud nine.  “I’ve decided to fake some sort of accident or fall.”
It was as if Blythe could hear the angels singing their hallelujahs in the background.  She knew that Natalia not having children would be a definite deal-breaker.  Richard would surely divorce her.  No man is going to opt for adoption when he is perfectly capable of producing his own children.  And it would be ridiculous to encourage surrogate parenting because no one wants to have such an impersonal pregnancy if they can help it.  Blythe is familiar to Richard.  She would be the woman to bear his children.  It’s now just a matter of time until Natalia takes membership in the first wives’ club.  “Natalia, really think about what you’re doing.  Is it truly that important for you not to have his child that you would scheme and deceive Richard like this?  I mean, this is hardly an act of love.  What’s he gonna think?”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead yet, Blythe.  And he’s gonna think whatever I tell him to.  It’s not like he’s ever going to find out the truth.  But under no circumstances am I going to ever have a child…NEVER.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Natalia.  And what this will do to Richard.  Not to mention your marriage.”
“Please, let’s not keep talking about this now.  Richard didn’t bring it up last night, and quite frankly I didn’t meet for lunch to talk with you about a subject I was trying to dodge with him.”  Blythe was receptive to the irritation in Natalia’s voice and changed her tone.  “As a friend, Natalia… I have your best interest at heart.  Don’t let your stubbornness ruin your life.  Now, I’ll leave it alone.”
“Thank you,” Natalia responded with a large degree of cynicism.  She and Blythe exchanged polite smiles then laughed it off.  The two finished their lunch with light conversation, Blythe masking the hopefulness that she would someday soon become everything Natalia was trying to avoid being to Richard. 


“These damned forms are a headache.  I should just go ahead and complete an autobiography after filling out all this paperwork.”  Richard was a little nervous about his responses after remembering how Councilman Ford cautioned that his answers were key to his petition for office being processed successfully.  He had stolen some company time, along with his secretary, to get the forms completed by the time Keagan was expected to pick them up. 
“Yeah, well this is a lot more information than just a standard ol’ employment app.  But we’re just about done.  You’re just stressin’ ‘cause you’re nervous.”  Pasha was by far the most efficient secretary that Richard had compared with the ones in the past.  And she was wearing that skirt that he liked.  They once fooled around a little, but it never led to anything other than some heavy petting.  He had pulled back once he decided he was serious about Natalia, and she seemed to understand.  She was really cool.  Never made a big deal out of it or anything.  And never used their flirting as an excuse to take advantage or manipulate or slack off on the job.  “But now, don’t forget about me when you become Councilman Richard Lindhardt.  I could use a part time gig if you decided you need an assistant or something.” 
Richard began to think that he had given her too much credit.  “I would consider none other than you, Pash.”
“I’mma go and start typing these up.  Give me a buzz if you need anything else.”  Pasha gathered the forms with the answers Richard was comfortable were solid and polished.   Richard let his eyes wander over her body, and she was fully aware that he was eyeballing her.  She enjoyed his attention occasionally and gave him a little more to look at.  Richard realized that he had started to return to his womanizing ways that he thought he had done away with once he had asked for Natalia’s hand in marriage.  It wasn’t really anything she was doing, or wasn’t doing for that matter, that made him start to ogle other women again.  He was just a man doing what men do. 
“Thanks again, Pash.  Pull the door up for me.” 
Richard was barely able to get in 30 mins of concentration on his forms when Pasha buzzed his phone.  “Mr. Lindhardt, your wife is here to see you.”
“Send her in.”  Richard was taken by surprise.  Natalia had never visited his office before.  He quickly scanned for anything that may look out of the ordinary and squirt a couple of bursts of air freshener that he kept beside his desk.  Within what seemed seconds, Natalia opened the door.  Richard thought to himself that she could’ve knocked.  This wasn’t neutral territory.  She stood with her back to the door.  Richard heard a click.  She had switched the lock.  Without another word, Natalia walked up to his desk and swiveled him around in his chair.  She slowly bent over and gave him a long, passionate kiss. Once their lips parted, Richard looked up at her gasping.  He opened his mouth to speak.  She placed a finger over his lips and unfastened her three quarter length trench coat.  There was nothing underneath.  Her skin was luminous from the shimmer powder she’d put on.  The fragrance of warm vanilla emanating form her pores warmed by his exotic caresses.  She helped him loosen his pants.  His excitement in full view.  She mounted him.  They began a slow grind in time with soft moans and euphoric whispers of pleasure.  Natalia setting the pace and maintaining control until Richard could remain submissive no longer.  He supported her back and lifted them from the chair.  With his other hand he pushed the things atop his desk out of the way, some falling to the floor.  Resting her on the desktop, he took control of the ride.  Natalia gripped his lower back and assisted with each thrust. The mingled like savages.  Like two desperate lovers who would feel each other for the final time.  His body responding to her as she contracted and released, sliding in and out.  The warmth heating his body until the plateau could be delayed no longer.  The irony of them fighting to resist and prolong what they both were working towards over.  Richard rested his weight over Natalia.  She lay there, trying to regain her composure as she felt her husband’s erection slowly melt away.  And yet without having broken the silence, she slid from under him and slipped on her trench coat.  After finger combing her hair, she quietly unlocked the door and slipped out.  But not before throwing the lock on, giving Richard the privacy to regain his composure.

“Talia!  Babe, I need help with this tie.  I just can’t seem to get this bow right.”  Richard was in the guest bath mirror fumbling with the bowtie for what seemed the hundredth time, his frustration heightened because of his nervousness.
“I can take care of the tie, but I need you to zip the back of this dress.”  Natalia was backing into the bathroom trying to get the zipper up at the back as much as she could from the bottom, then reaching over her shoulder to catch it from the top.  Her hair was half in rollers.  Richard couldn’t help but to laugh at what a mess they were trying to get ready for the Senator’s Annual Gala at the same time.
“Hold on, let me get it.”  He gently pulled the two halves together and smoothly zipped the garment while Natalia held her hair so it wouldn’t get caught in the zipper.  Then she looked at how the dress fit her in the mirror, smoothing it along her abdomen and hips.  “You like?”
“Probably should ask me after you get them rollers out of your hair.  You look more like the end of the evening and a little tipsy rather than the beginning.”
“You’re so insensitive,” she playfully teased while beginning to remove her hair rollers.  “Oh no, I think I’ve snagged a nail.”
“Uh, oh.  Better get out the first aid kit.”  Richard was in rare form.  Natalia gave him a playful backhand before looking a little closer at her hand.  “It’s only a little chip of polish.  I’ll take care of that in the car.  I’d better put the bottle in my purse before I forget.”  Natalia was walking towards the bedroom and into the master bath while removing the remainder of her rollers from her hair.  She reached in her vanity drawer and took out the bottle of Illamasqua nail varnish she had applied earlier in the day in anticipation of the evening.  At first slightly puzzled as to where she had placed her evening Chanel clutch, she realized that Richard’s tuxedo coat was covering the chair it was in.  Natalia picked up the coat that was slightly heavier than she anticipated.  It fell to the floor as she was opening her Chanel clutch.  As she inserted the nail polish, she noticed a strange object had fallen from his coat pocket.  She snapped her clutch shut and placed it back in the chair while squatting to pick up the coat and object.  A closer look revealed that it was a magnetic key to a suite at Embassy Suites International.  Natalia’s heart sank to the pit of her stomach.  She clenched the key in her hand and closed her eyes.  “I’ve just done my makeup.  I can’t cry,” she whispered to herself.  “It’s probably nothing.  Don’t lose control.  Breathe.”  There was a stale silence that was interrupted by the sound of Richard walking towards the bedroom.  She quickly replaced the key in his coat pocket and moved toward the bathroom mirror to fix her hair.
“Babe, I just checked the time.  We’ve got to hurry.  Don’t want to arrive CP time, know what I’m saying.”  He gave her a kiss on her temple and checked his reflection before picking up his coat and exiting the bathroom.  “I’ll get the car started,” he called out while en route to the garage.  Natalia just stood there looking at herself in the mirror, eyes flaming red with pain and disappointment.  “There’s no way he’s cheating on me,” she told herself.  “He wants us to hurry and have a baby for god’s sake.  That isn’t on the list of priorities of a man who’s having an affair on his wife.”  She grabbed a tissue and began dabbing at her eyes to keep the tears from ruining her mascara.  “I give him what he needs.  I’m his everything.”  She stopped and looked at herself once again.  “Three years of therapy… we understand each other.  I know him.   I know everything about him, from that birthmark on his hip to the spot on his toe from a swimming accident.  He’s mine.  That man belongs to me.”  Natalia smiled at herself in the mirror.  “I’m just being silly.  There’s no way he’s having affair.  He knows what that would do to me.”  With those closing remarks of her psychotic babble of reassurances, Natalia swooped up her clutch from the chair, grabbed her evening wrap and turned off the lights to go join her husband in their Lexus GX 470 SUV.

The Thespian Center for the Performing Arts was lavishly decorated in platinum and white opulence.  Natalia wasn’t accustomed to such splendor.  Still a little sullen from her discovery at home, she painted on her best smile and tried to keep the evening flowing smoothly.  She didn’t want to ruin things over something that was probably really nothing to begin with.  And after all, this is part of what’s expected of the wife of a man who hopes to become a public figure to some degree.   
“Seems as if the taxpayers spared no expense with this gig,” Richard playfully whispered to her as he tossed the valet a key and approached the host.
 “Your name, sir,” he asked.
“Mr. and Mrs. Richard Lindhardt,” he responded flashing their invitation at him.  The host turned to the appropriate page and scanned the list.  Upon finding their names on the list, he carefully matched them to the name printed on the invitation.  “Very good, then.   Please see the hostess to receive your pins.  And this is for you, madam.”  The host gave Natalia a beautiful silver and white corsage that was composed of beautiful beads and crystals clustered around a white rose and embellished with mesh and lace. “You may wear it or carry it if you wish.”
“Thank you!  This is beautiful!”  Natalia opened the container and placed the corsage on her wrist.  She leaned in to Richard and whispered, “This is kinda like going to prom.” 
They were met by the hostess who pinned each of them after checking their invitations again and escorted them to their appropriate table.  They were the firsts to arrive.  She politely bid them a pleasant evening and excused herself to the next guests.  The tables and décor were of impeccable taste.  The place cards were even of such elegance and sumptuousness that this event reeked of the lavish lifestyle of upper class society.  Miranda had made mention to Natalia about what kinds of homes this class of citizens owns.  One purchase from one of these and the commission would cover all her living expenses for an entire year.  The tables were adorned with long stemmed tropical flowers lavishly arranged in glass vases.  There was an ice sculpture that almost ran from floor to ceiling and had subtle lighting changing colors and spewing forth water.  The ambience was such that all she and Richard could do was sit and take it all in.  The menu read that dinner would be buffet style.  The spread reminded Natalia of something like a cruise buffet, with just about any and everything you could imagine you would want.  It was no wonder this event was exclusively by invitation only.
Richard broke their silence.  “For real, I have to know how much it costs to put on a show like this.  I mean, I thought we spent way too much on our wedding.  But this doesn’t even compare.  We could’ve gotten married at the train yard and had it catered from Popeye’s.”
“Hmm, I just wish Randi could be here to see this.  She loves stuff like this.  I could just see her working the room for business.”
“There you go bringing up that crazy broad.”
“Richard!  Stop talking about my best friend like that!”
“Nah, you know I’m only kidding.  Oh, there’s Keagan.  Let me introduce you.”
“Who-,“  before Natalia could get Richard to repeat his name, Richard had already stood and was gesturing trying to get Keagan’s attention.  Keagan was talking with some other gentlemen.  He was dressed much more impressively in his white tuxedo jacket with white shirt, bowtie and black pants than when Richard had first met him.  And Richard could have sworn that Keagan saw him trying to get his attention out of the corner of his eye, but was purposefully refusing to look in his direction.  Richard decided to go over and hopefully get an introduction.  He saw Keagan as someone he’d quickly get rid of once he got himself in good with the Councilman and his cohorts.  Just as Richard was nearing, the gentlemen disbursed and Keagan turned his back to go in the opposite direction.
“Keagan,” Richard spat out, reaching and tapping him on the shoulder.  Keagan turned around pretending to be taken by surprise.
“Ah, my man Richard.  Glad you made it in.  Where you at?  Over there?”  Keagan was still speaking with a relaxed, casual dialect, but with a more professional tone.   He was pointing at a group of tables near the front. 
“Nah, our seats are over there towards the back on the left side.”
“Ooo, see, I’m gonna talk to the secretary about that cause man I’m sure we got y’all’s names in early enough to have gotten you seated in the front.  Matter of fact, I’mma make it my business to see to that personally.  And sit tight, if a couple spaces come up open up front, we’ll move you up closer –“
“Keagan, I’m not feeling well.  I’m ready to go. Now.”  Keagan was joined by a beautiful woman that Richard could tell wasn’t of American ancestry.  She had beautiful browned skin that wasn’t the complexion of most cross bred black women.  As beautiful as she was, she seemed to have an expression of heartache permanently etched on her face.  Richard could tell that Keagan wasn’t  pleased with her social skills and how she interrupted them.  He remembered Keagan describing her as a “socialite selling Avon.”  At any rate, she certainly wasn’t interested in being very social at the moment.
“Richard, let me introduce you to my wife, Sahara.”  Keagan put emphasis on the word “wife.”  Richard definitely wasn’t getting good vibes from them.  He noticed that Keagan grabbed her and pulled her closer to his side with a subtle amount of force.  Either she was resisting or he was demanding.  Or both. “Sahara, please say hello to Richard.”
Sahara made a stern face at Keagan and tried to smile.  Even her smile looked as if she were in pain. “Good to meet you, Richard,” she said as she extended her hand.  Richard gently shook her hand.  It was so cold and hard.  Not how a woman’s hands should feel.
“Good evening, “Natalia beamed.  She had been watching and decided she’d join in and start to help Richard get acquainted with everybody.
 “Babe, I’d like you to meet Keagan and Sahara – I’m sorry man, I can’t remember that last name.”
“Trudeaux.”  Keagan now let go of Sahara and turned his attention to Natalia.  “It’s so pleasant to finally meet you, Natalia.”  Keagan grabbed hold of Natalia’s hand and shook it with both his hands covering hers.  “And might I add you look absolutely stunning in that dress.”
“Why thank you,” was all that Natalia could say because she was blushing uncontrollably. 
“And that’s a lovely fragrance.  What is that? Delices de Cartier?”  Keagan was still holding on to Natalia’s hand.  Richard was becoming bothered.  He also noticed that Keagan had suddenly cleaned up his dialect.
“Why, why yes it is.  Are you a connoisseur of women’s fragrances?”  Natalia’s cheeks were beginning to ache she was smiling so hard.  Richard placed his arm around his wife’s hips.  Not so much to draw her closer to him, but to put some distance between her and Keagan, who had suddenly began oozing with charm and finesse.  
“I only appreciate the femininity of a beautiful woman.”  Keagan glared back at her, smiling equally as hard.
“Keagan, I’m –“
Sahara’s second demand to leave was quickly paused by a look from Keagan that seemed to warn her not to push her luck.  He responded as if he had expected her to interrupt again.  He finally let go of Natalia’s hand and mimicked how Richard had placed his arm around Natalia’s waist.
“Natalia, please say hello to my wife, Sahara.”  Keagan was still smiling, but this time he seemed to be sending nonverbal cues to Sahara that she should try smiling.  Completely ignoring him seems to have become Sahara’s specialty, because she didn’t even look in Natalia’s direction.  Natalia felt extremely uncomfortable and began to process and internalize the situation.  Had she been too friendly?  She extended her hand to shake hands with Sahara, who didn’t budge.
“Sahara, it’s good to meet you.” Natalia’s voice was smiling.  There were a couple of seconds of awkward silence.  Sahara lifted her eyes from the floor and forced a smile in Natalia’s direction.  “It’s good to meet you as well.” 
Natalia impulsively reached to hug Sahara.  She was hoping that would relieve some of the tension.  “You are a very lovely woman.  I hope I’m not being rude by asking, but you’re not American are you?”
What seemed a genuine smile lit Sahara’s face.  “No, I’m actually from Cuba,” she spoke as if pleased that someone had taken an interest in her.
“I’d love to learn more about you and where you’re from.”  Natalia could tell she was warming up and was capitalizing on the moment. 
“Yeah, we don’t know many other folk outside of other Americans,” Richard interjected, trying to add humor to the situation.
“That would be nice.  If you ever get some free time, maybe we could have a small get together.”  Sahara’s tone livened up considerably.  Everyone smiled.
“Uh oh, guys.  Watch it.  Next thing you know you’ll be signing up to sell Avon.”  Keagan was kidding, but Natalia kind of had a feeling he was being sarcastic.  “It’s nice meeting you, Natalia.  Richard.  If you’ll excuse us, I have to find out why my love would like to leave before the event has even begun.  Please excuse us.”  Keagan and Sahara turned towards the common area where people were mingling and having drinks.  Richard and Natalia returned to their table.
“There is definitely some negative energy going on there.”  Natalia stood as Richard, suddenly feeling more appreciative of his wife, pulled her chair out for her.
“Tell me about it. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in that house.”
“You know, baby.  There’s something familiar about that name.”  Natalia recited his name again to herself.  “Keagan Trudeaux.  Yep.  I’ve definitely heard that name before.  Just can’t think where.  Oh well.  It’ll come to me sooner or later.”
“Yeah, his name did sound familiar when I first met him with Councilman Ford.  But hey, I come across so many names that I just chalked it up to a similarity of someone else’s name.  What you think about that dude?”
“He’s like any other politician, I guess.  Trying to make a good impression to get support and votes.”
“Oh, nah.  He’s no politician.  He’s an attorney.  Says he owns his own practice.  Also contracts out with the Councilman and stuff like that.”
“Attorney, huh.  Well, I’d really like to get to know his wife because something is definitely not right.”
“Shucks, you ain’t gotta tell me.  Is there something I can get you from the bar?”
“Yeah.  I think I’d like an apple Martini.  With the cherry.”
“Gotcha.  Be right back.”  Richard kissed Natalia on the forehead and made way to the bar.  Natalia watched him as he walked and felt a yearning for him from within that she’d not felt in a while now.  Nothing sexual.  It was that kind of feeling a woman gets when she really loves a man.  She watched him and was reminded of all the things about him that made her so attracted to him.  The way he walks.  The sound of his voice.  His pheromones and natural fragrance of his body.  For a moment she forgot all about the key that was in his pocket.  She just kept reassuring herself that it couldn’t be much of anything.
“What kind of sham is this that they would put their best guest in the back left side of the room?  They clearly don’t know what a jewel they have here.”
Hearing that voice took Natalia’s breath away.  She sat frozen, almost afraid to turn around and confirm that the voice was actually the only person she ever knew who could speak to her in such a way that would take her breath away.  A second later that man was towering over her left shoulder.  She had to consciously remind herself to breathe.  She hated that he still had this effect on her.
“Come on, now.  We aren’t strangers.  We could never go back to that. “Ryan Delmanson was as gorgeous as ever.  Natalia didn’t know how to respond.  She wanted to run.  Seeing him reminded her of everything she’d spent all the time and money and energy with Richard trying to forget.  And if anyone had told her that she’d come face to face with her ex-husband at this gala, she’d have used any and every reason whatsoever to avoid coming. 
“Ryan, what are you doing here?  You’re no politician.”
“Now, is that any way to greet your former husband?  Congratulations are in order.  I hear you’ve remarried.”
Natalia felt ashamed, knowing that he knew her deep, dark secret.  She imagined he wondered if her new husband was still in the dark as he had been for all that time that they had spent together.
“Yes, and we’re very happy.  And very much in love.”  Natalia couldn’t even look him in the face.  She knew that had he not insisted she leave, she’d still be there with him now.  All those things she was feeling about Richard as he walked to the bar dissipated just as quickly as they had come.  The presence of this man had just about wiped away everything.
“And you should be.  It was good seeing you again, Natalia.  You take care.”  With that, he was gone.  Natalia’s eyes began to flood with tears.   All the things she thought she had worked through, all the feelings she was sure she had conquered.  They were all defeated by just one hello.  Natalia tried to calm herself.  Imagining that Ryan was still somewhere watching the mess she had become led her to feel embarrassed, and she reached inside her purse for a tissue.  An arm extended a handkerchief.  She looked up just as Richard was sitting down to join her.  He had placed the Martini on the far end of the table and reached to retrieve it.  He placed the drink beside her plate and sat his alongside.
“No point in asking who that was.”  He was sitting so that she knew he had her undivided attention.  She was dabbing at her eyes with the handkerchief and trying to keep from ruining her face that had turned three or four shades of red from embarrassment.  “I knew this day would come.”
“Really it’s nothing, love.”  Natalia smiled at her husband and cupped the side of his face in her hand.  “I have everything I need right here in front of me.”  Richard leaned in and rested his forehead on hers.  For a fleeting second he was overcome with sadness and sorrow himself.  Feeling guilty for all the times he cheated on her.  All the times he toyed with her emotions.  Sleeping with her friend.  Seeing her cry like this reminded him why he had vowed to remain faithful.  How soon one forgets.  Then his regret became anger that this man was still capable of breaking her down with little to no effort.
“I’m going to go to the restroom and regain my composure.  I’ll be back in no time.”  Natalia slid her chair from the table and decided to go to the restroom that was in the opposite direction near the entrance, where she was most likely to be alone.  Richard watched his wife and then dropped his head before taking a sip of champagne.  It was time he had a hard conversation with himself.  I mean, really confronted himself about his behavior and the possible detriment he was inflicting upon his wife.  And what this could do to his marriage.  If they could just get through this night things would be different for them from now on. 
Natalia returned to the table with an angelic glow, as if nothing had ever happened.  Richard stood and again helped her with her chair.  Once he was seated beside her, he leaned and whispered in her ear, “Let’s make an appointment to talk with that therapist.  Let’s do that first thing in the morning.  I’ll take time from work or whatever.  You just let me know the day and time.”   Natalia softly kissed her husband’s lips.  They threaded their fingers together, holding hands.  He kissed hers and gently moved a curl that had fallen on her forehead.  They smiled at each other.  The music was interrupted by an announcement that the program would begin in 15 minutes and that everyone should take their seats.
Natalia and Richard were so into each other that they didn’t notice the other guests assigned to their table had joined them. 
“Gavin, what do I have to do to get you to show me a little tenderness every now and again?”  Natalia and Richard looked across the table to meet a short, pudgy couple who seemed to have been together so long that they had begun to look like each other. 
“Probably lose about 60 to 70 pounds!  As big as you are I can’t even get my hands to touch either side of your body at the same time! My god, woman!  You’ve got to lose that weight!”
“Must you always joke at my expense?!  You know I’m sensitive about my weight.” 
“Must you always ask questions you really don’t want an honest answer to? Geez!” Gavin mimicked his wife’s tone.  He stood about 5’5 and wore horn-rimmed spectacles that seemed to have grown into his face.  Everything about both of them was round.  He had a meatball head and little round nose that reminded Richard of the pictures people display of Santa Claus.  His wiry eyebrows framed the top of his glasses.  His eyes appeared to be squinted shut, and he had a big round belly and fat fingers that resembled Vienna sausages.  Richard laughed at how he was still holding on to the idea of having hair.  What remained of his hair was only a couple of well gelled bushels just above his ears on either side with a part to sport that infamous comb-over.  His wife was a perfect reflection of him, like a female version or a twin sister.  Only she had short cropped bronze colored hair and was a few inches shorter.  Richard again laughed at his idea of her physique.  She was like a tall woman who had begun to melt, her body having seemingly lost its fight with gravity long ago.  She sat next to her husband, clearly offended by his remarks but somehow accustomed to it.
“Don’t mind us, sir.  Night wouldn’t turn out right unless we were insulting each other.  By the way, I’m Gavin Allen.  Wife’s Susan.”  Susan smiled at the both of them.  “It’s just so refreshing to still see people in love these days, with all that’s going on.  Take advantage of it while you can, honey  ‘cause after a few more years and the pounds that come along with them, he won’t care if you’re coming or going.”
“Susan, please.  Don’t scare the poor woman.  I’m sure she won’t park in front of the fridge every night and eat everything in sight, calling it ‘cleaning.’”
Natalia was giggling, but decided she’d take some of the attention off of Susan’s weight.  “That is a lovely brooch, Mrs. Allen,” Natalia complimented, referring to the beautifully ornate abstract pin that donned her right shoulder.    
“Oh, God.  Don’t get her started with that old thing again.”  Mr. Allen was quite an antagonist.  
“Thank you, dear,” Mrs. Allen retorted loudly to over talk his sarcastic remarks.  “This is a one-of-a-kind piece that has been handed down through my family for four generations.”  Mr. Allen was flailing his fingers about and shaking his head from side to side as if conducting an orchestra.  Natalia was trying to remain polite, but she wanted to laugh.  “My nana got it from her mother, who received it as a gift from her first husband who died.  They were young lovers and married when he was drafted to go to the war.  He was a watch maker who also had a knack for making jewelry and hand made this piece for her.  She wore it on the day they were married.  He left right after and never came home.  Died in the war.”
“Oh, what a touching sentiment to compliment such a beautiful piece,” Natalia cooed.
“Hell, she wears that thing everywhere we go, every chance she gets.  Done told damn near half the world.  You two have got to be the last ones left.”  Mr. Allen’s remarks seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.  Mrs. Allen just continued smiling as if he hadn’t said a word.
“My daughter wore it on her wedding day-“
“And believe you me, if she hadn’t Susan probably would’ve boycotted the wedding.  Had to pin it someplace to keep from taking too much attention from that overpriced nightgown she called a dress.”
“-and it was actually supposed to have been gifted to her being that she’s the oldest girl and first to marry and all, but I’m just not ready to part with it-“
“She wouldn’t have nothing else to talk about –“
“So I decided to hang on to it just a little longer.”
“And what a dumb idea to wear a piece of crap that reminds of when someone was widowed in your own wedding.”
“Gavin, can you please pretend to have some class!”  Mrs. Allen turned her attention back to Richard and Natalia.  “And I do hope it will continue to be as much a blessing to me as it was to my nana’s mom.”  She gave a one-sided glance to Gavin.  No response.  That comment must’ve gone over his head.  “So, how long have the two of you been married?”
Richard cleared his throat in an attempt to suppress his laughter.  “We’ve been married a year.”
“Oh, that’s so wonderful!”  Mrs. Allen was pretending to clap her hands.  “And are there any children?  Starting a family soon?”
Natalia could’ve crawled under the table, but Richard decided to answer that question also.  “Not at the moment, but we’re practicing.” He reached under the table and lovingly squeezed Natalia’s hand.
Mr. And Mrs. Allen chuckled in unison.  Natalia wondered how often that happens.  Just as she was about to inquire of any additional children, Richard leaned over to Natalia.  “Am I seeing things?  Or is that Arland Isaacs that just walked through that door?”  Natalia leaned further back and focused on the gentlemen that had entered the room with a group of about ten others.  He was being led by the hostess directly to the best seat at one of the best tables reserved in the front.  “Yes, Richard.  That’s him.”
“Now, who’s that?”  Mr. Allen asked.
“He’s an actor, director, producer and filmmaker, Mr. Allen,”  Natalia answered.  “Kind of like a ‘Jack of All Trades’ in the entertainment industry.”  All the time they were watching the attention he was getting from the others in the room.  “I wonder why he’d bother to come to a function like this?  I never knew he was interested in politics.”  Once Mr. Isaacs and his entourage were seated, the attention shifted back to the entrance where another well-known celeb was making an entrance.  
“Wow.  I didn’t expect Dayshun Tois and this kind of crowd.  This is becoming a star-studded event.  And they aren’t included on the program.  They must be the special guests that weren’t mentioned by name.”  After the last guest and their parties were seated, someone got up and began to speak at the podium, thanking everyone for coming and announcing the beginning of the evening program.  As he was speaking, two couples whisked over to their table and joined them.  They whispered their hellos and apologized for being seated late, explaining that they were held back until the special guests of the evening had been seated.  For a moment Natalia thought they were celebrities also.  Both couples looked as if they stepped from the pages of a magazine.  There was no time to get acquainted though because the room was silent and paying attention to every word that was being said. 
Shortly after the onset of the program, the special guests were thanked for their contributions to community centers and programs that had been the pet projects of the past year.  The honorees received their awards and gave a few words of thanks, followed by a few photos of course, before excusing themselves from the remainder of the evening’s festivities.  Finally, it was time for the speaker of the evening that happened to be none other than Councilman Ford.  Richard pointed out to Natalia that he was the one he and Keagan had been working with.  The one that Richard was hopeful to replace.  As Natalia took a good look at the councilman, she’d wondered why they didn’t get invited to a function such as this after the work they did a couple years ago for that community project he contracted with Richard to complete.  She’d gathered from Richard that he’d been in his position for quite a number of years.  He was tall and statuesque.  Articulate, and radiating with confidence.  Well-groomed, handsome.  A man not many women would want to pass them by.
Councilman Ford kept his speech brief.  He prepared to close after only about 20 minutes.
“…As I prepare to take my seat, let me remind you of something most all of us did as children.  When you were a child, your mother gave you some blocks to play with.  These blocks were colorful and had numbers and letters; some had symbols, on each side of them.  Psychologists also used these blocks as tools to test cognitive skill and how you process information.  But as a child, most of us simply liked to take the blocks and stack them.  You wanted to stack them as high as they could go without falling.  Ladies and gentlemen, government is not much different from that very activity.  We build a successfully run government by first laying down a solid foundation.  That foundation supports every component of government and determines its success.  City government is a fundamental part of that foundation.  The roles of community leaders such as city councilmen and district supervisors should not be taken lightly just because the title isn’t State Senator.  Or Governor. Or President.  Because these are the building blocks that support the work that the officials you elect would like to implement on a much higher level to better our neighborhoods, our communities, our wards and districts, our cities and counties, our states, and ultimately our world.  And that is why your vote is so very important, and so necessary to secure our future.  Thank you for all that you the taxpayers do and have done.  And it is my hope that we will continue to work towards building our tomorrows one block at a time.  With that, I’ll bid you good evening.  Please enjoy your meal.”
Councilman Ford received a standing ovation.  Natalia and Richard joined in appreciating his speech.  As they were being seated, Richard whispered to Natalia, “That’s kind of different, equivocating government with a system of blocks being stacked.”
“I thought it was a comparison that most people would be able to identify with.”
 “People like to think about open channels of government, Talia.  Not a system of stacked blocks.”
“You’re reading too much into that, silly.”
“Gotta keep you on your toes.  So, what do you think?  Could I measure up as the next councilman of district 2, ward 5?”
“Seems like pretty hefty shoes to fill, honey.  I’m sure you can do the job.  I mean, there’s nothing you can’t do.  It’s going to be interesting to watch you apply your 10th grade student government experience at this magnitude.”  Natalia and Richard laughed together.  Just then, another person announced that the buffet is now open and instructed the first row of tables that were reserved for the special guests to begin.  Those that remained moved towards the area and began to serve themselves.  The councilman, senators and other officials were served by personal waiters who had taken their selections for the evening earlier and had their meals prepared.  While they awaited their turn, which was likely to be quite a few moments from now, Natalia decided to take the initiative and introduce her and Richard to the newly seated guests that joined their table late. 
“This sure is a beautifully decorated space,” she announced, catching their attention.  “Hi.  I’m Natalia Lindhardt.  This is my husband Richard.”
“Oh, forgive us for not introducing ourselves.  I’m Stella Patton.  This is my fiancé Phabien Fritz.”
“And I’m Gia.  My husband Irvin Nero. You’re absolutely right.  This is quite impressive.”
“This is a huge spread, too.  I can only imagine how many cooks they had going at it in the kitchen trying to make all this food.”  Phabien was tall and the color of molasses.  He spoke with a Jamaican accent.  Richard noticed that he smelled of strong cologne that was masking the incense that had gotten in his clothing.  Richard also noticed that Irvin Nero was staring at Natalia.  Once Irvin realized that Richard was aware he decided to speak up.
“Forgive me for staring.  I don’t intend to be rude.  But you look so familiar to me.  I’m sure I know you from somewhere,” he said referring to Natalia.
Natalia felt a little uneasy, although she had no real reason to be.  There was something familiar about Mr. Nero as well, but until she was sure how she knew of him she didn’t want to begin an open discussion about it.  “Have you ever flown International Airways?  I was once an airline stewardess.  Perhaps that’s how you recognize me.” 
Mr. Nero nodded his head with an awkward kind of grin on his face, as if there were something he knew that the others seated around them were unaware of.  “Perhaps so,” he replied, and resumed looking over the program.
Richard smiled in his direction, but he had decided there was something he didn’t like about that cat.  He didn’t like how he “recognized” his wife and didn’t want him to speak to her again.  Of course, he had no real reason to feel this way.  There was just something eerie about him.  And it made Richard feel like he was the butt of some secret or something.  The only man Natalia had ever talked about in all the therapy and counseling was her former husband.  She had mentioned some issues with her father briefly, but didn’t share much about her parents because they both died when she was just a teenager.  Richard decided he would ask about any other significant men in her life when they had time alone and the opportunity presents itself.  But for now, he would go on making acquaintance with the others in the room as Keagan had told him Councilman Ford suggested.  Natalia was doing great with introductions and making light conversation.  She would definitely be an asset, being the most socially conscious of the two of them.  As the evening progressed, they continued to mingle through dinner.  Afterwards, they were to retreat to the ballroom for dancing.  
The ballroom was decorated equally as beautifully as the dining hall had been.  Natalia had definitely enjoyed spending time like this with her husband.  And it was so entertaining to watch even Mr. And Mrs. Allen dance together, although they seemed to pick at each other the entire time they spent on the dance floor.  Just as Natalia and Richard were preparing to leave, Richard noticed that Councilman Ford was nearing the exit as well.  He grabbed Natalia by the elbow and quickened their pace towards the door in hopes of getting a few words in with the councilman before they part for the evening.
“Councilman Ford…”  Richard was aware of the noise in the room, but didn’t want to yell too loudly.  He released Natalia’s arm and quickened his pace just a little bit more.  Councilman Ford received his coat from the hostess and proceeded to help his date put her wrap on.  Richard caught up to them.  “Councilman Ford, preparing to call it a night, huh,”  Richard reached back and motioned for Natalia’s hand.  She had to speed up to meet him.  Councilman Ford looked at Richard and smiled.
“Did you enjoy yourself?”  He asked as he reached to shake Richard’s hand. 
“A very nice and extravagant evening.  You remember my wife, Natalia.”  Natalia moved from behind Richard and extended her hand.  “You gave a wonderful speech, Councilman Ford.   I can understand why you’re a favorite among the voters.”  Councilman Ford shook her hand and thanked her for that compliment. 
“Please allow me to introduce you to my wife, Yasmine.”  Yasmine was much younger than Richard had expected.  Richard remembered Councilman Ford’s words that this marriage was more of a business deal.  She had to have been in her early twenties when they married if they’d been married 18 years.  Richard couldn’t help but to wonder what her family thought of this arrangement. 
“Pleased to meet you, Natalia. If you’ll pardon me, I’m a little tired.”   She turned her attention toward her husband.  “Anthony, I’ll meet you in the car.”  “It really is nice meeting the both of you.  Please excuse me.”   With that, Yasmine left.  Natalia was hoping to possibly exchange contact information so she could get to know her a little better.
“Glad the both of you enjoyed yourselves.”  Councilman Ford was preparing to exit as well. 
“Councilman Ford, I was wondering –“Richard was trying to get a question in, but Councilman Ford didn’t slow down.  He made a gesture that seemed to imply that he couldn’t hear over the noise in the room and waved goodbye.  Richard stood there looking kind of lost.
“Hmph, that was kind of quick.  Guess they must be exhausted.”  Natalia took her husband by the hand.  “Quite honestly, I’m exhausted myself.” 
Richard just continued to stand there, seemingly puzzled.  “Is it me, or did he just brush me off?”
“Babe, it’s been a long evening.  Everyone’s pretty much winding down.  I wouldn’t take that too personally.  I mean, you have to consider how many hands he’s had to shake and how much conversation he’s expected to have.  Give the man a break.  You’ll understand when it’s you that has to work the crowd.”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.  Let’s make some plans to try to invite him over for dinner or something.”
“That’s a great idea.”  Natalia was pulling Richard toward the exit also.  He stopped her just as they got outside.  He noticed that the councilman was already out of sight.
Richard gave his ticket to the valet and turned toward his wife.  “You were wonderful tonight.  I appreciate you. Everything.”  Richard leaned over and kissed his wife’s forehead.  She smiled up at him. They stood there embracing each other.  But Natalia was still hiding her anxiety.  She had never quite felt at ease about how Irvin Nero had recognized her.  In fact, she was more bothered by it than she originally felt she was.  Because now she was trying to remember how she could have known him.  Truth is there were millions of faces she’d seen over the course of her time as an airline stewardess.  What was it about this man that stood out?  Had her mind tricked her into believing her own lie?  She could not have known this man from any flight at all.  And that’s what bothered her the most.  Life was good for her right now, with the exception of this baby Richard was occasionally discussing… and of course that key in his coat pocket.  Natalia didn’t want any added complications from ghosts from her past.  She kept picturing his face.  She made a mental note to google Mr. Nero upon returning to the office.  No surprises.  If there were going to be more functions such as this while Richard tries to gain support for office, it would be her job to make certain that she wouldn’t be his downfall because of annoyances from her past.  There would be no one that she’d allow to cast a shadow on her and her husband.  She’d move hell and high water to protect their life together.  At all costs.   


"…and there was the cutest old married couple that sat right across from us.  They were hilarious!  But after the celebrities left we basically ate and did a couple of turns on the dance floor before we were out the door, too.”
“Natalia, you were in a room full of millionaires and well-to-dos, and you couldn’t get a single business card or even mention me and the show.  Come on! I thought you were my friend! Jealous, are we? Huh? Just a little?”  Miranda and Natalia were chatting it up like they had never stopped speaking.  Miranda had her hands full with her show and trying to get some new ideas off the ground.  And with Natalia now playing the role of the social butterfly and work, she and Miranda weren’t able to talk nearly as much as they used to.
“Randi, yes I am jealous, you heifer!” Natalia playfully retorted.  “You look gorgeous on camera. Did you guys replace that other producer yet?”
“As a matter of fact, there is a new lady that starts tomorrow.  She’s young and just out of school, but I’m told that she made a wonderful impression.  So, we’re giving it a go.  And, if I’m not mistaking, you are gonna have quite a bit going on with Richard now trying to add politics to his roster. Work it, girl.  Because you never know what might come from this.  You can never be sure how God is going to bless you.”  Miranda had said a mouthful.
“Oh, is that Aunt Phoebe I hear?” Natalia picked up on a trace of Miranda’s Aunt Phoebe, who’d raised her.  She was always singing hallelujahs and praises.
“I know, girl.  I have to catch myself sometimes when I’m tempted to watch Matlock or In The Heat of the Night.”  They shared a laugh.  “Anyhow, let me get back to this stack of work that I have before me.”
“Work?  It’s the weekend, Randi!”
“Yeah, work has become my hobby, because I really do enjoy it, Natalia.  We’ve already filmed all the segments for this season, but I want to prepare a good presentation for the things I want to present to the producers and directors that I have a strong feeling will set the show apart from all the others in the next season.  It’s become all I think about.  And Cachet Realty has grown by leaps and bounds.  We’re having to build a brand new facility.  But, let’s not lose touch again.  We can meet up at Poetree like we used to and finish catching up.  I’m sure Vee feels like I think I’m too good for the place now. I can only imagine what she’ll say once we show up there again.”
“And how has she been?  We’ve gotten disconnected from everybody.”  Natalia shoved a spoonful of peanut butter in her mouth.
“You know after that filming at her place, business something like tripled for her.  But I think she fell ill or something from what Kemi told me.  I haven’t taken the time to check on her yet.  I’d better make that a priority.  But let me get off this phone and get started on this before it gets too late.  Promise me you’ll call tomorrow.”
“I’ll call you if you don’t call me first, how’s that?”  Natalia went to the kitchen to put away her snacks.
“Yes, we’ll talk again soon.  Love you, lady!”  Miranda chimed.
“Love you back.  Bye now.”  Natalia pressed end on her iPhone and began to wash the glass and spoon she’d just used.  She was smiling at how successful her friend had become after such a debacle of a marriage.  Yet she has rebounded. 
But thinking about her marriage reminded Natalia of her own problems, and how she’d never asked Richard about that suite key she’d found in his pocket last weekend.  He’d already taken the tuxedo to the cleaners.  Natalia was a little apprehensive about bringing it up now after all this time.  He’d surely taken it out by now, and without some proof he’d more than likely question if she really had found a key at all. Natalia had been paying close attention to him though, without being suspicious or nagging.  She’d expected his pursuit of public office to keep him away from home more often.  So she wasn’t trippin’ about that.  With all the added activities and work, how could he have extra time to fool around with someone else?  It didn’t make sense.  But the truth is that people make time for things that interest them and things that they want to do.  If he already had a love interest, now would be the perfect opportunity to spend some extra time elsewhere.  Natalia shook her head and decided to give it a rest for now.  She was driving herself crazy.  She tossed Yoshi a doggie treat and checked the time.  It was only 9 a.m.  Richard had been gone since 5.  He’d started working out with Keagan at some spot the councilman was offered.  However, the councilman had gym equipment in his home.  Richard had taken a change of clothes because they were supposed to go to some university to make an appearance at a program their political science students were hosting.  Richard had thought it would be best if she didn’t attend.  He wasn’t sure when they’d be done.  So, Natalia decided to curl up in bed and read a little or watch a little television. Later on she’d take Yoshi for a walk and begin planning the dinner that Richard had suggested they host.  She began feeling as though she wasn’t doing enough with all the things Miranda had going and Richard’s new endeavors. 
“Wait a minute!  Keagan.  Keagan Trudeaux.”  Recollecting about what Miranda had endured and thinking about her own marriage jarred Natalia’s memory.  She ran back to the kitchen to get her cell phone that she’d left on the counter and called Miranda back. 
“What’s up, lady?  You want to come over here and keep me company while I work?”
“Randi, what was the name of that attorney who had first began working on your case with the news report that time?  Wasn’t it Keagan?  Keagan Trudeaux?”
Miranda could tell from the intensity in Natalia’s voice that something was up.  “Yeah, we went to school together.  Why’d you bring up that dinosaur?”
“Randi, Keagan is working with this whole campaign bid with Richard and Councilman Ford!  Richard and I both agreed the name sounded familiar, but neither of us could place it.  I remember we were supposed to meet him and… yeah, Sahara… we were supposed to meet them that time you invited us to their house, but then you fainted and ended up in the hospital because your house burned down-“
“Natalia, slow it down.  You say he’s working with Councilman Ford.  Is that Councilman Anthony Ford?”
“Yes.  His wife did refer to him as Anthony.”  Natalia had to calm herself down. She was reminded of how Keagan had come on the Randi.  They parted on some not so pleasant terms to say the least.
“Hmm.  How did Richard come to decide he’d like to run for city councilman?”  Miranda inquired.
“Richard did a contract for them a couple years back on some community project.  Councilman Ford appreciated the work he did and liked him well enough that he decided he would make an ideal replacement for him because he is expecting to relocate and won’t hold the same position next election.”  Natalia was beginning to wonder what they’d gotten themselves into.
“I can’t really tell you much about running for public office, Natalia.  But I do remember Keagan.  Tread lightly, my sister.  He can be most unpredictable,” Miranda cautioned.
“We’ll make some time to talk about things.  I want to know just who my man is dealing with.  I’ll be sure to keep you abreast.”  With that Natalia and Miranda said their goodbyes once again.
Natalia picked up the morning paper and crawled into bed.  The whole time she was wondering what the odds are that of all the attorneys in this great state, she and her hubby would cross paths with this one.  She took the remote control from the nightstand and clicked on the news while opening up her newspaper and shuffling through to her favorite section.  The face staring back at her caused her to freeze.  Irvin and Gia Nero were on the first page of the Lifestyles section.  DOCTORS Gia and Irvin Nero.  They were being featured for having opened up a local practice specializing in cosmetic surgery. 

“Look, I’m sorry for how this is turning out.  I never meant for anybody to get hurt.  I mean, we were never about that.  We just… you know.  We were just having fun.  I didn’t think you were this kind of chick, or I never would’ve gotten involved with you.”
“Richard, all I’m trying to get you to see is that Natalia has a little emotional episode after seeing her first husband and here you come calling it off between us like something’s going to be different.  It’s you and me, Richard.  It’s me.  You don’t have to do this.  I’ve never asked you to choose.  So, why would you do this to us?”  Blythe didn’t realize how pathetic and desperate she sounded practically begging Richard not call off their very convenient arrangement.  She made herself a screwdriver and stood close to Richard, wanting to hold him and feel his arms around her like they were just a little over a week ago. She took a sip of her drink then placed the glass on her forehead to let the coolness relieve some of the heat from her face.
“Blythe, babe.  I appreciate everything.  How you’ve been there, but –“
“-but now you think you can just wish me well and quietly send me away, huh?  You think you can just go on with your little wife and bid for public office… and your little happily ever afters… and ignore me.  Is that it, Richard?”  Blythe was crying and her eyes were bloodshot red.  Her face looked flushed.  She took another long sip of her screwdriver. 
Richard dropped his head.  This had been far more difficult than he anticipated.  Why was it women always had to get emotionally involved?  Why couldn’t she just enjoy the ride as he had done?  And when the ride’s over, it’s time to get off.  Simple as that.  “I can’t keep doing this, Blythe.  And it isn’t personal.  I don’t want to hurt you.  Understand that.  I don’t want you to be hurt.  But you know what this is.  You knew what you were getting into.  We never should have gotten this going in the first place.”
“She doesn’t deserve you.”  Blythe suddenly settled in a kind of eerie quietness.  “She doesn’t want to have your child, Richard.  She told me so herself.  She’s even planning on faking an accident so you’ll stop asking for children for good.”  Blythe was smiling at how she’d burst his bubble.  She took another sip of her screwdriver.
Richard swiftly lifted his head up and leapt from his chair, grabbing Blythe by the shoulders and shaking her vigorously, causing her drink to splatter and fall to the floor.  “You are a pathetic and desperate liar, Blythe!  How could you go so far as to say such a thing!  She’s your friend for pete’s sake!”  Richard released Blythe and she stumbled back a little.  A malevolent laugh filled the air as she caught her balance. 
“My friend?  Hell, she’s your wife.  You don’t have to take my word for it, dear heart.  Just talk to her about having a baby and see how far you get.”
Richard stormed toward the door.  “You’re a psychotic piece of ass.”
“I’ll be waiting for you when you get home, darling,” Blythe yelled between laughs as Richard slammed the door.                                                                    ***

Lies.   Too many lies.  Richard couldn’t think straight.  He couldn’t focus on anything but Blythe’s words.  He wanted to go home and confront Natalia about this right now.  But how could he?  He was supposed to be at a university function with their political science department.  How could he instead confront Natalia about what Blythe had told him?  He wasn’t even supposed to be seeing Blythe.  What if Blythe had lied to trick him into telling Natalia about their affair?  Richard was driving and yelling obscenities, hitting the steering wheel and speeding.  He was a raving maniac.  Tears were streaming down his face. 
“I love you, Natalia!  I’m sorry!”  he yelled out. 
“She does want to have children.”  He cried out emphatically.  “Yep, she just wants to be sure that I’m for real about us.”
Richard felt the weight of that statement.  He’d been cheating on his wife since not long after the wedding.  How could that seem that he was at all serious about his marriage? 
He remembered the conversation he had with Keagan.  He had told Keagan about his affairs the day of the Senator’s Annual Gala.  Keagan had reserved the tuxedo for him at Por Hemme.  Councilman Ford wanted to be sure there were no surprises once they began the election process.  That’s what Keagan had told him.  So, they went to Embassy Suites International to discuss it quietly over a few drinks.  Councilman Ford met them there.  They talked and Richard was assured that everything could be dealt with civilly and without a scandal.  “Why, you’ve done nothing any worse than any other man, public figure or otherwise,” Councilman Ford had reassured him.  “There’s always a problem that won’t go away.  Or will, with a little bit of help,” he’d told him on at least two occasions. 
Richard was driving like a maniac, riddled with guilt and disgust at how things were unraveling.  And although he didn’t want to, he phoned Keagan.  He wasn’t thinking clearly.  He needed someone who was familiar with the game to counsel him as to how to handle this situation.
“My man, Richard.  What’s up?” Keagan answered on the third ring. 
“I need to talk to you.  Is there somewhere we can meet?”  Richard was trying his best not to sound as crazy as he was feeling.
“Is something wrong?”  Keagan feigned concern.
“It’s about what we talked about last weekend.  If you’re busy I can just get back at you another time-“
“Nah, how about the Embassy in about 30 mins?  Same spot.” 
“Yeah, I’ll see you then.”  Richard disconnected the call and made a u-turn. 

Keagan was seated comfortably in a leather lounge chair near the window of the common area of the suite.  The view was breathtaking, overlooking the city from 37 stories in the air.  Drink in hand, he sat and listened intently at every detail of what Richard was explaining had taken place.  Richard sat adjacent to him on the chaise.  With elbows rested on his knees and hands cradling his head, he poured out his soul.  He explained how he had been having affairs since at least 6 months after he and Natalia had married.  He described how he’d come to be intimate with Blythe.  He even told about his occasional “extracurricular” visits to his masseuse.  Some of the details Keagan had heard before from the day of the Senator’s Gala.  Others he was hearing for the very first time.   Richard’s voice was full of pain as he went on to explain how hurtful the conversation had become with Blythe, and how Blythe had sprung this whole news on him about Natalia never intending to have a child.  Richard sat in silence a few moments after baring his soul.  Keagan got up to freshen his drink.
“That’s deep.  But it’s all about how you want to handle it.  Can I make you a drink?”  Keagan added a little bit more ice and topped it off with more JD.
“Yeah, I’ll have some of that JD on ice.  I don’t want a divorce.  I mean, even without the children, I just can’t see myself with anyone else.  I love my wife.”  Richard began to rub his head.
“Then you do realize that refusing to have children is valid grounds for divorce.  But if Natalia is hell bent on not having children, there’s really nothing you can do to actually prove that she isn’t.  Millions of women can’t conceive or have failed pregnancies.  Did you ever ask her what’s her beef with not having children?  Was there some type of trauma or something surrounding the birth of a child that put her off with the entire idea?”  Keagan handed Richard his drink.
“She’s never said no.  She just wants to wait.  We had a 5 yr plan before we were to try to start a family.  I had no reason to question because we both at first agreed that we wanted to do a little more travel, become more financially secure and stable where we want to be in our careers before we begin our family.”  Richard took a long swig of his drink.
“Makes sense,” Keagan agreed.  “And you can’t really confront her about it because she told her girlfriend, the one that you’ve been sleeping with, and that’s who told you.  So, saying something about it would open Pandora’s box.”
Richard leaned back on the chaise, a shell of a man.  He looked exhausted and defeated, as if his entire life had unraveled right before his eyes.  “She’d surely know that Blythe told me.  The next question would be why.  That’d put me in the spotlight.”
“Then you’ve got no choice but to keep quiet about it.  And it’d probably be in your best interest to continue seeing Blythe.  Maybe not as often, but -”
“Continue seeing Blythe?  Even if she hadn’t come up with this crap about Natalia, I still would’ve called it off with her.  It was getting old anyway.”
“Yeah, but it’s kind of like the councilman told you last week.  You don’t want any surprises.  Staying close to Blythe you can kind of keep an eye on her.  Ease her anxieties.  Stay in tune with what she’s thinking.  Hell, tell her what to think.  But just leaving her like this when she’s clearly not ready to end the affair… you have no idea what she could come up with.”
Richard hated to admit that Keagan was making sense. 
“Give yourself time to settle.  Unwind.  What you should do will become clearer.  Right now, you’re upset, as can be expected.   We’ll talk more after you’ve had a chance to clear your head.”  Keagan placed his drink on the side table, checked his watch and gathered his keys.  “Feel free to mellow out here as long as you like.  I’ll let the councilman know you were here.  But I’ve gotta jet.”
“Ay, thanks man for making time to talk.  I’m feeling a little sleepy.  I’ll probably crash here before I go home.”  Richard moved to where Keagan was originally seated and stared out the window.
“No problem, my man.  I’ll be talking to you.”  Keagan closed the door to the suite.  
Within moments Richard began to feel as if the room were spinning.  JD was Richard’s drink.  There’s no way it could have this effect on him after just one.  Maybe because it was early in the afternoon and Richard hadn’t eaten yet.  Whatever the reason, he had to sleep it off.  There’s no way he’d be able to drive in this condition.  As his head got heavier, he relaxed and was out in no time.

“Sir, will you be staying an extra night?  Sir…”  Richard awoke to the sound of a man with a heavy Spanish accent shaking him and asking if he were going to stay an extra night.
“What? Huh?”  Richard grabbed his head.  He was hung over.  And this was the absolute worst he’d ever been.  His head felt like it had been buried in cement.
“Who’s paying for this room?  Are you staying an extra night?”  When Richard opened his eyes, he saw a short Hispanic with thick mustache dressed in a hotel uniform.  He sat up, trying to sober himself.
“No, this is the councilman’s room.  He’s taking care of it.”
The hotel employee began speaking Spanish, clearly frustrated.  He spoke into his walkie talkie, “We got another bum.  Room 3718.  Get someone up here.”  He released the button and took a couple steps away.  “You get out of here now before I call the police.” 
Richard was trying to figure out how he got in the bed.  He remembered having a drink and sitting in the chair by the window.  He didn’t remember much after that, after Keagan left the suite.  And his shoes were off.  He held up a hand to slow down the hotel employee that was still issuing out orders to leave.
“Just hold on, man.  I’m leaving.  But this is Councilman Ford’s suite.  Everything’s cool.  No need to get upset.”  Richard put on his shoes and felt his pockets for his keys.  He felt indescribably strange.  His clothes felt funny on him.  He had a strange taste in his mouth.  “Where are my keys?” 
“I don’t know where your keys.  You get out of here now.  I’ll call the police.”  The hotel attendant was becoming increasingly frustrated.  He was switching from Spanish to English and pacing.  “There.  There some keys.  Are they yours?”  He was pointing to some keys that were on the bar.  Richard stumbled towards the bar and gathered the keys.  Just then, three other hotel personnel entered the suite.  One of them had what looked like a taser wand in his hand.  He spoke up first, “Sir, we’re insisting that you leave right this instant before things get any worse.  We don’t want any trouble.  Just leave.”
“You all are really making a big mistake.  This is Councilman Ford’s suite.  I have permission to be here.”  Richard spoke slowly as if everyone in the room had some kind of language barrier or something.  With that, Richard threw his hands in the air and exited the suite.  The hotel attendant with the taser followed a short distance behind.  “Make sure he gets on the elevators and leaves,” one of the others instructed before reentering the room.  There was already another hotel attendant holding the elevator.  Richard got on the elevator and checked his watch.  He blinked several times to clear his vision.  His watch read 6:38 p.m.  “What the…” he looked at the attendant carrying the taser.  “What time do you have?”   The hotel attendant didn’t respond immediately, then seemed to change his mind about answering.  He glanced at his watch.   “It’s about 20 minutes to 4 a.m.” 
“20 minutes to 4!!”  Richard gave a look at his watch again.  The second hand was still sweeping around the dial.  How could he have lost this much time?  He started feeling his pockets for his cell phone, which wasn’t there.  He reached past the other attendant to try and stop the elevator.  “I’ve got to go back and get my phone!”
 The attendant nearest the elevator levels sidestepped to the back, uncertain of what Richard might do.  The other hotel employee with the taser wand grabbed Richard’s arm and twisted it behind his back while pressing him against the elevator wall.  “Take it easy there, sir.  You don’t need to go back there for anything.” 
Richard was becoming angry and could barely breathe.  His face was jammed against the cold elevator wall.  The pain from that hold the hotel attendant had on him intensified with each breath.  Realizing he was in a situation that he couldn’t control, he calmed down enough to speak.  “I just want to get my phone.  I left my phone in the room.” 
The hotel attendant took his free hand and radioed to the other personnel.  “Hosea, you still in room 3718?”  Within seconds, there was that familiar voice from the same attendant that had awakened Richard.  “Yes.”  The hotel attendant restraining Richard responded, “Is there a cell phone anywhere around?  Guy says he left his cell phone.”  The response was so soon that there was no way that he had taken time to look around the room for the phone.  “I don’t see no phones.”
 Richard interrupted, “Call 696-787-2224.  Tell him to follow the ring and bring me my phone.” 
The hotel attendant restraining Richard hesitated yet again as if contemplating whether or not he would comply.  “Phone 696-747 – what were those numbers again?”
 “787-2224,” Richard spat out.  “2224. 696-787-2224.”
“The attendant radioed again, “That’s 696-787-2224.”  There was silence as they listened to the other personnel dial the number.  There was a chime that let Richard know the phone was there.  Then Hosea radioed, “I’ll send it right now.”
The hotel attendant released Richard from that hold and pretended to apologize.  “We get all kinds of crazies that sneak in here.  Lots of things can and have happened.  You understand.”  His tone was cold.  And it almost seemed as if he had enjoyed the entire ordeal, as if it were his entertainment for the evening.  He stood about 6’3,almost the same height as Richard.  Had a thick, wiry, unkempt mustache that looked wild on his face and was entirely too long, with matching sideburns.  His dirty blonde hair looked to be just that – dirty.  And he seemed to not have combed his hair under that cap.  He was certain to be violating the hotel’s policy regarding appropriate hygiene and appearance.  Richard stood there looking at the man and massaging the pain from his shoulder.  “Sure, Darwyn,” Richard spoke sarcastically, reading his name badge. The hotel employee picked up on Richard’s anger and began twirling his taser wand, taunting Richard.  If he hadn’t had that taser wand, Richard was sure he’d have given him an ass kicking like none other.  But this clearly wasn’t the time nor the place.  Odds were not even remotely near his favor.  Just then the elevator doors opened and Richard almost ran out of the elevator. 
“I’m going to get my car.  I’ll pull it around front and wait for my phone,” Richard growled at the attendant as he headed in the direction of the hotel doors, glancing over his shoulder to make sure he wouldn’t pull another fast move on him.  He felt the heat rushing to his face from embarrassment as he noticed the receptionist and other hotel personnel ogling him as he walked through the lobby. Once outside he took a couple of long breaths.  “What the hell has just happened?” he said aloud.  Walking towards his car he realized the interior lights were on.  Rather than use the remote keyless entry, he checked the handle.  The car was unlocked.  “What the…!”  Richard quickly perused through his glove box and armrest to check if anything has been stolen or rambled through.  Everything seemed intact.  Perhaps he was so upset upon arriving that he didn’t make certain the door was closed.  He started the ignition and carefully drove towards Embassy Suites International entryway.  A couple minutes later a policeman brought him his cell phone. 
“Sir, I’m not sure what all happened here tonight, but we shouldn’t have another disturbance like this from you,” the officer passively instructed.
“This has been a terrible misunderstanding.  I’ll be sure to get it straightened out,” Richard retorted.
“Are you good to drive, or do you need a cab?” the officer questioned, still pretending to be cordial.
“I’m good, sir,” Richard responded with an equal amount of feigned conviviality.    
“You drive safe, now,” he instructed as he handed Richard his phone and took a step back.
Richard peeled off carefully so as not to cause the policeman concern.  Where exactly he was going he had absolutely no idea.  He didn’t want to face Natalia without an explanation.  But there wasn’t an explanation.  Hell, he wasn’t certain what had happened himself.  He looked at his phone to find 50 missed calls.  He knew that Natalia must have made most of those calls.  Blythe never called him on his cell.  He couldn’t run to her either after he’d dumped her earlier that day.  He was becoming a ball of nervous energy, and couldn’t shake this weird feeling that had overcome him.  Something definitely went wrong.  And Richard’s head felt as though it were about to explode.    


Why did garage doors have to be so loud?  The best he could hope for was that Natalia had fallen asleep.  That would buy him some time, if only another hour or so, to gather his thoughts together.  He parked the car and decided to leave the garage door up so as not to increase his risk of awakening Natalia.  “Please god, just let her be asleep,” he quietly whispered.  He pushed the car door shut rather than the traditional way most just let it slam.  As quietly as he could, he eased the key in the lock and opened the door.  Just as he was about to enter, his cell phone fell on the floor.  He reached down to pick it up and as he stood to enter he was met with a slap across the left side of his face that felt as if thunder had stricken his jaw.  His cheeks were on fire.  He took a step back and came face to face with Natalia.
“Don’t you ever in your life do this to me again!  Do you understand me, Richard!”
Her question was rhetorical.  He knew not to answer.  He’d never seen her like this before.  That sobering slap had commanded every ounce of attention and energy remaining.  There was nothing he could say.  He just nodded his head and eased past her, holding his cheek with one hand and pocketing his cell phone with the other.
“Oh, no!  You’d better open your mouth and talk to me Richard Lindhardt!  You have been gone away from this house since a quarter to five in the morning!  Dammit, that’s a full 24 hours from this very moment!”  Natalia was pointing at the clock on the wall.  “It’s one thing to leave after an argument, but this is a whole different issue when you leave here going one place and don’t come home at all!!!”  Natalia was yelling so loudly that the neighbors were certain to hear.  She looked Richard in the eyes.  He had a defeated look about the face, with so much pain.  Natalia quieted down and began shaking her head and crying.  “Richard, why?  Why are you doing this to us?”
That was the second time within a few hours that someone had asked that question of him.
Natalia’s face was wet with tears.  Richard could barely look at her.  “And you want to have a child?  You’re ready to start a family?”  She asked rhetorically and with sarcasm.  Natalia couldn’t resist the opportunity to throw this in his face.  But that statement became the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Richard’s look of pain was replaced with anger.
“Now, you hold all the cards where that’s concerned, my love.  Seems everybody else already knows what I’ve yet to learn.”  Richard went to the fridge to get himself some water.  He still had that pasty taste in his mouth and felt dehydrated.
“What’s that supposed to mean?  Don’t you come in here and try to turn this around on me, Richard!  You are the one who has been gone with not a word spoken for an entire 24 hours!  Where were you, Richard?”  Natalia’s voice had elevated again.
Richard was remembering Blythe’s words, the very thing that caused this mess.  He somehow felt empowered though, despite having had the affair.  At least he wasn’t lying about their future, misleading her.  He began to feel as though he didn’t owe her an honest explanation.  And for a moment, he wished he actually had been with Blythe the entire day.  “After the function at the university, I hung out with Keagan the rest of the day.  We played some ball.  Had some drinks.  I crashed.  Woke up not too long ago.” He spoke without even looking in her direction.
Natalia had a questionable countenance about the face.  “Is that so?” she asked, speaking just above a whisper as she meandered back and forth in front of the door to the garage.  “I thought perhaps you were at Embassy Suites International.” 
Richard was so in shock from her comment that he dropped his water. 
“From now on, I don’t give a damn where you go.  Sleep on the gotdamn couch or go back wherever the hell it is you came from.  And fuck you and whoever the hell you were with.”  Natalia then strolled to the bedroom and slammed the door.

Poached eggs. Toast, lightly buttered.  Orange juice.  That was the first breakfast that Richard had prepared for her on their honeymoon.  Those were the contents of the serving tray that lay on the corner of Richard’s side of the bed.  Natalia had almost knocked the tray over as she turned around and sat up in bed.  Sunday morning.  Richard must’ve stayed.  Natalia wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  She got out of bed and went to the living room.  He lay on the couch.  Must’ve cooked breakfast and fell asleep watching television.  As Natalia reached for the remote to turn the television off, she caught the tail end of “The Sunday Edition,” current events local programming that features newsmakers and such from the surrounding area.  Irvin and Gia Nero were being interviewed.  Natalia clicked off the set and put the remote on the end table, unintentionally awaking Richard.  He looked up at her.  “What time is it?”
“It’s noon.”  Natalia was curt, although she had secrets of her own to give an account for.  In this case she felt she had the upper hand.
Richard sat up on the couch.  “Did you eat your breakfast?”
“I don’t have much of an appetite.”
Knowing that he wasn’t going to get much out of her with words, Richard rose from the couch and caressed Natalia from behind, holding her close to him with his head rested upon hers.  “Babe, I love you so much.”  He began to cry.  “And I am so sorry.” 
Natalia was weakened by his expression and began to cry.  They stood there for a few moments, holding each other and sobbing. 
“Richard, I was so afraid.  I couldn’t get in touch with you.  I wanted to-“ 
Richard spun her around and placed his finger over her lips, quieting her before pulling her closer and kissing her.  She wrapped her arms around his neck and he lifted her up so that she could wrap her legs around his waist.  He carried her into the bedroom and lay her down on the bed.  He was about to set the tray on the floor, but Natalia was refusing to let go.  He gently kissed her again.  He trailed kisses from her neck and further.  He slid her nightshirt over her head and continued to taste every inch of her flesh.  Natalia began to cry again.  She loved this man so much, but was so afraid.  Her former husband’s face flashed across her mind.  She held Richard tighter, closer.  She shut her eyes tight and concentrated on the sensations that were penetrating her soul.  Richard was gently kissing her stomach.  Natalia gave encouraging sighs and moans.  He kissed his way back up and was nibbling at her lips while sliding his pants down.  The next thing Natalia felt was Richard’s masculinity entering her warm and moistened flesh.  He began to make love to her, slowly at first.  She tried to groove with his rhythm, but he was different this time.  His rhythm increased… became less sensitive and loving.  More rigid and convulsive.  Impersonal.  She tried to get him to slow down again. To return to a loving pace.  He was looking her in the face.  She whispered, “Richard, honey slow down.  I want to enjoy feeling you inside me.”  She extended her neck to try to meet his lips, but he turned his head.  He instead quickened his pace, making spastic thrusts.  Natalia tried using her movements instead of words to slow the pace.  Richard resisted, refusing to allow her control.  He put his weight on her and lifted her leg up over his shoulder.  Natalia was trying to lower her leg, but this time he refused to let go.  He was bearing down more weight with each thrust.  She removed her hands and just lay there.  Richard began to groan. Moments afterwards, he gave a final thrust and let out a short grunt.  The tension was released from his body.  He got up and retreated to the master bathroom.  He got in the shower.  He never said a word to her.  She just lay there, crying. Over six years together.  Three and a half years of therapy.  One year of marriage.  All of it crumbling right before her eyes.  Once she found the strength to get up from the bed, she went to the bathroom to meet him in the shower.
 Richard was allowing the water the fall on his head and cascade down his body.  He was trying to hide his tears.  He was hurt beyond words.  Not only at her actions, but his as well.  Just as she had, he was remembering all the time that they’d spent together.  The therapy.  They’d only been married one year.  Where did they go wrong?  They were so committed to each other before they were married.   But Natalia had lied.  She’d misled him into believing she’d start a family with him.  But behind his back, she was planning to carry forth a lifelong deception.  She was even so bold as to tell someone outside of their marriage that she wasn’t going to have his child.  If she’d told Blythe, she’d probably told Miranda and only god knows who else.  He imagined being the subject of her conversation.  Women laughing at how he was being kept in the dark, and how she was planning to make a fool of him for life.  When he heard Natalia open the shower door, he began to lather up.  Natalia lay her head on his wet back.  She was crying.  She could feel his pain as the warmth from his skin warmed her.  She took the extra bar of soap and a towel and began to wash his back.  Richard rinsed himself and left her in the shower alone. 
Natalia broke down and curled up in a knot on the shower floor.  She was sobbing and confused.  This man had stayed away all day and all night, but was acting as if she were to blame.  Why was this happening?  She had to have some answers.  She had to talk to him.  She washed herself and got out of the shower.  With only a towel wrapped around her body, she called out for Richard.  There was no response.  She went to the living room.  He wasn’t there.  She checked the garage.  He was gone.  He’d bailed on her again.  Natalia went back to the bedroom.  That’s when she noticed the note left on the bed. 
Have to go and clear my head.  We’ll discuss things when I return.  I should be home by 5.

Richard drove in complete silence.  He had to sort through his feelings and decide what he wanted to happen from this point.  He was hardening inside.  Angry.  And still puzzled about what had happened in the suite last night.  He turned a couple of corners and decided to visit the bar he once frequented before he and Natalia had gotten serious.  It brought him some degree of comfort when he entered the parking lot and found that his old favorite parking space was still available.  And that’s exactly why he’d chosen to visit here.  He wanted to find solace and some degree of normalcy and simplicity amidst all this drama that had begun overtaking his life.  He wanted something that was still the same.  Something familiar.  Stable.  He entered the bar and was glad that everything was exactly as he remembered, with the exception of some new fixtures, flat panel televisions and furniture.  The lighting remained dim and serene.  The aroma of draft beer and salted nuts permeated the air.  He headed straight toward the bar and positioned himself on the corner side where he used to sit.  There was new staff.  The bartender and waitresses he knew weren’t there.
“You new here?” the bartender questioned.  He was a slender Italian.  Kind of reminded him of Ace that worked the bar a while back.
“I wouldn’t say that.  Just back from a long hiatus.”  Richard rested his elbows on the bar and started cracking a handful of the complimentary shelled nuts in a huge glass jar.
“Eh, well welcome back.  Name’s Dave.  What can I get you?”   Dave finished drying the glasses then used the towel to clean the water and residue from the bar.
“Humph, after the day I had yesterday, I probably should give up drinking.  Just give me a Corona.”
“Bottle or draft?”
Dave did a half twist and bent down to get the corona from the fridge.  In seemingly one smooth motion, he popped the top and placed the drink on a coaster.  “Be back to check on you in a minute.”  Dave walked to the other end of the bar and started checking on the other customers.  Richard gave the place another once over, this time noticing the people.  Place wasn’t crowded, but had a decent number of patrons.  About a couple dozen.  Some others sat at the bar alone with their nuts just as he was.  There was a man pushing up on a woman at the jukebox.  She was teasing him, just enough to keep him dangling.  Two of the six pool tables were in use. On one table there was a man of about 50.  5’5 and overweight.  Pale complexion.  Thinning hair.  He was challenging a woman who looked about in her early 20s; young enough to be his daughter, but more than likely not.  Tall and slender.  Long legs and long blonde hair. There was money on that table.  Richard guessed that he was trying to get better acquainted, but she was using this opportunity to hustle up on some cash.  Because he didn’t look like he belonged there.  And from what Richard had seen, he was about to lose his cash to her.  She was definitely out of his league, both with pool and otherwise.  A social network connection gone wrong, disappointing.  The other table clearly wasn’t really a game at all, but foreplay for a couple of lesbians.  Each one would fondle the other as they prepared to shoot and pretend that she wanted the other to stop.  Kissing in between shots.  Richard noticed that they had an audience.  Directly across the room were some bikers.  About 6. Sitting at a table stacked with beer bottles, clearly pleased with their entertainment for the evening.  Richard’s attention shifted to the flat panel mounted above his right side.  That couple they’d met at the Senator’s Gala was on television.  The ones they’d shared a table with.  Something about a new place for cosmetic surgery from what the subtitles read.  Richard rubbed his head.  He reached in his pocket to get his phone and call Keagan, uncertain of how to explain the episode at the hotel, but more than that needing answers to what state he was in when Keagan left the suite.  Because things just weren’t adding up.  That’s when he realized that he’d left his phone in his other pair of pants that he’d worn yesterday.  He didn’t put it in his pocket after having gotten dressed from his shower. “Damn,” he whispered.  He wasn’t prepared to deal with Natalia again.  He’d just have to wait until he got to work tomorrow to talk with Keagan.  He’d had enough of everything at this point.  The way he was feeling at this moment, he had absolutely no desire to do anything, much less run for public office.  “To hell with all this shit,” he mumbled again under his breath, popping in another fistful of nuts and taking another long swig of his Corona.
“Oh, it’s not as bad as all that now, is it?”  A mulatto woman of about 5’8 with a thick New Orleans accent had propped herself on the seat next to Richard and rested her back against the bar.  She had on a white cut up tee that showed off her navel ring and some black denim cut offs. 
“No point in asking where you’re from with that accent.”  She was stunning.  Richard played it off.  “What’re you doing this far north?”
“I was one of the Hurricane Katrina ‘refugees’ that was displaced after the storm.  Life after the storm led me here.  So, here I am.” 
Richard’s attitude shifted.  “That was a horrible ordeal.  I’m sure you must’ve had family and friends that didn’t make it.”
“Man, you have no idea.  No one could have ever imagined what we had to endure.  Sometimes I still have nightmares.  They talked a lot about the abandoned elderly and those that didn’t have the means to evacuate.  But they didn’t talk about all the children that were part of that tragedy.”  There was a long pause, as if she were replaying some of the things that had happened in her mind.  “But I didn’t come over here to talk about all of that.  Just wanted to offer you something from the kitchen.  Hot wings.  Hoagie.  Chips & dip.”
“Nah… on second thought, I haven’t had nothing to eat all day.  Guess I’ll have a hoagie.”
“You want that cold or heated?”
“Warm it up for me.”
“Any sides?”
“Whatcha got?”
“Fries. Potato Salad. Chips.  Sweet potato fries.  Pork skins.”
“Gotcha.  Be right back.”
The waitress sashayed around the corner to the back where the kitchen was.  Richard could still smell her perfume.  He was trying to suppress his attraction to her. Still he couldn’t help himself.  But he was definitely in no mood for all of that.  He gulped down the last of his Corona and beckoned to Dave for another. 
“Care to start a tab?”  Dave offered as he popped the top on the bottle and replaced the empty one on the coaster.
“Yeah. Do that.”
“Got it.”
As Richard began to work on getting to the bottom of his second bottle of Corona, he noticed a threesome entering the bar.  Two men and a woman.  All looked to be about mid 30s. At first he didn’t pay them any attention.  But as he continued to shell nuts and drink his beer, he noticed from his peripheral vision that one of the men in particular seemed to be staring at him.  It wasn’t really a threat.  But it had Richard feeling a little uneasy.  I mean, there are only about a handful of reasons one person stares at another.  And Richard wasn’t wearing a clown nose or rainbow wig.  What was this cat’s problem?  It had gotten so that Richard was contemplating going over to the table to see what was up.  His better judgment kicked in and told him that he’d been through enough without risking a public confrontation over something that could easily be avoided by simply ignoring him.  He continued to shell nuts, drink his beer and pretend to be interested in whatever was on the tube.  A few moments passed. A husky voice spoke to him from his left side.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but you look familiar.  Thought I’d come over and say hi.”  This man was about 5’9 with a body that reminded you of those dudes who had been to prison and did nothing but lift weights.  He had tattoos on his neck, his bald head, face, knuckles, wrists, forearms…some professionally done.  Some DIY.  Richard was certain there were some underneath his white tee also.  Pictures of skulls and dogs.  Names and naked women.  Other stuff that Richard didn’t care to know anything about, and wasn’t supposed to.  He was a little intimidating, to say the least.  
“I’ve never seen you before in my life.  You must have me confused with someone else.”  Richard and this guy definitely didn’t run in the same circles.  And Richard wanted no part of him. 
“Sure you have.  Remember?  The Embassy.  Ah, man.  Don’t do me like that.  I’m sensitive.”  That caught Richard’s attention.  Had this guy seen Richard get escorted out of the Embassy earlier?  He didn’t appear to be the kind of guest one would expect to check into the Embassy.  However he had come to notice him, his joke was in poor taste and not well received.
“I don’t recognize you.  So however you think you know me must be a mistake.”  Richard took another sip of his Corona and shelled some more nuts, hoping this guy would take the hint and leave.
“That’s ok.  It’ll definitely come to you later.  I’ll be seeing you, man.”  With that the guy strolled back over to his table and rejoined his company.  Richard glanced in their direction.  The lady seated with them caught his eye and waved, smiling.  She was wearing a long weave that looked tacky because her real hair wasn’t of the same texture and her roots were nappy.  She had on what had to be some fake hazel contacts and unattractive blemishes that looked like someone had etched a map on her face.  Her complexion was uneven and her skin looked dingy and dull. Richard didn’t bother waving back.  He just turned his head and pretended to be watching the television.  He could hear them talking and laughing aloud in the background.  A few minutes went by and the waitress returned with his hoagie and fries on a plate.
“There you go.  Anything else I can get for you?”
“Yeah, how about you make that to go.  Something’s come up.”
“Everything alright?”
“Yeah, just remembered that there’s some place I need to be.”
“Ok. No problem.  Be back in a sec.”
Richard’s body temperature was changing.  He was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.  He could hear the guys at the table making loud kissing noises and other utterances of ill taste.  The other dude with them wearing dark shades thought it’d be a cute idea to smash nuts with the palm of his hand.  Each time his hand hit the table sort of made Richard jump.  He stiffened, trying to keep from looking as uncomfortable as he felt.  Not wanting to let anyone know they were getting to him. Fortunately, the waitress didn’t take long wrapping and bagging his food.  He handed her a twenty from his wallet and told her to keep the change.   He dropped a ten on the bar and pointed it out to Dave as he passed by and headed towards the exit.  As he was leaving, the man with the dark shades on yelled, “Bye, hon.”
Richard ignored him and rounded the corner of the building to get to the parking lot.  He dropped the food in the trash receptacle as he approached his car, having suddenly lost his appetite.  As he was nearing his car, he thought a line of string or a spider web caught in the wind had gotten tangled up and landed on his car.  The closer he got he realized that wasn’t the case at all.  His car had been keyed.
“WHAT THE FUCK!!!!!!!!”  Richard grabbed the back of his head with both hands and spun around, in disbelief at what he was seeing.  He blinked several times and rubbed his eyes.  No, it wasn’t his imagination.  The damage was real.  He looked around for anyone who could have been witness to the vandalism of his property.  There was no one in sight.  He ran his hand along the scratches and carvings that spanned the entire length of both sides and were also on the hood and trunk.   The carvings on the hood seemed to spell out something.  B -1-Y-+-h-3.  “FUCK!!!” Richard roared.  How could he go home and explain why Blythe’s name was carved on the hood of his wife’s car?

The therapist had always repeated how marriage isn’t 50/50.  That’s a partnership.  A business deal.  Marriage is about giving your 110%.  Doing your best.  Going above and beyond without expectations from your mate. 
“If you’re concentrating on doing and being your best, you don’t have time to itemize what your spouse is or isn’t contributing,” he’d say.  “You’ll tend to notice and appreciate little things more because you’re not operating at a level of expectancy.  It’s kind of like getting an unexpected gift from someone.  It may not necessarily be exactly what you would have chosen for yourself, but the joy is in having been thought enough about to have been given the gift.  Your partner is that gift.  And if your partner matches your 110% effort, you have two people going at it with all they’ve got.  That leaves little room for failure.”
Natalia took the workbook he’d suggested and threw it across the room.  She moved to the window seat and looked out at the rain, her tears falling down her face in time with the raindrops as they streaked down the window pane.  The dark overcast clouded sky reflecting how violated she felt after Richard used her body as if she were a whore. The water pooling on the lawn and in the streets.  Covering the ground.  Her entire world was flooding.  Drowning.  Being consumed by water.  She hugged her pillow and began to play with her wedding band. Images of their honeymoon in Nekkar Island flashed through her mind.  The yacht.  Dancing. Midnight ecstasy.  Early morning love at sunrise.  Now reduced to what happened this afternoon.  Common and impersonal sex.  She hesitated to call it what it actually is.  But Natalia was well aware that she’d just been fucked.  She cachinnated, “At least I’m not pregnant.”  She shook her head and wiped the mucus that had trailed to her top lip from her face.  Yoshi joined her and began playing with her shoes. 
Not wanting to sit and wallow any further in self pity, Natalia decided to do the laundry.  She picked up the towels and clothing, preparing a load to wash.  Richard’s cell phone fell to the floor from his pants pocket.  At first she just stared at the phone.  “Trust is essential to a successful and happy marriage,” the therapist would say.  His voice was always damned smiling.  He made it sound so damn simple.  She continued to stand there, staring at the phone. Engaging in an internal struggle that she was sure wouldn’t end in her favor either way.  The damage had already been done.  Might as well follow through.  She slowly lowered her body to the floor and picked up his cellular.  She pushed the scroll button.  The display lit.  The passcode was on.  The phone was locked.  She keyed in his birthday.  The red message box alerted that an incorrect passcode had been entered.  After 2 more attempts, she would be locked out.  She keyed in her birthday.  Another warning flashed.  “Damn.  Only one more try.”  She breathed a sigh, closed her eyes and lowered her hands, clenching the phone.  She bit down on her bottom lip, deep in thought.  The keys to the yacht flashed through her mind.  She opened her eyes and lifted the phone again.  She keyed in their wedding date.  The phone clicked.  She pushed the icon to open the missed calls.  There were over 50.  None of them had been cleared.  Natalia couldn’t remember how many times she’d called yesterday.  It could easily have been 50.  Hell, it could have been more than that.  She scrolled through the numbers.  Yeah, most were from her cell and the house phone.  Wait.  She scrolled back a few numbers.  Keagan’s name was identified among the list of calls.  8:12 p.m.  “I thought he was with Keagan the entire day.  Why would Keagan need to call his phone?”  Natalia continued to scroll through the calls.  Several other strange numbers, no names attached.  She shifted to settings from the menu.  Reconfigured the caller id option so that this number wouldn’t be displayed before returning to the roster of missed calls.  She pushed the call button for the first unrecognized number and listened carefully.  The phone seemed to take forever to ring.  More seconds that seemed like minutes before someone actually answered the phone. Oh, wait.  The call was going to voicemail.  Automated message.  No indication if the number were that of a male or female.  She hung up and moved on to another series of numbers.  Late night calls.  Calls that came when he should have been home with her.  Another unfamiliar number.  She pushed the call button.  Someone answered after the second ring. 
Natalia covered her mouth and listened.
“Hello.” Natalia couldn’t quite catch the voice on the other end.  She continued to listen.  “Hello? Who would you like to speak with?”  The person on the other end yelled in the background, “Mache! Honey, turn the music down a bit.  I can’t hear.  Did you adjust the volume on my phone?”  She spoke back into the phone, “Hello.  Can you hear me?” 
“Blythe!”  Natalia yelled into the phone.  She was at a loss for words.  She didn’t know what to think.  The music stopped.  The other end went silent.  The line seemed to have died. 
“Who’s calling?”  The voice on the other end of the phone asked, now sounding apprehensive and a little guilty. Natalia disconnected the call.  She pressed the phone against her chest and wept uncontrollably.  There was no room for excuses.  This wasn’t the same number she had to reach Blythe.  Why would Blythe use this number to call her husband?  She didn’t try to call her on her phone.  Natalia ran to get her cell and check.  There were no calls from the number Natalia had plugged in for Blythe.  Why would she call Richard from an unrecognized number?  She checked the time the call from Blythe was placed.  11:54 p.m.  That was an odd hour to call your friend’s husband.  Of course they were having an affair.  There was absolutely no way that Natalia was going to begin to try to make excuses.  More pain was rooting in the pit of her stomach.  “Well, this explains quite a bit,” she said aloud as she continued to scroll through the list of missed calls.  There was another number that was unfamiliar.  This one particularly of interest because it was in a different area code. There were three calls from this number.   The first just after 1 a.m.  The last near 4 a.m.  She pushed the send button on the phone and listened.  The call was picked up after the third ring.
“Thank you for choosing Embassy Suites International.  To make a reservation, please press…
Natalia disconnected the call.  This mess seems to just get deeper and deeper.  Richard told her he spent the night at Keagan’s house.  But there was a call from Keagan at the time he should have been there.  Then there’s a call from Blythe.  Assuming he and Blythe are having an affair, why was he then getting calls from the Embassy Suites?  Was Blythe meeting him there?  Natalia shook her head and wiped more tears from her eyes, disgusted with this huge waste of her time.  She placed his phone on the nightstand, grabbed her keys and purse, scooped Yoshi up and was out the door.
Richard left his car parked at the bar.  He began walking, not knowing where he was going.  To the other drivers and passersby he must have seemed to have completely lost his mind.  He turned around and looked in the direction of the parking lot, unable to fully comprehend what was happening.  Why?  He continued walking the streets until he came to a residential building.  There was a doorman standing outside.  Richard tried to gain his composure so as not to come off like some bum.  He checked his clothes and posture.  “Pardon me, sir.  Is there a phone I could use?  I’ve had some car trouble and need to call a ride.”
The doorman smiled.  “There is someone in the 21st century that doesn’t have a cell phone!  Sure, right this way.”
The doorman opened the door and motioned for Richard to enter the lobby.  “Would you believe I left my cell phone at the house?  I’ve had the worst luck these past couple of days.”  The doorman pointed to the phone in the lobby.  He then entered the foyer that was separated by a glass door instead of returning outside.  Richard was thankful for the privacy.  He picked up the phone and dialed.  The call was taking forever to go through.  “Come on, dammit!  Ring!” he sputtered under his breath.  He glanced over his shoulder and smiled at the doorman who was watching him through the glass door before turning his back again.  Another ring.  Then someone answered.
“Who’s calling?”  the voice on the other end of the phone was angst-ridden.  Not your usual hello.
“Blythe, what the fuck is going on?!”  Richard turned around to check the doorman, who had turned his back.  He tried to control his tone, but was furious.
Blythe hung up the phone, unsure what to say.  “Oh no the fuck she didn’t!”  Richard turned around and smiled at the doorman again.  This time he had been heard.  The doorman peaked his head through the glass door from the foyer.  “I’m going to have to ask you to hurry it up, sir.”
“Yes, just a moment.  Thanks.”  The doorman closed the glass door and Richard turned around and dialed Blythe again.  She answered right away.
“Richard, you’ve made your point.  I won’t bother you again.”  She spoke just above a whisper.  Sounded like she’d been crying.
“What have you done, Blythe?  Why did you key my gotdamn car?!”  There was a dead silence on the other end. “How am I supposed to explain this to Natalia?!”
“I haven’t done anything to your car.  Haven’t you already talked to your precious little wifey?”  Blythe was being cynical now realizing that Richard had apparently gotten himself in a pickle.
“You know what… just stay right there.  I’ll be over there in a few.”  Richard made a motion like he was going to slam the phone down, but caught himself just as the doorman reentered the lobby.  “Got yourself taken care of, sir?”  The doorman was politely telling him to wrap it up.
“Thanks so much. Is there somewhere nearby that I can rent a car?”
“Just happens to be an Enterprise about 2 blocks from here.  Two blocks that way.”  The doorman opened the door leading outside and pointed Richard in the right direction. 


The line at Café Noir was longer than usual.  Natalia had on her dark shades to hide her bloodshot eyes.  She’d been crying nonstop for over 3 hours.  She stood paying attention to her surroundings, hoping that would distract her from the heartache she was experiencing.  She listened to the man in front of her quietly laugh and giggle on his cell.  He seemed to be in his twenties.  Sunglasses turned backward on his neck.  Cargo shorts on. Neon green surfer tee.  Sandals.  Sun-bleached blonde hair.  She tuned in to his conversation.  He seemed to be making jokes about a date he’d had the night before.   Natalia was in no mood for that.  She looked to her left.  There was a lady in a green and white hooded windsuit.  She wore white rimmed sunglasses.  Seemed overdressed for the weather, but who was she to say how people felt comfortable dressing.  The lady sitting with her had on soccer shorts and a Spade.  They were both on the phone talking to each other and the people they were on the phone with simultaneously.  As Natalia continued to skim the crowd, a familiar voice spoke to her from behind. 
“It’s Natalia Lindhardt now, am I correct?”  Natalia turned around.  The face looking back at her almost rendered her unconscious.  Irvin Nero removed his sunglasses and smiled.
“Dr. Nero.  Good to see you again.”  Natalia didn’t bother extending a hand.  She turned to face the counter again, hoping he would catch the hint and leave her alone.
“There’s no need to be that formal.  I’m still Irvin.  Nothing’s changed.”  He gave a polite laugh.  He laughed alone.  “Don’t tell me… what… you don’t remember me?  You really have become this ‘new person,’ haven’t you?  I see you snagged yourself quite a man, honey.  Congratulations on that one.”
Natalia looked Dr. Nero over closely.  “Oh my god!  How have you been?  I didn’t recognize you.  But then again, I never thought I’d see you again, either.”  She hugged Irvin.  Natalia realized that there was no avoiding this situation.  Of course she remembered Irvin Nero.  The point was she didn’t want to remember.   
“Alright, now.  That’s more like it.  Act like you know me.”  He placed his sunglasses atop his head.
“You look good.  Ooo, you’ve had some work done, too.  Very nice.”  Natalia grabbed Irvin by the shoulders and gently twisted him from left to right. 
“Mm, hm. Honey, Gia did it.  That’s why we’re so good together.  Like best friends.  Of course, she doesn’t know about me, but we complement each other in so many other ways.   So how’s married life been for you, honey?”
“Everything’s good.  No complaints.”  There’s no way Natalia was about to divulge details to this man who didn’t realize he’d become a stranger in her eyes for the most part.  A familiar face from a past she wanted to remain just that   - THE PAST.  Natalia moved up next in line.  She ordered a caramel macchiato with skim milk, paid and did a side step.  Irvin ordered a caramel mocha and followed suit.  They stood at the opposite end of the counter and awaited their orders. 
“So, tell me where you’re working now.”  Irvin propped his arm on the counter and tilted his head.  He was about 5’11.  Slender, but no muscles.  Had a complexion most women would envy.  Dark texturized hair that was neatly lined and close cut. 
“I work for The Helping Professionals Enterprises inside the Chatham and Associates building near the downtown area.”
“And you’re doing… “
“We’re a management company.  Do a lot of contracts.  Stuff like that.”
“Well that’s wonderful, honey.  Wonderful.  Of course, Gia and I are getting this new practice off the ground.  We have another in New Mexico, honey , of all places.  But it’s doing really well.  We hope to build ourselves a brand and a few more franchises.”   It seems Irvin wasn’t at all as interested in Natalia’s career as he was wanting to brag about his. One of the baristas called out for the caramel mocha and placed the drink on the counter.  “That’s me.  Well, honey I’ve got to get going.”  Irvin retrieved his drink and slid his other hand in his breast pocket.  He pulled out a contact card.  “Take my card.  It has all my contact information on it.  You’ll get farther with me if you text than actually calling.”  He gave a polite laugh.  “Tell that gorgeous man of yours I said hi, and call me if you decide you’d like to have a small nip/tuck or know someone who would be interested.  I’d appreciate the business.  Might even comp you something for the referral.  How ‘bout that?”  Irvin slid his sunglasses back to the intended position and pushed his way past the small crowd while waving goodbye.  “See you, honey.”
The barista called out for a caramel macchiato and set the drink on the counter just as he had probably done over a million or more times since working there.  Natalia picked up her order and turned, almost bumping into a tall, athletically-built, chocolate-coated woman with neatly done dreadlocks that had appeared out of nowhere and stood directly behind her.  “Excuse me,” Natalia politely smiled as she took a small step back, trying not to waste her drink.  There was something strange about her.  This didn’t seem the occasional accidental running-into that one gets in a crowded room.   This lady seemed to want Natalia to notice.  Wanted to intimidate her.  There was no friendliness.  She hadn’t returned an “excuse  me” or even made a motion to move.  She just stood there.  Natalia squeezed around her and proceeded to the exit, taking a look back midway.  As she stepped out onto the pavement, she could hear Yoshi barking.  The button on the remote keyless entry to unlock the doors was worn from use.  Natalia had to dig her nail in to get the headlights to flash so she’d know the doors were unlocked.  She hopped in and locked the door, letting out a long sigh as she relaxed her head on the headrest.  The chance encounter had made her nervous enough. There was a piece of paper on Natalia’s windshield.  That must’ve been why Yoshi was barking.  Someone had been too close to her car.   At first, she thought it was a ticket.  After having secured her hot macchiato in the cupholder, she placed her key in the ignition and switched it to the “on” position.  She then let her window down and turned the windshield wipers on so that the note would slide to the left side of her window and she could catch it.  And it did just that.  After turning the windshield wipers off and letting her window back up, she unfolded the piece of paper.  What she read took her breath away.  In handwriting she’d couldn’t recognize, there was a threat made to her life that wouldn’t be perceived as such to any other joe that would have read it.  On the note was a single name:  Victor Blackshire.

Blythe had put on the cami set that she knew Richard liked on her.  She knew he was upset.  He probably had talked with his wife.  Surely he was ready to leave her.  And although she hadn’t a clue what he was talking about when he accused her of keying his car, all she knew was that the man she still wanted was on his way to see her after having tried to break it off with her.  She was planning to seduce him, lull him back into her affections.  He would see how much of a mistake breaking up with her had already been.  He’d want her back, especially after considering how his wife would never have children.  She didn’t spray perfume on her neck.  He liked to kiss her there.  She didn’t want him tasting perfume when he did.  Instead, she put on some perfumed body lotion.  She’d gotten rid of Mache.  She was rushing through the house trying to make sure the ambience was inviting.  She closed all the blinds.  Straightened the bed up a bit.  Lit a candle bedside.  Put on some jazz.  She’d hoped he wasn’t hungry because she hadn’t bought the groceries yet.  There was always shrimp alfredo that only took a few moments to prepare.  And there was always a bottle of wine around. Yeah, that’d work.  She heard a car screech to a halt outside the back door where Richard always parked.  She had left the door unlocked, but ran to greet him.  He busted through the door before she could get there, startling her.
“Blythe, what the fuck have you done?”  Richard slammed the door and took two long strides toward her.  She backed away. 
“Calm down, and let’s talk this through like adults, without the explosives.  Do you need a drink?”  She went to the bar preparing herself to fix his request.
“No I don’t need no more gotdamn drinks!  You tell me what’s going on right now!  What?  You think because you keyed my car that I’m going to leave my wife?  You’re the one she’s going to do away with, not me.”  Richard grabbed his head again and looked up at the ceiling.  “Fuck me!”
Blythe smiled, “Maybe a little later…”  She grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge under the bar and climbed onto her sofa, tucking her feet underneath her body.
“Trust me, you don’t want to play with me right now.”  He began pacing back and forth across the floor.  Blythe just watched and sipped her water, somewhat entertained at what a mess he had become in just a few short hours.  Only hours ago she was the one emotionally distraught and pathetic.  Now only a few short hours later he was the one exploding with anger, an emotional wreck. 
“Why don’t you try telling me exactly what’s going on?”
“Oh, don’t act like you don’t know.”  Richard gathered himself together and sat on the chair opposite Blythe.  “Why did you key my car?”  He looked Blythe square in the face. 
“I’ve told you already that I didn’t key your car.”  Blythe took a long sip of water.  She spoke calmly and without emotion.
“Then you must know who did.  All bullshit aside, Blythe.  No games.”  Richard’s speech was pressured.  This was the beginning of a man starting to lose control.
“Darling, I’m telling you I had nothing whatsoever to do with whatever it is you’re accusing me of.  After you left I just cried until no more tears would come.  Mache stopped by and we just mellowed out.  Have you spoken with Natalia?”
“What do you think?  Do you think I would be here if I had?  How the hell do I explain to my wife why her friend’s name is etched in my gotdamn car?!?!”  Richard’s voice escalated with each word he spoke. 
 “She called earlier.  Didn’t say who she was, but once she recognized my voice she hung up.”  There was stillness about the room that lingered, like all secrets had been told and there was nothing else to do.  Nothing left to say.  A permanent staple of change in a life he was trying to save.  There was no coming back from this.  The words of the councilman resounded in his head.  “There’s always a problem that won’t go away.  Or will, with a little help.”  He looked at Blythe.
“I’m assuming she called the …” 
“Yes, the number she doesn’t have.  The one I call you from.  That one.”  Blythe gazed out of the window, peering through the blinds.  A tear fell from her eye.  For the first time, she actually gave consideration to the friend she was about to lose.  Within a fleeting moment, that sentiment was lost.  She looked at Richard.  That’s the man she wanted.  All else is secondary.  “Seems as if now the only explanation is the honest one.”
Richard sat shaking his head.  “This wasn’t how things were supposed to go.”
“Of course not, darling.  You’re a good man.  I’m a good woman.  We made a mistake.  Together.  That doesn’t make us bad people.  We just made a bad choice.”  Blythe went to Richard and began to massage his shoulders.  “I love Natalia, too.  She and I were very good friends.  It’s so sad that it has to end like this.  But… we can get through this.  I mean, it’s really for the better anyway.  She doesn’t want to have kids.  This is just going to be the short version of what would have been a long drawn out mess.  You and I can stop sneaking around.  You can move in here until the two of you reach a property settlement.  We can begin a family right away if you like.  I have absolutely no reservations –“
Richard stood and walked towards the door.  “Blythe, get some help.  It’s over.”  He walked out and slammed the back door.   

Her fingers could barely dial the numbers on the keypad.  She was nervous.  Shaking.  Overcome with fear, but trying desperately to maintain her composure.  The last thing she needed was to make a scene in public.  The temp was elevating in the parked car.  She turned on the air for a moment, waiting for the Bluetooth to connect.  After a couple rings, the voicemail picked up.
“Can’t answer the phone at the moment.  You know what to do.”  …Beep…
“This is Natalia.  I need to speak with you.  Please call 696-374-2255 at your earliest convenience.”  Natalia disconnected the call. 

The sun was particularly bright on this Sunday afternoon.  Temperature just right.  Weather lending itself to set the atmosphere for the perfect round of golf.  The councilman always enjoyed spending his Sundays at the yacht club. Keagan would occasionally join him for a few rounds of golf among other games.  Today was no different.
“Is that a new vest, councilman?”  Keagan was snickering, poking fun at the councilman.
“Yasmine’s taken up crochet.  Insisted that I wear the damn thing today.  I’ve been putting it off for weeks.”  Councilman Ford took a couple of practice swings with his driver before opting to switch to the older one.  New clubs just didn’t feel familiar to his hands.
“And of all colors, she chose-“
“I know. I know.  I think she thinks I’m having an affair.”  The councilman sucked his tooth.  “Wanted to mark her territory.”  Councilman Ford took his stance and prepared to tee the ball. “Speaking of such, how’d things go with our little project yesterday?”  A smooth, solid swing of perfect form sent the ball sailing through the air and landing in the green. 
“That project couldn’t have happened more perfectly if I’d directed it myself.  Everything happened just like we planned.  Ay, that’s a good swing.  You’ve been practicing, huh?”  Keagan prepared to take his turn.
“Good.  Good.  And the phone calls?  The pictures?”  Councilman Ford removed his gloves to light a cigar.   
Keagan took a swing, his not quite as gracefully executed as the councilman’s had been.  Choppy.  His ball took an unsteady course and landed in the rough.  “Damn, I got to practice more,” he mumbled under his breath.  “Yeah, trust me when I tell you there’s no need for concern.  This thing is happening precisely according to plan.  Uh, can I get that shot over again?”
Councilman Ford chuckled and motioned to move on to the next hole.  “Keagan, you have no idea how important it is to get this behind us on schedule.  It’s about time to begin the real campaign, and I don’t want this guy calling attention to himself unless it happens just as we’ve planned, you get me? On our terms.”  They strolled towards the golf cart.
“100%.  You have nothing to worry about.”  Keagan took the driver’s seat and cranked the cart as the councilman loaded his clubs and entered the other side. 
“Keagan, I’ve seen men of great stature and confidence collapse to nothing more than what one would expect of a five year old under pressure.  It’s a more civilized alternative for gentlemen than all this mess that these young people get tangled in these days.  A man’s way of handling things.  Let’s find out exactly what our guy is made of. ”
“Councilman, you need not say another word.  I’ve already put a man on it.  Got him chasing his imagination probably as we speak.”
The councilman gave a broad grin and took a long drag of his cigar.  “Now, that’s the reason I hired you.”     

The drive home was a loud silence.  Things were spinning out of control.  There was no way to avoid the truth.  And no way to quietly do away with his affair.  All this after only one year of marriage.  Natalia would be devastated to say the least.  The most Richard could hope for now was a few nights on the couch.  He’d welcome sleeping on the couch as opposed to any other possible alternatives. Richard replayed the scenario over and over.  Blythe was certain Natalia had called from his phone.  There wasn’t a lie to distract her from the truth.  So focused on how to tell his wife that he’d been sleeping with one of her friends, the entire episode in the hotel was becoming of little importance.  Just another big misunderstanding that he wanted to go away.  It’s strange how one can come up with “alternatives to the truth” when backed in a corner.  Richard already knew what he was going to tell Natalia.  And it would be nothing remotely close to the truth.  As he approached their block and rounded the corner to their home, he clicked the remote garage door opener and noticed that her car wasn’t in the garage.  Great.  That gave him enough time to go in and check things out.  Kinda get a feel for what she may or may not have seen before she gets home. 
He unlocked the door and made a trail straight to the bedroom.  Clothing and towels were in the middle of the floor.  Looks like she was preparing to do the laundry.  He grabbed the pants that he had on and began feeling the pockets; the whole time sure she wouldn’t have placed the phone back in there.  That was the only starting point he could think of.  Had she taken the phone with her?  Was she on the way to talk with Blythe as he was driving home?  He went to the bathroom and checked the countertops.  Nothing.  “Damn, should’ve gotten a house phone.”  This was one time when he wished he had agreed with Natalia.  He could’ve used the house phone to help him locate his cell.  Just then a chime came from the bedroom.  He made a bee line for the nightstand.  He snatched the phone up.  Battery had died.  He went to his side of the bed and rummaged through his drawer to find the charger.  His hands were sweaty.  Nervous breathing because he wasn’t sure what to expect.  He did remember that there had been over fifty missed calls last he checked.  He plugged the phone up and had to wait for it to get enough of a charge to become functional again.  That usually took just a couple minutes.  He went to the kitchen to get some water and heard Natalia’s car pulling into the garage.  More nervous breathing.   He took a long gulp of water and tried to calm himself.  He’d have to play it by ear.  Yoshi was barking as Natalia was exiting the car and preparing to open the door.  He took a seat by the kitchen island, not sure what to expect.  The door opened.
To his surprise, Natalia looked as if she were just as aloof about seeing him as he was to see her, neither of them prepared for the unavoidable conversation that had to happen.  She lowered Yoshi on the floor.  He scampered off toward his water bowl. She had a drink in her hand.  Richard quietly hoped it wasn’t a hot beverage that she would be tempted to throw on him.
“Hey.” She spoke barely above a whisper.  
“Hey yourself.”  Richard’s tone was neutral.  He was still trying to get a feel for her mood. 
Natalia strolled over to the opposite end of the kitchen island and took a seat before tossing her cup in the trash.  “Guess we need to talk, huh?”
“To say the least.”  A knot was forming in Richard’s throat.  He took a drink of water.
“Whose car are you driving?”  Natalia was calm.  Richard couldn’t read her emotions.  Was she angry?  Was she only sad?  He continued to proceed with caution.
“Had some minor damage.  Vandalism.  Probably some teenagers being mischievous.  Had to pick up a rental.  I’ll talk to the insurance company and have it towed to a shop so they can get started on the damage first thing in the morning.” 
“Did you get a police report?  Where’d you leave it?”
“I’ve gotten all that taken care of.  Don’t worry about it.  It’s all under control.”  A colorful combination of lies mixed in with the truth.    What a cool liar.  Words practically spoke themselves, rolled off his tongue so naturally.  Richard was becoming slightly perturbed with himself.  Being confronted with his idea of the man he wanted to become and the man he actually is.  He took another long drink of water.  Trying to figure out if the Blythe question would come up and how he should respond. 
Natalia lowered her head and began twisting her ring on her finger.  Her mind was racing.  Thoughts going a hundred miles a second.  Had the vandalism had anything to do with the note someone placed on her car at Café Noir?  Was someone trying to sabotage her? Richard sounded irritated.  Did he know more than he was telling her?  She decided to just let it go.  Wait for him to bring it up.  Until then, she would assume he knew nothing.
“Richard, you left your phone.  It fell out of your pocket while I was about to do the laundry.  And –“
“Yeah, I noticed it on the nightstand.  Thanks.  Had to plug it up.  Battery drained.”
Natalia was a little embarrassed to ask the question, but she knew there was no way she was going to rest until she had an answer.  But then again, there was absolutely no way he was going to walk around here acting as if he were some sort of saint when in actuality he had been sleeping with one of her best friends.  Then the name “Victor Blackshire” flashed through her mind.  Tears began to form.  She was literally torn.  If she pushed and he pushed back, there was no way she could handle questions about her past.  She glanced at Richard to try to get a feel for him.  What a mess the two of them had become, checking each other’s every move.  Her therapist had cautioned them about this very thing. 
“Richard, I looked through your phone.  There were a lot of unfamiliar numbers, and I –“
Richard folded his arms and rested them on the countertop, looking Natalia in the face.  Natalia could tell she had his undivided attention, but not so much in a good way.  She took a hard swallow and pushed the words out.
“I called a couple of them.  One of them was from Blythe.  An unrecognized number.  At an odd hour.”  She listened to her words.  Yes, she was entitled to know what her friend was doing calling her husband at such an odd time of night.  “Why would she be calling you so late from an unrecognizable number?”
“Did you ask her?”  Apathetic.  Almost callous.  No sign of his guilt.
“No. I –“ Natalia’s voice was beginning to weaken.  The pit of her stomach was churning. 
“You just told me you called the number.  Which number was it?  Why didn’t you just ask her while you had her on the phone?”
A feeling of stupidity shattered her confidence.  Could she possibly have made an erroneous assumption?  “It just seems to me that if she’d wanted to talk to me she would’ve called me on my phone.  But, she called you near midnight from a different phone number.”
“Is this what we’re reduced to?  What?  You think I’m screwing Blythe now?”  Natalia had no confidence in her questions.  Richard knew she couldn’t have known the truth.  Only some idea.  He wasn’t about to confirm a thing.  Bought himself some time.
“What would you think if it were you?  You’re sounding really cocky and arrogant.  Like I’m being completely unreasonable for asking.  What if it were you?”  Natalia knew by now that if he had known her little secret he would’ve mentioned that to justify his affair, which apparently she could be wrong about. 
“Look, you and I both have had a rough weekend.  Let’s not make things any more complicated than they are.  Let’s just get some rest and take some time to think things through.  We’ll talk about it when our minds aren’t so riddled with emotions.”  Richard walked over to Natalia and slid his hand around the back of her neck.  He gently leaned over and kissed her forehead.  Natalia pulled back, still in turmoil over the fact that he had been gone the entire day and night.
“Richard, where were you yesterday?”  She was crying inside.  Victor Blackshire.  Telephone calls.  Strange calls made to his phone.  Nights spent away from home.
“I told you where I was, Talia.  I’m not gonna do this with you again.”  He released her and walked away.  “And I’ll sleep on the couch.  How ‘bout that?”  He went to the bedroom and grabbed his pillow and phone.  She remained at the kitchen island, unsure about all that had just taken place.  He called out to her in passing.  “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”  He clicked on the television and made his bed on the couch.  A recap of the interview with Irvin Nero was on the local news.
Natalia quietly went into the bedroom and closed the door.  She was shivering.  Not from the temperature.  But pure fear.  Fear that she’d be found out.  The past that just won’t die.  Secrets that just won’t go away.  A marriage falling apart.  A friendship threatened with betrayal.  She lay down on the bed and began to cry.  Another night without her husband at her side.  She drifted off to sleep thinking of what possible treachery the days to come could bring. 
Richard tiptoed to the bedroom door.  It had been about two hours.  He was certain Natalia had fallen asleep by now.  There was no sound on the other side of the door.  He turned the knob and peeked inside.  He gently called her name.  No response.  She was asleep.  He quietly closed the door and returned to the living room.  Within seconds he grabbed his phone and put a leash on Yoshi before exiting through the back patio door.  If Natalia awoke, he would just say he took Yoshi outside to crap.  He checked the time.  10:45.  He dialed Blythe’s number.  She answered on the second ring
“Who’s calling?”  Blythe sounded unsure.  Panic in her voice.
“It’s me.  I just wanted to give you a quick call.  Got some things on my mind.  I’ve taken time to think since I left your place, and… I was a fool to end what we have.  You were right.  If Natalia doesn’t want to have my child then it’s over.  Our life together has been a lie.”
Blythe was overcome with joy at his words.  Finally, she would have the man she wanted.  The man she deserved.  All to herself.  “Are you sure this is what you want, my love?”
“I’ve got to end this thing with Natalia the right way.  I don’t want her coming at you.  So, we’ve got to play it cool just a little while longer.  I can’t really talk about it now.  I’ll get with you tomorrow.  We can discuss how we can end this as amicably as possible.  But for now, just avoid her if she tries to contact you before we talk.”  Richard spoke in whispers.  He kept peeping behind him at the patio door, not wanting to be overheard or caught by surprise.  Yoshi was barking at something.  He picked him up to quiet him down.
“Richard, I love you.  You have no idea how happy this makes me.  And I’ll do anything for you, darling.  Absolutely anything.”
“Promise me.”
“I do.”
“Talk to you tomorrow.”  That call was disconnected.  Without a moment’s hesitation, Richard dialed Keagan.  Call went straight to voicemail.
“Keagan, this is Richard, man.  I need to talk with you.  Kind of had a crazy day after you left the Embassy, and I need to ask a couple questions.  If you got time for me, give me a call as soon as you can.  It’s about 11 right now, but I’ll try you in the morning if I don’t hear from you first.  Thanks, man.”  Richard ended that call and reentered the house.  After placing Yoshi in his crate for the evening, he peeked in at Natalia again.  She didn’t seem to have moved.  He returned to the couch and put his phone under his pillow.  After he made himself comfortable, he gave it a second thought and took the phone out, deleted the call he’d made to Blythe and returned the phone under the pillow. 


There was an uncomfortable silence in the air.  Monday morning was dreary.  It seemed the day was already spent before it had begun.  The residue from the rain the day before made things seem worn.  Instead of the cleansing, it was more of a reflection of the sadness that Natalia felt.  The overcast sky.  Water still trickling from the leaves and eaves, some dancing down her window, apparently from the overnight showers.
Natalia had awakened 15 minutes before the alarm was supposed to go off. She lay in bed staring at the picture that rested on the nightstand of her and Richard on their honeymoon in Nekkar Island.  They seemed so happy.  Holding each other and smiling.  New love.  A world full of promises awaiting them.  There was no sound of another person in the room.  No breathing.  Richard was already gone.  More heartache consumed her at what the two of them had become. 
At work, things were slow.  Natalia mostly hid in her office, pretending to busy herself.  The workday was dull and drab, a monotonous blur.  Throughout the day she kept replaying the series of events that had led to this very moment.  Richard wanting a child prematurely.  And just when she thought his plans to run for city councilman had distracted him from the idea, she saw her former husband.  Nights spent away from home.  Hotel keys and calls to Embassy Suites International.  Blythe calling his cell phone from an undisclosed number.  Victor Blackshire.  Somebody knew her.  Someone knew about her past.  She entertained the idea that perhaps Richard knew and was playing some cruel game to humiliate her.  That name.  Victor Blackshire.  A knock at the door interrupted her train of thought.
“Yes, come in.”  She shuffled some papers around to appear to be working.  Tulip entered the room with a file about an inch thick.  She was soft spoken as usual.  Always seemingly timid and unsure of herself. 
“This is your portion of the budget analysis for the new proposal. Turley asked that I give them to you so you could get started on it and have some suggestions for readjustments.  He wants to trim some money from supplies and increase spending in marketing.”
“Why don’t we just buy a network and do a twenty four hour infomercial?  There isn’t much more reallocating that can be done!  I’ve told Turley this time after time!  We should instead focus on cutting costs in travel and –, “ Natalia took in a deep breath and massaged her temples.  “I’m sorry, Tulip.  I know you have nothing to do with this.  Please, just put the folders there.”  Natalia motioned for Tulip to place the folder on the corner of her desk.  “I’ll just offer my same suggestions for the umpteenth time.”
“Certainly.”  Tulip exited the office, closing the door.
Natalia rested her head on the back of her chair and spun around a couple times.  Just as she was about to reach for the folder and review the contents there was another knock at the door.
Tulip reentered holding a FedEx envelope.  “This just came for you.  Was put on my desk just now.”
“Thanks, Tulip.”  Natalia read the label as Tulip exited the office again.  Oddly enough, there was no indication of who the envelope was from.  But it was sent overnight priority.  She ripped the perforated strip.  As she extracted the contents, she let out a scream, but quickly placed her hand over her mouth and caught herself.  Tulip rushed through the door.  Natalia pressed the envelope to her bosoms to keep the contents hidden.
“Is everything ok?  Are you alright?”  She seemed to be just as startled as Natalia.
“I – I’m …I’m… fine.  Just a little caught off guard.  Nothing to really be alarmed about.  Just, please give me a few moments.”  Natalia gave a weak smile.  Tulip stood there looking dumbfounded.  “If there’s anyone else out there that heard me, please just explain to them that I’m fine.  I just need a few moments alone.  If there’s something else, please buzz me first.”
“If you say so.”  Tulip again exited the office and closed the door behind her.
Natalia leapt from her chair and locked the door this time, still holding the envelope.  She leaned her back to the door and looked at the sheet of paper with the words “Remember me?” typed neatly in the center.  It was a cover sheet for an accompanying photograph of a person who Natalia thought no longer existed.  Staring back at her was a picture of Victor Blackshire.      

The first item on the agenda – find out what happened at the hotel. Richard was focused.  He let out a long sigh.  He was mumbling little unintelligible utterances.  His vision was a little blurry.  But there was no time to squander.  He had to get to the bottom of this mess.  And above all else, he had to get the car repaired before Natalia started asking questions. He phoned Keagan again en route to the office. 
“Yeah, it’s Richard, man.  I know it’s early, but I thought I’d catch you on the way to work.  I left a message late last night.  Just… call me at your earliest convenience, please.” 
The next call was to Blythe.  After some thought, Keagan was right to advise that he keep tabs on Blythe.  She answered on the first ring.
“Good morning, love.”  Blythe sounded warm and excited.  Richard felt nauseous.  He decided he’d keep the call as brief as possible.
“Remember what we talked about last night?”  Richard’s tone was smooth to match her mood. 
“Of course.  It’s all I’ve been able to think about.”
“This is what we should do.  Let’s wait a little while before we break the news to Natalia.  There’s no need to rush.  We have the rest of our lives to spend together.  And the last thing I need is a controversy with the things I’m trying to accomplish that will provide a better quality of life for us and our child that’s soon to come.” 
“Yes.  Absolutely.”  Blythe was hanging on Richard’s every word.  What he was saying was everything she’d ever hoped to hear him say to her.  “But what about the telephone call?  That’s sure to come up again?  And your car?  You never really explained to me what that was about.”
“Don’t worry about the car.  I’ll take care of it.  And as soon as I know something, you’ll know.  But here’s what I want you to do.  Call Natalia in a couple days and invite her to lunch or shopping or something that the two of you usually do.  Everything’s cool.  But we’re going to have to plan an anniversary party.  That’s coming up soon, and that’s the perfect cameo for that phone call.”
“A surprise anniversary party?  That’s perfect!  She’d never guess.”  Blythe was quickly becoming Richard’s partner in crime, such a willing accomplice to deceive the woman that she considered one of her best friends.
“By the way, why did you call that night?”  It just dawned on Richard that he was out cold and had never bothered to ask the reason for her call.
“My phone must’ve dialed by mistake.  That can be quite a problem with this new touch screen technology.”  There was a suppressed giggle.  Richard was becoming irritated with her.  He couldn’t wait to shake her off at the first available opportunity.
“Look, I’ll talk to you more about the anniversary gig a little later. I just thought it’d be a good idea if we got on the same page just in case Natalia decides to confront you or something.  If she does, just go ahead and tell her.  That’ll keep us from having to follow through with the damn party.  But be sure to let her bring up the call.  Let her make the first move.”
“I’ll get with you a little later.”  Richard ended the call.  
Once settled in the office, Richard was becoming bothered by the fact that Keagan hadn’t returned his calls.  He didn’t want to flood the man’s voicemail with messages.  But at the same time, he was in a state of emergency, albeit a personal one.  Trying not to appear on edge, he was his usual charming self.  Seeing that Pasha was wearing that black skirt that he liked, he made a mental note to visit his favorite masseuse for lunch.  She would be just what he needed to relieve some tension.
“Good morning, Pash.  You look fierce as usual.”  Richard sailed past her desk en route to his office door.
Pasha wasn’t as receptive to his compliments as she usually was.  Something was wrong.  There was no smile or witty reply.  She just gave a nod and continued on with what she was doing.  Richard froze before opening the door and spun around.  Pasha continued working and didn’t acknowledge him. 
“Is something wrong?” 
“No, everything’s good, Mr. Lindhardt.”  Pasha still didn’t look in his direction. 
“Are you sure?”
Pasha grabbed a folder from her desk and handed it to Richard.  "I was going to talk with you about this a little later, but since you asked…” 
“What’s this?”
“Just take a sec to look over the paperwork.  At your leisure, of course.  There’s no immediate rush.  Anytime today will be good.”  With that she returned to her desk and resumed working.  Richard was puzzled because their communication with each other had never had such a serious undertone to it before.  But he had too many other things on his plate right now to be overly concerned with that.  He proceeded to unlock his office door and get to work.
The first item on the agenda was to call the insurance company and have his car taken care of.  Usually he would have to leave a message and his agent would call back.  This time Kristen answered his call on the first ring, which usually never happens.
“Kristen.  It’s Richard.  How are you this morning?”
“Buzzed out of my mind like you wouldn’t believe.  What can I do for you?”
“Over the weekend I had a series of unfortunate events, to say the least.  One of which included vandalism to my vehicle.  I was calling to get that taken care of.”
“Oh, no.  Kids, huh?”
“I suspect so.  You know how that goes.  I was visiting a place of business.  I left and found my car had been keyed.”
“Ugh, so sorry to hear that.  I know how that can be.  Yep, and it’s about the time of year this stuff starts to happen.  Kids out of school with nothing to do and little supervision.  Yeah.  So, how ‘bout I fax you the form to fill out so we can get started on the report.  I’m sure you’ve called the police and gotten a report from them-”
“Actually, Kristen I haven’t contacted the police yet.”
“Yeah, you know we have to have a police report to process the claim.  When exactly did this take place?”
“Sunday  morning.”
“And you’ve been driving the car damaged like that all this time?”
“Nah.  No, I have a rental.  I left the car parked at the place of business.”
“Oh, well of course we’ll reimburse you for the cost of the rental.  Having left the car at the business…  gosh, I hope they didn’t return to finish the job.  Did you by chance get photographs of the damage?  What are we talking?  Busted windows?  Slashed tires?”
“No, only the damage to the paint and exterior.  I was so upset that I didn’t think to get pictures.”  There was no way he was going to photograph Blythe’s name etched in his wife’s car.
“Oh, uh huh.  So, I’m faxing the form to your office.  Is that good?”
“Yeah, I’m sitting right here waiting for it.”
“Attach that police report as soon as you get it, and that should take care of everything.  We’ll get started on it right away as soon as you get me that information.”
“I’ll do that.  Thanks, Kristen.”
Richard hung up the phone a little bothered about having to contact the police.  He’d rather Keagan return his call before he phone the police.  Surely Keagan knows someone on the police force who could handle this matter personally.  But he hadn’t heard from Keagan.  He even thought of asking the security guard if he knew a police officer that handled misdemeanors on the north side, but decided against that.  There was no way he could put it off any longer.  He phoned the police department.  The dispatcher answered on the first ring.
“SPD.  How may I direct your call?”
“Yeah, I need to report a destruction of private property.”
“Hold for transfer.”
While awaiting someone to take his call, Richard thumbed through the papers in the folder Pasha had given him.  It was her resume with a request to transfer to another department.  The reason was stated as “unprofessional behavior” on his part.  Richard was quite in shock.
“What the fuck!”
“Pardon me, Sir?”  The officer on the other end answered just as Richard released his expletive.
“Oh, no.  I apologize.  I wasn’t…that wasn’t meant for you. Something caught me off guard.”
“What can I assist you with?”
“Oh, I need to report a destruction of private property that occurred yesterday afternoon.”
“And you are?”
“Richard.  Richard Lindhardt.”
“Ok.  And what happened exactly?”
“My car was vandalized.  Someone keyed my car.”
“And you say this happened yesterday?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Why so long to call?”
“I was going through some really personal issues.  And then when I found my car ruined, I just didn’t think to call right then.”
“Have any idea who would do this?”
“No, sir.  I think it was probably just some mischievous teenagers.”
“Did you get some pictures of the damage?”
“Agh, no.  I was just so distraught.  I wasn’t thinking clearly at all.”
“Where is the vehicle now?”
“Still on 39th and Lennox in the parking area.”
“What make, model, year and color is your vehicle, sir?”
“07Black BMW 740.  Tag number LRT 085.”
“And for the report, what’s your license number?”
“License number 9002005.”
“Ok.  I’ll send an officer over there to get a report.  Is there a number where I can reach you?  And a fax number to send over the report.”
“Yes, sir.  You can call my cell.  696-787-2224. Please have the officer fax the report directly to my insurance agent.  It should go to Cachet Insurance to the attention of Kristen Bethany at 662-392-2095.”
There was a pause as the officer took down all the information.
“Ok.  You should get a call when it’s on the way.”
“Thank you, officer.”
“No problem.”
Richard disconnected the call as the fax from Bethany came through.  He bypassed filling out the form and buzzed for Pasha to come in to his office.  She appeared at the door within seconds.
“Pash, what’s this about?”
Pasha remained standing close to the door.  She had a perplexed look on her face, as if she were trying to find the right words.
“I just think I need a change.”
“But… you put on here the reason for the request as being ‘unprofessional behavior’ on my part.  What gives?”
“Look, Mr. Lindhardt.  I’ve gone on long enough with the flirtiness and the somewhat inappropriate remarks, but what you did crossed the line. Now, I’m requesting a transfer –“
“Whoa!  Hold up just a sec, here.  What –“
“NOW, I’M REQUESTING A TRANSFER –“  Pasha raised her voice so as to make it understood that she would not allow Richard to interrupt her or have her feel guilty about her decision.  Richard was mindful that others in the office could overhear them and motioned for her to lower her voice.  Once she had his attention, she continued.  “- in lieu of pressing any charges or taking this any further out of respect for you, your wife and your career.  But please don’t challenge me on this.  I am prepared to go all the way if need be.  Just sign the form and we can both go on with our lives and try to pretend like this never happened.”  Pasha was turning to leave. 
“But Pash, what did I do?  We were all good when I talked with you Friday.”
“Please, have enough respect to acknowledge what you did and stop with the innocent riot.  I mean, it would be different if there were no evidence.  But you got real bold with yours.  I’m done talking about it, Mr. Lindhardt.  Let’s just keep it professional from now until my transfer is completed.”  With that Pasha walked away.  Richard was speechless.  What the hell had happened between them?  Nothing.  He replayed their talks with each other over in his mind.  Sure, he had been flirty, and… perhaps a little too much.  But this was totally out of the blue.  What does she mean “bold” and “evidence?”  Richard’s thoughts were interrupted by a call to his cell.  It was the police department.
“Yes.  This is Richard.”
“Uh, yeah.  This is Officer Dan down at SPD.  I took down your report regarding vandalism.”
“Yes, sir.”
“And you’re Richard Lindhardt that resides at uh.. 7055 Sunset Blvd?”
“Yeah, that’s my address.”  Richard was a little bothered that the officer had looked up his address.  He dismissed his feelings as just being silly, but there was an unearthing tension building up inside. 
“Well, uh.  We just sent a unit by there and the officer says that your vehicle is parked exactly where you described unharmed.  Says he can’t find a scratch on it anywhere.”
“Are you sure?  Black BMW.  Tag L-“
“Yeah, I gave him the description and location you reported and he says it’s in impeccable condition.  You probably want to get over there and move it asap ‘cause there’re not very many nice automobiles in that area.  Eh, buddy I have to ask.  Had you had any drinks or maybe hit the chronic at all before you thought your car had been vandalized?”
Richard remembered the hotel incident.  He still had no answers regarding that situation.  But he wasn’t about to tell the officer that either.  “I only had a couple of beers in the bar.”
“Nothing that would have altered your state of awareness or perception or anything, huh?” 
“No Sir.  Nothing to that extreme.”
“Well eh, why do you suppose you thought your car had been vandalized when it clearly is in pristine condition?”
“Sir, I promise you there were some scratches and damage to the paint and exterior of the car.  There’s no way I would waste my time calling otherwise.”
“Um hmm.  Could you tell me more about what happened at Embassy Suites International late Saturday night early Sunday morning?”
Richard froze completely.  He stopped breathing.  Panic was catapulting and cart wheeling through his body.  Too much has happened in such a short time span.  He wanted to respond to the officer’s question, but he didn’t have a clue what he could say.  There was an extended silence.
“Mr. Lindhardt, you still there, sir?”
“Yes, Officer Dan.  What happened at the Embassy Suites International was a huge misunderstanding on their part.  As a matter of fact, I’m in the process of contacting the gentleman who rents that suite to get that matter resolved as soon as possible.”
“Yeah, one of my officers says he remembers you from there.  Said you were causing some sort of disturbance and seemed somewhat inebriated.”
“Honestly, sir I –“
“Look, I don’t know what’s been going on with you, but let me suggest that you kinda take it easy for a while.  You get my drift?  It’s not a good thing when we start having to pull your information up so often in such a short period of time, you know.  And ah, this doesn’t look too good if you know what I’m saying.  The disturbance at the hotel.  Then you call and report your car as having been vandalized when it’s in tip-top shape.  Just eh, take it easy, pal.  Let’s not hear from you for a good little while, ok.  Now, I’m gonna make a notation here in the system of what happened and uh, how ‘bout I let you call and handle things with your agent.  Ok?  Take it easy now.  Stay out of trouble.”
Officer Dan disconnected the call.  Richard sat dumbfounded and speechless.  He reached for his phone to try and call Keagan again.  Still no answer.  He decided not to leave another message.  Irate, puzzled and embarrassed, Keagan furiously scribbled his signature on the transfer and gathered his things.  He locked his office and dropped the folder on Pasha’s desk.
“I’ll be working from home the remainder of the day if anyone should ask.  Please forward my calls to my cell and email or text if there are any messages or something urgent comes up.”  He didn’t await a reply.  Pasha didn’t respond.      
The drive back to the bar was full of angst.  Richard had no idea how his supervisor was going to respond to the transfer request Pasha had made.  Of course she wanted to put all this behind them as she had stated.  The only problem with that is he was the one who seemed to be cast in a poor light.  She would get transferred seeming like a victim.  If there were something she were uncomfortable with, she sure never mentioned it to him before now.  As a matter of fact, the very idea that she never talked with him personally about her feelings further proves that she is the one who’s unprofessional.  Richard didn’t realize that he was stretching and bending things to make himself feel more at ease.  But he certainly had to come up with some way to defend himself.  His company had a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment.  This little stunt Pasha had pulled could very easily end his entire career.  Between thoughts, he continued checking his phone for calls from Keagan.  He even powered it down and back up again and checked the service to make certain that it hadn’t been interrupted or had any technical difficulties.  Why wasn’t he returning his calls?  As Richard approached the bar, he saw his car just as the officer had described – parked exactly where he had left it without so much as a spot of dust to be seen.  He exited the rental to inspect the car more closely.  Remote access worked fine.  Tag in place.  Gas gauge locked and seemingly unharmed.  No apparent damage.  He started the engine and it purred like new.  He exited the automobile and stood in awe.  How could this be?  He couldn’t have imagined the entire ordeal.  He stared at the hood as if trying to look through the paint to see some evidence of the damage.  There was none.  There was nothing he could come up with to explain it.  More of a reason to get in touch with Keagan and find out what had happened at the hotel.  Just as he was about to turn around and re enter the rental, he caught a glimpse of those three roughnecks that had been at the bar while he was there.  The one that had “recognized” him was dressed in the exact same attire.  Richard had wondered if he’d showered or even changed clothes.  Or did he have a closet full of white tees and black jeans?  He almost didn’t recognize the woman.  She had removed the weave, but still had a cotton patch of nappy hair pulled into a raggedy ponytail.  Seeing her standing was nauseating.  She was ill-shapen, figure like a sack of nickels.  He could still tell it was her by that bad complexion.  She smiled and waved at him just as she had done before.  He ignored her again.  The dude with the tattoos called out.
“Is everything ok, sunshine?”
Richard quickened his pace toward his rental car. 
“Hope to see you again soon.  Don’t make me wait too long.”  He was blowing kisses at Richard.  And although he hated the thought of leaving his car parked there again, he just wanted to get as far away from that dude as quickly as he possibly could.  He hopped in his rental and locked the doors.  He peeled out of the parking lot and checked his cellular.  Keagan had returned his call while he was inspecting the automobile.  He pressed the icon to check the voice message.
“Ay, Richard sorry so long to get back at you, man.  This weekend has been a doozey.  Your messages seemed kind of urgent.  Can you call tonight if I don’t get back at you before the workday is out?  I should make it home around 7.  Talk to you later.”  The message ended.
“Damn!”  Trying frantically to reconnect with Keagan sent Richard’s mind spiraling yet again. 

Councilman Ford’s study was that of a traditional men’s library with wall to wall Mahogany wooded accents.  He and Keagan were enjoying a drink and talking through plans for changes suggested by some of the citizens.  The smell of cigars and brandy permeated the air.  Councilman Ford looked more casual today than his usual business suits.  He donned a pair of navy trouser slacks with a long sleeved button down mint green shirt.  No tie. Keagan had on what seemed to be his favorite gray suit with white shirt and red tie.
“What they can’t seem to comprehend is that if we build a community swimming pool there will be no choice but to increase the fha dues again to compensate for the added expense this will impose.  Pools have to be maintained.  There’ll have to be clean-up.  Then of course they’ll want landscaping and a clubhouse or common area for festivities and what not.  Shower stalls and another restroom.  Now they’re going to come at me with all that ‘we’ll volunteer’ hoopla, but remember how quickly that dissipated with the community center that they wanted.  Although I could just snap my fingers and make it happen, I’m not going to make it that easy for them this time.”
“Didn’t they just have an increase in fha dues about 6 months ago?”
“Exactly, because they wanted that elaborate playground.  They weren’t too happy about the increase then.  I don’t understand how they think they’re going to get a pool cheaper with the specifications they’ve described here.  The public.  You gotta love ‘em.  I’ll work it out though.  Have to do something before they start flooding my voicemail again.”
“Oh, yeah.  Speaking of voicemail.  Your guy has left 3 voicemails for me since our little show Saturday night.  He sounds like he’s getting there.  Our little show went exactly according to plan.  Had a couple guys serve as a welcoming committee when he returned to that bar he once liked to visit.  Did a number on him with his car.”
“Ah, that’s a good one, Keagan.”
“Yeah, my man with SPD put him on alert from the hotel incident.  Then he calls about a car having been damaged that was found in perfect condition.  This is too much fun.”
“Have you talked to him yet?”
“Nah.  Left a message to call me back later this evening if I don’t get back to him before the end of the workday.  But chances are that I’ll be preoccupied or unavailable to take a call.  But you haven’t heard the kicker yet.”
“There’s more?”
“Oh, yes.  It gets even better.  The car has a little surprise.  An unlisted amenity if you will.”
Councilman Ford looked puzzled for a moment.  Then the light bulb came on.  “Ah, what did we decide to go with?”
“I’m not telling.  I like keeping you in suspense.  But you’ll not be disappointed.”
Having excused herself from her scheduled afternoon, Natalia was a ball of nervous energy.  Tears began to fall nonstop at an uncontrollable pace.  Tears of fear.  Tears of worry and sorrow.  With each tear her world was falling apart, being consumed by her past.  A past that she thought had been replaced or eclipsed by the now she had created for herself.  Why would someone do this to her?  She was no woman of wealth.  Sure she earned a sizeable income, but not enough for someone to want to blackmail her.  She knew no deep dark secrets that would put any person in jeopardy.  She wasn’t that kind of person.  There was absolutely no reason other than pure hatred that would prompt someone to confront her with such personal and painful memories.  She occasionally glanced at the photo of Victor Blackshire that had fallen from the folder she had thrown on the passenger’s seat as she got in her car.  Victor Blackshire.  She hated him.  Hated who he was to her.  Hated that he was being resurrected by some mean-spirited person who wanted to ruin her.  Victor Blackshire was a mistake from her past.  Someone she never should’ve known but had by circumstances beyond her control.  A mistake.  And nothing more than that.  She wasn’t sure where this was going or what outcome was expected.  Knowing that someone was threatening to divulge her secrets had her in emotional peril moment by moment.   A phone call interrupted her train of thought.  She didn’t recognize the number but answered the call.
“This is Natalia.”
“Oh, thank goodness you answered.  I didn’t think you’d take the call from this number, honey.  And please forgive me for taking so long to return your call.  The community has been on us nonstop about this new clinic.”
“Yes, dear.  And I’m so glad you called.  Honestly, I didn’t think you’d call after I left the café.  But honey, it sure is good to hear from you.  What can I do you for?”
“What?  Oh… Irvin… is there any place we could get together and have a little private chat.  And, this discussion would most likely be best among old friends, if you get my drift.  You may not want to bring your wife.”
“Um hmm.  Well honey you know I’d love to catch up.  And Gia is such a doll.  She isn’t the jealous type in the least.  We have a good thing going and we trust each other.  So that wouldn’t be a problem at all.  You will have to come over for dinner sometimes, you and your hubby of course.  But, let me take a look at my calendar and how ‘bout I text you with a good time and location because it’s just been crazy with all the attention we’re getting opening this clinic.”  There was a brief pause.  “You know what?  We’re having a grand opening celebration Friday afternoon.  You should come.  Bring some clients with you, honey.  3 p.m. You got the address?”
“Yes, on the business card, right?”
“That’s it.  If you need directions just give me a call.  But I’ll be sure to text you a date for that talk, girl.  See you Friday, honey.”
“Thanks, Irvin.”
“Oh, no problem.  See you, honey.”
The call was disconnected just as Natalia was pulling up to her driveway.  Initially puzzled that there was a strange car parked in her driveway, she was so preoccupied in thought that she didn’t remember that Richard was driving a rental.  What coincidence led him to be home this time of day? She decided to park alongside his car outside of the garage as he had done rather than letting up the garage door.  After gathering her things and making sure the picture and FedEx envelope were put away, she entered through the front door. 
“I’m in the kitchen!”
Natalia tucked her things under her coat and sat them on the ottoman beside the door.  She felt so glad to see Richard.  She didn’t care what things were like the last time she and he were together.  She just wanted things to be the way they were only this time last month.  So much had changed in such a little time.  She saw Richard sitting at the kitchen island with a drink in hand.  The bottle of JD sitting close by.  She ran and embraced him from the back.  He didn’t shake her off.  That’s a start.
“I guess we both had the same thought.”
Richard glanced over his right shoulder with a puzzled look on his face.
“We both took the day off.  I almost thought someone else was parked in our driveway.  I forgot about the car.  Did you get that taken care of?”
Richard gave an exaggerated laugh and took the last swallow from his glass before pouring some more.  “Yeah, everything’s good.  Car should be ready tomorrow.”
“Wow, that quickly.”  Natalia was still holding on, her head resting on his back.  She reached up to kiss his neck.  He pulled away from her as he rose from the stool.
“Yep.  Mechanic did me a favor and started on it as soon as it got there this morning.”  There was a gut-wrenching feeling that was churning in the pit of his stomach.  He was lying to his wife not because he wanted to, but because he didn’t have a choice.  He himself had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on.  And not having gotten in touch with Keagan was only adding fuel to his frustrations.  Natalia stared at him as he turned to face her.  She was equally as perplexed from the secrets that were threatening to surface.  And the fact that her husband seemed so distant wasn’t helping.  They were both at the exact same place having the same feelings, but couldn’t share with each other what each was experiencing because of the secrets they had been keeping.  So close and yet so far.  Just as Natalia reached to hug her husband, the doorbell rang.  They were both startled being that neither would have ordinarily been home and weren’t expecting visitors.  Natalia ran to open the door. 
“The UPS man?”
She opened the door.
“Good day, ma’am.  Have a delivery for… Natalia and Richard Lindhardt?”
“Sign here, please.”  Natalia scribbled her signature on the electronic pad.  The driver handed her the package.
“Thank you.  Have a good day, now.”  Natalia closed the door, her hands trembling.  She’d already had quite a shock from the package she’d opened at work.  What could this possibly be?”
“Babe, are you expecting a package from work?  Did you order something?”  She was startled when she turned around and Richard was already standing behind her.
“What we got? Who’s it from?”  His tone was curt. 
“Richard, what gives?  I mean, how long are you going to carry this attitude around?  I think we should both sit down and talk about what’s going on with us like adults.”  Natalia was stalling for time, hoping that she could get a peek at what was in the package alone before sharing it with Richard.
“Natalia, when you’re ready to tell the truth… THAT’S when we can sit down like adults and have a real discussion!” 
“What…?“  Natalia felt her heart drop to the pit of her stomach.  “You stormed out of here and have spent nights away from home.  Why do you keep trying to turn things around?”
Richard was pacing and holding his head in his hands.  He wanted to confront her about her plans to not have children.  He didn’t care anymore.  Too much stuff was happening.  So what if she found out that he and Blythe had been sleeping together.  So what if he didn’t get to fill Councilman Ford’s shoes.  To hell with it all.  But he decided to stick with Keagan’s advice, at least until he was able to talk with Councilman Ford again.  He had too much respect for the man to have him cast in a bad light after having chosen him as his successor.  But all the lies and craziness were certainly taking a toll on him.
 “Look, let’s just mellow out and … we don’t want to end up saying things that we both would regret.  Let’s just let each other have some space to think about it.  Now, what’s in the package?”
Natalia held the package behind her back.  “No.  I want to know now why you’ve been so distant.  I want to talk about it now.”
Richard ignored her, reaching behind her for the package.  “I’m not going to do this with you now.  Is that something from the Councilman?”
“That’s probably the problem.  All this chaos between us began when you-”
“No, all this began when YOU decided you didn’t want to have a child!”
Natalia froze.  Richard took that opportunity to whisk behind her and grab the package from her hands.  He tore open the package.  Enclosed were two separate letter-sized envelopes.  One had her name written on it.  The other had his.  He threw her envelope on the ottoman atop her other things before returning to the kitchen island to open the envelope.  The packaging didn’t have a return address.  Sent local.  Everything printed or typed.  He flipped open the envelope to undo the clasp.  Natalia snatched it from his hands.
“NO!!”  She was sobbing.  There was a wild, panicked look in her eyes.  She again gripped the envelope behind her back as she backed away.
“What the hell is your problem?”
“No, no no.  Don’t open it.  Don’t … don’t open it.  Please.  Please don’t open it.”
“Is there something you’re not telling me, Talia?”  Richard was completely caught off guard.  He’d never seen her behave so strangely.  This seemed a bit more than keeping secrets about not wanting to have children.
She continued backing away until she tripped and fell backward.  Richard leapt and picked up the envelope that had landed beside her, that much more determined to see what was inside.  He was beginning to think that she was the reason he’d had so much bad luck.  Maybe what was enclosed would finally put this mess to rest.  Instead of opening the clasp, he ripped the top off and pulled out some 8x10 headshots.  Natalia now curled up in a ball on the floor crying and rocking back and forth, crawled back to the living room and retrieved her envelope from the ottoman.  She undid the clasp and opened it.  Enclosed were several 8x10 photos as well.  What she saw took her breath.  Richard.  Her husband.  Two men and a woman.  A hotel suite.  Pictures of them naked.  Richard having sex with the men.  Richard with the woman.  Several photos of him and their ménage tois. The next couple of photos of him with Blythe having sex inside her home.  They looked to be taken outside of her house through a window.  She screamed and threw the photographs.  She grabbed both sides of her head and began to rock, horrified.
Richard entered the room with a stoic look about his face.  He didn’t take notice of the mess as he squatted beside her.
“Tell me who this is.”  He spoke calmly, just above a whisper.  Natalia was in quiet hysteria.  She continued rocking and sobbing, holding her head.  He grabbed the back of her neck to break her trance and put the photographs in her face.  “WHO is this? Huh?  Who is this person?”
Natalia was face to face with an 8x10 photo showing a progressing change.  A series of surgeries.  The first of a man.  The last of her.  She began to laugh slowly, then louder and louder.  “Would you have preferred him instead?”  Richard pushed her to the floor as she continued laughing hysterically.  “Or were you just looking for a surrogate parent?”  She continued to laugh.  Richard stared at her in awe, his stomach weakening and heartbeat thumping out of control inside his chest.  His mind was in turmoil.  His eyes and heart couldn’t accept what his mind was telling him.  He had searched every part of this person’s body.  There was no inch of that body that he hadn’t explored.  How could this be true? How?  His head began to ache as his thoughts came more and more into acceptance of who this person he had given his father’s name really was.  His father’s name.  What would his father think if he knew what he had done?  What would his mother think?  The people at his job.  He’d become the butt of every joke, his manhood forever and irreversibly in question.  There would be no coming back from this. His eyes fell on the photographs she had received.  He picked up the few with he and Blythe first and looked them over.  There was no remorse.  Not after what he had learned.  Then he picked up the ones scattered of him with the men and the woman with the bad complexion.  He collapsed onto the floor after seeing himself with the man that had all the tats.  The three from the bar.  All of them there.  Nude.  Richard with his mouth in places he would never imagine had he have been conscious of what was happening.  But how did he look fully aware of what was happening in the photographs? His male anatomy clearly responsive in the photos.  There was another photo of him.  The one that broke him down the most.  He was in a submissive position to the one with the tats.  His manhood taken away.  He let out a cry of disgust and wept.  His mind fell on Keagan.  Keagan had fixed him a drink.  He remembered nothing after that. Then he awoke in the bed.  No shoes.  His clothes felt funny on him.  As if someone else had dressed him.  The bad taste in his mouth.  The headache.  Not being able to get in touch with Keagan after that.  He lowered his head and rested it on his knee, tears streaming from his eyes.  The two of them a mess.  Evidence of such scattered all over the floor.  He looked at Natalia.  She looked like a woman.  No one had ever questioned that.  There was no way he could have known.  He gathered the remainder of the photographs from off the floor and rushed out of the house.  Things were all coming together for him now.  The bar. The three strangers. That dude with the tats.  The ugly woman.  His car.  Was Keagan jealous?  Why?  The Councilman needed to know what kind of man he was dealing with before Keagan does something so treacherous to him.

Natalia had quieted herself.  She lay still on the floor in the exact same spot, her thoughts somber.  Not again.  She’d have to leave again.  Move.  Change her name.  This was definitely worse than when her first husband had found out about her.  Her parents had told him.  She thought this time she’d eliminate that by telling Richard they were dead.  Truth is, they were alive as far as she knew and still living in Idaho.  If only science would hurry and invent some way for her to carry a baby, she and Richard would still be together.  After all, he loves her.  So what if he’d been sleeping with Blythe.  They could work that out.  She could get over that.  Richard loved… No, Richard still loves her.  Love doesn’t just dissipate that easily.  And they’d had some of the most intense and erotic lovemaking a couple could have.  She’d remind him of that.  He’d want her again.  He was just a little taken by surprise is all.  Caught off guard.  This was one that she could’ve been upfront with from the beginning.  After all, he’d had a ménage tois with two men.  That’s it.  Once she eased his anxieties and assured him that he didn’t have to live life in the closet with her, that he could be himself and not pretend…. And they could work out the kid part… yeah, he’d stay.  They were two sides of the same coin.  She traced the face on the photograph beside her where her head rested.  Irvin had done impeccable work.  She was thoroughly pleased with the changes.  Even considering doing a little premature maintenance.  It had been difficult at first to soften her look.  She had some hard lines. Very masculine.  But with hormones and time, she had become quite an attractive female. Attractive enough to land two husbands in less time than a natural woman could get one.  She was proud of that.
Her cellular buzzed.  She had received an email.  She rolled over on her back and lifted the photograph above her head.  “Maybe I should change my color back to brown,” she spoke of her hair color.  “This time with auburn highlights.”  She laughed at herself and lifted herself from the floor to check her email.  Tulip had forwarded her an email from Turley.  They had called an impromptu meeting regarding the budget.  3p.m.  She had to either conference call in or attend.  No exceptions.  After replying that she would attend, she poured a little of Richard’s JD and took a hard swallow.  Natalia didn’t drink liquor, but that was just what she felt she needed.  When she finished touching up her makeup, she was out the door, actually glad to go.  That was the one place her gender wasn’t a constant threat.  There she could be who she wanted to be, and wait for the world to catch up.

Richard was at Councilman Ford’s office in what seemed like moments.  He had a wild look about him, still somewhat in shock.  He tried to neaten his appearance, but his expression gave way to what was on his mind.  The receptionist was startled.
“I need to see Councilman Ford ASAP.  This is important.  It can’t wait.”
“Sir, is he expecting you?”
“No.  Just buzz in and tell him Richard Lindhardt is here to see him.  It’s imperative that I talk with him immediately.”
“Sir, Councilman Ford accepts visits by appointment only.  Now, I can pencil you in for next week because he’s quite busy –“
“No dammit!  Let me speak to Councilman Ford NOW!”  Richard’s voice could be heard throughout the entire office.  Everyone else stopped and fixed their gaze upon him.  He was coming unglued moment by moment.  Councilman Ford appeared from the corridor.
“My God, man.  What’s happened to you?” 
“Councilman Ford, you have no idea what kind of man you are dealing with.  I know you think you can trust this guy, but I’m here to tell you he is a scandalous, manipulative, desperate, sick-minded individual.  Look at what he’s done to me.”  Richard was shaking photographs in front of the Councilman.  Councilman Ford placed his hand on his shoulder. 
“Yes. Yes.  I’ll listen to you.  Let’s take this into my office.”  He spoke reassuringly, guiding Richard toward the office.  He turned and held his hand up and nodded at his receptionist, letting her know that he would handle the disturbance.  After a few paces, he and Richard were in his office suite.  The Councilman shut the door.
“Now, what’s so urgent that you’re about to give all my staff concurrent panic attacks?”
“Take a look at this.”  Richard gave the photographs of him to the Councilman.  “They’re distasteful and embarrassing.  But sir, this has everything to do with Keagan. He has clearly abused his power and privilege to destroy anyone who tries to get in your good graces.”
Councilman Ford sifted through the photos with a stern look on his face.  “Yeah, this wasn’t what I had in mind when I gave you permission to use my suite, Richard.  Now, why do you think Keagan had anything to do with this?”
“The last thing I remember at the time these photographs must’ve been taken was talking to Keagan about some problems I was having with my wife.  He fixed me a drink and –“
“You mean problems you were having with Blythe, don’t you?”
Richard paused with a puzzled look on his face.  “Who… Did Keagan tell you about Blythe?”
“Keagan is paid very well to make sure that I don’t encounter any unpleasant surprises, Richard.  He tells me everything.  And he’s very good at finding information and making things happen.  Seems you’ve gotten yourself in a bit of trouble here.”
“I don’t understand.  You two in on this together?” Richard began pacing back and forth.  Councilman Ford threw the photographs on the coffee table and lit a cigar.
“What have I done to you that you would humiliate and degrade me like this?  Christ, I never even met you before the job you contracted me on with the community project.”
“Come on now, Richard.  Real men don’t ask why.  It’s life.  It is what it is. The survival of the fittest.  The rat race.  We all are susceptible to face the consequences of our actions.  All those little things that we thought were quietly kept.”
“But you’ve lied!  You set me up! You-“
“You you you.  Listen at you, Richard.  Take responsibility for your own actions.  At any given moment you could have realized that you were in over your head.  Think about it.  By your own admission you knew you had little experience beyond… what did you call it?... 10th grade student government?  Then what made you think you could handle real world politics?  What?  You thought you were ‘special?’” He laughed, walked back over to his desk and looked out at the skyline.  “And you can’t say I didn’t warn you.  I told you how tricky the world of politics can get.  Even asked you to put all your cards on the table.  You did this to yourself.”
“No.  You think all there is to politics is hustling and pacifying people.  I really believe that there is some magnitude of good that can come from all these ill intentions.”
“Yeah.  Spoken like a truly inexperienced and naïve potential political fool.  You should actually be thanking me, Richard.  I saved you.  I saved you from becoming even more of a public spectacle than you have already made of yourself.  I saved you from spending years entangled in a life that would’ve been a lie.  A little less whining and a lot more gratitude would certainly not go unappreciated.”
Richard couldn’t stop the tears from welling in his eyes.
“Look at what a mess you’ve made of your life.  The only woman you’ve decided to marry turns out to be a man.  There’s no way we could continue to associate ourselves with you even if that’s what we desired to do.  The public isn’t ready for this kind of ‘family.’”  Councilman Ford took a long drag from his cigar and poured himself a drink.  “Now, as bad as this seems, you still have options.  You could move, you and Natalia.  Find someplace where people are a little more open to alternative lifestyles.  But one thing’s for sure.  I suggest you not try to stay here.  Things could get pretty serious.  Yeah.  This is a drop in a bucket compared to what it could become if you don’t make some wise choices.”
Richard continued pacing.  Councilman Ford was moved with empathy.
“Richard, what had Natalia told you about her first husband?” 
Richard stopped pacing, not having given much consideration to who he might have been or rethinking the reasons of their divorce.
“There are some upstanding men in the world, Richard.  Some men who have the clout, associations and connections to make problems that won’t go away on their own become not so much of a problem anymore.  Before you start playing games and keeping secrets about who you really are, you should consider who you might be playing games with.  That having been said, I’m sure you should probably go home and console your mate.”
Of course.  Natalia’s first husband must have to keep his little mistake on the hush to keep himself from becoming the implications that have been imposed upon Richard.  Richard snatched the pictures from the coffee table and stormed out of the office.  As he was about to exit the receptionist’s door he heard Councilman Ford call out, “Please, if there’s anything I can do to help you, let me know.  God bless you, sir.”
The next thought Richard had was to get himself checked out.  He felt dirty.  Not the kind of dirty from hard work and sweat.  The kind of dirty a person feels after a penetration or invasion of some unwanted or undesirable element.  If these men were lowdown enough to do something like this, there’s no telling what else they’re capable of or have added to the equation.  Having kept the rental car had become somewhat of a blessing.  No one would recognize it parked in the clinic parking lot.  But to make extra sure no one recognized him, he decided to go to the clinic a couple of counties away.  The most he could hope for was that none of the doctors that he routinely visited in the medical office plex was on call or did work elsewhere on their days off.  He would have to lie about why he’d be visiting another doctor’s office.   Chatham County was only about 2 hrs away.  He’d go there.  No one he knew lived in that area.  Less likely for an accidental run-in.  About halfway there his cellular was ringing.  Blythe’s number lit up the display.  With all that he had on his mind, he was struggling with whether or not to take the call or let it go to voicemail.  He took the call.
“Blythe, now is really not a good time.  I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“Richard, please don’t hate me.” 
There was an extended pause.  He was torn.  If there were just one more iota of bad news, just one more thing, he swore to god he’d drive his car off the road into a tree and end it all. 
“Have you talked with your friend?”
“No, I called you first.”
“What’s wrong?”
“Depends on how you look at it, love.  You were planning to leave your wife.  But you have to know that I didn’t intend to do this.  I didn’t want to…I didn’t want things to happen like this. I just wanted you to-“
“Blythe, just spit it out!”
Silence.  Intensity between the two of them thick enough to cut with a knife.  He could hear her breathing, trying to form the words that held him in suspense.
“I – I’m pregnant, Richard.”
“Yes. 8 weeks.”
“And you expect me to honestly believe that you didn’t try to make this happen?”
“I know it’s a little hard for you to believe.  It’s hard for me to believe myself.  I didn’t realize what an impact this will actually have on our lives until just a moment ago when I decided to tell you.”
“Blythe, you’ve known for 2 months that you’ve missed your regular cycle, but you expect me to believe this has all been some sort of unexpected surprise.  I know how a woman’s body works.”  Richard heard himself and became nauseated with disgust.  There was an extended silence again.
“I know it seems impossible to believe.  But I thought that I had been missing my cycle because of all the added stress lately.  There is more going on in my life than just you, you know.”
“Well you certainly didn’t make it seem that way when I tried to end it with you.”  Again silence.  The words resonated with her.  Her news resonating with him.
“No matter now.  I’m pregnant.  It’s yours.  And I’m keeping it.”
“I’ll let you be the one to call your little friend and relay the news.”  Richard disconnected the call.  In actuality, he didn’t know how to feel about it.  How ironic that the one thing he wanted would come surrounded by such a mess.  What kind of father could he be to a son or daughter with the things that have happened to him?  Blythe had definitely put a lot on his mind.  So much so that the drive to the clinic wasn’t nearly as long as it would have seemed otherwise.  There were very few cars in the parking lot.  Few cars meant that there were only a few waiting to be seen.  He avoided parking in front of the building and instead parked around one of the sides as close to the back as possible.  Once he was signed in and seated, he made every effort to keep is head low and avoid eye contact so as to minimize the possibility of being recognized.  He fiddled with his Smartphone and pretended to be interested in something.  Meanwhile, he overheard conversations from the few that were waiting to see the doctor.  One girl that looked to be all of about fourteen years old was crying with someone that Richard would’ve guessed was an older sibling or friend.  She was worried about what she’d tell you family if she found out she were pregnant.  Another odd couple was discussing what drug they’d have chosen instead of trying to do new stuff someone named Timmy offered them.  Both were complaining about the diarrhea and nausea that had been nonstop since Wednesday last week.  Today was Monday.  The last of those waiting to be seen was a mother with her daughter who’d apparently gotten sick at school.  They were browsing through some of the age appropriate reading material to entertain the toddler.  Richard focused on them the most, thinking about what he could expect when Blythe gives birth.  Blythe.  She’s having his child.  Damn.  He would never have chosen her to mother his child.  Agony began churning inside because in his heart Natalia had been the only woman he wanted to have a family with.  Now he understood that to be impossible.  But his heart hadn’t quite come to that realization.  Most of him still loved Natalia.  Conflicting emotions had him in a quiet hell all of itself.  And although he could easily walk away because of who Natalia really is, he knew that breaking from the spell that had been placed upon his heart would take some undoing.  Maybe Blythe and the baby would be just what he needed to get over this. Then his mind became flooded with what reality had dished over the last few days.  Councilman Ford had made a fool of him to prove a point.  His thoughts were interrupted by a touch on his shoulder. 
“Mark Warren?”  The fake name he had used when he signed in had been called, but he was too lost in thought to hear.
“Oh, yeah.  Sorry, I got a lot on my mind.”
“Right this way, sir.”  The assistant escorted him to a private waiting room where he rushed inside and reached for a trash can just in time to release what had been upsetting his stomach.  The assistant was startled, but managed to maintain her composure long enough to help him.  She grabbed some paper towels and helped to wipe his mouth.
“How long have you been vomiting, sir?”
“I’ve been nauseous for a few hours now, but this is the first time I’ve vomited.”  Richard would’ve been embarrassed, but he was feeling entirely too bad to have much pride at this point.
“I’ll get the nurse in here right away to get your vitals.  Mind if I leave the door open?  Only so you won’t be passed out and no one be aware of it because you’re behind closed doors.”
“By all means.  No problem.”
“Ok, sir.  I’ll get someone in here right away.”  She exited the exam room after having propped the door open with a chair.  Richard’s head began to spin.  He sat in another chair and placed the garbage can between his legs in case there was more.  He was breaking out in a cold sweat and feeling lightheaded. He thought he’d probably caught a touch of the flu having been in and out of the night air.  Only a couple minutes had gone by when the nurse came in.  He answered all her questions as she took his vital signs and they wrapped things up pretty quickly.  Then came the doctor.
“Mr. Warren, I’m Dr. Cyrano.  I’ve reviewed your chart and I’d like to take some blood for the labs.  Before the nurse comes back in to do that, is there anything else you think I should know?”
Richard was wrestling with how to tell the doctor what had happened to him without looking like this was his chosen lifestyle.  His insides were still trying to spill out of his mouth. “Dr. I think I’ve been drugged like one of those date rape things.  I need to make sure I’m ok.”
“I understand.  So how about we get some cultures done also?”  The doctor seemed to have known that there was more to what was going on than just a possible touch of the flu.  “I’ll have to get the nurse in to assist.  Please disrobe and put this on.”  He handed Richard a hospital gown from the drawer and exited.
The exam process went smoothly and Richard was dressed and ready to go with promises from the doctor that the results would be ready to read in about twenty four to forty eight hours.  Richard paid cash for the visit and was back in route to the house, hoping that Natalia wouldn’t be there so he could gather his things and exit without having to face her again.

Natalia arrived at her office building and had a few moments to sit and regain her composure.  She was still slightly upset.  And a little nervous.  Everyone in the office seemed to be behaving strangely to her.  Even Tulip had a strange look on her face.  Natalia dismissed her feelings as paranoia because of what had happened at home and lay back in her chair with her eyes closed.  She wondered where Richard had gone.  Undoubtedly, he’d have packed and would be gone by the time she got back.  Same way her first husband had.  Good thing about that is they always leave all the good stuff in such a hurry to get away.  He probably hasn’t given that yacht a second thought with those pictures flashing through his mind.  Now to find a way to keep it and stick him with the note.  Hell, she’d probably have to live there a little while just to be on the safe side.  If he started thinking and remembering too much, combined with an alcoholic binge, there’s no telling what he would do.  Then there were the cars and other common assets.  Should she petition to go after his retirement and savings?  Having had time to think about things, it would be smart to think about what her plan should be should he decide that he couldn’t accept her for who she is. “Damn, look at what I’m becoming,” she whispered to herself.  But her disdain was short-lived.  After all, this was déjà vu for her.  She was pensive about divorcing her first husband.  And the truth is, she didn’t have to be ruthless about the divorce.  She’s more than capable of taking care of herself.  But this time she felt she deserved to be compensated.  He’d been keeping secrets himself.  “What a hypocrite.” 
Tulip buzzed in.  “The meeting is about to begin.  Conference room 1.”  Natalia grabbed her report to present to Turley from her desk and was on her way.
Once she entered the conference room she could tell that something wasn’t right.  There were more people than needed there for a discussion about the budget.  Human Resources was there.  Mr. Stringfellow was there. 
“Natalia, have a seat for us.”  Mr. Stringfellow was the president and CEO.  Natalia sat down, not because of his request but because that was the natural thing to do when you enter a room for a meeting and everyone else is already seated.  She certainly wasn’t going to remain standing the entire meeting.
“Mr. Stringfellow, it’s nice to have you sit in on our discussion about the budget.  I’d love to get your thoughts on my suggestions.”
“Unfortunately, Natalia this isn’t a pleasant occasion.  It’s been brought to our attention just before the budget talks were to begin that there’s been some behavior coming from your personal life that doesn’t reflect what we would consider a desirable image.  I’m sure you’re familiar with our policy regarding our professional image and how your behavior even outside of the work environment impacts that image...”
Natalia sat motionless, wanting to interject and defend herself but unable to speak.  Mr. Stringfellow.  Why would they call Mr. Stringfellow in?  Usually the immediate supervisor and HR handle terminations.
“… and what has been brought to our attention cannot easily be reprimanded and expected to be corrected.  As I’ve described before, this seems to be a lifestyle.  And even if that’s what we wanted to do, someone has taken enough of an interest in your lifestyle to actually send us some evidence of what’s been going on.”  Mr. Stringfellow slid a folder to his right and asked that it be passed down to her.  “Have a look at these photographs that were delivered to our office this morning.”
Natalia began to panic again.  She knew without having to see that those must’ve been copies of the photos that had been delivered to her house earlier.  Once the folder reached her, she slowly opened it and scanned through the pictures.  Both sets of pictures were there.  His and hers.  She closed the folder and glared at the faces looking back at her.  People awaiting a reaction to discuss later by the water cooler or at the office party.  All the hard work she’d put in for the company would be disregarded.  She’d become nothing more than office gossip. Mr. Stringfellow resumed his monologue.
“Now, whatever you’ve done or felt was necessary to be who you feel comfortable being, I’m certainly not opposed to that Natalia.  This is the world we live in nowadays.  But… it isn’t just about what I think.  I have over 700 employees that depend on me – and whom I depend upon – to support our families.  Children that need tuition for college.  Approaching retirees.  New families that have just welcomed a baby that needs to be taken care of.  So, it’s more than you or me Natalia.  I have to make decisions that will keep the company in good standing with the community and business world so that we can continue to put food on our tables and clothes on our backs.  With that being understood, you can see why the only thing we can do is to have to ask your resignation.  And of course, you’ll receive the highest of recommendations from us for what you’ve contributed to our growth.  Now, I realize that this is a sad departure.  I think we should just get this thing behind us as soon as possible.  You may write on your resignation for a two week notice, but we’ll just let you take your vacation time in that time period and not have you come back and drag this thing out.  Please remove all your belongings, and best of luck to you Natalia.”
With that, everyone got up from their seats and exited the conference room, taking the tension with them and leaving her there to process what just happened.  And that’s what she did.  She sat there and thought about all the work she’d done to get to where she is now.  And she thought about how much of a bigot Mr. Stringfellow has been.  Mr. Stringfellow, who routinely has his mistress visit him every Friday night in his office after he thinks everyone has left and carries on an affair that has spanned the entire 7 years she’s worked for the company.  Or Turley, who Natalia was sure she could get to spend a few nights with her with little to no coercion.  Then she thought about the faces she’d miss.  Guy and Ginger.  “Oh well.  I guess the fat lady is… trying to sing.”  Natalia got up from her seat and caught a glimpse of a figure in her peripheral vision. 
“Oh, Tulip.  You startled me.”  Natalia was actually glad to see someone who she thought wouldn’t be so judgmental of her, until she noticed the look on her face.  “Is everything good with you?”  She stood there with her hand inside a couple of boxes.  She had a peculiar look on her face and didn’t respond immediately.
“Tulip, you ok?”
“I – I just brought you a couple of boxes to put your things in.”  Tulip spoke with the same soft voice she always had and remained standing where she was.  She seemed to be at a loss for words, but clearly having something she wanted to say.
“Thank you.  You know, I’m really sorry that we didn’t get to know each other better despite what you may have heard or thought of me.”  Natalia was about to approach her to take the boxes and begin packing.  Tulip closed the door and blocked her path. Natalia froze.
“I’ve gotten to know you quite well.”  Tulip’s whisper brought a stillness in the space they were sharing.  It was the same as if she had screamed.  Her eyes were dancing around the room.  She was wrestling with herself inside.  Things that she needed to say.  This being her final opportunity to get those things out once and for all.
“Tulip, I’ll take the boxes now and get started.  I’ve got quite a bit of junk that I –“
“NO.  No.  I – I’m the one that… that told them about you.”  They both froze and locked eyes with each other.    Tulip seemingly gaining confidence and momentum.  Natalia unsure what to think at this point.  “I know Mr. Delmanson well.  An upstanding gentleman.  What you did to him was morally reprehensible.  And I’ve watched you come in here day after day, a lie in motion.  It’s so unfair.”
“Tulip, if you had a problem with me you should’ve come to me long before now –“  Natalia was making her way to the door, not caring about whatever it is this shell of a person had to say.  She was halted by Tulip’s demands.  Tulip clicked the lock on the door.
“No, I’m going to talk.  YOU listen.”  She let the box she was gripping from the inside fall to the floor.  Her hand was holding onto a .45 magnum. 
“Tulip, I’m not sure why you’re angry, but I want to understand.  I want to talk about it.  Let’s discuss it, whatever it is.  Tell me what I did and –“Natalia never took her eyes off of the gun.
“That’s what I intend to do, Victor.”  Those words resounded within the walls of the room.  This wasn’t a personal issue with Natalia.  This was hatred for an entire group of people.
“I’m smart.  I’m no beauty queen, but I’m not ugly either.  But here I am.  A real woman.  A natural woman.  By birth.  Yet, I get passed by for something like you.  A mockery like you.  Good men won’t give me a second look.  But you’ve had two good men.  TWO!  Showering you with all kinds of gifts.”  Tulip began pacing and scratching her head.  The gun remained aimed in Natalia’s general direction.
“Stupid men.  Look at you!  I mean, you do look better than me.  You’re gorgeous.  How much did all this cost?”  Tulip’s was becoming increasingly unstable with her psychotic monologue.  Natalia was finally over enough shock to think.  She looked around the room for another possible exit.  There was none.  No window.  No door.  She was trapped and at the mercy of this deranged woman.
“But they don’t think with the good sense God gave them.  Can’t get past what they see.”  With that Tulip looked Natalia over from head to toe.
“Tulip, I empathize with what you’re going through.  Believe me.  I know what it’s like to be overlooked because of who you are.  That’s why I –“
“HA!  You ‘empathize.’ Get this understood.  You and I have absolutely nothing in common.  No, there is no part of your male anatomy that has ever been or shall ever be a part of my female anatomy, and vice versa.  See, I knew you weren’t really all that smart.  Just a pretty boy.”
Natalia’s eyes widened with disbelief.  This couldn’t be the same Tulip that she’d worked with every day.  This was a stranger that stood before her.  “You’re absolutely right.  We haven’t a thing in common.”
“That poor man.  See how you poisoned his life?  I’d bet you he didn’t have such ungodly things on his mind before you introduced him to such.  That first husband just had enough common sense to get rid of you before you ruined him any more than marrying you had done.”
“Tulip, try looking at me as if I’m just another human being.  Really, who I’ve slept with is none of your business.  We’re all adults.  Those men made decisions of their own.”
“Don’t you try and play the martyr, you filthy abomination.  You’re making this easier for me.  When God spoke to me and told me that this was what I had to do, I didn’t want to do it.  But He’s showing me now, just by listening to you.  He’s showing me that I should just do as He commands without question.  The bible talks about a time such as this, Old and New Testaments.  Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.  A time to love.  A time to hate.”
“Tulip, God doesn’t want you to do this.  God doesn’t want you to-“
“HOW CAN YOU KNOW WHAT GOD WANTS?  YOU DIDN’T EVEN TRUST HIM TO ASSIGN YOU THE APPROPRIATE GENDER!!”  There was a maddening look consuming her face.  She began to weep. “I have to do this to keep you from destroying more honorable men.”  They both jumped when there was a knock at the door.
“What’s going on in there?  Why is the door locked?”  Someone had heard Tulip yelling.
“HELP!!  SHE HAS A GUN!”  Natalia cried out in desperation.
“SHUT UP!”  Tulip aimed the gun squarely at Natalia, point blank range.  “GET AWAY FROM THAT DOOR!  I’LL BE FINISHED IN A MINUTE!”
“Open this door, now!  Someone call security!  Dial 911!!”  Footsteps could be heard on the other side of the door scrambling around.
“Quickly, we have to say a prayer.  You don’t have much time left.”  Tulip grabbed Natalia by the wrist and forced her to the floor on her knees.  Tulip’s other hand kept Natalia the target of cold steel.  Tulip kept her eye focused on Natalia as she prayed.  “Dear God, please forgive this poor sinner for straying from your divine plan for his life.  Please accept my intercession –“
“THIS IS SECURITY!  OPEN THIS DOOR IMMEDIATELY!!”  Tulip and Natalia jumped at the force with which security banged on the door.  Tulip began praying faster as she cocked the pistol.  “and forgive me as I do what you have commanded for the honor of Your Word and Your Kingdom-“
“PLEASE HURRY!!!”  Natalia cried out.  Tears streaming down her face.  Endless tears. 
There was a forceful thud on the door that almost jarred it from the hinges.
“Damn! Why are office locks so strong?”  Natalia placed her hands over her face and rested her head on her knees.
“…And accept us into thy glory-“ Tulip was swaying and praying, the hand holding the gun steady and ready to release fire. 
Another ram of the door from the other side, almost loosening it from the frame.  Natalia was sobbing aloud.  “It wasn’t worth the trouble anyway.”
“…in the name of the FATHER! SON! And the HOLY SPIRIT!”  There was another thrust into the door.  The force and momentum sent two security guards barreling inside just as the explosion from the gun released an inch of death that pierced bone and flesh, splattering blood onto all the contents inside.  The two men from security regained their balance in astonishment.  Natalia lay on the floor motionless, a pool of blood beginning to surround her head and upper torso.
“Ma’am, put down your gun!”  A security guard drew his weapon, trying to gain control of the situation.  The other must’ve been a rookie, seemingly frozen in place.  His eyes went back and forth from Natalia to Tulip.  Then he drew his weapon and offered assistance.
“You don’t understand.  I had no choice.”  Tulip then placed the gun underneath her chin and cocked it once again.  One of the security guards lowered his weapon and looked her in the face.  She pulled the trigger.  Her blood now mingled with the splatters from the damage she had done to Natalia.  Her body landing limp, covering hers.  The gun fallen by their side.  The sound of the shot seeming to resound in the silence.  An audience had gathered outside the door.  Their eyes enlarged by the sight of the two dead bodies.  Their minds trying to understand how violence had penetrated the illusion of safety that had pacified them in the workplace.

Only a few moments passed 5pm.   Richard had turned the rental car in to be sure no one would recognize it from the clinic and make a connection.  There was a note affixed to the windshield of his BMW.  He snatched it off before using his remote access to enter the vehicle.  The car once again purred like new, and Richard turned the air on full blast to combat the heat.  He took some deep breaths.  There was a burning sensation that coursed through his lower abdomen and he cried out in pain.  Good thing his lab results would be back in a day or two.  He unfolded the paper that to find an address scribbled on inside in unrecognizable handwriting.  He thought nothing of it.  Another mistake.  Having cooled himself, he slowly peeled out of the parking lot and headed in the direction of the Hilton to rent a room.  He preferred the amenities of the Embassy, but given the circumstances of his last visit he thought it not wise to return there.  Besides, the Hilton was where he had frequented before keeping company with the Councilman and his entourage.  Normally he would call Pasha and have her make him a reservation and find an apartment, but that wasn’t an option anymore.  Once at the Hilton, he made his way to guest services and presented his VIP card.
“Welcome to Hotel Hilton.  Do you have a reservation?”
“I’d like to rent a room for one week, please.”  The receptionist took his card and swiped it as he took out his black card to pay for the accommodations.
“Certainly, Sir.  Would that be smoking or non?”  The receptionist keyed in some information and swiped the card again.
“Nonsmoking, please.”  The receptionist stopped typing.  She swiped the card for a third time.
“Ah, here we go.  And would you prefer first floor or-,“  Again she halted, paying particular attention to something on the screen.
“Mr. Richard Lindhardt?”  The tone in her voice indicated that she wanted to confirm his identity.
“I’m sorry, sir.  I’m unable to rent you a room.”  She returned his VIP card to him. 
“What seems to be the problem?  I know I’ve not patronized with you guys in a while, but-“
“Sir, there’s really nothing I can do.  This is beyond my control.  Would you like to speak with the manager?”
“Just a moment.”  The receptionist disappeared to the back and returned with the hotel manager.  She pointed out the information on the screen.  The hotel manager glanced at Richard and returned focus to the computer screen.
“Ok, Sir.  We can’t rent you a room.  It seems that ah, you’ve caused a disturbance at another establishment and have been placed on what we call a watch list with the local hotel franchises.  It’s just a measure we use to ah, protect ourselves, you know.  We get all kinds of crazies in here.  I’m not saying you’re one of them.  But ah, my hands are tied.”  The hotel manager rested his walkie talkie on the ledge, warning Richard that their conversation was being heard and there were people prepared to intervene if necessary.  Richard quietly walked away, remembering the officer’s warning from having reported his car as having been vandalized.  He was fuming inside.  There was absolutely nothing he could do.  He was so preoccupied in thought that he didn’t notice the police cars that had surrounded his automobile and was stopped just as he was about to reenter his BMW.
“Sir, please place your hands behind your head.”  Richard turned to come face to face with the exact same officer that had given him the warning following the incident at Embassy suites.  He had one hand on his weapon, ready to draw.  Richard did as instructed.
“What’s this about?” 
“I knew you were trouble.  It’s a good thing I told them to keep an eye on you.” The officer approached and began cuffing him, a cocky look on his face.  “Have a seat here for me please,” the officer instructed, escorting him to a curb in the front of the hotel.  “Mind if I search the car?”
“What’s this about?  I haven’t broken any laws.”
“Then you won’t mind if I do a search, then?  Or would you rather sit here cuffed in front of this hotel on this very busy street while I wait for a warrant?” 
“I have no problem with the search.  But what is this?  Am I the victim of racial profiling?”
“Just stay calm, sir, and you’ll have nothing to worry about.”  The officer gave a smile that was far from genuine before turning and signaling to search the vehicle.  An officer opened the hatch of a Chevy Tahoe and got out his canine companion. 
“What?  You think I’m trafficking drugs?”  Richard’s irritation was growing to epidemic proportions.  As one officer escorted the canine to begin his sniff search, another officer brought the one that cuffed Richard a white wadded sheet of paper.
“Take a look at this.” 
Richard remembered the address that was on his windshield.  The one he disregarded.  The one he thought had no significance.
“Sir, what do you know about this location?”  The officer lowered the wadded paper so that it was visible to Richard. 
“That was on my windshield when I picked my car up.  I have no idea where that is.”
“You sure about that?”  The sound of barking began overpowering the noise from the traffic.
Another officer called out, “Sarge, we got something!”
The officer walked toward the car on the driver’s side.  The canine officer was barking out of control, bearing down on his front legs to alert his comrades that he had earned his doggy treat for the day.  Another officer got down on the ground on his back and was using a mirror to look underneath the car.  After a little finagling, he pulled something out.  The officers gathered round and examined the object.  A few heads looked in Richard’s direction.  They handed the object to the officer that had cuffed Richard.  The canine companion was being lauded for his work and returned to his luxury transportation.
“Does this jog your memory?”  The officer squatted beside Richard and showed him what all the guilty looks in his direction were about.  The officer was holding a bag of white powder.  About a pound of what looked like cocaine.
“I have absolutely no idea what that is, where that came from or how it got anywhere near my car.  And I’m not saying another word until I talk to my attorney.” 
“Ok, pal.  In the meantime, you have the right to remain silent…”  The officer began reciting the Miranda rights.  Richard just dropped his head and began to wonder how much worse things could possibly get.  Realizing that this was more of Keagan and the Councilman’s handiwork eliminated the option to call the only someone he knew that had enough clout to get him out of this mess.  Or did it?  Richard was digging deep, trying to come up with something that he could hang over their heads just long enough to get this little inconvenience erased.  He closed his eyes and searched his memory, replaying conversations in his mind.  Keagan.  His wife Sahara.  Councilman Ford.  Three marriages.  Love and lust.  Business deals.  Nothing more.  Expensive gifts.  A high-priced hood on standby.  The community project.  His mind clicked.  The problem is Richard was trying to think like an honest man.  Given the company he had been in, he needed to think with the mind of his rival, whose specialty seemed to be creating false implications.  He decided he should play on their terms by their rules.  He watched the tow truck rig his car to have it taken as evidence.  Then the brash officer that had been such a thorn in his side guided him toward the patrol car to be taken to the station.  They arrived in moments.
“Care to give us a statement, sir?”  The bookie was fingerprinting and entering Richard‘s information into their system while another officer emptied the contents of his pockets and another removed his shoe laces, belt and tie. 
“When do I get my phone call?”
“Same as every other John in here.  Bring ‘em in and their first question is always ‘when do I get my phone call?’”  The bookie was mocking Richard and laughing it up with the rest of the surrounding officers.  “You must think you’re some hot shit that’s exempt from the rules like the other people in here, huh?  Think your attorney is going to come in here with his briefcase and say a few magic words and make this all just go away?  No one is above the law, pal.  You’ll do time just like anyone else.”
“Very good.  Seems you’ve been rehearsing for the day when you become a real cop and actually get to go out and get the bad guys rather than just be a uniformed, highly decorated secretary.”  The other officers roared with laughter.  The bookie gave a look that could cut through steel if he had laser vision.  He smiled just to keep from looking as if his feelings were as hurt as they actually were.
“Ah, this one’s got jokes, too.  Well, we’ll see how ‘funny’ you are after spending some time with your fellow cohorts.”  The bookie gave another sideways smile.  “I got what I need.  Lock ‘em up.”
Richard was led to the holding cell that had about two dozen other people waiting to be sent off like slaves at an auction.  All these guys seemed to remind him of the three roughnecks from the bar one way or another.  If it wasn’t the tats, it was the clothes.  If it wasn’t the clothes, it was the expression on their faces.  If it wasn’t that, it was how buff they were.  And they all looked as if this wasn’t their first time on the auctioning block. Richard was nervous and fidgety.  Sweat was trickling down the back of his neck.  And there was a recurring sharp pain and burn that coursed through his lower abdomen.  Men were joking about the cops and sharing stories about the last time they got locked up.  Some were still on parole but had fallen prey to Bait Car.  Some were facing a possessions charge for getting caught with some chronic.  A few were in for prostitution, only women and men were placed in separate holding cells.  He tried to remain calm and not appear as uncomfortable as he was.  Ways to get out without having to call Natalia.  That’s all he could focus on.  And although he had fabricated quite a few lies to get a reaction from the councilman and his sidekick, he decided not to allow them the satisfaction of seeing that their deviance has successfully landed him behind bars.  Blythe was the only option that made sense. 
“Ay, officer.  I’m ready to make that phone call,” he was shouting to the officer on the hall. 
“Oh, I see we got ourselves a newbie!”  One of the guys in holding was calling attention to Richard. 
“This ain’t television, pal.  Phone calls are made between the hours of 10-7 and on a first come, first served basis.”  He pointed to the opposite end of the hall.  The only phone available already had a line of about 5 people trying to make a 2 minute call to buy themselves some freedom.  The clock on the wall read 5 minutes to 7. 
“So, what?  I’m supposed to just sit here until 10 in the morning waiting to use the damn phone?”
“Whooaaaa!  You may not want to do that, bruh.  When they pass out trays you just might get an extra condiment and uh, don’t no health inspectors come around here too often.  You feel me?”  Richard had managed to gather an audience thanks to the dude that called him out about the phone.  His frustrations were about to get the best of him at the thought of spending a night in jail.  A voice called out from the line awaiting use of the phone. 
“Ay, you can have my spot, man.  This ain’t my first time so I know what you goin’ thru.”  A kid that couldn’t be much older than 20 wearing black oversized velour track suit pants, white kicks and a wife beater offered to trade places with him.
“Thanks, man.”
“Are you sure, Tonio?”  The guard was already en route to unlock the holding cell so the two could swap places.
“Yeah, it’s cool,” he told the guard before directing attention back to Richard.  “Just, whoever you call tell them to call Juve and have Beal come get Toad out the county.  They’ll know exactly what you talkin’ ‘bout.”
It wasn’t long before it was Richard’s turn to use the phone.  Having ended the call earlier on such an unpleasant note then having to call her to bail her soon to be baby daddy out of jail was embarrassing to say the least.  But he’d spend a little embarrassment to buy himself out of jail.  He was accustomed to Blythe answering immediately, and for a second couldn’t understand why it was taking her so long to answer the phone.  That’s before he realized that he was calling from the county jail.
“Blythe, it’s Richard.”
“Richard, what’s wrong?  The caller id shows county jail.”
“Blythe, I need you to come down and post bail.”  He decided to cut straight to the chase.
“Of course.  I’m on my way.”  She hung up.  Richard was stunned.  There were no questions about what happened.  No drama.  Just a quick response of action.   That brought to mind the Councilman’s words about his marriage to Yasmine.  Someone who knew how to put things in proper perspective.  He returned to the holding cell feeling a bit more at ease knowing he’d be out within half an hour.  Being relaxed made him more social with the others.  So much so that he had lost track of time.  Blythe was there in less than 20 minutes.  She paid his bail and after collecting all of his belongings they were out the door and on the way to her place within 10 minutes.  That’s when the questions started.
“What’s happened, Richard?”  Richard reclined the passenger seat and placed his hand over his forehead with his elbow propped against the window.  About an hour and a half in jail and the smell was all over him.  He couldn’t wait to get a hot shower to wash the stench from his skin and put on some comfortable clothes. 
“I don’t even know where to begin.  Just drive, please.  We can talk about it later.”  Thoughts of all that had happened were weighing on his mind.  So much in such a small amount of time.  Now with the arrest he wasn’t sure if he should go to work tomorrow.  Deciding to go ahead and make the call to the office that he’d be out tomorrow, he noticed that there were several missed calls from Natalia’s place of employment, along with a few voicemails and text messages.  The text messages read that there was an emergency and he should call some number.  The texts came from unrecognized numbers. 
“Something’s gone wrong.  Something at Natalia’s job.”  Blythe remained attentive but silent and kept driving.
“I’m gonna check the voicemails.” 
There was an eerie silence as Richard began the process of checking his voicemail. 
“Should I pull over?”
Richard held up a finger requesting a moment of silence as he listened intently to the recorded message.  He removed the phone from his ear.  His color became pale and flushed.  Blythe was becoming increasingly worried.
“Natalia’s been shot.”  Richard’s stomach was churning, his heart sinking.  The love that remained for whom he thought he had married, for the woman he was loving, rising inside at the sound of bad news.  “She’s at Webster Memorial Hospital.”
Blythe was astonished, not having fully comprehended what Richard had just announced.  Yet instinctively she made the u-turn to get to Essex Blvd.
Webster Memorial was only about 10 minutes away.  They got there in 5.  Blythe had been crying the entire time.  As they approached the entrance she told him to go and she’d wait in the car.
“Call and tell me if I should come up.”  Richard nodded and exited the automobile.
The receptionist informed him that Natalia Lindhardt was on the 4th floor room 415.  The elevators were too slow.  Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.  Once he reached the designated floor, he noticed a naked man laying on what seemed to be an operating table.  The curtains weren’t drawn.  The man had a swollen belly.  He lay there motionless.  Richard for some unknown reason froze and stared at him.  Someone tapped him from behind. 
“Can I help you with something, sir?”  The floor clerk offered her assistance.
“Room 415?”
“Down the hall.  Fifth room on the left.”
Richard sped past her.  Nearing the hall where he was supposed to turn, he noticed a group of people in lab coats gathered outside of a door further down.
His mind was racing.  He was grappling with the possibilities.  Getting closer to the small crowd blocking the hallway outside the door.
The people gathered outside of room 415 had patches from a local community college.  Nursing students discussing the patient in room 415. 
“Excuse me.”  Richard pushed passed them.  Some had peculiar looks on their faces.  Others looked as if they were seeing for the first time.  He opened the door.  There was another crowd of people surrounding a bed.  There was stillness as he entered.  Something strange.  No beeps from a heart monitor.  No IV.  Only a bed, the body exposed.
“Are you a relative, sir?”  The badge read Dr. Geseh.
“I’m... Yes… She’s… We’re… married.”  Richard’s eyes were watering.  He had a confused look about the face, wrestling with conflicting emotions.
“I’m sorry, sir.  There was a gunshot wound to the head, direct.  She didn’t live through surgery.  Would you like to have a moment?”
The doctor beckoned the rest of the staff.  One of them covered the body then exited the room.  Richard saw the woman he took to be his wife laying there lifeless.  He bit down on his fist, so confused.  Hating her for what she had done.  She lied to him.  She had selfishly married him without being honest about who she really was.  But he had loved her.  His mind not fully in acceptance of who she was before he knew her.  He remembered seeing her on the airline flight.  She was so beautiful.  Always beautiful.  Tears began to stream down his face.  He never would’ve wished this for her.   He looked at the wedding band that she had placed on his finger one year ago.  He slid it off of his finger.  Then he gently raised her lifeless hand and put the ring on her index finger.  He lowered her hand and took one last look at her before walking away. 
“Goodbye, Natalia.”
The hallway was now empty.  The students and hospital staff had gotten their amazement for the day, probing at the lifeless body of a person who had gone through great lengths to become on the outside who they desired to be on the inside.  Richard looked to his right and stared at the long way he had come to get to this room.  He looked to the left.  A sign above a doorway read EXIT in neon red letters.  He went through that door and decided he’d just take the stairs.


There was silence and sadness that was beyond words.  Richard explained all that had happened between he and Natalia up until this point.  Blythe listened.  Her expressions changing detail by detail.  Exposing her emotions.  Endless tears.  Astonishment that the person she had called friend was keeping such a secret.  She had fooled them all.  No one would ever have suspected.  Realizing that her friend knew how she had betrayed her before there was an opportunity to explain or apologize made her even more sorrowful.  And now Richard was having to deal with the backlash from her secrets, having permanently left a staple of her presence in his life even beyond the grave.  Blythe quietly drove him to the house he and Natalia shared, still trying to comprehend all the information she had been told. 
Richard cried quiet tears.  He was a shell of a man.  So much shame and embarrassment.  Such a tragedy.  Nearing the house the two of them shared, he broke down even more.  He and Blythe embraced, consoling one another.  She wiped tears from his eyes.  He regained enough strength to get out of the car.
The house was so still.  Her presence remained.  Her fragrance lingered in the air.  He stared at her favorite spot on the sofa, remembering how she would curl up under him as he watched the basketball game.  And the dinner table brought back memories of candlelight and romance in lingerie.  Yoshi lay quietly in his crate as if he knew that he had lost his friend but was still awaiting her return.  He went to the bedroom and stared at their bed.  Then his eyes fell on the photo beside the bed.  The two of them on their honeymoon.  His sentiment changed.  “A goddamn man,” he whispered.  Resentment bellowing from his loins.  “Marriage under false pretenses.”  He was beginning to remember.   Feeling angry from the time he had spent being deceived.  He had wanted children.  That could never have happened.  And she knew this.  So selfish.  After having gathered clothing, he took another look at the bed.  He wanted to set it afire.  A gesture that would symbolize the fury rooting inside.  He moved through the bedroom to the living room, reminiscing about having to sleep on the couch.  Each memory replacing her presence with his rage.  Something on the floor under the ottoman caught his eye.  He stooped down and pulled out another photograph.  An 8x10 reminder of who he was married to.  A picture of a boy who wanted to be a girl.  The look on the face that of deceit, as if planning to one day shatter some man’s hopes with lies.  He studied that face.  More anger.  More disgust.  Richard tossed the photo without caring to stay and watch it fall.  The home they entered as a couple was now a house of painful memories.  This part of his life had ended.

Two Years Later

The temperature seemed much hotter than 82 degrees. The heat index had to be something like 98.  But that didn’t stop the county annual festival.  These small town folk live for this day.  There was produce for sale from private vendors.  Items from agriculturalists.  Local talent on display.  You name it, they just about had it.  Life was much slower here than what Richard was accustomed to.  But it wasn’t the worst that could’ve happened, to say the least. His annual income almost matched that of city life, with a few side hustles.  Overall, there were minimal complaints.  Adjusting hadn’t been too bad.  There remained some deep-seeded resentment that he was working through.  That entire little stint had left not only lifelong psychological scars, but some physical complications to match.  Flashbacks of the call from the clinic still bothered him from time to time, whenever he was around a new family.  The doctor had told him that his labs came back dirty.  There were narcotics along with a few other substances in his system, some unidentifiable.  Had that been the worst of it that would’ve been much easier to cope with than the hepatitis C.  His new best friend.
Life with Blythe had actually been good, too.  Made things much easier for him knowing she was there for him.  Willing to remain by his side despite his condition.  Not very many women would’ve gone that extra mile for him as she had done.  She was especially instrumental in getting that whole narcotics arrest expunged from his record.  Turns out she had ties to the district attorney.  Fortunately, he wasn’t on the Councilman’s payroll.  A little knowledge about the area and a few calls to the city uncovered video surveillance that showed the quiet man with the shades on from the trio of roughnecks at the bar casually dropping something close to where the dope had been planted on his car.  With it taking a little longer than usual to pick it up, there was enough of an implication of a set up to keep the whole thing out of the media and quietly handled.  Maintaining innocence until proven guilty had been difficult too.  Especially with the address to a local hot spot for trafficking found on some wadded paper inside his automobile.  But with no ties between the two and no priors, he was cleared.  And the fact that the Councilman and Keagan didn’t want to risk that one of the roughnecks would crack had a lot to do with it.  Things had fallen in his favor. They had gotten to Pasha but she had decided not to continue with the sexual harassment allegations that she was paid very well to front.  And Blythe was there to see him through it every step of the way.  She’s been very attentive to both their needs.  Of course, he often has to take a back seat to Reagan.  But there was no one else in the world that meant more to him than her. 
“Richard, let’s put the sprinklers on and play in the water. The kids on the waterslides here are too big.”    Blythe had decided to dress Reagan in her little one piece swimsuit to wear to the annual festival.  She was pointing and bucking up and down in the stroller calling attention to the water rides.  Blythe tried distracting her with a candy apple.  “No, mama.  Ride.”
“Daddy’s gonna turn on the water slides, baby.  How ‘bout that?”
Reagan bounced up and down again and clapped her hands before reaching for her candy apple.  Blythe watched Richard smiling down at his baby girl. 
“Did you think about it, Richard?  She’s a year and a half.  If we’re going to do it, we should go ahead and make plans now.”
Richard caught a glance of a family of three and watched them cross the street, a baby in a stroller, a toddler on his daddy’s shoulders and another walking by his mother’s side.  He looked back at his daughter, then up at Blythe. 
“Yeah.  Yeah, I think Reagan would make a great big sister.”  He placed his arm around Blythe.  She kissed his cheek and smiled. 
“I’ll call first thing Monday morning.”  Blythe kissed him again.  They walked together, laughing at Reagan trying to eat her candy apple.  Not watching where he was walking, Richard bumped into someone running towards them, getting ice cream all over his shirt.  Reagan laughed.  Blythe grabbed some wet wipes from underneath the stroller and began to help wipe away the mess.
“Pardon me, sir.  I must not have been watching where I was going.”  The voice was that of a female.  Richard hadn’t bothered to look up, yet.
“Ugh, I guess there’s no damage done.  We’ll just chalk it up to a little spontaneous entertainment for my baby girl.”  Reagan was still laughing in the background.  Richard raised his head.  He seemed caught in a moment of shock.  The lady that had accidentally bumped into him reminded him of the ugly woman with the three roughnecks from the bar.  That bad complexion.  This time her hair in brown twists with auburn ends.  Light brown contacts. 
“You - you look familiar.  Don’t I know you from somewhere?”  She gave him that same familiar, warm smile.  Richard was frozen in place.  Blythe continued wiping, seemingly unaware of their conversation.  Time seemed to stand still, as if they were the only two there.
“I – I… We’ve…”  Words wouldn’t form.  Richard was speechless.
The ugly woman began walking away.  “At any rate, please accept my apologies.”  She turned her back and continued her jog to some unknown destination.  Richard stood motionless.
“Babe, is everything ok?”  Blythe’s voice brought him back in time. Reagan had begun singing along with her Elmo.
“What a klutz.  You’re a mess.  Gotcha cleaned up as much as I could, though.”  They resumed walking.  Richard turned around again.  For a second, he thought she was still there.  He was mistaken.  She was someone he never wanted to see again.  

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