Baggage was my second book in the mainstream genre. I had already proven to myself I could write a mainstream crime-oriented book without gay characters in my first effort, Achilles Forjan. Then I decided I wanted to challenge myself to write lighter fare in the mainstream. Romantic suspense, also without gay characters.
What I discovered, still again, was that people are people, and their sexual orientation matters little in how I write them. I am interested in what makes us all part of the human family, and while I am, of course, more comfortable writing characters with my own orientation, I grew to care about the characters in Baggage and in Achilles Forjan as if they were friends of mine. I hope you will, too.
AS HURRICANE KATRINA SPUN CLOSER TO the coast, Sienna realized Dominic’s intent to ride out the storm, just as he had in all the other hurricanes. His decision was no marvel to her. He obviously considered himself invincible.
She peeked through the slightly ajar door to the attic stairway. He was, of course, too rich to have a standard pull-down ladder; no, Dominic Fontaine had to have a stairway to his attic.
Sounds of shattering glass came from the foyer. The formidable Katrina was hammering at the front of the mansion, morphing into a beast that clawed at the rafters, pounded at the flooring, and made promises to inflict still more. It was as if God Himself was behind the maelstrom. Sienna had never been in a hurricane, and anxiety crept into her mind. Was it always this bad? Was it only this frightening because she had never experienced it?
She had her own Katrina thumping against her chest cavity. Thrashing in the sea of her own trepidation, she tasted it in her mouth, then recognized it as meaningless. I am going to die anyway. He had made sure of that when he pushed himself inside her and mingled his diseased blood with her own. After all those years of being judicious. All those years when her party-happy friends were taking chances like a capricious vacation in Vegas, and prodding her mercilessly with monikers like Sainted Sienna, Sinless Sienna, Spotless Sienna, and even Snowy Sienna, to imply that she was frigid, rather than careful.
Now, she felt the fear slipping away, replaced by her own resolve, her own fury; an apoplectic bitterness that was matched only by the tempest that pummeled the mansion of the man she despised.
Pleased to have placed herself correctly, she saw him hurrying up the staircase, silver briefcase in hand, dragging a yellow nylon rope. Pulling the door closed a bit, she observed him through the tiny crack as he lashed himself to the newel post at the top of the grand staircase that fed down into the foyer.The compromised portions of the house were revealed with every slap of wind and rain.
As the storm bullied on, moaning its feral incantation, the window beside the attic stairs blasted inward, shards of glass spattering to the hardwood floor, as Katrina sneezed into the opening.Dominic held onto the rope with one hand, and the briefcase with the other, his own features touched by terror.
Shelving collapsed, and she heard more shattering glass downstairs. Pictures leaped from the walls along the stairs, their glass spitting out onto the steps. In the hall beyond the top of the grand staircase, Dominic’s fish trophy plaques clattered to the floor. The gigantic swordfish rattled against the wall, as if preparing to reanimate and swim away in the sodden air of Katrina.
She reached down to pick up the small bronze sculpture she had taken from the occasional table at the top of the stairs. Her fingers closed around it firmly, and she waited for the right moment to confront him. As water began to drip onto the landing from above, and a puddle grew near the ravaged window, she pushed the door open and stepped onto the landing.Raising her voice above the din, she said smartly, “Well, Lincoln Berringer, as I live and breathe—”
He turned to the voice behind him, a moment of keen astonishment and recognition on his features, that had little to do with his joy at seeing her, and much to do with the realization that she knew who he was. His fate became clear, when he saw her holding the heavy statue, saw her raise it high.
He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the moaning of Katrina, sucking the window frame from the wall. Debris struck her shoulder, and she fell to the slick floor, the statue toppling away. Steadying herself by holding the door knob of the attic stairs, keeping her head low against the incoming sheets of rain and wind and debris, she watched the giant swordfish drop to the floor, and move toward the hole where the window had been. A shifting of wind, and the monster fish spun, rolled, became airborne, and in mindless seconds, had impaled Dominic’s back with its rapier beak. She captured the attic door jamb, to stop herself from being sucked toward the window.
Her attention back on him, the swordfish rocked back onto its tail, as Dominic leaned backward into it, soon limp. The briefcase toppled to the floor, as his arms spread open, his torso propped on the swordfish, its beak protruding from his chest, his waist still secured to the newel post.
Stunned, she stared at him, splayed there like some fisherman’s crucifixion. Euthanasia performed by God.
A blast of rain slapped the side of her face and she scrambled to the silver briefcase, which was already being sucked toward her on the sodden floor, snatched it up and ran down the hall to the bathroom, where she grabbed a rectangular wooden table, broke the legs off and huddled in the garden tub, holding the briefcase on her chest, the table over her head, waiting for the end of Katrina’s blitzkrieg.INTRIGUED, SHE SAT DOWN WHILE HE WAS twisted around watching Kitcher. “Do you believe in synchronicity?”He turned to her voice. “Well. . .hello, Sienna.”
“We did share a plane ride, and a conversation at Applebee’s. . .and you’re not exactly forgettable.”
She inclined her head at him in silent gratitude, grabbed a napkin from the dispenser and swiped it across the table to clear it of any debris or water rings.
“Are you following me, Sienna?”
“Oh, piffle. You found me out. I was on my way to a Stalkers Anonymous meeting and backslid.”
He laughed. “Well forgive me, but this is the third time we’ve crossed paths, in as many days.”
“Mmm. Or synchronicity. Maybe.”
“It could even be both.”
“Aren’t they the same thing?”
“Oh no, kismet is just plain old fate. Synchronicity is a meaningful alignment of people or things, or events. Carl Jung coined it and James Redfield brought it to the masses.”
“Are you sure you’re a real estate agent?”
“My first major in college was psychology and philosophy.”
“But the money was better in real estate?” he chided.
“Uhhh. . .something like that.” He nodded, his eyes slid back over to Kitcher.
“Why are you watching that man?”
“I think he’s got something. . .that doesn’t belong to him. . .”
“He probably does, since he’s a thief.”
“You know him?”
“We bumped into each other once. I might tell you about it, if you’re nice.”
“Tease. I think he’s also wearing my un-father’s watch.”
Sienna experienced a spooky tingle around her throat and chest. Jerrin couldn’t know that she had intended to kill Dominic. But at some point, she might have to relate the whole sordid story if she wanted to continue keeping company with him. “Well, I happen to know he was on the Gulf Coast right after Katrina. Are you sure it was your father’s watch?”
“I got a really good look at it when he had his hand on my bag at the airport carousel. That watch is one-of-a-kind.”
“Where was it the last time you saw it?”
He gave her a dead look. “It was forever on my father’s wrist. He never took it off.”
Sienna did recall the watch. She had seen it many times during their mostly sea-faring dates. “Strange, that Kitcher would have it.”
“Kitcher? You know his name, too?”
“Kitcher. Don’t know if it’s his last name or first name, but that’s what he told me when I had my little run-in with him.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” he said, eyeing her with some suspicion. “I am having a dinner tonight. Would you like to join us?”
“Are you…asking me on a date?”
“I feel obliged, since the universe keeps tossing us together, as Noah said.”
“Where is Noah, by the way?”
“He’s at my place with my sister. I’ve invited my broker friend, Kenny…So, see? It’s perfect. You could impress him with your real estate agenting. It would be a fairly non-threatening dinner date with my family.”
She laughed. “Who told you dinner with a man’s family was non-threatening?”
“Well mine is. You and my sister, Cherise, would hit it off. She needs some friends, anyway, she keeps to herself too much. She breeds parrots. But she’s a phenomenal cook. So you’d really be missing out if you don’t come.”
She considered him a moment, his eyes dancing now, and was taken in by his charm. Did charm run in his family? she wondered. “I’d love to, but I’ll need to see your license.”
“Just humor me. I’ve had to deal with fakers in the past.”
Although suspicious, he nonetheless pulled out his wallet and gave her the card. Jerrin O. Boudreaux, it read. “What’s the ‘O’ stand for?”
“Really. The old man thought it would be funny to name me that when they were there on vacation and found out my mom was pregnant with me.”
“Oh. Okay. If you didn’t like it, why didn’t you change that too?”
“Well I needed the middle initial. The clerk at the courthouse said I needed a middle name and I couldn’t think of anything else on the spot. And I was kind of used to it. But mostly, I think I like the idea of having initials that spelled job. That way, I could tell my father I finally got a real J-O-B.”
“Those are also the letters for Job, from the Bible.”
“True. He and I both were sorely tested by our fathers.”
“Oh, that’s cute.” She watched him grin at his own wit. “It’s a good name. Ontario. But I like the name Jerrin better. I’ll call you Jerrin.”
“You can call me anything you want, except ‘not your type’.”
A smile oozed onto her face. “Oh, you’re my type, all right.”
“Don’t be coy, Sienna.”
They both laughed.
“Right. So, you’ll come to dinner, now?”
“Great.” He looked back over at Kitcher. “So what do we do about him?”
She considered this for a pensive moment. “Maybe we could follow him around together until we figure out what to do.” She brazenly grabbed his beer and had a sip.
“Maybe.” Elevating an eyebrow, he asked, “Would you like me to get you a drink?”
“No thanks. I’ll just drink this one.”
He smirked at her and she laughed. “I’m kidding.” She waved at the waitress who came over. “Two more of these, please.” They both peered over at Kitcher as he alternately checked his stolen watch and the entrance, his eyes gliding over the room in case he might have missed the entrance of whomever he was waiting on. Sienna watched him with a hand half-blocking her face. “Maybe we should confront him.”
“Would he recognize you?”
“Oh, yeah. I left an indelible impression, I believe.”
“I bet you did…did you go out with him or something?”
She gave him a droll expression. “What do I look like?”
“You look like a lovely way to spend an evening,” Jerrin said.
“Oh you’re good.” She gave him a demure smile, as the waitress dropped off the two bottles of Tequiza and when Jerrin made a move for his wallet, she stilled him and pushed a ten into the waitress’s hand. “Keep it.” Her attention back on Jerrin, she considered his generous mane of hair and bronze complexion, his full lips framed by a mustache and goatee. She knew why romance novels always referred to some men as having “smoldering good looks.” Jerrin was that kind of guy. He could have missed his calling as a model. Although the idea of him standing at a canvas with paint all over him was equally alluring. “What do you do with yourself when you’re not following time-thieves?”
“I’m an artist, remember?”
“Yes, but what else?” She took a long drink of beer.
“Is that a trick question?”
“Okay let’s go with this: what kind of artist are you?”
Only a slight, ironic humor danced in his eyes. She knew he had inherited a fortune from Dominic, and appreciated the fact that he didn’t flaunt it. “Well are you any good?”
“Art.” She lifted a sardonic eyebrow.
“Yes. As a matter of fact, I have a showing coming up at The Starving Artist Gallery in Kansas City.”
“Ah. You made another joke…” She nodded, considering him. “I think I’d rather share the evening with you, than Kitcher over there.”
“I would hope so.”
She saw that Kitcher was becoming more and more antsy. “So this watch…you’re really sure it was Dominic’s?”
“No doubt whatsoever.”
“How do you know? You said you’d had no contact with him for many years.”
“Let’s say it’s custom made, and I secretly lusted after it since I was a child.”
“What would a child want with that expensive watch?”
“It was shiny,” he answered cryptically, watching Kitcher drink his scotch and squirm in his chair.
“I have an idea,” she said.
“I do too.”
She smacked his arm playfully. “Wouldn’t it be a bit of poetic justice if Mr. Kitcher were mugged outside this establishment, and his watch stolen?” Sienna saw all of Jerrin’s teeth, then. They clinked their bottles together in an unspoken toast.
Continuing their banter, they waited until Kitcher’s patience wore out, and he dropped a bill on the bar and moved toward the front. Outside, they caught up to him. “Excuse me–” Jerrin said, choosing the direct approach, rather than a pipe upside his head.
Sienna scoffed, “I thought you were going to mug him?”
He gave her a wry look, addressing Kitcher. “You have something that belongs to me.”
“Oh? What might that be?” Kitcher said haughtily, his attention on Jerrin, not noticing that the woman next to him was the Glock-wielding hitchhiker he had driven to the Jackson airport days ago.
“My father’s watch.” Kitcher looked down at it and sneered back at him. “Now, how in the world would I have your father’s watch?”
“I assume you were a looter on the Gulf Coast after the storm.”
“Really? Buddy, you’ve had too much to drink.”
Kitcher made a move to walk away and Jerrin grabbed his shirt at the back, stopping him. “There’s an inscription on the back of it. It says All my love, Zenobia. That’s my mother. Now, if you can show me that the inscription doesn’t exist, I’ll let you walk away.”
Kitcher now resembled a convict stuck under the prison yard fence. “I don’t have to show you anything, pal.” That’s when he recognized Sienna. “Hey…you’re–”
Jerrin seized the element of surprise and grabbed the man’s arm and spun. In a few swift moves, Jerrin had Kitcher’s arm pinned under his own, and had forced the watch off him. Turning it over, he saw the inscription was there, and handed the watch to Sienna. “Now, beat it, before I have one of my mental fugues and peel the ears off the side of your head.”
Kitcher flushed white, took another look at Sienna, and headed to his pickup.
“Mental fugues?” Sienna asked. “You’ll have to elaborate on that over dinner.”
“Not until you tell me how you met that vermin.”
“I’ll think about it.” She started walking toward her car.
“Where are you going?”
“Back to the hotel.”
“It’s almost dinner time, why don’t you follow me home?”
She continued to her car, as he strode after her. “Because I’m not a puppy.”
“Oh my god, woman. You are really playing me, aren’t you?”
She opened her door and turned to him. “Not at all. I simply don’t want to appear desperate.”
“You don’t. See, the way I figure it, we keep crossing paths for a reason. Don’t you find that strange?”
“It’s a lot stranger than you could possibly know.”
“What does that mean?”
“Maybe I’ll tell you one day. Today is not that day.”
He chewed the inside of his cheek, regarding her. “What am I going to do with you, Sienna Bachman?”
The answer, something good, I hope dashed through her mind, and she pushed it away. She could not very well let herself get involved with the son of Dominic Fontaine…and yet, Noah had been right. There did seem to be some cosmic manipulation going on.
He continued to goad her, weighing the imaginary choices in each hand. “Let’s see…go back to the hotel …go to Jerrin’s for dinner…hotel…Jerrin…”
“Oh all right. Lead and I shall follow.”
“That’s more like it.” He turned and headed for his Element.