It’s too bright—impossibly bright.
The little red-headed girl in overalls and a white t-shirt is running through flowers—sunflowers, daffodils, daisies. She stops to pick one. She lifts it to her nose, and a baby starts to cry. The little girl searches among the flowers but can’t find the baby.
“Where are you, baby?” she yells.
“It’s over here!”
The girl looks up to see an old man motioning for her in the distance. She starts toward him, but a purple flower catches her eye. She stops to pick it, and when she looks up again, the man is gone.
She climbs a hill to get a better view of the meadow. There is a flock of chickens at the top scratching and pecking around. As she surveys the meadow below, the chickens surround her. A rooster comes over the hill and stops when he sees her. The little girl sees the rooster and freezes, her heart pounding. The rooster cocks his head to one side and stares for a moment then charges. He jumps with spurs headed toward her chest and wings flapping at her face.
Amanda Billings sat straight up in bed with a gasp, her long red hair plastered in a sweaty mass to her head. Looking frantically around the room, she could just make out jungle leaf wallpaper by the light of the street lamp shining in her window, and her breathing began to slow.
“Another friggin’ nightmare,” she grumbled as she whipped off the sheets and pulled her sweaty night shirt over her head. Feeling around the corner of her closet, she grabbed a robe and slipped it on as she stumbled to the kitchen, flipping on her bedroom light as she went out. She opened the freezer and pulled out the Peanut Butter Panic ice cream. Touching the box to each cheek before opening it, she then popped off the lid and dug in with a spoon from the dish drainer.
Is this my life now?
She stood a moment staring at her white cupboards by the dim light coming from the lamp post in her backyard then, carrying the ice cream box with her, she left the kitchen and walked purposefully to the mantle in the next room. She turned on a small lamp and picked up a picture of herself in a black graduation gown arm in arm with an older gentleman—the one from her dream. Putting it down, her eyes came to rest on a school picture of a teenage boy with a devilish grin.
She ate another spoonful of ice cream.
Spying her cell phone charging on a table by the front door, she grabbed it, pushed speed dial #1, and plopped down on the sofa beside her two cats, Buffy and Fiddlesticks, who were curled up together.
Buffy was a blue-eyed moggy chocolate-point with a chocolate beard and half-mustache. Fiddlesticks was a gray and black striped tabby with a mostly white muzzle and underbelly, although tabby patches adorned her white legs in various spots. Disturbed from their slumber, they stretched, yawned, and trotted out to the kitchen.
“Hello, my friend,” sang a young man accompanied by a ukulele, “thank you for calling me, but I’m not here right now…”
Amanda smiled through the song, and at the beep, she left her message. “Yeah, it’s me. I just wanted to listen to your song—needed a laugh. Talk to you soon, bro.” She ended the call but didn’t move from the sofa.
I wish grandpa were really here.
She ate several more spoonfuls of ice cream until she had scraped out the last of it, sighed, and forced herself up. She put the phone back on the table and headed to the kitchen to deposit the empty carton in the trash and the spoon in the sink. Then she headed back to her bedroom and turned out the light.
Five seconds later, she turned the light back on.
“What’s all the fuss about autumn, anyway?” Mick half said this under his breath as he clutched the collar of his grey wool sweater just a little tighter against the winds that swirled leaves bedecked with the usual fall garb around his shoes. These are just the colors of impending death.
Mick didn’t say this out loud as a group of children were pushing past him in after-school exuberance, seemingly unaware of the wind, the chill, the steady march to bare trees and a lifeless world.
Mick Thompson had put the finishing touches on the ad campaign he had been working on for three months not two hours ago, and already his excitement was lagging. He’d left work early to celebrate but realized during his trek home that he really had no one to celebrate with except his sister, Clarisse, and her family, and he knew she worked late on Thursday evenings. Maybe tomorrow night.
The overcast sky was in no more of a celebratory mood than he was, and all alone on the cracked sidewalk in front of a row of townhouses, he once again took to mumbling out loud. “How does she stand this place? I’m driving tomorrow even if it takes me an hour to find a parking space.”
Mick’s sister was a detective with the Kansas City Police Dept. and had talked him into moving to KC from California after his fiancée walked out on him two weeks before the wedding. This had been nearly a year ago, and he still knew practically no one and didn’t really care that he spent most of his evenings alone in front of the TV, a mindless lump of depression.
Turning the corner, his medium build was met with the full force of the wind which blew whatever small spark of good feeling still remained in him out his back and down the street.
Why am I still here? He thought this last, as saying anything aloud proved difficult. He tucked his head down and pressed forward through the gale. Now that this project is finished, maybe it’s time to go home.
Clare was wrong. Leaving didn’t help.
Mick turned and climbed the stairs to his apartment building, making a mental note to dig his wool topcoat out of storage. He reached for the door, but it suddenly opened, revealing a petite redhead who was struggling to get out, her arms loaded with large, cumbersome books.
He quickly moved to hold the door for her, and she threw him a smile and a “thank you” as she hurried out, her long hair flying both from the wind and her speedy departure. He watched her sail up the street until she unlocked the trunk of a sky blue Mustang parked half-way up the block and dumped the books inside. He was still standing there staring as she drove away, the wind mercilessly tousling his brown hair.
“Oh my gosh, girl, how much candy did you buy?”
Amanda, carrying two loaded grocery sacks, was making her way through the furniture displays of her interior decorating show room toward the tall, slender blonde with short, spiky hair sitting behind the counter. She grinned as she plunked the bags down in front of Sally, her friend and co-worker.
“I get a lot of Trick or Treat-ers at my door,” Amanda defended, “and you know the crap that most people give out—that awful taffy stuff.” She pulled out a snack-sized Snickers from one of her sacks and held it high. “I will not let children go home without chocolate.”
Sally, dressed for Halloween in a green sweater and short orange skirt, tapped her temple with the tip of her pencil. “And there’s no point in having any leftovers that you don’t like, right?”
Amanda grinned and tore open the wrapper. “Exactly.”
Sally turned back to her customer worksheets. “You better watch your weight, girl. Look around. It’s not difficult to end up looking like a hippo.”
Amanda took off her long grey trench coat, revealing a red button shirt atop an almost ankle-length black skirt and short boots, and stashed her bags of candy under the counter before plunking down in her chair to check her afternoon appointments.
“I’ll watch it later,” she mumbled, her mouth full of chocolate.
Amanda Billings was the owner and chief designer of Interiors by Design, and Sally Winters had been working for her for as long as she had been in business—about three years. Having gone through college together, Sally was Amanda’s dearest friend and confidant.
The show room was full of the colors, fabrics, and styles currently popular for windows, furniture, and walls. The displays were constantly changing, partly to keep their customers excited about the possibilities but mostly to keep themselves from becoming bored with the show room they worked in every day.
As Amanda looked through her appointment book, Sally handed her a post-it note. “Mrs. Taylor called while you were out. She would like you to bring more samples—today, if possible.”
Amanda sighed and threw the candy wrapper in the trash under the counter. “I was just there yesterday with a million samples, and she didn’t like any of them. I’m not sure what else to take.”
Sally lowered her voice and did her best Mrs. Taylor imitation, complete with hand gestures, “I’m not sure what I want, Love, but I’m desperate for something on my windows! The whole world can look right in!”
Sally yawned, stretched, and went back to punching numbers in her calculator. Both decorators had more clients than they could handle with the holidays approaching. Amanda had to figure out something for Mrs. Taylor and fast.
Amanda stared at her desk—piles of fabric samples on the left, piles of decorating estimates on the right, a bottle of Mylanta in the center. She took off the cap and downed a big swig.
“Mick, great job on the Harris account,” congratulated a short, stocky man with a receding hairline. “I heard they were very happy with it.”
Mick, who had been heading to the break room, stopped when Ted from Accounting intercepted him from a connecting hallway. “Thanks. They were a hard sell, but I think we finally ended up with something they liked.”
“We?” Ted questioned then lowered his voice. “I mean, did Janine really contribute anything? I heard—“
Mick cut him off. “I’ll have to talk to you later, Ted. I’m late for my own party.”
With that, he turned and continued toward the break room of the Henry Martin Advertising Agency. As he opened the door, there were cheers and cups of punch held high. The table held a cake with “Congratulations” scrawled across it in light blue icing, and red balloons had been taped at random spots around the smallish room. Mick smiled self-consciously and headed for the punch bowl.
A slender black-haired woman strode across the room with a knife and spatula. “Now that Mick is here, let’s cut the cake!” She slipped past him. “What took you so long?” she pouted. “We’ve been waiting forever.”
“I got tied up with the big guy,” he lied. “He wanted to discuss our next project.” He knew that meeting was coming, but it really hadn’t happened yet. The truth was he just couldn’t make himself get out of his desk chair. Social events just hadn’t been the same for him since Tammy left him. He felt awkward and alone.
“Oh, let’s not think about the next big project just yet!” put in a plump woman in a bright blue pantsuit helping herself to a piece of cake. “I’m still having nightmares about the last one!”
When she was out of ear-shot, dark-eyed Irena leaned in. “You need a new partner. Janine is so lazy.” Then she grabbed Mick’s arm and stood on tip-toe, her lips practically touching his ear. “Put in a word for me with Mr. Martin,” she whispered. “You and I would make a great team.”
He half smiled and pretending to notice someone he needed to talk to across the room, excused himself and headed toward a young man in a well-tailored suit. Mick had no idea who he was, but he knew that Irena was watching him so he decided to find out. Mick offered his hand to the young man who turned out to be a student intern. Mick chatted until Irena was involved in a conversation herself then excused himself, downed his punch, and headed for the door.
He was met yet again by Ted, who, although from a different department, had decided to crash the party. “So, Mick, some of us are hitting the bars after work. You want to join us?”
Mick knew he should say yes. Wasn’t that what he wanted yesterday—somebody to celebrate with? But he knew Ted’s crowd and the bars they tended to frequent—singles bars and exotic dance clubs. That just wasn’t his style, and he couldn’t bear the thought of it becoming his style. “I’m sorry, Ted, I’ve got other plans,” he lied again. He wondered if he were forming a habit. “Maybe another time.”
Ted grabbed his sleeve before he could make his escape. “Hey, there’s Irena.,” he said, ogling her across the room. “She is so…” He let out a slow breath. “Do you think she’d go out with me?”
Mick looked over at the dark-haired beauty in a tight, bright floral dress, now chatting up the intern and flirting indiscriminately then back at Ted—balding, overweight, and easily fifteen years older than she.
“Sure, go for it, Ted.”
While Ted was daydreaming his approach, Mick slipped out the door.
What is wrong with me? Irena’s gorgeous. Why don’t I ask her out? He pondered this question as he headed back to his office to get his coat and all the way to his car. As he drove home, he tried to picture them together as a couple strolling arm in arm around the Plaza.
He shook his head. It just didn’t fit. They didn’t fit.
Tammy and I fit.
He shook his head again. Tammy had left him, so evidently this feeling of “fitting” was subjective.
“Oh, yes, Halloween. I’m sorry, I forgot,” Mick apologized into the phone. “No, no, it’s no big deal….Of course you have to take the kids out….No, don’t worry about me. I’ll just have this champagne all to myself. In fact, maybe I’ll go out…. Well, you can stop by if you want, but I’m afraid I don’t have any candy to hand out, just the champagne….”
Mick, standing in the middle of his practically bare apartment, was still in the dark grey suit he had worn to work.
“Thanks, Sis….Yes, it was a long project—a long, tedious project….No, I’m fine, really. Like I said, I’ll probably go out on the town. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Bye.”
He hung up the phone and immediately kicked off his shoes, loosened his tie and pulled the champagne out of the ice bucket. Go out?
He popped the cork, poured a glass, and sank into the sofa.
Amanda stood waiting in the hall outside Mrs. Taylor’s apartment, again loaded down with fabric sample books. She loved the ornate woodwork of this old building—the crown molding, the sconce lighting—even the worn oriental hall rugs made her smile. She had tried to persuade Mrs. Taylor to choose a fabric for her draperies that blended with the style of this grand old building, but Mrs. Taylor had proved to have a different style altogether, and Amanda was having a hard time pinning it down.
The door opened, and Mrs. Taylor ushered her in with, “Oh, here you are, Love! I’m so glad you came!”
The door closed as the Bride of Frankenstein ushered Princess Peach and Buzz Lightyear up to the door across the hall and rang the bell.
The doorbell rang, but Mick didn’t hear it over the blender. He’d finished the champagne and had moved on to making margaritas. His mood had gone from bad to worse, and he had convinced himself that nothing short of a weekend bender would help. He did hear the loud knocking that followed immediately after hitting the off button and was just tipsy enough to think offering a blender of margaritas to Trick or Treat-ers a splendid idea.
He swung open the door with a cocky smile that faded as soon as his eyes locked with the Bride of Frankenstein, a.k.a. Detective Clarisse Whittington, a.k.a. his sister. Her family called her Clare.
The Princess and Buzz yelled, “Trick or Treat!” and held their hollow plastic pumpkins aloft.
“I told your mother I don’t have any candy, just champagne.”
Clare pushed the kids in past Mick and closed the door.
“What’s champagne?” asked the Princess who on other days went by Lilly.
Mick continued this line of thought despite the stern look his sister was giving him. “Well, I guess I don’t even have the champagne anymore. Who’s up for a round of margaritas? How ‘bout you, Mr. Lightyear?”
Four-year-old Patrick nodded with excitement, his helmet’s face mask clattering up and down.
Clare took the blender unceremoniously out of Mick’s outstretched hand and marched it to the kitchen where she poured it down the sink.
He knew better than to protest. She was, after all, a police detective, and the Bride of Frankenstein look was fairly frightening as well.
“So, where is Frankenstein this evening?” Mick called toward the kitchen as six-year-old Lilly twirled and Buzz flew around the room.
“Working late,” she called back.
Clare re-entered the room, her lady Frankenstein garb not really hiding the fact that she was seven months pregnant. The sternness had left her face, leaving only a kind of sadness.
“If you’re going for Dean Martin, I think the drink was a martini, not a margarita.”
Mick rocked back and forth on his heels uneasily as his sister seemed to size up his state of mind. Finally, she turned and eased herself down on the sofa. Other than the TV, it was the only piece of furniture in the room.
“I knew you wouldn’t go out. Mick, what are you doing? You just finished the campaign…you should be out celebrating with friends. Not sitting here alone getting drunk.”
Mick grabbed the hands of the two children, who were making him dizzy running round and round him, and led them to the kitchen and sat them down at the table.
“What friends, Clare?” he called back as he searched through the cupboards for snacks. He finally plunked a box of croutons on the table for the kids and returned to the living room.
“I don’t really know anyone outside of work, and they are just too…too…”
“No, not happy. I can live with happy. You’re happy.” He turned toward his bare window and looked out at the costumed kids scurrying below. “They’re clueless, vacuous. It’s like they’re made of fluff. If I blew on them, they’d blow away.”
Clare started to get up, and he quickly offered assistance. She gave him a hug then held him by the shoulders. “That substance you’re looking for is life. It’s hardship. It’s pain. Those who have never experienced it seem less weighty. But give them time, little brother—no one gets through life without it. It will catch up to them eventually.”
She stepped toward the door. “Come on, kids. We didn’t get all dressed up for croutons. Mama wants some chocolate.”
Lilly and Patrick grabbed their pumpkins and headed for the door. Clare took their hands and turned back to Mick. “And some people are just good at hiding their real selves. Sometimes you have to dig a bit for substance in a relationship, Mick. Not everybody wears their emotions on their sleeve like you. Give people a chance. Learn to see beyond the obvious.”
He smirked. “Is that Detective Whittington talking?”
Clare paused then nodded. “Yeah, I guess it is. When you’re looking for evidence, you have to see what’s there and see what’s not. Looking a second, or even a third time, usually brings something to light you didn’t see the first time.”
She made to leave, and he held the door open for the costumed troop. Frankenstein’s bride waddled a bit as Lilly and Patrick pulled her down the hall.
Mick was feeling suddenly sober but not so much that he refrained from calling after them. “Sorry about the croutons. I wish I had some chocolate.”
Just then, the door across the hall opened, and there was that redhead he had seen the day before. Even though she was once again carrying a pile of large books, she managed to reach into her pocket and pull out a KitKat. She handed it to Mick with a smile and headed down the hallway.
Amanda is wandering from room to room in an expansive house, arm in arm with her grandfather. She’s wondering how she missed seeing all these different rooms in her own home. Exploring the richly ornamented architecture and furniture, and marveling at the elaborate window treatments, she points out features to her grandfather. Going to the window, she fingers heavy velvet draperies in a rich purple, green, and gold floral design.
Next to this, there is a doorway to a room that is devoid of all furnishings save a small lavender flowered swimming pool. She enters, and her grandfather is no longer with her. An orange kitten is in the pool mewing and trying to swim to the edge. A rooster is perched on the edge watching it. Suddenly it jumps on the kitten in the water and holds it under. Amanda screams.
Amanda’s eyes opened with a start, and she clutched her pillow with a sharp intake of breath.
Mick sat at the mahogany bar and turned the card over and over in his hands wondering if the redhead had given it to him on purpose, or if it was mere coincidence that it had been stuck to the chocolate bar she had handed him the night before. Due to the entire bottle of champagne he had consumed, the whole event was a bit blurry. But he remembered the hair.
And the smile.
The front of the card said “Interiors by Design” in turquoise with gold swirls. The back said Amanda Billings, Interior Designer.
She had come out of the apartment across the hall. What was that woman’s name—the one that always called him Mick, love? Sylvia? Or was it Cynthia? Thomas? Tomlin? I don’t know. I’m not good with names.
He was suddenly assaulted by a slap on the back that nearly made him choke on the peanut he had just popped in his mouth.
“Chuck,” Mick coughed, “what’s new?”
Chuck, who was easily fifty pounds heavier than Mick with slightly thinning black hair, sat on the stool next to him and ordered a beer. “Same old, same old,” Chuck singsonged his usual reply. “The kids are growing, and so is my wife.” Chuck patted his own pudgy belly with both hands. “But I guess you saw her yourself last night. She said she stopped by your place with the kids. I’m beginning to wonder if she’s got twins in there.”
Mick squinted his hazel eyes in thought. “Really? I guess I hadn’t noticed.”
“Hadn’t noticed?” Chuck paused to down half a mug of beer. “Oh yeah, Clare mentioned you had been drinking just a bit.”
“I did see that she was pregnant—I wasn’t so drunk that I didn’t notice that—she just didn’t seem overly pregnant. Maybe it was the costume.”
“Hmm, she went as the Bride of Frankenstein, didn’t she? I had to work late, so I didn’t see it.” Chuck paused for a moment, and his eyes widened. “That outfit isn’t too far from the truth these days. Clare does not like being stuck behind a desk.”
Mick pushed his empty glass toward the bartender for a refill. “Behind a desk? What is she doing behind a desk? Is she in some kind of trouble?”
Chuck cocked his head at Mick. “You are in your own world, aren’t you? Do you really think pregnant detectives should be out on the street tracking down criminals?”
Mick shook his head, feeling foolish. “Of course, I just hadn’t thought about it, I guess.”
Chuck noticed the business card lying on the bar in front of Mick. “What’s that? Thinking of sprucing up your place a bit? God knows it needs it.” Chuck took another gulp of his beer.
“No, not really,” Mick fumbled, picking up the card. “I mean, maybe. Maybe that would be a way to uh—no, I uh, don’t think so.”
Chuck grabbed it out of his hand and flipped it over. “Amanda Billings. Anybody you know?”
“No.” Mick snatched it back. “I mean, I’ve seen her around my building a few times, but we’ve never spoken. She just…just…smiled.” Mick nervously picked up his drink and took a swallow.
Chuck grinned and downed the rest of his beer. Rising, he pulled out his wallet to pay his tab. “Well, I think you should call her. Your place is about as sterile as a hospital. It’s depressing.” He slammed a ten dollar bill on the bar. “And sometimes a smile dresses up the place better than anything.” Chuck winked and gave Mick another slap on the back before turning to head out the door.
What People Are Saying:
“Full of surprising twists, this romance has mystery, love and danger all packed into one book! The descriptions make it easy to “see” the plot unfold. The relationships draw you in and reveal deeper and deeper aspects of themselves. This is the 3rd time I’ve read the book and I HIGHLY recommend it!”
“What a great book! I loved it and didn’t want to put it down until I was finished! Fun story line, interesting and real characters, and more than one surprise turn! I hope there are more stories about Mick and Amanda in the works.”
“I just loved this story. It made me laugh and it made me cry and the best part was that it caught me off guard at the end, that doesn’t happen very often, but I love when it does happen. I highly recommend this book to anyone that likes to read for pleasure and just enjoys a good story.”
“Loved this book. It contains many twists and turns, romance and intrigue. I had trouble putting it down. I actually could relate to the heroine in the book. It reminded me of one of my college loves.”
“L.o.v.e.d.! Just like “Horses, Adrenaline, and Love,” I had it read in a matter of 2 or 3 days! Whenever I had a spare moment, the book was in my hand, and I breezed right through it! The characters were real people who had real problems. It wasn’t a cheezy story where everything was perfect. Good read!”
“Loved the setting….my part of the country. Very believable. Intense drama near the end! Would definitely recommend. Hard to put down.”