Saturday, November 12, 2011

EXCERPT: Nine-tenths of the Law

Title: Nine-tenths of the Law
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Format(s): eBook, paperback


Not thirty seconds after my boyfriend left our booth to get another round of drinks, someone else took his place.

The stranger was broad-shouldered, dark-eyed, and didn’t look at all happy. He glared at me and, although he didn’t speak, the twin creases between his slightly downturned eyebrows were enough to unsettle me. The blue neon sign in the window beside the booth cast sharp, angry shadows beneath his eyes and his jaw. A goatee framed lips that were tightened into a thin, straight line, the kind of line that threatened to curl into a snarl at any second.

I cleared my throat. “Can I help you?”

“Yes,” he said simply.

I raised my eyebrows. “Um, okay, I—”

He cut me off. “I believe you have something of mine, Zach.”

My blood turned cold. I could have brushed this off as a case of mistaken identity, maybe someone getting territorial about a preferred table at this crowded sports bar, but he knew my name. Swallowing hard, I said, “I, um, I beg your pardon?”

Folding his hands on the table in front of him, he leaned forward, the shrinking void between us doing nothing to calm my nerves. His joined hands looked more like a single clenched fist, his knuckles bleaching and fingertips digging into the backs of his own hands. Still, that was a less intimidating sight than his expression.

When he spoke again, his voice was almost too quiet to hear in a place like this, but the undercurrent of barely contained fury carried loud and clear. “I said, I think you have something of mine.”

“Yes, I heard you.” I tried to stay as calm and collected as possible. “But I think you have me confused with someone else. I don’t even know who you are.”

With a sniff of humorless laughter, he rolled his eyes and sat up slightly, allowing me to draw an uncomfortable breath as he created a little more distance between us. “Don’t play stupid with me,” he growled. Again he glared at me, and again I couldn’t quite breathe.

“I’m not playing any games with you.” I put my hands up defensively. “I don’t know who the hell you are, and I sure as shit don’t know what I have that’s yours.”

“You want to know?” He glanced past me, then looked right at me with narrowed eyes. “You want to know what you have that belongs to me?”

Intimidation ebbed in favor of anger. Through my teeth, I said, “Yes, please, enlighten me.”

I swore I could feel his hackles go up as he stabbed a finger in the air, pointing past me, and said, “Him.”

I looked up just in time to see Jake stop in his tracks, nearly dropping the beer bottles he carried. His jaw went slack as he stared at the accusing stranger.

Twenty Minutes Earlier

When I’d arrived at the sports bar, the faint smell of cigarette smoke lingering behind Jake’s cologne hadn’t been unusual. Though he wasn’t a smoker, several of his co-workers were and he’d just come from a dinner with some clients. Someone must have been smoking there or on the way back to the office.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said.

He smiled and kissed me lightly. “You’re always worth the wait.” Another kiss, then he made an after you gesture and we went into the bar. It was well after nine on a weekday, but the place was packed. Still, we managed to find a booth near the back, far away from the jukebox that was so loud it rattled my fillings.

“Your turn to get drinks,” he said as he took a seat.

“You getting your usual?”

He nodded, and I headed for the bar. The service was, as always, slow as hell, but someone eventually took my money in exchange for a couple of beers. With drinks in hand, I returned to the booth.

“So how was the dinner?” I asked.

“Dinner?” He gave me a puzzled look as he took a long drink of his beer, then suddenly seemed to jump to life, as if he’d forgotten where he’d spent the earlier part of the evening. “Oh, right, that.” He made a dismissive gesture. “Just an extended workday with the addition of some overpriced food.”

I laughed. “Overpriced food on someone else’s dime.”

Grinning, he said, “That’s about the only reason it’s worth going to those things.” He took another quick sip. “Did you get hung up at work again?”

I scowled and nodded. “Fucking projector in the middle auditorium keeps breaking down.”

“Doesn’t anyone else there know how to fix it?”

“Dylan thinks he does,” I said. “But he always manages to make it worse.”

“Good point,” he said. “I’d be afraid to let that man near a jammed stapler.”

I chuckled just before touching my beer bottle to my lips. “Funny you should mention that.”

His eyebrows jumped. “Why?”

Setting the bottle down, I said, “He almost had to have stitches a week or so ago after arguing with a jammed stapler.”

Jake laughed and put his hands up, shaking his head. “I don’t even want to know. How the hell do you work with someone like that?”

“Could be worse.” I shrugged. “Anyway, I got the damned thing fixed, so I didn’t have to stay too late this time.”

“Glad you made it.” He rested his elbows on the table and leaned toward me. “I’ve been needing this all week.”

I shivered. “You’re not the only one.”

He grinned and sipped his beer, making sure I noticed when he ran his tongue around the mouth of the bottle. I swallowed hard, and he laughed. Reaching across the table, he let his fingertip drift across the side of my hand. “What time do you work tomorrow?”

I barely kept from shivering again. It may have been a benign question from anyone else, but not from Jake. What time do you work tomorrow was Jake-speak for it’s going to be a long, long night. Wetting my lips—and noting with satisfaction the way his breath caught—I said, “Not until noon.”

His grin broadened and his eyes narrowed. His beer bottle stopped just shy of his lips, and he said, “Good. You’ll have time for a couple hours of sleep.”

Knowing Jake, that wasn’t much of an exaggeration. I took a long drink, needing the beer to cool me down. Thanks to scheduling conflicts at both of our jobs, it had been nearly a week since we’d spent a night together. I needed this so bad I could taste it.

“I think I’m ready for another round,” he said, setting his empty beer bottle on the table.

I drained the last of mine. “Make it two.”

He slid out of the booth and walked past me, gently squeezing my shoulder as he went by.

After almost half a year together, we still spent just as much time in the bedroom as we had in the beginning. The sex was just too damned good and showed no signs of tapering off.

Lately, though, we’d spent more time together outside of the bedroom as well. Maybe that was promising. Maybe we were moving in some direction or another. I wasn’t in a hurry either way, but I took this as a good sign. I didn’t know where this would be tomorrow, but at least I knew where I’d be tonight. And after the last few days, I needed to get laid yesterday.

Resting my elbows on the table, I let my head fall forward and rubbed the back of my neck with both hands. Somehow I always managed to get a crick in my neck after working on that stupid projector.

It couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds after he left when Jake dropped into his seat again.

Lifting my head, I said, “Damn, the service is fast here ton—”

But it wasn’t Jake.

“Jake, what’s going on?” I said. Confusion and anger coiled in my chest.

“Yes, Jake, do tell us,” the stranger said. “What the fuck is going on?” From the sound of it, he was close to losing his temper. If someone didn’t explain things in the next thirty seconds, I wasn’t far behind.

Jake set the bottles on the table and laughed, smoothing the air with both hands. “Come on, now, you’re both blowing this out of—”

“I’m only asking what’s going on,” I said. “I’m not blowing a damned thing out of proportion, but I’d appreciate some sort of explanation.”

“You both have this playing-stupid thing down to an art form,” the stranger said, narrowing his eyes at me.

I glared at him, then at Jake. “Would someone please tell me what’s going on?”

Jake smiled at me. It was probably supposed to be his usual reassuring smile, but now it just came across as condescending. Sleazy. I wondered if it had always been that way.

Touching my arm, he said, “Why don’t we get out of here? I can explain on the way home.”

The stranger stiffened, taking and releasing a long breath through his nose. His hands tightened around each other, and his lips thinned, turning nearly as white as his knuckles.

“I’m not going anywhere.” I struggled to keep my own temper in check. “Not until someone tells me what the fuck is going on.”

“What’s going on,” the stranger snarled at me, “is that I’m not particularly fond of sharing my man with another man.”

“Neither am I,” I said through grinding teeth.

Jake again smoothed the air with his hands. “Guys, guys, honestly. This isn’t what it seems—”

“Then what is it?” the stranger and I said in unison.

He made a flippant gesture and shook his head. “This is—”

“Fuck it,” the stranger said, moving out of the booth and onto his feet in one smooth motion. “I’ve seen enough. I really don’t care to hear what bullshit explanation you’ve come up with.” Then to me, he growled, “Possession’s nine-tenths of the law, so it looks like you have him. Enjoy.” He started to go, then spat, “I’m sure the two of you deserve each other.”

And he was gone, but not before I saw the pain in his eyes. Guilt cut right through my anger. Sure, I was just as deceived as he was, but he was hurt because of something I had done, knowingly or otherwise.

I looked at Jake, then at the empty space the stranger had occupied across from me in the booth.

“Look, Zach, it’s not what it seems,” Jake said. I wondered if he’d taken that used-car salesman tone of voice with me before and I just hadn’t noticed. Either way, I noticed it now. Have I been missing this side of you all along?

“I’m sure.” I didn’t look at him. I couldn’t get the stranger’s pained expression out of my mind. Chewing my lip nervously, I got up.

“Where are you going?” Jake asked with a stunned expression.

“Doesn’t matter.” I grabbed my jacket, and he grabbed my arm.

“Zach, let’s talk about this.” The sleazy salesman voice was gone, replaced by a pleading tone that bordered on pitiful, though the grip on my arm was demanding.

I jerked my arm free and hurried out of the bar. Jake could be dealt with later. This stranger would be gone if I didn’t catch him now. Intentionally or not, I’d hurt him, and if I was going to sleep any time soon, I needed to settle this with him.

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