Alice and the Warden, Stories

AatW – 70 Final chapter

It was a profound relief when Damon went to prison. Alice felt better rested than she had in a long time, especially with the threat of another parental visit over and done with for good. The last one had been such a train wreck, she wasn’t at all sure if she had it in her to see Damon again. When she heard of what had happened to Miranda, that she had lost her job as a criminal lawyer after being accused of extortion and testing positive for drug use, Alice knew in her heart that it had been Damon’s doing. Despite herself, she felt a strong kinship with Miranda because of their similar misfortunes at his hands, and every day she waited for the call or text that never came.

Hackett’s adoption of Alicia was finalized, and they officially changed her last name to his – Gertie even brought over a cake to celebrate. It was a small party, but it was wonderful. Alice had put a headband with a big flower on Alicia’s head, then took numerous pictures of Hackett holding the baby before asking Gertie to get one of the three of them together. Later, she had it printed, to put in a frame and hang in the living room, where she could see it and think about how happy she was to have her little family.

Kate came to stay with them again for the holidays, and listened intently as Alice relayed the story of everything that had happened since the last time they had seen each other, both of them working with balls of yarn and passing the baby back and forth through the conversation. She made all the right exclamations at the right moments, and was particularly concerned when Alice briefly described the way Damon had treated her during his one visit. It was strange to realize just how distorted her relationship with Damon had been, how detached she had been from reality during that time, and it made her uncomfortable. She wondered what Hackett must have thought of her when their relationship had first begun to form, and she had been overcome with gratitude at the normalcy of it. Now she casually spent the day sitting in the living room, chatting with her mother-in-law as she worked on her knitting and cared for her baby, reveling in how wonderful it felt to feel safe and secure.

The best moment came when Kate and Gertie conspired to borrow Hackett’s car to take Alice to a salon, where they minded her baby for her while the bleached part of her hair was dyed brown to match her natural color. To top it off, her makeup was done professionally, and the two older women presented her with a gorgeous lace dress for her to wear on a special date. When she paired it with the shawl that Gertie had given her, she felt every bit like a beautiful princess when she looked at herself in the mirror. That evening, Kate took Alicia over to Gertie’s, while Alice waited for Hackett to return home from work. As soon as she heard a car pull up in front of the house, she ran to the door and watched as he bid farewell to Dr. Westley after thanking him for the ride.

Hackett paused as soon as he saw her, then broke into a grin as his eyes gleamed. “Why hello, there,” he called as he walked up the steps. “Who’s this gorgeous girl in my house?”

“It’s the one and only, Mrs. Alice Hackett,” she answered, then squealed as Hackett swept her up in his arms.

“My favorite person,” he purred as he kissed her. “Your hair is gorgeous.”

“My amazing mother-in-law helped with it,” Alice replied, wrapping her arms around Hackett’s neck. “Do you want to take me out tonight?”

“Sure do.” But despite what he said, Hackett stepped inside the house and kicked the door shut. “Where’s the baby?”

“You’ll never guess, but I have discovered that there’s this thing called babysitting.” Alice giggled. “Apparently, it’s possible to let someone else watch Alicia for awhile.”

“I love the sound of that,” Hackett said, and he carried Alice to the bedroom.

***

Alice sat in the bathroom with her eyes closed, a pregnancy test held tightly between her fingers. She had been feeling unusually tired for the last week with a picky appetite that came and went, and the thought of having another baby was both exciting and terrifying. When she felt that she shouldn’t put it off any longer, she opened her eye for a peek.

Hackett was waiting for her in the bedroom, playing with Alicia so that she squealed with laughter and kicked her legs, her eyes shining brightly as she watched him between rounds of tickles. Alice hung back behind the door frame for a few seconds to enjoy the scene, feeling as if her heart could burst. When she entered, he looked up expectantly and asked, “Well?”

Alice bit her lip as a big grin spread across her face, and she knew that her reaction was giving the answer away. She couldn’t think of anything coy or clever to say, so she blurted out, “I’m pregnant.”

He sprang to embrace her tightly, showering numerous kisses on her face as he murmured, “I’m so glad.”

“Alicia’s still only six months old, though,” Alice said, looking at her baby sitting on the bed with a frown. “They’ll only be fifteen months apart, and that’s awfully close together.”

Hackett stiffened as his face twisted with concern. “Do you not want it?”

“Of course I do!” Alice placed her hands protectively over her stomach. “I’m just a little scared is all, because I didn’t realize I could get pregnant again this fast. But I do want this baby very badly, and I want it to have your eyes and look just like you.”

He relaxed and chuckled as he stroked her hair and kissed her forehead. “We’ll be more careful next time. Besides, you have Gertie to help you, and my mom will love any excuse to stay with us for awhile, so I’m sure that you won’t have any troubles at all.”

“You’re right. I’m a tough sort, you know, so I’ll get through it.” Alice beamed. “We should give this baby a name that’s similar to yours …” she mused, then snickered slightly as she said, “Like Oregano.”

“Anise, if its a girl,” Hackett replied jovially, taking Alice’s hand as they moved to sit on the bed next to Alicia.

“Ooo, that’s really pretty. We should do that.” Alice picked Alicia up and bounced her as she sang, “You’re going to be a big sister already!”

Alicia grabbed a handful of Alice’s hair and pulled it with a squeal.

“She’s excited,” Hackett laughed, as Alice carefully untangled strands from little fingers.

When she was finished, she gushed, “They’ll be so cute together! I bet that they’ll be the best of friends, and do absolutely everything together like two peas in a pod. Won’t that be the most adorable thing ever? I can knit matching things for them, too. Oh my gosh, this is super exciting!” She snuggled up against him, and whispered, “You’re finally going to have a baby of your own.”

“That is nice,” Hackett replied, wrapping his arms around Alice as they settled down comfortably together. “You’re quite beautiful when you’re pregnant, and I’m not going to pretend like I haven’t been aching to knock you up.”

“I think I noticed, you randy old goat.” Alice giggled. “But don’t stop, because I don’t want to be out of practice for when we decide to go for number three.”

“I solemnly promise to never slack off with my husbandly duties.”

She teased, “Good. As your pregnant wife, I have every intention of being as high maintenance as possible, just to keep you on your toes while I’m busy making your baby. It’s the least that I can do.”

“I look forward to it.” Hackett laughed. “But beware, if you go too far I just might have to start working overtime.”

“You wouldn’t!” Alice stuck out her tongue at him. “You’re the responsible one around here, so you have to make sure that I’m getting enough nutrition and rest so our baby will be healthy. Some foot rubs will be nice too, to help our baby grow, of course.”

“I can’t argue with that.” He gave Alice a slow, sweet kiss, then whispered, “I love you, Mrs. Alice Hackett.”

Alice and Hackett cuddled together with their baby, cozy and happy, as they made their plans for the future.

Alice and the Warden, Stories

AatW – 69

Miranda stood outside of her condo building, staring up at it. She held a glass jar with her goldfish in it, and her car was packed to the brim with boxes and bags alongside the street behind her. No matter what, though, she was determined not to cry.

Hackett’s car turned the corner then slowly eased into the parallel parking space behind hers, and Miranda tensed up, not wanting to see him. The door was still dented, and she couldn’t help but think about how out of character that was for Hackett, who had always been so prompt and meticulous for as long as she knew him.

Both Hackett and Alice got out of the car, and he approached Miranda while Alice hung back. He looked grim, but said softly, “I heard that you were moving today. Alice thought that we should come by and see if you needed anything.”

“I’m fine,” Miranda snapped. “I have everything finished already, and I was on my way out.”

“Miranda,” he replied in that annoyingly stern way of his. “We’re here to help you, not to gloat. Don’t be unpleasant about it.”

She took in a deep breath, counted to three, then let it out. “I’ve been put on probation until I complete community service and drug rehab. I decided that it would be best if I didn’t have my mortgage payments eating up my savings account during this time, so I’m downsizing. It’s not a big deal.”

“You look profoundly unhappy about it.”

“I liked my condo.” Miranda tightened her jaw. “I heard that you argued to have Damon sent to your prison, and even signed a pledge to give him fair and unbiased treatment. Why would you do a thing like that?”

“I have my reasons.” The corners of Hackett’s mouth twitched upwards slightly. “Besides, I’m grateful that he relinquished his paternal rights over to me, so it seemed like the least that I could do. I hope he didn’t hurt you too badly.”

Miranda tightened her grip on the jar. “You really should be gloating,” she fumed. “You should look down at your nose at me and declare, ‘I told you so!’ then laugh at the mess I’ve made. I get it, okay? I screwed up big time, and now I’m paying for it. I deserve all of it.”

Hackett was quiet as he looked over at Alice and nodded. Timidly, she approached with a wrapped present, which she held out to Miranda. “I made this for you,” she almost whispered, visibly nervous. “Please take it.”

Miranda wanted to go on the attack, but she didn’t dare lash out at Alice with Hackett standing right there. She bit her tongue as she took the package, trying not to glare. She hated Alice more now than she ever had before.

“If you’re squared away, then we’ll let you be,” Hackett said, putting his arm around Alice. “Take care.”

Miranda regretted chasing them away as she watched them climb back into their car and drive off, wishing that she had let herself share her sadness with them. She got into the driver’s seat of her own car, and carefully buckled her goldfish jar into the passenger seat beside her before turning on the engine. With the car idling, she paused to unwrap the present that Alice had given her.

It was predictably a knitted scarf, made out of a soft dusty purple yarn. Miranda scoffed at how ridiculous Alice was, and thought about tossing it callously into the back. But as she picked it up, she felt a piece of paper carefully folded up inside it, and curiosity got the better of her. Pulling it out, she discovered a handwritten letter from Alice. It read:

Dear Miranda,

I think that we might be the only two people in the whole world who can understand each other right now. Damon has a way of sucking you in before you realize what’s happening, and being with him can be both wonderful and agonizing. I’m sorry that it happened to you, too.

I just want to tell you that you still matter. I hope that you can rebuild and start over, and if you ever want to talk to me, I’ll be here to listen (I swear I won’t tell Basil anything).

Sincerely, Alice

Miranda angrily tore the paper in half and flung it to the floor, then hung onto the steering wheel as she screamed with hot tears streaming down her face.

She realized why she had always existed in the shadow of Alice’s memory, never able to compete with her for Damon’s affection, and why Hackett had been so quick to marry her: Alice genuinely cared about others in a way that Miranda never did.

That made her hate her all the more.

Later that night, Miranda finished filling up her fish tank, then carefully measured out a small amount of salt and water conditioner, making sure that everything was neatly in place before she gently scooped her goldfish out of the jar and placed it in the water with her hand. She sat for a moment and watched it swim around, seemingly unaware that anything had changed.

She went back to sorting through boxes to unpack in her new apartment, despising how even the walls felt cheap and smothering compared to her condo, when she came across the purple scarf. Picking it up, Miranda turned it over, studied the yarn, and wondered if her life would have turned out better if she had been more like Alice.

Next

Alice and the Warden, Stories

AatW – 66

It was still dark when Damon woke up.

After his drunken excursion at the bar, he had spent a couple nights on the couch to give Miranda her space, until she had quietly asked him to share her bed once again – even his company was better than long hours spent alone with herself. They resumed where they had left off, without talking about any of the events that had transpired. He took her out most nights, and flirted with her when it suited him, carefully inserting himself into more and more details of her life. He was developing an odd fondness for her that was constantly combating against his dislike of the way she carried herself, but the moments when she relaxed and let go of herself were endearing. Miranda was growing on him.

But that night, he had dreamt about Alice.

His heart ached as his eyes opened, and for a moment he stared up at the dark ceiling, feeling … regret. Slowly, Damon sat up and picked his phone up from the nightstand, using it to pull up a picture of her. She grinned up at him from the screen, with pink hair and black eyeliner, and he thought about how much more beautiful she had become without him.

“Is that Alice?” Miranda asked from beside him, and he quickly turned off the screen, his mood spoiled.

“None of your business,” he replied, setting the phone back down.

“No, I want to talk about this.” Miranda sat up. “Do you still love her?”

Damon cast a sideways scowl at her, then stood up and pulled on his pants. “What do you think?” he asked snidely.

“Why? What has she got that I don’t?” Miranda drew up her legs to hug her knees, watching Damon’s outline move in the dark room. “What makes her so special?”

Damon thought for a moment, wondering how much he wanted to bother himself with explaining, and how much Miranda was even capable of understanding. His dream had struck him deeply, and he decided that at the very least, he wanted to answer the question out loud. “Alice …” he began, then paused to formulate his thoughts. “She’s the only one who ever saw me as a person.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Miranda fumed. “I bet it’s that same old thing about how men like younger women, and that’s the only reason why both you and Basil are so fixated on her.”

“Shut the fuck up!” Damon snapped. “You’re just some self-absorbed bitch who’s only good for a temporary distraction, you got that? You don’t know shit.” Miranda sat in stunned silence, so he continued, “In all this time, you never once considered that I might give a damn about my kid. It never occurred to you that I have thoughts of my own. And just now, you acted like I’m too stupid to know my own feelings without you dictating them to me. Alice actually gave a fuck about me – but you never have.”

“Do you think that I’m supposed to erase myself so I can pander to your feelings?” Miranda shot back. “I’m not some doormat!”

Damon laughed, slowly and coldly. “Then what are you, exactly? What decisions have you made for yourself lately?”

Miranda curled up even more tightly, her lips twisting downwards as she quietly answered, “I don’t have a choice …”

“It’s easy to be a victim, isn’t it,” Damon sneered at her. “The fact is, Miranda, I can’t blackmail you without your consent, and you’ve loved every moment of it.” He turned and glimpsed something out the bedroom window. Miranda replied, but he didn’t hear what she said as he slowly adjusted the blinds to cautiously peek out, then cussed profusely. “Get dressed,” he said, snatching his shirt from the floor and pulling it over his head. “Quickly.”

“Why?” Miranda asked scowling, but she slid out of bed to open her drawers and rummage through them.

Damon went to her closet and reached in blindly for something, then threw the clothing at her. He left the bedroom and hid himself in the front entrance, closing his eyes to listen carefully. Sure enough, there was pounding on the door, followed by a voice bellowing, “Police!”

Miranda was still buttoning up her shirt as she scampered out of the bedroom, looking at Damon with wide eyes. He nodded at her, so she answered the knock.

“Miranda Grainey?” the officer asked, and she replied in the affirmative. “We have a warrant to search the premises.”

“On what grounds?” she said, trying her best to sound secure while all too aware of Damon’s presence just out of the officer’s sight.

“Is there a Damon Rake here?”

She felt herself grow cold, but said, “No.”

“Would you please step aside?”

“On what grounds?” Her voice was tight.

“We have evidence that Damon Rake has been residing with you.” The officer pushed his way in, followed by another.

“That’s just absurd!” Miranda resisted the urge to look directly at Damon as she stepped away from him, hoping to keep the police officers distracted. “Damon Rake is a client of mine, but he’s most certainly not living here. You can’t just barge into my home because of some rumor, and you can bet that I’ll be taking you to court over this. You’ll be lucky if you still have a job after I’m done with you.”

Damon took advantage of her rant, and silently slipped behind the officers and out the door. Miranda privately let herself feel a surge of relief, though she carefully kept it from showing on her face.

She continued, “If you touch any of my personal items then I’ll sue you for sexual harassment. I am not going to be subjected to this!”

Then Miranda’s heart stopped as shouting echoed from outside, followed by the officer’s radio bleeping, “Got him.”

“Take him in. We’ll finish up here,” the officer said back into his radio, then he looked at Miranda expectantly. “You might want to come with us to provide a statement. A team will be up here shortly to perform the search.”

Miranda’s knees went weak. For a moment she felt herself dissociate, and her lawyer voice clipped in her ear, “Cooperate, but don’t answer any questions. Keep your head together.”

Next

Alice and the Warden, Stories

AatW – 64

Alice carefully wiggled Alicia into a rose pink bunting and pulled the hood up, then wrapped her special blanket around her. A cold snap had settled on them, and Hackett had announced that it was the beginning of winter. For Alice, it meant fretting over whether or not her baby was warm enough. However, when Hackett asked if she was ready to go to the flea market, she beamed widely as she proclaimed, “Yes!”

He had warmed the car up for her as she had gotten herself and the baby dressed, and it felt good to settle against the heated leather seat after her quick journey from the house to the car. She liked how the car always lulled Alicia into a deep sleep, leaving her free to talk to Hackett without any distractions.

The flea market was in the next town over, which gave them plenty of time. Alice held Hackett’s hand with their fingers interlocked, and watched the dark trunks of the trees zoom past the car just beyond the edge of the highway. Their conversation was small, and mostly revolved around plans for Kate’s upcoming visit for the holidays, but it was still pleasant.

After a large curve in the road, the forest broke and they were once again driving past a number of small houses with large yards, shortly followed by businesses as they headed towards a large park in the center of town. There was a large field that was filled with a number of stands for vendors, as well as people bundled up against the cold. When Hackett parked nearby, Alice opened up the car door and frowned, wrinkling up her nose. “What’s that smell?” she asked.

“Just the paper mill,” Hackett replied. “Don’t worry, you get used to it.”

“It’s unique,” she said simply, trying to figure out what it was that had started niggling at her from the back of her mind. It was an unsettling feeling.

Alice got Alicia out of her carseat, then held her tightly as they walked to the flea market, keeping close to Hackett. She had never liked crowds to start with, but after the time she had spent alone in the tower, they made her feel even more anxious. It was a relief to let Hackett do most of the talking as they looked around, and to quietly fuss over her baby whenever she felt awkward. Still, it was fun, and she found an assortment of clothing and toys that she liked.

As Hackett was counting out money to pay one of the vendors, Alice turned and stared at some of the trees dotting the park, and the same strange feeling swept over her once again. She found herself walking trance-like towards one of them, certain that she had seen it before. There was a large bulge in the trunk that was impossibly familiar. As she neared it, a man came around from the other side and startled her so she jumped. He looked at her as he pulled his ladder around, the climbed up to continue wrapping a string of lights around one of the branches.

“Alice!” Hackett called, jogging up to her, taking her arm and pulling her back towards the flea market. “Don’t wander off like that. I just about had a heart attack when I turned around and you weren’t there.”

“I’ve been here before, but I don’t quite …” Alice trailed off. “Basil, are those lights purple?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Looks like it.”

“I think this is where Damon …” She raised her hand up to her head. “I can’t remember.”

Hackett quickly put their shopping bags down on the ground, and took Alicia from her. “Are you okay?”

“I dunno. It’s weird, like my heart is screaming that this is the right place, but I can’t actually remember a thing. I don’t want to look like an idiot, so I’m scared to say it.”

“Stay here.” He handed Alicia back to her, then trotted over to the man who was putting up the lights. Alice watched as he engaged him in a casual conversation, distractedly bouncing her baby as she waited. A minute later, he came back and picked up their shopping bags, saying simply, “Let’s go.”

Alice nodded, her stomach churning too much for her to speak. The smell of the nearby paper mill was permeating into her brain, somehow flooding her mind with nauseating thoughts about blood. Staring at the tree made her want to vomit.

She stumbled over a divot in the ground, and Hackett quickly caught her arm. After one look at her, he immediately took Alicia out of her arms and asked, “Do you need to sit down?”

“I think I can make it to the car,” she answered, leaning against him. “I just can’t breathe right now, that’s all.”

“You’ve gone pale.”

“It’s … that tree. I know it is. It has to be.” Tears spilled down onto her cheeks and stung her skin in the cold air.

Hackett helped support her to their car, and had her sit down while he buckled Alicia into her car seat and loaded up the trunk. He remained silent as they drove out of town, and Alice leaned back with her eyes closed as she took in deep breaths of air, trying to clear her head. Somehow she felt as if she ought to be having a flashback of some sort, but the images weren’t there – only the smell lingered heavily in her head.

“The man told me that they use the same layout for the lights every year,” Hackett finally said. “I’m going to get a team of investigators sent to that area to see if they come up with anything, just in case.”

“What if there’s nothing?” Alice asked.

“Then there’s nothing.”

“I don’t want anyone to waste their time because of me.”

Hackett sighed. “Alice, you are the only person who can connect the murder to Damon, so whatever you think you may or may not remember, we at least need to get it properly crossed off the list of possibilities. It’s not a waste of time, especially not after the way you nearly fainted.”

“You really think so?”

“Yes.” Hackett reached over to give her hand a squeeze. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to make some phone calls.”

Next

Alice and the Warden, Stories

AatW – 59

In the morning, Miranda showered and dressed for work as usual, carefully pinning her hair up into a neat french twist after drying it, then applying her makeup. Damon stayed flopped on his stomach in her bed, and she often glanced over at him through the bathroom door. He seemed to be experiencing a comedown, and based off the times that she’s had to work with drug addicts, she guessed that he had been using cocaine the day before. She didn’t dare ask for a confirmation, though.

As she was pulling on her shoes, Damon rose and went for the kitchen, helping himself to a bag of chips and drinking milk straight from the carton. Miranda had to clench her jaw to keep from protesting, but made a mental note to avoid using any more of it for herself.

“What time is it?” he asked, finally looking over in her direction.

“Eight-thirty,” she replied, turning away as she pulled on her coat. “I need to get to work.”

“Hold up.” Damon came over to her, and reached inside her coat to fasten the top button on her blouse, then said, “Have a good day.”

Miranda looked at him quizzically. “Are you being serious?”

“If you want to hang around and make coffee, I’m not going to stop you.” Damon shrugged. “But you’re not much use to me if you aren’t a lawyer.”

“That’s all I am to you, isn’t it.” Miranda looked down as she bit her lip. Despite the circumstances that had brought him there, she was privately glad that she hadn’t gone through the night alone, and her heart was latching onto him as the one who had been there for her. She wanted to matter to him in a meaningful way that didn’t revolve around her career.

“It’s better for you this way.” Damon looked at her with a surprisingly sincere expression. “I sent the one person I ever loved to jail for a crime she didn’t commit, because I was too selfish to care about her wellbeing – and that was one of the nicer things I did to her.” He laughed at the way Miranda’s head jerked in surprise, and added, “I’m not that delusional.”

“If you loved her, then why did you do that?”

Again, Damon shrugged as he returned to snacking from the bag of chips. “It’s just what I do.”

“I gotta go,” Miranda said hurriedly, grabbing her bag and practically scampering out the door. Out in her car, she reached up to undo the top button again, but stopped at the memory of Damon’s fingers touching her shirt. “Dammit girl! Pull yourself together!” she hissed through her teeth, smacking the steering wheel with her palm. “Damon is blackmailing you! Stop acting so pathetic!” She pulled the button open, looked at her reflection in the rearview mirror, then fastened it back up with a scowl; she looked more professional like that anyway.

The next step was to make it through the work day without anyone guessing that there was anything different in her life.

Alone, Damon continued his hunt for food, pulling a few eggs out of the fridge and a frying pan from the cupboard. He quickly scrambled the eggs up, doused them in salt and ketchup, then sat down to watch Miranda’s ugly goldfish as he ate; there was something mesmerizing about the way its eyes protruded from its head to stare upwards.

He left the dirty dishes in the kitchen when he was finished, and grabbed his bag to take it into the bedroom, where he got down on the floor and felt the underside of Miranda’s box spring. Satisfied, he pulled a switchblade out of his pocket to cut a small slit, then transferred a small baggie of powder and a memory card to the hiding spot.

There were still a couple of hours left before Damon’s shift at the construction site, so he dumped his dirty clothes into the laundry machine then headed for the shower. He was meticulous about grooming, and was soon freshly washed, shaved, and wearing clean clothes, leaving the damp towel on the bathroom floor with a smirk.

The day passed by uneventfully. Damon continued to work hard, spending most of the time thinking about his daughter and wondering what sort of person she was destined to become. He idly hoped that she would have all of Alice’s good qualities, and none of his bad.

He arrived back at the condo before Miranda, and began rifling through her closet until he found something that he thought looked satisfactory. Then he sent her a text message asking where she was. After two minutes, he called, immediately asking, “Where are you?”

“At the office – I’m finishing up,” Miranda replied. “I’ve got some files to finish reading, and …”

“No.” Damon cut her off. “We’re going out. If you have more work to do, bring it home and finish it later.”

“I don’t usually do that …” Miranda hedged.

“I assume that you don’t usually fuck your clients either, but we’ve already crossed that line. Make your excuses, and come home.” He hung up, then lounged on the bed playing with his phone as he waited. Twenty minutes later, Miranda banged the door open and dropped a stack of paperwork on the coffee table. She looked haggard, and she glowered at Damon as he approached her.

“I hope you’re happy,” she snapped. “I had to tell everyone that I wasn’t feeling well, and after my performance today, I’m sure they were glad to be rid of me.”

He studied her up and down, then took her by her wrist and pulled her to him. Miranda protested and weakly pushed him away, but Damon grabbed her chin to hold her still. “I want you,” he said before he kissed her. When he pulled away, Miranda had a tear running down her cheek, that she quickly rubbed away. “I want you to take your hair down and wear it loose. Also, I’ve laid a dress out on the bed for you, so go get changed.”

For a moment, Miranda considered defying him, then caved under the weight of his gaze. As she slunk to the bedroom, she reminded herself that Damon had promised to keep her safe in exchange for her obedience, and that satisfying his every demand was more a matter of self-preservation than anything else. He had video that could destroy her career in an instant if it ever got out, after all.

The dress on the bed was one that she had purchased on impulse for a blind date that hadn’t panned out, black, sleeveless, and featuring slit in the knee-length skirt that ran up to her thigh. She wondered why Damon had chosen it as she put it on, then pulled all the bobby pins out of her hair and gave it a quick brush. When she looked in the mirror, Miranda felt as if she could pass for someone else.

Damon drove her car again, and took them back to the bar. This time he only allowed her one beer, but after the fool she had made of herself, Miranda didn’t want anything more. It was him who coaxed her into making small talk, probing her with questions about her day until she finally vented.

“I was so distracted that I kept forgetting things, basic things, and I could tell that everyone was losing patience with me. I looked like an absolute idiot!”

Damon held her hand across the table as he listened, slowly rubbing her skin with his thumb. “So? Fuck them.”

“Excuse me?” Miranda narrowed her eyes. “I’m talking about my career, so I can’t just ‘fuck them’. My entire life could be on the line if I lose my edge.”

Damon shrugged. “Suit yourself, but that sounds like a miserable way to live.”

Then what do you think I should do?” Miranda snapped.

Damon thought for a moment, then answered, “Play pool.”

“Excuse me?”

He stood, and pulled her along with him over to the pool tables. “Do you know how?” he asked, handing her a cue.

“No,” Miranda said, flabbergasted. “What has this got to do with anything?”

“I’ll teach you then.” Damon set the balls up in the triangle, then placed the cue ball in position. “Pool is convenient for grifting, so I’ve gotten good at it. You see, I like to come into places like this and act like a pretentious prick who doesn’t know one way from another, and guys will practically line up to bet against me.” He paused as he searched for the chalk, then carefully rubbed it on the end of his pool stick. “I’ll even throw a game or two, to really cinch the image in. Then, when the big money is on the line, I show them what I can do.” He studied the table for a second, then tapped the cue ball to break, sending the colored balls rolling around on the table.

“So? What does that have to do with anything?” Miranda huffed, folding her arms.

“So if I’m too busy angsting about everyone else, I lose.” Damon motioned for Miranda to come over, and put his arms around her as he helped her position the cue. “Today, you threw the game, and when it’s to your advantage, you’ll show them your real skills.”

Miranda laughed slightly. “That’s got to be the lousiest metaphor I’ve ever heard. But fine then, fuck them.”

“Go ahead and hit the ball now,” Damon instructed. Miranda gave it a shot, and the cue ball spun off in an unexpected direction, causing Miranda to frown.

Damon, however, chuckled. “You hit the side.”

“I didn’t expect it to be so hard,” she admitted, feeling flustered.

He pulled her back into him as he whispered in her ear, “And playing pool is difficult, too.” Miranda blushed deeply.

Damon continued teaching Miranda, who despite her best efforts never seemed to get the hang of it, with calculating out the angles or the amount of force needed to bounce the balls where she wanted them to go. Still, she liked the way Damon’s hands rested on her body as he told her what to do, and the way he smiled at her made it easy to forget about her bad day. Maybe, just maybe, she misunderstand his methods and way of thinking …

Once they were home, Damon immediately pushed her towards the bedroom and pinned her down on the bed, murmuring, “I said I was going to teach you how to fuck, remember?”

Miranda’s heart pounded as a conflict of emotions swirled around inside her. She was both a little hurt and excited, and not at all certain if she should go along with him. Though the glint in his eyes implied that she didn’t have much of a choice, and it was easier to surrender than risk upsetting him.

Damon slowly kissed her neck, then said in a low purr, “First and foremost, I’m not interested in pegging, so don’t act like that’s what you’re fantasizing about in your mind; leave all of that empowerment shit at the office.”

“Excuse me?” Miranda said indignantly. “That’s not –” she began, but Damon stopped her by gripping a handful of her hair and directing her to look up at him.

“You should be eagerly receptive.”

For a moment she couldn’t breathe. The strength that Damon easily exerted over her made her feel small, yet also somehow free, as if he was shouldering her burdens in her stead in exchange for her compliance. It was an eternity before her chest rose, and she was able to get the word out, “How?”

“Act like you want to get fucked. Use your legs, hips, arms, mouth, and voice all to beg to have me inside of you.”

“I don’t want to act like a slut,” she protested, which made Damon smirk.

“What do you think you’ve been doing all along? This isn’t even our first time.” He slid his hand along her leg and up her thigh, stopping just underneath the edge of her skirt.

“What about me? Don’t I need to be turned on?”

That made Damon laugh out loud. “Why do you think I’ve been feeling you up all night? You didn’t seriously believe that I wanted to give you some heartwarmingly stupid analogy about playing pool for the sake of your feelings?”

Miranda’s lips moved to pout, so Damon very lightly kissed them.

“Let’s begin lesson one: eagerness and desire.”

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