About Writing

Pathos

Writing a dark story is turning out to be more of a challenge than I expected.

I have an idealist inside of me that tries to insert insights and epiphanies that would prevent the Traumatic Climax from happening, so I have to pull back and rewrite. The result is that the characters keep coming oh-so-close to redeeming themselves, then turning away and clinging to their dysfunctions.

It’s realistic enough; I’ve watched plenty of people do that in real life.

I’m not the sort of writer than deliberately sets out to manipulate the emotions of readers. The only reason why I’m writing this story at all is because it’s stuck in my head too badly to be ignored, and the only person intended to ride this roller coaster is me. There is no sadistic glee happening behind the scenes.

Perhaps this is a concept that’s difficult to grasp in our society, but I don’t write for money or popularity. I write for me. I write because I gained knowledge too heavy for me to bear, and my childhood hobby became my vessel of expression. I need it to remain artistically pure for the sake of my sanity. That’s why I always pull away from online groups and self-advertising — anything that could influence my writing away from what I need it to be.

Is there anyone out there capable of understanding?

So here I sit, feeling bad that Hartmann is too caught up in self-pity to realize what he’s doing, that Carol’s personality is too weak to resist, and that Lambert’s too checked out to notice. All it takes is one sentence to turn everything around, but I can’t let myself write it until it’s too late.

If this story wasn’t pounding at my head, I wouldn’t be writing it at all.

The Scion Suit

The Scions – 3

But that wasn’t what happened.

Hartmann was summoned back to the Base the next day, and waited in the bunker with no explanation of what was supposed to happen. He stared at the Suit and ached to touch it the way the cleaning lady did, but his training kept him in his position, ready to salute the moment a superior appeared to deliver orders. He mused over the possibility that some new intel had dropped, and he was on the verge of being sent out on another mission. In a matter of time, he would return home a hero, and the incident with Carol would be as forgotten as completely as she was.

What he did not anticipate was Captain Lambert to appear with Carol in tow. She was pale, and hid behind Lambert’s large frame to avoid Hartmann’s burning gaze, seeming even more timid and nervous than she had before. If he hadn’t been so annoyed over her reappearance, he would have found her behavior cute.

“MSG Hartmann,” Lambert said brusquely, “You are to assist me in training a new pilot for the Suit.”

Hartmann’s hackles rose sharply. “Who?” he demanded without any of the expected deference. “That bitch?”

Carol’s eyes teared up as her head swung away, her hands wringing together as she tried to shrink into herself behind Lambert’s back. It wasn’t the captain’s barked out punishment that twinged Hartmann with contrition, so much as the way Carol failed to defend herself against the word. He had expected her to bite back at him, to fling insults and posture as if she had a chance in a fight against him. Anything that would show that she thought of herself as too tough for him to feel guilty over. Compared to all the other women Hartmann had known, Carol seemed unnaturally quiet.

The way Lambert moved to shield her filled him with jealousy.

There was no way the captain was smitten with Carol. She was too pathetic and plain. All she had going for her was the fact that she cleaned the Suit … and the way her hair brushed the top of her petite shoulders, promising a feminine clavicle hidden underneath the neckline of her t-shirt. Hartmann thought about how she had felt under his hands, and how her soft muscles had struggled to pull away from him without any success.

Hartmann was the Suit’s pilot, and Carol was the cleaning lady. If she was going to belong to anyone, it was going to be him.

Not Lambert.

But he was determined to punish her for turning his world upside down.

Hartmann added extra energy into every push up, boosting himself off the floor to clap before catching himself again, purely for the sake of showing off. When he was through, he smugly noted the displeasure on Lambert’s face, and the amazement in Carol’s eyes.

“As I was saying,” Lambert continued gruffly, “The Suit considers Carol to be its ‘commander,’ and orders have come down for us to train her on how to pilot it for combat use.”

“You expect me to believe that, sir?” Hartmann narrowed his eyes.

“I verified it myself.” Lambert crossed his arms over his chest. “During the incident you created, the Suit automatically turned on and welcomed Carol as the ‘commander’ while she was inside. She has full access to all the Suit’s records, as well as a number of features that we never dreamed of. While you were lazing around at home, Carol and I were up digging through as much information as we could.”

Hartmann was lost for words. The muscle in his jaw twitched, but his teeth were locked together. He stared as Lambert proceeded to brush Carol’s hair back and clip a receiver onto her t-shirt, stared as the cleaning lady looked to the captain for reassurance who in turn gave her a small nod, and stared as she climbed up the ramp and enclosed herself inside the Suit. His Suit.

“Carol,” Lambert spoke into his radio, and it crackled as she replied,

“Here, sir.”

Then, disbelievingly, a computer voice sounded over the radio: “Welcome back, Commander.”

Was that why Carol had slid out of the Suit in an inexplicable daze the day before? Did she genuinely have a connection with it that he could never understand?

It wasn’t fair.

He was the best pilot.

He got the most important missions.

Why should the cleaning lady appear out of nowhere and take away his glory?

The Scion Suit

The Scions part 2

She didn’t notice when he approached her, intent on wiping down the headrest inside the Suit with a soft cloth to remove all traces of Hartmann’s earlier presence. He didn’t know what he wanted to accomplish, exactly, but he laid his hand on her shoulder and startled her. When her head twisted around, their eyes met for the first time.

“Can I help you?” she asked, fidgeting uncomfortably as her knuckles turned white around the cloth. He stared, taking in the strands of brown hair stuck to the side of her face, and the awkward water spill that soaked the front of her thick, baggy t-shirt. It was a shame that she was oblivious to her appearance, he considered, because the curves of her neck and jawline weren’t half bad.

“You ever been inside?” he asked, nodding towards the Suit. Compulsively, his fingers found the crook of her neck, but she flushed and pulled away.

“Of course not. I’m not authorized,” she replied sharply, though her voice trembled. Hartmann was satisfied to know that she was afraid.

“You know who I am?” he asked, and he grabbed her arm to keep her pinned.

She had to swallow hard before she could hoarsely reply, “One of the pilots.”

“I’m the fucking pilot,” he hissed, pushing her back against the door frame of the Suit. “Master sergeant Hartmann. You’re just the fucking cleaning lady.”

She nodded and squeaked, “Okay.”

“You have no right to love the Suit – you’re a nobody.” He wondered why she didn’t scream. The back of his neck prickled as others in the bunker were beginning to take notice, but as long as they kept their distance he didn’t care. Something kept her paralyzed, even as he pulled the stuck strands of hair loose from her cheek. “You’re going to quit this job,” he said softly.

“No!” She jerked against him then, but he easily pushed her back.

“I better never fucking see you near the Suit again.” His voice was low and dangerous.

Somehow, she slipped through his grip like water, and was inside the Suit before he could stop her. For a split second he considered yanking her back out, but her eyes and expression no longer matched the woman he had spent weeks watching. The look she gave him triggered his battle instincts, and he reflexively drew back, narrowly avoiding being caught by the Suit doors as they closed. His heart stopped as he realized what had happened, then he shouted,

“The Suit’s been hijacked!”

Hartmann drew his sidearm, knowing full well how futile it would be if the cleaning lady decided to blow him to smithereens. He very carefully backed down the ramp for the Suit, then moved to stand with the other soldiers who gathered with their guns held ready. Captain Lambert appeared at his side and growled, “What the fuck is going on?”

“I was messing with the cleaning lady, sir,” Hartmann replied slowly. “She jumped inside, sir.”

“The fucking cleaning lady?” Captain Lambert was surprised. “I want her file! The rest of you, keep ready but don’t move.”

“Sir, there’s something wrong with that bitch,” Hartmann muttered, narrowing his eyes at the Suit. So far it had remained motionless, and it was impossible to tell what was happening inside.

“Shut up,” Lambert snapped, then snatched the manila folder that had been brought to him. He skimmed over it, slapped it against Hartmann for him to take, then moved forward as he cussed, “We’re in for a fucking shit storm over this.” He boldly climbed the ramp and pounded on the Suit as he shouted, “Carol Smith! Get out here this instant!”

Hartmann watched in disbelief as the doors opened and the cleaning lady practically spilled out onto Lambert’s chest. She was dazed and unsteady as the captain helped her down, as if she had been drugged. Lambert’s eyes met the master sergeant’s, and he said gruffly, “You. Come.”

He took them to a small meeting room with a table and chairs, and ensured that Carol was seated before stepping back and folding his arms. Hartmann remained standing.

“You wanna tell me what the hell happened?” Lambert demanded.

Hartmann shrugged. “Already did, sir.”

Lambert rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Carol, what’s your side of the story?”

Hartmann expected her to let loose and demonize him in every possible way, but instead she echoed his shrug and murmured, “I don’t know.”

“How could you not know?” Lambert couldn’t keep himself from raising his voice.

“Something came over me, I think.” Carol nervously began to pick at her fingernails.

Frustrated, Lambert slammed his hand down on the table, causing her to flinch. “I selected you for this job based on your psych eval, and in all this time there hasn’t been a single incident. You expect me to believe that ‘something came over’ you?”

“I was … overwhelmed.” She squirmed and stared down at her hands as she bit her bottom lip. “The master sergeant told me to quit my job.”

“So you decided to get yourself fired instead?” Lambert scowled as he looked over at Hartmann. “Look, I know that MSG Hartmann was probably being an unreasonable prick towards you, so you need to focus on protecting yourself, not him. Got that?”

“I honestly don’t know how I ended up in the Suit.” Carol’s mouth twisted downwards and her chin quivered. “I was really scared that he’d find a way to force me out of my job, and I love cleaning the Suit.” For a moment she choked on her words, and Lambert’s expression softened. “I don’t know what happened,” she finished weakly.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Lambert murmured, putting a reassuring hand on her arm. “I have to file a report on the incident, and someone is going to take the blame. That was a breach in security, and it’s not going to blow over on its own.”

Hartmann looked between Carol and Lambert with his eyes narrowed, mulling over the possibility that the captain was attracted to the cleaning lady. It was no secret that Lambert had suffered a nasty divorce several years back, and as far as anyone knew it had completely destroyed his interest in anything outside of work. It occurred to Hartmann that his hadn’t been the only gaze focused on her as she cleaned.

Out of curiosity, he opened the personnel file he still carried. Carol had a long history of showing up on time and following all the rules; she was described with words like, ‘respectful,’ and, ‘content,’ all of which boiled down to a polite way of saying that she was easily controlled and had no big dreams in life. Hartmann looked back up at her, noting the way she hunched over and kept her elbows close, and he thought that she likely considered any clothing brighter than beige to be too flashy. Carol was someone who had perfected invisibility, so why had the captain noticed her as well?

“I didn’t mean to cause any trouble, sir.” Her voice was growing smaller.

Lambert sighed. “I’m going to recommend that your clearance be revoked, and that you’re reassigned. Wait here while I bring in your supervisor.” He then turned to Hartmann. “Your ass, on the other hand, is entirely at my mercy.”

“Go ahead and satisfy yourself, sir. I like it rough.” Hartmann smirked at the way Lambert’s eyes flashed angrily, then nodded at Carol as he tossed her file down onto the table. She was too shocked and pale to do anything other than stare.

“Move it, soldier!” Lambert barked, and pushed him out the door. “Consider yourself reprimanded for disrespecting your commanding officer.” He continued to shove Hartmann down the hallway. “Now, I want a detailed report on everything that happened, then you are to go home and await further orders. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Hartmann wasn’t thrilled at the idea of being removed from the Base, but the fact that Carol had jumped into the Suit on her own, combined with his status as the best pilot, made him expect that he wasn’t going to get more than a slap on the wrist for harassment in the end. The best part was, Carol was never going to be allowed anywhere near the Suit again. It was a small price to pay for the victory.

Lambert spoke into his radio, then informed Hartmann that someone would escort him off Base as soon as they were done, and a few minutes later they were in another small room. Hartmann wrote a glib statement, then signed his name with an exaggerated scrawl. Lambert’s radio crackled, and he stepped outside to answer it. Hartmann set his pen down then followed, but discovered that Lambert was already jogging down the hallway. He raised an eyebrow, but an MP approached him, and he knew that he wasn’t going to be privy to whatever had lit a fire under the captain’s butt.

He was going home to enjoy a little R&R before returning to duty.

About Me

The Scions Part 1

I didn’t want to write this.

It felt too much like taking all of the worst traits of these characters and amplifying them into a sordid and depressing story. I very much didn’t want to do that.

But the idea has been niggling at me for months. It won’t leave me alone.

I’ve caved. Fine. I’m writing it.

But this is a very sordid and depressing story.


Master sergeant Hartmann wasn’t certain when he had first begun to notice the cleaning lady. Two years prior, more for the sake of politics than anything else, the General had declared that they were going to improve national security by limiting the soldiers’ access to the Suit, and a civilian was picked out of the Base’s janitorial staff to be the designated caretaker of the military’s top asset. It turned out to be a plain, mousy woman, who quietly devoted herself to the job then faded into the background as another functioning cog, and business moved on as usual.

Hartmann was by far the best at piloting the Suit. Although it was obviously alien technology, he had an intuitive understanding of how to operate it, and was consequently given all of the important missions. He had already been considered something of a hero due to his ‘bravery’ and ‘leadership’ beforehand, but the Suit had skyrocketed him to the status of a superstar. He was worshiped by those below his rank, and greatly respected by those above. It was unspoken, but everyone pinned their hopes of winning the war on his abilities, and he was more than willing to accept the mantle.

Yet, somehow, the moments he had spent basking in the adulation of a job well done melted away as the cleaning lady took up more and more of his awareness.

There were moments when it was comical to watch her, a slim 5’4” woman standing on a stepladder with a soapy sponge, contrasted against the 12-foot mecha that she rigorously scrubbed. However, when she worked on detailing the interior, it stung to realize that she was more intimately familiar with the Suit than he was. He felt like the interloper, good for a wild ride before the Suit returned home to its loving family. He never had the liberty to simply touch and examine the Suit, no matter how much time he spent inside.

To make it worse, the cleaning lady was completely unaware of him. Hartmann was attractive and muscular, with sandy blonde hair and sharp eyes, and took it for granted that women would preen and flirt as they competed for his attention. The cleaning lady, however, never smiled or brushed her hair behind her ear; her eyes slid over him as if he was any other uniform in a sea of soldiers. He had even bumped into her deliberately to see her reaction, but she had tersely apologized then skirted around him, never quite managing to raise her eyes to his face during the entire exchange. The other soldiers had snickered, and someone had said, “I guess you aren’t her type,” as Hartmann stared after her, his face hard.

That was two strikes against her.

In between missions, he kept an apartment off Base, and he liked to amuse himself by taking out a few of his buddies to pick up women at bars and clubs. The thrill of simply bedding them had vanished years ago, but he still got his kicks out of playing with them. He had developed a good eye for finding the ones that were attractive enough to be worthwhile, but still had the shadow of desperation that spoke of a willingness to do anything. That night, he imagined that he had the cleaning lady in his clutches, and pushed the woman to a level of filthy that he had never gone to before. Unsatisfied with how easy it had been to control and degrade her, he sent her away from his apartment with one of his friends, and from the way she giggled he knew that she was up for another round of debauchery.

Alone, he knew the folly of his fantasy. The cleaning lady was the sort who spent her evenings curled up with a book and a glass of wine – she would never be under his power.

So he watched her. He watched her clean his Suit, watched her love what should have been his, all the while knowing that she was untouchable. The cleaning lady was ranked above him, the master sergeant.

And that was strike three.

CR1515

CR1515 – 2

Aurora was still alone when she awoke, but the door to the bedroom was open. She pulled the sheet off of the bed, wrapped it around herself, then tiptoed out into the main room. CR1515 was sitting in a chair in front of a giant screen, and although his face was completely expressionless, his body language was that of someone who was thoroughly bored of his desk job. Her clothes were still scattered across the floor, so she moved as quietly as she could to gather them up, praying that he wouldn’t notice her.

“You slept for nine hours,” he said, still focused on the screen. “Brain scans indicated that it was prudent to not wake you.”

“Thank you,” she murmured, blushing as she turned away, conscious of the fact that she was still nude underneath the sheet, and the soreness between her legs that attested to the reality of what had happened. “Is there a bathroom?”

“You may attend to all your needs in there.” He pointed back towards the bedroom. “When I am finished I will require sustenance, and you will eat then.”

She hesitated, then asked, “What are you doing?”

“Working.”

Aurora couldn’t stop her curiosity, so she turned to study the screen. “That looks like our underground base.”

“I maintain the security grid,” he replied. “One of the exterior cameras malfunctioned, so I ran a diagnostic and am now programming the instructions for the repair drones. I do this for all of your cities and bases.”

“Really?” Aurora’s fingers touched her lips with surprise. “I thought that was all automated.”

“As I am classified as a machine, it is.” CR1515 turned to look at her. “What are you doing?”

Aurora found herself shrinking back when he stood and approached her, and he took the bundle of clothing out of her arms then pulled the bed sheet away from her. All she could do was wrap her arms around herself and shiver as she looked down at the floor.

“I did not tell you to cover yourself.” He returned to the screen and sat down, then continued typing.

“I can’t always be naked!” Aurora protested. “Do you really intend to keep me as a sex slave?”

“Yes.”

“But …” A painful lump formed in her throat. “It’s not fair to do that to someone.”

“Is it fair to enslave someone for your protection then? To mock and ridicule them even as you demand their loyalty?” CR1515 tilted his head to one side and rested it against a fingertip. “From my perspective, taking a single human woman after decades of service is a small price to ask.”

Aurora squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to hold back the tears, and asked weakly, “Why me?”

“Because you sought me.”

She was silent, hugging herself as her mind tried to make sense of it all. Then, vehemently, she demanded, “If it had been Talon at the Gate instead of me, would you have done the same with him? Would he have been standing here naked now, instead of me? Was it really that arbitrary?”

“No.” CR1515 was either finished programming, or had come to the conclusion that she required his full attention, because he stood and approached her again, laying his metal hand against the side of her face. “If a man had come to the Gate, I would not have answered it.”

“Then why me?” Aurora couldn’t stop herself from collapsing against his hard chest, feeling too weak to stand under her own power anymore.

“You may wear clothing when we are not engaged in sexual activity,” he murmured, then as if he was attempting to provide comfort, he retrieved the sheet and wrapped it around her shoulders. “Dress, and we will have our meal.”

Aurora nodded and slowly moved towards the bedroom with her bundle of clothing held tightly against her chest, feeling ready to sleep for another nine hours. She didn’t know how to cope with abruptly losing everything in her life, especially when she had been on the verge of finalizing her engagement with Talon. He was definitely worried about her by then, and she didn’t have a way to send word of what had happened.

CR1515 shut the door to the main room, then walked across the bedroom to open another door. “You inquired about the facilities earlier,” he said, indicating toward the shower and toilet. “This one leads to the kitchen and dining area,” he continued, moving to another door. “As I implied before, all of your needs will be met.”

“Thank you,” Aurora whispered, then slipped into the bathroom and shut the door. It was comfortingly ordinary, down to the roll of paper next to the toilet, and she let out a heavy sigh of relief as she opened the shower door and turned the water on.

At the very least, he wasn’t callous towards her. Painfully blunt and unyielding, but … Aurora shook her head then upturned her face under the water, wondering if it would wash away the thoughts that she didn’t want. Perhaps Talon had been correct in wanting to finalize their relationship contract before engaging in intercourse with her, after how quickly she had thrown away her loyalty to him …

Not that CR1515 had given her a real choice.

He had revealed himself to her, then pressed his hands and mouth against her before promising to never take her for granted, after she had uttered a single, “Yes,” when he had asked if she would be his. She liked the simplicity and straightforwardness of it.

But that wasn’t what had really happened, Aurora chastised herself. CR1515 had been more than willing to let the artifacts fail and the mecha return to life if she had refused him. If she ever found herself back with Talon, she would tearfully explain that she had been blackmailed and raped, and he would be rightfully furious. He wouldn’t think that she had deliberately betrayed him.

Even though she was already wondering when she would have sex with CR1515 again.

“I’m such a mess,” Aurora whispered to herself, then turned the shower off.

She dressed after towel drying, then tiptoed out to search for CR1515. He was in the kitchen, once again out of his metal suit, with two meal trays waiting. She blushed and looked away as best she could until she was seated, but she couldn’t stop herself from sneaking in a glance at his golden skin that flawlessly covered his thick muscles, and heat twinged inside her.

They ate in silence, but Aurora’s appetite was small enough to disappear after only a few bites. She put her fork down, then stared intently at the table as she slowly asked, “You fought the mecha, right?”

“Yes,” CR1515 replied.

“Did you see Talon?”

He stared at her, and she couldn’t read his expression.

“I just thought that my betrothed should know that I’m …” her voice faded away.

“I wouldn’t know if I saw him.” CR1515 tilted his head to the side. “Why do you say betrothed instead of fiance?”

“We haven’t reached that point yet. After we agree on a finalized contract, we then set a date for our marriage, and that’s when we’re officially engaged.” Aurora squirmed under the look that CR1515 gave her, so she added, “That’s how it’s done.”

“A contract?”

“You know … we work out how many children we want, and when we want to have them. There’s also the financial agreements, how to manage the household, as well as what grounds the marriage may be dissolved …”

“You were planning out how to end your relationship before it even officially began?” CR1515 asked incredulously.

“Things don’t always work out.” Aurora felt small and ridiculous as she tried to explain, “Sometimes you grow to dislike each other and start arguing too much. It’s important to know how to proceed if that happens.”

“Hmph.” CR1515 folded his arms. “If you try to argue with me, I will teach you better.” He studied her for a moment from across the table, then continued, “I would gather that this contract of yours goes much deeper than the possibility of merely not getting along. Your attractiveness, age, and status as a virgin were all bargaining points for you, were they not?”

Aurora’s face began to burn as she nodded, and quietly said, “My mother wanted me to marry well, and the men who can afford to be picky …”

“Had I been satisfied with stripping you of your virginity and sent you back home, it would have hurt negotiations with this betrothed of yours, correct?”

“Talon loves me. He would have …” Aurora faltered. “He probably would have changed some of the terms to be more to his advantage,” she admitted.

“It appears to me that I have rescued you from the undesirable fate of having your every move dictated out beforehand.” CR1515 scowled, then motioned for her to come over and sit on his lap. Aurora obeyed shyly, all too aware of the fact that he didn’t feel the same need for clothing that she did. He pulled her firmly against his chest and touched his lips to her hair as he murmured, “My terms are simple: you belong to me.”

“But I have no grounds to assert myself on; nothing to protect me from your whims,” Aurora began to protest, then stopped when she saw the devilish grin spread across CR1515’s face, and his hand pushed up her skirt to rest against her thigh.

“No, you don’t.”

When they were finished, Aurora stayed slumped against him with her arms around his neck, and she couldn’t help but ask, “Did you really mean it when you said that you wanted to love? As in, love love, and not just …” she trailed off.

“Yes,” he whispered.

“Will you love me even if I hate you?”

She didn’t wait for his answer, but instead buried her face in the crook of his neck, and breathed heavily as his hand stroked silently along the length of her back.

The Scion Suit

Concept Story – Hartmann

I wrote this a few months ago as part of The Scion Suit, but I’ve decided that I won’t be using this scene in the final version after all.

Hartmann sat at the bar, his hand lax around an untouched glass of scotch. A woman sat next to him, chittering nonstop, although he wasn’t listening to a word that she was saying. He was staring at her lips, studying the neatly applied red lipstick with a crisp outline and a perfect cupid’s bow, and his gaze had the woman giddy.

Carol’s lips had been pale and dry. She had been too shocked to react the moment his mouth touched hers, but he had expected that – Carol was the sort who hadn’t kissed anyone in years … if she had ever kissed anyone at all. He had taken his time and moved slowly to keep from overwhelming her, feeling the change in her breath as her eyes had closed and her chin lifted up.

Afterwards, Hartmann had told himself to stop pursuing Carol, before she damaged his ability to touch another woman. He had rounded up a couple of his guys to head out for a night of fun, but now that he was there, he found that he couldn’t engage. He couldn’t stop thinking of Carol.

Her lips had been vulnerable and responsive. Somehow, with very little movement, they had begged him not to stop, and he knew that Carol hadn’t been internally counting down the seconds till she could move on to the next step. He had felt wanted.

The woman sitting next to him, with the perfect lipstick and low-cut top didn’t want him. To her, he was no different from any other man, and if he didn’t pick her up, then someone else would. The cheap, meaningless pleasure that she offered held no appeal in contrast to what he had tasted with Carol.

She stopped talking and leaned close to him with her eyes half closed, and Hartmann couldn’t stop himself from jerking back with a disgusted look on his face. The woman snatched up her purse as she cussed at him, then stormed away, and he finally took a gulp of his drink.

Sergeant Brown sat down next to him in the woman’s empty spot, ordered two more drinks, then studied Hartmann for a moment before asking, “What’s up man? I’ve never seen you so far out of the game.”

Hartmann remained silent, but finished his scotch and set the glass back on the bar, where he traced the circle of the rim with his fingertip, remaining deep within his thoughts.

“If you keep bombing this badly, I’m gonna start thinking that you’re hung up on some bitch,” Brown added after a moment.

Hartmann didn’t really want to talk about it, but the idea of Carol being referred to as ‘some bitch’ galled him – a lot more than he’d expected it to. He glanced over at Brown with a scowl, then back at his glass. “She’s not a bitch,” he muttered quietly. “That’s the problem.”

“Oh come on, man,” Brown snorted derisively. “That just means you’re the one getting played.”

“Nah. She’s way too pathetic for that.” Hartmann couldn’t stop the small smile that twitched at the corners of his mouth. Despite his choice of words, he didn’t intend it as an insult – it was something about Carol that made her irresistibly endearing to him. In the moments when he wondered how she had managed to survive on her own in her former life, he also deeply wanted to be there for her in the future.

“Hell, I don’t believe you.” Brown waved his hand dismissively. “Women only care about themselves, money, and orgasms.”

That made Hartmann laugh. “This one is different, and now I’ve got to prove that I’m not full of shit.”

Brown drained his glass and set it down as he asked, “To me, or to you?”

“Both,” Hartmann replied, then signaled the bartender over for a refill.