Burning Ember

 

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Chapter 1 -High Alert

I slip through the back door of the bakery.  The smell of freshly baked cinnamon rolls greets my nostrils and I hear the familiar sound of pots and pans clanking as Hannah works her magic in the kitchen.

A lady on the news is talking about the Autumn Falls rapist and it causes me to take notice. My eyes zone in on the television hanging on the wall. The woman holding a microphone below her chin reports, "Effective immediately, we are asking the women of Autumn Falls to be on high alert. In the last two months, there have been eight reported rapes. The police now say all the attacks are related. The suspect is a white male believed to be between seventeen to twenty-two years of age. Witnesses say he is of slender build and stands between 5'7 and 5'10. He has dark blonde hair and a black snake tattoo with red eyes on his left forearm. If you see anyone matching this description, do not approach them, call the police immediately."

A shiver runs down my spine.  Autumn Falls is an influential and prestigious college town thriving with outrageously wealthy citizens. Polished, and elegant, the town is home to lawyers, doctors, and many other high-profile individuals.  It has always felt like a safe place. Now that there is a rapist on the loose, everyone is on edge, especially since the rapist is taking victims at such an alarming rate!

A booming voice calls out from behind, "Ember, you were late, again."

I nearly jump out of my skin. "Huh?!"

My boss, Bob White stars up at me through a set of bifocals. He holds up my timecard. "It says you were twenty minutes late yesterday. That's the second time this month."

Crap. "I'm  sorry. The power went out in my building again and my alarm never went off. I called and left you a message--"

Bob cuts me off mid-sentence. "That seems to happen a lot. Maybe it is high time you invest in an alarm clock that doesn't run on electricity?"

"You are so right! As soon as I leave work today I will run to the store and buy one." Maybe I will buy two just to be on the safe side.

His plump lips pucker while he shakes his head with disapproval. "Ember Stone, what are we going to do with you?"

Nervously, I chew on my fingernail. Although Autumn Falls is a town overflowing with wealth, not all the residents are rolling in cash. I depend on my modest paychecks to make ends meet. 

He places his chubby hand on his robust belly and lets out an amused chuckle. "Relax, I'm just messing with you."

Unaware I was holding my breath, I exhale. "Why do you do that to me?"

"You make it too easy. Just make sure you're on time from now on. If I keep letting it slide, people are going to figure out you are my favorite employee."

He tells everyone their his favorite. "I won't. You have my word!"

Looking at my unmoving frame, his pink forehead creases. "Well, what are you waiting for? Get to work."

My hand snatches the green uniform apron out of my locker. I tie the straps behind my back while racing through a door that leads to the bakery floor.

The sunlight bounces off the bright yellow walls causing my eyes to squint.  On my way to the register, I walk passed rows upon rows of decadent sweets in glass display cases and wooden shelves hold baskets with differently flavored slices of bread, croissants, homemade granola, and more.

An average height man with a toned/slender build enters the bakery. "Hi."

I greet the customer. "Hello!"

He does a double take. "Didn't you use to be blonde?"

My fingers graze the newly colored hair. "Yeah, I dyed it last week."

He nods. "It looks nice."

I think so too. The Auburn really brings out the green in my hazel eyes and compliments my light complexion. My cheeks feel flush at his compliment. "Thanks."

He adjusts his black-rimmed glasses that make him look like a sexy young professor. "Your welcome."

Not sure what to say next, I fidget with the hem of my apron, and look away, pretending to be busy.  He moves to the back of the store.  Looking up at the security mirror, I steel another peek of the handsome blonde.

He has been coming into the bakery periodically over the last few months. My best friend Vivienne made me pinky promise the next time I came in contact with him I would ask him to be my date for her party. I was reluctant to agree, but Vivienne would not let up.

You see, Vivienne has expressed serious concern I will end up an old spinster and die surrounded by a hoard of cats if I don't work on my trust issues and get out into the dating world. Truth is... I worry the same thing! I mean... I am twenty-two years old and have never even held a boy's hand!

When I was five my safe little world was shattered after my dad announced he wanted a divorce from my mom because he had fallen in love with another woman. The "woman" was his nineteen-year-old impregnated intern. Two months later he and his new girlfriend moved across the state to be closer to her family. Before he left I clutched onto his arm with an aching in my chest so strong I couldn't breathe. He promised me we wouldn't be apart for long and hugged me goodbye. Years came and went with the occasional phone calls, birthday cards sent on the wrong date, and empty promises. For a while, I held onto hope that someday he would come back, but deep down I knew I was no longer a priority in his life. I was eleven when I finally stopped believing in him, the way a child stops believing in Santa Claus.

Even after all these years my father's betrayal still hurts, but I know I can no longer allow it to dictate my future. If I want to work through my issues and let the wounds heal, it is crucial I let down my walls and step outside of my safe little comfort zone. Determined to prove to Vivienne and myself I am capable of such a task, I scoop up a tray of freshly made doughnuts and move towards the handsome stranger near the doughnut case.

The closer I get the shakier my insides become.  Fear tells me to turn around, but I give myself a pep talk and push through. After all, what is the worst that can happen? He says no? I really hope he doesn't say no.

I am only a few feet away when he looks up and smiles. His astonishing crystal blue eyes make me feel weak in the knees. Opening my mouth to greet him, my foot catches on the linoleum beneath me and I stumble forward. Thankfully, I catch myself on a nearby table housing gift baskets, but not before the tray flies out of my hands. To my horror, the chocolate covered doughnuts propel off of the tray like heat-seeking missiles, colliding with their target, the handsome stranger. Shock takes over as my hands cover my eyes.

Peeking through my fingers I see him glance down at the melted chocolate now decorating his beige jacket. A doughnut slowly slides off him and makes a plopping sound as it hits the floor frosting side down. He wipes the frosted fabric and licks his finger. The corners of his mouth turn up divulging his attractive smile. "I was going to order a muffin, but this will do."

Checking to make sure Mr. Wells isn't around to see the mishap, I retrieve a white rag from my apron pocket. Holding it out to him I stammer, "I-I'm so sorry."

He takes the rag and cleans up as best he can. His voice is kind. "It's fine. Don't worry about it."

"No, it isn't. I ruined your jacket. Whatever you want in the store is on me!"

He removes his coat and folds it over to keep the chocolate mess from spreading onto his blue button-up. I can hear the amusement in his voice when he says, "You don't need to do that. Accidents happen. Besides I thought this jacket was a bit plain anyway."

I'm relieved he isn't upset, but I can't ask him out now. He must think I'm a complete klutz. Abort mission. Abort!  "Okay, Well, I better get this cleaned up before a customer slips and sues the Bakery."

He hands the rag back to me and gives a warm smile."Need any help? I would hate for you to have a lawsuit on your hands."

His calm demeanor and humor put me at ease. I smile taking back the chocolate stained cloth. "Thank you, but no. I got it."

Kneeling down, I place the tray next to me and start peeling the doughnuts off the floor. Brown frosting smears on the linoleum resembling a child's finger-painting. shaking my head, I think what a disaster!

I take the pile of disfigured doughnuts to the garbage can behind the counter. This is definitely coming out of my paycheck.

The handsome stranger calls out to me, "Haven't you heard about the five-second rule?"

I spin around and see him staring at me through his stylish black-rimmed-glasses.  My sarcastic instinct kicks in. "I'm sure my boss would love that. We can put up a big flashy sign that says five-second-rule-doughnuts half price."

He shrugs. "He might go for it."

I point to the wastebasket next to the counter. "Oh. Okay. Want me to dig them out?"

He folds his arms across his chest daring me with his eyes. "Sure, why not?"

He's playful. I like that. Calling his bluff, I fold my arms as well."Okay, how many are you going to buy?"

He uncrosses his arms and scratches back of his head. "On second thought that might not be the best idea."

I smirk victoriously. That's what I thought.

Two bottle blondes enter the shop. Their voices are loud and I can't help but listen in on their conversation. The taller blonde pushes her hair behind her shoulder while chomping on a piece of gum. "My brother said they found her unconscious in, like, the garage, or something."

The shorter blonde adjusts her sparkly scarf. "They never said anything on the news."

"That's because they're keeping it quiet. I guess her father is some major investor? The scary part is, It wasn't even on campus! It was at some party in the hills! But you didn't hear it from me. If my brother knew I told anyone he would kill me. "

Scarf girl sighs. "I can't believe this is happening here in all places. Why can't they catch the guy?"

"Get this, my brother said, like, there are definitely more victims. It's just they haven't come forward because of  fear or something like that."

My eyes dart over to the handsome stranger. He averts eye contact for a brief moment then picks up a large gift basket wrapped in clear plastic with a leopard print bow and walks to the counter. The plastic makes a crinkling sound as he sets it down in front of me. "Could you please help me? I can't find a price tag."

"Let me check."

I scan the barcode with my scanning gun. A price flashes on the monitor. "It's $39.99."

He reaches for his wallet in his back pocket. "I'll take it; also can I please get one of your blueberry muffins?"

He nods towards the muffin stand. I lift a glass lid and use tongs to grab a pastry. As I place it in a to-go-box I ask, "Is it a gift?"

He looks at the small white container housing his muffin. "No, it's breakfast."

I stifle a laugh. "I was asking about the gift basket."

He chuckles. "Oh, yeah, it's for my mom. I was sold when I saw the bow. She loves leopard print."

He hands me his credit card and his fingertips graze mine. An explosion of butterflies erupts inside my stomach. I try to compose myself and look down at the cash register. "Your mom is going to love this one; it's full of our famous chocolate chip muffins."

I look at his card and read his. "Trevor Tessar, sounds Italian."

"It is."

Italian stallion. "Nice."

I direct my attention back to his captivating, Italian face. "Is it your moms birthday?"

"No, I just want to do something nice for her. She is an extraordinary woman and deserves it."

I am touched by his kindness towards his mother. Could he seem any more perfect?  "You know, I have heard you can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats his mom. It is supposed to be an indication of how he will treat the other women in his life."

I hand his card back to him, along with a receipt for him to sign.

Trevor scribbles his signature on the white slip of paper. His eyebrows rise. "Really? I have never heard that before."

"Well, now you have." I hand him his copy of the receipt.

He studies it for a moment. "You forgot to charge me for the muffin."

"No, I didn't. It's on the house."

"Thank you..."

He looks down at my name tag. "Ember. That is very kind of you."

I love the way my name sounds coming out of his mouth. The butterflies in my tummy start doing backflips. "You're very welcome, Trevor. It is the least I can do after ruining your jacket."

 Trevor picks up the gift basket and muffin. "Well, I'll see you around."

Yikes! Vivienne's party is tonight so either I ask him out now or miss my chance completely. Nervously, I gulp. "Umm... Trevor?"

He turns to look at me with the kindest eyes I have ever seen. "Yeah?"

I push out the words. "My best friend Vivienne is throwing a party at her estate. Would you like to come?"

Apprehensively, I play with a strand of hair that has fallen out of my bun and start to ramble. "I mean... you can bring a friend. She is inviting half the town. So she wouldn't mind. The more the merrier... unless you don't want to come, that's fine too. I mean whatever you want to do is fine with me. No pressure. "

Fearing rejection, I hold my breath. After all, this is the first time he has ever talked to me and I did assault him with baked goods. Maybe asking him to come is a bit too forward.

"What is the party for?"

"She's featured in The Autumn Talk as one of the top-five richest people under 25 in the state."

His eyebrows rise surprised. "You are friends with Vivienne Hart, Heiress to the Hart fortune?"

"I know. I know. It is hard to picture someone like me rubbing elbows with the well-to-do. Trust me. I get it."

I look down at my worn apron, then back at him.

"I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to be rude. It is just... I never imagined I would be invited to such a luxurious event."

"Well, it's going to be pretty fancy."

He thinks a moment. "All right, I'll come."

He said yes! A rush of excitement shoots through me. "Okay! Do you want to give me your number so I can text you the address?"

Eager, I hold out the pen. He writes his number on the back of a Bob's Bakery business card. "My girlfriend has been complaining we never do anything worthwhile. She will be thrilled when I tell her we are going to Vivienne Hart's house for a party."

Did he just say, girlfriend? Disappointment swells inside as hopes of me and Trevor spending a magical night together deflate like an untied balloon. Trying to hide my disappointment, I smile. "That... That's awesome."

He pauses a moment. "I don't have to dress up in a tux or anything, do I? My formal attire is pretty limited."

"Classy-casual is fine."

Trevor cradles the basket in his left arm. "Cool. Well, I guess I will see you later tonight."

Still reeling from the disappointment of him having a girlfriend I give him an awkward thumbs up. "Neat-o"

Neat-o? What am I, 12?

He turns away, pauses, and then turns back to face me. "Ember."

"Yeah?"

"The Autumn Falls rapist is still out there. Please be careful."

The hair on the back of my neck stands on end. I nod. "I always am."

He gives a seemingly concerned smile and exits the shop.

I drop my elbows on the counter and place my head in my hands. He has a girlfriend? Ugh! Vivienne is never going to let me live this one down.

 

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Chapter 2- The Party

I enter the multimillion-dollar mansion built like a modern day castle. The home is adorned with white marble flooring, high ceilings, and dazzling crystal chandeliers with gold accents hanging above a large crowd of well-dressed individuals. My eyes a drawn to the breathtaking exotic floral displays that have been strategical placed. Sure it's a vulgar display of wealth, but what else can you expect from an Autumn Falls socialite like Vivienne Hart?

A coat-check asks for my jacket. Removing the cover, I reveal a modest lace yellow blouse I have been wearing underneath.  A server approaches holding a tray with delicious looking appetizers.  My eyes widen with excitement. "Don't mind if I so."

I pick up a small piece of toast with a brown substance on top and shove the entire hors-d'oeuvre into my mouth. Something about the taste and texture doesn't sit well with me and makes me want to gag. Swiping a napkin from the servers tray I discreetly spit it out. The crowd of people frosted with the finest jewelry, parts as Vivienne draws near. She is dressed to impress in a gold sequin dress with an open back, and five-inch stilettos. "Way to keep it classy," she says.

The two of us met when my mother dated her father, Marcus Rhodes, a successful venture capitalist. Marcus was a good man and treated me and my mother well. There was even talk about an engagement. Sadly, Marcus passed away from heart complications before it ever came to fruition. Still, Vivienne and I are a big part of each other's lives. She is the closest thing I have to a sister.

Feeling embarrassed she saw me spit out the food, I chuckle.  "Hi."

Her tan slender fingers latch onto my pale chubby arm and I let out a surprised squeak as she pulls me close. Glaring at a man in a navy blue suit jacket across the room, Vivienne sneers. "Look who showed up."

My eyes involuntarily roll at the sight of the man with round icy-blue eyes, and spiked blonde hair. His name is Ricky Coleman, Vivienne's on-again-off-again boyfriend. I'm not sure what Vivienne sees in Ricky. He is about as interesting as a baked potato without the trimmings. In fact, the few years I have known him we have never had a meaningful dialogue. Every time we talk he dominates the conversation and the discussion becomes about him and how magnificent he imagines himself to be. He is the epitome of a narcissist. It doesn't help that he comes from one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the state and everyone bows down to him as if he is royalty.

Ricky smiles and the premature wrinkles, due to excessive tanning, around his eyes and mouth become visible. He places his scrawny arm around a beautiful woman wearing an emerald color dress.

Annoyed, I ask, "Why is he here?"

Anger burns through her piercing blue eyes. "Better yet, why is he with that ugly hussie?"

"Yeah, she is ugly," I say sarcastically, but Vivienne assumes I am being serious.

Her naturally full lips part, exposing her flawless teeth as she smiles. Vivienne nudges my arm. "I know, right? Talk about a downgrade."

With an impish grin, Ricky looks over at us and holds up a champagne flute as if he is toasting to our condemnation. Vivienne turns away from him and places her hand under her clavicle as if she is having chest pains. "I can't believe he has the audacity to show up to my event with that... that... cheap harlot! Tonight is supposed to be my night!"

Why does she act surprised? He's a pompous jerk.

Vivienne frets, pressing her fingertips to her forehead."This is an all-time low, even for him! He knows how excited I was about tonight. He is trying to ruin everything."

From afar Vivienne seems like she has it all: Social-status, beauty, and wealth. But if she allows you to get close you can see the cracks in her facade. She is painfully insecure and so desperate to be loved that she allows Ricky to treat her like a doormat. I have voiced my concerns many times about his venomous behavior, but it never makes a difference. She keeps going back to him like a dog to its own vomit.

From what I gather, her self-esteem issues started after her father died and the courts turned the vulnerable thirteen-year-old over to her bitter alcoholic mother. Growing up, Vivienne had to deal with her mother's hateful comments, belligerent behavior, and alcohol abuse. It wasn't long until Vivienne turned to the bottle herself, but that is a whole other story.

"Do you want me to go over there and tell him to leave?" I take a step in his direction not really wanting a confrontation, but if it will help Vivienne I'll do it.

Vivienne catches my arm. She shakes her head and her large gold earrings jingle. "No, I wouldn't want to give him the satisfaction. He wants to cause a scene, make it all about him. That's what he does best."

I turn to face her. "You're so right. It kills him to see you shine. That's why he's trying to dull your sparkle."

Placing my hands supportively on her shoulders I look into her eyes. "Don't let him. It's your night. Enjoy it."

She smiles a broken smile.  "I will."

Vivienne flips her silky blonde ponytail over her shoulder.  "He can parade that tramp around all night for all I care. I refuse to make a scene. Tonight is about me. Just look at all these rich eligible bachelors."

Pushing her tiny breasts up in a failed attempt to create the illusion of cleavage, Vivienne does her best impression of a confident female. "Maybe it's time I find someone to gallivant around with. Give him a taste of his own medicine."

Vivienne is bluffing; she would never do anything to jeopardize her future with Icky Ricky. Still, I humor her. "Way to go, Viv. Find me one while you're at it."

She snatches a drink off of a server's tray and tosses it back. Peering down at the now empty champagne flute she sighs heavily. "I'm going to need a stronger drink."

Vivienne presses the empty glass into my hand and sashays away on a mission to drink herself numb. Frowning at the empty flute, I close my eyes and pray she doesn't do anything stupid.

Hearing a familiar voice, I glance over my shoulder to see Trevor chatting with the coat-check a few feet behind me. He looks stylish in his black-rimmed glasses and fashionable sweater. At his side is a tall, slender woman, with flawless ivory skin, and modelesque features.

I set the champagne flute down on a table next to an exotic floral display then rush over to greet them. "Hello!"

Trevor's smile is warm like sunshine. "Hello."

"I'm so happy you found the place. I wouldn't want to have given you the wrong directions and have you two end up at a homicidal maniac's house. I would feel terrible if I got you chopped into little pieces."

Trevor's girlfriend looks at me through her trendy eyeglasses. Her facial expression is one of repugnance. I'm not sure why I just said something so creepy; I try to push through the uneasiness by forcing a laugh.

Trevor tenderly places his hand on the small of Natalie's back. "Me too. This is Natalie."

I hold out my hand to shake hers. "Hi, it's so nice to meet you. I'm Ember."

Ignoring my civil gesture she looks me up and down. "I figured."

Still holding my smile, I draw my arm back to my side, feeling rejected. "I like your dress."

Natalie crosses her arms and lifts her hand to admires her fresh manicure. "Thanks."

I turn to Trevor and attempt to eliminate the uncomfortable energy by making small talk. "Do you want a drink or something to eat? There's lots of food and alcohol over at the bar. Vivienne spares no expense when it comes to her parties or her home.

Trevor's kind eyes move around the lavish quarters occupied by Autumn Fall's elite. "I can see that."

He turns to his girlfriend. "Do you want anything to drink, sweetie?"

Natalie drops her hand to her side while her other arm stays crossed. "I'll take a glass of red win."

He looks at me. "What about you?"

 "I'm fine, thanks."

Trevor excuses himself and heads to the bar, leaving me and Natalie alone.  I ask,"So... umm... do you read the Autumn Talk?"

Natalie traces her hairline slowly with the side of her finger, making sure her luminous locks are in place. "Not really."

"Oh, I like your dress!"

She exhales noisily shifting her weight from one leg to the other. "You said that already."

When Trevor said he was bringing his girlfriend I assumed she would be kind and inviting like him. This girl is about as cuddly as a defensive porcupine. I fidget with my necklace. "Right."

We stand there in uncomfortable silence for a short while. Trevor arrives with a wine glass in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. I express joy. "That was quick."

He hands his tall beauty her wine. "Short line."

"So how did you two lovebirds meet?" I inquire, giving one last attempt at breaking the painfully thick ice with Natalie.

She dismisses my attempt by scanning the room as if she is looking for someone more appealing to converse with. Trevor answers for her. "We met freshman year in college. We had a class together. Natalie was allegedly having difficulty with the assignments so she asked me to tutor her. Turns out she was only pretending to have trouble with the class so we could spend time together."

Trevor twists the top off his bottle and takes a sip. "Isn't that right sweetie?"

He looks back at me. "In fact, she had a higher grade in the class than I did!"

I tease. "So your entire relationship was based on a lie?"

Trevor lets out a chuckle. Natalie's chilly green eyes meet his tranquil blues. He quickly stifles his laughter. I conceal a smile feeling like a small victory had been won.

Swirling her glass of wine, Natalie turns her attention to me. She smiles, but the smile doesn't quite reach her eyes. "Speaking of Autumn Falls University, I haven't seen you around."

Her gaze catches momentarily on my worn-in discount-shop blouse. "No, you couldn't possibly attend AFU. Not unless you are some kind of genius who was offered a scholarship."

"You must go to community college?" She takes a small sip of wine and looks down her narrow nose waiting for my reply.

"No, I work at a bakery."

She holds her head high as if she is trying to be the tallest person in the room "A bakery? How quaint. I will be graduating from AFU with a masters' degree in physics this March while you're watching bread rise."

Trevor looks taken aback by her words. "Natalie."

Natalie studies my facial expression. "Was that rude? Oh, honey, I didn't mean to offend you. We can't all be scholars."

It is obvious she is trying to paint me into a corner of inadequacy. I would love to say something catty, put her in her place, but that isn't who I am. Instead, I look down at my shoes. "I guess not. I was never good at math."

I lift my eyes to her smug expression. "I'm glad you took an interest in it. Maybe you can help me balance my checkbook?"

Trevor shakes his head. "Bad idea. The girl is smart, but she isn't great when it comes to handling money."

Natalie's mouth tightens. She is noticeably irritated by his smart alec comment. Me on the other hand, I am tickled!

Natalie places her perfectly manicured hand on her chest. "You have a little something..."

I glance down and notice I have crumbs scattered across my yellow blouse. I brush the crumbs off my shirt, humiliated she was the one to notice. "It's from an hors-d'oeuvre. I guess I was saving some for later."

Natalie clicks her tongue and looks at me with judging eyes. I open my mouth to speak when a woman with white hair, relying on a fashionable cane interrupts. "Natalie, darling."

Natalie turns to the older women. "Mrs. Peirce."

They greet each other with air kisses as I study her sharp, black business suit.

Mrs.Peirce takes Natalie's hand. "I had no idea you would be here tonight. The timing couldn't be more perfect. Come; let me introduce you to the head of Sawyer Industries."

Without another word, Natalie follows Mrs. Peirce through the crowd and disappears out of sight.

Now that Trevor and I are unaccompanied by The Ice Queen, I feel more at ease. I smile sarcastically. "She seems-- sweet."

He scratches the back of his head, looking a bit uncomfortable. "Sorry about that. I know she can come off a bit regal at times. Rest assured she really is a charming girl. You just have to give her time to warm up to you."

Warm up to me? This girl is about as frigid as they come. I am surprised Trevor didn't get frostbite from standing so close to her. I nod. "Of course."

He chuckles to himself. "Or maybe it is the other way around. It took a few years for my twin brother to warm up to her."

Astonished, I gasp. "You have a twin?"

As Trevor speaks, a short bald man shouting into his cellular phone passes by and I have to strain to hear Trevor's voice. It sounds like Trevor said, "Yeah, a fertile twin."

Is he announcing his brother's fertility? I utter, caught off guard, "Fertile?"

He cracks a smile. "I said fraternal, not fertile."

Amused by my mistake, I let out a loud chuckle. "Oh, glad you cleared that up."

I speak out of the side of my mouth, "I was beginning to think you were a weirdo."

Trevor creases his forehead. "The girl who talks about being chopped up by homicidal maniacs thought I was a weirdo?"

His playful banter tickles me. "Touché.

"Who's older, you or your brother?" I ask intrigued.

"He is older by five minutes, but that's only because I kicked him out of the womb, ninja style." He mimics a karate stance.

"I'm impressed you learned karate at such a young age."

"I have two older brothers and an older sister. I knew what I was getting into. I had to learn to defend myself early."

"Aw, so you're the baby of the family?"

He replies, "Yep, the runt of the litter."

Looking him up and down I say, "You don't look like a runt to me."

It isn't until after the words leave my mouth I realize how flirtatious they sound. Blushing, I look down at the floor and push a strand of hair behind my ear wishing I could take the words back. When I lift my head Trevor is looking down at his phone.

"I'm sorry, I need to take this."

Pressing my lips together I nod. "Not a problem."

Trevor raises the phone to his ear while plugging the other with his finger as he walks past me.

I stand alone in the crowded room, feeling out of place. Natalie floats towards me with pursed lips and her unpleasantly cold eyes locked on me. As she gets close a smile appears. Maybe she isn't such a witch after all? I should really give her the benefit of the doubt. Taking a deep breath I prepare myself for her company.

She is only a few feet away when Natalie stumbles forward, spilling her red wine on my yellow blouse. I gasp in shock, feeling the liquid seeping through to my skin. She gingerly covers her mouth with one hand. "Oops."

A hint of a smile appears on her crimson lips. "At least it wasn't a tray full of donuts."

"What?"

 

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Chapter 3- Club Soda

My arm feels sticky where a fraction of the wine landed and the blood inside my body starts to boil. Not wanting to say anything I will regret, I hold back my frustration. Anxious tears form in my eyes.

Holding an empty wine glass, Natalie reads my facial expression. "You don't think I did that on purpose, do you? Don't be silly. This was an honest to goodness accident."

Her fingertips graze her predominant collarbone as she peers down at me. "Try soaking it. You don't want it to stain. "

Calm yourself, Ember.  You can't prove she did it on purpose. Be the bigger person and walk away.  Inhaling a deep cleansing breath, I wipe the sticky liquid from my cheek. "I'm going to get myself cleaned up."

Natalie's smirks. "Of course."

Forcing a smile, I walk across the marble flooring over to a custom built bar fully stocked with an assortment of beverages.  Swiping a handful of napkins I pat dry my favorite top while muttering to myself. "Try soaking it. You don't want it to stain."

"Try club soda,"  a deep voice says.

Lifting my head, I find a set of big brown eyes look back at me.   This man undeniably attractive but looks too young to be holding that bottle of beer in his hand. "Huh?"

He smiles and a set of glorious dimples appear in his smooth pale skin. Pointing with his beer bottle he says, "I said, try club soda. It works great on stains."

My tone is unintentionally snarky. "Are you old enough to be drinking?"

He looks taken aback by my response. Pushing his sandy-blonde hair off his eyebrows he says,"Twenty-one as of last week"

"Need some I.D, officer?" he places his hand on his back pocket.

Wow, that was rude. I shake my head looking down at my black shoes. "Sorry. I'm just having a really bad night. Don't pay any attention to me."

When I lift my head, his big brown eyes burn into mine.  He smirks and his adorable dimples take my breath away. "It would be impossible not to pay attention to you."

He slides over holding out his hand to shake mine. "I'm Evan."

 A girlish giggle escapes. "Ember."

His cold hand lingers in mine for a moment. "Interesting name. I don't think I have ever met an Ember before. I like it."

 My cheeks flush at his compliment. "Thanks. You're sweet."

"I have my moments."

He looks around at the spacious room filled with wealthy people dressed in fashionable clothing. "Are you here with anyone?"

I sigh, unable to shake this self-pitying mood I'm in. "Just me, myself, and per usual."

He runs his finger across his smooth angular jaw. "Per usual? You sound educated. Do you go to Autumn Falls University?"

Not this again! The bartender appears apologizing for the wait. Avoiding  Evan's question, I order a club soda.

Evan casually leans his elbows on the bar. "Just the Soda? Boring. It's a party. Don't you want to have a little fun?"

The bartender pours the carbonated beverage. I dip my napkin and wet the blouse.  "I'm having fun."

"Are you really?" He asks, calling my bluff.

He leans in and speaks in a hushed tone, "A stuffy event like this everyone needs to loosing up. That is why the drinks are so strong."

He's is so close I  can smell his sweet cologne. Looking at the man a half inch taller than me, I say, "Trust me, the last thing I need is alcohol. I need to be in control of my emotions tonight."

Holding a half-empty bottle an inch away from his pouty lips, he gives me a seductive smile. "If you say so."

I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the attention I'm getting from Evan. I bite my lip feeling both hesitant and excited. "So, how do you know Vivienne?"

"I don't, I'm visiting from out of town. My friends had to drag me here tonight. I've been pretty anti-social lately. I didn't really want to come, but you know how friends are. They can be a real pain in the..." He plucks a small piece of fuzz off his black dress shirt.

I laugh. "I'm sure they had good intentions for dragging you here tonight."

He shrugs his shoulders looking a bit sad. "I suppose."

"Are you okay?"

He keeps his gaze fixed on the ground. "Trust me. It's a long and depressing story. You don't want to hear it."

"I do. Besides I'm here alone, it would be nice to have someone to talk to so I don't look like a complete loser." I tease, trying to lighten the situation.

Evan laughs an adorable laugh and I can't help but laugh too. "Now I get it. The pretty girl talks to me so she doesn't look like a loser."

  Me? Pretty?  I playfully push him. "Stop, I'm kidding. You can talk to me if you want."

"Are you sure you want to hear it? It is pretty depressing."

"Well, now you have to tell me. I'm intrigued."

He looks at me questionably. "Why, do depressing stories intrigue you?"

I shake my head feeling like an idiot for saying that. Ugh! I try to recover. "No. What I meant to say was  I am a good listener."

Evan inhales deeply. "Alright, you asked for it. I found my girlfriend, well now ex-girlfriend and ex-best friend in bed together."

My shoulders tense. Feeling terrible for prying, I say, "Oh, my! That's awful."

He peels a part of the label off his beer. "Tell me about it. The two people I trusted most betrayed me. You don't just bounce back after something like that. It changes you."

He stares at the bottle as if he is deep in thought. The pain in his eyes causes my heart to ache. Instinctively I reach out and touch his hand. "I'm sorry. That is a really crappy thing to do to someone."

He looks down at my fingers draped over his. "Yeah, me too..."

His tender eyes meet mine. "People say time heals all wounds. It has been months and I still don't feel any better. It scares me. What if I can never trust anyone ever again? How do you do something like that to someone you claim to care about? She was my first love."

"People are selfish. Trust me, I get it. I too have trust issues. My father ran off with a teenager when I was a kid. I still haven't been able to trust. I am terrified of having my heart broken again."

I stop myself. "Wow, I can't believe I just told you that. I mean, how self-centered am I? You were talking about your heartbreak and I just had to make it about me."

He smiles. "It's okay. It helps me feel better knowing I am not the only one with issues."

"Boy, do I have issues."  Shut up Ember, don't tell him that! You'll scare him off.

He takes a swig of the beer. "I don't mean to be such a downer."

"I asked, remember?"

His adorable dimples appear in his smooth pale skin. "Yeah. You did. You just love depressing stories."

I hit my palm to my forehead. "I can't believe I said that."

Vivienne appears suddenly at the bar slurring her words slightly and orders a drink. She notices the red wine decorating my blouse. "Ember, your shirt!"

I look down at the stained garment. "Yeah."

She wobbles a bit using the counter to steady herself. "Don't you have clothes in your room?"

Evan asks, "Your room?"

I reply, "It's a guest room I use when I stay the night. She likes to call it my room."

Vivienne chimes in. "mi casa su casa padre."

Leaning in a whisper to Evan, "She likes to speak foreign languages when she's been drinking. The scary part is she thinks I know what she is saying."

The Bartender hands her a drink. She bows her head and says, Merci, before disappearing.

Evan's eyes widen a fraction. "She sure is fun."

I laugh. "She's drunk but right. I do have clothes in the guest room. I'm going to go change out of this mess. I will be right back."

After excusing myself, I scurry down a long dark corridor of the mansion until I find the secluded room far away from the party goers. I need to make this fast! I don't want Evan to be scooped up by some model!

 After slipping on a soft blue t-shirt I left in a drawer. I place my blouse in the double dinky vanity and turn on the water. At least I know this one is single.

Placing my hands on the white marble countertops, I look at myself in the mirror.  I should really lower my expectations. Although it would be great if something more came out of this, I highly doubt it will. He did just get out of a relationship. Maybe he isn't interested in anything more than conversation.

My body involuntary jumps when I see Evan's reflection in the mirror.  Turning to face him, I smile placing my hand over my fast beating heart. "Even, wow, you scared me."

He smirks closing the bathroom door behind him. "Sorry."

"What are you doing back here?"

He glides over to me. "I got tired of waiting."

Without saying another word Evan places his hands on my hips pushing me back. My lower back hits the edge of the sink as his body presses against me. His warm lips find mine and his tongue pushes its way into my mouth. It all happens so fast I don't have time to stop him.

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Chapter 4- Black Mamba

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