Zane came down the steps off his deck just as she rounded the corner from behind dunes and golden grasses, the waves of the Atlantic tickling the shore behind her. He started towards her, across the soft sand. He wanted to see her eyes, needed to see the secrets hidden in their depths, and found himself sailing through the air, landing with an oomf at her feet. Pretty feet, with nails painted coral. Were those happy faces on the nails of her big toes?
Lifting his head, he admired long, long legs; the pale blue sundress flirting in the breeze; muscular arms folded over her abdomen below small breasts; a straw beach bag slung over one sun-kissed shoulder; long neck, tilted slightly; the smirk of a smile; and one perfectly shaped, raised eyebrow. There was a sparkle of amusement in her blue eyes. Whoa! The whole package up close was something to behold.
“Well,” she said in a warm, rusty voice. Sexy. “It’s not every day I have men falling at my feet.”
The weight of the pain and sorrow emanating from her, so sharp he could feel it himself in the weeks he’d watched her from his office window, seemed to have lifted with her amusement. “Ah,” he said. Jesus! He was a man who made his living with words and that was the best he could do? He pushed up to his feet, brushing sand off his rumpled clothes – the wrinkled t-shirt he’d taken out of the laundry hamper, the tan shorts he’d spilled his morning coffee on. “Sorry about that.” He glanced behind him, narrowed his eyes at the piece of driftwood in the sand. “I guess I should pay more attention to where I’m going.”
“You never know when beach trash is going to jump up and grab you.”
He laughed, stabbing his fingers through his medium brown hair and realized he hadn’t bothered to run a comb through it. Dropping his hand to his side, he said, “I just came out to invite you to dinner.”
“Dinner?” Her arched brows drew together.
“Yeah, I thought it was time to introduce myself. Be neighbourly.”
She cocked her head, staring at him.
“I’ve seen you coming up from the beach from my office window for weeks now. You look physically strong, yet whatever you’re carrying around with you is weighing so heavy you can barely lift your feet.” He motioned to the marks in the sand behind her. “You’re dragging your feet.”
She turned, examining the drag marks the sand.
He was making a mess of this and wasn’t sure how to rescue himself. “Sorry, just an observation. I’m a writer, so I observe.”
“A writer.” She turned back to him with fire in her eyes. “So, what? You want me to come to dinner so that you can observe my brain, figure out what it is I’m carrying around with me?”
“I…hmmm.” He frowned, scratched his head. “I thought maybe I could help.”
“Are you a reporter?”
“What? No. I’m a novelist. Zane Ziegler.” He held out his hand, saw the recognition in her eyes and it stemmed some of the fire. Her hand slid into his, gripped firmly.
“Elle. Elle Dawson.”
Zane grinned. “So, you’ll come for dinner, Elle Dawson?”
She sighed deeply, brushing loose strands of hair from her face. “Sure. It will give me the chance to make up for my amusement at your misfortune.”
Elle studied herself in the mirror, turning to take in the simple sundress. Stupid, she thought. Stupid to accept a dinner invitation from someone she knew wanted to pick her brain. But, it had been so long since she’d had someone to converse with and the disheveled, clumsy Zane seemed harmless.
She’d given herself a month at the beach house to figure things out and decide what to do with the rest of her life and, three weeks in, she was no further ahead than the day she’d arrived.
So maybe Zane Ziegler could help. And that was stupid, too. Who goes to a writer for psychological help? She dropped down onto the bed and buried her face in her hands. Get a grip, Elle. It’s just dinner.
She let her anger at herself propel her next door. She marched up the deck stairs and froze, staring at the quaint table set with gleaming silverware and short candles in crystal bowls. Not exactly what she’d expected.
“You look lovely.”
Elle spun around to see Zane leaning in the doorway. He didn’t look so unkempt now. Although still shaggy, he’d made an attempt to tame his hair. He wore dark dress slacks and a pale blue button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Casual elegance. Man, he cleaned up well! He pushed off the jamb and walked to her, offering one of the glasses of wine in his hand.
“Thank you.” Elle motioned to the table with her glass. “You’ve gone to a lot of trouble.”
“No trouble. I enjoy eating in a … nice setting. Why waste a view like this?”
She got the impression he’d been about to say romantic setting, maybe because that was exactly what it was. Elle turned to look out over the beach and the ocean beyond it. “It’s beautiful.” She was going to miss it. One week seemed entirely too soon to be leaving.
Zane brought out salads to start and they sat at the table. It wasn’t long before the small talk turned to questions about her.
“Tell me what’s troubling you?”
She nearly laughed, and would have if he didn’t look so serious. “Just like that? You expect me to just vomit out all of my…” She waved her hands in front of her as if searching for the right word. “Stuff because you ask?”
Zane shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
The sun was beginning to set, casting shadows among the dunes. Elle set down her fork and stared out over the beach, let the whoosh of the waves rolling into shore, the caress of the warm breeze, the fresh, salty scent of the air, settle her. Why not? Maybe vomiting out her stuff would help. “All my life I wanted to be a cop,” she began.
“A cop? Damn, I had you pegged for an athlete.”
She couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face. “It burns that you got it wrong, doesn’t it?”
“Well, yeah.” He frowned into his wine glass, the candlelight flickering over his face. “I’m usually pretty good at figuring people out.”
“Keeping in shape is important to me. I need to be strong in my job.”
“Okay. I get that. So, what’s got you questioning your career choice?”
She cocked her head and locked onto his hazel eyes. He was good at observing, she thought. He saw more than most. “We were investigating a series of murders where the victims were tortured, raped, and their bodies dumped like trash. We knew where he was targeting the victims. They’d all been taken from the same mall. But, that was all we had. No witnesses, no forensics. Nada. We had a member of the team who matched the victimology, so we organized an op, sent her in as bait.”
Zane’s fork came to a halt halfway between his plate and his mouth. “You were the bait.”
Yeah, he definitely saw more than most. “I was the bait.” She traced the rim of her wineglass with her finger, surprised at how easy the words were coming. “We had cops all over the mall, inside and out. A couple of hours in, the mall Security Supervisor, Michael Cheney, walks up to me and says Detective Aldsworth would like to see me in the Control Centre. They had a guy on CCTV, stalking a woman fitting the vic profile on the west side of the mall, second level. I headed to the Control Centre in the basement on the east side of the mall while the rest of the team raced to the west side. Cheney badged us in to the Security Admin area then motioned for me to go ahead of him. I didn’t even think about it … until I felt the pinch on the back of my neck.”
“You would have investigated all of the security employees when you knew where he was grabbing the victims.”
“Yeah, we did. There was nothing there. Nothing that popped.” She stared out over the beach again. “I made a rookie mistake and I’m no rookie. I should have called Aldsworth to confirm. When he didn’t answer, I would have known something was hinky.”
“The rest of the team just reacted as well. No one stopped to question the supervisor.”
“I knew better. I was blinded by my desperation to get this guy. I guess we all were.” It was the first time she’d allowed herself to contemplate that she wasn’t the only one who’d screwed up. She took a gulp of wine then sat back and closed her eyes. She could see it all happening like it was yesterday, today, five minutes ago. “I came to strapped to a table, like the ones they have in the morgue. Six hours. That’s how long it took them to find me.”
“He made a big mistake. Better if he’d waited for the heat to die down, but he took you in the middle of an op. That gave the team his name and the basis to search for properties he’d have access to.”
“Not hard to tell you write mysteries.”
He smiled, raised his glass to her. “Finish it.”
“That’s it,” she shrugged. “It was humiliating. I screwed up. Really screwed up. How am I going to face them again? How am I going to be able to walk into my station house?”
She’d done a darn good job of skipping over the trauma she’d suffered during those six hours and that was okay. He didn’t expect her to talk to him about those details, but she needed to spill them to someone. “You’re going to piss me off if you keep blaming yourself. Do you blame the other victims for falling into his trap?”
Her fist slammed the table sending her fork clattering off her plate. “They weren’t cops!”
“Then it was every member of the team’s fault that raced for the west side of the mall without checking in with Aldsworth. If you blame yourself, you have to blame the rest.”
The sun had set, but she turned to stare out at the darkness. Damn, she hated that he was right.
“Wow. You made this yourself?” Elle stared down at the plate Zane had just set in front of her with the main course of grilled grouper, steamed vegetables, and baked potatoes. She looked up at him with wide eyes.
“I figure if I want to eat, I better be able to cook since I spend so much of my time sequestered.”
“Yeah, but I bet you could afford someone to do it for you.”
He laughed. He could probably afford a house full of staff to see to his every need at this point, but he enjoyed the solitude. And he enjoyed cooking.
He let her get a few bites in before he hit her with his next question. “Are you afraid to go back to work because you feel like you screwed up or because you feel ashamed of the trauma you suffered?”
Elle narrowed her eyes at him as her neck and face flushed red. “I’m not afraid.”
He preferred that flash of anger in her eyes to the despair he most often saw there. “I’m sure your department provides counselling, so why haven’t you seen someone?”
She shrugged. “I took a leave of absence as soon as I got out of the hospital and I came here.”
“Elle? You need to talk to someone.”
The despair was back in her eyes and they brimmed with tears. She turned her head away from him, but not before he saw those tears begin to fall. “It was my own damn fault.”
His heart broke for her. He was sure he could feel it tearing in half. “No,” he said, with more force than he intended. “It was Cheney’s fault.” She had to stop blaming herself or she’d never heal. “Maybe you made a mistake in not contacting Aldsworth, but you said yourself you checked out the security staff. He was in a trustworthy position and there was nothing in his background to cause suspicion. Stop blaming yourself. Stop punishing yourself.”
Zane had given Elle a lot to think about and, over the next few days, she worked on forgiving herself.
Her last week flew by. Elle spent every afternoon at the beach, secretly reading one of Zane’s novels. She’d heard of him, but had never actually read his work. The evenings she spent with Zane, talking about everything under the sun. He was so easy to talk to and, even better, he seemed to understand her. Now she was down to her last night, and she still hadn’t made a decision on what to do with her life.
She took a last barefoot stroll down the beach with Zane under a full moon, the sand soft and cool between her toes.
“Do you still want to be a cop?” Zane asked.
“Yeah. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do and I’m good at it, but I still don’t feel like I can face going back to my squad. I don’t know that that will ever change.” It had helped considerably to talk to Zane about the op. She knew she’d have to see a therapist and that she still had a lot of work to do, but she wasn’t as afraid of doing that as she had been a week ago. Still, going back to work didn’t feel right. The job she loved was slipping from her grasp with her dilemma.
“Why did you come here to get away?” Zane asked. “Here specifically?”
Elle slowed to a stop, breathed in the sea air, and took a moment to enjoy the soft, warm breeze on her face. “I’ve always found the sea so tranquil, so relaxing. So when I’m stressed, it’s where I tend to go.”
“Why don’t you transfer to the police department here?”
“What?” Her eyes flew up to meet his.
“You love the beach. You still want to be a cop, but not where you were working. Stay. Make this your permanent home.”
She had to admit that she was dreading leaving this place. She’d found a sense of peace here, with the sea air, warm breezes, the sounds of the waves rolling up on shore, even in the easy companionship she’d found with Zane. Starting fresh with a department that didn’t know all of the details of her ordeal had quite a bit of appeal now that she thought about it. She’d miss her old squad, but she couldn’t see herself working with them again. Here, she could start fresh and still do the job she loved.
It was like a weight had suddenly been lifted from her shoulders, like she could finally breathe again. “Why do you want me to stay?”
“For the obvious reasons,” he said. “I feel safer with a cop living next door.”
“Yeah, right.” Elle laughed. “You just want someone to fix your speeding tickets. I’ve seen that little sports car you drive.”
Zane took her hand and brushed his lips over her knuckles. It was the first time he’d made any move on her. She felt the tingling sizzle all the way up her arm.
“Stay,” he whispered.
Elle looked up into his eyes, seeing the desire in them and something else that she couldn’t quite identify. If you’d asked her a week ago if she was interested in getting involved with a man, she would have answered, “Hell, no!” But, she felt comfortable with Zane. More, she trusted him. She slid her palm over his until their fingers interlocked. “Okay,” she whispered and he grinned. A slow smile spread across her face as they began to walk again. She drew in another deep breath of sea air, breathing so much easier now. “How can I resist a man who falls at my feet?”
The sound of their laughter drifted on the breeze.
The above story was my final assignment in my Creative Writing Course. I am now the proud owner of a Diploma in Creative Writing with High Honours. I hope you enjoyed the story!