Parker Duncan wheeled her briefcase through the courtyard. Glancing past the shiny black toe of her four-inch pumps, she spied some aggressive new weeds pushing between the red bricks. “Yard work,” she snarled with disgust, another unpleasant reminder that the house had become an albatross in so many ways. She couldn’t wait to get rid of it and, by extension, its maintenance, meanings, and memories.
The three narrow streets of Charleston-style row homes had swallowed up a newly gentrified section of the near-downtown district of Silver Lake, Virginia. When Parker and her wife had purchased their home here, the rock and siding house seemed like an ideal solution. It was just a stone’s throw to the downtown business district, but it had remained immune from the exorbitant prices and HOA fees that came with homes in downtown proper or in nearby DC. They had unexpectedly found themselves swallowed by Volvo station wagons, stuffy politicos, and strollers tethered to skinny jogging soccer moms in haute couture spandex. Straight couples regularly dragged designer dogs name Pooches or Callaway across the tree-lined streets and ignored one another.
Parker shook her head at the sharp turn down Vanilla Lane her life seemed to have taken. If anyone had told her a mere ten years ago that her grown-up, independent life would smell like bland oatmeal and be dressed in overpriced designer linen, she would have checked the opt-out box and gone in search of…well, she didn’t know what she would have looked for exactly, but this wasn’t it. That was part of the problem, she supposed. She felt as if she had become a cliché, and in many ways she had.
She dropped her purse onto the cloth seat of her black Audi convertible and pointed it around the corner. Parker glanced at the newly planted For Sale sign in her tiny strip of front yard, a public announcement that her failed marriage to a chronically unfaithful sales executive was driving her out of her home. Although she was relatively happy to be leaving, she hated the stigma of failure.
As the house and the neighborhood fell away in her rearview mirror, she realized how much she didn’t care about any of it anymore. She pushed the top release button in the black dash and dragged her hair into a clip. Twenty minutes later she backed into her spot outside the Davidson Properties office building. It wasn’t officially her spot, but since she regularly arrived an hour or two before anyone else in the office, everyone considered it hers.
As usual, Parker was the first person there. She glanced over the modern façade of the three-story office building that she had helped design. As Davidson’s longtime HR director, Parker had been burned out on the hire-fire game and had recently accepted the opportunity to manage the firm’s real estate expansion plan, leaving the day-to-day HR duties to Jenny Foster. The petite blond fireball acted as her second in command while also holding a place as one of her best friends. Over the years Jenny had proven that she could be just as tough as Parker in the boardroom.
The cool lobby air hit Parker’s face as she swung through the mahogany-paneled front doors. By 6:43 a.m. Parker settled into her chair with a giant mug of hot tea. She stared at the seventeen-inch screen as waves of email dumped into her inbox. Being consumed with packing and separating belongings at home had kept her from her normal weeding of emails that came in throughout the weekend. She processed through them and then sighed at the giant crap her life had taken in the last six months.
She loved her job, mostly, except when grown adults fought over thermostat settings and radio station selections. She had told more than one overpaid executive to put on their big-kid pants so she could actually do work that didn’t include babysitting entitled morons.
Her personal life was another sordid story entirely. Dayne Grant had steamrolled into her once quiet orbit more than a decade earlier without an official invite when her best friend of forever, Allen Stevens, and his partner Richard Dailey threw their annual New Year’s Eve gala. The over-the-top party beckoned more than two hundred revelers who flooded their 1896 Victorian home in the historic Silver Square area of downtown. An open bar, trays of fine hors d’oeuvres, and decadent sweets kept the guests entertained as they took in the couple’s decorations and clamored to see and be seen.
Parker had sequestered herself in the kitchen, happy to avoid the crowds. She knew almost everyone except Richard’s stuffy advertising cronies, but she didn’t feel compelled to join in the shallow small talk that hummed over holiday music and Dick Clark’s commentary on the TVs. She much preferred relative silence to the melee.
Allen regularly slipped into the kitchen to attempt to drag her into the fracas. “Come and mingle, you hermit. I didn’t hire you to cater the party, you know.” Allen jokingly stabbed her shoulder with a scolding finger. “People are beginning to accuse me of reenacting Cinderella.”
“I’ll come in a minute,” Parker promised as he left, not intending a word of it.
A loud laugh broke through the comparative kitchen calm, settling on Parker. A tall, slim, athletic blonde pushed toward the island with an empty rocks glass and a sigh. She clattered it onto the taupe granite with much more force and noise than necessary announcing the desire for more scotch.
Parker took inventory of the brash woman before her. She had spiky, short blond hair, and her flawless skin pulled over high cheekbones. Her noticeably expensive tailored black suit draped over her lean frame, and a white linen tee came to a seductive V just under a silver yin-yang charm on a short black silk cord. Her long neck graced up to meet her tan face which was framed by substantial diamond studs, two in each ear. She sported a broad silver cuff on her right wrist, and an expensive Eterna men’s watch graced her left.
Dayne Grant’s brief self-introduction parlayed into ten minutes of intense flirting. Suddenly and without further discussion, Dayne transported Parker from behind the island and into the crowd. Parker was abruptly unceremoniously swept into an embrace and a slow dance with her.
Parker had chuckled despite the shock of suddenly being pressed against Dayne’s broad shoulder. After three consecutive songs played around them, Dayne had held Parker tightly to her, whispering breathy compliments in her ear and casually gliding her hands along Parker’s narrow waist. Happy shouts announcing the impending midnight strike had begun to swell around them.
At the final ball drop, Dayne’s solid arm tightened around Parker’s frame as she was swept up into a heart-stopping kiss. Dayne had covered Parker’s mouth without prelude or permission. The powerful caress had taken Parker’s breath away, her eyes closing involuntarily as she’d wrapped her arms around Dayne’s shoulders pressing her body into Dayne’s unfamiliar muscular torso. When Dayne released Parker, her green eyes flashed. She’d whispered, “Happy New Year, princess.”
“Happy…New Year,” Parker had stammered.
Parker regained focus and stared into her mug. Was it really that long ago? That night had somehow lasted eleven years.
Dayne had set out to win Parker’s heart and had successfully drawn her into her world. Dayne was a sales superwoman with an extravagant downtown penthouse condo and a penchant for getting what she wanted. Dayne had asserted repeatedly, to anyone who would listen, that what she wanted was Parker.
Ten years later Parker thought that she had been the one to tame the reputed skirt chaser.
One could argue that the end of their marriage could clearly be found in the beginning. The unfortunate part was that Parker hadn’t thought to look.
In retrospect, she should have paid more attention when Dayne regularly came home late smelling like scotch and expensive cigars. Perhaps she should have been less surprised on the night of their tenth anniversary when she’d opened the door to discarded clothing strewn across the floor of their living room. She remembered the acute physical pain as she’d focused on the lithe, naked frame of her beautiful wife straddling a twentysomething blonde writhing in the throes of ecstasy. Dayne’s head had whipped toward Parker as the rush of air through the open door had found her naked body.
Scrambling, Dayne had pulled her hands from the prone woman while she attempted to cover not enough of her with a discarded T-shirt.
After that evening, Parker had taken refuge with Allen and Richard, and Dayne had made just two attempts to call. Her final communication came in the form of a text message just five hours later. Park, I guess I haven’t been happy for a while. I need more…We became so normal. Sorry I didn’t do this better. Lease is up at the condo, I’ll be out by next week.
Parker ran a finger over the screen where the saved message from December burned her fingers. A stray tear glanced off the screen as she heard the arrival of the elevator.
Parker pushed the phone into her top drawer and quickly swiped at her face to dry any remnant tears.
Jenny Foster marched by, overloaded with a thick file of resumes clutched to her chest and her huge purse dangling from her wrist. “Hey, Park,” she called, blond hair bouncing in her wake.
Parker saw her stop suddenly at her doorway. She knew Jenny would see her pale, blotchy face forcing a smile that she imagined didn’t reach her eyes. Everyone knew the sale of the house was imminent, and despite Parker’s public protestations to the contrary, she knew Jenny was aware that it felt final and desperate and sad. The end of a decade had been marred at the hands of the egomaniac none of her friends had ever really trusted.
Jenny and her wife Mackenzie Foster—Mack to just about everyone—had tried desperately to help her through this transition despite their own life challenges. Parker tried not to impose on the couple since Jenny and her detective sergeant wife had experienced profound heartbreak over two failed pregnancies. Parker felt her issues were nothing by comparison.
Jenny dumped her belongings into a chair and kicked the office door shut. Jenny bent to hug her when Parker’s eyes filled again.
“This just sucks, Park.”
Parker’s shoulders trembled against Jenny’s arm. Dammit. Parker rarely gave in to emotion at the office. She left her personal life at home and expected everyone around her to do the same.
“I just want this to be over,” Parker said quietly. “I want my own space so I can stop reliving it. Stop wondering what she is doing with that girl.” Parker had learned her name was Julie Thomas but she could still only bring herself to call her that girl.
“You will, soon. Eventually. Out and away from the reminders.”
Parker’s resolve returned and she squared her shoulders, and Jenny stepped back.
“What can Mack and I do to help?”
Parker inhaled deeply and dried her face again. “Let me get this stupid house sold,” she said attempting a grin. “And then you’re on the hook to help me move.”
“We’re on it.” Jenny laughed as she put her arm loosely around Parker’s shoulders again. “Love you, you know. We all do.” Jenny headed toward the door and looked back at Parker, resuming work mode. “Busy day, girlfriend.”
Parker’s cell rang again just after ten a.m. It was Allen. She answered in time to hear him say, “It’s about time, honey. Where have you been?”
“Settle down, Biscuit.” She laughed. Her pet name for him was over fifteen years old, coined when she’d met him searching for his escaped Bichon Frise in their mutual apartment complex. He’d clutched homemade dog biscuits in both hands as he planned to bribe the creature home.
“The damn place is officially for sale, right? Thank you, universe,” Allen exclaimed. “Let’s find you a bachelorette pad and a loose woman to get you naked and blow your mind.”
She laughed in spite of the crappy start to her day. “Um, I think loose women got me into this mess, Allen. I’ll settle for a quiet town house where I can take up knitting,” she joked. His exasperated sigh filled her ear.
“My ass. When that place sells we’re all going out to party. Liberation meets libation,” he chanted too loudly into the phone. “No use in arguing, okay? It’s happening.”
As she hung up she decided to waste no more time on Dayne Grant than she already had.
Parker was looking over a decade’s worth of boxes and memories when the Realtor called with the good news. The offer for just $3,000 under asking now sat on the coffee table.
“Tell them we’ll take it.”
Parker tossed the phone onto a barrel chair in the living room and kicked off her heels, ready for an evening of wine and real estate listings. Real estate searches had been kind of a guilty pleasure before but had become a necessity now that she had less than thirty days to move.
“Time to take your life back, Duncan,” she said out loud to the empty room and gulped the heavy red wine.
Parker scanned the signed contract into an email to Dayne. Done deal. Please sign and email to Ben. Thanks.
Despite the turmoil Dayne had visited upon her life, Parker thought she would be grateful for this moment of freedom, one day. Maybe.
She sent a cheery House sold! message to Jenny, Mack, Allen, and Richard.
Jenny immediately replied. Yay—that was fast.
Allen replied-all with, Party at the Pride—Friday the 18th. Details to follow…
Her mother called from New Hampshire for a brief catch-up chat which never involved much more than a review of Parker’s work and the progress of her parents’ home remodel. As Sylvia Duncan prattled on about the prig moving in next door, Parker idly wondered how many times her mother had actually uttered Dayne’s name. She cursorily acknowledged her existence when Parker mentioned her, but her mother had treated Dayne’s departure from the house like one would the relocation of an annoying roommate.
“How much money did you put in that house? Are you getting it all back or did you give it to her?” Parker struggled to get past thinking that her mother would never ask such a question if Dayne had been her husband instead of her wife.
“It was equal, Mother.”
“Well, I just want to be sure you’re getting what you deserve.”
Parker wondered what hidden meaning resided in the statement and then chided herself for being paranoid.
“Do you think you’ll start dating again? Do you think you might date a man, assuming the right one came along?”
She would have given anything to have the guts to reply, Mom, how about if things don’t work out with Dad, I take you to First Friday at the Rainbow and hook you up with a nice woman? Instead, she said, “No, Mom. I’ll be single for a while, anyhow.”
Her mother changed the subject to something that interested her and didn’t smell of homosexuality or anything she couldn’t brag about at the Junior League. They ended the conversation so Sylvia could go cook dinner. Exhausted, somewhat accomplished, and now genuinely irritated, Parker crashed on the couch, her tablet falling into the crease between the cushions.
Parker woke up Saturday morning well rested and decided she would sleep on the couch until she moved. The bedroom was just a sad place she wanted to shutter in her mind. She had convinced Allen to tour real estate offerings with her and was on the porch by nine a.m. when his new black Jetta glided down Dartmouth Street.
Parker trotted to the car with a small purse and a sheaf of her notes. She recounted the therapy-inducing conversation with her mother en route to her first house selection.
“Lord,” Allen said. “What is with these people? If we only got so freaking uptight about starvation and animal abuse, the world would be a different place.”
“Preaching to the choir, sister.” Parker raised her palms in resignation. “I’ve stopped trying to fix it. She’s never going to see how it affects everything. I can’t even imagine having a mom who acted like my life was normal.”
“Trust me, I see these parents marching with PFLAG and they make no sense to me. Aliens in tutus would seem more normal in my mind,” Allen said.
They laughed at their common experience. Parker knew Allen had once asked his mom if she would feel better if he was a straight felon instead of a gay architect. She had replied that since being a felon wouldn’t have been a choice, she would be able to explain that to her friends.
The day melted away as Allen drove up and down the streets of Parker’s target neighborhoods—she wanted old character, with a worn, industrial feel. Not a very big place and certainly not normal. Dayne’s delivery of the word had stuck in her heart like a dagger. She had never craved normal and wouldn’t settle for it again.
Parker spotted a commercial real estate sign advertising what appeared to be a garage space. The buildings around it and attached to it seemed to be nicely rehabilitated but the drab corner caught Parker’s eye as she pointed it out to Allen. He slowed as she bounded out of the car and began to record the telephone number from the sign.
She located a ground-floor window and cupped her hands to see through the grime covering the small metal-framed square of glass. She took in a large open and cluttered warehouse area with ugly concrete posts, peeling walls, and cement floors. A rusty black metal staircase led to what was apparently a loft space. It was abandoned and ugly and absolutely perfect.
Allen looked horrified as she practically skipped back to the car. She rushed him through a recount of what she had seen and dragged him back for a firsthand view. She could imagine polishing the floors, stripping the walls, and installing a bright industrial kitchen. She could paint and hang huge canvases taking advantage of the incredibly high ceilings. It was the perfect space to start her life over.
Allen placed a hand on her shoulder, in an apparent effort to ground her. Laughing, he said, “Why don’t you call the number before you redecorate, dear.”
Despite his reasonable warning, her heart knew this little disaster would be where she would start over. Allen glanced back through the window while she dialed. She could see the wheels of his architect brain were already turning.
The commercial broker, Bryant Markley, was just around the corner and willing to show the property immediately. He explained that it was the last of the units in the live-work space yet to be remodeled, and since the interior condition was barely considered fair, it would be sold as is. Parker told him she didn’t care.
Markley led them through a glass door into a foyer. He entered a code and an audible thunk indicated the release of the heavy door magnet. He explained that the property could only be marketed as
a studio since there were no closets or walls separating the loft
As they walked through the hall, Parker noticed a sign with the letters D.R.I.F.T. hanging by the door marked with an A. Markley didn’t know what kind of business it was but that the owner had created a state-of-the-art studio in the upstairs space including soundproofing, so whatever it was, she wouldn’t need to be concerned about noise. He pointed out the other two units belonging to a lawyer’s office and a CPA firm.
The unit’s front door was part of the original construction, a giant oak slider on a barn track which had been moved to the common hallway during the restructure. The broker stepped outside to take a call as Parker rushed into the space.
“Remember, try not to fall in love with everything. And even if you do, don’t tell him,” Allen whispered.
“I promise,” Parker agreed, not really hearing him. She glanced around the warehouse; the soaring twenty-foot ceilings made it seem huge. Slivers of old grime and paint stained the ancient concrete floors which matched the bubbling colors clinging inconsistently to the old brick walls. Parker launched herself up the metal stairs and stood in an open loft space which still managed eight-foot ceilings.
She pictured modern furniture and a closet spanning the space near the wretched old bathroom. Under the loft she heard Allen appraising the would-be kitchen space and walking off a corner for a laundry closet with the agent. Allen remarked that the industrial panel already allowed for the hookups and adding in-unit laundry would be an easy fix. Parker smiled when she knew he was fully on board.
She hung herself half over the metal loft railing, and called to Allen, “Well? Can we make it work?” She pulled a goofy face that made him laugh.
“Well, what are you waiting for, girlfriend? Get down here and buy a broken-down garage.”
She clapped and did a mini-dance and she rushed down the stairs to Markley, who chuckled at her enthusiasm. She took only seconds to offer nearly list, still significantly below market for the area, cheerfully presenting an earnest money check for 950 Meridian Street, Unit D.
As they watched the broker drive away, Parker offered Allen a stunned stare and giggled. “What did I just do?”
Allen reassured her that he loved it and that they would make it fabulous, in his best lispy gay-designer voice.
Closing day came quickly and Parker watched her belongings hefted into a storage cube sitting oddly at the curb on Dartmouth. It would be hauled off and delivered to the warehouse over the weekend.
By afternoon, Parker was pulling her suitcase up to her friends’ Victorian. She stood in front of the mass of clothes and pawed through the pile for something to wear for the planned celebration. Parker selected casual black slacks and a cinched royal blue button up. She had lost about eleven pounds since the storm blew through her life, so selecting from the skinny section of her closet was like a shopping trip. But she changed her mind and ditched the slacks when she came across her once favorite and expensive designer jeans, which fit her like a glove.
The straight hem of the sleeveless shirt skimmed just below the waist of the jeans and just above the embellished pockets. She appraised her small butt in the mirror behind the door. “Not bad,” she mused and laughed to herself. Happy with the effect and realizing it was the first time she had cared in a long time, she sprayed her favorite perfume under her hair and on her wrists. She applied makeup with a slightly heavier hand than she would have for work functions; after all, this was her coming out party.
Allen walked by. “Wow! You look gorgeous,” he gushed, giving her a side hug.
She rolled her eyes and slid into her favorite three-inch heels. “You’re my best friend, Biscuit, you have to say that.”
“No, I don’t. I’ve seen you look perfectly awful and I just change the subject.” Parker punched his upper arm playfully, and he carried her bag outside. They dropped Parker’s car at the warehouse and headed over to meet the girls.
Mack and Jen were sitting at a round six top and waved happily as Parker came through the door with Allen and Richard. Color and décor leaning toward the tacky engulfed the small establishment which bounced with traditional Mexican music.
When the odd place setting was swept away highlighting an uneven number of guests, it occurred to Parker that being single was a big adjustment socially. Suddenly your plus one went missing and social events were now solo, where you felt very alone or on the prowl, neither of which she was, she reminded herself confidently.
No women for her for a while, she silently pledged. A long while. Parker told the group excitedly about the new warehouse space. Her friends were obviously happy to watch her animate over dinner—a first in months. The meal finished with fried ice cream and overstuffed groans; however, Parker suddenly felt like she could breathe.
The assembly leisurely wandered to the front door after paying the checks. Mack and Jen picked up Parker’s tab despite her fervent objections.
“We haven’t given you a congratulations present,” Mack announced. Parker gratefully accepted the gift without asking for clarification of whether they were congratulating her for leaving a cheating wife or buying a new home.
They walked the short block to the Pride Lounge, TPL to the regulars, for drinks and the inevitable people watching. The dark bar with its old-style marquis had been there for years, under many different names. It had always been a gay bar save one brief miscalculation by a DC businessman who’d bought the bar and intended to cater to a straight, over-forty clientele who would participate in salsa lessons and line-dancing groups. Apparently the gay community had not gotten the memo, or they just weren’t willing to read it. Regardless, the only people who showed up to dance at the new place were the old gay crowd.
The dark wood bar ran down half of the left side of the narrow building, leaving room at the back for a small makeshift dance floor and a hallway to single stall bathrooms, all gender neutral, deferring to those not willing to jump on the gender binary and pick a side. Parker appraised the scarce crowd dribbling in just after eight p.m. Several couples, obviously regulars, lined the bar and chatted up the bartender.
Parker surveyed a small group of women wearing plaid shirts and various iterations of cargo pants, sharing beers and a dartboard in the back corner. Parker’s crowd claimed the only remaining table at the side of the bar, near the dance floor. Parker threw in a ten when Richard rose to order a round of drinks. She relaxed into an incredibly good feeling of accomplishment and freedom while she appraised the crowd.
Parker stuck to her customary red wine and grimaced when Richard landed it in front of her, secretly lamenting the cheap plastic cup.
Two hours later, the bar had filled to capacity. Lights dimmed and the noise swelled. Parker saw clearly that at least a few singles had come shopping for an opportunity, and she watched the game they played for too few options.
Parker felt tipsy and wished she had eschewed the third hard plastic cup of wine. As she finished the last sip and stood to ask the bartender for a glass of ice water, she heard a loud cheer as “Y.M.C.A.” began to play and her four friends joined in the raucous choreographed dance with the throngs of other lounge patrons. She turned back to the table and fussed with the abandoned empty cups, dragging a napkin across small spills. She hoped to look busy enough to avoid participating.
Sydney Hyatt guided her black Porsche 911 into a miraculously vacant spot behind the Pride Lounge. Syd found herself there several nights a week, visiting with friends or making new ones, maybe.
She climbed out of the seat and, at a full six feet, towered over the convertible sports car. An answering chirp confirmed the locks engaged before she pushed the fob into her front pocket. She slid her long fingers into the waist of her jeans and behind the thick black belt pulling her T-shirt down to re-tuck it. Running her fingers through her very short black hair, she glanced at the reflection of the fresh cut in the car’s tinted vent window, the same cut her mother hated. Her mother never missed an opportunity to tell her she looked butch. Sydney mused that was the nicest thing she had said in a long time. Given she had looked more like a guy than a girl since she was a toddler, it was also fairly redundant. Syd thought to herself that her invitation to her mother’s Thanksgiving dinner would be lost in the mail again this year, and that she wasn’t at all sad about that.
Syd strode confidently into her second home, hearing several voices call her name over the music. She high-fived Tom and Adam who sat at the front of the bar and locked eyes with Steve, the bartender and her very good friend. After a long week and a lengthy work project, Syd planned to unwind with a double scotch and an anonymous woman pressed against her on the dance floor.
Syd had met Steve in a first-year computer engineering class. He’d dropped out after his second semester to pursue an artist named Matt, and Sydney had stayed in class to pursue an audio-visual engineering degree.
After fifteen years, the degree had paid off when she opened her own business, turning her once-casual hobby into a thriving entity and financial freedom. Syd used her talents to assist various law enforcement groups, attorneys, and non-profit justice groups digitally reenact crimes and crime scenes for judges and juries.
Steve had caught Matt in bed with his sister’s boyfriend, and he’d parlayed that into an ugly, sordid, and messy story of heartbreak and mistrust. After wallowing for what seemed like years, Steve landed the Pride Lounge bartending job, allowing him to flirt from a distance and turn down offers of any potential relationships from a safe place behind the bar.
Syd noticed Tim and Mike at the far end of the long expanse. She walked slowly toward them while scanning the crowd for old friends, new prospects, and women high on her list of people to avoid. Sydney knew she had a well-earned reputation for seducing women into bed after one drink and a few dances. Problems only arose when they failed to treat the encounter as casually as she had intended. When the night’s conquest expected a leisurely breakfast and a second date, she cut ties, blocked numbers, and feigned alcohol-related amnesia, even though she never had enough scotch to get even slightly tipsy.
On rare occasions when she would run into scorned one-nighters before the memories had completely faded, she would hide out in Steve’s office, emerging only when she got the all-clear text from her protective wingman.
Not my fault, she thought, knowing she had never promised anything more to any woman she met at the bar.
After years of watching her mother berate her father into an early grave, Syd had vowed at a young age that she wanted nothing to do with relationships. But for a nineteen-month exception with an older woman many years ago, a little libido relief was all she was after. It wasn’t like she didn’t deliver skills in return. She had been told more than a few times how good she was at the art of driving a woman to a very contented place.
When her scan produced no impending hazards, Syd made it over to a stool near Dominic and his twink of the week. Steve caught her eye as he slid a double scotch down the length of the thick varnished top where she caught it easily, replacing it with her credit card.
She rescanned the bar hoping to locate the next Ms. Hyatt of the moment. Her gaze landed on a petite brunette with a drop-dead figure nervously rearranging drinks on her table and wiping seemingly imaginary spills. Syd filed her away as an interesting prospect.
Parker noticed the club’s door open and admit an unusually tall, particularly androgynous woman. She sported military-short black hair that was a bit longer at the top, with the sides and back more closely cut. Her relaxed manner and walk were confident and her affect supremely comfortable. The woman crossed to the front end of the bar, just inside the door, where she high-fived the male couple seated there. A Cheers-style greeting was lofted across the lounge as several patrons yelled, “What’s up, Syd?”
She nodded to the bartender who raised his full hands in an awkward acknowledgment that her drink was already in the works. She strolled easily to the opposite end of the bar and caught a glass half full of amber liquid that he slid down the top at her. She nodded in thanks over the loud music and held up the black Amex she was exchanging for her order before dropping it on the worn surface.
She turned to scan the bar and the dance floor, perhaps looking for her friends or her date. Parker watched her before realizing she was staring. She appraised her dark jeans and tight black T-shirt which showed off her trim waist and obvious musculature. Her arms seemed to fight the fabric of her sleeves while the jeans molded perfectly to her sculpted thighs.
As the new arrival—Syd—spoke with a series of partiers, Parker quickly resumed moving the empties to the edge of her table. When she turned back toward the bar to order another water, she collided with Syd, who she was sure would have passed her by now. Parker’s shoulder was now jockeying for position with Syd’s well-defined biceps.
Parker spun quickly when she felt the impact. She looked up into the stranger’s dark eyes and flushed. She fought for breath, somehow unable to break from the very shadowy stare or cocky expression. Syd leaned in toward Parker. “Hey, sorry, honey, my fault.”
Parker, in an effort to recover, said, “No, it was my fault. I’m sorry I, uh, got in your way.” She felt silly stuttering at this woman with the deep husky voice.
Syd chuckled and squeezed Parker’s shoulder as she passed slowly behind her. “No worries, we’re all good.” Parker caught her breath again as she winked playfully at her. The latest song ended, giving way to a brief bout of voices yelling unlikely requests at the DJ.
Syd appeared amused by Parker’s stuttered apology which she waved away. Parker could swear she felt eyes at her back when she walked quickly to the bathroom line, any excuse to break from the uncomfortable interaction.
Parker glanced back toward the bar and noticed Syd still looking in her direction. Parker broke eye contact when she felt the heat rise in her cheeks, turning hastily to watch the small hallway.
“Perfect” by Doria Roberts descended over the crowd, encouraging close dancing. Parker noticed an abrupt change in tempo and thought the DJ must have also sensed the uncomfortable rise in ambient temperature. He announced, “Now for a good opportunity to get reacquainted with your man or woman.”
Jen jumped to her feet dragging Mack to the floor once again. As Parker stood at the back of the line, she absentmindedly stared at the couples swaying to the music. For the first time in a while, she did not feel nostalgic.
The fingers of her left hand grazed over rough denim and she jerked forward, suddenly afraid she had drifted into a dancing couple. Parker turned and looked up into Syd’s eyes. Syd leaned down and hot breath from her words fluttered around Parker’s ear.
“Why don’t you dance with me?” Syd suggested as she led Parker by the hand to the center of the floor, not waiting for an official answer.
As she allowed herself to be pulled into the dance, Parker hoped Syd hadn’t felt her shiver. She knew she’d seen the blush rise into her cheeks because they still burned.
Syd rested their now entwined fingers against her broad chest while her other hand glided across Parker’s lower back. The music, still slow, pulled Parker into the rhythm. The inner dialogue lobbing inside Parker’s head waffled between What the hell is happening? and Run very fast.
She looked up and found Syd staring down at her with an amused grin. Parker was not even ready to touch another person, let alone get caught up in a slow dance. She was still a bit light-headed, idly wondering how long they had been dancing. Parker swayed into the movement as her forehead was gently guided against her partner’s jaw. Parker’s breath caught in her throat again and goose bumps formed down her arms. She could smell Syd’s heady cologne and soap and scotch. What is it with me and scotch women? she asked herself wryly. Syd offered her a puzzled look as Parker suddenly pulled back, owing to an uncomfortable wave of panic. She backed away and found the dark eyes staring at her again. Pulling back farther, she watched a question form in those eyes.
Syd leaned into Parker’s ear. “It’s okay to dance, sweetheart.” She chuckled good-naturedly perceiving Parker’s confusion. “I promise I won’t ask you to marry me.”
Parker stepped away quickly and headed to rejoin the line for the bathroom which was now just her. Apparently her friends hadn’t noticed the exchange with Syd, and she looked intently at the floor between the toes of her shoes, silently praying for someone to leave a stall. Syd walked up behind her and placed strong hands on Parker’s small hips causing her to shiver at the sensation.
“Hey, I hope you’re all right. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
Her damn voice was deep and husky and smooth and her lips were really close to Parker’s neck. Stop, Parker told herself.
“You didn’t, I’m sorry, I’m just not ready,” she replied, scolding herself for sounding like a timid teenager and conveying much more than she had intended. The mere thought, even in jest, of marriage or anything requiring any such bout of blind trust felt like doors closing in a windowless room.
Syd raised both hands in mock surrender as she moved around to stand in front of Parker. Leaning down, she strained to be heard in the loud bar. She lightly placed a finger under Parker’s chin so she would look up, “Maybe next time, okay?”
“Yeah.” Parker nodded, knowing there wouldn’t be a next time.
Finally, a couple slunk out of the bathroom and Parker rushed in. She shut the door quickly, then leaned against it and hugged her arms tightly across her stomach in an attempt to quiet the butterflies doing a mad dance there. Taking a deep breath, she dabbed cold water on her clammy skin.
Get a grip, Duncan. She scolded herself for acting like a child. She imagined Syd must have thought that she was crazy.
Parker walked back to her table to rejoin her friends, intentionally avoiding the impulse to search the room for the very alluring Syd. She found the group talking quietly, their energy flagging.
Parker hoped they attributed her flushed complexion to the heat of all the gyrating bodies. Mack tilted her head and looked in Parker’s direction, sending her a quizzical look.
“You okay?” Jen mouthed across the table.
Parker nodded and waved away the question. The bar was now almost unbearably packed. Feeling a bit claustrophobic, she secretly wished she had opted for a looser pair of jeans instead of the tight ones now sticking to her thighs.
“I think it’s time.” Parker suggested that her worn out party-throwers give up and take her home.
“You sure you’re ready to go?” Allen asked.
“More than ready. I promise.” Parker stood as the group collected themselves and headed for the door. Parker refused to look back into the bar where she wondered if someone was watching her go.
Syd smiled cockily as she strolled across the floor in amused surrender. She did not need to beg for chicks to dance with her—hell, she barely had to ask. Regardless, she had placed her hands lightly on the stranger’s hips in the bathroom line, as much to stanch the obvious flight risk as, if she was being honest, to feel her again. Now as she turned back toward the bar, Syd felt soft hands glide around her waist. Bright fuchsia-tipped fingers looped behind her belt buckle possessively as she smelled vanilla and vodka.
“Dance, baby?” the pretty blonde cooed in Syd’s ear.
“After you, gorgeous,” Syd replied to the seductive woman who always seemed to have her focus on Sydney. She noted that the evening had taken a positive turn, even if it was the omnipresent Becky Weaver.
Syd inhaled Becky’s scent as she willingly swayed, pressing her hips not-so-subtly into Syd’s groin. They had done this dance before. Sydney would follow Becky to her car or, on two occasions, her apartment where she satisfied Becky’s obvious longing for Syd’s companionship.
Syd played the game for hours while the blonde clung to her side. Becky was forward, aggressive, and entirely too willing, but Syd gave in when her hands scratched down her neck. Syd felt Becky’s tongue drag between her lips and over her own. Becky ground into Sydney’s thigh and pressed her full breasts against her chest.
“Check, please,” Syd joked.
Becky practically fell over with her legs open when Syd suggested they go to her place for a nightcap. Syd was inexplicably disappointed when her scan of the brunette’s table revealed a new group and no sign of the blue eyes that had momentarily captured her attention. She forced herself to refocus on the foregone conclusion hanging on her arm.
Parker was quiet as Richard took the wheel as promised for the sober drive home. At just past midnight, Meridian Street was dark and quiet. She assured them that she was happy to slum it in the dirty loft instead of their guest room and dragged her suitcase over the walk to the building. Richard let the Jetta idle until Parker reached her unit and she waved them away.
She immediately climbed the stairs to the bathroom, hanging her stale-smelling clothes over the only towel rack. She brushed her teeth, careful not to actually touch the ancient rusty sink. Parker stood looking over the loft railing and admired the star-filled sky visible from her perch. She found herself replaying the encounter at the bar and shook her head, as if to dislodge the thoughts of the striking specimen who had made her behave like a scared adolescent.
She chided herself for entertaining the brief fantasy and padded down to add a bit more air to her inflatable mattress. Donning an oversized T-shirt, Parker made the best of her makeshift bed and crawled under the sleeping bag. At some point in the night, she heard someone issue a warning shhh at a giggle from another, as the door across the hall scraped open and then shut again.
Parker shifted in an attempt to get comfortable and briefly contemplated the moxie of inflatable bed companies who charged a fairly exorbitant amount for their product, yet never seemed to improve on quality or comfort. In the end, people paid hundreds of dollars for a glorified pool float. She fell fitfully asleep.