Jeff Glanton rubbed his cramping hand and flexed his scrolling finger before settling his palm over the mouse again. He should’ve quit after that last game of Solitaire, but no way was he leaving the Lost Highway Tavern’s little back office.
Hidden back here, he could wait out the clock without being bothered by any stragglers begging for one more drink after last call. His closing bartender, Stephie, was more than capable of wrapping up. And once the place was locked up, he’d be wrapping up with her. After tonight, he wouldn’t see her again until Thursday.
Five days without that sweet honey is too long to wait.
The thought of going home to his wife barely crossed his mind. Now that football season was over, Jeff didn’t have an easy excuse for coming home extra late. Linda would be expecting him no later than three a.m., but that would still give him and Stephie enough time for a quick one.
Jeff’s fingers twitched at the idea of her smooth, dark thighs gripped in his hands and him holding her ass up against the old wooden tavern bar.
Brushing down his mustache and beard, he glanced once more at the wall clock.
Eureka…two a.m. on the dot. Bar’s closed, folks. Stephie’s legs, open for me only.
He shut down his computer mid-game and tucked his button-down back in, happy to show off the twenty pounds he’d lost in the months since he’d had Stephie’s kisses for inspiration. Why she’d fallen for a man near twenty years her senior, he couldn’t say…but he wasn’t about to complain.
Outside his office, he leaned against the bar proper and enjoyed the view of Stephie ushering out their last patron, old Rodney Cambers.
“You go on home, Rodney. Take it slow, and don’t go trying to sleep in our doorway again, you hear?”
Rodney patted at his coat, mumbling something about his phone. “Where…where’d I put it? Gotta call…call a cab.”
“You want me to call one for you?” Stephie was patient as the day was long.
Still fumbling at his pockets, Rodney turned to face her. “No, no, you go…you close up, Stephie. Pretty Stephie, you just do what you gotta do. I’m sure I got my phone somewhere.”
“Okay, then. We’ll see you again. Maybe tomorrow night.”
The old soak staggered to one side, then made it to the coatrack near the front door. Stephie waited, arms crossed, making her breasts nice and perky. If she intended for any man to get a move on while striking that pose, she was sorely mistaken. Rodney cast an appreciative eye, and Jeff frowned at the man.
No question about it, Stephie was the centerpiece of the place. His place. The long line of booths along his left seemed more luxurious, the shining bar to his right more dapper, just because Stephie Jones was centered right between them. She looked extra good tonight. Tight, high-waisted jeans that were acid-washed in a way that took him right back to his heyday, and a V-cut sweater that might just be deep enough for him to…
“Hey, Jeff, I thought you’d left.” She offered a half-cocked grin as Rodney took his sweet time buttoning up his coat. “Weren’t you here at opening too?”
He sucked in what remained of his gut and made eyes back at her. “Couldn’t leave without saying good night to my favorite bartender.”
Stephie’s skin was too dark to show a blush from where he stood, but her cheeks appled up in pleasure. To hurry Rodney along, she pressed the door open, letting the cold air in. Their last patron was still a little too focused on Stephie’s cleavage to avoid fumbling his coat buttons.
I don’t blame him, really. I sure can’t resist her.
But he needs to get the hell out.
As they released Rodney into the D.C. night, Jeff felt the blast of cold from outside and couldn’t help thinking about Linda, no doubt nestled up in their big bed back home. Asleep, utterly trusting, and still in love with him. He loved her, too, he honestly did.
But Stephie was something else. Whether he called it a midlife crisis or a lapse in sanity, either way…he just couldn’t resist the girl. How many forty-five-year-old bar owners got the chance to have sex with a hot girl in her mid-twenties?
Hell, he owed it to other middle-aged men to take advantage of the opportunity and score one for his kind. Every chance he got.
Plus, she’d come on to him.
That was how he remembered it, at least.
Stephie flipped the dead bolt and turned around with an exaggerated shiver, lips pursed to blow some of her soft brown curls out of her face. “You should be home. You know I can close up for you.”
He shrugged and moved sideways to begin wiping down the bar, plucking a rag from the end rack. “Two sets of hands make light work. And besides, if we finish fast…”
“Oh…” Her smile faltered, one red nail scratching at her temple. She moved over to pick up glasses from one of the booths. “I ran into Linda at the store a few days ago, and I just…” She glanced at him over her shoulder but didn’t meet his gaze. “I feel terrible about what we’ve been doing.”
Hearing Linda’s name out of Stephie’s mouth was about the last thing he wanted, but Jeff forced himself to keep wiping down the bar. Sure, he was an idiot to be screwing around with an employee, and it would blow up in his face at some point…but not tonight.
Please, to all things good and holy remaining to middle-aged men who need a break in this life, not tonight.
“No, Jeff, seriously.” She bustled over with the glasses, dropped them into the sink, and went back around the bar for another armful. “I still love you. That’s not the problem. I do. But seeing Linda, having to smile and pretend like I wasn’t just using her man for some sweet loving the night before…I don’t know what to do.”
The little tremor in her voice shouldn’t have made his dick harder, but it did. He dropped the dish towel and went around the bar. Without giving her time to argue, he took the glasses from her and set them back down in a booth.
“Stephie, honey, things have a way of working themselves out. Let’s just be together tonight.” He twisted some curls away from her face, back behind her ear, and let his fingers trail down the dark stretch of her neck to the edge of her sweater. “How about we go in the back and—”
“Would you leave her?” She lifted her chin. “For me?”
He blinked. “What?”
The overhead amber lights of the bar glowed a little brighter around him, serving as a spotlight on her impromptu interrogation instead of as ambience. He clicked his teeth together, fussing with her hair.
She wanted him to leave Linda. For her.
Man alive, was she serious?
“I can’t keep sneaking around like this.” Stephie’s eyes went a little wider, and one of her hands trailed along his arm. She was doing it on purpose, he knew, but that didn’t make her easier to resist. “Seeing you mostly after hours or on the occasional lunch hour before my shift. And if we love each other…”
Jeff’s mind sputtered, but he aimed for distraction, one hand sliding under her sweater above her hips. Her skin is so fucking smooth. Don’t let this end yet. “Honey, you’re not making this easy on me.” He pulled her in closer, breathing into her ear in the way that drove her crazy.
She shivered in his hands, giggling. “Jeff, come on. Seriously. You must’ve thought about it.”
A loud knock sounded at the front door—probably Rodney coming back to ask them to call a cab after all.
The knock came again, louder and insistent. If it was Rodney, well, he’d get a cab along with an earful from Jeff for interrupting his and Stephie’s conversation.
“Hold on, honey. That’s gotta be Rodney come back for a cab.”
This’ll give me time to think too, so maybe I owe Rodney some thanks instead of a kick up his backside. Leave Linda? Fucking hell.
Any other night, he would’ve yelled out that the Lost Highway Tavern was closed and told the guy to get lost, and then he’d have pulled Stephie back to the couch in his office and gotten cozy. But she didn’t seem up for cozying tonight—anything but, if her mind was on love, dammit—and he could use the distraction of whatever this was.
Rodney knocked again as Jeff approached.
Behind him, Stephie asked, “Are you sure we should—”
“It’s okay,” he waved a hand behind him, hushing her, “he probably just remembered he left his phone at home.”
On the other side of the stained glass, Rodney leaned heavily against the door and banged on it again with a fist. The pounding just about jarred the picture beside the door loose from the wall, jiggling it on its nail. A real annoyance crept into Jeff now.
Damn drunk. Even if he’s our most regular of regulars, I might need to ban him for a week. Wake his dumb ass up that we aren’t his damn servants.
Sighing, Jeff flipped the dead bolt back and opened the door several inches. “Rodney, give it a rest will—”
The man shoved open the door. Jeff stumbled backward, the momentum nearly knocking him on his ass. The vagrant—definitely not Rodney—was inside and closing the door before Jeff could think to say anything.
Behind them, Stephie was hollering about them being closed and for the guy to get the hell back out on the street.
The stranger muttered something, stumbling a few steps closer and weaving a bit on his feet. Drunk or dazed or high or something. But his face was distorted, weirdly obscured.
Fucking hell. He’s wearing a ski mask. A beige ski mask that Jeff had mistaken for pale skin in the dim light.
Jeff’s heart stuttered a beat, his feet growing leaden where he stood. “Man, whatever you want, whatever it is you’re here for, let’s don’t—”
The man’s muttering got louder, and the stranger swayed on his feet, stuffing a hand into his coat pocket.
Jeff shuffled backward and bumped into Stephie.
He darted a glance over his shoulder. She stepped back against the tall barrier between two booths, hugging herself. “Get him out of here. The dude isn’t right.”
“It’ll be okay, honey.” He turned back to the intruder. “Hey, man. We’re closed. As in shut down for the night. You need to leave, or I’m calling the cops.”
The guy was within arm’s reach now, and some of his muttering became clear.
Bible verses? Guy pushes in here at two a.m. to spout Bible verses? This fucking city, man.
Jeff’s fists clenched. He’d thought the man’s mask meant something nefarious, but it didn’t. This guy was probably just one of those religious nuts who came to town in a tent and caused trouble. He’d come to the wrong place tonight.
“I know the scriptures, man.” Jeff held his hands up in a loose boxer’s stance, ready to snap out a jab if it came to that. He stepped closer. “No need to preach to us.”
The guy kept going, over and over with the same lines of verse. Jeff recognized it finally.
“That’s the one about false prophets, right? Prophets who show up in sheep’s clothing but are actually wolves? That what you’re doing here? Coming in to be a wolf? You picked the wrong bar, man, so get the fuck out.”
Jeff shot out a hand at the guy’s chest, open-palmed to shove him backwards. But he was weirdly fast and dodged to the side, twisting away from Jeff’s reach.
The guy growled and lurched forward. “Ravenous wolves.”
“Same difference, bozo. I said get—” Jeff’s words died off at the sight of a gun.
The guy waved it between them, swaying on his feet again. Stephie shrieked and cried Jeff’s name.
Now or never, old man. Prove you still got that football energy.
Jeff lunged with the intention of tackling the man to the ground and taking the gun.
The thunderclap of the weapon firing nearly ripped away his hearing.
Stephie’s screaming fought to be heard over the gunshot.
Jeff’s thigh burned with an agony that beat the time he’d popped a knee out of place. He felt like his leg was being clamped down in a vise, and he was on the ground without any way to get back up or defend himself.
Clutching his thigh, he let a roar rip from his throat as blood covered his hands, the sticky liquid already spreading on the old hardwood flooring. Sound was all muffled, a mix of thumps and Stephie’s shrill screaming. Another gunshot broke the air, and Jeff sensed her land on the floor beside him, crying out in agony.
He shot Stephie. Dammit, he shot Stephie.
Jeff released his thigh and tried to pull himself backward, crabbing his way toward her, but his blood-slick hands slipped on the floors.
The man stepped on his ankle, stopping his awkward attempt to get to Stephie.
“Turn around. And then kneel.”
This can’t be happening. This cannot be happening.
“Mister, you don’t—”
“Turn now. Kneel.”
The second command hit Jeff in a way the first hadn’t, and he forced himself to turn around, spinning in the slippery trails of blood.
He stared back toward the office where he had a pistol in the top drawer of his desk. That was where he kept it because he didn’t trust his other idiot bartender not to drop it and shoot his foot off. But even if it had been behind the bar, that would’ve been too far off as well.
No way could he get to it in time. Not with a gun already pointed at his back.
Fuck, but this can’t be happening. Not like this.
“You too. Let’s go.”
And there was Stephie, sobbing and with one arm hanging limply by her side. She did as the stranger said, both of them kneeling now. Jeff was emotionally numb, but his leg screamed for attention.
“Close your eyes and pray.” The voice behind them was a little clearer now, as if the speaker had gained some focus in the time it had taken for them to kneel.
Jeff’s thigh throbbed, pulsing hot, and he imagined the stranger’s command vibrating through his bloodstream, pushing more and more blood out until he had none left.
Nearly entranced, Jeff gazed down at the floor where Stephie’s blood—his sweet, hot Stephie’s crimson-red blood—was drip-dripping onto his own, mingling, the puddle expanding, soaking the knees of their jeans. Someone could’ve been sawing his leg off right now, and it wouldn’t have hurt more.
Beside him, Stephie had one hand balled up in front of her chest, while the other hung uselessly. She was praying, “Hail, Mary…” like a good girl.
But Jeff couldn’t form the words himself, only stare. This couldn’t be happening. Not in his own damn bar beside his own sweet Stephie.
Another heavy footstep signaled their stranger stepping closer, and Jeff was just about to give him the safe’s combination, before the man screamed. “Get behind me, Satan!”
Linda’s face appeared in his mind. I’m so sorry, sweet—
The world exploded, burning like fire, then all went dark.
With one foot stepped forward and her back heel pressed into the mat, Special Agent Emma Last tightened her core and lifted her arms skyward like she was directing an airplane to its arrival gate. She faltered, nearly toppling sideways as she overcompensated, toes clenching on her yoga mat.
The warrior one pose was killing her. So much for being a modern-day warrior for the FBI. Barefoot and swaying side to side against gravity’s pull, Emma focused on her breathing. Her fellow practitioners all stood so firm and steady, Emma swore she was the only one struggling.
Or there’s an earthquake happening under the little square of floor I’m on and nowhere else in here.
She knew that wasn’t it, of course. Her inability to avoid wobbling every which way was just due to her being a novice. Suck it up, Emma girl.
It was also because of her inner turmoil, she knew. Why had she developed the habit of talking through her problems out loud? At the office? Where Leo could hear every damn word?
Breathing deeply, she attempted to erase the memory of Leo’s face as he overheard her talking about her dead mother and the Other.
Seriously? How could she be so stupid?
Maybe it was because she hadn’t spoken to Marigold in close to a week. The Other occupied more of Emma’s attention than she’d like, and talking to the psychic was like opening a valve, releasing the pressure.
You gotta call her soon, Emma girl. Or you’re going to end up falling on your ass on this yoga mat and making even more of a fool of yourself.
“Remember your power,” Oren said, returning her focus to the present.
Oren, Yoga Map’s owner and most sought-after instructor, looked damn good rotating into warrior two, presenting his chest to his admiring students. He spread his arms straight as rails and gazed out over his forward hand. Oren’s unruly brown hair was tousled in a way that Emma imagined it would look after sex.
They hadn’t, of course, had sex.
They hadn’t quite gotten that far. Not with her work schedule.
“Focus, everyone. Deep breath in, settle into your stance. If you’re struggling to stay balanced, concentrate on opening your hips. Use your core to lift your torso upright and press into the mat with your feet.”
He turned his head so he could examine the room, checking each of his students in turn. His gaze spent a bit more time on Emma’s form, and she blushed. She also attempted to open her hips by tightening her core, lifting her chest, and digging in with her heels and toes on the mat.
“There you go, Emma.”
Oren’s words of encouragement nearly toppled her all over again, but she held firm, letting a smile curl her mouth.
Emma breathed deep alongside Sandra, the redhead to her right, and possibly the only other student who had trouble staying steady. Oren relaxed from his pose and began roaming the room, guiding them all to move from warrior two into triangle pose.
Here and there, he stopped to offer adjustments or suggestions. Emma swiveled into the new pose, reaching out with her upraised hand and pressing down with both feet. She closed her eyes—taking her view away from her handsome man for a few seconds—and worked to clear her head. Steadier in her pose, she tried to focus on her breathing as Oren coached them all to stay still, stay centered.
I can do this. Just gotta practice relaxing.
Not that having her legs spread and her arms perpendicular to the floor felt quite relaxing. Yet. But she was getting there, with Oren’s help.
For him, she could even ignore the ghosts lurking around the studio, popping in from the Other. For Oren, she could get used to anything.
Oren moved sideways out of Emma’s vision. “Focus on your breathing. Ignore me.”
Breathing deep, Emma fought to center herself on her mat, doing her best to ignore Oren’s steady pacing through the room as he adjusted everyone. All she had to do was breathe and concentrate. And ignore the grouchy old ghost in the corner.
Unable to help herself, she glanced Grumpy’s way. His one pleasure in the Other seemed to be giving her the evil eye. Always there in his garland pose, scowling and sometimes even growling. She’d almost have preferred it if the old grouch just cursed at her or at least told her what his problem was. Instead, he just acted like Yoga Map’s own personal gargoyle sent to put a damper on her morning.
One of these days, I’ll have to tease his identity out of Oren. Without making myself look the fool if at all possible.
Oren’s voice rumbled over the room, coming from the back now. “Let’s move through a Vinyasa into child’s pose now. Remember to be gentle with yourself. Good. Now lower your knees to your mat and stretch your spine but be aware of your limits. Be gentle. Gentle like a parent with a child.”
Emma could manage this transition just fine without the benefit of an extra concession made for her relative beginner status. But once she had her face to the mat, a pleasant ache spread across her back and into her arms as she stretched her hands forward.
As Oren went on about the elasticity of a child and the safety of a parent’s loving arms, Emma couldn’t help thinking about her mother.
Every night, her mother’s warning echoed in her head. She couldn’t walk across her apartment without hearing that still-so-recognizable shrill cry. “Get out of here! She can see you!” Even now, just the thought of the panic in that voice left Emma’s throat dry.
Her mother’s panic bleeding into her own—
“Breathe, Emma.” Oren’s hand came down on Emma’s back. “Slow and steady. Whatever you’re thinking about, let it go. Focus on breathing.”
His hand was warm against her cotton top, calming. She nodded, doing her best to follow his instructions.
Channeling her mother’s panic wouldn’t do anyone any good.
As Oren moved on, Emma allowed her focus to split, because despite how she was supposed to let the outside world go when she entered this studio, the Other didn’t want to give her any breaks. The real world with its guns and criminals around so many corners wasn’t forgiving either.
The problem was, Emma had no earthly—or Otherly—idea of who “she” could be. Her mom’s warning had been maddeningly unspecific, despite the desperation. And why would some random ghost have it out for Emma anyway?
Not like the ghosts will tell me either.
Emma hadn’t given up on demanding answers from residents of the Other, but she was getting close to doing so. The ghosts who’d intruded on their last case by spouting tattoo stories had, arguably, been helpful, but only in a way that suggested they’d also been bending over backward to be cryptic. And Emma and her team could damn well solve cases without ghosts chitchatting in riddles at every turn.
She couldn’t stop herself from tilting her head, glancing toward the grouchy old man lurking in the corner once again. This was the ghost she’d seen her first day at Yoga Map, but his demeanor hadn’t changed. Unlike the majority of ghosts she met, who just seemed terrified, Grumpy was pissed, ready to blow. Ironic, given the environment.
And no way did Grumpy McYoga seem like he’d help her navigate her issues with the Other.
“All right, everyone.” Oren had landed back at the front of the classroom. “We’re nearing the end of class for today. When you’re ready, lift yourself out of child’s pose and come up to kneeling, then slowly lie back into a healthy corpse pose.”
Despite the name, Emma loved the final resting pose. Lying flat on her back, letting all the stress and strain slip away from her, Savasana was its own special type of perfect.
After what felt like only a minute of lying still, a quiet chime sounded from the front of the room, signaling ten minutes had passed.
“Great work today. Remember, your yoga practice doesn’t have to end when you leave the studio. Keep breathing and stay hydrated.”
Oren held the door open as his students departed one by one, taking their rolled-up mats with them. Just over two dozen women had shown up that day, most of them pretty advanced and all of them making googly eyes at Oren. But unless Emma started splurging on hiring Oren to do private yoga sessions in the middle of the night, which she actually might consider, this class suited her schedule the best.
Emma lingered behind, taking her time rolling up her mat. She met Oren near the front of the studio where she’d dropped her water bottle and shoes next to his duffel bag. He squinted at her a bit too knowingly. This close, she could see the lightest sheen of sweat on his forehead.
“You’re doing well, but your breathing was pretty heavy in child’s pose. Everything okay? Another case?”
Oren had asked the last bit more softly, clearly offering an ear more than demanding answers. For once, though, she could answer in the negative. And with a smile. “Not yet. Just…my brain. It’s been racing since the start. Isn’t this supposed to be meditative?”
He grinned, winking at her as if he could read right through to her thoughts on midnight yoga sessions—very intimate midnight yoga sessions.
Emma’s cheeks warmed, but she shook off the blush. Now was not the time, not with another class coming up in just a few minutes. Students had already begun arriving and rolling out their mats in a grid pattern.
Oren sipped his water, eyes remaining on hers long enough to heighten the blood in her cheeks. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Quieting the mind takes practice.”
And probably a simpler life too.
Not that there was any chance of that happening anytime soon.
Oren chuckled, then sighed right along with her when her phone pinged from the bench.
She picked it up to find what she’d known she would…Jacinda’s serious face above a text telling her to get to the office. They had a new case to greet the new week.
“Before you leave…” Reading the moment, Oren had turned away to reach into his bag, interrupting her excuse before she could make it. “Tell me what you think of the new flyer?”
He held up a sheet of paper featuring his own smiling face. Below his image, it read, Blaze a trail to your inner spirit at the Yoga Map. The address and website for the studio were just below that, but it was Oren’s smile that made the flyer a standout.
Emma gazed back at him, unable to hide her own grin. “You look great, Oren. I’m sure you’ll bring in lots of,” she paused playfully, “students with that smile.”
The man had the grace to look embarrassed. “Well, I’m glad you like it.”
Emma came perilously close to giggling before holding up her phone. “I’m sorry, really, but no matter how handsome you look, I’ve got to go.”
He leaned in a bit, speaking more softly. “I understand. I’m just glad you found the time to come to class this morning. Perhaps we’ll get to meet somewhere else.”
“And see each other soon regardless.” Emma smiled, making sure he heard the sincerity in her words before she slipped on her shoes and turned away. Butterflies tickled her stomach in a manner that hadn’t happened in ages.
One way or another, this guy was far too good for her, and she intended to find a way to keep him in her life. If anything, or anyone, could force her into figuring out a better work-life balance and making room for a future for herself, it was Oren Werling.
My very own handsome yogi. Now to solve this case and make some real time for him. And then maybe solve the Other and figure out my team, at which point we’ll be all set for all sorts of midnight yoga sessions.
Very, very private yoga sessions.
Emma blushed from the images in her head, not the cold wind, as she let the door to Yoga Map close behind her.
Hate the sin. Kill the sinner.
Special Agent Emma Last knows that Leo Ambrose is watching her closely. Her fellow agent suspects she’s different, that something strange is happening to her. She can feel his questions in the air between them. She’s not ready to answer them, though, and is happy when a new case diverts his attention.
It’s a bad day when blood and death is easier to discuss than the truth.
A bar owner and a bartender, embroiled in a secret affair, are found shot execution style shortly after closing time. Security footage reveals the perp forcing his victims to their knees before taking their lives. With only a Bible verse left behind, the religious undertone is unmistakable…Read More