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Copyright ©2013 J.S. Wayne
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"Sherry! Hey, Sherry!"
Sheridan Travers winced. Tightening her grip on the loaded grocery cart, she looked resolutely forward and quickened her pace, praying the all-too-familiar voice behind her was hailing someone else.
If he's not, he's in for a nasty awakening, she thought darkly.
"Sherry! Come on, wait up!"
The voice drew closer, taking on a distinct whining note. She fixed her expression in a mask of pleasant neutrality and stopped in her tracks.
Sharp clacks rang off the asphalt as the soles of polished wingtips struck them. She didn't need to turn to see her pursuer. Murray Young wouldn't dare be seen in public without being freshly shaved and dressed to the nines, no matter what time of day it was. His Tanino Crisci Lilians would be shined to a patent leather gloss, the creases in his tailored slacks would be sharp enough to aid in major surgery, and he wouldn't have so much as one corn silk strand of hair out of place.
She mentally squared her shoulders and prepared for another in a six-month series of skirmishes. Of all the days for Murray to start up his feeble attempts at courtship again, he'd have been hard pressed to pick a worse one. Sheridan's head pounded furiously and her feet ached savagely from spending the day running up and down stairs in pumps. She hadn't eaten all day and the only thing that sounded remotely good was also better than three hours away, in Cedar City.
Sometimes she wished she'd stayed in the picturesque little mountain town. If nothing else, she was pretty sure Murray Young didn't have any clones there.
"Hey! How are you doing?" Murray asked from just over her right shoulder.
She managed not to flinch, but it was a close call. Turning, she allowed a pleasant fantasy of Murray getting run over by a truck to drag the corners of her mouth up into an insincere smile.
"Hi, Murray." She silently congratulated herself on how flat and neutral her voice sounded.
"I was hoping to catch you before you left the office, Sherry. I wanted to ask you if you'd like to go out for drinks."
"As in, I wanted to but then I changed my mind?" She couldn't resist the gibe.
Murray forced a smile, although his right eyelid twitched slightly. She recognized his signature tell of exasperation, and had to fight to keep from laughing out loud.
"No, Sherry," he said with exaggerated patience. "I wanted to, but you left." He inflected the last word in a way that conjured a mind-movie of a three-year-old throwing a tantrum because Mommy wouldn't let him have any more candy.
"I wasn't feeling well, Murray. And I've told you time and time again, my name is Sheridan."
"Sheridan sounds so cold. So... remote. Sherry sounds warmer, friendlier. You can curl up with a nice glass of sherry, but you can't do that with Sheridan."
Like I have any intention of curling up with you.
Instead of laughing in his face or snarling out her thoughts, she settled for her best rushed demeanor. "Glad we got that sorted out. I have to go, Murray. I have plans." A bottle of Merlot from the state liquor store, a midnight jazz playlist, and a long, hot bubble bath followed by a short, cold shower sounded like heaven. Best of all, Murray wouldn't be there.
"Really? Is there any chance I could get you to change them?" He peered at her under long eyelashes, the precise symmetry of his face taking on a boyish, almost mischievous air.
He wasn't a bad-looking man, but seemed soft somehow, despite his oft-repeated announcements of how many hours a week he spent at the local gym. There was something about him that announced to the whole immediate world that he was far more interested in appearances than substance, from his flashy clothes to his personal-trainer-sculpted body. Between that and the fact his shoes alone cost more than half her wardrobe had, she wasn't interested. The obvious display of family money turned her off, and his political ambition to become the next Democratic contender from the district for the State House the following year made him even less interesting.
Sheridan found most politics deadly boring at best and sleazy at worst. Despite her low opinion of the legal profession in general owing to her bitter personal experience, she still considered attorneys two steps up the social ladder from politicians, who she generally filed a step and a half below pond scum. Murray wasn't at all subtle about what he saw in her. If he had his way, she would wind up as a trophy wife, a blonde, tall, pretty woman who wasn't so attractive she would offend female voters, eliminating any concerns from the factionalized elements in Utah politics. Even better, as an outsider, she would be expected to sit down, look pretty and decorative, and do little to nothing else.
No thanks. She'd had enough of that from Richard to last her a lifetime and several more besides. "I don't think so, Murray. And please don't mispronounce my name again."
A deep scarlet flush crept from the collar of his lilac shirt up into his cheeks. "I wasn't mispronouncing it. I was trying to show you how special I think you are."
She sucked in a deep breath in preparation to really let him have it, but backed down. "Murray, let me give you a tip. Women don't like to have their names mangled. Even if I knew you a lot better, I'd still insist you call me Sheridan, and you would do it because it's polite, respectful, and I asked you to."
His mouth twisted down into a grimace and his hands clawed at his sides. Sheridan instinctively flinched back a little, long experience with such body language warning her to expect a strike.
"Dammit, Sherry! What do I have to do --"
"Is there a problem here?"
Murray flinched as if someone had dumped ice water on him, the anger in his face draining to an emotion that wasn't quite fear, but lived in the same zip code. Sheridan turned to see who had knocked Murray so badly off his stride.
For a moment she was looking directly into the setting sun, which dazzled her so much she could only make out a dark silhouette. She blinked furiously and through light-induced tears fought to get a better look at the newcomer.
The acrid smell of cigarette smoke mixed with a subtle sandalwood scent and the warm, friendly aroma of leather wafting from the stranger. Murray would never wear cologne so overt, and as far as Sheridan knew he'd never touched a cigarette in his life.
As her eyes cleared, she thought, Whoa!
The stranger stood less than an inch taller than she did, even taking into account the leather hat surrounded by a band of what looked like snakeskin and semiprecious gemstones. His dark brown coat eddied in the sharp, cool breeze. Beneath his hat, shoulder-length bronze hair caught the wind and fluttered delicately around his face. His face wasn't particularly remarkable, or ugly, or attractive. It was a plain, honest face adorned only with a goatee grown two weeks past respectability and perhaps two days' worth of stubble. Without an unusually handsome or hideous face to distract the onlooker, his eyes gleamed brilliant blue, like flawless sapphires in a plain setting, the better to allow the viewer to appreciate the beauty of the jewels. Those eyes blazed with barely restrained anger.
"What do you want, Wilson?" Murray snapped.
The stranger lifted his left hand to his mouth. A deep red glow suffused his face for a moment before he lowered the cigarette and exhaled out the left side of his mouth, which was furthest from Sheridan and conveniently aimed downwind. "Ma'am, is this gentleman bothering you?" Despite the anger on his face, his voice, a deep tenor or light baritone with a slight hint of a Texas accent, was low and gentle.
"No, uh -- Wilson? No, Murray and I were just talking."
Wilson digested this with a slow series of nods. "Uh huh. Just talking." He mused on that for a moment. "Didn't look like a terribly civil discussion, if you don't mind me saying so, ma'am."
Murray broke in, his chest pushed out almost to bursting. "Wilson, no one wants you here. You're a troublemaker and a genuine problem for the law-abiding people of this town. We tolerate you only because you don't go sticking your nose in other people's business. I suggest you get on out of here and leave us to our private discussion."
Wilson cut his eyes over to Sheridan. "Ma'am?"
From anyone else that many ma'ams in a row, especially to a woman who was probably at least five years his junior, would have sounded condescending as hell. When this man said it, he did so without a trace of irony and no indication that he was anything less than perfectly sincere. Whoever and whatever else he was, he was certainly polite.
Which was more than she could say for Murray.
She made a snap decision, knowing if she'd guessed wrong there was a parking lot full of people who could help her or at least dial 911. "I'll see you at work tomorrow, Murray," she said.
"I -- uh, I -- have a good night, Sheridan." His voice warped with a mix of anger and dread.
"You too." Without a backward glance she started walking again. Behind her and one step to her right, a series of dull thumps told her the stranger was keeping pace. He didn't speak, seeming content simply to shadow her without trying to make small talk.
"You don't have to follow me, you know," she remarked three steps later.
"I know that, ma'am. I mean no disrespect." A faint note of dry humor darted through the undertone of his words. "If it helps, think of me as goon repellent. Besides, that's a fair stack of groceries you have there. I'd consider it a personal favor if you'd let me help you load them into your car, ma'am."
She thought it over for a moment. Something told her if she refused Wilson's help, he'd be gracious about it, possibly even give her a tip of his leather hat before he walked away to go about his own interrupted business. Nothing in his voice or demeanor suggested he would be anything less than a perfect gentleman.
More than anything else, that decided the matter.