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A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

Ivory

Copyright © 2017 by J. Rocci

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2017

Edited by: Amanda

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com

Printed in the USA

Second Edition, December, 2017

First Edition, Torquere Press, 2010


Warning: This book contains sexually explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers, and depictions of toxic/abusive parental relationship, suicidal ideation, and depression.

Ivory

J. Rocci




Table of Contents

Ivory

About the Author



“—is a very influential woman who is a close friend of Dr. Mathews. Bradley? Are you still there?”

Bradley made an affirmative noise in his throat, adjusting his reading glasses as he turned a page in the patient file spread across his desk.

“I said that Mrs. Ambrose is a close friend of Dr. Mathews. Bradley, you need to secure this invitation if you want to join—”

He let his mother continue on speakerphone as he studied the latest blood panel results. A little girl, age nineteen months, neuroblastoma. Her response to chemotherapy was not what he’d been hoping for, but with children especially, every cancer case was unique. He dragged one of his reference books across his desk and started flipping through it.

“—that noise? Bradley?”

“Yes, Mother, I am,” he responded absently, pulling out his sticky notes.

“It’s getting late, darling. Why are you still at the office?” she asked with a sigh in her cultured tones. She was nearing sixty but looked and sounded as though she were still in her mid-forties. She had guided Bradley’s father through social galas, philanthropic work, and maintaining the proper connections, and now Bradley bore the brunt of her energies as she attempted to groom him to become the chair of the hospital board.

Thirty-four years old and he had learned to rebel in small ways.

“Mother,” he said gently, “I’m almost finished here, then I’ll head out.”

“Ah yes, your Tuesday dinner with Brianna,” she said with an undertone of satisfaction. “Please give her my regards, darling.”

“I will. Goodnight, Mother.” He disconnected and returned the phone to its customary position under several medical journals.

Checking his watch, he pushed away from his desk and headed for the door, pausing only to return the stray toys on his carpet to the basket on his bookshelf. The pictures of patients and their families on the shelves always made him smile.

Scrubbing tiredly at his face, he strode down the hall to the elevator banks and debated getting a cup of coffee from the cafeteria but ultimately decided against it. He’d be fine.

Only one of the four night-shift nurses was sitting behind the children’s oncology station when Bradley arrived. He waved and she blushed, looking down at her desk.

“Oh, Dr. Durrant,” Glen said, glancing up again. “Monica left a note for you on Room 342.”

He slowed down. “Is it urgent?”

“No, her parents have requested a visit in the morning, after your rounds.”

He nodded. “Let them know that I’ll stop by, please.”

She grinned at him and he gave a halfhearted smile before continuing to the recreation room. Visiting hours and rec time were long past, but Bradley didn’t need more than the light of the city streets outside to navigate the room.

His objective gripped firmly in one hand, he went to see his nightly “problem” patient.

He popped his head around the privacy curtain in Room 355. Sure enough, Mrs. Lewkowski was snoring in her cot, exhausted, and a pair of bored seven-year-old eyes blinked at him from the hospital bed.

“Hey there,” Bradley whispered. “You up for company?”

Tommy nodded eagerly. “Yeah. What do you have tonight?”

The drugs always affected kids differently. Tommy had the worst of it in the evenings, when he’d get restless and was prone to making a fuss, which could set off half the floor. His parents traded off nights at the hospital so someone was always home with Tommy’s brother and sisters. Tommy had a clip-on book light and comic books for when he couldn’t settle down, but even with palliative care, the pain could be taxing on a kid.

If Bradley could be a distraction for a couple hours a night to let either parent rest, he considered it part of maintaining his patient’s overall health.

“How are you at Uno?” he asked conspiratorially, tucking himself in the visitor’s chair and ready to stay for a while.



The next week, Bradley was early to Ivoire for once. He came to the restaurant every Tuesday evening—when he couldn’t find a reason to excuse himself—for a standing date with his fiancée. Same restaurant, same table, same inane chatter.

There was some charity ball Brianna wanted to discuss with him this time. He’d relented to dinner, and she’d smiled with his brother and his mother, and they had proceeded to plan his schedule uninterrupted. Brianna was the perfect trophy, and if his life were easy, he could love her.

But if he had learned one thing, it was that his life would never be easy. That wasn’t the Durrant way.

He had been using Brianna for years, and she had been all too willing to comply. All she had to do was provide the façade, that respectable façade, and he would provide the bankroll to supplement her hefty trust fund. She would keep herself pretty, and he would buy her pretty things. He would cart her around and show her off, and all her friends could be jealous she had found herself a nice secured future. All she had to do was accommodate the freak. Make him seem normal.

So he hated his life, hated himself, hated her smile and perfume and perfect manners, but never her.

Because she deserved better. She deserved someone who could love her. Not this sham. Not someone cold and torn and wondering how much longer he could drag his seventeen-hour workday out when he knew full well she was sitting at the restaurant he preferred, checking the watch he hadn’t given her, smiling at the staff who fawned over her, and never once reproaching him for his tardiness.

So for once, he had pulled himself out of his world of labs and patients and exam rooms. Bradley waited at the usual table tucked away in the back behind velvet drapes, near the french doors to the patios so that he could see the city lights outside.

Soft candlelight reflected off his glasses, broken by the thick crystal diffusing the tea light. The quiet strains of the piano near the bar reached him and should have been relaxing. He cursed the constant tension headache that had shadowed him for longer than he could remember and removed his wire-framed glasses to massage the bridge of his nose.

“Dr. Durrant?” A quiet voice at his elbow, confident but reserved, spoke.

“Yes?” He moved just his head, not really seeing the waiter standing patiently in front of him. Everyone was patient when he wore his Gucci suit and Rolex.

“Ms. Beauchester just phoned, sir. She wished you to know her driver is not feeling well, and she will be delayed until his replacement arrives.”

“Thank you.”

“Is there anything I can get for you, sir?”

“Nothing, thank you.”

A quick nod and the waiter was gone. Bradley checked his watch again and stood up before he thought the action through.

Brianna was late to the restaurant, but he wouldn’t be there when she arrived. He knew she wouldn’t hold it against him.

The night air was cool when he stepped outside, autumn whispering in the brisk wind. He’d forgotten his jacket at the office, along with his cell phone. No one would say anything about it the next day, and the night shift would call his house if there was a real emergency with one of his patients, but his assistants would frown as they gave him the morning report.

He found it difficult to care.

His feet started moving, hauling him a block away before he stopped to think where he was going. He needed to have something living and real around him, not dusky sleep and apathy.

He glanced back as Brianna’s expensive car pulled up to the sidewalk. Her blonde hair was highlighted by the restaurant lights as she stepped out. She didn’t even look in his direction as she went into Ivoire.

He turned the corner and kept walking.

Everyone expected him to marry her. His mother, the hospital board, their social circle of old money and buried secrets. They watched from a distance with vultures’ eyes, greedy for every gesture Bradley shared with her, locked on the sparkling rings she wore, the gold watch he checked every hour.

He went through the charade, trapped in the lies of her tasteful clothes and strappy heels, long blonde hair, and perfectly lined lipstick. A puppet show where he turned left or right depending on which string she pulled; an ornament sitting slumped and lifeless next to her, eyes vacant. A hollow man she couldn’t touch.

He wanted something more, and he couldn’t think why he was still letting his family and the tides of society dictate his actions. Anything to cover a scandal that had never been allowed to take place. Memories he pulled out of his heart and soul in the darkest hours of the night, alone and nursing a snifter of brandy in the moonlight. Because he couldn’t part with those fleeting moments of peace, of rightness, of simplicity and honesty, when he wasn’t a leper in his own mind.

The thought that it was all gone, destroyed in a moment by his own indecision, and this was the life he’d been left to live…

He reached a part of the city where the sidewalks were so dirty, gummed and cracked and desecrated—de-created—and he liked the thought that no one would know him as he walked along the crowded street. Car exhaust and horns and neon lights reflected back from the dark sky.

Why couldn’t he just tell them to go to hell?

He felt guilty for leaving, refusing to picture her confused eyes as the maître d’ explained to her that her party had already left. He had needed to leave, and so he had, and she would be understanding and smile and forgive him again before he could apologize. Which he never did.

There was the urge to wander, to walk slowly down one street, then the next, letting his thoughts roam as his steps did. Past a cheap Italian restaurant that always had loud music playing over the speakers. Before Brianna—before his father’s downward spiral—Bradley had gone there every weekend and been loved by the staff who wouldn’t recognize him now, laughing, God, laughing because he’d meant it, and there had been honesty in his eyes.

He didn’t look in the mirror much, anymore.

Sometimes he thought it would be better if he didn’t remember anything at all of those days. Not the hot summers in a one-bedroom apartment, with no air-conditioning and the air so humid as their skin had slid against worn cotton sheets and bedsprings had creaked beneath their shifting weights. He felt the memories like he would an old film reel, so disconnected from a foreign culture, a different time.

He ached with wanting it, so badly his mouth went dry and his breath hitched in his chest, stuttering as though it would stop and that could bring him back to who he had been. But he wasn’t that man anymore, that boy, thinking nothing could touch him and that he could make his way in a world he had never known, a world so full of possibilities that he was dizzy just thinking of his future, so many paths unfurling at his feet.

He turned down another street, traveling farther from the glass windows of the restaurant.

All the plans and dreams that had derailed the second his father decided he couldn’t live with his own set of lies anymore. Lies that were not spoken of, just as Brad’s were not spoken of, and if they were ignored long enough, all would be well.

Because there was a board of directors to pacify, the neighbors and the relatives, the newspapers and family holdings, staff, clients, patients. All staring at him with bright, hungry eyes, knowing a secret was there but unable to find it because he was covered in armor now. Armor made of Gucci suits and petite blondes, seventeen-hour workdays and no vacations.

He ended up on his street after hours of wandering. In a small act of rebellion, he lived in a posh part of the city, guarded by iron gates, security codes, and motion sensors. His mother abhorred the place and wanted him to reside in the estates south of the city, over an hour’s commute in. She said he needed an estate house for appearances, so he could host soirees and events, woo the board members and donors alike. Never mind the estates she chose for him were right down the lane from her own. He couldn’t bring himself to comply. At least here, he had the semblance of privacy.

The windows were dark as he approached, city sounds fading, and he wondered if he might sleep that night. No doubt he would pull down his photo album from the top shelf and flip through the worn pages a thousand times before daybreak.

Photos and this gnawing, snarling numbness growing inside his head were all he had left.

He wondered when he wouldn’t take it anymore. When he would snap and burn out and crumble, leaving behind just a note and five bullets left in the chamber.

But he was still needed by his patients, by the hospital and the staff, to keep things together. Maybe if he started delegating, letting his employees do more, maybe then he would work his way free. He could start gradually leaving things in the hands of others, giving away files and cases until there was only a revolver and a note in his drawer.

His father had just pulled the trigger, bleeding out over contracts and patient records.

His stomach clenched tight at the thought of the years ahead of him. So many wasted dreams and what did he have to show for his life? What did he have that was his and his alone? All he had left was—

“Brad?”

A gravelly voice, rusty from years of heavy cigar smoking, came from the darkened stairwell of a nearby townhouse. He paused, searching the shadows for the other man.

“Mr. Windham?”

“Indeed, son. What are you doing about at this hour? It’s nigh on three o’clock.”

“Just walking. You, sir?”

“Hmph. Might I use your phone? Seems my cell phone died, and I need to call a locksmith.”

“Of course. Please, come in.”

William Windham III, an old friend of the family and a member of the hospital board. The gentleman had been a bit fond of the liquor even when Bradley’s father was alive, and it seemed old William had forged on with his habits long after his contemporaries were gone. His weathered face was coarse with white stubble, and his casual attire might have started out the night fresh, but it had definitely put some miles on since then.

“Ah, thank you, my boy.”

He held the door open for the older man and offered to take his overcoat. Bradley was waved off as the wiry senior rubbed his hands together briskly.

“So damn hard to stay warm these days, but I appreciate the offer. I was afraid I was going to have to find a convenience store someplace, if you hadn’t come along. Dreadfully inconvenient stores, if you ask me. All these ‘superstores’ and fast marts that are popping up. No matter what time of day you go there, they’re always so crowded. Did you know you can buy groceries at Wal-Mart?”

“No, I didn’t.” Bradley never prepared his own food, let alone bothered with handling the purchase of groceries himself. But he had heard that Windham had become an eccentric. Unheard of in their circle, to be sure, and guaranteed to get the vultures’ attentions.

Although old William seemed to welcome their beady gazes.

“I went to that store down by the wharf the other night around midnight, thinking I was being crafty and I’d get one up on ’em, but no. Even more busy than noon, and the people you see! Kid in front of me had blue hair and enough hardware in his face to build a house. I swear, sometimes I just wanna grab ’em by the nose ring and pull ’em to a mirror. And the bagging boy had the nerve to call me ‘senior’! Offered me a discount!”

Bradley put his Patient Face on and gently steered the old man to the rear kitchen.

“The phone’s in here, Mr. Windham. Would you like me to call?”

“If you don’t mind, son. These ears ain’t what they used to be…”

Which explained the near-shouting they were engaged in. It took him a moment to find the phonebook. After searching around the phone desk, finally he thought to open one of the slim drawers. The thing was still in mint condition, and he frowned as the printer’s ink rubbed off on his thumb.

“Nice place you have here, Brad. Very nice.”

He gave an absent smile. Windham wandered into what the decorator dubbed the “sitting room” and studied the few pieces of art on the wall and the stiff furniture.

“Too nice. Lemme guess—either that flibbertigibbet you’ve been seeing set this up, or you looked in a catalog and hired someone to do it?”

That got his attention, and he debated between being offended or amused. In his current mindset, he went for amused.

“A bit of both, I’m ashamed to admit.” He flipped faster through the thin yellow pages.

“Don’t sound like you’re ashamed at all, my boy.”

He looked up and the old man was frowning, but there was a teasing light in his eyes. He gave another vacant smile back.

“I suppose not. It never really seemed that important.”

“As it shouldn’t be! Not that you’re here that much anyway.”

He didn’t know if the old man was just making an observation or fishing for gossip. In his usual crowd, he would assume gossip, but Windham didn’t seem the type to speak with many people from Bradley’s mother’s circle.

“I work long hours at the hospital, I’m afraid. I don’t have much time for the domestic things.”

Finally, he found the right listing and turned to the phone, effectively derailing the conversation. A twenty-four-hour locksmith agreed to come out, and he twisted his head to tell William but froze at the sight of the old man blowing dust off a wooden box Brad had tucked out of sight carefully in the cabinets under his bookshelves.

“Well now, this looks familiar.”

“The locksmith is on his way.” He paused awkwardly. “That was my father’s…”

“Yes. Yes, I remember. He used to keep it set up in his office. Our games would last months, I recall.”

Windham’s expression was fond as he held the worn box. Bradley’s chest hurt as he watched gnarled hands flick open the delicate latch. Occasionally, Bradley had had a round with his father, but he had never been any good at waiting, not like William, who would draw it out until his father lost just to end the game. He hadn’t thought of the chess set in years.

“My mother was going to donate it after—I just thought it would be nice to keep. The craftsmanship of the pieces is amazing.”

A dull excuse, and Windham’s smile held him to it. “I remember you would watch us for hours when he brought you. We kept expecting you to fidget or complain the first few times, but you never did. Just sat there with these bright little eyes that twitched back and forth between moves. Funny that you never had the patience to play it yourself.”

“I’m afraid I’m more of a multitasker than he was. Can’t help that when I’m one place, there’s always fifty other places to be, too.”

“Nonsense. There’s always time for chess!” Windham gave an odd cackle and hugged the box to his chest. “Tell you what. You promise to play a night a week with me, and I’ll promise not to be a nuisance.”

An old refrain he had heard repeated a hundred times between his father and Windham. It brought a wistful smile to his face, but he shook his head.

“I’m afraid I—”

“Hmph. You’re afraid. You keep saying that, Brad, but I don’t think you mean it. So why don’t you come over next Tuesday around eight. We’ll play at my place, since just looking at your furniture has my back aching. Bring the set and I’ll provide the beer.”

“I don’t think—”

“Great. I’ll see you then!” Windham started wandering back toward the front door. “Oh, look at that. There’s the locksmith. I’d better go straighten things out. You have a nice night—or morning, as it is—and say hello to Bambi for me. I’ll let myself out.”

Bradley was left staring at the closed front door, forehead creased in confusion. His expression quickly became a frown as he realized the old man had railroaded him into the arrangement. He debated just not showing up on Tuesday, despite how rude it would be, and wondered if Windham would get the point.

He sighed. That tactic didn’t work on anyone else in his life—why would old William be any different?

He had a half hour before he had to be up again, so he’d deal with Mr. Windham after work. Bradley was much too busy to play board games with him, even if he was a long-standing family friend.

Then he noticed that Windham had swiped the box, and his frown turned to outright cursing. Now he was definitely going to have to speak to the old man, and the bugger knew it.

He sighed and went to sleep on his couch.



His mother heard about the missed date. The next day, he came off a twelve-hour shift to find a sharp voice mail on his phone, instructing him to call her.

“Honestly, Bradley,” she said on a sigh when he dutifully called back. She was trying for sympathetic but just sounded exasperated. “You became a director after three years at the hospital. Your father did it in two. If you don’t at least act as though you have ambition, it will be difficult to garner the support you need to become chairman. Attending this banquet is an excellent opportunity to prove your dedication and motivation to—”

He tuned her out. He had three patient files in his briefcase. One was for a three-year-old girl who most likely had Richter’s Syndrome. If he was correct, she would probably die within months, if not weeks. And his mother wanted to talk charity banquets.

Just because his great-grandfather had established the hospital didn’t mean the Durrants owned it. If he was on the board, great. If he wasn’t, as long as he kept his department and his patients, he didn’t care.

But he made the appropriate noises in the appropriate places and hung up only after promising to meet with Brianna again that week.

The hopelessness always took a few hours to truly sink in after conversations with his mother. He would push through the week, and then she would call or his brother would visit and he would just be reminded again of what he wasn’t, that he just couldn’t pretend anymore and there was no end in sight.

There were nights when he wanted to be what everyone wanted, if only because then someone would tell him what to do with himself. His life would be simple. He’d be fine.

Those nights were becoming more frequent and it scared him. He was so afraid his resolve would weaken, that he would turn out like his father, a shadow of a man who nodded sagely when spoken to and only spoke of his practice when called on for conversation.

So he was a grown man, quietly walking down a darkened street at three o’clock in the morning, and he could have kept walking or he could have returned to the house in time to catch a few hours of sleep before getting up again. Either way, he would load himself up on caffeine and ephedrine and take a brisk shower, then maybe catch a nap in his office during his lunch break.

Thirty-four years old and he wasn’t allowed to live his own life because it was what he owed his family—what he owed his father, his mother. His heritage.



Bradley meant to meet Brianna at the restaurant the next Tuesday. He honestly did. He told himself he’d just stop by Mr. Windham’s for a moment, to trade the liquor bottle in his hand for his father’s chess set. He never had found the time to talk to the old man after the shenanigans of last Tuesday, and he was afraid he really wouldn’t get his chess set back until he at least put in an appearance.

So he found himself standing outside Mr. Windham’s tall brownstone in the frigid weather. He knocked sharply on the door, wondering if he should have brought something more than the bottle clutched in his fist.

Windham opened the door by the third knock. Eyeing the old man warily, Bradley held out the bottle of Glen Garioch whiskey.

Windham chuckled. “Knew you’d turn up, and with drinks! Good man, good man.” He stepped back and gestured Bradley in while accepting the bottle. “C’mon, c’mon. Take off that stuffy jacket. Close the door!”

“I would have shown up with the chess set,” Bradley drawled as he shut the door, “but it seems to have already made its way here…”

Windham dismissed the comment with an airy wave of a gnarled hand. “All the better to keep a grip on that bottle. Here, let me find the tumblers. I set up the old table, but your strapping young back will have to move the second chair.”

Brad would only stay for a half hour, no more. Enough to satisfy his nosy neighbor’s demands, and then he’d meet Brianna as planned.

As Windham wandered off, Bradley shrugged out of his jacket. He was dressed down, in slacks and a pressed shirt, but he still felt out of place. Windham’s house wasn’t anything like he’d expected.

A small table had been dragged in front of the oldest armchair in the room, next to the fireplace. Bradley found an uncluttered wingback chair in the hallway and carried it in.

Windham returned with two tumblers, one half gone, and handed the other to Bradley.

“All right. Now that I’m properly fortified, let me see where my glasses disappeared to.”

Cradling his whiskey, Bradley studied the photos proudly displayed along the mantel. Cheap glossy stock and yellowed Polaroids were just as prominent as the professional portraits.

Most featured a brood of four boys, all with skin the color of light coffee and their mother’s curly black hair. There were various candid shots of the boys wrestling each other, or dog-piled on their father, hamming it up for the camera. Bradley had surely met all of them at some point, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember their names. They were all at least twenty years older than him. He knew one was a lawyer; another was a chef.

A Polaroid of a younger Windham with his arms around a laughing woman, her midnight-black skin a sharp contrast to his pale white, was displayed in the very middle, drawing the eye.

Ms. Olivia. Bradley let the ghost of a smile grace his lips as he remembered her apricot cookies and ice tea in the summer. He thought back and tried to remember when she had died. Six years? Seven? Her case had been one of his father’s last.

With a frown, he turned away from the mantel. Too many memories.

There were brightly colored plastic children’s toys all over the front room. The plush couch had a My Little Pony sleeping bag thrown over one arm. There were knickknacks all over—most were obviously souvenirs—and the place seemed…homey. Like more than one person had lived there.

“Here we go,” Windham announced as he returned with his glasses perched on his bulbous nose. “Now I can keep my beady little eyes on you while we play.”

“If I recall correctly,” Bradley said dryly, “it was you who needed close supervision.”

Windham barked out a laugh. “John never did catch on when I switched pieces.”

“No, I suppose he didn’t,” Bradley murmured, taking his seat. He couldn’t avoid the sight of his father’s chess board properly set up on the small table any longer, and his chest felt uncomfortably tight for a moment.

“You remember the rules?” Windham settled in with a groan. Brad nodded. “Good, good. We won’t waste any time, then.”

Sipping his whiskey, Bradley relaxed back into the chair and waited for the old man to make his move.



The game was far from over when Bradley excused himself Tuesday night, so it seemed only fair to return the following Tuesday, then the Tuesday after that. By the third time, his mother was chiding him to be more attentive to Brianna, always pushing; Brianna kept accepting his excuses if he even bothered to provide one; and really—he was tired of it all.

He was tempted to skip Windham’s and just go to his date with Brianna to avoid the fuss, but then he drove to the townhouse instead of to the restaurant and stood in his pristine foyer, the gaping black doorways of his empty house staring back at him.

For once, he tried not to look too closely at his actions and turned off his personal cell phone before ringing Windham’s doorbell.

“Come to submit gracefully to your defeat?” Windham chirped as he opened the door and shuffled back down the hallway. “You’ve been here before, that means you can hang up your own coat. House rules!”

Bradley snorted but hung his jacket up in the disorganized hall closet and rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt.

“I should have taken a picture of the board with my phone,” he mused as he followed Windham into the sitting room. “That way I could check that the virtue of my pieces was still intact.”

Windham cackled and settled into his chair eagerly, two tumblers of whiskey already waiting for them. Bradley glanced over the set and wasn’t sure if anything was out of place. Frankly, he didn’t quite care if they were.

“As though I’d move anything when I’m winning.” Windham sniffed at his inspection. “I did that last week. It’s your move, boy.”

Concealing a grin, Bradley took his time deliberating his next move. After he finally moved his knight, he retrieved his tumbler and cradled it close, staring at the board.

“You know, you’re the spitting image of your father,” Windham said suddenly. “He’d hold his glass that same exact way.”

Surprised, Bradley glanced up to find the old man studying him instead of the board. Windham gave him an indecipherable look and went back to planning his move.

“The resemblance has been pointed out to me before,” Bradley managed to get out.

“John was a good man,” Windham said. “I know not everyone thinks that, but he was. He tried to do right by everyone. Ended up leaving himself behind, you ask me. Your move.”

Bradley kept his breathing steady as he moved a pawn, tumbler clenched in his hand.

“Your grandmother, now. She was a force to be reckoned with. No one dared to stand up to her except my Olivia.” Windham looked up at that, but his eyes were far away. “My Livia. Smile like sunshine with a voice so sweet, and it’d take you an hour to realize she’d just stripped you down worse than any hiding… She was what we called a ‘spitfire’ in those days. So bright and quick. Eyes that cut right through you.”

The older man made his move. Bradley sipped his whiskey and contemplated the board.

“But we didn’t go to many high-society shindigs in those days,” Windham continued, leaning back in his chair. “People like your grandmother had some very decided opinions on our business. We were living in sin and questionable legality, after all. Lived in New York at first, then moved down here in the seventies, after Loving v. Virginia. Fifty-two years, we were together. Tell me that ain’t love.”

Bradley glanced at Windham’s lost expression and couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound trite. Instead, he moved his rook. The action drew Windham’s attention back to the board.

“Ah, me. Ah, my.” The older man sighed whimsically, studying the pieces. “If wishes were horses, we’d all ride like kings, hm? But we sure did have some good times, me and my girl. We had our life, our children. She got to see our grandbabies grow up. What more could you want? We were happy.”

He glanced up at Bradley and down at the board again before flicking his queen halfway across. “Check,” he announced cheerfully.

Bradley frowned. He contemplated moving his other pieces, but nothing would work.

“And mate.” William grinned.

Bradley shook his head ruefully. “You got me.”

“Heh. And you’re as easy to distract as your old man.” Windham chortled, not unkindly.

Bradley sighed and started collecting his pieces. “That’s the last time I bring the whiskey,” he joked.

Windham crowed with delight. “And as sore a loser, too!”

Despite his attempt to be annoyed, Bradley just couldn’t be. He joined in the easy laughter with a chuckle of his own.

When his laughter died down, Windham sank back into his plush chair with a content grumble. “Sure is nice to have company, even if you’re a crap player, boy.”


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