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A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

The Calling

Copyright © 2018 by M.D. Neu

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2018

Edited by: Jason Bradley

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

First Edition

January, 2018

Also available in paperback, ISBN: 978-1-947904-86-6

Warning: This book contains sexually explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers, and scenes of graphic violence.

The Calling

M.D. Neu




Table of Contents

Dedication

Acknowledgements

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

About the Author

For my mom Shirley, my mother-in-law Meredith, and my father-in-law Jim. I know you’re all watching from above. I think about you every day. I miss you.

Acknowledgements

This book would not have been possible without the support and encouragement from these amazing people: Linda P., Caroline O., Angela S., Adelene G., Felisa L., Barbara R., Arlo H., William (Bud) H., Matthew D., Teresa F., Steven R., Randall K., Marnie S., Laura S., Jeanette L., Ernesto V., Arthur S.

You guys are fantastic. Thank you.

Chapter One

What is death?

I once believed there was only one definition: your body stops functioning, your soul leaves and what’s left turns to dust. That was what I thought, until it wasn’t.

I’ve discovered when you’re a nobody, the world can be an amazing place if you want it to be. Your life can change in a heartbeat and not make the least bit of difference to anyone but you, or so it would seem.

That was my case.

I’m by no means whining or complaining. I had a job, a small place to live, and friends, but no real family, and that was something I desperately missed and wanted. My life wasn’t bad and I was happy. However, I was just a random person, one of the many faces you see on the street and never glance at twice. It was dull. Of course, as with me, the majority of society didn’t know our world had hidden secrets, unseen by most.

The other important thing I want you to realize about me is that before I met her, I wasn’t a lucky man, not with money and certainly not with love. I made enough to live on, but never enough to take fancy trips. My idea of travel was staying at home and watching movies. That was my price range. And as for love, it was forgettable.

The day my life changed was like all the others, until it wasn’t. It was August 19. The year isn’t important. But we had finished celebrating the Olympics, and in a few short months, the country would be picking between the lesser of two evils for president.

I sat at an outdoor café in Santana Row. I’d spent the afternoon going on a tour of the Winchester Mystery House. Once my stomach had started to growl, I decided to grab a bite to eat.

I had come to San Jose, California for a vacation that I couldn’t afford and didn’t particularly want to take. Why San Jose? Why not San Francisco or Monterey or Vegas or Yosemite? To be honest, I don’t know, but it’s like everything inside and around me pulled me there. Out of the blue, I got emails from the San Jose Visitor Bureau. My dreams were filled with images of the city and the surrounding hills and mountains. It seemed that old song, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” by Dionne Warwick constantly played. Still, San Jose isn’t the place most people consider for a ten-day vacation, especially someone alone who had never been to the Bay Area before.

Despite my apprehension, from the moment I arrived, I immediately felt at peace. I’d never been this calm or relaxed anywhere before, not even at home. There was another reason for me coming here, one I didn’t understand yet, at least not on a conscious level.

I would find out why soon enough.

I don’t want to get things out of order, so back on point. I sat at this Italian-style outdoor café watching people walk by, enjoying the scent of roses and vanilla that filled the air. The aroma tickled the back of my brain. I smelled it everywhere, which should have been my first clue that something was different.

After enjoying my Italian-style chicken marsala, and while I sipped my strawberry lemonade, I felt a sharp pull in my brain. It wasn’t like I heard voices—it was more like vague images filled my head: a house, a woman, gardens, a gate, hills covered in trees, and a pair of eyes. My hands shook, and my glass fell to the floor and shattered. An intense pressure grew between my eyes, and I pinched the bridge of my nose to ease it.

When the tug came, three things happened to me at once.

First, I had the realization that I had an important meeting in Los Altos Hills. I had never heard of Los Altos Hills and even had to look it up on my phone to see if it was real. I would have to check my GPS when I returned to my rental. I knew the address of the house and who I was going to meet. She had blonde hair and mysterious eyes. I knew her, but I didn’t understand how.

Second, the waiter came to my table.

“Sorry about the drink,” I said.

He gave me an odd look and informed me my meal had been paid for and to enjoy my evening. Flabbergasted, I stared at the server.

I glanced around the café and wondered who paid the bill and why. I wasn’t even done yet.

“Mr. Alexander, are you all right?” The waiter scanned me up and down. “Do you need me to call someone? You look pale.”

“No.” I shook my head. “I’m fine.”

How did the waiter know my name? Stranger still, when I checked the table, my drink sat there and nothing had fallen to the floor. I wasn’t sure what was happening.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Sorry. Just a headache,” I said.

“All right. I hope you have a pleasant afternoon.” He smiled and started to walk off but turned back. “Oh, I almost forgot. I’m supposed to remind you about your meeting tonight.”

A lump stuck in my throat, and I nodded. It was spooky, but I wasn’t scared.

The last thing: I got a text from my closest friend, Cindy Martin. Good luck tonight. I’m sure it’ll be you.

I remember thinking, What does she know that I don’t?

I’ve known Cindy for years, and for her to say anything that short and sweet was rare. In fact, I don’t suppose I ever got a message from her without any emoticons.

As bizarre as all of this was, I realized that no matter what, everything and everyone I cared about would be okay. Clearly, there was something more to this trip and my being here. I didn’t know what. But it wasn’t just some free meal. It was bigger than that. If I was selected for what? I had no clue. And if I wasn’t, then I would get to see them again. There would be no questions.

Part of me wanted to worry, but I wasn’t bothered, which in itself surprised me. I’ve been a pessimist for as long as I can remember. It probably had to do with the strange death of my father when I was a kid. A death never fully explained. So, for this not to make me worry was one more mystery. What was about to happen was something that would just be. Instead of freaking out and worrying, I was calm and accepting of whatever adventure or fate awaited me.

Even though I was short on time to get to the house in Los Altos Hills, I wanted to enjoy my lunch. Reflecting on it now, I’m pretty sure that was the cynical part of my brain trying to exert some kind of control. I took my time, finished my meal, and when I was done, I tipped the server and left.

I walked back to my rental car. I wanted to take in as much of the classical European architecture and lush landscaping of the outdoor mall as I could. I managed to get a few decent cell phone pictures of the place.

I stopped my lollygagging and got moving. I had someplace to be and what appeared to be no choice in the matter. Before you go crazy, understand this wasn’t like one of those stupid movies that you watch, shaking your head, yelling at the screen for them not to go into the dark forest or spooky house or whatever. It wasn’t like that.

I’d like to hope I’m explaining this well enough so you don’t sit there and think, “Oh this is stupid. I’d never do anything that dumb.” It wasn’t like I had a choice. I had to go—something compelled me to her. I had to meet this woman, calling me. It was hard-wired into me, no matter how much I tried to slow down or stall, I moved forward.

I moved toward her.

When I finally got in the car and took a breath, I wasn’t clammy or shaky, and my heart wasn’t pounding in my chest. I should have been anxious, but I wasn’t. I was fine.

Knowing without understanding what I had to do, I headed to the freeway.

If I had seen into the future, I would have taken a different route, but I didn’t. An accident backed up the freeway. Sadly, I found the onboard GPS wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. It led me straight into bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was a nightmare, and not something I was used to. I sat in four lanes of cars and not a single one moved. What should have taken no more than half an hour was going to take an eternity.

“I’m going to be late,” I chanted as I anxiously tapped along to “You and Me” playing on the radio.

A silver Rolls-Royce cut me off, causing me to stop abruptly. My heart skipped a beat. When my breath returned, I tried to find the Rolls, but it seemed to vanish into the traffic.

“Not possible,” I grumbled. The radio stopped for a news break.

I hated being late.

The drive along 280 had lush trees and green hills once I got out of the valley, with attractive homes scattered here and there. It was one of the nicer freeways I’d ever been on and nothing like what I saw in Reno. Well, not until you got into the mountains. I took the S. El Monte Avenue exit and headed up into the hills past a junior college. Who knew there’d be a college out this way?

The road curved and turned till I found the house. To call my destination a house is an understatement. Even from the gate, it was a remarkable size. At least two stories, possibly three. It was an architectural masterpiece situated on perfectly landscaped grounds unlike anything I’d ever seen, not even on TV.

At the massive security gate, I pushed the call box button and waited.

“Mr. Alexander, welcome. Please, drive through,” a female voice instructed as the iron gates lazily opened.

I briefly questioned how she recognized me, but I figured there was a camera embedded in the call box.

Before me lay a flawless, recently raked gravel drive hedged by lush beds of orange, red, violet, and yellow flowers, all manicured to perfection. Cherry trees lined the drive and added more color and height.

I drove carefully up the drive and pulled into a circular parking area that surrounded a giant fountain. Spiraling topiary shrubs in massive stone containers invited me to the enormous wood doors sheltered in the portico.

I got out, taking in the sight of the house. It was a cream-colored Tudor-style mansion surrounded by what I thought was an English garden filled with hedges and red and white roses. This estate’s upkeep had to be more than I made in a year.

There were several other cars parked near mine. It would seem I wasn’t the only one invited to this party. I sensed I was the last to arrive and that bothered me. A few cars had rental tags like mine, and the vehicles that weren’t rentals were older with dings and dents. Clearly, none of them fit the surroundings of the estate.

A part of my brain screamed at me, “Leave and run away. You don’t belong here.” But the rest of my mind and my body overruled this impulse and pushed me forward to the main door. I wanted…no I needed to be there.

I was examining the beautiful gold inlaid carvings, perhaps ancient writing with intricate shapes and patterns on the doorframe, when the door opened and a lovely woman stood there. I was awestruck. She had flawless hair and nails, no more than forty years old, and wore a big welcoming smile, revealing a dimple on her left cheek. She was dressed in an expensive, knee-length dark gray skirt with a light blue cashmere sweater emphasizing her breasts. All of it appeared to have been made to her exact measurements.

“Welcome, Duncan. I’m Amanda Sutherland. You’re the last to arrive. Please, follow me.” Her tone was gracious but tight. I found it annoying because of its implied attitude.

I mumbled an apology and followed her. My annoyance quickly vanished as I crossed the threshold and a wave of peacefulness filled every part of my body, as if I were a crystal glass.

Still, I wanted to redeem myself for being tardy.

I followed Miss Sutherland and was dazzled by what I saw around me. The floors were highly polished wood with marble inlays, and on the walls were old original paintings, not prints. I could see the brush strokes. They were amazing, like something from the middle ages. Very gothic.

They should be in a museum.

Subtle scents of roses and vanilla caused me to inhale deeply as I followed Miss Sutherland deeper into the house. We arrived at a large reception room where there were three men and two women, all of us about the same age and all wearing similar expressions of puzzlement.

Why are we here?

“Madame de Exter will be with you shortly. Please, enjoy some refreshments.” Miss Sutherland pointed to a tray of wineglasses held by one of the uniformed house staff. As the server moved around, she offered each of us a smile with the wine. When finished, she put the tray on the sideboard and walked out of the room.

Our reception room was at the back of the house and anything but simple. It would be like calling Hearst Castle another beach house along the California coast. This one room could probably encompass my entire apartment, bedroom and all. The floors were made of a polished stone I didn’t recognize, and the walls had wood moldings and trim. Of course there were more original paintings. The furniture appeared modern and comfortable, not the antiques you would imagine for the space. There was a wall of french doors that opened onto more of the perfectly manicured lawn and another fountain. Tucked away in the back of the yard was a smaller house of a similar style to the mansion along with a swimming pool.

It only took Miss Sutherland’s absence for us to start talking, trying to pump each other for information.

“Do any of you know why we’re here?” A petite Asian woman asked in a stage whisper as she held up her glass of white wine. Her gaze danced around the room and focused on each of us in turn.

I wouldn’t call her pretty, but she wasn’t ugly either. Then I noticed that the others were all of an average type.

“No clue,” a guy replied. He sniffed the wine and hesitated before taking a small sip. “I’m Doug, by the way,” he said with a polite nod to the others. Doug was a bit rough-looking with a scruffy face, and dull brown hair that was thinning on top. He was dressed more for manual labor than a party.

“Duncan,” I said as I shook his callused hand. He was definitely in construction work.

It’s funny the things you remember. How calm his voice was, and that he wore a blue and green flannel shirt, which seemed a little out of place for the time of year.

“Chui.” The Asian woman then sipped her wine.

I nodded at her politely. I don’t really remember anything more about her, other than her name, and that she was shorter than Doug and me.

“Janis,” the other woman said, glancing at the last two men, who hesitated.

Janis had the best looks and the nicest clothes. Her blouse was silk, and the bag she held was older but it had a Gucci label on it. I do remember her eyes, like pools of water that you could get lost in. Not that I did.

“Hi. I’m Juan,” a dark-haired, brown-eyed man said.

The last man was taller than any of us. He was also probably the best-looking guy in the room. Ruggedly handsome with a strong chin and perfect jawline. The rich dark tones of his skin made his eyes pop.

“I’m Erik.” He waved a hand toward us as his voice lowered. “If you don’t mind, where are you all from?”

Erik, it seemed, had noticed what I saw in our unique group. None of us were dressed in what one would consider proper attire for such a house… mansion… whatever.

“Reno,” I said, holding my wineglass but not drinking from it. Even though I felt safe and at ease, still part of me was a tiny bit suspicious. I doubted it was drugged, but I wasn’t quite comfortable drinking it.

“Here. The Bay Area,” Janis said in a tight voice. She continually scanned the room and the doors. That answer was deliberately vague.

“Morgan Hill. Just south of here,” Chui said. She didn’t seem to mind sharing or drinking the wine. Her glass was already empty.

“I’m from LA.” Erik sipped his wine and made a face, then put it down and didn’t touch it again.

“Portland.” Juan turned to Doug.

“I guess I win. I’m from Denver.” Doug smiled. He had an easy grin and perfectly straight and blindingly white teeth. Smiling seemed to come natural to him. “That still doesn’t explain why we’re here. I don’t recognize any of you, and I haven’t been to Reno, LA, or Portland.” He chuckled. “Hell. I don’t know anything about this place or our elusive host, and yet I feel like I’ve seen this house and this room before.”

There were a few nods from the others.

“We’ve probably all seen homes like this on TV. That’s why it seems so familiar,” Janis said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “There are a lot of homes like this in the area. It’s not that great.”

Erik rolled his eyes as he turned to me.

“I don’t know. This place is pretty impressive, and that wonderful scent of roses and vanilla…” I commented.

“The what?” Janis asked with raised eyebrows.

“That scent. I’ve smelled it all day,” I said, glancing around the room at the others.

“I can’t smell a thing,” Erik said.

Chui looked at me. “I think it’s the arrangements in the house. I’ve smelled it since I got here.”

Juan shook his head. “I don’t know. I have a bad sniffer so I don’t smell much.”

“I’m with Duncan here,” Doug said. “I started smelling the scent on the drive up here, and normally I don’t notice that stuff. It got stronger the closer I got to this place.”

“What’s that have to do with the house and where we’re all from?” Erik asked.

“Nothing, I suppose,” I said. “Anyway, I’ve never been to Denver, and this is my first time in San Jose.” I tried to figure out what connected us to this place. “Do any of you work in non-profits?” It was a shot in the dark, but one worth taking. I asked, because that’s what I did. It wasn’t a big non-profit, with only an annual budget of $8 million, but then Reno isn’t a huge area, not that it doesn’t have its problems. It does, and the need is great. Like everywhere.

Our group of strangers spent the next several minutes talking and trying to connect the dots. The only things we had in common were: we were all single, none of us were particularly important people when it came to our work or social circles—No CEOs or A-Listers among us, not even Janis— and none of us came from large families. In fact, most of us were only children whose parents had passed on. And lastly, we were all simple folk, meaning none of us were wealthy. Janis was the closest to being rich. At best, she was middle class, thanks to her executive assistant job in High Tech, and as I remember, she was fond of throwing around names of designer labels she enjoyed and made a point of pointing out her Gucci bag.

Why were Chui, Doug, and I the only ones to notice the roses and vanilla? Better question, why was I the only one who had smelled the scent all day?

Chapter Two

Our merry band of misfits, as I like to reflect back on, continued chatting away. If any of us had paid attention, we would have realized that much of the late afternoon had already vanished.

By the time the hors d’oeuvres arrived, some of the others had enjoyed more of the white wine. We were served mini beef wellingtons with a red wine sauce, chicken skewers with a paste of peanuts, and mini crepes filled with smoked salmon and caviar.

I felt like something was keeping us all under some kind of spell. Of course, that seemed a ridiculous idea at the time.

Regardless, the evening was better than the plans I’d had for going to one of the local bars.

Miss Sutherland remained absent for the duration. The serving staff told us she was helping the host with the final preparation for our late dinner.

We had two staff tending to our needs—a man and a woman, and they were both beautiful and handsomely dressed in perfectly fitted clothes. I couldn’t help but be jealous of them. No one should be allowed to be that attractive. It wasn’t natural. They had perfect hair and sculpted features and clothes that flattered their perfect bodies. They expertly dodged any of our questions and turned the tables to keep us in check.

Janis asked the male server, “What can you tell me about our host?”

The server smiled at her. “I’m sure Madame de Exter can answer that better than I can.”

Janis started to open her mouth to speak but was interrupted.

“I heard you say you’re from here. This is such a beautiful part of the country, don’t you think? I love being close to the ocean. There’s nothing like lying out and catching some sun.” His face lit up and his dimples grew deeper.

Janis nodded, then cleared her throat. “Yes. I suppose.”

“Please, try a chicken skewer.” He winked at her. “The peanut sauce is excellent.”

I had to look away from the exchange. Janis never stood a chance.

You would assume we’d have found this all frustrating or annoying, but none of us did. Honestly, it was fun and a bit thrilling. I can’t speak for the others, but I assumed that soon enough our questions would be answered.

It’s an odd feeling when time slips away from you. It can be jolting and off-putting, especially when you’re around people you just met and know so little about. As the shadows in the room grew darker and the wall sconces gradually got brighter, it confused me as to how and why we were all so at ease. When Doug pointed out that the sun had fully set and we had been talking for a couple of hours, our reactions weren’t surprise or bewilderment but nonchalant shrugs.

Cutting off any opportunity to question things further, the double doors opened, halting the conversation. Miss Sutherland entered. Instead of her gray suit and light blue sweater, she was now dressed in a black cocktail dress that showed off her curves and hit just below her knees. Her hair was done in some fancy updo style with tendrils framing her soft eyes; it was perfect for a party. She looked amazing, and I suddenly felt underdressed.

The only saving grace was that the rest of the group weren’t dressed any better.

“Madame de Exter is ready to meet you,” Miss Sutherland said. “She does apologize for the long delay and hopes you will forgive her as she had an emergency that had to be taken care of.”

As much as I wanted to be bothered by us being held in this reception room, I wasn’t. All I really desired was to meet her.

Erik summed it up for all of us. “These things happen.” His gaze washed over Miss Sutherland, paying close attention to her ample cleavage.

“Indeed, they do,” Miss Sutherland said and turned to face us all. “Please, follow me.”

Like good boys and girls, we did as we were told. As I passed the spot where she had stood, I picked up the light, clean floral scent of her perfume.

We walked into a grand dining room with a highly reflective wooden table laid out with gold flatware and china that screamed ancient and delicate. The flatware shone like solid gold and the crystal stemware sparkled like diamonds. A centerpiece filled with roses, orchids, intricate small branches, and greenery was arranged around a beautiful candelabrum.

A crackling fire burned in the hearth. Like everything else in this room, the picture of perfect. The walls were covered in a rich walnut paneling. In any other room, it would have made the space dark and oppressive, but here, with the fire burning and the soft warm lighting, it made the room cozy.

At the head of the table, our hostess, Madame de Exter, stood, watching us. I’d never seen anyone like her before, and my body tingled with excitement.

“Welcome to you all.” Madame de Exter waved both her hands in a flourish, pointing to both sides of the table. Her dark blonde hair appeared effortlessly swept up with a few strands falling softly to the sides of her face. She appeared young—about my age, maybe early thirties. Instead of being covered in jewels and makeup, she had a natural, timeless beauty about her. She had the most piercing eyes I had ever seen. She wore an elegant cocktail dress, deep emerald in color, which flattered her skin tone perfectly. “Please join me at the table.” Each of her movements was precise and seemed planned out, just like everything else had been.

We moved to our seats, which had name cards and a small menu of the meal set out. Again, the wonderful scent of vanilla and roses struck me.

We all glanced around in silence. I didn’t touch a thing. I stood there, my hands at my sides, and didn’t move. I caught the eye of Miss Sutherland, and she smiled at me.

“Please sit.” Madame de Exter slid gracefully into her seat. “I want to thank Amanda for taking such good care of you whilst I was detained this afternoon.” She lifted one of the four crystal glasses at her place setting to Amanda, and we checked to make sure we grabbed the same as our hostess. “To Amanda,” Madame de Exter said, and we all repeated the toast, then took sips of white wine.

Miss Sutherland nodded.

“I’m sure you all must have questions for me, and it would be rude of me not to do my best to answer them.” Madame de Exter put her glass down. “I won’t be able to answer everything, of course, but I’ll do my best.” She beamed at each of us and then again picked up her glass of white wine, enjoying another sip. She focused her attention on me. “Duncan, I’m sure you must have a question or two?”

My face heated, but I nodded. Just like in school, I hated being called on first, but unlike school, I couldn’t shrug it off and not answer. I glanced around the table and found everyone watching me.

My palms were sweating, so I took a breath, turned to our hostess, and asked, “How do you know us?”

Her face became thoughtful for a moment, glancing down to the end of the table at Miss Sutherland. “I don’t wish for this to sound alarming, but we’ve been familiar with all of you for quite some time. We’ve been, in a way, watching you and waiting.” She smiled and added, “I understand how it sounds, however, I see no reason to lie about it.”

My heart jumped at her bluntness. It was the only explanation that made any sense to me. You don’t arbitrarily summon people to your home, especially a home like this, without vetting them.

“You mean you’ve been spying on us?” Janis asked, her tone sharp, cutting the air in the room.

Since I had arrived, Janis seemed the most uncomfortable and appeared to be the most guarded and unsure of what was happening. Even at that moment, with the rest of us seemingly at ease, she sat with her arms crossed in front of her.

“In a manner of speaking,” Madame de Exter replied. “Please, understand it was done from afar and consisted of nothing more than knowing about you and keeping track of what was happening in your life for the last few months. It is much like what anyone would find out about you on one of the social media sites.” I sensed the honesty pouring from her as she justified her comments.

I found myself in agreement. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of being watched, but considering what we put out there on social media for the world to see, I can’t say I was surprised. I remember Cindy and I goofing around one day at work. We checked out each of our names and what came up amazed us.

Once the first question was asked, it broke the ice, and shoulders relaxed around me. Erik and Juan even leaned in closer to Madame de Exter. Chui sipped her wine, almost finishing it off, but stopping just short of an empty glass.

“How can you explain why we all wanted to come here?” Juan leaned in on his elbows. “I mean, I suddenly wanted to take this week off and come here for a vacation. How is that even possible? I don’t travel, yet here I am.” His attention landed on each of the women in the room. “Not that I mind.” He smiled, facing Madame de Exter, then Miss Sutherland. “I mean, you and Miss Sutherland are lovely.”

There was a huff from Janis.

Madame de Exter offered a polite half smile. “Thank you, Mr. Herrera. That is kind of you to say. With respect to your question, it requires a much more complicated explanation, and sadly, I’m not able to do it justice tonight.” She thought for a moment, frowning at the flustered look on his face. She took a small breath. “I suppose, you can look at it much like a beacon that was sent out, and you answered the call. Does that help?”

He pursed his lips.

It wasn’t that the answer was insufficient; the idea of it sounded impossible.

“What about today?” I started. “I was at a late lunch, and the waiter comes to me and tells me lunch is paid for, and he wants to remind me of a meeting I had to be at. What about that? He even knew my name?” Out of everything, even with what I’d been hearing at the table, that question bothered me most. Several of them nodded their heads in agreement.

A small chuckle came from Miss Sutherland at the opposite end of the table, and Madame de Exter had a hint of a benign smile. “That mystery is easier to solve. I told Amanda where she could locate you all today, and she placed the calls. If calls needed to be placed.”

“So you really were spying on us.” Doug put down his wineglass, his jaw set.

“You know, there are laws to protect people from things like this. We could report you and Miss Sutherland to the authorities,” Chui said with a frown on her red face. Janis had a similar hostile look. The women of our group were less susceptible to our hostess’s charms.

Doug rolled his eyes and Erik stifled a chuckle. Clearly, they didn’t mind the attention. Both men had been eyeing our hostesses in a way that said if either were to suddenly offer them a night of lovemaking, they wouldn’t turn it down.

With a heavy sigh, Juan turned to Madame de Exter. “So then, why are we here? Did we do something? What’s the deal?” I found him thoughtful and patient. He didn’t strike me as the type to ask questions without thinking them over first.

With a warm smile, Madame de Exter grinned, almost pleased. “I was wondering when that question would be asked and of course by whom.” She nodded to Miss Sutherland, who stood up and glided over to the heavy doors, opposite those we had entered. They must have led into a different part of the house. She knocked softly as we all watched. Within seconds, it opened and one of the servers stood holding a tray with cream-colored envelopes.

Miss Sutherland whispered something I couldn’t hear to the man, and he nodded as she took the envelopes from him. She made her way back to the table and handed each of us an envelope. I ran my fingers over my embossed name in gold leaf. I’d never seen anything that fancy before.

“Please, open the envelopes.” Madame de Exter said, a gracious wave of her hand.

I examined my envelope, flipping it over in my hands before opening it. The gold leaf had to be real, and on the back, a blue wax seal held it closed. The seal had a highly detailed image of a dragon sitting on a rock formation. I stared at it for a long moment before breaking the seal and opening the envelope. Inside was a matching cream note card, embossed with the same gold leaf. It was thrilling. I pulled out the note and read the message:

Thank you, Mr. Duncan Alexander. You have been selected to receive this enclosed award. We appreciate all your dedicated work at St. Elizabeth’s Family Services in Reno. It is our hope that this small gift will make your life a little easier—Lumière D'espoir Foundation.

I saw the check next and just about fell out of my chair. It was triple my annual salary. A check this large had never had my name on it. I scanned the others; everyone was focused on their checks.

What the catch was and why this gift was for us?

Chapter Three

I glanced at the others as I fumbled with my surprise check. Erik was laughing. Doug and Juan were both giddily chatting about how they wanted to spend the money. Thanks to the awards, the mood of the room shifted from frowns and stiff posture to laughing and pleasant banter. Amazing what a big fat check will do. Even Chui and Janis were smiling and drinking.

No one else seemed to question the award, and for a moment, I thought it odd. I wanted to know about this award. Who nominated me and how they picked the winners, but the thoughts vanished from my mind.

It seemed we each won this exclusive award in our fields. It wasn’t clear as to who nominated us, but apparently, it was a little-known award, which would explain why I hadn’t heard of it or this Lumière D'espoir Foundation.

All our reactions to the award appeared to be the same, which surprised me. Pleased expressions circled the table. The small part of my brain that kept me from drinking the red wine at first wasn’t pleased, but I quickly shut it down. Were we all programmed to be polite, calm, respectful, and relaxed? How is that possible, unless something managed to be put in the food and wine? What struck me was that I seemed to be the only one that noticed. Maybe, it’s because I wasn’t as impressed with the money as the others. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot. My father’s mystery death when I was younger left me and Mom living on the cheap. So, the idea of money was nice, but it never motivated me.

I remained quiet and polite, but my mind filled with questions that my mouth didn’t seem interested in expressing. Why us? What’s so special about these people? How come none of us had heard of this award? That didn’t explain the way I or the others happened to be called here. So, I smiled and watched the happy conversation.

As with the hors d’oeuvres, the dinner was amazing. It was a full nine-course meal with a different wine pairing for each one. For starters, we had a champagne toast and an amuse-bouche of halved quail eggs with a cream cheese and salmon mousse topped with Russian caviar. Followed by white wine paired with chilled avocado soup and halibut in lemon-butter sauce. Then we had a sorbet pallet cleanser. Bordeaux accompanied our filet mignon and cheese dish, capped with Sauternes to accompany tiny and elegant pastries/petit fours. I had never eaten like this in my life, and I couldn’t even wrap my head around what a meal like this must have taken to pull off.

None of the casino restaurants in Reno aspired to such high levels of dining. The food was expensive, with large portions, and served fast. Diners were never encouraged to linger when slot machines and blackjack tables sat idle.

When the dinner came to an end, I found myself sad. It occurred to me that this meal had been a singular experience, not available anywhere else, even with my newfound prize money, which would go to bills and possibly a new car. I thought about my father’s death again and how that went unsolved. Maybe now there was something I could do.

There wasn’t a lot of chitchat after the meal, at least not from me.

I kept replaying how nice the evening had been and how it would be amazing to continue. I thought about how boring and plain my life had been, and how a larger world sat right outside my window and I never reached for it. Allowing it to pass me by. Have you ever wanted to replay an event because it was so wonderful? I wasn’t envious or jealous, but every time I thought about leaving, my stomach lurched and the back of my neck tensed up.

I wanted to be there, where I belonged.

As Madame de Exter and Miss Sutherland thanked everyone for attending, Miss Sutherland gave everyone her business card just in case we had future questions.

At the front of the house, while everyone else was excited about their award and talking about going home and spending the money, my body dragged. My feet barely lifting off the floor as I walked. I didn’t care about what was happening at the front door.

Even though I’d have to pay the taxman a big chunk, I appreciated everything and understood this would help me out once I got home. I had another thought of maybe paying a private investigator to dig into my father’s death. See if I could find out what really happened. I’d never thought I would have this option until that night.

“Well, this money is really going to help,” Doug said to Miss Sutherland.

“I’m glad to hear it.” Miss Sutherland replied.

Doug laughed, a big smile on his face.

Miss Sutherland walked him up to Madame de Exter. He was the last to leave before me.

Distracted by the art and the architectural details of the house, I looked down at the envelope again. “This is it,” I mumbled. I was finding it difficult to smile. I guess that was what Miss Sutherland noticed when she walked over to me. I was taking one final look around the grand entry hall as Madame de Exter spoke with Doug.

“Mr. Alexander, Madame de Exter has asked if you wouldn’t mind staying for a little while longer,” Miss Sutherland said. “She is very impressed with your work and would like to ask you a few more questions.”

When I peeked up from the envelope in my hands, a dark shadow covered Miss Sutherland. And I heard the little voice inside my head yell, “No. Don’t do it. Run.”

I ignored it.

I tried for an appreciative smile. Miss Sutherland escorted me down the hall to another room.

I entered a smaller room with bookcases, two cream-colored sofas, and off to the side, a small oak desk with high-back chair. I decided it must be a drawing room, because not enough books lined the walls to be considered a library. Another marble fireplace filled the room with a warm glow. Red-velvet ottomans flanked the fireplace. Above the fireplace hung another painting, this one a countryside still with the intriguing gothic/renaissance feel to it. The windows had floor-to-ceiling drapes and under the arranged sitting area lay an antique rug, pulling all the colors of the room together. In the background, hints of roses and vanilla filled the air.

“Please have a seat. Madame de Exter will be with you shortly.” Miss Sutherland walked over to a decorative golden cart. “May I offer you a drink?”

“No thank you,” I replied. “I’ve hit my limit for the night. I don’t normally drink that much.” I found a seat near the fire where the warmth radiated out.

“Then some coffee or tea?”

I thought for a minute. If I wanted this fantasy to continue, perhaps having coffee would be a good idea.

“All right, coffee. Thank you.” I leaned back, letting my body be absorbed by the soft cushions.

“Very good. I’ll have one as well.” Miss Sutherland walked to the door. Like magic, there was one of the staff, holding a golden tray with both coffee and tea service.

The woman sauntered in, put the tray down, and poured two cups of coffee.

“Thank you, Elena,” Miss Sutherland said.

Elena smiled and quickly exited the room, closing the door behind her.

“How do you take your coffee, Mr. Alexander?” Miss Sutherland pointed to the cream and sugar.

“Both cream and sugar please,” I replied. “I prefer my coffee sweet, but I can do that.” I leaned forward and started to fix my coffee.

Miss Sutherland took her cup and saucer and sat across from me.

“It won’t be long.” She took a sip. “Did you enjoy your evening?”

I tasted the coffee and smiled. “This was, without a doubt, the best night of my life.” I took another sip of the coffee. The warmth filled my throat, and I chuckled. “Tonight has been a real treat. To be honest, the money will be helpful.” I thought of all my bills and this little trip. “Very helpful.”

“Wonderful,” Miss Sutherland said. “Clearly, your selection was a good one.” She faced the door a second before it opened and Madame de Exter entered the room.

“Ah, Mr. Alexander, is Amanda taking good care of you?” Madame de Exter gracefully crossed the room and found a seat before I could stand.

“Oh yes, thank you,” I replied, allowing myself to dip back into the softness of the chair. “This whole night has been wonderful. I can’t thank you enough, or the Foundation. It’s too much. Miss Sutherland mentioned you wanted to ask me some questions about my job?”

Madame de Exter grinned at Miss Sutherland and turned back to me. “I’ve been impressed with you this evening, Duncan. I hope you don’t mind me calling you Duncan?”

Pleased that she wanted to use my first name, a large grin filled my face.

She continued, “I knew from the moment you entered the dining room it would be you. I recognized the pull.” She grinned. “I suspect you know what I mean.”

“Excuse me?” I actually did understand what she meant.

Her gaze never left mine. “You’ve felt a connection here, comfortable, like this is the place you wanted to be, correct?”

I wasn’t going to lie. “I suppose. I mean, sure, who wouldn’t? You have an amazing home and everything is so extravagant and comfortable. How can one not feel connected to this place and to you?”

Miss Sutherland chuckled softly.

“It’s not that I’m envious or anything.” I leaned forward earnestly. “I know you must have worked hard to have all this. It’s wonderful of you to be willing to share it, especially with all of us and mostly with me.”

Stop talking! I forced my mouth to shut.

Madame de Exter’s beautiful face suddenly seemed to carry a great weight. “Who could ask for a better response?” A playful, mischievous grin transformed her face. “Duncan, would you like this adventure to continue?”

“What?” I was confused by the offer. For the night? What exactly did she mean by this? I tried to pick up my coffee cup, but my hands were shaking and I gave up before I spilled anything or, worse, broke the cup or saucer.

“Tonight wasn’t about the awards, Duncan.” Madame de Exter watched me more carefully. “But, I suspect you figured that out already.”

I suddenly felt like I understood. Why I didn’t want to leave. Why I had a hard time walking to the main door with the others. Why I was the only one to smell the roses and the vanilla all day. Why I was so comfortable with everything happening around me.

Madame de Exter sat back in her chair and shifted her feet to the side as her hands rested one on top of the other on her thigh. “Tonight was about me finding someone. Someone I need…someone like you.” Her gaze never faltered.

“Need? Me? How do you need me?”

Miss Sutherland cleared her throat. “You were right.” Amusement filled her voice.

“I’m sorry, Madame de Exter. I’m very confused. What’s happening here?”

“Amanda, please.” Madame de Exter didn’t face Miss Sutherland. Instead, she adjusted how she sat to move closer to me and her voice was calm and filled with warmth. “Please, Duncan, call me Juliet. The prospect is simple. I’m looking for a protégé, of sorts, and I trust you are the man for the job. I can promise it will be unlike anything you’ve ever done. It will open up a whole new world to you.”

“I… uh… I already have a job.” My heart skipped a beat.

“One that does not challenge nor particularly interest you.”

How does she know that?

“Is the job you offer dangerous?”

Her delicate hand waved a few times. “It’s possible but highly unlikely. However, there are risks. I won’t lie.”

“I try to avoid difficult situations.”

“I know.”

“Would I have to move here?”

“Of course.” Her gaze still on me. “You’d get to live here. In this house.”

I gulped and glanced around the room, the warmth of the fire and scent of the roses and vanilla filled my body with giddy excitement.

“But… um… I don’t know anyone here. What about my friends back home?”

“I’ll introduce you to people, and you already know Amanda and me.”

I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t find any more questions to ask.

“There will, of course, be challenges,” Juliet added. “You’ll need to learn a lot, but I don’t foresee that being a problem, assuming you’re interested.”

I knew this was a big deal for her. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew it. It was something new, however she had a face full of determination. I recognized in no way was this sexual in nature. So, as I saw it, I had two options: play it safe and leave or step out of my habits and take a chance.

I decided to take the money and run. For the first time that day, my body and mind were in 100 percent agreement. I was going to pass up on what was behind door number two. There was too much about this situation that made me uncomfortable.

I stood and faced both Juliet and Miss Sutherland. “I want to thank you for all this; the wonderful evening, the generous award, and the gracious offer.”

I took a breath, not moving.

They studied me carefully.

“When do I start?”

Chapter Four

For reasons I could not understand, I agreed to take the job, internship, or whatever it might turn out to be. I still had no idea. What I knew so far was this wouldn’t be simple. It wouldn’t involve protecting Juliet, although there would be potential danger. I assumed the danger could come from travel, but no one said. And I would probably not get to see my friends often. As enticing as I found it all, something wasn’t right, but for some reason, it didn’t matter. Every time something made me worry or feel uneasy, it was like the idea was plucked from my mind and flicked away.

So I remained oddly relaxed.

Miss Sutherland and Madame de Exter told me, once I settled into the house, things would become clear and make sense. They wanted me to trust the process. As such, I hadn’t left the estate since my arrival four days before. My bags had been brought to the house, my bill at the hotel settled, and my rental car returned. Everything was taken care of.

Amanda reminded me this was my new home, at least during my orientation and training. I was to drop the “Miss Sutherland” and “Madame de Exter” and refer to them as Amanda and Juliet. I even had a vehicle at my disposal. Adam, one of the house staff, showed me to a pristine 1955 Ford Thunderbird, a cheery apple red beauty with a white hard top. It was cool, and I wanted to drive the car but was terrified to scratch it. So, I sat in the car once but didn’t drive it.

Most of the time, Amanda had been the one to spend time with me. Juliet was busy with prior Foundation engagements and would see me when she had a break in her calendar. According to Amanda, my position was new for Juliet as well.

I’ll admit I was fine with the downtime. I enjoyed the hospitality, and I relished being in the house and the grounds. It was like a luxury resort I would never be able to afford.

Amanda remained vague on how long the orientation at the house would be, but I didn’t mind. Why should I? The house was nicer than any place I had ever lived, so this was a hardship I was happy to deal with. And the food was just as good as it had been on the night of the party, albeit not as fancy.

Amanda had only vague answers to my questions about salary and benefits. When I brought it up, she would smile in her welcoming way and say Juliet would go over all of that. I should have been annoyed, but if I was, the feeling quickly vanished from my mind.

So mostly I got to unwind and enjoy. I figured that technically I was still on vacation, so why not? I wasn’t worried about a thing, even though deep down I knew I should be.

Then I got a message from my friend Cindy. Cindy is the ying to my yang so to speak. Whenever I’m down, she’s right there to cheer me up. So when I looked at the text on my cell, I was a little surprised.

Good luck and much love—Cindy

That was all it said. The only reason I didn’t text her or even call her back at that moment was because, when the phone chirped, Amanda, almost on cue, walked through the french patio doors and came out to join me.

“Are you enjoying the afternoon, Duncan?” Amanda sat down next to me under the umbrella.

It was a warm sunny day, and Amanda was dressed in yet another tailored skirt suit in a pastel pink-peach color.

I took in the beautiful yard, and then I glanced at my smartphone again. “I am, but I’m starting to feel forgotten.” I tried to sort out my thoughts while getting my point across. “I don’t mean any disrespect, but you know, when do I start?”

“Forgotten? Definitely not.” Amanda offered a bright smile. “You’ve already started. You’ve been on the payroll since you agreed the other night. Juliet wanted to give you ample time to get acquainted with the house, the grounds, and the staff. There is no need to rush into things.” She chuckled. “Juliet is patient and never likes to hurry, even when pushed.”

“What do you mean ‘on the payroll’?” I was surprised. “I haven’t signed anything, and we haven’t talked about money or my salary. After I agreed, Juliet smiled and left, and you showed me to my room and said good night.” I pushed my tea away. I needed to take a breath before I started to yell, assuming I still could. “I’ve pretty much been on my own ever since. How could I possibly be on the payroll?”

This flustered me because even though I wasn’t impressed by money, it was still important. I had always struggled to keep my head above water, financially speaking. I didn’t make much money, and I didn’t have anyone who could help me out. I was alone.

“You can’t just make decisions like that without telling me.” The words came out harsher than I wanted them to, but I had bills to pay and, even if I was going to move out there, the credit card companies still wanted their money.

“Of course,” Amanda said after several long silent moments. “We never thought….” She shook her head. “I could see how that would be confusing for you, but Duncan, please understand this wasn’t done to hurt you in any way. Juliet has nothing but the best intentions when it comes to your well-being. She—well, we assumed that you wouldn’t want to have a lapse in your income, so she put you on salary immediately. In all honesty, it’s more like a stipend to keep you afloat. Nothing is set in stone, of course, and if you’re unhappy with the salary, it can easily be adjusted.” She smiled brightly. That always seemed to be her fallback.

My face and neck grew hot. “Ah…um, in that case, sorry.” That was about all I could say. I felt like a jerk. I’d been treated so well. The staff and everyone, including Amanda, had been nothing but wonderful to me.

“No harm done.” Amanda flipped the few loose strands of hair off her neck, grinning. “I’ve spoken with Juliet and scheduled a meeting for the two of you for later this evening, once she returns from the office.” She stood up, flattening the few wrinkles on her skirt while she viewed the yard. The sun shone down on the ground, filling it with a happy glow.

“Have you gone for a swim in the pool?” Amanda asked.

I was still seated. I should have stood, but I forgot.

“Um no.” I wasn’t overly comfortable with my body and swimsuits seemed to show more than I cared to reveal.

“You should,” Amanda said. “It’s very relaxing, and you’ll have it all to yourself this afternoon. It’s wonderful for swimming laps.” She pointed to the pool. “There are men’s Speedos in the pool house along with towels.”

“Speedos?”

Amanda chuckled. “There’s no one around. You could swim nude if you prefer.”

“I don’t think….” My neck was on fire again.

Amanda winked at me.

I pursed my lips.

“You’ll find a new business suit in your room.” Amanda started back to the main house. “If you don’t mind wearing that for your meeting with Juliet this evening, that would be lovely.”

I sat quietly for several minutes, staring where Amanda departed. “A new suit,” I muttered with a slight shake of my head.

Everything seemed to be moving so fast and yet at the same time nothing seemed to be happening. I reread the message from Cindy and muttered. “Perhaps, I’ll wait until after tonight to respond.”

It was possible, after tonight, I would be on my way home because I decided this wasn’t for me. It’s funny to think of all the lies we tell ourselves. I knew I wouldn’t call Cindy later that night. I didn’t want to call her. If I called, the dream would be over. I would wake up and be back in my dull, boring life with nothing exciting or adventurous waiting for me. None of this was in my mind at the time. It was only later that I came to understand this about myself.


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