The story is an excerpt (revised to fit contest guidelines) from Dragonflies, a full-length work-in-progress and deals with the harrowing cycle of abuse, duplicity and possessiveness abused women often find impossible to break free of, as in the case of Alexandra (Zan) one of the three main female characters in Dragonflies:
A short puff of breath chuffed from her lungs. She drew in another and held it. Still, the bed sheet trembled like the flutter of leaves on a quaking aspen against
Footsteps tapped across the hardwood floors from the kitchen to the rear door. Twenty-three. Twenty-four. Twenty-five confident Gucci strides. Always Gucci on Wednesday. Never Prada or Mauri. He switched Italian leather shoes as often as he did women.
The door closed with a soft click, and the Audi thrummed to life. After a moment’s pause the drone of the engine faded, the garage door groaned then thumped against the concrete. The purr of silence steeped through the empty stillness.
She allowed herself to relax and take in a full breath.
Zan squeezed her eyes and swallowed through the thick paste stuck to her throat. A black and white image formed behind her eyes like the negative from an old photograph, and for a moment—a shadow of memory—the other side of Nic Peretti stared back at her. The shiny side. The one she’d fallen in love with. And trusted. The longing for what once had been spilled warmly from her eyes.
Zan eased the sheet from her naked body and lowered her legs over the side of the bed. She reached under a heap of blankets to pet her little dog, and stared curiously at her wrists as her fingers stroked Lexi’s head. Dark bracelets of reddened skin circled the slender wrists. As if examining a foreign object, she turned her hands over, wincing as she caressed each one in turn between breasts, the bare skin a cooling balm. She rose and took a step. Air hissed through her teeth as raw pain throbbed between her legs, a bitter companion to the souvenir around her wrists. Forcing the tacit reminders to the back of her mind, she walked discreetly to the bathroom.
Fully dressed in workout clothes, she cinched her Brooks with a symmetrical knot and pulled a pair of pink Nike wristbands over her wrists, the soft cloth soothing as it embraced the inflamed skin. With a quick twist, she pulled long, patent leather hair into a tight ponytail and hurried to the kitchen, the little Shih Tzu at her heels. She paused. Her usual half of a plain bagel had been smeared with a thin layer of peanut butter. She tapped the counter with a manicured nail at the rarity.
“Why peanut butter today, Lexi?” Lexi’s ears perked, big brown eyes anxious. Zan shoved another bite into her mouth and washed it down with orange juice, precisely measured with enough ice cubes to imitate a full glass. A frown crept between her eyes. “Why’d he bother? It’s so thin it looks like baby poop.” She fed the little dog the last bite of roll. “I’m late, Lexi Girl,” she said, ruffling the little dog’s head. She blew Lexi a kiss and left for the gym, pausing at the hall mirror to wipe her eyes of the remnants of a shadowed night.
Zan jogged through the doors of Il Salotto Med Spa of Scottsdale fifteen minutes late and spotted Carmine pacing through the ellipticals, his face locked in hard concentration. Their eyes met briefly. He pulled his cell phone from his front pocket, spoke quickly, then stuffed the phone back in his pocket. Puzzled by his demeanor, Zan slowed.
Carmine acknowledged her with a wave and despite the towel wrapped around taut shoulders, he wiped beads of sweat from his brow with a sleeve stretched around a mountain of biceps. She’d been late before, but it hadn’t caused him so much as a ripple of uneasiness.
A simulated smile curled her mouth. “Sorry I’m late Carmine, but I failed miserably navigating a new short cut and got caught in traffic anyway,” she said, swallowing the lie.
“Let’s get started.” His jaw tensed. “And don’t take short cuts. Ever.”
A pause lengthened between them as she digested the words. “Are you all right?”
“You need to warm up. And weigh in.” He checked his watch.
“I don’t want to warm up!” She threw one leg over the nearest weight bench and sat, arms crossed defiantly. “What the hell is wrong with you today?”
“God, Zan,” he hesitated, raking his hand through a thick copse of dark, damp hair, “you’ve got to get moving. Nic…” Carmine pushed the towel over his face as if to wipe away whatever questions sparked between them. “Let’s go.”
Color drained from his face. “Zan, please.”
“Or what?” She straightened. “What are you going to do if I refuse?”
The corrosive nature of her own question startled her, and surprise froze on Carmine’s face, her intent to extract the truth mistaken for brashness. Carmine deserved better. Nic had arranged for him to train her, and once an athlete himself, he’d made it perfectly clear a toned wife pleased him. Carmine had busted his butt (and hers) to make it happen.
She raised an eyebrow.
“It’s not me I’m concerned about.”
She stood. “What’s that supposed to mean?” She inched closer, the spontaneous bravery moments from failing. “Who then? Me?” Her legs threatened to collapse beneath her. “Who’d you call, Carmine? What’d he want?”
“Don’t ask,” he cautioned, “it’s none of your business.”
Zan closed the distance between them. “When it concerns my husband,” she said, poking a finger into her chest, “it is my business.”
“Please. Just do your workout.”
“Not until you tell me what Nic said.”
The thin line of his lips parted, then pressed together as if guarding the truth. Tension fueled his muscles, but the storm left his eyes.
The calloused hard body softened. Beneath the Goliath surface, one muscle resisted the vigorous workouts. A curly redheaded four-year-old had once unzipped the tough guy armor and compassion had softened the battle gray eyes. Those same eyes locked with hers today. Zan pounced on the loose thread and prayed he’d unravel.
Carmine visibly relaxed. “I called Nic.”
“That much was obvious. What’d he want?
He met her eyes with a momentary pause, the cadence of footfalls and whir of treadmill motors creating a buffered wall around them. “Okay.” He threw up his hands. “He’s shadowing you.” His Adam’s apple bobbed with each word.
“That’s nothing new.”
“You don’t get it, Zan. This is crazy shit. Stalking is more like it. I have to check in with him when you get here and when you leave.”
Disbelief soured her spit.
Carmine lowered his eyes and picked at an imaginary nick in the gym floor with the toe of his Nike’s. “I didn’t want any part of this Zan, but God he can be persuasive.”
She lowered her eyes. “You have no idea.”
“He installed some sort of high tech GPS on your car bumper. Tracks routes, times. Has access twenty-four-seven.”
Zan exhaled loudly. “Nothing but the best for my Nic.”
The veins in his neck bulged. “It’s a fucking invasion of privacy!”
“Said he’d know if I lied to him,” he said with an overexaggerated swallow, “and insinuated I’d be sorry if I didn’t play along.” An abrupt survey of the gym brought his eyes back to her. “I have a daughter, Zan.” Carmine took her arm, his brow furrowed. “Who is this guy you’re married to?”
“I don’t know anymore.” Zan swallowed the bile rising in her throat. “He’s…different,” she said, her hands falling to her side, “he’s got a lot on his mind with this international merger.”
“You can make excuses for him Zan, but it’s still wrong. You’re his puppet, and the fucking devil’s pulling all the strings.”
Bitter realization stung her eyes as she grabbed her things. “Thanks for telling me the truth,” she said, blinking back tears. “He’ll never know you told me. You have my word.” She forced a smile and gripped his forearm in an unspoken pact. “Call him. Tell him I wasn’t feeling well and left early.”
“Be careful, Zan.” Carmine cupped her cheek and acknowledged the agreement with a restrained nod. “I don’t trust him.”
Alexandra Peretti set her shoulders and left the gym, exaggerated strides waning as uneasiness mounted. She’d settled into Nic’s generous lifestyle as easily as a sailboat rides a steady current. Pinpointing exactly when things had changed was impossible. Was it the first time he chose her meals? Her clothes? When the name Alexandra wasn’t good enough? Or last night?
He called her Zan. Exotic, he’d said. Narcissistic, she’d groaned and they’d laughed. He’d taken her right then, aroused by the mere whisper of the exotic name. Ten years later, he chose intensity over intimacy. Rarely, if ever, was he amused.
She approached the X5, stooped and reached behind the bumper. Her chin dropped to her chest and she shook her head to dispel the ridiculous idea of some sci-fi tracking device attached to her car. Surely Carmine was mistaken.
Zan settled herself into the BMW’s leather seat and turned onto Scottsdale Road, her thoughts a cocktail of confusion and doubt. Her body tensed, a shield against the truth of what she must do.
* * *
Nic Peretti placed himself above foolishness, but in a moment of mental amnesia, he’d lowered his guard and the angst of reckless stupidity tormented him. He paced the floor of his Phoenix office suite, tan Armani jacket pulled back behind hands planted firmly on his hips. He plowed a hand through thick, dark hair as disheveled as his tie, and kicked at nothing but air.
Blame could be placed on too much whiskey and the preoccupation with his first international merger. Or maybe the blame was hers. Or the sex. God, he’d wanted her the instant waves of dark hair spilled over her bare shoulders, down her back and through his fingers like honey-scented strands of silk. Hungry eyes stroked her endless legs from the tops of her flawless thighs to the strappy heels she’d worn—the black ‘come fuck me’ shoes. She’d consumed him with her perfection—a rough-cut diamond transformed into a brilliant Marquis solitaire—ten years in the making. A flawless merger of time and perfection.
But he’d carelessly allowed lust to dictate his actions. He knew the rules. They’d made it clear from the day he’d become a partner. Whores tended nights of reckless abandon—not the wife of a Kimberly-Denton-Peretti partner.
Unfamiliar with the ugly pangs of self-doubt, Nic grappled with the insecurity of his misadventure. Hell, wasn’t he an artful genius with business proposals? He perfected every angle of financial chicanery necessary to deliver a packaged deal sweet enough for the palettes of any company’s governing board, but last night’s mindless blunder needed favor before the cancerous tumor spread.
The fine lines of thirty-six years dug furrows across Nic’s brow. He straightened his tie, and with the movement reminiscent of his football days, swung the office doors wide open. Waving off a sputtering assistant, he left the nineteenth floor of Kimberly-Denton-Peretti.
Nic pulled to a stop from the underground parking garage and paused for a break in Central Avenue traffic. The tires squealed as he grabbed the first gap and engaged the Bluetooth.
Angelo answered on the second ring. “Hey Nic, what’s hangin’ big guy?” he said, smacking his lips.
Nic bristled. “Got a job for you.”
“Sure buddy,” Angelo mumbled, his mouth obviously crammed with some artery clogging poison.
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” A visit to the repulsive man-toad was necessary. Liking it wasn’t.
Nic entered the landfill Angelo called an office five minutes sooner than expected. One misplaced fat cell from genius, Angelo wallowed in digital filth and chose to park his overabundant ass behind a computer screen.
Angelo’s eyes disappeared into the folds of a broad smile. “Whoa, buddy,” he said, sucking bits of tuna from sausage-like fingers, “you’re way early.”
“By the time you wipe that shitty grin off your face and clean the crap out of your teeth, I’ll be right on time.” Nic checked his Rolex. “You’ve got two minutes.”
Angelo shimmied into his computer chair, poked a stick of gum in his mouth and swiveled around—a hairless toad who hacked computers and pissed people off. The digital hit-man triggered Nic’s inner radar into high alert—the sole reason he’d remained an anonymous number on his payroll.
“Okay, dude. I’m all ears.”
“How fast can you get me the data from her computer, iPhone and the Beemer?”
“How soon ya need it?”
“Everything. Shopping sites. Travel.”
Fat fingers clicked the keyboard. “Got lady troubles, do we?”
Nic slapped his hands on the counter and leaned forward. “Shut it, you little prick.” Air hissed through flared nostrils. “Send the info to my personal iPhone. You’ve got the number,” he said with painful restraint. If the repulsive man-toad had been within reach, he’d have chosen a more persuasive message, preferably with a wad of his shirt twisted in his hands three inches from his bulbous face.
“Sure, big guy. I didn’t mean anything—”
“I pay you more money than your sorry ass is worth to keep your mouth shut and ask no questions. Got it?”
“Sure thing, buddy,” he croaked, tapping away. “Couple of hours max.”
Nic leaned over the monitor. “And I’m not your ‘dude’, your ‘big guy’ or your fucking ‘buddy’.”
Angelo raised his hands. “Sure. No problem, Nic.”
Nic slapped the monitor before the man-toad could piss him off any further, shoved the door with both hands and left, the blast of winter air a cool salve on simmering nerves.
* * *
Zan brushed bronzer over her cheeks, more to please Nic and calm her nerves than to hide any non-existent flaws on what Nic referred to as perfect, porcelain skin. A spritz of Coach perfume between store-bought cleavage and like most conquests in Nic’s flawless world, she was primed and ready.
She adjusted the swooping folds of material draped from a single shoulder, smoothed the lines of the deep blue sequined gown and entered the living room at the precise time the groan of the garage door announced his arrival. She inhaled a long, deep breath and smoothed the waves of dark hair over the bare shoulder, then placed four small, crystal clear ice cubes in an Old Fashioned glass and several in another. Over the four she poured enough Crown Royal XR to cover the ice plus exactly one finger more. The ice tinkled as she poured herself two shots of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum and added a splash of Diet Coke; her rendition of the simulated courage needed to implement the first leg of her plan and steady her trembling hands.
Nic’s footfalls grew louder and his voice more demanding as he approached through the hallway. She raised her glass to air. Welcome home.
“Take care of it before morning,” he barked at someone he obviously considered a moron. Zan sipped her drink, the spicy warmth surging through her limbs. Nic rounded the corner into the living room, smiled and laced an arm around her waist. She forced a smile and against her own inclination, leaned into his touch.
"My Crown ready?”
“Of course.” Zan handed him the drink. Their eyes met. Dark discs of cold distance melted into medallions of warm chocolate. No. She lowered her lashes. “Dinner’s almost ready. Salmon. I thought we could eat in tonight.”
“Perfect.” He took a long drink and set both their glasses aside. “I’ve missed you,” he said, his breath a warm whisper. He brushed the hair from her shoulder and pressed his lips to the exposed skin. A shiver feathered her spine. No.
“Can we talk before dinner?”
Nic’s dark eyes scanned her body. “Mmm. Whatever you want.”
The shiny side.
“I’d like to spend some time at the cabin. Alone.” She rubbed a hand across the pebbles of gooseflesh spreading over her arms, his touch chipping at the mental armor.
He pushed her to arm’s length and took her hands in his. “Alone?”
“Yes. Just Lexi and I.”
Nic brought her wrists to his mouth, closed his eyes and showered the vicious circles with tender kisses, the deep crimson bracelets dotted with patches of putrid yellow-green. “We’ll talk after dinner. I have a surprise for you.”
No. Zan frowned. “I don’t need anything.”
“Sometimes needs aren’t what they seem,” he said, and pulled her into his powerful embrace. “You need time? After the Anderssen deal closes, I’m taking you to Italy. Reservations are pending.”
Words failed her. The cabin. Her plans. A smile curved the corners of her mouth to mask the inner turmoil.
“There’s my girl.” He brushed a finger over her nose. “Now, how’d you fix the salmon?”
He eased her head into the familiar curve of his shoulder, the pulse of his heart a steady rhythm against her ear. “The way you like it. Blackened with a bit of Cajun,” she breathed into his jacket.
“Hot and spicy.” One hand cradled her chin and drew it upward, his eyes heavy-lidded, and dark. His lips closed around hers with a kiss deep and possessive. “Like the evening I have planned,” he breathed, the pungent aroma of whiskey a heady punctuation to his words.
His fingers feathered her skin with skilled proficiency, tracing the line of her bodice from one breast to the other, then his mouth sought the same pleasure. Her skin purred beneath the touch of his lips to the generous swell. She gasped. “You’re perfect, Alexandra. And you’re mine.”
Nic took both wrists and kissed them tenderly. She answered his quiet testimony with a subtle smile.
A tarnished coin polished to original luster.
The shiny side.
And he said he was sorry.
(copyright 2014 Susan Haught)
Photo courtesy: By fotographic1980, published on 15 August 2012
Stock Image - image ID: 10097127