Frayed Page 1

CHAPTER 1

Come a Little Closer

Ben

The sign behind the bar reads:

WANTED . . .

THAT CRYSTAL ASHTRAY YOU FILCHED.

THE MONOGRAMMED TOWELS YOU TOTED OFF IN YOUR SUITCASE.

THOSE SCOTTISH-MADE LINEN NAPKINS YOU POCKETED.

IF YOU TOOK ANY OF THESE ITEMS IN THE LAST SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS . . .

WE WOULD LIKE THEM BACK.

PLEASE!

Resting my elbows on the slick surface of the bar, I gesture to the sign.

The bartender shrugs. ’’Don\ ask me, I only serve the drinks.’’

A cute cocktail waitress slinks up beside me and slides her drink order across the bar. While she waits she crooks a finger and bends toward me at such at angle that her ample cle**age spills out. My eyes naturally fall to it, but I quickly force them away when the bartender\s voice booms over to us loudly.

’’Lucy, gin or vodka in the martini?’’ he asks her sternly.

’’Vodka.’’ But she doesn\ let her gaze wander and crooks her finger at me yet again.

’’Rumor has it that management is looking to open a museum,’’ she whispers in my ear.

I straighten and lift an eyebrow. ’’Interesting way to go about filling it.’’

’’They\ e even willing to give recognition to anyone who returns the items.’’

I raise my glass. ’’I\ll keep that in mind.’’

’’I can show you what they\ve collected so far if you\ e interested. I have time to take a break before dinner is served.’’

Her body language and the seductive tone of her voice tell me she\s offering more than a quick glance in a closet. I admit to contemplating the offer. The devil on my shoulder reminds me what a bittersweet day today is and that getting lost for a while doesn\ sound so bad. But another, stronger, voice declares that the days of needing to get lost in women are long behind me.

My foot taps the stool rung at an increasing speed. ’’Maybe another time,’’ I tell her as nicely as I can manage, with a mental pat on the back.

A year ago I would have taken her up on her offer, unzipped my pants, lifted her skirt, and f**ked her from behind without even thinking twice about it. She shrugs and bats her eyelashes at me as she puts her drink order on a tray. When she leaves she turns and winks, tossing over her shoulder, ’’I\ll be back. Maybe you\ll change your mind.’’

What is she, the f**king Terminator? I loosen my bow tie, not able to stand another minute of restraint. And once I can breathe, I blink away any second thoughts. At the sound of a soft sigh coming from the bartender, I lift my eyes toward him. He looks forlorn and so I\m pretty sure he\s crushing on the cocktail waitress.

’’She\s never asked me to see the items in storage,’’ he mumbles.

’’Take the lead, man, and ask her.’’

He seems to contemplate the idea.

Leaving him to ponder my suggestion, I turn around and lean against the brass rail to survey the room. Legend has it that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded here, that World War II military men used it as their recreation facility, and that John F. Kennedy\s nomination for president happened in this very space. The historic Biltmore Hotel has served great people who have done amazing things. And I can\ believe I\m here.

Turning back around, I sip the rest of my sparkling water and push the glass toward the bartender. ’’Thanks, man.’’

’’Anytime, and, sir . . .’’

I look over toward him.

’’Congratulations,’’ he says.

’’Thank you. And hey, think about what I said take the lead.’’

He laughs before resuming his work. When he steps aside I catch sight of myself in the mirror behind the bar. For a minute I can\ help thinking about how damn lucky I am to have gotten a second chance at life. I was a dead man, a man who then lost sight of what mattered and then fell over the edge. But somehow after everything I went through, I was tugged back up by life and able to land on my feet.

A beep from my phone alerts me I have a text. I pull it out and smile at the screen Dahlia London. I know her name is Dahlia Wilde now, but to me she\ll always be Dahlia London the beautiful blond-haired girl with the tiniest of noses, heart-shaped lips, and a love of the beach that could only be matched by mine. She moved in next door when we were five and we spent our whole lives together. For the longest time I thought she was the one made for me. I even asked her to marry me. But then after things in my job went wrong, I entered the witness protection program . . . leaving her to think I was dead. When I came back years later, she was in love with someone else.

Time made me realize our love was one of comfort and familiarity, not true undying love. I don\ think I\ve experienced the latter, but I see it in her eyes. Sure, I struggled for a while before coming to terms with the fact that she has moved on, but we\ e in a good place now.

I read her text.

I just wanted to say congratulations and I was thinking of you today.

With a smile, I type out my reply,

Thank you. That means a lot to me.

Switching my phone to vibrate, I slide it back in my pocket. She\ll always be important to me and I hope she\ll always be in my life, as a friend.

A hand on my shoulder pulls me from my thoughts. ’’You ready for this?’’

I glance over. ’’Couldn\ be readier.’’

Then Jason makes his way to the front of the room and his husky voice is amplified to fill the space. ’’I\d like to have everyone\s attention if I could please.’’


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