Teresanna Benton dropped her two costumed daughters at the library for an after school gathering with a Halloween theme, then turned her car around to head toward the high school. She had received a very cryptic text from her son, Chase, stating only that there had been "bully problems" after school, and although he was "fine", the school principal needed to speak to her. There had been "bully problems" since second grade, when Chase began to be one of the better students and had made other students, many of whom were struggling with their school work, quite jealous. When the taunts and jibes began to turn into swirlies and trash cannings, Kyle began bringing his son to the dojo in Milo for self defense classes.
Unfortunately, although the bullying had eased somewhat by the time he finished middle school, Chase was looking more and more like his handsome father each year, and when he entered high school that September, the high school girls were quick to take notice. Dancing green eyes with a slight oriental tilt peered out of a strongly boned face beneath a frequently unkempt looking mop of wavy dark hair. A tall, still somewhat gangly frame and a quick smile made him popular with the ladies, but the upperclassmen weren't very appreciative of the competition, and the bullying had begun to escalate again. Biting her lip as she parked her car, Teresanna could only hope that Chase was truly "fine" and not bleeding like he had been the last time she went to collect him when he had texted her about "bully problems".
Entering the almost empty hallways, she immediately became aware of the distant sound of shouting voices, which grew ever louder as she made her way to the principal's office. Worried that one of those voices could well belong to her son, she hurried along as fast as she could without actually running, only vaguely aware of the eyes of the few teen boys still in the halls watching her as she passed. It wasn't until she entered the main office and saw Chase sitting with the secretary, holding an ice pack to the right side of his face, that she allowed herself a relaxing breath and started noticing all the tiny details of the world around her again, starting with the worried look in the green eyes that turned her way.
"Ah, Mrs. Benton!" the secretary greeted cheerfully, "I'll tell Mr. Murray you're here."
Before the secretary could get out of her chair, however, the door to the principal's office popped open, spilling the argument that had been going on into the main office mid-sentence.
"....and I'll sue you for not protecting the children we entrust to you to educate!" one man was shouting as he made his exit, followed by two other men, one of whom looked angry while the other looked abjectly uncomfortable. Teresanna identified the shouting man as Henry Reynolds, who had moved to the area from Massachusetts five years prior. The second angry man was the principal, Mr. Murray, and the uncomfortable man was John Bean, who had grown up in Greenville, but whose son seemed to worship Henry Reynolds's son, Brock, even when following Brock got him into major trouble.
"Mr. Reynolds, suing me will not make me allow your son to return to school until he has served the school board mandated suspension for starting a fight on school grounds, and you may want to tell your lawyer that I have the whole thing on the school security tapes this time!" Mr. Murray, despite the obvious anger on his face, was using the no-nonsense tone that all the students knew too well. "You do remember being head of the committee that collected the funds for the security cameras, don't you?"
Mr. Reynolds started to sputter, trying to think of a comeback, but that was when Mr. Bean nudged him and drew everyone's attention to Teresanna. Mr. Murray beamed, seeing no anger directed his way.
"Mrs. Benton, so sorry to keep you waiting."
"No problem," she assured the principal, "I can see that you had other things to deal with."
The displeasure in her almond shaped eyes as she looked at the two men whose sons had obviously been involved in this latest attack on her offspring made the men shuffle, suddenly remembering exactly who she was married to. Although John Bean had grown up with Kyle and Henry Reynolds had only encountered him when trying to force the townspeople to develop the area into a semblance of the Massachusetts he’d left, both knew that Kyle was not a man who would just lie down and let them blame his son for starting something their children were responsible for.
Mr. Murray saw the change in the demeanor of both men and tried not to smile. The small woman had, without a single word, reminded them of whom their sons had targeted, and effectively negated the threat of the school being sued. He continued on.
"I was just suspending two out of the six boys who made your son miss his bus. The other four are waiting for their parents to come and get them, at which time their parents will also be informed that they are being suspended for bullying, and since it‘s not their first offense, they won‘t be coming back." He ignored the surprise on the faces of both men that indicated they hadn‘t realized who their sons had been associating with. "Now then, if you gentlemen would please follow Miss Ross to the nurse‘s station, your boys should be ready to go home."
Turning his back on the two men as a signal for them to leave, he indicated his office to Teresanna and Chase, who obediently went inside with him. As the office door closed behind them, he sighed and allowed the rest of his remaining anger to dissipate. By the time the two Bentons had seated themselves and Mr. Murray had made his way around his desk to take his own seat, a wry smile was affixed to his face and his eyes were twinkling.
“Could you fill me in about what happened this afternoon?” Teresanna asked, and Mr. Murray gave her a brilliant smile.
“Courtesy of the committee that insisted we needed security cameras, I can show you what happened. Unfortunately, you‘ll need your son to explain some of what it is you‘re seeing, as they didn‘t pay for microphones to be able to have sound with our visual, and a lot of it appears to be just a verbal disagreement.”
Teresanna watched the security tape in silence as the after school ritual of the students milling around, trying get onto the buses that would take them to their homes, unfolded. Chase passed through the crowd with a couple of friends, but when they got onto a bus and he continued alone toward his bus, he was suddenly surrounded by a large group of boys, most of whom were wearing school football jerseys. Brock Reynolds, the star quarterback, seemed to be the one in charge of the group, as he shoved Chase while his mouth was running a mile a minute. The buses started pulling away and there were fewer and fewer students around, leaving Chase and the majority of the football team alone in front of the school.
“Brock and his cronies stopped me because he said he’d heard some ugly rumors about Cassie Plourde and I.” Chase said softly in explanation as the scene unfolded. “He accused me of all kinds of nasty things that might have incited the others to think that I should be severely beaten, if not lynched, for soiling a good girl’s reputation.”
But as Brock continued to talk, the other boys in the football jerseys started to look uncomfortable, then slip away from the group in twos and threes, until the only ones left wearing jerseys were Brock and Jason Bean. The other four boys were bullies from Chase’s grade school years, who hadn‘t matured enough to stop the bullying, especially when they thought their victim was outnumbered. Chase continued his soft commentary with a wry observation.
“Obviously Brock didn’t rehearse his little speech, because he shifted from trying to defend his girlfriend’s honor to admitting that she’d told him during an argument that she thought I was cute, and she wanted to break up with him so we could date. When the team realized that they had been recruited to teach me a lesson when I hadn‘t done anything wrong, they decided that discretion was the better part of valor.”
Teresanna’s jaw dropped open and she almost came out of her seat when two of the boys grabbed Chase’s arms in response to something Brock said, holding him still while Brock delivered a left hook to the side of his face. Chase seemed to slump in response to the hit, but then erupted into action so fast that it was hard for the human eye to catch everything that happened. Lifting his feet off the ground, he put his entire weight on the two boys holding him so that they were pulled off balance, then he dropped his feet back down with enough force to lunge upward, breaking their grasp on his arms. As soon as his hands were free, he retaliated for Brock’s strike with an uppercut that knocked Brock onto his back where he lay still, apparently knocked unconscious.
Seeing his fearless leader down, Jason leapt into action, taking a swing that Chase easily avoided before delivering a defensive strike of his own. When Jason joined Brock on the ground, also seemingly knocked unconscious, the other four boys seemed to realize that the odds weren’t as stacked in their favor as they may have hoped, so they turned to run. Unfortunately for them, the security officer and several of the teachers had caught on to what was happening, so the four boys were swiftly stopped, getting taken into the school while Chase finally allowed himself to react to the left hook by wiping blood off his lip with the back of his hand.
Mr. Murray turned off the tape and turned to see Teresanna's dark eyes fixed firmly on her son, who seemed to squirm before he slowly lowered the ice pack, showing off the swollen right side of his mouth and cheek. Trying hard to look stern, she pulled his face around so she could get a better look, then smiled.
"No stitches this time, at least."
Chase's hand automatically went toward his left shoulder, where his last encounter with the group he'd started calling the fearsome foursome had left a permanent scar from a knife one of the boys had pulled on him. He stopped himself, but he gave them a look that said he was still expecting some punishment for giving the quarterback a concussion just a couple of weeks before homecoming. With a kind smile, Mr. Murray sent the boy out to wait in the outer office while he finished his discussion with Teresanna. As the door closed, Mr. Murray leaned against his desk and took a careful assessment of Teresanna's demeanor, which was very relaxed, as she did her own assessment of the principal.
"He's not in any trouble for this is he?" she asked softly, and Mr. Murray gave a soft snort.
"Not on your life! In my opinion, he did exactly what he had to do to get out of that situation."
"Seeing the bruise on his face, I suspect his father will agree with you, and probably encourage him to take all the boys down next time."
Mr. Murray laughed as he opened the door to escort her out, finding that the mother of one of the other bullies had arrived while they talked. The woman was staring at Chase with the appreciative look in her eyes that Teresanna had become used to seeing directed at her husband. With a sigh, she admitted to herself that her handsome son was going to break as many hearts as her husband had, and she only hoped that this battle over a girl wasn't going to become a common occurrence.
Chase remained silent until they got into the car and were on the way back to the library to pick up the girls. While staring out the window at the passing buildings, he sighed and expressed the very thought his mother had before they left the school.
"I remember Dad telling me about how this happened to him, and the way I scoffed at the thought that girls would ever find me cute." His next words had his mother fighting not to laugh even as her heart ached for him. "I'm not ready to be a heartbreaker."
Chase fell silent again, and there was nothing but the sound of the radio for several minutes before his sense of humor returned with a bang.
"Maybe I should just start wearing a bag on my head."
Teresanna finally allowed the laugh out, feeling much better about the day. The first few times that Chase had been targeted, he had come home in tears and been depressed for months. He was showing a large amount of maturity by being able to just allow the day's violence to slip away and calmly joke about the apparent cause, over which he, unfortunately, had no control.
His mood changed again, however, when they entered the library and everyone seemed to be staring at the bruise on his face. Although he was smiling and joking about how he had managed to get such a bruise, never coming near the truth, Teresanna saw the troubled look in his eyes. and she saw again the hurt child he had been.
On the ride home, Chase told 12-year-old Lynn and 10-year-old Angela the truth. Both girls loudly proclaimed him a slow poke for not managing to take out all six boys, making him laugh as they compared him to Jackie Chan.
“Yeah, but slower.” Lynn insisted.
Chase got very sober again as they arrived home and he saw his father adding more fake tombstones to their Halloween Cemetery display. He always got a little nervous about telling his father about another incident, for some reason always worried that he would be blamed for starting the fight, even though Kyle had always listened to the facts before passing judgment. He let the girls jump out first and run over for hugs, both looking like miniature versions of Teresanna, before he took a deep breath and got out himself. Kyle looked past his wife and toward the car, still smiling about whatever Angela had just said, but his face changed dramatically when he spotted his eldest offspring. In long, furious strides, he was at Chase’s side in an instant, taking a very close look at the bruise.
“Who did this?” he rumbled, his tightly controlled anger obvious in his deep voice. His palpable anger made Chase take a deep breath before he answered.
“Brock Reynolds, and five others.”
Kyle took a closer assessment of his son’s condition, but when he didn’t see any other obvious damage, his temper started to cool a little.
“So what happened?”
Chase gave a very short assessment of what Teresanna had witnessed on the video, not mentioning that the whole football team had been in on it at first. She saw the same flash of anger in Kyle's eyes that she had felt when Chase told of the two boys holding his arms, allowing Brock to get in the first punch. When Chase mentioned, with regret in his tone, that both Brock and Jason had concussions, she saw pride replace the anger. And when Chase finished, Kyle did as the girls had done; he tried to lighten the mood.
"You getting slow in your old age? You should have been able to do six concussions!"
Smiling at his father, Chase shook his head.
"The little wimps ran off in four different directions!"
Kyle gave his son a playful punch to the arm before he called the girls to see if they wanted to help him put up more decorations. Chase collected his backpack and went up to his room, still hearing Brock's accusations in his head. He would never share the quarterback's words with his parents, but the words still stung a part of him that was seeking the acceptance of his peers.
"Freshman boys and senior girls DON'T date!" Brock had repeated that one more than once. It seemed to be some sort of rule as far as Brock was concerned, and it didn't seem to matter than Chase had no interest in a cheerleader who was obviously someone else's girl. It was when Chase had pointed out that he had no control over his looks, nor how Cassie reacted to them, that Brock had told the other boys to hold him.
"Let me help you with those looks!" Brock had growled just before his fist connected with Chase's jaw. "No one will find you good looking when I'm done with you!"
Laying back on his bed and staring at the ceiling, Chase thought about how many times he'd been abused by the boys like Brock, all for things beyond his control. His looks, his brain, his father's money, all were things that he should be abused for if he tried to be humble and not be like Brock, who was all “in your face” about the fact that his father had money, and he had a natural talent for football. He thought about the girls he had as friends, and the shallow ones like Cassie Plourde who were out to get the cutest and richest guys just to say they could.
But if he started acting like them to make them stop beating on him, didn't that make him as bad as then? Wasn't there another way to make them stop?
As he thought about the security camera, he started thinking about some of the moves he could have made. It was too bad he couldn't show some of the really tough moves to the other students. Maybe they would realize he was actually dangerous and stop picking on him. That was when a text came in from one of his friends, who was trying to talk him into doing something for the school's Talent Show, and Chase had what his mother often referred to as "a eureka moment".
"I should do a martial arts demo." he murmured, then went to find his father.
Kyle helped him all that snowy weekend, and when Chase went back to school on Monday, he had a new confidence that things would work out well for him in high school. Except for the bruise on his face, he was a new man, and was joking with his friends on the way into the building when Cassie Plourde stopped him.
"I'm sorry Brock did that," she said quickly as soon as their friends had moved on, "I was just trying to make him jealous because he's been talking about other women in front of me."
Chase couldn't speak for several minutes. He had been surrounded, yelled at and punched because she wanted to make her boyfriend jealous? Before he could stop himself, he gave her a devilish smile and leaned slightly forward, seeing a spark of interest on her face as she looked into his sparkling eyes.
"Cassie, it's great if you really find me cute, because I'd love to see you drop your quarterback boyfriend for this measly little freshman." Then he let the fury rise up and became very menacing, trying not to care when the fear showed in Cassie's eyes. "But if you ever use me like that again, you better watch out."
He turned and strode away from her, not looking back, and met back up with his friends a little way down the hall. Wade, his best friend since kindergarten, was giving him a comical look of shock.
"Who are you and what have you done with Chase?" he asked, and Chase sighed.
"I just want the nonsense to stop." he admitted, and since it was Wade who had suggested the talent show, he continued, "Just wait until you see what I'm doing as my talent."
Chase and Kyle stood side by side in the hallway, doing an exercise in calm breathing, centering themselves while waiting for Chase's turn to perform. They had been practicing every evening and had the routine down to split second timing. Chase was feeling more confident every day that he was going to win this round with the bullies, and was very hopeful that he might be able to make it through high school without any more stitches.
When Chase was called to perform, he explained about the basics of Tae Kwon Do and the other martial arts that he had been introduced to. He and Kyle did an almost dance-like series of moves to warm and loosen their muscles, then Kyle put on a set of padded gloves, and Chase was challenged to connect with the pads as Kyle called out which hand or foot he wanted Chase to use. Kyle ended that part of the demonstration by holding his left hand out at shoulder height and challenged his son, with a gleam in his eye, to hit the pad with his right foot, something they hadn't practiced. A look of determination crossed Chase's face, and he surprised his father by managing to do so in the form of a jumping reverse hook kick. The auditorium erupted into applause.
Chase had intended to just end the show there, but when he turned his back to his father, Kyle flipped the shirt of his uniform inside out, changing the color from white to black, then pulled out a ninja mask and pulled it on. A small noise alerted Chase, and he acted entirely on instinct. The brief fight that ensued had the audience gasping as both men pulled out moves that seemed to be inhuman, and both were breathing hard from the exertion when Kyle pulled the hood off and put up his hands in surrender, smiling from ear to ear.
It wasn't until the next day, when everyone started treating him with the utmost respect, that he realized the special gift his father had given him by changing the ending of his demonstration. It proved what he could really do if pushed to defend himself, and most of the students had understood: it was a warning.
He might survive high school after all....
Chase Benton sighed as the big, rusty mailbox with the name “Boudreaux” in faded green letters came into view, slowing the truck and looking into all his mirrors to insure there were no other vehicles on the narrow dirt road before he began the task of backing his eighteen wheeler into his friend’s driveway. It was a tricky business, but something he had done many times before, as his Uncle Jack always made sure that Chase had a couple of days to visit with the Boudreaux family whenever he was anywhere close to New Orleans. Although Cody, the youngest of the Boudreaux clan, was several years older that Chase, the two had become fast friends when Chase first started driving for Jack and Benny Trucking, and Chase had delivered liquor to the bar where Cody worked. Jack had noted the difference in Chase’s tone of voice whenever he got to visit with Cody, as there was something about the little Cajun that made his intense nephew relax for a bit, so Jack was more than willing to give Chase a mini vacation in the south lands whenever he could.
Although Chase himself couldn’t explain what it was about Cody that made him feel more relaxed, it was a feeling that even permeated the air around the little shack in the bayou that Cody called home. As soon as the truck was parked under the huge oak tree that was liberally festooned with Spanish moss, Chase felt as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Blasting his air horn to chase away any snakes or spiders before he opened his door, Chase watched the shack’s door for a couple of minutes to see if Cody was at home, but when there was no response, he grabbed his duffle bag out of the sleeper and locked up the truck.
Watching his feet to make sure he didn’t disturb any fire ant nests as he crossed to the porch, he listened to the sounds of the bayou that Cody had insisted were like a natural symphony meant to sooth a man’s soul. There were the soft songs of several species of birds, a chirping of crickets, the croak of a big bull frog somewhere close to the back of the garage, and even a bellow in the far distance that Cody had once told him was a big bayou alligator looking for either a mate or a fight. By the time he was reaching for the hidden key to Cody’s door, Chase was smiling.
After showering, putting on deodorant, brushing his teeth, and changing into a clean pair of jeans and a plain black t-shirt, he gave himself a very critical once-over in the mirror, trying to decide if he should shave before going into the bar in New Orleans where Cody was no doubt doing what the Cajun called “holding court”. After a couple of minutes of making faces at himself, he decided that the couple of days of beard growth and the hair that badly needed a trim made him look a little older and, perhaps, a bit more dangerous, so he just spritzed on a little Axe cologne and tossed all his belongings on the bed in the room Cody always let him use. He carefully made sure to lock the door and replace the hidden key, knowing how picky Cody could be about such things.
On his way out toward the garage where Cody let him store a motorcycle to use when in town, he took a quick detour to his truck to retrieve his leather jacket, as he hated the sting of bugs hitting his exposed flesh more than he hated the overheating that wearing the jacket sometimes caused. A button on his key chain opened the automatic door on the garage, also turning on a bright light that sent a couple of snakes slithering out the door, and glistened off the polished motorcycle that waited for him. The smell of wax in the air and the brand new helmet on the seat told him that Cody had been expecting him, and was hinting that he thought his young friend needed to protect his head. Although tempted to leave the helmet in the garage just for spite, Chase decided it might be nice of him to humor the older man, so he strapped the helmet on before peeling rubber, leaving a long black stripe on the cement floor that he was fairly sure he’d be required to clean off before he went back out on the road at the end of the weekend. Pausing at the end of the driveway, he pushed the button on his key chain and watched to make sure the garage door closed all the way before speeding off toward town.
Parking his motorcycle next to Cody’s in a parking lot near the French Market, he tucked the new helmet under his arm and made his way to the bar a couple of blocks away, brushing his still-damp hair into some semblance of order with one hand. Several women tried to catch his eye as he walked by, and although he saw them, he totally ignored them, giving one exceptionally bold one who touched him a glare cold enough to freeze her to the spot before continuing on his way. He glanced back at her as he reached for the door and, although she watched him, she didn’t make another move his way. Like his father before him, he was starting to find the attention he received for his looks to be almost an annoyance, and wondered if it was wrong of him to wish for a disfiguring accident so that women would take notice of him for his personality instead of just his looks for a change . . .
He pulled open to door to the bar and stepped inside, pausing to give his eyes time to adjust to the dim interior. Despite it being only 4 p.m., the bar was already hopping with locals and tourists enjoying the drink specials and complimentary snacks that came with Happy Hour, but it didn’t take Chase long to locate Cody. The wiry Cajun looked up from the bar and bellowed “Chase! Mon frere! Come on in and ‘ave a seat!”
As Chase made his way over to a bar stool next to the waitress station, several of the patrons whom he’d met on earlier trips greeted him as well, and he did his best to remember all the names to greet them in return. Those whose names he couldn’t recall were greeted with a generic “Good to see you” as he passed, and he settled himself on the stool feeling like some sort of local celebrity. When he set the helmet on the bar, Cody removed it, then set a drink in front of him before he had time to order, and Chase made a show of sniffing suspiciously at the innocent looking soda before taking a sip, finding that it was a liberally mixed rum and coke. Coughing as the rum burned all the way from his mouth to his stomach, he looked up at Cody, who was grinning from ear to ear.
“I t’oght you should ’ave one good strong drink, den da res’ are just coke. I ’ave five hours before I can go anywhere, so I want to make sure you don‘t get too drunk to drive ‘ome.”
“Thanks!” Cody said in something between a hiss and a groan, making it sound as if the drink had burned a hole in his voice box, and all the patrons close by laughed. Cody just rolled his eyes and hurried off to the other end of the bar to refill a drink for someone who was signaling for attention.
While Chase nursed his drink, the waitresses coming to the bar to order drinks and food for their assigned tables all spoke with him, and since many of them were related to Cody either by blood or marriage, they caught him up to all the news of the extended Boudreaux family while Cody was busy dashing back and forth behind the bar. It was Cody’s petite cousin, Josette, who drew the most of Chase’s attention, however, as she was working with a cast on one wrist and kept glancing over her shoulder as if she was expecting some sort of trouble. She kept insisting that everything was fine, but her pale blue eyes had a haunted look, and even Cody was watching the patrons more intently than normal.
When the second bartender came on duty at 6, Cody was able to spend more time talking to his young friend, and insisted that Chase have some of the cook’s award winning jambalaya for dinner. The plate had just been cleared away and Chase was downing his second after dinner glass of straight coke, laughing at Cody’s teasing that he wasn’t a real man if he couldn’t handle the spice from the jambalaya, when the bar door was yanked open with a bang and a large man came in, obviously already drunk, and announced his presence by bellowing for Josette. Although she went white as a sheet, she continued to take care of her customers as if nothing was happening, making her way back to the bar with a tray full of glasses to place the order for another round. The newcomer spotted her and stumbled his way over, but not in time to catch her at the bar. Undisturbed, he ordered a beer and stood at the waitress station for her to return.
“Don’t you be makin’ no mischief tonight, Beau, y’hear?” Cody said as he handed the man his beer, but Beau didn’t respond. He just leaned against the bar next to Chase’s elbow as if he expected the youth to give up his stool. The look on Cody’s face was all Chase needed to see to know that he was required to act like Beau’s presence wasn’t disturbing him and stay where he was.
Josette returned to the waitress station with another tray of empty glasses just as Chase was nearing the punch line of a joke he was telling Cody. She loudly asked Beau to move out of the space so she could put down her tray, and he took one step back, but as she settled the tray on the bar, he leaned in and asked her in a most impolite way if she was selling herself to any of the men she was serving drinks to. Cody, who was looking at Chase at the time, saw something happen then that he had never seen in his many years working as a bartender. He would later describe it to the rest of his family in these words: “One minute, Chase is smiling and telling me jokes, and de next minute, it’s like someone flip a switch. I ‘aven’t seen a look that cold even in the eyes of a rattlesnake just before he make a try for you.”
Turning his head to look at the man who had just insulted his friend’s cousin, Chase spoke in a tone that was politely conversational even as his eyes turned into two chips of green ice.
“What did you just say to her?”
Never having seen such a cold look on Chase’s face in the entire time she’d known him, Josette wisely took several steps back away from him. Beau, not realizing the danger, stepped even closer, leaning in to impress upon the boy that he was much bigger and much tougher.
“I’m calling a spade a spade, as if it’s any of your business, punk!”
“Maybe it’s time for you leave if you can’t be nice.” Chase’s voice never wavered from that calm, conversational tone, but Beau took offense anyway, and Chase carefully moved his drink out of harm’s way and pushed the bar stool back so he could stand as Beau gathered himself for the first swing. Just as Chase was expecting him to do, Beau threw a roundhouse punch that had always sent his opponents to the hospital. As quick as that rattlesnake that Cody would later compare him to, Chase dodged the blow and, grabbing the back of Beau’s neck to use his own momentum against him, slammed the bigger man’s face down on the cleared space on the bar with a quick thrust. The force of the impact made glasses jump down the whole length of the bar, and when Chase let his hand drop away, Beau slid silently to the floor without so much as a groan.
Chase watched him for a moment or two, but when the big man made no move to get up to continue the fight, Chase calmly pulled his bar stool back into place and sat back down. He leaned over again for another look at the unconscious man, then grimaced.
“Do you have a mop somewhere handy, Cody?” he asked calmly, and Cody, shaking off the shock of what he’d just witnessed, came over and tried to peer over the top of the bar at the unconscious man.
“Why you need a mop? He bleedin’?”
Chase looked disgusted.
“No, he spilled his beer.”
As if those words broke the spell that had fallen over the bar, people first laughed, then began talking loudly about what had just happened. Cody picked up the phone and called for an ambulance. Josette’s sister, Beth, who was one of the other waitresses, came over with the mop to clean up the spilled beer, and gave Beau a hearty kick to the ribs on her way past. Josette, in a most unladylike gesture, spat on Beau’s face and said loudly “That’s for breaking my arm, espece de con!”
When the ambulance arrived and the EMT’s saw who was laid out on the floor, they excitedly asked Cody for details of what had happened, as they had often been called to take people to the hospital after Beau started a fight, but had never seen the man himself with much more than a bruise or two. Cody, without even a glance Chase’s way, calmly told them “He slip and bang his head on the bar. See here? I t'ink he even leave a dent!”
No one contradicted Cody, and when the EMT’s had loaded the still unconscious man onto the stretcher and rolled him out to the ambulance, the bartender offered a round of shots on the house for their silence, which guaranteed that Chase wouldn‘t be in any trouble for sending the bullying son of one of the city‘s richest men to the hospital. Chase turned his shot glass over so that Cody couldn’t fill it without saying a word, but continued to laugh at the other patron’s teasing until it was time for Cody’s shift to end.
Only Chase and Cody knew how much it bothered the young man to send Beau to the hospital, despite the circumstances….
Kelly and Aloriah Starbird followed the rest of the ghost tour guests, bringing up the rear of the tour group so that they could get pictures of some of the areas they were walking through without having the other guests in the photos. The trip to New Orleans, and especially the ghost tour, was Aloriah's reward for buckling down and graduating with honors the week before, and she was having the time of her life.
Aloriah stopped suddenly and turned, aiming her camera down an alley and taking several shots without really knowing what drew her to do so. As such unexpected action was something the girl had done since early childhood, Kelly slowed enough to stay close, but continued to keep the group in sight. As soon as Aloriah had taken the pictures she wanted, mother and daughter giggled as they ran to catch up, acting more like sisters, not seeing the faces that peered out of the alley after them, faces which Aloriah hadn't noted when taking her shots.
As they walked along, pausing now and then to hear a story about New Orleans' gruesome past, Aloriah began to get more and more uncomfortable, feeling a strange current of animosity in the air, looking around casually as if just bored while trying to sense where the feeling was coming from. Kelly, too, was sensing something not quite right, feeling an odd tingling sensation that her grandmother in Nova Scotia had jokingly referred to as "her spidey senses" after Kelly had taken a liking to comic books like "The Amazing Spiderman" in her youth. As she had been taught by her grandmother, who was a strong empath, she allowed her feelings to reach out and test the air.
Catching Aloriah's eye to strengthen the silent communication that they had always shared, she heard Aloriah silently say "There" as her eyes pinpointed a small group of rough-looking men who were touching off the alarms in her daughter's senses. Stretching her arms over her head and faking a yawn, she was able to look at the group long enough to confirm that they were the source of the uneasy feelings she was having. She wasn't sure what they had done to catch the attention of such unsavory looking men, but she was certain there was trouble brewing.
By the time the tour ended, both women were getting extremely nervous about walking the dark street back to their hotel, so they hurriedly blended into the crowd and headed toward the Cafe du Monde for some coffee and beignets. Perhaps after they'd had a snack and sat for a bit, they could come up with another plan than the walk back to the hotel which was only a few blocks away, but on a very dark street. Although they each tried not to do so, the feeling of animosity was so strong that they kept taking glances back, repeatedly confirming the presence of the group that was keeping them in sight.
As they rounded a corner and stepped into the darkness between two streetlights, there was a strong mixed odor of Axe, Old Spice and a soft under note of liquor before two men separated from the shadows, each claiming one of the women by slinging an arm over her shoulder. Kelly stiffened immediately, but Aloriah felt an overwhelming sense of protection from these two strangers and relaxed. The men who had been following them paused and the feeling of animosity changed to momentary confusion. The small, wiry Cajun with salt and pepper hair who had claimed Kelly grinned and gave a boisterous greeting that carried through the crowd, causing several people to turn and look their way.
"There you are, ma petite! 'Ow was da ghos' tour?"
Under his breath through his wide smile, he murmured "Play along. You bein' followed, as I suspec' you know."
Getting a nod from Aloriah that told her these men could be trusted, Kelly forced herself to relax and give the Cajun a smile, speaking almost as loudly as he had in hopes it would carry to the men who had been following them.
"We didn't have anyone jump out at us like they do in the spook walks at Halloween, so Aloriah didn't have to punch anyone," she said brightly. Aloriah did a convincing eye roll, made even more believable by the multi-toned hair, black lipstick, and dramatic eye shadow she was wearing that gave her a Goth look.
"It was soooo booooring......" Aloriah whined in her best "beleaguered young teen" voice, causing the tall, green eyed stranger at her side to smile in honest amusement. The strong arm around her shoulder gave a gentle squeeze, and she felt nothing from him except for strength and comfort, which seemed to surround him like a cloak. This close, she could see the small scar left by a former lip piercing, but her attention kept getting drawn away from the handsome face to gaze into the clear green eyes that seemed to assess every aspect of her being.
Something in those eyes told her that he was liking what he saw, and that he was seeing much more than most men would have. He glanced down at the camera around her neck before his eyes quickly marked the men who had been following them. When he looked back down at her, she had the distinct feeling that he was the one who had somehow recognized that they were in danger, but when she opened her mouth to speak, he beat her to it.
"You know, the experts all say that you can catch things on camera that you might have missed with your naked eye." He suggested helpfully in a deep voice with no discernible accent. He didn't speak as loudly as his friend, so only the people closest to them heard him. "You may find that your boring walk actually produced something exciting."
Aloriah's eyes widened as she remembered the strange urge to take a photo just before she started having that feeling that she was being watched. Something in the look in those intelligent green eyes that watched her face so closely told her that he suspected what she now did: she may be getting followed by those men because she was taking a photo in the right place at the wrong time. For those who were close enough to be hearing the conversation, she shrugged as if dismissing his suggestion and wrinkled her nose as she responded in that same bored drawl.
"You ladies ready for your coffee and beignets?" the Cajun asked, and they continued toward the Cafe du Monde as a group, the older couple taking the lead as the younger pair fell in behind just as if this was something they had done a million times before.
Aloriah could still feel the animosity in the men following them, and she cuddled closer to the warmth of the man who kept his arm protectively around her shoulders. He tipped his head down as if he was going to kiss her cheek, and his warm breath sent shivers racing across her cheek as he whispered "My name's Chase and my friend there is Cody."
She tipped her head slightly to whisper back "I'm Aloriah. My mom is Kelly."
Then she made the mistake of looking up at him, and he looked deeply into her eyes again with a sweet smile, devastating her. Never had she had such a nice looking man treat her like he was treating her, and just as she was having that thought, he actually bent his head to touch her lips with a kiss as light as the touch of a butterfly.
"Pleased to meet you." he murmured as he drew back with a devilish smile. For just a moment, she was too stunned by his behavior to be able to sense the men behind them, and she didn't even notice that they had come to a temporary halt.
No one even a few feet back would have noticed the intensity in Chase's eyes as he took a seemingly random look at the people around them during that brief pause, but Aloriah could feel the tension in the muscles under his jacket and the intensity of his emotions. His beautiful green eyes narrowed slightly, and he smiled at her again as he started them walking again, whispering through his teeth "The four men who've been following you just got joined by a fifth, and all of them are looking uncomfortable as they're keeping their eyes right on you. Stay very close to me."
Chase punctuated his words with another squeeze that backed up the feeling she was getting from him that he meant her no harm. She couldn't be sure how he had come to the conclusion that she and her mother needed protecting, as he didn't have anything about him that hinted that he was an empath like she was, but she wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth! Trying to connect to him as she did her mother, she tried to project the depth of her thanks as she whispered "Thank you so much for helping us!"
The genuine smile that made his eyes dance nearly took Aloriah's breath away! She was hard pressed to not just let herself fall into those dancing eyes and forget that he wasn't the lover he was pretending to be, and to also forget that her mother was walking just ahead of her. It would be so easy to just be carried away by the masquerade and to make a spectacle of herself by grabbing onto him and kissing him the way she truly wanted to!
She felt a questioning presence in her mind, and when she looked at Kelly and met her eyes, a wordless communication went between the two women about these two strangers who had come to their rescue. Kelly nodded and smiled as if in response to something Cody said as she looked at Chase, sensing the strength and comfort that Aloriah had sensed earlier, but having taken self defense classes, she also noted the way he carried himself.
As she turned her full attention back to Cody to continue their lively conversation, she smiled with true joy for the first time since that odd tingling of her senses. Cody was the type of person that Kelly had always labeled as a terrier, small, fierce and very protective, but limited in how much damage he could inflict on his opponent. Chase had the air of a tiger who was ready to pounce the moment his prey came within range, seemingly relaxed, but lethal. Although she had no idea how the two men had decided that they were in trouble, she was quite glad that Chase and Cody were there to help her protect her daughter.
On reaching the Cafe du Monde, they were seated almost immediately at the last open table, and both of the men seated the ladies before taking their own seats. Chase carefully chose the seat that allowed him to watch the front door while Cody kept his eye on the entrance from the kitchen. When it became obvious that the unsavories who had been following the ladies weren't going to be able to come in and overhear the conversation, Chase started the serious questioning.
"Where do you ladies need to go this evening?" he asked bluntly, his eyes going back to the door as a couple left. He watched until another couple was seated, and Kelly smiled when those strikingly intense eyes came back to her for the answer. She gave him the name of the hotel and was a little surprised when Cody snorted.
"That not a secure place to be, chere. They let jus' anyone in at all hours an' don' have a single security guard to come he'p if you done did get attack'd."
Aloriah tried hard not to smile at the way the Cajun talked, but Chase saw her twitching lips and rolled his eyes, pretending to be upset by her reaction even though his eyes were gleaming with amusement as he copied Cody's accent. "Don' ya'll tell me you come to N'awlins an' din' 'spect to hear no Cajun."
Aloriah allowed her smile to show, and Cody gave her a wink before he pulled out a cell phone. "There gots to be somewhere safer for y'all, even if it be with my fam'ly in the swamps. How much you can spend?"
Kelly gave him a figure, and Cody started making calls, alternating between English and French depending on who was on the other end of the phone.
A waitress came through while Cody was talking and Chase placed their order, once again watching carefully as another group left and a new group was seated. Once again, it wasn't the men who had been following the ladies, and once again, Kelly watched the way Chase tensed, then slowly relaxed. When Cody dropped the phone onto the table with a disgusted snort, all eyes turned to the thoughtful look on his face.
"Not a single place at dat price, chere. Look like we gon' have to give dese ladies a ride, mon ami, and take a long way aroun' so those baddies don' know where they stayin'." Looking from one woman to the other, Cody gave them a smile. "Y'all like motorcycles?"
Aloriah responded with a heartfelt "Yes" right away, producing an amused chuckle from Chase, but Kelly looked uncomfortable. Cody reached over and patted her hand.
"No worries, chere. You ride with me. I take it easy on you." Cody gave Chase a very meaningful look as he continued. "We stop back at the bar anyway for your brain bucket. I t'ink I have an extra or two dere."
"If not, I'll let Aloriah wear mine." Chase swiftly volunteered, an evil gleam in his eye, and Cody's glare turned menacing.
"I din' buy you no helmet so's you can ride widdout!" He growled, but Chase seemed unfazed by the threatening tone. He leaned slightly toward Aloriah and tipped her a wink as he continued to tease his friend.
"Cody thinks I should protect a brain that I clearly don't have."
Both Aloriah and Kelly tried to hold back snickers as Cody cut loose with a stream of French that was most likely not very politically correct from the looks on some of the other patrons' faces nearby. Shaking his finger, he switched back to English to growl, "You lucky I can't reach you, boy. You need a good cuff upside that brainless head!"
Chase pretended to look scared and the ladies couldn't hold back their giggles despite the glares that Cody threw at both of them. Cody picked up his cup to drain the last of his coffee from it while shaking his head.
"Now you jus' encouragin' him!" he grumbled, but a quirky grin was twisting up the corners of his lips as he set the cup back down. The others at the table followed his lead and finished their beignets and coffees, then Chase leapt up to pull out Aloriah's chair for her. Kelly felt her daughter's confusion at having a man actually treat her like a lady, and almost laughed as Cody did the same for her, leaning in before she started to rise to whisper "Dat's why I hang out wit' this boy. His mama done teach him right."
As Chase waited for everyone to be ready to move, he twisted his head around as if working out a kink, but Kelly noted the sharp look in the green eyes that belied his seemingly innocent movements. When he caught her watching him, he gave her just the slightest hint of a smile and cut his eyes toward the door, where a single man was talking to the hostess as if he was innocently flirting. As Kelly marked him and returned her eyes to his, Chase gave the slightest hint of a nod, indicating it was one of the men he had marked earlier as being in the group that was following them. Like her daughter, she wondered what the young man saw that made him realize they needed help, but she was most grateful for his assistance, and she felt nothing threatening in his emotions or demeanor, at least not in terms of how he felt toward the ladies.
Toward those men following them, however...
As when they had entered the Cafe du Monde, each of the men tossed an arm around a lady, and as they passed the man at the door, Chase looked him directly in the eye, smiled, and nodded in greeting as if he knew him. The startled look on the man's face would have made Kelly laugh if she hadn't been so frightened. They strolled a couple of blocks to a bar as if they had nothing else on their minds, but Chase's occasional glances back as if making sure that the older couple was still keeping up confirmed that their followers were back in place. He held the door open for the other three to enter in front of him, and as soon as the door closed, his expression changed drastically.
"We may want to slip out the back, if it's okay with you, Cody. They seem to have picked up a few more friends since we last saw them." He said, barely loud enough for the four of them to hear, and Cody led the way into the back room while greeting co-workers and patrons with his normal jovial attitude. As soon as the swinging door to the back room closed behind them, however, Cody stepped up the pace, going into his office at a near run and popping back out in less than five minutes with three helmets in his arms, looking very disgruntled.
"I t'ought I had one more, but it mus' be at my house." Cody grumbled, and Chase took the newest helmet out of his hands while trying not to smile. When he started putting the helmet onto Aloriah’s head, however, Cody’s eyes narrowed. “I got dat one to protect your head, boy!”
Chase turned briefly to Cody, feigning innocence.
“But she’s younger than I am, Cody! She has more brain cells to protect!”
Inside the helmet, Aloriah giggled as Chase's fingers went about their business of securing the chin strap, and Kelly fought a grin. Cody rolled his eyes like a long-suffering parent, handing Kelly one of the remaining helmets and giving Chase time to finish what he was doing before leading them all toward the back door. As Cody punched in the code that would prevent the alarm from sounding when they opened the door, Chase again took the lead, taking Aloriah's hand to keep her close. Sensing that Cody's alarm code would only give them a set amount of time to slide through the door and let it close again, Aloriah reached back and took Kelly's hand.
At a nod from Cody, all three slid out the door and, following Chase's lead, the women flattened themselves against the wall in the dark alley while Cody joined them. Chase then slowly led the way through the shadows toward the parking lot. Pausing for a deep breath at the end of the alley, he leaned out to spot the men they were trying to avoid all standing and watching the door of the bar. With a smile, he slipped out with Aloriah, getting to his motorcycle and getting them both settled on it before Cody and Kelly followed suit. While the older couple got settled, Chase pulled a set of goggles out of a pocket on his leather jacket and put them on, then zipped up all the way so his collar protected his neck When Cody was settled, they started their engines together.
It wasn't until both engines roared to life that the men in front of the bar turned and spotted their prey, giving a shout as they ran toward the motorcycles. Before they could get there, however, Chase and Cody were both out on Decatur Street and heading toward Canal Street as if they were leaving the city instead of just going down a couple of blocks and doubling back. Aloriah saw Chase's smile in one of his mirrors, and then was able to read the curse that he muttered when the light turned red, even though the motor was too loud for her to actually hear him. As Cody pulled up next to him, Chase gave a hand signal: Follow me.
Before the light had a chance to change to green, two cars containing the men they were trying to avoid pulled up just a car length behind them. Chase and Cody behaved as if they didn't know they were being followed. When they got into the faster two lane traffic, Chase spotted a group of other motorcyclists. Taking one hand off the handles, he reached down to squeeze Aloriah's bare arm, and for the first time with anyone other than her mother, she actually heard his thought as a soft whisper in her head.
Please hold on tight! his voice said, and she wrapped her arms a little more securely around his firm waist, again seeing his smile in the mirror just before he set his hand back on the handle and sent them careening out around several vehicles to slip in with the larger group of motorcycles. Aloriah felt her mother's panic as Cody followed suit.
With a skill well beyond his years, Chase carefully worked his way up through the other motorcycles so that they were toward the center of the long queue, yet close to the edge of the road. Cody stayed right behind him, matching him move for move. No one in the larger group of motorcycles took any special notice of them until Chase spotted a truck stop up ahead and gave a low hand signal to Cody, preparing his friend to leave the group. Because of the number of motorcycles in the group, the two cars were forced to stay almost a quarter of a mile behind them, and Chase took a deep breath, hoping it was far enough back for his newly hatched plan to work.
Shooting out of the queue without any directional to mark their departure, Chase and Cody went around behind the building to where the big rigs were all parked. Two matching tractor trailers were parked nose to tail right at the back of the restaurant with the lead trailer’s nose only a few feet from a pair of dumpsters. With another quick hand motion to warn Cody, Chase slowed his bike and slid between the trailers and the building, almost glancing his handlebars off the side of the big rigs a couple of times where the wall stuck out a little, finishing by shutting off his motor, thereby killing his lights, and sliding in behind the dumpsters, coming to a halt squarely behind the furthest one. In seconds, Cody had copied his move and was sitting squarely, totally silent, behind the second one. Then they just sat and waiting for a few minutes.
Headlights cut into the parking lot behind them, then a single car came slowly around the back of the building. Reaching one long arm back around Aloriah, Chase leaned forward, pulling her down with him to make sure her head wasn’t in sight behind the dumpster. Seeing what he was doing, both Cody and Kelly followed suit, ducking as low as possible to make sure they weren’t seen.
Aloriah felt the emotions of the men in the car, wanting to cry when she could confirm it was the group she had inadvertently taken a photo of when she followed her instincts. As they drew closer, it became evident that their windows were down and they were arguing among themselves. When they drew even with the dumpsters, a scrap of the argument could be clearly heard.
“...and I swear I saw two motorcycles come back here!” said one man, his voice adamant, as if he was trying to convince the others that he was trustworthy.
“And I swear you ain’t got the brains God gave a ‘gator!” came a second voice with a heavier drawl, obviously angry with the first speaker.
“What if all she got was a dark alley?” a third voice piped in. “We was way back from the street!”
“All I wants is to see the pitcher.” number two’s voice came again, and Aloriah was certain he was the boss of the group. “If she din’t catch nothin’, she can go back wherever she came.”
The car rolled beyond their hearing then, and Chase listened until he heard the engine gun and gravel being spewed, then turned his head slightly, whispering to Aloriah so softly that she could barely hear him, not entirely sure he understood why he even asked.
“Do you think they’re gone?”
Reaching out with her emotions, Aloriah felt the men getting further and further away.
“I believe they are.” She responded, just as softly, and felt strangely bereft when he removed his long arm from around her and allowed her to sit up straight again. When he reached down in the darkness to make sure her legs were out of the way before he restarted his engine, however, there was something intimate in the touch that brought her a strange sense of comfort. She still had some time before he dropped her at her hotel, and she was going to enjoy every minute of being pressed against that strong male back for the trip back into New Orleans.
September 1, 2013: It's officially available on Write Words, Inc! Here's the link: The Tiger's Cub
NEW MARCH 2015: The same publisher who published "A Wild Tiger's Heart", the third book in this series, has purchased the rights to do a Second Print Edition of this book as well as "Night of the Tiger". This means a new cover for each book in a new size, a possible boxed set, possible audio books....
So, this is the new cover, starring model Derek Yates as Chase Benton on the front in a photo by Jae Yu, and brings back our lovely Belle Louve as Aloriah Starbird on the back in a photo by RedRope Photography.
And, since I went with a different model for Chase, this is a close up of Derek Yates, for your viewing pleasure.
Okay, so since I've been slack about updating this page while Northern Bard Publications was getting a new model to play Chase, here's another photo of Derek Yates - and one of the ones I saw after silently asking The Universe for models for the two new covers. He's a gem to work with, and I sincerely wish we could have afforded to fly him to Maine for a photo shoot with Belle so I could have met him instead of just "talking" via email...
This and other photos of this handsome young man can be found on his Facebook page here: Derek as well as at his own web site, Model Mayhem, and other such places on the internet. I was thinking we were screwed when he won a contest to become the gardener for Ellen Degeneres, but...
Thank you for allowing me to "use" you, Derek, and I sincerely hope your career continues to thrive as you continue to work out to make that nice body even sexier....
AND WE'RE LIVE (AGAIN) ON AMAZON:
The Northern Bard Publications version of The Tiger's Cub (with the Derek Cover and a new intro) is live as a Kindle as of March 22, 2015 (click HERE to go to it). The paper back should be live on April 7th.