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It was not what you’d call a happy sky. The dirty, mauve blanket hooded the northern mountain ridge with a sullen meanness that perfectly matched Carol’s impressive hangover. And, come to think of it, the bruising on her left cheek. It had been one hell of a 50th birthday party.

Scanning the western horizon from the deck of her house, Carol wondered if it was quite wise to take the dog out, considering her delicate state. As well as the air quality. It might be better if she crawled back inside. Some might consider this mean, including the dog herself. But Carol snapped away those thoughts. There was a sizeable garden after all, where the dog could roam.

The fires to the south were the cause of the dirty clouds. It had been the champagne punch that made Carol feel mean. No one had warned her, until it was too late, that the punch had been spiked with Jack Daniels. She and Jack never really did get along. Now, here she was, having her first real, honest-to-goodness hangover at 50.

Thank god she didn’t have to go to work. There was work to be done, but her life no longer included commutes, co-workers, bosses or staff meetings.

Carol used to write for television. She wasn’t ashamed of that. Nor did she regret it. After all, it did get her started in property ownership. Near the end of her sojourn in TVland, she had come to realize that television shows would always be stuck in a post- adolescent, though not quite adult, universe. Even what passed as adult material was essentially grown people behaving like adolescents. This, apparently, was considered drama and/or entertainment. When she was bemoaning the fact that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life creating material for the 18-25 white male/female demographic, her agent succinctly summed things up. “You write for television. You wanna to be creative, write a book.”

So, that’s what she did. And never looked back. Except, briefly, during the transitional financial phase. TVland had been lucrative. So, Carol learned how to manage her money and though she may not be able to casually buy $700 shoes anymore, she really had nothing to complain about. She’d saved enough (and maintained a decent enough credit rating) to acquire loans to buy property in well-placed neighborhoods and was happy enough being a fiction-writing landlord. And the house she’d bought for herself kept going up in value despite a lousy market. How lucky can a girl get?

Not yet lucky enough, according to her mother. Carol was a single woman, never married (as the property deeds still insisted on stating). It’s not that her mother felt that every woman needed a man, any man. She was quite adamant about it being a good man. And she, a widow of countless years herself, knew that good men were hard to find. She just wanted her baby girl to be happy and have a responsible person with whom she could share her life. Was that asking too much?

Apparently.

Carol, who had so many interesting and responsible female friends, would sometimes wonder if she could convince herself to be gay. But, alas, although she admired and loved her female friends, she had no desire to a) live with them or b) have sex with them. Go figure, it’s true. It isn’t a choice. So, she lived in a lovely house with her loving dog and wrote fiction. It was a satisfying life and she was grateful for it. Even if some days she had to keep reminding herself.

The fires to the south were making her already tender eyes water even more. She hadn’t yet had air conditioning installed in her home. Up where the house was situated, she always got a nice breeze and the temperatures were generally several degrees cooler than the flats. But with the doors open to catch that breeze, also came the residual smoke and detritus from the fires. And that’s why there were electronic air purifiers.

In the newly remodeled bathroom, Carol examined the bruise on her left cheek. It was shaped a bit like Australia. Maybe it was a sign that she should take a vacation down under. She wondered how the bruise had gotten there. Most of the evening was still vivid in her mind, despite the fog of Jack Daniels.

The revelry started with cocktails at her house with all of her Eastside friends and neighbors. Like a gypsy caravan, they then traversed the city via limousine to the Westside and a raucous beachside café. For her 50th, Carol had splurged on the private room with private beach access and lanai. And it was worth it. After 20 odd years living in Los Angeles, and 10 of those years spent in “The Industry” Carol had a cross section of friends that all seemed to find common ground in having a good time.

Dinner, dancing, drinking. Laughter and loquacious guests, grappling with topics from the sophisticated to the sophomoric. Writers, actors, healers and retirees. Those who knew her when and those who were just getting to know her now. And if she’d wanted, she could have ended the evening with warm embraces and tangled bedsheets.

Because there was Karl. She and Karl had been dancing around each other for several weeks. Karl was pretty…okay. Not unattractive. Decently employed. And often amusing and fun to be with. She wasn’t bored with Karl. She just felt…friendly with him. No more, no less. And last night it could have gone to the next step. Standing there, on the beach, a warm breeze from the ocean, the sunset made brilliant by the swirling smoke from the fires in the south, they kissed. It would have been simple enough to take it further. There was a flutter. There was nothing wrong with Carol’s libido. It’s just that, well…Karl was just a bit too…resistible. It really didn’t cause her much regret to say no. And if it was that resistible, then why bother?

Long ago, Carol had decided that if a man was less resistible than, say a fresh slice of pepperoni pizza, then the answer was no. You could easily work off the extra poundage from pizza, but you don’t just toss people off like fast food. Even if it’s really good fast food. When she was in her callous 20’s she could have done it. Or even in her cynical 30’s. But she started going soft in her 40’s and now at the fifty mark, she had become downright tenderhearted about it all. So, she pushed away with a small sigh, and they walked companionably back to the café.

She glanced up at Karl and wondered why she wasn’t jumping into bed with him. There would be those who would say the dreaded…why so picky…at your age. Plenty of her friends thought she was crazy. What was wrong with him? Karl smiled down at her (he was a solid six feet to her five foot five) and it struck her. Karl wasn’t disappointed or upset. What she saw was not patience nor a sense that he’d been rejected. What she saw was an almost unconscious confidence in his smile that she would, eventually, say yes. And that’s what it was about Karl. He was just a bit too self-satisfied…a little too sure of his welcome in her bed. At that point, even the little flutter was gone. The turn-off was complete. She always had been a little too contrary. At least that’s what her mother was fond of saying.

Carol wondered if she were ever going to meet a man that excited her more than pizza. A man whose voice could melt her will. Whose touch could make her body sing. Whose smile could illumine the cave of her heart. Was that asking too much?

Apparently.

But after that beachside kiss, there didn’t seem to be much else Carol could remember from the night. She gave herself a quick body scan. No other bruising, no cuts, scrapes or violations of any kind. Just that bruise. And the hangover. She had awakened in bed, alone. The house had been locked up, as usual and the dog, always a good warning device, gave no indication that anything unusual had happened.

The first sip of rich, black coffee burned away the first layer of fog in her brain. Maybe she’d actually do some writing this morning. Still, if she moved a little too fast, the nausea threatened to take over. But she wanted to journal a bit. She’d passed a milestone and it should be recorded.

She was about to put pen to paper when the dog let out a piercing yelp of a bark. This wasn’t the danger growl, but the excited “it’s company” bark. Aware that she wasn’t looking quite her best, Carol took a quick glance in the mirror. She looked…okay. Not bad enough to frighten small children. Except for the bruise. She was still puzzling over that when she looked through the blinds and saw her neighbor and fellow writer, Lisa. At 27, Lisa was fresh into her first staff writer position on a new drama series. Carol was surprised to see her, knowing she had a script due on Monday, but was pleased.

The door was barely opened before Lisa had Carol wrapped in a bear hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Having no clue why she was being thanked, Carol nevertheless assured Lisa she was welcome. She was surprised to see tears standing in Lisa’s eyes as she pulled away. “Oh, and your little bruise…”

“Ah, so you know about the bruise? What…” Before she could finish her sentence, the front gate opened and a man, never before seen by Carol was coming through it. She glanced at Lisa. “One of yours, I take it?”

“I guess you could say that. Cute, huh?” Carol looked at the approaching man. Although his face was unsmiling, it was still friendly and good-looking. He was on the tall side, with just a touch of gray in his hair. Like so many men, the gray didn’t make him look in the least old. Especially since he carried himself with the lithe movements of someone completely in command of his physique. Which wasn’t half bad. His eyes were on Carol as he came forward and she was surprised to see what looked like admiration and…respect? For a brief moment, she felt a wave of recognition. Surely she knew him from somewhere.

“You sure know how to pick them,” she murmured to her neighbor. Lisa laughed out loud. She reached out an eager hand to the man and pulled him forward.

“Here’s someone who was determined to meet you. He’s got a bit of laryngitis, so isn’t talking much. But Carol, meet Malcolm.”

Carol ushered them into the house, past the scampering dog, who soon dissolved at Malcolm’s feet when he scratched her in the perfect spot behind her ears. Lisa looked at Carol’s surprised face. “He’s a vet.” Ah, so that explained it.

“And why was Malcolm the vet, determined to meet me?” Carol smiled and held out her hand. It was taken in a firm, but gentle clasp. Good hands, she thought. And the little thrill that went through her arm must have simply been some residual static electricity from rubbing the dog.

With a half smile, Malcolm started to speak, but remembered the laryngitis. Lisa piped in. “He wanted to meet the woman who so magnificently defended his daughter’s honor.”

“And who might that woman and daughter be?”

“That would be you…and me,” Lisa replied.

Carol was now thoroughly confused. “Hold on…let me get this straight. This is your dad?”

Laughing, knowing exactly what had been going through Carol’s mind, Lisa nodded. “Yep. I sure know how to pick ‘em. This is my dad. He had to evacuate his place cause of the fires and I insisted he come stay with me.” Malcolm pointed to his throat. “Oh yeah, he lost his voice because of the smoke.”

Still a bit unnerved, Carol moved toward the kitchen. “Well then, I’ve got something for that. Famous family recipe. Come on into the kitchen.” Before she could turn, Malcolm touched the bruise on her cheek. This time she couldn’t blame static electricity. But maybe it was just that the skin was tender there, which would account for the jolt that went down her spine. Malcolm looked to Lisa.

“Oh yeah, I told him about the bruise and he’s got something for that.”

Reeling her mind back under control, Carol moved into the kitchen to put on the tea kettle. “So, tell me about the bruise. I don’t seem to remember.”

Lisa looked incredulous. “Not remember? Whoa, you kept saying you were drunk, but I couldn’t tell.”

“If you were inside my head right now, you could tell.” She began cutting lemons.

Lisa shook her head. “Wow. You don’t remember. Carol, you saved my life last night.” Carol looked up. Now she was incredulous.

“Really. I mean literally,” Lisa asserted. As Carol continued to stare, Lisa went on.

“Okay, so the limo brought us back here, right? And then me and Rick walked up the hill to my place and then…”

And then it all came back, the memory flooding into her now very much alive and pounding brain. The images were stark, sharp and stained the screen of her mind with a breathless, shimmering terror.

Grinning foolishly from a very wonderful night, Carol was halfway to her door when she’d heard Lisa’s scream. Without thinking twice, she, Carol the deskbound writer who only found courage through her books, had careened up the hill, in the dark, heedless of what she might be facing. She’d found Rick stretched flat near a curb, completely out. Lisa was struggling with two assailants and making as much noise as possible. And Carol had flown into battle.

“You came at one of the guys and he backhanded you real hard. You fell on that little grassy knoll right at the corner. And then…it was like that guy…that Bourne Identity guy. All of a sudden you were up karate chopping and kick-assing those two butt holes like no tomorrow. You had them nearly begging for mercy when that politician guy, LaClaire came out of his house, called 911, and took care of Rick. He’d got a real knock on the head when he fell against the mail box.”

Carol put down the knife she had used to cut the lemons. It was the safe thing to do, as she was shaking uncontrollably. “I…I…whoa, that…I…God, what was I thinking?”

Malcolm led her to a chair, made her sit. Lisa knelt beside her. “Okay, Carol. Breathe, okay? Breathe, slowly. You’re okay. You did good. I didn’t know you knew all that stuff. What are you a black belt or something?”

“No…no. I mean, I took classes, cause, you know, research…Stacy Stallings. She’s the black belt. Not me.”

Lisa explained to Malcolm. “Her books, the main character’s a P.I. named Stacy Stallings.” She turned again to Carol. “But you did it. You really did it. I don’t know what came over you, but I’m glad it did.”

Malcolm handed Carol a steaming cup of tea. His faced showed concern and assurance. He made a drinking motion with his hand. Carol understood immediately. “In the cabinet by the fridge.” He went to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of Black Label. He tipped some into her tea.

She smiled gratefully. “This was supposed to be for you. With honey and lemon…and a touch of cayenne.” Lisa brought over two more cups and the required ingredients. “It works for shock, too.”

For a moment, the three of them sipped and breathed. The shakes eased and Carol felt a bit more coherent.

“When I woke up, I couldn’t remember. Aside from the screaming hangover, there was just this mystery bruise. Kinda looked like Australia.” She took a long drink of tea. “No wonder I blocked it out. I mean…that was incredibly stupid. We could have been killed.”

At that, Malcolm let out a hoarse laugh, shaking his head. He got up and tenderly kissed Carol’s bruise. From his jacket, he pulled out a baggie of various ointments. Tilting her chin, he expertly applied tincture of arnica. Carol kept her eyes closed. It helped with the dizziness.

Suddenly, Lisa jumped up. “Look, I’ve got a script due in two days. So, I’m gonna run. Dad, you’d be bored stiff at my place. Stay here, take care of Carol for me. We owe her big time, you know. Maybe later, we’ll get some pizza. She loves pizza.”

Before Carol could protest, Lisa was out the door. Now what? All Carol could think was…she had absolutely no desire for pizza. And that was scary as hell.

So, she started talking. About anything, about nothing. How Lisa was a really promising writer. How she was in the middle of a complex storyline. How the fires to the south had really changed everything. Everything. And then Malcolm smiled. A smile that filled his eyes with a warmth and understanding Carol had longed to see in a man’s eyes for years. Years. He pointed out to the deck, to her view. They walked out and the sky…funny how the sky didn’t look so unhappy anymore.

Malcolm drained his tonic of tea. Carol took the cup inside and returned with a yellow pad and pen on a tray with more tea. As the sun marked the hours of the day, they sat on the deck “talking” on paper. Eventually, Carol gave up using her voice, too. There was something about the words on paper that had a peculiar intimacy. It somehow made what was happening more real. It wasn’t just air passing out of their lips.

She learned that he and Lisa’s mom divorced when Lisa was just a toddler. He’d been single ever since. Lisa was his heart. Her mom had moved to Vegas and seemed to be quite happy. She learned about his work and his humor. The movies and books and sports and politics. He was just shy of 49. Oh, dear. A younger man. What she’d always wanted. The laughter on the deck that day was full and perpetual. Food was found and prepared. Tea turned to wine. Soon, there was again, a sunset made brilliant by the fires to the south. And there were other fires now, kindled and simmering.

It was a very different sunset tonight, Carol thought. Up here on the hill, the breeze had turned cool. Malcolm had thrown his arm along the back of the bench. He cleared his throat, testing his voice. It came out in a husky whisper. So he leaned in close, his lips just brushing her earlobe. “It warms a father’s heart to know his daughter has such a good friend.” Even though it was hoarse and scratchy, Carol felt the power of that voice down to her toes.

He tilted her chin, studied the bruise in the tea lights that hung around the deck. There was that smile again. And this time…this kiss…was in no way resistible. It was a wonder, Carol thought. Quite a wonder what life could bring. She wanted a moment to drink it all in. To just sit a moment and savor this point in time. A woman needed a chance to catch her breath. Was that asking too much? Malcolm drew her closer.

Apparently…

* * * * *