Home > Divine Solace (Nature of Desire #8)

Divine Solace (Nature of Desire #8)
Author: Joey W. Hill

Chapter One


Unsettling, perplexing or perturbing might mean the same thing according to her thesaurus, but Gen decided disconcerting was the best word for the woman sitting at Table Seven in Tea Leaves. Disconcerting rolled off the tongue a certain way the other words didn’t. Emotions and people were like that. Put the same emotion inside ten people, and it would look different on each one of them.

Disconcerting required an object to impact. Someone couldn’t be disconcerting without being disconcerting to someone. In this case, that object was Gen, even though Gen worked for Marguerite Winterman. Marguerite had Margaret Thatcher’s aura of command, Marilyn Monroe’s ability to mesmerize, and a lion-tamer’s touch with dangerous creatures. Maybe because Marguerite was one of those dangerous creatures and understood them all too well. It was part of the reason Gen had given her the nickname “M”, because Marguerite had the intimidating air of the Bond movie female director of MI-6, in spades.

Yet, despite all that, their newest customer disconcerted Gen in a way Marguerite never had.

As she checked on other customers, Gen tried to pinpoint what it was about the woman. Her appearance gave mixed messages. She was beautiful, yet not wearing anything to enhance that beauty. Her pale-green bill cap had Growing Things Nursery logo embroidered on it, a match for the breast pocket of the babydoll T-shirt she wore over snug, stressed jeans and work shoes. When she removed the cap to run the point of her wrist along her damp brow, Gen saw her braided hair was a dark red with some gold highlights, evident from the loose wisps around her face.

Like a lot of true redheads, she had milk-white skin, despite her outdoor job. The T-shirt showed off generous br**sts, large enough to swell out the sides of the cotton against her biceps. Her arms displayed smooth muscle definition. The way she moved made it clear the body beneath the clothes was equally fit.

Not butch. Nor diet-obsessed, where there was no meat on her. Just toned and strong, curved in all the ways that drew male eyes. As well as female eyes, given the way Gen was checking her out.

It wasn’t the first time Gen had noticed a woman was attractive. She defined herself as hetero, since she’d been married twice and had always dated the opposite sex. Sure, she’d experimented with friends in high school, but what girl didn’t? Women weren’t as defined by straight and g*y as the guys were. As she got older, she knew she had a bi-curious side to her, but it wasn’t anything she’d ever been tempted to explore, beyond idle fantasy and pleasuring the eye. Yet when she looked at this woman, the dormant temptation wasn’t dormant at all. Sensation fluttered against her thighs like butterfly wings and caused a tightness in her chest.

Maybe it was the woman’s air of authority that made her distracting. She was probably the owner of the nursery, because it was clear she was used to directing things, not being directed. When she’d first walked in, those gunmetal-gray eyes had pinned Gen in place behind the counter.

“I’m here to see Marguerite.”

“She’s coming in around nine, about fifteen minutes from now. Is there something I can help you with, ma’am?”

That unsettling gaze ran over every visible part of Gen, the top of her head to her hips. “Who are you?”

“I’m Gen,” Gen said politely.

“I’ll wait.” The redhead looked up at the board. “Do you have regular coffee, Gen?”

At one time, the answer to that would have been a resounding no, but since she’d married Tyler, Marguerite had capitulated to having at least one coffee option on the menu. No cappuccinos or anything fancy. A good Colombian blend.

When Gen told the woman what they had, she nodded. “A cup of that.”

“All right. If you want to take a seat, it will be just a moment. I have a batch brewing now.”

Marguerite’s visitor had then taken her seat at Table Seven. Gen had felt her regard while she busied herself behind the counter, even when she left it and made the rounds to the other tables to ensure no one needed anything. Though Gen smiled and chatted with the regulars as usual, that scrutiny was a living thing teasing the hairs on her nape.

How did she tell a customer, a friend or associate of Marguerite’s, to stop staring at her? She wished Chloe were here to help with opening. But with Chloe and Marguerite both now married, Gen tried to do it solo at least a couple times a week, giving the women time with their husbands. Some mornings, the solo opening underscored her permanent single status, but she usually squelched that blue thought pretty fast in favor of the sense of accomplishment running the business by herself gave her.

Since Gen had finished those accounting courses at the community college, Marguerite had even let her take over the bookkeeping. She might have been born trailer-park trash, but how a person was born didn’t dictate how they lived. That was up to them.

I told you, Momma.

The thought inspired Gen to meet the woman’s gaze. Ms. Disconcerting didn’t even blink those long-lashed eyes. Gen gave her a dignified nod, not willing to simply duck her head, and returned to the counter. She’d never been the subject of such intent scrutiny. Not since her first day on the job, when Marguerite had watched her in a similar way. As if every movement Gen made, everything she said, every smile, meant something far deeper, Gen emitting signals she didn’t even realize she was sending. She’d really needed that job, so she’d managed to stay cool, professional, asking questions about what she didn’t know, and making up for her mistakes quickly.

If Chloe had been here, her nonstop comfortable chatter would have helped. Her irrepressible friend would have turned so no one but Gen could see her expression as she rolled her eyes about the mysterious visitor and mouthed a what the hell’s her problem? at Gen.

At least the low rumble of conversation from other customers kept silence from becoming a taut, awkward bridge Gen might have tried to fill with inane small talk. Couldn’t the intimidating woman pull out a cell phone to check her messages, the way most people did?

The coffee was done. Gen poured it, picked up napkin, spoon and condiments, and left the sanctuary of the counter. The woman’s work clothes and sweaty appearance should have put Gen more at ease. Instead, she came off like Red Sonja showing up in bloodstained battle armor, making Gen think about her own appearance. Today she wore a Tea Leaves staff shirt. Not a shaped babydoll, just a medium T-shirt that didn’t highlight her figure at all, though she did knot it at the hip of her fashionably frayed jeans over rhinestone sandals. She had her hair pulled up and held with sticks, and though it framed her face attractively enough, she was overdue to dye her roots.

She looked like a comfortable, pleasant thirtysomething, as sexless as a spayed cocker spaniel. This woman, around the same age as Gen, could don a ball gown and walk the red carpet at the Oscars. She was a woman who still considered herself a sexual being, not one who lacked the energy or hope to pursue the idea anymore.

Gen set the coffee in front of her. The redhead tapped the table. “Spoon on my right,” she said. “Napkin on the left. No sugar or cream. I drink it straight.”

“So does Tyler. Anything different, he says you might as well be a girl in frilly pink at a tea party.”

The customer’s mouth made a sinuous twist. What was probably a sunblock lip balm made her lips soft, gave them a faint sheen. That butterfly fluttering became the stroke of a long, firm-stemmed seagull feather up Gen’s thighs, teasing her navel, her sternum.

“He said that to get a rise out of Marguerite,” the woman said.

She spoke as if her tongue caressed her teeth when she spoke, the syllables coming out with a touch of breath. During sex, Gen wondered if that sighing sound was more pronounced, spinning the words with sugar and giving them a sweet heat, like cookies from the oven.

Had she woken up on the wrong side of her sexual orientation this morning? Was that even possible? Chloe would know.

“Yes.” Gen cleared her throat. “He only said it once, though. She salted his coffee.”

“Marriage has mellowed her. The Marguerite I know would have used a strong laxative.”

“Well, they do live together. Maybe it was enlightened self-interest.”

Gen colored when the woman’s gaze remained on her, though she noticed the corners of her lips twitched. As Gen followed her direction about the napkin and spoon, the redhead watched her, not what she was doing. It was the first time she’d been instructed on table setting by a customer, but Gen prided herself on her customer service. It was an odd though not unreasonable demand. As she laid the folded napkin on the opposite side of the cup, the woman reached up and touched Gen’s hair.

Her fingertips slid beneath the strands at her temple and brushed against her scalp. “Your hair is a beautiful color,” she observed. “Golden brown, like honey straight from the hive. Why do you have it in this god-awful scraped-up mess?”

If the woman was being catty, Gen could have broken the spell and set her in her place, quick and sharp. She was far past being put down by another female. But the woman’s expression and tone were merely thoughtful. She caught a wisp between her knuckles, her firm, assured touch holding Gen still. Nerves tingled along Gen’s cheekbone and down her throat like a trail of breadcrumbs, begging those fingers to follow them.

“I…it’s quick to put up in the morning with the sticks.”

“Hmm.” The woman’s other elbow propped on the table as she leaned forward and plucked out the sticks. Gen’s hair tumbled to her shoulders in a thick twist.

What the hell are you doing? Those were the words that should have come from her mouth. Instead, she stood there, mesmerized by the woman’s gall or something else. Probably the way she was stroking through Gen’s hair, those tiny caresses of her scalp. As if there were no such things as personal space boundaries, or other customers. Maybe they’d think the woman was just admiring her hair. Gen wasn’t sure what to do or say. Her knees were quivering in an odd way under the woman’s direct gaze.

“That feels good, Gen,” the woman murmured. “Doesn’t it?”

Gen nodded, a quick jerk.

“Sometimes it’s that way, first thing in the morning. A need for touch, to dispel the night’s loneliness. Something to connect us to the world, something that says the world notices us. And likes what it sees.” Her lips curved.

The redhead’s faint scent of female sweat was overlaid by earth and summer leaves. Beneath all of it was a light body spray, an aroma Gen recognized, because working for M had given her a very well-developed sense of smell. It was a blend intended to soothe the senses. Chamomile, lavender. What would Red Sonja need to soothe herself about? The day’s body count? The fact she broke her nail gutting her enemies?

What would happen if she reached out and touched her hair? Gen got only as far as imagining her hand lifting. It seemed inappropriate.

Like this wasn’t? Yes, M, I started the day by letting a customer play with my hair. Then Table Six wanted to give me a foot massage and I had to be fair to them…

The woman’s nails scraped her scalp. For a brief moment her hand tightened, pulling on the hair beneath in such strong contrast to the lighter touch Gen’s full attention snapped back to her. An incredible sensation arrowed right down her center. She swallowed, and the woman’s gaze followed the movement, though Gen wondered if what she was really following was the direction of the other invisible but very significant reaction.

Gen felt a trickle of panic, the reaction to a situation where she was over her head and might end up doing something really wrong to extricate herself from it. She didn’t react to women like this. But then, no woman had ever actually touched her like this.

That was when Red Sonja let her go.

“Thank you, Gen.” Laying the sticks down next to her coffee, she lifted the cup to her lips. “My name is Lyda Coltrane, if you need to let Marguerite know who her visitor is. You can return to your duties.”

Now her voice reminded Gen of early autumn, the advance of cool weather and lingering heat of summer mixing, neither season willing to be denied.

Her gray eyes flickered past Gen, a dismissal, before they focused on the display wall where Marguerite kept her special collection of tea sets and memorabilia. The panicked feeling morphed into something else. This woman was screwing with her. This was a friend of Marguerite’s?

“I…no offense, Ms. Coltrane, but touching…inappropriate touching, isn’t allowed here.”

It wasn’t written up in policy, but tea drinkers usually didn’t molest the staff. Gen had to assert some kind of defense. She wasn’t a teenager, so easily intimidated.

“It didn’t feel inappropriate to me. How about to you?” Lyda blew on the contents of the coffee cup.

“I’m not…I’ve been married. Twice.”

Lyda’s penetrating gaze lifted to hers. “Your point?”

“Let me know if you need a refill on the coffee.” Pivoting, Gen moved with stiff purpose to the other tables. No one gave her odd looks, so her customers must have missed the hair incident. Or they chalked it up to one woman asking another woman about her hair, right? Maybe she was overreacting.

Disconcerting. That fit Lyda Coltrane, for sure.

The phone rang, giving her an excuse to retreat behind the counter. As she bent over her pad to take a phone order, she had to hold her hair back on one side to see. Damn it, Lyda had her sticks. It had been awhile since she’d worn her hair down. Feeling the strands tumble forward made her feel…girlish. Pretty. Something she’d rethink if she saw a mirror. She probably looked like she had a limp dish mop on her head.

As she hung up, the side door opened, flooding her with relief. Glancing down the access hallway to Marguerite’s office, she saw her boss come up the two stairs, her heels tapping against the old wood floor. “Good morning.”

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