March Madness Chapter Three

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER THREE

When Sunday broke with shining sun, I took it for a sign. Time to get out of the house and start a life in Chicago. I pulled on an old LSU Wrestling Team t-shirt and some grey jogging shorts, did a few stretches, and headed out into the early morning. As my run rushed air into my lungs and forced my muscles to shift and move under my skin, I started to calm down. I nodded at the morning walkers and joggers I recognized from my earlier and earlier forays into my neighborhood. And, well, my continuous efforts to meet a real live human being in Chicago.

There was the twenty-something dyed blonde wearing an expensive-looking jogging suit. She nodded and flashed her customary brief smile at me as I passed. “Good morning, March,” she said in a thick Eastern-European accent, the g at the end of “morning” sounding more like a k. “Beautiful weather, finally.”

“Mornin’, Marina,” I said. I hesitated for one second, wanting to say something, anything, to continue our conversation. “Rain’s finally gone, it seems.”

“See you tomorrow,” she said before she passed me by.

Next, the man with black hair touched with silver walking his golden retriever. Always wearing a black or navy business suit, he walked his dog three times a day. When I had asked how he got away from work to do it, he said it was the benefit of owning the company. I slowed down to a standing jog as I approached. “Hey, Sam.”

“Say hello, Kit,” the businessman said.

The golden retriever yipped hello and I scratched behind his ear. “Good morning, Kit,” I said. “You look lovely today.” When Kit butted my hand with his head, a goofy little grin spread over my face. I really had to get a dog of my own, honest to God.

“Just got his bath.” Sam gave his dog an enthusiastic head pat. “Have a good day, March.”

I knew a dismissal when I heard one. That was the problem. They were all friendly enough, just not more so. No one in Chicago had been so far, outside of the Mafia, that is. As I edged into the last mile, I saw my last morning regular, the man who, like me, always wore similar running outfits: Marines t-shirt and plain shorts, just alternating colors. He had beautiful sculpted cheekbones and jaw just visible under his dark sunglasses and cap pulled low on his head. He flashed his usual smile as he passed, and I gave him one back. Unlike my other two regulars, he had never verbally responded to my greetings, just gave me the same smile every day.

“At least someone could ask me how I’m doing,” I said under my breath as I jogged away. That’s right, Sanderson. Just continue talking to yourself. Dog. I really did need a dog. That way, I would be talking to something with a pulse.

#

            “My goodness, are you hurt? Are you all right?”

            I steadied myself on the man’s arm and tried not to slam my head, repeatedly, into the wall. “I’m fine. I’m just fine. Nice reflexes, by the way.”

            “I’m really, really sorry.” He set me straight on my clumsy two feet before he reached for his mop. “I was trying to get all of this cleaned up before anyone came back in.”

            I glanced around the coffeehouse and, sure enough, it was empty. With my luck, there had probably been a “CAUTION: WET FLOOR” sign I had ignored in my haste to get coffee. “Oh,” I said as I peered at his nametag, “Brian, it’s not your fault. The floor could have been completely dry and I would have tripped over my own two feet. It’s been one of those weeks, I’m afraid.” I mean, really. What with the shooting and the mysterious men chatting with me and giving me umbrellas, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were destined to get another concussion. And pull my stitches. I sent up an experimental hand to probe my shoulder and winced. Dammit.

            “Then I guess I should tell you to be careful,” he said as he walked towards the counter. “What would you like to drink this morning? The usual?”

            “Have I really been coming here that often?” He looked familiar but I didn’t recognize him from my morning forays. Of course, anything I witnessed before coffee was suspect.

            “Triple caramel latte? Medium?”

I guess so. “That would be great. Thanks.” I rumbled around my purse for money, trying to hide my blush. “Say, you wouldn’t know where I could find a pet around here, huh?” That’s it, Sanderson. Just steer the conversation away from your awkward clumsiness, your preternatural concussional tendencies, and your innate coffee predictability.

            Brian puttered around behind the espresso machine. “Well,” he said as he steamed the milk, “you could try going to the market. Sometimes people sit outside with free kittens and puppies.”

            “Really?” I looked at the cup in his hand when he handed me my drink. Something prickled the back of my neck and I shivered. Was it… his hand? It was tanned and he obviously worked with it often, given the scars, but… something felt off and… and I was a complete and total idiot. “Oh, medium, not a large.”

He gestured the coffee cup at me again, nudging brown hair off of his forehead with his other hand. “Upgraded and on the house, if you promise not to sue us.” He gave me a hesitant, almost shy smile. His eyes darted across my face, looking for reassurance, and his brown hair fell back over his forehead.

            I gave him a wide smile back. “Fair enough. Hey, thanks a lot. You have single-handedly made my week a thousand times better.”

            His hazel eyes lifted a bit and the tension eased out of his shoulders. His eyes flashed gold specks as his smile widened. “You’re welcome.”

Maybe this was my day after all. The sun was shining, I got free coffee, and I was going to buy a pet. I put a couple of dollars in the tip jar and left to check out the market. No luck in the pet department, so I asked the man behind the deli counter if he knew where I could get a pet. He shrugged and handed me my ham. Well, not to despair. Today was all about making friends.

            After three hours and two trips back to the house to drop off purchases, I was beginning to despair. People were friendly enough, but my neighborhood consisted mainly of locals, who were agreeable yet suspicious of outsiders. I kept telling everyone that I just moved to the neighborhood, but they would nod and chat about the weather, and then move on to the next customer who (surprise surprise) they knew from grammar school, or were related to, or something. I began to get the sinking suspicion that my neighborhood resembled the entirety of Baton Rouge in more ways than one. I wandered further out of my usual route and found myself in front of a pet store. Aha. God bless serendipity.

            “May I help you?” a young clerk asked when I walked in.

            I drank in her trendy clothes, her awkward makeup, and was charmed by her. She looked like some of the girls I had taught at St. Martha’s. “I want a pet.”

            She fiddled with the silver hoop in her left ear. “What kind of pet?”

            “Maybe a puppy. Or a cat. Something furry.”

            She nodded and led me to the back, her long brown ponytail swinging with every step. “We have some back here that are on sale.”

            I peered through the window and fell in love. “Oh, he’s a cutie, isn’t he?” I waggled my fingers at the black puppy. He snuggled down in his blanket, gnawing on one corner with scrappy determination, and looked at me with rich chocolate eyes.

            “Isn’t he the cutest? We just got him a few days ago. Want me to take him out? You have to hold him. He’s all soft and cuddly.”

I looked closer at the price tag. “Eight hundred dollars for a dog?

            The clerk straightened to her full five feet, three inches. “All of our pets are purebred, miss,” she said in an affected haughty tone. “He’s a Cairn Terrier. We have papers and everything.”

            I didn’t want a purebred. I wanted a fuzzy puppy. How hard was that to understand? I looked into her eyes and gave her an apologetic smile. “I’m sure he is, but I don’t have a spare $800. I’m a high school teacher.”

            She relaxed a little and tugged at her earring again. “Really? Where at?”

            “Our Divine Mother.”

            Her brown eyes grew wide. “No. Ohmigod, you’re new? What are you teaching?”

            “Senior AP and honors English.”

            Her eyes grew wider and she beamed. “I can’t believe it!” She held out her hand to me. “I’m Vanessa Holladay. I’ll be in one of your AP classes.”

            “Well, for now, I’m March,” I said, shaking her hand. “But come August, that’s Ms. Sanderson, okay?”

            “Ohmigod, I can call you March right now?” Her voice had the same cadence, the same animated lilt that all of my students back home had had. I was right. Divine Mother was going to be very much like St. Martha’s. “That’s so cool,” she continued. “You have like, the cutest accent. Where are you from?”

            “Louisiana.” I pulled my hand away from her enthusiastic grip. “All the way down in Baton Rouge.”

            “You’re the one my dad was talking about. The parents are really excited about you. Apparently, the parents’ club will do anything to raise the AP scores.” Vanessa rolled her eyes. “I mean, anything. God, I wish I could give you the Cairn,” she said, leaning against the window. “But I can’t even go down on the price. I’m just a clerk.” She scrunched up her nose and cocked her head towards the cash register. “But maybe you should try the animal shelter. They just like, give away dogs that need good homes. Come up front. I’ll draw you a map on how to get there.”

            “That would be great, honey. Thanks.” I followed her bouncing step to the front of the store.

A few minutes later, Vanessa handed me the map. “So I’ll see you in August?”

            I put the map in my pocket. “Or before, if I win the lottery. I’ll be back for the Cairn.”

            She laughed. “You are so cool. Drop by and visit the Cairn anytime, all right? And tell your friends they can come in, too.”

            The smile froze on my face before I felt it fall, in centimetered increments, from my mouth. “My friends?”

            Vanessa pointed to the window behind me. “Yeah, your two friends outside. They don’t need to stay out, unless they’re smoking.” She wrinkled her nose. “That’s like, gross with the animals and stuff.”

            When I turned to look out the window, I saw two shapes edge out of sight. “Yeah,” I said in a soft voice. “I’ll be sure to tell them to come inside next time.”

            By the time I had exited the building, the two shapes were gone, faded into the milling street throng, without even giving me the courtesy of their names and Mafia Family affiliation. The sidewalk was too crowded all of a sudden, too many people jostling me and rushing around me in the mid-afternoon Sunday shopping. I backed up against the wall and tried to get some breathing room, but the second I did, I felt trapped. My cell phone chirped from my purse and I scrambled for it. “Hello?” I said into the receiver. “Hello?”

            “March? Is something wrong? You sound upset.” Familiar accent, Chicago with tinges of something else, something that suggested his mother or grandmother was an immigrant.

            And that did it. One familiar voice in Chicago, and I was able to breathe again. “Dominic Reggianno?”

            “Yeah, sorry, I should have said that. You okay?”

            I eased back into the sidewalk traffic and headed towards the corner. “Just a little overwhelmed by your big city.” I laid my accent on thick and was rewarded with a chuckle. “How are you?”

            “I was fine until I got to work. You have a lot of goddamn brothers, you know that?”

            “And they just love to talk about their baby sister.” I leaned against a traffic light to wait for the crossing signal.

            “I thought Jeremy was your baby brother.”

            “Only by two minutes. Which ones called you?”

            “I really have no idea. They all dropped their g’s and called me ‘Man.’”

            “Then that means only brothers or cousins. The uncles would call you ‘Son.’”

            “Well actually, I think some of them did. I can’t remember. Listen, are you… where are you? I can hear traffic.”

            I waited until another car passed before I answered. “I tried to buy a puppy but the pet store wanted $800 for one. Oh, and I just met one of my future students. Chicago’s a lot more like Baton Rouge than I thought.” Even the men lurking in dark corners were an awful lot like Baton Rouge. But back home, those men were related to me. They fixed my leaky faucets and kept spiders from planting a web in my bedroom and claiming it for Arachnopolis. Somehow, I didn’t think the Mafia would be as kind, despite their cleaning.

            “Welcome to the Windy City,” Dominic said, cutting through my thoughts. “Listen, I have some things I need to talk to you about, tonight if you’re available.”

            “Sure. Anytime.” That’s it, Sanderson. Confess to the cute detective how pathetic your life is. “I have some things I want to talk to you about, too. I think I was being followed.”

            He paused for a second. “Yeah, actually, that’s one of the things I need to talk to you about. I was going to tell you not to worry if you see some plainclothes following you around.”

            “I have a cop detail?” Jesus Christ, I could have stayed in Baton Rouge for all of this.

            “Look, I get off around six, and we can talk about it then. I thought you might want to grab a pizza or something, see what the locals eat.”

            “That sounds great.” I tried to sound calm and unaffected, but cute detective and cop detail equaled decided anxiety in one Nathalie March Sanderson. “Dinner table interrogation. Make a skirt feel right at home.”

            Dominic laughed in my ear. “Good. I’ll pick you up after work. See you tonight.”

            After we hung up, I went to step off of the curb and someone grabbed my elbow and pulled me back. A car zoomed inches past me and blood throbbed in my head and fingers. After I regained control of my blood pressure, I looked up to thank the man when I realized that he was wearing mirrored sunglasses and, sure enough, a large black car idled at the curb behind him. Okay, mental note: good Mafia rescue damsel in traffic distress.

            “Look both ways, Ms. Sanderson.” The smoker from the hospital–Bit?–hesitated a second, waiting for me to say something, perhaps, before he nodded and walked off.

#

            A little after six, I twirled in front of my mirror and tried to decide if my knee-length black skirt and v-neck maroon shirt were too dressy for dinner. Police investigation. Whatever this really was. Hair down would imply dressy. Hair in sloppy ponytail would imply a plethora of teacher clothes. But it really seemed to be in the jewelry and shoes. If I wore a matching–

            Someone knocked on the door, interrupting my panicked dressing. I opened it to Dominic. “Hi. I’ll be ready in a minute. There’s some beer in the fridge.”

            “I’m good. Thanks though.” He walked in and closed the door behind him. He was wearing black corduroys, a white dress shirt, and smelled like vanilla and sandalwood.

            “Let me just put on my shoes,” I said as I walked to the bedroom. Once there, I slipped on some black strappy sandals and tried to calm my blood pressure. Between the anxiety over interrogation and attraction to said interrogator because of his tousled hair and dark brown eyes, I felt like I was going a little batty. Or on my way to a nice panic attack.

I rolled my eyes at my reflection, pulled my hair into a sloppy ponytail, and walked into the living room. “Hey. I’m ready,” I said as I hooked the clasp on my necklace.

            He looked up from my bookshelves and slid the reading glasses off of his nose with a quick movement. Apparently, Dominic Reggianno did not like women seeing him in his glasses off the job. “Hey, yourself. You read all of these books?”

            “Most of them.” Of course, I thought he looked adorable in his glasses, but his self-consciousness over them just added to it. This was not good.

            “Which one is your favorite?”

My brow wrinkled. “Well, you know, that’s really a loaded question.”

            “It is?”

            “Well, do you mean, which one is my favorite to teach? Streetcar Named Desire, maybe, or anything Flannery O’Connor. But then you could mean, which one is my favorite classic? To Kill a Mockingbird, of course, or maybe As I Lay Dying. But,” I said, gaining momentum, “you could mean, which one is my favorite novel?” I examined my shelves for a second before I decided. “Definitely Confederacy of Dunces, or Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog. And if you mean mysteries, then….” I glanced over at Dominic to find his eyes a little glazed over and a wrinkle in the middle of his forehead. “Sorry. What did you mean, exactly?”

            “What book do you grab on a bad day?”

            “Oh.” I walked over and pulled a copy of Pride and Prejudice down. “This one.”

            He wrinkled his nose as he took the book from me. “I was supposed to read this in high school but I faked my way out of it. The Cliffs Notes were definitely riveting, though.”

            “Oh God. You’re breaking my heart.”

            “Already? We haven’t even had dinner yet.”

            “Well, make it up to me. Keep it, read it, and let me know what you think. Book report due Friday.”

            He leaned against the wall and ruffled the pages against his thumb. “I thought it was your favorite book.”

            “It is, but I keep getting it for Christmas. I have fourteen copies.” I pointed to all of them lined up on the shelf, in different shapes and sizes. And one, as a joke from my cousin Corey, was in a different language. Damned if I knew German, and damned if I knew where Corey found a German edition of Pride and Prejudice since he had never left the States, but he had laughed for weeks over it.

            “Your brothers?”

            I shook my head. “Actually, my cousins. My brothers do a really good job of buying me gifts. Perfume, furniture, guns–”

            “You really just said guns, didn’t you?”

            I patted his cheek. “They’re registered, don’t worry.”

            He eyed my outfit. “You look nice.”

            I smiled. “Aren’t you sweet?”

            “Does your entire family have that red hair?”

            I grimaced. “It’s not red. It’s auburn.”

            “Looks red to me,” he said in amusement. “What about those grey eyes? They have those, too?”

            “They’re blue.” I grabbed my purse and stomped towards the door. “Ice blue.”

            As we drove towards downtown in his Blazer, I squirmed in my seat and tried not to look out the window much. Chicago’s downtown was so much bigger than Baton Rouge’s. In Baton Rouge, I could almost hear the river rushing at my side, and the biggest building was the State Capitol. In Chicago, every building on every block soared higher than I could crane my neck to see. I sucked in a breath and glanced over at Dominic, trying to think of something, anything, other than the blocks upon blocks of skyscrapers crushing down around the car.

            “You didn’t strike me as a Johnny Cash fan, not really,” I said.

            “Want me to change the CD?”

            “Of course not. It’s just that I would have guessed maybe… hmm…” I peeked over at him. “Early nineties alternative, Seattle grunge era, or even a little hip-hop, but country?”

            “But he’s the Man in Black. And can you really call Johnny Cash country?” Dominic tapped his thumb against the steering wheel in rhythm to the music. “He’s more of… an outlaw.”

            I burst into laughter. “Outlaw it is. I’m a jazz and blues girl myself. Billie, Nina, Ella, Beth, all the greats.”

            “You’re from Louisiana.” He glanced over at me. “I would almost say that’s cheating.”

“I cheat, detective. Fair warning.”

When we arrived at the restaurant, I was charmed by the red-checkered tablecloths and breadsticks on hand, but the real charm came from culture shock. Dominic caught my smile as I noticed the coat hooks attached to every table.

            “That’s neat,” I said as we sat down.

            “What, don’t have those in the South?”

            I took the menu the hostess handed me. “I think I own a coat. I’m not too sure, though. I’ll have to call my mother and check.”

            “Better get one soon,” Dominic said. “It gets wicked cold around October.”

            “I hate the cold.” I shivered as I imagined blankets of snow muffling the sounds on the street, the white flakes falling on my roof and trapping my house under blankets of whiteness and trapping me inside of my trapped house. “Autumn’s wonderful and all, but real cold? I’ll take the humidity over it any day of the week and twice on Sunday.”

            “Hi, I’m Evan,” the waiter said, crouching next to the table. “I’ll be your…”

            When he didn’t continue, I glanced from the menu to find him staring at me with odd, luminescent green eyes. Like a cat’s, they were deep and clear. “Is there something on my face?” I asked.

            His eyes became thoughtful. “Do you ever model?”

            A choked cough escaped my mouth. “Excuse me?”

            “Do you ever model? Not like fashion or magazines or pop stuff like that. Art.”

            I sat back a little in the booth. “Not really. Why?” Although I was sure he was an art major. He looked like every art major I had ever met, from the wide silver band on his right thumb, the silver hoop in the cartilage of his left ear, and the short sloppy hair that kept falling into his eyes. A little dark, a little punk, and very avant-garde. Even his odd directness was familiar.

            He gave me a charming grin. “You’re just unusual looking.”

            Dominic burst into laughter and I glared at him before I turned back to the waiter. “Word of advice from an older woman. Way to a girl’s twenty-percent tip? Not by telling her how ‘unusual’ she looks.”

            His grin grew wider and dimples appeared in his cheeks. “Good unusual, not bad unusual. I’m a photographer. Well, getting my degree in photography anyways. It’s just a thing. Sorry if I offended you.”

“Well, good luck with that, but I’m afraid I’ll regretfully have to decline. I don’t model.”

            “Well, think about it, okay? I’m serious.” He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a card. He scribbled his name and number on the back and handed it to me. I stared at his hands for a brief second before I took the card. He had beautiful hands, artist’s hands, hands that Michelangelo’s David would kill to have. “So what can I get you guys to drink?”

            “Killian’s?” I said, glancing over at Dominic. “Or is this a teetotal dinner?”

            “Killian’s and Goose Island Stout,” Dominic told Evan.

            “Decided what you want yet, or do you need a few more minutes?”

“Anything but pepperoni,” I told Dominic.

His eyes widened. “You’re not serious.”

“Spinach?”

“On pizza? Are you feeling okay? How’s the head?”

“Have you ever had spinach on pizza?”

Dominic slumped down in the booth. “Well no, but…”

Evan brushed his jet-black hair out of his eyes and glanced over at Dominic. “Ladies’ choice or are you going to fight?”

He sighed and nodded. “Spinach it is. I’ll have a house salad with ranch. March?”

“Balsamic.”

“Got it.” Evan’s hair flopped back into his eyes as he stood up. “I’ll have that for you guys in a bit.”

            We sat in silence until Evan brought our beers. Once he was gone, I took a sip and glanced at Dominic. “So what did you want to talk to me about?”

            Dominic shook his head. “That can wait until after dinner. No need to ruin a nice evening.”

            There was a funny little feeling deep in my stomach. So maybe this was a date? A ploy? A ploy to make me feel comfortable and confessional by having a date? When I peeked at his face, I found it relaxed and interested, so I tried to affect the same. “So what’s your story, then? Born and bred Chicago local, two older sisters–”

            “Okay, two questions. One, how’d you know I was born and bred?”

            “At the hospital,” I said, “you were entirely too astonished over the fact that I moved all the way to Chicago just to teach high school, and I think you just ordered a local beer. At home, my family only drinks Dixie or Abita. It’s a pride thing.”

“And two, how’d you know my sisters were older?”

“Your chivalry is a little too precise. Bet they forced you to wear makeup as a boy.”

            He choked on beer. “And why do you think that?”

            “The eyelashes,” I said. “You have gorgeous long eyelashes which, if you ask me, are just wasted on a man. It’s not fair, is it, to give a man those eyelashes and let women get the short stubby ones?”

            “So what do my stupid girly eyelashes have to do with anything?”

            “Well if I were an older sister, and my younger brother had eyelashes like yours, I’d put him in mascara just to get even with the powers above.”

            “Even, huh? You can have them, kid. I’ve hated them my entire life.” He took a sip of beer. “So what else do you know about me after three days?”

            I examined him. “Not a bad boy when you were younger, not really, because your sisters and your good Catholic Momma would keep you in line. Plus, you’d just get away with anything because of that pretty face.”

            He glanced up at me. “So now I’m pretty? It’s the eyelashes, isn’t it?”

            “Don’t get a swelled head. I’m not saying you’re pretty now. Just when you were a wittle baby boy.” Of course, white lies didn’t mean I was going straight to hell. Dominic was something my brothers would call a “pretty boy.” But there was something awkward about him, something a little self-conscious, that kept him from earning that designation. Maybe it was because his eyes didn’t dart around the room during conversation, looking at other things. Every pretty boy I had ever met did that, including my ex-husband.

            “And here I thought I could get away with anything on account of my pretty face,” Dominic said.

            “You’re too tough to be pretty, all picking on poor, defenseless women in the hospital.”

            “Yeah, sorry about that.” He glanced up at me with soft brown eyes, the lashes hovering down over the pupils. It was a sweet look, apologetic and unconscious. It had probably broken his mother’s heart his entire life. “So tell me more about my life.”

            “College or military, but I’d say military longer at least.”

            “A little of both, actually, but neither was a good fit.”

            “And then you became a cop because you liked the idea of helping people, but became a detective because you were tired of taking orders?”

            “You’re good at this,” he said. “Like… Jedi good.”

And with that statement, he fell into the rhythm of our flirtation. When I saw a little smile play on his face, I realized that I was having fun for the first time since I moved to Chicago, and it had been a very long time since I flirted with an attractive man.

            “Obi March Kenobi, that’s me. And it’s only fair, you know, since Baton Rouge already told you my entire life story.” Although it seemed like they hadn’t told him everything. Some things were sacred in the Sanderson clan after all.

            “Except how old you are, but I got that on my own.” He tapped the side of his head. “I got smarts.”

            “That’s not smarts. That’s cheating. I don’t know how old you are.”

            “What, you can’t read my mind? Or tree rings or something?”

            “You’re… thirty?”

            His eyes widened. “You are terrible at this.”

            “Twenty-nine?”

            “I have no more faith in you. You’re a fallen Jedi. You’re Darth March.”

            “Twenty-eight.”

            “Yep.”

            “That’s young,” I said as I leaned back in the booth. I crossed my right leg over my left and rested my hands on the table. “You’re a baby detective.”

            A little smile played on his face as his eyes caught mine. “I’m a year older than you.”

            “Baby detective.”

            “That’s it. My turn now.”

            I pointed at him. “Give it a whirl, see if you can figure me out.”

            “Lived in Baton Rouge all of your life, surrounded by… what is it, five?” At my nod, he continued. “Five brothers. Running wild.”

            A blush crept on my face. “Not as bad as they’ve probably told you.”

            “But getting away with a lot because you’re the only girl.”

            “Had to give my big brothers something to do besides play football and eat my mother out of house and home.”

            “And then after high school you… went to Europe for a year and… wrote poetry at a café in Paris while drinking… espresso?”

            “So wrong. You suck at this. Just so you know.”

            “Hey, all it takes is a phone call, but I’m trying to play by the rules.”

            I let out a loud mock sigh. “Bachelor’s and master’s degrees at LSU, like any good Louisiana girl. I majored in English lit, and did my master’s thesis on pre-war mystery novels.”

            “World War I because it advanced technology?”

            “WWII, my friend. I’m a USO kind of gal.”

            “Rosie the Riveter. I can see it. Why then?”

I looked up, trying to decide if he was really interested or just making small talk. He gave me a sweet smile and my cheeks warmed. “Well, when I was a kid, my grandmother would tell me all these stories about when she was growing up in the Thirties, running wild. You know, one hellion to another. She met my grandfather at a dance marathon and everything. And it just stuck with me, I guess.”

            “And what happened after graduate school?”

“Then I married David and taught at St. Martha’s for four years, and then I moved here.”

“Here you go, guys,” Evan said, passing out our salads. “Ranch for you and balsamic for my possible muse.”

I glanced up at Evan, amused. “Oh, you’re good.”

Evan shrugged, a little smile on his face. “Can I get you anything else? Another beer?” When we said no, Evan nodded, brushed his jet black hair out of his eyes, and walked off.

I speared a cherry tomato on my fork and seeds squirted onto my lettuce.

            “Was it hard?” Dominic asked in a soft voice.

            I thought about the question as I chewed. “After I thought about it for a while, I realized that David wasn’t that much of a surprise.” At his look, I shrugged. “We were in love once, but he was hungry and I wasn’t.”

            “Hungry?”

            “Ambitious. Can you pass the pepper?”

            He started to hand me the pepper but pulled it away before I could take it. “Do you want to talk about something else?”

            “It’s okay. Really. I don’t mind. I just needed pepper.”

            He gave me the bottle. “So what happened next?”

“We got married right after I finished graduate school. We moved into a house, I taught, and after a few years, things started going wrong. And then in November…” I took a sip of beer. “Ava, my best friend, called me and said she saw David with Maria.”

“With, as in the Biblical with?”

“At the library where she worked, as a matter of fact, on the floor of a seldom-used room.”

His eyes grew a little hard, the liquid chocolate solidifying and darkening. “And then what happened?”

“And the next day, while I was trying to figure out what to do with that information…” I paused for a second. “Look, how much did my brothers tell you?”

He fiddled with his fork and stared down at his plate. “They didn’t tell me about your situation.”

Situation. What an odd way to put it, but there seemed to be no other way to say what had happened. “But you found out about it.”

“Yeah,” he said, glancing up at me with those apologetic eyes, “I did. When we looked into your background.”

“It was all over the news,” I said in a soft voice. “It wasn’t hard to find, I bet.”

“No, it wasn’t.” He let the fork fall from his hand to the plate. “But it seemed all aftermath.”

“Want to know what my favorite headline was? ‘Local Teacher Assaulted by Senator’s Daughter.’  Blunt and to the point.” I tried to stab another tomato but it was slippery with vinaigrette and eluded me three times. “My least favorite was ‘Senator’s Daughter Exonerated of Alleged Assault Charges.’”

“How the hell did she get off?” Dominic asked. “She made you–”

“Don’t know anything about good ole boy politics, do you?” The tomato finally yielded to my fork and I twirled it in dressing. “Senator Dugas wasn’t about to let his daughter go to jail, not for white trash like me.”

There was a wrinkle in the middle of Dominic’s forehead and his lips were pursed in a hard line. “He called you white trash?”

“Over and over again.” I flattened the fork against the plate and watched seeds squirt out.

“I’m sorry it came up,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make you upset.”

I shook my head. “You’re not. Funny thing is, you’re the first person I’ve ever had to tell about it. Everyone just knew back home. Word got around, right? She’s a senator’s daughter.”

            “What a goddamn bitch.” The breadstick in his hand snapped, punctuating his words.

            “She couldn’t have known. I didn’t even know until the ER doctor told me.” I nibbled on my breadstick. Maybe I should have known. A lifetime of irregular periods and off-cycles aside, I should have known. I had gone for my annual female exam the day before the incident with Maria, and they had run all the usual tests, but told me not to expect the results for a few days.

            “How far along were you?” Dominic asked, swinging me back into the conversation.

            Would it have mattered, if I had known? Would I have been able to protect the baby? “About six weeks.” I started drawing lines through the salad dressing with my fork. I had wanted that baby so badly.

            “So she attacks you on campus, punches you in the stomach, makes you miscarry, drags your name through the mud, and your ex marries her?”

            I watched the oil and vinegar separate on my plate before I gave Dominic a wry smile. “And you thought getting shot would be the worst thing that ever happened to me. It’s nothing compared to losing my baby and my husband all in the same week, and both to the same crazy woman.” No, if I had to bet money on it, Big Tony Gasconi and his entire Mafia Family, despite their criminal dealings, had nothing on Maria Dugas Thibodeaux. Nothing at all.

2 thoughts on “March Madness Chapter Three”

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