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Watching Over The Watcher

Watching Over The Watcher

Book excerpt

Chapter 1

Selene Johansen bent over and scooped up a heavy cardboard box. Her long white-blond braid slipped over her shoulder to dangle onto the carton, the end tracing squiggles in the thick dust. She hefted the box, and the unbalanced load inside shifted uncomfortably. Hoisting the burden, she made her way across the squeaky wooden floor towards the door of the compact pink and green bedroom. She had to step aside as her friend Maggie barreled in, black ponytail bouncing, intent on collecting another load. Only a couple of boxes left.

As Selene moved out the door behind Maggie, heading down the short, terra-cotta painted hallway, her sneakers caused the honey-colored boards to creak. Dirty as her shoes were, she didn't want to make a mess on the vibrant green runner lining the center of the hallway.

Selene arrived at the rusty white pickup and set the heavy box in the nearly-full bed. Good thing we're about done here.

She glanced around the small, tidy front yard. Neatly trimmed grass gave way to a row of carefully shaped shrubs along the front of the house. An aged oak shaded the windows of the front room, through which she could barely see the comfortable seating area. The clean, white-painted siding of the small one-story matched its larger neighbors for attractiveness, if not exactly for size. She smiled. It looks like a baby house at play with older siblings. I love it here. All the houses in my neighborhood look the same.

“Come on, Selene,” Maggie called from the open doorway. “The day won't wait for us. Stop smelling the flowers and get to work.”

Selene grinned at her friend's impatience. Though Maggie’s correct about one thing, the intoxicating fragrance of lilac is worth a moment's attention.

As Selene headed back into the house, a brief blast of synthesized violin music from her pocket arrested her progress. She paused in the living room, fished out her cell phone and sank onto the sofa to answer the call.

“Don't you dare!” Maggie exclaimed, snatching the phone out of Selene's hand and making a swiping motion with her finger across the screen.

“Hey!” Selene protested, jumping to her feet. “That was probably work.”

“And you're not on call,” Maggie retorted, unperturbed. “The fate of the universe doesn't depend on you.”

Selene shook her head. “I've said it before. You know how important it is for me to do what I do. Because of me, lives are saved that might otherwise be lost. I matter, Maggie.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Maggie replied, handing her back the phone, “but you're a person, too. You deserve a day off now and again, and you only have one weekend a month when you're not on call. Please, don't give it up because of a job. There are other cops, Selene. Give one of them a chance to shine.” With that she flounced away.

Torn, Selene stared at the screen of her phone. Maggie has a point, a little voice in her head reminded her. You've been working ten to twelve hour shifts every day for the last three weeks. Feeling suddenly determined, Selene tucked her phone back into her pocket and returned to the bedroom for another box

Maggie squeezed past Selene carrying a box of…something with apparent ease. That didn't mean the box was light. Maggie’s job as a physical trainer left her amazingly strong. It showed in the slim, toned figure, the chiseled arms, and the perfectly flat stomach. Her face, of course, matched her figure. Her excellent conditioning made her exotic cheekbones and strong nose stand out in perfect relief. Her shining black hair, tied up today in a practical ponytail, hung neatly to her shoulders.

Selene returned to the bedroom and hefted the second-to-last box. Its staggering weight momentarily threw her off-balance. So that's where the Anatomy and Physiology textbooks Maggie kept after college ended up.

“Remind me why we're doing this,” she whined playfully to her friend as Maggie bounded into the room and scooped up the last box. “You always said it made sense for a single woman to live at home, especially since you wanted to keep your dad company.”

Maggie shrugged. “I don't know,” she replied. “I just felt like I needed a change. This seemed like a good time to do something different. Now shut up and move. This box is heavy.”

Probably hand weights, Selene thought. Thankful for the hours of training she spent each week in the police department's gym, she moved the box to the back of Maggie's rusty old pickup, Maggie trailing behind her with the final carton.

“Ladies,” a warm and friendly voice came from behind them, “before you drive away, would either of you like something to drink?”

Selene turned around. Maggie's father Brandon stood behind her holding out two glasses of what could only be his homemade lemonade.

“Thanks, Dad,” Maggie said, grabbing one and downing it in three gulps.

“Yes, thank you,” Selene echoed shyly. I’ve always liked Maggie's dad, perhaps a little too much, but I’ve never felt entirely comfortable around him. I’m not sure whether he knows about my gift, but I hope he doesn’t. I want at least one person to believe I’m normal, and if it could be Brandon Price, well, that would be just perfect.

“I can't believe you're done already,” he commented. “I was going to help.”

“I guess you're slowing down in your old age, Dad. We young chicks are just too fast for you.”

“Sorry, I got tied up.”

“You know, Dad, you could have told Grandma you would call her back.”

“Yeah right, Maggie. If I did that, I would hear about it for a month.”

“You're right,” Maggie grinned, “but it's okay, Dad. Selene and I got it taken care of.”

Brandon's dark eyes met Selene's briefly.

She glanced away, studying the garden beds with great interest. To cover the nervous movement, she took a sip of the lemonade. Mmmm. Perfect, like always. Tart and refreshing. She swallowed another, deeper mouthful and peeked back at Brandon and Maggie, standing together on the driveway. The striking pair looked so much alike. Tall with glossy black hair, sculpted cheekbones, and warm dark eyes… I wonder who my father was.

Quick as a flash, she pushed away the errant thought.

There's no benefit in feeling sorry for yourself. Fate has decreed that you'll live without a family, and honestly, they'd a distraction from work. Mentally shaking her head, Selene tossed down the rest of her lemonade and handed the glass back to Brandon with a shy smile. He smiled back, his white teeth flashing against the copper of his skin. Selene felt a rush of heat to her face and hoped she wasn't blushing.

“Can I offer you ladies some dinner?” he suggested.

Selene met his eyes again and he winked at her. God, I’m hot. I must be blushing. Damn.

“No time, Dad,” Maggie replied. “I still have to unload this stuff at the apartment.”

Selene tried to squash down her disappointment. After such a hard day’s work, eating one of Brandon’s delicious meals would have been the perfect reward.

“Maybe Selene would like to eat with you though,” Maggie continued, surprising Selene out of her contemplation.

“Don't you want my help at the other end?” she asked.

“Not really,” Maggie replied with a sassy look. “I've already heard enough knowing sighs from you. I know where I want my things, and I don't want to spend the next six months looking for them because you had a 'better idea' about where they should go!” She planted her hands on her hips and smirked.

Selene smiled at the banter. “If you had any logic at all in that little pea brain of yours,” she teased back, “you would realize I've put them in the best places and look for them there first.”

Maggie shook her head. “You know, Selene, you would make a lousy roommate.”

“Why do you think I live alone?” Selene replied. The two women laughed.

“So, Selene,” Brandon said, drawing her eyes back to his face, “would you like to stay for dinner? I have a stuffed chicken breast with mushrooms calling your name.”

Selene's mouth watered at the thought of food that didn't come frozen and sealed under cellophane. You should really get home. You never know when they're going to call you in to work. Still…this is Brandon. “Sure,” she told him, smiling again.

Maggie waved, hopped into her battered pickup and drove off, leaving Selene and Brandon to watch the precariously stacked boxes sway.

“Do you think she'll arrive with all her stuff intact?” Selene asked as the truck disappeared around the corner.

“She'll be lucky if it's all still in the truck,” Brandon replied.

They both laughed, turning toward the house. He escorted her to the door and ushered her in with a hand on her back. As his pinky finger touched the centimeter of bare skin between Selene's shirt and jeans, his feelings washed over her. Sadness formed the largest part, but she could also detect some relief, and not over his daughter leaving, either. I'm glad Selene is staying. I'm not ready to face dinner alone. I've been alone so long…

She stepped away from him quickly, hating to probe the thoughts of innocent people. I wish I could block this, shut it off except at appropriate times, but sadly, no such luck. Any time a person's hand touched her bare skin, she knew exactly what that person was thinking.

“I'm hardly fit company,” she told him, looking down at her dirty clothing.

“Don't worry,” Brandon said reassuringly, “I'm not likely to throw out a guest because of a little dust. Besides, it came from this house to begin with. Why don't you go wash up? I'll set the table.”

Selene scuttled off to the bathroom. Standing in front of a mirrored pedestal with a scalloped sink, she brushed as much grime as she could off her oldest jeans and faded tee shirt, hating the way it settled on the black and white tile floor. She washed her hands with a bar of fragrant soap. The aroma of herbs and prairie flowers wafted up, friendly, welcoming and homey. I wonder where he finds this soap. It's not in any of the stores where I've looked for it.

She splashed a little water on her dusty face. No makeup at all, and she looked like a teenager. The faint smattering of freckles she pretended didn't exist stood out against her skin, which seemed paler than usual. You know, you look a little sick. She frowned at her reflection.

Well, I feel fine, and a little paleness is nothing to be too concerned about. Shrugging, Selene left the bathroom. Passing down the narrow hallway to the kitchen, she seated herself at the round wooden table in one corner. She glanced at Brandon, who stood with his back to her near the stainless steel six burner stove, stirring something in a large pot. The cavernous workspace, crowned with shining gold and black granite, made an impressive showplace fit for Brandon’s culinary prowess.

He approached her, carrying two plates and setting one in front of her, and then took a seat as she inhaled in appreciation. The chicken breast had been stuffed with ricotta and spinach and served with a rich mushroom sauce, seasoned rice, and steamed asparagus. She forked up a mouthful of the tender meat, closing her eyes to concentrate on its succulent flavor. Delicious.

“You know,” she told Brandon after several bites, “if you ever decide to give up being a career counselor, you could make a fortune working in a restaurant.”

Brandon smiled, leaning his chin on his fist. “Thank you,” he said. Then, more quietly, added, “I'm glad you stayed. It's always nicer to cook for someone else.”

“I'm sure,” Selene replied. “That's why I never bother. With no one else to feed, why go to all the trouble?”

He looked at her with his heart-melting brown eyes and said nothing, but his expression spoke volumes. She didn't need to be a powerful touch psychic to read that particular thought.

“It's hell being alone isn't it?” she asked softly.

He dipped his chin, acknowledging her comment. For the briefest of moments, his lip moved – almost a tremble – and then he bit down on it.

Selene laid her hand on the sleeve of his shirt, her way of giving a comforting touch while honoring his privacy. He slid his arm out slowly from under her hand, until his palm touched hers.

Selene tried to slip away, but he closed his fingers, encasing her in his emotions. “Please,” she said softly, “you shouldn't do that.”

“Don't you want to know?” he asked her.

Selene looked down at her napkin. So, he knows I’m a freak. “I'm trying to give you privacy,” she told him.

“I'm choosing to share.”

“Are you sure… I wouldn’t, I mean, I…”

Unless you don't want me to…”

Not want to share thoughts with Brandon? Thoughts freely offered? “No. No, I'm glad. It's nice to feel normal emotions from someone for a change.”

She laced her fingers through his and let his feelings wash over her. Sorrow, grief, loneliness, and a little fear. He really doesn’t want to be alone. She closed her eyes, and then opened them to look deeply into his. The warm brown depths drew her like a magnet. She unconsciously leaned in, closer to him than she could ever remember being before.

God, he’s handsome, and his full lips are so close. I’d only have to move a couple of inches… She tried to remind herself that he just didn't want to be alone, that the circumstances, not her presence, made him vulnerable. But I don’t want to be alone either. She moved forward, intentionally this time, but stopped, too shy to continue. Her attention focused on the sensations moving into her through their joined hands.

Disappointment? Her eyes widened. He moved his chin down again, a slight nod. Subtle. Almost unnoticeable, but she noticed. Her cheeks flamed, and she looked down briefly. His free hand touched her chin and the double dose of sensation overwhelmed her. He lifted her face until her eyes met his again. She could feel the query pulse into her from both sides. He wants it too.

He can’t hear my thoughts, she realized. Goodness, how can people who aren't psychic communicate? Brandon won’t know what I want unless I do or say something obvious. The realization ignited her courage. Imitating his soft nod, she lowered her face into his hand and gently kissed the palm.

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