Reese shot through the door of the glass-fronted boutique, his finger tightening around the trigger of the gun nestled in the kangaroo pocket of his sweatshirt.
A bell chimed merrily as he plunged into the shop; he noted that the push-button combination lock which should have barred him was not working.
His eyes swept the sun-drenched room: rosy walls glazed like the layers of a birthday cake stretched into the distance and long rows of women’s dresses dangled from racks hanging by pink chains from the ceiling.
Three giant pin-cushions upholstered in green-and-white checks sprawled down the middle of the space. He supposed these ottomans were seating for shoppers or more likely for their bored male escorts.
At the far end of the room, a stylized antelope leaped across an arched doorway, its elongated limbs and curved neck suggesting flight captured for eternity in bronze.
Despite the exotic promise of its name, The Brazen Antelope seemed rather conventional in its decor and classic in the array of floral patterns and feminine silhouettes on its hangers. At first glance, nothing in this shop seemed like the pant suits and sweaters that Joss usually wore.
Under the smell of commercial rug cleaner, he registered the prickly scent of fresh starch and the spice of jasmine flowers.
He wasn’t sure if the urgent message which had demanded his presence was from Joss, but the alluring promise of her perfume made his blood surge in a familiar erotic rush. The press of new cases had kept them apart for five days and so his feelings were divided now: he hoped she wasn’t in danger here, but he longed to see her again.
To silence the clatter of the gun as it knocked against his cell phone, Reese clasped both devices together inside his pocket. The high alarm which had fired his senses and propelled him into the shop dwindled as he took in the silent scene.
He could feel his racing heart slow to a trot as two minutes passed without signs of a threat or even a victim in need of rescuing. If Joss wasn’t threatened, he could re-calibrate his frantic conscience for the moment.
Sunday morning, especially a steamy one in mid-June, was not a good time for business at The Brazen Antelope, it seemed.
The place was empty of customers and he wondered again just why he had been ordered here with such a burning urgency.
There was only one woman in the shop and her features sparked with hope when she caught sight of him. The wide grin and pink splotches on her cheeks and throat as she closed the distance between them suggested she must be a clerk in dire need of a commission.
The only danger she appeared to be in was of falling off her four-inch heels as she navigated the spongy pink carpet.
“Mr. Redd? Welcome to The Brazen Antelope! So nice to meet you at last!”
The hand she laid over his forearm felt clammy even through the thickness of his sweatshirt. He noted the yellow stains on her fingers which meant she was a heavy smoker. Reese knew that phony familiarity was a stock technique of all sales girls, but this one seemed particularly sincere in her friendliness.
“We were expecting you. I’m Annalise.”
Reese hoped that by puffing out his chest a bit, sucking in his stomach, and straightening to his full height he could deflect any disappointment Annalise might feel as she looked over his baggy outfit of gray cotton, sagging elastic, and frayed drawstrings. The triangle of sweat at the ribbed collar of his dingy pullover continued to darken as he stood in front of her. His toes felt itchy inside the black leather high-tops.
Twenty-five minutes earlier, he had broken off a sparring match at Neely’s Gym to rush to the scene of what he had assumed was an imminent attack.
The text message on the cell phone screen had been strident, if ambiguous: first the term “Intersection,” then an address followed by stark words: “Trouble. Come at once.”
He looked around the boutique again then back to his smiling hostess.
Maybe late twenties, Annalise was too slender to be sexy, he thought, but her blonde hair was nicely curled around her jawline and the cut of the bangs showed off her arched nose and hooded green eyes. She was dressed in what seemed to be the style of the shop, flowered fabric draped from pleats at the shoulder and captured by a skinny belt. With the low neckline, bright colors, and floaty hem, the dress was feminine, soft, and appealing, he found.
Since she seemed to know him, Reese didn’t feel the need to do more than grin and wait for her to elaborate so that he could fit himself into the story she already had in her head.
“We don’t normally open our shop on Sunday mornings, but when we got your email message, my boss told me to make an exception. It is lovely of you to offer such a generous birthday gift to your wife, Mr. Redd!”
He tried to keep his eyebrows from shooting up and he was glad that his hands were inside of the kangaroo pouch so that Annalise couldn’t see them clutch the gun in a spasm of surprise.
“Yes …well, she’s worth every penny. That’s for sure.”
His first words were accompanied by a hearty laugh. He hoped they carried the right tone of command and indulgence that the situation seemed to call for.
Annalise bubbled right along.
“I hope we can find everything she needs to outfit her for the cruise you’ve got planned, Mr. Redd. I think the wine provinces of France sound just so romantic!”
Annalise sighed and looked off through the boutique’s plate glass window, perhaps envisioning moonlit nights gliding past citadels overlooking the Gironde or Dordogne rivers.
Reese hated to interrupt her Gallic reverie, but he needed to get to the bottom of the mystery. His heart leaped to the conclusion that the concealed woman must be Joss and his cock twitched in happy agreement with the idea.
“Has she, I mean, my wife, Mrs. Redd, arrived yet?”
He thought sounding impatient and vaguely Texan would clear the shop clerk’s head, so he added, “We need to finish packing before three. Even private planes won’t wait forever, you know.”
“Oh, a private plane! I think you called it ‘Intersection’ in your emails, didn’t you? How perfectly elegant! Yes, she’s already back in the fitting room.”
The weird congruence of the text and email messages puzzled him for a moment, but he forgot them in the cheery blast of Annalise’s chirping:
“We picked out at least two dozen dresses and she’s been trying them on for a while. You can go back and see her if you want. Or you can just wait out here. Would you like some coffee, Mr. Redd?”
He did want the coffee, but he shook off the offer and looked down the room.
“Thank you, but no, darlin’. I figure I’ll just head back and see if I can hurry her along. Mrs. Redd has a bad habit of dawdling.”
The casual condescension of the phrases seemed to fit the persona although it made him cringe to keep up the pose.
“Twelve years together and I still can’t seem to break her of it. She looks mighty good when she gets done, of course, but the waitin’ is awful painful!”
Annalise winked as if sharing a sophisticated joke with him and pointed toward the heavy pink velvet curtains draped across the passage to the rear of the shop.
Above the doorway, the cavorting bronze antelope seemed to leap in anticipation, but Reese thought that impression was just a trick of his overheated mind.
“You go on back, then, Mr. Redd. I’ll just step outside for a minute for a quick smoke. The boss doesn’t want us smoking inside, you know. But if you need me, just call.”
Joss did look good.
The deep emerald shade of her bra and panties set her skin glowing in the candle-pink light of the dressing room. He liked the way the rough leather of her sandals contrasted with the satiny glamour of her underwear.
She didn’t need high heels to look sexy; in fact, he adored how her head rose no higher than his heart when she wore these flip-flops.
The sweet conspiring scent of jasmine he had noted when he first entered the shop was her, of course. It drifted around her now, warming the close atmosphere of the room with its faint but exciting promise.
Almost naked, she was between outfits, he guessed. On the left side of the mirrored chamber, several dresses in jewel tones of blue, plum, and orange were still on their hangers awaiting her inspection.
Other dresses had fallen to the floor in a flowery puddle around the pink velvet tufted bench that occupied the center of the space.
Reese didn’t trumpet his entrance before flinging aside the door to the fitting room. He hoped Joss had caught his loud drawl as he spoke with Annalise in the outer room and that she was willing to go along with the game for a few moments more.
“Mrs. Redd, how the heck are you?” He would drop the accent in a while, but not yet.
She arched her spine as she turned away from him to catch his eye in one of the full-length mirrors. Then he could see that she wasn’t wearing panties exactly because, despite the scrap of satin in front, the back didn’t cover her ass. In fact from the rear, it looked like she wasn’t wearing anything at all, which was delicious.
His mouth moistened at the dazzling vision and when she spoke at last, her jasmine melted into a bouquet of liquid flavors on his tongue:
“Mr. Redd, good of you to drop by!”
Butter and cinnamon and the gentle bite of ginger blended in his mouth so rapidly that he had to gulp twice to avoid drooling.
In a hurry, he leaned against the door, pressing back until he heard its lock click into place.
“What’s going on here, Joss?” Soft and low now that they were in private.
“You tell me, John.”
She drew out his simple name into three syllables in a way that set his cock galloping.
“I have no idea what’s going on.”
Then, without waiting for his response, she launched into an explanation and even though her tone was crisp, it didn’t break the mood of erotic license.
In fact, she was sexiest when she was tart.
“I was frying up some bacon for breakfast this morning and made the mistake of putting that damn ear piece in. I had just finished up the batch, but before I got a chance to crack the first egg, the voice came on telling me to get to this shop.”
Joss paused, her eyes growing filmy and unfocussed at the memory of the machine’s eerie command.
It was several weeks since the machine had first contacted her directly; its interactions with her now were frequent, Reese knew. Although he wasn’t aware of the content of every exchange, he understood from her reports that the machine sometimes interspersed questions among the expected tactical orders.
Joss seemed to take this new relationship in stride and she described the machine’s instructions this morning with a bemused air:
“It sounded really urgent, all cool and clipped like it does, droning on about ‘trouble’ and ‘intersection’ and what not.”
Then a sardonic warmth invaded her expression again. Her mouth curled up at the corners so that the little dip at the bow of her upper lip flattened until he thought his heart would burst.
“But when I get here that fool girl just starts falling all over me, calling me ‘Mrs. Redd,’ babbling like she was going to die if she didn’t give away her merchandise. I thought it was some undercover stunt you and Harold were pulling, so I went along with the game.”
In a few phrases, Reese explained how he came to The Brazen Antelope.
He didn’t want to waste this precious time talking about the “intersection” coincidence. But he thought she expected to hear something from him so he gave her the story of the text message.
By the end of it, Joss’s voice was heavy with sarcasm, but that was alright with him because her nipples were popping inside the green satin bra.
Shifting from foot to foot as she listened to him made the green satin triangle slide into her pretty cleft. The effect was so gorgeous it took his breath away.
“I see you dressed for the occasion, John.” She was teasing and he loved it.
She let her critical glance rake his body until he crossed his hands over his chest in a protective stance.
“Hey, I cleaned Hank Washington’s clock for three rounds this morning. I would have decked him except I got this text and had to quit.”
“Honey Hank! So how’s he doing?”
She was grinning now, her brown eyes dancing and her lips pulling back to show off her perfect teeth.
“You don’t meet many good-looking guys with wicked left upper cuts like that. Did Hank ask about me?”
She sighed elaborately and he could see her teasing pink tongue darting behind her teeth, testing him in a familiar pattern.
His response was predictable, he knew, but he said it slowly so that she would feel the honest passion underlying the rote answer:
“If he had, I would have killed him, so it’s a good thing he kept his mouth shut for once.”
As she curved her throat to laugh, he watched the sounds bubble up from her chest, so damn sexy he thought he would melt into the carpet right there on the spot.
He closed his eyes briefly and when he opened them she was pressed against him, rubbing her breasts over his ribs like a cat that had decided mere purring wasn’t friendly enough.
She fingered the sweatshirt’s damp neckline, pulling it aside so she could stroke the flat of her tongue over his throat before dropping little kisses from his collarbone to his jaw. Then she pressed her nose against his chest and inhaled deeply.
“Mmmm, this is good. So real… so, I don’t know…just so you.”
And with that, they were done talking.
So he fitted his hands over the globes of her bare ass, squeezing and petting until she shimmied forward into him, as if trying to escape and get closer at the same time.
She could get him to full erection by just thrusting against his pelvis like this, but that wasn’t fast enough for her it seemed, so she snaked her hand past the frayed waistband of his sweatpants. She rubbed him for a stroke or three or four over the elastic of his jockstrap, which got tighter and tighter as she worked him.
While she grasped his cock, he slipped a hand under her jaw to raise her face towards him. She stared at him for a long moment, never letting up on the rhythmic squeezing that was driving him to the edge.
Then as he lowered his head to her, she closed her lids, the lashes flitting up and down just before the kiss was sealed. He drove his tongue into her mouth in time with her pumping, encouraging her to take him as she wanted. In the swirling delirium of the moment, he didn’t know which act was controlling, which was raw response.
With a whimper that echoed the regret clutching his own gut, she had to release him to make it over to the tufted bench.
There, she leaned back so that her breasts shifted inside the emerald green bra, stretching it wide, to expose the throbbing skin over her heart. At her silent suggestion, he tugged on the flimsy not-panties until he could roll them down past her ankles. Then she dropped her legs to either side of the bench, an invitation of pink over velvet pink.
In a moment, he was above her, a knee on the bench between her legs, his cock freed at last. She ran her fingers up and down his torso, pressing the ridges of muscles above his pubic bone. He pulled the sweatshirt over his head and flung it into the pool of dresses below the bench.
Then he plunged into her as if he had been burning for five years instead of five days, surging forward and back and forward again as she lifted her hips to meet his power.
She clasped his flanks, digging her nails into his waist as he moved, urging him on in a frenzy that threatened to unbalance them both.
He lowered his forehead to the concave at the base of her neck; he could feel her pulse there strumming in accord with his own heart.
In the moment of their shared crisis he raised his torso so that she could see him and he could see her, their bodies straining, their flesh joining. She took him one last time and then she broke in ecstasy around him, gasping his name as a short staccato curse which drove him to the sweetest surrender of all.
When they returned to consciousness, panting and laughing was all they could manage for several minutes.
He didn’t want to break the mood with anything profound, so he offered a giddy jibe:
“Mrs. Redd, you can buy all the dresses in this damn fitting room!”
“We better, Mr. Redd, or Annalise will have our hides for sure!”
But when they had straightened their clothing, arranged innocent expressions on their faces, and emerged together into the frothy pink light of the front of the shop, the clerk was gone.
After a few moments of blinking in the mid-day glare, they finally spotted Annalise tugging frantically at the front door.
From the outside.
She was barred from entry by the mysteriously resurrected push-button combination lock.
A portrait of frustration and anxiety as she peered into the store at her customers, drooping curls and sweat-soaked bangs framed her flushed face. As Reese strode toward the entrance, Annalise rattled the handle and punched frantically at the key pad to no avail.
The door just wouldn’t budge.
He let Annalise into the shop with a broad grin. Ignoring her distressed apologies, Reese thanked her with elaborate Texan formality for her attentive service.
He didn’t let a drop of censure pass his lips, figuring that the girl’s mortification was complete without his adding to her burden.
At the cash register, he stood behind Joss, speaking over her head to explain that Mrs. Redd had found everything to her satisfaction. In fact, the service at The Brazen Antelope was so good he planned to tell everyone in San Antonio about this wonderful New York City shopping experience.
Then he handed over a platinum corporate card whose astounding credit limit easily covered the cost of the towering armful of flowery dresses Joss piled on the counter. Reese hoped this extravagant gesture would soothe the frazzled shop girl.
With a flurry of head-shaking and sighs, Annalise wrapped the gowns in acres of pink tissue, then folded them in shopping bags decorated with the boutique’s signature green-and-white check.
As they left The Brazen Antelope, Mr. and Mrs. Redd promised to send Annalise an electronic postcard from a vineyard in the heart of Bordeaux.