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Omega, p.6

Omega, page 6

 part  #3 of  Alpha Series



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  "Yeah, well--" Layla started. But then she laughed despite herself. "That was so damn awkward. We were in the shower and you had to use the bathroom. But he was right there so I couldn't just stop, and you were about to wet yourself."

  I laughed even harder. "I pretended I didn't know what was going on, and you pretended I wasn't there. Only, there was a shower curtain between us, clear from the waist up. Thank god it wasn't glass, but I could just see the top of your head moving..."

  "You wouldn't look at either of us for weeks after that."

  "Yeah, well, your creeptastic whatever-of-the-month didn't have that problem. He'd look at me like 'yeah buddy, you want some, too?'"

  "He did?" Layla asked.

  "Um, yeah? He stared me down all the time after that. Gave me these looks, wiggled his eyebrows. Shit, he all but pulled his junk out and offered it to me."

  Harris coughed, then, and Layla glanced at him, and I saw her expression shift from amusement to embarrassment, and from there to walls-up defensive anger. "What?" She turned to him. "Got something to say, Harry?"

  He swiveled his head ever so slightly. "No, Miss Campari."

  "Oh please. 'Miss Campari' my ass. You know my fucking name."


  "So what?" She tilted her head, and I could tell by the set of her shoulders that she was spoiling for a fight, Layla-style. Poor Harris. Layla in pissed-off or embarrassed mode is scary. She could flay the red off a brick with nothing but a few well-turned phrases. "You don't like to hear about my sexual exploits...Harry? Got a problem with it?"

  "Not at all."

  "Well it sure as fuck seems that way. That little cough, like excuse me? Sounded to me like a judgmental sort of cough, know what I mean?"

  "Not at all. It isn't my place to judge."

  "But you are, aren't you? Bet you're wondering how many dicks I've sucked in the shower, aren't you?" She leaned close, enunciating each syllable very clearly and carefully. "A lot. Not just in the shower, either. In the car. In the bed. On the couch. Public bathrooms. Behind the bleachers. Everywhere. I love blowjobs, Harry. They're my fucking specialty."

  Harris's shoulders lifted and lowered as he took a long breath and let it out. His fingers flexed on the steering wheel. "Very clever play on words, Miss Campari."

  "My name is Layla."

  "I'm aware."

  She traced the shell of Harris's ear with her finger. "Bet you want a sample of the goods, don't you? A little test run? Right here, right now?" She leaned closer. "You want some road head, Harry?"

  "My name is Harris. And no. Not while I'm driving a half-million-dollar automobile." He didn't flinch, didn't bat her hand away, and didn't look at her. "Ask me later, though, and I might have a different answer."

  Not the response she was expecting, I gathered. She snorted and turned away, catching a glimpse of Roth, who was barely restraining open laughter.

  "Glad you think this is funny, Roth," she snapped.

  "Oh, I do. Very much so." Roth gestured at Harris, chuckling. "You've managed to fluster Harris, and that is no mean feat, I assure you. Harris is so unflappable he could be British."

  Harris shook his head. "Very funny...sir."

  This only made Roth laugh even harder. "So it's sir, now, is it? You never call me sir."

  I had to defuse this, somehow. "I feel like we've gotten off-topic, here. Layla, you were going to say something about stopping somewhere?"

  She tossed her thick, curly black hair. "Never mind. I ain't even hungry anymore."

  Uh-oh. Layla rarely reverted back to what she referred to as "old Layla" slang. She'd grown up in a pretty rough area, and her manner of speech had shown that. She'd worked hard to eradicate it, and had taught herself to speak more properly, even if she still swore like a sailor. But when she was really upset she'd speak in street-slang.

  "Layla, I--"

  She raised the privacy glass, cutting me off.

  Roth glanced at me. "That was unexpected."

  "She gets prickly when she feels like she's on the defensive."

  "She going to be okay?"

  I shrugged. "Eventually. Layla is Layla. You can never tell with her."

  "YOU KNOW I CAN HEAR YOU, RIGHT?" Layla shouted. She lowered the glass again. "I am not prickly, and I am not unpredictable. Jesus."

  I had to laugh at that. "Layla, come on--"

  "Just--shut up, Key. You're just gonna piss me off even more."

  "Please, Kyrie," Harris cut in. "Whatever you do, don't piss her off anymore. I have to ride with her up here."

  "Oh shut your fucking mouth, Mister Unflappable."

  "You first, Miss Blowjobs-for-Everyone."

  "Oh...shit," I murmured.

  "I didn't mean--" Layla started, and then shut her mouth on her words so fast her teeth clicked. "You know what? I don't owe you dick for explanations. That's not what I meant and you know it."

  "That's what it sounded like to me." Harris was speaking as calmly as ever, but there was something in his voice, a hint of ire, a note of irritation...something I'd never heard before.

  "I was making a point."

  "About how much you love blowjobs. Point taken."

  Layla hissed. "About how my decisions are mine to make and I won't be judged for them!"

  "I'm not judging. I have not uttered a single word in judgment. I haven't said one syllable that could be construed as negative towards you in any way, Miss Campari--Layla, I mean."

  "It's the way you're looking at me. Or not looking at me." She sounded petulant, and less sure of herself, somehow.

  "Then you're misconstruing the way I'm looking at you. And, honestly, my focus has been on the road, not you."

  "What, you can't divide your attention?"

  Harris let out a breath, a very frustrated breath. "Oh for fuck's sake. You're impossible."

  Layla had no reaction to this. She just crossed her arms beneath her prominent breasts and stared out the window at the rural New York State scenery.

  I glanced at Roth as this exchange occurred. We traded looks, both of us surprised at our respective friends.

  I'd never seen Layla interact with anyone this way. She dominated conversation simply by virtue of being louder and talking faster, by being in your face and unapologetic and rowdy and bawdy. She was beautiful, tall, strongly built, had curves for days, and a personality that naturally took up all the attention in any given room. Every guy she'd ever dated or slept with or whatever she wanted to call it, they'd all just gone along with her, because trying to buck her need to control and trying to steer her at all never worked. Not for anyone. She was the epitome of the no-fucks-given mentality, not because she genuinely didn't care about how she came across, but because she refused to be cowed or dominated or controlled by anyone.

  But Harris, with his quiet, calm, unassuming mannerisms, had somehow taken her down a few pegs without even trying. He'd gotten under her skin. No one--nothing--ever got under Layla Campari's skin. Her skin was so thick it was like armor.

  This interaction with Harris had me thinking. Combine this with the overly quick denial that anything could ever happen between her and Harris...

  The lady doth protest too much, methinks.



  We were going to the Turks and Caicos islands.

  Population roughly 33,000 people. Geographically, it was an archipelago of forty islands, governed by the UK as a "British Overseas Territory". Their currency was the US dollar.

  It was a paradise with turquoise water, white sand beaches, tiki-hut bars on endless beaches.

  I couldn't wait to get there.

  After transferring from the limousine to a small twin-engine jet, Harris took a few minutes to go over his flight plans and to make final arrangements for the trip. Within a few short minutes he had us airborne, flying us several hours south to the Caribbean.

  Layla spent much of the flight ignoring Roth and me, her earbuds plugged in, music blaring, reading a book on he
r Kindle. Then, partway through the flight, without explanation, she went forward and knocked on the door to the cockpit. Harris let her in, and the door closed, and we didn't see her again until after landing.

  As the islands of the Turks and Caicos came into view, I watched with interest as we began our descent. It truly was a special kind of paradise. Under perfect blue skies, Harris made his approach to the Providenciales International Airport and we landed a few minutes later with a perfect no-bounce touchdown.

  We taxied to a private hanger where an old-school white Range Rover waited, engine idling. After transferring our baggage to the Rover, Harris drove us away from the complete silence.

  I wasn't sure what was bothering Layla, or whether Harris was pissed off, but you could cut the silence with a knife. Harris was hard to read when it came to facial expressions, but that was just his way--he liked being quiet and inscrutable. Layla was easier to read. She was my best friend, and had been for many years. I knew her inside and out, so it didn't take much for me to figure out that she was indeed still stewing. What exactly her problem was, I wasn't sure. It was her own filterless, sassy mouth that had embarrassed her, not me.

  It was a long drive across Grand Turk Island to a marina where a yacht waited for us. During that time she didn't look at me, didn't look at Roth, didn't look at Harris. She just stared in silence out the window.

  The silence between Harris and Layla especially was rather icy and pronounced, and a little awkward. Maybe I was imagining things...or maybe not. Maybe they'd argued while alone together in the cockpit. Or maybe something else had happened.

  I watched Layla intently the whole way to the marina. She was leaning against the door, forehead to the glass, watching the scenery, her lovely half-black/half-Italian features schooled into neutrality. I knew that look. It was the look that said she was battling intense inner turmoil, keeping an emotional tsunami from overtaking her.

  Layla was an intense person. Everything she did was done at full speed, no holds-barred, all-in. But, emotionally, she could be closed off. Anything real, anything personal, anything deep, and anything that could leave her vulnerable she avoided or kept behind those walls of hers. Even with me, she was very rarely openly emotional, using her smart mouth and colorful vocabulary to deflect anything that got too personal. And if things got too intense she closed down completely, putting out spikes, and refusing to interact until she had it under control.

  I would be willing to bet money that something had happened in that cockpit.

  Things didn't improve on the boat ride either. Harris piloted the big antique boat out of the marina and away from Grand Turk in silence, black Oakleys shielding his eyes. His only concession to the Caribbean climate was that he chose to wear a white short-sleeve button-down and khaki trousers, rather than the two-piece suit he usually wore.

  The boat was long, low, and open-sided, with a roof to block out the sun. Benches lined the sides, and there was a screened-in sitting room/saloon at the bow, two small cabins belowdecks and the cockpit aft. As soon as we were out of the marina, Layla walked along the outer railing and stood as far forward as she could, her thick, curly hair tied back, a cheap pair of knock-off Ray-Bans on her face, looking completely miserable.

  I was tempted to go forward with her and try to get her out of her shell, but something told me she wasn't ready.

  I left Harris alone, too. He was busy piloting the ship, navigating around the many small islands and reefs. I knew him well enough to know he wouldn't say a word to me about whatever may or may not have happened between him and Layla.

  That left Roth and me to lounge on the starboard-side bench, the wind in our hair, warm salt water leaping up in spits and sprays as we rolled over the shallow waves.

  "She okay?" Roth asked, nodding at Layla, who was visible standing at the port railing, staring out at the water.

  I shrugged. "I'm not sure. I think something is going on with her and Harris."

  "Should you talk to her?"

  I shook my head. "Not yet. Not here, anyway. I think she needs some time to work through whatever is bugging her."

  "But you think it's something with Harris?"

  "I'm not positive, but that's my hunch. They either had a conversation on the plane ride here, or something happened in the cockpit. I don't know. She's not usually like this. Silence from Layla is usually a sign of something being really wrong."

  "It's harder to tell with Harris. You'd have to know him really well to even know anything was upsetting him."

  "You think something's upsetting him, too?"

  "He's always taciturn, and he tends to like his solitude. But he's been especially closed-mouthed recently. It's hard to say. Our friends are both rather difficult to understand, I think."

  I laughed, somewhat mirthlessly. "No kidding. I was best friends with Layla for two years before we ever had a serious talk about anything personal. She keeps her shit seriously private."

  Roth laughed. "Harris has worked for me for...nearly ten years. I know very, very little about his personal life."

  "When we were sailing across the Mediterranean to go get you, we talked a little. He said he came from a totally normal family, joined the Army at eighteen, the Rangers at twenty. Said he joined the Army out of sheer boredom. And...that's about all I learned, actually."

  Roth laughed again. "He hasn't told me much more than that. I know his retirement from the Rangers was...hard for him. Came on the heels of a mission gone wrong, I believe. I don't think I really want to know what happened, if I'm being totally honest. If it was something traumatic enough to cause a man like Nicholas Harris to quit a career he loved, it had to have been extremely upsetting. I hired him mere months after he left the Rangers, and I know he availed himself of my company's rather generous medical package so he could hire a therapist."

  "Harris went to a therapist?" That was difficult to picture.

  Roth nodded. "Every Monday morning for four and half years. The only reason I know is because he requested that time slot off specifically, and getting him to tell me why he needed it was like pulling teeth."

  "I still go see Dr. Mancuso on occasion, actually," I heard Harris say from behind us. Silent as a cat, he had appeared out of nowhere.

  I wasn't sure what to say. "Harris. We were just--"

  "Gossiping about me. I know, my ears were burning." A small smile brightened his features, telling me he wasn't upset. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Any combat veteran will have demons to exorcise," he said, leaning back against the railing. "I'm no exception. My father was a Vietnam veteran, and he refused to talk to anyone about his experiences or the effects they had on him. I saw firsthand how well that works, so after I left the Rangers I knew that if I didn't want to end up like Dad I'd have to see someone. So I did. Purely out of a motivation to be something close to normal, I guess."

  Then, changing the subject abruptly, he added, "Even the auto-pilot needs help. I'll see you later." And then he was gone again, just like that, back in the cockpit, pulling the throttle back as we approached a lowlying island.

  The island loomed large in front of us, water fading in color from jade to turquoise as the water shallowed out nearer the shore. The beach was a thick white line rimming an explosion of green, with just a hint of glass reflecting sunlight from between branches. Still about a hundred meters from shore, Harris cut the engines, letting the antique boat coast to a stop, and then he went to the forward starboard side and loosened a crank to let the anchor rattle free. It hit the water with a huge splash. He returned to the aft of the boat, more rattling and fussing with mechanical winches or cranks or something, and then he lowered a wide white ship's boat into the water.

  "All right," Harris called. "Down to the skiff. Roth, you first, please."

  A rope ladder tossed over the side allowed Roth to descend. I followed him, and then Layla, and then Harris used a thick rope and a tie-off point to lower the luggage, which Roth stowed in the bow of the skiff.
Harris came down last, untied the ropes connecting the skiff to the yacht, and used the end of an oar to push away from the ship. Layla and I watched as both Roth and Harris then set the long oars into the locks and began pulling, just Roth at first to bring the skiff about to face shore, and then both of them in unison.

  For the first time in the twelve hours since we'd left Manhattan, Layla cracked a smile. "Never thought I'd see the Valentine Roth doing manual labor," she said.

  Roth had unbuttoned the top three buttons of his shirt revealing a V of tanned skin at his chest. The muscles on his strong forearms flexed as he set a rowing rhythm. His blond hair was windswept, and he had an easy grin on his gorgeous face. God, so fucking hot. I don't think I'll ever get used to how insanely sexy my Valentine is, just how perfect he is.

  His shirt strained across his chest as he pulled the oar in perfect synch with Harris. "Get a good look," he said to Layla, "this doesn't happen often."

  And thus ended the brief exchange. The rest of the ride to the island occurred in silence.

  When the hull scraped on the sand, Harris pulled in his oar, removed his socks and shoes, and rolled his pants legs up to his knees. Roth did the same, and they both leapt out of the boat, one on either side, setting it to rocking gently, and then each of them grabbed the bow with both hands and hauled the skiff further onto the sand, until the water was lapping at the aft end.

  And then something bizarre happened.

  Harris moved to the end of the boat where Layla was preparing to step out of the skiff. He reached for her, put his hands on her waist, lifted her easily, and set her down on the damp sand.

  And she let him.

  She even reached for him, balancing herself with her hands on his shoulders. As her toes hit the sand, Layla sank slowly down, her eyes locked on Harris, her hands trailing from his shoulders to biceps to forearms.

  And then, abruptly, she turned away, tossed her hair, and stalked away, almost angrily, through the surf.

  I'm unable to emphasize how utterly alien that behavior is for Layla.

  She's the epitome of the independent woman--and not in the angry-feminist sort of way. She won't bitch out a guy for opening a door for her, and if he offers to pay for a date, she might let him if she likes him. But she's fiercely independent. She never asks for help. She's not the sort to hold a guy's arm or be handed down from a truck, not the type to engage in any kind of public touching. Around me, at home, when we shared an apartment, she might let me see her kiss her current boyfriend, but that was it. She's not a hugger, not a cuddler, and certainly not a trail-her-hands-down-his-arms girl. And certainly not a gaze-with-rife-and-conflicted-emotion-into-his-eyes girl.

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