Excerpt: Path to Discovery

As first dates went, it wasn’t the worst she’d ever had.

Aw, who was she kidding? The guy was hot, with his athletic build, his easy conversation and his blond, ruffled hair. All American male, sweet and fun to be around. She’d have to watch herself or she could fall head over heels out of the control zone. Pronto.

Tieg Miller was the leading man in the off-Broadway production of her friend Jessie’s new play, The Deception. Roxanne had a minor, but challenging role and he had landed the male lead. Although she’d admired him quietly from afar during the entire month of rehearsals, she was unaware he’d even noticed her until he’d asked her out for a late dinner after the show. Tonight.

She’d barely kept the grin from jumping onto her face, it was such a surprise.

Her normal practice was to decline a first date. It was New York, after all, and she was a single woman. It was important to have a system to keep herself safe. Running out starry-eyed on dates with men she barely knew seemed unsafe, so she tended to be cautious about who she spent her time with.

For Tieg, she’d made an exception. She wasn’t sure why. It was just intuition. As she climbed into a cab with him at 10:30 at night, she tried to ignore the feeling that she was quickly falling under his spell.

But she was pleasantly surprised. Their theater in the East Village was a quick cab ride to a homey, comfortable restaurant called Meskel. She was enchanted not just by the largely vegetarian home-cooked cuisine, but particularly by Tieg’s humility, his easy smile and his willingness to tell stories that poked at himself just a little. She always did love a guy willing to self-deprecate.

Roxanne found herself opening up to him, telling him things she’d never normally tell a tall, bronzed and handsome hunk on their first date. Like how she’d majored more in partying than Theater in college, and how she’d dropped out with only one semester left because she had the feeling she was ready to become a star on Broadway. And how she’d waitressed and bartended for six years straight before she was finally making enough money to support herself here. If living in a 560-square-foot studio apartment qualified as supporting herself.

“Oh!” she gasped, her second glass of wine almost gone. “That reminds me. I need to get home.”

He was such a gentleman. He didn’t even ask why. He just nodded, motioned to the waitress for their check, and settled it nonchalantly. Then, he rose and helped steady her since she was a bit wobbly on her heels, taking a firm grip on her elbow as he helped her walk out onto the sidewalk. They walked to the next cross block and he expertly hailed a cab. As they scooted in, he asked, “Where do you live?”

“Hell’s Kitchen. Ninth Avenue.”

They zoomed off and she found herself leaning into him, inhaling the scent of his sweater that had picked up a combination of smells from the day. He’d either eaten or intersected with barbequed pork at some point in the day, she decided, and the wind outside had left a breezy fragrance in his sweater’s fibers. She put her hand over his and he began an intimate thumb rubbing that made her swoon. She lifted her head to him and found that their lips were only centimeters apart. Sinking into a soft kiss was the most natural thing in the world.

Oh, he tasted good. Combined with the warmth rising from his body and his scent filling the cab, it was a perfect combination. The faint chill in the early fall air swirled through the cab and she realized she felt a little woozy. From the wine, or the happiness from being with this man, she was unsure.

“I have someone waiting for me at home,” she murmured.

His body stiffened. “Hmmm?”

She nodded and stifled a giggle against his chest. “Mmm hmmm. Someone who needs me, who can’t quite take care of herself.”

She felt him relax slightly at the pronoun. “Do you have a daughter?”

She grinned and pulled back, looking into his blue eyes. “Yes, you could say that. A big, one hundred pound, furry daughter.”

Understanding dawned. “A canine daughter?”

Roxanne nodded. “Duchess. A big, lovable, gorgeous, scruffy German Shepherd. Who probably needs to pee a fierce one.”

The cab arrived at her cross block and stopped. He threw some bills at the driver and got out with her. “You don’t need to …,” she started.

“I’d like to meet her, if you don’t mind.”

Her heart squeezed at that comment. He was a dog lover.

They covered the half block to her building, and she fumbled in her purse in the dark before withdrawing her key ring to open the front door. They walked to the back stairwell and climbed, emerging on the second floor.

Duchess, true to form, barked ferociously until she realized who was home, then her barking disintegrated into happy whimpering. “Baby. Little girl. Puppers. Calm down. Oh, I know. I know you missed me. I missed you, too.”

Roxanne laughed as the dog showed her in no uncertain terms how happy she was to see her owner. Unable to contain her excitement, she simultaneously jumped, paced, whimpered and flailed her tongue in Roxanne’s general direction.

“What a beauty,” Tieg murmured.

“Yeah, she’s a sweetheart, too.” Roxanne reached for the door handle and pulled Duchess’s leash off the knob. “I’ll take her outside. I’m sure she needs it.”

He nodded like a good sport, reached in and ran his hand over Duchess’s back. They made their way quickly down the stairway, covered the distance to the front door, then outside. Duchess squatted immediately near the tree in the small yard outside her apartment building. Her bladder momentarily emptied, she panted and tugged on the leash. Time for a full-fledged walk. She was a creature of habit.

“How long have you had her?” Tieg asked.

“Six years. I got her before I left college. She’s not exactly an ideal small-apartment dog, but she’s a part of me. I can’t imagine living here without her.”

“I’m sure she’s a good protector as well.”

She shrugged. “I’ve been lucky. Despite the statistics, I’ve never been mugged or had one of those scary New York City moments. Much to my mother’s relief.”

“Having a big dog beside you can’t hurt.”

They ventured down a few blocks, Roxanne grateful that her neighborhood sported street lights. It was dark, but the glow from the lights every few yards helped guide them without too much trouble.

Tieg slipped his hand in her free one, and her heart remembered the comfortable closeness they’d shared in the cab. He seemed interested. And she certainly was. Was this the start of something good? A relationship with a good-looking guy that would give her life some fun, love and excitement?

She was pondering that possibility when it all happened at once. First a pop – a distant, but loud shot. Then, Tieg’s gasp beside her, and most horrifically, Duchess’s reaction. She tensed, let out a painful yipe, stopped walking, then collapsed to her side on the pavement.

“Duchess!” Her scream filled the night air as she crouched and ran her hands over her thick fur. She began to weep when one hand came back dripping in blood.

“Watch out!” Tieg yelled, leaning over her from behind, wrapping an arm around her waist and pulling her up. She fought him with all her might.

“No!” she pushed out in a desperate screech, swinging her arms and kicking her legs as he pulled her up and away, away from her beautiful Duchess – the wrong way. She needed to help her dog, find out what happened, how she could help her, what treatment she needed to be well. Why on earth was Tieg pulling her off?

“It’s not safe,” Tieg said, his head darting around as he held Roxanne’s struggling form, his eyes scanning up, up to the higher stories of buildings around them. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“No!” she yelled again, unable to induce speech more than that one negative syllable. Her brain was jumbled, her thoughts confused. It seemed like long minutes had passed by, and yet, it had only been seconds.

“Roxanne!” Tieg yelled at her, turning her to face him in his arms, holding her shoulders firmly. “Someone shot at us. Someone who’s still out there.” He lifted one arm from her shoulder and pointed up and away. “They’re still there. We’re not safe. We need to take cover.”

“I’m not leaving Duchess!” she screamed, and yet, he was forcing her to do exactly that. No longer reasoning with her, he’d physically taken control. He lifted her in a fireman’s carry, flopped her gracelessly over his shoulder, took off into the shadows and ran away from her baby.

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