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Authors: Sandra Hill

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BOOK: Heart Craving
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“You craved the fantasy?” he said with decided interest, his face no longer so despondent.

“I guess I did. Deep in my heart.”

He said the oddest thing then, “Thank you, Lord . . . and Madame Nadine. At least I’m on the right track.”

Day Four

The things a guy will do for love . . .

“Ouch! I thought you said this wouldn’t hurt.”

“No, darlin’, you asked me if getting a tattoo might fulfill your wife’s ‘heart craving,’ and I said it probably wouldn’t hurt. It’s not the same thing.”

Sitting on a high stool, Nick tried to peer back over his shoulder at Madame Nadine, who was working with concentration on his right shoulder blade. Or at least as much concentration as she could muster with that blasted cigarette hanging out of her mouth, cats meowing all over the place, and flowers sucking all the oxygen out of the air. Or did flowers give off oxygen? He couldn’t remember in the midst of his pain.

“Ouch!” he said again.

“Stop moving. I can’t see.”

Hah!
He didn’t know how she could see anyhow in the glare of her bright orange dress embroidered all over with neon yellow sequined sunflowers. The broad did have a thing about sunflowers.

“Watch you don’t burn me with that damn cigarette,” he grumbled as her two-inch ash grazed and crumbled against the back of his neck.

Madame Nadine mumbled something that sounded an awful lot like “Up yours.” But he was probably mistaken.

Just then, her needle hit a particularly sensitive spot, and Nick almost shot out of his chair. “Are you sure you didn’t work for Hitler in another life?”

“Tsk-tsk! No pain, no gain,” she remarked blithely.

“Easy for you to say! What kind of tattoo are you putting there anyhow? It better not be one of those hokey snakes. Or a skull and crossbones. I want something to impress Paula, not gross her out. How about two linked hearts?”

“Puh-leeze, I’m an artiste. I am creative. I am—”

“—a fraud,” he muttered under his breath.

“I heard that, young man,” she said. “Watch your mouth, or I won’t help you anymore. And I still think you should have let me put the tattoo on your privates. It’s the latest thing, you know.”

“Get real!”

“Would you consider a genital earring?”

“You’re not getting within a mile of these family jewels.” He placed both hands protectively over said treasures. “And you’d better hurry up. I only have another ten minutes left on my lunch hour.”

Finally, she finished and told him how to care for the tattoo over the next few days. He tried to peer at her creation over his shoulder, but she kept distracting him, blabbing on about how she’d gotten a ticket the day before for failing to procure a business license, and could he fix it for her. He kept telling her he didn’t work in that division, but somehow she managed to talk him into seeing what he could do.

After putting his shirt back on and slapping fifty dollars on the table, he asked the question he’d wanted to ask for the past half hour—the real reason he’d stopped by to visit Madame Nadine once again. “So, how do you think I’m doing on this heart craving business?”

Madame Nadine blew a smoke ring the size of an inner tube his way, and, in the midst of his coughing, she said, “You tell me, sonny boy. Has she torn up the divorce papers yet?”

“No,” he said on a groan of despair.

“Is she weakening?”

Remembering last night’s senior prom fantasy, Nick felt his face grow hot. Since he never blushed, he figured it must be the lack of air-conditioning.

Madame Nadine raised an eyebrow questioningly. When he declined to tell her the intimate details, she smiled knowingly. “Some progress then, huh?”

“A little, but not enough. The bottom line here is that I have less than three days. Any clues on how I can speed this along?”

She looked down at his crotch, then over to her tray of tiny earring loops.

“Forget it!”

He was already headed for the door, ignoring her chuckles, when she added, “I don’t suppose you’d like to give your wife a cat? Gargoyle’s gettin’ bored with me . . . seems to be lookin’ for a new home.”

“No way! Absolutely not! Never!” He looked back at the feline parked on her lap, a tabby the size of a small automobile, and shivered. It was licking its chops and gazing at him with a condescending I-know-something-you-don’t cat grin, probably thinking, “What a chump!”

Nick’s upper lip curled with distaste. “I hate cats.”

“I know.”

“Huh?”

“Maybe you should learn to conquer your fears.”

“Maybe you should stick to hair plucking and crystal fish bowls. I will never,
ever
have a cat for a pet.”

He turned toward the door again.

“Not even if it could help you get your wife back?”

“Not even if my life depended on it.” He slammed the door resoundingly and leaned against the doorframe, wheezing. The mere thought of living with a cat revolted him. He felt like upchucking.

He closed his eyes briefly and fought the picture of a five-year-old boy in the projects. Rats. So many rats! And all those cats chasing them. And his poor baby sister, Lita, in her crib, trapped . . . oh, Lord!

Stiffening with resolve, he forced the bad memories aside. No, he didn’t need any damn cat to remind him of all he’d left behind. Not in this lifetime!

When he arrived back at the station house a short time later, he met Skip coming out. Skip stopped dead in his tracks and gaped at him. “What the hell is that giant furball sitting on your front seat?”

“Gargoyle.”

“You mean Garfield.”

“No, I mean Gargoyle.”

“It must weigh fifty pounds. I thought you hated cats.”

Nick said a very foul word and stomped past him up the steps, without answering. He was in a cold sweat from having sat next to a cat for the past fifteen minutes. He wanted to go take a shower, brush his teeth, and spray himself with a film of disinfectant.

“Hey, have you given any more thought to that Indian stripper job I mentioned?”

Nick said two foul words and added a hand gesture.

Chapter Six

He’d been schnookered by an expert schnookerer . . .

BY THE TIME Nick quit work that evening, he was in a really bad mood.

His first mission was to unload the cat. So he headed to Paula’s.

She declined his gift, graciously but firmly. “Nick, I already have Gonzo. What would I want with a cat?”

In the background, the German shepherd was barking and growling like crazy, straining to leap through the barely opened doorway. Gonzo hated cats almost as much as Nick did.

Paula refused to let Nick come inside her apartment, reminding him that they’d agreed last night to stop seeing each other altogether and accept the fact that they’d be divorced in three more days.

Nick wanted to point out that he’d never agreed to any such thing, but he had more important concerns.
She’s not gonna take the damn cat! Oh, Lord! Now what?
Nick’s cold sweat turned colder, and a visible shudder passed over his body.

“What am I gonna do with a cat?” he complained. He stood in the hallway, shifting from leg to leg, his arms aching from holding the monster cat that was gaining weight by the second.

“Take it back where you got it. And stop buying things for me without asking. I’m sick of you making decisions for me. If I want a cat, I’ll get one myself.”

“Talk about ingratitude!”

She glared at him. “And, Nick . . . don’t come back tonight. I won’t be here.” Her lips trembled and her voice cracked. “Last night was an ending. Give up! I don’t know how much more I can take.”

He gazed at her bleakly.

She peered closer at the cat then. “Nick, that cat’s awfully big. Are you sure it’s not pregnant?”

“Come again?” He looked at the giant shedding machine in his arms, which was smirking up at him. “It couldn’t be. It’s a guy cat. Isn’t it?” He lifted it up by its front legs and looked where he thought the evidence should be. Nope, no cat penis, as far as he could tell.

His eyes widened with sudden understanding. Then, swearing a blue streak, he spun on his heel and stomped down the hallway.

“Nick, what’s wrong? Where are you going?”

“I’m off to kill a fortune teller.”

But of course Madame Nadine wasn’t at home. He knocked till his knuckles grew raw. He peered, then shouted through the closed windows.

But no answer.

She was probably out cruising the parkway on her broom.

He thought about leaving Gargoyle on the porch, but decided against that when he looked at the busy highway behind him. Even he wasn’t into cat roadkill.

That night he discovered two things. He still hated cats. And Gargoyle loved SpaghettiOs and cherry Kool-Aid, the only food he had in the house.

Day Five

Not the roommate he’d been hoping for
 . . .

The next morning he discovered two more things. Gargoyle had parked herself at the foot of his bed. And she planned a permanent stay, as evidenced by the hissing noise she made every time he tried to pick her up and take her to his car. Scratches up and down his forearms proved the cat had marked his apartment for her new home.

Well, Nick had a few plans of his own. He was going to Pet Control first thing this morning and get a tranquilizer gun. Then he was going to deliver a package—a very large package—to the psychic from hell.

After he showered, he filled the tub with a week’s worth of dirty dishes, squirted on a half bottle of dish detergent, and turned on the shower again. It was a trick Skip had taught him.

Then he searched the pile of dirty clothes on the floor of his bedroom for a reasonably clean shirt. He was forced to run a streak of white-out along the inside of the collar. Another dumb-man trick Skip had recommended.

Before he left for work, he wagged his finger in the cat’s face, warning, “If you dare to have one single baby while I’m at work, I’m making cat soup. No, cat-and-fortune-teller soup.”

Gargoyle, of course, just ignored him, licking her fur with decided indifference.

“And don’t breathe on anything while I’m gone. And make sure you confine your cat business to that box of rags in the bathroom. I’ll have you know I gave up my favorite ten-year-old Jockey shorts for your crap.”

Gargoyle shot him a look down her haughty nose that said clearly, in female cat body language, “You are
so
crude. And dumber than catnip.”

At least they had similar tastes in food . . .

NICK ARRIVED home at four, carrying a shopping bag with a gallon of milk and five cans of cat food. For himself, he had a six-pack of beer, ten more cans of SpaghettiOs, and a box of Froot Loops. The cat would have to share the milk.

Pet Control had told him he couldn’t tranquilize the cat if it was pregnant. So between assignments that day, he’d driven over to Madame Nadine’s, alone. Six times! There was no answer to his repeated pounding on Madame Nadine’s door or his shouted threats, although he could swear he saw cigarette smoke through the window.

Before he even unpacked his bags, Nick picked up the phone and dialed Paula’s number—for the zillionth time that day. Once again, he got her answering machine and slammed the phone back into the receiver. Paula was avoiding him big time. Apparently, she’d been serious about their not seeing each other again until the divorce hearing.

Well, he would show her he could be just as determined. But first, he had to feed the damn cat, which was rubbing itself against his pant leg and meowing in a disgustingly coaxing fashion. Holding his nose, he opened the can of cat food—“Tuna Milanese”—and dumped the gelatinous mass onto a plate on the floor.
Yech!
Next, he poured a saucer of milk.

Gargoyle lapped up the milk but ignored the cat food disdainfully. Instead, she eyed the SpaghettiOs he was eating cold from the can, washed down with a Bud Light. He tried to ignore her as he put away his purchases, but her eyes followed him accusingly. Finally, he gave up in disgust and dumped the rest of the SpaghettiOs onto another plate and put it on the floor. “I wouldn’t eat that tuna, either.”

The cat meowed a delicate, “Thank you.”

“Don’t think this means I like you. Or that you’re staying.”

“Meow.”

“Tomorrow you and I are breaking down Madame Nadine’s door.”

“Meow.”

“I don’t suppose you did any laundry today.”

Step Two of the Dumb Man’s Master Plan . . .

AFTER SHOWERING and gathering together some items Skip had lent him, Nick headed toward Paula’s place. He wasn’t surprised when she didn’t answer the door.

No problem.

After picking the lock, he hurried to shut off the delayed ring of the security alarm, which Paula had turned on, for once. He quickly punched a series of numbers into the keypad, breathing a sigh of relief. What he didn’t need was the police showing up.

Then, checking out Paula’s answering machine tapes for the past few days, he got a pretty good idea of where she was hiding out. Her parents’ beach house at Long Beach Island.

He grinned with satisfaction. Paula’s location worked very nicely into the next item on his fantasy agenda. Yes, indeed! Sand . . . lots of sand. He rubbed his hands together with relish.

Paula, baby, this is going to be a night you’ll never forget.

Pulling out his wallet, he found the business card he’d been given earlier that day. “Mr. Saleem? Hi, this is Nick DiCello. Yeah, we’re still on for tonight, but listen, Omar, there’s been a slight change in location.” He gave the guy directions to the beach house and told him he’d meet the work crew there in two hours.

“May Allah bless all your plans.”

“I sure hope so.”

“Do you still want me to contact that traveling circus?”

“Yeah. Sure. And don’t forget all the props we discussed. The palm trees, brazier, the cushions—lots of cushions.”

“A thousand pardons, my friend, but you’ve gone over this list with me three times already today.”

Nick could hear a calculator clicking in the background.

“You do realize, Mr. DiCello, that this is going to be a
very
expensive evening.”

“I expect it to be worth every dollar. And then some.”
Even if it sucks up all my savings.

“Well, ’tis said Allah put woman on earth for a man’s pleasure. Are you sure you don’t want me to send a belly dancer for entertainment?”

“Nope. I’m planning my own entertainment.”

“Welcome to my tent, Desert Flower,” said the sheik, or some such hogwash . . .

PAULA HAD BEEN walking the beach for hours. Nightfall approached as the setting sun cast an orange backdrop to the blue ocean, and still she strolled aimlessly, her bare toes skimming the foamy edge of the cool water.

Her family had purchased the cottage on Long Beach Island for a summer home at her birth, nearly thirty years ago. She knew the shoreline like the palm of her hand. And yet it was ever-changing, like her life.

Thoughtfully, she picked up a sea shell, examining its intricate, beautiful whorls, and remembered with a slight smile how she and her young girlfriends used to search fervently for that one shell that would yield a priceless pearl.

And she remembered as a grown woman once reading some philosopher who likened those pearls to temples built by pain around a single grain of sand.

Like Nick’s love. So beautiful, but so much pain surrounding it.

She started to throw the shell back into the water, but then whimsically tucked it into the pocket of her shorts.

A heavy cloak of depression weighed her down, as it had all day. She’d escaped Nick physically, but not emotionally. And she doubted she ever would.

She loved the man—totally. But she couldn’t live with him.

Thinking about their divorce made her shudder with hurt. And, more important, she knew that she was hurting Nick terribly. But she truly believed he needed the divorce to start healing, as much as she did.

Sometimes, walking away is the greatest expression of love.

Nick just didn’t understand—she knew that—but he probably never would. Coming from different backgrounds—she, an only child raised in the sheltered, loving arms of a middle-class suburban family; he, one of five kids barely surviving in a one-bedroom ghetto apartment—they would probably never see things in exactly the same way. That would have been okay. In fact, it had been more than okay at the beginning of their marriage.

But in the last few years, his need to protect her had grown into an obsession. Suffocating her. Changing him. The numerous locks on their doors. A guard dog. A need to know her whereabouts every minute of the day. Attempting to control her activities and her friends. Even her choice of employment.

Worse, he drew more and more into himself, refusing to share his troubles or talk about his work.

A prison. For him, as well as her.

Yes, their marriage would have to end, and she couldn’t bear the torture of seeing him again. Each time, the pain tore her apart. Being together made their inevitable parting harder for both of them. Two more days until the hearing. Then their marriage would be over.

With a deep sigh, she turned around and headed back toward the beach house. It was the off-season, so hardly any of the houses were occupied.

Glancing sideways, she saw several trucks parked along the road that ran parallel to the beach—Omar’s Special Events Catering, two pickup trucks, and, of all things, a huge animal transport vehicle, with the words CLYDE BEADER TRAVELING CIRCUS stenciled on the side.

She laughed. Someone must be having a party. The residents of this exclusive private beach could afford the most expensive theme parties, and they often tried to outdo themselves with the bizarre.

She turned the bend around a large sand dune that protected against beach erosion and screened their property from the neighbors. Jerking to a quick stop, she stumbled.

At first, she blinked several times, thinking she was seeing a mirage. “Oh, my God!”

A large, low white tent, its fabric billowing in the slight evening breeze, stood on the beach in front of her parents’ house. Torches flamed on tall spikes at each of the corners and near an oasis.

An oasis!
Her mouth dropped open in amazement. A portable hot tub had been set up on the beach, surrounded by enormous fake palm trees and exotic flowers.

“GR-ONK, GR-ONK!”

Paula jumped at the loud—very loud—nasal call of some animal. Incredibly, a large beast ambled out from behind one of the palm trees.

A camel!

How could that be? A camel on the Jersey shore? Impossible! Local ordinances didn’t permit the littlest dogs on a beach these days, let alone a camel. Her brow furrowed with puzzlement.

Then she noticed the black-haired, dark-skinned man sitting cross-legged in front of the open flap of the tent, staring at her somberly like some desert sultan. Dressed in full Arab dress, from long, black robe to matching head cloth, tied in place with a ropelike piece of material, his shoulders were thrown back arrogantly, with all the pride of the most potent Arab sheik.

Nick.

She was going to kill him. She really was.

But before she could scream out her rage or storm up to the stubborn jerk, two large Arab guards grabbed her from behind. They wore similar flowing robes, covered with concealing burnooses. They quickly tied her hands behind her back and wrapped a silk scarf around her mouth, gagging her. One of them picked her up and carried her over to the front of the tent, dropping her to the soft Persian carpet on the sand. She immediately squirmed upright and tried to stand, but one of the brutes shoved her to her knees in front of the sheik.

“Mrffmfh!” She looked back over her shoulder to glare at the two of them, and her eyes almost popped out with disbelief.

Skip winked at her and grinned with wicked appreciation at her situation. Lee Chin was laughing so hard that silent tears ran down his face. Then they both bowed low in dramatic obeisance before the sheik and salaamed, placing their right palms to their foreheads.

“Master Raschid, we bring you the slave girl, Zara. Will you accept her for your harem?”

The sheik—rather, Nick—studied her insolently, as if he wasn’t sure. Paula thought about whacking him with a piece of nearby driftwood, but one of the “guards” still held a hand on her shoulder in restraint.

“We shall see,” Nick said, rubbing a forefinger thoughtfully over his upper lip, “if she pleases me.”

Me please him? Hah!
“Mrffmfh!”

She heard Skip and Lee chuckle behind her, but they stopped immediately at Nick’s imperious glare. With a curt nod, he dismissed them, stating, with a hand over his heart, “Peace be to you.” And she thought she heard him murmur in an aside, “Now, get lost!”

They returned the hand-over-heart gesture. “And peace to you,
master.

Master? Hah!
“Mrffmfh!”

Skip remarked to Lee as they walked off, “I’d like to be a fly on that camel’s butt when Paula gets her hands free.”

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