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Dying to See You
by Margaret Chittenden
Kensington, 2000


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Chapter One

Everything has calmed down at CHAPS now. We've had excitement before, of course--that skeleton in the flower-bed, the corpse in Zack's car, the Internet bride, and that terrible experience with the storage locker--but this event really got wild. It even started off wild.

And seriously embarrassing.

I'd better give some background for those of you who haven't met me before. If you've previously hung out at CHAPS, just shoot on past the exposition.

Zack Hunter, TV star and all-American sex god, Savanna Bristow, (formerly Seabrook) Angel Cervantes, and I, Charlie (originally Charlotte) Plato, own CHAPS, a country-western nightclub on the San Francisco Peninsula: We're all thirty-something, which is a trendy age group to belong to right now.

We had agreed recently that our outgo was overtaking our income. There didn't seem to be much we could do to shrink the overhead, so we'd sought creative ways to make more money, instituting a cover charge, charging higher prices for drinks, including water, giving dance lessons every night we were open, and renting CHAPS out on Monday evenings and the occasional daytime.

On a very warm Monday night in August, I was sitting in the office at CHAPS with my feet up on the desk, reading the latest novel in a mystery series I really liked--written by a California author. I'd just picked it up from M is for Mystery in San Mateo that afternoon and was thoroughly engrossed, though a little surprised that this one had more violence than its predecessors. Benny, my Netherland dwarf rabbit, was keeping me company in his cage beside my desk.

The group that had rented CHAPS for the night kept breaking out in cheers, interfering with my concentration. They appeared to be having a high old time in the main corral, which is the largest dance floor area in the club.

According to Zack, who made the arrangements, tonight's renter was some kind of environmental club that wanted to give line-dancing lessons to raise funds for a summer camp. The music was fabulous. I decided I should go find out the combo's name and bring them in to play for our patrons sometime. We usually had live music on Wednesdays and weekends.

I was still concentrating on that thought as I entered the main corral, so it was a while before I saw the reason for all the cheering. I stood there happily for several minutes inside the doorway, watching the dancers, making a mental note of the band's name, and listening to an out-of-sight instructor giving directions through a mic for "Walk The Line."

And then the dancers got confused. Some went one way and the rest the other, leaving a gap through which I could see the instructors who were demonstrating the steps. Angel and I usually demonstrate for our customers. Savanna helps out sometimes. Zack mostly hangs around looking decorative, which he does very well.

This group of dancers had seven instructors. I wasn't so much struck by the number of instructors, however. Or the fact that they were all excellent dancers. It was their condition that caused my mouth to drop open. Of the seven instructors, four were naked men, three were naked women.

I headed back to the office at top speed and punched Zack's number into the telephone. I was relieved to get his answering machine. When he was home, he preferred it to voice mail because he could screen calls as they came in and decide if he wanted to answer. God forbid he should miss a call from his agent, or a director, or a woman.

"Pick up, Zack," I ordered as soon as his seductively-voiced outgoing message stopped. "This is Charlie and it's an emergency."

When Zack picked up the phone he was saying something to someone in the room with him. In the bedroom, probably. "What's up, darlin'?" he asked me.

Somehow, I kept my voice even. "That group you rented CHAPS to. What did you say it was called?"

There was a pause. Someone at Zack's end said something in the background. A man.

"You hosting a group grope?" I asked.

I wouldn't have put it past him in spite of the fact he was on probation. Not court directed. Charlie Plato directed. I'll explain later.

"Poker," he said laconically, which was the way he said most things. He paused. "The Natural Line-dancin' Club?" he said tentatively. "Scratch that--the Naturist Line- dancin' Club. They givin' you trouble, Charlie?"

"Depends how you define trouble, I guess. The instructors are wearing cowboy hats, boots and spurs."

"So?"

"That's all the instructors are wearing, Zack. This is not an environmental group, this is a nude dancing group."

He laughed uneasily. "You razzin' me, Charlotte?"

I hate to be called by my real name, and Zack knows it. I also hate being called Red because of my long frizzy hair, which is actually closer to orange. I was never too fond of my nickname in high school either. The kids called me Stretch, because I topped out early at 5'10". Unless you enjoy having your shins kicked, just call me Charlie.

"This is no joke," I said. "The summer camp they are raising funds for has to be real summery!"

"I'll be right there." He hung up on me.

By rights, as senior partner in CHAPS, Zack should have arrived with guns blazing, yelling for everyone to get out of Dodge before Sundown. He looked the part in his usual all-black cowboy gear, and he seemed quite menacing as he shouldered through the crowd, with me in his wake. But then he stopped at the main corral bar. After ordering a Pellegrino water--we have an agreement that the partners don't drink alcohol at CHAPS while it's open--he leaned a hip on a bar stool, put an elbow on the bar, propped his chin on his hand and fixed his gaze on the instructors in all their naked swinging glory.

"You have to get them out of here." I spoke under my breath, so as not to inflame the bystanders, who already looked inflamed enough. "This can't be legal, even in California. What if Taylor Bristow were to drop in?"

"Not too likely," Zack said, without taking his gaze off the dance floor. I followed his line of sight to a Valkyrie blonde, who had a fat braid hanging over each of her ample breasts. Not only is it impossible to braid my hair, but being terminally skinny I don't have much in the way of a bosom, so there were two strikes against this woman already. The music had picked up a distinctly rock sound and the dancers were stomping right along with the beat. Including the blonde. A sight to behold.

"Taylor only shows up when Savanna's here," Zack added after drawing in a breath on a slow wheeze.

Detective Sergeant Taylor Bristow didn't always do even that nowadays, not since a couple of months ago when he'd gotten himself a needle stick injury from a criminal he'd been patting down--a young punk who'd turned out to be HIV positive. The possibilities inherent in that situation had eroded the edges of what had been a fine and joyous marriage. Mostly because Bristow was acting far too cautiously around his wife--our own Savanna--and her little daughter Jacqueline. I could sympathize with both sides of that problem. Four months to go until the results were in. I could only hope they'd make it.

"It's probably not against the law anyway," Zack assured me. "There are plenty topless bars in California. What's the difference? It's not as if there's anyone lap-dancin' or actin' lewd. Everyone seems to be behavin'." He took his gaze off the buxom blonde long enough to frown at me. "Unless I missed somethin' interestin'?"

He swung around on the bar stool to evade the booted kick I'd aimed at his shin. Zack's reflexes are well-honed.

"It's almost closing time anyhow, Charlie," he added as he lifted his water bottle for a swig.

About then, the nearest couple of gyrating dancers noticed him and came leaping over to get him to autograph their T-shirts. At least the customers had clothes on.

In case you are one of the few who haven't run into Zack before, I'll explain briefly that he's the Zack Hunter who played Sheriff Lazarro in the long-running, manically popular, most idiotic drama series in the history of television. Obviously my view of Prescott's Landing was jaundiced--the show would not have run as long as it did if a majority had shared my opinion. The series had come to an end about three years ago, had enjoyed a brief resuscitation this last spring, but appeared to be dormant for now, though daily reruns on two cable channels were providing Zack with an appallingly huge income.

Because people see Zack on the television set in their living room, bedroom, or airport waiting area on a regular basis, they recognize him instantly when he appears in public. Depending on their personalities, they act in one of three ways. Some get right in his face, demand autographs and want their photo taken with him. Others stand back, watching his every move with awed fascination. Some sneak furtive glances at him, pretending they are far too sophisticated to be interested.

Once noticed, Zack was soon surrounded by people wanting a little piece of him, and I was stuck on the edge of the crowd, nervously chewing my fingernails as the naked instructors strutted their stuff to a suddenly distracted audience.

Fortunately Zack was right--closing time and deliverance were nigh.

After resisting Zack's usual offer to accompany me upstairs to the loft I lived in so he could tuck me in for the night, I gratefully locked CHAPS' heavy front doors against his impudent green-eyed glance and watched through the side windows as the entire line- dance group scattered into various types of automobile. I was relieved that the instructors had dressed in jeans and shirts before leaving the building.

Fulfilling my other duties as security guard for the premises--which was the reason I was able to live rent-free in the loft--I checked the restrooms to make sure no-one had stowed away, tried the doors of Dorscheimer's restaurant and Buttons & Bows, the western clothing store opposite it in CHAPS lobby, then picked up Benny's cage from the office, went thankfully up to my room and locked the door behind me.

After making sure Benny had plenty of water and kibble, and indulging him in some cuddling and gentle head rubbing, I got myself ready for bed and lay there reading my cozy mystery that wasn't so cozy this time, trying to shut out of my mind's eye the moment when those dancers parted and all that naked flesh came into view.


Copyright © 2000 by Margaret Chittenden. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted With Permission.










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