Whispers in the Dark
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“I’m sure that’s not true. You’ll have sex when you’re ready. I have to ask—” although something told him he’d be better off if he didn’t “—what makes you think you’d be any different with me?”
“I honestly didn’t mean to say that. But I’ve been listening to your show for a long time and it’s obvious you know what you’re talking about. Maybe that’s what I need, a man who really understands how to give a woman pleasure. Who knows how to ignore the fear.”
Chris shifted in his seat, completely surprised that the quivery little dip in her voice there at the end had caught his attention.
“You should never ignore the fear, Katy. Listen to your body, it knows what you can handle.”
Chris paused, leaning in closer to the mike. He really wanted to help this woman, but he couldn’t, not without risking everything he’d built. His show walked a line between offering professional-sounding advice and providing an opinion. Chris tried hard to stay far away from that line. One toe over could cost him everything. One lawsuit because he’d said the wrong thing to the wrong person…Katy was just too close to that edge for comfort.
“I know you understand I can’t sleep with you, but please find another therapist. Maybe this time his or her suggestions will work. The fact you were willing to call into the show tells me how important this is for you and how much you’re willing to risk to get what you want. You don’t need me. You need to trust yourself. Find a nice man who’ll understand and go slowly with you. If you need the number of a therapist, stay on the line, and I’ll get the information for you.”
He’d expected her voice to waver or maybe crack with disappointment. It didn’t. In fact, she seemed almost, well, relieved.
“ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? I made a complete ass of myself in front of half the south.”
“Sure you did…Katy.” Anne winked before hobbling to the kitchen and coming back with a half-empty bottle of butterscotch schnapps. “No one but me knows that was you on the radio.”
“And it better stay that way.”
Anne smiled. “Of course.”
Karyn fought the urge to say something snide to wipe the expression off her face. Her friend hadn’t done anything wrong. She’d been the idiot who’d called and blurted out a request for sex.
“You know, I never would have said that if you hadn’t been pounding at me about how perfect he would be as my sex stud.”
Pouring another drink, Anne looked over the edge of her glass. “I think you said exactly what you wanted to. Not that it matters.”
“Oh, it matters.”
“Besides, I happen to agree with him.”
“What? You’re the one who told me to sleep with him—”
“Not about that. I think you need to find a man, Karyn. One who understands what you’ve gone through. One who’ll go slow and take things one step at a time.”
Karyn paced to her bookshelf and back. Realizing she still held the phone in her hand, she tossed it away in disgust.What? Did they all think she was stupid? Of course that was what she needed.
“Absolutely. And a guy like that isn’t hard to find. Because telling a man on the first date that there won’t be any sex in his foreseeable future due to the fact that I’m a rape survivor really turns men on.”
“So, don’t tell him.”
Turning to her friend, Karyn cocked her head to the side and stared. “You’re the one who said I need to find a man who understands. Kinda hard to do if I don’t tell him.”
“So, just not on the first date.”
Karyn sank down onto the couch. Tears of frustration pricked the backs of her eyes. “That doesn’t work either because then I spend the entire night worrying about what he expects and how I’ll handle it.”
“Fine, be miserable.” Anne slipped down beside her on the edge of the sofa and wrapped a supportive arm around her shoulders. “But nothing’s going to change, Karyn, until you take a chance.”
“WE HAVE TO DO something.”
Chris’s voice echoed against the impersonal walls of the station conference room. He sat in the padded seat to Michael’s right and looked across at the two gentlemen he’d asked to join them, the station manager and their attorney.
“We agree. The entire show was dominated by calls about Katy for the third day in a row. Even though your ratings are up this can’t continue. If we take no action there will be a backlash against the show eventually. Your listeners want and expect you to do something.”
“Something we all know I can’t do.” Chris leaned over the gleaming surface of the conference table and studied the two men opposite him. To him they resembled aging bulldogs with their sagging faces. They walked around, their mouths pulled down into perpetual frowns as if their every decision affected the balance of the world.
Only, today their decisions affected him.
He hadn’t felt this out of control in years. Yes, he had money, fast cars and a house he owned outright and had remodeled with his own two hands. But it was his show that was his security and stability. And at the moment, that security felt more like a smoke screen than something solid. If the show ended, he had nothing to fall back on. The Dr. Desire gig had landed in his lap. That kind of miracle wasn’t likely to happen twice.
Which was why he normally kept a tight rein on his life and his show. But sometime in the past two days he’d lost that control. With or without the agreement of the men before him, he’d do whatever he needed to get it back. Chris never again wanted to experience the sickening sense of helplessness he had at sixteen when he and his mother had been evicted. One random, unfair event—her illness and inability to work—had cost them everything.
He would never be that vulnerable, that dependant, again.
Michael chimed in. “The listeners will eventually become less concerned and more forceful. And while I normally wouldn’t worry, we’ve just moved into several major markets. If our ratings begin to slip we’re liable to lose them as fast as we gained them.”
Chris’s stomach clenched for one brief moment at the thought before he pushed it away. That wasn’t going to happen. “Michael is right. We need to do something, but I’ll be damned if I know what. I obviously can’t have sex with her.”
The attorney’s face flushed hot before returning to its regular mottled red. “Absolutely not. In fact, I’d advise against it.”
“What if I took her out to dinner? A nice, impersonal meal. She said she hadn’t been on a date in a while. That would help in one area without moving us into dangerous territory.”
Three sets of eyebrows shot straight up, but he watched as they all rolled the thought around and considered.
“It might work.” Michael spoke first, his enthusiasm for the idea gaining ground. “It would be a chance for her to meet you face-to-face, you could charm her, give her a T-shirt, CD. At the same time it would give us the opportunity to make a statement on air, something to the effect that we’re doing everything we can to help.”
Looking questioningly at Ken, Chris waited.
The attorney spoke slowly, weighing things out as he went. “We’d need to keep the details from your listeners. A simple announcement that you heard their concerns and that we’re getting Katy the help she needs. For her protection, you can’t reveal specifics, but want to assure everyone that you and the station are committed to helping this bright young woman through a traumatic experience.”
Despite having made the suggestion, Chris wasn’t entirely convinced it was the best idea. In fact, he wasn’t exactly sure where it had come from.
Certainly, he’d taken female listeners to dinner before. More than he cared to count over the past five years actually. At first he’d enjoyed the attention Dr. Desire received from the female population. He’d wanted sex, and the women had wanted a brush with fame. Everyone had walked away satisfied. But lately, satisfaction hadn’t been enough.
Obviously, this would be different. He wouldn’t expect sex when the night was done, and he would make it clear to Katy that that wasn’t his intention—for her sake, as well as his.
He turned the idea over one more time, examining it for pitfalls. If eating a simple meal with her allowed him to lose the sense of guilt he’d been fighting for the past few days, got his audience off his back and helped Katy, well, then maybe it would be worth a few hours out of his life.
Heath, the station manager, jumped in as devil’s advocate. “Couldn’t we simply say that without actually doing anything? I mean, we did offer her information on therapists.”
Ken countered immediately, “Certainly, if we could guarantee Katy won’t come forward to discredit the statement. If that happened, the show and the station would look worse than you already do.”
Chris pushed up from the table, walked to the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and looked out over Birmingham’s skyline. Ruffling a hand through his hair, he could feel the tight pinch of a headache coming on.
“We don’t know how to get in touch with her, that’s certainly a problem.”
Papers rustled behind his back before Heath said, “We had her call-in number traced. We have her real name, address and home telephone number.”
Chris turned and stared at the station manager before moving his gaze to the attorney.
“Is that even legal?”
Ken shifted in his chair, but met Chris’s ice-blue stare. “It’s a bit gray, but nothing that could land anyone in jail.”
“Isn’t that a relief.” Chris narrowed his eyes, boring holes into the other man.
“You should do it, Chris. It’s the best way out of this. One night from your life and it’s over. Charm the pan—” Michael stalled and cleared his throat. “Charm her a little. Piece of cake for Dr. Desire.”
The impish grin he gave rubbed Chris the wrong way. But whatever Michael’s faults—and they were many—the man did have his back when it mattered. At the moment he was making it difficult to remember that but…
Taking Katy out for a nice dinner would be simple for Dr. Desire. Chris on the other hand…he wasn’t convinced. She’d expect him to be on, they all did. Smooth, sexy, sophisticated. Intelligent. Funny. Perfect.
Most women wanted everything from a man. Unfortunately, he’d done his job so well they all seemed to think he could give that to them. He was tired of trying. Tired of pretending that the persona he’d built was real.
One night out of his life.
“I’ll call her. But if she doesn’t want to do this, we all agree to issue a statement on air, anyway.”
Chris took the paper Ken held out to him and glanced down at the neat black ink against the white page.
“Karyn Mitchell.” He liked that much better than Katy.
KARYN WALKED into her apartment, threw her keys onto the hall table and hung her purse and briefcase on the coatrack. Walking into the silent kitchen, she couldn’t hold back a sigh.
Her head pounded, her shoulders slumped and a brick seemed to have lodged at the base of her spine. She knew stress, tension and exhaustion were responsible for her weary state.
It had been four days since that damn phone call. For the past three nights she’d turned on Dr. Desire only to hear his show become a heated discussion of her life and what he should do to help her.
Her hours at work hadn’t even been safe. Every time she’d tried to add up a string of numbers today someone had popped their head into her cubicle to gossip about Katy.
Her so-called best friend hadn’t been much better. Anne had teased and admonished, going so far as to try to cajole her into a double date. After hours of frustration Karyn had snapped at her. And felt guilty for it afterward.
But the frustration and anger hadn’t lasted long. It was hard to keep her bad mood when Anne was around. She was always so…chipper. Or rather, that’s what she showed the world. Even Karyn hadn’t realized that the brightness and light Anne seemed surrounded with was a facade. Not until it had slipped. She’d truly known they were friends the night Anne had broken down and allowed her to see the emotions she buried deep inside.
That same night Karyn had opened up and shared her own deepest secret. She’d never regretted the action or the trust she’d placed in the other woman.
At the moment, however, she was seriously regretting sharing that secret with half the South, even if she had used an alias.
She couldn’t believe it was happening all over again. She’d moved to Birmingham to get away from this kind of minute dissection of her life and choices. She’d spent years defending her actions to newspapers, TV stations, radio shows, her lawyers, the judge, not to mention the jury.
The job offer from Walker Technologies had provided her with a clean start, the chance to lose herself in the city crowds and forget the trauma everyone at home remembered when they looked at her. And with one five-minute phone conversation she’d inadvertently opened herself up to it all over again.
The one saving grace was that the city was discussing Katy’s life, not hers. But she wondered how long that would last. Reporters had a way of digging up details, especially the ones you thought safe and secret. Unfortunately, the only thing she could do was wait and hope the interest died down soon. Doing anything else would just draw attention to herself.
She’d gone in to work this morning hoping to bury herself in the minutia of number crunching. It hadn’t worked—she’d completely screwed up the monthly sales report and it had taken all afternoon to rework it. She’d become an accountant because she loved numbers, because they followed hard-and-fast rules that never changed. Today she wasn’t so enamored of them or her job.
If only people hadn’t kept interrupting her. If only she’d been able to concentrate on the numbers instead of Dr. Desire…
There was no escape. She kept telling herself that the interest in Katy would die down eventually, that something else would happen to catch everyone’s attention.
At the moment, that wasn’t very comforting; what would be was a hot bath, a good book and a glass of wine. The only food she wanted was a tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream covered in fudge sauce. Comfort and solitude at its finest. She’d pay for it tomorrow at the gym, but it would be so worth it.
Opening the freezer, she pulled out the half-empty carton and grabbed a spoon. With a hip bump she closed the spoon drawer and headed into the bathroom to start her night of relaxation.
Pouring the wine, picking out her book and turning on some soft music all helped her settle. She slipped into the hot water with an appreciative sigh. The last of the stress that had built inside melted away with the rising steam. Closing her eyes, she rested her head and just sat for a minute, soaking up a luxury she rarely made time for.
After a few minutes of bliss, she reached for the ice cream and scooped a bite from the carton, letting the cold glob melt in her mouth and slip down her throat. The bold, heavy taste burst through her mouth, reminding her of the mint tea her grandmother had always made on sticky summer days when she’d visited.
Times like these she missed her family, even her mother. Yes, she’d needed to escape Darby, Mississippi, to put some space between her family’s overprotective tendencies and her mother’s inability to understand. It had been an important step in her recovery, one she’d needed to take.
The anonymity she’d found in Birmingham hadn’t hurt, either. Closing her eyes, she tried to ignore the feeling that it was slowly slipping away.
She’d just scooped another heaping spoonful into her mouth when the phone rang. Reaching for the cordless she’d brought into the bathroom, she looked at the caller ID and groaned. She should have known better than to bring the phone into her haven of solitude.
Pounding the button, she answered, knowing if she didn’t her brother would send up a hue and cry to the entire family.
“Hi, squirt, how’s it going?”
She couldn’t suppress the smile just hearing his voice caused. “Well, I was enjoying some downtime until you called. How can I convince you to get lost?”
“You can’t. I’m the official family envoy. If I don’t go back to Mom and Dad with specific information, we’re both likely to regret it.”
And wasn’t that the truth? Growing up the youngest of three kids and being the only girl meant she was very protected as a child and teenager. If her parents hadn’t worried about something, her older brothers sure had. It’d been a miracle that any guy had wanted to date her. Outgoing and confident, she’d been so eager to escape to college.
The overprotective atmosphere had only gotten worse after she’d been raped. It was her family’s natural response, to circle the wagons and ward off anything else that could hurt her. And at the time, she’d appreciated their love and understanding. But it had gotten old awfully fast and was the main reason she’d placed a state between her and the rest of the Mitchell clan.
With a sigh of resignation she said, “Okay. What do they want?”
“You to visit. We haven’t seen you since Christmas. That’s seven months, in case you’ve lost the ability to count along with the ability to find your way home.”
Karyn settled back into the steaming water, letting her hand play back and forth making waves. This would not end quickly, she could tell.
“I can’t get away from work right now.” And the thought of going back to Darby always left her slightly unsettled. The place held memories she’d been trying so hard to leave behind. She might not have been raped there, but she’d certainly gone back to live through the aftermath. The long wait, the trial, the media coverage, then the subsequent realization that her word hadn’t been enough for twelve of her peers.
She’d worked so hard to get her life back. And aside from this one last major hurdle—her inability to relax and trust someone enough to have sex—she was doing pretty well. But the thought of returning right now left a sour taste in her mouth.
Not to mention how the family couldn’t stop treating her like the wounded baby sister. Whether they meant to or not, they always seemed to reinforce her feelings of self-doubt and fear. The same emotions she was trying hard to shed so that she could move on with her life.
There had been a time when she’d been confident, invincible. She really wanted to find her way back to that woman.
“Look, Karyn, I understand why coming home is hard for you, but everyone only worries more when they don’t see or hear from you for a while.”
Everyone worried even when they did, so she didn’t see what difference it made. And while she understood their reactions, they hadn’t helped her much.
“The rest of us are getting together for Labor Day, a nice family picnic on the lake.”
“I’ll see what I can do, but I make no promises.”
“I’m sure you have no concern for the messenger, but I’ll pass that along. And don’t be surprised when you get a call from Mom.”
Oh, she wouldn’t. “I still owe you payback for a few childhood incidents. I’ll let you handle Mama.”
He gave a derisive snort and paused for a moment before his voice went deep with concern. “I worry about you, sis. I know I probably shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. I’ve been watching out for you for twenty-six years.”
“I’m fine. I’ll try to get away. Tell Mom, Dad and Randall that I love them.”
“Will do, squirt.”
Before she could hang up, the familiar guilt crept in. “I love you, too, Blake. I know you’re just trying to help and I appreciate your concern.”
“Yeah, well, what are brothers for?”
“You mean besides torturing me as a child and tormenting me as a teenager?”
She heard his laugh resonate down the line before it went dead. Placing the phone on the edge of the tub, she settled back to resume her evening of self-pampering. At least as much of it as she could get in before her mother called.
Which was why when the phone rang again twenty minutes later, Karyn barely looked up from the book she’d been reading. Answering without glancing at the caller ID—there was no need—she said, “I’m fine. I’ll try to be there for Labor Day but I make no promises. Give my love to everyone. Bye.”
She’d moved the phone away, not wanting to give her mother a chance to talk her into chatting—she’d call back tomorrow or on the weekend maybe—when a single word stopped her dead.
The small sound echoed from the receiver. That was definitely not her mother’s voice—unless she’d developed a severe case of laryngitis.
Looking at the caller ID didn’t help; it showed Unknown.
“Hello?” The tiny sound reverberated out of the receiver.
Karyn nearly dropped the phone into the water. That voice sounded strangely familiar. Almost like…No. It couldn’t be.
There was one way to find out. Holding the phone gingerly by two fingers, she put it to her ear, said, “Hello?” and held her breath.
“Karyn? This is Christopher Faulkner.”
Oh my God. It was. Her book slid from numb fingers, landing with a liquid plop before swishing beneath the bathwater. Why was Dr. Desire calling her? And how had he gotten her number, her name for that matter?
She closed her eyes, a blush of embarrassment joining the flush on her skin from the heat. She did not want to talk to this man.
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