I was surprised and delighted with all of your responses and comments on the introduction that I posted last week on “The Dragon”. Some of you actually cared enough about the story that your emails critiquing it were quite passionate, even pushy! I cannot think of a better compliment. Really. You all collectively rock! I was so encouraged that I have written the first chapter. As before I would welcome and appreciate your comments on what works and what doesn’t work. “What does not kill us makes us stronger” Err, I think.

Chapter One

     I tried to hide my disappointment with the contractor as he continued to drone in the summer morning. My younger brother, Alex, stood beside him in the front yard of what had been our grandparents’ house and was now mine. Alex nodded, his brown eyes wide.

“You see, ma’am,” continued George Hunt, the contractor. “I’m afraid that I will need a larger deposit up front than we talked about.”

Alex shot an inquiring glance at me and I shook my head almost imperceptibly.  It was enough for my brother. “So, let me see if I’ve got this right,” he said, ticking off points with his fingers. “You’ll be needing more money up front, the job will cost more overall and it will take longer than you and Siobhan first agreed upon?”

George blinked in surprise at my brother. “Err,” stammered George. “Well, yes.”

Alex laughed in his easy way and clapped a hand on George’s arm. “We both know that’s not going to happen.”

It crossed my mind that poor George probably had an inflated idea of what my financial state was. I had inherited the house, our mother had received the cash and Alex had the café. Such were the worldly goods of Lillian and Patrick Lydon. I was grateful, but it wasn’t like I’d be sitting around eating bonbons. In fact, updating the kitchen and the bathroom was a huge financial stretch. I would be doing most of the work with Alex’s help. Still, as handy as we were, there were some things that really did need a professional.

George stood straighter and said, “Now look, I’m doing the best I can for your sister.”

Alex cut him off. “So am I. Of course you can understand that a brother needs to look out for his only sister? Especially with her living here alone.” This last was delivered with a stern look. Alex stepped closer to the contractor using every bit of his six-foot-three-inch height and broad frame to emphasize his point.

George scowled and stepped back. He turned to go and then said, “Well, we do have a contract don’t we, ma’am? The hard facts are that sometimes things don’t work out the way that we want them to and that’s just life.”

This was my cue. I said, smiling, “Oh, thank you for understanding, Mr. Hunt! That makes it so much easier on all of us.”

“It does?”

“Certainly,” I continued. “We signed the contract Wednesday and today is Friday. Under California State Law any consumer has three business days to cancel a transaction, as I am doing now.”

“It needs to be in writing.”

“I appreciate your professionalism,” I agreed reaching the back pocket of my jeans and pulling out his paperwork. I signed the back of one receipt, handed it to him and signed the other for myself. “If you could just sign here in acknowledgment of said cancellation then we’ll be all set. I’ll save you the trouble and simply stop my previous check.

He started at my bluntness. People usually are, at first. He initialed and handed me my receipt. Looking a bit dazed George turned to go. “Well, if you change your mind, you’ve got my card.”

“I do,” I smiled. “And believe me, when I have that kind of money I’ll call you.” Since the likelihood of that occurring was slim, given my student loans from law school, it seemed a safe thing to say. Besides, it sounded polite.

Alex and I watched him get into his truck and we both waved as he drove away.

“He was lying, I take it?” asked Alex as we waved.

“What do you think?”

It wasn’t just the heat that wore at me. Spotting truth, or the lack of it, was something that came naturally to me, but it didn’t make me think of rainbows and butterflies. I sat on the porch swing and folded my legs under me, looking at my little brother. I wished I had worn shorts with my tank top.

I use the word “little” loosely. At twenty-six my younger brother is tall and handsome. He is not dark, that’s me with my jet black, unruly curls. Alessandro Padraig Orsini is an amazing combination of our parents’ brief Italian-Irish marriage. Where I have dark hair and green eyes he has deep red hair and brown eyes. He tans, while I burn and freckle. I’ve taken enough genetics courses to know that we are an unlikely pair.

Neither Alex nor I were married. We had different reasons for our single status. He said that he hadn’t found the right woman.  I had.  Found the right guy, that is. At least I thought I had.  It hadn’t worked. The problem with being able to spot a lie was I did it even when the person was telling me the very things I wanted to hear. It broke my heart every time my fiancé told me he loved me when it wasn’t true, even if he thought it was. Finally, I walked.

I had always been able to know when something wasn’t real, even when I was very small. I was the kid at the birthday party who would know the magician wasn’t doing real magic.  At the poker game, I was the girl who always spotted when someone was bluffing. Mind you, I’m not psychic or telepathic. I cannot tell you how the magic trick was done. I am not a good enough poker player to tell you the cards you’re holding. I can see the lie, but I might not be able to guess what the truth is.

The thing is, I’m never wrong. Alex had asked me with a look if George was telling the truth and when I answered him with a negative shake of my head, it was done. He’s a good brother that way. He was frowning in thought now.

“Yes?” I prompted.

“Well, I have someone doing work on the café right now.”

“Going well?”

“It’s going great!”

I waited for the other shoe to drop.

“Actually, the thing is,” Alex cleared his throat awkwardly. “Well, it’s Tim.”

I hadn’t expected that. “Oh,” I murmured. “How is he?”

“He’s good.”

Conflicting emotions assailed me as I thought of Tim and all the history we shared together.

Alex watched me process the idea. I swallowed.  “So, are you suggesting that I hire him?”

“He does good work, Siobhan. You won’t have to wo­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­rry about him lying to you or cheating you. He knows better.”

Tim did know better. Memories of more than a dozen summers spent with my grandparents in Calistoga flashed through my head. Then we ended up settling there for the last two years ­­­­­of my high school.  Mom and Alex had stayed after I left for college.

Tim figured in a disproportionate number of my memories of Calistoga. I swung my legs off the porch swing and stood up. I punched Alex in the arm. “How about we go grab some lunch and find him?”

“I’ll give him call.”

Alex took out his cell phone and pushed a couple of buttons.  As we headed towards my car I heard bits of the conversation. “Hey Tim,” then, “Don’t I know it,” a chuckle and finally, “You remember Siobhan?” I had a hard time not snorting at that last one. My stomach had butterflies. Alex said a few more things and then finished up with, “You’ll be there for the next thirty? We’ll head right over.”

As I started up my Mustang, Alex put his cell away and looked pleased with himself. “He’s over at Ace. We’ll meet him there and then we can swing by the deli for some sandwiches before we get back to work.”

“Sounds good.”

The car’s air conditioning and iPod playlist I had blaring brought me back to life. I felt better as we pulled into the parking lot of the hardware store. “He’s in the yard,” said Alex, pointing and we headed that way. As we walked I pulled my hair up into a rubber band. The curls underneath were damp with sweat.

“Over here, guys!” I heard a voice and I turned towards the sound. Tim stood with a couple of other men loading lumber on to a pickup truck.

He came bounding up in that infectious, happy way he had about him. My nervous stomach settled. I had been silly to worry. “Siobhan!” he said hugging me and swinging me around in his enthusiasm. I’m five-ten so being swung around isn’t an everyday thing for me. Tim was only an inch or so taller than me, but clearly his job kept him fit. Either that or my latest diet was really working. “What’s it been? Ten years?” he continued, his hazel eyes alight.

“About that,” I said as he released me. “Whatever it’s been, it’s been too long.”

“Definitely,” he agreed. “ ‘Sup, Alex?” nodding to my brother.

“Hey, Tim, Siobhan needs some help with our grandparents’ house.”

“Excellent.  More business for me then,” Tim grinned and waggled his eyebrows suggestively at me. “So, pretty lady, what can I do you for?”

I rolled my eyes and began to explain what I needed. Tim settled down and started asking the appropriate questions.  Alex chimed in from time to time. As we talked I became aware of a group of young women standing to the side of us. “Um, Tim, what’s up with them?” The women ranged in age from late teens to close to my age.  They appeared to be shopping the garden department, but their attention was clearly fixated on one of Tim’s guys loading the truck.

“He’s perfect,” said one, sighing.

“I wonder if he tastes as good as he looks?” asked another. “Yum.”

“Stand back, ladies. He’s all mine,” said a third, her voice breathless.

Tim looked around and then exhaled. “Oh, them? They all love Ian. Follow him around everywhere he goes.”

“Which one is Ian?” I started to ask and then stopped. It was obvious who Ian was. One of Tim’s men had removed his shirt in the heat. His chest and sculpted stomach were a wonder to behold, especially glistening with sweat. His biceps flexed and I had to blink a couple of times. The man was astoundingly beautiful with dark hair and blazing blue eyes. His face was flawless. I swallowed, hard.

Tim groaned when he saw my reaction. “Aw, Christ, not you too?”

“What?” I croaked.  I was surprised that my voice cracked on the word.

“I can’t have you obsessing over him, too,” Tim pleaded. “That’s bad enough.” He indicated the giggling and ogling group. He was right. It was embarrassing.

“Sorry, Tim, I just had a girl moment. It happens to the best of us.” I saluted him. “I’m in control of myself again, sir.”

Still my eyes lingered on Ian.  Then I gasped, “Oh, Tim, what happened to his back? Those scars! The poor guy!”

Tim and a couple of the girls frowned at me. “Honey,” said one. “His back is perfect. It’s gorgeous. It’s perfectly gorgeous, just like the rest of him.”

“Yeah, perfect,” echoed her friend as they both turned back to their mindless contemplation of Ian’s muscles.

Alex and Tim were both looking at me as if I’d sprouted a second head. “Tell me you see them, too?” I pleaded.

Alex pursed his lips. “See what, sis’?”

“The scars. Two long ones running the length of his back.”

I wasn’t surprised to see them look at each other, then at Ian and shake their heads. This wasn’t the first time I’d asked them this kind of question.  As I looked back I saw Ian had turned and was facing our direction.  His cool eyes were gazing my way. Alex didn’t miss a thing. “Maybe we should think about some food now?”

“Sure, great,” I said.

“I’ll swing by this afternoon and you can show me what you’re talking about for the kitchen and the bathroom. Okay, Siobhan?” asked Tim.

I nodded and turned to go. My mind was filled with the image of the two jagged, hideous scars side by side down Ian’s back. They were horribly vivid, red and purple against his smooth tan skin.  Once again, I had seen something no one else saw.  I felt alone, separated from Alex and Tim.