Allen’s reach for the handle hesitated. “Bill? On the track?”
She smirked at the mental image of the tall, somewhat prissy yet heavy man in Opti gray sweats lumbering after twentysomething athletes with their ponytails swinging and mouths going as they gossiped and jogged at the same time. Her smile faded. Where had all her friends gone? She had friends, didn’t she?
“No, I was on the track—he was in with the belts practicing his martial arts,” she finally said. Bill excelled at them, his extra mass adding to his proficiency rather than hindering it.
The man at the overhang was gone, but she didn’t put her keys away, holding them between her fingers like claws as she got out. She was on edge, and she abruptly slowed to Allen’s pace when she realized she’d left him behind.
“Peri.” Allen pulled her to a stop at the front door. His eyes were pinched behind his glasses. “Hey, ah, you mind if I go down and get a couple of doughnuts?”
Peri’s breath slipped out as she realigned her thinking. “Sandy wants me alone first?”
He smiled sheepishly, nodding. “Cream-filled? Jelly? What do you want?”
The mental image of red jelly oozing out made her ill. “Just a latte.” She hadn’t yet had her morning caffeine, and that way she’d be able to avoid Sandy’s sludge.
His expression was relieved, but that wrinkle of concern was still there when he touched her shoulder. “One latte, skim milk. I’ll be right back.” He turned once as he walked away to make sure she was going in, and she waved, wondering why she felt so odd. He seemed afraid—not of what Sandy and Frank might say, but afraid of something nevertheless.
Shoving it to the back of her thoughts, Peri yanked open the door and went in, hesitating just inside as the door sealed her in the bar’s warmth and dim lighting. The man she’d thought was waiting for a ride was sitting at the bar, his tailored overcoat carefully folded on the stool next to him. What he was wearing underneath was just as sharp, making her wonder who he was. Frank was tinkering with the floor sweeper, and Sandy was rolling silverware into napkins.
“Peri!” the dark-haired, petite woman said welcomingly. “Where’s Allen?”
Unbuttoning her coat, she wiped off the damp of the street on the colorful entry rug. “He’s next door getting breakfast so you can psychoanalyze me.”
Frank tightened a screw. “Please tell me he’s bringing coffee. Sandy just made a pot.”
“Hey!” the small woman said tartly, but she was smiling as she came around the bar to give Peri a hug that felt both comforting and uneasy. She smelled like strawberries. Something niggled at her memory—an image of Sandy standing on the bar screaming, expression ugly with hatred. Peri stiffened and Sandy pushed back, her smile looking forced.
Frank set the sweeper on the floor, nudging it with a booted foot when it didn’t move. At the tables, all the ordering pads blinked and reset as a sister restaurant updated their menu. “Stupid thing hasn’t worked in six weeks,” Frank muttered, kicking it to a corner, where it made a sad beep.
“Ah, Bill not here yet?” Peri said into the awkward silence.
“No,” Sandy said cheerfully. “I wanted some time with you first. You know … girl talk. You want anything? We’re technically open.”
She shook her head, feeling a familiar pre-task tension in her gut. Avoiding the tables, she sat on the raised hearth, where she could see everyone. The logs stacked beside her looked old enough to crumble, and she picked at one, tossing the bark that flaked off into the unused cavern. “I’ll wait for Allen’s coffee,” she said, hands clasping around her knees. “How’s business?” she asked. Psych reviews sucked.
Sandy sat beside her, her thin but muscular ballerina legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. “You know,” she said lightly. “Same old, same old. Pay bills, listen to the gamehogs bitch about the college kids coming in to use the vid lounge. The only excitement is when one of you comes back. Still having nightmares about drafting with no one there to catch you?”
Peri shrugged, hoping that Sandy would believe the coming lie. “No. I’ve been sleeping like a baby ever since getting that cat.”
Sandy wrinkled her nose and pulled her legs under her. “Cats are nasty animals. I can’t believe you took in a stray. He could have tapeworms and fleas.”
“He wasn’t a stray. He had a collar,” she protested. “I had him vetted the first day, and until someone claims him, he’s mine. He found me. Needed me.”
Sandy made an unconvincing snort, and Peri flexed her fingers nervously. “Ah, that’s actually something I wanted to ask you about.”
Eyebrows high, Sandy faced her squarely. “Talk.”
“Next time I go on task, I need a cat-sitter.”
Sandy’s eyes widened. “I thought you were going to spill. You want me to cat-sit?”
“Just … could you come over and feed him while Allen and I are out?” she asked, and Sandy made a face. “If we’re out longer than two days, I mean,” Peri pleaded.
Sighing, the small woman slumped in defeat. “Fine, okay,” she said. “But only because it’s you. I don’t have to pet it or anything, right? And I’m not cleaning the cat box.”
“Deal,” Peri said, and the man at the bar watched them through the big mirror, causing Peri to wonder if they were being too loud. Frank had gone into the back room, and it was just them. Is he an Opti psychologist? she wondered. If so, why wasn’t he being included? He certainly looked the part, well-dressed and professional, his short blond hair styled and a hint of stubble at his jaw. He felt familiar, but she’d been spending enough time with the “couch warriors” lately to be on a first-name basis with most of Opti’s psychologists. Maybe he was observing—which would explain why he was being ignored by everyone. She’d do the same.