Sophie had just thanked Palmer and the rest of the guys she met backstage. She couldn’t help loving all the attention. They loved her! She stepped down from the stage still giddy from the performance and was bringing the glass Antoine gave her to her lips just as a familiar voice spoke her name. She spun around and smiled.
“That’s me,” Cassandra said, shyly stepping forward. “I’m surprised you remember me…especially as I’m one of the smaller little people.”
Sophie laughed and put the glass down on the nearest tall table. Then she wrapped her arms around her oldest and dearest friend and held on tight. Tears sprung to her eyes and she squeezed tighter.
“God, I’ve missed you, Cassie,” she whispered.
“Me too,” Cassandra said.
“I’m so sorry we…I drifted away. I was so messed up when my dad died and…”
“I know, it’s okay,” Cassandra said.
“No, it’s not,” Sophie said, pulling away and brushing the tears away. “It wasn’t just my dad and you know it. I’m so sorry I let things get between us.”
Cassandra noticed the particular “thing” which had come between them still hovering in the background staring daggers at her as he always had done back in high school... none other than Antoine and he was as menacing as ever. She didn’t suppose he’d allow anything to change if he didn’t want them to. For whatever reason, Antoine had some sort of power over Sophie and there was little anybody could do to alter that. Cassandra had tried and failed numerous times.
“Things happen, things change,” she said, shrugging. “People grow apart. It’s natural.”
“Not for us. I want us back like we were, Cassie. Hanging out, talking on the phone til all hours, laughing and crying together, confiding…like real friends,” Sophie said, pulling her friend’s long wavy hair on either side of her face. “Love your hair, Casssie…so thick and full and wavy…always have.”
“And I always liked yours cuz it’s straight and sleek and stays where it’s supposed to,” Cassandra said a wry twist to her pretty lips. “Mine goes everywhere in an uncontrollable mess. Makes me look like a witch.”
“Oh, it does not. You’re beautiful!” Sophie said.
“Sure, tell that to all my hundreds of boyfriends,” Cassie said.
“You’re just too shy. We gotta work on that,” Sophie said.
“Have you seen Frankie yet?” Cassandra asked, changing the subject. “He’ll be eager to see you again.”
Sophie gasped. “You mean he’s back from Afghanistan? How is he?”
“Most of him is okay,” she said, with a sad smile.
The grin slipped from Sophie’s face. “Wh…what does that mean?”
“He lost an arm but no worries!” Cassandra said quickly at the horrified expression on Sophie’s face. “ You’d never know it to look at all he’s done with this place.” She waved her hand to encompass all of Danfords.
“He’s the manager here you mean?”
Cassandra shook her head. “He owns it. He does all the work here…except for the books. He leaves those to me.”
“Really? How awesome!”
“I know, we’re so proud of him,” Cassandra said.
“I want to see him. I will before the night’s out,” Sophie said. “Oh, Cassie, come over tomorrow, can you? We can hang out, or go shopping or something, anything. I just want to be with you like we used to. Please?”
“Okay, we can do that,” Cassandra said, glancing over to Antoine. “If your shadow doesn’t stop us.”
“My shad…” Sophie stopped in mid-sentence and glanced at the stage. A new band was warming up and when she spotted who was center stage pulling the guitar strap onto his shoulder, she gasped.
“What is it?” Cassandra said, looking toward the stage and then she gasped, too. “Oh, my God!”
“It’s Ronnie!” they both squealed.
“I can’t believe this!” Sophie said. “Cassie, come with me. I want to see him up close. This might be my last chance to get him to notice me.”
“Well, you don’t need me for that,” Cassandra said. “Go, see your Ronnie. And if by some miracle you don’t make him fall madly in love with you tonight, meet me at the bar. Frankie will want to ask you to marry him for the zillionth time.”
Sophie laughed. “I might take him up on the offer if Ronnie blows me off,” she said. “Wish me luck!”
Cassandra laughed and watched her make a beeline toward the center of the stage. As she listened to Ronnie sing—and boy he was good!-- she picked up Sophie’s discarded glass of 7up and sipped it.
Simon tapped irritably on the bar as he waited for someone to come to him. At last after ten exasperatingly long minutes, a pretty girl of similar age to most kids here asked for his drink order reminding him there was no alcohol served at Danfords on Tuesdays.
He shook his head. “That’s not what I’m here for. I need to speak to the owner or manager. We have a potential problem,” he said with as much authority as he could produce.
She blinked at him unimpressed. “What problem? I just said we don’t serve alcohol here. Is someone hurt?”
“If we don’t act soon and find the despicable man I’m looking for who is here only to harm young women, someone may get hurt,” he replied.
She frowned then pointed down at the opposite end of the bar. “You’ll want Frank, then. He’s in charge,” she said, then she sprinted down to him and spoke in his ear.
Frank certainly looked like a guy in charge. He was a good-looking, massive man in his late twenties or early thirties and anyone stupid enough to cause trouble with him around had to have a liking of late night swims with cement shoes. Although he looked as if he belonged on Muscle beach showing off his pecs and flirting with the ladies, instead he served drinks and snacks to pimply teens as quickly as the orders came in, which was rather astonishing as he had one prosthetic arm.
His other arm brandished a large Semper Fi tattoo which gave a clue as to how he lost the first one. Sure enough this was confirmed a moment later.
As he waited for Frank to join him, Simon glanced at the photo gallery on the wall behind the bar. Each photo showed Frank in combat gear with his fellow Marine buddies. He sat in a Humvee, was jumping onto or out of a copter and just hanging with his crew, smoking and smirking to the camera. In a particularly large photo, he was with an elderly man and woman with his arms—he had both then—around them. In the last photo Frank cradled in his arms a very pretty young girl with long, wavy, black hair, luminous dark eyes and an impish grin. Whoever she was, she was clearly the love of his life.
“All right, what the hell do you want?” Frank said, gruffly.
Simon knew he had to make this good or he’d get no help from this guy and Sophie would suffer for it. Frank might not care or believe him, or he might even toss him out on his rump just for bothering him, so Simon knew he had to act the part of authority well, or failing that, he needed to play the sympathy card.
He held out his hand and said, “I’m Simon Romanoff and I’m looking for my sister who could be in trouble.”
Frank narrowed his eyes ignoring the hand. “Number one, what makes you think she’s here and number two, what kind of trouble? I don’t allow trouble in my place if you get my drift.”
“I appreciate that, but this could be out of your control,” Simon explained. “According to her mother, she came here with a …a person we suspect is up to no good and she asked me to find her and bring her home,” Simon replied.
“Gotta name?” Frank asked.
Frank glared at him and leaned over the bar grabbing the front of Simon’s shirt so hard, it pulled him half onto the bar. “What the fuck you trying to pull? I know Sophie and you’re not Sophie’s brother. Who the hell are you and what the fuck do you want with her?”
Simon remained calm although he was pretty certain this guy would just as soon knock him out cold or put a bullet in his head as listen to him. “I’m glad you know Sophie so you’ll know what a nice girl she is and you’ll be willing to keep her safe from harm, and if you know her, you’ll know Violet and it’ll make this easier. I should have said, step-sister,” Simon said. “My future step-sister to be accurate. My father, Victor Romanoff who is a lawyer, is engaged to Violet.”
“Violet’s re-marrying?” Frank said, so stunned he released Simon and stared at him as if he’d suddenly spouted wings.
“Yes, we hope soon,” Simon said tersely, running his hands over his chest, un-wrinkling his shirt as best as possible. “I’m sure she’d love to invite you to the wedding, but first I’d really like to find Sophie and make sure she’s okay. She could be in trouble.”
“That’s bull shit. She’s not in any trouble. She was just on stage singing.”
“Sophie was on stage singing…here?” Simon repeated, aghast.
“Yeah and she looked perfectly fine.”
“That may be, but I still need to find her for Violet. She’s worried and besides, Sophie’s not safe until she’s away from the guy she came with…”
“What kinda trouble we talking about?” Frank asked.
“The guy she came with may have been involved in several incidences where girls were drugged and then raped. As you can imagine, I’d like to make sure that doesn’t happen to Sophie… or any other girl.”
The murderous expression on Frank’s face spoke volumes. “Gotta name for this guy?”
“Antoine Gianelli,” Simon said.
Frank frowned and shook his head. “Do you mean Antoine Desoto? His grandfather is the last of the Gianellis around here.”
Simon shrugged. “I could have his name wrong. I don’t know the guy. How many guys named Antoine could there be in Catalpa Valley?”
“I only know one. Oh, shit!” Frank suddenly said. “I just remembered…I served him two drinks about twenty minutes ago.”
“Was Sophie with him?” Simon said, anxiously.
“Not that I noticed…no, she was still on stage,” Frank said, now looking as anxious as Simon. “But she’s been off for several minutes already. I’ll get my guys to look for him.”
His heart pounding a fierce drum roll, Simon hoped they weren’t too late.
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