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Against All Odds Chapter 1

Chapter One

 

Stephanie Grant walked rapidly and silently toward her apartment door. She let herself in, quickly shut off the security system, and glanced at her image in the mirror close to the security panel. Her shoulder length raven hair hung in perfect symmetry around her angular profile. Blue eyes pierced her giving an icy reflection. She touched the lopsided curve of her lips that gave the false impression she was smiling. She sighed and looked away from her reflection and took in her new apartment. Her recent move to the small town of Mapleton where she purchased the local art gallery had her wondering about the wisdom of that move. It hadn’t escaped her that some of the locals were none too happy with a stranger acquiring the business. What did she care? She bought the gallery and nothing anyone could do could change that. The locals be damned.

 

Her mind flashed to Washington DC. The government office she worked for had sent her there to investigate corruption in one of the city’s major art galleries. Because she was an expert in not only her field of art but also as a highly experienced security analyst she was perfect for the job. The city had one of the most corrupt art officials she’d come across in her ten years as an analyst. After due diligence and creative thinking she was able to bring down the museum’s curator and his entire staff. That one event resulted in her taking a life and her subsequent dismissal from her job.

 

She snickered. Although tolerant, the police wanted her out of town and pressured her employer into making that happen. Every detail of the conversation with her boss still resonated in her mind…

 

“Please have a seat,” Mike Anderton said. “We are most concerned about the turn of events in DC. My investigation into the matter brought to light that you used questionable and less than ethical tactics in archiving your goal. Am I right?”

 

Stephanie nodded. “In my own defense you should know that the man was underhanded in everything he did and I suspected he was on to me.” She shook her head. “I put this all in my report. Didn’t you read it? It was necessary to use tactics that I normally wouldn’t to bring him down.”

 

“I read your report and it is clear to me that you had other avenues to explore that would have resulted in his arrest. However, you chose not to follow protocol and that resulted in you murdering a man.”

 

“I had no choice it was either him or me.”

 

“There’s always a choice, Stephanie. We are putting you on long-term leave.”

 

“You’re firing me?”

 

“No. We are relieving you from duty for an extended period of time while we figure out what to do with you permanently. Although you are an asset in your knowledge and abilities your rogue actions make us wonder if you have become a loose cannon.” His sigh lifted his shoulders. “We have no other choice.”

 

With that, the life she knew and thrived on was gone. Therefore, she bought a gallery in a small town a thousand miles from her home in Chicago and here she was. Somehow, bitterness always crept over her with the thought that her former employers had written her off. The resulting restlessness haunted her and she needed a venue to vent the frustration she felt consuming her insides.

 

Maybe she could stay there for a while. I’ll see how it goes.

 

Her stomach grumbled and she made her way to the kitchen knowing what awaited her—a frozen dinner. After rolling out the freezer in the French door refrigerator, she impatiently selected a fish dinner. As she waited for the microwave to finish cooking the meal she poured herself two fingers of scotch hoping it would help her relax. It didn’t. She needed another outlet to settle her increasing restlessness. Perhaps that gym down the street had punching bags that she could pound until exhaustion overtook her. This might just be the night to seek out the locals.

 

 

Louise had forgotten how many times she had told her students to be quiet as she tried to give the lesson. Sometimes she wondered why she let someone talk her into taking the class no other teacher wanted. Being one of the newest teachers, she really didn’t have a choice since refusing would only be detrimental to her career. Aptly named the wild bunch, she found that trying to taming them was difficult if not impossible. The students certainly had a lot of room for improvement, as they all were delinquents in their so-called final year of school. Am I stupid to hope I can make a difference?

 

It was starting to get dark when she left her office later than she planned. She headed toward her car parked close to the building; a precaution she agreed to after receiving warnings from some of her friends. They knew the evening wasn’t safe, especially on the high school campus.

 

As she watched some of her students pass by her, she wished that just once they would listen. She had been teaching for four semesters and had a growing reputation in her chosen field of languages. With this particular class, all she could do was to try to teach English to those that would listen. The task was often disparaging at best, with a constant barrage of abusive language hurled in her direction. Never once did she give way to the intimidation of the student who seemed to be the ringleader—Jon Arenas. His lewd remarks had her blushing at times and her fair complexion did little to help cover that up. Her attempts to hide her discomfort by brushing her hair over her face were ineffectual. Jon always seemed to know he’d fired a shot across the bow and it had made its mark.

 

It had been harder than normal to keep the peace in class so Louise thought that a session at the gym would be just the ticket tonight. She always found that a vigorous workout was good for her frustrations. She stepped in her car and headed across town. She was ignorant of the car with four young men following behind her at a distance.

 

 

From the moment Steph walked into the gym she knew it had recently opened. Everything was new with modern equipment that any fitness freak would be salivating over for days. She appreciated a good gym and knew she could and probably would spend many hours of her free time there.

 

“May I help you?” the receptionist asked politely. The woman appeared to be in her early twenties with auburn hair pulled into a ponytail.

 

“Yes. I want to join the gym. What do I need to do?” Steph asked directly piercing the woman with her a cool stare.

 

“Well…you need to be sponsored by a patron. Do you know anyone?” The young woman’s voice was soft and Steph noticed a hint of something else. Anxiety. She’s seen it enough to recognize it immediately.

 

“No. I guess I never thought gym’s had that kind of requirement these days. Is it possible to pay extra to join?” Damn. She let out a low growl. The last thing she wanted to do was to find someone in this town to help her out. She neither wanted nor needed anyone in her life. Why couldn’t it just be pay a thousand dollars for a lifetime membership kind of thing? That was how every other gym she’d joined was. Why can’t this one be the same?

 

The girl looked over her shoulder and Steph followed her gaze. A very attractive blonde woman was entering the building and smiling toward the girl with a bright friendly smile.

 

“You didn’t answer my question,” Steph said harshly. “Is there any other way to belong to this gym?” The situation was totally pissing her off. She needed to work out her frustrations and if it weren’t at this gym then she’d have to go back to the apartment and kick in a few walls.

 

The receptionist shook her head. “No. Sorry those are the rules.” Her attention turned to the woman who’d just entered. “Ms. Masterson, it’s good to see you again,” the woman said in a friendly tone.

 

“Just coming to ease a little tension from teaching the monsters, Clare, You know how it is.” Ms. Masterson laughed before turning her attention to the woman who moved rapidly to the vending machine by the door and after inserting a dollar bill, she selected iced water.

 

“Have a problem, Clare?” Louise asked quietly. Her eyes tracked to the back of the tall dark woman.

 

“Yes, in a way,” Clare said. “She wants to use the gym but you know the regulations—no sponsor no entry. For the life of me, I can’t see the point when we need customers. But Sally and her rules,” she shook her head and looked toward Louise again, “you know how she is.”

 

“Sally does have some strange notions at times. Is she in tonight?” Louise looked at the statuesque woman again, noting her stoic expression and tightly coiled body that looked ready to let loose.

 

“No, she’s gone to the movies with Chris and they won’t be back before we close. You know how those two are and their drinking sessions afterwards.” Clare laughed. ”She’s a good woman and can sure put away the booze.

 

“In that case, how about I do a little sponsoring for a good cause.” Louise was in the mood to be generous and by the looks of it the woman needed a good workout she looked like a coiled python.

 

“Louise, if Sally finds out she will kill you. Then again whose gonna tell.” Clare found the sponsorship forms, had Louise sign them before Louise went on her way to the changing rooms.

 

“Ms.…? I’m sorry but I didn’t get your name,” Clare said in a loud enough voice to bring the brooding woman back over to the desk.

 

“Grant, why?” Steph said frowning.

 

“Guess it’s your lucky night, one of our regulars decided to help you out and signed your papers. Shall we complete the formalities, assuming you’re still interested?” Clare said.

 

“Sure…I guess so…yeah let’s get on with it.”

 

After completing the forms, taking the required tour and paying of the fees Steph headed for the changing room. She stopped midway and turned to the receptionist.

 

“Can you tell me who helped me out?” Steph asked with a crooked sort of smile that diminished her earlier dour look.

 

“Well, I guess it’s okay. Her name is Louise Masterson. She teaches at the local high school. Even though her father is quite wealthy, Louise is a nice woman with no pretensions. She just wants to be one of the girls. I went to school with her younger sister who is a daddy’s girl and flaunts herself all over town. You couldn’t get two more different women.” Clare suddenly looked sheepishly at the woman. “She would kill me if she finds out that I was gossiping about her. Please don’t let her know. Okay?” Clare raised her forehead as a grin curved her lips.

 

Steph almost laughed at the young woman’s blush. “I won’t and thanks for the information. By the way, just for the record, I’m the new owner of the art gallery.” Steph nodded at the girl and walked casually toward the changing rooms.

 

 

Louise knew Sally was going to find out eventually what she’d done. Clare couldn’t keep a secret to save her life. Although, it made her smile to think that occasionally she could do something for someone without it having her father’s money attached to it. She thought about the woman outside and wondered what she was thinking. She appeared self-sufficient with an aura of aloofness. Complete with a body obviously used to powerful workouts. I wouldn’t mind exercising with her now and again.

 

Walking over to the bench, she picked up her favorite exercise prop, a long staff. She learned to use the staff in college and asked Sally if it was okay to continue to practice with it here and the business owner agreed. In her first few semesters, Louise used the gym two or three times a week. Now, because of work and the adoption of a mongrel dog, Star, she could only manage once a week.

 

She grinned recalling why she named her dog ‘Star’, after a character in a book she’d read just before he came into her life. Of course, her father had been upset that she chose a stray rather than a pedigreed animal. He told her that had he known of her interest in animals he would have given her the very best money could buy. As with all things, her daddy’s money couldn’t buy what was important, and that included love, which in any form did have a price. How she had wished her mother hadn’t died when she and her sister were too young to know her. Since then her father gave them everything material and failed in the most important—love.

 

She willingly gave Star her love and in return, he adored her. Louise took this as a sign that one day someone would cherish and love her for herself. Now, at twenty-six she was wondering if her knight in shining armor was just another fantasy. Maybe it was time for her to live in the real world, but her father’s real world wasn’t what she wanted. If only she could find her place in life. Then again, fantasy can be hell too.

 

Grasping the staff firmly with both hands Louise started her workout with gusto.

 

 

Stephanie leaned against the door and watched the petite women who had sponsored her go through her paces with the staff. Without a doubt, she was very good in all the moves she made. Being proficient with the staff herself it occurred to her that a sparring match might be just what she needed. Wonder if she’d mind?

 

Steph walked over to where Louise was working out and picked up a bo staff twirling it in her hands. She hadn’t used one of them in years, guessing that the last time she had an actual workout with one was at her last retreat ten years earlier. Here she was thirty-two and was thinking back to a time almost a decade ago when she had been happy for a while. Back then, two months seemed like a lifetime…

 

Chris had made her happy for a short time. That year they had taken young college students out to a summer camp for recreation and an education about painting techniques. For Steph it had been work, relaxation, and romance and she felt happier than any other time in her life. When Chris betrayed her with one of the students attending the camp, she vowed she wouldn’t let anyone get that close to her again if she could help it. Somehow, she had managed to get over it and picked up her life again…

 

Now, devoting her life and time to work, work and more work, didn’t replace a warm body next to her at night, but it kept her heart intact.

 

Louise suddenly looked over her shoulder and saw the woman she helped join the gym looking very intimidating in her black shorts and shirt. To her it seemed as though the muscular body was taunt and waiting for… What? Louise breath caught as she looked at the vision in front of her. She was the most beautiful woman she’d ever set her eyes on. How did I miss that?

 

“Do you want to spar for a while?” The clipped voice of the women who had taken her breath away asked.

 

“I…I guess, sure I would like that.” Louise rarely had trouble coming up with something to say but found herself having difficulty now.

 

“Good. You seem quite expert at the bo staff. Who taught you?” Steph gently asked.

 

Louise laughed softly. “A friend in college wanted to show off his expertise with the bo staff but needed to practice every day. Guess I volunteered for a while until I got better than he did. Somehow, he lost interest in the workout after that. I didn’t. I can’t really explain why it feels so much a part of me.” She shrugged.

 

“Guess you don’t get many sparring partners here? It seems a little quiet,” Steph replied.

 

“Sometimes, Sally, the owner, will go a round or two with me, but yeah it’s usually a lone battle. Quiet is not the word, but then again it is a Friday evening, and most people have other things to do.”

 

“You don’t obviously.”

 

Louise looked at the women in front of her and smiled. “No, obviously I haven’t anywhere else to go tonight.” She somehow knew it was important to let the woman know she was available.

 

“Let’s spar then, Ms….” Steph said.

 

“Louise Masterson and yours?” Louise waited in anticipation.

 

“Grant, Stephanie.” She took up her stance for the exercise.

 

Louise let out her breath, as she thought that the name suited her opponent. She too took her stance and their workout began

 

They sparred until both of them almost dropped from exhaustion.

 

Louise needed to get the frustration of the evening out of her system. Looking at her sparring partner, she knew that physically Stephanie should have beaten her easily. That proved harder than even she expected and they both rallied to the task and somehow it had been an evenly matched contest.

 

Louise wrapped a towel around her shoulders to soak up some of the excess perspiration as she watched her opponent. Stephanie had walked to the other side of the room and looked out of the window.

 

“Thanks for the session. It’s been a long time since I had the opportunity to have a really good workout.” Louise laughed softly. “I think I will be paying for this into next week. My body won’t know what hit it.”

 

Louise saw the movement of her opponent’s head in acknowledgement but she didn’t turn toward her or say anything. That made her wonder if she had in some way offended the other women. She shrugged and began to walk toward the showers. “Well, thanks again and goodnight. Perhaps we will meet up again another evening?” Again, the silent women never turned, as if she hadn’t heard Louise’s voice.

 

Just as she got to the outer door, a commanding voice said, “Louise, thank you. I hope we do meet up again soon.” Louise looked back and saw that the woman had turned in her direction. Although her tone indicated that she wasn’t expecting an answer, her expression defied it. Louise had the impression that Steph had not really wanted to say anything. “Great, I look forward to it. Maybe next Friday?” With that final comment, she walked away with a large grin on her face. She had an undeniable feeling that this was an important turning point in her life and that Stephanie Grant was a part of it.

 

 

Steph looked at the retreating back of Louise and shook her head slightly. Somehow, she knew that a woman like Louise would turn up in her life again. It felt good to think of that even if it wasn’t what she expected. Some things in life had the tendency of catching you out, and Louise Masterson appeared to be one of those things. With a shrug, she made her way to a hanging punching bag to purge any of her remaining frustration.

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