"You ready to order?"
The waitress fixed me with a sweet smile that vanished fast. Her nimble fingers darted into place to brush a stray strand of blonde hair from her cornflower-blue eyes. She shifted uneasily from foot to foot, and I looked her over.
She wore tight cutoff blue jeans that ended mid-thigh, with a low-cut white tank top showing the hint of a black bra strap. She showed just enough cleavage to get a few tips.
I knew I had enough gas to make it home. I could spare some cash.
"The Reuben looks good," I told her. "Think I could get some sweet tea with that?"
She brought her notepad up to hide her face, and jotted down my order.
"Coming right up," she said. Her voice wavered just a bit on the last syllable, with that Missouri twang bending her tongue.
When she turned to walk away, I saw the lacy pink fringe of a pair of panties just peeking up out of the top of her low-slung shorts. My eyes followed the motions of her ass. A smile crept onto my face.
I'd heard good things about Chesterfield's women. It was a small town, they told me, but everybody was friendly with each other. I only had a few more miles to go before I got back on the path to Chicago, and I'd promised myself I'd stay off the highways. I wasn't in a hurry, so I could stay a while longer.
364 days of the year, give or take a week or two of vacation time, I worked my way through forms and submissions for a big-name publishing house on Fullerton Avenue—the same one, in fact, that had sent me my first rejection letter back when I was a student. Even when I wasn't in the office, fighting to keep coffee stains out of the mountains of hastily typed manuscript pages that the bosses sent my way, I hung out in the cafes and coffee shops downtown, typing out short stories and chapters of my latest novel.
This time, it was a meeting with a company representative down in Saint Louis that had called me away from my desk, giving me four days to sort out affairs and make my way back and forth. The meeting ended on the second day, so I'd decided to treat the third as an unofficial vacation, taking in the little outlying towns that surrounded the city. Just as well, it was the first day in months that I'd put off cranking out my typical 1,000 daily words on the latest novel.
The trip down South had done me good. The last time I'd caught a look at my reflection in a rest house mirror, the Southern summer had left its marks on my normally fair skin, and my shock of dark brown hair had been blown across my forehead by the wind, barely obscuring my heavy dark eyebrows. I wore a pair of dark-washed denim jeans, a button-up charcoal shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and pale brown wingtip shoes. For one day, I would be nothing more than an anonymous traveler with the sun in his eyes and the wind in his hair, and that suited me fine.
I was digging into my lunch 15 minutes later, when a fleshy-sounding smack made me turn my head.
"Staying out of trouble, Kara?" I heard a soft, sultry voice ask.
A woman strode into the room, just over 30, and dressed in a tight-fitting black dress. She was standing just by the woman who had brought me my food, who was blushing girlishly and rubbing her backside.
"Yes, Miss Maggie," Kara answered, fighting to suppress a fit of giggles.
"Gotta keep my eye on you," the older woman said, giving Kara's ass another playful smack as she walked away.
The older woman, Maggie, stopped in her tracks for a moment and beckoned to Kara.
"Give me a kiss, girl," she ordered, pointing to the dimple in her cheek.
Kara's blush deepened, but she tiptoed over and obeyed, pecking her cheek.
"That's it," she said, satisfied. "I'll see you at home tonight, right?"
"Yes, Miss Maggie," Kara replied obediently.
"Good girl," Maggie said, and walked away.
I took in Maggie's face and slim frame before she walked away. Her eyes were deep green, and her hair was an elegant tangle of dark chestnut curls pinned in a bun at the back of her head, forming a perfect contrast to her pale skin. Her hands were slim and nimble, with long, red-painted nails on each finger. Her hips swayed gracefully when she walked, and when she turned her back, every man in the place instinctively looked over to drink in the sight of her.
My gaze lingered a little too long. Just before leaving through the door that led into the kitchen, she looked over her shoulder, and our eyes met. I felt my face flush in embarrassment, but she just winked back at me.
"You new in town, man?" someone at the next table over asked.
"Yeah," I replied. "Just passing through on my way back home."
"I saw you checking her out. Everybody does, but that look on your face..." His voice trailed off, and he shook his head in amusement. "Don't you worry none, though. She has that effect on everybody".
I grinned sheepishly and took a sip of sweet tea.
"Who is she?" I asked.
"Her name's Magnolia Hayes, but everybody calls her Maggie. She's owned this place for near on a decade now, and I heard she waited tables here before that. 'Course, that was before she had it named after herself."
I looked down at my menu. Magnolia's, it said, with a stylized drawing of a little white flower under it. I'd seen the word on the sign, but I never connected it with a name.
"She likes to flirt," the man said offhandedly. "Guess she picked it up when she was waiting. She's a sweet lady though. And with all the business this place does, I figure she's gotta be one of the richest people in Chesterfield. She's doing favors for people all the time."
Magnolia returned, catching me in the middle of another sip of tea.
"Everything alright, stranger?" she asked me as she walked over to my table, smiling a friendly smile.
"Best I've had all week," I told her, meaning every word. "Everybody told me I had to give this place a try when I had a chance."
"I remember faces easy," she said. "I know I've never seen you in here before. You on the road?"
I nodded, taking another bite of my sandwich. "On my way back to Chicago. I got time, though. Figured I might as well enjoy the trip," I said.
She nodded approvingly. "That's what I like to hear. You got a name, honey?"
"Jack. Jack McPherson," I said.
"I'm..." she began.
"...Magnolia," I finished.
She raised an eyebrow. "Most people around here call me 'Maggie', but hell...I like the way you say it," she said.
I smiled back.
"Well, Jack, welcome to the South. Hope you don't have to leave too soon," she said.
I followed the motions of her shapely hips as she strode from the room. This time she didn't catch me.
I spent all day downtown, taking in the shops and bars and couples on Main Street. By the time I made it back to my car, the sun had long since gone down. It was a little past 7. If I'd been home, I knew, I'd have eaten dinner by then. There was no way in hell I'd make it back home by the end of the night. If I hit the highway right then, I'd have to try my luck with the dingy roadside motel. Sitting there in the driver's seat, I thought it over.
An old woman behind the cashier at a sweet shop gave me directions to the nearest motel. The town only had one, as I found out. By the time I made it there, its nine rooms were filled and its neon lights were dimming.
I sighed to myself. My car's clock read "8:00". If I wanted to make it to another hotel, I'd at least need a cup of coffee first. With that in mind, I backed out of the motel parking lot and retraced the way back to Magnolia's.
Just a cup of coffee, I told myself. Just a cup of coffee.
The place was nearly empty when I strode through the doors. A few waitresses took up spots on vacant tables, savoring the chance to unwind at the end of their shifts. Kara was at one, with a pen in her hand, scrawling something in the pages of a beat-up black notebook. She seemed startled when I caught her eye, but she softened up when I waved at her. She grinned back, gave me a shy wave and buried herself in her notes again.
It barely took me a minute to get a table. I'd only just sat down when a familiar face came over to take my order.
"Back so soon, stranger?" Magnolia said, arching one eyebrow.
"I'll be out of your hair soon. I just need a cup of coffee before I hit the road," I said.
"You sure about that?" she asked. "It's getting dark out."
"I already tried the motel. They were filled up, just my luck."
Magnolia waved the remark aside. "Aw, hell. Let me let you in on a little unwritten rule: that place is just for show. We're friendly around here. If a stranger ever needs a place to stay, he's just gotta ask."
Was that an offer? For a moment, I didn't know what to say.
"What, not used to Southern hospitality?" she asked.
"I couldn't make you do that," I told her. "And there are plenty of places on the road."
She chuckled. "Oh, I think my place is a few notches up from that. And I got room. Don't know if anybody's told you, but I've got the biggest house in half the county. I think I got more than enough room for you. What do you say?"
My eyes travelled over her face, taking in her easy grin, her dark piercing eyes, and her soft, dimpled cheeks. I might never see her again after tonight. I wanted to save that snapshot as long as I could.
"My car's out front," I told her. "Think you could show me the way?"
I found my way to her house, where the manicured lawns of the rest of the town gave way to clusters of tall oak trees and mats of thick overgrown grass. The moon was full, and I could make out the outline of the house easy against the darkening sky: wide, white-columned, and with windows full of warm lamplight. It sat solitary in the little clearing, far away from the prying eyes of the neighborhood.
Magnolia's black car was already parked in the driveway. I took the spare spot on the curb, got out and walked over to the door, a backpack filled with one night's worth of spare clothes slung over my shoulder.
Magnolia opened the door to greet me before I had a chance to knock. She held a little glass tumbler in her hand, filled with just a splash of what looked like bourbon. "Hey, stranger. I was just having a drink. Should I make that two?"
I nodded. "Thanks. Just let me get my stuff inside."
I walked through the door. As soon as I got a look at my luxurious surroundings, everything seemed right with the world.
Everything in her living room smelled like polished wood. A crystal chandelier tinkled softly as it spun in place on the ceiling. A fine black leather couch took up the better part of the floor, just in front of an elegantly carved oak coffee table. A glass tumbler and a just-opened bottle of bourbon rested on the table.
Magnolia showed me into the spare room at the top of the stairs. Next to it, there was a second spare room with the door open just a crack. In the second room, I caught a glimpse of a blonde-haired woman leaning back in bed with her face buried in a notebook, pens and highlighters strewn all around the sheets. It was Kara.
I let my gaze linger on her face a second too long before she sprang up from the bed, shocked to see me, and bounded over to shut the door.
I brushed off the embarrassment and moved over to dump my pack on the bed in my room.
"Looks like you met Kara," Magnolia said knowingly when I came down the stairs. She was sprawled back on the couch, just filling her glass again.
"Are you two related?" I asked her.
"No, she just moved in a few years ago after her mama passed. She's a sweet girl, but she's shy as hell. She's working her way through school at the university now. I figured a job and a place to sleep were the least I could give her." Magnolia gestured to the empty glass tumbler on the table. "Feel like joining me for a drink, Jack?" she asked.
She didn't have to ask twice.
I poured myself a finger of bourbon, and Magnolia pointed to the spot on the couch right beside her. We clinked our glasses together and took a sip in unison.
"Good stuff," I murmured.
"Hell, you're just passing through. I don't know if I'll ever see you again. Might as well make the one night worth it," Magnolia said.
"Simple words. But they're good to live by," I agreed.
She put a hand to one cheek. "Aw, now you're just flattering me," she said.
"It's why you run a café, isn't it? A meal, a cup of coffee, an hour sitting at a table... It's a simple thing, but it makes a man happy."
"I guess you got a point there, Jack." She took a sip of bourbon. "Didn't have all that on my mind when I started out, though. The waiting job was all I had. I just figured I had to make something out of it after I'd been at it a while."
"How long were you there?"
"Nine years," she answered. "About as long as I've been in this town. About as long as I was married before that."
"It's ancient history now," she told me. "He was a bastard. And he was a big shot in the last town I lived in. I was practically a kid when we got hitched. After I cut it off, he just laughed in my face. He thought I'd be living in a gutter without him. With the restaurant, though..." A malicious little smirk crossed her lips, just for a second.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to pry," I said.
"We don't have many secrets in this town, you'll find. And it's just ancient history now. Nothing but the future to worry about now. What about you? You got a girl waiting for you up North?"
I thought on it. "It's been a while since I did. I don't think about it a lot. What the hell, though? I'm a big city boy. There's always somebody out there. And the nights get cold up North. It's always good to have someone to sleep next to."
She took another sip and worked it around on her tongue, thinking her words over. "I guess I gotta think on it sometimes. It makes being the girl on top in this town that much sweeter," she said.
"The girl on top? Is that what they say about you?"
Magnolia smirked. "They say a lot of things about me in this town."
My heart sped up as she fixed her green eyes on me.
"Nine years of a bad marriage does funny things to you," she said. "After it was over, I had to promise myself I'd take the reins in everything I did. That I'd never let anyone else take control. If anything happens, I'll always be in control."
Slowly, she reached her hand over and brushed it across my thigh.
I stared at her. "Control?"
Her lips curled.
"Your mind going places?" she teased. "Sometimes it can be a real fun ride. Just lying back and letting someone else guide you."
She stood up and walked over to the stairs, her hips swaying gracefully under the thin black silk of her dress. Before she walked up the steps, she turned back and looked over her shoulders, grinning mischievously in my direction. "I'll be here all night. Invitation's open. All you have to do is knock," she said. With that, she walked out of the room and out of sight.
I looked at my watch. It was two hours past midnight.
I didn't bother to undress before I climbed into bed, but I took my shoes and socks off. I didn't plan on sleeping, but I had to rest my feet after a long day of walking through town.
With the door open a crack, I saw a narrow shaft of light from a room just down the hall. Magnolia was awake, I knew. She wasn't planning on sleeping either.
I took deep breaths, concentrating on slowing my heartbeat. I wouldn't look nervous when I went to her.
Slowly, I climbed out of bed, tiptoed over to the door of the guestroom and opened it. Close by, I heard Magnolia chuckle.
The voice didn't come from the bedroom, but from the living room below me. When I looked down the stairs, I saw her sprawled out on the couch with a book in her hand, still wearing her black silk dress.
"Didn't think you'd last that long, honey," she said. "Any longer, and I'd have had to come in there and wake you up myself."
I smiled at that.
"Well, don't just stand there," she said impatiently. "Come on down. Let's get a good look at you."
I made my way down the staircase. One step at a time, one breath at a time.
She gestured to the seat beside her on the couch. "Alright, now sit down," she said.
Her voice was soft and breathy, with all the quiet authority of an old-fashioned schoolmistress. As soon as I heard it, I couldn't help but obey. I sat down, and she drew herself up to full height, tossing her book aside.
"Stay there. Eyes straight ahead. I mean it." She walked around behind the couch, running her soft fingers across the nape of my neck as she went. I shivered as goosebumps spread across my neck, and she chuckled softly.
She leaned over to whisper in my ear. "Now, just remember: you ever get uncomfortable, you just gotta say the word. Say stop, and I'll stop. Other than that, everything from now on happens on my terms, and my terms only. You got that?"
"Good," she said sweetly, satisfied with herself. "Now, first things first. Take off your shirt."
I began unbuttoning my charcoal black shirt eagerly, my fingers shaking as I fumbled with the white plastic buttons.
"Not so fast," she said. "Slowly. I want to enjoy this. We got all night."
I obeyed, and took my time. The cold black leather of the couch struck my bare skin as I peeled off my shirt and cast it to the ground. I felt vulnerable, now—exposed. But somehow, Magnolia's soothing voice made it alright.
There was a mischievous edge in her voice now. "That's good for now," she said. "The rest comes later."
I heard her shoes clacking against the floorboards. She had to be wearing high heels. Then I felt her hand on my bare shoulder, and I breathed in sharply. "Shhhhh..." she cooed. "Nothing to be afraid of. You're in good hands, now."
I nodded, nervously.
"Little bit of fear's good, though. Gets the heart racing nice and fast." She walked back around the couch to face me, a long black scarf in her hand. "Now hold your arms out, close together."
I obeyed, and she wrapped the scarf around my wrists, tying them together and pulling the scarf tight with one elegant knot. It was made from a light, velour-like material, and it felt soft and silky against my skin. When I tried to spread my wrists they wouldn't budge an inch.
She laughed, softly, when she saw me trying. "I use ropes and handcuffs on some of my boys, but this works just as well. Besides, you ain't going anywhere, are you?"
I shook my head, and she chuckled with satisfaction.
"Thought so. Now on your feet, baby. We're going to the bedroom. Now the fun really starts." She put a hand on my back to steady me as I got to my feet, guiding me by the shoulder as I made my way over to the staircase.
One step at a time, one breath at a time. But it was hard to keep my breath slow with the sound of those heels echoing against the stairs with every step.
After what seemed like hours, we made it to the top of the staircase.
"Third door on the right," she said. "You'll know it when you see it. I got it all ready for us."
I passed the guestroom, where my backpack and my car keys were still thrown haphazardly on the bedside table. Then I passed Kara's room, with the door still shut tight. At Maggie's room, the door was open wide enough to let out a thin shaft of soft light. As I drew closer, I saw tightly-packed rows of white candles perched atop desks and bedside tables, their flames wavering slightly as Maggie threw open the door.
A wide four-poster bed with dark purple silk sheets stood out in the center of the room.
It was a Queen-sized bed. Big enough for two.
"Now lie down on your back. Get comfortable while you can," she whispered in my ear.
I turned to face Magnolia at the foot of the bed. She stayed by the door, her hands on her hips. Her grin was growing cockier by the minute. She knew she had me right where she wanted me.