It’s just a gift…

Here’s a sneak into the most recent novel work. Crossing my fingers this can be traditionally published. Caution: very raw, no editing.

 

Chapter 2

Erica hadn’t realized how much time had passed until Tracy and Burt had left and all the boxes were dispersed into their separate rooms. Looking around her new home, she knew she’d be in need of new furniture. Her skimpy futon couch, particle board end tables, and the folding card table set up in the breakfast nook were almost painful to look at in the elegant rooms with their beautifully carved chair rails and flowered wallpaper.
She needed good, vintage furniture worthy of a place this gorgeous. Images of patterned cushions and marble in-laid coffee tables came to mind, along with a hefty price tag. As soon as her business took off, she’d put all her profits toward fixing up the interior, along with the accents to make it even more stunning. She wanted her clients to be transported the moment they walked through the doors. Not to be thrown when they expect old world grandeur and are greeted by a poor, contemporary excuse for a dining table. It was all she could afford at the time.
But it’d be a while before she’d invite her clients into her home for photoshoots. For now, she resolved to utilize the simple beauties of nature for her backdrops and more involved photo sessions. She had seen an abandoned farm just outside of town and Jade Lake could always be relied on for a stunning backdrop. If she could clean up her own yard and put some of her mother’s landscaping tricks to good use, that could be another location for family portraits or graduation photos.
For now, Erica’s stomach demanded she stop looking to the bright and promising future. She hadn’t taken the time to go grocery shopping, but she wanted to indulge in another childhood fantasy that resurfaced when she arrived in Tolstone square. There was a little diner she had wanted to visit during their trips to the town, but her mother always said they couldn’t.
So, she grabbed her purse and stepped out on her front porch. Perhaps her one regret was that it was too early in the season for the gardenia bushes to be blooming. She didn’t necessarily believe in signs, but if there ever could have been a sign that her mother approved of her decision to move to Tolstone, blooming gardenia bushes would have been it.
Though her jeep sat waiting for her to take a ride to the square, she passed it by in favor of walking. She wanted to see the other houses and secretly compare them to her own. Growing up, it was as if she wore blinders when riding down these streets. She never noticed any of them. Her eyes were always glued to the next corner, willing her mother to drive a little faster or ignore the stop signs at each intersection.
Passing by all the other grand, older homes along Crescent Lane and down toward the square, she realized there was nothing particularly special or extravagant about her new home. All the others were just as old, just as beautiful in their own way with manicured hedges and decorated front porches. That realization, that her house was just another matchstick in the box, didn’t dim her love for it. The house she and her mother had practically worshipped was still her own and no one could take that from her now.
Over half an hour of walking brought her to Tolstone town square. Some were leaving their places of work, cars pulling through the roundabout as they had been all day long. There were few pedestrians out on the sidewalks and the benches around the fountain sat vacant and lonely. A pleasant idea entered her mind that perhaps she could take her lunches by the fountain every day when the weather permitted. She could never do something like that in her old home. Her neighborhood was too far from any place worth going and it would have been dangerous to walk in the streets by herself. Here, the air seemed infused with a safe, welcoming vibe that endeared Erica to the town even more.
She turned to her right to walk under the awnings stretching out from the tall buildings that boxed in this piece of small town treasure. Many of the shops were already closed, which is something she’d have to get used to. Even shop owners had families and homes to go to in the evening. She guessed every place in town was closed on Sunday, too.
She found her way to Lunar Lantern Diner easily. It was the only place still open, a golden glow filtering out like a guiding light for the hungry and bored. Inside, several booths and tables were already occupied by couples and families.
Erica had never gotten a good look through the wide windows when she and her mother passed it by on their way to Jade Lake, but what stood out most in her memory were the smiles. Everyone inside was happy to be there, talking and laughing with their friends.
She stepped inside and felt inquisitive eyes fall on her. In a small town like Tolstone, a newcomer must have been a rare sight, especially if they saw her walking up along the sidewalk instead of sliding out from a car. But she paid them no mind as she gazed around and grinned like a child who just walked into a candy store with a twenty-dollar bill in her fist.
The interior was everything she imagined it would be, just like with her new home. The checkered tile floor, teal polyurethane booth coverings, chrome trim around the edges of the grey countertops and tables, and even an old jukebox in the far corner with neon light tubes arching around the top. The waitresses were dressed in pale blue dresses with white aprons, while the short-order cooks had bandanas fashioned across their foreheads to keep hair and sweat out of their faces. The counter that separated the cooking station from the rest of the dining area was packed with older men talking in deep, grisly voices while the booths were occupied by the sweetest-looking families.
A heavy set, middle aged woman stood at the register and greeted her. She swept back a little of her black hair that was beginning to show a touch of silver. “You can seat yourself, sweetheart,” she cried with a grin, adding an attractive quality to a pair of eyes that appeared almost black from a distance.
Erica glanced around and her smile faltered. There were plenty of seats, but perhaps she hadn’t thought this through. It had been so long since she dined inside a restaurant, and even then she wasn’t alone. She was never alone. Not like this.
It was just one more reminder that her mother wasn’t there any more and she was far from the home she had known. Erica had left behind friends she had since she was in school, girls who stuck by her when no one else would. If she wasn’t with her mother, she was certainly by their side.
But now, she had no one, and though she could never regret her decision to move, she might have regretted being so isolated. She had to remind herself that she’d make more friends in Tolstone. Just not tonight.
Erica strode up to the register. “Can I just order something to go?”
Undaunted, the woman reached down and pulled out a menu from underneath the counter. “Sure thing.”
Erica thanked her and stood off to the side to let an older couple pay their bill. So sucked into reading through the variety of different burgers, she didn’t hear the register drawer close or see the woman lean over.
“My name’s Gwen Gabors, by the way,” she said, offering out her hand.
Erica looked up in a daze and shook her hand out of reflex, but it took her a second to reply with, “Erica Barrett.”
“You’re new in town, aren’t you?”
She smiled. “What gave me away?”
Gwen gave her a once-over and a sparkle came to her dark eyes. “I know pretty much everyone in town, but I’ve never seen you before.”
Erica turned back to the menu. “Yeah, I just moved in today.” Thinking on her feet, she said, “That’s why I’m taking this to-go. I still have a lot of unpacking to do.” She pointed to a particular burger that was described as the Lunar Lantern’s particular specialty. “Three meat patties, bacon, mushrooms, and steak sauce?”
The woman laughed. “It’s a favorite around here. You want that?”
Before she could pull out her notepad, Erica waved her off. “No, no. Not today anyway. I’ll just have the regular cheeseburger. No pickles.”
“Sure thing, sweetheart.”
Gwen wrote up the order and passed it along to her cooks who slapped on a fresh patty of ground beef. The two ladies made a little more small talk while Erica waited for her burger and she discovered that Gwen and her husband, Jaime, owned Lunar Lantern and had been running it for nearly twenty years. It wasn’t the only restaurant in town, but it was certainly the most popular with the locals.
She pointed out the “Wall of Fame” where pictures of heavy eaters and some loyal regulars were tacked up in a collage.
Before Erica could get closer to examine the many faces of the townspeople, her order was ready. Not wanting it to get cold, she started out straight away after saying goodbye to Gwen.
When Erica stepped back out into the square, her eyes trailed up to the evening sky. Thin, cottony veils of clouds stretched across the horizon as the sun’s harsh amber glow chased away the blue from earlier that day. She stopped and stared up at the sunset, wishing she had brought her camera with her. If she hurried home, perhaps she could take her first photo in Tolstone from her porch.
Erica was nearing the corner of Second Avenue, ready to turn left and back into the residential part of town when she nearly skidded to a stop in front of an antique store. The glare from the setting sun caught on the glass lens of something on an old sewing tables with the foot pedal. Sitting on the scratched and pitted surface was an array of old photographs and picture frames. But as beautiful as they were, they didn’t hold her attention like the vintage camera propped up in the center.
She sucked in a tight breath when she saw the tiny words “Rolleiflex” in faded lettering above the twin lenses. Its ebony, grainy body was old, and the white trim had been partially worn away by the ravages of time. The names of the German manufacturers were printed just below the brand name and she was impressed that the rawhide strap was still attached. The numbers on the diodes were still clearly legible, which was a miracle since the oils from its previous owner might have completely worn them away after so many uses.
Though her food was getting cold and the sunset behind her would soon be gone, Erica had to take a look. If she didn’t, she’d be thinking about that camera all night long. Glancing up, the lights were on and the buzzing neon sign above the door stated the store was open for business.
Erica rushed inside and jumped at the frantic tinkling of the bell above her head. She stood on the welcome mat and stared into the reverent silence of the antique shop. She had been in plenty of stores like this before since she adopted her love of old, vintage things from her mother. They had trekked through dozens of stores in her early years, but never one this packed. She was almost afraid to move for fear that she would upset something and cause the whole fragile arrangement to come tumbling in a heap.
Canes, clocks, tables stacked with crystal goblets and porcelain tea sets, paintings, display cases of guns and knives, boxes of coins that were out of circulation, old licenses plates hanging on the walls, barrels of toys from before World War II, mannequins fashioned in old military uniforms and formal gowns from the Antebellum era, shelves lined with pottery and vases that looked to be from all over the world.
The musty air didn’t bother her in the least. This was the smell of priceless treasures.
“I don’t allow food in my store,” a deep, masculine voice called from somewhere in the assorted chaos of antiques toward the back of the store.
She looked around, trying to find the source, then down to her food. How could anyone smell the burger from that far away?
“I just stopped in to look at something in your window,” she replied, her eyes still combing for the man somewhere behind all the shelves and aisles that seemed to go on forever. Erica guessed that he must have seen her come in or maybe heard the static rustling of the plastic takeout bag.
“Leave it by the door.”
She did as she was told, knowing it’d be much easier to handle the camera if both her hands were free anyway. Without another word, she moved around to the display window, cautiously tiptoeing down the narrow path that wound up to the sewing table.
Erica leaned over, being mindful not to let her sleeves catch on any of the frames and plucked the camera from its resting place. It was like holding something sacred and she felt a spark of awe when she examined it in the light. She had only ever seen photos of the Rolleiflex but never had the privilege of handling one herself.
She turned it over in her hands, marveling at the details she didn’t see from the pictures in her textbooks. The silhouette of the shop owner passed through her peripheral and she turned to face him.
Somehow, she had expected an old man, though his voice form earlier was clear and melodic, despite the flat remarks he gave. But it wasn’t an old man that strode up to meet her. He was probably only a few years older than her, and at least half a foot taller.
Her eyes trailed upwards from his dark jeans to his broad, muscles shoulders. A thick chest narrowed down into a slim waist that was only partially concealed by the white, undone button-down shirt that hung over his body. But that did little to hide the way his dark blue shirt clung to his tight, firm physique. He looked more at home on the cover of a sports magazine than in an antique shop.
His short raven hair paired perfectly with the thick layer of stubble that covered the bottom portion of his face and trailed down his neck, completing his look of masculinity. But it was his eyes that made her speechless. As clear and blue as a summer sky, Erica was sure she had never seen eyes so stunning, so arresting and intense in her life. She had seen plenty of pretty blues in her time as a photographer, but never a set so utterly and decidedly one color and nothing else. Not a hint of green or darker shades to contrast. They were pure, honest, and penetrating as they watched her.
A familiar, but long overdue sensation streaked through her core. This man was handsome, without a doubt, but it had been years since she felt this attracted to a complete stranger. She knew nothing about him, but she certainly wanted to. If her mother were here, she would be jabbing her elbow into Erica’s ribs with a cunning smile. They shared an interest in handsome men, making for some rather playful conversations.
“That’s an Original Rolleiflex,” he said.
That statement alone confirmed that this man did own the antique shop. It was the same deep, almost bass-level voice that spoke to her earlier. She might have been expecting him to be an assistant or maybe the son of the owner. In all the shops she had visited before, the owners seemed to be just as old and frail as the wares they sold. But there was nothing frail about the guy that stood in front of her now.
His words broke the spell he had unwittingly cast over her and she looked back to the camera that had almost been forgotten. “An original?” she gasped. There were dozens of Rolleiflex models manufactured over the last century, but an original was fairly difficult to come by.
He offered out his hand and for a moment, she wasn’t sure what he wanted, then she handed him the camera. Their fingers grazed in the transfer and Erica instantly felt dizzy. No, she had never felt such a strong pull to anyone before.
The shop owner then proceeded to tell her all of its features and how the strap, diodes, and lens are all directly from the manufacturer – not a replica or refurbished model.
“It was made by Franke & Heidecke, a German company,” he continued, hypnotizing her with the way the words seemed to roll out of his perfect lips. “The first Rolleiflex was released in January of 1929 and they stopped making this model in –“
“1932,” she finished, hoping that she wouldn’t come across as rude. Erica knew everything he was explaining to her. Photography wasn’t just a job. It was a passion. And she made it her business to know everything about the history of cameras, photography, and film. It made her appreciate how far they had come in the technological age.
A flicker of something like amusement danced in those perfect eyes and Erica hoped that he was impressed. “You know your cameras,” he said with an approving smile.
With slightly trembling hands, she took the Rolleiflex back and tapped her nail on the side. “You forgot to mention how the metallic bellows were a huge thing back then. The bellows on older cameras were leather and Heidecke wanted to make a camera that was compact enough to travel with and survive storage.”
The man nodded. “Yeah, they had a problem with rats eating the bellows or rotting out in humid climates because of the moisture in the air.”
Erica couldn’t hold in her grin and felt a wave of heat rise up her neck to bloom in her cheeks. Why was she getting so turned on from a simple, but rather nerdy, conversation with this perfect stranger? For a moment that seemed to stretch on forever, they gazed at one another and Erica wished the Rollieflex had any film still in it. If it did, she would have tried to capture the way this man’s eyes seemed to brighten in the light of the sunset.
“How much?” she asked breathlessly.
As if coming out of a daze himself, the shop owner blinked and looked to the camera. “Well,” he began as slid his thumbs into his jean pockets. “According to the serial number, this is a 611 model, made in 1929. It’s in very good condition and still has all of its original parts. I don’t have any film to go with it, but I think I’d price it at three hundred and ten.”
Erica’s eyes went wide. Thinking she might drop it out of shock, she held it a little closer to her stomach. “Three hundred and ten?” she repeated. “I don’t suppose you’d be open to haggling?”
The man chuckled, such a resonating and soothing sound that she wished she could come up with clever things to say all evening just to make him do that over and over again. “I don’t like to do it, but I’ll make you a deal.” Erica listened, hoping whatever kind of deal they could work out would mean she didn’t have to pay so much for this piece of photographic history. “I’ll give it to you in exchange for an introduction.”
Was this the way an antique shop owner flirted? If it was, Erica could play this game all day. But common sense caught up with her and she shook her head. Her mom had taught her better than to accept a seriously expensive gift without properly repaying the giver. “I couldn’t just walk out of here without paying for it.”
He took a step closer and she could smell his clean, spicy cologne.
“You would be paying for it,”
Erica lifted an eyebrow at him. “So, knowing my name is worth three hundred and ten dollars?”
He chuckled again, and her knees went weak, but she forced herself to stay standing. Part of her wanted to prove that she was strong and wouldn’t be so won over by his charms – even though she was drawing dangerously close. It was clear that he was interested, and so was she, but she had never done anything like this before. She knew how to flirt casually with someone she might never see again, but it was all for fun. This was getting too serious.
“I also see that you appreciate the camera,” he said. “I don’t get that from too many people who come in here. They buy something because it looks pretty, or it’ll match some décor in their home. It’s been a long time since I had someone walk in, pick up a piece, and I don’t have to make them realize it’s more than beautiful. It has meaning.”
She colored at the compliment and bit her lips together to keep herself from saying something that would ruin the moment. This man trusted her to take care of this camera, to love it and give it a good home. This might not have had anything to do with a proper introduction or genuine flirting, but at least she knew she had won his respect.
“My name’s Dominic Beaumont,” he said, offering out his hand for her to shake after it became clear that she had nothing more to add.
She could have laughed at the irony. They were neighbors. Tracy’s remark about Dominic knowing so much about old houses made sense. If he knew this much about antiques, then he surely would have known a lot about Victoria architecture and maintenance. Yet, the image of this handsome man seemed incongruous with the stereotype of a history-buff.
Fantasies flashed through her mind as quickly as the shutter speed on her camera back at the house. They could talk about history, about everything in this shop. Their connection would deepen and soon their conversations would turn to coffee dates, dinner dates, then to something more intimate. Erica caught herself wondering what he looked like under that cotton shirt and her mouth watered.
It only took a short second for her to go from respecting Dominic to wanting something more than friendship from him. Erica desperately hoped it was the hunger making her go out of her mind like this. Or maybe it was a combination of the shop, his cologne, and those striking blue eyes, that made her think about such things. It certainly wasn’t like her.
Resolving to be professional and sensible, she straightened up and firmly took his hand. But there was little to stop her from savoring the warmth from his palm. “Erica Barrett.”
Now would have been a good time to mention that they lived next door to one another. If he had been at the shop all day, he wouldn’t have seen her, Tracy, and Burt bringing in all her things. He’d probably find out soon enough and they could laugh about it later.
His smile widened. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Erica. The camera is yours.”
She glanced down, almost forgetting about the Rolleiflex again. “I was serious about paying you,” she said quickly. “I don’t have that much right now, but maybe I could put it on layaway and pay you off a little at a time?”
“And I was serious when I said you could have it.” Dominic shoved his hands back into his pockets. “Giving away one camera will not make me late on my rent.”
As stubborn as Erica wanted to be, she sensed she was going nowhere with his argument and finally nodded her acceptance, however much it went against all her principles. “Thank you,” she said, trying her best not to look like she had just been gifted with the royal jewels or something ridiculous like that. It was just a camera, but it truly meant so much more to her than that. Dominic may never realize it, though.
“You’re most welcome,” he replied in such a gentlemanly fashion that Erica wondered if her cheeks could get any redder. “And I hate to do this, but I’m technically closed for the day and – “
“Oh!” she cried. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even look at the hours on the door. I just saw the open sign on.” Erica made an attempt to slid past him, nearly knocking over a basket of raw wool in the process.
“It’s fine,” he replied. “The lights are all wired together so if the shop lights are on, so is the open sign.”
It wasn’t until she was at the door and reaching down to pick up her take-out bag that she realized he had been following close behind her. She hadn’t even noticed that the sun was sinking deeper toward the horizon now. The golden sunset darkened into a somber bluish-gray, the clouds nearly black with the faint twinkling of stars against the coming night.
“Well, thanks for letting me stay for a little while.” Erica braced the camera against her as if it were likely to be stolen at any moment.
Dominic opened the door and the bell caught her off guard again. “Not a problem.” He looked up toward the street as she exited. “Did you park on the other side of the square?” he asked, peering around for any sign of her vehicle.
“No, I walked. I live just around the corner.”
An expression similar to concern passed over his face and Erica was flattered, more than she had been when he talked about her enthusiasm for the Rolleiflex. She watched a silent struggle take place behind those eyes of his and finally he let out a sigh.
“Well, be safe walking home,” he said. “We don’t exactly have any bad neighborhoods here, but there are still plenty of potholes you could trip into.”
A bit of Erica felt crestfallen. The dying romantic in her wanted Dominic to offer her a ride home, even though she would kindly refuse anyway. Once again, it went against so many of her principles that a lady could take care of herself. She could change her own tires, kill her own spiders, and walk herself home without the help of a man. He wouldn’t have offered her a ride home if she were a guy.
At the same time, she admired him even more. He wouldn’t make concessions for her or assume that she wasn’t fully capable of walking home in the waning light. Or maybe it had to do with his own agenda. He might not have had the time. Did that mean he wasn’t really interested in her?
Either way, she assured him that she would be fine and walked toward Second Avenue. Erica’s ears listened in for the tiny tinkling of the bell to tell her that he had closed the door. She didn’t hear it until she was well around the corner.
Was he watching her leave? What did he think of her? Did it really matter? In the deepest, most guarded part of her heart, Erica wished that she could let it matter. But Dominic’s opinion of her wouldn’t change who she was or how she felt about herself. That was one thing her mother had drilled into her. She didn’t need a man to determine her worth or importance. Erica was her own person and her introduction was worth far more than a vintage camera, though she still thought it was silly that a man would throw away the chance to make an honest dollar just to know her name.
Over and over in her mind, she replayed their first meeting. Despite herself, she couldn’t stop smiling at the pavement and fingering the edges of the camera in her hand.
She knew in a few hours, this buzzing feeling in her gut would go away. It always did when she met a cute guy and he showed her the least bit of kindness. In the end, it was just that. Kindness. It meant little and no matter how much she and her mom tittered about hot men, Erica never lost her head over one. And she didn’t plan on starting now.

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About Sheritta Bitikofer

Sheritta Bitikofer is an author of eclectic tastes. When she's not writing her next paranormal or urban fantasy novel, she can be found volunteering at her local animal shelter, shooting archery at a medieval reenactment event, doing Zumba, watching a historical documentary, or having coffee with her husband at their favorite café. A wife and fur-mama to two rescue dogs, she makes time to write engaging and moving stories about shifters, vampires, and magic that enthrall readers from cover to cover.
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