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Barri Bryan
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Barri Bryan is the pen name for the husband and wife writing team of Billie and Herb Houston. Billie is a former high school English teacher. She has a B.A. in history and an M.A. in psychology. Herb has a B.A. in theology. He has worked as a computer programmer, a teacher, and a technical writer. Since 1990, the couple has worked full time as a writing/editing team. They live in a rural community south of San Antonio, Texas.
Excerpt from A WORLD APART now available at New Concepts Publishing at:
Alexander Ellison answered the telephone reluctantly. He‚€™d planned a quiet afternoon at home free from the press of business and the demands of a dull but necessary social life. The knowledge that the call could be an answer to a message he‚€™d placed earlier to a customer made him pick up the receiver and hold it gingerly to his ear. "Alex Ellison speaking."

The voice on the other end of the line was frantic. "Mr. Ellison, this is Rose Clayton, your mother‚€™s companion."

"I know who you are, Rose. There is no need for an introduction."

"Mrs. Ellison says you should come out immediately. Something awful has happened."

Another tempest in a teapot, Alex wasn‚€™t surprised. "Calm down, Rose. And tell me what awful thing happened this time."

"Your mother has this important meeting with the executive committee of the Ladies Guild this evening, you know."

"Yes, I know. Tell me what happened."

"The committee is coming here to The Rocking E."

"I know that too. What happened, Rose?"

Rose took a deep breath. "Mrs. Ellison got into the bathtub and accidentally turned the wrong faucet. She got a shower instead of a bath. Her hair is wet, the curl is gone and the ladies from the guild are due here in less than three hours. Mrs. Ellison is in tears. She wants you here now."

Alex sighed his annoyance. "I‚€™m not a hairdresser. What does she want me to do?" Even now he could see in his mind‚€™s eye Rose wringing her hands in exasperation. "It‚€™s all right, Rose. Let me speak to my mother." He reminded himself as he waited that patience was a virtue.

In a matter of moments Margaret Ellison‚€™s frail high-pitched voice cut through his irritation. "Alex, oh darling, what am I going to do?"

The answer seemed simple enough. "Have Bennett drive you in to your hairdresser."

Margaret wailed, "The shop closes at five on Saturdays. Besides there isn‚€™t time to drive all that distance, get my hair done and then get back home before the Guild Committee arrives. Oh dear, what ever shall I do?"

Alex was set to tell his mother to manage as best she could. Then his conscience called to mind a promise he‚€™d once made to a dying man. Five years ago Alex‚€™s father had called his only son to his bedside only hours before he‚€™d passed away and extracted from him a solemn pledge. "Vow to me son, that you will take care of your mother when I‚€™m gone."

Alex had been a grave young man of twenty-two. He‚€™d recently graduated with honors from a prestigious eastern college with a degree in business administration. Youth and lack of experience made him so sure then that he could meet and conquer any challenge life tossed his way. He was quick to promise the frail shell of a man who clutched his hand in a death-grip that he would take care of everything.

For the first time in a long time his father smiled. "I have no doubt you can handle Ellison Enterprises but your mother--I failed her so many times. When I finally realized what a fool I‚€™d been and tried to make amends it was too late." Only the knowledge of his approaching death could have wrung such a confession from his father. "You mustn‚€™t fail her as I did. Swear to me that no matter what comes or what goes you will look after her."

And Alex had sworn. "Don‚€™t fret, Mother. I‚€™ll call your hairdresser and ask her to come out there."

"Oh, that‚€™s wonderful darling only she might refuse to come and she might lose her way and...."

Alex interrupted. "Tell me the name of the salon. I‚€™ll call and then go by, pick her up and bring her to you."

"You‚€™ve saved the day. Oh, Alex, oh yes."

Alex reached for a pad and pencil. "Tell me the name of the salon."

"It‚€™s called the Cut-N-Curl. It‚€™s on Brewster Boulevard. You can find the number in the book And Alex...."

Alex struggled to hold onto his patience. "Yes, Mother?"

"Ask for Gayle. Remember that. Not Tina or Sally and certainly not Betty Jean."

"I‚€™ll remember, Mother. Alex hung up the phone and reached for the telephone directory.

Five minutes later he was speaking to Gayle at the Cut-N-Curl Beauty Salon. Alex introduced himself, explained the situation and then said, "Money‚€™s no object. I‚€™m willing to pay whatever you ask."

The contralto that spoke back to him was warm and richly textured. "I‚€™ll have to make a few phone calls first. I should be ready by five-thirty. You can pick me up in front of the shop."

Alex breathed a sigh of relief. "I‚€™ll be there and thank you, Miss...?"

"You can call me Gayle."

"Gayle, thank you."

During the long drive across town Alex argued with himself. His mother needed to learn to handle these little emergencies. One of these days he was going to have to put his foot down. One of these days--but he hadn‚€™t this time. Now he was burdened with the task of transporting some feather-brained, bleached blonde hairdresser all the way to the Rocking E, waiting around until she did his mother‚€™s hair, and then driving her back to the city.

His mind drifted back to his short exchange with Gayle. She certainly had a sexy and sensational voice. That was sad in a way because he doubted she had the intelligence necessary to use it to carry on a decent conversation. He resigned himself to a long evening of being bored to distraction.

Alex pulled to the curb in front of The Cut-N-Curl at precisely five-thirty P.M. A tall strikingly handsome woman stood near the front door. She wore a simple jade green dress that clung to her full breasts, hugged her waist and fell in folds around her curvaceous hips. Her hair was not a brassy blonde but a deep shade of red and shaped into a bun at the nape of her neck. One glance and he knew that color so rich and vibrant hadn‚€™t come from a bottle. His eyes traveled to her face and he gasped. A flawless complexion, huge hazel eyes and a full sensuous mouth left him feeling dazed. He stopped the motor of his Lincoln Continental and stepped onto the sidewalk. "Miss ... Gayle?"

Turning, she smiled at him and his heart skipped a beat. "I‚€™m Gayle Gentry. You must be Mrs. Ellison‚€™s son." She stooped to grasp the shopping bag that rested on the sidewalk beside her and then straightened and walked toward him. "I brought a hair dryer and some shampoo, rinse and spray just in case."

Alexander Ellison was a man who was always in control of his emotions. Early in life he‚€™d learned that to show feelings was to show weakness and weakness always left one vulnerable and at risk. Still he couldn‚€™t keep the catch from his voice as he said, "Call me Alex and thank you for coming." He extended one hand. "Let me have your bag." As he reached for the handle their fingers touched. It was like colliding with an exposed electric wire.

With less than his usual grace, Alex put the bag on the back seat and came around the car with the intent of helping Gayle into the automobile. She had settled inside and was fastening her seat belt by the time he arrived. Without a trace of self-consciousness she smiled up at him. "Thanks anyway, but I‚€™m used to doing things for myself."

Her frank admission put him at ease just a little. He doubted that he would ever be completely at ease with this woman. There was about her an air of sensuous excitement that seemed to electrify the very air that surrounded her. He started the motor and pulled away from the curb. "It‚€™s a twenty minute drive to The Rocking E."

She leaned her head against the back of the seat. "Okay."

Alex got a firmer grip on the steering wheel. "I appreciate you doing this."

Lifting her head, she turned to stare at him. "I don‚€™t mind. Besides I can use the extra money."

Alex glanced briefly in her direction. With closer scrutiny he realized that the dress she looked so sensational in was a cheap off-the-rack special. As he pulled his gaze back to the road it crossed his mind that with a proper coiffure and wearing a designer gown this woman would be beyond beautiful. He chased from his thoughts the fantasy of how she would look wearing nothing with that gorgeous mane of hair loose and flowing down her back. "But this is Saturday night. I hope your date wasn‚€™t too disappointed."

In a most matter-of-fact voice she told him, "I didn‚€™t have a date to disappoint."

Even before he opened his mouth Alex chided himself for asking such a personal question but it seemed important that he know. "Are you married?" He couldn‚€™t believe his own audacity. For the first time in years Alexander Ellison blushed to the roots of his expensively styled dark hair.

Gayle laughed -- a deep throaty sound that seemed to begin in her stomach and float upward and out her mouth. "I‚€™m not married and I didn‚€™t say I didn‚€™t date, I said I didn‚€™t have a date."

This time Alex laughed too and it wasn‚€™t a polite chortle but a genuinely amused chuckle. He found this woman‚€™s candor refreshing. "My mistake and I apologize for asking such a personal question."

The seeming unflappable Gayle Gentry shrugged one shoulder. "I get asked that question on a daily basis." From the corner of his eye he watched as she gave him a frankly assessing glance. "Don‚€™t you? Are you?"

The hair on Alex‚€™s neck stood on end. Her nearness was playing havoc with his equilibrium. "The answer to both questions is no. I don‚€™t get asked and I‚€™m not married."

"Are you gay?"

And he had thought he was being audacious. Again Alex chuckled. "No, I‚€™m not. Why do you ask?"

Gayle lifted her hands and then let them fall into her lap. "I‚€™m curious why a handsome man like you doesn‚€™t have a date on Saturday night." She turned her head to one side. "Or did you?"

"I didn‚€™t and it was by choice."

"I can believe that--a hunk like you. I‚€™ll bet you have to fight females away."

He found her openness was a welcome change from the empty chatter he was accustomed to hearing from the pseudo coy women who populated his world. "Not exactly, are you speaking from experience? Do you have to fight males away?"

Gayle shook her head. "Not exactly, females with too much baggage attract all the wrong men for all the wrong reasons."

A puzzled frown creased his brow. "Baggage?"

"I have a couple of kids and several emotionally dependent family members."

Alex could relate to emotionally dependent family members. "More than one emotionally dependent member? How do you cope? One mother is enough to sometimes drive me up the wall." He was confiding to this stranger thoughts and feelings that he had not dared reveal before--not even to his closest friends.

"One mother, that‚€™s all?" Gayle questioned and then said, "You‚€™re lucky. I have one mother, one sister and one ex-husband. My kids are dependent financially as well as emotionally. So is my brother much of the time." Biting her lip, she dropped her head. "I sound like I‚€™m complaining, I‚€™m not."

The one word that hung like a barb in Alex‚€™s mind was ‚€˜ex-husband‚€™. A man who never gave advice and seldom took it, found himself offering counsel. "Maybe you should dump some of that baggage beginning with your brother and your ex-husband." He slowed his car as he turned off the highway and onto a farm to market road. "It seems to me adult males should be offering, not demanding emotional support."

Gayle laughed derisively. "What planet are you from? Men are the most emotionally dependent creatures in the world."

Alex replied with quiet emphasis, "Not all men."

After a moment‚€™s reflection Gayle replied, "Maybe I should modify that statement. All the men I know are emotionally dependent."

"Now you know me so that statement is no longer valid." Sparring verbally with this woman excited Alex as he hadn‚€™t been excited in years.

She shook her head. "I don‚€™t know you well enough to change my opinion yet."

She did have a way of challenging him. "But you will, I promise."

"Will what? Get to know you better or change my opinion?" The lilt in her voice, the graceful movements of her long slim hands held him spellbound. He was delighted by the sudden knowledge that she was flirting with him, openly and boldly.

"Both, dear lady, both."

She said with overt sincerity, "I‚€™d like to know you better."

Once more her candor both surprised and charmed him. He met honesty with honesty. "I‚€™d like to know you better too."

The miles flew by. So did time as they laughed and exchanged sometimes-sharp often-subtle outlooks and viewpoints on every subject from poetry to politics.

Alex pulled off the farm-to-market road and onto a private drive. "We‚€™re almost there."

Gayle glanced about her as if she was seeing her surroundings for the first time. "Already?"

They came to the massive gate that guarded the entrance to the Rocking E Ranch. It was open. Alex drove through. "I‚€™m sure Mother is beside herself by now." He pulled to the front of an imposing three story brick structure and stopped his car.

Gayle was still looking around, glancing at the acres of immaculately kept green lawn before shifting her gaze back to the huge house with its stately columns and long front porch. Then she turned to look at him. "Do you live here?" For the first time he noticed the flecks of gold floating around inside the hazel of her eyes. Witch‚€™s eyes he thought with the involuntary tightening of his loins, bewitching, beguiling and bedeviling witch‚€™s eyes.

He shook his head in quick negation. "No. I live in the city."

"Then Mrs. Ellison lives here alone?"

"Not alone exactly, she has a live-in companion, a housekeeper, a cook, two maids, a chauffeur and a gardener." He sensed her sudden withdrawal. "Let‚€™s go inside."

Metamorphosis in reverse was what he was beholding. The bright butterfly that had amused and enchanted him for the last half-hour suddenly wrapped herself in an icy cocoon of polite decorum. "I‚€™ll need my bag." Even more surprising than the change was the realization that he could sense it so swiftly and feel it so deeply.

Alex retrieved the shopping bag and came around the car to the place where Gayle was standing. He offered her his arm. She refused to take it. The stiff formality with which she spoke froze him. "No, thank you."

As they ascended the long row of steps that led to the front porch, Alex tried to make polite conversation. "Have I told you how much I appreciate you coming out here on such short notice?"

Gayle picked up her pace as she hurried across the porch and toward the front entranceway. "Several times."

The front door swung open. Rose stood on the other side. "Mr. Ellison, you brought her. I‚€™m so relieved." As they came inside she motioned to Gayle with one hand. "Come this way, please. Mrs. Ellison is waiting for you in her dressing room."

Gayle followed Rose.

Alex followed Gayle. As they neared the foot of a massive winding staircase, he caught her shoulder. Her skin was warm beneath the thin fabric of her dress. He closed his eyes as her heady scent filled his senses. "You forgot your bag."

Gayle shook free of his hold and turned. "Thank you." She snatched the bag from him.

Rose was halfway up the winding flight of stairs. She rested one hand on the finely wrought rail and looked over her shoulder. "Come along, please. Mrs. Ellison is waiting."

Alex stepped around Gayle blocking her ascent. "What have I done to make you so angry all of a sudden?" When she didn‚€™t answer, he growled. "Tell me."

Gayle tried to move around him. "Your mother is waiting for me. Please get out of the way."

Alex refused to budge. "Not until I get an answer."

She swallowed as an emotion he couldn‚€™t quite identify filled her hazel eyes. "You haven‚€™t done anything." Once again she tried to move around him.

This time he stepped aside. "Then what is the problem?"

Gayle lifted her bag with one hand and put her other hand on the stair rail. She took two steps upward and then turned to look down at him. "Alex, please, just let it go."

He wasn‚€™t about to let it go. "Not on your life. I want an answer."

"The answer is, you and I aren‚€™t in the same league. We never will be." With those cryptic words she bounded up the stairs and disappeared down the hall that led to his mother‚€™s private suite.

Alex sat on the bottom stair step and dropped his head into his hands. He had just met a completely fascinating and utterly charming woman who had initially given every indication that she was attracted to him also. Now out of the blue and for no apparent reason, she was giving him the old cold shoulder. His jaw tensed and his face set in determined lines as heat diffused through his skin and his body tightened. He was going to have this woman. He was going to see that luscious body nude and writhing beneath him. He was going to make love to Gayle Gentry until she cried for more and screamed for mercy.