Chapter 21

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Petronia was pleased with herself, and she really hoped Barlow would be pleased with her too. The new information she had gathered might not lead to anything conclusive, but the details provided by Nate Grove and the contraband photo Detective Graham had given her made for some solid leads.

Feeling in a great mood, she decided to surprise Barlow by dressing up. The dress she chose was a respectable length but showed a lot of cleavage up top. Since it was cold, she slipped into a leather jacket.

She arrived early for their dinner meeting and didn't see Barlow anywhere in the restaurant or at the bar. She could've ordered a drink while waiting but decided instead to find him. Being a Tuesday night with no band, only a few customers sat at the bar and in the restaurant.

She got the attention of Anson, the night bartender, and asked which room Barlow was staying in.

"You're looking mighty fine tonight, trooper."

She secretly enjoyed when any man complimented her but usually never gave them the satisfaction of acknowledging. Instead, she gave him her most serious cop eye. "The room?"

He took his time admiring the view before answering her question. "Ten. Second to last room at the end of the upstairs hall."

Bursting with enthusiasm over wanting to share what she had found out during the investigation, Petronia didn't waste any time. She walked up the stairs, found room ten, and knocked.

The door opened. Instead of seeing Barlow on the other side of the threshold, a slender chick who appeared to be barely out of her teens greeted her, wearing a quizzical expression. "Can I help you?"

She scanned the small room. Nobody else there. She took a step back. "Sorry, I must have the wrong room number." Anson better have a good excuse for giving her the runaround.

The girl stood there, looking her up and down. Her eyes narrowed. "Are you the cop who is supposed to meet with Barlow?"

Confused, Petronia took a moment to process. Had Barlow picked up this chick at the bar? No. He wasn't the type to do that, and he certainly wouldn't tell a stranger about their meeting. As the wheels in her head spun, she considered how he wouldn't tell a stranger, but he would tell...a girlfriend. She raised a hand to her mouth. "Oh, god, no."

"You certainly don't dress like a cop." The girl's tone took on a sharp edge.

Self-conscious about the prominent cleavage displayed beneath her half-zipped leather jacket, heat crept into her face advertising her embarrassment. "I'm...I'm off duty." As she stuttered, she realized how lame her words sounded.

So, the bastard had the nerve to bring his girlfriend to their private rendezvous and not warn her about it ahead of time. She stood there feeling like an utter fool. Wanting to salvage some of her dignity, she extended a hand. "I'm Petronia."

"Yeah, he calls you Pet."

With her hand hanging in mid-air, Petronia couldn't recall ever having been so humiliated. Waves of hostility poured from the girlfriend. "Look, I don't know how much Barlow told you about me, but what happened between us has been over for a long time. We're friends now. Just friends."

The girlfriend leaned against the door frame, arms crossed at her chest. She said nothing. Although slight-built, the girl's demeanor advertised she would fiercely defend her claim on Barlow.

Petronia couldn't handle it anymore. "Tell Barlow I'll be down at the bar." She felt like pounding down a few shots.

When she turned to leave, the girl said, "Wait."

Petronia turned back.

The girlfriend nodded toward the room and sighed. "You might as well wait here."

Did this chick want to keep tabs on her, make sure she didn't accidentally bump into Barlow somewhere without her being there to chaperone? When the girl turned into the room, Petronia took the opportunity to zip up her leather jacket, all the way to her chin. She followed her in.

Girlfriend sat on the edge of the bed. Petronia took a seat in the room's only visitor chair. Feeling self-conscious, she pulled the hem of her dress, crossed her legs and tried to appear casual. "How about a do over? I already told you my name. What's yours?"

"Caroline." The girl paused. "You're a whole lot prettier than I expected."

"You're a whole lot younger than I expected."

The girl stiffened. "I'm not that  young. I'm 22."

Six years younger than her and Barlow. Young. Gorgeous. Flawless complexion. A mane of hair to die for. Petronia felt utterly defeated. "Where is he?"

"Bathroom at the end of the hall. He wanted to shave." Caroline raised her eyes and met Petronia's gaze. "Now I know why."

"Did he tell you I was married?" Might as well keep up the ruse. The truth no longer mattered.

"You came here dressed like that, so does it really make a difference?"

Barlow walked into the room carrying his shaving kit and whistling a tune, completely oblivious to the tension between the two women. "Hello ladies, I see you've already met." He dropped his kit on the dresser and sat on the bed beside Caroline.

The room fell silent.

Barlow cleared his throat. "You look really nice tonight, Pet."

Caroline shot him a dirty look which he didn't see.

Petronia didn't know how to respond or if she should. She had been such an idiot getting her hopes up. Barlow had made it clear he was seeing someone, but she had mistakenly sensed that the relationship wasn't all that serious. He hadn't said much about Caroline during their previous encounters. She had completely misread him.

As the uncomfortable silence stretched on, Barlow looked at her and said, "You seem distant. Is anything wrong?"

Tears threatened to leak from the corners of her eyes, so she stood. "I'm hungry. Let's get something to eat."

From the smug, satisfied look on Caroline's face, Petronia knew it would be a long, unpleasant evening.

Even though Barlow thinks Pet is married and lost to him, out of courtesy, should he have let Pet know he was bringing Caroline?

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Even though Barlow thinks Pet is married and lost to him, out of courtesy, should he have let Pet know he was bringing Caroline?

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