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The First Sentence Anthology

Contents

Cover

The First Sentence

Copyright

Rebound – Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

About Allison B. Hanson

Lost and Found – Dedication

Lost and Found

About Misty Simon

Frozen Dreams – Dedication

Frozen Dreams

About Victoria Smith

Through the Void – Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

About Natalie J. Damschroder

A Real Boy – Dedication

A Real Boy

About Vicky Burkholder

Thank You

 

The First Sentence

A Collection of Romance Novellas

The premise: That if 5 authors start with the same sentence, they will all write vastly different stories. The results: made of awesome. From contemporary to futuristic, these novellas have a little bit of everything, but most especially—love-filled happy endings.

[_*Rebound _][*by Allison B. Hanson]

After wallowing in agony for weeks after a bad break-up, Reese is set up on a blind date. Reluctantly, he goes and meets the girl of his dreams. The only problem? He was at the wrong place and met the wrong girl. Now, desperate to find her, he scours the campus as fate weaves an impossible journey.

Lost and Found[* by Misty Simon*]

When Mike Emory sees his ex’s post on social media that she’s looking for her lost dog, he’s out the door in a flash. Their break-up was not amicable, but he loved that dog and can’t imagine him on his own. Elsie Hews has been scouring the streets for hours when she runs into the last person she wants helping her—the guy who never seemed to think she was capable of doing anything herself. This is her dog, though, her baby, and she’ll accept Mike’s help to find him, then say goodbye again. Or that’s the plan, at least…

[_*Frozen Dreams _][*by Victoria Smith]

When a dangerous weather anomaly strikes, Jane will do whatever it takes to travel to be with her family. Even if it means getting stuck with her husband, Adam. Instead of talking to him about how they will never have a family, she took the chicken route and left, despite being deeply in love with him. Now they must face the storm and their emotions.

[_*Through the Void _][*by Natalie J. Damschroder]

There’s only one thing Vix can do when she finds out about the secret life that has led to her husband’s coma—make that life hers. When she goes on her first mission through the void, however, she finds not only a new self-purpose, but her lost husband, as well. She did the impossible once. Can she do it again, and bring him home?

[_ _]

[_*A Real Boy _][ by Vicky Burkholder*]

Jillian Night is on the hunt for inter-planetary kidnappers. Her bosses demand she have a partner, but Jillian has had enough of human ones. She prefers to work alone so Fleet assigns her one of the new androids. Zeus is a little too real for Jillian’s comfort and she finds herself attracted to him—until she meets the real man pulling the strings. Maybe having a real, live partner wouldn’t be so bad after all.

The First Sentence—A Collection of Romance Novellas

 

Published by: Dragonsoul Books

http://www.dragonsoulbooks.com

 

[_Rebound _]Copyright ©2017 by Allison B. Hanson

[_Lost and Found _]Copyright ©2017 by Misty Simon

[_Frozen Dreams _]Copyright ©2017 by Victoria Smith

[_Through the Void _]Copyright ©2017 by Natalie J. Damschroder

[_A Real Boy _]Copyright ©2017 by Vicky Burkholder

 

Cover copyright ©2017 by Purple Girl Design

 

All rights reserved. In purchasing and downloading this collection, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of these e-books on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the author.

 

***This digital copy of the collection is awarded to you for your personal use. No rights are being granted to copy or distribute to any other person or entity for any reason. Thank you for honoring copyright law and authors’ ability to support their writing careers!***

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.

 

PUBLISHED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

 

Rebound

By Allison B. Hanson

To Natalie, Misty, Vicky, and Smith, who took me under their wings and allowed me into their lives as well as their anthologies.

 

 

Chapter One

One sentence was all it took to completely ruin the moment.

“I think we need to talk,” Lauren said in a ragged breath.

Reese stopped and looked down at their naked bodies.

“Talk? Right now?” He hoped for all he was worth he’d misunderstood. When she nodded, he rolled off her as she pulled the sheet around her. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

He had been dating Lauren for two years. It wasn’t always easy. She demanded a lot of attention, but Reese never complained.

They came from completely different worlds. He was from a working-class family from Colorado, and she was the only child of a wealthy couple from Connecticut. She said she loved him because he never cared about her money.

This was true, but it didn’t mean she didn’t care about his lack of money.

They were both seniors at Ohio State and would be graduating in May, him with a degree in chemistry. Not his first pick, but it meant he would be able to secure a well-paying job. Having money was a requirement if he had any shot at marrying Lauren Davenport someday.

Reese’s friend Zach always said he was pathetic when it came to Lauren. He likened Reese to a junkie and Lauren was his dealer.

Since Zach was a philosophy major, Reese felt it was safe to ignore his opinions on pretty much every topic.

Reese brushed his fingers through Lauren’s long hair and waited for her to tell him what was bothering her, silently hoping it would be quick so they could get back to what they’d been doing.

“As you know we have finals next week,” she began.

“Yes.” He nodded as she looked down at her fingers, twisting the sheet into knots.

“And then we’ll be going on Christmas break,” she continued.

“Oh. Right. Where would you like to go?” he asked with a smile. He didn’t understand her sheepishness. She normally just told him what tropical location her parents were sending them to and he packed.

“I’m going to Greece with my family.”

He didn’t recognize her tone, but something made him tense.

“Okay.” It almost sounded as if he wasn’t going.

“I think we need some time apart,” she added, confirming his speculation.

“Apart? Over Christmas?”

“Actually, no. Longer than Christmas.”

He blinked, trying to see what was right in front of him.

“I think we need to see other people,” she finished.

“Other people?” he blurted. “What?

“We’ve been growing apart, Reese. I know you’ve felt it too.”

He hadn’t felt that at all. “Are you dumping me? While we’re naked in bed together? We were just having sex like two minutes ago,” he pointed out as his world crashed down around him.

“I know,” she whined and pulled the sheet higher. “You’re a great guy, but you’re not the one for me.”

“I’m not? You said I was.” She had. She had said those exact words just two days ago. “You’re the one for me, Reese Barton.”

“I was wrong.” She shrugged.

“Let me get this straight. Are we breaking up or are we taking some time?” He thought maybe the details would help. They didn’t.

“Go spend Christmas in Boulder and we’ll talk when you get back.” He wasn’t from Boulder. He lived in Denver. Not important.

“No.” He shook his head. “I’m not going to be able to spend three weeks wondering what’s going on with us while you’re in Greece.”

“Fine! I was trying not to hurt you, but it’s over. It’s been over for a while now. We were both too stubborn to say it.”

He looked down at their naked bodies again, still twined in her sheets.

“I didn’t know you felt this way. I didn’t know it was over.”

“You did. You just didn’t want to face it.” She patted his shoulder coldly. “I have a lot of studying to do.” He was being dismissed.

“Oh. Sure. All right.” He got up and found his clothes while she pulled on a silk robe.

“I gathered the things you had here, and put them in this box.” She went to the door and picked up a surprisingly small box. She’d packed his things? He looked down at the box she’d placed in his hands.

He saw a few articles of clothing and a book. There were some other things in there too, but seeing them made this too real. He had to look away.

“I wish you the best, Reese. I hope we can still be friends.”

“Okay,” he said numbly and walked out the door like a robot. He stopped and looked back in time to see the door close. He wasn’t okay. Not even close.

  • * *

“That bitch!” Zach reacted as Reese expected.

“Don’t! I still love her. I don’t want you calling her names.” He raised his eyebrows and held out his index finger to show that he meant it.

“You need to get angry at her. Get so angry you want to go out there and screw some other girl to get back at her.”

“Yes. Vendetta sex. Very healthy.” Reese shook his head. “What is wrong with you? That’s the worst advice ever.”

“I think it’s exactly what you need to get over her.”

“I just need a little time. Can you give me that?” he begged. He didn’t want to be coerced into being with some stranger under the delusion that it would make him feel better.

Nothing would make him feel better.

Not even Christmas with his family.

He spent most of his break either moping about the break-up or answering his stepmother’s questions about the break-up.

He was almost relieved to come back to school. Maybe Lauren had changed her mind.

“How did it go?” Zach asked as Reese unpacked.

“Which would you like to hear about first? The six-hour delay in Chicago or the girl my dad fixed me up with who actually had the hots for him?

“Uh. Neither. Let’s talk about you getting back out in the dating world,” he said, ignoring Reese’s obvious bad mood.

“No thanks,” he muttered as he tossed his bags in the closet.

“You can’t go back with Lauren, and if you can’t move on, you’ll be stuck where you are now, which is miserable and pathetic. You need to find the strength to seek happiness again.” Zach tilted his head.

“I hate philosophy majors.” Reese pulled out a beer.

“Come on. This will be better. It’s all set up. Jess has a girl who already thinks you’re hot. It will be a piece of cake.”

It was worse than he’d thought. It was a fix-up. He must have truly crossed over into tragedy.

“What if Lauren wants to get back together and I’ve been out with someone else?” Reese poured a bowl of cereal to go with the beer.

She’s been out with someone else,” Zach said in a cough, trying to hide it.

“What?” Reese had heard him.

“She’s been out. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but she’s seeing some basketball guy.”

“Basketball? She hates basketball.” Reese frowned at the counter.

“Not anymore. Maybe he’s a rebound.” He stopped and looked at Reese as the corner of his mouth lifted. “Wouldn’t that be so cool?” Reese said nothing. “You know, because rebound is a basketball—”

“I get it, Zach.” Reese sighed. “What about this guy? Is it serious?”

“It seems to be kind of serious. But that was the point of her breaking up with you, right? So she could go out with other guys.”

Reese glared at him, knowing this was true. He knew this would happen, but so soon?

He’d been moping around for almost a month about a girl who’d dumped him for a guy who played a sport she hated?

“Okay. Fix me up with the rebound girl. I’m in,” he said, more to appease Zach than with actual enthusiasm.

“That’s the spirit.” Zach left the room to call his girlfriend, who would set up the date while Reese washed down the last bite of cereal with a swallow of beer. This was it. He was getting his life back.

  • * *

The blind date was on for the next Saturday. To say Reese was less than enthused would be a huge understatement. He’d thought about bailing a few times throughout the week, but every time he so much as uttered the word, “Zach…” his friend came back at him with a quick, “You’re going. Shut up.”

Reese got dressed for his date. Jeans, sneakers, T-shirt, hoodie. When he walked out into the living room Zach shook his head and pointed back to his bedroom.

“No. Go change. You look like a guy who is still getting over someone and doesn’t care.”

“That’s exactly what I am,” Reese said.

“Go change.” Zach huffed and pointed again. “Your shirt had better have buttons on it when you come back out here, or I swear I will pick out your clothes,” he threatened as Reese slammed the door to try again.

He buttoned up the middle three buttons over his T-shirt and fixed his hair with his fingers before going back out.

“Sneakers?” Zach raised his brows.

“I’m sorry, my stilettos make my feet hurt,” Reese mocked. If Zach didn’t stop, Reese was going to call it off. Apparently, this showed on his face because his friend backed down.

“Well she already thinks you’re cute, so maybe she’ll like this.” He frowned at Reese’s ensemble.

“Whoever I go out with is going to have to like me for who I am, not what I wear. I’m sick of people dressing me up like a Ken doll,” he grumbled. That was one of the many things he was discovering he hadn’t liked about Lauren.

“Good luck with that. Here.” Zach held out a piece of paper with a name and phone number. “It’s all set up. If you’re going to bail, at least have the decency to call and tell her not to show. Don’t be rude to my girlfriend’s friends.”

“Okay.” Reese took the number begrudgingly and looked down at the paper. “Katie?” he said. “Is she twelve?”

“You don’t have to fall in love with her. Just go meet her. Have a good time. Bang her—but be nice about it—and then you’ll be ready to move on.” He said this as if it was the only way to move on. Like a recipe for continuing his life.

“Fine. I won’t bail. I’ll go meet her. As for the rest…we’ll see.” He’d never been a one-night-stand kind of guy.

“Good for you.” Zach patted him on the back.

“What does she look like?”

“You’ve seen her before with Jess. Long brown hair. Taller than Jess.” Jess was barely five foot. Everyone was taller than her. Reese didn’t remember anyone specific hanging out with Jess. But he hadn’t looked at other girls when he’d been dating Lauren.

“What color eyes?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Who cares? They’re eyes.” Zach held out his hands as if Reese were insane, then proceeded to tell him where and when to meet her, insisting he be nice.

When wasn’t he nice to girls? Zach was the one that suggested he go bang her. Who said that anymore? Reese had never banged anyone in his life. He’d always had sex with girls he at least liked and had been seeing for a little while.

“…don’t burn any of my bridges,” he was saying. “Jess wants to help you.”

“Yes. I got it. I’ll be a gentleman.” A very uncomfortable gentleman. He grabbed his black leather coat and went out the door.

The coffee shop where he was told to meet her was only a few blocks, but the wind was blowing, making him wish he was still wearing the hoodie.

He stopped and looked up at the sign. The Flour Mill was a coffee shop with a bakery. He’d been there once before. It was kind of artsy, but they had really great baklava.

His mouth started to water as he opened the door.

He glanced around, looking for a brunette with eyes. There were four. Three of them were already with someone. One was sitting alone at a table by the window reading a book.

Reese walked closer, and she looked up with a slight smile. Her eyes were blue. Bright blue. She had a small diamond stud in her nose that he found incredibly sexy. He hoped this was the Katie he was there to meet.

Without warning, his quiet heart thumped to life.

 

Chapter Two

“Excuse me, are you Katie?”

She put down her book. He thought it was a little weird that she’d brought a book to a date.

“Kate. Yes,” she corrected. He’d gotten her name wrong. Not a good start, but he did like Kate better. More mature.

“I’m Reese. I’m—”

“Yes. We actually had a class together, first semester.” She held out her hand politely and he shook it. Her fingers were cold, but soft. For a second he wanted to hold onto it, to warm her.

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember.” He sat down across from her.

“No. I guess because you were with….” She tilted her head to side as if trying to think of her name.

“Lauren,” he provided, feeling the familiar stab in his stomach.

“Right.” She snapped her fingers like she’d almost had it.

“We’re not together anymore,” he explained.

“Well, lucky me.” She smiled and he instantly relaxed. All the discomfort he’d envisioned for the evening faded away. He ordered a coffee when the waitress came over.

Kate was wearing multiple layers of clothing. It was chilly out and, from the temperature of her hands, he figured she was one of those people who was always cold. Maybe because she didn’t have enough fat on her. She was slender, and though she was seated he could tell she was tall from the length of her legs.

“Tell me about you,” he said with genuine interest as he shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair.

“What do you want to know?” She looked down at her cup bashfully.

Everything, he thought, but instead of saying that he made some suggestions. “Where are you from?” That seemed like a good first question.

“Chicago.”

“And you’re cold here?” he teased, making her laugh.

“I’m cold pretty much everywhere,” she confirmed. It stupidly made him feel a connection to her.

“Maybe you should have gone to school in Barbados.”

“Too hot.” She scrunched up her nose in distaste. “I have a very small comfort zone,” she joked. “Seventy-five to eighty degrees. Perfect.” She laughed at herself. “Where are you from?”

“Denver.”

“Do you ski?” she asked curiously.

“Of course. You have to, or they’ll kick you out.” It was so easy to make her smile, he wanted to keep doing it so he could see it.

“I’ve always wanted to, but….”

“It’s cold.” She nodded and they both laughed.

“Right.”

“Tell me about your family,” he ordered next.

“Ah. The big one. You want to know about the relationship with my family unit so you can deduce whether or not I have any issues.”

“Oh, no. You’re a psych major?” he whined playfully.

“No. But I did have to take it,” she allowed.

“Maybe that’s what I was doing.” He shrugged. “I had to take it too.”

“My parents are still happily married. No abandonment issues. I have three older brothers, so I do have a little bit of a princess complex. However, that is canceled out by my competitive need to be better than them.”

“Hmm.” Her summary amused him.

“Now you. What are your issues?” she asked.

“I have a little brother who is nine years younger than me,” he began.

“From a second marriage?” she guessed.

“Yes. My father got remarried.”

“But you call him your brother instead of your half-brother, so you’ve lived with your dad the whole time?” She was quite good at this.

“Yes.”

“Where is your mother?”

“I was getting to that part.” He shook his head with a chuckle. “She died when I was eight.”

“Ah,” she said like that made sense.

“What?”

“Nothing. I’m sorry. That must have been terrible.” She frowned and her brows creased like she was in pain.

“It was, but my stepmom is great. She makes my dad happy and she’s never forced me to call her mom, even though I should because she’s a great mom.”

“You love your family,” she verified. “Then you can’t be that messed up.”

“Hold up, now. I didn’t say that. No guarantees,” he teased.

They continued to analyze one another as they talked for hours. Cup after cup of coffee. Only stopping when they took turns going to the bathroom because of all the coffee.

They talked about their families in more detail. He found out she was a black belt in karate as well as a ballerina, which boggled his mind.

She was amazing, and so easy to talk to. He felt like he’d known her all his life. The best part was she asked him questions about himself. And actually seemed to be interested in his answers. They weren’t the normal questions like what classes he was taking, but about more important things.

“Do you feel a lot of pressure about graduating?” she whispered, as if it were confidential.

“Yes,” he whispered back.

“I bet it’s worse for a guy.”

“Why do you think that?” he asked.

“We women have two choices, really. We can graduate from college and start a career. Or we can find a guy to marry us and have kids and stay at home. Some of us do both, but who are we kidding? That’s only for the really ambitious.” She laughed and continued, “For guys, you only have the one choice. You have to start a successful career, plus you have to find someone to marry, and support them and buy a house and start a family that you also have to support.”

“Okay, you’ve thoroughly freaked me out. Thank you for that.”

“I’m sorry.” She laughed, not acting very sorry. “If you had a choice, what would it be?”

“The part about starting a successful career doesn’t bother me. Though I had wanted to be a teacher, not a chemist.”

“If teaching is in your soul, that’s what you should do. You don’t want to spend your whole life feeling unfulfilled.” She understood him better than Lauren ever cared to. Better than he ever cared to. And he didn’t feel like she was judging him. He felt like she was just trying to know him.

“What other issues do you have?” he asked, just to keep her talking.

“Well, I used to be addicted to social media,” she announced with a smirk.

“Who isn’t?” He checked Facebook and Twitter like ninety times a day.

“No. It was really, really bad. So bad I dumped it.”

“Dumped it?” he said in confusion. “No Facebook?”

“Nope.”

“Twitter?” His brows raised.

“I’m tweet-free.”

“How do you function?” He held out his hands not knowing whether to find her a phone or bow down in front of her.

“Quite well actually.”

“You still text?”

“Of course, I’m not Amish.” She snorted and they laughed hysterically. “But I don’t have my phone with me right now,” she pointed out, almost sounding proud of herself.

“Can I be honest?” he said out of the blue.

“Of course, please.” She took a sip of her coffee and leaned closer.

“Zach told me I was supposed to go out with someone as a rebound, to help me get over Lauren. I wasn’t really interested in doing that, but he basically forced me to go out. Now that I’m here with you, I’m glad. But I find I’m still not interested in the rebound part.” He smiled, hoping she wouldn’t think this was disgusting.

She laughed. “I’m kind of rebounding, too. I don’t know if I was really ready to go out on a date, but I’m having a great time with you.”

“Maybe we’re so comfortable with one another because we had the attitude that it didn’t matter, but now….” He shrugged, thinking she mattered. They didn’t say anything for a long moment.

“I saw you with her.”

His head snapped up and he met her blue gaze.

“With Lauren. In class. I thought you were cute. I still think you’re cute.” She shrugged it off, but it made him feel good. “You seemed very…loyal.”

“Wow.” He raised his eyebrows and looked out the window at the dark street. “Is that a nice way of saying I was obsessed?”

“Possibly,” she allowed.

“It sounds awful, but I think the only reason I was with her was because it was easy.” He winced and took a sip of his coffee.

“Most people take the path of least resistance. I wasn’t judging. To be honest, I would have liked my ex to have been a little more loyal. Or loyal at all for that matter.”

“He cheated on you?” Reese was absolutely shocked.

“Yeah. A couple of times actually. I was not in a healthy place, I guess. He would apologize and I would take him back. Eventually, he didn’t come back.”

“Ouch. Was it your competitive nature that made you keep trying?” he guessed. “You wouldn’t give up until you’d won his affection?”

“Yeah, maybe.” She laughed once. “But I’m stronger for it. From now on, any guy I date will only get the opportunity to cheat on me once.” She smiled and took a sip.

“I think it would be safe to say that it was him, not you. I can’t imagine anyone….” He didn’t know how to end that sentence without betraying some newly developed feelings he had for her. He wasn’t entirely sure he was ready to do that.

She laughed, flashing those perfect teeth. Braces, no doubt. She had a very interesting face. She was pretty for sure, but something about her just made him want to stare at her.

“You’re beautiful,” he blurted. So much for keeping his feelings to himself.

She swallowed and looked down at her cup in embarrassment.

“I’m sorry. That wasn’t a line.”

She gave him a crooked grin. “Are you looking for something easy?” she joked. “It wouldn’t be me. I’m not into the whole unhealthy relationship thing anymore.”

“Me neither. I’d like to try something more fulfilling,” he explained, realizing he meant it. “I would like someone to like me for me.” He’d told Zach that earlier, but he was serious.

“What did Lauren like you for?” she asked curiously.

“The sex. I’m amazing in bed.” He managed to sound serious, but it only lasted for a few seconds. Seeing her stare at him with her mouth open made him crack up laughing. “Kidding. I think she liked the fact that I would do pretty much anything she told me to do.”

“That’s kind of pathetic. You should have stuck with the sex story.”

“Well, I’ve learned from it, too.” Very recently. As in the last few hours. “I’m not going to see something in someone that isn’t there. I’m not going to be bullied, and I’m never, ever, ever going to hold someone’s purse ever again.” They laughed.

As they continued talking and laughing, he realized he was having the best time. Not that he could tell Zack he’d been right. He shifted in his chair, his back stiff from sitting for so long.

When he glanced around the shop, he noticed the chairs had all been turned up on the tables. They were the only people in the place, except for the irritated-looking boy behind the counter.

“I guess we should go. I think they want to close up,” he said reluctantly.

Kate looked around as if she hadn’t noticed either.

“Oh, yeah.” She quickly tucked her book into her messenger bag and stood. “Can you hold this a sec?” she asked while passing him the bag and picking up her coat. He obligingly took her bag while she slid her arm through her sleeve and chuckled. “You’re holding my bag,” she pointed out mockingly.

“It’s not a purse. It doesn’t count.”

She took it back once her coat was buttoned up and her gloves were on. She was tall. Only a few inches shorter than him. He was already working out the logistics of a goodnight kiss as he put on his own jacket and held out his hand that she should go first.

Outside on the sidewalk, they stopped. She rubbed her arms and pulled her jacket closer to fend off the chill. It was cold, even for him. He was going to need to make this quick before she froze.

“Would you like my number?” She tilted her head to the side. He could see her breath in the cold air.

“Actually, Jess gave it to me.” He patted his pocket where the slip of paper was tucked away safely.

“I see. She’s always trying to help.” She smiled. “Well then maybe we could use the time it would have taken to exchange numbers in a different way.” She gave him a sly smile.

“Oh.” He figured it out right away. She wanted him to kiss her. That was fine because he very much wanted to.

He bent down slightly and touched his lips to hers very softly. It was meant to be a sweet-first-kiss kind of kiss, but that wasn’t what it ended up being.

Feeling her lips made him want to go deeper. His tongue reached out for hers, intertwining like long, lost lovers. His arms wound around her, pulling her closer to him. Her arms slid inside his jacket. He could feel her hands grasp his shirt.

It was freezing cold out there, but they were about to catch on fire. He forced himself to slow things down. Kissing her once, twice, a third time and then backing away slightly.

“I’ll call you,” he whispered as she smiled, her eyes still closed. “Soon,” he promised.

“Soon.” She opened her eyes and they were pulling him to her again. He couldn’t resist.

“Very soon,” he mumbled against her lips.

“Very soon,” she repeated as he released her with a little sigh. Why did it feel so wrong to leave her? He’d never felt this with Lauren. Not once, despite his pathetic obsession with her. This was different. It felt right.

“Goodnight,” he said as he unwillingly turned away.

Then it hit him. A feeling in his stomach like he was making the biggest mistake of his life, but he couldn’t stop himself. Only he could stop himself.

“Hey!” he yelled and ran after her. He didn’t want the night to end with just a kiss. And he thought he’d felt that coming from her, too.

He stood in front of her and looked down into her bright blue eyes. Then he kissed her again, slow and appreciatively.

“Would you be interested in coming home with me?” he asked.

“A one-night stand?” she questioned.

“God, I sure hope not,” he said before he kissed her once more to sway her decision.

“I hope not, too.” She smiled and slid her hand into his. “Lead the way.”

 

Chapter Three

They barely made it back to his place. They kept stopping to kiss and then catch their breath. When he opened his door, he instinctively looked around. No Zach, so he smiled and pulled her inside.

They went straight to his room and their clothes started coming off. Apparently, she was more efficient because she was naked before he was and she had two jackets on.

“Do you believe in destiny?” he asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said honestly as she kissed his chest. “Why? Is that what you think this is?”

“Maybe. I mean you were in my class first semester and I never met you. I missed out on knowing you. And now here we are and I realize how much I would have missed.” It was a dumb thing to say, but it was how he felt. He wasn’t afraid to tell her anything. She didn’t judge him. Instead, she put her hand on his ass.

“I knew what I was missing,” she joked as he kissed up her neck.

He teased her a little more as he grabbed a condom and moved over her. The playfulness on her face faded into seriousness as her gaze met his. No, not met, penetrated his. He felt as if she could see every thought he’d ever had. And he didn’t care. He felt perfectly at ease.

It wasn’t right to compare, not that he had a lot of available brain power to carry out a thorough evaluation. But with Lauren, he was always on guard. Even after two years with her he was always trying to be what she wanted him to be. Trying to come up with the right thing to say. With Kate, he didn’t feel that way at all.

This feeling of acceptance grew stronger while they moved together in his bed. He felt so free. There was no awkwardness. Just smiles and kisses. He wasn’t ready for it to end when they finished the first time. It was like a dream he didn’t want to wake up from.

They switched positions so he was able to watch her movements. The way her hair fell like a curtain to the side. He pushed it back so he could see her more clearly.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said, happy he could say what he wanted no matter how simple and honest. This was how it should be between two people.

The last two years had been a lie.

They lay there for a few minutes of perfect silence, listening to their breathing come back down to a normal rhythm.

He heard her moan, and not the good kind.

“I guess I should go,” she said reluctantly as she started to sit up.

“Please don’t go. Stay here with me.” He pulled her back against him and threw the covers up over them. “It’s cold out there. You’ll freeze. Stay here until spring,” he suggested.

“I don’t know about spring, but I’ll stay a little longer,” she compromised and kissed him once more before laying her head on his chest.

Reese nuzzled his face in her hair and fell asleep in complete and utter bliss. He couldn’t even remember the Reese who hadn’t wanted to go meet this girl.

Everything had changed.

  • * *

Reese woke up the next morning with a smile on his face. But it lasted for only a moment before he realized he was alone. He sat up and looked over at the chair where he had thrown Kate’s clothes the night before. They were gone.

“Shit!” He jumped up and pulled on his pants while half falling out into the living room. “Kate?” he called, hoping she was just getting breakfast. No one was there.

Zach’s door was closed and from the snoring on the other side, Reese could tell he was home.

As he turned to go back to his room for his phone he saw a note stuck to the refrigerator door.

Reese,

I had a great time, but I woke up and

realized I was going to be late for work. Sorry

I had to run off. I’ll talk to you soon, I hope.

XOXO,

Cate

Cate? With a C? He pulled the note from his pocket since he had pulled on the same pants from the night before. It was difficult to read Zach’s scribble. But he was certain it said Katie with a K and an ie. Strange.

Unable to wait, he knocked on Zach’s door. He moaned, “Go away.”

“I’m coming in,” Reese warned.

“Go away,” Jess mumbled this time.

Reese went in anyway. They were naked, but everything important was covered so he sat on the edge of the bed and jumped up and down a few times to get them really irritated.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Zach asked as he broke through his sleep.

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing is wrong with me. Everything is finally right,” he said. Zach squinted and blinked a few times. “This girl is amazing.”

“Good. Why can’t we talk about this in a few hours?” He rolled over and pulled the blanket over his head.

“Because, I won’t be here. Jess, where does she work? I want to go see her.”

“She’s not working today,” Jess grumbled.

“Yes, she is. She said she was working in the note she left this morning.” He held it up as proof, but neither of them were looking.

A few seconds ticked by and then the covers flipped down. Zach was more alert and Jess was blinking.

“This morning?” Zach picked up on the important part of his statement. “As in… she stayed here last night?”

“Yep.” He let the P make a popping sound on his lips.

“Oh, my God!” Jess gasped. “You’d better not hurt her, Reese. She just got off a bad break-up.”

“I know. Don’t worry. I’m not planning on breaking up with her.”

“Good, go visit her.” Zach covered his head with a pillow.

“Come on. Be happy for me. You wanted me to get over Lauren, and I am so over her.”

“Okay. Great. I’m very happy for you.”

“Me, too,” Jess said in surprise.

“I’m calling her!” he yelled over his shoulder as he left their room.

“If she’s working she won’t answer!” Jess shouted back from the bedroom. “She’s an assistant manager at the bookstore on Arch Street.”

“Oh. I’ll leave a message.”

“We don’t care,” Zach bellowed from his room.

He chuckled as he dialed the number from the wrinkled note.

“Hello?” she answered, sounding unsure.

“Good morning. It’s Reese. How are you today?” he asked with a big smile on his face.

“What’s it to you?” she spat angrily.

“Cate?” Besides the anger, her voice sounded…off.

“Yeah. The one who was waiting for you last night for over an hour while you stood me up. Asshole!”

“Is this some kind of joke?” he asked, not getting it. He detected a hint of a Southern accent in this girl’s voice that he didn’t remember the night before.

“You could have had the decency to call and say you couldn’t make it,” she threw in.

“I did make it. I met you. You came back to my place.” He tried to put it together in his head. Did she have a disorder of some kind?

“Perfect. Now you’re mocking me?” She hung up on him. He was still staring at his phone when he heard a different phone ringing in the next room.

“Hello?” He could hear Jess answer through the thin walls. “Reese said you were working today. He said he had a great time.” He could hear her betraying him from the living room. “What? Are you positive?” Silence as Katie-with-a-K-and-an-ie no doubt recounted her evening being stood up. “But he said…. Okay. I’m sorry. I’ll call you later. We’ll go out for drinks tonight.” Reese heard aggravated whispering between Jess and Zach.

“Okay. I’ll take care of it,” Zach grumbled and a few minutes later he came out in his boxers to stand in front of Reese. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked. Fair question.

“I don’t know. I met her. Cate with a C.” He held up the note so Zach could read it.

“Where did you meet her?” He ran his fingers through his messy hair.

“The Flour Mill,” Reese answered defensively.

“You idiot. You were supposed to meet Katie at the Sunflower Cafe! You met the wrong damn girl!” He looked up at the ceiling as if praying for something or someone to come rescue him from Reese’s stupidity. Jess was dressed by then and came out to join him in yelling.

“She got dumped recently and you stood her up? How could you do that?”

“He went to the wrong place. He met the wrong girl.” Zach got her up to speed.

“You’re kidding me.”

“No. He’s really that stupid,” Zach explained, like Reese wasn’t sitting right there.

They continued to debate over how this could have happened for a few minutes. Obviously, the reason she had a book with her was because she hadn’t planned on being on a date. It wasn’t as though Reese had walked up to her table and said, “I’m here for our date.”

Finally, Reese interceded between the bickering couple.

“Guys? How do I find Cate with a C?” he asked, desperately.

“Who cares?” Jess snapped, only concerned about her friend.

“I care. I could be in love with her.”

“Listen, Reese. You can’t be in love with someone after one night. It doesn’t work like that. Especially when that someone wasn’t even the right freaking girl!” she yelled at him and glared.

“I can’t believe this is happening.” He hung his head and tugged at his hair. “This is crazy. I met the most amazing girl. We talked for like four hours and then we came back here and had the best sex of my life, and now I have no way to contact her?” This just wasn’t possible. But he didn’t have her number, and she didn’t have his.

“What about Katie? She was waiting for you last night and you never showed!” Jess made her point again.

“Okay. You’re right. First thing is Katie. I’ll call her back and apologize,” he agreed, because it was the right thing to do.

After three tries he finally got the girl on the phone long enough to explain and apologize. In the end, she laughed at the situation and even offered to help him find the real girl.

“Why didn’t she give you her number?” Zach asked while they ate breakfast.

“I thought I already had it.”

“Okay. Did she say where she lived?”

“No. She’s from Chicago.”

“Oh. Well, good. After we graduate we can go to Chicago and hunt down every Cate there. That shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“Please help me. She could be The One.”

“Reese, she was supposed to be a rebound. Cate or Katie, it didn’t matter. You were supposed to be getting in the saddle again and that’s it.”

“It didn’t work out that way. Please?” he begged. “This girl is different. I see everything that Lauren wasn’t when I’m with her. This is real.”

“Fine. What else do you know?” Zach gave in.

“She takes karate and ballet.”

“Are you sure you really met this girl?” He narrowed his eyes at him. “Maybe someone slipped you something?”

“She’s real.” He pointed to the note again.

“All right, we’ll start with the karate studios and ask if they know a Cate.”

After they struck out at the karate studios, they tried ballet. Then they moved on to the professors he had first semester, followed by begging enrollment for a list of potential Cates. He went back to the Flour Mill every chance he could, especially on Saturday evenings. No luck.

Finally, Katie suggested posters. Those got him a few crank calls but yielded no results before they were taken down or blew away during the remaining Ohio winter.

Everywhere he went, he scoured the faces around him, looking for her. But the campus was huge, and by spring break, he gave in to defeat.

“What am I going to do?” Reese thought by now he would have forgotten the light of her smile or the heat in her touch, but it was all still there as if it had happened the day before.

“You need to relax. If it’s meant to be, it will be,” Zach said.

“Don’t start with the philosophical bullshit.”

“Hey. It’s true.” He held out his hands.

Reese sat on a bench and hung his head as his classmates walked around him on their way to go do something meaningful.

“Do you know how many students are here?” Zach asked, his voice quiet.

“Ohio State is one of the largest campuses in the US.” Reese repeated what he’d learned from a brochure.

“Over fifty thousand students.”

“No. That can’t be right,” Reese mumbled while looking around at them.

“Dr. Olsen told me when I explained what we were doing. He teaches calculus. He told me your odds.” Reese glanced over at him. “They’re not good, buddy. Sorry.”

Reese nodded slowly.

“What you need to do is find another girl to help you get over—” Zach stopped when Reese glared at him. “Right.” Zach smacked his leg. “I need to get to work. Come with me. I’ll serve you until you pass out,” he offered.

“Thanks.”

Despite the plan, Reese left the bar early, having gotten tired of hoping she would walk into the bar every time the door opened.

She never did.

 

Chapter Four

“Do you believe in destiny?” Reese asked Zach a few weeks later.

“Yes. Of course I do,” he said.

“Do you think it’s possible that I’m not supposed to find her?”

“Is this about what I said regarding your odds? Forget I said that. You just need to be patient.”

“I’m done,” Reese said abruptly and stood to leave their apartment. He couldn’t stay there where he’d spent the most important night of his life. A night that was nothing more than a constant torture now.

“Done?”

“Yes. I’m giving up. And you’re going to let me because that’s what a good friend would do. It’s time to move on.”

“Fine. We’ll go to Chase’s party tonight. Maybe you’ll find someone to talk to.”

He agreed because he did want to move on. But instead of mingling, he found himself sitting on the stairs alone with a beer.

Baby steps, he told himself.

First, he would go to a party. Next time, he might talk to someone. Maybe in a month, he’d be dating again. Except in a month, he would be graduating.

He sighed and let his head fall back against the wall.

“There you are.” Reese recognized the voice and opened his eyes to see Lauren smiling down at him.

“Zach said you were here, but he didn’t know where.” She sat one step lower than his. “What have you been up to?” she asked with a smile as she wound her hair around her finger in that flirtatious way she did.

“Not much,” he finally answered after checking the stairs behind him to make sure she was talking to him. “How about you?”

“Honestly?” She raised her eyebrows and pouted. “I’ve been thinking about us.”

“You have?” He sounded as shocked as he felt.

“Yes. Sometimes I think we made a mistake when we broke up.” We? There was no we. There was her breaking up with him. He guessed it would have been petty to point that out, so he kept his mouth shut. “Are you seeing anyone?” she asked.

Again, he looked behind him. This time for the camera to let him in on the prank. No camera. She was for real.

“Uh… no,” he answered honestly.

“Good,” she said right before she leaned over and kissed him.

“Whoa. What was that?” He pulled back so hard he knocked his head into the wall.

“You’re not seeing anyone, and we both agree we made a mistake. We belong together, so why keep denying it?”

He knew he had valid answers to her question, but at the moment, all he could think about was how being with her would keep him from thinking about Cate. He only had a month left before he could turn his back on this place forever and walk away. He knew Lauren for what she truly was now.

She was manipulative and shallow—not to mention possibly delusional—but he wouldn’t be a victim. He was prepared this time. His heart refused to get involved, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t use her as a distraction. He knew he didn’t love her, but being with her would keep him from dwelling on his already demolished heart. He didn’t have anything to lose.

“I guess you’re right,” he said with a shrug.

And with that, he and Lauren were back together.

  • * *

Their new relationship was nothing like the old one. Instead of following her around like a besotted puppy, he regularly ignored her, which to his surprise seemed to make her like him more. It was unhealthy to the extreme, but he didn’t care enough to do anything about it.

That was how he found himself at the Sunflower Café staring down at brochures featuring engagement rings that cost nearly as much as his education.

“I like the idea of a halo, but I’m not sure if it will stay in style for the long term,” she said as he blinked at her. “What do you think?”

“I—I’m not sure what to think. Maybe…why?”

“The halo is supposed to direct the light to the main stone to make it sparkle more.”

He shook his head.

“No. I mean why would I care about a halo or an engagement ring?”

“We talked about this, Reese. Remember, I thought it would be cool if you proposed immediately after graduation. You said that would be fine. Besides, my parents will be here, and it will be the last time to see all our friends. They’ll want to see the ring.”

He opened his mouth to protest, but he was interrupted by her phone ringing.

“Hey, how are you?” She paused as she flipped the page to a bigger ring and pointed to it. “I’m just sitting here with my guy picking out rings.” She giggled. “I’m totally serious. Reese and I are going to take the plunge.”

“Plunge?” Reese swallowed loudly.

“Sure. I’m downtown right now. I can meet you over there in like five minutes. See you then.” She brushed a manicured finger across the screen and stood. “I have to go meet Sara. I really think I want the one with the halo.” She tapped the brochure and leaned over to kiss his cheek. “If it goes out of style, I’ll just trade it in on a new one. I’ll see you later. Stop by my apartment tonight.”

She winked and walked out the door as he watched her go.

He was in the process of gathering the brochures into a pile when the waitress stopped by.

“Can I get you anything else? Maybe something with a halo?” she said.

He didn’t need to look up to know who it was. Her voice was imprinted on his heart despite not having heard it for months.

“Cate?” he said, unsure. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d thought he’d seen her. It would, however, be the first time the delusion spoke back to him.

“Wow. You remember my name. I’m shocked.”

“Shocked? Are you kidding? I remember everything about you.”

“Except my phone number or how to use your phone?” She turned to go. She was walking away from him again. He couldn’t let that happen.

“Wait! Please. I need to explain.”

“Yeah. Well, I need to leave. My shift is over and I have better things to do than be lied to again.”

“I didn’t lie,” he nearly shouted. A few patrons looked over as she leaned down to look him in the eye.

“True or false? You told me it wasn’t going to be a one-night stand. You told me you would call me. Soon.”

“True. Very true.”

“But you lied.”

He held up his hands, knowing how it looked and what she must be thinking.

“Okay. That’s how it looks. But I’m begging you, even though I don’t deserve it, please, please just hear me out. Ten minutes of your time. I need to explain. I need you to know the truth.”

“Ten minutes and not a second more,” she agreed as she pulled the apron over her head and tossed it on the chair next to him. She sat across from him and folded her hands.

This was it. This was his chance. But he didn’t know what to say. He just stared at her, taking her in. She was exactly the way he’d remembered. Every detail. The diamond chip in her nose piercing caught the sunlight coming through the window.

“Tick tock, Reese.” She snapped her fingers to get his attention.

“Yes. It’s just…I can’t believe you’re actually sitting here in front of me. You have no idea how hard I was looking for you.”

Her brows creased. Of course, she didn’t understand.

 

Chapter Five

“My friend’s girlfriend set me up on a date with a Katie with a K. I met you, but I thought you were the girl I had been set up with. You must have a friend named Jess, but it’s not Zach’s Jess. It turns out I was in the wrong place.” He looked around the shop before he continued.

“In fact, I was actually supposed to meet her here. How messed up is that? You work here.” He shook his head. “Anyway, I thought I had your phone number. I thought I could call you. I did call, but I got the other girl.” He waved his hand. “Not important. But I want you to know that I didn’t use you. It’s important to me that when you think about me you don’t think I intended to lose you.”

“This is some story.”

“It is. I know how it sounds. I went crazy trying to find you. I plastered the campus with fliers. Didn’t you see them?”

She frowned. “My father had a heart attack. I was away for a few weeks after our date.”

“Is he okay?”

She nodded. “He’s attempting to eat better and exercise.” Then as if realizing she’d let her guard down, she turned serious and looked at her phone.

He was running out of time.

“What do you want from me, Reese?”

“I had an amazing time with you. I missed you. I know I’d only known you that one night, but for weeks—months, everything I did, I’d think of how much better it would have been if you’d been there. I swear I tried to find you. I don’t want you to think that I played you to get you into bed and just never called you.”

She tossed her hair over her shoulder and finally looked straight at him. His heart slammed against his chest and then seemed to freeze, waiting. Then she smiled. “For some reason, I believe you. Maybe because you didn’t seem creative enough to have come up with something like this.”

Reese’s head swam with relief. “I knew we’d had a class together. I knew you were from Chicago. I knew you had three older brothers, and that you took karate and ballet, but I didn’t know your last name or your phone number. What’s unbelievable about that?” he joked, and she laughed. “You never said anything when I just sat down and interrupted your reading that night.”

She shrugged and laughed again. “I told you. I thought you were cute. When a cute guy sits down at your table, you put the book away.”

God, how he loved to hear her laugh, and her smile warmed him just like he remembered.

“What are you doing after graduation?” he asked to hear her voice.

“I haven’t decided yet. I have a few job offers.”

“Are you seeing anyone?”

“Does it matter?” She picked up one of the brochures and flipped it open.

Of course, she would have heard Lauren talking about the plunge. Cate no doubt thought he was planning to marry Lauren.

“This is not what it looks like.” He sounded like an idiot inside his own head.

She let out a sigh and stood up.

“You were always so devoted.”

“It’s not like that.” His voice was urgent, desperate. She was leaving him again.

“Time’s up. I have to go. Have a great life, Reese. I was really angry with you before. I’m glad I got closure.”

“I think that night was the best of my life. Am I deluding myself? Did I make it into something it wasn’t?” he asked, causing her mouth to open in surprise.

She swallowed and looked at the floor. “I felt something,” she offered the little bit she could. He’d hurt her. He didn’t realize how badly until that second.

“I wish I would have found you sooner.” He looked down at the brochure in his hand.

“Me, too.” She smiled and then walked out of his life. Again.

  • * *

Reese marched into the stuffy auditorium wearing his black gown, the white tassel bobbing as he took his seat. Everyone settled in, ready to listen to the long-winded speeches and words of encouragement regarding their futures.

He already knew those words wouldn’t help him. He was a mess.

In a teary and dramatic scene immediately following the coffee shop incident, he broke it off with Lauren. He knew he couldn’t marry her as much as he knew he would never make her happy. He couldn’t even make himself happy.

Sitting there ready to receive a degree in chemistry was another disappointment. He didn’t want to work in a lab all day. He wanted to teach kids. He wanted to make a difference, and he wanted to do it back in Denver, where he could still hang out with his little brother.

He also wanted Cate.

While he was grateful he’d had the opportunity to explain, and knew she didn’t hate him, he found it didn’t release him from the yearning in his heart. Closure, she’d said. But whatever this was, closure obviously still eluded him.

He still missed her every bit as much as he had that morning when he realized he had no way to contact her.

As names were read, calling graduates up to receive the paper proof of their accomplishments, he tried to formulate a plan for his future. Something simple he could grasp on to. Some small spark of hope.

“Catelyn Elizabeth Smith.” The name caused him to straighten to attention as he watched his Cate walk across the stage. Catelyn?

There she was. Sitting in the third row in the second section.

He didn’t take his eyes off her the whole time the names were called. When his row stood, he jumped up and followed along. Checking to make sure she was still there every few steps.

As he walked up on stage and shook the dean’s hand when they said his name, something came over him. Some calm that somehow this was going to work out.

Moving on instinct rather than any kind of sense, he stepped off the stage and walked directly over to Cate. He reached for her hand, surprised when she took it.

Without a word, he maneuvered them through the sea of black polyester and out into the hall where the sudden quiet made his ears ring.

“What are you doing?” she asked with amusement on her face. She pointed back to the auditorium. “Who does that?”

“I do.”

“Why?”

“Because I need to know something.”

“What do you need to know?” She tilted her head and crossed her arms.

“I broke up with Lauren about ten minutes after I left the café.”

“Why would I need to know that?”

“I did it because I knew I couldn’t marry her. I wasn’t in love with her. I’m not going to say I’m in love with you because I don’t know you well enough yet. But I know I care about you a ton more than I ever cared about Lauren. That means something.”

“What are you suggesting we do about this?”

“I have this.” He held up the diploma. “I don’t want to work in a lab. I want to teach. Apparently, for now, I want to teach chemistry. But I can do that anywhere. Tell me where you’re going and I’ll go there too. You mean enough to me to follow you there and give this a shot. If you’re willing.”

“I don’t want an unhealthy relationship.”

“Good. Because I don’t do those anymore.”

“This is crazy,” she said. He could tell she was wavering.

“I know it doesn’t seem possible. We were only together that one night, months ago. Believe me, I’ve been trying since then to convince myself that it wasn’t possible. That I could forget you because I didn’t know you that well. But the truth is, I think of you every single day. The minute I wake up, I still hope it will be the day I find you. Give me a chance. Please? That’s all I’m asking.”

“This is crazy,” she repeated as if it was a chant against weakness.

“Yes. I can see why you’d think that.”

She walked in a small circle and pulled off her cap.

“Am I wrong?” he asked. “Was that not the best night ever? Do you think about it?” He wanted to know if this was all in vain.

She sighed and came to stand in front of him.

“I think about it every day. Even when it hurt me so bad I tried not to, I still remembered how great it had been.”

He took that as her answer and pulled her to his lips. She didn’t resist. She kissed him back and it was like that first night in the street. Chemistry and connection and hope for something great.

He released her and looked down into her eyes.

“Are we going to try this or not?” he asked. She smiled and he knew his life was about to change.

“Can I give you my phone number?” she asked. They laughed as he pulled the phone from his pocket and they exchanged numbers. That simple task would have saved both of them a lot of pain a few months ago.

“I took a job,” she told him.

“You did? That’s great. I’m so happy for you. Where is it?” It didn’t matter. He’d follow her to Antarctica.

She bit her bottom lip and let out a small sigh. “Denver.”

“You’re kidding,” he said. This was the best news.

“Honestly, it had nothing to do with you. The firm there gave me the best offer and the partners seemed very nice.”

“Where will you be working?”

“Alpine Accountants,” she said happily.

“You’re an accountant?” he choked.

“Yeah.”

“Working at Alpine?” He couldn’t believe this was happening.

“Yes. Why? What’s wrong?”

“My dad is a partner there,” he told her as he laughed hysterically.

“No way,” she said. “There was one of the partners I didn’t get the chance to meet. This is unbelievable, and a bit scary.”

They heard a loud cheer shake the room next to them. He glanced at his phone for the time. Soon people would be flooding the hall. His parents would be expecting him.

He took a deep breath.

“For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like I have to have everything figured out right this second. I mean, the most important thing is having someone who’s willing to help you figure it out, right?”

She nodded slowly. “So, let’s figure it out,” she suggested with a crooked smile.

He leaned down and kissed her again, still making sure she was really there.

“Where are you and your parents having dinner?” she asked with an easy smile as he linked his fingers through hers and moved them toward the exit.

“We were headed to Duncan’s. But maybe we should all go to the same place and make some introductions,” he suggested as a big smile crossed her face.

“And I was so sure I didn’t believe in destiny.”

“You’re meeting your parents at Duncan’s too?” he guessed and she nodded.

“Let’s not keep our destiny waiting another minute,” she said as they walked out of the building hand in hand.

Toward their destiny.

Together.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

About Allison B. Hanson

 

One very early morning, Allison B. Hanson woke up with a conversation going on in her head. Unable to go back to sleep, she went to the computer and began writing. Years later it still hasn’t stopped.

 

Her contemporary romances include paranormal, sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery suspense. She enjoys candy immensely, as well as long motorcycle rides and running.

 

Find Allison and her book:

 

Website www.allisonbhanson.com

Twitter : @AllisonBHanson

Facebook: Allison B. Hanson

 

Other books:

When Least Expected

Nick of Time

Never Let Go

 

Help Wanted – Coming September 2017!

 

Lost and Found

By Misty Simon

To my fellow one-sentencers—we rock and I adore you all.

[_ _]

 

Lost and Found

[_ _]

[_One sentence was all it took. _]“Please help me find Sigmund.”

Mike Emory stared at his computer screen, the mug of dismal coffee he’d made halfway to his mouth. As usual, he’d been checking in on social media to see what was going on in everyone else’s life. Avoiding, also as usual, anything that might include her. The break up had not been amicable at all and he was mostly to blame, but he hadn’t known what he was doing at the time.

And Elsie hadn’t let him apologize. But then again, he hadn’t deserved the chance.

So here he was, looking at updates and completely avoiding anything that would tell him where she’d gone last weekend, or who she was out with. What fun she was having. How happy she probably looked hiking and kayaking with their best friends. He was pathetic. But staying away from updates involving her was the only thing keeping him sane.

Taking another sip of his cold coffee that was not nearly as good as what he used to enjoy in their little cottage by the river, he continued to scroll until it was time to do something else. He had plans today. A walk down by the river that he now had to drive twenty minutes to enjoy. Maybe a better cup of coffee.

And then the post appeared with her name tagged in it, with the one sentence that changed everything. “Please help me find Sigmund.”

He was out the door without his coat and almost without his keys two seconds later. Fortunately, he remembered the keys a second before the door closed and locked behind him. Scrambling back through the kitchen, he grabbed them from the small bowl on the counter, snagged a hoodie off the back of the dinette chair and ran down the four flights of stairs to the street.

He nearly crashed into a lady carrying her grocery bags up from the first floor and forced himself to slow down. No one would be helped if he took someone out on the stairs or broke something in his own body. Calmer now, he walked around the corner to his car, trying hard to think about where a little dog would have gone and how on earth he had gotten away from Elsie.

Of course, maybe he should have checked all the details before he’d run out the door, but he wasn’t going back now. He was going to help Elsie.

Elsie, who never let the dog stray more than ten feet from her. Elsie, who refused to even get one of those retractable leashes, just in case it snapped. Elsie, who stood outside on the back porch, even in the pouring rain, to watch while Sigmund did his business. She loved that dog and must be devastated. Almost as devastated as he had been when they’d broken up, and he’d had to leave not just Elsie, but also Sigmund behind.

Formulating a plan wasn’t hard once he shut down everything but finding the little Cocker Spaniel and Bichon Frise mix. All the places Sigmund liked to pee best ran through his mind. They’d taken him on at least one walk a day. There were plenty of places he could be. And if he found him, then at least he could see him one more time and say a real goodbye.

First stop, Memorial Park.

  • * *

Tromping through the woods was not one of the pleasures in life for Elsie Hews, especially not when she felt sick in her gut that her dog was gone.

“Sigmund!” she called, darting her eyes left and right and hoping she didn’t miss him or some telltale sign that the little dog had been there.

She’d started walking the immediate neighborhood, places she’d taken the dog around every day, but hadn’t seen him. Neither had anyone else.

Sigmund had been gone for over thirty hours at this point, and it felt like an eternity. She missed her baby boy.

He was her best bud, the one who listened to her without judging, and her companion. It was killing her that the little guy was out here somewhere when he’d never been outside the fence without a leash.

“Sigmund!” With a leash in her pocket and some treats, she called his name as she walked through the wooded park on the edge of the river. She’d give the damned dog the whole bag if he’d come home, even though it was against the vet’s rules because Sigmund had gotten a little paunchy.

She didn’t know what had come over the dog yesterday. She’d just let him out to go to the bathroom when the phone rang. She’d taken her eyes off the yard for one minute to answer, and Sigmund had bolted through some hole in the fence Elsie hadn’t even known was there.

Rubbing her gritty eyes, she kept going through the park by the river. She hadn’t slept much last night, and when she had, it was a light doze on the couch, hoping she’d hear barking at the back door.

“Sigmund!”

And then she heard it echoed back to her. Probably a hundred yards away, she heard someone else calling her dog’s name.

And the voice was familiar, one she hadn’t heard in two months, three days and four hours. Not that she was counting.

The urge to flee was strong, really strong. Or at least to hide. Where on earth was he, and why was he out this way?

Her mouth went dry while her palms grew slick with sweat. She almost dropped the leash and the treats but clenched her fists at the last minute so as not to lose everything, including her sanity.

She could do this. She could face the man who had walked out on her in the very early morning two months, three days and four hours ago. And she could do it with dignity. As long as she didn’t spew all over his shoes.

  • * *

He’d heard rustling in the trees to his left a moment ago, but now it was dead silent. If he hadn’t heard Elsie calling for Sigmund not two seconds ago, he would have thought he was all alone out here in the small spot of wilderness on the edge of the river. But he’d heard her. She must have heard him, too, and now it was either play cat and mouse or announce himself and state his business.

“Elsie, I’m here to help you find Sigmund.” He stood right where he was and let her come to him if she wanted to. He didn’t chase her, because if he had to liken his ex-girlfriend to anything, it was most often a twitchy bird, flighty and flying all over the place. The more you chased, the more she avoided being caught. He’d at least learned that since they’d broken up. No chasing.

But he also felt like an idiot for standing in the middle of the trees like a statue, afraid to move in case she bolted.

“Elsie, it’s obvious you’re here. I just heard you call for the dog. I really am only here to help you find him.”

He hadn’t heard any rustling of leaves or fanned branches, and yet she emerged from a spot to his right. For one moment they smiled at each other. He remembered the feel of her soft brown hair when she’d put it in a bun exactly like the messy one she sported now. She’d tuck in under his chin and the fine hairs would tickle his throat.

Clearing that throat now did not make the image go away, but he’d better figure out some way to hold his tongue about missing her, or she’d send him on his way.

“Why are you here?” she asked, her brows pulled down and her mouth along with them in a frown. She crossed her arms over her chest and tapped one sneaker on the ground.

“I told you.” He shrugged. “I’m here to help you find Sigmund. Maybe he’ll come out of hiding for me.”

“And then you’ll just fix everything like you always do. Right?” The tapping grew more erratic. He was afraid her shoe might fly off at any minute.

Holding his hands up, because it was the only thing he could think to do that might not offend her, he took a step back. “No, I just want to help.”

“Superman, always here to save the day. Like I can’t find my dog on my own.”

She’d lost him on her own, but he didn’t say that because that would be the absolute end of this very familiar conversation.

“I’m sure you can find him on your own, but what’s wrong with some help?”

She grumbled something he didn’t hear and stayed about a hundred feet away. Her arms tightened across her chest, and he drew in a breath when he saw she carried the leash he’d bought Sigmund for Christmas.

“Well?”

“Fine. But how did you even know he was gone?” She squinted her eyes at him. He was not going to lie because it only ever made things worse. He knew this from experience.

“I saw it on the computer.”

Those hands went from crossed to firmly planted on her hips. “Are you cyber stalking me?”

“God, no!” He dragged a hand down his face. He should just offer to go to another area and tell her where he’d be so they didn’t cross paths again. It would be an easy enough thing for them to send brief text messages about their whereabouts to guarantee they wouldn’t see each other. But first, he had to answer her question. “James shared your post on the web, and I ran out the door as soon as I did. Sigmund out here alone is not a good thing.”

“You think I don’t know that?” she demanded, and he knew the conversation was over. It probably had been from the moment she laid eyes on him.

“Look, I’m going to head over to Crantz Landing.” The small neighborhood park was another place they’d often walked Sigmund. “If I find him I can drop him off at your mom’s house and she can let you know he’s no longer lost. See ya.” He turned around and headed back to his car. He wasn’t sure if he wanted her to shout out his name and tell him to stop, or if he was happy that she just let him go. Either way, it didn’t matter because he was going to find Sigmund and give him back to Elsie. It might not change anything, but at least he’d feel better knowing the little guy was back where he belonged—even if Mike couldn’t join him.

  • * *

She was a bitch. It really didn’t get any simpler than that. She didn’t know whether to cry or laugh hysterically. The one time she would willingly be saved by her knight in shiny armor and she’d chased him away. She really was not the smartest cookie in the box.

Half of her wanted to yell at him to stop and come back, but the other, stronger, part watched him walk away. His broad shoulders were hunched and his hands shoved into the pockets of his shorts as he trudged back to the SUV they used to travel around town in, looking at sights in the night and getting lost on purpose just so they could explore as they found their way back home.

When he got in his car, she pulled out her cell phone. Her fingers hovered over the screen. Should she text him to let him know what her next stop would be? Ask him if he needed a leash or something familiar from her house to see if they could get the dog to come out from hiding?

The answer to those questions was a resounding no, so she kept on calling out for Sigmund and feeling like she’d never see her precious dog again.

Finally, she had combed every inch of the small patch of woods from north to south and east to west. Sigmund was not here. But it was hard for her to leave because this was the closest place to home, and she’d been told most dogs were found within three miles of their homes.

But he’d been gone for almost two days now, and she had to consider the possibility that he might have gone a little farther astray.

Hopping back into her car she went past Crantz Landing, where she saw Mike’s car, and drove a little farther to a dog park about a block from the water. She knew, eventually, she might actually have to go down to the water, but she couldn’t face the possibility that her little dog, who, despite his breed, had never managed to learn to swim, might have fallen in.

“Sigmund!” she called as she got out of her car. The leash in her hand felt sweaty and the sun was climbing in the sky. She paused at the edge of the car to spray herself with sunscreen. Mike had always told her she made an adorable lobster when she burned, but that it was bad for her skin. She, of course, had known that. It wasn’t until he routinely asked her if she’d put sunscreen on that she’d started making sure to have it in the car so she could answer yes instead of feeling like a small child whose mommy had to remind them about these kinds of adult things.

“Sigmund!”

“He ought to come running with a voice that big.” The jogger was in his mid-fifties and bouncing back and forth on the balls of his feet.

She tried to conjure up a smile because it was the right thing to do, but she just couldn’t do it. “Thanks. If you see a little cream-colored dog running around with a purple collar, he’s mine.” And now she wished she’d made the time to put together a flyer. But she’d expected to find him way before now and any time on the computer to design a flyer would have been time way from her search.

“Will do, young lady. Good luck finding him.” With a wave, he jogged off down the road.

Truthfully at this point, she wanted to run away, too. Her dog was lost, things were not going well at work, and just seeing Mike had made every single cell in her body stand at attention. It wasn’t fair, but that was life sometimes.

Trekking along the dog park, she talked to every person she could find, telling them about her dog and asking that they take him to the local police station if they found him. She might not have had the forethought to make flyers, but she sure wasn’t going to give out her number to every person she met.

Eventually, she moved back to her car and sat on the side of the driver’s seat with the door open. Mike was covering the other park, and she really didn’t know where else to go. She’d already been around her neighborhood a bunch of times, as well as to the police and called the local animal shelters. She was out of ideas. He’d been gone for thirty-six hours now and every minute probably had him farther and farther away.

Tears leaked out of her eyes but she swiped them away quickly. No, she was stronger than that. She would find him and they would go back home and she would never let him out again, even if it was just to pee. She’d make him do his business on those doggy potty pads even though the one time she’d tried that when it was raining outside, he’d ripped the thing to shreds.

More tears came to her eyes, and these weren’t as easy to wipe away. What was a trickle became a flood, and then the sobbing started and it was all over. Swinging her legs into the car, she slammed the door and rested her head on the steering wheel. Sigmund was her best friend, her confidant, her buddy, and he’d run away.

Had he run away from her? No, that was stupid. He loved her. But he was out there somewhere, and she didn’t know where. And honestly, she was about to lose her freaking mind with worry.

A knock on her window had her jerking her head up to see who it was. Of course, Mike stood there. Great, right when she looked like Niagara Falls and probably as hideous as a hooker after an all-nighter, he was standing there to witness it all. How come he always seemed to see her at her worst?

Well, what else was new?

She rolled down her window, not wanting to open the door. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“He’s not here.” Another tear leaked out of her eye and she sniffled. What was the difference anymore? Everyone who had ever loved her by word or deed was now out of her life, and it just didn’t matter anymore.

“Do you want to go get a cup of coffee or something? You look like you’ve been up since he ran away.”

No, she did not want a cup of coffee. And why did he always have to be so solicitous? Always looking out for her? Trying to anticipate her every need or want before she even thought about it? Because now that he’d said coffee, she was desperate for a cup.

“I’ll buy,” he added.

“I can buy my own damn coffee, thank you very much. Stop trying to take care of me. I’m a big girl, and I don’t need you hovering like I’m some little pipsqueak who can’t take care of herself!” This, of course, had reached yelling proportions by the time she’d finished that last word. And to her horror she started crying again.

Despite her yelling at him, he didn’t seem to hear a word she said. He opened the door and had her in his arms before she could protest. But would she really have protested? Because if she were going to be totally honest, and right now felt like a real honest kind of moment, it felt very good to be held.

By him.

  • * *

Elsie was back in his arms. Mike knew she probably didn’t want to be there, and knew he was probably going to get yelled at again in a minute, but how was he supposed to leave her alone when she was bawling her eyes out? Maybe there were other guys, less “overbearing” by her definition, who would have heard the yelling he just heard and walk away. But he’d been raised in a house where that was not the way things were done.

“It’s going to be okay,” he murmured into her soft hair. “We’ll find him, and it’s going to be okay.”

“How do you know that?” she sobbed into his t-shirt.

“Because you are way too tenacious and stubborn to let him be gone for too long. He knows how much he’s loved and won’t be able to stay away from that forever. I promise.”

“You think I’m tenacious and stubborn?” she asked with an edge of wonder in her voice.

“Absolutely.”

“No way.”

“Uh, yes, way?” Why on earth were they having this conversation now when they should be out looking for her dog?

“You never said so.”

“Of course I did.”

“No, you did not.” She stepped out of his arms and went back to her angry stance of standing with her own arms crossed against her chest. What put her so on the defensive with him? All he’d ever done was try to treat her like he thought his mom should have been treated by his alcoholic father, and instead she’d made it sound like he thought little of her and cared nothing for her at the end.

“Yes, I did. Maybe not in those words, but I always thought you were strong and independent and tenacious. Look at the promotion you got after only six months on the job. Look at the way you went after the guy who wanted you to rent to own instead of just letting you buy outright? You had that totally under control and convinced him that you would walk away if he didn’t do what you wanted.”

“But you helped.”

“I was just the backup muscle with the house thing. It was all you with that promotion. And the way you always had the best organization and knew right where everything was….”

“But that drove you crazy.”

He cleared his throat. They had more important things to do, and he was pretty sure that no matter how much conversation they had, this was not going to make things any better. He should just go and find the dog then let her go. If Elsie really thought so little of him then maybe they just weren’t right for each other no matter what he thought.

“Sigmund is still out there. We’d better get back to it. Do you want to go through the streets around your house and start knocking on doors? I can take one street down while you take the one up if you want, that way we don’t have to run into each other. I’ll just drop him off in the backyard if I find him.”

There was that squinty eyes thing again. He didn’t know what to make of it.

“You really think I’m tenacious?”

How many times and ways did he have to explain it to her? “I think you need to use that tenacity to find Sigmund instead of grilling me about something that you no longer wanted.” Then he walked away, because really, he did not want to rehash why they’d broken up when it wasn’t going to bring them any closer together. He’d been trying to make peace with this whole thing for months. Helping her this one last time would hopefully clear him of any lingering need to be near her.

“I’ll go to the local shelters,” he said with a wave over his shoulder and no looking back.

The first shelter held no dog that even looked like Sigmund. It was all he could do not to walk out with every single one of them on a leash and with their own beds. Some were bedraggled, some too scared to do more than sit in the corner and shiver. Maybe he’d have to get some of the guys on the force to check this place out. He wasn’t on that kind of patrol, but honestly, if the animals were being mistreated then he wanted this place looked into.

The next place was cleaner, brighter, but still no Sigmund. He found a picture of the little dog on his phone and showed it to the woman at the shelter so that she’d have a reference if he was brought in. She nodded but also recommended that he go and make some flyers.

He was at a copy center three minutes later and ran two hundred flyers with Sigmund’s face plus info on it. He was going to put his phone number on the flyer because he didn’t want Elsie’s out there for anyone to call at any time, but in the end decided to put no phone number and just tell anyone to take him to the police.

He got plastic page protectors and set them up with string to tie around the telephone polls since you weren’t allowed to staple anything on. And then he set out, giving ten to fifteen to each of the men in his department and tying them to any pole in town he could find. If they didn’t find Sigmund, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

  • * *

Elsie went to the next park and the next and the next and canvassed the streets around her house and knocked on doors and anything else she could think of. She didn’t want to take the time to stop and make flyers because she kept thinking that the next place or the next was going to be the one where she found him.

Yet it never was. Her heart was breaking.

And then she went down the next street and started seeing flyers, a ton of flyers on every surface available, people out walking their dogs with the flyers in their hands. She stopped one of her neighbors at the corner of her street.

“Mildred, where’d you get that?” Elsie bent down to pet Mouser, the tiny poodle who wiggled its butt and shook its dyed pink head.

“That lovely Mike is out passing them around and asking everyone to get out to find Sigmund. I’m so sorry, hon. I didn’t even know he was gone or I would have been out yesterday. He and Mouser sniff each other through the fence all the time. I bet we could have helped when the trail was new.”

Elsie was aware that the woman was not trying to chastise her, but it still punched her in the gut.

“I wish you’d ask for help more often. Especially now that Mike isn’t around. If you need something, I’m never too busy for you to come to me or George.”

Tears threatened, and Elsie shut them down. She was tired of crying and tired of feeling like she was doing the wrong thing all the time.

“I’ve got everything under control. But thanks. If there was a trail it probably got washed away after last night’s rain.”

Mildred just kept a beady eye on her, her mouth thinning. “And somehow you need to get rid of that chip on your shoulder. When someone offers to help, dear, it’s not because we don’t think you can do it yourself, it’s because we care about you and want to make it easier if we can. It doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you’re strong and can use even more strength.”

Mike hadn’t said those words exactly, but he’d said something similar before she’d told him to get the hell out of her house.

“Do you really think I try to do too much on my own?” Why was she feeling psychoanalyzed today? First Mike and now her neighbor. She was doing just fine on her own and did not need anyone’s approval. Yet hearing Mike tell her he thought she was tenacious had made her heart the lightest it had been in ages.

“I know you do. Listen, sweetie, sometimes it takes a village to survive, not just for raising a child, but for raising each other up. I think the flyers look great, and I’m sure we’ll find Sigmund. Now, I’m going to take Mouser to a couple of places I’ve found him hiding before and see if we can’t flush out your little darling. He’s probably scared witless since you never let him out of your sight and he doesn’t know what to do.”

With that, she strolled off, led by her tiny pink poodle. And Elsie was left to think. Did she try too hard to be too independent? What was the harm in others helping her? Had she pushed Mike away?

She knew the answer to that last one was yes as she continued down the street and waved to a guy in a patrol car with the picture of Sigmund taped to his window.

She remembered the picture.

She and Mike had been sitting on the back porch as the sun sank behind the trees. Mike had snapped the picture as Sigmund had brought the ball up to the porch for the trillionth time and Mike threw it for him again and again, only until he ended up panting fiercely. And then Mike had told Sigmund to lie down and take a rest. The dog had, and for some reason Elsie had felt like Mike was always in charge and that there wasn’t room for two people like that in a relationship. What should have been taken as a thoughtful gesture from a man who loved her dog had turned into an argument with her telling Mike she could take care of herself and her dog, and if Sigmund wanted to run himself ragged he damned well could.

And then she’d told Mike to get out of the house if he didn’t understand how demeaning it was to never have the person you loved think you were good enough.

Shocked and stunned, he’d done as she’d asked. And then she’d cried for hours on her bed with Sigmund curled in her arms and crying with her.

But he’d left. He hadn’t stuck around. He’d left and not tried to come back to her. And she hadn’t known how to ask him back. Then her dog had left and her life was shit. Damn, here were the tears again.

Just then Mike pulled up at the curb and jumped out with a huge smile on his face.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Then why are you smiling when my dog is missing?”

“I’m smiling because I think I might have a lead. I wanted to come pick you up instead of going to see for myself if it’s Sigmund without you.”

And yet again he was saving the day. Why was that such a problem for her? She made a concentrated effort not to get her dander up and instead jumped into his car.

“Who? What? When?”

“It a shelter over on the other side of town. They think they have him. He’s not chipped, is he?”

“No, I never got him microchipped,” she said defensively. It was a question many people had asked recently. It had never occurred to her that he would run away, and so she hadn’t taken that precaution. He had tags, too, though those were at home since the jingling bothered him. When she got him back, though, she was going to microchip him, put the tags on and maybe even have a cell phone attached to his collar so that she could pull up GPS on him at any time, even if he was standing two feet away from her in the backyard.

“Okay, they couldn’t get a scan so they called the police in case he was lost.”

His hand came off the gear shift and hovered a short distance from where her own hand was clenching her thigh. She wanted him to touch her. To let her know it was going to be okay, and to hell with her mother’s teachings that a woman had to be completely independent and stand on her own two feet at all times. She wanted comfort and love and shared burdens, and instead she’d kicked him out because she had been afraid he thought she was too needy.

He pulled his hand back after giving her a brief glance out of the corner of his eye.

Silently, she released a breath. An opportunity gone. Or was it?

Reaching over, she took his hand and cradled it between both of hers. His arm stiffened for a second and then he glanced over at her with a smile, the one that had captured her that first night she had been at a friend’s backyard barbecue to celebrate the fourth of July.

“Is it really going to be okay, Mike?” she asked in a voice she couldn’t make more than a whisper.

“Yes, I promise. I won’t stop looking until we find him. I know how important he is to you. No matter what has happened between us, I still want you to be happy. Sigmund makes you happy.”

So had Mike when she hadn’t been so intent on pushing him away.

“I miss him. I miss him sleeping with me at night. I miss him kissing me goodbye in the morning. I miss him cuddling me. I miss him trying to steal the food off my plate. I miss him resting his head on my lap. I miss him snuggling with me on the couch. I miss coming home to him at the end of a long week. I miss walking with him and playing with him. I miss his smile. I miss the way he made me feel when I wasn’t being a pain in the ass, actually even when I was being a pain in the ass.”

There was a brief pause while she looked down at their intertwined hands.

“Are we still talking about the dog?” he asked in the quiet of the car. They’d stopped at a four-way stop in the middle of the country. No one was behind them and no one was around them.

She felt his eyes on her as he squeezed her hand. Dare she tell him the truth or should she just take his assistance, thank him, and let the past stay in the past? She missed him, yes, but there were parts of their relationship that hadn’t worked. She couldn’t completely forget those just because her life was falling apart.

But when she looked up and met those beautiful eyes, she couldn’t lie to protect herself anymore.

“Not entirely.”

Slowly, probably trying to give her room to back away if she wanted to, Mike leaned forward over the center console and hesitated a breath from her lips. He gave her time and he gave her the choice if she wanted him to kiss her on the lips or the cheek. It would be a simple turn of her head and he would just land his lips there on her cheek. She’d feel better, sure, but not as good as she could if she went the whole way and kissed him.

In the end, it wasn’t really a decision so much as it was a compulsion. She closed the gap, pressing her lips to his. There was no tongue play, nothing more than just their lips pressed together with her eyes closed and his hand clasped in hers.

She felt the pressure of his other hand kneading her tense neck and broke the kiss to rest her forehead against his. Her insides were a riot of rejoicing and regret and possibilities.

“Let’s go find your dog,” he said softly, the fresh mint of his breath at once familiar and sweet.

“Okay.”

  • * *

God, he had never hoped for anything so hard as he hoped that this shelter had Sigmund. If they didn’t, he would keep looking endlessly. He’d promised and he meant it. But if he could see Elsie smile again, it would make his day and make some headway to them finding each other again.

He had to downshift to turn into the parking lot, but he was reluctant to remove his hand from the warm cocoon of her grasp. He waited until the last minute, applying the brakes and downshifting, ready to put his hand back in hers. But she’d tucked her arms around herself again, clasping her sides as if that alone would hold her together.

Please let Sigmund be here.

Barking started as soon as they exited the car. Puppies and larger dogs ran back and forth along the chain-link fence situated behind the shelter building. From what he could tell, it was an old house converted into a business. Where they kept all the dogs was something he wondered about, but right now, they were all out in what he thought was probably called the exercise yard. As a patrol officer, he’d never been here, since they took any strays they found directly to the pound unless they knew someone was looking for a specific dog. Those door-knockings were some of the most satisfying in his life. Even the ones at two a.m. with the dog owner stumbling out the front door without a bra on, not caring what she looked like as long as she could get to her dog.

He wanted this to be that call for Elsie so that the tear tracks could be washed away totally, and maybe they could take a chance on each other again.

None of the dogs currently running around the backyard were Sigmund. He looked over each of them and found a few similar little dogs, several the same color, but none of them had the face that he used to wake up to just before the dog licked his eyebrow.

Elsie’s shoulders slumped. “He’s not here.”

Putting his arm around her shoulders, he was thankful she didn’t shrug him off. That kiss in the car could have just been a kiss of loneliness, and he wasn’t going to read more into it until this crisis passed. “You don’t know that. He could be inside right now getting a bath or something to get him cleaned up for you.”

“Do you really think so?”

He shouldn’t give her false hope but couldn’t help himself when faced with that smile.

“I really think it’s possible. Let’s go see who they think they have. And if it’s not him then we’ll keep on looking. I have the whole police force out.”

“I saw.” She reached up and clasped the hand that was draped over her shoulder. “Thank you. I know that’s not standard protocol and I appreciate it.”

He wanted to say “anything for you” but didn’t want to go too far before he knew where they stood. Instead he said, “It’s a slow crime day today and most of them need the street-beating exercise.”

She gave a little breathy laugh, not the full-out one that had drawn him when they first met, but a quieter, smaller version that gave him some hope.

He knocked on the front door, keeping his arm around Elsie’s shoulders. If she wasn’t making him remove it, he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to touch her again.

“Hello and welcome,” a short blonde woman said as she pulled open the door. “You must be Elsie and Mike.”

He’d always loved the way their names had flowed like that.

“Yes,” Elsie said, tears in her voice. “Do you have my dog?”

“Well, as I explained to Officer Mike, we think it might be him. He was in pretty rough shape when we found him so I had him bathed. He should be down in a minute. Why don’t the two of you have a seat in the living room and I’ll check on his progress?”

“Okay,” Elsie said, still a little bit watery as they sat down together in the living room done in tan and green with some blue thrown in.

“It’s going to be okay.” He led her to a couch. “Hopefully, this is him and you can take him home and never let him pee outside again. You can get those pee pad things and just let him do his business in the house to make sure he never gets out of your sight.”

She chuckled, which he considered a good sign. “I thought about it but that might be going a little too far.”

“It is an option though, you know, just in case.”

She squeezed his fingers again and made his breath catch a little. That had always been their silent communication thing. Some people looked at each other or ran a hand down their significant other’s arm and patted each other on the butt. He’d seen a lot of his friends and their spouses interact in different ways, but he and Elsie had always squeezed hands. He’d missed that and so many other things by being an idiot.

They heard toenails on the wood floors and then there was Sigmund, making a run for them.

Before either of them could stand, he had jumped up on the couch with half of his body on Mike’s leg and the other half on Elsie’s leg. He kept looking back and forth between them and panting. Mike would swear the little scruffy dog had a huge smile on his face.

The woman who had greeted them leaned against the door frame. “I’m going to assume that’s Sigmund.”

Elsie looked up and he watched a tear track down her cheek. “Yes, it is. Thank you so much!”

“Well, it looks like he’s happy to be back with both of his parents. We’re happy to help reunite anyone with a dog who acts more like your child.” She smiled, and Mike held in a breath. Sigmund was like his child, and he’d missed him much more than he’d let himself think about until his little buddy was back on his lap. The dog started licking his face and then Elsie’s face and then his face again.

“Thank you so much. I’ll make sure to mail you a donation this week,” he said.

“Well, while you don’t have to do that I certainly won’t turn it down.” She stepped forward and petted Sigmund. “He’s a good little dog. I hope he knows how good he has it with you two.”

Another gouge in the heart, but this one, he simply stood and took. He hadn’t known how good he had it with those two, either, or he would have never walked away. And now he was going to have to walk away again. Sigmund was found and Elsie could go back to her life with her dog and her house by the river. Mike could go back to the apartment where he hadn’t even unpacked everything from the boxes yet.

“I’ll drive you back to your car.” He left Elsie with Sigmund and went to pull the car around.

  • * *

So it was go time. She had Sigmund, who would not stop licking her, and things were right in her world again. Or were they? Because when Sigmund had jumped up between them and went back and forth with looking at them and kissing them, she realized how much Sigmund had probably missed Mike, too. It was like having a kid.

She and Mike had lived together for over a year. Sigmund was used to sharing that bed with Mike, too, and eating things off his plate and snuggling in. While earlier she had started out talking about the dog, she really had gone on to talk about all the things she missed with Mike.

And he appeared to miss them, too.

But could they work it out? How would she let go of her fear of not being independent if he couldn’t let go of always trying to help?

Mike was there with the door open, waiting for her to get into the car with Sigmund in her arms.

She took a moment to look at him while she thought of all the little gestures he’d done every day to tell her he loved her. He might not have said it often and, yes, sometimes he was gruff or angry when he came home from a particularly trying day. But he’d never really taken it out on her. She’d mistaken that for not sharing with her. Maybe it was protecting her and maybe she should be thankful she was protected.

Leaning forward, she kissed Mike full on the mouth with Sigmund barking and wiggling between them.

“Let’s go home. You can get your things out of your apartment later if you want, but right now I just want my whole family home where we all belong.”

The details weren’t significant if they could make the compromise. And Elsie was ready to meet him halfway.

Mike squeezed her a little tighter. She looked up to find emotions swirling in his eyes.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “I’ve been so miserable without you. Wondering what went wrong. I wanted to fight for us but that was at war with respecting your wishes when you told me to leave. I don’t want a relationship like my parents. I’ve tried so hard to not to have one and then I lost you by not stepping up.” He stroked the side of her face and she snuggled into him.

“I’m sure. I have my own baggage. I’ve been trying so hard to live the way my mom taught me. To never lean on anyone. To be an independent woman. But with you, I can be independent and still share the burden. I get that now.”

He kissed her with Sigmund wriggling in her arms.

“We’re good together. We’ll be better this time.” His smile brightened the already awesome day.

“Absolutely.” Stepping back just a little, she remained in his arms but not flush against him. “Of course, I’m probably going to resist the help every now and again. And you’re going to try too hard to respect my wishes. We’ll clash, but as long as we work at it, we’ll be awesome.”

“I love you, Elsie.” He pulled her in tighter again, and she let him.

“I love you, too, Mike. That’s one thing that was never truly lost.”

Snuggling into him, with Sigmund in her arms, she found that perfect spot under his chin where she felt safe and loved and knew this was the true beginning of them finding their forever.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

About Misty Simon

 

Misty Simon loves a good story and decided one day that she would try her hand at it. Eventually she got it right. There’s nothing better in the world than making someone laugh, and she hopes everyone at least snickers in the right places when reading her books. She lives with her husband, daughter, and three insane dogs in Central Pennsylvania where she is hard at work on her next novel or three. She loves to hear from readers so drop her a line at [email protected]

 

Visit www.mistysimon.com for her other books and to sign up for her newsletter. Or find her on Facebook to join in the fun!

 

Frozen Dreams

By Victoria Smith

_To my anthology sisters. Thank you for sticking by me through more than this anthology. _

[_ _]

 

Frozen Dreams

One sentence was all it took. “Get someplace safe, as soon as you can.”

Jane hit the brakes with steady pressure as she maneuvered around a truck spun sideways in the road. The highway was a mess of vehicles caught up in the freak winter storm. In August. On the East coast.

That was two days ago, and Jane still wasn’t safe. She’d left her parents’ house right after first light on Tuesday, heading toward her grandmother’s in North Carolina. They could have survived just fine at her folks’ house, but her gram being alone and the fact that holing up at Gram’s had always been their disaster plan had her moving out. Getting there from South-Central Pennsylvania was going to be a chore, but she’d at least be with her family. And just a few doors away from her husband, Adam.

She didn’t have time to think about him right now as she squinted against the glare of the sun against the snow. The temperature was now above freezing, which made travel easier, but abandoned cars and snow piles were stacked up everywhere. Picking up her cell and thumbing on the screen, she tossed it back onto the seat. She’d lost signal somewhere during the night at the flower shop. Power outages were widespread, a lot of it due to cars being driven into poles as well as the heavy ice.

The storm hit two and a half days ago, with no warning. The forecast had been clear with heat and sunshine. Heavy rains started it off. Within a day, the temperatures had dropped into the twenties and turned the flood waters into a massive skating rink before the skies opened up again and dumped over three feet of snow in twelve hours. Meteorologists couldn’t explain the phenomenon, but warned the bad weather probably wasn’t over. The whole thing wasn’t something anyone expected or planned for in the middle of August, but here they were.

The radio crackled to life as the broadcaster’s voice boomed from the speakers.

“If there’s anyone out there, listen to me. Everything is crazy and there’s not much we can do about it since these storms started. Grab as many supplies as you can and find a place to hunker down. Temperatures are in the mid-fifties now, but there’s a mean, cold wind blowing in. The current forecast models show temperatures consistently dropping and there’s no telling how low they will go. If you’re traveling, get to where you’re going. Don’t stop. Be safe. Be smart.”

Jane turned the radio down, hitting the gas as hard as was safe. She’d finally gotten to her parents’ house after getting stuck overnight at the flower shop—a job she’d taken to fill her time while she decided what to do about her marriage. She’d known her family would be gone—known they’d followed the emergency plans the whole family had been practicing all of Jane’s life. Her husband, Adam, had been included in the drills, and added some of his own, since before they’d married. Hell, Adam was in league with her dad when it came to preparing for a worst-case scenario.

She took a deep breath as she drove around a motorcycle on its side in the middle of the road. She missed Adam so much, her heart hurt. They’d had a great marriage, but things had gotten tense after their second miscarriage. She’d walked away after the third, not wanting to see the disappointment in his face when she told him there was no way they would ever have a child of their own. Adam wanted children so badly. All he wanted was a baseball team to call his own. She was never going to be able to give him even a ballerina.

Cursing, she down-shifted into second. A tractor trailer took up most of the road. She had to get on the berm to pass. She still loved Adam with everything she had, and he deserved more than what she could give. All he ever talked about was a houseful of children. He even had plans for an addition when the time came. She was broken and so weary by her decision to walk away rather than disappoint him with her failure, but she could see no way to take it back right now. She hadn’t even spoken to him before leaving. She’d just packed up her Jeep and left while he was at work. That wasn’t fair, and she sucked for doing it.

As she finally got past the truck, she sighed. She had her work cut out for her finding a way around the abandoned cars and debris on the highway. It was a huge cluster with no way to tell what had happened and where the people had disappeared to.

She stopped, pulling the emergency brake on as she opened her door. Frigid air mixed with the warmth and they both blasted her in the face as she zipped her coat. She needed to get the hell out of here as soon as possible.

Surveying the chaos ahead of her, she caught sight of legs sticking out from under a boxy-looking, light-blue SUV. Her stomach heaved. The legs were pure white, contrasting against the tan shorts it—he—wore. Definitely masculine calves, but that didn’t really mean much. Still. Whoever they were, there was no doubt they were dead.

Jane took a step toward the body just to make sure, but stopped as the sound of a vehicle in the distance caught her ear. She hurried back into the Jeep and started the engine. Or at least tried. The engine didn’t want to turn over. It happened sometimes. She took a deep breath as she cycled the ignition switch a few times, the rumble of the engine behind her growing louder.

As ridiculous as it seemed, she didn’t want to come face to face with any other travelers. Mainly, she didn’t want to have to explain where she was going and potentially endanger her family at Gram’s. She’d seen fights, arson, theft, and lots of screaming in the streets as she attempted to get out of the city. The only thing that had helped her get out without passengers and less gear was the Smith and Wesson on the seat beside her.

Finally, the Jeep started. The vehicle was closer now and louder. She backed between the box truck and the semi at the front of the mess, leaving the engine running. Chances were whoever approached wouldn’t be able to see her exhaust or hear her engine over the noise-ordinance-breaking of their own vehicle. Jane ducked down as the monster truck passed by. It slowed a little right in front of where she was parked, but she couldn’t tell if they’d noticed her.

Seconds passed like hours, but eventually the truck moved on. Jane jumped out and peeked around the corner of the truck, seeing a flash of red paint and a plume of black smoke ahead. Since the massive truck had created its own path, she now had a way to get through the congested highway. Nice, but way too much stress.

Buckling her seat belt, she pulled out, driving faster than since she started. She slowed when the route she needed to take appeared on the right. It was piled high with more snow than the highway. She went past the intersection and turned into an abandoned convenience store.

It was clear that the big truck had gone straight on the highway. There was a small strip of what might have been a grass barrier in the center of the road she needed to turn onto without much snow and there were no cars surrounding it. She could get through there.

Apparently, there were no snow plows available in this town either. The last thing she’d heard was that most of the snow plows were in the shop for maintenance since it was August. Not to mention, with the severity of the weather, there wasn’t a single person willing to work snow removal. At least that was what she’d heard when she’d stopped for fuel in Richmond. That was yesterday. She doubted anything had changed since then, and she hadn’t seen any signs of snow removal happening.

Feeling a sense of urgency she couldn’t explain, she hit four-wheel drive and plowed through the snow, only fishtailing slightly as she cleared the center berm. She made good time, only having to dodge an occasional car. There were about a hundred miles until she hit her grandmother’s house. She had enough gas, food, and water, but if she came across a grocery store that seemed untouched, she would stop and see about stocking up.

If she got to Gram’s, there would be five people to feed, not including Adam, though he’d most likely hole up in their house at the end of the lane, eating the military rations he’d stockpiled. After losing his family in a flood when he was ten, he’d become obsessed with preparing for disaster. She supported and helped him. There was no way she could imagine what he’d gone through, but it had shaped him to the amazing man he was today.

The supplies she had packed into the Jeep wouldn’t last more than a day for all of them. Gram had the root cellar, which had previously been full of home-canned goods, but she had no way to know if that was still the truth, or if the supplies were still viable with Gram’s advancing age.

The town before Gram’s was as desolate as every road she’d been on so far. She slowed as she passed the only grocery store in town, looking back and forth in the snow for footprints and tire tracks. The vague sounds of someone talking caught her ear as she maneuvered through yet another stretch of abandoned cars. She reached to turn the radio up, a desperate-sounding voice filling her speakers.

“Citizens, I hope you are all safe now. What we know about this weather has not changed and the forecast remains the same, though the computer models are showing a chance for things to become even more severe. This is all too new and too completely off-the-wall for anything to make sense. We’ll continue broadcasting as often as possible. I repeat. Get to where you’re going. Lay in supplies. Make sure you have a way to stay warm. This is the Cowboy. Signing off. Much love my friends.”

A chill ran up her spine. Whoever the cowboy guy was, he’d nailed it. Jane had over an hour until she hit her grandmother’s house. She only hoped her family had made it and that they were all still alive.

She studied the tracks again. None looked fresh. Though if she stopped, anyone passing would be able to figure out where she was. Should she take the chance? The Cowboy’s message kept playing through her head. What if this storm lasted indefinitely?

Driving past the store, she spotted an open garage with an old wooden door. She did a few turns around the block, making tire tracks and then trying to blend those tracks with the ones at the intersection at the square. If she was lucky, no one would figure out that she was still in town. Years of her dad drilling survival skills into her head had forced caution as an integral part of her being. She wouldn’t call her dad a conspiracy theorist, but he was close—either the economy was going to collapse, a nuclear disaster, or an attack by another country could happen at any given moment. It had made for an interesting childhood. When the neighborhood kids were playing baseball or swimming at the community pool, she was learning martial arts, weaponry, and how to start fires with dryer lint.

Jane backed into the decrepit but spacious garage, holstered her Smith and Wesson, grabbed a few ammo magazines, and picked up her Glock, just to be safe. Sliding the garage door closed, she wrapped the chain she found on the floor around the handles on the inside before letting herself out the side door. There were old footprints there, so she grabbed a stick the snow had knocked down and did her best to cover her new tracks. She hit the grocery store from the side after finding the employee entrance unlocked.

She ran through the aisles, grabbing what she could from the produce department, and then hit the non-perishables and loaded up with as much as she could carry. The urgency gripping her wouldn’t let up as she hefted two cases of water and two heavily loaded bags of supplies and hit the exit.

She’d no sooner finished shoving everything into the Jeep when she heard an engine coming. Her stomach clenched as she ran to the garage doors to peek out the window. A green truck cruised by. It paused at the store and she couldn’t help but to thank her luck that the pine hanging over the old garage had decided to let layers of snow drop right after she’d closed the side door. It was now completely sealed shut and there was no way to see her footprints or tell where she’d been.

As the truck stopped not far from the garage, she ducked and grabbed an old blanket from the floor in front of her, swinging the stinky fabric over her Jeep, just in case. As she ducked down in a corner near the doors, she waited, her stomach turning.

A dark figure with a knit face mask looked through the windows at the front of the garage. Cold seeped in around her and she hoped they’d leave soon. She only had about an hour driving to get to Gram’s, depending on the roads.

“Come on. He’s not here. That Jeep’s been in there for years. It’s probably rusted into place.”

“Let’s go, man.”

The truck started, but there was no indication that it was leaving. She wanted to get up and look out, but held her spot.

And was glad she did. Something slammed against the garage door, and then again. She didn’t move as she tried to figure out what she would do if she was caught, and her Jeep was taken. The burlap bag next to her became her cover and she tried not to sneeze as she moved it over her head and body. Clenching her hand tightly around her weapon, she waited.

“Come on, losers. This town is dead. The guy on the radio said something about Newport City being a gathering place. Let’s get there. We don’t have much time. The temps have already dropped twelve degrees in the last half hour. Load up. Let’s go.”

Doors finally slammed and the truck moved on, but she didn’t move. She waited a good ten minutes before getting up and looking out the window. There was nothing outside and snow had started to fall again.

The Cowboy hadn’t said anything about more snow. This could turn her drive into a marathon, but then with as unpredictable as the last few days had been, she figured it wasn’t possible to predict what Mother Nature was up to anymore. She watched out the window for a long time, making sure she didn’t fall into a trap before finally uncovering the Jeep and starting it up. She wasn’t worried about carbon monoxide poisoning in the drafty old garage. As she waited for the Jeep to warm up enough to go, she repositioned her weapons bag on the seat beside her and made sure her extra magazines were within easy reach.

Once the Jeep was warm enough, she undid the chains and slid the garage door open. There was nothing outside—no noises, no signs of people—just the silence of the steady fall of snow. She pulled out, glad to see the big truck hadn’t gone her route.

Thanks to a few fallen trees and wrecked cars, the drive took an hour longer than it should have. When she finally made the turn, there were very few tracks on the main road leading to her grandmother’s house. Maybe her family hadn’t made it. Maybe she’d passed their vehicle on the road and hadn’t realized it was them.

Her heart hurt as she slid the Jeep into four-wheel low and hit the gas. She had no idea what she was getting into. Or what was waiting for her when she finally reached her gram’s house. Except Adam would be around. Her heart yearned for him, but her defenses firmly snapped into place. She couldn’t give him the chance to express what a disappointment she was as a wife, even if he never spoke the words.

Gram’s house was at the end of a two-mile-long dead end. There were only a few other houses along the road, including the house she shared with Adam near the beginning of the lane. She’d met Adam while he was building his house and she was spending the summer with Gram between semesters, and they’d fallen in love. They married two years later and things were great, even after her first miscarriage.

Pushing the thoughts away, Jane made the turn, drove a few feet, and stopped. A massive tree blocked the road. Huge branches spilled all over the place, reaching the end of her and Adam’s driveway. Putting the Jeep in neutral, she wiped her palms over her jeans and took several deep breaths. She had no choice but to go to Adam for help now. Would he slam the door in her face and tell her to get the hell out of here? She’d deserve it, but that’s not what she wanted.

Adam stepped out of the leaves and motioned for her to pull behind the huge woodpile to the right of the drive.

Her heart flipped when Adam smiled, his dimples showing. She’d missed him so much. She smiled back, forgetting for a moment that she’d chosen to leave him. Parking where he’d indicated, she pressed her hand against her chest to try to slow her heartbeat.

When she got out of the Jeep, he pulled her into a hug. His solid presence was home, and the heart-breaking way she’d failed him hit her in the gut. She pulled away, looking at the tree so he wouldn’t see the chaos inside her.

“I’m so glad you’re safe,” he said.

“Does anyone know what’s going on? Why the weather has gone crazy?” She wanted to hug him again, but pulled her gloves on instead.

“No. But I haven’t been around a news source for most of the day. Trees are falling like crazy around here. I think the beetle infestation and then the drastic temperature changes, not to mention the snow, rain, ice, and winds with full foliage have a lot to do with that.” He set a chain-saw on the woodpile next to where they stood.

“I had the radio on the whole way here and there wasn’t even speculation on what’s going on.” She gathered her scarf tighter around her.

“Let’s get the Jeep into the garage,” he said.

Jane shook her head. “I need to get to Gram’s.”

“There’s no way to get back there. There are trees down everywhere and the temps are dropping quickly. You can stay here.” He ran a hand through his hair. “This is your home, Jane. Please.”

She wanted to stay and she wanted to go so they wouldn’t have to talk. She clenched her keys in her hands, squeezing the cold metal against her palm to keep everything inside as she nodded.

“Your folks and Mark are with Gram. Everyone is fine. I checked on them first thing this morning. Go in the house and get warm. I’ll move the Jeep.”

“Okay, but I do need to get to Gram’s soon.” She tossed him the keys.

Adam didn’t speak as he grabbed them out of the air. Jane turned and walked toward the house. This was her home, but she felt like a stranger. As she went through the garage and into her kitchen, tears streamed down her face.

She wiped them away at the sound of the garage door closing. Now wasn’t the time to talk, no matter how much she knew they needed to. She was exhausted from the trip and her nerves were too raw.

Hurting Adam more was the last thing she’d ever wanted to do, despite doing just that. He didn’t understand how he deserved more than she could ever give him. He wouldn’t listen.

“Wait. I need to know what you saw out there.”

She should go to bed to stare at the ceiling, but he did need to know. “Okay.”

As she curled up in her favorite chair, Adam pulled two glasses out of the cupboard and filled them with ice and whiskey.

“Your parents were upset they had to leave without you.” He handed her a glass, then grabbed a blanket from the couch and covered her legs.

“Thanks. They did the right thing. I did my best to meet up with them, but it wasn’t happening.”

“That sucks, but at least you knew how to survive to get here. I will be forever grateful to your dad for the insane way he prepared you for disaster scenarios,” Adam said.

Jane laughed. “You say that, but you didn’t have to live it every single day of your life.”

“Oh, but you know I did. You survived. Most of the population is so ill-prepared for situations like this that they’re either already dead, or soon will be.”

The seriousness and sincerity in Adam’s voice left her stunned. His words had been harsh, but tender at the same time. Tender for her. Ouch. They sat in silence for a few minutes. Jane let the comfort of home seep in, taking solace in it.

“I took a job at a floral shop in town to help pass the time and think about what I was doing. I ended up getting stuck there overnight. When I left, the first freeze had started. I went to my folks’, but they were gone. A lot of the homes on the way through town were on fire. From what I could tell, they’d gotten cold and with the electricity out, they’d decided to build fires. Do you remember the Miller’s at the end of Mason Street?”

At Adam’s nod, she continued. “Mrs. Miller was in the driveway. Her body was smoldering. She was dead. I stopped, but there was nothing I could do. Smoke poured from the windows and doors. I went up to see if anyone was hurt or needed help, but they were all dead.”

She took a drink, swirling the ice in her glass again.

“I’m sorry. That’s awful.”

“The roads are so messed up. There was so much snow at Mom and Dad’s. It was rough getting out of town, but then the highway was clear for miles with barely any snow on the road. It kind of looked like it had been plowed, but I never saw a snow plow. I got outside of Bakersville, and there were dozens of cars just stopped with no one around. It doesn’t make sense. What was everyone doing and where did they go? I haven’t seen a living soul since I left Harrisburg, except for this truck that passed me on the highway and then one in Garrett when I raided the grocery store. It was weird. They were different colors, but everything about the vehicles was the same.”

“I want to know about that then.” Adam concentrated at the liquid in his glass for a few seconds. “There are so many theories. One is nuclear—not that we were hit, but that the moon was destroyed by a missile. Another is the Earth’s core cracked and threw the rotation out of balance. Others say this is God punishing us for our misdeeds. No one knows for sure or how long it will last and what will happen next. The meteorologists have been pretty dead on in predicting the weather, so at least we have a little warning, but who knows if the resources for them to broadcast will be viable much longer.”

Jane shivered, but didn’t say anything. It was so unfathomable to think about how quickly things had changed. She’d lied to herself that she’d been doing a good job moving on with her life, but here she was sitting in her living room with the man she so desperately loved but had left due to her own selfishness. There were still huge holes in her heart and soul, though maybe she was meant to be here with her husband.

“You’re ready to drop. You should sleep.” Adam looked weary. “If you wake, don’t go out of the house. It’s supposed to be cold enough now to freeze soft tissue on impact. The pipes and the generator should hold. They’re prepped for extreme temperatures.”

“I remember.” She stood and stretched, her bones aching. “You taught me as much, or more, than Dad taught me.”

If her dad was the ultimate disaster preparedness master, Adam was either his equal or his superior. He’d taught her an unfathomable amount about how to survive in intense situations. It was just that neither of them knew how to survive the devastation of the loss of their babies.

“I need to grab the rest of my bags,” she said.

“I brought them in when you were changing. How did you pack that much in there?” He gave her a half smile, motioning to the pile of gear near the pantry.

“Mad skills. I had the opportunity to gather more supplies. I couldn’t pass it up. I made it work.” She thought about grabbing her bag of clothes, but she only had a few things. She’d left almost everything behind when she’d run away.

“I don’t…. Wait, there was more than what I brought in?”

“Yeah, at least double what is there.” She pointed to the pile. “Food and whatnot.”

“Yikes. Okay. It should be fine in the garage overnight. I insulated it more earlier this summer. Nothing should freeze.”

“Fine by me.” She yawned, trying not to think about how much work it had been for Adam to prep the garage for cold weather.

“Go ahead and take our room. I’m going to be up and down all night and the guest room is closer to the front door.” He’d turned back to the window, not looking at her. “Night.”

She drained her glass as she went by him on her way to their bedroom. Exhaustion and stress played huge roles in her raw emotions, and it was all she could do not to break down as she opened her dresser and pulled out the clothing she needed for the night. Adam hadn’t moved a single thing in the two months she’d been gone, and the house was clean and tidy. After changing into fleece pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt, she crashed into her bed.

When she awakened, Adam was in the kitchen fixated on the television. She hurried in to hear what they were saying as he passed her a cup of coffee fixed exactly as she liked it.

Temperatures will continue to drop as another storm system settles in. Despite the wicked cold, we’ll see a major snow fall resulting in what is currently already an uncountable accumulation. The best guess is up to six feet, but it has the potential to be triple that.”

Jane glanced at Adam. “Eighteen feet of snow? What the heck?”

“Pipes will freeze and electricity, if it hasn’t already gone out, will. If you need to call someone, do it now. Cell towers are toppling by the hundreds. Our fancy technology won’t mean anything soon.

[“By now, hopefully, everyone is someplace safe and has had time to gather essentials. I really feel sorry for you if you haven’t. No one knows when this will end and what kind of world we’ll live in if it ever does. It’s like we’re being punished for our sins and I don’t think only the good will survive. I think we’ll have to prove ourselves time and time again as we go through this.” _]The reporter took a deep and shaky breath as he pulled a tissue out of his pocket and wiped his eyes. [“Keep your loved ones close and remember, no matter how crazy they drive you, that you have each other. Be safe. Be warm. And never forget….”_]

The station signed off and Jane looked at Adam.

“They’ve been shutting down after every broadcast to save resources. If we’re lucky, there’ll be another report in a few hours, which is why the volume was so low. I keep the television on when I’m in the house so I don’t miss it.”

“Wow. Just wow.” Jane dropped into a chair as Adam set his coffee on the table next to hers.

“It’s already snowing.” He motioned to the window. “Has been for at least two hours. There’s probably another four inches already. I hate to say it, but we’re not going to be able to get back to Gram’s, even in the four-wheeler.”

She wanted to insist. To force him to take her, but then she’d worry about him getting back. As much as it hurt to be home, she felt better than she had since she’d left—just being here. Just being with him.

“Is there a way to let them know I’m here? I have no cell service—haven’t since halfway through my last shift.” She glanced at the phone she’d left on the table when she came in.

Adam picked up the house phone and listened. “Still works.” He handed her the receiver and dialed.

Gram answered on the first ring. “Hey Gram. It’s Jane.”

“Oh thank God. We’ve been so worried,” Gram practically yelled in the phone before hollering out to her family. “She’s fine. She’s on the phone.”

Jane looked at Adam and rolled her eyes with a smile. “I’m home with Adam.”

“Are you now?” Gram asked with what Jane was sure was a hopeful tone.

Jane ignored that. “I got in late last night before the freeze hit. Doesn’t look like I’m going to get to you anytime soon though.”

“I think it’s good for you two to be stuck together. Maybe you can apologize for being a jerk and you guys can work things out. I know you’re sick of me sticking my nose in your business, but you two belong together. That boy loves you more than life itself. He’s still going to love you even if you can’t have babies. You’ll see. Please just talk to him. And without being the snot you’ve been lately.”

Jane kept her gaze on the floor as Gram continued to chastise her for her decision to leave, and then she had to hear it again when her mom took the phone. The only one who didn’t give her hell was her dad. After updating her dad on the state of their neighborhood and describing her journey, she finally said good-bye. She hung up the receiver as Adam placed a plate of pancakes on the table.

“Thanks. Remind me why I was so determined to get back there again?” She laughed, realizing what she’d said and wishing she could take back the joke.

“Because you didn’t want to be with me,” Adam said quietly as he turned back to the stove.

Her chest felt like her heart had shattered into a million pieces. She’d hurt him and he’d done nothing to deserve it. Nothing except to say he loved her despite how broken she was inside. And to tell her how very much he wanted the babies she could not have.

“Adam, I….” She wanted to go to him. To wrap her arms around his back and hold him.

“Not now. Okay?” He turned off the stove and left the room, leaving her alone with the tears that fell onto her plate.

As she was trying to decide what to do, a huge crash sounded from outside. She jumped up, Adam coming up behind her to look out the windows. One of the huge trees across the road had given up, falling in an immense mess over the road—blocking the turn-off to the private lane and a hefty section of the road out front—and into their yard.

Adam peered around her. “It didn’t hit the house. Nice roadblock though. You never know when you’re going to need one of those.”

“Are we going to be okay with supplies? You weren’t expecting me to be here.”

“We’ll be fine. We still have your couponing stockpile in the basement.” He turned to the sink. “And I might not have expected you to be here, but I hoped you would be.”

She let that soak in a minute, allowing it to fill the empty places in her being. Trying to hide her smile, she said, “What about the stuff I grabbed at the grocery store in Garrett? The whole back of the Jeep was full.”

Adam spun around. “You said that last night, you said you grabbed more than I brought in. Like how much? A lot?”

At her nod, he turned off the water.

“It’s warm enough to go into the garage without coats and gloves. Let’s get the stuff in here.”

By the time they’d hauled in the last of it, Adam was grinning. “Holy crap, woman. I can’t believe you packed that much in there and I can’t believe you took that big of a risk to gather all of this stuff. I always knew you were tough as hell.” He turned a huge smile on her and her insides puddled like they always did when he complimented her. Even after six years of marriage and two years of dating.

“What the hell is in this bag?” He hefted her weapons bag that he’d brought in last night onto the table.

“My guns.” She unzipped the bag and pulled out the new one she’d gotten since she left him.

“You got a new bag. Nice.” He picked up her Glock 43. “I just bought one of these too.”

Jane smiled up at him, wanting to lean into him, but afraid to. She’d rejected him—walked away from him in her own pain and grief—knowing he was dealing with the same pain, but unable to comfort him. She’d been stupid, though she did still feel he deserved a wife who would give him the children he wanted. Even if the thought of him with someone else caused her great pain. She thought being apart would help ease the pain, but she’d been so very wrong. But what if he eventually became bitter over her infertility?

She opened her mouth to ask him, to tell him she was sorry, but he’d already started hauling the supplies into their storeroom in the basement.

  • * *

After another two days of entrapment, Jane was tired of walking on eggshells and watching every word she said. No matter how many times she’d tried to bring it up, Adam kept walking away or changing the subject. She knew she was the one who had to make the first move, but Adam wasn’t letting her. She’d done this horrible thing to their relationship. It was up to her to fix it. Or at least try. Adam had been hospitable and nice, and though they’d worked together and laughed like always, there was always an undercurrent of tension.

She glanced into the living room at Adam stoking the coal stove as she placed the last clean dish in the cupboard. She poured two glasses of wine, set his on the coffee table, and took her normal seat, waiting until he was done. As he nodded his thanks for the drink, she looked at him.

He picked up his glass and left the room, heading for the guest bedroom where he’d been staying since she arrived, shutting the door with a solid “thud” behind him. Damn. What had she done?

She tucked her legs under her, wrapping the blanket she loved around her as she stared at the fire. Tears wet her cheeks and she struggled to figure out what to do next. Part of her wanted to storm into the bedroom and demand he listen to her. She knew Adam, though, and that wouldn’t work. He’d let her know when he was ready. She’d let him know it was time to talk and once he processed, he’d come to her. She hoped.

The days passed like molasses. She’d talked to her family a few times on the phone, when the lines worked, thankful their reprimands over her decisions had turned more to sympathy since they’d asked how it was going and realized it wasn’t. Adam still did everything he’d always done, but something was missing.

She spent most of her time cleaning, pacing the house, trying to read, and waiting for the weather reports to come back on. There was so much snow outside that you couldn’t see out the windows. Adam said the roof would be fine, but even he seemed concerned.

Finally, on a morning she’d woken up way too early and started the coffee, the television in the kitchen came to life. She turned up the volume, which dragged Adam out of bed.

“If you’re still alive, listen up. We have a short break in between the storms. And the good news is that there’s a warm front coming in today. The temps will rise into the nineties like it should for August. Flooding will be heavy. The warmth will only last about three days, followed by ice and freezing rain. Then everything is going to freeze again. Worse than before. We’ve been able to thank modern technology and ingenuity for the abilities we’ve had over the past few days—to be able to stay warm and have water, but I fear it won’t last with the disastrous low temperatures that are coming. Be prepared for the worst. If you need to go somewhere, and we strongly suggest you don’t, your best bet is to leave when the temps start rising and get there as quickly as you can. From what we’ve been able to ascertain, the entire world is affected exactly the same, so nowhere you go will be any different than where you are right now.”

The reporter took a deep breath and looked right at the camera. “If you’re separated from your loved ones, I’m sorry. I know how that feels. Especially if there’s no way to know if they’re okay.

He struggled to take a deep breath, as he held a hand to his mouth. The sounds of people talking and crying in the studio could be heard in the background as he struggled to compose himself. Finally, he sighed. “All we have left now is hope. Hunker down folks. Be safe.”

The television went dark again and Jane couldn’t move for a few long minutes. Her brain spun with scenarios and what-ifs. What was she going to do?

“I guess I’ll get ready for you to take me to Gram’s,” she said, setting her coffee on the counter.

“Why would you want to do that?” Adam peered at her from over his cup.

She stopped, spinning to look at him. “Why wouldn’t I? I get stuck here with no choice and then realize how much I’ve missed everything about our home and you. How horribly wrong I was for what I did. I try to talk to you and you say ‘no’ and storm out, or change the subject. I can’t do this any more, Adam. You either want to talk this out, or you want me gone. The choice is yours. I know I screwed up by deciding for both of us. I was devastated and couldn’t bear to see you get that hope in your eyes again. I know how very much you want children. How you wanted a big family. We can’t have babies. Ever. Each pregnancy will end like the last three. I cannot carry a child past twelve weeks. Not now. Not ever. And even with medical breakthroughs, my body is flawed and it will never happen. Don’t you understand? I can’t give you the family you want. Now it’s up to you as to how we face the future—together or alone.” She should have told him all of this before—should have let him know before making the decision for him.

He opened his mouth then closed it before taking a deep and shaky breath.

“I’m not ready to talk yet.” He turned, shutting her out. Again.

Jane walked away, quietly closing the bedroom door behind her. She slid to the floor and leaned against the wood. Adam knocked a few minutes later, but she ignored him. She didn’t want him to talk to her only because of the huge guilt trip she’d laid on him.

She could hear him on the other side—could hear his breath like he was inches away. How pathetic were they? Facing him right now was not an option. She didn’t want to talk to him when he felt as if she’d given him no choice.

The next morning, she woke to the sun streaming through the plastic-covered window. The weatherman had predicted high temperatures. Now she would find out if Adam wanted her gone. She showered, taking her time, and packed the few things she would take with her if she had to go. She’d get the rest of her stuff once this was over and they knew what they were doing.

She finally made her way to the kitchen where Adam stood against the counter. He looked haggard and tired. She glanced at him as she reached for the cup of coffee he’d made her, just as he had every day since she’d been here, and he grabbed her wrist, pulling her to him and kissing her.

Jane melted into him, needing his touch and his arms around her, forgetting for a second that this wasn’t normal for them anymore. When he finally released her, he was crying. She reached up to wipe the tears away with her thumbs as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.

“I miss you,” he sniffed.

“God. I miss you too. I’m so sorry. I’m such an idiot.” She leaned into him before pulling back to put some distance between them. “I didn’t tell you everything after we lost the last baby. I thought I knew what was best for both of us. I was an idiot and I’m sorry, but the fact is, Adam, the doctor said I’ll never be able to carry a baby.”

Tears streamed down his face and he reached for her. “That’s why you left?”

She nodded, going into his arms, unsure of how long she’d be welcome there. “I’m sorry. You’ve been talking about raising a baseball team for so long. I couldn’t bear to see the devastation on your face when you found out we wouldn’t even have a single ballerina.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry too, Babe. I wish you had told me. It was hard enough seeing how horrible losing the babies was for you. And then you were gone and not taking my calls after leaving me the note that said it was time for me to find someone who could be a better wife. I should have added it up on my own, but I didn’t. I thought you just needed time to deal with things, and I thought leaving you alone was what you wanted. I’m sorry. I thought you wanted a baseball team, that’s why I kept up that story.”

“I did, but we’re never going to have children. Never. The doctor suggested I have my tubes tied so I don’t continue to put my body through the trauma of miscarriage again. He said it could eventually kill me. How could no children ever be okay with you?” She stared up at him.

“I’m less okay with the thought of [_you _]dying. Being without you these past few weeks has been brutal.” He kissed her forehead. “If we’re meant to have children, they’ll come to us another way and we’ll love them as if they are from our flesh.” He pulled her chin up, kissing her deeply. “The most important part of my life is you. You’re my soul mate. My everything. I’ve been so lost without you.”

“Me too.” She rested against his chest. “I can’t do this without you. I love you, Adam. I always have and I always will.”

  • * *

By the time the month-long weather siege ended and normal temperatures returned, she and Adam were closer than they’d ever been. They’d spent their time making love, talking, and planning the unknown future.

Once the thaw hit, they got to work removing the massive tree blocking their yard and the road. Her family had been overjoyed at the news that they’d reunited. Her folks and brother had left for home a week ago, leaving her grandmother behind as she insisted. Adam and Jane would make sure she was okay. Gram was happy in her home and that was all that mattered.

No one had any idea how long it would be until life returned to normal, and no one wanted to even guess. So much had changed. So many people had died.

She stepped onto the deck, handing Adam a beer as he cooked steaks on the grill. “Thanks, babe.”

“The news is saying the insane weather was a result of a misplaced satellite. I don’t think I believe that, but there will be a special report on at eight. They did say the death toll is in the millions.”

“Insane. A satellite? Bullshit.” He spun around, catching her by the waist. “You know what? I don’t care what it was. I feel awful about how many people died, but I am forever grateful for what happened because it brought you back to me.”

She wrapped her arms around him, comforted by his love and this new world they’d experience together.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

About Victoria Smith

 

Victoria Smith lives in Central PA with her high school sweetheart and way too many animals. She writes paranormal, urban fantasy, and dystopian—all with romance, because who doesn’t love a happy ending? She publishes with Liquid Silver Books and Soul Mate Publishing. Visit her at http://vickismith.blogspot.com or on Twitter.

 

Other Books by Victoria Smith

 

Through the Void

By Natalie J. Damschroder

To the four creative, incredible women I share this anthology with, and all those out there with their own stories to tell. One sentence is ALWAYS all it takes.

 

[* *]

Chapter One

One sentence was all it took.

To change a life.

To take one.

To shatter a world.

To launch a new one.

To make everything…different.

“Vixen Elissandra Triplett, your training is complete.”

The old Vix would have flinched at the use of her full name. New Vix—okay, that sounded like a treatment for STDs; maybe she’d forget that label. The new her embraced the power behind the words because she understood what that power meant in a way she’d never even contemplated before.

The Baselight commander stepped in front of her and held out a cast-iron spike mounted on a block of wood. She rested her hand on it and prepared to give her oath.

“Agent Triplett, please repeat after me.” He paused, then said, “I, state your name.”

“I, Vixen Elissandra Triplett.”

One moment she was fully present in the sparse presentation room. But then part of her separated, disappearing into memory, even as she listened to the drone of the commander’s voice.

“Vixen Elissandra Triplett?” The uniformed man at the door wore a solemn, apologetic expression that should have looked fake but was somehow, she knew, deeply felt. He didn’t want to be here. Hated doing this—whatever this was. And not just because it sucked. It was personal, visible in the torment in his eyes.

She clutched the door in one hand and its frame in the other and couldn’t believe that knees could actually go weak. She’d always thought that was just fancy description.

“Yes. Vix. I’m Vix.”

“I’m Oliver Cassian. Your husband’s partner.”

Her husband didn’t have a partner. He was a plumber. He specialized in ancient systems that few people were trained to fix anymore, so he was always traveling, searching for parts in junkyards when he wasn’t repairing eighteenth-century pumps and for the love of Christ how stupid was she? Her spine dragged her upright and her knees solidified, but a hot ball of something had lit inside her.

“What kind of partner?”

Commander Nanavati didn’t seem to notice her split attention. “Do solemnly swear to uphold the mission and integrity of the Baselight Team.”

She said the same words, but[_ _]it didn’t feel like simple repetition. Her voice reverberated with energy. Maybe it was metaphorical, because of what this meant to her. Or maybe the oath held true power, like that she’d gained in training. After everything she’d seen, it wouldn’t faze her to learn the oath was committing her literally. Irrevocably.

“I need you to come with me,” Oliver had told her. “I’ll explain on the way.”

“Where are you taking me?” But she’d already grabbed her keys and stepped outside, automatically checking to make sure the door locked behind her. Oliver—somehow, it felt like calling him Ollie would be more appropriate—opened the passenger door to a black Jeep Wrangler and handed her in. She stopped him before he closed the door. “Is he dead?”

“No. He’s not dead.” But his shoulders drooped, and she thought maybe death would have been better.

“And do my duty as assigned.”

Oliver’s uniform didn’t look military, but the base he drove her to did. Mostly. It was off somehow. Shinier than it should be, all unpainted steel with no windows, the uniforms and vehicles a matte black. It jarred because it was different from TV shows and movies and news footage. No fatigues or weapons. But it also matched the incredible, ridiculous things he had just told her.

“Luke is a high-ranking agent on the Baselight Team.”

Her mind conjured rakish spies in tuxedos, rappelling out of helicopters, pockets bristling with technology. “Is that military?”

“Not exactly. We’re funded by both private and public agencies. Our mission is to prevent invasion and possession of humanity by entities called borers.” His lips pressed together as if he was reluctant to face her reaction. “We don’t know where they come from. Alien or natural evolution or scientific development. We do know they’re responsible for eighty-two percent of the increase in mental illness around the world, and they can’t be fought from the outside.”

“What the hell—”

But Oliver continued without letting her finish her question. “Luke was injured on his last mission. Our last mission.” His voice was full of regret, but strong. He believed in what they did, Vix mused in the back of her mind, even as the front of it rebelled against every word. It was crazy to think her husband was some kind of warrior on a secret mission. Crazy to believe he’d been lying to her for five years.

Shouldn’t the warrior/borer part be harder to believe? But that settled just fine into her mind, changing what she knew the same way taking a class on marine biology or astrophysics did. But Luke being a completely different person from the man he was supposed to be—that she couldn’t process at all.

“Should I fail to comply with my duties within the best of my ability and training.”

Luke lay on a memory-foam mattress topped with a down pad, his head on a pillow custom shaped to cradle his head and neck at the perfect angle. Baselight apparently took excellent care of the agents they sent out to be shredded.

Vix swallowed her bitterness and took Luke’s limp hand. All of him was still and lax, but he wasn’t absent of life. She’d taken anatomy and seen corpses. Once you knew what a dead person looked and felt like, you’d never mistake coma for death.

“Is there any brain activity?” she asked Oliver, smoothing a hand through her husband’s thick, unruly brown hair.

“A lot. Way more than anyone in his condition should have. But…we don’t know where it’s coming from. And we can’t get in to fix it.” He motioned to the machines, tubes, and wires that Vix barely noticed. “With help, his systems are functioning okay. But we don’t know how long he’ll survive like this.”

“I accept my fate.”

Vix jerked herself back into the room as she spoke the final words. Nanavati raised a small rubber mallet and tapped the back of her hand. The spike pierced the very center of her palm, sending an almost sweet shock of pain up her arm. A stream of blood slid down the iron and sank into the base. The spike shuddered, making the pain flare, but a moment later, when Nanavati removed the oathtaker and Vix flipped her hand over, the hole she expected to see had already healed. An ache remained, though, a reminder of what she’d just promised.

“Report to the airlock,” Nanavati ordered. But then his tone softened. “You have fifteen minutes to report.”

It was tacit permission to take a detour. She nodded, about-faced, and headed off down the hall behind the oath chamber, boots clanging on the metal floor. Behind her, the commander began administering the oath to the next successful trainee. Vix paused to listen and smiled a little when she heard Adele repeat her name. Her new friend wouldn’t be accompanying her on her first mission, but they’d celebrate together when they got back.

Baselight’s curving steel corridors reminded Vix of a spaceship. The emptiness of this hallway was unusual. The place didn’t exactly teem with people, but it was rare not to pass another agent or support staff or officer as you navigated from one area to another. She imagined Luke striding beside her in his matching matte black jumpsuit, only instead of the trainee patch, his would have the senior agent symbol as well as a string of commendation pins across the front. He’d look down at her and grin and say something teasing….

That was where her imagination failed her. She’d never seen Luke in his uniform, never walked any of these corridors with him. If it hadn’t been for Ollie, she’d have mourned without ever knowing what had really happened. For six months, she’d fought her anger at Luke for keeping so much of his life from her. Every time she remembered his elaborate, excited stories about plumbing, for God’s sake, she marveled at his ability to lie convincingly. It was even more amazing considering they’d known each other practically their whole lives. Their parents were friends, and they hung out as kids and occasionally in groups as teenagers. They hadn’t stayed in touch through college, but they’d reconnected at Luke’s father’s funeral six years ago and started dating. He’d already been working for Baselight but never gave her any hint.

Her share of the blame, she’d come to realize, wasn’t insignificant. She’d been engrossed in her studies—her never-ending pursuit of knowledge in disparate fields—and her job at a communications conglomerate. There was no doubt she hadn’t been paying attention. But why had Luke wanted it that way? Ollie said others told their spouses. Secrecy was beneficial to Baselight, but it wasn’t an unbreakable rule. But Ollie[_ _]hadn’t even known [_she _]existed until Luke’s coma, when they tasked him with notifying Luke’s next of kin and he found out his partner was married. So Luke had lied to a guy who’d considered him a best friend, too.

You’ll never know, so move on. That was the whole reason she was here. To take over where her husband had left off. To join him on his mission the only way she could. The doctors were trying to prepare her, believing Luke’s coma to be permanent and making noises about decisions. She couldn’t do that until she understood him and his life much better than she did now.

She checked her watch, though she knew exactly how many minutes it took to get from every part of the base to anywhere else. She had twelve minutes to say goodbye and get back to the airlock. The infirmary door opened automatically, and the nurse on duty barely looked up, giving Vix a smile of habit as she passed him and slipped through the curtains around Luke’s bed.

Her chair had been left where she always sat. Next to his right hand, where she could hold on to it and be reassured by its warmth and deceptive strength. He didn’t seem to have changed in six long months. The doctors were baffled by the lack of atrophy in his muscles. Privately, Vix thought the mind was more powerful than even these people knew.

She didn’t sit today, but leaned close to him, stroking the hair she loved and missed so freaking much. She’d trimmed it a couple of times, but it was still longer and shaggier than it had been when he was awake.

“It was my mother, wasn’t it?” She kept her voice to a murmur so the others wouldn’t easily hear. The two patients probably couldn’t understand, but the staff could, and it wasn’t really their business.

“The reason you lied to me. It was because of my mother.” Hardly an epiphany. Of all the childhood crap that messed up adult lives, having a mother who battled a handful of textbook mental disorders was an easy one to figure out. Vix had always been terrified that she’d inherit her mother’s illness, even though she knew it had been triggered by severe mold allergies and neurological triggers that she herself didn’t have. She could understand why Luke would be reluctant to tell her about energy worms that burrowed into people’s brains and disrupted function. No doubt he’d wanted to save her from the what ifs. What if that had been her mother’s problem? What if Baselight could have helped her if they’d discovered the invasion/infestation sooner?

What if he brought them home with him?

But it didn’t explain the full extent of his secrecy, and if she didn’t stop dwelling on it now, the frustration would mess with her equilibrium and today was the wrong day for that.

“I’m going on my first mission.” She traced the scar in front of his ear. He’d told her he got it when a pipe broke and dropped a piece of jagged metal on him. Now she knew it had been his first mission injury. “We’ll see if I can get some matching scars.” The room was silent. She hadn’t heard the nurse leave but knew he must have slipped out to give her privacy. Everyone knew it was oath day. Mission One. She twisted her wrist—eight minutes left. She spent two of them with her head on Luke’s chest, eyes closed, soaking in his very, very faint signature scent under all the antiseptic and cleaners and ever-present metal surrounding them.

[_Oh, Luke. What if you’d told me? What if we could have had this together? _]Vix didn’t know what really had driven her to enlist with Baselight. There was no vengeance to be had. No concrete enemy. It brought her closer to Luke’s world, sure, but not to Luke. Probably never to Luke.

A tear slid from underneath one eyelid and soaked into the fabric of his nightshirt. It didn’t matter. Even if he never said another word to her, working here would mitigate this loss as much as anything could.

And then it was time. Five minutes later, she reached the sealed door that led to mission prep and the airlock and stopped. Her heart banged against her breastbone, and she took a deep breath. When she waved her spiked hand across the scanner, the system beeped. A mellow male voice said, “Welcome to the airlock, Agent Triplett,” and the door opened. Vix grinned and stepped over the threshold. She’d made it. Step one was complete.

 

[* *]

Chapter Two

The room was far less sterile than the corridor had been. It was only the antechamber, where agents waited for one of three mission prep rooms to become available, but it was carpeted in warm brown and wallpapered, and the assistant’s desk was made of wood instead of metal. The varnish on it gleamed, and the surface held a sleek computer, a pink legal pad, and a pen.

And a patch. Vix’s eyes locked on it, knowing it had to be hers. Then she realized the woman behind the desk, whom she’d never met before, had said something.

“I’m sorry?”

“I said welcome to the team, Agent Triplett.” She smiled, and Vix couldn’t help but smile back, though it felt somehow like a breach of protocol. The woman had her long brown hair in a snug bun at the nape of her neck, and instead of the black jumpsuit all the trainees and agents wore, she wore a fitted blue business suit and an insignia pin on her lapel.

Vix cleared her throat. This was no assistant.

“Thank you, Captain.” Her eyes fell back to the patch. It was circular, but instead of the trainee triangle Vix currently wore on her sleeve, the black background served as stark contrast to the bright white starburst embroidered on it.

The captain picked it up. “Yes, this is our first order of business.” She nodded at Vix’s left sleeve and held her free hand up. Vix pulled the patch off, the Velcro making a loud ripping noise. When the captain handed her the First Agent patch, Vix applied it carefully, flattening her palm over it to increase its grip. Another symbol of her progress. If she succeeded in her first ten missions, she’d get another patch indicating her promotion to full agent.

“We have a little paperwork to clear, and then I’ll send you in with Ollie to get equipped.” At the look on Vix’s face she tilted her head, her brow faintly wrinkled, and then laughed. The laugh made her seem completely approachable.

“I’m sorry. I was all formal with the ‘Agent Triplett’ stuff and then called him ‘O.’ ” She indicated Vix should sit in the cushioned chair in front of the desk. The lines of her cheekbones went pink, but her tone was even as she continued. “We don’t call each other by rank most of the time. We have a vaguely military structure because it’s efficient, but we’re all one team, with one mission. Support and friendship are vital. So yeah, I called him Ollie instead of Agent Ferguson, and you can call me Skye instead of Captain Mahogany. Okay?”

Vix shrugged. “Sure.” Adele had always teased her for focusing too hard on training and not getting out enough, mingling with the other people at Baselight. If she’d spent more time in the pub, maybe this wouldn’t have taken her by surprise.

“All right. Standard waiver.” She pulled a folder from under the pink legal pad and started laying papers from it across the desk in front of Vix. “Medical waiver. Insurance escalator. Final consent form. And contract confirmation.”

Vix hesitated, then picked up one of the pages to read through it. She’d signed a contract and a bunch of waivers of liability when she applied to Baselight. But these took things to a new level. She was acknowledging again that she was taking assignments at her own risk and with full understanding of the possible consequences. The standard waiver stated she was aware of these risks—and it listed them, most involving some kind of mental incapacity. The medical waiver gave them the right to do whatever was necessary to save and maintain her life, and to end it if they had to. The insurance escalator increased her policy—and the money coming out of her pay—so they could provide that care. Or give compensation to her family if she died.

She read through it all, but for the first time hesitated before signing. Luke’s coma made her acutely aware of the risks she was taking, but to her, they were physical risks. He was injured, not insane. Except…was he? No one knew what all that brain activity meant. What was happening in there. What he’d be like if he woke up. Vix could end up like him.

Or like her mother.

Or you could make sure hundreds, even thousands of other people don’t end up like her. Like him.

She signed every page without further hesitation.

Skye smiled at her, this time with a hint of sympathy. She probably knew all about Vix’s mother. When she first came here, they’d put her through dozens of mental health tests to try to determine a possible weakness. Maybe it wasn’t such a vigorous routine for everyone. Maybe they’d done extra for her. But that was actually reassuring to Vix, because they’d never have let her train, never mind pass, if they thought she was vulnerable.

Funny how that didn’t eliminate her fear.

Skye motioned to the door on the left and stood. “Ollie will get you set up, and he’ll guide you through your first mission out of airlock one. Good luck.”

“Thank you.” Vix rose and shook the hand proffered to her, but all her attention was on the metal door. Excitement rose in her chest, and Skye faded out of her awareness as she walked over and waved her hand in front of the sensor. There was no greeting this time, just the hiss of hydraulics and the thud when the door reached its stop. She stepped through the opening and glanced around.

Mission prep did not live up to her excitement. “I love what you’ve done with the place,” she told Ollie, who stood at a narrow, adjustable metal table that was one of two items in the room. A white towel stretched across the top, with two syringes and assorted medical stuff resting on the terrycloth. A sealed metal box rested on the floor next to it.

Ollie grinned. “Thanks. I think it shows off my personality.”

Their voices echoed against the walls and ceiling. Borers couldn’t get through metal for some reason. Vix appreciated the overkill at Baselight, but the unrelenting use of it had its drawbacks. She stepped closer so she could speak more softly.

“So where am I going?”

“Your body isn’t going anywhere.” He waved his hand at a spot on the wall, and it took a good ten seconds for a hatch to reveal itself. The metal had been seamless, but after squeals, thumps, whirs, and moans, a four-foot octagon appeared. The hatch door swung inward to show a square space, gleaming white.

Vix squinted. “Is that marble?”

“Ceramic. It conducts the energies we need. These”—he held up the two syringes in his right hand, separated by a finger—“are the chemicals that allow you to travel to the infestation.”

“My consciousness.” As hard as she’d studied—and as practiced a student as she was—the science was still beyond her understanding.

“As good a way to put it as any. It’s more complicated than that. More than just your mind travels, or you wouldn’t be able to take equipment with you. But your body stays here. Any more questions before we get started?”

She shook her head. She’d been through hundreds of simulations by now, and details like ceramic and science didn’t matter. She knew what to do. “What’s my assignment?”

Ollie reached for her arm and positioned it so her elbow rested on the table, crook up. A Velcroed section of her sleeve allowed him access to her vein. He opened it and swabbed her skin with an alcohol wipe.

“Montreal. A young girl lit up the boards two hours ago.”

Which meant she had eight hours to stop the borers from doing their damage. Satellites formed a net around the Earth and tuned into the borers, which were harmless as long as they were loose. Harmless and untouchable, though Vix had been through the R&D lab where they were trying to find a way to deactivate or kill them before they did any harm. When they infested a brain, there was a reaction between the brain’s energy and the borer’s, and it had a specific pattern the satellites could pick up. They signaled the control center at Baselight, giving about a ten-hour window when agents could reverse the infection. In a manner of speaking. The terminology was all over the place because the behavior was similar to so many different things. Worms. Viruses. Nanotechnology. If it wasn’t so horrific, it would be fascinating. Vix had considered joining the research department, where they were trying to learn where they came from and why they did what they did, important details that would help them get better at stopping them. But in the end, she’d decided to follow in Luke’s wake instead.

The first injection burned. Vix gritted her teeth as the burn went up her arm and into her chest, expanding to zoom down her extremities and into her brain. It flashed hard, hot, and she rode it out, not realizing she’d squeezed her eyes shut and stiffened her body until she opened them and found Ollie watching her with concern and maybe…pride?

“You okay?”

She took a deep breath. “Yeah. Fine.”

He laughed. “I have never heard a single agent say ‘fine’ after a flamer.”

Not sure what that said about her, Vix shrugged.

Colin readied the other needle. “This one’s not as bad.” He was right. It was cool, almost soothing in the wake of the first. It would have been uncomfortable by itself, but the flamer had set a bar. Vix felt when the icer reached her brain, too, and this time, the flash took her completely out of the room and into an infinite space. It was so quick she couldn’t react, but the sensation it had left was indescribable.

This time, Colin was frowning. “Describe what just happened to you.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

She shook her head. “Cool liquid traced through my circulatory system. When it combined with the first chemical, the reaction took me to the void.”

“Tell me about the void.”

“I—” She growled. Hadn’t she just said it was indescribable? Well, okay, only to herself. But Colin’s hand, tight around her wrist, told her she’d better try. “Vast. Infinite. Colorless, but all the colors. Dark, but also light. Nowhere, and everywhere.” She threw up her free hand. “I can’t do better than that. It was too fast.”

“Okay.” He relaxed his grip and reswabbed her elbow, which wasn’t bleeding. “You just handled it way too calmly. You didn’t even gasp. I thought for a second it didn’t work.”

Vix resealed the opening over her elbow, checking it carefully. The jumpsuits were woven with fine metal filaments, and any opening had to be tightly closed. “So you’re saying I’m different from everyone else?”

“Hell, yeah.”

She didn’t bother to hide her smile. “Good.”

He rolled his eyes and then bent to open the case at his feet. As big as it was, the only thing he took out was a smaller case that flipped open to display her dewks. The name came from DEW—directed energy weapon—and claw because they fitted over the agents’ fingers and had curved barbs on the ends. But DEW claw had immediately been shortened to dewk because macho agents didn’t want to sound like kitty cats.

Colin helped her slip the dewks over her fingers, the first three on each hand. Then he settled her flexible metal helmet over her head and molded it to her skull, slipping the earbuds carefully into her ears.

“Good?”

Vix cocked her head left and right, checking the fit, and flexed her fingers before nodding. Colin picked up a controller that looked a lot like the one for Luke’s gaming system and thumbed a switch. A light came on inside the larger case, but Vix didn’t hear or feel anything on her end.

“Nothing happens until you go into the airlock. Questions?”

“Nope.”

“Then let’s go.” He motioned with his head and turned to watch her step through the hatch. “Light ’em up.”

The hatch eased closed behind her, and as soon as it locked into place, everything changed. Her helmet heated against her scalp, and the earbuds activated with a tiny hiss. The light in the airlock dimmed to something close to twilight, and the sleeves over her fingers became snugger.

“Countdown to the void. Ten.”

Vix braced her feet a comfortable distance apart and tapped each of her weaponized fingers with her thumbs. When Colin’s voice reached one she closed her eyes and entered the void.

This wasn’t a quick flash like when the chemicals met in her brain. She lost any sense of the airlock, the walls and ceiling and floor. She wasn’t weightless—it was more as if she had no body at all. Yet she could feel the ridge of her helmet, the pressure of the earbuds, and the reassuring hugs of the dewks on her fingers. She didn’t move, but somehow knew she was crossing vast distances very quickly. What she’d described to Colin filled her head—because she wasn’t in the void. It was inside her.

And then it wasn’t. She opened her eyes, expecting to be in Montreal with the little girl, but unless Montreal had its own Baselight and had taken the girl there, that wasn’t where she’d ended up.

She stood in a curving metal corridor much longer ahead of and behind her than anything she’d seen on the base. It was empty.

And then it wasn’t.

“I’ve got a fix on the subject,” said a voice to her left. Vix turned her head and let out the gasp she hadn’t given when the icer hit her brain.

“Vix? What’s going on?” That was Colin in her ears.

“I…don’t know.” The man beside her was looking away. She could only see the back of his head. But…. No, it couldn’t be. “You didn’t tell me I was going to have a partner on this mission.” Partner…or evaluator. Some more experienced agent tagging along so she didn’t get herself in trouble? She should be annoyed. And would be if she really believed that was what was happening.

“You don’t.” Colin’s voice was sharp. “What’s going on?”

“Someone’s…here.” Not just here. Looking at her. Frowning at her. Definitely not happy to see her.

“Vix?” the very handsome, very strong and virile and not-in-a-coma guy said. “What the hell?”

“Hello, Luke.”

 

[* *]

Chapter Three

[* *]

“What? Did you just say Luke?” Ollie’s voice had climbed an octave. “Vix, where are you?” Then, muffled, “We have an issue in airlock one.”

“No.” Vix didn’t know what was happening, but she didn’t want to be yanked back. “No issue. Everything’s fine, Ollie.”

“Where are you?”

She didn’t answer. Luke was staring at her. She reached out to touch his sleeve, forgetting the dewks that made that difficult. He yanked his arm away, and she wanted to weep.

“What is this?” He eyed the patch on her sleeve and glared at her helmet. “When did this happen?”

“Luke, you’re—” The words caught in her throat. “Are you real?”

“Of course I’m real.” He held out his hand, palm up, his fingers stretched out to get his own dewks out of the way. Vix laid her palm on his, and it was the same as it had been less than an hour ago. Strong, warm, reassuring. Luke.

“Oh, you bastard, you have a lot to answer for.” A beep sounded in her right ear. That was supposed to help direct her toward the target. Shit. She had only a few hours left. If she didn’t get to the girl, didn’t neutralize the borers, Baselight wouldn’t have a lot of time to send someone else in. And whatever the hell was happening here, she was [_not _]going to fail her first mission.

She turned to the right and strode fast down the hallway. Luke shouted her name, but when she didn’t respond, his footsteps caught up to her in seconds.

“Where are you going?”

“To the target.”

Then Ollie. “Vix, who are you talking to?”

Shit again. She had to answer him, but if he thought she was hallucinating….

She pushed aside the squeak of fear that she could be. That somehow, a borer had invaded her head, or her mother’s legacy had finally imposed itself on her. Forget all that. If this is real, you can prove it to Ollie and to yourself.

“Ollie, don’t freak out, and don’t try to pull me back. Don’t call the techs.” The tech team had the worst job on the base. Collecting agents who’d been injured or worse, and getting them back through the void when they were incapable or refusing to return on their own. Agents had been killed that way, or permanently damaged.

“Give me a reason not to call the techs. Tell me what you see.”

“A hallway. Like at Baselight.”

“That’s your mind interpreting the edge of the void.”

“The void has no edge.”

Those were the words Vix was about to say, but they came from Luke. She halted and frowned at him. “You can hear him?”

He nodded and scowled back. That shouldn’t be possible. There wasn’t any way for him to hear. He had no earbuds.

“Where’s your helmet?” she demanded.

He patted the top of his head. The scowl faded away, and fear lurked in his eyes. “What’s happening?”

“Who can hear me?” Ollie asked. “Vix, so help me God….”

“It’s Luke.” She couldn’t have them both freak out at the same time. “Luke’s here.”

“No fucking way.” He didn’t say it with awe but as a statement of fact. “No one shares a mission trip. It’s not possible. And he’s—”

“I know.” She held up a hand, though Ollie couldn’t see it. “Luke, tell me something only Ollie would know. Only Ollie,” she emphasized, because if she didn’t know it, and he did, it would prove that Luke was really here [_and _]that she wasn’t going crazy.

Unless you’re hallucinating Ollie now, too.

“Shut up,” she murmured to herself. “Not helping.”

You could be lost in the void.

I’M NOT. She shouted it silently at herself and almost laughed at the absurdity of trying to convince herself she wasn’t crazy by yelling at the voice in her head. Focus.

Luke made a face and scratched his temple. “Hell, I don’t—” After a few seconds of thought, he said, “Okay, tell him the lightsaber that went missing from Testing Two worked great on mosquitoes even if it never took out borers.”

She repeated it, and silence thundered back. Then, “Fuck me.”

“Yeah, no thanks.” Luke looked down the hall the way they’d been going. It faded to white about twenty feet away. “We’re almost there. I assume you know how to use those?” He pointed at Vix’s hands.

“Of course.”

“Of course,” he mimicked as he moved on down the hall. “No one fucking tells me anything.”

“You should talk,” she accused, refusing to follow him and hurrying to catch up and walk at his side. “You can shut up now. This is my mission. You’re just along for the ride.”

“Whatever.” But he had to recognize some truth in what she said because he stopped talking and moved quietly a step behind her.

Ollie spoke in her ear. “Vix, I need to—”

“Leave me alone to complete my mission.” She left no doubt in her tone, soft as she spoke, and he cleared his throat in response.

“I don’t know what this is. I can’t—Vix, I can’t protect you.”

“You don’t need to. Hang on. We’re almost there.”

“Wait, we need….”

Ollie’s voice faded away and the white resolved slowly into trees and sky and grass. The floor stopped clanging with their footfalls and cushioned them with shredded rubber instead. Sunshine glinted off a giant climbing unit in the middle of a playground. Half a dozen children dashed back and forth and clambered up steps and slid down tubular slides.

One girl, about seven or eight, stood away from everyone else, at the edge where wood held the rubber in place. Her eyes were glazed and she swayed on the spot, which was enough to tell Vix this was her target. But she didn’t need the visual cues. The chemicals Ollie had injected weren’t just access to the void, a means of travel. They allowed her to see the pulses of energy burrowing through the little girl’s head. Three of them, and they should have been microscopic, barely visible, but the training and the technology that let her see them made them look obscenely massive among the delicate structures of the child’s brain. She wanted to sob, to cradle the child against her, comfort her. Except the girl didn’t know what was happening. She only knew that colors swirled prettily around the support posts of the climber. Another feature of the chemicals that helped her identify her target—Vix could see how the victim was affected.

The beauty of it made Vix understand how people could get lost, and she had to take a moment to wall off the melancholy, the instinct to follow the idea back to her mother and their broken relationship. She couldn’t afford the time or the pain.

Luke stretched out a hand, one dewk rising to aim at the girl, but Vix slapped it down without even thinking. When he swiveled, looking shocked, she said, “My mission.”

Mutely, he stepped back and held his hands palm up toward the girl, a “have at it” gesture that could have been mocking but seemed deferential instead.

She raised her right hand and wiggled her forefinger dewk until it vibrated, signaling that it had locked onto a borer. She twitched it and felt a zap against her fingertip. Light streaked away from the child and disappeared into the dewk, where it was locked in with a satisfying thud. The tiny light on the back of it flashed. Vix sensed the dewk going dead, encasing the borer with a lack of access to any kind of energy.

[_Yes! _]One exultant second was all she allowed herself. The other two wouldn’t be so easy.

She aimed again with the second finger, but the borer, sentient or reactionary or instinctive, wiggled faster inside the girl’s brain, burrowing toward the center where it would be harder to lock on past all the firing synapses that were normal brain activity. Vix strode closer, unafraid of being stopped by an alarmed parent or other authority. No one could see her. The girl maybe could, depending on how much damage there was and what kind, but she hadn’t reacted to the first borer’s extraction.

Vix needed more power. A thought amped up the energy in the dewk. It took more twitching and flicking than the first time, but after a few seconds, she’d locked on and dragged the borer out. Its light flashed bright against the blackness of the dewk, and Vix winced at the impact, a mini shockwave up her middle finger. The little light flashed. Time for number three.

Except the girl, freed of two-thirds of her infestation, had shaken her head like throwing off a daze and then skipped over to the swings. A moving target was going to be a lot harder. The girl smiled at a little boy struggling to get onto a swing. He said something, his lower lip pouting out, and she made an “awwww” noise Vix could hear from where she stood. The girl wrapped her arms under the boy’s armpits and hefted him up and back onto the swing, then stepped back, pulling the chains with her.

“Crap.” Vix moved across the playground, dodging a toddler who almost ran her over. She couldn’t be seen, but had enough form to be felt if someone touched her.

“Get behind her,” Luke said, mirroring her moves. “She’ll be more stable from that position. Sideways will be too tricky, with her rocking motion.”

“I know.” Vix was already heading there. “I’ve had the training.”

“But not the experience.” He leaned against a tree and folded his arms, watching her. “This is your first mission.”

“Duh.” She tried to ignore him. She wasn’t as good with her ring finger as with the others, so it took more concentration. Aim—squint—buzz—twitch. But the girl pushed the boy hard, stumbling forward, both kids screaming with laughter as they collided and tumbled. The dewk went dead, depleted but empty. Opportunity lost.

Three chances left.

“I can do it if you want me to. We can switch dewks so you get the credit. No one would know.”

Vix scoffed. “Bullshit. Your dewks wouldn’t fit me.” If they could even trade them. She had no clue if Luke was really here. If his dewks would work. Possibilities zoomed around the back of her mind, along with a sense of euphoria. Hope she didn’t want to even [_look _]at until she knew more.

And this was her mission, dammit.

The boy leaned toward the girl and threw his arms around her waist. “Wuv you, Sissy.”

She bent and hugged him back. “Love you, too. Now go play with Sammy.” When her brother ran off, the girl sat on the swing and began to pump. She hadn’t been still long enough for Vix to attempt another lock. She could see the third borer, which had a different strategy. It had stopped moving and lurked behind a neuron. But it pulsed faintly, and one end had a corkscrew completely unlike any of the other brain structures. She focused on that and locked in the dewk on the third finger of her left hand. It buzzed but immediately stilled, losing the lock. She raised it to disengage. There was no use. The kid had to stop moving.

“I can go grab the chains.” Luke scuffed a foot in the grass and yawned. “Ask Oliver how much time you’ve got left.”

“I have plenty of time,” she gritted out. They sent new agents on easy missions. Three borers instead of a dozen. Younger victims with undeveloped brain matter so the borers were easier to detect. Eight hours hadn’t sounded like much, but as long as the girl didn’t leave the playground—

“Meridian!”

The girl immediately dragged her feet to slow the swing and twisted to look at the woman now standing with the little boy at the edge of the play area. “What?”

“Time to go, sweetie!”

Vix groaned and lowered her arm. Meridian skipped over to her mother, bouncing way too much to allow a lock. Vix didn’t even try. Instead, she moved fast, following the little family to the parking lot. If she was lucky, they’d stop long enough for her to take out the final worm. But if they got in the car—no, minivan, she corrected when she saw where they were headed—and drove away, Vix would have to go back to Baselight and reorient, crossing the void again to match up locations. She couldn’t get into the van or follow using any other form of transport. She wasn’t actually here.

“Get close,” Luke bent to tell her on his way by. “I can buy you a few seconds.”

“How?” But he ran across the pavement to the minivan ahead of the family. The mom fumbled a set of keys out of her jacket pocket and pressed the fob. The van beeped, and the side door began to slide open. Luke reached it before it had gone more than a couple of inches and set the heel of his hand hard against it. The motor ground.

The mother cursed and hit the fob again. Meridian and her brother said something to their mother, but Vix didn’t hear what. She was too busy nailing that fricking worm. This time, the impact when it landed in her dewk actually knocked her hand back. An electrical vibration, like when you smacked your funny bone on something, zipped up to her wrist. But the light on the back of the dewk flashed and went dark, just like the first two had. She’d done it.

She let out a whoop and threw her hands in the air. Luke grinned at her and let go of the van door, which the mom had attempted to close and open three times. She quickly ushered her kids inside and stretched to belt them in. Vix had time to do a quick scan of Meridian’s brain. There was damage, but minor enough that the brain would compensate. The best thing about this process was that once borers were removed from a brain, it was never at risk again. No one knew exactly why, but whatever trace they left behind seemed to warn off others.

It was a sweet victory.

Vix touched her right earbud, realizing she hadn’t heard Ollie since they left the corridor. “Mission complete,” she said, but got no response. The hissing that had indicated an open comlink was gone. She remembered his voice fading away as she approached the park, but no one had told her they couldn’t communicate when she was on site. Hopefully, it was just a glitch in the technology. She wasn’t sure she could get back without him guiding her into the void again.

She checked her watch. Mission parameters allowed an agent to be on site for two hours at a time. She was just over one, which didn’t seem right. Nothing had taken that long. The sun was still high. She’d spent only minutes in the corridor with Luke…hadn’t she? Maybe crossing the void itself had taken longer than it seemed.

Reconnecting with Ollie as soon as possible was vital, but she just stood there watching Luke’s familiar stride, which always looked as if he was on his way to somewhere important. She’d get home okay. Ollie would make sure of it. But if she had a chance to take Luke with her, she wasn’t letting it go. At the very least, she was getting answers.

He stopped in front of her, one side of his mouth quirked up. “Pretty impressive start, love.”

“Vintage plumbing?”

The smirk vanished. “Uh.”

“Why, Luke? Why did you lie to me?”

He looked around as if seeking a way out. “Uhhhh,” he said again, dragging it out and rocking back on his heels. “You have to get back to Baselight.”

She noticed he said “you” and not “we.” Her heart stuttered, but she ignored it. “No. I’m not leaving until you tell me everything.”

“We don’t have time for everything.” Luke looked down at one hand and picked at the edge of his dewk sleeve before peeling it completely off his finger. “You have to get back.”

“So you said. But everything about this is not normal, so the normal rules don’t apply.” She wasn’t at all sure that was true, but it could be. It didn’t matter. The hint of euphoria, of hope, was absolutely certain this was [_her _]Luke. If that were true, then maybe she could save him. But not from back at base. Not without knowing more.

When Luke firmed his jaw and his eyes went glinty, she knew there was only one way to make him talk. “You’re back at Baselight, in a coma. You’ve been lost for over six months.”

He stared at her, his expression slackening with shock before understanding dawned, and now she saw despair.

No, dammit. She wasn’t allowing despair. “No one knows what really happened. They assume borers got to you, but they can’t see into your brain. Somehow, we’re all locked out. But they can read your brain activity with normal scans, and it’s extensive. And somehow your body is fine. There’s no atrophy or bedsores or any of the other things a bedridden person suffers from. It’s as if—”

“As if I’m still across the void. Doing my job.”

“Yes.” No one had ever dared to explain it that way, but now that she’d been there herself, had Luke here right in front of her, she knew it was true.

He sighed and reached for her hand. She gave it to him, and he tugged her to a bench under a tree, away from the parking lot and the playground. Once they sat side by side on the bench, he released her. She set her hands in her lap to keep from grabbing his back.

“I didn’t tell you about my job because of your mother. I was afraid you’d worry about me and try to get me to stop. Or leave me.” His voice roughened at the last words. He looked down at the grass and cleared his throat. “I couldn’t handle that. Not from the day we started.”

Vix’s throat swelled. “What did you think would happen when I found out? Lying is so much worse than what you were doing.” The ache intensified and burned down into her chest. “You didn’t trust me.”

His head jerked up. “No. That’s not true.”

“It is. You thought I’d be that selfish, or that scared.”

“Because [_I _]was that scared!” He thumped his fist against his chest. He’d stripped off all his dewks and dropped them onto the ground. For some reason, that hurt as much as the rest of it did. Vix wanted to pick them up and force them back onto his fingers.

She swallowed and took a deep breath. “If we were in the real world right now, having this conversation…. If I’d found out what you do and that you’d lied to me for five years…. What would happen next?”

He met her eyes, his deep blue ones glittering with regret but also showing a fierce love that made Vix blink hard to keep from bursting into tears. God, she’d missed the way he used to look at her.

“I don’t know what you would do. It wouldn’t have happened this way. You wouldn’t know what this all means. But I would fight. Fight for us, for you. To keep you in my life. I love you, Vixen Elissandra—”

“Oh, shut up.” She swiped at her cheeks and laughed. “You know I hate my name.”

“And I love it. No one has as perfect a name as you do.” His hand curled around the back of her neck. “What would you do? In real life?”

“I’d give you hell and make you get me hired at Baselight.” When the tension in his fingers eased away, she grinned. “Hell means groveling and worse. You know you’re still in for that, right?”

“Bring it.” He leaned forward, his smile softening against her mouth. A small groan vibrated at the back of his throat and he pulled her closer, wrapping his free hand around her waist and easing them into a deeper, hungrier kiss. Vix tasted him, stroked her tongue across his lips, and whimpered at the heat, the texture, the scent of him. God, she wanted him back.

Something shook in her head. A tiny sensation she’d never felt before, but she knew it meant her time was running out. She eased back and licked her lips, resting her hand on Luke’s chest to feel the thunder of his heartbeat. “I have to go.”

“I know.”

She looked up at the heartbreak in his tone. “It will be okay, Luke.”

“Will it?”

“I’ll get you back. I know you’re here—”

“Where?”

Here.” She waved her hand around. “Wherever. I found you in here, and I’ll get you out.”

He laid his hand over hers and pressed it harder against his chest. “I don’t know if you can, Vix. I may be lost in here forever.”

“No.” She shook her head, but she wasn’t a fool. She couldn’t hide from the truth and expect to help him. “Why do you think that?”

“Because this isn’t your first mission, sweetheart. It was mine.”

 

[* *]

Chapter Four

“Are you ready?”

The voice in Vix’s ears came from a long distance away, yet sounded clear and normal. It wasn’t her ears that were muffled, but her brain. Where was she?

The trees and bench and kids and sunshine were gone. Luke was gone. She was alone, bodiless, full of everything and nothing…except no, she wasn’t. A second ago that was true, but now the void was gone. If it had been there at all.

“Vix, are you ready?”

Ollie again. Was she ready for what? Panic fluttered at the pulse in her neck, and she became aware of standing, feet braced comfortably, her dewks heavy on her fingers. Had she even started? Was all of that—rescuing Meridian, talking to Luke—had it all happened in her head? But no, things didn’t work like that. Time had passed. This couldn’t be back where she’d started.

“Ready for what?” she asked.

“What do you mean, ready for what?” Ollie demanded, and he wasn’t calm and reassuring like he should be if she was just starting out. “Are you fully back? Can I open the fucking airlock and get you out of there?”

Her breath whooshed out and she opened her eyes. The airlock was bright white around her, and she felt no trace of the flamer/icer combo inside her anymore. She lifted her hands and studied her dewks. The lights were dark except the one on the forefinger of her left hand. “Yes. I’m ready. Open the hatch.”

Ollie cursed in a steady stream while the hatch did its slow, methodical thing. His hands were through, groping in the air for her before it had fully retracted. She let him help her because he seemed to need to, but she felt fine. Steady and normal, except for the urgency driving at the base of her spine.

“I have to go see Luke,” she told Ollie as soon as she stood in mission one.

“Fuck that.” With fast, almost frantic movements he stripped off her helmet, slowing down only to gently remove the earbuds from her ears. “You need to be checked out medically and debriefed. Med-techs are right outside to take you to the scan bay.”

Vix rested a palm on the side of her head. “What? I’m not infected. The mission went fine.”

“No, Vix.” He stopped halfway through ripping open the front of her jumpsuit, his expression incredulous. “It was everything except fine.”

“But Meridian is okay, right?” She motioned to the now-dark case on the floor. The controller lay in it upside down, as if Ollie had thrown it in. “I got the borers. She’s fine.”

“Who?” He looked where she’d pointed, then shook his head. “Your target’s name was Yvelle. Nothing’s changed. We’re sending someone else as soon as we figure out what went wrong with you.”

“Nothing went wrong.” She held up her hands to show him the dewks. “Tell me these aren’t full.”

“They aren’t.” But then he looked at them, frowned, and grabbed her hands. “What the fuck?”

“Ollie, just—”

“No.” He ripped off her jumpsuit, leaving her in a tank and tight shorts, and dragged her to the door by her elbow. Outside, the anteroom was packed full. Skye hovered next to the door, her hand at her throat and a furrow between her brows that looked like it wasn’t going away soon. Half the people who surrounded Vix before she took two steps wore lab coats. The other half wore jumpsuits and helmets.

“Wait.” An older man wearing small, round-framed glasses and holding a scanner and wand stepped in front of Vix. “First, we have to make sure she’s not infected.”

“Wouldn’t the big board have already picked it up if I had been?”

“Shh.”

Vix rolled her eyes and stood still while the man, whose lab coat had “Dr. Finley” stitched above the pocket, scanned her from head to toe. The unit beeped, and he shook his head wonderingly at the readings.

“What does it say?” Ollie leaned forward without letting go of her arm. “Is she safe?”

“She’s not infected, and she’s definitely been through the void. The chemicals are fully depleted. She used them up. But the mission was definitely not finished.”

“Then what’s this?” Vix held up her hands again. A woman in a black jumpsuit but with no helmet pressed through the crowd, making excited noises.

“Give me those.” She carefully disengaged them and stored them in a box, then hurried off. That seemed to be everyone’s cue to leap into action. They herded Vix outside and loaded her onto a gurney, covered her with a blanket, and thundered down the corridor. Someone somehow got a blood pressure cuff on her left arm as they moved, and someone else called out pulse ox levels and heart rate. As far as Vix could tell, everything was normal.

She didn’t fight, because she assumed they were taking her to medical, where Luke was. But they shoved into a large elevator way too early, and next thing she knew she was in the most secure part of the base, where new recruits never went. A couple of minutes later they were all in a large room that looked half medical, half conference, with equipment on one side and a metal table surrounded by chairs on the other.

Voices bombarded her, questions of all kinds, everyone vying to get their answers first. The tension level climbed with each one until Vix had had enough.

“That’s it!” Her voice echoed off the walls and ceiling, and everyone shut up at once. She swung her legs over the edge of the gurney and tossed the blanket to the end.

“I’m fine. There was nothing wrong with mission protocol. What happened was unique to me and isn’t going to happen to anyone else.”

Dr. Finley and a few other people grumbled.

“I mean it! Don’t put missions on hold. If Yvelle is still infected, she’s got very little time left. Am I right?” She looked at Ollie, who hesitated before nodding. She turned back to the crowd. “I swear, I’m fine. All your instruments and instincts are telling you that’s true. Go save those people! I won’t talk to anyone but Oliver.”

They protested, but with Ollie’s help, she convinced them all to leave. Once the door closed behind the last tech, she hopped off the gurney, wincing at the chill floor against her bare feet.

“We need to hurry. I have to get to Luke. Bring the chems—”

“No fucking way.” He lifted her—actually picked her up and dumped her back onto the gurney. “You’re telling me what the fuck happened. And then we’ll talk about what comes next.”

She chafed but knew he wasn’t going to give in. “What happened from this end?”

“You slipped into the void normally, as far as I could tell. And then you started talking gibberish about Luke.”

“Did I tell you about the lightsaber?”

“What?” He reared back. “What lightsaber?”

She rolled her lips inward, suddenly uncertain. “The lightsaber you and Luke took from Testing Two?” She waved an imaginary saber. “You know. The mosquitoes?”

He stared at her. “How do you know about that?”

“Okay. Shit.” Maybe it had been all in her head. But… “Did they check my dewks?”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Please. Just find out.”

He blew out a breath and pulled out his phone, pacing while he struck the screen with his thumbs, pulling up the data. “Wow. Okay. Yeah. Two dewks discharged without trapping, but three were full. And one—holy hell, that’s big. You had to feel that all the way up your arm.”

“Nearly.” She remembered the sensation and rubbed her wrist. “But they didn’t come from Yvelle, you said.”

“No. Geez, I haven’t seen anything register like this since—”

“Luke’s first mission.” Her voice was small, but it struck hard.

“Yeah.” Ollie put the phone away and folded his arms, standing wide in front of her. “Explain.”

She told him everything that had happened. It took way too long because he kept interrupting. The corridor she’d been in was normal, but he’d never told her it was the edge of the void, because there was no such thing. The resolution into reality had happened the way it was supposed to, too, but not the loss of connection. Ollie hadn’t said most of what Vix remembered him saying, and he said her side of the conversation had made so little sense, he wasn’t sure if it matched her recollection or not. But he’d lost her quickly, been out of communication for over an hour. And that [_never _]happened. He’d only known she was back because the controls registered a new brainwave pattern when she returned from the void.

“So was I in the void the whole time?” She touched her head again. “Am I not able to get through to the other side? Maybe my brain is messed up. You said I didn’t react right to the icer.”

“You didn’t react the way most people do. That doesn’t mean it was wrong.” He was pacing again, his arms locked tight. “We’ll have to do some more testing and go through simulations.”

“I want to try to get Luke back.”

That stopped him. “How?”

“Inject me like I’m about to go on a mission. If I’m in contact with his body, I can— Stop shaking your head.”

“There’s no way anyone will authorize that. We have strict control of the chems and how they’re used. You can’t enter the void outside an airlock. We’d have no way to trace you or bring you back. You’d have no guidance system.”

She didn’t care. The whole time she’d been talking, she’d been carefully planning. She knew her contact with Luke had been real. Not a fluke. But she also knew she was running out of time faster than an agent on a routine mission. If she didn’t go get Luke now, he’d be lost forever. And she was the only one who could. A psychologist, a marriage counselor, would say his lies and compartmentalization demonstrated a significant rift in their relationship. But even in the brief conversation she’d had with him, she knew it was the opposite. They were the result of a soul-deep love and need that she’d taken for granted until six months ago. She had a second chance, and she was taking it—even if it meant destroying any chance of working at Baselight in the future. If she succeeded, it wouldn’t matter. If she failed….

Nothing would matter.

“Ollie,” she whispered, and put her hand to her forehead, fluttering her eyelids.

He stopped immediately and braced his hands next to her hips. “What? What’s wrong? Are you sick?”

“Just a little faint. Can you get me some water?”

“I’m getting Dr. Finley. Hold on.”

“Just water. My mouth is so dry.” She managed to rasp it, and he changed direction halfway to the intercom and went into the next room, where the sink was.

Vix leaped off the gurney and dashed across the room, grabbing a chair from the conference table on the way. Before Ollie could turn from the sink, a too-full cup of water in his hand, she’d slammed his door closed and shoved the chair under the handle.

“Hey! Vix!” He pounded on the door. “What the hell are you doing?”

It wouldn’t hold long. The handle rattled, then the whole door shook against the frame. She hurried to the shelves on the back wall. She’d have thought all the chems would be secured, but here was a whole shelf of cases, sectioned off by gender and weight. She ran her finger past the labels until she found what she needed.

“Don’t you dare!” Ollie shouted. “Vixen, you’re crazy! You can’t do this! It will kill you!”

She snatched the case off the shelf and ran—no, flew—down the corridor, up the stairs because the elevator was too easy to control or corner her in, and all the way to the infirmary. She skidded into Luke’s unit, and when one of the nurses jumped in her way, yelling her name, she shoved him hard enough to knock him to the ground.

“No time, no time.” There was no way to lock the door, to keep everyone away. She moved as fast as she could. No time for swabbing or protective gear. She whipped open the case on Luke’s bed, next to his thigh. He lay as always, with apparently no change. Well, she was going to fix that.

Someone yelled on the other side of the curtain, but they’d apparently decided to call for help instead of confronting the crazy woman themselves. They hadn’t seen what she carried, couldn’t have any clue what she intended because they’d be in here stopping her.

She snapped the flamer tube onto the end of the syringe and yanked the cap off with her teeth. Then, finally, she slowed down. She’d never injected herself before, and this couldn’t be haphazard and random. As she eased out a slow breath, she positioned the needle tip on the dot where Ollie had injected her earlier. Calculated the angle, said a quick prayer, and slid the needle in. It pinched, but felt normal, so she depressed the plunger.

The heat seeped into her vein and sped up her arm and into her chest much faster than it had the first time, no doubt because of her still-racing heart. In seconds, it hit her brain, and she readied the icer. Footsteps pounded in the hall. She had no time left. With sure movements, she followed with the icer, but when it hit her brain, she was ready. No flash of void and back to herself this time.

This time, she dove in hard.

The vast magnificence of it hit her all at once, but she was too focused to be overcome. Luke!

No need to shout. I’m right here.

[_Where? _]But immediately, she felt him. There was no sight or hearing here, no physical senses of any kind. But there was awareness, and she had a connection to him at the soul level. And she realized that’s what was being transported when they went on a mission—the soul was powerful enough to take the energy of the dewks, to manifest it in a comprehensible, usable way, so that they could save people. It was so incredible, so amazing on a level she couldn’t express, that this time she almost lost herself.

But only almost. Because she still knew her soul, knew Luke’s, and knew she had one chance to get this to work. Her logical, perpetual-student brain was working over details, regretting that she hadn’t asked Luke what happened, how he got caught, so they could duplicate and reverse it. But that was a dim piece of her consciousness. Really, none of that mattered. Only one thing did.

Do you want to come home?

More than anything. Please, Vix, save me.

Hold on.

She sensed when they touched, connected, and locked on. It seared and made her cry out. Fear shot through her, her first clue that she was coming out of the void, because she felt it all the way through her body.

This was something she could never change. She and Luke were fused. What kind of damage could that do?

But then she blinked, and it was over. She stood next to the bed, the needle on the floor at her feet, the contents of the chem case scattered across Luke’s legs. The room was full of people, all of them standing perfectly still, half of them with their mouths open. Ollie was closest, next to her but not looking at her. Because Luke was awake.

“Vix.” His voice rumbled into her, and the sensation was so exquisite she shuddered. Her eyes almost rolled back in her head, but now she cared what everyone thought. Her cheeks heated and embarrassment quickly banished the shivers that she suspected could have become something much bigger.

“Luke.”

He opened his arms, and she launched herself onto the bed, onto his lap, and kissed him. All around them, people laughed and cheered. Tears streamed down Vix’s cheeks. Luke’s thumbs stroked them away. His hands cradled her head, stroked down her back, and she couldn’t keep hers out of his hair. He drew in a sharp breath as she dug in, but she knew that was pleasure, not pain, because of what she felt against her thigh.

She loosened her grip and touched his face, her fingers immediately drenched. He was crying as hard as she was.

After five minutes or five hours—she didn’t know or care—she and Luke were alone except for Ollie, whose cheeks bore telltale tracks of his own.

“The med team won’t let you out of here for a couple of days,” he told Luke. “They’re not convinced you’re fine.”

“I am.”

“Six freaking months in the void, man. You’re in for a [_lot _]of mental health review.”

Luke made a face but didn’t actually look that unhappy. “They can do whatever they need to. As long as Vix is here, everything will be okay.”

She smiled when he threaded his fingers through hers, but knew by the way he eyed her that he could tell she wasn’t as convinced. The part of her soul that had connected with his still felt tender and raw. She didn’t regret what she’d done, and the future didn’t scare her, but she was realistic about the coming adjustment. They had as much work to do together as he did medically. If neither of them was cleared to stay active agents, that would change their lives even more than they already were.

But she had Luke back. That was the important thing.

“What happened?” Ollie asked Luke, and for the first time, Vix saw the anguish he felt over Luke’s condition. Not just the loss and regret, but guilt. She realized he must have been in control the day Luke got lost.

Luke shook his head. “I was an idiot. There was a swarm. The poor bastard I was sent in for was shining like a Christmas tree, and as soon as I started pulling worms, they turned and came for me. I got most of them.”

“Yeah, command couldn’t believe how many you’d transferred.”

Vix pictured the situation. She’d gone after three borers, so her six dewks were plenty. But more advanced agents carried collection units. They could discharge their dewks and take more. But from what Luke was describing, he’d had to move fast to battle them all.

“My helmet got damaged, and they started to target my brain. I had to take off the helmet.”

Ollie’s face darkened, and his tone shook with fury when he said, “That is the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard. You’re not that strong. No one is.”

Luke grew serious, and his hand on Vix’s back stiffened. “I didn’t have a choice, Oll. I’d been working with Skye on barriers, and I used them. I knew I had one shot. Let them in superficially, and then—”

“Take them into the void.”

Luke nodded. “They bamfed out of there like little firefly flashes. But one got far enough into my head that when it flared out, it blinded me from the inside, and I got stuck.” He turned to Vix. “Seeing you shocked the hell out of me. How did you know what to do?”

She laughed shakily. So much could have been so dramatically bad if anything had gone just a little differently. “I didn’t. It just happened.”

His hand tightened on hers, and he said in a low voice—that rumbled into her again and almost rendered her incapable of hearing him—“I’m so sorry I didn’t let us be what we could have been. I love you so much, Vix.”

“I love you, too.” She turned into his shoulder, desperately trying to rise above the desire he was generating. “Stop talking like that or you’re going to do something inappropriate to me with just your voice.”

He groaned into her ear, a small, private sound. Hell, she needed to be alone with him right now.

“Ollie, go away. We can finish this later.”

That did [_not _]have the effect she expected. Luke stiffened in every muscle and put her away from him. “What did you say?”

She frowned. “I just—”

Ollie coughed. “Um.”

“You called him Ollie.”

Vix looked at Ollie, then back at Luke, confused. “Yeah. So?”

“No one calls him Ollie.”

“Look, Luke,” Oliver started, sounding scared. “Dude, it doesn’t mean anything. She just—”

“I’ve called him Ollie from the day he came to get me,” she said coolly, “to tell me my husband was in a coma. It just fit him better than Oliver. You called him Oll. What’s the big deal?”

“Yeah. [_I _]called him Oll. No one else in the world shortens his name, and for damned sure no one calls him Ollie.”

“Skye does.”

That stopped both men. Ollie had pulled himself into a defensive posture, as if he thought Luke was going to attack him.

Luke’s eyebrows shot up toward his hairline.

“She does?”

“Ummmm,” Ollie said, and Luke laughed, gathering Vix back into his arms.

“All right then. I guess we’re done here.”

Ollie beat feet without another word, and Vix and Luke spent the rest of the day and half the night talking and kissing. Hard as it was not to take it further, they refrained, not wanting to embarrass the medical team who insisted on taking Luke’s vitals every half hour and never left them completely alone.

“Will you forgive me?” Luke eventually asked after they’d carefully circled those words for hours. They lay together on the hospital bed now, with [_two _]special pillows programmed to fit them perfectly.

“Oh, babe, I already did.” She kissed his palm. “But remember what I said about the groveling and everything? That’s still on the table.”

Luke smiled and leaned to kiss her again. “For the rest of our lives, Vix. I’ll make up for it for the rest of our lives.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

About Natalie J. Damschroder

Natalie J. Damschroder grew up in Massachusetts, and loves the New England Patriots more than anything. (Except her family. And writing and reading. And popcorn.) She writes romantic adventure (sometimes paranormal) as well as YA paranormal adventure as NJ Damschroder. When not writing, she does freelance editing and project management. She and her husband have two daughters who are no longer teenagers, one of whom is also a novelist. (The other one prefers math. Smart kid. Practical.) You can learn more about her and her books at www.nataliedamschroder.com or interact with her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Brook Hollow Trilogy (contemporary romance)

The Goddesses Rising Trilogy (paranormal romance)

The Soul Series (paranormal romance)

Romantic Adventure

Short Fiction

Young Adult (as NJ Damschroder)

 

 

A Real Boy

By Vicky Burkholder

To my One Sentences buddies – you all are the best.

 

[* *]

A Real Boy

One sentence was all it took.

“Jellybelly, help me.”

Only one person ever called her Jellybelly. And that person, her sister Ariel, had died a year ago, along with Ariel’s husband. Or so she’d thought.

Jillian Night paced the carpeted floor in her boss’s office. The silence of her steps irritated her. She wanted noise. Stomping feet or slamming doors. Fleet Admiral Keeley Reed just sat there, watching her.

“You told me they were dead. You said there was no chance they survived the explosion, or even if they did, Fomor Prime is a restricted planet with bubble or underground populations, no life outside.” She stopped and spun around to stare her boss down, her palms flat on her desk as she leaned in. “So tell me. Is there any chance at all that Ariel or Blake is still alive?”

Admiral Reed sat back in her chair, her fingers steepled in front of her, and blew out a sigh. “We didn’t think so.”

“You didn’t think so? You told me they were dead! It’s been a year, Keeley. An entire bloody year. I could have been looking for her. For them. Found them.”

“Are you certain the message was from her?”

“Yes. You know as well as I do that she’s the only person who ever got away with calling me Jellybelly. And she used my private account. There aren’t many who know that. Less than a handful. It was her, Keeley. It was Ariel.” She stepped off again, her pacing making a path in the low-napped carpet. Keeley’s office was bland for a higher-level admiral—gray carpet, light blue walls, navy drapes at a window that looked out over a park. But, like Jillian, Admiral Keeley Reed was about results, not trappings. Jillian turned back to stare at her boss. “I have to go there. Send me to Fomor Prime.”

Keeley was shaking her head before the second word left Jillian’s mouth. “You know I can’t do that. Not only is it a dead planet, the bubble is a closed one. What little society they have is so secretive, we can’t even get an operative in there to see what’s what. I can’t risk losing you.”

Jillian slammed her palms on the desk again. “Either send me, or I’ll go alone. Let me find out for you. And while I’m there, I can look for Ari.”

The admiral narrowed her dark eyes at Jillian and tilted her head to the side, her short, gray hair brushing her shoulder. Jillian knew that look and knew the admiral was up to something. “You have an idea.”

“Is Nightwalker still a solid cover?”

It was Jillian’s turn to tilt her head as she thought. “I haven’t used that one in a while, but it should still be good. Why? What do you have in mind?”

  • * *

Jillian woke slowly in her cabin, the drugs wearing off as her ship sped toward its destination. She pulled the depleted med patch off her neck and headed for the bridge. “Hi, Zeus,” she addressed the android that was her current partner as she shook off the last vestiges of the drugs and sat down in the pilot’s seat. Sleeping through the trip wasn’t standard, but she needed the down time for other medications to take effect. “Good to see you’re still here.”

“Where else would I be? It’s not as if I get to sleep away the entire trip.” Zeus sounded cranky. Could androids be cranky? This was only their third mission together so she was still learning about him.

“I see you haven’t learned any manners while I’ve been napping.”

The robot was far too lifelike at times. Several inches taller than she was, he had dark, wavy hair styled military short, and sapphire blue eyes so piercing they could only come from a lab. And an attitude that should be programmed out of him, except she kind of liked it. But for all his “humanity,” he was still just a machine. She’d partnered with several people during her time in Fleet, but none were a good “fit” so she finally refused to take on any more human counterparts. She had turned down every partner sent to her until Keeley had finally given up and assigned her an android, one of the latest designs.

He spun around in the pilot’s seat and grinned at her. Had he been human…. She shoved that thought aside. He was a robot. Period. Though…the tech talk she’d zoned out on when he was first assigned to her niggled in her mind. Something about a human working through the mech? No. That couldn’t be right. She shook off her musings. She had other things to think about.

“What would you rather have?” Zeus asked. “Some prim and proper brain, or someone who isn’t afraid to beat you at tri-d chess?”

“A little respect once in a while would be nice.” She ran her fingers through hair that was a foot longer than it had been a week ago. Another day and it would be down to her waist.

“I respect you.”

Jillian could swear she almost heard a chuckle in his voice. And was that a wink? Androids didn’t wink, but she could swear he winked. It had to be the drugs working out of her system. Right? Right. “Enough. What’s our status?”

“All ship functions are within normal bounds, Agent Night.”

Jillian gaped at him. Where had Zeus gone? He sounded like a real robot. “Zeus?”

His eyes blinked and she could swear she saw his features change, soften, become more…human.

“My apologies, boss. A minor hiccup. All systems functioning at optimal levels.”

“Zeus? Do you have a human counterpart back on base?” She figured there was nothing like the direct approach.

He tilted his head at her, a very human gesture. “Why would you ask that?” He swiveled around in his seat, rising and heading toward the door to the bridge. “I need to get the décor ready for our plan.” He paused and looked back at her. “Boss, if you’re fully awake, and your bio-scan says you are, I am to tell you where to find the particulars for this job.”

Jillian nodded. “Okay, where’d the admiral hide it this time?” Standard protocol said she didn’t know the job details until they were within a day or two of the location. Though she knew the cover she’d be using this time, and where she was going, she didn’t know anything about the planet. “Closed system” meant just that. No information, or very little of any use, was available.

“The information is in you,” Zeus said.

“What?” Jillian jumped, hitting her head on the low overhead control panels. “You mean I’m going to have to perform some kind of surgery on myself or something?” She rubbed her head, wondering what the hell Keeley was up to this time. Having hidden codes to access information was nothing new, but usually it was just a matter of bringing up a secure file.

“It never bothers you when you have to mess with my innards,” Zeus said. “But in answer to your question, no you don’t. It’s all in your head. You just need to say the code word and you’ll remember.”

Jillian waited, but the android remained silent. “Well, what is the code?”

“I don’t know. She wouldn’t tell me, but…” Zeus continued before Jillian could interrupt, “you can access a message from the admiral by using your code.”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Jillian muttered.

“What?”

“Nothing. It’s just an expression from an old Earth story I read once when I was a kid. It’s one of my favorites.”

“That old, huh?”

Jillian stuck her tongue out. “Very funny.”

“While you work, I’m going to check on the armaments and fancy up the décor.”

“Expecting trouble?”

“No. But as you humans are fond of saying, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”

“Fine. I’ve got work to do too.” As he left, Jillian called up the security panels and punched in her unique code.

“Retinal scan, please.” A flat, toneless voice came over the speaker. Jillian opened her eyes wide and leaned close to the screen. She always hated this, even though there was no physical sensation. “Identity verified. You may proceed.”

“Hello, Jillian.” The image of the admiral appeared on the screen. “As you have probably learned from Zeus, your instructions and what information we have are already within you and only you have the key. If you think about it, Alice will show you the way.” Keeley’s picture faded.

“Alice? What did she mean by that? Alice who?” Keeley’s cryptic remark puzzled Jillian. Then it dawned on her. Her boss knew of her love of ancient books. Could it be possible? It would have to be reference to something that wouldn’t come up in normal conversation. White Rabbit? No, that was too obvious; same with “looking glass” and other words. Nothing seemed to fit until finally she got it. Jabberwocky! She said the word aloud and it was as if a door opened in her mind. Suddenly she knew who she would meet, and what she would have to do while she searched for Ariel. It wasn’t the worst job she’d ever had, but it ranked up there. She wondered briefly how in the name of all forty-two universes Keeley had implanted the information in her head.

She punched the ship’s intercom. “Zeus, come back to the bridge please.”

He appeared almost immediately, and Jillian wondered if he’d really been checking on their weapons. “Code Jabberwocky,” she said.

His eyes blinked hard one time. “We are 23.5 hours out from Fomor Prime. I am to present myself as your serving-mech and record everything we see and hear for a direct line back to the admiral.”

“Correct. We’re a lot closer to our destination than I thought.”

“We caught a good tailwind?”

Jillian snorted. “Continue to destination. At arrival, assume low stealth orbit behind Beta Moon. Alert me when status is achieved.”

“Yes, boss.”

Quickly, Jillian went to her cabin, where she opened a hidden wall panel and removed a small, well-worn travel case. Inside the case were several finger-length tubes that she laid out on her bunk, along with a suggestive costume. Three hours later, an entirely different Jillian emerged. Gone were the blonde hair, blue eyes and pale freckles she’d had at Fleet headquarters. Ebony hair trailed down her back, enhancing hazel eyes and olive skin. Only a geneticist would know her true coloring.

“Zeus, you on?” she called as she headed to the bridge.

“Aren’t I always?” He let out a whistle that was as old as time when Jillian entered the bridge. “Wooee, look at you, babe. I never did like the blonde look on you.”

Jillian whispered a few well-placed epithets to Zeus’s programmer. “If you’re finished, check my walk and accent. Circuit walker status from Vega One. Thought it would be better if I wasn’t a common street walker. Not quite as high as an escort, but higher than most. It seems the supreme commander of the high council at our destination has a weakness for dark-haired types. At least, that was the lowdown we got from an informant. The supreme commander uses lower-level walkers quite often, but never the same one more than once. Oh, and get this, his name is Angel.”

“Are you sure you don’t want Escort status? You’ve got the look.”

Jillian shook her head. “No. There are only so many of them and they’re too well-documented. Circuit walkers are less well known. I still have a good background, thanks to Admiral Reed, but not so high as to be newsworthy.”

“Understood.” He studied her, and she could swear she saw something in his eyes. Something that didn’t belong to a machine. “Lady, you are one well-put-together hooker. Dang, woman.”

“Zeus!” she warned. “If I ever meet the man who programmed you….”

“Are you sure it was a man?” He held up his hands as she slapped the back of his head. “All right, all right.”

Jillian walked the length of the small ship, slipping into the persona she needed. Vega One was a play world where pleasures of any kind could be had for a price. Although prostitution was an accepted profession, the circuit walkers on Vega One had elevated it to an art form and were often in demand on other worlds for those who could afford the price. It was a persona Jillian had used before, but not for a couple of years. “Hi, honey. Are you ready for some fun?”

Zeus watched her, his head tilted to one side. “Put a little more swing in your hips and lower your voice two keys.”

Jillian did as instructed and tried again.

“Perfect, as always, boss. By the way, did you know I’m a fully functional android?”

She glanced at his expressionless face, wondering again about his programmers. “Yeah. I’m going to grab some food and study my notes. Call me when we reach orbit.” She quickly left the small bridge area and retreated to the galley. What was she going to do about Zeus? He was becoming more familiar every day, and she actually found herself thinking about him in rather human terms at times. They’d only been partnered for three missions, but she enjoyed his wit, his sensitivity to her feelings, even the way he looked. She sighed and shook her head. She’d heard about agents who supposedly fell in love with their computer counterparts. It was never a good thing.

While they flew, she checked Zeus’s décor changes to the interior. If the worst happened and someone came aboard, she had to really look like a circuit walker. As she studied what he’d done, she had to admit it had been a good job—maybe even better than she could have done. Filmy material in shades of red, gold and cream draped the second cabin. The standard bunk had been converted to a larger bed lined with pillows. Flameless candles sat on a low table, and light perfume scented the room. She silently thanked the admiral for the supplies. It was a room made for intimacy. Shame she’d never put it to any use.

“Boss? We’ve reached orbit. How do you want to go in?”

She straightened her shoulders and got into the persona. “I’ll take it from here. Oh, and see if you can cook up something for us to have malfunction. Something we’ll have to put down for repair for.”

“Not a problem.”

Jillian took the controls and thumbed open communications. “Hello out there, this is Nightwalker from Vega One. Do you read?”

“Tyree Base here,” a deep, bored voice answered her. “Fomor is a restricted world. State your business, Nightwalker.”

“Honey, I’ve got a…” She looked up as Zeus entered the bridge. He silently gave her the problem. “…navigation problem and need Spacer’s Aid.” No world in the United Confederation could turn down a Spacer’s Aid request.

“Hold your position, Nightwalker.”

“Could be a little bit of a problem, darlin’, but I’ll do my best.” Jillian flew erratically, as if she really did have a navigation problem. She waited for what seemed an eternity before she finally got permission to land.

“Nightwalker?”

Jillian noticed that the controller’s voice was no longer bored. “I’m still here, honey. I’m not going anywhere like this.”

“You have permission to land. And welcome to Tyree.”

“Oh dear. I thought this was Terra Twelve. My navigation must be worse than I thought. Oooh, the senator is going to be so disappointed.” She giggled a little.

“When you land, you’re invited to rest in a private suite, and later, a dinner hosted by our Supreme Commander.”

“Why thank you, honey. I’m sure that will be just so amazing.”

Jillian thumbed off the communicator and raised her eyebrow. “They don’t waste much time around here, do they? Is everything ready?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Zeus perfectly mimicked the radio voice.

“Zeus, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were human sometimes.”

“I’m not sure if I’ve just been complimented or insulted. By the way, this collar is too tight. My circuits are strangling.” Jillian laughed as he adjusted the collar on his formal servant’s suit.

“Tyree Base, this is Nightwalker. Are you all ready for me?”

“Nightwalker, welcome to Tyree Base. You’re cleared to land at Alpha pad, slip one.”

Jillian glanced at Zeus, her eyebrows raised. “I wonder who they kicked out to get me that slot. It’s right next to the bubble.” A few minutes later, she touched down and checked her costume. She wore a long black skirt with multiple slits up to her hips, high-heeled sandals laced up to her knees, and a lacy camisole. A short, blood-red cape with the Vega One heart symbol on the collar covered her shoulders. “Okay, Zeus, we’re on. Be sure to keep your recorders on at all times. I’ll back up with my collar recorder.” She opened the hatch and strode into the sealed passageway to a chorus of catcalls and whistles. Zeus stayed the required three steps behind and to her right.

An overweight, balding officer who looked like he hadn’t worn his uniform in decades met them at the gateway to the bubble.

“Why, hello there, honey,” Jillian said in her sweetest voice. “Are you the gentleman who’s going to fix my machine for me?”

The man’s face turned two shades redder as the two lackeys behind him struggled to contain their laughter and shock. “No, I am not! I am Colonel Manuel Johnson. These two men will attend to your repairs. If you’ll just give them your key codes.”

Jillian maintained a calm face while studying the overblown colonel. The key codes were unique to every ship and were guarded closely by the owners. They allowed access to all aspects of the ship, not just the navigation system. She also knew that for a nav problem, key codes were not necessary at all. “Oh, there’s no need for that, darling. My servant here will accompany them and take care of all access.”

The men blustered some, but couldn’t risk forcing the issue. “All right. If you’ll accompany me, we’ll try to accommodate your needs,” the colonel said.

Jillian put her hand on his arm. “Oh, I’m sure you will.” She waved Zeus out and left with the colonel. As they entered the building, she touched the button on her leather collar that enabled the recorder on board the ship.

An hour later, she wondered at the wisdom of her costume as she gingerly peeled the spiked sandals from her aching feet. Zeus had joined her, signaling that everything was under control. They’d been shown to an over-done room with an attached bath that was as large as her entire ship. If she hadn’t been so tired of the show, she’d have laughed at the opulence. Zeus’s acute sensors had already detected several listening devices in the room. “Zeus?” She aimed her voice toward one of the listening devices. “Please run me a bath.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He nodded to let her know the bathroom was clear of listening devices, and they moved into the slightly smaller room.

“This place is definitely bigger than it looks. I got a tour of the base, ninety percent of which is underground. I got some great footage, but I didn’t see anything that looked like a prison or holding cells. Just the ‘nice’ stuff. What did you find out from our two repairmen?” Jillian attempted to undress while keeping a towel strategically placed. It shouldn’t matter that he saw her naked, after all, he was an android, but for some reason, it did matter. While he had his back turned, she sank gratefully into the hot water he had run.

“I found out they weren’t very knowledgeable about navigation systems. They kept trying to work on the propulsion engines and tried to access our files.”

“What?” She sat up quickly, then noticed the wide-eyed look Zeus gave her and sank back down into the water. For a second she could almost have sworn he looked hungry, but it disappeared and he was implacable again.

“Not to worry, boss. After they left, I repaired everything and the only files they got were the ones you wanted them to have. You’re ready to go.”

“Thanks.” She sighed in relief. “Did you find out anything about where Ariel is?”

“I was able to backdoor into their systems. I found some lowdown on ‘special prisoners’ being held here, but no info as to where or who. I didn’t have time to dig very deep. Their blocks are…challenging.”

She shook her head. “I sometimes wonder where you got your vocabulary. Your programmer must be a very interesting person.”

“That he is, boss.”

Jillian looked up quickly. “Do you know your programmer?” While it wasn’t unheard of, it was unusual for an android to know its creator. She wondered if he would answer this time. All the other times she’d asked, he’d evaded her question. Three months together and he wouldn’t give her a straight answer.

He smiled, winked, and gave a little shrug. “Of course. Now, about your sister and her husband….”

Jillian didn’t think androids were supposed to be capable of human deception, but she knew Zeus was. He’d answered her, but then switched immediately to another topic. She decided to let it drop for the time being since she had other things to worry about. “I’m supposed to be meeting with the supreme commander for a party this evening. I’ll get what information I can my way while you keep trying your way.”

“Boss, be careful.”

The tone in his voice seemed warmer than usual, almost as if he actually cared. “I always am, Zeus. I always am.”

She finished her bath and dressed in a tight, low-cut, red silk bustier and an even tighter skirt that barely covered her bottom. Deadly high-heeled boots that reached mid-thigh finished the costume. She opted to let her hair hang loose. Her tiny bag nonetheless carried an arsenal of weaponry, as did her clothing, none of which could be detected by any scanner. She blew out a breath. “See you in one hour. Please don’t be late.”

“Yes, boss.”

  • * *

An hour later, a very frustrated Jillian opened the door to the supreme commander’s suite and let Zeus in. “Did you have any trouble?”

“Not once I explained what the ropes and other paraphernalia were for.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her. She didn’t think he knew what that facial expression meant, but he used it properly. She seriously wanted to meet Zeus’s programmer when she returned. She’d tried several times, but every time she was at headquarters, he wasn’t. And there were no “official” pictures. There never were of headquarters people. But that wasn’t her current issue.

“I’ll just bet.” She turned to glance at the man sitting placidly at the table, the remains of their dinner congealing on the dishes. She sat on the edge of the table in front of the commander. “What is your name?”

“I am Supreme Commander Angel Chanel.”

“How much of the hypno drug did you give him?” Zeus asked.

“A triple dose. With his bulk, I figured I’d need it. How’s our time?”

“Calculating his metabolism, weight and the dosage, I’d say we have an hour.”

“I can always give him more if I need to.” She leaned close to the man. “Do you have any Fleet people as prisoners?”

He giggled. “Oh, yes. I have several. But they don’t like to talk and that’s no fun. I have a shipment of them ready to go out tomorrow.” He frowned. “I don’t like the redhead. She wouldn’t play. But they said I had to keep her here. I’ll be glad when she’s gone.”

Jillian caught her breath. Ariel had bright red hair. She forced back the urge to strangle the man. “Who said that?”

“The people who think they are in charge.” He giggled. “But I’ll show them. I’ll show them all. I’m not just a way station for their slaves. They’ll see. I don’t need them. I am the supreme commander. They’ll be answering to me. Just you wait.”

Frustrated, Jillian repeated her question. “Who are they?”

He just stared, then one shoulder lifted. “Thinks he’s so powerful. He’s nothing. Just runs a few stations. I’ve got an entire world! Hah.”

Jillian turned to Zeus. “A few stations? That sounds familiar. Might need to let Keeley know.” He nodded and she turned back to the commander. “Where are the prisoners being held?”

“The shipment is in a secret room that only I have the code to.” He smiled again.

“Where is the room?”

“Behind a hidden door in my office. Back door takes them right to the transport so nobody knows.”

“What’s the code?” Jillian barely contained her anger. For two seconds, she considered just killing the man, but that went against her ethics. He would be dealt with legally, not when he was helpless.

He shook his head and smiled. “Shh. It’s a secret.”

Frustrated, she tried several ways to get the code, but he wouldn’t budge. “That must be one hell of a block he’s got on that memory,” she said as Zeus looked on. “Any ideas?”

“No. He should be spilling his guts to you.”

She glanced at him. He’d started using less formal language of late, but only at certain times. Other times, he was perfectly robotic, like any other android. Interesting. “We need to get to his office.” She turned back to the commander. “Angel, darling, we want to have some fun, don’t we?” she cooed.

He nodded at her, a vacant smile on his flaccid face. “Fun. Yes.”

She went over to him. “But not here, darling. We want to go to your office. It will be so much more fun in your office.”

“Office. Fun. Yes.” The commander’s high-pitched giggle worked on Jillian’s nerves like fingernails on slate.

She glanced at Zeus again. “Ready?”

He nodded.

“Angel, honey, it’s time to go to your office. It’s fun time,” she murmured in the commander’s ear.

“Fun time. Office.” He rose to his feet. Jillian stepped under one arm and draped it over her shoulder, biting back a gag as she arranged his hand over the top of her breast. His strong cologne and body odor had her trying to catch her breath. The man was a pig. How he’d ever become a supreme commander…. He must have some very powerful connections. She’d suggest to Keeley that they look into the man’s background.

“Let’s go,” she said.

Zeus opened the door and bowed Jillian and the commander out. He followed three steps behind, ropes and shackles draped obviously over his arms.

With the commander in tow, Jillian giggled and stumbled her way through the corridors toward the commander’s office. What few people they passed either snapped to attention or scurried on their way, eyes averted.

“Seems like this isn’t unusual behavior for our supreme commander,” Jillian whispered as they reached the office. There were no guards, but there was a bio-scan port. Zeus helped her position the commander in front of the scanner.

“Angel, honey, we can’t get in to the office for some fun unless you open your eyes.”

He giggled again, but stepped up to the port and opened his eyes wide. Jillian sweated through the seconds it took for the door to swish open. “Okay, step one done,” she said as they went inside.

“Technically, we have completed more than one step in our plan,” Zeus pointed out.

“Yeah, yeah. Please, scan for our secret door.” Jillian led the commander to a sofa at one side of the office. He sank into the cushions, fell over to one side, and promptly began to snore. She sighed and went over to the huge, heavy, dark desk and started going through drawers. “You found anything?”

“Nothing yet.” Zeus studied the wall to her right. “Unless you count this.” He touched the lower right corner of a picture of the commander hanging on the wall and two portions swung out, revealing a bar and various sex toys hanging on hooks or arrayed on shelves.

Jillian choked back a snort. “So that’s why nobody was surprised.” She glanced at the commander snoring away on the sofa. “And I’ll bet my next paycheck that sofa opens up into a bed.” She shuddered. “And no, Zeus, I really do not want to know.”

She continued feeling around the desk and drawers as Zeus kept scanning the room. He stopped almost behind her. “I believe I have found our door, but I don’t see a way to access it.”

She pulled out a piece of paper. “I think I found the codes. No wonder we couldn’t get it out of him. He probably doesn’t know what it is. There are several on this list. But where do we input it?” She fingered the sheet. “Who uses paper anymore?”

“Backward supreme commanders with fetishes.” Zeus gave her a stiff shrug. “I haven’t found a place to input it yet.”

While he tapped the walls and pictures, Jillian studied the desk. The top was clean of everything except an old-fashioned monitor. There were no papers, no data cubes, none of the clutter that goes with being on the job. “He’s a lazy, lewd, egotistical, disgusting toad,” she muttered. “It’s all about him. Gratification. Selfishness.” Her gaze strayed to the bar, then to the sofa. “He wants people to know he’s in charge.” Back to the desk where she sat in his chair.

“I am the Supreme Commander of Fomor Prime. Everyone bows to me!” She punched the arms of the chair and a panel popped up. She grinned. “Zeus, I think I found it. Let’s see….” She punched in the first code on the paper and the monitor buzzed to life.

“Yes, Supreme Command—” The man’s eyes on the screen went wide. Oops!

Jillian forced a giggle and leaned forward, making sure her cleavage showed. “Oh, look, darling. It’s one of your people. Can I give him an order? Please?”

Zeus stood behind the monitor, well out of sight. “Of course, my dear. Whatever you wish.” Jillian grinned at his perfect mimicry as she tapped her lips with a lacquered nail. “Hmmm. I order you to ignore anything you hear or see going on in the commander’s office for the next two hours.”

“Only two hours, my dear?” Zeus said. “Private, make that four.”

“Yes, sir.” The monitor went dark and Jillian sat back with a laugh. “That boy is going to be very popular in the barracks.” She glanced at the paper in her hand. “There are five more codes on this. Any guesses?”

“I do not ‘guess.’ But if I were to formulate a hypothesis, I would say the bottom one.”

“Bottom it is.” She punched in the code and a panel on the wall slid open. “Another bio scanner?”

Zeus studied it. “No. Vocal command.”

“Great. So what is it?”

He tilted his head to the left, a pose Jillian was starting to find most endearing. Too endearing. She glanced at the “play” bar across the room, then sharply brought her attention back. He was an android. Best she remember that. “What do you hypothesize for this?”

“I am Angel Chanel, Supreme Commander of Fomor Prime.”

Jillian chuckled as the door slid open. All chuckling stopped, though, as they stepped through to find a dozen men and women, some of them barely teens, chained to the walls. They were quiet, too quiet. Their heads bowed to their chests, some of them with dirty bandages or open wounds. She scoured their faces, but it was hard to see any features through tangled hair and dirt. But the last one…that shade of red couldn’t be anyone else. Jillian headed to the two farthest from her. “Ariel? Blake?” Though they were beaten, emaciated and dirty, she still recognized her sister and brother-in-law.

“Jellybelly? Is it really you?” Ariel’s voice cracked with emotion as tears streamed down her face.

“Yes. Oh, honey.” Jillian pulled out a small laser gun and cut their bonds. They hugged while Zeus freed the other prisoners.

“Tom?” Ariel looked at Zeus, a puzzled frown on her face.

“Tom? No, that’s Zeus, my android partner,” Jillian said.

“How—”

“Explanations later. We need to get you out of here.” Jillian glanced around, her brain in fast-forward. She might have been able to bluff two people past security, but not a dozen. “Zeus, how close are we to our ship?”

“Through that door and twenty feet.” He nodded toward a second door at the other end of the room. “But proximity is not the problem. Getting free of the bubble and the planetary grid is.”

“I can handle that,” Ariel croaked out. “Can you get us all out?”

“If you don’t mind being a little cramped, yes,” Jillian said.

“Miss,” one of the prisoners said. “If you can get us off this hell hole, we’ll hang onto the wings.” The others nodded.

“We’ll get you out, and on the inside of my ship.” She turned to Zeus. “Help me get the commander in here. I don’t want any surprises.”

Zeus carried the sleeping commander into the room, where Jillian secured him to the wall with ropes from the prisoner and tied a gag over his mouth. Finished with that, she heard a noise from the outer office. She placed a finger to her lips, then went to the door and leaned against it, blocking the interior from sight.

“Well, hi there, honey,” she said to the burly guard standing at the outer door to the office. “Did you come to join the party?”

“The supreme commander’s presence is needed at once.”

Jillian winked at the man, a sultry smile on her lips. “Well, darling, I’m afraid the supreme commander is just a little bit tied up at the moment.” She chuckled suggestively and stepped into the room, drawing a long nail down her chest. As hoped, his gaze followed her hand, his eyes widening and telltale redness infusing his face. “If you know what I mean. Can’t whatever you need just wait an itsy”—her fingers trapped the top lacing of her bustier—“bitsy”—she loosened the lacing—“bit?”

He gulped audibly. “I… I…”

“Nightwalker,” the supreme commander’s “voice” came from the other room. “I’m waiting.”

Jillian turned back to the guard. “Are you certain you want to bother the supreme commander right now?” She loosened the lacing enough that her breasts nearly burst their scanty covering. Much more and she’d be showing a lot more than she wanted.

“Uh. No, ma’am. I guess it can wait a few minutes.”

She chuckled again. “A few minutes? Oh, honey, my reputation just took a huge dive. Tell you what. You run along back to whoever sent you and tell them the supreme commander will be there when he’s ready.” She walked him to the door and ran a hand over his arm. “Oh, nice guns. I may have to reserve some time for you. Bye now, honey.”

She all but pushed him out the door, then double-timed it back to the other room. She’d expected everyone to be gone, but they were still sitting there. “Why are you still here?”

“We have a problem,” Zeus said. “There seems to be a substantial increase in guards outside.”

“So we can’t get to the ship?”

“Yes and no,” Ariel said. “With the right diversion, we might be able to, but only with Zeus’s help with the injured, which will slow us down.”

Jillian peeked outside, then quickly closed the door again. “Damn. It’s going to have to be one hell of a diversion. I don’t have that many laces.”

“What?” Zeus asked.

She shook her head. “Never mind.” Then she had an idea. It was a little desperate, but desperate times…. “Zeus, I know this trip was short notice, but do we have any holos on file?”

“Several.”

“Specifically any that deal with war or invasions?”

His left eyebrow rose. “I believe we do. Am I to assume you want me to access it remotely?”

“No. You have the freedom to go to the ship as needed. I want you to go there, get it all set up, remote projection with sound as loud as you can make it. Project it on the dome. Make them think there’s an attack coming from the outside. Then back the ship up right to this door.”

“Yes, boss. Give me ten minutes. I can’t be seen leaving here. I’ll need to go around to a legitimate exit.”

“Go. Let me know when you’re ready.” After he left, she paced the small space.

“What’s going on?” Ariel asked

Jillian knelt next to her sister. “Zeus is going to give us that distraction we need and back the ship as close to that door as he can. Within inches, if possible. As soon as he’s got everything ready, we go and we go as fast as we can.” She touched the spot behind her right ear where the communication insert lay. “Zeus?”

“Almost ready.”

“I can’t believe how much he looks like Tom Handry,” Ariel said. “The likeness is amazing.”

“Who’s Tom Handry?” Jillian asked.

“A top-level tech who works with Admiral Keeley. I’m surprised you haven’t met him. He’s usually around where she is, or was when I was last there.”

Jillian blew out a breath. “That’s why, then. I’ve been on long-out assignments since you went…missing. I only made it to headquarters when I got your message.”

Ariel reached out and touched her cheek. “Oh, honey. I tried so hard to contact you.” Her eyes closed and she clenched her jaw.

Jillian hugged her. She really didn’t want to know what Ariel had to do to send that one sentence, but, at the same time, she was curious.

“Unfortunately, the soldier who helped us didn’t last long.” Ariel sighed. “He agreed to let me get a message out. I think he must have helped others as well. After our dispatch went, he was tossed in with the rest of us. Badly beaten, he disappeared soon after, like so many others.”

She heard a noise from the commander, spun around to see him waking. Jillian went over to him. He struggled against his bonds and glared at her, his eyes letting her know exactly what would happen to her if he got loose. “Doesn’t feel so good to be on the receiving end, does it, Angel darling? Now, you have two choices. You can help me get these people out of here and onto my ship, or you can stay where you are and face Fleet justice when they get here. And they are coming.” She leaned over him, cupping her ear. “What’s that you say? You want to stay? Good luck with that, Supreme Commander. We take it personally when you hurt one of our own.” The commander kicked out at her, and she danced nimbly out of the way. “Ah, ah, ah, Angel.”

She spun around as a loud boom sounded from outside and Zeus’s voice whispered in her earbud. “Now, boss.”

“Now, everyone! Let’s go!”

With the stronger ones helping the injured, Jillian threw the door open. The airlock to her ship was less than two feet away. “Go!”

They scrambled into the ship and Jillian punched the door shut and locked it. “Ariel! Get to the bridge and get those grids down.” Though blood caked Blake’s limbs and chest, he appeared mentally more together than the others. “Blake, can you get everyone settled in cargo?”

“Done. Go!”

Jillian hurried after Ariel. She was sitting in Zeus’s seat with Zeus behind her. Jillian slid into the pilot’s seat. “Where are we at?” She set the controls for emergency takeoff. Outside the ship, a dozen soldiers ran onto the field, armed to the teeth with laser rifles. Jillian snorted. Those little guns were nothing against her little ship. More soldiers flowed from the buildings, this time with larger weapons. Several of them knelt on the pads and assembled laser canons. Those might sting a bit. But if they didn’t get clear of the grid, they’d be stuck and there was no way Jillian would allow that. She’d blow her way clear first.

Ariel’s fingers danced over the controls. “Clear in three… two… one… Go!”

Jillian hit the controls and they blasted off, blowing soldiers over the pads. The last thing she saw as they flew off was the supreme commander shaking a fist at her. She figured someone must have checked when they saw the prisoners escaping. Oh well.

“We’re not free yet. Ariel, go back to the hold and make sure everyone’s okay and secure. Zeus, set armor and firing protocols.”

The supreme commander’s voice came over the com system. “Nightwalker, you have my…guests. Please return.” Though he said “guests,” Jillian heard the implied “property” in his voice.

Jillian flicked on her mic. “Oh, Angel, my dear. You’ve been a naughty boy. I’d come back and spank you if I had the time, but I have somewhere else I need to be.”

“According to the universal laws, this is a privately run station, regulated by the Fomor System Council. I really need you to come back. Now.” His voice was less pleasant and Jillian snorted.

“Fomor System Council my ass,” she muttered. “You are the Fomor System Council.” She flicked the mic on. “Sorry, honey, but I have to get your guests away from here.”

“Nightwalker! You spawn of a whor—”

Jillian flicked off her mic. “Zeus, how are we doing?”

“Pulling around the moon now.” The ship shuddered, and Jillian grabbed the arms of her chair. “That felt like fire.”

“It was. From the moon, not the planet. Shall I return fire?”

“Damn straight. You fire. I’ll fly. Go.”

Ariel slipped into the tiny seat behind Jillian. “Give me access to the firing protocols. I can help.”

Jillian nodded as she fought to avoid cannons, lasers, asteroids, and more. It looked like the supreme commander, and the universe itself, was throwing everything possible at them. The small ship shuddered as it took a hit and alarms sounded.

“Blake, you okay back there?” Jillian said into the mike.

“Minor damage. We’ve got it.”

“We have buzzers coming up on our aft,” Zeus said.

“I got them, Zeus,” Ariel said. “You go after those cannons.”

“Will do.”

Jillian spared a glance for Zeus. He was working with Ariel like they were old friends. She briefly wondered who this Tom Handry was.

“Clearing the inner solar system,” Jillian said as the ship rocked from near misses and the path she was forced to take. A particularly close blast knocked her to the side. If not for the straps holding her in, she’d have been on the floor. The near miss hit an asteroid in front of them and she went into a steep dive to avoid the huge chunk flying off. She offered a brief apology and prayer to the victims in cargo. “Zeus, switch.”

“Aye, boss.”

She took over firing as he took over piloting. “Going to jump in ten seconds,” he said.

“Blake,” Jillian called over the ship’s intercom. “Going to jump.”

“Understood.”

The little ship shuddered as it entered jump space. Jillian and Ariel blew out identical sighs and sat back in their seats. “Got a few of them,” Ariel said. “But they could still be tracing us.”

“Then they’ll trace us to Fleet headquarters.” Jillian grinned. “I don’t think they’ll want to lodge a complaint. Do you?”

Her sister snorted. “Not by half. If they’re smart, they’ll be making scarce. Blake and I know enough to put the supreme commander down for a very long time.”

“Let’s go check on our passengers.” Jillian unstrapped and stood. “Zeus, you have the conn. Get us on course then set up the med center. Oh, and send an update to the admiral.”

“Yes, boss.”

Jillian and Ariel headed back to the cargo hold. On the way, Jillian grabbed all the first aid supplies she had on hand. “There should be enough food and drink supplies in the galley for everyone to have a little. We have two days in jump and another two home. Unfortunately, I wasn’t expecting a crowd, but we can make do. I have E-rations if we need them.” She wasn’t fond of the emergency rations packets, but they’d do in a pinch, and they were going to be doing some pinching.

“Trust me, it will be a feast.” Ariel filled up a bin with what she could find.

Back in the hold, Blake and an older woman were taking care of the others as well as they could. When Jillian and Ariel came in, they got applause and “thank you” from everyone.

Jillian handed the first aid kit to Blake. “Take care of what you can. Zeus is getting the med center set up in the second cabin. He’ll let us know as soon as it’s ready.” She went to a set of cabinets marked with large red crosses and bolted to the wall and floor. She pulled out packages of clean clothes and blankets and passed them around. They were standard supplies for all Fleet ships, even when undercover. “Set up a rotation for cleansing. There’s a shower in each cabin. I’m going to have to insist on sonics only, though. I don’t have enough water for everyone.”

“That’s fine, ma’am,” one dirty young man said. “Even sonics will be a blessing.”

Most nodded or agreed. Within a short time, the people had been cleaned, fed, their injuries tended to, and settled on pallets on the floor of the cargo bay.

Jillian nodded for Ariel and Blake to follow her to her cabin. It was a little tight for three people, but they sat on the bed while Jillian pulled out the chair to her desk.

“You’re not dead,” she said. “I was told you were both dead. They sent us proof.”

Ariel snorted. “I’m sure they did. I’ll bet if you check, at least three-quarters of those people in your hold are ‘dead.’ ” Her face darkened, and Blake gathered her into his arms. “Jillian, it… I….”

Jillian reached over to hug her sister and Blake. “It’s over, Ari. You’re safe now.”

Ariel shook her head. “No. It’s not over and we won’t be safe until these bastards are taken down.”

“Tell me.” She tapped the center of her desk. “Recording. Statement of Ariel Wilson and Blake Wilson.”

As Blake and Ariel related their tale, pure rage took over Jillian. The commander had used torture, coercion, and more to get what he wanted, which was usually information. The more they resisted, the harsher the punishments. He treated them as less than slaves. True slaves got better treatment than they had.

“He would get a shipment of human cargo and put them through his own form of a vetting system. For most of the women, that meant rape. For the men, beatings. For those of us who were ‘special,’ he didn’t take the women, but did everything else he could. I’m not sure why, but I know he answers to someone higher up. It was the only thing that saved me. Saved us.”

Jillian shook her head. How had they survived? If the supreme commander was still alive when she saw him again, he wouldn’t be for long. The hell with justice. He and his cohorts didn’t deserve justice. She wanted to scream her frustration. She wanted the man dead. No, she wanted him alive so she could….

“Jellybelly.” Ariel laid her hand on Jillian’s arm. “Let it go. Blake and I will make our peace with it. You need to as well. As for the rest, Fleet will take care of them.”

Jillian took a deep breath and blew it out. “Fine. But don’t expect me to get over it that easily.”

Ariel chuckled. “I don’t. It will take all of us some time. But we have that time now, thanks to you. Now, about you and Zeus.” Ariel’s right eyebrow raised in the way Jillian knew meant business.

“What about him?”

“You seem quite…chummy. You haven’t developed feelings for him, have you?”

Jillian jumped from her chair, her face heating as she thought about Zeus. She wanted to get away from Ariel’s knowing look, but there was nowhere to escape to. “No! He’s an android. I could never…. No!”

Ariel chuckled. “Curiouser and curiouser. Tell me, did you skip the part of the specs that says there’s a human counterpart?”

Ariel knew her much too well, and Jillian felt her face heat up again. “Ummm, yes, kind of.” And she had. Kind of. Okay, so she’d just quick-scanned it. But it did explain a lot of things about Zeus.

“Yes. A human who can actually project himself or herself through the mech. So you’re actually working with a real person some of the time, just at a distance.”

She sat back down, hard, her brain speeding over all the times she’d thought Zeus seemed a little too human. Ariel laughed and glanced at Blake. “I think she’s beginning to understand.”

“You mean he… I… So when I thought he was too human?” Like in the bathing room at Fomor? Like when she was acting the part of a…. Damn. All those times when she’d been doing things that would have embarrassed the heck out of her if he had been human.

“That was probably his counterpart working.”

Jillian stood again and headed for the door. “I…uh…have to…uh…. Good night.”

Ariel and Blake went to stand, but Jillian shook her head. “No. You two stay here.”

“We can’t,” Ari said. “Where will you sleep? The other cabin has the injured and there aren’t enough pallets in the hold.”

Jillian stared at her sister. “It won’t be the first time I’ve slept in my seat. Now get some real rest. I have a feeling you both need it.”

She dimmed the lights and left. Outside, she leaned against the wall, eyes closed, shoulders drooping.

“Boss?”

Zeus’s quiet voice brought her back upright. She stared hard at him but couldn’t see anything different. He was still Zeus. “Yes? What? Is there a problem?”

He handed her a mug. She sniffed the hot brew appreciatively. It was her favorite. “Hot chocolate?”

“With a little something special.”

She sipped the drink and grinned. “You’ve been in my secret stash.”

“For medicinal purposes only.”

She shook her head. Human or android, he was still the best partner she’d ever had. She followed him to the bridge. “Is everyone settled?”

“Yes. The injured have been tended to, but some will need more extensive help once we return home.”

“I know. Blake still doesn’t look good.”

“His injuries were the most extensive, including broken bones, bruising, and more, but I believe he will be all right.”

Jillian settled back in her seat, reclining it slightly for more comfort, and sipped at her Irish chocolate. “Zeus, who is your programmer?”

He stared at her. “My initial programmer was Patrick Jackson. A man of some talent, I understand.”

She shook her head. Wrong question. “Who is your human counterpart? Is it someone named Tom Handry?”

Zeus hesitated. It was barely a second, but noticeable to someone who knew him as well as Jillian did. “I cannot say. If you will excuse me, I will check on our guests to make sure they are comfortable.” He left rather quickly and Jillian watched him, her lips pursed.

“Can’t? Or won’t?” She finished her chocolate and lay back in her seat. “I will find out, Zeus. You should know me better than that.”

  • * *

Four days later, they approached Fleet Headquarters. “Admiral Keeley Reed, this is Nightwalker.”

“Hello, Jillian! Welcome back. You can land at pad four. We have medics standing by for your guests.”

“Thanks, Admiral. I’ll be in to report once I’m sure Ari and Blake are okay.”

“Understood. Let’s get together in an hour.”

“Aye-aye. Jillian out.”

Once they landed, medics in sky-blue uniforms whisked everyone off to the health center. Jillian stayed with Blake and Ariel as long as she could, but she finally had to leave them at the door to the healing bay. “I’ll see you soon, Ari,” Jillian said.

“We’ll be fine, Jillie. I love you.”

“Love you back, sis.”

The doors closed and Jillian headed for her apartment. She needed a long shower, a clean uniform, and some food, in that order. Forty minutes later, she was heading for the admiral’s office. Her black uniform with its commander’s insignia was spotless. Her dark hair had been pulled back into a regulation roll at the nape of her neck. As she approached the office, she thought she saw a familiar figure ahead of her just leaving the office with another officer.

“Zeus?”

The face that looked back at her was Zeus, and yet not. His very human, very blue eyes widened in startlement as he gasped. “You! You’re here!”

“Now, lieutenant,” the other officer called.

Pseudo-Zeus quickly turned away and hurried down the corridor. Jillian went to follow him, but the admiral chose that time to step out. “Oh, Jillian, there you are. Come in.”

Jillian stared down the corridor, then with a sigh, turned back to the admiral. “Of course.”

As she entered, she saw Ariel already sitting there, looking much better in a blue medical tunic and trousers. “Are you okay? Should you be out already?”

“Medics gave me a full clear. Blake has to stay overnight, but he and the others should all be good in a day or two, thanks to you.”

“Thanks to you getting that message out.” The chance had cost her dearly, but it had been worth it. They were free.

“I received your report,” Admiral Reed said as she sat at her desk. “And the affidavits of the victims you rescued. As suspected, several have been listed as dead, others as missing and presumed dead. We are in the process of contacting their families where desired or possible.” She paused as an aide came in and whispered in her ear. Keeley nodded once and brought up her wall screen. “We just received this from a ship in the area.” The scene showed the area of Fomor Prime where they had been, but there was nothing left there but a huge hole in the ground and debris scattered for miles.

“No survivors have been found. The area of the moon where the outer fort was is in a similar condition.”

Jillian couldn’t feel sorry for the supreme commander. He deserved that and more. But her stomach roiled for all the innocents who had been there through no fault of their own. “No ships escaped?”

“Not that we’ve found, but the possibility exists. Whoever did this was thorough and fast. Our people got there a day after you left and it was already done.”

Ariel snorted. “I’d wager the supreme commander got away. He was the sort who would. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was the one to blow the bubbles and the moon. That base was just a drop-off spot. Most captives were there for less than a week. There were only a handful, like Blake and me, who he kept longer.”

“Any idea why?” Keeley asked.

“Not really, except he couldn’t break us, and we were all Fleet or related to Fleet.”

“He’ll be on the run now,” Jillian said. “If he did survive, he won’t get away for long. Not now that we know what he is and what he did. He was more than just a slaver. He was worse. And that won’t stand.”

After the admiral finished the debriefing, they chatted for a little longer, then Keeley dismissed them and they left. “You’re welcome to stay with me,” Jillian told Ariel as they strolled the corridor.

“Thanks, but that won’t be necessary. The admiral has assigned us all quarters.”

Jillian grinned. “Yeah, but I bet they don’t have your posters or that horrible phallic statue you picked up on New Harmony.”

Ariel’s eyes lit up. “You didn’t!”

“I packed all your stuff into storage. I…couldn’t bring myself to dispose of it.”

Ariel hugged her. “Oh, Jellybelly! Thank you!” She paused outside a bar frequented by Fleet officers. “And I have a surprise for you.” She grabbed Jillian’s hand and hauled her into the bar.

Standing at the bar was a man Jillian recognized on sight, but not as her android. “Jillian, I’d like you to meet Tom Handry, Zeus’s human counterpart. Tom, this is my sister, Jillian.”

The sapphire eyes she’d seen earlier smiled at her. He was so much better-looking than Zeus. His face more animated, his dark hair longer and with more of a wave to it.

“You’re Tom?”

“Bye, Jellybelly.”

“Um…bye.” She barely noticed Ariel leaving.

“I am.” Tom nodded at Ariel, then stood and bowed Jillian to a stool. He motioned to the bartender, who sat a steaming mug in front of her.

She sniffed at the drink. “Hot chocolate?”

“Your favorite. With a little something extra.” His voice was so much smoother and deeper than Zeus’s and Jillian felt a tingle go from her head to her toes. She took a sip of the drink.

“My secret stash?”

He shook his head and grinned. “Nope. Mine.”

Jillian knew that with that one sentence, she was in trouble. And this time, she didn’t mind.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

About Vicky Burkholder

 

Vicky has been married forever to the one person who accepts that she lives in a fantasy world most of the time. In addition to creating fun characters, fantasy worlds, and suspenseful situations, she also enjoys and is very good at things like writing policy and procedures manuals and setting up continuity and organizational spreadsheets. She has a master’s degree in library science and likes things organized. Okay, so her family thinks having the spice rack alphabetized it a bit much, but that doesn’t mean she’s obsessive. Honest. When not writing, Vicky works as an editor, helping other authors with their works. When not doing either one of those, she can be found in the kitchen whipping up gluten-free, lactose-free, other allergy-free meals for her family. Or watching the world go by from her front porch swing.

 

Vicky’s Books

 

All Vicky’s books are available from:

Liquid Silver Publishing

Amazon

iBooks

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and other online retailers

We hope you enjoyed this anthology! Please stay tuned for The Second Sentence, a new collection of romance novellas, coming soon!

 

If you’d like to receive notification of future releases, you can sign up for the following author newsletters or subscribe to the listed blogs. If you prefer, you can also follow us on social media, linked at the end of each story.

 

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Victoria Smith’s Blog


The First Sentence Anthology

The premise: That if 5 authors start with the same sentence, they will all write vastly different stories. The results: made of awesome. From contemporary to futuristic, these novellas have a little bit of everything, but most especially—love-filled happy endings. Rebound by Allison B. Hanson After wallowing in agony for weeks after a bad break-up, Reese is set up on a blind date. Reluctantly, he goes and meets the girl of his dreams. The only problem? He was at the wrong place and met the wrong girl. Now, desperate to find her, he scours the campus as fate weaves an impossible journey. Lost and Found by Misty Simon When Mike Emory sees his ex’s post on social media that she’s looking for her lost dog, he’s out the door in a flash. Their break-up was not amicable, but he loved that dog and can’t imagine him on his own. Elsie Hews has been scouring the streets for hours when she runs into the last person she wants helping her—the guy who never seemed to think she was capable of doing anything herself. This is her dog, though, her baby, and she’ll accept Mike’s help to find him, then say goodbye again. Or that’s the plan, at least… Frozen Dreams by Victoria Smith When a dangerous weather anomaly strikes, Jane will do whatever it takes to travel to be with her family. Even if it means getting stuck with her husband, Adam. Instead of talking to him about how they will never have a family, she took the chicken route and left, despite being deeply in love with him. Now they must face the storm and their emotions. Through the Void by Natalie J. Damschroder There’s only one thing Vix can do when she finds out about the secret life that has led to her husband’s coma—make that life hers. When she goes on her first mission through the void, however, she finds not only a new self-purpose, but her lost husband, as well. She did the impossible once. Can she do it again, and bring him home? A Real Boy by Vicky Burkholder Jillian Night is on the hunt for inter-planetary kidnappers. Her bosses demand she have a partner, but Jillian has had enough of human ones. She prefers to work alone so Fleet assigns her one of the new androids. Zeus is a little too real for Jillian’s comfort and she finds herself attracted to him—until she meets the real man pulling the strings. Maybe having a real, live partner wouldn’t be so bad after all.

  • ISBN: 9781370477739
  • Author: Natalie J. Damschroder
  • Published: 2017-05-07 19:50:23
  • Words: 48562
The First Sentence Anthology The First Sentence Anthology