Friday, July 30, 2010

Blog Only! "Untitled Short Story" Part 1/5?

Chapter One:

"Come out with us," Meghan Wheeler cajoled, tugging on her best friend's hand. "Lisa and I will buy all your drinks tonight, and we won't even make you dance unless you want to. It'll be a quiet night."

Kacy Adams shook her head and slipped her hand free. She loved Meghan like a sister, but they had different opinions on what constituted a 'quiet night.' In college, where they'd met as roommates, Meghan had always been the more out-going, party girl while Kacy spent most of her time in the library or computer lab. After eight years of friendship, Meghan still didn't understand that Kacy preferred historical texts to modern conversation.

"I think I'm going to order a pizza and veg out on the couch. My DVR's almost full so I need to watch and erase what I've got recorded."

Meghan rolled her eyes. "Yeah right. You're going to read those letters again."

Kacy shrugged a shoulder but didn't deny the accusation. Seven months earlier, she'd purchased an old trunk at an estate sale. To her surprise, and pleasure, the compartment below the trunk's false bottom contained letters written by Confederate Captain Samuel Crowder to his mother Annie and his brother John, a First Lieutenant in the Union Army. As she'd concentrated on the Civil War for her Master's, she'd eagerly devoured all forty letters.

Crazy as it sounded, she'd also fallen in love with Captain Crowder. He'd agonized over the split between him and his brother. He'd written to John and Annie about how he still loved his "Yankee" brother, and looked forward to the day they could all be together again. He'd tried to shield his mother from the true horrors of the war and constantly reassured her that he was fine. Kacy admired his spirit and his selflessness. It was a shame he'd been killed during the Battle of Chickamauga.

"You need a real boyfriend, Kace," Meghan remarked. It was an observation she made at least once a week. "I know it hurt when Paul the Prince of Pricks screwed you over, but that was two years ago. Stop licking your wounds and hop back in the saddle, kiddo."

"Oh please." Kacy waved her hand dismissively. "I am so over Paul."

Meghan playfully tugged on the end of Kacy's chestnut braid. She'd been there when Kacy had stumbled in on her fiancé Paul doing the horizontal mambo on the kitchen table with his "lab partner." Rather than falling apart or getting angry, Kacy had erected a wall around herself so thick that only her closest friends and family members could get through. And, of course, the Captain.

"Face it, kiddo, no one will ever measure up to the Captain," she teased. "Are you sure you don't want to come? Lisa and I have a bet going. She swears that if we hit the bar near the university, we can cash in on your fame and not pay for a single drink."

Kacy groaned. Shortly after reading the letters, she'd written an article on the Crowder brothers for one of the leading Civil War publications. The article had gotten quite a bit of attention and led to a short segment on several news programs as well as stint as an "expert" for the History Channel's most recent Civil War mini-series. Though the series had only aired a week earlier, she was already tired of the spotlight. Lisa, an AV whiz, had strung all Kacy's "bits" together and sent the e-mail to all their college friends. More than one had commented on her "crush" on Captain Crowder.

"I'm going to take that as a no." Meghan puffed out her lower lip in an exaggerated pout, but knew it wouldn't sway her friend. Once Kacy made her mind up, there was little that could change it. It was one of the things she both loved and hated about the other woman.

"Get out of here," Kacy laughed, shoving her friend towards the French doors that opened out onto the courtyard separating their townhomes. Meghan waved cheekily through the tinted glass as Kacy locked the deadbolt.

To prove to herself and Meghan that she didn't need to spend every night with the Crowder letters, she ordered a Hawaiian pizza from her favorite pizza delivery and settled on the couch with the remote and a glass of Hill Country Merlot. Halfway through her third slice of pizza and two hours into her mini Spirit Sleuths marathon, her eyes slid to the packet of letters on her desk.

"Stop it, Kace! They're just letters," she muttered under her breath and turned the volume up. When she got up to pour herself a second glass of wine, she took a long, winding path around the desk. By the time she got to the kitchen, her fingers were shaking and her heart was pounding. "This just proves you need time away from Samuel Crowder, moron."

She tried to sit still on the couch and pay attention to her favorite show, but her attention kept wandering. She'd catch her eyes drifting to the desk and her feet swinging to the floor and pinched herself as punishment. When the ending credits rolled across the screen, she realized that she didn't remember a single detail from the episode's plot. Disgusted with herself, she clicked the television off and picked her laptop off the coffee table. T.V. wasn't a good distraction, but work always kept her mind busy.

As a researcher and assistant-curator for the Texas Heritage Museum in Hillsboro, there were always things that needed to be verified and cataloged. She loved the museum and her job, but was looking forward to the following fall when she was slated to start her Assistant Professorship at her alma-mater in Huntsville. The only downside was that it meant leaving Meghan, an instructor for Hill College's Fashion and Design program, behind.

An e-mail from Juan Hernandez, one of her old study partners and a staffer at the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth, caught her attention. As she was downloading the attached files, she noticed an e-mail from Nancy Jacobs from The Pearce Museum with a similar subject and attachment size. Was there a reunion or seminar she'd missed that they were filling her in on?

Scanned photographs from the Civil War covered her screen. They were from the Battle of Cold Harbor according to what Juan had written. While it wasn't one of her "favorite" battles, she appreciated the images. In two of the photos, a tall, lean man dressed in a shabby uniform standing so that only his profile was visible caught her attention. She zoomed in as closely as the program would allow. She knew the curve of that twice-broken nose and the line of that strong, square jaw!

While her top-of-the-line photo printer, one of the few things she'd splurged on, printed the photos, Kacy set her laptop on the coffee table and launched herself off the couch. Shortly after acquiring the trunk of letters, she'd exploited all of her contacts and managed to purchase a Crowder family photograph taken shortly before John and Samuel went to war as well as a photograph of Samuel in his uniform. She grabbed the framed photo of Samuel off her bookcase and dashed to her printer. She bounced anxiously on her toes as she waited for the picture to print.

As soon as the last photo slid onto the tray, she held it up to the light and peered at it through her magnifying glass. She held the Cold Harbor picture and the pre-war photo side-by-side to compare images. Though she'd have to use a facial recognition program to be absolutely certain, she was sure she was looking at a picture of Captain Samuel Crowder burying bodies at the site of a battle that took place nine months after he was killed in action.

Her hands trembled as she scrolled through the contact list on her cell phone. She drummed her fingers on the desk while she waited for Juan to answer. "Do you know what this is!" she exclaimed as soon as she heard him grunt a terse greeting.


"Of course, moron. Who else would it be? I just got your e-mail. Do you have any idea what those pictures mean?" She collected her photographs and collapsed on the couch. With the tip of her index finger, she traced the outline of Samuel's face through the glass.

Juan's voice dropped off. Static buzzed in Kacy's ears. Before she could hang up and redial, the static cleared. "Kace, I didn't send you an e-mail."

"Of course you did. Five Cold Harbor photos were attached."

More static. "I'm not working on any Cold Harbor projects. I've been working day and night on our Battlefield Medicine exhibit."

Kacy's smile faltered. She leaned forward to double check the contents of her inbox. The e-mail from Juan was still there and it had come from his museum e-mail address. She opened the e-mail from Nancy and found the same photos. "You sent it to me. Nancy sent me the exact same pictures an hour before you did. I've got to tell you, I'm not sure I like knowing you both have better contact than I do."

"Kacy," Juan drawled, his West Texas accent more prevalent than ever. He said her name the same way he had when she'd gone nearly catatonic over Paul and when he'd accidentally deleted all their notes for their big Western Expansion project.

"What?" she whispered, heart thudding painfully. Juan wasn't the type to play practical jokes. He was one of the most serious, straight-forward people she'd ever met. If he said he hadn't set the e-mail, she believed him.

"Nancy's in Belize. She's been there for a week, remember? Big destination wedding for her sister?"

"Oh." Kacy slowly closed the top her laptop with her e-mail still open. She drew her knees to her chest and cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder. Though it was October and relatively warm, she shivered and goosebumps dotted her arms. "T-thank you, Juan."

"Is everything okay, honey? You sound far away."

"I-I t-think I n-need to go now." With her thumb, she pressed the button to disconnect the call. Her teeth were chattering and tears stung her eyes. She licked dry lips and glanced down at the photos beside her. Captain Samuel Crowder, eyes dark and face grim, stared back at her. If Nancy was in Belize and Juan swore he didn't do it, who had sent the photos?

She let out a low screech when the wind picked up and rattled the French doors. Blowing out a shaky breath, she laughed at herself and stood on wobbly knees. They were finally getting the thunderstorm the weatherman had been promising all week. "Calm down, scaredy-cat. You know that always happens when you don't bolt the doors."

Kacy froze, hand extended towards the deadbolt. It wasn't locked. She'd done it after Meghan had left. She knew she had. She always locked the bolt when she was by herself. Was the wine messing with her mind? A lump in her throat, she flipped the bolt for the second time that evening and shoved her hands in her pockets.

As she shuffled back into living room, the sound of a low growl sent shivers down her spine.

So? Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Come on...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Blog Only! One-Shot -- Network Universe -- "The Sisterhood"

So, this takes place sometime after The Chaos Child (spoilers, beware!) and after Imperfection's Glory. Just a short piece.

"I am so, so sorry."

Viola tore her eyes away from the scene a few feet away and patted new her friend's twisting hands sympathetically. A particularly loud crash and familiar voices shouting out streams of expletives had both women wincing. "I keep telling you not to worry about it, Celia. Besides, if anything, I should be the one apologizing. It's my demon-dar that went off two blocks from the restaurant."

"Oh, please." Celia's nose wrinkled. "Like we wouldn't have gotten the call about it anyway. I suppose I should be thankful that it happened before dinner. Calls like that always come during -."

"Dessert," both women finished in unison. They shared an eye roll and giggled.

Viola was glad she'd met Celia Buckley, the New England Region Director's girlfriend. It was nice having someone who understood what it was like to have plans ruined by demons. She glanced down at her watch and frowned. "Do you think we're going to miss our reservation?"

Celia went still as she checked the timelines. "Not if your husband...," she broke off to shove Viola's head down seconds before a metal garbage can lid flew through the air. "Yes, yes we are going to miss our reservation."

While Celia dug her cell phone out of her purse, Viola hopped over the short wall they'd been sitting on to retrieve the lid. After calling out Duke's name, she tossed it to him as if it were a Frisbee. She tried to use their link to ask if he needed any help, but he shut her out before she could form the question. Furious and hungry, she crossed her arms over her chest and rejoined her friend.

Celia bit back a sigh as the restaurant put her on hold. If the Buckley and Whittier names weren't enough to get the stuffy man to cut her some slack, she was going to have to resort to bribery or threats. It made her jealous of Jeremy's influence over people. If he was on the phone, the droll Mr. Baines would have been tripping over himself to accommodate them. Then again, if Jeremy had been free enough to be on the phone, there wouldn't be a reason to change their reservations.

Fortunately, the Buckley name, and sympathy over her brother's recent death, were enough to get their reservation bumped back thirty minutes. That gave the boys twenty minutes to take care of the rampaging D'vork and ten minutes to get cleaned up. Celia snapped her phone closed and shoved it into her small evening bag. She smoothed the knee-length pleated skirt of her grape sateen dress. The '50s style dress was perfect for a night out with friends but not a night with demons.

"I love your shoes," Viola remarked, eyes on Celia's sparkly silver platform sling-back sandals. Her own black-and-rhinestone ballet flats looked dull in comparison. Even though the short, black sheath dress was one of her favorites, and Duke's if the glimmer in his eye meant what she thought it did, she felt frumpy seated next to fashion-plate Celia.

"Thanks. Wish I could pull off your look. That dress is amazing." Celia fingered one of the ruffles along the hem of Viola's dress. After three weeks of wearing nothing but black, she'd opted for a bit of color to cheer herself up. Was it too soon, though? Would people think her tacky or disrespectful of her brother's memory? "I can't wear flats with evening wear. I end up looking like a little girl caught playing dress-up. Not the look I want to go with in a room full of gold-digging sharks after my Jay."

Petite by modern standards but inches taller than Celia, Viola understood completely. Luckily, her job allowed her to dress casually and back home in Houston she and Duke weren't social butterflies. She'd go crazy if she had to wear heels or fancy dresses more than a couple of times a year. "I know I'm sidelined because of the spawn," she patted her slightly rounded stomach lovingly, "but why'd Jeremy bench you?"

"Oh, he does this all the time. He thinks that being chivalrous and acting like a superhero is going to help him get lucky at the end of the night."

"Does it work?"

"Not if I pass out from starvation first!" Celia snapped loud enough for Jeremy to hear. Her eyes narrowed when he impulsively tried to tackle the D'vork and ended up being thrown against a brick wall. She could already picture tiny rips and tears in the fine fabric. "I told him to take that jacket off. He's going to ruin it."

"Is that why you packed an extra in the car?"

"Of course. I never go anywhere without a spare set of clothes for Jeremy. Honestly, sometimes it's like having a three-year old."

Viola chuckled. Duke was the same way. He couldn't go a rotation without ruining a pair of jeans or a shirt. "You mean he doesn't listen to you when tell him you've seen him tear up his clothes?"

"He swears that the timelines don't cover fashion issues," Celia huffed. Sometimes she used the timelines for fashion issues. With the sometimes unpredictable weather in Baltimore, it was a necessity. "He can be such a... guy... sometimes."

Viola didn't need premonitions to predict that a night in the guest room was in Jeremy's future. Ripping a pair of old jeans or a t-shirt like Duke often did was one thing. Ruining what looked like a very expensive tailored suit jacket was a hundred times worse. She couldn't blame Celia for being miffed.

Viola's stomach rumbled to remind her that all she'd had for lunch was a salad and that had been hours earlier. Feeling out Duke through the link only told her that it was still on lock-down. Stupid, overprotective idiot. "Think we should step in to help?"

"Help? Oh, honey, we're taking over." Celia yanked off her shoes and set them on the wall beside her purse. She leaped off the wall and bounced daintily on her bare toes while waiting for Viola. "I'm through watching those two screw around. It's cold, I'm hungry, I’m going to ruin yet another pedicure, and if I end up missing Flavio's tiramisu, I will feed them to a pack of savage Zilas."

"Amen, sister." Viola grinned. She linked her arm with Celia's and marched across the asphalt. "What's the plan?"

Celia paused for a moment to check the possible timelines. "Swing around to the D'vorks left side and distract him. I'll shoot it in the flesh part of its neck with Jeremy's tranq gun. We'll let the boys do the clean up."

"Works for me and, since I'm just the distraction, it should keep Duke from flipping his lid."

Viola watched with amusement as her blonde friend angrily tapped Jeremy on the shoulder. When Jeremy turned around, Celia ripped the gun from his hands. He looked as stunned as Duke had when Viola shoved him out of the way. Oh yeah, she definitely liked spunky, little Celia.

"Tag, boys, you're out. Let the pros handle this one."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

One-Shot - "Sucker Punch"

A/N: This was an experiment and, hopefully, the start of another story. It takes place in the same “universe” as the Family Lies series, but in a different region of the Network. Sadly, Duke and Viola won’t be making an appearance. Thanks for giving it a shot

Sucker Punch

Before I even knew her name, I fell impossibly and irrevocably in love with a grinning, golden-haired angel.

It started the way most of my evenings usually ended: in an alley or secluded area with a dead demon at my feet and some of the bitter anger that eats at me every damned minute of every damned day temporarily appeased. Except this time, the demon wasn’t dead. I’d feigned right when I should have ducked left, and I’d misjudged how little traction I had. I lashed out with my foot, hoping to catch the demon in its fleshy stomach, but it anticipated my move and countered with a punch that left me seeing stars.

Pinned to the wall by a Fwar claw crushing my windpipe, my life did not flash before my eyes. As fifteen out of my twenty-eight years had been downright hellish, I was grateful. There was no white light beckoning me into the great beyond, either. As I made peace with the end, a harsh, shrill scream and something heavy slamming into the Fwar caused the demon to drop me to the ground. My head cracked the edge of a protruding brick on the way down. The world spun and went gray.

“Well, this blows,” was my last thought as I sucked dirty rainwater into my nose and lungs. It was an undignified, but oddly fitting, way to die.

Rather than fluffy clouds and harps or burning flames and brimstone, the toes of scuffed running shoes were the first thing I saw when I reluctantly opened my eyes. I followed the curve of the shoes to the daintiest pair of ankles I’d ever seen. The shadows over my head shifted and the ankles were replaced by a pair of denim-covered knees.

As my skull throbbed in pain, I rolled over onto my back and spat when more filthy water tried to trickle down my throat. The knees dropped and splashed into the puddle near my head. Small, pink-polished fingers fluttered at my temples. As even the dim light in the alley hurt my concussion-sensitive eyes, I kept them half-lidded and could not see my angel’s face.

“Oh,” she muttered. Even with my senses dulled, I picked up on the self-recrimination oozing out of her. “Oops.”

Oops? What kind of angel says oops? Soft fingers brushed wet hair off my forehead before lightly pressing against the pulse throbbing in my throat. Seemingly satisfied with my heart rate, the angel breathed out a relieved sigh.

“Who’re you?” I managed through swollen lips and a tongue that felt like a stone.

“I am so, so sorry,” my angel apologized, sincerity and guilt flooding my senses. I watched as she tugged off a short denim jacket, balled it up, and gently placed it under my head. “I swear I didn’t see you with the Fwar. I mean, from his position I knew he had a victim, but I didn’t know he’d drop you!”

“S’okay,” I responded partially to reassure her and mostly to stop her from rambling at a thousand miles an hour. My aching brain couldn’t keep up with the stream of hastily uttered words.

She moved, bent so that I could see her face. A riot of unruly blonde curls and sorrow-rimmed green eyes filled my vision. The tip of a pink tongue poked out from between a pair of perfect lips. “Are you all right?”

I lifted a leaden arm and massaged my right temple. A bump had already formed. Fortunately, there was no blood trail so I hadn’t broken the skin. “I’ve had worse.”

Those perfect lips thinned. A crease formed between her fair eyebrows, and her left eye twitched. After a long moment, she cocked her head to the side and frowned. “You have, haven’t you?”

An unfamiliar, but enticing, scent wafted across me. Beneath the musk of jasmine and bitterness of dust, I caught the sharp tang of magic. Had she peeked into my mind and seen one of my memories? I growled at the thought of the intrusion. I hated telepaths who had no sense of personal boundaries.

“I’m no telepath,” she held her hands up and leaned backwards. “I see things.”


“Chronos cursed,” she corrected with an apologetic smile.

I was familiar with the term. My angel did not see flashes of future or past events, she saw all future possibilities. Timelines, split off at key decisions, appeared to her. Skilled possibility-viewers, the Network-approved term for people like my angel, could see the past as well as the future.

I was not aware that there was a viewer in the region. Was she not associated with the Network? Before I could ask her if she was in the Network and which region she was with, she ran those smooth, cool fingertips along my jaw. I winced at the certainty that the coarse stubble I’d neglected to shave that morning had abraded her soft skin.

“I am so, so sorry,” she repeated, misreading my wince. Her compassion was a soothing balm to the anger that constantly burned in my chest. I wanted to bottle her emotions, so clear, cool, and honest, and carry them with me. When tears sparkled in her eyes, I gathered my wits and sent a warm wave of reassurance crashing over her.

She rocked back, eyes wide. One of her hands went to her throat. Her mouth gaped open. “Oh! Oh! You’re a projector! Well,” she gasped, “that’s so not fair.”

“You peeked at my timeline,” I reminded her, not the least bit apologetic for having used my gift on her. I had a feeling that if I allowed it, she would keep on apologizing until the sun came up. As an empathic-telepathic projector, I could not only sense others’ emotions but could project them so strong that it could actually make a person cry from sorrow or faint from fear. Unlike regular empaths, I could narrow my focus to a single person or cover a crowd of twenty people and I did not need to be feeling the emotion myself in order to project it. It was an ability that had served me well.

“True,” she conceded with a nod of her head. Seemingly not minding her wet capris, she rose to a crouch and linked her fingers with mine. “Ready to sit up?”

I wasn’t, but I wasn’t going to tell my angel that, either. With surprising strength, she helped me sit upright. I swallowed down a swell of bile. I’d be damned before I threw up in front of her. Craning my neck, I glanced down at her jacket. It was utterly ruined.

“Don’t worry about it.” She lightly hopped over my outstretched legs and gracefully dropped to the ground beside me. Though we were hip-to-hip, the tips of her toes didn’t even reach my ankles. “I was looking for an excuse to buy a new jacket.”

Beneath the lingering guilt, it was obvious that cheerfulness was her natural state of mind. Glancing at her with all my shields down, the brightness of her aura nearly blinded me. Rarely did I see anyone over the age of ten with such light. How had she managed to maintain such a positive disposition, especially if she was at least peripherally involved in the Network?

“I should call you a cab or an ambulance.”

“My car’s around the corner.” At least I thought it was. Chasing down the Fwar, I’d lost track of what street we were on. For all I knew, my SUV was four blocks back.

“You’ve got a head wound. I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to drive.”

She did, unfortunately, have a point. My head was killing me and spots danced before my eyes. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I harmed anyone in a car accident. “You’ve seen one of my memories. Knowing my address at this point is nothing compared to that.”

“I can’t drive.” At my confused stare, her cheeks flushed and small, white teeth bit down on her lower lip. I’d never been so jealous of a pair of incisors before. “I mean, I can. I passed my test ages ago, but I don’t have my license. Not anymore. It’s dangerous.” She tapped the side of her head for emphasis.

It made sense. I knew many Seers who refused to drive. As I tried to remember where my car was and if I still had my keys, I felt the warmth I’d been sending her double back and hit me. The gentleness of it eased the ache in my head. “Are you doing that?”

My angel shrugged a slim shoulder, her cheeks still pink. “I figured you needed it more than I did.”

She smiled at me, her hand slipped under mine, and a few of the ice bricks I’d used to wall up my heart melted. She wrinkled her nose cutely as the scent of garbage and dead Fwar was picked up by a cold northern wind. “What do you say we get out of this alley?”

To my dismay, I had to rely on my angel to both stand and stagger out of the alley. My car, thankfully, was at the end of the block. Small hand darting into the pocket of my jeans, she retrieved my keys, helped me into the backseat, and slid behind the wheel. She smiled at me in the rear view mirror. “One more quick peek and then I should be good for a while.”

Before I could ask for clarification, her lips thinned and her eye twitched. Was that what happened every time she got a vision? With a shake of the head, she turned the key in the ignition. “Fourth Street, right? Big green house third from the left?”


“Only a few blocks from where I live. I can jog to the bus stop at the corner after dropping you off. Perfect.”

While she carefully navigated the rain-slick Baltimore streets, I used my cell phone to have two of the Trackers on rotation take care of the Fwar corpse. I also informed my second-in-command that I was done for the night. A bit of reassurance sent through the line kept him from worrying too much. I’d only been head of the region for six months and he feared I was only one bad night from cracking under the pressure. I hadn’t had the heart to tell him that I’d broken long before my return.

“You live here?” I asked when she pulled into my driveway.

SUV parked, she whipped off her seatbelt and spun in the seat. Her eyes were dark with concern. “No,” she stretched the word into three syllables, “you live here.”

“I meant in the city.”

“Oh,” she giggled, rolling her eyes at herself, “yes, I do.”

“I don’t have any viewers on the roster.”

Her eyes dropped to the leather headrest. Her fingers plucked at a loose threat in the stitching. “No, I’m not part of the Network. Not anymore.”

The regret, anxiety, and guilt that poured off of her hit me like a sledgehammer. She obviously wanted to be part of the Network. People who turned in their membership cards yet tracked down Fwars were not people who had left voluntarily. Had something happened in her old region? Focusing my energy on her, I caught a flash of annoyance, familial annoyance. Had someone forced her to quit?

I fished a wrinkled, damp business card out of my wallet. All of my contact information, along with my title, was printed on the plain white card. With the way things were, I could use a viewer’s help. “You can call me anytime.”

The smile and bubbling affection she sent me were blisteringly warm. I wanted to bask in her warmth until the long-neglected corners of my soul were as clean as her spirit. Did she have a century or two to spare? She practically slithered out of the car and skipped around to open my door. Her fingers automatically wrapped around mine as she helped me out of the car. Like an old-fashioned gentleman escorting his date home, we walked arm-in-arm up the short walkway.

“See you again, Mr. ‘J. Whittier?’”

“You’re the one with the pipeline into the future,” I teased, pleased when a fresh flush darkened her cheeks. I regretted the decision to put only my first initial on the cards. I wanted to hear her say my name.

Her eyes glazed over for a second and she swayed against me. The previous times she’d had a vision, I hadn’t realized just how vulnerable she appeared when she zoned out. All my protective instincts rose to the forefront in response. After a second, she grinned beautifully. “We will. Under better, nicer, circumstances, too.”

She pressed my keys into my hand and popped up on the toes of her sneakers. Warm lips brushed across my cheek. “Bye for now.”

I reached out to stop her, but she was already out of reach. Her curls bounced and shimmered in the light as she jogged down the street. I hadn’t gotten her name. I’d given my card, and quite possibly my heart, to a complete stranger.

I hadn’t felt happier in years.