New Release — A Maryland Witch

A Maryland Witch OTHER SITES

Shortly after Chloe Bartlett returns to her hometown, her family’s greatest secret is revealed—she and her sisters are witches. While the town is still reeling from the news, Chloe’s high school rival is attacked, and another young girl is placed under the infamous Sleeping Beauty Curse. Suspicious eyes soon turn to Chloe, and the whole town believes she is guilty.

As Chloe investigates the attacks, with a little help from the handsome but irritating Professor Mike Fellowes, she discovers that there may be a deeper and deadlier plan afoot—one that’s focused on her.

Can Chloe unravel the mystery in time? Or will she fall prey to the malevolent figure lurking in the shadows?

A Maryland Witch is now out! Read Chapter One below…

Chapter One

“Good afternoon, miss. Can you tell me what this symbol is?”

I looked up into a pair of dark eyes. The eyes were matched by equally dark hair, and both hair and eyes belonged to a handsome man—he would have been extremely handsome if not for the look on his face.

He seemed skeptical—and challenging—as if he’d caught me at something.

I looked down at the piece of paper the man had placed on the desk. It showed a symbol drawn in black ink—it looked like an uppercase L intersected by another, upside down uppercase L:

Symbol-cropped

I drew in my breath sharply.

“No,” I said. “I have no idea what that is.”

The man raised one mocking eyebrow. “Isn’t this the library?”

I glanced around me, as if to reassure myself. Between the man’s good looks and the shock of seeing the symbol, I was momentarily disoriented. But the study tables were full of our regulars, and our books sat on our slightly dusty shelves in quiet repose like they usually did.

We were indeed in a library.

“Yes, this is the Crabtree Bay Public Library,” I said a little unsteadily.

“Oh,” the man said. “I thought the library was supposed to be a repository of knowledge. And I thought librarians were supposed to be smart.”

“Well, we don’t know everything,” I said, feeling myself bristle. “And just because you’ve doodled a mark on a piece of paper doesn’t mean I can tell you what it is.”

The man persisted. “Aren’t you Chloe Bartlett?”

“Yes,” I said. Despite the man’s sneering tone, hearing him say my name made a little tingle run through me. “Yes, I am.”

“And you’re still saying you don’t know what this is?”

The man tapped on the piece of paper, and I glanced down at it.

“No,” I said firmly.

“You’re lying,” he said.

And he was right—I was. I just couldn’t help it. The symbol was secret—and sacred. It wasn’t the sort of thing you discussed with strangers, and I hadn’t expected to see it. Denying that I knew about it was instinctive—I was just protecting my family.

“Let me explain myself, Miss Bartlett,” the man said. He drew himself up to his full height, which was considerable—he wasn’t short. “I am Mike Fellowes.”

“Who?” I said.

The man looked disappointed. “Mike Fellowes. Professor Michael Fellowes of Henrietta College. Surely you’re heard of me?”

“You’re a professor?” I said, startled. “You don’t look much older than I am. And I’m twenty-three. And besides, you’re too—”

I stopped myself quickly. I’d been going to say “too handsome,” but there was no way I was going to admit to something like that now.

I looked at the man before me, who still seemed to be struggling with the idea that I didn’t know who he was.

“Oh, I get it,” I said suddenly. “You’re a TA, and you’re trying to make yourself seem important.”

I winced a little on the inside as I said the words—I hadn’t meant to sound quite so sharp. But then again, I was still reeling from the sight of the symbol, which he kept waving around.

“A teaching assistant?” Mike said. “Me? I’ll have you know that I’m twenty-seven years old and a full professor.”

“Congratulations,” I said. I meant that sincerely, but somehow it came out sounding a little sarcastic.

“And do you know what I’m professor of?” Mike said.

“No,” I replied. “I thought we’d established that I’d never heard of you.”

Mike’s mouth hung open.

After a moment, he recovered himself. “I’m the new Professor of English and Folklore Studies. I’ve published several folklore books—all of which are available at Fogerty’s Bookstore downtown.”

“Well, they’re not available here,” I said.

Mike scoffed. “And you would know?”

“Yes, of course,” I said. “I know my library. There are no books by a Professor Mike Fellowes in the folklore section. It’s Dewey Decimal number three hundred ninety-eight right behind you. Check it out if you don’t believe me.”

Mike glanced around at the shelves I’d indicated.

As he did so, I noticed that several of our patrons were frowning at the two of us—our discussion had grown a little loud.

Mike turned back to me. “That’s not the point.”

“What is the point?” I asked. “And please keep your voice down. People are trying to read in here.”

“The point is,” Mike said, “that you believe you’re a witch. Deny that!”

He said the words in a loud, ringing voice and then crossed his arms across his chest.

“Shhh!” Mrs. Ludlow hissed. She was one of our regulars, and she was glaring at the two of us over the top of her glasses.

For my part, I was too stunned to say anything.

Nobody knew I was a witch.

Nobody.

That was a secret we had guarded for three hundred years.

Everyone in the library was looking at us now.

I found that I was having trouble breathing.

Mike went on. “You also have two sisters—Alberta and Rafaela Bartlett. And they’re also harboring the delusion that they’re witches. Is that not right?”

I looked around at all the eyes that were staring at us.

This isn’t happening, I said to myself.

Just then, I caught sight of a swift movement nearby.

I turned and saw a familiar figure rounding the corner of the stacks in the graphic novel section. It was Joe Osgood—tanned and muscular, with long, light brown hair that was streaked with gold. He had a bit of a crush on me, and he was often to be found lingering near the comic books and pretending to read them, while actually peering around the corner to look at me. Most days, Joe’s presence was a little irritating, but today it seemed as if it could actually be a good thing.

“You haven’t answered any of my questions,” Mike said, still speaking loudly. “Do you or don’t you believe you’re a witch?”

“Dude, back off!” Joe said. Suddenly, he was at the circulation desk, and he was wedging himself in between Mike and the desk.

Mike was blocked from my sight for a moment, and then he took a step back. I could see he was startled.

“Did you just call Chloe a witch?” Joe asked.

Mike folded his arms once again. “Actually, that’s what I’m here to ascertain. But so far she hasn’t said a word.”

His eyes darted to me. “So I’m going to take her silence as confirmation.”

Joe blinked at Mike. “Look, I have no idea what you just said. But nobody comes in here and calls Chloe a witch. She’s my girl—I mean, she’s my friend. She’s a girl who’s my friend. And nobody can talk about her that way.”

“So you’re the boyfriend, are you?” Mike smirked. “It figures. You’re both good-looking and empty-headed.”

“Wait,” I said, startled once again. “Did you just say I was good-looking?”

Mike threw me a scornful look. “Of course that’s what you’d hear. I rest my case.”

“What case?” I said.

“Shhh!” Mrs. Ludlow said.

“What I’m trying to demonstrate here is this,” Mike said. “You’re a bubbleheaded girl who believes she has magic powers, and I’m here to debunk this for the nonsense it is.”

“Dude,” Joe said, “I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Mike stabbed a finger in my direction. “She believes she’s a witch. And her sisters believe they’re witches, too. It’s absurd, and it’s got to stop.”

Joe’s expression grew stormy. “I told you not to call her a witch.”

Mike waved the scrap of paper with the symbol in Joe’s face. “It’s what she calls herself. Just ask her.”

I was back to finding it hard to breathe again. Every time I saw that symbol, I felt a fluttering in my stomach.

“You know what?” Joe said. “I’m going to call you Professor Mike.”

“That’s good,” Mike said. “Because that’s my name.”

“Yeah?” Joe said. “Well, that’s what I’m going to call you. Professor Mike, Professor Mike! Hey, everybody, we’ve got an egghead here. Say hello to Professor Mike!”

“Well, you know what I’m going to call you?” Mike asked.

“What?”

“I’m going to call you ignorant.”

Joe’s face suddenly went brick red. “What did you call me?”

“Ignorant.” Mike repeated the word, but he looked a little nervous.

“Are you calling me stupid?” Joe asked. Somehow his face had gone even redder.

If there was one thing Joe hated, it was being called stupid.

I hurried around the circulation desk and stepped in between the two of them.

“Okay, guys,” I said. “Let’s simmer down now. Nobody here is ignorant or a witch, and please let’s try to remember that we’re in a library. No shouting or fighting in here.”

Mike ignored me. “Being ignorant doesn’t mean you’re stupid. It means you lack knowledge. And you know nothing about what’s going on here. You haven’t seen my research—you are entirely ignorant in this situation.”

Joe seemed to swell up. “Did you just call me ignorant again?”

I grabbed Joe by the arm and pulled him back a few steps.

I found myself wishing—not for the first time—that the library had some security. If things got really rowdy in here, there wasn’t anybody else to take care of the situation but me. I was working alone today.

“Yes, I did call you ignorant,” Mike said. “But you’re not alone. Society as a whole is ignorant. This town is ignorant.”

I kept hold of Joe and looked over at Mike. “You know, you’re really not helping.”

“But this town isn’t the problem,” Mike said, clearly warming to his subject. “There are pockets of ignorance everywhere. Pockets of superstition everywhere. And intend to expose them. I’m going to expose everything. I will reveal all!”

Joe grimaced in disgust. “Dude, I don’t think you should be talking about exposing yourself. That’s just not right.”

“I’m not talking about exposing myself,” Mike said. “I’m talking about exposing the ignorance and superstition in this town. When you live in a place where the librarian believes herself to be a witch, you’ve got a problem.”

Despite my best efforts to hold him back, Joe took a threatening step toward Mike. “Where did you hear that anyway?”

“Yes, where did you hear that?” I asked. “And how did you find that symbol?”

Mike smiled smugly. “That’s easy enough to answer. I’ve been receiving emails from a man named Charles Tyndall. He spells out everything about you and your sisters—if you’ll forgive the pun. I did a little digging, and it turns out he’s right. I found corroboration for all of it—every last detail.”

“Charles Tyndall?” I said.

“You’ve heard of him.”

“Yes.”

“I’m not surprised,” Mike said. “In his emails, Mr. Tyndall did indicate that he was rather a prominent citizen.”

“When did you get these emails?” I asked. “Was it a long time ago?”

“No,” Mike said. He stopped to consider the question, and for the first time he didn’t look angry or smug—he just looked thoughtful. “Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by a long time. I received the last email about a month ago. I’ve been researching his claims ever since.”

The smug look returned as he continued. “As it so happens, I’m a very quick researcher. I was able to substantiate many of his claims about your family’s peculiar superstitions in very little time. I doubt many other scholars could have completed the work as swiftly as I did. I’m both quick and accurate.”

“And yet you miss the bigger picture,” I murmured.

Mike frowned. “And what does that mean?”

“It means that couldn’t have received emails from Charles Tyndall a month ago.”

“And why is that?”

I took a deep breath. “Because Charles Tyndall died about ten years ago.”

Mike looked at me in surprise. “What?”

“It’s easy enough to check,” I said quietly. “You won’t need any great research skills to find out.”

Mike stared at me. “You’re saying I received emails from a dead man?”

Joe snickered. “You got punked. The emails are fake. Chloe’s no witch and neither are her sisters.”

“You’re saying the emails aren’t real?” Mike said. “You’re saying my research was based on a prank?”

“It looks like it,” I said.

Mike’s face went as red as Joe’s had earlier.

“I don’t believe it,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter who sent the emails. Even if it wasn’t Charles Tyndall, it was probably from someone who wanted to remain anonymous. And my research is still good—the facts still stand. And I’m going to prove that you and your sisters believe you’re witches and that you’re at the center of a conspiracy of ignorance to keep this town mired in superstition.”

“So,” I said. “You’re going to prove that my sisters and I think we’re witches.”

“Yes.”

“And then you’re going to prove that even though we believe we’re witches, it’s not actually true.”

“Yes.”

“In that case, you could save yourself the trouble and just skip to the end. Just tell everyone it’s not true. Or better yet, don’t bother.”

“You’re impossible,” Mike said. “But I’m going to get to the bottom of this. I’m going to bring your crazy beliefs out into the open.”

He stormed out of the library and slammed the front door behind him.

Mrs. Ludlow was still glaring at me over the top of her glasses.

“Shhh!” she hissed.

******************

Thanks very much for reading! A Maryland Witch is now available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.

 

 

Maze of Mirrors — New Short Story

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Maze of Mirrors

“Come on, Jessica,” Charlie said. “You used to love the fair.”

He was right—I did. I used to love a lot of things.

Now I wasn’t so sure.

The sun was setting, and the lights were coming on at the state fair. Neon lights in red and blue were blinking into life on all of the rides, and the merchants’ stalls and concession stands were lighting up in shades of white and gold.

I could smell the powdered-sugar scent of funnel cake, and from somewhere distantly, I could hear cries of delight from one of the rides—possibly the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Charlie took my hand and smiled at me, and I was suddenly aware of my engagement ring on that same hand—somehow it seemed heavy.

I glanced around me. It had seemed to me once that there was magic in the air at the fair.

But I could no longer feel it.

“Come on, Jessica,” Charlie said again.

I allowed myself to be pulled forward, and we went up to the long row of turnstiles where we would buy the little blue paper wristbands that would grant us entry.

We passed through the turnstiles, and Charlie stopped to buy a roll of tickets that would get us onto the rides and into some of the other attractions.

I tried to tell him not to bother, but Charlie simply smiled and bought some anyway.

“Just in case,” he said.

Since I wasn’t interested in the rides, we decided to just walk and take in the sights.

As we walked along the dusty paths that wound between the stalls in the August heat, I glanced up at Charlie.

His handsome, classic profile was outlined in the waning sunlight, and his light brown hair had picked up just a touch of gold from that same fading light.

He looked much the same as he had when we’d first met three years ago—and maybe he was the same.

Maybe I was different.

“Would you like any food?” Charlie asked.

“No thanks,” I said. I smiled up at him and tried to feel the same way I used to feel about him—but it just wasn’t coming.

We continued to walk, and soon we came in sight of a booth where you could win a prize by shooting a target.

Charlie let out a whoop and ran over to it.

“Come on, Jessica! I’ll win you a prize!”

Charlie’s enthusiasm had once really charmed me—now I found myself feeling slightly irritated.

But I followed him, and I smiled politely at the tired-looking teen who ran the booth.

Charlie paid for his three chances with tickets, and I stood beside him as he aimed the little gun on a swivel at a row of moving yellow ducks.

He was a terrible shot, and for just a moment, I was reminded of why I fell in love with him.

His enthusiasm as he aimed for duck after duck and missed made me laugh.

“I’m going to do it, Jess! I’m going to win that prize for you!”

But try after try, Charlie kept missing. His enthusiasm never waned, and he also wouldn’t give up.

My interest began to fade, and I found my attention drifting to other things.

But Charlie kept trying for that prize like he was trying to win me back.

Perhaps he was.

Not far away was a mechanical fortune-teller—the kind in which you inserted a few coins and it told you your future.

I drifted over to it.

In a big glass case sat the upper half of a metal woman with black hair and a star-spangled kerchief. She was clad in a red blouse, and her fingers were covered in rings. Those same fingers were stretched out over a crystal ball, and her dark eyes looked vaguely down in its direction.

When Charlie and I were first dating, we’d come to this same fair, and I’d purchased a fortune from a machine very much like this one—in fact the one in front of me might have been the same one.

I fished two quarters out of my purse and plugged them into the coin slot.

Lights went on in the glass box, and a mysterious jingle began to play. The fortune-teller sat up a little straighter, and a recorded voice intoned, “I see all! Here is your fortune!”

A slender white slip of paper dropped onto a tiny tray.

I picked it up and stared at it.

The first time I’d been here with Charlie, my fortune had promised true love—it had seemed prophetic back then.

This time I turned the little slip of paper over and over in my fingers, but the result was the same.

It was blank.

Charlie came bounding over to me with his hands behind his back. Then he brought his arms around to the front and produced a stuffed animal—a purple bear with a heart-shaped nose.

“For you, Jess.”

I took the bear and looked up into Charlie’s smiling face. He looked really happy, and the evening sun outlined his handsome face, bathing him in a golden glow.

But for me the glow was gone. Our wedding was in six months. And I was having doubts.

Yes—I was having doubts.

“It’s very thoughtful of you,” I said. “Thank you for winning this for me.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Charlie said, his grin wide and boyish. “I fought those ducks right up to the end.”

I smiled despite myself, and Charlie glanced over at the mechanical fortune-teller.

“Oh, hey—I remember this! Did you get a fortune?”

“I don’t think it’s working,” I said.

“Well, that’s okay,” Charlie said. “There’s plenty of other stuff to do.”

His face suddenly lit up.

“How about the Maze of Mirrors? I know you love the maze.”

Charlie took my hand, and before long we were standing in front of a gaudy building done up in shades of gold and silver. A sign at the top proclaimed it to be the “Maze of Mirrors,” and yellow lights flashed all along its border.

A couple walked up to the elaborate front door and went inside, and a soft light came into Charlie’s eyes as he watched them disappear.

“Do you remember this place?” he said.

“Yes, I do,” I replied.

On that early date when we’d come to the fair, we’d also gone to this same Maze of Mirrors.

And this was where we’d shared our first kiss.

The memory was a happy one, but it was distant and hazy—like something I’d tucked away to be treasured on a rainy day.

It no longer felt like part of the present.

“Yes, I do,” I murmured again.

“Would you like to go inside?” Charlie asked.

“Sure.”

He gave my hand a little squeeze, and we went in through the ornate door.

There was a big, heart-shaped mirror in the entranceway, and I stopped to look at us.

This mirror held no distortion. It simply showed the two of us standing in the shadowy hall—Albert tall and golden-haired in his polo shirt, khaki shorts, and tennis shoes. And I saw myself—dark hair, equally dark eyes, clad in a white sundress and sandals.

We were much as we had been on that day a few years ago when we’d first come here.

And yet we were very different now—or at least I was.

Charlie looked over at me and our eyes met in the mirror.

“Jess,” he said softly, “I feel like I’m losing you.”

I smiled back at him, but I said nothing.

We moved on into the maze, and I could hear the laughter of the other couple somewhere up ahead of us.

Charlie and I examined ourselves in all the mirrors—one made us tall and thin, another made us short and fat, and still another made us curvy in all the wrong ways.

I found myself giggling and enjoying myself despite my misgivings, and I hurried on ahead.

Eventually, I realized I was alone, and I looked around.

“Charlie?”

I hurried back the way I’d come, but I couldn’t find any sign of him.

I stood still and listened, figuring I’d hear him—or someone else—moving around, but there was only silence—I couldn’t even hear the couple that had come in ahead of us.

“Charlie?” I said. “Charlie, where are you?”

But there was no answer.

I decided to go back to the entrance—surely he was waiting for me there.

I began to hurry, running past distorted images of myself, but the mirrors seemed to stretch on and on, and somehow I couldn’t find the way out.

I was well and truly lost.

Figuring that someone else would have to come along eventually—the evening was still young, and this was a popular attraction—I spied a little bench and sat down on it.

The bench was covered in thick, red cloth and was as ornate as the mirrors all around me. At the very least, I had a comfortable place to wait, and I was sure that someone would be along in just a few minutes.

But time stretched on, and eventually, my attention began to wander.

And then there was a flicker in the mirror that stood opposite me—just the barest hint of movement—and I found myself staring into it.

Like the mirror in the entranceway that Charlie and I had first encountered, this mirror seemed to have no distortion in it. I saw myself reflected back very plainly—I was sitting on a bench with a purple stuffed bear at my feet.

There was another flicker from the mirror, and then I suddenly saw Charlie reflected in it very clearly.

I stood up and turned around.

“Charlie! Where have you—”

But there was no one behind me.

I turned back to the mirror.

Charlie was still there—but as I peered closer, I realized that the Charlie in the mirror wasn’t wearing the same clothes he’d had on a few minutes ago. And instead of a dimly lit hall of mirrors behind him, there was a bright, sunny day.

Somehow this was a different Charlie.

He was laughing, and he was looking at someone far off in the distance—someone I couldn’t see.

And he was holding something in his hand—a football.

I looked closer, and I realized that I recognized the wide swath of green field where Charlie was standing. There was a ring of trees beyond him, and I could see a few picnic tables nestled close to the trees.

This wasn’t just a different Charlie.

It was Charlie on the day we met.

My cousin had dragged me to a picnic I didn’t want to go to, and as I walked across that same grassy filed to sneak out early, a football—not thrown by Charlie—had hit me squarely between the shoulder blades.

But Charlie was the first one over to help me up, and I still remembered the concern in his eyes as he’d looked at me.

He’d wanted to drive me to a hospital, but I’d insisted I was fine. We’d ended up talking and laughing for hours and rather than leaving early, I ended up staying until the sun set and most of the other picnickers had gone.

I stood up quickly and walked away.

As I hurried along, I saw another flicker of movement in a mirror, and despite my misgivings, I stopped to look.

This mirror showed no sign of distortion, either, and as I watched, another image of Charlie appeared within its glassy depths.

This time, Charlie was seated at a table in a restaurant, looking slightly uncomfortable in a suit and tie. The table was next to a window, and I could see a dark lake stretching beyond it.

The were candles on the table, and his face was bathed in a soft light.

I recognized this Charlie, too—this was how he had looked on the night of my birthday dinner—the first celebration we’d shared after we started dating. Charlie had put on a pair of oversized green plastic glasses, and then two waiters had wheeled out a cake that was completely covered in candles. The blaze from the cake was bright, and Charlie had belted out an off-key version of “Happy Birthday.” I’d been overcome with laughter, and diners at the neighboring tables had laughed, too. They’d even cheered and clapped when Charlie had finished singing.

Charlie was always ready with a joke and always trying to make people laugh.

He was entertaining—but it took a lot more than that to build a life.

And that was the trouble really. Charlie wasn’t serious enough to depend on.

But even as I hurried away from the mirror, I realized that I wasn’t being entirely fair to Charlie.

He had a serious side, too—and there was more to him than just jokes and good times. A lot more.

As if in answer to my thoughts, the nearest mirror flickered and showed me yet another image of Charlie.

This time, he was standing in a hallway—my hallway, in fact.

It was the hall that led to the apartment I was living in when I’d first met him, and he was standing in front of my door.

His back was to me, and he was wearing a thick winter coat. And in one gloved hand, he was clutching a brown paper bag, while the other hand was raised to knock at my door.

I knew exactly what was in that bag.

That first winter after we met, I had a terrible case of the flu.

I was lying on the couch in my apartment, feeling all alone in the world, when Charlie showed up at my door with a big thermos of chicken noodle soup.

The soup was steaming and hot, and it was just the thing I needed to soothe my sore throat and aching body.

I’d warned Charlie that he should stay away—I didn’t want him to get sick, too.

But he showed up every day for the next three days to bring me more soup and to make sure that I was okay.

I knew very well that Charlie had a serious side—and that he wouldn’t disappear when times got tough.

Charlie was fun, but he was also solid and dependable.

No—he wasn’t frivolous at all.

Something else was wrong.

I hurried away from the mirror.

As I ran along the shadowy hall full of mirrors, I saw my own swift figure reflected back to me in dark glass after dark glass. I continued to watch my own fleeing form, and I realized that I could already see what the problem was.

It was me—running.

I stopped.

I stared at myself in the mirror and watched my chest heaving from my recent exertions. I could hear my own breath echoing raggedly in my ears, and I knew that the running wasn’t the only reason I was having trouble breathing.

I was panicking.

I was scared.

And as I looked into my own eyes, I realized that this was the real reason I was having second thoughts about Charlie.

I wasn’t different.

But I was afraid that I would be.

Right now I was still me. I still had my own space—my own separate identity.

But after the wedding, I would be part of an Us. I would be Charlie and me together forever.

I wondered—would I still be me?

And that’s what I was really worried about—not Charlie, not his personality, or how responsible he really was.

I was afraid to lose myself.

I continued to stare into my own eyes, and I began to breathe in and out very slowly.

I realized that I didn’t need to worry.

I would always be me.

I saw other images then—this time in my mind’s eye and not in a mirror.

I saw Charlie and me sharing our first kiss right here in this Maze of Mirrors.

I saw Charlie on another day running out to me in the pouring rain with an umbrella to shield me from the deluge.

I saw Charlie kneeling before me on a bright sunny day with a black velvet ring box in his hands.

And I heard myself saying, Yes, I will marry you. I love you.

Then Charlie had stood, and I’d thrown my arms around him.

I love you, too, Charlie had said. And I always will.

I realized then that I didn’t need to be worried about myself—or Charlie.

He was good, loyal, loving—in good times and in bad.

He would always support me.

And I would always be me.

I stared into my own eyes in the mirror.

“You can do this,” I said to myself. “You both can.”

Then I turned and ran again.

But this time I wasn’t running away from something—this time I was running toward something.

I was running toward Charlie—and our life together.

I called out his name as I ran.

“Charlie! Charlie!”

As I hurried along the shadowy halls full of mirrors in ornate frames, I felt a new twinge of worry. What if I couldn’t find Charlie? What if this crazy maze had somehow conspired to take him away from me?

I couldn’t let that happen.

I ran and ran, this time glancing at the mirrors on either side of me, hoping to catch a glimpse of Charlie once again, but the mirrors remained stubbornly blank of anything except my own fleeing figure.

I ran faster.

Just when I thought I couldn’t run anymore, I spied a light up ahead.

I’d found my way back to the entrance.

I ran past the mirror where Charlie and I had stopped to take a look at ourselves, and I burst through the ornate doors at the front and ran out into the early evening sunshine.

I was free.

I looked around. A crowd of people was standing around the entrance to the Maze of Mirrors, and Charlie detached himself from the group.

He hurried over to me.

“Jess, are you okay?”

I threw my arms around him. “Charlie! Charlie! You’re here! You’re okay!”

He hugged me tightly and then stepped back.

“Of course I’m okay. The question is are you?”

“I’m fine. What happened? Why is everyone out here?”

“The fire alarm went off,” Charlie said. “The whole place filled with smoke. I looked everywhere trying to find you, but the firefighters pulled me out.”

He pointed, and I could see firefighters standing in a cluster not far away. They were all dressed in yellow with reflective stripes, and many of them held masks which I assumed protected against smoke inhalation.

I glanced behind me. The Maze of Mirrors looked fine—there was no smoke and no sign of a fire.

“But there’s no smoke,” I said. “Did they put the fire out?”

Charlie glanced over at the firefighters. “They haven’t said anything yet, but I’m thinking there was no fire. I think some kids pulled the fire alarm and then set off some smoke bombs.”

He glanced at me searchingly. “You’re really all right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You didn’t hear the fire alarm?”

“No.”

“What happened in there?”

“I found myself,” I said. “And I found you.”

******************

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Ria Sopala/Pixabay

******************

Thanks very much for reading!

Bound by Love — New Short Story

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Bound by Love

I swear you’re part mermaid, Bridget. You know you weren’t born in a hospital, right? I just found you wandering on the sand.

My mother’s oft-repeated words floated back to me as I stood looking out over the beach. I loved to swim—as my dad did—but my mother wouldn’t so much as dip a toe in the water. She used to take me to the beach every week in the summertime when I was a kid, and she always used to tease me that my father and I were fantastical merpeople—or that we had saltwater in our veins.

As I looked out over the water and saw the first rosy rays of the predawn on the horizon, I felt the same old pull to the gently plashing waves that I always felt.

I wanted to run out and dive into the water.

But the ocean would have to wait this morning. I had a business meeting at 10 a.m., and I didn’t want to take a chance on what the saltwater might do to my hair. My hair was thick and straight and brown, and most of the time, it took being doused in ocean water pretty well. But every once in a while it went haywire, and I didn’t want to risk that happening.

This was an important meeting—and I didn’t want to look crazy.

So I contented myself instead with a run on the boardwalk.

I’d been in this little resort town for three days now, and each morning before I went swimming or running, I stopped first by a marble statue that sat on the beach.

This morning was no exception, and I slipped off my sneakers and walked across the sand.

The statue sat just beyond the boardwalk across from a little shop that sold saltwater taffy.

The statue was made of marble, and it depicted a mermaid. According to the little weathered plaque that sat next to it, the statue had once been part of a fountain in Italy, and the statue had been salvaged from it before the fountain itself was demolished.

I reached out a hand to touch the cool marble, and I admired the graceful lines of the statue. It seemed to me that the mermaid was the patron saint of this place and watched over everyone. Her placid gray eyes certainly seemed wise, and I wondered about the things she had seen—both in her homeland and here in this new place she’d been brought to.

Once I had done greeting her for the morning, I went back to the boardwalk and dusted the sand off my feet.

Then I began my run.

On my way back, I happened to see that my mermaid friend had company.

It was still early, and the sun itself was now peeking over the horizon.

The sunrise was spectacular.

But the man sitting on the sand next to the mermaid didn’t see it.

His broad, bronze back was slumped, and his dark head was bowed. His arms were wrapped around his knees, and he appeared to be staring down at his feet.

It was a strange posture for someone to take on the beach, and I began to wonder if the man was all right.

I hurried over to him.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you okay?”

The man looked up at me, and I was struck by the beauty and the misery in his face. He had very brown eyes with thick, black lashes, and dark stubble outlined his firm chin. But his eyes were misty, and his full lips were drawn down at the corners.

I was about to ask my question again when the man turned away from me.

“Do not look at me, bella signorina,” he said. “You should not see me like this.”

The man’s voice was deep and resonant with a warmth underlying it, and he had a thick Italian accent.

I was startled. “Are you okay? Are you lost?”

The man threw back his head and gave a short bark of unhappy laughter.

“You ask me if I, Antonio, am lost, and I say to you yes—but not in the way you think.”

“I’m sorry?”

The man swiped at his eyes quickly and then turned to look at me again. “May I ask you a question, signorina?”

“Sure.”

“Have you ever known that you had a destiny before you—a fate? And that even though this destiny wasn’t a bad one—you still couldn’t avoid it? You would have to do it, and you had no choice?”

“I’m not sure I believe in destiny,” I said. “Are you saying you have one now?”

Antonio looked away again—out over the water. “Ah, but you will laugh, signorina, you will laugh.”

I did feel like laughing, but not at him. I felt like laughing with joy. I felt a strong pull toward this strange man sitting by the mermaid statue on the beach—and not just because he was handsome. I could sense in him a zest for life, a sense of adventure.

And I wanted to know more about him.

“No, I won’t laugh,” I said. “Please—go ahead and tell me.”

“Mia nonna—my grandmother—has a great gift. She can see the future, and she makes prophecies. And she has made one about me.”

I waited patiently, and Antonio scrutinized my face. Apparently, he didn’t see any disapproval or derision there, and he went on.

“Mia nonna said to me, you will journey to a faraway place. On July 20, you will sit by the side of a mermaid and stare out to sea. At dawn, you will see a beautiful siren emerging from the waves. This siren is the woman you will marry. A jester will try to separate the two of you. But you will persevere. The two of you will be married.”

I glanced out at the ocean. It was dawn, but there was no one—beautiful or otherwise—emerging from the water.

“That’s a very pretty prophecy,” I said. “But are you sure your nonna was right? I don’t see anyone here but us.”

Antonio hung his head once again.

“She is never wrong. And I do not wish to marry a siren, no matter how beautiful. I want to marry a woman of my own choice. And now I am deprived of that choice. I am bound by love.”

“Well, I’m sure your nonna wouldn’t want you to feel trapped. I’m sure she wouldn’t want you to feel like you had no choice.”

“But the prophecy—”

“I’m sure if you see this siren lady, you can tell her it’s nice to meet her, but you’d like to make up your own mind.”

Antonio laughed then—a hearty, infectious sound.

“Ah, yes. What a fine thing to say. I think mia nonna would like you—even if you disagreed with her prophecy.”

He sobered and was silent for a moment. “But very seriously, I am bound by this prophecy. When the time comes, I will follow it.”

My watch beeped then, and I glanced at it.

It was time for me to be getting back.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Antonio. “I have to—”

He waved an expressive hand. “No, no—it is okay. You have been very kind, and you have listened to a crazy man ramble. But now you have things to do, and I must stay here and await my fate.”

“Will you be all right?” I asked.

He smiled wanly. “I will be fine—better now that I have met you.”

“Antonio, I’m—”

“No, no—do not tell me your name. I want to remember you only as the lovely, mysterious lady who tried to help me.”

I was surprised for a moment—I hadn’t been planning to tell him my name.

Truthfully, I wasn’t exactly sure what I had been going to tell him—I’d just had a vague feeling that I wanted to help him in some way.

“Well, good luck with everything,” I said.

Antonio gave me a sad look—almost as if he wished I wouldn’t leave. “Addio, signorina. I wish we’d met under other circumstances.”

I turned to go.

As I walked toward my hotel, I glanced back and saw him still sitting by the statue with his head bowed once again.

I sighed and hurried on.

I got ready in my hotel room and then sat for twenty minutes going over my notes.

After that it was time for me to go down to my meeting with Richard Harper.

Richard Harper was a local business magnate who was building a new flagship skyscraper, and he wanted to hire a production crew to film a documentary about it. The filming would cover everything—from the early planning stages through construction to completion.

If I could land this job, it would mean big things for my tiny production company.

I took a deep breath and then left my room and headed to the elevator.

As I made my way through the hotel to the ballroom where our meeting was to be held, I found myself thinking of Antonio, the strange man from the beach. I wondered if his mysterious siren had ever shown up, and if so, I wondered how it had gone.

I found myself wondering further if he would be open to dating other people if he and the siren hadn’t hit it off. I began to wonder then if Antonio and I would relocate to Italy if we became a couple, or if he would be open to living here.

I realized with a start that I had reached Ballroom E where my meeting with Richard was to be held, and I paused for a moment to clear my head and focus on the business at hand.

I banished all thoughts of whirlwind romances from my mind.

Then I walked in.

Richard and my AV equipment were already waiting inside the vast room, and I walked up to him and shook his hand.

He had a shock of white hair and a very round, red nose, which was somehow at odds with his stern countenance.

“Richard Harper,” he said in a voice that was as firm as his handshake.

“Bridget Connelly,” I replied.

“Well, Ms. Connelly, I hope you’re prepared to impress me today.”

Richard took a seat, and I walked over to the table to pick up my clicker.

I launched into my presentation, ignoring the butterflies that had begun to flutter in my stomach, and I was relieved to find that the AV equipment was working just as it should.

I managed to get through my presentation without making any embarrassing stumbles or forgetting any important points.

At the end, I shut down my slideshow.

“Any questions?” I asked.

Richard stared at me, stone-faced, with his arms crossed.

A long silence ensued.

I stood in the quiet ballroom, uncertain what to do next.

At long last, Richard broke the silence.

“I’d like you to join me for lunch today. That way, you can meet my lead architect, Joe Milano.”

“Does that mean I got the job?” I said.

“Yes.”

I tried not to let my joy and relief show on my face.

“Thank you, Richard,” I said.

“Just don’t let me down. I’m putting a lot of faith in you.”

We left the ballroom and traveled through the sprawling hotel to one of its three restaurants.

Along the way, Richard extolled the virtues of Joe, the lead architect.

“He’s a bright young man,” Richard said. “I think you’re going to enjoy working with him.”

When we reached the restaurant, Joe had yet to arrive, so after we were seated, Richard and I began to discuss some details of the project—we would actually make my employment official once I had met with Joe.

As I sipped at a glass of water, I happened to see a familiar figure enter the restaurant.

It was a man, tall and dark, with dark eyes and thick eyelashes. Last time I’d seen him, however, he hadn’t been wearing a suit.

It was Antonio.

He approached our table, and Richard turned to look at him.

“This way, my boy, this way!”

Antonio saw Richard and hurried over to us.

The two shook hands warmly, and then Richard turned to me.

“Bridget, I’d like you to meet Joe Milano.”

Antonio looked at me, and his face turned bright red.

“Joe?” I said.

“Yes,” Richard replied. “He’s an amazing architect. And Joe, this is Bridget, the brilliant filmmaker who’s going to cover this entire project from start to finish.”

Antonio stepped over to shake my hand.

“Joe?” I said again.

“Yes.” His eyes seemed to be pleading with me not to say anything further.

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

Joe looked deeply relieved.

I happened to glance over at Richard, and I saw that he was watching us shrewdly.

He said nothing, however, and we all sat down and made small talk.

I noticed very quickly that Joe no longer had an Italian accent.

Soon we ordered lunch, and after it arrived, our conversation turned to business.

Joe turned out to be articulate and very knowledgeable—I wasn’t surprised at all that Richard had chosen him.

But I was still wondering why he’d impersonated an Italian tourist on the beach.

At one point, Richard had to excuse himself to take a call, and he walked away from the table.

After he disappeared, Joe turned to me.

“Thank you for not telling Richard.”

I couldn’t help teasing him just a little.

“Telling him what? That your real name is Antonio?”

Joe blushed once again. “Well, actually, my middle name is Antonio. I’m Joseph Antonio Milano. And my grandmother does call me ‘Antonio.’ She doesn’t like the name Joseph.”

“So that part was true at least?” I said.

Joe ran a hand over his hair. “The whole thing was true—I guess that’s what makes this all so embarrassing. My grandmother really did make that prophecy about me.”

“What about the accent? That wasn’t real.”

“No—it’s just, my parents are from Italy and a lot of my family still lives there. Somehow it seemed like the thing to do at the moment.”

“And you said you were from far away.”

“I am. I’m from Oregon. This is my first time on the East Coast.”

“So what happened with your siren?” I said.

Joe smiled sheepishly. “I waited till the last possible moment for her to come out of the waves.”

“And?”

“She never showed up.”

“Oh,” I said. I tried to ignore the happy fluttering sensation I felt.

“I just can’t understand it,” Joe said. “Nonna is never wrong.”

Richard returned to the table, and we finished lunch.

At the end, he ushered us out of the restaurant and down to a private office.

“Come in, come in,” he said.

The office was small, with just enough space for a desk and three chairs.

Richard waved us to the two guest chairs, and then after he closed the door, he sat down behind the desk.

“Before I give you two the contracts, there is one last item—a test if you will.”

Richard reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a white feather, which he placed on the desk.

“I call this my truth feather, and I always carry it with me. Anyone in its presence must speak the absolute truth. Do you agree?”

“Yes, of course,” I said promptly. “I always speak the truth.”

“Not a problem,” Joe said. “Ask me anything about my business, and I’ll be happy to tell you about it.”

Richard looked at the two of us, and it seemed to me that his eyes were twinkling in an unpleasant way over his round, red nose.

“So you agree to tell the truth?”

“Yes.” Joe and I replied together.

Richard fixed his eyes on Joe.

“What did you think about Bridget when you first met her?”

A slight reddish tinge suffused Joe’s face, but he replied readily.

“I thought she was beautiful.”

I only had a moment to let that sink in before Richard turned to me.

“And what did you think of Joe when you first met him?”

I replied carefully but truthfully. “I thought that…I wanted to help him.”

“True or false?” Richard said. “When you saw each other today in the restaurant that was the first time you had ever met.”

I glanced at Richard. His eyes were dancing malevolently over his red nose.

“False,” I said. The question made me a little uncomfortable, but I didn’t see any reason not to answer it—there was no way Richard could guess at any of the rest of it.

The answer seemed to delight Richard, and his eyes gleamed even brighter.

He continued his questions along the same lines, and somehow I couldn’t stop myself from answering them. Soon he had the whole story—the beach, the mermaid statue, Nonna’s prophecy, and the Italian accent.

As I was talking, Joe’s face just kept getting redder and redder.

Eventually, he got up and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

Richard laughed.

“Joe!” I said. “Joe!”

I ran out after him.

Unfortunately, there was a bank of elevators near the office, and I reached them just in time to hear a loud ding and watch a set of doors close.

Joe was gone.

I turned in the direction of Richard and the office, but I realized that I didn’t want to go back in there.

Instead, I got on the elevator myself and went up to my room.

I went in and sat at the little desk.

I had a terrible feeling that I’d ruined everything.

I’d lost the contract for my fledgling company.

But most importantly, I’d hurt and embarrassed Joe.

Stupid truth feather, I thought to myself.

But I knew the feather hadn’t really been at fault. I could have refused to answer the questions. Instead, I just kept talking.

I moved from the desk to the bed, and I flung an arm across my eyes.

After a little while, I fell asleep.

I woke up to hear my phone buzzing, and I hurried across the room to pick it up.

There was a text from Richard.

Marvelous meeting today. Appreciate your honesty. You’re hired! Meet me tomorrow for breakfast. Give you the contract then. Suggest you look it over carefully—have your lawyer look over it too.

I stared at the text, flabbergasted.

A moment later, there was another one.

Here’s Joe’s number. In case you two would like to “chat” some more.

And a number was indeed included in the text.

As I stared down at my phone, too stunned to even move, yet another text popped up.

This time it was from the number that Richard had identified as Joe’s.

Can we meet?

Joe? I texted back.

Yes.

I felt a strange mixture of excitement and nerves—I was glad he was still talking to me.

Where? I said.

There’s a coffee shop in the front lobby of this hotel. Tons of people around. How about there?

Sure, I replied. See you in about ten minutes.

I hurried downstairs.

The coffee shop was indeed crowded as Joe had said, and I spotted him in the corner behind a knot of people.

He waved at me, and I slipped through the tangle of people to join him.

Joe was seated at a tiny table with two very tall chairs, and I was heartened to see how his face lit up when he saw me.

But before he could say anything, I rushed to get my words out first.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted out.

“It’s okay,” Joe said.

“No, it’s not okay,” I said. “I never should have said all those things.”

“It’s really okay. I shouldn’t have gone running out of there like that.”

“Leaving was perfectly understandable. I would have done the same thing.”

Joe gave me a small smile and glanced around. “Would you like to get some coffee?”

Under ordinary circumstances, I probably would have—the scent in the air was delicious.

“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t think I could eat or drink anything. My stomach is in knots. Joe, I really am sorry.”

“I know what you mean,” Joe said. He gave me a sympathetic look. “But seriously, you don’t owe me an apology. That was a high-pressure situation, and I imagine you had a lot riding on getting this job.”

I sighed and finally climbed up onto a chair. “Yes, I did.”

Joe nodded. “I thought so.”

He paused. “I asked you to come down here because I wanted to tell you something. Richard offered me the job—for real this time.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s great.” I took a deep breath. “Richard offered me the job, too.”

Joe nodded again.

“You don’t seem surprised,” I said.

“I’m not.”

“Even after that—scene?”

Joe glanced around uneasily. “I was surprised—at first. And then I remembered that Richard has something of a reputation.”

“For?”

Joe glanced around again. “For liking to work with people he knows he can manipulate.”

I smiled ruefully. “I guess he knows he can get me to talk about uncomfortable topics now.”

Someone jostled my chair, and I looked at Joe sharply. “Why did you mention that there were a ton of people here at the coffee shop? Was that for a particular reason?”

Joe looked a little sheepish. “I guess I thought we wouldn’t run into Richard in a place this crowded—and even if we did, he probably wouldn’t be able to overhear us. This whole thing has been weird, and I just didn’t want to run into him again today. And yet a part of me is still really glad I got the job.”

“I feel the same way. My production company’s new, and we haven’t had a lot of work. This job would mean a lot.”

Joe nodded. “I just struck out on my own after leaving a very big firm. This would really help me to get a start and get my feet under me. I could make a name for myself with this job.”

There was a buzz from my phone then and a corresponding jingle from Joe’s.

I dug my phone out of my purse and glanced at the waiting text.

It was from Richard.

Forgot to tell you the breakfast place. Let’s not meet in the hotel.

It was followed by the address of a diner out on the boardwalk.

Joe looked up at me.

“Did you get a text from Richard?”

“Yes.”

Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“So what do you think? Do you want to work together?”

“Yes,” I said.

Joe nodded, and it seemed to me that he looked disappointed.

“But not his way,” I said.

Joe looked up at me and smiled.

We both texted Richard then.

And we both turned him down.

But we struck up a partnership of our own.

A year and a week later, Joe and I were back on the same beach where we had first met, sitting in the shade of the mermaid statue that had once graced a fountain in Italy.

Joe and I were getting married in a few days, right on this beach, and his nonna and the rest of his Italian relatives were flying in for the ceremony.

Joe now knew that I loved the water, and I now knew that he loved to travel and learn languages, so we had combined our passions, and I had now swum in the Mediterranean Sea.

And Joe’s Italian had improved considerably since his earliest attempts at an accent.

We were currently watching the sun sparkle on the water—and having a familiar, well-worn argument.

“Nonna called it,” Joe was saying. “She was spot on.”

“No, she wasn’t,” I said.

“I did meet you on that fateful day, and now we’re getting married.”

“Yes, but as I recall, the prophecy said I’d be coming out of the water. And I walked to you across the beach.”

“A minor point,” Joe replied with a wave of his hand. “Did I ever mention that ‘sirena’ is actually the Italian word for mermaid?”

“Yes, you did. Many times.”

“And you, my dear Bridget, are definitely a mermaid—I’ve seen you swim. So you’re the mermaid of the prophecy. And Richard was the jester.”

I laughed as I thought of him. “He certainly was.”

“It was fate all the way,” Joe said.

“I think we made our own choice,” I replied.

Joe lifted my hand out into the sunlight, and we both watched the tiny diamond on my finger sparkle.

When Joe had initially gone looking for an engagement ring, he’d mentioned that he was looking for a blue stone for me to symbolize my love of water. I’d gently suggested that I might prefer a more traditional ring, and Joe had gone off to look again without finding anything that was quite right. And then Nonna had presented Joe with her own engagement ring—a lovely, antique ring with a small, clear diamond and a band with etchings that looked like tiny waves.

It was exactly the right ring.

I held it up to the sky now and admired it.

Joe nuzzled my hair and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Bound by love—just like Nonna said. What a wonderful place to be.”

“I’ll have to thank Nonna again when I see her,” I murmured. “This ring is absolutely perfect.”

“What did I tell you?” Joe said. “Nonna is never wrong.”

******************

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Stefan Keller/Pixabay

******************

Thanks very much for reading!

A Good Catch — New Short Story

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A Good Catch

“I heard the concession stands have brought back a lot of old favorites,” Ashley said. “Including that lemonade ice cream you used to like. And—”

Charlotte heard her friend sigh, and she turned to look at her.

Ashley was standing on the steps behind her. The slightest of breezes ruffled her light brown ponytail, and the sprinkling of freckles across her nose was barely visible in the shady stadium. It really was a bit gloomy this high up, and Charlotte wondered if her friend was having trouble negotiating the steps.

“Something wrong, Ashley?”

Ashley, who had already been frowning, frowned even harder, and Charlotte followed her gaze.

A man seated a few rows away was staring at them.

Charlotte looked at him, and the man sheepishly looked away.

Charlotte glanced back at her friend.

“It’s just a guy looking at us. And you look totally cute. I can’t blame him.”

“It’s not just that one guy,” Ashley replied. “It’s that one and that one and that one.”

Charlotte looked where Ashley pointed. There were indeed quite a few guys looking in their direction as they descended the steps.

Ashley continued. “And they aren’t looking at us. They’re looking at you.”

Charlotte glanced around. It was very shady, and a lot of the guys were wearing baseball caps, which shaded their eyes even further.

“I don’t see how you can tell.”

“Oh, I can tell all right.” Ashley broke into a mischievous grin. “It’s always you they’re looking at. With your gorgeous black hair and your flashing dark eyes, not to mention your—”

“Ashley!” Charlotte said quickly.

Ashley’s grin grew wider. “Don’t worry. I was just going to say ‘great figure.’ You’re pretty much the textbook definition of a perfect ten.”

“Oh, Ash—”

“I’m not jealous,” Ashley said. “I’m happy for you. You’re beautiful and successful. It’s just—”

“What?”

“You never really look at anybody. You float above everything. You need someone who will give you a challenge.”

“A challenge?” Charlotte said.

“Yes.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know exactly.” Ashley sighed. “Let’s just find our seats.”

Charlotte and Ashley continued down the concrete steps until they broke out into sunshine.

Charlotte turned her face up to the sun’s warmth and ran her fingers through her glossy, dark hair.

Ashley tapped her friend on the shoulder.

“They’re doing it again.”

Charlotte looked around. Several pairs of eyes, all belonging to men, were turned in her direction. One of the men had a female companion who turned to follow his gaze. When she saw who he was staring at, she poked him in the ribs.

Ashley giggled a little, and Charlotte tried not to smile.

She couldn’t help it if she caused a stir everywhere she went.

Instead, she focused on the sight before her.

There was a blue sky with a bright sun above her, and below her was a baseball diamond with rich green grass and terra cotta-colored dirt.

It was a beautiful summer evening at the ballpark.

Their seats were down by the field, so Charlotte and Ashley continued descending the steps in the sunshine.

They sat down in blue plastic flip-up seats, and Charlotte looked out over the field.

She could see the players jogging and stretching as they warmed up.

“These are great seats,” Ashley said wistfully. “I suppose that’s just a perk of being you.”

Charlotte smiled at her friend. “Actually, that’s just a perk of having my job. Everybody gets a chance to go to a ball game, and everybody gets the same seats.”

There was a slight movement, and Charlotte glanced down the row of seats next to them.

The man seated at the end had turned to stare at her.

“I’m not sure everybody who sits here gets the same looks, though,” Ashley said.

“He’ll forget about me once the game starts,” Charlotte replied.

Ashley stared at her for a long moment. “You’re what they call a ‘good catch,’ Charlotte. You’re beautiful and sparkling—but you won’t give anyone a chance.”

“A good catch?”

“Yes.” Ashley tapped her chin. “You know, I think I might know someone who would be good for you.”

Charlotte smiled. “A challenge, you mean?”

“Yes. His name is Chad.”

“Chad?”

“Yes.”

Charlotte frowned. “I don’t know how I feel about that name.”

“Oh, all right. Never mind.” Ashley sighed. “Sometimes I think you’re above love.”

“Hey,” Charlotte said. “That’s not true—I’m not above love.”

Ashley’s phone buzzed then, and she looked down at it.

An impish smile lit up her face.

“I’ve got a surprise for you. Be right back.”

She stood up.

“Wait,” Charlotte said. “Where are you going?”

Ashley flashed her mischievous grin. “Like I said, it’s a surprise.”

She turned and jogged lightly up the steps.

Charlotte watched her friend for a moment and then sat back in her seat.

Ashley is wrong, Charlotte thought to herself. I do want to find love. Why else would I have worn this pin?

She looked down. She was dressed in plain white shorts and light blue T-shirt. But pinned to that T-shirt was an antique stick pin with a real ruby at the top. The deep red gem and its elaborate setting contrasted with her otherwise simple clothes.

The pin was a recent gift from her great-aunt Elaine, and the present had been a complete surprise.

Her great-aunt had also included a handwritten letter with the pin, and a few phrases from it drifted through Charlotte’s mind.

You’ve got a fiery spirit like I have. And that makes it hard for you to find a romantic partner.

Aunt Elaine had gone on to say that the ruby pin had mysterious properties, and that she herself had been wearing it the day she met the love of her life.

She’d said she hoped the gem would bring Charlotte luck.

Charlotte looked down and touched the pin lightly.

She really did hope it would give her some luck.

Time passed, and the players went into their dugouts.

Then two flag-bearers and a singer with a microphone came out onto the field.

The game was about to begin.

Charlotte stood for the national anthem and then looked around for her friend.

Ashley was nowhere in sight.

As Charlotte sat back down and rummaged in her purse, she heard someone sit down next to her.

She was relieved.

“Ashley, there you are. I was just about to call—”

She stopped.

The person sitting next to her wasn’t Ashley.

Instead, a man had taken her friend’s seat. He had bright blue eyes and dark hair that curled ever so slightly as it peeked out from under his baseball cap. He had a deep tan and an impressive, athletic build—so much so that he actually looked like one of the baseball players.

He was handsome—but he was in the wrong place.

Charlotte leaned over to him. “I’m sorry—that seat’s taken.”

The man looked at her, and as his eyes met hers, she drew in her breath sharply.

His eyes were really beautiful.

“What was that?” the man said.

Charlotte gave him her most winning smile to cushion the bad news she was about to give him.

“That seat’s taken.”

“Yes,” the man said. “By me.”

He turned his attention back to the field.

Charlotte was stunned.

Men seldom turned away from her.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I don’t think you understand. That’s my friend’s seat.”

The man glanced at her for a moment and then looked back at the field again.

Charlotte held out her phone.

“I’ve got our tickets right here. You can see that I’ve got both my seat and the one you’re sitting in.”

The man looked over at her and smiled.

His smile was truly heart-stopping.

“I get what you’re doing,” he said.

“What?”

“You’re trying to get my attention. Ladies do it all the time. Usually, I play along a little, but this time I’d really like to just watch the game. Okay?”

Charlotte stared at him in shock.

“You—you—”

“I’m just being honest,” the man said. “I’m sorry, but I’m really not interested.”

Charlotte continued to stare at him.

In the meantime, the game had started.

A player walked up to bat, and then there was a pitch—and a swing and a miss.

The man clapped. “That’s it! That’s what we want! Come on! Three strikes!”

“Listen,” Charlotte said. “My friend will return very soon, and she’s going to need her seat back.”

“Sorry, lady. You’re not my type.”

“Not your type?” Charlotte said. “Of all the conceited—”

The man continued. “No—not my type at all. I like hot girls—you know, a perfect ten? And you’re not really in that league.”

Charlotte sputtered. “Not in that league? I’ll have you know I get lots of attention from men everywhere I go. I turn a lot of heads.”

The man glanced over at her. “Eh. You’re not bad.”

“Not bad?”

There was a crack! from out on the field then, and the man turned back to the game quickly.

Charlotte saw a ball flying high, headed toward the wall—but a player in the outfield made a spectacular leap and caught the ball.

The batter was out.

The man clapped. “Good catch! Good catch!”

He turned to Charlotte. “That really was a good catch.”

“A good catch,” she murmured to herself.

“Yes—a good catch,” the man said. “Do you not understand how baseball works?”

“Oh, I understand how baseball works,” Charlotte replied. “And I understand what’s going on here, too. I see now that there’s a reason Ashley disappeared—and there’s a reason you’re sitting in her seat.”

She looked around. “She’s watching us from somewhere, isn’t she?”

The man looked puzzled. “What are you talking about?”

“You can drop the act. Ashley said I was a ‘good catch,’ and that she knew somebody who would challenge me. Then she mysteriously disappears. And then you oh so casually drop into her seat. You’re Chad, aren’t you?”

“Chad?” the man said. “Are you serious?”

“I’m perfectly serious. Just admit it—you’ve been caught.”

“My name is Foster,” the man said. “I know nothing of this Chad.”

He shifted, and something bright red winked in the sunlight. Charlotte looked down and saw a ring with a red stone on a chain around his neck.

She also saw a pair of sunglasses hanging from the collar of his shirt.

“Foster?” Charlotte said. “Like the sunglasses?”

He glanced down. “Yes, I do like the sunglasses.”

“No—I mean is your name Foster Grant? As in the sunglasses company?”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning,” Charlotte said, “it’s a fake name.”

“Right. Because my name is supposed to be Chad. Well, my name’s not Foster Grant, either. It’s Foster Urbani. Sorry to disappoint you. And these are actually Ray-Bans.”

“And I could say my name’s Charlotte Price,” Charlotte said. “But it’s actually Charlotte Hayden. You can say anything you want.”

Foster fixed her with his bright blue eyes.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You think the only reason I came here today was to try to get a date with you? You think all of this was just for you?”

“Sounds like a pretty accurate description to me,” Charlotte said.

Foster smiled his breathtaking smile. “Now who’s conceited?”

“I’m not conceited at all. I’ve just uncovered your little plot with my friend.”

Charlotte turned in her seat and waved.

“Where is she? Ashley! Ashley! You can come out now. Sorry, but it didn’t work!”

Foster stood up. “You know what? This is too weird for me. You and your friend enjoy the game. I just hope she doesn’t turn out to be imaginary.”

He disappeared up the steps, taking them two at a time, and Charlotte sat back in her seat, stewing.

“The nerve of that man,” she muttered to herself.

She waited, expecting Ashley to appear and own up to her little scheme.

But time passed, and nobody showed up to take Ashley’s seat.

Still fuming, Charlotte got up to find her.

The area at the top of the stadium that housed the concessions was quite shady and breezy, and Charlotte was thankful to get out of the hot sun.

She stood looking down the long row of food stalls and other merchants, but she saw no sign of her friend. There was a bit of a kerfuffle down at the other end of the hall, but it didn’t look like anything Charlotte needed to be involved in.

Instead, she walked through the cool halls that circled the entire stadium looking for Ashley.

Charlotte couldn’t find her anywhere.

Eventually, she decided just to stop and get a drink.

She walked over to the nearest concession stand and looked up at the menu board. They had beer and wine, but Charlotte was in the mood for a good, old-fashioned iced tea.

She paid for her drink and then walked over to a railing to look down on the game below.

“I don’t believe it,” said a voice next to her.

She looked up into the blue eyes of Foster Urbani. He was leaning on the railing with a glass of beer in his hand.

“You’re following me, aren’t you?” he said.

“No,” Charlotte replied. “I didn’t even see you there.”

“You didn’t see me?” Foster scoffed. “I find that very hard to believe. Everybody notices me. Just admit it—you’re following me.”

“If anything, you’re following me,” Charlotte snapped.

“How would that even be possible? I got here first.”

Charlotte frowned. She realized he was right—but she didn’t want to admit it.

Foster glanced around. “Where’s your imaginary friend?”

Charlotte felt a twinge of worry. “You know, I don’t know.” Her eyes happened to fall on the ring that hung around his neck, and she noticed once again that the ring had a red stone—just like her pin.

“I don’t know,” she said again, “but you might. Did Ashley tell you about my pin? Is that why you’re wearing that red ring? Was that supposed to be some kind of ice-breaker between us?”

Foster looked down and wrapped his fingers around the ring.

“This ring—this ring is something special. I—”

He looked away, and Charlotte waited.

Then he turned away from her.

“Fine,” Charlotte muttered to herself. Then she got out her phone and called Ashley.

She was going to get a hold of her friend and get some answers.

But Ashley’s phone rang and rang and then went to voicemail.

Charlotte then sent her a text.

Ashley, where are you?

She waited a few moments, but there was no answer.

Charlotte felt another twinge of worry, but she told herself to wait—maybe Ashley would answer in a few minutes.

She looked up and glanced around—Foster had disappeared.

Charlotte sighed. Maybe it was just as well—he didn’t seem to be very helpful.

She drank the rest of her iced tea and then went back to her seat.

With any luck, Ashley would have returned there already.

But Ashley’s seat was empty, and Charlotte sat down dejectedly.

She was really started to get worried now.

Then she told herself that Ashley hadn’t really been gone that long and there was probably a perfectly good reason for her absence.

She could hardly call the police because her friend had been missing for an hour in a ballpark.

Charlotte tried to watch the game, but her mind kept racing.

She decided to get some dinner.

As she wandered the breezy halls at the top of the stadium again, she realized that she wasn’t in the mood for a concession stand snack—she’d really rather have some proper food. She decided to go to one of the full-service restaurants.

Charlotte found one and walked in.

But as she looked around, she realized that the restaurant was full and there likely wasn’t any place even for a party of one.

A young hostess approached her and confirmed as much but offered her a seat at the bar.

“That works,” Charlotte replied.

She was seated at the bar in the only available seat, and as she looked over the menu, the couple seated next to her got up and left.

Soon someone else sat down next to her.

Charlotte glanced over the top of her menu.

It was Foster.

“So now who’s doing the following?” Charlotte asked.

Foster glanced over at her. “Oh. You again.”

“You’re perfectly free to leave,” Charlotte replied.

“No—I could use a burger. And a drink.”

“I thought you already had one.”

“Yeah, well, I need another.”

Foster glanced around.

“I see your imaginary friend hasn’t returned yet.”

“She’s not imaginary,” Charlotte said. “And I’m starting to get worried about her.”

Foster looked at her, and Charlotte was surprised to see a flicker of genuine concern in his eyes.

“Why are you worried?”

“I can’t find her for one thing. And then she’s also not answering her phone. I’m starting to think something’s happened to her.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Foster said—and for once he didn’t sound smug or self-satisfied.

Charlotte stared at him for a long moment. “You really don’t know who Ashley is, do you?”

“No,” Foster replied.

“And this really wasn’t a setup?”

“No.”

The young hostess suddenly appeared by their side.

“This almost never happens,” she said. “But a small table has opened, and no one is waiting at the moment. Would you two like to have it?”

“Oh, no,” Charlotte said quickly. “We’re not together.”

Foster rubbed his chin. “Still—a table in this place is hard to get, as the young lady said. How about it? Would you like to have dinner with me?”

Charlotte stared at him in surprise. “Seriously?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not afraid to spend more time with me?”

Foster had the good grace to look embarrassed.

“No. Sorry about all that. How about I stay with you till you locate your friend?”

Charlotte gave Foster a speculative look.

“All right,” she said at last.

The hostess led them to a tiny table in a corner, and a friendly young waiter soon arrived to take their order. Foster did indeed order a burger, and Charlotte ordered a turkey club sandwich.

Then the waiter departed.

“So,” Charlotte said. “I’ve finally accepted the fact that you and Ashley aren’t in cahoots.”

“And I appreciate that,” Foster said.

“So isn’t it time you finally admit that you were sitting in the wrong seat?”

Foster’s jaw took on a stubborn set. “I don’t know about that. I’ve been coming to this ballpark for quite some time, and I’ve never sat in the wrong seat.”

“Would you please just look?” Charlotte asked.

“Oh, very well,” Foster replied with a loud, affected sigh.

He got out his phone. “What seats do you have?”

Charlotte looked down at her phone and tapped on her screen.

“I have seats eleven and twelve in row F, section one hundred twenty.”

“And I have—” Foster paused, and a look of embarrassment crossed his face.

He cleared his throat and went on. “Seat twelve in row F, section one hundred twenty-two.”

He looked up at Charlotte. “Okay. So I was wrong.”

“Thank you for admitting that.”

Foster smiled. “You’re stubborn—you know that?”

Charlotte smiled back. “I may have heard that once or twice.”

Their food arrived then, and as Foster leaned back to give the waiter some room, Charlotte happened to glance at the ring with the red stone that hung from his neck.

It looked like a woman’s ring—the red stone was set in a delicate gold band that could only fit over a slender finger. Charlotte glanced down at her own ruby pin, and she realized now that there was no way Ashley could have told him about it ahead of time. She hadn’t told Ashley about the pin or its significance, and she wasn’t even sure Ashley had noticed it.

Charlotte remembered the way Foster had reacted when she’d asked about the ring, and she felt bad about her accusation now.

As the waiter walked away, Charlotte eyed it curiously.

“You never did finish telling me about the ring,” she said. “It seems like something very important to you.”

Foster looked down. “Yes, it is. It was my mom’s.”

“Oh, wow,” Charlotte replied. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have spoken about it so casually.”

“That’s okay. You didn’t know.” Foster wrapped his fingers around the ring. “My mom died when I was in high school. I’ve been wearing it ever since.”

“Oh, Foster. I’m so sorry.”

“I’ve got a lot of good memories, though. My mother was a very special person. I guess I’ve spent my whole adult life looking for someone who can love me like she did.”

“Oh, Foster,” Charlotte said again. The words came out like a gentle sigh.

Foster looked up at her, and his grin was a little sheepish.

“I’m used to women chasing after me who aren’t really interested in getting to know me, and I thought you were like that, too. I can see now that this was all just a big misunderstanding. And for the record, you’re better than okay—you’re really lovely.”

Charlotte smiled. “Thank you. And I know what you mean. I have guys chasing after me all the time. And they aren’t interested in me personally. They just see me as some kind of trophy.”

“Would you like to start over again?” Foster held out his hand. “Hi. I’m Foster.”

Charlotte took his hand. “Nice to meet you, Foster. I’m Charlotte.”

“Do you like baseball, Charlotte?”

“Yes, I do. How about you?”

“Yes. Funny you should ask.”

The two of them had a nice dinner and an even nicer conversation, and as they walked out of the restaurant at the end of it, Charlotte realized that she hadn’t had such a pleasant evening in a long time.

As they walked along the breezy hallway once again, Charlotte glanced out at the field below.

“Sorry you missed so much of the game,” she said.

“That’s okay,” Foster replied. “There are one hundred sixty-two games in a major league baseball season, and at least half of them are at home. I’ll have plenty of chances to see another game. Besides, I couldn’t leave you while your friend was still missing.”

Charlotte looked down at her phone a little guiltily. Ashley had slipped her mind while she’d been spending time with Foster.

But there was still no call or text from Ashley, and Charlotte tried calling her again.

Once again, there was no answer.

Suddenly, two police officers went by with a big red object that had two handles on it.

“I think that’s a battering ram,” Foster murmured.

Charlotte glanced around. This was the same section of the hallway where she’d seen a commotion earlier. She and Foster drew aside and watched the police from a distance.

The two officers hurried up to a door, and the one with the battering ram stepped up to it and shouted.

“Please stand back as far as you can, ma’am.”

Then the officer got to work on the door, while his partner stood by.

Within moments, the door was bashed in with a bang, and a young woman sprang out.

“Ashley!” Charlotte cried.

She ran toward her friend.

“Oh, thank you! Thank you!” Ashley cried to the cops. “Thank you for getting me out of there!”

Charlotte wrapped her friend in a hug. “Oh, Ashley. Are you okay?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I’m fine. Just a little exhausted—and embarrassed. I walked into a closet thinking it was restroom, and then somehow I got locked in there. And nobody seemed to have a key.”

Ashley’s cell phone began to buzz then.

“And my phone wouldn’t work.”

She tapped at her screen. “Looks like you’ve been trying to reach me for a little while. Oh, Charlotte. I really only came up here to get you some of that ice cream that you like. And then everything went horribly wrong.”

Charlotte gave her another hug.

The police checked to make sure that Ashley was okay, and she assured them that she didn’t need any medical attention. She also reassured a nervous stadium representative that she wouldn’t sue and waved off the offer of free tickets.

As the commotion around Ashley died down, Charlotte looked up and saw Foster still hovering nearby.

Ashley followed her friend’s gaze. “Who’s that?”

“That’s Foster. He’s been waiting with me while I tried to figure out what happened to you.”

An impish grin sprang to Ashley’s lips. “An actual guy that you actually talked to? I’m amazed. I think I might faint from shock.”

“Shhh!” Charlotte hissed. “He’ll hear you. And speaking of shock, how do you feel? Do you want to go home?”

“I’m okay—but I think I’d really rather go home. I’ve had enough of baseball stadiums for today.”

“Okay,” Charlotte said. “I’ll take you home.”

Foster approached them then with a little bit of hesitation, and Ashley nudged Charlotte in the ribs.

“No,” she said. “You stay here, and I’ll go home by myself.”

“So I suppose you two ladies are headed home now?” Foster asked.

“Yes,” Charlotte said.

“I am. She isn’t,” Ashley added.

“I am taking you home,” Charlotte said firmly.

“Well, you ladies have a good night.” Foster hesitated. “And if it isn’t inappropriate, I was wondering—”

“Yes,” Ashley replied. “She’d love to give you her number. Give her yours, and she’ll text it to you.”

Charlotte and Foster exchanged numbers, and he grinned as he looked down at his phone.

“This is good,” he said. “I don’t want to lose you.”

Then he flashed his heart-melting smile once more and disappeared.

“Wow,” Ashley said. “How about next time, we lock you in a closet, and I get to be the one who meets the hot guy?”

Charlotte laughed and took her friend home.

Two weeks later, on another bright summer evening, Charlotte and Foster sat side by side at the ballpark. As the two of them talked and laughed, Charlotte marveled at how easy he was to talk to and how much fun he was to be around.

A sudden homerun attracted his attention, and Charlotte watched his handsome profile as he stared out at the field. She was wearing her Aunt Elaine’s ruby pin in honor of the night she and Foster had met, and she found herself musing that in a strange way the pin really had brought her good luck. If not for Ashley’s bizarre mishap, Foster and Charlotte would probably never have met.

“Oh, Aunt Elaine,” Charlotte murmured to herself. “Did you know something like this would happen?”

As she looked down at the pin, the red jewel seemed to wink at her.

Charlotte took that as a yes.

******************

Thanks very much for reading!

Lost in the Museum — New Short Story

GirlatMuseum

Saturday morning, Daisy received a call.

“So Daisy.” Ellen’s voice was bright and cheerful through the phone. “Are you coming with us to watch the latest Marvel movie? Chris Hemsworth alone is worth the price of admission.”

Daisy could picture her best friend’s sly smile as she said the words.

Of course, Ellen had a Chris Hemsworth lookalike of her own, so it was easy for her to say things like that. Justin was tall, blond, handsome, and athletic, and he and Ellen had been together for a year now. Everyone knew that the two of them were blissfully happy and that wedding bells were imminent.

Daisy sighed to herself.

Ellen could kid about hunks because she had one of her own—and Daisy was happy for her—truly happy.

But sometimes she felt a bit wistful.

“Daisy?” Ellen said. “Are you still there?”

“Yes,” Daisy said. “Sorry.”

“So are you coming this afternoon? Will you join us for the movie?”

Us—it was always “us” these days. Daisy could remember when she was part of an “us” and Ellen was the friend who tagged along. But that was a long time ago now.

“I can’t,” Daisy said. “I’m seeing Leonardo this afternoon.”

“Seeing Leonardo again?” Ellen’s voice became warm and insinuating. “When are we going to get to meet this mystery man?”

“Not just yet,” Daisy replied. “It’s a bit complicated at the moment.”

“Well, don’t let it get too complicated. And I’m glad you’ve met someone. It’s been a while since Dave.”

Daisy glanced at the time. “I’ve got to go. I’m seeing Leonardo early.”

“Have fun,” Ellen said.

“You, too,” Daisy replied.

Then she stashed her phone in her bag and hurried out the door.

Soon Daisy arrived at the Fine Arts Museum, and she stood for just a moment, staring up at the graceful, gray stone building with its row of pillars in the front. Then she started up the wide, marble steps and came to stand in front of the towering, brass-studded doors.

The museum opened every day promptly at ten, and as Daisy waited by the doors at ten minutes to ten, there was a smattering of tourists waiting with her.

The tourists typically made her antsy—she didn’t like to get caught up in a group of people who milled around without any purpose.

But Daisy knew from experience that she could get ahead of them—she knew where she was going, and they didn’t.

When the doors opened, Daisy walked in along with the tourists. She waited patiently in line to have her purse searched by the security guards, and then she followed the slow-moving group up the few short steps to the Great Hall.

The Great Hall was really quite beautiful—it was a work of art in itself. A paned, patterned skylight soared overhead, and majestic pillars surrounded a circular area underneath that was filled with ornate benches. And the hall was full of plants—big, beautiful green fronds and red and yellow flowers spilled out of enormous stone urns. The plants were truly lovely, and Daisy wondered if they were real—she’d never paused long enough to find out.

And she didn’t have time to pause now, either—she had to get to Leonardo.

Daisy stepped nimbly around the small crowd and hurried on to the galleries.

Gallery Five was where she knew Leonardo would be waiting for her.

She reached the gallery, and found George, the security guard, standing by the open entrance. George was bald and bespectacled, and he wore the same white shirt and navy trousers that all the security guards wore.

He smiled as she walked in. “Back again, miss?”

Daisy smiled back. “I can’t seem to stay away.”

There in front of her was Leonardo—or rather Leonardo’s painting. The painting hung by itself on a display stand in the center of the room. It was the museum’s most famous painting and its best-known attraction. The tourists would flock here eventually.

Daisy was in the Italian Renaissance section of the museum—but it wasn’t a painting by that Leonardo, the famous, immortal Italian master, Leonardo da Vinci. Instead, it was a painting by Leonardo Ferrantini, a contemporary of the other Leonardo’s, but not nearly so accomplished. The painting was his only well-known work, and Daisy’s relatively minor local museum had managed to snag it.

It drew hundreds of visitors a day, and lately, Daisy had become one of those visitors.

She had come to see Leonardo—or at least the art he had shared with the world.

The painting was of a young girl—only eighteen—with honey-colored hair and warm, brown eyes that stared off into the distance with a wise, hopeful expression—as if she were seeing the future. The portrait showed her in three-quarter profile, and her slender, long-fingered hands rested on what looked like the back of a chair. Behind her stretched an expanse of trees—lush and green. The occasion of the portrait was apparently the girl’s betrothal, and the painting was simply titled, “Giovanna, in Honor of Her Wedding.”

Daisy looked at the painting now and felt a sense of peace steal over her. She felt like Giovanna—and Leonardo—had something to tell her—some secret to impart.

And Daisy was going to continue to come to see Leonardo’s great painting until she figured out what it was.

Daisy had first come to the museum on a whim one day after work—in the warmer months, the Fine Arts Museum kept later hours. She hadn’t even known that the painting existed, and her discovery of it was a delightful surprise—and she just kept coming back.

She didn’t know why she had never told Ellen she was going to the art museum. Somehow, it seemed more accurate to say that she was going to see Leonardo—rather than to see his painting. Ellen, she knew, thought she was going all this time to meet a person, and Daisy had certainly allowed her to think that.

“She looks like she knows a secret,” said a voice at Daisy’s ear. “Do you think it’s one she knows herself? Or is it one the artist told her?”

Daisy turned and looked up into brown eyes that were just as warm as Giovanna’s. A man was standing just behind her, and it wasn’t George the security guard.

He was handsome, young—about her age—and he was smiling at her.

“What was that?” Daisy said.

“The secret in her eyes,” he said. “Do you think it’s her secret or the artist’s?”

“Maybe it’s both,” Daisy replied.

She felt drawn to this stranger and wanted to talk to him a little more. But she realized he was just making polite small talk, the way people sometimes did in museums and other public spaces. She also realized that if this man was here that the tourists must be catching up to her.

Handsome as he was, it was time for Daisy to be moving on—her time with Leonardo was over.

“Enjoy the painting,” she said and left the room.

She moved on into the next gallery and was relieved to find no one there. There were usually security guards every couple of rooms, and this time she’d found one without a guard.

Daisy didn’t know why, but after talking to the man in the other room, she felt a little unsettled. She needed a few moments to herself to get back to normal.

This room also housed lesser-known artists of the Italian Renaissance, and Daisy spent several calming minutes perusing the paintings. The gallery after that featured Spanish artists of a slightly later period, and Daisy was amused to see that this room was empty also—her luck was holding. She spent some time examining the paintings at her leisure and then moved on.

By the time Daisy made it to the galleries containing paintings by the lesser-known Dutch masters, she began to get worried. All of the rooms she had passed through had been empty—there were no tourists and there were also no security guards. Daisy knew the museum took security very seriously, and she had never gone through three rooms without encountering a guard before, let alone ten.

Daisy stepped out into the hall, puzzled, but the hall was also empty. She looked into room after room—she was all alone.

In a panic, she began to run back toward the Great Hall.

She wondered if maybe there had been an emergency, and she somehow hadn’t been able to hear the alarm.

Daisy reached the main hall with its soaring skylight and its plants, and she found that it was completely empty.

There wasn’t a single tourist in sight.

She hurried down the steps to the guards’ desk by the door, but she found that those guards, too, were gone.

And so was the door.

Daisy hurried up to the wall. Where the brass-studded double doors had once stood, there was now a completely smooth, blank wall—it was as if the doors had never existed.

Daisy ran back up to the Great Hall and then hurried on to the galleries that she had been exploring before. She stood staring down the long hall and shouted.

“Hello?”

At first there was no answer. And then a head poked out from one of the galleries.

“Hello?” said the figure.

Daisy squinted. It looked like the man who had spoken to her earlier.

He stepped out into the hall.

“Hello?” the man said.

Daisy turned and ran.

She ran back to the Great Hall and on into the other wing of the museum—she knew there was an exit on that side. She hurried down the hall and ran down the stairs. But when she reached the spot where the door should have been, all she saw was another blank wall.

Daisy ran her hands over the smooth, featureless wall.

She was trapped.

She heard footsteps running down the hall, and she whirled around. Moments later, the man from Leonardo’s gallery appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Stay right where you are!” Daisy commanded, and her voice echoed in the stairwell.

“Okay,” the man said, and he held out his hands in a placating gesture. “I’m—”

“What’s going on?” Daisy demanded. “What have you done?”

“What have I done?” the man said. He stepped down onto the first step.

“I said stay where you are!” Daisy shouted.

“Okay,” the man said. He sat down on the first step, and he placed a hand on his chest. “I have the completely non-threatening name of Harvey. And from the sound of your voice, I’m guessing you’re just as confused as I am. I very genuinely have no idea what’s going on here.”

Daisy eyed him warily. “You didn’t do something to get rid of all the people?”

“No,” the man said.

“What about the doors? Did you get rid of those?”

“What? No. I don’t even know how that’s possible.”

Daisy stepped a little closer and looked at him. His brown eyes were puzzled and frank.

“Your name is Harvey?” Daisy said.

He smiled. “Yes—but my friends call me ‘H.’ ”

“And you really don’t know what happened here?”

“No. I have no idea. I’m still not one hundred percent sure that I haven’t imagined all this.”

“I know what you mean,” Daisy said. “My name’s Daisy, by the way.”

Harvey stood and held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Daisy.”

Daisy ran up the stairs and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, too. Though the circumstances are a little unusual.”

She glanced back at the bare wall that used to have a door. “Any idea what we should do next?”

Harvey shook his head. “My cell phone’s dead, which is odd because I charged it just before I left. How about yours?”

Daisy took her phone out of her purse. “Mine’s dead, too. So I guess no one from the outside is coming to help us. And these windows have heavy bars for security. I don’t think we’ll be able to smash one and get out.”

Harvey frowned in thought. “When’s the last time you remember things being normal?”

“That would be in the room with the Leonardo Ferrantini painting when I was talking to you,” Daisy said. “I left that room and suddenly everybody was gone.”

“Me, too,” Harvey said. “I left a few minutes after you did, but that’s when I lost everybody, also.”

“Maybe we should go back,” Daisy said. “Maybe we can get everything to—reset?”

“That’s just what I was thinking. And there’s a nice leather sofa in there. At the very least we’d have some place comfortable to sit.”

The two of them started down the hall.

Harvey glanced over at Daisy.

“Maybe we should hold hands,” he said. “As far as I can tell, there’s only two of us left in the world, and I don’t want to lose you.”

Daisy looked over at him. “I think we’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” Harvey said. “But the offer’s always open.”

Daisy and Harvey walked back down the long hallway toward the Great Hall. They met no one on the way, and as they passed through the Great Hall, they noticed that the door was still missing. They moved on to the hallway on the other side, and they met no one there, either.

They soon reached the gallery where Giovanna’s portrait hung.

There was indeed a couch set several feet from the display stand that supported the painting, and Daisy had sat there on many occasions—the sofa was set at the perfect distance to admire the painting’s beauty.

As they stepped into the room, Harvey waved a hand over the plum leather sofa.

“Pray be seated, my lady.”

Daisy sat down and shot a glance at Harvey as he sat down beside her.

“Let me guess, Harvey,” she said. “You were the class clown in school.”

He gave her a mock glance of horror, but she could tell he wasn’t displeased.

“What makes you say that?”

“First the hand-holding joke,” Daisy said. “And now the ‘my lady’ stuff.”

“Yes—joke,” Harvey said. “And feel free to call me ‘H.’ All my friends do.”

“Why ‘H’?” Daisy asked.

“I guess it’s my attempt at being cool. ‘Harvey’ isn’t exactly a great name. And neither is ‘Harve.’ ‘H’ was the best I could come up with.”

“I’m going to call you ‘Harvey,’ ” Daisy said. “I think it’s much nicer.”

Harvey stared at her. “You’ve got to be kidding. No one has ever liked my name.”

“I do,” Daisy said. “And I’m not joking at all. Not even a little bit.”

Harvey glanced over at the portrait of Giovanna.

“Speaking of joking, Giovanna’s still sitting there smiling as if she knows a secret. What do want to bet the secret she knows is how to get out of here?”

Daisy and Harvey sat and talked for a while, and then they wandered through the galleries, admiring the paintings. They looked in all the restrooms, and they even peeked behind the doors that were marked “staff only,” and found offices in varying stages of tidiness. They tried the phones in the empty offices, too—they didn’t work, either.

Eventually, they wandered back to the room with Giovanna’s painting.

They sat down on the sofa again, and before she knew it, Daisy fell asleep.

When she woke up, she felt relaxed and comfortable.

Then she realized that her head was resting on Harvey’s shoulder.

Daisy quickly sat up.

“Sorry,” she said.

“Oh, no,” Harvey said. “I don’t mind—not at all. Feel free to rest your head on my shoulder any time.”

They both lapsed into silence.

Eventually, Harvey sighed softly. “I have a confession to make—I came here today specifically to see this painting. In fact, I’ve been coming here to see it a lot. For some reason, it speaks to me.”

Daisy smiled. “I did the same thing. In fact, I even told my friend Ellen that I came here to see Leonardo—as in the artist who painted the portrait. She thinks I’m on a date.”

Harvey shot a glance over at her. “On a date with the artist? Now who’s the class clown?”

He looked over at the painting. “I can understand what you mean, though. Giovanna’s portrait was made to commemorate her upcoming wedding. And I have a feeling it was a happy one—the wedding and the marriage.”

He paused. “My own wasn’t so happy. My wedding I mean—the marriage itself never happened.”

Daisy looked over at him. “What happened?”

Harvey looked down at his hands.

“It was about a year ago. I got left at the altar.”

“I’m so sorry,” Daisy said.

Harvey nodded. “It’s okay. I think ultimately she was right—we really weren’t suited for each other. But I wish she hadn’t chosen such a painful, public way to end things.”

“I really am sorry,” Daisy said. “That must have been devastating.”

Harvey nodded again—as if to confirm Daisy’s words and shake off a memory.

“How about you?” he said. “Married? Single? Other?”

“I almost got married once, too,” Daisy said. “His name was Dave. We got engaged—and it was a long engagement. We did a little wedding planning, and we were always talking about it. But somehow we never quite got there. It went on for years—and then we broke up. It was nothing dramatic like what happened to you. We just drifted apart.”

Daisy looked back up at the painting. “And somehow after that, I kind of gave up. I stopped looking—I stopped trying for happiness.”

Harvey smiled ruefully. “I know exactly what you mean.”

“And I think my coming here so often was another way to avoid things,” Daisy said musingly. “Here in the museum everything is perfect and beautiful—and nothing ever changes.”

A thought occurred to her suddenly, and she went on in a rush. “Giovanna over there is forever a young woman about to get married. Her portrait never changes. I’ve been frozen the same way—unable to move on.”

Harvey took a deep breath. “You said it all. I’m right there with you.”

He looked over at her. “You know, I wish we’d met under more normal circumstances.”

“Me, too,” Daisy said.

Harvey stood up. “Well, we’ve been here for hours, and it looks like we’re stuck. Should we see if the café is still here? Maybe we can find some food, even if there are no people left to serve it.”

Daisy stood up also. “Sounds good to me.”

Harvey smiled at her. “In a way, this is almost like a date—we’ve got the whole museum to ourselves, and we’re about to go for a romantic dinner, just the two of us.”

“A date?” Daisy said.

“Yes,” Harvey replied. “It’s just a very weird one.”

Daisy laughed. “Well, I agree. It sounds like a date to me.”

Harvey waved a hand toward the doorway. “After you, my lady.”

Daisy stepped out into the hall, and Harvey stepped out after her.

A moment later, they nearly collided with George the security guard.

He grinned at them. “I was wondering when you two lovebirds were finally going to get off that couch. The museum’s closing, you know.”

“What?” Daisy exclaimed.

She looked around. The hallway was full of people, many of them headed toward the Great Hall and the exit.

“How long have you been here?” Harvey asked the guard.

“All day,” George replied. “It’s my job to guard Giovanna here. She’s our most famous painting.”

Daisy stepped forward as a tourist hurried past her. “And how long have all these people been here?”

George looked at her, puzzled. “They’ve been here all day, too. Saturday’s our busiest day.”

“And it’s nearly closing time?” Harvey said. “Are you saying we’ve been in this room for hours and hours?”

George grinned. “Yes. You two seem a little out of it. You must really have been enjoying each other’s company.”

He winked at us.

“But seriously, it’s time for us to close up now. I’m going to have to ask you folks to leave—but you can come back tomorrow. We open at ten.”

Daisy looked around. “We’re free?”

“We’re free!” Harvey said. He grabbed her hand, and the two of them ran out of the museum.

They didn’t pause for breath until they had run down all of the steps outside the museum and were standing on the sidewalk in the early evening sunshine.

Daisy stared up at the big, gray building. “I can’t believe we made it out.”

“We were really lost in there, weren’t we?” Harvey said. “I thought I’d never see daylight again.”

“Do you think we were really sitting on the couch the whole time like the security guard said?” Daisy asked. “I really can’t believe that.”

“I can’t believe that, either. Maybe Giovanna cast a spell on us—or Leonardo—or both.”

“The artist and his muse,” Daisy said. “Working together.”

“Whatever happened,” Harvey said, “we can’t tell anyone about this—no one will ever believe us.”

“That’s true enough,” Daisy replied ruefully.

Harvey glanced over at her. “We’ll never be able to tell our children how we met.”

“There you go joking again.”

“Yes—joking,” Harvey said.

“I don’t know about you,” Daisy said. “But I’m starving.”

“Would you like to go to a very normal, very non-museum-related place for dinner?” Harvey asked.

“I would love that,” Daisy replied.

On the next Saturday, Daisy received another call from her friend Ellen.

“So Daisy,” Ellen said. “Justin and I saw the new Marvel movie last week, and we’re thinking of seeing it again. Would you like to join us?”

“I’m sorry—I can’t,” Daisy said. “I’m seeing Harvey this afternoon.”

“Harvey?” Ellen said. “I don’t remember hearing about him. When did you meet him?”

“Last Saturday.”

“Last Saturday?” Ellen said. “Weren’t you seeing Leonardo last Saturday?”

Daisy smiled to herself. “I was going to see Leonardo, but I met Harvey on the way.”

******************

Thanks very much for reading!