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!

Mae Wedding — New Short Story

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Mae Wedding

Dani.

Dani.

Danielle!

There were three texts waiting for me as I walked out the door.

Somehow I hadn’t noticed them before.

I closed the door behind me and then stopped to type a text to my sister.

I’m here, Audrey. What do you want?

I stared at the text for a moment, realizing that it sounded a lot sharper than I’d intended it to.

Another text from Audrey popped up.

Danielle! Where are you?

So I just went ahead and sent the text I had already typed.

A moment later, Audrey replied.

Thanks for finally answering. I thought you had overslept.

There was a pause and then another text.

Do you have the ring? You’d better not forget it.

Of course I have the ring, I wrote back quickly.

But even as I pressed send, doubt tugged at my mind.

I began to rummage around in my purse—I couldn’t find the little black ring box anywhere.

Another text came through.

I’m sorry to be pesky. But I know how forgetful you are. Love you.

I stared at Audrey’s text in irritation and then went back into the house.

I found the little black ring box sitting on the kitchen table, and I snatched it up, feeling its soft velvet surface under my fingers.

I opened the box, just to make sure the ring was actually in it, and then I snapped it closed and dropped it into my bag in irritation.

I paused and made myself take a breath. It wasn’t the ring’s fault that I’d forgotten it—and it wasn’t Audrey’s fault, either. My sister wasn’t really a bridezilla—in fact, she’d been good-natured and patient throughout almost all of the wedding preparation.

It was just in the last few days that she’d been stressed out. And I really couldn’t blame her—she just wanted things to go well so that everyone—bride and groom included—had a good time.

As I hurried back toward the door, I paused for just a moment to check my reflection in the mirror in the hall.

My sister, who was usually so calm and businesslike, had gone full-on Renaissance fair for her wedding, and as her maid of honor, I was dressed up in full maiden of yore regalia. My long blond hair, which I’d been growing out for the last six months, had been done up in braids and ribbons, and I’d been allowed to do my makeup any way I’d wished, as long as it was “natural.” But I couldn’t say the same thing about my dress. I was wearing a long and elaborate rose-colored gown that might not have been so bad if it weren’t for all the bows and ribbons that had been attached everywhere.

And the puffy sleeves.

I really didn’t like the puffy sleeves.

But it was my sister’s wedding, and she liked the dress, so I was going to do my best to be happy wearing it.

I hurried outside, slipping just a little in my flower-adorned sandals, and got in my car.

The wedding site was way out in the middle of nowhere, and luckily my phone gave me good directions. Even so, I was running short on time, and the parking lot near the site was filling up fast. I knew Audrey was basically ready to walk down the aisle, and our mother was with her, but she still needed her maid of honor—if for no other reason than to steady her nerves. I parked quickly and jumped out of the car.

The wooded area where the wedding tents had been set up was vast, and I hurriedly pulled a scrap of paper with directions out of my purse.

My phone couldn’t help me where I was going.

I ran across the parking lot, slipping in my sandals again, and I soon reached the wide dirt path that wound its way into the woods.

I hurried onto the path.

My sandals slapped at my heels as I ran along the hard-packed dirt, and my elaborate hairstyle was so full of bobby pins to keep it in place that I felt as if I had a metal helmet clanking against my head.

Luckily, the directions my sister had given me were good, and I was able to find all the landmarks and turn onto the right twisting dirt path. I’d missed the rehearsal due to a sudden spring cold, so I was going to see the actual site and the tents for the first time.

I fished my phone out of my purse and looked for a photo of the site that Audrey had sent me and held it up in front of me—it appeared to be in a little valley. Then I put my phone back in my purse and hurried on.

As I ran, I kept an eye out for Gabe. He was the best man for Kevin, the groom, and I wondered if I might run into him along the way. Gabe would surely need to arrive early, just as I did, and I wouldn’t have minded talking to him for a few minutes alone.

Gabe and I had once gotten along very well—we’d even been headed to a wedding site of our own. And then we had argued, and things had come to an end. But time had passed, and I’d found myself thinking about him again.

I wondered if he’d been thinking about me, too.

The path before me suddenly branched off into two, and I stopped to consult my directions.

My little scrap of paper seemed to indicate that I should take the left branch, but as I looked at the two paths, the left one was just plain dirt, and the right one had little glowing lights that ran along the ground—the right one was definitely more festive-looking.

I consulted my paper once again. It still seemed to show that the left side was the correct path to follow, but as I stood staring at the directions, I could hear laughter and music floating up to me distantly. The sound was coming from the right-hand path.

I decided to follow the branch on the right, just in case. Maybe Audrey had made a mistake in the directions.

I stepped onto it, preparing to run again, but suddenly I was overcome by a sense of peace, and my feet slowed to a stroll. I admired the lights along the path as I walked. They were little glowing orbs that seemed to float just above the ground on both sides of the path, and they all glowed in beautiful jewel tones—rich reds, deep blues, brilliant greens, dazzling yellows. I peered a little closer, wondering how the floating effect was achieved.

I continued on down the path, and I found myself looking around in wonder. Somehow, the air seemed just a little sweeter, and as I looked up at the bright blue sky just visible through the trees, I found myself thinking that Audrey had chosen the perfect date and place.

May really was a perfect time for a wedding.

Soon I began to see people up ahead of me, and I could hear the distant sound of conversation.

I must have chosen the right path after all.

Suddenly, I heard someone calling my name.

“Dani! Dani, stop!” cried a familiar voice.

But when I turned to see who it was, there was no one on the path behind me. There was, however, a disturbance in a thick growth of bushes nearby—someone or something was shaking the branches and leaves violently.

I stepped a little closer, and then someone called out to me again.

“My lady!”

The voice was different from the first one and unfamiliar.

I turned to see a man running toward me.

He was tall and blond, and he looked very worried.

“My lady!” he said again.

“What’s with the ‘my lady’ stuff?” I asked as he reached me.

Then I took in the belted tunic he was wearing with breeches and boots—definitely Ren fair style.

“Oh,” I said. “You must be here for the wedding.”

The man’s face lit up. “Yes, my lady. My name is Virgil. Your sister sent me to find you.”

I frowned a little as I looked at him. “She sent you? I’m afraid I don’t recognize you.”

Virgil looked embarrassed. “I’m a new member of the queen’s guard. But I’m quite capable, I can assure you.”

He held out a hand. “This way, please, my lady.”

“The queen’s guard?” I murmured to myself. It seemed to me that my sister was laying things on pretty thick.

I glanced up at Virgil as the two of us started walking along the path, and I saw the tip of a pointed ear poking out of his long blond hair—Audrey must have talked him into wearing prosthetics.

“She’s really gone all out for this wedding, hasn’t she?” I said.

Virgil glanced at me a little nervously. “Do you mean your sister, my lady?”

“Yes.”

Virgil cast his eyes down. “It’s not really for me to say.”

I sighed. So Virgil was going to stay in character as a member of the queen’s guard, and we wouldn’t even be able to make small talk. But at least I knew for sure that I had chosen the right path to follow.

I was glad I’d followed my instincts and ignored the directions.

There was a shout and more violent rustling from the bushes behind us, and I turned quickly.

“What was that?” I said.

Virgil’s face hardened. “Nothing to worry about, my lady. My men will take care of it.”

I was surprised for a moment by just how serious he looked, but I supposed he was committed to his role.

I allowed myself to be led away.

As we walked along the path, Virgil kept glancing over at me.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

Virgil’s fair skin went slightly pink.

“It’s just that your gown is most becoming, my lady,” he said. “And if I may say so, you truly are as beautiful as everyone says. And the accident that clipped off the tip of your ear has done nothing to mar your beauty.”

He frowned. “Although I thought it was just the one ear—but it looks like it was actually both.”

“My ear?” I said, puzzled.

Virgil’s blush deepened to red.

“I’m sorry, my lady. I was too free with my words. I shouldn’t have commented at all.”

Virgil’s posture became very stiff and formal, and I found myself thinking that Audrey’s friends were weird.

He continued to lead me along the brightly lit path through the trees, and soon we came out into a clearing.

The clearing sloped down into a little valley, and the valley was filled with white tents and lights in all colors of the rainbow that magically floated in the air. People with long, flowing hair, dressed in elaborate costumes, were hurrying back and forth between the tents, and on the far side of the valley, I could see that a white archway covered in flowers had been set up over an equally flower-laden altar.

I paused for a moment to take in the spectacle below. Audrey and her wedding planner had really outdone themselves—I hadn’t paid much attention when Audrey had shared her plans with me, and I realized now that they’d really known what they were doing.

There was nothing tacky or clichéd about what they had done—it looked like a real-life fairy tale.

Virgil had paused also and was looking back at me.

“My lady?” he said.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m coming.”

Virgil hurried on, and I followed him down the hill into the little valley.

He led me on to a tent in the center—the largest and grandest one of them all—and he stood by the entrance to the tent as if he were afraid to move the flap aside and enter.

Instead, he simply held out a hand.

“Your sister awaits, my lady.”

I glanced at him for a moment, and then I pushed the flap aside and stepped in.

Inside, there was a crowd of beautiful girls in equally beautiful dresses, and a soft, golden glow lit up the tent, making it nearly as bright as the day outside. The air smelled sweetly of perfume, and I could hear the murmur of soft voices as the girls fussed around something in the center of the tent.

As I entered, however, the conversation immediately stopped, and all the girls turned as a group to look at me.

I realized that none of the faces before me looked familiar.

“Hi,” I said uncertainly. “Is my sister here?”

The crowd of girls parted to reveal a young woman seated at their center.

She had long golden hair, and she was wearing a crown of flowers and a flowing white gown.

She was also stunningly beautiful.

I watched as her lovely features twisted into a frown that was somehow even more beautiful.

“Who are you?” the woman demanded in a clipped yet musical voice.

“I’m Danielle,” I said. “I was looking for my sister—but I must have stumbled into the wrong wedding by accident.”

I took a step back. “I’m sorry I intruded. You’re a beautiful bride, by the way.”

The woman rose. That one simple movement was fluid, graceful, and somehow mesmerizing.

“Guard!” she screamed.

Virgil stepped back into the tent, his eyes downcast.

“Your majesty,” he said.

“Look at me,” the woman commanded.

Virgil complied.

“Who am I?”

“You are my queen, your majesty.”

“Am I? You seem to have forgotten that. What is my name?”

“You are Queen Leandra, ruler of all the Fae,” Virgil replied.

He was visibly shaking now.

Queen Leandra pointed a finger at me. “Now look at this creature.”

Virgil meekly turned his eyes toward me.

“Why did you bring her here?” the queen demanded.

“I—I thought she was your sister, your majesty.”

Queen Leandra fumed. “My sister? You dare compare this lowly thing to her? This is a human being. This is not my sister.”

Another young woman suddenly rushed into the tent. She was breathtakingly beautiful like the queen, and she was wearing a rose-colored gown that was superficially like mine.

“Leandra!” the young woman cried.

She ran over to the queen—I assumed this was the missing sister.

“What is it, Iona?” Leandra said. “What’s wrong?”

“Humans,” Iona replied. “They’re having a wedding nearby, and our wards don’t seem to be keeping them out. Several have stumbled close to the tents but have been scared off. One actually attacked some of our guards and has been taken into custody.”

“And then there’s this one.” Leandra pointed a finger at me once again. “She got in here with no trouble at all. She could have killed me.”

“What?” I said.

Leandra stared at me with fury in her eyes. “You and your conspirators have ruined my wedding!”

She turned to scream at the hapless Virgil.

“Guard! Do your job and put this miserable creature with the other one!”

Virgil turned toward me, and I decided to run for it.

But as soon as I pushed my way through the tent flap, I found myself surrounded by a group of tall, blond guards that looked a lot like Virgil.

They led me away.

I was marched over to a tent on the other side of the valley—far away from the queen—and then a pair of ridiculously fancy handcuffs were slapped on my wrists.

But even though the cuffs looked more like jewelry than a form of imprisonment, they felt solid and unbreakable as I twisted my wrists against the metal.

I was pushed into the tent, which was dark inside, and my handcuffs were soon attached to a chain, which was then wrapped several times around a large, sturdy pole in the center of the tent. Then I was pushed to a sitting position with my back against the pole. The chain was wrapped around me several more times and then secured somewhere out of my sight.

Then the guards departed, leaving me in the gloom.

But the tent wasn’t completely dark—a vaguely orange glow shone through the white cloth walls—and I wasn’t entirely alone.

I could tell that there was another person on the other side of the pole who was chained and seated as I was.

“Who’s there?” I said.

“Dani, is that you?” said a familiar voice.

It was a male voice—low and a little smoky—and I thought for a moment.

“Gabe?” I said.

“Yes, of course, it’s Gabe.”

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“I was following you,” Gabe said. “You were headed the wrong way, as usual, and I was trying to stop you. And then a bunch of guys in elf costumes jumped me.”

I thought back to the disturbance in the bushes I had seen—that had probably been the queen’s guards grabbing Gabe.

“You were trying to help me?” I said.

“Yes,” Gabe replied in exasperation. “I was trying to help you, Dani. And as usual, that ended up getting me in trouble.”

I sat for just a moment, letting his voice wash over me—I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and yet I still felt a little tingle when he said my name.

“I’m sorry I got you into this,” I said at last. “But thanks for looking out for me. And I was hoping I’d run into you here—just not like this.”

“You were?” Gabe said. I could hear genuine astonishment in his voice.

“Yes,” I said simply.

“Even after the way we left things?”

“Yes.” There was more I could say, but it didn’t seem necessary.

I moved a little, and my chains clanked. “So where are we?”

“I overheard some of the guards talking,” Gabe said. “Queen Leandra of the Fae is marrying Aden, the Lord of the Summer Woods, here today, and apparently the spells they use to keep human beings away aren’t working.”

“I heard something like that, too,” I said. “Though I didn’t hear who the groom was.”

I paused. “Do you believe it?”

Gabe rattled his own chains. “I think we have to.”

“So the Queen of the Fae is getting married in May,” I said. “It’s sort of like a Mae Wedding—you know, M-A-E.”

Gabe chuckled. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve actually missed your corny jokes.”

It was my turn to be astonished. “You have?”

“Yes, Dani. I’ve missed you. I’ve even missed the things that used to drive me nuts. In fact, I’ve especially missed the things that used to drive me nuts.”

I felt a little rush of warmth when he said that.

Gabe went on. “You know, Dani, I’ve realized that I spent a lot of time trying to change you. You’re scattered and forgetful sometimes. But that’s who you are. And the good qualities you have far outweigh the less-than-perfect ones. I should have seen that a long time ago. I should have valued you just the way you were.”

“Uh, thanks, I think,” I said. I turned my head in the orange glow, wishing I could see his face. I’d waited a long time to hear Gabe say something like that, and even though the delivery wasn’t ideal, I felt like the sentiment was real.

I just wished I could see his eyes to be sure.

“And I’m sorry I was irritable before,” Gabe said. “This isn’t your fault. There’s no way you could have known those elf guys, or Fae guys, or whatever they are were down here. You saw a likely looking path and you took it. Anybody could have made that same mistake.”

It definitely sounded to me like Gabe was being sincere, and my heart gave a little flutter.

This was the Gabe I’d always hoped to find.

“So you don’t think I’m trouble?”

I could hear a smile in Gabe’s voice. “Well, maybe a little. But you’re the good kind of trouble. And you’re exactly who you should be.”

I felt another rush of warmth. I wanted to turn toward him—to hug him, to kiss him. But all I managed to do was rattle my chains.

And suddenly I thought of my sister.

I groaned. “Audrey’s going to kill me. I’ve got Kevin’s ring.”

My purse, on its slender, flower-entwined strap, was somehow miraculously still dangling from my shoulder.

“And I’ve got Audrey’s,” Gabe said. “I’ve lost track of time, but I have to imagine we’re late by now.”

I glanced around the gloomy tent. “So how do we get out of here?”

“The first thing we have to do is get out of these handcuffs,” Gabe replied. “They’re sturdy, but they looked pretty old-fashioned. If I had a pick, I might be able to unlock mine.”

He paused, and I could hear a smile in his voice again.

“Do you remember that survival skills class we took?”

I smiled myself in response. Gabe had talked me into the class—it had been part of his campaign to get me to be more responsible and less “scattered,” as he put it. But the class had actually turned out to be pretty useful, and I had learned a few things that had come in handy in my own life.

And I had learned how to pick a lock on handcuffs.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’ve got a hairstyle full of bobby pins. Maybe we can use those.”

My hands had actually been cuffed behind my back, so I began to brush my head against the back of the pole. Maybe I could dislodge a few of them.

“See if you can scootch down a little,” Gabe said. “If you can brush up against the chains, you might be able to dislodge them a bit better.”

After much maneuvering on my part, I was able to loosen a few of the bobby pins, and eventually they fell to the ground with a soft thud.

Gabe quickly scrabbled around on the ground near the pole with his manacled hands.

“I’ve got one!” he said.

I swept my fingers over the ground, too, and eventually I felt my fingers brush against the cool metal of a tiny bobby pin.

I picked it up carefully, and I got to work on my own shackles.

I could hear Gabe’s bobby pin clinking against the metal of his handcuffs, and before long, there was a tiny click.

“I’m free,” he said softly.

His chains rattled as he worked his way free, and as he stood up, I felt my own handcuffs spring open.

I worked my way out of my chains and stood up also.

Gabe hurried over to me and wrapped his arms around me.

Then he stepped back, and I was able to look him in the face for the first time since I’d been brought into the tent.

His face was still a little rugged and weathered from all the time he spent outdoors, and his eyes were still warm and brown, and his dark hair still curled a little at the ends.

He smiled at me in the amber-tinted gloom of the tent, and I could see a look in his eyes that I’d never seen before—one that was open and vulnerable and trusting.

“Your hair’s all messed up,” he said, and he ran a hand over it.

“Oh, Gabe,” I said. And for just a moment, I leaned against him again.

Then I remembered we were trapped.

With Gabe’s arms still encircling me, I glanced around.

“We’ve got to get out of here without being seen,” I said. “And I bet there are guards all around this tent.”

Gabe glanced around also. “I bet you’re right. Stay here.”

He turned and walked stealthily toward the tent wall. Then he crouched down and lifted the cloth ever so slightly and peered out.

I walked over to the opposite side and did the same.

I could see the feet of at least three guards from my side of the tent.

I stood up and found Gabe standing beside me.

“So much for staying put,” he said.

“I was never good at that,” I replied.

Gabe smiled wryly. “I know. So I assume you saw guards just like I did?”

“Yes—I think we’re surrounded.”

Gabe nodded. “I think you’re right. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of here.”

I glanced over at the pile of chains we had left behind.

“I have an idea,” I said.

Soon we had gathered up all of the chains, and we had tiptoed up to the flap that served as the entrance to the tent. I didn’t know if the flap was tied shut or not, but it really didn’t matter. I doubted it was tied tightly—tents weren’t meant to hold prisoners.

“What do we do now?” Gabe mouthed silently.

“We throw the chains out,” I whispered. “Then we run the other way.”

Gabe’s eyebrows rose. “That’s it? That’s your big plan?”

“Yes,” I said. “Do you trust me?”

Gabe stared at me for a long moment. Then he smiled.

“Yes,” he said quietly.

I smiled back.

“Then on the count of three,” I said. “One—two—three!”

We both heaved our pile of chains out through the front flap of the tent.

“We’ve escaped!” I shouted at the same time. “You’d better come in here and get us!”

Then I turned and ran toward the opposite end of the tent.

Gabe ran after me.

We reached the far wall and ducked under it just as the first guards were entering the tent.

We scrambled free of the tent, and I hurried over to the nearest post.

“Help me with this,” I said.

I began to push at it.

Gabe saw what I was doing, and he pushed along with me.

Within a matter of moments, the post collapsed, and the roof of the tent began to fall. Soon the big, white mass was writhing as the guards struggled to get out.

Gabe stared at the tent. “They all ran in after us, and you trapped them inside.” He turned to me in wonder. “That really was a good idea.”

I grinned. “I know. Come on—we’d better run.”

I turned and ran toward the trees.

Gabe caught up with me and grabbed my arm. “You’re going the wrong way! The path is this way.”

He veered sharply to the left, and I ran alongside him.

Soon we had scrambled up the hill, and I could spy the dirt path with the brightly colored lights up ahead of us.

I glanced behind me. I could see a crowd of blond-haired guards following us. Our guards had clearly worked their way free of the tent—and from what I could see more had now joined the group to help them.

Gabe glanced back also.

Then we both ran even faster.

We ran along the path with the colorful lights until we broke free of the trees. Then we nearly collided with two people who had suddenly appeared in front of us.

I stopped just in time, and Gabe skidded to a halt beside me.

I looked at the newcomers—a man and a woman—warily, but they seemed to be a normal human couple. They weren’t tall, willowy, or golden-haired, and they didn’t have pointy ears—instead they looked like typical tourists in shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers.

I glanced at the path behind us with the brightly colored lights.

It had disappeared.

The tourists stared at us in irritation.

“Sorry,” Gabe said. “We’re late for a wedding.”

At that moment, both of our cell phones lit up and began to buzz insistently.

I glanced back at the vanished path once more. “Do you think we’re safe?”

Gabe breathed out heavily. “I think so—there’s no sign of pursuit.”

The tourists glared at us and moved on.

My phone continued to buzz.

I glanced at the first of a long line of texts.

I clicked on it.

Where are you? Audrey demanded.

I looked up at Gabe. He was looking at his phone, too.

“We’re in a lot of trouble,” I said.

“Yep,” he replied.

“They’re never going to believe us,” I said.

“No—no, they’re not.”

Gabe smiled and held out his hand.

“Let’s go and get in trouble together.”

I took his hand.

“What are we going to tell them?” I asked.

“Let’s just tell them that I got lost,” Gabe said. “And you came and found me.”

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

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Read Chapter One of Firebird

FIREBIRD - BOOK COVER 2 - FRONT

 

Firebird is now available in paperback! Read the first chapter below:

Chapter One

 

It was Sunday morning, and I was going to meet William.

And I was nervous.

A feeling of uneasiness had been growing on me steadily within the last month, and just as steadily I had pushed it aside. But the feeling was stronger than ever this morning, and this time I couldn’t block it out.

And so I hesitated before the door.

Things are normal now, I said to myself sternly. You no longer have visions. All of that is over.

I wasn’t having a vision, but there was a feeling—a barrier—something solid but invisible standing in my way. The way this strange feeling overwhelmed me reminded me of how I had felt when I had had visions—it overpowered my senses and threatened to blot out the reality in front of me.

This particular feeling warned me not to leave the house.

But I was determined to go—I wasn’t going to let fear run my life—no matter what had happened in the recent past.

All the same, I couldn’t help stepping quietly back to my grandmother’s office at the front of the house and peering in through the open door. GM was sitting with her back to me, her head bent as she perused a letter, her long silver braid flowing like liquid silk down her back. I had already said goodbye to her, but I had a strong urge to say it again—as if it would be the last time I would ever see her.

Don’t be ridiculous, I said to myself. What could happen in a sleepy small town like Elspeth’s Grove?

But my own memories of a little more than a month ago rose up like an uneasy spirit to answer me.

I saw a livid face, burning eyes—I heard inhuman cries—

I shut my mind against the memory and hurried out the front door before I lost my nerve.

The morning was clear and cold—it was just past Thanksgiving—and a brisk wind kicked up, whipping my pale hair across my eyes. I pulled the strands of hair away from my face carefully.

As I pulled my unruly hair back and secured it, I wondered what advice my mother would have given me on a day like today—a day on which, if I admitted it to myself, I could feel danger in the air.

I tried to close my mind to it, but the strange feeling remained.

I hurried on toward Hywel’s Plaza, which was surrounded on all sides by trees, and as I entered the wooded area, I was struck by the eerie calm of the place. There were no sounds of birds or other animals—it was as if the woods were watching, waiting for something. There were no people or houses nearby, and I broke into a sudden, panicked run.

What do you think is in these woods? I asked myself, and I found I couldn’t answer my own question. I just knew that I wanted to get away from the silence and the trees as fast as I possibly could.

I ran for what felt like an eternity before breaking out suddenly on a clearing.

Stretched before me was a vast sheet of ice surrounded by a low wall. A roof made of pipes and angles, supported by thick metal poles, extended protectively over the ice, and black matting had been laid down between the ice rink and the skate house. The rink was brand-new and had only been open for about a week.

Loud, cheerful music suddenly filled the plaza, and I could see that skaters were already out on the ice. All of the sound and motion was a pleasant contrast to the watchful silence of the trees. As I stood looking out over the big white sheet of ice, the sun dipped behind a thick bank of solid gray clouds, and its harsh glare was blunted, suffusing the area with a muted, gentle glow.

The area around the rink was fairly crowded, and the atmosphere was cheerful, happy, relaxed. And in the midst of the crowd, I spotted a familiar, well-loved figure.

I hurried forward.

William turned and smiled his crooked half smile.

A casual observer would describe William as tall, lean, dark-haired—maybe eighteen or nineteen years old. The only thing that might be said to be unusual about him were his eyes—blue was not an unusual color, but the intensity of the color in his eyes wasn’t quite human. There were other words, too, that had been used to describe him—cursed, damned, outcast—words that had real, if melodramatic meaning. There were still other words that described him—fantastical words but real nonetheless. On this particular morning my mind shied away from that last group of words—as if thinking them could somehow bring about disaster.

“You had me worried, Katie,” William said as I reached him. His voice was colored as always by an accent that I could never quite place. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”

His tone was light, but there was an undercurrent of tension in it.

I glanced at him sharply, and I could see faint lines of strain around his eyes. I was late, and that was unusual for me—but it seemed to me that William was anxious over more than just my lateness. Or was it my imagination? I shrugged the feeling off—I figured I was just projecting my own recent paranoia onto him.

“Sorry,” I said. “I just got started a little later than I meant to.”

William held out his hand, and I took it, marveling anew at the tingle that ran through me whenever he touched me. His skin was warm, and his hand was pleasantly calloused. I didn’t want to think about anything but how wonderful it was to be with him. As I had done for the past month, I decided not to tell him about the strange feeling of dread that had stolen over me.

We started toward the skate house.

“Were you worried about trying to skate today?” William asked.

“No,” I said, making an effort to be relaxed. “I wasn’t worried about skating.”

A strong gust of wind swirled around us then, causing me to stop and turn toward William. He slipped his arms around me, and I leaned against him.

There was laughter out on the ice, as skaters found themselves pushed around involuntarily by the wind.

We stood together until the wind died down, and then I went closer to the ice to watch the skaters for a few minutes—I had never actually been ice-skating before.

A little girl with braids and red mittens went flying by on miniature skates, her cheeks flushed with happiness. An even smaller girl with equally pink cheeks gave a tiny shriek and chased after the bigger girl. I wondered if the two of them were sisters.

The atmosphere at the rink seemed so happy and normal that it was hard for me to credit my fears of only a few minutes ago. Surely there was nothing dangerous in the woods that surrounded us.

“Do you think you can do that, too?” William had come up to stand beside me, and he was smiling at me now.

I glanced over at the two little girls who were now on the other side of the rink.

“I think so,” I said, smiling back at him.

We turned once more toward the skate house.

As we reached the door, William stopped and looked around suddenly, as if he’d heard something. His eyes narrowed warily.

“What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” he said. He gave me a reassuring smile.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m positive—it’s nothing.”

I knew William could hear things I couldn’t, and I felt a flash of panic that I quickly pushed aside. I told myself to relax—just because William had heard something that had distracted him, didn’t mean it was something dangerous. I would have to make an effort to get my imagination under control.

We continued on into the skate house and emerged a short time later with skates on our feet.

A gate stood open in the rink, and I walked over to it and paused with one hand resting on either side of the gate. The ice stretched out in front of me, white and unforgiving.

Now that I was about to step onto it, the rink suddenly seemed much bigger than I had realized, and the ice itself seemed to glow faintly, as if it were pulling all available light into its depths. It almost didn’t seem real.

I was seized powerfully by nerves.

At the same time, I felt something like relief. The fear I was currently feeling was born of the moment—it had nothing to do with the fear that had very nearly prevented me from leaving the house that morning. It was a perfectly normal fear.

As I stared at the ice, however, I suddenly saw a dark figure appear in the white surface—right by my feet. The figure was black and shifting and vaguely human in form. It looked like a human shadow, but it wasn’t mine—and it was definitely something that shouldn’t have been there. At first there was only one—and then there was another and another. The figures seemed to swim under the surface of the ice itself—dark phantom shapes that twisted and turned, as if they were trying to escape.

I backed away from the ice.

William was standing right behind me, and I bumped into him.

“Are you all right?” he asked. He took my arm, and we stepped away from the gate.

“There’s something out there—under the ice,” I said. “I can see—things.”

“Those are just shadows,” William said reassuringly. “It’s nothing to worry about. The ice can play tricks on your eyes if you’re not used to it. You’ll adjust.”

I looked back out over the ice again, and the strange shapes I’d seen had disappeared. Maybe William was right—maybe I’d just seen shadows.

“Go on out, Katie,” William said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right here to catch you if you fall.”

There was more laughter from the ice rink, and I looked around. Out on the ice there were parents helping their young children, older children racing each other, smiling couples holding hands. Everyone and everything seemed so normal and down-to-earth that I wanted to join them.

For just a moment, I wished that I could be normal, too.

I stepped back to the gate. Two skaters suddenly zipped past me at what seemed like alarming speed, and I felt a little tingle of nerves again. I told myself I would be fine as long as I didn’t see any more dark shapes in the ice.

“Like I said, I’ll be right here to catch you,” William murmured.

I waited till the way was clear, and then I stepped out onto the ice. Almost immediately I began to slip, and I grabbed frantically for the wall, catching it just in time to prevent myself from falling.

I clung to the wall, my heart pounding.

William glided around to my side and leaned against the wall, his lips twitching suspiciously.

“You’re laughing at me,” I said.

“No, no, I’m not,” William said, but his smile grew broader. “I’m not laughing at you, really.”

I continued to cling to the wall.

“So, what do I do?” I asked after a moment. “I don’t actually know how to move away from here.”

William reached over and helped me to prize my hands away from the wall. Then he pulled me to a standing position. As he did so, I noticed with some irritation that his shoulders were shaking with silent laughter.

Over the next hour—with William’s help and with much stumbling on my part—I managed to make it all the way around the rink several times—and I even managed to move away from the safety of the wall. We kept going, and eventually, I raised my head and looked around. I realized I was moving along with everyone else on the ice and having a good time.

William gave me his crooked smile. “You’re glad you did this now, aren’t you?”

I could feel the cold air nipping at my cheeks, but the rest of me was comfortably warm. And William was beside me.

“Yes,” I said quietly. “I’m happy I did this. And I don’t just mean the ice-skating.”

William bowed his head, so I wouldn’t see his expression, but I could tell he knew what I meant.

William and I were together now, but it hadn’t been easy to get to this point—and we hadn’t been together for very long. But even though we were officially a couple, he kept limits on our time together. I still didn’t know very much about him, and that included the things he could tell me—I didn’t even know where he lived.

But he was here now—and that was all that mattered at the moment.

When William and I were done out on the ice, we went into the skate house and sat down on the benches to unlace our skates.

I could feel William’s eyes on me, and I looked up at him. There was something forlorn in his expression.

“You don’t want me to go, do you?” I said.

“No.” His voice was quiet.

“We can spend more time together, you know.”

“No, we can’t.” William was suddenly stern. “We have to limit our time together. No matter how much I wish things were different.”

“Because you think you’re cursed,” I said.

“Because I am cursed,” he replied. “All I can do is savor the time I have with you before you find someone of your own kind.”

“My own kind,” I said, shaking my head. What was my kind exactly? William insisted on seeing me as a normal girl—but I was far from normal.

The two of us put our shoes on and walked out into the cold. I was warm from my recent exertions, but a gust of wind kicked up, and I shivered. William put his arm around me.

We left the rink and entered the woods nearby. Another shudder ran through me as I thought once again of the fact that I didn’t know where William lived. What if he had no home? What if he slept outside in the frozen night? Of course, I didn’t know if William ever actually had to sleep. And I didn’t know if he felt the cold—though somehow I doubted that he did. But I still didn’t like the idea of William’s not having a proper home.

“William, why won’t you tell me where you live?” I asked.

“Because you don’t need to know.”

I felt frustration welling up within me—William gave me that same answer whenever I asked him anything about himself. I knew today would be no different, but I suddenly felt very stubborn.

I persisted. “Do you have a job? Where do you go while I’m at school?”

“Katie, it’s not important for you to know these things. You know we need distance. You’re too young to get deeply involved. I’m much, much older than you are, and I can barely remember my past. Like I said, someday you’ll leave me for one of your own kind. Leave the heartache to me.”

“William, answer my questions,” I said. “Answer just one. Tell me what neighborhood you live in.”

He sighed. “We’ve been over this territory before. Why are you bringing all of this up again?”

“I worry about you,” I said. “I want you to live somewhere safe and comfortable. I want to know you’re okay.”

William gave me a searching look. “It’s your grandmother, isn’t it? She’s uncertain about me. You must have told her by now that I don’t go to school, and she wonders what I do with my life. She must wonder if I’m good for you.”

I felt a brief stab of guilt when he mentioned my grandmother.

“It’s not GM,” I said.

“She doesn’t ask about me?”

“No.”

William looked puzzled. “Are you telling me that your grandmother has never had any questions about me?”

“I wouldn’t say she’s never had any questions about you,” I replied.

“But?”

“But she hasn’t had any questions about you since we returned from Russia.”

“Why not?” William demanded.

“Because GM doesn’t know you’re in Elspeth’s Grove. She thinks you stayed in Russia.”

“What?” William stopped walking and stared at me, incredulous.

He continued to stare at me.

“Your grandmother doesn’t know I’m in Elspeth’s Grove,” he said slowly. “So she doesn’t know that we’ve been meeting?”

“No—I was afraid she would forbid me to see you.”

“Katie, I insist on seeing your grandmother,” William said sternly. “I want her to know I’m here. I need to—”

He stopped suddenly. He turned to look behind us.

I turned too, trying to see what had attracted his attention, but we appeared to be completely alone. William held up a hand.

As I stood looking around me, I noticed that the surrounding woods were quiet and somehow watchful—just as they’d been when I’d walked through them earlier.

I thought once again of the fact that there were no houses nearby.

William continued to stare at a fixed point somewhere off in the trees.

“William, what’s—”

“Katie, get out of here,” he whispered. He didn’t turn to look at me.

“William?”

“Katie, go! Run!”

I turned to do as he asked, panicked by the tone in his voice.

I had not gone very far when someone stepped out of the trees and blocked my way.

I looked up and found myself staring into the calm, pale eyes of a vampire.

His name was Innokenti, and I had last seen him in the Pure Woods in Krov, Russia.

He was friendly. Sort of.

“Hello, little one.” His voice, as I remembered only too well, was silky and just a little superior. His brown hair fell in a straight line to his chin, and his clothes were as picturesquely antique as they had been the last time I’d seen him—he appeared to have stepped out of the Middle Ages.

Innokenti’s presence here in these woods was deeply disturbing. I had believed that I would never see him again after I left Russia—and I certainly hadn’t expected him to show up today. Seeing him again was like being revisited by a nightmare.

“Innokenti,” I said, taking a step back. “What are you doing here?”

He bared his teeth in a smile that was far from reassuring—especially since it allowed me to see the unusually sharp outline of his teeth.

“My friend and I,” he said, “have traveled thousands of miles to pay you and William a visit. How fortunate we are to find the two of you together.”

Innokenti sent a significant nod over my shoulder, and I turned.

Standing next to William now was a man I didn’t recognize—young, tall, dark of hair and eye, dressed all in black. William was staring at the young man with dislike, his body tense, his expression set into harsh lines. For his part, the newcomer was smiling malevolently at William.

Innokenti gestured to the young man. “Shall we go over so I may make introductions?”

As Innokenti and I walked over to them, I had to remind myself that Innokenti had never actually done me any harm—but no matter how hard I tried to calm myself, I remained uneasy.

As we reached William and the stranger, I could see a muscle working in William’s jaw, and the stranger’s smile deepened as he looked me over with unpleasant scrutiny. His eyes met mine, and I was startled by just how dark they were—they were eyes with the depth of night in them.

“Innokenti, get out of here,” William said angrily. “And take him with you.”

“Now, now, William,” Innokenti replied mildly. “This is a friendly visit.” He gestured to the stranger. “The two of you know each other, of course. But introductions are in order for the young lady.”

Innokenti gave me another one of his unnerving smiles. “Katie Wickliff, may I present my associate, Anton. You’ll have to forgive us—we don’t go in for surnames much in our community. Many of us don’t like to dwell on the past.”

I looked to Innokenti. “Is Anton a—”

“Vampire?” Innokenti said. “Yes.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Katie,” Anton said. His voice was dark and smoky, and I had the feeling that he was laughing at me.

He lifted my hand with his ice-cold fingers and kissed it, and then he stared at me steadily as he let my hand drop. He seemed to be waiting for a reply.

I found myself momentarily at a loss for words.

Anton’s amusement deepened. “Too stunned to speak? I have that effect on a lot of women.”

William grabbed Anton’s coat and shook him. “Leave her alone.”

Malice lit up Anton’s dark eyes. “I’m simply saying hello.”

“Gentlemen, please,” Innokenti said. “I believe you’re upsetting young Katie. Our mission here is a benevolent one. We should all be pleasant to one another.”

William rounded on Innokenti. “Why did you bring him? If you wanted things to be pleasant, you should have left him at home.”

“William, your attitude isn’t very charming,” Innokenti admonished gently. “You should put your antagonism aside as Anton has done. This mission we are on is one of the gravest importance. Anton knows that, and that’s why he very graciously volunteered to come with me.”

“Why did he have to come at all?” William said angrily. “If you truly need to speak to me, you should have come alone.”

“William, you weren’t listening,” Innokenti replied patiently. “We have come here to see you and the little one, and this is no routine visit we are on. I am a messenger here. Anton has accompanied me in order to look out for my welfare.”

“He’s your bodyguard?” William said derisively. “What do you need protection from? Me?”

“Vampires are strong, but we are not completely invulnerable, William—you know that. And the situation is a dangerous one—for both of you.”

William’s face grew grim.

“Say what you need to say. But leave Katie out of this.”

Innokenti spread out his hands apologetically.

“I’m afraid I can’t leave Katie out of anything,” he said. “She is involved no matter how much we all might wish otherwise.”

William folded his arms. “Make this quick. Then get out of here.”

“Very well.” Innokenti’s pale eyes grew hard. “You both have your duties, and you’re both avoiding them. This is unacceptable.”

“Unacceptable to whom?” William asked. “To you?”

“William, you know I do not speak for myself,” Innokenti replied. “I speak on behalf of others. You, William, belong in Krov in the vampire colony there. You have special abilities—you alone amongst our number can fight the kost.”

“Are you being troubled by a kost at the moment?” William asked.

Innokenti gave William a mirthless smile. “No—not at the moment. But our kind grows thirstier. You know what that means.”

Innokenti’s pale eyes shifted to me. “And you, little one, you too, have a purpose. You are the Little Sun, and you are also destined to fight the kost. You owe us no particular allegiance, but your heritage confers certain obligations and responsibilities—ones that cannot lightly be ignored.”

“Little Sun?” Anton said with a mocking lilt. “So you’re the one. How about I call you ‘Sunshine’?”

“It’s true we can both fight the kost,” William said, ignoring Anton. “What do you want from us?”

“I propose that you and Katie return with me now,” Innokenti replied. “You can return to the colony, William, and Katie can live in the house that was vacated by her cousin, Odette. You can live near one another, and possibly even work with one another whenever a kost rears its ugly head. But I would recommend that you put an end to your romance. Such a relationship will not meet with much approval.”

“And what if we refuse to go with you?” William asked.

Innokenti sighed. “I would advise against it. But in the event that the two of you refuse, I would return to the colony and explain to them, with a heart full of regret, that I was unable to make you see reason.”

“You would not attempt to force us to return with you?” William asked.

Innokenti’s eyebrows rose. “William, we are vampires. We are not barbarians.”

William shook his head. “I don’t understand what’s going on here. You’ve admitted that the kost is not an immediate threat. And I can return to Russia any time I wish—you know that. And you’ve also admitted that Katie owes you no allegiance. So what does it matter to you where she lives? This must be about something else. There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Innokenti fixed William with a piercing stare.

“William, you may not believe this, but you matter to us, and we know that this human girl here matters to you. Anton and I are here to help you both. Forces we don’t entirely understand yet are gathering. And the two of you would make convenient pawns.”

William was unmoved. “Then tell me what you do know. Give me all the information you have, and maybe I’ll consider coming with you. Katie isn’t to be involved in this—at all.”

Anger flashed in Innokenti’s cool eyes. “Katie will be involved in this no matter what you want. There’s a price on the girl’s head, and there are two separate groups after her. I am telling you that she is not safe.”

“Who’s after her?”

“I cannot tell you that, William. I am merely a humble servant of a greater power—and I have told you too much already. I have only been authorized to tell you that it’s in your best interests to return with us.”

“Then the answer is ‘no,’” William said. “I’m not going with you and neither is Katie.”

Innokenti’s eyes flicked to me. “Perhaps you should let Katie decide for herself. After all, she is the one in the greatest danger.”

William took a step toward Innokenti. “I won’t allow Katie to be tricked into anything by you. That cousin of hers that you mentioned so cavalierly a few moments ago tried to kill her. If Katie goes back, her cousin may return, too, and try to finish what she started. Krov is far too dangerous for Katie. She’s safer here with me.”

“What do you say, little one?”

There was a strong hint of warning in Innokenti’s voice, but I met his pale gaze unflinchingly.

“I want to stay here with William.”

Innokenti suddenly seemed to radiate rage. He turned toward William.

“I’ll give you one last chance. The girl doesn’t really know enough of the world to make a reasonable decision, but you know something of the true darkness that exists out there. If you don’t care about your own safety, then you should at least consider hers.”

“We’re not going with you,” William said curtly.

Innokenti spread out his hands in a gesture of surrender. “As you wish, William. But remember this: I tried to help you.”

He backed up a few paces, and his eyes flicked to me once more. “You cannot remain with him, little one. They will not allow it.”

He melted into the woods. Anton gave me a wink and a smile, and then he, too, vanished into the trees.

I looked up at William. He was staring at the spot where Anton and Innokenti had just stood, and his face seemed set in stone.

After a moment, he looked around at me.

“We need to go to your house now. I need to be able to protect you.”

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

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Firebird is now available for the first time in paperback at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It’s also available in eBook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple (iBooks), and Google Play.

The Snow Globe — New Short Story

Santa-Claus-Snow-Globe-Merry-Christmas-Ho-Ho-Ho-Bring-On-The-Snow-40-Christmas-Snow-Globes-article

 

New flash fiction. 🙂

The Snow Globe

“Oh, no!” I said.

“What’s wrong, Hope?” My sister’s voice floated up to me.

“It’s our old snow globe,” I said. “It doesn’t light up.”

I heard Kristen’s footsteps stomping up the stairs to the attic.

“What are you doing up here anyway?” she said.

I brushed some dust off a box and set the snow globe on top of it.

It was old—probably an antique by now, and it held a little snow-covered house with Santa and his reindeer flying over it. The water inside it had started to evaporate, and Santa, who hung from the top of the globe, was no longer submerged.

“I’m getting out Mom and Dad’s old decorations,” I said.

“I can see that,” Kristen said, surveying the dusty artificial wreath and Christmas ornaments I had unearthed. “What I mean is what are you doing up here right now? You’re supposed to be getting ready for a date.”

“I know,” I said. “I just really wanted to put this snow globe out before I left. I always believed it was magic—it brings Christmas cheer.”

“Why do you need Christmas cheer right this moment?” Kristen said.

“I just need it,” I replied.

“You’re stalling.”

“I’m not.”

“You are.”

I didn’t reply. I turned my attention back to the snow globe. I turned it over and checked the little box on the bottom. It still had a battery—it just didn’t light up.

“Hope,” Kristen said, “Mark Frye is the most eligible bachelor in the city. You’re super lucky that he likes you. You need to get ready.”

I still didn’t move.

Kristen took the snow globe out of my hands.

“What do you want with this old thing anyway? It was Mom’s, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was Mom’s,” I said. “And it was her mom’s before that. It’s an heirloom—and it reminds me of our childhood.”

Kristen set the snow globe down on a dusty shelf.

“Well, Mom and Dad moved to Florida,” she said. “They moved on. You should, too. If you really want a snow globe, I’ll get you a new one.”

She steered me toward the attic stairs. “Now you need to go.”

Kristen sighed as I skirted around her and grabbed the snow globe. Then I let myself get dragged out of the attic.

An hour and a half later, I was as ready as I was ever going to be, and I was just leaving the bathroom when the doorbell rang.

I hurried downstairs.

Kristen was already waiting by the door.

“It’s him,” she said. “You look great by the way.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Did you seriously come down here to watch me as I answered the door?”

“Of course not,” Kristen said. “I just happened to be here.”

I shooed her away as I opened the door.

Tall, dark, and sleek, Mark was waiting for me on the doorstep.

“You look lovely, Hope,” he said as we headed out into the night.

We went to a new, trendy restaurant, and everybody there seemed to know Mark.

We were ushered to a great table, and the food was excellent. We fell into conversation easily, and as the evening progressed, I realized that Mark was fun to talk to.

Eventually the conversation turned to Mark’s political aspirations—he was going to run for city council and maybe even mayor someday.

“Forgive me,” he said as dessert arrived, “but you don’t seem very excited about my upcoming campaign. Most people really light up when I mention that.”

“I’m excited for you,” I said. “I really am. It’s just that I can’t stop thinking about something silly—something small that’s bothering me.”

“What is it?” Mark asked.

“It’s this old snow globe of my Mom’s. It used to light up and now it doesn’t. I feel like the light has gone out on my childhood Christmas memories. That’s not true, of course, but it’s how I feel at the moment.”

Mark nodded. “I understand. You remember how things used to be, and you feel nostalgia. What I’ve learned in my career is that it’s better to let go of the past and keep moving forward. Get yourself a new snow globe. Or better yet, forget about it and move on.”

“My sister said something like that, too,” I murmured.

“She’s right,” Mark said. “Look to the future. That’s what I do.”

The rest of the evening was pleasant, and I returned home in a good frame of mind.

As I walked into my house, my sister pounced.

“How was the date?” Kristen said.

“It was good,” I said. “Nice.”

“Nice?” Kristen said.

“Yes.”

“But?”

“But something’s missing,” I said.

“I knew it!” Kristen said. “You find something wrong with every guy who takes an interest in you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with Mark,” I said. “He’s wonderful. But somehow I don’t feel a spark.”

Kristen shook her head. “Any girl in town would kill for a date with Mark. I would kill for a date with him. At least tell me you’re going to see him again.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It didn’t come up.”

Kristen opened her mouth to answer, and the doorbell rang.

She looked around. “I bet that’s him. He’s come to ask you on a second date. Answer it!”

She pushed me toward the door.

“All right, all right,” I said. “I’m going.”

I opened the door, expecting to see Mark’s tall, dark silhouette, but instead there was a scruffier figure dressed in jeans.

“Owen!” I said.

Owen had just moved back to town after several years away—he was working for his dad’s construction company.

“Hey, Hope,” he said. “I was just in the neighborhood, and I noticed that you’ve got a string of Christmas lights out. I’d be happy to take a look.”

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks.”

I grabbed my coat and followed Owen outside.

The night was cold and crisp and very dark. But there was plenty of light thanks to the bright Christmas display in my yard. Owen was right—there was a string of lights out in the middle of an evergreen bush. The lights were still on above and below it, so the dark spot was pretty noticeable.

Owen began fiddling with the darkened string of lights.

“I’m pretty good with these,” he said. “I’ll find the broken one in no time. It only takes one bad bulb to put the others out.”

I watched Owen as he worked. I had known him just a little in high school—and lately I had been seeing him around town. There was something intriguing about him.

After a moment, the string of lights in the middle sprang to life.

“Voilà!” Owen said.

“How did you do that?” I asked.

“You just find the burnt-out bulb,” Owen replied, “and replace that one. Then the others will be good as new.”

“Where did you find a replacement bulb?” I asked.

He ran a hand over his hair. “I might have had one with me. I noticed yesterday that those lights were out, and I thought I’d stop by some time and see if you were in—see if I could offer some assistance.”

“It looks great,” I said. “Thanks.”

Owen nodded. “Well, I guess I’ll be going. It’s cold out here, and I don’t want to keep you.”

He turned to go.

“Owen,” I said.

He turned back.

“I’ve got an old snow globe,” I said. “It has a battery in it, but it no longer lights up. Maybe it’s silly, but it’s important to me, and I’d like to get it working again. Would you mind taking a look at it for me some time?”

“I don’t think that’s silly at all,” Owen said. “I’d be happy to take a look at it. I can stop by tomorrow if you’ll be in.”

“I’ll be here,” I said.

Owen smiled and ducked his head. “Good night, then.”

“Good night,” I said.

I went inside.

“Okay,” Kristen said as I closed the door behind me. “Two gorgeous guys come looking for you on the same night. How lucky can you get?”

“It’s no big deal,” I said. “Owen was just being nice.”

My phone buzzed then, and I went to pick it up.

“It’s a text from Mark,” I said. “He wants to meet again.”

“You’re going to have to choose,” Kristen said. “Which one is it? Mark or Owen?”

“I don’t even know if Owen likes me,” I replied. “And I barely know either of them.”

“Just humor me. If you had to choose based on first impressions, who would it be?”

I smiled at Kristen and turned for the stairs. “Good night. I’m going to bed.”

“You drive me crazy sometimes,” Kristen said.

Up in my room, I got ready for bed, and as I went to turn off the light, I picked up the broken snow globe that sat on my bureau. It was still dusty, but I gave it a little shake and watched the snow swirl around the house as Santa and his sleigh flew overhead. Kristen’s parting words came back to me, and I smiled to myself. Though I had given her a hard time, I knew whom I would choose—if I had the chance.

“I choose Owen,” I whispered to the snow globe.

And just for fun, I flipped the broken switch to “on.”

The snow globe instantly lit up, illuminating Santa and the house.

“Guess I chose right,” I murmured.

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

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