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.”

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© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Ria Sopala/Pixabay

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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

coupleatbaseballgame-cropped

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!

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.”

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

Thanks very much for reading!

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.