Maze of Mirrors — New Short Story

woman-3092412-resized

Maze of Mirrors

Jessica and Charlie’s engagement is on the rocks. And then Jessica finds herself in a maze of magical mirrors—and what she sees there will change their relationship forever.

This story was available free for a limited time. If you’ve missed it, there are other free stories available on this website. Just have a look around! 🙂

The ebook is also available here.

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

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Ria Sopala/Pixabay

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

Thanks very much for reading!

Bound by Love — New Short Story

fantasy-4307754_1920-cropped

Bound by Love

When Bridget heads to a quaint resort town for a business meeting, she doesn’t expect to run into Antonio, a handsome Italian stranger. They seem to hit it off, but there’s a snag—his nonna’s prophecy is standing in their way.

This story was available free for a limited time. If you’ve missed it, there are other free stories available on this website. Just have a look around! 🙂

The ebook is also available here.

 

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

© 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.