Short story: The fortune-teller

Leave him, he’s not the one.

What upset me more at the time was that he didn’t show any sign of the typical charlatan. No arrogance, no intimidation, no stupid smirks or toothy smiles. Actually, he barely looked at me at all. His voice was disturbingly calm and careless. His gaze was deep into reading the cards in front of him. Absorbed in his job – actually more like a hobby – like his life depended on my future. Or better, on mining my future before it had the chance to become such. And he was doing it for free.

I was eighteen.

I had so many options; drop my not-the-one in the middle of the vacation, wait till our plane landed back home, use the fortune-teller’s own words and tell him straight he wasn’t the one. But with the rebellion of my young age, I stayed. You don’t dictate to a teen girl who she’s supposed to date or not to. Especially to a teen girl who’s on her first vacation with her boyfriend. It’s nothing more than reverse psychology. Every parent knows it. But maybe the fortune-teller didn’t have kids.

So I took his words, packed them on the dusty bottom of some unreachable drawer and buried them under fifteen years of marriage, a son and a slobbery dog.

I have to admit, sometimes I dared peeping. When things were rough, when I was mad, disappointed or frustrated for whatever reason. Just a quick glance back at those words, wondering if “the one” was next to me, if we crossed paths already but I couldn’t recognize him, if I had to meet him yet and all these years had served the purpose of preparing me for something bigger and better.

There had been Emile, my first real crush – a crush returned with the most horrible timing. I still remember making such a fuss with my friends because he was the coolest and cutest guy in town. I also remember the hate on the face of every girl who happened to meet us on our way back home from license school. Now he’s married to my sister’s best friend and has two girls.

There had been Alex. I still don’t know so many years later what the hell I saw in him. He couldn’t possibly be the one. Now he’s married with two girls.

Then Manuel, never much into him, to be honest. Or Raphael, so boring I could never picture a whole day with him, go figure an entire life. Or Daniel, possibly even worse than Raphael.

And then there was Luke. Same firm. Different offices. For a long while we’ve been friends. Flirting friends is maybe a better way to define us. Lunches together, pleasantries, attentions, a sympathy that made people wonder if we were something. Except we weren’t and we’ve never been. It was just that, a sympathy. Guess his fate? Married a couple of years later, now father of two girls. And I start to see a pattern here. It’s like some higher god is looking down and making fun of me for the two daughters I always wanted and never had. Haha, look what you missed with your teen rebellion?

Maybe they all could have been the one. Maybe no one. Maybe the one never existed and never will. Maybe it was simply the fortune-teller’s way to tell me I was destined to something different and the one wasn’t some guy but maybe a mission?

Eventually, Luke fell into the same oblivion of all the other potential “the ones.” He became my boss, we settled easily into our working proximity, getting along quite well. Until one day I found out that back on the old days he used to have a huge crush on me. Hello blindness, my old friend. I took the revelation, stored it still burning in a different drawer so it wouldn’t meet the infamous fortune-teller, moved on again with the wisdom of knowing it didn’t matter anymore. It seemed to be the dancing story of my life. One step forward, two leaps back. Two steps forward, one leap back. Right to the start. Forgotten. Remembered. Restored never to get retrieved again.

***

The cafeteria is particularly noisy today, more than it generally is on Fridays. Cutlery clinking, forks scraping, dishes clattering. The tv is on, playing the highlights of a reality show nobody cares about. Chatter is loud to surmount the tv. Mindy keeps blabbering about something. I’m not listening, lost in my own thoughts. It’s lunch time. Six coworkers taking a break from one chaos just to jump into a different one.

“Have you already moved?” Mindy asks, with a surprise that shakes the bills off my mind. Nothing ever surprises Mindy. But this thing just did.

“Of course, what should I wait for?” It’s Luke who, in-between bites, confirms the move.

Great. Luke and his perfect family apparently moved to a new house. I can already see it. Huge, clean, compulsively tidy because his wife doesn’t need to work all day.

“You sure didn’t waste time!”

Of course they didn’t. Meanwhile, last time I moved, it only took me five months to pack things. They’re still packed two years later.

“Yesterday I did my first grocery all alone. And I had so much fun.”

Something in those words is off. Something that makes me prick up my ears.

“Oh, the first grocery is always fun,” Bob chimes in, “I separated five years ago and still have stock on toilet paper for another five.”

Everyone bursts into laughter. Everyone but me. I’m still trying to process the whole situation. Separated? Is that what he meant with moving? Moving out? Alone?

I’m suddenly beset by an odd feeling. Good or bad, I can’t say. It’s a conflict bound to drive me insane. I want to be sorry, I want to think it’s bad. For him, for his wife, for his girls. But I can’t. The selfish, wicked witch in me is already doing a happy dance in front of a boiling cauldron. I do my best to ignore her, but she chants louder to make sure I hear her. Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Shut up!

I don’t ask him anything. Not that day, not the next. Not for a couple of weeks. I hate to intrude, it’s not me. But as the days go by, I can’t help noticing his attitude. There’s no anger, no resentment. It’s like he’s completely at peace with the choice. He’s the usual himself. And truth be told, I don’t know what I was expecting. But I keep being silent, regardless of how selfish and uncaring I may appear. I guess I simply don’t know how to tackle the issue, at work, with discretion.

That night I sit on my couch, watching a movie, enjoying the calm of my son without homework for once. A terribly performed fortune-teller issues his catastrophic verdict, the Hanged Man is rarely a good sign.

The fortune-teller. It’s been a long while since I last thought of his words. Maybe the events of these past weeks are meant to mean something? Of course not, I’d only be fooling myself.

Leave him, he’s not the one.

The words are acrid and come with a strong aftertaste of camphor. When I realize that the old drawer has been opened wide, it’s too late. Its content has sneaked out, almost unnoticed, and has started hissing into my ears. I had forgotten how upsetting those few words could be. What gives a man the right to decide your fate based on a worn piece of cardboard paper? Maybe the Hanged Man is only a joker and all this damn movie is based on some misinterpretation.

Maybe the Hanged Man is really an asshole.

It’s a sunny, but terribly freezing Wednesday, when the coffee machine is not crowded and I finally dare to say something. “I’m sorry if I haven’t asked you anything about… you know what. It’s only that I don’t like to intrude.” I couldn’t be lamer than that, but Luke is polite enough to chuckle and pat me on the shoulder.

“You never intrude.”

That’s actually true. “Good. So now, what?” I attempt, unsure about the answer I’ll get, about the answer I’d want to hear.

“I don’t know. I’m still adjusting.”

How long has it been? Maybe two or three weeks. I’ve seen people still trying to adjust after two or three years. All I can do is nod and stare down at the coffee cooling in my hands.

“You know what’s funny?” He reawakens my interest with an odd question. What’s there so funny in a divorce? “Many years ago, before I got even married, I was on a vacation with her, and a fortune-teller told me, leave her, she’s not the one. Took me quite a few years to believe him.”

Short story: The daycare

Inspiration can strike in any form. This came a couple of nights ago in the form of a nightmare. Hello Freud, knock if you’re lurking around.

***

The elegant building was one of the oldest in town. Dating back to the sixteenth century, it had miraculously survived the bombing that in the early seventies had destroyed nearly completely that neighborhood. It had been offering daycare and babysitting for longer than memory could reach. Years. Decades. Maybe more. It was a manna for working parents. Or for single mothers like me.

I rarely needed anyone to look after my little girl at night, – my social life was nonexistent anyway, – but that day was an exception I couldn’t do without. My firm was hosting an important dinner, I had just gotten a promotion, I couldn’t duck out. Not that night.

“There is that old daycare on Oak Street, I know they keep children to sleep, why don’t you try?” suggested a coworker. And I did.

Sophia was four years old. Generally well behaving, except for those random tantrums so typical of her age, which made it sometimes impossible to reason with her. To be completely honest, her tantrums outnumbered by far the times she behaved. Which made me loathe even more the idea of leaving her for the night. What if she wouldn’t sleep? What if the babysitter couldn’t calm her down? What if she got hurt and the babysitter wouldn’t tell me? You hear so many things nowadays.

But the moment the door opened and an old lady welcomed me, every fear disappeared. Miss Whitley looked like Nanny McPhee with the ways of Mary Poppins. Sweet but resolute, competent without a pinch of self-conceit. I immediately felt in safe hands. And it was better anyway than a teenager whose only experience was attending at their little siblings.

So that night I entrusted Sophia to her care, with a gazillion recommendations and even more guilty kisses. It was just one night after all. Nothing bad could happen once she was asleep.

When I woke up a few hours later, dawn barely turning night into day, she was my first thought. All the worst images came to my mind. Sophia not wanting to sleep. Sophia having a tantrum because she wasn’t allowed chocolate cookies late at night. Maybe the babysitter granted her cookies and it would be even worse because then Sophia would expect the same from me. All I knew was that I had a horrible feeling.

My urging knock was followed by the immediate unlock of the door.

“Miss Moore, good morning, would you like a coffee?” Miss Whitley welcomed me with the same calm smile of the day before.

“Thank you, but no, I only came to pick Sophia. I hope she was good.” Of course she was good.

“Oh, she was, Sophia is a very good girl,” the woman reassured me.

Sophia wasn’t always a good girl. Especially with strangers. “Where is she?”

“Upstairs, still getting ready. She didn’t have breakfast yet, we weren’t expecting you this early.”

I realized, it was barely 7am. On a Saturday. But who could blame a mother for wanting her daughter back? Sophia could still nap later at home. In her own bed. “I should have called maybe.” Of course I should have called. Who on earth shows up at people’s doors at dawn?

“Would you follow me upstairs please?”

As we climbed the wooden stairs, I took in the surroundings. Outside the building was still old, but inside it had definitely been refurnished over the years to suit the needs of a daycare.

Miss Whitley led me into a room, probably the room Sophia had slept in? There was a bed, soft and fluffy, the bed of a princess, I thought. Pink duvet, glowing stars on the ceiling. And dolls. Many dolls. Some looked very old, some were brand new. It gave the idea of a miniaturized wax museum. They were there, a plastic parade staring at me. Almost disturbingly.

Then I noticed the dolls house on the floor. I had one too when I was a kid. Very similar to this one. It resembled in the appearance this same building. Old outside, the stairs in the middle, the bedroom with the princess bed. It gave me the shivers.

I turned the attention back to the dolls. And this time I noticed it. It couldn’t be my imagination. Most of them resembled the witches of the fables. Dressed as Snow White was the Evil Queen. Cinderella clothes were filled by the evil stepmother. Maleficent. The White Witch. This room was scaring me.

“Where’s Sophia?” I muttered, trying not show my upheaval.

“I’m here mommy!” My little girl squealed from the door, startling my already shaken heart.

In the relief of seeing her in one piece, I hugged her so tight that I almost broke her but she didn’t complain. “Are you okay?”

“I had so much fun!”

“That’s great baby!” I felt the need to run away while at the same time not pissing Miss Whitley who was standing right outside with an attentive eye on us. “Shall we go now?”

“Yes mom.”

No complains? No tantrums that she wanted to keep a doll? Though, why would she even want to keep one of those dolls? They looked creepy.

I thanked the old woman, more politely and enthusiastic than I should, and climbed down the big stairs as fast as I could, my back hurting unnaturally in the effort of looking natural. I was expecting the door to lock me in, or something terrible. I didn’t know what. But something didn’t feel right.

Once finally outside, back in the daylight, I took Sophia for breakfast in her favorite cafeteria on the corner of Duke and Dearborn. She loved that place, she loved their croissants. If she had a tantrum about wanting two, like she always did, I was ready to yield and gave her what she wanted, such was the relief of having her back with me.

But she didn’t.

“You alright? Is your little belly full? You don’t want another croissant?”

“No mommy, I’m fine like this. Another croissant will give me a bellyache,” she explained with the funny wisdom of children. But for some reason, I wasn’t finding it funny that morning. Maybe she was only happy that I came back for her and didn’t abandon her like I threatened once? Damn. That time I hadn’t acted smartly. Kids tend to remember everything and always on the wrong moments.

I accepted her explanation and didn’t persist. Every kid has good days and bad days. Just like every adult.

But when bedtime came without a fight, I found myself wondering if maybe she was sitting on a flu.

“Do you want one of your dolls, baby?” I offered her, bracing myself for the hour long ritual of picking each one and changing her mind continuously.

“No mommy. I don’t want them.”

The parade of creepy faces popped before my eyes, food for nightmares. Maybe that’s why Sophia didn’t want hers anymore? But I didn’t feel like persisting so I hugged her, placed a kiss on her forehead and watched as she fell in a peaceful sleep.

The next day was a repeat. And so was the following. And the following again. Sophia was behaving like a perfect little girl. So perfect it started to unsettle me. I couldn’t pinpoint what disturbed me in her behavior, but I knew that it wasn’t her normal behavior.

So one morning I did what every mother would have done. I knocked on the daycare door.

A young woman, probably in her late twenties, opened the door. In the background I could hear the joyous screams of an infant. “May I help you?”

“I… I’m looking for Miss Whitley.”

The woman gave me an astonished look. “Sorry, I think you got the wrong address.”

What? The address was right. I was here only a few days before.

“Miss Whitley. The old babysitter. This is the daycare, right?” I didn’t realize my voice was shaking. I felt my cheeks burning and a knot tying right at my stomach. I took a step back, just to make sure I had knocked on the right door.

“This is the daycare, but there isn’t any Miss Whitley working here.”

My knees failed and I almost fell on the sidewalk.

“Are you okay, Madame?”

Who was that woman? Who was Miss Whitley? And what had she done to my Sophia?

Goodreads giveaway

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The Fire Opal by Sabrina Beretta

The Fire Opal

by Sabrina Beretta

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Short story: Of sports memorabilia and self-promises

I wrote a lot over the years. Short novels, fanfictions, sometimes I drew from my own life. There is a bit of everything. This short story blows out its first candle next week and it seems forever.

***

She lets the light of her laptop’s monitor go off as it turns to power save mode. She’s sitting at her desk, glasses resting on her nose and backlog papers deluging, no differently than any other working day. Except, her mind froze at 10.40 am that morning, on the first-row bench in federal courtroom. The rest of the day has been a daze of surrealism. She would question if it happened at all, weren’t it for her palm and fingers still prickling from the sharp impact. The slap reverberated in the long corridor and in the ears of the bystanders who happened to witness her outbreak. Steeled with sleepless nights and buried tears. Incensed with betrayal and grief.

There’s no point in trying to deny that over the last couple of years countless thoughts were wasted on the same enigma. Had I the chance to see him again, to rewind time – just enough to change events – or perhaps wake up from the longest nightmare of my life, what would I do? Most of the times she envisioned herself yielding to a liberating cry or melting into a relieved embrace. It seemed like the most human reaction, under the circumstances, and what came as the closest to her restless reveries. It couldn’t have been any further from reality.

She had resisted the urge to dash outside the moment he materialized in front of her. She had mustered an enormous amount of self-constraint to keep sitting there, veiling her astray turmoil while her life was being turned upside down before her eyes. Or more simply, she was petrified and just couldn’t move at all. She took it all in, silent and composed like a dormant volcano, until eventually the realization seeped in. Walt was there, right in front of her, sitting at the stand, swearing events and words she was too shaken to grasp. It all came as muffled, almost underwater. Maybe it was just the dull thumping of her heart running amok that covered everything else.

As her mind returns to the dark quiet of her office, she takes off her glasses then closes the laptop, forceful enough so maybe its bang will distract her from the thought of him, but she is instead startled by a silhouette standing in her doorway.

Immobile, Walt is staring at her. Two years of missed gazes are crying in the dim lights as neither Walt nor Ann have the power of averting their eyes. Maybe it’s all an odd dream. Maybe I still have to wake up.

“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” Walt’s attempt at breaking a consolidated layer of ice goes unheeded, received only by a pensive gaze and two parted lips. He straightens up, takes an invisible step back. “Sorry, terrible joke,” he quickly apologizes, clicking his tongue then looking at his feet, uncomfortable.

The silence warms up when a cautious laughter escapes Ann’s mouth, and she quickly castigates herself to a half smile. He didn’t change.

“Can… can I come in?” he hesitates, peeking around in search of permission. It’s not his place anymore, after all. Or has it ever been, to begin with?

Ann waits, her mind lingering briefly on old times, till his eyes are back into hers. With a light wave, she invites him to take a seat. “Of course.” Head down, she watches furtively as he traverses her office, stares briefly at the couch then makes himself, if not comfortable, at least something close to it.

Her fingers entwine on the desk, twitching uncomfortably, then offload the uneasiness on the temples of her glasses. When she’s in control enough to look back at Walt, he’s looking down, round-shouldered, hands entwined in front of him. His mouth is half-open, searching for something to say. Maybe he already knows what to say, he just doesn’t know where or how to start. It’s blind-walking on a minefield. And it doesn’t help at all that Ann has put back on her wounded face. And all things considered she has every right to.

“So… I know you’re mad,” he starts off with the harmless obvious.

In the dark, Ann swears she can feel the heat of her slap still radiate from his cheek. She wishes she could take it back but doesn’t at once. “Mad? Why would I…” she wonders with piercing irony. She takes a deep breath, holding it for as long as she can, long enough to put together a nonbelligerent sentence. Deep down inside, she knows it’s not about what he did today, no matter how much it wrecked all her plans. She thinks deeply, as the good old habit of holding things back almost has the upper hand. Almost. She has to recall all the self-promises to never leave anything untold – unlived – anymore. “How… How do you think it feels to know you spent the past two years of your life grieving someone who’s not dead?”

Her question floats between them, filling the weighty silence. Her gaze toys with her glasses, she doesn’t look up, just in case he catches even a small glimpse of the impact his sudden absence had on her.

“I had no choice,” Walt defends himself, with a pain in his eyes leaving no doubt that, back then, it really seemed like the only option.

Only then does Ann look up at him again, then shakes her head imperceptibly, offering a disappointed, short-lived smile. “Yes you had it.” She has a different perspective, built not by some illuminated awareness, but by a long, heartbreaking retrospection. She moved past their incomprehension and old frictions long ago, during too many imaginary heart-to-hearts. How easier it is, she sees it now, to patch things when you create the questions and shape the answers to your liking.

Walt is silently pondering her words, it’s his turn now to breathe back any excess. His eyes peer her, as she rests her arms on her desk, more resigned than combative. “Really? And what? Tearing you and all your family down? Would that have been better? Would you have forgiven me more easily?” They both know she wouldn’t have. His voice never grows, instead it lowers to a murmur. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Back to the start. Back to the days when she was something that needed protection. Back to a weakness that never belonged her. “Well, you did.” In an even worse way, her eyes reveal, as they close themselves off.

He has no way of knowing the depth of the devastation he left behind, and even his best guess is probably far from being truthful. He looks at his feet, deep into thought, maybe just to avoid staring at her, then looks around, quietly reacquainting to what used to be the ordinariness of his life. All the late nights and earned toasts, always on the double – especially in those last months – and with the adrenaline as his best friend.

Ann follows his gaze, trying to peek into his thoughts with discreet curiosity. It’s been more than two years, a relatively brief time in life when everything happened and everything changed, first of all herself. In retrospect, his sudden leave was the wakeup call she needed. The abrupt disequilibrium forced her to shift and reconsider more than one choice she had made, sometimes offering a new, more radical viewpoint. Has it been the same for him? Where did his choice catapult him? She realizes that, while he can easily imagine the aftermath of his disappearance, she knows nothing of his own. She hesitates for an instant. “So what have you been up to for the last two years?” Her urge to know is something that can’t be shushed, despite an intangible feeling of anxiety as she realizes that she might be unprepared to hear he moved on with his life.

Walt looks intently at her, then down, gathering his thoughts. “Waited, at first. Tried to move on. Tried to settle into a life that wasn’t mine, into a new personality. At some point I just thought I was never going to come back.” His gaze is still on the floor, probably reliving those moments, maybe searching for something, a memory, a story she’d love to hear. When he looks at her again, he’s smiling. “I own a store, a sports’ memorabilia store, right outside Seattle.”

Ann opens her mouth, but her words get engulfed by an amused astonishment. Then, her laughter. Hearty, spontaneous, unique. “You what?”

“Well, actually it’s my protected alter ego who does. I’m not sure I own anything at all now,” Walt quickly corrects himself, but the mood is lightened and he can’t help but smile.

For Ann, it’s the go ahead to the question she’s been holding back ever since she saw him conversing with Denise only a half hour before. “I’m sure Denise already offered you back your old office.”

Walt leans back, outwardly more at ease, but he doesn’t answer. “Speaking of… I thought I’d find you there. How on earth did Charlie…” His question lingers unfinished in the air.

Ann hints a smile, full with the melancholy of the first time she walked into that office as Denise’s partner. The desolation, everywhere around and inside of her, the colossal effort to hold herself together. Her smile is gone, but she probably doesn’t notice. “I actually owned it for a while. Didn’t last. Long story,” she shakes away any chance of further questioning. She wants to tell him all that happened but doesn’t at the same time, because as she looks back, there’s very little she wants to remember. “So… did Denise ask you?” she brings him back to what interests her.

Walt nods, very quietly. “She did.”

But when he doesn’t add anything, not a word, not a smile she might return, Ann realizes that something is off. He should be happy, maybe relieved that he wasn’t forgotten. Instead, he takes a deep breath, then looks away briefly. “I said no. I’m… I’m not staying.”

Ann’s mouth drops half open, but nothing manages to leave it.

I’m not staying.

Staying in Chicago? Staying at what used to be Lockhart & Gardner? She wishes for the lesser evil while reading the answer to her unvoiced question in his eyes. “Okay,” she barely whispers.

Walt peeps around, outside the office, at the dark corridors, at that single light still on in Denise’s office. To an outsider, things would look quite still the same as they’ve always been. This place used to be his home. And there’s a good load of nostalgia in his light smile as he turns his focus back on Ann. “I spent half of my life chasing the wrong things. I lived, almost slept in this place to build something and ended up with nobody to share it with. I died alone.”

“You didn’t really die,” she corrects him, though knowing what he really means.

“I did, in some sense.”

She doesn’t want to remember. “Nice funeral by the way,” she forces herself to joke about it.

Walt frowns, just a moment, before going along. “Did people cry?”

“Rivers,” she nods with resolution.

Walt shakes his head, an expression of disbelief as he chuckles. “This conversation is…”

“Surreal?” Ann finishes the sentence for him.

“I was gonna say creepy, but yes, surreal too.” Their smiles gone, Walt pauses, probably musing on the conversation they just had. “I don’t think I’d like this life anymore.”

Ann nods, choosing to ignore the discomfort. She understands him, more than he knows. She’s been there too, she’s still there now. She wheels her swivel chair slightly back, then stands up. She hesitates a moment before deciding to walk the few steps to her couch. Her gaze remains focused outside her glass doors, so their gazes can’t meet as she sits down next to him. She can feel his warmth, his favorite cologne is still the same. It makes it all more real. “At some point I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore.” In the established intimacy, she shares with him her rock bottom. “Then… I don’t know, I guess that the call of law took me here again. Now… I just don’t know.” She looks around, repeating Walt’s gesture, outside at the empty offices. Empty offices. Empty home. Her need for a life changing decision seems to grow every day. “When are you leaving?” she ventures to asks, finally looking back at him.

“I don’t know yet.” Their eyes meet again, even if just for a few seconds. “I was asked to stay around till it’s over, in case… in case they want me to testify again in the trial. I don’t think it will be necessary, but still…”

The mention of the trial takes her back to the real reasons behind his return. The trial. Perry. The conversation with Lucy. What do you want? Suddenly things looks ugly and all she knows is that she doesn’t want to deal with that kind of guilt. You have some idealized notion of a man you’re not even sure cared about you. Perry’s words had been a poisoned, twisting knife back then, but she sees now the bit of truth that laid in there. When Walt left, they weren’t on the best terms. Denise claimed he wasn’t mad at her, but her subconscious always disagreed. And his reappearance, with its long train of consequences, is in her chaotic mind the confirmation she was right.

Oh come on, Ann, you know that is not true.

“Are you still mad? At me?” The question comes a bit out of the blue to Walt, who stares at her, seemingly confused at first, then brooding.

“No. I don’t think I’ve ever really been. Were you?” he asks in return.

“No,” she agrees softly.

They both were, no matter what they claim today, but it’s somehow become irrelevant, when all those wounding memories have been overwritten by the more pleasant ones they created meanwhile.

Walt sighs, his lips shape into an amused smile. “Isn’t it funny? I did it to protect my career too, after all, and now that it’s finally over I don’t care about it anymore.”

Ann takes in his words with a mild laughter. “Sometimes a change leads to another change.”

“I guess so.”

She tries to picture him living his new life, it’s pleasing and sad at the same time. “So, how is it, selling sports’ memorabilia for living?” she teases him, but her inquiry holds a sincere interest.

“I feel like I’m selling a piece of my heart every time.” His voice is grave, his features are tense in faux sorrow.

“I can totally see you bickering with customers because you refuse to sell them stuff,” she concurs, entertained by the image in her mind.

“I actually did once,” Walt remembers, furrowing his brows as he brings the memory into focus, “but in my defense, it was Kris Bryant’s autographed game bat, I couldn’t let it go.” His statement is source of hilarity. He watches as Ann chuckles at his words, with that admiration in his eyes revealing she’s still the one. She probably always will be.

“I don’t think I ever fought that hard to defend a client,” Walt wonders to himself.

“Talk about priorities.”

Walt smiles, letting the conversation vanish to silence. For a while, they bask in the newly found comfort of their proximity, until eventually Walt breaks the quiet. “What about you?”

“About me what?” She stiffens, imperceptibly but she does, as her present life is singled out.

“Your priorities. Still saving the world?” he teases her, without malice.

Ann’s answer is a deep, dramatic exhale. “I don’t know anymore. I thought I did. But I’m already having a hard time trying to save myself I guess.”

“That’s a start,” he sympathizes, with an imperceptible nudge of his shoulder.

For a moment she considers sharing she’s divorcing Perry. In another life, he’d definitely be happy. Now? She doubts he’d care at all. Yet, the words are out before she can really make a decision about them. “I started the divorce procedures.” No matter what he is going to say or do, no matter how behind time these words are coming, it’s liberating to engrave them.

Walt stares at her, surprise etched on his face, but he doesn’t respond anything. He takes her words in with a quiet nod and a very faint smile, but his gaze is on her, confident and… she can’t really say what else, but there’s more in them that the darkness is concealing from her sight. He tries not to show it, but her confession clearly affects him more than he gives away. She wants him to say something, anything, but quickly realizes that she doesn’t need any words.

So when he leaves, just a few minutes later, unhurried, laid back, almost reluctant, she knows with instinctive certainty that this is not the last time they meet. They don’t set dates or celebratory drinks, nor a place or a call. But the way he stops on the doorstep, drinking her in with a sweet smile, a smile she hadn’t seen in years, it’s all she needs.

 

Short story: Augustine

Big news! I’m still alive! Apologies for the long absence, and if Lord grants me some peace I should now be able to post more frequently. Also, I have a huge (for me, eh eh) surprise in store. Till then, here I am with a new short story. Enjoy!

***

The atmosphere was eerie that morning. A purplish shade of doom tinged the ether as far as the eye could see, leaden clouds flared up, turning into a burnt orange as falling stars crossed the sky. Except those weren’t falling stars. Augustine knew very well that the shining bodies shooting on the horizon were balls of flame, leaving behind a fascinating tail of death. She was a spirit of fire, she could feel its destructive force coursing inside of her, lava flowing in her veins.

There was a war raging, right beyond the forest, where the Lym river forked for a couple of miles, making way for a small village. Only once had Augustine dared to venture into the forest, back in the days where she was a child who still couldn’t dominate her volatile nature. Sometimes it still came back in form of nightmares. The crackling of wood, leaves blazing into ashes, the smoke, the screams. The screams. Those were the worst. Their sound was distorted, cavernous, belonging to another world. After that day, where two spirits of the forest became one with earth, she never dared walking among those breathing trees and everything they sheltered.

But the village humming beyond held the irresistible magic of the unknown. One day she took courage and skirted around the woods. She ran along the Lym river for half a day, defying the dangers of water, just to satisfy her young curiosity. She didn’t know what a village looked like, she’d never seen one. Spirits didn’t gather, or socialize. Especially with humans. It was simply against their nature; after all, they existed to protect the earth exactly from the damages that the humans caused.

So when she reached the point where the river broke in two, hugging protectively a small tract of land, she stood a moment to take it all in, unseen from all those busy eyes. Or so she had believed back then.

Victor, that was his name, that was the name of her love. Victor the blacksmith, Victor the onyx eyes, Victor the human.

There weren’t rules forbidding relationships between spirits and human. It was all about common sense. But Augustine was young and still had a lot to learn. Her apprentice wasn’t complete yet. You will be a real spirit of fire the day your tears turn stone into fire. That’s what the ancient had said. Which made no sense to her. She didn’t have the gift of tears to cry, nor a heart that could be broken. And stone couldn’t become fire, of that she was sure. Or so she had been taught.

A ball of fire, bigger than the others, crossed the sky over her head, forcing her back to the destructive reality. She could feel the ground shake under her feet and tried to steady herself so she wouldn’t lose balance. But she fell on her knees, pulled down by something she couldn’t define. It came from inside of her. A sensation of dread, of pain, of oxygen being taken away from her, of fire withering. In that moment, from miles away, she knew.

Where once there had been green and life, now there was only ash, death, desolation. That same fire she manipulated to bring life into the world, was used by humans to take lives away.

She stared at her hands, watched the fire flow in her veins, felt its vital warmth. She had already revived a human before, it was something permitted by the ancients. Then why wasn’t Victor opening his eyes? Why wasn’t his chest rising and falling? Why couldn’t she feel the pulse of life in his body? It took her a moment to realize that if fire had killed him, then more fire couldn’t bring him back. You don’t smother flames with more flames.

Augustine traipsed for hours, uncertain what to do, or where to go, until she stopped by the river, collapsing under the weight of her sorrow. Defeated. Abandoned.

Alone.

She was a spirit of fire, yet couldn’t ignite life in the cold body of her lover. Then what was she useful for?

From the safety of a rock she stared at the water, still in that point; sparkling with the rays of a mocking sun, stained by the somber reflection of the stones. She feared yet was lured by its fleeing nature, by its ability of washing everything away. Or of concealing it in its depths. She wished she could do the same, but fire never came and left unnoticed. Smoke and ashes were faithful remnants.

Her skin started burning in a way she never experienced before. Fearing her nemesis, she retreated her feet before realizing that she was too far from its danger. If it wasn’t the water, then what? She lifted her fiery eyes to the sky, searching for signs of raindrops. And that’s when she felt it. Something blurring her sight, burning her cheek.

One tear fell.

It landed on a small rock. Steam rose, the incandescence made it glow. Augustine took it and turned it over in her hands. The stone had lost its gloomy gray. It was translucent, shining with the flaming reflections of her soul. You will be a real spirit of fire the day your tears turn stone into fire.

Short story: In the midnight hour

Drawing from my old fanfictions because I had an insane week and couldn’t write anything new. This still holds a special place in my heart (along with the person this was written for.)

***

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 30)

/ / /

I prick up my ears and listen carefully at the unusual silence. Only when I look up from my laptop and glance around, do I realize the sun has already disappeared beyond the horizon and the floor is almost entirely in the darkness. My wristwatch says it’s well past ten.

My first thought goes to Kurt, and before I realize it, my hands are already texting my excuses for being so late. By now, he got used to my inhuman working hours, certainly faster than I got used to my sense of guilt for the same. I take off my glasses, lay them on the desk, then rub my fatigued eyes before glancing back up and in front of me. The lights in Alicia’s office are still on, but she’s not at her desk; or nowhere in sight. I conclude, she probably forgot to turn them off.

My gaze can’t help mentally annotating every little detail and piece of furniture she changed. From the gigantic painting on the wall, replaced with a smaller silver-framed one, to the wall light, now gone and traded for two pictures, to the solid light wood of the desk and the chairs. I’m still not used to the new visual, I might as well never be, though I admit it’s appealing and I fully understand the motives behind Alicia’s renovation choices. With a smile, I remember never liking the old painting, and still I sometimes miss it. I miss him. It’s almost one year since it happened and I’d lie if I said he’s not still in my inner thoughts. In these last days especially, it’s like the upcoming death date is only bringing back the old pain. Nobody dares to mention it, but it’s still there.

I should go home.

My coat hangs down my arm, my purse is in my hand, I turn everything off, then halt in front of Alicia’s office as a shadow catches my attention. For a moment my mind tricks me into believing it’s Will. It’s a déjà vu that lasts a twinkling. In front of the window, looking outside, there is Alicia. Lost in her musings, she doesn’t seem to acknowledge my presence, and I don’t want to interrupt whatever is crowding her mind right now. Even if I have a suspicion. But as I start to walk away, she must perceive she’s not alone anymore. Snapped back to a semi-reality, she turns around and stares at me, still absent in appearance.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude, thought you forgot the lights on,” I apologize, under my breath.

Her eyes widen, her chest swells in a deep heave as she finally seems to wake up from her tranche. “No, you didn’t, I was about to leave as well,” she smiles at me. But then, her actions contradict her words as she turns back towards the window.

I hesitate and stand undecidedly on the threshold, conflicted whether to leave her to her nightfall thoughts or join her. Even with one foot already out, my decision is swift and rather predictable. I’d only be fooling myself if I left. So I turn around, take a few steps in her direction, then dwell with her on the sight of the illuminated skyscrapers. Chicago has always been a stunning view at night.

A few minutes get by in quietness, as we just enjoy each other’s quiet company, with no need for words, for we both know where our thoughts lie right now. Eventually, it’s Alicia who breaks the silence.

“I still miss him,” she admits in a whisper.

I stare at her reflection, taking in her words. It’s probably the first time I hear her saying it, the first time I witness her doing something even remotely close to opening up. And still, despite those few words being spoken, she doesn’t completely lower her guard, she doesn’t shift her gaze to meet mine, even just for a blink. Beneath her impassive exterior, behind those elusive eyes, she must have hurt more than she’ll ever admit. “Me too,” I confess, remembering how much I lost that day. A partner, a friend, a confident. For too many years he’d been a constant in my life. Never, not even in my worst nightmares, could I have imagined that I might lose him one day. There was no writing on the wall to get me ready for it, no time to accept, to adjust, to understand why. No time to even say something so simple as goodbye. My eyes close briefly to wipe out the unsolicited memories. “Some days I don’t think about it, or I’m just too busy to think about everything. And it feels good. To not think.” I stare at her, searching with my eyes for some acknowledgement that my words make some sense to her too.

It takes a long while for her to stare back at me, then nod, almost imperceptibly. “This was his favorite moment of the day,” she says with a half-smile. But her voice, as she speaks these words then looks away, is brittle.

The memory brings a smile to my lips. “I know. Mine too.”

My gaze alights on Alicia. It never stops astounding me to notice how different we are and have always been in everything. I spent most of my life alone, committed to my job and my career, the thought of building a family of my own has never been more than a far notion, until I found someone who could complete me; until I met Kurt. For her? It’s definitely been the reverse; years dedicated to rejoicing her hearth and home, just to see everything break apart before her eyes. And yet, here we are. The affection, love and loss of the same man has brought us close together. It’s the one thing we have in common. It was. “I can’t believe it’s already one year tomorrow,” I realize with a sigh.

“Yep,” she barely whispers, then stares at me pensively.

I’d gladly give a penny for her thoughts.

“Are we supposed to do something?” she asks, eventually.

I ponder her words, thinking of what we would be doing if he were here with us. Then, an idea pops into my head, and it’s certainly the most befitting the occasion. “Hold on,” I beckon her to wait, as I walk back into my office and take a bottle from the bottom of my liquor cabinet. My stare lingers on its label. It says Jim Beam Black Bourbon. Will’s favorite. He never knew I had it, kept aside for some very special occasion that never came.

With no hesitation, I show the bottle to Alicia through the glass wall. Her lips, curled up in approval, are the answer I need.

No word is pronounced as we pour into the rock glasses, then make ourselves comfortable.

“To Will,” I toast.

“To Will,” Alicia repeats as our glasses clink in the silence.

I sample the liquor. Eyes closed, I let the small sip burn its way down my throat. It’s intense. I can taste ripe cherries and liquorice. Will would have loved it. Sunk in his sofa, he would have admired its color, sipped it slowly, handled it like liquefied gold; all with a satisfied, sly smirk. I cast a sidelong glance at Alicia. She doesn’t look like a bourbon kind, and for some inexplicable reason I find the thought amusing.

“Where do you think he is now?” she asks me, out of the blue.

And it’s the one question I don’t have an answer to. For a moment, I ponder all the possible set phrases that one is supposed to say on these occasions, but none seems to fit and none would probably make us feel better. So, I lean back on my chair and shrug. “Probably harassing some old glory of baseball.”

In the quietness, Alicia’s laughter resounds, deep, hearty, warming. I find myself laughing with her and by instinct I look up. Wherever Will is now, I hope he’s watching down and laughing with us.

Short story: I win

From the tenth floor the streets were a world of living Barbies and Kens. Staring down from the mansard, Marie wondered why would her dad prefer to travel around the seas when he could sit there with her and her raven, naming every passer-by, giving them identities, assigning lives.

“That one is Rose,” she pointed at a woman standing across the one-way street. It might have been a teenager, maybe a woman in her twenties, impossible to say from that height. But she was dark-haired and wearing a yellow hoodie. “She’s texting her best friend Violet.”

“Rose and Violet? Why not Mauve and Periwinkle?” enquired the raven, poking mild fun at her seven-year-old friend.

She stuck up her nose, oozing an infantile superiority as she chose to ignore him. “They have a party tonight, she can’t go dressed like that,” she noticed.

Stepping back into her bedroom, she opened the inlaid chest. Painted white, embellished with pink inlay work from old times that formed a garden of lilies, it was bursting with Lilliputian clothes for every occasion. “Red or green?” she asked for her friend’s advice.

The raven’s look shifted between the clothes and Marie, but before it could say anything, the distant thud of the front door captured their attention.

“Marie, you got mail!” The nanny screamed from the living room.

Marie and the raven exchanged an excited glance, then Marie jumped up and dashed to the nanny, for she knew what that meant; there was a new postcard from her father. It didn’t matter how many digital photos he would send her, postcards were her favorite thing. She cherished those tiny pieces of paper and loved collecting those mementos from places she’d never seen, like a real treasure.

Her father worked on luxury liners. She didn’t know what his job was exactly, all she knew was that it kept him away from home for weeks, sometimes even months. This last postcard captured the russet twilight of a place called Walvis Bay. As was her habit by now, she asked her nanny to help her locate the place on the world map. The globe, together with most of the furniture, was ancient inheritance, dated a good two generations into her father’s bloodline. A corner of Old England right in the center of Brooklyn. Marie was very careful not to ruin it as she marked the latest place with a blue post-it, under the watchful eye of the raven. One hand on the west coast of Africa, one on the pink post-it that marked her home, she tried to figure out how long would take her dad to come back to her. On that globe, barely one of her steps.

The enjoyment though never lasted long. Once the initial enthusiasm was over, once her dad was again just a slip of colored paper on a map, Marie cooped herself up back into her isolation. She barely left home, her nanny had given up long ago, for Marie didn’t want to be somewhere else in the event that her father was to surprise her with an unexpected return. She didn’t want to miss even a single second of his presence, rare as it was.

Staring at life passing by her windows, she had mastered an unreasonable patience for a child. Tantrum hid in quiet silences, friendships condensed in black feathers.

One day though, a phone call came instead of a postcard.

The static paper landscapes were replaced by moving images in form of news. The foundering of a cruising ship. The new Titanic, they said, and she had no idea what that meant, what it had to do with her dad. Unblinking, Marie listened to her nanny’s explanation, her mind reworking the images in the process; lifeboats, flames, a dark stain swallowing everything.

Why was her nanny so upset? There were lifeboats rescuing everyone. Her dad was on one of them. She only had to wait. He’s not coming back, kept repeating the nanny.

In all of this, the raven was a mute witness.

He’s not coming back.

What was a child expected to do? Cry herself to illness? Shut her eyes? Take what she’s told for granted? Wait for him to come back? Marie pondered all her options, none fit her. She wasn’t easy to tears, she didn’t take anything for granted, and most important, she had waited enough.

This left only one decision.

She emptied her backpack from every futility and filled it again with the little she might need. She had perfected the art of packing from years of studying her father. A change of clothes, underwear, soap and all the money she could get out of her piggy bank.

“Where are we going?” the raven inquired, gliding and landing on Marie’s backpack.

“To find dad.”

The raven didn’t move from the backpack, just cocked its little head in what seemed perplexity. “You can’t find him.”

“Of course I can.” Her arms folded on her chest, in a mix of resolution and defiance.

“You can’t and you won’t.”

Marie moved closer, reclaiming possess of her backpack. Her swift gesture made the raven take flight, just to land again on her shoulder.

“I will find him.” Those were the final words of someone who wouldn’t take you can’t as an answer.

“You can’t because he doesn’t belong to your world anymore!” The raven took off, fluttering between Marie and the door in a useless attempt to stop her. It worked, for a mere few seconds in which the little girl seemed to weigh the meaning of its words.

“Is there another world?” she enquired, one brow knit in astonishment.

“Not one you can visit,” the raven said gravely.

“How do you know he’s there?”

“It’s my world. I just know it.”

If this was the case, then what was the problem? “Good, then what are you doing still here? Go and find him.”

“I can’t take him back.”

Hit in her belief, Marie held her breathe. “You’re lying, I’ll go alone and win.”

As it always goes with children, Marie wasn’t the one to yield. The globe and all the postcards collected over the few years of her life were all she needed to put together and single out recurring paths and cyclic breaks.

It would take a while, but she knew they could do it.

And so started their journey, on the coasts of that fateful spot where Marie’s father had been seen last. For almost one year, she and the raven went searching every city her father had crossed, reconstructing events, discovering facts, little anecdotes about him. The more they travelled, the more she found out things about him. She realized, she didn’t know her father at all.

At some point, the raven stopped her. Their trip had brought them on the glacial Norwegian soil. “What are we doing?”

Marie stared at him, confused about what it meant. “Searching for my dad.”

The raven didn’t say anything, not for a long while. “I think we should part ways.”

The girl’s features took on a shade of letdown. Of all the people failing her, her only friend.

“We are searching for two different things, Marie,” the raven revealed what she couldn’t see, “that’s why we can’t continue this journey together. I’m searching where he is, you are searching who he was.”

“Who he is.”

Under a cloud of bitterness and sorrow, the two friends took different ways, not knowing if they would ever meet again.

Postcards always in her hands, Marie pursued her research with the fiery resolution that only desperation and loneliness can provide. Little by little, city by city, she came to piece together the personality, habits, tastes, of her father. So many facets besides the loving one she remembered. Remember. Memory. That was her father was becoming for her as she grew and start to lose memory of how he was. Did she ever know how she was to begin with? Everything was blurry. The more she travelled, retracing his steps, the more she was getting to know a complete stranger.

But the little memories she still preserved, flashes of a childhood ended too soon, those weren’t fading, guiding her through miles and years.

She watched the pile of postcards getting thinner and thinner with each stop. She would never admit it, but hope was starting to wane.

By the time she stopped in India, she was seventeen. The little hospital in the south of the country barely looked like that. At a first glance, one would think it was a house. It was a woman Marie had met at the local market to tell her how funny it was that there was a man there with her same features.

The woman hadn’t told her though, that the man had been in a state of coma ever since he was found, almost ten years before.

Marie’s legs were weak, her heart drumming, as she carefully approached the bed. So many thoughts and questions crowding her mind as she stopped, eyes closed, a few steps away. What if it wasn’t her father? Would she even recognize him? Would he recognize her? Would he be happy to see her? Or mad for the journey she had taken?

But when she found the strength to open her eyes, she saw the sleeping figure in front of her and something inside her broke. He was her father, there wasn’t a single doubt about it. But this wasn’t how she had pictured meeting him again. She took in the whole view. Tubes seem to tie every part of his body, his hair were roughly disheveled by the breeze coming in through the open window. Outside were trees of every shade of green. Only then she noticed a small bird on the bed pommel. Instinctively, maybe more protectively, she shooed it away with one hand.

The bird landed on the windowsill but didn’t go away. Instead, it kept its gaze on Marie.

“Is that how you greet old friends?” it dared, when nobody else was around them.

Marie jumped back, startled by the animal speaking. Birds don’t speak, she told herself. But before her words were out, she started to remember.

Her raven. Her childhood. It had kept searching all this time, just like her. It didn’t fail her as she thought when she was little. It had kept its promise and found her father.

“Is there another world?”

“Not one you can visit.”

“How do you know he’s there?”

“It’s my world. I just know it.”

Now she could finally see what he had meant, back then.

“You’re lying, I’ll go alone and win.” This wasn’t a bet, it never was.

She smiled at her old friend and offered her hand for it to rest. She then took a seat by her father, on a corner of his bed so she wouldn’t disturb his long sleep. But as soon as the mattress bent under her weight, her father stirred, almost imperceptibly at first, then opened his eyes. After meeting for the first time in ten years, Marie’s words to the raven were short and sweet. “I win.”

Trial and Tribulations of Unexpected Love – Chapter 5

After three changes of clothes, hair pulled up then down again, and having been on the verge to give it up twice, Allison was standing right there where the taxi left her a couple of minutes before, in front of a small and quiet restaurant in North End, unable to move. For some reason she had expected Todd to reserve some overcrowded fancy restaurant, and was pleasantly surprised to see that he had probably sensed her need to be far from the confusion and safe from prying eyes. Still, she couldn’t get rid of the anxiety eating at her. Why in the world did she accept? She was scared, but she didn’t know if by the dinner itself or by the thought of where the dinner could lead. She breathed in and mustered all the strength she could gather to take the last few steps that separated her from the building.

Once inside she started to glance around nervously looking for Todd. She liked this place. The simple wooden decor was complete with yellow-earth drapery and tablecloths, which gave a touch of elegance that was simple, intimate and familiar. She finally caught sight of him standing up to take a few steps towards her, a tense smile on his face. Apparently she wasn’t the only one nervous tonight. Breathe, Allison. Breathe.

She walked towards him with a bit of uncertainty in her step. How were they supposed to greet each other? A shake of hands? Too formal. A hug? Too intimate. A kiss? Not even in discussion. Maybe a more innocent kiss of the cheek? Embarrassing and awkward, to say the least. Okay, maybe it was better to go for a simple hello.

“Hey,” Todd said, his gaze fixed on her.

The look in his eye confirmed that her third change of clothes was clearly the winning one. Although, for a brief moment she thought that maybe it was too much for the occasion. The black sheath dress, bordered on its bottom with two oblique and very thin lines of white sequins, was very elegant yet simple at the same time. And way different from the suits she always wore in courtroom.

“Hey,” Allison replied with some hesitation, leaving a few steps between them to avoid uncomfortable proximity. Probably catching her uneasiness, Todd smiled and gestured for them to take a seat.

“I…,” Todd started with some hesitation, “I thought a quiet place was better, under the circumstances.”

Allison smiled. “I like it,” she said giving her attention back to him, her hands toying nervously with the menu on the table. She found herself looking down. For some reason she still couldn’t hold his gaze for more than a few seconds.

“Why are you so nervous?” he teased her.

“I’m not,” she contradicted him. Well, if she had to be honest, she was. “Okay, maybe I am,” she corrected herself. “You make me nervous,” she admitted.

Todd smiled softy, his expression reassured her. “Why?”

“I don’t know. You… You just do,” she said in a faint voice. Truth was, he didn’t make her nervous. Unable to ward off his advances and light flirting, Allison grew nervous. It was a feeling that she couldn’t understand, let alone handle, no matter how much she tried and she loathed not being in control of her feelings.

“Okay,” he said, “and what can I do to… not make you feel nervous?” he asked with a smile, but his eyes showed he was clearly uncomfortable too.

Allison stared at him for a moment, pondering his question. Since it was not about him but about her, the only thing she could do was to try and find a way to relax a bit. “What about a good bottle of wine?” she proposed with a knowing smile.

Todd sat there for a moment, his eyes fixed on her. “Wine, mmmh?” With a light laugh, he took the wine carte. “Wine for this lovely lady, then!”

Allison just stared at him, more intently than she really wanted, a soft smile on her face quickly turning into a mild laugh.

Two glasses of wine later…

“Okay, now tell me something more about you,” Todd asked with a curious expression, his forearms resting on the table. The wine had clearly reduced both the anxiety and the physical distance between them.

Allison gave him a questioning look. “What do you want to know?” she asked with a smile.

Todd looked at her for a moment and hesitated. “Anything that didn’t already go through the media is welcome,” he joked.

Allison chastened him with a reproaching look that quickly turned into a smile. “Not funny!”

“What are your weaknesses?” he said, going for something a little more specific.

“Are you going to use them against me?” she asked throwing him a slantwise look, which made Todd burst out in laughter.

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he said seriously, suppressing a laugh.

Allison took a moment to decide what to answer. What seemed an innocent question could instead be very tricky. She looked down at the glass in front of her and got her answer. “Wine,” she said with a soft laugh. She realized she was at her second glass and she’d better stop before starting to feel the side effects, because then it would probably be too late. She never really held her booze well. What else, then? “Shoes,” she said with an apologetic smile and light shrug.

“Shoes?” Todd asked between laughter. “That’s so lame!”

“Hey!” She reproached him jokingly. “I’m a woman, shoes are in our DNA like motors for men!”

“What? Not all men love motors!” Todd objected, with a look of faux offense.

“Said the guy with the expensive coupe…” She promptly remarked, then took a small sip of wine.

Todd nodded in acknowledgement and laughed, his arms open in surrender. “Okay, I asked for it.”

“You know, there’s an interesting theory for which cars are for men a sort of extension of their attributes…” She stated with pretended candidness, yet keeping a mischievous eye on him.

“Good for me I don’t have a compact car or I could feel offended.”

Allison nearly choked on her wine and blushed lightly. “I didn’t… I…” She burst into laughter, totally embarrassed, then looked away. How did she end up here? When she looked back at Todd, he seemed thoughtful, though smiling slyly. “What are you thinking about?”

“Just trying to imagine what kind of extension shoes represent for a woman,” he said, his gaze fixed on her.

She looked at him a bit provocatively. “They only make us look hot and tall in every occasion,” Allison observed with a slight female pride. And she knew something about it. Patrick’s career had brought her in front of the cameras way more times than she had really wanted to. Campaigns, interviews and press conferences first. Then… One not so fine day, two years before, in the backstage of one of his conferences, she had caught him busy in a not quite politically correct ‘debate’ with Sharon Harper, the District’s Attorney of Albany’s county. What followed had been on everybody’s mouths for months, causing a political pandemonium that would be remembered for the years to come.

Most journalists seemed to be thankfully more concerned about the political implications deriving by the involvement of two leading figures. Tabloids, though, gave their best – or worst – with the sexual component, not sparing the juiciest details of those hot encounters.

It took her weeks only to find the strength to step out again of the comfortable walls of her home.

Sometimes she had to stop and remind herself that it was over. The scandal, the press, the humiliation. A part of her would probably never get rid of that anxiety, that lingering undertone of fear to see her face in the tabloids again.

She had always looked at herself as an ambitious woman, till the scandal made her reconsider her priorities, her needs, her wishes. Living outside the media’s radar was definitely better for her mental health.

Staring back at the man in front of her she realized that things weren’t really completely over. She was far from the media’s assault but still not free from Patrick’s influence. She shook her head and tried to get rid of that thought. She wasn’t here to think about the negative aspects but to enjoy a nice evening and a good dinner with Todd. With a soft smile, she gave her attention back to him.

“By the way,” she started, looking for a way to shift the discussion back on him. “What did you do to deserve being kicked out by your ex-wife?” she asked him with a teasing, knowing smile.

Todd looked at her for a moment without saying anything, until he burst into a bitter laugh. “Ahhh… You women always assume you’re on the right side, don’t you?”

Allison hesitated a moment. “Because we usually are?” she replied, playfully.

Todd gave her an amused smile. “Well, I’m still wondering about it five years later,” he said quietly. “She left after a couple of years, just in time to get the most out of the divorce,” he explained with a knowing look.

“How unoriginal of her,” she joked, her eyes wide in faux disbelief.

“I guess it was just wrong from the beginning,” he said.

Allison stared at him and nodded in understanding. She realized that he knew way more about her than she knew about him and decided to play his own game. “Okay, now it’s your turn,” she teased him.

Todd gave her a confused look. “My turn for what?”

Allison leaned forward with a confident smile. “Your weaknesses,” she said, taking a sip of wine.

“Damn, I thought I escaped from those questions,” he laughed.

Allison’s gaze was fixed on him, amused and expectant.

His answer came with no sign of hesitation. “Jack Daniel’s.”

Allison raised a brow and nodded in approval. The guy had interesting tastes.

Todd smiled and took a moment before going on. “Good food just like it was prepared at home,” he said, pointing at the empty plate in front of him, “and finger food,” he added with a bit of tease.

“Finger food?” Allison’s question came along with a smile and a raised brow. “Now, this is interesting and needs for explanation.”

Todd leaned dangerously forward, the reduced distance causing Allison to blush a little.

More wine. Allison suddenly felt the pressing need for more wine but didn’t dare move a finger under such proximity.

“I think…” Todd started, peeping around them, “I think there is something extremely sexy in feeding someone…” He explained, giving his attention back to her, “or being fed,” he quickly added with a smile.

Okay, more wine. Now.

Allison took a long sip from her glass, looking down in slight embarrassment. The way he was staring at her really left no room for doubt. He was making his move with her, and not so subtly. This dinner was taking all but an innocent turn. Allison had to remind herself that she wasn’t the blushing kind, she’s never been a woman that let men take control of her nerves. Gathering some courage and boldness, she faked a confidence that she had lost along the way and sat up straight, doing her best to hide that bit of discomfort caused by his obvious attempt. “Something tells me that it’s not that kind of finger food served in cocktail parties,” she said with a knowing look and a hinted smile.

“Well, it depends from which cocktail parties you are used to,” he said, his gaze fixed on her, his expression showing defiance.

Allison nodded, and in a flash of lucidity she decided they were overshooting. With a soft smile, she looked down searching for the right words to stop what was obviously not meant or supposed to go on.

“I don’t think we should do… this,” she said, her voice insecure and faint. Did her words really match her thoughts? It didn’t matter, her thoughts needed to be hushed.

“Do what?” Todd asked, “Talk about food during a dinner?” he added, faking confusion, obviously pretending he didn’t understand the real meaning of her words.

It took a moment for Allison to react. She threw him a look of disbelief before bursting out in loud laughter. Well, putting it that way it lost most of its mischief, but the good laugh wasn’t enough for her to forget the forced – and agreed upon – limits. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to respect those limits she herself imposed as she leaned forward and met his lips slowly, hesitatingly at first. Their kiss deepened and became passionate, urging. The red wine that he consumed tasted better on his lips. Cool and robust, it created a breathtaking contrast with the warmth of his mouth. She could easily get drunk under such an inebriating kiss. Leaning back in need for air, they stared at each other for a moment. It could have been one second, or one hour, Allison couldn’t say for sure. All she knew was that she was scared of her own feelings. She was used to having everything under control and the sensation of losing the reins of her heart was overwhelming, unwelcome but somehow exciting at the same time. Her eyes silently pleaded for him not to say anything. She could deal with one thing at a time and right now her mind was still reeling from the aftermath of their kiss.

“I like you, Allison.” Todd’s words came out hurried, faint, thrown out there barely audible, as to reserve the chance to retreat from them if needed.

But Allison heard them well, loud and clear. For a moment she was speechless. If she had to be honest, this shouldn’t be a surprise. But there was something in hearing those words said out loud that made everything real, concrete, taking away any chance to ignore what was clearly happening between them.

At the same time, it was scary. It was easier to handle a fantasy, a figment of her imagination, or a dream. The reality was far more compelling and demanding and, most important, it bound them to a different sort of consequences and responsibilities she was not yet sure she was ready to cope with.

“I think we should stick to what we agreed,” she said in a low voice, in a desperate – and probably useless – effort to bring things back to what they were supposed to be from the very beginning.

“You think it or you want it?” Todd asked leaning forward. His gaze was fixed on her, but lost most of its previous confidence.

His question caught Allison completely off-guard. With some hesitation, she dared asking, “What… What do you mean?”

“You keep on saying… you think what we are not supposed to do, you don’t say that you don’t want it. What is it that you want then?” Todd’s question sounded so simple. What did she want? She had no idea, and if she even did, she was still fighting to ignore its mere existence.

She remembered the conversation of the previous night with Mark, all that stuff about taking responsibility really lost its meaning when the heart decided to take control over the mind. The truth was that she spent too much time thinking instead of feeling. Thinking about what was best for her, for Hope, for Patrick, even for her firm. But she didn’t really take the time to stop and feel.

She took a moment to look at the man sitting in front of her in expectation. She couldn’t deny he was attractive. But what exactly was so attractive about him? His strong personality? Well, that was unquestionable. He was just good looking? No, she had learnt to distinguish love from sex long ago. Was it something more that she still couldn’t define? What exactly?

“I don’t know… but I want to find out.” Those were the words she told to her brother and her honest answer to Todd’s question.

***

Later that night, the feeble streetlights illuminated a room outlining two blurred silhouettes standing, as the door closed behind them with a soft bang.

Allison was still wondering what had come of all her good intentions, as she turned to look at Todd, standing next to her. In the dead silence, she could hear distinctly their irregular breathing and her own heart beating wildly, frantically.

Neither of them dared to move or to turn the lights on, afraid it might break some sort of spell. Or maybe they were just afraid to catch any sign of second thoughts in each other’s looks.

In the semi-dark, only their eyes shone, smoldering, gleaming with excitement, desire, fear and anxiety. Still, they left no room for doubt that right now they wanted, they needed the same thing. It was written all over their faces, in the way they slowly, hesitatingly moved closer to each other, reducing the distance between them to a bare breath unable to decide as to who was going to take the first step.

Allison remembered the words she told him only minutes before about wanting them to happen and decided it was time for her to act. After all the times she turned him down, making his every attempt fail miserably, she felt the need to give him some proof that she really wanted it. She closed the little distance left with a soft shy kiss.

It lasted a brief moment. The fleeting hesitation faded, leaving room for hushed longing to prevail as their kisses became deeper, passionate, hungry, and unrestrained.

She felt Todd’s hands running up her thighs and over her dress, searching for the zipper. She started her own fight with the buttons of his shirt.

She couldn’t help but think that men knew nothing of practicalness, or they wouldn’t wear so many clothes with the even remote chance of having to take them off. Allison’s dress was already gone and she barely managed to take his shirt off.

But much to their benefit, she noted that they compensated the scarce practicalness with an exceptional speed in taking their clothes off, as Todd quickly stepped out of his trousers. Was that the result of years of practice? She didn’t really want to know.

All she knew was that a moment later they were lying on the soft and scented sheets of the bed, taking off what was still left of their clothes.

Allison had a moment of hesitation as she felt Todd’s hands on her now naked body. Were they really aware of what they were doing? Were they really ready to face all the repercussions ensuing from a moment of passion?

She ran her hands through his slightly curly dark hair and gently guided his face to meet her eyes, searching for either some sign of doubt from his side too, or the reassurance that they would be fine. But there wasn’t any hint of doubt in the way Todd looked at her, longingly. Instead, she felt him caressing her thighs with firm, strong hands, running up to her hips to cover her ass.

His hold was firm but at the same time betrayed a slight insecurity. There was a touch of possessiveness in the way he held her tight, devouring her mouth, her neck, and her breasts with hungry kisses. It was both at the same time, a source of anxiety and reassurance.

The thought of belonging again to someone terrified her, but at the same time she couldn’t help orbiting this man like a small planet that fights vainly against gravity.

All she could do was to let herself go; she clung on to his waist and sighed deeply as he entered her with vigorous, long thrusts. Holding him in a tight embrace, she breathed deeply into his strong smell of some masculine perfume she couldn’t recognize. It wasn’t just cologne for sure. Its smell, fresh and lightly musked, mixed with a hint of sweat, was inebriating.

The tension that had built up over the months was explosive, overwhelming, uncontrollable; it took control of their bodies, silencing their minds.

Allison thought that her heart couldn’t beat any faster than that without exploding. She wanted, she needed some release after months of holding back feelings she kept on pretending that didn’t exist. And she needed it quickly. The increasing pace of Todd’s thrusts was the clear sign that he needed the same. She didn’t care about foreplay, or teasing. And apparently he didn’t care either as they devoured each other’s mouths, drunk with passion. After all, they had the rest of the night to take their time and savor each and every moment, again and again. Right now, she only cared about the orgasm taking over her body as she gave in to the increasing pleasure, her hands clung tightly to the firm muscles of his back; it was only a moment before she felt Todd’s own release into her, collapsing on to her in a tight embrace.

***

The early morning brought the dream of soft hands caressing her, delicately, lightly brushing the soft skin of her arms. They were somewhat familiar but couldn’t recognize whom they belonged to. It felt so real, vivid. In the half-sleep, she realized she wasn’t dreaming. Still drowsy, she stiffened, peeved by a mischievous sunbeam piercing through the curtains. She opened one eye, refusing to wake up, as she tried to remember where she was. With its maroon curtains and the light creamy walls with spatula effect, the place wasn’t familiar at all. She clearly wasn’t in her bed. A soft kiss on her shoulder brought her back down on earth. The dinner. Todd. Oh my God. Their first passionate round of wild lovemaking. She blushed at the memory. The second time, sweet, taking their time, greedily exploring each other’s bodies, fully enjoying every kiss and caress, slowly. Oh my God.

She slowly rolled on her other side to meet his eyes and his soft smile.

“Good morning,” he said in a whisper.

“Good morning,” she replied, her voice barely audible, as she leaned closer, slightly unsure, and let him place a soft kiss on her lips. His touch on her skin was the same firm one of the previous night, just softer, light, probably appeased in the senses; it sent her slight shivers down her back.

The awakening threw in their faces all those complications they deftly, defiantly – or irresponsibly – chose to ignore the night before. The trial. Patrick. Her daughter. The firm. The trial. Disclosure. Were they going to regret it? With her gaze fixed on Todd’s eyes, she was searching for some shadow of regret, or worry. If he regretted it, he was very good in hiding it. Still, she could read some worry in his hesitant smile. Or he must have sensed her discomfort and anxiety. Her brain’s gears were spinning so fast that he could probably hear them colliding into each other.

“Is everything alright?” he asked, a hint of concern in his voice.

Was everything alright? Looking away, Allison didn’t answer straightaway. Not everything was alright. There were a lot of things to discuss. What was happening between them in the first place? What did they expect from each other? How were they going to handle their situation in public? Were they even going to make it public? Everything was so new to her that it was almost terrifying. Yes, there had been Chris before, but if she had to be honest, she always knew what she wanted from their relationship, she always knew that it was not meant to last.

Her thoughts went to the dinner to their night together. She was so comfortable with him. She loved how he could so easily make her smile, laugh, and blush. He had the ability to touch all her weak spots and make her forget all her worries in the space of a few seconds. He was a walking temptation. And she had decided the night before to just stop and not resist temptations anymore. It proved to be worth all her inner turmoil and conflicts. She couldn’t recall ever wanting something so badly, still being so scared about it. And what scared her even more was that she was pretty sure that it wasn’t just sexual chemistry, but as to what she felt, she still didn’t know it for sure. She only knew that she didn’t want to lose it. It was the chance of something new, the chance to start all over again, but with the advantage of all her experiences, bad or positive.

She looked back at Todd, whose gaze was fixed on her, expectantly. She smiled softly, trying to reassure him that she wasn’t regretting anything. All her worries weren’t about him, about them. It was about her allowing herself, for once, to feel. “Yes,” she simply said, as she nuzzled up against his chest. She enjoyed the morning sweet cuddling for a while, his soft caresses and kisses, before taking the initiative and moving on top of him, returning his endearing gestures with steamier, more tantalizing ones.

The crimson stone – Preview #4

After tossing and turning in my bed for God knows how long, the idle vampire in me snuggles deeper under the duvet in a vain attempt to escape light. The cold February sun reflecting on the snow carpet creates a blinding light that filters in through the window and makes it impossible to sleep. On top of that, yesterday’s events have been crowding my mind ever since I left the police headquarters. At some point of my restless night, the meeting with Christopher must have crept into my dreams, for I remember pieces of a conversation we never had. I try to recall what we were saying but the more I focus the blurrier the memory gets and it’s frustrating. With a deep snort I check the clock. It’s a few minutes past 7 a.m. on a day without looming deadlines, which means it’s way too early to wake up, so I decide to just chill in bed for a little longer. Over the past hours every possible feeling has vied for my supremacy, making me bounce back and forth between frustration, curiosity, anger, confusion, sense of guilt and, it would be pointless to deny it, a fair amount of worry. How do you deal with the doubt that someone you used to know closely might have done something so beastly? Oh. Come on. It’s Chris. Remember? Yes, that Chris who saved you from more than one hangover. He’s no Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He’s your old friend! Who am I kidding? I don’t know that man anymore. He’s a celebrity now, let’s face it, and the side effects of fame are unpredictable. What could I do anyway? Accepting his appeal is not an option, my days as lawyer are dead and buried, nothing and nobody can change my mind. Even if they weren’t? Criminal law and I have never been crazy about each other.

When the sound of Hannah’s footfall outside my door interrupts my nonsense, it’s almost a relief. I listen closely and upon hearing nothing but silence, I convince myself that she went back to sleep. I’ve been barely lazing for a few minutes and my head is already spinning, until a light knock on my door tells me I was wrong about my daughter. It’s the second day in a row we both wake up early, though my insomnia has a name and a face this time. “Come on in,” I invite her, reemerging from the dark comfort of my cobalt pillow with a stifled grunt and a drowsy smile.

“I can’t sleep,” she whispers. Her ruffled curls frame her oval and fall on her peach cheeks, accenting the tiny button of her nose.

She looks almost sorry to intrude this early in the morning, so I pat on the mattress as an invitation for her to join me. It doesn’t happen often, especially lately, that she needs – or wants – some motherly cuddling, so when she walks in, then closes back the door behind her, I smile, make room for her under the blankets and watch as she lays down on her side, facing me. But the instant she stares at me with restless eyes, almost frightened, the reason of her insomnia is not a mystery anymore. It’s happening again. I close my eyes, struggling to come to terms with the idea. What I hate more in all of this mess is not being forced into a situation, or being completely unaware of what is going to happen, or how it’s going to end. The one thing hurting me the most is to know that my daughter never volunteered for this. This time, more than ever, having to question her feels like a real violence and my resigned exhale gives away all my reluctance. “I think you have to tell me everything you remember about that dream.”

“It’s happening again, isn’t it?” Her question is barely whispered, almost timorous.

Trial and Tribulations of Unexpected Love – Chapter 4

Allison rushed into the DA’s building. Chloe had kept her on the phone for a good ten minutes discussing new evidence and she ended up being late for the court session. Susan would be disappointed. No, she’d probably be downright angry, since what Allison had in her hands was the folder with the complete list of witnesses and the draft for the questionings. Running until the last few steps remained to the courtroom, she stopped right outside the closed doors. She regained some composure, smoothed down a crease from her blue skirt and roughly fixed her hair with her fingers, while she caught her breath.

Finally, she opened the door. The reproachful and displeased look she caught on Susan’s face made her flush lightly in embarrassment. With short hurried steps, she quickly took her seat next to her boss, careful to avoid throwing even a fleeting sidelong glance at the prosecution table.

Allison and Todd had discussed what had happened between them. A lot. But in whatever way they turned it around, it didn’t change the fact that it was simply wrong. The courtroom was their workplace and they needed to keep a professional distance.

“I’m sorry, Susan. I was on the phone with Chloe, there’s new evidence we need to discuss,” she whispered.

“Good or bad?” Susan simply asked, her tone giving away a remnant of annoyance.

“Hopefully good,” Allison replied, her gaze fixed on the judge. Don’t look to your right. “We should call Mr. Ramirez to the stand again,” she whispered, being careful not to let the prosecution hear her.

Susan gave a questioning and perplexed look. “We already questioned him and it led to nowhere,” she whispered back.

“Yes.” Allison nodded. “But we didn’t know that the immigration stamp was forged,” she explained with a smug smile.

Susan sat there for a moment, lost in thought, probably processing her words. “You take over his questioning,” she concluded, getting a broad and proud smile out of Allison.

Well, technically it was Chloe who got the piece of information. Note-to-self: offer her a drink later.

“Mrs. Moore,” the judge opened the session giving the nod to the defense, “you are invited to call your first witness to the stand,” he concluded.

“You go,” Susan whispered and Allison promptly stood up.

“We would like to call Mr. André Ramirez back to the stand for a new line of questioning, Your Honor,” Allison said with a decided voice as she moved closer to the witness stand, reminding herself again that she shouldn’t glance toward the prosecution table. Hard thing to do, she had to admit, since she could feel Todd’s gaze fixed on her, following her every step, and this wasn’t certainly helping at all. Still, she failed again as she threw a sideways glance at him, catching his look of worry and discomfort. He clearly wasn’t expecting this twist. She felt slightly bad for him, this was certainly not good for the prosecution. But her first interest was to her firm and the client, and she knew very well that they couldn’t afford to lose this case, neither economically or for their image.

The bailiff reminded the witness that he was still under oath. After he was seated in the witness stand and the jurors turned their attention to Allison, waiting for her to start the questioning.

“Mr. André Ramirez,” she started, “you said in your previous testimony that the defendant, Mr. Pablo Juarez,” she indicated the man sitting next to Susan, “helped you to obtain the entry visa for the United States. Is that correct?” she asked him.

“Yes,” the man replied in a faint voice. It was time to prove that she was excellent when it came to intimidating witnesses.

“Can you state for the jury in which way he helped you?” She went on with her questioning, walking slowly and confidently in front of the judge.

“Objection, Your Honor!” Todd’s voice emerged strong from the prosecution table.

Allison couldn’t help but throw him a questioning look. “On which basis, Mr. O’Bryan?” she asked him with a hinted smirk.

“Mr. Ramirez has already been asked these questions and they led to nowhere, Miss Mayfield,” he said confidently. A little too confident for her taste.

“Sustained,” the judge declared in favor of the prosecution.

Todd paid her with the same hinted smirk, which she chose to ignore for her own nerves. It was distracting, and he was probably well aware of it too.

“Mr. Ramirez,” she started again, as she very calmly walked to the defense table, taking a document from the folder in front of Susan, “do you recognize this document?” she asked, as she politely handed the paper to the witness. Out of the corner of her eye, she couldn’t help but notice Todd stiffening in his seat.

“Yes, it’s a copy of my entry visa,” he confirmed nervously.

“Can you read that number right beside the word approved?” she went on with her questioning.

“734,” Mr. Ramirez replied in a faint voice. And for good reasons, Allison thought.

“Can you repeat it, just a little louder,” she asked, miming the little with a gesture of her fingers, “because the jury and the prosecution might have not heard it.” She glanced at Todd, who was serious now.

Mr. Ramirez cleared his throat. “734,” he repeated, this time louder.

“Do you know what that number is?” Allison asked, more confident at every question.

“No,” Mr. Ramirez replied.

“Well, it’s a registration number, Mr. Ramirez. A progressive registration number, to be more specific, made of three figures. It’s odd, because we have checked personally with the immigration office and it should be four figures, unless you came in the States in the fifties, sixties maybe? Which I’d tend to exclude since you were not even born back then,” she explained, looking straight in his eyes. “Now, I am a little confused… Why should the son of the Columbian consul, who has wide access to legal immigration forms, give you a forged visa?” she asked, faking confusion for dramatic effect, because the answer was right there in front of her, sitting in the witness stand in a cold sweat.

“I…,” Mr. Ramirez hesitated, “I don’t know,” he shrugged.

Allison knew very well that she couldn’t give the answer herself without getting an objection, which would very likely be sustained. But this was certainly enough for the jury to doubt his words. “No further questions, Your Honor,” she concluded.

Heading back to her seat, she looked at Todd. No quick sidelong glances this time, she stared right into his eyes as he took the bunch of papers in front of him and threw them in frustration. This was the reason why they were supposed to keep the distance, one of them at least, since the list was endless.

Susan gave her a pleased smile. “Good job, Allison,” she said, gathering the few papers scattered in front of her.

Allison replied with a smile of satisfaction.

“Does the prosecution have further questions for the witness?” the judge asked.

“No further questions, Your Honor,” Todd replied, glancing at Allison.

All they had to do now was wait for the judge to set the date for the next session, give the jury their instructions and wait for their verdict.

In a moment of quiet, she caught her phone vibrating on the table. She checked the caller and had to force herself not to blush.

Great job Miss Mayfield, drink later?” the text said.

I thought drinks were off-limits Mr. O’Bryan,” she wrote in reply, as she failed to hide a smile.

Dinner? No refusals accepted. Wins require celebrations,” he insisted with a new message.

Allison was finding it really hard not to laugh, and having her boss sitting right next her was making it awkward and slightly uncomfortable. “We didn’t win yet.”

I thought I said no refusals accepted Miss Mayfield.”

This time she failed to suffocate a light laugh, getting a weird look from Susan. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed, slightly embarrassed. Damn. There was no way out with that man.

You are damned persistent. Okay for dinner.” She finally gave up. Not that she had any other option.

The moment she sent the message, she immediately regretted it. She started to search frantically and in vain for some ‘undo’ button. Dinner… it was long, demanding and dangerously close to the night… Maybe she had better accept the drink. Or not? Suddenly she felt panicky. How did they go from coffee to dinner after all they said about it being wrong? The way Todd managed so easily to trick her into doing things she apparently didn’t want was at the same time fearsome and intriguing.

“The court is adjourned. We’ll meet back here in five days for closing arguments, jury instructions, then turn the case over for the jury’s deliberations,” the judge declared, closing the session.

As she stood up to leave the courtroom, Allison turned to look at Todd who was staring at her intently. She gave him a soft smile before looking down, shy.

***

That same night, sunk in the comfortable couch of her apartment with her feet resting on the small coffee table, Allison sipped a glass of full-bodied red wine, slowly savoring every drop. It was warming, relaxing and gave her comfort.

It was a late Friday night and Hope’s absence was palpable through the surreal silence surrounding her, which let her thoughts run wild, boundless, uncontrolled. It had been a positive day but she felt the weight of the emotional stress. The anxiety derived from the questioning added to the restlessness that flooded over her at the sense of discomfort she felt in seeing Todd so angry at the end of their last court session. All these feelings were resurfacing in the quietness of the night. And the more she let herself linger in the thought, the more she thought dinner was a very bad idea.

The coffee, the kiss… The kiss…  She couldn’t get that little and almost innocent kiss out of her head. She unconsciously licked her lips. The dinner… She shook her head and shuddered. The dinner! Panic started to prevail at that thought. In five days they’d go before the jury for the closing arguments and, acting like two witless kids, they thoughtlessly decided to have dinner together. Tomorrow. Way to be coherent with your own decisions, she considered.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell ringing. The clock showed 10pm. There was only one person who would show up that late in the evening. She forced herself to stand up, annoyed by the unpleasant interruption of her little moment of quiet, as the doorbell rang for the second time. “I’m coming,” she said loudly with a strained voice.

As she lazily opened the door, she met two depressed puppy-dog eyes filled with guilt.

Allison looked at her brother with the resigned look of someone who’d been through that enough times to know he had just messed up his love life again.

“What have you done this time?” she asked as she stepped aside to let Mark in.

“Hi Mousie, I’m happy to see you, too,” he replied with a faked sarcastic tone, making his way into her living room and sinking into her couch. Mark was six years older than Allison but she often had a hard time treating him like that. She had lost time of the girlfriends she had to meet, like and then forget.

“Make yourself at home,” she joked, as she sat beside him and gave him a reassuring and slightly motherly smile. “So… what have you done?” she asked again, this time softly.

“It’s over,” he just said defeated.

“Joss?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. Mark didn’t say anything, he just nodded.

Allison gave him a confused look. “Wasn’t it already over a couple of months ago?”

“It wasn’t,” he contradicted her, giving her an annoyed look. “Okay, it was…” he corrected himself, taking the bottle of red wine from the coffee table. “But now it’s over for good,” he declared, shifting his gaze from the bottle to Allison, to the bottle again. “Excellent wine,” he changed subjects, “I need a glass of good wine to drown my sorrows,” he said faking a winy voice.

Allison couldn’t hold back a laugh. Her brother should have acted in some soap opera instead of designing luxury buildings.

Pouring him a glass of wine, she insisted on a little more, hoping that alcohol would make him open up, even if she was pretty sure she’d end up regretting it in a few minutes’ time. “What happened, Mark?”

“Do you think I’m unable to make a… permanent commitment?” he asked doubtfully.

“Joss said that?” she asked softly. Mark sighed and nodded.

Allison took a moment to choose the best answer, one that wouldn’t hurt him. “I guess, it depends… Which kind of responsibilities are we talking about? Something like a full commitment or who has to do the laundry?” she asked trying to get a picture of the situation. “And most of all… how important is Joss for you to take over such responsibilities?”

She was realizing only now how this was fitting for her own situation, too. She was about to do something that would involve taking on huge responsibilities, if accidentally disclosed. Her mind went to the dinner again. Her conscience kept telling her to just call Todd and give it up, but something deep inside was screaming at her to hush the conscience and just listen to her heart. Yes, she wanted it, but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t anxious.

“Are you still with me?” Mark asked her with a concerned look.

Snapped back to reality, she smiled in the attempt to dissipate every concern from his side. She didn’t want questions asked, she didn’t want Mark to ask questions. She wasn’t really ready to cope with his jokes or whatever he – or anyone else for what it was worth – had to say about it.

“Wait wait wait…” Mark said, straightening up on the couch in full attention mode. “I know that look,” he commented in a flourish of enthusiasm, apparently forgetting his own love pains. “Fire away!” He said with a knowing smirk.

“There’s nothing to… fire away,” Allison said, holding tight to a pillow and hiding behind a long sip of wine. No, she couldn’t do it.

“So… Mr. Nice Guy struck again?” he teased her.

“Mr.…? What?” Allison gave him a confused and unbelieving look. Did he really think… “It’s not… he’s not Chris,” she confessed with a faint voice. And she immediately regretted it. Maybe it was better and safer if after all Mark thought it was still about Chris. But the look of disbelief in his eyes made it clear that it was too late for a retreat.

With wide eyes and an evil grin, Mark was already on a tangent. “Mousie! What are you up to?”

Allison slightly stiffened, nervous. No, she definitely wasn’t ready for such a confession. But he was her brother, the only person she could open up to and fully trust to never betray her secrets.

“It’s… complicated, very complicated,” she started, her voice low and uncertain. Curled up in defense, her gaze was fixed on the glass in her hands, as if the wine could transmit her some strength by osmosis.

“Okay,” Mark started very quietly, “I’m used to complicated… very complicated worries me a little,” he admitted, not hiding some concern, as he gently stroked her forearm, reassuringly.

Where could she start? What would she say to begin with if she had no idea how she felt? Slowly, hesitatingly, she decided to take it step-by-step.

“He… His name is Todd,” she started, looking back up to meet her brother’s expectant look, “and… he… he’s a prosecutor,” she confessed looking down, hoping this would be enough for him to get the whole picture.

Mark gave her a questioning look, his mind clearly working to connect the two simple pieces of information. “Prosecutor.” He repeated slowly. “Does that mean that he works for your ex-husband?” he asked as confirmation. He was obviously getting the whole picture. She found it somehow funny that Mark still had a hard time mentioning Patrick’s name. If she was lucky and he was in good mood, Mark usually called him the husband. Most of the time, he was just the jerk.

“Yes, it does,” she said with a hinted and slightly embarrassed smile. “Actually, he’s my replacement.” She needed more wine. One glass wasn’t enough to even start and handle this conversation. She poured herself some more liquid, giving Mark the time to assimilate her words and, hopefully, to come out with something other than a joke.

“Now, this is very complicated,” he said in a serious tone. “What happened exactly?” he asked very softly, “and does Patrick know it?” he asked with a slight hesitation, not taking his eyes off of her.

“Patrick doesn’t know it,” she started, “not yet at least,” she quickly corrected herself. “We only… we only kissed and…” Damn, why was it so difficult to share such personal information with her own brother? “He asked me out,” she went on, looking down, her hands torturing the poor pillow in tension, “tomorrow… for dinner…” She concluded with some discomfort.

Looking back up at Mark, she met his expecting and intent look. “And?” he asked.

Allison gave him a look of disbelief. No, he wasn’t getting the whole picture. “And… I can’t! It’s… it’s wrong, ethically wrong and inconsiderate and…” She suddenly let the pillow go to take her phone on the coffee table. She needed to do it. To call him. To say she couldn’t. But before she could press any button, Mark took the phone from her and held it hostage.

“How important is this Todd for you to take over some responsibilities?” Mark suddenly asked, distracting her from her anxiety.

Allison gave him a confused look. Why was he talking about responsibilities? She was the one supposed to be giving responsibilities speeches, not Mark. “What do you mean?”

“This is very likely going to bring consequences, good or bad,” he said softly. “Is he worth taking the responsibilities for those consequences?” he asked, his gaze fixed on her questioning.

Was he? Was Todd worth that? How could she possibly know when everything was just beginning and she barely knew him? Shifting her gaze from the phone to her brother, she realized she didn’t have an answer. All she had was an indelible kiss and that ungovernable attraction taking hold of both of them whenever they were around each other. This was something she couldn’t deny. So was she ready to take the responsibilities for the possible consequences? One last look at her phone, she took it from Owen’s hand and put it back on the table and sipping some more wine, pondering Mark’s words.

“I don’t know,” she said looking down conflicted. “But I think, I want to know…” she said, giving her attention back to her brother with a soft smile. “You still didn’t tell me if Joss is,” she said, remembering what led them to this conversation.

Mark reacted by drinking all the wine in his glass with a sad look in his eyes. “No, she probably wasn’t.”