I jerked awake, arms and legs tangled in the sheet and comforter, my pillows in a heap on the floor. What happened? What did he say?
Where am I? Oh no, not again. Not another nightmare, another shadow on my day.
If I were wearing a red-bordered name tag, it would read, “Hello! My name is Charlotte Angstrom Eddy McAntic.” At school, I enrolled with my given name, but I changed it to Charli when I was a preteen. Now I answered to hon, Mom, Auntie, “Where are you?” or “Help!”
When I was a teenager, at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, my friends and I were convinced that we wouldn’t live, or didn’t want to live, past the age of thirty. But of course I did survive to cross that infamous, untrustworthy threshold. I spent my thirties, forties, and even my fifties in peace and harmony aligning marriage, mortgage, careers, and children.
I married Pud, a no-nonsense, hardworking, establishment-type guy. Somewhat surprisingly, based on his serious, no-frills demeanor, he parlayed a math degree into an exciting career supporting open-wheel auto racing. I started out as a free spirit, and I ended up taking the more traditional route. I earned a law degree, focused on contracts, and then dedicated myself to my favorite jobs—wife and mother. Our two boys were young adults now, almost launched, although still within the orbit of Planet Home.
Thanks to love, the stars, and a little help from my friends, the seasons gently went round and round.
So why was I having bad dreams?
I aimed to be joyful. Most of my screen names and usernames contained some form of the word joy to remind me every day to be a positive person. I believed that something wonderful was always around the next corner. From a first grader who daydreamed during reading circle and then discovered an exciting game on the playground to a shy teen who bought an ice-cream cone and then flirted for the first time with the guy behind the counter, I always knew that something thrilling would be around the next turn.
But now, my husband was newly retired, and some of my home responsibilities had eased up, as well. Yet my personal positivity was challenged. Was there really something amazing ahead for us at this point in our lives? I didn’t even know how many miles or corners remained for us, let alone thrills.
Pud and I had been in harness for over thirty years, creating a home, raising a family, being responsible. After all that, I had to admit that I was bewildered by the way Pud and I were getting along now. Not only was Pud leaving me and heading to the golf course morning, afternoon, and early evening; even when he was at home, he was quiet and withdrawn. We didn’t talk very much, and I didn’t feel close to him. When he was away at the golf course, I was lonely. When he was home, I was even lonelier.
We seemed to be at a distance from each other. We were like people passing each other on a walk, smiling politely and saying nothing beyond “Hi” or like acquaintances waving across a busy restaurant. We were cordial but not close—and certainly not husband-and-wife close anymore.
Who was this stranger in my house? I suppose when Pud worked and I was more involved with my home and children, we had grown used to going our different ways. Pud traveled so much for his job that we literally were physically apart for much of the time. Had we also separated emotionally through the years?
I had high hopes that when Pud retired, we would have fun together. But what exactly should we do? Just take it easy and binge watch multiple TV seasons? Or have contests to see who could read the smallest print without reading glasses, or who could count his or her pills into the plastic compartments faster?
I didn’t seriously expect that we would spend dreamy hours of bliss in twin hot tubs sighing at the ocean view like in the TV commercials, but I did crave some romance now that we had time together after the busy years. I yearned to hold hands as we smiled and looked deeply into each other’s eyes. I desired to lovingly stroll together into our golden years. Pud was strolling, all right—hand in hand with a golf club.
Part of me understood that the guy had worked hard his whole life and certainly deserved the opportunity to indulge his golf passion, and I could even go so far as to say that I was glad he had something interesting to do and wasn’t just hanging around the house with the retirement blues. Truth be told, we lived on a golf course, so I had to expect some golf. But the other part of me wasn’t expecting golf to be a new forty-hour-a-week job.
The men’s league was on Tuesday; Wednesday was a men’s group at another course in town; Thursday, Pud and his buddies traveled to different courses around the state; and Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were mandatory golf days. What about me? What was I supposed to do? Sit on a bench at the clubhouse and wave as he made the turn?
Some of our friends assumed that I golfed and that I enjoyed golfing with Pud. Wrong on both counts. We attempted to hit the links together early in our marriage, but I was too much of a type A personality and competitive. Pud was just as type A as I was, and when I had trouble learning the game, he became an impatient teacher. I was his frustrated student. Pud was a scratch golfer and relished the competition with his male buddies. I gave up and decided that I had better things to do than spend four hours on a Saturday afternoon on a good walk spoiled.
It was time for me to get up, but the dream had left my thoughts swirling and careening like an out-of-control carousel. Carousel? Oh, that was part of my bad dream too. There was something about clowns leaning from carnival horses and waving signs as they went round and round. What had the signs said? Pud, stay home! You can’t make him stay home! What should I do? I needed to catch the brass ring of blissful married retirement. Charlotte! You need to stop tormenting yourself. Take a deep breath, and think calmly.
Charlotte McAntic spent her thirties, forties, and even fifties in peace and harmony aligning her marriage, mortgage, careers, and children. As she stumbles into a new phase of life—also known as the Golden Years—Charli cannot help but wonder where the gold and her husband, Pud, are hiding.
Pud is happily
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Everything starts with little girls.
This little girl was walking down a white dirt farm road one day in June 1954. Her slender shadow was just twice her height. And it crossed the road in a westerly direction, reaching out nearly to the irrigation ditch that ran alongside. A single thick braid was bouncing up and down on her back. The braid was stiff and damp, for the little girl had just been swimming at the big Vanducci house on the hill. Plomp, plomp, plomp went her bare brown feet in the warm soft dirt, little puffs of dust blowing up in her track to settle slowly in the windless air.
Cradled in her long skinny arms she had a big nervous fighting cock with beady eyes. She’d found him by the side of the road just a moment before. And she was very happy to have met him there, for she’d had no idea that he had escaped from his pen in her mama’s backyard. The cock was brown and gold and purple. His feathers shone in the sun. He turned his head all the time, fast and jerky from side to side. Her eyes were like the bird’s eyes, black and darting. She turned her head like him too, looking everywhere.
Her name was Selena Cruz.
Surrounding her were vast fields of alfalfa, tomatoes, and sugar beets, cut through with irrigation canals and county roads, sliced like adobe cakes into gigantic squares. The valley was green where it was planted, brown where it was fallow, and wide: fifty miles from the yellow Diablo Range, which rose up directly behind her, to the blue Sierras on the horizon. Lengthwise its dimensions were beyond her imagination: five hundred miles from Red Bluff in the north to Bakersfield in the south.
Ellie folded her arms over her chest. She watched Charlie grab a long, fat vial from her med kit. Charlie held it up, turning it this way and that. Staring at the clear, slightly viscose liquid inside, she flicked it. Edward padded into the kitchen on bare feet. His shoulder length, blond hair was stringy. He’d simply pulled it back into a messy ponytail at the nape of his neck. Long wisps of bangs fell loose curving over his square jaw. It had been a few days since he saw a shower. He was dressed in the same gray sweatpants he’d been wearing since the day Ellie and her boys got there last week. The stubble on his chin was getting thick. He sat down on the stool in front of the massive kitchen island and batted exotic blue eyes at her.
Science shouldn’t try to play with magic. That didn’t stop them from trying, though. A ring of violet ringed Edward’s irises. It gradated to a softer shade with spikes of a blue so pale it almost looked white ringing his pupils like the rays of the sun. Ellie missed his human eyes. She missed rather a lot from when her brother was human. Ellie tried flashing him a smile. It was weak. She was more than just a little worried about him. It was like he’d just given up. This wasn’t her Edward.
Charlie drew out thirty lines into the syringe. Edward held his arm out, pumping his fist. Charlie flashed him a small, reassuring smile, and handed him a solid piece of plastic. Edward lifted it to his teeth and bit down on the thing. Charlie slid the needle slowly into the vein at the crux of his arm, pressing the plunger down.
Edward’s jaw tightened. His entire body went rigid with the pain it caused. Like broken glass swimming through his bloodstream, it tore him in half. He shuddered. His screams were wretched. Ellie reached up quickly to wipe at the tear that fell down her cheek. She took in a shuddering breath. Ellie decided in that moment that bitch Bennet's death wasn’t nearly as bloody as it should have been. Charlie pulled the needle free and went about cleaning up the small mess she’d made.
Ellie threw her arms around her big brother from behind. Her hands wrapped around his muscular arms. “I’m sorry, Eddy,” Ellie whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
“For what?” he said through gritted teeth. Edward couldn’t stop the shudders, couldn’t quiet the agony that roared through him. It took an eternity for the fire to begin to die down. Edward forced himself to relax against her. He concentrated hard on her embrace.
“That you have to go through this.” Ellie touched the side of his face, smoothed the hair back from his sweat-drenched forehead. “That I didn’t get there in time to save you.”
“You came, little Lottey.” Edward breathed in slow, just to blow it free. “I’ve had worse.”
Ellie sniffed and laid a kiss on his bristly cheek. “Liar,” she said with a pouting lip. She worked hard to give him a smile. “I love you, Edward.”
Edward sat up, leaning back far enough to put his arm around his kid sister’s back. He pulled her into his lap without any effort and ruffled her silky hair. “You going to stay a while this time, Squirt?” Ellie had a hard time ignoring the lilt of hope in his voice.
Her eyebrows drew together and her mouth dropped open. Ellie had a lead on another one of Bennet’s crazies. But after watching that, she couldn’t bear to tell him no. “A little while.” Ellie nodded and sniffed.
Charlie zipped her small med-kit closed and slipped it into the cupboard on the end. She walked back to the dining room table. Her fussing caught Ellie’s attention. Charlie closed down a program on her laptop. Ellie stared at the small black rectangle Charlie had jacked into one of the USB ports. The external hard-drive had all of Susan Bennet’s research on it.
“How’s the science going?” The moment the words left her lips, Ellie regretted asking in front of Edward.
Charlie turned to them. Her hazel eyes first met Edward’s pleading gaze, and then bashfully, she looked at Ellie. “I’m doing my best to make something of it.” Charlie hated lying. She’d developed a skill for it married to her EX husband. And she needed every ounce of it to get past the searching stare of Ellie. Charlie didn’t get the need for this secret. But it wasn’t exactly hers to tell.
“That’s all I can ask,” Ellie said with a nod. She wiped at her nose and slipped her arms around her brother’s neck. “Can you make a list of some of the stuff you’ll need?”
Charlie’s mouth dropped open to answer but Edward beat her to it. “What for, Squirt? How exactly do you plan on getting any of it?”
“We’ll steal it,” Ellie answered simply.
Edward frowned. He hated the idea that Ellie happily embraced being an outlaw only a tiny bit more than she did being a murderer. Ellie could tell by the look on his face there was a fight on the horizon. She just couldn’t deal with it. She loved Edward more than life itself. But living with him was proving harder every day. Ellie leaned in and kissed him between the eyes. Cupping his face between her tiny hands, she smirked.
“I’m going to make you better, Edward.”
He let the love shining in her pretty green eyes draw a smile across his mouth. “Never had a doubt in my mind, Squirt.” Edward tried hard to keep his face neutral. His vision blurred with stinging tears.
Ellie took in a deep breath and laid her head against the side of his. Her eyes cast to the floor. She was lost here. Ellie was the first to admit this life took some getting used to. But Edward just couldn’t handle it, and it was getting harder to ignore. Ellie spent her whole life thinking nothing could come between them. Now, she worried she was wrong. The only thought in her head for the longest time was of him. Now that he was free, Ellie just couldn’t shake the feeling he was spinning away from her.
The adrenaline-racing second book in The Imprint Series
Fugitives from Startech, Jade and Aric follow their map to Dieter Copeland's house in the backwoods of Rutherford. While in hiding, Dieter teaches them how to connect with their alien metal. But their teacher is keeping his own deep, dark secret--a secret that could affect both their lives.
Aric and Jade grow closer, falling more in love, but being on the run has its drawbacks. When it becomes apparent that Startech will stop at nothing to recover their technology, the pair comes face to face with imminent danger, their fears and the truth behind the company that threatens their existence.
Ultimately, as Jade and Aric fight for their lives, they discover there is only one place they can go...
June 15, 1865
Lily sat on her horse looking intently south, up the valley. The mountains blocking their path to the west, endless prairies as far as the eye could see behind them. They had joined a large wagon train at Fort Laramie and were into their second day on the Oregon Trail. The train was turning right, headed to the north, away from the valley and toward the mountain passes discovered by the mountain men decades before.
“What’s this valley called?” Lily asked the scout riding alongside.
“Doesn’t have a name I know of, ma’am. Maybe Chugwater? I’ve heard some call it that after Chugwater Creek way up the valley,” pointing to the south and east of where they sat.
“How far to Denver City from here?”
“Denver City’s about due south of here, ma’am. If you were a bird, you could fly there in a little less than two hundred miles.”
“Thanks. And the name’s Lily, not ma’am. Lily Smoot.”
She trotted over to the wagon. Gus was driving. John swaying up and down in a Cheyenne cradleboard on his back. Lincoln was riding alongside. As in the previous train, he had taken the job of getting children up and down the back of the wagon to ride with Auggy the bear.
“This is it, Gus,” she said.
“Look all around. This is the valley Iliff told us about. The greatest ranchland ever.”
The two men looked around at the gentle hills to the base of the mountains, the trees green in the few creek beds to the south of them. A sea of ravines hidden among the hills all the way to the looming mountains in the western distance.
“Must be quite a sight when it’s covered with buffalo,” Lincoln said.
“It’d be an even better sight covered with our cattle,” Gus said.
“Iliff told us we wouldn’t last a week up here,” Lincoln said. “The Cheyenne and Sioux aren't even crazy about the wagon trains headed west through here, but they’ve agreed to give them free passage as long as nobody stays.”
As if on cue, two of the scouts trotted over.
“Gus,” one of them said. “Craziest thing. There’s a group of Indians approached us from the west when we made the turn to the north. The scouts said they came in peace. They asked if we had a wagon with a big black bear on it.”
Lily looked out to the west. Toward the magnificence of the mountains. And Mount Laramie towering over all. On a hill above the pattern of threaded ravines, about two miles away, she could just make out a small group that looked to be two of the wagon train’s scouts with three Indians.
“What’d you tell them?” Gus asked.
“I said we’d go look and see.”
“You got anybody who’ll drive our wagon for a while?” Gus asked.
“Sure. You going out to see what they want.”
“We know what they want,” Lily said.
By the time Savvas arrived at the copse in Filothei, the police had already cordoned off the area. Two ministers, the High-up Chief and the Press Secretary of the Government were waiting at the crime scene. The head rookie bypassed the representatives of the Intelligence Service and grasped the hand of colleague Jacob Oldman.
“What do you mean, good morning?” queried Oldman.
With greying hair, thick moustache, squared shoulders and serious expression, the taciturn Oldman was the most senior officer in Homicide. “Come see,” he said in a fatherly tone, pointing at the victim’s Rover. Gus Black, the President of the party in power, was slumped at the wheel, with two contact shots in the head. Three hours earlier he had dismissed his bodyguard and driver. Black’s door was closed, the rear door was not. The gun used to shoot him had not been found, and neither had the revolver he kept in the glove compartment or his personal belongings.
“How do you feel about robbery after murder?” whispered Whitebrow, who had crept up as quietly as a cat.
“It’s likely,” said the senior officer.
The Chief pulled Savvas aside.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“Did the Honourables remove his personal belongings?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“They thought they would round off the crime scene, eh?” chuckled the head rookie and swore at the “good for nothings” for tampering with the investigation.
In his opinion, the passenger door had been broken into by an amateur; someone who must have known how long Black would be unaccompanied. If it was someone the victim knew, it was likely they would sit beside him. Otherwise, the threat of a weapon would have been enough to get them into the car. The perpetrators had preferred to break in and hide behind the driver, leaving mud smears with DNA. And as it hadn’t rained for days, it was probably transferred from a garden.
“Black must have been followed by at least two people,” said Stretch. “When they saw him head towards his vehicle, one hid in the back. We’re looking for a thin, short and flexible person, who jumped up as soon as the politician turned the key. He didn’t let him drive far due to the increased police presence in the area, killed him and hopped onto his accomplice’s motorbike. This was indicated by the narrow tire tracks behind the Rover. The victim must have been at one of the villas nearby. It smells like a political crime committed by an amateur.”
“We’ll get caught up with professional liars. Zeus, take note. Your theories are for my ears only. Oldman is in command of the investigation, I’ll explain your role to you in private,” said the Chief, and returned to the huddled VIPs.
Officially he was in charge, unofficially…
“Clearly one coroner won’t suffice,” murmured Oldman, motioning to the Crime Scene Investigators to stop snickering, as no less than three coroners pulled up.
While they were waiting for Black’s driver and bodyguard, Savvas decided to consult with the representatives from local police station, certain they would be aware of the quirks of their citizens, many of whom were involved in politics, be it front and centre or behind the scenes. It turned out to be no secret that the victim often visited Claire Vane, who lived 200 metres from the scene of the crime and another 200 from his own villa. Although she was Black’s closest associate, they had not been instructed to inform her of his death.
The head rookie updated Oldman, who requested Savvas handle Vane.
:: Warm-blooded Constituent
In the meantime, the police had blocked off the roads leading to Black’s residence. Savvas asked the patrol car to pass by the house first. Arriving there, he saw the victim’s wife in a red convertible waiting for the garage door to open. It was 4.55 am. The patrolmen had some very interesting gossip about the “brand-new widow” Lola Black and the Vanes. Among other things, the latter’s husband, former MP Vane, had moved to the city centre “to serve his female constituents better”.
His “official wife” was sleeping. Her house was like a bungalow with large uncovered windows, which offered the perfect view into the sitting room. The head rookie walked through the unlocked gate and rounded the garden. There were puddles in a few areas from a recent watering. He requested that Forensics take a sample of the mud for comparison with the trace found in the Rover and to search for footprints and other evidence. Ringing the doorbell, he heard Claire Vane’s voice a few seconds later.
On hearing about Black’s death, she burst into sobs. However, she quickly regained her self-control and systematically asked for details. She then proceeded to make telephone call after telephone call. Her authoritarian words testified to her anger and antagonism. To Savvas she said that Black had also been a close friend of her father’s. The previous evening they had shared a bottle of wine, chatting easily. He must have been killed just a few minutes after leaving her house. Claire flatly rejected the possibility that it was an organised political crime, or that the perpetrator was a friend or colleague.
“Politicians kill with their words,” she stated. The only possible explanation was an entirely unpredictable action by a warm-blooded constituent. The “only possible explanation” was interrupted by the sound of her telephone.
“Yes, I know… an officer is here now… I don’t care… it’s your problem,” she said, hostilely.
Her husband, wondered Savvas. Was he asking for an alibi? He looked at her questioningly. She wasn’t going to enlighten him. He expressed his condolences and bid her goodnight.
“You are completely different from the woman who opened the door to me,” he said.
“Please explain, Mr Kallinis.”
“I met three Claires this evening. One opened the door, warm from her bed. Another expressed her deep grief on hearing about the murder of her closest friend. Now I’m bidding farewell to a disciplined, dynamic scientist. I won’t mention your political standing in case you misunderstand me.”
Before shutting the door behind him, Mrs Vane took his mobile number saying, “We will meet again.” There was no doubt in his mind that she was flirting with him.
THE MANCINI SAGA. A family of six close Italian siblings each has a compelling story of romance, danger and mystery that could tear them apart or bring them together.
What if you escaped from a cult and found yourself alone on the streets of NYC.
Twenty-seven-year-old detective Carlo Mancini is your average do-good kind-of-guy with an insatiable appetite for justice. However, Carlo has one personal setback: his inability to let a senseless crime become a cold case. His obsession to uphold the law has led him on a ten-year, dead-end search for the infamous IOU thief.
Twenty-six-year-old Mia Baker lives a normal life: a quaint apartment overlooking Central Park, cherished friends, and Pirate, her one-eyed cat. To most people, Mia’s life seems perfect; but to Mia, that couldn’t be further from the truth—especially when her disturbing past comes back to haunt her.
When Detective Mancini bangs on Mia’s front door, he has no idea he will soon unravel some disturbing truths about himself, and the woman in front of him. One chance encounter can destroy the very fabric of their woven lives when Carlo realizes reality is not always black and white…
. . . Especially when secrets are involved.
Empty nesters Charli McAntic and her husband, Pud, have settled into their golden years. Although their early days of retirement were filled with disillusion and despair, they are now ready to relax and swing upon a star. Pud continues to golf most days and Charli still organizes her closets and rearranges her collectibles, but now they are a solid team. Or are they?
Charli and Pud are no strangers to the art of creating fun. These days they spend their time sharing gourmet meals with their nieces and nephews, attending Cleveland Cavalier basketball games, and rekindling their romance. But when a series of calamities suddenly rock their world, they each meet a new friend, leaving Charli to worry if she and Pud are heading in the right direction.
In the third book of this delightful series, an empty nester is left to recalculate her path to happiness as she and her husband both discover that their golden years are full of more surprises.
“Everybody came to the stable not only to celebrate our marriage, but the end of the terrible years of war. In my excitement I wasn’t hungry enough to do the meal justice but my eyes feasted on the spread. I couldn’t remember when I had last seen such an amount of dishes: plates of ham, preserves of walnuts, zucchini, aubergines and mushrooms, wild salad leaves from the meadows, sprinkled with grated truffles, roasted pigeons, pork, chickens and a whole boar. The wine flowed, faces grew redder, jokes became bawdier and then the music started. My father lifted his accordion onto his shoulder and after a rusty start, the music sang into the air. The planks that had served as tables were cleared from their supports, the leftovers tidied away into baskets to be carried home by our guests and the dancing started.
‘You’ll have to show me the steps,’ my husband whispered to me as we moved into the empty circle of smiling faces. ‘The dances are different from the ones I know.’
He clutched onto me as if he was about to fall and our first waltz wasn’t as smooth as it could have been, but it didn’t matter as the floor soon filled up with other dancers and we were swept round the room.
‘Thirsty work, this dancing,’ Norman stopped and a couple bumped into us. ‘And my leg is hurting.’ He led me from the dance floor to the corner of the stable where most of the men were congregated round barrels of wine. Some of them were already unsteady on their feet and they clapped him on the shoulders, congratulating him and pumping his hand up and down again. I watched him knock back a couple of beakers and then I joined Mamma. Just for today she had changed out of her black mourning clothes, worn since Davide’s death, but her best Sunday frock of blue polka dot hung off her and her face was sad. As I went over, she patted the empty chair beside her and I took her hand in mine. The music was too loud for talk but we both understood what lay in our hearts.”
Norman and I were escorted to our bedroom with songs and laughter. The bed was strewn with flowers and my mother had laid out her best nightdress for me on the pillow.
‘Carry her in, Norman, carry her in,’ our guests shouted.
Norman was embarrassed too and whispered that he couldn’t wait for them to leave, to be alone with me. But when we were on our own, I was suddenly afraid, remembering my mother’s words by the river.
‘I’ll leave you for a few minutes, Ines,’ Norman said.
He closed the door and I undressed, shivering a little in the cooler night air. I lowered the flame on the lamp and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. There had been no mirror in the bedroom I had shared with Nonna and I had never seen my naked reflection. My breast were full and the triangle of hair between my legs was obvious in the gloomy light.”
The next evening, Carissa stood outside and beat her flashlight against the palm of her hand. Really? Why did the batteries have to die now? She cursed under her breath and fished her phone out of her back pocket, second-guessing her aversion to smartphones. Her little flip phone didn’t have a flashlight, and the camera flash didn’t last long enough to get anything done. Frustrated, she straightened up and turned to Aden. He’d shown up a few minutes earlier, wondering what she was doing, and even offered to help. He said he could see everything as clear as day.
She looked back at her malfunctioning flashlight, and then back to the man on the sidewalk. She huffed out a breath.
“Okay, Mr. I-Can-See-Perfectly-In-The-Dark, come over here and find the darn thing for me,” Carissa said, rolling her eyes.
His grin wolfish, Aden sprinted up her walkway. “You have to admit it, first.”
Carissa snorted. “Admit what? That you’re a creeper who only comes out at night and likes to spy on me whenever you get the chance?”
He winced. “I haven’t been spying on you. I live across the street. Do you expect me to never look out my windows?”
Carissa laughed, wrinkling her nose at him. His sentiment was oddly close to hers. “Okay, I’ll give you that, but you’re still a creeper.”
Aden stepped closer, closing the distance until she had to look up to see his eyes. She sucked in a breath. He didn’t look socially awkward tonight. “That’s not what you really think. Admit it. You have a crush on me.”
“Pfft. That’s what you think. I’ve said no such thing,” Carissa said, pushing on his chest. “I barely know your stubborn ass.”
Aden didn’t budge. His mouth turned up. “For now.” He looked down at the ground. “How badly do you need that key?”
Carissa slapped her hands on her hips. “Very. I can’t get into work without it.”
Aden reached out and gently tugged on her ponytail. “So, just admit the truth, and I’ll get it for you.”
Carissa rolled her eyes, her mouth twitching. “I’ll just wait until morning.”
Aden chuckled. “Ah, yes, the enviable day. And just how many of those have you had since you lost it?”
Carissa narrowed her eyes. “Two,” she muttered.
He raised an eyebrow at her. Damn the man. He knew she couldn’t find it without his help. “Fine!” she grumbled, “You’re not the most unattractive man I’ve ever seen.”
He stared at her for a moment, blinking, then his deep laugh flooded out, wrapping her in the resonating warmth of his amusement. Aden touched his finger gently to her chin. “You are the most contrary woman I’ve ever met.”
Carissa crossed her arms over her chest and tried not to think about the spark that ignited at his lightest touch. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Aden chuckled again, and turned away, bending down to look on the ground underneath the vibrant orange flowers in her flowerbed. He stood up almost immediately, the tiny metal key in the palm of his hand.
“It looks like it was in your garden the whole time.”
She tilted her head to the side. He was hiding something. “You knew it was there, didn’t you?”
Aden dusted his fingers off and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He flashed her a wicked grin. “If I did, are you going to punish me?”
Carissa smacked his arm, eying his large muscles. “I doubt I would succeed if I tried. No, I think I might be better off running.”
His grin widened, showing a hint of teeth. “I could tackle you before you ever reached the driveway.”
Carissa gulped. The driveway was a fair distance away from where they stood. How could he be that fast? She shook her head, more confused over the fact that she wasn’t scared. Aden was mysterious, and as she noticed the first night she saw him, magnificent. And he also looked a little sheepish. Maybe he wasn’t as cocky as he was trying to seem. Carissa pulled the sunglasses off the top of her head – they’d been there since she started looking...during the day – and hooked them into the front of her shirt to give her hands something to do, something to keep from touching him again.
She wasn’t used to all this attraction bombarding her senses. He was obviously flirting, and she didn’t know how to handle it. He reached out and gently rubbed his thumb over her cheek.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Carissa. I couldn’t,” he said softly.
Her breath hitched, the mental plug in her heart shifting. Her eyes met his, the deep blue of his gaze more shocking than the zap she’d received from the cable box a few hours prior. His thumb left her cheek, slowly tracing the outline of her mouth. Her knees went weak, and she instinctively grabbed his biceps to keep from falling. His other arm encircled her waist, pulling her firmly against his hard chest. His fingers trailed her spine, ending with the lightest of touches to the back of her neck. She gulped again.
His face lowered toward her, his lips moving ever closer to her own. Her heartbeat sounded like jungle drums in her ears, buzzing with the fire of her intense attraction. He stopped, eyes on hers, a breath away from her mouth. His eyes grew brighter the longer she looked. Her tongue darted out to moisten her lips, and his eyes flashed, the light illuminating his face.
Carissa jumped back with a squeak, stumbling backward up her stairs while Aden stared, mouth wide in shock. She shook her head. “I-I’m sorry, Aden. I have to, uh, do laundry.” She turned and ran inside, locking the door behind her with a snap.
She leaned against the wall, her hand over her wildly beating heart. His eyes glowed. Glowing eyes. Carissa closed her own. That was not possible. She’d wanted to know more about him and who he was, but now she had a more important question:
What was Aden?
“Mornings were steel edged now, water on the village font ice-crisp. Instead of clear blue skies, tatters of clouds stuck fast between firs on the mountain slopes and leaves on the beech trees dropped yellow and rust to the forest floor. Some days our village floated upon a sea of clouds, forming an island, heralding the separation from the rest of the world that winter would bring.
Before I drifted into sleep, I lay on my sack mattress stuffed with dried corn-cob leaves and contemplated the stars. I wondered if the sky would look the same down on the Maremma plains. It was time to leave.
Tomorrow the men and older boys would be setting off. Boots had been mended; in fact I had lost count of how many old shoes I had studded with nails to help them last the eight-day journey down mule tracks and dusty mountain roads. Paolo, our neighbour, had a new pair of goatskin breeches and had proudly shown me his stick, whittled from chestnut wood in the evenings by his fireside. On one end he had skilfully worked a hook to yank necks of wayward sheep. Rossella, his wife, had wrapped chunks of pancetta in cloth and he had bought himself a sturdy green umbrella from the fair at Ranco.
I believed Mamma had no inkling I would soon be gone. Part of me felt bad; she wanted me hear her now she understood our brother, Francesco, was never coming back from the battle of Asiago. One of the shepherds who had come to have his clogs repaired told us the newspapers had reported the deaths of 147,000 men. And all for what? At the seminary, during a geography lesson, Fra Alonso had shown us the range of mountains called Altopiano where the battle had been fought. I remember hoping, for my brother’s sake, that those mountains were as beautiful as the Apennines he had left behind here. On the newly-erected monument in the square in Badia Tedalda, when everybody had disappeared after the commemoration service, I had crouched down and run my fingers over the raised letters of my older brother’s name: Francesco Tommaso Starnucci. I wanted to feel close to him, have some sort of connection. But instead all I felt were twenty five cold, metal shapes.
Since the episode with Fra Domenico, I vowed never to return to the seminary in Arezzo and I’d been making secret preparations. I removed Nonno’s moth-eaten wool cloak from the wooden trunk at the end of my parents’ high matrimonial bed. I’d been squirreling away morsels of pecorino cheese and wild boar sausage whilst Mamma wasn’t looking and wrapping them in a rag in readiness for my departure. And nothing was going to stop me.”
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