A Taste of... lAST CHANCE
Cross-legged and bleary-eyed, Laura Williams stared down at the bills spilling over her lap as she sat on her childhood bed. The dim light from the single overhead bulb spotlighted the red Overdue message stamped across them all.
What am I going to do?
Lifting her head, she forced her attention away from the bills. Her gaze was distant, weighed down by more than just lack of sleep.
A mural of rainbows and unicorns gazed down at her, possibly cheering her on, but they did nothing to improve her mood. Once upon a time, she’d begged her parents for those fantastical creatures, and her parents had obliged for her fifth birthday. Now their pastel-colored horns and rainbow-prancing hooves appeared as faded and jaded as she felt.
Because at twenty-eight, she might as well have been fifty-eight. Hell, eighty-eight.
Many of the bills, medical in nature, showed the same overdue charges from her mother’s failed battle with breast cancer. Her mom’s fight had ended six months ago, but the bills hadn’t died with her. They only collected interest and garnered more calls from collections agents. Added to them were utility bills, threatening service disruptions soon…and if that happened, they could say goodbye to Morty’s, her dad’s burger joint, as well as their three-bedroom apartment above the restaurant.
Laura clenched her eyes shut, refusing to cry another tear over the inevitable loss of her parents’ dream. She’d moved home to help the family business stay afloat, giving up her nursing career while her mother lay dying in a hospital bed. It wasn’t just ironic, but it was also foolish. If she’d still had a nurse’s income, she might’ve been able to help with the bills…even if they did amount to more than she’d make in a lifetime. Instead, she’d come home to discover her father’s health was failing as well, and now he was looking at bankruptcy.
Eklund was a slow-dying town in the mountains of West Virginia, and Morty’s decay served as a symptom of that demise. The population dwindled with each passing year, and interstates had redirected traffic straight past their sleepy little borough. The diner, much as she cringed to admit it, just wasn’t savable.
“But who’s gonna tell Dad?”
Only silence met her question as she gathered the bills back into a messy pile and plopped them onto her nightstand. Her dad said she shouldn’t have them so close to her bed, where she was meant to relax, but what was the difference? She could’ve shredded the damn things, thrown them into a fire…
But the money would still be owed, and the collectors would still be calling every few weeks.
Quitting the hospital was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I’ll start job hunting tomorrow. No matter what Dad says. We need some kind of income when the restaurant goes belly-up.
Her childhood bed was too small, but she’d sold her old furniture in the city and not thought about that beforehand. Snuggling beneath the warmth of the blankets and curling her legs to keep her feet from hanging over the edge of the mattress, she missed her mother more than ever. That woman had single-handedly kept their family from falling apart. Even while undergoing chemo.
The six months without her had felt like a lifetime already.
Tension was just fleeing her shoulders, the bed finally warming up from her body heat, when the apartment door creaked open and clicked shut. Her eyelids lifted as she sighed.
“Seriously, Dad? Now?”
He’d been sneaking out to smoke cigarettes lately—no matter how vehemently she protested. It was the last thing a fifty-four-year-old man should be doing with his spare breaths and pennies—and in the middle of the night. He’d probably waited for her to turn her light off, thinking she wouldn’t notice. Groaning, she swung her legs from beneath the blankets and shoved her feet into her slippers. Maybe she could catch him before he lit up.
Laura slipped out of her room and into the hallway, only to glimpse the shadow of a figure beelining toward her.
The figure had something pointed at her. Something like…
Her gut sank as she froze in place. The unfamiliar figure was holding a gun. “What are you—”
“Quiet!” The harsh command broke the silence in the hallway more fiercely than the creaking door had. Then, out of the darkness, a strange woman’s face with crazy, panic-stricken eyes emerged to hover in front of Laura.
Only the gun was between them.
“I’m going to need you to do exactly what I say. If you don’t, I’m going to shoot you and your daddy. I know you don’t want that.”
Laura’s every instinct screamed at her to flee, but there was nowhere to go. The only doors behind her led to her room, her father’s room, and a windowless bathroom. And the windows in the second-floor bedrooms overlooked an asphalt alleyway that would break her legs or even her neck if she attempted to jump. Maybe she could have found a knife for self-defense in the kitchen, but that would’ve meant getting past the intruder.
And her gun.
There was no doubt in Laura’s mind that the gun aimed at her chest was real. The weapon was just as genuine as the off-her-rocker woman with her finger on the trigger.
Laura swallowed the scream fighting to come up her throat, just holding herself back from glancing toward her father’s bedroom. “Okay, lady, okay. Let’s just talk about what you want.”
The blond in front of her steadied her gun, sneering. “What I want? Nobody in this universe ever cared about what I want.”
Laura wasted no time. “I care. I’m a nurse. My whole life is about caring. Let me help you, please. Maybe just put the—”
“Shut up!” The woman stuck the gun out straight, aimed right at Laura’s face.
She’s totally out of her mind. I’ve got to warn Dad. Save him, somehow, from whatever this is.
The gun gestured back down the hallway, toward her father’s room. “No more chatting. It’s time to wake up your daddy.”
With the cold of the hallway seeping through the thin fabric of her pajamas, Laura put a steadying hand against the wall, willing herself not to move suddenly, not to show she was following the woman’s command or disobeying it. Buying time for…something? If nothing else, maybe her dad would wake up and call 911 from his bedroom before she and this madwoman reached his doorway.
“Ma’am, we don’t have anything. No money, not even enough to pay our bills. I swear.” Laura licked her lips, hoping the woman would hear the truth in her words.
“Ha, you’d like me to think that.” The gun jerked in the woman’s hand as she shook her head, her eyes wild even in the dim light of the hall. “You’re wrong. You and your daddy have everything. Now, you do as I say, or you’ll regret it.”
The intruder rushed forward.
Laura couldn’t hold in a shriek as the gun barrel pressed against her forehead, cold and unyielding.
If this had been an action movie and she’d been Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson, Laura would’ve swept her hand up, stolen the gun, and turned it on the woman in a heartbeat. But this wasn’t Hollywood, and Laura wasn’t bulletproof.
“Okay, okay.” The whisper trailed out of her throat, then she raised her voice to do as she’d been ordered. “Dad! Dad, I need you to wake up and come out here.”
A grumble sounded out from the man’s bedroom, and the gun pressed harder into Laura’s forehead. Her breath caught in her throat at the bruising cold of the metal, but the tears in her eyes came from the thought of what she and her dad were about to face.
I should’ve told her he wasn’t home. But now she’s heard him too. It’s too late.
“Dad, I’m in the hallway. Please wake up and come here!”
Tears leaked from Laura’s eyes. There was no way this stranger had a personal vendetta against her father, and she certainly didn’t have one against Laura herself, but that didn’t change the fact she was trapped in a deadly encounter, clueless and weaponless.
“Against the wall, back to me!”
The woman’s hiss lingered in the air as Laura turned her face to the wall. The muzzle trailing against her short blond hair, following her movement, was like a living animal, tracking the best spot through which to find her brain as it tick-tacked against her head. Her breathing picked up speed.
In the next room, the shuffling of clothing and footsteps signaled her dad was out of bed and putting on his robe. Her father’s door opened. “What in the world is it, Laura—”
The gun-toting stranger snarled, poking the weapon harder against Laura’s skull.
“Why…?” His expression had transformed from confused to frantic. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“Mister, your daughter’s life depends on your cooperation. You understand?”
Morty Williams froze in his bedroom door, one hand on the doorframe. Faint light filtered into the hallway from his nightstand lamp behind him.
He’d never looked so feeble, with gray hair fuzzed out from his head and his old flannel pajamas hanging on him more than Laura had ever noticed before. Her father had lost too much weight since his wife died, always worried about cooking the very best for every patron at Morty’s and never remembering to care for himself.
In the dim light, his gaze raked over Laura and settled on the gun.
“Don’t hurt her. I understand what you’re saying, but don’t you hurt her. Please. You’d be killing us both.” He held his hands up high, signaling defeat. “Tell us what you want, but please, don’t use that gun.”
Laura closed her eyes, the defeat in her dad’s voice echoing her own feelings. A gentler man had never existed, and she would’ve bet money that if anyone had ever tried to rob Morty’s, he’d have made sure to give them a hot meal along with the cash in the register.
That was who he was. Gentle and forgiving and always convinced things would somehow work out. He probably figured the gun wouldn’t go off as long as they did what was instructed. As if following the rules always got you somewhere.
The thought nearly made Laura laugh out loud, because that definitely wasn’t how life worked, as her shifts in the city ER had shown her, but she bit the impulse back and focused on what she feared might be her last few minutes alive with her dad.
Knowing he’d do what the woman asked—though Laura couldn’t imagine what that would be—she tried to draw a morsel of comfort from that thought.
The woman pulled Laura against her, into her chest, and moved backward into their little living room. They stopped at the side of the sofa, which had been reupholstered nearly to death and was practically as old as Laura.
I wish I could lie down and hide my head in those cushions like I did when I was little. And just wait to wake up from this nightmare.
Her dear father’s steps faltered as he followed them, gestured forward by the gun.
“Now, we’re all going to go outside together.” The woman’s voice sounded steadier now, on track with whatever her plan was. The sheer desperation in it added a deeper chill to the air, rattling through Laura’s veins as she listened. “Morty, you’re going to lead the way down these stairs. My station wagon’s parked in the alley beside the restaurant, and that’s where we’re going. All quiet, no raising any alarm, or your daughter gets dead. You understand me?”
The man went straighter at the threat, narrowing his eyes at her. “I understand.” He focused back on Laura for a second. “Laura-bean, you be strong, and we’ll get through this, okay?”
Laura forced herself to nod, even as tears leaked out at the sound of her dad’s nickname for her.
He hasn’t called me that since Mom died.
Worn down as her dad was, he sounded strong, and she could be strong for him.
The gun jerked against Laura’s chest, anger pouring into the woman’s next command. “Get moving. Now.”
Laura’s father turned back to the door they’d passed in the hallway and opened it, leaving it gaping for Laura and her captor to follow behind him and down the stairs. Freezing-cold flurries swept and swirled into the building. The crazy bitch with the gun shoved Laura through the exit and outside behind her father.
At the foot of the stairwell, he went left toward the alley instead of into the restaurant.
A decades-old midnight blue station wagon sat taking up most of the alleyway, leaving just enough space around it for the doors to open. The thing looked brand-new, well taken care of, even though it was probably made when unleaded gas was still optional. No matter how old it was, the car sat totally at odds with the frazzled woman waving the gun around.
She should be driving a junker. Peeling paint and bald tires to match her crazy ass.
Laura silenced her thoughts as the woman gave her a jab with the gun.
“Trunk’s open, Dad, and your little girl’s life is at stake. Get in. You behave, and I’ll let your daughter go.”
Morty grimaced as he turned away to walk through the narrow space between the vehicle and the alley wall, coming to a stop between their old, dented dumpster and the back of the wagon. He gripped the tailgate’s handle and pulled it open.
But there was some fight left in Morty yet. Before Laura could react, he spun on the woman, trying to shove Laura aside.
The gun exploded into the night. Laura’s ears rang with the blast, and acrid gunpowder filled her nose.
When Laura opened her eyes, her father was on the ground. He groaned, but she didn’t see blood. “Oh god.” The words escaped her mouth, but she could barely hear her own voice. “Daddy? Dad, are you okay?”
“It’s okay, baby. I wasn’t hit. Twisted my damn ankle, though.”
“He’s fine, but you won’t be if he tries anything like that again. Get in, and remember, this gun is pointed at your daughter’s head.”
“Why’re you doing this? Just let us go, lady, please.”
There was no negotiating with her, though. The woman’s wild energy vibrated at Laura’s back as she shifted her weight.
“You need to get in the car, sir.”
Morty hesitated before climbing inside the station wagon, hopping on one foot to protect his injured ankle. The sight of him doing so brought a rough sob up from Laura’s chest.
A sharp stab of the gun between her shoulder blades pushed her forward. “Tie him up.” A roll of duct tape appeared in Laura’s hand. “Hands, feet, and mouth.”
She leaned in. “Sorry, Dad.”
“It’s okay, Laura-bean. It’s gonna be okay.”
“I’m sorry. I love you.”
“Shut up!” The woman cut him off, and Laura jerked in response, sobbing openly now. Her dad just nodded, squinting behind her at the woman and her gun as Laura forced herself to keep going.
She started to wrap her dad’s wrists.
“No! Not like that. In a figure eight. Loop it.”
Laura jumped at the woman’s harsh tone but did as she was told. When she got to his ankles, she winced at how swollen one was. He was really hurt.
Blinking against guilty tears, Laura looped duct tape around his ankles in the same figure eight style as before, the gun pressing harder into her back until the woman was satisfied with her efforts. Her father grunted but was otherwise quiet now. She did her best to wrap the tape like a bandage to help prevent the bones from moving, in case he’d fractured something.
“Now his mouth. Then do your own ankles.”
Laura haltingly pulled off a strip of the tape and held it up in front of her dad’s face. He met her eyes and nodded for her to go ahead. She paused until the woman behind her shoved the muzzle of her gun even harder into Laura’s ribs.
“Do it. Now.”
In a quick motion, Laura put the tape over her dad’s mouth. She bent down and wrapped another strip of duct tape around her own ankles, thinking to leave it loose enough that she might wiggle free somehow. The woman kicked at her feet. “Tighter. And weave it in between, like your dad’s! Then put your hands behind your back.”
Laura finished taping her ankles before setting the roll down on the ground and holding her hands at the small of her back. The woman kicked the tape to the side, out of her peripheral view. A ripping squeal followed before a loop of the sticky adhesive encircled Laura’s wrists and was wound between them, just as she’d done to her dad.
She tried to separate her hands slightly as the woman wrapped the tape. If she could force a little distance between her wrists, that might give her enough room to—
Laura’s head was yanked back, and tape slapped across her mouth.
“Nice try, but that was stupid, and it could have cost your daddy his life. Now get in the car.”
For a split second, Laura realized their kidnapper must’ve put the gun down. But the moment was over before she could react, and the muzzle pressed into the back of her head again.
Laura awkwardly joined her father in the back of the vehicle, shifting like an earthworm. He couldn’t say anything with his mouth covered, but his gaze was reassuring all the same.
The windows of the cargo area had been covered over with fabric, but the back of the vehicle was otherwise open.
I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t fucking believe this is happening.
She’s going to kill us. She’s really going to kill us.
A whimper, trapped in Laura’s throat because of the duct tape over her mouth, came out as a high-pitched moan. Her disobedience wouldn’t be the reason her father got a bullet in the head. It would not.
Laura wriggled her wrists against her bonds and was gratified to realize that her circulation hadn’t been cut off. She wouldn’t be able to get free—not soon anyway—but she still had blood flow. She desperately tried to remember how the YouTube gurus all spouted how easy it was to free themselves from duct tape. But she didn’t have the space to yank her arms down like they taught, and her feet were bare, so no shoestrings to help there either.
“I don’t know if I should leave you face up or not. What happens next will be hard for you to see. But all things considered, I’d say it’s important for you to understand that no one can be happy forever. No one.”
For a moment, Laura feared the words meant the woman was about to shoot her father, but their captor only slammed the door shut, limiting her view to the long back window.
Her chest loosened now that the gun no longer pointed at either her or her father.
The front door of the station wagon popped open, and the woman climbed inside. When the old wagon rumbled to life, she pulled out into the street but stopped across from the restaurant, up against the curb.
Snow continued to drift down from the sky, too wet and light to stick to the roads or buildings, and Laura let herself get lost in the calm drift of the flakes falling past the window. Her breath slowed, her pulse following, and she could hear her father’s doing the same. She could almost forget about the gun-wielding madwoman in the front seat.
The sign over the door, proclaiming Morty’s in fancy cursive script, glowed warm and orange with old-school Edison bulbs. Laura had always loved it. Whenever she’d walked home from school, the sign lit her way as soon as she turned onto the street.
Twenty years ago, her father had an artist redesign it in her mother’s handwriting. It was home.
And then, before her eyes, the sign and restaurant and their home above it blew apart, shattered into a million shards of glass, brick, wood, and metal.
A flash and a thunderous wave of heat arced through the night. Her skin burned even in the protection of the car.
The business that had been in her family for three generations exploded.
Morty’s Diner, gone in a blink.
Her father squealed in horror behind his tape, and Laura’s chest clenched.
She squirmed around, lifting her torso up to turn her head and face forward. In the rearview mirror, she glimpsed their driver’s smiling eyes as the station wagon pulled away.
Normally, the warm wood finishes and gray-marbled countertops of her kitchen stole the tension from Special Agent Emma Last’s life, especially on a Sunday evening when the Violent Crimes Unit case files had been out of mind. Even if she didn’t cook much in the space, the clean, modern style suited her, and she enjoyed calling the kitchen her own.
Little about this evening was normal, though. Not the conversation or the bubbling tension between her and one of her few close friends in this world.
One step at a time. One conversation at a time. One cup of tea at a time. All of this will get fixed.
Pouring steaming water into two porcelain mugs, Emma didn’t feel anywhere near so relaxed as the action might have suggested. That was just the plain truth of the matter. Behind her, her friend and fellow agent, Mia Logan, practically radiated nerves. Despite how long the two of them had known each other, they were in brand-new territory now.
Talking about ghosts—ghosts Emma could see and talk to—had that effect.
But the ghost of Ned Logan, Mia’s brother, had made the conversation necessary. During their team’s last case, Ned’s ghost had followed Emma, insisting his death hadn’t been a car accident and that he needed Emma and Mia to investigate it.
Emma had only had a moment to explain to Mia that she could see Ned’s ghost.
That had been nearly five days ago.
Though they’d both been stunned by the admission—Emma because she’d actually confessed her secret, and Mia for obvious reasons—they’d been forced to wrap up the case, taking their suspect into custody at close to one in the morning. The next day, Mia was called to assist on a case that took her out of D.C., and Emma had been smothered under post-investigation reviews and the reams of paperwork that inevitably followed.
Now, at the first real moment of downtime they’d had in nearly a week, Mia was in Emma’s apartment, insisting on learning every detail.
Breaking the news that Ned’s death hadn’t been accidental put an awkward spin on the evening that no amount of “stress-relief” tea could ever alleviate.
Emma had spoken of the ghosts and the Other with Marigold, a psychic who understood the enigmas in the world more than most. Telling someone like that about her situation felt like a small relief. For a while now, Emma had been keeping her ability to see and speak to ghosts a secret. A weight had lifted off her shoulders the night she’d confided in Marigold.
However, admitting her abilities to a friend and colleague was very different from talking to a friggin’ psychic.
Emma’s explanation of Ned’s news about his own death had been hard for her friend to grasp. So Mia demanded she go back over the whole thing once more. Again. Slowly.
Emma yo-yoed the lemon ginger tea bags up and down in the mugs before she found the will to continue, despite Mia’s gaze needling her on. “Can I just tell you I’m shocked at how fast you accepted all this? I wasn’t prepared for that.”
“It was the ‘bedtime is secret telling’ that did it.” Mia seemed to be hypnotized by Emma raising and lowering the tea bags, or maybe it was her way of avoiding eye contact. “There was no way for you to know that.”
While at the crime scene that night, with adrenaline still pumping through their veins, Ned visited Emma and insisted on talking to his sister. Then he told Emma, “Bedtime is secret telling,” a phrase that would only mean something to Mia. Ned apparently eavesdropped during sleepovers when the siblings were little because bedtime was when everyone whispered their secrets.
“I don’t even know why I picked that minute to tell you, when I stop to think about it. And then you said you believed me…”
“What did he say again? Exactly?”
Emma didn’t even need to think about it. Every word Ned had told her was written in her brain. “He said, ‘Accident not accident. Murder is secret. Bedtime is for secret telling.’ Ghosts normally aren’t very helpful or forthcoming. But this seems straightforward for one of them. He’s saying his death wasn’t an accident.”
Mia accepted a mug of tea as Emma directed them to the oversize island. She clasped it as if the beverage were a lifeline. Her elfin face was pinched, her brown eyes squinting in a way that made her look closer to her age of thirty-one than the early twenties coed she often appeared to be. Especially with her short hair pulled tightly back instead of down, she was almost unrecognizable from the carefree friend Emma normally spent her time with.
With tea in hand, Mia leaned back in her stool and eyed Emma as if she expected her to turn into a ghost herself. Her lips jittered open and closed twice before she spoke. “I still can’t believe it. But thank you, Emma. I do believe it. I believe you.”
Emma’s chest lightened a touch with Mia’s smile. This secret wouldn’t come between them after all. Not for long anyway. “I wanted to tell you all of this after we caught Renata Flint, but then you were called away.”
“Good timing, Bureau powers that be.”
“Right? I’ve been anxious ever since that night. And then yesterday, I spoke with my new psychic friend I told you about. Marigold. She told me I needed to share the full truth with you as soon as possible. I almost called you, and I’m so glad you got back to town this morning.”
“What did Marigold say that made it so urgent?”
Emma dunked her tea bag again before taking a sip. “To quote Marigold, ‘The dead speak for a reason, and we must respect this even if we do not understand it.’”
Mia’s eyes widened a touch. “Well, that’s suitably dark. Did your psychic step out of an old gothic movie? A haunted house, maybe?”
“Try a nice town house in the most normal neighborhood you’ve ever seen.” Emma chuckled, picturing the woman’s pedestrian town house. Everything about Marigold was plain and straitlaced, not what she’d expected.
“I just can’t believe Ned didn’t say more. Especially if there’s a reason for telling me, like Marigold said.” Squeezing her tea bag as if it could give her more detailed information with enough pressure, Mia peered back at Emma over her mug.
Though Mia had told Emma she wanted nothing more than to speak with her brother again, he’d gone silent and disappeared when Emma had failed to share his full message with Mia in the early morning hours of last Wednesday. And if Emma couldn’t see Ned, she couldn’t help Mia communicate with him.
Ned’s reasons for speaking up weren’t hard to understand, after all. He wanted his sister—and maybe Emma—to avenge his death.
Maybe coming clean about everything while at a crime scene hadn’t been the best idea. Not with police lights and crime scene techs in clear sight. But Emma hadn’t felt as if she’d had much choice. Working up the courage to talk about seeing ghosts—to anyone—hadn’t been easy. They were alone, and Ned was there, pressing her…and, well, she gave in.
And if not then, who knows when I would’ve broken down and done it?
Mia fiddled with the discarded tea bag, her eyes hazy. “And Ned didn’t say anything about who killed him? Or why? What he was involved in? Did he have any guesses?”
“When they speak, they don’t talk like normal people. It’s off, somehow. Like they can only talk around things. It’s almost impossible to get a complete sentence out of them.”
Sipping her tea, Emma shook her head. She’d told her friend everything now.
Mia couldn’t quite hide her disappointment. “Oh.”
Emma felt terrible. “I wish I could say he had more information. I’d give anything to say I could answer your questions. But without him here…and even if he was here…”
“You think he’ll be back?”
“I do.” Emma sighed, gazing around her currently Ned-less kitchen, hoping. “But we just have to wait on him. It’s a different world in the Other.”
A world of ghosts that, apparently, I’m not supposed to see into, let alone enter. How can I explain it to Mia if I don’t even understand it?
“I don’t know much about the place, but I know that it’s…different. Marigold made that clear to me, more than anything. Priorities aren’t necessarily a thing…until they are. I’ll tell you when Ned comes back, though. I promise.”
“You just don’t have a clue when that will be.” Mia gazed into her tea as if for enlightenment. “And we can’t cause him to come back somehow? Maybe with Marigold’s help?”
“I don’t think so.” Emma licked her lips, thinking back to Marigold skirting that very question. “I have no idea what triggers ghosts to appear, to speak, to interact…sometimes, they’re practically surrounding me, stalking me wherever I go. Other times, I don’t see any at all for days. But it’s never in my control. I only know that the deceased people who I thought would be most likely to come find me, my mom and dad, haven’t appeared even once.”
Mia’s face jerked up, her lips parting in a little o of surprise. “Oh, Emma. I hadn’t even thought to ask. That must be so hard.”
Just like Mia. Forgetting herself to think of me as soon as she’s got the slightest reason.
Wondering if Ned Logan had been just as caring a human being, Emma forced a smile and used her tea as an excuse not to answer right away. Mia wasn’t wrong…and somehow, saying it out loud, that her parents hadn’t sought her out, made the fact sting all the stronger.
Emma pushed herself back from the island, shaking off the nostalgic wish making its way up her throat, and moved toward the cabinet. “I think I’m getting a sweet tooth. You want some—”
A solid knock at the door cut off her sentence.
Mia raised an eyebrow. “Expecting anyone?”
“Nobody but you.” Emma stepped toward the door. “Who is it?”
“It’s Oren. Are you free?”
Emma’s stomach did a little flip. She hadn’t planned on her personal life colliding with her professional life tonight…or anytime soon. “Uh, coming!”
Mia’s dimples showed for the first time that evening. “The guy from last night? Mr. Handsome Yogi?”
Already walking toward the door, Emma answered with a quick, “Yes,” because, sure, she had told Mia she’d gone on a date with a wonderfully charming yoga instructor the night before…but only that.
Still, the date had been amazing.
They’d gone to a Jamaican restaurant and shared a great curry dish. Then Oren insisted on a round of indoor mini-golf to “work dinner off.” Little had Oren known that Emma was practically a professional mini-golfer. She’d kicked his ass. He’d taken his loss well.
The possibility of him showing up during Mia’s visit hadn’t even crossed her mind.
Opening the door, Emma tried to invite him in with some semblance of grace, but she lost her words upon seeing the gorgeous bouquet in his hands. Shoots of pink, yellow, and lavender petals spiraled upward in a display of spring too early for February.
Emma girl, you are so in over your head.
“I would’ve picked them myself on the hike I took today, but it’s not exactly the season for wildflowers.” Oren’s blue eyes radiated the same charm that had repeatedly stolen her breath away the night before. “Do you like them? You don’t seem like the traditional red-roses type.”
Emma’s tongue worked to unstick itself from the roof of her mouth as Mia came up beside them, oohing as she did. “Of course Emma likes them!”
Oren’s eyes widened a touch. “Oh, I didn’t think about you having company. I’m sorry, Emma—”
“I’m Mia Logan, one of her close friends. And you have absolutely earned yourself an invite to tea and cookies. Come on in. Right, Emma?”
“No, it’s fine.” Emma breathed in the heady scent of the lavender, along with the other flowers she didn’t recognize. “Please. We were just having some tea. And the flowers are gorgeous, Oren. Thank you.”
Oren grinned and slipped into the apartment, easing open his fashionable designer coat once he’d handed over the bouquet. The man moved like a cat, all lanky muscle and quiet steps. Only his easy grin betrayed how casual and down-to-earth he was. “I hope you don’t mind. I passed a little florist on my drive back into the city and couldn’t resist stopping in.”
“I’m so glad you did.” Emma led the way over to the kitchen, struggling to remember if she even owned a vase, let alone where she would’ve kept such a thing. “I have to admit, I only recognize the lavender. What are these other flowers?”
“Those white ones are anemones.” Mia lifted an empty ceramic pitcher out from a cabinet. “And the pink ones are camellias.”
Oren slid onto a stool, nodding when Emma held up the box of tea in offering. “Your friend’s right. The florist called it her winter bouquet, and I couldn’t resist. And…Mia, you said? What do you do?”
“I’m on the same team as Emma with the Bureau’s VCU.” She chuckled when Oren barked a laugh. “What, surprised?”
“I shouldn’t be, no. Just…thinking I may be wading in over my weight class. Considering the view.” He aimed his blue eyes over toward Emma, holding her gaze until her cheeks warmed.
Yeah, you’re not the only one.
Emma busied herself making another round of tea, letting Mia chatter on behind her. The other woman was far more comfortable in an unexpected social situation like this than Emma could ever be. Which was terrific, because it gave her some time to process the gorgeous flowers and the sweet gesture, as well as the turn the night had taken.
Over and over, Oren kept surprising her. Even after their one date, Emma couldn’t help thinking the man was a godsend.
Sure, he didn’t know she spoke to or saw ghosts, but she almost suspected that if she did admit it, he’d take it in stride. If…or when? Was that possible, now that she’d told Mia, who hadn’t taken off running or insisted she belonged in a psychiatric hospital?
She glanced over at him just as he swept some of his unruly brown hair away from his brow. He was talking about some trail or another.
Now she knew how he kept that tan glowing in the winter. He hiked. Because of course he did. And she’d been saying she needed someone who’d encourage her to be more physical…
By the time Emma had a mug of tea ready for Oren and a second round for herself and Mia, as well as some cookies set out for snacking, Oren had settled into talking about his afternoon spent leading friends on a hike around Great Falls Park.
As he spoke of the ice frozen into pools, the slick path, the forest, and the call of the river, his love of nature took over the warm kitchen as if the falls were encroaching on Emma’s urban apartment. Another person would’ve made the nearby attraction sound mundane, or else over-romanticized the location to the point of absurdity. Oren and his deep voice, though…
“You two should’ve seen the melting snow and ice,” Oren continued. His blue eyes left Emma’s only often enough to make sure Mia felt included—a fact that Emma didn’t miss—and Emma couldn’t help blushing each time he looked back at her. “The way the icicles dripped down from the stone was magnificent. People say they don’t like hiking in the cold, but it’s a whole different world.”
Different world or not, I could listen to this man talk about paint drying. No, cement drying. No wonder he’s such a popular yoga instructor.
“Truly, there’s no need to go so far as the Amazon or Antarctica to appreciate nature.” A chuckle rumbled from Oren’s throat, and he reached out to place one large, warm hand on Emma’s knee, gentle and suggestive. “As long as you’re with a guide who knows the area, the falls are gorgeous—”
The buzzing of Emma’s and Mia’s phones interrupted him, and Emma offered a quick apology for the distraction.
Both of their phones going off at the same time meant only one thing. Work.
Mia read her text out loud. “Bring go bags in the morning. New case. Confirm receipt.”
Emma sighed, shooting Oren an apologetic shrug even as she reached for her own phone to confirm that she’d gotten the message. “Looks like I’ll need a rain check for tomorrow night’s date. I’m sorry, Oren.”
“I’m sorry to hear it as well, but I’ll be here when you get back.” His easy grin hinted at more than casual flirtation, and Emma’s cheeks blushed hot. The man knew how to get to her. There was no question. “You two have to go save the world. I understand. Just promise you’ll call when you get back?”
Nodding, Emma worked on finding her voice, which had disappeared somewhere down into her belly.
Mia stood up with a sigh. “Actually, if you two don’t mind, I need to get home and do some laundry if we’re heading out of town tomorrow. Oren, it’s been an absolute pleasure to meet you.” She shook his hand, giggling when he accompanied it with a little half bow. “Emma, walk me to the door?”
Emma trailed a hand along Oren’s bicep as she passed him. “Be right back. You’ll stay for a while?”
He gripped her hand and kissed it, sending a tremor of nervous thrills through her blood before she stepped away. His lips were so gentle on her skin…
Swallowing down the instinct to purr like a kitten, Emma took a deep breath and followed Mia to the door. When she’d opened it and stepped outside, she even managed to bring herself just a bit down from the clouds. “See you in the morning?”
The other woman’s elfin features lit up into a real smile. “Yeah, and you two have fun. He seems really nice.”
“He is.” Emma shot a glance back at Oren, who’d politely turned away and focused on his tea to give them some privacy. “You’ll be okay? I know tonight was a lot.”
Mia gave her a quick hug, whispering, “I’ll be fine. I’m glad you told me everything, and I guess…I guess there’s no hurry. Seriously, you and Oren have fun. Enjoy the night. Hopefully, Ned won’t interrupt it. One Logan on your impromptu date is enough.”
Emma stifled a laugh. “True enough.”
“Tomorrow, though…we have a lot to figure out.”
Nodding against her shoulder, Emma didn’t bother answering. Mia’s comments had just about summed up the story of her life lately.