“Are you ready?”
Joseph Hale put the question to his twin brother, Thomas, as they stood side-by-side at the mirror in the immaculate men’s bathroom on the twenty-third floor of Haven Marketing. Just down the hall was the conference room where they were scheduled to present a new ad campaign, and they had ducked into the bathroom to check their teeth and straighten their ties before meeting the new client.
The brothers were nearly indistinguishable. They had the same straight nose, the same diamond chin with the same short boxed beard, the same broad shoulders, and even the same steel grey eyes. Other than the fact that Joseph favored pinstripe grey suits, while his brother preferred his signature taupe, the only way to tell them apart was that Joseph’s hair was so dark it was almost black, while Thomas’s was closer to chestnut brown. Even then, people still mixed them up – and once, back in high school, when Thomas had dyed his hair to match that of his three-minute-younger brother, not even their own mother could tell them apart without reading them by touch.
“I’m always ready.” Thomas grinned confidently, and pulled out a comb to run through his hair.
Joseph laughed. “You’re not ready.”
Thomas pocketed the comb with a sigh, rolled his eyes, and turned to face his brother, grabbing Joseph around the back of the neck and bringing their foreheads together.
Joseph’s laugh vanished as he and his twin turned serious – head-to-head, eyes closed – and he realized he was more anxious about the presentation than he wanted to admit. Without thinking about it, his hand copied that of his brother, and they stood there for a long moment, clasping one another’s necks while they shared encouraging thoughts through the touch of their foreheads.
It was a habit that had developed from childhood, an unspoken ritual that they never failed to perform, especially when something important was about to occur. They tried to do it where they wouldn’t be seen, strange as it must look for two men to stand so close and so silent for so long, and hoped that if anyone ever did witness it, they could chalk it up to nothing more than a twin bond.
Yet, it was so much more.
Thomas focused all his thought on the celebratory drinks they would share once they succeeded in their presentation; and Joseph, reading his brother’s thought, grinned.
Peter Jenkins, President and CEO of Haven Marketing, rarely had a chance to sit in on a campaign pitch – and seldom visited the San Francisco office – but when it came to a potential client the size of Carson Electronics, he certainly couldn’t afford not to be present.
“Especially,” he muttered to himself, “not after two of my best teams have failed.”
He watched the Hale twins stroll down the hallway toward him, looking composed and confident. At least, he certainly hoped they were confident. Carson’s Board of Directors were being extremely gracious coming for a third presentation, and though circumstances weren’t exactly dire, Jenkins wanted the security of this contract in order to help Haven weather the shaky economy.
Jenkins stuffed his hands into his pockets and tried to swallow his nerves, wondering if the Hales’ presentation would be accepted where the others had not been.
The first two teams had taken radically different approaches to the sample television spots they’d made for the Carson Board.
One was raucous and colorful, the other pale and muted. The only similarity between the two presentations had been the dull monotones of the team leaders’ voices.
Both presentations had been utter failures.
Jenkins had asked the Hale brothers to rehearse their pitch for him the day before. The ad itself took rather a middle ground between the two failed presentations, being neither too boisterous nor too quiet. It was a good, professional product, but what struck him most were the brothers themselves. Whereas the other two teams had been so businesslike as to be almost boring, the Hales had given an energetic, masculine introduction to their ad. Jenkins hoped this more impressive lead-in would be what it took to capture the attention of Daniel Carson – a man who looked like he belonged in a plaid shirt with a hunting rifle slung over his shoulder rather than in a business suit with a pen in his hand.
“Good morning, Mr. Jenkins,” the twins said in their annoyingly perfect synchronicity.
“Good morning, good morning,” he responded, a little too gruffly, shaking their hands in turn. “Are you boys ready for this?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Jenkins,” the light-haired one responded. Joseph? Or Thomas? He wasn’t quite sure and was too anxious to bother asking.
“You both know how much we could use this contract,” he said sternly, and watched them both nod in reply. “I like your presentation, and I’ve heard good things about you from your department head, so if you can pull this off – if you can succeed where Edwards’s and Benson’s teams failed – it’ll mean tremendous promotions for you both.”
“We’re ready, Mr. Jenkins.”
“We won’t let you down, sir.”
Jenkins looked from one to the other, opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by a secretary coming to an abrupt stop at his side, nervously clutching a binder to her chest.
“Mr. Jenkins,” she said quietly, “the Carsons are here. I’ve just shown them into the conference room.”
Jenkins swallowed and forced on a smile. “Thank you, Tina. That’ll be all.”
The secretary nodded and hurried off, while Jenkins spun on his heel and led the way to the conference room, hearing the light footfalls of the twins behind him.
The first handshake was always the most stressful part of meeting a new client. Joseph knew that both he and Thomas were steeling themselves for the physical contact that would give them the competitive edge they needed – or would reveal their secret.
Upon Mr. Jenkins’s introduction, Joseph and his brother took turns shaking hands with Daniel Carson himself, and both twins inwardly sighed with relief when they realized their secret was safe. Then it was Mr. Carson’s turn to introduce his associates: a wiry assistant named Brian and a voluptuous blonde named Gertrude. Their handshakes with Gertrude lingered ever so slightly, and as the Carson team took their seats, Joseph and his twin shared a look of understanding.
Jenkins was already irritated. He didn’t think anyone else could tell, but he had seen the extended handshakes the Hale twins had shared with the woman, and his first thought was that his boys no longer had their focus on the task at hand. He had to admit, Gertrude was quite the distraction, and he realized he was already bracing himself for another utter failure.
Across the room, at the foot of the conference table, he saw the twins share a brief look, and the almost imperceptible nod one gave the other right before they both turned their attention to the Carson representatives.
Jenkins clenched his fists in his lap, waiting for the rugged, manly presentation he’d seen rehearsed the day before, and felt his jaw drop when he began to witness something entirely different.
Whereas, the day before, the twins had been the very image of a boys’ night out – an approach that Jenkins was sure would work on rugged Mr. Carson – they had now slipped into entirely different mannerisms. Their movements were fluid instead of rigid, their voices soft instead of bold. The words were precisely the same as they’d been during their rehearsal, but what Jenkins saw now was something that bordered on sensual.
To further his dismay, he saw that, while certainly not ignoring Mr. Carson, the twins were directing their attention and presentation primarily toward the woman.
“Carson Electronics,” Thomas wrapped up, giving the woman a look that could only be described as smoldering while he delivered the tag line: “One step ahead.”
Jenkins felt himself turning red with anger. He was going to throw both of these boys out on the street as soon as they received their certain rejection from the Carson team.
“Very impressive, Mr. Hale, and Mr. Hale.” Daniel Carson nodded to each of the twins after a brief, whispered conversation with the woman at his side. “I just have one question for you. No one has ever seen through our farce before. How did you know that Gertrude has the final say?”
Jenkins choked on a “What?” as his jaw dropped again, and he saw the twins share a look, grinning with satisfaction.
“Alright, explain to me what just happened in there!”
Joseph and his brother, along with Mr. Jenkins, had just said goodbye to the Carson team – after signing a six-figure advertising contract – and now the twins braced themselves as the boss was finally free to drop his forced calm and explode.
“Just like they explained, sir,” Joseph said. “Gertrude is actually Gertrude Carson, who started the company, but no one has ever taken her seriously because she’s a woman, so on paper she’s only V.P. while she lets her cousin Daniel appear as acting President.”
“Yes, yes, I heard all that.” Mr. Jenkins waved his hands in frustration. “What I want to know is how you two knew that! And you didn’t say a word about it yesterday! When you started changing your presentation, I thought I was going to have a heart attack!”
“We didn’t know it yesterday, sir,” Thomas added respect-fully. “We only just…realized it when we met them today.”
Joseph looked at his brother, who shrugged, so he simply turned a smile on his boss and said, “Call it a hunch.”
At their favorite downtown bar, Joseph and his twin squeezed through the crush of bodies and took a booth in a relatively quiet corner. In the heat of the room, and free from contact with other people, Thomas gladly divested himself of his jacket, lounging comfortably in a black polo shirt and khaki slacks, with an off-white fedora tilted low over his brow. Joseph unbuttoned the cuffs of his blue-and-white striped dress shirt and rolled the sleeves up to his elbows.
A waitress took their drink orders, and once the brothers were alone again, Thomas pulled a gold ring from his pocket and slid it onto his left ring finger. Though Joseph was used to the action by now, he still couldn’t fathom how his brother could stand not to wear his ring at all times. Joseph knew that, when he finally met his own partner someday, he would never want to see his own ring off his hand. At least Thomas’s partner was aware of the behavior and didn’t seem to mind one bit.
A few minutes later, the brothers were enjoying their respective bourbon and scotch, while a martini sat at Thomas’s elbow, waiting for its drinker.
They sipped in silence, watching the crowds around the pool tables and on the small dance floor, one brother occasionally resting a hand on the other’s arm to silently share a thought. Whereas the cacophony of thoughts that could be picked up from direct contact with such a crowd could be burdensome, silent contact with one another was a source of amusement. The brothers, being what they were, could watch people and make comments about them without uttering a single audible word.
Joseph rested his elbows on the table while Thomas slouched back, tugging the fedora down lower over his eyes. Joseph could see his older brother smiling to himself as he sipped his drink, quietly enjoying their accomplishment of the day.
Across the room, Joseph spotted a young man wearing skinny jeans, a pink plaid button-up T-shirt, and a grey scarf. Blond curls peeked out from beneath a black slouch beanie, and a broad smile lit up the man’s freshly shaved face as he squeezed through the crowd, walking with a slight limp.
Joseph set down his drink and rested a hand on Thomas’s arm, making him grin.
“You don’t need to tell me he’s coming.” Thomas laughed, sitting up straight and pushing his hat back with an index finger to the underside of the brim. “I can feel him, you know.”
Joseph shrugged and laughed. “Force of habit.”
“Hi boys!” The newcomer giggled, blowing Joseph a kiss before sitting down right beside Thomas. “Sorry I’m late–”
His words cut off as Thomas gathered him up in his arms and gave him a long, deep kiss.
Joseph rolled his eyes. “Tom, Spencer, really? Can’t you guys wait until you get home?”
The couple ignored him, kissing one another hungrily, so Joseph focused on his drink and tried not to laugh.
“Mmmm, I missed you too,” Spencer managed to get out when Thomas stopped for a breath. “What was that for?”
“We had a really good day,” Thomas murmured, and kissed him again.
“Guys, come on!” Joseph laughed.
Thomas sighed and nodded toward his brother. “We really need to find him his partner.”
Spencer gave Joseph a pointed look, then made a show of kissing Thomas back before straightening himself on the bench and resting his head on his partner’s shoulder.
“Really, Joseph,” Spencer said, “you just don’t understand.”
“I just thought we were celebrating, that’s all.”
“And what do you think we were just doing?” Spencer grinned childishly. “What are we celebrating, anyway?”
Spencer started sipping at the martini while the twins recounted their successful presentation, and he had to look back and forth between the two as they habitually finished one another’s sentences.
When they were finished, Spencer sat forward and held up his hands, saying, “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You guys read your clients? Again? Isn’t that cheating?”
“How so?” Thomas asked.
“Well…doesn’t that give you an unfair advantage, being able to read their thoughts?”
“Not necessarily,” Thomas said. “An advantage, sure, but–”
“–it’s no different from any other ‘advantage’ a person could conceivably have–” Joseph continued.
“–like some people are naturally better at math–”
“–and some at making speeches–”
“–and some at engineering–”
“–and they couldn’t help being born the way they were–”
“–and neither could we help being born Lethean–”
“–so we just use what we have to work with, that’s all.”
Spencer put a finger to his lips and loudly shushed them, then shook his head, dizzy from the conversation.
Thomas looked slightly chagrined at having said the word aloud, but as the trio glanced around, no one seemed to have taken any notice of their conversation, so they each heaved a sigh of relief. There were very few of their kind left in the world, but maintaining the secret of their Lethean heritage was still considered a cardinal virtue.
They knew perfectly well that, should their abilities ever be made public, they could be in for a world of trouble.
“It’s not like we asked to be born this way,” Thomas continued, lowering his voice. “It just simply happened, so like Joseph said, we use what we’ve got.”
“Right. It’s not like you’d see a world-famous athlete give up his ability just because of some supposed ‘unfair’ advantage over, say, someone who’s disabled,” Joseph added, to which Spencer had to nod in agreement.
“Besides–” Thomas grinned, putting an arm around his partner. “I wouldn’t give it up for all the money in the world. I hear the sex isn’t as great for regular humans.”
“Pfff, speak for yourself.” Spencer laughed. “I’d still be great in bed, even if I were only human.”
Thomas looked at his brother and shrugged. “He’s got a point there.”
“Mmmm, you know it–”
“Guys! Really?” Joseph interrupted, rolling his eyes.
Spencer laughed and jabbed his partner in the ribs. “You know what we should do? As soon as we get a chance for a vacation, we should take your brother traveling to find his partner. Get him all nice and paired up and then he’ll finally understand what he’s been missing, and stop pestering us about our pillow talk.”
“You know, that’s not a bad idea.” Thomas grinned and turned to his twin. “How about it, Joe? Where is she, do you think?”
“She?” Spencer raised an eyebrow, and laughed deviously. “What if it’s a he?”
Joseph looked down at the empty glass between his hands, and quietly responded, “No, she. I’m not sure how, but I can tell it’s a woman. And she’s very far away. Very faint. Somewhere east, but…”
He felt the other two watching him, but didn’t take his eyes off his glass. After a moment, Thomas reached over and rested a hand on his shoulder, asking seriously, “Joe, what’s wrong?”
Joseph glanced up at his twin and back down at his hands, sighing. “She’s in pain, and always so tired. It’s very faint but I can always feel it there. She’s very weak, and I can feel her fear. I wish I could understand it, but she’s too far away.”
“Have you tried sending her positive feelings?” Spencer asked, serious for a change. “I know that helped when Tom did that for me. Remember? When we were in the hospital and–”
Thomas visibly shuddered. “Ugh, don’t remind me,” he said, automatically reaching down to massage Spencer’s bad leg.
“Have you tried that, Joe?” Spencer asked again.
Joseph nodded. “Every day. I can’t tell if she feels it, though. She’s just…ugh, by Lethe, she’s just too far away.”
“Well, I think–” Spencer began, but got interrupted when another man approached their table.
“Tom! Joe!” the man called, and Joseph looked up to see their coworker, Brad Edwards. “I hear you got the Carson contract. Congratulations.”
Joseph shook his offered hand, surprised at the truth and sincerity in the man’s voice, considering Brad’s was one of the Carson pitches that had failed.
“Thank you,” Joseph replied while Brad perched on the edge of the bench next to him.
“No hard feelings?” Thomas joked while he reached across the table to shake Brad’s hand.
“Nah.” Brad waved it off. “I knew our pitch was crap. But what could I do? The team insisted it was good enough, but it didn’t seem right to me, and I couldn’t very well go against four other people who agreed with each other, now, could I?”
“Why not?” Thomas asked. “If you know in your gut that something isn’t right, why would you play along? Why would you let others decide for you?”
Brad shrugged. “Just easier that way.”
Joseph stifled a laugh, thinking of all the times he and his twin had bickered over certain ad concepts, neither one backing down without good reason. He could never understand how people like Brad would simply bow down to the opinions of others.
Looking over at his twin, he figured Thomas was probably thinking the same thing.
A low whistle distracted him out of his thoughts, and he heard Brad say, “Would you get a load of those legs! Look, Joe, I think they’re checking us out.”
Joseph felt his twin kick him under the table, and turned to follow Brad’s gaze. Leaning against the bar were two women who looked as though they’d just stepped off a magazine cover, complete with slender legs, short skirts, and overflowing low-cut tops.
Brad smacked him on the arm. “Come on, Joe.”
“No, thank you.”
Brad swung around to face him with an incredulous look. “Are you crazy? They’re looking right at us and you’re going to pass that up?”
Joseph shrugged and spun his empty glass around on the table.
“Dude, tell me you’re joking.”
In response, Joseph just shook his head.
“What, are you gay or something?” Brad asked, then a horrified look came over his face. “Shit. Sorry, Tom. No offense.”
Thomas held up a hand like he was waving off the comment. “None taken.”
“You’re really not interested?” Brad asked again, and Joseph shook his head. “Christ Almighty, man. Very well. Suit yourself.”
With that, Brad got up and approached the bar alone, and Thomas kicked his twin under the table again.
“You’re supposed to at least pretend,” his twin hissed, and Spencer nodded along beside him. “You don’t want another Mike Callahan incident, do you?”
Joseph grimaced, remembering the fight with Mike all those years ago. “No,” he answered. “But do you have any idea how hard it is to fake interest in a human?”
Thomas grinned. “Oh, sure. It’s hysterical.” He shared a look with his partner and the two burst out laughing.
“Did I miss something?” Joseph asked.
When Thomas finally got his laughter under control, he said, “Spencer dragged me to this gay bar one night, a couple months back, even though he knows I hate dancing.” He paused and shot his partner a look, but Spencer just grinned back at him. Thomas cleared his throat and continued, “As a joke, he asked me to try dancing with other men. I couldn’t keep a straight face for the life of me, and this one guy was absolutely furious that he couldn’t get me hard.”
“Ha!” Spencer laughed. “I almost forgot about that. The guy with a tattoo on the back of his hand, right? Oh, the look on his face was priceless.”
Joseph cut through their laughter, asking, “So you couldn’t do it for one hour, yet you expect me to keep up the charade day after day?”
“Well, until you find your partner, Joseph, I–”
“I don’t like pretending to be something I’m not,” Joseph interrupted him, and the mirth across the table evaporated.
Thomas reached over and squeezed his hand. “You’re right, Joe. I’m sorry. I just don’t want to see you have to go through another incident like–”
He was cut off when Spencer grabbed his arm, gasping, “Ah! Tom, it’s our song. Come on, let’s dance!”
Spencer jumped up from the booth, tugging on Thomas’s hand, while his partner complained, “Did I not just remind you – again – that I hate dancing? And besides, you’re only going to aggravate your leg.”
“Pfff, like you don’t enjoy helping me with my stretches.” He tugged on Thomas’s hand again. “Thomas, darling, dearest, mera pyaar, mon amour.” He pouted. “Please?”
Thomas turned to his brother and sighed. “The things I do for love.”
Spencer grinned and seemed to drag Thomas to the dance floor, but once there, Joseph could tell that his brother was happy right where he was, in the arms of the person he loved more than anyone else in the entire world.
In the arms of the person who carried the other half of his soul.
Thomas lay stretched out on his back, eyes closed but wide awake, enjoying the sound of Spencer breathing softly in his sleep. His partner was curled up at his side, Spencer’s head resting on his shoulder. They had enjoyed a typically perfect end to an especially perfect day.
Despite his contentment, Thomas couldn’t help thinking of the difference between himself, holding the partner of his soul, and his twin, all alone in his own bed across the hallway.
Not that he could do anything about the random chance that had landed himself and Spencer in the same town, while Joseph and his partner were still separated by untold leagues. Thomas knew he had been lucky in that respect, having found Spencer when they were only teenagers at the tail end of middle school. Now, fifteen years later, their love was just as fresh and intense as it had been the first day. Thomas took a deep breath and sighed happily, thinking to himself – not for the first time in his life, and certainly not for the last – how thankful he was to be Lethean. He couldn’t imagine a mere human connection being anything like what he got to experience every day.
Yet, having that connection also made him sad for his twin. It was impossible to describe the utter bliss of uniting the two soul halves once a pair found one another, and he could only hope that his little brother would find his own partner soon so that he could understand the feeling himself.
With the exception of their sixth great-grandfather, Landon Hale, who hadn’t met his partner until he was nearly twenty-nine, the Hales had always been comparatively lucky in finding their partners early in life. Yet, Joseph seemed destined to follow in their ancestor’s footsteps.
In the midnight silence, Thomas heard the faint squeak of the door opening across the hallway. Moving slowly, he tried to untangle himself from his partner, which brought Spencer instantly awake.
“You’re supposed to be asleep.” Spencer yawned, curling up on the pillow where Thomas’s shoulder had been. “You’re supposed to sleep very well when I’m nearby.”
“I’m just not tired,” Thomas whispered back and brushed his lips on Spencer’s forehead. “Go back to sleep. I’m just going to get up and stretch for a bit.”
“O…kay…” Spencer yawned again, and was back asleep in a moment.
Thomas chuckled soundlessly to himself as he got out of bed and yanked on a pair of pajama pants. As he silently stepped into the hallway and shut their bedroom door, he could hear quiet movements coming from the living room. Across the hallway, Joseph’s bedroom door stood open, the bed rumpled but unoccupied.
In one corner of the living room was a floor-to-ceiling window that afforded a relatively decent view of the neighborhood from their sixth-floor apartment. Thomas found his twin standing at the window, the curtains thrust back to either side, the dark fabric still clutched in Joseph’s hands as he stared into the night.
Even under a dark T-shirt and in the dim moonlight, Thomas could tell his twin’s shoulders were hunched and tense. In fact, his entire body looked strained as he stood there, clinging to the curtains as though he’d collapse without them.
“Joe?” Thomas asked as he started to reach for his brother’s bare forearm, paused, and rested his hand on Joseph’s shoulder instead, not wanting to intrude upon his thoughts uninvited. “Everything alright?”
His little brother was silent for a long moment, but seemed to relax in his presence. After a while, Joseph shook his head and laughed quietly. “Call me crazy, but I think I can feel her better here than back in my room.”
“Ah, is that why you always come out here in the middle of the night?”
Joseph released the curtains and turned to look at him with an eyebrow raised in question. “How do you know I always come out here?”
Thomas shrugged. “I’ve seen you do it two or three times, so anytime I hear your door open I just assume that’s what you’re doing. Not to mention…”
He tapped a finger to his forehead as his voice trailed off. Joseph nodded once and turned back to the window, crossing his arms over his chest. In a tone that gave Thomas the impression that his brother was merely thinking out loud, Joseph said, “She doesn’t sleep well. Tonight’s especially bad…though it’s been worse before. And I’m not sure it’s just because we’re so far apart. But that’s how it works, right? The closer your partner is, the better you sleep?”
“Yes. The soul halves don’t like separation. Being closer eliminates that distraction and allows you to sleep better. I remember, with Spence…by Lethe, those first few years were horrible. Until we finally got to live together, neither of us ever slept very well, even though we were only several blocks apart. But now, no matter how stressed or busy or ill I could be, I always wake up feeling rested when I’ve had him at my side all night. Even after the accident, we both slept through the night once they let him come home. Come on, Joe, you’ve studied our heritage much more than I have. You should know all this.”
“I know. I do know it. It’s just…it helps to hear it confirmed. A lot of it doesn’t seem quite real to me yet–”
“–since you haven’t experienced it yet.”
Thomas patted his brother on the shoulder. “Come on, get some sleep. We’ve got our work cut out for us tomorrow.”
“You’re right.” He sighed. “I’ll just be a minute.”
Thomas watched Joseph reach for the curtains, hesitating before drawing them back closed, and turned on his heel to go back to bed.
Before he could reach the hallway, though, he heard Joseph call, “Tom?”
“If in finding her, it meant giving up my career…or even…being apart from you–”
“Then I would be very proud of you for making the right decision. For you, Joseph. Always do what’s right for you.” Thomas waited, and when Joseph didn’t respond, he continued, “Joseph, you’re my twin, and I love you more than words can say. But I can also tell you that I would give up anything for the sake of being near Spencer. Anything. Even you, last of all. Someday, when you meet your partner, you’ll understand why that is the highest compliment I could ever pay you. And if the time comes when meeting her means parting us, you’ll be able to make that decision without difficulty, and you’ll be right to do so.”
Joseph held his gaze, then finally said, “That seems so odd, yet I know you’re not lying.”
“You’ll understand someday, Joe. I can promise you that.”
Joseph took himself back to bed, but lay awake for a long time. He could hear the dueling soft snores coming from the room across the hallway, and had to admit to himself for the umpteenth time that he was jealous of his twin.
He rested both hands over his heart, a futile attempt to tangibly hold on to the intangible pull he constantly felt there. Somewhere out in the world, somewhere to the east, was the op-posing end of that pull. Joseph wondered if she could feel it, too.
Please, by Lethe, let her not be human.
There hadn’t been many mixed pairs in his ancestry, and he fervently hoped he wouldn’t be one of that number. It wouldn’t make finding her any more difficult, but convincing her of their connection…
Now that would be a different story entirely.
Spencer’s idea of vacationing in a general easterly direction was growing on him. It would be entirely haphazard – having to pick a random destination, and then playing hot-and-cold from there – but at least it would bring him closer to his soul partner. He knew, both from his studies of Lethean history and from conversations with Tom and Spencer, that the pull was more distinct the less distance there was between the two soul halves, so the closer he got, the easier the search would be. The start of the search, though, felt overwhelming.
If I fly too far east, and have to double back, how far back? Or what if she’s not even on this continent? I’ll need to get a passport, and start all over…but at least that would give me a more definite idea. Would be more than worth a try…
Joseph fell asleep in the midst of thinking about the prospect of some time off work once the Carson campaign got launched, assuming they didn’t get thrown directly into another large project. He woke several times throughout the night, keenly aware of the pull and his exhaustion each time he turned over and tried to fall back asleep. When his alarm went off the next morning, he groaned and slapped his hand down on the snooze button a few times before finally dragging himself out of bed.
He never had slept very well, so each morning, seeing his twin so alert and rested, he wondered just how people managed to confuse the two of them. Thomas always looked ready to spring into action, while Joseph was sure he looked like death warmed over, complete with slumped posture and dark circles under his eyes. He made a mental note to avoid his reflection, down a few cups of coffee, and pretend he looked as ready and eager as his twin.
Thomas and Spencer were already up and making breakfast, as usual, when Joseph shuffled into the kitchen to get his first cup of coffee. Of the three of them, Thomas was the only passably good cook, so he had long ago been relegated to kitchen duty – which Joseph knew he didn’t mind so much, getting to feed Spencer little morsels while they waited for Joseph to join them. At least Spencer knew how to make a good strong pot of coffee, though Joseph always noted Spencer’s own cup ended highly diluted with sugar and cream.
Joseph mumbled a good morning in response to Spencer’s chipper greeting, and sat down at the dining table with a large mug of black coffee in his hands. He gulped it down greedily and watched Spencer hold out plates for Thomas to fill with sausage, eggs, and toast.
The joined pair were shirtless, as was their wont when they were at home. After being so well-covered all day in order to fend off the thoughts of strangers, it was liberating, for all three of them, to strip down as much as possible once in the privacy of their apartment. Outside their door, they tried as much as they could to avoid direct contact with other people, but sometimes the press of bodies in an office or on the street was unavoidable, and all it took was the brush of a bare arm to bring a stranger’s thoughts unbidden to a Lethean’s awareness. Skin contact with more than one person while pushing through a crowd brought on a mental cacophony more deafening than the usual audible assault one suffered in a city. At home, though, the trio had a healthy respect for one another’s personal space, so they could spend an entire day, each dressed in nothing more than boxer shorts, and keep their own thoughts to themselves.
The great exception, of course, and what made Joseph drop his eyes back to his mug, was that Thomas and Spencer could rarely keep their hands off one another. Even when the pair both had their hands full, they still somehow managed to share some sort of direct contact. While Spencer held a plate in each hand, and Thomas’s hands were occupied scooping scrambled eggs out of a frying pan, one would brush the other with either a shoulder or an elbow, or would lean over and kiss whatever skin was within reach.
Joseph was grateful when a plate of food was finally pushed under his nose. He set down his coffee mug, mumbled thanks, and dug right in.
“You alright, Joe?” Thomas asked him after a few bites.
Joseph shrugged. “Yeah, just tired, that’s all.”
“She’s not any worse this morning?”
“Who?” Spencer cut in before Joseph could answer.
“His partner,” Thomas said quietly.
“Actually, she’s much better this morning,” Joseph admitted.
“Are you sure?” Thomas asked with a concerned look that Joseph tried to ignore, focusing on his eggs instead. “You’re looking as sour as Mrs. Blevins today, if that’s possible.”
“Who’s Mrs. Blevins?” Spencer asked.
Joseph looked up at his twin, who was obviously trying to fight a smile, and after a moment the memory hit him, and he threw his head back and laughed.
“Who’s Mrs. Blevins?” Spencer asked again, exasperated, looking from one laughing twin to the other.
Joseph dropped his fork and shook his head. “Oh man, I haven’t thought about her in years.”
“Mrs. Blevins–” Thomas began just as Spencer was about to ask yet again. He tilted his head back, shook it in exasperation, and dropped his chin again so fast that Joseph saw his eyes cross.
Then his expression went blank, his eyes glazing over, and before Joseph could even rise from his seat, Spencer had knocked his own chair aside and grabbed Thomas in a desperate embrace.
“It’s alright, Tom, it’s alright,” Spencer murmured, pressing his hands firmly to Thomas’s bare skin. He looked directly at Joseph, who was holding his breath as he watched his twin, then spared a glance for Spencer himself. His twin’s partner gave him a subtle nod, and Joseph let his breath out in a silent whoosh.
Across the table, Thomas looked down at the arm across his chest, then up at Joseph, then around at the half-eaten meals on their plates.
“I–” he began, then frowned and looked around again. “I’ve forgotten something again, haven’t I?”
Joseph stretched across the table and laid a hand on his twin’s where it rested by his plate. “It’s alright, Tom.”
“The last thing I remember is…cooking. What did I forget?”
“Nothing important, sweetheart,” Spencer murmured, holding him tighter. “Don’t worry about it.”
The table bounced, cups and forks rattling, as Thomas slammed his free hand against it.
“Don’t do that!”
Joseph let go of his brother’s hand and sat back, keeping silent, knowing it was better to let Spencer try to soothe him.
“We were talking about Joseph’s partner,” Spencer said, and Joseph saw his twin relax a little. “And something about a Mrs. Blevins.”
“Mrs…” Thomas barked a laugh, and Joseph saw Spencer visibly relax, the moment gone as though it had never occurred. Spencer resumed his seat while Thomas chuckled, “Mrs. Blevins. Oh wow, I haven’t thought about her in years.”
Spencer opened his mouth, presumably to tell Thomas that Joseph had just said that very thing a few minutes earlier, but must have thought better of it, and shoveled in a forkful of eggs instead.
“She was our next-door neighbor when we were kids,” Thomas went on as though the conversation hadn’t been interrupted. “Joe and I were toddling through the sprinklers in the front yard one day when she happened to be walking by on her way home. She saw our soul marks and just went off.”
Spencer looked down at his bare chest, his soul mark clearly visible on his pale skin, then looked over to Thomas, his matching mark in the same place, right over the heart.
“Went off?” he asked.
Joseph nodded. “She accused our parents of Satan worship – something about inviting the Devil by branding their children. It was all Mom could do to convince Mrs. Blevins that we’d been born with the marks.”
“She threatened exorcism and everything,” Thomas added. “Rather hilarious.”
“After that, any time she saw us, she’d follow us around with her Bible in hand–”
“–telling us we needed to repent for our sins and have our ‘tattoos’ removed–”
“–and to get away from the influence of our ‘heathen’ parents, or else we’d go to Hell.”
“Crazy old bat.” Thomas chuckled, shaking his head.
“How is it I’ve never heard this story?” Spencer asked. “Or read it, for that matter.”
Thomas laughed. “It was all so long ago. Besides, she’s not exactly someone I want to be thinking about on a regular basis.”
“Hmmm.” Spencer shrugged, then grinned. “You know what would have been funny? You should have read her or caught her in a lie to show her what you could do. Prove you weren’t human.”
Thomas snorted. “Yeah, and then she would have really been after us. Grab her hand and tell her what she’s thinking and she would have been doubly convinced we were possessed.”
“As it was, she hounded us for years,” Joseph added. “And she wasn’t the only one. Like that time we tried taking swim lessons after school in fifth grade–”
“–and all the other kids kept pestering us about our marks–”
“–and no one ever believed that they were just regular birth marks–”
“–since they’re so dark–”
“–and not just random blotches–”
Spencer dropped his fork and rubbed his eyes. “Must you guys always do that?”
“Sorry, Spence.” Thomas laughed, running his fingers through Spencer’s hair.
After breakfast – which Joseph and Spencer dragged out by unspoken agreement, wanting to make doubly sure Thomas was back to normal – Joseph rushed through his bathroom routine, but then hesitated when he was about to leave the room to go get dressed for the day. Against his better intentions, he stared at his reflection, but his vision quickly blurred as his mind began to wander.
He was utterly still for a long moment until, in a rush of movement, he yanked his T-shirt off over his head, then froze again as he stood bare-chested before the mirror, his eyes moving immediately to the reflection of his mark.
It was there as ever, taunting him, waiting for its identical partner. Each time he looked at it, he was reminded of something he’d read in his ancestors’ journals regarding the old Lethean joining ceremony. Long forgotten, the traditional ceremony began with the pair revealing their marks to one another, at which point they would take turns pressing a kiss to one another’s marks. Legend had it that the ceremony had developed out of a natural reaction: The first Lethean pair to come together had been so exhilarated at the sight of one another’s marks, confirming their connection, that they had rushed together, unable to resist kissing the marks out of sheer joy of being finally made whole.
Joseph had been with Thomas the day he found Spencer, and had caught his first glimpse of that kind of intense joy. The twins had been walking home from school, chatting about homework assignments, when suddenly Thomas broke off mid-sentence and turned to run down a side street. By the time Joseph caught up, he saw Thomas and Spencer – a perfect stranger whose family had just moved to town – engaged in a passionate embrace. It was the first time he’d ever seen his brother cry.
It was also the first time he’d ever been jealous of his twin.
The pain of that memory hit him harder than it had in years. He had stood by, confused and hurt, as the boys clung to one another, alternately kissing and crying with joy, heedless of who might be watching. Joseph had understood what was going on, but as he’d never felt more than a faint pull from his own partner, he couldn’t quite fathom the look of utter ecstasy on his twin’s face.
When the pair had finally untangled themselves, Thomas had announced that he was going off with Spencer for a little while and would be home later, leaving Joseph to finish the walk home, alone.
In answer to his mother’s inquiry, Joseph had only been able to mutter a surly, “I think Tom found his partner,” before rushing off to his room and slamming his door. He refused to come out until his father came home from work and threatened all kinds of privileges removed.
They had been just about to sit down to dinner when Tom and Spencer finally arrived with Spencer’s parents in tow. Joseph could hardly look at his brother, and he was sure his parents were about to launch into a tirade about wandering off without their permission.
However, as soon as Thomas proudly introduced his partner, Mr. and Mrs. Hale went from worried to absolutely thrilled. They were far happier in that moment than they were years later when the boys graduated from college. Mr. Hale was only surprised that the couple hadn’t yet paired.
“I didn’t have the rings with me,” Thomas explained. “I was afraid to carry them to school in case I lost them.”
“Well, go on then.” Mr. Hale waved them off with a smile.
Thomas and Spencer ran to Thomas’s room, hand-in-hand, and didn’t come back out until at least an hour later, both looking even more blissful than before, if that was possible, and each wearing a simple gold ring on his left ring finger.
Full of the memory, Joseph turned from the mirror and went back to his bedroom, throwing open his closet and bending down to a small safe he had tucked away in the corner. He quickly spun the dial through its combination and opened the door. Inside, next to a velvet-lined tray holding a two-hundred-year-old pocketwatch, was a pair of linked gold rings.
He sat down on the floor and held the rings in the palm of his hand, staring at them sadly as the fingers of his other hand absentmindedly rubbed at his mark. He was surprised to feel his heartbeat slow and steady beneath his fingers.
No, he thought. No sense carrying them with me. She’s too far away.
He had no idea where the rings had come from, only that both he and Thomas had been presented with them by their parents at a very young age. No one could ever seem to explain precisely how it worked, but Joseph knew – both from conversations with Tom and from his studies of Lethean history – that somehow the rings magically separated when a Lethean pair joined their half souls.
Joseph curled his hand into a fist around the rings, frustrated at not being able to experience and understand all these things himself.
“Joe!” Thomas shouted from the hallway. “We’ve gotta leave in ten minutes!”
“Be right there!” Joseph yelled back, carefully returning the rings to the safe and then hurrying to change.
Sati stood near the pipe organ, mindlessly braiding her golden brown hair while she looked around at all the wedding decorations going up inside the church. A stark contrast to the fast-paced city outside, the somber church was being elegantly graced with candles, tulle, and flowers, giving a preview of the cheer and glamor of the upcoming ceremony. It was every woman’s dream, coming to life before her very eyes.
To Sati, it was an utterly depressing sight.
She turned around and took a seat at the instrument, mechanically practicing the Wedding March for the umpteenth time in her life while her mind wandered. She’d been just sixteen the first time her foster father – pastor of the small, city church – had asked her to come play for a wedding service. Sati remembered being in awe as she first stepped inside the space, seeing the beautiful decorations and the joyful smiles on the wedding party. It had brought all her girlhood fantasies to life, seeing the colors and sparkle and happiness all around her.
Now, after a dozen years of playing the March over and over for strangers, and never hearing it played for herself, she felt a familiar numbness wash over her, blocking out what little shred remained of all her hopes for a deep, blissful romance of her own.
Then again, the very idea of her even dating, let alone getting married, was a waste of time, considering she knew perfectly well just how impossible such a thing was for her.
Stop it, Sati, she growled inwardly. Just stop it. This is not the time to be dwelling on that.
She ended the piece and sat staring at the instrument, bracing herself for the inevitable. Her own lack of a love life paled in comparison to the real reason she could hardly bear to force her way through another wedding ceremony.
She fervently hoped Scott would be there to help her get through it.
When she heard her name called, she took a deep breath, pasted on a smile that she hoped was convincing, and crossed the church to where her father was speaking with the engaged couple and their parents. Bracing herself, Sati joined the circle, tightly clenching her jaw while everyone held hands as her father led them in prayer.
Sati bowed her head, not to participate in the prayer but to better help herself concentrate. With her eyes closed, she tried to focus all her awareness on the spoken words coming from across the circle, rather than the bombardment of thoughts coming to her from either side.
The prayer ended, but the circle remained linked, and Sati tried to distract herself by glancing around at the different faces while her father continued speaking, offering personal thoughts and encouragement for the couple about to be married. Sati could see the joyful piety in her father’s face, and she tried to focus on his words, but with her hands linked to the mother-of-the-bride on one side and the groom on the other, so many foreign thoughts coming to her awareness created a cacophony that was difficult to filter through.
She took a deep breath and tried to force her features still, hoping that she wasn’t outwardly wincing and grimacing. Across the circle, her father frowned at her without missing a beat in his speech, and Sati tried to work her mouth into a smile, hoping as he turned his attention back to the others that the pastor would forget to grill her this time about her impolite expressions. It was a question that she could simply never answer – a well-guarded secret, something she knew he would never understand.
Something she didn’t even fully understand, herself.
Even after all the years of realizing what she could do – reading other’s thoughts simply by touching them – she still wondered if she was somehow possessed, and knew she could never admit such a thing to her foster father, or to anyone else for that matter. According to everything she’d been taught growing up, it was simply too unnatural.
Yet, somehow, it felt the most natural thing in the world, despite being dreadfully irritating.
Inwardly shaking herself, Sati tried to force the thoughts aside and turn her attention back to the group.
“–on this joyous occasion,” her father was saying. “There is nothing more beautiful in the world than the blessed union of two virgins, vowing a lifetime commitment to one another…”
Sati lost awareness of the rest of her father’s words. At his mention of virgins, a flood of images had come to her mind from the thoughts of the groom.
All day she had been holding on to a shred of hope that maybe, just maybe, this would be the wedding that would finally restore her faith in love and devotion. Perhaps, just this once, after twelve years of disappointments, she would witness a marriage of two people truly and honestly in love, who fully in-tended to be devoted to only one another for the rest of their lives. The groom’s thoughts shattered that hope, and Sati had to fight back tears of frustration.
Through their physical contact, she saw all manner of sinful behavior in the groom’s mind, and his thoughts that he must keep his past relationships a secret from his bride, knowing how it would hurt her. Still, the lie was there, and it was all Sati could do to restrain herself, wanting nothing more than to slap him for his falsehood and reveal the truth to the bride.
The desire was an impossible one, though. To make such an accusation would certainly require proof, and the only proof she had was thanks to her strange ability, and there was certainly no revealing that to such a group as this. Biting back tears and anger, she kept still and silent, and heaved a sigh of relief when the circle finally broke and the foreign thoughts were cut off from her awareness.
During the ceremony the next day, when it came time for the couple to exchange vows, Sati moved one hand up to cover her mouth, knowing she’d be very likely to reflexively call out the lies when she heard them.
With the other hand, she clung tightly to Scott, even if it meant enduring all his thoughts coming to her mind.
* * *
Alice groaned with relief as she slumped against the cold bathroom wall, releasing the fistful of honey-blonde hair that she’d been trying to keep out of the way. She was dimly aware of Sati wiping a bit of vomit from her chin, and drank mechanically when Sati held a cup of water to her lips. Letting her head rest awkwardly against the wall, she closed her eyes and concentrated on the cold surfaces around her until Sati helped her up from the floor and half-carried her back to her bedroom.
“Don’t…strain…” she said weakly, falling back onto her pillow while her adopted sister got her tucked in.
“I’m alright.” Sati smiled. “And you would be, too, if you’d stop going to all these parties.”
“Sati…” Alice groaned. “It’s the flu, not a hangover.”
“Yes, I noticed that when you had a fever yesterday,” her sister teased.
“Oh…right. Am I still delirious?”
“Aren’t you always?”
“Not funny,” Alice groaned.
“Oh, by the way–” Alice took another drink of water, winced in expectation of her stomach rejecting it, and set the glass aside. “Scott called while you were out.”
Sati straightened up from smoothing the sheets and rolled her eyes. “What did he want this time?”
Alice raised an eyebrow. “You guys aren’t fighting, are you?”
Her sister sighed and plucked at the comforter, standing at the foot of the bed. “He’s gotten it into his head lately that we need to be more than just friends.”
“I’m surprised you’re not. You guys have been friends for so long, I thought you’d have started dating by now. Hell, I thought you’d have married the guy by now.”
“Language!” Sati joked, winking at her. “What would your father say? And no, I’m not going to date Scott.”
“But he’s your best friend.”
“So?” Sati shrugged. “I just don’t feel anything for him.”
“Or anyone, for that matter,” Alice muttered under her breath.
“What was that?”
Alice opened her mouth, closed it, and shook her head. “Never mind.”
Alice felt the bed shift as Sati sat up beside her, and after a few minutes of still silence, Alice felt her head clear as her stomach finally seemed to be settling down.
“Thanks for not saying what you really meant earlier.”
“What’s that?” Sati asked, lowering the book she had in her hands.
“That I’d be alright if I didn’t sleep around so much.”
Sati frowned, nodded, and turned back to her book.
Alice squinted at the paperback, noting the all-too-familiar embracing, half-clad couple that seemed to grace the covers of every romance novel known to man. She counted back – it had been three days since the wedding, so Sati had quite likely plowed through at least two of these things in that amount of time.
Just as she did every time.
Regular as clockwork, Sati would go play at a wedding, run to a bookstore, come home with an armful of used paperbacks, and disappear into the pages for a few days until her usual cheer returned – a strange escape, indeed, considering Sati had rarely dated, never had an actual relationship, and was certainly, without a doubt, still a virgin. Of course, there was a perfectly good reason for all that, and seemed to explain why attending all the weddings depressed her, but even so, Sati never seemed to even want to date.
Alice looked up at her sister’s face, seeing not a hint of a blush there, as usual, though she was intent upon the words before her, and wondered if Sati even had anything resembling a sex drive at all.
Sati lowered the book with a weary sigh and looked out the window at the setting sun, asking, “Ali?”
“Have you ever been in love?”
Alice shrugged. “Sure, lots of times.”
“No, I mean–” Sati began, then turned to look at her with an expression of deep thought, and said, “I mean, like, real, true, deep love. The kind that makes all the world seem right.”
“I thought so.” Alice frowned, shrugging again. “When I was with Jake, a couple years ago. You remember him? I really thought he was the one, but…”
She trailed off, and her sister just nodded agreement. As Alice watched, she saw Sati’s hand rest over her heart, something she’d always done in an attitude of abstraction. Alice knew there was a perfectly good explanation for the behavior, but sometimes – and at that moment in particular – it looked like something more.
“Why do you always do that?” Alice asked.
“That,” Alice repeated, pointing at Sati’s hand.
“Oh.” Sati started, looking down almost with surprise when she saw her fingers idly rubbing a spot on her chest. “I don’t know, really. Just…a feeling…”
Sati was silent for a long moment, then shook herself, shrugged, and leaned over to give Alice a quick kiss on the forehead.
“Get some rest.” She grinned, though to Alice it looked forced and weary. “I’ll come check on you again before I go to bed.”
“You sure you’re ok?”
“Ye–” she started to answer, then seemed to swallow roughly, and shook her head with a laugh. “How about you just worry about getting yourself better, alright?”
Alice nodded agreement, and watched her sister go, wondering what it was that Sati wasn’t telling her.
* * *
Sati sank into bed, feeling more tired than usual. Though she wouldn’t admit as much to Alice, she realized she had overtaxed herself between running her store during the day and taking care of Alice at night. It hadn’t helped that she had already been in depressed spirits from the wedding, but then to come home from work and find Alice vomiting in the bathroom…
Sati yawned deeply and closed her eyes, feeling more tired just thinking about it all. At least there would be no more wed-dings in her future. She would make sure of that.
Right after the two on Sunday to which she’d already long-since committed, that was.
Sati sighed, punched at her pillow, and yawned again.
Her father would be disappointed, but Sati just couldn’t do it anymore. The tricky part would be giving him a solid reason without revealing the whole truth. Having to endure the sight of happy couples when she could never experience that bliss herself was one thing, though she wasn’t sure her father would accept it as a sufficient excuse.
It would have to do, though, because she wasn’t about to shatter his faith by telling him she could no longer bear witnessing the lies, sin, and hypocrisy in that sacred place. Too many instances over too many years, hearing too many lies and reading too many secret, dark thoughts, had taken their toll. She was simply too burned out and worn down by it all, and the last thing she needed was to add to her anxieties, considering her body was already strained enough as it was.
Thinking of her weakness, and of the hidden thoughts she’d read in the groom’s mind a few days before, Sati turned over on her side and curled up tight under the blankets, pressing a hand over her heart and trying to work out her confused feelings. She couldn’t quite reconcile the facts that she wanted romantic love so badly, yet had never been the least bit attracted to anyone.
Perhaps it’s for the best, she thought, considering I may not have time for a relationship anyway, but still she felt the void and wanted nothing more than to have it filled.
As for the groom’s thoughts, as much as they’d disgusted her in context of his secrecy from his bride, she had to admit she’d been tempted by the things she’d seen there: the pleasure, the passion, the heat and intensity of desire, things about which Sati could only dream.
And even just dreaming about them was a dangerous proposition.
Yet, dreams were all those things would remain, until and unless she ever finally met a man who made her feel even a whisper of attraction, something that had yet to happen in her twenty-eight years.
Sati finally drifted off, but slept fitfully, as always, and dreamed of a faceless man over and over. Though she could never see precisely how he looked, her dreaming mind somehow knew that he was always the same man, and that somehow he was exactly what she had always wanted. He always came to her so carefully, held her so gently, and all her physical weakness disappeared in his presence. She became healthy and whole when she was with him in her dreaming mind, only to wake back up to the harsh reality.
Dragging herself out of bed the next morning, she pushed aside her dreams with a sigh and went to check on Alice.
Alice watched her sister breeze in and out of the room, Sati getting herself ready for work while she also helped Alice sit up in bed and bringing her a breakfast tray.
“You’re going to wear yourself out before your day even starts,” Alice protested, though she was thankful for the help, not yet feeling strong enough to get out of bed.
“I’ll be fine,” Sati insisted with a laugh, arranging a glass of water and a stack of magazines on the bedside table. “I think I’ll leave Ragnar here with you today, just in case.”
“You sure about that?” Alice asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Why not? I’m just going down to the store, and I’ll have my phone. Should be back before dark, I hope, depending on how busy we are. I’ll be just fine.”
“Okay.” Alice shrugged, then asked, “Hey, has Mom called yet?”
Sati laughed. “I doubt she’s even awake yet. She’s at a conference in Seattle this week, remember?”
“So, it’s only four o’clock there.”
Sati laughed again. “Go back to sleep, Sis. I’ll see you later.”
Alice waved goodbye to her sister, and picked up a magazine, having no intention of going back to sleep, but the next thing she knew, she woke to find herself slumped over to one side with the open magazine still resting on her lap. Tossing it aside, she slid down under the blankets, threw a pillow over her head to block out the sunlight, and was out again in moments.
The music shop was already busy with customers when Sati arrived, the doorbell ringing cheerfully as she stepped inside.
“Hey, boss!” David grinned at her while bagging a few sheet music books for a customer, and Sati nodded in response, snaking around the end of the counter and ducking into her small office.
Her desk was still a mess from all the paperwork she hadn’t been able to finish the night before, but with the shop so busy, she knew she’d have to put it off again. She tucked her purse away and went to observe the shop and check the schedule.
Before she got a chance, she got a better look at David and came to a stop, stifling a laugh. It had been a trial trying to get the twenty-five-year-old to wear anything other than tattered T-shirts featuring metal bands, but for the last several weeks he’d been finally making an effort to dress more maturely. That day, he had on a black dress shirt with the sleeves neatly rolled up to his elbows, and contrasted nicely with a yellow skinny tie – properly knotted, for a change. True, his jeans did have holes in the knees, and his dark hair was rather unkempt, but somehow that added to the stylish effect rather than marred it.
“How is everything?” she asked him when the last customer at the counter had been helped.
“Good.” He grinned, pushing his glasses up his nose. “Busy day. Your first appointment is already in there practicing.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
Sati crossed the main area of the store and ducked into a wide hallway, off of which were several rooms for private music lessons. The second door on the right stood open, and inside she found eight-year-old Kaylie sitting at the piano, playing the last piece Sati had set for her to practice.
Kaylie’s mother sat quietly in a corner and nodded a greeting as Sati paused in the doorway, waiting for the piece to end.
“Very good, Kaylie!” She clapped when the child finished flawlessly. “You’ve been practicing, I see.”
“Thank you, Miss Sati.” Kaylie smiled.
Sati looked at the child, seeing the joy in her eyes, and had to swallow down a jealous feeling. Sati couldn’t help wishing that one day she might be able to teach her own daughter to play the beloved instrument, but children of her own were simply not an option.
Forcing on a smile and resisting the temptation to rub the spot over her heart, she opened the book of sheet music to a different page and set herself to teaching the eager child a new piece.
When she was finally done for the day, Sati turned off the lights, set the alarm, and locked up the store. She was thoroughly tired after such a busy day, particularly after all the paperwork she’d had to get caught up on after-hours, when the store was finally empty and thus quiet enough for her to concentrate. Putting all thoughts of work behind her, she found herself strolling casually along the quiet streets, enjoying the sound of a breeze rustling through trees and the glitter of the pavement under the street lamps.
She dug her cell phone out of her purse to check the time, but first had to clear through a screen showing a missed call from Scott. Damn, I forgot to call him again, she thought, making a mental note to do so as soon as she got home. When the clock display finally came up, she saw the time was quickly approaching nine o’clock, and sped up her pace. Having been left alone all day, she was sure Alice would be in need of something, and was probably waiting impatiently for Sati to return home.
Sati rounded a corner and saw a pair of men lounging idly against a storefront up ahead. She tightened her grip on her purse and kept her head up, hoping there was no reason to be anxious but wanting to appear confident regardless. Too late, she thought about crossing the street, and it was just then that she noticed both men had their eyes on her. She tried to keep her own eyes on the sidewalk ahead, hoping she could pass them and continue on, but just as she came level with them, the two men jumped out of the shadows and cut her off.
“Well hello there, darlin’,” one sneered. “And where might you be going?”
Sati said nothing and tried to step forward, but the men moved to stop her again.
“Now, now, now, there’s no need to be running off so quick,” the other said, and before Sati could move, they both grabbed her, one clamping a hand over her mouth before she could scream.
Sati tried to struggle free, but she knew she didn’t have the strength to resist them without putting herself at terrible risk. She found herself dragged into a dark alley and pressed back against a wall. Her purse was flung aside and hands roughly groped her in the shadows.
She looked about wildly, trying to keep herself calm, trying to think. Her heart was beginning to race painfully, dangerously, and precious seconds ticked by while she actually considered giving in to an assault, knowing the alternative could likely be worse.
When a rough hand went up the inside of her thigh, though, she shivered with disgust, and without a second thought, she brought her hands up against the chest of one of the men and pushed.
He flew across the alley, his back slamming into the brick wall with an audible crack before he crumpled in a heap next to a pile of garbage. The other man instantly dropped his hands, his mouth agape in shock. He looked from Sati to the other man and back, and took off running.
Sati’s hand flew to her chest as she gasped for breath. She could feel the painful contraction in her chest, could see the alley spinning in her blurring vision. Bending down clumsily, she groped for her purse and dashed out into the light of the street lamps.
Oh, why didn’t I bring Ragnar today? she thought desperately as she stumbled along, trying to keep herself moving despite the pain. Alice…I must get home to Alice…
A dark figure coming toward her was the last thing she thought of as everything went black.
Scott left the bar early and wandered aimlessly about the streets. He really didn’t feel like going home quite yet, knowing he’d just feel even more alone in his tiny apartment, though the quiet sidewalks weren’t much of a companion either.
He shoved one hand into the pocket of his jeans and ran the other through his curly dark brown hair, idly scratching his head as he thought of what to do to keep himself occupied until he was tired enough to go home. There wasn’t much to do in this part of town, as it was mostly small shops that had closed hours ago, but he kept walking anyway, not feeling enough motivation to do otherwise.
Turning a corner, he saw a movement in the distance on the other side of the street. Scott squinted, and saw a woman pass under the light of one of the street lamps. He wondered briefly what she was doing out walking alone in the dark, and gave half a thought to ‘accidentally’ running into her, just for the sake of something to do, and perhaps with a small hope that she just might be interested in getting to know him.
Might as well keep his options open, since Sati was being more difficult to agree to a real date than he ever imagined.
Two shadowy figures moved out in front of the woman, blocking his view of her. Scott stopped and watched, unable to hear their conversation or make out their faces very well at a distance, and was stunned when, a moment later, he saw the woman struggling as the two men dragged her away.
Scott darted across the street and down the block, lurching to a stop when he heard a thump and a crash. A moment later, one of the men appeared suddenly out of the dark and seemed to be running for his life.
Puzzled, Scott hesitated, and was about to go investigate when the woman herself appeared, heading straight toward him.
Oh, shit. Sati!
Her dress was begrimed and torn, and she was stumbling, almost as though she was drunk, but Scott knew better.
He’d heard that gasping death rattle come from her lungs more times than he’d care to remember.
Before he could say a word, her purse slipped from her grasp and her eyes rolled back, and Scott barely managed to rush forward and catch her as she lifelessly collapsed.