For disclaimers see Ch 1.

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A Chance Encounter Ch 3


Bobbie Halchishak

* * *

It took almost thirty minutes for the pizza to arrive. But Kylie hardly noticed. She and Luce sat in her office talking and the time just flew by. When Marie popped her head through the door, Kylie was surprised that so much time had passed. Thankfully the customers slacked off enough for Marie and the others to take a minute to grab a bite for themselves.

Marie even managed to come back and sat with them for a few minutes sharing pizza and a few laughs with them before running back out to the counter to take over for someone else.

Luce herself stayed for over an hour eating and chatting with Kylie and her staff. Kylie was pleasantly surprised that she stayed so long and when Luce finally stood up to leave, Kylie gave the other woman her business card with her email and cellphone number and then extracting a promise to keep in touch from the other woman.

After she left, things began calming down for Kylie and she was able to sit at her desk and catch up on her e-mails and paperwork, a somewhat awkward process due to having her leg propped up on it. She sent the final e-mail, a group message to the managers of all her stores to reschedule the meeting for that afternoon to early tomorrow morning.

She glanced up at a soft knock on her door to see Keith standing there, a smile on his face. Of all the men compromising her family, Keith was her favorite. He and her sister had been married for ten years and been together even longer than that. And from the moment Kylie said hello, they’d enjoyed picking and poking at each other frequently.

She smiled back at him as she waved him into her office. “Hey, you’re a little early.”

He sat next to her desk eyeing the bandages on her legs wryly. “Actually I’m running a bit behind; looks like you are too.”

Kylie looked at the clock and saw it was after six o’clock. Shocked she let her leg down gently and began gathering her things. “God I had no idea. I totally lost track of time.”

He laughed as he grabbed her laptop bag and handed it to her to stow away her computer. “No big deal. You bout ready then?”

She nodded. “Yeah; I just took care of the last bit of paperwork and I’m so ready to get out of here today.” She stood slowly wincing slightly as her leg began throbbing softly.

Keith reached out and took her stuff as she maneuvered her way to the door. “Painkillers not helping?”

“Yeah they’re starting to wear off a bit. I want to get home before I take more of them; they kind of knock me out.” She wobbled her way through the store and by the counter. “Night everyone.”

They all waved and said good bye as she continued out through the door that her brother-in-law was holding open for her. The drive home was quick and uneventful and about thirty minutes later Keith was helping her into the house.

Keith set her stuff down and went into the kitchen to grab a soda. “You sure you don’t need anything?”

Kylie collapsed on the couch sighing loudly. “No Keith, really I’m fine. I just want to enjoy that I’m home, soak as much of me as I can in a nice hot bath and forget that the past 24 hours ever happened.” She patted her chest as Loki came slowly walking out of the bedroom, blinking his eyes at them.

He chuckled as he came over to sit in the chair. “That bad huh?”

She sighed. “You have no idea.” She reached down as Loki padded over to her, gave her hand a quick sniff and then headed for Keith.

“Well at least you weren’t hurt too bad. How bad was the damage to the bike?”

She sat up suddenly in a panic V-8 slapping her forehead. “My bike! Damn, I totally forgot; it’s still chained up where I hit the rock.”

Keith laughed. “Need me to go get it?”

She looked at him, pleadingly. “Would you? And drop it off for me?”

He finished the soda and headed to the kitchen to put the empty can on the counter. “Yeah, I can do that; I need to head over that way to talk to Bob anyway.”

“Thanks Keith.”

He came to stand by the couch again. “No problem; any message for the old codger?”

She laughed. “You know, you really shouldn’t call him that; he’s the same age as you.”

Keith shook his head. “No, he’s a month older than me that makes him old.”

She arched an eyebrow at him. “Is this how you view everyone that’s older than you?”

He shrugged. “Pretty much.”

“Does Mol know about this little quirk?”

He gave her a warning look. “No, we don’t acknowledge that little tidbit anywhere in her hearing.”

An evil look slid across her face. “Huh, wonder what your beloved wife who happens to be my sister would say about that.”

He snorted. “You really wouldn’t blackmail me with that would you?”

She laughed out loud at him. “If you have to ask me that question, you haven’t been around this family long enough.”

“Obviously; here I thought I was learning when I managed to avoid marital turmoil by keeping the pictures of my bachelor party from her.”

“No, that just means you were smarter than Connor and Peter and still sober enough to keep yourself out of trouble.” Her leg began throbbing dully and she sighed to herself. Time for more meds; maybe they wouldn’t make her as loopy as they had last night. She stood up slowly and went into the kitchen to dig out her pain pills.

He chuckled despite himself. “If you’d been there I’d probably have been screwed.”

She hobbled back into the room with something to drink and her pills. “Most likely; I would have gotten all three of you at once and taken pictures to boot.” She waved him off as he offered to help. She was really getting tired of not being able to move around like she was used to.

He chuckled again. “I heard about what you did to Peter. All I want to know is how you managed to bribe all the neighborhood children to pelt him with balloons filled with cooking oil.”

She flopped back onto the couch, opening her soda before shaking out her pills. “Simple, I paid the little hooligans; and they were more than happy to do it for some reason. It was the best twenty bucks I ever spent.” She downed the quickly and winced slightly at both the taste and the throbbing in her leg.

“Remind me never to piss you off.” He eyed her closely as she lay on the couch. “So you’re settled then?” She nodded. “Good, Mol will be by to pick you up tomorrow.” He gave her good leg a pant and headed for the door.

“Night Keith.” She called out as he shut the door.

She gave a huge sigh in the sudden silence of her house glad for the respite from the chaos and yet feeling a bit alone despite herself. Loki gave a small cry as he sat next to the couch looking up at her.

She reached down to pet him. “What do you think bud? How’s a nice bath sound to you?” He simply gave her that feline look and she chuckled. “Not up to your speed eh? Well I’m all for it and I think its time I spoiled myself. Now where did I put those bath salts?” She got to her feet again and hobbled off towards the bathroom to go in search of a nice hot, relaxing bath.

* * *

She awoke with a start, only minutes before her alarm went off and laid there for several moments her mind whirling at the strange echo of sensations and emotions pulsing through her mind and body. She shut the alarm off before it started beeping incessantly at her and then hobbled into the bathroom to brush her teeth and begin her day.

She stared at her reflection resolutely as she ran through her morning routine, her mind whirling wildly. Last night had started so innocently, so relaxing but now, staring at her troubled reflection in the mirror, she wondered just what in the world was going on. After her bath the previous night, she ended up in bed earlier than normal. Worn down by her day and the pain in her leg she simply had no desire to stay awake; so she gave in and went to bed.

Mere moments after her head hit the pillow she found herself enveloped in the same vivid dream as the night before. She stopped brushing her teeth for a moment as she realized that no, it wasn’t quite the same; this time she was pulled in to a much greater extent than before, enveloped in the fantasy and emotion of it more than she had been the night before. And this time she could feel whoever she was waiting for coming closer, approaching her from far off, another area of the dream she had yet to see.

The mere idea evoked a huge surge of excitement which raced through her like a brush fire across the plains. She had no defense for the anticipation she even now felt in the broad light of day. No idea what to make of either the dream, its repetition or even her reaction to it.

And so she was left wondering just what in the world could cause the strange dreams in the first place. Oh the first one could be explained simply enough; sometimes after traumatic incidences strange dreams could be evoked as the mind tried to cope with the mental and physical stress it and the body were undergoing. But her accident couldn’t explain this; there was just too much to it and the incident far too minor to have provoked such a strange but strong reaction. So what in the world was going on?

She had no ready answer to that and decided that such heavy ponderings were best left until after her first cup of coffee; maybe once caffeine was racing through her system, it would begin to make more sense. So she left the bathroom, hopping into the kitchen to get her coffee ready when her phone rang shrilly in the early morning stillness driving all thoughts of the dreams aside.

She assumed it was Molly, telling her she was on her way. “You know I’m ready Mol and yes I’ll have had coffee by the time you get here.”

There was a soft masculine chuckle from the other end. “Good thing, don’t think I could handle a visit from Cricket this morning.”

Kylie chuckled at the nickname; it was aptly earned. Given to her by Keith during a rather hectic family gathering to personify her rather moody, grumpy, bitchy side, it had stuck and her family used it often. Of course Kylie’s short stature only seemed to add to the validity of the name.

“Mornin’ Keith.” She sipped at her cup of coffee slowly.

“Hey Kylie; you bout ready to go?”

The background seemed awfully quiet to her, his voice came through far too easily. She nodded even though he couldn’t see it. “Yeah I’m ready to go. Is Mol on her way?”

“Nope you get me today; Mike woke up puking this morning.” The eerie silence suddenly made perfect sense.

She grimaced at the mere idea of a sick kid. “Yuck.”

He sighed. “Yeah.”

“Hope it’s nothing serious.”

“Probably just a bug; there’s one going around in school.”

“So you’re the gopher then?” She was nearly finished with her first cup.


She mentally sighed. “Has your driving gotten any better?”

“Have you gotten any taller?” He shot back.

Despite herself, she laughed as she poured her second cup. “I guess that would be a no. Well I guess I’ll take my breakfast in to work then. I don’t want to decorate your dashboard.”

He snorted at her. “Hey it’s not that bad.”

“Oh so now you’re defending it? Last I looked, you were the only person I knew who somehow managed to take out a mailbox without taking out the mailman that was standing in front of it.” Her tone was part indignant, part chuckle; Keith’s terrible driving in the family was legendary.

Keith grumbled softly but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. Then he took a deep calming breath. “I’ll be right there.”

“I’ll be the one on the corner with crutches.”

“If you wear a skirt, I’ll bring money.”

She laughed even as she shot back. “Jerk.” The exchange was a familiar one.

“Nag.” Then the line went dead as he hung up.

She hung up the phone smiling and hobbled off to finish getting ready. She was all done and ready to go in just a few minutes. Looking out the window she saw that the morning sky was clear and it seemed to be shaping up to be a beautiful day. So she decided to go outside and sit on the steps to wait for him.

She was sitting there nursing a second cup of coffee when Keith pulled up in his pickup. He killed the truck and hopped out to rush up the stairs and pick up her bag before she even got to her feet. It made her chuckle to herself sometimes, his gallant nature. In most of America, chivalry was dying an ignominious and slow death but it was alive and well in Keith and most of his family.

Before meeting him, Kylie had always thought of herself as self reliant and not needing anyone to do anything remotely gallant for her. If she needed a door held open, she did it herself. If she had a bag she carried it. For her it wasn’t a matter of feminism but rather realism. After all she lived in a family with two younger brothers and a vast array of cousins who often spent more time trying to beat her up or simply torment her while growing up. None of them would have ever thought to hold a door for her; she never would have trusted it.

But with Keith it was very difficult to ignore or even stop him from doing it. And he wasn’t doing it to be superior or even because he was trying to revive a lost art. He just did it because it was a part of who he was and he could no more stop doing it than he could stop breathing.

He got her settled in the truck and her crutches and bag in the backseat. The radio blared loudly when he started the truck and he reached over to shut it off. “Hey, I picked up your bike last night like you asked. You really did a number on it.”

She sighed remembering the damage all too vividly. “I know. Did you drop it off at the shop?”

He nodded as he pulled out into traffic. “Yeah; guy said it’d be a bit, someone should be calling you today. I gave them your number.”

“Thanks Keith.”

He shrugged. “Don’t mention it.”

She suddenly remembered the other reason he had for running downtown last night. “So how was Bob?”

This time Keith laughed. “Pissed; your move is really setting his hair on end.”

She sighed; she could relate. “It’s not the move so much as the landlord and his asinine repairs.” For some reason at the mere mention of the landlord, she felt her head start pounding.

Again he chuckled. “Yeah he mentioned that.”

She felt bad that this job was turning to a real pain on him and now more than ever was glad she’d made him ask for more money. “I’m glad I talked him into upping his bid.”

Keith looked at her in shock. “You what?”

She gave him an indignant look. “Come on Keith, he was undercutting the supply costs. What was I supposed to do, let him get away with it? He’s got three kids, one of which I know has been eyeing Princeton.”

Keith snorted. “He told me Harvard.”

She threw her hands in the air. “Harvard, Princeton who cares? You know for a fact that Alison won’t be happy with anything less than a stellar school and that’s gonna cost.”

“Kylie your job isn’t gonna put his kid through school.”

“Maybe not, but it’ll help.” Her tone was stubborn and indignant.

He started chuckling at the stubborn look on her face. “No arguing with you on this one huh?”

She gave him a wry look. “Would you argue if it was one of the boys?”

“Touché.” He gave her a small salute as they pulled up to the store. He put the truck in park as she hopped out. “Need me to help you in?”

She gave him a beaming smile as she reached into the backseat to grab her crutches and bag. “No, I’ve got this thing down; besides the minute I hit the door, I’m assaulted by big bad Marie.”

He laughed. “She is a force.”

“Yeah.” She settled the bag on her shoulder and shut the door. “Thanks Keith.” She turned to walk into the store.

“Call me when you need me to pick you up.” He shouted through the open window. Then he took off.

Marie opened the door for her just as she reached it. “Morning Kylie.”

She gave her a bright smile. “Hey Marie.”

Marie stubbornly took her bag, peering at the truck as it disappeared into traffic. “Was that Keith I saw dropping you off?”

Kylie let her bag go without comment as she hobbled into the store. “Yeah; Mike woke up sick this morning so Mol took him in to see the doctor.”

“Hope the little tyke is ok.”

She passed the counter with Marie close behind. “He’ll probably be fine; he’s a kid and it’s probably just a bug.”

“Yeah.” She set Kylie’s bag down next to her desk and watched as the younger woman settled herself in her chair. “So what’s on your plate for this morning?”

Kylie pulled out her laptop and booted it up as she began propping her leg up on the desk. “Well you and I have a meeting with the phone at ten.” Marie raised a questioning brow. “I rescheduled yesterday’s managers meeting for today; didn’t I tell you that?”

She shook her head. “You might have but I don’t remember. It was kind of hectic yesterday.”

Kylie chucked at that. “True.” It had been a long time since she’d seen the older woman that frazzled by the end of the day. Even longer since she could remember the customers being that belligerent. She changed the topic to something much more pleasant. “Of course lunch was a nice relaxing affair.”

She nodded at that. “It was nice to meet someone who actually helps other people. Although I know I’ve heard that name someone before.” Her voice drifted off as she tried to recall just where she’d heard the name of Kylie’s rescuer before.

Kylie shrugged as she opened her email, wondering at the strange tone in Marie’s voice. “Yeah she was pretty cool; I gave her my number and e-mail so I could keep in touch if she ever needed a favor.”

Marie seemed to snap out of it and gave her a warm smile. “Well I’ll leave you too it; call me back when you’re ready for the call.”

“Thanks Marie.” Kylie waved distractedly as her inbox started loading and she began scanning message subjects.

Her phone rang about an hour later the light indicating an incoming conference call. She gave Marie a shout then answered the phone. “Good morning everyone.” She mouthed a thank you as Marie came through the door with a fresh cup of coffee for her.

There was a chorus of voices that responded from the speaker. “Morning.”

Kylie settled back as Marie shut the office door and sat down with a pad of paper on her lap. She scanned her list of topics to go over before opening the meeting. “First things first, Clarice, are you still short employees in your store?”

There was a sigh from the woman and Kylie could almost see her nodding her head. “Yeah and its getting kind of hectic.”

“No luck with applications?” She already knew the answer but hoped that perhaps she was wrong in her suspicions.

“Not really no, it’s beyond me why.”

Kylie thought for a moment before an idea came to her. “Well why don’t we run an ad in the campus newspaper and up the starting wage by fifty cents. That might solve it long term. But until then, Gavin, you’re the closest store; do you think you could spare a couple of people for a month or so?” Next to her, Marie began writing a reminder for both the ad and the transfer of personnel so that later Kylie wouldn’t think she was going crazy when Clarice handed in her expense reports at the end of the month and it showed a couple of normally strange discrepancies. Not that Kylie often needed the reminders; she tended to remember nearly every detail of her business without needing to even write it down.

Gavin gave a sound of approval. “Yeah that’d be good; some of my employees live pretty close to that store.”

Kylie made a check mark next to that concern. Then felt like tearing her hair out at the next heavily underlined topic. “Ok that problem solved. Next out of the endless stack, the upcoming inventory.” There was a chorus of deep sighs and even groans at the mention of the onerous chore. It made her smile and she was suddenly very thankful she was the boss. “Now I know how you all feel about this wonderful night we spend counting and recounting everything but I really don’t have the time to wait for volunteers. So each of you will be asking for your entire staff to stay and count.”

The stunned silence lasted for several seconds until Gavin finally spoke up. “The entire staff?”

Kylie felt like smirking at everyone’s flabbergasted attitudes; even Marie wore a look of stunned disbelief on her face. “Yes, the entire staff. And yes, I’ll pay a premium for that night and I’ll buy pizza and pop, even beer for those legal to drink. I just want it done and the numbers in my hands. Largely because of the last item we have to talk about.” She didn’t even need to look to know what the final topic of the meeting was and she was pretty sure they all would know what she was talking about. “Who’s it hit and just how bad is it?”

Gavin was the first to speak up. “To be honest I think we’ll have a better idea once the inventory is done. But I know its hit us.”

She sighed. “Anyone else?” No one else spoke up. “Ok then, here’s my suggestion. Gavin, we’ll do inventory at your store early, like next week early; I want the numbers as soon as you can get them. In the mean time, if you have any suspects, send them to the other store; that way if they decide to steal from me again, we’ll have corroborating evidence. Then we can be sure it hasn’t hit anyone else.” She crossed that one off her list and opened the floor for any problems that hadn’t made it to her yet. “Anything else I need to know about?” Again there was silence from everyone. “Good then I’ll wait to hear from you guys next week.” She cut off the conference call with a savage jab.

She sat back to see Marie watching her closely. “You’re really mad about this.”

She nodded and then sighed loudly. “Yeah I am; a book here and there I expect and can deal with. That happens; most often it’s got a simple explanation: someone got involved and walked out with a book or forgot about something in their apron.” That kind of theft had happened quite frequently over the years and she’d done her best to discourage it but she knew it happened. She had penalties for it but often let those slide when someone came to her and admitted it. After all it wasn’t intentional and no one was really hurt by it but what was happening now was a different problem altogether.

“But from what Gavin’s told me, this isn’t a book here and there. This is more, a lot more. Last week, an entire case of books just up and disappeared. An entire case! Just up and disappeared.” She shook her head as the truth that someone was stealing from her hit home. “I don’t appreciate someone stealing from me.”

Marie nodded. “Understandable.” There was silence for several moments before she stood up. “Any other issues for me?”

Still somewhat distracted, she merely shook her head. “No.” Marie nodded her head and turned to leave but Kylie spoke up, stopping her. “I think I’m going to duck out of here early, maybe run down to our new store and see how Bob is doing with the delay. I want to see if he’s made any significant progress so I can start calling a few people tomorrow about delaying the café. Can you handle things from here?”

Marie scoffed, giving her leg an affectionate tap. “Of course; will you be in tomorrow?”

Sometimes Kylie took Friday to catch up on paperwork and phone calls at home; not often but still often enough that Marie still occasionally asked. She hadn’t planned on doing it this week but with her leg bothering her, she was seriously beginning to rethink that idea. Her leg took that moment to begin throbbing slightly and the gashes began itching softly. She gave a wry smile as she shook her head, her mind instantly made up. “No, I don’t think so; this thing is driving me nuts and quite frankly I don’t want to bug anybody to come get me. I’m going to stay home and take care of a few things there. Be sure to call me if there are any issues.”

Marie smiled. “Oh don’t worry, I will.”

She smiled at the older woman’s wry tone. “Good as long as you don’t think I’m ducking out on you then.”

Marie snorted. “Hardly. If anyone deserves a break it’s you. Besides you look beat, go home get some sleep.”

She chuckled. “Is that your way of telling me I look like shit?”

“No, but you are looking a little worn around the edges.” This time her tone was much softer, almost motherly.

Kylie sighed her mind distracted from her business issues as she was suddenly reminded of the events of the past couple of nights. “It’s these damn painkillers; I’ve been having the strangest dreams lately. Makes it hard to sleep.” She rubbed her eyes a bit as she slowly pushed her coffee aside.

“I can imagine.” Marie opened the door and halfway out she gave a strict look. “Tomorrow, stay home, curl up on the couch with a good book and that beast you call a cat and relax.”

“Add some ice cream to that and I’ll be in heaven.” Marie laughed. “I’m gonna call Keith or Connor to see if they can come get me; I’ll probably leave in like an hour.”

Her manager nodded. “Well at least after tomorrow, you’ll be mobile again.”

Kylie sighed loudly. “Thank God! I’m really tired of not being able to drive.”

“I can imagine. Call me if you need me.” Then she was out the door.

“Will do.” Kylie called after her knowing that other woman heard her.

* * *

Kylie cleared her inbox as fast as humanly possible. But she was lucky; it was a light day for her and she had only a few minor issues to take care of. None of them even really required phone calls to set them right. She did however put in a phone call to Bob before calling Keith. She wanted to be sure he’d be around to show her what she needed.

He picked up on the first ring. “What can I do for you boss lady?”

She chuckled at the nickname. “Hey Bob. I was hoping I’d catch you. You wouldn’t happen to be on site right now would you?”

There was the sound of circular saw powering up in the background, giving a loud grinding shriek and then sudden silence as Bob shut a door. “That answer your question?”

“Sure does. Listen I want to come down and look if I can but I need to call Keith to come pick me up first.”

There was a pause on the other end. “You still hopping around? This place might be a bit to negotiate on crutches.”

She winced slightly. “Keith told you about that did he?”

Bob chuckled. “Well he couldn’t help it seeing as how I saw your bike sticking outta his truck. Did a number on it. How’s the drumstick?”

She gave the afore mentioned appendage a wry look. “Sore very, very sore.”

He gave a soft chuckle. “Won’t do that again though will you?”

She laughed out loud at that one. “Now you sound like Titus’s dad.”

He gave a bark of laughter as well. “Always loved that guy, what an asshole.”

“Yeah he was. I should be there in about twenty minutes or so depending on if I get a hold of Keith or not.”

“Sounds good, we’ll clean up a bit and give you the tour.”

“Thanks Bob.” Then she hung up the phone. A few moments later she was dialing Keith’s number.

He picked up on the first ring. “I didn’t think I’d be hearing from you this soon; it ain’t even lunch yet.”

“I need a favor.”

He groaned. “Now what do you need, my firstborn? My left kidney? What?”

She chuckled at his dramatic tone. “Oh God no. You know Mol would kick my ass if I took one of the kids and as for your kidneys, do you really think I’d want something you’ve probably abused?”

He chuckled. “Ok fine, name your poison then.”

“I need a ride out of here. I want to go down to the site and have a visit with Bob and then I want to go home. Can you help me?”

“I can, luckily. I’m on my back from a run; I’ll just give them a ring and let them know I got a bit of an emergency. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“Thanks Keith; I owe you guys dinner for all this.”

“Make it someplace with steak and lobster and you’re on.”

“Can do.”

He was true to his word and showed up in the door of her office ten minutes later. He helped her out to the truck and they were off. Less than five minutes later they arrived at her new location, despite the traffic. And she’d only needed to grab the bar twice on the way over.

She hobbled towards the front door surprised to see Bob already waiting for her. She greeted him warmly as she approached him. “Hey Bob.”

“Hey Kylie.” He gave her eye an appreciative look before whistling slightly. “Wow you did bang yourself up pretty good.”

“Banged up her bike even more.” Keith spoke up from behind her.

She walked through the door Bob held open for them. “Yeah well that rock’ll think twice before doing that again.” Her voice was scathing and both men started laughing. “So how we doing here?”

“Pretty good. Plumbing’ll be done on time, most of the major stuff is already done. As soon as the last pipe is glued in place, we’re gonna start sanding. Then its just painting, cleaning up and putting the final touches up. I’d say you got about two more weeks before you can start moving stuff in; slightly longer than that for the café cause it has to pass through the health inspector first. But once we get the go ahead for him, you’re in the clear.”

Kylie looked around the large space in amazement. Six months ago it’d been a hallowed out old building looking for all the world like it been beaten and then abandoned. Now, all the neglect, damage and dilapidation was gone having been replaced with new white walls and hardwood floors.

She hobbled into the room further, keeping her eyes out for power cords and debris until she could see the café, nestled in the back corner. It was coming together as well, some of the shiny new polished steel components installed in their new places. It would have its own entrance, at the back of the building where the large parking lot lay. The new windows sparkled; though they were covered in a thin layer of dust now, they let in plenty of light and she was glad she’d managed to talk Bob into it.

That had taken some doing, placing the door and windows where she wanted them, where none had been before. But it was well worth the effort; in a short while they would be sparkling clean and people would be sitting at small tables in front of them, sipping coffee and talking quietly about whatever it was that people talked about in a coffee shop. The image was so real she could almost smell the espresso and steamed milk in the air.

She turned to Bob and realized that he’d been talking to her for quite a while but she hadn’t heard a word that he said. “Sorry, I got distracted.”

“I could tell. So what do you think?”

She smiled then, looking back at the windows, the image of the people at tables still there. “It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect.” This was what she loved about her stores, the joy people found in them; in what she offered in product and services. It fulfilled her in ways she’d never even been aware she lacked.

“Glad you like it. I’d like to show you the upstairs but they just finished the stairs this morning and the stain’s still a bit sticky.”

She hobbled back towards the front of the store chuckling. “That’s all right; I’ve seen what I wanted to see. Thanks Bob.”

He nodded at her. “Glad I could help.” He walked them to the door and held it open for Kylie to go through. “I’ll call you if anything changes.”

Kylie nodded as she headed for Keith’s truck. “I will.” A few moments later, they were on the road this time headed towards her house. She sat in the seat staring out the window, still struck by the wondrous change in the building. It was beyond even what she had envisioned for the building when she’d first seen it. And seeing it now, laid out and nearly finished, it nearly took her breath away.

“I take it you liked it.”

Keith’s voice startled her out of her revere and she gave a small start. “Yeah, yeah I really did.”

He nodded and then changed the subject. “So what’re you going to do tonight?”

She sighed. “I have no idea actually. I think I just want to sit back on the couch and relax. I really need that.” She looked out the window feeling a fresh wave of fatigue wash over her as she realized just how true her last statement was. She gave Keith a wry smile. “I meant to tell you earlier, thanks Keith. There was no way I could handle another day with my leg up on that desk.”

“Why’d you go in anyway?” He switched lanes quickly, eliciting a shouted curse and a horn blare from a rather annoyed driver.

She snorted, her grip on the arm rest tightening. “Cause I hate handling this kind of stuff from home. I don’t know why it’s just a bit of OCD I have.”

He laughed. “Sometimes you’re so much like Molly.” Again he changed lanes and this time there was a much longer horn blast.

She looked at him in question and he simply shrugged. She turned her attention back to keeping herself in her seat. “Hey she and I got it from dad. And he was terrible.” At least that’s what she heard; most of what she remembered was faded and hard to recall exactly. “He used to drive mom nuts.”

“That’s what Molly said.” He pulled in front of her house and cut the engine.

She resisted the urge to throw herself from the vehicle and begin kissing the ground but it was a very near thing. Instead, she gathered her nerves and hobbled slowly into the house. His driving was never boring and more often than not it seemed like an extreme stress test gone wrong.

She opened the door, throwing her keys on the counter before turning back to him. “Can I get you something to drink?”

He nodded, heading towards the kitchen. “I’ll take a soda to go; I need to get back.”

“How’s Mike?” She settled herself on the sofa.

“Better but we had a rough night; at least he’s stopped puking. Doc said it should pass in a few days; just keep him hydrated and try to feed him if we can. I don’t think she really wants to; afraid she’ll just have to clean it back up later.” He took a slug on the soda. “You need another ride tomorrow?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m staying in tomorrow; I can’t stand another day on these damn things. I plan on burning them on Saturday. Want to come over and help me torch them?” There was hopeful gleam in her eye at the very idea of watching the torture devices go up in a cloud of gasoline and flame.

He chuckled wryly even as he shook his head at her offer. “Arms hurt?”

“No, armpits.” Disgusted she reached down to prop her leg up.

“I remember that. I spent six weeks on a pair back in college when I broke my leg after falling out a second story window.”

She stopped fluffing the pillow and gave him a searching look, hazarding a guess what he might have been doing to fall out of a window. “Drunken frat party?”

He shrugged. “Some drunken party; can’t remember exactly which kind.” He finished the soda and left the can on the counter before heading to the door. “All right then I’ll leave you to it; call me if you need something.”

“Thanks Keith.” But the door was already shut.

* * *

The alarm went off, echoing shrilly in the dimly lit room, startling Luce out of a sound sleep. Annoyed, she swatted at the annoyance nearly knocking it to the floor. She fell back onto the bed with a groan as she tried to pull her mind together. She hated waking like this, her mind in a million pieces, still part of the dream world and often unwilling to come together easily.

She sat up in the bed, throwing the covers aside as she shuffled into the bathroom. She flicked on the light and stared at her reflection in a mixture of disgust and annoyance. She knew what had caused her strange awakening this morning and she was disgusted at herself for letting something get to so much.

She’d had the dream again, for the third time in as many nights and still no explanation for it. What in the world was wrong with her? She reached for her toothbrush and with a savage movement started brushing her teeth, all the time eyeing her disheveled face in the mirror.

She could still feel it, feel the tendrils of the dream beckoning to her just out of sight in her mind. It was seductive, the urge to simply sit there and relive it over and over again in her mind. The dream itself was even more so, sucking her in the moment she closed her eyes; pulling her into that strange world of horses, leather, weapons and driving anticipation and almost frenzied need.

She shuddered at her reflection, surprised at the intensity of those emotions; surprised that she should wake on the verge of tears at the reality that it was all a dream. And somewhat frightened at what that might mean. Dreams held power, or so her mother always said and this one seemed to hold more than most.

She finished her morning routine quickly, clearly annoyed and then stomped out of the bathroom. For a moment she was relieved it was Friday. She was tired of sitting on her thumbs waiting for time to pass so she could go into the office and yell some more. Besides she really wanted to see if they’d managed to pull everything together liked she’d asked. You never knew, sometimes people could surprise you and it’d been a very long time since anyone managed to do that.

She got herself to the office, a large cup of coffee in one hand and her briefcase in the other. She hoped the coffee would help wake her up a bit while she started pouring over the extensive reports. But wasn’t sure if even caffeine and sugar would improve her mood or her attitude today.

She gave Colleen a wave but kept right on walking into the boardroom; the rest of the board was waiting for her. “Good morning ladies and gentlemen.” She sat down and looked at all of them sitting there in silence. “Tell me that you’ve got what I asked for.”

Don spoke up, a huge stack of files in front of him. “We do. It wasn’t easy but we managed it, no satanic rituals involved.”

“None? Good to know but a bit disappointing too.” She shrugged even as she gestured for Don to bring them to her. “Now who’s the first one on the stack?”

“Pardon?” He looked at her in confusion.

She gave a soft sigh at the very idea that she’d manage to go through them all in a single day. “Look, I’m going to go over the figures of each department with their department head. I want to start with the first one on stack, so what department is it?”

He looked down at the stack in front of him. “Billing.”

She nodded. “Looks like you’re the first head on the block Frank, the rest of you can leave.”

There was puzzlement around the room at her quick dismissal. “But…”

She gave them all a patient but clearly annoyed look. “I don’t want all of you waiting until I get to you and this might take a while so the rest of you are free to go.” They filed out in silence and she turned her attention to the remaining man in the boardroom. “Ok Frank, I just need to have Colleen run off some copies of these and fax them to Jerry for me and we can get started.”

He nodded. “Sounds good.”

They worked side by side for hours, pouring over the figures and comments in the reports so she could get some idea of just what was coming into and going out of the accounts. It soon became apparent to Luce that whoever was doing whatever it was they were doing, they were really good at hiding it. After nearly four hours of sifting through the figures, all she could come up with was that a few of their clients were late on their payments.

So far all the contracts were paid up and in good standing. Nothing seemed to jump out at her and scream that money was being shifted to funny places. But she had a feeling that whatever she wasn’t seeing was still there. She planned on calling Jerry her first free moment to make sure that his accountants took a really close look at the books.

After lunch, they spent another hour on it before Luce felt like her eyes were crossing. She called an end to the day and told him they’d pick it up first thing on Monday. He nodded, rubbing at his own shoulders and temples trying to soothe out the stiffness. Feeling the beginnings of a booming headache building in her own head, she could sympathize.

A short time later found her standing in her condo looking over the contents of her cupboards in disgust. She’d let herself run out of both peanut butter cups and milk; something that just seemed like pure sacrilege to her. Throwing on a pair of pants and a old, soft t-shirt she hopped back into her car and headed towards the store to pick up some essentials.

* * *

On the other side of town, Kylie too was staring at her cupboards in sheer annoyance. Her evening and day spent at home had really done wonders for her temper and her leg. But at that moment she realized that she had a problem. She was running out of food.

Normally she bought groceries every week or so, usually on Wednesday but her accident had thrown her schedule off a bit and now she was facing the end of the week with almost nothing in her kitchen. Even worse, she knew Molly wouldn’t be available to take her; Mike was still sick and a phone call with her frazzled sister just that morning had not lasted very long. And she was loathe to bother her again or anyone else for that matter.

So how to get to the store and back without bothering her family? With a sigh she realized there were only two options. She could take a taxi; which was a laughable option and ridiculously expensive. Or she could grit her teeth and take the bus, buying only a few things to hold her until tomorrow. She gathered her purse and things resolutely and went to check the computer for the bus schedule.

Almost an hour later, she was riding an electric cart through store two steps from fuming and wishing that she’d just stayed home and ordered in. She grabbed things and threw them into the basket only dimly aware that she should take more care with the fruit. From the moment she left the house, nothing had gone right for her.

She’d been forced to nearly run for the bus; or as close as she could come to running in her condition. Then the driver failed to see her and drove off only to stop like a block later to let her catch up. Climbing on, she discovered she was like fifty cents short which the driver waved off but still managed to embarrass her.

Then she’d been forced to browbeat some young punk into giving up his seat for her. Which really upset her on a number of levels and brought to mind all the problems she could think of with the nation’s youth. Her mood was only inflamed further by a group of loud obnoxious teenagers shouting and cackling in the back of the bus. This of course put her in the perfect frame of mind for the rest of the trip.

Leaving the bus, she headed towards the store entrance and fell down in the parking lot. Swearing under her breath, she pulled herself to her feet and hobbled slowly into the store. Her arrival in the store was a much smoother experience thanks to a young clerk that immediately called for an electric cart.

But the cart she’d been given was possessed and continuously did strange and uncontrollable things; most of which she had no idea what to do about. Needless to say, her temper was frayed to the point of snapping and it was going to take a lot more than one person’s random kindness to bring it back to normal.

Rounding a corner, the cart gave a savage abrupt jerk and crashed into the endcap, knocking down nearly everything on it. She gave a huge groan as the boxes fell at her feet. ““Damn, damn, damn. I don’t need this, not now.” She reached down to start picking things up even as a nearby clerk did the same. She felt like crying, wondering just what possessed her to attempt this in the first place when a familiar voice broke her revere.

“Hey, looks like you could use a hand.”

She looked up to see Luce helping to clean up the disaster she’d made. “Yeah, I could, thanks.” She smiled at Luce as the last box was placed. “You know, I’m not usually this clumsy.”

The taller woman chuckled. “God, I hope not. I wouldn’t want to even imagine your medical bills if you were.”

Kylie paused a moment. “I think I’m being tweaked again.”

“Come on, let me help you here.” They headed up towards the front of the store. “I’m surprised you’re doing this by yourself.”

Kylie sighed loudly contemplating the wisdom of that move herself. “My sister is at home with a sick kid and I really didn’t want to bug anyone so I thought I’d do it on my own. Not one of my brighter ideas.”

“I was wondering about that. Hope it’s nothing too serious with your nephew.” She reached down to empty Kylie’s basket onto the belt.

Kylie shook her head. “No just a bug of some kind; but he kept them up all night last night I guess and she’s really frazzled.”

“Well, lets get you out of here. How in the world did you get here anyway?”

She looked chagrined. “I took the bus.”

“The bus?” Her tone was incredulous and Kylie could only nod. “How were you planning on getting back anyway?”

She shrugged. “Same way I got here.”

“And you were planning on carrying all this how?” She waved her hand at the small pile of items waiting to be rung up.

Kylie looked at the pile in shock; she hadn’t even realized she’d picked up that much. She’d only meant to shop for the next couple of days but there was enough there to last her the entire weekend. She sighed loudly. “I haven’t figured that one out yet.”

Luce smiled at her, putting her things behind Kylie’s. “Well it looks like I’m going to give you a ride home then.”

Kylie’s eyes widened and she started to protest. “Luce…”

Luce laughed even as she cut the other woman off. “You really don’t think I’m going to let you ride the bus home by yourself with all this food to carry back, do you?”

She shook her head. “No but…”

Luce stepped back to let Kylie through first so she could pay for her own things. “Good then its settled. Let’s get this stuff in my car and you can give me directions.”

Smiling, Kylie couldn’t think of a single protest so she simply nodded. “Lead on general.”

* * *

“I can’t thank you enough for this. It seems like I’ve said that a lot since we met.” Kylie settled herself into the leather seats of Luce’s car, buckling herself in. Her experience with Keith the day before had only strengthened her belief in seat belts.

Luce chuckled. “Well in any event, you’re welcome.” She pulled out into traffic as Kylie began giving her directions.

“So what are you up to tonight?”

Luce shrugged. “Don’t know yet; haven’t given it much thought past dinner. But nothing really jumps to mind. You?”

“My options are kind of limited thanks to the bum leg; I was thinking of just staying in, cooking something spicy and watching a movie. Probably Evil Dead II or maybe Army of Darkness; I haven’t seen a good dorky movie in a while.”

Luce nodded in approval. “Can’t beat Bruce Campbell for that. Sounds like fun.”

A strange urge overcame Kylie and she found the words flying out of her mouth before she had time to stop or even censor them. “Well if you’re not doing anything, you’re more than happy to hang out and keep me company.”

Luce looked at her in surprise. “Really? You wouldn’t mind?”

She waved her off. “God no; I could use the company. I don’t get it often; well company that doesn’t come with a toddler attached. Besides, it gives me a chance to practice my culinary skills; they’ve atrophied under the assault of chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese.”

“Sounds like fun actually. Can I contribute anything?”

“Well I noticed a carton of ice cream in your basket when we were checking out; just bring that in. And feel free to bring anything you need to refrigerate too.” She looked over to see her house. “Here we are.”

“Nice place.” Luce nodded in approval.

“Thanks.” They got out and grabbed what they needed between them and headed into the house. “Come on in and make yourself at home.” Kylie went into the kitchen to set everything on the counter.

“Thanks.” Luce took a quick look around at the pleasantly simple home that seemed to fit the shorter woman to a tee.

“Watch out for the cat.” Her voice came from the kitchen.

“Cat?” Luce who had been heading in that direction stopped and began looking around in a mild panic. Cats often did not like her.

Kylie appeared again and caught the panicked look on her guest’s face. “Oh don’t worry about him, he’s such a softie.” She looked behind Luce and started calling him. “Loki.”

Luce arched a brow at her. “Loki?”

She chuckled ruefully. “He was a real tornado when he was a baby; it fit. Even age and getting fixed hasn’t really calmed him down much; he still roams the neighborhood tommin’ around like a lord in a castle. He’s got all the women in the area just wrapped around his paw.” Just then the topic of discussion appeared in the room and made a beeline for her.

Luce watched her petting the cat. “I can see why. He’s beautiful. Purebred?”

She nodded. “Yeah I rescued him a few years ago from an abandoned cardboard box. I was thinking about breeding him but figured without any papers it be a real pain. Besides, I love him way too much to think of little versions of him running around anyway.” She gave the cat one last scratch and then started hobbling back into the kitchen. “Just give me a minute to put stuff away and then I can start dinner.”

Luce followed her. “If you want to take a bit of a break, I can wait to eat.”

Kylie laughed. “You might be able to, but I can’t; I’m surprised you can’t hear my stomach growling from way over there. You allergic to anything? Afraid of spice?”

The taller woman shook her head. “No to both. You need any help?”

Kylie moved around the kitchen easily, putting things away and leaving out what she needed for dinner. “If I do, I’ll let you know. My movies are over to the left of the TV, why don’t you pick it out.”

Luce nodded. “Sure. Yell if you need me.” She headed back to the living room and began perusing the movies wondering just what Kylie wanted to watch. She remembered that Kylie had said she was in the mood for something stupid and funny. But there was quite a lot that fit the bill. Finally she spotted one that she knew would fit the bill and pulled it out just as Kylie hobbled into the room. “How’s it going in there?”

“Pretty good. Did you pick something out?” She sat down on the sofa.

““Yeah you said you wanted stupidity; nothing I’ve ever seen could beat The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.” She held up the movie.

Kylie laughed. “Don’t I know it; the first time I rented this I ended up laughing my head off. I think my sister thought I was nuts or something.”

“Yeah I know. My mom didn’t understand why I was laughing.” She sat down on the other end of the couch.

“How could you not? I mean the overacting, the stupid special effects, the dialogue. It’s all classic movie cheese.”

Luce smiled at the enthusiastic description. “You want some chips with it? I think you might be drooling.” She turned the DVD over to read the back. “God I love the monsters in this thing.”

“That’s only because I can smell dinner. Let me go check on it.”

Luce watched her hobble off and when she turned back to the TV, she saw the cat sitting right next to her, staring at her. “Hey buddy. You’re awfully friendly.” He stepped closer almost in her lap and turned half closed eyes on her. “God you’re so gorgeous; look at those eyes.” She scratched his chin and watched as his eyes closed. “Like that do ya?”

“Looks like you’ve made a friend.” Kylie came back into the room.

She didn’t look up from the cat. “He’s really social; I thought Siamese were kind of stand-offish.”

“He can be but most of the time he grows on you. Actually I’m a bit surprised that he’s made friends so quick with you. He must be a good judge of character.”

“Maybe I just smell like tuna.”

“Actually you’d be in more trouble if you smelled like raw hamburger.” She watched him get up and jump off the couch before heading off to wherever it was he was going.

Luce made a face. “Ewwww.”

“Tell me about it.” She turned back to Luce. “You ready to eat?”

“If what’s in the kitchen tastes half as good as it tastes, I’ll be in heaven.” Kylie turned to go back into the kitchen but Luce waved her back. “Sit, I’ll serve; there’s no way you can do it so just sit and tell me where everything is.” She disappeared into the kitchen and they yelled back and forth while Luce looked for everything she needed.

She came back with two steaming bowls full of the stir fry Kylie had thrown together and a couple of sodas. She set everything down on the coffee table. “Here you go. God this looks great.” She sat down and dug in, her eyes closing in pleasure. “Mmmm you’re a great cook.”

Kylie shrugged. “I like to dabble.”

Luce scoffed around a mouth gull of food. “Dabble she says; if I’d attempted this you would have needed a mortician to identify the remains.”

Kylie chuckled. “You don’t cook then?”

“Sure I cook, I can open a can and reheat with the best of them.”

“I’ll take that as a no then.” Kylie speared a piece of broccoli, surprised herself at how good it had turned out. “So what do you survive on?”

“Ummmm well I’m partial to peanut butter cups and milk.”

Kylie waited but there was nothing else forthcoming. “And?”

“Throw in a steak every once in awhile and I’m a happy camper.”

This made a lot of sense to Kylie for some reason and she nodded sagely. “Ah, a carnivore; I figured.”

Luce laughed. “I swear they must tattoo the lot of us on the forehead when we’re born; we just can’t see the ink.”

“Nah, it’s a chip they implant in your head; that way normal people can tell when you’re around. Didn’t they tell you any of this?”

Luce shook her head as she finished off what was in her bowl. “No, they don’t hand out manuals for that kind of thing.”

“They should; it’d make things a lot easier. That way you’d know if all you had to do was slap down a side of beef for someone. I’m not going to have to do that am I?”

Luce snorted loudly, snatching the empty bowls. “No, I can repress it every once in awhile. You want seconds?”

Kylie gave her a strange look. “Does the sun rise every day?” Luce laughed loudly, disappearing into the kitchen. “One thing you’ll learn about me real quick is to fight for your share of the food. My appetite is legion in my family. They still tell stories about how the boys used to have to fight me for the last pork chop or some such nonsense.” She said loudly as she waited for her guest to come back.

“You seemed ok at lunch the other day.” She handed Kylie another bowlful before settling back down onto the couch.

Kylie snorted. “That was an off day cause of the pain killers. Normally I wouldn’t have let that much pizza leave my office. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have let the crusts leave my office.” For some reason Luce found this extremely funny and sat there laughing so hard, she was nearly crying. “Ok enough about me, why don’t we start the movie and you can tell me more about your family and just why you feel compelled to keep helping my sorry ass.”

Luce took a deep drink of her soda, wiping the tears from her face and nodded. “Sounds like a plan.” And settled down to watch the movie and finish the wonderful dinner made for her.

To be continued

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