Authors: T. L. Haddix
“Maybe some water.” Annie trailed behind him. “Have you talked to your parents?”
As he poured a glass of juice, Chase sighed. “Just briefly. They’re okay, all things considered. You know they didn’t have a great relationship with J.R.”
Annie sipped the water Chase handed her and nodded. She was familiar with the Hudson family dynamics. “I know. That’s why I figure it’s probably going to hit your dad a little harder than people expect. When you have that kind of relationship with someone, it hurts in a different way when you lose it.” Chase met her gaze and held it for a moment before Annie looked away.
“I know what you’re saying. I hope he’ll be okay. He has Mom, and they’re a pretty tough package. So how’s my boy been?” He leaned back against the counter, and when Murphy jumped up beside him, he sighed. Downing the juice quickly, he set the glass aside and scooped up the cat. Flipping Murphy upside down, he cradled him in one arm.
“He’s been a little lonely, definitely missing Daddy,” Annie said with a soft smile, as Murphy twisted so that he could curl his paws around Chase’s arm in what passed for a cat hug. “But he’s been pretty good otherwise.”
“And the tub? Was it to your liking?”
Annie studied her fingernails and faked a nonchalant attitude. “Well, I might possibly be planning to call a plumber next week and see how much it would cost me to have one installed in the loft. I mean, it’s an okay tub, if you like bathtubs.” She sent Chase a grin that didn’t last long. “You look tired.”
Chase nodded, his own smile full of regret. “I am. I don’t think I’ve gotten more than five hours’ sleep any night I’ve been away.”
“Ooh, Counselor. Sounds like Vegas was fun, then.” She set her glass in the sink. “I’m sorry, Chase, I shouldn’t say that. Not given the circumstances.”
“You’re fine,” he said. “That’s part of who we are—we can say anything to each other. And Vegas was… interesting. Lawyers, booze, casinos, and so forth. Mostly, though, Gordon and I hung out with the geeks and talked. Again, lawyers and booze. Good Lord, we can chatter on like gossipy old hens.”
Annie snorted. “You said it, not me. Although I have to go on the record and state that you and Gordon are the two of the least geeky men I know.” Chase just grinned.
“So anyhow, you probably want to get to bed.” She yawned. “I’ll grab a blanket and pillow and take the couch.” She turned to leave the kitchen.
Chase, still carrying Murphy, followed right on her heels. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ll take the couch. You don’t honestly expect me to run you out of bed, do you? My mother would have my hide if I did something like that.”
“Are you planning on telling her?” Annie stopped on the first step and turned to look at him. She cocked an eyebrow and gave him a quick head-to-toe. “Darlin’, you won’t fit on that couch comfortably. Not to sleep, anyhow.”
Chase shrugged. “Well, I’m not taking the bed, so that leaves the couch. Besides, it’s a very comfortable couch.” His smile was triumphant and self-satisfied as he put Murphy down on the floor. However, Annie’s next words wiped the smile right off his face and caused her to release a grin of her own.
“I guess I could head home, but it’s three in the morning, and it’s raining. So you’re stuck with me for tonight. If you aren’t taking the bed, and you won’t let me take the couch, that leaves one option. We’ll just have to share the bed.” Not waiting for his response, she turned and headed back upstairs. Murphy followed along in her wake. Once she reached the top of the stairs, Annie turned back to look at Chase, who still stood scowling at the bottom. “Oh, for pity’s sake, Chase. We’re adults. We’re tired. Come to bed. I promise I won’t jump you as soon as you lay your head down.”
Chase grunted. “Okay, but don’t let this get out.” He grabbed his bag and started up the steps. “I have a reputation to protect, you know.”
Annie laughed. “Your reputation could only be enhanced by such a rumor. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure everyone in town who knows our names already thinks we’re an item, so it’s probably a few months too late for saving either of our reputations. We might as well enjoy it.” She actually heard Chase’s gulp of surprise, and sighed inwardly, cursing her stupid tongue. Their teasing had developed a tense edge, each of them dancing closer and closer. Ignoring her growing feelings for him was becoming harder.
“So, do you want to know what I brought you?” Chase asked as they reached the bedroom.
“You didn’t have to bring me anything, and you know it,” she said. “But if you went to the trouble of getting me a present, then, yes. Please give it to me.”
Chase set his bag on the bed and opened it. He pulled out a tastefully wrapped package that was a little smaller than a shirt box.
“Here you go,” he said, holding it out to her.
Annie flushed and barely prevented herself from squealing like a schoolgirl.
It’s ridiculous to feel this way
, she told herself.
Taking the box, she immediately noticed its weight. “Oh, it’s heavier than it looks. I figured it was an ‘I Love Vegas’ shirt.” She gave the present a gentle shake as she sat down on the bed to open it.
“Why do women do that?” Chase asked with a small yawn, as he moved his bag to the floor and went into the closet to grab a t-shirt and pair of shorts. He came back out and watched as Annie carefully unwrapped the box. “It’s not like the paper’s made of gold, you know. I didn’t take that long to wrap it, and I’m a man.”
“I know, but the unwrapping is part of it, Chase,” she scolded. When she had the paper undone, she lifted the lid to reveal the contents. For a suspended moment, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Suddenly wide-awake, she raised her gaze to his.
“How did you get this?” she whispered, her tone reverent as she lifted the hardback book out of the box. “It isn’t due to be released for another week and a half.”
Chase shrugged, trying to look casual. “The author’s husband happened to be one of the attorneys at the conference. One of the geeks, no less. We all had dinner together Friday night, and I recognized her name from hearing you rave about her books. I mentioned that you were a fan, and she gave me that. You have to hold onto it until it’s released, though, and not tell anyone about it.”
Annie knew her eyes had grown huge, but she couldn’t help it. “You had dinner with her? Honest to God sat down and ate with her?” Before Chase could do much more than nod, Annie jumped off the bed and dashed to him. She threw her arms around him and squealed, unable to hold back her excitement.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said, dancing in place as she squeezed his waist. “Oh, my God. I can’t believe it!” She pulled back and turned the book over to look at the back cover.
Chase smiled. “Annie. You might want to look inside.”
When his words registered, she quickly flipped to the front of the book. There, on one of the blank pages, the author had inscribed a personalized note. “
To Annie – the kind of reader who makes every bit of this labor worthwhile. The depth of enjoyment Chase described you as experiencing from reading my work keeps me going through the hard days. With warmest regards
—” It was signed with a flourish.
To her surprise, Annie felt the sting of tears. “Chase, I swear I don’t know when someone has gotten me something that means more. I can’t believe you got this,” she said. “Thank you.”
He cleared his throat and gave her a quick hug. “I’m just glad you like it.” He headed to the bathroom. “I’m going to change clothes.”
“Okay,” she said softly, her eyes still on the book as she ran a hand over the dust jacket. When the door closed behind him, she gave in and held the book to her chest. As she did, she caught a whiff of Chase’s cologne, still on the book from where he had wrapped it, presumably. Inhaling deeply, she closed her eyes at the familiar scent. With great reluctance, she walked over to the chair where she had placed her clothes for the next day and laid the book on top of them. She was sorely tempted to open it and start reading, but she was tired, and she knew Chase was as well.
When she had told him that it meant more than anything she could think of, she meant it. It surprised her that Chase was so familiar with her reading habits. “I can’t believe he paid such close attention, Murphy,” she told the cat as she got in bed. “What do you think it means?” The gift of the book touched her deeply. Annie had been teased about her voracious reading habits quite a bit over the years, and now she only let those closest to her see how much enjoyment she derived from reading. That Chase cared enough to pay attention wasn’t expected, and it caused something to shift inside her. She didn’t examine her feelings too closely. That was something she had learned not to do with Chase. Too close of an examination could lead to revelations she wasn’t sure she was ready to handle, at least not yet.
~ * * * ~
When Annie’s cell phone rang at seven o’clock on Sunday morning, she had to untangle herself from Chase’s limbs in order to reach for it. To her relief, he seemed oblivious, and just rolled over at the disturbance. A hot blush stained her cheeks, but she ignored it.
“Annie?” the man on the other end of the call said with an urgency in his voice that was disturbing. “It’s Jason. Are you still at Chase’s place?”
“I am.” Still disoriented, she sat up. “Why? Do you need to talk to him? He’s here.” There was a lot of noise in the background, and Annie heard Jason telling someone that she was okay. “What’s going on, Jason?”
“I’m downtown, at the square. There’s a fire in the block where your shop is. They’re trying to contain it now, but it doesn’t look good. I just wanted to make sure you were safe,” he said. “I’m sorry, Annie.”
For a moment, Annie just sat there, stunned, and then her feet started moving her body toward the side of the bed. As she moved, Chase woke up. “What’s wrong?”
She put her hand over the phone. “There’s a fire downtown.”
Speaking into the phone again, she said, “Jason, I’m heading that way now.” She disconnected the call and grabbed her clothes from the chair. Before she made it to the bathroom, Chase was sitting up on the side of the bed.
“What’s going on? There’s a fire?” he asked, his voice husky with sleep.
“Yes. That was Jason,” Annie told him over her shoulder. “It’s in the block where the shop is, and it’s spreading. I’ve got to get down there.” She closed the door.
When she came back out, Chase was coming out of the closet, tugging on a pair of jeans.
“I’ll drive,” he said, scooping his keys and wallet from the dish on the dresser. Within a couple of minutes, they were on their way downtown.
“Is that all you know?” Chase asked. “That there’s a fire?”
“That’s all Jason said,” she responded. “God, I hope they can stop it before it does too much damage.”
The traffic going into downtown Leroy was practically non-existent, and they reached the square in less than five minutes. Annie’s heart sank. There were flames shooting from the second-story windows in the building next to her shop. It housed a real estate company and a small magic shop. The three-story building on the other side of the magic shop, on the opposite end of the block from Annie’s Arbor, had partially collapsed and looked to be a total loss. Annie felt as much as heard Chase’s indrawn breath at the sight. The heavily damaged building had housed his family’s law firm for over fifty years. Coming on the heels of J.R.’s death, the destruction was a particularly cruel blow.
“Oh, Chase. I’m sorry,” she said. He shook his head as he parked the car on the side of the square opposite the burning buildings, in front of the offices of the
Olman County Journal
. They didn’t speak as they hurried across the park in the middle of the square. Even though it was early on a Sunday morning, there were several people milling around, watching the fight to save the buildings. Annie recognized most of them as the owners of the businesses that lined the town square. She spied Jason talking with their uncle near a picnic table in the middle of the park. Chase ushered her in that direction, not stopping to talk with anyone on the way.
As they approached, Annie saw that they both wore grim expressions, but Jason’s relaxed slightly when he saw Annie and Chase. “Hey,” he said. “It isn’t looking good, Annie. I’m sorry.” He gave her a hug. Turning to Chase, he did the same. “You’re home. When did you get in?”
“Early this morning,” Chase said, moving to give his uncle a quick hug. “Any idea what happened?”
John shook his head. “You know we’ve been renovating the offices. The fire chief speculated that might have something to do with it, but he won’t know for sure until they can get in there.” He looked at Annie. “They’re hoping they can stop the fire before it spreads to your shop, Annie. I’m glad you weren’t in there this morning.”
Annie acknowledged his words with a small, strained smile. “So am I,” she agreed. “It hasn’t been a very good week, has it? I was sorry to hear about your father, John.”
“How’s Grandmother holding up?” Chase asked.
His eyes still on the fire, John shrugged and moved to sit on the picnic table. “Hard to tell. Olivia and I have stayed with her since it happened. Sometimes she seems fine, and other times she’s just lost. I don’t think it’s really sunk in just yet that Dad’s gone.” The three men exchanged a look that was full of unspoken concern. Ethel Chase Hudson wasn’t an easy woman on a good day. Now that J.R. was gone, how she would respond was anyone’s guess, but it was certain that it would be an uncomfortable time for everyone. For several minutes, no one spoke as they watched the efforts of the fire fighters.