Authors: Jennifer Harlow
"Hell, yes. I-I'm so sorry."
"As you said before, 'Alls well, yada yada.' They're dead now."
"Did you ever try to find your birth parents?"
"All the records were destroyed in the fire. That's how they died. I was away at college at the time. Jordan drove up to tell me, then he vanished for awhile."
"He said he wanted to 'discover who he really was,'" he says with disdain. "I refused to go with him. He took it badly."
"You were in college, you couldn't just drop everything."
"That's what I said, but once he gets his mind set to something…" He shakes his head.
"Do you keep in contact with him?"
"We…see each other on occasion. I have no idea where he is right now, what he's up to," Jem says grimly.
"That bothers you."
"More than you can imagine." He disappears into his head, and judging from his expression, it's not a good journey. He snaps out of it with a half smile. "Anyway. Can that be number two?"
"I'll count it. So, what's number three?"
His gaze returns to the TV with a frown. He hangs his head for a moment. "Well, um," he clears his throat, "I…as you may have noticed…" He scowls, "I've only ever had one girlfriend. My-My fiancée. I-I-I never learned flirting or other social graces. Women tend to think I'm odd, and there were…other considerations. And since Uma, I suppose before her even, I've been so focused on my work it didn't seem that important."
"Save millions of people's lives or go on a coffee date. I can understand that."
"You can?" he asks as if a weight has lifted.
"Yeah. I mean, I was all about my career. Still am I guess. Whenever I was sitting across from some man droning on about golf, I wished I was back at the precinct or running down a lead. It's what made me happy, not…you know. I mean, it felt physically good when it was happening but hollow. There are more than a few encounters I wish I could take back. No, realizing what's important to you and doing it, despite what others think, is admirable. Just so long as when the real thing comes along, you don't bury your head in the sand from fear." I shrug. "So, do I know all your secrets now? Nothing else you want to tell me?"
"I…no. That's all."
"Then I win. I've had a far more embarrassing life than you. You never have to be nervous around me again."
I yawn. "Good." I turn back to the movie and snuggle on the armrest before pulling my legs onto the couch. "Then I do believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Dr. Ambrose." I close my eyes. Damn, am I tired. I yawn again and stretch out my legs so my feet touch his thigh.
I feel the warmth of his hand hovering over my bare foot for a few seconds before he hesitantly rests it there. "Friends."
I fall asleep minutes later enjoying the feel of him against my skin. It's enough. For now.
A person would think that those who can afford a thirty dollar salad would have manners, but I guess money can't buy you class. Even hundreds of miles from home and people still feel the need to point me out to their dining companions. A man I recognize as a Senator stares with impunity. Not even my glare stops his rude behavior. It's been a fucking year, I should be yesterday's news by now. Nope, still a circus freak.
Lucy's late. I figured if I was in Independence, her new homestead, I should take her out to lunch. A pittance for basically saving my life, but it's a start. Last time I saw her was just after I got out of rehab. She and Dobbs picked me up, drove me home, and she stuck around for two days just to make sure I settled back in. Hell she even attended my first AA meeting on the outside with me. Lucy may look down on me, she may not approve, hell I'm not even sure she likes me, but that woman was more of a mother to me than Maeve ever was.
My phone buzzes and I check it, smiling when I see who it's from. Jem's text reads, "
How's it going?
" At lunch yesterday I mentioned how nervous I was about this lunch. He's so sweet for checking on me. I type back, "
Not here yet. Fine.
Will call later
." As I put the phone away, I spot a familiar face.
Lucy Helms has barely changed since I first saw her poking her head out of that limo, telling her nephew to get back in and leave me to die on that bridge. She was just worried I'd take him over with me. She's still stick thin, with a sharp nose, cheekbones, and brown eyes. Her more salt than pepper hair is shorn in a pixie cut. She doesn't smile when she sees me. "Hello, Lucy."
The maître pulls out her chair, and she sits. "Joanna."
"Thank you for meeting me. You look great."
"As do you. Much improved."
"Thank you. I feel good."
We order drinks and lunch, and the waiter leaves.
"So, how did the meeting with Sen. Dumphy go? Will he propose the amendment?"
"Yes. We were very persuasive. The Ward and areas like it could use more free clinics, that's for sure."
She stares at me for a second. "You have become quite the deft power player, Joanna."
I shrug. "A lot of it's common sense and hiring the right people. Half the time I just wing it. I don't know what the hell Justin was thinking giving me the company."
"He thought you were up to the task. Someone had to carry the torch, and he knew you'd rather die than let it extinguish."
I gaze down. "I almost did."
"But you licked your wounds, picked yourself up, and kept carrying on. Have you stumbled since?"
"Then it's over. No use beating yourself up about it. It's wasted energy."
She always cuts to the quick. I like that in a person. We sit across from each other in silence for a few seconds before I work up the courage to say, "I know I told you this already, but…thank you. For kicking my ass, for taking me to that place, for putting up with that therapy session, all of it. You didn't have to--"
"Of course I did," she cuts in, sounding offended. "I've invested too much time and energy in you to let you drink it all away during some pity party. Besides…we're family. He would never forgive me if I let something happen to you."
We let those words hang between us like a hangman's noose. I gaze down again, and she glances around the room anywhere but at me. "It'll be a year next week," I say.
"Mayor Miracle organized a rally in the park. They're unveiling a statue, and I'm supposed to give a speech," I say, rolling my eyes. "I don't have a clue what to say. 'Look how much the town has gone to hell since he sacrificed himself for me. Sorry, my bad?'"
Her thin lips purse with disapproval. "If this lunch is going to turn maudlin, I'm leaving. I don't want to hear about your misplaced shame. He loved you. He did what he had to to protect you. And I doubt if he was presented the situation over again, he would make a different choice."
The waiter returns with our salads and leaves. Like a chastised child, I pout and pick at my food. "I keep dreaming about him."
She stops eating. "And I definitely don't want to hear about
My eyes narrow. "Nothing sexual. We just talk. He always seems so…happy. He says he's proud of me a lot." I set my fork down. "Jesus Christ, even when he's dead I need his approval. How fucked up is that?"
"He may not have always liked your choices, but he was always proud of you. Even now. As am I."
"Thank you," I say, humbled.
She clears her throat. "Now, may we please change the topic? This lunch has become far too gloomy for comfort. What else have you been up to besides communing with the dead?"
I fill her in on the latest business deals, gossip and scandals in Galilee. That last one takes awhile. She tells me about her volunteer work at the National Museum and new girlfriend, Amelia. "Ernest Miracle must be kissing the Triumvirate's feet for arriving two months before the election," Lucy says. "I heard that crime went down two percent in a month."
"That's what the paper says."
"I heard what happened at the Historical Society."
"Yeah, thank God Liberty showed up when she did," I say.
"So you approve of supers now? My, what a difference a year makes."
I start picking at my food. "Actually, I'm, uh…working with them."
Her fork stops midway to her lips. "I'm sorry?"
"They just appeared one night wanting to use the computer. Justin must have told them where to find it. I offered to help, and after some persuasion, they agreed."
"Is that wise? After what happened last year?"
"I don't go out in the field with them. I'm not out there beating up Hexen. I sit in front of a computer in an underground office and compile data. It's what Justin would want."
"The hell it is! He would want you to be safe. Out in the world living your life, not trapped in a bunker performing illegal searches for people who put a target on your back."
"Well, at least this time I know I'm in league with a hero."
There's that look I've missed. That "why do I associate myself with riff-raff" gaze she doled out to me like a toothbrush at Halloween. "Fine. It's your life. Just be careful."
"Like a virgin at an orgy," I say, toasting her with my water. There's that look again. "So, did Justin ever mention anything about them that might be useful?"
"He rarely mentioned that side of his life to me. I wanted no part of it, for obvious reasons you should well remember." She sips her water. "I do know they were effective at their jobs. When Independence realized they left, there was an outcry. And I don't want to carry on with this discussion. I've had enough superhero discussions for a lifetime." She dabs the side of her mouth with a napkin. "So, besides your little side project, anything else you care to tell me? Are you seeing anyone?"
"No-Not really," I stutter. "I made some new friends. Remember Jem Ambrose, Rebecca's friend? I think you met him."
Her mouth purses with disapproval. "I know the name."
"Well, we've been having lunch." Every other day for the past two weeks. I keep finding reasons for showing up at the hospital. God bless the recovery wing. Not to mention the late night phone calls into the wee hours. "And we went hiking to the Falls. He didn't know anyone else in town, so I took him under my wing. Figured I owed it to Rebecca."
She studies my face, and I wish I could hide in a closet. "You're blushing, Joanna."
Oh, fuck. I hate being pale. "We're just friends. Really. He's just, uh, I can talk to him. About almost anything. He's…easy to be around, and really smart, and sweet, and awkward and I don't know." I chuckle. "And he's
screwed up. He has no idea how amazing he really is. It's fucking wonderful. I don't feel like a freak around him. But there's this strength in him too." I shake my head. "When we're together, it's just natural. Like when I was around…you know, minus the constant need to impress," I say, looking away
"He sounds wonderful," Lucy says.
"He is! That's the problem. I…like him. A lot. But I don't know if I can trust him. And I want to, I may even, which scares the fuck out of me. Plus, you and I both know I'll find some way to screw it up, especially if we start dating." I groan. "Ugh, I hate this. I sound like a fucking girl."
"Can't have that," Lucy says with a smirk. "You need to stop worrying, Joanna. If it's meant to be, everything will fall into place."
"You sound like my friend Lexie."
"Another friend? Aren't you popular."
"She and her husband moved from Independence too. They…" Holy shit. My mouth falls like my stomach, but I snap it shut with a chuckle. "They're good people." I chug my water.
"It sounds like you're doing well." She signals the waiter for the check.
I pay for lunch, and we step outside onto the busy Independence streets. The white Presidential Monument arches tall above the city with the flag whipping in the wind. Makes me feel almost patriotic. The restaurant doorman hails a cab, and my driver pulls up as well. "Take care of yourself, Joanna." Lucy gives me a stiff hug before climbing into the cab.
I wait until it's out of sight before sliding into my town car. What a difference a year makes. I do believe that woman officially likes me. "Airport, please."
The driver starts moving as I pull out my cell. We round the corner. Gone an hour and I have seven messages, all work, but my mind isn't on them. We stop at a light. I can't believe I didn't see--
The sound of sirens, automatic gunfire and crashing cars jolts me from my thoughts. The intersection in front of us flips from calm to crazy in a second flat. The cars passing through gun their engines to get out of the way, of what I don't know. Nothing good, that's for damn sure. The gunfire booms louder with each passing millisecond. My mouth dries up and body goes on high alert. Fuck. I blink and an armored truck with three men, one hanging out the passenger window and two in the back, firing Uzis zooms into view with only one bullet riddled police car chasing it. A few cars in front of the truck veer to a stop as their driver's panic. The few cars behind the truck swerve out of the bullet path, one crashing into the glass window of a bakery. Right as the truck passes into our intersection, the tenacious police officers lose the battle. A bullet hits the latch and the hood of the car flies up, blocking their line of sight. The officer loses control and swerves in our direction. Instinct takes over. I scream, "Get down!" at my driver as I duck. I've barely stopped moving when glass rains down over me as a barrage of bullets meant for the cruiser pepper the town car. The carnage is over as soon as it started. I open my eyes and see the plumes of smoke wafting out of the upholstery where the bullets lodged in the driver's headrest. "You okay?" I ask the driver.
"Oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus," he mutters. He's fine.
Another crash, louder this time, makes me sit up. The armored truck is out of sight and the bystanders in cars and on the street slowly rise from the pavement. A construction worker helps the police out of their overturned car ten feet to my left. The gunfire stops a second later, and I let out the breath I was holding. I think it's--