Authors: Jennifer Harlow
"I'm fine now. Thank you."
He nods. "Yes. Right. Sure. Um, I-I had better…" he gestures to the door, and smiles nervously. "Ha-Have a nice day." And he walks out.
I don't move for a minute. I can't. I'm completely dazed by what just transpired. Not that I can exactly explain what just happened. I just know the last time I felt like this I was twelve and standing on Pendergast Bridge, staring at the boy who would become the most important person in my life. My body tingling from my soul out from the recognition that nothing,
would ever be the same for me again. And it is…brilliant. Exciting. Miraculous.
And more damn terrifying than a million guns held by a million villains pointed at me.
I give my statement to one of the officers accompanying the henchmen to the hospital and get the hell out of there as quick as I can. Dobbs knows me well enough to not ask a lot of questions on the drive home. I change out of my bloody dress into jeans and black shirt, grab some chips and candy from the pantry, and begin work on my new project: Dr. Jonathan Fucking Ambrose, MD, Ph.D.
I know it's kind of stalker-ish to have Doris run a database search on a guy I like, but I will refrain from driving by his building ten times a day or rooting through his trash. Maybe. I locate his full name, Jonathan Greene Ambrose, date of birth, and social security number from the hospital records and plug them in. It'll take Doris about ten minutes to collate, so I go into the living room for better reception to return calls. Harry's cell goes to voice mail, so I leave a message. Same with Cam and V. Everyone's busy. I do speak to my head of PR and review the press release about to go out. The computer is done by the time I am. Close to two hundred documents found. This is going to take awhile.
Let's see. Born just outside New Urbana. Parents deceased. I pull up a picture of them at a charity event. Ugh. Both are serious and haughty, not even smiling it for the camera. I know their type: thinks they're better than everyone. It's as if they're judging me even in this photo. Father, Christian Ambrose, was heir to the Stonehouse Pharmaceuticals fortune. He was a doctor too, a geneticist, wow one on the team that isolated the uber-gene that causes people to have superpowers. It seems genius runs in the family. There's not a lot on Christian or his wife Eloise except a marriage announcement and a few sightings at charity events. The article that catches my eye is the one about the house, or really mansion fire when Jem was sixteen. Killed both parents. The article mentions a brother, Jordan, but it's the only time. Maybe he died too. And there's no engagement announcement either. In fact there's precious little about Jem's personal life anywhere. A few mentions on the New Urbana or Independence society pages but otherwise all the files are academic or professional. He started college at age fourteen, developed the retrovirus before he graduated med school at age twenty, has a trillion awards, has lectured all over the world, was one on Independence's bachelors of the year twice, and has an IQ of 198. I fall back in my seat with a sigh. Great. I sure can pick them. Perfect. He's fucking perfect. And probably still in love with his dead fiancée.
Shit. I spin around to find Lady Liberty smiling and strutting toward me. I was so deep in thought I didn't hear her come in. "Why are you looking up Jonathan Ambrose?"
"I-I," I stammer, clicking out of the file, "we hired him at the hospital. Just making sure, you know it wasn't a mistake."
Her eyes narrow. "That's it?"
"Why else would I waste my time on…" I chuckle nervously. "Never mind. Did--Do you need to use the computer or--"
"No. I just wanted to check in on you. It was intense today."
"I've been in worse."
"I'm aware. Still, most people would have crumbled. You handled yourself well in there. I was impressed."
"Thank you. I'm just glad you showed up when you did."
"Thank whoever called 911." She looks me over. "Well, if you're not a basket case, I have a city to patrol. Never a dull moment here, huh?" She smirks. "I'll let you get back to your side project.
." She gives me a two finger salute and begins to walk away. When she reaches the exit, she stops and turns around. "You know, I just decided something. Nightingale was right about you. You are going to be good for us. I am officially going to start liking you, Joanna Fallon." She smiles brightly. "Welcome to the family." She winks, turns on her heel, and flies away.
"O-kay," I say to myself as I turn back to the computer.
The family. The violent, dysfunctional, superhuman family. Great. Why do I suddenly feel like smashing this computer, blowing up this room, and running as far from the city as I can? I don't want this. I don't want people pointing guns at me anymore. I don't want to look at disgusting photos of human degradation. I want…
I re-open the file on Jem with a sigh. But that's my life. Was the moment my father died. Jem's right. I have to accept that. I live deep in the abyss, it's part of me, and it sure as hell is not a place I would ever afflict upon him.
I delete his file.
Running fucking sucks. I hate running. I hate sweating, I hate not being able to breathe, I hate my legs aching. It's ruined the beach for me. I'm supposed to get a rush or thrill at some point, but maybe I have no endorphins. Sure would explain a few things. The only reason I'm enduring this now is I was going batshit in that house. Couldn't even wait until night to run away. I've had constant phone calls from reporters for two days now, both at home and work. Once again in the eyes of the public, I'm a hero. Bitsy even went on television claiming she'd be dead if it wasn't for my intervention. I could handle the attention, even the paparazzi at my gate, but not one little message from Jem. He phoned yesterday, befuddled as usual, to check on me. I felt as if I were back in high school, listening to the message a dozen times to find hidden meaning in every pause. I finally deleted it without calling him back, then obsessed over that decision too. Hence the running. Physical torture beats the mental kind any day of the week.
As I'm running past my usual stopping place, I hear a woman shout, "Joanna!" from above. The female lovebird waves from her perch, and I stop to wave back. Really it's to catch my breath. I can't seem to get past the mile mark without falling face first into the sand. Lexie signals me up and shouts, "Come on!" What the hell? Like my house, hers has a million steps, and I'm about dead when I reach her patio. She greets me with a bottle of water and a smile fit for a supermodel. "Thought you might be thirsty."
I gulp down the water. "Thanks."
"Come on in, hero. Meet the husband."
Their home is a post-modern masterpiece, all angles, white walls, and glass. It's a lot less depressing than mine. Maybe I should knock out my roof and add skylights. I won't though. Even after almost a year there, the mansion doesn't feel like mine. I couldn't even re-do Justin's bedroom and I sleep there every night. Hell, I still think of it as Justin's bedroom.
A man, I presume the husband, lounges on a huge black leather couch immersed in Sports Central re-caps. He's an attractive man if you like bohunks. His red hair is longish, down to his shoulders, and wavy with muscles bulging through his white t-shirt and blue jeans. I can see why the Angels shelled out millions for him. "Babe, we have company," Lexie says.
"Just a sec. I want to see if U-Urbana won against Lake City."
Lexie rolls her eyes. "You'll have to forgive my husband. They didn't teach him manners in the cave where he was born." She walks around to the couch, snatches the remote from the armrest, and shuts off the TV.
"Hey!" Brendan says.
"We have a legitimate hero in our home and all you care about are football scores!"
"What?" He turns around, and when he spots me, his mouth opens a little. "Oh, shit. Sorry," he says, standing.
"Joanna, Brendan. Brendan, Joanna," Lexie says.
He walks over to shake my hand. I'm a dwarf beside him. "Nice to meet you," he says. "Lexie's been sitting outside for hours waiting for you to show up."
"I was working on my tan, thank you very much," Lexie says.
"Yeah, right. I told you to just call." He returns his attention to me. "She's very impressed by you."
"Why?" I ask.
"You saved all those women," she says, rounding the couch to reach us. "I mean, I didn't see it or anything because I was cowering in the bathroom, but I heard all about it!"
"I really didn't do anything," I say. "It was mostly Lady Liberty. I just disarmed KitKat."
"Even still. You ran into that room to help your friend. That's huge. That alone makes you a hero."
"Or a moron," I counter.
"You should know there's nothing you can say to change her mind," Brendan says, wrapping his arm around his wife's tiny waist. "Once she's made it up, you're doomed."
"Doomed you, babe," she says with a smile. He leans in to give her cheek a peck. If they start making out again I am so out of here. She looks at me. "Sorry. We're shameless."
"Bren, can you go get that fruit salad in the fridge? I'm starving."
"Be right back," he says before leaving.
Lexie grabs my hand and yanks me toward the couch. "Sorry, I'm totally kidnapping you right now. I am
for girl talk, and you are the only person in this godforsaken city I even remotely like." We sit on the couch. "So, new best friend, what on earth possessed you to run into that room the other day? I mean, I know a little about your history, but still. You must really like that Bitsy woman."
"I guess. I didn't really think about it."
"So you're just one of those insanely brave people who run into burning buildings to save people. I so admire that."
I sip my water. "Well, you got the insane part right at least."
She falls back in the sofa. "You're being modest. Admit it, you rule. Hell, if half the crap I heard you went through last year is true, I'm shocked you're not in a padded cell. Kidnapped twice, getting shot at, watching your best friend die, that's like a lot." She licks her lips. "I knew him, you know. Justin. We met him at a few parties through the years. He was quite a guy."
"Yes," I say, gazing down.
I drink my water. I know what the next question is. "Did you know?" I always say, "How could I not?" and excuse myself.
Instead, she asks, "Are you still in love with him?" I almost choke on the water, coughing it all up onto my shirt. Lexie gasps and reaches across to get me a tissue. "Oh, crap. I am so sorry! Me and my damn mouth! Brendan's always telling me I have no filter. It's just that someone told me you were crazy in love with him for decades. I totally get why, he was a major babe. I can't even imagine what that must have been like for you. I guess you'll always love him, huh?"
I have no idea what to say. "I-I suppose."
"I get that. If something happened to Brendan, I'd never get over it. Widow's weeds for life. And I look dreadful in black."
"Are my ears burning?" Brendan asks as he walks in. He has two bowls of cut up fruit and forks. "You surviving the Spanish Inquisition there, Jo?"
"She hasn't strangled me yet, so that's a good sign."
He kisses the top of Lexie's head. "It's early yet, babe."
"Oh, go away."
"I live to serve." He kisses her again. "Nice to meet you, Jo. I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more of each other. Scream if you need back-up."
"Pretty sure she can take me, babe." We watch as he walks out. "Hot, isn't he? You can bounce a quarter off his ass. Literally."
O-kay. I clear my throat. "So, how long have you two been married?"
"A little over three years. We were friends for about a year, lovers for another after that, then made it official. I mean, we drive each other nuts, but that's part of the fun."
"You seem very much in love," I say, eating a piece of cantaloupe.
"Love of my life. No question." She shifts on the couch. "So, what about you? Your heart healed enough to let someone in yet? Got your eye on anyone?"
I gaze down at the fruit. "No. Not really."
She examines me, then laughs. "You are so lying! I can tell. My bullcrap detector is never wrong. Drives Brendan nuts. So, who is he? Is he handsome? Is he a playboy? Lawyer? Maybe a doctor?" My grip on the fork tightens. "Oh, a doctor! Nice. So, what's his name? Is he cute? Have you gone on a date yet?"
I glance up, more than a little uncomfortable and showing it. "There's no one. Really. My last relationship ended badly, and I am absolutely not in a place to jump into another one."
"Well, love has its own timetable. When the right guy comes along, it doesn't matter if you're busy, emotionally ready, or even looking, everything just falls into place. Can't fight fate, new best friend. I speak from experience. So, what's his name?"
"There's no one," I insist.
She pouts. "Fine. We obviously need a spa day or two to solidify this friendship before you share all your dirty little secrets." She smiles. "But I will get it out of you," she says, biting the watermelon and winking. "Then onto more neutral topics. Are you going to Rachel Mills' twenties party and
are you wearing?"
I return home an hour later with an appointment at a spa and another to go shopping for party dresses with my second new best friend. The odd thing is I don't mind. There's something about her I actually like, maybe her honesty. She's not fake, not playing games. It's refreshing, especially within the society set. I'm cautiously optimistic. At the very least there'll be someone at parties who doesn't look down at me.
I shower, change into jeans and camouflage top, braid my hair, and make my way to the command center. I once timed how long it took to get there from Justin's bedroom, and it came to four minutes. Seventeen thousand square feet. This house is too damn big. I really fucking hate it here, I really do. Besides the size, I'd swear the former Pendergasts are floating around, judging me, pissed to have an interloper in charge of their legacy. I should move into a townhouse or penthouse and turn this place over to the historical society for tours or just shut it up. Doris can be moved and set-up someplace more convenient. I scoff. Yeah, that's going to happen. Maybe in ten years I can let go. Until then…at least I get some exercise. And it's not so lonely anymore with my regular guests popping in all the time.