Authors: Suzanne Stengl
Copyright 2012 Suzanne Stengl
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novella are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Publisher: Mya & Angus
Cover Design: April Martinez
Layout: E-Book Formatting Fairies
Thank you to Dara-Lee Snow, who encouraged me to write this story in the first place, and Vicki Chatham who beta read and offered excellent suggestions.
to Louise Behiel
Founder and Charter President of the Calgary Association of the Romance Writers of America.
So many good things have happened to me because of CARWA, and without Louise, the organization might never have existed.
Already late, Jessibelle Shay rushed off the elevator and almost tripped over old Mrs. Hartfield who was kneeling on the floor in front of the opening doors.
Looking miserable, the little grandmother scooped her fallen groceries together. The flimsy plastic bag that had held them lay abandoned on the carpet.
Jessibelle glanced at her watch, sighed, and then knelt beside the old woman. “Those bags aren’t very dependable, are they?”
“No, dear,” Mrs. Hartfield answered. “I forgot my cloth bag and now look at this.”
“Don’t worry,” Jessibelle said. “Nothing’s broken.” She retrieved three apples and four oranges and dropped them into her shoulder bag. Then she picked up a tin of tea, a jar of mustard, a small bottle of cinnamon and a bag of raisins.
“That’s right. Nothing is broken,” the old lady said, sounding more cheerful. “Nothing to be worried about.” Agile for her age, she rose to her feet cradling a package of macaroni, a box of graham crackers, a pint of cream and the torn grocery bag.
Together they walked down the hall to their apartments, moving at the speed of Mrs. Hartfield, which wasn’t very fast. Jessibelle listened as the grandmother talked about her swimming lesson, her euchre game and her infant grandson.
They lived on the top floor—the seventeenth floor—of the Villa Marie Towers in the coastal college town of New Breckenridge in the Pacific Northwest. Jessibelle’s door faced them at the end of the hall, and Mrs. Hartfield was her neighbor on the right.
When they reached their doors, Mrs. Hartfield was still talking about her grandson. She transferred her groceries to Jessibelle’s arms and found her keys.
A moment later, Jessibelle carried her armful of groceries into Mrs. Hartfield’s apartment and set them on the counter, along with the apples and oranges she’d had in her shoulder bag.
“Would you like a cup of tea, dear?”
“You know I would, but I’ve got my Spanish class.” She’d only have a few minutes to grab her books and run for the bus. “I’d better go.”
“All right. Another time, then.”
Jessibelle let herself into her apartment, picked up the mail that had dropped through the letter slot, shuffled through it, and stopped.
She felt her shoulder bag drop to the floor as she stared at the linen envelope, hating to open it. Needing to know. She took a deep breath, slipped a finger under the flap, pulled out the invitation, and read the words.
She scanned the words again, thinking they might change, but they didn’t. The gold letters pulsed on the ivory paper with solid certainty, telling her that her worst fears had come true. Her old boyfriend and her used-to-be Best Friend had invited her to their wedding.
Pain tightened her chest, and images of the last year flashed through her mind.
“I’m in love with Hanna,” Rodney had said. “You and I were never meant to be.” And then he’d paused and added, “Except for you to be a stepping stone to my meeting her.”
She’d said nothing. And done nothing. No shouting, no condemning, and certainly no crying. She could never be theatrical. She’d accepted Rodney’s news in silence, then wished him well . . . while the ache of disappointment pierced her heart. She’d put on such a brave front. She was so brave.
And so stupid, since she was the one who had introduced them.
“You do understand, don’t you?” Rodney had said. “I can’t help how I feel.”
A blankness muffled her mind and she wondered, again, if she could feel anything. Maybe all of her feelings had died that day.
And now this. Now she was expected to carry on with the pretense. To wish them well. To smile for the cameras. To pretend her life had moved on.
It would take a miracle to get her through it, she mused.
Then she heard the crash of glass in the living room of her apartment. Last week, a seagull had banged against her window. Nothing had broken, then.
But something had broken now. The large living room window gaped open with a ragged hole letting in the sea breeze. Shards of glass scattered over her couch and chair and coffee table. And, more astonishing, a man dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt knelt in the middle of a heap of broken glass in front of the couch.
A window washer?
His arms, bare and muscled, braced in front of him, gripping the bottom of the couch. Glass flakes sparkled in his hair. Like his clothes, his hair was dark. Dark brown, almost black.
Jessibelle felt the cool spring breeze shiver over her skin. She grasped her sweater, pulling it close. Should she call 911?
“Sorry about that,” he said, lifting his head. “I’m not used to this yet.”
She bent over him, looking for blood. But there was no blood that she could see. Not even any scratches.
She felt herself start to breathe again. No blood. That was good, right?
She looked into his eyes, his deep brown eyes, to see if he was okay. “You’re the window washer? Are you all right?”
He sat back on his heels and brushed some glass out of his hair. “No,” he said, “I’m not the window washer. But yes, I’m fine, thanks.” A slight pause. “How are you?”
“I—I’m . . .” A trail of tiny bits of glass decorated the shoulder of his black T-shirt, like diamond chips, glinting. “What happened? Are you sure you’re not hurt? What are you doing here?” Maybe she should run next door for Mrs. Hartfield?
“I’m here to help you,” the man said, dusting glass off his clothes as he got to his feet.
Stunned, Jessibelle took a step back and looked up at him, comparing him in height to Rodney. Rodney was tall at almost six feet, but this man stood much taller.
“I’m here to accompany you to the wedding.”
What? A niggle of unease prodded her. How could he—? “The wedding?”
“Yes,” he said, flicking more glass off his shoulder. “That invitation? The one you’re holding?”
She glanced down at the forgotten invitation, now crushed in her hands. And then she looked around the living room, noticing the fragments of window glass sprinkled everywhere. And, noticing how the late afternoon light arced through the glass, making the room seem bright. Brighter than it ever was at this time of day.
A little part of her mind was thinking it would be a good idea to be afraid of this intruder.
It was only a little part though. Mostly, he had her complete attention. But, what had he said? Accompany her to the wedding? “I don’t understand.” She looked at his eyes again.
His bright eyes. His very intelligent eyes. His—
“I don’t understand,” she repeated.
“I’ll explain. But you should sit down.” He looked at the couch, at the thick layer of glass splinters. “Let me fix this first.”
The glass started to shimmer and to lift up off the floor. And to swirl, and then to sort itself back into a window. And, suddenly, there was no more broken glass.
Only the sun glinting off the window with the lighthouse in the distance and a pair of sailboats racing across the bay.
But the man was still standing there.
Jessibelle felt her knees weaken. She watched, with a weird sensation of calm, as red dots blinked over her tired mind. Finally, she felt herself sinking to the carpet.
And then all was black.
· · · · ·
When she awoke, the light was dimmer.
Or maybe she wasn’t really awake yet. Maybe this was still part of her weird dream. At any rate, she didn’t want to open her eyes. So she kept them closed, and listened.
The tap dripped in the kitchen. The clock on the stove ticked slightly, like it always did. Out in the hall, she heard Mrs. Hartfield’s door open. Heard Mrs. Hartfield humming. Heard the old lady put her key in her lock, and turn it. And then she heard the footsteps trail away.
Judging by the nearness of these sounds, Jessibelle was on her couch, in her living room, and she hadn’t gone to bed yet.
Sorting through memory, she pieced the day together. She must have taken a moment after work for a short nap. But, if she didn’t wake up soon, if she didn’t at least open her eyes to begin the process of waking up, she would keep sleeping until morning. And then she would miss her Spanish class, because it was Monday night. Monday night meant Spanish class at the College.
That was the plan, she told herself, letting a little more awareness into her brain. She would learn Spanish. She would take that big vacation to Spain. The big vacation that she and Rodney were supposed to—
The familiar ache jabbed her heart.
She couldn’t think about that now. She had to get ready for her class, so she opened her eyes and looked up at the ceiling with its fake Tudor beams. Then, she sat up and looked out the big living room window at the sun setting over the bay.
A sparkly sensation pricked the edges of her mind. The déjà vu glimmered, and then disappeared. It was, after all, only a window. Windows didn’t break and then reassemble themselves.
Letting go of a sigh, she realized how tired she felt.
Out on the water, the golds and reds and purples mixed with the ocean and reflected back on the clouds feathering away into the night. She was going to be late for her class.
“Feeling better now? You must have been tired.”
Adrenaline dissolved her exhaustion. Her heart skipped and reorganized itself. And then she turned her head toward the overstuffed chair in the corner of her living room.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Gabe. The guys upstairs sent me to help you.”
“The guys upstairs? There is no upstairs. This is the seventeenth floor.”
“I mean—” He paused and looked up. “The guys . . . upstairs.”
Jessibelle blinked and the world hummed. She let her head fall back against the couch, closed her eyes, and faded away again.
· · · · ·
The next time she woke up, she was in bed.
Morning light filtered through her pink Chenille curtains. She’d left the window open last night so she could smell the fresh sea air with its promise of spring. And also, so she could hear the seagulls crying as they wheeled over the bay. She liked listening to them. They reminded her of . . . freedom.