Excerpt from Just One Kiss
HQN -- Fool's Gold Series June 2013
Fifteen years ago...
Patience McGraw couldn't breathe. She placed her hand on top of her chest and wondered if it was possible to have a heart attack and die from fear. Or maybe anticipation. Her mind raced and her throat was tight and here she was on possibly the most significant day of her life and she couldn't catch her breath. Talk about lame.
"The snow's melting," Justice said, pointing toward the mountains just east of town.
She looked up and nodded. "It's getting warmer."
It's getting warmer? She held in a groan. Why did she have to sound so stupid? Why did she have to be so nervous? This was Justice, her best friend since he'd moved to Fool's Gold at the beginning of October last year. They'd met in the school cafeteria and they'd reached for the last cupcake. He'd let her have it, she'd offered to share. She'd figured because he was older, he would have refused, but he'd smiled instead and that day they'd become friend.
She knew him. They hung out together, played video games together, went to the movies together. It was fun. It was easy. Or it had been until a few weeks ago when she'd suddenly looked into Justice's dark blue eyes and felt something she'd never experienced before.
Her mom had reassured her it was normal. Patience was fourteen, Justice was sixteen and it was unlikely they would stay friends forever. But Patience wasn't sure she liked the change. Before, she hadn't had to think about everything she said or worry about what she wore, or how her hair looked. Now she was always thinking, which made it hard to just hang out.
After two months of sweating every word, every thought, every action, she was done. She was going to tell Justice the truth. That she liked him. That she wanted him to be more than her best friend. If he liked her back, well, she didn't know what would happen then, but she was sure it would be wonderful. If he didn't, she would probably die of a broken heart.
They walked through the quiet residential neighborhood of Fool's Gold. The small town was nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. With spring chasing away winter, there were buds on trees and the first daffodils and tulips of the season swayed in the afternoon breeze. All of which had nothing to do with the fact that she was seriously scared. Because while talking about dying of a broken heart was very Pride and Prejudice—her mother's favorite book and movie—it might be painful and a little gross.
But she had to know. Had to stop wondering. She should just tell him and get it over with. There was a school dance in two weeks and she wanted to go with Justice.
She was pretty sure he didn't like anyone else. Although he was two years older than her, he didn't have a girlfriend and they always hung out together at lunch and stuff. Not that he'd tried to kiss her. She wasn't sure how she felt about kissing, but if she was going to have a boy kiss her, she wanted it to be Justice and why did her stomach hurt so much?
She jumped. "Huh?"
"Are you okay?"
She came to a stop and clutched her books to her chest. "I'm fine. Why do you ask?"
"You're quiet. Is something wrong?"
His eyes were so beautiful, she thought. Dark, dark blue. They crinkled a little at the corners when he laughed, which wasn't that often. He had a great smile. He was still kind of skinny, as if he'd grown too fast, but cute. And sweet to her.
"Justice, I need to ask you something."
He nodded and waited, facing her. "Sure. What?"
She opened her mouth, then closed it. Words disappeared as she got lost in fear and panic and—
They both turned and saw Ford Hendrix crossing the street toward them. Patience exhaled, both relieved and frustrated by the interruption.
Ford was one of six kids. Dark hair and eyes. All the girls thought he was hot, but Patience only saw Justice.
"Could you believe that history test?" Ford asked. He and Justice were the same age and had a lot of classes together. "Hey, Patience."
They all fell into step together, walking toward home, the moment lost.
"Man, why do we have to know that stuff?" Ford asked. "World War One was like a hundred years ago or something. That essay question..."
"Brutal," Justice finished for him.
Patience glanced at him and saw he was watching her, his expression questioning. She swallowed as she realized he might ask her what she'd wanted to talk about and she couldn’t possibly say anything in front of Ford. He was a nice enough guy, but no way!
"I, um, need to get home," Patience said. "I'm going to cut through here. See you tomorrow."
But she ignored Justice and hurried away, ducking around a house and through a backyard as she made her escape.
The next morning, Patience was determined not to wait another second to tell Justice the truth. She'd spent a horrible night, tossing and turning, wishing, hoping and feeling a little sick to her stomach. She couldn't keep doing this to herself. She was going to be brave. She was going to be honest. If things went really bad, she was sure her mom would be willing to move.
She walked from her house to Justice's, like she had every school morning for months now. He lived a couple of blocks closer to town and he was on her way. As she walked down the sidewalk, she looked at the small two-bedroom house he shared with his uncle. Normally Justice would be sitting on the porch steps, waiting for her. Only he wasn't there this morning.
Did he know? Had he figured out what she wanted to tell him? Was he disgusted? Did he think she was a complete dork and was so embarrassed he couldn’t speak to her?
Fear and anxiety propelled her up the stairs. If it was bad, she wanted to hear it fast. He should just tell her the truth so she wouldn’t hope. Then her heart would break and she could get over it and...
She paused on the porch as she realized the front door was partially open. As if someone had left it that way in a hurry. She frowned as she moved forward.
"Justice? Are you okay?"
She knocked once and the door swung open.
She'd been in the small house dozens of time. There was a living room with a tiny dining room and kitchen beyond. There were two bedrooms and a single bathroom in the back. She remembered a sofa and a couple of chairs, some kind of coffee table.
Only all of that was gone now. The living room was empty, as was the dining room beyond. There was nothing. Not a cushion or a box or a scrap of paper. It was as if no one had ever lived here at all.
Patience slowly walked through the house. Her breathing sounded loud in the stillness. She didn't understand. How could everything be gone?
The kitchen was as vacant as the rest of the place. The cupboards stood open, the shelves bare. The sink was empty as were all the drawers. In Justice's bedroom, there was no hint her friend had ever lived there.
She returned to the living room and blinked away sudden tears. She turned in a slow circle, fear growing inside of her.
This wasn't right. People didn't just disappear in the night. Something had happened. Something bad.
She darted out the front door and ran all the way home. She burst in the back door and yelled for her mom.
"Justice is gone! He's gone and his uncle's gone and all their stuff."
Her mother hurried into the living room. "What are you talking about?"
Patience told her what had happened. Ava grabbed a jacket, then followed her out the back door. Ten minutes later she was gazing at the empty interior. Fifteen minutes after that, the police had arrived.
Patience watched the activity and listened to the conversation. No one knew what had happened. No one had heard anything or seen anything. But they all agreed it was very strange. Justice and his uncle had disappeared. It was as if they'd never been there at all.
"Trim up my eyebrows," Alfred said, wiggling his white, bushy brows as he spoke. "I want to look sexy."
Patience McGraw held in a smile. "Big night planned with the missus?"
"You know it."
A concept that would be romantic, if Alfred and his lovely wife were a tad younger than say ninety-five. Patience had to keep herself from blurting out a warning that, at their age, they should be careful. She supposed the more important lesson was that true love and passion could last a lifetime.
"I'm jealous," she told her client as she carefully trimmed his brows.
"You picked a piss poor excuse of a man," Albert told her, then shrugged. "Excuse my French."
"I can't complain about you telling the truth," Patience said, wondering what it would be like to live in a bigger city. Where everyone didn't know every detail of your personal life. But she'd been born in Fool's Gold and had grown up with the idea that there were very few secrets between friends and neighbors.
Which meant the whole town knew that she'd gotten pregnant when she was eighteen and the "piss poor excuse for a man" who'd been her baby's father had walked out on her and her daughter less than a year later.
"You'll find someone," Alfred told her, gently patting her arm. "A pretty girl like you should have them lined up for miles."
She smiled. "You're very sweet. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were flirting with me."
Alfred gave her a wink.
Despite his compliments, she managed to find herself amazingly man-free. Fool's Gold wasn't exactly swimming with prospects and as a single mother, she had to be especially careful. There was also the fact that most of the men she met weren't interested in other men's kids.
As Patience picked up the scissors to clip a couple of errant hairs, she told herself that she was very comfortable with her life. Given the choice, she would rather open her own business than fall in love. But every now and then, she found herself longing for someone to lean on. A man to care about, who would be there for her.
She stood back and studied Albert's reflection. "You're even more handsome than before," she said, putting down her tools and unfastening his cape.
"Hard to believe," Albert said with a grin.
She didn't recognize the male voice, but turned anyway. A man stood in the entrance of the shop.
Her mind registered several things at once. Albert was her last appointment of the day. If the guy was a walk-in, he wouldn't call her by name. The man was tall, with dark gold-blond hair and deep blue eyes. His shoulders were broad and he had the kind of face that would be happy up on a movie screen. Nice, but she had no idea who he...
She felt the cape flutter to the floor as she really looked at the man moving toward her. He was a few inches taller, a lot more muscular, but his eyes... They were exactly the same. They even crinkled when he smiled at her.
She was fourteen again, standing in that empty house, more scared than she'd ever been in her life. There hadn't been any answers. Not then or since. No solution to the mystery. Just questions and a gnawing sense that something had gone terribly wrong.
"Justice?" she asked, her voice more breath than sound. "Justice?"