Dear Readers,

First of all, thank you for being so impatiently patient, while I got my life together and dealt with a lot of things that kept me from writing. Every single message you sent me was read and cherished. Sometimes I just didn't have the energy to respond, so I'm doing it now, en masse. Sorry if that seems impersonal…but it is definitely heartfelt.

I had major health problems over the past year and a half, which led to major financial problems and major upheavals in my life. We lost our home, I almost died, yada yada. However, it's a new day. We're back on track. I'm feeling good again.

And I'm writing again. I feel alive again. The two go hand-in-hand.

Anyway, this chapter is a bit boring, I'll warn you now. It's almost completely in their heads, lots of thoughts and feelings. I hit serious writer's block with this particular chapter, and ended up putting it aside for a while in the hopes that something would come to me…then life decided to drop some bombs in my lap, and the chapter languished on my desktop for over a year. Nothing huge happens here in Chapter 18, but true to its title, it is road work: laying the groundwork for the final two chapters, where everything will tie up neatly and, hopefully, give you a satisfying end to A & J's long, long journey home.

I plan on going back and ripping TLRH apart and putting it all back together again, shiny and clean. You guys noticed some details I flubbed, so I need to fix those things—plus, my writing style has evolved a bit since I started writing this story in 2009… If you can believe it, TLRH started out as a dream (no kidding) that was originally a one-shot, and grew then, swelling FAR beyond my own expectations, a bit like Reneesme. ;) It was also the first piece of fiction I'd written in more than ten years, so I was a bit rusty and florid. If you're interested in reading the re-vamped (pun intended!), completed version (which will contain some things not in the one that's currently out online) as a downloadable e-book, please let me know.

Again, thank you, thank you, thank you for reading and continuing to support me. I love you all. And for those of you who care, thank Lydia Hale for being the spur that goaded me into promising to finish TLRH before Christmas. She and her sweet bunch of friends made me feel so guilty and loved that I had to make that promise—and I intend to keep it.



Chapter 18: Road Work


The mugger hadn't wanted to stab the man, I knew, from the sudden surge of remorse and frantic worry that assaulted me just a split-second before the scent of his victim's blood slammed into me like a freight train.

The robber just wanted the wallet, and his mark put up too much of a fight. I didn't see it happen, because they were in an alley just off the main street, only a few feet away in the dimness of the shadows between the buildings, but it was close enough for the emotions to lash at me, to hear their struggle echoing off the alley walls.

Nothing good ever happens in alleys, does it?

My body took over. Throat burning with thirst, the bloodlust coloring my vision red, my hands curling into claws, I froze, preparing to strike.

Yet, some tiny part of my mind screamed out, throwing the image up before my eyes. Reminding me. Trying to stop the unstoppable. I was catapulted back in time, just a few minutes, but precious ones.

It was a beautiful ring.

Nestled in the velvet of the display case, the platinum setting gleamed subtly, the diamonds catching the light of the overhead bulbs and casting rainbow fragments all around. It wasn't flashy or huge. The central diamond, princess cut, was only a carat, but it was flawless and clear; the other, smaller diamonds, baguettes, surrounded the bigger one, pretty maids clustered about the bride, set in the platinum of the band in a delicate pattern, a spray of leaves cradling a precious flower.

It was perfect.

I could already see it on her finger, resting comfortably against her wedding band, which although plain, wouldn't be overshadowed by this elegant engagement ring. It looked fragile, but platinum is an extraordinarily strong metal, and diamonds are…well, diamonds. Beautiful but unbelievably durable and useful.

Diamonds could adorn the most costly jewelry…or be used to drill into the most unyielding rock. I liked the symbolism of it: it was like Alice herself. Glittering, lovely, fragile-seeming…but eternal, unbreakable, and amazingly versatile.

"Sir? Would you like to see it up close?"

The jewelry store clerk's voice interrupted my reverie; I looked up into her face, round and soft and eagerly helpful. She caught my good mood, her smile widening, her heart skipping a beat at the sight of my face, the sound both sweet and awful to my ears. She felt how happy I was, to be standing there in that store and looking at the perfect ring for my perfect wife, and she was happy for me, obliviously so.

Lucky girl. The circumstances barely protected her from being objectified as a potential meal, something I was fighting fiercely to stop doing.

"Yes. Please." My response was short, clipped, heavy with my ironclad resolve. I'd take it in my hand and see it closer. But it didn't matter: I knew, even without touching the ring, that it was the right one. Fate or something had guided me to that store, the first one I saw, directing me to that particular display case.

The girl grinned happily and unlocked the case, reaching inside to take the ring out carefully. She held it with something akin to reverence, the way one properly handles something rare and special. Not covetous, but appreciative.

"Here you are, sir. Three carats total. It's practically an antique, too. Provenance has it being crafted in 1920. You can never go wrong with Tiffany."

I reached out to take it from her, and, careless in my distraction, my fingertips brushed the salesgirl's hand; she started, her eyes widening at the coldness of my skin, and I felt her sudden thrill of nervousness. She looked at me more closely, and something inside her, her innate sense of self-preservation, must have recognized my otherness, told her to beware.

She took a step back, almost to the wall, eyes widening.

Poor thing. As if a glass display case and a few feet of space between us would keep her safe, if I was thirsty and out of control.

She did smell lovely, though. Delectable.

I felt the venom well up in my mouth, an automatic response, my body asserting its wishes fiercely, lusting after the hot, salty-sweet blood pulsing through her veins. For a split-second I froze, caught up in the fantasy of taking her down, every muscle and tendon ready to strike, imagining slaking the thirst that never truly went away on this diet of animal blood with her life.


I thought of Alice, how sad and disappointed she'd be, if I gave in to that primal urge. I thought of how hard it would be to get back on track afterward, how my body and mind would try to reject the animal blood after tasting human again, my flesh greedy and selfish, my brain rebelling against such self-denial. I'd been through it before. It was a living hell.

But more than anything, I thought of the agony of my own guilt. How I'd have to wallow in the memory of this human girl's pain and fear and bewilderment as I killed her, her emotions felt as keenly as if they were my own, replayed again and again by my guilty conscience… And how I'd hate myself anew, all the barely-healed wounds in my soul breaking open again by the acid of my self-loathing at my own weakness.

It wouldn't be a simple setback. It would be a monumental loss. It always was.

Alice had helped me so much, her unconditional love and support allowing those wounds to begin to scab over, her unusual lifestyle offering an escape from my guilt. I couldn't let a moment of indulgence destroy all my progress.

I took a long, shuddering breath and clamped down on my body with a steely determination. It didn't take long, thankfully, since I wasn't very thirsty.

Thank God.

I held the ring cradled in my palm, and my mind drifted for a moment. Control was easier this way, imagining myself in bed with Alice again, looking into her wise, golden eyes and finding everything I'd ever needed, wanted, or dared to hope for in their depths.

It had been six weeks since we'd returned from Africa.

When we'd docked in New York after the long return trip home from South Africa, we'd immediately fled the closely-packed streets of New York, our throats burning with the thirst, in search of less guilt-inducing prey than the oblivious New Yorkers.

We'd gone north, into Canada, and hunted deer and mountain lion and bear and elk in the wilderness until we were sated. Well, as sated as animal blood could ever make us. We lolled lazily in the weaker, more indirect, northern sunlight, and the thoughts of our African vacation came and went like the memories of dreams.

Sometimes, when I tried to analyze a particular circumstance that happened during those weeks we'd passed in the Dark Continent, I would feel strangely befuddled: it was like I was seeing someone else's memories of something we'd done together being described to me, or listening to a story I'd heard many times before but never experienced personally. Like the images were familiar, but they weren't mine. Odd. But I didn't let it preoccupy me, because the present was beautiful, the future beckoning.

When we finally felt safe to be among humans again, Alice took us south and west to Chicago, a city neither of us had been to before. She'd seen some things coming up, and knew we needed to go there.

I followed her with an acceptance that was so unconscious it startled me sometimes if I thought about it. It was so natural and normal-seeming, to go where she pointed, but it wasn't as if she were the leader: we were on a journey together, and she happened to be the one with the map and compass. As if she were the map and compass itself, is perhaps a better analogy.

It was late 1948, the war that humans called World War II had ended, the country was flush with its success and the results of wartime effort, industry booming. The Great Depression was over, Hitler and his followers had been defeated, and it seemed all was right with the world, or as right as it could possibly be to the United States.

I was bemused by their blissful ignorance of the cost of such peace and prosperity: most of those happy humans had never lain in a foxhole or dodged bullets or smelled the stink of bloody battle. Good for them. Perhaps it was a good thing, such unblemished and innocent optimism.

I wished I could have been allowed to remain in such a state, while I was human. But…what is done is done. Perhaps it was all for the best, my particular loss of innocence. I'd have never met Alice if I hadn't lost that innocence, at least in the way that I had. It was the closest thing I could come to being grateful for Maria choosing to add me to her army and changing me.

In Chicago we were surrounded by humans who didn't give us a second look, too busy with their own pursuits, which was fine by me. Alice strode easily into a bank in the middle of the afternoon, her sparkling skin camouflaged by long sleeves and stockings and a hat; the weak light filtering down from the overcast sky didn't seem to touch her.

Alice liquidated an account she'd established with them years ago by mail. I wasn't surprised. So we had cash in hand, which we proceeded to spend on some new clothing and obtaining a room in a good hotel downtown.

As I lay in bed with my wife some hours later, I felt the renewed, unwelcome, and uncomfortable rumbling of my macho ego, something I'd done my best to squelch for the past months, for the sake of Alice's feelings and my own pragmatism.

I knew, logically, that there was nothing wrong with allowing her to support us materially for now: she had spent years investing and preparing for just that reason, knowing I'd been living a vagabond existence for so long, wanting to provide us with the good things in life.

But it was impossible to ignore my ego altogether, especially in those quiet moments when the mind is free to wander as it will.

I distinctly remember looking up at the ceiling of that hotel room and thinking how I was lying in a bed paid for by Alice with money she'd earned years before she knew me, that the clothing she'd bought for us both was lying discarded on the floor around that bed…and something primal in me rebelled at that fact. I could practically hear the voice of my father, a sound I'd not heard for decades, lecturing me about a man's responsibilities.

Now, I treasured each minute of each day passing with Alice…but each day was punctuated by the inarguable, constant fact that shewas the one paying for the details. And that fact was a blow to my masculine pride, illogical as it might be.

It could be different. Sure, we could forsake the material comforts and go and roam the wild places, living like immortal gypsies blown like dry leaves in the wind as so many of our kind did, and we might be happy, for a while.

But Alice wouldn't like it forever. Her civilized soul would eventually begin to hunger for the things such freedom didn't give, like hot showers and soft beds and new clothes, the feel of good silk and linen sliding over skin, and clean hair without tangles. The ability to choose from the bounty of the material, unfettered by the thought of how much it might cost, is a gift.

She wasn't truly materialistic or even close to greedy: she just appreciated the finer things for what they were worth, and enjoyed them. There is a difference. She didn't have to have them…she just liked them. A lot. But not just for herself, by any means: she rejoiced in being able to help others, in giving them the best. If she could have, Alice would have made sure every being on the planet had the ability to sleep on silk and wear Chanel, just for the sheer indulgent joy it could give them.

I hadn't the means necessary to provide her that kind of lifestyle, apart from her own efforts. It made me feel guilty on a level I'd never experienced before. I knew my wife, my lover, my best friend, myAlice, would do whatever I asked of her, period. She'd follow me into the crude, wandering existence I'd lived before I'd met her without complaint. She'd swallow her discomfort and smile brightly to belie it…even if I could feel the untruth. She'd do that for me. She'd sacrifice and give up the civilized life she'd grown to enjoy, forme, and she would never breathe a word in protest…but I would still know.

All modern mindsets aside, I needed to provide for my wife. It was a part of my nature, wrong or right, something born and bred and nurtured in me. Call me a caveman or a chauvinist or consumed by stupid pride, it didn't matter. I needed, and wanted, to be the one she could turn to, to be the one she looked to for support of every kind.

And perhaps money isn't the answer to everything, but the lack thereof surely makes everything else much harder. One has much fewer choices.

Then it occurred to me, a bolt from the blue. I had to force myself to keep from sitting up and shouting in my exultation.

I remembered Ginny's letter, the part about the bank account she'd left me. I had money sitting there waiting for me, money from my family, money that had been earning interest for years, while I had wandered lonely as a cloud, completely ignorant of its existence.

I felt a flush of pride at the realization that I suddenly had options, resources. I could do something for Alice for once, instead of the opposite, which seemed to be the perpetual state of things…I could actually contribute to the maintenance of our lifestyle. I could give hersomething.

Besides everything else, I owed my wife a proper engagement ring.

After all, I'd proposed to her on a whim and she'd married me without a moment's hesitation, letting me slide that simple golden wedding band onto her lovely little finger only a few days after we'd met, with nothing even resembling a proper proposal or courtship. My chivalrous and traditional upbringing clamored inside me like a clanging bell, demanding acknowledgement.

My wife, my love, my forever…she deserved more than I'd given her.


My mind spun as I thought about the years she'd passed preparing herself for me, a person she'd only glimpsed in her visions, giving herself to me sight-unseen, as completely and trustingly as a girl who'd known her sweetheart since the day she was born.

I mentally flushed with pride and blanched with shame at the same time at the thought, knowing I was unworthy of such a blind commitment, but I was still gleefully exultant that I had her anyway. She had told me that my face was the first thing she really remembered upon waking from the black fire of the change, that it had helped her to keep sane, even though she was alone and bewildered, kept her from becoming a monster, the thing she feared the most.

And what about the monster that I was, the monster I held within me?

Was it really tamed, or was it the real me, masquerading as a civilized creature? I knew better, because the monster broke out of its cage all too easily at moments of weakness, shaming me.

Did it deserve her? Did I deserve her? Or…Was she a virgin sacrifice to the monster I was, the dragon? Would I drag her down?

Oh,shutup,Jasper. Another voice echoed in my mind, this time Ginny's, this time much more…real. I froze, wondering if it was just my imagination, or if she was truly there, as she said she'd be?


Ginny had never been one to mince words with me. And she was also seldom wrong.

Well, regardless of being worthy and my disbelief at my luck, I had Alice, and I was never letting her go. I'd do everything I could to make things right, the right I knew, the best I could.

As I made the decisions, I knew Alice must have been seeing things, pictures from the future, but, sweet and discreet soul as I knew only she could be, she never said a word. She stayed curled up against me, pliant and innocent and completely mine, and she let me think and plan my silly plans without interference.

I firmly believe she was trying her best to ignore it all, to let things be as much of a surprise to her as they could be, though she never said anything about it. That fact alone, her indulgence of my whims, was enough to make me fall in love with her again and again, minute by minute.


I knew something was odd about our trip to Africa.

But at the same time, something in my mind wouldn't let me explore that oddness very far. That something was pushing me to only look ahead, to not examine the past too closely, to think about the years I would spend with Jasper, about the future with our new family, and to concentrate on that. And I was content to do it.


My curiosity is such a strong part of my nature it should have set off warning bells in me that I didn't feel curious, that I actually shied away from examining my memories…but I still let it go. Also strange.

As I purchased clothes and paid for our hotel room in Chicago, I knew Jasper was a bit discomfited. I could feel it due to his ability, but I also got flickers from the future, which I tried to ignore as fast as I got them, because it almost felt like a betrayal to acknowledge them.

Jasper was feeling unmanned by my self-sufficient ways and my taking care of everything. Well, not completely unmanned: he just wanted to contribute. He'd been raised in an era where men took care of and protected women…and although, to my opinion, he took care of me verywell indeed, in the ways I needed to be cared for, it wasn't enough for him. He wanted to do something tangible, something visible, be the "good provider."

I dutifully suppressed the images I got the best I could, trying to give him his privacy. Such an honorable man with such honorable intentions deserved it.

We passed a beautiful evening together, luxuriating in the space of the hotel room (compared to the stateroom on the boat, it was a palace) and the fact that we weren't shut in among thousands of humans in the middle of the open ocean, their blood an agonizing, concentrated temptation. Yes, in the city we could still smell them, of course, but it wasn't the same: the sea had seemed to amplify the scent of the blood, magnifying it, turning the cruise liner into a floating island of potential guilt surrounded by the water. We'd gorged ourselves on the wildlife in Canada and had been able to gain a bit of indifference to the humans, however temporary. Temporary enough to be able to lose ourselves in each other for a while, instead of constantly worrying about the other's thirst.

In the bed we fell into each other with effortless grace. The whispering of silken skin sliding against silken skin with delicious friction, the lush smacking of lips parting with breathless gasps of pleasure, were a symphony in our ears; we were intoxicated with each other, each drinking deeply of a honey-sweet mouth, like a bottomless well of delight; we were enflamed by tongues drawing exquisite paths of fire to the most sensitive parts of our bodies, stoked by the heat and undeniable force of a love and lust so perfectly combined, forging anew the unbreakable bond between us. I held him against me and we were like one being, we couldn't tell where one ended and the other began, bound together by immeasurable pleasure and immeasurable love.

And still, for all the sensuous perfection of our coupling, I knew it didn't matter. It wasn't necessary; I'd gladly stare into his eyes forever and never touch him, and I'd still feel that same bliss. Truly. That's all I ever needed. Those eyes staring into mine, seeing every part of me and loving me completely, the acceptance of who I am without reservation…it was enough. Our souls were tied together with an unbreakable cord, one that transcended touching...Everything else was a nice bonus.

Very nice, indeed.

Afterward, as we lay there in that Chicago hotel bed, our bodies touched but our minds were separate and wandering down their own paths, and it struck me suddenly, oddly, that my entire future was bound up with this man. Yes, I'd known it for years, hungered for it, planned for it…but at that moment, while I suppressed the flashes of the future I kept getting from my husband's developing decisions, it really began to sink in.

I'd lived for years by myself, watching the futures of those around me as well as my own, like I was watching a movie or television program for which I had pages of the script. I knew what was going to happen. As the events of those lives unfolded I knew what would take place, to a large degree, and it was satisfying to see things come to fruition that I'd seen in my mind's eye when they were only in seed.

But now…now I was actually living the life I'd seen for myself, it wasn't impersonal anymore. I wasn't watching a program of my life. I was inside it, it wasme. We'd finally crossed the threshold from what was foreseen into what was foretold, he was really here, the long wait was over, and he was really here forever, a forever that was permanently bound to mine.

And it was good.

I closed my eyes and inhaled Jasper's scent, like leather and lavender and the tang of the sea, felt the press of his flesh against mine, and I felt contentment, deep and profound, settle into my very bones, a heavy sensation both familiar and foreign. Like coming home. I'd never had a home before, at least not one I remembered, but I had one now, in him.

"What're you thinking about?" he murmured into my ear, his deep, warm voice vibrating me like a struck tuning fork. "You feel…good." We both laughed at the vague rightness of the word.

"Oh, nothing. Just about you and me, and forever." I turned on my side to snuggle up against him; his arms tightened around me.

"Nothing, eh?" he growled, but his tone was teasing. "So is this nothing, or is it something?"

And then he did that thing he does so well, and our minds—and bodies—suddenly veered from their separate musings and went happily together back down a by now very familiar, yet still very exciting, path.

A few hours later, as the sun began peeping above the horizon, brightening the clouds, I pried myself out of the bed and into the shower. I'd made some decisions myself, and wanted to give Jasper some privacy as he worked on his plans. The day would be overcast again, and cold: perfect. Chicago in December is my kind's kind of town. I had work to do.

As we were each getting dressed, Jasper kept shooting me strange looks. "What're you going to go do, Alice?" he finally asked, unable to contain his curiosity any longer.

"No big mystery. I'm going shopping, mostly. " I deliberately omitted the rest: shopping would lead to something else. Another predestined meeting, and it would take all the fun out of it if I let anything slip.

I'd been seeing it coming for a while. There were several pivotal things that would happen while we were in Chicago. I had research to do.

I also pointedly refrained from asking him what he wanted to do. I knew too much already.

I finished rolling up my stocking and attaching it to my garter, then smoothed my skirt down over my hips again; I turned a bit and eyed myself critically in the mirror, not sure if I liked what I saw.

I'd picked up the dress, a deep burgundy gabardine, the day before in a hurry. Styles had changed again while I hadn't been paying enough attention: hemlines had dropped a bit, things were more conservative. Flappers were long gone, the controversial Rosie the Riveter and her liberal style (no pantyhose! Trousers!) had retired from the assembly line and rolled down her sleeves to take up her apron again… Late 1940's fashion was definitely not as kind to my slight figure as I'd like. I just didn't have the long, curvy build that a cinched waist, knee-length dress flattered. I was no Rita Hayworth.

"Oh, you look fine. Beautiful. As always," Jasper chided, rolling his eyes. He must have felt my dissatisfaction."Stop fretting."

I rolled my eyes right back. "Men don't understand a thing about fashion. At least the kind of man you are doesn't." I combed back my hair and positioned my hat strategically atop it, then gave a little sigh of defeat. It'd have to do.

I'd often lamented my lack of hair: there is something so bewitching and feminine about a mane of long, flowing locks, something I'd never have. I had to do with a head of short, ink-black hair that unfortunately had a definite preference for standing upright, unruly and impertinent, as if I'd been shocked with a thousand volts. "But thank you anyway, sweetheart."

He shook his head in exasperation, smiling wryly.

I tapped the tip of his nose with one finger. "Go do your thing, I'll do mine, and we'll meet back here at sunset. Then we can hunt up some dinner, and maybe see a show." I grinned at my silly joke and was rewarded with a returning smile from him, a real smile, wide and open, something so rare and so beautiful it took my breath away for a moment…then something flashed in my mind, and I sobered. "Just be careful. Remember, we're in a big city, and you should be mindful in crowded places. Especially busy streets. Remember Philly?"

He flinched a bit from the memory of the car accident and its aftermath. "Right."

"And…watch out in enclosed spaces. Like stores." I pursed my lips in thought, torn by what I needed to tell him next, how to do it the right way. My words came out in a rush, tumbling over themselves, and I braced myself mentally for his reaction. "And…there's a branch of Wells Fargo downtown. If that means anything to you."

Jasper nodded slightly, his expression suddenly guarded, then turned away from me, going to the window, looking anywhere else but at me, as if not wanting to give anything else away.

I wasn't going to let him shut me out completely, though: I came up behind him, wrapping my arms around his waist, looking with him out over the city.

It was an impressive view. The street below was already crowded, full of cars crawling along slowly through the developing traffic, the pedestrians tiny and antlike as they went about their morning business. Grant Park lay couched among the gray streets like an emerald set in granite, Lake Michigan glinting in the distance. The weak morning sun filtered through the clouds, caught the planes of his face, so perfectly sculpted, the skin glittering subtly, those scars standing out and doing nothing to hide his beauty; if anything, the starkness of them emphasized it all the more. God, he was a fine man. I closed my eyes and tried to let him feel my love, which flowed out of me like a river.

It was too much. I had to say something.

"Jasper, I wish you'd relax a bit. I don't want you thinking you have to be some macho caveman. I understand it's how you were raised, but….Well, baby, times have changed a lot, it's 1948, about to be 1949. Besides, we can't have a very traditional marriage. We're not exactly in a traditional situation, after all." I giggled. "Not exactly traditional people, either."

I stood on tiptoe and traced the slightly raised edge of one of his many scars, this one on the back of his neck, with my lips, and was rewarded with a shiver from him. "Nope, not traditional at all." I carefully clamped down on the nape of his neck with my teeth, exerting no pressure, but I knew he felt it with every nerve in his body.

It worked. I felt him chuckle, and then he turned and slipped his arms around me, holding me tight, picking me up to kiss me, my feet dangling like a child's in empty air. It was so lovely, to be so helpless in his arms, and yet still so very safe.

"Fine. I'll stop obsessing, but I have to do something. Anything I can. That's who I am, how I was raised." His voice in my ear sent chills down my spine. "Just let me do what I can, Alice. Let me be me. And I'll let you be you…and we'll be us."

I burrowed my face into his neck, inhaling his scent. "That sounds nice. I like us. Very much."

He kissed me again and set me down, patting me on the backside and propelling me toward the door. "Scat. Shop yourself silly, or whatever you're going to do." Of course I hadn't fooled him. "I'll meet you here. Sunset."

"It's a date." I blew him a kiss and left him standing there by the window, gazing down on the city again, a hopeful half-smile curving his lips upward.


I left the jewelry store a few short minutes after I'd entered, the little black velvet box burning a hole in my jacket pocket as I walked away.

I was feeling almost giddy, flushed with the double success of my missions that morning: I'd gotten ahold of my money, remedying my penniless situation, and I'd found—and bought—the perfect ring for the perfect girl, who was, unbelievably, already mine. I'd not felt joy or pride like that in years, perhaps never, actually. Except for the moment when I realized Alice really loved me, and that I wasn't going to wake up from this happy dream, that the dream was reality.

Of course, that was the moment when Fate or God or the Devil or whoever is responsible for such things decided to take advantage of my inattention.

I was strolling through the late morning foot traffic, almost completely consumed by my thoughts. I was remembering walking into the bank and presenting my documents, barely able to tamp down my nervousness at being surrounded by humans and my eager hope that this would, indeed, work…And it had.

With a quick consultation of their records and a few phone calls, the bank had verified my account in Rapid City, and I was a rich man. Well, not precisely rich, but I was very comfortable. And that was indeed a nice feeling. A weight lifted.

And then there was the ring. I was trying on various ways to propose to her…again…the right way…not settling on any particular one, for fear I might clue Alice in with a strong inclination. It was a deliciously perplexing problem.

The morning was cold and cloudy, but my heart was light and my mind was filled with pleasant thoughts. Of course, there had to be something to shatter my mood. Of course.

That's when the mugger stabbed his mark, and the man's bright blood screamed at me from the alley.

I turned unerringly in the direction of the scent. I saw the mugger running away into the crowd, dropping the wallet he'd paid such a heavy price for in his haste; I saw the victim falling, crumbling in slow motion to the ground, his blood scarlet and garish against the overcast palette of the winter morning; I heard the gasps and screams as people saw him.

But more than anything, I heard the panicked galloping of the victim's heart, almost like it was within me, every beat pushing out more blood, more liquid temptation, burning me with its intensity.

I was getting ready to cross the street, of course. Just like Alice had said, warning me. A crowded street. Somewhere in the back of my mind I cursed my silly giddiness at my up-until-then successful morning…I'd let my guard down.

"My God, what happened?"

"Someone, call the police!"

"Put pressure on the wound, yes, like that…Is anyone a doctor?"

"Oh, my lord, there's so much blood!"

"Did anyone see where the guy went?"

The humans' voices echoed and swirled around me like confetti in the wind; I was frozen there on the corner, my throat burning, the pain white-hot and relentless, my body screaming at me to turn and take those few steps to the source of the temptation, damn the consequences…Every ounce of my strength was poured into trying to resist it. Amazingly, no one really noticed me. I was just another anonymous stranger standing on a street corner in a city of thousands, seemingly frozen by the bloodshed…but truthfully, I was a stranger who thirsted for the blood of other strangers, a monster.


The voice was familiar, the tone bewildered and amazed, the last thing I could ever imagine to hear. It shocked me out of my stasis, and somehow that shock let me clamp down over my rebel thirst, pinning it into submission for a moment as I dealt with the unexpected voice.


She stood before me, mouth gaping in shock. Her eyes were covered with dark sunglasses, of course, but that didn't disguise her reaction, nostrils flaring at the scent of blood on the wind, arms akimbo, warring with herself just as I was, but for different reasons. Whereas I was trying not to answer the blood's calling to me because I wanted to be different, she was trying to resist the scent to not betray her true nature…which she accepted completely and without apology.

Charlotte looked exactly the same since I'd last seen her two years ago, her dark red hair tumbling down her back like an auburn river, the only difference her more modern clothes. Her dress was dark green, the color and cut very flattering. She was frozen in place, looking up at me, and I sensed her nervousness: we always get a little antsy when we suddenly run into each other, familiar or not. Vampires, that is. We're such an unpredictable species, we never know what to expect from each other.

Finally, she swallowed and nodded cautiously.

Something in me thawed, my body's lust for blood shoved aside as I realized what seeing Charlotte meant.

"Is Peter here? In Chicago?" I babbled, glancing around. I knew their habits. Usually, when approaching a place they'd not been to for a while, one of them went scouting first, making sure there were no threats, that no others of our kind had laid claim to the area, checking out the best places to hunt, reporting back to the other afterward.

Charlotte nodded again, jerkily, still staring at me. "Yes, he's not far…Jasper…How-how are you?" She faltered into silence, waiting, anxious.

I remembered that the last time I'd been with them I'd been a walking disaster, an emotional and mental wreck. But even that fact didn't completely explain her amazement, which I could feel clearly.

The bloody mugging was forgotten, pushed into a far corner of my mind, overshadowed by my eagerness to share my new life with my old friends. "I'm wonderful, Charlotte. There's someone I want you to meet. My…my mate." If I could have blushed, I would have, at the silly thrill that shot through me at saying that word, naming Alice as mine to someone else.

Charlotte grinned, lowering her sunglasses a bit to blink coyly up at me. I suppose my smile must have surprised her, since I'd never been much of a smiler before.

"Well, well, Mr. Whitlock, you finally met your match? I didn't think any female would be able to catch your interest for long," she teased. "You were always so moody. Most women get tired of that from a man. We're supposed to be the moody ones, after all!" And we both laughed.

I shook my head ruefully. "Truly, neither did I. But then again, I never knew someone like her was possible. She's the most wonderful thing in the world. My Alice." I heard the worship in my voice as I said her name, and I didn't care.

"Alice?" She started at the name, her mouth popping open in shock before she reined it in. Charlotte's ginger eyebrows climbed high above the frames of the sunglasses; I could taste her curiosity.

Curiosity, yes…but it wasn't quite right. There was more there than just curiosity. She stared into my eyes, which by then were a deep amber, without a hint of surprise, almost as if she recognized them…but that didn't strike me as odd until later.

"Then we definitely have to… meet Alice, Jasper."

Something about the way she said it piqued my interest. She laid her hand tentatively on my forearm. "I'm very happy for you. Peter will be, too. Overjoyed, even." Charlotte sighed. "He speaks of you often. We've thought to look for you occasionally. But he always thought it best to leave you be, let you sort yourself out." She chuckled. "He's said you'd find us when you were ready. And I guess you have." Charlotte giggled. "We seem to have found each other!"

"He's a wise man. And I do believe I have indeed sorted myself out." I grinned. "Then bring him to the hotel this evening. The Hilton, downtown. We have a room there. I want you both to meet her, spend some time with her. You'll be blown away."

"I'm sure we will be." Charlotte grinned back, and again, she was all amazed and wondering…but not surprised like she should have been. I squashed my suspicion down in my eagerness to be happy. "We'll be there at seven. I promise." She squeezed my hand briefly, then let it go.

And she was gone, disappearing suddenly into the crowd without another word. Like she'd never been there. Only her scent, lingering in the air, proved her presence a split-second before.

Behind me, the man who'd been stabbed was being loaded into an ambulance. The smell of his blood was beginning to fade, trod underfoot by witnesses and helpers, the flow stanched by bandages and covered by chemical antiseptics and medicines. I barely had to concentrate to ignore it.

The ring pulsed in my pocket again, almost as intensely as the scent of the blood had burned.


How much more time did I have? I glanced down at my watch and realized it was only noon. What would I do with almost six hours?

I lifted my gaze and for the first time read the letters of the sign a block away, the foot-high letters screaming at me in neon.

Meyer's Fine Automobiles.

How fun.


She was, of course, right where I knew she'd be.

A few minutes before I'd left Jasper in the hotel room, trying my best to tamp down the images his decisions kept throwing up in my mind's eye, and I'd set a course for the nearest department store. I had something of a date to keep.

She was a lovely thing, her long auburn hair cascading down her back, her curves graceful and compact on her petite frame. Gorgeous as only our kind can be.

She fit into her dress perfectly, damn her, unlike me. But her eyes were covered by sunglasses that stood out in the fluorescent lights of the sales floor, covering eyes that I knew would be blood red, colored by her diet.

Even though she wasn't overtly aggressive, something about the woman's demeanor, the fluid and predatory way she moved, frightened the girls attending her, and I knew it was better if I interrupted, for everyone´s sakes. Luckily, opportunity presented itself.

A salesgirl was timidly holding up a two-piece, cherry-red sweater-and-skirt set for her approval, but it was all wrong for the client. People always think a redhead should wear red, but it's a rare redhead who can carry it off well.

This woman's coloring demanded something deeper. Cherry red clashed with her beautiful auburn hair, which anyone with an ounce of sense could see. I shook my head and rolled my eyes at the girl's lack of taste and knew I had to take matters into my own hands, before Charlotte (because that's what the red-headed vampire's name was, even though I'd never met her) got offended and lost control. It had happened before, and would happen again. Better if it didn't happen near me, it was hard enough to stay in control on my own.

I glanced around and found what I needed in the racks easily.

"No, sweetie, this is much better," I murmured to the human salesgirl as I slid between her and Charlotte, pushing the girl back gently. "See how this compliments her coloring and shape?" I held up my offering: a cowl-neck sweater dress in forest-green cashmere. "Hardly any redhead can wear red, especially that shade. And not all redheads can wear green. But she can. And those legs demand a shorter skirt."

The humans faded gratefully into the background, leaving Charlotte to stare at me in disbelief. My vampire scent came to her instantly, her full lips parting over her teeth in the beginnings of a challenging snarl, but I didn't let it happen.

"Oh, be quiet. Don't make this any more difficult than it has to be." Steeling myself against her possible reaction, I reached out and took her arm and tugged her toward the dressing rooms. "Come on. Let's make sure this suits you like I think it will."

Charlotte looked at me as if I were insane, resisting for a split second, then her eyes locked on mine, registering the odd color, and she froze in shock. She allowed herself to be led, her mouth agape in amazement.

I knew she was at war with herself, not knowing what to do: before now, if some strange vampire female had tried to touch her, she'd have tried to rip them limb from limb…but she knew this was something different. No other female besides me would be so sure of herself, because only I had my visions to help me.

And no other female she'd ever seen, no other vampire she'd ever seen or heard of, had golden eyes.

In the dressing room, Charlotte shed her clothes without the slightest twinge of modesty and slithered into my choice; she seemed glad to get them off, since they'd seen better days. They must have been living wild for a while.

I could tell, as she turned and posed before the mirrors, that she wanted to reject it, just because I'd suggested it: her lips pursed sourly, she pushed the sunglasses up onto her forehead, revealing her crimson eyes, which narrowed critically as they sought flaws in her reflection. But she found none. She sighed in defeat and turned to me, a wry smile pulling up the corners of her perfect mouth.

"I'd say thank you for the dress suggestion, but I'm at a slight disadvantage, since I don't know your name."

I bit the inside of my cheek to restrain my gloating satisfaction: I was good. Damn good.


"Thank you, Alice." She cocked her head to the side, gazing at me intensely. "But I have to ask. Why the heroic fashion intervention? Was that red thing the salesgirl was trying to sell me on truly so horrific to you that you had to interfere?"

I giggled. "Well, no. I mean, actually, that red outfit was completely wrong for you, and any moron with a vague understanding of color should have known that, especially someone who gets paid to recommend clothes to others…But that's not why. I needed to meet you. I knew it would happen. You're important to my future. You're important to my husband." I smiled at her confusion and my babbling. "Let's just say, our meeting was preordained."

Charlotte stared at me like I was crazy again, those red eyebrows climbing ever higher. "Your husband? And who might that be?"

I bit my lip. "You already know him, of course. I'm the stranger, here. Don't worry, you'll see him shortly."

Her brow furrowed in confusion.

I stood up, smoothing my skirt. "You'll understand soon." Shamefully, I took a childish glee in playing the mysterious oracle for that brief moment, dropping such an ambiguous verbal bomb. "I'll see you later. Around seven." And I disappeared, using every ounce of speed and stealth I had to escape that dressing room.

She didn't follow. I ended up standing at the corner of ffñjggjñjgjfjñk, my eyes closed as I reviewed what I needed to do next. I opened my eyes and focused on the building before me. "Chicago Hall of Records" read the sign in filigreed letters. There was an almost audible click in my mind as all the little flashes I'd been receiving without comprehending how they related to each other fell neatly into place, forming the entire picture.

I had some research to do.

A little bell chimed cheerily as I opened the door to the shop, stepping into the dim, slightly dusty interior. Across the room, a round little man with half-moon glasses squinted over their rims at me from behind a counter.

"Good afternoon, how may I help you?" he called querulously.

I glanced around, taking in the hodgepodge of old things that huddled on the shelves, overflowed from bins, and lay piled on the floor.

Furniture that had seen better days, cracked and mismatched china, weathered figurines and battered candelabras, grandfather clocks whose hands stood still. "Buxley's Antiques" was the name of the shop, but from what I could tell at first glance, most of the stuff in that store was just junk. Sentimental junk, but junk nonetheless.

"Well, I'm mainly just looking. I have…I have a…meeting in a little while, and I saw your sign, thought I could kill a little time, seeing what you have." I grinned at the little old man. "I'm a sucker for old stuff."

He blinked owlishly, blinded momentarily by my otherworldliness. Damn. Sometimes I forgot to turn down my wattage for the mortals.

"By all means, my dear, feel free to look all you want," he eventually managed, pulling off his spectacles to polish them absently on his fusty old sweater. "I confess, it's a mess in here. My wife used to keep better track of things but…" He sighed. "She passed last winter, and I haven't had the heart to do much more than just open the doors every morning and lock them up at night." His eyes closed and he turned away from me, snatching up a feather duster and frantically attacking a pile of old books behind him as if defending himself from attack. As if he needed to do something, anything, to keep from breaking into tears.

I closed my eyes for a moment, casting the net of my visions ahead in the hope that maybe, just maybe, I could see something about this poor, suffering person. After a moment I smiled and opened my eyes again. "I'm just going to look around, all right, sir?"

He made a vague motion with one hand over his shoulder, still not looking at me, shooing me away. I took it as tacit permission to poke around.

The place was narrow, but amazingly deep: the back of the store wasn't even visible until you'd gone many steps in. I ran my hand over worn, beautiful brocade fabric and scarred, exotic woods; I traced the lines of a tarnished pewter angel's wings and inhaled the scent of desiccated flowers still standing proudly in chipped Ming vases. Mr. Buxley's store was a treasure trove of the used-to-be and the once-was, a sad memorial of things lovely and valuable but now passed into their decline.

But I knew what I was looking for. It called to me.

Finally, I found it. Buried under a mountain of mismatched china cups on a smeared silver tray and a moth-eaten damask tablecloth, there it was.

It was a hope chest. The kind girls from the turn of the century had had, swirls and spirals and ruffles carved lovingly into the dark, glossy wood, hearts aplenty: a place to store their dreams for the future, their plans for a home. The box into which they would place their trousseau of hand-sewn "married woman" clothes and underthings, where they would store the linens and bedding they'd painstakingly stitched for the home they'd be making with their soon-to-be husband.

I wiped away the dust and read the initials inscribed on the lid: EWEM, twined together inside a heart. I knew what they stood for.

Elizabeth Williams and Edward Masen.

Edward Masen, Senior.

Shuffling footsteps behind me.

"Ah, that old thing." Mr Buxley sighed. "My wife bought it from some dealer years ago, they were clearing out the contents of a warehouse. Some dealer had bought the stuff off a bill collector who took it after the influenza epidemic, the owners of some house that the owners died. But the man had let it sit in the warehouse for years, for some reason. My wife…Shirley…she just loved the carving on the trunk, couldn't bear to let it go to the dump.

"Beautiful work. The dealer said he'd heard the girl's father did the carving himself. They sold it as-is, there're a few things inside, nothing valuable, though." He chuckled. "Shirley bought it and forgot about it before she could inventory the contents. She was a bit absentminded those last days. She died a few months later." Another sigh. "But I suppose, whoever he was, that father loved his daughter, and put all that love into that carving. You can just feel it."

"Yes, he did, and you can," I whispered, touching the letters again, tracing their lines, trying to pull everything I could out of that dead wood, trying to see the past instead of the future. Breathless with expectation, I lifted the lid.

Years ago, Edward's parents had perished in that influenza epidemic, and supposedly, so had their son: Edward Masen, Jr. I knew it from conversations I'd witnessed during my years of watching the Cullens, and from my research in the Chicago vital records office.

The father, Edward Masen, Sr., a successful lawyer, had created a trust for the preservation of the family's real estate holdings…but it hadn't included the items inside the home. Surely he'd never imagined it would be necessary to inventory the contents of his home in the trust document. Those had been ravished by the bill collectors: all the lovely things Elizabeth had amassed over the years, all the tangible memories of their family, has been stripped away and sold, scattered to the winds.

I'd seen in the records that the house had been eventually claimed by a distant relative…who happened to be the real Edward Masen, of course, but by then he had been irrevocably changed by Carlisle's intervention in his natural death, and could never claim to be the real Edward, who had supposedly died of influenza years before.

Edward got the house, but those things, the things which Elizabeth and her Edwards had collected to make the house a home, were scattered to the winds.

This was Elizabeth's hope chest.

I plunged my hand into the depths, raising a cloud of dust, faking a sneeze for Mr. Buxley's benefit. Covering everything were linens: embroidered handkerchiefs, scarves, monogrammed hand towels. I pulled a few out and dropped them to the floor beside me. Beneath them were other things, hat boxes tied with string and old cookie tins, sealed with rust. I put them beside me too, without looking inside. That wasn't my job, someone else would do it soon. I was looking for something else.

Beneath the boxes was a false bottom, I could tell by rapping gently on the chest's floor, the sound was wrong, something no one had ever managed to pay attention to before. I easily found the edge and lifted it, revealing the hidden compartment below. Only a few things rested there, sheltered from everything else, waiting for me.

"I'll take it all. Including the chest."

Mr. Buxley blinked again, tangled eyebrows arching in disbelief.

"All of it?" He glanced down at the stuff I'd taken out. "This too?" He nudged a cookie tin with his toe. I snatched it up greedily. It was too important.

"Everything. Pack it all together, if you wouldn't mind. Send it to the downtown Hilton hotel. Room 21B. Make sure to include a tip for the delivery boy, and yourself."

"Yes, ma'am!" Mr. Buxley's mood was considerably improved by the sale; he was smiling brightly.

A few minutes later I was several dollars poorer, but it was money well spent. I'd paid far less for those things than what they were actually worth, in actual and sentimental value. My heart felt lighter, knowing the happiness I would deliver with this armful of junk…but it wasn't junk to everyone.

What do they say? One man's trash is another man's treasure? Oh, how wise they are.

I stopped suddenly, remembering my vision from inside the store, what I'd looked for regarding the old man.

Right at that moment, a tiny, bent woman, barely bigger than me, stumbled into me.

Of course she ran into me, I'd just stopped walking and was standing like a moron right in her path. But she was the one who apologized first.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" she gasped.

I grinned down at her. She was old, but her face was sweet and wise, every wrinkle carved by a memory or an experience, beautiful in the way of the Grand Canyon, the Great Rift Valley.

"No problem, ma'am. I had a rock in my shoe." I reached down and twitched at my heel, pretending to extract said imaginary rock. "You know, besides, I was a bit distracted. I was just over there, in that shop, and I found some lovely things. I was thinking about them, and I just got distracted. Really, it was my fault. I shouldn't have stopped in the middle of the sidewalk like that."

Her faded blue eyes traveled over my face for a moment before they sought out the shop I pointed toward. "Antiques?" She smiled. "He has some nice things? I love that kind of stuff. Makes me feel young again." She chuckled. "My house is full to bursting. But I always look for more. My husband was terribly irritated that every flat surface was covered in trinkets…but since he's not around anymore…"

"Oh, yes. Lovely things. You should go see for yourself." I was fairly gushing.

The old woman thought about it for a moment, then she smiled and nodded dismissively at me. "Thank you, young lady. I think I will."

I watched as she opened the door and went inside, the bell over the door tinkling gaily again. I knew it would be hours before she left, and after that, there wouldn't be a day where she didn't go in and see Mr. Buxley. They'd comfort each other.

Sometimes, my sight was truly, truly useful. To someone besides myself, that is.


Alice was waiting for me in the lobby of the hotel when I pulled up to the curb, looking out through the big glass windows. Her eyes were huge and her grin consumed her entire face as she rose to her feet at the sight of me in the driver's seat of such a car, and she rushed out to greet me.

"Wow." She stroked the long lines of the hood, her gaze devouring the car hungrily.

I pulled myself out and closed the door behind me. "Yeah, it's something, huh?"

"Um…yeah!" She bit her lower lip. "But why?" It was gratifying to see her confusion. I had to remember that she didn't see reasons behind decisions: she only saw their results. Of course this would confuse her a little.

I leaned back against it casually. "I'm going to teach you how to drive. And this is your car, incidentally."

Alice stared at me. "Why?" Of course she didn't say "how." She knew. But she'd never throw it in my face.

"Because you love speed and you love luxury…and this car is the epitome of both."

Alice shook her head. "You're…amazing." Her eyes lingered on the car, then locked with mine. "How much fun will this be?" she cried, clapping her hands like a happy little girl. "I never really wanted to drive before. It seemed silly when I could run so much faster. But I never saw a car like this!"

I chuckled, walking around to the passenger side. "Get in. Let's get out of the city so I can teach you."

She stopped mid-clap, eyes widening, a slow, sly grin spreading across her face.

"No, we have to wait. They're not here yet."

Alice cocked her head to one side, like a dog that has heard a silent whistle, her eyes glazing over for a moment. "But they will be shortly."

I stopped in the middle of reaching to open the passenger door. "Who?" Then it struck me who I'd seen that morning, who I'd invited there to meet Alice. I'd practically forgotten. Of course Alice knew.


"Jasper!" The voice was warm and familiar. "Jasper, you old dog!" And then Peter was there, Charlotte at his side, reaching out as if to embrace me. "I'm so glad to see you!"

I reined in my first impulse, crushing the initial desire of my body to attack at the scent of another male approaching me. Instead, I reached back to him, and then we were hugging each other, clapping each other on the back and laughing. Old friends, good friends, long parted, happy to see one another. It was always easy with Peter.

After a moment, Peter pulled back and looked at me, grinning. He looked right into my eyes; the grin faded and his eyes narrowed as he tried to understand the strange color he found there. He shot a glance back at Charlotte, and I realized that she'd told him about my eyes, and he was realizing she was indeed right and not imagining things, as he'd supposed. I knew if I had been in his place, I'd doubt what she said, too.

"So, Jasper, what have you been doing these last few years?" Peter did his best not to allow his consternation to color his voice, but I felt it anyway.

I let my arms fall to my sides. "Why don't you two hop in the backseat and go with us? I'm going to teach Alice to drive, and I think it's better if both the lesson and this conversation were well away from here." Indeed, passers-by were gawking at the car and at us.

Peter glanced again at Charlotte, who nodded frantically, then at Alice for the first time. He considered her for a long moment; Alice felt his scrutiny. She stood up straighter, pushing out her chest, her chin jutting forward aggressively, daring him. She disliked being evaluated. But she didn't say anything.

"Fine. Let's go."

A few minutes later, we were speeding through the frigid November darkness.


The night air was intoxicating, like some kind of undiscovered liquor, the coldness and sharpness assaulting our senses. I looked up at the sky, at the stars blazing down, their gaze frigid and unchanging.

How like the stars are we, I thought. Unwavering, cold, beautiful, inspiring…and definitely dangerous up close.

But…stars only seem cold from far away. Up close, they are hot, violent, primal.

Very appropriate.

Jasper put the pedal to the metal, and we sped past the Chicago city limits and out into the countryside in moments. Charlotte and Peter sat in the backseat, Charlotte finally giving up on trying to keep her hat on in the face of the whistling wind. The hat went sailing away behind us, lost in the night, and we all laughed, the sound swallowed up by the darkness like Charlotte's hat.

I scooted close to my man and lay my head on his shoulder; he slipped his arm around my waist and pulled me closer still. "Like the car, sweetheart?" he whispered into my hair, and I shivered at the touch of his lips against my scalp. "Think you can handle it?" Jasper tapped the gas and the engine snarled like a cornered tiger.

"Oh, I can handle anything, I think. As long as I'm with you," I whispered back. We both ignored Charlotte and Peter's stifled chuckles from the backseat; they were both amazed at how much Jasper had changed since they last seen him, apparently.

"Good," he rumbled. "Think you'll want to keep me around, then?"

I pulled away and punched him in the arm. He winced dramatically.

"I suppose that means yes, then?" Jasper glanced at me, a slow, warm smile spreading across his face, and a happy glow bloomed within me, a touch of his gift, heating me from head to toe.

"Of course, baby. Forever."

"Well, in that case, you'll be wanting this, I guess."

The little black velvet box was suddenly perched atop my knee; he'd moved so fast even I hadn't seen it.

My breath caught in my throat, and if I'd had a heart that beat, it would have wanted to pound its way out of my chest. "Is that…" I couldn't finish.

He chuckled. "Yes, indeed, and I'm sure you know what it looks like already. Hopefully I didn't mess up and choose the wrong one."

I punched him again…with the hand not holding that little black box.

"Woman, stop hitting me and put your ring on."

This time, Charlotte and Peter's giggles erupted uncontrolled, along with mine, and I didn't care that someone else was seeing this moment. I didn't care one bit.

Ever so gently, I cracked open the box, and sighed longingly at the sight of it. My ring, glowing like a star against the midnight-black velvet.

"It's perfect," I whispered into his ear.

With the dexterity that only one of our kind can manage, somehow Jasper slid the ring onto my finger, where it nestled companionably against my wedding band…all while driving so fast the landscape was a blur around us.

I wrapped my arms around my husband's neck and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you, Mr. Whitlock. I didn't need it…but I love it anyway."

His satisfied, purring growl sent shivers down my spine. "No…thank you, Mrs. Whitlock." Once again, that hot glow burst within me, the reflection of his own feelings, wrapping me like a warm blanket, burning me alive from within, all at once.

We sat like that for a long time, the car full of companionable silence and the sweetness of love.

I thought about the months stretching before us, the important things I'd seen, the family that was waiting for us at the end of that long and winding road.

I had so much to do.

But for that moment, that night, all I had to do was sit in that car with Jasper, Charlotte, and Peter, and know that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to do…and it felt wonderful.