It was a beautiful autumn evening, just past dark. The streets were lit to high heaven and revelers were everywhere.
Charlie ran, sweat slicking down her spine beneath the russet sweater that brought out the russet tones in the hair she’d inherited from her grandmother. Before leaving her place, she’d topped it with a short black coat, also wool. She regretted the extra insulation now, as a rivulet headed straight for the waistband of her black jeans.
Racing through downtown Oakland, she plowed through the Art Walk crowd, shoulder bumping bodies when there wasn’t an opening big enough to fit through. She skirted past some food carts that sent smells of grease and cinnamon into the air, almost smacking into a young man spitting rhymes into a microphone in front of the fancy sneaker store, a red devil mask slid up onto the top of his head.
Tonight wasn’t about art, or food, or music. Tonight wasn’t about alcohol, or hanging with her friends. Tonight wasn’t about celebrating the Friday night before Halloween.
Tonight was about staying alive.
Her breath huffed in her ears, and her shins ached from pounding the sidewalk in boots with chunky, three-inch heels.
This was oh-so-not how she’d thought her evening would go when she’d agreed to meet Jason and his friends at Roux. It would be fun, he said. There would be vampire cocktails. Plus, he had “someone special” he wanted her to meet.
Where can I go?
Her eyes darted left, then right. In the middle of the smell of frying plantains, the stink of garbage. Alley. It would lead to Roux in a few blocks. Should she? No. She wouldn’t let this bastard near her friends. Plus, better to stay with the crowd for now.
The crowd allowed her cover, but also meant he could be anywhere.
Larah was in their bedroom, doors open on the wall to wall closet system behind them, music piping through discreet speakers set in two corners of the well-proportioned bedroom, getting ready to go out. They looked forward to tonight. Larah worked hard, and played harder, but playing hard was also getting old. There was more to life than running their company, working out, and bedding every babe that came across their radar.
They grinned, threading silver skull cuff links through a crisp, white shirt tucked into coal black jeans. Larah would complete the ensemble with their favorite gray boots, a black wool coat, and soft red silk scarf, all of it designed to set off dark, tightly coiled hair with a fresh fade, and the dark eyes that people said were Larah’s best feature. Plus, the outfit was perfectly appropriate for both Roux and Halloween weekend.
Besides, Larah wanted to look good, even more than usual. Jason had promised that Charlie was “something special.” Interesting, beautiful, sharply smart, and worth more than just a tumble.
Larah would see about that, but they were intrigued.
“Admit it,” they said to the reflection in the spotted antique glass mirror that hung above a matching mahogany chest of drawers. “You’re bored. And you’re hoping this poor woman will snap you out of it.”
At thirty-three, having achieved everything they set out to when Larah first hatched world domination plans at age twenty-two, they were starting to wonder what was left. Success was success, and excess? Well, once you’d done it, why bother anymore? Unless you were the sort who kept on, nothing but a voracious maw until something finally killed you dead.
Larah grimaced at their reflection before grabbing the heavy, silver watch from the dresser top—not a Rolex, because why bother spending that kind of money on a watch?—and snapped it around a strong wrist.
“Let’s not be morbid. Tonight’s supposed to be fun.”
Nothing left but to slide on boots, grab a coat and scarf, and take one last look in the ancient mirror.
“Good to go.”
Larah headed out the door.
Fantasy witches surrounded Charlie. Vampires. A terrifying clown face rose in front of her. She stumbled. The clown laughed and danced on down the street. A group of young people wearing ghoulish masks rode by on bicycles tricked out with decorations made of the bright, hammered out strips of old soda cans. Scraper bikes, they called them. They were an Oakland institution.
Past another food cart pod, a skeleton band played mariachi music as dancers in full skirts and woven shawls danced, faces painted white, with black hollows around the eyes.
Charlie’s side ached. All she wanted was to enjoy Oakland tonight. And maybe, yes, meet someone new. Why the hell was this happening to her?
“Gotcha!” Arms wrapped around her waist. A hand clamped across her mouth. She fought, but he was stronger, wrestling her through the festive crowd. She kicked, boot connecting with a shinbone, and he tripped, but didn’t fall.
His hands never left position, as if programmed to do nothing but grab a woman’s waist and smother her shouting.
Adrenaline pounded in her ears and her mouth filled with angry, fearful, spit. Her mouth. She pushed her lips against his hand, then opened her mouth and chomped. Her teeth caught the soft skin where the pads of his hand met his fingers.
“Stop that!” He slammed her head back, wrenching her neck up, still dragging her down the street.
How did no one see? How was no one doing anything?
And then the sounds changed, and the smells. Quieter here. Oil and garbage. Old brick. They were back in the alleyway that led to Roux.
Bad, she decided. Because if it could help her, he wouldn’t be taking her here. ***
Larah cleared the last step from the BART station with a swing in their step. The gray boots rang out on the street, then stopped. The Art Walk crowd blocked Larah’s progress.
A sexy vampire sauntered by, giving Larah the eye. They gave a sly grin in return, but it was rote. An automatic response to attention.
Larah sighed. Maybe their friend Rochelle was right, and it was time to see a therapist. Larah waved the thought away and looked at the teeming throng that filled the streets. How the hell were they going to claw through that and get to Roux?
A glance down at the fancy watch showed that it was twenty minutes to the hour. On a perfect Friday, Larah would arrive at Roux early enough to scope out the place and get settled with a cocktail at the bar before the others arrived. One secret to Larah’s success was that they were always prepared. For everything. This impressed people, threw them off sometimes, which Larah could work to advantage. Their friends just thought Larah was amazingly organized and lucky.
Those same friends didn’t see the way Larah planned everything out in advance. It was too terrifying not to. Or at least, that was how it started.
Larah headed down the sidewalk, seeking a way through the crowd.
The hyper control had started because early life had been nothing but chaos, and to get the hell out of that family situation, Larah decided they had to take control. By age ten, they’d been setting their own alarms, packing their own lunches, and finding the most efficient way to do homework in order to get the most praise.
It wasn’t about the praise, though. It was about the ways Larah could leverage the interest of adults who might help, when their own parents couldn’t.
Some people might say the calculation made Larah cold. But Larah thought it ensured survival. They were still alive, right?
“This will take too damn long.”
Clock was already ticking on getting to Roux early enough to order a drink before anyone showed up. No way was Larah getting there in time to get truly settled. To get comfortable enough to stay.
They snorted. A shrink would zero right in on that. That I’m never comfortable enough to stay. Because if anyone saw how Larah still woke up in a panic—not so often anymore, but still—they might not want to stick around. The only currency in Larah’s world was competence and success.
But enough of that. There was no way to make it through the crowd. It was full of everything Larah hated. It was chaos, distilled into three city blocks. Their skin already crawled at the sights, the sounds, the witches, clowns, and ogres, the sexy firefighters, and all the rest. Larah turned back toward the stairs of the underground, now half a block away. Maybe they could just go home, text Jason and tell him they didn’t feel well.
Have a quiet whiskey in their favorite chair. Read a book from the stack they never seemed to have time to get around to.
Then they remembered, there was an alleyway nearby that led straight to Roux.
“You’re a lucky, lucky girl. Did you know that?”
The voice was smooth, just like it had been every time he’d called, pouring out his sick, insinuating thoughts, leaving messages like a toxic oil slick in her voicemail. Blocked phone number after blocked phone number. He must have had stock in burner phones by now.
His breath smelled of bubblegum. Not spearmint or cinnamon, but the pink stuff she thought only kids ate, if even they chewed it anymore.
She’d changed her number, too. It hadn’t helped. Nothing had helped.
And then this afternoon, before she left her apartment, the message said…
“You’re my lucky girl.” No. He said those words now. What was the message?
Be ready to celebrate, cupcake.
“You’re my lucky thirteen. Baker’s dozen, cupcake. The sweetest, luckiest girl there is.”
No! The thought roared in her mind. She bucked against him, cracking the back of her head against his nose. Lashed out with a boot heel, striking down on an instep, felt the crunch of bone. He screamed.
“You fucking bitch!”
Arm bar around her neck. She tried to tuck her chin, the way they had taught her in self- defense class. He was too fast. Squeezing. She threw her body into his, trying to throw him off balance. He hurt, she could tell, but his grip held.
No breath. Spots. Spots in her eyes.
From the alley mouth, a voice. Boots running. “Get off her!”
He had a woman with hair like fire. Her pale eyes were wide, and she fought like a whirlwind. But with that arm pressed tight against her neck, Larah could see that she was fading, her strikes growing feeble.
Larah didn’t think, just barreled into them both, knocking all three of them into a heap on the cracked tarmac. No time to make sure the woman was okay. Larah just had to break that choke hold.
They heard a crack. His head? Gasping sobs. The woman. Larah rolled off, untangling their long legs from his, holding the woman, trying to get her off him. A gray boot tip hit his foot. He screamed.
Larah didn’t think, just grabbed the woman and dragged her up. Putting their body between the woman’s and the man, struggling to rise. Larah kicked his kneecap. He screamed again.
“Can you run?”
The woman clutched at her neck. That face, so, so pale in the yellow alley light. Eyes huge. Green. Green eyes. Stories. There were stories in those eyes. The woman nodded.
Larah grabbed her hand. They pelted down the alleyway, back into the crowd.
Charlie’s throat was on fire and her vision was still wonky. She was glad the woman, or person, whoever they were, held tight to her hand, directing her through the crush of the crowd. The crowd helped hold her upright. Charlie really wasn’t sure she could stand up on her own.
But the two of them had to keep moving. At least the person knew that much. A hero, but a smart one, not about to stick around to play all macho with Charlie’s stalker.
The hand gripping Charlie’s was a warm anchor. Strong. Sure. Just like the sound of their boot heels, which Charlie’s ears followed even through the music from the band down the street, and people’s voices. Too many voices. Too many masks, and costumes. Too much the scent of beer and marijuana in the air.
But maybe that too much, and this stranger would keep Charlie safe. For now.
Her body didn’t believe it, though. Her heart still pounded with adrenaline and fear, and her entire body was slick with sweat turned cold.
But there was still this hand in hers. And the memory of a voice—low and rough with anger—that replaced the oiliness of his. Charlie had only caught a flash of the androgynous face. Gorgeous dark eyes and skin, high cheekbones that reflected the yellow alley light. She hoped her hero knew where they were going.
Because there didn’t seem to be much to do other than hang on.
Larah’s thought’s raced, keeping time with their boot strikes. Their brain split into the helpful compartments that were another key to Larah’s success. One thread tracked their position between buildings, and the pathway through the crowd. Another wondered what the hell was going on back in that alley. Yet another strand wondered what the best current course of action was. Larah put the first two trains of thought on autopilot and focused on the third.
Where was safety? The police? Some random shopfront, within the cover of the crowd? Should they make their way to Roux?
Then Larah saw it, up ahead. Oakland’s Flatiron building. A six-story wedge of Beaux Arts architecture, there was a large café just steps from its front doors. The café should be crowded enough to hide in, but also have enough space to catch their breath, and see what this woman actually wanted or needed.
Larah dodged past some drunken young men in skinny jeans, skirted a Rastafarian family, and saw an open clearing near the café door. They spared one pang of conscience for dragging a woman along like this, but there was really no way around it. Not if there might still be danger.
And there was always a chance for danger, wasn’t there?
Reaching the heavy double glass doors, Larah grabbed one steel handle and pulled. Propping the door open with their back, they dragged at the woman one last time, got her through the open door, before following.
Charlie realized she was sobbing. She hadn’t been able to hear it before, but the music and conversations in the café were several decibels lower than outside the glass doors. She hunched over, hands on her knees, wheezing, and tried to get her breathing under control. Everything hurt, starting with the burning bruises at her windpipe, to her back and knees. Her right wrist hurt, too, from being dragged through the crowd.
Her hero crouched at her side. Charlie looked down at the blunt tipped gray boots. Black jeans. She could smell wool and the barest hint of Polo Black cologne.
“You okay?” There was that voice again. Mellow. Low. As comforting as a favorite blanket wrapped around bare shoulders.
“I will be.” Her voice sounded like a bandsaw. “Can you help me stand?”
This time, the hands that scooped beneath her arms were gentle as could be. Charlie leaned hard on what turned out to be a tall, stocky frame. This person, whoever they were, did physical labor for a living or worked out a lot. Given the state of the perfectly groomed fingernails on the tips of the deep brown fingers, she bet on the latter.
“We should get you something hot to drink. Some sugar. A table. Sound good?” Charlie just nodded, tried to clear her throat and winced.
“Did he follow?” she whispered.
“I don’t think so, but the sooner we can sit down, the sooner we’re less of a target. Just lean on me, okay?”
Charlie trembled and began to shiver. Images of the alley kept flashing in her head. And his voice—that oily, slithering, sewer of a voice—kept insinuating itself into her mind.
“Hot chocolate okay? It’d be the best thing, I think. Any special milk you need?”
She startled. Focused. Right. She was in a café now, blocks from the alleyway.
“Oat,” Charlie whispered.
The person at the counter frowned. “Is she okay? Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” Charlie rasped out.
“Just give us a sec,” said that warm voice, steering Charlie through the café, toward the back wall. They settled her gently into a smooth wood chair at a small, two top table, nodded, and then headed back to the counter to order.
Couples and groups taking a break from the throng outside shielded the table from the huge plate-glass windows across the room. The windows looked out onto the night-time streets where revelry and light sparked in the midst of the darkness.
Where was he? And why did he want her?
She looked down. Her hands gripped a huge white mug that was almost too hot to touch. When had that arrived?
Sitting across from her was the most gorgeous person Charlie had seen in a long time. Tightly curled hair. A perfect fade around the back and sides. Deep, dark, eyes with curled lashes. A full mouth. Those high cheekbones that Charlie remembered. And beautiful skin.
Charlie took a sip. Hot chocolate. She felt the warmth hit her throat and winced again. She flushed with anger.
And burst into tears.
Looking at the woman across the table, struggling to drink her hot chocolate, bruises rising on her pale skin…Larah was moved. Filled with a rush of feelings. The wish to protect. The wish to cradle this person they’d never seen before in their life. The wish to hunt down and punish the person who’d done this to her.
Instead, Larah pulled a rough brown paper napkin from the metal canister on the table and handed it across.
The woman set down the huge ceramic mug and took it, swiping at her face, before blowing her nose. She crumpled the napkin and shoved it in the pocket of her short, black coat.
“Thank you.” That painful whisper killed Larah.
“What’s your name? Mine is Larah.”
The woman turned those huge, haunted green eyes on Larah. Licked her thin, pale rose lips.
“Oh my Gods. You’re the person I was supposed to meet tonight!” The green eyes grew wide. Larah watched as recognition dawned. “You’re Jason’s new friend,” Charlie croaked out.
“What are the odds, right? Now…” Larah pulled more napkins from the dispenser and drew a silver pen from their inner coat pocket. “Can you write out what the hell is happening to you? I’d really like to figure out how to help.”
Charlie could barely think. If it weren’t for her self-defense training and the years of spiritual practice that helped keep her centered under pressure, she’d be gibbering in a corner right now.
As it was, though, she wasn’t tracking all that well. She stared at Larah’s face, fixated on the lush lips. Those eyes.
She wished they weren’t tainted by the memory of an arm bar pressing at her larynx, and his damned skeezy, oily, voice.
Where to begin? What to write? The first phone call? With going to the police who told her there just wasn’t much they could do until he made a physical threat?
With the nights she’d watched her door and windows, scared half out of her mind, until Jason and Belle had suggested the self-defense classes? And one instructor taking them through basic meditation practices, to help “train your thoughts and emotions inside, the way we’re training your physical instincts outside”? Charlie had taken to that like a parched person drinking water.
Except she hadn’t known she’d been missing anything before. She’d joined a local Buddhist sangha, and kept up with the self-defense classes.
So here she was, in a weird relationship with the man who had finally stalked and grabbed her.
Maybe that’s where it started.
It’s been going on for three years. Phone calls. Stalking. She scribbled on the napkin and shoved it across the table.
Larah turned it around. Her eyebrows shot up on her forehead, and she raised her eyes.
“Oh, Charlie. Damn it. How have you coped?”
She must be the bravest person Larah had ever met. This woman, with her fiery hair and green eyes, so physically small, but indomitable somehow.
The story came out, in fits and starts, scribbled on the napkin, and when Charlie grew too impatient for that, told in painful whispers across the small café table. She told Larah about the calls, and the capture. And the twelve other women. She couldn’t believe it. But he’d said it.
My lucky thirteen.
Finally, Charlie’s cup was empty, and Larah’s tea grown cold. Larah’s desire to protect Charlie hadn’t left, but they could also see that Charlie wasn’t someone who needed a protector. She was a person who needed someone by her side, as she faced whatever the hell this situation was.
“So, what do you want to do now?” Larah pulled a slim phone from their jeans pocket. “Jason is wondering where I am, and I bet he’s been texting you, too. Do you think being around friends would help? Or do you want to try the cops again? Not that I’m a fan…”
Charlie leaned across the small table. Larah leaned to meet her. Charlie smelled of dried sweat and chocolate, and some other, fainter scent Larah couldn’t place. Not yet. Some sort of flower. The smell was fleeting.
Larah’s hand reached out, halfway across the table. An invitation. Not a demand.
Charlie looked at their hand, then slid her own across the wooden surface, giving Larah’s palm a quick squeeze before retreating again.
She pressed her lips together, as if allowing the words to form on her tongue, then spoke. “I want him stopped. And I don’t really care how.”
Charlie meant it. She felt it in her bones. She could also feel herself locking the terrified, traumatized parts of herself away. Her hara—the seat of power used in all martial arts and trained in meditation—felt strong. Sitting across from Larah had bought her the time she needed to regroup. To call up the Charlie who took no shit, despite being happy-go-lucky most of the time.
Her brain was working again. At least for now. That was good.
And the person across from her? Damn, Charlie hoped to get through this situation, because she really felt like knowing Larah.
The noise of the café rose and fell around them. She sat and breathed, connecting to her training. Breathing deeply, all the way from her lower belly, up to her chest. Her body still hurt like hell, but that focused her, too.
Then Charlie smiled.
The terror of the situation had knocked a vital piece of information from her mind.
“What?” Larah asked.
“Tracker,” Charlie said.
That had taken some sentences on a napkin to explain. Turns out, one year ago, after figuring out the cops really would not help her, Charlie had worked with Jason and some other friends on a little project. She’d been carrying a tracking device on her ever since. As insurance. Just in case.
Larah let out a whistle. “You really are something, aren’t you? You slipped a tracker in that asshole’s pocket?”
Charlie nodded, then pulled a phone out of her coat, unlocked it, fiddled with it for a moment, then slid it across the table.
Larah just stared at her a moment. Gobsmacked with admiration. Finally, she grabbed the phone and stared at the screen.
A map glowed, white and orange. And just six blocks away, a blue dot moved very, very slowly. Hopefully that meant he was feeling his injuries.
Charlie took the phone back and started tapping at the screen.
“So, what now?”
Larah was riveted. By everything. By this woman, and this whole situation. They hadn’t been this interested in anything for at least two years. Their chest tingled with anticipation.
They wanted to know how this story would continue. They needed to know what came next.
“I’m texting Jason. He has….” Charlie waved at the phone screen, “access.”
That was how they’d worked it out. Jason and Belle both had access to the tracker app, and could track Charlie, too. All she needed to do was to press the alert button to tell them she needed help.
Except he had grabbed her too quickly. She never expected him to take her in the middle of a crowd like that. Her spirits had been high and her guard down.
She had never pushed the button.
Her phone buzzed. A big WTF??? and Are you okay??? Belle and Jason, respectively, checking in on the group text.
Just track him! she typed back. He’s right near Roux.
And he was, amazingly, heading at a snail’s pace right toward the trap of her best friends.
“Do we need to go somewhere? Meet up? What?” Larah practically vibrated in their chair with the need to do something. But frankly, Charlie was in no condition to go back out into the streets.
“Get me another hot chocolate?” It still hurt like hell to talk, but Charlie did it anyway. For some reason she felt a need to communicate with Larah. With this person who turned out to not be a total stranger but hadn’t known it when they literally crashed in to help Charlie right when her breath was about to give out.
Who knows what would have happened if Larah hadn’t been there? Where she would be right now?
Tears pricked at the edges of her eyes. Now that Jason, Belle, and the others were on the case, exhaustion flowed back into her, along with vestiges of fear.
Larah was already getting up to order more drinks. Charlie reached out and grabbed their hand.
Those dark eyes looked down at her, questioning.
“Larah…thank you. Thank you so much.” One tear spilled over. She felt it run down her cheek but didn’t move to wipe it. Didn’t turn away. She watched Larah’s face change. Saw a flash of longing, replaced by something that looked a lot like care.
A warm hand reached out and cupped her cheek. Larah’s thumb wiped away the tear. Just as quickly as it had risen, their hand fell away.
“You okay if I leave you for a minute? Get more drinks?”
“Sure,” Charlie whispered.
And she would be. She would be because she had training, and resources. And most of all, because she had friends who would do more than any other friends in the whole world.
And she had this person, at least for now, who had saved her, really, and was getting her more hot chocolate just because she’d asked.
Sitting alone at the table, the music piping overhead singing of happier times, Charlie let the tears come again, and the trembling.
It’s almost over. You’re almost free.
In all their life, Larah had never thought they’d be in the middle of a situation like this. A situation they hadn’t planned for. A situation that, once the initial rush of getting Charlie away from the bastard and to relative safety was over?
One that Larah couldn’t control.
The reality was, no one could. One million random things could still happen this Friday before Halloween.
“Another oat milk hot chocolate,” they said to the barista. “Make it two.”
“Glad to know they’re that good,” the young man said, cheerfully tapping the order into a white tablet. The woman who had helped Larah before must be on a break. Good. Larah really didn’t feel like trying to explain this whole situation, including the bruises on Charlie’s neck.
Larah slid a card into the chip reader, tapping one gray boot on the floor.
Buying hot chocolate didn’t feel like enough, but it was what Charlie wanted. Needed. And one thing Larah had learned the hard way—and wished someone had understood when they were young and needed it—was that the victim needed to lead the rescue, unless that was impossible. But at very least, the victim had to be given the chance.
Much as Larah wanted to hunt the bastard down and beat him until he couldn’t walk, this was Charlie’s gambit now. Charlie’s choice.
And, though Larah hadn’t known Jason for long, Charlie had. And Larah had to trust that.
No one said Larah had to like it. They just had to respect Charlie.
And, picking up the fragrant white cups of chocolate, Larah knew they did. And it went beyond the first surface flush of admiration.
Jason was right. Charlie really was special. Worth more than a tumble.
Someone Larah suddenly, desperately, wanted to know. ***
Charlie’s face was dry by the time Larah navigated back through the café tables, carrying the two huge white cups. They moved with strength and grace, arresting her attention. For one moment, regret crashed through Charlie, that they hadn’t met as planned, surrounded by friends, in the swanky dim light of Roux, drinking vampire cocktails, whatever those were, and getting to know each other the way normal people did.
He had stolen that from her. She hadn’t been normal in three years. All because of his obsession with his lucky thirteen. All because he was some sick, twisted version of a human.
Who knew what had happened to the other twelve. Charlie’s mind shut that thought down.
Her phone buzzed right as Larah set down the first cup of chocolate. Steam wreathed upward, carrying the rich smell with it. Her hand gripped her phone. She stared at the message, unable to move.
“What’s he say?” Larah leaned forward, bringing their heat with them. And that subtle trace of Polo Black.
Charlie wanted everything gone except that heat, and the smell of that cologne. She wanted to taste Larah’s mouth. To find out what that was like. To blot out the past two, terrifying hours. The past three years.
“Make it go away?” She looked at Larah across those stupid cups of chocolate.
“Charlie? Can I see the message?”
Charlie couldn’t move. She wasn’t even sure why. Larah waited, patient. Not forcing anything. Just waiting. For Charlie to decide.
Charlie shoved the phone across the wood. Larah looked down, then read the words aloud.
“Secured. Taking to police station near Old Town. Meet us there?” Those dark eyes held her own.
“Charlie? Is this what you want? To go down? Press charges? I know the cops weren’t…”
Charlie held up one hand. Larah stopped. Charlie shook her head. Her stomach turned. She swallowed. It hurt. Everything still hurt. Picked up the chocolate. Took a sip. Chocolate rolled across her tongue. She swallowed through the pain and felt the trail of warmth, down to her roiling stomach.
“It’s not what I want,” she finally whispered. “But I’ll do it anyway. Because I don’t know what happened to the other twelve women. But I want to drink this first. Is that okay?”
“It’s all okay, Charlie. We’ll sit here and drink our chocolate for as long as you damn well please.”
There was heat in that voice, and fierceness. And that felt good. “Larah?”
It hurt so much to talk, but she wanted the words said.
“Then I want to go home. Take a shower. Go to bed. But…”
That hand again, sliding across the table, stopping midway, one strong, vulnerable palm facing upward.
This time Charlie slid her own hand into its warm embrace and didn’t move away.
“Will you stay with me tonight? Just…I don’t know, sleep on my couch or something? I don’t want to be alone.”
Larah’s throat was thick, and her voice caught as she struggled to reply. No smooth Larah here now.
“Charlie, I’ll pull a chair up next to your bed, or sleep on your couch, or stand guard outside your door. Whatever you want me to do, I’m there.”
Larah meant every word. And damn the bastard who had caused this woman pain.
Charlie nodded. Satisfied.
Larah waited, but Charlie didn’t say more. So, they sat in that café as Halloween weekend ebbed and flowed around them, drinking hot chocolate in silence. And that silence was enough for Larah. It was rich with a host of stories, and that was good, too. Maybe Charlie would let Larah become her friend. Or maybe something more.
Charlie finally set down the ridiculously large cup and sighed. Larah watched her stretch and then grimace at the pain. Damn it.
“Guess I’m ready.”
Larah helped her stand. It clearly hurt. They couldn’t help themself, and put an arm around Charlie, gently, holding their hand loosely at her waist, so Charlie knew she could get away. Charlie flinched at first, then wrapped her fingers around Larah’s hand and squeezed. She leaned into Larah’s side, and for just one moment, rested her cheek on Larah’s chest. Larah couldn’t feel Charlie’s cheek through the wool and crisp cotton, but it felt as if they could.
And then Charlie’s face tilted upward, those green eyes unwavering.
“Before we go…would you kiss me? I just…I just need something good to happen tonight.”
Larah’s eyes grew wet. She sniffed back tears.
They bent their head down and touched their lips to Charlie’s. The kiss began as tentative, but Charlie soon increased the pressure. Her lips parted. Larah’s followed. It was sweet.
She tasted of chocolate and warm woman. The most wonderful tastes in the world. They parted. Larah placed another kiss on Charlie’s forehead.
“Ready now?” they asked.
Arm in arm, they wound through the café, and headed out the door.
The story wasn’t over, and Larah didn’t even know the half of it, they were sure. They were looking forward to finding out.
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One thousand blessings to patrons past and present: Hannah, Jessie, Susan, Rash, Jessica, Raymond, Chani, Misha, MJ, Saga, Michael, Joan, Maggie, Cethlenne, Sia, Adrian, Jenya, Jenny, Joanne, Mitchell, Anna, Summer, John, Morgane, Constance, Leanne, Maria, Ambar, Lisa, Kathy, John, Ada, Heather, Tadhg, Michael, Mat, Gary, Valerie, Lira, Kay and Sandi, Charlie, Nessa, Kirsten, Sophia, Leigh, Joanna, Constance, Amerwitch, Elizabeth, Michael, Alex, John, Rebecca, Steve, Sea, Samantha, Irisanya, Autumn Lily, Lorelei, Wendy, Hollis, Sister Krissy, Vanessa, Maddy, Carlin, Anon, Bear, Doneby, Dayle, Devotaj, Will, Brooks, Law Nerd, Michelle, Gwynne, Mark, Merri Ann, Meagan, Veronica, Shira, Allyson, Jocelyne, Michael, Dawn, Joanna, Lia, Rachel, Kiya, Corinne, Evodjie, Angela, Zann, Daniel, Luna, Christopher, Sarah, Amerwitch, Tamara, Elizabeth, J. Anthony, Sea Serpent, Jen, David, Emilie, Jennifer, Elliot, Ellen, a phoenix, Jersey Meg, Tony, Sean, Sherry, Christopher, Stephanie, Lira, Ariana, Tamara, Karen, Morgaine, Sarah, Rachel, Jenny, Joanna, R.M., Ember, San, Miriam, Leslie, Sharon, Mary Anne, Joanna, Tony, Angela, Constance, Stone, Omorka, Unwoman, Shemandoah, Sarah, Rain, Cid, Alley, Mica, Christine, Vyviane, Katie, Emilie, Louise, Victoria, Greg, Ealasaid, Jennifer, Louise, Rose, Starr, Sinead, Lyssa, Aeptha, Cara, Crystal, Angela, Misha, Eridanus, Cheryl, Lori, Soli, Peter, Angela, Ambariel, Sonia, Jennifer, Ruth, Miranda, Jeremy, Jonah, Michelle, Jenny, Jen, Mir, Ruth, Emilie, Jonathan, Kate, Roger and Nancy.