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Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords


www.evernightpublishing.com




Copyright© 2017 Amabel Daniels



ISBN: 978-1-77339-449-7


Cover Artist: Jay Aheer


Editor: M. Allison Lea



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



DEDICATION


For Dawn, for your true blue support and encouragement to never give up writing.



ALWAYS WAS


Matter of Time, 1


Amabel Daniels


Copyright © 2017


Chapter One


San Francisco, California


Squeaks from the neon-pink soles of the passing nurse’s sneakers pricked at Samantha Millson’s concentration. She pulled her gaze from the professionally formatted business letter in her hands as she attempted to reread its message for the eighteenth time.

Glaring at the offending footwear causing the nails-on-slate kind of distraction, she couldn’t help but wonder why a designer would think mixing fluorescent, salmon-colored stripes with dull olive-green—and cyan laces—would ever result an appealing combination of hues on a pair of running shoes.

Crouched over in the hard, Cubist-style waiting room seat, Sammy inhaled deeply and returned her focus to the information in front of her. Too bad another skim couldn’t magically rearrange the words into something that didn’t spell dread.

Miss Millson.

As if addressing her so formally would make it impersonal, an executive strike from a faceless attorney’s office. Only the visage behind the letter was crystal-clear. Sammy couldn’t scrub out the image of her scowling, never-pleased grandfather Edgar, who’d had this missive written.

You will find in this document the announcement of a modification to a stipulation set forth which hereafter impacts the disbursement of monies and assets designated to you in the estate trust fund established under your name.

Fancy-ass way of a controlling old man saying, “Hey, kid, I’ve decided to royally fuck you over.”

Of course, no crude or simple English would be composed in the slip of paper she’d received in the mail five days ago. As if. A Millson, swearing?

In any other situation, she would have treated this letter and Edgar’s manipulation in the same vein she’d done to all of her past. The mansion that was her childhood home in Concord, New Hampshire. The instant access to all possessions and materials a young woman could ever want or need—designer clothes, endless credit card limits to dine at only five-star establishments, weekly scheduled manis and pedis, facials, and massages, space to rub elbows with other superficial beautiful people. Wealth and all the privileges of the upper one percent of the American economy. She’d walked away from it all without ever intending to accept anything from her family.

Except for now.

It was a funny thing, timing. How one senior citizen’s accident three thousand miles away in San Francisco could become intertwined with the sudden patriarchal mind games from her grandfather on the East Coast. Had the heartless scrooge sent her this information a week ago, Sammy would have shredded the correspondence and chucked it in the trash. Junk mail on expensive stationery.

With its arrival via post after Sammy’s neighbor Clare fell and stimulated a ripple effect of consequences, it was a document Sammy would be a fool to ignore, independence and stubbornness aside.

When Sammy had run away from home, both from the prison of the Millson Mansion and her expected academics at Dartmouth at the tender young age of eighteen, she’d done so with equal parts rebellion and desperation.

In the short time she’d attempted a stunt of rising like a phoenix from the ashes of her past and spitting good riddance to the ghosts in her memories, she’d started a new life. And matured enough to know how to pick the fights worth fighting.

Disowning her for quitting her classes? Losing ties to her family name was a blessing. Cutting her off from all her previous bank accounts? Meh, she’d sought a job like a normal person. Refusing to fund her education at the so-not-Ivy League community college of Las Positas outside Oakland? She’d never intended to ask for free tuition in the first place.

But her trust fund? Now that mattered. And she’d be damned if she lost it.

Bobbing her knee, Sammy checked the time on the ticking clock on the wall across from her. Still a few minutes to skim the letter again before Clare’s son-in-law was due to meet her in that stark, antiseptic-stinking hospital hallway.

Her cell buzzed in her pocket, and she extracted the device.

“Hey Jake,” she answered. Her older brother was one of the two people she’d still speak to. She’d cried over leaving him and their housekeeper Marta.

“Still going on your road trip, coming back home to talk to the Evil One?”

She’d already explained in their weekly chat the day before that she planned to return home to demand answers to why her trust fund was being yanked.

Instead of being rewarded the lump sum equivalent of about two million dollars on the day she graduated from college, it now seemed Sammy would see a big fat gift of thin air. No money. No upholding the trust fund arranged to present all Millson offspring a celebratory “allowance” for the accomplishment of graduating college.

“I…” God, it was still hard to say it out loud, to commit her plans to reality. “I have to come back. To talk to him.” I need that money.

Like the dependable sibling he was, Jake was livid that their grandfather was scheming something, and while he still resided near their childhood home, he was in no better position to bargain or negotiate on her behalf with the old man. Seemed he was tainted by association—having helped her run away using his car, and always defending her against the constant criticism she’d received all her life. Furious at the manipulation, Jake gave his word that he’d try to find out why the trust fund was being modified. But Sammy wasn’t holding out for much—Grandfather was a secretive scrooge.

“I should be leaving tomorrow. Stopping by to see Clare one last time now. Then I’ve got to clear the time off with Pablo at the tat shop.”

“I’ve got an idea,” he said.

“Oh, boy.”

“And a favor to ask.”

“Uh-huh…”

“How about a road trip companion?” he said.

Who? Him? It was sweet of him, but she couldn’t allow herself to take advantage of his protective nature. “Why would you fly out here only to drive back with me?”

“Not me.”

Sammy furrowed her brow. Then who?

“Remember Adam?” he asked.

She jerked upright in her seat, her eyes wide. Remember?

Adam. Adam Fallon. As in Jake’s best friend and baseball teammate—a teenager who hung out at the Millson Mansion all through those turbulent teen years? The guy all the girls fawned over, the student teachers grumbled about but smiled as they forgave his slight acts of misbehavior? That Adam?

Remember him? Did a girl ever forget her first crush? Could she lose memories of Adam any easier than she could forget the first painting she completed, or the initial spark of excitement when she’d sold her first drawing?

Even if she were a vegetable with irreversible amnesia, Sammy would never forget her childhood love, even if it had been a pathetic one-way street. Someone so profound, he was imprinted on her heart, not only in her mind.

“Adam Fallon?” Jake asked. “We used to hang out in high school…?”

“We,” meaning him and Adam. Sammy was the reluctantly included tagalong kid sister.

“Of course I remember him. Black hair. Green eyes. Maybe six-twoish. Dimple on his left cheek. Played first base on your team until senior year. He loved Marta’s snickerdoodle cookies and hated her tuna salad. Burned his hand on a bottle rocket when we took him to Martha’s Vineyard that one Fourth of July weekend. Always wanted to have a Great Dane someday. Never remembered the lyrics to that Beastie Boys’ song. Favorite color was navy. Not blue. Only navy.”

How could I forget him when I still think about him nearly every day?

“Uh, right… That’s him.”

No need to share evidence of your infatuation, Sam.

Jake seemed to pause before he spoke again. Sammy sure as hell wasn’t going to embarrass herself with all the other factoids about his best friend. He didn’t comment any further on her vivid stroll down memory lane. “Well, he just got back from his last tour in the Army. Few months ago, actually. Anyway, he’s visiting a buddy over in Vegas, and when I told him you were coming back home for a visit, I thought you might be able to give him a ride.”

Sammy slammed her lids shut, squeezing welcome blackness into her vision as she tried to block Jake’s suggestion.

A ride. In her car? Across the country? He was enlisting her to allow that guy in her space, the small, shared space of her Honda, for some forty hours?

“W-why?”

“He’s supposed to check out some place in Vermont one of his friends passed on to him. He’s gotta pick up the key before the end of the month. Something about resolving the estate for the lawyers.”

The only reason she was briefly returning to New Hampshire was out of obligation—the need to secure her trust fund. This wasn’t a joy ride or some coming-of-age, getting-to-know-the-USA road trip. No vacation. And Adam wasn’t her responsibility—Clare took priority. Not like Sammy was the only person with a car. He couldn’t get a rental?

Jake continued in her silence. “He won’t admit it, but I think he saw some rough shit overseas. Seemed kinda low-spirited when I spoke to him. You know? Can’t imagine how the hell it could be easy for anyone to readjust to civilian life after so much violence and danger. I offered him a ride because I thought it’d be nice if he wasn’t alone.”

He offered a ride in her car, on her time.

And what was she? A damn therapist? Who was to say she wasn’t down and lost herself? Fiercer than her own troubles, Adam’s problems twisted her harder. Each word gripped her heart tighter, wringing the freedom for it to pump sustenance throughout her body.

She was too big-hearted to refuse helping others, even if she was too small-gutted to aid herself. Like her pending cross-country navigation—it would be all for Clare, not herself. And at huge costs to her sanity.

“So, what do you think, can you give him a ride?” Jake asked.

Sammy nearly missed his question as she fought the curiosity spearing through her thoughts, remembering, wondering. What would Adam look like now?

She was twelve when she’d first met him, he, fourteen. He’d had a lean body and thick shocks of hair as deeply shaded as her thickest charcoal crayon and seemingly as soft as the purest cashmere. Vibrant, verdant eyes like a cat’s—no, not a domesticated declawed feline—too feminine for such a rugged male. Like a puma’s, a predator’s. Sharp, alert, cunning.

“Sam?”

Blinking to snap from her reverie, she tugged the hood of her sweatshirt lower over her brow. “I’m not sure…”

But … Las Vegas was still an eastward city. A detour, but not a major reroute on the way homebound.

“You can’t just drive it all by yourself,” he said.

“I’ll have Ink with me.”

He snorted. “Clare’s pocket-size poodle?”

“Ink’s a Chorkie, not a poodle,” she said.

“It’s nearly fifty hours on the road. You’ll get tired. You could fall asleep on the road.”

“I made the trip before by myself.”

Jake sighed. “I have a hunch you were too scared to be tired that time.”

Sammy twitched her lips. Too true.

“Think about it. You guys can take turns. Share the costs for gas and lodging. Maybe you can do shifts of driving—sleep when he drives and vice versa. It could cut down the time.”

All valid points.

But she was thinking about it. Other than Pablo—and he was technically her boss—Sammy had no male friends, went out of her way to avoid the chance of being stuck near men.

Adam would be inches away, across the console. Every. Minute. Right. There.

Because he was Jake’s friend, and because she’d known him and crushed on him years ago, he somehow didn’t fall into the category of the general male population. Adam was in a very exclusive club. He wasn’t some guy the same as he could never be her guy. Off-limits courtesy of sibling dynamics. One must never have relations with big brother’s best friend. It was dogma.

Adam was vetted, had already passed the background check by simply being Jake’s friend. She knew him. She should be able to trust him.

But what if he wanted to talk? What if he asked too many questions? What if—

“Sammy? I need to clock in to work. Can you give him a ride?”

Last she’d seen of Adam, the first person she’d fallen in love with, even if it had been a tweeny-bopper infatuation fueled and tested by his constant involvement in her youth, was at his high school graduation. Only a week before he shipped out to boot camp, and then, poof—gone.

Curiosity earned more momentum, starting to overcome her hesitation. Does he still root for the Yankees? Is he still obsessed with eighties movies?

Low-spirited? How changed could he be from his time as a soldier? The boy she remembered and still fantasized about was never short on jokes or smart-ass quips, was full of charisma…

Jake whistled into the phone. “If you’re willing to help the man out, I gotta tell him to be ready for you to pick him up.”

The man. No longer a teen. A man. What kind of a man is Adam?

Sammy pressed her lips together, twisting her mouth and trying to bottle in her impulsive reply. “Fine!”

“Really?”

She glared at tiled floor, wishing it could have talked her out of the decision. “Why not? On the way, right?”

“Great. I’m pretty sure he’s staying at MGM. I’ll find out and text you the address. Maybe you can estimate when you’d get there and I can tell him to look out for you.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Thanks, Samster.”

If Jake wanted her on his good side to let his best friend mooch off her for a trans-continental car ride, using her most loathed nickname wasn’t helping matters.


Chapter Two


“You’re here already?”

Sammy glanced up at the man approaching her, realizing he’d been speaking to her.

Clare’s son-in-law took a seat across from her in the hospital hallway, slouching his middle-aged body onto a long, plastic mauve bench, his beer gut straining against the button-holes of his off-white shirt.

She tucked her phone into her pocket. Already? Knowing Clare was deathly terrified of hospitals and claustrophobic of spaces such as MRI contraptions, of course Sammy had come to visit her elderly neighbor prior to the scan. At her son-in-law’s tone and scoff, Sammy had the confirmation she didn’t need that Clare’s only living relative—remote as he was—gave not a damn about the sweet woman.

It would have been futile to briefly explain to the cold-hearted and selfish fool that Clare was not just her neighbor. She was her friend, a substitute of a role model, a mentor, a cherished dinner mate, and a stalwart and dependable business partner. Nothing would prevent Sammy from comforting Clare while she was recovering in a scary place.

“I’m on my lunch break.” She tossed the bland excuse instead, not wishing to expound on how much Clare mattered to her. Speaking to men wasn’t her strongest habit. To a gold-digger, much less.

“When’s she going to be done?” He exhaled air like he’d been patiently waiting for over an hour for results.

“Hopefully soon.” And hopefully she won’t be freaked out, poor woman.

Folding Edgar’s letter into sloppy quarters, Sammy leaned to her side and slid the paper into the back pocket of her jeans. She caught the son-in-law eyeing her suspiciously, racketing up her unease of being near him as the familiar anxiety swarmed up from the depths she tried to force it back down into.

What does he see? Why is he staring?

“What do you mean, lunch break?” he asked.

She squinted at him. Surely he was familiar with the titles of meals of the day. His gut alluded to plentiful knowledge of food.

“Typically around noon, people sit down and consume edible resources. For nourishment and energy. To keep the body fueled for a day’s worth of tasks.”

Though what you do all day, not having a job, I can only wonder.

“I know what lunch fucking means.”

No doubt. His irritated tone switched off her neutral yellow lights of alarm and illuminated the amber ones. It was her mantra to never aggravate men, to steer clear of even interacting with them. Of course, her not-so-sweet wit seemed to forget such instructions when riled.

“You say it like someone’s expecting you back to a desk,” he said.

And since he assumed her only source of income was from the royalties and advances she earned as the illustrator of Clare’s series of children’s books, she wasn’t surprised at his confusion.

“Someone is,” she said.

“You have another job—”

“Samantha Millson? She’s all done.” A nurse stepped close. “The doctor is waiting to review her recovery with you.”

“Thanks,” Sammy said and rose as the nurse beckoned her to follow.

“Hey, I’m her goddamn son. She isn’t even family.” Clare’s son-in-law hoisted himself to his feet.

“She’s been here every day. And you are?” the nurse asked, frowning as the man rushed to follow.

“Her son,” he repeated.

Son. Hardly. He was Clare’s son-in-law, connected by marriage, not blood. Ex-son-in-law, actually, since Clare’s only child, a stepdaughter, had married, divorced, and then widowed this scum of a man. A son should allude to a grateful child, striving for the devotion and care from his good parents. Not to announce his presence when a depletion of Clare’s finances threatened his livelihood.

“This way please.” The nurse led them to Clare’s room, another attendant already there assisting the slender woman to an impossible-to-achieve comfortable position. A doctor stood at the foot of the bed, perusing the images on the monitor in front of him until he glanced up. Smiling, he let the extractable screen fold away slightly and reached for Sammy’s hand.

“Samantha, I’m glad to see you could make it.”

“Wouldn’t have missed it.”

Too many things would be decided today. With a fresh scan of Clare’s bones, they would learn how much, if any, chances existed for Clare to walk again.

“Mother! How are you?”

Clare smiled at her hardly seen son-in-law, simply because she was the kind, gentle-souled sweetheart who would never be so malicious to scowl or roll her eyes at the jerk. Clare’s delicate good nature only fueled Sammy to stand up for her even more.

After they’d sat in the chairs, Clare exchanged a glance with Sammy, as though to say good grief at the man’s false and poorly acted upon concern for her well-being.

The doctor began an explanation of how the multiple pins in Clare’s hips were used to piece her back together. At hardly a hundred pounds, Clare was no Humpty Dumpty. But Sammy fretted if all the staff in the hospital could render her whole again. Having heard the procedures and references to osteological terms in previous visits and chats with the specialist, Sammy wished the doctor would get on to the recovery plan and ignore the son-in-law’s constant questions.

As predicted, the doctor announced Clare would need to stay in the hospital for at least another week to settle complications with the infection that kept cropping up at the site of her operation. Then immediately to rehab, where intensive physical therapy would commence. How intensive PT could be for a seventy-eight-year-old, Sammy couldn’t guess. But when the doctor deliberated on chances of her friend ever walking again—with or without a walker—Sammy’s throat tightened. After rehab, more therapy.

“How long at this place?” the son-in-law asked.

The doctor glanced at him. “At the rehab facility, or the therapy location?”

“She’s got to go to two different places? Why can’t they do it all at one? That’ll cost less.”

Selfish to a core. All he’d cared about was money. Just like Sammy’s estranged family.

Gnashing her teeth, Sammy drummed her fingers on her knee, leaning forward on the edge of her seat, wanting to ask the doctor to remove the man from the room.

“How long Clare stays in each place will depend on her willingness to participate and cope with recovery. It’s a long road ahead,” the doctor said.

Lengthy journeys weren’t impossible, Sammy had learned. She’d fled over three thousand miles and wound up finding Clare, a proverbial pot of gold of friendship at the end of the rainbow.

She’d help Clare with PT. Visit. Encourage her. Go along with the stretches and exercises. Deserting her friend wasn’t an option.

“And then she can come home?” she asked.

Her voice wasn’t loud, but Clare heard her, reaching for her hand and holding it. Cold, thin skin cooled Sammy’s fleshier, warmer hand.

“Depends again on therapy and her progress,” the doctor said.

“But she can’t live alone, right?” the son-in-law asked.

Sammy dismissed her rule of avoiding drawing attention to herself and glared at the man seated next to her. Just how badly did he want to dump Clare in a home and leave her there to rot? Biting the hand that feeds?

He flinched at her evil stare. “Hey, kid, it’s a fact. She’s old. She’s weak.”

She’s right here!

“If the doc says she can’t live on her own, then that’s it.”

“No, that’s not it,” she protested, squeezing Clare’s hand tighter for support.

Sticking Clare in a nursing home would be a crime. A punishment of ageism simply because she was on in her years. And Clare’s worst nightmare. Sammy knew she wanted to return to her home. The cozy little townhouse apartment in the shabbier outskirts of Oakland, with her antique tea kettle, her teeny yapping pooch Ink, her homemade crocheted blankets and shawls, and most of all, her closeness to the library where she volunteered to read at children’s storytime.

“She could have assisted living at her home,” Sammy said.

“That’s insane!” the son-in-law shouted. “Do you have any idea how expensive that crap is? Of course you wouldn’t. You’re just a stupid kid. What do you know about bills and real life?”

“That’s not necess—” Clare said.

“I’m not spending a fortune just to let her dillydally in that musty apartment,” he declared.

Sam let go of Clare’s hand and shot to her feet. Unruly brown strands freed from her messy topknot at the sudden movement, and she brushed them aside, wanting unobstructed clearance to put him in his place, or strangle him. “You’re not spending a fortune? You’re not? You’re not even working! You live off her income. Her royalties from her books. It’s her money to spend. Not yours!”

“If it’s hers, then what’s it to you where she ends up?” He crossed his arms, the limbs hardly wrapping the girth of his pooch, like resting them on a large balance ball. “All we know is she doesn’t have enough. It’ll run out no matter how many rodents she writes about.”

First, no one had the right to criticize Clare’s stories, least of all him. Second, who the hell was he to have the audacity to make decisions for her?

Truth was­—other than oftentimes ugly and difficult to find—unavoidable. He had a point. Clare had some decent funds, after this wretch took his share. God bless Clare’s generous soul, even if the son deserved not a cent. Clare could afford the costlier assistance at home, but not indefinitely, and surely not for long.

Sammy couldn’t dare to wonder how many years her friend had left to enjoy. Countless, she adamantly believed. However many days remained, she knew Clare shouldn’t spend them out of her house. She’d fallen and busted her pelvic bones. It couldn’t be the end of the world. Bones healed.

“I can contribute.”

As soon as the words escaped her mouth, the weasel smiled, a bright optimism likely entering his mood, and Clare gasped. “Sammy, no, dear. Absolutely not. You have your tuition to pay, rent, bills…”

“I’ll supplement with what I make at Pablo’s.” She faced her friend. “I’ll take on some extra commissions for larger tats. I’ll—”

“Tats? Tattoos?”

Sammy leveled her gaze at Clare’s son-in-law. “Yes. I contract designs for a tattoo shop.” What, is that beneath him?

“That isn’t going to pay for all these bills!”

Again, reality wanted to buckle her at the knees. Defeat wasn’t on her menu. Pablo didn’t pay a lot, hovered over minimum wage, in fact. But if she devoted her royalties and the last book advance towards Clare’s recovery, she might be able to eke out the basics for herself on her paychecks from the tattoo parlor.

And maybe defer her loans until their next book came out. Perhaps she could grow a pair and navigate into waters of that scary concept called “confrontation” and contact their agent to request another, faster advance, or even speed up the release of the next book to generate quicker income.

While she was at it, maybe she could find the cure for cancer in a psychedelic lucid dream. End racism. Reverse the Nuclear Clock to twenty-two hours before midnight.

Stalling her loans was impossible as her Social Security number would identify her as a Millson, a.k.a. a person from a family that earned billions, not from a low-income background that would make her eligible to procrastinate paying for school. It would be like Paris Hilton applying for food stamps. Fast-forwarding her and Clare’s next book? Improbable, because of some strategic agenda planned months prior by the publisher they produced for—something about staggering the releases to stimulate the most anticipation and demand for the next story due.

Or…

Sammy sank down on the chair at the head of Clare’s bed like a drunk surrendering to gravity.

Or, she could stick to her original plan. Deal with Edgar and find a way to ensure her trust fund would be coming her way. She’d already made up her mind, regardless of what Clare argued. And now Adam was counting on her, too.

Eyeing Clare’s despicable semi-relation, the most deplorable in a basket of anything, she knew she had to do the unmentionable—follow through and break her avowed oath to never return to Concord.

“I said”—she relaxed her clenched teeth—“I will contribute. You don’t need the details how.”

It was either watch Clare crumble into sadness and become an inevitable flicker of her bright, beautiful self, trapped in a nursing home while her son-in-law tucked away as much of her money for himself as possible, or she personally could cast herself in the role of savior and tough out the bills until that trust fund provided the big bucks.

Only twenty years old, Sammy hadn’t had an idea that assisted living at a facility could cost less than hiring the services of an RN to come to one’s residence. Those expenses didn’t normally fall under the radar of people her age. Coming from a lineage of prosperous, greedy, money-shitting Millsons, she’d accepted from a tender age that somehow those geriatric headaches would be taken care of.

Calculating the numbers behind the options, her eyes had been stretched wide open. But it was possible. It had to be. Stuffing Clare in a crappy home would not be permitted on her watch.

And to make that happen, it was quite simple in theory.

All she needed to do was head home and face her demons.


Chapter Three


When Sammy ended up in San Francisco a year and a half ago, simply hitting the coast and not having any more options to travel farther west without needing an airplane, she had nine hundred dollars in her pocket—the maximum Jake could withdraw from the ATM in one day—a duffel bag of clothes, a grocery bag of protein bars and fruit snacks, and two cases of her most essential art supplies.

Sketchbooks, paints, watercolor paper, charcoals, pastels, and pencils were deemed priorities over any other possessions she’d left at her dorm. With no encouragement from her parents—ever—to explore the boundless realm of possibilities on the 2D plane, it was safe to say she’d taken only her belongings.

To up and leave, even for a week, she wouldn’t desert much at her studio apartment. A couple bamboo houseplants might be begging for water after her trip back to the northeast, but her lifestyle was still nomadic. Like a gypsy, only without the daring, fun-loving outgoingness they probably exhibited.

After she left the hospital, her body and mind rioted. Her stomach cramped at the way Clare’s son-in-law cared nothing about the sweet woman. A headache spawned from the seriousness of the recovery ahead and the financial jam she’d need to extract them from. Resolute to give Clare the ability to return to her own home, Sammy listed the necessary steps leading her homebound.

Walking on the sunny sidewalks of San Francisco toward Pablo’s tat shop, she prepared herself. Nomadic or not, she couldn’t just go like last time. She had to contact her profs and explain her leave. Most her classes were fine arts, and she was already ahead of schedule, having turned in multiple assignments ahead of time. The semester ended in two weeks, anyway.

Sammy detoured at a deli near the tattoo parlor, where she ordered takeout. Asking Pablo for time off was the last task on her to-do list.

No, not the last task. She still had to figure out how she could face Adam after so long. Frayed nerves were only the beginning of her mood. Instead of stomaching anxiety at the close interaction with a man, she was balanced with … anticipation, maybe even excitement at reuniting with a friendly face from years ago.

Will he remember me? Better yet, what will he recall about me? Memories of their inside jokes and slight misadventures made her lips tip to a smile.

“Yo, you taking your food, or what?”

Jolted from her imagination of what an adult version of Adam could look like, she nodded at the person at the register who was staring at her a mite too closely for her comfort. Straightening, she grabbed the bags before she brought any more attention to herself.

She bumped the front door of the tat shop open with her butt, holding the food in both hands. While the Bay kept the area chillier than most of California, it was warm enough for t-shirt and shorts. In her staple gray hoodie and baggy jeans, she’d worked up a sweat on the trek over.

“’Bout time,” Pablo said from the receptionist desk where Sammy normally took her perch as his part-time assistant. He slid an extra barstool out for her.

Ink rushed around the front counter, wagging her mini tail so hard Sammy wondered how the fluff ball could aim in a straight line. She crouched to pet her hello, blocking the dog’s way to the bags she momentarily set on the floor. “Thanks for doggie-sitting. Lotsa people stop in while I was out?”

“Nah. With the construction at the corner, I’m sure foot traffic will be slow for the rest of the summer.”

“That stinks.” For him. Low customer flow might make her trip more forgivable.

In a single heave of his meaty shoulders, her boss shrugged. First he set his salad—sans dressing—in front of him. Then he opened a carton of steamed carrots to the left of the bowl. And a tub of Brussel sprouts with brownish specks of spices mixed in. Finally, he removed the cover from a tray of turnips resting atop a bed of … fondue noodles?

Vegan? No. Sammy was convinced the mountain of a man was in fact a mammoth rabbit. Hispanic ethnicity gave him his darker skin tone, his childhood in a huge and loving family gave him his generosity and wide smiles, and his pretty, flora-themed diet could not have given him his bulk, muscles, and gigantic body frame.

“Problem?” he asked.

She raised her brows, breaking her stare of confusion at his choices. “How many protein shakes do you drink a day?”

He snorted. “Like you should talk.” He pointed his fork at her untouched salad—heavy on the French dressing, fried chicken bits, and loaded with cheeses, croutons, and boiled egg halves. “Scrap of a girl. Little bitty thing like you should be a thousand pounds eating that garbage all the time. Don’t you know you are what you eat?”

So he was a root vegetable? Organic, of course.

A higher-than-average metabolism and petite bone structure gave Sammy the tendency to lean toward the slim in the spectrum of body shapes. Throughout her childhood, as Jake and his buddies teased, she had been a bean pole. Not Adam, though. He’d never seemed bothered by her size, not as they competed in hot-dog eating contests, or who could handle the hottest jalapeño popper. Mother nagged her to eat healthy for clear complexion and to put some color in her pale face. Then once she’d hit the pre-teen years, she was forbidden to indulge in fats, carbs, or anything perpetuated by some kind of a fried-food Satan. Basically anything delicious was a no-no. No need to get chubby, she was warned.

Once on her own, in a culturally diverse setting like San Fran, she’d given her taste buds free rein. Another knee-jerk reaction to her stringent nutritionist’s restrictions all her life in the Millson Mansion. Sammy ate what she wanted, when she wanted. And it was heaven. Gustational utopia.

“Not hungry?”

Needing to explain a return to Concord was upsetting, but not enough for her to punish herself with starvation. “What do I owe you?” She dragged her container closer to her and dug in.

“Ha.”

He’d never let her pay for lunch. Ever. Still, she had to try. Meeting Pablo was the first sign the universe gave her that it might be possible not all members of the male species were assholes to be wary of. Of course, his tattoo-covered flesh and his grim, bouncer-like aura had scared the crap out of her at first. Even someone who hadn’t been as traumatized as her would be nervous around a figure like Pablo. But that was only before she took the canyon-size leap of faith to befriend him.


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